The Properties of Mercury
I had been summoned to a gaslight supper at The Farringdon Restaurant, Leicester Square, by my old friend Frederick Devereux one hot July evening in the year 1898. His card had been delivered to my lodgings close to Adelphi Terrace by his hang-dog assistant, Pennington, having traversed the metropolis of London by hansom cab. Standing in my reception, I noticed Pennington’s suit was frayed around the elbows and knees. His shoes, though polished, were soiled around the heel, no doubt on some assignment around the wharves and opium dens that had sprouted up along the Thames. His collar, appeared freshly starched, but had a faint rim of grime. As for the Derby hat perched uneasily over his oiled hair, it gave off a definite air of defeat.
‘‘I’m afraid Mr. Devereux is quite insistent you dine with him this evening, sir.’’ He replied when I questioned the lateness of the hour. His accent was Lancastrian, each word carefully measured. We had met once before during Cowes week, when I had helmed Devereux’s yacht The Miranda.
‘‘Well, Mr. Pennington, let us go and see what is so urgent, then shall we?’’ I donned my smartest frock coat and silk top hat despite the cloying heat, and reached for my walking cane. My limp wasn’t as pronounced in the summer as in the dank days of November last year, the cane; a recent addition to my ensemble, was a gift from the Admiralty. I checked myself in the mirror, ensuring everything was as it should be; tie pin and watch chain correctly placed. Leaving a note with my house keeper Mrs Kelleher not to leave a supper out, I followed the hulking Pennington to the waiting cab. The hansom was idling in the street; the horse nodding indolently in the balmy night. London’s gaslights flickered like distant fireflies and the hour rang up the Thames from Big Ben; the very beating heart of the Empire. The driver, a lean Irishman with lush grey sideburns and small eyes, leaped nimbly down and opened the door with the slightest hint of insolence.
‘‘Lovely evening, gentlemen, where to?’’
The cab clipped smartly from the square into the main thoroughfare. Pennington remained silent throughout the journey, occasionally glancing out and looking back, his right hand inside the lapels of his jacket. I suspected he had a revolver concealed in there. Within the hour, we were at the restaurant. We negotiated a rate with the cab driver to remain outside, though it was a hard bargain, we reached a suitable arrangement. Leaning back into his seat, the Irishman produced a long, thin clay pipe and lit it. The faint waft of exotic tobacco, laced with laudanum, drifted from him. Leicester square was ablaze with gas-lit and new electrical signage, pulsing to sounds of conversations, music halls, side-shows and organ-grinders. Pennington’s eyes darted over every passer-by. Satisfied there was no immediate threat, he shook my hand firmly,
‘‘Mr. Devereux wishes to see you alone sir.’’ And as soon as he uttered this, Pennington had walked away, blending into the night amid the bustling cacophony of humanity.
I found Devereux in his usual booth. He had his leather-bound tome of music scores on the table. He could often be found in the stalls of an evening concert, one hand waving out the tempo, the long index finger of the other hand following the orchestral score, every note performed, subjected to a forensic analysis. Music was a passion we both shared along with astronomy. Beyond the booth, at the tables, show-girls, painted ladies and stage-door Jonnies sat, drank and smoked into the small hours. Known for its discretion, The Farringdon was a favourite with several members of parliament.
‘‘Good to see you again, Wentworth, I trust your leg is improving?’’
‘‘I’m afraid when it was re-set, the surgeon was working under an excessive consumption of cognac. My own fault for enlisting him. It will never be right again.’’ Sometimes on freezing winter days, I wished the leg had been removed. I brandished my ebony walking cane with the silver handle fashioned into a fox, triumphantly.
‘‘My parting gift.’’
‘‘Along with a suitable pension, I hope?’’
‘‘Perfectly adequate, thank you.’’
‘‘The South China seas aren’t for the faint-hearted, my dear boy.’’ He agreed.
