Late winter dawn. The wet nurse suckles a baby; the monk shivers through lauds; warm cow greets cold milker. Late winter dawn. Thief grins over sleeper; dead coals drop; the hangman, a novice, checks his rope. The day begins to stain.
Midday is different. By midday, the wet nurse is sore, the baby unsatisfied, and the monk willing to trade salvation for a hot dinner and a drop of restorative. The thief counts his takings and dozes. The hangman dampens the fire in the little brick house he has built under the walls of Newgate Prison. He checks tomorrow’s ropes. One is chewed. Bloody dog. The executed don’t pay for rope—a crime in itself. They seldom even tip, and a soggy rope won’t sell as a souvenir. He’s chosen the wrong profession. He’d give it up, except that would prove his father right. And now this: summoned to cut down some wretch who’s hanged himself near the Bank of England. He sticks a knife in his belt and pulls on thick gloves. What a cheek. Death is his job. He feels robbed of his fee.
Out into the mud, he grinds the barrow through sludge and bumps it over knobbles of frozen dung. The February cloud is low and dense. Horses are lost in clammy steam. Urchins use fresh droppings to warm their hands, poor sods. It’s the usual struggle through Cheapside—God alive, why do women have to gossip in gaggles? They part as soon as they recognize him. Bad luck to touch the hangman. Bad luck to touch his barrow. He pushes on through Poultry. Nothing at the Bank, but a hubbub at the top of Threadneedle Street. The hangman hoists his barrow onto the wooden pavement and heads for the crowd. As he reaches the Virginia and Baltick coffeehouse (formerly the Virginia and Maryland), a man barges into him, swears, then kicks at the coffeehouse’s stout oak door until it opens. The man vanishes into a fecal fug and a girl emerges.
It was a month after her mother died that Alathea Sawneyford’s father first took her to the V & B. At the sight of her, Mr. W., the proprietor, sucked in his cheeks. Children irritated customers. But Mrs. W. simply set a small chair below the counter to shield Alathea from the pictures Mr. W. favored for the walls. He called them “artful.” Mrs. W. never thought of turning the little girl away. With no children of her own, she had love to offer—rough love, maybe, but love all the same, and although Alathea has long since outgrown the small chair, Mrs. W.’s welcome has never been withdrawn. Mr. W. can suck in his cheeks all he likes; it pleases Mrs. W. to encourage Alathea to look on the Virginia and Baltick as a haven, and occasionally Alathea chooses to do so, particularly when giving the slip to the stalkers set on her trail by her father. Never certain whether the surveillance is for her protection or his, it’s nevertheless always a pleasure to identify the wretch so keen to be unidentified. As Alathea closes the V & B door, she spots today’s tail—a poor specimen, exuding furtiveness. He might as well carry a sign.
Alathea sees the crowd and makes her way over, reaching the front at the same time as the hangman. A young woman is swinging from a gantry. She is quite dead. Alathea pokes the corpse with one finger. “Wire,” she says, with a nod toward the girl’s neck. The hangman bangs his barrow down. Unasked, Alathea holds the dead legs firmly and nods again. The hangman climbs onto his barrow, levers the wire from the gantry, and lowers the body. The crowd shuffles forward to have a look. Alathea settles the girl’s skirts and contemplates her face.
“Desperate, your friend,” the hangman says.
Alathea doesn’t contradict, though she’s never seen the girl before and wonders about desperation. The girl’s hands are quite relaxed, her fingers spread as if to press a final chord on a keyboard. There is certainly evidence of pain in the bloated cheeks and bulging lips, but to Alathea physical pain is something to be squeezed out and wiped away. Despair, being more entrenched, is more worthy of note. She bends as though to look for signs of it but instead removes the corpse’s shoes and tries them on. They don’t fit so she returns them. “Pity,” she says. Then, “Kiss her.”
“What?” says the hangman.
“Kiss her,” Alathea says. “Like this.” She kisses the hangman full on the lips. It’s not the unexpectedness he remembers, it’s the feel of her tongue. He feels it from top to toe.
“If a hangman kisses a suicide, God forgives both,” Alathea says. “Do it.” Before the hangman can refuse, Alathea is gone, and though their acquaintance has been short, he feels her loss like a view suddenly revealed and as suddenly cut off. He rakes the crowd with his eyes. She is nowhere to be seen. A gloomy day seems gloomier. As he trundles the corpse to its paltry grave, the only thing that cheers him is a notice tied to a horse post just outside the Bank. It’s a call to arms, brothers. Tax the rich! Power to the people! He counts six signatures. That should be six hangings this year at least. If all done at once, the authorities may ask for a discount. He’ll be damned if he gives one.
