Fiction: 'The Hound of Henry Hortinger' by Michelle Goldsmith
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Henry Hortinger had always been a pragmatic man. A man you could rely on to make those difficult decisions from which others might balk. His potential became evident at an early age and was firmly established by the time he was eleven years old. It was embodied most keenly in an incident, just days after his tenth birthday, when Henry caught a kitchen boy stealing scraps from the larder.
While some children might have merely reported the incident, or worse, done nothing at all, young Henry had decided to investigate. He followed the boy all the way to an old garden shed at the far corner of the property and, when the boy left shortly after, entered the building himself to find what was hidden within. There, amongst a pile of rotting hay, he discovered a mangy mongrel bitch suckling a litter of scrawny black puppies. The kitchen boy had been feeding the wretched creatures with food scraps stolen from his father’s kitchen. His kitchen, as it would one day be! After having reported this atrocity to the man himself, and standing by as the young felon was dismissed from the household staff, Henry led his father down to the garden shed to inspect the creatures in question.
“Now Henry,” Mr Hortinger had said, “it was good of you to show me this, but you have to understand what must happen next. These creatures are filthy, worthless, and have no right to be here. Furthermore, their presence has incited my household staff to theft. I know it may seem harsh, but they must be disposed of.”
The look in his father’s eye told Henry all he needed to know about what “disposed of” would entail.
“If you want a pet,” continued Henry’s father,” we can get you a proper dog, a hunting dog. You’re nearly old enough anyway.” He paused as if expecting dissent.
Some children might have cried and begged their fathers to spare the mongrel pups. Henry, however, merely cast them an impassive look before turning to his father and saying, “Of course. I don’t care. What good are they to me?”
Then, without sparing the unfortunate creatures another thought, Henry had set about negotiating the terms of his reward.
* * *
From that day forward, the elder Mr Hortinger frequently retold the story to his companions, always making sure to emphasize his son’s final words. “Yes, men,” he would repeat, proudly, “‘what good are they to me?’ That is the question we should always ask ourselves, with regard to everything in life!”
Without fail his audience would wholeheartedly agree that such a level-headed boy as Henry was most certainly destined for greatness.
Thus it came as no surprise that in the years that followed, Henry’s ruthlessness, tenacity and natural cunning saw him more than fulfill his potential.
When the old man died Henry not only succeeded him as head of Hortinger & Filch but, within four years, he had expanded his father’s manufacturing empire threefold, making himself one of the richest and most influential men in London. Now, in his middle years, he was not content to just sit back and enjoy the many luxuries his labours had afforded him. No, not he. Instead, time found him still bent with his nose to the grindstone, making the tough decisions, a man at the very forefront of progress itself.
* * *
Nevertheless, Henry thought one evening, as his footsteps echoed down a dark cobblestone street, there were still far too many things over which he had no control: a prime example being the incompetence of the new coachman he had had the misfortune of hiring on the recommendation of a seemingly trustworthy acquaintance. While he’d told the man to make the trip home quick, he had not requested that he drive in so reckless and irresponsible a fashion as to render the horse lame a mile from his destination. The fool had even had the audacity to blame Henry for the accident. Henry had silenced the man with a gaze before informing him that, were he somehow expecting to remain employed come morning, he would find himself sorely mistaken. He then proceeded to storm off as the wretch mumbled something about having a family to feed. Having had more than his share of ineptitude for the day and unwilling to spare the time or coin to summon a public cab so close to home, Henry decided to walk the last stretch.
It was a mild winter evening, and Henry could feel the exercise help clear his mind and ease his temper. He supposed he should have been worried that walking alone at night would leave him vulnerable to robbery, but the fog-cloaked street appeared deserted. Henry smiled to himself, considering the solitude to be one of the many benefits of his wealth. Not only could he afford to live in one of the richest and most exclusive areas of London, he could also make frequent donations to his local police station. A small price to pay, in his opinion, to have the bobbies clear off any unsightly human rabble.
If worst came to worst, and some indigent did dare accost him, he had a blade concealed in his exquisite lacquered walking cane in addition to a fully loaded and a meticulously maintained pistol in his Gladstone bag.
In the feeble light of the gas lamps Henry could almost imagine he was walking a different, cleaner street; a street free from the inevitable layer of filthy London residue. The darkness rendered almost invisible the perpetual dark haze that cloaked the city like a mourning shroud. He choked back a cough and, just for a single moment, found himself wishing for a single lungful of fresh air. Henry quickly admonished himself for getting swept up in foolish romantic notions. Clean streets and clear skies! Next he’d be giving up his job and retiring to the country to take up farming! He chuckled at the thought.
