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The Wanderer in Unknown Realms, Page 2

John Connolly

  “I am sure that Mr. Maulding’s funds will cover any expenses,” said Quayle. “I cannot imagine that he would begrudge expenditure incurred on his own behalf.”

  “Very good,” said Forbes, with some relief.

  Forbes bade us farewell. He paused for a final time at the door, almost causing Fawnsley to walk into his back.

  “Mr. Soter?” he said.

  “Yes, Mr. Forbes?”

  “I’ll look deeper into what you said about Pulteney, and we can talk of it again.”

  “I look forward to that, Mr. Forbes,” I said.

  It didn’t matter, of course. I’d watched forty men being buried in a shell crater at High Wood. I was there. Forbes wasn’t.

  And neither was General Sir Bloody William Pulteney.

  QUAYLE ASKED if I would like some tea. Although he had a drinks cabinet behind his desk, I had never known him to offer anything stronger than Fawnsley’s tea, possibly on the grounds that there wasn’t anything stronger than Fawnsley’s tea.

  “No, thank you.”

  “It’s been a while since we’ve seen you, Mr. Soter. How have you been?”

  “I’ve been passing well, thank you for asking,” I replied, but he had already returned to rearranging the papers on his desk, and the state of my health had ceased to be of any interest to him, relative or otherwise. He licked his right index finger, used it to turn a page, and paused as if a thought had only just struck him, although I well knew that Quayle was not a man to be stricken by sudden thoughts. He planned too far ahead for that.

  “What did you think of Mr. Forbes?” he said.

  “He’s young.”

  “Yes. There’s a lot of it about, it seems.”

  “Not as much as there used to be.”

  “War does tend to have that effect,” said Quayle. “You really ought to learn to hold your tongue, you know.”

  “In front of my betters, you mean?”

  “In front of anyone. For a man who prides himself on his reserve, you have an unfortunate habit of giving rather too much of yourself away when you do choose to speak.”

  “I’ll bear that in mind. I’m grateful to you for pointing it out.”

  “Were you always so sarcastic?”

  “I believe I was, yes, but only in certain company. As you say, it’s been a while since we met.”

  That almost brought a smile from Quayle, but his facial muscles were unfamiliar with the action, and it collapsed somewhere between a grin and a sneer.

  “Mr. Forbes lives beyond his means,” said Quayle. “His uncle’s bequest represents the best possible opportunity to rectify that situation as quickly as possible.”

  “He could try working for a living.”

  “What makes you think he hasn’t?”

  “He wasn’t dressed for any job that I could see, unless it involved advertising carnations.”

  Quayle gave another of his weary sighs.

  “His mother left him a small annuity, and I believe that a little money trickles in from investments. Were he wiser, and less profligate, he could probably live comfortably on what he has—well, comfortably for one such as myself, and most certainly for one such as you. But he has a fondness for wagers, and one could probably clothe an entire village with the suits in his wardrobe. If he were to get his hands on his uncle’s money, it would inevitably slip through his fingers like sand, and he would find himself in a similar situation to the one he is in now, albeit with a few more suits to his name.”

  “Do you suspect him of doing away with the old man, and covering his tracks by coming to you?”

  “You are very blunt, Mr. Soter.”

  “I say what others think, especially in the confines of a Chancery chamber.”

  Quayle, who couldn’t hold a shiny new guinea in his hand without seeking the tarnish upon it, or look upon a beautiful woman without picturing the hag that she would become, acknowledged the truth of what I had said with a gentle incline of his head.

  “In answer to your question, no, I don’t believe Forbes has done his uncle some harm. He’s not the kind, and had he commissioned someone to act on his behalf, then I would know about it. But there is a mystery here: Lionel Maulding is among the most private of men and begrudges any time spent away from his home. He comes to London to discuss business once a year, and even that is a great chore for him. I make sure that there are adequate funds in his accounts to meet his needs, and I look after his investments in order that this may continue to be the case.”

  Look after them, I thought, and charge a fat fee and a fine commission in the process. Now we came to it. If Maulding was dead, then his nephew would be on that money as soon as the corpse was identified. It would vanish in fineries and fripperies, and Quayle’s income would be diminished accordingly. Quayle didn’t look as if he spent much, but he was fond of money, and he didn’t relish the thought of anyone’s reducing the flow of it into his pocket.

  “What do you want me to do?” I asked.

  Quayle slid a manila folder across his desk.

  “Find him. All the information you’ll need is here, along with a couple of fairly recent photographs of Maulding. I’ll pay your usual fee plus any expenses, and there’ll be a bonus in it if you can close this business quickly. Fawnsley will advance you a week’s pay and some coin for your pocket. Naturally, you’ll provide receipts.”


  “There’s an inn at Maidensmere, which is the nearest village to Maulding’s place, although I hear his house has enough rooms to accommodate a battalion. If you choose to stay there, the housekeeper will make up a bed for you. She doesn’t live in the house but arrives first thing in the morning and departs after dinner, or she did while Maulding was still in residence. It was she who raised the alarm. She’ll look after you, and it might save us a shilling or two if you stay elsewhere than at the inn. Look through Maulding’s papers. Find out if there are any unusual patterns of expenditure. Examine his correspondence. I trust you. I know you’ll keep your mouth shut, unless someone raises the issue of errant lieutenant generals.”

