Dickens had not changed much. In common with MacBeth he was possessed of a vaulting ambition, and although by nature still taciturn, he remained remarkably confident in his own talent. I envied his self-assurance. However well I was doing, I never felt the like, and was confident only in the coming of the next personal catastrophe. I learned later that he was not so different regarding many areas of his life, only he hid it better than I; but in his own faith in his abilities as a writer he was always supremely secure, and with good reason. He really was quite brilliant. I suppose I should have viewed him as a rival, but I was doing very well myself, and for all his aspirations he was a long way from being an established novelist then, while I was riding high on a three book deal with two in the bank. I was pretty sure there was room for us both, and anticipated no more than an amiable competition, in much the same manner as my relationship with Ainsworth. I was delighted to have my old friend returned to me, and looked forward to the resumption of our old debates about literary composition.
We dined together at the Athenaeum Club, shortly after renewing our friendship at the Blessed William banquet. After a fine meal we killed a couple of bottles of very good claret and then got started on the brandy. The talk was of life, love, and, most importantly, literature. If he knew of my affair with Mina he was too polite to show it, although he did ask what had become of my friends and family at the Marshalsea, so I told him of the deaths of Bill and Nancy, the marriage of Bertie and Nelly, and the strange story of my father, my sister, and Freddie, who was still going to Grove to tap me for money.
‘You are not paying, surely?’ said Dickens.
‘What choice do I have?’ I answered mournfully. This subject, coupled with memories of Nancy and stoked by the booze, always caused me a severe melancholic reaction, unless I was with Mina and thus able to lose myself in her. ‘I have to support my family.’
‘I do not envy you, my friend,’ said he, ‘it is a horrible dilemma.’
‘Perhaps I will write about it one day.’
‘Someone should,’ he said.
He was desperate to escape what he called the ‘little world of journalism,’ and we talked much of my own transition from journalist to novelist. His energy was impressive, although I wondered if he might be spreading himself too thinly, for he was still writing for the Chronicle, while also under contract to Macrone to edit his ‘Sketches.’ William Hall was also after him to write the text for a series of humorous illustrations by Robert Seymour, and Bentley was chatting him up as a potential editor for a new miscellany.
‘You toil harder than a beaver with Puritan leanings,’ I told him.
I was joking, but he looked at me in deadly earnest. ‘We both know better than most what happens if you do not earn enough money in this world,’ he said.
‘Fair enough,’ said I, ‘now drink up you needy-mizzler!’
He smiled at this, despite himself, for this had been his affectionate nickname within the Marshalsea. It meant a poor ragged object. ‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘for not giving me up the other night.’
‘I could tell at once that you did not want it known.’
To be honest, this was not really something I had considered, for it was such a long time ago. When I wrote of the Fancy, time spent inside had actually aided my credibility, though I had not since advertised this part of my childhood, except in confidence to Mina. I decided not to mention that. ‘I am not ashamed of my past,’ I finally conceded, ‘but I see no reason why it should be common knowledge either.’
‘I agree,’ he said. ‘In the wrong hands, this information could be very damaging to us both.’ I was not entirely convinced, which shows how far my finger already was from the pulse of the new moral age that was coming.
‘Let it always be a secret between us, then,’ said I, and he seemed very satisfied, if not relieved, although he did insist on shaking upon the agreement. I also received the distinct impression that were there a bible to hand he would have sworn me to silence upon that as well.
I left the meal in need of a woman, but calling on Mina at that hour was not appropriate or allowed, while a whore would be an act of betrayal. This was no fault of my guest, for he had been very pleasant company, but rather the return of the repressed, you might say, for it was still difficult to talk of my family, while the memory of Bill and Nancy was an old wound that had never really healed. The clubs of St. James’ and Mayfair beckoned, or I could slum it for a while round The Horn, but I decided instead to take a leaf out of Dickens’ book, and therefore returned to my house with the intention of writing. A plot was forming in my mind concerning fraud and the theft of identity. I supposed that if I could explore Freddie’s actions and motivations in a dramatic narrative, because for me there never really was a world outside the text, then I might, perhaps, discover his true purpose, and find a way by which I might defeat him. I had realised, you see, in the course of my conversation with Dickens that evasion was the weakest and worst strategy that I could have adopted. As we had both seen many times over in the prison, inactivity was death.
