The wanderer in unknown.., p.1
The Wanderer in Unknown Realms, p.1John Connolly
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For Paul Johnston
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter, and leave, alone,
I know not how.
Edward Thomas (1878–1917),
THROUGH CHANCERY, pausing only to wipe the dung from my boots.
Through Chancery, to the chambers of the lawyer Quayle.
THERE ARE men of wealth and power who wish others to know of their position in society. They eat at the best restaurants and stay in the finest hotels; they revel in ostentation. Even those who serve the interests of others more important than themselves are not immune from grand gestures, and so it is that the Harley Street physicians who tend to the ailments of the great will acquire suites of rooms fitted with antique furnishings, as if to say, “See! I am as good as you. I can demean myself in displays of wealth just as readily as you can.” It should be said, of course, that it is somehow less noble to have bought one’s possessions with money earned than it is simply to inherit, and arrivistes who try to compete will always be looked down upon by those whose wealth was acquired so long ago that the effort of its acquisition, the filth and the sin of it, have since been erased from memory.
Then there are those who understand that wealth and power are weapons and should be used carefully, and not without forethought. They disdain ostentation in themselves and in other men. In a way, they may even be ashamed of their privileged position. They have learned, too, that if those who look after their affairs—the physicians, the lawyers, the bankers—work in lavish surroundings, then someone, somewhere is paying more than a shilling extra on his bill in order to provide such comforts. The man who looks after one’s money should know its value and be as parsimonious with his particular funds as he is with one’s own.
So it was that the lawyer Quayle worked out of a courtyard in a part of Chancery that had changed little since Quayle’s near neighbors, the esteemed legal tailors Ede & Ravenscroft, had established their business on Chancery Lane as the seventeenth century was drawing to its close. A narrow arch led into a space not much larger than a bed-sitting room, its cobbles always slick with damp even in the driest of weather, the surrounding buildings craning over as though to peer down disapprovingly on interlopers, the old crown glass of the windows distorting the view of the world from both within and without. A smell of cooking permeated the place on that October morning, although none lived here, and none cooked, unless one counted the tea that Quayle’s clerk, Mr. Fawnsley, kept stewing on a little stove outside his master’s lair. In a moment of weakness, I had once consented to take a cup, and had not made a similar mistake since. Workmen applied tar to the roads that was tastier and less viscous.
A brass plate—somewhat tarnished by the years, not unlike the man whose services it advertised—was set beside a solid black oak door to the left of the courtyard. None of the other doors bore similar efforts at identification, and I had never seen any of them put to use. They appeared as permanently closed as the tombs of the ancients: were one to have been forced open, it would not have been a surprise to find the mummified forms of generations of advocates stacked behind it like gray kindling, while the papers from forgotten cases slowly decayed and fell like snow upon their heads.
A bell tinkled above me as I opened Quayle’s door, the sound of it incongruous in the gloom of the interior. It smelled of musty files and melting wax. A lamp burned on the wall, casting yellow light and flickering shadows over stairs that ascended, unevenly and unsteadily, to the floor above, where Quayle conducted his business. I had long since learned not to be shocked by the banister rail that seemed ready to give way beneath my hand, nor by the creaks from the steps that suggested an imminent collapse. Quayle was too canny to allow any mishap to befall his clients, and the most illustrious of London’s citizenry had been climbing these stairs without incident for centuries, ever since some distant relative of the current Quayle had formed a partnership of sorts with a fellow lawyer, a Huguenot refugee and widower named Couvret, whose experiences in France had weakened his mind, and who subsequently fell prey to the curse of gin. Couvret was found robbed and near-gutted in Spitalfields, not far from the home of a pretty silk weaver named Valette with whom he was reputed to be having a discreet love affair. Once, over a lunch of braised lamb, a reward for an investigation concluded by me to his benefit, the current Quayle gave me to understand that family lore suggested his ancestor had grown weary of Couvret, and the unfortunate man’s robbery and murder had been arranged to remove him from the business of law entirely. In this, the action appeared to have succeeded admirably.
Mr. Fawnsley was at his desk when I reached the top of the stairs. Not to have found him there would have been a surprise on the scale of the Second Coming, for where Quayle lingered so too did Fawnsley linger, at least during business hours, like the pale, sickly shadow of his master. What the man did in his own time, I could not say. I often suspected that, at five o’clock on the dot, Quayle turned a dial on Fawnsley’s neck, sending him into a stupor, then laid him carefully in the alcove behind his desk, there to remain until eight the following morning when the necessity of resuming business required his reanimation. Fawnsley was a man who seemed incapable of aging, which might have been said to be a good thing were it not for the fact that the actions of the years had ceased for Fawnsley not in relative youth but in unhealthy late middle age, so he bore the aspect of a man who was perpetually teetering on the cliff edge of mortality.
