An excerpt from Lawless and the Flowers of Sin, William Sutton’s second Victorian mystery, published by Titan Books and launching on 12th July 2016. Sergeant Lawless explores the nightlife of Soho in his role as inspector of vice. This later takes him to Portsmouth Harbour, where he sees women brought ashore to Spice Island.
The Path of Filth
Now we had removed to the gilded upper chamber of the Argyll. Artistically clad women held poses plastiques in velvet alcoves, temples of voluptuousness based on classical art, though stirring the psyche rather more directly.
The lights dimmed. The ensemble struck up an exotic rhythm. Onstage chugged a miniature train, driven by the famous Chouchoute. She sweated as she stoked the furnace, the orange glow glistening on her brow. She bent over, flesh gleaming through choice gaps in her attire, as the train-rhythm grew hotter.
What was Darlington hoping to show me? Did he think my Edinburgh upbringing so provincial I should never have seen the like? True, Edinburgh is small: that makes the louche night spots closer and affordable to frugal apprentices such as I; my schoolfriends were well acquainted with the Cowgate, beneath the castle, notorious for explosive displays.
Chouchoute threw off another garment. Hat, jacket, shawl, chemise. She stood before us, gleaming golden in her bodice, gloves and new-fangled bloomers. She looked up at us and wiped her brow.
“Get ’em off.”
She squared up to us, much as a navvy might look at a pile of dirt. A flutter flew through the audience; the separation between viewer and viewed seemed flimsy. Chouchoute threw down an immaculate white gauntlet. The music faltered, the house lights rose; she peered out from the stage, offended, and raised a finger.
“Who?” she said abruptly, gazing down lasciviously. “Who has spoke?”
“Him there!” Jocular voices called, and the guilty gent was shoved toward her outstretched finger.
Chouchoute drew a cane from her high boot. She leant down, catching the hapless fellow’s chin with the tip of the cane. His gaze was directed onto the twin orbs above him, brightly lit, swelling beneath the bodice. There was no escape. The music resumed. She kneeled on the edge of the stage, drawing him forward in rhythm, until his face was against her muscular thighs. The fellow’s eyes were bulging.
“Such close inspection.” She spoke in a faux French accent. “One really should have shaved.” Her eyes flashed. She whirled around and knelt, the stays of her corset within his reach. The fellow gaped upward, practically panting. Chouchoute gave a quizzical frown. “Is he trying to see what I ate last night?”
This show, I admit, was more shameless than Edinburgh’s equivalents.
“Get ’em off,” cried Darlington.
Chouchoute glanced over her shoulder, right at us.
I froze. My worst fear was to be dragged onstage. Of this danger Darlington seemed heedless. He was heedless of so many dangers, I would realise soon enough.
Holding our gaze, she untied the bow on her corset lace with a flourish. The fellow’s hands were trembling as he reached for the lace. She grabbed his hands and had him pull the stays asunder. Inch by inch, the ivory skin of her back was revealed, arching up from her waist. The crowd bayed for satisfaction. The corset loosened; her milk-white breast was sure to be revealed; she winked at me.
The lights went out.
A flash of light. We caught our breath. The show unfolded in a series of photographic flashes. Flash: she turned. Flash: his face against her bosom. Flash: her legs wrapped round him. We gasped.
Flash: the bloomers—gone.
Two steps from the dens of Soho, a dark entranceway was fringed by two ill-trimmed laburnums. You do not feel the eyes watching you as you approach. You imagine slipping from view into the passageway that leads to the silken palace. A moment of uncertainty, then you push your way in. The passage envelops you with a steamy warmth: the welcoming embrace of Kate Hamilton’s.
Darlington went to push aside the heavy plush curtains, his truncheon tucked beneath his winter coat. A voice accosted us. “Not on duty,” he replied, “but rather attending personal business. By appointment with Kitty H. herself.”
The bell was rung, velveteen drapes pulled aside, champagne thrust into his hand. It dawned on me, Darlington wasn’t trying to shock. He wanted me to know that he knew everyone. That champagne, before we were seated, meant he had done his job.
At the heart of this pageant of bodies, nestled in the palace of ottomans and pale rouge divans, beneath a soft dome illustrated with lurid Olympian daubings, sat a vast ungovernable whale of a woman, a queen of the Orient, enthroned above her minions. Kate Hamilton herself.
“Long tempo, nanty vader, Jimmy Darlington,” she crooned. “Roll up, roll up, my lover boy. Choose between Lila, layer of lords, Cora, comfort of commodores, and Sabine, saviour of seamen.”
“Nah, Kitty,” a pale woman with ample bosoms piped up, lolling on a gent’s knee. “I never saves none of it.”
Kate Hamilton erupted, a blancmange Vesuvius. “Cora, kindly entertain the gentlemen. Jimmy does respond to your particular endowments.”
In a recess off the main chamber, illustrated with the judgement of Paris and more pretexts for nudity, Darlington drew out a set of chessmen, but disdained the board laid into the table. Instead Cora shed her gown and lay back on the ottoman. The Oriental lamplight threw enticing shadows on her. Scarves wrapped around chest and hips, her stomach lay bare. Neatly inscribed, from hipbones to ribcage: a chessboard tattoo.