  I stood.

  “And what if I discover that something has happened to him after all?” I asked. “What if he’s dead?”

  “Then find a resurrectionist,” said Quayle, “because I want Lionel Maulding brought back alive.”


  MAIDENSMERE LAY close to the eastern extreme of the Norfolk Broads, an area of about 120 square miles, much of it consisting of navigable waterways, both rivers and lakes, or broads in the local parlance. The village was equidistant from the towns of West Somerton and Caister-on-Sea and close to Ormesby Broad, but by the time I arrived it was late in the evening, and the waters were only patches of silver in the moonlight. No one was due to meet me at the station, and I spent some of Quayle’s money on the relative luxury of a night at the Maidensmere Inn. As Quayle had indicated, a room was available for me at Bromdun Hall, Maulding’s home, but I had decided to wait until the morning before taking up residence. I ate a good meal of roast lamb and allowed myself an ale or two before bed, but I did so as much for the company as the taste of the beer. For a man in my line of work, much can be learned of a new place by talking a little and listening more, and Maidensmere was small enough for a stranger to be of passing interest to the locals.

  When I was asked my business in Maidensmere, as I inevitably was, I told the truth, more or less: I was there to do some work on behalf of Lionel Maulding, and I would be staying at Bromdun Hall until that work was completed. News of Maulding’s disappearance did not appear to have circulated as yet, a testimony to the loyalty of his housekeeper, Mrs. Gissing, and Maulding’s solitary ways. It appeared that Maulding was rarely seen in the village and was considered, at worst, as harmlessly eccentric by his neighbors. But then, this was the old kingdom of East Anglia, which had always regarded itself as somehow different from the rest of England, exhibiting a tolerance for separateness, for otherness. If Lionel Maulding wanted to maintain
a private existence, then there were many others like him in these parts, sharing his outlook if not his wealth. I saw no meaningful glances exchanged at the mention of his name, and nobody skulked away into the night, his features clouded with guilt. Such giveaways were the stuff of the Sexton Blake stories in the Union Jack, which was why you had to pay only tuppence for them. The real world was gray with complexity.

  There was only one reference to Maulding that I failed to understand, although it amused the assembled locals.

  “You a bookkeeper, then?” asked the landlord, all muttonchop whiskers and red-faced good cheer, when I told him of my purpose. He tipped a wink to his audience. “A bookkeeper, aye, lads?”

  They all laughed, and then laughed the harder when it was clear that I did not understand the reference.

  “You’ll see, sir,” said the landlord. “No harm meant, but you’ll see.”

  And off he went to call time, and off I went to my bed.

  I slept little that night, which made it no different from any other. I could not recall the last time I had slept through from darkness until dawn. I liked to think that I had learned to survive on less rest than others needed, but surviving and living were not the same. Only shortly before sunrise did I manage at last to snatch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. I slept through breakfast, but the landlord’s wife had set aside some ham and eggs for me, kept warm over a pot of boiling water that she then used to make tea. She talked as I ate, and I was content to listen. She was much younger than her husband and had lost a brother at the Somme. Someday, she said, she hoped to visit his grave. She asked me what the countryside looked like, over there.

  “It wasn’t much to see when I left it,” I said, “but I expect the grass has grown back now, and there are flowers in the meadows. Perhaps some trees have survived. I don’t know. But it won’t be the same as it was before, not for anyone.”

  “And you?” she asked gently. “You must have lost someone, too?”

  But she already sensed the answer. She would not have asked otherwise. Women have a way of detecting absences.

  “We all lost someone,” I said, as I stood and wiped my hands and mouth.

  I could see that she wanted to inquire further, but she did not. Instead she said, “Pain and loss are so strange, are they not?”

  “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

  “I mean that we have all suffered in the same war, and we all have spaces in our lives now that were once filled by people whom we loved, but none of us experiences it in exactly the same way,” she said, and her gaze was set far from me and far from the inn. “When we talk about it—if we talk about it—nobody quite understands what we’re saying, even when we’re speaking to someone who is also living with such loss. It’s as if we are speaking versions of the same language, but the most important words have slightly different meanings to each one of us. Everything has changed, hasn’t it? It’s just as you said: the world can never be the same as it was before.”

  “Would you want it to be so?” I said. “The seeds of the war were sown in the old world. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of it all is that those seeds have been blasted from the earth and will never grow again.”

  “Do you really believe that?” she said.


  “I don’t, either. But we have to hope, don’t we?”

  “Yes,” I said, “I suppose we do.”

  MRS. GISSING came to the inn shortly after. She was a small, dour woman of indeterminate age but probably somewhere between forty and fifty, and dressed entirely in black. The landlord’s wife had told me that Mrs. Gissing lost two sons in the war, one at Verdun and the other at Ypres, and was now entirely alone, having been widowed when her boys were still infants. It was about a mile or so to Bromdun Hall, and Mrs. Gissing informed me that she usually walked to and from there, so I walked with her.

