making of explosives has been one of my newfound hobbies, since
your time abroad."
"Really? Well I suppose that provides a spark of warmth on
these frigid nights."
"Indeed it does, sir. More than a spark, when ignited properly.
The destruction they cause is all out of proportion to their humble
"Fascinating," Finch murmured distractedly. "Is there
food in the pantry?"
"Bread and cheese. Would you like me to bring you some?"
"I would like you to take it out to those people." He
nodded to the hunched silhouettes gathered around the fire.
"Hardly advisable, sir."
"You will simply find twice as many of them on your doorstep
"It is as bad as that, then?"
"Worse. Crops this year rotted rather than ripened, the weather
seems to have swung between such extremes. Some blame the government,
though. While others say it is all a reflection of the King's poor
"What would you recommend then, Carrier? I would like to help
"Sixty grains of powder and a penny's worth of nails, I should
"What? Blow them up?"
"It would unobstruct your view."
"So it would."
"This came, while you were speaking with his Lordship. I am
sorry about the boy. He slipped past me. I did manage to intercept
a footman who wished a reply. I told him you would answer by the
"Very good." Finch squinted at the hastily scrawled invitation.
'The Duchess Middleton requests...eight o'clock..honor of your attendance...celebrating
the engagement of...' "You are sure this was addressed to me,
"Most extraordinary." He got up now, carefully holding
the invitation between his thumb and forefinger as if it were of
great value. "Go, Carrier. Please. Take the night."
Odd, Colonel Carter reflected, to see so many chaps from the military
here. Would have thought I was returning from some old boys gathering
at Sandhurst, not scrounging for stale bread and rotten meat at
the base of London Bridge. The prevalence of former soldiers in
the ranks of the dispossessed never ceased to amaze him. From all
branches of the service they came, sailors, sappers, gunners...
So highly prized by their country only a short time ago, fêted
at suburban garden parties, saluted on parade, now shunned as if
they were the cause, rather than the symptom, of whatever was happening
to the nation. They do not see us, just see the uniform, the Colonel
theorized. All crimson and spangles at the start, all rags and filth
by the end. Though his own dress managed to contain both extremes,
since he wore his regimentals, which by now were in pitiful condition.
His medals had been snatched off during the night (he had been too
proud to sell them) and the fabric, meant more for show than use,
was threadbare where not ripped through. Still, it was recognizably
a uniform, and that did help him collect a few pennies a day from
pitying ex-officers. He had been stood the occasional drink as well,
until cold weather curtailed his program of outdoor bathing. Now
the smell that rose from his own body disgusted him. It was all
he could do, summoning up what discipline and self-esteem was left
him, to keep his mustache afloat. Each day, no matter what the circumstance,
he managed to shave, carefully plucked the ever-multiplying white
hairs that sprouted above his upper lip, and glossed over the rest
with a jealously guarded tin of shoe polish. Thus he managed to
maintain the delusion that he was still presentable. "A Colonel,"
he reminded himself, in a loud, aggressively insistent voice, the
result of people avoiding him, though speaking this way only accelerated
the process. "A Colonel in His Majesty's Halberdiers!"
Mrs. Griggs' reaction to this bit of bluster, when he had returned
to London heart-broken and empty-handed, expecting to find his just-polished
boots laid out, and perhaps a loaded pipe or two set on a stand
by the hearth, had been to laugh, a particularly coarse and cutting
laugh, before informing him that his possessions had been sold and
his room let.
"Let?" he sputtered. "But...to whom?"
"Mr. Anglesey," she said. "A retired curate from
Dover. Spends most of his time in the Ornithological Wing of the
museum. And he don't smoke."
Well, one door slamming only leads to another opening, he had philosophized,
turning away from his lodgings. But in this case it seemed more
a trap door, sprung directly beneath him. The city was neither so
generous nor so forgiving as he remembered. People actually had
the temerity to interrupt his pleas for help by reminding him of
sums he had already borrowed. Powerful economic forces were at work,
others excused themselves, though how powerful can an economic force
be, he reasoned, if it cannot afford to advance an ex-military man
a fiver? He had exhausted his shrunken round of contacts in short
order, found doss houses less and less willing to accept the bitten
pile of coins he managed to amass at the end of each day. His appearance
and manner suffered, crucial tools for a man possessed of so few
others. The dizzying downward spiral ended abruptly on the stone
wharves of Stepney pier. Here, at last, he could descend no further,
and even retained a certain imagined dignity among the members of
that makeshift society whose comings and goings resembled the tide-tossed
flotsam littering the jagged bank below.