Harrogate, 1892, and a series of bizarre attacks coincides with the arrival of a freak show in the town. This contains just a single exhibit: a creature declared to be Charles Darwin's long sought-for, but hitherto undiscovered, Missing Link between mankind and the great apes.
Atticus and Lucie Fox investigate and uncover an ancient wisdom, which concerns nothing less than the fall of the Divine and the final ascent of man.
A dark, Gothic tale of secrets and revenge,
set against the backdrop of the Victorian Esoteric Revival...
Excerpt from The Satyr's Dance:
But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there and satyrs shall dance there.
The Holy Bible, Isaiah 13:21
That which is below is like that which is above.
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes,
(Translation by Isaac Newton, circa 1680)
For a little less than a week now, the street performers of Harrogate had been joined by a travelling show, a freak show, which contained just a single exhibit. Sometime in the night, one Thomas Wilberforce had parked his little horse-drawn van between the magnificent spa pump room and the Bogs Valley Pleasure Gardens. It was a prime pitch, squeezed-in somehow between Professor Bailey’s celebrated Punch and Judy stall and that of an African salamander man. This latter had been particularly aggrieved by the intrusion, but although he could swallow a red-hot poker right up to its handle, he, like the professor, had said nothing. In private they would both admit to being a little wary, afraid even, of what Mr Wilberforce kept chained inside his gaily-painted van.
But now, at this late hour, Professor Bailey and the salamander man, the acrobats, the jugglers and the street-organ turners had returned to their lodgings. The Ailing, who came to the spa for its health-giving waters, had been driven indoors, into the hotels and the concert halls by the damp, chilly air, and the people of Harrogate had duly followed to minister unto them.
The town was silent and deserted. The evening mists, fed by the smoke of a thousand chimneys, had thickened and settled and cloaked the
streets in a dense, dripping shroud of grey, pierced here and there by light, as the leeries trudged the long lines of streetlamps and touched life to their gas. It was silent and deserted that is, apart from the occasional stirring of Wilberforce’s old cob and the heavy and regular tap of a gentleman’s walking cane on the stone flags of the pavement.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” the gentleman muttered, slowing a little and glancing about, “I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”
An emaciated dog raised its head at the words and for a moment its eyes beaded yellow. Then it seemed to catch another scent clinging to the moist air, something from the direction of Wilberforce’s van that brought a low growl to its throat. It stared curiously for a time, and then laid back its single, tattered ear and skulked away into the shadows.
The gentleman halted and he too stared at the van. The words painted across the side, black and stark in the lamplight, confirmed he had found what he had been looking for.
“Wilberforce’s Wonders of the Modern World,” he read aloud.
His voice was stronger now, mocking even, as he took courage from the sound, and from the weight of the borrowed, pewter-topped walking cane he gripped tightly in his fist.
A sandwich-board, blistered and cracked across its middle, was leaning against the iron rim of one wheel. It was headed by the same words and the gentleman stepped up to follow the smaller letters beneath with the horn tip of the cane:
An extraordinary Freak of Nature.
The long sought-for, but hitherto undiscovered link between Mankind and the Great Apes of Africa.
Hours of Entertainment.
The gentleman frowned. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have passed such a show with nothing more than a derisive snort, but today – today he was not so sure.
“Good evening,” he called.
The cob snickered and swished its tail.
He jabbed the tip of the cane against the sandwich board. It rocked against the wheel – once, twice, and then lay still.
“Good day! Wilberforce, are you there?”
There was a shuffling from inside the van and the rattle of what might have been chain. A latch clicked somewhere above his head and a black shadow lengthened and spread, and became a door.
“Wilberforce, is that you?”
A face emerged above a frayed, collarless shirt, its irritated frown melting into an unctuous smile as Thomas Wilberforce caught sight of his visitor below.
“Last showing’s eight o’clock sharp, and it’s more than five-and-twenty minutes past now. I suppose I could accommodate you though, for a shilling.”
The gentleman swelled.
“You’re a thieving scoundrel. You should be grateful I’m not having you moved-on, or thrown into gaol even, for allowing for allowing whatever it is you have in there to scare my poor daughter half out of her wits, never mind charging me double.”
He fished irritably in his pocket.
