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ichard Boyce, a successful young businessman and aspiring social
climber, wiped his perspiring brow with his kerchief. Comfortably
overweight thanks to rather too much indulgence at his club, today his
ruddy complexion was rather redder than usual, but the bloom in his nose
was currently due to exertion rather than booze. "Come on, Hutchinson!"
he bawled, without turning to see whether his manservant was actually in
hearing or not. "Call us a cab and don't dilly-dally! Strewth! Charlie won't
hold it fer long. Le's get a bloody move on, wot?"
Lao-chi "Charlie" Chien spoke flawless Oxford English, but seldom used it: it made his customers ill at ease: they expected a stereo-typed sing-song Oriental accent with lots of l's where the r's should be. Finding it to boost his sales quite substantially, he therefore pandered to the ignorant plebeians. Such as Richard Boyce.
"Ah, honorlable sir, you come quick! Velly special, velly lare item I have for you today! See!"
Opening a small wooden drawer in a large chest of such drawers, he produced a small bag of wonderful azure silk. Opening the draw-string, he tipped out a small box, richly decorated, perhaps two inches to a side. Making a show of opening it, he revealed with a flourish a large ring the colour of burnished bronze. "Is wishing ring! Velly potent magical charm."
The ring was large: too large for the finger of any normal human: it was more like a napkin ring. The band was plain and unadorned, while the device was fashioned like an open eye, with a large garnet in place of the pupil. Intriguingly, though the shop was quite dim, the garnet twinkled as if with its own inner light.
Hutchinson couldn't stop himself. "Excuse me, sir, but do you think us so credible as to think that this ring, unusual as it is, can grant wishes?"
"Ah, fool indeed, the man who buy without proof! Observe!" announced Chieng. He took the ring between thumb and forefinger, held it up to his face and commanded, "Make for me best pot of too too delicious Oolong tea!"
The garnet flashed, eliciting surprised gasps from both Boyce and Hutchinson. Then , on a low table nearby, a wisp of red-brown vapour appeared, curling and thickening into a small cloud. The cloud shifted and congealed, splitting into four distinct shapes that slowly resolved into a small steaming tea-pot and three Chinese-style cups.
While both Englishmen exclaimed -one with delight and one with amazement- Chien poured dark tea into each of the cups, and offered them round.
Hutchinson who in general despised any tea not born of the East India Company, took a sip only because not to do so would be unpardonably rude. He was a little taken back at the incredible sensation that spread across his tongue.
To call it mere taste or flavour would be to do it huge injustice. This was all five senses in a mouthful, experienced through the tongue. It was symphonies of sound and colour, a caress of utmost tenderness, and a scent sweeter than roses and more penetrating than eucalyptus. It was beyond his ability to describe... and, he suspected, perceive: he had the impression that there were dimensions of taste he was not privy too, and that this incredible tea excelled on these higher planes too. He held the tiny sip in his mouth for a long moment: to swallow it seemed far too coarse and dismissive.
"Stone the bleedin' crows!" exclaimed Boyce, eyes glassy.
"Ah, Sirs," sighed Chien. "But here you see snag with ling. Take wishes too too literlally! Tea is too too delicious! Too delicious to taste! Must be velly careful therefore when making wishes!" He shook his head over the tragedy of his too too delicious tea, and dumped it into a nearby sink. A small despairing sound escaped Hutchinson's throat.
"How much?" Boyce asked, eyes never leaving the ring.
"For you I make special price," Chien said. He'd found this phrase delighted most of his customers and he could usually charge more. "Four guineas!"
"Four guineas?" repeated Boyce, incredulous. "Two, and not a penny more!"
Hutchinson watched in disbelief as the two men haggled over this modern miracle, arriving finally at the sum of three pounds - less than three guineas. "Sir!" he exclaimed in a strangled tone to Chieng. "You are actually prepared to sell this thing?"
"Oh yes," Chieng said happily, as Boyce counted three pounds in shillings into his eager palms.
