William Sutton: A Shilling Shocker Short StoryBy
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Orpheus and the Nymphs of the London Underworld
A shilling shocker short story featuring Victorian detective, Sergeant Campbell Lawless, known as Watchman because he was formerly a watchmaker’s apprentice.
© William Sutton MMXIII
“Finding things as is missing something of a speciality,” said Worm, “with a sideline in unfinding things as may be better off lost.”
It was the Scotland Yard fellow, Lawless, who gave me my first whiff of the Nymphs of the Underworld; but it was his little messenger, Worm, who put me on the scent of my fantastical snowbound quest. Since Eurydice vanished…
I know, the ridiculous name. But she was at least half-Greek; and when first I saw her dance, I thought her the closest thing to a nymph I had ever seen. When first she heard me play, when first I saw her dance, by the Hampstead Ponds… Forgive me.
Anyway, it was the beginning of December she vanished. I didn’t think much of S Division’s efforts to find her, and I said as much to the Hampstead Superintendent, Charles J. O’Logan. He told me I could try my luck down town.
So I trudge through the early snows down to the river of filth. There, at a bare counter in Scotland Yard, Sergeant Lawless receives me kindly. These detective policemen, they must get cranks of every description wasting their time: a daughter who’s run off; a sister who never came home from work; a wife who’s been abducted.
“Abducted, sir?” Sergeant Lawless tries to be gentle. “She may have been. Or smuggled away to a Turkish harem. Or fanged by a serpent and gone to the nether world. She may have been, but–” Sergeant Lawless suggests so kindly, without actually saying it “Most likely she has gone wilfully. Oh yes. You scared her off with too much toil and drudgery; too many beatings, or not beatings enough; too much love. That’s the truth of it. People are free to do as they wish. Happens all the time,” Lawless tells me, “and the police shan’t meddle in household affairs.”
“But Sergeant,” I tell him, “that’s simply not the scenario in this drama. We’re intimates, conjoined in art and love. Since first I saw her dance, since first she heard me play, that day upon Hampstead Heath, hair dark with pondwater, willowy limbs, dark brows over radiant eyes, skin as lovely as can be…” I stammer to describe to him my world, our world, vanished with her strange evanishment.
He raises a hand, sympathetical like. “Mr O’Fahy, I cannot help you.”
No help to find Eurydice? I clench a fist. I had already stomped and stamped, shrieked and wailed, thrown pots and pans, wrecked my home, rent my cheeks, torn my clothes, shorn my hair, all manner of griefs and mournings, kissed her portrait, blest her eyes, missed her, cursed her, missed her.
Of this operatic grief, the Sergeant heard only the pale echoes, yet he shivered as if the shades of the underworld had trailed their fingers down his neck. “I can’t. But I know someone who can.”
“Worm, sir, of the Euston Square Worms, public company as yet unlimited. Finding things as is missing something of a speciality, with a sideline et cetera et cetera.”
I met Worm by Seven Dials, a filthy spot for dirty business. As the snow fell faintly down upon us, I told him my woes.
“Mr O’Fahy,” said the urchin most sympathetical like, notwithstanding the whiff of sewer life he exuded. “Indeed Maestro, if I am not mistaken, given that I’ve seen your entertainments down Cremorne Gardens, and up the Evans, and Wilton’s Music Hall. Your troubles stir the old heart, not unusual though they may be in these days of abductions and garottings, knifings and beheadings, rape, pillage, plunder and politic collusion. My Worms are a dab hand at finding what is missing et cetera. But for this, oh I fear I may need to invoke the very gods of the earth. Give us a quid. I’ll see you next week.”
I stomped through the slush. The first flakes had formed a pristine blanket; now the sleet dissolved everything to slush. I was sick of it. London was sick of it. It was Christmas Eve. In every window, families crowded round the hearth, wishing each other good cheer. But my hearth lay bare, and cheerless. I raged. I raved. Bit my nails with need, tore my hair in terror, remembering when first I saw her dance by the Hampstead Ponds, shimmering, dark, Eurydice—
“Maestro O’Fahy?” Worm took me by surprise. “It’s a poser you’ve posed us, and no mistaking.”
“Can you do at?”
“No, old cove.” He gazed at me, his eyes a brilliant blue. “But I’ll tell you who can.”
