Story So Far:
All the principal characters return to London as the story rushes
headlong towards its ultimate conclusion. Finch is determined
to rescue Lady Tabitha from the heartless snares of his former
friend the Earl of Choir. The Earl, in turn, must evade the clutches
of the Hebrew moneylenderess Hepzibah Schlierbeck. Meanwhile,
the Reverend Belcher becomes more involved with Godfrey Egan]s
anarchist sect, as public events begin to impinge on the private
lives of our protagonists.
Nine The matter of Saint Steven's Tower had become acute. It was
not merely the expense, though people did grumble at the imagined
cost of keeping an entire building ablaze "at His Majesty's
pleasure," as the latest proclamation put it, when food was
increasingly scarce. Only last week there had been a disturbance
in Seven Dials over a promised shipment of bread. No, the main
argument against the flaming pillar was that, for those who lived
within its precincts, it changed night to day. The light was so
intense that shades, drapes, even nailed boards sealing off windows
proved powerless against it. Savage in penetration, it pried open
the sleeping eye, interrupted the natural relations of husband
and wife, washed out people's very dreams, reducing these purgative,
oracular enactments of life's inner drama to wavering, translucent,
half-conscious speculation. Thus society's invaluable safety valve
was stoppered. But in daytime too, the additional light wreaked
havoc. There was no shade! None of the natural gradation from
shadow to glare. Everything was horribly harsh and, at the same
time, increasingly unreal. The air itself glowed. Those susceptible
to madness needed no more than this, a violation of the perceived
order, to cast off the chains of reason, as well as their clothes,
and try bathing in the sizzling atoms of light. It was a common
and disturbing sight, the seemingly solid banker, the doting mother,
while her children looked on first in idiotic amusement changing
shortly thereafter to terror, stumbling out of a last persistent
article of dress and trying to roll through the air, a cut of
meat dredging itself in flour, thinking they could imbue their
frail skin with the brightness all around, until the police, with
growing reluctance, came to restrain and carry off the unfortunate
victim of this modern madness, as still the Tower burned.
Winter did nothing to halt the spread of this phenomenon. If anything,
the crystalline cold that settled on the city made the light appear
sharper, more knife-like in its sudden, blinding twists and turns.
If only there had been snow, a reassuring blanket of white cloaking
all reality in its child's vision of softness. But instead, January
brought a biting north wind that sucked the life out of everything,
leaving even stone walls puckered and salty. People beat their
sides for warmth. The poor scavenged for coal, or, failing to
find even the stray lump, tore up empty houses and burnt the wood.
Parts of the city were transformed, overnight, into ruins.
Where have they all come from? Carrier wondered, noting a frigid
bundle of rags camped on the very doorstep of Choir and Finch's
illustrious address. He knew what Godfrey Egan would answer, that
they had been there all along, that it was only Carrier's (though
he would say Jack Pierce's) eyes that had been opened.
"And it weren't no book on Anarchy that did it," he
heard the giant's plummy voice announce, as if addressing a constituency
meeting or a crowd assembled at the rail of a pub, rather than
the bleeding man with a broken nose he had just rescued from Inspector
Jenkins' thugs. "And it weren't me, jawing on into the wee
hours, plying you with drink and stories of deprivation. No sir.
It were His Majesty's Investigatory Services. They are the true
revolutionaries, I tell you. They make more converts to the cause
in a night than I could in a week."
It had been utterly without warning, the appearance, the questioning,
and then the assault, all because he had denied knowledge of his
young master's whereabouts. Lord knows what would have happened
had it not been for Egan's fortuitous arrival. This unlikely confluence
of events, and the ringleader's understandable misinterpretation
of what he had interrupted, had immeasurably raised "Jack
Pierce's" standing within the group. Whatever suspicions
other members may have regarded him with were laid to rest when,
at the next meeting, he modestly displayed his bruises. But Carrier
himself was troubled. He had entered into this clandestine activity,
spying on the gathering of modern day Levellers, taking part in
their less serious escapades, for a variety of reasons. It was
partly a lark (he had never done anything "bad" before),
partly out of boredom, and partly to follow his program of self-education.
In short, he was curious. He had intended, should things get out
of hand, to make a full and detailed report to the proper authorities.
It was his duty, as a citizen. He believed firmly in order, indeed,
had devoted his life to maintaining it, not in some vague, theoretical
way, but in the practical sphere of glasses and coasters, the
proper placement of cutlery, the laying out of clothes, and so
on. There was not a cell in his body that responded to the anarchist
creed. Yet, as Egan said, it had taken only one visit from the
very guardians of the order he had been taught to admire to make
him now doubt those very precepts.
As he stood, watching the cold (for you could actually see it,
reducing men to stick figures as they marched their stiffened
limbs up and down the street) he thought, What am I doing here,
overseeing the renewal of this feathered nest for two of the idle
rich who have never gone hungry a day in their lives? He had some
respect for them, for their honor and amiability, for their appreciation
of finery and their respect for tradition, but these seemed luxuries
rather than essential virtues when, from the cozy bay window,
he fancied he saw a woman shiver one final time, then go limp,
give up an unusually large plume of breath that hovered a moment,
as if containing her immortal soul, before dissipating in the
frozen air. A constable came by and prodded at her with his toe.
He said something, repeated it, telling her to move on, no doubt.
"She is dead, you sod," Carrier said softly, and turned
away as the ignorant youth lifted his truncheon to begin beating
her lifeless torso.