Rain drummed down on Richard’s roof. He was in his living room, once again painting a study of the seashore. His father and mother were not there right now, but he had another guest in Alice Egerton, Scarecrow, a girl from his resurrectionist gang. She was real and alive, so she was more work than the ghosts, but she slept on a cot in the basement and she mostly kept to herself, except at mealtimes. Richard had been writing less, but he painted constantly, mostly to distract himself from the stress of the destruction of the building on Temptation.
Ransom Egerton, who Alice had confessed was her brother, had been arrested, which was good because he had been a violent young criminal who threatened Richard’s operations. He had attacked a young woman for speaking with Barrorah a few weeks ago, so Richard, consumed by guilt, had anonymously given the young woman money for a better life. Her and her brother had died in the fire, which made Richard feel even more horrendously guilty. Why hadn’t he been able to help them? Why did they have to die?
Richard needed someone else for his gang, and he might have found them in Doctor Johann Faust. The man was usually a customer, but Richard had nothing against actually bringing him into the gang. Better to have Dr Faust with his patronage and under his control than with his patronage but on his own as a wildcard.
A sudden, violent knock at the door startled Richard out of his reverie of guilt and anxiety. He stood up, taking hold of his cane, and started pulling on a long black coat to protect himself from the sun. He kept the glasses that hooked over his regular ones in his coat pocket now, so he could put them on quickly. It took him several minutes, but when he was finished with the assembly of his attire he went to the door and opened it.
Outside stood Deirdre and Dr Faust. Speak of the devil. Richard smiled as well as he could through the covering he had wrapped about his face. “To what do I owe this visit?”
“Well, sir,” said Dr Faust.
“It’s, um,” said Deirdre, “It’s complicated.”
Richard held the door open wider. “Why don’t you come in?”
They hurried inside and sat down on his sofa. Richard put on tea and sat down on the other sofa, perpendicular to them. He started taking off his protective clothing as surreptitiously as he could.
“Is there something wrong?” Richard asked.
Deirdre shrugged, and Dr Faust copied her.
“Listen,” Richard said. “I know that your building burnt down. I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a while, but I live in this house alone – except for Alice, who’s been staying in my basement – and I have a lot of extra beds and rooms. If you and whoever lives with you now would like to come stay with me for however long you need, my door is always open.”
Dr Faust and Deirdre looked at each other, then Deirdre’s face broke into a nervous smile. “Y- yes, that’s actually what we came to ask you about. Can we stay here? Me and Johann and Sylvia and Jean and Monty?”
That was a lot of people. Richard mentally went through the beds he had in his house. On the second floor there was a room with a double bed right off the stairs, and another with two single beds. There was his room, of course, with a double bed, but he didn’t want to share that with anyone unless he absolutely had to. After that was a room with a single bed and a sofa, which could both be slept on if they needed to be. Dr Faust – Johann – and Deirdre could have the single beds, and Jean Gévaudan and whoever Monty was could share the double, while Sylvia Sapping could take the single bed in the room with the couch.
“I think I can take all of you,” Richard said. He briefly explained his idea for a sleeping arrangement and the situation with Alice, who was estranged from her family.
Deirdre looked again nervous to tell him something. Johann had his arm around her. “Actually, Mr Golson, we can take the double bed.”
Oh. Richard mentally kicked himself for not seeing their romantic involvement. He was terrible at that kind of thing. “Alright, well, how about Monty and Jean Gévaudan-”
“Monty likes boys, Mr Golson.”
“Then Jean Gévaudan and Sylvia, who are related, will share the room with two double beds, and Monty will have the room with one bed.”
Richard pulled a pen from his waistcoat pocket and wrote this down on his arm. “Alright, that’s what we’ll do. I have storage for whatever you need to bring with you. And, Dr Faust, I have a- a place in my basement. For your tools.”
“Thank you, Mr Golson.”
“Come back with Sylvia and Jean and… Monty?” Richard had never met him, and he couldn’t think of anyone he’d ever heard of with that name.
“We will,” Deirdre said. “Really Richard, this means so much. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You’re so selfless, you know? I need to find a way to repay you.”
“You’re welcome. Any time.” Oh, she had no idea how selfless he had to be. Richard was immediately embarrassed to have had a congratulating thought, and swatted it away. He was only doing what every decent person did.
