How does Jeremiah Mount, the dealer in pornography, come to be the lover of the Duchess of Albemarle and the colleague of the great Samuel Pepys? In Pepys' Diary, Jem Mount plays a shadowy role, but in Jem's own memories Sam looms large. Friends and drinking partners at first, they become vicious rivals for fame and women. In his struggle to survive and triumph over his adversary in a rackety world, Jemm stumbles into many trades: chemist, butler, soldier, secretary and, now and then, lover.This 'newly discovered autobiography' - with its disconcerting echoes of our own time - takes its dubious hero from the shaky days of Cromwellian England, through the unbuttoned license of the Restoration, to the panic of Monmouth's Rebellion and the Jamaica sugar boom.
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I remember first the blossom.
It was apple blossom for the most part, but on the slope down towards the marshes there was a pear orchard as well. At first it appeared all white but then pink when I came close and ducked down under the boughs to escape from my schoolfellows, Tommy Court, Lob Loader and Bare-arse Jack Scott. I was always the one they chased, not because I was the runt of the litter but because I could show them the best sport. Jem for our hare, they would cluck, and off I went, running bent like an old man for miles under the apple boughs, until my hair was full of the blossom and my head was as hoary as my grandfather Ralph's. But by then I would have lost the hounds and I could amble along the bank of the Drain it has a learned name too, the River Reculver, but we all called it the Drain, for that was its usage and I would draw aside the rushes and look down into the foul water in the hope of seeing a drowned maid or at least a water-rat. My mother was always telling stories about girls who had thrown themselves into the Drain because they'd been got with child. But I never saw anything there but a few sticklebacks. Then I would lie clown in the grass to recover my breath and look back at the white blossom covering the hill. The day was so bright that I could not see where the hill ended and the sky began.
They were but low hills in our country, for the land was all marsh down to the sea five miles away. On a clear day, if there was no sun, you could descry (but barely) the ships roving out atanchor in Herne Bay and count their masts, the country was that flat. Our own church at Churn was itself as a ship with a queer spire like a mast and a hipped roof which had the aspect of sails. You could climb into the little gallery below the spire and fancy you were a cabin boy in the crow's-nest, giving warning of land on the Spanish Main.
That gallery served also as a refuge from my mother. She was the one I took after, being tall and black. Even then I was nearly two yards tall like the late King and as dark as he, or black-avized, as our ponderous rector Mr Hignell would have said. My mother was not much shorter, but my father was a little fluffy man with red cheeks, and my sisters took after him, so that when my mother and I quarrelled we were as two ravens croaking at one another while a flock of fieldmice fled and hid themselves.
My father was seldom indoors and scarcely sat down to eat as he came in muttering some foolishness about the cows must be moved from one field to the other when he had only put them there the day before, and he would be out the back door again with his bread and cheese still in his hand. He was a futile restless man who always sold his calves too early or cut his hay too late. We did not bandy words for he could not abide prolonged discourse, except to his cows whom he would coax and reproach with all the speech he dared not use to us.
But my mother ah my mother. Her voice was as resonant as a bell, but one that is cracked. I have heard Welshwomen with such voices, so that when they are talking to their husbands in bed, it is as though they were whispering fond nothings in your own ear. Not that my mother's nothings were fond. Her perceptual powers belonged to the supernatural order. She could tell when I had failed to construe my Latin even before Mr Hignell our rector and schoolmaster had remarked on my errors, she knew when my underlinen was dirty though she had not seen it, when I had teased the neighbour's cat before it mewed. Then would come that harsh low call Jeremi ah, Jeremi ah and the indictment exact to the last particular. When I complained that I was the universal scapegoat, my sisters would say that I was unkind and that she persecuted me because she loved me the best and expected the most of me. Did I not remember how she would tickle me and call me Jemmy Junket? But I could not explain how even these sunny interludes alarmed me for they were so precarious, the sun so easily turning to storms, the tickling to pinches and slaps. When I was almost grown, I must yet stand like St Sebastian while she supplemented her verbal injuries with her fists which struck as sharp as flints. So when I saw the storm brewing, I would slip out of the back door past my father singing lullabys to his flyblown herd and pelt up the spiral steps to the gallery.
It was an ancient church, and the parish was yet more ancient, founded by St Augustine himself, and second only to St Martin's in Canterbury. Mr Hignell was much possessed with such matters and spent his hours of leisure (which were numerous, for he was an idle greasy man who never visited the sick and who paid a clerk to conduct his services) in useless study of the old charters and registers that were kept in the vestry.
