Authors: Mark Hodder
Tags: #Adventure, #Mystery, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Historical, #Steampunk
One man’s wickedness may easily become all men’s curse.
My thanks to Rohan McWilliam, whose excellent
The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation
(Hambledon Continuum, 2007) provided a wealth of background material, song lyrics, and quotes for this story.
George Mann, Lou Anders, and Emma Barnes, you are legends. Mike Moorcock, there’s simply no way to adequately thank you.
As in the previous Burton and Swinburne tale, I have taken great liberties with respected (and some not so respected) famous names from the Victorian era. To any descendants of those whose reputations I have toyed with, I offer my apologies and an assurance that this is intended as speculative fiction and very definitely not biography. The alternative history imagined within these pages is a place where the inhabitants of Victorian England encountered different challenges and opportunities from those they met in real life, and have thus developed into very, very different people. They are quite unlike their historical counterparts and should not be in any way regarded as accurate depictions of the people who really lived.
In particular, I would like to offer respect and admiration to the current generation of the Tichborne/Doughty family. They still live in, and struggle to maintain, Tichborne House, which is a massively expensive undertaking, especially in these economically troubled times. They also continue the tradition of the Tichborne Dole, donating flour every year during the Feast of the Annunciation.
Sir Roger Tichborne is my name,
I’m seeking now for wealth and fame,
They say that I was lost at sea,
But I tell them, “Oh dear, no, not me.”
A handsome reward will be given to any person who can furnish such information as will discover the fate of Roger Charles Tichborne. He sailed from Rio de Janeiro on hte 20th of April 1854 in the ship
, and has never been heard of since, but a report reached England to the effect that a portion of the crew and passengers of the vessel bound to Australi, Melbourne it is believed. It is not known whether the said Roger Charles Tichborne was among the drowned or saved. He would at the present time be about thirty-two years of age, is of a delicate constitution, rather tallm with very light-brown hair, and blue eyes. Mr. Tichborne is the sone of Sir Hames Tichborne, now deceased, and is heir to all his estates.
—Advertisement, Newspapers Worldwide, 1861
Sir Richard Francis Burton was dead.
He was lying on his back in the lobby of the Royal Geographical Society, sprawled at the bottom of the grand staircase with a diminutive red-haired poet slumped across his chest.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, tears streaming down his cheeks, his senses befuddled with alcohol, quickly composed an elegy. It was, after all, best to strike while the iron was hot.
He raised his head, his hair fiery in the flickering gas light, and, in his high-pitched voice, proclaimed:
Wouldst thou not know whom England, whom the world,
Mourns? For the world whose wildest ways he trod,
And smiled their dangers down that coiled and curled
Against him, knows him now less man than god.
Beneath his hand, in Burton’s jacket, he felt a flask-shaped lump. Surreptitiously, he began to wiggle his fingers into the pocket.
“Our demigod of daring, keenest-eyed,” he continued, with a sniff. “To read and deepest—”
“Atrocious!” a voice thundered from the top of the stairs.
Swinburne looked up.
Sir Roderick Murchison stood imperiously on the landing.
“Keep your hands to yourself, Algy,” came a whisper.
Swinburne looked down.
Burton’s eyes were open.
“Atrocious behaviour!” Murchison boomed again.
The president of the Royal Geographical Society descended with dignity and poise. His back was ramrod straight. His bald head was shining. He passed portraits of the great explorers: James Cook, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Franklin, Sir Francis Drake—this latter painting was hanging askew, having been struck by Burton’s passing foot—William Hovell, Mungo Park, and others.
“I’ll not brook such conduct, Burton! This is a respectable scientific establishment, not a confounded East End tavern!”
Swinburne fell back as his friend, the former soldier, explorer, and spy—the linguist, scholar, author, swordsman, geographer, and king’s agent—staggered to his feet and stood swaying, glowering at Murchison, his one-time sponsor.
“Alive, then?” the poet muttered, gazing bemusedly at his friend.
At five foot eleven, Burton appeared taller, due to the breadth of his shoulders, depth of his chest, and slim athletic build. As inebriated as he was, he radiated power. His eyes were black and mesmeric, his cheekbones prominent, his mouth set aggressively. He had short black hair, which he wore swept backward, and a fierce mustache and beard, forked and devilish. A deep scar disfigured his left cheek, tugging slightly at his bottom eyelid, and there was a smaller one on the right, each marking the path of a Somali spear that had been thrust through his face during a disastrous expedition to Berbera.
“You’re a damnable drunkard!” Murchison barked as he reached the bottom step. His narrow features suddenly softened. “Are you hurt?”
Burton snarled his response: “It’ll take more than a tumble down the bloody stairs to break me!”
Swinburne scrambled up from the floor. He was tiny, just five foot two, and slope-shouldered. His head, perched on such a diminutive body, and with its mop of carroty hair, seemed perfectly enormous. He had pale-green eyes and was clean shaven. He appeared much younger than his twenty-four years.
“Confound it,” he squeaked. “Now I’ll have to use the elegy for somebody else. Who died recently? Anyone noteworthy? Did you like it, Richard? The bit about ‘For the world whose wildest ways he trod’ was especially appropriate, I thought.”
“Be quiet, Swinburne!” Murchison snapped. “Burton, I’m not trying to break you, if that’s what you’re implying. Henry Stanley was better financed to settle the Nile question than you. I had little choice but to add the Society’s backing to that which he received from his newspaper.”
“And now he’s disappeared!” Burton growled. “How many flying machines have to vanish over Africa’s Lake Regions before you realise that the only way in is on foot?”
