Authors: Bruce Alexander
A tale was told me not long ago by a sailor with whom I passed an afternoon hour in a coffee house. No common seaman he, but second officer on an East Indiaman. I, Jeremy Proctor, had that very day represented him in my professional capacity as barrister before the King’s Bench. In short, I had provided a successful defense for him against a charge of criminal assault. He had been involved in a fracas in a low dram house with three men of dubious repute who claimed he had insulted them. He had left forthwith, and they had followed, demanding an apology, and they supported their demand with drawn knives and a cudgel. They advanced upon him. He had no choice but to reply upon the only weapon we had on his person - a sword. It was not a cutlas - that is, not a proper fighting sword - but rather one of the ceremonial sort, something on the order of a rapier. Yet he knew how to use it, as as evidenced by the bloody scene when a red-waistcoated constable happened by. My client had murdered none but sliced the three up so severely that each of them urgently required the ministrations of a surgeon.
Their appearance in court, all plasters and bandages, made my work difficult. The testimony against my client by the innkeeper, who painted him as a raging, blaspheming, bilious bully, made it difficult indeed. Yet I managed to cast doubt upon all four. And in my examination of the arresting constable, I established that the “victims” were well known to him as ruffians, pimps, and procurers; one of them had served a term in Newgate for a beating he inflicted upon one of his “molls.” The defendant, my client, made a superb witness in his own behalf. Only once did he falter, and that was when the judge put to him a most reasonable question: “If you were as innocent in this matter as you claim to be, what were you doing in a dram house known to be a gathering place for prostitutes, panders, and others engaged in divers criminal activities?” At that, after hesitating a few moments too long, my client replied: “M’Lord, though as you say, it was known to be such a place, its reputation had not reached me. I am not a Londoner but, as you may tell from my speech, a Welshman out of Cardiff. I have but a visitor’s knowledge of your great city. Let us say I blundered into the place unawares, and I greatly rue my error.” His answer, while equally reasonable, left the impression with me, and I feared with judge and jury as well, that if he had told the truth, he had not told the whole truth. Nevertheless, in my plea before the jury, I did my utmost to remove any such suspicion. I argued: … self-defense! … one against three! … and would not any man of you in his place have defended himself the same! Et cetera. My argument prevailed. In minutes the jury returned a not guilty finding. My client and I walked out of the courtroom together. He was so delighted, not to say surprised, by the outcome that he begged that I be his guest for a midday snack. Since I had no further appearances to make that day, and since I knew a coffee house close on Old Bailey which, in addition to that divine ambrosia to which I am addicted, served all manner of buns and sweetmeats, I gladly accepted his invitation. Also, in all candor, there was a question I wished to put to him.
As we sipped and supped in the coffee house, there was little for us to talk of but the trial just concluded, so it was in no wise difficult to bring him round to the point where I might spear him with my query.
“I had but one bad moment,” said I to him, “and that was when the judge asked you what you were doing in that place.”
“You hesitate,” said I. “You hesitated then.” I fixed him with a look as severe as any judge’s. “Tell me now, what were you doing there? Simply looking for a night’s companion on the cheap? Or did deeper matter underlie it?”
And thus his tale: “Though I am third in command of a great vessel,” said he, “and have greater authority and responsibility than most men twice my age, I fear I am more ignorant in the ways of the world than any London street boy half my age. The night before the incident from whose consequences you have just rescued me, I was enjoying my first night ashore. I had attended the theatre in Drury Lane. Hoping for Shakespeare, I got him — but only after the fashion of the day: Romeo and Juliet cut, shaped, and ‘improved’ to suit the merchants and their ladies.
“Alone I had taken myself to the theatre, and alone I left, more than a little offended at what had been done to the work of a poet whom I revered. I was thus in something of a snit when, quite unexpectedly, I was caught by the sleeve and stopped by a child — a girl who could not have been more than fourteen, fifteen at most. She whispered to me urgently about needing someplace to sleep. I was struck at once by her air of innocence and, I confess, by her beauty. She seemed at the very limit of her endurance, quite desperate, you see. I asked if she were hungry. ‘Oh yes, sir,’ said she. ‘1 have not ate proper in ever so long.’ That being the case, I offered to take her with me to an eating place nearby, which had been recommended to me. Her face and hands were clean, and her clothes were not shabby. They did not turn us away, though I did note we were put off in a comer, quite out of sight of the rest.
“We dined well on beef, and we talked — ah, how we talked! When she learned from me that I was an officer on an East Indiaman, she would hear everything of that land which is here so little known yet so much discussed. I told of the riches of maharajahs, of rides on elephants, and hunts for tigers. Questions she had in abundance and was so filled with wonder at my stories tJiat her mouth quite hung open in amazement. This somehow made her all the more appealing — in a childish way, of course. Yet I confess that as we sat and talked, I fell half in love with her. I am a man of sentiment, sir, and not ashamed to admit it. Recall, too, that I had just attended a performance of Romeo and Juliet which, however travestied, could not have failed to affect me.