The church possessed a mill upon the Drain and Mr Hignell had title to the revenues of it. But the water was so low and the current was so sluggish that except in times of flood it would not turn the mill wheel. In a dry summer the farmers took off their corn to the great mill at Stourmarsh and so Mrs Scott, a widow woman who kept the mill, had scarce a penny to feed her son and none to pay Mr Hignell.
One day we were lying on the bank by the race (though to call it a race is a melancholy irony, for it had barely strength enough to shift the water-daisies) and I saw Mr Hignell go into the mill with his broad black hat on, and the door shut behind him. The sun beat hot on our backs. We tickled Mary Court (Tommy's sister) with straws and her face grew red and Tommy told us to stop and Bare-arse Jack (his mother was so poor he had once come to school with breeches that were torn at the back) said he would push Tommy into the stream but in pushing Tommy he pushed me too and I was the one who fell in, but even in the race the water came up no higher than my knees and I stood there wreathed in daisies like Ophelia swearing mock vengeance on Jack Scott. He towered there above me on the coping stone, tall and black as I was, his ragged breeches falling off him, shouting insults at me. Then behind him I saw the door of the mill opening and Mr Hignell clapping on his hat and Mrs Scott coming out and she was weeping.
Mr Hignell had them out of the mill before the week was done and we heard they left the country before the year was out. We knew no more of them which I was sorry at, for Bare-arse Jack made me laugh. It was not the last I knew of Mr Hignell, or of his lessons that were both tedious and painful. As is common in that profession, at least among schoolmasters who are bachelors, beating boys was his great diversion. If you misbehaved in church or were idle in lessons, he would have you held down by his poor creature, Voules the beadle, and waddle half a dozen yards back and then come at you with his birch, grunting like a pig as he came. I perceived that he took an unwholesome pleasure in this chastisement and after he had beaten me once for whistling in the graveyard and then for forgetting the theorem of Pythagoras (which has been of no value to me in my life) I resolved to take revenge upon him and to do it by striking at that which was dearest to him of all things in life, viz. his old charts.
He kept the key to the muniment chest behind the door to his scullery and I could have taken it without being seen, but I thought it more cunning to break open the chest with the old ploughshare which had been left in the farmyard, such as a robber might light upon and take to his use. One night towards the end of Lent when there was no moon, I stole down to the church, knowing that the lock on the vestry door had rusted, slipped in and smashed the lock on the chest, gathered up the oldest scrolls and books that I could see and ran with them down to the Drain, but I stumbled as I ran and dropped the scrolls into the ditch. The next morning I heard Mr Hignell crying from the lychgate of the church: Robbers, robbers, we are undone. I have never heard sweeter music. We ran in all directions to apprehend the monster who had done this deed. I ran towards the Drain. There they were, the silly scrolls, perched on the tops of the rushes, dripping with dew and mud and blossom. Oh Mr Hignell, look here, look here, I cried. I do believe these be, etc., etc. And the greasy fellow galloped panting down the path. Oh Jem, you're an excellent fellow, yes here's the so-and-so charter, and this is the register. And he picked up these old papers, with the blossom and the mud on them, and clasped them to his bosom as though they were his children, which they were, since no woman had been lunatic enough to permit Mr Hignell up her petticoats, and he had breath like a badger.
But then as he was chattering there with these stinking old rolls in his arms, all of a sudden he stops and looks at me. Jeremiah, he says, you were quick on the scent, very quick. Sir, I am a quick lad, anyone will tell you that. Yes, he says, so you are indeed. But he goes on looking at me, and although he said nothing more for what more could he say? I perceived at that moment the awful power of reputation and determined to acquire a reputation which should help rather than hinder my progress on this earth.
The rest of my family resembled my father and my sisters. They had curly hair and faces as red as the apples they grew for a living. There were plenty of us Mounts. The family had so many branches and they all grew apples (as they do to this day) except my father and thus prospered as he did not. All but me were named Ralph or Richard. The only way to tell one Mount from another was by the names of our villages. My father was Ralph Churn, his younger brother Richard Elmstead, his son my cousin Ralph was Ralph Elmstead, etc., etc. My cousin did not much care for his nickname which was Fluffy Ralph or Fluff. His curly hair was so thick and unruly that birds could have nested on it. That was the only unruly thing about Ralph. He was a neat boy. His breeches were always clean and his face shining. He was an excellent penman. The rector of Elmstead had declared his Latin verses to be the finest in Kent for his age. Sometimes Ralph would walk over from Elmstead which lay up in the Downs beyond Canterbury, ten miles off, for the pleasure of showing off his verses to Mr Hignell. In return, Mr Hignell would show him the old charters. I would skulk behind them squashing flies against the window pane. I stayed only because Mr Hignell would then invite us to dinner and he kept a magnifico's table. He would give us a fine piece of roast beef or a rich mutton pie or a barrel of oysters or a jowl of salmon. He would drink a deal of sack and would put on a good humour, but I never saw my cousin Ralph merry. Fluff would drink but little, pleading that his head ached or that he had a pain in his cods (he was hypochondriac even as a youth). And when Mr Hignell cracked a feeble jest, he would smile as much as to say: 'Ah, that's a jest, I salute it, now may we pass on to more serious matters', and he would begin to talk of the old charters and the other ancient rubbish that Mr Hignell kept in the vestry. In truth, it was as much to pique my cousin Ralph as to vex Mr Hignell that I stole the scrolls. And the day after they were found, I hit upon a droll device.
