Gaslight Essence: Flesh And Blood

Through the drifting gray fog off the Thames the figure strode idly.  He was a few bold strokes of charcoal with a couple of white notches of white chalk at the end of his sleeves and a patch of white chalk between collar and stovepipe hat.  The face was pleasant enough, with its crooked, but well-meaning smile, and perhaps handsome, if a little anemic in its complexion.  Pale blue eyes and pale blue lips and an easy how-do-you-do-this-chill-evening bearing.  He was what might be best described as lackadaisically stoic, and of an indeterminate age.  What was more, he was on his way to a murder investigation.

“Evening, constable,” the tall, anemic man said as he approached the other man upon the street corner.  “Chilly night, isn’t it?”

“Always chilly where murder’s bloody as this is, sir,” the constable rejoined, his flaring mustache a pale white bird beneath his long, red nose.  “Too chill for these old bones, I dare say.”

The constable held his arms tight to his large body, as if huddling around himself for warmth.  The lamppost’s gaslight carved in harsh light the cobbled sidewalk and the brick facades, impressing upon any passerby the oppressive reality of their countenance, which was as stern as the constable’s grim expression.  Yet, the gaslight rendered the other gentleman almost translucent as the fog itself; as if the light would burn him away utterly were it just a little starker on the monotone block of moonlight and shadows.  A ghost made flesh, he followed the constable to the nearby edifice.

“This way, detective,” the constable said, opening the door for him.

Women were weeping within the building.  They sat together upon faux-posh couches of red satin, their mascara running down their pockmarked faces.  What they wore would have been scandalous in any other sphere of London, but suited the alluring interior of the establishment itself.  The anemic fellow tipped his hat to the madame—a lady in her forties, likely, with a weave too fair for her dark eyebrows—but the constable shooed her away before she could address the former gentleman.  The constable led his guest up the stairs, with their wobbly bannister and dank carpet, and down the hall.  Several doors were closed along this hall, on either side, and were silent, their trade postponed for that evening.  Candelabrum lit the way, presuming more prestige for the purpose of that place than what would have been allowed by the estimation of higher social circles.  Touches of feminine grace adorned the hallway here and there, however, despite the pretense of that establishment: potted flowers of hale vibrancy, watercolour paintings undertaken by a keen eye, and even needlework wherein sharp steel rendered delicate conceits of colour and form.  The anemic gentleman noted all such things with the same phantasmal smile as he followed the constable.  There was a pretense of taste at the establishment, despite the aim of that establishment.

At length, they came to an open door.  The constable stroked his mustache once, as if to calm it lest it should fly away in fright.

“This way, sir,” he said.

The pale gentleman entered the bedroom.

The woman’s neck had been cut, ear to ear, her bodice and gown and blonde hair all soaked through with her own blood.  Her eyes stared vacantly as she sprawled upon the bed in parody of a model to some Bohemian artist in want of scandal.  Her face was drained of colour, excepting her lips, which were blue, and yet she was not so pale as the pale gentleman who surveyed her leisurely at a glance.  His crooked smile was immutable.

The room itself was lit well enough with candles, though shadows still clung here and there to the walls like spiders, devouring flowery wallpaper with their black gossamers.  Strangely, despite the body of the prostitute, the room was rather tidy.  The bed was tidy.  The prostitute herself was tidy, except for her blood.  It was as if the room had not been used at all that night.

A watchman wobbled to attention beside the bed as the constable and the gentleman entered.  He looked groggy and irritable, squinting sternly.  He snorted once, then spoke.

“The Magdalens raised a right fuss all over the street,” he said.  “So I came runnin’ and found this here whore laid out just as you see here.  I told the rest of ‘em to stop botherin’ the fine folks round here, but they been cryin’ evah since and won’t quiet themsel’es ah tall.  How can a man piece together the puzzle when he can’t ‘ear ‘imself think?”

“Did you happen upon anyone in flight hereabouts?” the pale gentleman asked, patiently.

“No sir,” the watchman said.  He wobbled a bit in his long coat, either from sleepiness or drink or both.  “When I come up ‘ere the lady of the house— if you can call ‘er that—shown me up ‘ere directly.  And here I stayed, sir, exceptin’ to send someone to fetch the constable.”

“And so I, in turn, requested you, sir,” the constable said.  “For it bears all the signs of our industrious Jack.”

“Indeed?” the pale gentleman said, dubiously.  “I wonder…”

The pale gentleman looked upon the bloodied corpse of the prostitute with his pale blue eyes.  His smile never wavered, but was pleasant as ever, though it still remained crooked and pale.

