There is something unspeakable in Whitty’s mouth. Is it a dead animal?
No, it is his tongue.
The correspondent opens his mouth – carefully, for the lips adhere to one another and the skin in one corner has cracked. He refrains from opening his eyes, for the lids have been secured by two sharp objects.
He slides gently over the edge of the bed, flops to the floor with a wet thud, and gropes blindly for the commode. He relieves his swollen bladder while remaining on all fours, for balance. He rolls onto his side, arms and legs splayed in front, heaving in short grunts.
He has transformed into a dog. That would explain the terrible taste. A dog will put any deuced thing in its mouth. He remains still, eyes closed, thinking things through … Sometimes of a morning he imagines himself having fallen prey to some malevolent night sprite, a temperance fiend perhaps, which sneaks into his bedroom carrying a disgusting substance, maybe faeces, with which to punish people who sleep with their mouths open, having imbibed deeply.
On the other hand, maybe he has become a dog.
He burrows his head under the rug for warmth. He sneezes on a ball of dust and experiences the sharp sensation of a wire tightening around his skull. Placing one paw on his head, he presses his temple with his thumb …
A thumb. He has a thumb. He is not a dog.
For a moment, he thought he was a dog.
Whitty reawakens with a ball of dust in his mouth – the result of lying beneath a carpet which has not been beaten in years. Why, he asks himself, would he be lying under a carpet? Is something biblical happening? It was Jael who concealed the Canaanite general under a carpet, then drove a tent peg through his head. Was the Canaanite choking on a dust ball at the time?
Why is he thinking these thoughts of choking and death?
Choking. Death. The public hanging. Newgate. One by one, like candles at a festival of Druids, the events of yesterday illuminate the inner passage of his mind. A steady diet of weekly hangings, while necessary to sustain life in a slow news period, is like oil of vitriol to the human spirit. Unlike other sensational events, one does not become inured to a hanging – rather, it is quite the opposite, as though a layer of skin is removed with each repetition of the spectacle.
Naturally, following yesterday’s proceedings, restorative cordials were taken earlier than usual, in the company of two companions whose names escape him for the moment. In addition, unless he dreamt it, certain other tonics were taken, which indulgence disturbed the natural rhythm of his body, the equilibrium of stimulants, depressants and opiates which sees him through the day. Consequently, other than the hanging itself, yesterday is a blank wall …
Oh, the dread. Where did he go? What did he do? Whom did he do it with, or to, or over? More urgently, at some point in the day did he turn in his copy? On time? Did he? Apprehension grows like a boil: does he still have a profession? If not, what will he do with what remains of his time on earth? Where will he go? What will he drink? With no purpose in life other than one’s occupation, one is no better than an animal.
A thread of drool moistens the worn stubble of the rug beneath Whitty’s chin, where he lies dormant, seeking scraps of remembered events, like a jilted lover reassembling a letter torn apart in a jealous rage.
Plant’s comes to mind. The rear snug at Plant’s. Words exchanged in anger – with whom? He must speak to Mrs Plant, who keeps an inventory of his excesses and transgressions, for future reference.
A misgiving: something about Mrs Plant.
Following the most recent misfortune, his latest monumental blunder, it has been Whitty’s practice to let no one know precisely where he lives. Instead, he frequents regular haunts at which, at times of his choosing, he may be found. Plant’s Inn, situated just off Whitefriars near the offices of The Falcon, is his preferred address – an open-pit mine in which journalists root for nuggets as part of their professional day.
He spent the evening at Plant’s. Therefore he must have visited the office earlier in the day, for that is the way of it, a gin or two as a nominal reward for some trifling achievement – such as a completed and submitted report on a hanging; which visit can extend into the evening, spending the fruits of one story in hopes of another, sniffing the brains of his colleagues for truffles of information, and being snouted in return.
So there it is. He was at Plant’s, therefore he turned in his copy. Therefore he still has a profession. Despite whatever indiscretion or excess, life may continue, such as it is.