  We had to pass through the village to reach Bromdun Hall, and the usual greetings were given and received, although nobody asked me my name or my business, and I could only assume that those who did not know did not care, and those who did care already knew from the men who had kept me company at the bar the night before. At the center of the village was a small green, and on it stood a war memorial with fresh flowers laid at its base. Mrs. Gissing kept her face to the road, as if she could not bear to look at the monument. Perhaps I should have kept quiet but, as Quayle pointed out, I had a perverse habit of speaking my mind, and the landlord’s wife had set me to thinking.

  “I was sorry to hear of your loss,” I said to Mrs. Gissing.

  Her features tightened for a moment, as though reacting to a physical pain, then resumed their previous expression.

  “Twelve boys left this village and never came back,” she said. “And the ones who did come back left something of themselves over there in the mud. I still don’t understand the point of it all.”

  “I was there, and I don’t understand the point of it, either,” I said.

  She softened at that: just a little, but enough.

  “Were you at Verdun, or Ypres?” she asked. I heard a kind of hope in her voice, as though I might have been able to tell her that I knew her sons, and they had spoken of her often, and their deaths were quick, but I could tell her none of those things.

  “No. The war ended for me at High Wood.”

  “I don’t know where that is.”

  “The Somme. The French call it Bois des Fourcaux. It has something to do with pitchforks. There was a place called Delville Wood nearby, but the men I served with always called it Devil’s Wood. They didn’t clear it after the war. They say thousands of bodies are still buried there.”

  “You left friends there?”

  “I left everything there. I don’t suppose it matters, though. The dead are past caring.”

  “I don’t know if that’s true,” she said. “I talk to my boys, and I feel them listening. They listen, the dead. They’re always listening. What else is there for them to do?”

  And she said no more.

  BROMDUN HALL was a huge, rambling pile set on about five acres, and every inch of the house spoke of slow decay. It was falling into disrepair, and I could feel the drafts as soon as we were in sight of the place. I couldn’t imagine that one small woman would be able to maintain a house of that size, even with some help from its resident, but Mrs. Gissing said most of the rooms were used for storage and nothing more. Her main duties consisted of cooking three meals a day, doing laundry, and keeping a handful of rooms in a clean and habitable condition. Mr. Maulding, it seems, made few other demands upon her. She displayed considerable fondness toward him, though, and seemed genuinely concerned for his welfare. When I asked if she had considered calling the police at any point, she replied that Mr. Quayle in London had expressly ordered her not to do so. It was, it seemed, to Quayle that she had first reported her concerns about her master. Maulding’s nephew, Mr. Forbes, had learned of his absence only later, when he called at the house, as he was occasionally wont to do when he needed money, and Mrs. Gissing was forced to inform him of the situation.

  What I did learn was that Maulding had made a number of sojourns into London in the months before his disappearance, trips of which Quayle appeared to have been entirely unaware, for he had not mentioned them to me. Mrs. Gissing had been surprised by this change in her master’s routine but had made no comment upon it. On such occasions, a cab would collect him at the door first thing in the morning, deliver him to the station, and then return him to his home following the arrival of the last train from London. He had made three such trips and had always informed Mrs. Gissing the day before of his intention to travel.

  “Is it possible that he might have gone to London without your knowledge and simply not have returned?” I asked.

  “No,” she said, and her tone brooked no contradiction. “He always got Ted to take him to the station, and bring him home after, and he always made his timetable known to us. He’s a delicate man, Mr. Maulding. He h
ad polio as a boy, and it left him with a twisted right leg. He can’t walk very far without it causing him pain. It’s one of the reasons why he has traveled so rarely. There’s just too much discomfort in it for him.”

  “And do you have any idea where in London he might have been going, or whom he might have been seeing?”

  “He didn’t share such matters with me,” she said.

  “Had he any enemies?” I asked.

  “Lord, no,” she said. “He had no friends, neither—not because there was anything wrong with him,” she hastened to add. “He just had all that he needed here.”

  She gestured to the house, which was now looming above us.

  “This was—” She corrected herself. “This is his home. He didn’t want to go out into the world, so he found a way to bring the world to him.”

  It was an odd thing to say, and I didn’t comprehend her meaning until I entered the house itself, and then I understood.

  There were books everywhere: on the floors, on the stairs, on furniture both built for that purpose and constructed for other ends entirely. There were bookshelves in the main hallway, in the downstairs rooms, and in the upstairs rooms. There were even bookshelves in the bathroom and the kitchen. There were so many volumes that, had it been possible to extract the skeleton of the house, its walls and floors, its bricks and mortar, and leave the contents intact, then the shape of the building would still have been visible to the observer but constructed entirely from books. I had never seen anything like it. Even the reading rooms of the British Library itself seemed to pale beside it. Standing among all those books it was possible to believe that there was no other space in the world so crammed with manifestations of the printed word than Lionel Maulding’s home.

  As I walked through the house, Mrs. Gissing at my heels, I examined the titles. I found books on every subject and in every major language. Some were so large that special tables had been made to hold them, and to move them safely would have required two men. Others were so small that they were kept in display cases, a magnifying glass lying nearby so that the microscopic print within could be made readable.