“To the man who loves art for its own sake,” remarked my friend, “it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.” He tossed aside the poster which I had only just finished lettering, and who ink had scarcely finished drying. “In this case, however, lowly though the manifestation may be, I confess I do not take much joy in it.”
“It is a necessity,” I replied, and spread the poster flat upon the small table against the wall. “And anyway, it is not intended as art, but rather politics. There exists no more artless field than that.” Though my friend’s words were sharp, they had little sting in them; he was in one of his black moods, more frequent now we were trapped indoors in a windowless upstairs room over a public house in the Rookery of St. Giles. It had been perhaps six weeks since we had, perforce, executed the half-blood prince Franz Drogo, and the Queen’s searches had not yet abated. Though brilliant in action, my friend fared poorly when inactivity was pressed upon him, and over the past month and a half, he had sunk ever deeper into the lowest of depressions.
My friend spoke no further, and when the ink on my poster had dried, I added it to the stack with the rest. It would be called propaganda by Victoria and her supporters; indeed, for my own part, I could scarcely dignify it with a more fitting title. The dissemination of vital information, perhaps. It entailed little more than an attention-grabbing slogan and a list of the crimes committed by Prince Franz Drogo and his ilk – the beloved masters and mistresses of Albion and the other nations of men. But not beloved by all, not now and indeed not ever in the past, contrary to all the history and stories they permit to be read and told. It was a small act of rebellion, but the only one available to me in our locked-up attic (when such allies as we had brought us ink and paper along with food and lamp-oil or candles). And though I urged my friend caution when his despair hardened into fits of temper and reckless plans of revenge, in truth, I too longed for an open fight rather than this, lurking in shadows and snapping at the ankles of our overlords from our cover. Though my friend had certainly observed the troublesome shaking that occupied my left hand during these too-quiet days, he abstained from any comment upon it.
It was after another hour or so of sitting in tense, if still companionable, silence that our host rapped on the trap-door in the rhythmic pattern that warned us he had brought along a guest. My friend opened the mechanism (of his own improvised design) and I lowered the ladder into the opening below.
Our host was the first one to climb up into the room. He was a small man, with close-set, quick-moving eyes, and fair of hair and coloring. He had given us a name once, which my friend had later dismissed privately as a pseudonym, and small wonder for that; all else we had of our host’s past life was from my friend’s inferences and not from the man’s own mouth. A former police inspector, my friend claimed, willing to work the little grey areas of the law, injured once in the line of duty. How he drew these things out from the calm demeanor and few words of our host, I still do not know, though a few things I could guess on my own: one, that our host had been injured not only in the line of duty, but also in some way connected with a half-blood abomination, for his devotion to our cause was no less intense for his quiet exterior. And two, that while his support for our cause was no less stalwart for this, he disapproved of the nature of the relationship between my friend and I. Of this I will write no more, except to say that what in polite circles may be referred to as the love that dare not speak its name seems rather mild in enormity when contrasted to what other evils our modern world holds.
The guest that followed our host up the ladder was a woman, perhaps twenty-five or twenty-six years of age. Her face had been largely obscured by her muffler and hat, which she removed once settled onto the lone chair in our room. Her hair had been cut most unusually short – barely to the length of her ears. She was a woman of some beauty despite this unfashionable choice, but her mouth and eyes were pinched by lines of worry, and our host excused himself to keep an eye out below as we closed up the trap-door and listened to our guest relay her strange tale.
She introduced herself as Miss Hunter, and explained that she was employed as governess to the Rucastle family of Winchester. The salary offered her was abnormally generous, but, she explained, as one hand darted – apparently free of her conscious effort – to touch her close-cropped hair, the position came with unusual conditions. Her haircut was but one of the milder ones, along with being given strange colors of dresses to wear. But she spoke of worse things, as well: the frightening and mercurial moods of her employer – his wife’s sullen silences – finding her child charge with his six-year-old fingers shredding the entrails of a wild goose.
“The older daughter – a Miss Alice, who would be perhaps twenty by now, is said to have fled to the New World. Because she did not get on with her stepmother Mrs Rucastle, they say, but I think otherwise. There are worse things than these, to which I am unable to put the words,” she said, and twisted her handkerchief in her lap. “But Mr Sherringford … I am forbidden to cross the threshold at night, there is an entire wing to which I am forbidden entry, and in the night, I wake up from dreams I cannot remember, with the darkest dread clutching at my heart …
“I am in London for only a day, to visit family, and to procure for my young charge some educational materials. I do not know what education I can give him that would lift these dark urges from him, but it was as good a pretense as any to convince Mr Rucastle that I should have the time free of him and his ghastly caretaker.” She met my friend’s gaze steadily. “I have heard from some mutual acquaintances, Mr Sherringford, that it is your business, and that of your colleague, to see to such … things as I have described.”
