Domini Mortum

By Paul Holbrook

A supernatural murder mystery novel set in late Victorian London.

During my fourteenth year I saw my first man die.

This may, of course, not be such a shocking revelation to the average person, people die in their thousands every day. However the nature of my experience and its effect upon me is perhaps something which would not sit lightly upon the minds of normal men. I feel though, that by knowing the nature of this event there will be a better understanding of the type of man that I am and of the elements which make up the more complex areas of my personality.

I had always had a love of drawing and in creating illustrations, primarily just for myself to enjoy. My interests and aspirations however were not in the fine arts, in painting and suchlike, moreover it was in the graphic and detailed portrayal of life through the medium of sketched reportage. It was not for me to spend long hours in a studio, delicately using oil paints to create beautiful images of the world from a distance. No - it was about being there and documenting the brutalities and realities of life as it happened before me. This may not be thought of by those in respectable society as art, but for me it was art in its purest form, showing the world in all of its ugly splendour.

Aligned with this skill in graphic depiction was my burning interest in the macabre, those dark areas of life which are feared, so often ignored, but which live in the most shadowy recesses of the minds of us all.

My father, a liberally minded man in most accounts, despite his age, supported my interest, supplied me with the materials required and allowed me time away from my studies to venture into the city from the rectory where we lived on the outskirts of York.

I became a common but unusual sight on the streets, often sat upon the cobbles at the side of the road, pencil in hand and drawing life as it occurred around me. It was in these days that I loved my art; I was able to quickly capture the world, be it an altercation between two street traders or the poor and crippled begging for alms from a passing gentleman or lady.

On the aforementioned day, when I had not long reached fourteen, I had been filled with a sense of foolish bravery and had strayed from Stonegate and St Peters; the streets that I normally frequented, and moved towards the River Ouse, hoping to see the boats which ferried goods in and out of the city.

It was a fresh November morning and, as I reached Lendal Bridge to look out across the river, I espied the large factory on the other side, its chimneys sending out the sickly sweet smell of the produce created within. I knew of the factory of course, there were not many in York who didn’t. Established by Henry Isaac Rowntree, just eleven years previously, it had once been an iron foundry but had now moved on to more delectable fare.

All thoughts of river men now forgotten I strode across the bridge with purpose and headed straight through the wrought iron gates towards the main building. I had not thought of what I would say if challenged regarding my trespass, but it was of no matter to me. I wished to see what was within and perhaps even sketch the men at work in the factory. To my surprise I was not challenged in the slightest and managed to wander freely throughout the great rooms within which the men and women carried out their labour, creating confection to fulfil the new found desire for sweet goods and chocolate treats. The smell within was quite intoxicating and heady, so much so that I all but forgot my reason for intrusion as I gently stepped through, my nose held in the air and my eyes wide with wonder. It was only when a voice came from behind me that I shook myself from my awe.

“You’ll be delivering a message will you, lad?” I turned to see a broad man standing over me; his arms folded resolutely, his eye accusing.

“Why, yes, sir.” I answered, finding that the lie fell smoothly from my mouth. “I have a note regarding an order. I was told to give it to the store’s manager. Could you tell me where I would be finding him?”

He looked me up and down, his gaze finally resting upon the satchel at my side. It could have passed for a delivery boy’s bag.

“You want to go up those stairs,” he said pointing to the other side of the room. “Follow the gangway into the boiling room and keep going. The stores are through the door at the end.”

I turned to run towards the iron steps, it seemed best at this time to continue with the ruse.

“You hurry along now, boy!” He called after me. “And don’t you be stopping and disturbing nobody. They’re here to work!”

I touched the brim of my cap as I ran and started ascending the stairs to the metal walkway which ran near the roof of the room, along its length. From this height the view of the factory floor was impressive to say the least and I thought of stopping to make a quick sketch of the workers below. Looking down however, I could see the glare of the man still upon me and so, head down, I continued on to the end of the gangway to the door marked Boiling Room.

It was the heat of the room which affected me the most as I walked in. My clothes immediately stuck to my skin and I felt a cloying nausea within me as the mixture of moist warmth and the choking sweetness of the room assailed my body. The room itself was large although not as large as the main factory floor that I had just left. There were three large metal drums, each over twenty feet in height, which dominated the room and from each of these vats ran pipes which led off out of the room. Each drum was full of hot melted chocolate and stood on the walkway just ahead of me was a man armed with a long wooden pole which he used to stir each vat in turn.

