The Swan Inn
A sensible man will remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways - by a change from light to darkness or from darkness to light; and he will recognise that the same thing happens to the soul. Plato
London, 1887, Thursday 8 September
It is curious how the actions of a fearful man mirror those of a man of excitable confidence. While either may freeze or become jittery, both exhibit a quickening of the pulse and sweating of the brow. The telltale sign is the eyes. Confident eyes hold one’s gaze and neither narrow nor widen. Panicky eyes widen and flit to the side. When Austin Cooper’s eyes gaped, revealing crescent moon shaped whites like those of a defensive dog, Pinkney Wilde knew it was time to end him. Pinkney added fifteen shillings to the pile of coins on the table. Austin padded whiskey infused sweat from his temples with a handkerchief, he had not the trump card to win.
‘My wife will be most displeased. No fanciful new hat this month. How will I explain to her the travesty of it all?’ Austin attempted to remain good humoured as he gathered the playing cards and slid them into the pocket of his red coat along with his reeking handkerchief.
‘You’re an excellent storyteller Austin, you could sell a glass of water to a drowning man.’ Pinkney’s acute senses picked up a citrus scent radiating from the threads of Austin's jacket. An image clicked in Pinkney’s mind of a young waitress who had been tending tables earlier that night. A slight girl, awash in orange oil. Perhaps the slight girl and Austin had secured an opportunity to rub up against each other in close quarters. ‘Another whiskey for my friend here, and a pot of tea please Miss.’ Pinkney called to the landlady as he gathered all but the coins for the last drinks. He filled his brown leather coin purse, which was as always, more weighted than it was when he had arrived at The Swan Inn. Pinkney tucked the purse into his blue coat which hung on the chair behind him.
Miss Laura Sheridan was the only other remaining in the tavern. She stacked empty bottles into a wooden crate resting on the bar. Empty bottles that had born witness to the congenial rivalry between the red coated Life Guards and blue coated Horse Calvary that had earlier filled the tavern. There were many public houses closer to the Knightsbridge Barracks, yet the officers flocked across Hyde Park to The Swan Inn as its doors never closed. Anonymous travellers drifted in at all hours, seeking a meal and modest lodgings upstairs.
‘She will be most displeased,’ Austin said.
‘Your wife or myself?’ Miss Sheridan placed a bottle half full of whiskey on the table.
‘It’s Miss. I believe you owe me for supper also.’
‘Yes Miss. I’m afraid I find myself somewhat short.’
Pinkney went to retrieve his purse to settle Austin’s bill, though was halted as Miss Sheridan placed a cold hand on Pinkney’s.
‘You will repay me yourself Corporal Cooper.’ Miss Sheridan slightly smiled. ‘As a handsome agent once said, “I must have a quid for my quo.”’
‘I am so sorry again Miss. Yes, I will return next week.’
‘Don’t be so despondent. Others have trodden far worse paths in here.’ Miss Sheridan’s not so subtle threat of prosecution for unpaid debts was understood. In times past, gaoler wagons used to stop at The Swan Inn, allowing a condemned man one last drink before swinging from the gallows in Marble Arch.
Austin poured a whiskey and downed his final drink amidst a yawn. ‘No more Ecarte Pink, next time we play Poque.’ While Austin’s bloodshot eyes were drooping, Miss Sheridan appeared unladen by the long night. As Austin stood and moved away, his red coat tails swept across the table collecting the whiskey bottle in its wake. Pinkney stared as the bottle fell towards the ground. He reached out, caught the bottle and returned it to the table without a drop spilt. The movement so quick that Austin was oblivious the near crash. ‘Are you ready to head back Pink?’
‘Corporal Wilde is yet to take his tea.’ Miss Sheridan placed a teapot and a cup and saucer on the table.
‘Yes, yes. Farewell Pink.’ Austin grabbed the bottle of the whiskey and headed out into the gloomy dawn. ‘Goodnight Ma’am, sorry, Miss.’
A nocturnal kinship enveloped the tavern as Pinkney and Miss Sheridan shared a final few moments appreciating the emptiness. She wore violet velvet, unexpected of her occupation. She may have been twenty-five or even forty-five years, perhaps somewhere in between. She had a mature elegance lacking in frivolous young girls, yet held her beauty more than most mature women, with no grey yet to appear in her dark hair. As Pinkney poured his tea, Miss Sheridan restored the tavern to order with an effortless grace, scooping bottles from tables as if catching butterflies in a net.
‘Corporal Wilde, I trust I may leave you here? I wish to be at the butchers when he wakes so I may select the choicest meat.’
‘You may, though I will escort you.’ Pinkney stood up from his chair and grabbed his coat. London’s unseasonably bitter autumn echoed the mood of its people, frosty and on alert due to recent unexplained murders. A young prostitute was discovered upon in Hyde Park, ripped open from stomach to throat on the steps of Prince Albert’s memorial. Followed by a groundskeeper, near decapitated in the Pump House. Then there was young Johns from Pinkney’s own battalion. Butchered and tossed in the Serpentine as if mere chicken bones.
