Read The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs Online

Authors: James P. Blaylock

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Adventure, #General, #Crime, #Psychological, #steampunk, #Historical Adventure, #Historical Fantasy, #James P. Blaylock, #Langdon St. Ives

The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs

BOOK: The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs
The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs
James P. Blaylock
Subterranean (2011)
Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Adventure, General, Crime, Psychological, steampunk, Historical Adventure, Historical Fantasy, James P. Blaylock, Langdon St. Ives

Subterranean Press is proud to announce the longest Langdon St. Ives adventure in two decades, featuring a full-color wraparound dust jacket and twenty black-and-white interior illustrations by J. K. Potter. An outbreak of violent madness at the Explorers Club, the coincidental murders of a recluse scientist in North Kent and a lighthouse keeper on the chalk cliffs below Brighton, and the mysterious disappearance of Alice St. Ives, lead Langdon St. Ives, Jack Owlesby, and their resolute friend Tubby Frobisher into the very heart of danger, where they discover the great secret of the chalk cliffs at Beachy Head and a looming threat to the collective sanity of mankind.


The Affair 

of the 

Chalk Cliffs


James P. Blaylock

Illustrated by J. K. Potter



Subterranean Press 2011

The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs
Copyright © 2011 by James P. Blaylock. 

All rights reserved.

Dust jacket illustration and interior illustrations Copyright © 2011 

by J. K. Potter. All rights reserved.

Print Interior design Copyright © 2011 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.

All rights reserved.

Electronic Edition



Subterranean Press

PO Box 190106

Burton, MI 48519

Chapter 1


Madness at the 

Explorers Club


The mood around the table at the Half Toad Inn, Lambert Court, that Saturday evening in spring was lamentable, despite the food, which consisted of an enormous steak and kidney pie that Henrietta Billson had five minutes earlier drawn forth from the oven and set out steaming on the table in front of Professor Langdon St. Ives, his man Hasbro, and myself—Jack Owlesby. There were grilled oysters, tidbits of cold mackerel dusted with salt, roasted potatoes and potted leeks. Dead center of the table stood a gallon of Olde Man Newt, William Billson’s own ale, served at the Half Toad in wide-mouthed vessels. Mrs. Billson was just then turning a jam roly-poly on a floured board, which would be hot out of the oven in half an hour. It might be said that she looked like some variety of roly-poly herself, although it would be an insult to the woman, and so I won’t say it. A half hour earlier she threatened to run a man out of the inn who hadn’t any manners but was “all swank talk,” and when the man said something clever to her she bent his arm up behind his neck, kicked him half a dozen times in the seat of his pants, and drove him head foremost out the door.

Now rain hammered at the windows along Fingal Street on this stay-at-home evening, the room nearly empty although there was surely no better place to be in Greater London. There were oysters on the plate and ale in the glass, but a morose Langdon St. Ives apparently tasted nothing, stabbing at the bivalves with an indifferent fork and borne down by the blue devils. St. Ives, as perhaps you might already know, is the greatest, if largely unheralded, explorer and scientist in the Western World. I know little of scientists in the Eastern World, where there might well be some Mandarin equivalent of Professor St. Ives piecing together a magnetic engine for a voyage to the moon, a chronicler like myself peering over his shoulder, sharpening a nib and rustling foolscap. But St. Ives’s stature as a man of science meant nothing to him tonight, and Hasbro’s subtle efforts to interest him in a slice of mackerel went unheeded; he might as well have been sitting in a cell in the Fleet Prison staring at a plate of salted oakum.

We had just that afternoon returned from Scotland, from Dundee on the Firth of Tay, where the Rail Bridge had collapsed into the firth in December of last year, three days after Christmas, taking a train with it along with seventy-five passengers. St. Ives had been a boyhood friend of Sir Thomas Bouch in Cumbria in the first half of the century, and Bouch, as you no doubt recall, was vilified by the courts and in the press for having badly engineered the bridge. St. Ives had received a letter from Bouch, imploring his help, and we had gone up to Dundee to discover whether deviltry was the cause of the collapse as much as shoddy workmanship. The submarine vessel of the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo had reportedly been sighted on several occasions in the firth during that fateful month of December. By the time we arrived, however, Bouch had decamped to Glasgow, and we were left to our own devices, pursuing our suspicions up half-blind avenues that came to nothing. The authorities declared St. Ives’s suspicions about Narbondo’s machinations to be fantastic, worthy of the imagination of Mr. Jules Verne.

When we ran Bouch to ground in Glasgow, he had no idea that we were in Scotland. He hadn’t sent any letter to St. Ives or to anyone else, and he had never heard of Dr. Ignacio Narbondo.

