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HerculeHastings

R The Gentlemen from the Foreign Land

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It was amazing, in the opinion of Valéry Dupond, that England could be so consistent with everything, including (or perhaps especially is the right word) the quality of its food. Together with his assistant, Francis Bellamy, the Frenchman had visited numerous towns and cities of this foreign land, and never had he regretted leaving them a few days later with not even a last look at their restaurants.

“Have you perchance tasted their jams, Francis?†he cried, waving his hands at the outrage, as the train rattled slowly on its tracks to its destination, London. “They are but abominations of the spirit of cooking! All the jams, be they strawberry or orange or any of their highly creative variations, taste the same! Never have I encountered a decent jar of jam ever since I left France.â€

He was speaking in English to his French assistant. It was heavily accented, but Valéry was not a man who believed in tainting languages by mixing them together. Not even a “bien!†or “oui!†was allowed in his presence. Unfortunately, it was really only Francis who suffered under this strictly-enforced rule, for Valéry did not interact with many other people. The greatest hurdle, of course, was his obvious “foreignnessâ€. But even so, back in Paris, he had not had many friends, due to certain reasons he wished not to re-visit.

He looked with sudden fondness at Francis. Francis, the only companion he had now. Francis had joined him as an assistant, but he had somehow turned into some kind of secretary-butler mix. He arranged accommodation and travel for them both, and made sure that their clothes were cleaned and pressed. He was paid, of course, though both gentlemen were soberly aware that Valéry had no means of obtaining income, and his very survival hinged on the fortune of his ancestors, back in a happier time when people of his lineage were respected and granted useful employment, and not frowned upon as he was now.

The sorry time of reminiscence ended when the sliding door of their first-class carriage opened to reveal the food truck.

“Tell her, Francis, that I would be inclined to partake in some fish today, and to mind that they are well cooked. I cannot, try as I might, forget the meal we had in the last train to Derby,†he said stiffly as he lay himself on the bed and set the blanket neatly on top of his chest. It was quite impossible to be really hungry when the train rocked about so, and Valéry had always had a very weak stomach.

He closed his eyes and permitted Francis to serve as go-between with the food-bearing lady. A frown spread on his face. Something was preventing his slumber. A disturbance was present at a place not far away. His brain tingled. He tried turning to sleep on his side instead (a technique he had tried for years to no avail). The inexplicable force lingered.

A picture suddenly formed in his mind. There were people, a crowd of people, men, women and children alike. They were all expectant, hopeful and yet tense. Something had been promised to them, but he failed to probe further as to what it was. It was something they did not seem particularly clear about, themselves. As they milled about the wide room, waiting, all of a sudden an explosion of emotions unanimously surged. Whatever they had been waiting for had probably arrived. There was a frantic scuffle as people flocked to the front to surround something he could not see. A moan escaped his lips as the combined passions of all the people in the room threatened to overwhelm him.

And then one by one, as if someone had flicked a switch, there was nothing. He could detect nothing at all. Their minds seemed to have subsided into blankness.

Valéry woke up from this very queer dream drenched in perspiration.

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Francis Bellamy sat across from his employer, impatiently tapping out a rhythm on the windowsill. Outside, trees and cows passed by one after another in tedious succession, each pastoral scene changing to yet another of the same. Perchance London would provide some relief from the rustic charm that had long since ceased to evoke any feelings but ennui from the young man. Such backwards places had little to offer a burgeoning scholar; half of the "tried and true" remedies were as useful as prayers, and the other half as effective as poison. Then, their foolish superstition--to which they clung so resolutely--was entertained while true delving into the mysteries of life and beyond were spurned as quackery. No, they were quite fortunate to be leaving that behind. At the very least, London had to be better than the countryside, and maybe even on the level of Pisspot Paris.

Though Dupond had grievances of his own, apparently, and Francis obediently nodded his way through the latest tirade on English food, this time on the subject of their jams, occasionally interspersing a vague noise of agreement. They never left a place without an entire verbal dissertation on how horrendous the food was (which, truth be told, was usually accurate), but weren't there more pressing concerns? How they might replenish their dwindling resources, for one. Well, then again, that was why they were on this interminably slow locomotive; perhaps they could find some patron in the city interested in keeping some mildly amusing pet.