Worm led me neath the petticoats of London, through layered depths to the darkest recesses of the old Mother City. Down at the river of death, separating the city of the living from the city of the dead, the ferryman waited to row lost souls across the river of Lethe. “You wouldn’t have a couple of shekels, old cove?”
Two obols, perhaps he meant. I had expected… I don’t know what I expected, but I brought out my instrument, and I played. The ferryman’s pockmarked face was stern as a skull. Yet at the first notes of my song he yielded. The oars took us rhythmically over, ever nearer Eurydice.
On the far side, three guard dogs fought at the gates to bite us. I struck up my song again. Straightway, the dogs lay down, becalmed.
We entered that shadowy palace, which Worm called the Underworld. The king and queen looked at me in wonder.
“Are you still…? Only we don’t normally get your type down here.” Hades glared at Worm. “Call yourself a psychopomp? You’re only meant to bring people so far ruined I may leech the final vestiges of life from them.”
Worm spread his heads and left the stage to me.
I told my tale: evanishment, torn clothes, finding things as is et cetera. Hades was unmoved.
I told how we met, when first I saw her dance, when first she heard me play, for I knew that even he, even here, could not be immune to love. Hades laughed. Actually laughed. I would have no help to find Eurydice. In desolation, I comforted myself the only way I know how. The song escapes unbidden from my fingers. His wife Persephone – the grimmest bawd you could ever wish to see – laid a hand on her black husband’s arm, as my song of love melted her icy heart.
“Maestro,” she called. “Maestro O’Fahy, stop, I beg of you, before you wring my poor heart dry. There may be something we can do.” She asked for a photographical daguerreotype; I sketched her, dancing. She asked of Eurydice’s accents; I played the sound of her sweet voice. They asked for five quid; I wrote a cheque for ten guineas.
“Give us a minute,” said Persephone.
They sent me to wait in their pit of stinking humanity: the Nymphs of the Underworld. Wraiths devoid of warmth; degraded spirits; fallen bodies, and faces I half-recognised from my long years of entertainments and dalliances. There I lost myself in a haze of whisky and laudanum. A minute, an hour, a week. I knew not, nor cared – if I might find my Eurydice.
Worm shook me to my senses.
I gripped his arm. “Have they found her?”
Without a word, he took up my instrument and led me to the viewing balcony. There I peered, dumbstruck, through the curtains, down at the bawd house floor where the nymphs were disporting themselves, and there –
My heart leapt. Among the lost spirits, the dead souls, I saw. The tangled hair, the dark brows, the skin lovely as can be, my Eurydice –
Before I could leap down to her, there fell upon my shoulder Hades’ icy hand.
“There are two conditions. Number one: bank notes to the tune of one hundred, please, and no more of your infernal plucking. Number two: if you take her, she is yours, and you must do with her as you please; only I warn you, do not look too close, else the nymph of your heart may melt away back to the underworld.”
Back to the river, her footsteps behind me, my heart singing and my song full of love. Worm showed us, discreetly, to our boat. And there, in the shadows, I took her in my arms, and I held her, and I had her. Until, as the mist cleared arose, I looked…I saw…this was not… This was not my Eurydice! This? This hateful creature. Pitiful. Painted. A ruined, soiled, shamed imitation of my Eurydice.
What happened I cannot quite tell. As I came to my senses, the boy Worm was looking at me. The ferryman’s oars plashed on the waters, chopping through the ice floes. The boat was otherwise empty.
Did I thrust her from me in disgust, back to that Underworld which had consumed her? Or did I toss that mocking shadow into the river of forgetfulness, thinking to throw my love with it? Only my love did not go.
Worm handed me my instrument. And since then, I forever play, and play – for Eurydice.
Unearthing scandal, sabotage and stink beneath Victorian London’s streets, it is the first book in the series featuring detective Campbell Lawless.
“Extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable,” wrote Allan Massie in The Scotsman
Lawless and the Flowers of Sin will be published in 2014.
Working with the ReAuthoring project and Portsmouth Writers’ Hub, William often wields a ukulele while performing; he has read on the radio, and at events from the Edinburgh Festival to Portsmouth’s Square Tower, from Canterbury Cathedral to the poop deck of Light Ship LV21, and from Eton College to High Down Prison.
You can listen to the audio version of this story: