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In which a letter
and a shot fired
* * *
By the end of that day in 1772, a concatenation of events would have begun which would alter considerably the circumstances of life there at Number 4 Bow Street. We had no notion of that, however, as we sat together like a proper family at breakfast. Annie, the cook, had baked a fresh loaf, and we ate it warm with rashers of bacon and lumps of good country butter. The mood was festive. It was seldom, after all, that the five of us were together at the table so early in the day. More frequently, we came one by one, ate what was conveniently at hand, and headed off along our separate paths. On that morning, however, Lady Fielding was to attend a meeting of the board of the Magdalene Home for Penitent Prostitutes, a charitable enterprise which she herself had brought into being. Her preparations for this event had lasted well past the usual hour of her departure for the Magdalene Home. Nevertheless, there was then time for her to converse with Sir John; to give the day's orders to Annie and me; and to tease her secretary, Clarissa, the orphan who Sir John had taken on as his ward that she might be saved from the Lichfield poorhouse.
Rising, she took one last gulp of tea and waved to me to show that she was ready to leave. It was my task, reader, to precede her down the stairs to the street in order to make sure that a hackney coach would be waiting at our door for her. And so I proceeded. Just as I left the kitchen, however, I heard Clarissa ask what she was to do during therest of the day.
Lady Fielding did then reply: "Why, the duchess will have luncheon following the meeting, you may be sure of it, and who knows what will follow that! In short, I may be gone the entire day, and so you may spend it as you like. It is yours, my dear Clarissa."
I heard no more, but what I had caught thus far was quite enough, thank you. I knew full well that though given the day's freedom, Clarissa would be expected to enjoy it in my care. At thirteen, she was considered by Lady Fielding far too young to walk the streets of London, even in the daylight hours.
And so it proved to be. Returning, I was hailed by Sir John and asked to sit down. I reluctantly took a place beside him, fearing the worst.
"You saw Lady Fielding off in a hackney?"
"Oh, I did, sir."
"But she gave you no specific idea of the time she might return?"
"No sir, I'm not at all sure that she knows, Sir John."
He sighed. "Probably not."
I had the feeling that he was temporizing, simply marking time until he found the opportunity to address a topic he would as soon not discuss.
"I wish there were a way she could inform us when she was ready to return. Then I might send you to fetch her back." He paused. I wondered if he wished some comment from me. But no, he pressed onward: "Simply put, I wish that the streets were safer."
"Yet," I objected, "Mr. Bailey and all the constables have made all but a few corners quite safe at night."
"That's just it, you see, Jeremy. I suspect that in some quarters it has become riskier by day than at night. Robberies in daylight have become a particular problem. I have included in the new budget a request for two extra constables. If I'm refused, then I fear I shall have to transfer two of the night men forward to days."
"Is it truly so bad, Sir John?"
"Bad enough," said he, "that I must ask you to watch over Clarissa on this, her day of liberty."
Ah, there it was, thought I. And I could not but admire how skillfully he had maneuvered me to the point where his request seemed both reasonable and necessary. Well, no doubt it was. That, however, did not persuade me to like better the task of playing nursemaid to one who seemed by nature discourteous, cantankerous, and more generally disagreeable than anyone else in my circle of acquaintance. That she was intelligent and clever I would not dispute. Nevertheless, her intelligence and cleverness seemed most often to be used to prove me wrong and embarrass me.
"Your silence tells me that you are less than delighted by my request."
Though blind he may have been, Sir John saw more with his other four senses than I could with my own keen eyes. How could he learn so much from a moment's pause, a mere hitch in time?
Sir John Fielding had been magistrate of the Bow Street Court for near twenty years and had gained a reputation among Covent Garden greengrocers as a fair and just arbitrator of their disputes; even criminals of the district seemed to think him evenhanded. So I could hardly say that I was then surprised when he undertook to set things right with me. I believe that in effect he wished to persuade me now to volunteer for the task for which I had just been drafted. He would do this by convincing me that what in any case had to be done was just and noble and at the same time quite generous of me.
"You know," said he in a quiet, reasoning tone, "she thinks quite highly of you. You seem to be something of a model to her."
"Clarissa? Surely not, sir!"
"Indeed it's true, Jeremy. She greatly admires the single-minded way that you have applied yourself to the study of law."
"Oh?" said I, making a question of it as I considered the claim. I knew that Sir John would not lie regarding such a matter, and so I accepted it that Clarissa had praised me. But even better was it to realize that she could only have formed her opinion from what she had heard from him. He must first have spoken well of me.
"Now, I admit that she is a willful girl," said he (which did surprise me somewhat). "She will express her opinion on every matter and argue beyond reason that hers is the right one. Yet, I believe you might teach her to be different."
"But sir," I protested, "I have tried—and often. I reason with her, and it does little good."
"Put in another way, you argue with her. You attempt to correct her, to point out her errors. Is that not so?"
"Well ... yes."
"Then leave off that in the future. Try teaching not by precept but by example. Behave toward her as you would have her behave toward others. You must try to be an elder brother to her."
"An elder brother?" I echoed his words in what, I fear, was a rather dubious manner.
"Why yes," said Sir John. "Should that be so difficult to imagine?"
"Perhaps not if I apply myself to the task."
Thus, it came about that not much more than half an hour later, Clarissa Roundtree and I, Jeremy Proctor, both of us dressed in our best, were on our way to call upon Samuel Johnson. When Clarissa learned that sometime that day I was to deliver a letter to that distinguished personage (actually no more than an invitation in the form of a note, which I had penned for Sir John the day before), she immediately forsook any plans she may have had and asked if she might accompany me. Indeed she asked so politely that I wondered if perhaps Sir John had not had a few words with her as he had with me. Whether or not this were so I never discovered.
If I seemed especially hostile to Clarissa at this time, when earlier we two had apparently reached a reconciliation of sorts, it was because she had only recently dismayed and angered me with what I must admit was not much more than a prank. Ever since she had come to stay at Number 4 Bow Street she had been in close company with Lady Fielding—companion and "secretary" to her. I have permitted myself the use of upside-down commas, for I had always been dubious as to the nature and extent of the secretarial help which she provided.