“You have seen one of them, then,” said my friend. Though a stranger might have presumed his posture, sprawled in the corner, to be a measure of his disinterest, but in the dimming lamp-light I plainly marked the growing keenness in his face as he listened to Miss Hunter’s story.
“No, sir,” she replied, “but, oh, do you not feel it in your very bones when one of them has been near?”
I remembered too well the chill that had seized my spine when my friend had first opened the door between the German prince and the room where I waited. I remembered, too, the grim satisfaction I had felt as emerald ichor had flowed freely to the floor. In my breast pocket, I felt the hard weight of the watch that had been my brother’s, and his widow’s pale face at the funeral as she spoke empty words of placation: “He would have wanted it so. For Queen and country.” What nature of Queen, what sort of homeland, left such a ruin of a man as what I had found in my brother’s casket? If I had not had the good fortune to be introduced to my friend by a shared acquaintance, I might have gone after the half-blood that had drained my brother of life and spirit on my own, and suffered a fate not so different from my brother’s. As it was, we cornered and trapped the servant of the Old Ones, and killed with fire what could not be killed with bullet or blade. While it might well have been that Miss Hunter’s tale was one constructed to lure us out and end our work for good, neither my friend nor I was capable of remaining in our safe-house and letting that young woman return without aid to the house of horrors from which she had come.
We departed from London in broad daylight, arrayed in disguises of my friend’s devising: moving separately, me as a bearded banker, my friend as an elderly gaffer. Upon our arrival in Winchester, Miss Hunter departed in a dog-cart driven by her employer to travel the last five miles to the Rucastle house-hold, as my friend and I made our way to an inn of some repute, the Black Swan, in the town proper. We took up residence therein using coin stolen by my friend from those less cautious with their wallets at the train station, and waited for word from the young woman in question.
It was a day and a night before Miss Hunter returned to share what she had found with us. Under my friend’s direction, she had returned to her employer’s home with all the literature she had acquired for her charge in London, and sought a premise upon which my friend and I might enter the house-hold without trouble, or indeed to make our way into the forbidden wing. We sat down with her in one of the inn’s sitting room to lunch, and she said at once, “I must share what I have found with you, though I have leave only till three o’clock – the Rucastles will be out visiting tonight, and I must watch the child.”
I enquired whether she had hit upon such an opportunity.
In answer, she withdrew from her handbag a set of keys on an iron chain, and placed them on the table in front of my friend. He plucked these up between two fingers, and studied them for a moment. “Abandoned,” he said, “and by a man with an inclination to strong drink.”
“The groom, Toller,” Miss Hunter confirmed. “He is too often in his cups. Especially for a man entrusted with such a terrible beast as he employs to guard the grounds. I shall not be glad to see the day when he, in a drunken stupor, allows that dog to slip its leash.” She moved the food around her plate with her fork, and then set it aside. “There is more. Yesterday, I was entreated by my employer to wear once again the electric-blue dress which he had set out for me, and to sit with my sewing at the central window in the sitting room. I did as requested, but also concealed in my handkerchief a small piece of mirror glass with which I might look out the window behind me.” The skin around her eyes drew tight for a moment. “I was not so subtle as I might have wished, for I believe Mrs Rucastle realized my game, and seemed to suddenly notice what I had already observed: a bearded man down in the street below. I feared at first that you had come early and without warning – but the man I saw had a smaller build than either of you possess, and what followed next convinced me that Mr and Mrs Rucastle had seen this man before.
“Mrs Rucastle locked eyes with mine, and she must have divined what trick I had used to spy through the window behind me. She contrived an appearance of shock, and said, ‘Jephro! A man in the street below stares up at Miss Hunter!’ He asked me if I knew the fellow, and I replied that I had no friends in the vicinity of Winchester. He then pressed me to turn over my shoulder and make a motion of dismissal – I protested that I ought rather to ignore this stranger, but he and his wife insisted, and were most gratified when at last I obeyed.”
“Yes,” said my friend, after a moment’s pause in the silence after Miss Hunter finished. “Yes, I see. Tell me, Miss Hunter: the Rucastles will be out tonight?”
“Yes, they will be gone.”
“Most excellent. Tell me, Miss Hunter: could you perform one more feat in this matter? I would not ask it if you were you not so clearly such an exceptional woman.”
“I will try. What is this feat?”
“You must return to your employers and act as if nothing is out of the ordinary until they part this evening.” My friend stroked his chin in thought. “Despite what information I must now impart to you. Almost certainly, Miss Hunter, you have been employed to impersonate another woman: Miss Alice Rucastle, doubtless – not departed for America, but rather imprisoned in this wing to which you have, until now, been denied entry. Her hair cut short – a fit of brain fever, perhaps? – and so yours must also be. Her favorite color, an usual electric blue, and so you must dress identically. Her friend or fiancé waiting in the street below for a kindly look – and so you must dismiss him on her behalf.”
