A Magnificent Devices short story
©2015 Shelley Adina. All rights reserved.
The villains came over the garden wall the moment the boy’s nurse went into the kitchen to fetch the tea.
They had been watching for some days now, having staked out the gardens at the Dunsmuirs’ posh Belgravia address, getting a feel for the rhythms of the household and spying upon its inhabitants, until they had the information they sought.
Fact: Lord and Lady Dunsmuir were some of the richest of the rich—that fortunate inner circle who regularly received invitations to Buckingham Palace, who owned vast tracts of land in the Americas, and who traveled across the ocean on their personal airship as easily as a man might cross the Thames on a river barge.
Fact: Every afternoon at two, as long as it was fine, the little lord’s nurse brought him outside so that he could toddle down the paved walks, play among the fruit trees, and sail his clockwork paddleboat on the duck pond.
Fact: Every afternoon at two thirty, the nurse went inside to fetch the tea tray, leaving the little lord on his own for the space of one minute.
One minute was more than enough, for the villains had practiced the maneuver and in fact had employed it on two prior occasions, to great success and the enrichment of the Cudgel’s treasury.
Shame about the little girl in the second instance, but at least the parents had paid up before they’d opened the trunk and found the bag of sand. The Cudgel had been a gentleman about the mistake, though. He’d allowed the little body to be left where an esteemed member of Sir Robert Peel’s constabulary force couldn’t help but trip over it, and the parents had been able to comfort themselves by holding one of the grandest funerals London had ever seen.
The villains dropped into the garden behind the tall box hedge, their steps silent in the rich, well-tended earth and then upon the cushy lawn. Around them, drowsy in the hot afternoon, peonies and roses nodded and bees bumbled in and out of their hearts seeking pollen. Kneeling on the grassy bank of the duck pond, about to launch the boat with its paddles and its stack that was actually a winding stem, the little scrap didn’t even hear them until one had scooped him up with one arm and clapped a hand over his mouth.
The boy’s face turned scarlet with his efforts to shriek. Tears trickled from the corners of his uncomprehending eyes, and his little polished boots kicked frantically as he struggled. But the villains had had experienced in subduing children, and there were only thirty seconds left. A handkerchief soaked in a noxious substance was pressed to his face, and the boy’s body, stiff with panic, softened into the limp attitude of the unconscious.
The effects wouldn’t last long, mind.
They hooked the harnesses about their waists to the rope still dangling down the wall, and gave it a sharp tug. Up and over they went, landing on the other side in one of the city parks, where a large leafy bush was conveniently located up against the wall, giving them just enough cover to hide their accomplice.
The unconscious boy went into a trunk, which one of the villains hoisted to his shoulder while the other coiled the rope and slung the heavy loops across his body. Then, for all the world like a pair of workmen coming back from a job, they separated from their companion, sauntered through the park to the busy street beyond, and found a fourth man waiting with a stolen hansom cab.
It all took less than five minutes—about the time it took the little paddleboat to come slowly to a stop and sink to the bottom of the pond.
But the effects would ripple outward for the next two years, and would, in fact, change the world.
Three-year-old Lord Wilberforce Albert John Dunsmuir, Viscount Hatley and Baron Craigdarroch, woke to a sore head and more bruises than he could count—and he could already count to ten, so that was saying something. His eyes opened to darkness, split by horizontal cracks of light, and he bumped from one side of the cramped enclosure to the other, with no way of telling where the next bump would come from, making him unable to prepare himself for it.
After an eternity of a nightmare from which he was quite convinced he would never wake, there was a great bump and everything went still.
“Open it up and let’s see what we’ve got,” said a voice that sounded like tacks in bacon fat.
The lid of the enclosure lifted, so that Will could at last judge which way was up, and he peered out at an assembly of rough, unshaven, dirty faces he had never seen in his life before. A quick glance past them told him that Mama and Papa were nowhere in sight. Neither was Nurse, and that was impossible, because she was with him every moment of every day, and slept on a little bed next to his in the nursery.
