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THE ANGEL OF LONDON
The Exile’s Reluctant Return
When I left London in 1878, I intended never to return. I had my medical degree and a commission in Her Majesty’s Imperial Armed Forces Medical Corps. If I died on the plains of Afghanistan in the service of my Queen, I would ask for nothing better. And if I did not die and somehow the war with Russia ended, one great truth of the world is that there is always need for doctors, whether you are in England, India, or Brazil. I could go wherever I pleased and be sure of earning a living.
The possibility that did not occur to me was that I would neither die nor see the end of the war. In May of 1888, a convoy of which I was part was ambushed in a narrow defile near Kandahar. Two Afghani Fallen led the charge, and in my attempt to defend my patients, I took a blow that broke my left femur in two places and missed severing my femoral artery by only a fraction of an inch.
I should have died—as I had always expected to—and been torn apart by the Fallen’s monstrous claws, if it had not been for my faithful orderly Murray, who flung me across a pack mule and thus ensured that I was part of the retreat and not part of the carnage left behind. It was a long time before I was able to be grateful to him.
I was fortunate again: the nearest hospital happened to be under the direction of Dr. Ernest Sylvester, who has become famous in recent years for his theories about spectral injuries. Anyone else would have amputated my left leg and I would have died, as soldiers were dying throughout Persia. But Dr. Sylvester set the bone and cleaned my wounds with salt and silver, and I survived.
I was racked with fever after fever, the Fallen’s poison festering and erupting in my body like malignant flowers. Dr. Sylvester’s hospital was too small and too new—and withal too flimsy, being mostly flapping canvas and filthy straw—to have acquired an angel, and I was far too ill to survive transport to Scutari. I was healed with silver and salt and well-wishing from every doctor, nurse, and patient who knew how. Word spread, and when I finally woke clearheaded, my bed was surrounded by tokens from (it seemed) every soldier in Afghanistan.
“There are many people who have reason to be grateful to you, Dr. Doyle,” Dr. Sylvester said, after a particularly trying and bitter interview with my superiors, and I endeavored to remember that; endeavored—with greater or lesser success—to remember that I had done good work, saved lives.
Was being shipped home a useless cripple.
Pack mule overland, rusty steamer to Istanbul. Another week in Scutari with a relapse—the young doctor there was very intrigued by the infected matter he drained from the raking wounds in my thigh, and I told him, wearily, to write to Dr. Sylvester with his questions. The Angel of Scutari I saw only from a distance. She walked among the dying men, who needed her comfort most. I was not dying, and there is nothing—not hell-hounds, not even demons—angels fear so much as the Fallen, their own murderous kin.
When finally I was deemed strong enough for the journey to England, I was almost glad of it, for it is agonizing to be on the edge of a war in which you are forbidden to fight. My paltry belongings and I were packed on the air-barque Sophy Anderson, and we began the three-day journey home—I had never developed the Raj habit of audibly capitalizing the H, and I certainly did not feel it now, surrounded by civilian businessmen with soft hands and fishy eyes. England was not my home, and I only wished I knew where home might be.
I was still so depleted that I slept something like sixteen or eighteen hours in the twenty-four, but not even a stone could have slept the last leg of the journey, from Paris to London; the unpleasant assortment of businessmen and invalids was increased by two North American Colonials. One, a giant, ugly bull of a man, was drunk when they boarded, but he bothered me less than his companion, who was cold-eyed and watchful in the manner of a man who dug voraciously for others’ secrets because he was hiding so many of his own.
The drunken bull made a beeline for the only young woman among the passengers, the daughter of one of the businessmen; she had spent the past two years (I had learned from the inevitably overheard conversations) keeping house for her father in Athens. I had noticed her because she seemed another for whom England was not Home with a capital H. I had seen her in the Athens Eleftherion on Lykavittos, saying tearful and animated farewells in demotic Greek to a stout henna-haired lady whom I guessed to be the housekeeper. I had seen no such vivacity from her since; she sat silently by one of the tiny portholed windows, staring out at whatever there was to be seen and ignoring her father talking shop beside her.
The American took the unfortunately vacant seat across from her and announced, in a voice loud enough that they probably heard him at the base of M. Eiffel’s ridiculous and majestic mooring tower, that he was Enoch J. Drebber of Salt Lake City, Deseret, and he was very pleased to make her acquaintance. The emphasis he put on “very” was obscene.
“And I to make yours,” she said with the cold politeness that was only one step removed from How dare you.