I knocked upon the vestry door and there as I surmised was Mr Hignell brushing and rubbing the mud off the books and scrolls. Mr Hignell, I said, don't you think that Fluffy Ralph I mean Ralph will be much distressed to hear of all this? Why, you are right, boy, he says, you must go tell him, he loves these old things. But perhaps he knows already, I said. Why, what do you mean? How should he know? Oh I meant nothing, I said, with seeming innocence, nothing at all, news travels fast across the marsh. Why so it does, he said, and then fell to cleaning books again.
Five minutes later I asked: Who do you think stole these articles, Mr Hignell? I do not know, he said. It's a strange thing, I said, an ordinary thief would not guess their value, it must have been a fanatic for books, some person who has an incurable passion for old papers, don't you think so? That's possible, he said pretending to be engrossed in his work, but I could see he was beginning to ponder. The thief must have been a young man, I said (the sport was coming a little near home here), an old man would not have the strength or the audacity for such a game. A young man ... yes, you are probably right. And someone who is learned? Yes perhaps, he said. Perhaps Ralph would know of such a person, he goes to school in Canterbury and is hugger-mugger with scholars and booksellers. Perhaps, Mr Hignell replied.
I could see coursing through his brain as plainly as if it had been written in letters of fire on his forehead the thought: Ralph is the villain, I have been gulled, my trust has been betrayed. The jest was all the finer because he had no evidence to support his suspicion. He could only boil with impotent rancour, while Fluff would be much offended that his old patron was now so cold to him.
But that estrangement did not last long, for soon Ralph was to go up to London to be apprenticed to a bookseller on Tower Hill and Mr Hignell was mighty sorry, for who would listen to his tedious discourses now? Certainly not Jeremiah. I had other fish to fry. There was Mary Court, Tommy's sister, who was tall as a lily, but she was too young and cried out when I tried to kiss her, and Tabitha, who was unwilling also but smelled of pickled herring so that I did not mind, and then there was Emma, darling Emm who had great bubbies and threw her skirts up as cheerfully as if she was hanging out her washing and laughed and groaned and had her pleasure so freely that I thought paradise had come. There was nobody to match Emm. She was the nonpareille. My mother called her a slut and said she would lead me to perdition, but she led me to Heaven or Heaven's gate. We would go down the path to the Drain and a little way along, where there was a field hidden by the hawthorns, she would plump herself down and say come on slow-worm and I would be down upon her and feeling her soft velvet and calling her chuck while she lay back shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. And away beyond the fair forest of her hair across the marshes I saw the ships joggling at anchor in the bay. Or was it me joggling? Oh Jemmy, Jemmy, she would say so that it sounded like a catch such as dull morris men might dance to, but she would not admit me to the ultimate delight for fear of being got with child.
As we were thus engaged, two old men came along the path beside the field. We could see their heads above the cow parsley stalks but they could not see us. 'Tis the Dutch, says one. 'Taint, says the other. I warrant you those are Dutch bottoms, says the first. That's good English oak, says the other. And so they went on, and we smothered our laughter, for we cared not at all whether the enemy was in the Thames or not.
When I see ships at anchor in a swell, when they rise and fall, and their masts clash and clink, I think of Emma, although she is long dead.
By the autumn, for all her protestations to me, she was with child and I was disgraced, for everyone loved Emm and blamed me for seducing her. It turned out the true criminal was Jack Scott, but he was already gone to New England to seek his fortune, and everyone knew that I had been walking with Emm. My reputation was sliding. I have forgot to say that when I pirated the papers from the muniment chest, a glint of gold caught my eye. Mr Hignell kept in the chest a gold seal with which he liked to seal his own papers and make believe he was Lord High Chancellor of Churn. This little bauble I snatched up and put in my pocket. I found it a pleasant sport to roll it around secretly in my fingers while playing the innocent in front of Mr Hignell.