Deirdre smiled at him as she and Johann left. Richard tried to go back to painting, but it felt empty now. He didn’t find as much joy in it. An hour or two later, Deirdre and Johann were back banging on the door with a whole host of people behind them. Richard suited up and opened the door.
Deirdre was at the front, with her small frame, stringy red hair and round, pale, face. Johann followed her, a tall dark-skinned man with a bony, angular face and short, flat black hair. Sylvia, a young woman with olive skin, a sharp face, and long dark hair that came down to her waist was next. Richard could tell immediately that she took opium in some form or another. After her was Jean Gévaudan, a big, tall Frenchman with puffy auburn hair streaked with black and a toothy smile that set Richard on edge. The last person was the only one Richard had never met, a tall young man with brown hair and the most average face he had ever seen. The young man, presumably named Monty, also wore a weatherbeaten tricorn hat that made Richard do a double take because for an instant he was sure it was the same one his father had.
The group filed inside. Richard looked everyone over again, noticing the little details this time, the things that would have stood out to him in a painting. Deirdre had a silver cross around her neck that shone in the light, and calluses on her hands from her job as a maid. Johann kept squinting through his glasses, like he didn’t really need them, and the jacket he wore had a chemical stain on one arm that just barely blended in with the fabric. The dark circles under Sylvia’s eyes and the way her shoulders slumped looked like she hadn’t been sleeping much, but she had a sly smile that hid it. Jean’s eyes darted back and forth, like a predator assessing the situation, and he held his mouth slightly open so that Richard could see his teeth. Monty’s gaze was vacant, like he was lost in thought but also exhausted, and he wore both a cross and a St Benedict medal around his neck on a leather thong.
“Mr Golson,” Jean Gévaudan said. “Good evening.”
“Good evening,” said Richard.
There was an awkward silence, before Monty held out his hand and said, “Good evening, Mr Golson, please call me Monty.”
“Good evening, Monty,” Richard said, shaking his hand. “Oh, wait a moment! I have met you before. It’s good to have a name to pin to your face. Did you ever get that cane?” There was something else familiar about this young man, but he couldn’t quite pin down what it was.
“No, I didn’t. I forgot.”
“Ah, that’s too bad! I have a few extra you can borrow.”
“Oh, good. Thank you, Mr Golson.”
“Call me Richard, we’re going to be living under the same roof.”
“Address me as Queen Sylvia Titania Sapping the first, you peasants,” Sylvia said.
Johann smirked and Deirdre cracked a small smile. Monty pretended to crown her, and Richard chuckled at that. “I should introduce you to Alice, as well. Alice? Where are you?”
The door to the basement opened, then shut, and Alice Egerton came up the stairs. She had the watery blue eyes, small stature, and short blonde hair shared by the entire family, including her young arsonist brother.
“Hullo,” Alice said.
Deirdre sucked in a breath, and Johann, who obviously tried to pretend to be unbothered, pressed closer against her. Richard realized that they might still have Ransom Egerton’s physical appearance fresh in their minds, and he inwardly kicked himself for how insensitive he had been to not warn them that Alice was Ransom’s sister.
“This is Alice Egerton,” Richard said. “She’s part of my gang, as Scarecrow. She’s staying with me because, um, because her, well, you all know what happened with Ransom…”
Monty flourished his hands like he was wiping something from the air in front of him and approached Alice. “You’re not an arsonist, are you?”
“Me? No, no, of course not. I don’t burn things down. Don’t have a malicious bone in me, unless I’m working.”
“Well, I too become malicious when forced to work, so we have something in common. You won’t burn down the bed I sleep in?”
“I’ll try not to. How irritating are you?”
“No promises, then.”
“Alright, I’m satisfied.” Monty hefted a sea-chest he’d been dragging behind him. “Can I put this down somewhere now?”
“Yes, let me show you to your rooms,” Richard said. He led everyone upstairs, and opened the door to the first room off the stairs to the right. It led to a room with a four-poster bed pressed against the back wall, a dresser across from the door, and a fireplace facing the end of the bed. “This is for Johann and Deirdre. There’s ample storage space in the dresser and under the bed.”
The room directly across the hall was his study, but the door next to it led to another bedroom. It contained two beds side by side against the back wall, each with a bedside table and a dresser at their end. There was a window between the heads of the two beds. “Sylvia and Jean will sleep here. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who gets which bed.”
