I had now run out of pirates. Bill had not been forthcoming with any other books or broadsheets, and there was not a single line of print to be found anywhere in the damn prison. It seemed to me that my father and I were the only literate occupants of the entire place, but between us we had but one book. I lobbied the turnkey for literature, and he promised me that he would see what he could do, as long as I could pay him up front, which just then I could not. I was desperate not to lose my spot in the snuggery on Sundays, for this seemed to me the most likely path to Nanse’s further affections.
On the following Sunday I therefore returned to the pages of the enchanted book, confidently producing the Wordsworth and Coleridge, which I claimed was a lately acquired miscellany of grotesque and phantasmagorical tales by a fashionable author. I affected to carefully select a story, and then began to recite and extemporise, while blindly turning the pages of the The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere. I started with an extended version of my old story ‘The Shivering of the Timbers,’ in the hope of hanging it out as long as possible while also providing some sort of bridge between the piratical histories of the previous month and my own gothic tales. I would have loved to have read out the Coleridge, but my listeners didn’t strike me as the metaphysical type.
The story seemed to go down well, especially a new episode that I had made up on the spot in which the captain’s beautiful daughter was threatened by the creeping tendrils of the mad ship, leaving little doubt as to the danger which they represented or their intended destination. The original story had ended with the usual revelation and twist, in which the hero finally discovered the truth from the dying words of the ship’s carpenter, before firing the haunted vessel and escaping in a gig that sprouted uncanny limbs and ripped him to pieces in the final line. This I now embroidered.
The captain’s beautiful daughter, it turned out, was a spirit medium who was rescued at the last moment from a fate worse than death by the hero. The pair escape to a lifeboat, upon which the medium performs a séance intended to invoke the spirits of the ship in order to cast them out. As the insane phantoms manifest themselves across the boiling surface of the ocean, the medium casts an arcane enchantment to create a rip in the fabric of time and space that will banish the evil ghosts forever. The portal opens in the form of a giant whirlpool, but the small boat is possessed and murderous wooden arms tear the unfortunate enchantress apart before she can complete the incantation. The hero jumps from the writhing boat as it is drawn into the maelstrom, but he is caught in the wake of the imperfect spell, and is sucked through the terrifying vortex as if pulled under by a sinking ship.
‘For the love of God,’ he cries, as he is dragged into the darkness along with the screaming dead, ‘how do you stop it?’ I left it there, with scope, I felt, for a sequel the following week.
My audience applauded and stamped their feet. I leaned back against the wall, spent. I caught Nanse’s eye and she smiled so I made my way over. Bill and the lads were back at their usual places, unfortunately, and were engaged in a heated discussion with the men at the next table concerning the fate of the hero. Sid reckoned he was drowned, but this was shouted down quickly on the grounds that there was obviously more to come. I would not be drawn, although I did suggest that to kill the hero would surely be to kill the tale. Bill agreed. He felt strongly that the hero had been transported back through time, and that he would continue to fight the malevolent shades in the age of the pirates, while Freddie was sure he was on the moon. These were both pretty good ideas, so I made a mental note.
Bill lurched up to buy drinks, and Nanse shuffled up next to me. ‘That medium looked a lot like me,’ she said. I felt my face colour, but I laughed it off as a coincidence. She casually dropped her hand into my lap. ‘Tell me,’ she demanded.
‘I can’t stop thinking about you, Nanse,’ I confessed, ‘I fancy I am bewitched.’
‘I know, darling,’ she replied, at which point her husband, like her hands, returned to the table with a long bottle of the heart’s ease, a pewter jug of hot water and a handful of sugar. I started drinking heavily, and affected to make merry, continuing to take part in the discussion upon the fate of the hero from my story, although I did not let on that I was the author.
The party disbanded some hours later. As Nanse took her leave she kissed me on the cheek and whispered that I should wait until midnight then come to her room. I felt quite lightheaded as I regained my seat. I took up the short clay pipe I had lately acquired, filled it from a small leather pouch of tobacco that I could ill-afford and lit it off the candle upon the table. Smoking deeply, I regarded the clock above the fire. I was at once impatient, excited, and terrified.
At about ten to midnight, a boy I did not recognise, but of whom I had been indistinctly aware during the reading, cautiously approached my table. He was quite neatly dressed by local standards, with a white cap failing to contain unruly brown curls, a short blue jacket and corduroy trousers, leading me to surmise, correctly, that he was recently arrived. ‘That was a very fine story, sir,’ he said shyly.