I could have told her it was no use. Even if Enoch J. Drebber of Salt Lake City, Deseret, would have heeded that cue sober—a matter which was frankly open to doubt—he was roaring drunk. He merely leaned in a little closer and began talking in a much softer voice, a voice too low to carry at all. The young lady’s father had descended to the tower’s café for—no doubt—a quick cognac, and the other American, who might have been hoped to provide a curb to his friend’s objectionable behavior, merely offered a pale, chilly smile and wandered away to the other end of the cabin.
I did not want to care. I was exhausted and feverish, and my leg ached with a dull, endless throbbing that no position I tried seemed to ameliorate. I wanted to go back to sleep and be free of my body until we reached London. But from where I sat, I had a perfect view of the growing distress on the young lady’s face, and when Enoch J. Drebber leaned forward and, with the suddenness of a snapping pike, caught her hand in his ham-hock-sized paws, I saw her gasp and her futile attempt to draw back, and I could abide it no longer.
I heaved myself to my feet and said, loudly enough to carry through the entire cabin, “Sir, I must ask you to unhand the young lady.”
The abrupt quiet was exactly what I wanted. If nothing else, the other passengers would be made aware that there was a lady in need of protection, and one of them might—although I would not stake any large sum of money on it—have the fortitude to pick up the cudgels if I failed.
My immediate goal was achieved. Mr. Drebber released the young lady in order to stand up and snarl at me. “And what business is it of yours, sir, if the lady and I wish to have the pleasure of a few moments’ conversation?”
“None,” I said amiably, “if that is indeed what the lady wishes.”
He was not so drunk that he did not know just how strongly the lady had been wishing him at perdition. He scowled, an expression all the uglier for how naturally it seemed to fit his face, and said, “I still don’t see what call you’ve got to go nosey parkering around in my business, Mister—”
“Dr. J. H. Doyle,” I said, “late of Her Majesty’s Imperial Armed Forces Medical Corps. I wouldn’t give a halfpenny for your business, Mr. Drebber, but I think you should find a seat somewhere else.”
“Eavesdropping, were you?” he said, scowl metamorphosing to sneer. “Jealous, huh? Lady not interested in a cripple?”
“It can hardly be eavesdropping when you bellowed your name loudly enough for the entire cabin to hear.”
Mr. Drebber took a step forward, and suddenly his friend, who had cared nothing for the lady’s distress, was there, deftly insinuating himself into the aisle between Mr. Drebber and me, murmuring pale, cold phrases about “nothing regrettable” and “no rash gestures” with the polish and fluency of a man who had done the same thing many times before. But, for no reason that I could see, Mr. Drebber took the intercession in extremely poor part, shouting that he’d brook interference from no man living; he advanced into the aisle, shouldering his friend aside, and swung one massive fist in a ponderous haymaker.
I had to lean back only slightly to dodge, which also happily put my weight on my good leg. I swung the end of my cane in a neat sharp arc, striking solidly upon the inner condule of Mr. Drebber’s forward ankle. His howl of agony was remarkably satisfying, as was the way he fell to the floor, clutching his wounded appendage and promising me the fiery torments of Hell. His friend, eyes suddenly awake, began to make threats about legal action and lawsuits, a higher-pitched contrapunto to Mr. Drebber’s more sulfurous imaginings. I said, “It is no more than a bruise, sir. Please help your friend to someplace where he will not be blocking the aisle.” I gave the young lady a meaningful glance and added, “I fear he is upsetting the lady.”
I do not know whether she had ever had occasion to practice that sort of mendacity before, but she played up gamely, saying promptly—and perhaps not untruthfully, judging by her color—“Indeed, I am feeling a little faint.”
The American’s sharp-featured face for a moment indicated his profound hatred for all of us, including Mr. Drebber. But cabin stewards were starting to appear, drawn by Enoch J. Drebber’s continuing howls, and he knew as well as I did how the story was going to look when all the participants and witnesses were interrogated. He and I awkwardly maneuvered past each other, he hampered by Drebber’s uncooperative bulk and I by my cane and untrustworthy leg, and at the moment we were closest to each other, he caught my gaze and said, softly, “My name is Joseph Stangerson, Dr. Doyle. When you hear it again, I want you to remember who I am.”
It was an oddly elegant threat. I said, “No fear of my forgetting, Mr. Stangerson,” and then we had edged past each other and the moment was mercifully gone.
I sat down in Drebber’s vacated seat and said to the young lady, “Are you all right?”
She had her color back, in the form of a blush dark enough to make my face hurt in sympathy. She said, “I am fine. But I must thank you for…”
“You needn’t,” I said. “I did not act in order to earn your gratitude.”
