It was a Saturday night when the man with the red waistcoat arrived in London. It was, to be precise, six of the clock on the fifteenth of April in the year of 1837 that those hooded eyes looked out the window of the Dover coach and beheld, in the bright aura of gas light, a golden bull and an overgrown mouth opening to devour him–the sign of his inn, the Golden Ox.
The Rocket (as his coach was aptly named) rattled in through the archway to the inn’s yard and the passengers, who had hitherto found the stranger so taciturn, now noted the silver-capped cane–which had begun to tap the floor at Westminster Bridge–commence a veritable tattoo.
He was a tall man in his forties, so big in the chest and broad in the shoulder that his fellows on the bench seat had felt the strain of his presence, but what his occupation was, or what he planned to do in London, they had not the least idea. One privately imagined him a book-maker, another a gentleman farmer and a third, seeing the excellent quality of his waistcoat, imagined him an upper servant wearing his master’s cast-off clothing.
His face did not deny the possibility of any of these occupations; indeed he would have been a singular example of any one of them. His brows pushed down hard upon the eyes, and his cheeks shone as if life had scrubbed at him and rubbed until the very bones beneath his flesh had been burnished in the process. His nose was large, hawkish, and high-bridged. His eyes were dark, inquiring, and yet there was a bruised, even belligerent quality which had kept his fellow passengers at their distance all through that long journey up from Dover.
No sooner had they heard the coachman’s Whoa-up than he had the door open and was out into the night without having said a single word.
The first of the passengers to alight after him saw the stranger take the porter, a famously insolent individual, firmly by the shoulder blade. He held him there for a good moment, and it was obvious from the look which appeared on that sandy-haired individual’s face, that he held him very hard indeed.
“Now pay attention to me, Sir Reverence.”
The porter was roughly escorted to the side of the coach.
“You comprennay-voo?” The stranger pointed with his cane to a large trunk on the roof. “The blue item. If it would not inconvenience your Lordship.”
The porter made it clear that it would not inconvenience him in the least. Then some money changed hands and the man with the red waistcoat set off into the night, his cane tapping on the cobblestones, and straight up into the Haymarket, his chin up and the orbs of his eyes everywhere reflecting an unearthly flare and glare.
This light had shone all the way from the Elephant and Castle: gas light, blazing and streaming like great torches; sausages illuminated, fish and ice gleaming, chemist shops aglow like caves with their variegated vases illuminated from within. The city had become a fairground, and as the coach crossed the river at Westminster the stranger saw that even the bridges of the Thames were illuminated.
The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. A man from the last century would not have recognized it; a man from even fifteen years before would have been confused. Dram shops had become gin palaces with their high great plate-glass windows, their engraved messages: “Gin at Threepence–Generous Wines–Hot Spiced.” This one here–it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes. The big man pushed his way up to the bar and got himself a dram of brandy which he drank in a gulp. When he turned, his face revealed a momentary confusion.
Two children were now tugging around his sleeves but he seemed so little aware of their presence that he walked out into the street without once looking down at them.
All around him was uproar, din, the deafening rush, the smell of horse shit, soot, that old yellow smell of London Town.
“Come on, Guv, come with me.”
“Come on, Sir.”
A young woman with a feathered hat had placed her hand on his elbow: such a handsome face, such short legs. He tugged himself free, walked on a yard or so, and blew his great hawk’s nose like a mighty trumpet. As he carefully refolded his handkerchief–a bright green Kingsman of an earlier time–he inadvertently revealed the stumps of the two middle fingers on his left hand, a sight which had already excited curiosity aboard the Rocket.
His Kingsman safely put away for the moment, he started along the Strand, then seemed to change his mind, for a moment later he was heading up Agar Street, then cutting up to Maiden Lane.
In Floral Street, he paused before the now illuminated window of McClusky’s Pudding Shop. He blew his nose again, whether from soot or sentiment the face gave no indication, and then, having entered that famously lopsided little shop, emerged with a syrup dumpling sprinkled liberally with confectioner’s sugar. He ate the dumpling in the street, still walking. What he began in Floral Street he finished back on St Martin’s Lane. Here, just a little south of Seven Dials, the stranger stood on a quiet dark corner, alone, free from the blaze of gas.
It was Cecil Street he had come to, a very short street linking Cross Street to St Martin’s Lane. He dusted down his face carefully with his kerchief, and then set off into the darkness, peering to find what street numbers he could see–none.