The man was tall, thin and of older years. He wore a set of blue, loose fitting canvas overalls with a bib top which attached over his shoulders. Under these he wore a linen shirt which, although once white was now covered in brown stains and the dampness of sweat. On his head a blue cloth cap did a poor job of covering a mop of wiry grey hair which protruded from the bottom, sticking out in all directions, and equally thick, grey whiskers adorned his cheeks. He toiled in his task and, as I studied him, I noted that his lips constantly moved as he muttered to himself under his breath.

He had not noticed me and, seeing an opportunity, I paused briefly withdrawing my sketchbook and pencil from my satchel and began to sketch the man at work. He leaned as far as he could over the metal railing and waved his pole around in the thick, brown, creamy liquid. As he withdrew the pole to move on to the next vat, he looked up and saw me.

“What you doing, boy?” He shouted, his red puffed face glistening with sweat. I didn’t reply and hurriedly pushed the book back into my bag. My excursion into the factory had been nothing short of a disaster so far, I could not go back, I had already been challenged and forced to lie; to return now would only demonstrate my guilt and bring about deeper trouble than I wished to endure. Twenty yards past the chocolate stirrer was a set of metal steps leading down and I decided that the best escape was forwards to floor level where I could find a way out of the building and back to the relative safety of the city centre. He called out to me again but I continued to ignore him, lowering my head and walking towards the staircase behind him.

As I neared him I could hear him muttering to himself regarding my intrusion, cursing all born children and asking for a return to the days when a boy like me would have been forced into gainful but hard employment. Hearing his grumbles, I sped up, pushing myself forwards towards my goal. As I reached him, he suddenly turned towards me. His thin arms reached for my jacket, grabbing handfuls of cloth and pulling me towards him.

“Do you not answer when someone speaks to you?!” he spat in my face. “I asked you a simple question, boy!” There was a rattle in his voice as he pulled me closer to him; his face just inches from my own now and the thick stench of the man and his breath overcame the sweetness of the chocolate. “Where’s your tongue, boy? What are you doing here?!”

Fear hit me and I tried to wriggle free from his grasp; crying out I threw my arms up in an attempt to dislodge his hands. I must have misjudged the strength required for the task however, as he fell backwards, his lower back striking the gangway’s railing.

The next few moments have lived clearly in my memory ever since. Whenever I close my eyes I am able to replay them within my mind, like a zoetrope at a funfair, each individual image shown to me with near perfect clarity. My eyes did not leave his face, as his expression changed from anger to astonishment and finally to fear, as he realised what was happening to him. As he hit the barrier his feet must have slipped on the floor, flying forwards and upwards as he tipped over the top and began to fall. His hand reached out to grab at me again, not in anger or aggression but in pure fear for his life. As his fingers outstretched before me my first instinct was to grab at his hands. I resisted this urge.

The old man cried out as he disappeared over the edge and I lurched forward to watch him tumble into the vat of chocolate below. As he hit the surface my first thought was that it would be too thick for him to sink into, but I was wrong. The brown liquid sucked him down and within seconds he disappeared completely from my view, the only sign of his impact was the outline of his body shape left upon the skin of the surface.

There was little sound in the room, only the gentle bubbling of the chocolate, which I stood and watched for what seemed like an age. He was gone, drawn down into the molten sickly liquid, a sticky end indeed.

Suddenly panic hit me and I shook myself out of my torpor. I had to get away, run far away from this room before anyone realised what had happened.

As I turned to run however, a sudden noise caught my attention and, like a sweet but deadly volcanic eruption, the old man burst to the surface, gasping for air. His arms reached desperately up to me and he tried to cry out for help. Whatever sound he tried to make from his mouth however was lost in a morass of wet gurgling chocolate.

I reached for the long wooden pole and hauled it over the side. Images flooded through my mind, I would be a hero, the boy who saved the man from drowning, I would be in the papers, everyone would know me. Thoughts of the future possibilities flashed in front of me and I made my decision.

With all of the strength I could muster in my young body, I swung the wooden pole as hard as I could, striking the drowning man on the side of the head with a sickening crack.

He sank for the final time.

I stood watching the gently bubbling surface of chocolate for a further minute, before turning to run for the stairs. I did not stop running until I was clear of the factory gates.

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