“But very well, here is your wretched shilling. I warn you though, Wilberforce, I am a scientist, a naturalist. I’ll not be taken-in by a fraud. Now, where is this so-called link to the apes?”
Mr Wilberforce reached down and grasped the coin, and his stoop became a low bow.
“Sir, fear not, this is no fraud. A certain learned and reverend gentleman once declared my creature to be, without question, a descendant of Esau of the Old Testament. A man of science, a gentleman-naturalist like your clever self, informed me that it could not be anything other than Mr Darwin and Mr Wallace’s(2) missing intermediate link. Humbly I say to you that whatever it is, it is without doubt, the most marvellous creature in all of the world and worth, not just a shilling, but easily a hundred pounds from any gentleman’s purse.
“Come with me, sir, that you may behold it with your own eyes.”
He backed into his van as an eel might slide into its hole and beckoned.
A stepladder clung to the van on iron grips, its wooden steps worn and polished smooth by the soles of countless boots. It creaked wearily as the gentleman climbed up into the long shadow of the door and it creaked again as he stepped inside.
Mr Wilberforce was just turning back from one of a pair of bracket-lamps, whose light was swelling and reaching out into the space, conjuring shapes and shadows onto the walls that might have been a whole menagerie-full of exhibits. It certainly stank as much.
“You have a late viewer, Beast,” he snarled, “A gentleman and a naturalist. Greet him now, but nicely, mind you.”
The sharp rattle of metal on wood drew the gentleman’s attention to the floor and the space between the oil-lamps, where a large shape was stirring and shifting.
“Good day, shir,” a voice rasped.
The gentleman found himself staring directly into the depths of two black eyes, and he yelped and jumped back in fright. He gathered himself. Settled into a nest of rags and blankets was a creature – a beast. Whether or not it truly was a descendent, either of Esau or of Mr Darwin’s apes, he could not even begin to say, but in that moment it gazed up at him with a fragility and a torment that was somehow almost human.
“Good day, Beast,” he whispered.
The crown of his top-hat pressed against the planks of the roof and he reached up to remove it. The creature glanced up at the movement and the light caught on an iron collar fixed around its throat. Thank the lord that the ape-beast was chained.
And it was most certainly a species of ape, he noted with a scientist’s discipline, quite as large as a man, with dark, matted hair of indeterminate colour, given the imperfect light. The hair was significantly longer on its head and face, which rather gave the effect of a lion’s mane, and it was sitting in the manner of a gorilla with its hind limbs, surprisingly long for an ape, crossed in front of it.
The gentleman became aware of Wilberforce watching him with the rapt attention of a fairground pickpocket.
“There, sir,” said the showman, “I trust you are not disappointed. Is it not, without any shadow of a doubt, the very greatest wonder in all of creation? It can talk in English, as you have just heard, and I could get it to read from the Holy Scriptures for you too – for another shilling.”
The gentleman nodded and reached into his pocket.
“Do you have a name, Beast?” He addressed the creature directly, speaking slowly and loudly, careful to hide his fear, just as he had learned to speak to the savage tribes in Africa.
The creature rose suddenly to its feet and the van swayed alarmingly on its iron springs. A billow of acrid, animal stench followed the movement and the gentleman turned away his head.
“My name my name is Eshau, shir.”
Wilberforce’s oleaginous face slid in front of it. “It means Esau – named for the first of its line. If you want it to talk at length, it’ll cost extra, mind you. I have a lot of expense to keep it fed and decently clothed and all, a great lot of expense.”
The gentleman tapped him aside with the thick shaft of his cane and stared again at the beast. His blood was pounding in his ears. Alice, his daughter, had not been exaggerating one degree. This was without question, without the slightest atom of doubt, the very greatest discovery of the age – perhaps of any age. It was a link; it was the very conjunction between a higher and a lower order of life.
“Mr Wilberforce,” he declared, “My name is Joseph Malkin and I have made up my mind. I wish to purchase your exhibit, now, this very evening. I wish to purchase it for proper scientific study and observation.”
He pulled his eyes from the ape-man standing as it was, wretchedly, in ragged trousers such as the meanest street urchin might wear, and stared instead at Wilberforce.
