Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


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

The Most Boring Man in Fallen London, Part Eight

Penned upon the 16th of February, 2014

Doctor Taupe-Wainscot woke with a spasm and a splutter. He was in the colony of the dead… no, it was just a dream; he was in Lowestoft- no, in his rooms at… where was he? Oh, yes; London, the widow’s house. The gathering of the day before had unsettled his nerves. He found the matches and lit a candle, and felt a sickening confusion as its glow revealed the bandages that bound his hands, round and round… and then he remembered the other visitor he’d received that evening.

After three quarters of an hour spent failing to lure, coax or force the creature down from the top of the old cabinet, the doctor had given up, dressed his wounds as best he could, and gone to bed. Light was filtering through the curtains – the maid would soon be up to wake him and bring him his shaving-water, no doubt, unless the fleabitten beast had eaten everyone in his absence. But, he thought, as he disentangled himself from the bedclothes, that was uncharitable – no doubt the creature was frightened and undernourished, and would benefit from his and his hostess’ attentions. This reminded him of his other new pet-ient – and, indeed, his raven was awake, and, on seeing him rise, bade him a cheerful “Kaw, kaw, kaw, good morning!” That was a delightful surprise – the previous owner had not mentioned teaching the bird to speak! He’d have to bring her downstairs and show the household… or, actually, perhaps she had best stay in his room until the cat situation was adequately resolved.

His shaving-water did not actually appear, and he dressed and descended to find the maid vituperatively wrestling with a broom, the other end of which the cat was attempting to devour. The widow was in the dining room, which she was decorating with garlands of paper flowers – because, she explained, the Feast of the Rose was beginning soon, and she did like to get in early on the celebrations, as it was terribly romantic and so much fun for the young people; she had been thinking of organising a dance at the church hall, and she would suggest it to the vicar over tea that morning, though he might not think it entirely appropriate, though it was in honour of the saint’s day, of course.

The doctor endeavoured to apologise for the feline intruder, but his hostess was quite unperturbed – cats did get everywhere in this city, and she was sure the maid would take care of it, and how was his charming new bird – had he thought of a name for it yet? In fact, he hadn’t given any thought to a name – what did one name a bird? He briefly considered a range of historic and mythic figures, but none seemed inspiringly ravenlike. If anything, she reminded him of a maiden aunt – his mother’s youngest sister – who had been mad for spiritualism and for other fantastical practices, and who used to visit them about twice a year, in her black travelling-cape and her tremendous hat, and tell them all stories of secret meetings, divine communications, and scandalous assignations – though he’d always been sent out of the room when these had come up. Dear old Aunt Flossie – he wondered if she was still alive. Well, it could do no harm to have a raven to remember her by.

His hostess looked surprised at the name. “Nightingale?”, she asked.

“Er, no,” he replied, “definitely a raven.”

The morning post had arrived, and he took his usual pile up to his room while the widow went to find what was keeping breakfast. Some cards, some letters, and a small bundle fixed with a pin, with a note from the maid indicating that they had left the boxes of rats out for the dustman, but had taken these off them “in case they was of any use to you.” There were also a few parcels, which might have been anything. He picked the first of these up, and shook it gingerly. Its label simply read “Everything comes at a price.. and with a friendly greeting. Sincerely, The Patient.” The Patient? One of his own? In a message so mysterious, it almost looked like an adjective. He peeled back the paper, and found… oh, Lord.

Clearly, this parcel had escaped the maid’s diligence. These were no mere rats, though – they were monsters, like miniature wolves. And the stones… they were handsome indeed, and would have done justice to a princess’s crown, but in this setting, they were a little frightening, and somehow sad. He carefully laid them aside to be washed and sterilised, pushed the bodies into the waste-paper basket, and picked up the next parcel. The writing was familiar… ah!, yes, a friend of his hostess, who had written the day before. The note began genially,

“My good Doctor, I hope this message finds you well. Give my regards to the Widow, dear woman that she is, and I hope the contents of this package serve you well. Just a thought, as well: the goods of Fallen London may sometimes seem odd to you, but all have value of some sort. Even rats. (Yes, he is a bit of a strange fellow, but don’t worry, he means well. Usually, anyways.) ~ A. Kisigar

He had to laugh. He’d seen more rats in the past week than in the decades that preceded it, and it seemed that everybody knew it. Nuisance rat-parcels seemed one of the great problems of the age, and if this was another of them, he’d throw the wretched thing out of the window, and probably follow it himself. What it instead contained, however, was a popular medical text – clearly well-read by its previous owner, but in perfectly serviceable condition, and a welcome addition to his small library. Next, there was a parcel that he’d almost overlooked.

