Gaslight

by Paulus the Woodgnome


The darkness over London had not lifted for three days now. The gaslights burned continually in the streets, but the greenish, sulphurous fog turned them into vague pale blurs, like will-o'-the-wisps.

Inspector Nates looked up and frowned as the tall form of Sergeant Cryer blocked the light in his doorway. The uniformed man's features were so carefully unrevealing that Nates realised he must be the bearer of bad news.

"Another one ?" he asked.

Cryer nodded. "Yes sir. Yesterday evening, off Hanbury Street. And . . ."

"Yes ?"

"The Commissioner has asked for outside help, begging your pardon, sir."

"Damn it, I was afraid of that. Sherlock Holmes I suppose." Despite his manner, which was not entirely put on for the benefit of a sergeant who regarded all outsiders as interlopers quite unsuited to the rigors of the work, Nates could not help but feel a distinct flash of relief: he was getting nowhere with this case, and pressure was growing on him to solve it with each new victim Red Jack claimed.

"No, sir. Homes, sir."

"Yes, that's what I said, Holmes."

"No, sir. Homes. Charlotte Homes. Mrs. Charlotte Homes."

"What ! Mrs. Homes the medium ? That charlatan ?"

"Champagne Charlotte. Yes, her, sir. Mrs. Commissioner Jones is very taken with her it seems, sir. Won't hear a word against her if you take my meaning, sir."

"This is outrageous. I'll resign the case. I mean, dash it all, she's a woman."

"If you say so, sir." Cryer's face remained impassive, and it was unclear which bit of his superior's statement had merited this qualified agreement.

"Oh I don't think there's any doubt about that. I am a woman, though some have disputed it," added a new voice.

Charlotte Homes was not tall, even for a woman, but she was broad, even for a man. Her shoulders, Nates could not help noting, would have done credit to a rugby prop, although her embonpoint was considerably greater than most of those gentlemen could boast. She affected men's fashions: a weskit and trousers, of all outlandish things, the constriction of the former only serving to enhance the prominence of her - ah - feminine attributes. Her hair was cropped like a man's but dyed a curious lavender, and she moved in a cloud of refined French perfume and cigar smoke, the latter from the Havana in her left hand.

She was, in short, the most curious amalgam of male and female, femininity and bruising masculinity, and left the inspector quite at a loss.

"Do close your mouth, Inspector," she said. "I am Charlotte Homes, as you must have realised by now, unless your detective powers are greatly overrated by the popular press."

"Mrs. Homes, this is a police station and you have no business here."

"Oh but I do, Mr. Nates. Commissioner Jones has asked me to come here specially and help you."

"I really fail to see . . ."

"Yes, I gathered that was the problem. You can't see what holds this case together. Why don't you tell me about it instead of posturing, there's a lamb. Ohh, I must take the weight off my feet." Without waiting to be asked she pulled up one of the chairs and sat down. Her glance took in the solid form of Sergeant Cryer with approval.

"Aren't you going to introduce me to your handsome sergeant ?" she added.

"This, Madam, is Sergeant Cryer." She held her hand out with regal certainty and after a long hesitation Cryer shook it.

"Nice firm hands. I like that in a man." Cryer coloured slightly. So did Nates, for different reasons. He cleared his throat.

"So," said Mrs. Homes. "Your mystery assailant. Tell me all."

"The attacks began last October, with a young clerk named Hercules Vaughan, who has lodgings in a poor but respectable area of Aldgate. He was attacked from behind by a man whom he didn't see clearly."

"'See' ? We aren't talking about murder, then."

Nates looked at her in surprise. "Good heavens no. No, these are much more, er, delicate matters than murder."

"Do go on, Inspector."

"Well as I say, Mr. Vaughan did not see his assailant clearly. He was knocked half unconscious, his - er, his nether garments were - that is they were, um . . . disarranged."

"Removed," interjected Cryer, stolidly, as Mrs. Homes raised an enquiring eyebrow.

Nates blushed again.

"Disarranged, and then he was subjected to a most brutal beating on his bare - um - buttocks." Nates' whole face was now quite crimson.

"A beating ? How extraordinary. With an implement ?"

