Simeon stood up. “I shall accompany you myself. I am curious about the solution.”
“I can tell you on the hoof,” Mr. Merkin said, taking a generous pinch of snuff as he led the way out of the room. “I’ve seen this over and again. It’s meant to flow, and it ain’t flowing. You could do dirt, but you han’t done dirt.”
“Ah,” Simeon said.
“Have to pipe it,” Mr. Merkin said.
“I’m not sure I follow the question of dirt?” Simeon said.
They arrived at the door to the first-floor water closet. Honeydew, with a look of fastidious agony, directed a footman to remove the felt blanket that had been tacked tightly to the wall so as to cover the entire door.
“This’ll be the heart of it,” Mr. Merkin said. “The rest of the closets feed into the pit here. I’ll send the men in. We’ll have to clean it all out; you do realize that.”
“I had hoped so,” Simeon said.
“We have to take it out through the front door,” Mr. Merkin said. “There’s them as has palpitations at that thought, but there’s no other way to do it. The pipes are blocked; we need to clean it out right good and then pull all the pipes and replace them. They’ll have fallen to bits.”
“Perhaps we should simply—”
The footman pulled down the last corner of the green felt and opened the door; without thinking, Simeon fell back a pace. The smell reached out to greet them, as thick and loathsome as a London fog. It felt like something that had weight and mass. Perhaps even life.
Mr. Merkin walked forward as if he smelled nothing.
“Your Grace need not follow,” Honeydew said, with a note of conscious heroism in his voice. “I will accompany Mr. Merkin and ascertain if he needs assistance.”
“Could it be that something died there?” Simeon asked, feeling himself turn pale. “I once came on a village ravaged by the plague and the odor is disconcertingly similar.”
“Always a possibility,” Merkin called back. “Rats need air like anything else. If one fell in, it’d be dead within minutes. I’m just—” there was the sound of wood shattering—“removing the seat so I can see the size of it.” He backed out a moment later and Simeon was oddly gratified to see that he was mopping his forehead with a red handkerchief. “That’s a bad one, that is.”
“How can you possibly clean the pit?” Simeon asked.
“Oh, my men will do that. We’ll set up a dumbwaiter and take it out in wheelbarrows. Your man said you wanted the best, and you’ve got them. I brought the Dead Watch with me.”
Simeon backed up as Honeydew closed the door to the water closet, with the air of someone shutting the door on a wild animal. “What is the Dead Watch?”
“The Dead Watch,” Merkin repeated. “London’s finest. You’re paying them double, of course, but it’s worth it. Penny wise, pound foolish, I always say. The lads will be down there in a thrice and clean it until it sparkles like a plate. You’ll have to maintain it, of course, Yer Grace. No more of this foolishness. You’ll need me to check your pipes every three months; fresh water twice a day. I can lay it all out with your butler here. If you love your sewer, it’ll love you back.”
Simeon could hear Honeydew making a sound like a rusty grate, which he thought indicated some reluctance to love the sewer. “The Dead Watch?” he persisted.
“The part of the Watch that cleans up the dead,” Merkin replied. “The floaters, in the river, of course. But there’s them as get stuck in a house and no one finds them. There’s the murders, of course. The Dead Watch doesn’t do your ordinary killing. But a truly nasty one? They’re the men for the job!”
His cheerfulness made Simeon feel a bit ill.
“I always use them for this sort of thing,” Merkin continued. “They’re down at the pub, waiting for me, Yer Grace, and if you’ll excuse me, we’ll start on the job.”
“Of course,” Simeon said.
“I’ll be putting a pipe down there first. I have to get the gas out, or me lads will keel over. No air. Then yer butler and I will be figuring out the way to get the muck out of the house with the least fuss. And I’ll be asking yer Grace to leave.”
“Leave? I can’t leave, I—”
“Leave,” Mr. Merkin said. “You seem to be stomaching the smell all right now, but this is nothing. You’ll have to be out of the house tomorrow morning and not come back til the day after, Yer Grace. And that goes for all the maids and everyone else as well. The butler can stay with me, and make sure that the silver stays in its place.”
Simeon heard a little groan from Honeydew’s direction.
“We’ll open the house up and pipe all the gas out. It’ll take a day and a night, maybe two days. We’ll go down there, empty it out, and wash it. Then I’ll replace the pipes, but that’s a different matter.”
“Will you go down in the hole yourself?” Simeon asked, unable to imagine the gaudy Mr. Merkin making his way down into a pit.
“No, no,” Merkin said impatiently. “I’ve the Dead Watch for that. In the normal run of things I use a couple of mud larks. Now I need to take my leave, Yer Grace. If you’d be out of the house by morning, I’d be obliged. As you can imagine, the Watch may well be needed in the city any day, so I need to start.”
He paused and hauled down his waistcoat so that it covered his stomach better. “Now I’ve one more thing to tell you, Yer Grace. The Dead Watch ain’t my servants, and I can’t speak for their behavior.”
“What worries you about them?” Simeon asked.
“Thievery worries me. I know my mud larks.”
“Mud larks?” Simeon interrupted.
“Lads who grow up in the mud of the Thames,” Merkin said impatiently. “I pick the best of the lot and my lads don’t thieve. But the Dead Watch are pirates. They go where no one else in the city will go. They do the tasks that no one else will do. They think themselves as outside the law, see?”
Honeydew made a groaning sound.
“You need them, Yer Grace, cause I ain’t going to get anyone else down there to clean out that muck. They’re the only ones.”
“Even if we paid—”
“There ain’t enough money in the world. Besides, chances are if I sent one of my larks down there, the poor fool would die and then I’d have to cope with a dead body on top of it all, if there ain’t one down there already. That’s a worrying smell you have down there, I don’t mind telling you.” He swung about and peered at Honeydew. “Anyone missing from the household in the past few years? A housemaid run away without notice, that sort of thing?”
Honeydew drew himself upright. “Absolutely not.”
“Good. There’s gas down there, understand? Not air. The Dead Watch, now, they have lungs made out of steel. I’ve seen them in action and they go where no one can go, down in the Thames, for example, holding their breath longer than a man should.”
“Honeydew,” Simeon said apologetically, “we need that pit cleaned out, no matter how much it disturbs the household.”