“Thus, I found myself quite at her mercy when, having inquired into her situation, I was told a most dreadful tale of woe. She said she had come to London not long before from Scarborough — a long journey, to be sure — to care for an ailing aunt. The woman soon died, leaving the girl at the hands of the aunt’s creditors. They came and seized all that might have been sold to pay for a return coach to Scarborough. Fearing those vultures would then come after her and rob her of her own belongings, the girl sought lodging in a respectable house and went to look for work. Finding nothing and overstaying her ability to pay, she had been locked out of her lodgings that very morning. Her clothes and a few trinkets her aunt had given her in remembrance were there in her satchel — all that she owned. There at table she began weeping. I realized I was in a position to take advantage of her state, yet I would not be a seducer, especially not of one I judged to be so young and innocent. And so, having paid the bill for our dinners, I gave her what I had left and told her to put up in a hostelry that night, and the next evening we would meet, and I would give her all that she would need to settle what she owed at the lodging house and pay her coach fare back to Scarborough. She gave me the name of that very dram house where the trouble was to occur, and said it was near her lodging house. Kissing my hand in gratitude, she thanked me a thousand times over. I sent her away in a hackney coach.
“Next evening, she was not there, but in her place were the three you met in court. They demanded the money I had brought for her, declared they would deliver it to her. I knew them for what they are — pimps, blackguards — and called them so. Far from being insulted, they smirked at that and followed me out, demanding not an apology but the money I had promised her. I was sure at that point that they had threatened her, perhaps done her harm to force from her the reason for our meeting — and so I did punish them with my sword. But, having had time to reflect upon it, I now understand that she was an active player in the game. Whether her agents or her masters, they were acting upon information freely given by her. It was she, after all, a trollop in innocent disguise, who had named the meeting place, which was as the judge described it. Having thus brought me there meant that she had planned it all.”
In one sense only did the tale told by the young merchant officer baffle me. “Why did you not tell the whole story to the judge?” I asked him. “Indeed, had you told it to the magistrate in the beginning you would never have been brought to trial.”
“Early on, I sought to protect her,” said he. “Then, realizing her leading role in the charade, I was ashamed that I had been gulled. I was simply too chagrined to use the whole truth in my own defense.”
“Young man,” said I, for I was, at forty-two, near twenty years his senior, “you must never feel embarrassment because of your own good and generous nature. Nor should you harden your heart, for next time the tale told you may be true, and the innocence you perceive may be as real as can be. So I was once advised by one wiser than me, and so I advise you now.”
We parted but a short time later. I know not whether he has thought upon what I said to him since, nor whether he will much in the future. But I have thought upon it powerfully and oft, for it brought back to my memory in clearest detail one of the bloodiest and most troubling matters ever to come to the diligent attention of Sir John Fielding.
Sir John, Magistrate of the Bow Street Court and chief of the Bow Street Runners, was to me in my youth part master, part father, and something between a hero and a god. We had met when I, an orphan, had been brought before him in his court, falsely accused of thievery. Seeing through the perjured testimony of my accusers, he sent them away with a stem warning, made me a ward of the court, and eventually took me into his household. Starting at age thirteen, I lived under his protection, did whatever work Lady Fielding asked of me about our living quarters, and aided him whenever and however I could. Though blind, he required little direct assistance in his daily routine. However, in certain criminal inquiries he undertook as magistrate I was able to be of more direct help to him, or so he often assured me.
Of all such inquiries, none frustrated him more, nor caused greater panic in the Covent Garden section, which was home to us, than the one I am about to describe. That this matter also caused me some personal pain you may already have inferred.
It was then 1770, a full twenty-seven years past as I write this. Yet I recall the day it began, even now, as one on which I was kept hopping at errands and tasks of every description. Annie Oakum, who had taken Mrs. Gredge’s place as cook in our household (and performed the job far better), asked me that morning to accompany her on her buying trip to Covent Garden. I was then fifteen and grown to a husky lad, but my strength was taxed on our return, for she had bought potatoes, apples, and carrots to last the month — and I was her beast of burden. No sooner back than Lady Fielding fell upon me, all excited, and bade me off to the post to pick up a letter just arrived from her son. Tom, a midshipman on duty in the Mediterranean (all fleet mail was coached up from Portsmouth). No doubt inspired by his description of the shining palaces of Constantinople, which he had but recently seen firsthand, she set me to work immediately making our own little palace shine a bit brighter. Instructing me to scrub the stairs from ground floor up to my attic eyrie, she left for the Magdalene Home for Penitent Prostitutes, whose operation she oversaw, with my assurances that the task would be completed upon her return.
It was not. A request was sent me from below that I present myself to Sir John, who had for me an urgent errand to perform. My duties to Sir John superseded all others. Yet had I been given a choice in the matter, I should just as eagerly have set bucket and brush aside and hastened to his chambers. I delighted in his eccentric nature, by turns grave and witty; I liked well his errands, for they invariably sent me out into the great world, which I was so keen to know; and finally, though I tried to keep it hid, I had come to look upon domestic work as somewhat beneath me.
In any case, I wasted no time but made straight for his door and rapped stoutly upon it. Invited inside, I found Mr. Marsden, the court clerk, at his side. A letter had just been dictated. Having folded it right sharp, Mr. Marsden was in the act of applying wax and marking it with the magistrate’s seal.
“Ah, Jeremy, you, is it?” said Sir John. “Come take a seat. This will be ready for you in a moment.”
“Less than a moment,” said Mr. Marsden, “for it is now ready for delivery.” He slipped a comer of the letter under the fingers of Sir John’s right hand. Receiving Sir John’s thanks, he gave me a nod as he departed.
“Sit down in any case, Jeremy,” said Sir John. “I want you to know the contents of the letter so that you will better understand the special instructions I shall give you.”
“Yes, Sir John.” I took one of two chairs opposite his desk.
“Sir Thomas Cox has just died.”
I knew the name in a vague way. It seemed to me proper to make some remark in comment, and so I did my ignorant best: “I had not known he was ill.”