The Skull and the Nightingale (10 page)

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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“We must talk,” he said, “and at some little length—but not for a day or two.”

The change I felt in myself was mirrored in my godfather’s estate. The garden in front of the house was a blaze of spring flowers, golden and red. At the rear the expanse of his land was no longer held at bay by a palisade of black branches but merged into a surrounding sea of green leaves. I wandered out, as before, toward those woods, exulting in the clean air and warm sunshine. In the fields there were scores of white lambs, cropping the grass alongside their dams. Here was a true pastoral scene, where my Kitty would have been at home as shepherdess. Birdsongs trilled around and above me, a sound I had scarcely heard in London, and I was inhaling the sweet scents of growth rather than the stench of refuse. If this was the healthy life, as I felt it to be, then surely London, with its din and stink, might threaten illness, mental if not physical. My mind seemed clearer here.

Borrowing a horse from my godfather’s stable, I rode out to explore the surrounding countryside, something I had never attempted before. It was a fertile, secluded region, the nearest town being five miles away. To ride again was a release—how much more pleasing to be in partnership with a horse than to have it haul your carriage like a slave.

I was happy to amble at random, thinking about the days ahead. What conversational manner should I adopt when talking to my godfather? My former style—deference with an occasional glint of spirit—seemed inadequate to the changed situation. Too much in that vein and he might conclude that I lacked the mischief to be a bold participant in London life. Should I speak more freely, even suggestively? I would need to stay alert and be guided by Mr. Gilbert’s response.

I rode through Fork Hill itself, a straggling hamlet a mile from my godfather’s house. Passing the churchyard, I heard my name called, and looked round to see Mr. Thorpe, the clergyman I had met on my previous visit. I dismounted to shake his hand, and we stood conversing in the shade of a huge oak tree, while my horse grazed the verge.

In the open air, fresh from hauling a fallen gravestone upright—his task when he had seen me—he looked younger and more vigorous than I had previously taken him to be. And so I told him, emboldened by the fact that he seemed a friendly fellow, pleased to enjoy the distraction of a chat. When I asked him whether he did not find life in a secluded parsonage a little dull, he gave the question thought.

“I would once have done so. At Oxford I was considered a lively spark. But since coming here, I have been at pains to accept my destined place.”

I pursued the point, perhaps in tactless terms: “Is that not rather as though a butterfly should become a caterpillar?”

Thorpe did not take offense: “Better a healthy caterpillar than a bedraggled butterfly. I hope to marry one day. My wife will be a parson’s wife, and my children will be a parson’s children. Then the transformation will be complete.”

When he hinted a question concerning my own prospects, I said something to the effect that these were at the mercy of my godfather.

Thorpe nodded. “I understand you. In these parts we are all beholden to Mr. Gilbert and must study to deserve his good opinion.”

We smiled, in mutual understanding, and I parted from him cordially, pleased to have found a possible ally in this unknown territory.

W
ithin three days of my arrival my godfather again hosted a dinner. To my surprise the guests were as before, save only that Thorpe was absent. Although bored by the prospect of the evening ahead, I was on balance not displeased: if I came to be seen by Mr. Gilbert’s neighbors as a familiar member of the household, he could not easily cast me aside.

I had hoped to play the courteous listener, but found myself more than once thrust into prominence. Mr. Hurlock, as witlessly noisy as before, assailed me with his raillery. He questioned me about the pleasures of London life, brushing aside my demurrals.

“Don’t believe the boy!” he cried out. “I say don’t believe him! Does he look like a monk? He does not! There he sits, a handsome enough piece of young flesh. Never tell me there haven’t been women in the case. The town teems with ’em. Covent Garden, Drury Lane: there the ladies gather, and there the young men swarm about ’em like lice in a wig. Don’t tell us you haven’t been there, young man!”

My godfather made an ill-judged attempt to turn the current of the rant:

“I believe you may have visited such places yourself, in your time.”

Spluttering wine, Hurlock exploded into a laugh.

“You may believe it, Mr. Gilbert. You may well believe it, sir! I’ve gone belly to belly in many a London garret.”

By now the embarrassment around the table, particularly in the countenance of his wife, was such as to be perceived even by Hurlock. He extricated himself as best he could:

“That was in my plundering days, before I was married.
Long
before I was married!”

