–The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles
“How does The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack stack up to the ever growing offerings of all that is Steampunk? I would say it takes the genre to a new level….Would-be Steampunk writers will now have to work double duty to top this one!” –AstroGuyz.com
“This is an exhilarating romp through a witty combination of nineteenth-century English fact and fiction. Mark Hodder definitely knows his stuff and has given us steam opera at its finest.... A great, increasingly complex, plot, some fine characters, and invention that never flags! It gets better and better, offering clues to some of Victorian London’s strangest mysteries. This is the best debut novel I have read in ages.” –Michael Moorcock, author
Presenting an excerpt here:
Burton & Swinburne in
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
*THE FIRST PART*
IN WHICH AN AGENT IS APPOINTED AND MYSTERIES ARE INVESTIGATED
A known mistake is better than an unknown truth.
THE AFTERMATH OF AFRICA
Everything Life places in your path is an opportunity.
No matter how difficult.
No matter how upsetting.
No matter how impenetrable.
No matter how you judge it.
“By God! He’s killed himself!”
Sir Richard Francis Burton staggered back and collapsed into his chair. The note Arthur Findlay had passed to him fluttered to the floor. The other men turned away, took their seats, examined their fingernails, and fiddled with their shirt collars; anything to avoid looking at their stricken colleague.
From where she stood on the threshold of the “robing room,” hidden by its partially closed door, Isabel Arundell could see that her lover’s normally dark and intense eyes were wide with shock, filled with a sudden vulnerability. His mouth moved spasmodically, as if he were struggling to chew and swallow something indigestible. She longed to rush to his side to comfort him and to ask what tidings had wounded him; to snatch up that note and read it; to find out who had killed himself; but such a display would be unseemly in front of the small gathering, not to mention embarrassing for Richard. He, among all men, stood on his own two feet, no matter how dire the situation. Isabel alone was aware of his sensitivity; and she would never cause it to be exposed to others.
Many people—mostly those who referred to him as “Ruffian Dick”—considered Burton’s brutal good looks to be a manifestation of his inner nature. They could never imagine that he doubted himself; though if they were to see him now, so shaken, perhaps it might strike them that he wasn’t quite the devil he appeared, despite the fierce moustache and forked beard.
It was difficult to see past such a powerful façade.
The Committee had only just gathered at the table, but after glancing at Burton’s anguished expression, Sir Roderick Murchison, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, came to a decision.
“Let us take a moment,” he muttered.
Burton stood and held up a hand in protest. “Pray, gentlemen,” he whispered hoarsely, “continue with your meeting. The scheduled debate will, of course, have to be cancelled, but if you’ll allow me half an hour, perhaps I can organise my notes and make a small presentation concerning the valley of the
Indus, so as not to disappoint the crowd.”
“That’s very good of you, Sir Richard,” said one of the Committee members, Sir James Alexander. “But, really, this must have come as a terrible blow. If you would rather—”
“Just grant me thirty minutes to prepare. They have, after all, paid for their tickets.”
“Very well. Thank you.”
Burton turned and walked unsteadily to the door, passed through, closed it behind him, and stood facing Isabel, swaying slightly.
At five eleven, he personally bemoaned the lost inch that would have made him a six-footer, though, to others, the breadth of his shoulders, depth of his chest, slim but muscular build, and overwhelming charisma made him seem a giant, even compared with much taller men.
He had short black hair, which he wore swept backward. His skin was swarthy and weather-beaten, giving his straight features rather an Arabic cast, further accentuated by his prominent cheekbones, both disfigured by scars—a smallish one on the right, but a long, deep, and jagged one on the left, which tugged slightly at his bottom eyelid. They were the entry and exit wounds caused by a Somali spear that had been thrust through his face during an ill-fated expedition to Berbera, on the Horn of Africa.
To Isabel, those scars were the mark of an adventurous and fearless soul. Burton was in every respect her “ideal man.” He was a wild, passionate, and romantic figure, quite unlike the staid and emotionally cold men who moved in London’s social circles. Her parents thought him unsuitable but Isabel knew there could be no other for her.
He stumbled forward into her arms.
“What ails you so, Dick?” she gasped, holding him by the shoulders. “What has happened?”
“John has shot himself!”
“No!” she exclaimed. “He’s dead?”
Burton stepped back and wiped a sleeve across his eyes. “Not yet. But he took a bullet to the head. Isabel, I have to work up a presentation. Can I rely on you to find out where he’s been taken? I must see him. I have to make my peace with him before—”
“Of course, dear. Of course! I shall make enquiries at once. Must you speak, though? No one would fault you if you were to withdraw.”
“I’ll speak. We’ll meet later, at the hotel.”
She kissed his cheek and left him; walked a short way along the elegant marble-floored corridor and, with a glance back, disappeared through the door to the auditorium. As it swung open and closed, Burton heard the crowd beyond grumbling with impatience. There were even some boos. They had
waited long enough; they wanted blood; wanted to see him, Burton, shame and humiliate the man he’d once considered a brother: John Hanning Speke.
“I’ll make an announcement,” muttered a voice behind him. He turned to find that Murchison had left the Committee and was standing at his shoulder. Beads of sweat glistened on the president’s bald head. His narrow face was haggard and pale.
“Is it—is it my fault, Sir Roderick?” rasped Burton.
Murchison frowned. “Is it your fault that you possess exacting standards while, according to the calculations John Speke presented to the Society, the Nile runs uphill for ninety miles? Is it your fault that you are an erudite and confident debater while Speke can barely string two words together? Is it
your fault that mischief-makers manipulated him and turned him against you? No, Richard, it is not.”
Burton considered this for a moment, then said, “You speak of him so and yet you supported him. You financed his second expedition and refused me mine.”
“Because he was right. Despite his slapdash measurements and his presumptions and guesswork, the Committee feels it likely that the lake he discovered is, indeed, the source of the Nile. The simple truth of the matter, Richard, is that he found it while you, I’m sorry to say, did not. I never much liked the man, may God have mercy on his soul, but fortune favoured him, and not you.”
Murchison moved aside as the Committee members filed out of the robing room, heading for the presentation hall.
“I’m sorry, Richard. I have to go.”
Murchison joined his fellows.
“Wait!” called Burton, pacing after him. “I should be there too.”
“It’s not necessary.”
“Very well. Come.”
They entered the packed auditorium and stepped onto the stage amid sarcastic cheers from the crowd. Colonel William Sykes, who was hosting the debate, was already at the podium, unhappily attempting to quell the more disruptive members of the restless throng; namely, the many journalists—including the mysterious young American Henry Morton Stanley—who seemed intent on making the occasion as newsworthy as possible. Doctor Livingstone sat behind Sykes, looking furious. Clement Markham, also seated on the stage, was chewing his nails nervously. Burton slumped into the chair beside him, drew a small notebook and a pencil from his pocket, and began to write.
Sir James Alexander, Arthur Findlay, and the other geographers took their seats on the stage.
The crowd hooted and jeered.
“About time! Did you get lost?” someone shouted waggishly. A roar of approval greeted the gibe.
Murchison muttered something into the colonel’s ear. Sykes nodded and retreated to join the others.
The president stepped forward, tapped his knuckles against the podium, and looked stonily at the expectant faces. The audience quieted until, aside from occasional coughs, it became silent.
Sir Roderick Murchison spoke: “Proceedings have been delayed and for that I have to apologise—but when I explain to you the cause, you will pardon me. We have been in our Committee so profoundly affected by a dreadful calamity that has—”
He paused; cleared his throat; gathered himself.
“—that has befallen Lieutenant Speke. A calamity by which, it pains me to report, he must surely lose his life.”
Shouts of dismay and consternation erupted.
Murchison held out his hands and called, “Please! Please!”
Slowly, the noise subsided.
“We do not at present have a great deal of information,” he continued, “but for a letter from Lieutenant Speke’s brother, which was delivered by a runner a short while ago. It tells that yesterday afternoon the lieutenant joined a hunting party on the Fuller Estate near Neston Park. At four o’clock, while he was negotiating a wall, his gun went off and severely wounded him about the head.”
