Chapter 6: London
It was a fine September morning when we at last arrived at Southhampton; and from the port, we sailed leisurely up the Thames, passing through Teddington, Wallingford and Reading. The fog was thick as the ship cut through the calm water of the Thames; children on the banks played at their games and celebrated the sighting of a ship such as the Isabella. The men too were elated that soon we should dock, for they were eager to taste the pleasures of the city. But we began to bottleneck at Havenford, and it was another full day before we reached south London, at which time there was a regular traffic of ships; hundreds of ships, all crowded into a thousand square yards. I had never imagined there could exist in the whole of the word this type of enterprise.
And then, out of the confusion of the commerce and the blinding depth of the fog, I saw for the first time the spires of St. Paul’s rising into the heavens; and it was as though I had been transported through space & time into a most different sort of place than I had previously been stationed. I do not suppose there is a gayer sight in all the world than a boy’s first encounter with the greatest capital in Christendom. Here at last was splendor and opportunity in proportion to my aims. Great towers of industry standing watch over the city like a dozen of the Egyptian sphynx; a hundred-thousands men running to’ and fro across the great arcades of the City, buying cheap and selling dear, and altogether splendid in Dress & appearance. Here was a goldsmith who Grossed not less than thirty-thousand pounds last year, a merchant-Prince who has cornered the Pepper trade in Hindu-land, and the Illustrious chief of the Guild of Cordwainers besides; and over here, a pair of Lords who betwixt themselves Own half the County of Kent, and now a General of the Dragoons, and as many MPs as you like.
But London can be a hard place -- and I have known not a few men of spirit who have been crushed by the weight of the capital. Lads capable & industrious, in the bloom of youth, undone down by their own cowardice, ignorance or rashness; they have taken to drink, or cards, and ended by throwing themselves headfirst off London bridge, and into the dark depths of the Thames. A rural childhood scarcely prepares one for the challenges of urban life, and without favor or patronage, I do not suppose that one in one thousand of the eager boys who leave the farm for the city ever make it to twenty-five. She is a cruel mistress, and has not an ounce of empathy for weakness.
Of course to the crew, I was as Alexander to his generals, or Arthur to his Knights; nay, as Christ to the very apostles, and thus I did not wish for them to see my enthusiasm and wonderment. To be entertained by a thing is only to be unaccustomed to her -- familiarity cures enthusiasm as quick as tar-water cures dropsy. So I hid my Marvel, and quietly sat on the bridge so that the men should not know of their hero’s surprize.
Dobbin had arranged for an agent of his to retrieve the otter and muskrat furs & whale oil & other goods from the docks and together we lads unloaded the pelts onto the agent’s caravan. My curiosity was excited in the mechanics of this transaction, and enquired with the agent for what price he intended to wholesale the commodities. But he refused to engage in intercourse, and so in that moment was deprived of perhaps his only chance in life to talk commerce with a man of consequence. The money was paid over to Dobbin, who would then use that capital, so I hazarded, for the purchase of the tea. The payment was made quiet, and Dobbin given over a certificate of discharge for the duties.
Our Captain was not looking at all well when we docked at Southampton. Tall and gray and a full stone lighter from the journey; his gauntness contributed to his overall sickliness of appearance, and the blood in his veins stood out from his Temples. The unseasonably cold spring had seeped into his bones, and made his limp all the more impossible.
As for myself, I cannot complain, for during these four scores I have trod God’s earth, apart from my current condition, which is simply a function of age and not one of genuine constitutional vigor, I have only been sick on two occasions; the first, was as a child, when I contracted scarlet fever and the second, was during my time in Malaysia, where I contracted a strain of malaria that had consumed a whole race of pygmies, and yet left me only with mild flu symptoms and a particularly disagreeable form of diarrhea.9
We Lads were arranged like a row of pins, and made to stand tall for inspection on the Fore-deck. Dobbin had very particular instructions for the Crew whilst he was at market. But his illness prevented him from presenting himself with any Authority, and he twice fell upon the deck in his attempt to evacuate the ship.
“Perhaps I may be of some assistance to you in town?” I asked.
Dobbin coughed vigorously and rested his hands upon the mast. “Nay, I don’t wish of your company. I shall make to the Auction, procure the cargo, and return in two day’s time.”
