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 Eleven

Penned upon the 4th of May, 2014

When Doctor Taupe-Wainscot joined his hostess for breakfast, she was little less cheerful for the disruptions of the morning, but she did have another portion of gloom to deliver as she poured him a cup of tea: the ratcatchers had refused to make their collections on their street that day, claiming that they’d been stopped and asked impertinent questions by persons “who didn’t look quite respectable,” and as a consequence the boxes that the doctor’s “friend” had left for him were still out in the street, and the nice gentleman upstairs had tripped over them on his way to work and almost fallen down the stairs. She had offered them to the doctor’s pet cat, because it had looked so dreadfully hungry, poor beast, but it hadn’t seemed to want any and had gone and hid in the coal cellar. Perhaps the doctor would be so good as to take the boxes around to the Department for disposal himself?

He felt a deep pang of guilt as this exposition unfurled. He was sure that these unsavoury characters were hanging about as a result of his own bizarre conflicts with the city’s underworld; that they should have led to the disruption of the Widow’s domestic life, and nearly to the injury of her paying guest – that he, the object of her charity, should so threaten her livelihood – was abhorrent to his very nature. He pledged to rid her of the rats that very morning, if she would direct him to this “Department.” It was, she informed him, across the river, adjoining Greenwich Park, and a very pretty part of the city, though perhaps a little rough-hewn compared to Jekyll Gardens or the sculpture-park at Wilmot’s End. He made to fetch his stick and gloves before she forestalled him with another plea: if he was going to be visiting that side of the city, perhaps he might call on a friend of hers – the publican of the local hotel, and a most sociable man, but, sadly, an invalid – and assist him with a little gardening? It was a little too much work for him, poor man, but she was sure it would be well within the doctor’s abilities. The doctor was not an inexperienced gardener – indeed, the flower beds attached to the house he’d held in his last posting had been a point of pride – and so he agreed to this entirely reasonable request.

He had flagged down a cab outside, and was securing the rough crates to the luggage-rack, when a clatter at the cellar window drew his attention. A pair of fierce yellow eyes were staring out, and a bird had just taken uneven flight, leaving behind something that shone in the gas-light. It was, on investigation, a fold of paper addressed to him.

[A white raven leaves a letter at your window one morning, before quickly flying away as it notices the Starveling Cat’s approach] “Dear Sir, it appears you have attracted much attention from Fallen Londoners. I heard of you from the widow, and how someone is sending you boxes and boxes of rats, I believe that Penstock’s Land Agency is selling a house in the marshes for 300 dead rats, it seems much of London places great value on them. If you have any questions about London, feel free to ask me. – R. Weird

A house for rats? He’d little imagined that he might secure his own lodgings for so small a payment, but the idea did appeal to him – he would no longer be a source of disruption for the widow’s home, and could even, if space permitted, set up a surgery and laboratory of his own. The location did not sound entirely ideal, but he was a true child of Suffolk, and would not let a little marshland deter him – he would visit this Land Agency and schedule a viewing immediately.

Penstock’s establishment, it seemed, adjoined the Bazaar – and he reflected on the apposition of that name as he saw it appear between the surrounding buildings. He’d glimpsed it across the river, of course, and knew it by reputation as the Masters’ home, headquarters and trading-house, but up close, it looked like nothing less than a merchant-prince’s palace, all arabesque towers and glowing windows. The surrounding streets were thick with hawkers, craftsmen, and deliveries coming and going, but his cab at last came to rest in a quiet street full of well-appointed offices and traders. Mr Penstock himself was in residence – a keen, professional fellow with a full beard and disconcertingly alert eyes – and was only too happy to allow the doctor the keys of their Watchmaker’s property for a viewing. It had been on the market for some time – it might require some little effort to restore, but he was sure it would prove perfectly adequate. Perhaps the doctor might also be interested in a furnished apartment, closer to the centre of the city? He could make an inspection of each and consider his options. Doctor Taupe-Wainscot thought this was a very sensible plan, and thanked Mr Penstock for his time.

He’d expected something genteel and comfortable of his first viewing – perhaps an airy hunting-lodge, ready to be converted into a permanent home. What he’d found, when the cab dropped him at the end of a long and overgrown path through the bog, was a charcoal-burner’s hut with no glass in its windows and a family of wading birds living in its roof. It might serve as a hermitage for some wild mystic or desperate fugitive, but (he thought, repressing the memory of his own legal difficulties) it was no place for a respectable man of medicine. No, he could make better use of his rats turning them in for the bounty. He returned to his cab and asked to be taken at once to the Department of Menace Eradication.

The Department was a remarkably picturesque old building, sitting with its back to the Thames. A tremendous scrum blocked the street outside – what looked at first like an unruly mob, but proved in fact to be three or four unruly mobs competing for space. There were rat-catchers, collecting bounties; hunters, roughly dressed in heavy coats and gaiters, and armed with rifles, dogs, and traps; citizens afflicted with vermin and come to request the Department’s services; and a large crowd that baffled the doctor until he spotted the bookmakers’ podiums – a race-meeting of some sort. The cabman explained, as he helped him retrieve his luggage, that the shroom-hoppers were running today – athletes, of a sort, though success relied on knowledge of the terrain, as much as anything, on this unsteady ground. Hopping-races were always popular among the locals, even in this foul weather, though usually they weren’t such an impediment to traffic. Indeed, the passengers of the carriage behind them had been expressing impatience for some time, and its driver chose this moment to lash at the horses. The beasts lurched toward the crowd, which fell back, screaming – one woman stumbled and lost control of her parcels and the doctor instinctively rushed to her aid, and was able to rescue a stray handkerchief from the clutches of a mud-puddle. The carriage managed, with difficulty, to turn about, and sped away, its riders cackling.