“Did he shoot himself, sir?” cried a voice from the back of the hall.
“Purposefully, you mean? There is nothing to suggest such a thing!”
“Captain Burton!” yelled another. “Did you pull the trigger?”
“How dare you, sir!” thundered Murchison. “That is entirely unwarranted! I will not have it!”
A barrage of questions flew from the audience, a great many of them directed at Burton.
The famous explorer tore a page from his notebook, handed it to Clement Markham, and, leaning close, muttered into his ear. Markham glanced at the paper, stood, stepped to Murchison’s side, and said something in a low voice.
Murchison gave a nod.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “you came to the Bath Assembly Rooms to hear a debate between Captain Sir Richard Burton and Lieutenant John Speke on the matter of the source of the Nile. I, of course, understand you wish to hear from Sir Richard concerning this terrible accident that has befallen his colleague, but, as you might suppose, he has been greatly affected and feels unable to speak at this present time. He has, however, written a short statement which will now be read by Mr. Clement Markham.”
Murchison moved away from the podium and Markham took his place.
In a quiet and steady tone, he read from Burton’s note: “The man I once called brother today lies gravely wounded. The differences of opinion that are known to have lain between us since his return from Africa make it more incumbent on me to publicly express my sincere feeling of admiration for his character and enterprise, and my deep sense of shock that this fate has befallen him. Whatever faith you may adhere to, I beg of you to pray for him.”
Markham returned to his chair.
There was not a sound in the auditorium.
“There will be a thirty-minute recess,” declared Murchison, “then Sir Richard will present a paper concerning the valley of the Indus. In the meantime, may I respectfully request your continued patience whilst we rearrange this afternoon’s schedule? Thank you.”
He led the small group of explorers and geographers out of the auditorium and, after brief and subdued words with Burton, they headed back to the robing room.
Sir Richard Francis Burton, his mind paralysed, his heart brimming, walked in the opposite direction until he came to one of the reading rooms. Mercifully, it was unoccupied. He entered, closed the door, and leaned against it.
“I’m sorry. I can’t continue.”
It was the faintest of whispers.
He’d spoken for twenty minutes, hardly knowing what he was saying, reading mechanically from his journals, his voice faint and quavering. His words had slowed then trailed off altogether.
When he looked up, he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes locked on to him; and in them there was pity.
He drew in a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said more loudly. “There will be no debate today.”
He turned away from the crowd and, closing his ears to the shouted questions and polite applause, left the stage, pushed past Findlay and Livingstone, and practically ran to the lobby. He asked the cloakroom attendant for his overcoat, top hat, and cane, and, upon receiving them, hurried out through
the main doors and descended the steps to the street.
It was just past midday. Dark clouds drifted across the sky; the recent spell of fine weather was dissipating, the temperature falling.
He waved down a hansom.
“Where to, sir?” asked the driver.
“The Royal Hotel.”
“Right you are. Jump aboard.”
Burton clambered into the cabin and sat on the wooden seat. There were cigar butts all over the floor. He felt numb and registered nothing of his surroundings as the vehicle began to rumble over the cobbles.
He tried to summon up visions of Speke; the Speke of the past, when the young lieutenant had been a valued companion rather than a bitter enemy. His memory refused to cooperate and instead took him back to the event that lay at the root of their feud: the attack in Berbera, six years ago.
Berbera, the easternmost tip of Africa, April 19, 1855. Thunderstorms had been flickering on the horizon for the past few days. The air was heavy and damp.
Lieutenant Burton’s party had set up camp on a rocky ridge, about threequarters of a mile outside the town, near to the beach. Lieutenant Stroyan’s tent was twelve yards off to the right of the “Rowtie” that Burton shared with Lieutenant Herne. Lieutenant Speke’s was a similar distance to the left, separated
from the others by the expedition’s supplies and equipment, which had been secured beneath a tarpaulin.
Not far away, fifty-six camels, five horses, and two mules were tethered. In addition to the four Englishmen, there were thirty-eight other men—abbans, guards, servants, and camel-drivers, all armed.
With the monsoon season imminent, Berbera had been virtually abandoned during the course of the past week. An Arab caravan had lingered, but after Burton refused to offer it an escort out of the town—preferring to wait instead for a supply ship that was due any time from Aden—it had finally departed.
Now, Berbera was silent.
The expedition had retired for the night. Burton had posted three extra guards, for Somali tribes from up and down the coast had been threatening an attack for some days. They believed the British were here either to stop the lucrative slave trade or to lay claim to the small trading post.
At two thirty in the morning, Burton was jolted from his sleep by shouts and gunfire.
He opened his eyes and stared at the roof of his tent. Orange light quivered on the canvas.
He sat up.
El Balyuz, the chief abban, burst in.
“They are attacking!” the man yelled, and a look of confusion passed over his dark face, as if he couldn’t believe his own words. “Your gun, Effendi!” He handed Burton a revolver.
The explorer pushed back his bedsheets and stood; laid the pistol on the map table and pulled on his trousers; snapped his braces over his shoulders; picked up the gun.
“More bloody posturing!” He grinned across to Herne, who’d also awoken, hastily dressed, and snatched up his Colt. “It’s all for show, but we shouldn’t let them get too cocky. Go out the back of the tent, away from the campfire, and ascertain their strength. Let off a few rounds over their heads, if necessary. They’ll soon bugger off.”
“Right you are,” said Herne, and pushed through the canvas at the rear of the Rowtie.
Burton checked his gun.
“For Pete’s sake, Balyuz, why have you handed me an unloaded pistol? Get me my sabre!”
He shoved the Colt into the waistband of his trousers and snatched his sword from the Arab.
“Speke!” he bellowed. “Stroyan!”
Almost immediately, the tent flap was pushed aside and Speke stumbled in. He was a tall, thin, pale man, with watery eyes, light brown hair, and a long bushy beard. He usually wore a mild and slightly self-conscious expression, but now his eyes were wild.
“They knocked my tent down around my ears! I almost took a beating! Is there shooting to be done?”
“I rather suppose there is,” said Burton, finally realising that the situation might be more serious than he’d initially thought. “Be sharp, and arm to defend the camp!”
They waited a few moments, checking their gear and listening to the rush of men outside.
A voice came from behind them: “There’s a lot of the blighters and our confounded guards have taken to their heels!” It was Herne, returning from his recce. “I took a couple of potshots at the mob but then got tangled in the tent ropes. A big Somali took a swipe at me with a bloody great club. I put a bullet into the bastard. Stroyan’s either out cold or done for; I couldn’t get near him.”
Something thumped against the side of the tent. Then again. Suddenly a veritable barrage of blows pounded the canvas while war cries were raised all around. The attackers were swarming like hornets. Javelins were thrust through the opening. Daggers ripped at the material.
“Bismillah!” cursed Burton. “We’re going to have to fight our way to the supplies and get ourselves more guns! Herne, there are spears tied to the tent pole at the back—get ’em!”
“Yes, sir!” responded Herne, returning to the rear of the Rowtie. Almost immediately, he ran back, crying, “They’re breaking through the canvas!”
Burton swore vociferously. “If this blasted thing comes down on us we’ll be caught up good and proper. Get out! Come on! Now!”
He plunged through the tent flaps and into the night, where he found himself facing twenty or so Somali natives. Others were running around the camp, driving away the camels and pillaging the supplies. With a shout, he leaped forward and began to set about the attackers with his sabre.
Was that Lieutenant Stroyan lying over in the shadows? It was hard to tell. Burton slashed his way toward the prone figure, grimacing as clubs and spear shafts thudded against his flesh, bruising and cutting him, drawing blood.
He momentarily glanced back to see how the others were doing and saw Speke stepping backward into the tent entrance, his mouth hanging open, eyes panicked.
“Don’t step back!” he roared. “They’ll think that we’re retiring!”
Speke looked at him with an expression of utter dismay and, right there, in the midst of battle, their friendship ended, for John Hanning Speke knew that his cowardice had been recognised.
A club struck Burton on the shoulder and, tearing his eyes away from the other Englishman, he spun and swiped his blade at its owner. He was jostled back and forth. One set of hands kept pushing at his back, and he wheeled impatiently, raising his sword, only recognising El Balyuz at the very last moment.
