A secret always has a strengthening effect upon a newborn friendship, as does the shared impression than an external figure is to blame: the men of the Crown have become united less by their shared beliefs, we observe, than by their shared misgivings–which are, in the main, externally directed. In their analyses, variously made, of Alastair Lauderback, George Shepard, Lydia Wells, Francis Carver, Anna Wetherell, and Emery Staines, the Crown men have become more and more suggestive, despite the fact that nothing has been proven, no body has been tried, and no new information has come to light. Their beliefs have become more fanciful, their hypotheses less practical, their counsel less germane. Unconfirmed suspicion tends, over time, to become wilful, fallacious, and prey to the vicissitudes of mood–it acquires all the qualities of common superstition–and the men of the Crown Hotel, whose nexus of allegiance is stitched, after all, in the bright thread of time and motion, have, like all men, no immunity to influence.
I was disconcerted, for I had broken away without quite seeing where I was going to. It was not to be shuffled off now, however, and I answered, `The beautiful young lady at Miss Havisham’s, and she’s more beautiful than anybody ever was, and I admire her dreadfully, and I want to be a gentleman on her account.’ Having made this lunatic confession, I began to throw my torn-up grass into the river, as if I had some thoughts of following it.
`Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?’ Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.
`I don’t know,’ I moodily answered.
`Because, if it is to spite her,’ Biddy pursued, `I should think – but you know best – that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think – but you know best – she was not worth gaining over.’
Exactly what I myself had thought, many times. Exactly what was perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which the best and wisest of men fall every day?
`It may be all quite true,’ said I to Biddy, `but I admire her dreadfully.’
In short, I turned over on my face when I came to that, and got a good grasp on the hair on each side of my head, and wrenched it well. All the while knowing the madness of my heart to be so very mad and misplaced, that I was quite conscious it would have served my face right, if I had lifted it up by my hair, and knocked it against the pebbles as a punishment for belonging to such an idiot.
If I may so express it, I was steeped in Dora. I was not merely over head and ears in love with her, but I was saturated through and through. Enough love might have been wrung out of me, metaphorically speaking, to drown anybody in; and yet there would have remained enough within me, and all over me, to pervade my entire existence.
I hoped she did not dislike me, but I was under no illusions that she might remember me in any way fondly; that is, if she remembered me at all. I was but one of a procession; I provided extra food, drink, that day some tobacco, beyond that I did not exist for her. When I thought of the way money & dirt & the frenzy of human desire & the bitter aftertaste of life all come together when you buy a woman in whatever way, I felt dizzy like I was peering into an infinite black hole & losing my balance. I thought: it is not dishonest; it is the most honest expression of the whole infinite sadness of us all. I had willingly passed like quicksilver through too many women’s hands, but there was a reckoning. There was no absolution of love; no redemption in the idea that the world had shrunk down to just two people. For in her that day I knew myself to be absolutely nothing.
It was but a hurried parting in a common street, yet it was a sacred remembrance to these two common people. Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog’s-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you.
Then, perhaps overcome with nostalgia for happier times, he gave me a good kicking. Afterwards I assured him he had all the attributes necessary for a successful artistick career, through unfortunately my mouth was too swollen to list them for Pobjoy’s benefit: mediocrity; a violent capacity with any potential rivals; the desire not only to succeed but to see your fellow artists fail; gross insincerity; & a capacity for betrayal. Fortune favours folly, I tried to say, but merely succeeded in dribbling some blood & teeth.
The ship rolls and her timbers creak like a barn in a gale.
‘Have you considered turning apothecary ashore, Mr Nash?’
‘Not I, sir.’ Nash does not smile at the pleasantry.
‘I can see Nash’s Patented Elixir arrayed in a row of china bottles.’
‘Men of commerce, sir…’ Nash counts out laudanum drops into the pewter beaker ‘… for the most part, had their consciences cut out at birth. Better an honest drowning than slow death by hypocrisy, law or debt.’
Act, implores the Ghost of Future Regret. I shan’t give you another chance.
Jacob hurries past the tomatoes and catches her up near the gate.
‘Miss Abigawa? Miss Aibagawa. I must ask you to forgive me.’
She has turned around and has one hand on the gate. ‘Why forgive?’
‘For what I now say.’ The marigolds are molten. ‘You are beautiful.’
She understands. Her mouth opens and closes. She takes a step back…
… into the wicket gate. Still shut, it rattles. The guard swings it open.
Damn fool, groans the Demon of Present Regret. What have you done?
Crumpling, burning and freezing, Jacob retreats, but the garden has quadrupled in length, and it may take a Wandering Jew’s eternity before he reaches the cucumbers, where he kneels behind a screen of dock leaves; where the snail on the pail flexes its stumpy horns; where ants carry patches of rhubarb leaf along the shaft of the how; and he wishes the Earth might spin backwards to a time she appeared, asking for rosemary, and he would do it all again, and he would do it all differently.
But they didn’t devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself. Stop. There was first a game at blind-man’s buff. Of course there was. And I no more believe Topper was really blind than I believe he had eyes in his boots. My opinion is, that it was a done thing between him and Scrooge’s nephew; and that the Ghost of Christmas Present knew it. The way he went after that plump sister in the lace tucker, was an outrage on the credulity of human nature. Knocking down the fire-irons, tumbling over the chairs, bumping against the piano, smothering himself among the curtains, wherever she went, there went he. He always knew where the plump sister was. He wouldn’t catch anybody else. If you had fallen up against him (as some of them did), on purpose, he would have made a feint of endeavouring to seize you, which would have been an affront to your understanding, and would instantly have sidled off in the direction of the plump sister. She often cried out that it wasn’t fair; and it really was not. But when at last, he caught her; when, in spite of all her silken rustlings, and her rapid flutterings past him, he got her into a corner whence there was no escape; then his conduct was the most execrable. For his pretending not to know her; his pretending that it was necessary to touch her head-dress, and further to assure himself of her identity by pressing a certain ring upon her finger, and a certain chain about her neck; was vile, monstrous. No doubt she told him her opinion of it, when, another blind-man being in office, they were so very confidential together, behind the curtains.
But Art is a punitive sentence, not a birthright, & there is nothing in my early life that suggests artistick aptitude or even interest, my pastimes & fascinations nearly all being what may – & were – deemed the merely villainous. And though I am, of course, the hero of this, my own tale, if only because I can’t really imagine anyone else wanting to be, my story is no remade myth of Orpheus, but the story of a sewer rat made worse.