Unfortunately, my mother made search of my pockets before my breeches were washed and she found the seal which she hastened to return to the greasy old parson. This is a serious matter, he grunted, you've brought shame upon your family, Jeremiah, you have betrayed my trust, the crime is too heinous to be atoned for by corporal chastisement (well, there was that much to be said for it, then), there is nothing for it but to take you before the magistrate and yet he raised his hand to his heart with a grand gesture as though he were Burbage himself ties of friendship may bind the strong arm of justice, I am a man of compassion, I am not blind to your mother's tears. There had been no such tears, my mother repeating in much the same words how I had brought shame upon her family and how she ought never to have married my father, for he had bad blood which had issued in me a gross untruth, there being no more respectable family in Kent than his, while her brother was a sot and her uncle had been transported for false coinage.
The upshot: Jem is to be sent apprentice to uncle John Elmstead, the fair village of Churn is to know him no more, and the Man of Compassion, the Rev. Mr Hignell, is to dine with my parents once a week, a barrel of oysters and a fine piece of beef to be of the party. I did not then know that our farm was half-mortgaged to Mr Hignell, and the other half was to go the same way within the year. Nor would I have cared to know. My father's failing was a theme that I shut my ears to, for it made sour music. Besides, I was impatient to quit Churn and seek the horizon, having resolved to be a voyager in life, though to be bound to my uncle John were but a dull beginning for a Meteor.
Thus in my ignorance I was very merry my last night in Churn. When the stars came out, I went up Beggars Lane to Emm's house and threw small stones at her window. She put her head out and bade me hush, but I kissed her before she could put her head back in. Let me in, I asked. I daren't and besides you know my condition. You wouldn't want me to go away without a last embrace. She opened the window a little wider, and I slithered through it like an eel as I had done so often before and my stockings snagged on the roses as they always did. She was already plump but was as much to my liking as ever. We must be very careful, she said, for I would not lose the baby. Even though he's to be a bastard? You're too round, Jem, and besides it's in your power to make him honest. Or her, I said. It will be a boy, I'm sure of it, she said, wouldn't you like him to be yours? Not Jack Scott's boy, I said, besides I'm too young to marry. My uncle Potter was but seventeen when he wed, she said. And wasn't he a fool to marry your aunt, I'd rather marry a hedgehog, Emm you're a goddess, let me in, let me in. Very well, but we must make shift like this, so, and very gently.
On the morrow I was off on the road to Canterbury and then beyond on the high road over the downs which the Romans built. It was a vile morning, rain and wind, and my coat too thin for the weather. As I came up on to the crest, I perceived a band of men ahead of me. They were marching in step and when I came up abreast of them I realised that they were soldiers, but a more bedraggled bunch of knaves I never saw in my life. Where are you bound? I asked. We are off to Dover to beat the Dutch, they said. When I heard this, I laughed and one of the men swore oaths at me. Will the Dutch step ashore for the privilege of getting a beating from you? Get off, you impudent little shit, we're trained men, at Dover we'll go aboard the Daring, which is a first-rater. Oh, sir, I'm a little simple and I've been walking this road since dawn.
And in truth I looked so like a whipped dog in my wet coat and my hair filled with rain that they took pity on me and gave me a crust of bread and a mouthful of ale and invited me to march on with them to the next tavern, the Crooked Billet at Halfway Street. As we were shaking the wet off ourselves in the tavern, a dismal hovel in the trees with moss growing in the tiles, the wench came up to inquire our pleasure and I saw that it was my old acquaintance, Tabitha who had been unwilling. She was grown tall and amazing handsome, a veritable bella figura, and when I approached she no longer smelled of pickled herring but of beer. She knew me at once. Why, Jem, you're as wet as a minnow. Didn't you know, Tabby, I'm a soldier now, we're off to beat the Dutch at Dover, but first I need a quart of ale. My fellow milites laughed heartily at this, but they did not peach against me. Tabby installed me in the seat of honour next the fire, and brought me ale in her best tankard and permitted me all manner of familiarities which had been forbidden at Churn.
When the soldiers gathered their baggage and made off, I stayed in the ingle to finish my ale. Tabby who had been busy in the back room came forth to bid them farewell. As she shut the door behind them, she saw that I was still at my tankard. Jem, why didn't you go with the others? You've been gulling me, you're no soldier, you're a cheat. Madame, I said rising from my chair and drawing myself up to my full two yards, you do me an injustice, I am the rearguard.
Why aren't you dressed as a soldier? (My clothes had dried and she could see that I wore country garb.) If you reflected, I riposted, you would see that it were folly to advertise my presence. So long as I am the rearguard, I must travel incognito. Incog what, she said.