His arm froze in midswing.
His head exploded with pain.
A weight pulled him sideways and he collapsed onto the stony earth.
Dazed, he reached up. A barbed javelin had transfixed his face, entering the left cheek and exiting the right, knocking out some back teeth, cutting his tongue, and cracking his palate.
He fought to stay conscious.
Someone started dragging him away from the conflict.
He passed out.
In front of the Rowtie, Speke, driven to a fury by the exposure of the shameful flaw in his character, strode into the melee, raised his Dean and Adams revolver, pressed its muzzle against the chest of the man who’d downed Burton, and pulled the trigger.
The gun jammed.
“Blast it!” said Speke.
The tribesman, a massive warrior, looked down at him, smiled, and punched him over the heart.
Speke fell to his knees, gasping for air.
The Somali bent, took him by the hair, pulled him backward, and, with his other hand, groped between Speke’s legs. For an instant, the Englishman had the terrifying conviction that he was going to be unmanned. The tribesman, though, was simply checking for daggers, hidden in the Arabic fashion.
Speke was thrust onto his back and his hands were quickly tied together, the cords pulled cruelly tight. Yanked upright, he was marched away from the camp, which was now being looted and destroyed.
Lieutenant Burton regained his wits and found that he was being pulled toward the beach by El Balyuz. He recovered himself sufficiently to stop his rescuer and to order the man, via sign language and writing in a patch of sand, to go and fetch the small boat that the expedition party had moored in the harbour, and to bring it to the mouth of a nearby creek.
El Balyuz nodded and ran off.
Burton lay on his back and gazed at the Milky Way.
I want to live! he thought.
A minute or so passed. He raised a hand to his face and felt the barbed point of the javelin. The only way to remove it was by sliding the complete length of the shaft through his mouth and cheeks. He took a firm grip on it, pushed, and fainted.
As the night wore on, John Speke was taunted and spat upon by his captors. With their sabres, they sliced the air inches from his face. He stood and endured it, his eyes hooded, his jaw set, expecting to die, and he wondered what Richard Burton would say about him when reporting this incident.
Don’t step back! They’ll think that we’re retiring!
The rebuke had stung, and if Burton put it on record, Speke would be forever branded as less than a man. Damn the arrogant blackguard!
One of his captors casually thrust his spear through Speke’s side. The lieutenant cried out in pain, then fell backward as the point pierced him again, this time in the shoulder.
This is the end, he told himself.
He struggled back to his feet and, as the spear was stabbed at his heart, deflected it with his bound hands. The point tore the flesh behind his knuckles to the bone.
The Somali stepped back.
Speke straightened and looked at him.
“To hell with you,” he said. “I won’t die yellow.”
The tribesman leaped in and prodded the spear into Speke’s left thigh. The explorer felt the blade scrape against bone.
“Shit!” he coughed in shock, and grabbed reflexively at the shaft. He and the African fought over it—one trying to gain possession, the other struggling to retain it. The Somali let go with his left hand and used it to pull a shillelagh from his belt. He swiped at Speke’s right arm and the cudgel connected with a horrible crack. Speke dropped the spear shaft and crumpled to his knees, gasping with agony.
His attacker walked away, turned back, and ran at him, plunging the spear completely through the Englishman’s right thigh and into the ground beyond.
Instinct took over.
With his awareness strangely separated from his body, he watched as his hands gripped the weapon, pulled it free of the ground, out through his thigh, and threw it aside. Then he stumbled into his attacker and his bound fists swept up, smashing into the man’s face.
The warrior rocked back, raising a hand to his face as blood spurted from his nose.
Speke half walked, half hopped away, his disengaged mind wondering how he was staying upright with such terrible injuries.
Where’s the pain? he mused, entirely unaware that he was afire with it.
He hobbled, barefoot, across jagged rock, down a slope, and onto the shingle of the beach. Somehow, he started to run. What tatters of clothing remained on him streamed behind.
The Somali snatched up the spear and gave chase, threw the weapon, missed, and gave up.
Other tribesmen lunged for the Englishman but Speke dodged them and kept going. He outdistanced his pursuers and, when he saw that they’d given up the chase, he collapsed onto a rock and chewed through the cord that bound his wrists.
He was faint with shock and loss of blood but knew that he had to find his companions, so, as dawn broke, he pushed on until he reached Berbera. Here he was discovered by a search party led by Lieutenant Herne and was carried to the boat at the mouth of the creek. He’d run for three miles and
had eleven wounds, including the two that had pierced the large muscles of his thighs.
They placed him onto a seat and he raised his head and looked at the man sitting opposite. It was Burton, his face bandaged, blood staining the linen over his cheeks.
Their eyes met.
“I’m no damned coward,” whispered Speke.
The battle should have made them brothers. They both acted as if it had—and less than two years later they embarked together on one of the greatest expeditions in British history: a perilous trek into central Africa to search for the source of the Nile.
Side by side, they endured extreme conditions, penetrating into lands unseen by white men and skirting dangerously close to Death’s realm. An infection temporarily blinded and immobilised Burton. Speke became permanently deaf in one ear after attempting to remove an insect from it with a penknife. They were both stricken with malaria, dysentery, and crippling ulcers.
They pressed on.
Speke’s resentment simmered.
He constructed his own history of the Berbera incident, excising from it the most essential element: the fact that a thrown stone had cracked against his kneecap, causing him to step back into the Rowtie’s entrance. Burton had looked around at that very instant and had plainly seen the stone bounce off Speke’s knee and understood the back-step for the reaction it was. He’d never for one moment doubted his companion’s courage.
Speke knew the stone had been seen but chose to forget it. History, he discovered, is what you make it.
They reached the central lakes.
Burton explored a large body of water called by the local tribes “Tanganyika,” which lay to the south of the Mountains of the Moon. His geographical readings suggested that it could be the Nile’s source, though he was too ill to visit its northernmost shore from whence the great river should flow.
Speke, leaving his “brother” in a fevered delirium, trekked northeastward and found himself at the shore of a vast lake, which he imperiously named after the British monarch, though the tribes that lived on its shores already had a name for it: “Nyanza.”
He tried to circle it, lost sight of it, found it again farther to the north—or was it the shore of a second lake?—took incomplete, incompetent measurements, and returned to Burton, the leader of the expedition, claiming to have found, on his own and without a shadow of a doubt, the true source of
the great river.
They recovered a modicum of health and undertook the long march back to Zanzibar where Burton fell into a fit of despondency, blaming himself for what, by his demanding standards, was inconclusive evidence.
John Speke, less scientific, less scrupulous, less disciplined, sailed back to England ahead of Burton and en route fell under the influence of a man named Laurence Oliphant, an arch-meddler and poseur who kept a white panther as a pet. Oliphant nurtured Speke’s pique, turned it into malice, and seduced him into claiming victory. No matter that it was the other man’s expedition; Speke had solved the biggest geographical riddle of the age!
John Speke’s last words to Burton had been “Good-bye, old fellow; you may be quite sure I shall not go up to the Royal Geographical Society until you have come to the fore and we appear together. Make your mind quite easy about that.”
The day he landed in England, Speke went straight up to the Royal Geographical Society and told Sir Roderick Murchison that the Nile question was settled.
The Society divided. Some of its members supported Burton, others supported Speke. Mischief makers stepped in to ensure that what should have been a scientific debate rapidly degenerated into a personal feud, though Burton, now recovering his health in Aden, was barely aware of this.
Easily swayed, Speke became overconfident. He began to criticise Burton’s character, a dangerous move for a man who believed that his cowardice had been witnessed by his opponent.
Word reached Burton that he was to be awarded a knighthood and should return to England at once. He did so, and stepped ashore to find himself at the centre of a maelstrom.
Even as the reclusive monarch’s representative touched the sword to his shoulders and dubbed him Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous explorer’s thoughts were on John Speke, wondering why he was taking the offensive in such a manner.
Over the following weeks, Burton defended himself but resisted the temptation to retaliate.
Life is fickle; the fair man doesn’t invariably win.