“Such a waste of warm blood,” he said.  “The chill London air has squandered it all.”

The constable cleared his throat.  “We have a witness, sir,” he said.

“Then let them testify to their truth,” the pale gentleman said.

The constable frowned in confusion, then nodded to the watchman.  The watchman left the room, venturing down the hall.  A door opened, then the watchman’s rough voice said, “C’mon, then.”

A young woman— too young by many standards— entered the room.  Her hair was light brown and loose about her shoulders, the natural curls like ripples on the brown surface of the Thames.  She wore only a white shift and had a countryside tint of sun to her skin.

“Hello, young lady,” the pale gentleman said.

“Hello, sir,” she said tremulously, not looking at the corpse upon the bed.

“And what is your name?”

“Emma, sir,” she said.

“Emma,” he said courteously.  “A lovely name.  And what do you do here?”

“I am…an apprentice, sir,” she said.

The constable was agog with disbelief.  “An apprentice?  Is that what you would call it?”

“I’m not of age yet, sir, to be of…purpose,” she said.  “Madame says I have not yet bloomed to it, sir.”

The constable shook his head pityingly.  “Such sins would shame Babylon.”

The pale man ignored the constable and addressed the young woman.  “What did you see, young lady?”

She stammered.  “A man…a big man…hairy…thin.  But strong.  Tall.  But not too tall.  Everyone is tall to me, sir.  I am so short, you see?”

“Do you happen to know the reasoning for this…barbarism?”

“He did not like how Madeline…how Madeline looked,” she said uncertainly.  “And how she spoke.  He took a knife and…and…”

She burst into tears.

The pale man waited patiently, his crooked smile unmoving; his pale blue eyes unblinking.

“And where did he go?” he asked after a moment.

“Out…the window…” the young lady said, sobbing.

The constable and the watchman exchanged uneasy looks.

“A man might go out the window,” the constable said, “but not run away at a sprint.  He’d be hobbling, if he could walk at all.”

The pale man went to the window.  The curtains were drawn aside, but the window was not open.  After a moment’s thought, he about-faced with a smooth motion, as if a wooden figurine in a Dutch clock.

“I should like to speak to the young lady alone,” the pale gentleman said.  “Please, Emma, show me to your quarters.”

He followed the young lady down the hall.  She led him to a room with three beds laying nearly side to side to side.  Colorful dresses hung within an open wardrobe, alongside more mundane clothing, and the window was covered with a curtain.

“Ah,” he said, entering the room.  “Quite…cozy.”

“I share it with Lacy and Madeline,” Emma said.

“And where were they?”

“Seeing to…business, sir.”

“Ah,” he said again, nodding once.

The pale gentleman walked toward the window and the young lady became deathly silent.  He drew back the curtain to reveal the view of a brick wall belonging to the neighboring building.  The window’s frame was peeling, scabrous, and a few red streaks were the only paint it would ever see for years to come.  The pale man noted these red streaks, then covered the window once again with the curtain.  He turned back to the young lady.  She was sitting on the bed, her feet dangling laxly while she wept into her hands and trembled.  The pale man’s smile faltered for but a moment, replaced with something akin to pity.

“And I suppose he fled out the window?”

The young lady only nodded, but did not look up.

“As I thought,” he said.

Emma said something, but he left the room as if had not heard her.

 

The madame of that house was quite unnerved as she stood before the constable and the pale gentleman.  They were upon the street now, in the garish glow of the gaslight lamps.

“Not one among your other employees saw the culprit in question?” the pale gentleman asked her.

“No, sir,” she said.  “Most of my girls were…entertaining customers.  Those that were not were in their rooms, seeing to other arrangements.”

“And they did not hear anything afore the incident?  No sounds of struggle?  Of a scuffle?  Did the victim scream before her death?”

“No, sir,” she said, her lips aquiver with a dread as she looked into the pale blue eyes of the gentleman.

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” the pale gentleman remarked lightly.  “And when did Emma make known the murder had been committed?”

“Well, sir, she wasn’t the one who made it known,” the madame said.  “Angela was walking by and saw it.  She screamed, and then we all came runnin’ in haste.”

“And where was Emma at this time?”

“In her room, sir, useless as a knife without a blade.  She was crying awfully hard and rocking to and fro like one of them lunatics in the asylums.  I had to slap her good to wake her to.”

The pale gentleman had not blinked once that entire evening, and did not blink now.  “And her roommates?”

“Lacy was entertaining,” she said.  “The dead girl…Madeline…was her other one.”