Let's not talk of war and these unpleasant matters, I said, you're grown too beautiful for such talk. Oh, Jem, I was quite in the right, you are a cheat! You mustn't be so distrustful, Tabby, distrust turns the best wine to vinegar. A maid in my position must protect herself. A maid? I whispered. What do you mean, she said, but she was smiling, and I was already caressing her thigh and looking forward to the contest. Will you show me your bedchamber? I asked. But she said the landlord was ill in bed upstairs and his chamber was next to hers, and so we embraced where we stood by the fire. But before embarking on the voyage, I had not stopped to think whether I was fully armed, and as we came close to the harbour, I realised that my pen had no more ink in it since my joust with Emm the night before. I was entirely downcast and began buttoning my breeches. I wonder you trouble to button up, she said, for there is so little to hide.
She made a sucking noise with her lips which I ignored. Injured dignity had best make itself scarce, and my clothes were dry, so I shut the door of the Crooked Billet behind me and took off for Dover, observing to my displeasure that the storm and wind had not abated. After half an hour I wearied of the trudging and turned aside to shelter under the broad oaks. I sat down beside a little weedy pond which was full of marsh-mallows, or blobgoblins as we call them in Kent. The rain poured down upon the pond, breaking up my reflection in its weedy mirror. I was a shattered man. This was my first great reverse in an engagement with the fair sex, and the humiliation was sore. But then a wanton thought came upon me and I began to avail myself of that faculty which Dame Nature in her bounty has provided for the solitary. To my surprise and delight I observed that the infirmity which had afflicted me in the tavern had gone and I was once again in possession of the full vigour of my youth. It is not often that I am moved to pray but on this occasion the moment of ecstasy brought from me an exclamation of gratitude to my Redeemer.
Ah 'tis thee, Jem, I thought I knew the voice.
I was greatly alarmed to see the plump figure of my uncle John Elmstead coming through the trees in his plain brown coat and broad hat.
'Tis a pleasure to hear thee give thanks to Our Lord, your father had not told me thou wast so pious. We've stood in much need of the rain in these parts and this downpour indeed deserves our utmost gratitude to the boundless generosity of Divine Providence.
He shuffled on in this vein whilst I ordered my clothing. The old fool meant no harm. He was as garrulous as a magpie and he had brought his cart to meet me with a sailor's tarpaulin to cover us. He was a country stationer who sold sermons and law-books and charts to all the nobility and gentry and as he geed on the old nag that was taking us along the straight road, he instructed me in his trade and its mysteries. Never sell books in the lump, Jem, when you can sell them singly, for no one will believe that a book is scarce if you sell it in the lump. And always let them off the packing penny, for then they will think they have a bargain though the books may cost five shillings. And set great store by personal acquaintance. Madam, thou must say, I can vouch personally for this book, for the binder is well known to me, an honest man, and pious too, and adept with calf leather and sheep leathers alike. Never keep open shop, Jem, thou mayst starve behind thy shop-board for want of custom. There is no certainty in a dropping trade. Thou needst only a convenient warehouse and a good acquaintance among the booksellers and thy fortune will rise as surely as the sun doth in the morning.
I quickly saw that I could not endure this patter as a continuo to my life. Our connection must be brief if it was not to end in tears. I resolved that it should also be profitable to myself. Patience must be my motto.
Uncle John showed me my quarters, a miserable attic only lately vacated of books and with mouldy book odours in every corner of the chamber. The smell infected even my bed as though it had been lavender or some delicate herb put there a-purpose. The attic had one little window, duodecimo, such as a sparrow might look out of. The window gave upon a miserable alley which was so narrow I doubt my uncle could have got along it, for he was a portly fellow. We dined early upon stale bread and old mutton with small beer. These be good Kentish hops in this beer, my uncle would say, the finest beer in all England, sayst thou not so, Nephew? Yes, Uncle, I never drank beer like it. This was the truth, for the beer was so sour nobody but Uncle would have drunk it. It was good only for pouring upon runner beans to make them grow.
Dover is a fine town, my uncle said, there's no place to match it for the marine trade. I have had sea-captains from the seven seas vying for my charts.