As his rage subsided, Henry found himself thinking longingly of his armchair before the fireplace and a snifter of fine brandy, the image compelling him to pick up his pace. The impressive Hortinger mansion was mere minutes away now, and he was keen to make his dream a reality. In his haste, Henry noticed far too late a great greasy puddle before him and was forced to side-step in a most undignified manner. He stumbled and, after a perilous moment, righted himself, thankful that no one had been present to witness his shame.
Yet it was not embarrassment that gave him pause thereafter. No, this was something entirely different. For Henry was sure that in the instant he had broken pace he had heard something behind him. It had ceased almost immediately, yet it unnerved him. It had almost sounded like soft footfalls. As if someone behind him had been using the echoes of his footsteps to cover the sounds of his own. It seemed some felon was trying to sneak up from behind and rob him! The nerve! Henry deftly unsheathed his cane blade and spun to face his pursuer.
He was met with a deserted street, his only company the fog shifting slowly beneath the gaslights. Soft strains of music filtered from somewhere distant. “The sneak must have run off when he figured I’d heard him,” thought Henry. “Bloody coward.” After waiting another moment, Henry sheathed his blade and continued his journey. He retrieved his pistol from his Gladstone bag and slipped it into his pocket as an added precaution.
His mansion was within sight the next time he heard anything. Henry was certain now: the sound of soft footfalls, barely audible in the echoes of his own. He turned abruptly without breaking his stride.
“Aha!,” he cried. “Who do we have he –.”
His voice caught in his throat, for this was no pickpocket or urchin. Barely ten feet away from him stood an enormous black beast. In his shock he registered its canine resemblance.
Some kind of dog.
But this couldn’t be a dog. Or, if it was, then it was no breed he knew. With fur the hue of midnight, the creature seemed to absorb all light around it. Its immense muzzle terminated in a terrible lupine grimace, revealing teeth at least as long as his finger, each glistening like the edge of a knife.
Ice-cold fear rose within his breast. His grip upon his cane failed, sending it clattering against the cobblestones, the echoes resounding throughout the empty street. The monster stood almost as tall as a man. Yet it was not the beast’s size, nor its fangs, that caused his heart to skip a beat. It was its eyes.
Henry stood transfixed in the monster’s gaze; deep set in a face of infernal darkness, twin orbs glowed an unnatural white. “Like the moon over Hell,” he thought in horror. The creature took a step forward.
Then came the pain. Every inch of Henry’s body was instantly soaked in cold sweat as a wave of despair washed over him. He struggled for breath. Thousands of voices rang in his head, yet he couldn’t understand a word amidst the clamour. Fear, desolation, and helplessness, all unfamiliar emotions, now threatened to overwhelm him.
Henry fell to his knees, shaking uncontrollably. So petrified was he that, for a moment, he forgot the weapon hidden in his pocket. Gasping with relief, Henry pulled the gun from its hiding-place and, summoning what remained of his willpower, aimed the pistol at hound.
“Begone, foul demon!” he cried, squeezing the trigger.
The shot rang out through the night. Henry paused, waiting for the beast to fall. He was sure he had hit. But the hound remained, unmoving, unperturbed by his effort to dispatch it.
And then it took a step towards him.
With a bloodcurdling scream Henry leapt to his feet and dashed towards his door, casting his bag away lest it impede his flight. Heart pounding as he reached his threshold, he hammered his fists against the great oaken door, screaming for his manservant. He threw himself forward through the gap as the door began to open, almost knocking the footman off his feet. His son, Thomas, was rushing down the stairs toward him.
“Close the door, for the love of God; it’s coming after me!” Henry cried.
The servant looked confused. “What is, sir? There doesn’t appear to be anything there.”
“The dog you fool! The dirty great dog! Shut the door!”
“What is wrong, Father?” said Thomas, stepping forward. He seized the door from the bewildered footman and looked out into the dark street.
“No!” screamed Henry, scrambling to his feet and grasping his son roughly by the arm.
“It must have gone, father,” said Thomas. “For it certainly isn’t there now.”
Henry dared a glance through the open doorway. The enormous black dog stood gazing up at him, barely six feet away.
“There!” cried Henry pointing.
“I’m afraid I can’t see anything,” his son replied.