He had almost arrived at the great river of Cross Street, with its noise and congestion of gigs and post-chaises, hackney cabs and dog-carts, when he came upon a single phaeton stopped in the street. It was a most expensive equipage, that much was clear even in the dark, and indeed, once he had crossed the street, there was sufficient light to make out a gold coronet emblazoned on the shining black door. From inside he could hear the sound of a young woman weeping.
A moment later, he would have been in Cross Street. However, the door of the carriage opened and a matron in a long dress descended from the coach and addressed the person still seated inside. “Good night, Mum,” she said.
Hearing this voice, the stranger stopped abruptly in his tracks.
The phaeton drove off but the stranger stayed very still in the shadow of a doorway whilst the matron opened the gate leading to a high narrow house directly opposite him. A feeble yellow light showed through the fan light above the front door.
Then he spoke: “Excuse me, Missus, but is this Number Four?”
“If you’ve come for tablets, come back tomorrow.”
“Mary Britten,” he said.
He could hear her rattling a big bunch of keys.
“You come back tomorrow,” she said.
The stranger stepped into the middle of the street.
“Get a lamp, Mary.”
“Someone you should recognize, Mary Britten.”
She remained with her back to him, still busy with her bunch of keys. “It’s dark. Come back tomorrow.”
“Someone you should recognize covered with soot.”
Finally, she found the right key. The door swung open, and the feeble yellow light–there was an oil lamp burning in the hallway of the house–revealed a tall, handsome woman in a long dress: blue or green, very fancy-looking, shimmering like silk. She hesitated a moment, an old lady, all of seventy years, but such was her carriage and her bearing that she would pass, in this light anyway, for fifty.
“So this is Cecil Street,” he said. “I thought it would be posher.”
She hesitated, peering into the night, one hand ready on the door handle. “What you doing here?” she whispered. “You’re a dead man if they find you.”
“That’s a nice home-coming.”
“Don’t bring your trouble here,” she said.
“You got respectable.”
“You come to put the bite?”
“I’m doing well myself,” the stranger said. “You going to ask me in?”
She made no move to offer an invitation, but her tone did become more solicitous. “They treat you bad?”
“How’d you know I was here?”
“I saw your puff in the newspaper.”
“And now you’ve come home to play the old dart, you varmint.”
“No, Ma. I’m retired. I come here for the culture.”
She laughed harshly. “The operah?”
“Oh yes,” said the stranger seriously. “The opera, the theatre, I got a lot of time to make up for.”
“Well, I must go to bed, Jack. So you must forgive me not inviting you in to have a chat.”
“Perhaps I’ll look up Tom.”
“Oh Jesus, Jack.”
“You bastard,” she cried with real emotion. “You know he’s dead.”
“No! No, I never.”
“God help me, Jack, God save me. I ain’t so green as that. I know who you paid. I know how it were arranged and all.”
“I didn’t pay no one nothing, I swear.”
“What do you want, Jack?” said the old woman, and this time her voice quavered. “What’re you doing here in London?”
“It’s my home,” Jack said, raising his voice and revealing the fiercer character which the porter at the Golden Ox had briefly glimpsed. “That’s what I want. My home.”
“I still got my Bilboa, so don’t think I wouldn’t use it.”
The stranger shook his head, and laughed. “You worried I might have a bone to pick with you, Ma?”
“Aren’t you worried someone’s going to hang you, Jack?” Having made this bitter speech, she stepped inside the house and closed the door behind her.
“I’m coming back, Ma.”
There was no retort from inside the house, merely the heavy clanking of some chains which seemed to amuse the visitor.
“I’ll be back tomorrow morning. We’ll have a proper chat when I come back.”
There is no doubt that Jack Maggs planned to keep his promise, but the morrow held events he could not foresee. Three weeks would pass before he would call at Cecil Street again.
Great Queen Street had once been home to the pugnacious Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Lord Bristol had lived there. Also Lord Chancellor Finch, and the Conway and Paulett families. But on that damp Sunday morning when Jack Maggs came marching up from Long Acre with his silver-capped cane tucked under his arm, all that remained of the Golden Age were some pilasters and other ornaments still clinging to the façades of a few houses on the west.
There was now a tobacconist in Great Queen Street, a laundry, and a narrow little workroom where glass eyes were made for dolls and injured gentlemen. Actors lived in rooms at Number 30. A retired grocer from Clerkenwell now had the leasehold to Number 29.