“And she, of course, was predisposed,” the pale gentleman said.  He said it as a matter of fact, neutrally, and yet it slipped into the air with a sense of morbid flippancy.

The constable rose on his toes and shook his head in consternation, coming back on his heels.  This seemed quite a feat for a man as portly as he.  “Her roommate dead and Emma could only tend to her own feelings?  What is it with this generation nowadays?  Soppy-minded and with waxen spines, I think.”

“Perhaps she has more sense than we realize,” the pale gentleman said.  “She is an ‘apprentice’, after all.”

“Emma lacks sense,” the madam said hurriedly.  “Emma’s naught but a servant in the house.  Truly.  For cleaning and cooking and such.  Everybody knows whores don’t have ‘apprentices’.”

“Indeed,” the pale gentleman said, his smile still pleasant, and crooked.  “And why, my lady, did you not see the culprit in question?  Before he ventured upstairs with Madeline?  ”

“I do not attend to every…transaction,” she said, defensively.  She swayed a bit, her eyes bloodshot in the gaslight.  “I have other things to do, it just so happens.  The girls are grown enough to see to the business themselves.  So long as they don’t allow thrift, I won’t complain of it too much.”

“Indeed,” the pale gentleman said again.  He said no more, but narrowed his eyes at the fumes of alcohol he smelled on her breath.  He still did not blink.

“And so no one knows the man’s name?” the constable almost exclaimed with anger.  His mustache seemed ready to fly about with fury.

“It is better that we not know our clients’ names,” the madame said, simply.  “Could lead to more trouble than it is worth, sir.”

“I’ve no doubt,” the pale gentleman said, “that the victim knew the murderer’s name.  But what good is that now?  Poor little Emma cannot tell who the murderer was.  And, so, we have yet another clue hinting at nothing but what we already know.”  He waved away the madame.  “Good night, madam.  See to your girls with greater care in the future, please.”

The madame merely laughed shortly, humorlessly, and returned inside the brothel.

“We shall never catch him!” the constable growled.  “‘Jack’, indeed.  He is a jackdaw, more like.  Cheeky as he taunts us as stupid countryfolk lost in the barley!”

“Jack is not difficult to discern,” the pale gentleman said quietly.

The constable’s bushy eyebrows leapt in surprise.  “How do you mean, sir?”

“Our mutual friend, Jack,” he said, “is London itself.”

“I don’t understand, sir,” the constable said, incredulous.  “Do you mean to say he is the run-of-the-mill sort?  I cannot fathom it.  He is an animal.  A beast.  Even our worst criminals do not commit themselves to such a frenzy of sin.  He is absolutely diabolical.  Nothing in it, if you pardon my boldness, sir, is so common in Jack’s wicked exploits.”

“I must disagree, my dear constable,” the pale gentleman said.  “Such brutality is quite common here.  It is definitive.  Essential.  And why should it not be?  We do not propose that a lion is wicked in its nature to hunger for flesh and blood, nor should we condemn it as it satisfies such hungers.  It is his habit.  So why, pray tell, should we expect a city such as London to live as a lamb when it, like all such large cities, grew upon a surfeit of flesh and blood?  Show me a lion who became the lamb and I will show you a corpse feeding the grass.  London thrives as a beast ever on the prowl.”

“We are not lions, sir,” the constable said.  “We are Christians.”

The pale man’s smile never left off at all, but lounged crookedly upon his face.  “As you say,” he said.  “But the notion of a Christian seems to me a more fabulous notion than a lion becoming a lamb.  Even in the notion, too, the blood is the life.”

The two gentlemen agreed to resume the case in the morning.  They bid each other adieu and a good night.

Yet, the pale gentleman did not leave.  Rather, he ventured into the alley between the brothel and its neighboring building.  There he found a knife amidst the rubbish and the secretive shadows.  A little farther way off he found a dress streaked with blood.  These things he found easily, though the alley was pitch black.  His eyes could see easily in the dark.  Conversely, the gaslight haloes that punctuated nocturnal London that made it difficult to see sometimes, garishly rebuffing the darkness with an inventiveness and arrogance only the pride of Man could conjure; like little artifices of suns luridly lit, obliviously unaware of their folly.  London thought such lights the haloes of a saintly city, whereas the garish glow was a whore’s suggestive leer as she would fain entice a king with her debased bed.  So proud, she was, and so obliviously imbecilic.  So grotesque in her gaslight essence.  Yet, innocent too.  As innocent as Eve within Eden.

Or perhaps as Lilith in exile.

