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 Nine

Penned upon the 28th of February, 2014

It was a little over a week since the Masters had officially declared the Feast of the Exceptional Rose, and Doctor Taupe-Wainscot had settled into something resembling a routine. Each day in London brought new challenges – argumentative tradespeople; scientific-theological challenges from the vicar; a kind of vicious shambling fungus that kept everyone out of the yard until he chased it away with a shovel. He accepted invitations from the strangely solicitous citizenry, and made one or two visits in his professional capacity. The correspondence he received was still of a sadly irregular standard; one invitation to a coffee-house might read, politely,

“Dear Sir, I am delighted at your gracious acceptance of my calling card. Would you like to meet for coffee at Caligula’s? The company is sometimes very oddly assorted, but it’s an excellent place to take the pulse of Fallen London. Best regards, Parthenia

…while the very next would be bizarre and faintly menacing.

A plain envelope appears at your doorstep. The letter inside is written in clean, neat handwriting that has random jagged and emphasised letters for some reason. There is no signature, and the ink has a strange red sheen to it. “hEllo, good sir! i trust that you received my messaGe? i do apologise for soundinG so forward, but would you care to meet me for a cup of coffee at calugula’s? i would like to discuss a few thingS with you.”

These meetings had been entertaining and occasionally very useful, but he was aware that he was making little progress in terms of re-establishing his credentials – he had solved many problems in the short-term, but his overriding difficulty still loomed large. He’d held off approaching the authorities, for fear of being summarily returned to his prison cell, but he had worked up the courage to ask the opinion of a disbarred and thoroughly dissipated solicitor who made regular appearances at the widow’s charitable missions. The fellow had been surprisingly helpful, when offered the facts of the case in a hypothetical sort of way. He’d proposed that, as the police believed they’d arrested Bumbershoot Nigel, and that Bumbershoot Nigel had escaped, then Bumbershoot Nigel is who they would be looking for – and if one could prove one wasn’t Bumbershoot Nigel, then one had nothing to fear. In return, the fellow had a medical request on behalf of a colleague – one for a powerful prescription which the doctor was reluctant to supply, but he was able to provide an alternative which he was sure would fit the bill.

The thing to do, then, was to find those who could vouch for his bona fides – any friends, correspondents or former colleagues who might be residing in London. The Feast certainly offered opportunities to make, or renew, acquaintances, though not always in a simple, conventional, or respectable manner. Masked dances were the fashion of the season, and young couples were to be seen on the streets and in the parks and public houses, clad in the most outlandish costumes which concealed their identities entirely. He felt better-equipped to join the merriment than he had been, however; with the commissions he’d earned through assisting the church, and through passing unwanted mail on to the ratcatchers of the Bureau of Menace Eradication, he’d been able to afford a very handsome new morning-suit in dove-grey cloth. He’d been accustomed to wearing darker wools, but the tailor assured him that the pale colours were better suited to the dim foxfire light of the Neath, and suggested a scarlet waxcap buttonhole to set off the blue trim of the coat.

Equipped thus, he considered his contacts in the city. There were a few that he had known personally, and who would be able to attest very well to his identity and his good faith. Captain Umber, for instance, with whom he’d shared a jovial reunion, and who had afterward sent him an amusing collection of anatomical specimens and a characteristic letter.

“Dear Doctor, Thank you ever so much for the game of chess we played some days ago. It was most pleasant to renew our friendship with a rousing game (the best of luck next time, old chap). During the game, you expressed rather a keen interest in some of my adventures while posted to far-off India. I was considered quite the sportsman in those days and was well known for collecting specimens of the exotic animals native to the subcontinent. I’ve included with this note a small selection of teeth from those animals, including a pair of particularly lively specimens. I was patrolling the brush outside a native village when I happened upon a tiger sunning itself on an outcropping of rocks just across a small river. Thinking it must be the same beast that had been menacing the village, I unlimbered my rifle and crept cautiously up to the bank. Just as I was taking aim, the stream erupted with the great jaws of a crocodile. The shot went wild and the tiger caught wind of my scent. Discretion being the better part of valour, I began an expeditious withdrawal, with both beasts in close pursuit. The two were in close competition for my left leg before a lucky shot from my pistol snapped a tree branch, which fell and impaled both creatures. Once I recovered from the shock, I gathered a party from the village and we skinned the animals. The tiger pelt I kept for some years before gifting it to a charming young lad, and the crocodile skin…well, that’s a story for another day. Regardless, I do hope to enjoy another game soon, Yrs. Captain Augustus Umber

There were also a number of people who he knew indirectly – friends of friends, or the families of past patients. The young Ms Ledford, for instance, who had kindly sent him a card for the Feast. (He’d received a number of these gifts, in fact. The cards were rather unusual – like playing-cards, with a curious hat motif, and a decoratively charred border – but he gathered this was something of a local tradition. Less explicable were the potted tongues – which even Florence wouldn’t touch – and the cat that had been doused in something resembling violet paint and left on the doorstep, with only a brief note in a familiar hand – which had taken one look at the feral creature already occupying the household, and scurried up the chimney to hide on the smoke-shelf.) Finally, there were those in London who were unknown to him, but who were aware of his identity from other sources. These were less certain witnesses, but they might be called upon if it became necessary. Their correspondence seemed friendly enough – in fact, he’d received one invitation that had flattered him exceedingly.

