W.T. Stead and the Ripper
Another week, another abandoned novel. I told you I had a fair few of these, didn’t I?
At the time I was writing this particular novel I was fascinated by anything to do with the Victorian period and had ambitions to write a story in which I weaved fiction with facts. There are a host of real, historical figures in W.T. Stead and the Ripper.
W.T. Stead was the editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, a crusading journalist who wasn’t above making the story as much as discovering it, a pacifist, a spiritualist and was last seen escorting children and women onto lifeboats on the Titanic.
I wrote forty thousand words on this book before giving up in frustration. Now that I look back on it some years later I can see that it needed a lot more work, yes, but I shouldn’t have abandoned it. In fact it was shaping up quite nicely.
I’m not going to bore you with any details of the plot but instead let you read Chapter Two, in all its unedited, unspellchecked glory.
And what do you think? Should I return to this one and finish it? Or the werewolf novel from last week?
6 August 1888
Charlie Hands sucked hard on his cigarette one final time before throwing it carelessly to the ground amidst a shower of sparks. Behind him the Hansom Cab rejoined the late evening West End traffic. He took the girl’s arm and pulled her with him into the Alhambra Theatre, through the decorative entrance and straight for the stairs, hardly pausing for breath.
“Ouch, you’re hurting me!” the girl squealed.
“Well, get a move on, we’re late,” Charlie said, but relinquishing his grip on her arm ever so slightly. He was beginning to regret bringing her along already, and the night hadn’t even started yet. He took the carpeted steps two at a time, the girl tripping along behind him, and hiccupping tiny little giggles at each step she missed.
They entered the hall just as the last act, ‘Cyrus and Maud, Musical Grotesques, and their Performing Donkey, Bess’, was departing the stage to desultory claps. Spotting two seats together near the front of the stage, but in the middle of a row, Charlie pulled Eliza along with him and began pushing his way past the seated audience members.
“Sorry, excuse me, excuse me,” he said.
A few of the ladies tutted and sighed, and some of the men grumbled, but they finally pushed their way past everyone and took their seats.
“I don’t know why we couldn’t have come for the beginning of the show,” whispered Eliza, adjusting her skirt and petticoats.
“Because I didn’t want to waste the whole night watching the likes of Professor Emalius and his fucking Dancing Cockatees, that’s why,” Charlie hissed back.
“Then why come at all? We could be down The White Hart right now.”
Someone shushed them from behind, and Charlie looked up at the stage as the chairman finished his lengthy introduction to the next act.
“Because I came to see her that’s why,” he whispered.
On stage a beautiful young woman stood facing the audience, apparently having materialized from nowhere. She wore a long dress of purest black, only her hands and her face visible beneath the yellow glow of the theatre’s lamps. Her long black hair was tied back, and with her dress contrasted sharply with her white skin, so white it seemed almost translucent. She was thin, almost emaciated, and her eyes were large, round orbs within her delicate skull.
A board mounted beside her proclaimed her act in black lettering on a white background; ‘Ms Le Caron, Medium Extroardinaire’.
An assistant brought a simple wooden chair onto the stage, and Ms Le Caron sat down. For the first time that evening a complete hush had fallen across the audience. The silence continued for a few more seconds, and then a young man stepped onto the stage and walked over to the seated Ms Le Caron, standing behind her chair and surveying the audience contemptuously.
“I must insist on complete silence from the audience for the duration of Ms Le Caron’s communication with the spirit world,” the man said. “Any small noise, whispering, talking, sudden movement, anything at all may be highly dangerous to her in the trance state that she will be in at the time of her communications with her spirit guide.”
“Yeah, right,” breathed Charlie softly.
“The spirit guide Parzuph,” continued the man, “will answer only the questions he wishes to answer, and no more. Ms Le Caron has no control over her spirit guide, and no influence over his actions. If he wishes not to answer the questions put to him, then alas he will not, and nothing will induce him to do so. But fear not, Parzuph is a contrary spirit and may change his mind at a moment’s notice.”
The man stepped back into the deep shadows cloaking the stage background, just visible behind Ms Le Caron, his hand on her shoulder. The medium had seemingly fallen into a deep slumber, though her body still sat completely rigid in the hard backed chair. Suddenly she began taking deep, ragged lungfuls of breath, a soft, low, jagged moan escaping her slightly parted lips each time she breathed in. This continued for a full minute, her fractured voice the only sound in the packed hall. Even Charlie realized that he was holding his breath, and exhaled softly, making as little noise as possible.
Suddenly Ms Le Caron spoke, but spoke in a voice that could not be hers, so deep and savage were the tones it spoke in. Her lips moved, and the sounds seemingly came from that beautiful mouth, but surely a creature so delicate could not make those harsh, brutal guttural noises?
“So, what do you want of Parzuph, now, eh?” it said. “Why don’t you leave me alone and let me tend to my business, for I have much to occupy me here.”
“But we have need of you, Parzuph,” said the girl, her voice suddenly soft and sweet. “There are people here who grieve, people who have lost loved ones, and their hearts cry out for comfort, and knowledge of where their loved ones have gone.”
“And what is that to me?” the guttural voice replied. “What business is it of mine, why should I concern myself with your miserable affairs? What do I receive from the bargain between us, eh? Nothing, that’s what. I should leave you now, never to return, leave you to your pathetic little lives, your miserable existence full of ignorance and want.”