It was impossible. Therefore, he was indeed still in the nightmare, and there was nothing to be done until he woke up. A little niggle of worry reminded him he’d woken up once already, in the box, but he brushed this aside.
“You don’t look much like a lord, do you?” asked a huge man who stank so bad that Will covered his nose and mouth with both hands. “Only knee-high to a grasshopper.” His was the voice that was sharp and oily at once, and he wore a wide leather belt with a thick cudgel hanging from it on a tether, rather like the pirate’s sword in his picture book at home.
Or, here in the nursery. Since he was dreaming in his own bed.
“He’s ‘im, all right,” said the villain next to the smelly man. “Lord Wilberforce Dunsmuir.”
“Is that your name?” the Cudgel barked.
Will raised his chin. Not only had they not been properly introduced, it seemed that this man was responsible for his headache and bruises. Besides, it was his nightmare. He didn’t have to talk to anybody. “Go away,” he said instead.
The Cudgel’s meaty hand whipped out and Will found himself flat on his back in the trunk, his head ringing and hurting twice as much as it had before.
Things didn’t hurt in dreams. They scared you, and made you run, but they didn’t hurt.
Maybe this wasn’t a dream.
His eyes filled with tears and he began to cry.
“Shut up or we’ll dose you again!” said the villain.
Will didn’t know what that meant, but the Cudgel’s hand twitched and that was enough to make him choke down his tears and fear, and the rage that they should treat him like this when he’d done nothing wrong.
“Shut yer own trap, Hiram,” the Cudgel said, “and close the lid. Did you get the parson to write the ransom note?”
The villain shoved Will down and clapped the lid of the trunk shut. But Will’s hearing was unimpaired. “Aye, it’s here.”
“Have it sent tomorrow, when they’ve ‘ad enough time for the fear to work on ’em but not enough yet to call in the bobbies. Aye,” he said with satisfaction, “two hundred pounds is a fine price for twenty pounds of boy.”
“I ought to dose ‘im again, just to be sure he don’t squeak and lead anyone back here.”
“Dose ‘im much more and you’ll kill ‘im,” said another voice. “Remember wot ‘appened to the girl.”
“She was more trouble than she was worth,” the Cudgel acknowledged. “If he whines, give ‘im a bit of bread to shut his gob. Otherwise leave ‘im in there. We got better things to do than play nursemaid to a nob.”
Will hardly knew night from day during the long march of hours that followed. Periodically someone would open the trunk and fling in food or give him a cup of water, and once someone suggested that he might be delivered to the ladies’ house, whatever that was, but the idea was shouted down in favor of having him in hand.
“Bloody tramps’d ransom him themselves like as not,” the Cudgel roared, “and all my work gone for nothing, to say nowt of my reputation.”
No one thought to let him out to answer nature’s call, and he was forced to use a corner of the trunk, which distressed him to the point of silent tears, for he was a naturally tidy child.
The only comfort Will could take from his situation was that it was not winter. On the contrary, London was suffering through the hottest August in a generation, and while this might have been uncomfortable outside, they were in a ramshackle warehouse that backed onto the river, and while it was warm enough that Will did not need a blanket, it was not the oven it might have been, either.
He would have liked a blanket just for the comfort. If he ever got home, he was never going to refuse to go to bed ever again. He would give anything right now to be able to climb into his little bed, its soft, cool sheets smelling of fresh air and sunshine. He sank into a doze, dreaming of running along the garden path chasing butterflies.
He woke with a start of fear when the lid of his trunk was flung back and a crust of bread dropped on his face. “Wake up, ye stinking little louse. Time to go.” The man—Hiram—shoved his face close to Will’s, and the boy drew back in fear. He might hit. With teeth like that, he might bite. “I’ll say this once, and once only. You make a single sound on our way over to the meeting place and I’ll cut you up in little pieces.” Slowly, he pulled from his belt the biggest, sharpest, most evil-looking knife that Will had ever seen, and turned it slowly under Will’s nose. “See this? This is what you get if you say one word. I’ll use you for practice, and once I’m done, I’ll go after yer fine lady mother. I’ll start with her eyes, like I did with you. Then I’ll cut out her tongue, like I did with you. I’ll cut off all ‘er hair, and sell it. Then I’ll do her arms and legs, and once she’s in nice pieces I’ll take you both to the sausage shop and sell you for sausage, which’ll be the first time in yer life you was actually useful. You got that?”