“Not just one hundred pounds from my purse, sir, but five hundred; five hundred pounds payable on my bankers, the Halifax Old Bank, the instant they open for business tomorrow morning. You can see their branch from the top of the hill, yonder. I am a director of that bank and my word, sir, is unquestionably my bond.
“Five hundred pounds.” He said the words again, more slowly this time, allowing their sound to hang in the air between them like the apples of Eden. “I fancy it didn’t cost you anything near that amount of money to procure yourself.”
“That would be my own business,” the showman murmured. He held Malkin’s gaze for several, long seconds and then turned, allowing his eyes to wander around the cramped compartment as if he were looking at it for the first, or perhaps for the very last, time. His eyes passed over the sheens of mould creeping out from the shadows of every corner, past the dust-laden cobwebs festooning the walls, and came to rest on an old hand-bill tramped into a crack in a floorboard. Its message, faded and mouldering, affirmed once more how the creature, Esau, was indeed the greatest wonder in the whole of the Empire.
Wilberforce turned back.
“I might just be agreeable to selling him to you, Mr Malkin,” he said, “But not for five hundred pounds. No, sir, I fancy he would cost you double that.”
“Well then, let us make a bargain at one thousand pounds and shake hands on it, before you try to extort yet more from me. William Hales’ inn is just over the way. Come, and we can draw-up our agreement there. I shall need a drink in any event, to wash the stench of this place from my gizzard.”
Esau the Beast staggers, and falls back against the planks of the wall behind him. In spite of his thick and shaggy coat, he shivers, and his legs tremble and spasm uncontrollably, unable to support him as the suddenly leaden chain drags him down into his nest.
“Lord God, pleash nay.”
He has pleaded to his god Jehovah many, many times in the twenty-one years it has been since his mother first screamed and screamed for him to be taken away, but it is only the third time in his life that he has changed master. This master has been good. At least here, in this van, he has his daily bread. He has water too – even ale sometimes, when his master has been drunk and fallen asleep with a half-supped pot in front of him. The chain on his collar is long; it lets him move all around his stall, and it has a simple lock.
By day there are faces – human faces – peering at him over the half-door opposite. The men shout and jeer, as men have always shouted and jeered. The women stare or weep, or sometimes, like his mother, they too beg and scream for him to be taken away. And here, he has a Bible.
His Bible is his most precious thing. It was thrown at him by no less a person than a vicar, and it is much better than the mouldering, ragged book he was allowed at the workhouse. The very best times are when he can sit quietly in his nest of rags and lose himself in its wonderful words. As he reads of Jesus and Mary and dear, dear Mary Magdalene, he can make it seem as if the gawping faces aren’t there at all, except when they hurl things at him of course; stinging farthings and stones and clods of mud they have kicked up from the ground. Whenever they do that, he knows he must lay his Bible gently aside and roar and pummel his chest just exactly as his master has taught him. He must, or else Master will shut the door tight and thrash him with his fists or a long, swinging loop of his chain.
At least here, in this van, he has but one master to thrash him. Before, in the old days, he was beaten by everyone.
Along with the thought, a line of angry, jeering faces rises up in his beast’s mind and Esau remembers those years – the ones he spent in the union workhouse at Ripon. He feels the hair across his brow tingle and prickle with sweat and he rolls over and vomits down through the latrine-hole onto the grass beneath. The cool, moist air reaches up to soothe and comfort him, and he shivers again.
His master has gone out. He has gone with the gentleman who has offered a fortune for him, and now the oil lamps have spluttered and gone out too. In his beast’s mind, the planks of his stall become the gloomy walls of the cubby-hole. It is the cubby-hole at the back of the workhouse schoolroom where he was taken and allowed to watch the human children at their lessons. The latrine hole is the hatch they had cut in the door in order to discharge their parochial duty to educate each and every child in their keeping, no matter how bestial that child might be. It is a tiny hatch, barely wide enough to let him see the blackboard, but more than enough for the sticks and the stones and the taunts of the pauper children, whenever the schoolmistress left the room.
“Shit-face! Shit-face! Shit-face!”
He was fortunate that the schoolmistress, Mrs Nudds, was not entirely comfortable with the parochial arrangements for Esau’s education and for the fact that she seldom left the schoolroom.