“I’m well aware of the problem, sir, and I’ll have you know that I warned Stanley. It was his newspaper that insisted he take rotorchairs!”
“Pah! I know the area better than any man in the entire British Empire, but you saw fit to send a damn fool journalist. Who next, Murchison? Perhaps a dance troupe from the music halls?”
Sir Roderick stiffened. He crossed his arms over his chest and replied, icily: “Samuel Baker wants to mount a rescue mission, as does John Petherick, but whomever I send, it shan’t be you, of that you can be certain. Your days as a geographer are over. It appears, however, that your days as a drinker are not!”
Burton clenched his teeth, tugged at his jacket, took a deep breath, paused, sighed it out, and all of a sudden the fight left him. He said, in a subdued tone: “Sam and John are good men. Accomplished. They know how to handle the natives. My apologies, Sir Roderick, I find it difficult to let go. I still think of the Nile question as mine to answer, though, in truth, I have a new and entirely different role to play now.”
“Ah, yes. I heard a rumour that Palmerston has employed you. Is it true?”
Burton nodded. “It is.”
“In truth, it’s hard to say. I’m titled the ‘king’s agent.’ It’s something of an investigative role.”
“Then I would think you’re well suited to it.”
“Perhaps. But I still take an interest in—well—sir, if you hear anything—”
“I’ll get word to you,” Murchison interrupted curtly. “Now go. Get some coffee. Sober up. Have some self-respect, man!”
The president turned and stamped back up the stairs, straightening Drake’s portrait as he passed it.
A valet fetched Burton and Swinburne their coats, hats, and canes, and the two men walked unsteadily across the lobby and out through the double doors.
The evening was dark and damp, glistening with reflections after the day’s showers. A chill wind tugged at their clothes.
“Coffee at the Venetia Hotel?” Burton suggested, buttoning his black overcoat.
“Or another brandy and a bit of slap and tickle?” Swinburne countered. “Verbena Lodge isn’t far from here.”
“It’s a house of ill repute where the birchings are—”
“Coffee!” Burton said.
They walked along Whitehall Place and turned right into Northumberland Avenue, heading toward Trafalgar Square. Swinburne began to sing a song of his own composition:
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain,
We’d hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying-feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein;
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain.
His tremulous piping attracted disapproving glances from passersby. Despite the bad weather and the late hour, there were plenty of people about, mainly gentlemen strolling to and fro between the city’s restaurants and clubs.
“Oh, bugger it,” the poet cursed. “I think I just sang the last verse first. Now I’ll have to start again.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself on my account,” Burton murmured.
A velocipede—or “penny-farthing,” as some wag had christened the vehicles—chugged past, pumping steam from its tall funnel into the already dense atmosphere of London.
“Hal-lo!” the rider exclaimed as he passed them, his voice rendered jittery as the vehicle’s huge rubber-banded front wheel communicated every bump of the cobbled street to his spine. “W-what’s g-going on in the s-square?”
Burton peered ahead, struggling to focus his eyes. There was, indeed, some sort of commotion. A crowd had gathered, and he could see the cockscomb helmets of police constables moving among the top hats.
He took Swinburne by the arm. “Come along,” he urged. “Let’s see what the hullabaloo is all about.”
“For pity’s sake slow down, will you!” complained his companion, who had to match Burton’s every stride with two of his own. “You’ll render me horrendously sober at this pace!”
“Incidentally, Algy, in the event of my demise, perhaps you’d show a little more restraint with the god and demigod references,” Burton grumbled.
“Ha! What a contrary fellow you are! On the one hand you seem obsessed by religions; on the other, repelled by them!”
“Humph! These days, I’m more interested in the underlying motivation—in the reasons why a man is willing to be guided by a god whose existence is, at best, impossible to prove and, at worst, an obvious fabrication. It seems to me that in these times of rapid scientific and industrial advancement, the procurement of knowledge has become too intimidating a prospect for the average man, so he’s shunning it entirely in favour of faith. Faith requires nothing but blind adherence, whereas knowledge demands the continual apprehension of an ever-expanding body of information. With faith, one can at least claim knowledge without having to do the hard work of acquiring it!”
“I say!” Swinburne cried. “Well said, old chap! Well said! You hardly slurred a single word! You’re eminently reprehensible!”
“I know what I mean. But Richard, surely Darwin’s natural evolution has rendered God undeniably defunct?”
“Indubitably. Which begs the question: to what falsehood will the uneducated masses willingly devote themselves next?”
They paced along, swinging their canes, their hats set at a jaunty angle. Despite the revitalising nip in the air, Burton was developing a headache. He decided to take a brandy with his coffee; perhaps it would numb the faint throbbing.
When they reached Trafalgar Square, the famous explorer plunged into the crowd and shouldered his way through it with Swinburne trailing in his wake. A constable stepped into their path, his hand raised.
“Stay back, please, gents.”
Burton pulled out his wallet and withdrew from it a printed card. He showed it to the policeman who instantly saluted and stepped back.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir.”
“Over here, Captain!” a deep, slightly husky voice called. Burton saw his friend Detective Inspector William Trounce of Scotland Yard standing at the base of Nelson’s Column. Two people were with him: a young dark-skinned constable and, curiously, someone who was standing absolutely still, concealed from head to toe by a blanket.
Trounce met them with a hearty handshake. He was a bulky but amiable-looking individual, short but broad, with thick limbs and a barrel chest, bright twinkling blue eyes, and a large upward-curling brown mustache. His heavy square chin accurately hinted at a streak of stubbornness. He was wearing a dark worsted suit and a bowler hat.