The Skull and the Nightingale (4 page)

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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I
assumed that there was a purpose to my seemingly purposeless stay, although I could not be sure what it was. Was it to give me an opportunity to learn, indirectly, more about my godfather, or was it rather that he wished to learn more about me? What did I indeed feel about him, if anything? Grateful, in a formal sense, I certainly was, but my gratitude had no tincture of warmth. I could not feel myself to be blamably deficient in affection when Mr. Gilbert himself displayed so little. There was no hint that he regarded me in any sense as the son he had not had. His detachment had evoked in me a similar coolness. He was my benefactor, and therefore to be propitiated. He was clever yet aloof and therefore an object of interest. If for some reason he should turn against me, I suspected that he would sever the link between us without a qualm. I was therefore responsive to his moods, and ever on my guard. It had often been remarked of me that I had the capacity to please. At school, at Oxford, and on my travels I had adapted myself to those I met and made friends readily. Mr. Gilbert would hardly have carried his patronage so far had he not found something agreeable in my disposition. Such kindliness as I had elicited I hoped I could sustain.

I was further encouraged by a deeper and perhaps darker reflection. In several ways, after all, I had the advantage of the old gentleman. I was young and free-spirited, physically strong. If Mr. Gilbert was quick-witted, then so, I flattered myself, was I. Moreover, by virtue of my youth, my education, and my travels, I might be open to modes of thought that he could not anticipate. If he chose to continue in his course of benevolence, he would find me tractable and appreciative. If, for whatever reason, he was planning to dispose of my life in a manner at odds with my disposition, we would be commencing a chess game in which I would hope to hold my own.

We dined together every night, pretty comfortably as it seemed to me, but with no discernible progress toward greater intimacy. Our talk was easy and even lively, but Mr. Gilbert said little that was personal. For my part I endeavored to be entertaining, but was watchful for any hints of inquisition or irony and quick to deflect them with inconsequence or with ironies of my own. Though nothing of moment passed between us, I was satisfied that this time spent together would not lower my godfather’s estimation of my abilities.

A
n aspect of his conversation with which I found myself in instinctive harmony was his habit of moving unexpectedly from civil commonplaces to eccentric speculation. There was an instance of this kind when he asked me what impressions I had formed concerning his estate. Wishing to please, I remarked that within its boundaries there seemed to be order, cultivation, and contentment. If other landlords were similarly capable and benign, I asked, might we flatter ourselves that in the course of time the whole country might come to enjoy this state of harmony?

“I think that unlikely,” he said. “We strive for progress, but even our best attempts produce consequences at odds with our intention.”

“But surely, sir,” I urged, “the building of this great house could be seen as an absolute gain. Here is an outpost of civilized life. Within its walls certain standards of conduct and taste are upheld.”

I strove to speak in the grave manner of one who would maintain such standards.

My godfather, in a habitual gesture, paused, glass in hand, to consider my observation, and then savored a sip of wine before replying.

“Every building is under siege, this house not excepted. In providing privacy and protection for yourself, you offer lodging space for intruders. Mice have made their home beneath the floorboards. To control them we introduced cats. In summer you will see flies buzzing about the food, and moths blundering into lamps. Spiders lurk in corners. Birds nest in the chimneys. Moss takes root in the walls.”

Absorbed in these reflections, he paused, sipped again, and then continued.

“Similar effects are everywhere observable. Even a beggar’s shirt provides a tenement for fleas.”

I recalled my reflections about the servants below stairs, but thought it graceless to pursue the analogy.

“You are a philosopher, sir.”

“I have no such pretensions. I improvise. I make do.”

“You may say so, but I have seen optical instruments, shelves of learned books . . .”

“I have dabbled in this and that. I know a little about the flora and fauna of the county. Here my interests intersect with those of Yardley, though he is better informed than I. His concern is for the particular, for narrow observation and classification. Mine is for the general. I look for analogies and patterns. Lately I have taken an interest in meteorology and in the workings of the human body. The two subjects are surely connected, if only at the level of metaphor. The theory of the four humors has been abandoned, but I see why it came into being. We can have storms and droughts within.”

Then, with a sudden smile: “But we must replenish your glass.”

I
soon had reason to recall his words. When I drew the curtains next morning, the sun was shining so brightly that I had to close my dazzled eyes. I leaned from a casement and inhaled a sweet, fresh breeze that on the instant filled me with energy. This was surely to be accounted the first day of spring. When I glanced in the mirror, I was surprised to see myself smiling broadly. I stripped off my nightshirt and flung my arms wide. Within the glass stood my counterpart, looking young and impudent, his black hair in disarray, his privy member standing out like a staff, and pulsing with a life of its own. I found myself in a divided state: rampant with venereal need, I retained wit enough to see the absurdity of such abject submission to physical tides. I broke into a loud laugh at the expense of my animal self, and saw in the mirror my head chuckling as my tail throbbed.

Later in the morning I went striding across the sunlit lawns and fields to release some of my newly stirred vitality. I was craving youthful company—more particularly female company. The youthfulness I might have waived in my predatory mood. If Mrs. Quentin herself had crossed my path, her breath might not have saved her honor. When I reached the woods I found that they were as visibly altered as I had been on rising: twigs and branches were flecked with minute spots of green. An unseen bird was singing with passion, proclaiming his feelings or needs to the whole forest.

Touched by this elevated strain, I drifted into romantic thoughts of Sarah Kinsey, but thence, by brute declension, into recollections of carnal pleasures in Rome. As memory induced sensation I yielded to the spring, and made shift—with a loud cry—to discharge my seed over a clump of budding primroses. Walking back to the house, with the primacy of the intellect sheepishly restored, I found myself unable to decide whether I had defiled the bright energies of nature or simply partaken of them.

T
he following afternoon the sun was yet warmer, and at my godfather’s suggestion we strolled out onto the terrace. Our talk having been thus far no more than desultory trifling, I was not surprised when he fell silent altogether and stood gazing out at the garden, one hand on the warm stone balustrade.

He spoke again without looking at me.

“Your years of travel have left their mark. You are bolder, more self-assured.”

I bowed, uncertain whether this was pure compliment.

“You have no recollection of your father, I believe?”

“Sadly I have not.”

“You have something of him in your appearance and disposition: the dark eyes, the affable address. Your visit has brought him vividly into my recollection.”

Here, surely, was the moment. Ten words would clinch the matter:
I have therefore decided to make you my sole heir.
Unaccountably he let the opportunity slip.

“I have been observing you. You are robust and well made. You have the gift of pleasing in casual conversation. You smile readily, and can make people smile in return. These are not talents that I share.”

“You do yourself an injustice, sir,” I said, beginning my sentence before I could see the end of it. Fortunately he raised a hand to interrupt.

“I speak without false modesty. Such capacities are rooted in temperament. For my part I can attract attention and respect.”

“So I have observed, sir.”

Ignoring this feeble compliment, he sat himself down on a stone bench and motioned me to join him. There was a silence, during which I fancied he was preparing a statement. At length he continued, musingly:

“I enjoyed your letters from Paris and Rome. In this house you have met some of the people with whom I commonly consort. They are a poor crew who live narrow lives. I was therefore refreshed to enjoy a tour of more exotic places, as seen through younger eyes and experienced by livelier senses.”

He turned to me: “How different my life here has been. In Fork Hill the successive days are all but indistinguishable. Cumulatively they distill a kind of essence, or perfume, which gives pleasure but has left me dulled. National events scarcely impinge upon me. When King George died I felt nothing. By the time I hear that a new ministry has been formed, it may be on the verge of collapse.”

“Is not that a peaceful state of affairs?”

“It is. But it resembles the peace of the grave. I need fresh life.”

“It would surely be open to you, sir, to spend some time in London?”

Mr. Gilbert turned his face directly toward the sun and was silent for a moment, as though savoring the warmth on his thin cheeks.

“I was once a regular visitor to the capital. But it is five years since I last was there, and I did not enjoy the experience. I found the din and the stench repellent and the social life artificial. Yes, yes, there was more to it than that, of course. But my recollections are of dirt, disorder, and foolish gossip. I will not go to London again. Yet I need diversion, I need stimulation.”