“But sir, in faith, I may be of great assistance to you.”
“Nay Sperryhawke!” he coughed vigorously, and rested himself upon the mast. He remarked that he should rather have a School of Apes for assistants than any of we cabin boys. This remark stung me to my Core, but I allowed it as I could tell the Captain was not entirely in control of his Temperament.
“Are you quite certain your body is fit for so important an expedition? Truly Captain, you look as though your insides had been dissolved in a bucket of lye.”
Although I made this remark in sincerity, Dobbin received it as the most detestable patronage. He scolded me for my presumption, and near put his cane to my back before repeating his order that I make ready the ship for departure which should occur, “not later than sunrise on the Fourth, Sperryhawke!”
And so I resigned myself to my mop and bucket, and dutifully, gleefully, and competently washed the foredeck. The planks near the schooner had become further eaten away by the salt & the heat. Whence Timothy returned with new planks we set to work digging out the rotting wood and replacing it with shiny new timbers.
It was dusk before we finished our chores, and rested upon the rails. We watched the city of London retiring from her day’s work. I watched boys come out of their accounting offices, and rush into the streets with coins in their pockets & schemes in their heads. I saw ladies of the night, calling after these boys & their coins. I was consumed with Jealously of their station in life –- being employed in counting offices and merchant banks, boys of high pedigree & education, boys with fathers, and families, and uncles all of whom delivered unto them great starts in life. At that moment, dressed as I was in duck trousers with grime & soot in my fingernails, and a sickly Captain as my Master, I could not help but burn with hatred that Providence had denied me such opportunities.
My row with O’Grady had made it impossible for me to engage with the men. They looked upon me as a cheat, and a liar, and a cad. And without the protection of the Great captain, I feared that it was not safe for me in my Quarters, where I might more easily fall victim to a subtle Plan, and so I resigned myself that evening to sleep on the deck. I have always had difficulty in obtaining Restful Sleep, and so busied my mind by tracing the stars across the heavens. The reader may be sure that I kept a six-inch blade just beneath the salt blanket, and was prepared to do the Lord’s Work upon any-man who assaulted me.
With the Dawn came a young boy scurrying down the Dock, calling out for the Isabella. He looked very much confused and nervous, and out of place. He removed his hat, and called out in a high pitch:
“Hello sir! Hello sir!”
I heard this chime coming out from the dock, and raised my head to discern the cause of this Commotion.
“What is it boy?”
“This is the ship of Captain Dobbin?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“And who are you, good sir?”
I told the lad who I was, and that I was furthermore the first mate of the ship.
“Come then Mister Sperryhawke,” replied the errand boy, “I have been sent by the surgeon; your captain has fallen ill.”
I raced with the lad across the docks, and down into Cheapside, which was an al-together different sort of London. The butchers’ stalls were thrown together in a great commotion, as the pale men hew’d their saws through great husks of flesh. The blood spil’t out into the street, where the barefoot children waded through the gore in search of discarded sustenance which they hoped to make their Supper. The smell of wet horses, and dead horses, was only muted by the stench & Soot pouring forth from the smith-Works.
The Captain had been put up in a lonely grotto attached to an apothecary. We descended a rickety staircase to the chamber where they had laid him. The room, full of dust and rats and mice, seemed to me not such a place for recuperation. The walls were wet, the few miserable sticks of furniture, rotted, and falling to pieces; and the whole of the room was crawling with lice and termites. You could taste the diphtheria & Cholerick in the air.
The Surgeon was just then at his bedside, turning over Dobbin’s cheek and administering various lotions and powders and Chemicals. I approached the bed, and looked down into the Captain’s great face, which was hot and white, and perspiring as much as whore in labor. His yellow teeth glowed bright in the darkness, and he was in and out of consciousness. I did not speak at first, for I did not wish to disturb the surgeon in his duties. After he wiped Dobbin’s long head with another towel, he reentered an old wooden crate, from which he selected his various potions. The doctor then put a hollow metal tube to the Captain’s chest, and inserted the opposite end into his ear. The Captain’s chest was only barely pounding then, and I watched as the life force slowly deserted his withered frame. I saw the doctor shake his head in sorrow, and it grieved me to be losing such a dear and faithful friend, and I removed my hat and clutched to it my chest.
“I shall see to his burial,” said I, and bowed and crossed myself in a most dignified manner.