That wasn't to say that Francis disliked Dupond, however. His employer was frustrating, fussy, and frivolous, but in the end, he was a good master. He could have done much worse than this man, and not much better, especially given how Dupond was instructing him in controlling his minor powers. And he paid more than a fair wage, especially considering how they had yet to earn a stable income.

Francis's family hadn't been pleased, though. Dupond had long since fallen from grace; his parents were of the opinion that if Francis were to serve, it would be in his best interests to latch onto the coattails of a rising star, perhaps make a good marriage, and other such banal expectations. Well, he'd left that to his older brother and gone his own way, as usual. They just didn't understand.

Well, worst come to worst, I could become a petty magician, playing little tricks to earn a few pennies, Francis thought, sighing. The rattling of a cart drew him from his musings, and he realized that Dupond was giving him instructions for their meal. Politely, the assistant conveyed their needs to the lady, ordering some tea (one of the few things that this country could manage decently) and sandwiches for himself. By the time she returned, Dupond was already resting, his breathing slow and even as he lay on the bed. So Francis left the dish covered on the table, keeping an eye on it to make sure some errant bump didn't send the food crashing to the floor as he consumed his own.

And it was well that he did, since a sharp turn sent the platter careening away from him. Instinctively, he grabbed at it, but it was too far away for him to physically reach. Surprisingly, as it slid off the table, it began to hover in midair before meekly returning to its original place, Francis relaxing as he poured himself another cup of tea. His breathing had become irregular due to the effort of catching and moving the heavy tray, but even so, he was pleased with himself. As his master began to stir, Francis twitched his fingers once more, sending the covered dish to float obediently to the other man.

"The food arrived while you were resting," Francis stated simply by way of explanation. "Did you sleep well?"

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Valéry lay on the cabin bed for a while longer, breathing deeply. That had been a startling dream, and so uncomfortably real too. He had not the least idea what it signified, but a dreadful sense of foreboding had lingered over him, and it was with apprehension that accompanied the nauseous churning of his stomach (though that was to be expected, from this terrible train) that he greeted the impending arrival to London.

He glanced, from the corner of his eye, his breakfast hovering beside him, the work of Francis, who was showing promise in the honing of his craft. It was with great deliberation that he raised himself and extracted a plain white handkerchief from his pocket to wipe off some of the repulsive perspiration. Some of the droplets had fearlessly trickled down to his shirt, and were proving to be much more challenging to clean off.

He regretted asking for fish. The dream had drained off any appetite he had once borne, and the fish looked much too extravagant sitting on the platter. He raised his hand and used his own stronger psychic abilities to wave the dish to the side table.

“No, I did not,†he answered Francis now, quite bluntly. “The train, of course, was partly to blame, but it was not fully the cause. Francis, I had a dream, and it was most alarming. I dreamed of a procession of people of all kinds, be it man or woman, rich or poor. They seemed to have been waiting for something or somebody, and when the person arrived, suddenly, oh suddenly! I could see only blankness. Their minds had turned completely blank!†His face turned ashen pale at the memory.

