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Down On the Thames

Short story By: Philip Roberts
Horror



horror story set in Sherlock Holmes London. A man is led through London to talk to a "freak", which turns out to be a man in chains.


Submitted:Dec 18, 2010    Reads: 41    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


"Roll up, roll up!" called out the barker, as though he thought the crowd was an obstinate blind. "See all the great horrors of the earth, gathered together under the same roof, for the first time ever...!"
"It's all a jib, mister," said the fair-haired girl, tugging at the sleeve of the man's suit, as he stopped to listen to the spieler reeling off names as he pointed to obscure portraits upon an age-worn poster that was sewn onto the side of the great circus tent, before which he stood, upon a small, wooden dais.
"See the bearded lady..." he said, starting off small. It was an old gimmick: the gradual building up to the main attraction.
"It's been stuck on hair by hair," said the girl.
"See the bird lady...!
"See the human fly...!
"See the lizard man!"
"All just fancy dress costumes, mister!"
"All the great horrors of the earth, gathered together under the same roof for the first time ever!" he repeated. It was a well rehearsed spiel that he knew by heart.
"See the bat creature...!"
"It's a phony, mister. You can tell if you look real close. Not that they ever let you get close enough to be sure. They keep you well back, behind a rope."
"See the beetle man...!"
"A phony!" repeated the girl, more insistently than before.
"All the great horrors of the earth...!" It was like a broken phonograph record. "See Frankenstein's monster...!"
"Monster me eye! It's a man dressed up!"
"See the legendary golem! See the head of the Medusa...!"
"Both jibs," insisted the girl, tugging at the man's sleeve again. "The golem's just a man with mud slinged over 'im, and the Medusa head's just a life-like puppet!"
"See the snake lady...!"
"The scales are glued on!"
"See the panther man from deepest, darkest Africa!"
"Anyone can throw a panther skin over 'imself and say 'e's a panther man."
"See Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man himself, on display for the first time anywhere in the world in more than ten years...All for the price of two shillings; one small florin."
The crowd gasped audibly when the spieler said the magic words: Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. But the girl was unimpressed; "Ain't no freak, mister, only poxed; poxed up with sickness!"
"Not even that, lass," said the tall, dark-haired man, running one finger through his thick, walrus moustache. "It isn't even Merrick. Joseph Merrick has been housed at the London Hospital for nearly four years, since December 1886."
"There you are, mister." said the girl. "Like I been tellin' you, it's all a jib. Now you don't wanna pay out a whole florin just to be jibbed, do you?"
She paused for a moment to let the statement sink in, then added, "Particularly when you can see the real thing, for only a sixpence!"
The man stared down at the girl, trying to make out her features among the flickering shadows thrown around by the kerosene lamps. The girl was thirteen or fourteen; fair-haired and blue-eyed, with a slightly beaked nose and a trouble-worn face; extremely thin, almost emaciated, with an anaemic complexion.
"What sort of a freak?" asked the man.
"I can't 'ardly just come out and tell you out in the open like. Everyone could hear; might start a panic!"
"I see," said the man, turning to walk away.
"But I tell you what I'll do, mister, you can come with me now to see it, and you won't 'ave to pay me till after."
The man stopped in mid stride and half turned back toward the girl, raising a questioning eyebrow.
"That's right, mister, you can see the freak first, then pay me my sixpence afterwards. That way, if it's not all on the up-and-up, you won't 'ave to pay nothin' at all. Can't hardly be nothin' fairer than that, now can there?"
"All right, lass, lead the way," said the man, impressed by the girl's offer: For all he knew she could be telling the truth, true freaks did exist, so perhaps the girl had somehow stumbled onto one.
* * *
Down the dark and narrow cobbled streets the girl led him, apparently unawares of the oppressive atmosphere of the dim-lit streets, where the flickering gas lights threw up wild and changing shadows, which threatened to leap out and grab them; past the row upon row of drab, twin-level, semi-detached hovels; past the dingy ale houses (the Golden Giant; the Blue Elf; the Wild Man Inn; the Sailor's Arms) unheeding of the lusty cries and bawdy laughter from within, the brawling drunks and hustling proprietors without ("the best little inn in all o' London!" they had been assured on at least a half dozen occasions); past the painted streetwalkers who winked brazenly in the man's direction, their ample bosoms threatening to tumble free from their low cut bodices, they journeyed, moving ever further and further from the heart of London.
"We seem to have strayed quite, a distance from the City," said the man. "Are you quite certain it is safe all the way down here?"
"Don't worry, mister, I won't let nothin' happen to you."
The man was less than reassured by the girl's words, yet what choice did he have but to go on? Clearly the girl could not be persuaded to turn back, and the man possessed no knowledge of that part of London. So he did the only thing he could under the circumstances: he went on, blindly trailing after the girl.
The streets grew darker as the gas lights became farther apart, the further they moved away from Greater London. After awhile they had left behind completely the relative safety of the narrow streets, to speed recklessly down the slim, high-walled back lanes, perfect targets for any muggers as they stumbled blindly across the moonlit cobble-stones.
