There was something about London.
The smell of it. You could tell every part of her by her smell, rancid and reeking in this corner, crisp and fresh in the gardens, subsumed under pavement and mortar elsewhere. All the rain in Christendom couldn't bathe the city enough to make her clean again, but it did its best.
You could tell a person by their smell, too. Those who took care with their lives smelled clean, of soap for their hands and freshly pressed laundry in their clothes. Those who took care with their appearances smelled of too much perfume as they sought to cover up the fetid remnants of their back-alley dealings and whatever other hellish pursuits they had been up to an hour before they arrived in Parliament. The middle quarters, the commons and the like, were more honest. They smelled of whatever work they had been up to, ink and dusty parchment or dry goods and foodstuffs or cigar smoke and tobacco. Those who prostituted themselves in the East End smelled of human flesh in all the worst, most liquid ways.
By this, he could tell that he had passed through Spitalfields and into Whitechapel. It clung to his coat and his trouser cuffs and his shoes like mud, like the bits of trash that stayed in the streets because no one had the decency to pick up after themselves. He would burn these clothes later, when his work was done, and count it the cost of doing a good work. Preserving and caretaking was a dirty business. You took care of a garden by grubbing in the mud, just as you took care of London, and the Empire, by grubbing amongst the human detritus of her beleaguered streets.
"Five for a…" One of the pimps started up to him, then doffed his cap and bowed out. "Sorry, Guv'…" Around him, the crowds parted. Respect for their betters. They may not know their place well enough to stick to it, rampant as they were even outside these borders, but they knew quality when it approached them.
He went into the house to do his work with a proud head high and his shoulders squared. This was of grave importance; he would give it all due gravity. That it was pleasurable, even soothing, was not to be counted. This was duty.
Duty transformed him from a trembling-handed old surgeon and man on the brink of retirement and a faded existence in a home where fewer and fewer came to see, to a man of purpose. A man of vision, who could change the world for the better with a few swift strokes. He had almost done, too. Only one left to be dealt with.
She would have been beautiful, had she not consigned herself to sin and treachery and misdeeds. Every little lie stamped itself on her face and body, tearing her down and taking the Empire down with it. She had to be stopped. Every little lie, every treachery must be cut out, as all the rotten parts of the body when it was wounded and had taken infection must be cut out. Here, gangrene setting in at the gluteus minimus. Here, in the trapezius muscle, it had deteriorated and been eaten away by disease and that disease must be removed. Here…
Here. Where was he? What was here, in front of his hands. He had been explaining it a moment ago.
"I'm, uh…" His mind was fogged. The stench of chemicals from the surgery and the body's refuse opened up for inspection and discussion were clouding his thoughts. He should do better than this. "I'm sorry, where was I?"
The liver. The liver, Doctor Gull.
"Ah, yes, thank you. The liver." His work resumed. His great work, an example for the young minds and those to follow them, and to follow them and so on. Building up the future one organ at a time. He cut it out and held it up to demonstrate. The blood ran down his fingers, copper in his mouth and bright red pooling at the half-moon curve of his nails. The liver was a truly remarkable organ. Durable and hardy, more so than many parts of the body.
The body. No human left at all, really. Just a device of organs and flesh and bones and things to mask it on the outside, how well or ill it worked. He peeled away the mask piece by piece, the covering she had assumed to do her work. That was his task. That was his job. He took away the organs of her flesh and laid them on the table, her flesh like jelly seeping over his fingers. It seemed atrocious. Ridiculous. That this flesh was the same flesh under his skin, under every human, the likeness of which was lent by God. An imperfect likeness lent by God, as Gods…
"These archetypal forms, to become as gods…." He mused aloud to himself while he worked, as was his long practice. "The Bacchanal, Apotheosis, it's as if…"
White light coated his mind, bringing with it revelation, something he could almost grasp. Everything in neat, ordered forms. Everything perfect and clean, no smell to it at all, just forms that ordered themselves and did as they were told. Everything following one from the other, all of it bathed in shades of white.
No, perhaps not. She walked by, with her imperfect hair and her imperfect clothes and her long nails like a temptress demon tapping shapes on paper. Drawing forms out of blank bleached parchment. "No…" he refuted her. "No, this is dazzle, but not divinity. Nor are these heathen wraiths about me spirits, lacking even that vitality…"
It infuriated him, now. In fury and helplessness he railed against what he saw, all of it, everything. He repudiated it, this was not to be, not his Empire, this was not what he built. Everything was beautiful and clean and hollow, nothing beneath it, he could not tell where he was without the texture and aroma of his surroundings in this featureless hole. Everything smooth. Everything without feeling. He had no bearing, knew nothing of anything. Terrified, he returned to her.
"Do you understand," he whispered, "How I have loved you? You'd have all been dead in a year r two from liver failure. Men, or childbirth. Dead and forgotten."
She was beautiful now, all the parts of her that lied or deceived cut out, leaving only her pure core, her soul. Beautiful soul. The air around her crackled with her energy, a living flame beating with the rhythm of her sleeping heart. Vitality was hers. Now to be his. He caught her in his hands like a butterfly, wrapped her carefully, and took his leave. She would need to rest after his work. But she would be beautiful again, she, London, the Empire. She would be beautiful when she woke, new and clean. He had done his duty as attendant to the birth of a great new age, and now he could take his rest as well.
He clambered onto the creaking carriage with its leather and horse sweat with a great sense of exhaustion, as though he had done a great labor. Nothing to comment upon. It was only a new world.
"S-Sir William?" Netley, blathering. Dear old Netley. "Is it finished with?"
He was tired. So tired. While she slept, while Netley drove and the drifting smells of Whitechapel faded, the underlying scent of her body carried with him, reassuring him that he had done what was asked. Netley had asked a question. "Oh, I am, Netley. I am. I'm finished."