It must have been considerable, however, for Lady Fielding declared she had no notion of how she had managed earlier without her; in particular she praised her skill as an organizer. Further proof had come on a Sunday not long before when, with nobody about below on the main floor, Clarissa took it upon herself to alter thoroughly the filing system which Mr. Marsden, the court clerk, used. (It should be made clear that though he may have used the system, he did not invent it; his predecessor, Mr. Brogden, had done that.) Next day there was no little confusion as the court clerk attempted to fathom what had been done, yet when Clarissa confessed and explained the principle upon which she had reorganized the files (names, and not dates alone), Mr. Marsden declared her system superior and applauded her efforts. However, he regretted that he had not the time to learn it thoroughly, and so he put me forward to Sir John as file clerk. That came as an additional duty—one in addition, that is, to serving Sir John as amanuensis, doing the buying for the household each day in Covent Garden, and running every conceivable errand for the court. When, I wondered, was I to find time to read for the bar? Besides, tending the files was not merely onerous, it was also slightly embarrassing. What healthy young lad would wish to be a file clerk? When I expressed myself in this regard to Clarissa, she did little more than snigger—hence, my hostility toward her.
Yet as we two tramped along in silence, I thought once again of what Sir John had said about acting as an elder brother to Clarissa. I thought I knew what he meant by that, but I was not absolutely sure. In my experience, elder brothers were as often cruel to younger sisters as they were kind. But Sir John, of course, was urging me to be protective, instructive, and friendly to her. All that, I suppose, was within my power. Still, if he were suggesting that I offer her brotherly love, then that surely would be quite beyond me. Why, even if she were to—
"Where was it that you said he lived?" Clarissa asked, interrupting my ponderings as she had often enough done before.
"Johnson's Court," said I.
"Just imagine, having the street where you live named after you. That would indeed be fame."
"So it would be, but I fear it is a distinction that Mr. Johnson has not yet achieved."
"What do you mean?"
"Johnson's Court it was called before he moved there, and so it will be known when he departs."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I am," said I a bit smugly. "I would not make such a statement unless I were certain of my facts."
She gave me a hard look but said nothing. Our destination lay just off Fleet Street. We made our way there along the Strand. The crowd in the walkway, men and women on their way to their day's labor, bumped and jostled us so that we could not move much faster than a shuffle.
Pressed toward me, she asked in something more than a whisper, "Have you been there often?"
"You know where! To see Mr. Johnson."
"What is he like?"
"Why ... that is ... well ..." How could one describe Samuel Johnson? He was, perhaps, unique, but ... "Well, you know, in his manner he is not unlike Sir John—that is, in his deliberate style of speech, and their voices, too, are somewhat alike."
"Johnson's is the deeper."
Then did I laugh, startled by the picture that flashed before my inner eye. It was quite like that of Mr. Johnson, yet it was one of a man a bit younger, and even more corpulent. The laugh was one of surprise only, for that face brought with it the deepest associations of unhappiness.
With all this I had received a frown from Clarissa. "What has struck you as funny?" she asked.
"No, not funny—nothing of the kind. For an instant, I saw a face from the past resembling Johnson—a deacon in my village named Kercheval. When my father ..." I hesitated. "When my father died, Mr. Kercheval came for me to take me to the magistrate who would determine my future."
"Your future was the parish workhouse," said she. "You may be sure of that."
"I must have supposed it, for at my first opportunity I broke away from Mr. Kercheval and ran away fast as ever I could."
"And where did you go?"
"Why, here. To London."
"And how did you come to meet Sir John?"
I had never told her the tale of my arrival in London: how I had been duped by a thief-taker and brought, falsely accused, before the magistrate's court at Number 4 Bow Street, and how Sir John Fielding saw through this cruel deception and sent the conspirators on their way. Why had I withheld this from her? Was I too proud? Did I feel it would lower me somehow if the truth were known?
Well, whatever the reason, since we had by then passed along the Strand with Temple Bar in sight, and Johnson's Court lay not so distant, I decided it was time to tell. The version she heard as we moved on, still buffeted by the crowd, was somewhat abbreviated—a summary, more or less—but the important facts were there. And by chance, when I had concluded, the turn for Johnson's Court lay just ahead.
"Why then," said she, having heard all, "you came to Bow Street much as I did."
"Indeed," said I. "Had you thought otherwise?" I eased her round the corner into the quiet of the Court.
"I don't know what I thought. You seemed so well settled that I—"
When Clarissa failed to finish the sentence, I pointed toward Mr. Johnson's door and guided her in that direction. "We're here," said I.
"What? Oh, I ... yes, of course."
I gave three stout thumps upon the door, and we did not wait long, for almost immediately came the sound of footsteps beyond. The door opened, and for a long moment I said not a word. Expecting to see Miss Williams or one of the other members of the household staff, I was surprised—taken aback, one might say—to see the face of a black man: young, smiling, and quite confident. He looked at me encouragingly, nodded, and waited for me to speak.
Clarissa stepped in then, saving me from further embarrassment. "We have come to see Mr. Johnson," said she.
"Ah, well, is he expecting you?" His voice was pleasant enough and authentically that of a Londoner. But was there, perhaps, the hint of the island lilt to it that I heard from time to time in Mr. Burnham's speech? Perhaps, and perhaps not.
"No, but I have with me a letter for Mr. Johnson from Sir John Fielding, magistrate of the Bow Street Court," said I.
"I'd be happy to give it to him. You may leave it with me and consider it delivered."
Would this be another contest of the wills of the kind which took place each time I delivered a letter to the Lord Chief Justice? I hoped not, indeed I did.
"I should be happy to do that," said I to him, "but Sir John would like it read, and an immediate answer given—if at all possible."
"Oh, it is possible," said he, throwing open the door, "but you must wait a bit, for he is not long risen. Come in, come in, both of you, and we shall sit together and talk. I would like to make your acquaintance."
Clarissa and I exchanged glances, and then, smiling, we entered. He led us into a small sitting room where I had previously waited upon occasion for the great man. Indicating a place for us on the settee, he took a chair by the door and asked our names. He introduced himself to us as Francis Barber.
"However, said he, "you may call me Frank.
"We have not met before," said I. "Have you recently joined Mr. Johnson's household?"
