“Gorgeously crafted...Spufford's sprawling recreation here is pitch perfect.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air
“A fast-paced romp that keeps its eyes on the moral conundrums of America.” —The New Yorker
“Delirious storytelling backfilled with this much intelligence is a rare and happy sight.” —The New York Times
“Golden Hill possesses a fluency and immediacy, a feast of the senses...I love this book.” —The Washington Post
The spectacular first novel from acclaimed nonfiction author Francis Spufford follows the adventures of a mysterious young man in mid-eighteenth century Manhattan, thirty years before the American Revolution.
New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat arrives at a countinghouse door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?
Rich in language and historical perception, yet compulsively readable, Golden Hill is a story “taut with twists and turns” that “keeps you gripped until its tour-de-force conclusion” (The Times, London). Spufford paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later metropolitan self but already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love—and find a world of trouble.
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The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour—and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock—and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New-York—until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno—and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water—and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap:—all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning. (He meaning by the offer to signal his esteem, having found Mr. Smith a pleasant companion during the slow weeks of the crossing.) But Smith would not have it. Smith, bowing and smiling, desired nothing but to be rowed to the dock. Smith, indeed, when once he had his shoes flat on the cobbles, took off at such speed despite the gambolling of his land-legs that he far out-paced the sailor dispatched to carry his trunk—and must double back for it, and seizing it hoist it instanter on his own shoulder—and gallop on, skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port—asking for direction here, asking again there—so that he appeared most nearly as a type of smiling whirlwind when he shouldered open the door—just as it was about to be bolted for the evening—of the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, and laid down his burden while the prentices were lighting the lamps, and the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, and demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr. Lovell himself.
“I’m Lovell,” said the merchant, rising from his place by the fire. His qualities in brief, to meet the needs of a first encounter: fifty years old; a spare body but a pouched and lumpish face, as if Nature had set to work upon the clay with knuckles; shrewd and anxious eyes; brown small-clothes; a bob-wig yellowed by tobacco smoke. “Help ye?”
“Good day,” said Mr. Smith, “for I am certain it is a good day, never mind the rain and the wind. And the darkness. You’ll forgive the dizziness of the traveller, sir. I have the honour to present a bill drawn upon you by your London correspondents, Messrs. Banyard and Hythe. And request the favour of its swift acceptance.”
“Could it not have waited for the morrow?” said Lovell. “Our hours for public business are over. Come back and replenish your purse at nine o’clock. Though for any amount over ten pound sterling I’ll ask you to wait out the week, cash money being scarce.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Smith. “It is for a greater amount. A far greater. And I am come to you now, hot-foot from the cold sea, salt still on me, dirty as a dog fresh from a duck-pond, not for payment, but to do you the courtesy of long notice.”
And he handed across a portfolio, which being opened revealed a paper cover clearly sealed in black wax with a B and an H. Lovell cracked it, his eyebrows already half-raised. He read, and they rose further.
“Lord love us,” he said. “This is a bill for a thousand pound.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Smith. “A thousand pounds sterling; or as it says there, one thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New-York money. May I sit down?”
Lovell ignored him. “Jem,” he said, “fetch a lantern closer.”
The clerk brought one of the fresh-lit candles in its chimney, and Lovell held the page up close to the hot glass; so close that Smith made a start as if to snatch it away, which Lovell reproved with an out-thrust arm; but he did not scorch the paper, only tilted it where the flame shone through and showed in paler lines the watermark of a mermaid.
“Paper’s right,” said the clerk.
“The hand too,” said Lovell. “Benjamin Banyard’s own, I’d say.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Smith, “though his name was Barnaby Banyard when he sat in his office in Mincing Lane and wrote the bill for me. Come, now, gentlemen; do you think I found this on a street-corner?”
Lovell surveyed him, clothes and hands and visage and speech, such as he had heard of it, and found nothing there that closed the question.
“You might ha’ done,” he said, “for all I know. For I don’t know you. What is this thing? And who are you?”
“What it seems to be. What I seem to be. A paper worth a thousand pounds; and a traveller who owns it.”
“Or a paper fit to wipe my arse, and a lying rogue. Ye’ll have to do better than that. I’ve done business with Banyard’s for twenty year, and settled with ’em for twenty year with bills on Kingston from my sugar traffic. Never this; never paper sent all on a sudden this side the water, asking money paid for the whole season’s account, almost, without a word, or a warning, or a by-your-leave. I’ll ask again: who are you? What’s your business?”
“Well: in general, Mr. Lovell, buying and selling. Going up and down in the world. Seeing what may turn to advantage; for which my thousand pounds may be requisite. But more specifically, Mr. Lovell: the kind I choose not to share. The confidential kind.”
“You impudent pup, flirting your mangled scripture at me! Speak plain, or your precious paper goes in the fire.”
“You won’t do that,” said Smith.
“Oh, won’t I? You jumped enough a moment gone when I had it nigh the lamp. Speak, or it burns.”
“And your good name with it. Mr. Lovell, this is the plain kernel of the matter: I asked at the Exchange for London merchants in good standing, joined to solid traders here, and your name rose up with Banyard’s, as an honourable pair, and they wrote the bill.”
“They never did before.”
“They have done now. And assured me you were good for it. Which I was glad to hear, for I paid cash down.”
“Cash down,” repeated Lovell, flatly. He read out: “ ‘At sixty days’ sight, pay this our second bill to Mr. Richard Smith, for value received . . .’ You say you paid in coin, then?”
“Of your own, or of another’s? As agent, or principal? To settle a score or to write a new one? To lay out in investments, or to piss away on furbelows and sateen weskits?”
“Just in coin, sir. Which spoke for itself, eloquently.”
“You not finding it convenient, no doubt, to move so great a weight of gold across the ocean.”
“Or else hoping to find a booby on the other side as’d turn paper to gold for the asking.”
“I never heard that New-Yorkers were so easy to impose on,” said Mr. Smith.
“So we aren’t, sir,” said Lovell, “so we aren’t.” He drummed his fingers. “Especially when one won’t take the straight way to clear off the suspicion we may be gulled. —You’ll excuse my manner. I speak as I find, usually; but I don’t know how I find you, I don’t know how to take you, and you study to keep me uncertain, which I don’t see as a kindness, or as especial candid, I must say, in a strip of a boy who comes demanding payment of an awk’ard-sized fortune, on no surety.”
“On all the ordinary surety of a right bill,” protested Smith.
“There you go,” Lovell said. “Smiling again. Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir. Commerce is putting a hand in answer into a hand out-stretched; but when I call you a rogue, you don’t flare up, as is the natural answer at the mere accusation, and call me a rogue for doubting.”
“No,” returned Smith cheerfully. “For you’re right, of course. You don’t know me; and suspicion must be your wisest course, when I may be equally a gilded sprig of the bon ton, or a flash cully working the inkhorn lay.”
Lovell blinked. Smith’s voice had darkened to a rookery croak, and there was no telling if he was putting on or taking off a mask.
“There’s the lovely power of being a stranger,” Smith went on, as pleasant as before. “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’ve a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be. But the bill, sir, is a true one. How may I set your mind at rest?”
“You’ve the oddest notion in the world of reassurance, if you’re in earnest,” said Lovell, staring. “You could tell me why I’ve had no letter, to cushion this surprise. I’d have expected an explanation, a warning.”
“Perhaps I out-paced it.”
“Perhaps. But I believe I’ll keep my counsel till I see more than perhaps.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Smith. “Nothing more natural, when I may be a rascal.”
“Again, you make mighty free with that possibility,” Lovell said.
“I only name the difficulty you’re under. Would you trust me more if we pretended some other thing were at issue?”
“I might,” said Lovell. “I might well. An honest man would surely labour to keep off the taint of such a thing. You seem to be inviting it, Mr. Smith. Yet I can’t be so casual, can I? My name’s my credit. Do you know what will happen if I accept your bill, for your secret business, your closed-mouth business, your smiling business, your confidential business? And you discount it with some good neighbour of mine, to lay your hands on the money as fast as may be, as I’ve no doubt you mean to? Then there’ll be sixty-day paper with my name upon’t, going round and round the island, playing the devil with my credit just at the turn of the season, in no kind of confidence at all. All will know it; all will know I’m to be dunned for a thousand pound, and wonder should they try to mulct me first.”
“But I won’t discount it.”
“I won’t discount it. I can wait. There is no hurry. I have no pressing need for funds; sixty days’ sight, it says, and sixty days will suit me perfectly. Keep the bill; keep it under your eye; save it from wandering.”
“If I accept it, you mean.”
“Yes. If you accept it.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Well, if you protest it, I shall make this the shortest landing in the colonies that ever was heard of. I shall walk back along the quay, and when the Henrietta is loaded, I shall ship home, and lodge my claim for damages with Banyard’s.”
“I don’t protest it,” said Lovell, slowly. “Neither yet do I accept it. It says here, our second bill, and I’ve not seen hide or hair of first nor third. What ships d’ye say they’re bound on?”
“Sansom’s Venture and Antelope,” said Mr. Smith.
“Well,” said Lovell, “here’s what we’ll do. We’ll wait and we’ll see; and if the others of the set turn up, why then I’ll say I accepted the bill today, and you shall have your sixty days, and if you’re lucky you may be paid by quarter-day; and if they don’t appear, why then you’re the rascal you tease at being, and I’ll have you before the justices for personation. What do you say?”
“It’s irregular,” said Mr. Smith, “but something should be allowed for teasing. Very well: done.”
“Done,” echoed Lovell. “Jem, note and date the document, will you? And add a memorandum of this agreement; and make another note that we’re to write to Banyard’s on our own account, by the first vessel, asking explanations. And then let’s have it in the strongbox, to show in evidence, as I suspect, for the assizes. Now, sir, I believe I’ll bid you—” Lovell checked himself, for Smith was feeling through the pockets of his coat. “Was there something else?” he asked heavily.
“Yes,” said Smith, bringing forth a purse. “I’m told I should break my guineas to smaller change. Could you furnish me the value of these in pieces convenient for the city?”
Lovell looked at the four golden heads of the King glittering in Smith’s palm.
“Are they brass?” said one of the prentices, grinning.
“No, they’re not brass,” said Lovell. “Use your eyes, and not your mouth. Why ever—” he said to Smith. “Never mind. Never mind. Yes, I believe we can oblige you. Jem, get out the pennyweights, and check these.”
“Full weight,” the clerk reported.
“Thought so,” said Lovell. “I am learning your humours, Mr. Smith. Well, now, let’s see. We don’t get much London gold, the flow being, as you might say, all the other way; it’s moidores, and half-joes, mostly, when the yellow lady shows her face. So I believe I could offer you a hundred and eighty per centum on face, in New-York money. Which, for four guineas, would come to—”
“One hundred and fifty one shillings, twopence-halfpenny.”
“You’re a calculator, are you? A sharp reckoner. Now I’m afraid you can have only a little of it in coin; the reason being, as I said when first we began, that little coin is current at the present.” Lovell opened a box with a key from his fob chain and dredged up silver—worn silver, silver knocked and clatter’d in the battles of circulation—which he built into a little stack in front of Smith. “A Mexica dollar, which we pass at eight-and-fourpence. A piece of four, half that. A couple of Portugee cruzeiros, three shillings New-York. A quarter-guilder. Two kreutzers, Lemberg. One kreutzer, Danish. Five sous. And a Moresco piece we can’t read, but it weighs at fourteen pennyweight, sterling, so we’ll call it two-and-six, New-York. Twenty-one and fourpence, total. Leaving a hundred and twenty-nine, tenpence-halfpenny to find in paper.”
Lovell accordingly began to count out a pile of creased and folded slips next to the silver, some printed black and some printed red and some brown, like the despoiled pages of a prayerbook, only of varying shapes and sizes; some limp and torn; some leathery with grease; some marked only with dirty letterpress and others bearing coats-of-arms, whales spouting, shooting stars, feathers, leaves, savages; all of which he laid down with the rapidity of a card-dealer, licking his fingers for the better passage of it all.
“Wait a minute,” said Mr. Smith. “What’s this?”