Upstairs at the V & B, three men were in close conversation at a small round table. Their coats steamed and their faces were shadowed, Mr. W. favoring cheap tallow over expensive wax candles. Nor could the V & B steal light from neighboring shops, situated as it was between Gadhill the barber, who kept his lights low, and what had been the gunpowder office, now a storing, roasting, and grinding shed for the beans Mr. W. insisted, for quality’s sake, must be kept in the dark. Even when a few rays of sun managed to twist down the street, the crust on the V & B’s windows was as good as plate armor.
The men were waiting for the fourth of their party and looked to the door as he stamped in clutchingSpence’s Penny Weekly. A coffeeboy fed up with the V & B’s poor gratuities and spoiling for a fight called out “Good news then, Mr. Brass?” since it clearly was not.
Gregory Brass turned on him. “Good news? Can’t you read, boy? Votes! Tax! We’ll all be ruined. Spence and his like should be hanged for traitors. Hanged and then quartered.”
The coffeehousers were momentarily distracted from bills of lading and tide calendars. “Spence’s already in prison,” said somebody mildly.
“Prison! Bah!” Brass banged his fist on the counter. “A public lynching’s the thing. That’d teach him. I mean, the poor can’t eat the vote or fornicate with it, so what use is it to them?”
Laughter. Brass whipped off his wig. “You think it’s a joke?” He squared up.
Archibald Frogmorton rose, grasped his friend’s arm, and would not be shaken off. “For God’s sake, Brass, stop brawling and come and sit down. I’m not bailing you from Newgate again.”
This last remark had some effect. Brass followed Frogmorton and threw himself into a chair. “It’s a disgrace, I tell you.” He waved the penny weekly in Frogmorton’s face.
“Enough.” Frogmorton seized the newspaper, folded it, and used it as a wedge to stop the table from rocking. “We haven’t got all day. Let’s turn to the matter in hand.” Brass, still muttering, subsided. Chairs were pulled in and coffee called for.
The four men’s chief interest was cloth, liquor, furs, leather, timber—anything that could be bought low and sold high—but it was domestic husbandry, not trade, that had drawn them here today to sit at a private table rather than the long trestle in front of the fire. Archibald Frogmorton, Gregory Brass, and Sawney Sawneyford each had one living daughter and Tobias Drigg, at forty-three the youngest of the men, had two. With Marianne Drigg eighteen at her last birthday and the other girls close behind, the time had come to find the girls husbands. Trade in its own way, though the four fathers were not after money: they wanted grandchildren of a certain kind and were willing to pay.
Worldly success offered acquaintance, not friendship, with the rank of people these men had earmarked for their daughters: landed people, titled people, “the quality,” as Mr. Drigg’s father-in-law called them. Yet no matter how large the profits engineered by these four—and the profits were substantial—and no matter how significant Archibald Frogmorton’s elevation to Alderman of the City of London, commercial gratitude was laced with social distaste. True, the Duke of Granchester did inquire after Georgiana Brass’s health and Everina Drigg’s talents, but these were simply polite precursors to inquiries about the ducal investments.
The water urn blew its lid. The coffeeboys cheered. “The girls must all be wed this time next year,” Frogmorton declared, frowning at the noise.
“Yes, yes, that’s right. By this time next year,” Drigg agreed. Drigg’s fatherly affection did not blind him to the fact that his daughters were too like their mother for complacency. Currently, Marianne and Everina were soft and plump. Soon they would be tough and fleshy—more likely to pick up a butcher than a baronet.
“Wed this time next year,” echoed Sawney Sawneyford softly. He was the only widower among the four, and his tone was both agreement and disagreement, a confusion he cultivated. Marriage talk unsettled him. The others saw silken grandchildren behind unassailable social ramparts. Sawneyford saw his daughter sweating under Tamworth-pink flesh. Was that worth a coronet? Was it worth a rampart? Was it worth a dead candle? Sharp against his buttocks were three diamonds he liked to keep secreted in the lining of his coat: tiny things, the first gems he had ever touched. His eyes swam. Diamonds suited Alathea. What was he doing here? He didn’t want Alathea to marry at all.
“This year’s all very well, but we mustn’t sell the girls short.” Brass, still prickling, purposefully irritated Frogmorton, who had suggested no such thing. Brass was conscious of being the handsomest, his nose less bulbous than Frogmorton’s and his ears neater, his eyes less fishlike than Drigg’s, his chin round against Sawneyford’s rapier. He had a powerful physique that always needed feeding, not necessarily with food. Losing his temper whetted his appetite for his new Frenchbelle amie. He drummed his fingers.
