Excerpt: The Aylesford Skull

Ayelsford SkullChapter One

Into the Darkness

The Bayswater Club, frequented by members of the Royal Society, stood on Craven Hill, with a view of Hyde Park to the south, and, through the trees, the roof of Kensington Palace. The view of the palace improved in autumn and winter when the trees weren’t so riotously green. What must have been half the population of London strolled up and down Bayswater Road and through the park today, sitting near the banks of the Serpentine, soaking up the sun’s warmth like salamanders after the rains of late spring. There had been an anarchist bomb, reportedly Fenian, set off just two days ago near Marble Arch, with two pedestrians killed – murdered was the more accurate term – but the city seemed already to have forgotten it.

Langdon St. Ives looked out through the window, half lost in thought, a glass of champagne in his hand. Nothing was more likely to give an anarchist the pip, it seemed to him, than public indifference, and surely there was some small justice in that, although justice was in uncommonly short supply lately. It had been a perilous two weeks, during which St. Ives had foolishly attempted to recover three note-books of botanical illustrations drawn by Sir Joseph Banks as a boy, which had been turned over to Secretary Parsons of the Royal Society for authentication. The man who had “found” the note-books had offered to sell them to the Society for an astonishingly moderate sum. No fewer than four experts had signed affidavits authenticating the drawings. But then, as if a magician had waved a wand over them, the original note-books were spirited away, replaced by forgeries, and the owner of the note-books demanded recompense.

In the interests of the Royal Society, St. Ives had played the part of a devious and interested collector to flush the thief out by offering to buy the purloined sketches. The result of the ruse had been the violent death of the thief, who, by the wildest happenstance, had apparently recognized St. Ives, knew at once that he had been practiced upon, and had fled pell-mell into the street, running with a heavy limp and carrying the three authenticated note-books, which, along with the thief, had been trodden under the wheels of an omnibus. The man was dead where he lay, his widow and two children were left to beg in the streets, several score of early drawings by Sir Joseph Banks were ruined for good and all, and the Royal Society owed the moderate sum – no longer quite so moderate, given that it had bought them nothing – to the owner of the note-books. It was a mess in so many ways that St. Ives scarcely knew where to begin when he attempted to itemize his regret.

The worst of it was that in a fit of remorse St. Ives had given money to the unfortunate thief’s widow when her husband lay dead in the street. The woman had unfortunately been hiding nearby with her children, she being almost certainly an accomplice as well as a witness. The money seemed to baffle her until she understood what it was for, which is to say, a guilt payment. She had loved her husband, just as St. Ives loved Alice, his own wife, and in the widow’s eyes there was no price that could be put on her husband’s bloody death. She had kept the money, however, clutching the five crowns in her hand, and had said to St. Ives, “There will be a time to judge every deed,” in a scarcely audible voice.

“I pray it won’t be soon,” he had replied, and had turned away, feeling shabbier than he remembered having felt in his life up until that time. After a period of reflection, however, it seemed to him that he might have played the fool in the matter – not his favorite instrument. The complications of the whole thing were rather too complicated to seem quite right to him now, and it had the earmarks of a plot, although the nature of the plot was beyond his grasp. He caught sight of his image in the window glass now, and saw that he looked even more craggy than usual, his long face careworn and drawn. He sat up, taking his long legs from the ottoman, suddenly restless.

He heartily wished that he were at home in Aylesford, with Alice and the children. Soon he would be, he told himself, and he looked at his pocket watch for the third time in the last half hour. The next train on the Medway Valley Line of the South Eastern Railway left Tooley Street Station in two hours, and he meant to be on it. He wouldn’t be home by suppertime, perhaps, but something very near.

He realized that his friend Tubby Frobisher was engaged in an argument with Secretary Parsons, heated on Parsons’ side – Parsons being disagreeable by nature – and ironic on Tubby’s, whose single-minded goal was to irritate Parsons. Parsons was an old man, humorless, stooped, and narrow-shouldered. His eyebrows were heavy and wild, which gave his face a fierce appearance. There was nothing at all fierce about Tubby, whose name was perfectly appropriate, although his enormous girth and cheerful demeanor sometimes mislead his enemies into thinking that he wasn’t both quick and ready to act.

“I tell you that Quittichunk’s Tablets have no virtue at all,” Parsons said, his face flushed and his beard quivering with passion. “Complete fraud. Medicinally inert if not poisonous.” He set his empty glass down and signaled for another bottle.