“You don’t know our money, sir?” said the clerk. “They didn’t tell you we use notes, specie being so scarce, this side?”
“No,” said Smith.
The pile grew.
“Fourpence Connecticut, eightpence Rhode Island,” murmured Lovell. “Two shilling Rhode Island, eighteenpence Jersey, one shilling Jersey, eighteenpence Philadelphia, one shilling Maryland . . .” He had reached the bottom of the box. “Excuse me, Mr. Smith; for the rest we’re going to have to step upstairs to my bureau. We don’t commonly have the call for so much at once. Jem, you can commence to close up; Isaiah, stop gawping, start sweeping. If you’d like to follow me, then. —Bring your winnings, by all means; we wouldn’t want you to lose count.”
“I see you mean to tease me back,” said Mr. Smith, now possessed of a double handful of rustling, doubtful currency.
“One turn deserves another,” said Lovell. “This way.”
He led him through a door in the panelling, and Smith found himself in what was plainly the hall-way of the merchant’s private residence, for it ran perpendicular to another street-door, whence fell the faint remaining light of the day; and where the counting office had smelled of ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men, this had the different savour of waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves, with a suggestion of (what is common to both sexes) the necessary-house. At the end of the hall a stair spiralled steeply up in the dark. At each turn it passed a window but, the outlook being to the east, little came in through the glass but roofs and spars in black outline, upon the ground of a slice of heaven but one degree brighter. Stray gleams of polish showed the placing of the banisters and newel posts; picture frames set faint rumours of gold around rectangles of darkness or curious glitters too shadowed to make out, as if Lovell had somehow collected, and drowned, a stairwell’s-worth of distant constellations. This being Lovell’s home, it might be expected that the merchant would put off the weight of business, and resume the legerity of domestic life, yet on the first step he paused for a moment, and Smith saw the level of his shoulders fall, as if they had taken on them some effort, perhaps the effortful thought of the thousand pounds, and Smith anticipated a slow, perhaps a wheezing, ascent. But instead, that moment past, Lovell set off up the narrow house at the pace of a climbing monkey, swarming aloft in the boughs of a familiar tree, and it was Smith, his hands too full to balance with, who followed the dark stair warily—and when Lovell crossed a landing and rushed on, he paused, arrested at a door-way.
The long room it opened on did have western windows, a pair of them letting in the day’s last glow of light, rather the silver of rain than of the metal, streaked with a faint crimson admitting to the distant existence of the sun; brilliant light to Mr. Smith, and it burnished with borrowed brilliance the faces of the three young women in the room, plain-dressed among the plain furniture. One, fair-headed, was standing at the window with her hand to her mouth; one, darker, was sitting and reading something; and one, an African servant in a white kerchief, was holding a taper to a fresh white candle. When they saw him at the door, they all turned and looked at him. He looked back.
What a difference a frame makes! To Mr. Smith, gazing inward, the uprights of the painted door seemed to set out the three of them like some tableau representing the New World itself, of which his acquaintance to this point totalled forty-seven minutes, and which therefore he could not yet feel to be entirely solid, entirely terra firma as ordinarily founded on its bed of earth; but only to constitute a kind of scene, backed by drops and flats, where you must step forth at your cue to act your part, ready or not, ignorant as yet of the temper of the audience; ignorant of the temper of the other players, which will so much determine the drama you compose together, turn by turn, speech by speech, line by line. —The blonde one was extremely pretty, with a wide mouth of candid pink. The dark one not much less so, though she seemed just to have left off scowling, and her brows met in a knot. The African was turning eyes black as liquorice on him, in a gaze of perfect blankness. —What was more, what seemed to him a rarity fitting them to model the Three Graces, none of the three was in the slightest marked by the pox. He would learn that this exemption was, in the colony, almost too common to deserve notice, but it had for the moment the force of an original astonishment. Thus Smith, on the one side, gazing in. To the three gazing outward, however, into the dark of the stairwell, where a face had bloomed, and two pale hands clutching paper, he had only appeared in the ordinary aperture of an ordinary day. For them the blue-grey pediment of Connecticut pine faced the everyday world, as it always did, and they were their everyday selves, well launched (it seemed to them) into the middle of their histories, with loves, sorrows, resentments, hopes, all far advanced and long settled already into three familiar fortunes. He was the one unshackled, as yet unconfined; the one from whom diversion, or news, or any other of the new worlds a stranger may contain, were to be expected. And perhaps desired. For if your fortune at present is not such as pleases you, there is a prospect of mercy, as much as of doom, in the thought that Fortuna is fickle. The goddess’s renown is all in her changeableness, and strangers are her acknowledged messengers. They bear with them a glimmering of new chances. When this stranger came forward to the threshold, he could be seen to be a youth of about four-and-twenty dressed in plain green, wearing his own hair in short rust-brown curls, smiling in a fashion that crinkled the freckles across his nose, and staring shamelessly.
“Hello,” he said.
The dark one yawned deliberately. “Zephyra, shut the door,” she said.
“Don’t do that,” said Smith.
“Why not? This is a parlour, sir, not a peep show. The place of business is downstairs. A very little glimpse must suffice you—in proportion to your manners.”
“But my curiosity is great.”
“How sad for you. Very well. Zephyra, count to three, and then shut the door. —What? Not enough?”
“Never,” Smith said. The fair girl dimpled. The African turned back to the candle with a slow shake of the head.
“Gallantry,” observed the dark girl, with the air of someone naming a common insect. “Dull.”
“My sister thinks everything is dull,” broke in the yellow-haired girl. “Everything but a wounding tongue. Or she makes it so. But some of us aren’t so sour. Some of us don’t take compliments amiss a-purpose. You are a client of Father’s, sir? Won’t you step in?” A blush had appeared in her cheeks, as she made this speech of defiance. It was apparent that she was very young; maybe only sixteen or seventeen.
“You are kind,” said Smith, remaining where he was. “Yet truly, it was not gallantry speaking, I swear, but gluttony. Six weeks I have been at sea, and every wave looking just like the one before, in wet procession. By now my eyes, being starved so long, have as many stomachs as a horse.”
The dark sister snorted. “As many— That is the most grotesque similitude I ever heard.”
“And yet it served its purpose.”
“None I can perceive.”
“To make you smile.”
“But I am not smiling.”
“I would warrant you did for a moment.”
“No; you and your eyes’ horses’ stomachs are all mistaken. Though I doubt that will stop them vomiting words.”
“Now who is grotesque?”
“Your bad habits are catching. You have infected us.”
“May I come in, then, and do it more conveniently?”
“We can hear you quite well from where you are.”
“Tabitha!” protested the other, and was ignored.
“So, you’d stare as boldly at anything, would you? Any object would do?”
“Sorry: I have it on authority that gallantry is dull.”
“Have you come from London, sir?” the fair girl tried again.
“Yes, I have,” he said.
“I wonder, do you—do you—have you—perhaps—”
“What my sister Flora wants to say,” said dark Tabitha, slipping into a mocking falsetto, “is: ‘Do-you-do-you, could-you-could-you, might-you-might-you, possibly have in your baggage any novels?’ For she consumes them like laudanum, and has read all that New-York can afford, so must beg new supplies from every traveller.”
“Hush!” cried Flora, the spots back in her cheeks.
“I do have a book or two in my trunk,” said Smith, “and I would be happy to look them out for you. You don’t approve?” he asked Tabitha.
“I am not a great one for novels.”
“You are not a great one for anything but grumbling, and poking fun.”
“I do not think it makes the bird feel better if the cage has pictures pasted to’t, however pretty. Good evening, Papa.”
Smith jumped. Lovell had returned on padding feet, a caddy of japanned wood in his hands, and had been standing in the shadows at his side, it was not evident how long, with a speculative look upon his face.
“I see you’ve met my daughters, sir. Tabitha, Flora, this is Mr. Smith, a man of affairs; just don’t ask him what. Well, step in, step in; don’t block the door. And just lay what you have in your hands on the tabletop, will you, for I perceive I’ve made an error, fool that I am.”
“How unaccountable of you, Papa,” said Tabitha.
Lovell shot her a look, but only said, “Ah, yes . . .”
The card-dealing began again, except that Lovell was, as well as paying down new paper, also whisking back certain bills he had already dispensed, and replacing them with other, similar scraps of print, equally mysterious. This time, he didn’t count aloud, and this time, every note marked “Rhode Island” seemed to return to the box.
“What a lot of money you’ve got, Mr. Stomachs,” said Tabitha.
“If it is money,” said Smith, “and not a printer’s foul-papers.”
“You’ll get used to it. —Papa, you should invite him to dinner.”
“I was about to, my dear,” said Lovell. “There’s your guineas rendered, fair and square. Would ye care to dine with us tomorrow night?”
“Are you sure you want to do that?” said Smith.
“Come now, come on now,” said Lovell, with a grin that seemed, from disuse, in need of the oil-can, to ease the rusty motion of his jaws. “Let’s not let a poor beginning spoil matters. Our compact is made, sir, and if all goes well—if all goes as you promise—why then, there’s no quarrel between us, but the contrary. And you’ve made landing on a far shore, and you’ll thrive the better for a change from hard tack, I’ll be bound.”
Mr. Lovell could not be said to have succeeded in the paternal note he tried to strike, for “impudent pup” and “lying rogue” are not obliging terms, and do not vanish from conversation, once spoken, without leaving a trace of awkwardness: but the invitation was pressed, and at the first refusal pressed again; until Mr. Smith, having found (at least) much in the house to interest him, at last accepted it. The arrangement made, he bowed goodbyes to Miss Tabitha and Miss Flora, and two minutes later found himself back in the street, having been loaned the prentice Isaiah to bear his trunk.
It was now raining in good earnest, and the kennel was running, carrying city swill and city ordure down the centre of Golden Hill Street. Uphill and inland the narrow roadway dimmed to a windy darkness, faintly broken by lanterns. Isaiah swore, and tried to shift the box higher on his shoulders, to serve in the office of a wooden roof, but the weight sank his feet deeper. He was bullcalf-broad of figure beside the spindly, phthisical merchants’ boys Smith knew, and his skin shone with unearthly cleanness, but a Mannahatta youth seemed to share very fully his Eastcheap cousins’ taste for flash in the article of clothes. Isaiah’s coat had more gold lace on its facings than many admirals’ did, though the colour was all paint and not bullion, and his shoes were elaborately double-buckled and pointed in the toes.
“God’s bollocks,” he said again, shifting unhappily. “Where away, then?”
“You tell me, cully,” Smith said amiably. “Where’s clean and comfortable, with a decent chop-house to hand, and won’t bleed my purse too fast? —Not a school of Venus,” he added, seeing a particular light kindle in Isaiah’s eye. “Just a plain lodging.”
“Mrs. Lee in the Broad Way, then,” said Isaiah. “But I hain’t your cully, whate’er that be. I don’t cotton to your cant.”
And he kept a sullen silence as he led Smith over oozy cobbles. It was not a joyous procession, between the half-seen house-fronts, some rising tall in brick and others mere hovels of wood, or black empty lots where animals complained unseen. Everything trickled, gurgled, spattered, dripped; kept up a watery unwelcoming music. The rain drilled in slantwise, as cold as ocean, and almost as immersing, soaking collar and hair, filling ears with icy drams of floodwater, making soused fingers to ache. The few passers-by scurried along at a crouch, holding canvas sacks overhead if they had ’em, and Smith lost his count of the turns through the town-maze that took them to the door upon which Isaiah, after fifteen sodden minutes, knocked. Yet his spirits rose. A task begun is easier than a task contemplated; besides, he was a young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (as he himself had declared) new-born, in the metropolis of Thule. And these things are pleasant still, if the money be of some strange kind easily confus’d with waste paper, if the city be such as to fill you with fear as well as expectation. For what soul, to whom the world still is relatively new, does not feel the sensible excitement, the faster breath and expansion of hope, where every alley may yet contain an adventure, every door be back’d by danger, or by pleasure, or by bliss?