“Dear Sir, While I well appreciate the virtue of rational discourse, there are matters in which some measure of superstition can be soothing. These matters include zee-faring, farming, and wedding planning. To the last-most purpose I seek to acquire something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. For something old, I have a street sign from London before the Fall. For something new, I have uncovered the identity of a surfacer whose integrity has not yet been compromised by the Neath. That is you. May I have your consent to sew your name inside a pocket square to be worn with a wedding suit? In faith, T.E. Gylden. P.S. — Attached is a hamper of heart-cuts to use how you will. For the Feast.”

The idea of his virtue inspiring a couple on their wedding-day touched and amused the doctor, and the hamper of meats had been generous – indeed, too generous for the household to account for on their own. Accordingly, he’d brought them to the vicarage tea party, as a prize for the church raffle – having been assured, in no uncertain terms, that London was the place for meat-raffles. He’d found the vicar entertaining a remarkable group of local movers and shakers – evidently, he was treating the event as something like a council of war, being concerned about the appropriation of the Feast of St Valentine by secular and, indeed, infernal interests. He was a tolerant man, as a rule, but he feared for the souls of credulous young persons who attended one of the devils’ parties and were encouraged into licentiousness when they should be celebrating Christian love and faithfulness. On seeing Taupe-Wainscot, his face lit up – the good doctor had assisted him so ably in his prior investigations; could he be so brave and daring as to attend the Brass Embassy ball that evening, clandestinely, and determine what manner of immoral acts were taking place?

The vicar’s other guests had been a mixed lot. He’d been introduced to a Mrs Gebrandt, who had quizzed him intently about medical matters for twenty minutes. The woman was evidently a patent medicine-seller, and he found himself hotly debating the benefits of sulphur cures in the treatment of rheumatics, anemia and mumps, and questioning, in no uncertain terms, the wisdom of filling patients up with pills and tonics when an abstemious life and healthy diet were all that were wanted to ensure general health. Sensing tension, the vicar had changed the subject to the festivities and the lady’s sideline dispensing romantic advise, but the doctor had dropped a brick there, too, when he offered an ill-advised opinion regarding how to advise a young lady with suspicions of her fiancé.

He’d also met a charming lady, whose name he could not afterwards recall, with whom he’d discussed matters that he could not bring immediately to mind. She’d worn an extraordinary costume of lilac-coloured silk, and he had gathered that she was an official of the Bazaar in some capacity. She’d spoken of the Feast, and of the economics of romance – something to do with accounting for the celebrations? The assessing of passion? There were curious violet gaps in his memory. She had, he recalled, expressed interest in his hamper, and the other trinkets he’d brought to donate – even the paint-spattered cat, which had been rescued from the fireplace and brought along in hope of finding a home for it. Possibly she’d taken these items away with her, and he hoped she’d remunerated the vicar for them, and that the raffle would not suffer for their loss.

He did remember that she’d asked him about his own romantic history and prospects, which seemed impertinent in retrospect, but had felt entirely natural at the time. Sitting in the widow’s parlour, taking tea and muffins, he considered the question. He’d been married to his profession for so long that he had all but forgotten about other entanglements. Certainly, he’d been a handsome man in his youth, and a great many young ladies had taken an interest in him – a dance here; a clasp of the hand there; whispered flirtations at parties; nothing terribly serious. He imagined that they’d long since married, or otherwise devoted themselves to useful pursuits, and forgotten all about their youthful indiscretions. He chuckled, and his hostess – who had been occupied writing letters at the corner table – asked him what the joke was. When he shared his reminiscences, she said that she was sure any young lady would treasure the memory of such a fascinating gentleman as himself, and that they must all consider themselves very unfortunate for not having secured him.

Inspired by these kind remarks, the doctor decided to involve himself in the revels of the Feast in a personal as well as a professional capacity. Not, perhaps, any of the more up-to-date affairs, but the local public houses were hosting mixed gatherings which sounded rather jolly, and which didn’t require anything in the way of a costume. He’d have time to enjoy the company, and perhaps even take a small glass of porter, before assisting the vicar in his researches that evening. The New Justice was the nearest pub, but it was a solid sort of place and he doubted it was taking part in the festivities. The Singing Mandrake was a better bet, and, if the crowd there were too lively, he could retire to the sedate dignity of the Bishop’s Eye. He fetched his hat and, informing his hostess not to wait up for him, set forth to see what fun the city had to offer.