If our failure to forestall the ruin of Sir Thomas Bouch were the long and the short of it, the food and drink and the comforts of the Half Toad might have fetched the home stake, as the Americans say, but St. Ives was further diminished by a recent falling out with Alice, Mrs. St. Ives, who had grown weary of her husband’s constant adventures. He had promised her a month-long holiday on Lake Windermere, before the summer crowds descended, but fast on the heels of his solemn promise had come word from Scotland. Honor left St. Ives no choice but to set out for Dundee to help his old friend, the holiday abandoned. Alice, you understand, agreed that St. Ives must undertake the journey, but she wasn’t happy about it, and they had parted ways in cold silence, St. Ives to Scotland and Alice to Heathfield in East Sussex to visit her niece Sydnee. This silence between her and St. Ives had lasted close upon two weeks now, and St. Ives had been deafened by it, the sun having utterly disappeared from the cloudy firmament of his soul.

Alice is a sort of paragon of wives, equally handy with a fowling piece or a fishing rod, and can quote Izaak Walton six to the dozen, as if she has the
by memory. She’s as competent as Henrietta Billson to kick a man in his daily duty if he asks for it, and pardon the expression. Although the particulars of their marriage are none of my business, I’ll insist that she understands St. Ives fully, and has looked with equanimity on giant squids autopsied in the larder and pygmy hippopotami occupying the barn. (A canal for the hippopotami was, I’ll admit, a recurring subject of contention.) In short, she’s the perfect mate for a scientist and adventurer like St. Ives. But the man’s zealous sense of duty to the world and to science, admirable as it is, could try the patience of a marble saint.

St. Ives gazed at his kidney pie, nodding senselessly at our efforts to rally him, tasting his drink and setting the glass down again. Nothing useful could be done this side of Alice’s homecoming. She was due into Victoria Station tonight at half past nine o’clock.

The door opened and our old friend Tubby Frobisher staggered in out of the weather, oddly taking no notice of us there in the corner. He attempted to hang up a dripping coat and hat before heading across to warm his considerable bulk at the fire, but the coat fell to the floor and the hat on top of it. I nodded to Lars Hopeful, Billson’s halfwit tap boy, who fetched the garments from the floor and hung them up near enough to the fire to roast them. Tubby’s usual cheerful demeanor had abdicated. He looked like a man pursued by demons, his rotund face haggard, his eyes wild, his hair apparently coifed by the Barber of Seville, who, of course, had been dead these two centuries past. His clothing was askew as well, his shirt yanked half out of his trousers, his right sleeve gaping open.

He spotted that roly-poly pudding just going into the oven, a sight that would normally lend him the giddy look of a hedgehog eyeing a worm, but he turned away as if blind to it. Then he saw the three of us sitting at our table and seemed to recall, from deep within his mind, that he had in fact agreed to meet us at just that hour—that he had no doubt come to the Half Toad for that very reason. He veered toward us now, laboring like a dockyard lump in a side wind, sitting down heavily in a chair, where he gaped and blinked.

“What cheer, Tubby?” I said to him, but he looked at me as if I’d uttered an insult. Then, coming to himself at last, he picked up my glass and drained half a pint of Olde Man Newt in a single draught.

“I’ve just come from the Explorer’s Club,” he said, shaking his head darkly and setting the glass down hard. His face was plowed with deep furrows, and he gave us a look that was heavy with meaning, although I was damned if I could make it out. St. Ives sat deathly still, not so much as acknowledging Tubby’s pronouncement, his own mind still traveling in a dark country. I signaled Hopeful to bring along another glass, since Tubby had seized upon mine. “I believe that I momentarily witnessed the end of civilization,” Tubby muttered.

“I trust that you comported yourself with dignity,” I said to him, filling both our glasses from the pitcher.

“I did not,” he told me, evidently serious. “Dignity wasn’t in it. It was the most extraordinary thing. The strangest turn of events.”

“More extraordinary even than dignity?” I asked. “Pray tell us what happened. The champagne ran short? Duel in the bookroom?”

“I’ll tell you what it was,” he said, “although I still doubt myself. I went out of my mind, quite literally, and when I stepped back into it I found that I had taken a cutlass off the wall and hacked the head from that stuffed boar in among the potted plants by the gallery window. I was dead certain that it was attacking me, and I laid it out with a single stroke. I vaguely recall singing “The Sorrows of Old Bailey,” looking down at the decapitated monster and wondering why it didn’t bleed. I admired that boar. Attacking it was unconscionable.”