The doctor gave me a curious look and scribbled something down on his paper, “He’s not going to die,” the doctor tore off a piece of script and handed it to the porter. “Tis nothing more than sea fever.”
“Oh,” said I, “well in that case when may we expect his Recovery?”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. “If he hasn’t recovered in three days, I will return to bleed him. Until then, cold baths and a tincture of mercury.”
The doctor departed, and let me alone with the Captain. I inquired if I should make him more comfortable in any way.
“George,” the captain whispered and called me to his bedside. He grabbed at my collar and breathed very heavily “go over and take up my purse.”
I did as commanded. The heavy bag had been placed carelessly on the table, where any common rogue might have it.
“Now listen carefully,” his voice, filtered through the mucus in his throat, sounded like a man shouting through a storm. He unwrapped his purse, and slowly withdrew an enormous roll of paper notes. “George, you must make the purchase.”
I listened as he explained how I was to ensure success at the auction. I was first to repair to Lloyd’s coffeehouse, where the seamen and insurance men gathered to discuss the week’s events. Dobbin insisted that it was here that the actual auction took place; that the sales were arranged before hand, and that the auction was mostly theatre, and a way to either raise the price, or lower the price, using the money of amateurs.
“George, you must be certain to obtain the tea at the right price. The whole of the voyage depends on it! Nay, the fate of the entire crew now depends on you!”
“I shall do it all as you say,” I cupped his hand, and kissed him upon the forehead.
I put out into the street, consumed with great enthusiasm for my charge. Men like to talk as though they wished all their life for a single great chance with which they might have proven their metal, and made a great fortune; but, in truth, it is quite the opposite. For there is all around us always a great chance to be had for anyone interested in seizing upon the opportunity to do what is difficult. Nay, the bulk of mankind wish for nothing of substance; they shrink from the sight of greatness like a dying flower retreating from the sun.
The first thing to be done -- as I did not intend to attend the auction in the duck trousers of a common sailor-- was to Inquire after a better suit of clothes.
It shall now be necessary to relate my first interactions with the English, which I will confess at times were not altogether flattering. I do not wish to deceive the reader with the benefit of hindsight. It is true that today I stand as a veritable Pantagruel of Culture, but must recall that at this time, I was a lad of ten-and-nine who had never left the Commonwealth. Thus the reader will forgive my naivety; or more appropriately, the reader shall instead be impressed by my honesty. I am under no obligation in these pages to portray my missteps and if the reader chuses to snicker, or laugh, or in anyway derive Humor at my expense from these episodes, then that reader shall be called unworthy and forbidden from further intercourse with these pages.
Let me be even clearer. I condescend to make these humanizing disclosures for a purpose; professional writers, whom I deem liars with a quill, create their adventures as though their heroes were immune from the natural vicissitudes of human emotion. To be sure, men are in habit of hiding away their insecurities and true characters, and exhibiting only those qualities they wish their peers to judge them upon. But I am a man, made of blood, tissue, and passion. That I have felt the tremors of insecurity only resound to the greater glory of my achievements. Thus I make these admissions as a offering to my Reader, and to persuade him that though he may at times feel afraid, and though at times he may feel the whole of the pursuit is lost for want of courage, yet he may preserve in spite of these tremblings if only he take my character as a Model, and read in these pages what it is to be a man of honor; for though he be a man of honor in no way disavows that he is still a man.
I wandered the streets for a time, until I happened upon a fine little house done up in red brick. The plaque upon the top of the door red, “Lawrence & Sons Haberdashery.” It was a curious little shop stuffed full of great rows of fabrics and mannequins. Whole sheets of fine wools, and still finer silks & cottons. The bell upon the door rung as I broke into the tailor’s shop. I was confess to a small sensation of apprehension in being amongst such finery, dressed as I was in my sailor’s kit.
“Hallo! Hallo!” cried the tailor, a Mr. Thomas Lawrence. “Come in! Come in!”
“Yes good fellow, I need a suit of clothes,” I said, and began to look about the hosiery, silks and cottons laid out upon the table. “I must attend to a certain Business this Afternoon. I am a tea merchant, and I shall attend the East India Auction.”
“I see, very good sir. A new suit for the Auction, very good sir. I think it not so grievous a breach of confidence to inform you that I dress many of the greatest men of the India Company.”