His relief liberates other memories rendered blurry by an evening of gin and medicinal snuff – which activity ended with a few drops of laudanum, whose purported blessing, a sound sleep, is undercut by the most terrible dreams …
… as a regular spectator of such public offerings at Newgate of a Monday morning, your correspondent cannot but wonder whether a second Fiend is brought to life by the elimination of the first-a Fiend unconfined to the material remains of Christopher Walden, free to spread and drift like the black smoke from surrounding chimneys, to be inhaled by the population as a whole …
Whitty awakens with a start. What was that? Who wrote it? Did he write it?
… an account distinguished by its utter disregard for the fundamental requisites of journalistic veracity, a work of fiction in all but name, whose unabashed purpose is to exploit the macabre achievement of its principal (in comparison to which Christopher Walden is a Piccadilly pickpocket), and the public dread it inspired, to lucrative effect.
Trenchant stuff: what on earth was it about? Something on poisoning?
His body and mind throbbing like an inflamed nerve, Whitty crawls on all fours to the grate in the opposite wall, gathers the last few lumps of coal from the tin scuttle, sets them alight, and curls up before the fire in such a way that his entire body may occupy a pool of uncertain warmth.
Once he was a dog, now he is a cat. As his mind clears with its recollections of the previous night, he suspects that he may have been, at some point, an ape.
Mr Darwin, if rumours of his current premise serve, is only half-correct when he postulates the necessary evolution of the species. It is possible to devolve as well as to evolve. Depending upon your poison.
Whitty is now upright, though uncertain how the feat was accomplished. Temporarily, his intestines have found equilibrium. And he has had a wash. Capital. Nothing to tone the system like a hot bath, a cup of strong tea, a restorative dose of medicated snuff – and a teaspoon of Acker’s Chlorodine, a useful mixture of opium, marijuana and cocaine in alcohol.
Feeling human now (whatever that means), the correspondent brushes his side-whiskers to their requisite sleekness and shaves the edges, resisting the perverse impulse which he imagines every London clubman to experience while shaving of a difficult morning – to turn the razor sideways, slit the throat and be done.
For the second time since awakening he reflects upon the bleak insufficiency of his one-dimensional existence. A clock with one hand loses perspective; a man with one leg topples over – but what to do? Should he marry? Take a commission in the Dragoons? Re-commit to the Church of England? Ha!
Hallo. A slight swelling on the right cheekbone, as though from a blow of some kind. From someone left-handed, presumably. Not a good sign.
He dresses carefully: fresh shirt and collar, silk cravat, the customary salt-and-pepper trousers; putrefaction within, perfection without – the secret to worldly success …
Hallo. What is this? A stain on the left buttock, indicating possible contact with the floor. And a ripped seam as well.
He finds spare trousers and a fresh waistcoat. He retrieves his coat and hat, noting that the coat is clean, the top hat uncrushed. Whatever happened, it happened indoors.
Streaks of watery sunlight trickle over the surrounding roofs and treetops of Camden Town, illuminating the stucco horror that is Whitty’s current lodging, with its front entrance (dual ringers for Guests and Trade), its patch of withered vegetation surrounding the backyard privy, its second staircase for Mrs Quigley’s sole, emaciated servant.
Widowed and with a modest endowment, Mrs Harlan Quigley maintains a close watch over all that rests within her province, in the way that a spider keeps in touch with its web, sensing each tremor as an extension of her own plangent body, whether it is the sound of a hoop removed from a pail in the back kitchen, or a rumoured change in the financial position of one of her guests.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Whitty. Two gentlemen, sniff, to see you last evening.’
Owing to a set of wooden teeth which might fly from her mouth in an unguarded moment, the widow habitually pushes her vowels through pursed lips as though through a tube; no doubt in compensating for this necessary constriction, her nostrils are given to punctuating her speech in short, meaningful sniffs.
‘Two gentlemen do you say, Mrs Quigley?’ Whitty’s heart sinks. He does not need this.
‘Two large gentlemen, who voiced concern about a confidential matter. Something about, I regret to say, rats.’
Blast. Can they have tracked him down already? ‘Rats, do you say, Madam? Some mistake, surely.’