The tears welled up and over Will’s lashes as his imagination constructed the dreadful spectacle. Mama—his beautiful, graceful Mama with her sparkling brown eyes and her soft hands and her voice like the singing of a lark—cut into pieces and sold for sausage if he, Will, did not keep silent?
A sob escaped him and the knife jerked under his nose. “What did I just say, you filthy little toad?”
With a superhuman effort, Will choked back the wail building in his throat.
“Not one word, even once we get the money and hand you over. Not a word about us, or where you were, or what you saw, or names, or anything. Got that?”
Still frozen with the effort not to cry, Will stared at him.
“Got that?” the man shouted.
Will’s helpless gaze followed the knife, whipping all too close to his cheek. He nodded. Not one word. He couldn’t speak the promise aloud, but he made it all the same. He knew what it meant to promise. It meant you kept your word because you were a gentleman. A gentleman’s honor was in his word. That was what Papa said, and he was never wrong.
“Right, then. In you go.”
Will had just enough time to locate the bread under one boot before the lid came down and he was hoisted into the air again. But he couldn’t eat. His mouth had gone dry with fear for Mama and his throat had a lump in it the size of a plum. His stomach howled with hunger, but if he opened his lips long enough to shove the bread in, he would cry, he knew he would, and then he would have broken his promise and they would hurt her, and even though he would be cut up in little pieces himself by then, he couldn’t bear the thought of it having been all his fault that she was made into sausage.
Again the bumping and sliding interminably inside the trunk. Again the bruising … but at least this time his head had stopped hurting. If he kept low and curled up with his back on one wall and his feet braced against the opposite, that made two directions in which he would not slide.
When Hiram shouted, he hardly cared. But then there was a lot of shouting, and a bang, and someone said, “It’s Lightning Luke! Who blabbed? He’s going to take the kid!” A huge explosion made Will curl up into the tiniest ball he could and cover his ears and suddenly the trunk was spinning, rolling, bouncing off the ground …
A long fall that left Will’s empty stomach somewhere up above …
And a mighty splash as the trunk landed in deep water. It closed over the top, blocking out the lines of light, and began to pour in.
Snouts McTavish, his half-brother Jake, and Tigg and the Mopsies were making a day of it out at the Clarendon bridge, where the lock was. They had discovered that if one of them worked up the nerve to dive off the bridge into the Thames, one of the boatmen passing through the lock might give them a ha’penny—presumably for being clever enough to survive the experience. Snouts had done it repeatedly, and Jake and Tigg, but the Mopsies, being girls, flat refused. Instead, they paddled about on the bank with a cut end of soap and attempted to bathe.
Girls. Not that the Mopsies were bad little sods. Lizzie could pick a pocket quick as a wink, and Maggie, with her trusting eyes and pale oval face, worked the church crowds on a Sunday with the skill of a parson, and no one the wiser. They always had enough to eat on Sundays. And market days were good days, too, because they timed their arrival just at the tail end, when the farmers and butchers and costermongers were packing up. Bits and bobs would be left behind as not being big enough to bother with.
A bit and a bob had to be pretty small before one of their gang wouldn’t bother with it. Snouts himself wasn’t too proud to pocket a bruised turnip or a few raggedy leaves of kale or a crushed clam if it meant an addition to the small iron pot in the warehouse squat they called home.
Tigg got his attention and pointed at something floating beneath them, between two of the boats starting downstream after being disgorged from the lock. At the same time, one of the boatmen shouted, having noticed it, too.
“Not bloody likely,” Tigg said grimly, his toes gripping the outer edges of the bridge’s planks. “I saw it first.”
It looked like a box, turning over and over in the current. Tigg dove as true as a kingfisher, his brown body in its ragged pants held up with a piece of rope arcing through the air. He came up under the box with some sixth sense of underwater navigation that Snouts could only envy, and pulled it out of the wet hands of the boatman.
