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Clumsiness rather than cleverness marked the starting point. To put it another way, the discovery happened after two blunders.
It was New Year's Day, 1755, in the midst of Lord Montfort's dinner, when I stumbled first. The platter I was serving tipped and sent a pyramid of oranges madly spinning over the Turkey carpet. Puce with self-consciousness, I squatted to gather them up, threading my way between a forest of silk-stockinged and mahogany legs. But I needn't have worried; no one had noticed. They were ablaze with alarm at the cause of my slip -- a deafening gun blast that had rudely interrupted their party. It had reverberated through the building, a truly deafening noise, made more earsplitting perhaps by its unexpectedness; loud enough to make the door shudder and the glass in the window frames rattle; loud enough to ring in my ears several minutes afterwards.
The people assembled in that room cried out, pressing hands to their ears as if to ward off the penetrating sound, but none of them went straight to the nub of the matter. None asked the most obvious question. What had become of their host, Lord Montfort?
The gentlemen strode stiffly about the room or sat erect in their chairs. One (I know not whom, for I was still scrabbling on the floor at this juncture) cried out the only question to which the response was already evident. "What in God's name was that?"
"A gunshot, you say?"
"Aye, a gunshot..."
In her husband's absence, the mistress of this household, Lady Montfort, should perhaps have taken charge. Yet when the other ladies rose fluttering and squawking like startled pheasants put up by a beater, she seemed oblivious to her obligations. Cowed and silent, she turned a ring with her forefinger, her shoulders twitching with suppressed emotion.
In truth, though I was but a stranger here, I did not think her behavior peculiar. From the outset Horseheath Hall had struck me not only by its air of isolated seclusion -- I am well accustomed to city life, and found its remoteness unsettling -- but also by its singular character. This was my sixth day in the house; the longer I stayed the more my conviction grew that, for all its studied luxury, the mansion lacked some fundamental quality. Horseheath Hall was devoid of the essential warmth that fuses mere stone and bricks and floors and windows into an entity deserving of the name of home. Its elegant rooms were suffused with shadow. Gilded furnishings and damask draperies and ornaments did not fill the emptiness; nor did sunlight and fires ever warm it.
This oppressive chill seemed also to infect its inhabitants, and in particular its unhappy mistress. Elizabeth Montfort was but a young woman, of perhaps two and twenty years, yet there was no youthful gaiety about her, no liveliness, no freedom of expression or spirit. As far as I had observed, her habitual manner was one of suppressed anxiety and unusual agitation. Her complexion was wan, her face pinched, her eyes pale blue and rather prominent, which only added to her fretful expression. Over the past days, whenever I caught sight of her, whether penning a letter or stitching her embroidery or going listlessly about the house, it seemed to me she started, as if my appearance was somehow fearsome to her.
This evening that nervousness had worsened when her husband's temper grew markedly capricious. His final choleric outburst had caused all vestige of composure to desert her. When he stalked from the room her face turned parchment pale. Afterwards she sat clenching the tablecloth as if terrified to the depths of her soul that at any moment he might burst back and berate her again.
It was Lord Foley, senior guest at the present assembly, who swiftly took command. He instructed all servants to be sent in search of the source of the sound. When I lingered on (not regarding myself as a servant, I didn't feel obliged to follow his direction), my inertia was swiftly remarked; whereupon he clicked his fingers, furrowed his caterpillar brows, and ordered me away as curtly as one might command a dog to follow a scent.
Unable to refuse such a command, I bowed with suitable deference, then turned tail so swiftly I reckon I surprised him. But why dawdle when it was plain to me where to go? Naturally Lord Foley wasn't aware then who he was ordering about, that I was in a sense an impostor here, or that there was only one room in the house that concerned me. Lord Montfort's new library was where I headed.
From the threshold I looked in. The room was blacker than a mourner's coat, not a candle lit, only a blast of January cold, the sound of rattling panes and flapping cloth, and a yawning mouth of chimney where the fire should be. Unthinkingly, without a glimmer of dread, for I was a lusty one and twenty years and knew so little of the world that I could laugh at the indeterminate terrors it held, I retreated, took hold of a candlestick, and plunged back into the Stygian murk.