• • •
Mr. Lovell, to whom few things retained the force of novelty, and who misliked extremely the sensation when they did, as if firm ground underfoot had been replaced on the instant by a scrabbling fall in vacuo—was, at the moment the door opened on Broad Way, hesitating in his parlour. Flora was downstairs, commanding from Zephyra the supper that would have arrived whether she commanded it or not. Only Tabitha still sat on the sopha, her hands quite still in her lap. It had been his custom, since his wife died these three years past, to call from time to time on his elder daughter’s intelligence, in the same office her mother’s had served; but now, for particular reasons, the issue might touch on her own self in terms that made advice unwise to solicit.
“Why do you suppose,” he said slowly, “that a young fellow who has money might pretend he does not—or, at any rate, keep it doubtful?”
“Does he have money?” Tabitha asked.
“I think so, yes. I think the rest is all palaver, confusion a-purpose. Sand thrown in our eyes. Why, though, is what I cannot tell. What do you make of him?”
The same question was asked that night by Isaiah of Jem, at the kitchen fire; and again, by the master of the Henrietta of its mate, as the ship rode at anchor, on the swelling black rain-pored skin of the East River.
By morning, the news was all around the town that a stranger had arrived with a fortune in his pocket.
As a mason must build a wall one brick at a time, though the finished wall be smooth and sheer, so in individual pieces did Mr. Smith’s consciousness return to him, the next day, as he lay in the truckle bed of Mrs. Lee’s gable-end bedroom, and assembled the world again.
First, the white ceiling. Then the slow realisation that this was not the dark, damp timber six inches above his nose to which he had woken for six weeks in his bunk aboard Henrietta. Then the memory of his purpose; and the whole variorum mosaic of the evening before; and a burning curiosity. The light through the gable window was full sunshine. He jumped out of the bed in his shirt and threw the casement wide—rooftops and bell towers greeted him; a jumble, not much elevated, of stepped Dutchwork eaves and ordinary English tile, with the greater eminences of churches poking through, steepled and cupola’d, and behind a slow-swaying fretwork of masts; the whole prospect washed with, bright with, aglitter with, the water last night’s clouds had shed, and one—two—three—he counted ’em—six crumbs of dazzling light hoisted high that must be the weathercocks of the city of New-York, riding golden in the hurrying levels of the sky where blue followed white followed blue. The Broad Way, it turned out as he leaned and craned from the window, was a species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad, lined on Mrs. Lee’s side with small trees. Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians were passing in both directions. Somewhere below too, hidden mostly by the branches, someone was sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongue as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.
But Mr. Smith took his time from the hurrying clouds and the hurrying walkers. He splashed his face with water from the ewer, changed his shirt, and threw on his breeches and his coat; descended the stairs in clattering leaps that startled the widow Lee, who was serving porridge and a dish of kidneys to her boarders in the ground-floor parlour.
“Shall you be wanting breakfast, sir?” she asked, with more deference than she was used to show to guests, for the word had reached her too, with the morning’s delivery of the milk, that she was entertaining a nabob unawares: a being so overstuffed with guineas that he might scatter them at the slightest nudge.
“I thank you, no,” said Smith, scarce pausing; “I shall furnish myself as I go. Good day!” And the hall door slammed behind him as he went.
The singer had departed; the street was all business. Which direction to follow? To the left, Broad Way seemed to debouch onto a green common, with a complication of barriers or fences beyond it, but the flow of the traffic favoured, by a majority, the rightward direction, where the houses thickened, and the heart of the town plainly lay; that was the way the barrows of bread and the milk churns were going, and Smith strode with them, almost skipping. The cobbled roadbed seemed to lie along the top of the gentle hummock the island made, between the two rivers, as if it were following out the course of some mostly submerged creature’s spine, with the cobbles as lumpish vertebrae. On both sides the side-streets sloped down, but beyond Broad Way on the side where Mrs. Lee’s door stood—the west side, he calculated—there was only one layer of building, backed by a few scraggy shacks: the lanes descended there to an uncertain shore, where rowing boats were drawn up in clumps of yellow grass, and wading birds stalked on mudflats exposed by the tide. The weight of the town seemed all to be to the east. It was there that the openings revealed descents tight-packed with tall houses in the mode of Amsterdam, where pyramids of doorsteps supported mid-air door-ways. Or rather—looking closer—in the modes of Amsterdam and of London intermingled, for the spindle-thin facades of the one style jostled now against the broader haunches of the other. It was from these windings that Smith had emerged in the rain, last night, and it was into these that the barrow-pushers and the costermongers, the merchants in a hurry and the prentices on errands, steadily streamed away from the main flow of the avenue.
But Smith, in holiday mood, followed Broad Way instead, strolling past a square-towered stone church that might’ve been transplanted (like a rose root in moistened sacking) from any county town of the English shires, and a bowling lawn preserv’d from foot traffic behind railings, a teardrop of perfect green, until the avenue dissolved into a parade ground before a fort, with a blowy esplanade behind, where left and right and all around the bright air showed yesterday’s grey expanse of water turned tossing blue in all directions, crowned with white caps. It was the point, the last, the ne plus ultra of the island; and the burly wind pumped Smith’s chest with tipsy breaths. The silk of the Union flag on the pole within the fort snapped and ruffled, but the fort itself, on inspection, was if not quite derelict then at least distinctly singed, with blackened walls and here and there rooflines broken to bare, scorched rafters. The sentry in the box beside the gate sat head-down, a huddle of red. Only the wooden structure alongside seemed fresh, a contrivance of pale timbers whose function Smith at first could not fathom. A gibbet without nooses? A giant’s enlargement of the vermin board where a zealous keeper nails carcasses of owls, weasels, all rivals who presume to hunt the master’s game? This board was strung with dark blotches and streamers; rustling congealments Smith puzzled at till, leaning close enough, he saw the fibres the wind stirred were human hairs, still rooted in the parchment-yellow of scalps. There must have been forty, fifty, sixty of them nailed there, and close up, they reeked like bad meat. He stepped abruptly back.
Round to the left, the swaying mast-forest beckoned from behind the houses, and now Smith took the invitation of a street’s mouth, and followed into the gullet of the town. Prosperous dwellings, here, with window-glass glinting, and maids swilling doorsteps and stairways clean; counting-houses too, and stalls, and shops; streets a-bustle, heterogeneously, for though the houses were plain as day the domicile of wealth, New-York’s answer to the new-pattern’d squares of the West End, the business of the port was running through them, in mixtures London did not see. Wagoners moving boxes, cases, crates, barrels; fresh-landed emigrant families carrying off their all, looking as dazed (no doubt) as he did himself; a coffle of shuffling black men in irons underscoring the street music with a dismal clank. In London the costers would not have cried their apples at the Lord Mayor’s door, a goldsmith would not have been in business next to a meagre dealership in marine supplies. There were omissions too, as well as unexpected presences. Smith had instructed his brain to ignore the information of his nose—schooled reflex of the city-dweller, in the face of stinks—and it took a little time for his brain to take the news that there were few stinks to ignore. The vapour from the scalps remained the worst of New-York’s bouquet. A little fish, a little excrement; guts here, shit there; but no deep patination of filth, no cloacal rainbow for the nose in shades of brown, no staining of the air in sewer dyes. A Scene of City-Life, his eyes reported. A Country-Walk, in a Seaside District, his nostrils counter-argued. No smells; also, he realised, no beggars. He had been strolling the city’s densest quarter for minutes, and yet no street-Arab children pepper-pointed with sores had circled him round, no gummy crones exhaling gin had plucked his sleeve, no mutilated men in the rags of uniform had groaned at him from the ground. He wandered at his ease among strangers who seemed universally blessed with health and strength and moderate good luck, at least, in life’s lottery. Not to mention height. He was used, in the piazza of Covent Garden, to standing taller by a head than the general crowd; but here, in the busy bobbing mass of heads, he was no taller than the average.
It was perhaps because of this relaxation of the usual irritations of the street that Smith, without taking notice of it, relaxed in turn the town-dweller’s habitual guard, and failed to perceive, as he reflected and considered, that others were meanwhile reflecting and considering upon him. He paused to admire the unloading boats, where an arm of the harbour pushed up among the houses. He passed into a narrow square where printer’s devils ran from door to door with bundles of paper, and smiled on enquiring its name and being told it was Hanover Square, for its London counterpart ran less to ink, and more to ballrooms lit by half a thousand candles. He spied a coffee-house ahead, from which came perfumes of hot bread and well-ground beans, and stopping short of it, did what he would not have done at home, or anywhere he had full conviction he trod the humdrum earth. To try to sift from the unruly cram of Mr. Lovell’s paper a suitable scrap to command his breakfast, he pulled out in the street his whole pocket-book. Quick as a wink, one of his followers dashed forward, snatched it, and took to his heels up the road ahead.
Smith had had his riches in his hand. Suddenly he did not. Smith gawped. Smith stared stupidly at the empty hand where money had been. And a document besides, which— But there was no time for that. Smith hesitated—considered shouting “Stop thief!”—perceived a train of likely consequences—shook his head like a man assailed by flies—and set off in pursuit himself, silently, instead. His moment’s stillness had given the snatcher a lead of twenty yards or so already, and though Smith’s legs pumped and his green coat’s tails flew out behind him, the goal of his chase was slipping deftly between backs, round corners, up alleyways. Now the streets of New-York reeled by, not at a stroll but at a sprint; the same scenes, the same mixture of familiar and unfamiliar chequered close together as black and white squares of a chess board, but accelerated, passing at a blur; in fact, some of the very same route he had trodden the night before, but now had no time to recognise, as he gasped, and pounded, and felt the enforced enfeeblement of his shipboard weeks dragging at his limbs, while the figure ahead, jinking and turning, weaving and bounding, drew no closer, in fact pulled ahead. The thief was thin, with long, straight, black hair, and seemingly tireless legs in grey breeches, and bare dirty feet that twinkled as they rose and fell: that was all Smith could tell as the distance widened.
Now they were running uphill. Smith, seeing the grass of an open space ahead, and deducing that every street here must run upward in parallel to the open ground, whatever it was, resolved on a desperate expedient, and flung himself right at the next cross street, then left uphill again on the next street over, meaning if he could to cut the fugitive off at the top. The street was far emptier here, and Smith made himself squeeze out the greatest pace he could as he bolted upward (as he hoped) in parallel to his wallet. There were no more cross streets: no chances to see if his stratagem was working. Bare walls, poorer doors, empty lots. A hammering heart. Lungs on fire. The top of the street coming up. Smith threw himself left once more and gasped his way across to the top end of the original street, expecting at any moment to catch sight again of his quarry. He turned the corner.
Nothing; nobody. Nobody in sight at all at this end. The currents and eddies of the town’s traffic all flowed other ways, leaving this street, at this moment, as an empty backwater. Just a hundred closed door-ways in the bright morning light, into any of which, Smith saw, realising the magnitude of his error, the thief might have vanished. He could not knock on all of them. He wheeled around. The green space was a ragged common. A cow was gazing at him, chewing the cud in comfortable incuriosity. Any of the bushes might conceal a thief. Then again, they might not.
Mr. Smith put his hands on his knees and breathed; labouring, just as much, to bring his emotions under his control, to stop the indignant working of his mouth, which wanted to form—which wanted to shout—words he would not permit it. When his chest no longer heaved, he smiled, experimentally, at the cow, and if the expression resembled a rictus somewhat, a drawing of the lips from the teeth such as a corpse may perform when the strings of the flesh tighten in death, it was, nevertheless, voluntary, which was the only quality he just then required of it. The cow was indifferent.
Then Mr. Smith walked onto the common, past a cricket-pitch worn to bare dirt at the wickets, past a pot kiln and a charcoal-burner’s fire and a flock of sheep, and found himself a spot between trees where he could feel as sure as may be that he was not observed; and there, in the security he had not bothered to assure himself of earlier, he turned out the coat pocket where he had kept the pocket-book, and investigated his resources. As he had hoped, some of the paper bills had escaped in his carelessness, and were loose in there. But not many. He smoothed them out one by one, and counted. Five—six—six shillings and six—and eightpence—and this dirty spill was a sixpence too—and another shilling. Eight shillings and eightpence, in the money of—he squinted—New-York and New Jersey. The flimsiness of the paper seemed altogether less entertaining now. Plus, he remembered with a burst of relief, the small pile of veritable coin, which he had left in a heap at his bedside. Twenty-nine shillings odd, where he had reckoned on six times as much. He calculated. Could he live as he had planned? No. He would live as he must.