She was pretty enough (and no doubt wealthy enough) that this puzzled her for a moment, but then her face relaxed into a more genuine smile. “I see,” she said. “You are a preux chevalier.”
“Sans peur et sans reproche,” I said, and although I intended the words lightly, they emerged with unexpected bitterness.
She drew back a little. I could not tell whether she was offended or frightened, and I did not care. The access of anger and the sharp addictive thrill of a fight, which had carried me this far, were draining out of me. I was aware again that my leg ached abominably, and the combination of fever and fatigue was beginning to make me light-headed.
Finally, well behind the fair, a steward reached us. “Are you all right, miss? Sir?”
“I am fine, thank you,” said the young lady, “but I fear Dr. Doyle is not well. Is there somewhere he could rest until we reach London?”
I should have been angry at her for being interfering and high-handed, but I didn’t have the strength for that, either. I barely had the strength to say, “Really, I’m all right. I’ve mastered the trick of sleeping in these seats.”
“You’d be better off lying down,” said the young lady, and the steward was clearly no more deceived than she was, for he said, “There’s a bunk in the back, for the night watchman. You’re more than welcome to the use of it, Dr. Doyle.”
There seemed no point in continuing to deny that what I wanted most in the world was to lie down. I allowed the steward to escort me into the back of the cabin, behind the swinging port-holed door that protected passengers from crew and vice versa. I started to say, Wake me if there’s need, before I remembered that I was no longer an Armed Forces surgeon. I fell asleep on the Sophy Anderson’s narrow bunk, and when I woke, we were in London, safely moored at the elaborate and ominous spires of Victoria’s Needle, which had still been under construction when I had left the city ten years before.
A Meeting in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital
London is no place for an invalid, nor for anyone required by the exigencies of fate to be thrifty. And I did not love the city with either maudlin or clear-eyed passion. But one thing London possesses in greater quantity than any other location in England, Scotland, or the Alliance of Ireland, and that is privacy. One rebuffs the avid curiosity of the country at one’s peril, but city dwellers have so many more opportunities to pry, among so many strangers whom they will never see again, that one missed chance is hardly worth the notice.
This alone made London the inevitable answer to the question of where I would choose to dwell, no matter how uneasy the Nameless Ones made me as they swept silently through the streets or congregated, like rooks, on the Underground platforms; no matter that regardless of how hard I pinched my pennies, they still seemed to slip through my fingers at a slightly faster rate each month. No matter that the obverse face of privacy is loneliness. I spoke to no one save the Armed Forces doctors to whom I reported once a week to have my leg assessed, and they, uncomfortable with my presence, unable either to treat me simply as a patient or to bring themselves to treat me as a colleague, were ill at ease and only became more so as the weeks passed and it became clear that, as so often with spectral injuries, my recovery was going to be less than complete. The leg would bear my weight, which was indeed more than I had hoped for when I first woke in Dr. Sylvester’s tent, but it was sluggish, always dragging slightly no matter how I strove with it, and without my cane to lean on, I lurched rather than walked. Running was out of the question.
I knew that bitterness was mere self-indulgence: I had chosen to join the Medical Corps knowing full well that something such as this could happen, even if I had stupidly believed it would never happen to me, and there was no sense in laying blame or holding on to this pointless anger. Better to pick myself up, whether literally or metaphorically, and go on from where I stood.
And I had almost reconciled myself to doing so when my body finally recovered enough for the secondary effects to make themselves known.
The sense of shame I felt, when I woke that first morning, battered and aching and dizzy with dreams that were in truth memories, was literally nauseous. I lurched across my tiny room to the washstand and retched for what felt like hours, though I brought up nothing but ugly green bile. It was, in a way, a relief, for at least I knew I hadn’t killed and eaten anything. Or anyone. But I was physically miserable all that day—as well as terrified, for I had no idea whether I might change that night.
I became more than ever determined to stay in London, and I said nothing to my doctors of this new development.
But, of course, the natural perversity of all things dictated that the more reasons I had to stay in London, the more beset with difficulties that prospect seemed to be. I could not afford London on my own, not with my health still so precarious that I could not hope to find regular employment, but finding someone to share lodgings seemed every bit as chimerical a goal. Although Armed Forces training made me at least capable of sharing my living space with another person, I harbored no illusions about the difficulties my temperament would make for anyone trying to share their living space with me. A natural tendency toward the autocratic had not been curbed by either my experiences as a surgeon or as a serving officer, and I had been accused more than once of being dour and pedantic and impossible to live with. Added to that were the new difficulties caused by and associated with my injury; pain made me short-tempered. And I now had a large and ugly secret to hide. I had a good deal of practice in keeping secrets, but this one …
At one point I began making a list of the traits I should look for in a potential flatmate. “Amiable” was the first, “dim-witted” the second. I considered for a moment, added “possibly deaf,” and burst out laughing for the first time since Kandahar.