My flimsy light showed me it was no ghostly presence but an open window on the far side of the room that chilled the air and billowed the curtains. I began to cross the room, my intention being to reach the window and secure it before I ventured further. From the corner of my eye I could see the velvet-clad figure of Lord Foley now picking his way some distance behind me like a strange iridescent beetle. I located the great bookcase facing the windows and began to inch my way along it, with Lord Foley following on a few yards behind. Our lights threw feeble yellow stains over shipwrecked hulks of furniture. We walked forward slowly, footsteps clicking on the polished boards, twirling the candles about our heads as elegantly as dancers do at a summer entertainment in the Vauxhall Gardens.
I had taken scarcely half a dozen paces when my foot came down on an invisible object. I relinquished my grip on the bookcase and skidded forward, only to be halted by a further obstacle concealed in shadow. For the second time that night I staggered. The candle clattered to the ground and went out. An instant later I plummeted alongside it.
As I have said, fear had hitherto been a stranger to me. Until that moment. For as I recovered myself in the blackness and groped around waiting for Lord Foley to find me, I recognized its presence rising spontaneously like a fist in my gullet, dampening my armpits, prickling under my wig. Looking back, I believe I must have had some presentiment of danger. I knew in my marrow, even before I saw it, that something horrible awaited in the shadows.
"What happened, man?" demanded Lord Foley as he drew close.
"I can't see, my lord," said I, sitting up on the floor and rubbing my head. "My foot touched something and I tripped. If you would be so kind as to bring your light here, I will find out what it was..."
He lowered his light; I squinted through the jaundiced flame.
It was the body of a man. He lay spread-eagled against a painting, The Death of Icarus (of moderate quality, so Lord Foley later informed me), which had been propped against the bookcase ready for hanging.
I say "body," for it was apparent from his distressing condition that the man was dead. His head had slumped forward and was supported by rippling concentric circles of chin. A mess of gore, like maggots feasting in a plum, emanated from a circular wound in his temple. This stew of brain and blood and bone had matted his wig and formed a slimy trail merging with a trickle of saliva oozing from his lips. Stupefied and sickened by this scene, I sat rooted to the floor like an idiot. Even in its mutilated state I recognized the grotesque face with its bulbous pitted nose and thick fleshy lips, the corpulent body clad in silk and lace and velvet finery. It was my patron for the last few days, the owner of this estate, Lord Montfort. In life Lord Montfort's choleric humor and fondness for dissipation had reddened his jowls. In death his color was diminished. Beneath the rivulets of blood that emanated from his wound, once-florid flesh was now pallid and blotchy. How vividly I remember the unnatural hues illuminated by Foley's candle: the white of bone, powdered wig, starched cravat, against which lilac flesh and crimson gore glistened. As I looked I felt any vestige of youthful courage extinguished. Beads of perspiration bulged on my brow. I could hear my own heart palpitate within my breast. How long I stayed rooted thus I do not know, only that at length I became aware of the spindly figure of Lord Foley beside me. He crouched over Montfort, shaking his head incredulously, muttering to himself, "What is this? What is this? I cannot...cannot be the cause of it."
The emotion in his voice unfettered me. I raised my head in his direction. His candle was now on the floor, and its light cast a vast distorted silhouette of his profile on the ceiling above -- a jutting brow, a great hooked nose, a prominent chin -- and called to mind some monstrous gargoyle.
"I am sure you are not the cause of this, my lord," I replied, although I hadn't a notion to what he referred.
"What? Do you know whom you address? How can you conceive of what has happened here? You can have no knowledge of this. It is no business of yours."
His snappish tone should not have surprised me -- I was a member of the lower orders (even if I wasn't precisely the servant he believed me to be), and I had presumed to speak to him without the deference he expected. My face flamed at the crispness of his rebuke, but I understood his drift. He was an invited guest in this house, a noble one at that; I would be prudent to adopt a more subservient manner.
I murmured an apology and busied myself as best I could. I relit my candle, pushed back Montfort's head, and probed his neck for signs of life. His skin was already clammy from the bone-chilling air; there was no flicker of a pulse. By now my eyes had become more accustomed to the gloom, and I thought I discerned a lozenge of glistening black, about as long as my thumb, wedged between his fleshy jowls. I screwed up my eyes, pushed his head back again, this time at a slight angle, and leaned forward to examine his neck. Imagine then my surprise when I discovered that the black shape was not alone but one of several. Gingerly I touched one. It fell into my hand, pulsating and slimy, leaving a bead of garnet blood on Montfort's neck.
