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ASSISTANT to prominent enquiry agent. Typing and shorthand required. Some danger involved in performance of duties. Salary commensurate with ability. 7 Craig's Court.
So ran the advertisement in the "situations vacant" column of The Times for the fourth day straight. On the first day, a Monday, I had arrived early, but not early enough. A long queue of hopeful clerks was already spilling out into Whitehall Street. So many applicants were ahead of me, and so eminently more suitable did some of them appear, that after a quarter hour's turn I abandoned my place and went in search of more realistic prospects. The Tuesday advertisement was, I assumed, mere thoroughness on the part of the employer; at a shilling a line, he could afford to advertise for two days, though the position might be filled on the first. On Wednesday, I was intrigued, but my attention was drawn to a situation in Hammersmith for which I believed I might be better suited, one that didn't offer "some danger involved in performance of duties." But when the request appeared the fourth day, I exclaimed over the newspaper in the Reading Room of the British Museum and vowed to try my luck again. Like young Arthur standing before the Sword in the Stone, I assumed I couldn't fail worse than anyone else.
I set down my pasteboard suitcase on the pavement at the end of the queue and looked at the line of applicants. They seemed identical to the gentlemen from the first day. I am sure that many of them were better qualified than I, but none was as desperate. The cheap suitcase at my feet contained all that I owned in the world, all that was left that could not be pawned. That morning, I had abandoned the garret I occupied, several days in arrears of my rent, with but threepence to my name, which I squandered on a tin cup full of chalky coffee and one of the thick slices of bread and butter they call "doorsteps," at a stall in Covent Garden. This was to be my final day of hunting for a situation. If I was not gainfully employed by seven o'clock that evening, I planned to take one last look from atop Waterloo Bridge at the premier city in Christendom, then snuff this guttering candle with a long jump into the Thames. Truth be told, I almost wished for the release, for my shattered faith still clung to the belief that I might be reunited with my wife, dead now almost a year. It was a trade I would only too gladly make.
Although I did stand in line, pushing my suitcase forward every minute or two, my hopes were not sanguine. There is a look which comes into a prospective employer's eye when he glances through your references and comes across the words "Oxford Prison." It's not a happy look, but an interesting one: first the eyes pop open with astonishment; then the brows knit together in a solid scowl; finally one brow raises sardonically, as if wondering how you have the brass to go on breathing after such a disaster. There may be further ocular calisthenics, but I was usually out the door by that time, one step ahead of the boot. At first I had agonized over these dismissals, but lately I'd just grown bored with them. One can only go through so much eye popping before it begins to pall.
There was a high brick wall beside us, and unlike the other applicants, I took the opportunity to shelter myself from the cold March wind. Somewhere on the other side, I heard a sound, the soft, rhythmic slap of rubber on brick. Someone was practicing tennis, or a child was playing ball. I thought it bitterly ironic that not five feet away someone was enjoying his life, while I was so close to forfeiting my own. I was beyond the stage of anger, however, and merely prodded my suitcase forward another few inches, with the toe of my boot. As I reached the steps of the building, I noticed a dustbin off to the side. I felt it was an omen and tossed the suitcase into it. What need had I now for a few threadbare collars and some moldy books of poetry?
Finally, I squeezed my thin frame through the door, into a kind of waiting room. Inside, the applicants were seated in a row, across from a bored-looking fellow behind a desk, his face buried in the Police Gazette. He took my name and asked me to be seated, as if the request were a complaint. I had never been in the offices of a "prominent enquiry agent" before, but the room looked much like several antechambers of bureaucrats and barristers that I had visited in the area, during my long search for work. When I entered I felt a tension in the room beyond the mere suspense of waiting for an interview.
"This is a rum one, no mistake," an older applicant said to me in a low voice, as soon as I sat down in a newly vacated chair.
"Rum?" I asked. "How so?"
"His nibs here announces each candidate, who goes in through that yellow door there. Then they come out madder than a wet hornet. Some come out right away, some in five minutes, some ten, but each one acts like he's been horsewhipped. This fellow must be a regular tartar. It's no wonder he can't find someone to fill the post. If you can't stomach the interview, however will you get on with the situation itself?"
