The Issuance of One Hundred and Thirty-Six’, Mark Harding

Illustrations © 2010 Cécile Matthey.

(An extract from ‘A Young Gentleman’s History of the Empire. Chapter 3, The Triumph of Drumraish.’)

Edinburgh, January 1840: The early hours of a bitter cold morning.

 [ Mad Scientists, © 2010 Cécile Matthey ] In those times the structure of the very city itself could serve as a symbol of the conflict between chaos and discipline. The Old Town, its wynds and closes laid without rhyme nor reason, had been finally abandoned to a population of much the same nature: a home to crime, ignorance, violence, and a whisky shop for every three families. While the other aspect of Edinburgh—so near as to be cheek to jowl on the same face—was the New Town; considered and commodious, novel when required, yet respectful of the best traditions of the past, imposing order alike upon unthinking stone and conscious flesh.

And fittingly, it is the New Town where we start our tale, as Lord Drumraish and Dr Knox complete their nighttime dissections in his Lordship’s well-appointed laboratory. As was their habit when fresh stock had been obtained, Drumraish and Knox had been dissecting from evening until the early hours, uninterrupted and isolated, working under the illumination of the plentiful oil lamps. They were now concluding their long hours of research by marking those remains that were of sufficient medical interest for preservation. Drumraish’s mute assistant was preparing the specimen jars, the dissection tables strewn with samples, the air pungent with the odours of blood and preservative alcohol.

Knox, forgetting his manners, was pacing around the corpses, blood dripping from his arms and hands, expounding his theory of a hierarchy of species within the genus homo to Drumraish as if he were lecturing to some callow student.

What an irony it was, that at the very moment Knox was at his most boastful about his own expertise, that less than a mile away, a creature was bestirring that could not be found anywhere within Knox’s taxonomy.

And now our narrative must once more touch upon the Old Town—to those dank and fetid levels in which the over-populous made their habitation. Unable to deal with the burgeoning rabble by building out, the inhabitants had built down; creating subterranean streets of crowded cellars that never saw daylight and rarely felt the virtue of clean air.

And inside one of these dark and dingy cellars, a creature was preparing for a journey.

The thing was a man, but a man whose appearance was so foreign to Nature’s breast that even the most deformed wretch would regard his depravity as self-evident. Yet the creature was not alone. Although shunned by all of the—if we can call it—society in which he lived, the creature had a companion; a woman who, for whatever reasons of her own, had remained bound to him, despite their ‘marriage by repute’ having never been solemnised by either church or state.

Lord Drumraish meanwhile, after these many hours of dissection, was finding his mind wandering to thoughts of a moment spent in the quiet company of a brandy and cigar. Consequently—and with perhaps, some tone of impatience born of the late hour—Drumraish interrupted Knox’s discourse to declare that he saw little in the way of utility, and still less in the way of profit, in promulgating a theory that merely stated the obvious.

The waspish Doctor punned that, as his Lordship was one of the richest men in the British Empire, and as far from a shopkeeper as could be imagined, he could scarcely comprehend his Lordship’s desire for profit in every endeavour.

‘Ah my good fellow,’ Drumraish sighed as he rolled down his jacket sleeves and buttoned his surgeon’s cuffs. ‘Your remark shows that you are not used to carrying the onerous weight of dynasty. You sir, merely have to please yourself and to care for your family. I however—the inheritor of lands, fortune and reputation earned over nearly a thousand years—must pursue my ambitions to the time-scale of the next thousand. My mines, my ironworks, my cotton mills; all my concerns in the Indies, South America, Australasia; my manufactories and shipyards; my ships plying their trade from the Orient to the Baltic—these things can never be enough. I am not building the glory of one generation, but the generations of my family to come. Most men live and die in one life, but the Drumraish name passes through the centuries.’ And thus his Lordship delicately reminded Dr Knox of the distance between their respective stations.

Dr Knox, fallen silent after this speech, dried his hands and rolled down the sleeves of his coat. Drumraish graciously shook hands as goodbye; and after collecting his Highland dirk and his loaded pistol, the Doctor bade his Lordship a fair adieu.

