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24 Jul

Chapter XVII


In the long summer of 1834, I became the success story of the season, at least in literary terms, leaving poor old Ainsworth behind in the end, for his family soon spoiled his fun. But I was yet young, and unblessed by either wife or children as far as I knew. I would like to claim that it was the quality of my work that caused my star to rise so far and so fast, but the truth, at least in part, was that the public enthusiasm for Ainsworth and myself was more of an indication of the state of English letters in those days, in particular the yawning void left by Walter Scott, who had died two years since. This was a situation that both Bentley and Colburn understood, and were able to exploit commercially. This was what all those comparisons to Defoe and Hugo were about. The Romantics were all dead, and the only serious commercial novelist on the scene was Lytton, and he had already made far too many powerful enemies in publishing. Life in London had run its course, and ‘Boz’ was not particularly active as yet. So more by luck than judgement, I was quite the classic ‘Rags to Riches’ hero. The popularity of my first novel had propelled me, like a cheap firework, from the relative obscurity of the penny press to fame and, by my standards, fortune. As Ainsworth had said, this really had all happened virtually overnight. My social stock had greatly increased through my association with Lady Blessington’s set, I was a bestselling author, and I had five hundred quid in the bank. At sales in the tens of thousands, and at a fiver a pop, Colburn had probably already made a hundred times that amount, but I tried not to think about that.

‘If I had a dog that could count,’ Egan had said, ‘he’d howl with laughter at a deal like that.’

I did, however, think about my own security, in a way that only those who have experienced true poverty can, regardless of their age, for do not doubt that part of me was just as eager to dress well and shag everything in sight as any other man in his mid-twenties who has come into money. Ainsworth was already spending his profits from Rookwood recklessly, under the assumption that he would now remain on Tip Street forever. I, on the other hand, understood my archetypes better than he, and knew full well that any character in a story who achieves success so rapidly invariably loses everything in the second act.

Much to the amusement of my friends and professional contemporaries, I therefore set about buying myself a house while I was in a financial position to do so. I settled upon one of Allason’s new stuccoed brick houses, and left my attic room in Paddington for a terrace on the Ladbroke Estate. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made, and I have managed to hang on to the place to this day, although it is rather run down in comparison to its neighbours, as, to be honest, am I.

Maginn teased me about this dreadfully in Fraser’s. ‘Such a wise head does Mr. Vincent have,’ he wrote, ‘and still on such young shoulders.’ In an accompanying illustration Maclise drew me again as a pirate, but this time in a bath chair and blankets, brandishing a huge ear trumpet.

I was an object of remark whenever and wherever I stepped out, and the pasteboard invitations to receptions and soirées fell thick upon the doormat. Mrs. Garwood made her move quite quickly, establishing the groundwork common to bored, over-privileged women who live off their husband’s money. We met and conversed at a variety of social functions, and during that period she slowly revealed a personal narrative in which she was the victim of a loveless and abusive marriage, into which she had been forced far too young, and from which she yearned to escape.

I fell for it, naturally, and confess that the anticipation alone was nothing short of sublime. Although I met several uncomplicated and unattached young ladies that summer, who were more than interested, I felt not the least attraction to any of them, whereas even the thought of the voluptuous Mrs. Garwood was enough to cause a rush of physical reactions that would have so unnerved a man of her own class that he would have commanded his valet burn feathers beneath his nose in order to restore him to his senses. The problem was how to get her alone.

There were other parts of my life, however, about which I now had more control, principal among them the liberation of my family. Grove, my lawyer, a brilliant but dour gentleman with teeth like mossy tombstones and a refined Edinburgh accent, had been managing my financial affairs for years, deploying a percentage of my earnings to the eradication of my father’s debts. This was a process not unlike the construction of my novel, only in pennies rather than words, and some months were considerably more profitable than others. There was, nevertheless, always some sort of modest progress, and I was now in a position where this process of financial attrition could finally and emphatically come to an end. On a whim, I also asked him to look into the affairs of my other old friends in quod, Bertie the Badger, Nelly, and the old Bat.

The redoubtable Grove made discreet inquiries, and ascertained that Bertie and Nelly were as I had left them, only now married, whereas The Bat had quit the prison feet first during an outbreak of Typhoid fever two summers past. It turned out her given name had been Martha Randall. I ordered Miss Randall a decent headstone, and bought out Bertie and Nelly, for, as was not uncommon, they had wasted half their lives in debtor’s prison for want of a couple of quid. Even with interest, a tenner was more than sufficient to settle for both of them, and I threw in another as a late wedding gift. It took a little more than that to finally clear my father’s slate, but as I had been whittling away at his debts for the better part of ten years already the damage was not so great, and, as with my other old friends, Freddie’s liabilities turned out to be negligible. I instructed Grove to find them lodgings and to give them some money, while I tried to raise the courage to face them.

