Read an Excerpt
The sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory.Copyright 2002 by Philip Kerr
On Thursday, November the fifth, 1696, most people went to church. But I went to fight a duel.
Gunpowder Day was then a cause for Protestant celebration twice over: this had been the day, in 1605, when King James I had been delivered from a Roman Catholic plot to blow up the Parliament; and, in 1688, it had also been the day when the Prince of Orange had landed at Torbay to deliver the Church of England from the oppressive hand of another Stuart, the Catholic King James II. Many Gunpowder Day sermons were preached throughout the City, and I would have done well to have listened to one of them, for a little consideration of heavenly deliverance might have helped me to channel my anger against Papist tyranny instead of the man who had impugned my honour. But my blood was up and, my head being full of fighting, I and my second walked to the World's End Tavern in Knightsbridge where we had a slice of beef and a glass of Rhenish for breakfast, and thence to Hyde Park, to meet my opponent, Mister Shayer, who was already waiting with his own second.
Shayer was an ugly-looking fellow, whose tongue was too big for his mouth so that he lisped like a little child when he spoke, and I regarded him as I would have regarded a mad dog. I no longer remember what our dispute was about, except to say that I was a quarrelsome sort of young man and very likely there was fault on both sides.
No apologies were solicited and none proffered and straightaway all fourof us threw off our coats and fell to with swords. I had some skill with the weapon, having been trained by Mister Figg in the Oxford Road, but there was little or no finesse in this fight and, in truth, I made short work of the matter, wounding Shayer in the left pap which, being close to his heart, placed the poor fellow in mortal fear of his life, and me in fear of prosecution, for duelling was against the law since 1666. Most gentlemen fighting paid but little heed to the legal consequences of their actions; however, Mister Shayer and myself were both at Gray's Inn, acquainting ourselves with a tincture of English law, and our quarrel was quickly the cause of a scandal that obliged my leaving off a career at the Bar, permanently.
It was perhaps no great loss to the legal profession, for I had little interest in the Law; and even less aptitude, for I had only gone to the Bar to please my late father who always had a great respect for that profession. And yet what else could I have done? We were not a rich family, but not without some connections, either. My elder brother, Charles Ellis, who later became an MP, was then the under-secretary to William Lowndes, who was himself the Permanent Secretary to the First Lord of the Treasury. The Treasurer, until his recent resignation, had been Lord Godolphin. Several months later the King named as Godolphin's replacement the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Montagu, to whom Isaac Newton owed his appointment as Warden of the Royal Mint in May 1696.
My brother told me that until Newton's arrival in the position, there had been few if any duties that were attached to the Wardenship; and Newton had taken the position in expectation of receiving the emolument for not much work; but that the Great Recoinage had given the office a greater importance than hitherto it had enjoyed; and that Newton was obliged to be the principal agent of the coin's protection.
In truth it was sore in need of protecting for it had become much debased of late. The only true money of the realm was the silver coin-for there was little if ever much gold about-which constituted sixpences, shillings, half-crowns and crowns; but until the great and mechanised recoinage, mostly this was hand-struck with an ill-defined rim that lent itself to clipping or filing. Except for a parcel of coin struck after the Restoration, none of the coin in circulation was more recent than the Civil War, while a great quantity had been issued by Queen Elizabeth.
Fate took a hand to drive the coinage further out of order when, after William and Mary came to the throne, the price of gold and silver became greatly increased, so that there was much more than a shilling's worth of silver in a shilling. Or at least there ought to have been. A new-struck shilling weighed ninety-three grains, although with the price of silver increasing all the time it need only have weighed seventy-seven grains; and even more vexing was that with the coin so worn and thin, and rubbed with age, and clipped and filed, a shilling often weighed as little fifty grains. Because of this, people were inclined to hoard the new coin and refuse the old.
The Recoinage Act had passed through the Parliament in January 1696, although this only chafed the sore, the Parliament having been imprudent enough to damn the old money before ensuring that there existed sufficient supplies of the new. And throughout the summer-if that was what it was, the weather being so bad-money had remained in such short supply that tumults every day were feared. For without good money how were men to be paid, and how was bread to be bought? If all that was not subversion enough, to this sum of calamity was added the fraud of the bankers and the goldsmiths who, having got immense treasures by extortion, hoarded their bullion in expectation of its advancing in value. To say nothing of the banks that every day were set up, or failed, besides an intolerable amount of taxation on everything save female bodies and an honest, smiling countenance, of which there were few if any to be seen. Indeed there was such a want of public spirit anywhere that the Nation seemed to sink under so many calamities.
Much aware of my sudden need for a position and Doctor Newton's equally sudden need for a clerk, Charles prevailed upon Lord Montagu to consider advancing me in Newton's favour for employment, and this despite our not having the fondness which we used and ought to have as brothers. And by and by, it was arranged that I should go to Doctor Newton's house in Jermyn Street to recommend myself to him.
I remember the day well, for there was a hard frost and a report of more Catholic plots against the King, and a great search for Jacobites was already under way. But I do not remember that Newton's reputation had made much of an impression upon my young mind; for, unlike Newton, who was a Cambridge Professor, I was an Oxford man and, although I knew the classics, I could no more have disputed any general mathematical system, let alone one affecting the universe, than I could have discoursed upon the nature of a spectrum. I was aware only that Newton was, like Mister Locke and Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most learned men in England, although I could not have said why: cards were my reading then and pretty girls my scholarly pursuit-for I had studied women closely; and I was as skilled in the use of sword and pistol as some are with a sextant and a pair of dividers. In short, I was as ignorant as a jury unable to find a verdict. And yet, of late-especially since leaving my inn of court-my ignorance had begun to weigh upon me.