“Amongst the post is a small package wrapped in fine cloth. Inside, a linen bag of extremely fine black tea is threaded through a hole in a card with a dark sapphire ribbon. Eyeing it briefly, you think it will make about two pots, and the rich, malty aroma rising from the bag is a little distracting at this hour of the morning. The card bears the name and address of a teashop located in the heart of the Bazaar, as well as the name of its proprietor. A note in a fine hand is written on the back: I am a good friend of your noble hostess and do hope you will come by the shop when you can spare a moment or two. I have studied the applications of herbal medicines and medicinal fungi, and am always glad to make the acquaintance of another learned gentleman. I do manage to import some supplies from the Surface that are not so easily found in the Neath, and enjoy making my own blends for clients for relaxation and the ease of stress that do not rely so heavily upon laudanum. My friend implied that you, too, were rather restrained in your prescriptions, and perhaps we would enjoy chatting over a pot of tea some time? Yours, cordially, Gabriel Morgan

The geniality of this letter cheered the doctor, and he raised the little bag to his nose. He’d met quite a few would-be healers in his travels who had claimed to offer medicinal tea, but this blend smelled harmless, and, indeed, delicious. He would be sure to visit the fellow’s establishment when he was better equipped for being seen about town. That had been the last of the parcels – next was a small stack of cards that had been left to him. The first looked like a woman’s, and bore a crowded message.

“(The letter is rather small, of a faded pink color. The penmanship is elegant and flowery, but occassionally veers into being hard to read, as if the writer isn’t entirely familiar with the alphabet being used) “I have heard the Widow has a new guest. An excellent woman, always helping those in need. From what I understand, you’ve only recently come to the Neath? I hope you enjoy it down here, even if the first week (or weeks) can be quite… interesting. I have considered sending a gift with this letter, since I have been told that you have had some trouble with your luggage and will need to buy everything again. However, I fear you may find my help condescending, and so will refrain from giving you, for the moment, more than my best wishes. Of course, if I am misjudging you and you do need my help, feel free to write back, I’ll do what I can. –Daery

He grinned. Young people did write in such an informal manner these days, but the writer’s heartfelt good intentions were clear. The next card, by contrast, was brief, and rather odd. It read simply, egG. trust not the dark waters. the sky is troubled but no harm comes to those of twisted stone. they seek. do not seek them.” Egg? Twisted stones? He shrugged and pushed the card aside. The next was an elaborate affair, illustrated heavily.

“A calling card! It’s the Ace of Hats. The Hat in question does grin charmingly, and to its side is written Narcis- Confortola: Conjurer, Composer, Curator. Beneath that appellation is a music note crossed with a truncated Correspondence sigil, which — if you are Watchful enough — you may interpret to mean ‘one who conducts an orchestra as the Sun conducts her celestial coterie.’ There’s an address to a shop in the spires of the Bazaar. “

Equally odd, but rather more explicable – musicians and performers were given to eccentricities, which were typically harmless, and which very likely contributed to their allure to the public. He had no idea how the fellow had heard of him – he did not attend concerts, as a rule – but no doubt it was part of some sort of publicity campaign. He picked the final card from the stack, which had a scholarly look about it.

“A plain card, the colour of tea and cream. In the center are seven pinpoint stars arranged as in the Septentriones. Above is the name and address of a bookseller in the Bazaar, the author and academic T.E Gylden. Below is a motto: Septentrionem appetimus (translatable as We seek the Seven Stars, or We hunger for the North). Not ominous. Not at all.”

Ah, a bookseller – just the thing he might be wanting once his rightful position was secured. He turned to the pair of letters that had come for him. The first he took opened contained an advertising-card for a local theatre, together with an enthusiastic invitation.

