"The 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 appearance."
"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."
"Why not?"
"You will simply find twice as many of them on your doorstep tomorrow."
"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 health."
"What would you recommend then, Carrier? I would like to help those people."
"Sixty grains of powder and a penny's worth of nails, I should say."
"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 morning post."
"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, Carrier?"
"Yes, sir."
"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.