Ch17-fullBertie and Nelly were a much less fraught opening bet. Like me, the Marshalsea had knocked some financial sense into the pair of them (though I suspected the wife was the driving force), and they had used the money I gave them to buy a leasehold on a public house in Whitechapel. I resolved to pay them a visit as soon as they were established in their new business.

The Horn of Plenty stood on the north corner of Crispen Street and Dorset Street. It was the usual East End shithole, a low den frequented by low people, of the type that had seemed so glamorous when I was cavorting with Egan and Cruikshank all those years ago. I could smell the old trades a mile off: buzgloaks and bit fakers rubbed shoulders with bat fowlers, blowsabellas and body snatchers. I obviously still fit right in, for they paid me no heed whatsoever. The muted ambiance, as of a tomb, also reminded me of the snuggery, which was no doubt the appeal of the place to the new proprietors, the cove and covess of the ken as we used to say.

‘I see you’ve got The Horn’ said I, approaching a familiar figure behind the bar.

‘Always,’ said Bertie, for it was he, leering at a couple of old girls propping up the bar and each other, one of whom returned his gaze knowingly. He topped off her glass, but I noticed that no money changed hands.

Age had enhanced the badger-like qualities of Bertie’s countenance. The grey mutton chops were now as dense and white as a snow covered Rhododendron, while the remainder of his thick, coarse hair was still quite black. The man’s head was positively striped, while small, sharp features and eyes like polished onyx completed the effect.

‘It’s atmospheric,’ I lied, ‘I like it. Now how the devil are you?’

The intervening years had not moderated the force of his handshake. ‘I was doing perfectly well,’ he said, all beams and bristles, ‘until some young fool of an author bought me out.’

The lady of the house was quickly summoned from her kitchen to see me grown to manhood. Her long face, never a picture of happiness, now bore a fair few deep lines, and she was much broader in the beam, thereby managing to look gaunt and fat at the same time. Her breasts were more impressive than I remembered though, and were straining for release from a grey apron, like two bald convicts at the window of their cell. I told her she was as beautiful as the day that we had parted, and was rewarded with a salty embrace that crushed me to that monster chest, briefly recalling to my mind the inconclusive tumbles we had shared at the prison, with the accompanying, icy and familiar breath of old guilt and self-loathing.

By way of ‘catching up,’ she then commenced a long monologue on the subject of her many physical ailments, personal and professional grievances, and the deplorable state of the premises.

As Nelly moaned away I was gripped with a terrible urge to laugh. I fought hard to control the wayward muscles of my mouth, but fortunately my expression was interpreted as the joy of meeting old friends after a long absence, so I got away with it. ‘It is good to find you so unchanged,’ I finally managed, smirking like an imbecile.

We talked while they continued to work, Bertie plying the heavy wet and the gin and water while Nelly bustled about in the back frying fish. For an early evening in the midweek, business appeared to be buoyant, with tradesmen stopping for a pint on their way home, and then leaving with a woman, who would return a few minutes later for another shilling measure of gin. Obvious denizens of the Black Economy, meanwhile, conducted their business in curtained booths, usually buying bottles rather than glasses of spirits.

Bertie confirmed that the bathtub gin business was booming. ‘You should come in with us,’ said he, ‘it’s all done with your money anyhow.’ I assured him that it was no more than a little starting capital that I was glad to offer a good friend, and that I was doing all right in the book business just then. He looked a bit emotional, which was unsurprising given how much he was drinking. ‘Your old dad would be proud of you,’ he said, brushing a tear from a cheek livid with broken veins.

‘Do you think so? Some are already calling it a Newgate Novel.’ (Forster had used this catchy little term first, and it had clung to Ainsworth and I like shit to an army blanket.)

‘It’s a fine book, Jack,’ said Bertie, which was initially perplexing, for as far as I knew he could not read. ‘Fred read it out to us all in the snug. Young Porter gave it him.’

‘Freddie can read?’ I was nonplussed, as they say. The boy had been an idiot in my day.

‘Yes,’ said he, ‘I believe your dad taught him. Ain’t that right dear?’ he bellowed over his shoulder.

‘What?’ said Nelly, barking from the hole in the wall that passed for a serving hatch.

‘Joe taught Fred to read.’