When he rose from his hiding place, his smile convincing once more, the road running along the far side of the common struck him as somehow familiar-looking, and a minute’s walk in that direction confirmed it. It was the Broad Way continuing in the other direction to the one he had set out in. He had circled the whole town; that was New-York, all of it. The far end of the common was blocked with a palisade, and the Broad Way, cobbles diminished into a cart-track, went out through the barrier at another sentry post. At a venture, he asked if the soldier decorating the ground there with spit had seen anyone; anyone running.
“Migh’er done,” he said.
Smith studied the expectant face, and considered the state of his pockets.
“You didn’t, though, did you,” he said.
“No,” agreed the soldier, amiably, and stuck his clay pipe back between his teeth.
With what sadder steps, and slower, Smith retraced his way, the reader may imagine; how the faces of passers-by, which had formerly expressed a cheerful involvement in their own concerns, now seemed locked tight, so many declarations of secretiveness and guile, not to be trusted; how the city itself, a few minutes before remarkable and new, now appeared provincial and small, rustic and contemptible, absurd in comparison to any metropolis of Europe, et cetera, with a mere delusive shine laid upon it by the morning. Even the savour of fresh bread, once he had returned to the coffee-house, stirred his appetite with less relish. He hesitated at the threshold. He had been out of sight of the window when he was robbed, he calculated. Yet he had run past, and might have been seen. Some customer might have been going in, or coming out, at the critical instant. His catastrophe might have been deduced. Well, well: nothing for it but to spin the wheel, and play.
“Service!” he cried, entering a long low room canopied in smoke, diversified with steam, where men (all men) conversed in a gruff murmur that rose and fell like a masculine sea. At an unoccupied table he bounced into a chair and settled with a wide spread of knees, a confident sprawl of legs, a benignant beaming in all directions.
Heads turned, but mildly, slowly; not—he judged—with that quickness that betokens an interest in a drama resumed at its exciting mid-point. Not as if they were expecting Act Two of The Wrong’d Traveller, in which Simon Simple (an ingénu from the country) loses his all to a sharper, and must throw himself upon the dubious mercy of Sir Bartholomew Quorum (a lawyer) and Mrs. Spurt (a bawd). It seemed only the slow stir with which any coffee-house registers an unknown come among regulars; fresh supply of another talking head, loud or wise or foolish as the case may be, to be recruited into the great plural organism of the room, which now and again loses a body or gains a body, as people arrive and depart, but talks on, talks on.
“Yessir?” A boy had bustled up in a white apron. “Tea, coffee or chocolate, sir?”
“A pot of the dark Mahometan, no cow juice.”
“Basket o’ white tommy.”
“Yessir. News-paper, sir?”
“What do you have?”
“Post-Boy, Intelligencer or Monitor, sir.”
“All three, then.”
“Yessir. In a moment, sir. May have to wait for the Post-Boy, sir. Only one copy in this morning, and it’s with those gentlemen over there.” —A youngish pair, one bearded and one in horn-rimmed spectacles, laughing over by the window.
“Just the others, then,” said Smith. “No need to bother ’em.”
The rolls came, smelling of the oven, and the coffee in a pewter pot that London would have called ten years behind the fashion, its sides were so straight and its handle so lacking in decorative folderol. The boy whirled the breakfast in on one tray while he kept two more balanced up his arm; shifted, uncrooked his neck to release the folded pages he’d clamped against his shoulder with his chin; laid them before Smith; spun onward into the next figure of his coffee-house dance. Smith found his appetite returning. He inhaled the rising savours of basket and pot as if they were friends whose shoulders he could throw his arms around, and fell to his meal, munching and buttering, licking crumbs from his fingers while he propped the papers against the pot, and the clatter of plates and speech and the guggling liquid made their familiar music, played continuo.
When he had ate his fill, and proceeded from the urgent first cup and necessary second to the voluntary third which might be toyed with at leisure, without any particular outcry seeming to suggest he should be on his guard, he leant back, spread the city’s news before him, and, by glances between the items, took a longer survey of the room. Session of the Common Council. Vinegars, Malts, and Spirituous Liquors, Available on Best Terms. Had he been on familiar ground, he would have been able to tell at a glance what particular group of citizens in the great empire of coffee this house aspired to serve: whether it was the place for poetry or gluttony, philosophy or marine insurance, the Indies trade or the meat-porters’ burial club. Ships Landing. Ships Departed. Long Island Estate of Mr. De Kyper, with Standing Timber, to be Sold at Auction. But the prints on the yellowed walls were a mixture. Some maps, some satires, some ballads, some bawdy, alongside the inevitable picture of the King: pop-eyed George reigning over a lukewarm graphical gruel, neither one thing nor t’other. Albany Letter, Relating to the Behaviour of the Mohawks. Sermon, Upon the Dedication of the Monument to the Late Revd. Vesey. Leases to be Let: Bouwerij, Out Ward, Environs of Rutgers’ Farm. And the company? River Cargos Landed. Escaped Negro Wench: Reward Offered. —All he could glean was an impression generally businesslike, perhaps intersown with law. Dramatic Rendition of the Classics, to be Performed by the Celebrated Mrs. Tomlinson. Poem, “Hail Liberty, Sweet Succor of a Briton’s Breast,” Offered by “Urbanus” on the Occasion of His Majesty’s Birthday. Over there there were maps on the table, and a contract a-signing; and a ring of men in merchants’ buff-and-grey quizzing one in advocate’s black-and-bands. But some of the clients had the wind-scoured countenance of mariners, and some were boys joshing one another. Proceedings of the Court of Judicature of the Province of New-York. Poor Law Assessment. Carriage Rates. Principal Goods at Mart, Prices Current. Here he pulled out a printed paper of his own from an inner pocket, and made comparison of certain figures, running his left and right forefingers down the columns together. Telescopes and Spy-Glasses Ground. Regimental Orders. Dinner of the Hungarian Club. Perhaps there were simply too few temples here to coffee, for them to specialise as he was used.
The pair by the window were coming over, still laughing, the one in the spectacles bearing the missing Post-Boy. He had a remarkably smooth, white, oval countenance, on which the dark circles of the horn frames made, somehow, a most neatly comic appearance. His hair was the stubble of one who usually wears a wig but is off duty.
“Here you are,” said the stranger, tilting a curious look at Smith. “No trouble, we’ve finished with it. You are welcome, sir, to all the slender pleasure it may give you.” His voice was fastidiously educated and amused. “May I ask—did I just hear you say, ‘No cow juice?’ ”
“It was in the nature of an experiment,” said Smith. “I am newcome, and last night I drew a blank with a London word I thought was plain to all the world. So I made the venture of a little coffee cant today, just to see—”
“Oh, you’ll have no luck with Quentin there, for he’s fluent in every English in which a cupful can be ordered, let alone Dutch, and most other tongues a sailor may bring through the door. French, Spanish, Danish, Portuguese. Latin, if all else fails. Nonne, Quentinianus?” he said, as the boy passed by, deep in trays.
“Sic, magister,” said Quentin, gliding on.
“Will you join me?” Smith asked.
“If you’re sure we don’t intrude—” But they were already pulling chairs around, and waving two fingers at Quentin.
“Septimus Oakeshott,” said the smooth, pale one.
“Hendrick Van Loon,” said the other, pronouncing it with so little Dutch guttural, that Mr. Smith took a moment to find the surname in it. Front of an army; name of a wading bird.
“Richard—” he began.
“Oh, we know,” said Septimus Oakeshott. “I’m afraid that everyone knows, Mr. Smith. You are celebrated before you open your mouth. You are the very rich boy who won’t answer questions.”
“Well . . .”
“Unless, by chance,” put in Van Loon, “you do answer them?”
“Hendrick’s interest is professional,” said Septimus, his comical eyebrows raised high on the blank egg of his forehead. “He actually writes for the Post-Boy.”
“Not wholly professional,” said Van Loon. “My family has dealings with Gregory Lovell, so we are . . . intrigued . . . that you’ve come, Mr. Smith. But it’s true that you’re news. And our friend Septimus here is plying his trade as well, in case you were wondering”—paying Oakeshott smartly back—“for he is Secretary to the Governor, and we suspect him of keeping his ears wide open while he sits here in the Merchants.”
“As opposed to the Exchange Coffee-House, back that way on Broad Street,” said Septimus, pointing a white finger at the wall. “The coffee is better here, and the conversation.”
They both gazed hopefully at Smith. He, understanding that he was in the presence of the two powers of Press and Government, albeit their junior versions, gave his most guileless smile.
“I’m afraid I am exactly as advertised,” he said.
“How unusual,” said Septimus. “Exactly as advertised?”
“What, in every detail?”
“A perfect fit with legend?”
Septimus waited, his face exhibiting the glazed patience of a porcelain owl, to see if there was more; but there was not, for Mr. Smith was as patient as he. More coffee arrived, and the silence lengthened between the two ingenuous faces, with Van Loon glancing amused from one to the other, as if spectating at chess; and it was Septimus who spoke first, resuming the vein of his chatter as if no time had passed at all.
“Then you must be a marvel of nature,” he said, “quite remote from the usual run of mortals. For I am not as advertised, and he is not”—indicating Van Loon. “You could make a little grammar of it. I am not, you are not, he or she or it is not as advertised. Speaking for myself, I rise in the morning, and it takes all the effort of which I am capable—the thought of my pious father the rector, and my six virtuous sisters—to stuff the billowing sackful of whim-whams, impulses and contradictions back behind my face, and turn myself out for the day as a plausible secretary again.”
He laid his white right hand tidily atop his white left hand, on the tabletop. Smith smiled appreciatively, but still declined to come out to play. Septimus tapped the toe of his shoe on the floor. Tap-tap-tap: a foot tutting.
“How disappointing you are, Mr. Smith. I understood you talked. ‘Talked the hind-leg off a donkey’ was the phrase I heard.”
“I prefer to talk myself out of trouble, Mr. Oakeshott. Not into it.”
“Do you anticipate trouble?”
“Do you, sir?”
“Never in life,” said Septimus. They drank.
“This is really very good coffee,” said Smith.
“Yes,” said Van Loon. “It comes from the Leeward plantations, and the voyage is probably shorter than you are used to.”
“I am not speaking officially,” said Septimus. “But if I were—if I had my wig on—then there are several categories of thing we would rather you were not. We would rather you were not a spy. We would rather you were not a hireling of the ministry. We would rather you were not a scoundrel, come to spoil the credit of London paper in the city.”
“I am not a spy or a hireling,” Smith said promptly.
Septimus laughed. You would have thought it would crack the eggshell of his countenance, but his teeth proved as neat and white as the rest.
“For myself,” put in Van Loon cheerfully, “well—speaking for myself as a member of the family, not for the Post-Boy—we would not mind at all if you proved a scoundrel. Pray, be one. For if you’re a fraud, then there’s no drain in prospect on old Gregory’s funds, and our projects with him are not in danger; but he is treating you at present as the genuine article, and so we shall too, and be glad to dine with ye, and shake your hand.”
“Thank you,” said Mr. Smith.
“Now, I had better be getting back to the printing-house,” said Van Loon, rising.
“Would this be of any use to you?” asked Smith, shaking out the page he had drawn from his pocket, and reaching it up. London Prices Current, it said across the masthead, and a date six weeks old.
“Yes indeed,” said Van Loon. “Indeed it would. The Post-Boy would be delighted. These are fresher by a fortnight than any I’ve seen.”
“Take it, then.”
“I thankee. So long, Septimus. See you later, Mr. Smith.”
“Why will he see me later?” Smith asked.
“Because you are dining at the Lovells’.”
“And everyone knows this.”
