Time Past: Text
‘You ask me, sahib, for an account of my life; my relation of it will be understood by you, as you are acquainted with the peculiar habits of my countrymen; and if, as you say, you intend it for the information of your own, I have no hesitation in relating the whole…’
Time Present: Context
This is what I see across time and space. This is what I see from the gloaming of my grandfather’s library, surrounded by Dickens and Collins; this is what I see from a whitewashed house in Phansa. I see a place in London more than a hundred years ago. In… what year is it… in 1837, the year of the coronation of Queen Victoria. I see a room. I see – what is that?
Perhaps it is a tattered shirt hanging from a nail hammered into the cracked windowpane. Or a window curtain, ragged, netting the dregs of the light which, dying a lingering death all day, still manages to creep into the room from the grimy court in a corner of the rookery, at this late hour.
The man reclines across a sagging bedstead. He is dressed in expensive clothes, or clothes that seem expensive in this tawdry room. Also lying (dressed in shabbier clothes of varying cut) are a Chinaman, a lascar with a long, white beard and a haggard woman. The first two are asleep, or only half awake, as if in a stupor, while the woman is blowing at a kind of pipe, trying to kindle it. She shades it with her bony hand, concentrating her breath on its red spark of light that serves as a lamp in the falling night, to show us what we see of her face. It is wizened and wrinkled, an old woman’s face, though her body has the agility of someone younger. Her hair is matted and clumpy, as if under it the bone was uneven and indented. A sweet, sickly smell pervades the room.
‘Another?’ says the woman in a rattling whisper, extending her pipe towards the men. ‘Have ’nother?’
The well-dressed man stirs slightly, and makes a gesture of repugnance.
The woman laughs and lazily retracts the pipe. She pulls at it herself.
‘He’ll come to it,’ she says to the Chinaman and the lascar, who show no sign of hearing her. ‘Always does. I sees his kind coming here, angry-like, and I ses to my poor self, I’ll get ’nother ready for him, for there’s a gentleman. Not like you lot, no better’n me you are, though I’as nothing ’ginst you. A few years in dust and smoke and toil and who can tell yer skin from mine? Ha. But he’s a gentleman. He’ll remember like a good soul, won’t ye, sir, that the market price is dreffl e high just now. And I makes my pipes from old penny ink-bottles, ye see, dearies – with me own two hands – and I fi ts in a mouthpiece, all clean, sir – see, like this – and I takes my mixter out of this thimble with a little silver horn… Not every place is like this, sir. I sets the pipe going myself, with me own breath, like this, see… Here y’are…’
Having prepared a new opium pipe, she tries to pass it to the gentleman, but he pushes it back, so abruptly that the pipe falls to the dirty ground, and embers fan out like fireflies released from a bottle, waking the Chinaman, who starts stomping on them alongside the woman, both of them muttering and cursing.
Our gentleman sits up and watches the spasmodic shoots and darts of the embers on the floor, the unsteady stomping that extinguishes an ember in one place and sends another whirling into the murky air. He does not know who he hates more, himself for being here, or these people. When the Chinaman stumbles into him in his drugged stomping out of the embers, the gentleman pushes him so hard that the wizened old opium-smoker bounces off the opposite wall, knocking down a pan in the dark, and crumbles into a heap, quivering but not getting up again.
This makes the old woman indignant. She protests that she runs a respectable house and not even the ‘lascars, moors and Chinamen who come here with nary a word of English, sir’, take such liberties with each other in her presence.
The gentleman puts one finger to his lips and holds out a coin in the other hand. He beckons to the woman. A crafty light steals into the woman’s eyes and she sidles up to the man, simpering. He holds her at arm’s length and with the other hand, still holding the coin, probes her hair. Perhaps she takes it for a caress. She certainly tries to make the appropriate noises, smiling seductively. But the man is not caressing her. He probes her skull with knowing fingers and if she had been able to look up, she would have been struck by the expression on his face. Then suddenly, the gentleman pushes her away. As she begins to remonstrate again, more loudly this time, he tosses the coin at her and walks out of the room.
