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Episode 29: A Gathering in Bloomsbury
Season 1: The World Unseen
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Arthur Lock gave himself an imaginary pat on the back. It had been a good idea to take out a lease on this apartment in Great Russell Mansions — it was proving to be a more suitable London base than the Travellers Club. The only drawback was the expense, but that was manageable for a time. And once the Pickerel Institute was destroyed and its members brought to justice, then he would be quite happy to turn his back on London once and for all, and live out the rest of his life at Tarian Hall.
It was one of those dull London days: wan light coming through the net curtains and drizzle spattering the windows. God, he missed the scorching sun of India on days like this. And yet, he wasn’t unhappy at this moment.
He glanced around the drawing room at the small gathering ranged across sofas and armchairs, and smiled to himself. It was an odd little crew he had assembled. He was certain Sir Edward Bradford, had he known, would not have approved. Apart from himself and Draper, they were all so young, barely out of childhood. But the old man had given him a free hand in this business, and each person there had played an irreplaceable part.
As for what came next, he wasn’t certain all of them could contribute. But his intuition told him they well might, and in ways he hadn’t even thought of yet. They were a new generation, less stuffy and set in their ways than old soldiers like Draper and him. They thought differently, they were quick on the uptake, and they made connections, saw patterns he never would.
Yes, an odd little crew, alright. And to his relief, they all seemed to get along, already on first-name terms.
‘Well Major, it’s very nice to be invited for afternoon tea at your London gaff —’ Emma Bowman cast an approving look around the room, though whether this was aimed at the company or the furnishings, Arthur couldn’t tell — ‘but I think we all know this isn’t just a social occasion, so if you wouldn’t mind telling us what this is all about.’
Emma Bowman, actress and impersonator, beautiful in any man’s eyes, with her blonde hair, lovely features, and lithe physique. A young woman for whom, despite her cold-blooded deception of Lady Morton, Arthur had a regard verging on affection. Perhaps it was because she was everything he wasn’t: a rule breaker, a rebel, a disrupter. And at times, a criminal. But there was an energy and intelligence in her that could be put to worthier ends. She had gone unflinchingly into Reece’s lair and come out unscathed.
Kiran Nambudiri, who seemed a little overwhelmed by Miss Bowman, nodded vigorously.
‘Please tell us, sir, is there a purpose in gathering us here today?’
To Arthur, he had the look of a poet, this young Indian, with his long black hair, prominent nose, slim build, and soulful eyes. But he was a mathematician, and a very good one — so Trinity College thought. He was to begin his degree at Cambridge in the autumn, but for now he was working as a bookmaker’s assistant. Without Mr Nambudiri, they would never have unravelled the cipher Henry Lock had used in his notebooks. And now they had a list of names, a list that Dr Maxton Reece was also eager to possess. Arthur wondered how far Reece had got in deciphering —
Another female voice interrupted his thoughts.
‘For myself, I’m awfully curious to hear what has happened with this matter of the Pickerel institute since I last met with you and Miss Lock.’
Miranda Colston blinked at Arthur from behind her brown-rimmed spectacles. Such a small girl, with her child-like features and her brown hair untidily pinned up. Everything about her indicated her absorption in the world of books and ideas. And yet she had proven she could be as practical and quick-thinking as any of them. And as brave. Without her, they would not have any information about the membership of the Pickerel Institute.
‘I think you should give everyone a briefing before we go any further — isn’t that what you military men call it?’ said Peggy. ‘I know Emma, Miranda, and Kiran are very curious.’
Peggy had spoken, and she was in one of her brisk, no-nonsense moods. In another ten years, she would be quite formidable. She had adjusted well to her new life in England, better than Arthur had expected or even hoped. There had been sad times, naturally. But she had thrown herself into the life at Tarian Hall: riding, shooting, fishing, helping Draper with the estate management, even getting involved in the gardening. And these regular trips to London added some spice to her life.
She looked at him expectantly, so like her mother, the same thick hair, full lips, and large expressive eyes.
‘I agree with Miss Lock,’ Herbert Draper said, unnecessarily in Arthur’s opinion. But he and Peggy were like a pair of terriers when they were on the same side, which they frequently were. And especially against Arthur, it frequently seemed.
Draper was a new man, or at least a more contented version of the man he had been before. Arthur did not deceive himself: Draper’s loss was not something he would ‘get over’. But now he had a purpose in life as the estate manager at Tarian Hall. There was enough there, and more, to fill his days and keep his mind and body occupied.
Draper, with his short red hair and whiskers, his cauliflower ear, and his peasant face, watched him keenly, and Arthur could see the amusement in his eyes. He still deferred to his old CO on the important things, but he was losing some of the knee-jerk deference as he adjusted to Civvy Street. Arthur was glad of it. He wanted Draper to be straight with him when the circumstances required it.