It was just as my neighbor had foretold. Each applicant went through the yellow door behind the desk with the fatalism of French noblemen going to the guillotine. Some were ejected immediately, indignant at being dismissed with a cursory glance. Others returned after a few minutes, with a scowl on their faces, and after a longer wait, one fellow stormed through the office amid a volley of curses and slammed the outer door, making us all jump. When it was my neighbor's turn, he tipped me a sly wink and sauntered in. After a few minutes he returned, favored us all with a bow, placed his silk hat atop his head, and walked out with a droll smile on his face.
"Llewelyn," the bored man behind the desk announced, consulting his list. It was my turn in the lion's den. I wiped my hands on my trousers, swallowed, and walked through the door.
The chamber I entered was well furnished and dominated by a large desk and chair. Bookshelves lined most of the walls, but the heavy tomes shared the space with vases, statues, and objets d'art, most of them oriental in style. As I came in, the tall chair swiveled around to face me, and its occupant stood and pointed to a place on the Persian carpet in front of the desk. I moved to the spot and stood.
My prospective employer came from behind the desk, without bothering to offer his hand, and began to walk in a slow, clockwise circle around me, as one does when considering a horse. The light streaming in from the bow window behind me served to illuminate any patches, repairs, or weaknesses in my apparel and boots. He came about in front of me, having completed his circuit, and I was prepared for my immediate dismissal. Instead, still silent, he began a second revolution, counterclockwise this time. I had a different sensation now, as if we were two boxers in a prize ring. I would not have been surprised if he had shied a blow at my head.
"You're a black little fellow," he said at last, in a deep, raspy voice. "Welsh, I take it?"
It was true, but I took offense anyway. I am not tall (the fellow was a head taller than I), and I do have the black hair and swarthy skin of my once great race, the true Celts of Britain, but I didn't care for the way he phrased it. I could see only too easily what had put so many of my competitors in a lather. I was desperate, however, and inured to hardship, and so I merely nodded.
He held out a hand, palm upward, and I gave him my entire history laid bare in print. I waited for the eye popping. Here it goes, I thought. I shall be out in the dustbin with my suitcase in ten seconds.
"Thomas Llewelyn. Read at Magdalen College, Oxford, in Classics, and at Oxford Castle, picking oakum," the man rumbled. Or was that a chuckle?
He walked around behind the desk again and, turning his chair away from me, he sat. That was it. I was dismissed. At least his eyes hadn't popped, or perhaps they had. I couldn't see them. I gathered the papers, which he had tossed on the desk, thinking the Thames must be cold this time of year.
"Describe me, Mr. Llewelyn." This came from the depths of the chair.
"I'm still speaking English, am I not? I haven't switched to Mandarin or Javanese, have I? I said, 'Describe me!' "
I marshaled my thoughts. "Yes, sir. You are about forty years of age, I believe, stand six foot two inches tall, and weigh about fifteen stone. You have a large mustache which extends down to your jawline and are wearing a pair of round, smoky spectacles with sidepieces. There is a scar dividing your right eyebrow. Your hair is black and combed to one side, the right side, I believe. Your face is pitted and seamed by what I assume was smallpox."
"Boils. Do not theorize. Continue."
"You are dressed in a dark gray morning coat, as I recall. Your trousers are striped in shades of gray, and your black pumps are highly polished. Oh, and your accent is Scottish, but it is not very thick. Lowland, perhaps."
I thought I had acquitted myself rather well, but the man turned his chair back to me without expression or remark. He reached into a desk drawer and slid a small notebook and pencil toward me.
"Take a letter, Mr. Llewelyn:
7 Craig's Court
13 March 1884
Mr. Wilhelm Koehler
Dear Mr. Koehler:
Have received your letter of the eleventh. My client has met with me regarding the conditions therein. I have encouraged him to publish the document in your possession, which he has reconstructed with my aid, and it shall appear in this evening's edition of the Standard. Any further attempts at blackmail shall be similarly declined. Should you feel it necessary to meet with my client in person, please be advised that he is now accompanied by Mr. James 'Bully Boy' Briggs, and that your face would no longer be your entrée into society's drawing rooms after such an encounter.
