This story is dedicated with love to Reshmi Mukherjee.
I. Flintlock Jaw
When Robin Darktree takes to the road, he carries two flintlock pistols, a blunderbuss, a rapier and a bag of ginger biscuits. It is best to present a formidable appearance on the road. He also carries a spare tricorne hat. It takes but a single seagull to ruin a formidable appearance.
His mount is an elderly roan with the bumbreezes. Her name is Hannah. He is too fond of her to consider a replacement. Thus he is given to wearing a black silk handkerchief even when not travelling incognito. His cloak is sailor’s garb, filched from a Portsmouth market. His fine high boots were made by Alberto’s of Siena, Tuscany Province.
Darktree loves the mountains, the clear streams and wild flowers. When he goes into hiding it is usually to the mountains that he flees. He distrusts the forests — dank, horrid affairs — and positively loathes the marshes. He feels neutral about the sea, all but his wistful eye.
When the government sends a pack of hired hands on his trail, Darktree tries to enjoy the chase. On moonless nights he alone can thunder down the roads, hooves pounding, wild laugh caught at the back of his throat.
At such times, full of gin and confidence, he often doubles back and trots past his pursuers with a polite nod. The true art of disguise, he maintains, is more a matter of poise than looks. He has never been caught. But in his more fanciful moments, he feels he is being followed from ahead. As if it is possible!
Darktree at sunset: waiting behind a clump of bushes for the Holyhead mail. A solitary figure slightly bowed, but not devoid of dignity. Darktree during a mad gallop over the heath: foolishly romantic, arrogant, profoundly sad and almost comic. Darktree asleep: muffled.
Times are hard, he decides, as he puffs on his churchwarden pipe. The coaches are becoming fewer with each passing day. He feels like a fisher who has overexploited the resources of any given bay.
Once he considered his smiling eyes to be hook and line enough for the ladies. Now even nets of flint, steel and smoke do not suffice. I am growing old, he thinks, and imagines the following: Darktree as an ancient man, snug in the hearth of a weary coaching house. Muffins and ale. White hair beneath crow-black hat. Nose aglow, gnarled as a bole. But no, who will really look after him in his dotage? His mother?
When Darktree’s friend, Nick Cooke, was captured near Highgate, Darktree dressed himself as a woman in order to witness the execution. Although poise is the thing, there is also pleasure. Nick made a few jokes, sang a bawdy song, was fondly cheered by the crowd. Darktree shed a single tear.
And real women? Darktree can scarcely lay claim to a single meaningful relationship with a member of the opposite sex. He has tried, God knows, but it has all been so difficult. They never want to settle down with a highwayman — why should they? Always working nights, away for weeks on end, no guaranteed income. And all that opportunity for philandering, never washing their socks or underwear. No.
There is a girl called Lucy who lives in Epsom. Whenever Darktree passes through the town he turns crimson. Lucy remains blissfully unaware of either his identity or his infatuation. Darktree will often conduct long detours to avoid Epsom, or race through at high speed, eyes lowered.
Once, in a coaching house near Salisbury, Darktree dropped a tankard of porter. In the dark puddle that spread out on the stone floor, he caught his own reflection. At first he thought the scar that crested his right eyebrow had jumped sides. Astonishment!
Another amusing incident: in Abergavenny, Darktree helped a lame beggar to a tavern and bought him a meal and a drink. Later, away from the town, passing beneath the purple scrub and blasted peak of Ysgyryd Fawr, he realised who the lame beggar was. Tom Jackstraw, his archenemy.
Yes, Darktree loves the mountains. Sitting atop Sugar Loaf at dawn, counting the clouds, dreaming about travelling to even more distant regions. He has heard they are asking for settlers in the antipodes. Will he go? There are forms to be filled in, proof of identity, passage to be paid. And where will he find muffins among the men who walk upside down? On the snowy slopes of the Southern Alps?
Occasionally, on the road, Darktree meets kindred spirits, bundled up tight like parcels, some of them with newfangled guns that require no flint. They will exchange news, opinions, snippets of philosophy and general laments concerning the weather and lack of traffic. Sometimes there is a mutual hold-up, a great joke.
“Good morning, sir! Whither bound?”
“To Halifax, for the fair. Pockets to be picked, stalls to be rifled.”
“Watch the gibbet, sir. Halifax is no place for the unwary.”
“I am Robin Darktree, no mere amateur!”
One day, Darktree reads about a new invention in a newspaper abandoned on the highway. The invention is a type of steam carriage that can carry passengers on rails. Darktree frowns. He cannot grasp this notion. The paper is several years out of date. What does this mean? That the roads are being forsaken? Impossible!
This story colours his idle thoughts for weeks to come. He tries to picture such a diabolical machine, surely all clashing cymbals and roaring furnaces. And who will blow the post horn at eighteen miles per hour? Absurd. He will not have it. He wrests the image from his mind. He regards the smoking bowl of his pipe with a deep suspicion. The roads are the arteries of the country; the nation will bleed dry, a sallow, anaemic kingdom.
Another encounter, this time in the deeps of the recently enclosed New Forest. A strange man without a periwig: Darktree more cautious than usual. A trifle sombre perhaps, impatient, a mixture of inappropriate emotions.
“Good day to you, sir! A fine day for travelling.”
“Indeed so. And I to Exeter before its end.”
“I see. And will you be taking the train, sir?”
Darktree scowls. “Train? What is this train? I have no inkling of what you are talking about.”
But finally he can deny the truth no longer. On the outskirts of Bath he comes across a pair of iron bars seemingly stretching into infinity in both directions. Stubborn as flint himself, he waits by their side. When the train eventually passes, what do the passengers see? An archaic figure mounted on a decrepit horse, a living ghost of sorts, an echo. And Darktree? A steam humbug.
When Darktree waits in the bushes for the Holyhead mail, he reaches into his pocket for his bag of ginger biscuits. But his fingers chance instead upon a locket. Lovingly, with a dirty fingernail, he flips open the lid of this locket. A lock of auburn hair, the hair of Lucy Reeves from Epsom, curled tight like the spring of a wheel-lock musket.
He wants to settle down, but how do you arrest the motion of a boulder rolling down a hillside? No, this is a pitiful metaphor. Darktree is less a boulder than a sack of gestures, hurled through the air by some gargantuan catapult. No woman will ever be able to catch him before he lands, or piece him together afterwards, not even Lucy. He will continue as he is, boiling soup on a fire struck from tinder, using saltpetre as seasoning, washing his feet in icy springs, collecting blackberries in his spare tricorne hat.
The laws of the land are changing. Men are no longer hung for poaching rabbits. Darktree is lost. He wanders the empty, rutted roads, leading his roan by the bridle, mud on his fine boots. Perhaps it is time for him to visit his mother again, up in Lancashire. Perhaps he will keep going. Do they have trains in Scotland? He doubts this. He prays.
Yes, times are hard. And when they hung Nick, he muses, they also hung me. After all this time perhaps they have realised this. Perhaps that is why they no longer send hired hands after me. A chilling speculation.
When Darktree is loading his pistols, cleaning his blunderbuss, sharpening his rapier, he whistles a favourite melody. But the notes sound more and more unconvincing, as if his lungs and throat have lost all confidence. His flatulent roan salutes the rising moon. Should he hang up his black silk handkerchief on a nearby branch? Bury the adjuncts of his life in the soft loam? What memorials would they make to the spirit of a whole age? Is not the road itself his epitaph?
At a tollbooth in Rutland, Darktree tips his hat at the long-faced collector, paying his fare as would any honest fellow.
“See you again, when I return this way.”
“Not I, sir. The tollbooth is closing. Few use the roads these days. Locomotives are all the rage now.”
“Closing? But who will pay for the upkeep of the highways?”
There is no answer to this, and the long-faced collector merely shrugs. When Darktree returns that way, a fortnight later, the tollbooth has been dismantled. He considers desperate measures. Could he actually hold up an iron monstrosity? What would he say? There are no words that he knows.
Darktree firing his blunderbuss at a speeding train: by the time the flint has sparked and ignited the charge, the train has gone. The shot tumbles to the ground like dice. Darktree firing his blunderbuss at a swooping seagull: ditto. Darktree in the depths of winter, trudging through snow while the black silhouettes cross the horizon, a frosty rime on his cloak: cold.
During the festive season he retires to a cave in the Malvern Hills. Here, for what it is worth, he keeps many of those stolen items that have caught his fancy. A bronze candelabrum, green with age; a miniature portrait of a beautiful, sullen child; an ormolu clock without hands. On Christmas Eve, he dances with himself in the middle of the cave, utterly silent, candles throwing his long shadow over the irregular walls. But it is not home.
He decides to visit his mother after all. So he covers over the mouth of his cave with parts of broken trees and turns toward the north. He is wearing the scarf she knitted him all those years ago, as a passport back into her heart.
