It was dark in the city. It seemed that it was always dark in the city. The nights were claustrophobic, oppressive, the days marginally less so, streets swathed in a thick blanket of grey fog. Still, the dreary rain had tapered off and the damp air was a bit less chill tonight. The meager gas lamps lining the road were haloed in the mist. The grim-lipped dwellers of the city went about their business in typical fashion; hats slung low, collars upturned, downcast eyes tracing footpaths worn in the cobblestone streets. Rarely was kindness or closeness evident, and the warmth of a smile would be precious indeed. Pedestrians knew to keep their minds on their own business, even while casting the occasional wary glance at their fellows.
Noteworthy, then would the Gentleman be, if a citizen dared spare him more than a moment’s thought. Clad head to toe in a three-piece bespoke suit the color of wet ash, crowned with a top hat and face masked by a long scarf of a startling goldenrod hue, his elegant shoes and walking stick eerily silent upon the pavement. The silent Gentleman looked out of place in such a drab locale, and his evident wealth marked him as a potential target for the district’s more desperate residents, yet none crossed his path nor peered over their shoulders as he passed.
He was intent on his destination, unwavering as he crossed streets and strode down alleys heedless of detritus or shadows cast by the gibbous moon and pale dim stars. As was oft the wont of men of means, he was headed for the Slummers enclave in search of pleasures of the flesh or some other secret vice.
Women huddled together against the chill and dark in twos and threes, chatting in hushed voices as they awaited their next patron. The occasional lone man could be seen skulking in a doorway or against a corner, though whether pimp or prostitute in was hard to tell in this area of ill repute. Speakeasies and brothels jostled with pawnbrokers and drug dens for a space free of the muck, reaching like weeds for the feeble light provided by lanterns marking the poverty and neglect afflicting the destitute and downtrodden of the city.
Through the unkempt lanes and past the unwashed harlots and beggars plying their trade The Gentelman stalked, spurning both pleas and solicitations. An observant person might have noticed a certain pattern to the jaunty swing of his cane, or perhaps the almost imperceptible… sniff coming from underneath the folds of that yellow scarf, like a fox catching wind of a henhouse. The Gentleman did not speak or turn his head as he stepped briskly in search of his quarry. With a sudden pivot on his heels, he turned to his left and closed in on a trio of ladies of the night warming their hands over a pitiful fire of scrap kindling.
“What’s your fancy, Sir?” inquired the oldest and most desperate-looking of the three. The Gentleman gave no reply save the indication of his canetip at sweet Mary. Her compatriots sighed… sweet, red-haired Mary, with sparkling blue doe-eyes and milky skin, was a favorite of the men with silver in their pockets. Still, they didn’t begrudge her fortune; the girl never hoarded her earnings but showed an uncommon charity with her impoverished sisters.
Mary nodded, gathering her ragged black shawl around a shapeless grey dress. “I have a room,” she offered in a soft voice. The Gentleman inclined his head, and she led the way down the street, behind a moldering townhouse and up the back stairs. The Gentleman followed close behind, ghostlike in the mist. She opened the rusty lock with a key produced from her bosom, and ushered her customer into the cramped and threadbare quarters.
As she lit the nearly empty lantern, her eyes fell on the hideous broach a past caller had gifted her. He’d been a beast, one of the rare sort who’d hurt her after; the fragile beauty which caused most men to show her kindness when the money changed hands instead driving him to cruelty. She still bore the marks of his belt on her back… the pin, some sort of twisted ‘Y’ worked in gold on black, was clearly valuable in spite of the lack of craftmanship.
As the door closed, Mary sat The Gentleman in the only chair. She began to disrobe, turning an inquisitive glance at the seated figure. ‘Don’t you want to make yourself more comfortable?’ She padded to him on bare feet, the shadows dancing across her lithe body.
The rise of a gloved index finger stopped her; clearly the client had some particular desire in mind. “Sing for me,” he demanded in a flat, deep voice. “Sing, Sir? What shall I…” He merely inclined his head, and she began to hum, searching for something suitable. In her puzzlement, she could think of no words, nor had there been occasion to sing for some time. As the silence lengthened, she recalled the song her mother taught her as she lay in her sickbed, before life had slipped from her.
She began, faltering at first, then in clear rising tones:
‘I am a true and bonny lass, so fair and so gay/ my true love has up and gone, gone so far away/ he’s gone to sail, gone to seas, riding high upon the breeze/ and here I sit and wait for him, that marry him I may.’
Tears welled in her eyes at the memories, and the thought of a life that would never be hers; she sobbed rawly on the bed, unable to finish the performance as requested. The man stood and wiped away the twin glittering streams upon her cheeks, cupping her chin in the silken glove. He nodded slowly, and Mary smiled wanly. She reached up to remove the elegant hat, unwinding the mustard scarf… and she froze as a mask of cold, polished ivory greeted her fingers and curious blue eyes. The unveiled visage was of an entity all too familiar to the unfortunate girl: a naked, grinning skull.
The sight chilled her soul, and fear fluttered in her heart as she wondered what kind of dangerous fetish her patron might wish to indulge. “If you please Sir, might you remove the mask? It is… beautiful, but if you wish to make love, it is better, I suggest, to look on one another?”
She heard her heart beating like thunder in her ears as eternal moments passed. She placed her trembling hands on his chest. “What do you wish of me, Lord? I will satisfy your needs, but the mask… it frightens me.”
“I wear no mask.” intoned the figure in the grey attire. It had an air of finality, of ritual.
“You have seen the Yellow Sign.”
Mary frowned, then thought she understood. “The broach? Is that what you mean, Sir? It’s by the lamp… Is it yours? Was it stolen?’ She scrambled for the golden pin, relieved that what the client wanted his property, not to harm her.
Impossibly fast, the man snatched her by her fiery tresses and lifted her off the floor. The shape seemed to grow larger, swelling to fill the darkening room, which lurched drunkenly as if the world had turned on its axis. The ashen attire sloughed away, revealing an emaciated form enshrouded in tattered jaundice robes. Mary screamed in mortal terror and fought desperate against its implacable grip.
“You have seen the Yellow Sign, and I have come for you. I am the King in Yellow. I am the Harbinger of Doom, the Spectre of the End. I am Madness, and I am Death.” With those words, that part of Mary that might be deemed a soul was lost, borne for unguessable purposes to lost Carcosa, dread realm of The King in Yellow.
When the poor girl’s friends overcame their fear and forced the inadequate flat door, they discovered the remnants of the prostitute who had been dear, sweet Mary. She was a broken thing, blinded and deafened, clutching an ugly piece of costume jewelry and murmuring over and over, “Have you seen the Yellow Sign?”