‘No thank you Corporal Wilde. I walk the same path each morning and I am yet to be ripped open, decapitated or butchered. ‘Miss Sheridan paused at Pinkney’s table. She had stunning lilac eyes. Thoughts of corpses wilted into a lilac haze as Miss Sheridan gazed at him. ‘I need no escort Corporal Wilde. I insist you finish your tea. The police have increased patrols along Uxbridge Street. I am in no danger.’
‘Yes, I will finish my tea. You are in no danger,’ Pinkney replied. Miss Sheridan took Pinkney’s coat from his hand. He turned and she slid it up over his arms and onto his shoulders, gently encouraging him back to his chair with her fine hands.
‘It is handsome officers that scamper through the park back to their barracks in the wee hours that need take care.’ Miss Sheridan almost smiled as a subtle yet unfamiliar scent radiated from her fair skin. Not lavender, nor lemon, nor rosewater.
‘Mistletoe.’ Miss Sheridan left Pinkney’s side and walked to the tavern door. ‘Mistletoe has barely a scent, though some say it assumes the scent of the host tree from which it feeds.’ She pulled open the door and disappeared.
Pinkney finished his tea and was roused to attention by floorboards creaking above him under the treads of rising guests. Had he truly spoken aloud to Miss Sheridan of her perfume? Had he spoken the words decapitated and butchered to a lady? Pinkney censured himself for his conversational insensibilities. He blamed the late hour, straightened his hair and readied himself for the brisk walk ahead.
The Victoria Gate
Pinkney left the Swan Inn and crossed the road to Hyde Park. While the cloudless sky left the dawn air cold, it allowed the warming rays of the low rising sun to greet him. The Victoria Gate was already open, no doubt mounted police were undertaking their first sweep for the morning. As he walked past the gatehouse, Pinkney heard a guttural growl, so slight, an ordinary man may not have noticed it. Dismissing it as a fox, Pinkney continued until he heard another growl. Deeper and longer, the growl rolled into a hiss. Pinkney turned down the path on the side of the gatehouse and discovered the gate to the rear yard of the property open. More precisely, the gate was completely unhinged and lay discarded some six feet away resting haphazardly on a laurel bush. Nearby, a bottle glinted in the sun, the last dregs of whiskey seeped across the grass. Cursing himself for having no sabre with him, Pinkney grabbed the bottle and entered the rear yard into a Lilliputian graveyard. Tiny tombstones etched with the names of dead dogs stuck haphazardly from the earth like greying teeth.
On the far side of the graveyard, a red coated man lay still beneath another figure shrouded by a black hooded cloak. Fearing an intrusion on a tryst between Austin and the serving girl, Pinkney set to leave when the wind carried towards him the scent of orange and whiskey, and blood. Rippling sunlight shone upon a skeletal hand which clasped at Austin’s shoulder. Mottled ashen skin buckled over its bony fingers like a suffocating pale mould on a corpse. The figure’s fingers were abnormally extended by talon like fingernails. Pinkney edged closer, thankful to be downwind and silenced by a chorus of morning birds. He raised the bottle up, ready to strike the attacker’s hooded head which was nestled into Austin’s neck.
The attacker swung back the bony arm which knocked Pinkney backwards to the ground. The whiskey bottle slid from Pinkney’s grasp and smashed on a shrunken tombstone near Austin’s head. The shrouded attacker lunged forward and grabbed the neck of the sharded bottle. The attacker raised the makeshift glass dagger up in the air with a bony hand and slammed down towards Austin’s head. Pinkney hurled himself at the attacker and the pair slid off Austin’s body and on to the grass.
Pinkney stood up and the attacker stood also. As the black hood fell, the sun illuminated the face of no ordinary person, but rather a creature with thinning long dark hair and a wasted face withered of muscle. The creature stared at Pinkney through sunken eyes the colour of blood sated fleas. Its face appeared to almost distort in the morning light, refracting lines of age scorched into its skin, as if mapping the creature’s every sin. The creature lurched forward, slicing Pinkney’s cheek with a ragged nail and skittling him to the ground. In an instant, the creature was upon Pinkney, pinning him down with a power incompatible with the its atrophied form. The creature widened its mouth, its pointed teeth like slivers of bone-ash china dripping with blood. As Pinkney struggled beneath its weight, the creature leaned towards Pinkney’s face. It slowly licked the blood from Pinkney’s torn cheek. The creature instantly recoiled and spat Pinkney’s blood from its mouth as if it was rancid. It clasped a hand around Pinkney’s throat and rose up pulling Pinkney up with it, raising Pinkney upwards in the air with a single hand as he furiously kicked the empty space beneath him. Pinkney felt his own body wilt as he was thrown backwards through the air across the graveyard.
