Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

The Most Boring Man in Fallen London, Part Twelve

Penned upon the 11th of July, 2014

The sum that Doctor Taupe-Wainscot had received from the Department proved to be more than adequate for his project of securing the Widow’s home. Up-to-date locks and shutters had been fitted to the doors and windows, and a sturdy but not indecorous grating now covered the sitting-room skylight. The workmen had been most attentive to the doctor’s suggestions and requests, and had put him so much at his ease that he’d scarcely been ruffled at all when a very large rat in a very small apron had assured him that they’d “make the ‘ouse safe as ‘ouses… so to speak.” But, when the work is good, it does not pay to make a fuss over a talking animal or two. He’d been particularly pleased with the goods cage – an ingenious creation, crafted according to his own designs. Installed in the yard behind the house, this device included a sturdy gate through which parcels could be deposited, and a receptacle fitted with iron bars, to prevent tampering, theft or escape of deliveries before one or another of the household could collect them.

He’d awoken early the day the works were completed, as excited as any schoolboy to see whether the first post had left any gifts beneath this rather recherch√© tree. He was a little nonplussed to note that his hand-lettered sign, reading “ALL PACKAGES MUST BE DELIVERED IN REAR”, had vanished from its place on the front fence during the night – but, nonetheless, there were three promising-looking boxes awaiting his attention behind the little hatch. These, he brought to his room, together with the couple of letters left by the front door, to browse over as he waited for breakfast. The first missive was in a neat, ladylike hand, and read as follows.

“Salutations, Doctor. We are not as yet acquainted, however, I understand you are a physician of some note (some considerable note indeed, if one should judge by those taking note of you!). My recent marriage has prompted me to consider what steps I can and should take for a stable future, and the thought occurs that (prudence not perhaps being my strongest suit) I am not at present acquainted with a physician whom I may consult on anything resembling a regular basis. As I understand you are one of our more recent arrivals from the surface, dare I perhaps hope that you are taking on new patients? I assure you, I will be able to make it worth your while. I may not be amongst the richest of the rich, but I can afford to pay in more than rats (unless you are acquiring a taste for them; one can grow accustomed to almost anything, down here). Yours, Hannah McKay.”

A doctor can do much worse than to be offered a regular patient beginning a family – this was good news indeed. He made a note to compose a suitable reply to Mrs McKay, and to look into purchasing the additional equipment necessary for respectable private consultations. The next letter was, he realised, from the young lady he’d bumped into at the race-meet.

“After you so gallantly rescued my handkerchief before it was trampled in the mire, I was momentarily distracted by that stampeding stallion, and unable to express my gratitude adequately. Thus, I must thrust my acquaintance upon you, and repay the kindness you showed. I will be seeing you again, and I insist that it will be a pleasure. Further, make it soon, for I consider it my absolute duty to warn you of some of the more unsavoury practices that can overwhelm the unwary here. I caught something … brilliant … about you. I’d hate it to be sullied.”

A very forthright young person, it seemed – somehow, he was not entirely surprised. Still, he was glad his assistance had not been unwanted. He turned his attention to the smallest parcel, which was curiously heavy. A brief note was attached.

“It has come to my attention that a fellow doctor has found himself in this city, in rather less than pleasant circumstances. I thought a small gift might improve matters a little. If there is anything I can do, do not hesitate to send me a letter. Yours sincerely, Vendince Windwalker.

Clearly, this helpful doctor had a practical mind – wax was a very useful material, not only for chandlery but for the sealing of vessels, the treatment of wood – it even had some applications as a balm. He put the little box on his bookshelf, and made another mnemonic to write and express his thanks. The next parcel had lost much of its wrapping, and its contents were wrapped in something like hessian.

The letter inside is written in a remarkably fine hand, although the colour of the ink is slightly disturbing for some reason. You do not notice the letter must have been meant for someone else until you have already read the first sentence twice. “Here is your final payment. I suggest you put it toward clearing your name; the Constables are dogging your footsteps and I have reason to believe certain criminal elements would not be averse to the idea of dismembering you slowly. Be careful. Those above me do not wish me to have further contact with you; another agent will contact you soon. You will recognise them by not recognising them. Do not attempt to find me if you value your life or my own. Remember: the password is swordfish, the watchword is silence; the last word precedes the last laugh. My word is good, your word is good; word will be sent to you. A word to the wise: avoid Caligula’s Coffee House on Saturdays. This will be explained to you. All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. MARSHAL