Lieutenant Speke, it gradually became apparent, had made a lucky guess: the Nyanza probably was the source of the Nile.
Murchison knew, as Burton had been quick to point out, that Speke’s readings and calculations were badly faulted. In fact, they were downright amateurish and not at all admissible as scientific evidence. Nevertheless, there was in them the suggestion of a potential truth. This was enough; the Society funded a second expedition.
John Speke went back to Africa, this time with a young, loyal, and opinion-free soldier named James Grant. He explored the Nyanza, failed to circumnavigate it, didn’t find the Nile’s exit point, didn’t take accurate measurements, and returned to England with another catalogue of assumptions which Burton, with icy efficiency, proceeded to pick to pieces.
A face-to-face confrontation between the two men seemed inevitable.
It was gleefully engineered by Oliphant, who had, by this time, mysteriously vanished from the public eye—into an opium den, according to rumour—to pull strings like an invisible puppeteer.
He arranged for the Bath Assembly Rooms to be the venue and September 16, 1861, the date. To encourage Burton’s participation, he made it publicly known that Speke had said: “If Burton dares to appear on the platform at Bath, I will kick him!”
Burton had fallen for it: “That settles it! By God, he shall kick me!”
The hansom drew up outside the Royal Hotel, and Burton’s mind reengaged with the present. He emerged from the cab with one idea uppermost: someday, Laurence Oliphant would pay.
He entered the hotel. The receptionist signalled to him; a message from Isabel was waiting.
He took the note and read it:
John was taken to London. On my way to Fullers’ to find out exactly where.
Burton gritted his teeth. Stupid woman! Did she think she’d be welcomed by Speke’s family? Did she honestly believe they’d tell her anything about his condition or whereabouts? As much as he loved her, Isabel’s impatience and lack of subtlety never failed to rile him. She was the proverbial bull in a china shop, always charging at her target without considering anything that might lie in her path, always utterly confident that what she wanted to do was right, whatever anyone else might think.
He wrote a terse reply:
Left for London. Pay, pack, and follow.
He looked up at the hotel receptionist. “Please give this to Miss Arundell when she returns. Do you have a Bradshaw?”
“Traditional or atmospheric railway, sir?”
He was handed the train timetable. The next atmospheric train was leaving in fifty minutes. Time enough to throw a few odds and ends into a suitcase and get to the station.
THE THING IN THE ALLEY
The Eugenicists are beginning to call their filthy experimentations “Genetics,” after the Ancient Greek “Genesis,” meaning “Origin.” This is in response to the work of Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian priest. A priest! Can there be any greater hypocrite than a priest who meddles with Creation?
—RICHARD MONCKTON MILNES
It was a fast and smooth ride to London.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s atmospheric railway system was a triumph. It used wide-gauge tracks in the centre of which ran a fifteen-inch-diameter pipe. Along the top of the pipe there was a two-inch slot, covered with a flap-valve of oxhide leather. Beneath the front carriage of each train hung a dumbbell-shaped piston, which fitted snugly into the pipe. This was connected to the carriage by a thin shaft that rose through the slot. The shaft had a small wheeled contrivance attached to it that pressed open the leather flap at the front while closing and oiling it at the back. Every three miles along the track, a station sucked air out of the pipe in front of the train and pumped it back in behind. It was this difference in air pressure that shot the carriages along the tracks at tremendous speed.
When Brunel first created the system he encountered an unexpected problem: rats ate the oxhide. He turned to his Eugenicist colleague, Francis Galton, for a solution, and the scientist had provided it in the form of specially bred oxen whose skin was both repellent and poisonous to the rodents.
The pneumatic rail system now ran the length and breadth of Great Britain and was being extended throughout the Empire, particularly in India and South Africa.
A similar method of propulsion was planned for the new London Underground railway system, though this project had been delayed since Brunel’s death two years ago.
Burton arrived home at 14 Montagu Place at half past six, by which time a mist was drifting through the city streets. As he opened the wrought-iron gate and stepped to the front door, he heard a newsboy in the distance calling: “Speke shoots himself! Nile debate in uproar! Read all about it!”
He sighed and waited for the young urchin to draw closer. He recognised the soft Irish accent; it was Oscar, a refugee from the never-ending famine, whose regular round this was. The boy possessed an extraordinary facility with words, which Burton thoroughly appreciated.
The youngster approached, saw him, and grinned. He was a short and rather plump lad, about eight years old, with sleepy-looking eyes and a cheeky grin marred only by crooked, yellowing teeth. He wore his hair too long and was never without a battered top hat and a flower in his buttonhole.
“Hallo, Captain! I see you’re after making the headlines again!”
“It’s no laughing matter, Quips,” replied Burton, using the nickname he’d given the newspaper boy some weeks previously. “Come into the hallway for a moment; I want to talk with you. I suppose the journalists are all blaming me?”
Oscar joined the explorer at the door and waited while he fished for his keys.
“Well now, Captain, there’s much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”
“Ignorance is the word,” agreed Burton. He opened the door and ushered the youngster in. “If the reaction of the crowd in Bath is anything to go by, I rather suspect that the charitable are saying Speke shot himself, the uncharitable that I shot him.”
Oscar laid his bundle of newspapers on the doormat.
“You’re not wrong, sir; but what do you say?”
“That no one currently knows what happened except those who were there. That maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all had I tried a little harder to bridge the divide that opened between us; been, perhaps, a little more sensitive to Speke’s personal demons.”
“Ah, demons, is it?” exclaimed the boy, in his high, reedy voice. “And what of your own? Are they not encouraging you to luxuriate in selfreproach?”
“To be sure. When we blame ourselves, we feel no one else has a right to blame us. What a luxury that is!”
Burton grunted. He put his cane in an elephant-foot umbrella stand, placed his topper on the hatstand, and slipped out of his overcoat.
“You are a horribly intelligent little ragamuffin, Quips.”
Oscar giggled. “It’s true. I’m so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I’m saying!”
Burton lifted a small bell from the hall table and rang for his housekeeper.
“But is it not the truth, Captain Burton,” continued the boy, “that you only ever asked Speke to produce scientific evidence to back up his claims?”
“Absolutely. I attacked his methods but never him, though he didn’t extend to me the same courtesy.”
They were interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Iris Angell, who, though Burton’s landlady, was also his housekeeper. She was a wide-hipped, white-haired old dame with a kindly face, square chin, and gloriously blue and generous eyes.
“I hope you wiped your feet, Master Oscar!”
“Clean shoes are the measure of a gentleman, Mrs. Angell,” responded the boy.
“Well said. There’s a freshly baked bacon and egg pie in my kitchen. Would you care for a slice?”
“Very much so!”
The old lady looked at Burton, who nodded. She went back down the stairs to her domain in the basement.
“So it’s information you’ll be wanting, Captain?” asked Oscar.
“I need to know where Lieutenant Speke has been taken. I know he was brought to London from Bath—but to which hospital? Can you find out?”
“Of course! I’ll spread the word among the lads. I should have an answer for you within the hour.”
“Very good. Miss Arundell is also making enquiries, though I fear her approach will have caused nothing but trouble.”
“How so, Captain?”
“She’s visiting the Speke family to offer her condolences.”
Oscar winced. “By heavens! There is nothing more destructive than a woman on a charitable mission. I hope for your sake that Mr. Stanley doesn’t get wind of it.”
Burton sighed. “Bismillah! I’d forgotten about him!”
Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist, was recently arrived in London from America. His background was somewhat mysterious; traces of a Welsh accent suggested he wasn’t the authentic “Yankee” he claimed to be, and there were rumours that his name was false. Whatever the true facts about him, though, he was making a big splash as a newspaper reporter, having taken a particular interest in the various expeditions organised by the Royal Geographical Society. Befriending Doctor Livingstone, Stanley had sided with him against Burton in the Nile debate and had written some less than flattering articles in the Empire, including one that accused Burton of having murdered a boy who caught him urinating in the European fashion during his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. As Burton had been quick to point out, his disguise, skill with the language, and painstaking observation of customs were convincing enough to fool his fellow pilgrims into believing him an Arab over a period of many months; it was therefore quite unthinkable that he’d have been caught making so basic a mistake as to urinate standing up. Besides which, killing the boy would certainly have led to his exposure as an
impostor and a summary execution.