But it was Number 27 which seemed to take Jack Maggs’s close attention, and he stood across the street and stared at it very hard. It was a handsome house–four storeys, a high iron fence, a pretty gate leading down to the servants’ entrance. It had a bright front door, a brass door knocker, a fan light, and such was his excitement to behold this property that the left side of his firmly sculpted face was soon visibly quivering.
A dog-cart came travelling pell-mell down the street towards Long Acre with its driver, a young man no more than twenty years, standing upright in the seat. All the visitor’s attention was on the house, until the moment the driver cracked his whip.
Then Jack Maggs jumped out of his skin. He stepped out into the road, and raised his stick as if he intended to chase the offender and punish him, but a moment later he was a perfect gent, presenting himself on the doorstep of 27 Great Queen Street with his distress reduced to a small flickering on his left cheek.
Jack Maggs Esquire removed his hat and grasped that brass knocker. He knocked quickly, firmly, but politely.
When there was no immediate answer, he knocked again. And then, a minute later–Rap-rap-rap.
It was not possible that there was no one home. The caller was well informed about the residents of 27 Great Queen Street. There was a butler in this house, a housekeeper, a cook.
He stepped back onto the edge of the roadside so he might look up at the high windows. He observed their dark and curtained aspect with agitated eyes, then, turning impulsively, he opened the little gate leading down to the servants’ entrance.
It was at this moment that Mercy Larkin came to the parlour window of the house next door. Mercy was the kitchen maid, by title, but being the only maid in that confusing household, was presently arranging her employer’s small library of books where he liked them set–upon the little cedar dresser with the oilcloth square atop it.
She saw the man she would soon know as Jack Maggs descending the steps to the servants’ entrance of Number 27. He had come, so she imagined, to take Mrs Halfstairs’s examination for the post of footman. The moment she saw him, she knew he was the one. He had the right size, the right legs, but was at the wrong address.
Then Jack Maggs turned and caught her eye. It was not really a footman’s face, or no footman she had ever seen. She stood at the parlour window, her duster in her hand, and shivered.
Jack Maggs had not the least knowledge of Mercy Larkin, Mrs Halfstairs or the rest of Mr Buckle’s chaotic household, but as he shut the area gate behind him he saw the maid was still staring at him. He saw her pale skin, her pretty ringlets spilling out from under her cap. Had you asked him his impression of her appearance, he would not have heard your question. He had been spotted. He felt the rough rope of Newgate round his neck.
He descended the last steps, escaping her gaze. With his broad back pressed against the wall, he could look into the kitchen. It was his profession to recognize an empty house when he saw one, and this house was like a grave. And yet he knocked, tapping and scratching against the pane.
“Excuse me down there.”
He resisted the urge to flatten himself further against the wall, but rather stepped out where the maid could inspect him.
“All’s well,” he smiled. It was an easy smile, and his teeth were very good and regular. “I’m expected.”
“They’ve gone,” the maid said, staring at him very hard. “No one home but draughts and mice.”
“Gone?” he said hoarsely.
“You’ve come to see about the footman’s position, am I right now?”
The stranger smiled.
“It’s Mr Buckle’s residence you were wanting,” she suggested.
“Gone where? Where have they gone? I am expected.” He ascended the stairs to the street.
“Gone to Calais,” she said. “The Spanish Main. How would I know? The gentleman didn’t have the manners to inform me of his destination.”
The stranger was now at the top of the area steps, and Mercy could see that he had a twitching palsy in his cheek. He put his hand to it.
“Sometimes,” Mercy continued, “they send a servant in a coach, but no one stays for long.”
“So they are not gone totally?” he asked.
“As I said, they come and go.” She paused. “I really thought you were come to be our footman. Mrs Halfstairs is most particular about the height of our second footman. She is sitting in there with her ruler.”
“You’re the height, and all. It’s a right shame you’re not a footman. You’re not a footman?” she repeated.
He watched her say it, like you watch an auctioneer raise a hammer, but in truth he had already decided what he was to do.
“I’m their footman,” he said. “I’m Mr Phipps’s new footman.”
“So you are a footman,” she said, smiling. “I knew you was a footman.”
“Of course I am the footman, girl. I am a footman to young Mr Phipps who has all my papers,” Jack Maggs said to the maid. “My letters of recommendation, all locked inside. What is a man to do now?”
“Perhaps you were late.”
“Late?” he cried, thumping his stick on the footpath. “I am never late. I was first footman to Lord Logan who perished in the fire in Glasgow.”