"Dear God!" I exclaimed, flicking my hand violently to dislodge it.
"What is it?" asked Lord Foley impatiently.
"There are leeches on him."
Scarcely had I uttered these words than a surge of nausea rose in my belly. I became feverishly hot within my costume, my head boiled beneath my wig, yet my face and hands grew cold and clammy as death itself. I began to shudder uncontrollably. This only doubled my distress. I was mortified to make such a pathetic display of myself before Lord Foley, and yet I was incapable of suppressing any of it. And at that moment a further discomforting thought occurred to me. The spectacle I made was no different from one I had witnessed, without comprehension, not five minutes earlier. I was reacting precisely as Elizabeth Montfort, wife of the unfortunate victim, had done when she first heard the gun blast.
Foley lit another light and brought it close. He stared unblinkingly at Montfort's neck. He saw the creatures I'd described, and his lip curled with scorn. "Come, come, man," he said, flaring the nostrils of his hawkish nose, "you are very squeamish. To be bled is a common enough occurrence -- a panacea for multiple ills."
I gulped a mouthful of air and swallowed deeply to stem the sickness that was growing stronger by the minute. "I am well aware of the benefits of bleeding, sir....Only the leeches took me by surprise. I had not expected them...in these...these...circumstances."
"I grant you they are unsightly," said Foley, bending low to study Montfort's neck, on which I could now detect half a dozen or more leeches were feasting, "but they are hardly the horror you make them." He glanced at me once more, steely-eyed, and must have read the queasiness in my face. "If you wish to retch, man, go quickly and do it from the window."
Groaning incomprehensible words of apology, I staggered across the room towards the open window. I stooped my head beneath the sash, slumped out over the sill, and the steamy contents of my stomach ejected to the ground below. Thank God I had my back to Foley and he was shielded from the worst of my degradation, though I knew he could hardly fail to hear my spittings and splutterings. The knowledge only compounded my torment. All the while my stomach was racked by spasms and disgorged itself, my mind was snarled in similar turmoil. This was the first body I had witnessed, and as I've said, until the moment I clapped my eyes on it I'd believed myself to be impervious to fear or squeamishness. Now I'd shown myself I'd no more pluck than a rabbit.
Foley displayed not a jot of interest in my plight. He continued his monologue while I vomited from the window, although I was too incapacitated to pay any attention to him until the worst of my seizure had subsided. Even when I listened more attentively, most of his words were no more than indistinct babble. The only phrase I caught quite clearly was this: "What is beyond my comprehension, however, is why he should choose to bleed himself during this evening's dinner."
The sound of the closing sash drew his attention back to me. I teetered towards him, sensing an arrow of disapproval let loose in my direction. All at once he addressed me directly. "In any case, as I've already told you, this is no business of yours. Indeed if there's an alien body in this room, I fancy it's not these creatures but you. Who the devil are you? For I swear I never saw you before."
"You are right, my lord," I conceded, gulping to dispel the acrid taint in my mouth. "We have never met until tonight. My name is Nathaniel Hopson, and I do not belong here at all."
I have long prided myself on the quickness of my fists and feet, yet the speed and violence of his reaction flabbergasted me. He gathered his brows to a black line and, placing his candle so close to my chin I fancied he might singe me, pressed my scalp back with his other hand and held it there. I felt my wig slip awry and tumble to the floor. Like a horse at market, I was being prodded and pulled, assessed for teeth and temperament. Yet Lord Foley had already made clear he expected me to be pliant, and I'd no desire to anger him unnecessarily, thus I could do nothing but submit. Eventually the unnerving examination was complete. He released my head and drew back. "Explain yourself, man. This is no time for puzzles or impudence, and besides I detest both."
I retrieved the fallen wig and held it in my hand. "Forgive me, my lord, I didn't intend to muddle you. I'm journeyman to Thomas Chippendale, cabinetmaker, of St. Martin's Lane, London."
Here I should explain, as I knew I must that night for Lord Foley (despite chattering teeth and queasiness still lurking in my belly), the unusual events that had brought me to Horseheath Hall. But first let me also set down something of the awkwardness of my predicament.