"No, it would be better said, I recently rejoined the household. I've been away at school, you see."
"Which school?" I asked, half expecting that I might be told that it was Oxford or Cambridge, for he was of a proper age. But would a black man attend one of the great universities? I thought not.
"It is a school run by a Monsieur Desmoulins, who is a Frenchman."
Clarissa leaned forward eagerly. "And did you learn French from him? I should like to learn that language. It is a most beautiful tongue."
"Oh, it is, right enough, and I did learn a bit of it, but I fear I had my hands full with Latin. And I must say, Greek was quite beyond me. They seemed useless to me. When would I meet an ancient Roman or Greek whom I might speak with?"
Clarissa and I, both autodidacts, agreed most emphatically, for such as we were, utility was all. (While I cannot speak for Clarissa, I know that today I would be less likely to dismiss those dead languages as useless.) But when he went further and declared all education "beyond plain reading, writing, and sums" to be excessive and unnecessary, then we were forced to demur.
We argued with him on that point quite heatedly for some minutes; he maintained that the six years that he had spent under the tutelage of Monsieur Desmoulins was not much more than time wasted, and we maintained that it was not. Clarissa said that Frank Barber himself was proof of the efficaciousness of Monsieur Desmoulins's schooling. She declared him as gentlemanly as any fellow one might meet in St. James Park.
Then, did he reveal himself to me as somewhat vain. He preened a bit, striking a pose with his head tilted just slightly toward the light. "Oh," said he, "do you really think so?"
"Of course we do."
"Well, thank you for saying so." His self-conceit, such as it was, seemed quite childishly innocent.
At that, and with a great bustle of authority, a stout-figured woman, well-known to me, appeared of a sudden in the doorway, scowling down at Frank—on the occasions I had encountered her here before, she seemed always to look displeased.
"Mr. Johnson would like to see you, Frank," said she. "He is now come down for breakfast." Then, having delivered her summons, she turned about and left as noisily as she had come.
Rising, he waited until he had heard the last of her, and said, at not much above a whisper, "That's Miss Williams. She doesn't like me—no, not at all." He himself started from the room, but turned back to us and declared, "I'll tell him you're waiting to see him."
As soon as we were alone, Clarissa began muttering to me about Francis Barber. She asked who he was and what was his relation to Mr. Johnson. I assured her that I had neither met nor heard of the fellow before. Rather insistently, she rephrased her question, and I rephrased my answer. We might have gone on so for the rest of the morning, had not the subject of our lame discussion swiftly returned and bade us come along with him that we might see Mr. Johnson. Following obediently, we were conducted down a short hall to a room just off the kitchen where I had met Johnson at breakfast on one previous occasion. Frank introduced us, and, with a cheerful goodbye to all, took his leave.
Mr. Johnson looked from me to Clarissa and back again to me. "Well," said he, "you, young sir, have been here before. We are somewhat acquainted, and I understand there is a letter for me from Sir John Fielding, but is it of such heavy matter that it took two of you to carry it?"
Clarissa, never at a loss for words, spoke up fearlessly as ever: "By no means, sir. I came along that I might meet you and gaze upon your face."
"If that was your purpose, child, you must be sorely disappointed," said he in response. "This face of mine frightens some—but gives others cause for merriment." He took a prodigious gulp of tea and smiled upon her.
"We have things in common," said she.
"Oh? Tell me then, by all means."
"Well, we are both natives of Lichfield."
"And we have proven ourselves wiser than its entire population by leaving the place when we could."
"You are the son of a bookseller," said she, "and I am the granddaughter of one. My mother did often tend the shop for him."
"What was the name of the shop?"
"Gladden's. Perhaps you remember it?"
"I thought I might—but no. It has been many years since I left." He seemed to be attempting a polite withdrawal from his conversation with her.
But Clarissa, not in the least mindful of this, pressed on with what she had so boldly begun. "Finally," said she, "we have in common the vocation of literature."
He looked at her slyly. "Ah, could one so young as you be an author?"
"Not yet, but I am preparing myself for a career similar to your own."
"Well, in that case, I have two bits of advice for you. First, do not neglect your Latin, for there is nothing quite so good for style as familiarity with that language and its grammar. My second piece of advice is more practical: If you are truly serious about writing, then you must choose a pen name of the masculine sort, for as a female you will greatly limit your chances of acceptance—by editors as well as by the general public."
She found this quite unacceptable. "There I must disagree with you," she began.
Yet she never finished, for Mr. Johnson turned from Clarissa to me, chastising her by ignoring her obviously and completely. "Now," he said rather pointedly to me (and not to Clarissa), "what of this letter from Sir John? I do hope he is not communicating to me in his official capacity."
"Nothing of the kind, sir," said I, as Clarissa at last fell silent. "It is naught but an invitation."
Again that sly look from him. "Are you then in the habit of reading the missives you deliver?"
I produced the letter in question and handed it to him. He wiped his hands thoroughly on his napkin, preparing to read it.
"No sir, I am not in the habit of reading them. I am, however, in the habit of taking them in dictation."
He chuckled approvingly at my response and pulled open the letter at the seal. So poor was Johnson's eyesight that he was forced to hold whatever he wished to read at no more than three inches from his face. Thus it was that he perused the contents of the letter. I had seen all this before and was not in the least surprised, but when I glanced over at Clarissa, I noted the look of consternation upon her face. I feared in that instant she might make some unwanted exclamation of sympathy, but, catching her eye, I shook my head, and she kept silent.
"Well and good," said Mr. Johnson as he put down the letter. "I should be happy to come at the date and hour which he has specified. Ten days hence—that should give me time and opportunity to do any rearranging that need be done." Then did he pause, or perhaps hesitate, as if taking a moment to reach a decision. "You do not have an invitation for that fellow Boswell, do you?"
"Nooo," said I, "but one might be written for him if you wished it so."
"On the contrary," said he, "I would not wish it so. As it happens, he is down from Edinburgh, and he manages to beg invitations to every dinner to which I'm invited. It seems that no matter where I go he is there, asking questions, drawing me out on every conceivable question. It is most annoying. Do ask Sir John not to invite the fellow, will you?"
I gave a proper little bow. "Very good, sir."
"Shall I write out a reply to Sir John's letter?"
"Oh no, Mr. Johnson, I shall convey your response to him." I paused but a moment. "And so, with your permission, we shall take our leave of you."
"Good day to you, young sir. And to you, young lady," said he to Clarissa, "I shall repeat my advice. First, work at your Latin, and second, adopt a male pen name."
Would she insist on pressing her argument? I turned and saw her performing a careful curtsey. Reassured, I took her arm and guided her from the breakfast room and down the hall to the door. It was not Frank Barber but Miss Williams who was there to see us out. That she did with a curt "good day," pausing not an instant to wave us out to Fleet Street.
"I went too far, didn't I?" The words were out of Clarissa's mouth the moment that the door slammed shut behind us.
"Well ..." Was I to tell her the truth? Was I to say that she had embarrassed me, irritated Mr. Johnson, and disgraced herself—and managed it all with just a minute or two of idle talk? No, I could hardly say that, could I? And so all I said was: "I think perhaps you failed to keep in mind who it was you were speaking to."
"I think you're right. Oh, Jeremy, what am I to do? To have the ear of Mr. Johnson and then simply to prattle on about what I had in common with him—as if he cared for a moment—and then to try to engage him in argument on the question of a pen name. What could I have been thinking? Samuel Johnson, after all!"
"Dictionary Johnson," said I, as we turned back on to Fleet Street and there joined the tide of humanity on the move toward Temple Bar.
"Yes, so they call him. Just imagine what it would be to be the author of a dictionary of the English language!"
"Well, he had assistants—six, I believe."
"But Samuel Johnson is generally recognized as its author."
"Insofar as a dictionary can be said to have an author—yes, I suppose so."
"But of course! Every book has an author. And poor Mr. Johnson ruined his sight in the great effort to produce his dictionary. Why, he is near as blind as Sir John."
"Perhaps, but I've heard it said he had an infection of the eyes when he was a child, as a mere babe. That may be why he must read with his nose in the pages."
"Whatever the reason, my heart goes out to the man." Clarissa walked along in silence for a bit. I waited, sensing that she had left something unsaid. Then at last she spoke: "Jeremy, the next time it becomes obvious to you that I should hold my tongue, I would like you to let me know. Give me a pinch or squeeze my hand, or ... do something, anyway, to pass a signal to me that I must stop."
"You say the next time? What about the time after that?"
"Then, too—and the time after that, and so on, until I've mastered my tongue."
"That may take quite some time," said I, merely meaning to tease. "Your arm may be blue from all the pinching."
"So be it," said she. And, having taken what between us amounted to an oath, she set her face in such a way that she seemed much older than her years, and marched resolutely forward.
Clarissa kept up the pace for quite some time, but eventually she slowed somewhat. Yet still, she said nothing. She seemed to be giving thought to a particularly troubling matter.
After we had walked thus for a good, long way, she turned to me and sought my opinion. "Do you suppose," said she, "that the study of Latin would truly improve my writing style?"
Late that evening—after Clarissa had exhausted me through the day with her questions and comments, and following Lady Fielding's tardy return from her board meeting, slightly tipsy from the duchess's wine served at the luncheon—late that evening (to repeat) I was summoned down from my eyrie to the kitchen where Sir John awaited.
"We must be gone, Jeremy," said he. "Robbery and murder have been perpetrated in St. James Street. Mr. Baker brought the news only moments past." In fact, just then I could hear his footsteps descending the stairs.
"St. James Street!" It came from me as an exclamation. "Surely not Mr. Bilbo's residence?"
"No—but close by. Pull on your coat and grab your hat. We are to meet Mr. Bailey there. The new constable, Will Patley, was first on the scene, and I fear that he may forget all that he was taught about protecting the premises against intruders, the curious, even against the victims of the robbery themselves."
"There are some who never seem to learn those lessons," said I.
"All too true, I fear."
We went down the stairs together, he with his hand upon my shoulder, the two of us in close step. (He had recently taken a tumble and had become quite distrustful of even the most familiar stairway.) Mr. Baker waited near the door, in his hands a brace of pistols, holstered and mounted on a belt. I took them from him and buckled them on under my coat. Mr. Baker claimed it was foolish to go out in the streets unarmed at any time near midnight or after; and I, as Sir John's companion on these late-night rambles, had the responsibility of defending him, so I wore the pistols. For his part, Sir John disapproved on principle of all but his constables bearing firearms, so he said nothing. (It was a blind man's way of looking in the other direction.) As a result of all this, not a word passed among the three of us until I was satisfactorily armed.
Only then did Mr. Baker speak up: "There's a hackney at the door. I whistled him down from the corner and told him to wait on pain of death."
"On pain of death, Mr. Baker?"
"Well, Sir John, sometimes I exaggerate a little just to keep their attention."
"And your threats work well enough?"
"I ain't had to kill any yet."
"And thank God for it," said Sir John with a chuckle. "It would indeed be a black mark against the Magistrate's Court."
With that, we departed Number 4 Bow Street and climbed into the waiting coach. I had so often walked to the Bilbo residence in St. James Street and knew the way so well, that I thought of it as only a short distance away. In reality it was not, but the time it took to get to St. James was barely sufficient for Sir John to tell what he knew of the robbery. He knew little of the murder; we would learn more of that upon our arrival.
To summarize: At about ten in the evening, a gang of well-armed men tricked their way into the home of Lord Lilley of Perth. As it happened, Lord and Lady Lilley were absent that evening, attending a dinner at the residence of the Dutch ambassador. The robbers herded the entire household staff into the kitchen below the stairs, put a guard upon them, and then proceeded to strip the place of everything of value—Lady Lilley's jewels, paintings, statuary, silver plates, the odd piece of furniture, et cetera. So much was taken that it must have been necessary to cart it away in a wagon; evidently one was waiting at the rear of the mansion. It took less than an hour to empty the house of its treasures. The homicide was most peculiar: One of the staff, a footman, was taken from the company in the kitchen and summarily shot. Even more peculiar was the fact that the raiding party was made up entirely of black men.
When the hackney driver pulled up at the number on St. James Street which he had been given, I spied Constable Brede standing guard at the door. I passed word of this on to Sir John. He seemed quite pleased to hear it.
"That means," said he, "that Constable Bailey is inside. He will have heard something from every witness in the house and will be able to inform us just who of them is worth talking to and which may be passed over. This need not take as long as I feared. I, for one, Jeremy, was quite ready to retire when word came of this outrage."
"But you've always said, sir, that the most important work in any investigation is done at the first visit to the scene of the crime and that there was no point in rushing through it."
"Have I always said that?" He sighed. "Probably I have. How unkind of you to remind me."
Mr. Brede passed us through, saying little, as was his way. And once inside we soon discovered that Mr. Bailey had arranged things as Sir John predicted. The magistrate's chief constable may not have been greatly talented as an interrogator, but long experience had taught him the sort of thing Sir John would be interested in; it had also taught him how to recognize one who was withholding information, equivocating, or just plain lying.
According to Benjamin Bailey, though he had not quite finished talking to all the potential witnesses, it seemed to him that only a few would be worth the magistrate's attention.
"I thought you might want to talk to the butler first," said he to Sir John.
"Always a good place to start."
"He it was who opened the door to that murderous crew."
"Ah yes, but the mention of the murder reminds me, Constable Bailey, has Mr. Donnelly been sent for?"
"Yes sir, indeed he has. I sent Will Patley for him soon as I arrived. Just like you told us, sir, if there's a killing or even a wounding, we send for the medical examiner—right away—ain't that right?"
"Quite right. But now, if you will just put me with the butler ..."
"Certainly, sir—right over here."
The butler, a Mr. Collier, was a slight man of not much more than forty years with a bloodied bump on his forehead. He stood in a corner of the great entry hall, somewhat apart from the rest of the servants gathered there. His small hands were clasped before him in such a way that if his eyes had been shut or his lips moving, I should have sworn that he was praying. Indeed he looked like a man in need of prayer. Never, I think, have I seen a man appear so obviously overcome by worry. Sir John did not add to his burden. He questioned him as gently as I had ever known him to question any witness.
He did not, for example, ask Mr. Collier directly how it had come about that he had opened the door to the robbers; rather, he took a circuitous route and first solicited the opinion of the butler on a variety of matters related to the invasion of Lord Lilley's residence.
Sir John asked, for instance, how many there were in the raiding party. Mr. Collier's reply: "That is difficult to say, sir, for in the beginning they seemed not so many, but I'm sure there were more of them there at the end."
"All of them were black men?"
"All that I saw."
"And did they speak as black men would speak?"
In forming his answer to this question, Mr. Collier paused; he seemed troubled. "Well, that was where I was deceived, you see," said the butler. "I wouldn't have opened the door to a black man at any time of the day or night, no matter what his tale of woe. But whoever it was talked through the door—I'd say he was probably the leader—and he talked just as any Londoner would. He made a fool of me for fair—and now I fear for my position. I shall be blamed for this."
Only then did Sir John ask the question that must have interested him most: "What was it that he said which persuaded you to open the door to him?"
Realizing that he had come at last to the matter he wished sincerely to avoid, the butler hesitated long enough to clear his throat, then plunged ahead: "He described a most terrible carriage accident which he said had taken place nearby in St. James Street. `Was there a doctor who lived hereabouts?' he asked through the door, for there was, he said, a woman pinned in the wreckage who could not be freed unless the carriage were set right. Footmen would be needed, or porters. Could any be spared? 'The poor woman was near crushed,' he declared. `She might die if she weren't soon helped.'"
The butler continued: "All this, mind, was said in tone and manner just as one might hear the same said in Covent Garden or any street in London—except there was terrible urgency in his voice. He seemed quite overcome with worry and fear. To this moment I find it difficult to believe that he was shamming." At that point, Mr. Collier took a deep breath, as if fortifying himself for what lay ahead. "Well, what can I say in my defense? Convinced by the sound of his voice, I opened the door out of kindhearted concern, sympathy, and, well, curiosity, too, must have played a part."
"But indeed you did open the door," said Sir John.
"I did, sir."
"What then occurred?"
"I had no sooner heaved back the night bolt and opened the door a crack when it was slammed against me. I fell unconscious there in the hall, probably only for a minute or less, for next thing I knew I was dragged down the hall and then down the back stairs to the kitchen. It was not until all the rest of the staff had been moved into the kitchen that I was fully conscious."
"How many men entered by way of the front door?"
"I would have no way of saying exactly, for I was unconscious most of that time, but probably no more than three."
"And were all of them black?"
"I could only say that the face I glimpsed ever so briefly as I opened the door was that of an African. I was told by others of the household staff, however, that all who entered, including some who were seen to enter through the rear door of the house, were unmistakably of the black race."
"And what do you know of the murdered man, Mr. Collier?"
"Very little," said the butler. "Walter Travis had not been long on staff. I hired him three months past to replace a porter who'd fallen mortally ill with the pox. Lord Lilley didn't want one who was ill in such a way under his roof. Travis brought with him a good character from his last employer. I have no notion why anyone should have been killed, nor why they chose him."
"Hmmm," said Sir John, "it does indeed seem strange." He mused a moment upon the matter, and then spoke up again. "You may go, Mr. Collier. By the bye, if Lord Lilley blames you, as you say he will, I should be happy to reason with him on the matter. I take it that he has been sent for?"
"He has, yes sir. Oh, thank you, sir. I am greatly obliged to you, sir."
All the while the butler said this, he was backing away and bobbing his head like some puppet. I no longer pitied him as I had at first. He cared a bit too much for himself, it seemed to me, without caring much for others. What had happened, for example, to the poor fellow dying of the pox? Collier seemed not to care. Why did he say he would, under no circumstances, open the door of Lord Lilley's residence to a black man at any hour, night or day? And why did he feel so unfairly deceived simply because one who proved to be black spoke as any white Londoner might speak? Had I not, that very morning at Dr. Johnson's, met Frank Barber and heard him talk as any proper fellow from Fleet Street might? Not all those who look as Africans speak as Africans, after all.
By then it seemed to me that Sir John had been entirely too gentle with the butler. I was just putting together a well-reasoned complaint to the magistrate when he rumbled something deep under his breath.
"What was that, sir?"
"I said, 'I never dealt before with such a lickspittle.'"
"But ... but ... you encouraged him, Sir John. You were a good deal nicer to him than was necessary."
"I may need him a bit later."
Just then Constable Bailey appeared with a woman—hardly more than a girl—in tow. She had quite a saucy manner and seemed rather to enjoy the attention given her. She regarded the captain of the Bow Street Runners rather flirtatiously. For his part, Mr. Bailey's attitude toward her was one of stony indifference. He delivered her to Sir John with a curt "Mary Pinkham, personal maid to Lady Lilley, sir. She may have something to say which you'd be interested in." And having said that, he departed, returning to the task he had assigned himself.
"Well, Mistress Pinkham," said Sir John, "what is it you have to tell?"
"Naught that would interest you, Your Magistrate, 'cept—"
"You seem to have me confused with the king," said Sir John. "And while that is most flattering, the proper form of address when speaking to me would simply be 'sir.'"
"Yes sir," said she, and gave a proper curtsey. "Well, as I was sayin', sir, the onliest thing you might be interested in is that I was the last one caught."
"`Caught'? I don't quite understand."
"Simple enough, sir. When the robbers come in, they caught most of the servants below stairs where they'd just finished eatin', and Mr. Collier they caught when they come in. I was the onliest one was upstairs. I was in her ladyship's bedroom, straightening up for when she comes back, laying out her nightgown and all."
"I see," said the magistrate, "and when were you aware that something was amiss downstairs?"
"Oh, I could tell. There was of a sudden a terrible lot of shouting and noise, and I could tell there was something wrong. I didn't want no part of it."
"And how did you react?"
She looked at him blankly. Clearly, the word was not in her vocabulary. "`React,' sir?"
"What did you do then ?"
"I hid myself in Lady Lilley's closet, the one with all her frocks and all in it. She has so many clothes, sir. Really, you've no idea."
"I'm sure she has," said Sir John, somewhat annoyed at her, "but let us stick to the matter at hand. Now, as you were hidden away in the closet amongst all those frocks, were you able to hear the robbers as they went from room to room?"
"Oh, yes sir, I surely was, sir. They was yellin' and shoutin' about, goin' all around the house. Why, they scared me half to death, they did."
"Now, Mistress Pinkham, I ask you to give some thought to this next question." He paused to give weight to what followed: "Would you say that these men who came to rob the house knew their way around it? Would you think it likely that they had a map of the interior to show them where things were located?"
She did give the matter some thought, but her answer, when it came, may have disappointed Sir John. "No sir," said she, "I don't think they was ever in the house before, and I don't think they had a map. The reason is, when they come upstairs, I could hear them very plain, and they were saying, 'Where is it?' and, 'Which is the room where the duchess sleeps?' They were searchin' through the whole upstairs for the room where I was hidin'."
"And eventually they found it," he put in.
"They did, sir, but it took them a while, and if they'd had a map of the house, or as you say, known their way around, then they coulda gone right to it."
Sir John sighed. "I see your point, and I must admit it has a certain validity."
"Oh, never mind. Of course all this searching about was not done in an effort to find you."
"No, sir. They just opened the closet door, and there I was."
"They were after something quite different."
"They was, sir, and it was m'lady's jewels."
"And they found them."
"Yes sir, I told the robbers where they was hid." Neither in her face nor in her voice was there any hint of shame or embarrassment as she made her confession. She even wore a slight smile as one might while engaged in any sort of polite conversation.
"Told them, did you?" He seemed more amused than shocked at her audacious revelation.
"I did, sir, and you would, too, if you'd had a knife stickin' up your nose. They offered to slit it proper if I didn't tell." She shrugged, as if the choice she'd made had been the only reasonable one. "And so I told them."
Sir John laughed out loud at that. "Your logic," he said, "is altogether unassailable. I mean to say, you may be certain that you did the right thing. However,"—and here he lowered his voice—"I would not tell it to your Lord or Lady Lilley as you told it to me. Tell them that you fought and screamed and so on, and that one of the robbers happened upon the jewels just as they were about to begin torturing you in earnest. Now, doesn't that sound better?"
"Oh, much, sir, I'll practice it, I will."
"You do that, Mistress Pinkham." And having said that, he dismissed her. But then did a second thought persuade him to call her back again. "I have but one more matter to mention to you, and that has to do with the manner of speech used by the robbers."
"The way they talked. I have been told that all were black men—Africans. Is that correct?"
"All I seen were."
"And did they talk as black men would talk?"
"That I wouldn't know, sir. I never talked to no black man before. They just sounded regular."
"Thank you, that will be all."
And off she went, pausing only to curtsey and blurt out a thank-you.
"Well, Jeremy," said Sir John, turning in my general direction, "what did you think of her?"
"I would say, sir, that what she lacked in valor she made up in good sense."
"Well put," said he, "but tell me, is Mr. Bailey about? Now that I've talked to a couple of them, I feel as though I'd like to talk to more—just getting into the spirit of it, so to speak."
"Yes sir, Mr. Bailey is just across the room." In fact he had been talking for quite some time with a man nearly as large as he.
"Beckon him here, will you?"
That I did, and Mr. Bailey came, bringing the big man along with him. "Sir John," said he, "I've someone with me here who can tell you a bit about the murdered man."
"Ah, at last," said Sir John. "I was hoping you'd find one such. The butler hired him but claims to know nothing about him."
"Well, I know something, don't know all," said the newcomer.
"Your something will be most welcome, Mr. ... Mr. ... What is your name, sir?"
"Burley," said he. "Tom Burley in full. Walter Travis and me were porters together. We did all the furniture moving, the heavy lifting and loading—just the two of us."
"Then you must have been well-acquainted with the man."
Tom Burley sighed and shook his head. "Nobody got too well-acquainted with him. He was a hard man to get to know."
"Well, there are those, of course. But perhaps you could tell me, Mr. Burley, something of his background. Where was he from, for instance?"
"Right here in London, as near as I can tell. He never talked about anyplace else, anyways. Certain things he said made me think he'd put in some time in prison."
"Debtors prison? The Fleet? Bridewell?"
"No, I think he'd seen the inside of Newgate. I don't know for what, or for how long, but he got to talking about it once, told of the nasty little tricks played by the warders on the inmates, and he told it in such a way, it seemed pretty certain to me he knew from experience."