Your humble servant,
Cyrus Barker, etc."
Mr. Barker reached down behind the desk, and came up with a small typewriting machine in his hands, and placed it on the blotter. It was a Hammond and just new. He pulled back his large leather chair and offered me a seat in front of the machine. Typing and shorthand required, indeed.
"Paper?" I asked, as I sat down on the edge of the chair.
"First drawer left."
I put a piece of paper into the machine and began to type the letter he had dictated. I am not fast, but I am competent and careful. I made no mistakes. As I was typing his name at the bottom, Barker took an envelope from the drawer and placed it beside the machine. I pulled the freshly typed letter from the roller, returned the machine to its former place on the floor, and reached for the inkstand. He was testing my penmanship as well as getting some business done, not a bad trick with dozens of applicants. I set down the addresses in my best hand, then pulled open the middle drawer and retrieved a stamp, which, I admit it was luck, happened to be there. I licked the stamp and affixed it, then waited for my next instruction. Barker's brows disappeared in a frown beneath the disks, then he opened another drawer and removed a small sponge, which sat in a shallow dish of water there. He sealed the envelope and placed it on the right-hand corner of the desk. I noted that it was exactly half an inch from the front edge and the same distance from the side. Coupled with his scrupulously neat appearance, his fastidiousness made me think that he would make someone a most exacting employer.
Again, Barker made no comment but turned and opened a door on the opposite side of the chamber from the entrance, beckoning for me to follow. We walked down a rather featureless corridor of yellow doors until we came to the end. Barker opened the last and led me into a small, bare outdoor courtyard, surrounded by brick walls and covered in ancient paving stones. The icy March wind toyed with the dead leaves in the corners of the little square. He directed me to a bare wall, while he himself walked in the opposite direction, to where an open wicker basket stood against the brick. As I neared the wall, I recognized it as the other side of the one I had sheltered against while waiting to get in. I ducked just in time, as the first ball struck the wall an inch from my head.
He hadn't given me any instructions, but I assumed the object of Barker's little game was not to be struck by the ball. The basket was full of them, small, black spheres of hard India rubber, and I was determined not only that would I not be struck, but also that none would get by me. Barker proved himself a wicked hurler. I had been a competent goaltender on the football team in my village in Wales, and I caught or batted away every ball that came in my direction. Barker went through the entire basket. As I slapped what I assumed was the last one back at him, I saw one more missile coming my way. I was reaching for it when I realized it was not a ball at all. By the telltale glint of silver, it was a knife heading straight for my breast. I barely dodged out of the way as it flew past and struck the wall with a loud smack. It, too, was made of India rubber, cunningly painted.
We stood and looked at each other. I was breathing heavily, creating clouds of vapor in the cold spring air. Barker did not appear to be taxed in any way by his exertions and stood immobile, contemplating me. For a moment, I thought of repeating the words of the angry applicant who had slammed the door, with a few choice ones of my own thrown in. I mastered myself, however, and said, "I presume you shall inform me when the situation is filled. Good morning, sir." Then, with as much dignity as my five-foot-four-inch frame could muster, I bowed and marched from the courtyard.
I stalked through the empty corridor, past the blind doors, through Barker's chambers, and into the waiting room. All the applicants stared at me apprehensively. I opened the outer door and was considering a hearty slam that would rattle the door frame, when I heard a voice over my shoulder. Barker's voice.
"The situation is filled. You gentlemen may go. Jenkins, mind the office until I return." With a nudge in the small of my back, he pushed me forward, out onto the step.
"You look like you could do with some lunch," he said, conversationally.
"I have the position?" I asked, astounded.
"Never any doubt." He leaned out over the balustrade and retrieved my case from the dustbin. "Don't forget your belongings. Come, we'll take a hansom cab."
Copyright © 2004 by Will Thomas