Stanley had also attacked Isabel in the press, vilifying her for her lack of subtlety and overly headstrong character. Burton couldn’t help but think that she was becoming a liability at this crucial point in his career, a situation which Stanley had spotted some time ago and was revelling in.
“Yum!” exclaimed Oscar.
Mrs. Angell had reappeared with a generous slice of pie. She handed it to the youngster.
“It’s nothing special, but I hope it fills that bottomless hole you call a stomach!” she said.
“I have the simplest tastes, Mrs. Angell,” declared the newsboy. “I am always satisfied with the best!”
Burton ruffled the lad’s hair. “Off you go then, Quips. There’ll be a second slice waiting for you when you return.”
Oscar heaved a sigh of contentment, picked up his papers, and flitted out through the door, which Burton held open for him.
As he closed the portal, the explorer looked at his landlady.
“You’ve heard the news?”
“Yes, sir. May God preserve him. Itmust have been a terrible shock for you.”
“He hated me.”
“If you don’t mind me saying so, sir, I think he was misguided.”
“I don’t disagree. Have reporters been banging on the door?”
“No, sir, they probably think you’re still in Bath.”
“Good. If they call, empty a bucket of slops over them. No visitors, please, Mother Angell. I don’t want to see anyone until young Oscar returns.”
“Very well. Can I bring you something to eat?”
Burton began to climb the stairs. “Yes, please. And a pot of coffee.”
The old lady watched him as he reached the landing, turned right, anddisappeared into his study. She pursed her lips. She knew Burton well enough to recognise the developing mood.
“Coffee, my eye!” she muttered as she descended to the kitchen. “He’ll be through a bottle of brandy before the evening is old!”
Burton had, indeed, poured himself a large measure of brandy, and was now slumped in his old saddlebag armchair by the fireplace, his feet resting on the fender. He held the glass in one hand and a letter in the other. It was from 10 Downing Street and read:
Please contact the prime minister’s office immediately upon your return to London.
He sipped the brandy and savoured the fire that sank into his belly. He was tired but not sleepy, and felt the heavy weight of depression dragging at him.
Laying his head back, and with eyes half closed, he focused his mind on his sense of hearing. It was a Sufi trick he’d learned en route to Mecca. Sight was the primary sense; when another was given precedence and the mind was allowed to wander, ideas, insights, and hitherto unseen connections often bubbled up from its otherwise inaccessible depths.
He heard a bookshelf creak slightly as its wood adjusted to the changing temperature of early evening; it was the only sound from within the study, aside from his own breathing and the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. From beyond the two large sash windows, though, came the muffled cacophony of England’s capital: voices passing on the pavement below, the clatter and chugging engines of velocipedes, the cry of a street hawker, the choppy paradiddle of a rotorchair passing overhead, a barking dog, a crying child, the rumble and hiss of steam-horses, the clip-clop of real horses, the
coarse laughter of prostitutes.
He heard footsteps on the stairs.
A question came to him: What am I to do now?
There was a soft knock at the door.
Mrs. Angell entered bearing a tray upon which lay a plate of sliced meats, cheese, and a chunk of bread. There was also a cup and saucer, a bowl of sugar, and a pot of coffee. She crossed the room and laid it on the occasional table beside Burton’s chair.
“It’s getting unseasonably cold, sir—shall I light the fire?”
“It’s all right, I’ll do it. Would you take a letter for me?”
The housekeeper, who often performed slight secretarial tasks for him, sat at one of the three desks, slid a sheet of blank paper onto the leather writing pad, and picked up a pen. She dipped the nib into the inkwell and wrote, at Burton’s dictation:
I am at home in London. Awaiting further instructions. Burton.
“Send it by runner to 10 Downing Street, please.”
The old lady looked up in surprise. “To where?”
“10 Downing Street. At once, please.”
She departed with the note. A few moments later, he heard her at the front door blowing three blasts on a whistle. Within half a minute, a dog—almost certainly a greyhound—would arrive on the doorstep and, after she’d fed the animal, the housekeeper would place the letter between its teeth and
announce the destination. There’d be an acknowledging wag of the tail, and the runner would race away en route for Downing Street.
They were part of a fairly new communications system, these remarkable dogs, the first practical application of eugenics adopted by the British public. Each hound came into the world knowing every address within a fifty-mile radius of its birthplace and with the ability to carry mail between those locations, barking and scratching at a recipient’s door until the letter was collected. After each task was completed, the runner would wander the streets until it heard another three-whistle summons.
Messenger parakeets formed the other half of the system. These phenomenal mimics carried spoken communications. A person only had to visit a post office and give one of the birds a message, the name of the recipient, and the address, and the parakeet would fly straight to the appropriate set of ears.
There was one problem, an issue that had troubled the Eugenicist scientists from the start: namely, that whatever modification they made to a species, it always seemed to bring with it an unexpected side effect.
In the case of the parakeets, it was that they swore at, mocked, and offended everyone they encountered. The person on the receiving end of the service would inevitably be given a message liberally peppered with insults not put there by the sender. Nothing, it seemed, could be done to correct this fault. Originally, it had been hoped that every household would have its own parakeet but, as it turned out, no one could bear the constant abuse in their own home. So the Post Office had stepped in and now each branch kept an aviary full of the birds.
In the runners’ case, the drawback was nothing more serious than a phenomenal appetite. Though they were whiplash thin, the dogs required a square meal at every address they visited, so despite being a free system, those who used it often found themselves investing a considerable amount of money in dog food.
Burton heard the front door close. His letter was on its way.
He took a swig of brandy and reached for a cheroot; he had a taste for cheap, strong tobacco.
Explore Dahomey? he thought, still dwelling on what he should do now that the Nile question was out of his hands; for though a new expedition was required to settle the matter once and for all, he knew that Murchison would not commission him to lead it. The Royal Geographical Society was already
fractured by the verbal duel he and Speke had fought, and the president would doubtlessly offer the expedition to a neutral geographer.
So, Dahomey? Burton had been wanting to mount an expedition into that dark and dangerous region of West Africa for some time but now it was going to be difficult to raise the money.
A private sponsor, perhaps? Maybe a publishing company?
Ah, yes, then there were the books. For a long while he’d wanted to write a definitive translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night; perhaps now would be a good time to begin that ambitious project. At very least he should finish Vikram and the Vampire, the collected tales of Hindu devilry that were
currently stacked on one of his desks, with annotations half completed.
Write books, keep a low profile, wait for his enemies to become bored.
He looked at his empty glass, blew cigar smoke into it, held the cheroot between his teeth, and reached for the decanter and poured more brandy.
For more than a year, he’d felt destined to marry Isabel Arundell; now, suddenly, he wasn’t so sure. He loved her, that was certain, but he also resented her. He loved her strength and practicality but resented her overbearing personality and tendency to do things on his behalf without consulting him
first; loved the fact that she tolerated his interest in all things exotic and erotic but hated her blinkered Catholicism. Charles Darwin had killed God but she and her family, like so many others, still clung to the delusion.
He sought to quell his mounting frustration with another glass. And another. And more.
At eight o’clock there came a tap at the door and Mrs. Angell appeared, looking with disapproval at the drunken explorer.
“Did you even touch the coffee?” she asked.
“No, and I don’t intend to,” he replied. “What do you want?”
“The boy is back.”
“Quips? Send him up.”
“I don’t think so, sir. You’re in no state to receive a child.”
“Send him up, blast you!”
Burton pushed himself up from his chair and stood unsteadily, his eyes blazing.
“You’ll do as you’re bloody well told, woman!”
“No, sir, I won’t. Not when I’m told by a foul-mouthed drunkard. And I remind you that though I am your employee, you are also my tenant, and I am free to end our arrangement whenever I see fit. I shall take a message from the boy and bring it to you forthwith.”
She stepped back to the landing, closing the door behind her.