"Yes, with some sort of substantial item of footwear. Size 12, judging by the marks."

Mrs. Homes leaned forward with an air of great interest. Encouraged, Nates continued. "There have been at least six more assaults of this nature since."

"You are uncertain of the number, Inspector ?"

"We have had the greatest difficulty in persuading the victims to make statements of their ordeal, Mrs. Homes. Even Mr. Vaughan did so only because he was found immediately afterwards by a police constable. The others we know of we had to approach with great delicacy - you understand that this is all in confidence, Mrs. Homes ?"

"I am well used to the confidences of highly placed people, Inspector."

"Well, all of the victims we know or suspect, bar Mr. Vaughan and one other, were young gentlemen slumming it in the Whitechapel rookery."

"Young gentlemen looking for immodest amusements, no doubt," said Mrs. Homes, contemptuously.

The Inspector ignored this sally. "I believe these attacks to be the actions of someone who wishes to bring down the natural order of society, Mrs. Homes, some revolutionary from the slums of Petrograd perhaps, who plots to destabilise us by attacking the gentry in this way."

"Who are the other victims you know or suspect ?"

"Lord Tolleshunt D'Arcy, the Honourable Derek Tavener, a Mr. Soames Watkyn-Sale, Lawrence Quincy Livermore, probably Sir James Beauchamplace . . ."

"Stop ! A bigger crew of decadent young wastrels you could scarely have named had you tried. A sound spanking can have done them nothing but good."

Despite himself, the Inspector was impressed. Clearly, fake medium or not, this woman had considerable knowledge of London high society.

"You may well think so, Mrs. Homes, but it is still an assault on people going about their lawful business."

"All beaten in the same way, by an unknown assailant ?"

"Yes. The Whitechapel rookery is not a place I'd advise young gentlemen to go, and I don't think those particular young gentlemen will be back there until Jack is caught, but the Commissioner and I both agree that there must be no areas in London where honest folk dare not tread."

"That depends on your definition of honest. But you called him Jack ?"

Reluctantly Nates delved in his drawer and took out the note. "This was left with Mr. Livermore," he said, handling the filthy scrap with distaste. He didn't need to look at it to remember its illiterate scrawl:

"Copper, I done this nob good, turned his pretty white bum a nice scarlet; grabbed a good feel to. Mybe another Friday woulncha like ter know hahaha. Teach em - all the best Jack"

As Mrs. Homes took the note there was a momentary spasm on her face, as if of someone trying to remember something they had once heard, or perhaps, perhaps the reverse, of someone trying to push to the back of their mind a demanding and unpleasant memory that would not go away.

"Are you all right, Mrs. Homes ?"

She shook her head and smiled rather weakly as if to dismiss it. "The psychic emanations from the note are rather strong. So, what do you know about this mysterious Jack ?"

"He is tall, immensely strong, and knows the backstreets of Whitechapel extremely well. He is clearly uneducated."

"Oh no, Inspector. Not privately educated, perhaps, but this note was written by someone trying to seem less well educated than they are."

"Did your psychic impressions tell you that ?" muttered Cryer.

"No, the fact that he knows the use of a semicolon did."

"That seems a flimsy thing by which to trap a man," said Nates, rather put out that he had not noticed this himself, and impressed anew by Mrs. Homes' perspicacity. That was how she performed her tricks of course, nothing to do with 'psychic emanations' !

"From such flimsy threads men have been hung, as you must well know," said Mrs. Homes, unperturbed. "Come now, let us ask the good sergeant. Sergeant Cryer, where were you educated ?"

Cryer looked decidedly ill-at-ease, and for a long moment Nates thought that he would refuse to answer. Then he hung his head and muttered: "Ragged School, Ma'am. In George Yard."

"A ragged school. Then you have done very well, Sergeant, from hard beginnings. And tell me, were you taught punctuation ?"

The sergeant coloured a little, and said flatly: "Not much. There wasn't much call for it, Ma'am."

"You take my point, Inspector," said Mrs. Homes, her gaze never leaving the sergeant. "A truly uneducated man would have no call for it. But an educated man, or a man who had by much hard labour and private study improved himself, would be unable to stop himself from an unconscious and correct usage, even when attempting to imitate the writing of a semi-illiterate. And now, I think I would like to see the scene of the latest crime. Hanbury Street, did you say ?"