‘Would that it were so, Mr Whitty. Buckingham Gardens does not permit an association with gentlemen who wager, nor with gentlemen who concern themselves with rats.’
‘I beg, Madam, that we may discuss this at some later date, for I am unwell, and have urgent business in the city.’
Mrs Quigley blocks his passage, a formidable woman in pagoda sleeves, a crinoline, multiple petticoats and a skirt like a black umbrella. Like any man brought up by a governess, Whitty represses the instinctive urge to flinch in anticipation of a blow from the flat of her hand.
‘Sniff. A word if you please, Mr Whitty.’ The proprietress inserts herself between the correspondent and the front door with the surprising speed of a rhinoceros. ‘I shall speak plainly, Sir. Having noted, and not for the first time, certain disturbances, certain improprieties on your part, having taken complaints from Mr Stedman and other guests, furthermore having noted the balance outstanding in your account …’
Whitty’s crushing headache has returned along with the residual anxiety, the impending sensation that he is about to tumble into a chasm. ‘Forgive me, Mrs Quigley. Something disagreed with me. The mutton at dinner …’
Wedged between Mrs Quigley and the entry wall, Whitty recoils from the pressure of her body, redolent with stale lavender – which he finds, in his present condition, insupportable. Distorted visually by the throbbing in his forehead, she towers above him, backed by multiple shelves of hideous porcelain miniatures, like a Chinese dragon in some pagan version of Hell.
A waking nightmare and so early in the day.
‘Madam, I take your complaint with all seriousness, yet I beg you, important business calls …’ Thinks the correspondent: such as the need to heave.
‘Mr Whitty. This establishment caters to temperate, respectable, working gentlemen, for whom a restful night’s sleep is of the utmost importance. Hence, I am afraid, Buckingham Gardens requires you to seek other arrangements, immediately.’
‘Madam, you push me too far. This is not a convenient time.’
‘You are not welcome here, Sir. Is that plain enough for you? If I have to summon a constable, I intend to see you vacate the premises with dispatch.’ Mrs Quigley folds her substantial arms beneath her bosom, flushed with the assurance of power over her domain in Camden Town.
Whitty takes a deep breath. It has come to this. And so early in the day.
‘I thank you, Madam, for you have done me a service. Namely, you have set me free to speak my mind and to write frankly. As it happens, I was about to undertake an exposure of the degraded state of suburban lodging. Naturally out of loyalty to Buckingham Gardens, I intended to spare our readers a full account of the conditions here. A moral compromise that weighed upon my mind; but now, thanks to you, I am at liberty to tell the truth, and damn the consequences.’
Mrs Quigley’s wattles tremble over her starched collar. ‘Sir, I will have you understand that Buckingham Gardens offers accommodations of the first rank.’
‘So you may have deceived yourself, Madam, the wretches in your care being for the most part clerks, necks like bent umbrellas from a lifetime of subservience. However, upon this occasion you have drawn to your bosom a member of the Fourth Estate. You have taken a step up and I congratulate you. See that you do nothing further to jeopardize your position.’
Whitty traverses the walkway to Ampthill Street, swinging his walking-stick with feigned nonchalance, as the door to Buckingham Gardens slams behind him with impressive force. He turns down Ampthill Street, bending against a chilly wind, feeling vaguely corrupt.
After London became uninhabitable for the leisure classes, who now venture into the city only in season, white-collar workers likewise began to desert the city for suburbs such as Camden Town, a community of middle-class strivers whose motives for immigration are a mix of pastoral Utopianism, everyday pretension, and a desire to impose upon the rural landscape their vision of gentility.
It was a mistake to flee to Camden Town. It is neither natural nor healthful that a London clubman should dwell outside the West End. He could have stayed ahead of the chase by moving from one shabby nethersken to the next, or talked his way into a club under an assumed name: anything would have been preferable to this flight to the edge of the earth.