“Tubby Frobisher
? That’s bad, very bad,” I told him. “Whisky might account for it.”

“Whisky be damned!” he shouted, glowering at me. “I’d had nothing but a cup of hot punch. There was
accounting for it—that’s what I’m telling you, confound it. The entire
was in the same straits. Lord Kelvin was smoking three clay pipes at once while balanced on one leg atop a divan, and that French somnambulist whose name never fails to escape me was setting in to shoot the pipe out of his mouth with a pistol. He had already blasted a vase full of crocuses to smithereens. Secretary Parsons was accusing some harmless old blighter of being the Devil, shouting that he would cut out his liver and lights with a sharpened spoon. You’ve never seen such a thing—utter chaos and uproar. Every man a raving lunatic, living geniuses reeling and chattering like gibbon apes.”

Tubby had grown red in the face, half bonkers again simply recalling the scene. I could see that he was deadly serious, but even so I was again on the point of saying something droll when I noticed that St. Ives had awakened from his deep stupor.

“You say that every man jack of you went mad?” he asked.
“At the same instant?”

“That’s just what I say, Professor. Tomorrow it’ll be in the news. No way to keep it quiet, what with Admiral Peavey pitching furniture off the balcony and shouting at people on the street below to clear the buggering decks. Bedlam reigned. Utterly scandalous behavior for two or three minutes. Then the spell lifted like a curtain and we were all of us left gaping at each other, begging pardon right and left.” Tubby gobbled three oysters in rapid succession, washed them down with the ale, and then carved out a piece of kidney pie. “God bless an oyster,” he said, heaving a great sigh.

“And the people in the street—they were unaffected by this…fit?” St. Ives asked, his eyes alive for the first time in two days.

“I can’t quite say,” Tubby told him. “There was no sign to the contrary aside from a general uproar, but perhaps that had something to do with the flying chairs.”

“You mentioned that cup of punch,” Hasbro put in, speaking in his customary, even tone, as if Tubby had been talking about the price of wool. “I wonder whether someone hadn’t put a chemical into it. May I attend to your shirt cuff, sir?” Tubby noticed then that he was dragging his unlatched cuff through the mackerel, and he allowed Hasbro to swab it with a napkin and button it up. He took stock of himself then, and made a belated effort to smooth down his hair with a dab of fish oil.

As I said earlier, Hasbro is St. Ives’s manservant, his factotum. They’d been comrades in arms time out of mind, and had traveled together to destinations that beggar description. Hasbro has saved St. Ives’s life more than once, and St. Ives has returned the favor. He’s a tall man, Hasbro is, well turned out, with a long face and a demeanor that rarely changes its atmosphere. He’s a crack shot with a pistol, and I’ve seen him reef and steer as if he were Poseidon’s nephew. His notions about punch and poison were sensible. Everything about the man was sensible.

“Poisoning might explain it,” St. Ives said, although he didn’t seem convinced. “Lord knows what it would be, given that the effects were transitory and apparently immediate. Some variety of plant extract, perhaps. Datura might do the trick, in the form of a condensed tea brewed from the roots. But what would account for the sudden cessation of effect? Dosage? Surely everyone hadn’t consumed the same quantity, and of course no two men are constructed alike.” He forked up a dripping lump of kidney and seemed to eat it almost happily now, his mind revolving on the trouble at hand rather than the trouble soon to be awaiting him at Victoria Station.

of us?” Tubby said.
“The staff as well?”

“Who’s to say the staff hadn’t been lapping up the punch?” I asked. “They’re not immune to the attraction of warm spirits on a cold evening. For my money Hasbro has put his finger on it. The mystery is solved.”

the mystery, perhaps, even if it is the case,” St. Ives said. “The other half is the more vital.”

“Which other half?” I asked.

“Whose hand is behind the outrage, and, of course, why?”

He seemed to grow distracted, as if something had come into his mind, and he cocked his head curiously. For a moment I waited for him to advance some further, enlightening theory, but the clock spoke the hour, and we set in to eat in earnest, time being short. With food going down his gullet Tubby seemed to have forgotten his embarrassment, and agreed with me that he had been fortunate to hack the head off a stuffed boar rather than off the shoulders of Admiral Peavey. After the third glass of ale he was laughing about the entire business, brandishing his stick and insisting that I act the part of the boar for the general amusement of Billson’s patronage. I declined. Mrs. Billson set the roly-poly pudding on the table and sliced it, the currant jam leaking out in a purple river, and it seemed to me that all our troubles could be put right by a kidney pie, a pudding, and a pint of ale.

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