That week, the wind blew and blew, unusual for London. Hyde Park felt as if it were a ship on a stormy sea. The Great Elm fell. It had stood rooted before Kensington Palace since the 19th century. The tree itself was a palace. Everyone talked about it, a tree like that. It had been described by J.M. Barrie in his books. As it fell, one of its great arms struck the statue of Peter Pan and brought it toppling down. Child tourists noted that the bronze little boy lay with a surprised expression on his face.
By day, the muscular wind shredded the Christmas gloom, by night, the sky blown clean, the moon shone clear and gave out a cobalt light that put spidery tree shadows in places people had never seen shadows before. Windows were smashed all around De Vere Gardens, Kensington Gardens, Bloomsbury Square and even in the Palace where Queen Victoria had once lived, and much later, a Princess named Diana.
On the morning of New Year’s Eve, a boy playing in the park spotted a lone man ‘o war bird, usually seen flying miles offshore, simply strutting along the Serpentine. A strange omen indeed.
And long after New Year’s Eve midnight, standing on the top step of 12 Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, a very old and very distinguished man, tall and lean, dressed in formal evening attire, with a silver cross and ribbon around his neck, a top hat and Chesterfield, bad the doorman of The Regina Club a cheery New Year.
The Regina, a gentlemen’s club named in honor of Queen Victoria, whose members remained the silver salvages of her many conquests, explorations and the great wars that followed in defense of her vanishing empire. Men whose lives had been spent springing to their feet to raise goblets to their Queen, their Kings, and more recently, once again, their Queen. Gentlemen well aware of their imminent extinction, bidding each other as glorious a new year as possible under the circumstances. In the musty cloakroom, a footman named John, as old as any of his masters, helped each one of them into his coat, handed them their top hats, all with their gloves stashed inside.
One final Cognac to the coming year for Peter Isling and two of his oldest friends––tidings of the recent Christmas passed, jumbled with memories of fallen comrades, in The War to End All Wars. Then out through the doorway into the brash cold, the tipsy night sprinkled with huzzahs, farewells, and the hope that each might be present for next year’s bidding.
“On foot tonight, Lord Peter?” the doorman inquired. Peter Isling had given his chauffeur the evening off.
“God, yes, Prester. I believe I’ll walk a bit.”
Prester was not a bit surprised. Lord Peter, a nonagenarian, disliked the random personality of taxicabs and when he was feeling splendid as he was this New Year’s Eve, he relished the late walk home to Sloan Square when he could feel an intimacy with the night sky.
“Well, a very happy new year, your lordship, and if I may, please take good care!”
“I shall bloody well take good care, Prester, and you do as well! My very best regards to you and your family.”
And he dropped a pair of small white envelopes marked John and Prester onto the foyer tabletop as he passed. Prester swung the royally emblazoned door open and closed it hard behind the old gentleman.
The chill greeted Peter Isling’s face, the glazed pavements, the blue winter light. As he descended the three massive steps, he did not notice traces of ice on the bottom step and without warning, his heel flew forward, he grasped the iron railing too late and down he went, striking the side of his head on the edge of the step and came to rest lying on the pavement, his cheek pressed to the hoary cornerstone of the East India Building. He was lucky to be alive. He lay a few moments as if he were a grouse stunned by gunfire. Then he rolled onto his back. There was no one around to help him to his feet, his companions, Roger Berresford and John Tidy, had both taken cabs and were gone. It was Prester who spotted him by chance through the glass door and rushed outside.
“Good Heavens, Lord Peter!”
But by the time Prester had managed to work his way down the steps, Peter had hauled himself to his feet and regained his footing.
“Gnarly stuff ice,” he muttered to Prester who retrieved his top hat and handed it to him. He donned it and waved him away with a laugh, “Winter may change into stone the waters of heaven, Prester, but nay the human heart.”
“Ha-ha! Right you are, Lord Peter, right you are,” the footman answered, without the faintest idea of what he had just been told.
“Happy New Year to you once again, old man.”
“Are you right enough to walk, sir?”
“Good as gold.”
