‘Iti domum impasti, domino iam non vacat,agni (go home unfed, lambs, your shepherd has no time for you now)’
– Epitathium Damonis (Milton)
The former Headmaster of Raven Industrial Academy having newly returned from the countryside, now skips merrily along Hayes Wharf. A crown of wilted flowers sits snugly upon his head and though his nightshirt and dressing gown are sodden and bedraggled he has never been more at peace. Not so Bernard Montaperti, whose pale and slender fingers tremble and shake as if he had the ague or the palsy. His investments in the Imperial Bank of Kamchatka have failed. The British government has withdrawn its reserves of gold from his counting house and transferred them abroad. And as if that were not disaster enough his munitions factories have been shut down. Montaperti teeters on the brink of madness and ruin, all it will take to push him over the edge is the striking of a Bryant & May match upon a tinder box.
“T’is not far my love! We are almost there!” Abilene Montaperti is euphoric, her cheeks are flush with love or the warmth of the swirling conflagration that is the Tooley Street fire, it is hard to tell. Her thin blonde tresses flutter wildly in the wind which only serves to urge the growing flames around them to ever greater heights. The ragged besmirched hem of her ivory coloured gown has seen better days but, in the arms of her beloved, she is as radiant a flower as ever graced the fields of England. Turning into a damp alley which, though swirling in smoke is free of flame, Hector and Abilene find themselves standing in front of the Scovell warehouse.”We travelled far my dearest, but mayhap here, mongst the soft cotton bales we may find some rest”. Her smile is tremulous and her eyes heavy with shadow but she is jubilant. Hector has spent many weeks opening her eyes to the beauty of this sceptred isle. Together they have travelled as far as Tintern Abbey on the Wye where she wove him a crown of daffodils, the very same he now wears upon his silvered brow.
Hand in hand like two innocent babes entering a sinister forest the lovers tiptoe into the Scovell Warehouse. It is a vast store of petre and salt, silk bales and cotton. T’is a damp and murky place to some but to the two former inmates of Bethlehem Asylum it is a veritable cathedral of love. Never before have two hearts been so completely joined in mutual passion. There’s is an avid, all consuming desire and short of murder there is little that Abilene’s Hector would not valiantly accomplish on her behalf. Alas! That they should ever have happened upon the devilish Montaperti! Who, with one abrupt stroke of that fatal match against that hapless tinderbox, proceeds to seal his fate.
Lord Montaperti seems as one astonished, for the apparition that stands before him is such as would appal a lesser scoundrel. Though wasted and thin Abilene his niece newly escaped from Bethelehem Asylum is very much alive. But it can’t be, he had left express instructions with that fool Ethelbert-Smythe! “I am come home Uncle! I am come back to see thy loving face! I am come home Uncle for refuge!”. Hector clutches his head and tugs at his hair with both hands, he knows that face, has heard of that name. And then at last as with a thunderbolt of lightening, enlightenment strikes.”It is you! You villain! You leech upon the face of good fortune! I know you! You are the one who stripped my precious love of her inheritance! You are the one who had Lady Hesketh-Elderberry declared insane!”. In one bound Hector thinks he has him but Bernard Montaperti is slippery as an eel and fleet of foot. For as Hector lurches forward he slides easily out of his grip and smiles,”No doubt I deserve to be shot but that should be the least of your worries, look around you”.
Fire! Everywhere! Tongues of crimson coloured flame leap upon the bales of cotton eagerly consuming them, tearing at them like the eager fingers of a courtesan. For the first time Hector recognises the pungent smell of phosphorus mingled with flax. And for the first time in a very long time Hector feels a slender ray of hope suffuse his emaciated being.
“Aaargh!” Abilene moans clutching at her ball gown and gathering it to herself in vain reassurance.”Uncle Montaperti!” But he is gone, having fled his crimes at the very first opportunity, leaving them to the fate he had hoped they would discretely encounter at the asylum. “Uncle Montaperti!” all are deaf to her sorrowful cries, all except Hector. Wrapping her in his damp dressing gown and taking her fragile hand he leads her gently through the gathering flames. With a joyous skip and, a lightness in his heart such as he had not felt since being appointed the Headmaster of Raven’s Industrial Academy, Hector attempted to lead his beloved towards safety. But alas the doors towards the back of the warehouse have been nailed shut and as the flames rushed towards them Hector thinks he sees the glint of a jet-black hobnailed boot and the swish of a brilliant white nightshirt. No! It could not possibly be, after all these years?
“It is coming Abilene!” clasping his beloved’s waist with one arm and covering her eyes with the other, the longsuffering Headmaster strives to brave the fiery onslaught of death. And as he prepares to meet his maker, a wondrous surge of happiness sweeps over him…
Your hapless master now to you is lost! To whom my bosom shall I now confide . At whose soft voice will now my cares subside ? Who now will cheat the night with harmless mirth. As the nut crackles on the glowing hearth. Or the pear hisses, — ^while without the storm Roars through the wood and ruffles nature's form ? Return unfed, my lambs; by fortune crost Your hapless master now to you is lost!