An extract from Chapter Four of
The Midnight Charter
An Extract from Chapter Four – The Glass-maker
Later in the story, Lily has ventured out of the Tower, as the new apprentice and assistant to Doctor Theophilus. They have pushed their way through the crowded streets of Agora, and have arrived at the shop of Miss Devine, a glassmaker. But, as soon as the Doctor disappears into the back room, Lily discovers that Miss Devine has a sideline in quite a different business – the extraction, bottling and selling of people’s emotions…
‘Your master may be some time, girl. He is selecting alchemical equipment from my storeroom.’ The glass-maker stepped round the counter, resting one hand on Lily’s shoulder. It felt hard and dry. ‘How long have you worked for this physician?’
‘Not long, madam,’ Lily said, easing herself away from Miss Devine’s touch, while keeping her eyes respectfully lowered. There was no point in being bold with someone she didn’t know, especially when she seemed to have power over her master.
‘Are you prepared for your duties?’ Miss Devine took a strand of Lily’s dark hair and twisted it round her finger. ‘You’ve seen work, girl, I can see it in your hands. But have you seen death?’
Lily felt her stomach begin to churn. She had tried to keep that thought out of her head.
‘Only once, madam,’ she said. ‘When I took the doctor his lunch . . . down in his workroom . . .’ The awful blank stare began to rise before her and she shuddered.
‘A doctor’s assistant must see much death, girl. Wounds and sickness, and then there are the flies . . .’ Miss Devine smiled. ‘Forgive me, but you must be prepared. You look pale at the thought of it.’
‘I . . .’ Lily swallowed. She could feel her insides squirming.
It was stupid; she had always told herself that a dead person couldn’t harm her, but . . .
‘It’s blood. It makes me feel sick . . . It . . .’ Lily faltered. She didn’t know the word for what she felt.
‘Don’t worry. Lily, is it?’ Miss Devine said, walking back behind the counter. ‘Disgust is natural, one of the prime emotions. Of course –’ she leaned forward, resting her arms on the counter, a motherly smile on her face – ‘it is also quite a valuable commodity.’
Lily looked up, startled, as Miss Devine continued.
‘Useful to people to have a little extra disgust sometimes. It works wonders as a slimming aid for society women, while a touch of repulsion helps people to take a more balanced view of their business. I do quite a brisk trade in disgust. And a child’s disgust is the freshest, of course, before we become hardened to the world.’
Lily looked up. All around her, the shelves stretched up to the ceiling. On them, the tiny bottles clustered together, hundreds of them, perhaps thousands. And each one, every one, contained part of someone, some piece of their mind, boiled down and ready for sale. She shuddered.
‘Miss Devine . . .’ Lily stopped. It seemed unnatural; her feet itched to run away, to wait for the doctor outside. But then again, what use was disgust? Fear kept her safe, anger gave her drive, but disgust? She could have done without that when they served food at the orphanage.
‘In payment for some of that glassware that your master is choosing, shall we say?’
Miss Devine pulled forward another length of paper and cut it off with a blade of glass. Lily watched as the contract formed before her. Three pieces of alchemical equipment in exchange for her disgust. She felt dazed, still not quite able to take it in. Her heart was beating in her mouth. But then, out of her churning thoughts, a practical voice asserted itself. She would be able to help the doctor without flinching; he could continue his research. It would solve so many problems.
She pressed her ring down into the warm wax.
Miss Devine rolled up the paper and drew aside a curtain in a corner of the room. Beyond it, a dark chamber filled with a large and tangled shadow greeted Lily’s eyes. As Miss Devine brought in the lantern, the light gleamed off a web of glass tubing curling round in a labyrinth of globes and beakers. In the far corner, a mass of pipes fed into a large, squat device covered in cogs and pistons. In the centre of the apparatus, beneath the largest of the glass spheres, there was a leather chair.
‘Sit down, Lily. It will only take a moment.’
Lily moved forward, her footfalls resonating through the apparatus. As she sat in the chair, a feeling of unease stole over her. Miss Devine lowered a mask of smoked glass from the middle of the machine. Lily opened her mouth to speak, but her words were stifled as the glass-maker covered her face with the mask. She could feel tubes spiralling out from it as it pressed down over her eyes, nose and mouth.
‘Don’t move, my dear,’ Miss Devine called out, as she scuttled across to the machine in the corner.
Lily lifted her hand to move the mask, deciding to speak, to say that perhaps this wasn’t a good idea.
There was a deep hum. The machine was on.
For a moment, Lily felt nothing. Then she became aware of a rushing behind her ears, as though wind was howling through the pipes above her. The noise grew louder and louder. Her head was filling with air and the wind was reaching down, deeper and deeper . . .
Then, rising inside her, Lily felt happiness, sadness, fear, elation, horror, indifference: each flashed through her more intensely than ever before, bubbling up from within, passing into her head and then, with a rush, out through her eyes and mouth. Dimly, she saw a rainbow of fizzing, glowing gases escaping up into the tubes above her, spinning faster and faster round the web of glass beyond.
Lily was numb. She sat dully, watching the colours whirl. Somewhere above, she saw a thick, black gas separate from the others, saw it sink down, condensing, dripping into a flask beside her – her disgust. She felt emptied out, hollow. Then there was another noise. Lily turned her eyes. The doctor had pushed his way into the room. He was shouting something, but she was too tired to listen, too sluggish to move her head. He pulled one of the controls.
With a rush, the machine shuddered into reverse. For one awful moment, the coloured gases hovered above her. Then they all fell at once, streaming into her. Lily gasped, clutching at the mask, trying to tear it off her face as every emotion she had ever felt forced its way into her head. Laughing and crying, screaming and smiling, she leapt up from the chair. Behind her, she heard the wrench of glass and then a crash. The mask flew from her face, shattering on the ground.
She looked up as the doctor loomed towards her, his face full of rage. She had never seen him angry before. Even as she looked, Lily felt another surge of emotion, but just one this time – fear. Overwhelming, petrifying fear of that face. She turned and ran.
She ran through the shop. She ran out into the streets. She kept running, faster and faster, running until her legs ached and her lungs screamed for rest. But it was not until the fear faded, until her overwhelming panic settled again into the back of her mind, that she stopped and sank to her knees, gasping from exhaustion.
She lay down in the filth and mud, and closed her eyes.
Website and content © David Whitley - 2013
Author photographs by Gordon Ward
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