‘That’s right, five years or so back.’

Well bloody hell, I thought.

‘So does Dad know about me then?’ Needless to say, this was why I was there in the first place, the charm of the present reunion notwithstanding. Bertie looked a trifle disconcerted by the question, the way my father used to when, as a child, I asked him if there was a God.

‘Well,’ said he, ‘in a manner of speaking, that is to say, he does and he doesn’t.’ I looked at him blankly, forcing him to keep talking in order that the sudden and awkward silence might be filled, for I knew Bertie to be a sociable soul who abhorred a conversational vacuum. He was a wily old buffer though, so tried to change the subject instead. ‘That Mr. Grove’s a queer old sort,’ said he. ‘He don’t give much away, do he?’

‘He made it clear he acted on my behalf though, I hope.’

‘Well, he did to us, but your old dad, he got it into his head, you see, that this lawyer was an emissary from some long lost brother-in-law or other, and once he had the idea set in his mind, well, there were no shifting it.’ This was news to me. Grove had reported only that the matter had been attended to, and that the parties concerned were now at liberty, although lodged, by choice, close to the prison. Bertie placed a consolatory hand upon my arm. ‘The thing with your dad, Jack,’ he said, ‘is that he gets a little confused sometimes.’

‘How confused, exactly?’

‘I would have to say a bit more than somewhat.’

‘Would he know me?’ I said, crestfallen, although I do not know why I should have expected anything other than bad news, for my poor father had always been a delicate soul, and I had left him incarcerated in that terrible dungeon for almost ten years.

‘Why don’t we have another drink, son,’ said Bertie, uncorking a bottle of halfway decent brandy.

My recollections of the remainder of that evening are hazy, to say the least. When my reason returned it was clear that I must see my father, and it was only the blinding intensity of my hangover that prevented me from visiting the next day. I swore off the drink forever, and struck out for my family’s lodgings the following morning.

Grove had furnished me with an address, and when pushed admitted that he had not been able to persuade my father to better quarters, which he had been charged to arrange. His assessment was that my father was a very stubborn and a very frightened man; fearful of the world beyond the walls, he had insisted on remaining in Southwark. Even thus prepared, I was appalled at the location, a low boarding house that ended a row of ancient and ruinous buildings known as Mawley’s Rents, the area perhaps a few degrees less chthonic than the rookeries of Saint Giles’s and Saffron Hill that had furnished me with so many ghastly stories when I worked for Egan.

A toothless old woman carrying a blind cat under her arm conducted me to my father’s rooms, which were on the top floor where, she proudly informed me, the air was freshest, on account of the wind across the Surrey hills. I can only assume that the poor old soul’s olfactory organ functioned as well as her cat’s vision, for it reeked of mould, smoke and piss to me, the same as all the other landings.

A spidery man of about my age in a black frock coat opened the door. ‘Can I help you,’ he said. For an instant I feared that the undertaker had beaten me to my big reconciliation scene, until I realised who it was that addressed me.

I seized his skinny hand and pumped it as if drawing water. ‘My dear Freddie,’ I began, ‘I barely recognised you.’ Presumably I was equally changed, for he jerked his hand away and stared at me like a mad fellow, his long, bony body barring entry to the room.

‘Do I know you, sir?’ he said coldly.

‘It’s Jack,’ I said, pathetically, ‘your old friend Jack.’ He surveyed me carefully but spoke no more, as if investigating something on the sole of his boot, as yet unidentified but with bits of grass sticking to it.

A voice I had not heard in a decade but recognised immediately broke this unpleasant and unexpected strand-off. ‘Would that be the worthy Mr. Grove?’ said my father, from the interior of the apartment. I seized upon this opportunity and shoved my way past the doorkeeper, who had been momentarily distracted and foolishly looked over his shoulder. He clearly did not know that you should never take your eyes off a journalist. I had jammed my foot in doors all over London.

‘Not Mr. Grove, sir,’ said I, removing my hat and tossing it carelessly to the cadaverous Freddie as I approached my father, who was sitting by a meagre fire, a young girl at his feet, ‘but his employer.’ There was no heavenly fanfare, so I just stood there, waiting for the embrace that I confidently anticipated. My father had aged terribly, well beyond his true years, which did not even number fifty, and the chiselled features that had once turned the head of a rich man’s daughter now looked as if they were melting. He appeared lost in a faded twill suit as he rose from a burst armchair to offer his hand. I wanted to crush him to my chest as Nelly had me the night before last, because that is what you are supposed to do in these situations, but I followed his lead and took his shrunken hand instead. I was so overcome with emotion that it was all I could do to whisper, ‘Father.’

