Edmund is desperate to save Frances’ life, but Slatina has a tale to tell …
See below for all previous instalments.
One, two, three, four, five, six , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three and twenty four.
It was all I could do to nod, to allow myself to be led from that dark chamber and once more onto the hall beyond.
As if we were old friends reacquainted after a long absence, Slatina laced his arm through mine. ‘Allow me to tell you how I met your love.’
After my first meeting with Lord Samuel I felt he and I might have much to discuss. You, Edmund, are – what is the word here? Ah, yes – a wastrel. You inherited money and drank it away before ten years were out. I do not admonish you – I admire a man who is willing to indulge his own desires. It is merely,’ he gave me a pitying look, ‘you lack imagination. Why merely drink yourself to death when you could ply an innocent with the same brandy and bring about their destruction? Why gamble away a fortune when you could use the same coin to buy human flesh, to have an enemy flayed? Samuel had no need to be taught these lessons for they were inherent in him, running through his bones alongside his very marrow.’
We had now reached the ground floor and instead of Slatina leading me to the drawing room as I had expected, he turned towards the back of the house, towards the servants’ quarters.
He pulled me close as we walked so his scent lay heavy on me. He stank of bitter almonds and privet flowers gone to rot after heavy rain.
‘What Samuel has,’ whispered Slatina, his breath hot against my ear, ‘is the desire to share his diseased soul with others. A delicious desire.’ He sighed happily. ‘And so it was, the night after our first visit, I came again to this house. All sign of the accident the night before was gone. I was not surprised – men such as Samuel have the means and acquaintance to remove a body to the cool embrace of the Thames before the departed’s loved ones are aware they are even missing.’
I remembered that night most vividly. The small boy who answered the door, the Flitting sisters and their stench of pox, the shooting of Jack Golding. ‘Get to the point of your tale, Slatina.’
We had walked a few minutes now, along narrow hallways, down short flights of stone steps and up others. A new smell battered my senses. At first I believed it to be the man himself, but as we walked and the smell grew stronger it became defined, of itself. He pulled me to a halt by whitewashed stone walls, outside a narrow, slatted door I took to be a larder. From nowhere came a distinct memory of visting Billingsgate one August when I was hardly more than six years of age, of how the flies swarmed, billowing in black clouds when disturbed from their fetid meals.
‘Such impatience,’ he admonished. ‘But here is the point. In that chamber where the cutthroat met his end, seated on the very divan where those two rancid trollops fluttered their lashes and gurgled out rank laughter … was your Miss Frances.’
His words had the sense of chill fingertips running up my spine. I wanted to speak, to damn him as a liar but could not. For I knew what the footman in Kensington had said was the truth – that Frances and Samuel had taken up after their initial meeting in Vauxhall. That theirs had become the most intimate of relationships.
I tried to pull away, wished to hear no more, but Slatina held me to him as a constrictor holds it prey, his words dropping to my ear like chips of ice.
‘Miss Frances seemed most appreciative of Samuel’s character, of his jocular ways. In truth, it was hard to find a moment when one was not caressing the other. It seemed clear to me that if I were to take Samuel under my wing, Frances would come also.’
The smell was now so overwhelming. I had to cover my face with my sleeve to stop from retching. Something was dead, something was rotting. A soft hum vibrated through the wooden door. I dreaded to know – had to know – what was causing it.
‘One thing may surprise you, Edmund.’ He eased ever closer to me now, lips brushing my ear as he whispered, ‘How very easy it was to persuade your lady into doing as I asked. Once the first drop was spilt she lapped – nay tore – at her task like a hungry beast. There was a tiger hidden beneath that timid kitten all along. It was … thrilling to watch.’
My heart was galloping in my chest, threatening to break free. Slatina leaned forward, sliding aside a brass bolt, allowing the door to swing ajar. The stink hit me, had me bent over, disposing the meagre contents of my stomach across the tiled floor. Waiting for the sensation to pass, I glimpsed movement … the lazy turn of fat bluebottles.
My instinct was to run, but Slatina had hold of my arm, was forcing me forward, opening that wretched door wide.
I cannot state here what I saw, cannot bring myself to pluck out the images that haunt my dreams and make them flesh on the page. Besides, what was found therein is now a matter of record. It has been described in the papers, in court – become the subject of murder ballad singers through the city, indeed the land. I only know what I saw amid that mess of writhing, maggotty food: a man’s blue velvet jacket; a powdered wig besmitched with red.
‘The child,’ I whispered. ‘That poor, poor child.’
Slatina was a step further back, for I believe even he could not bear the stench. ‘The child, Coral Flitting and her sister – what was her name? – and countless others.’
My mind could not take it in, could make no sense of it. ‘But why?’ I gasped. ‘To what end?’
He laughed then. Low, mirthless, dry as a crypt. ‘Because I dislike walking this fevered, crowded realm alone.’
Still I could not grasp the sense of his words. ‘But how could this possibly help?’
‘I am not made of mortal flesh. I cannot – shall not – die. And yet, you humans -‘ he breathed on his hand as if blowing dandelion seeds from their heads, ‘- frail as spider silk. But I can take take this puny clay and make it last at least a little longer than its usual span. Sadly, there is a price to pay for my generosity.’
The dead child, the locket that had hung so guiltily about my love’s neck – her sudden illness. Finally, realisation shattered through me. ‘Frances has become your creature.’
Again that laugh, parched as a sealed tomb. ‘Yes, Edmund. Frances is mine. Frances, Samuel … And yourself.’