The Skull and the Nightingale (8 page)

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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Here was an appealing invitation to hedonism. Perhaps I should have warmed him with an account of my visit to Mrs. Traill . . . But I was immediately aware that the fat worm that had been proffered might contain a fatal hook. It was scarcely to be expected that at some future date Mr. Gilbert would say: “You have been so wholeheartedly lewd and dissolute that I am resolved to leave you every penny I possess.” I needed a clearer understanding as to how far I might safely venture. But my general plan had been approved: there was some reassurance in that. And as it happened, I was enabled to respond to my godfather’s fresh challenge almost immediately.

My dear Godfather,

I was very pleased to receive your letter. Your mention of Mr. Crocker came opportunely: it is not two days since I learned more about that gentleman from Horn and Latimer, who have been acquainted with him for some little time.

He comes from the west of England. His late father, comparably huge, was a wealthy landowner. While a boy, Crocker was kept at home because of his unusual appearance, and was educated by private tutors. However, he showed intelligence and spirit. When his father died, the young heir to the estate introduced a number of surprising features, including an aviary and an outdoor theater. He hosted parties which became legendary in the county. Soon he was making sorties to London, where his wit and physical strength forestalled any attempt to treat him as an object of ridicule.

Latimer remains a little wary of him. “He is so much a physical oddity,” said he, “as to have no clear place in society. His eccentricity may overflow into some excess of a dangerous kind. To know him is very well, but it would not do to be implicated in folly. There is tattle wherever he goes.”

Horn’s observations were more physical: “That great belly is a fantastical depository: they say he can piss a quart at a single discharge. Concerning the operation of his bowels, I prefer not to speculate.”

“That is a rare show of delicacy, Mr. Horn,” said Latimer. “I do know for a fact that he rarely stands upright for long—the strain is too great. If he falls he cannot easily rise without aid. Nor can he so much as pull on his own stockings, being unable to reach his feet. If one of them itches he must scratch it with the other.”

“Worse than that,” cries Horn. “I hear the poor devil has been unable to see his own pintle these five years, unless by means of a mirror. Yet it is known that he has appetites in that region also. He purchases the attentions of discreet and adept ladies.”

That night, at Latimer’s instigation, I attended Drury Lane Theater. Our interest was less in the main piece, an insipid comedy, than in an accompanying pastoral interlude. The part of Ceres was taken by the actress Jane Page, whom Latimer has lately been cultivating. He invited my compliments, which were duly vouchsafed, for she is a stately creature, who can command the stage. To be frank, however, I had found my attention elsewhere engaged. The young lady who played the part of Celia, a shepherdess, was so graceful in her movements, so artless in her manner, that I was quite transported by her. My imagination could even accommodate the absurd notion of serenading this rustic maiden on a green hillside in some lost world of innocence.

Afterward Latimer played host to several of the performers, in hope of furthering his friendship with the goddess of plenty. It seemed to me that he enjoyed only moderate success in this enterprise. Miss Page acknowledged his compliments prettily, but conceded no more than trifling hints of encouragement. Also present, however, was Celia, the shepherdess, in the person of a young actress named Kitty Brindley. I enjoyed some decorous conversation with her. The air of pastoral innocence was now, of course, largely dissipated, but something of the illusion survived, because she proved to be indeed a young country girl, new to London and the stage. Might she have been artlessly enacting no other role than that of herself? I was so beguiled by the simultaneous claims of poetical imaginings and eager warmth below the waist that I happily prolonged the self-deception. Indeed I came to feel that our encounter might be the prelude to others of a more intimate kind. If this proves to be the case, you will receive a full account of what ensues.

I was lately cheered by a chance reunion with Matt Cullen, an Oxford friend. You may recall that I mentioned him, as coming from Malvern. In his company I can be comfortable.

Yours &c

Everything I had written was true: there had been no need for embellishment. The attractions of Kitty Brindley now served a double purpose: they distracted me from my regrets concerning Sarah and they promised to provide the kind of entertainment that Mr. Gilbert seemed to have in mind.