Devereux had about him the self-contained air of nobility earned from a substantial fortune made from his weaving mills in Manchester and his recently sold bicycle factory. He wore a golden pince-nez, fashionably styled coat and trousers, his thick mane of grey hair pomaded in the style of a lusty Italian poet. His beard was full in the radical style of Marx. It was then that I noticed his companion. A dainty female, dressed entirely in black, sat still at the other end of the table. By candle light, I could not discern her features as they were masked by a heavy black veil. I could make out the blood red of her lipstick, a small mouth, possibly oriental. Her dress was an exotic rich black and two long, unadorned, elegant hands rested on the table. A lady travelling incognito.
‘‘Ah! Forgive me, Wentworth, allow me to introduce you. Captain Wentworth, R.N., may I introduce Lady Beatrice Holyfield.’’ I rose, a little disconcerted at my poor manners, and bowed. She gave the most delicate of nods.
‘‘And now, my dear Wentworth, let us dine.’’
I noted he didn’t order for his companion.
After a sumptuous supper of pheasant, Devereux and I lit cigars and swilled a heavy Burgundy as we waited for coffee. Lady Beatrice never stirred through the meal; though her head inclined politely to us each time we spoke. Her stillness, I found quite fascinating.
‘‘Have you your pistol, old boy?’’ whispered Devereux, leaning in close. The booth was covered by a heavy curtain, though a gap in the heavy drapes made me visible to anyone in the restaurant.
I twisted and pulled on the handle of my cane, a long, thin blade whispered up from it.
‘‘Made by a legendary Japanese swordsmith, Ishikawa, of the Mino school.’’
‘‘Ah, a shinken, I see, you can never be too careful, Wentworth. I have something of great importance to show you. Have you a cab?’’
‘‘Excellent, have him drive around the back, we’ll meet you there.’’
I rose and bowed to the mysterious lady in the shadows, who acknowledged me with a gentle nod. I asked the driver could he fit the carriage into the alley, he replied jauntily that he could ‘fit it through the eye of a needle if the price was right’.
I heard a single report as the cab pulled into the alleyway.
‘‘Hoa!! Peace!’’ shouted the driver. I alighted with blade drawn. A man was wrestling with Devereux and the gentle Lady Beatrice lay at his feet, sprawled. With a yell, I lunged at the man who broke free of Devereux, turning his pistol toward me. I ran him through below the ribcage, the blade making short work of his great coat and leather tunic. He expired with a grunt, his pistol, still cocked and smoking in the death grip.
The driver jumped down and ran to the fallen lady.
‘‘Lamb of jaysus….’’ He muttered. His complexion had turned waxen. Devereux leaned over her, draping her with his coat. I stood over the fallen assassin. Removing his hat, I could see a ruddy, weather-beaten complexion, thick moustache and goatee, full lips sneering in a morbid mask. His style of dress suggested a man comfortable with working outdoors.
‘‘No time to waste. We must leave now!’’ snapped Devereux lifting up Lady Holyfield with the tenderness of a lover.
‘‘We need to summon the constabulary. A doctor.’’ I cried.
‘‘No time. Grab my book of score sheets. To the docks. Quickly now!’’
The Irishman took my arm as I bent to pick up the leather bound book,
‘‘She ain’t normal, sir, not normal, I tell ye!’’ His eyes were slightly glazed either from alcohol or the contents of his pipe. His hand was shaking through my sleeve. Devereux had placed Lady Holyfield into the cab. I replaced my blade in its scabbard after wiping it in the fallen man’s coat. It had retained its lustre and keen edge; I quietly thanked Mr. Ishikawa’s craftsmanship.
‘‘Is she dead?’’
‘‘How badly injured?’’
‘‘Will tell you later. You!’’ Devereux handed the driver two Guineas. ‘‘The docks. I have a place there.’’ He whispered into the man’s ear. The Irishman had regained his composure and bounded up onto the cab. As I entered, he cracked his whip and within moments, we clattered pell-mell into the night.
‘‘Allow me, Devereux, I have some experience of dealing with gunshot wounds.’’