Darlington swiftly laid the pieces on her tum, flat as an ironing board and walnut brown. As he advanced his pawn, Cora lay quite still, draped in diaphanous silks. I would normally look away from such an exhibition of flesh—but one must stare intently at the chessboard.
“Excuse Watchman, Cora. He’s admiring your artwork.”
“This in’t nothing,” said Cora, her pronunciation a mélange of East End and the Orient. “Lila’s got a map of the world on her back.”
“You always know where you are,” Darlington nodded, “with Lila.”
We played out a King’s Gambit (accepted, Berlin Defence). Cora had to hold in her laughter, for she spotted illegal moves before we did, and anticipated my checkmate, pinning Darlington’s bishop against his king. As his fingernails lingered vainly over the puzzle, I asked him what we could glean from these girls.
“Hard to get a straight answer.” He gestured towards Cora and her remarkable form. “Observe. Cora, how did you come to be whatever you are?”
“Moi?” She stretched carefully. “Oh, I’m a ruinated daughter of a priest.” This tale seemed as likely as any, but she would elaborate no further.
Darlington shrugged. “See?”
Hearing my Scottish accent, Kate Hamilton sent over a whisky.
A sterner bell rang: an alarum. Glasses were swept into crates, bottles hid under carpets and false walls. The lights rose. Whatever had been going on moments before was reimagined, with an earnest air. Cora sat up, disrupting my victorious position, to make her attire respectable. Before I could protest, she proceeded to set up the position again on the table, the pieces exactly as they had been on her stomach.
I goggled at this feat of memory. She shrugged it off languorously. Cora did everything languorously.
Tea was served just as the uniformed police waltzed in.
“F Division.” Darlington pulled his hat low. “Amateurs.”
Cora spotted my whisky. I’d had enough to numb my toothache; more and I might yield to temptation. Without a thought, Cora upended the dram into the pot plant. (I took note of this trick of Cora’s, which would save me from many ills.) As the police made a show of looking around, like villains in a thrupenny drama, she was genteelly filling my glass with peppermint tea.
“Care for a cuppa, officer?” Kate Hamilton boomed, holding out a box of cigars.
The leading copper took one. He was leaning forward to kiss her when he noticed us. Darlington shaded his eyes as the copper’s mocking glance took in me, Cora and the board. “Wasting your time teaching that simpleton to play chess.”
“Chess masters may teach anyone,” said Cora levelly. “And don’t call my uncle a simpleton.”
The wag ventured no further into the interior. They promptly withdrew, a bag handed to them at the door; coins jingled in my imagination.
“Shambolic operation.” Darlington stared after them. Within two minutes, normal stations were resumed: carpets, drinks, girls, et cetera, and Cora’s déshabillé.
“Cora.” I gave a low whistle. “You’re a quick-witted little liar.”
“Not at all, you silly uncle.” She arched her eyebrows, placing a hand on her chest as she set the pieces for the next game. “I was youth champion of Lower Armenia, 1861.”
Demoralised by another swift defeat, Darlington introduced me to the madam.
Kate lit a cigar and handed it to him. “Chivalrous gent, is he? Just ’ere for the chess?”
“More interested,” I said, “in delights other than those of the flesh.”
“Ennui, is it? Plenty here to stave off the ennui.” She pronounced the word as if it were a venereal disease. “If you dispense champers to Cora, Maura and Mehetabel, no one will begrudge your delectatio morosa, that is, a certain lustful brooding.”
Darlington laughed. “Watchman is my successor, Kitty. On our salary, champagne’s at your discretion.” He winked and strolled back to Cora.
Kate Hamilton stretched. Her bosom strained beneath mountainous folds of material. “Will you be a more demanding overseer than our Jimmy here?”
“On the contrary. Lend me a modicum of help, and we might dispense with the farce of these inspections.”
A hush fell around us. “And of what might that modicum consist?”
I considered. “Let the girls speak to me. Tell me their true histories.”
“Ain’t that our business and none of yours?”
I wanted neither to convict, nor convert, I assured her. Such a well-run establishment I saw no need to police. After all, boys will be boys. I simply had to deliver a census. Let parliamentarians witter on about reform. “Tell me how many girls work for you. Let them tell me how old they are, where from, how come to the profession, and I’ll leave you be.”
“We might manage that.”
“I’d be grateful.”
“Grateful enough to free us from F Division’s nosy parkers? Customers don’t like it, I’m sure you understand.”
“I can be persuasive.”
She inspected me intently, her face as weather-beaten as a naval pilot’s. “Is that an equitable exchange?”
“Well. Since you’re asking.” I clapped my hands together. “I shall be taking a reckoning of the houses neighbouring. Could you help persuade them to talk to me?”
“We can do better than that, my lover, if you’re serious.” Kate sat back, like the Great Eastern returning to dock, though more amply bosomed. “Why not regard us as your West End office? A glass of Scotch for the Scotchman here. You and I shall come to an arrangement, as sure as Almighty God is sitting on his throne.” She clinked her glass against mine, her pig-like eyes twinkling. “A most favourable arrangement, my lover.”
Open source Victorian images supplied by William Sutton.