The Skull and the Nightingale (2 page)

“Not tonight, I thank you,” said I, affably enough.

“No, no”—in a frantic voice—“I need help. My child . . .”

She turned hurriedly into the alley, and I followed, willing to be of assistance if I could. But after a few yards she turned about, clutched my greatcoat, and shouted “Rape! Rape!” At once a heavy brute of a man sprang from a doorway brandishing a cudgel. Startled as I was, I found myself protected, as in certain previous physical encounters, by an instant blaze of animal rage. Half avoiding the bully’s blow, I seized his coat and rammed him back against the wall. He raised his club again, but I checked him with a punch to the belly, and then struck him a dowse to the chops that smacked his head back against the brickwork. The intending robber staggered sideways and stumbled to his knees. The girl leaped at me, scratching with both hands, but I wrenched her away and threw her on top of her fallen protector. Without waiting for more, I hastened away.

Such a fury had surged in me that I walked an extra mile, at top pace, to allow my pounding heart to settle. It had been a sordid episode, but before I reached Mrs. Deacon’s house I found myself recovered from it and not unsatisfied. The first evening of my return to England had called into play some of the aptitudes fostered by my travels. I had taken a lively part in impromptu discussion and then shown that I could hold my own in a street fight. It seemed that I was resourceful, a young man of parts.

N
ext morning I winced a little on rising. There was a stiffness in my shoulder and a handsome purple bruise on my ribs. It would take me a day or two to shake off these effects. Through the window I saw rain, which suited my mood well enough. Here was a stasis in my life, an interlude between the acts: I could make it a time for recuperation and reflection. I knew where I would be likely to find some of my former Oxford companions, but felt no inclination to seek them out. How could I answer the questions that would greet me until I knew what was purposed for my future and what sort of figure I was likely to cut? Matt Cullen I would have been glad to see, for he was a man I could laugh with, but our correspondence had lapsed, and I knew nothing of his whereabouts.

All morning I stayed within doors, completing the journal which I had kept during my travels. The parlor in which I was writing had a mirror at one end in which I several times caught my reflection. At length I rose to study myself more minutely and at full length. In figure, I would pass muster, being above the common height, vigorous and well knit, but my face seemed to me too open, too youthful, redeemed from blandness only by strong brown eyes. Given the common belief that a man’s character can be deduced from the front portion of his head, this could be a disadvantage. I practiced certain expressions—attentive, amused, eager—and found the case somewhat improved. I could assume a variety of responses that might make me appear an agreeable companion. In repose, however, my face seemed a tabula rasa, awaiting the imprint of further experience.

The rain continuing, I worked diligently at my journal, bringing the record to a conclusion with my arrival in Dover. It was convenient that the combination of vacant time, rough weather, a bottle of ink, and the wing feathers of a goose had enabled me to capture my recollections before they were lost—I had always been quick to forget. My life being thus far in order, I was ready for what was to come.

Cathcart Street was in a quiet neighborhood, but there was noise enough from it to bring me to the window more than once. The kennel down the middle of the road was swollen by the rain into a thick black stream, lumpy with refuse. Pedestrians in sodden clothes struggled sullenly along its edges, forced close to the walls. It was a dismal sight: there was much to be said for loitering within, warm and dry.

Later in the day, tiring of my own company, I made occasion to take tea with Mrs. Deacon. Although I had lodged in the house before, I knew nothing of her beyond the fact that she was a widow, with a young daughter named Charlotte. In conversation she proved civil and shrewd, but maintained a certain reserve. It was this quality, perhaps, that caused me to see her as a handsome woman of forty, looking younger than her age, rather than as indeed a younger woman. Her composure suggested a lack of interest in any physical attraction that she might possess. I was unsure whether to play man of the world or affable young fellow. It was by chance that I found the less formal direction.

“Do you know Mr. Gilbert?” I inquired.

“I knew him years ago. If he communicates with me now, it is through Mr. Ward.”