I opened the coat, a small hole had burned through her dress. I pulled the fabric away from her skin. There was a wound just above her right breast, but there was no blood. Instead seeping from the bullet hole was a rivulet of mercury.
‘‘I’ll tell you all once we are somewhere safe.’’ Murmured Devereux.
*** **** ***
Devereux’s warehouses were situated at St Katherine’s docks, a vast sprawling expanse of wool warehouses, bridges, ships and outbuildings. The hansom pulled up and I looked up and down the length of the roadway to see if we had been followed. The roadway was clear. Devereux carried Lady Holyfield into his private office. Laying out our coats on a leather chaise in his private office, he laid the injured lady upon them. I threw the leather-bound score to the floor and offered assistance.
‘‘Who was that man who shot her?’’
‘‘A neo-luddite from Massachusetts, Hopkins, I think was his name.’’
He removed her hat, a lush cable of flaxen hair fell about her shoulders, her profile was delicate and her complexion in the gaslight seemed luminous. Tenderly, Devereux removed her stole and placed it delicately on the chaise’s arm.
‘‘I’ll need your help, Wentworth.’’
I helped him turn the lady onto her front. A gaping wound appeared out of her shoulder with more mercury seeping from it. I went to the desk at the office and brought over the desk lamp. In the wound, glinting, were minuscule cogs, sprockets and wheels.
‘‘No, Wentworth, a magnetic field of ten thousand gauss.’’ He smiled up at me, ‘‘the real Lady Beatrice Holyfield, alas, has been committed to a mental institution, so her distraught husband, New York financier, Nathanial Holyfield has sunk his fortune into buying his title, Lord Holyfield and this facsimile. Look.’’
He removed part of her dress, and pressed firmly on a spot against her pearl white back. A small portal appeared. In the shadows I thought I could discern a spinning wheel rotating furious revolutions. He moved to block my view,
‘‘The damage is superficial. Wentworth, top drawer of my desk, open it.’’
The desk was piled with the detritus of Devereux’s colossal mind; books, pages of formulae, and letters, some stamped with official and royal seals lay strewn across it. I found the side drawers and opened the top one. Inside was small leather pouch,
I threw it to him. I spied a loose panel in the drawer and moved it. Beneath the drawer I could see the drawers below all hollowed out. In the space I could see a long thin pole acting as a fulcrum for the numerous spinning rings hovering in the air at equidistant spacing.
‘‘Wentworth, I see you have discovered an energy point.’’
I swallowed hard, for my throat had dried. In Devereux’s voice, I detected a nuance of menace. I leaned on my cane, giving the handle the slight twist to release the blade. My leg throbbed from the hours I had been standing on it.
‘’Yes, I have, Devereux.’’
‘‘No matter, I have several around in this building and in my private lodgings. A recent experiment I’ve been dabbling with.’’
He rose from his labours on Lady Holyfield, wiped his hands in a handkerchief from his breast pocket and replaced the thin items, like surgical instruments, into the pouch and rolled it up. He strode to the desk and rummaging about his papers, produced a box of cheroots. He lit one and offered me one too.
‘‘What an adventure! Hand me my score please, tonight’s performance at the Bedford Music hall was utterly painful to endure’’
I took the heavy book from the floor in an awkward fashion; some of the leaves fell free. Instead of staves and musical notes on the pages, handwritten notes, sketches and Dageurreotype’s of machinery appeared.
‘‘Allow me, Wentworth, I forgot about your leg.’’
He took it from me and walked to one of the pictures hanging in the room’s shadows. Behind it was a wall safe. Devereux placed the book into it and slid the picture back over.
Lady Beatrice Holyfield rose from the chaise, reached elegantly for her stole and covered herself modestly. ‘‘Beautiful isn’t she? She’s utterly priceless. Now my dear Wentworth, please, replace your blade, I wish you no harm.’’
There was a series of raps at the warehouse door, followed by a pause then another series of raps.