"But... but... you could keep it for yourself!"
"No need," Chieng said contentedly. "Have all happiness here. Room to spread a little alound. For light sum," he added. "Many thank-yous, sirs. I get more interlesting items, I call you, yes? Good bye now. Remember warning! Be literlal: ling hears velly good English only. Good bye!
Outside the shop, Boyce stopped to admire his purchase, chortling openly. "'Ow 'bout that then, eh, 'Utchinson? Not bad for three quid, eh? This is 'ow I 'stablished my little business empire! Shrewd bargaining! An eye for a good purchase, wot?" He laughed. "Ah, this little bee-yooty's gonna make all that 'ard work 'n suff'rin' worth while!"
"What will you wish for, Sir?" enquired Hutchinson. "Wealth I suppose?"
"Wealth?" repeated Boyce. "Well, now, yes, wealth. But why hold misself down, eh? I can do anythin' with this! None of this pretendin' to be a toff! I can wish myself into a King!" Then he looked a bit embarrassed. "Well, not wishin' any disrespec' to 'is majesty of course." Boyce was a staunch royalist. "A prince though... Yeah! Just like in Snow White." To Hutchinson's ears it sounded more like Snar White. "Yeah! I'll do it!"
Boyce struck a dramatic pose, oblivious to the curious looks from passers by. Raising the ring between thumb and fore-finger, he proclaimed, "Make of me a Han'som Prince!"
Red-brown smoke puffed up out of the ground, twirling sensuously around Boyce's legs and upward to encompass his body, arms, head.
"It's workin'!" he cried, joyously. "It's bloody workin'!"
Hutchinson wasn't so sure though. "'Han'som'" he repeated. "Hansom. Hansom prince. Oh my!"
The rust-coloured smoke wreathing Boyce's form seemed suddenly to tighten about him: though it was still smoke, it now had the look of strong cords drawn tight. "Eh! What?" shouted Boyce in alarm. "What's happenin' 'ere?"
Obviously against his own volition, Boyce bent over at the waist, arms extended in front of him. It had been some years since he had last been flexible enough to touch his toes, and yet now he found his fingertips unaccountably touching the ground before him, so that he was actually standing on all fours in a most undignified fashion.
"Agh!" he yelled, as the ring rolled away across the pavement. "'Utchinson! Do somethin'! I can't stand up!" Unable to tilt his head very far back, he was forced to stare at the pavement below him. "Go get Charlie! I'll sue 'im! The sneaky little foreign blighter! They're all alike these... OW!"
At his exclamation, a most embarrassing bulge appeared in the seat of his trousers. The bulge flexed and there was a sudden tearing sound. Boyce's trousers fell down about his ankles. His face turned crimson. "'Utchinson!" he screamed, voice breaking.
Hutchinson did nothing: he was staring at the appendage sprouting from his employer's rump. It was undeniably a tail. At first it had a certain rat-like quality, but as it grew longer, black hair sprouted from it. This grew at an astonishing rate until it was quite unmistakably equine in appearance.
A crowd began to gather, keeping a healthy distance from the severely compromised Richard Boyce. There was much pointing and murmuring, but in general a hushed silence prevailed.
"What are you all standin' there gawpin' for?" Boyce demanded. As he spoke, his neck began to lengthen and thicken, freeing him of the necessity to look constantly downward. "Why don't you help me, for gawd's sake?!"
At some point, apparently unnoticed by Boyce as yet, his hands had transformed into neat, black horse's hooves. Quite possibly his feet were similarly transmogrified, but his fallen trousers covered them.
He was quite definitely growing now: his limbs lengthening and his spindly legs assuming some rather odd proportions: the joints seemed all wrong somehow. And then the proper perspective clicked in and the joints looked perfectly ordinary - for a horse's hind legs that is. Boyce's somewhat anaemic-looking white skin began to darken, and a fine, black coat of silken fur grew in. His chest began to barrel: he looked like a caricature animal now: an oddly proportioned horse with a human head, wearing a waistcoat and jacket. It was the tightening of these that brought Richard Boyce to the full realisation of his predicament.
