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The Black Book of Secrets

F. E. Higgins



  First published 2007 by Macmillan Children’s Books

  This electronic edition published 2007 by Macmillan Children’s Books

  a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited

  20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR

  Basingstoke and Oxford

  Associated companies throughout the world

  ISBN: 978-1-4050-8979-1

  ISBN 978-0-330-47152-7 in Adobe Reader format

  ISBN 978-0-330-47153-4 in Adobe Digital Editions format

  ISBN 978-0-330-47154-1 in Microsoft Reader format

  ISBN 978-0-330-47155-8 in Mobipocket format

  Text copyright © F. E. Higgins 2007

  The right of F. E. Higgins to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

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  For Beatrix

  Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis


  A Note from F. E. Higgins

  Chapter One

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Two

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Three


  Chapter Four

  Poetry and Pawnbrokers

  Chapter Five

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Six

  A Grand Opening

  Chapter Seven

  The Morning After

  Chapter Eight

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Nine

  Obadiah Strang

  Chapter Ten

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Eleven

  A Midnight Visitor

  Chapter Twelve

  Extract from the Black Book of Secrets –

  The Gravedigger’s Confession

  Chapter Thirteen

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Fourteen

  Of Frogs and Legs

  Chapter Fifteen

  Wagging Tongues

  Chapter Sixteen

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Seventeen

  Horatio Cleaver

  Chapter Eighteen

  Extract from the Black Book of Secrets –

  The Butcher’s Confession

  Chapter Nineteen

  A Disturbed Night

  Chapter Twenty

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Stirling Oliphaunt

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Stirling Makes a Stand

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Jeremiah Has a Plan

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  The Cat’s Away

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Extract from the Black Book of Secrets –

  The Coffin Maker’s Confession

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Perigoe Leafbinder

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Extract from the Black Book of Secrets –

  The Bookseller’s Confession

  Chapter Thirty

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Thirty-One

  The Reluctant Messenger

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  An Exchange

  Chapter Thirty-Four


  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Thirty-Seven


  Chapter Thirty-Eight


  Chapter Thirty-Nine

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Forty

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Forty-One

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Forty-Two

  Extract from the Black Book of Secrets –

  Ludlow’s Confession

  Chapter Forty-Three

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Forty-Four

  Page torn from ‘Amphibians of the Southern Hemisphere’

  Chapter Forty-Five

  Fragment from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  Chapter Forty-Six

  Loose Ends

  A Note from F. E. Higgins


  A Note from F. E. Higgins

  I came across Joe Zabbidou’s Black Book of Secrets and Ludlow Fitch’s memoirs in a rather curious manner. They were tightly rolled and concealed within the hollow of a wooden leg. How I came to be in possession of the leg is unimportant right now. What matters is the story the documents tell.

  Unfortunately, neither Joe’s Black Book nor Ludlow’s memoirs survived the centuries intact and when I unrolled them it was obvious that they had suffered damage. Not only were the pages brittle and water-stained, but also much of what I had was illegible. The fragments and extracts are reproduced here exactly as they were written. I corrected Ludlow’s spelling – it really was quite dreadful – but I did no more than that. As for the parts that are missing, what else could I do but draw upon my imagination to fill the gaps?

  I pieced the story together in the way I thought best. I like to think I stayed as close to the truth as I could with the few facts I had. I do not claim to be the author of this story, merely the person who has tried to reveal it to the world.

  F. E. Higgins


  Chapter One

  Fragment from

  The Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  When I opened my eyes I knew that nothing in my miserable life prior to that moment could possibly be as bad as what was about to happen. I was lying on the cold earthen floor of a basement room lit by a single candle, no more than an hour’s burning left. Instruments of a medical nature hung from hooks in the beams. Dark stains on the floor suggested blood. But it was the chair against the opposite wall that fully confirmed my suspicions. Thick leather straps attached to the arms and the legs were there for one purpose only: to hold down an unwilling patient. Ma and Pa were standing over me.

  ‘’E’s awake,’ crowed Ma excitedly.

  Pa dragged me to my feet. He had me in an iron grip, my arm wrenched up behind my back. Ma held me by the hair. I looked from one to the other. Their grinning faces were only inches away from mine. I knew I should not look to them to save me.

  Another man, concealed until now in the shadows, steppe
d forward and took me by the chin. He forced open my mouth and ran a blackened foul-tasting finger around my gums.

  ‘How much?’ asked Pa, drooling with anticipation.

  ‘Not bad,’ said the man. ‘Thrupence apiece. Maybe twelve in all.’

  ‘It’s a deal,’ said Pa. ‘Who needs teeth anyway?’