“Apply your minds, gentlemen,” Frogmorton said. “Our daughters need some very particular attraction, an accomplishment beyond the accomplishments of others. All are pretty.” He gave a superb smile. Having fathered a beauty, he did not have to worry about Everina’s unfortunate teeth, Georgiana’s hiplessness, or Alathea Sawneyford’s—what was it? He felt a clogging in his throat. That girl. He tried not to think of her. “As I say, they’re all lookers in their own ways, but that’s not enough. All young girls of a certain age are lookers.” He wiped his forehead. The fug made him sweat. “Most girls can draw and some can sing. It strikes me that we must find our daughters something else to make them enviable and envied—something spectacular.”
There was talk, none of it conclusive. Finally, Drigg coughed. “Do you think we could perhaps make something of the rivalry between the harpsichord and these newfangled pianofortes?” The others looked at him with surprise—even Sawneyford. Drigg liked the attention. “It’s the talk of St. James’s Street, and the pianoforte, I’m assured, will soon be a feature in every home. If our girls were to master it before other girls, they would be at a distinct advantage.”
Brass was openly derisive, which made Drigg more determined than was wise. He had no idea of music. There had been none in the Foundling Hospital in which he and Frogmorton, the latter superior because his mother had left him with a name grander than her own, had been raised. There had been none among the lighters on which Drigg spent five years coal heaving before he pulled a drowning Frogmorton out of the low-tide slime of the Thames, a rescue that set him on the road to riches. When he spoke, as he did now at some length, about the differences between harpsichord and pianoforte, his opinions were at least secondhand. He knew he was overpersuasive, goaded by Brass’s sneers. But he did not stop and Frogmorton, initially sceptical, was soon quite taken with the picture Drigg painted. Encouraged, Drigg began to elaborate until somehow the notion of a concert party at which the girls would perform in front of potential husbands took shape.
After a while, Frogmorton raised his hand. “You speak of a grand pianoforte, Drigg. It will be large, I assume. Our girls must be seen. Will they be visible behind it?”
“Everina certainly will,” said Brass with a snort.
Drigg snorted back. “Georgiana may vanish entirely. Mrs. Drigg wonders if she’s quite well.”
“Mrs. Drigg can save her wondering. Georgiana’s well enough to bang a few keys.” Brass was not worried about his daughter. Skinny and fey she might be, but she was musical. He was certain of that. She must be or what was the use of her?
“Do you think it a good idea, Sawney?” Frogmorton asked. The others stopped talking. Sawney utterances were rare enough to be overvalued.
“Your plan seems good enough.” Sawney picked at fraying cuffs.
“Our plan, Sawney. It’s all of ours,” rapped Brass. He thought, why does Sawney wear rags? He could buy a whole tailoring business. Or get that disturbing daughter to do some mending.
“We have a plan,” repeated Sawney. “Why not?” Alathea already had a pianoforte but he kept that, as he kept many things, to himself.
“Well then,” said Frogmorton. “Are we agreed on the principle?”
Nobody demurred so he turned to Drigg. “We must purchase an instrument,” he said. “Drigg, you can see to it.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Drigg said, suddenly alarmed. “It’s a big purchase. We should all go.”
“Nonsense,” said Frogmorton. “If we go as a group of City men, we’ll be fleeced. You must go alone. Don’t you agree, Brass?”
Brass, keen to increase Drigg’s alarm, agreed. “Then we can blame you if it all goes wrong.”
Sawneyford didn’t care who bought the thing, or if nobody bought it.
“That’s settled, then,” said Frogmorton.
More details were hammered out. Since the Frogmortons’ Manchester Square house was the grandest, the pianoforte was to be delivered there, and through the pianoforte dealer, Drigg was to employ a tuner-teacher. Frogmorton would pay this music master every week and the full bill would be divided among them at the venture’s conclusion. The girls would be chaperoned by Mrs. Frogmorton as they took lessons and when the music master was satisfied the girls were ready, invitations would be sent out and the girls would perform.
As the clock struck three, the men’s minds turned to their offices. Clerks would be waiting. They pushed out their chairs, found their coats, and went to the counter, where Mrs. W. noted down each man’s dues. She accepted few notes of credit but she trusted these four to pay at the end of each quarter. So far, prompting had not been necessary and Alderman Frogmorton could be relied on for a good tip.
Copyright © 2014 by Katharine Grant