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Thursday 28 May 2020

๐Ÿ“š Segment 4: Mudlarks and the Silent Highwayman - Alan M. Clark

Welcome to the fourth segment in the serialisation of Mudlarks and the Silent Highwayman, an Historical Supernatural Illustrated Novelette by (, IFD Publishing, 69 pages) set in 1884 Victorian London.

"A time when the majority of transportation employed horses, the streets were littered with dung and awash in over ten thousand gallons of equine urine each day. That and the leakage from overflowing cesspits and privy vaults found its way into the River Thames when the rains came. As a result, the river reeked.

The people of London recognized that much illness came from the river. The common belief was that illness was born on bad smells—miasma as it was called—and that people became ill when breathing the malodorous air. The city was in fact suffering outbreaks of deadly waterborne illness during a time when much of the science of microbes was still under debate.

I write this during the COVID-19 flu pandemic, and while knowing something of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic that infected approximately 500 million people. In comparison, the waterborne epidemics of Victorian London were small events, except to those who suffered through them."
- Alan M. Clark.

Mudlarks and the Silent Highwayman is a story of hope enduring in the midst of illness and death.

If you missed the previous segments, you can catch up, find out more about the story, its serialisation and Alan M. Clark here, or jump to the segment you missed by using the links below.

|| Synopsis || Segments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 || About the Author ||