“Nor I, sir,” the footman confirmed.
Thomas put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Are you sure you’re entirely well, Father? Should I have someone fetch you a glass of water?”
“Good God, boy, I’m fine!” Henry bellowed. As if to compound his horror, Henry caught sight of curtains being pulled aside in the mansion across the way, a neighbour appearing to gawk at the spectacle he was providing. Humiliated, he slammed the door before rounding on Thomas.
“And why are you even here? Should you not still be busy at the reading rooms or with your tutor? I’ll not have my son hovering around the doorway like a common servant!”
“Well,” said Thomas, “I was there earlier. It was getting late, and with Elizabeth being so ill I thought –”
Henry snorted with disgust before storming off to the comfort of his study. So livid was he that he didn’t even noticed the willow-thin figure of his daughter standing on the staircase, tears streaking down her ghost-pale cheeks.
* * *
Henry sat before the fireplace, his third glass of brandy in hand, mulling over the night’s events. Although it hurt his pride he was forced to admit that the demonic hound must have been a figment of his imagination. A symptom, perhaps, of his overtaxed mind. It wasn’t so peculiar, he reassured himself. He was an important man and the stresses in his life were great and many. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had enjoyed a full night of sleep. And had he not suffered?
His life was far from perfect. His wife was long dead and the son and heir she’d left him a source of constant disappointment. Dreamy and unmotivated, the now eighteen-year-old Thomas seemed born to vex him and did so thoroughly and often. Henry secretly suspected the boy of consorting with artists, musicians, and women of dubious virtue. At least he hoped it was women. He could not stomach the possibility that his progeny could be more unnaturally inclined.
His daughter caused him less trouble, but that was likely only because she lacked the ability to do so. Pale and sickly since birth, he felt sure that if Elizabeth were ever in full health she’d waste no time in causing him as much grief as his son.
Yes, he sighed, there were countless explanations for the creature’s manifestation. The best he could do for now would be to tell no one and put the incident out of his mind. If the beast appeared again he would merely ignore it and carry on.
In the days that followed Henry threw himself into his work with a desperate vigour, yet the hound continued to haunt his every step. If he glanced out a window in his office he might catch a glimpse of it waiting for him. If he looked out his carriage on the way home, it would be there. At night it stalked his dreams.
The creature seemed content to lurk on the periphery of his vision, leaving Henry to go about his day-to-day business. He had even managed to conduct an important meeting with a select group of his business associates and mill-owning peers without once succumbing to distraction, despite the hound’s foreboding presence in the darkest corner of the room. Indeed, he nearly forgot the dog entirely as he listened to each member deliver excruciatingly detailed progress reports on the various enterprises they oversaw. Each, as usual, was thriving.
It was as he was calling an end to the meeting, joking heartily with his fellow masters and silently congratulating himself on his own extraordinary willpower, that William Filch approached him.
“And how are you, young man?” he said, clapping the junior partner on the back.
“Ah, quite well, sir,” William replied. “I’d like to have a private word, if I may. It’s just I have something to ask, in regards to the business, but –”
“We’re all associates here,” Henry said. “All dedicated to the success of Hortinger & Filch. Surely there are no secrets between us?”
The board members all nodded their agreement.
“Very well, sir,” the young man replied. He paused, uncertainly.
“Come on boy, spit it out,” Henry prompted.
“Well,” said William, nervously. “I caught a rumour that Stieg & Sons has installed new machinery in their cotton mills.”
The young man instantly had the attention of the entire room.
“Good God, man, why on earth didn’t you speak of this earlier?” Henry cried. “Tell us, do you know what it is?”
William paused awkwardly. “They say that it’s a type of fan, sir. Apparently it clears the air and prevents the workers from breathing in the cotton and dust from the machinery. They also say it prevents them from getting sick as often – that the healthy workers work longer and harder.” He seemed to gain confidence as he spoke. “They speak of this machinery as the way of the fut –.”
“I’ll tell you what it is!” exploded Henry. “It’s bloody bleeding heart mollycoddling, that’s what it is!” Had any other delivered such nonsense Henry would have dismissed the culprit from the room immediately, with a stern rebuke and possibly a demotion. Young William was, however, his declared protégée and he found that the exercise was, for the most part, easier and more rewarding than suffering his own disappointing progeny.