But this was a phantasm. I never once saw a sea-captain knock upon his door, and I soon discovered that, when we called upon them at the harbour, we received but dusty answers. I wheeled the handcart behind him over the cobbles and up the gangway whilst he raised his hat to the ships' officers who gave him dull looks as much as to say we would rather be flogged or hanged at the yardarm than read one of your books. When we went down into the captain's cabin for a glass of canary, my uncle tried to sell him one of the fine new charts he had had sent from St Paul's Churchyard, but the captain slapped his rusty chart-box and said I've sailed the world with these old shipmates, I need no fresh instructions. I looked at the chart on his table, all greasy, foxed and torn as it was, and wondered how he navigated beyond the Needles let alone in the South Seas. Then my master pressed upon him some edifying book of sermons or some obscure law-book and the captain went harrumph, Archbishop Duguid's Discourses, well here's one shilling and ninepence, 'twill do to prop up a table-leg. And I wheeled the handcart back to my master's lodgings with the sweat running down inside my shirt. Yet I own I was much pleased to step aboard these barques (though they were but shabby coastal craft for the most part) and smell the ropes and the tar and feel the tide shift the deck beneath my feet.
And while he was talking to the captains this is excellent Madeira, sir, upon my word it is I observed these master mariners with a prospective eye. They were rough men of ruddy complexion. I could see from the manner in which they dispatched the canary that they were no flinchers from the glass. I hazarded therefore that they might not be immune from other pleasures of the flesh. Throughout the long months at sea, they would pine for female company (for these old tarpaulins of the Dover patrol did not take their wives with them as would a Lord High Admiral) and so I formed an ingenious design.
Uncle, I said, you wish me to learn the trade thoroughly, do you not? Indeed, that is my dearest wish, Jeremiah, thorough is my motto, just as it was that of the late accursed traitor Stratford, though my diligence is directed towards the Lord's work and not that of the Antichrist. Quite so, I said, wouldn't it be useful for me then to save your legs (he suffered much from the gout) and fetch the goods from Canterbury? Mr Billingsley is an honest man and you say yourself a rare judge of books, and Mr Coggan ditto of charts. They will send you only fair parcels which shall prove to your taste, and as for the price, I have heard you say of each gentleman that should a child be sent to his shop he would not take a farthing more than his due.
True, Nephew. I perceive thou art a brisk industrious lad, and not the wild spark thy cousin Ralph painted thee (I treasured up this intelligence for future revenge). And I am resolved to try thee, and if the experiment should fail, then we must put the bill down to Experience, for Experience worketh Hope, as St Paul teacheth us. I would not send thee to a pirate like Mr Dancer, he is a Cormorant among booksellers, and a trader in lewd books moreover. But Mr Coggan is a paragon and so is Mr Billingsley.
So I set off in my uncle's cart with his blessing and a multitude of instructions and a loaf of bread and a mutton pie and, a true blessing among so many godly words, £25 sterling for the purchase of the merchandise. Three shillings I spent straightaway in the Crooked Billet, in the hope that I might return the blow Tabby had dealt my pride, but she was absent, being gone back to her friends at Churn, and I sat alone in the inn.
Nevertheless I was in good heart as I came down the hill into the fair city of Canterbury. For who would not be of good cheer at the age of seventeen with £24 s in his pocket? I lodged in fine style at the Mitre with a chamber overlooking the Market. Since I was hungry, I bought a pound of cherries of a fruit seller and retired to my chamber where I had great sport throwing the cherry stones down upon the heads of the citizens.
But now it was time to drop upon Mr Coggan and Mr Billingsley. I put on my clean linen and my black coat and assumed an earnest mien which might sort with the sober character my uncle had given me. For he had forewarned the honest booksellers of his great Experiment and they were ready of their charity to extend me every courtesy.
With each wheezing (for he was Asthmatic) Mr Coggan docked another shilling off the price of his chart of the West Indies. This is a sheet direct from the Waggoners Pilot Book giving true and particular details of the shoals plumbed by HMS Jason during her late voyage. To you, young Jem, I shall sell it for but seventy per cent of my strangers' price. My hearty thanks, Mr Coggan, sir, I know how grateful my uncle will be.
And so it proceeded with Mr Billingsley who was a tall pale man with a nodding head like a bird pecking at a bush. Before the day was out, I had a full load of sermons and law-books and marine charts and I had laid out but £9 s.
I bade farewell to Mr Billingsley who was putting up his shutters. When the shutters were secure and he could no longer see me, I darted next door, to the infamous Mr Dancer's. The proprietor was a low, grubby sort with a smile upon his face. I could see at once that he was a man of quick intelligence. I explained my requirements and he understood them perfectly. Never was an actor less in need of a prompter. My dear sir, you shall have exactly what you need, you have come to the right man to accommodate you, sea-captains you say, I'm acquainted with the taste of sea-captains if ever a bookseller was.
And so I came away with a fine parcel well wrapped by Mr Dancer's boy we believe in discretion, sir, a discreet trade is a thriving trade, I always say and I was well pleased with the contents, viz.:
1.* 1 doz. copies: The Night-Walker; or, Evening Rambles in search after lewd women, with the various Conferences held with them.