At last, an hour after sunset, he encounters a coach.
“Stand and deliver! Hands up and valuables down!”
“Really, my good man, this is most old-fashioned. You are an anachronism, are you not?”
“Anachronism, you say? And who might you be?”
“My name is Lewis and I am a surveyor.”
“A surveyor? And what, pray, do you survey? Parrots? Plums? Boats that ply the Bristol Channel? Puddings, lanterns, old ropes? Walnuts? Come now, you must be more specific.”
“Very well. I am a surveyor for the Great Western company and I am travelling to Llandrindod Wells to map the area for a new railway line.”
“In that case you must come with me. The other passengers may proceed on their way.”
“This is ridiculous. You are already little more than a folk memory. Ten years from now the question of your existence will be purely academic. The roads are dying; soon they will be gone forever. People will race back and forth, from one city to another, on rails alone. The future rides on wheels of iron!”
“No more! I can bear no more talk of the steam humbug!”
Darktree has never been a vicious highwayman, he has little taste for blood. But sometimes there is no avoiding it. Yes, he is a fisher who has overexploited the resources of the bay. Now it is his turn to be a fish; the lines of the net that will catch him are being woven all around. Will he splutter and flap? Will unfeeling nature reclaim his land?
Darktree’s favourite watering hole is a small whitewashed tavern near the town of Flint. Here he can, for an hour at least, wipe clean his rusty blade and pretend that nothing has changed. He is still a part of the world, after all, and his actions must still have some bearing on events in general. This thought cheers him a little; he is easily cheered.
Darktree’s favourite game, in the whitewashed tavern near Flint, is solitaire. He lays the cards out on the table before him and frowns at them with sober intensity. It is wise to maintain a sober intensity when playing solitaire. Often, when no-one is looking, he cheats against himself. At other times, to preclude a sense of false security, he deliberately loses. Either way, it is a game best played in the evenings, in a dark corner, with a single glass of sweet ale.
II. Percussion Cape
When Robin Darktree has played enough solitaire, he saddles his horse and heads south. He likes to ride astride county borders, left and right sides subject to rival laws. On his rapier he impales apples, red ones for himself, green ones for Hannah. With his blunderbuss, he dislodges pears for crows, chases off tax collectors with almonds, blasts cabbages through the windows of peasant houses. His unnatural philanthropy has injured more than one agricultural labourer.
He believes the fruits of the earth should be free for all. No more starvation or misery. He has glimpsed vast orchards in private estates. He talks to Hannah as they trot along: “There is food enough.” She does not answer and he grows resentful. He is fond of her, he appreciates her companionship, but he does not love her. Most of his colleagues prefer horses to women. The former they can ride out of trouble; the latter bounce them into it. Also horses are more tolerant of annoying defects: dirty fingernails, bad breath, unwashed socks.
This is no secret, but the average highwayman rarely discusses it. There is no-one to tell, apart from the horses themselves. And that is missing the point. They must stable their desires against tongues, scoop up aspersions as they fall, hot as fresh manure.
Darktree is an exception. He adores women, though they care little for him. Hannah is not tolerant of his socks. Roaming the land, fleeing his two biggest fears — trains and seagulls — he has rarely felt tempted to kiss her. He keeps his lips fresh for Lucy Reeves, who has made Epsom the hub of the world, but has never even heard of him.
When he learns that Lucy is to marry another man, a Justice of the Peace, he takes to drink. He washes his teeth in porter until his pearly smile is eroded. In a crumbling inn near Oxford, the landlord offers him advice: “Knowledge is power.” The maxim has escaped Darktree for nigh on forty years. Now he adopts it as his motto.
He obtains a book in which he keeps notes on all loathsome things. If knowledge is power, detailed notes are called for. The more detailed, the more powerful he will become.
Darktree in the shade of an oak, quill in hand: tongue poking out, creased brow, pressing firmly on the creamy paper. Darktree in a tavern, holding his book up to the hearth: reading the script as if he has never seen it before.
He fills the volume with long descriptions of trains, seagulls and magistrates. He makes accurate drawings. He considers filling a second with things he likes. But Lucy Reeves is not to be flattered with mere words. And mountains are too big to fit on the page. He still drinks. Knowledge may be power, but oblivion soothes.
As he passes through Wiltshire, he adds a chapter a day. He writes his name on the inside cover. Falling asleep on the banks of a stream, he dreams of black bears, claws scratching at trees. He wakes to find a rogue artist using that page as a canvas, sketching his portrait with a steel pen. Furious, he lunges at the fellow, knocking over inkpot and blotting one ear. As the artist takes to his heels, Darktree scowls at the book, rubs at the stain with his sleeve and manages to extend the ear into a fair likeness of a crab. Salty tears splash the crustacean.
Finally, the book is completed. He travels to the nearest big town, Bristol, to celebrate. His celebrations are sombre affairs. He does not dance in public, unless he wishes to perfect some difficult twirl. Then he will astonish the other drinkers with his sure grace and agility. It is more common for him to sit meekly at a table, studying a locket which contains a curl of red hair.
Between his fingers, into another glass of porter, his seventh that evening, the locket slips and drowns. Aghast, he raises glass to mouth and drains liquid at a single gulp. At the bottom, the locket glistens in an ocean of white foam, a golden island surrounded by surf. It is a sign. Darktree falls to his knees and intones a prayer.
It is time to leave his native country. He has been churning over this notion for many years. There is nothing to keep him; he will start a new life in a place where there are no trains, where albatrosses soar instead of gulls, where women have dark hair. Abandoning the locket, he takes himself and his sailor’s cloak down to the wharf. He can carry the book with him, but not Hannah. Not even here does he offer her a kiss, though she extends her tongue in anticipation.
As he steers among warehouses and spray-pitted offices of shipping companies, a man emerges from a grimier building: HOOK & NETTE, MARITIME SOLICITORS. Darktree’s hatred of lawyers is comprehensive. This example wears shoes, instead of honest boots, and walks as if he has cloven hooves inside them. He stops to light a briar pipe, his back to Darktree. The smoke appears to be issuing from the top of his tall hat: the funnel of a locomotive. At the same time, a seagull swoops and screams.
His three greatest terrors converging at one point, Darktree can do little but use his rapier to puncture the man’s heart. Body and blade go over the side, corpse still clutching pipestem between mild teeth. Darktree clicks his own black tiles in righteous fury. The devil falls away in slow circles, heading for the open Channel and the ocean beyond. This is the route Darktree must follow. He wraps his cloak tightly about his shoulders, climbs the gangplank of the nearest rotten vessel and drops among a deck of bearded sailors.
He asks for the Captain. One of the sailors looks up and nods. Now there is a yearning in Darktree for this sort of anonymity. Not the wit of the road, the fraught changing of roles between scenes of melodrama and black comedy, but the obscurity of windburnt flesh, furrowed brow encrusted with salt. Honest or not, this fellow will never be pursued from turnpike to ditch. Out there, on the oscillating belly of the sea, walruses and mermaids are the only witnesses.
Darktree expresses his desire to work a passage anywhere south of the equator. “My dietary habits are not dissimilar to yours. My skin is already ruined. I have no family, no friends.”
The Captain frowns. “Do we need another?”
“Need? Excellent! I offer you my loyalty, unswerving, and my skill at playing the spoons, self-taught. I can cook, splice rope and whistle mournful ballads. What is your name sir?”
“My name? Nothing!”
“And I can dance. My eye is wistful.”
There is something about Darktree, it is difficult to say exactly what, that cannot be denied. After examining his hands, to test their roughness, the Captain is lost for words. He calls for his ledger and signs the upstart aboard. Wages are pitifully low, but there is a vast supply of biscuits. Darktree does not yet understand the thirsty, wormy difference between biscuits on land and sea.
He is sick for a whole fortnight. They wallow down the Channel, all the way along the Exmoor coast. When they reach Lundy, Darktree believes it to be Madagascar. He is all for slipping over the side and swimming ashore to begin a new life. But with the aid of a telescope, the Captain convinces him there is a long way to go. Through the magic glass, Darktree sees figures walking the isle, magistrate-fashion, pale skin. He trembles and turns away. He was never a good judge of distance, unlike Hannah.
His duties are kept simple. He is given a position in the galley, washing the cook’s pans. When the cook catches a seagull with a gaff, as a supplement to their usual fish, Darktree foregoes supper. His manners endear him to the Captain, who has often considered the merits of hiring a clown. He gives Darktree permission to read his secret store of books, locked in a chest in his cabin. Here are volumes on sea creatures and sunken cities, ghost ships and lost islands.
The latter are especially appealing. He lingers long over the odd names, while the Captain drinks medicinal rum in the Doctor’s surgery. When the sun goes down, he has to squint at the pages. The Captain does not believe in lighting candles. To save money, he has insisted on an ingenious alternative: a tallow is arranged in front of the porthole in such a way that the crescent moon, low on the horizon, appears to be resting on the wick like a waxy flame.
