Anyways! I put a ton of work into this one, for reasons which will become clear at around the half-way mark. So, while I always appreciate those two or three people who regularly comment on new chapters, I would LOVE to hear from a couple of the others out there who are listening to and enjoying this work.
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As I donned my greatcoat and made ready to set out for the docks, Barty, my young ward, gave me a sharp tug at the sleeve.
“Doc,” he said, his face adorably grave with concern, “You oughtn’t go down to th’ docks alone. A fancy swell like you’ll get nobbled by a mug-hunter in a moment!”
I was certain that the boy was trying to say something to me, but in that moment, he was about as sensible to me as was Ivan. I took a stab at his meaning and replied “There’s a good boy. I’ll be sure to purchase you some sweetmeats while I’m out.” I tousled his hair roughly with my hand.
Scowling furiously, Barty responded “Take Ivan along with you! That great beast’ll frighten away any cove that has a notion to stick you with a shiv for your purse!”
“My dear boy!” I exclaimed, taken aback by what I presumed was his concern for my well-being. “I am Doctor Sir Reginald Kingsley II! Do you honestly imagine, after the innumerable perils that I have faced in my many journeys, that a mere jaunt down to the quay will be the trip which I will not return from? At what point did you cease to be a young boy and become an old woman?” I laughed good-naturedly and leaned down towards him. “If you wish so badly to come along with me, all you have to do is say so. Some fresh air will do you good, at any event.”
This seemed to mollify the boy somewhat, though I could not but notice that he was fingering his concealed pistol and pocket knife nervously as he dressed himself. What fanciful tales had he been told about the docks to put such a terror in him, I wondered? I would need to speak to Pansie when I returned and ask her where he went during the thirteen to sixteen hours a day that I found other, more pressing matters to attend to than raising the boy. I couldn’t but imagine what mischief he must be getting up to!
As we set out onto the late afternoon street, I hailed a passing cabriolet, whose driver I ordered to carry us to the quay. As I did so, he enviced a curiously dread-stricken look, glancing at the sun’s place in the sky before asking me if I were sure.
“Now, now, young man! You can save your theatrics for visiting squires!” I reprimanded him. “I simply wish to be transported down to the waterfront this night, where I hope to find a down-on-his luck foreigner who will be happy to take my money from me. I can see no reason why this prospect needs cause so much alarm!”
The cab driver stared at me for another slack-jawed moment before insisting that he be paid up-front, and moreover that he would be carrying us no further than a furlong from our intended destination. I agreed, rather grumpily, but decided then and there that his timidity would be reflected in the gratuity that I would under ordinary circumstances have paid the man.
- - -
We arrived as the sun was setting, whereupon the cab driver ushered us out of his cabriolet and onto the street and fled with a single backwards, horrified glance in our direction. I could not manage to stifle a disbelieving laugh at the man’s cowardice as I watched him retreat with maximal haste. “Mark my words, Barty”, I intoned, still watching the fleeing coward, “A spirit like his will take him nowhere in life but where he is.”
I turned to see if Barty was listening to me, but I could see he was already distracted and inattentive; he was rough-housing with a scruffy, poorly-dressed man in the alleyway behind where I stood, both of them holding their knives in their hands. As much as I adored the boy’s high spirits, he had been warned before about associating with the lower-class whom I had spent so long attempting to uplift him from amongst. Shaking my head dejectedly, I opened up my greatcoat and withdrew from within its confines my custom-built triple-barreled hunting shotgun, Cleopatra, and pointed it at the ruffian who my ward had so swiftly befriended.
“Step away, my good man,” I intoned, my voice grave and full of menace. “I shan’t have you passing on your fleas and lice to this upstanding young boy.”
His eyes went wide, and he immediately ceased his joshing about with Barty and sought to extricate himself from his playful grappling with the lad. Barty, plainly less than pleased to lose his newfound playmate so easily, expressed his frustration with a playful stab to the flank of the fleeing man with his knife. The man shrieked, rather girlishly, I thought to myself disapprovingly, before clutching at his side and staggering down the alley.
“And don’t come back, you bleedin’ mandrake!” the boy shouted after him, wiping the blood from his blade with a dirty handkerchief he had withdrawn from his pocket.
“Now, now, boy. No call for what I presume to be name-calling”, I chided him. “Inner Oxfordfordshirewhittington is a civilized place. We must hold ourselves to certain standards. Do you imagine I do not wish to cast imprecations upon the nature and odour of the reproductive organs of the mothers of those who displease me? Naturally I do! But I keep such keen inferences to myself. And you know why? Because I am a gentleman!”
Barty had been veritably hopping from one foot to the other with barely-contained anxiety from virtually the moment I had begun to speak, but had been trained not to interrupt me over the years since the day I had taken him in, and was loath to act against that training. Even so, his enthusiasm was plainly now threatening to burst the dam of his good manners. “Oh, good lord, boy! What is it? Spit it out!”
“That’s just it, doc!” he shouted at me, red in the face. “Ain’t you never seen a map of this place? We ain’t in INNER Oxfordfordshirewhittin’ton no more! We’re in OUTER Oxfordfordshirewhittin’ton now!” He pointed across the street to a sign by the side of the road which had somehow managed to elude my attention, which spoke to the very same effect that my keen young ward had just made.