“Why,” Miss Hunter began, and her hand flew to her mouth in shock. “The poor creature! We must endeavor to rescue her as soon as—”
“As soon as your employers have gone out for the night,” my friend said. “We will not, I think, endanger any other lives to rescue Alice Rucastle.” I was not sure, from what he said, whether he referred to Miss Hunter, or to her employers.
If Miss Hunter’s hands seemed to shake as she sought the proper key on the ring, that might just as easily be accounted for by the guttering lamp-light. The first key that she tried in the iron lock caught and turned, and the door stood aside. The drunken groom Toller had been observed to be snoring stupidly on the kitchen rug, and only the low and distant bark of his evil-tempered mastiff warned that there existed the presence of one we might just as happily avoid in this endeavor.
The door opened easily, and the three of us moved up the staircase and along the upstairs hall. There was a barricaded room, from which my friend quickly and easily cut the cord and removed the transverse bar, and entreated me to put my shoulder to the door that refused to give way to any of Miss Hunter’s remaining keys. When I succeeded, though, we found that the room was devoid of life, and nearly of furniture as well. There was only a small bed made up with linens, one table, and an iron statuette cast to resemble the spawn of the Old Ones. This I threw part of the bed-linens over as I looked around the room. There was the old stink of human skin in here, and a lingering, queasy unease out of place with the simple furnishings.
“The skylight is open,” said my friend, pushing past me into the small space. “Ah. A clever villain, to have worked out Miss Hunter’s intentions and carried the prisoner away – through the skylight, Doctor, do you see the end of that ladder there?”
“That ladder was not there when the Rucastles left,” Miss Hunter said, and my friend took her elbow to move her away from the door.
“Then he has returned to do it – and I believe that is his heavy step I hear upon the stair now. Doctor, your knife.”
No sooner had he spoken than a wild-eyed man with a stout stick in his hand appeared at the door. Miss Hunter gasped and pressed herself against the wall behind me.
“Villain!” cried my friend. “You shall not give your daughter to them!”
Rucastle had a look at once wild and beaten, like a dog kicked one time too many by an unkind master. His eyes were reddened, and their wild staring lingered on none of us for more than a moment. “You would call me villain!” he shrieked. “Apostates! Heretics! Well, I’ll fix you!”
The door slammed behind him, and his heavy weight sounded on the steps. Miss Hunter gasped, “He’s gone for the dog!”
My friend and I locked eyes, and my hand had already closed more tightly upon the hilt of my knife. There were dogs, and there were the half-breed hell-hounds favored by humanity’s masters. Which one awaited us outside?
I was the first out of the room and down the staircase, but I and my companions had scarcely reached the main hall when, from outside, we heard the baying of a fearsome, but certainly earthly hound – followed not long after by a very human scream of pain and terror.
“Blessed Gloriana!” shouted an elderly man that burst through the door from the kitchen. He was red of face and with alcoholic trembles in every limb, and I dared not guess what sights and sounds drove him back to the bottle every night. “Someone’s loosed the dog! It’s not been fed for two days now! Quickly, quickly!”
We rushed out to the front yard, and I am not proud to say that my knife, meant for the rending of limb from limb of those from a world not our own, made short work of the half-starved mongrel. But even as the animal breathed its last and I turned my attentions to staunching the flow of blood from Mr. Rucastle’s neck and shoulder, it became clear to us all that the sound of screaming had not entirely ceased. But from where did this second cry rise?
Miss Hunter and the drunken groom Toller were left to care for Rucastle as my friend and I raced across the house to find a window broken in the eastern wing. It was not the shattered glass, however, that had caused the frantic cries of pain, but a girl – her hair the same coppery shade, her build the very mirror of Miss Hunter’s – with her fingers buried in a young man’s throat, her shattered teeth gnawing at the now-empty sockets of his eyes. She looked up as my friend and I approached, but in her own eyes there was no reflection of our common humanity. She must have been beautiful once, but as she dropped the ruin of the man who had been her fiancé and advanced toward us, his sobs of pain mingled with her hollow, empty sobs and laughter. I did not hesitate to raise my blade again and strike home.
The fiancé did not live through the night. I have heard that Rucastle survived the attack, though much worse for the wear, and kept alive only by the ministrations of his wife. Whatever wreck of a soul is left inside that ruined body, I hope it suffers daily for the sin of giving its only daughter over to those that call themselves our masters – and then hiding away in shame the shattered shell of a girl that was the only possible product of that unseemly attention.
Miss Hunter, too, suffered the ill effects of her time in that house. From her next position as principal of a school for girls, it is rumored that she fell into ever darker and deeper depressions, spoke of things that had not happened, spoke to ghosts which were not there. She took her own life some years after the events in the house with the copper beeches by the door – but that is a luxury not permitted myself and my friend, for whom the work must go on.