Until I stumbled upon the grisly scene I've just described, I'd led a carefree existence. I was born lucky, never troubled by the burden of choice that blights the lives of so many in our complicated modern age. My father was a kindly joiner, as was his father before him. I was his only child. There was never a question that I would not in some way follow him.
According to my mother, I was a gangling fledgling who unfolded from her womb like a bolt of cloth and never quite fitted my lanky proportions, always more limb than loveliness, more appetite than angel. For her part, my mother was a woman of powerful maternal disposition who demonstrated her affection in fondly administered scrubbings and scoldings. (A torn blue coat and a kidney pudding and pigeon pie eaten without her say-so are still emblazoned in my memory and on my rump.) My father was no less mindful of my well-being. By his account, I took to a saw and chisel as easily as I did to breathing and walking, although strangely, he used to say, it wasn't carpentry that was born in me but rather the reverse -- the urge to demolish things. Ever since a small boy, I'd a compulsion to unscrew, dismantle, break open, detach. He attributed this to the fact that once, while bathing me in the washing copper, my mother dropped me on my head on the kitchen flags. The sudden gush of water that accompanied me had knocked over a three-legged stool, which had fallen apart. For weeks afterwards I'd tried the legs on every other piece in the house to see if they too could be dismantled. When they could not, I took up a turnscrew and a chisel to assist me. My mother made valiant attempts to starve or scold or beat the inclination out of me, but she never succeeded. My father joined my mother in warming my behind, and when that failed he sought to distract me by teaching me joinery.
In vain did I try to explain to them my preoccupation was not idle vandalism; what drew me was what had gone into the creation of the outward appearance of any given object. My childish eye viewed every lock plate, drawer front, or clockface as a question. How did it turn? What made it operate? Why did it appear thus? I was full of queries, restless for answers, which I believed I'd secure only by inspecting the guts behind each exterior.
I was thirteen when my parents conceded defeat. My hunger for undoing had continued for years, despite reddened ears, bowls of water gruel, and hours of practice in mortise and tenons, the simplest method of joining two pieces of wood. Thus was I dispatched to London to be an apprentice to Thomas Chippendale, master in the craft of cabinetmaking. This was, I well knew, no punishment -- an honor rather. Thomas Chippendale was lately settled in St. Paul's Yard, in the heart of London's furniture trade, and ranked high among his fellow cabinetmakers.
Chippendale was a canny Yorkshireman whose reputation permitted him to pick and choose his apprentices as the rest of us select apples at market. He viewed his apprentices as inexpensive labor and a means to profit handsomely. Most masters required ©35 for their apprentices' indentures. Chippendale demanded my poor parents pay him ©42, a high sum which he claimed was entirely justified by his elevated position. They should understand, he said, that when the time came for me to set up in business, my links with Chippendale's august establishment would enhance my prestige and add to my earnings. Was it not just that this advantage should be reflected in his price? My parents could find no argument. Thus, in the belief they were doing their best for me, they scraped together the exorbitant sum and I embarked upon my new life.
I settled quickly to the city. Within a year or two I left off sweeping floors and carting wood and began to experiment with all manner of construction. I learned to fret and plane fragments of timber no larger than a butterfly's wing. As well as these skills I encountered the distractions of the back stairs and bedchamber. Thus challenged in both quarters, I learned to relish fabricating rather than destruction, to enjoy making caddies and dovetails and amour. Within seven years I had much to crow about. I was journeyman to a master by then the most esteemed in the city, whose newly opened premises in St. Martin's Lane drew gasps of amazement for their grandeur. In my professional capacity I called at the grandest mansions, which frequently led me to the company of the most alluring chambermaids, cooks, and lady's maids imaginable. In short, I enjoyed an existence as busy and lusty as any man.
As a journeyman I am accustomed to visiting fine saloons to hobnob with gentlemen of Lord Foley's caliber, though only on such subjects as the advantages of mahogany over oak, the appropriateness of a cabriole leg over a straight or a carved chair splat over a plain. Yet when it came to general conversation with the upper gentry, I was green as a toad. Herein lay my dilemma. How should I explain my involvement to Lord Foley? How much detail did he require? Should I be frank and open, or distant and brief? How in my present muddleheaded state was I to decide what was relevant and what unnecessary? Even while I wrestled with this concern, I knew I had little time to waste. Lord Foley had demonstrated he was a man of unpredictable temper. Thus, with little confidence in where my tongue would lead me, I hastened to begin.