"Hmmm," said Sir John, musing for a moment, "yet he was hired. The butler said he'd been given a good character by his last employer."
"Aw, that meant nothing, sir. He counterfeited it, made it all up his-self, then handed it over to a scrivener to get it Englished proper and make it look as such should look."
"You know this for certain, Mr. Burley?"
"I know he told me that's what he did. And if you're wondering why I didn't snitch, I'd have to say it ain't my nature to do so. As long as he did his share of the work—and he did—I'll keep mum on the matter."
"Why do you suppose he was singled out to be killed? Was it done as a warning to the rest of you there in the kitchen—a threat?"
"Oh, perhaps something of that sort. Something was said. A threat was made. It was just when they were getting ready to leave, they took him along. But that wasn't the reason—not to my mind."
"Then why was he taken? Why was he killed?"
"I've something in mind about that," said Burley. "I think it might be he was in on the sacking of the house—told them when to come and what was where, and so he expected to leave with them. He didn't seem overly worried when he went up those steps. Shoot him down, and you've got one less when you divvy the whack."
Sir John nodded thoughtfully, considering at length what had been said. "Did you view the body?" he asked at last.
"Oh yes. We'd all heard the shot fired out back, so we had a pretty good idea where to look. Travis was shot in the back of the head—by surprise, I'd say. Poor cull never knew what hit him."
"I wonder if you—"
"Beg pardon, Sir John." It was Constable Bailey. Usually a model of well-mannered propriety, he would not think of interrupting his chief unless there were a matter of some urgency.
"Yes, Mr. Bailey, what is it?"
"Constable Patley has just returned with Mr. Donnelly, and Mr. Donnelly would like to know where is the body?"
"Show him, won't you, Mr. Bailey? Or if you don't know, take Burley here with you. He can show you."
"As you say, Sir John." This was delivered with a salute. He did a quick turn and went off to fetch Mr. Donnelly.
"All of which leaves us," said Sir John to me, "without Mr. Parley. Do you see him about?"
I looked round the room—but looked in vain. He was nowhere to be seen. "No sir," said I. "Shall I check outside with Constable Brede?"
"No ... well, perhaps. But first let me try this. Constable Patley!" he bellowed. "Come at once." At that all heads in the great entry hall (and most of the household staff were there, milling about) turned his way, surprised at his intemperate shouting. I, too, was surprised, for I had never known him to employ such methods before. Ah well, he was full of surprises.
"Tell me, Jeremy," said he mildly, "do you see him now?"
"I'm afraid not, Sir John." Ah, but I had spoken a bit too early, for there he was, pulling himself away from the flirtatious Mistress Pinkham. They had just stepped from behind the wide, winding staircase which so dominated the room; they had thus been hidden from view. "No, I was wrong, sir. I see him now. He's coming this way."
Constable Patley presented himself at attention and brought a stiff hand to his brow in a military salute. (He was said to have been a soldier in the colonies.) "Here I am, sir!"
"Constable Patley, is it?"
"I have a few questions for you."
"And I am pleased to answer them, sir."
"That is gratifying," said Sir John. "Now tell me, Mr. Patley, where were you when you were notified of this felonious invasion of the Lilley residence?"
"Quite close by, sir, walking the Pall Mall, I was."
"And who was it approached you? Which of the servants?"
"Why, I don't remember his name, but he come running up to me, and he said there'd been a terrible robbery and murder at Lord Lilley's. I sent him on to Bow Street and come here myself. Did I do right?"
"You did right enough, but I wanted to talk with whomever it was brought word to Bow Street. Do you see him here?"
Mr. Patley, a reasonably tall fellow to begin with, went up on his tiptoes to survey the faces of those in the room. There must have been more than a dozen there in the entry hall, but most of them were women—upstairs maids, downstairs maids, cooks, kitchen slaveys, et cetera. After studying them carefully, he came down to our level, shaking his head in a negative manner.
"No sir," said he, "I don't see him anywheres."
"Well, next time, when such a crime is committed, you must at least get the name of him who reports it."
"I promise to do it that way in the future," said Mr. Patley.
"See that you do, sir, for you will need names and facts for the report that you must write."
"Report, sir? What report?"
"The one that you will write and give to Mr. Marsden, the court clerk, in the morning. Didn't Mr. Bailey tell you that when you are first on the scene of any serious crime, then you must write a report on it?"
"He said something about that, sir."
"Well, it seems your turn has come, does it not?"
"As you say, sir."
"Oh, and by the bye, you must have in it some estimate of the value of the goods stolen. It need not be absolutely accurate; it can later be raised or lowered. That you can probably get from the butler, Mr. Collier. If not, then tell him I said that we must have it. Is all that understood?"
Constable Will Patley sighed a deep, unhappy sigh. "All understood, sir," said he.
"Is there some part of this you wish to discuss?"
"No sir, it's just ... I didn't realize there'd be such a lot of pen work to be done. I ain't very good with a pen."
"Well, do as well as you can. Mr. Marsden will evaluate it in the morning."
"Just like school, sir?" There seemed to me to be a bit more than a hint of impudence in that.
"No, not quite." Sir John paused and rubbed his chin in thought before proceeding: "Mr. Patley, you have not been with us long. You are not yet accustomed to our procedures, but once you are, I believe you will understand their usefulness." Then, with a nod: "That will be all."
The constable saluted in the same military fashion as before and barked out a "Yes sir" before turning and marching off, more sober-faced than when he had come. He attracted a good deal of attention to himself with these exaggerated movements. Mistress Pinkham, for one, stared with such intensity at him that she seemed almost to consume him with her eyes. Only then did it occur to me that women, especially young women like her, would no doubt find him quite handsome-"a rum cod," as Jimmie Bunkins would have it—"dashing," as you might say.
Then did Sir John bend toward me and whisper: "Did he salute me again?"
"Twice, sir," said I, "once at arrival and once at departure."
"I wish he wouldn't do that. Perhaps you could mention it to him. Tell him that something more ... oh, I don't know ... informal might be better."
"Well," said I, "I'll try."
"Yes, Sir John?"
"Let us leave here. I am suddenly grown weary."