The conundrum remained unresolved, my savings dwindling at an alarming rate but not yet extinguished, on the day the doctors pronounced me healed—or as close as they thought me likely to come—and I decided on the strength of it to have a drink in the Criterion Bar, where once I had felt myself to be the ruler of all creation.
“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” I said, saluting the indifferent bartender with my glass, and a voice behind me said incredulously, “Doyle? That’s never Johnny Doyle!”
I swung around and cried, “Young Stamford!” in disbelieving delight. Stamford of course was not young—he had been middle-aged when we struggled through Human Anatomy together, and he had to be nearly sixty now—any more than my name was “Johnny.” But the sophomoric humor of medical students had bestowed fitting soubriquets: “Young” Stamford, who was old enough to be our father, and “Johnny” in retribution for my refusal to reveal more of my given names than my initials. And it could have been much worse.
Stamford and I shook hands, and he said, “Good gracious, Doyle, what have you been doing with yourself?”
“I am only recently returned from Afghanistan,” I said, “and I have been devoting my attention to the question of whether there is a man in London mad enough to share lodgings with me.”
I meant it mostly as a joke, for Stamford had known me well enough to appreciate it, but instead of laughing, he got a very odd expression on his face and said, “Do you know, you’re the second person today to say that to me?”
“Who was the first?”
His expression became assessing. “I’m not at all sure … But then, you might just be cold-blooded enough to put up with him.”
“But who is this paragon? One of those terrifying German lecturers?”
“Nothing like that,” Stamford said cheerfully. He consulted his watch. “If you care to, you can come along and meet him, and it will spare me trying to explain.”
“I have nothing better to do,” I said truthfully and gripped my cane in preparation to follow wherever Stamford might choose to lead.
Outside the Criterion, he hailed a hansom and told the driver, “St. Bartholomew’s.”
“Bart’s?” I said, when we were settled. “Are you teaching, then?”
He gave me a wry smile. “The fate of any man who cannot afford a London practice and yet cannot bring himself to leave London. But it’s not so bad. I like to think that I’m doing my part to save lives by improving the pool of available doctors.”
“I can almost guarantee you that you are,” I said, and I told him stories of some of the so-called doctors I’d met in Afghanistan until we reached Bart’s.
Stamford led me to one of the chemistry laboratories. It was deserted except for a man hunched over a lab bench in the back of the room. As we came in, he straightened up, and my first, puzzled thought was, Why is he wearing an overcoat in here? But then, as he turned toward us, the overcoat flexed around him, spreading slightly before pulling back in, and I realized that it wasn’t an overcoat at all, but a pair of coal-black wings, crow’s wings, and the man wasn’t a man, but an angel.
I looked at Stamford in confusion. “Is that the Angel of St. Bartholomew’s? I thought surely I remem—”
“Him? Oh good Lord, no.” But before he could explain, the angel was striding toward us, his wings spreading and mantling around him. “Human blood!” he said. “I need a drop of human blood!”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Stamford said, putting his hands protectively behind his back. “If you’re turning vampire, I don’t want any part of it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the angel said and turned his attention to me. He was tall but slight-built, with an angel’s long, light bones. His complexion was marble-white, his hair white and as fine as a child’s, and his eyes so pale that they seemed transparent and lit from within—although nothing could have been farther from the terrible light of the Fallen’s eyes. He wore a subdued fog-gray suit.
“Human blood,” he said again. He had a lovely voice, clear and measured, and perfect enunciation. “I only need a drop. I promise it isn’t for occult purposes of any kind.”
“Then why do you want it?” I said.
Stamford said, “Don’t get him started.”
The angel hunched both shoulder and wing—which quite effectively created a barrier between Stamford and the two of us—and said, “It’s a question of stains, you see.”
“Stains?” said I.
“Yes! After a few days, the police have no means of determining whether a particular stain, say on a shirt cuff, is blood or rust or perhaps paint. And they can’t distinguish between human blood and animal blood at all. I’m working to find a reagent that will change color in the presence of hemoglobin, but not in the presence of other similarly colored substances. I think I’ve got it, but I can’t test it without a drop of human blood.” He looked at me beseechingly. I saw that despite the looming darkness of his wings, which made him look taller, we were very much of a height.