“But there is someone out here in this audience who has lost a close one recently, a relative I believe,” said Ms Le Caron, here eyes open now, and searching the audience, scanning the faces in the dim light of the gas lamps. She held a trembling, bare arm out before her, and pointed into the sea of faces before her. Charlie resisted the urge to twist in his seat to see who she was pointing at. “You, it’s you, you’ve lost your parents, I believe, and very recently too.”
Unable to stay still any longer, Charlie twisted in his seat, to discover most of the rest of the audience doing the same, and saw a young girl, in her early twenties at the most, standing shyly, twisting her fingers together anxiously. A look of confusion contorted her plain features, and she glanced about her for reassurance.
“You may speak,” said the man on the stage. “Speak softly and slowly, and only in answer to questions put to you by Ms Le Caron or her spirit guide, Parzuph, and you will do nothing to endanger the delicate link that has been created between this world and the next.”
“My mother died, last week,” said the girl, her voice trembling, and barely audible.
“And your father?” said Ms Le Caron, but before the girl had chance to answer Parzuph spoke, and said, “Don’t talk to her of her father! She has no father, she never has had a father, not in her eyes. You talk nonsense to these people, and do nothing but show your own ignorance. Why don’t you be quiet, and leave me to do the talking?”
The girl in the audience bowed her head, a single sob convulsing her body for a second. Not looking up, she whispered, “My father left us many years ago.”
“With the family fortune, too, eh?” the guttural tones of the spirit Parzuph said, Ms Le Caron’s delicate lips contorting to frame the words and the grunts with which the spirit punctuated his sentences. “He left your mother to shoulder the debts of his failed business, and drove her to an early grave.”
Charlie twisted in his seat to look at the girl again. She nodded her head, still bowed, but said nothing. Silence filled the hall.
“Would you like to ask Parzuph anything?” the man behind Ms Le Caron said.
“She wants to know what will become of her, she wants to know that her mother is safe and well. She wants to know that they all want to know, she wants to know what the future holds. As if I could predict the future, like a cheap fortune-teller in a circus sideshow. Let me be, release me from this tedium, and your petty affairs.”
The girl looked up now, as though about to speak, but the man held up a hand, silencing her. The medium took a few deep breaths, and then the spirit Parzuph spoke through her once more. “Your mother was called Emma, and she was 38 when she died. She is concerned that you will pine away without her now, that the cares of your life and the loss of your mother will weigh too deeply upon you, until you suffocate beneath them. But you must be brave. You must look to your family for solace, and for a reversal of your fortunes.”
Emitting a deep, mournful sigh, Ms Le Caron’s slumped in the chair, as though all her strength had suddenly left her. The man bent down to whisper to her, his shadow falling across her face. They spoke together for a few seconds, Charlie just able to catch their inaudible voices, and then the man straightened up to face the audience again.
“I am afraid we must finish here, tonight, as Ms Le Caron is exhausted by the terrible strain of allowing her spirit guide to speak through her,” he said. “There will be a further opportunity to…”
“Oh shut up you mindless fool,” grunted the voice of Parzuph as Ms Le Caron straightened up in the chair again. “You seek to cut short the evening’s entertainment when the entertainment is only just about to begin.”
Charlie started a little in his chair as Eliza took hold of his hand, and gripped tight. He looked across at her and was surprised to see her staring fixedly at Ms Le Caron, a mixture of fear and anticipation wrought on her face.
Looking back at the stage he was even more surprised to see Ms Le Caron pointing at Eliza.
“You, young lady,” said Parzuph. “Yes you. You have secrets, do you not? You have a private life, a life of shame and secrecy that no-one knows of, but Parzuph knows everything, Parzuph knows all the secrets and the things that are hidden away.”
“What’s she talking about?” Charlie hissed.
Eliza shook her head, but she said nothing, and her eyes never left Ms Le Caron.
“Your mother is a well kept secret, isn’t she?” grunted Parzuph. “Why don’t you tell everyone that she is not dead, but lives in a mental asylum in the country?”
Charlie glanced at Eliza again, but she would not look at him, her eyes wide and fixed still on Ms Le Caron.
“And why don’t you tell your boyfriend while you’re at it about your other boyfriend, the one who sends you flowers and gives you money?”
“Is this true?” Charlie hissed. People behind him were beginning to titter. “Tell her it’s not true, tell her she’s talking rubbish.”
Eliza looked at Charlie then, a desperate, fearful look, and Charlie knew everything he had just heard was true. He wrenched his hand free from Eliza’s and stood up. More people were laughing now, craning their heads to look at them. For a second he thought about hitting her, but realizing how many witnesses he would have he decided against it, and pushed his way out of the row of seats, and stalked out of the theatre, his face glowing hot with embarrassment.
Outside the Alhambra Theatre Charlie paused to light a cigarette, sucking in the scorching smoke, letting it hit the back of his throat and fill his lungs. He began walking through the busy West End, his mind racing over what he had just seen and heard.
The embarrassment was fading now as he began to realize what a remarkable performance he had just seen. Most mediums’ shows he attended were full vague mutterings and portents of doom or salves of reassurance. But Ms Le Caron, she had been so specific, and that voice. How could such a slight creature as her have projected such a malign, masculine voice across the theatre like that?
He wasn’t quite prepared yet to say that she was the genuine thing, a medium who really could contact the dead.
But he wasn’t prepared to say that she was a fraud, either.
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