“My good man! I had stopped by your abode the other day to have tea with the kindhearted lady of the house, and she couldn’t help but to brag about the gentleman who had helped her these last couple of days. This women means a great deal to me, and any friend of hers is a friend of mine. I was wondering if you would like to join me for the theatre tomorrow evening? I assure that it is a show you will not want to miss! I’ll be sure to bring your mask for you, and if you like you’ll be able to use it for the Feast of the Exceptional Rose coming soon. I’ll bring your ticket by tomorrow evening to help avoid any entanglements with the Menacery er Ministry of Public Decency. Ware serpents, don’t go NORTH, stay away from cheese, and so on. I hope to see you tomorrow evening! –Daniel Redwood

The chap’s style was a little obscure – masks and menaces and cheese? – but he saw no reason not to accept. Attending a play with a friend of his hostess could be just the thing to buck him up after the troubles of the day before. The other letter was addressed in a hand that was, shockingly, familiar to him.

“Dear Doctor, I trust that this letter finds you in good health. Am I correct in assuming that you are the same Doctor Taupe-Wainscot late of the colony in Barbados? If so, I would be greatly desirous of renewing our acquaintance (and our weekly game). Yrs. Captain Agustus Umber

Captain Umber, the old rascal! What was he doing in London? He’d not seen him for years – not since he’d been offered a practice in India and set off to the other side of the world. He tucked the invitation safely aside, vowing to pop by and have a round of chess with the captain as soon as he was able. And that was all… except, he remembered, for the scraps of tarry note-paper the maid had left for him. He sighed and took them up, giving each a cursory glance before dropping it into the waste-basket.

“the rats in the shadows are london’s overlords never to be revealed”

“You will forget this. Yes. This is a gift from no-one to no-one. Everything is lost in the Rats.”

“everyone talks of the language of the stars, but what they should really be paying attention to is the language of the rats”

“you may assume your rat situation is unique. you would assume incorrectly”

“some people like a bit of rat. do you like a bit of rat? i like a bit of rat. a lot of rat. rats.”

“doctor, doctor! i think i’m a rat! there is no punchline.”

And that was the last of – no, hold on, this one was different. It was written on good, decent paper in respectable ink, and the writing was that of the odd young man who had taken him to dinner the previous night.

“Hello there good Doctor! I hope this package finds you well. I am, unfortunately under quite a bit of surveillance at the moment so the only way I can help you is … with THIS. Of course I would never encourage you to EAT them- but perhaps the department of menace eradication will be happy to take them off your hands? They even pay a modest reward as I heard.”

Surveillance? He remembered the man’s theories, about devils plotting against mankind, and felt unable to entirely dismiss them. This train of thought reminded him that the vicar was coming to morning tea, and he realised that he had quite missed breakfast and was feeling dreadfully hungry. He would wash up as best he could and determine whether their guest had arrived.

Having refreshed himself with tea and cake, the doctor had chanced a question about devils and souls, and found that the vicar did indeed have theories. Indeed, he seemed to have a hundred of them – his researches had been broad, but not selective. The soul might be the breath of God, or the action of the brain, or a secretion of the liver; it might be removable from the dead body, or the living one; it might be another name for the function of the pituitary gland, or for the workings of the senses, or the teachings of the gospels. It was, the vicar felt, very much an area where the practical scientist had as much to contribute as the man of the cloth, and if the doctor wished to learn more, he would be happy to share the authorship of his upcoming work. Conducting ecclesiastical research had not been how Taupe-Wainscot had been planning to spend his day, but he felt he wouldn’t rest easy until he’d settled the matter.

It was well past lunchtime, and the doctor was exhausted. He’d spoken to several individuals who claimed to be involved in the soul trade. Some had seemed genuinely infernal – one lady, when the subject was raised, had asked if he was interested in selling, and had gripped his hand so hard as to actually have drawn blood. Others had merely been infernally rude – many had laughed at him, or told him the most obvious untruths. Few of them had seemed to have any understanding of the scientific foundations of what they were talking about – or, if they had, they hadn’t been willing to share them. Most unsettling of all, however, had been a street he’d been directed to, which scarcely seemed relevant at all – there had simply been a number of beggars and hawkers, including a man with a performing monkey. And yet…

He’d seen his share of fakers, tricksters, and cheap ventriloquists… but he was all but certain that the monkey had spoken to its master. And that, he had never seen before, for it was entirely impossible. His head ached, and his throat was dry from endless questioning. The vicar had taken his notes away to read, and he was he was free to take a nap and put the morning behind him. He slumped up to his room, fed Flossie a piece of leftover ham, kicked off his shoes, and collapsed onto the blankets. As he began to snore, the raven cawed, “Awwk. Sleep well, Doctor.”

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