The last room was on the right again, right next to the wall at the end of the hallway. It had a single bed against the left wall, with a dresser at its foot and a table at its side. On the right wall was a blue sofa with another end table at its arm. “This is Monty’s bedroom. If worst comes to worst, someone might have to sleep on this sofa.”
Monty dropped his sea-chest on the floor and jumped onto the bed. “Oh, a feather mattress. God, my joints hurt so bad.”
Richard’s curiosity was aroused. He knew leg pain, so maybe he could help alleviate Monty’s pain. “Do you have a medical condition?”
“Yes, arthritis, and my lungs are affected badly, I might have asthma, and my heart is affected somehow, and sometimes when I stand up I black out for a few seconds.”
“That means you have low iron,” Johann said.
“Really? Wow, I had no idea. Thanks, Johann, I’ll eat some coins and clear the problem right up.”
“Taking opium would be more likely to solve your problems. You’ll just choke on the coins.”
“Oh, boy, I have a doctor’s permission to do drugs! Move aside, everyone, I have to go out and buy laudanum.”
Johann smacked his palm against his head. “I was being sarcastic.”
“I wish doctors would tell me to do drugs,” Sylvia said.
“You can just go to the hospital for that,” said Richard, who had been repeatedly advised to take laudanum by all manner of people.
“Oh, really? Better break an arm. Who will beat me up so I have to go to the hospital?”
“You can buy laudanum at a drug store. Why would you go to the hospital first?” Alice asked.
“Why are we even having this conversation?” asked Johann.
“I’m hungry,” Deirdre said. “Richard, can we have dinner?”
“Yes!” Richard was happy to get away from this conversation. “Dinner’s all ready downstairs. It’s all-” There was a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder, and Alice just about jumped out of her skin.
“Scared of lightning?” Monty asked her as they went downstairs.
Richard was privy to the information that Alice was afraid of just about everything that wasn’t the sewers or his basement, from storms to crowds and especially the ocean.
Alice laughed. “You’d be hard-pressed to find something I’m not afraid of, Ishmael.”
“Excuse me?” Richard said. “Ishmael?”
“My name is Ishmael Samuel Carter,” Monty said. “But, I would prefer to be called by my nickname.”
“How did you get Monty from Ishmael Samuel Carter?”
“It’s from when I was a whaler.”
“Monty was some kind of whaling nickname?”
“Let’s not talk about it, alright? Name’s Monty. End of story.”
Richard nodded, feeling bad for demanding an answer from him. “Alright, I won’t call you by anything other than your nickname.”
The dining room was off the back wall of the living room, with the door into it right next to the stairs. The others sat down at the table, while Richard stood up to get the food he’d prepared earlier. There was chicken and potatoes and an assortment of vegetables, which Richard piled onto plates in the kitchen and took into the dining room. Each person had a placemat, as well as real silverware, and they ate off of blue china plates. After he’d delivered the food, Richard himself sat down to eat.
“Wait,” Deirdre said. “We should say a prayer over the food.”
Richard wasn’t particularly religious, though he did go to church a few times each year, at Christmas and on Easter, and he prayed vehemently whenever his legs started to hurt badly. Deirdre was also Catholic, unlike him, but prayer was prayer no matter how it was said. He shrugged and bowed his head for the prayer.
Deirdre said a quick grace, after which she, Sylvia, Monty, Jean, and Johann all crossed themselves. Richard copied them, thinking it was probably the right thing to do.
“I thought you didn’t believe in God,” Monty said to Johann.
Johann shrugged. “I’ll still say the words. Besides, I’m not going to dissent when my girlfriend’s praying.”
“This food is really good,” Sylvia said.
“Thank you,” said Richard.
“I haven’t eaten like this since I was out whaling last,” Monty said. “I remember someone shot down some bird once. It was delicious, even though we had to split it fifty ways.”
“Tell me it wasn’t an albatross,” said Alice.
“Wow, you’ve read a poem?” asked Monty.
“Yeah, I’m not stupid.”
“Good to know.”
Jean was looking around like he was confused. Richard cleared his throat. “Is there something you need, sir?”
“Salt,” Jean said.
Richard went to stand up to get the salt from the kitchen, but Deirdre, who was not only closer to the door but who didn’t use a cane, beat him to it. She put the pot of salt in front of Jean, who promptly poured most of it all over his chicken while Richard watched in horror.
“Can I have sugar?” Alice asked. Richard rolled his eyes because she would eat anything with sugar on it.