The events that brought me to Horseheath Hall had started innocently enough, on Christmas Eve, in London.
I'd been out on important workshop business, returning in time to pass some moments in the arms of a fair, high-spirited upholsteress of my acquaintance, Molly Bullock. She was in the feather room filling mattresses in a blizzard of goosedown when I found her. No sooner had I kissed her lips and burrowed my hand in her petticoats than she giggled and spread her dimpled thighs to let me between them. A while later, Molly's mushroom softness still fresh in my mind and feathers still whirling about, the scrawny figure of a young messenger appeared amid the snowstorm. I was summoned immediately to go to the master.
I paused to stoop (I am taller than the longcase clock in the hallway) and examine myself first from one side then the other in a gothic looking glass (price ©1 15s 6d) conveniently positioned on the stair. I should say here I've learned the importance of a good suit only since I came to London. This isn't out of vanity -- I don't have the means to be showy -- but I've learned a well-cut coat and clean linens make amends for a grasshopper figure and a purse that's empty as often as my belly. In short, I dress as well as I am able to disguise my imperfections. Upholstery over horsehair stuffing, you might call it.
ardThat day I was clad with customary modishness: a brass-buttoned coat of blue broadcloth, a frilled shirt, knitted stockings (thanks to my mother's attentions), and in the crook of my arm, my three-cornered hat. I didn't much like what I saw. Like a room furnished with too many large pieces, everything about me looked overcrowded. I was born with arms longer, hands broader, a face more lopsided than anyone else I know. My nose is long and crooked; my lips so wide they skew when I smile; my eyes, neither blue nor gray, are set slanted in a sallowish complexion -- at the moment so heightened by my exertions with the luscious Molly I could have passed for a gypsy.
I peered closer to examine my most recent adornment, a crescent scar decorating my left brow. I touched its red surface gingerly, but today neither this nor any other of my asymmetric imperfections dampened my humor. They'd proved no deterrent to Molly, and I'll disclose here, it wasn't only she who'd elated me. I'd had another, earlier encounter of great promise, one which warmed me with anticipation every time I dwelled on it.
But was I not foolish? To dillydally while an urgent interview with my master awaited was to invite his wrath. A couple of stray feathers lingered on my shoulder. I picked them off, retied my hair smoothly, arranged my features in an expression that I intended to signal eager diligence, and thus, with no evidence of my preoccupations remaining, I entered my master's office.
Chippendale was at his desk drawing. His room was dark and cold with a musty smell that made me long to light a blazing fire or throw open the window. "Ah, Hopson, it is you," he observed, before returning to his page. The design -- one that had occupied him for several days -- was for a writing cabinet containing countless compartments and mechanisms to open, disclose, conceal, and reveal myriad surprises. I waited for some minutes, yet he said nothing.
I knew he was a man who used words sparingly, a dab hand at impressing his thoughts and wishes on those beneath him with no more than a silent gesture or a facial grimace. Somehow I had the feeling he expected me to speak, yet, unusually, I had no idea what I should say.
"The design progresses well, I trust, sir?"
He did not respond. Instead, placing his pen down, he turned his attention to the order book at his side and, with a vague twirl of his forefinger, signaled me to wait. Under the last week's date, the list of entries was inscribed in copperplate script; I knew them all, for it was one of my duties to record them.
For Richard Butler: to wainscot chamber for the housekeeper's room (©16); to supply a mahogany clothespress in two parts with shelves in the upper part, lined with paper and baize aprons (©5 6s), two new locks and repairing a lock and fixing them on a secretary and easing the drawers of same (©1 7s).
For Lord Arniston: a china shelf (©1 2s), a cheese box (©1 4s).
For Sir John Filmer: tassel and line for a bell (©5 17s), a large mahogany card table (©2 1s 2d), curtains with appurtenances for the dining parlor (©5 17s), a pair of large candlestands carved and painted white (©6 7s).