Fawnsley looked up from his scribbling and regarded me resignedly. It didn’t matter to him that his master had summoned me to his presence. Everything was an inconvenience to Fawnsley, all men jesters sent by the gods to try him.
“Mr. Soter,” he said, tipping his head sufficiently to allow a small cloud of dandruff to fall from his pate and mix with his ink.
“Mr. Fawnsley,” I said, placing my hat on an understuffed chair. “I believe he’s expecting me.”
Fawnsley’s look indicated that he considered this to be a serious lapse of judgment on the part of Mr. Quayle, and consequently he took his time about laying down his fountain pen.
“I’ll let him know you’re here.”
He rose from his chair as one being pulled from above rather than impelled from below. His feet barely made a sound on the boards, so thin and light was he. He knocked at the door behind his desk and waited on some muffled permission to enter before cautiously poking his head through the gap like a man trying out a guillotine for size. There was a hushed exchange, and then, somewhat reluctantly, Fawnsley stepped aside and invited me to enter the inner sanctum.
Quayle’s chambers were smaller than might have bee
Quayle’s desk was an enormous construction of wood so old that it had turned to black. Generations of Quayles had sat behind it, mulling over ways in which to work the law to the benefit of their clients and, by extension, themselves, and justice be damned. It was likely that, at this very desk, the fate of the unfortunate Monsieur Couvret had been decided, with one such as Fawnsley dispatched with coin to ensure the safe conduct of the whole grisly business.
Quayle himself was a surprisingly elegant man of sixty winters or more. (One might equally have said “sixty springs” or “sixty summers,” but that would have been inaccurate, for Quayle was a man of bare trees and frozen water.) He was six feet in height, and one of the few men I knew who could look me in the eye, although I had only a distant memory on which to rely for this, as Quayle rarely stood. His hair was very dark and smelled faintly of the boot polish that he used to keep the gray at bay. His teeth were too white and even, and his skin was so pale as to be almost translucent, so that, in better light, one might have been able to discern his circulatory system in all its delicate glory. Instead, in the murk of his chambers, one saw only the faintest hint of veins and arteries, like the shadows of branches cast on snow. Half-spectacles, rimmed in black, caught something of the sunlight, hiding his eyes from me.
A man was seated in the red leather armchair to Quayle’s left. He was somewhere in his twenties, I would have said, and was dressed in the manner of a gentleman, but I could see that his shoes, although polished, were worn at the soles, and his suit was just a year out of fashion. Moneyed, then, but struggling: he had enough to pay a man to polish his shoes, but not enough to replace them until the need became pressing. To tell the truth, I disliked him on sight. His eyes were vapid, and his mouth was almost as one with his neck. Never trust a man who, by his presence in a room with two others, brings down the average number of chins by a third.
“Welcome, Mr. Soter,” said Quayle. “Let me introduce you to Sebastian Forbes. His uncle, Lionel Maulding, is a client of mine.”
Forbes rose and shook my hand. His grip was firmer than I had anticipated, although I sensed that he was putting a little more effort into it than usual.
“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Soter,” he said. He spoke in the manner of some of his kind, as though the statement had rather too many syllables for his liking, and so he had decided to dispense with those deemed surplus to requirements, and skate as quickly as possible over the rest.
“Likewise, sir,” I replied.
“Mr. Quayle tells me you served with some distinction in the recent conflict,” he said.
“I served, sir. I can’t say any more than that.”
“Who were you with?”
“The Forty-seventh, sir.”
“Ah, the Londoners! Stout men. Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Loos, the Somme.”
“Did you serve, sir?”
“No, sadly not. My knowledge is based purely on my reading. Too young to enlist, I’m afraid.”
I looked at him and thought that I had fought alongside men who, had they lived, would still have been younger than he was now, but I said nothing. If he had found a way to avoid the whole bloody mess, then I wasn’t about to begrudge him. I’d been through it, and had I known going in what I was about to face, I’d have run and never looked back. I’d have deserted and left all the bastards to it.
“You chaps were at High Wood, weren’t you?” continued Forbes.
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes,” I said, again.
“They relieved Barter of his command after what happened, didn’t they?”
“Yes, sir, for wanton waste of men.”
“He was a fool.”
“Not as big a fool as Pulteney.”
“Come, come, now. Sir William is a fine soldier.”
“Sir William is an ignorant man and led better men to their deaths.”
“I say, now, Jessie Arnott was a friend of my late mother’s . . . ”
I seemed to recall that Pulteney had married one of the Arnott women. I must have read about it in the society pages, probably just before I lost my taste for my breakfast.