"Gawd! Strewth! I'm turnin' into a bloody nag!"
Buttons popped and seams exploded. The sad remains of a quite expensive shirt and waistcoat fell to the cobbles. The jacket split down the back, and then down the arms. Mr Boyce suddenly felt distressingly exposed. He could hardly do anything about it though: the smoke still held him in an embrace of steel, and he was beginning to realise that even if released at once, his newly configured body was poorly suited to pick up his tattered clothing. In fact it was poorly suited to clothing of any sort unless one perhaps meant a saddle or stable rug.
His hair spread down the back of his now impressively arched neck to form an attractive mane, and his ears became long and pointed and peculiarly mobile. They insisted on twisting toward any sound they heard, which was quite a repertoire in Camden.
Hutchinson stepped forward awkwardly, but for the life of him couldn't decide what to do. A butler's training was somewhat deficient in appropriate behaviour when one's employer turns into a carriage horse.
"Don't just stand there, man! DO something!" screamed Boyce. His voice had acquired a slight squealing quality. His face was beginning to change: his nose and mouth were moving forward, nostrils widening as they went. His eyes were large, and white rimmed. His complexion began to darken from its livid crimson, through mauve toward black, and the same silken coat that had covered the rest of his body spread to encompass it.
Hutchinson, moved to do something, but unsure what, awkwardly patted his employer's neck. "Uh, good boy," he managed.
"GOOD BOY!?!" exploded Boyce in a squealing voice. "Good boy? Wha' the debil d'you mean by tha'? Ge' tha' Charrie... Char-Lie... ou' 'ere righ' now!" He seemed to be having increasing difficulty speaking, and his tirade was soon altogether unintelligible: a squealing, whinnying gabble. A few late whiskers sprouted from his chin and around his muzzle, and a paling area on his forehead turned into a neat white star, and Mr Richard Boyce was entirely confirmed in his newly bestowed horse-hood. The binding smoke evaporated.
The crowd seemed entirely undecided in how to respond to this unprecedented street performance. There were some half-hearted claps. Someone tossed a shilling in Boyce's direction. The horse flattened his ears and snapped in that direction with an angry squeal. The crowd dispersed hurriedly.
"Prince? Prince?" cried a voice nearby. "Prince! Where are ye, boy? Prince!"
Hutchinson and his now-equine employer turned. Not far away stood a Hansom cab, its shafts currently vacant of motive power. A cabbie with shoulder draped in harness was looking this way and that. Hutchinson wasn't sure (he wasn't sure of anything at the moment), but he was of the opinion that the cab hadn't been there before his employer began to turn into a horse, and he failed to see how, even if the cabbie was greatly distracted, the cab could have gotten there on its own without a horse, unless the cabbie was of the habit of untacking his horses and releasing them into the streets of London. This seemed unlikely.
The cabbie sighted the bemused and transformed Mr Boyce, who was evidently a little dazed in his conversion from a respectably-paunched entrepreneur to a rather trim black carriage horse. "Prince!" cried the man in evident relief. "There you are!" Producing a handful of sugar-cubes, he quickly approached. To Hutchinson's surprise, his employer didn't back away or attack the man, being instead intently interested in the sugar-cubes. Perhaps Boyce's transformation had rendered him with an equine turn of mind, for the horse did little more than flatten his ears as the bridle went over his head. Harness soon followed, and before Hutchinson's bemused gaze, Prince aka Richard Boyce was backed between the shafts of the cab and harnessed to it. At this juncture, a gentlemen accosted the cabbie, and climbed into the cabin. The whip flicked and 'Prince' gave a started squeal and broke into a trot, the cab trundling smartly at his heels. The last Hutchinson saw of him was a slightly despairing, white-rimmed eye that seemed to cry, "Wot's 'appenin'?" Then horse and cab had rounded the corner and were lost to sight....