He let out his bark of laughter, but laughed alone. My godfather changed the topic.

“Mr. Quentin, I hear that you may be contemplating a visit to London?”

There was a silence, and I saw that Mrs. Quentin, who was sitting opposite me, had flushed. With an effort, her husband spoke out:

“I have been obliged to plan such a visit. It is not what I want or can afford, but it must be undertaken. My wife requires the services of a skillful dentist, such as cannot be found in these parts. We must seek help in London.”

There were murmurs of sympathy, but I could see that the unfortunate Mrs.Quentin was on the verge of tears, whether at the prospect of the dental ordeal or from the mortification of hearing her plight publicly discussed. To ease the situation I launched into a lively monologue about recent advances in dental knowledge and new devices that had become available. I spoke with knowledge, because the previous month Latimer’s uncle had had the last of his teeth extracted and a set of false ones installed. I did not, of course, allude to the discomfort he had suffered, nor to the resulting unnaturalness of his facial expression. Mr. Quentin seemed interested in what I had said, asking a number of questions, and his wife recovered her composure.

As the talk became general I hoped to subside into the background, but was again thwarted. Mr. Gilbert asked me to repeat, for Mr. Yardley’s benefit, my account of the London frog swallower. I obliged the company as best I could. The ladies grimaced but Yardley nodded and clicked his tongue. He gave it as his opinion that a bellyful of water would be no very forbidding environment for a frog, save only in respect of its warmth, uncomfortable for a cold-blooded reptile.

Toward the end of the meal my godfather engaged with Mrs. Hurlock on the subject of music, reminding her that in years gone by he had sometimes heard her sing. To my surprise the buxom lady became positively animated on this theme, recalling the names of several of her favorite pieces. When, in a polite show of interest, I seconded her admiration for Handel’s “Say Not to Me I Am Unkind,” Mr. Gilbert promptly proposed that she and I should sing it together. Having no desire to perform in this company, and little confidence in the abilities of Mrs. Hurlock, I would gladly have refused, but she responded eagerly, and the Quentins politely supported the proposal. It would have seemed churlish in me not to oblige. I was influenced also by the reaction of Mr. Hurlock, whose overfed face expressed blank disgust. It would be a pleasure to irritate him further.

To my surprise our impromptu duet proved creditable. Mrs. Hurlock’s voice, although not strong, was sweet and true, and I was able to adapt my own performance to it. We were warmly applauded, particularly by my godfather. Mrs. Hurlock, redeemed from anonymity, quite blushed with pleasure, in what must once have been her girlish manner. Her husband was the one person present who listened with hostility and clapped perfunctorily. Plainly he would have been happier at a cockfight. When the ladies had left us, he emptied two large bumpers in brisk succession and lapsed into a doze. Quentin remained subdued, but Yardley, prompted by my godfather, talked about the ingenious construction of birds’ nests, claiming that certain instinctive animal capacities might amount to something akin to human thought. He was interrupted by Hurlock, who woke from his sleep crying out at random: “Say nothing of Spain! The only enemy we need fear is the pope of Rome!”

When our party dispersed my godfather and I went out upon the terrace to bid farewell to the guests. Mrs. Quentin shyly thanked me for providing her a little reassurance concerning her forthcoming trials. Mrs. Hurlock expressed the hope that we might sing together once more on some future occasion. Her husband, half asleep, was muttering and stumbling. A bright moon turned the lawns to silver and gleamed on the roofs of the carriages as they rattled away along the drive. Mr. Gilbert and I watched them till they were out of sight and we were alone together on the silent terrace.

“The night is mild,” said he. “And the time has come for us to talk. I think we might sit out here for a while. Would you be so good as to fetch the port.”

I did so without a word, my heart beating faster. Mr. Gilbert and I sat on either side of a small table. He took a sip of port and stared out across the moonlit garden. When he spoke it was with the air of a man embarking on a difficult topic.

“I should have said either less or more in my letter. I am now resolved to say more.”

I drank a little port myself, to give him space.

He continued, with his eyes still looking into the distance:

“You have known me only as the person I am at present. I have been several others. Some with a sturdier figure. They are now gone.”

He turned to me, his voice suddenly sharp.

“You have met my neighbors, and no doubt think them, as I do, a pitiful crew. Mrs. Quentin with her rotting teeth; the sottish Hurlock, who has all but lost the power of thought.”