“A freak he may very well be, Mr Greenwood,” she would remark to the master of the workhouse, “But in every subject he excels the other scholars by some measure.”
“But what is to be done with him, Mrs Nudds?” the master would reply, leaning forward and peering at her over the blued-steel rim of his spectacles, “What tradesman, street-organ turners apart, would want a monkey-boy for an apprentice?”
And to that, Mrs Nudds would have no answer.
One time, after Charlie Wintersgill had pulled Esau’s hood back during prayers and Old Mother Richmond had screamed and fallen down in a faint, Mr Greenwood had stamped his boot. He had declared that his very dearest wish was that Esau’s mother should have thought to take her monkey-child with her when she had flung herself into the boiling spate-waters of the Ure. Of course the master of a union workhouse had no business ever wishing for such a thing, and most especially not on a Sunday. So once Mother Richmond had been revived and propped back onto her bench, and once Charlie Wintersgill had been taken away to be thrashed, he had quite properly begged God’s forgiveness for his outburst. But Mrs Nudds aside, the staff and the inmates of Ripon workhouse had heartily agreed with him; Shit-faced Esau would have been much better served if the river had indeed carried him off to Hell and to his father the Devil.
Mrs Greenwood, the master’s wife and the matron of the workhouse, also had cause to beg forgiveness from God on Esau’s account. Marian, the young woman cursed to give birth to the monster, had screamed and thrashed in her cot, whenever it was brought near to her. There had seemed very little prospect indeed of her being persuaded to feed or to take care of it. So Mrs Greenwood had taken the municipal nurse into a corner of the infirmary and in hushed tones had suggested that it might be quieted with laudanum and lime milk, and allowed to starve to death. It would be for the best. It really would. Such an unholy creature would surely die in any event, and this was the kindest way to be rid of it.
But Nurse Bupett had searched her conscience and found that she could not. Instead, she, in her turn, had begged forgiveness from God and put him to suckle on an imbecile woman that instead, he might live.
Esau’s early years were coloured in shades of blue and grey: By the blue-and-grey gowns of the pauper-women, who would hiss and spit and lift away their own infants whenever he came near; by the greyed-out worsted stockings of the imbecile who watched over him, and by the blued, distempered walls of the female ward.
On what would be his fourth birthday, it was announced at breakfast that the workhouse was to be honoured by an inspection round by the lord, ladies and gentlemen of the Board of Guardians. It was to celebrate the opening of the new infirmary wing, and it would be led by their chairman, His Lordship, the Marquess of Ripon, himself.
In the weeks leading up to this momentous day, Matron rushed around the workhouse like the most zealous eschatologist, her panic increasing daily as she supervised every preparation. Their entire store of linen was laundered and freshly blued; all visible surfaces scrubbed and scrubbed again; fresh distemper put on the walls, and each and every pauper issued with a newly-sewn uniform.
Then, on the day appointed, the pauper-women and the children were lined up by their beds, reminded on pain of eternal damnation not to catch their uniforms on the freshly-blacked bed frames, and instructed to wait. Esau stood by his own blanket on the floor and waited too, sensing that something momentous was about to happen but unsure as to exactly what that thing might be.
A seeming age passed. Martha, the imbecile, began to mutter to herself, and then stopped and glanced inquisitively along the ward. There had been a muffle of voices from beyond the door, from beyond the edge of Esau’s world, and the paupers stiffened and hushed. Esau felt a sharp cramp stabbing at his gut. The door opened and Matron entered the room. Her face was flushed crimson between her elaborately curled ringlets and she was speaking in a curiously high-pitched manner.
“This is the six-bed ward for infants and able-bodied women and girls above sixteen years of age, Your Lordship, Your Ladyship, sirs and madam.” She curtsied to each class of guardian in turn, just exactly as she had been practicing in front of the big looking-glass by her bed.
“Very well, Matron, very well; everything here seems to be quite in order and perfectly satisfactory.”
As he was speaking, George Robinson, the Lord Marquess of Ripon, seemed a little distracted. Both he and the Lady Ripon at his side were glancing down the ranks of paupers as if they might have been looking for something.
“And where is the hairy little fellow Mr Greenwood was telling us about?” Lord Ripon enquired.
Matron curtsied again.
