A September storm battered a sleeping London. Barrage after barrage of gusting sheets drummed on the rooftops and loosened clapboards. Raindrops like silver dollars pelted the empty roads and forced families of pigeons into huddled clumps atop the gaslights.
Then it stopped.
The trees of Kensington Gardens swayed, and the city held its breath. It waited a few dripping moments, then relaxed.
Just as suddenly, a Model-T Ford swerved past Marble Arch in Hyde Park and buzzed around Speakers' Corner, peals of laughter following in its wake.
Inside the car, Daniel Bisbee held the steering wheel with one hand and patted Lizzie's plump thigh with the other. The five pints had done their work, strengthening his resolve. Lizzie was still wearing her shabby costume from the theater, and pretended not to notice Daniel's nudging fingers ruffling under her skirt. She was a notorious flirt but failed to realize the expectations that would arouse in her suitors.
As he inched his hand to her knee, she babbled on nervously. "And Quigley had the bloody nerve to give me notes right before I'm about to go on, completely shattering my concentration. And you know his breath is simply dreadful. I've no idea what he eats but there's something unhealthy about the man. And where do they find these pitiful crowds? They didn't laugh at all."
Daniel smiled, giving the impression that he was listening, but his attention was focused on moving his fingers another five inches up her thigh. He crept like a spider into her skirts but she pulled him back with a shy "Danny," while another round of giggles erupted from the backseat.
In the back, Gulliver Lloyd pawed Celia West--a less pretty, less talented actress than Lizzie, but one who still drew the boys by offering the carnal treasures Lizzie so coyly protected.
What Gulliver lacked in height he more than compensated for with his unflagging persistence. Also, being rich didn't hurt. Celia fended off his pinches and pokes in a gentle wrestling match.
"You're horrible, stop it," Celia teased, then slapped Gulliver on the arm when he relented.
Gulliver snuck his hands around Celia's waist, then swiftly brought his lips to hers and kissed her before backing away.
Celia touched her lips. "You're terrible, Gully." And she dropped her chin, gazing up at him with eyes darkened by mascara.
Up front, Daniel Bisbee clenched his teeth.
The four actors were halfway through the run of Purloin's Prophecy, a new play at the Leicester Playhouse. Daniel and Lizzie played the lovers, yet somehow, Celia was Gulliver's fourth conquest of the run. And that wasn't right. Daniel's upbringing in the tenements on the East End had bred a competitiveness in him. Gully got everything he wanted because he was rich. Even Daniel's excitement at driving Gully's new car was dampened when he realized he'd become nothing more than an unpaid chauffeur.
Anxious breathing and rustling clothes replaced the giggles. Daniel looked over at Lizzie, who was blushing furiously.
He swigged from a cracked leather flask and pushed on the accelerator, skidding onto Piccadilly. Lizzie grabbed the door handle.
"Slower, Danny, please."
Daniel spun another turn, thumping a curb in the process.
"Oi, Dano! A lighter foot, if you don't mind," Gulliver groused from the backseat. His hand was wedged between Celia's breast and her corset. This was a delicate moment and he wanted nothing to upset his venture.
"Drop me off. It's late," Lizzie said to the window, her breath fogging the glass.
The model-t skidded around the corner eighty meters from the museum gates. The British Museum was closed for the night, its windows darkened. It was a solid, squat building stretching three square blocks, guarded by towering firs. Its small windows were barred, its tall gates sharp. The only visitor at this late hour was a fog that rolled in from every intersection, peculiar ground clouds that surged forth like a massing army, wisping about the buildings, misting the windows, choking off the rain-glimmered air. Shreds seeped through the fence and seized the interior grounds.
Then, somewhere in the darkness, glass shattered and an alarm bell started clanging.
Fog surrounded the car. Beyond the windows, nothing was visible save tendrils of twisting air. Lizzie pushed her foot on an imaginary brake.
Daniel Bisbee tapped the low-speed pedal as the road disappeared before his eyes.
"What's all this, then?"
Lizzie later told the police that her first thought was "snow angel." Her wealthy grandparents once took her skiing in Switzerland with her two younger brothers, and they learned to make snow angels in the deep drifts. The gray blot in the fog was in the shape of an angel, with wings outstretched. But soon those beating wings made her think less of beauty and more of panic. And as the fog peeled away, the feathery wings melted into mere arms, waving frantically.
"D-Danny?" Lizzie said.
But there wasn't a chance.