The long-bearded lascar continues to sleep on the sagging bedstead.
(I see him. I distinctly hear his hoarse breathing in my grandfather’s half-gagged library in Phansa.)
The man, unusually well-dressed for the neighbourhood but perhaps not really a gentleman in the esteem of politer circles, crosses the grimy court at a brisk, angry pace, and walks into a dirty little street, pushing away an urchin who gets in his way. The urchin shouts at him, but runs away when the man makes as if to stop. The man continues down the street, walking with some care to avoid the horse droppings and muddy tracks left by carriages and carts of all sorts.
Look. Night is descending on the streets of London in the likeness of a steaming darkness, capped by a laggard mist a little way up in the air, which drops fi ne particles of soot that settle on the dirty yellow hair of our bareheaded gentleman and on his clothes. He walks on; the streets here are dark. After some time, he turns into a broader street where the gas has been started up in the shops, and the lamplighter – lighting rod slung across one shoulder like a gun – scampers along the pavement. Another turn and he is on Old Baileys, for long the preferred thoroughfare of sheep, cattle and drovers walking down from the market at Smithfield, and even now occasionally containing more animals than human beings, despite the appropriation of public spaces solely for the use of bipeds and their carriages over the years.
About a hundred metres from the stony grimness of Newgate Prison, near Cock Lane, our man enters a pub under the sign of a gilded wooden cherub: a corpulent, naked boy hanging from the walls, darkened with rain and soot. The sign says Prize of War. Our gentleman is known in the pub – people at two diff erent tables raise their drinks to him, their voiced greetings, if any, drowned in the clatter of crockery and the constant coming in and going out and running about – and the barman-publican, who lacks an arm, nods at him familiarly. The usual, says our man, and he is poured a pint of half-and-half.
Our man does not seem as gentlemanly here as he did in the opium den. Most of the other men are wearing similar clothes, though our man appears to have taken greater care over his appearance: his whiskers are brushed and clipped, his collars tidy, his cuff s clean, his chin closely shaved.
The barman, polishing a glass on a dirty rag, does not look up, but he utters the name our man is known by: ‘John May’. He adds, without once glancing up at John May: ‘He is here. Your mystery Lordship.’
‘Been here a quarter.’
‘The usual parlour?’
The barman smirks instead of nodding. John May takes a hasty pull at his pint, draining half of it in one go, and walks off into a darkened doorway, carrying his drink in one hand and wiping froth from his lips with the back of the other.
John May – that is what almost everyone calls him, not John, and not May, but always the two together – John May walks along a sanded passage to a private parlour: a carpeted room whose inability to stay impeccably neat has been camouflaged with an excess of potted plants, cheap coloured prints of various regents and royal consorts, and an array of stuffed animals – two foxes, a deer, an otter or something like it, and even a dried fish in a glass case.
In one corner of the room, smoking in an armchair, half hidden by the shadows cast by the candles, sits a stoutish man. His lips are parted in a fixed smile, the leer of a satyr.
When he hears John May enter, he gets up, and I can see that he is at least middle-aged, though quite well-preserved, and dressed in such a careful manner, with a fur collar and a hat of substantial size and weight under one arm, and in such expensive fabrics, that John May shrinks visibly and brushes invisible indignities off his own clothes with his free hand. The lack of a hat makes him feel naked in front of this elegant satyr.
But no, this is no mythological beast: I can see that his face is a mask. One of those masks that the young have started favouring for certain fancy parties. It is a mask twisted into a permanent smile.
‘You are late,’ says the stout gentleman, for there is no doubt that here we have the real item, a gentleman from birth and by deportment; even the mask cannot hide that. John May, who had spoken rather clear English to the barman, apologizes in an accent burdened by the inferiority of some impossible-to-identify dialect.
‘It is difficult to find Things, especially after the affair of the Italian boy, and you, M’lord, want only part of them and on certain conditions…’ There is a timid effort to bluster on the part of John May.
‘I, sir, pay you five times what you would get for all the – what do you call them – Things, and I neither ask how you procure them, nor what you do with the remains.’