Darktree moves his lips as he reads. “Cibola, Grocland, Stokafixa, Mayda, Tanmare, Drogio, Buss, Hand-of-Satan, Daculi, Salvagio, Reylla, Scipio, the rust-coloured Isle o’ Tools.”
Most, though not all, of these islands will serve his purpose. They have no knowledge of trains, seagulls or magistrates. Some, like Cibola, boast cities; others are bare of men or filled with savages. He favours Scipio, whose inhabitants are rumoured to speak Latin. Descendants of a Roman expeditionary force, shipwrecked in ancient times, Darktree knows they will give him a classical welcome.
When the Captain has drunk too much rum, and wishes to regain his cabin, Darktree must retire to his own hammock, among the sailors. Down here, they do not know what to make of him. They cannot understand why the Captain is tolerant. They grumble to themselves behind his back. Is he the Captain’s new catamite? But he is not as attractive as Xury, the cabin boy, nor as clean as Carlo, the sail maker.
Darktree takes one of the books back with him: a Latin to English dictionary. He will prepare himself for his arrival on Scipio. In the total gloom of the crew’s sleeping quarters, he reads by running his fingertips over the heavy embossed letters. In his hammock he also keeps his own book. He has softened toward the artist who drew his picture on the inside, now he cannot see it. He clutches the tome in sleep, hugging the knowledge, the power.
The Captain gives him a new pistol, to replace his flintlock. It is a revolver, six chambers, each bullet detonated by a fulminating cap. In return, he asks to see Darktree’s notebook. “Aye, aye, sir!” Darktree cries, an exclamation that never fails to make the Captain laugh. After reading the contents with a thoughtful expression, the Captain suggests a few alterations. He is familiar with steam engines and feels some of the diagrams are inaccurate. The criticism worries Darktree; he believes the Captain might be a progressive. On deck, at midnight, he plays with his firearm, loading it with cigar stubs.
His earlier mistake has made him cautious with respect to the art of navigation. When they reach Portugal, he compensates for his error by assuming it to be Cornwall. They stop in Lisbon for a couple of hours. Darktree wanders the steep lanes, marvelling at the climate. Penzance was never like this in his imagination. Now he regrets not visiting it sooner. The locals, apparently, persist with the old regional tongue. He strains to catch an English word.
Occasionally, when he is in a pensive mood, he broods over the life he is leaving. He writes long letters to Lucy, but does not seal them in bottles and cast them over the side. He uses them to scrub the pots. The sailors are bewildered by the expressions of love and hatred that often surface in their soup on scraps of torn paper. Darktree dreams of balmy Scipio, where he will be made a senator. His Latin is improving. Now he knows how to praise a mosaic, express gratitude in a public bath, claim insurance on his broken chariot.
In West Africa they pick up a cargo of monkeys in crates. Darktree is thoroughly confused. Are they in France? The monkeys are amiable, but Darktree is scared to approach. He is suspicious of their breath. Is not garlic a favoured food among the French? He does not venture down into the hold to tease them. He persists with his studies. “Domus et placens uxor,” he recites. Suddenly, he has a beard. It has crept up on him like a congealing shadow. His fingers twist it into the shape of fusilli, a pasta.
When they cross the equator, the sailors bounce him overboard on a spare sail and retrieve him with a net. He is furious for a whole week. He strikes objects in the galley with a ladle, producing a harmony that is utterly new. His percussive anthem is demented and exquisitely sad. I am an empty biscuit tin, he tells himself, a lonely soul, crash of anger shaking crumbs of feeling inside. But the crumbs grind smaller and soon only the weevils will dance.
In the fogs that shroud the Namibian coast, his world is reduced still further. Now he can merely clutch at the rail and peer at the vast nothingness. He sips black coffee, holding his mug out into space, as if the fog will cream the blend. Then the mists part and he is granted a vision: an island, less than a mile distant, beaches crowded with men and women in togas. It is Scipio! So he descends and returns with a real biscuit tin. Inside are his notebook, the Latin dictionary, his pistol. He throws the tin over the side, climbs the rail and prepares to launch himself after it.
He is restrained by the First Mate, who snatches his shirt tails and hauls him back. The fool wishes to complain about the condition of the cutlery at mealtimes. Darktree remonstrates with him; he is eager to depart. When the First Mate has finished, the fogs have closed. There is no sign of Scipio; his possessions have vanished. Darktree retires to the galley a second time and composes another piece with the ladle. This time, pans are heads. But one day, he vows, the First Mate’s head will be a pan. His skull will bubble.
They round the Cape of Good Hope and a storm makes similar music on the vessel. Now Darktree is inside the pot, aghast at the fury. All are agreed this is a special tempest, greater than any they have a right to witness. “A rum wind,” the Captain claims. Darktree pants into the gale, but can taste nothing. He remains on deck, unable to move, while others retire below. A wave breaks over the side and deposits an object. It is a pipe. He kicks it away. The three corners of his tricorne hat, secured to his chin by a black ribbon, unravel and bend upwards, making him look like a candelabrum.
Now the sea throws a leg, which lands upright before him. The briny shoe is familiar. He shudders at what might follow: the whole man, piece by piece. Arm outstretched to clutch throat; head to roll up the rigging to the crow’s nest, to be crowned by St Elmo’s fire before tumbling the other side, nimbus sparking; pelvis to rattle mockingly on the boards. And what of the torso, the sundered heart?
He hides, he takes himself away. A tall hat bounces after. Garlic is preferable to an accusatory ghost. In the hold, he comforts himself aloud: “Muffins, muffins, muffins!” Others are not above using the ploy. The monkeys chatter excitedly, no doubt recalling wine and the girls of Paris. The solicitor must have been following him all the way from the scene of the crime, in detached parts, waiting. Storms are to spirits what weddings are to mortals. A time to preen in public, to make efforts to consolidate personal image.
This observation is confirmed by a brief exchange between the First Mate and Captain. Darktree can hear their voices clearly, amplified by a freak acoustic. They are back on deck, enduring wind, wave and wraith, standing at the rails, heaving words.
“Look! A phantom vessel!”
“Aye, the Pickled Finger, well known in these parts. Its master is a friendless corpse who seeks companions. Once in his clutches we’ll have to endure his anecdotes.”
“Abandon ship! Let us flee this garrulous ghoul!”
There is much commotion; feet pound the slippery deck. Old salts shout and spit curses into the gums of the storm. And then over all, a thinner voice, withered and desperate, far colder than the wind: “Come back, I only want to talk!”
Later, when the storm has died, Darktree returns to the deck. One of the longboats is missing. He is alone. He raps on cabin doors with knuckles: “Captain Nothing? Are you in there?” He has the entire ship to himself. What shall he do with it? He will release the French prisoners, and with their help turn the vessel. Eventually, if he steers in small circles, he will find Scipio again. But the question remains. What to do on board until that day?
He pulls into himself, desperately seeking a method of passing time until he can disembark on his isle. He finds needle and thimble, yards of cloth, among the stores. The prisoners are extremely agile, dangling from the spars by their fingertips. Just the sort of sailors who could swing from one vessel to another. He studies the length of cotton before him. It is not the right colour, pink does not quite convey the message, but it will suffice. He struggles to thread the needle, repeating to himself: “What to do? What to do?”
When Darktree runs the Jolly Roger up the flagpole, he is careful not to chafe his fingers on the rope. He grimaces and broods, and the crew ape his gestures. They are more obedient than he could hope for; he studies their language. French, he concludes, is harder than Latin. The rules of etiquette are abandoned; he converses with all. “What think you of Molière?” They work ceaselessly, they eat much fruit, but they never answer. He considers melting the cutlery to forge a silver cannon. There are practical difficulties. With a hatchet, he sharpens the figurehead into a spike. They must remain content with ramming fishing vessels and banana boats, singly or in bunches.
Where is Scipio? He has dizzied his head looking for it. It must be here somewhere! At night he pulls the end of his nose. He is suspicious of the stars. They have fled into new positions, as if caught during a seditious gathering; they have forgotten their original configurations. Or are the stars themselves new? If buttons can be replaced — which has happened to him — why not suns?
Under the Captain’s pillow, he finds a trumpet. Placing it to his lips and cracking a note, he is amazed by the result. The sea bubbles and seethes. Something like an armless octopus rises up by the side of the ship. A hatch opens and a figure emerges.
“Ho there! I am Franklin, an inventor. This is a submersible. You are English? God bless Queen Victoria!”
“I do not understand. Does King George no longer reign?”
“You have been away so long without news? Is it possible? Do you still toast George the Fourth?”