He trudges past hastily erected, identical buildings of yellow brick, with titles such as Kent Corner and the ubiquitous Shady Nook, with dates below the eaves, like headstones. As is usual with denuded landscapes, the wind lifts the dust, which swirls about him as an abrasive counterpart to the London fog. Whitty feels the dust insinuate itself into his clothes, there to itch him for the day. He reminds himself that, for the talented correspondent, every experience, however unpleasant, is crisp copy. He tells himself to view Camden Town not as a curse but as a social experiment; material, perhaps, for an expose on the sterility of the suburbs such as the one he just described to Mrs Quigley – a narrative with greater potential than most, of late.
In his mind, Whitty composes a tentative paragraph:
In accommodating the catastrophic tide of immigration from the countryside that occurred over the past decade, as well as the exponential growth in the power and wealth of business, whole new areas have grown, seemingly overnight, out of rubble and open space. Greater London grows ever greater in sprawling suburbs of semi-detached dwellings and rental accommodation, all with the same look of mass-produced gentility, defined by the one aspiration cherished by Britons of all classes – the desire for private, secure space, uncontaminated by the next class down …
A decent opening. Trenchant stuff. Crisp copy. Pip, pip.
A cab is nearly as scarce as a pub in Camden Town. Drivers find little custom among the ink-stained wretches who commute on foot the three miles to the city each morning, unable to afford a lowly omnibus, much less the new double-decker buses, with decency boards to prevent pedestrians from looking up the skirts of the ladies. Hence, the grinder he manages to flag as it emerges from Mornington Crescent is a most dissipated vehicle, whose cabman, in cracked riding boots, a horse-blanket for a mantle and a whip, peers down at Whitty like Shakespeare in livery. ‘Where’s it to then, Guv?’
‘Fleet Street, my good man, if you please.’
‘Yor be the press if I’m not mistaken.’
‘Indeed, you’re correct.’
The cabman produces a greasy copy of Dodd’s. ‘I likes to keep up with the news. Shockin’ business on the hangman what starved his mother. Well done, Guv. Right fly.’
‘Thank you very much.’ He accepts the compliment, although the piece was written by Fraser, a rival he holds in contempt. He recalls that the hangman was in fact a bootseller whose mother died of worms, that Fraser’s account contained more fiction than fact by a generous measure; yet such was the response, Dodd’s was required to print extra editions. He wonders, not for the first time, if there is any point in reporting actual events at all.
The grinder’s spindle-legged, moth-eaten horse, hairs on end like porcupine quills, whisks its tail into his face as Whitty mounts the runner; the cabman flicks his whip with a practised movement of the wrist so that the abrupt forward motion flings the passenger rudely into his seat, even while closing the door. Bracing himself for the bone-rattling trip down Hampstead Road to shabby Tottenham Court Road to precious Oxford Street, the correspondent settles into a deepening apprehension and gloom.
Clearly the cab has been out all night. One of its silk window-curtains has been torn from its fastenings and flutters in irregular festoons on the inward wall. The velvet cushions, worn shiny by a thousand trousers and the pomaded hair of a thousand heads, are powdered with cigar-ashes. He notes a theatrical pass-check under his feet, and the dirty fingers of a white kid glove stuffed down the back of the seat.
He leans back, closes his eyes and falls into a half-sleep, in defiance of the vehicle’s unpredictable lurching. In his half-dream he is speaking, or rather orating, to a restless throng at some sort of political rally. The phrases issuing from his mouth are in a foreign language and he is unable to discern his own text. Now it comes to him that he is standing not on a platform but on a gallows, in the courtyard of Newgate Prison. The air is swirling with pigeons. One of the birds flies straight at him from the slate roof opposite, striking him hard on the cheek …
A particularly deep pot-hole jars the vehicle so that Whitty is nearly thrown from his seat, and now the sounds of wheels surround him like waves of the sea: the clatter of hansom wheels, the rattle of the brougham, the groan of broad cartwheels, the latter leaving behind the fragrance of green peas and country earth. He hears a babble of voices, excited, angry, pleading, a not-quite musical roar like the sound of a large marriage party, or a political gathering, or a livestock auction.
He rubs his eyes and peers through the window as the grinder makes a right turn onto Regent Street and south to the city. Beyond the rattling omnibuses, saddle horses and drays are fine ladies in flounced skirts, sleek gentlemen in twice-about neck-cloths and black top hats, gliding up and down the walkway like moving columns, pausing at the superior shops and furniture galleries whose square-paned windows glint like spectacles in the morning sun.