Burton took a couple of steps toward the door, thought better of it, and stood swaying in the centre of the room. He looked around at the bookcases, filled with volumes about geography, religion, languages, erotica, esoterica, and ethnology; looked at the swords resting on brackets above the fireplace; the worn boxing gloves hanging from a corner of the mantelpiece; the pistols and spears displayed in the alcoves to either side of the chimney breast; looked at the pictures on the walls, including the one of Edward, his brain-damaged younger brother, who’d been an inmate at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum for the past three years, a result of an incident five years ago when he was beaten half to death in Ceylon after Buddhist villagers took offence at his hunting of elephants; looked at the three big desks, stacked with papers, his half-written books, maps, and charts; looked at the many souvenirs of his travels, the idols and carvings, hookahs and prayer mats, knickknacks and trinkets; looked at the door in the wall opposite the windows, which led to the small dressing room where he kept his various disguises; and looked at the dark windows and his reflection in their glass.
The question came again, and he spoke it aloud: “What the hell am I to do?”
The door opened and Mrs. Angell, her expression severe and voice cold, stepped in and said, “Master Oscar says to tell you that Mr. Speke is at the Penfold Private Sanatorium.”
Burton nodded, curtly.
The old woman made to leave.
“Mrs. Angell,” he called.
She stopped and looked back at him.
“My language was entirely unwarranted,” he mumbled, self-consciously. “My temper, too. Please accept my apologies.”
She gazed at him a moment. “Very well. But you’ll take your devils out of this house, is that understood? Either that, or you remove yourself from it—permanently!”
“Agreed. Did you treat Quips to more pie?”
The old dame smiled indulgently. “Yes, and an apple and some butterscotch.”
“Thank you. Now, as you recommend, I think I shall take my devils out of the house.”
“But you’ll not allow them to guide you into trouble, if you please, Sir Richard.”
“I’ll do my best, Mother Angell.”
She bobbed her head and departed.
Burton considered for a moment. It was too late in the evening to visit the hospital; that would have to wait until the morning, and if Speke didn’t survive the night, then so be it. It was, however, never too late to visit the Cannibal Club. A few drinks with his Libertine friends would help to lift his spirits, and maybe Algernon Swinburne would be among them. Burton hadn’t known the promising young poet for long but enjoyed his company immensely.
He made up his mind, changed his clothes, took another swig of brandy, and was just leaving the room when a tapping came at one of the windows. He crossed to it, a little clumsily, and saw a colourful parakeet sitting on the sill.
He pulled up the sash. A cloud of mist rolled in. The parakeet looked at him.
“Message from the stinking prime minister’s office,” it cackled. “You are requested to attend that prattle-brain Lord Palmerston at 10 Downing Street at nine o’clock in the morning. Please confirm, arse-face. Message ends.”
Burton’s brows, which usually arched low over his eyes in what appeared to be a permanent frown, shot upward. The prime minister wanted to meet with him personally? Why?
“Reply. Message begins. Appointment confirmed. I will be there. Message ends. Go.”
“Bugger off!” squawked the parakeet, and launched itself from the sill.
Burton closed the window.
He was going to meet Lord Palmerston.
The Cannibal Club was located in rooms above Bartoloni’s Italian Restaurant in Leicester Square.
Burton found the enigmatic and rather saturnine Richard Monckton Milnes there, in company with the diminutive Algernon Swinburne and Captain Henry Murray, Doctor James Hunt, Sir Edward Brabrooke, Thomas Bendyshe, and Charles Bradlaugh—hellraisers all.
“Burton!” cried Milnes as the explorer entered. “Congratulations!”
“On shooting that bounder Speke! Surely it was you who pulled the trigger? Please say it was so!”
Burton threw himself into a chair and lit a cigar.
“It was not.”
“Ah, what a shame!” exclaimed Milnes. “I was so hoping you could tell us what it feels like to murder a man. A white man, I mean!”
“Why, yes, of course!” put in Bradlaugh. “You killed that little Arab boy on the road to Mecca, didn’t you?”
Burton accepted a drink from Henry Murray.
“You know damned well I didn’t!” he growled. “That bastard Stanley writes nothing but scurrilous nonsense!”
“Come now, Richard!” trilled Swinburne, in his excitable, high-pitched voice. “Don’t object so! Do you not agree that murder is one of the great boundaries we must cross in order to know that we, ourselves, are truly alive?”
The famous explorer sighed and shook his head. Swinburne was young—just twenty-four—and possessed an intuitive intelligence that appealed to the older man; but he was gullible.
“Nonsense, Algy! Don’t let these Libertines mesmerise you with their misguided ideas and appallingly bad logic. They are incorrigibly perverse, especially Milnes here.”
“Hah!” yelled Bendyshe from across the room. “Swinburne’s as perverse as they come! He has a taste for pain, don’t you know! Likes the kiss of a whip, what!”
Swinburne giggled, twitched, and snapped his fingers. As always, hismovements were fast, jerky, and eccentric, as if he suffered from Saint Vitus’s dance.
“It’s true. I’m a follower of de Sade.”
“It’s a common affliction,” noted Burton. “Why, I once visited a brothel in Karachi—on a research mission for Napier, you understand—”
Snorts and howls of derision came from the gathering.
“—and there witnessed a man flagellated to the point of unconsciousness. He enjoyed it!”
“Delicious!” Swinburne shuddered.
“Maybe so, if your tastes run to it,” agreed Burton. “However, flagellation is one thing, murder is quite another!”
Milnes sat beside Burton, leaning close.
“But, I say, Richard,” he murmured, “don’t you ever wonder at the sense of freedom one must feel when performing the act of murder? It is, after all, the greatest taboo, is it not? Break that and you are free of the shackles imposed by civilisation!”
“I’m no great enthusiast for the false pleasures and insidious suppressions of civilisation,” said Burton. “And, in my opinion, Mrs. Grundy—our fictitious personification of all things oh so pure, polite, restrained, and conventional requires a thorough shagging; however, as much as I might rail against the constraints of English society and culture, murder is a more fundamental matter than either.”
Swinburne squealed with delight. “A thorough shagging! Oh, bravo, Richard!”
Milnes nodded. “False pleasures and insidious suppressions indeed. Pleasures which enslave, suppressions which pass judgement. Where, I ask, is freedom?”
“I don’t know,” answered Burton. “How can one quantify so indefinite a notion as freedom?”
“By looking to nature, dear boy! Nature red in tooth and claw! One animal kills another animal. Is it found guilty? No! It remains free to do what it will, even—and, in fact, certainly—to kill again! As de Sade himself said: ‘Nature has not got two voices, you know, one of them condemning all day what the other commands.’”
Burton emptied his glass in a single swallow.
“For sure, Darwin has demonstrated that Nature is a brutal and entirely pitiless process, but you seem to forget, Milnes, that the animal which kills is most often, in turn, itself killed by another animal, just as the murderer, in a supposedly civilised country, is hanged for his crime!”
“Then you propose an innate natural law of justice from which we can never break free, a law that transcends culture, whatever its stage of development?”
James Hunt, passing to join a conversation between Bradlaugh and Brabrooke on the other side of the room, stopped long enough to refill Burton’s glass.
“Yes, I do believe some such law exists,” said Burton. “I find the Hindu notion of karma more alluring than the Catholic absurdity of original sin.”
“How is Isabel?” put in Bendyshe, who’d stepped across to join them.
Burton ignored the mischievous question and went on, “At least karma provides a counterbalance—a penalty or reward, if you like—to acts we actually perform and thoughts we actually think, rather than punishing us for the supposed sin of our actual existence or for a transgression against a wholly
artificial dictate of so-called morality. It is a function of Nature rather than a judgement of an unproven God.”
“By Jove! Stanley was correct when he wrote that you’re a heathen!” mocked Bendyshe. “Burton joins with Darwin and says there is no God!”
“Actually, Darwin hasn’t suggested any such thing. It is others who have imposed that interpretation upon his Origin of Species.”
“‘There is no God, Nature sufficeth unto herself; in no wise hath she need of an author,’” quoted Swinburne. “De Sade again.”
“In many respects I consider him laughable,” commented Burton, “but in that instance, I wholeheartedly agree. The more I study religions, the more I’m convinced that man never worshipped anything but himself.”
