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For some years now, the gentlemen of the book trade have pressed me in the most urgent fashion to commit my memoirs to paper; for, these men have argued, there are many who would gladly pay a few shillings to learn of the true and surprising adventures of my life. While it has been my practice to dismiss this idea with a casual wave of the hand, I cannot claim to have never seriously thought on it, for I have often been the first to congratulate myself on having seen and experienced so much, and many times have I gladly shared my stories with good company around a cleared dinner table. Nevertheless, there is a difference between tales told over a late-night bottle of claret and a book that any man anywhere can pick up and examine. Certainly I have taken pleasure from the idea of recounting my history, but I have also recognized that to publish would be a ticklish endeavor-the names and specifics of my adventures would touch nearly on so many people still living that any such book would be actionable to say the least. Yet the idea has intrigued-even plagued me, no doubt due to the vanity that breeds within all men's breasts, and perhaps within mine more than most. I have therefore decided to write this book as I see fit. If the gentlemen of Grub Street wish to dash out names of obscure connections, then they may do so. For my part, I shall retain the manuscript so that there can be some true record of these events, if not for this age, then for posterity.
I have been at some pains to decide how to begin, for I have seen many things of interest to the general public. Shall I begin like the novelists, with my birth, or like the poets, in the midst of the action? Perhaps neither. I think I shall begin my tale with the day-now more than thirty-five years ago-when I met William Balfour, for it is the matter regarding his father's death that brought me some small measure of success and recognition with the public. Until now, however, few men have known the whole truth behind that affair.
Mr. Balfour first called on me late one morning in October of 1719, a year of much turmoil upon this island-the nation lived in constant fear of the French and their support for the heir to the deposed King James, whose Jacobitical followers threatened continually to retake the British monarchy. Our German King was but four years upon the throne, and the power struggles within his ministry created a feeling of chaos throughout the capital. All the newspapers decried the burden of the nation's debt, which they said could never be paid, but that debt showed no sign of decreasing. This era was one of exuberance as well as turmoil, doom, and possibility. It was a fine time for a man whose livelihood depended upon crime and confusion.
Matters of national politics held little interest for me, however, and the only debt I cared for was my own. And the day I begin my tale I had even more pressing cares than my precarious finances. I had been long awake, but only recently out of bed and dressed, when my landlady, Mrs. Garrison, informed me that there was a Christian gentleman below who wished to see me. My good landlady always felt the need to specify that it was a Christian gentleman come to visit, though in the months I had resided with her, no Jew but myself had ever entered her premises.
That morning I found myself disordered and in no condition to receive visitors, let alone strangers, so I asked Mrs. Garrison to send him away, but in her intrepid manner-for Mrs. Garrison was a stalwart creature she returned, informing me that the gentleman's business was urgent. "He says it relates to a murder," she told me in the same dull tone she used to announce increases in my rent. Her pallid and beveined face hardened to show her displeasure. "That's what he said-murder-plain as anything. I cannot say it pleases me, Mr. Weaver, to have men come to my house talking of murder."
I could not fully comprehend why, if the word was so distasteful to her ears, she should pronounce it quite so loudly within the halls, but I saw my task was to comfort her. "I quite understand, madam. The gentleman surely said 'mercer' and not 'murder,'" I lied, "for I am engaged in a concern of textiles at this moment. Please send him up."
The word murder had caught my attention as well as Mrs. Garrison's. Having been involved in a murder of sorts not twelve hours earlier, I thought this matter might concern me indeed. This Balfour would certainly be a scavenger of some kind-the sort of desperate renegade with which London seethed, a creature who combed the dank and filthy streets near the river, hunting for anything he might pawn, including information. No doubt he had heard something of the unfortunate adventure with which I had met and had come to ask me to pay for his silence. I knew well how to dispose of a man of this stripe. Not with money, certainly, for to give a rascal any silver at all was to encourage him to return for more. No, I had found that in these cases violence usually did my business. I would think of something bloodless-something that would not attract Mrs. Garrison's attention when I escorted the blackguard out. A woman with no taste for the talk of murder under her roof should hardly countenance an act of mutilation paraded down her staircase.
I took a moment to order my receiving room, as I called it. I took two rooms of Mrs. Garrison, one private, the other in which I conducted my business. Like many businessmen-for so I fancied myself, even then-I had been used to order my affairs in a local coffeehouse, but the delicate nature of my work had made such public venues unacceptable to the men I served. Instead, I had set up a room with several comfortable chairs, a table around which to sit, and a handsome set of shelves that I used to store wine and cheese rather than the books for which they were designed. Mrs. Garrison had done the decorating, and while she had given the room an inappropriately cheery tone with its pinkish-white paint and light blue curtains, I found that a few swords and martial prints about the walls helped to add a sufficiently manly corrective.