“Nonsense,” said Tubby. “My Uncle Gilbert swears by them. He’s an amateur sailor, you know. Docks his steam yacht in Eastbourne Harbour. He used to feed the tablets to me as a boy, before he’d allow me to go punting on the lake. I never suffered from a moment’s scurvy. You can have my affidavit on it.”

“On the bleeding lake?” Parsons sputtered. “The man was raving.”

“Never,” Tubby said. “Quittichunk’s Tablets were efficacious there, too, you know – in the case of lunacy, that is to say. Uncle Gilbert ground them with a pestle and consumed the powder with a measured dose of whisky when he was tempted to run mad.”

Parsons blinked, speechless, his heavy features frozen into a rictus of bewildered loathing. The waiter brought the fresh bottle, which was beaded with moisture and apparently steaming cold. He poured it into Parsons’ glass, and the rush of ascending bubbles seemed to restore the man to partial equanimity.

“You remember Uncle Gilbert, Langdon?” Tubby said. “You can vouch for his sanity?”

“Indeed I can,” St. Ives replied. “As sane as you or I and with a measure left over.”

“I have no argument with that,” Parsons muttered.

St. Ives, in fact, would not swear an oath on the matter of Uncle Gilbert’s sanity, if it came down to it, although it was true that sanity was a difficult thing to define.

“Do you know that he’s come up from Dicker on a birding expedition in the Cliffe Marshes?” Tubby asked. “He’s keen on finding the great bustard, which have largely been shot out of existence.”

“He intends to bag the rest of them?” Parsons asked.

“Not Uncle Gilbert. He intends to count them. Goes off hunting with his binocle and a note-book. The bird was allegedly seen in the brushlands in the marshes by an amateur birder, although it might easily have been an enormous pheasant. Uncle Gilbert means to sort the bustard out. He’s setting up a bivouac above the bay. Another glass of this capital champagne?” Tubby asked St. Ives.

“No,” St. Ives said. “It’s wasted on me.”

“You were off your feed at lunch, I noticed. Pining for home and hearth again?”

St. Ives nodded, started to reply, but was abruptly distracted when it came into his mind that he had been promised begonia cuttings, and that he might have time to fetch them before leaving for the station. The thought perked him up considerably. Something good might come of this damnable two-weeks-long detour after all. Alice was a slave to begonias – one of her chief hobbyhorses. She could plant a fragment of a leaf in a pot of sand, and it would put down roots and produce fresh leaves in a fortnight. She would be doubly happy to see him if he arrived with cuttings, and, it seemed to him at that moment, her happiness was his own.

He bent forward and looked back out of the window, where he could see the glass roof of the conservatory, a small palm house kept by an ancient gardener named Jensen Shorter, recently the Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society. Shorter had seemed to decline in stature over the long years and was now as old as Moses and as tall as Commodore Nutt. The interior of the glass building appeared to St. Ives to be inordinately dark, given the bright afternoon, as if the coal oil heater were smoking, although why the heater would be on in mid-summer was a poser. Shorter was a begonia fancier of the first water: rhizomatous exclusively, no gaudy tuberous show-offs. He had been given two-dozen new species from Brazil a year ago, but he wouldn’t hear of parting with any of the plants until his cuttings had flourished. Given that he hadn’t taken the lot of them out to the gardens at Chiswick, it wouldn’t take ten minutes for Shorter to snip off a few pieces of rhizome, which would ride home snugly in various coat pockets.

St. Ives stood up decidedly. “Good day to you both,” he said. “I’ve got to see Shorter about begonia cuttings before I set out for Tooley Street.”

Begonias,” said Parsons dismissively, “I don’t fancy them myself. Hairy damned abominations, like something out of a nightmare.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” St. Ives said, shaking the man’s hand. “Please convey my apologies to the Society for the way this business of Banks’s note-books fell out. I would have had it turn out in any other way than it did.”

“As would I,” Parsons said, shaking his head and scowling. “The loss in money is troubling enough, not to mention the reputation of the Society, but that’s the least of it. Forty-seven original drawings by the greatest botanist of his age reduced to muddy rubbish! Still, no one’s suggesting that you were careless in the matter. Time and chance happeneth to all of us, eh? Some of us perhaps more often than others. All the more reason to put it behind us, as they say.”

“Time and chance it will have to be,” St. Ives said, seeing that Tubby had a dangerous look about him, as if he were on the verge of committing an act of violence against Secretary Parsons. “I’ll just be off, then. Tubby, give my best to Chingford.”