"Mrs. Homes, that area of Whitechapel is a den of every sort of crime and vice ! It is not safe for a lady."

"Inspector, I said I was a woman. I never said I was a lady. For if you mean by that a feeble, delicate, fainting, helpless, brainless, dependent creature I'm afraid I never got the knack of it." She took out of a pocket a revolver, broke it and checked it in a professional fashion, then replaced it, looking up with a bright smile at the two men.

Nevertheless, as they proceeded through the fog-shrouded streets, their faces muffled against the dense, choking miasma that was half the distillate of London's rivers and ancient marshes, and half the soot and sulphur of a thousand thousand coal fires, her face grew steadily paler and more set.

"Are you all right, Mrs. Homes ? It is not too late to turn back," said Nates, solicitously.

"I will manage, Inspector. Besides, I think we must be nearly there, must we not, Sergeant ?"

"Just around the corner, Ma'am."

They turned the corner into a dark, ill-lit narrow passage. The gloom and the fog made it impenetrable and hid (thank God) the things that squished softly underfoot. A lantern shone through the odd crack in the shuttered windows of the tenements, the only sign of life.

"Dear God," said Charlotte Homes, faintly. "'Why this is Hell, nor are we out of it'. What a very dreadful place. Tell me of your victim."

"Mr. Anthony Blanchard, Ma'am, son of a surgeon from Sydenham. Come looking for a loose woman, met our Jack. Trousers down, a good sound walloping, he won't be sitting down for a while."

"Yes, I see it, among so much else more dreadful." Nates looked at Mrs. Homes in astonishment. Her eyes were closed, her face contorted as if in pain, but the voice was quiet, dreamy, somehow childish, like that of a little girl. He and the sergeant leaned towards her, intent. "His pain and fear are brighter because so recent. A tall man has him, bends him over - but it is so dark, I cannot see the man's face, I am afraid to see the man's face, oh the cries of pain, and no-one, no-one will open their door here, oh the pain . . ."

The sergeant's heavy hand grasped her shoulder and she started, her eyes springing open. "Are you all right, Ma'am ?" he asked.

"Sergeant, you should not have interrupted her trance," said Nates crossly. "It might have been dangerous to Mrs. Homes. And we might have learned more."

"Sorry sir, Ma'am. I only thought - Mrs. Homes seemed distressed."

"I am - quite well, thank you, Sergeant." Her voice gradually acquired its old robustness. "I think that what happened here last night is well known to those who live around here. These blind, dark windows see, but they will not speak. Not to us, will they, sergeant ?"

"No, Ma'am, begging your pardon. Not even to me."

Her shrewd eyes swept his face, and she nodded.

"No, there is a lesson there for us, I think. Sometimes things are seen that should not be spoken of. After all, what happened here last night was not so terrible. Worse things happen all through Whitechapel every day, and the police do not much exercise themselves, because it is only the undeserving poor, as people say. But let a few young gentlemen, profiting from misery to indulge their vices, get a much deserved chastisement, and at once there is a great hue and cry. It does not seem terribly just."

"But the Law . . ." began Nates.

"Is an ass," returned Mrs. Homes. "And did not Someone say that the Law was made for Man, not Man for the Law ? It requires interpretation and judgement. Sometimes, Inspector, things are best left alone."

Nates made an exasperated sound and stalked off to the end of the alleyway in a huff.

"You know," said Cryer very quietly, in a voice that made Charlotte Homes' hair stand up at the back of her neck.

"I saw. As I said, some things that are seen are best not spoken of." The vision was still clear in her head, the youth's high white buttocks bucking in the powerful grip of the man, the heavy slipper descending again and again with bruising force as the flesh grew welted, scarlet and purple, swollen and burning. And Sergeant Cryer's face, intent and excited, floating above it all.

"They needed a lesson. 'Twasn't just ordinary tomming, you know. Nasty stuff. Whips, razors . . . Beauchamplace left one girl with a broken arm. And these girls don't have a choice. It's the streets, or starve."

