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Fingers to the Bone
As part of Bristol's Brunel 200 celebrations, crime writer Andrew Taylor penned a whodunit tale set in the engineer's time and featuring the man himself. Read the installments here.
FINGERS TO THE BONE
A Penny Dreadful
with illustrations by Simon Gurr
1: The Arteries of Wealth
Robbie Trevine saw Mary Linnet before she saw him. She was standing under the archway, tucked in the angle between the wall and a trolley laden with corded boxes. She wore a dark cloak that belonged to her mother, and she had drawn up the hood, holding it across her face with her hand. Her fingers were white and thin, like bones.
Two trains had recently come in, one of them Robbie's, and people hurried through the archway to the city of Bristol beyond. He wriggled through a group of soldiers, arrogant in scarlet and gold, and touched her on the arm. She flinched and pulled away, jarring her shoulder on the wall. She glared at him as if he was a stranger.
“Mary, what is it? It's me.”
“Creeping up like that! You scared the life out of me!”
“What are you doing? Collecting?”
“No.” She looked away. “Not today.”
Sometimes Mary collected money for the Rodney Place Missionary Society, though usually she took her box up the hill to Clifton or down to Queen Square, where the pickings were better because the people were rich enough to afford to be generous. Sometimes she was sent further afield, to Bath or Chippenham or Swindon. The railways had made the world smaller, more manageable.
“So why are you here?” Robbie asked.
“Taking the air.”
“Here? At Temple Meads?”
“Why not? The doctor brought a nurse, Mrs Allardyce. She's sitting with Ma.”
“How is she?”
“No better. Worse if anything. And what are you doing here?”
“Tried for a job. Just digging, that was all. Foundations for a signal box. But they'd already -”
“Robbie,” she cut in. “Go now, please. Go.”
He gawped at her. “But why?”
A door had opened on the other side of the porter's trolley. A man laughed. A cloud of cigar smoke wafted through the air.
Mary gripped his arm. “Too late. Look at that notice. You don't know me.”
“You've lost your wits.”
“Just do as I say.”
He turned away and pretended to study a notice concerning the transport of livestock on the Great Western Railway. The fact he could read it all was due to Mary's mother. Several gentlemen emerged through the doorway. They exchanged farewells and most of them strolled through the archway to waiting carriages.
But two of the gentlemen lingered. Side by side, cigars in hand, they surveyed the seething crowds. Porters shouted and cursed. Trains murmured and hissed and rattled. The sounds rose to the high vault of the roof.
“Ten years ago this wasn't here, Sir John,” said the younger and smaller of the two. “Twenty years ago it was barely conceivable. Thirty years ago it would have been beyond the wildest dreams of an opium eater.”
“Impressive, I grant you,” answered his companion, a white-haired gentleman of perhaps sixty years of age. “But the noise is intolerable.”
“Noise? Yes, indeed. It's the sound that money makes. The Great Western Railway has restored prosperity to the towns it touches. Railways are the arteries of wealth. As you yourself will discover, I trust, when the Lydmouth and Borders Railway is built.”
“You go too fast for me, sir.”
“Because there is no time to waste!” cried the younger man, waving his cigar. “The fruit hangs ripening on the tree. If we do not pluck it, then someone else will. Which is why my directors and I are so desirous of your joining us on the board. Where Sir John Ruispidge leads, other men will follow. Your position in the county, sir, your influence with the Administration, your friends in Parliament – you have it in your power to smooth our way considerably and, I may add, to reap a just reward for doing so. Once the line is built, you may transport your coal at a fraction of the price you now pay, and at many times the speed. The general prosperity the railways bring – the freer movement of people and capital – cannot but have a benevolent effect on the fortunes of all those concerned.”
“Ah, but the investment must be considerable. Nothing begets nothing, as the Bard tells us.”
“I speak from experience. You must allow me to show you the figures from South Devon.” There was another wave of the cigar. “And consider the convenience of it. You will be able to travel from your country seat to your house in Town within a day, and in the utmost comfort. If Lady Ruispidge desires quails in aspic from Fortnum's, they could be on her table within a few hours.”
“You are a persuasive advocate.” Sir John took out his watch. “Alas, I must leave you until tomorrow.”
“Good God! Is that a Breguet watch?”
“It is indeed. You have sharp eyes, Mr Brunel.”
Robbie's eyes swung towards the little man. The great Brunel himself!
“I trust I have a sharp eye for any piece of machinery so elegantly conceived and finely constructed as one of Monsieur Breguet's watches. But in this case I have a personal interest. My father sent me as a very young man to work for Monsieur Breguet in Paris. He told me there was no better person from whom I might learn what I needed.”
Watch in hand, Ruispidge bowed. “Your father was indeed a man of perspicacity.”
The watch was dangling on its chain from the old man's hand, swinging to and fro like a pendulum, coming perilously close to the wall. Mr Brunel, Robbie thought, was growing agitated for the watch's safety.
At that moment, the world tilted on its axis and became an entirely different place. Mary came to life. His friend Mary, whom Robbie had known since he was a child in short-coats; who had played the part of sister to him for most of his life; who went to church at least once, usually twice, on Sundays – his friend Mary, with whom he was more than half in love – well, she picked up her cloak and skirt with her left hand and ran forward, keening like a madwoman.
She snatched the old man's watch from his hand. Sir John and Mr Brunel froze, both with their cigars moving towards their open mouths. Mary dived into the crowded station yard, dodging among the carriages and horses and wagons until she was lost in the seething mass of humanity.
last updated: 11/03/2008 at 10:55