"Did you not wish to wait for Lord Lilley?"
"No, there is no telling when he will return. He is, as I have heard, socially timid, and he might consider it too great an insult to the Dutch ambassador if he and Lady Lilley were to leave early. He may be prepared to wait, no matter what disaster may befall his house."
"Then by all means, let's be gone," said I.
"By all means, let's," said he.
Sir John left word with Mr. Brede, nevertheless, that when Lord and Lady Lilley were to return, he was to tell them that Sir John would come tomorrow in the morning that he might discuss with them details of the crimes committed in their home. In the meantime, Sir John requested that none of the household staff be discharged or penalized, for he had not finished his examination of them. As we left, the constable instructed us to walk to Pall Mall if we wished to engage a hackney.
"A hackney," said Sir John, "by all means."
And so we set out, the two of us, at an easy pace for Pall Mall. Though visible to me down at the end of the street, it was, as I well knew, some considerable distance away; I offered to run down to the corner and bring back a hackney coach.
"They come by with great frequency," said I. "Indeed, I shouldn't be but a few minutes gone."
"No," said he, "I find the night air rather refreshing. It has restored me somewhat."
And so we continued along St. James Street, and as we went I looked left and right at the great houses. Even in the moonlight they looked impressive—or perhaps especially then, for the night shadows seemed to cover over the imperfections and worn spots that were visible during the day. (Not all the houses in this district were in the same excellent state of repair.)
As we approached Mr. Bilbo's residence, I saw that lights burned in a number of the windows. It was indeed one of the grandest in this street, having formerly belonged to Lord Goodhope. Mr. Bilbo, the owner and operator of one of London's most popular gaming houses, took the house in settlement of the nobleman's gambling debt. Since then, I had been there often, for my friend, Jimmie Bunkins, had been taken by Mr. Bilbo as his ward; and through my intercession our cook, Annie, had been accepted as a scholar by Bunkins's tutor, Mr. Burnham. All in all, I was well-known there, though no better than Sir John himself, who maintained a curious relationship with the head of the house, Mr. Bilbo. As a gambler and the proprietor of a gambling establishment, he could never be accepted as a respectable gentleman in London society. There were those who tut-tutted at Sir John's friendship with such a man. To them, the magistrate would say gruffly, "I like the man, and there's an end to it."
As we passed the house in question, I mentioned it to him and noted the smile spread across his face.
"Ah yes," said he, "it is here on the same street as the Lilley residence. I'd nearly forgotten. I daresay Black Jack is counting chips at his club at this moment."
"There are a few lights lit," said I. "Bunkins and Mr. Burnham, no doubt."
"No doubt. It is quite late, though. Why, it must be well past midnight." We walked on in silence, past the neighbors to the Bilbo residence; Pall Mall was then much closer—or so it seemed.
"I wonder what Mr. Bilbo will do when he hears a house on his street has been robbed," said I.
Sir John thought about that a moment, and then chuckled, "He will probably distribute pistols and cutlasses to all in the house. Or perhaps construct a redoubt before the front door. Or both."
We laughed together at that. The idea of fortifications built in St. James Street seemed especially rich. What would the neighbors say? Indeed what must they have said when Mr. Bilbo moved in, followed by those persistent rumors that he had made his first fortune as a pirate in the Spanish waters of the New World.
But to me it seemed that there were more urgent matters to discuss: "Tell me, though, sir, what did you t hink of those you questioned?"
"In truth," said he, "I did not think much of them. The butler seemed interested only in defending himself. The maid—well, she did well enough, I suppose, and I certainly would not have had her get her nose slit to protect those jewels, but ... Oh well, they offered something—the porter was actually quite shrewd and helpful, but ... but ... oh, damnation! It just never ends! Too many robberies! Too many killings!"
I had not meant to cause him such annoyance. It was just that I had not realized the depth of his frustration. These ironical jokes of his, which now seemed to come with greater frequency, were his way of dealing with his discouragement. That very morning he had bared his true feelings when he had said that he wished the streets were safer. Why had I not then taken him more in earnest?
All this might have been said to him, but none of it was. I simply grasped at the most convenient response. (Nor, as you shall see, would it have mattered much what I attempted to say at that particular moment.) What I managed was no more than this: "Well, perhaps tomorrow's visit will prove more fruitful."
"I suppose it may," said he. "After all, we—"
He had my attention as he spoke, and so it was that by the light of the streetlamp, I caught a flash of strong movement from the corner of my eye. I turned, looked, and saw that little more than twelve feet away a man stood before us, his feet planted firmly, his arm straightened, and in his hand, a pistol.
At once I pushed Sir John to the pavement and struggled to throw back my coat that I might draw forth one of my pistols from its holster. As it came free, the man before me fired. I raised the pistol, cocking it, and fired back at him. Had I but taken a moment more I would have hit my target at such a short distance, but my shot went wide. I pulled the left-side pistol from its place and raised it for another try. But by this time our assailant had taken to his heels, fast disappearing down a walkway which ran along the side of one of St. James Street's grand houses. I went after him, hoping for a better shot. And then, of a sudden, I stopped.
Good God, Sir John! I could not go chasing assassins, thus leaving him alone. Nor could I discharge the pistol, for there might be others of the gang about.
I ran back to Sir John, expecting to find him up and about, ready to pursue his attacker on his own, calling down heaven's wrath upon the villain. But no, he lay crumpled where I had pushed him, apparently unable to pull himself to his feet. Was he hit? Was he dead? I had not even considered such a possibility.
Kneeling down beside him, I saw that he was breathing—shallowly, yet breathing nevertheless.
"Sir John," I whispered urgently, "you are wounded. Can you tell me where you were hit?"
"Shoulder," said he, panting, "in the shoulder."
Gingerly, I pulled back his coat and saw the blood spread upon his white linen shirt. "I must get you to Mr. Donnelly."
"To Mr. Bilbo. Take me there." He seemed now to be gathering strength. "Jeremy," Said Sir John, "what did the fellow look like?"
"I ... I'm not sure, sir." And indeed I wasn't, for all had happened so very quickly. But I concentrated upon the picture I held in my mind. And then I had something—to me, a quite unexpected something—that I might report.
"Sir, I believe he was a black man."