And in the Old Town, the gruesome creature had set off on a journey also; accompanied by his female, he made his way, with a twisted halting gait, first through the dank warren of connected cellars, and then out into the wholesome air of the everyday world. The couple proceeded stealthily, like thieves wary of attracting attention from the respectable and their guards, but they proceeded determinedly, walking the mere mile—a mere mile, but a world apart—to the airy wide streets of the New Town.

Drumraish shivered a little at the cold air that had seeped into the laboratory with Dr. Knox’s departure. He reflected that in a sense Knox’s increasing embitterment was justified; it seemed that the medical establishment would be forever prejudiced against Knox because of his connection with the hanged fool Burke and his betrayer Hare. But Knox refused to adjust his life to his new circumstances; instead trying to pretend that scandal did not mark him like a disfiguring disease. It was regretful, but Drumraish concluded that Knox was an association that he may soon have to relinquish. Such are the obligations of nobility.

He had two or three hours before he needed to set off to London for a vote in the Lords, so Drumraish shouted for the footman waiting outside and instructed him to repair to the house to ensure that the study fire was blazing and the best cigars were readied.

The footman departed, and apart from the mute, Drumraish was alone. The trouble with men like Knox, Drumraish reflected, was that they are too specialist. It made them fools in their dealings with society at large. With this thought he looked towards his ‘mirror table’ or Luminegraph, a device with a potential that Drumraish had hinted at, but Knox had lacked the vision to comprehend. The mechanism was fixed to an ordinary desk and reached up to the height of a standing man. It could most easily be described to the layman by reference to a mixture of more familiar devices: the workings of a large clock, pieces of astronomical equipment, a Heliograph, and a band of crystal glass prisms and lenses; formed in a manner perhaps reminiscent of the magnifying devices used for lighthouse illumination.

Knox had obliquely mocked it as a toy or a glittering bauble fit for a Ball. And in truth, the private experiments Drumraish had performed on his subjects had all ended in failure, and eventually, the line of research had been abandoned. Yet Drumraish still maintained a fondness for the device, as for a lost love, and insisted that the mute maintained the machine with complete diligence.

The door clattered open. Assuming that for some reason his servant had returned, and barely interrupting his thoughts, Lord Drumraish threw an idle glance at the entrance: but it was not the footman who stood there.

The intruder was wearing the cheapest linen shirt and galligaskins, a cheap top hat of rabbit fur, and no coat. Despite the poverty of his clothes he was a strapping size – nearly six feet tall – and with a build that would make him sought after as a footman if his face were not so disfigured. Even in the shadows of the doorway—away from the illumination of the lamps—Lord Drumraish could tell that his visage was strangely twisted. A woman slipped through the doorway behind him. She wore a linen dress and dowdy shawl of a poverty equal to her companion’s.

The mute stood open-mouthed, his gaze oscillating between the intruders and Lord Drumraish. With quick thought, his Lordship strode away from the dissection area to the Luminegraph table—inside the drawer of which was a brace of pistols—all the while trying to judge if the intruder could rush across the room and reach him before he had secured the weapons.

‘Sir,’ the ruffian said in a coarse voice. ‘Your Lordship, do ye not remember me?’ The stranger limped forward into the light: his face was a jaundiced yellow, with strangely bright, thick red lips; gross red mottles patterned his cheeks and forehead, and purple bands of bunched muscles, looking like boils and tendons, appeared to be constantly moving, twisting the creature’s face into expressions that Lord Drumraish, a man who was no mean student of physiognomy, would not have believed possible.

‘It’s me sir, Billy. Ye employed me six years ago for your stoodies, sir.’

His Lordship stared at the creature but felt that he really couldn’t be expected to remember one of so many.

The woman locked the door to the laboratory and removed the key.

The ruffian rolled up his shirtsleeve and held up his left arm. Above his wrist was an angular tattoo.

‘Ye see, sir?’

From a distance the marking certainly looked genuine: a design of a square, inside of which had been pricked a number. It was his Lordship’s practice to have the subjects of his experimentations tattooed with a serial number. This was advantageous because his Lordship had arrangements with the constables and medical schools that they would inform him when these markings appeared amongst the bodies of the dead (or insane)—a procedure which gave him an indication, at least, of the fate of his experimental subjects after they had left his employ.