I took pride in these rooms being so very proper, for the genteel tone put the gentlemen who came to seek my services at ease. My trade frequently involved the unsavory, and gentlemen, I had learned, preferred the illusion that they dealt in simple business-nothing more.
I should like to add, though I risk accusations of vanity, I took pride in my own appearance as well. I had escaped my years as a pugilist with few of the badges that gave fellow-veterans of the ring the appearance of ruffians-missing eyes, mashed noses, or suchlike disfigurements-and had no more to show for my beatings than some small scars about my face and a nose that bore only the mild bumps and jagged edges that come with several breakings. Indeed, I fancied myself a well-enough-looking man, and I made a point of always dressing neatly, if modestly. I wore upon my body only clean shirts, and none of my coats and waistcoats were more than a year old. Yet, though I minded my clothing, I was none of your sprightly popinjays who wore the latest bright colors and frills; a man of my trade always prefers simple fashions that draw to himself no particular attention.
I seated myself at my large oaken writing desk, which faced the door. I used this desk when I ordered my affairs, but I had discovered that it served to make clear my authority. I thus picked up a pen and contorted the muscles in my face to resemble something like a man both busy and irritated.
When Mrs. Garrison showed this visitor in, however, I was at pains to conceal my surprise. William Balfour was no prig-as we called thieves in those days-but a gentleman of fine dress and appearance. He was perhaps five years younger than myself. I gauged him at two- or three-and twenty. He was a tall, gaunt, stooped man with something of a sunken look on a wide, handsome face that was only slightly marred by the scars of smallpox. He wore a wig of the first quality, but it showed its age and wear in its stains and a dingy sallow color poorly hidden by powder. Similarly, his clothes bore the signs of fine tailoring, but they looked a bit overused, covered with the dust of road and panic and cheap lodgings. His waistcoat in particular, once laced with fine silver stuff, was now tattered and threadbare. There was, too, something in his eyes. I could not tell if it was suspicion or fatigue or defeat, and he observed me with a skepticism to which I was all too accustomed. Most men who walk through that door, you understand, had a look prepared for me-scorn, doubt, superiority. A few even had admiration. Men of this last category had seen me in my prime as a pugilist, and their love of sport overcame their embarrassment at seeking the aid of a Jew who meddled in other men's unpleasantries. This Balfour looked at me as neither Jew nor pugilist, but as something else-something of no consequence whatsoever, almost as though I were the servant who should take him to the man he sought.
"Sir," I said, standing up as Mrs. Garrison closed the door behind her. I gave Balfour a short bow, which he returned with a wooden resignation. After offering him a seat before my desk, I returned to my chair and informed him I awaited his commands.
He hesitated before stating his business, taking a moment to study my features-I should say gawk at my features, for he regarded me as more spectacle than man. His eye roamed with clear disapproval at my face and clothing (though both were cleaner and neater than his own), and squinted at my hair; for, unlike a proper gentleman, I wore no peruke, and instead pulled my locks back in the style of a tie-periwig.
"You, I presume, are Benjamin Weaver," he began at last in a voice that cracked with uncertainty. He hardly noticed my nod of acknowledgment. "I come on a serious matter. I am not pleased to be forced to seek your peculiar skills, but I require the assistance that only a man such as yourself can provide." He shifted uneasily in his chair, and I wondered if Mr. Balfour was not what he claimed-if he were perhaps a man of a much lower order than he affected, masquerading as a gentleman. There was, after all, the murder he had spoken of to Mrs. Garrison, but I now could not but wonder if the murder he mentioned was the one that so plagued my own thoughts.
"I hope I am able to be of some assistance to you," I said, with practiced civility. I laid down my pen and cocked my head slightly to show him that I put my full attention at his disposal.
His hands shook distractingly while he studied his fingernails with unconvincing indifference. ìYes, it is an unpleasant business, so I am sure you are quite equal to the task."
I offered him a brief bow from my chair and told him he was too kind or some other like platitude, but he hardly noticed what I said. Despite his attempts to perform a sort of fashionable lassitude, he appeared for all the world like a man on the brink of choking, as though his collar tightened about his throat. He bit his lip. He looked about the room, eyes darting here and there.
"Sir," I said, "you will forgive me if I note that you appear a little discomposed. Can I offer you a glass of port?"
My words all but slapped him in the face, and he collected himself once again to the posture of an insouciant buck. "I must imagine that there are less presumptuous ways for you to inquire into a gentleman's distresses. Nevertheless, I shall take a drink of whatever quality you have upon you."