‘I have every intention of briefing you, as my niece put it,’ Arthur said. ‘But it would have been barbarous of me to begin without giving you the chance to get to know one another. Which I hope you have now. I suggest you all pour yourself more tea, and then I’ll begin.’
Once every cup was refilled, Arthur said, ‘So this is what we know. A group of prominent men has formed an organization named the Pickerel Institute. Their present aim is to identify, and remove to a secret location, children with psychical abilities. The most active member of the Institute is Dr Maxton Reece. Some of you have already had dealings with this man.’
Emma and Miranda exchanged a glance and a shiver.
‘Miss Colston has been doing some research, and has come across a paper by Dr Reece published in the journal of the Society for Psychical Research about ten years ago. Miss Colston, would you summarize the passages of interest?’
Miranda her glasses back up her nose and cleared her throat.
‘The paper’s title is “Homo Superioris: The Evolution of a New Human Species”. In it, Dr Reece argues that biological evolution, as explained in the works of Charles Darwin, does not inevitably result in the improvement of a species. As it becomes better adapted to its environment, the species may evolve to be less intelligent, less capable, less versatile, or, in his words, “stupid and self-satisfied”. He gives the example of the domestic dog. To quote from the paper —’
Miranda looked down at her notebook.
‘ “Most naturalists are agreed that the domestic dog is a descendant of the wolf. Only compare the nature of the obedient and dependent dog with that of the wild and noble wolf. The former cannot even hunt on its own after thousands of years of breeding and is wholly subservient to its human master, reliant on him for food, shelter, and security. The latter is fierce, independent, and utterly ruthless. Is it not obvious that the so-called civilized condition, a form of domestication far more drastic than that undergone by the dog, is creating a race of subservient, small-brained humans?” ’
Miranda looked up from the notebook. ‘Dr Reece believes that a combination of civilization and unrestricted breeding is leading to the degeneration of the human race. The most important aspect of this degeneration is the general loss of once commonly held mental powers. That is to say, psychic powers. He argues these powers are being bred out of humanity because adaptation to civilization requires conformism, passivity —’
‘This is all very interesting,’ Emma said, ‘but will you be a dear and get to the point? What does Reece want to do with these children?’
Miranda flushed a little, and her nostrils flared. ‘As I was about to say, Reece thinks the degeneration of our species is so advanced that the only solution is the conscious and scientific establishment of a new species, which he calls Homo superioris. This new species will be founded on those few members of Homo sapiens who still possess advanced psychic powers.’
‘So he wants to breed them, like horses?’ Peggy said.
Miranda nodded. ‘That’s one implication of his paper.’
‘Disgusting,’ Emma said. ‘I knew he was a pervert. I knew he’d —’
‘Before we get too carried away,’ Arthur said. ‘This paper is ten years old. We don’t know if the rest of the Pickerel Institute share Reece’s views. And I suspect that some of them may have fewer, shall we say, long-term interests in the matter.’
‘Why can’t the police just arrest Reece and the others?’ Kiran said. ‘If this happened in India, they’d all be put in cells and interrogated — rather roughly, I’d say.’
Arthur shook his head. ‘It wouldn’t do. We don’t know the full extent of the conspiracy — or the full membership of the Pickerel institute. Even if Scotland Yard arrest Reece and the others, and get them to talk somehow, their confederates might by then have taken the children to a new location. We have to tread carefully.
‘Thanks to the efforts of Mr Nambudiri, we can now decipher the personal details of every person who attended my brother’s experimental clinic. Reece already knows the identities of all the subjects seen between September 1880 and November 1881 —’
‘How does he know that?’ Emma said.
‘Because that’s when he was assisting my brother in the experiments,’ Arthur said. ’We know too that Reece traced six children of these subjects and took them. Subsequently, one of those children died.’
‘Died how?’ Emma said.
‘We don’t know exactly. But it seems that another of the children, Roland Saunders, had something to do with it.’
Arthur looked at Miranda for confirmation.
Miranda nodded. ‘Yes, I distinctly remember Reece saying that Master Roland, as he calls him, had been contrite and that it had been some kind of experiment of his own.’
‘What kind of experiment?’ Kiran said.
‘I don’t know, but I fear not a very pleasant one.’
‘As I was saying,’ Lock continued. ‘The subjects unknown to Reece were seen by my brother between December 1881 and December 1882. Now some of these will have children of their own. And it is these children that the Pickerel Institute is interested in. Reece believes psychical abilities are heritable. But if they are, they will be present to differing degrees. We also know that Reece is interested only in the most gifted of these children.
‘Peggy and I have worked through the notebooks and identified four highly gifted subjects whose children, if there were any, might interest the Pickerel Institute. We passed their details to Scotland Yard — all that information is twenty years old, of course. The Detective Branch has been attempting to trace them.
