The tale begins in the slums and rookeries of the East End of London. The Old Nichol tavern was the unlikely bed of propagation. The tavern served cheap ale, cheap gin and cheap whores. On the fateful night in question a local watchmaker, Cain Barak, sat quietly at the bar sinking his sorrows into another gin. His close friend, our informant, Charles Mowbury quietly sat at the bar, at Barak’s shoulder. Both men had an air of gradual decay about them. Mowbury’s top hat had seen better days; the colour was now difficult to discern through the dust and filth of the London atmosphere. Barak sipped the sharp and abrasive gin, his long and unkempt moustache dragged through the clear liquor in a vain attempt to remove the heavy metals and impurities. He turned to talk with Mowbury for the first time in an hour and nearly a bottle of gin. His eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot. Many hours over the watchmaker’s bench in the dim light of a tallow candle dulled the vision of his watery pale blue eyes.
“Time to go, I have had enough” he slurred his sentence into a single long drawn out roll. As he spoke the spray of gin flew from his moustaches into the face of his friend.
“Sod the Lord” Mowbury replied in kind.
“Don’t blaspheme, you know I don’t like it. I need to go”. Barak slipped his hand into his ragged leather waistcoat pocket and removed his watch to check the time. As he leaned forward to check his watch his beaten up bowler had slipped forward and onto the floor. The hat was old, passed down from his late father, the felt of the brim had split away from the heavy leather brim. The band was a long-faded memory.
The accuracy of one of the East End’s finest watchmaker’s fingers fumbled in the fog of the gin and finally drew out his watch.
“Why don’t you sell that watch, Barak?” mumbled Mowbury, “it must be worth a fortune”
“My old friend, it took me a year to make when my father still worked every hour he could, may he go with God”, replied Barak. “he has gone now and now it is all I have left of him”.
Mowbury grumbled and looked down at the watch in his friends shaking hand.
There was something hypnotic about the watch. Something that Mowbury couldn’t quite identify. The face was a composite of the most exquisite mother of pearl, small windows in the face allowed Mowbury to see the tiny cogs and tumblers, the occasional glimpse of a ruby stole his attention, stole his soul. The hands, carved and twisted from the finest gold, detailed under the lens of the newest microscope; was there some aquamarine inlaid in the hand. He couldn’t quite tell – it was like some distant whisper on the wind of his consciousness. Mowbury knew that Barak would never sell this watch and all of its exquisite intricacies.
The door of The Old Nick swung open and in from the darkness stepped a stranger. The Old Nick was not a popular venue for the up at heel. As the door swung shut on the fetid night air of London’s smog the stranger strode towards the bar. He wore an air of distinction that allowed a path to the bar to form as The Old Nick’s clientele, the East End’s most notorious, parted before him.
“Rum, please”, his voice had a deep resonance and power that suggested strength and confidence in its dark intonations.
His black hand enveloped completely the thimble like glass as he raised it to his lips.
“Would you leave the bottle?” he enquired of the landlord.
“Can you pay?” The wiry landlord asked the dark stranger.
A look of amusement slid, like a mask, over the stranger’s eyes.
His entry did not go unnoticed. Barak was entranced by this man’s aura. Black men were hardly a rare sight in London. The Empire being what it is there were travellers from far abroad; The Caribbean, Latin America and from the heart of the Dark Continent. This man seemed somehow different. He wore the robes of the East. But most notable was his voice - he spoke with the deepest bass voice like a rumble, a resonance a confidence that embroidered his presence and bearing.
He drew people to him, the drunks seemed to orbit around him but the few women in the bar were like moths to his dark light. The Nick was not the typical venue for a woman to spend her evenings. Most respectable women are at home in the evening. Only the fallen would be out into the night in a public house. Only those cursed few that had fallen the furthest would be plying their sordid trade in the squalid half-light of the Old Nick.
Bessie was one of those moths, she had fallen far. Starting her life as a respectable girl she became the mistress of a wealthy trader. As sure as day follows night she fell with child. As sure night follows the brightest of days he discarded her; cast her aside into the gutters of London. The baby became one of London’s legions; not living long enough to be allotted a name. Not living long enough to be christened, his tiny mortal remains abandoned in a paupers’ pit.
Bessie used to think of herself as an angel, with a broken wing, soon to soar high again. That hope was now lost. The sore on her hand put paid to that. Now she moved between the fogged world of her gin soaked days and nights, hoping to taken in the night, hoping that she would be called to account in the next great cholera epidemic. The decay of her body was the decay of her livelihood. She hid the sore under stolen gloves. The other girls called her Lady Bessie on account of her gloves.
As she prepared to go onto the streets on that night she pulled on her stockings. The delicate shape of her ankle and calf was half hidden by the failing guttering light of the tallow candle. Her wide hips and narrow waist was emphasised by the flowing skirts and tightly clinched corset. The slip she would wear underneath the corset had been torn by one of last night’s punters as he used her body. The bruise that blossomed upon her ribs was wrapped and concealed. The corset laced tightly pushing her ample breasts up and exposing a deep cleavage, normally hidden by the slip. She looked down and whilst she recognised the beauty of her body she recognised it only as an asset for her to trade with. Bessie took a heavy swig of gin and snuffed out her tallow candle.
She came out of the shadows and spoke to the dark stranger. Barak could not hear her voice. He was a single man but could not pay for the services of a woman like Bessie. At night when he fell into his narrow, straw filled cot only the gin allowed sleep to wash over him. The dark loneliness of desolate desperation temporarily slid away only to return in the grey first light of London’s dawn.
The bile of those lost and lonely nights rose in Barak’s guts.
“That nigger gets women, look at him!”.
Mowbury turned and looked at the stranger and unsteadily faced his friend.
“You couldn’t deal with Lady Bessie, the amount you have had tonight”.
Barak moved from the bar. Mowbury stirred with unease. He had seen this before. He heard Barak’s breathing quicken. Saw his hand fall upon the hilt of his cheap dagger. There would be blood.
“I can deal with the nigger” uttered Barak.
Barak slid through the crowd. Quietly and unobserved he moved round behind the stranger. The stranger could not take his eyes from Bessie’s cleavage. This was the chance. It was time to strike. He drew the dagger.
“Friend, put your knife away” The stranger’s voice rumbled like the distant thunder of a far- off storm. He did not turn on his stool he remained facing away from Barak.
“Damn you to hell, nigger” anger ran through the words like infection.
The knife was in Barak’s delicate watchmaker’s hand.
“I don’t need you to damn me.”
Barak lunged, he aimed the knife low into the stranger’s side, he aimed for the stomach. He would see the stranger take a week to die in abject pain and horror.
With a fluid, self-assured confidence, the stranger stood and turned to his assailant. With his left hand he grasped Barak’s hand. He gripped the hand in his own huge, powerful hand. The snapping of the small bones rose above the drunken din of the tavern; a distant volley of pistol shots.
“For I am already there” he coolly spoke as he pulled back his left hand and clenched it into a fist. On his middle finger a large ring flashed in the still of the tavern. It contrasted with his dark skin. A delicate construction of plaited gold forming a serpent. The serpent was consuming its own tail whilst its bright sapphire eyes reflected every piece of light from the Old Nick. This was the last detail that froze on Barak’s memory before the huge fist smashed into his face. Darkness swept over him as unconsciousness took him.
The stranger finished his rum, the people of the Old Nick stepped over Barak; another nameless, faceless member of the legion, consigned to die on the floor of a London tavern.