“There is more than one?” Darktree is bewildered. He does not wish to talk to a man who lives in a submersible. He calls for his officers. “Pierre! Bernard! Let us do away with this menace.” He was a gentle highwayman, but he makes a fierce pirate. It is something to do with his principles. There are no ladies here. Prisoners are executed at once. There is no plank to walk, but they are tumbled anyway: weighed down with cauldrons and cares.
Whenever he spies a French flag in the distance, he retreats. He does not want his crew defecting. Soon enough, if he does not provide cognac, they will mutiny. He paces the quarterdeck, not knowing the names of other decks. He dreams about his notebook, lost forever. Was this a necessary loss, part of a cathartic process? Is he free of his former, mud-spattered anxieties?
The life of a pirate is a miserable one. He longs for Hannah, Lucy, mugs of porter, the chase, the mountains. He tells himself: “I am happy, I am delighted.” The words are like tobacco in his mouth, black lies dribbling down his chin. He has paid a high price for his escape. And it is not a real escape, merely a temporary change of reality; the skip of a flea on hot embers. Soon he will shrivel.
At night, he dreams. In one, he is back in Whitby. He is standing on the Church Stairs that link the town’s main street to the graveyard of St Mary’s. A ship flounders on the sea. As he watches, a large dog jumps from the vessel and bounds up the steps toward him. Loading his new pistol, he bars the creature’s path. At once, the dog turns into a tall gentleman in a cape. Darktree waves his pistol. Reluctantly, the man hands over his wallet.
In another, his own ship is in trouble. Out of the storm comes the Pickled Finger, seeking companionship among doomed sailors. Darktree does not seek to evade the ghost ship. He calls to the phantasmagorical Captain: “Here I am! Come and talk to me. I am as lonely as you.” But the other, normally so eager to make contact, flees in panic. “No fear! It is you who are the ghost, not I.”
Neither of these dreams are true when he wakes. A third, however, is more prophetic (is it possible to foretell an event that is already happening?). He thinks he is being bombarded by shells. A battleship with iron sides seems intent on ending his piratical career. He is sinking, his crew crowding the lifeboats. The hull splits like a nut; his bed slips into the sea. As he is immersed, something nips at his ear. He looks up and Scipio is waiting for him. In his mind, he makes for the island with vigorous strokes.
When he opens his eyes, he is on a beach. Strong arms lift him up. But there is something wrong. There are no togas. The men and women are dressed in long black robes. They wear powdered wigs. They bundle him aboard a train. The whistle blows; they are off. He cries out in panic, he holds his breath. What can possibly save him now? The train deposits him at a grand old courthouse. More arms come to bear him into the building. They place him in the Judge’s seat; they drape the required robes.
Before him, next to the gavel, Darktree sees the reason for this nightmare: the notebook, open at the first page. His portrait, smeared ear, snores back at him. Brushing his cheek, he sets in motion the real crab that dangles from his lobe. The resemblance is perfect. He cannot argue with their decision. With the gavel, he pounds the book to dust. His subjects cheer. The doors fly open; a sack of seagulls is loosed into the hall. There is a moral to this, but it is so obvious that he learns nothing. A man sometimes creates that which he seeks to evade. His notebook has corrupted Utopia.
He knows this is real. The explanation is too logical. The notebook provided answers; the Latin to English dictionary provided translation. There are train stations everywhere. Magistrates stalk the streets. It is not safe. The engines that power the locomotives are not perfect; the Captain was right about this. The seagulls are created from albatrosses, stunted with knotgrass and blows from an iron hammer. As Caesar among these people, he does not have to endure their enthusiasm. He sits on the sand and sighs over his lost innocence.
Darktree is an old man before he is rescued. He is walking along the beach one morning, when something rises out of the sea. It is not another submersible, but Hannah, who has never given up the search. He does not hesitate. Mounting her back, they skim home together, over the glassy waves. Home to Lucy, cabbages and muffins, but not necessarily in that order.
III. Gatling Gums
When Robin Darktree is washed upon the Essex Coast, he drowns the rocks in tropical tears. He has been carrying African salt in his eyes for two months, waiting for an occasion to spill it. Now he is home and unwanted souvenirs must be discarded. His clothes are stiff with the seasoning of a dozen seas — the ocean currents have different vintages, each with its own bouquet and aftertaste. Darktree’s beard and brows are brittle with seagull droppings set by squabbling winds.
Weeping finished, he clambers to his feet and leads his horse along the beach. In the damp sand they find a nautilus shell, protruding from the ground like an ear trumpet for a deaf shore. Darktree uproots it and peers into the opening. Inside the smoothness is a trapped flute. He is the great liberator of potentialities; he ponders how to make it give up its captive identity. There will be a struggle — shells are notoriously stubborn. He shakes it roughly; it is silent.
He needs a knife, but his own blade slipped from his belt just off the coast of Morocco. Turning the nautilus in his hands, he decides to improvise. The teeth of his horse are like chisels; he uses her grin as a lathe, fashioning an elegant piccolo in an octave of blinks. Curls of shell drift around his chambered ears.
Hannah, the horse, has caught a cold. She sneezes a cloud of chilly brine over her master. She has carried him all the way from the equator back to England, through storms and flotillas of ravenous squid, without a single snort of complaint. The ordeal has not improved her flatulence. Like Darktree, her neck is lacquered with twelve types of salt. Studying the low cliffs, she indicates a cave mouth.
Darktree urgently requires shelter and rest. Clinging to a swimming horse’s mane is an exhausting business. He allows her to deviate toward the mysterious fissure, easing the flute between his lips. An instrument with a husky tone, it appeals mostly to limpets and lobsters. Darktree’s music is rusty and undanceable. This is especially true of his new work, the melodies he created on his desert isle to pass the time. His problem is lack of crotchets — he cannot spell the word and is thus uneasy about inviting such notes into his compositions. He makes do with semi-breves, minims and quavers. But they are not grateful.
Reaching the entrance to the narrow cave, Darktree squints within. A miserable hole, danker than one of his pockets, with a savage presence about it; some force is trying to dissuade him from approaching. What if this is the lair of a bear? Darktree knows that bears live on the coast; he has seen their bones, gnarled and bleached by the sun, littering many beaches. The bones of bears have unusual properties: they float on water and are flammable enough to scorch bread into toast.
Hannah has never been troubled by wild beasts; she leaps across the threshold, hooves slipping on the wet shale. Darktree follows. Without a doubt, there is something horrid moving in the cavern depths. He reaches to pull Hannah’s tail, to restrain her.
In return, she looses a remarkable fart — it lifts his tricorne hat off his head, revealing the horn of gunpowder beneath. This is the first time since leaving Africa it has been exposed to danger. The echo of the bumclap threatens to shatter the flask.
The savage presence rushes past Darktree, as if Hannah’s salute has frightened it beyond endurance. Horse and man are vaguely aware of limbs held together by knotted seaweed, a starfish hat and hollow eye sockets, a rictus snarl — too thin to be a bear.
“Fie!” Darktree holds his nose and bends to scoop his peeled hat. A slimy footprint congeals on the brim; the presence must have trampled on it as it hastened to escape. Darktree sniffs warily; this cave is hardly a suitable place to rest and recuperate. But Hannah seems settled, so he collects armfuls of ursine bones and lights them with the aid of a pinch of powder and a spark from his flintlock pistol. Not even the foamy fingers of the Atlantic have been able to snuff his trusty sidearm. Though a senile weapon, often forgetting to aim itself properly, it refuses to retire to an antique shop; it is happier with him.
The fire sputters like a new child, coughing shadows from its lungs and balancing unsteadily. It dries him with chiding tongues, until he is quite cowed. Bursting femurs heckle his cheeks.
When the flames outgrow infancy and can be left unattended, he jabs the hissing bones with his boot. In each limb he sees a snake waiting to be released. He is always noticing imprisoned items in other objects. No piece of furniture is safe from his rude alchemy. Once he made a Tompion clock into a full cutlery set; another time, he transmuted a bishop into a samovar. He is sane, but his talents are mad.
The cave soon fills with smoke; at the very back, a dimly perceived shape glitters. It is a boxlike contraption. The bear’s bed? Perhaps he will find teeth under the pillow, enough to turn into jewellery for the first woman he robs. He is determined to return to the road; though old, his boots suit no other occupation.
“Hannah!” Darktree breathes. He ventures into the deeps. Descending on the box, a wooden chest with a rusty clasp, he embraces it like a shy lover. “Treasure!” He is delighted; his troubles are finally over. Money will preserve him from work and washing.
Fixed to the lid with a skewer is a sheet of parchment. A thousand tides have faded the ink to the colour of oysters. It warns that a ghost protects the hoard, a vampiric spirit.
Darktree has been a pirate. In the seas bounding Madagascar, he was often challenged to a race by other corsairs. They gave him folktales in exchange for ginger and rum. These myths were a lateral way of showing a new pirate the ropes — and preserving him from the more prosaic cords of port authorities. One story concerned how a barbaric buccaneer, François l’Olonnais, always buried a comrade with his plunder, to keep it guarded by loyal spooks. Darktree was appalled to hear this; his own crew, also French, were his friends. He could never imagine himself being so cruel. Much better to spend the booty on muffins.