Before the conversation could deteriorate further, Quayle gave a dry cough.
“Please take a seat, Mr. Soter. And you, Mr. Forbes.”
“I demand an apology,” said Forbes.
“On what basis?” asked Quayle.
“This man insulted a hero of the realm and a friend of my mother’s.”
“Mr. Soter merely expressed an opinion, and gentlemen must agree to differ on such matters. I’m sure Mr. Soter meant no offense to your mother. Is that not correct, Mr. Soter?”
Quayle’s tone suggested that it might be wise if I were to make some gesture of amends. I could have refused, of course, but I needed the work, whatever it was. I wasn’t fussy. There was little enough of it to go around, and it seemed that every street corner had its veteran with his trouser legs pinned up over his thighs, the better to show his missing limbs, or a cup held in one hand while the sleeve of his other arm dangled emptily. The hatred for ex-soldiers on the part of those who had not fought was something I could not understand. They wanted us to disappear. There were no more parades now, no more kisses on the cheek. Soldiers were no more than beggars, and nobody likes a beggar. Perhaps we made them feel guilty by our presence. They might have preferred it had we all died in the mud and been buried far from England in places whose names we had not even learned to pronounce properly before we perished.
“I apologize for any offense I might have caused,” I said. “I meant none.”
Forbes nodded his acceptance. “These are emotional matters, I know,” he said.
He resumed his seat, and I took mine. Quayle, having refereed the bout to his satisfaction, turned to the matter at hand.
“Mr. Forbes is concerned about his uncle,” he said. “Apparently, he has not been seen for a number of days and has left no indication of his whereabouts.”
“Perhaps he’s taken a holiday,” I said.
“My uncle is not in the habit of taking holidays,” said his nephew. “He finds comfort in familiar surroundings and rarely ventures farther than the local village.” He thought for a time. “Actually, I think he went to Bognor once, but he didn’t much care for it.”
“Ah, Bognor,” intoned Quayle solemnly, as though that explained everything.
“If you’re worried about his safety, then shouldn’t the police be informed?” I asked.
Quayle arched an eyebrow, as I knew he would. Like most lawyers, he found the police to be something of an inconvenience to the proper pursuit of legal ends. The police were useful only when he could be certain they would do his bidding and no more than that. He tended to worry when they showed signs of independent thought and therefore made it his business to have as little as possible to do with them unless absolutely necessary.
“Mr. Maulding is a very private man,” said Quayle. “He would not thank us for allowing the police to intrude into his affairs.”
“He might if he has come to some harm.”
“What harm could he come to?” asked Forbes. “He hardly leaves the house.”
“Then why am I here?” I said.
Quayle sighed in the manner of a man for whom the world holds the capacity for infinite disappointment, the only surprise being the variety of
“Mr. Forbes is Mr. Maulding’s only living relative and the principal beneficiary of his estate should any harm befall him. Naturally, Mr. Forbes hopes that this is not the case in the present circumstance, as he wishes his uncle many more years of happiness and good health.”
Forbes looked as if he might be about to differ on that point, but common sense prevailed, and he provided a grunt of assent.
“With that in mind,” Quayle continued, “it would obviously contribute greatly to Mr. Forbes’s peace of mind if the well-being of his uncle could be established as quickly as possible, and without recourse to the intervention of the police, a fine force of men though they might be. That is why you are here, Mr. Soter. I have assured Mr. Forbes of your discretion in all matters, and he has been informed of the positive outcomes you have secured for my clients in the past. We should like you to find Mr. Lionel Maulding, and return him to the safe and loving embrace of his family. That is a fair summation of the situation, is it not, Mr. Forbes?”
Forbes nodded enthusiastically.
“Safe and loving embrace, absolutely,” he said. “Unless, of course, he’s dead, in which case I’d rather like to know that as well.”
“Indeed,” said Quayle, after a pause that spoke volumes. “If there’s nothing else, Mr. Forbes, I shall apprise Mr. Soter further of the situation and, rest assured, we shall be in touch in due course.”
Forbes stood. The door opened at that precise moment, and Fawnsley appeared holding a coat, a hat, and a pair of gloves. He could not have been more prompt had he been listening at the keyhole to every word, which he may well have been. He helped Forbes into the coat, passed him the hat and gloves, then stood waiting with reserved impatience for him to leave, like an undertaker faced with a prospective corpse that simply refuses to die.
“In the matter of payment . . . ” Forbes began, with the tone of one who finds the whole business of money rather distasteful, especially when he doesn’t have enough of it to go around.
The Wanderer in Unknown Realms by John Connolly / Horror / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes