The Skull and the Nightingale (5 page)

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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It was not surprising, therefore, that I thought again of Sarah Kinsey. My desire for her person had always been compounded with admiration for her intelligence, good sense, and underlying spirit. Unless she and her aunt had left the town, I might hope to find her out and revive our old intimacy. I looked forward to telling her about my changed situation. With her, if all went well, I could contrive a private life of which my godfather would be told nothing.

Meanwhile, to equip myself for the parts I had decided to play, I made immediate appointments with hairdresser, tailor, hosier, and shoemaker. My revised wardrobe included two new frock suits and as many waistcoats, one scarlet and one blue. Resolved also to appear sufficiently formidable, I purchased a sword of a quality proper to the wounding of the highest gentleman in the land, should the occasion unluckily arise. In appearance, at least, I was now equipped to mingle in the best company.

Pursuing my plan, I procured also a number of plain garments that might enable me to pass muster as merchant, traveler, or skilled workman. To master my new terrain I obtained the latest map of London, and carefully perused it. With a little simplification it could be seen as a rectangle, perhaps five miles wide by three miles deep. At the western extremity lay Hyde Park, at the eastern were Wapping and Mile End. To the north the thoroughfares seemed to trail into open country beyond Old Street and Great Ormond Street. The southern limit was a series of irregular clusterings along the farther shore of the Thames. This tract of land had somehow become home to half a million people. What similar tract on the face of the globe could match it for variety of interest? There would surely be much to see and hear.

My dear Godfather,

How would the town now strike you? Perhaps as bewilderingly frantic. At Fork Hill all is tranquillity. Here the senses are ceaselessly assailed. To enter any of the main streets is to be thrust into competition: wagons, coaches, carriages, chaises, chairs, and pedestrians vie for space and priority. All too easily the traffic thickens to a standstill. How it was kept in motion before the opening of Westminster Bridge I cannot guess. At the busier times of day even walking is a struggle that can too easily become a scuffle. The air is clouded with vapors, and there is an incessant rattling, clattering, rumbling, and banging, diversified by shouts and curses.

Night brings an additional strangeness. Can there ever before, in the history of the world, have been such a concentration of artificial light? Birds and insects must be bewildered by it. Yet on either side of the illuminated thoroughfares lie courtyards and alleys of Stygian darkness. The robber or pickpocket may strike boldly, confident that in seconds he can be lost to sight in a lightless labyrinth of side streets.

Within the houses of the wealthy, of course, life can be as sedately ordered as one could wish. It strikes me, however, that the law of complementarity you mentioned in relation to your own house is visibly at work in London at large. The agglomeration, within a confined space, of the tradesmen, vendors, vehicles, and goods needed to sustain this fashionable elegance must simultaneously engender dirt, disease, and crime. Your perfumed fine lady, in her silks and satins, is as remote from such enabling ugliness as a flower from its muddy roots.

I fancy you would find the smell of the streets little changed, being compounded still of chimney smoke, assorted refuse, and excrement, animal and human. Certain districts have their own specialty: thus Covent Garden stinks of rotten vegetables, Billingsgate of fish, and Smithfield of blood and offal. Why should vegetable and animal matter cause such olfactory offense as it decays? Death is given a bad name.

In the few days since my return, the height of my achievement has been to see Mr. Garrick perform upon the stage and Lord Chesterfield ride past me in a coach. I have, however, hit upon a general plan of action which I hope you will approve. Cram half a million people together and there will surely be collisions, grindings, smolderings, combustion, and explosions. Among the outcomes of this process, this mighty human experiment, as you called it, will surely be fresh discoveries, new ways of looking at the world.

Where are these observations tending? I wish to suggest that a mere social diary could not fairly represent the multifarious doings of this metropolis. If you do not object I will try to move between the strata of London life. The whole city shall be my arena.

This by way of preface: I hope soon to be reporting in more particular terms.

Yours, &c.