“They do. It’s a small town.”
“Is it? I see streams of people, all in motion, and ships enough to turn Quentin there polyglot.”
“True. But the ships come and go again, and the most part of the traffic of souls passes straight through. They walk up from the slips to the streets and are gone; the continent devours them. New-York is but a gullet. Few stay. Will you be staying?”
“For a while.”
“Well, if you stay till the snows come, you will discover just how tiny it can be. When the winter takes hold we all huddle in each other’s pockets. Colonial snow is a different article from the domestic: altogether fiercer.”
Septimus was playing with a tea-spoon.
“Do you really have six sisters?” asked Smith.
“Yes. In Hampshire.”
“Hence the name.”
“Hence my name.”
“May I ask you a question?”
“What, another one? Luckily I am in more of an answering mood than you are. Go on.”
“There is a board by the fort, with—”
“Scalps nailed to it. Yes.”
“What are they doing there?”
“They are showing how much we love the French. In order to keep the river valley north of here empty of all but those who speak good English—or Dutch—the Government has a bounty on the scalps of settlers avec un mauvais façon de parler, and once a year the friendly Mohawks bring down their crop to New-York, and we count out the cash. It’s a celebrated local occasion. They march along the Broad Way with their trophies on a pole, and the Governor receives them. I stand on his right. Everybody cheers. You have to remember that here, too, last year was rather tense.”
“I would have thought you were well out of reach of Jacobite troubles.”
“Would you? Were you in London last year?”
“Doing . . . ?”
“This and that.”
“Of course. And what was it like?”
“When the Pretender came marching down on us? A lazy sureness of being secure, till almost the last minute, and then panic so late it was virtually over as soon it was begun. The prince is coming, the prince is coming, the prince is retreating.”
“Ah. Well, here it was long and slow, for the lag of the news kept us in suspense for weeks. Weeks of furious doubt if the next sail into the harbour wouldn’t be a frigate bearing tyranny on its quarterdeck, and orders for us all to turn Papist on the instant—those are words I heard spoken in this room—and nothing to do about it, Europe’s afterthought that we are, politically speaking, but to abide the issue of the quarrel, while snarling (or worse) at any soul within hand’s reach who might be suspected of serving King Louis, from the French cut of their coat. So you see how the appetite would arise for a wholesome parade of savages, lightly blood-dabbled. Besides, we have no theatre.”
“Do you not?”
“No,” said Septimus. “Not since before my time, at any rate.” His foot had begun to tap again, steadily.
“But— Wait a minute,” said Smith, rummaging under the coffee-pot for the news-sheets. “Oh yes—what about the celebrated Mrs. Tomlinson, and her rendition of the classics?”
“That will be an upstairs room over a tavern, and Terpie dressed up as Britannia. Terpie keeps the lamp of culture lit, but her helmet will be gilded cardboard, and every time she misremembers a line, she’ll give a flash of thigh.”
“You don’t approve? Peg Woffington does that every time she takes a breeches role.”
“Mrs. Woffington gives us the thighs as well as the tragedy. I’m afraid with Terpie it’s the thighs instead of. It doesn’t take much to be celebrated here. —I saw her in The Recruiting Officer, you know—Peg Woffington. She was marvellous.”
“Still is. Do you know she’s broken with Garrick?”
“Two years ago.”
“Oh, you brute,” said Septimus. “You absolute brute. Really?”
“Yes. How long have you been here?”
“Four years,” said Septimus. His brows steepled, and a fine upright wrinkle appeared between them: as eloquent a mark of passion, on a face so Toby-jug-like, so china-smooth, as if he were rolling on the floor tearing at his garments, and raving in wild anguish at his exile. The tapping foot accelerated. Smith took pity on him.
“Let’s see,” he said. “The news of the Town: —— has ceased to announce his retirement, and actually retired. The bon ton have flocked to ——, but —— has closed after six performances for want of backers. The fashion for —— has all gone out, but new in the firmament shine —— and ——. Mr. —— is suspected of taking guineas to allow the Marquess of ——’s tragedy onto the boards. The new man in comedy is one Mr. ——. There: is that better?”
“No. Now I only feel more sensibly the miles of water in between.”
“I’m sorry,” said Smith. He smiled. “Well, maybe there’s my opportunity. I should use my famous riches to build you a theatre. Or an opera-house. Turn impresario. What do you think? Give me an orchestra pit and a red velvet curtain, and I shall make you feel you’re in the arms of Aunt England again.”
Septimus narrowed his eyes. The foot stopped tapping. Smith, feeling himself looked at closely, and of a sudden in no friendly spirit, found that he had fallen into a close mimickry of Septimus’ posture at table, from the folded fingers to the tilted head; which mirror-work, executed in flesh and blood, Septimus perhaps took to be mocking, judging by the pursued distaste of the Secretary’s lips.
“Heavens,” he said slowly. “What a lot of different cants you do know, Mr. Smith. But that is too blatant to be pleasing, I think. Too gross a tease. And though I may have been out of the arms of Aunt England, as you say, for a dreadful long time, I think I can still tell when I am talking to a little bold face, and when I am not, thank you; to one who is really a dear little Moorfield toad, and one who only counterfeits being so. —And now I had better go and wait upon the Governor. You may keep the opera-house you offer, sir; but by all means pay for breakfast.”
“Of course,” said Smith, with as little of a detectable pause as he could contrive. “Quentin? Put Mr. Oakeshott’s and Mr. Van Loon’s victuals to my account, would you? I believe I shall be here most mornings.”
“Yessir,” said the boy. “Three shillings and fourpence New-York, then, on the slate, sir.”
Oakeshott had already left, jangling the bell on the door as he pulled it sharply to, behind him; and Smith, who had coloured, did not hurry as he followed; so he was surprised to find Septimus in fact still waiting, outside, beneath the overhang of the coffee-house’s old-fashioned upper storey; hesitantly rubbing or perhaps hesitantly tapping his pointed white chin with one well-cared-for fingertip, his gaze seemingly fixed in fascination on the mastheads of the ships opposite.
“This may be needless advice,” he said. “I don’t know what game you purpose to play here. I think I don’t care to know, unless you force me to take notice. But let me give you a warning. This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do. You would think, talking to the habitants, that all the vices and crimes of humanity had been left behind on the other shore. Take ’em as they take themselves, and they are the innocentest shopkeepers, placid and earnest, plucked by a lucky fortune out from corruption. But the truth is that they are wild, suspicious, combustible—and the devil to govern. They flare up at the least thing, especially at the least touch of restraint, real or imaginary, which they resent as the most bitter imposition, having known so little of it. In all their relations they are prompt to peer and gaze for the hidden motive, the worm in the apple, the serpent in the garden they insist their New World to be. And thus there are few quicker to get a scent of anything . . . odd . . . about a fellow. Anyone with a particular reason to prize their privacy must work at it assiduously; for London is really a very long way away, and if a person were to get into trouble, there would be very little help that could be expected. Only what is here matters, and who is here. The courts are, if anything, more savage than those at home, and even more ruthlessly commanded by party interest. You have walked into a mesh of favours owing, where everybody knows everybody—even if none of them, as yet, know you. Do you know that there is a graveyard here, quite as if it were a real town? I think it would be taking your visit altogether too seriously for you to end up in it, don’t you?”
A sailor had ascended the foremast of the country schooner nearest in to the dock and was painting it with something out of a pail.
“Thank you,” said Smith. “I think.”
“Well, I am not sure I am saying it for your good, exactly. But my sisters would like me to have said it. My father the rector certainly would.”
In Smith’s mind these vicarage figures, who had seemed entirely substanceless, thickened slightly, and for an instant he imagined Septimus as a painfully well-behaved child, playing tidily on the floor while seven high-minded adults stared at him.
“I perceive you are a man of virtue, Mr. Oakeshott,” he said, trying for the lightness of their conversation’s opening.
“Go away, Mr. Smith. —Achilles!” he called, and a tall African of about Smith’s age, wearing livery, with long limbs and a tight knob of a head like the bole of a dark tree, wordlessly unfolded himself from where he had been crouching against the dockside wall, chewing a mouthful of tobacco. He spat into the gutter.
“And shall I see you later, too?” Smith asked Septimus.
“Not tonight. But soon, assuredly, if you stay. Just wait for the dark and the cold to set in; for then, as I say, all the little planets circle closer, jostling for company. Treading on each other’s heels. Good day.”
At six o’clock that evening, in a clean shirt from his trunk, and with the green coat freshly brushed and pressed—Mrs. Lee having consented to include the care of his wardrobe in a rent on the gable-end room of eleven shillings a week (New-York), at which rate his debts would exceed his resources in a fortnight—he presented himself at the town-door of Mr. Lovell’s house on Golden Hill. He was wearing his hair clubbed at the nape and tied with a dark red ribbon. In his hand he held a copy of The Adventures of David Simple, by Mrs. Fielding.
The door was opened to his knock by the maid Zephyra, who rather than letting him immediately in stood stock-still in the door-way, fixing on him the same mute gaze of assessment she had bestowed the night before. Chin lifted, black pupils surveying him with no indication of what they found, the light going in and no intelligence of her conclusions coming back out; this stillness lasting only a fraction of an instant, yet already contrasting strangely with the bustle of the hall beyond, where already-arrived guests, strangers to Smith, a family group by the look of them, were chattering and hanging up scarves and hats upon a peg-board. Then she stood back against the wall, and he stepped over the bar of silence she had laid across the threshold. He had seen the hall of the Lovells’ house last night in shadow. Now it was cheerfully lit with candles in wall-sconces, and the young wood of the panelling shone ruddy yellow.
“Good evening,” said Smith. There was a replying murmur, and heads inclined in nods, but the mother of the group, a short stout busty body with coiffed hair, instead of replying called out through the open door on the opposite side to the counting-house, “Gregory, hij is hier!” and Lovell appeared, in an embroidered waistcoat.
“There you are,” he said, frowning as he advanced, as if, despite inviting Smith to dinner, he had successfully reduced him to a problem in the time intervening, and were now surprised to find he had remained, also, a tangible man. “Well, come in. Come in!”—this last with a sudden joviality that made the pouching lines beside his mouth jerk.
Smith was ushered into a biggish dining-room, where a fire was burning in the grate, the coals hissing slightly, and in a corner beside it a seated African dressed in livery was tuning up a violin. The guests who followed him pressed curiously behind and the faces of those already seated at table turned all Smith’s way as well.
“Friends?” said Lovell. “This is Mr. Smith, my unexpected counterparty. Mr. Smith, may I introduce the Van Loons, these many years our good partners in business, and good neighbours. Mijnheer Van Loon, Piet”—indicating a red-faced patriarch with a square visage swagged north and south with white hair, like a king on a playing card; “Mistress Van Loon, Geertje”—the rounded and coiffed woman, taking her place at the end of the table opposite to Lovell at its head; “Hendrick, George, Anne, Elizabeth”—the younger Van Loons, ranking downward in age, all paler and slenderer than their parents, but taking from them respectively a squarish jaw and a short upper lip showing prominent top teeth; “Captain Prettyman of Mystic, who sails for us both on the Indies run, and who happens to be in port”—a lean weather-beaten bald-head, rising far enough to duck into a half-bow; “Flora and Tabitha, who you know”—the first smiling at him from a nest of Van Loons at the far end, the latter watching him, chin on fist, from the seat next to the one into which Lovell waved him. Hendrick nodded a greeting, with an air, however, less of sympathy than of anticipation, like one who seats himself in the theatre and ruffles out the tails of his coat as he settles himself for the show. “Now, take your ease, Mr. Smith,” said Lovell. “This is Liberty Hall here, you know; no need for party manners in the family.” Tabitha snorted.