A body erupted out of the fog. Lizzie's hands slammed the dashboard as she screamed. Daniel Bisbee crushed all three brake pedals with both feet and spun the wheel, but the body had already collided with the hood and was somersaulting over the windshield. The sounds of crunching metal blended with the snaps of human bone. The Model-T surged over the curb, skidded on the grass, and chimed off the steel fence, while the body slapped onto the wet pavement and rolled to a halt.
Lizzie buried her face in her hands and screamed.
"Dan, jesus god--"
"Was it a man? Was it a man?"
Daniel couldn't think over Lizzie's screams.
Gulliver turned to the back window. "Oh, by Christ, Dano! He's in the road!"
"I didn't--" Daniel stared at the windshield, now crunched inward in the shape of a body. A clump of white hair had torn off on impact and was stuck to a crack in the glass.
Celia shook Gulliver's arm. "Is he dead?"
"Lizzie, open the door." Gulliver shoved at her seat.
"Lizzie, for Christ's sake." Gulliver scrambled over Celia as Daniel stumbled out into the street. The two men sprinted toward the body, their path marked by a wide swathe of blood.
The body was bent at impossible angles, a lumpy mound on the road.
Daniel and Gulliver circled it warily.
"By Christ, Dano. By bloody Christ." Gulliver ran his hands through his hair.
Daniel could tell, from the white hair and beard, that he had hit an old man, over six foot, with thick arms and a wide back, still fit. But now one arm seemed twice the length of the other due to a graphic dislocation. A shoulder blade erupted through the skin like a white shark's fin. And the old man's right knee had buckled in the wrong direction, making him appear like a blood-soaked marionette dropped from a player's hand.
Daniel's guilt brought him to his knees. He touched the old man's hand. His face was mashed into the pavement.
"S-s-sir?" Daniel gave the fingers a squeeze.
A groan emerged in reply.
"That was him, Dano. He's breathing!"
Daniel peeled the body away from the pavement. Half of a stripped face flopped in his lap.
Gulliver wheeled back.
Most of the old man's face was still on the pavement. His surviving eye blinked. Where the flesh was pulled off, Daniel could see the muscles of the old man's jaw working, dripping blood onto his beard. A large hand took hold of Daniel's biceps. Daniel attempted to back away, but the old man held him firm, lifting his head a few inches from the pavement.
"Gully, get 'im off!" Daniel cried, trying to pry the old man's fingers from his arm. "Agh, Gully! He's--"
"He's in my mind," the old man shouted.
Gulliver tried to pull Daniel off, but stopped when he heard the words.
"What'd he say?"
The old man yanked Daniel closer. Daniel could smell blood and tobacco on his breath. And death. The old man hissed: ". . . warn . . ."
"Oh God--" Daniel again tried to pull away.
The old man suddenly let go and Daniel scuttled back into Gulliver's arms. The old man's head lolled to the side. The good eye stopped blinking. He stared at nothing.
His last word, "Arcanum," echoed through the silent streets, punctuated only by the girls' muffled sobs.
The clouds suddenly parted for the full moon, which cast a white glow on the street and washed over the old man's ruined features.
Despite the light, no one noticed the glint of a blue monocle in the shadows. There was another witness. And in a swirl of a black topcoat he was gone, leaving behind only the hush of the retreating storm.
The paper before him was blank. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could not concentrate, distracted by the metronomic tick of his grandfather clock. He tapped his shoe on the snout of a Bengal tiger-skin rug splayed out at his feet and surveyed his surroundings, scanning the evidence of a life fully lived.
The billiards room of his Windlesham estate ran the length of the manor and substituted as a ballroom and Doyle's writing office. His wife, Lady Jean, kept a piano and a harpsichord in the corner by the redbrick fireplace. The lion-toed billiards table counterbalanced the room at the opposite end. The walls were ornamented with an eclectic array of Napoleonic weapons and a stag's head with an impressive six-foot rack. Doyle's gaze drifted past the bust of Sherlock Holmes in his deerstalker cap, and settled wistfully on a Sidney Paget portrait of young Kingsley Doyle in his Royal Air Force uniform. The boy's rounded face could have been a mirror of his own at that age. Doyle looked at his hands and counted the blotching age spots. He glanced back again at the portrait until he felt a chamber of welled-up sorrow creak open in his chest. Then he turned once more to the empty pad of paper.