I was too spoony and preoccupied to be civil. ‘I wouldn’t know,’ I said sharply, ‘I just read them for a bob a go.’ His facial response to my crude indifference reminded me of Sarah on the brink of tears. I immediately felt ashamed. Had I not once been exactly as he was now, in a state of fear and shock, and hopelessly lost in this terrible dungeon? I began to appreciate that my father was right to be concerned. I had changed. Was I not now in my cups, smoking, drinking and waiting upon a whore?
I softened my tone and tried to make contact. ‘You’re new here, aren’t you?’ I asked, in a voice that I hoped would communicate kindness, rather than the advanced condition of intoxication I was presently experiencing.
His looked utterly crestfallen. ‘I’m not here, as such sir,’ he said, and thus the dam broke. ‘My poor father has recently arrived,’ he continued, beginning to babble, ‘and I was sent to visit today and he didn’t wish to see me and then I was locked in and I didn’t know what to do and the man at the gate he said I should come here.’ He was stammering, weeping, and clearly in a profound state of agitation.
When he paused momentarily for breath, I noticed that he was trembling with the effort to compose himself. The brave little chap sucked all that emotion back up before my eyes, and then continued in a much more measured tone. He had not dared to approach the common men and women in the tap, and had ended up cowering in a dark corner, taking some solace, it would appear, from my silly story. Now the bar was all but empty, he had summoned the nerve to approach me, the storyteller, in the hope that a reader might be a little way out of the gutter. I must have been a profound disappointment.
I tried to pour him a drink but he politely refused. ‘Oh I couldn’t possibly do that, sir,’ he said. I bade him drop the formalities given our circumstances and call me Jack, and he replied that I may in that case address him informally as David.
‘How old are you, David?’ I asked him gently.
‘I am just twelve,’ he replied. That reminded me of the hour and I swore quietly. I could not leave this small, frail and wretched child to the mercy of the Marshalsea at midnight.
‘Come on,’ I said, rising unsteadily, ‘I have somewhere you can stay.’
We quit the snuggery and walked briskly across the courtyard, for the air was powerful sharp, and I had an appointment to keep. It was late-February, I think. (It is an easy matter to lose track of time in prison.) I tried to point out areas of interest, but my companion preferred to talk about my story and had already sniffed me out.
‘You don’t just read the stories, do you, Jack?’ said he. ‘You write them as well.’
I bade him lower his voice. ‘How did you know?’ I hissed.
‘I could tell,’ said he, quite matter-of-factually. He then offered a brief critique, in which he praised plot, pace and premise, but confessed that he felt the characters were insubstantial, the setting vague, and the resolution confusing.
I told him he should be a literary critic and he returned a brittle laugh. I realised I had hit a nerve, so I hastily set myself to explaining the history of the story, its original publication, the magic book, and my current intention to make it into a serial. He thought the latter a very fine idea, but expressed surprise at meeting a published author in such a place.
‘From what I know of the literary life so far,’ I replied, ‘I am surprised that there are so few.’
‘You are a philosopher, Jack,’ said David.
‘I’m drunk,’ said I, ‘now be quiet for we must not wake my sister.’ We had arrived at the stairs to the family room, which we cautiously ascended.
My father was still awake, sitting by a paltry fire and staring morosely into the embers.
‘This is David, Dad,’ I explained. ‘He’s been locked in. I thought he could take my bed for the night.’ My father looked up slowly, as if it were he and not I that were at lush. He said nothing, but shrugged his shoulders and nodded, before returning his attention to the ashes. ‘Don’t mind the Governor,’ I told David, ‘he’s not been himself of late.’ He tried to thank my father, but I lit a candle from the fire and steered him towards my bed, which was by Sarah’s cot. ‘Whatever you do,’ I whispered, ‘do not wake the little one.’
He nodded, and then looked suddenly worried. ‘I have work in the morning,’ he said. I promised him that I would rouse him in good time, and then left him to his rest, although I doubted the poor child would sleep.
‘And where are you spending your night, boy?’ said my father as I took my leave. He had the same look in his eye that he now had when forced to exchange words with Bill, a kind of mixture of fear and disgust, as one might have for some giant, tropical spider that has invaded your quarters but which is too big to safely squash.
‘With friends,’ I said, closing the heavy door behind me.
I was late, very late, but I still made my way quietly across the courtyard to the stairs to Nanse’s room. I was armed with half a bottle of gin, I had no bed for the night, and I was willing to talk myself inside if she were still awake, even if I had no idea what to do once I crossed her threshold.
I need not have worried, for she was obviously waiting. Candles and fire still burned, although she was prepared for bed, wrapped as she was in a long night gown of faded black silk. She kept me outside freezing, just to let me know who was in charge, and regarded me from behind the door with dark, indecorous eyes.
‘You took your fucking time,’ she finally said, and then she let me in.
This time there was no charge.
Click here to read Chapter XI