I had not taken any servants, so I made my own coffee, and carried it up the dark stairs to my study, balancing a candle next to the pot on a silver tray that cost more than my father and I used to earn in a year. I sat at my desk, lit a cigar and looked out of the window, past the heavy velvet drapes and out across the moonlit fields and rooftops of Notting Hill, thinking. After a while I began to create Freddie in my head as a character in a fiction.
As any author worth his salt will tell you, the essence of a good character is to be found in his or her primary motivation, the central, dramatic longing that pulls them through the story like a horse before a cart. So what did Freddie most desire? I thought back to our childhoods. As far as I could discern he was an orphan, and after Bill and Nancy had discarded him he was piteously thankful at being admitted to our family, destitute and dysfunctional though we all undoubtedly were. Would he not, I realised, have thought my departure another betrayal? He would have cleaved himself even more to my family after that, for fear of losing them too, clinging to them like a limpet in a whale’s crack. If my father then became weak-minded enough to believe him his son, Freddie would have seized upon the chance to become, in effect, blood. Sarah would have been too young to know the difference.
I had initially wondered if Freddie harboured designs upon my sister, like some melodramatic villain, but his subterfuge would not suit seduction, for he had made them both siblings, although his actions could equally suggest some sort of need for control. He was also taking my money, it was true, and relying on my honour not to withhold it for the sake of my kin, but I was far from making him rich. Freddie, I reasoned, wanted love, not money, and not even physical love, just the simple warmth and affection of a close family.
I must have been channelling my mother’s good nature that night, for I began to feel quite sorry for the man. I therefore resolved to call upon him at the earliest opportunity, confident that he could be persuaded that there was room enough for us both in the family.
Mina was not of a like mind, and counselled that I have Freddie prosecuted for fraud. ‘Surely it is of little matter to a man of your professional standing to have the scoundrel returned to His Majesty’s pleasure at the earliest opportunity,’ she said, adding a further suggestion involving a horsewhip.
I had asked a copper about this once, in fact, and he had told me that if he arrested all the impostors in London, half the population would be in prison. I was not really concentrating just then though, for she was doing things to me on the library couch that would shame a Shoreditch whore. Having teased me for a glorious eternity, she finally allowed me release. Just as I spent, the door opened.
It was the husband. I was well and truly boned.
You have to admire the composure of the upper classes, for he said not a word, although neither did he withdraw. I started to pull on my clothes but Mina bade me hold. Although naked but for a black French corset, she rose imperiously and moved towards him, rubbing her hand across her gleaming face and chest and then through her hair.
‘You see this, you old fool,’ she said, smiling wickedly, ‘this is what you’re missing. Now get out.’ And damn me if he didn’t just leave us to it. ‘Now, you dirty boy’ said she, pouring two large gins at an occasional table and then returning to the couch, ‘fuck me again.’
A wiser lover, especially one that aspired to wedlock, would have found such open contempt for a husband disconcerting, but who is rational under such a spell? I was young and naive, and believed myself loved, so the display was to me exciting. I pleasured her every way I knew that night, and at the end of the month Mr. Garwood still paid me for the private tuition.
I did not find Freddie quite so accommodating. In an attempt to resolve the very unsatisfactory state of affairs in which I presently found myself, I had sent him my card with an informal message suggesting that we talk in private. I knew he could read, for Bertie had told me, and he also communicated with Grove by letter. This was ignored, as were two further requests for a meeting. I finally ambushed him by having Grove arrange a consultation in which Freddie expected to see only my solicitor, and to receive some money. When an obliging clerk showed Freddie to Grove’s office at Gray’s Inn, he found me waiting for him instead.