It was a bizarre request, but not an unreasonable one, even if it did seem oddly personal, and no matter what the metaphysicum morbi had done to me, I was still human. “All right,” I said. “But I want to watch this test of yours.”
His smile made his rather beaky face quite beautiful. “Of course! Here, I have a clean bodkin just over here—” He did not actually grab my hand to drag me across the laboratory, but it was obviously a very near-run thing. “Here, a beaker and a liter of distilled water. Here, your finger and the bodkin. Just a drop, really, I was being accurate. And I’ve got a bit of sticking plaster ready.” His enthusiasm was weirdly touching—and more than a little contagious. I pricked my finger and pressed a drop of blood into his beaker, then applied the sticking plaster and watched as he stirred the water vigorously until the blood was invisible.
“There!” he said. “Undetectable! But now if we just…” He picked up a small phial from the bench; its contents were equally colorless, and when he tipped a drop into the beaker, it looked at first as if he had simply added water to water. “Come on,” he muttered, stirring vigorously once again.
Then the liquid clouded up, and as we watched, a bluish-green sediment began to precipitate at the bottom of the beaker.
“Blood!” the angel shrieked in delight, and behind us, where I had forgotten about him, Stamford laughed.
The angel turned to scowl at Stamford; then he blinked, his wings rustling like those of a startled bird, and turned back to stare at me. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “I don’t know you at all, do I?”
“Crow,” said Stamford, “this is Dr. J. H. Doyle. It’s no good asking what the J or the H stand for—he won’t tell you. Doyle, this is the angel Crow, who is looking for someone to go halves on a flat in Baker Street.”
“But … how?” I said weakly.
The angel—Crow? Truly?—made that shoulder/wing hunching gesture again and said, “It’s unimportant. I’m very pleased to meet you. Have you been back from Afghanistan long?”
“Only a few months,” I said on reflex, but then realized with a jolt—“Wait. How did you know I’d been in Afghanistan?”
The angel giggled, and I could feel myself trying to decide if it was worth the effort of taking offense. It was a very peculiar feeling, and one I did not care for, showing as it did how weak and exhausted I still was. Thus, I was doubly grateful when Stamford said, “No, no, it’s his parlor trick. Crow can guess everything about you just by looking at you.”
“I never guess,” Crow said stiffly. “If I were to guess, I would say that Dr. Doyle returned to London four months ago. But it might be as many as six, depending upon frugality.”
My jaw dropped open. “That’s astonishing!” I said.
“It’s nothing,” the angel said, although he looked pleased. “A parlor trick, as Dr. Stamford says.”
“But truly. How did you know I had been in Afghanistan at all?”
He gave me an odd, sidelong look, halfway between coquetry and apprehension, then said, “It was really not very difficult. You came in with Dr. Stamford. You were clearly comfortable in a laboratory and familiar with St. Bartholomew’s, indicating that you were a doctor yourself. Your manner toward him and his toward you indicated that you were his colleague rather than either patron or patient. But I had never met you before—and you had clearly never heard of me. Given my notoriety in St. Bartholomew’s and other hospitals, that means you cannot have lived in London, or even come to London regularly, for several years at least. You have been in the tropics, as the contrasting color of your face and wrists shows. You have been recently and grievously wounded, as the stiffness and hesitancy with which you move demonstrates. All of that indicates an Armed Forces doctor serving in the endless conflict in Afghanistan. You were wounded by a blow from one of the Fallen, for the miasma lingers about you—I could have known where you had been from that alone, of course. I include the other details so that you can see I wasn’t cheating. But really, as Dr. Stamford says, it’s just a parlor trick.”
“Then I have been spending my time in entirely the wrong parlors,” I said, “for I have never encountered anything so remarkable in my life.”
Angels lack the wherewithal to blush, but he was clearly both pleased and flustered. “The rest is easily deduced from the fact that Dr. Stamford brought you to meet me. It was only this morning that I was asking him if I had any hope of finding someone with whom to share lodgings. Therefore, you are trying to live in London on an inadequate pension and have come to the conclusion that you cannot do so alone. Four months probably, but certainly not more than six. Really, it’s quite obvious.”
“Four and a half,” I said.
“There,” said Crow, and his wings shook into place as if smoothing literally ruffled feathers. “And you’re interested in the flat?”
“Definitely,” I said and could not even bring myself to frown at Stamford when he gave me an irritating and supercilious smirk, as one who would be congratulating himself loudly on this success every time I ran into him for the rest of our natural lives.
There were reasons I had never been particularly close to him.
Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Monette