“Francis, I am afraid. I do not understand what I saw.â€

~~~

A few hours later, the train slowed and a voice announced their arrival at King’s Cross Station, London. Valéry stared wordlessly out the train window as Francis readied their bags, and he continued this unfamiliar silence even after they got off the train and stepped out of the crowded station into the bustling, dirt-filled, noisy streets of London. He immediately got out a hanky to put over his nose and mouth. Everything appeared to be as usual, and nothing seemed to suggest that anything was amiss. He was possibly mistaken about the impact of his dream. And yet he was so sure…

“I trust we will stay at a lodging far removed from such wanton chaos?†he asked his assistant fussily. “I should like some traditional English peace and quiet, which young people do not seem to understand these days,†he shot a Look at Francis with a mix of irritation and envy. Why, back when he was a dapper youth, he had been just as energetic as Francis, perhaps more. And yet he was also certain that he was absolutely not as horrendous as some younger people they had met on their way here.

“Also,†he added on a more sombre note, “perhaps we should also proceed with caution. My dream may have been but just a dream, but I am not ready to take chances. Let us not socialise more than we have to, and not leave the house for long periods of time. Besides, Londoners are just as apt to evaluate us based on the place we come from and the language we speak. I should not like to associate with them any more intimately than necessary.†He quite literally turned up his nose as he spoke.

As they rounded the corner of the sidewalk, a sleek black car on the road turned past them. Valéry would not have given it a second glance, had the driver not looked at him in a strangely intense fashion. He hastily made to look to the front, his walking cane tapping nervously on the ground. That had not made for an amicable first impression of the city.

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Francis frowned as his employer pushed the tray aside, relating his dream--a vision?--to the young assistant instead. But then, he shrugged off the vague feeling of unease settling over him.

"Perhaps you will understand better when you see more," Francis suggested lightly with his penchant for practicality. "In any case, there is no need for us to worry ourselves over it for now. It seems there is nothing we can do, so let us continue as we planned until such a time that it becomes more comprehensible."

Even so, Dupond continued to fixate on what he had seen, passing the next couple hours in uncharacteristic silence. So Francis left the man to his thoughts, entertaining his own concerns for their immediate, tangible future. London, as a much more urbane society, might be more welcoming than their rural counterparts. And yet, for what reason might they dispense of their fellow countrymen to engage two Frenchmen? Novelty and exclusivity, perhaps. A fascination with the unfamiliar, maybe.

Francis turned his thoughts aside as the train slowed, pulling into the station. Immediately, he sprang into action, gathering their luggage from the racks and beginning to carry them out to the platform. His work was subtly eased with the convenient powers he was developing, ensuring that he didn't need to bear the full weight of their admittedly cumbersome bags. The station was crowded, loud and dirty, and Francis set his employer to making sure some wretched urchin didn't make off with their belongings. That would certainly be a fine way to complete these tiresome proceedings.

"I did consider your preferences in regard to our arrangements," the younger man swiftly reassured his mentor as Dupond began to wax querulous once again, his fit of melancholic introspection apparently over. "There is an agreeable lady who has offered us rooms in her establishment near the edges of this city, far from this hustle and bustle, yet still convenient for our purposes, I should believe.

"And as you wish," he agreed deferentially when Dupond advocated caution. It was always worth bearing in mind in a strange place, prophetic dreams aside. Grabbing a nearby, abandoned trolley, he started to load their baggage onto the cart before pushing it toward the street in search of transportation. His employer followed obediently behind him, and Francis left him with the trolley while he stepped out to hail a cab. Intent on his job, he only noticed the black car that so disturbed the other man as it barely avoided hitting him.

Cursing under his breath about the English, the assistant eventually managed to flag down a cabbie in search of fares. Loading their luggage into the trunk was a quick job with the man's assistance, and after Francis gave him the address, they were finally on their way.

Vaguely curious, he gazed out the windows at the passing city, taking in the various buildings and shops. It was quite different than his familiar Paris, and he felt a longing for the quaint sidewalk cafes, the aroma of freshly baked baguettes, and the musical tongue of his people. He'd been silly to expect the English capital to be on par with his beloved homeland's. These stiff-necked barbarians knew nothing of true art and beauty. Their buildings were ugly blocks of stone and brick, dismal gray and dirty red. Since they'd left Paris, Francis had never felt such homesickness as he was experiencing now, an icy hand clutching his heart that beat so frantically. His pulse fluttered like a butterfly within his veins, and he felt himself growing pale as he turned from the sights to stare resolutely at the back of the seat in front of him.

Finally, the car stopped in front of a charming old house with ivy creeping up yellow brick. The crowds that had been so prevalent were nowhere to be seen, and Francis paid the cabbie before unloading the trunk and sending the man on his way. A matronly woman emerged from the blue door facing them, beaming as she strolled down a cobbled pathway in the garden and called out to them.

"Bonjour, Messieurs! Bienvenue à Londres!"

Francis smiled as his native language fell upon his ear once more. When the woman finally reached them, he politely introduced the two parties. "Monsieur, Madeleine Cooper, a fellow expatriate. Madame, Valéry Dupond, my mentor. This is the fine lady who's graciously agreed to rent us the upper story of her abode while we remain here."

"Well, it's not as though it's of any use to me with my dear Richard gone these five years," the landlady interjected, blushing slightly at Francis's words. "I've dusted it in preparation for your arrival, and if you should need anything, you must let me know. Both of you would be welcome at my table, as well--it gets so lonely without any company in this old place. It would certainly be lovely to hear the civilized tongue once more. Here, let me show you to your rooms."

Francis took as much of the luggage as he could, gesturing for Dupond to follow the good woman as he took up the rear.

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“It is indeed a fine establishment you have procured for us, Francis,†said Valéry, his head bobbing in satisfaction as he surveyed their room. “Why, I have never seen a house so well-kept!â€

In truth, the establishment in question was a very simple one, and said upper storey was much smaller than some of the lodgings they had previously resided. Madame Cooper had indeed dusted the place as she said, but it was apparent that the place needed more than a little dusting. The floorboards made soft creaks when Valéry, undoubtedly the heavier-set man of the two, walked over them, and the wooden table had probably seen no small amount of maggot infestation in the five years since Monsieur Cooper’s presence. No, it would ordinarily not pass Valéry’s strict requirements, but he saw Francis shoot him a knowing look. The mistress of the house, of course, was a fine woman, and French too. One must not be too hard on such a generous widow, who had surely led a very hard life.

Madame Cooper proved to be a very amicable hostess over the next few days. She personally whipped up the most delicious dishes, including the foie gras that Valéry had so subtly hinted that he missed most from home. She told stories of the people in the town – nothing malicious, certainly, for she was not a gossip, she had stressed. There was a very friendly man who visited her in the initial period after Richard had passed away. He would help her sort out the funeral affairs, advise her on the procedure of renting her rooms out for income, and even took her to the doctor once she was unwell.

“He is one of the most helpful people in this town,†she said. “It would be wonderful if you could meet him as well.â€

Valéry looked at her dreamily. After a week of residing with her, he was quite prepared to declare London his permanent home, never mind the foul-smelling smoke or the perpetual dark clouds that hovered over the city. Truly, Madame Cooper was akin to the sun in this bleak gloomy city.

“I would be enchanted to meet this gentleman,†he said, completely ignoring the short cough that Francis let out, “who has rendered such great services to you, milady. If he is as upstanding as you say, he would make a very good friend indeed.â€