It had taken longer than usual, his Lordship concluded, but this one had gone mad too.

‘Do ye remember, sir?’ piped up the woman. ‘Ye engraved him with the number seventy-five.’

‘Not without consulting my records,’ his Lordship replied, omitting to mention that his ledgers were on the shelves in this very laboratory. ‘I do recall I would have paid you well. Did I not?’

‘Aye sir, I remember your taskings,’ said the man, shuddering. ‘But ye did pay well.’

‘We thought I was going to bear a child, sir,’ the woman decided to add. ‘Billy did it for the sake of the little one.’

‘And you were paid. So be off with you.’

‘But we need your help, sir,’ the female answered back.

‘At this time? Come back tomorrow.’

They made no attempt to leave.

‘Leave this moment!’

They did not move.

Containing his anger, Lord Drumraish turned to his mute assistant. ‘Go to the house at once! Bring Brown and the footman.’

The mute walked to the door, but the woman changed her posture to make clear that if the mute stepped further there would be a struggle. In response, the simpleton merely turned to his master and stared like a bewildered hound.

‘Allow him to leave!’ Drumraish shouted.

The woman took out a filthy kerchief and shaped it into a gag.

‘We must ask ye not to shout, sir.’

Lord Drumraish knew his servants would not dare to disturb him, no matter what noise they heard from the laboratory. He wondered if one shot would be enough to kill the yellow-faced brute.

The creature—experiment 75—removed his top hat. He did not tip the hat from his head, but had to lift it.

Where one would expect to see the top of his head, instead there was an arrangement of thin iron bars, curving at the top like a cage, extending a full five inches above his forehead. A casual glance could deceive the onlooker that the upper part of his cranium had been replaced by machinery. Within the cage was an intricate structure, not unlike an orrery, of interlaced wheels, flywheels and cogs; the brass darkened from exposure to the air. Despite the tarnish of the years however, some of the silver springs and cogs still glinted in the lamplight, and blue tongues flickered as the Voltaic pile was charged from 75’s movements. In the centre of the structure was a complex arrangement of miniature prisms, lenses and mirrors.

Now Lord Drumraish remembered. He was astounded the subject had survived for so long.

There was a gasp from 75 as his face twisted violently in time to the blue flashes round the Voltaic pile. Drumraish looked on fascinated. The current into the subject’s brain had developed a secondary effect, Drumraish observed, wondering if this had been an immediate symptom of the operation; but he dared not consult his ledgers yet: he needed to stay in position to retrieve the pistols when the opportunity arose.

‘I have dreams, sir. The strangest of dreams, sir, at night, or even in the day. Visions and feelings I canna’ understand and canna’ control.’

Lord Drumraish’s heart pounded. There was fear in his agitation, yet the greater part was intellectual excitement. His Lordship had thought the Myrmidon experiments had been a failure! The effects of the operation had always faded so quickly – the human brain, it transpired, possessed a stubborn plasticity that had always allowed it to return to the status quo within a matter of days.

Yet here, it was obvious the apparatus was still working in some fashion. After several years! It would be splendid to capture the brute and check the variations in the components used. Oh! What an opportunity! And indeed, perhaps there was a possibility that Lord Drumraish would not need the pistols to control the intruder—but what chance was there that the machinery could be coaxed into full service after such a period of time?

‘Bring my husband back to me, sir.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘I canna’ work, sir,’ the ruffian said. ‘No one will have me near them.’

‘Put him back how he was,’ the woman ordered. ‘Make him so he can sleep again... and smile again.’

As if Lord Drumraish would destroy such an important example of his own work!

‘And you can afford to pay my time for an operation?’

‘Ye are heartless, sir. That’s why I am happy to use this.’ The feral woman resorted to type and produced a vicious knife from underneath her shawl. ‘Take out the pieces that dig into Billy’s brain. If ye don’t do it, or if ye hurt him while he’s under your knife… by God I’ll kill ye!’

Smarting at receiving orders from a woman of such low station, yet perceiving only danger in open disagreement, Drumraish instructed the mute to prepare a dissection table for an operation.

‘I have some tools I will need,’ Lord Drumraish said and pulled open the drawer containing the brace of pistols.