No-one had been injured, and the lady he had assisted was already disappearing amid the mob, holding tightly to her belongings – which included, he noticed, a large cavalry-sabre. The disruption had at least opened the path to the Department, and the doctor was able to haul his cargo into its entrance-hall and meet a bored-looking clerk, who had him sign a number of forms and handed to him a pouch of coins – explaining, when asked, that it was policy never to offer paper money for transactions of violence. The request for directions to the Medusa’s Head Inn was, at least, able to produce some display of emotion in this dessicated youth, who observed with a smirk that they didn’t think it was the sort of place that was interest the doctor as they jotted down a simple map on a piece of departmental stationery. When informed that the doctor was bound there on a mission of charity, the clerk rolled their eyes and began deliberately sorting a stack of files, oblivious to further remarks.

The Medusa’s Head was easy enough to find – it was a public house of the old sort, with thick stone walls and a floor coated with sawdust. Its rough inhabitants stared at the doctor as he made his way to the bar, and someone made an inaudible remark that resulted in a throaty chuckle from somewhere in the gloom. The landlord, by contrast, was a most agreeable fellow – a heavy-set man with a short moustache – who admitted the doctor to the back room and led him to the proposed garden. He walked with a cane, on which he seemed reliant – polio, perhaps, or some lasting injury, the doctor privately deduced. The rear of the establishment was considerably better-lit than its interior – the landlord had high hopes for this stony yard – dreams of a starlit lounge, of little plates of sautéed mushrooms, of a wine list – and the sooner the work could be done, the better.

It was considerably past lunchtime before the weeds had been cleared, and the doctor returned to the bar to find a hot meal and a pint sitting ready for him – his host, the barman explained, was engaged in business upstairs, but he was to enjoy lunch with the gratitude of the house. This went some way to improving his mood, which had suffered from the events of the morning – he had spent much of the previous hour weighing the relative malevolence of racing punters, wild drivers, sarcastic officials, and of the garden’s particularly bloodthirsty creepers. The chop was tender, and possibly even real lamb, and the greens very closely resembled actual sprouts. Indeed, he was spurred to such munificence by this feast as to order another pint for himself, one for the barman, and a third for a young costermonger who had taken the seat beside him and inquired as to how many eyes the cheese had today.

That was a blow to the doctor’s confidence – had everyone in this city heard of him and his misfortunes? Were its very grocers on intimate terms of his misery? He wished to be gone, to be home, to be sitting in his own old armchair with his own books and his own fire and birds, proper birds, singing in the sunshine. He felt in his waistcoat-pocket for some change to cover the drinks – and found Penstock’s keys. D-mn. He’d have to return those – but, he supposed, perhaps the second address would be more appealing – he might not be so very far from his home comforts after all. He settled his meager tab, bad farewell to the costermonger – who graced him with a fascinating leer – and set out to locate a cab to take him to Flowerdene Avenue.

Penstock hadn’t lied about this property being closer to the city, certainly; it would be difficult to imagine anywhere less remote. It was somewhere in the East End – he’d lost track of exactly where they were in the maze of narrow streets. Rickety houses stood thickly around, their blank windows watching him. Indistinct figures lurked just beyond the reach of the few lamps’ light. Somewhere, not very far away, wood splintered and a woman screamed. The “apartment” he’d come to inspect belonged to a filthy boarding-house, whose signboard advertised “SHARED ROOMS, BLANKET PROVIDED, NO SNUFFERS NEED APPLY.” The doctor was prepared to return to his cab and leave without a second thought, when he noticed an old man in a dusty frock coat, carrying a large bag and peering short-sightedly at what house numbers he could find. What on earth was he doing in this part of town? He hurried to the chap’s aid, offering to lead him wherever he needed to go – preferably somewhere safer than this.

How he found his way to the relative familiarity of Elderwick, he was not afterwards sure, but he felt safe enough to sit on the doorstep of a book-binder’s shop until his heart stopped racing. What a ghastly experience – and he had not even caught the poor man’s name, or that of the street where he’d last seen him. There was really nothing to be done. He was, at least, not so very far from home now – he could walk the rest of the way, and calm his nerves – the rain was bound to clear up soon. He’d send a messenger to return the keys to Mr Penstock, along with a note thanking him for his time but stating that the doctor would not be taking lodgings through him today. He reached the corner of the widow’s street when he realised that the unusually-shaped pillar-box was rather three figures, huddled conspiratorially. Could these be the rascals who had been watching the house and interrogating visitors? He crept as close as he dared and attempted to catch what they were saying.

Huh. Odd, but not apparently related to his own present difficulties. Well, something would have to be done about the situation, at any rate. If he didn’t yet have the means to secure his own lodgings, then… then he’d have to secure his hostess’s. He could ask her permission to burglar-proof the house – it was the least he could do, and he was sure the payment from the Department would cover the materials. That would keep the city’s criminal element at bay – and he’d jolly well write a letter, too, about the tremendous inconvenience and public disruption caused by racing-meetings, and the necessity of careful driving in inclement weather. It might not solve London’s problems overnight – not everyone took the morning paper, after all – but it was a jolly good start, and would provide a useful outlet for his considerable vexation.

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

If you so desire, you may follow any commentary upon this missive with the aid of our “RSS-O-Matic” apparatus.

Neither remarks nor trackings-back are currently permitted, so as to focus your attention better upon the wisdom herein.

Further remarks are not permitted.