Deirdre got the bag of sugar, and looked disgusted as Alice poured sugar over everything on her plate. When she bit into the chicken Richard could hear the grinding sugar crystals from where he was sitting. Fortunately, he was used to this by now and was able to watch it without feeling sick to his stomach. The first night Alice had stayed at his house had been rough.
Monty barely ate anything at dinner, so he kept a running dialogue going, mostly with himself. It was remarkably entertaining to hear what he thought about every species of whale he could think up, and his personal retelling of the story of Jonah, and why whaling was an industry that had to be stopped. Clearly, the man had a single subject he wanted to talk about, and he wasn’t going to let the fact that the crowd he was talking to didn’t particularly care about whales stop him.
“Humanity should fear the ocean,” Alice said once Monty finally stopped for a breath.
“Why?” Monty asked. “It’s wondrous.”
“And also opaque and unfathomably deep and full of creatures we can’t even begin to imagine.”
Monty chuckled. “Oh, you have no idea.”
Alice glared at him. “And what do you mean by that?”
“The ocean is the reason I’m here today.”
Richard thought he saw his father standing in the corner of his eye, and he started to feel intensely uncomfortable. He didn’t want to know how the sea had saved Monty, but he also didn’t want to be rude and ask him to stop talking, so Richard decided to suffer in silence.
“I was a whaler for a long time,” Monty said. The way his voice had gotten low, Richard could tell this was going to be a long story. “Hunting whales is no easy task, as I’m sure you know. We go out for years, all alone with your crew on a ship in the middle of the open ocean, trying to catch animals bigger than your ship and much bigger than you yourself. It’s not easy, not easy at all. Well, we did catch whales, usually sperm whales, and being a shrimpy boy with the lowest lay, I was often made to crawl into the headcase where the spermaceti is and bail it out. Have you ever done that? Ever been lowered into a small, dark space made of organic matter that reeks or blood so you can bail out golden liquid for the people up above? No, I wouldn’t think so. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever done, and that’s saying a lot. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that again, and funnily enough, I wasn’t even really getting paid at the time. More like putting myself in more debt, but that’s not something to dwell on.
“In any case, I got away from that job as soon as I could, and I eventually learned how to become more or less handy with a harpoon. That’s right, I taught myself to be a harpooner, so I could get out of the whale’s head. I had muscles, once upon a time, and even though I lost the look I didn’t really lose the strength. It takes a lot of force to kill a whale, especially a sperm whale, and you gotta be strong as hell to take one out. I could do it, though.”
“So you were a whaler,” Deirdre said. “Was it fun?”
Monty laughed. “I hate those years with every scrap of my soul. They were the worst of my life. Every day I cursed the sea from morning till evening, but it never did any good. The sea didn’t understand me or heed me. At least, I didn’t think it did.”
“Until?” Deirdre asked.
“Until I killed a particular whale. How was I s’posed to know that that whale was special at all? It didn’t look like it, but maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know. Either way, I killed it, and we tried to get it back to the mothership in a storm, and the storm knocked me over the side of my boat. I fell down, down, down, and when I was down there, I saw some of the things you should be afraid of down there in the ocean. They-”
Richard couldn’t take it any more, especially since his father was standing right behind Monty as he told his story, dripping seawater down his shirt and gripping his shoulders. Richard stood up. “Monty, please. I really can’t hear any more.”
“Alright, I won’t say any more, then.”
“I want to hear the end to his story,” said Jean.
“Then you can. Anyone who doesn’t want to, it’s getting late, we’ll go to bed.”
Everyone except Jean stood up and ran upstairs. As Richard followed them at a slower pace, he heard Monty make a comment that shook him to the bone. “Now, Jean, if our lovely guest will just follow his son upstairs, we’ll continue with this story.”
Richard undressed quickly and picked up the first book that his hand touched. Emma by Jane Austen. Richard tried to slow his breathing down and focus on the love related shenanigans in the text, but he couldn’t get his mind off Monty and Jean downstairs. This was ridiculous. He was a horror author who painted the ocean for a living, and he couldn’t handle part of a superstitious whaler’s story? What kind of logic was that?
It was logic that prevented him from focusing on Emma. Richard put down the book and methodically put out the candles and gas lights that lit his room. He closed his eyes and crawled under the covers of his bed.
He fell asleep quickly, and dreamed of a deep ocean abyss full of nameless things that had been put there long ago and desperately wanted to escape.