But he was not. And as Prester edged his way back up the steps toward the shelter of the Regina Club, Lord Peter Isling stood with one hand on the iron claw stanchion, the other resting on the crystal lion’s skull affixed atop his Malacca walking stick. He stood thus for a few moments, tapped snow from the heels of both shoes with the stick, shook his head several times, a few times too many, stood a moment longer, and then, quite abruptly, set out walking on the wrong course, the opposite direction of his habitual route home from the club. Turning his back on his house at Sloane Square, he walked with urgency in a northerly direction. After several blocks, he reached Knightsbridge Road just below Hyde Park, and before crossing into the park, he stood wondering why he felt the inexplicable need to walk to any park at all.
Taxicabs rushed past him, taking revelers to their homes, their tires sissing on the frozen street. One without a fare slowed to a stop. Obviously, here was a very old gentleman in need of a ride.
“Where might I carry you, sir?”
“Nowhere, thank you. Drive on. And a very happy new year to your boys.” He would have given the poor man a gold sovereign had he been carrying one.
“Why, thank you, sir, I’ll tell them,” the taxi driver said, a bit startled by the wish.
“His boys?” Peter mumbled to himself as the cab drove away, “What on God’s earth made me think he had boys?” From his coat pocket he retrieved a silver flask, poured himself a thimbleful, warm from his pocket, all that was left of his Cognac.
For a bit longer he stood bewildered, gazing at the wide boulevard. There were not many cars. Suddenly, he said aloud, brightly, to no one, “I believe I shall walk all the way across Hyde Park.” And without another thought as to why he would want to do such an absurd thing, Lord Peter Isling, DSO, Knight of the Garter, skipped across Knightsbridge Road to where he stood facing the vast, black Park, dimly lit here and there by sallow dots of light, and started walking through it, head down, through the brisk, icy, early morning, ninety-something winters behind him, fine top hat, gleaming walking stick, Chinese red silk scarf blowing out behind him. Without breaking his stride, he walked a mile through Hyde Park and arrived at Bayswater Road on the north side showing no sign of fatigue. He felt young and more alive than he had in years, his eyes shone bright, and it was only then that he became dimly aware of his destination. He was walking toward Bloomsbury Square, still without any idea why. It simply felt like the right thing to do and so on he walked at a clipped pace through the sleeping city. When he came to the square he stopped once again. Bloomsbury Square, of all places.
He felt a sense of arrival. The small square, the locked iron gate and within, the tiny, tree-filled park, the winter flower beds, surrounded by houses. Was this the square he had been walking to? He was not aware of anyone he had ever been acquainted with who lived on this square.
“Have I ever been here before?” He inquired under his breath. “Yet it seems …”
He did not finish his thought. The street lamps shed their coronas out into the gloom. He looked along all the house fronts. All of them four- storeys high and all of them dark except one at the corner––a small church, richly lit. Singing came from within, midnight mass, a gaggle of people stood outside. He walked toward one of the houses, stood before it, stared up to its top floor and the tall dormer window that faced the square. He felt comfortable looking up at it; another chord struck in his memory, dimly imagined. Number 10, Bloomsbury Square. That was where he was going, he knew for certain, and he needed to get up to the top floor. But how?
He opened his flask, sipped, and closed it again. Then he walked to the church, stopped outside, entered, walked down the aisle between the pews of the singing congregation, into the vestibule to the right, up the stairs to the choir loft, then through a doorway marked, Bell Tower Keep Out.
He climbed up into the small tower, emerging on the rooftop, and began crawling along the lead rain gutter that ran in front of the windows along the top floors of the houses toward Number Ten, the one he was drawn to. He did not look down; heights nauseated him. If any passerby happened to glance up from the sidewalk during those moments, he would have seen the unsteady shadow of a lean, tipsy, top-hatted gentleman tiptoeing along the rain gutter, a rather daring feat.
“This sort of human fly rubbish should be confined to circus performances,” he mumbled to himself, yet it all seemed to be logical, as if from an earlier lifetime.
He passed the tall dormer window he had stared at from the sidewalk, disappeared for a moment, returned, and stood outside it again, his feet planted in the icy rain gutter. He had found his window, closed, of course, but not locked. He reached for his flask but remembered once again that it was dry. He stood and listened to the far away traffic sounds the occasional faint car horn. Should he tap on the glass? Of course not. The casement window was opened outward, just a crack, enough to disturb the veiled curtains within. He tried the latch, it gave, he slowly opened it toward him, a dangerous choice, and crept inside, stealthily as he could.