Chapter 17 – The Docks (Excerpt 1 of 2)

An icy rain fell as Dorian rode in a second-rate hansom that moved briskly along the banks of the swelling River Thames. He was dressed commonly with the rough clothes of a laborer and a muffler wrapped about his throat. He wore a shabby bowler hat, pulled down to cover his forehead. The street lamps blurred in the dripping mist, as downtrodden men and demoralized women left the now closing public-houses along the route. As the streets drew closer together, all sorts of ruffians could be seen. They clustered together in groups, forming wicked plans to enrich their fortunes. In one crumbling bar with the sign of a rearing stallion out front, drunkards brawled and a straggled scream shattered the quiet of the night.

The engorged moon hung full and low in the sky like a yellow skull. Misshapen clouds stretched across the floating orb with elongated hands and bony fingers grasping. As they neared the docks, the gas lamps grew fewer and the streets gloomier. The cobblestones blackened as they passed the deserted brickfields. Bottle-shaped kilns spat their outrage with orange tongues of fire into the cooling air. Mangy dogs snarled in hunger and wandering sea-gulls screamed their displeasure at the hansom’s passage.

The windows lining the rough-paved streets were mostly dark now. The driver turned down a dim lane with low roofs and jagged chimney-stacks. The black masts of the ships could be seen as a backdrop to the rooftops. Wreaths of white mist clung like ghosts to their yards.

Dorian called out to the driver in an altered voice. “This will do.” The driver answered by slowly bringing the hansom to a halt. He exited and paid the man hastily with a handful of coins before turning to walk briskly towards the quay.  As he walked down the empty street he was sure to glance back occasionally, careful to see if he was being followed.

Eventually he reached a ramshackle house. It was wedged between two tall factories and served as an opium den and pub—of sorts. He gave a peculiar knock at the door and heard the heavy chain clank as it was unhooked from within. A shadowy figure admitted him and he passed by into a dimly light hallway. The end of the passage was barred by a green curtain that had certainly seen better days. Dragging the tattered cloth aside, he entered what was once a third-rate dancing-saloon. The floor was covered with trampled sawdust and mud and mixed with the dark stains of spilled liquor. A sailor was sprawled over an uneven table in the corner and two haggard looking women clung to the rusted bar. The odor of opium hung heavy in the air. An aging staircase at the end of the room led to an obscure, darkened chamber. Standing by the staircase was a disheveled young man with a think head of blonde hair. He nodded a greeting to Dorian over his thin pipe.

Dorian’s voice was low and deep. “That you Robert? I thought you had left England.”

The man sighed heavily as if bearing the weight of the world upon his back.  “Nowhere else to go. None of the chaps will speak to me now. I don’t really care. As long as I have this stuff, I don’t need any friends.”

Dorian winced in response and gazed at the other twisted shapes that lay on patched, moldy mattresses in the surrounding rooms. The gaping mouths and listless eyes gave the observer no clue as to what hells or joys they were seeing. Suddenly, he felt the need to be away from this place and particularly away from any other who knew him.

Dorian took one more look at the room before coming to a decision.  “I am going on to the other place.”

“On the warf?”

“Yes. The stuff is better there. Come, join me for a drink at the bar before I go.”

Robert wearily followed Dorian over to an uneven set of uncomfortable, patchwork-leather stools.  The two ordered their drinks from an ugly bartender.  He was squat-shaped and bedraggled. His clothes stunk of cheap liquor and piss and he had a long cut over his left eye. The man merely grunted in response and reached behind him, where depressingly dusty bottles waited in a small group. They shared a bottle of brandy in the stained tumblers the bartender set out on the bar.

The two women sidled up and began demonstrating their wares. When neither of the men showed any interest, the taller one cracked a crooked smile and sneered. “Too proud tonight?”

Dorian’s voice was dangerous and threatening. “Don’t speak to me. What do you want? Money? Here—now be silent.” He slammed coins down on the counter. The woman’s eyes flashed for a moment with some hidden retort, before she tossed her unwashed hair and raked the heavy coins from the counter with greedy fingers.

“Good night Robert. Write to me if you need anything.”

“Good night then.”

As Dorian exited the room and drew the curtain aside, a hideous laugh escaped the painted lips of the woman who had taken his money. She coughed and spoke in a hoarse voice that dripped with venom.