  ‘Someone, I hope,’ replied the man drily. ‘I sell ’em for a living.’

  And they laughed all three, Ma and Pa and Barton Gumbroot, the notorious tooth surgeon of Old Goat’s Alley.

  Once the money for my teeth was agreed with Barton they moved quickly. Together they dragged me over to the surgeon’s chair. I kicked and shouted and spat and bit; I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. I knew how Barton Gumbroot made his living, preying on the poor, pulling their teeth, paying them pennies and selling them on for ten times as much. I was racked with fear. I had no protection. I was going to feel it all. Every single nerve-stabbing twinge.

  They came close to succeeding in their evil quest. Ma was struggling with a buckle around my ankle, her hands shaking from the previous day’s drinking, while Pa was trying to hold me down. Barton Gumbroot, that loathsome monster, was just hovering with his gleaming tooth-pull, snapping it open and shut, open and shut, tittering and salivating. I believe to this day his greatest pleasure in life was inflicting pain on others. So much so that he couldn’t wait any longer and before I knew it I could feel the cold metal of his instrument of torture clamped around a front tooth. He braced himself with his leg on my chest and began to pull. I cannot describe to you the pain that shot through my skull, my brain and every nerve end in my body. It felt as if my whole head was being wrenched off. The tooth moved slightly in my jaw and another white-hot shooting pain exploded behind my eyes. All the while Ma and Pa laughed like maniacs.

  Rage swelled in me like a mountainous wave. I heard a roar worthy of a jungle beast and I was taken over by seething fury. With my free leg I kicked Pa hard and sharp in the stomach and he collapsed on the floor. Barton, caught by surprise, let go of the tooth-pull and I grabbed it and walloped him around the side of the head. I unstrapped my other leg and jumped down. Pa was groaning on the floor. Barton was leaning against the wall holding his head. Ma cowered in the corner.

  ‘Don’t hit me,’ she begged. ‘Don’t hit me.’

  I will not deny I was tempted, but this was my one chance to escape. Pa was almost on his feet again. I dropped the tooth-pull and in a matter of seconds I was out of the door, up the steps and running down the alley. I could hear Ma screaming and Pa shouting and cursing. Every time I looked back all I could see was Pa’s snarling face and Barton’s hooked tooth-pull glinting in the yellow gaslight.

  As I ran I tried to think where to go. They knew so many of my hiding places. I decided on Mr Jellico’s, but when I reached his shop the place was in darkness and the blind was down. I hammered on the window and shouted his name but there was no reply. I cursed my bad luck. I knew if Mr Jellico was gone at this time of night he might not be back for days. But knowing this was little help in my current predicament.

  So where to now? The bridge over the River Foedus and the Nimble Finger Inn. Betty Peggotty, the landlady, might help me. I ran out of the alley and on to the street, but they were already waiting for me.

  ‘There ’e is,’ screeched Ma and the chase was on again. They surprised me, Pa especially, with their stamina. I had not thought they would last so long. For at least a half-mile they chased me down the uncobbled narrow alleys and the filthy streets, tripping over bodies and avoiding snatching hands, all the way to the river. Every time I looked back they seemed to be closer. I knew what would happen if they caught me again. The ache in my bleeding jaw was all the proof I needed.

  By the time I staggered on to the bridge I was barely able to hold myself upright. Halfway across I saw a carriage outside the Nimble Finger. Just as its wheels began to turn, I clambered on the back, hanging on for my life. As the carriage pulled away the last thing I remember is the sight of Ma sinking to her knees. She was screaming at me from the river bank and the monster, Barton Gumbroot, was shaking his fist in rage.

  My name is Ludlow Fitch. Along with countless others, I had the great misfortune to be born in the City, a stinking place undeserving of a name. And I would have died there if it had not been for Ma and Pa. They saved me, though it was not their intention, when they delivered me, their only son, into the hands of Barton Gumbroot. This act of betrayal was possibly the greatest single piece of luck I ever had. Ma and Pa’s diabolic plan brought about the end of one existence and the beginning of another: my life with Joe Zabbidou.

  Chapter Two

  Fragment from

  The Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

  I didn’t know at the time, but I had hitched a ride on a carriage that belonged to, and contained, a Mr Jeremiah Ratchet. We rattled along for hours, he inside snoring like a bellows, so loud I could hear it above the clatter of the wheels over the ruts, while outside I was clinging on like an organ-grinder’s monkey. The weather worsened and it started to snow. The road narrowed and the potholes became larger, deeper and more frequent. The driver had no thought for passenger comfort. If it weren’t for the fact that my hands were frozen in position I might well have fallen off. Despite this, and my churning innards (I suffer terribly from travel sickness), towards the end of the journey I was dozing. The carriage began to climb a steep hill and finally we reached the place that was to be my home for the near future, the mountain village of Pagus Parvus.