I wrote those words within a week of returning to the city, and went through three drafts before constructing my fair copy. My letters needed to appear spontaneous—an effect not to be achieved without labor. I had puzzled as to how much and how often to write, but concluded that in either case the best course was irregularity. My next offering was deliberately more diverse.

My dear Godfather,

I have now visited a number of fashionable drawing rooms. As you suggested, I used your name as an introduction to Lord Vincent. You asked me to give my opinion of that gentleman. He cuts a fine figure, tall and erect. I found him civil but almost insipidly courteous, averse to any expression of personal opinion. He asked me to send you his good wishes and spoke of his cousin Mrs. Jennings, apparently an old friend of yours.

Since Mr. Pitt was present—although I did not speak with him—there was naturally talk of foreign wars and unstable ministries, but as elsewhere in such gatherings, I have as yet heard little of consequence. The prevailing gossip is concerned with petty feuds and scandals. I must wonder whether you would find such stuff worth your attention.

More rewardingly, I have sampled other levels of London life, attending theaters and auctions, dallying in coffeehouses, listening to mountebanks and ballad singers. We have been enjoying some brisk spring weather: the April breezes blow, the dust swirls, and the shop signs swing and creak overhead.

On Tuesday last, near Charing Cross, I was one of a gathering held in thrall by a street performer. He stood beside a cart, a fat fellow with a hanging belly. His nationality I could not guess, but he knew little English. He claimed attention by a bold presence and a big voice.

“Three acts!” he cried. “Three acts!”—and brandished as many fingers in the air.

“One: I drink!”

He produced from his cart a bucket, filled with water. Holding it aloft with both hands, he put his lips to the brim and began to drink, at first—amid some shouts of derision—quite cautiously, but then with greater confidence. Several times he broke off to draw breath, but always resumed to gulp more mightily, his audience watching with growing respect as it became plain that he would imbibe the entire contents. The contours of his body were visibly altered as the water filled it.

There was some applause when he finished, but he silenced it with a gesture.

“Two: I eat!”

Turning the bucket upside down, he placed on it a glass bowl containing several bright green frogs. He took one out and raised it in his fist, squirming and struggling. To the accompaniment of a groan from the spectators, he placed it in his mouth. With a frightful grimace he somehow contrived that two of the legs protruded, twitching, from the corners of his lips. Then he swallowed it. With less flamboyance, but at a stately pace, he proceeded to gulp down four more.

Having done so, he stood for a moment with closed eyes, taking several deep breaths, as though adjusting the contents of his stomach more commodiously. His audience was now watching intently.

“Three,” he cried. “I bring back! I bring back! Pay, pay! Please pay!”

He held out his hat, and such was his ascendancy that many a spectator tossed in a coin. Having collected what he could, he motioned us to move back and create a space, within which he remained for some moments stock-still. After drawing several deep breaths he opened his mouth wide and with one hand twisted his right ear. At once a great jet of water came from his throat, as though from a fireman’s hose, splashing on the cobbles. Checking it, he extricated from his mouth, alive and flailing, one of the frogs he had swallowed, and dropped the poor Jonah back in the bowl. He repeated the process four more times, so that all five were safely retrieved. There being loud applause, he attempted a second collection, but it proved less successful than the first since the performance was complete.

On an impulse I gave him a crown. After all, the poor devil, adrift in a foreign land, was somehow contriving to make an honest living through exercise of a meager range of personal talents. I could not but wonder about his daily life. He looked weary, and his clothes were well splashed. What refreshment could he enjoy, having swallowed and regurgitated a gallon of water? What woman would consort with this dank mound? Where, if anywhere, does he live?

I have renewed acquaintanceship with two of my Oxford companions, Ralph Latimer and Nick Horn. Latimer is fashionably languid, but harbors serious ambitions. As a relative of the Grenvilles, he hopes soon to turn his back on his present freedoms and prepare for a higher role. It is less likely that Horn will seek respectability. He is a small, restless, nimble fellow, who will attempt anything by way of diversion. I have seen him climb a cathedral tower, half drunk, and on another occasion, for a five-shilling wager, wrestle with a pig.