“Mercy Larkin,” said a female voice from downstairs at Number 29. “Come down from there immediately.”
“It is a footman,” the maid explained, “most tragically positioned.”
Mr Percy Buckle was the owner of a gentleman’s residence at 29 Great Queen Street, but he was no more a gentleman than the man who was presently entering his household in disguise.
A year before he had been a humble grocer in Clerkenwell, and for years before that time he had been well known, around the tap rooms and penny gaffs of Limehouse, as a seller of fried fish.
Then, on a brisk autumn morning in 1836, Percy Buckle had “my little visit from the solicitor,” as a result of which good fortune he became, in two short months, the master of a household in Great Queen Street and the owner of the Lyceum Theatre on Holborn Hill.
Having spent a lifetime laboriously elevating himself from fried-fish man to grocer, this inheritance came as a great shock. He was at first rather feverish and dizzy, and could take nothing stronger than the toast and broth brought to him by the daughter of the mad woman he employed to scrub his stairs. For days he tried to follow the dark and slippery lines of blood and law that had led from the body of a deceased stranger to his door in Clerkenwell. He lay in his newly pressed night shirt, in his freshly laundered sheets, and looked at the small square of neat sunshine as it passed across his bedroom wall. Then on the third morning–Guy Fawkes Day, in fact–the fever lifted. Percy Buckle looked around his little room and knew he never had to weigh a pound of flour again in his life.
I can read all day.
Even as a grocer he had been a bookish fellow. All his life it had been the same–even when he was too tired to manage more than half a page of Ivanhoe in a night, even when he smelt inescapably of sprats and mackerel, he had been a member of a lending library, and a regular attendant at the Workingman’s Institute.
He sat up in bed and smoothed his neat little moustache, and those mild blue eyes began to show a heat that could normally only be induced by learned men discussing anaesthesia or mechanics in a draughty hall.
Within a week he had given the contents of his grocer’s shop to the Parish. He had found a tailor. He had been to Fletcher’s Bookshop in Piccadilly and purchased the complete set of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. He had moved to Great Queen Street where he was pleased to employ his charwoman’s daughter as a kitchen maid. Indeed, he was already exceedingly fond of Mercy Larkin and would have made her housekeeper had not he discovered the household overrun with servants who were still waiting to have their wages–not paid on the last quarter day–settled by the Estate.
It took a week or so for Mr Buckle to understand that he had inherited not only a house, but a bibulous and senile butler named Spinks, two footmen, a cook, and a housekeeper who had made herself queen over the butler. Sometimes it seemed to Mr Buckle that it was too small a house to have ever held so many servants, but his benefactor, it seemed, had been as fond of them as of his cats, and Mr Buckle was prepared to be fond of them as well.
He allowed the cats–there were five of them–to come and go through the open window of the drawing room. He saw no harm in them. Indeed he was soon accustomed to having both a marmalade and a tabby asleep on his chest, purring.
He also saw no harm in letting the red-nosed butler snore in front of the silver plate, although–to be quite clear on this matter–he lacked the nerve to tell the pompous old man to stop his tippling. He was a little frightened of the housekeeper, but as she bought her bacon at sixpence the pound he comforted himself that she was capable. There is, he told himself, no point in having a dog and barking too. By which he meant that it was best to leave the running of his domestic affairs to those who were most experienced in that field. He ate kippers for his breakfast and spent his days away from the house, at the library, the museum, and the theatre.
It was into this household that Jack Maggs was brought by Mercy Larkin. The newcomer found the smell of cats to be rather strong at first, but the claret which he was shortly sharing with the butler pushed that matter from his mind. He lunched on cold roast beef with the upstairs and downstairs servants, and was then brought into the presence of the housekeeper, a Mrs Halfstairs.
Mrs Halfstairs had herself seated in her office, a peculiarly placed room, neither of the basement nor the ground floor, but located like a hunter’s hide in the branches of a tree, reached either by ladder from the cellar, or a set of steep little stairs from the kitchen. Here she sat in state, surrounded by all manner of mementos relating to her brother, a Captain in the 57th Foot Regiment who had fought in those long-ago battles of Vittoria and Nive. Here, she had opened her housekeeper’s journal and set about interviewing the latest candidate.
Jack Maggs was not a footman. He could not produce a letter of reference. But he was the right height, and he stood before Mrs Halfstairs with his legs astride, his hands behind his back, the scarred stumps of the two middle fingers hidden in his folded hand.