“I’ll do that,” Tubby said. “I’m on my way out myself, though. I’ll see you to the street.” He drank off the rest of his champagne, nodded darkly at Parsons, and put on his hat.

They passed through the book room, which was nearly empty, although it appeared to contain a high percentage of luminaries among the several men lounging at the tables. Lord Kelvin sat alone near the window, sketching something out on a piece of foolscap. St. Ives knew two of the others by reputation, both mad doctors, who sat nattering away in Latin; one of them a wild-eyed French phrenologist and the other a crackpot criminologist from Turin University named Lombroso, whose work with imbeciles had impressed certain members of the Royal Society, especially Secretary Parsons, who was happy with the idea that the greater part of the world’s population suffered from imbecility. St. Ives was currently inclined to include himself among that number.

“There might be a bigger fool than Secretary Lambert Parsons alive in the world,” Tubby said, “but if there is he keeps himself moderately well hidden. The man is a humorless oaf. It’s a marvel that air allows itself to enter his lungs.”

They walked down into the entry hall, where Lawrence, the doorman, was propped against the wall just inside the open door, taking advantage of a warm ray of sunlight, his eyes closed.

“Do you have a coin for Lawrence?” Tubby whispered to St. Ives. “My pockets are empty.”

St. Ives reached into his pocket, and in that instant there sounded a shattering explosion and he was thrown bodily to the floor, Tubby landing on top of him like two-hundredweight of sand. St. Ives was deafened by the blast, and he found himself looking up at the chandelier swaying dangerously overhead, plaster raining down.

“Move!” he shouted at Tubby, his voice sounding small and distant, but his friend was already pushing himself to his feet, and the two of them staggered at a run through the door, the chandelier crashing to the tiles behind them, glass crystals pelting them on the back of the legs.

Lawrence crouched on the footpath now, holding his palm over a bloody gash on the side of his head. There was the sound of screams, people shouting and running. The ground was littered with broken glass and wood, fragments of stone pots, and uprooted trees and shrubs.

Shorter lay folded in half, dead still, twenty feet away on the lawn, his neck and head canted back at an unnatural angle. St. Ives saw at once that the man’s arm was missing at the shoulder, torn off in the blast. He looked away, his chest tightening.

The glasshouse had blown to pieces. Where it had been there was a stone foundation and little more. Along the base of the inside wall, between what had been the glasshouse and the Bayswater Club proper, a gaping hole looked down into the Ranelagh Sewer. Sunlight shone through the hole, revealing the shimmering surface of the Westbourne River moving toward the Thames through its immense brick tunnel.

Secretary Parsons appeared, looking stunned. “Thank God the force of the blast went out through the glass,” he said. “Aside from the odd window and the chandelier in the entry, the club itself seems to be sound. Poor Shorter.” He shook his head, looking across the lawn. “He was with Wellington at Waterloo, you know. Ninety years old if he was a day. And now he’s done down by a damned anarchist in his own palm house.”

“Do we know that?” asked St. Ives.

“Take a look at the man,” Parsons said. “He’s been blown to pieces.”

“I mean do we know it was an anarchist’s device? Why would anarchists blow up a palm house?”

“Because they’re imbeciles. They exist to be imbeciles. No one but an imbecile would detonate a bomb in a hollow tree near Marble Arch, but the thing was done.”

blaylock-deluxe-coverParsons and Tubby moved away toward where a policeman was just then laying a coat across Shorter’s body. It occurred to St. Ives that the totality of the old man’s begonias lay in fragments amidst the rubble. He would gather pieces of them up before he left, he thought, and Alice could carry on with them – something saved from this carnage. He stepped down onto the floor of the ruined glasshouse and looked around, seeing at once that there was a wash of fine black dust on the ground, despite the turbulence of the blast, which must have thrown most of it into the atmosphere. Several clay pots that had miraculously survived the blast burned with an orange flame, which was damned odd. He smelled a wisp of rising smoke. Greek fire? Sulphur, surely. He tried to recall the ingredients of the incendiary fluid – pitch? Resin? The smell of sulphur overrode the others. He recalled that the interior of the glasshouse had been uncommonly dark when he had looked out at it through the window. Coal gas was a filthy substance when it burned, but that scarcely explained things here, unless it had been leaking badly.

