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Authors: D. M. Cornish

Lamplighter (45 page)

BOOK: Lamplighter
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The three were shown up the steps through a door of solid black iron, the postilion following after with a mailbag. Beyond was an antechamber slit with murder holes in roof and wall. A cheerful “halloo” from their haubardier guide, and a second black door at the farther end was winched open. Europe, Rossamünd and Threnody were admitted to a watch room furnished sparely with a clerical desk, a large clock and other doors to left and right.
They were met by a young man in a powdered scratch-bob, standing behind the desk. He was wearing the unmistakable white oversleeves of an altern-lighter and the same surprised expression as all the other officers of previous cothouses at the sight of newly made, newly arrived lighters. Stuttering a little at Europe’s steady scrutiny, he greeted them all stiffly. As he sorted through the few items in the mailbag, he informed them that their Major-of-House and Lamplighter-Captain were away at Haltmire for an urgent conference with the Warden-General. “How-be-it, young lampsmen.You have come to reinforce us?”
“No, sir, we’re meant for Wormstool,” Rossamünd explained.
“Wormstool, is it?” The altern looked a little put out. “Well, they need it more, I suppose, though we are all sorely put. You can journey there with the lantern-watch tomorrow morn. I’ll have the costerman take your dunnage across later in the day.”
“I’ll set owt termorrer,” the costerman drawled with a thick Sulk End accent, entering at the altern-lighter’s summons. Squarmis was the man’s name. He was a withered, greasy fellow in many heavy layers of cheap proofing and a short-tailed liripipium.There was something indefinably odd about the man, something vague and unsettling. For a dread instant, Rossamünd swore he caught a hint of swine’s lard on the fellow.When he thought no one was paying him any mind he sniffed more deeply, but only got a nose full of the man’s natural unwashed odors and the waft of strong drink.
Squarmis looked at them shrewdly. “A jink for yer goods in the cart will cost ye one an’ six.”
Even Rossamünd could tell one sequin, six guise was thievery for such a short ride. It was more than the young lighter was paid for a month of prenticing.
SQUARMIS
THE COSTERMAN
“You must be jesting,” said Threnody, incredulous. “How can you practice such domestic brigandry?”
“We all have owr burthens, miss,” Squarmis said with an unctuous smile and fingers greedily gripping for the fare. “Does ye wants yer parcels delivered safe across this nasty world or does ye not?” The avaricious fellow was so brazen he was not daunted even by the presence of Europe.
“This is your best service, Lieutenant?” the fulgar queried the young altern-lighter, talking as if the costerman were not there.
Blushing slightly, he bowed a little. “My apologies, ma’am, th-this scoundrel is all there is to offer. He has been g-given sole commission to work here by the Master-of-Clerks’ office, so we have little choice.”
“Very well.”
Before the costerman slunk away the altern passed him a red-leather wrapped dispatch, an official document normally sent only by the Marshal—in this case the Marshal-Subrogat, Podious Whympre. “This has arrived for you,” the young officer said.
What does Podious want with him so far out here?
Squarmis took the dispatch between smudgy fingers. “Thems will be my orders from
yer
surpeereeors.” He leered knowingly and wandered back through the side door from which he had come.
Blushing, the altern-lighter apologized once again then asked of Rossamünd and Threnody, “How would you like to meet your new comrades?”
“I think a time of rest for us all at your wayhouse would do better,” Europe cut in quickly. “Camaraderie can come later.”
“Ah—right you are, madam.” With an open palm, he gestured them to follow. He took them through a door and down a passage over the high lynche that connected cothouse to wayhouse. Though it was covered with its own tiled roof, the sides were open to the winds, and an eerie inhuman ululation carried faintly from the flatlands. Somewhere inside the bastion the muffled yammering of the cothouse dogs and the answering shouts of their tractors could be heard. The altern seemed hardly to notice as he guided them.
The Fend & Fodicar’s enrica d’ama, Goodwife Inchabald, greeted them all familiarly. “Oh ’ello, my darlings! Come for a taste of me hasty pie, ’ave you?”
“Her fare is as poor as her welcome is warm,” Threnody murmured into her plate when their meals were served.
“Miss Europe, what of this rever-man you have to dispatch?” Rossamünd asked.
The fulgar took a sip of beer and betrayed only the slightest distaste. “There are people who dare to actually live out there on the flat,” she said, “and out there is where I am to go. Some puzzled eeker-folk with more sequins than sense, it seems, have a rever-man in residence in their cellar. My intermediary is a fellow here by the name of Dimbleby: I am to find him tomorrow. More than that I do not know.”
“What is it doing out here?”
“The rever-man? Who can say?” Europe sighed wearily. “It might have escaped from a strong room in the mines up north.”
“Maybe it is one of Swill’s,” Threnody added.
“It could have come from a rousing-pit,” Rossamünd put in. “There is probably one out here too.”
“It might have.” The fulgar was starting to sound a little exasperated. “Out in this rustic remoteness anything might be.”
“Will you be taking help?” Joining her on the hunt for a gudgeon was factotum work Rossamünd would be happy to do.
Europe let out a puff of air and reviewed the room and its few hard-bitten patrons. “In the morning I will attempt to find myself a lurksman among these frowsty folk. If it weren’t for your oaths of service I would take you too.”
“Why are you
so
insistent on Rossamünd as your factotum?” Threnody demanded.
The fulgar looked at Threnody as if seeing her for the very first time. “Child, do not mistake my tolerance of you for acceptance.”
Threnody’s mouth opened then shut, but no sound came out. She looked to Rossamünd, dropped her eyes and looked mortified for a merest twinkling. With admirable spirit, she recovered, and, chin jutting proudly, ate the rest of her tasteless meal.