“Oh, Esau you mean? He’s right at the end, Your Lordship. We thought he would be happiest being close to the stairs to the outside yard, with him being you know half-monkey and all.”
Lord Ripon raised his great, bushy eyebrows.
“Did you indeed?”
Esau stood, trembling, watching as the august party processed slowly down the ward, great ladies and gentlemen coming nearer and nearer, all with their eyes fixed down onto him. A second cramp caught his guts and twisted them, bending him double and forcing a cry from his lips.
“Oh, Lordy!” Martha the imbecile cackled suddenly through the dead silence, “It’s gone an’ shit itsen.”
Lord Ripon held up his hand and the party halted.
“Your Lordship Your Lordship, and Your Ladyship, I am I am quite mortified.”
Mrs Greenwood had once heard the words used by a great lady in Harrogate and in this moment they seemed to fit perfectly. “Quite mortified,” she repeated for good measure.
She reached down and grasped a fistful of the longer hair at Esau’s neck. With a sob, she forced him over, pushing his face again and again into the stinking mound.
“That’s the ticket, Matron,” a farmer-guardian growled approvingly, “Rub its nose in’t. That’ll larn it of its manners.”
“Enough now,” Lord Ripon snapped.
Matron pulled Esau upright. A gob of faeces clung for a moment to the matted hairs on his cheek, and then slowly peeled away and spattered onto the floor.
“The floors are stone and won’t be spoiled from that,” Ripon went on, “I dare say it will scrub away easily enough. Now, Mrs Greenwood, half-monkey, as you call him, or not, I see he has no cot to lie in.”
Mrs Greenwood stared at the mess on the floor and shook her head in disbelief. A big ringlet at her temple suddenly dropped, giving her a curiously lopsided appearance.
“No, Your Lordship, begging your pardon, he hasn’t, but that’s only because there’s no one as’ll let their own child share with him. The inmates are all a bit a-feared of him, if truth be told, all excepting Martha but she has little Jenny with her already. Esau generally sleeps out on the landing and we bring his blanket in by day so he’s not in folk’s way.”
Lady Ripon inclined her head towards her husband and whispered something. He nodded, and peered down his great grizzled beard towards Esau.
“Do you have a name, child?” he asked, not unkindly.
“Stand up straight.” Matron nudged her knee into Esau’s back. “Answer him directly and mind you call him ‘Your Lordship’.”
“Yes, sir, Your Lordship.”
“That’s a good little man. And what might that name be?”
“Dirty-Monkey, Your Lordship.”
“More like Shit-Face now.”
Martha’s whispered observation could be heard distinctly over the paupers’ sniggers and, as it transpired, her words were to prove prophetic.
George Robinson, Member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, First Marquess of Ripon and Chairman of the Ripon Union Workhouse Board of Guardians raised himself up to his full height. He cast a glance towards Lady Ripon and wondered briefly whether it was the sight of the mess, or its stench, or the pungent scent from the delicate vinaigrette she was holding to her nose that had brought such tears to her eyes.
Then he said: “It seems quite apparent to me, Mrs Greenwood, and I have little doubt that my fellow guardians will agree.” He turned his head to his left and to his right, just exactly as he might have done in the great House of Peers(3) itself, “That Esau would be better suited to accommodation elsewhere than in a ward where all are hostile to him. Our wish is that you have him put somewhere where he might have a cell of his own, with a proper cot to sleep in. The vagrants’ ward, perhaps? But mind that he isn’t set to work there, or exposed more than is necessary to the other inmates. He is likely to have enough tribulation in his life without their tender attentions. Who knows what they might make of him.”
An expression of deep pensiveness passed suddenly over his face and left it troubled and frowning. He reached up to touch a delicate golden pendant hanging at his breast. It was a locket, fashioned as a dove-descending, to commemorate his recent, and to some quite scandalous, conversion to Catholicism.
Lord Ripon turned and peered across the faces of his fellow guardians as they regarded him, at first without expression, but then with increasing curiosity. When he turned back, his benevolent, patriarchal air had gone, replaced by one of the gravest foreboding.
“The boy is no monkey, and he is most definitely not an ape. Every person here must remember that. He is hirsute, but that is all. I imagine his mother was also?”
