Electric lights, I have little doubt, will change the way people live. I imagine a time when they will stand sentry on every street corner, reducing darkest darkness to mere dusk and relegating men like me to shrinking lagoons of real night. For now, though, the venerable gas lamps struggle to cut through the London fog. They might as well all be extinguished, for all the illumination they provide. There are alleys, and streets, and whole squares, that are seldom and little warmed by their gentle glow. A man can walk the length and breadth of Whitechapel always in shadow, should he so choose.
The cobbles of these streets, damp and slick and worn, are friends, every one. They conspire with the fog to swallow the sound of footsteps, or to scatter it and throw it off walls and down alleys. Out for a stroll at night, one can never really be sure that one is alone. The cobbles see to that. And all three friends, the cobbles and the fog and the anemic gas lamps, merrily walk beside me, hand in hand in hand like childhood playmates intent on mischief.
Occasionally, very occasionally, a hansom cab goes clattering past me, horse steaming through the night. The drivers pay me less attention than their charges, and the passengers inside likely don’t even look out the window. We are all very quickly on our separate ways.
I can feel the blade heavy in the pocket of my cloak. Its weight keeps finding my palm and I have to force myself to leave it hidden. Its chill matches the autumn air that adds my breath to the relentless fog. But its presence calms me.
Pushes me onwards.
It can take a while, but eventually one becomes attuned to the sleeping city and starts to notice just how awake London always is. Even tonight, in this perfect fog, I am never alone. Not completely. Here, a knot of drunken comrades drifts past on the other side of the street. There, a young cutthroat or pickpocket darts through a cone of hazy orange light. Everywhere, the bobbies, a tremendous number of them it seems, but still woefully inadequate. They don’t even look past my veneer. But then, why should they?
Last, but most certainly not least, there are the whores. What better reason to venture out at this time of night into a neighbourhood of such ill repute? Around every corner, down every alley, just outside the purview of every wondrously insufficient gas lamp, the sirens can be heard calling men to their beds. Prices, services, sales pitches, all lascivious, all lurid in their details, are intoned with little feeling at every passerby. Hearing their voices, carrying on the night air, one can easily believe that the sale of flesh is truly the world’s oldest profession, and that it shall be the world’s last profession, when all the other trappings of civilization have rotted away. Men are, after all, little more than animals, and animals can seldom escape their urges. Like the urge to fornicate. Or the urge to kill.
Personally, I find that such sources of carnal release play a valuable role in our society. We Englishmen can be so very repressed and tightly wound, and I have discovered only lately that there is little that can clear the mind and refresh the spirit like an evening spent with a whore.
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