He quoted his own poetry:
“Man worships self: his God is man; the struggling of the mortal mind to form its model as ’twould be, the perfect of itself to find.”
Milnes took a drag from his cigar and blew a smoke ring, which rose lazily into the air. He watched it slowly disperse and said, “But this karma business, Richard—what you are proposing is that one way or another, through some sort of entirely natural process, a murderer will receive retribution. Do you then count man’s judgement—the death penalty—to be natural?”
“We are natural beings, are we not?”
“Well,” interrupted Bendyshe, “I sometimes wonder about Swinburne.”
It was a fair point, thought Burton, for Swinburne was a very unnatural-looking man. At just five-foot-two, he had a strangely tiny body. His limbs were small and delicate, with sloping shoulders and a very long neck upon which sat a large head made even bigger by a tousled mass of carroty-red hair
standing almost at right angles to it. His mouth was weak and effeminate; his eyes huge, pale green, and dreamy.
Few poets looked so much a poet as Algernon Charles Swinburne.
“But that aside,” said Bendyshe, “what if the murderer avoids the noose?”
“Guilt,” proposed Burton. “A gradual but inescapable degradation of the character. A degenerative disease of the mind. Maybe a descent into madness and self-destruction.”
“Or perhaps,” offered Swinburne, “a tendency to mix with criminal types until the murderer is himself, inevitably, murdered.”
“Well put!” agreed the famous adventurer.
“Interesting,” pondered Milnes, “but, I say, we all know that murders are committed either in the heat of passion, or else with intent by an individual who’s already in an advanced—if that’s the appropriate word—state of mental decay. What if, though, a murder was calculated and committed by an intelligent man who performs the act only out of scientific curiosity? What if it were done only to transcend the limitations that tell us it shouldn’t be done?”
“An idle motive,” suggested Burton.
“Not at all, dear boy!” declared Milnes. “It’s a magnificent motive! Why, the man who would undertake such an act would risk his immortal soul for science!”
“He would undoubtedly see sense and back away from the experiment,” said Burton, his voice slurring slightly, “for once crossed, that barrier allows no return. However, his decision would be based on self-determined standards of behaviour rather than on any set out by civilisation or on notions of an immortal soul; for as you say, he’s an intelligent man.”
“It’s strange,” said Henry Murray, who up until now had listened in silence. “I thought that you, of all of us, would be the one most likely to approve the experiment.”
“You should take my reputation with a pinch of salt.”
“Must we? I rather enjoy having a devil in our midst.” Swinburne grinned.
Sir Richard Francis Burton considered the susceptible young poet and wondered how to keep him out of trouble.
Burton was not a Libertine himself, but they considered him an honorary member of the caste and delighted in his knowledge of exotic cultures, where the stifling laws of civilisation were remarkable only by their seeming absence. He enjoyed drinking and debating with them, especially this evening, for it kept his mind engaged and helped to stave off the despondency that had been creeping over him since he’d returned from Bath.
By one o’clock in the morning, though, it was dragging at him again, made worse by alcohol and exhaustion, so he bid his friends farewell and left the club.
The evening was bitterly cold—unusual for September—and the roads glistened wetly. The thickening pall wrapped each gas lamp in its own golden aureole. Burton held his overcoat tight with one hand and swung his cane with the other. London rustled and murmured around him as he walked unsteadily homewards.
A velocipede chattered past. They had started to appear on the streets two years ago, these steam-driven, one-man vehicles, and were popularly known as “penny-farthings” due to their odd design, for the front wheel was nearly as tall as a man, while the back wheel was just eighteen inches in diameter.
The rider was seated high on a leather saddle, situated slightly behind the crown of the front wheel, with his feet resting in stirrups to either side, his legs held away from the piston arm and crank which pumped and spun to the left of the axle. The tiny, boxlike engine was attached to the frame behind and below the saddle; the small boiler, with its furnace, was under this, and the coal scuttle under that; the three elements arranged in a segmented arc over the top-rear section of the main wheel. As well as providing the motive power, they were also the machine’s centre of gravity and, together with the engine’s internal gyroscope, made the vehicle almost impossible to knock over, despite its ungainly appearance.
By far the most remarkable feature of the penny-farthing was its extraordinary efficiency. It could complete a twenty-mile journey in about an hour on just one fist-sized lump of coal. With the furnace able to hold up to four pieces and with the same number stored in the scuttle, it had a maximum range of 160 miles and could operate for about twenty hours before needing to refuel. The vehicle’s main flaw, aside from the thorough shaking it meted out to the driver, was that the two slim funnels, which rose up behind the saddle, belched smoke into the miasmal atmosphere of England’s capital, adding to an already bad situation. Nevertheless, the vehicles were currently all the rage and had done much to restore the public’s faith in the Engineering faction of the Technologist caste, a group that had been much maligned of late after the disastrous flooding of the undersea town of Hydroham off the Norfolk coast, and a number of fatal crashes during the attempted—and ultimately abandoned—development of gas-filled airships.
Burton watched the contraption disappear into the mist.
London had transformed while he’d been in Africa. It had filled with new machines and new breeds of animal. The Engineers and Eugenicists—the main branches of the Technologist caste—seemed unstoppable, despite protests from the Libertines, who felt that art, beauty, and nobility of spirit were more essential than material progress.
The problem was that the Libertines, despite producing reams of anti-Technologist propaganda, were unclear in their message. On the one hand, there were the “True Libertines,” such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were basically Luddites; while on the other, there were the increasingly powerful “Rakes,” whose interests ran to black magic, anarchy, sexual depravity, drug taking, meddling, and general bad behaviour, which they justified as an attempt to “transcend the limitations of the human condition.” Most Libertines, Richard Monckton Milnes being a prime example, fell somewhere between the two camps, being neither as dreamily idealistic as the one faction nor as scandalously self-indulgent as the other.
As for Sir Richard Francis Burton, he wasn’t sure where he fitted. Although it was the country of his birth, England had never felt like home, probably because he’d spent most of his childhood being dragged around Europe by his restless parents. He was therefore rather surprised when he returned from the Nile expedition and found that the country’s current state of social instability somewhat suited him. The rapid changes, more intensely felt in the capital than elsewhere, might be confusing to the majority of the populace but he’d always regarded his own identity as rather a transient and changeable thing, so now he felt an odd sort of empathy with the fluctuating nature of British culture.
As he walked, he slowly became aware of a tapping noise from somewhere above and realised that he’d been hearing it on and off since leaving the club. He peered up and around but saw nothing.
He continued his trek home, listening, and, yes, there it was again. Was he being followed? He looked back, but there was no suggestion of anyone on his heels until a policeman started to trail along behind him, his attention attracted by the lone, obviously rather drunk man’s brutal features. After five minutes or so, the constable drew closer, saw that Burton wore the clothes of a gentleman, hesitated, then abandoned the chase.
The explorer crossed Charing Cross Road and entered a long, badly lit side street. His foot hit a discarded bottle that spun into the gutter with a musical tinkle. Something large flapped overhead and he looked up in time to see a huge Eugenicist-bred swan pass by, dragging a box kite behind it through the mist. A man’s white face—an indistinct blur—looked down from the kite before it vanished over the rooftops. A faint voice reached Burton’s ears but whatever it was the man had shouted was muffled by the water-laden air.
Last year, Speke and Grant had used the same form of transportation to make their way to the Nyanza, following the old route. It had taken a fraction of the time required by Burton’s expedition. They’d set up camp in Kazeh, a small town some hundred and fifty miles south of the great lake, and here John Speke had made one of his characteristic errors of judgement by failing to properly guard his birds. They’d been eaten by lions.Without them he couldn’t circumnavigate the lake, couldn’t ascertain whether it was the source of the great river, and couldn’t prove Burton wrong.
A few yards farther down the road, a man shuffled from the shadows of a doorway. He was a coarse-featured individual clad in canvas trousers and shirt with a rust-coloured waistcoat and a cloth cap. There were fire marks—red welts—on his face and thick forearms caused by hours spent stoking a forge.
“Can I ’elp you, mate?” he growled. “Maybe relieve you of wha’ever loose change is weighin’ down yer pockits?”