He hesitated at the door, avarice and curiosity struggling with a very obvious desire to bolt. I managed to lure him in with gentle words, as one might a stray dog. This was not entirely without conviction either. Perhaps against my better judgement, I still retained my original hypothesis concerning the man’s essential vulnerability.
Once more I took his hand. ‘My dear friend,’ I said, ‘how good it is to see you.’
The look in his eyes was difficult to read. It seemed to signal both fear and defiance. I gestured that he should sit, and positioned myself on Mr. Grove’s side of the desk. He carefully removed his hat and placed it upon his bony knees, looking around the room, rather than at me, but saying nothing.
When I rang for tea he visibly flinched. Upon its arrival I clapped my hands and he jumped again. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘shall I be mother?’
He looked bemused. I poured the tea.
Finally, he spoke. ‘Is this a legal matter, sir?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘do you think it should be?’
He really did appear on the verge of tugging his forelock, and I realised, with a touch more satisfaction than was seemly for a gentleman, that I had taken exactly the right tone with him. He might have me on animal cunning, but I was the dominant male, or so I thought, blessed with higher reasoning, wealth and social status. Why I had let this insignificant little shit play me for a fool for so long was, quite frankly, embarrassing.
He bowed his head. ‘Please,’ he said, quietly.
‘Very well,’ says I, all business, ‘why don’t you tell your big brother all about it.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘So am I,’ I said sternly.
‘I meant no harm,’ he said.
‘But you have caused plenty,’ I said, my sermon already prepared. ‘I thought you my friend, Freddie. I looked out for you. I left my family in your care—’ I had more, but he cut me off.
‘You left us,’ he said, his voice growing in strength.
‘I had no choice.’
‘We were all fine,’ he said, almost hysterically, ‘everything was fine, and then those men came and you talked to them and suddenly everyone was gone.’
‘But can you not see, Freddie?’ I said, my original feeling of helpless frustration returning. ‘Those men got us out. It took me a while, but because of them I earned enough money to secure your freedom, and that of Father.’ I carefully kept it neutral, and avoided the possessive form of the personal pronoun, implying no ownership of my father either way.
But it was a clear case of pearls before swine. My grammatical subtlety was wasted on the bastard. When it comes to the correct use of English, I don’t know why I bother sometimes.
‘You talked to those men,’ he said, speaking more quietly now, ‘and Bill and Nancy left me on my own.’ I started to say that he was never alone, for he had my family and me, but he again interrupted. ‘They left,’ he repeated, his eyes now varnished with tears, ‘and then they died.’ He suddenly appeared very young, wiping his sleeve across his nose, his expression so disconsolate that I wished for a second that I had a sweet about my person that I could offer him. But just as I dropped my guard, he struck: ‘She died,’ he whispered.
So how, you may wonder, did protagonist address antagonist, now that all the cards were finally face up? Did I confess how much I had loved her, too; how she still often stole, unbidden, into my thoughts, and how I would have done anything to have saved her? I even wrote crackbrained stories about travelling through time, so much did I yearn to go back to then and change it all.
None of the above.
‘It was a tragedy,’ I said, weakly, having no way to express such profound and deep rooted emotions. It is funny that when we are at the height of our passions, good and bad, we become so utterly inarticulate. It was an ineffectual answer. I knew it, he knew it, and he treated it with the contempt it deserved.
‘You,’ said he, pointing a cadaverous finger accusingly, ‘you killed her.’
‘Oh Christ,’ I said, slumping back in Grove’s chair, all the wind suddenly removed from my sails. And the conversation had started so well, I thought miserably.
‘I hated you after that,’ he said. ‘I wanted to hurt you.’
‘So you stole my family.’
‘Yes,’ he said, simply.