At any rate, there is no phantom attached to this chest now. Has it faded away already? Perhaps it has been eroded to shimmering sand by the waves. Or possibly it ran out with the bear.
Darktree’s moustaches dangle like pickled whips; they lash his chin as he juts it in a grimace. The lid is very heavy. It opens as slowly as a coffin. There is a glint of coinage, though not the sort of glint that blinds greed. Darktree runs his fingers through the discs, throwing some into the air — carefully enough to satisfy etiquette without endangering the total sum. This metal is tin, copper’s old friend. Hannah celebrates with an unconventional round of applause.
This is a disappointing find, but Darktree is happy. He loosens his belt and secures the chest to Hannah’s bridle. Then he urges her to drag it out of the cave and up a flight of steps hewn into the cliff face. He is certain the bear still watches them, concealed among the boulders that have tumbled from a ruined lighthouse.
Darktree moves his lips in a parody of panic. By the time he gains the summit, he is less concerned with insubstantial terrors. Hannah has fully dried his clothes with her bumbreezes. His mind wanders down into his belly. He has dined solely on mussels since escaping his equatorial detention. It is time for confectionery.
He is surprised to discover a road at the top of the cliff; a noisy fellow tramps toward him. The stranger rattles a huge sack of pots and pans; he is plainly a tinker. In an accent Darktree has seldom heard off a gallows, the fellow hails him.
“Will ye be having your kettles mended now, sir?”
Darktree frowns and draws his pistol.
Half an hour later, his treasure chest sports a crude set of wheels with spouts. Hannah’s task is made as easy as it is absurd. After twelve miles, Darktree removes a wheel to boil a wayside cup of nettle tea. His joints brew languidly in the pallid sun. He enters Clacton-on-Sea in style, seated atop his makeshift cart. Toads scatter in gelid haste. Without stopping to view the famous pier, he enters a bakery and casts a handful of coins onto the counter. “Many muffins,” he announces. “All flavours. Had enough of African Cakes, too hot for my palate. Dark voodoo crumbs…”
The baker holds up one of the discs. “What’s this? Don’t recognise it as legal tender. Smells fishy.”
Darktree is suitably haughty. “Those, my man, are pieces-of-seven. Not as valuable as pieces-of-eight, I grant you, but quite adequate for a supply of muffins. Jump to it, lubber!”
The baker continues to express reluctance. Darktree persuades with flint and powder. His pistol is his real tongue; he often wonders if he should let it carry out all that organ’s functions, stuffing cakes into the barrel, allowing it to return Hannah’s kisses. But he still prefers the old-fashioned way of eating.
He devours the muffins at a single gulp. The intimidated baker can only scowl at his digested profits.
Darktree twists his face and utters a cry. “What sort of cakes are sold here? These muffins are vile!”
“The recipe changed long ago. Pastries are no longer made the same way as in our childhood. Everyone knows this.”
“I have been abroad for thirty-five years. This is news to me. You must compensate me for this abomination…”
Afterwards, Darktree runs through the streets of the resort loaded with sticky doughnuts and chocolate éclairs. Losing the obese baker was easy in the general traffic. He chews as he evades justice; the problem with morality, as he sees it, is the savoury taste. He was born with a sweet tooth — his incisors are attracted to sugar like magnets to iron. Cratered and stained as a lunar eclipse, his smile.
He rents a room in a cheap hotel, sharing a single with Hannah. He registers her as his wife; the receptionist is blasé. Genuine wives are rare in Essex. After testing the tensile strength of the bed, he visits a local library and researches the correct synthesis for cakes. The old formulae are identical to the new; the difference must lie in the fonts used to print the recipes. Darktree conceals the book with the tastiest typeface under his hat, next to the gunpowder. He saunters through many markets, filching ingredients from stalls.
Back at the hotel, he mixes flour and beer in his hat and lights a fire in the grate. Soon traditional muffins are burning on the hearth. While he watches over them, he thinks of his unwitting love, the auburn locks of Lucy Reeves. She was the main reason he became an outlaw; she was also the lure which recalled him to civilisation. He went to sea to forget her, but succeeded only in circumnavigating her memory. At last, his erotic yearnings have been fully charted.
Will she have him, now he is moderately rich? This is not the first time he has known wealth; indeed, he inherited a large estate by virtue of his noble blood. That was another world, another Darktree. He chooses not to acknowledge his aristocratic beginnings. His first victims mocked his fussy fashions and rococo airs.
When the first muffin is ready, Darktree removes it from the grate. He cools it with a juggling trick. Bending forwards, he shatters a front tooth on its shell. His screams fan the flames. Harder than rudders, the muffins roll relentlessly in the embers, the balls of a syphilitic ogre. Darktree loads his pistol and blows each one to its component parts. The cake-souls are drawn to that circle of Hades where Mrs Beeton is forever tormented with a cyclopean garlic press.
A neighbour pounds on the wall. Darktree howls a double wrath. “To the devil!” There is someone at the door, trying to open it. A chorus of shouts, imprecations and accusations.
Darktree promenades up and down the room, discharging his flintlock into the ceiling. Plaster dust billows. Hannah jumps onto the bed and it collapses; her whinny is echoed by a ricochet.
A deep voice in the corridor announces itself as a constable. “Give yourself up, sir. Anarchism is a discredited political philosophy. We’ll discuss Kropotkin at the station, if you like.”
Hannah responds with another mighty fart. Bodies fall away from the door. “Poison gas! He’s spying for the Kaiser!”
It is time to leave. Darktree opens the window and attempts to push Hannah through. She kicks him in the face, leaving the imprint of a hoof on his forehead. Then she plummets into a mound of refuse. Darktree runs and jumps after, heavy chest clasped to his breast. Putrid lettuces break his fall. Above, the room is full of faces swathed in handkerchiefs, one uniformed figure blowing silently on a whistle.
Horse and man slip away into shadows thick with the scents of eels and children. They avoid the hue and cry easily enough; Darktree has no patience with hues, he prefers outright colours.
On the outskirts of the resort, he encounters the baker. The wight has been waiting for him on the main road. He wields an icing implement, a bellows full of poison with a sharpened steel tip. As if assassinating a profiterole, he plunges the valve into Darktree’s arm and squeezes the bag. Toxic cream enters a folklorish artery.
Darktree murders the baker with these words: “You cannot harm me. I am neither man nor myth but a mix of the two.”
Leaving Clacton-on-Sea, he finds difficulty playing his flute. The broken tooth incites his whole mouth to rebellion. Near St Osyth Priory, his treasure chest develops a puncture. Darjeeling dribbles from one of the tinker’s wheels. Darktree plugs the gap with muffin mixture; it sets firmer than solder. Onwards they trundle.
Relieving Hannah, he pulls the cart toward the west. Lucy lives in Epsom; this is his destination. He will lay the treasure at her feet and hope it will entice her from her husband. It was her wedding which first gave him the idea of boarding a ship for Africa. Perhaps the cad is dead now; it has been three decades. What will Lucy be like, after this time? Will she still have twenty-three freckles on her nose?
His love for Lucy is an eldritch passion; for one thing, she knows nothing of it. He has never confessed to her. He saw her from afar, with the aid of a telescope, while he was searching for the star Bellatrix in Orion. So low to the horizon was it that he chanced upon one of her eyes instead, as she walked the crest of a hill. He studied her iris for long minutes before realising his mistake. Her stellar beauty is made of many twinkling virtues; she forms a zodiacal sign which controls his destiny. A formative ambition of his was to discover a new constellation and name it after her — but he would be jealous of flirting comets. The real Lucy has no truck with nebulae; she is practical.
When he reaches Epsom, he lingers beneath her casement, too nervous to call up to her. He is still there the following morning, varnished in dew, when she comes out on her way to church.
After a lifetime of dreaming, Darktree finally has a chance to talk to her. He doffs his hat, bows low, one hand on his gunpowder flask, and loads elegant words into his throat.
“Madam, if I may make so bold…”
His missing tooth glares like a tombstone. Lucy recoils in horror, dainty fingers raised to her lips.
Darktree turns and walks away, his body feeling uncommonly awkward in the early light. It occurs to him that he was too confused to look at her properly; he still does not know if she has changed. But he will not glance back even now. He is too ashamed of his existence, of the fact he tried to intercept the path of her life.
Counting his loot — hardly enough for her anyway! — he plans a trip to an expert dentist. He has heard that the best can cure sore gums with drills. He must journey to Harley Street, London.