The phone rang: a dull jangling that never failed to distract. He found Bell's contraption grossly intrusive. Not answering seemed boorish, but Doyle could never predict when a visitor might arrive unannounced into his office, demanding his attention even if he was writing. It was technological rudeness; a harbinger of things to come. Doyle glared at the phone from across the room, rapping his fountain pen on the arm of the chair.
Then the floorboards creaked as he crossed to the mantel and plucked the receiver from its post, holding the body of the phone in his other hand.
"Yes? Hello?" Doyle tended to shout into the telephone.
"Arthur?" The voice was deep, rich, and unmistakable even across the crackling phone lines: the Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill--a friend of Doyle's since the Parliamentary elections of 1900.
"There's news, I'm afraid. Bloody awful news." The phone lines were quiet save for static. "Konstantin Duvall is dead."
A single droplet of ink struck the floor. Doyle ran a hand over his walrus moustache and closed his eyes. His shoulders sagged. He placed the dripping pen back on the table. "When?"
"Last night, they say. Clipped by a motorcar. In the fog."
"My God." Conan Doyle felt his emotions hiss away into the recesses of his heart, leaving only nausea. But after sixty-plus years, this, he knew, was only a precursor of the tidal rush of grief to come.
"Did he have any family, Arthur? Of all of us, you knew him best."
"Honestly, I . . . I don't know."
"I'll have the Yard look into it, but I suspect they'll have no better luck than I will. We may have to put something together. Small, of course."
Doyle was reeling. Bits and shards, pictures, words, a rush of thoughts had broken free. He grasped for useful information. "He spoke once . . . of wanting to be cremated. From his days in the Orient."
"Eh? That's something, then. We can accomplish that. It seems unbelievable. Unbelievable . . ." Churchill allowed the silence to loom. He was clearly waiting for information he knew Doyle possessed. The good doctor, however, was lost, for the moment, to the past. Finally, Churchill pressed on. "What on earth was he doing at the British Museum? And at that absurd hour?"
Doyle hesitated, then lied, "I have no idea."
"Bollocks," Churchill answered. "There's much you've left unsaid of your business together, Arthur. Reams left unsaid. Now, I've been straight with you about Duvall, and I would appreciate a portion of the same courtesy in return. Someday quite soon, old boy, I want to know what you chaps were up to."
Doyle sighed. "Honestly, Winston, we've been over this--"
But Churchill cut him off. "Duvall was an important man, but only you seem to know how important. At some point, you've an obligation to your country, your king, and to me to tell us what you know. In the meantime," Churchill's voice softened, "I'm very sorry. I know he was important to you. He lived well. That's all we can ask in the end. To live well. I'll ring you later."
"Yes, Winston. Thank you for calling."
The line went dead. Doyle recradled the receiver, finding it difficult to swallow. It was the secrets, held for thirty years now, surging forth to overtake the present. But he held on to the mantel and fought them off, locking them back where they belonged.
Lady jean doyle was trimming the roses, in a white dress with long sleeves and a yellow hat. Her fair skin was susceptible to the sun but she enjoyed gardening--especially when she could watch their young daughter ride her horse along the green bluffs of Sussex Downs. The Doyles' estate at Windlesham was the picture of tasteful grandeur: a redbrick mansion of thirty-two rooms guarded by a ring of 300-year-old maple trees.
But moments of beauty like this had grown rarer of late, making Lady Jean doubly thankful for each one. The recent past had tested the Doyles' mettle with a harrowing string of deaths. Aside from the loss of their adored Kingsley, Doyle's brother Innes had died of influenza. And Jean's brother, Malcolm, perished at the Battle of Mons. Recovery--if it was to happen at all--would be painfully slow.
Worse still, the Doyles' recent crusade on behalf of the Spiritualist Movement had sent unintended shock waves through the British press, and set off a firestorm of ridicule. Enemies and admirers alike had declared Doyle a rube, as gullible as Sherlock Holmes was skeptical. There seemed no reprieve from the insults and jibes, but Doyle soldiered on, watching his reputation crumble, like a man burdened with secret knowledge.
As indeed he was.
Yet, even knowing this, it had still shaken Lady Jean to see her dear Arthur--her robust champion--age before her eyes. Now even the natural escape of writing was lost to him. He would sit in his normal spot in the billiards room, in his creaking swivel chair--the birthplace of scores of novels--frozen like a statue, staring at the page. Grief had wrung him dry and Lady Jean feared the strain of it was killing him.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler. Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.