My blood ran cold in my veins. What had I done? What unspeakable peril had I led this boy into? I was not a man who sought out danger, save for on those occasions on which I did (which were, it must be said, frequent), but all too often, it seemed that danger sought me out, as so it had here. As I cast about in the growing darkness, the flickering light of the gaslights which illuminated the evening murk seemed to take on a sinister aspect, less like unto the warm and jolly fires of hell which I looked forwards to someday watching my enemies burn in from my place in heaven, and more like unto the baleful, hateful light of a baker’s oven, giving comfort and sustenance to the very underclass which even now lurked in every shadow about me, ready to pounce like the degenerate animals that I knew in my heart of hearts every Outer Oxforfordshirewhittingtonian to be.
Keeping the boy close at my side and Cleopatra clutched tightly in both hands, I began down the road. Though I was more keenly aware of the perils which awaited us, neither the nature of our task nor the its urgency had been in any way altered or diminished. I stalked down streets which, though I had walked them a thousand times before on my way to and from my vessel, seemed to have taken on terrible new character. The very air itself, which I had once greeted for its bracing sea-breeze aroma, now seemed a vile miasma in my nose. The many figures which surrounded us on all sides as we entered the main drag, which I had previously assessed as hearty, salt-of-the-earth sorts, now seemed to be fairly reaching out for my change purse with grasping, desperate hands with every gesture.
How innocent I had previously been! How innocent I wished, vainly, I could be once more!
In short order, we arrived in the region of the quay, where lay many a tavern and taproom which were even now bustling with drunkard sailors, whose noise and personal aromas spilled out into the street in equal measure. It seemed like to me that if we were to find a mariner who had personal experience with the dread secrets of Ireland, it would be here among those lot so desperate for work that they would risk their lives and perhaps even their immortal souls by approaching that island of nightmares made real. Not knowing precisely where to begin, I settled upon a burly-looking man who had about him what I considered a nautical look. I pointed my shotgun at him so as to gain his attention and shouted at him from across the street. “You there! Stand where you are!”
His eyes went wide with dread and he went pale in the face at the sight of me. At first I was flattered, thinking he was simply overawed by the experience of being addressed by a man so manifestly his social better, before I realized, with a chuckle, that perhaps he had misapprehended my intent towards him as hostile. One likes to hope that men of the sea would be made of sterner stuff than that, but if wishes were fishes, we should surely all have long ago drowned in a vast and limitless sea of rotting fish carcasses. Nevertheless, I advanced upon him, somewhat more personably, I hoped, with Cleopatra lowered to my side.
“I wish to find a man familiar with Ireland”, I said without introduction or preamble. “for the purposes of an expedition I have planned. Do you happen to know a man who has sailed those waters?”
“Ireland, sir? The Dark Continent?” He stammered. “You won’t find a man who’s willing to take you there, I daresay. The island is cursed!”
“Oh, nonsense”, I said, waving my shotgun about carelessly in an expression of contempt for the man’s cowardice. “I myself am presently subject to no fewer than three curses, and am embarking on a mission to break a fourth. Honestly, you need not be so squeamish about the matter!”
He seemed to chew this over for a moment before responding. “I suppose there’s sense in that, sir. Why, the street we stand on is said to be cursed, and there’s a separate curse for those who speak of the first curse...” he stopped at this, blanching with horror at his own words. I was having none of this, though.
“Yes, yes. It’s just the way of the world. Let me be the one to worry about it, and I shall let you go on about whatever degenerate business has brought you down here. Indeed,” I fished about in my pocket and withdrew the five pound note I had earlier been given by Helmut. “I shall be willing to finance it.”
His eyes lit up at this. “Is that one of them rhino notes?”
“How in god’s green earth does everyone.... Yes, blast your eyes, it is!” I raged, mortified by this abiding fascination the common folk had seemed to have acquired for outlandish and obscure animals. Barty insolently laughed into his sleeve at my side, earning him a sharp look from me. “Now should you be willing to earn it, you’ll tell me what I need to know!”
“Fine, then, sir! Go down the drag to a tavern called ‘The Seasick Mare’, and ask for a mouth named Seamus. If anyone in these parts can help you it’ll be he.” With this, he reached out for his payment, which I dropped into his grubby hands. Within moments, I was on my way down the street, Barty in tow.
It took a few short minutes to locate the establishment in question. It was a one-story affair, of simple wooden construction. Out in front hung a wooden sign which, appropriate enough to its name, pictured a horse standing on the poop-deck of an old-fashioned sailing ship, its head hanging over the railing. It was vomiting an arc of brightly-painted green sick into a mug held at the end of the outstretched arm of an inexplicably-happy-looking and inebriated sailor.
“That’s a pretty complicated sign for a taproom”, Barty observed, squinting at the affair.
“Yes, rather. Curiously so, really.” I shook my head in confusion and then shrugged it off. “Well, no matter. This is definitely the place we’re looking for. Watch yourself. The place is likely thick with pickpockets and trade unionists.” I spat upon the walk before entering the tavern.