Oh, no – more underworld nonsense. Well, he’d have none of it this time – he’d take these letters directly to the post office, and let them return them to their rightful owners. Except, perhaps, that last one, which might be better off in the hands of the police. Honestly, it was difficult enough to safeguard one’s correspondence without thieves and blackmailers actively redirecting mail so. He made doubly sure that the final parcel was intended for him before he opened it – it bore no note, no mark of its sender; only his name and address in plain script. Well, only one way to discover its contents…

A howl, a crash of crockery and a muffled curse indicated that the incoming beast had met the one already in residence on its path through the house – and that their struggles had earned the attention of the maid. Feeling that discretion might be the better part of tact in this instance, Doctor Taupe-Wainscot quietly closed his bedroom door.

Following this not completely unsuccessful test run of the postal portal, the doctor was able to devote several weeks to a less enjoyable but more pressing project: at last establishing his legal standing in the city. Thus far, his society in Fallen London had been accommodating, generous and enthusiastic, but they had by and large been new acquaintances, unable to testify to his bona fides. The hospital authorities had been younger doctors, from after his time, who’d only known him as a name in their records – when he’d failed to report, they’d given the billet to another man. His time, therefore, had been spent in looking up such old associates of good character who still lived in London and still retained the complete range of their faculties.

This had not been as simple as he might have hoped. One or two such characters had found him of their own accord, but securing further corroboration was proving difficult. Clara Cordite could swear to his identity, but it would be unkind to request her help after the awkwardness that had passed between them. The young clerk he knew at the Foreign Office might be more willing to assist him, but she passed in and out of the city on business so often that he had been unable, so far, to get hold of her. Most of the people he’d known in London in his youth had long since moved, or changed their names, or fallen prey to one of the strange fates that the Neath seemed to reserve for people who were badly wanted – they had drowned, or converted to obscure religions in faraway enclaves, or been dragged off by flocks of savage moths, or “fallen into the mirror, sir, and never seen right-ways-around again.”

His greatest breakthrough in this endeavour had come quite by accident. The Ladybones Property Trust, who had previously asked him to speak on the subject of his security planning, had invited him to another gathering – a supper at a genteel chop-house in honour of the Feast of St Meliflua. The doctor had attended with pleasure, but he’d scarcely taken his seat before a large, florid man had taken sight of him across the room and, loud enough to make the tables rattle, exclaimed “Ham!”

“Good heavens – Stout!” It was, indeed, William “Stout” Porter, who’d been training as a surgeon while Taupe-Wainscot was a student. They’d been inseparable in those days, and had cut a merry swath through the public houses of the medical district.

“What on earth are you doing in London? I thought you were off in China, or America, or the South Seas, or somewhere!”

“Oh, I came back to work – but they lost my luggage and all my papers, and, really, I’ve had the rottenest time…” Porter’s boisterousness had always been infectious, and the doctor soon found himself falling back into the same casual, good-humoured attitude that his friend had always induced in him. An attempt to explain his present hunt for old acquaintances soon dissolved into a series of general reminiscences, over several glasses of “Stout”‘s namesake.

“I say,” the doctor asked, long after the Property Trust had politely left them to catch up, “d’you ever see anything of old Peas?” Percival Pease had been the third member of their gang – a slight, shy, sandy fellow a few years their junior.

“Died last year, I’m afraid – bicycle explosion.” Dead! That was a blow – he’d taken a fancy to seeing old Peas again. Seeing his gloomy expression, Porter quickly added “Tell you what – why don’t we pay him a visit tomorrow? We can go up the coast in my boat – I’ve been meaning to take it out for a run.”

Up the coast? Caught up in stories of long ago, the doctor had almost forgotten where they were – but there was, he recalled, some sort of sanatorium north of the city, for the care of those who had survived near-mortal injuries. Well, if Pease was confined to such a place, it was a friend’s duty to pay him a cheering visit – and, besides, he felt a certain natural professional curiosity in how such a business operated. Thus, it was mutually agreed that they’d meet on the south bank of the river the following morning.

After this evening of uncharacteristic revelry, it is not entirely surprising that Doctor Taupe-Wainscot woke with a staggering headache – a headache that was not in any way relieved by hearing one of the cats screaming and yowling somewhere downstairs. After the initial contest for dominance, the two cats had settled into an uneasy truce, in which they took turns harassing the household while the other disappeared wherever it is that cats go. They both ate enormously, but one never grew any less emaciated – the other had become very rotund indeed, but nonetheless showed no signs of satiation. It was, he discovered, the skinny cat making the row today – it had gotten into the pantry and was attempting to carry away an entire goose, while the maid clung to the other end with her foot braced against the kitchen door.