"You grew up here. You understood how it was. So you decided on a warning, something that might make other vicious young gentlemen think twice."

"Yes."

"I understand. I approve even. I suspect in his heart of hearts your pretty young inspector does too. But I think it's time that Jack retired."

"There's plenty more like them !"

"There may be, but find other ways to deal with them. Besides, if Jack is never caught he might still be out there waiting for them. Let fear do your work for you."

"But . . ."

"Sergeant, I saw your face in my mind's eye. Why did you choose that method of punishment ?"

"Well, I . . ."

"You enjoy it. You took pleasure in stripping and beating them, physical pleasure, and they were unable to resist your strength. How is that different from what they did ?"

Sergeant Cryer's face seemed to crumple. Charlotte Homes offered her arms in a sympathetic hug, and looked over the tall man's shoulder into the appalled eyes of Inspector Nates.

"How long were you listening ?" she asked.

"Long enough," said Nates grimly. "Cryer, you fool."

Cryer straightened up, stood to attention.

"I won't say I'm sorry for doing it, sir," he said. "They deserved it. But I'm sorry for you, for misleading you."

"Oh, Cryer. D-Daniel. You can't take the law into your own hands, not if it's to mean anything. Don't you see that ? It has to apply to everyone equally."

"But it doesn't, does it sir ? 'Twas as she said. The likes of these lords and gentlemen" - the last word dripped with contempt - "can come and have their fun and if a girl or two gets hurt or even killed they say: 'oh these women brought their shame on themselves, what can you expect', but if someone touches their precious lordly hides they scream blue murder."

"You'd know, I expect. What am I going to do with you," sighed Nates. It wasn't really a question.

"I won't make any fuss, sir. I'll come along quietly."

Charlotte Homes looked at Nates. "Well, Edward," she said. "The rigor of the law, or the law interpreted. Now you must make your choice."

Nates made an irritated gesture, like someone brushing away a fly.

"It's really too bad of you, Cryer," he said. "Now this case will have to go unsolved."

A dawning wonder spread on the sergeant's face. "You mean you won't arrest me, sir ?"

"How can he, Daniel," asked Charlotte Homes, softly, "when he's in love with you ?"

"What ?"

"Haven't you seen the way he looks at you ? He admires your strength and manliness."

Nates blushed to the roots of his hair, and hung his head.

Daniel Cryer reached out a tentative hand and lifted the face to look at him. "Really ?" he asked. "But you're quality, real quality. And I'm just the sweepings of Whitechapel. The likes of you aren't for the likes of me."

"You're the finest man I know," said Nates stoutly. "But - you aren't - disgusted ?"

"Course not. I only wish I knew before, we could have had a fine old time." And Sergeant Cryer planted a long and passionate kiss on the lips of his nominal superior.

"But sodomy's a crime," muttered Nates, surfacing for air before diving back in again.

"Law, ass," reminded Charlotte Homes. "But if it troubles you, let Jack deal with it appropriately. Domestically." Judging by the movement of their bodies that idea produced a physical reaction in both men.

A slow, wicked smile transformed Cryer's features. "I can see that my right arm is going to get its exercise after all," he said, squeezing his new lover's buttocks.

"And I can see that I'm going to have to get a padded chair seat for the office," said Nates ruefully. "Mrs. Homes, thank you. I never believed in what you do before now. I shall try to keep a more open mind in future."

"That is a commodity that this country and this age could do with a great deal more of," observed Mrs. Homes, as the two preceded her to the carriage at the end of the street, arm in arm.

At the corner, she looked back. The darkness teemed with grey figures, like cobwebs on the edge of sight. Cadaverous visages racked with starvation. A girl in a smock, its front all stained dark with blood. Two or three others nursing the babes that had killed them. Yet more with the stigmata of disease, or violence, or premature age, or gin. Like snowflakes they seemed to gather and thicken in the gloom.

"Be free. Only your old pain holds you. In the name of the One Love, I bid you go free," she whispered, and made a curious gesture with her right hand. An eddy of fog oozed past her and was gone, and then there was only the dark street again.

She sighed and turned back to the welcoming lights, where the young police inspector was waiting in the protective arms of Jack the Slipper.


Copyright © 2002

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