There was a long, unpleasant silence.
Europe ate little more, and soon left the two young lighters, to inquire of a bed for the night and board for an indeterminate duration. Threnody took out a duodecimo and read as if Rossamünd was not there. To pass time, he sorted through his salumanticum, resettling vials and jars, salperts and castes, all in their padded boxes or cushion pockets, making the most necessary scripts easy to extract.
Europe returned, her arrangements made. “I’m glad to see you’re in a habilistic turn of mind,” she said. “How would you take to trying your hand once more at making my treacle, little man?—to keep your practice up?”
“I might as well make you some too, Threnody, if I’m already at it.”
“No!” she said frostily. “Stop asking me.”
Stung, Rossamünd took up Europe’s lacquered treaclebox—remembering only too well how uneasy it had made him feel—and allowed himself to be led to the small kitchen. There, while Europe left to arrange her luggage and Goodwife Inchabald hovered nervously to make sure he did not spoil her clean stoves, Rossamünd brewed. He discovered the steps of making were vivid in his mind and Sugar of Nnun still filled him with sickly dreads. The disturbing half smell of the finished treacle filled the close space.
“Well done, little man,” Europe said quietly, reappearing as if drawn by the reek. With a toss of her head and those unladylike gulps she drained the bowl. “Well, good night, Rossamünd,” she continued—Rossamünd trying not to stare at her stained mouth—“Tomorrow I knave myself in earnest, and you will be on your way to your lonely billet. I shall be about if you have need of me. Remember well my warning at Compostor.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Keep what you know to yourself. It will profit no one just babbled about—and don’t go getting yourself maimed or slaughtered.” She looked at him until the young lighter felt like a squirming worm on a hook.
“Good-bye, Miss Europe,” Rossamünd whispered. He felt like he was ever saying this to her.
Without another word the fulgar gathered her treacle-box and departed, leaving the young lighter to make his way back across the lynche to Bleakhall, passing Threnody without acknowledgment.
Halfway across the bridge she caught up with him. “What, no Brambly Rose? How ever will you get on without her?” she said sardonically. “How you can stomach her hoit-a-toit I do not know.” Threnody sniffed sourly. “I can see well now why Mother does not like her.”
“I would have thought your mother’s dislike of her would have recommended Europe to you,” he countered.
She fixed him with a withering eye. “Well, I go to make my own treacle, as any
good
lahzar should.You should come and see how it is really done.”
Rossamünd declined.
“I shall leave you to your moon dreams of the Lady Europe, then!”
Baffled and tired, Rossamünd did not offer a response.
Across in Bleakhall the kindly altern showed him to a long, open hall with benches for meals at one end and a double row of cots at the other, all beneath a lofty ceiling a-crowd with exposed beams. The distinct, dank smell of seldom-washed men mixed with wood-smoke and lock-oil: the telltale odor of a cothouse and something a little more acrid and unpleasant. After three days in the funk of a lentum cab shared with two perfumed women, Rossamünd had lost his dullness to the smell of too many men together. He tried not to breathe deeply.
It was the full of night now, and the lantern-watch from Wormstool had already arrived, their lighting done. They were sitting with their Bleakhall brothers about the common table drinking bottles down to the mud, swapping bawdy jokes and playing at checkers.They seemed hard and rough, like the
Hogshead
bargemen, but altogether much neater and thoroughly clean. For all their coarse language and rough manners, they seemed careful with how they looked, cursing at each other if ever a splash or splatter threatened to soil their harness. Each wore a baldric of Imperial red: they were citizens of the Empire, claiming no particular stately heritage.
Rossamünd felt very dull and frowzy. He noticed Threnody, who had soon returned—teeth slightly stained with plaudamentum—self-consciously pull and play at her hems and fringes whenever she thought the lampsmen were not looking.
She barely acknowledged him, however.
The “Stoolers,” those lighters—Rossamünd quickly learned—from Wormstool, and the “Bleakers” were fascinated by the two young arrivals, but especially by Threnody. She made much of being superior to their attentions, yet from Rossamünd’s vantage she relished every rough jest or idle tease.
“How come they’re sending them out to ye?” a Bleakhall lighter asked. “We need replacements just as much . . .”
“More’s the point: what’s the Marshal doin’ billetin’ such pink li’l morsels out to us?” one extraordinarily hairy Stooler—one Under-Sergeant Poesides—added.
“Aye!” Rossamünd heard one lighter whisper theatrically to a brother-in-arms. “What do they takes us for, wet nurses?”
“Doesn’t he know we eat ’em alive out here?” Poesides added, raising sinister chuckles from his amused colleagues.
Rossamünd grinned sheepishly.
Threnody sniffed superciliously as she said sourly, “You might find us a little hard to chew!” inciting a general “ooooh” and loud laughter.
“I can see thy arrow-spoor, Miss Muddle!” A rather thick-set sergeant sporting raven-hued mustachios and a bulbous nose grinned and pointed to Threnody’s brow. Isambard Mulch was his name. “Going to fish our heads from inside our tummies after we’ve eaten ye, are ye?”
Some small lighter, old enough to surely have earned retirement, aped exaggerated actions of eating then keeled over, clutching dramatically at his head and stomach. The laughter became a roar, Rossamünd joining them. Even Threnody broke a smile.
“Ahhh there, lads,” Sergeant Mulch cried, pointing to the girl’s reluctant grin, “she’s human-hearted after all!”
Her smile vanished and the guffaws roared louder still.
Perhaps service at the ignoble end of the road might not be so wretched after all.
23
BOOK: Lamplighter
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