He has always been an impatient traveller, sound pearlies or no, so his latest trip to the capital seems to take the lifetime of a weasel. A cumulus cloud gathers round him as he spurs Hannah. The chest jumps like an obscenity in the vocabulary of a nun. Darktree’s geography is none of the best. Somehow he ends up on the Isle of Dogs, in Harbinger Road, a surgery run by a disreputable butcher who calls himself Porlock Sniggervalue.
In the reclining chair, he confesses his troubles. The dentist is a psychoanalyst as well as a puller of teeth. “Women, eh? Not good for the enamel of the soul. Always causing cavities.”
“Her name is Lucy Reeves,” proclaims Darktree. “The redolence of my tongue will never impress her; I am forsaken.”
Porlock dips his pliers in vinegar and levers open Darktree’s jaw. He taps each molar and listens to the note. Darktree’s teeth are poorly tuned, his plaque is set in a minor key. Porlock scrapes away the scale and resolves the chords of his breath.
He fits his patient with a hollow tooth, containing attar of roses. “When you are near her, bite the case and release the perfume. Woman are easily aroused by flowery odours.”
For this service, he charges Darktree half his tin hoard.
Darktree conquers the swelling in Greenwich, in a dark tavern, with a glass or nine of heavy porter. What ought he do next? He has lost Lucy again; he is useless at baking muffins. Attar of roses will not help him in either operation. There is the road, of course; but highwayman is too lonely a profession at his age. Besides, trains have ruined the work; it is impossible to suck sustenance from the few remaining carriages. He is no longer tempted by piracy. What is left?
Banditry seems a viable alternative. Bandits have the allure of the highwayman and the sociability of the pirate; but there are less perils. No pursuing sheriffs or seasickness. Bandits run democracies of a primal kind, they cook beans and strum guitars.
There is a shortage of bandits in America — makers of sombreros and playing cards are advertising for candidates along the Mexican border. A romantic concept, but America is too far; Darktree refuses to risk three thousand miles of seagulls. They detest him and are forming a conspiracy to soil his reputation. This is not paranoia.
He has heard about a country in Europe which also has a frontier, a land of tall grasses and mirages. This place is called Hungary; Darktree assumes it is the stomach of the continent. It sounds suitable. He vows to so fill Hungary with his presence that it will not ask for seconds. A man who is all courses; such is Darktree.
He gives the remainder of his fortune to a German, who requires the tin to make toy-drums. His name is Herr Günter. In return, he arranges a passage for Darktree across the Channel with his nautical brother. It is an ugly ferry, full of musicians. Darktree shares a cabin with a strange fellow, one-legged and with close-set eyes, who spends his time seducing a cello. Commuters, like readers, are odd, present company not excepted. The cello is possibly male — disgusting!
To cheer himself, Darktree attempts to make more muffins, assisted by Hannah, who kneads the dough with her hooves. There is no flour; they must use gunpowder. He bakes them carefully in the furnace of the ship’s engine room. They are inedible, but they make superb grenades. Rolling a cigarette paper with saltpetre, inserting it like a fuse into a charged cake, Darktree terrifies the passengers.
He blows up the lounge when the pianist refuses to play requests. A shower of ivory keys and fingers rattles on the boards. Darktree pockets both; when he finds a real dentist, he will ask that the keys be turned into novelty teeth, connected to hidden strings. The fingers are for his nose. He knots his coat into a sack for his revolutionary muffins. Never comfortable when he bulges, he simmers.
The ferry nears the Gallic coast and Darktree avoids the tedium of Customs by spurring Hannah over the side and into the oily green waters. The beach they approach is similar to the Essex shore; the same flotsam and jetsam they encountered before entering the bear’s cave — perhaps it is washed from one side of the Channel to the other, endlessly, like the flattery of a sycophant who moves in two social circles at once. Hannah hauls herself onto land and rests near a rotting boat. Oars jut from its husk like the spines of a failed porcupine.
Darktree studies the oars while they dry. Their gnashed length can be converted into a pair of stilts for a dwarf. All he needs to free the stilts is an axe. He has no such tool, but he notices one trapped in the underside of a clam. Yet to release the axe, he requires a file; the one file available seems to be locked in the body of a lugworm. He will have to hammer the file free, but the only hammer in the vicinity is residing in the curve of an abandoned bottle.
To rescue the hammer from the bottle, of course, he requires a very short glassblower, someone delicate enough to rearrange the molecules of oxidised silicon. There is a crab ready to be promoted to this position, but it demands a pair of dwarfish stilts…
A grim thought strikes Darktree. What if this process had continued indefinitely, until he fatigued every item in the universe? What if this sequence had also formed a closed loop? Each element of the cosmos would be waiting improvement, but the operation would be impossible to affect. A metaphysical stalemate too glum to contemplate.
With considerable aplomb, he does not contemplate. He perambulates. Highwaymen here rob on the wrong side of the road.
In Calais, he takes a train direct for Paris.
Hannah fills up most of the compartment. She has no ticket, but he invents an excuse for her: a flintlock pistol, first class. Through the window, girls with foreign hair trample grapes.
Women’s brains are like trees, he muses, and men’s like lightning bolts. In the act of congress, the lightning strikes the tree. The tree is burned and the cloud is discharged. But one day it will be different…
In Paris, he takes a train direct for Hungary.
These are the first locomotives he has ever boarded. He once vowed to have nothing to do with the steam humbug, but this is France and the engines clatter with a different accent. He does not register this sort of railway as an enemy. He is lulled.
He wonders how he will start up as a bandit. How will he introduce himself to his potential friends and customers? Hungarian, he knows, is a baffling language; it resembles a sequence of gurglings and rumblings, exactly the same as the grammar of an empty stomach. Perhaps if he fixes an amplifying horn to his abdomen he will be understood. In Hungary, men smoke cheese rather than tobacco and sprinkle rust on their food. Shirts there have cuffs bigger than hounds.
The days pass, as many of them as happy memories in his life: four. Germany is a cold place; Austria reclines like a mistress who has struck her head and forgotten her lover. While he sleeps, his stomach practices Hungarian phrases. “Két pohár sört kérek!” Hannah learns faster than him; her belly is soon confident in the complex tongue. “Külon kívánunk fizetni.” Digestive acids converse at night.
The Hungarian border is lined with weeds. No-one has come to mow or trim the country for months. At each tiny station they race past, a neat guard stands to attention and salutes the train. On the hills above grey Tatabánya, a giant bronze statue peers down. In Budapest, Darktree comes across his first Gypsies — he admires their shirts but hates their hats. When he was a highwayman, fellow travellers often told him about curious folk like these; apparently Gypsies subsist on a diet of scrap metal. A terrible thing to live on junk food!
Soon he is east of the Danube and heading into the Great Plain. Not a slope steeper than a reclining sheep, the puszta is rife with horrible mirages — délibáb — and littered with abandoned quilts and bolsters, the part of a bride’s dowry not appreciated by every peasant husband. Crows make their nests in the colourful pillows.
In the very centre of the Hortobágy grasslands, a number of men are loitering on the tracks with guns.
“Look, Hannah! A group of spectators waving at us!”
All at once, the train squeals and slows down. Darktree is amazed. Does the driver know these people? If not, why stop for them? And anyway, is this not an inconvenient time to be greeting friends? It is mildly irritating; he is in a rush to meet up with bandits. How will he be able to find some if his mode of transport is forever stopping for ruffians armed with carbines? Gypsy habits, he decides; the men who jump onto the train certainly have the wide belts.
They roam the corridors, shouting at the passengers and tugging at their beards. For some reason, people keep handing them money. Darktree loses his patience with these quaint conventions. When the Gypsies reach his compartment, he stands and harangues them in careful English. Hannah punctuates his tirade with semi-colons from her smelly colon.
“Look here, my good men, I will not tolerate this delay. My search for bandits mustn’t be interrupted.”
The Gypsies ignore him and the largest member of the brood levels a pistol at his head. “Siessen!”
Darktree reaches into his bag for an explosive muffin. He struggles to light the fuse with a spare piece of flint. Before he can direct any sparks onto the cigarette paper, Hannah leans over and snatches the cake out of his grasp, swallowing it whole.
The burly ruffian runs his hands over Darktree and turns to Hannah. “Mi a neve ennek? Kérem, irja ezt le.”
Darktree protests. “Talk to me, not my horse.” They ignore him with shrugs. He knows he must find a way to communicate. Pulling the nautilus flute from his sleeve, he places the tapering end to his stomach. Out of the wide mouth, an alimentary phrase fills the carriage. The big ruffian puts his ear to the molluscan megaphone.
“Elmondaná lassabban! Nem értem!” he cries.
Darktree controls his undulating duodenum. He tries a joke, a silly tale picked up from a pair of decaying comedians in a sepulchral Variety Theatre in the West End. Uncertainly at first, but with swelling vigour, the Gypsies clutch their sides and laugh.