I halfheartedly made to demur, but he overrode me.

“Yet such people were the local beauties, the local blades. Mrs. Hurlock in particular—Anna Halliday, as she was—attracted much admiration. She is greatly altered. You may not now believe that I admired her myself.” He smiled thinly. “Hurlock was in pursuit of her—Hurlock, the great buck of the county, but a fool. I might easily have won her—she preferred my company. What, you may ask, was the stumbling block?”

I shook my head.

“Let me tell you. I looked past what she was and saw what she would be—saw the matron in the maid. It was wisdom of a kind, but of the wrong kind—that of an older man. This was not the only such opportunity that I missed. I was confident that my time would come, but it never did. In terms of marriage, in terms of
passion,
it never did.”

Unexpectedly Mr. Gilbert changed his tone, surprising me with a compliment:

“You conducted yourself with credit this evening. I observed you closely. You were polite to Hurlock, attentive to Yardley, good-natured in your concern for Mrs. Quentin. You sang pleasingly. Yet you were detached. You were forming judgments. The young man I saw was the young man who writes me letters.”

He turned to interrogate me.

“How would you describe yourself ? I see that you are courteous, shrewd, amiable. What other qualities would you claim?”

I knew that my answer should be no less forthright than the question.

“Let me set aside false modesty. I am physically vigorous. I cannot claim to be a scholar, but I am reflective and read quite widely. I can adapt myself to most kinds of company. I am sensual, probably to a fault. By temperament I am cheerful and amiably disposed, but I can have darker moods—even fits of rage.”

Mr. Gilbert nodded, as though I had said nothing to surprise him.

“You are not afraid to take risks?”

“No.”

“You have a relish for unusual situations?”

“Yes.”

“Can you be ruthless?”

This question called for a little thought.

“I believe I can.”

I wondered at these questions. Was I to be asked to stage a robbery or an assassination? But Mr. Gilbert let the matter drop as suddenly as he had broached it, and poured more port. One of his great black dogs padded silently from the house and laid his head on my godfather’s knee. I felt at ease—even exhilarated. What a singular exchange this was, under the stars, our words punctuated by stirrings of twigs in the breeze or the occasional scuttling of a rabbit. Where would it take us next? In the moonlight my godfather, with his pale face and small wig, had a ghostly luminosity which seemed to render him more dominant. Fondling the dog’s ears, he spoke again, this time ruminatively:

“I lost another neighbor, Squire Warhurst, last year. By all accounts he died a good death, praying to the last. He was confident of admission to heaven, and Parson Thorpe endorsed that expectation. His soul may be there as we speak. Yet the man was a bully, a glutton, and a hell-bent whoremonger till mending his ways at fifty, following a stroke. If Warhurst has been saved, I can feel guardedly optimistic as to my own prospects.”

He broke off: “You suspect that I am facetious?”

“To be candid, sir, I was not sure.”

My godfather smiled faintly. “I am not sure myself. But seriously, or half seriously, I reflect that the years and capacities I have left are insufficient for me to emulate this man’s sinfulness, even if I wished to do so. May I not, then, indulge myself a little? A very little?”

After a hesitation he continued, as though lost in soliloquy:

“A man may avoid the sin he is too timid to commit. In such a case, surely, the professed belief is mere faintheartedness. Might not the Almighty deem that the fellow has been cowardly rather than virtuous? Might not the eternal reward be curtailed accordingly? If so, the poor devil would be twice deprived—in this life and again in the next.”

I tried to meet the challenge: “Then you believe in an afterlife?”

“Of course.” A pause. “From time to time.”

Somewhat baffled by now, I tried to exert myself:

“Sir, I am not sure where your remarks are tending.”

“Then I must make myself clear.” My godfather drew a breath and spoke out with decision. “The case is this. I have preserved appearances for so long that none of my neighbors know—indeed, I scarcely know myself—what lies below the surface of my character. Caution and good fortune have protected me, but they have protected me too far—protected me from life itself. I have never married, never fathered a child, never broken a bone, or so much as seen a corpse, save on a gibbet. I live in a great house defended by servants and dogs. The price I pay for my safety is imprisonment of a kind. I need a window in this confinement, a window through which to see a wider life.”

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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