Issue 114, Spring 1990
Three were we. We were three. Roaming the night. In our stagecoach, Netley, he drove. Sickert charmed them, Sickert the painter, charmed the whores, up to us, from the streets. I lulled them, one by one, to easy death, with poisoned grapes, then opened them, sliced with knives, I William Gull, the Crown physician. We three frightened, we ordinary three, a whole century. To oblige Victoria, whose helpless grandson, little Prince Eddy, married a slut. In sordid secret. Four women knew. Four women died. At our hands. I lopped innards. To a clip-clop. A bloody trinity. We were that. Serving the Queen. The blackmail coach. The Kipper team. Sent our letter To the Press. Address: ’’From Hell.’’ No, another place. Then we stopped. Grapes, knives, coach. All three gone. All three men. All four women. No one caught. Much too clever. To be famous. London loved us.
No carriage could come bursting through the wrought-iron gates alongside Number 74; it would have to come along the street, and it did, advancing quite slowly, quietly, the dumpy figure of Netley muffled up against the night’s warmth as if he paid the weather no heed but lived in a climate of his own, unreachable, unswayable. This, Sickert thought, was likely to be the only expedition, granted a little luck in finding the women. The only snag was likely to be Marie Kelly, who had made a habit of never being where she was supposed to be. As he stood there, after nodding curtly to Netley, who was uninclined to speak, Sickert had one of those wonderful bits of awareness that kept him sane: he was still in his twenties, his late twenties to be sure, and much of his life was before him, full of wonders, triumphs, and masterpieces; he could ask no more of life, and the very idea was going to see him through tonight, just so long as he believed in himself. In a way, he was privileged, called to Royal Duty just before midnight, with one of the most famous physicians in the land. Part of him chilled, though, at the mind’s-eye image of Gull, who would have no idea how well-equipped Sickert was against attempts on his person, that preposterous chance sired by suspicion upon sheer nerves. Slid down his stocking, point aimed toward his shoe, a long, somewhat ornamental dagger (a painting prop) cooled his shin, just in case, although back in the studio, much to his surprise, he had discovered, in a nondescript old mahogany brown doctor’s bag, used mainly for discarded paints, a metal case about eight inches long and two inches wide with, nestling melodiously against one another, three sharp surgical knives within: an heirloom, a curio, a piece of flotsam from Denmark or Germany, perhaps, unearthed from the basement of a cabin trunk, proof that there was once a doctor in the family, back in the old Schleswig-Holstein days at Flensberg. An odd, unkind smile crossed Sickert’s face; he was thinking that the knife case had seemed to come from the very name, from the Flenspart at least, as if concepts could generate things. He had no time to pursue the notion as Gull came quietly out, descending the steps without looking; he too dressed for February although it was August thirtieth. Was there a sudden cold that only Sickert could not feel? There was rain in the air, but nothing untoward beyond that. An umbrella would have sufficed.
Off they went to the East End without a word spoken. Gull hunched bulkily in his seat, perhaps humming under his breath; if he had brought anything with him —sketch, photograph, document for the women to sign —it was buried in the folds of his enormous dark overcoat, and Sickert sighed —he had been hoping for a glimpse of Lady Gull, or of the daughter: a skirl of girlish laughter to reassure him, a final peck from the adoring wife. There in the semi-darkness he sat with the skull-puncturer, the vivisectionist, the maître d’ of the loonybin, who threatened others into joining him on unholy missions in what would soon be the dead of night, except for the class of woman on whose track they were. Out of sheer nerves, Sickert was swinging his foot, quite into the rhythm of it, until Gull leaned toward him and tapped his knee with something hard and angular, in a silent please, and Sickert could think only: Out of all the painters in London, he has chosen me; out of all the doctors in London, he has been chosen to see to this. Lord knows what the night will bring. He was glad of the knife, though if he could get it out fast enough he was uncertain; in the gloom he felt for it, making a slight crouch as if to adjust his sock, and there it was, like a cripple’s brace.