Mrs Halfstairs was a bully and a tyrant to all who came under her rule. Jack Maggs saw that and did not care. He explained to Mrs Halfstairs how it was that his references had been locked away by Mr Henry Phipps, and when he saw how ready she was to believe him, the last of his agitation left him and he began to feel a little sleepy.
Part of this drowsiness was produced by the reprieve from immediate danger, but the greatest soporific–one he had been prone to since his earliest years–was the distinctive aromas of plenty: hanging hams, barrels of apples, beeswax, even the smell of turpentine.
Mrs Halfstairs was a round-faced little woman with tightly wound grey hair. She was not quite fat but was solid and clumpish with thick wrists and narrow, distinctively pointed fingers which she now extended to pick up a rather ill-used-looking quill.
“Height?” she demanded.
Jack Maggs woke himself enough to reply that he was a little under six foot.
The little soldier beetle made a fast, irritable entry in the back pages of her journal.
“A little under?” she said. “With respect, that is exactly what I would expect from someone in Mr Phipps’s employ. A little under!”
“An inch,” the applicant submitted.
“So I must do my own subtraction. But can you swear to an inch, or is it really an inch and a quarter?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t say, Ma’am.”
“Did Mr Phipps’s housekeeper not measure you?”
“No, Ma’am, she did not.”
“I think Mr Phipps’s first footman is rather stunted,” she frowned. “I really can’t imagine what he had in mind. I’m sure he did not have a prank in mind. A tall one and a short one, eh? That would be like him, from what I have heard. Japes and high-jinks. Do you think that was his plan?”
“I would not imagine so, Ma’am.”
“But who would?” said Mrs Halfstairs. “Who would imagine what the gentleman ever had in his mind?”
Jack Maggs sensed, even before Mrs Halfstairs pulled the bell, that he was to be employed. She put down her quill, clasped her little hands, and gazed at his sturdy legs with undisguised satisfaction.
“Maggs,” she murmured to herself.
When Mercy Larkin answered the bell Mrs Halfstairs did not allow herself to be distracted from her contemplation of the applicant’s anatomy.
“Fetch Constable,” she said.
“I think Mr Constable is still indisposed.”
“Fetch him,” said Mrs Halfstairs, “immediately.” Then, returning to Jack Maggs, she offered the following appraisal: “My impression is, you are five foot eleven and a half inches tall, and with your hair soaped and powdered, it will raise you to six feet. There is nothing more calculated to ruin a carriage or a dinner table than mismatched footmen. Where is that fellow?”
No sooner had the question been asked than the low door opened and a man of most unfootmanlike appearance entered the room. His hair was wild, his eyes red, his wide high cheekbones coloured with what appeared to be ashes. He was dressed in breeches and braces and a white shirt which–being unbuttoned at the neck, and flowing at the tail–gave him a wretched and tormented appearance. When he saw Jack Maggs he bestowed upon him a look of intense malevolence. “Back to back,” said Mrs Halfstairs.
It was not clear to the applicant what the little woman meant, but the wild man with the blackened face seemed to understand for, with an obedience that belied his wild expression, he turned his back and stood erect.
“Bookends,” said Mrs Halfstairs. “Bookends, if you please Mr Maggs.” It took a moment to get her meaning, but then he saw it: he was to stand back-to-back with Constable.
When the humiliating little act was duly performed, it produced in Mrs Halfstairs an almost touching degree of satisfaction.
“Oh my goodness,” she said as she surveyed them. “Oh my goodness dearie me.” Her round, small face was stretched tight by a smile which displayed, for the first time, very short lower teeth of quite remarkable regularity.
Behind his back, Jack heard Constable sniff.
“Very good,” said Mrs Halfstairs. “Very good indeed. Mr Spinks will indeed be pleased, as will our master.” She took up the quill and, dipping it in the ink-well, composed a few lines. Having blotted them carefully, and sealed them in a long thin envelope with all the formality one might expect in issuing an invitation to a ball, she instructed the applicant to deliver the missive to the butler, Mr Spinks, and to remind that gentleman that the new man would need to be “kitted out” for the dinner that evening.
Jack Maggs ascended the tight little stairs to the kitchen, knowing himself to be hired without the bother of having forged a reference. As for what transpired between Mrs Halfstairs and Mr Constable in his absence, he heard only the very beginning of their conversation.
“Enough, Edward. We cannot have another day of this.”
This was followed by the sound of Mr Constable weeping.
Excerpted from Jack Maggs by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.