Every night the huge cast iron doors to the Savings Bank clanged shut at seven o’clock and the same stout gentleman with the bushy yet meticulously clipped moustache would carefully lock them, always mindful of potential attackers. For this reason it was not uncommon for him to be accompanied by an armed guard, but tonight his companion seemed altogether unseasoned.
‘Keep an eye out for anyone untoward will you Carberry, there’s a good man.’ he grunted, searching for the lock with a heavy key.
Young Carberry, having served his first day as a clerk, searched the street almost theatrically until his eyes rested upon a wretched beggar beckoning to him from the side alley.
‘Mr Pitt,’ he whispered. ‘There is one man, although I fancy him more disconsolate than dangerous.’
Pitt, still wrestling with the lock, as he did every night, glanced over and scowled.
‘That lamentable fellow again? Curse him. I have lost count of the number of times I have found him sprawled across that alley drooling utter incomprehension. The man’s a clear lunatic, yet every time I alert
Bow Street or those at the asylum to his
presence he evades them. Nothing wrong with his brain in that respect, but
clearly a cuckoo nonetheless!’
The door secure, Pitt and Carberry climbed into the waiting carriage. Carberry stole a final glance at the beggar who was now waving a filthy scrap of paper in their direction while making a series of desperate, unintelligible sounds. As the coachman geed the horses onward, the beggar slumped crestfallen against the alley wall and began to weep.
He wept silently until nightfall when a sudden tap on his shoulder aroused him from his sorrow. Looking up he met eyes with one of two women. They appeared well yet clumsily dressed with their stockings showing and earthy stains upon their dresses. He wondered if they had had fallen victim to an accident of their own.
‘Allo there ducky, you are awake then. You lookin’ to dip your ‘Ampton wick tonight?
You lookin’ to get your greens? Look at ‘er, she’s ‘ad a green gown already this evening!’ she laughed. ‘Ha! Course not, you don’t look as if you ‘ave enough money to get by, let alone pay for a good ‘our of our company.’
The beggar winced; angered that he had spared his concern on common street molls. He turned his head and looked angrily down the alleyway, wishing them away.
‘Cat got your tongue ‘as it?’ she snapped. ‘Cor, tell you what Cynthia, I don’t know ’bout ‘is tongue, but look at ‘is hands. Some rat’s definitely been at them fingers.’
The smaller and younger of the two prostitutes leaned forward and let out a theatrical shriek.
‘Neither ‘e ‘as Betty, there’s just stumps where some of those fingers ought to be.’ she cried. ‘Ooh, ‘e makes me feel sick ‘e does!’
The beggar turned his head towards the baying pair, casting them an icy glare. His eyes burned and, quickly, he opened his mouth to revealing a thin, grisly, serpentine flap, the remainder of what had once been his tongue. The two women screamed and turned and fled like rats from a snake, hastily exiting the alley. Alone once more, the beggar bowed his head and closed his eyes.
He recalled vividly the events of six months ago: his emergence from the common law court, the words ‘we find the case in favour of Mr Peacock’ ringing deliciously in his ears; the second he paused to triumphantly sniff the air; the three thick-set opportunist yobs who grabbed him and the wicked, pernicious gleam of the amputation knife they briefly paraded before his terror-struck face. Roughly, they bundled him into an alleyway, not dissimilar to the one by the bank, stripping him of his finer possessions as they beat him hard with foot-long wooden cudgels. Finally, his leather drawstring wallet was emptied of the few shillings it contained.
‘Is this it?’ grimaced the shortest of the three men. He was scrawny with sooty grey hair and torn breeches and had clearly adopted the role of leader some time ago. ‘We bag ourselves a rich geezer from that courthouse and this is all ‘e as on ‘im? You two morons, told you ‘e didn’t look posh enough.’ He looked down at his victim, ‘you’re not rich at all aintcha? What are you doing ‘anging around a place like this? Mumford, the blade please.’
Mumford, the tallest and ugliest of the three men handed the amputation knife to his leader and formed his four teeth and black gums into an aberrant grin. The short man grabbed the blade and a handful of Peacock’s hair and Mumford held down his arms and legs while the third man prised his mouth open.
‘I’m sorry we ‘as to do this over such a small amount, but this is what we do. Keeps us safe. We’re ‘onourable gents see? We don’t go about killing no-one, but still we can’t have you waggling your tongue about us. So, out it comes.’
Peacock howled and began rolling his tongue back as far into his mouth as he could. He snapped at the fingers of the man holding his mouth open, receiving a punch to the face in retaliation for every successful bite. After a particularly heavy temple blow, the small man seized his chance. He reached into Peacock’s mouth, pulled his tongue and sliced it off.
The beggar flicked his eyes open. Try as he might, he could not block this memory. The feeling of cold, unforgiving steel followed by excruciating pain. His futile attempts to scream. The small man laughing, taunting him with catcalls of ‘hold your tongue’ while the other two men stuffed his own handkerchiefs into his mouth in an attempt to stem the crimson cascade from his mouth. Then came the charitable unconsciousness which presently overtook him: he remembered nothing of the further dismemberment of his fingers or being dragged to the gates of the nearby infirmary where his attackers abandoned him.
He began to unfold the scrap of grimy paper, ritualistically crossing his hands to gain purchase with the few fingers that remained. Again he read its now quite faded contents:
A promise to pay on demand to the order of Richard Peacock the sum of ten thousand pounds.
The judge’s blessing. His birthright. A hard-fought inheritance wrested from the grip of an insidious uncle. An uncle he dared not now go to. For his help he did not need, not if he could simply convert this cheque to hard, spendable currency. But how? Those with the power to do so considered him nothing but a vagrant or a cuckoo or an unwanted nuisance perpetually on their doorstep? He thought of his
Brighton home he had yet to get back to and
the forty five mile walk that would most probably kill him. No, it remained
easier to scavenge on the bountiful streets of and find rest at night in her
compassionate alleyways – at least until he could find a way to finally gain
access to a bank. London
Again he imagined what he would do first once the cheque was cashed. No trader would turn him away if he offered them a large sum of money. Money talks, even when you cannot. A good wash, a good night’s sleep, brand new clothes and a feed. Then he’d charter a fast carriage to his seaside home.
‘There ‘e is!’ a voice sounded. The beggar looked up in alarm. The prostitutes had returned with a stocky, red-haired man wearing a brown bowler. ‘The vicious blighter’s an animal. Oh, if ever I have to see that little flickering snake’s tongue again. Go on ‘Arry, give him what for!’
The red-haired man delivered a series of full, vindictive blows to the beggar’s head and body. His thoughts quickly turned from his rehabilitation to nothingness as, again, he drifted into unconsciousness.
The next morning Carberry stood outside the huge cast-iron doors to the Savings Bank. He thought himself a trifle early, but what did ten minutes matter in comparison to the good impression it created? Bothered by a high-pitched wheezing emanating from the alleyway beside him, he investigated its source. There he discovered the beggar from the evening before. His face was a battlefield of purple bruises, his eyes encrusted in blood. He did not move at all, save for a faint movement in his chest as he attempted to keep breathing. In his gnarled hands he firmly clasped the same filthy, blood-spattered piece of paper. The beggar recognised Carberry as a bank employee and, with difficulty, raised an arm to motion him over. Moving gingerly towards him, he flinched as the beggar held out the piece of paper but took it and read it. As Carberry’s eyes widened, the beggar’s closed and, as the clerk’s mouth opened in amazement, so the beggar’s formed a final, peaceful smile.