I watched him read. He sat bolt upright, from time to time sucking in his breath, swelling his chest in contentment whenever his eye flickered over a sizable commission. Drawings for dozens of such items were pinned in rows, like hunting trophies, on the walls around him. Yet his knuckles were clenched, his jaw taut. Something irked him. Had he discovered my liaison with Molly, or was there some error in the pages that had made him send for me?
A few minutes later, he snapped the book shut and addressed me as if we were in the midst of a discussion. "A design can contain all the novelties you choose, Hopson, but without the timber to fabricate it, it is no better than a piece of scenery at the playhouse."
Unsure where this was leading, I responded as cleverly as I could. "Indeed, sir, but without an ingenious mind to shape it, wood is only wood."
His brow fretted with annoyance. "I see you will waste my time with your foolishness and tell me nothing useful unless I interrogate you like a schoolmaster. Was the journey to the wood yards fruitful? What did you discover?"
The tightness in his voice made me curse myself for lingering with Molly. A recent survey of his sheds had confirmed a worrying dearth of exotic timber. To be sure, there were indigenous oaks and walnuts and fruitwoods and softwood, deals, balks, and boards in abundance, but these would no more satisfy his clientele than a duchess in need of a ball gown would be satisfied with a piece of cambric in place of damask or tiffany or brocade. Fashionable patrons clamored for mahogany, rosewood, ebony, or padauk. Therein lay his dilemma. Should his supplies dwindle, they might drift elsewhere with their custom, demolishing his reputation more speedily than a master cutter could slice a half-inch veneer. He had earlier dispatched me to the wood yards in search of new stock.
"Indeed I discovered much of interest. A new consignment has recently cleared customs. Mahogany from Cuba; ebony and rosewood as well."
Chippendale looked me up and down with granite eyes. Even at forty he was a well-made man, manicured and wigged as a gentleman. Only his contoured face, resembling a rock lashed for centuries by wind and rain, bespoke the struggles of his origins. "Alice Goodchild flourishes in her father's absence, I understand. But we must be wary or she will attempt to cheat us as her father did. Was it she who kept you?"
Blood rushed to the newly healed scar, which began to throb uncomfortably. "Forgive me, sir. I would have come sooner but presumed you were occupied." Before he could question the lameness of this excuse I hurried on. "As for Miss Goodchild, she struck me as an honest, plain-speaking tradeswoman. She assured me that no one else had yet received word of the consignment. She will grant us first choice should we agree terms within the next three days. But she'll allow us no longer. Seddon is clamoring for mahogany at any cost for Northumberland's library. No other ships are expected, and she says she'll be unflinching as to price."
Chippendale's tone sharpened at this mention of his rival. "Alice Goodchild does canny business; she cannot know for sure what ships will dock. But I will not have Seddon's scraps. He shall have mine. You may send word that I will call on her the day after Boxing Day."
"Shall I accompany you?"
Silence again. He surveyed me darkly, up and down. "How could you? You will not be here."
There was another interminable pause as he picked up his pen, dipped it in the inkpot, added a final curlicue to the cresting of his cabinet. From the downturn of his mouth, I judged the drawing brought him little satisfaction.
Rarely had I seen him as dismal as he seemed today. Was there some new unspoken sorrow in his life with which he had become burdened? Perhaps he was deserving of my solicitude. I knew him as well as any man, yet in truth I knew very little, for he kept himself hidden. Seven years' apprenticeship and a year as his journeyman had taught me only that he was frequently melancholic, always secretive, open only in his desire to maintain the ascendancy of his enterprise.
I responded more gently than before, in deference to what I honestly believed were his wounded spirits. "Forgive me, sir, I will do anything you ask of me. But I don't comprehend your meaning."
Chippendale was looking towards the window, staring morosely into the impenetrable dark, as if observing some demon only he could discern. He turned to face me, and I glimpsed a fleeting expression in his eyes that made me hastily reconsider my sympathy. I understood then it wasn't solicitude I should be feeling but trepidation. For in that instant I believe I discerned something ugly -- something cold and ruthless -- an unbending will that would never be crossed. A second later and the expression had vanished, to be replaced with his habitual authoritative aloofness. Had I imagined it all?
"The reason I sent for you, Nathaniel -- apart from discovering if you'd found me any wood -- was to inform you that I have decided that it will be you who will supervise the installation of Lord Montfort's library at Horseheath. It has been dispatched this week. You will follow it directly after Christmas."