From time to time as he began to believe he was well and truly lost, the man heard the girl's voice call out, "Over here, mister." Then heading off in the direction of the voice, he could not help thinking that the call would also guide any would-be muggers who might be lurking in the shadows nearby.
When at last they stopped, they stood outside a white-washed warehouse upon a dilapidated pier. The girl pulled away two loose planks in the warehouse wall and indicated with a wave of her hand that the man should step through. "After you, mister."
The man hesitated, suspecting a trap. "Why all the way down here?" he wondered, looking down at his feet as though addressing the river that swish-swished beneath the ancient grey-brown timbers of the aged wharf.
"Down here, mister? I don't get you?"
The man looked up, startled, unaware that he had spoken aloud. "I said, why all the way down here, so far from anywhere? Why doesn't your friend live back there?" He indicated with a vague sweep of his hand where he imagined Greater London to be.
"Back there among the gaping crowds? My friend is afraid of the crowds."
The man could understand what the girl meant: Years earlier, Joseph Merrick had tried to live amongst the human race and had been persecuted day and night by the crowds. Young children had laughed and pointed at him; grown men had gasped in horror; women had screamed or fainted. The police had hounded Merrick from town to town.
So with the howling wind at his back, daring him to go on, the man stepped through the hole in the warehouse wall. He heard the two planks fall back into place behind him and realised that the girl had stayed outside on the pier.
At first he imagined himself to be alone in the room and wondered what was going on. "Scarpered," he thought. But then he realised the idea made no sense, since he had not yet paid the girl for her trouble.
He had started to think that the whole thing had been an elaborate practical joke, when another thought came to mind, Ambush! "There are most likely three or four of them waiting in the dark for me to step away from the loose boards!" he thought. Knowing that in the dark he would never locate the loose planks again in a hurry, he stood his ground and waited.
After a few minutes his eyes began to become accustomed to the meagre moonlight admitted to the room by way of the small, four-paned window opposite, which looked out over the river. And he was able to make out the eyes of the other being in the room. The eyes were yellow and seemed to shine in the dark, making the man wonder if the "freak" was a wild animal of some kind. "Cats' eyes shine in the dark!" he thought, for a moment wondering whether the girl had somehow captured a big cat. Tigers, panthers, and even lions had been known to roam the English countryside after escaping from travelling animal circuses (or after being released by unscrupulous owners of travelling menageries which had run into financial trouble).
But as his eyes continued to adjust to the dark, he could vaguely make out the figure of a man, sitting on the floor at the opposite end of the warehouse.
"I hope you don't mind," he apologised, starting to walk across the warehouse. "But the girl said it would be all right...?"
"Yes, of course," the other acknowledged. Its voice was smooth and cultured, not at all the illiterate mumble that the man had expected to hear. "She is a good girl, at heart, is young Sheila Kelly. She takes care of me, feeds me, tends to my needs, helps me to keep out of trouble."
"Keep out of trouble?" asked the man. He was still walking slowly across the warehouse.
"I ... I used to be a doctor ... Before the trouble started," explained the "freak". "Doctor Jonathan Thomas Meiklejohn, of Harley Street. Quite popular I was too ... Particularly with the ladies." He sighed deeply, then continued, "But that was my trouble, of course, I couldn't keep my hands off the ladies."
The man found himself blushing from embarrassment, wondering whether the freak he had walked halfway across London (or so it seemed) to see, would turn out to be nothing more than a fallen doctor who had been struck off the medical register after some impropriety with one of his female patients.
"I suppose you could say it was my bedside manner that got me into trouble," Dr. Meiklejohn continued. "Not that I ever touched any of my own patients, you understand," he hastened to explain, to the surprise of the man who had thought that was what he was about to confess to.
"No!" assured the doctor, realising what his visitor had been thinking. "No, even I was not quite that stupid ... Although who knows, given enough time maybe I would even have risked that ... If I had continued to get away with it long enough.
"No, it was the ladies of the night who were my weakness," he explained. Then in case the man was too innocent to understand, "Prostitutes. East End streetwalkers. They were my weakness. I couldn't keep my hands off them."
The man blushed from embarrassment again, grateful that the darkness of the old warehouse concealed his discomfort from Dr. Meiklejohn. As he had listened to the doctor's tale, he had continued to slowly walk across the warehouse until he was only a few yards away. In the poor light it was difficult to see, however, he could just make out the fact that the doctor was sitting on his hands in a strange hunched up position and wondered whether his body had been misshapen by the ravages of some venereal disease picked up from the East End prostitutes? He almost put his thoughts into words, but then thought better of the question.