With sudden earnestness Mr. Gilbert placed a hand on my sleeve.

“In consequence—in consequence I have devised an odd plan. Here I am, out of touch with London and life. The town demands a young man’s constitution and a young man’s appetites. My proposal is that you should explore it on my behalf.”

I was floundering. “How so, sir? In what capacity?”

“In the capacity of a young gentleman. You will stay in your present lodgings, and I will maintain you with a sufficient income. Your task will be to sample the life of the capital and convey to me your sense of it by regular letters.”

My spirits were rising. Was I really to live as I pleased and to be paid for doing so?

“This is a most generous offer, sir. But what in particular—”

He silenced me with a gesture.

“I leave the matter in your hands. When abroad, you naturally felt obliged to see certain famous buildings and monuments; and you reported on them fittingly enough. Now I ask something different. Go where your own inclinations lead you. But write down what you see and hear and feel.”

I nodded, knew not what to say, so nodded once more.

“Although I no longer care to visit London, it interests me more than I can say. It is a mighty experiment—or assemblage of experiments. I want you to report on the resulting pleasures, oddities, and extremities as you experience them.”

He stopped, but I remained silent, seeing that he was still ordering his thoughts. When he spoke again it was in the tone of one summing up an argument:

“My hope is to be able to live two lives simultaneously—the familiar quiet existence here and, by proxy, a young man’s life in the town. But is my proposal agreeable to you?”

I took a deep breath. “How could it fail to be so?”

Mr. Gilbert looked at me sharply. “So you have no misgivings?”

“None, sir.”

“I am glad to hear it.” His face relaxed into a grim little smile. “I have some myself. It may be that we will lead one another into dark territory.”

Chapter 3

I
t is a strange fact that a mere idea can alter one’s physical capacities. I am certain that in the excitement elicited by Mr. Gilbert’s proposition, I could have run faster or sprung higher than at other times. Cramped within a coach for the return journey to London, I had no scope for physical exertion of any kind, and the confined energy heated my brain till it simmered like a kettle. Fortunately my fellow travelers were taciturn, leaving me to occupy the two slow, jolting days in thought.

The effect was to modify my exultation. I began to think my task less simple than I had assumed. What topics would find favor with my godfather? Wherever I looked there were doubts. It seemed unlikely that he would derive much entertainment from drawing room chatter: indeed he had positively implied an interest in livelier activities. I could undertake escapades of one sort or another, but my descriptions of such doings would require tact. Drunken pranks might be seen as doltish. I would not wish to play the carousing clown; yet if I were too squeamish, my letters might prove tepid.

There was also dignity at stake. I was not so craven as to be willing to prostitute my entire waking life to Mr. Gilbert’s requirements. If I was now to become a London gentleman, I should do so on my own terms and have interests of my own to pursue.

This line of thought led me to the notion that I could explore the town at more than one level. The modest dignity to which I aspired was not of a kind to prevent my enjoying mischief and carousal. Part of the time, however, I could wander the streets as a mere observer, sketching the singular, and often ugly, sights of London. There was much to be seen. I had long taken a passing interest in the work of builders, carpenters, glaziers, watermen, and other such skilled artisans. The city teemed also with vendors, vagabonds, thieves, and performers. Recording their doings would be an entertainment for me and might provide material to divert my godfather. His responses would show me which of my activities he found most intriguing, and I would be guided accordingly.

A
visit to Mr. Ward gave me further encouragement. My godfather—who never went into such details in person—had handsomely adjusted my allowance to provide all the freedom I could wish for. Before commencing on my duties, I could allow myself some pleasure. Needing to assuage my animal desires, which had by now become clamorous, I visited Mrs. Traill’s admirable establishment in York Street, where the young ladies were warranted to be free of contamination. But although I was pleasured with efficiency, my imagination was left sadly unengaged. I concluded, with some disgust, that I had merely relieved a physical need in a species of public privy. During my travels I had enjoyed some extended intrigues. Now settled in London, I would need to look beyond Mrs. Traill.

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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