‘‘Ah, that’d be Pennington and our Hibernian hansom driver, O’Driscoll.’’
Pennington arrived, brandishing a modified Maxim autocannon. He placed himself beside the Lady with the coiled demeanour of a guard dog. She acknowledged him with a smile. I was stunned, I thought her skin was like an egg-shell, but it appeared firm and mobile. Devereux darkened all the lamps in the office.
‘‘Mr. O’Driscoll outside will whistle once as a warning.’’
‘‘Excellent, Pennington. Wentworth, I must call on you for another favour.’’
From the offices we went out and down a large wrought-iron staircase into the warehouse area. A cavernous store swept out from the stairwell with ceiling-high bales of cloth and wool disappearing into the gloom. Devereux found a box-shaped panel mounted to the wall. Opening it, he located a series of levers and pulled them down.
It was then I heard the low throbbing hum from within the cavern. Overhead lights lit up the passages between the stacks of material.
‘‘I’ve always had a theory, Wentworth. That the stars and planets that grace the heavens give off electrical pulses. I have dedicated my time and fortune to the study of the phenomena of electricity, both celestial and terrestrial and its impact on metals. I discovered this by accident with my studies in magentohydrodynamics…’’
He disappeared into the shadows and a carriage pulled up before me on rails, operated by him. Or I fancied, I spied rails. The carriage was well upholstered, burnished to a dazzling sheen. From the front of the carriage, extended two arms on either side, that supported metal pipes that poured a liquid metal to the ground. On impact with the floor, it solidified into metal rails in front of the carriages wheels.
‘‘The properties of mercury, Wentworth, I can bend it to my will. At the back of the carriage there I have a series of electrified magnets that draw the mercury back into a vat or tank, if you will. Another series of magnets drive the mercury through the hoses to the front again. We can traverse any distance on a tank of mercury in this vehicle.’’
He beckoned me in. Once I was belted in, he called ou t Pennington’s name. The burly Northerner appeared at the stairwell and guided Lady Holyfield, a fragile doll beside his bulk. She placed each step with the assurance of a dancer.
Then we heard the Irishman’s shrill whistle. Muffled reports rang out. A horse whinnied, then squealed.
‘‘We live in dangerous times, Wentworth. Along with the neo-luddites who want the good lady destroyed, agents of the Empire wish to take my work and fashion it for war. This mustn’t happen. Nathaniel Holyfield has unfortunately replaced his grief with greed.’’
Pennington, with a sweep of his huge arm, scooped Lady Holyfield aboard. Her serenity, I found disconcerting, like a Haymarket polka dancer who has consumed too much absinthe. Devereux threw a lever, the mercury flowed and cranking a handle, the carriage propelled itself at a dizzying rate of knots through the passageways.
Shouts echoed around the warehouse. I could discern an American booming out the name ‘Beatrice!’.
‘‘That’d be the lovelorn Nathaniel Holyfield looking for his bride.’’ grinned Devereux, his beard flapping wildly about him. The carriage pitched and rolled on the mercury rails.
‘‘Where are we going to?’’ I shouted, I felt my stomach beginning to churn with nausea.
‘‘The Thames, old boy!’’
Pennington fired a series of warning shots into the air from his autocannon. Light fittings shattered plunging the offices and stores into deeper darkness behind us.
The dash through the warehouse seemed to pass in minutes then we came upon a machine the likes of which I have never seen before. A pulsing boiler the width and height of a sloop stood like a sentinel in the vast warehouse, the bales of cloth and wool camouflaging it. It had a vast array of coils sprouting from it, the rivets and plates hummed to the harmonics of the universe. Behind one of the many portholes a light flickered. First it had the ghostly green glow of St Elmo’s fire then blending to purples and deep volcanic red.
‘‘The main energy station.’’ roared Devereux. ‘‘I have a rod pointing toward Alpha Centauri and I have set the station’s harmonics accordingly. The energy points I mentioned are fine tuned to the frequency. All my bales of wool and cloth act as the perfect insulation.’’