The violinist launched into the figures of a minuet, and Zephyra came and went with a tray until the table was loaded with the soups and meats of the first course, in silver dishes stowed among the candelabras. Mr. Lovell carved from a grand ham blackened with molasses. While he passed along plates, and exchanged pleasantries, Smith was able to consider upon the informative and (as it were) strategic design of the plan according to which the diners had been bestowed at table: his own placement amidst the knot of the adult men, where Captain Prettyman and Van Loon senior could rake him from opposite, and Mr. Lovell could contribute enfilading fire from his left, while Hendrick remained just in range should reinforcements be required, and the careful removal meantime from out his conversational reach of all the women except Tabitha, who was presumably considered an armament in herself. Little Elizabeth Van Loon, a solemn eight- or nine-year-old sitting bolt upright in the lee of Piet, he could speak to, but Anne, a sulky fifteen- or sixteen-year-old miss with her mother’s curves, was in the fortified maternal zone at the far end, and so was Flora. “Anneke, if you eat that, it will give you schpots,” Mrs. Van Loon was saying. “Floortje, my dear, would you ask Joris for the chicken?” Joris seemed to be George, one beyond Tabitha, planted squarely between Flora and any Smithian temptations. He was a skinny, hollow-templed youth, more elegantly dressed than anyone else at dinner had bothered to be; and it was not difficult to guess the reason for his sense of occasion, for he had scraped his chair closer to Flora’s, proprietorially, and was loading her plate for her. Of all the faces along the table, his was the only one so unprotected as to show a naked hostility when he glanced Smith’s way. Aha, thought Mr. Smith. Very well.
“A glass of wine with you, sir,” rumbled Piet Van Loon, filling Smith’s glass: his voice, like his wife’s, preserving the Dutch that had vanished from his children’s. Ey glarsch off vein.
“With all my heart, sir,” Smith said, pouring for Van Loon in turn as protocol dictated. “To your very good health! And to the company,” he added, turning to left and right with his claret glass held up between finger and thumb. “You are quite right, sir,” he added to Mr. Lovell. “The change from dining in the wardroom aboard is very welcome.”
“A difficult voyage?” said Van Loon.
“No, sir; just a long one.”
“Indeed. In these days the journey down to the Leewards is long enough for me. I made the greater crossing once, to study in Leiden when I was a jongeling, and that was sufficient for a lifetime. You would not undertake it without some serious purpose, nee?” Van Loon’s periods growled along like barrels on a hard floor.
“Indeed not, sir. There’s a deal of water out there to drown frivolity in. But tell me,” Smith said quickly, for he feared an instant return of the question he must not answer with either truth or lie, “are you then, sir, a native of the city?”
“Naturally. What else should I be?”
“All the Dutch are,” put in Lovell. “They all date back to the old times. Piet is the third Van Loon. He was a ledger clerk in his grandfather’s house when first I laid eyes on him, pricing beaverskins for hats. How they stank; it was August. We had some times, didn’t we?”
“You were prenticed together?”
“No, no, I was bound to Walton’s at that time. Come over on the indenture, and worked a little of this, a little of that. Thought I’d never learn the lingo, and you needed it then, it was Hoogen and Haagen all along the water then. I wheeled in the barrow of skins, and I said to him, ‘Tell me your offer in the Queen’s English—’ ”
“ ‘—for I’ll not onderschtand it if you gargle it,’ ” finished Van Loon. It did not seem a very hearty beginning to a friendship, but Hendrick wore the polite smile that attends an anecdote of family history told often.
“And you still trade for furs, sir?”
“No!” said Van Loon, staring. “That was thirty, forty years ago. What,” he went on, incredulously, “you don’t know on what sort of concern you are drawing your bill?”
“Well yes, sir—Mr. Lovell’s sugar—”
“All the same now, practically,” said Van Loon. “Separate in name, but we have grown together. The cane plantation, together—a leedle more me than him; the ships, together—a leedle more him than me. He distils, I distribute. Together.” And an injury to him is an injury to us both, Van Loon did not have to say. Smith glanced at the far end of the table. Flora was glowing—with happiness, but also with importance; sitting next to Joris as if they had been voted King and Queen of the May. Of course, it made dynastic sense.
“And do you prosper, sir?” Smith had meant by this only the polite enquiry that might be answered with an “I thank God we do” or a “Tolerably, tolerably, I thankee.” But to his surprise Van Loon took it as sceptical probing of the two firms’ credit, which must be answered with a show of convincing detail, and began at once, with an air bordering on belligerence, to paint a picture of loaded hulls bearing New-York flour to the West Indies, and returning freighted deep with sugar, this to be sold up the Hudson as it was or else transformed to rum first; every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera, imported from London to retail, handsomely marked-up, for still greater gain; and those yet further profits spreading out to fund an ever-diversifying empire of schemes. Mr. Lovell, not wishing to be wholly spoken for, began to add in remarks as the advertisement proceeded. Captain Prettyman merely nodded and drank. Smith, listening while helping himself to spoonfuls of a curious orange vegetable, found himself struggling against a sense of unreality, that he should be the object of all this testy boasting. The room swam in the candle-light.
He had dined in a variety of places, in his time. At the tables of the Hanover Square in London, with a footman behind every seat, and the ladies chewing in tiny mouthfuls as if the height of their hair might be imbalanced by larger motions; eating catch-as-catch-can suppers in the chop-houses of Drury Lane or Gray’s Inn with actors hilarious off duty and students gesturing with their forks; in a cellar in Limehouse, gnawing stale bread. There had been middling, commercial invitations too, where as here family and trade mixed at the table. A printer—a prince among printers—had brought him home one night from the coffee-house to drink milk punch in a tall house in Soho filled with tall, laughing daughters, who all had read more books than he. A tiny silk-weaver of Spitalfields had seated him, a Gulliver marooned in Lilliput, amidst his even more diminutive family, velveteen legs a-dangling, to hear a lengthy grace in French and then receive slivers from the smallest fowl in the world, carved apparently with a pair of bodkins. Each had been a separate cell of the great hive. Each cell, be it ne’er so honeyed or so bare, had had its manners, which could be learned. It had been his study to fit whatever part of the honeycomb housed him. But here—though it would suit him now, far more than before the loss of the purse, to fall in with the merchants’ preferences, whatever they might be, or at least not to flout them too scornfully—he must study not to fit. He must remain the mercurial, the unreckonable stranger. That being, by long discussion affirm’d, his best safety.
“Property, farm leases, perhaps soon a privateer,” finished Van Loon, whose red spades of hands had been continually building, building in the air as he spoke. The little girl beside him paused mid-mouthful and gazed across through the candle-flames with round, steady eyes.
“I wonder that you need worry about me at all,” said Smith.
“We don’t, jongeheer, we don’t,” rumbled Van Loon. “We worry about the Governor, and his verdomned excise duties. We worry about the stupid game of soldiers he is playing at Albany. You are an inconvenience at most.” Lovell pressed his lips together.
“What my father means to say,” put in Hendrick, turning away from the quite separate conversation that had been going on up at the other end, “is that your bill is no challenge to our resources. All the same—”
“Nee!” said his father, sharply. “We are not there yet, or anywhere close to there. Let us hear some assurances before there is any making of offers. Tell me, mijnheer,”—the swags of beard jutted up at Smith like the prow of a barge—“do you plan to make your home here with us, or are you passing through?”
“Yes,” said Lovell, “a good question. Settler, or bird of passage?”
Smith hesitated, apprehending the tumble of conclusions that would be drawn, depending on his answer. When he planned his entrance, he had not considered how much more easily an illusion is begun than maintained; especially in the face of a determined curiosity, which could dispense with the shadings of courtesy when it would.
“That will be decided by the success of my business here,” he said.
“You do call it business, then,” said Lovell quickly, “and not an errand of pleasure, or of some other sort?”
“I know not whether you would call it so, sir, but I am bound—”
“By instructions? By the instructions of another?”
“I—” Smith was beginning, when he felt a sharp pain in his ankle. Tabitha had kicked him under the table.
“Talk to me,” she said.
“Hello,” he said, turning with grateful joy toward the scowl whose pressure he had been feeling for some time on his right side. “How do you this evening, Miss Lovell?”
“Bewitching well, I thank you,” she said, “for I enjoy seeing fools struggle.”
“You are stuck like a fly in syrup.”
“And you are holding out your knife to give me a road out.”
“Or to crush you from pity, sir.”
“Tell me,” said Smith, “do you still hold to your low opinion of novels?”
“It was only yesterday’s opinion, and today has not been so rich in incident I’d change it; so, yes. Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased.”
“In that case,” said Smith, fishing out the volume from the coat pocket where he’d thrust it, “will you take my apologies that I have no gift for you, and pass this along to your sister?”
Tabitha took David Simple from his hand—momentary contact of cool fingers—and flipped it open to the title page.
“Ugh,” she said. Her look of contempt would have curdled milk; and yet she seemed to be acting it, too, to be offering it like a card he should recognise in a two-handed game they were playing together.
“What do you want me to do with this?” she said.
“Pass it along,” he said, puzzled.
“Are you sure?”
“Very well.” If you absolutely insist. Then without a pause, and certainly without looking to see where it would fall, she threw the brown octavo over her shoulder, toward Flora’s end of the table. It struck Joris a glancing blow on the side of the head, and flew fluttering downward into Flora’s soup-bowl, which fortunately she had emptied.
Flora cried out, Joris jumped to his feet clutching his temple, Mr. Lovell shut his eyes and bowed his head, breathing out hard.
“Tabitha!” he said sternly; or imploringly.
“Cannot you control this . . . this . . .” stammered Joris, in reedy fury. A hard look from his father quelled him, and Hendrick, rising, reached an arm across the table, and took his brother by the shoulder, and pressed him back into his seat again.
“No harm done,” announced Mrs. Van Loon comfortably, wiping the gravy and crumbs from the book and setting it before Flora, whose hand she patted firmly. “There, now.”
“My dear, we mustn’t startle Mr. Smith,” said Lovell. “We have all the excitement we need, eh?”
Tabitha sat grave and tranquil, hands folded, as innocent as a cat beside a broken milk-jug.
“Remind me not to annoy you,” Smith said to her.
“I will be sure to let you know if you have,” said she.
“I don’t doubt it.”
“So, mijnheer,” said Mrs. Van Loon, raising her voice a little to catch Smith’s ear, “how are you finding New-York?”
“Delightful, ma’am,” said Smith, “and very welcoming to the weary traveller.” Casting about for more particular praise, he remarked that the streets were very clean, and the people amazing tall and healthy-looking, by London standards; altogether a well-favoured city. The greatest novelty for him in the prospect, he added, being the regular presence of slaves, English law only uncertainly permitting them, and the trade therefore seldom bringing Africans over.
“Only the profits, eh?” said Lovell.
Zephyra came in and cleared the dishes; returned, in relays, with the second course, arranging vermicelli, fruits, cheeses and fish on the table, with a new decanter of wine, and placing a tankard of beer on the floor beside the violinist-slave; who contrived a cadence with some sound of closure to it, broke off, and drank. Without the music, the murmur of resuming conversation seemed louder, more exposed. It was harder for two independent conversations to be maintained, and soon all the heads at Mrs. Van Loon’s end of the table were turned to follow the talk at Mr. Lovell’s. The interrogation of Mr. Smith continued; but now Tabitha was participating too, at Smith’s side if not on it.
“You must see, sir, what a puzzle you have put us in,” said Lovell. “And that it does you little service to have us thus . . . bemused.”
“How so?” asked Smith, obligingly.
“Why because, if you will not affirm one of the virtuous possibilities for your being here,” said Tabitha, “our minds will race to the vicious reasons.”
“Yes,” said Lovell. “You make yourself out too frivolous for business—”
“I proclaim I am in earnest—”
“Then, what merchant house do you represent? Or what venture are you engaged in?”
Mr. Smith only raised his eyebrows.
“As I say, too frivolous for business; and if you are a man of wealth, set on some tour of pleasure, no need for hugger-mugger, all being glad to assist where a thousand pound is to be spent. So,” continued Lovell, “our natural fear must be, that you are something in the political line, bent on some mischief, the doing of which may redound to our harm. You need but speak, to take the imputation off. An honest man need have no secrets.”
“Do you say so, sir? Some honest purposes require delicacy.”
“Delicacy!” said Captain Prettyman on a sudden, his voice unexpectedly hoarse and high. “Ye’ve come to the wrong place for delicate people.” He seemed to find the word offensive. “Plain men for the plain daylight, that’s our preference.”