"Not that I was with a different woman every night, or anything like that, you understand," Dr. Meiklejohn hastened to explain. "In a way I was quite restrained. There were only five of them: Mary, Anne, Liz, Catherine, and Mary Jane. Over a ten week period, give or take a day or two. I can still remember that much quite clearly, even after two years. Not that there wasn't reason enough. It made quite a splash in all the newspapers, on the front page of every paper in London for ten weeks without fail....
"Then came the fall ... After Mary Jane. Mary Jane was Sheila's mother. Not that it was ever reported in the newspapers that she had a daughter.
"Sheila was only eleven at the time, now she is thirteen. But still old enough to understand what was happening when she saw me with her mother that night...."
The man blushed again in embarrassment at the thought of young Sheila seeing her mother coupling for money with Dr Meiklejohn.
"Afterwards I fled the house and made my way through the dark streets, carefully crouching as I ran to hide from sight any stains on my garments from my activities with Mary Jane. And made my way here, to this deserted warehouse on a broken down wharf. Where I could quickly change out of my old, soiled clothes into fresh clean clothing, before heading for home."
"It ... it seems a long way to come from the heart of the City, just to change your clothes," said the man. He was surprised when the comment brought hearty peels of laughter from Dr. Meiklejohn.
"Yes, yes a long way to come just to change my clothes," agreed the doctor before bursting into laughter.
Blushing again at the laughter, which he realised was at his expense, although he did not understand the cause, the man said, "Yes, well, it is getting very late, and I have a long way to go before...."
"No! No, please don't go yet!" pleaded the doctor, attempting to rise up toward his visitor, only to fall back clumsily onto the wooden floor of the warehouse. "I so rarely get intelligent people to converse with. And, as often as I have told my tale over the last two years, I do so need to tell it again. To unburden myself of the guilt that I have carried around with me for so long."
"Yes, yes, of course if you like," said the man. Stepping forward again he gasped from shock, as for the first time he could make out the features of Dr. Meiklejohn, and saw that despite his soft, cultured voice, the doctor was indeed a freak. His face a horrid mass of weeping sores and ugly gashes. As though for many years he had been the victim of some weird South African malady. The man could not help recalling his earlier thoughts of the Elephant man, and wondered whether the doctor had also fallen victim to some grotesque, debilitating disease.
"I had fled down here after each of the other occasions," continued Meiklejohn, "but this time, unbeknown to me, I was followed. Young Sheila had seen me with her mother and came after me. Quite an accomplishment really, all this way without me ever once suspecting that I was being followed...."
He paused for a moment, bowed his head as though sleeping, then looked up at his visitor again and said, "I hurriedly changed into a clean suit I had concealed in the warehouse earlier that night. I had just finished changing when I heard the sound of movement behind me. I started to turn, too late, and felt a thud on the back of my head, then was overwhelmed by darkness. When I came to, who knows how much later, I found myself in chains...."
The man gasped from shock, for the first time noticing that the reason for the doctor's awkward posture was not some physical deformity, but heavy steel manacles attached to his arms and legs.
"But where did she...?" began the man, cut off in mid sentence as Dr Meiklejohn explained, "Many years ago, when the United States still traded in slaves, this wharf was used as a stopover point for slavers to purchase goods to barter to Africa for Negroes to transport back to the USA. When slavery was outlawed, the slavers left behind these chains and other remnants of their trade."
"You mean to say she did this to you just for sleeping with her mother?" asked the man in astonishment.
"No, not sleeping with her," corrected Sheila, startling the visitor, who had not realised that she had entered the warehouse behind him. "Not sleeping with her ... Killing her!"
"Killing her?" repeated the man, suddenly recalling why the name Mary Jane had sounded so familiar to him. "Mary Jane Kelly!" he thought.
"Killing her and slicing her up like a butcher slicing meat," cried Sheila holding up a lethal-looking scalpel. "With this!"
"But you've had your revenge!" screamed the doctor, struggling frantically against the manacles that bound him in place, as the teenage girl advanced toward him, still holding the gleaming scalpel in her hands.
"Yes, many times," agreed the girl, making the man back away in terror, as he realised what had really caused the horrid mutilation of the doctor's face. "And I'll have it many times more. In the years ahead!"
"Please, please help me!" shrieked Dr Meiklejohn, but the man had already started to back away for fear the girl would come after him.
But he had no cause for alarm. Sheila was intent only on her victim, knowing that even if the man went to the police he could never locate the dilapidated warehouse again without her help. Not that the police were likely to believe him anyway if he went to them with a wild tale about a thirteen-year old girl who had Jack the Ripper chained up in a disused warehouse, brutally torturing him with the same scalpel he had used to murder five East End prostitutes in late 1888.
THE END
© Copyright 2010
Philip Roberts




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