John May’s incipient bluster vanishes; his voice turns servile.
‘M’lord, I am grateful; I am your devoted servant, I am, sire, I assure you. It is just that not only is this business difficult – there was a time when a lifter carted a Thing in a bag to this place, this pub, and left it lying under the table while they bargained over the price…’
‘I would rather not have the details of your noble profession,’ the gentleman interrupts, his mask not concealing the distaste in his voice. ‘All I want to know is whether you have got the, the Thing, you promised me.’
‘I ran into problems, sire. He is not… I can explain…’
‘Would another ten crowns enable you to overcome the problems, my good man?’
The cold steel of this interruption is not lost on John May. A crafty look passes across his regular – not unhandsome, but perhaps callow – features. He takes out a large handkerchief and wipes his face. He replies with much eagerness, the words falling too glibly from his lips, which he constantly moistens with his tongue, licking them between sentences: ‘M’lord, sometimes graveyards are watched as closely as banks, strange though it…’
‘I told you, sir,’ the gentleman interrupts again, this time with greater asperity, ‘I told you I am not interested in the details of your noble profession. Quote the price and fetch me the Thing.’
‘Fifteen crowns would cover it quite neatly, M’lord.’
The gentleman drops fifteen crowns on the table, one at a time, each coin spinning and glinting in the candle flame, the clink of metal on wood suddenly loud between them.
‘But I need the, ahem, the top of the Thing before the next meeting of my Society, ready to be exhibited. Do you understand? Ready to be exhibited and demonstrated, and as exceptional as you have made me believe.’
‘I assure you, M’lord,’ gushes John May, gathering up the coins from the table, the tip of his tongue darting over his lips like a lizard behind a stone, ‘I assure you, it will be done. Have I ever given you reason to doubt my character or judgement?’
He looks up for the gentleman’s answer but the room is empty. The candle throws mute shadows that probe the corners, the grimacing animals, the heavy wooden furniture, and flee like wisps of cloud across the carpet. But for the cold coins in his hand, M’lord might have been a figment of his imagination, a ghost.
Night envelops the streets of London, shrouding even the immensity of Newgate Prison and the courthouse, and the two men – John May and the gentleman who has employed him to procure the ‘Thing’ – depart in different directions. The gentleman walks a short distance and takes out a whistle when he turns the corner. He blows three sharp notes on it and a fl y, evidently waiting for him further down the street, appears out of the darkness and the fog. The gentleman boards it without looking around or taking off his mask.
John May, after another pint of half-and-half, and a round of rum hot with the one-armed barman and two other acquaintances, hails a common cab ‘towards Virginia Row’ in a moment of extravagance. But he has second thoughts and gets off a little earlier, just before the point where going further into the squalid areas of East London would double the cab fare. Then he proceeds on foot, occasionally jangling the new coins in his pocket. It is cooler now.
If night and the industrial fog of London did not prevent us from seeing either John May or the surrounding buildings and occasional passers-by, not to mention the bundled figures here and there, under arches and on doorsteps, evading the policeman on his nightly patrol, the policeman whose job it is to ensure that those who have houses sleep secure in their possessions – which may only be done by evicting from the city limits those who do not have houses – we would have noticed that John May gets taller and better dressed with every step he takes into the grosser quarters of London. Perhaps, from where I watch him, a hat appears on his head by the time he reaches his meagre house. And why not? Stranger things have happened in this city.
Jolting along in his smart fl y, driven by a man of huge proportions and gypsy looks, so fiercely moustachioed and beetle-browed that the flaxen wig on his head seems unreal, and pulled by a horse that is conscious of its superiority on these streets, our stoutish gentleman undergoes no such metamorphosis. He is made of metal that cannot be altered by time and place. He remains what he is everywhere: superior in the cut of his clothes, the tone of his voice, the fashion of his views, in the very colour of the blood that pulses through his veins and that has pulsed through the veins of his ancestors for twelve generations, all bearing with absolute conviction the self-knowledge of one family name and many honorary titles.