“I beg your pardon, Your Lordship but I’m not right certain what that means,” Matron said with a curtsey.
“My husband is asking if Esau’s mother was hairy too,” Henrietta, the Lady Ripon, explained.
“The women in the lying-in room said she was, Your Ladyship. Hairy as a Russian, according to Violet Wilcox, with a full set of whiskers.”
She regarded the Marquess’ own great, red beard. It was carefully brushed out so that it quivered with each movement of his chin.
“I thought as much,” Lord Ripon declared. “Then I shall insist upon you and Mr Greenwood keeping a particular watch on him. There are dangers in this world far beyond the taunts and jeers of a work-yard. ‘Satan transformeth himself into an angel of light,’ Saint Paul reminds us, and you must be vigilant against those who would do the same – those who would make of the boy something he is not. Keep him away from the cathedral at all costs, Matron. Send him to chapel instead. Or better yet, bring him up as a Roman Catholic.”
He felt the suddenly indignant glares of the other guardians on his back and ignored them.
“You must arrange for his schooling too, particularly in the Holy Scriptures, which may prove as much of a protection for him as they have for me. I am informed that he has wit beyond his years.”
“He has, Your Lordship; why, he’s as clever as the three wise monkeys all put together.” Mrs Greenwood, instantly regretting her choice of words, bit her lip.
Lord Ripon grunted and then smiled down at the tiny figure cowering before him. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and pressed a silver half-crown into its hairy palm with a wink.
But his expression was dark as he led the party away, down the stairs, and out into the clean, fresh air of the exercise yard.
It was said by the newspapers of the time that in illuminating its main street by means of water-gas, Mr Samson Fox had captured the very light of the Sun for Harrogate. What Mayor Fox perhaps did not understand, was that in order to provide fully for the needs of the town’s visitors, it was necessary to keep at least some dark and shadowed places.
It is in one of these places, close to the entrance of the Bogs Valley Pleasure Gardens and not so very far away from Mr Wilberforce’s freak show that a woman stands and pulls her shawl tight against the chill and the damp. She too is a mountebank, a street entertainer, but of the kind that creeps out at night to satisfy the needs of those for whom the jugglers and the acrobats are not quite enough.
A shadow, a silhouette blacker than the night around it, creeps towards her. At first glance, one might assume that it is human. Certainly it is as tall as a man, its height accentuated by its curious gait, which is high stepping and awkward, as if it might be unused to walking on such smooth and even pavements.
The woman hugs herself and leans forward, peering into the drifting fog. She catches sight of the figure and watches as it stamps towards her. Like an actress, she rehearses her lines, prepares her turn, and reaches into her pocket for the little bottle that will get her through the long hours until morning.
A scream – a woman’s scream splits the night. It is smothered by a bellow of anger and of pain beyond belief and then once more there is silence. The mists seep back into the archway, and gently and mercifully cover the horror within.
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Thank you for reading my work.
This may be my favourite book of the year so far, and that is saying quite a lot considering how much time I have invested into reading so far in 2016.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I began reading this book. I have read the author's other works and he is always great with editing, formatting and coming up with a story that draws you in, but there is something even better about this book. Some books have a magical quality, where you forget the world around you as you read them and fully immerse yourself in the story, this is definitely one of those.
From the beginning, I was very curious about the man-like creature at the heart of the story. At first he will pull you in by your heart strings, and later...well, you will have to read the book. Allow me to just say that this did not go at all as I would have expected, and that was a pleasure. I hate guessing what is going to happen around every bend and being right.
Lucie and Atticus are great characters. They are determined, work well alongside one another and have chemistry, so it is easy to keep reading about their adventures without wishing things would move along. I really enjoyed the dialogue in this book as well, often getting the feeling that I was part of the conversations between the characters.
I love when an author can flesh out a scene so descriptively that you feel you are right there, and that happened throughout this book. Even the ending was a surprise, and a good one.
If you enjoy books where there is more than just mystery and murder, but rather people who feel so real you could reach out and touch them, and story lines that feel truly original, then this would be a perfect book for you to choose.
Planet of the Apes meets Sherlock Holmes with a bit of Da Vinci Code thrown in. I definitely recommend it.
- Ionia Froment, READFUL THINGS