“Hey!” that individual shouted angrily, but by then Tigg was already ten feet away, swimming against the current that bore the boat and its annoyed occupants downstream and out of range of reprisal.
The Mopsies, whose job it was to keep an eye out for bobbies, mean dogs, and meaner people who objected to street sparrows enjoying themselves on a summer afternoon, had already abandoned the soap and swum out to meet Tigg, helping him in to the bank with his burden. And burden it appeared to be, since they struggled to push it up and over onto the grass, where they lay panting until Snouts and Jake reached them.
Tigg might have spotted and rescued the box, but he knew better than to open it and lay claim to its contents. Not unless he wanted to challenge Snouts for the leadership of their outfit, and Snouts’s thirteen years of experience far outmatched Tigg’s eleven. Not that Tigg was the challenging sort. He was a good soldier, and Snouts trusted him as much as he trusted anyone—which was not saying much. The only person Snouts really trusted was Jake, and even then you had to be careful.
“What have we got here?” he said, hunkering down next to the box. “Nice catch, Tigg.”
“Maybe it’s treasure,” Maggie said, her eyes bright with anticipation even while water dribbled down in front of her ears.
“Maybe it’s food,” Lizzie said, ever practical. “A nice bag of potatoes, aye? It was heavy enough.”
Jake handed Snouts the knife that was ever present about his person, even while swimming, and Snouts pressed the blade under the hasp and popped it off. Then he threw back the lid.
A gasp—a splash—and something smacked him on the nose.
“Hey!” With a shove, Snouts overturned the box and dumped its occupant out in a torrent of dirty river water. The box rolled off down the bank and back into the river, but no one paid any attention. Instead, they gaped at the boy lying in the grass, gasping and choking and coughing.
When he finally got his breath, he curled up like a snail, as though he was expecting one of them to haul off and kick him. He covered his face with his forearms, and made not a sound.
“Blimey,” Tigg said rather blankly.
“Wot the devil—” Jake managed.
“Who stuffs a boy in a box and tosses ‘im in the river like drowning a kitten?” Lizzie demanded indignantly.
“Rich folk,” Snouts fingered the boy’s navy linen jacket and matching pants, the white sailor collar dirty and stained but obviously finely made, and trimmed with a red satin ribbon. His little boots had certainly not been nicked off a market stall in Petticoat Lane, but had been custom made to fit by a proper boot-maker. “Wot’s yer name, boy?”
In answer, the boy curled up even tighter.
“We ent going to hurt you,” Maggie assured him, touching his shoulder. He flinched as though she had burned him, and a high whine of fear vibrated in his throat. “Honest, we’re not.” She glanced at her sister, who nodded.
“Tigg and Snouts here fished us out o’ the river, too, once upon a time,” Lizzie told him, sitting down next to him and soaking him over again with her wet pinny. “You’re lucky it’s us. At least we got three pennies and there’ll be enough food to go around.”
“Not likely,” Jake snorted. “He’s not having my share.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Maggie said in the soothing tones she used with birds and cats and suchlike scaredy creatures. “Come on, wot’s yer name?”
The child uncurled a little—enough so they could see his face properly—and Snouts said, “Blimey, he’s just a baby.”
“They throw him out with the bathwater?” Jake muttered.
“Maybe he fell off a boat.” Tigg looked upriver toward the lock, as if expecting to see a pair of nobs searching boat and bank for their lost progeny. But there was no one there save a couple of barges waiting to come down, and from the smell they didn’t look like the kind of vessel a nob’s kid would be riding for pleasure.
He was sitting up now, looking from one to another fearfully, until finally Maggie pulled him into her lap. Since she wasn’t very big, he filled it up, but she put her arms around him as though he were a sort of dolly.
“You come with us,” she said. “Anybody who puts you in a box and tries to drown you don’t deserve you anyway.”
“What are we going to do with a baby?” Jake wanted to know with some irritation.