The prodigal son had returned. I felt like the hero of a stage melodrama, until I saw in my father’s eyes that he had not the remotest idea who I was.

I let go of his hand and tried another tack, addressing myself to the quiet little girl in a blue apron dress who sat on the floor beside him. ‘And you must be little Sarah,’ I said, ‘now a beautiful young woman.’ She was the mirror of our mother, the same soulful eyes, golden hair and alabaster skin. There could be no doubt as to her identity, anyway, for the top of her right index finger was missing, and this was her only imperfection. She looked at our father, worried, and he indicated without words that she should greet me.

She rose slowly and curtsied. ‘I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,’ she said, directing he gaze at my shoes.

I smiled. ‘You will not remember me,’ I said, ‘for we have not seen each other these ten years, but I used to take care of you in—’ I faltered, but then decided on, ‘the other place.’

She looked confused, as did my father. Freddie, meanwhile, loomed behind me. ‘We do not speak of the other place,’ he said, ‘do we, Father?’

I was too shocked to respond. That familiar feeling of doom was creeping down my spine and numbing my limbs like a subtle poison.

My father shook his head sadly. ‘Indeed, we do not,’ he said, still standing awkwardly. I realised that he was waiting for me to sit. I moved to a dining chair in the middle of the small room and he nodded enthusiastically before taking his own chair with obvious relief. It was clear he could barely stand. Freddie continued to hover, ordering Sarah to bring tea. ‘My son is ashamed of the other place,’ said my father, in a stage whisper, ‘but we all have you to thank for our deliverance, and, of course, your employer.’

‘I have no employer, sir—’ I began, but he cut me off.

‘I understand,’ he said, ‘some names should not be mentioned, and I respect that.’

‘No, really, Mr. Vincent,’ there is only me. Mr. Grove represents me, and I represent no one.’

‘Understood,’ said my father, tapping the side of his nose conspiratorially.

‘Do you not know me at all?’ I said, pleading with my eyes for him to stop this silly game.

‘I must confess, my dear sir,’ said he, ‘that I cannot for the life of me place you.’

‘He is Mr. Grove’s associate,’ said Freddie, ‘now come away Father, you must rest.’ He took my father’s arm and assisted him to once more stand. The poor old soul was up and down like a jack in the box.

‘Good day to you, kind sir,’ he said, ‘I hope we will meet again.’ Then Freddie led him from the room as if he were the parent and my father the child.

‘If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask,’ I said feebly in his wake.

‘Leave the tea,’ Freddie called to Sarah, who was fiddling about at a small stove in the corner, ‘the gentleman is just leaving.’ Sarah turned to me, curtsied again, and then followed her father to an adjoining room. I was left alone with Freddie.

‘What’s all this about, Freddie?’ I demanded.

‘We are very grateful for all your help,’ he said, as if butter wouldn’t melt, ‘but I’m sure that we can manage by ourselves from now on.’ He handed me my hat and showed me the door. He obviously was not going to let me past him again.

‘But you’re not his son,’ I said defiantly, ‘you know perfectly well that I am.’

‘Prove it,’ said he, slamming the door in my face, the insidious bastard.

It was apparent that I had not simply been replaced, but utterly erased from my own family. I cannot adequately describe quite how hideous was this revelation. I wanted to kick the door down, which I could have, quite effortlessly, for it was very rotten, and then make a start on the imposter; there was nothing to him either, and it would have been an easy matter to break his scrawny neck for him. Yet despite my passion, I knew that this would achieve nought but my arrest, incarceration and execution, unless it was decided that all this raving about being replaced indicated insanity, in which case I might get off with life in the madhouse instead. And what, I further considered, would my father and sister think if I assaulted the man they genuinely believed to be son and brother? Sarah was too young to remember, and the balance of my father’s mind was obviously disturbed, probably permanently. Even if Freddie suddenly came clean it would likely have made no difference. The game was blocked at both ends, plain and simple.

That night I raged about my house, drinking and dwelling obsessively, until I finally resolved to turn off the tap. But by the time I saw Grove again I had relented, for the sake of my poor father and sister. To protect them meant subsidising the serpent; there was nothing, for the moment, to be done about that.

‘Just do what you can for them,’ I told him, and then left the matter open.

‘As you wish, sir,’ he had replied, making no judgement one way or the other. Like God, I imagine, he was largely indifferent as long as all fees were paid.

Click here to read Chapter XVIII

Stephen Carver
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