~~~

“I am sure, Francis, that even though I did caution against reckless behaviour, or that which draws undue attention unto us, this must surely be regarded an exception,†said Valéry impatiently later that night, as the two men stood in his room. “The man seems to have kindly rendered aid to Madame Cooper at a time of need. I could not refuse to meet him, right in front of her like that. That said, you may rest assured that I do indeed have no wish to see any fellow, and would prepare an excuse whenever the need arose. Pray do not distress yourself over this.†He sat on the bed and looked toward the window, away from Francis, in a huff.

Neither Madame Cooper nor Valéry spoke any more of meeting the gentleman, but a few days later a much more pressing situation arose which occupied all of the older gentleman’s attention. A girl had come up asking for a job, wishing to work for Madame Cooper as a gardener. Valéry had let out a choking sound and needed to excuse himself from his dinner. Once the girl had left, he had hastened to persuade his hostess against the employment.

“She is not to be trusted!†he said with much agitation, casting aside his roast duck in distress. “I… I cannot tell you why, but I do not feel comfortable at all about her, not at all!â€

“Well, it is not that I need a gardener with any immediacy, certainly,†said Madame Cooper, who was not little alarmed by this outburst. “But she seems a girl in need of money. Perhaps I could keep her for a few months at the least…â€

“No! No!†said her guest, shaking his hands violently. “She does not even seem human! Her mind has been wiped clean!â€

A moment of silence followed his reckless exclamation. Madame Cooper instinctively retreated, then blinked, and finally seemed to collect her senses.

“Pardon my impertinence, sir, but are you… a mind reader?†she asked hesitantly.

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Perhaps their lodgings were not as pleasant as those in which they had stayed before, but the proprietess and the price more than made up for it. She was a generous, gracious hostess and made every effort to ensure they spent their time in comfort. Francis had encountered the good lady by chance, the word of a casual acquaintance who had mentioned her in one of his innumerable letters to his contacts in search of any assistance in paving their way.

And so time passed relatively peacefully, with Francis continuing his studies in the privacy of their room and occasionally stepping out for an afternoon in the city to learn more about this new world. But more often than not, such adventures ended in disappointment that only confirmed for him the sad state of the English civilization. Thieves lurked in every alley beside the crippled and destitute. The streets stunk with discarded refuse. Filth and scum, all of it. Truly, this country had very little to recommend it, so Francis looked forward to the day that they might leave it all behind.

