I see that a whole month has passed by, without me adding anything to this blog. Alas!
Here then, for nothing, gratis, is the first chapter of a book that I have considered writing for some time ... humorous steampunk, as it were ... now and then, I have spent ages deciding whether to proceed with it, or abandon it entirely ... your comments, whether adoring or dismissive, appreciated ... as indeed would be suggestions for Chapter 2 ... send me your feedback, send it to your friends ... ah, just read it ...
Prince Albeit stood upon the pier and looked out to sea, admiring the bleak grandeur of the Channel. The noise and the glittering gas-lights of Brightown lay behind him and the scene seemed to provoke his fancy. How easy it would be, he thought to himself, to remove his medals, the epaulettes, the cherished ceremonial sword! How easy to dive headlong into the churning waves and make a bid for freedom! Why, he might be upon the outskirts of Paris in twenty four hours or so; and then in his favourite whore-house by the Seine within the blink of an eye.
Or drown ignominiously, somewhere near Hove.
‘Oh, cruel fate!’ he ejaculated to himself, startling a nearby sea-gull.
The channel crossing, Albeit reflected, had been done before; it was not impossible. Captain Thrupp, The Irish Nautilist, had managed it years ago, aided only by a tin of bear’s grease and a prevailing wind. But, then, Captain Thrupp had not been engaged to The Empress. Captain Thrupp, though a remarkable individual in his own way, had not been forced to contemplate a lifetime of conjugal subjection and slavery, to a woman whose very name struck terror into the hearts of all her subjects. If he had – thought Albeit, in gloomy contemplation – he might have simply drowned himself and had done with it.
Albeit sighed once more. He was no Captain Thrupp, and he knew it. He lacked the famous Captain’s courage, stamina and – so rumour had it – extravagantly webbed toes. He would have to master himself, screw his courage to the sticking point, and marry The Empress – there was nothing else for it. Damnation! Cursing his black thoughts – blacker than the blackest hole in Dunstable – Albeit sighed yet again and watched the solitary sea-gull, now on the wing, swoop glumly above the briny sea.
It was, he concluded, no way to begin his stag-night.
‘What am I to do, Paratapparam?’ he said at last, turning to his sole companion upon the pier. ‘I won’t last a blasted week.’
Albeit addressed the question to his valet – a short, swarthy, foreign-looking individual who stood two paces behind him, dressed in a very plain black suit and bowler hat. Albeit knew his polysyllabic manservant well and placed a good deal of trust in him. He was a good man in a tight scrape, a devil with a dagger or pistol, and, for all his tainted foreign blood – half Chinese, half Burmese, half Maltese, half Portuguese – ferociously loyal and worth two of any Englishman. Indeed, the worthy native had sworn a blood oath never to leave his master’s side and – although it had initially created some slight awkwardness in hotels and first class railway carriages – it was an oath which the Prince never had cause to regret. Albeit, therefore, looked at the valet with hope in his eyes.
Paratapparam frowned. Then his face brightened. He reached inside his coat pocket, pulled out a large hunting knife, and, with a knowing wink, mimed drawing the blade slowly across his own throat.
‘Oh, for pity’s sake, man!’ exclaimed Albeit, ‘that’s your answer to everything!’
‘Well,’ said the Prince, with resignation heavy in his voice, ‘then there is nothing else for it. I suppose one had best enjoy one’s last night of freedom.’
Paratapparam reluctantly sheathed his blade and nodded. Thus, as the solitary sea-gull looked down at them with an expression remarkably like contempt, the two men made their way back down the pier.
The brightly-lit signs of the hotels along the sea-front were all aglow with gas-jets which fluttered in the breeze. Only a handful of dour couples strolled arm in arm along the windswept promenade, sampling the air with that grim determination peculiar to the English at play. Albeit toyed with the idea of simply returning to his hotel. For he had taken a good suite of rooms in the Royal Grand Imperial – or possibly at its fierce rival, the Imperial Royal Grand – it did not much matter. But, on reflection, he resolved to quit the promenade and walk through the network of narrow old lanes that joined the sea-front and High Street. Known as The Alleys, it was a rough, disreputable district; a place where the men were men and women were, for the most part, women – except, it was said, in a certain low tavern by the railway, where few questions were asked.
Albeit made his way through the darkened streets, clasping his sword to his side – for it had a awkward tendency to nick the ankles of passing strangers – until he came to a particular frowsy-looking public-house, from which issued sounds of revelry and merriment. He glanced at his valet.
‘At least the night is still young, eh, old friend?’
Paratapparam scowled, his eyes as black as sea-coal, his brow furrowed into dark corrugated trenches, as if the accumulated misery of a life-time was etched upon his face.
‘Frankly, old chap,’ exclaimed the prince, ‘if you won’t enter into the spirit of the thing, I don’t know why you came.’
‘Because, Sahib,’ replied the ever-loyal quarter-breed, in guttural tones, ‘I have pledged you my undying allegiance and protection. Surely, you recall the debt of honour incurred by my grandfather, over a drunken game of baccarat in the port of Naples? Surely you recollect that your ancestor won that wager; and now, however repulsive and uncongenial may be the circumstances, whatever mortal agonies I might suffer, my fate – my doom – is tethered to your own.’
‘You’re not a the glass is half-full sort of fellow, are you, old man?’ said the Prince, absent-mindedly, as he opened the door.