2.* six copies: The Raven Fleece: wherein a Dark Lady discovers her adventures among Men of Quality.
3.* five copies (very rare): The Anatomy of Venus, a learned treatise upon the amorous science by a Doctor of Medicine in the University of Padua translated from the Italian.
4.* Aretine's Postures, translated from the Italian full and entire with the original illustrations.
5.* Captain Cuttle's Decameron, a collection of curious tales comical, romantic, astrological and fantastical, by the Author of The Strange Fate of Sebastian Shortbreech.
6.* six copies: Jokes, Jests and Jollities by Portia Plackett, a woman of parts.
Certain other works were also made up into the parcel, but I do not like to set their names down here.
After these purchases, I still jingled £3 s in my pocket and took a fine dinner at the Crooked Billet on my way home. Tabby waited on me and seeing my gentleman's clothes and my bulging purse (I mean the money) spoke me very fair. But I would not forgive her. I had resolved to apply myself to trade and there was work to do besides. After dinner, I copied out the receipts which Messrs Billingsley and Coggan had given me, but in place of the moneys which I had paid I set down the price I would have paid had I been a stranger. I took great pains with this task, for although my uncle was dull, he was not blind. Thorough was to be my motto, too, though I had no intention of ending up on the scaffold like my Lord Stratford, nor of ending up like my uncle a pious country bookseller.
Well, said my uncle, thou hast done well, Jem. These are first-rate charts, Waggoner is a Michael Angelo of the art, Archbishop Duguid a favourite of mine and the sheepskin bindings excellent on the Ars Clericalis. Thou will make a bookseller yet if only thou learnst to bargain like a man. I confess that I had thought Mr Billingsley would favour thee with a somewhat larger discount, Mr Coggan ditto.
I tried as best I could, Uncle, but they swore prices had increased greatly since your previous visit because of the Dutch and the embargo.
The Dutch, said my uncle as though he were spitting out a fishbone, I hate not any man or any race, my religion forbids it, but I hate the Dutch. These mynheers are desperadoes, they will ruin our trade before we are in our graves, etc., etc.
On the morrow I made haste with my handcart down to the harbour and boarded the first ship I came to, a dirty old collier, the Cherub. The master was as black as his ship. Charts, bellowed this sack of coals in human shape, what do I want with charts, I know this coast as well as I know my own arse. These are new charts, sir, which portray the currents, shoals and winds as discovered by the last Admiralty survey. I want nothing to do with the Admiralty, Coalsack returned, they're a gaggle of old women who make an honest seaman's life a misery with their regulations and their caterwauling. Sir, I shall not detain you further, said I, perceiving that no time was to be lost in moving to the primum agendum, I can see you are a gentleman of taste, I should be failing in my duty if I departed without showing you one of the rare and curious volumes which I have also for sale. They come direct from Mr L'Estrange in Warwick Lane who draws the custom of the most elegant young rakes of the town. Any gentleman with a lively faculty for pleasure would desire such works for his private library. Hum, hum, says Coalsack pretending not to be listening, books, books, I've no time for such things, but his eye has lighted upon The Raven Fleece and, heaven be praised, the book has fallen open at the frontispiece which depicts the first encounter between Rosalinda and the Chevalier de Grosseprong, and he is hooked. He desires the book with all his heart, he foresees many a pleasant evening in his cabin, while storm and wind make roar outside, tucked up snug with the adorable Rosalinda and her insatiable Chevalier. In a trice, I have sold him The Night-Walker, and Captain Cuttle's Decameron into the bargain, but a furrow crosses his grimy brow, a serpent creeps into his Eden. Where is he to stow these lewd volumes that the seamen may not catch sight of him and make mock of his solitary tastes? They will call him Captain Toss-Off and other such low names.
I come to his rescue. Sir, I have here the very thing a portable library for the seafaring man, made of fine polished Norway firwood. The charts fit into this upper compartment that they may be ready at hand on any pressing engagement and, below, safe from prying eyes, you may stow your books. Whether they be maritime, legal, religious, or consecrated to the delight of the senses, 'tis all one, they lie there together hugger-mugger.
Hum, hum, goes the gallant captain, pretending now to be a fanatic for charts, I shall have need of the Strait of Dover, and the Estuary, and the Dogger Bank if you have it, oh yes and this little thing will fill up a corner (picking up Aretine's Postures).
You may find it convenient, sir, if I parcel the lot up into one bill which you may post to your navigation accounts, for I am sure your proprietors would wish their ship to be well furnished.
