White Fire (Pendergast) Online - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Prologue:

A True Story

August 30, 1889

The young doctor bid his wife good-bye on the Southsea platform, boarded the 4:15 express for London, and arrived three hours later at Victoria Station. Threading his way through the noise and bustle, he exited the station and flagged down a hansom cab.

“The Langham Hotel, if you please,” he told the driver as he stepped up into the compartment, flushed with a feeling of anticipation.

He sat back in the worn leather seat as the cabbie started down Grosvenor Place. It was a fine late-summer evening, the rarest kind in London, with a dying light falling through the carriage-choked streets and sooty buildings, enchanting everything with a golden radiance. At half past seven the lamps were only just starting to be lit.

The doctor did not often get the chance to come up to London, and he looked out the window of the hansom cab with interest. As the driver turned right onto Piccadilly, he took in St. James’s Palace and the Royal Academy, bathed in the afterglow of sunset. The crowds, noise, and stench of the city, so different from his home countryside, filled him with energy. Countless horseshoes rang out against the cobbles, and the sidewalks thronged with people from all walks of life: clerks, barristers, and swells rubbed shoulders with chimneysweeps, costermongers, and cat’s-meat dealers.

At Piccadilly Circus, the cab took a sharp left onto Regent Street, passing Carnaby and the Oxford Circus before pulling up beneath the porte cochere of the Langham. It had been the first grand hotel erected in London, and it remained by far the most stylish. As he paid off the cabbie, the doctor glanced up at the ornate sandstone façade, with its French windows and balconies of wrought iron, its high gables and balustrades. He had a small interest in architecture, and he guessed the façade was a mixture of Beaux-Arts and North German Renaissance Revival.

As he entered the great portal, the sound of music reached him: a string quartet, hidden behind a screen of hothouse lilies, playing Schubert. He paused to take in the magnificent lobby, crowded with men seated in tall-backed chairs, reading freshly ironed copies of The Times and drinking port or sherry. Expensive cigar smoke hung in the air, mingling with the scent of flowers and ladies’ perfume.

At the entrance to the dining room, he was met by a small, rather portly man in a broadcloth frock coat and dun-colored trousers, who approached him with brisk steps. “You must be Doyle,” he said, taking his hand. He had a bright smile and a broad American accent. “I’m Joe Stoddart. So glad you could make it. Come in—the others just arrived.”

The doctor followed Stoddart as the man made his way among linen-covered tables to a far corner of the room. The restaurant was even more opulent than the lobby, with wainscoting of olive-stained oak, a cream-colored frieze, and an ornate ceiling of raised plasterwork. Stoddart stopped beside a sumptuous table at which two men were already seated.

“Mr. William Gill, Mr. Oscar Wilde,” Stoddart said. “Allow me to introduce Dr. A. Conan Doyle.”

Gill—whom Doyle recognized as a well-known Irish MP—stood and bowed with good-humored gravitas. A heavy gold Albert watch chain swayed across his ample waistcoat. Wilde, who was in the midst of taking a glass of wine, dabbed at his rather full lips with a damask napkin and motioned Conan Doyle toward the empty chair beside him.

“Mr. Wilde was just entertaining us with the story of a tea party he attended this afternoon,” Stoddart said as they took their seats.

“At Lady Featherstone’s,” Wilde said. “She was recently widowed. Poor dear—her hair has gone quite gold from grief.”

“Oscar,” Gill said with a laugh, “you really are wicked. Talking about a lady in such a manner.”

Wilde waved his hand dismissively. “My lady would thank me. There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” He spoke rapidly, in a low, mannered voice.

Doyle examined Wilde with a covert look. The man was striking. Almost gigantic in stature, he had unfashionably long hair parted in the middle and carelessly thrown back, his facial features heavy. His choice of clothing was of an eccentricity bordering on madness. He wore a suit of black velvet that fitted tightly to his large frame, the sleeves embroidered in flowery designs and puffed at the shoulders. Around his neck he had donned a narrow, three-rowed frill of the same brocaded material as the sleeves. He had