Chapter 496 The East End
Even though Zhang Heng and Holmes had been getting along quite well, the two had only known each other for a few weeks and hadn’t yet developed a deep friendship. After Zhang Heng’s attempt at persuading the latter, he said nothing more the next time they saw each other. After all, they were all adults, old enough to be responsible for their own actions.
Zhang Heng heaved a massive sigh before he left the house.
“You rarely come to London, so go out more often when you have time. Don’t just see the city; observe each detail, and keep a record of them. It will help with solving any upcoming cases.”
“Mm, I asked Mrs. Hudson to bring you lunch,” answered Zhang Heng. “Thank you.”
As a matter of fact, even without Sherlock Holmes’s reminder, visiting London had always been part of Zhang Heng’s plan all along. One thing was for sure, though, Sherlock Holmes knew the city like the back of his hand. He could always be found in the upper class’s banquets (although he despised their shallow materialism and the ostentatious red tapes), drinking dark beer, and making jovial conversations with cab drivers.
To win the competition and complete the mission, Zhang Heng would need to narrow the gap between them as much as possible.
So, that afternoon, he decided to leave the house. Instead of calling for a carriage, he took to walking the streets.
He first headed to the lively Queen’s Market, where the Royal Clarence Vase was on sale for just one shilling. The ornament made of glass, enamel, and gold was explicitly crafted for King George IV and was said to have taken 15 skilled workers three years to complete. Curiosities and trinkets from all over the world could be found there, including cotton-padded clothes from India and tea from China.
After that, Zhang Heng took a boat tour of the Thames River, which at that time, was flanked by factories and houses. Thick, endless streams of black smoke belched out of the chimneys, and ships dropping anchor choked the riverbank, congesting to the point only a narrow passage remained down the middle. At the sterns, topless boatmen smoked tobacco, and the incessant smog Dickens described as “interminable serpents” engulfed the entire city in a grey shadow.
Horse-drawn carriages sped down the roads, women selling flowers weaved through the crowd with baskets in their hands, while the shoeshine boys sat on their heels, diligently working their brushes and hoping to earn a little more tips.
To the west of Charing Cross was London’s main business and entertainment center, also England’s largest financial capital. The famous West End theatre complex was located here. Au contraire, Bishop’s Gate Street, lying east of River Thames, was a completely different scenery altogether.
In the Middle Ages, it was a vast, rural, and sparsely populated area. However, the rapid expansion of London City saw a population boom. The houses here were plain, squalid, and dilapidated terraces, cramped and dense with narrow, curved alleyways running between them. Originally the residence of sailors, shipbuilders, and a large number of Jews, it had now become the gathering spot for all low-income groups. The population here was densely packed, cramming in about 30,000 people every half a square mile. Each house was occupied by a large number of people, where lighting conditions were awful, and ventilation greatly lacking. The shared latrines were filthy, and along with that came a permanent stench wafting around the air. These unsanitary conditions were the source of many nasty epidemics—Typhoid being the most common one.
In the early 19th century, a cholera outbreak caused about 6,000 deaths. Several other outbreaks of the same disease followed, killing tens of thousands of people, most of which the poor in the east.
Furthermore, London’s east end had the highest crime rate and was notorious for being the most dangerous place in the city.
Two million people called the area home, yet there was a heinous absence of basic public facilities, municipal authorities, theater galleries, soldiers… Really, there was nothing at all. It was like the city’s forgotten corner, carrying with it no history nor future.
Unless absolutely necessary, west Londoners would never set foot in this place, not to mention how they first needed to contact Scotland Yard. If and when they did pay a visit, they made sure to bring company, and were never alone at all times.
Zhang Heng made sure to change into plainer clothing before coming, but it wasn’t long before he was hit with a barrage of strange gawks and awkward stares.
It was mostly because of his Asian face that he stood out like a sore thumb. On top of that, as a modern man from the 21st century, his skin was better than that of nobles of this age though he had never bothered with skincare. Even with the change of clothes, he still looked too different from the poor scraping by in the east end.
Two children passed him by. One was playing with a stick when the other slipped and fell on Zhang Heng
“Pardon me, sir.”
The child studied Zhang Heng’s face, then getting up his feet to catch up with his friend. But before he could do that, someone grabbed him by the collar.
“What are you doing?! Don’t you touch me, I’m warning ‘ya! Don’t you know who my brother is? Not a soul here dares step on his tail,” screeched the child.
“Oh, really?” Zhang Heng mocked, grabbing the child by his legs and shaking him hard. Three wallets fell out, along with some bits and pieces of things.
“Got yourself quite a nice yield today, I see.” Zhang Heng released the child and then picked up his own wallet.
“Just you wait! You won’t be leaving here today!” Humiliated, the child ran off, face as red as beets, and leaving behind his looted goods.
Of course, Zhang Heng was not interested in dealing with them. He dusted his wallet and continued to walk ahead.
He had long heard of the notorious east side, but he had lived among pirates before, so this place did not strike him as any more chaotic than all the places he’d been in. Of course, that was until he came to the Whitechapel. He had to admit that it was far worse than Nassau.
Although the pirates at the lower rungs of Nassau were also dirt poor, at least they still had freedom and hope for the future. Everywhere in the taverns on the island, there was optimistic chatter about ancient and mysterious treasures, the wealthy merchant vessels carrying oil, of monsters in the sea, and the beautiful mermaids that lured sailors to their doom. They didn’t even own a small boat, and no pirate gang was willing to accept them, but their faces remained brimming with bewildering confidence, as if they were all Blackbeards of the future. It was also what Zhang Heng adored most about Nassau. They had sheer, impregnable will to survive, and thrive, under the chaos and disorderprecisely what this forgotten district lacked.
The only thing more terrifying than poverty was numbness and despair.
Perhaps that was why people like Pearson wanted to leave this place so desperately. All along the way, all Zhang Heng saw were hungry children, suffering families, drunk villains, and the likes of them. It’s apocalyptic, war-torn squatter-like nature was the hell one would only think of each time murders or diseases happened.
Zhang Heng kept walking when he suddenly heard an altercation coming from ahead.