“Then the messages will be brief. Yesterday he offered me but fifty words.”

She smiled. “So many? Then you can count yourself a friend.”

“Tell me, Mrs. Deacon,” said I, “how do you think this taciturn gentleman passes his evenings?”

She considered. “He sits in an armchair and reads a big black book. When it grows dark he walks the streets with a big black dog.”

“But what is in the book he reads?”

“Nobody knows. It is one of his secrets.”

This time we both smiled.

I was glad to have hit on this vein of whimsy in my landlady’s disposition, and to find myself easy in her company. Later that night, my imagination stirred by wine, I tried to envisage the warm body beneath the long dress. I liked what I saw with my mind’s eye, but suppressed the picture as unsuitably distracting in my present situation.

A
fter two or three days of idleness I grew restless. I was in the unsatisfied state produced when the mind teems with questions to which there are no clear answers. Having had no living relatives since the age of ten, I was accustomed to a solitary existence. Reserve and self-sufficiency were almost the only qualities I had in common with my godfather. But I fretted at being becalmed. Ambition assured me that Mr. Gilbert would not have paid for my education, and sent me to the great cities of Europe unless he had substantial future plans for me. But circumspection reminded me that he was an enigmatic man whose patronage had been conferred from a distance. Although he had rescued me when I was homeless, he had scarcely ever spoken of my parents, who had been his friends, and although he had countenanced occasional visits to Fork Hill House, he had never encouraged me to stay for more than a few days at a time. At Oxford, therefore, I had been at pains to say nothing of my upbringing, not caring to admit that I had neither family nor home. Appearances had been preserved by bluff and evasion, but the constraint had been wearisome.

It was characteristic of Mr. Gilbert to have dropped no hint as to his future intentions. For all I knew, he might be planning to buy me a commission in the army or send me to the colonies. I felt no enthusiasm for either prospect. If I was to stay at home, the possibilities seemed limited. I could not enter the church: neither my vagrant habits of thought nor my animal spirits would allow it. The law was hardly more inviting.

My favorite hope soared higher: perhaps too high. As far as I knew, my godfather had no living relatives. At his age he was unlikely to attempt marriage, and should he do so, his thin loins would be hard put to it to originate an offspring. Surely it was time for him to proclaim me his heir and prepare me for the life of a prosperous landowner? In the country I could walk, ride, and perhaps hunt. The more reflective side of my nature would find sustenance in Mr. Gilbert’s well-stocked library. When I needed younger company and livelier entertainment, I would spend a few raucous weeks in London. Satiety achieved, I could again retreat to Worcestershire to read books and view the world philosophically.

This was my preferred narrative: a life I could freely adjust to my personal convenience. Perversely, however, I found even this possibility uninviting as implying a premature acceptance of settled middle age. By a curious paradox my dependent condition had fostered an independence of spirit: I had become accustomed to mingling affability with reserve. It seemed to me that, unlike my Oxford companions, I would be able, if put to it, to live by my wits. I was eager for a challenge which would show me what sort of man I was.

T
here had been little in my childhood that I cared to remember. Even my recollections of my mother, now dead for more than ten years, were uncertain. I had turned away from the past, as by instinct, to concentrate my attentions on the present and the future. It suited my disposition to be active: if left too long to brood, I tended to lose my good humor and lapse into melancholy. To avert this possibility at the present time I needed a friend in whom I could confide. It was natural, therefore, that my thoughts turned to Sarah Kinsey, the only individual who knew just how I was circumstanced. It was two years since I had last seen her, and not much less than that since she had last written to me. She had faded in my recollection as I found fresh diversion abroad; negligently I had left her letters unanswered. Since my return she was suddenly present again before my mind’s eye, shyly pretty, quick to smile. For all the seeming diffidence she had been independent: her tastes and opinions were all her own. We had talked with great freedom.