“Come here, boy,” he said sternly. He took William by the arm and brusquely excused the rest of the company, leading the boy over to a large window as the last of his peers trickled out of the room. “Take a look out there,” he said, gesturing towards the bustling smoke-cloaked streets below. “Now tell me, William. On your way in today did you happen to notice any lack of beggars and urchins?”
“No sir,” William replied.
“In that case,” Henry continued, “how are we in any danger of running out of new workers should our current lot fall ill?” He turned to the boy and placed a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “Listen boy,” he said, “I know that since your father died you’ve been living alone with your mother. Now, I mean no offence to the lady at all; she’s an admirable woman. But associating only with females for too long can leave a man soft. And that just won’t do! If you want success in this world, you have to reach out and snatch it before another man does. All those fools you see lining the streets; they’re the ones who didn’t take it; who were too foolish or weak or ignorant and cast opportunity aside!”
The young man stared at his feet as though thoroughly ashamed.
“Now,” continued Henry, “I’m indulging you because your father was a good friend and partner to me and I owe it to his memory to look out for you. But next time you bring business before me, it had better be something damned well important, not some foolishness about miraculous fans and healthy workers!”
Henry dismissed the boy and took a moment to gaze through the weathered glass, pleased with the opportunity to dispense what wisdom God had seen fit to bestow upon him. He turned to leave the room.
The hound was waiting for him. Its glowing eyes locked with his.
Henry was lost to a vision of pain and despair. Before his eyes marched the legions of the poor. Men and women huddled in rags, shivering against the cold of the night. He saw skeletal children, eyes huge in their hollow skulls. Coughing, always coughing. Black globs of phlegm frothed from corrupted lungs. Steam billowing. The crowded confines of the warehouse hotter than the fires of Hell. And all the while the deafening roar of machinery. Cogs turning. Gears shifting. The world spinning ever faster.
* * *
When he came to, Henry found himself lying on the boardroom floor, a coat pillowing his head, a crowd of his business associates gathered around him.
“Are you all right, sir?” came William’s voice. The young man’s face floated above him.
“It’s nothing,” said Henry, pushing himself resolutely off the floor. “Absolutely nothing.” He cast his gaze across the faces of the assembled crowd.
Not a single soul looked convinced.
* * *
Henry’s mind roiled. He had become convinced after his episode in the boardroom that his business associates were gleefully anticipating his imminent demise, already dividing up his empire between them.
He had to find a way to prove to them that he was still the same man he had always been. A strong man in good spirits and robust health.
Thus it was that he arranged a hunting party with a number of his most eminent board members to take place that very weekend.
He was determined to ensure that the excursion would run perfectly, that nothing whatsoever would be allowed to ruin his plan and arranged for his stately home in Yorkshire to be made ready for their arrival. There, in the picturesque countryside, they would be isolated enough to prevent the cares of business intrude upon their week of leisure. As the time to depart drew near, Henry’s confidence grew and his spirits rose.
* * *
The morning of his departure, Henry paced impatiently in the sitting room, awaiting the arrival of his coach. His eyes lit upon his son, lingering in the doorway.
“Having second thoughts, boy?” he asked. “There is still time for you to come, you know.”
“I’ve already told you,” said Thomas. “I can’t leave. I must stay with Elizabeth. Her illness seems to grow worse by the day, and I cannot abandon her. Nor should you, Father,” he continued. “She may not last the week.”
“The doctors say she’s doing well,” scoffed Henry.
“The doctors tell you what you want to hear!” cried Thomas. “You’d know how unwell she is if you ever bothered to visit her. And no, a brief nod through the doorway every evening is not a visit!”
Henry felt rage build within him. “Now listen here, boy,” he spat. “Don’t you ever presume to tell me how to run this family.” Thomas grew pale. Before Henry could continue, however, he was interrupted by the arrival of the coach. Satisfied that he’d made his point, Henry cast one last livid glare in his son’s direction before storming out of the sitting room.
* * *
Henry Hortinger’s hunting excursion seemed plagued by ill-fortune almost from the moment it began. Once a proficient shooter, Henry could not hit a single mark; no matter how he corrected, his aim was always slightly off. His associates joked good-naturedly that his shotgun must be faulty and a number offered their own weapons for his use. When he proved as ineffective with other guns as with his own, they contended that he must have the abominable misfortune of setting only the most flighty of pheasants in his sights. One even suggested that the great Henry Hortinger was deliberately missing, an act of mercy given their inferior marksmanship. Although Henry laughed along with the rest of them his heart sank within his breast.