Snouts wanted to know the same thing, but he was already miles ahead of his brother, as befitted the bloke in charge. “He’ll work for his bread, same as we,” he said firmly. “Nothing melts the heart of a rich lady faster than a little kid. He and Maggie can run a patter outside Leadenhall before they’ve fair got their change back in their purses. And Lizzie can teach him how to flash and catch while her light fingers do their work.”
“Ent enough for us, never mind foundlings,” Jake grumbled.
“You was a foundling once,” Snouts reminded him, and Jake winced, as though the thought pained him. Still, after all this time. Well, if anyone should have a little mercy in his hard heart, it should be Jake, then. “Come on, you lot,” Snouts told them briskly. “Market’ll be closing early, with all the food goin’ t’spoil in this heat, so we got work to do.”
“But we’re all wet,” Maggie objected.
“You’ll be dry by the time we walk to town,” Jake told her with his usual lack of sympathy, and set off, leaving the girls to bring up the rear, one on either side of the boy holding his hands.
He was a game little scrap, Snouts had to admit when they were half a mile from the squat, winding through the dank, narrow alleys stinking even worse than usual because of the heat. He never cried, simply sat down abruptly when he couldn’t go another step. Tigg hoisted him onto his back and instructed him to hold tight, since he needed both hands at the market.
Their haul was better than usual because of the spoiled food. Maybe the kid wouldn’t be the burden he expected. Maybe he’d be their lucky charm, Snouts reflected later that evening, after supper, as Tigg dumped the sleeping boy not ungently on one of the rag-piles. He was a quiet little ‘un, for true. They still didn’t know his name, because every time you asked him, he started to cry in an eerie silent fashion that was downright unnatural.
“Weepin’ Willie,” he said to the Mopsies as they snuggled down next to the unconscious boy. “Kid’s got to have a handle, and that’s as good as any.”
“Weepin’ Willie,” Maggie agreed. “So we don’t get him mixed up with Warehouse Willie, wot gives us salt fish sometimes when a crate breaks.”
That settled, silence fell in the deserted, derelict warehouse, broken only by the creaking of rotting wood and the rush and chuckle of the river below. Snouts wondered at this odd feeling in his chest. A kind of warmth. Not quite satisfaction, but more like the settled feeling you got when you made a difficult decision.
It was enough to sleep on. And maybe even enough to wake up and go on with.
In a tall house behind a black railing in Belgravia, Lady Davina Dunsmuir cried herself to sleep while her husband sat in his study, disheveled and with his cravat hanging from either side of his neck, staring into an empty glass. How had this come to pass? They had sacked the nurse, of course, despite her hysterics and protestations of innocence. It had to have been an inside job, and what responsible nurse would leave a boy of three alone in the garden, even for a minute?
What he could not understand was the behavior of the kidnappers. For he, Earl Dunsmuir, had complied exactly with the demands in the ransom note. He had gone to the cemetery at the appropriate day and hour. He had waited under the marble statue of the boy with the urn, as instructed.
Nothing had stirred save the ravens landing on the statue, and after two hours of waiting, he had been unnerved enough by their mocking vigilance to join the watching bobbies and return to the house.
They went back again the next day.
And the next.
But the kidnappers made no response, and young Will did not appear.
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the earl grew very good at silently cataloguing everyone he passed. Rather than taking the carriage, he and Davina began to walk to the opera and to balls and to call upon friends, earning even more of a reputation for eccentricity than the parents of a stolen child might already possess. But it allowed them to watch … to search … to look into faces everywhere they went.
They stopped going to church, both to avoid the pitying looks and impertinent questions of the congregation, and because they could no longer look at the altar, or take comfort in sermons. For what use was God when He had allowed their only son, the light of their lives, to be stolen? What sin had they committed that they should be punished in this way? And since he had not been returned, what more did God want from them that He had not taken already?
They no longer went to church, and so they did not see the street sparrows plying their trade and slipping quietly among the faithful, lifting, touching, easing away. Even the smallest ones could become skilled enough with practice, for the well-heeled crowd visiting in the churchyard was a rich hunting ground indeed.
And in this trade, silence was a particular virtue.