I'd played no part in the Montfort commission. All I knew of it was that some nine months earlier Lord Montfort, a wealthy baron with an estate in Cambridgeshire and a fortune made in sugar plantations, had decided upon a furnishing scheme of astonishing extravagance for the library of his country seat. A fellow journeyman, my dearest friend, John Partridge, had been tasked to create the commission -- a bookcase of vast proportion, elaboration, and expense.
"Surely Partridge should go? He has worked on little else these past months. He should travel to Cambridge to put the finishing touches to what you must acknowledge to be his finest masterpiece," I said fiercely.
"Partridge has been absent a week."
"He will return." I had been aware of my friend's absence, and indeed I was concerned about it, for I had heard no explanation.
Chippendale glowered at me. "I have today received word he is stricken with a virulent distemper. Montfort is determined to have his library in time for the New Year festivities and cannot be offended."
"If you explained the situation to him..."
"He is not a man to view such impediments with sympathy. You will leave on Boxing Day by the six-fifteen carriage from the Bell Savage Inn, Ludgate Hill. Your allowance while you are there will be the usual guinea a week, to be paid by Montfort. That is all, Hopson."
His mouth was a ruled line that forbade further argument. There was nothing I could say to shift him. I might have spent seven years learning my craft, but I was his employee, and as such bound to subservience. If I chose to disobey him, there were scores of other journeymen cabinetmakers as able as I who would willingly take my place. Without waiting for my reply, he gave me a brusque nod of dismissal. Then he buttoned his black coat and went in search of his wife and his supper.
Left behind, I drummed my fingers on the candle box, struggling to contain my frustrations. How could he have failed to see that I was in a fever of excitement? The answer, of course, I realized well enough. Even if he had known, he wouldn't have cared any more than if he'd trampled on a wood louse.
Let me make my agitation properly clear. It concerned the aforementioned Alice Goodchild, who'd taken charge of her father's wood-merchant business a year ago. I'd often remarked her striking figure on the dockside when cargoes of wood were unloaded, yet until today I'd never had cause to address her, for Chippendale doubted her father's honesty and refused to deal with him. I should say here that I'm not usually reticent in such matters, but Alice was unlike anyone who'd previously fanned my amorous flames (and I readily confess to generosity in several quarters). She was tall, almost to my shoulder, with bright auburn hair to match her fiery temper, and none of the curves that usually enchant me. Her chief drawback -- or was it this that drew me? -- was her reputation for awkwardness. I worried that if I declared my admiration she might scoff, as I'd seen her do on several occasions when offered an unwelcome compliment. She might then grow cold, avoiding my presence thereafter. I'm not timid when it comes to making advances, but neither am I so foolish as to go courting humiliation. And yet, with the swagger of one who's enjoyed more successes than failures, I trusted she would succumb to my charm, provided I picked my moment carefully.
As I said, I knew that Chippendale avoided dealings with the Goodchild yard because he deemed them dishonest, and yet when he sent me in search of wood, I reasoned there was little purpose in trying the usual suppliers and decided to take myself there. In truth (though I barely acknowledged this to myself) it was Alice, not her wood, that drew me. But all the while I made my way to her premises my apprehensions mounted. By the time I tried the gates to the front of the building in the Strand and discovered them to be locked, my courage had begun to ebb. When I entered an alley leading to the yard behind, I had determined to concentrate first on the business in hand, and to assess my chances in the other direction as I went along.
Light spilled from a window of a modest Dutch-gabled cottage bordering the far limit of the yard. I knocked at the door and was instructed to enter. In a small, low-ceilinged, astonishingly disorderly front parlor, Alice Goodchild sat on one side of an oak gateleg table, with her account books open. Opposite, busily conjugating Latin verbs, was a young boy. A bright fire burned in the grate, and a smoky tallow candle bathed their faces in a halo of yellow, shrouding much of the chaotic room in sympathetic shade. Nonetheless I could vaguely discern that all about the walls were heaped up piles of ledgers and papers, jumbled together with a broken chair, a pewter kettle, assorted pieces of crockery, and a couple of unlit candlesticks. A pungent smell of burning seemed to emanate from the open door leading to the kitchen.