“And me for night’s black agent, if I hold my tongue? I assure you,” said Smith, grinning, “you may discount me as a politico, for I don’t know your controversies here, to meddle in ’em.”
“ ‘Night’s black agent’ is Macbeth,” pointed out Tabitha, to the company at large.
“I thought you didn’t read,” said Smith.
“Well,” said Lovell, ignoring this, “I am sure you know that the Governor and the Assembly are at daggers drawn—”
“—and both sides looking to, let’s say, oil up the undecided—”
“—for which a thousand pound might be a handy sum. But you know this.”
“Sir, I don’t. I am an ignorant blank, a tabula rasa, a page not smirched with the ink of knowledge.”
“Nor’s that the worst that may be, when a man creeps into a city in time of danger with a bag of gold. Since King George’s War began—”
“The present war with the French, sir,” said Lovell, irritably. “That, you have heard of, I think?”
“Perhaps it goes by another name in England, Papa,” said Tabitha. “We call all our wars, here, by the names of monarchs; as, King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, King George’s.”
“What royalists you are!” said Smith, lightly.
“Is that intended as a fling at our patriotism?” said Lovell. “I may tell you,” he went on, knocking on the table for emphasis with a forefinger, “that His Majesty has no more loyal subjects than us, and that if we object to the dangerous conduct of our idiot Governor, it is not for want of any zeal against the Frenchies, nor against their Papist savages, neither. We hate the Pretender, sir, and we hate the garlic-eaters, and we don’t abide their intrigues, not for one minute. No; we only stand by our rights as Englishmen, and ask why the upper Valley must be stirred up to no purpose, and troops garrisoned upon honest men who never consented to them, and never voted funds for their supply. When all know that a standing army is a maggot in the state, a caterpillar feeding on liberties. Sir.”
Smith turned to Tabitha, his face a mask of polite puzzlement.
“Governor Clinton has encamped two regiments of regulars at Albany, meaning to march them north on campaign, but the Assembly of New-York will not pass the bill to feed them,” she said, concisely. “As we speak, chickens are going missing all over Albany County.”
Smith smiled reflexively.
“That is not really a joking matter, sister, is it?” said Hendrick to Tabitha.
“And I am not really your sister, am I?” said Tabitha. “Not yet.”
“Let us say all this is truly nothing to you,” said Van Loon to Smith, talking across their exchange as if it were not happening. “You have not heard our gossip, you are not mixed up in it.” Mikscht opp. “Everything you know about is far away, back in London.”
“Alas, alas, Babylon, that great city!” squeaked the Captain.
“So, why so cautious? Why do you object so much that we should know what you plan to do with the money of friend Gregory, here?”
“Mine, sir, surely; my money, when the bill is honoured.”
“True, true: you may say so at quarter-day. But that leaves you still sixty days—”
“Fifty-nine now, sir—”
“—to set our minds at peace. And perhaps to make friends of us, hey? You should consider how much we may be able to help you, with any righteous purchase in your mind.”
“Is it the law here, sir, that money must explain itself?”
“Not the law, Mr. Smith, nor even the custom.” Tabitha leaned forward into the candle-light, the dark silk of her dress gleaming. “Our grandees go unmolested, I assure you. Mijnheer Philipse can walk up Broad Street without a soul tugging his sleeve and asking what’s in his pockets; Mr. De Lancey can rule in the court without the plaintiff saying, ‘Now, sir, what’s this about the block for lease by Rutgers’ Farm I hear you’re buying?’ Mr. Livingston can take his pinch of snuff in the Black Horse without the waiter asking, ‘Wheat or oats for you, sir, this sowing season?’ ”
“I am not the damned waiter at the Black Horse, my dear,” said Lovell wearily. “I am this gentleman’s creditor, seemingly. We all are, you included—and are due, if all’s square, to hand him a budget for who-knows-what. Which gives us a very natural interest, as I say, in learning what mischief he purposes.”
“Yes, Papa. I know. You only look like a waiter,” said Tabitha, wriggling her shoulders. “But what’s Mr. Smith’s interest in telling? You must set subtler bait.”
“My interest,” said Mr. Smith. “My interest?” He shot his cuffs and stretched both hands out, palm down, fingers wide as if he were playing octaves, before him, so that all eyes were drawn to them expectantly, and all could see they were empty, and there was nothing between the fingers. “My interest”—he clapped his hands hard together, making the company jump—“is all for your delight.” And quickly he stretched a long green-clad arm between the candles, to cup the ear of silent little Elizabeth opposite. His hand twisted; her mouth opened in an O to match her eyes.
“Sihirle, para bulmak!” he cried. Between his fingers silver flashed. He flipped the coin in the air so it made, briefly, a glittering sphere, and presented it. “For you,” he told her. “Precious metal out of thin air.”
But Lovell seized Smith’s wrist, tilted it and squinted.
“Out of my cashbox, if I’m not mistaken.”
Elizabeth looked at her father.
“You may take it, Lisje,” he said. And to Smith: “What tongue was that?”
Lovell released his grip.
“Conjurer’s gibberish, surely,” said Hendrick.
“In fact, no,” said Smith. “Turkish. It seemed fitting, since the coin is so too.”
“You speak Turkish? A strange knack for an Englishman.”
“Just a few words, sir, gained on my travels.”
Tabitha, though, had been gazing intently not at Van Loon and her father, nor at Elizabeth, nor even at the piece of money, but at Smith’s hands. She tilted her head from one side to the other and back again, as if settling something into place. A flickering smile appeared on her lips, narrower than her sister’s, and roseleaf-brown in the shadows at the edge of the candle-light. It was the first Smith had seen there.
“No, Mr. Smith,” she said softly, “that is not your interest.”
• • •
Scarves and coats in the hall; a squadron of departing Van Loons. It was only half past nine; Smith wondered what he was going to do with the rest of the evening. The women had not withdrawn when the meal was done, in the usual way, possibly he guessed because an effort was being made to keep Flora and Tabitha apart. Flora, in fact, was pulling a coat on too: the Van Loons had enfolded her, and were carrying her off to a game of cards in their house two streets away. Tabitha remained at the table while Zephyra cleared it, the men talking around her. “You will call again, won’t you, Mr. Smith?” she had said, looking up at him. “Oh, of course,” said Lovell, without visible alacrity. “Why not.”
“I’m sorry they were so rough with you,” Flora said now, in the hall, her face flushed prettily, a tendril of fair hair hanging down. Joris tugged at her arm.
“They comported themselves very reasonably,” said Smith.
“Well, then I’m sorry that Tabitha was so very . . . Tabitha.”
“She has a temper,” Smith agreed.
“She has a demon,” said Flora, seriously.
Smith waited at the stairfoot for the buttoning to be complete. The framed thing was in front of him that had sparkled in the dark, the night before. It was not a picture, he saw now. It was a shallow box filled with whorls and loops of some brittle material encrusted with flecks of light. It drew the eye in: coils balanced countercoils in there, curls countercurled around other curls, in minuscule filigree. The colours were mineral. It was like looking into the bottom of a rock pool when the pebbles shine in sea-contrived patterns, or at the floor of a cavern cysted by patient droplets. It was a petrified forest, a hard little, subtle little garden.
“What is this made of?” he asked Hendrick, who was next to him.
“Paper. You haven’t seen one before? It is called quill-work. Very frustrating, very difficult. A recreation for clever girls who don’t have enough to do. The shiny parts are ground glass, glued on. But you have to be careful. You can easily cut yourself, hey?”
• • •
“What do you make of him?” Geertje Van Loon asked Piet that night, in their box bed with the damask curtains. “What do you make of him?” the printer’s devil asked Hendrick, inking the pages of the new Post-Boy.
By morning the news was all around the town, from the Bowling Green to the Out Ward, that the stranger was a Saracen conjurer, and quite possibly an agent of the French.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Golden Hill includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger who has just arrived by ship knocks at a counting-house door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion simmering. For in his pocket, he has an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?
Rich in language and historical perception, Golden Hill paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later metropolitan self but already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love—and find a world of trouble.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “What a difference a frame makes!” thinks Mr. Smith while first looking in on the room occupied by Tabitha, Flora, and Zephyr, less than an hour after arriving in New York (p. 10). What difference does the frame of Golden Hill, revealed in Tabitha’s postscript on pages 295-299, make in your understanding of the novel? What difference does it make in your enjoyment of the novel?
2. Saracen conjurer, agent of the French, actor, rogue, mountebank: Mr. Smith is called each of these things at some point during his time in New York. Which label is most fitting and why?
3. Mr. Lovell offers a definition of “commerce” in the following: “Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir. Commerce is putting a hand in answer into a hand out-stretched” (p.5). How does this definition apply to Mr. Smith’s mission as revealed later on? Would you call his purpose in New York “commerce” or something else?
4. Though he is never identified, who do you think the long-haired thief who stole Mr. Smith’s pocket book is? For whom was he working?
5. Golden Hill is set in 1746, eighty-two years after Manhattan passed from Dutch to British sovereignty, and thirty-seven years before it became American. Describe the various attitudes of the Manhattanites toward Britain and Holland. Where do you see fault lines that portend the coming revolution?
6. Examine Mr. Smith’s dreams during his nights of fitful sleep, first on Septimus’s too-small sofa (p. 89-90), and later on the night after his thumb is branded (p. 266-267). From the chessboard to the “wine-coloured snowman,” what do the symbols in these dreams reveal to us about Mr. Smith and his feelings toward his mission?
7. Why was Tabitha pretending to be crippled? Why do you think Mr. Smith refrained from asking her to explain her behavior (p. 97)?
8. Cato, the play put on by Septimus, is the account of the final hours of Marcus Porcius Cato, a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric, and resistance to the tyranny of Caesar made him an icon of virtue and liberty. As Septimus says, it “tickles all the themes that New-York loves best.” Considering the political atmosphere of New York in 1746, do you agree? Considering the New York City of today, do you agree?
9. “A villain is hard to do without,” says Mr. Smith to Septimus, about the role of Sempronius in their production of Cato (p. 205). Who, if anyone, is the villain of Golden Hill?
10. Mr. Smith says a phrase to Zephyr in the Ghanaian language Twi that is not translated: “Aane, me ara ni nnipa a wo twen no” (p. 288). What do you think he is saying to her?
11. Mr. Smith tells Tabitha that she is “a bird and a cage” (p. 281). What does he mean? Is this true of other female characters in the novel? Is this true of Mr. Smith himself? What other literary figures or film characters fit this description?
12. Golden Hill presents a society in which novels are shown to inspire addiction (Flora consumes them “like laudanum”) as well as aversion (Tabitha calls them “Slush for small minds,” “pabulum for the easily pleased”). Find other examples of meta-textual references throughout Golden Hill, including places where the narrator overtly intrudes upon the story. How do these moments force us to reevaluate the novel’s universe and purpose? What shortcomings of the novel as a form do these moments expose?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Immerse yourself in Mr. Smith’s New York City by finding maps of Manhattan and the surrounding region from the early 1800s. Locate streets and landmarks mentioned in Golden Hill.
2. Research picaresque novels and decide if Golden Hill fits into the traditions of the genre. Read another modern picaresque novel from the list below and compare its style to Golden Hill. What qualities do they share?
Handling Sin by Michael Malone
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
3. Revisit the poems recited by Sinterklaas (Judge De Lancey) about Hendrick, Mr. Lovell, Piet Van Loon, Mr. Smith, and Tabitha on pages 192 – 197. Take turns composing poems about other members of your book club that “praise the virtuous, at this time / And pay back wickedness, in rhyme!”
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Francis Spufford
"Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased." That is Tabitha Lovell's opinion of novels; unhappily for her, she is a character in one, Francis Spufford's Golden Hill. Fortunately, however, Golden Hill is a delight: largely set in 1746 Manhattan, it tells the story of Mr. Smith, a young Englishman who shows up with a note saying he is owed a thousand pounds, and finds himself an object of suspicion for most members of the still-rather-small colonial city, including the sharp- tongued but flirtatious Tabitha; her father, who may have to pay the bill; the governor's secretary, Septimus Oakeshott; and Septimus's secret lover, Achilles, the governor's slave. The tale of the mysterious Mr. Smith, published last year in the United Kingdom, was named the best novel of 2016 by the British Sunday Times.