      Filthy and panting heavily in the chill autumn air, Albert arrived at the shadows under the West India Docks Pier. He was relieved to find his shoes, socks, and jacket still in the spot where he’d hidden them; a hole beneath a collapsed stone stairway that began at the base of the eroded embankment. Though his shoes had become hopelessly ragged—holes in their soles and the right one missing its heel—another scavenger would gladly take them. The leather alone could be sold to makers of Prussian-blue pigment.
      Mr. Halpert, the marine store dealer, would buy almost any common item found along the river, if only for a tiny sum. He’d take anything made of metal, any type of bone, any spun or woven materials, as long as the items weren’t too rotten. Those who made fertilizer would buy items of paper, wood, or small dead animals.
      Albert took the easiest route back to street-level, a steep erosion seam, worn into the crumbling bank by weather and the passage of countless others like him.
      Seeing Thomas Conway standing near the cast iron bridge of the pier, Albert hid behind a stack of containers. Not wanting the bother of talking to the boy, he would wait for him to turn and look away before crossing the road.
      The tow-headed child, a year younger than Albert, stood about five feet from where the bridge met the river bank at the end of Cuba Street. Thomas craned his neck as if looking for someone. He seemed unaware that he was in the way, as a group of merchants moved around him. One of the gentlemen smacked him on the back of the head as he went by. Thomas stumbled under the blow and ran into a laborer carrying a heavy coil of cable. The man shoved the boy to one side, nearly knocking him down. The lad took the rough treatment without complaint.
      New to the river banks and green, the younger boy was a nuisance. His clothing—gray woolen jacket, blue cotton shirt, brown woolen breeches, and gray socks—though worn and patched many times over, didn’t look ragged. His brown shoes had been carefully repaired with pieces of black leather. Someone looked out for the boy.
      “Where’s the best place to search for valuables,” Thomas had asked on the day they’d met.
      “Salvage turns up most anywhere along the river,” Albert said, with an indefinite wave toward the water. “The thing is to be the first to find it. Take care not to anger the others with prying questions.”
      The advice did little good. The younger boy tried to befriend and question all the other scavengers in a similar way. He had purple bruises and a black eye after approaching George Hardly. Then, Thomas’s father, a frightening Irishman who earned writing gallows ballads, came to the river and set the scavengers straight on how his son should be treated.
      Thereafter, none of the boys, nor the few girls who scavenged the river, would talk to Thomas. All, that is, except for Albert, and he made certain no one saw him speak to the lad.
      When Thomas finally turned and looked away, Albert slipped from behind the containers and hurried into Cuba Street, mixing with those walking beside the warehouse to his right. He thought he’d got by unnoticed.
      No such luck. “Albert!” Thomas cried. Something about his tone suggested he’d found the one he sought.
      Albert stopped, looked around, saw no one of any concern watching. He walked back around to the western wall of the warehouse and faced the river as the boy approached.
      Thomas held a single leaf torn from a newspaper or a magazine between two of his grubby fingers, as if he didn’t want to hold the page tightly. A breeze tried to snatch the paper away. With a grimace of reluctance, he added more fingers to his grip.
      “My mother give me this. It’s from Punch. It’s old, but she says he’s still on the river, looking to nail children, and take them to the underworld.”
      Albert looked at the illustration on the yellowing, wrinkled page. The engraving depicted a phantom in the form of a cloaked skeleton, rowing a boat on the river. Dead animals bobbed on the nearby surface of the water. “Looks a bit like Hardly, does he?”
""The Silent Highwayman, Your Money or Your Life"
Cartoon as commentary on the health of the River Thames and the threat that its water posed to the people of London.
Punch magazine, July, 1858"
      “You don’t think…?” Thomas asked, his eyes wide with fear.
      “No,” Albert chuckled to hear the boy take the suggestion seriously. “What are the words beneath the picture,” he asked, embarrassed to reveal he couldn’t read.
      “‘The Silent Highwayman: Your Money or your Life.’” Thomas’s dirt-smudged brow furrowed with concern.
      “He the ghost of a waterman?” Albert thought about his father, presumed dead.
      “No, he’s not like us—never lived among us—an evil on the water, is all. Mother says he puts the bad smells in the river, the ones what make illness. Then he harvests the children as die, takes them away with him.”
      That sounded something like what Mum had said about illnesses.
      Albert’s father, Albert Senior or just Papa, had talked about a ferryman of the dead, named Charon. Papa’s mother, whose family had come from Greece, had filled him full of ancient Greek tales that he shared with young Albert. “Belief in Charon is very old,” he’d said. “My mum thought him mere fancy. But serving in the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, I met some who still believe we cross over a river to reach the afterlife. Told one fellow I’d been a waterman and he looked at me like he were seeing a ghost, had no more to do with me after that.”
      With his father’s dread description of the gaunt Charon, Albert had found a fear of one day meeting up with the ferryman. Since his father had abandoned the family, Albert tried not to think about the things he’d said.
      Thomas’s picture of the Silent Highwayman, had resurrected the foreboding, and Albert got a chill.
      Since beginning his work of mucking about in the river, he’d become ill numerous times, mostly ailments of the gut, yet he’d also had sore eyes and skin, strange rashes, and cuts on his feet, legs, and hands that had swelled with corruption and given him fevers before slowly healing. He’d succeeded in hiding most of that from Mum.
      Albert looked out on the water for the Silent Highwayman, glanced around the vicinity of the pier again to make certain they weren’t watched. George Hardly stood out in the water two hundred yards away, poking around the weed and refuse caught up on the stump of a rotten dolphin.
      Turning back to Thomas, Albert saw the boy’s eyes brimmed, tears glistening, ready to fall.
      Is he truly so fearful?
      “She doesn’t want me to work the river,” Thomas said. “I-I don’t want to believe her.”
      Thomas’s mother didn’t want him working the foreshore no doubt for the same reasons Mum didn’t want Albert doing it: the risks of disease and accidents. And Thomas’s mother was trying to dissuade her son with fear, much the way Mum had tried to scare Albert. Mum knew nothing of the dangers of the likes of Hardly. Albert had told her he worked as a pure finder, collecting dog shit from the streets for the Rouel Tannery in Bermondsey.
      “Do you believe he’s on the river?” Thomas asked, waving the illustration in his hand. He gave an impression he might not want the answer. “Have you heard anyone say?”
      Albert wanted to point to Hardly—still poking around the rotten dolphin—and say, He’s the one you should worry about. Instead, he decided he should try having a hard heart. Thomas’s fear of the phantom might keep him off the river. “A word or two…”
      Thomas’s look of concern deepened and his eyes grew wide. He let go the magazine page. The paper flipped over and lifted on the breeze, floating around the corner of the warehouse.
      The younger boy turned the corner too, and ran away from the river along Cuba Street.
      The page danced upward through the hazy air, flying northward. Though Albert had a chuckle watching the boy run, he didn’t like encouraging Thomas’s fear.
      Mum had done the same to him, putting the grundylows in his head. Whether the fears were well-founded or pure fancy, Albert did have a feeling that something more terrible than George Hardly made sinister mischief along the river.Occupied with his dark thoughts, he sat, donned his tattered socks and raggedy shoes, and trudged home.

Mudlarks and the Silent Highwayman copyright © 2020 Alan M. Clark

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Alan M. Clark said...

Thank you!

BooksChatter said...

Hi Alan, our pleasure!


Joyce Burke said...

Thanks for this bllog post