"Forgive me for calling here, Miss Goodchild," I said, bowing to her. "I had thought to find you at the yard."
She looked a little startled to see me in her private abode, yet she did not ask my business. "Good afternoon, Mr. Hopson. The yard is closed early since my foreman has journeyed home to his family for Christmas" was all she said.
"I should not have called....I see you are engaged." I gestured to the table piled high with papers.
"As you see, I have my books to occupy me." She paused for a moment, glancing into the shadows to the muddle of papers, crockery, and books, before adding with a distracted smile, "My apologies for receiving you thus. My brother and I rarely keep company and, as to the smell, our supper has burned while I was about my figures."
I could not but reflect that the acrid stench and the jumble of papers cascading over every surface could do nothing to detract from the delightful effect of that fleeting smile. Her brown eyes shone warmly, and a few mahogany curls had escaped the cap confining them and fell about her face in attractive disarray. If she had been any other woman I would have made clear my sentiments -- complimented her, paid court to her -- but her reputation for sharpness kept me wary.
"You have no need to apologize, Miss Goodchild, it is a perfectly charming parlor," I responded courteously. "Perhaps I should return at some other more convenient time, for I come to discuss the possibility of supplies for Mr. Chippendale."
She seemed delighted at the opportunity to do business with my master, and assured me that indeed she did have some stock of interest. A new consignment from the Indies had recently cleared customs and would be ready for delivery the next day. Should I return in three days' time when the stores were reopened, she would gladly show them to me.
"I shall certainly return," I declared, struggling to retain an air of detachment. Discovering her thus in domestic surroundings seemed to have given me an advantage. I detected an unusual mellowness to her manner. Perhaps, after all, her reputation was exaggerated. Perhaps I should seize the opportunity to declare my interest? Before my indecision made a coward of me, I resolved to take my chances.
"May I also make another request?"
"Unless you make it I will not know its nature, therefore I can hardly refuse. What is it, Mr. Hopson?" she replied.
I dithered, realizing even as I did so that this was no time for shilly-shallying. "Why," I replied, as coolly as I could manage, "you have spoiled your supper and I venture your brother is in need of nourishment. Allow me to invite you to the Fountain, where the cook is reputed to be exceedingly good."
Immediately, and I fancied rather hungrily, her brother looked up from his exercises. Alice meanwhile took a step backwards and inspected me suspiciously. "You are most solicitous, Mr. Hopson. But my brother may rest assured there are provisions enough in the pantry to satisfy him and these books must be completed tonight."
Her brother, now downcast, returned to his exercises, and my heart began to sink. Then somewhat to my surprise she continued, "I hope I do not seem ungracious in my refusal....Perhaps you would care for a glass of wine?"
As an expert in feminine ways, I needed no further signal to pursue my cause. I waited as she searched in the shadows of the room for a glass and decanter, and cleared a space for me on the settle by the fire. "Have you visited the playhouse of late, Miss Goodchild?" I asked, as she deposited sheafs of papers in a pile on the floor.
"No, sir, I have much to keep me here as you see."
"Then would you, and your brother, do me the pleasure of accompanying me there on New Year's Day?"
Although her back was towards me, I could see her stiffen. She rose slowly and turned towards me with an expression of -- what? Astonishment? Indifference? Indignation? Then, to my astonishment, for I had never seen her lose her composure, she reddened most becomingly.
"I scarcely know how to respond, Mr. Hopson. We have never spoken before today. The speed of your invitations is remarkable."
"Forgive me," I said, still unsure of her sentiment, "I did not mean to presume..."
"I believe you did not, Mr. Hopson." Her voice was softer than usual, girlish almost. She paused and scrutinized me again before granting me another wisp of a smile. "I'm only teasing you. But if you are sincere in your offer, we accept with great pleasure."
"Do not doubt the sincerity of the offer, I beg you. And as to the pleasure, madam, it is all mine, I assure you," I replied, gallantly as any gentleman.
Thus had I sipped my wine as slowly as I could, enjoying her conversation for those fleeting moments before taking leave. Thus had I returned to my workplace, after my brief diversion with Molly. (I could think of no other way to alleviate the anticipation of passion sweeping through my veins.) And thus, when Chippendale commanded me to Cambridge, had my hopes been extinguished.
Copyright © 2002 by Janet Gleeson