His hostess hovered in the dining room, and grasped his arm as soon as he came near – fond as she was of all animals, she wasn’t sure the house was big enough for two cats, and the doctor was such a clever and sociable gentleman – surely he knew someone who would consent to take one on as a pet? The doctor privately doubted this contention, but, he supposed, he could always ask Porter – and, if he refused, he could hurl the blasted creature into the sea, where it could gorge itself on the local fish. Accordingly, he took hold of the beast by the scruff of the neck – the cat, not expecting such an attack, released its grip on the bird, and was too surprised to prevent its being placed in a cardboard box, which was quickly secured with twine. And so, receiving his hat, stick and gloves and a chorus of grateful appreciation from the household, he hoisted this unhappy parcel and set out into the streets.

He’d instinctively shielded his bleary eyes as he stepped out the door, but, of course, morning in the Neath brought no harsher light than the greenish glow of the street-lamps. He was, for once, grateful for this perpetual gloom, and was able to rest his head very pleasantly as a cab carried him across Hood’s Bridge and through the crowded streets that adjoined the Bazaar. He found Mr Porter on a small stone wharf behind what he recognised as the Department of Menace Eradication. He’d been attending to a handsome little steam-launch, but looked up as the doctor approached. “Ham! So glad you could come – welcome to the good ship Cuttlefish. What’s that – a cat? Of course I’ll take it – I dare say it can make itself useful as a ratter.”

“For pity’s sake, Stout,” said the doctor, with a plaintive glance up at the Department, “don’t mention rats. I cannot handle rats today.”

“Then not once more shall the word pass my lips, for today you travel in untroubled luxury, as a guest of the family Porter. Family Porter!” At this cry, a trio of youths, aged between twenty and thirty, arranged themselves on the dock. “Son Major, you see to the engine. Son Minor, make sure our kit is secure – I’ve packed us a nice picnic lunch, and I don’t want to lose it! Darling Daughter, you take the tiller – follow the coastline and we should be right as rain. You sit down here, Ham, and make yourself comfortable. All ready? Then cast off, and away we go!”

The engine rumbled happily as the boat pushed out into the wide, dark harbour. Behind them, the lights of London began to pool and merge together, like morphia gathering in a dropper. A bright electric lamp threw a blue light across the water before them, and was reflected in the ripple of their passing. To each side was richly textured darkness. Except… as the minutes passed, Doctor Taupe-Wainscot gradually became aware of a patch of golden glow, somewhere to the south. He was not the only one to notice it – the youngest Porter had taken up a telescope and was scrutinising the source of the light. “Auroral megalops,” he announced. “That is, the infant form of the giant zee-crab. Have you read Melville’s taxonomy of subterranean luminescent creatures, doctor?”

“Steady on, Son Minor,” interjected his father. “This is no time for classifications. How far off is it?”

“About two hundred yards, and approaching fast.”

“Well, we’d best see it off, if we can – can’t have crustaceans straying into the shipping lanes. Ham?”

The doctor was staring at the glow, which was growing larger and brighter. “Er… what’s that, Stout?”

“There’s a tin box under your seat, full of signal flares. Would you mind getting one out and lighting it?” There was, indeed, a large box beneath him, with a number of wooden objects wrapped in waxed paper. He took one, and, with a little fumbling, succeeded in bringing from it a fierce chemical light that made stars dance in his eyes. “Nice work, old boy. Now, on the count of three, propel the flare in the direction of the specimen! One… two… hold on…”

The glow had faded suddenly, and disappeared. They all sat, peering into the darkness, ears straining. The boat bobbed, was still – then shook as a crab the size of a horse broke the water, practically under their noses. “Three!” the younger son shrieked, and Doctor Taupe-Wainscot hurled the light into the monster’s face at the same moment that Mr Porter lifted a colossal antique fowling-gun and pulled the trigger.

The death-seizures of the megalops seemed to last for an eternity. It churned and thrashed, releasing a great quantity of blue blood, before finally sinking out of sight. The party leaned over the railing, watching a stream of gore mingle with the currents. The young Miss Porter finally broke the silence.

“B—-y hell.”

“I can’t disagree, Darling Daughter. Well, that’s it, everyone – fun’s over, back to work.”

Fallen London and Sunless Sea, and all their contents, are (c) Failbetter Games 2010-2014.


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