Flood of Fire: An Excerpt

T-18 Blog 3(2)

Punctually on Thursday morning, Zachary walked across the lawn, holding in one hand a box of tools and in the other the two books Mrs Burnham had lent him, neatly wrapped in paper.

At the door of the mansion, Zachary was met by a veiled, sari-clad maid who led him through a maze of staircases and corridors to Mrs Burnham’s sunlit sewing room.

Mrs Burnham was waiting inside, austerely dressed in white calico. She greeted Zachary off-handedly, without looking up from her embroidery. ‘Oh, is it the Mystery-sahib? Let him in.’

When Zachary had stepped in she glanced up at the maid, who was still standing at the door. ‘Challo! Jaw!’ she said briskly, waving her away. ‘Be off with you now.’

After the woman had gone, Mrs Burnham went to the door and fastened the bolt. ‘Come, Mr Reid. We haven’t much time so we must use it as best we can.’

In the centre of the room stood an exquisite sewing table, of Chinese make, with sinuous designs painted in gold upon a background of black lacquer. Two chairs had been placed to face each other across the table, on top of which lay a slim pamphlet.

Mrs Burnham gestured to Zachary to take the chair opposite hers. ‘I trust you have brought your tools with you, Mr Reid?’


Zachary lifted up his wooden toolbox and placed it on the table. ‘Well then, I suggest you tap your hammer on the box from time to time. This will give the impression that you are at work and will serve to allay the suspicions of anyone who might be listening at the door. The natives are prying little bandars you know, and just as curious. Precautions are always in order.’

‘Certainly, ma’am.’ Zachary took out his hammer and began to tap lightly on the lid.

‘I trust, Mr Reid, that you have read and absorbed Dr Richerand’s chapter on the unfortunate shepherd lad?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ Zachary fixed his attention on the toolbox, grateful for an excuse to keep his eyes lowered.

‘May I ask what effect it had on you?’

Zachary swallowed. ‘It was very disturbing, ma’am.’

She was quick to pounce on this. ‘Aha! And is that because you feel yourself to be in danger of arriving at a similar plight?’

‘Why no, ma’am,’ said Zachary quickly. ‘My condition is not, I assure you—nearly so serious as that of the shepherd.’

‘Oh?’ The exclamation was not devoid of some disappointment. ‘And what of the Lecture, Mr Reid? Have you studied it with due attention?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

Here she reached into her reticule, took out a handkerchief, and proceeded to dab it on her cheeks. The gesture momentarily drew Zachary’s eyes away from his toolbox to Mrs Burnham’s neck, but he quickly wrenched them away and resumed his tapping.

‘Well then, Mr Reid, could you kindly recount for me the ailments that are associated with your condition? I trust you have committed them to memory?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ said Zachary. ‘As I remember they include headaches, melancholy, hypochondria, hysterics, feebleness, impaired vision, loss of sight, weakness of the lungs, nervous coughs, pulmonary consumption, epilepsy, loss of memory, insanity, apoplexy, disorders of the liver and kidney—’

She broke in with an aggrieved cry: ‘Aha! I notice you have made no mention of various ailments of the bowels!’

‘Why no, ma’am,’ said Zachary quickly. ‘I did not wish to be…indelicate.’

At this Mrs Burnham gave a laugh that forced Zachary to look up from the table again: he could not help but note that two bright spots of colour had now appeared on her cheeks.

‘Oh Mr Reid!’ she cried. ‘If I were so feeble a creature as to be put to the blush by a mention of kabobs and dubbers I would scarcely have shouldered the burden of helping you to find a cure for your condition!’

But even as she was saying this, her words were contradicted by the expansion of the spots of colour on her cheeks. Now, as if to distract herself, she reached for an embroidery frame and picked up a needle.

‘Please do not be concerned about sparing my ears,’ she said, as her needle began to fly. ‘Our missionary sisters have to endure far worse in order to rescue heathens from sin. If you have encountered any problems in your visits to the tottee-connah you may be frank in confessing it.’

Zachary dropped his eyes again to the toolbox. ‘No, ma’am; I have not.’

‘Oh?’ This too was said on a note of slight disappointment. Again she paused to dab herself, a little lower this time, near the base of her throat. Once more Zachary’s eyes wavered and rose from the toolbox to fasten upon Mrs Burnham’s bosom; only with a great effort did he succeed in forcing them to return to the tabletop.

In the meantime Mrs Burnham had reached for the pamphlet that was lying on the table. Opening it, she pointed to a paragraph that had been marked with a pencil.

‘Dr Allgood has lent me a recent essay of his,’ she said. ‘It concerns the treatment of mental disorders and lunacy brought on by this disease. Would you be good enough to read out the marked passage?’

Taking a deep breath, Zachary started to read: ‘The onset of lunacy, brought on by Onanism, may yet be delayed by the judicious use of the following treatments: the application of leeches to the groin and rectal area; enemas with a very mild solution of carbolic acid. In some cases more advanced treatments may be necessary, such as the application of leeches to the scrotal sac and perineum; injections of small doses of calomel into the urethra with a catheter; cauterization of the sebaceous glands and the membraneous portion of the urethra; and surgical incisions to sever the organ’s suspensory ligament—’

Here Zachary was cut short by a cry: ‘Oh!’

His eyes flew up just as the embroidery ring was tumbling out of Mrs Burnham’s hands; he saw that a drop of blood had welled up on the tip of her index finger. Mrs Burnham winced and fastened a fist upon the finger: ‘Oh dear! I fear I’ve given myself quite a little prick.’

Zachary leant a little closer and his eyes travelled from her pricked fingertip to her throat, now flushed with colour. From there they dropped to her bosom, which was covered by a chaste confection of white netting: he saw that the lace had begun to flutter and heave, and he noticed also that with every exhalation, a tiny triangular shadow seemed to appear beneath, to point to the opening of the crevice that had been the cause of his last undoing.

Across the table Mrs Burnham was staring at her finger in dismay. ‘My mother always said,’ she muttered absent-mindedly, ‘that one must be careful with a prick.’

Zachary’s eyes were still fixed on the tiny, almost invisible triangle at the centre of her bosom—and the little shadow beneath the lace now assumed so seductive an aspect that he suddenly had to move his legs deeper, under the table.

The movement was fleeting but it did not escape Mrs Burnham’s eye. Her gaze moved from her finger to his red face, taking in his oddly upright posture and the way his belly was pressed flat against the edge of the sewing table.

Suddenly she understood. A breathless cry broke from her lips: ‘Dear heaven! I cannot credit it!’

Springing to her feet, Mrs Burnham directed a disbelieving gaze at Zachary’s head, which was lowered in shame. ‘Has it happened again, Mr Reid? Answer me!’

Zachary hung his head, speechless with mortification.

A look of pity came into her eyes and she gave his shoulder a sympathetic pat. ‘You poor, unfortunate young man! You are perhaps yourself unaware of the extreme seriousness of your condition. But do not despair—I will not abandon you! We will persist, and you may yet avert the fate that awaits you.’

She walked slowly to the door, and after undoing the bolt, turned to look at him again. ‘I must go now to tend to my pri … my wound. I will leave you here to collect yourself. You shall soon receive more materials from me, and when you have studied them we shall meet again. But for now, Mr Reid, may I request that you remain here until your seizure has subsided and you are presentable?


The Penguin India Blog

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