Burton looked at him.
The man backed away so suddenly that his heels struck the doorstep and he sat down heavily.
“Sorry, fella!” he mumbled. “Mistook you fer somebody else, I did!”
The explorer snorted scornfully and moved on. He entered a network of narrow alleys—dark, dangerous, and sordid—a dismal tentacle of poverty reaching far out of the East End into the centre of the city. Mournful windows gaped from the sides of squalid houses. Inarticulate shouts came from some of them—occasionally the sound of blows, screams, and weeping—but hopeless silence came from most.
It occurred to him that the depths of London felt remarkably similar to the remotest regions of Africa.
He came to a junction, turned left, tripped, and stumbled; his shin banging against a discarded crate and his trouser leg catching on a protruding nail and tearing. He spat out an oath and kicked the crate away. A rat scuttled along the side of the pavement.
Leaning against a lamppost, Burton rubbed his eyes. The taste of brandy burned uncomfortably at the back of his throat. He noticed a flier pasted to the post and read it:
Work disciplines your spirit
Work develops your character
Work strengthens your soul
Do not allow machines to do your work!
Pushing himself away, he walked along the alley and turned yet another corner—he wasn’t sure where he was but knew he was proceeding in the right general direction—and found himself at the end of a long, straight lane, its worn cobbles shining beneath the haggard light of a single lamp. It was bordered by high and featureless redbrick walls, the sides of warehouses. The far end opened onto what looked to be a main thoroughfare. He could vaguely see the front of a shop, possibly a butcher’s, but when he tried to read the sign over the window, a velocipede clattered past it, leaving a swirling wreath of smoke that further obscured the lettering.
Burton moved on, trying to avoid pools of stinking urine, his shoes squelching in patches of mud and worse, kicking against refuse.
A litter-crab came clanking into view by the shop, its eight thick mechanical legs thudding against the road surface, the twenty-four thin arms on its belly darting this way and that, skittering back and forth over the cobbles, snatching up rubbish and throwing it through the machine’s maw into the furnace within.
The crab creaked and rattled past the end of the alley and, as it did so, its siren wailed a warning. A few seconds later, it let out a deafening hiss as it ejected hot cleansing steam from the two downward-pointing funnels at its rear.
The automated cleaner vanished from sight as a tumultuous wall of white vapour boiled into the passage. Burton stopped and took a few steps backward, waiting for it to disperse. It billowed toward him, extending hot coils that slowed and became still, hanging in the air as they cooled.
Someone entered the street, their weirdly elongated shadow angling through the white cloud; a figure writ dark, skeletal, and horrific by the distortion.
Sudden flashes of light illuminated the roiling mist, as if it were a miniature storm. Burton waited for the shadow to shrink, to be sucked into the person to whom it belonged when he—for surely it must be a man—emerged from the vapour.
It didn’t shrink.
It wasn’t a shadow.
Possibly, it wasn’t even a man.
The steam parted and from it sprang a bizarre apparition: a massively long-legged shape—like a carnival stilt-walker—a long, dark cloak flapping from its hunched shoulders, bolts of lightning crackling around its body and head.
Burton retreated hastily until his back brought up against the wall. He blinked rapidly and licked his lips.
Was it human, this thing? Its head was large, black, and shiny, with an aura of blue flame crawling around it. Red eyes peered at him maliciously. White teeth shone in a lipless grin.
The creature stalked forward, bent, its talonlike hands flexing, and Burton saw that his first impression was accurate: the thing walked on twofoot-high stilts.
Its lanky body was clad in a skintight white scaly suit that glittered in the dim light of the single guttering gas lamp. Something circular glowed on its chest and emitted bursts of sparks and ribbons of lightning that snaked over the thing’s long limbs.
“Burton!” the apparition croaked. “Richard Francis bloody Burton!”
It suddenly pounced on him and a hand slashed sideways, slapping hard against his right ear, sending him reeling. His top hat went spinning into a puddle. He dropped his cane.
“I told you once to stay out of it!” snapped the thing. “You didn’t listen!”
All of a sudden, Burton felt icily sober.
Fingers dug into his hair and yanked his head up. He felt an agonisingly powerful static charge coursing through his body. His arms and legs twitched spasmodically.
Red eyes glared into his.
“I’ll not tell you again. Leave me alone!”
“W—what?” gasped Burton.
“Just stay out of it! The affair is none of your damned business!”
“Don’t play the innocent! I don’t want to kill you, but I swear to you, if you don’t keep your nose out of it, I’ll break your fucking neck!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” protested Burton.
His head was shaken violently, causing his teeth to clack together.
“I’m talking about you organising forces against me! It’s not what you’re meant to be doing! Your destiny lies elsewhere. Do you understand?”
The creature rammed its forearm into Burton’s face.
“I said, do you understand?”
“Then I’ll spell it out for you,” growled the stilt-man. Dragging Burton around, it slammed him against the wall, drew back its arm, and sent a fist crashing into the explorer’s mouth.
Burton sagged back against the bricks. He mumbled through split lips, “How can I possibly know what I’m supposed to do?”
The fingers in his hair jerked him up until he was looking directly into the thing’s eyes, which stared down, inches from his own. They burned redly, and Burton realised that his attacker was completely insane.
Blue flame leaped from the thing’s head and licked at the explorer’s brow, scorching his skin.
“You are supposed to marry Isabel and be sent from one fucking miserable consulship to another. Your career is supposed to peak in three years when you debate the Nile question with Speke and the silly sod shoots himself dead. You are supposed to write books and die.”
Burton braced his legs against the wall.
“What the hell are you babbling about?” he demanded, in a stronger voice. “The debate was cancelled. Speke shot himself yesterday—but he’s not dead!”
The creature’s eyes widened.
“No!” it whispered. “No!” It gritted its teeth and snarled, “I’m a historian! I know what happened. It was 1864 not 1861. I know—”
A look of bemusement passed over its gaunt, horrible features.
“God damn it! Why does it have to be so complicated?” it whispered to itself. “Maybe if I kill you? But if the death of just one person has already done all this—?”
Burton, feeling the fingers loosening, took his chance. He jerked his head free, shoved his shoulder into his attacker’s stomach, then threw himself sideways.
The apparition teetered back to the opposite wall. It clutched at it for balance and glared at Burton as he regained his footing. They stood facing each other.
“Listen to me, you bastard!” snapped the creature. “For your own good, next time you see me, don’t come near!”
“I don’t know you!” objected Burton. “And, believe me, if I never see you again, I’ll not regret it one iota!”
Lightning exploded from the apparition’s chest and danced across the ground. The stilt-man cried out in agony, almost falling.
Suddenly, its wild eyes dimmed and Burton saw a brief glimmer of reason in them. It looked down at itself, then at him, and in low tones said, “The irony is that I’m running out of time. You’re in my way, and you’re making the situation much worse.”
“What situation? Explain!” snapped the explorer.
The uncanny, spindly figure stepped forward and the irises of its eyes narrowed to pinpricks.
“Marry the bitch, Burton. Settle down. Become consul in Fernando Po, Brazil, Damascus, and wherever the fuck else they send you. Write your damned books. But, above all, leave me alone! Do you understand? Leave me the fuck alone!”
It crouched low, glared at him, and suddenly straightened its legs, shooting vertically into the air.
Burton twisted his head to look up. His assailant soared high above the top of the warehouses, and, in midair, vanished.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack © Mark Hodder
Cover Illustration © Jon Sullivan
Design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht
Mark Hodder is the creator and caretaker of the BLAKIANA Web site (www.sextonblake.co.uk), which he designed to celebrate, record, and revive Sexton Blake, the most written about fictional detective in English publishing history. A former BBC writer, editor, journalist, and Web producer, Mark has worked in all the new and traditional medias and was based in London for most of his working life until 2008, when he relocated to Valencia in Spain to de-stress and write novels. He can most often be found at the base of a palm tree, hammering at a laptop. Mark has a degree in cultural studies and loves British history (1850 to 1950, in particular), good food, cutting-edge gadgets, cult TV, Tom Waits, and a vast assortment of oddities.