The Singing Mandrake’s regulars were largely artistic types, and the lady with the flame-coloured hair who had invited him to take a glass of absinthe had been a costumier of some kind – rather advanced for London’s taste, she’d informed him, but very popular abroad. He’d expected absinthe to be vivid green, but the drink he’d been served was the colour of a troubled wound, and had hit him like a cannon. He feared he’d been intemperate – he’d felt like he was flying, or falling endlessly, or unable to tell one from the other. The lady had made some cutting observations about others’ costumes, and he’d laughed until he was breathless and gasping. The day had taken a still stranger turn when, while trying to secure a glass of squash, he’d bumped into a pretty young clerk who’d been attached to the Consulate in the same city as his last posting but one, and who, to his considerable surprise, remembered his face and introduced herself.

He wasn’t quite sure how the three of them had ended up lowering themselves into the lane from a fungal trellis, but he resisted all entreaties to continue their festivities in the park – he really did have to go and attend to a matter of church business. He was fearfully dizzy, and was sure he would suffer from headache in the morning – but, at this, the costumier had offered him a sip of something potent in a flask which would, she promised, ensure that he felt “as right as amber rain.” It had tasted earthy, and invigorating, and… what he could only describe as “antediluvian.” She remained cryptic on its contents, explaining only that it was a perk she enjoyed as the sponsor of some abstruse clique or gathering, but he found himself feeling exceptionally lively when he left the ladies’ company.

When he returned to the widow’s home that evening, the expected crate of rats awaited him – this time, decorated with seasonal garlands fixed with severed tails. “today is the Feast of the Exceptional Rat!” the note proclaimed, “I brought you some rats with ribbons on to celebrate.” The usual polemic followed. “one day, you will go North, and the rats will make your bones into a chair for their emperor” “all shall be rat and all manner of thing shall be rat. not postmen. not in the end. not for long.” “Here is a tradition long writ on the package’s inner lining. All Londoners are ratsenders. Only one can bear the burden. Is that true? Or is this ratting the secret generosity of the strong towards the weak?” ““This is no betrayal.” Is that what you told yourself? Submit to the rats that came in across the darkened sea, save bloodshed, and win yourself allies against the North? It was so long ago.” “A reckoning cannot be postponed indefinitely. The bill is almost due.” Leaving them to be disposed of in the morning, he entered, and was disposing of his accoutrements on the hall pegs when there was a sharp noise behind him.

There is a knock on your door. Who could it be, at this late hour? Fearing the worst, you open it to see a tall, dark-skinned man with a shaved head, his arm in bloody bandages and his pale blue suit half-darkened with blood. “Hello, Doctor. So sorry to call at this hour, but I was alerted to your presence by the Widow. I am in need of a doctor, someone discreet and uninterested in neathy affairs. I hear you’re the type.” The man stumbles past you, ignoring your spluttering worries. He hangs his iron hat on the rack. “It’s mostly lacerations, but there’s probably a broken- ahhhh -yes, there’s a broken bone, for sure.” He turns back to you, smiling. “If you could simply take a look, help me patch this up, I’ll send you payment in the next couple days.” Noting the half-empty boxes of rats, recently unwrapped and sitting by the door, the man shakes his head. “And don’t worry, it won’t be rats.”

The man breezily deflected all questions as to how he had come by his wounds. Probably, the doctor suspected, some love-rivalry was at the back of it – defence of a lady’s honour, or something of the kind. He hadn’t the supplies to treat the fellow as well as he would like, but he was able to clean and dress the surface injuries, and to immobilise the broken rib with sticking-plaster. “You’ll need to rest and avoid all undue exertion for at least the next three weeks,” he advised, “and whatever you’ve been doing… well, don’t do it again. The discomfort should be relatively minor, but it won’t hurt to take a small dose of brandy if you begin to feel faint.”

“Or of cider, eh?” his patient had remarked. “Wouldn’t that be something?” The doctor had made nothing of this apparent non-sequitur, and, assisting the fellow in replacing his garments and retrieving his hat, had bid him farewell at the door. The Feast of the Rose was evidently a dangerous time of year – though it had been stimulating to practice his trade, and the man had been pleasant enough, despite the unusual circumstances. Overall, it had been a rewarding sort of day, and he retired to bed in a warm glow of progress made and adventures fulfilled.

Fallen London and all its contents are (c) Failbetter Games 2010-2014.

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Commentary upon “The Most Boring Man in Fallen London, Part Nine”

  1. Loon was heard to remark,

    Upon the 1st of March, 2014 at 12:04 am,

    How lovely, the good Doctor celebrates the feast! I reall enjoy your writing, keep at it.

  2. DollyDagger was heard to remark,

    Upon the 2nd of March, 2014 at 5:15 am,

    These are wonderful. Can’t wait to see how it turns out (rats. it turns out rats.)..

Further remarks are not permitted.