  Under any other circumstances I would not have chosen to come to Pagus Parvus, but at the time of travelling my destination was out of my hands. At last the carriage stopped outside a large house and the driver climbed down. I heard him rap on the carriage door.

  ‘Mr Ratchet,’ he called. ‘Mr Ratchet.’

  But there was no reply so he went to the house and rang for the maid. A young girl came out looking none too pleased. The driver called her Polly. Together they dragged Ratchet up the steps accompanied by much snoring (his) and grunting (theirs) and hauled him inside. I took the opportunity to jump down and sneak a look in the cab, wherein I found a leather purse, a fringed printed silk scarf and a pair of gloves. I wrapped the scarf around my neck and slipped the gloves over my numb fingers. The purse contained only a few pennies but it was a start. I got out and saw the young girl standing in the doorway looking straight at me. There was a slight smile on her face and her eyes held mine for a long second. I heard the driver coming back and knew it was time to go. I could have gone either way, up the slope or down, but for some unknown reason I chose to climb.

  The hill was treacherous. As I climbed I heard the church bell strike four. Although it was no longer snowing the wind was sharp as a knife and I knew I needed shelter. Despite the hour, and the lack of street lights, I could see well enough where I was going. It was not the moon that lit my way, for she was only a sliver, but all the lights ablaze behind the windows. It seemed that I was not the only one still awake in this village.

  I stopped at an empty building at the top of the hill. It stood alone in the shadow of the church, desolate and separated from the other houses and shops by an alley. I was looking for a way in when I heard approaching footsteps in the snow. I ducked into the alley and waited. A man, hunched over, came carefully down the hill. He was carrying a large wooden spade over his shoulder and he was mumbling to himself. He passed right by me, looking neither to his left nor his right, and crossed over the road.

  As he melted into the night another figure appeared. To this day I remember the man emerging from the gloom as if by magic. I watched him climbing steadily towards me. He took long strides and covered the distance quickly. He had a limp, his right step was heavier than his left, and one footprint was deeper than the other.

  I believe I was the first person to see Joe Zabbidou and I know I was the last. Was it just coincidence had us both arrive here together? I suspect other powers were at work. Unlike me, he wasn’t fl
eeing. He had a purpose but he kept it well hidden.

  Chapter Three


  It was not easy to describe Joe Zabbidou accurately. His age was impossible to determine. He was neither stout nor thin, but perhaps narrow. And he was tall, which was a distinct disadvantage in Pagus Parvus. The village dated from times when people were at least six inches shorter and all dwellings were built accordingly. In fact, the place had been constructed during the years of the ‘Great Wood Shortage’. The king at the time issued a decree that every effort must be made to save wood, with the result that doors and windows were made smaller and narrower than was usual and ceilings were particularly low.

  Joe was suitably dressed for the weather, though unheedful of the current fashion for the high-collared coat. Instead he wore a cloak of muted green, fastened with silver toggles, that fell to his ankles. The cloak itself was of the finest Jocastar wool. The Jocastar – an animal akin to a sheep but with longer, more delicate legs and finer features – lived high up in the mountains of the northern hemisphere. Once a year, September time, it moulted and only the most agile climbers dared venture up into the thin air to collect its wool. The cloak was lined with the softest fur in existence, chinchilla.

  On his feet Joe wore a pair of black leather boots, highly polished, upon which sat the beautifully pressed cuffs of his mauve trousers. Around his neck was wrapped a silk scarf, and a fur hat shaped like a cooking pot was pulled down tightly over his ears. It could not fully contain his hair and more than a few silver strands curled out from underneath.

  With every step Joe took, a set of keys hooked to his belt jingled tunefully against his thigh. In his right hand he carried a rather battered leather satchel straining at the seams, and in his left a damp drawstring bag from which there emanated an intermittent croaking.

  Quickly, silently, Joe climbed the steep high street until he reached the last building on the left. It was an empty shop. Beyond it was a walled graveyard, the village boundary, within which stood the church. Then the road stretched away into a grey nothingness. Snow had drifted into the shop doorway and gathered in the corners of the flyblown windows. The paintwork was peeling and an old sign in the shape of a hat creaked above the door in the biting wind. Joe took a moment to survey the street down to the bottom of the hill. It was the early hours of the morning but yellow oil lamps and candles glowed behind many a curtain and shutter and more than once he saw the silhouette of a person cross back and forth in front of a window. A smile broke across his face.