What do we call this gentleman? John May calls him M’lord. The heavy portals of his city house swing open almost at the very moment he alights from the fl y, as if his servants keep vigil all through the deepening night, and the servant who holds the door open also has no other name for him but ‘M’lord’. No name could be more appropriate for him, and dare we decipher from the family arms on the door of the house he alights at, the name that his equals employ to address him?
For, standing across the road of time, we are not his equal, we who live in denuded times; we are the passers-by who raise our hats at him and receive, if anything at all, a gracious nod in reply; we are, at worst, the sweeper-boy who cannot tell the family arms from an alphabet, let alone dare to take the family name in vain; we are, at best, those faceless, vote-less citizens on whom he and his equals seek to bestow the benefits of science and religion. For the time being, what can we, what dare we call him but M’lord?
There are more gaslights on this street than in any other part of London, but not all the spheres of gas can unite to penetrate the stolidity of its buildings. For the light from these sputtering spheres contends not just against the darkness of the night and the fog of London, it also beats against the severity of the mansions lining the street. Th ese are houses that are determined not to condescend to liveliness: the black doors and windows, the ironwork and winding stone stairs, the polished knobs and the empty parks behind them, all conspire to impose a solemnity of purpose, a high-mindedness on all who are capable of such sentiments. As for those who are not, say, the passing sweeps, the occasional raw maidservant from the counties, an ayah or two brought over from the colonies, all such are struck dumb on this street and in its mansions.
Their silence echoes down the centuries. Even in my grandfather’s library, I do not need to strain my ears to hear their muteness.
M’lord enters the highest-minded in appearance of all the mansions on this dry and massive street, while his fl y and horse are led to the echoing mews behind the buildings. Up the winding stony staircase of the house he proceeds. He has already taken off his mask; he had done so in the fl y. In the lighted halls and staircase, he reveals a long, broad face, pale, with spreading brown sideburns, and eyes a strange shade of green, blue and grey-yellow. His thin lips and nostrils accentuate the length and breadth of his aristocratic face.
Now, slowly, he divests himself of his attendants: the massive coachman at the door, the doorman in the hall, the cook and housekeeper, who hesitantly enquired if M’lord wished… and was discarded with a gesture, on the stairs. He climbs up the cold marble steps, he walks past the portraits of ancestors, such stolid faces, subtle mirrors of his, with the certainty of a man who knows all the shadows around him, until he reaches a heavy door, a door so massive and padlocked that it stands out even in this mansion.
With great care, M’lord draws out a bunch of three keys from a secret pocket in his waistcoat; with precision, he unlocks each of the three locks on this massive door; with a practised movement in the darkness to which the groaning door has admitted him, he fi nds a candle and lights it. Then he lights another candle and another, each candle appearing to magically reproduce itself all over the room, for it is full of mirrors and glass cases. With what pride and scientific interest M’lord now looks around this room of a thousand and one flames and surveys its precious hoard of skulls: long skulls and short skulls, skulls of bone and cast skulls, skulls as smooth as marble and skulls knobbly as old oak, small skulls and big skulls, skulls on tables and skulls in glass showcases, all labelled and catalogued. And here we stand, by him, in this massive house wrapped in the fog of a London night, admitted to a temple that few outside the London Society of Phrenology have been admitted to, allowed to gaze on the great scientific project of M’lord, his indelible contribution to the glory of his race and family name, his proposed Theatre of Phrenological Specimen. Above all, the theatre would be his answer, not to those who scoff ed at head reading, for they had long been answered by Daniel Bell and Dr Gall and Johann Spurzheim and H.C. Watson if they only cared to listen (or read), but his answer to the followers of that Scottish upstart, George Combe, who had, M’lord was convinced, done as much to harm phrenology as to champion it. With the finished Theatre of Phrenological Specimen, M’lord would stop the mouths of the Combians in the London Society of Phrenology, and see the mark of defeat stamped on the effeminate features of that Captain William T. Meadows who had, since his return from India with his reprieved thug Amir Ali, taken society by such storm.