It was not out of deference that I allowed Balfour to insult me freely. Once I had established myself in my trade, it took no great amount of time to learn that men of birth or standing had a profound need to demonstrate their superiority-not to the man they hired to meddle in their private business, but to the business itself. I could not take Balfour's freedoms personally, for they were not directed at me. I also knew that once I had effectively served such a man, the memory of his discourteous behavior often inspired him to pay promptly and to recommend my skills to his acquaintances. I therefore tossed off Mr. Balfour's insults as a bear tosses off the dogs sent to bait it in Hockley-in-the-Hole. I poured his wine and returned to my desk.
He took a sip. "I am not discomposed," he assured me. If the quality of my drink pleasantly surprised my guest, as I expected it should, he thought this fact not worth mentioning. "I am certainly tired from a poor night's rest, and indeed"-he paused to look at me pointedly-"I am in mourning for my father, who died not two months ago."
I offered my apologies and then surprised myself by telling him that I too had recently lost a father.
Balfour astonished me in return by telling me that he knew of my father's death. "Your father, sir, and my own were acquaintances. They did business together, you know, at times when my father had the need to call on a man of your father's ... sort."
I would like to believe that I showed no surprise, but I doubt it was so. My given name is not Weaver, but Lienzo. Few men were familiar with my true name, so I could not have anticipated that this man would know the identity of my father. I wished to know more about what Balfour knew of me, but my stubbornness intervened, and I asked no questions. I only nodded slowly.
I was now thoroughly confused as to what this man wanted, for it was perfectly plain that he had not come regarding my unfortunate affair of the previous night. As I mulled over my many uncertainties, it occurred to me that I vaguely recalled Balfour's father. I remembered hearing my father speak of him-he had said only good things of the man, for they had been closer, I think, than simple acquaintances, though to call them friends would have been exaggerating the possibilities of their interaction. I remembered Balfour's father, where I might have forgotten the numerous other men with whom my own father did business, for it was unusual for him to have been on such familiar terms with a Christian gentleman. I had not recalled, however, my father's association with this man when I read in the papers of Michael Balfour's self-murder. He had been a wealthy merchant, and, like many men of business who took risks, he had suffered drastic financial reversals. His particular reversals had been severe; he had lost more than everything on a series of bad ventures, and unable to face his creditors with his insolvency, or his family with the shame of his ruin, he had hanged himself in his stables. This act he had committed not twenty-four hours before my father's own death.
"Is it then through your father that you learned of my services?" I asked Balfour. It was an irrelevant question-at least to Mr. Balfour's concerns. I wished to know if my father had spoken of me-indeed if he had spoken approvingly of me-to his colleagues and business associates. Much to my own astonishment, I felt myself hoping that Balfour had knowledge that my father had, in some way, respected the life I had made for myself.
Balfour quickly disabused me of these fictions. "The recommendation comes not so directly. I had certainly heard your name in the past-in the same connotation, you understand, as one hears of ropedancers and raree-shows and that sort of thing-but recently I found myself in a coffeehouse, when I heard a gentleman mention your name. A friend of his, a Sir Owen Nettleton, had engaged you in a matter of business and believed you to be competent-a rating of sufficient merit in this age. I then conceived of the idea that your services might be of some use to me."
I often marveled that London, for so enormous a city, is sometimes astonishingly small. Among countless thousands, these kinds of interactions occur almost daily, for men of like nature and like concerns congregated inevitably at the same clubs and taverns and coffeehouse and tea gardens. I had indeed served Sir Owen Nettleton, and his concerns very much occupied my thoughts that morning, but I shall discuss more of him below.
Balfour finished his port with a mighty gulp and looked straight into my eyes with an intensity that suggested a mustering of forces. "Mr. Weaver, I shall be direct with you. My father, sir, was murdered. I believe by the same person or persons who murdered your father."
I could not even think how to react. My father had been killed certainly, but not murdered, some two months earlier-a drunken coachman had run him down as he crossed Threadneedle Street. The business had been shrouded with a kind of uncertainty. How reckless had the coachman been? Had my father stepped blindly in his way? Could it have been avoided? All answerless questions, the magistrate determined. The coachman, while negligent, had acted without malicious intention, and could have had no reason to want to do harm to my father. The same act perpetrated against an earl or a Parliamentarian might have earned the coachman, at the very least, seven years of transportation to the colonies, but the careless trampling of a Jewish stock-jobber was hardly a matter over which to unfurl the full majesty of the law. The magistrate released the coachman with a stern warning, and that had proved the legal end of the matter.