He had time to cock one of the pistols before the male was upon him. The brute was too close for Lord Drumraish to get a clear position, and he discharged the shot at an upward angle into the creature’s left breast. In the enclosed laboratory, the sound was deafening. Blood frothed from the wound; after a moment 75 fell to his knees; his stentorian breathing accompanied by groans of pain.

‘Billy! Billy!’ the woman cried. But instead of taking her natural role as nurse, she rushed upon Drumraish, screaming wildly like a banshee. ‘I knew ye’d no’ deal fairly!’ She raised the knife. Lord Drumraish dashed around the Luminegraph table, all the while preparing the remaining pistol, which he cocked and fired. But instead of the thunderclap heard earlier, there was nothing but a futile click. The pistol had not gone off.

Emboldened, the female attacked Lord Drumraish with renewed fury. She possessed only the strength of a woman but she had the speed of a pickpocket and the cunning of the gutter. Lord Drumraish’s attempts to strike her head with the pistol merely resulted in a long gash into the back of his hand and forearm. Wary of such surprising resourcefulness in his opponent, he stepped back, careful not to turn his back to her, but he almost fell.

The male fiend was holding onto his legs!

‘Meg!’ the ruffian gasped.

Drumraish called out to the mute for help. ‘Catch her! ‘Hold on to her arms!’

If the mute were more of a man, the situation might not be so desperate, but despite his master’s calls, the mute merely remained stupefied, his mouth gaping in amazement.

It was like some scene from a Germanic romance: the shadows cast from the illumination of the oil lamps; Lord Drumraish and the madwoman intensely staring at each other, the female’s knife poised to strike; the brutish, deformed labourer still on his knees, but back straight and arms strong; the mute idiot cowering in the far corner.

‘Ye’ve nay protectors now.’ she snarled, ‘I’ll make ye pay for Billy!’ In unarmed conflict he could overpower her, but with the advantage of her knife and her fiendish speed, she was formidable; and Lord Drumraish knew she would not wait too long before seeking her bloody revenge. As if by accident he threw the lever to operate the clockwork mechanism on the table before him.

The prisms of the Luminegraph had been so designed as to concentrate the surrounding illumination onto the single target of the signal mirror. With the action of the clockwork, the mirror rotated, flashing a beam of light around the laboratory like a miniature lighthouse. The light flickered across 75’s twisted visage in a complex arrangement of pulses. Drumraish would have no opportunity to adjust the sequence or the speed, no opportunity to check the condition of the apparatus that he had built into the brute. He could only trust that Fortune was on his side.

‘Madam, if you kill me I cannot remove the bullet from him,’ said Lord Drumraish in a reasonable tone. ‘There are things in this drawer I need. I found the pistols and in my fear I acted rashly. It is not a mistake I will make again.’

She hesitated. In the flashing light, Drumraish could see her expressions battling between savage hatred and desperate hope.

‘What d’ye think, Billy?’ she asked. But she received no answer from the giant at Drumraish’s feet.

‘You can open the drawer yourself,’ Drumraish added. ‘I have a device inside it that will remove the bullet cleanly. Hurry! He’s losing much blood.’

All the while insolently staring into Lord Drumraish’s face, and with one hand ready with the knife, the she-devil started rummaging in the drawer.

75’s hands loosened from Lord Drumraish’s legs.

‘There’s only papers here,’ the female croaked suspiciously.

‘No, there’s a tool. It’s a little like a candle trimmer.’

She stepped back. ‘No, there isna’.’

‘Seventy-five. Seventy-five. Seventy-five.’ Lord Drumraish intoned.

With a snarl, the madwoman drew back her knife and attacked. Drumraish raised his arms to protect his body, the knife painfully stabbing into his right forearm.

‘Stand!’ Lord Drumraish shouted. Never had Lord Drumraish had so much need for an experiment to succeed!

75 stood.

‘Billy!’ the female cried.

‘Hold her arms down!’ Lord Drumraish shouted and backed away.

The she-devil rushed towards Drumraish, but 75 had stepped in her path. Lord Drumraish could see her face, astonished and bewildered at this display of the power of science. 75 put her into a bear hug, pinning her arms to her sides, her knife now immobile in her hand.

‘Billy,’ she sobbed.