“Very good,” I rejoined. And yet I wished for him to know that I was in no-way out of place. “I have here Two-hundred quid to be spent at my pleasure.”
The tailor considered this, and called me to follow him down into the second room where he produced for my Inspection some sketchings of gentlemen in the newest fashions. He was impressed by my knowledge of the finer silks, fabrics, and cuts, which I don’t suppose he expected to find in a boy with so gruff an appearance. But this Tailor soon learned that I was not unfamiliar with the finer things in life, and that I was therefore not a man to be taken advantage of, as clothes merchants are want to do.
“May I be so bold as to recommend a red coat of wool, with a cravat, red shag spatter-dashes, and a vestment? It would, I believe, disguise the yellowness of your cheek.”
He produced a tape, and began to measure my arms, and my neck, then my biceps, my chest and waist. Once he had made his measurements, he scrolled some notes on his paper and announced that he would have the clothing completed in three weeks time at a cost of sixty pounds.
“Three weeks?” I cried in disbelief. “That shan’t do at all. I must have the clothes today -- in time for the auction.”
This tailor gave me a disapproving look and set down his tape. “I’m sorry, but I cannot have you a set of clothes in three hours.”
“Well there must be something you can do,” said I.
The tailor put an index finger to his lip and considered my request. “Yes, why yes I think there may be. Just wait here,” and went back into his stores. He returned some moment later carrying a rather grand coat of red velvet.
“I had this made for the Duke of Bedford’s grandson, the lord Marbury,” said the tailor, and then lowered his voice, “Alas the lad has been thrown from Court for consorting with his valet.”
I did not take his meaning at first, and enquired a bit further. “And why should the Lord Marbury not consort with his valet?”
The tailor smiled wryly at me, “Consorting in an intimate manner.”
Still I did not take his meaning. “You mean he has disclos’d family secrets to the valet?”
“My dear boy, the lad was found in coitus with his manservant.” Mr. Lawrence said this and gave me a very wry smile, the meaning of which I still did not take.
“Well yes,” I replied, “a gentleman must always keep his manservant out of the Coitus.”
The tailor had me undress, and put upon the Lord Marbury’s suit. The silk hose clung smartly to my muscular legs, and the ruffles bulged from my chest like a garden of roses in full bloom. It was a Grand transformation, and I shall not be faulted when I say that I looked twice the prince of Wales, and still thrice as handsome as anyone ever called the Lord Marbury.
“Well I say, I think that’s a fine fit. See how the Chiffon hangs from your gait!” the Tailor pushed and prodded the fabric, “we might take some of this hose off, and the cravat is a bit loose. I see that your neck is not so bulbous as the Lord Marbury’s.”
“I assure you sir, that my Neck is every bit as bulbous as the Lord Marbury’s!” I cried, until I realized it was not so much an insult as I pretended.
“Only give me an hour’s time to remove the family crest, and tighten the neck,” laughed the tailor. “We should not want gentlemen thinking you are the Lord Marbury’s grandson.”
“What is the final cost?”
“For this suit, seven-and-thirty pounds.”
The reader will be in error if he thinks this cost disturbed me. It must be remembered that gentleman in those days wore a fortune on their person; for it was not until after the Revolution in France that men of fashion began dressing as undertakers. And while it would deplete the capital the Captain had provided for the mission, it was as necessary a cost the crewman’s wages, or the ship itself.
Just then the front door swung open and in walked a very fine looking gentleman with an erect frame and a contemptible gaze. The tailor no sooner caught sight of this Dandy, then he entirely abandoned our conversation and ran after the great Lord like a mangy hound on a soup bone.
Now to my thinking, I could see no reason why I should not profit from others believing that I were attached to the great house of Bedford, whomever they might be. And so when the Mr. Lawrence went back into his offices to fetch his tools, I laid the pound notes on the table and hurried off into the Broad Street.
Mr. Lawrence had made me the compliment of saying that never had a set of clothes fit better a gentleman, and as I waded through the chaos & commerce of the West End, I soon understood the modesty of his compliment. I found the urchins & peasants staring at me in wonder as I strode gayly down Fleet Street. These poor beggars for a time forgot their misery, their poverty, & their leprosy, and gazed upon the splendid majesty of God’s own mercer.