The air between us seemed suddenly charged. So the true reason had been revenge, and he had not even had to leave the prison to mark me forever. I could never, I realised, convince Sarah and my father that I was the real brother and son, and Freddie the imposture, the doppelgänger. After all these years, no legal proof would sway them, and I doubted even Freddie’s word, should he give it (which looked increasingly unlikely), would carry any weight in the matter. It was hopeless, but I felt compelled to play out the remainder of the scene regardless. There are rules to these things, after all.
‘Do you still hate me, Freddie?’ I asked slowly.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, looking at the floor. And that was that. We sat in awkward and oppressive silence for a while, perhaps only for seconds but it felt like hours at the time.
Finally, he said, ‘Can I go now?’
‘You know we have more to discuss,’ I told him, although my heart was not really in it. I wanted him out of there just as much as he did himself.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but not today, ’ay Jack?’
‘All right, Freddie. No more today.’
‘And the money?’
Don’t push it, I thought, but I had a fiver about me which I ended up giving him, anyway, stuffing it into his hand inelegantly as I showed him to the door. ‘You know where I am,’ I told him, ‘come and see me soon.’
He offered that crooked smile of his, and promised me that he would, and then he was gone, lost in the crowd.
So much for bloody character studies, I thought.
I decided to call upon Mina. We were not scheduled to meet that day, and I knew that calling unannounced was a dreadful breach of etiquette in her world, like passing the port the wrong way or buggering the governess, but I needed her very much just then. I wanted to kill all those fears and frustrations and pathless paths, and I knew of no better place to exorcise these demons than beneath her skirts, but more than that I wanted to feel loved. If she cared for me as deeply as I did her, which she appeared to do, then she would see me, I reasoned, even if just to talk.
I was confident and desperate enough to barge past the maid when I arrived, tossing my card into my hat and presenting both to her as a fait accompli.
‘I’ll wait for the mistress in the library,’ said I, swaggering towards our inner sanctum, the poor servant gawping after me and babbling away that the lady was entertaining and not to be disturbed. ‘She always has time for me,’ I told her, knocking confidently and then swinging open the great door, for I fancied I had heard an invitation to come inside.
It was immediately and painfully apparent that the remark had not been addressed to me. Mina was upon the couch (our couch) kneeling on all fours with her skirts up and d’Orsay hanging out of the back of her in his shirt tails. At the same time, she pleasured the impressively naked Lady Marguerite with her tongue. (It was a big couch.)
‘My dear Jack,’ purred miladi, ‘don’t just stand there letting out the heat, come and join us.’
Now, if I said that I did not consider this proposal I would be lying, but what I wanted just then was not on offer, and, although I am not morally opposed to orgies, the thought of cavorting anywhere near that French fop was appalling. By the look of things, the two women were doing perfectly well without the need for more men anyway, and could probably have quite easily dispensed with the frog. (He was a terrible artist too, no technique whatsoever.) I am pretty certain that if I had pitched in all would have been fine between us, and by the look of it I would have had a rare old time with Lady Marguerite, but I could not bear to share Mina any more than I already did. The cuckold husband and the children were more than enough.
‘No thanks,’ I said, utterly crestfallen. I must have been looking quite put out, for only then did Mina acknowledge or address me. The Count, meanwhile, did not stop going in and out like a fiddler’s elbow.
‘Darling,’ she said, as if admonishing a sullen and slightly slow child, the affect rendered even more unreal by the rocking motion caused by d’Orsay doing his business, ‘you didn’t think you were my only boy did you?’
It was not the betrayal so much as her casual indifference that enraged me. ‘Damn you!’ I cried uselessly, struggling for the right insult. ‘You degenerate, you filthy fornicator.’
This was the best I could manage on the spot, although I later wished that I had denounced her as a whore as well, for all the good it would have done. She evidently did not care for my opinions one way or another and, as you will recall, it was she, or at least her husband, who had been paying me.