Looking up, he saw the window belonging to the room where Emma resided.  The pale man went to her window, as easily as anyone might walk down the street.  Easier, in fact, for it required no locomotion at all as he floated above the pitted darkness of the alley.  Coming to the window, he peered within.  Lacy was asleep.  Emma pretended to be so, but the pale gentleman knew she was not.  Gently, he tapped on the window.  Lacy did not stir.  Emma did.  She sat up in the dark, blind to the figure at the window.  He tapped again.  Slowly, Emma walked to the window.  She squinted through the glass, but could not see him, so dark was it.  She turned, as if to go to bed, and the pale gentleman raised the window.  Before she could turn again, he grasped her, gently but firmly, his hand over her mouth.  In one silent motion, he spirited her away from that room, that brothel, that street corner, taking her atop a building where no eyes could see them.

Setting her down, but keeping a hand upon her mouth, he spoke to her.

“Emma,” he said, “it is time for the truth.  Do not scream, or it will go badly for you.  Tell me what happened.  Do not shrink from the facts, however bloody they may be…or iniquitous your own dealing in them.”

He removed his hand.  It was a cold hand, and long-fingered.  She moaned.

“Are you the Devil, sir, come to take me away?” she asked.

“The facts, Emma,” he said sternly.  “Or you will know something of the Devil tonight.”

“God Almighty!” she exclaimed in her girlish voice.  “I did not want to do it!  I truly didn’t!  But the madame said I would be entertaining soon!  And I dreaded that!  My apprenticeship was almost up and I did not want to do it!”

“So you killed Madeline to avoid your…progression?” he said.

“I thought it might put it off for a time!” she cried, weeping and clutching at herself in the chill, misty dark.  “And Madeline was so cruel to me…so hateful in what she was teaching me.  I loathed her, and feared becoming like her, and she liked that I feared it, and so taunted me, and so made my life a Hell.  And now I am off to Hell, aren’t I?  I am going to Hell for taking a life!”

She fell to her knees and wept in fright and guilt and anguish.

The pale gentleman was unmoved, at least insomuch as her feelings were of importance.

“And there was no man at all in the room?” he asked.

Emma was too taken away with her tears to answer him.  His crooked smile never vacating his face, he snatched her up with a hand by the arm.

“Was there no man in the room?” he demanded, his voice transformed.  It was no longer soft and amiable, but edged as hoarfrost upon Westminster Bridge.

“There had been,” she said, sobered at once.  Her eyes were agog in the dark, and twinkled with tears, the moonlight through the parting clouds making stars of them.  “Madeline had made me sit and watch as she…entertained him.  All the time she would do something she would say, ‘You’re a right one for this soon!’ or ‘She’ll be a keen learner of that!’ and then she would laugh, and the man would grin, and they were like a witch come to Sabbath afore the Devil!  I couldn’t take it, sir!  When she had finished, and the man had left, she continued to taunt me!  I told myself I would endure anything for the debts of my family, but the closer I came to the true work of that Godless house the more frightened I became.  The more I told myself I wouldn’t do it.  Whenever I was frightened by it, I would take my mind off it with stitchin’.  So I started stitchin’, making pretty flowers as I used to in the countryside, before my family moved to London and lost it all to our debts.  But Madeline resented me my stitchin’.  ‘You think you’re so clever with that needlework, do you?’ she said.  And then she stole it away from me.  And so…I took the knife I use for my stitchin’ thread and I…I unspooled, her!”

The tears had stopped.  She looked vacant, but also vindicated.  The guilt ebbed away from her eyes as her lifeblood ebbed away from her throat and into the mouth of the pale gentleman.  He drank deeply of her warm, young blood, draining her slender neck until she swooned and fell into his arms.  Her eyes fluttered and then the lids hung heavy, as if she were to fall asleep forever.  Before she did, he took the knife with which she had slain Madeline and he cut his own pale wrist, forcing it to Emma’s lips.

“Drink,” he commanded in his beastly voice.

The blood dribbled at her lax mouth for a moment, but then the lips awakened tautly and she sucked at the wrist proffered.  The sinews of her neck tightened with hunger, with Life, and she clenched upon him with her arms, not unlike a cat upon its prey.  After a time, she released and swooned, her head lolling with a surfeited ecstacy.  He held her until her willowy body grew rigid with newfound strength.  She stood now, steeped in a new life.  She could see all of the London through the dark and the moonlight.  She saw the gaslight glow of the lamps, and she hated them.

“Master,” she said in a voice that was girlish, but also bestial.

The pale gentleman’s crooked smile was lined in crimson stitchery.

“Now, Emma,” he said, “your true apprenticeship begins.”

 

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