‘It’s difficult, painstaking work, but they’ve established that one of them died childless. Another is still alive but lost both her children when they were infants. That leaves two subjects. One is a male, Roderick Cowans. When last heard of, he was married with four children, living in Peckham. The family left the area four years ago, and the trail has gone cold.
‘The fourth, a woman named Glenda Jones, died six years ago, leaving behind a daughter named Rhiannon. It’s been established that Jones worked as a fortune teller and medium in a travelling fair. Her daughter has stayed with the fair and followed in her mother’s trade. The fair is owned by a family called the Grundys and travels all over Britain. The last sighting confirmed by the Detective Branch was in Castle Cary two months ago. They are liaising with local forces across southern England, and their belief is that the fair was heading east from Somerset and into Wiltshire. All of which leads us to the current objective: get to Rhiannon Jones before Reece does.’
‘But does Dr Reece even know about her?’ Kiran said.
‘We have to assume he does. Or will do soon,’ Lock said.
‘There is something I must tell you,’ Kiran said. ’You remember I had that sudden dizziness and blacked out when we were dining at Newmarket?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Well, something similar happened at the railway station. And this time, I saw a child, a boy. He was watching me. I think he was the one making it happen. Do you have any photographs of the children Dr Reece has taken?’
‘Yes, for three of them.’ Arthur opened the file on the low table in front of him and took some photographs from it. He laid them out so Kiran could see them.
Kiran immediately pointed to one of them, a cherubic boy laughing in the arms of his mother, a pale blonde woman. ‘That’s him. I’m certain of it.’
Arthur frowned and rubbed the scar on the side of his face. ‘Roland Saunders. Well, well…’
‘Peggy, I believe you have some psychic abilities,’ Kiran said. ‘Is it possible that this boy could enter my mind at will? Is it possible that he could read my thoughts directly?’
Arthur noticed that for the first time in a long while, Peggy looked troubled and uncertain.
‘Well, my gift is very limited. If Roland can do this, his capability goes way beyond anything I’ve heard of. I have no experience of direct thought reading. In my case, and my mother’s, the gift is about intuitions, impressions, emotions.’
Arthur knew that after being told by her mother to suppress her gift for years, Peggy had recently been practicing again. With what success, he didn’t know. It was something she kept private from him, and he didn’t question her about it.
‘But even if the Saunders boy read your thoughts, he wouldn’t have found the cipher keyword there because you didn’t know it then,’ Arthur said.
‘I hope so,’ Kiran said.
‘So what next?’ Draper said.
‘We wait,’ Arthur said. ‘And when Scotland Yard track down the present location of the Grundy’s travelling fair, then we pay a visit to Rhiannon Jones.’
‘And tell her what?’ Emma said. ‘That some crazed doctor is going to kidnap her and use her to breed a new species?’
Arthur shook his head. ‘We don’t want to alarm her. We must convince her we’re trustworthy. And then we have to persuade her to help us.’
‘This is all very interesting, and I hope that swine Reece gets his comeuppance.’ Emma said. ‘But you keep saying us and we, like we’re some sort of troupe.’
She looked at Miranda and Kiran for support.
‘Yes, I do, don’t I?’ Arthur said. He paused. The girl was right. He had assumed that having already played a part in the mission, they were all as committed as he was. And as Draper and Peggy were. But these weren’t conscripts. Mr Nambudiri, Miss Bowman, and Miss Colston were volunteers and certainly the first two had been paid handsomely for their contribution. Arthur Lock had spent most of his adult life issuing orders and having them obeyed. Or obeying the orders of others. But this wasn’t the army.
‘If I use those pronouns, it’s because you have all contributed towards this operation. For Peggy and myself, it’s personal. For Draper there, it’s a matter of comradeship. The rest of you are under no compulsion. But if the Pickerel Institute is to be stopped, then I may well need your talents again, in ways that I cannot currently foresee. So I must ask you now — if I put the call out, will you respond?’
‘Yes, Major,’ said Miranda Colston, without hesitation.
Kiran Nambudiri nodded. ‘If I can help, sir, then I will.’
Emma Bowman looked at the two of them, and Arthur tried to decipher her expression. Was it resentment, surprise, or simply resignation?
She sighed loudly. ‘Oh, alright then, I don’t want to be the wet blanket at the party. But I’ll tell you for nothing — these people frighten me. If that child addled Kiran’s brain at the railway station, who knows what the rest of them are capable of?’
‘Which is why we need to persuade Miss Rhiannon Jones to help us,’ Arthur said.
‘Help us how?’ Miranda said.
‘By persuading her to play along with Reece.’
‘Using her as bait, you mean?’ Emma said.
‘I wouldn’t use that word,’ Arthur said. ‘But, yes, in a manner of speaking, we have to use Miss Jones as bait.’
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