I was enjoying my survey of London independently of its possible usefulness to my correspondence with Mr. Gilbert. I was glad to have an occupation, instead of trifling away the time in the mode of Horn and Latimer. Already I knew far more of the town than they did. Everywhere I found fresh cause for curiosity. New houses, new shops, whole new streets were coming into being. I would linger to watch builders at work and see houses rise from the earth with the slow persistence of plants. Properly considered, I told myself, the exertions involved were extraordinary. Ground plans were marked out with pegs and string. Cartload upon cartload of new-minted bricks were hauled in from distant manufactories by straining horses. Somehow a team of illiterate laborers, under minimal supervision, could raise walls straight and true, accommodating door or window, portico or chimney, as the architect had ordained. Everywhere I looked, innumerable skills were collaboratively in operation—carpentry, tiling, plastering, the mixing of mortar, the laying of bricks, the cutting of glass—of which no gentleman could claim the smallest knowledge.

The case was the same whatever professional activity I considered. From somewhere there came an endless supply of young men who could climb a mast, furl a sail, carve the corpses of sheep or pigs, forge metal, shape a carriage wheel, bind a book, make a chair, a greatcoat, or a wig. The class of gentleman, in which I maintained a tenuous foothold, was dependent on all these skills yet serenely ignorant of them. How would I be placed if I should suddenly find myself penniless? My reassurance was that if the uneducated and often stunted laborers whom I had seen could learn a craft or a trade, then no doubt I myself could do as much, if compelled by necessity. Perhaps there lurked within my still-unformed personality a potential carpenter, architect, or sea captain. Although I hoped never to be put to the test, it was agreeable to fancy myself protean.

Chapter 5

W
hen Cullen next called, I showed him Gilbert’s letter. He shook his head in envy.

“Your very patron urges you to sin. Satan has smiled upon you.”

He was yet more envious when I told him of my planned pleasures with Kitty Brindley.

“But I love the girl myself. I have seen her perform, and was ravished. How tragic that she should yield to your puny attributes of money and person.”

Our conversation took a fresh turn when Matt happened to ask after Sarah, whom he had met once or twice in the weeks before I left for France. I told him of my encounter with her and my feelings after it. Matt, as ever, listened with attention, frowning or grinning. When I had done he gave his opinion that here was fresh meat for Mr. Gilbert.

“Your dealings with Kitty are for today and tomorrow,” said he. “Here is a narrative with longer life in it, and spiced with wickedness. I say to you: renew your pursuit of this lady. Cuckold the merchant. Your godfather will revel in such a conquest.”

It was to my credit, I think, that I chose to demur.

“Am I to understand that my friend is urging me to commit adultery?”

“Yes,” said Cullen. “I believe that this would not be your first transgression of the kind. And consider the balance of pleasure in the case. You, Mrs. Ogden, and your godfather could achieve gratification: only Mr. Ogden stands to be discommoded.”

“But Mr. Ogden may be a gentleman of great merit and tenderness.”

“He may, however, be nothing of the sort. And he need suffer only if he comes to learn of the transaction.”

We left the house, embarking on a walk that took us down to the Strand and thence along the busy river in an easterly direction. The sun was shining on crowded streets and dirty water. Cullen and I conversed in snatches, laughing often. He described a recent meeting with the duke, who had said to him only: “I have not forgot you, Mr. Collins.” Matt felt that the small twig on which his hopes were perched had shrunk.

On a whim we hired a boat to take us across the river to Southwark. Our Charon, a scrawny old fellow, sang after a fashion as he rowed.

“I cannot but notice that you have no teeth, friend,” observed Matt, who would converse with anybody. “Do you not find difficulty in eating?”

The boatman further exhibited his deficiency in a hearty laugh.

“Why, no, sir, for the gums are grown harder. ’Tis a blessing, for I am freed of toothache and can whistle as I never could before.”

“You are a philosopher,” said I, and added a shilling to his fare.