The conversation I enjoy with such friends is livelier than drawing room chatter, but too often deformed by liquor. Let me offer you a recent specimen, chosen because it recalled to me a discussion at your own table. The hour was late, and we had attained the melancholy mode. Latimer pronounced, with great emphasis:

“Believe me, friends, there is much in this life to make a man uneasy.”

This gloomy sentiment made us confoundedly grave. The conversation had been raised to a formidable altitude, but one or two of us tried our wings.

“I am of much the same opinion,” said a heavy fellow. “Can even the best of us survive long enough to learn how to live?”

I myself ventured, with solemnity: “Who knows but that one of us, even before the month is out, may be standing before his Maker? Is not that a tremendous thought?”

Latimer, unimpressed, was disposed to be argumentative.

“You say ‘standing,’ but the word is prejudicial. Can we so confidently assume the existence of legs in the life to come?”

To keep the shuttlecock aloft I improvised: “At the moment of Judgment might we not be mercifully permitted some temporary sense of perpen— perpendicularity?”

“To be followed by what?” asked Horn.

Intimidated by this dark prospect, we all stared into vacancy, and our speculations expired.

It occurs to me that most people seem to shrink from contemplation of the afterlife. Even those who are most earnest during divine service, as though glimpsing eternity, promptly revert to their workaday, unconcerned selves at the final blessing.

I conclude with a further note on the life of the streets. Within five minutes of leaving a polite assembly last evening, I saw a man stumbling along with blood streaming from a wound to his head. London life is everywhere precarious. Even when walking to a steak house, one may be under challenge. Should that shove be reciprocated? Might that urchin be a thief? How remote from the rural life of reflection. Who can philosophize about swimming while compelled to swim? Last week, feeling a tattered pedestrian press too close, I flung him from me. On the instant I regretted my reaction, for the wretch went staggering into the dirt. However, his rags falling open and disclosing two fine watches, he was seized as a thief and mauled by the mob. My aggression had been justified by the event, but I might as easily have been wrong.

Daily I immerse myself further in the life of the city: I look about, listen, and explore. You will soon hear further from me.

I remain, &c.

In adjusting myself to London life, I was greatly influenced by a conversation with Latimer. I had asked him whether he knew the whereabouts of our friend Matt Cullen.

“I do not,” said he, frowning. “But I fear he is a lost man.”

“Lost?”

“His prospects have taken a turn for the worse. He was in London last year, but was rarely seen. Then he vanished. Horn heard that he had returned to his native village to contrive a marriage. It seems that he is gone from us—condemned to rural nonentity.”

“Whereas we who remain . . .”

Latimer overrode my hint of satire: “I can speak only for myself. I look to become a man of consequence. I cultivate men of standing. I make myself agreeable.”

“That is candidly said.”

“So it is. Observe how I speak with a trace of self-mockery to render my complacency acceptable. But truly, young gentlemen such as ourselves are on a slippery slope. We must feel for every foothold.”

“How will Nick Horn fare in this slippery predicament?”

“Horn will enjoy himself for a year or two longer and then fall away.”

“Like Cullen?”

“Like Cullen, but not as fast or as far. His family has greater means.”

Though he spoke airily, it was manifest that he meant what he said. Partly to embarrass him I asked: “And what say you to my own prospects?”

I was glad to see that the question made him pause.

“There I am in doubt. You were always a reserved fellow, Dick, not easily sifted.”

“I am in your debt to the tune of half a compliment. But tell me, Mr. Latimer: does not your ambition deflect you from the pleasures of the moment?”

“It does not. Strip away my gentlemanly apparel and you would behold in me a satyrlike creature. One day the wise head will be obliged to disown the goatish tail—but not quite yet. There is still some discreet sport ahead.”

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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