Darktree’s stomach tells another jest. The ruffians roll their eyes at each other, stretching faces in grimaces that indicate delight beyond simple guffaws. “Van valami olcsóbbt?” Obligingly, Darktree recounts the bawdy exploits of a nymphomaniac governess.
At last, when they can bear no more wit, they seize him and Hannah and drag them from the train. Darktree’s intestines object. “Fogdoss!” They knock the flute out of his hand and he is voiceless again. Unlike his stomach, his head is a muddled linguist.
He is searched and his bag of muffins is confiscated. The leader of the Gypsies sniffs the cakes with flared nostrils. Romany noses are more cunning than Anglo-Saxon ones, but no hairier.
Horse and man are marched off across the Great Plain. With a deeply sad whistle, the train moves on. Darktree encounters more mirages on the horizon: magistrates on springs leap across the landscape. Where do such images originate? Scipio, probably: the isle where he was marooned. Then in the distance, he spies a solitary tree.
The tree is made of corpses, entwined together. But this is as real as the puszta sun, which itself is as abrasive as paprika. And who could deny the corporality of paprika here? The spice, having blown loose from local mills, peppers the vista, making a liar’s autumn. He does not know this is the only tree between Tiszafüred and Hajdúszoboszló. Bandits who live in the open are like giants without height. For the sake of healthy outlawry, a woody base is essential.
The Hortobágy Plain was not always so bleak. During medieval times, it was thickly forested. In 1526, the first year of their invasion, the Turks began logging, to deny cover to Hajdúk rebels. Without vegetation, the land became swampy and pestilent, an abode of antisocial swineherds and bands of marauding betyár. Flood control measures turned the region into a vast pastureland, suitable for Magyar cowboys and wayside csárda. Spilt tokaj and pálinka threatens to re-saturate it. Darktree has reeled into the tradition in Italian boots.
He is cast before the tree. The corpses are nailed to the trunk in such profusion that not so much as a thumbnail of bark is apparent. When there is one tree and the favoured method of execution is crucifixion, a problem of space is bound to arise.
The leader of the Gypsies, who keeps referring to himself as János, stands still and holds out his arms. The message is clear: Darktree will also be crucified. The men chatter excitedly while János groans and lets his head fall to one side, just to clarify details. His pose bewilders a huge raven which is strutting nearby — is János a martyr to be pecked or a scarecrow to be avoided? Wait and watch.
Maintaining his posture, János growls orders to his followers. They circle Darktree with cutlasses and unsheathed stubble. Darktree’s fright smells of limes; he rushes to Hannah and hides under her. Although not a man in a conventional sense, crucifixion can still hurt. As the brigands bear down on him, he clutches Hannah’s fetlocks.
They lunge with blades. Darktree jumps out, hides behind Hannah and clutches her tail to steady himself.
His fear conveys itself to her. She emits a peal of rectal thunder. But this is not all — her earlier repast, the indigestible muffin, flies out at high velocity. It strikes the tree and rebounds, scoring a direct hit between the eyes of the leering János.
Ignited by the friction of its flight, the cake detonates. János’s head is blown from his shoulders, rolling along his outstretched arm. A juggler, his fingers catch it by the hair and send it back the same way. This time, it overshoots his neck and trundles along the other extended arm. Darktree watches in horrified fascination as János shuttles it back and forth, like a puppet in a Grand Guignol routine. Finally, he fumbles and drops it. Then he bends to retrieve it and clamps it determinedly on his gouting trunk. He puts hands on hips.
He has fixed the head the wrong way round. Darktree cannot see its expression as the ruffian chief crumbles to the ground, cranium rolling free a second time. The raven is enlightened.
There is a brief silence. Then frenzied cheers and Darktree is held aloft and announced as the new brigand leader. He is given a tour of the vicinity. It should look all the same, but it does not; now he is seeing it with the eyes of a bandit. The puszta suddenly seems full of variety. There is a tasteful simplicity in the flatness; he is attracted to it in the same way that a Turkish Sultan prefers a boy’s chest to a girl’s. An instantaneous Magyar, he loathes Turks and all their delights. The cries of his men masticate his former identity.
He belongs to them, peel and all. Hannah rears up and her lips curl over teeth as long as stakes. Her rump is the loudest to praise Darktree and offer utter loyalty to his being.
He does not comprehend the sentiments; nor do the scoundrels. It is not Hungarian. Each language of mankind lies somewhere on the alimentary canal of reason. At the mouth is Hebrew, Sanskrit and Basque; beyond the tongue gargle Portuguese, English and Korean; in the throat coughs many of the Germanic variants; the gastric grammars, Finnish and Magyar, burn in the stomach; but Hannah’s language, the lingua-farter, is Latin. Only men in togas can sniff the context.
Darktree has little trouble accepting his role. It is exactly what he set out to accomplish — he is gratified.
His first act, as bandit king, is to start a search for his missing flute. He issues the command with contorted gestures; without the shell, he will not be able to give further orders. The nautilus is unearthed by the railway track, where he dropped it. With the aid of borrowed string, a rare commodity in these parts, he lashes it to his stomach. His voice has returned; now he is back in control.
Every time the band of villains wishes to visit a tavern, they have to travel all the way to Püspökladány, the only town on the puszta where alcohol is served in straight glasses. Darktree vows to alter this state of affairs. He plans to build his own tavern on the site of the tree. He will make use of available materials…
Prising the crucified bodies from the trunk, he arranges them into neat mounds, cementing them together with paprika until they form walls and roof. A starched intestine makes a fine chimney. The tree forms the central pillar of the establishment; Darktree decorates it with plunder from a different train each week.
He still does not associate these locomotives with the abominations which drove him out of business. It is a shame; it would please him more than stabbing the left ventricle of a muffin to know he was disrupting a traditional adversary. Revenge, to Darktree, is the noblest of emotions. It is noble because it is generous; the man or woman who chooses revenge seeks to rebalance the world, an action which will benefit everybody. It is foolish to pin up the hem of redress.
When his tavern is complete, his belly dictates a sign to fix above the door: “Szabad belépés.” A very frustrating thing indeed, not to know what it means! Darktree begins to feel isolated; his stomach has all the attention, his mind is a gooseberry. He is convinced his gut insults his skull when it calls the nightly meeting.
Bandits love conferences. Darktree makes a list of the day’s catch, even when there is nothing. Then his lieutenants tell him about mythical express trains rumoured to be travelling from Budapest to China, or they show him the communal Hivatalos Menetrend — an abstruse book of national timetables. These meetings took place in the open under the old leader, at the base of the tree. The location is the same, but now the threat of rain has been eliminated. In the depths of the tavern, Darktree sprawls at the bar and bites the rim of his pewter tankard, as if it is a forged coin. Hannah works behind the counter, topping beer with froth from her wide mouth. Darktree loves a head on his stout.
The ill-gotten gains they stash at the rear of the tavern include a great many women’s shoes. The trains they hold up seem to contain mostly unhelpful freight. One battered chain of box wagons was stuffed with old kissing gates. Another held silk kites; the ruffians spent one afternoon running over the grasslands with them, until Darktree, losing his temper with the beauty, began shooting at the connecting cords. When he is sick of company, he takes himself a small distance from the tree and reclines in the shade of the puszta moon. He sits on his sack of explosive cakes, once more his property. When he is not resting in this spot, the muffins are hidden in a recess in the tavern’s bar.
It is so balmy on the Plain that he removes his heavy clothing and sleeps in a nightshirt made from the loose hair of Hannah’s tail. Brave gnats alight on his nose, the swamps of his beard. His gigantic sleeves swat at the insects on their own.
Just before dawn, dozing in this place in the seventh month of his bandit phase, he is rudely awakened by a kick. He opens his eyes and is confronted by the boiling mien of the tinker he assaulted on the Essex cliff top. The fellow leers and bows.
“Will ye be returning my kettles now, sir?”
Darktree quietly explains that he no longer has them. The tin drum maker in London demanded he throw them in with the pieces-of-seven. The tinker snatches Darktree’s discarded attire.
“In that case, sir, by way of compensation, I’ll be helping myself to your clothes. Half a year I’ve been looking for ye, I’m blasted worn out with the travails o’ it.”
Awkwardly, he pulls on Darktree’s coat and breeches and plants the tricorne hat atop his locks. Then he struts.
A chilling hiss emanates from the gloomy space behind him. Darktree thinks it is Hannah or one of his men come to rescue him. His cry of joy is tempered when he recognises the visage of the thin bear whose cave he disrupted. Surprisingly, this bear can talk.
“Twenty-nine weeks I’ve been searching for you,” it whispers icily. “My master, François l’Olonnais, condemned me to guard his treasure and destroy any thief who attempted to meddle with it. Now I’ll complete my duty with a single bite to the jugular!”
And so saying, the bear sinks its misshapen fangs into the neck of the tinker. Blood dribbles from the bony maw. What an unusual bear! Just the sort of creature one would expect to find in a circus. Darktree has heard of freakish humans, born in the form of penguins and elephants. Do bears also have mutant offspring, born in the shape of decayed corpses? It will be worth investigating one day.