The inside of the low tavern stank of liquor; the air was wreathed in tobacco smoke; the floor carpeted in sawdust; the walls papered the sweat. In short, little thought had been given to the décor. For the tavern was the haunt of thieves and whores, magsmen and prigs, rum-bubbers and cloak-twichers, cadgers and badgers. It was a den famed far and wide as the worst cradle of infamy and immorality in all Brightown; a place which even Her Majesty’s Police dared not visit, except in daylight, and, even then, only in the company of a very large dog.
Prince Albeit walked over to the bar.
‘The usual, your lordship?’ said the barman.
‘I rather fancy a change,’ mused the Prince. ‘What do you recommend?’
The barman sighed.
‘We’ve got hot gin; cold gin; gin and water; hot gin and water; gin and bitters; jiggered gin; gin jiggers, and gin-punch.’
‘You know the landlord don’t hold with it. Confuses the customer. Now what’ll you have, my Lord?’
‘My dear fellow,’ said Prince Albeit, gallantly conceding the point, ‘a quart of your finest jiggered gin, and the same for my friend here.’
‘You know, my Lord,’ protested loyal Paratapparam, ‘my faith forbids the consumption of intoxicating liquor.’
‘Oh dear,’ said Prince Albeit, contemplating the two quarts of gin placed before him. ‘Must have slipped my mind. Well, bottoms up, old man, eh?’
‘If you say so, Sahib,’ said Albeit’s trusty henchman, ‘I will take your word for it.’
‘Good chap,’ replied Prince Albeit, as he drained the first quart, and began the second. ‘Barman – another!’
Paratapparam sat down at the bar, besides his master. His infallible native instincts, honed by boyhood years of hunting tigers in the mountainous foothills of Sarkatatan (a district whose tiger population is notoriously disinclined to be hunted) told him it would be a long night.
* * * * *
It was four in the morning and the pub had all but emptied. The landlord dismissed the barman, then surveyed the premises and took a tally of the night’s profits and loss. The latter amounted to three commemorative silver tankards; seven bar stools and a signed lithograph of the Lord Chancellor. The landlord sighed. He had often wondered whether he should widen his clientele beyond thieves, prigs and magsmen; but he was obliged to reflect that an earlier trial – an ill-judged attempt to attract beggars and vagrants – had done little to increase his takings; and so – yet again – he checked his restless ambition. It was some consolation, however, that he retained one regular patron of considerable standing and seemingly limitless purse.
‘And so I said to him after the damned lecture, “Poppycock!”’ exclaimed the drunken Prince to his loyal heathen companion, for the third time in succession, thumping his fist upon the bar. ‘What did the fellow mean by such arrant nonsense? Never sat through such ridiculous talk! No more of ’em? I’ve got one in every room of my damn house!’
‘Sahib,’ said the valet, choosing his words carefully, ‘might I venture that – whilst you are right in saying that a dado is the finishing of wood running along the lower part of the walls of a room, made to represent a continuous pedestal – Mr. Derwin may possibly have been adverting to the infamously extinct bird belonging to the family Columbidæ, formerly inhabiting the tropical island of Mauritius …’
‘Spare me your native jibber-jabber, man,’ interrupted the Prince, whose drunken mood now bordered upon the surly. ‘I know a fool when I meet one.’
Paratapparam, however, had no opportunity to reply. For, at that very moment, if not sooner, the door of the tavern burst open and a young woman dashed into the room. In truth, she was little more than a girl, though her lips pouted deep red; her bosom hefted with a bouncing handsome feminity and her eyes hinted at wild unchecked passions, barely contained by the manifold restrictions of a patriarchal culture and an impossibly tight corset.
‘Thank God!’ she exclaimed, breathless, catching sight of the Prince. ‘Sir, I see from your dress that you are a gentleman …’
‘Forgive me, I am told that a good tight fit is the fashion,’ said the Prince, coughing, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Nonetheless, he suddenly felt a lively interest in the distressed young woman.
‘You misunderstand me, sir. I mean to say, that you are a man of honour. Please, you must help me!’
‘My dear girl,’ said the Prince, courteously, coming unsteadily to his feet and effecting a small bow, which occasioned a distinct sensation of vertigo. ‘Of course, I shall offer whatever assistance I can.’
‘Thank the Lord!’ she continued. ‘For I am being pursued by one of the most brutal rogues in the Empire; a man who has not scrupled to use the most desparate measures to remove all obstacles to his depraved and vicious schemes; a man who will not hesitate to have his confederates put an end to my life or yours ...’
‘Let me just stop you there. My dear girl, when I said “offer” …’
‘Sahib,’ interjected Paratapparam urgently, ‘I fear there is no time for prevarication. I hear footsteps on the cobbles.’
The Prince turned to face his valet. He knew that the worthy native’s organs of audition had been honed to an acute pitch, during a fortnight spent trapping silver-eared bats in the mountain caves of Guzulstan; he did not doubt him for a moment.
‘Are you quite sure?’
‘A half dozen men, Sahib,’ – here Paratapparam paused for reflection – ‘unless, of course, they are scions of the notorious Molipolanopoli tribe of the Northern Ganges – a people so confident of victory in war, that they propel themselves into battle solely on their right foot, just to make things interesting.’ Paratapparam shrugged. ‘In any case, it is no more twelve, no fewer than six – unless, of course –.’
‘D**n your algebra, man!’ interject the Prince. ‘What shall we do?’
‘Do, Sahib?’ said the trusty valet, unsheathing his knife. ‘You need ask? If those feet are the feet of villains – whether singly or in pairs – then let us stand and fight them together, and, if we must die, we shall die like brothers! If this be our fate, then …’
But the door to the landlord’s parlour, and thence to the back alley, was already open.
Prince Albeit had vanished.
Paratapparam sighed, grabbed the young woman’s arm, and hurried after him.