‘Well I certainly won’t be fornicating filthily with you anymore,’ she said, and by her voice I knew she meant it. Whatever it was that we had had was categorically and incontrovertibly over. ‘Now get out,’ she ordered, ‘before I call my husband.’
She would have, too, and the idiot would have come to her aid as if she were being hounded by a tramp outside a fashionable restaurant, not getting shagged silly on the settee by some French ponce and his doxy.
‘Yes, do go away Jack,’ said Lady Marguerite, ‘don’t be a bore.’
Then d’Orsay stuck his oar in as well. ‘Bugger off, old boy,’ he said, wearily, ‘and shut the door behind you.’
It was on the back of that last remark that I finally broke. I swore and I stamped and I railed, until one of the ancestors went over and shattered upon the floor, at which point Mina rang a bell and two brawny footmen escorted me off the premises. One of the bastards punched me in the stomach before he shoved me through the tradesmen’s entrance and onto the street, where I writhed and gasped on the ground like a fish that had just been caught and landed.
‘You want to know your place,’ said the big servant that had thumped me, ‘now sling your hook and don’t come back, or it’ll be the dogs you’ll be meeting next time.’
A coster hawking cold pies over the road left his barrow with his boy and helped me up. ‘That taught him a lesson,’ he said, patting the dust off my jacket. He obviously thought me one of his class, given my route of exit. ‘Fucking toffs,’ he added, as he bade me farewell, ‘fuck ’em.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘fuck ’em all.’
I ended up at The Horn of Plenty, where I effectively took up residence for the better part of a fortnight, although much of the memory of doing so escapes me. It was the best place for me just then. It required no patronage, a card of admission was not necessary, and no inquiries were made. All were welcome, and parties paired off according to fancy. The eye was pleased in the choice, and nothing thought of about birth and distinction.
The crew down there were motley indeed, and all my ain folk. There were lascars, blacks, soldiers and sailors, coal-heavers, dustmen, costermongers, fences, fakers, and shapers, all laughing over their exploits, and planning fresh depredations. Then there were the women, a fair sprinkling of the remnants of once fine girls, all of whom could be had for the price of a glass, and to hell with the high class whores of Pall Mall and Mayfair.
I vaguely remember a plan to drink myself to death in the company of a beautiful young whore name of African Sally, but Bertie and Nelly took charge of me in the end. Their motives, I was sure, were essentially philanthropic, although the cove of the ken had put a block on my slate. ‘You’re not that bloody rich, Jack,’ he had said.
Bertie was also in possession of a letter addressed to me, delivered in person, he said, by a mere scrap of a girl the night before last. The letter (or to be more precise note), plucked me from the arms of Bacchus good and quick. It was from my sister.
‘Mr Vincent,’ it began, ‘as we share the same name I pray that you are the benevolent relative of whom my father often speaks.’ This made my black heart beat again, until it occurred to me that she was probably confusing me with something she had heard about my uncle, for she obviously knew not that I was her brother. ‘We have not seen you lately,’ the note continued, ‘and I am greatly concerned for my poor father’s welfare. My brother, as you know, is a good man,’ (my body went as tense as a cobra at this), ‘and I believe that he has our best interests always at heart, but he has of late changed, and acts like a man hunted. I pray, sir, that you use your influence to calm him, for the recent violence of his moods is causing my dear father great distress. Please forgive this inelegant missive,’ she concluded, ‘for I write in stealth and haste.’
‘Why didn’t you bring her to me?’ I asked Bertie.
‘You were too far gone to see her,’ he said.
I arose unsteadily from my pit with the intention of doing something chivalrous, and then my head spun and I was forced to lie back down again. It took a couple of pints of the black sludge Nelly passed off as coffee to get me on my feet, but I was determined to go to my sister’s aid. My badgerly friend insisted on accompanying me to Southwark, for, he said, I’d not last five minutes on my own in the state I was in. I was grateful for the support, but when we arrived at Mawley’s Rents we were already too late. My family had gone.
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