At that time I had not spoken to my father for close to ten years. I knew nearly nothing of his affairs, and it had hardly occurred to me that his death might have been anything as horrid as murder. This thought had, however, occurred to my father's kinsman, my Uncle Miguel, who had written to inform me of his suspicions. I blush to own I rewarded his efforts to seek my opinion with only a formal reply in which I dismissed his ideas as nonsensical. I did so in part because I did not wish to involve myself with my family and in part because I knew that my uncle, for reasons that eluded me, had loved my father and could not accept the senselessness of so random a death. Yet now, once again, I was confronted with the suggestion that my father had been the victim of a malicious crime, and once again I found that my self-imposed exile from my family made me wish to disbelieve it.
I forced my face to conform to the rigid angles of impartiality. "My father's death was an unfortunate accident." Balfour knew more about my family than I knew about his, and I saw that as a disadvantage, so, already in an agitated state of mind, I proceeded at the slowest of paces. ìAnd if I may be so indelicate, the papers reported your father's death as something other than murder."
Balfour held up his hand, as though the idea of self-murder might be ordered away. I know what the papers reported," he snapped, spittle flying from his mouth, "and I know what the coroner said, yet I promise you something is amiss here. At the time of my father's death, his estate was revealed to be quite broken, yet only weeks before he told me himself that he had been profiting in his speculation, taking advantage of the fluctuation in the markets caused by the rivalries between the Bank of England and the South Sea Company. I had no desire to see him meddling in the affairs of 'Change Alley, buying and selling stocks in the manner of-well, in the manner of your people, Weaver-but he believed there were ample opportunities for a man who kept his wits about him. So how can it be that his finances were so"-he paused briefly to choose his terms-"ill ordered. Do you think it any coincidence that both our fathers, very rich men of acquaintance, should have died suddenly and mysteriously within the span of a single day, and my father's holdings reveal themselves to be in chaos?"
As he spoke, Balfour's face revealed no small number of passions: indignity, disgust, discomfort, even, I believe, shame. I thought it passing strange that a man out to expose so terrible a crime displayed no attitudes of outrage.
The claims he made, however, sparked within me an agitation, which I sought to contain by setting my mind to the facts before me. "What you present does not offer any kind of evidence of murder," I said after a moment. "I cannot see how you have reached this conclusion."
"My father's death was made to look like self-murder so that a villain or villains could take his money with impunity," he pronounced, as though he unveiled a discovery of natural philosophy.
"You believe his estate to have been robbed, and your father to have been murdered to hide this robbery?"
"In a word, sir, yes. That is what I believe." Balfour's features settled, for a brief moment, into a look of languid contentment. Then he eyed his empty wineglass with nervous longing. I obliged him by refilling.
I paced about the room, despite the distracting ache of an old wound in my leg-a wound that had ended my days as a pugilist. "What is the connection between these deaths, then, sir? My father's estate is solvent."
"But is anything missing? Do you even know, sir?"
I did not, so I ignored what I considered a presumptuous question. "It is in your best interest that I be blunt. Your father has died recently, under terrible conditions, and unable to leave a legacy. You have grown up with the expectation of wealth and privilege, with every reason to believe you would live a gentleman's life of ease. Now you find your dreams dashed, and you look for ways to believe it is not so."
Balfour reddened dramatically. I suspect he was unused to challenges, particularly challenges from men such as myself. "I resent your words, Weaver. My family may be under disabilities at this moment, but you would do well to remember that I am a gentleman born."
"As I am," I said, looking directly into his reddish eyes. It was a harsh blow. His family was an upstart, and he knew it. He had earned that most ambiguous title of gentleman through his father's aggressive dealings as a tobacco merchant, not through the majesty of his bloodlines. Indeed, I recalled that old Balfour had made a bit of a stir among the more established tobacco merchants by angering the men he hired to unload his vessels. Dock laborers have, by custom, always been given scant wages, and they have evened out their earnings through a kind of quiet redistribution of the goods they handled. For vessels carrying tobacco, the process is known as "socking"; the laborers merely plunge their hands into the bales of tobacco, sock away as much as they can hold and then resell it on their own. True enough it was a kind of sanctioned theft, but years ago tobacco merchants had realized that their porters were helping themselves to the cargo, so they simply cut the wages and looked the other way.
Old Balfour, however, had taken the unhappy step of hiring men to inspect the workers and make sure no one socked his goods, but he refused to raise wages proportionately. The laborers had grown violent, smashing open several bales of sot weed and boldly liberating its contents. Old Balfour only relented once his brother merchants convinced him that to pursue this mad course was to risk riot and destruction of all their trades.