Once disembarked, we continued to stroll by the Thames, and paused to make a modest contribution to it.

“The truth is,” I observed as we pissed, “that our oarsman was in the wrong. Cheerful as he is, he would be happier with teeth. If he could have them again, he would.”

“I am not so sure,” said Matt. “We should not take our losses too seriously.”

“So will you undertake not to hang yourself if the duke fails you?”

“Certainly.” Matt folded away his member. “The first duty of humankind is to stay alive; the second is to be as merry as circumstances permit. Such is my philosophy.”

Wandering on, we talked of our uncertain prospects.

“Your future is more promising than mine,” said Matt. “Mr. Gilbert has invested too much in you to cast you aside.”

We walked back across Westminster Bridge and on to Keeble’s for a steak. I was hailed by the tall fellow from the Conversation Club.

“Last week,” said he, “we returned to your theme and considered the case of the nightingale. Anatomize the bird and you will find lungs and membranes. There is the instrument, but where is the song? And where is the composer?”

“You have killed him,” cried Cullen, “for the sake of your experiment.”

After a glass or two of wine he and I returned to the subject of women. We agreed, with shared self-pity, that the venereal adventure was fraught with difficulty and mystery. Somehow we lurched into barbaric Latin banter.

“Magnum est gratificatio sensualis,”
improvised Matt, who had never been a zealous student,
“sed si filius natus est, gravis est responsibilitas.”

“Et si infectio venerealis contractus est,”
I added, on the basis of an unfortunate Italian experience,
“magna est poena, magnum est dolor.”

In such ways we sniggered away the rest of the afternoon like two schoolboys. Mr. Gilbert could never have comprehended these trifling, companionable pleasures.

My dear Godfather,

I have attended another of Mr. Crocker’s gatherings at the Seven Stars. Latimer and Horn went with me as before. The company seemed to be much as I remembered it, with Crocker presiding from his great chair in the center of the crescent of drinking men. By the time we entered, the talk was already vociferous. I took a seat by the one silent man in the room, who happened to be Francis Pike, the gaunt fellow who had silenced Captain Derby. Having learned from Horn that this individual was in regular attendance on Crocker, I was curious to find out more about him.

Concerning the encounter with Captain Derby, he spoke with detachment.

“In such cases, sir, I have the advantage over most opponents. I know what must be done. Stun your man, bring him to the ground, and he’s no longer a threat.”

“Yours must be a dangerous profession,” I suggested.

“That may be so, sir. Fortunately I seem to feel pain less than most men. Perhaps I have grown accustomed to it. I have had bones broke, and shed blood.” He paused, before adding, with the faintest of smiles: “Above all, sir, not being a gentleman, I am considered to be outside the rules of honorable conduct, and therefore see no need to be bound by ’em.”

I felt confident enough to inquire, with delicacy, whether he might not be regarded by some as a bully. He rejected the insinuation very calmly.

“No, sir, because I never start a quarrel. Your practiced duelist who calls out a harmless fellow man for sport—he’s the bully.”

“To talk to,” I said, “you seem a polite, composed sort of man.”

“And so I hope I am, sir. But that is also my professional manner. I find it has a concentrating effect, like the barrel of a musket.”

These exchanges were cut short when I was summoned to take a chair beside our host. To be seated by him was to be immediately reminded of his bulk. His thigh is double the thickness of my own. By contrast his face, well formed and bright-eyed, is no more than plump, but it perspired freely, causing him to dab at it with a handkerchief.

“I am pleased to see you, Mr. Fenwick,” said he. “I hope you will sing with me again.”

“With great pleasure.”

“By the way, I am acquainted with Lord Vincent, whom I believe you know.”

“Very slightly.”

“I have been observing you. You yourself I see to be watchful, eager to take in everything about you.”

“I hope I am,” said I, by now embarrassed.

“You were deep in conversation with Mr. Pike, who is often taciturn.”

“I found him most interesting.”

BOOK: The Skull and the Nightingale
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