Ah, the gentlemen’s club, last bastion of fresh cigars and old money. Where scotch vapors and thick smoke choke the air. Dimly lit by lamp and the brief life of matches, by lighter and watch-face, navigating the chairs and tables in the dusk is as difficult task as navigating the social scene, the inbred legions of old money, of pretension and condescension. Where image is all that matters, where status is greater than substance. It is the dying resting place of the wealthy, but it is not dead, not yet.
Here Walter Mathis made his home, here lived his people.
So it came much to his surprise, one inauspicious Friday night, when he found seated in his regular chair a young man he did not recognize. There were no labels designating this chair as such, his preferred place by the fire. Where he whiled away many an hour sipping whiskey and talking nonsense with fellows who, like himself, were products of birth and not their own labor. Here such things as station, and wealth, and what was owned, and by whom, were just known, understood, and never questioned.
The young man looked up, but did not move. Eyes placid, dark moons in a white sky.
“Can I help you…”
“Walter. Mathis… Sir Walter Mathis,” The noble sputtered, unused to being so challenged. He gathered his bearings and continued. “And you know very well what’s required.”
His voice carried no inherent command, just the assumption that, backed by his name, orders from it would be obeyed. Walter was not one accustomed to resistance.
“Ah yes, of course,” The young man smiled, moving only the corners of his mouth, like the rest of him was cast in plaster. “You want me to move.”
Walter silently fumed, and said nothing, waiting for his place in the universe to restore itself.
“You see, as I understand it, the oldest money can sit where it may-”
Here Sir Mathis could bear the indignity no longer. “The Mathis family has been coming this club for generations. Here the eldest has always sat. Ours is a proud family, a wealthy family, and it is on our patronage that the legacy of this place was built. So you see… you see…”
Mid-tirade, the young upstart, usurper of Walter’s rightful place, turned away watching the wood crackling in the flames as if nothing in the room were more worthy of his attention.
“You speak of generations, of centuries, as if I should be impressed Walter. Time… is a fickle thing. So much of it passes, worth so little.” As the young man spoke, still he did not look at Walter, but the flames. And every eye in the house was drawn to their confrontation, and so too were they taken by the young man’s impudence. Wondering how a stranger unknown to them all even merited entrance to their world.
The young man’s voice was low and hollow. And it struck Walter as though it belonged to one much older than the face it bore. The shadows he cast, flickering with the blaze that cast them, stretched long in the gloom, far longer than his seated form merited. There were depths here, depths Walter was too blind to recognize. And he waded into them now. Unbeknownst to him, the waters swelled way over his head.
“Anyone in this club will tell you who I am… what my family has done.” Walter continued to flail and drown, confident his name was life-raft enough. “Who, pray tell, are you? How have you earned MY seat?” He moved to stand between the young man, still nameless, and the flames. He would be acknowledged. In his world, he would not stand to be ignored.
“I am one who does not have to answer. That I sit here, unmolested, should be answer enough. Run along, ‘Sir’ Mathis, before you open doors you cannot close.”
“You… you… that is old money’s chair. The oldest! No one here even knows your name! Everyone can say what the Mathises have done. How they helped build this-“
"Old money?" The young man laughed, “Old money? You know nothing of time, and understand even less of wealth.”
The façade fell away, youth and naïveté falling with it, and Walter saw it was he, of salt and pepper hair and the paunch of middle age, who was the youth here. The creature in his chair, with eyes of flame and soot, cast in coal, skin dark and shining like obsidian, seemed far older than even the idea of man. Than life itself.
"Old money?" The ancient scoffed, "You men are fools. We have accrued wealth since before this universe was a twinkle in its God's eye! We have watched the parade of expansion and collapse with little interest. We exist, or not, at our own leisure. This… club? Your chair? Are of little consequence to us. But I claim what I will, and I will not. Be. Questioned."
Suddenly Walter saw that he was alone, alone with a presence that measured its life in epochs. How small he felt then. Unsure of protocol, he fell back on dealings with royalty, and knelt. And begged.
“My Lord, I-I’m sorry, I didn’t. I did not know!”
“No, I suppose not,” The being’s voice echoed a hundred, thousand times, equaling the number of souls in its timbre, “But that still will not save you.”
With a wave of its hand, the whole room caught fire. Turning to ash, the former Sir Mathis burned away with it.
Those interviewed later, by the police and their families, by gentlemen in other clubs, by friends and curious barman, all insisted on the same truth: Long after the club burned, long after the smoke settled and the foundation crumbled to dust, the screams of the late Sir Mathis could still be heard, dwindling in the evening frost.