That this merchant's son should assert that his was an old family was patently absurd-it was not even an old trading family. And while in those days there was, as there is now, something decidedly English about a wealthy merchant, it was a relatively new and uncertain assertion that the son of such a man could claim the status of gentleman. My declaration that our families were of a piece sent him into a kind of fit. He blinked as though trying to dispel a vision, and twitched irritably until he regained himself.
"I think it no coincidence that my father's killers made his death appear self-murder, for it makes all ashamed to discuss it. But I am not ashamed. You think me now penniless, and you think I come to you begging for your help like a pauper, but you know nothing of me. I shall pay you twenty pounds to look into this matter for one week." He paused so I might have time to reflect on so large a sum. "That I should have to pay you anything to uncover the truth behind your own father's murder is the more shame for you, but I cannot answer for your sentiments."
I studied his face, looking for signs of I'm not sure what-deceit, self-doubt, fear? I saw only an anxious determination. I no longer questioned that he was who he claimed to be. He was an unpleasant man; I knew that I disliked him immensely, and I was certain that he felt no love for me, yet I could not deny my interest in what he claimed about my father's death. "Mr. Balfour, did anyone see what you claim to be this falsification of self-murder?"
He waved his hands in the air to demonstrate the foolishness of my question. "I do not know that anyone did."
I pressed on. "Have you heard talk, sir?"
He stared at me in astonishment, as though I had spoken gibberish. "From whom would I? Do you think me the sort to correspond with men who would talk of such things?"
I sighed. "Then I am confused. How can I find the man who committed a crime if you have no witnesses and no contacts? Into what, precisely, am I to look?"
"I do not know your business, Weaver. It seems to me that you are being damnably obtuse. You have brought men to justice before-how you have done it then, you are to do it now."
I attempted a polite, and I admit, condescending smile. "When I have brought men to justice in the past, sir, it has been in instances wherein someone knew the villain's identity, and the task lay before me to locate him. Or perhaps there has been a crime in which the scoundrel is unknown, but witnesses saw that he had some very distinctive features-let us say a scar above his right eye and a missing thumb. With information of this nature, I can ask questions of the sort of people who might know this man and thus learn his name, his habits, and finally his whereabouts. But if the first step is your belief, what is the second step? Who are the right people to inquire of next?"
"I am shocked to hear of your methods, Weaver." He paused for a moment, perhaps to drive home his distaste. "I cannot tell you of second steps nor of which rascals are appropriate for you to speak with regarding my father's murder. Your business is your own, but I should think you would consider the matter of sufficient interest to take of me twenty pounds."
I was silent for some time. I wanted nothing so much as to send the man away, for I had always been willing to go considerable lengths to avoid contact with my family. Yet twenty pounds was no small amount to me, and while I dreaded the terrible day of reckoning, I knew I needed some external force to push me toward reestablishing contact with those who I had long neglected. And there was more: though I could not then have explained why, the idea of looking into a matter so opaque intrigued me, for it occurred to me that Balfour, despite the bluster with which he presented his notions, was right. Had there been a crime committed, it seemed only reasonable that it could be uncovered, and I liked the thought of what a success in an inquiry of this nature could do for my reputation.
îI expect soon another visitor," I said at last. ìAnd I am very busy." He started to speak, but I would not let him. I shall look into this matter, Mr. Balfour. How could I not? But I have not the time to look into this matter right away. If your father has been killed, then there must be some reason why. If it is theft, we must know more details of the theft. I wish you to go inquire as nearly as you can into his matters. Speak to his friends, relatives, employees, and whomever else you think might perhaps harbor some of the same suspicions. Let me know where I can find you, and in a few days time I shall call on you."
"For what shall I pay you, Weaver, if I am to do your work for you?"
My smile this time was less benign. "You are, of course, right. When I am at liberty, I shall speak to your father's family, friends, and employees. That they do not dismiss me, I shall be certain to tell them that you have sent me to ask questions of them. You might wish to inform them in advance to expect a Jew by the name of Weaver to inquire closely into family matters."
îI cannot have you bothering these people," he stammered. "Gad, to have you asking questions of my mother. . ."
"Then perhaps, as I suggested, you would like to look into this yourself. "
Balfour stood up, performing gentlemanly composure. I see you are a clever maneuverer. I shall make some discreet inquiries. But I expect to hear from you shortly."
I neither spoke nor moved, but Balfour took no notice, and within an instant he was gone from my rooms. For some time I remained motionless. I thought on what had transpired and what it might mean, and then I reached for the bottle of port.