Why, so they would, to be sure, says Coalsack, it is a most necessary expense that a ship should be well stocked, a modern chart may be a Life-preserver.
Very true, sir, so it may. Shall we say nine guineas in toto?
An ineffable joy seizes me as the contract is concluded, and I settle the books into the lower compartment, replace the ingenious flap and roll the charts tight that they may fit into the upper storey of the box. Coalsack counts out the £9 9s, takes the box, cuddles it as though it were a baby. I take my leave and dance for joy down the gangway. Oh the beauties of commerce! I wish I were a poet that I might hymn the delights of that trade into which it hath pleased Dame Fortune to plump me.
By noon, I have sold a similar parcel to Captain Proudfoot of the Ceres, for £11 10s. In celebration, I take a barrel of oysters and a pint of canary at the Eagle, to refresh my voice which is strained by the recitativos of the morning. Then in the afternoon, I board what shall be my greatest prize, the Firecat, a second-rater newly come from Chatham, and Captain Quiney, a languid gentleman reputed learned (though, I fancy, seafaring men are but poor judges of erudition). This captain is at the other extreme of the gamut from Coalsack. He sprawls upon his chair as though he were half asleep and affects to be well acquainted with all my wares. I have seen such charts many times on Tower Hill, I doubt these are much improvement and oh these volumes are but poor trash, in my father's library, etc., etc. Yet in the end he too cometh to heel, choosing The Raven Fleece, the Anatomy of Venus and two other volumes which I do not care to name. To Captain Quiney, HMS Firecat at Dover, One Chart box and set of Charts and other maritime necessities: thirteen guineas.
But after one more customer I, too, must put into port, for my cabinet-maker had fashioned but four boxes and they are all gone. I say 'cabinet-maker', though he is old Hedges, the coffin-maker in Herring Street, who makes up these boxes from off-cuts of his coffins for 2s the finished article. Don't worry, young Jem, I'm quick even if my customers aren't, you may have half a dozen more by the morning.
Thus passed my first day as a Man of Business on my own account and it was a Jubilee. Total takings: £53 s. Total outgoings: £28. Profit, that glorious invention of our modern age, £25 s.
But my labours were not yet concluded, for if I presented the account to my uncle in raw state, he would collect all the proceeds. I needs must continue that Double-keeping which I had first practised in my traffic with the booksellers of Canterbury.
Thus in my chamber at the Eagle, after dining on a stewed carp, I hastened to draw up a fresh set of accounts for my uncle's eyes, viz. total takings £38 3s, total outgoings £28, profit £10 3s which latter sum I proudly presented to my uncle on my return to his house.
Heaven be praised, Jeremiah, thou art an honest apprentice and heaven hath rewarded thy honesty, etc., etc. But I could see in his little blinking eyes that my success had nonplussed him. He would not cease from worrying me with his questions. Tell me now, Jem, how didst thou shift the charts? What was the trick? Uncle, I said looking at the portly old hypocrite with due severity, I would not stoop to jargon. I merely pointed out to them the advantages of sailing with first-rate maps. Oh, he said, somewhat downcast, that was all, was it? Yes, I said, as thou knowest, Uncle (what sport it was to return him a thou), goods of quality will always find a buyer. So they will, Jem, so they will.
But I could see that he could not abide my success, for though he was lazy he was a proud little man and it was not fitting that the apprentice should outshine his master.
For my part, I had hauled into my nets several great principles of commerce:
primo, that a shopkeeper must impart to his wares a Property that will make them indispensable. Thus, this is the only article of its kind in our hemisphere.
secondo, that Novelty is a powerful engine of purchase. Thus, this item is but lately imported from Amsterdam, there is none like it in London, for the design is entirely new.
tertio, that a bargain smiles all the more warmly upon the purchaser, if you throw into the balance some extra article. It matters not that the article be trumpery, so long as it be unexpected.
quarto, that accounts cannot be digested raw. Books are all the better for a little cooking so that they may answer the purpose more exactly than in their natural state.
quinto, that a cheerful demeanour and an open countenance will put the customer in a buying vein. He will reject the fairest bargain if he suspects the tradesman be a rogue or a cormorant.
A Man of Business who bases his enterprise upon these five principles cannot fail to prosper.
But in this wicked world merit provokes envy and I saw that my uncle was growing suspicious. Meanwhile, Mr Hedges turned out my portable Libraries as fast as he turned out coffins during the late plague.
Table of Contents
I The Marsh
II The Shop
III The Palace
IV The Barge
V The Tower
VI The Laboratory
VII The Hospital
VIII The Island
IX The Coffee-House
X The Shore
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