‘Bring her over here. Follow me.’ Lord Drumraish instructed 75, now his Novus Myrmidon.

‘What have you done to Billy?’ she whispered.

75 shuffled down the room towards the dissection tables. Glimpsing her destination, the female shrieked at Drumraish: ‘Ye monster, ye foul godless creature!’

‘Put her on the table.’ Lord Drumraish positioned himself at her head. There was a careless moment when Drumraish glimpsed 75’s ghastly pale, sick face; warped with emotions so conflicting that they formed into a strange grimace, like a medieval study of madness, or the head of a gargoyle hewn in the dark ages.

So distracted was his Lordship, that for moment he forgot the hazard of his situation; but the skittering sound of the she-devil’s knife as it scraped across the dissecting table brought him back to his senses.

‘Keep her right arm down on the table,’ he instructed the Myrmidon, as he completed the shackling of her limbs.

‘Bring me a chair,’ he ordered the mute.

Exhausted, Lord Drumraish sat, his excitement fading into the pain of his injuries. Wincing from their soreness, he dosed his own wounds with surgical alcohol and applied bandages.

With a start, he realised that the clockwork of the Luminegraph had wound down and was no longer pulsing its signal of light. How long had it been inactive!

He glanced over to his Myrmidon. All was well, 75 stood motionless at the head of the dissection table, breathing erratically, the left side of his shirt stained with blood.

The subservience of the creature was holding. Could there have ever have been a better test of his work? What a success!

Galvanised by his triumph, Lord Drumraish rushed over to the drawers of surgical instruments, intent on the preservation of the Myrmidon’s life so that further studies could be made. While he searched for what he would need he called over his shoulder, ‘75. Lie down on the empty dissecting table.’

But when he turned around, 75 had moved closer to the head of the female. The Myrmidon looked down on her, his face a fluctuating mass of twisting emotions. Then he reached down and lifted the knife from her hand!

Yet again during that night, Drumraish was staring death in the face! The Luminegraph would take a fatal number of minutes to restart. With, perhaps, more bravery than wisdom, Drumraish dashed to the dissecting table and faced opposite his Myrmidon.

‘Good Billy! Good! Kill him!’ shrieked the female.

‘Seventy-five, put the knife down,’ ordered Drumraish.

‘Kill him! Stab him!’

‘Seventy-five, seventy-five. Stay where you are! Put the knife down!’

The creature’s body jerked violently, his arms hovering over the body of the harpy. A mere few feet away, Drumraish could see clearly the battle shown in 75’s face between his own will and that of his superior. Which would win?

‘Seventy-five, stab the woman! Kill her!’ Drumraish called, attempting to force the episode to its conclusion.

‘No!’ screamed the female.

The Myrmidon seemed frozen. Then as if suddenly released, he grasped the knife in both hands and held it above his head... And with terrific force he plunged the blade down into his own chest!

He leaned forward momentarily, splattering blood over the female, and then staggered backwards. With a clattering sound, as the crown mechanism struck the stone, 75 fell onto the floor.

Cautiously, Drumraish checked the pulse; the Myrmidon was dead. Almost weeping with frustration at such a loss to Science, he kicked 75’s body repeatedly.

Eventually calmed, he gagged the woman to stop the distraction of her screaming; he needed to think.

He called the mute to fetch the ledger for 75.

 [ Seventy-five, © 2010 Cécile Matthey ] In calm concentration, Lord Drumraish stood squarely at the lectern, examining the record of the experiment. The knowledge gained from 75 must not be wasted; the lessons must be gathered, repeated, and refined. And yet the Bohemian-made components Drumraish had used in 75’s crown were no longer in any of his laboratories!

The male would be too heavy to lift. The dissection would have to be performed on the floor where he lay.

Drumraish called again to the mute, ‘Bring me the index.’

The female would get her wish after all. The device would be removed. However, it would not be reaching the end of its use. The mute would be able to prepare her while Drumraish commenced the excision from the male.

He called to the mute: ‘Mark the female in the usual way.’

Taking pen and ink, Drumraish opened the index ledger and wrote a new entry.—‘With number one hundred and thirty-six.’

As if on cue, the high windows of the laboratory began to glow in the light of a new dawn.

© 2010 Mark Harding

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