Pinkney’s flight was slowed by the rear timber door to the gatehouse which collapsed beneath him. He skidded across the floor of a small room until his head hit upon something solid. He looked up at a teetering bookcase. Dead cats and dogs rained down upon him and a tortoise landed in his lap. Pinkney clasped the stiff neck of the tortoise and jumped up. With his free hand, he grabbed a knife from a tray of taxidermy implements on a nearby table. He ran across the broken door and back outside, scanning the graveyard for the creature. It had vanished.
Austin now stood stiffly before Pinkney with droplets of blood staining the collar of his shirt. Austin remained silent as he mechanically raised his hands to the neck of the sharded whiskey bottle which protruded from his eye. ‘Wait!’ Pinkney called, however Austin seemed not to hear. In a somnambulary state, Austin pulled the bottle from his eye and tossed it to the ground, unaware that his eyeball had been pulled out with it. The bloodied eyeball rolled over the grass and came to rest at the base of a tombstone etched with the name of a dead dog. Iris.
A screeching police whistle shook Austin from his mesmerised state. ‘Wilde?’
‘It’s gone.’ Pinkney walked towards Austin, still clasping a dead tortoise in one fist and a knife in the other. ‘Austin, Your eye?’ Blood ran down Austin’s cheek. Austin retrieved his handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it to his wounded face. The blood was slowing and at least the quarts of whiskey he had drunk that night would be dulling the pain.
An old man in yellow pyjamas entered the graveyard from the side path, tailed by a tall policeman holding a whistle. ‘There! There!’ The old man flailed his arms in Pinkney’s direction.
‘Sir, release the blade,’ the policeman asked calmly.
‘It was not me.’ Pinkney raised his arms up, the knife glinting in the morning sun.
‘Release the blade,’ the policeman demanded.
‘And the tortoise,’ the old man added.
‘It was not me.’ Pinkney dropped the weapons to the ground. ‘It was old.’
‘Old? This old man?’ The tall policeman motioned to the old man in the yellow pyjamas, presumably the animal mortician gatekeeper. ‘We passed no one else.’ The policeman turned to the old man. ‘Is there any other way out?’
‘No. The rear walls too high, the woods too dense,’ the old man said.
‘It was not me.’ Pinkney looked to Austin for corroboration.
‘Wilde attacked me?’ Austin muttered, still pressing his handkerchief to his face.
‘No. Older. Much older,’ Pinkney said, staring at the old man.
‘You wish us to believe that it was not you?’ The policeman pulled out a notebook and pencil. ‘A bruised and bloodied man wielding a knife and a turtle ...’
‘Tortoise,’ the old man interjected.
‘... a tortoise, who viciously wounded this Corporal here? Rather, this feeble old man who stands before us in pristine yellow pyjamas?’
‘No. Not him. Much older, decades older, in a black cloak,’ Pinkney replied.
‘I doubt there exists anyone in London much older than this man here.’
‘Austin, please tell them,’ Pinkney begged.
‘Wilde attacked me,’ Austin said firmly.
‘No, he is confused, he cannot remember,’ Pinkney said. ‘The attacker was dead. Or at least it was not alive.’
‘Sorry, Wilde, is it?’ The policeman asked. ‘So, the tale about the old man has no legs upon which to stand, so now it’s a ghost?’
‘No. Not a ghost. It had a form, it was remarkably strong, with the strength of Atlas.’
‘Atlas? So, it’s a God now is it?’
‘More like the Devil. I do not know.’ Pinkney could provide himself with no rational explanation, let alone provide one to another. ‘Its face was a mere inch from mine. It had no warmth. Austin please?’ Pinkney pleaded.
‘We were at The Swan,’ Austin stated, ‘he lost his entire purse to me at cards. Wilde attacked me.’
‘No, no, I have my purse here.’ Pinkney reached for his coat pocket. It was empty.
‘Your pockets Corporal …?’ the policeman asked.
‘Cooper. Corporal Austin Cooper’. With his free hand Austin reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a coin purse and tossed it to the policeman.’
‘Is this yours Wilde?’ The policeman held out Pinkney’s brown coin purse towards him.
‘Yes, but ...’
‘You will be charged with attempting to rob and attempting to murder this here Corporal Cooper,’ the policeman said.
‘Austin, this is ridiculous,’ Pinkney said, ‘to attack you for a few coins?’
‘It is out of character, even for you Wilde. Perhaps you are desperate, with the cost of a funeral most probably.’ Austin turned to the policeman. ‘You may have heard about a Henry Wilde being injured in that accident? He is his Uncle. It is unlikely he will survive.’ Austin removed his handkerchief from his wound. ‘Unlike me. A man of lesser brawn may have suffered far worse from an attack such as this. Just a few cuts to the neck and a swollen eye.’
The policeman stared into Austin’s vacant and bloodied socket. ‘A swollen eye? It’s a bit more than a mere cop of a mouse.’ The old man in yellow pyjamas bent over and vomited all over Iris’ tombstone.
Austin looked down and saw his eyeball lying in the filth. ‘Oh, bugger.’