Jermyn Street was a recently completed and quite fashionable suburb of Westminster, with Newton's house toward the western and better end, close by St. James's Church. At eleven o'clock I presented myself at Doctor Newton's door, was admitted by a servant and ushered into a room with a good fire in it, where Newton sat awaiting my arrival upon a red chair with a red cushion and a red morocco-bound book. Newton did not wear a wig and I saw that his hair was grey but that his teeth were all his own and good for a man of his age. He wore a crimson shag gown trimmed with gold buttons and I also remember that he had a blister or issue upon his neck that troubled him a little. The room was all red, as if a smallpox victim did sometimes lie in it, for it is said that this colour draws out the infection. It was well furnished with several landscapes upon the red walls and a fine globe that occupied a whole corner by the window, as if this room was all the universe there was and he the god in it, for he struck me as a most wise-looking man. His nose was all bridge, as across the Tiber, and his eyes which were quiet in repose became as sharp as bodkins the minute his brow furrowed under the concentration of a thought or a question. His mouth looked fastidious, as if he lacked appetite and humour, and his dimpled chin was on the edge of finding itself joined by a twin. And when he spoke, he spoke with an accent I should incorrectly have supposed to be Norfolk but now know to have been Lincolnshire, for he was born near Grantham. That day I met him first he was just a month or so short of his fifty-fourth birthday.
"It is not my manner," he said, "to speak anything that is extraneous to my business. So let me come straight to the point, Mister Ellis. When I became Warden of His Majesty's Mint I little thought that my life should become taken up with the detection, pursuit and punishment of coiners, clippers and coun-
terfeiters. But that being my discovery, I wrote to the Treasury Committee to the effect that such matters were the proper province of the Solicitor General and that if it were possible, to let this cup pass from me. Their Lordships willed it otherwise, however, and therefore I must stand the course. Indeed, I have made this matter my own personal crusade, for if the Great Recoinage does not succeed, I fear that we shall lose this war with the French and the whole kingdom shall be undone. God knows I have, these past six months, in my own person done my full duty, I am sure. But the business of my taking these rascals is so great, there being so many of them, I find I have sore need of a clerk to assist me in my duties.
"But I want no truckle-head milksop in my service. God knows what disorders we may fall into and whether any violence may be done on this office or upon our persons, for coining being high treason carries the harshest penalty and these miscreants are a desperate lot. You look like a young man of spirit, sir. But speak up and recommend yourself."
"I do believe," I said nervously, because Newton sounded very like my own father who always expected the worse of me, and usually he was not disappointed, "that I should say something to you in reference to my education, sir. I have my degree from Oxford. And I have studied for the Law."
"Good, good," Newton said impatiently. "Likely you will need a quick pen. These mimming rogues are agile storytellers and provide such a quantity of deposition as would leave a man feeling in need of three hands. But let us have less modesty, sir. What of your other skills?"
I searched myself for an answer. What other skills did I possess? And finding myself at a loss for words, with little or nothing to commend myself further, I began to grimace and shake my head and shrug, and started to sweat like I was in the hot steam baths.
"Come, sir," insisted Newton. "Did you not pink a man with your rapier?"
"Yes sir," I stammered, angry with my brother for having apprised him of this awkward fact. For who else could have told him?
"Excellent." Newton knocked the table once as if keeping score. "And a keen shot, I see." Perceiving my puzzlement, he added, "Is that not a gunpowder-spot on your right hand?"
"Yes sir. And you're right. I shoot both carbine and pistol, tolerably well."
"But you are better with the pistol, I'll warrant."
"Did my brother tell you that, too?"
"No, Mister Ellis. Your own hand told me. A carbine would have left its mark on hand and face. But a pistol only upon the back of your hand, which did lead me to suppose that you have used a pistol with greater frequency."
"Well, that's a nice trick, sir. I am trumped."
"I have others here besides. Doubtless we shall have to visit many a kennel where your apparent fondness for the ladies may serve us good advantage. Women will sometimes tell a young man that which they would deny my older ears. I trust that your fondness for the dark-haired woman you were so recently with might permit such stratagems as would gain us information. Perhaps she was the one who did bring you the juniper ale."
"Well, if that isn't Pam," I proclaimed, quite trumped by this, for I had indeed embraced a wench with brown hair that very morning over breakfast at my local tavern. "How did you know she was dark? And that I had some juniper ale?"
"By virtue of the long dark hair that adorns your handsome ventre d'or waistcoat," explained Newton. "It proclaims her colouring just as surely as your conversation demonstrates your close acquaintance with the card table. We shall have need of that, too. As much as we shall have need of a man who likes his bottle. If I am not wrong, sir, that is red wine on your cuffs. No doubt you had a good deal of it to drink last night, which is why you were a little sick in your stomach this morning. And why you had need of some juniper ale for your gripes. The smell of that pungent oil in ale upon your breath is most unmistakable."
I heard myself gasp with astonishment that so much of me was plain to him, as if he could see into my mind and read my own thoughts.
"You make me sound the most consummate rakehell that was ever drawn to the gallows," I protested. "I know not what to say. I am quite outhuffed."
From the Hardcover edition.