One night, in sentimental mood, I strolled to Pitman Street, where Sarah had been living two years previously. I found the house in darkness, and stood to stare at it. Even as I watched, a light appeared in the window of the upstairs room where I had several times engaged in three-cornered conversation with Sarah and her aunt. Perhaps the two of them were chatting there at that very moment. I lingered for several minutes, indulging the imagined proximity and half tempted to knock at the door.

The matter was resolved when an old man emerged from a neighboring house.

“Pardon me, friend,” I asked. “Does Mrs. Catherine Kinsey live here?”

“She used to,” he said. “A widow lady. But she left a year ago.”

I thanked him and turned away. Disappointed as I was, I knew that my quest had been an idle one. Even if I could have seen Sarah alone, she would surely have reproached me for the breach in our correspondence. And with my future unknown, what had I now to offer? I was downcast as I trudged away: perhaps I would spend my life mourning Sarah as a lost love. Aware that a melancholy so hastily improvised could be of little substance, I savored it nonetheless.

A
week after my arrival in London I received a letter from my godfather:

My dear Richard,

I was pleased to receive word of your safe arrival. As you imply, there is much for us to discuss and consider. I would like to see you at Fork Hill House early next week, and hope that you will be able to stay for some few days. However, you may leave the bulk of your effects in the safe hands of Mrs. Deacon.

Your affectionate godfather,
James Gilbert

It was a characteristically tightfisted message. I could discern but a single clue concerning my future: it seemed that I was expected to return to London after my visit to Worcestershire. Whether the hint presaged an extended stay in the city or another journey, it was impossible to guess.

Chapter 2

I
woke from a dream in which I was fumbling a plump whore in a dark street in Rouen. The impression stayed with me as I lay half insensible: I could smell the horse dung on the cobbles and feel the girl’s damp warmth. Only gradually did I come to myself and recollect that I was in bed in my godfather’s house. Even then the idea was so strong upon me that had a maidservant chanced to enter the room, I might have sleepily seized on her, and perhaps derived a flesh-and-blood child from my fantasy. But the illusion thinned and my intellects began to confront the day. I arose, groped my way to the window, and threw back the heavy curtain. On the instant I was myself again, looking out upon green lawns shining with dew below a bright morning sun. It was a sight to fill me with hope and energy. The day might hold revelations, but I felt ready to face them.

Having arrived too late on the preceding evening to see my godfather, I had now to impress the man on whom my hopes depended. What manner would be best calculated to win his favor? I concluded that a respectful but easy bearing, quickened with a hint of mischief, should do the business. As I washed and dressed I tried to think myself into this demeanor. Even a hint of importunity concerning my future would be unbecoming. Pleasure at the reunion, gratitude for past kindnesses: these were the emotions to display.

Downstairs I learned that Mr. Gilbert had already breakfasted. I was directed to meet him later that morning in the drawing room at the rear of the house. Arriving before he did, I had time to survey, through broad windows, the slopes of Flint Hill fringed, in the distance, by black-branched woodland. On the near side of those trees everything I could see belonged to my godfather and might one day, conceivably, belong to me. Behind me several family portraits gazed down. I turned to stare back at my adoptive ancestors. In life they might have been formidable: in death they were so many planes of pigment. It could not be many years before my godfather would be similarly reduced. Perhaps he had aged in my absence. Perhaps he would totter in to say, “Let me be plain with you: I have but one month to live. This estate and all my wealth are to be yours. I wish you joy of them.”

When he did enter, however, it was with no such cadaverous air. He looked as I remembered him, lean, but by no means frail, his face shrewd and thin-lipped. As ever, he was neatly groomed: the taut little wig could have been his own hair.

If he was overjoyed to see me, he contrived not to show it. I adapted my manner to his, and our first exchanges were courteous rather than familiar. I had brought gifts from abroad, which I formally delivered to my benefactor rather as a visiting English ambassador might present diplomatic offerings to a Chinese potentate. He received them with corresponding decorum. Thoughtful questions were asked concerning people and places, and suitable answers given. The little minuet of civilities was creditably performed by both parties.

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