Orpheus and the Nymphs of the Underworld

Warrior's officers on the quarterdeck, late 1860s (displayed at Historic Dockyard). Credit William Sutton.

To celebrate the recent release of Portsmouth writer William Sutton’s third Victorian mystery with Titan Books, Lawless & the House of Electricity, today we’re proud to present a short story featuring Victorian detective, Sergeant Campbell Lawless which appeared in Portsmouth Fairy Tales [for Grown-Ups]. In his role as inspector of vice, Lawless sends his urchin associate Worm to Portsmouth Harbour to solve a mysterious disappearance opposite Spice Island.

Victorian prostitute. A sketch by Will Sutton.

“Finding things as is missing something of a speciality,” said Worm, “with a sideline in unfinding things as may be better off lost.”

It was the Scotland Yard fellow, Lawless, who gave me my first whiff of the Nymphs of the Underworld; but it was his little messenger, Worm, who put me on the scent of my fantastical quest. Since Eurydice vanished…

Ridiculous name, I know. But she was at least half-Greek; and when first I saw her dance, I thought her the closest thing to a nymph I had ever seen. When first I saw her dance, by Baffins Pond…


When Eurydice vanished, and the Gosport police proved useless, I took the train to London and trudged across the snowy bridge to Scotland Yard.

“Abducted, sir?” Sergeant Lawless tries to be gentle. “She may have been. Smuggled away to a Turkish harem. Fanged by a serpent, gone to the nether world. She may have been, but most likely she’s gone wilfully. You scared her off with toil and drudgery; too many beatings, or not beatings enough. People are free to do as they wish, and the police shan’t meddle in household affairs.”

“But Sergeant, that’s simply not the scenario. We’re intimates, conjoined in art and love. Since first I saw her dance, that day by Baffins Pond, willowy limbs, dark eyes, skin as lovely as can be…” I stammer to describe my world, vanished with her strange evanishment.

He raises a hand, sympathetical like. “Mr O’Fahy, I cannot help you.”

No help to find Eurydice?

I had already stomped and stamped, shrieked and wailed, wrecked my home, rent my cheeks, torn my clothes, shorn my hair, kissed her portrait, blest her eyes, missed her, cursed her, missed her.

Of this operatic grief, the Sergeant heard only the pale echoes, yet he shivered as if the shades had trailed their fingers down his neck. “I can’t. But I know who can.”


“Worm, sir, of the Euston Square Worms, public company as yet unlimited. Finding things as is missing something of a speciality, with a sideline et cetera et cetera.”

I met Worm by Seven Dials, a filthy spot for dirty business. As the snow fell faintly down, I told him my woes.

Will Sutton performing. Credit Tessa Ditner.

“Mr O’Fahy,” said the urchin most sympathetical like, notwithstanding the whiff of sewer life he exuded. “Indeed Maestro, if I am not mistaken, for I seen you down Wilton’s Music Hall. Your troubles stir the old heart, common though they be in these days of abductions, garottings, knifings, beheadings, rape, pillage, plunder and politic collusion. My Worms are a dab hand at finding what is missing et cetera. But for this, I’ll need to invoke the very gods of the earth. Give us a quid. I’ll see you next week.”

My hearth lay bare and cheerless. I raged. I raved. Bit my nails, tore my hair. When first I saw her dance by the Hampstead Ponds, Eurydice—

“Maestro O’Fahy?” Worm took me by surprise, his eyes a brilliant blue. “It’s a poser you’ve posed, and no mistaking.”

“Can you do it?”

“No, old cove. But I’ll tell you who can.”


Worm accompanied me, enigmatically silent, all the way to Portsmouth Harbour. There he led me down to the ferryman by the river of death. “You wouldn’t have a couple of shekels, old cove?”

Two obols, perhaps he meant. I brought out my fiddle and played. The ferryman’s pockmarked face was stern as a skull. Yet at the first notes he yielded. The oars plashed rhythmically over, ever nearer Eurydice.


Three guard dogs fought at the gates of that shadowy underworld. I struck up my song. Straightway, they lay becalmed, and we passed by, toward the palaces of the lost and debased.

Spitbank Fort Portsmouth. Sketch by William Sutton.

The king stared in wonder. “Are you still…alive? Only we don’t normally get your type down here.” Hades glared at Worm. “Call yourself a psychopomp? You’re meant to bring those so far ruined I may leach the final vestiges of life from them.”

I told my tale: evanishment, torn clothes, finding things as is et cetera.

Hades was unmoved.

I told how we met, when first I saw her dance. Even he, even here, could not be immune to love. He laughed. Actually laughed. I’d have no help to find Eurydice.

I comforted myself the only way I know how. The song of love: it escapes out of my fiddle, unbidden by my fingers.

His queen, Persephone—the grimmest bawd you ever saw—gripped her black husband’s arm, as my song melted her icy heart.

“Maestro O’Fahy, stop, I beg you.” She asked for a daguerreotype.

I sketched Eurydice dancing.

She asked of her accents.

I played the sweet voice of her voice.

She asked for five quid.

I wrote a cheque for five guineas.

“Wait here an hour,” said Persephone.

Amid the degraded spirits; fallen bodies, the Nymphs of the Underworld, I lost myself in a haze of whisky and laudanum. A minute, an hour, a week. I knew not, nor cared—if I might find my Eurydice.


Portsmouth Fairy Tales book cover

Worm shook me to my senses. He led me to the balcony to view the floor of that dirty Gosport bawdy house. My heart leapt. Among the lost spirits, the dead souls, I saw—the tangled hair, the dark eyes, the skin lovely as can be—it could only be Eurydice.

I felt upon my shoulder Hades’ icy hand.

“Two conditions, O’Fahy. One. Bank notes, one hundred; no more infernal plucking.” He grin, though he was not mocking. The air chilled over as he leant closer. “Two. If you take her, she’s yours; do with her as you please. Only do not look too close, lest the nymph of your heart melt back to the underworld.”


Back to the river, footsteps behind me, my heart singing. Worm showed us discreetly to our boat. There, in the shadows, I took her in my arms, and I held her, and I had her.

As the mist cleared arose, I looked…I saw…This was not my Eurydice. This hateful creature? Pitiful, painted, a ruined imitation. What happened I cannot quite tell. As I came to my senses, the boy Worm was looking at me. The oars plashed through the ice, the boat otherwise empty.

Had I thrust her from me, back to that Underworld which had consumed her? Or did I toss that mocking shadow into the harbourmouth of forgetfulness, thinking to throw with it my love?

Worm handed me my fiddle. Ever since, I play, and forever play—for Eurydice.

Find out more about William Sutton and his Lawless series at his website, and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud.