The rolling fog swirled around the gas-lights, shrouding everything in a sickly, faintly yellow glow. The damp cobbles echoed at my step as I hurried along the nearly deserted street, resisting the urge to consult either map or pocket watch where the watching eyes of pickpockets and blaggers might notice either nervous hesitation or conspicuous wealth. Tall buildings loomed out of the mist on either side, the roiling clouds punctuated by the rumblings and mutterings and occasional screeches from rookeries inhabited by those unfortunate enough to have fallen so far as to have nowhere better to go.
The street opened out ahead of me. I buttoned my greatcoat even more tightly against the November chill and hastened across the small square to my destination: the public house under the sign of the Dog and Pheasant. It was not an establishment I would normally choose to frequent, yet it was a place quite notorious enough to have come to the attentions of close readers of The London Times, not to mention many other publications of lesser worth I could mention.
Just as I approached the door to the drinking den, already able to hear the sounds of rowdy laughter from within, my path was intercepted by a stranger who appeared out of the mist most unexpectedly, almost materialising at my side like an apparition.
The stranger was a tall man, very tall and very thin indeed, but I too am unusually tall, although not as thin, and I judged he was about my own height. He was wrapped in an old-fashioned long cloak which had somehow managed to remain unbesmirched, despite the damp and the filth of the London pavements. The dark folds of a hood shaded his face, preventing me from eliciting any clue as to his appearance.
"Mister D'Eath, I take it?" he said solemnly, managing to get the pronunciation of my surname correct at the first attempt.
I was impressed, albeit faintly. Too many people get the ancient name wrong. We are a grand old family, even if sadly diminished these days, yet we are still proud of the name which is pronounced "De-Eth" and not "Death", in spite of the modern spelling.
"I am D'Eath," I confirmed politely, "Whom do I have the honour of addressing?"
His answer was a faint chuckle.
"Well, I am perhaps a member of your family," the hooded figure said after a moment, "Although the connection may be somewhat distant."
He paused, seeming to listen intently for a moment, although whether for the sounds of pursuit or merely an interest in the rowdy conversations from within the hostelry.
"I am gladdened that you felt able to join me on such slight pretext. We have, I fear, much to discuss. But let us get out of the fog," he added, extending one slender gloved hand to point at the doorway, "And perchance partake of something to keep out the chill."
He spun in his heel and set a smart pace in the direction of the public house door. I followed, struggling to keep up on the slippery cobbles and wondering why I had felt compelled to accept this invitation. The missive itself had been written in a clear round hand, the writer obviously educated and literate, the paper crisp and heavy and expensive. It was delivered in an envelope of the same stock, sealed with wax, and had appeared in the letterbox without any of the servants seeing who had deposited it there.
It was the words used which I could not ignore: If you wish to learn something of some interest and considerable value concerning your family curse, then you must meet with me - followed by the time, date and place, and signed simply An Anonymous Wellwisher.
I had thought the old story about the Curse of the D'Eath's had long since been forgotten, buried with the baggage of the unexplained disappearance of my grandfather and the coffin of the unfortunate and untimely death of my father, the latter sad event having occurred while I was still a babe in arms.
My mother never mentioned the Curse, perhaps hoped I would never hear the story. She become morose after her husband's demise, donning widow's weeds immediately and wearing black every day of her life until her own death some twenty years later.
It was the old nanny who had let the secret slip. She had, as a much younger woman, once looked after my father. She was regarded by some of the other staff as a witch and treated with - I learned much later - a surprising degree of suspicion. In any case, she took it into her head to sit me on her knee, at the age of six or thereabouts, and relate the story.
The old nurse was dismissed a short time afterwards, to be replaced by a younger and rather more strict woman who filled my head with much education and my time with a robust routine, perhaps in an attempt to eradicate an unfortunate childhood memory. Certainly, any attempt to talk about the family Curse was met first with blank incomprehension and later with severe punishments; I soon learned not to mention it.
But the story never left my thoughts, the words spinning in my head after bedtime night after night as I lay silently waiting for sleep to come. I dwelt on it continually, making me - with retrospect, almost inevitably - a rather quiet and thoughtful boy, shy with other children and polite in grown-up company. I learned to listen unobtrusively and piece together facts from what I'd heard, making inferences apparently not apparent to the adults around me.
The Curse itself, as related in hushed whispers in the confines of the nursery, was an unexplained riddle: The males of the D'Eath's would live forever, yet never see the first birthday of their first-born son. It could have been complete nonsense, of course, but the old nanny told me, and I subsequently confirmed as true, that no D'Eath in memory had lived much beyond the birth of their first child. Each one of them, in a line said to be unbroken for hundreds of years had either disappeared or died young.
It was a harrowing truth which I had learned to live with. I had not yet married, although I am still hale and strong, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that I would take up one of the implied offers from a number of mothers with eligible daughters. But when it came to it, I had always hesitated, a Sword of Damocles over my head. Perhaps it would never happen: I would not marry and the truth of the curse would be untested.