The closer we got to the station, the faster we were propelled, yet I felt at no stage were we in danger of spilling out. Lady Holyfield seemed to glow and her dead eyes took on a spirit I hadn’t seen before; she almost appeared to take breath.
Then we heard the first clatter of hooves. The skylights overhead began to glow as the dawn began to creep. Looking back, two horsemen thundered behind, dressed like the assassin Hopkins, both their faces masked by kerchiefs over their mouths. Devereux turned and cranked coolly, the carriage sliding and turning at his whim. Pennington squeezed off another warning burst over the rider’s heads, the horses shied from the ordinance and pulled up.
We turned a hard left and the warehouse door appeared in the distance. Devereux leaned forward like a jockey at Royal Ascot and the carriage thundered on the liquid-solid-liquid rails toward it.
At the door, the carriage came to a smooth stop. We alighted with a new urgency. The riders had taken up the chase again, their shouts of confusion echoed in the distance.
‘‘We haven’t much time.’’ Devereux intoned as he bounded to the chain that lifted the gate. With Pennington and me putting our backs into it, we hoisted the huge gate slowly. My leg ached with the effort and as the gate rose on its gears, London’s vast docklands appeared before us as vermillion silhouettes in the sunrise.
Taking Lady Holyfield’s hand, Devereux helped her down from the mercury driven carriage and guided her through the gateway. Once they were clear, Pennington and I released the chain and jumped through as the door clattered down.
We stood on the warehouse jetty where a barge was moored. It had the ornate livery of Devereux mills painted on its cabin and hull. It sat low in the water, almost level with the jetty. On it rested a silver dirigible the length of an omnibus, secured by ropes.
‘‘Another experiment, Devereux?’’ I enquired.
‘‘I have two more dirigibles, this one’s loss today is a mere trifle, Wentworth’’. Taking the lady’s arm he guided her to the barge and lifted her aboard.
‘‘My Lady.’’ Devereux bowed,
She returned with a curtsey. Without a word, she walked toward the dirigible’s gondola. Within moments she was aboard.
‘‘Gentlemen, I must apologise for dragging you into my little drama, but I must ask for your absolute discretion in this delicate matter; this may very well end in the courts’’
Devereux leapt aboard the barge nimbly and began releasing the ropes. We joined him and then I heard the sound of motors starting up. I looked up at the dirigible, ribbons of mercury spewed out and solidified in the air from pipes that jutted out from the airship’s frame.
‘‘Marvellous, marvellous mercury’’ murmured Devereux with a wry grin. Lady Holyfield moved around the gondola with intent. The clank and grind of gears resounded from it as she worked. The solidified mercury formed into sails like a windmills and began to rotate, increasing in speed, lifting the airship to the heavens.
Shielding our eyes, Devereux, Pennington and I watched the dirigible ascend through the early morning low cloud cover.
‘‘Where is she destined?’’
‘‘The stars, Wentworth. Lady Beatrice Holyfield can never come back. The good husband Nathaniel wants to mass produce her. The luddites want to destroy her, she should never have been.’’
‘‘Good intentions, Devereux.’’ I agreed.
‘‘Who knows, Wentworth, the airship may escape this planet, she trialled excellently last winter in Nova Scotia; high altitude tests.’’
It was then the warehouse door began to rise slowly behind us. I glanced one more time at the silver speck in the clouds, the blood red of the sunrise shimmering off her hull and wished the dear Lady Beatrice Holyfield a bon voyage.
I reached for my pocket watch and thumbed open the clasp. Both hands were spinning wildly clockwise and the casing vibrated to the clicking cogs,
‘‘Ah,’’ said Devereux walking toward the two men who had opened the gate ‘‘Nathaniel Holyfield, it’s a pleasure to meet you again sir!’’
Replacing my watch, I released the handle of my walking stick and nodded to Pennington.
©Robert Craven 2013