In which we meet our hero, and the hero meets an orphan of the storm and comes face to face with Mister Charlie, a gentleman known as a bit of a scribbler
THE RAIN POURED down on London so hard that it seemed that it was dancing spray, every raindrop contending with its fellow for supremacy in the air and waiting to splash down. It was a deluge. The drains and sewers were overflowing, throwing up – regurgitating, as it were – the debris of muck, slime and filth, the dead dogs, the dead rats, cats and worse; bringing back up to the world of men all those things that they thought they had left behind them; jostling and gurgling and hurrying towards the overflowing and always hospitable river Thames; bursting its banks, bubbling and churning like some nameless soup boiling in a dreadful cauldron; the river itself gasping like a dying fish. But those in the know always said about the London rain that, try as it might, it would never, ever clean that noisome city, because all it did was show you another layer of dirt. And on this dirty night there were appropriately dirty deeds that not even the rain could wash away.
A fancy two-horse coach wallowed its way along the street, some piece of metal stuck near an axle causing it to be heralded by a scream. And indeed there was a scream, a human scream this time, as the coach door was flung open and a figure tumbled out into the gushing gutter, which tonight was doing the job of a fountain. Two other figures sprang from the coach, cursing in language that was as colourful as the night was dark and even dirtier. In the downpour, fitfully lit by the lightning, the first figure tried to escape but tripped, fell and was leaped upon, with a cry that was hardly to be heard in all the racket, but which was almost supernaturally counterpointed by the grinding of iron, as a drain cover nearby was pushed open to reveal a struggling and skinny young man who moved with the speed of a snake.
‘You let that girl alone!’ he shouted.
There was a curse in the dark and one of the assailants fell backwards with his legs kicked from under him. The youth was no heavyweight but somehow he was everywhere, throwing blows – blows which were augmented by a pair of brass knuckles, always a helpmeet for the outnumbered. Outnumbered one to two as it were, the assailants took to their heels while the youth followed, raining blows. But it was London and it was raining and it was dark, and they were dodging into alleys and side streets, frantically trying to catch up with their coach, so that he lost them, and the apparition from the depths of the sewers turned round and headed back to the stricken girl at greyhound speed.
He knelt down, and to his surprise she grabbed him by the collar and whispered in what he considered to be foreigner English, ‘They want to take me back, please help me . . .’ The lad sprang to his feet, his eyes all suspicion.
On this stormy night of stormy nights, it was opportune then that two men who themselves knew something about the dirt of London were walking, or rather, wading, along this street, hurrying home with hats pulled down – which was a nice try, but simply didn’t work, because in this torrent it seemed that the bouncing water was coming as much from below as it was from above. Lightning struck again, and one of them said, ‘Is that someone lying in the gutter there?’ The lightning presumably heard, because it sliced down again and revealed a shape, a mound – a person, as far as these men could see.
‘Good heavens, Charlie, it’s a girl! Soaked to the skin and thrown into the gutter, I imagine,’ said one of them. ‘Come on . . .’
‘Hey, you, what are you a-doing, mister?!’
By the light of a pub window which could barely show you the darkness, the aforesaid Charlie and his friend saw the face of a boy who looked like a young lad no more than seventeen years old but who seemed to have the voice of a man. A man, moreover, who was prepared to take on both of them, to the death. Anger steamed off him in the rain and he wielded a long piece of metal. He carried on, ‘I