He stepped across and peered into the sewer, although it was too dark to see more than a few feet in either direction. The brick floor of the enormous pipe was so broad as to be nearly flat, with a depression in the floor along which the Westbourne rippled in its channel. There was a litter of wet brick lying about and more of the black dust. He crouched at the edge of the ragged hole and bent into the pipe, looking back upriver into utter darkness. A person could trudge all the way to Hampstead Heath in that direction, to where the Westbourne rose at Whitestone Ponds, but it would be a long and tiresome journey. He turned to look downriver, and immediately saw a light in the far distance: the mouth of the sewer, perhaps, where it emptied into the Thames below the Chelsea Embankment.

Abruptly the light shifted, however, then disappeared entirely, and then winked back on – not the mouth of the sewer at all, but a lantern some distance away, moving in the direction of the Thames. Perhaps a lone anarchist.

St. Ives stepped into the sewer, down the several feet to the floor, and set out into the musty air, the light through the hole in the sewer wall giving up almost immediately so that he quickly found himself in darkness. His going back after a lantern would simply waste time – no value in even thinking about it. And besides, a lantern would give him away. It was stealth he wanted. He trailed his left hand along the wall, watching the lantern light ahead, unable to gauge its distance. Thank God, he thought, that the moving water smelled as if it were more river than filth, but he was careful where he stepped – as careful as was possible in the darkness.

He hastened forward, emboldened by the comparatively smooth brick floor, but almost immediately he stumbled over an impediment and fell to his knees, scraping his palms on the bricks and letting out a muffled shout, cursing himself under his breath, and then staying very still. The lantern in the distance went on apace. He looked back, but could see nothing behind him now, the tunnel curving slightly to the west as it ran beneath Hyde Park. That he could still see the lantern meant that it was closer than he had thought; otherwise it, too, would be hidden by the swerve of the tunnel wall.

He pushed himself to his feet, flexing his bruised knees, and went quietly on, listening hard. The awful picture of Shorter lying dead on the lawn came into his mind, and abruptly he wished that he had a weapon of some sort. He thought of Tubby Frobisher, who was as fearless as a water buffalo and nearly as vast. Tubby would have come along with him in a cold moment if only St. Ives had thought to summon him before setting out. But there was nothing for it but to go on. Nothing ventured, he thought, nothing gained – aside from a knife in the ribs.

It came to him now that he could hear a squeaking and rattling, like axles turning, as if the moving lantern were fixed on a cart. Had they brought machinery with them? To what end…?

He heard a sharp, scraping sound behind him now. He turned, seeing too late a moving shadow lunging toward him, a man’s narrow face slightly pale against the darkness. St. Ives was borne over backward, the back of his head banging down onto the brick floor so that his skull rang with the force of it. Before he could come to his senses he was rolled bodily into the river, his assailant clutching him by the hair, pushing his head beneath the surface of the water.

St. Ives flailed with his hands, seeking a purchase on the brick, which scraped past beneath him as he was swept downward in the flood, pulled from the grip of the man who was endeavoring to drown him. He lurched upward, gasping in a breath of air and twisting around, getting his feet under him so that he managed to half stand up. Immediately he was struck hard on the right cheek with something heavy and flat – the blade of a shovel? – and he reeled back against the wall of the tunnel, his cheek throbbing with pain, holding out his hands to keep the blade away from his face, hoping that his assailant was equally blind and that it had been a lucky blow.

He saw that the distant lantern bobbed toward him now – almost certainly a second assailant, coming at a run to finish him off. The word “imbecile” was no doubt writ large on his own face where the shovel had struck him. Then he realized that he was looking upriver and not down – that the lantern was coming down from above – two lanterns, in fact, come to rescue him. He heard his assailant’s splashing footfalls receding down the tunnel. There was no lantern to be seen downstream at all now, no sound of turning axles, nothing but dark silence.

This article was posted as part of the Aylesford Skull Swashbuckling Blog Tour celebrating the release of James P. Blaylock’s first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years [The Aylesford Skull, Titan Books, £7.99]. For the opportunity to win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull in a jacketed, signed hardcover with a unique jacket design, just tweet “I would like a limited edition of the Aylesford Skull @TitanBooks #Blaylock”.

 

Details about The Limited Edition (available Feb 2013)

 

750 signed and numbered editions:

Jacketed, cloth-bound hardcover with ribbon

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Exclusive foreword by K.W. Jeter and introduction by Tim Powers

 

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As above encased in a custom-made traycase

 

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