As much as he would have liked to believe his dismal bag-count was due to sheer bad luck he feared he knew better. His terrible aim likely had much more to do with the enormous black beast that constantly paced on the edges of his vision than erratic bird-flight.
He began to eagerly anticipate his return to London.
* * *
Henry’s coach delivered him to a home in uproar. The windows were flung open and shrill voices carried into the street, where curious onlookers gathered with wide eyes and insinuating smiles, gossiping behind their hands. Henry rushed inside determined to locate the cause of this madness.
Tears were streaming down Thomas’ face as he dragged a heavy trunk towards the doorway, while flustered servants hurried about ineffectually.
“What in God’s name is going on?” Henry bellowed.
“She’s dead!” screamed Thomas, his voice cracking. “You left her and Elizabeth is dead! You unfeeling brute!”
Henry stopped in his tracks.
“You left her,” Thomas continued. “You didn’t care! You never cared!” Henry stood, mouth agape, his heart stuttering in his breast, unable to speak. Thomas, suddenly unnaturally calm, moved forward until he stood less than a foot from his father.
“When we were young,” he said, “Mother used to tell us to pray to God each night before bed. I hadn’t prayed once since she died. Until recently, that is. A month ago, I began praying again. At first I prayed for Elizabeth, for her recovery; or, at least, for her stabilization: and yet it had no effect. I would come to her room, watch her sleep. Then, one night, she awoke, and found me watching over her. She told me a secret, her greatest wish, something she desired more than her own health.
“And so, each night from that night on, I prayed long and hard to who or whatever might be listening. And shall I tell you what I prayed for, crouched beside her bed every night, Father? I prayed for her wish to come true: that one day, the conscience that you cast aside would be restored to you. That it would return and hunt you down like the dog you are.”
Henry choked, unable to speak.
“Well, Father,” Thomas continued, “it’s become clear to me that such a day will never come. So I’m leaving. With Elizabeth gone, there’s nothing left here for me now.
“Do not concern yourself overmuch on my account,” he added. “I want nothing of yours. Your wealth, your power, your possessions: you can keep them all.”
Thomas stepped away, took hold of his trunk and strode out the door, where he jumped into the back of a waiting cab and disappeared into the night.
Henry stood frozen. A dark shadow loomed over him; he could feel monstrous white eyes drilling into his back. He spun to face the gawking servants.
“Get out!” he screamed. “All of you! Get out of this house immediately!” They stared at him wide-eyed. Slowly they began to file out of the house, as if afraid to make any sudden movements. Finally, bereft of human company, Henry made his way to his study. He felt more than heard the creature behind him, padding softly in his shadow. He did not need to turn to verify its presence. Once in his study, Henry Hortinger poured himself a snifter of brandy and sank into his favourite armchair. On the end-table beside him lay an ornate pistol, a pistol that had once belonged to his father. Henry picked up the gun and weighed it in his hands, yet its once-reassuring heft held little comfort for him now. He kept it loaded, as his father had always done, but Henry knew bullets would have no effect on the demonic hound.
The room was silent but for the repetitive ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. Henry gazed at his surroundings, at the rich mahogany furnishings, at the ornate fireplace and the elaborate glass cabinets that housed his invaluable treasures. Where once he could find reassurance amidst his possessions, the trophies of his many worldly successes, he could take no solace from them now. Every highly polished surface reflected the same monstrous visage. Despite the turmoil of his mind, over the bouquet of his expensive brandy, his Virginian tobacco and the warm aroma of his deep leather armchair, Henry could detect another, strangely incongruous scent, something elusive yet familiar that he vaguely recalled from childhood: the sickly sweet odour of rotting hay on a summer breeze. Perhaps, if he listened carefully, he would hear the soft snuffling of infant animals, would recognize the coppery taste of birth in the air, the texture of a wooden door beneath his childish, as yet unlined hands.
Henry sat, and he waited.
Michelle Goldsmith is a speculative fiction writer who resides in Melbourne, Australia. Her fiction has appeared in various publications both within Australia and overseas and has been featured on the recommended reading list of The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror (Ticonderoga). She was shortlisted for a Ditmar award for Best New Talent in 2014 and has been shortlisted again for 2015.
"The Hound of Henry Hortinger" was first published in Stories of the Smoke (Jurassic London, 2012). It was later translated and reprinted as part of Лондон: время московское ('London: Moscow time', AST Publishing, 2014).
Image credit: "Dog Prints" via Creative Commons.