And other than the brief quibble with his mentor about meeting their hostess's benefactor, Francis found Dupond to be much less querulous in the more familiar, domestic setting. Madame Cooper still retained her skill in preparing the food of their homeland, precluding the need for them to seek nourishment in dubious English fare. The soft syllables of their native language seemed to weave a soothing song in the very air they breathed, easing their souls. And the lady turned out to have been decently educated, making her an excellent conversational partner on the nights that they sat with her in the parlor. It was really all quite refreshing after their other experiences in this horrendous country.

And so they were also perfect gentlemen in their interactions with the woman, passing their days in companionable company. They'd nearly settled into a comfortable routine until the incident of that girl.

She came during dinner, seeking employment, and Francis noticed his mentor being taken aback by her appearance. He was almost unconscionably discourteous, not only to the waif but also to the good madame. It wasn't until the girl left and Dupond returned to the table that Francis learned why. And the explanation sent chills up his spine, even as he hastened to reassure the woman.

"Perhaps what he means is that she does not seem to have any morals and may prove to be a slovenly worker," Francis suggested with an air of delicacy. "Many who come from the streets are such, and this country seems to have more than its fair share of the destitute and desperate. I've heard tales of truly terrible acts against an employer's confidence; a gang of rogues will send in some girl to their target's house. It might be as a maid, a cook, a gardener--and she will behave in a manner befitting her position. But some night, while the kind master and mistress are sleeping, she'll open the door for her comrades, who will steal anything of worth... and possibly even the lives of the good Christians who so generously accepted the girl.

"Though she may truly be seeking gainful employment, my master and I would be distraught if you were caught in such a confidence ploy. Please, madame, consider your decision very seriously and forgive Monsieur Dupond his outburst. He had only your safety in his heart."

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Francis. Francis had saved him again. Valéry was filled in equal parts with shame and remorse. He had carelessly given himself away, and if not for the sharp wit of his able assistant, would have had his secret exposed.

Yet the next few days proved that Madame Cooper had not believed them as fully as they had expected. She regarded them with nothing short of politeness, but without the friendly intimacy Valéry had come to admire. She did let the girl into her employment as well, despite his best efforts against the idea. Her argument, when he raised the matter again, was that he was a foreigner. He would know nothing of English girls. While he would concede that he could know anything of the morals and work attitude of a girl he had barely met, Valéry could not help sensing a deeper meaning behind Madame Cooper’s words. It was the first time she had addressed him as a foreigner.

He satisfied himself every day that Madame Cooper was still well and in her own mind, and refused to let the girl, whose name was Dorabelle, come into his proximity. Her mind was just as mysteriously blank as ever, and she hardly talked. She would only dust, and cook, and do her chores in a clockwork fashion. She was the epitome of a good housemaid, which pleased Madame Cooper immensely. Now bereft of his daily conversations with his landlady, Valéry could only focus his attention on the girl, trying to find out what she was planning.

A week later, Dorabelle asked for a day off, and he decided that this was a chance to answer all his doubts.

“Dépêchez-vous!†he said to Francis, momentarily departing from English in his agitation. “Put on that hat and coat quickly! We want to see where she goes!â€

It had been a while since Valéry departed from a sedentary lifestyle, and the stout gentleman found himself puffing after a brisk walk down the road, furtively following Dorabelle as she turned a corner, walked down a longer stretch of road and eventually reached a poorer part of town, an enclave of squalid housing stacked against one another. She turned a bend and disappeared down a narrow lane between two houses, and Valéry hastened to follow. When he arrived at the same lane that she had gone, though, he could only see the empty lane stretching out ahead of him, vanishing into an area of darkness. Dorabelle seemed to have disappeared.

“Come, Francis, let us walk down too,†he said with a gulp, for the space looked a little too cosy for him. He took a hesitant step forward, his shiny black shoes making a sharp contrast with the dusty stone ground. It looked as if nobody had stepped on it or cleaned it in a long time.

“Francis, maybe you should go first,†he said finally, retreating again and turning around to face his assistant.

All that greeted him were the surrounding slums. Nothing stirred.

Francis was not behind him.

“Francis?†he raised his voice in a panic, forgetting his intention towards stealth. “Francis, where are you?â€

He walked about in circles, checking every corner to ascertain that Francis was indeed not around. When had he left? Valéry had not noticed him for the past five minutes- no, probably longer than that. He returned to the alley where he had lost Dorabelle too. He shuddered. He was well and truly alone.

Did he even know the way back?

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