As the tinker falls to the ground, drained, a brawny hand clamps on the bear’s shoulder and a figure dressed in blue, chomping on a whistle, elevates chiding eyebrows and bends its knees.
“What’s all this then? Two hundred and seven days I’ve wandered the continent looking for this anarchist. Just as I catch up with him, he is murdered by a suspicious-looking character. You’d better come with me to the station, sir, to explain your damp chin.”
Darktree recognises the constable from Clacton-on-Sea. There is the most cursory of scuffles; the starfish hat falls from the bear’s head. A typical arrest; the ursine miscreant is clamped with handcuffs and taken away, briny tears on its pearly cheeks. Darktree strips his clothes from the dead tinker and returns to sleep.
He is pleased to have heard English speech. It has a calming effect on his outlawed nerves. He doubts he will meet more strangers willing to converse or cajole in his native tongue.
He is mistaken. The following day, a customer enters the tavern who is not one of his bandits. He gives his name as Xelucha Dowson Laocoön, a cosmopolitan traveller who is walking home from Turkey. He asks for an imported beer with an endearing leer. “Berliner Weisse mit grün!” Hannah wishes to make a special effort for her first outside patron. She snorts into his drink with both nostrils.
Darktree is drawn to the fellow’s appearance. He wears three capes of different colours and carries a horribly marbled book. His panache is like chutney; it is a side dish to his pizzazz.
He seems to know all about Darktree’s exploits. “The Hungarian army is on their way here at this very moment. The authorities cannot endure a bandit who shoots at silk kites.”
“What shall I do?” Darktree is troubled.
“By your poise, I’d say your ambition was to learn as many types of outlawry as possible. Am I right?”
Darktree has never thought about this before. He nods. “I have been highwayman and pirate. I am highly flexible. But I do not know the names of any other kind of criminal.”
“Have you thought of footpad?”
Darktree shakes his head. Xelucha explains the meaning of the word. “To become a footpad, you need a city and a sandbag. There is a city in dire need of one right now. It is called Chaud-Mellé and can be found on the edges of the Alps. Follow me there.”
“I thank you for your offer, but I do not have any sand. The puszta is singularly devoid of it. Will dust do?”
Xelucha sighs. “Not really.”
Darktree entertains his guest for many weeks, presenting him with a case of Prussian beer when he leaves. During this joyous time, he thinks he can smell the approach of the soldiers.
He robs a train carrying stained glass from Madrid to Kiev. Perhaps if he redecorates his tavern as a church, the invading cavalry will trot past it unawares? In the single window of his building he fits the green and purple lozenges, turning stars ill.
There are enough moustaches in the Hungarian army to weave a rope to the moon. The pounding of angry hooves can be heard on the taut skin of the Plain. Each soldier a drummer; each horse a bugler. Rushing out of the tavern, Darktree throws himself to the ground, the better to see them. His men think he has confused the function of eyes with ears. But there is a logical reason for his position.
Darktree believes the world is flat; his crossing of as many lines of latitude as fingers on a leper has not disabused him of this notion. On a flat Earth, according to geometry’s laws, which Darktree knows are harsher than the Old Bailey’s, the distance between the top of a tower and a distant object is greater than between the object and the base of the edifice. Something to do with angles — mysterious powers which lurk in all corners, even on the smooth puszta.
This is why, when he wants to spy movement on the horizon, he does not climb onto a roof, but strains his eyes at ground level. Now he can see them; proud and furious men, plumes waving on Hussars’ hats, sabres curved like tilted smiles. He has just eaten; his stomach is full. Thus at this crucial moment, he is too hoarse to direct the defences. Hannah takes an early break and emerges to join him. Her belly is never really stable. “Vigyázat!” she warns. And his digestion nods in agreement. The soldiers will offer no quarter; indeed, the brigands cannot expect even an eighth. Hussars are parsimonious.
Roused by the percussive rhythm, Darktree’s followers break open an emergency supply of firearms and swarm out of the tavern, vainly seeking high ground from which to snipe. The guns are old-fashioned models; only Darktree feels remotely comfortable with them. Indeed, he considers them a little too modern for his taste — but this is no time for the niceties of aggression. Blood must be spilt — Hungarian blood is sweet, fermented on the vein and mixed with sundry sherries.
The battle is something of a disappointment at first. There are few orotund speeches from either side. And what is the point of a fight with no verbal exchanges? When the Hussars begin firing, some of the brigands are so bored they roll over and fall asleep. Darktree curses. “Somnolent wretches!” None of the Hussars seem sleepy. Gunpowder smoke strides over the vista. Sabres cut this yellow fog.
If his followers refuse to help him properly, Darktree realises, he will have to sort matters out himself. Something rare happens now: he is granted an idea. He turns on his heels and runs into the tavern. The few wakeful bandits cry out in dismay. “Hova megy?” They think him a coward, leaving them in the thick of it. When the Hussars reach the first rogue, they slice his sense of betrayal into twelve segments. They butcher with inaudible apologies; they seem embarrassed.
Inside the tavern, Darktree finds his bag of muffins and feeds them to Hannah, who has followed him behind the bar. She gulps them quickly, understanding his plan at once. Her stomach begins to churn; in the warm marshes of her belly, vapours swirl. “That’s it, girl!” Darktree shouts. He reverses her toward the main window.
The Hussars and surviving bandits are startled to see a booted foot kicking through the lovely stained glass. It is followed by the rear end of a horse. The combatants scratch their headwear in confusion. Where is that bubbling noise coming from? Does the tavern contain a steam engine? A hand reaches out and pulls the mare’s tail.
There is a burst of gunfire. Explosive shells are blasted from that horse’s backside at a rapid rate. The Hussars are blown off their mounts and catapulted into the air. They mill in panic. Some of them charge the tavern, only to receive direct hits which turn them into crimson shreds. Now the Plain is pitted with craters, creases in the ironed puszta which fill with blood and gore.
Darktree works Hannah’s tail like a crankshaft. With each hairy tug a mortar-like muffin is emitted. The whistling of the cakes is deafening in the humming chaos. Darktree sweeps Hannah’s rump across the thrashing ranks of his foes. Her derrière steams and he cools it with a jug of ale and reloads her with the last remaining cakes. Finally, her bowels click emptily, the ammunition exhausted. But it is enough: not a single man outside is left alive. Sabres rest like shed frowns. Hannah has done her duty, in both senses of the word.
Darktree steps out of the tavern and surveys the carnage. There are so many bodies! What will he do with them? Too numerous to bury — his arm would drop off while digging the graves. Nor can they be cremated; it is well known that Hungarians are not inflammable. But if he leaves them to rot, his conscience will be annoyed.
“Available materials,” he mutters to himself…
The extension to his tavern is completed within a month. There are enough bodies to built a lounge next to the bar and a skittle alley with femurs and skulls as gaming equipment. Soon this honest business becomes the most successful csárda this side of Debrecen. As owner, Darktree has a jovial air; he moves amongst his customers dispensing winks. Hannah is a very popular barmaid; the punters are enchanted by her lashes. Any man who pinches her bottom is banned for all time.
Darktree should be content, but he is lonely again. His stomach can share jokes with his patrons; his head is neglected. The idea of leaving it all and trying on the guise of footpad grows ever more appealing. But where will he obtain enough sand to fill a bag?
He tries charging an admission fee of one thousand grains, but even this is too expensive for the local drinkers. Taking his empty sack, the one used to store his cakes, he peers into its depths. When he emerges, the tavern looks different. Able to see objects inside other objects, he is appalled at what confronts him. Trapped just beneath the décor of the building, a monstrous seagull bickers.
He rides out with Hannah onto the Plain. Alone he holds up a train, hoping the driver will neglect to stop, crushing him beneath the wheels. But this is a vexing life — the fool obeys Darktree’s commands and slows the engine, jumping down and opening the doors of the freight cars. The bandit is overwhelmed by the glitter of innumerable hourglasses. Hannah expresses her approval in metaphrastic Latin.
Raising his nautilus, Darktree plays his entire oeuvre. It does not take very long. While marooned, he wrote eight songs; the number seemed apt. Desert island etiquette permits no more than this. When it is over, he uses the flute as a mallet to smash the timers. He collects the sand in his bag. There is just the right amount.
With a cry of delight, man and horse gallop off into the west. Over the puszta, quilts and bolsters roll like tumbleweeds. There is an old Hungarian saying appropriate for the occasion, but Darktree does not know it. Nor does his head care. Indeed, there is only one region of his body which is truly sorry to be leaving, and it is too choked with tears to say goodbye — “Viszontlátásra!” Darktree clutches his side and winces as he rides. He has an upset stomach.
Copyright © 1998 by Rhys Hughes.