It also won the Costa Book Award for best first novel, despite arguably being Spufford's second novel, after the hard-to-classify Red Plenty, his engrossing, ambitious retelling of the early years of the Soviet Union. ("It's like a rigid tree of historical explanation with nice, juicy fictional fruit growing on it," Spufford suggested of that book.) Before that hybrid work, Spufford spent a couple of decades writing nonfiction on a dizzying array of subjects, including British inventors (Backroom Boys), polar exploration (I May Be Some Time), a defense of Christianity (Unapologetic), and a personal history (The Child That Books Built).
I spoke with Spufford on a Skype connection to his home in Ely, an English town just north of Cambridge. (He sent a friendly email in advance of the conversation, warning, "I'm an Englishman who struggles with wearing a tie, and other really basic types of form and ceremony.") Spufford slouched in his chair as words came tumbling effortlessly out of him. "I'm the king of my books, I'll have you know," he said with amiable hauteur. He laughed, and reconsidered toning down his bravado, but only slightly. "The benign dictator for life, anyway." The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Gavin Edwards
The Barnes & Noble Review: Do you have an ideal reader?
Francis Spufford: No. I'm writing the books I want to exist because I'd like to read them, so maybe there's a mirror image of me on the other side of the table. But whoever it is, ideally, they should be a glutton for irony. They should like story for the sake of story and long, intricately braided and knotted sequences of events. They should be curious. They should like weird facts for their own sake, and they should also like the taste of language in the mouth. They should be the kind of person who opens a dictionary and goes, Ooh, it's a picnic.
BNR: Your books' subjects have ranged from polar exploration to the economic history of the USSR how did you end up with such a broad remit?
FS: The things I'm interested in writing about are very often things that don't fall within my tastes and my temperament. I like reaching out over the edges of myself because that's more interesting.
BNR: So how did you end up writing about Manhattan in the 1740s?
FS: A random effect of visiting New York: suddenly realizing that once you got down below the grid, the southern tip was strangely like the city of London, down to the same street names. And like the city of London now, also burned down by great fires. So you've got a pre-modern net of lanes with enormous glass temples of international finance growing out of them. And I thought, heavens, this is still haunted by the city that was.
I got a photocopy of an eighteenth-century street map and tried to walk lower Manhattan to see if it was still there. And it kind of is, apart from the fact that the shoreline has gone outwards about a block all the way round. There's nothing above ground level so far as I could see, apart from the tombs in Trinity Church and Bowling Green which has the same railing around it, although the crowns were snipped off the top with the Revolution.
BNR: Oh, Bowling Green must have literally been a bowling green.
FS: It was, for the colonists to enjoy on Saturday afternoon. Imagine men in wigs and ladies in full skirts playing skittles there. And I thought, there is a buried sisterhood between this city and London. Wouldn't it be interesting to think about the moment before one shared Anglo-American identity split into two different things? But I also had a story I wanted to tell, and I realized the setting and the story would fit very nicely together.
BNR: The story had been bubbling in a separate pot?
FS: The pot that it eventually went into seems so inevitable now that it's slightly difficult to remember. But I did have bubbling away in my mind a storyteller's question: What would happen if a con artist fell in love with a compulsive liar? Those are not accurate descriptions, as it turns out, of either Mr. Smith or of Tabitha. But that was my starting point: two people who are unable to tell the truth to each other but who are doing the dance of mutual attraction. What would happen there?
Then I thought, this needs to happen in a very small setting, the classic village of fiction where everybody knows everybody's business. There should be a stranger coming to town, and the stranger should be from a city. The stranger should be convinced that he's a sophisticate among the rubes, but actually he's somebody who has no idea how to cope in an environment where everybody knows everybody's business.
BNR: There's a line in the musical Hamilton that New York City is "the greatest city in the world." While that's flattering to Broadway audiences, I don't think most people in the eighteenth century thought of New York as the greatest city in the world.
FS: They didn't. The strange thing is that it was urban in feeling, even though there was hardly any of it. But Philadelphia was the financial center; New York was this slightly provincial place that exported flour to slave plantations down in Barbados and Jamaica. And in return, turned sugar into rum. Not cosmopolitan. On the contrary, rather suspicious and narrow, Anglo and Dutch and African and very suspicious of the outside world, particularly if it spoke French.
In some ways, satisfyingly the opposite of everything you associate with New York City now. Very small rather than huge, ethnically exclusive rather than a vast melting pot. Very pious rather than being possibly one of the secular places on earth. Very closed and paranoid about the outside world rather than open and curious. And yet, to my fascination, I could still see a recognizable New York–ness in the New York of the 1740s. Even when you can walk end to end in ten minutes, even when everybody in it thinks they're British or Dutch, there is still something about it as a deal-making city living on its wits, already sure that it's the center of something, even if they don't know what yet.
BNR: And it was littered with coffeehouses.
FS: Only two! There were two rival coffeehouses, which is why Mr. Smith is confused, given that London has got hundreds of the things. That's all you needed to cover the population. There was one slightly more glamorous and high-end coffeehouse, which is the one Mr. Smith does his coffee drinking in. And one slightly down-market rival, and the rest were basically cellars where you could drink gin.
BNR: There are some interesting moments when your narrator is trying to catch up with the action of a card game or swordplay. I don't want to give the identity of the narrator away . . .
FS: That particular secret I'm going to try and keep back even though, you know, it takes one second on the Internet to find this stuff out. I'm going to behave as if there's still a point in putting in spoilers. But what I wanted to happen was for the reader to work out gradually that there's actually a game going on inside the game. What you think is a classic omniscient eighteenth- century narrator, like Henry Fielding in Tom Jones he knows everything about everything and can launch into a charming, rambling disposition about it at any moment rather than being that, you would gradually realize that the voice of the novel was literally a voice and that somebody was speaking to you. And of course, to make it satisfying, that has got to be somebody you know from within the cast. And the clues are supposed to build up gently, like the first flakes of snow falling to the ground. It's a very wintry novel.
BNR: What unites your diverse catalog of books?
FS: Not a lot. I'm a really slow writer. The un-mysterious truth is that by the time I've finished laboring my way to the end of a book, I'm ready for a change of subject. Possibly something has appeared in the corner of my eye, an illicit indulgence I shouldn't be thinking about because I should be finishing this thing. But there's usually some kind of thread. My next novel is about London, because London has been in my head because of thinking about Mr. Smith being a Londoner.
Before that, there is, strangely enough, a connection between Golden Hill and my previous book, Red Plenty: they're both novels about economics. They're novels in which the way people deal with money is kind of a big part of the human story, only I've gone from twentieth-century Russia and long-lost utopian fantasies about what Communists could do with computers, back two centuries to the even-longer-lost world of how people transmitted money round the globe in the centuries before the Internet, before Western Union, before instantaneous communications. How on earth, short of physically moving a large steamer chest full of gold coins, do you move a large sum of money across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century?
They had answers to this question. But they depended fascinatingly on relationships of trust and on paper trails and on what economists would call symmetrical information, where each party in the transaction knows about as much as the other. If one of those things goes wrong, if somebody is keeping secrets or there's a reason not to be trusting, then you've got a story.
BNR: Does writing induce the same fugue state for you that reading does?
FS: When writing's going well, it doesn't seem to have any discernible sensation at all. You're aware of the work rather than being aware of yourself until hours have gone past and you need the bathroom or you've suddenly discovered you're hungry. And in some ways, that is very like my childhood experience of being lost in somebody else's book.
Weirdly, I don't read like that very much as an adult now. I'm much more easily distractable thank you, smartphones, thank you, parenthood. Also I think I'm not sure I'm as good as I was a child at just being handed a world like that. I think I'm talking back to what I read more these days. I haven't actually ever made that connection but on good days there is a connection between the way I used to read and the way I write.
On bad days, writing is an endless, chafing misery of self-criticism and frustration: I could never do this, it was an illusion for the last twenty years of being some kind of bizarre fever dream, and actually I am incapable of this. I am a laughable pretender, and it gets even worse when you go into a bookshop because it's full of highly competent writing by other people.
BNR: Is this the room where you write?
FS: Not that often. I'm addicted to writing in cafes, because my coffee intake rivals Mr. Smith's, and I like the gentle noise of a cafe around me. I find it easier to concentrate and tune in to the soundtrack of whatever it is I'm writing if there's something human going on around. Whereas this room is very quiet and very beautiful and there's an enormous cathedral outside the window, can you see that?
BNR: I can!
FS: My wife's an Episcopalian priest, and she works just over there. But it's almost intimidatingly lovely around here, so I seek out coffee and normality.
BNR: There was a line in your introduction to the anthology The Ends of the Earth: "Being in Antarctica is also a constant reminder of language's secondary status, of description's belated appearance on any scene." I was wondering if the inadequacy of language for describing what is actually around us was part of the impulse that led you towards fiction.
FS: Yes. I am somebody who habitually lives both quite a lot in my head and quite a lot in words. And every now and again you get an important collision with everything which isn't you and isn't made of words. One of the reasons I was interested in ice and snow and wilderness, why I started my writing career, is that that was an environment that people could mythologize to their heart's content, but it was also an environment that put up total silent resistance to the things people say about it. If you've ever been to the Arctic or the Antarctic, the idea that some polar explorer on some tiny ship could be in a position to say what all of that means is just ridiculous.
So I am both a language person through and through and somebody very much aware that words have limits. It seems to me that fiction, if you're lucky, lets you do a kind of tricky judo on what's not sayable, and you can throw the arms of words around lumps of what words actually can't do.
BNR: What have you been reading and enjoying lately?
FS: I've got Lincoln in the Bardo in the stack beside my bed. I teach writing, so I've got a lot of student work underneath Lincoln in the Bardo, but they're just going to have to wait until I get to the end. A lot of books about London, one way and another. I still haven't read Donna Tartt's third one; there's a copy of The Goldfinch waiting for me to have time to do it properly. There is a steady flow of science fiction. Robert Jackson Bennett City of Stairs, City ofBlades, City of Miracles he's very good indeed. I rate a New Zealander called Elizabeth Knox, who writes both YA fiction and adult literary fiction. I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao [by Junot Díaz] about ten years after everybody else did and I thought that was great. N. K. Jemisin, I'm reading the fantasy trilogy [the Broken Earth series] with seismology as its secret source. They're marvelous. A British expat writer in New York called Felix Gilman, who wrote a completely wonderful book called The Half-Made World. I could keep going.
BNR: What has been the most surprising thing about the reception of Golden Hill?
FS: Well, my bar for success was set low, because I was genuinely apprehensive about letting go of the handrail of nonfiction and not having any verifiable real-world story to tell anymore. So my first ambition for the book was that it would not cause people to laugh and point in the street. I achieved that, I'm proud to say. But I was not expecting it to take off in the U.K. as much as it has. It has sold a large multiple of the amount any of my previous books has sold. It's winning prizes. Total strangers are reading it and writing me letters about it in a way that suggests that they're invested in the reality of the characters. They want to know what really happened at the end.
BNR: Do you have an answer to that question?
FS: Ummmm . . . maybe. The truth is I have a half- definite idea. I opened a whole can of futures at the end. I know that some of them didn't happen. I would have preferences. Who am I to say, really?
BNR: Just wait a few years. Someone will offer a large check for a sequel, and you'll find you have very definite preferences.
FS: Actually, I tried my best to eliminate the possibility of a sequel, with a combination of being destructively definite about some things and categorically vague about other things. I can actually see the possibility of a prequel in which Septimus and Achilles do espionage among the Iroquois.
BNR: See, you're clever enough that you're already finding ways to wriggle out your own straitjacket.
FS: This is the trouble with the straitjackets you manufacture yourself. You know where all the straps and buttons are.
June 27, 2017