Inside, the Dog and Pheasant was as noisy and rowdy, much as I might have expected in this part of London. Fires blazed in hearths set into several of the walls and the drifting palls of tobacco-smoke were more-or-less successful in driving away the last vestiges of the evening chill. The denizens were agreeably good humoured for the most part, I noted with some relief, and absolutely nobody paid either of us the slightest attention as the stranger led me inside.
Even though the building was crowded with rough working men and the kind of low women who congregate in such places, the stranger miraculously found a place for us to sit at a table in a quiet and unexpectedly secluded corner and was, even more miraculously, almost immediately attended by a serving-man who appeared both fairly clean and respectfully subservient. He ordered me a large brandy, exactly what I would have demanded myself, and a second for himself.
Under the hood which even now obscured his features, my mysterious companion managed to give the waiter a sufficiently sharp glance, or some gesture of equivalent import, that suppressed any kind of cheery comeback. More impressively, the brandy he had ordered arrived in double-quick time and was of surprisingly good quality when I came to taste it. The stranger slid some coins on the tabletop, which disappeared with the customary rapidity into the waiter's pockets, and nodded dismissively. The waiter backed away with obvious haste, not to mention some relief, and suddenly we were alone.
The stranger raised his head again and appeared to listen intently. His actions were like those of a hunted animal, wanting to be sure that the hunters had lost his spoor. I got the distinct impression he was confirming we were unobserved, although he did not turn to look behind. Over his shoulder, I could see nobody at all, despite the crowds elsewhere in the rambling building. Apparently satisfied at last, the stranger raised both hands and tugged back the hood, for the first time exposing his face to my gaze. I fully admit I gasped in horror, the countenance exposed so far beyond what I had expected that I could not suppress my instinctive, even animal reactions to his appearance.
The overall impression was of a corpse, a dead body somehow animated by arcane energies only dreamed of by scientists and alchemists. Pale skin which appeared almost blue in the dim light of the public house was stretched over a cadaverous skull whose fleshless appearance was only amplified by sunken cheeks and thin bloodless lips. He was entirely hairless, as far as I could see; completely bald and missing even the vestiges of hair in his nostrils and ears. His earlobes and nose themselves were grotesquely cartilaginous protrusions, so swollen and misshapen that I could barely drag my eyes away. Although it was his eyes were his strangest part of his appearance: the pupils were brilliantly blue but somehow also mistily occluded, and they did not move, did not track the movement of my face. It was plain that he was entirely sightless.
"I imagine you have you will have a great many questions for me," the strange man said softly, calmly, swirling the brandy around in its glass, "And I will concede you do have a right to know. But to forestall your most obviously pressing question: yes, I am blind, at least as you would see the world. Although it is less of a disability than most people would have you believe."
I did not understand what he could possibly have meant, although I recalled that he had no problem with finding his way though the foggy streets or the crowded public house.
"And to address your second question, most likely," the pale man went on impassively, "My name is Damien D'Eath."
"So you are, as you said before, a relative of mine?" I stuttered, still attempting to recover my composure after the shock of his suddenly-revealed and startling appearance.
"You should drink some of your brandy," he advised, the ghost of a smile flitting briefly over his features like a butterfly over a lime-pit.
He raised his glass in an unspoken toast. I collected my own glass from the wooden table between us and responded in the same way, my hand still shaking in spite of my sternest attempts at self-control. We drank together, in curiously synchronised movements. I felt the warmth of the spirit work its way down my throat and spread its tendrils throughout my body.
"You will need more of that," he added enigmatically. I was suddenly seized with a conviction that he was absolutely correct.
"Why is that?" I enquired.
The pale stranger put his glass back on the table and leaned forward, his face inches from my own.
"I was born but thirty-three years ago," he said softly.
I must have frowned. He was born in the same year as I. My immediate reaction was that the man had some kind of debilitating disease, one which might just be infectious. I sat back in my chair and lifted the glass again.
"Yet I am three hundred and sixty-two years old," he went on.
My brandy glass stopped, as if of its own accord, half-way to my lips.
"That's preposterous!" I exclaimed, louder than politeness would have dictated.
"You will not believe me, I know, but I would ask you to hear me out," he went on solemnly, "I am you, Mister Damien D'Eath, but nearly three hundred and thirty years older."