A mustard-coloured chariot with a trail of liveried servants stops in front of a chemist’s. The delighted shopkeeper dashes across the pavement to open the door with the sweaty enthusiasm of a man who has recently stepped back from the brink of financial ruin, his fall checked by the arrest of William Ryan, otherwise known as Chokee Bill, the Fiend in Human Form.
It is impossible to overestimate how truly unbalanced London became during the Chokee Bill panic. Yet the cognizance that a murderer walked the streets, and the lurid nature of the murders themselves, would never have produced such an extremity were it not for their artful treatment in the sensational press, notably by Edmund Whitty of The Falcon – who, through a vivid, not to say lurid, reconstruction of the murders, the murdered and the murderer, stirred the London reader’s torpid imagination into imagining the violent death of a fallen woman as something notable, or even abnormal.
In fact it was not until three women had been murdered while plying the trade, murdered with the same scarf and the same mutilations, that the Telegraph stooped even to a mention that the murders had anything in common. (And there have been two in as many months since: God only knows how many anonymous wretches died previously by those same hands.)
Even at that, with the wilful myopia only editors achieve, only two of the four commonalities were deemed relevant: the fact that all three were women, and the fact that all three were whores. Hence, the Telegraph chose to present the murders, not as the work of a single fiend, but as though violent death and mutilation were a fate of all who choose that style of life, and that these three women together sound a dreadful message to women who would follow the path to ruin. As far as the Telegraph was concerned (as well as the Metropolitan Police), the identity of the murderer, whether one or several, was largely irrelevant.
It became clear to the correspondent that, if these wretched women were to cause any notice whatsoever through the fog of reflex moralism, it would be necessary to shift public attention from the victim to the murderer. Further, until such time as the identity of the Fiend in Human Form was known, it would be necessary to invent one.
Thus it came to pass.
Lying in his bed with a serious case of morning sickness, and with a deadline looming over him like some dreadful bat, Whitty partook a medicament from his chemist, fell into a slumber … and through the opium haze, before his mind’s eye, slouched the inspiration, the man of the hour, the figure who would lift the murder of whores into the realm of the newsworthy: Chokee Bill, the Fiend in Human Form.
In supplying a name for the murderer, Whitty had no sure estimation of the potential of a symbolic character to rivet the public imagination and focus it on a narrative; none the less, this soon became apparent. Within a matter of days, so entrenched and so vivid had the Fiend become in the public mind that, had any man claimed to have created Chokee Bill, he would have been made a laughing-stock.
It was as though a resounding chord had been struck by the sound of the name itself, which Whitty borrowed from a half-remembered childhood rhyme:
Up the river, over the hill
Into the village is Chokee Bill
With (something, something) and graves to fill …
Perhaps the name served to reawaken some ancient, common memory, some long-forgotten, Gothic bogeyman. In any case, Chokee Bill permeated the city like a miasma, causing business to contract as though the plague were upon London.
For the economic slump to follow, Whitty feels not a shred of remorse and more than a little of its opposite. The wave of public alarm – and the attention of the constabulary – would not have required the name Chokee Bill to effect, had the victims been shopkeepers, and not whores …
Whitty peers through the curtains at the passing parade of expensive fabric, the magenta satins, the bottle-green velvets. By unfocusing somewhat and thereby altering his field of vision, he can discern the thin shapes of sneak thieves, beggars and sweepers, darting out of the crannies between buildings, scuttling sideways like crabs then retreating into the shadows.
He observes a girl no older than six, in rags, crying in distress over what appears to have been a beating, a performance which she enacts on a daily basis. As always, he marks with heartfelt admiration her portrayal of hopeless despair, the theatrical sweep with which she gesticulates, clasping her little hands together and pressing them to her breast.
A magenta dress with its side-whiskered escort swishes by the child without pause. Lacking the Fiend in Human Form to disconcert them, they have no reason to notice.
THE FIEND IN HUMAN. Copyright © 2003 by John MacLachlan Gray. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.