My own tastes run rather to the rakish, and for four or five years I had attempted membership in the highest and most desirable clubs, and had been repeatedly denied. Being a man of equanimity and sang-froid, I took these rejections with a light heart. Still, it was a cause of some concern to me that I had failed in this ambition. I resolved, since I was besieged by boredom, to rectify the matter.
Of all the clubs in London, none is more exclusive than Brooks and Almack’s, in St. James’s Street. A finely designed structure of the most noble and elegant architecture houses as aristocratic a body of men as this land has ever seen. Walpole was a member, as were Pitt, Fox, and Burke—truly a diverse grouping, to be sure. Indeed, even the Prince of Wales belonged, and I had long coveted a membership.
Therefore I resolved to apply once more, and by the light of a flickering candle a few evenings after my visit to the Worshipful Painter-Stainers, I wrote a most persuasive letter to the Chairing Committee:
Dear Most Honourable and Noble Sirs,
I write with the greatest appreciation for your August Club and Society and respectfully submit an Application to you for membership. It is my most sincere hopes that you will take into account my Illustrious and Noble heritage, which I am pleased to boast stretches through history to the Conquest and prior to that in the fiefs and halls of Normandy, and also my fine education in those hallowed halls of Learning Eton and Oxford. My wit and dash will, I daresay, make me an excellent and lively addition to your Society, and it is with greatest anticipation and eagerness that I look forward to receiving your response.
With Most Humble and Solicitous Regards, Your Servant,
Dennis Henry Ambrose St. Michel, Viscount of Stokington and Baron of Great Stoke
Carefully folding the paper and dripping wax upon the fold, I stamped my seal upon it. Then I handed it to one of the inn’s servant with detailed instructions to deliver it promptly.
I was on tenterhooks for the next few days, waiting with baited breath. Neither Walker nor ‘Gallant’ Gus nor Edward Mills had sent word of their activities (although I expected no such missive from the last) and so my entrenchment into boredom continued. I wandered the city, taking in the myriad sights, purchasing fresh apples and other fruits from vendors in its bustling markets, visiting museums and libraries as my fancy took me. I found a most excellent volume of Tasman, translated out of the Dutch, and for a few hours I was most amused by his accounts of adventures in Nieuw Zeeland. Still, that diversion was at best temporary, and after I left the library I found myself feeling dull and dispirited.
O how my spirits were lifted that day, when I returned to my rooms at the Tabard! O how my hopes were dashed when I unfolded the fine parchment to discover, in words of elegant Copperplate, the following:
To the Most Noble and Honourable Viscount of Stokington,
Sir, while we must admit we are pleased by your choosing to correspond with us in regards to membership, we must respectfully decline your entreaty. Unfortunately, reports of your Scandalous Exploits among the brothels and taverns of Oxfordtown and of gaming and horse speculation in Eton have reached our ears, and at this time it is the esteemed opinion of the Chairing Committee that admitting your August Person to our Society would irreparably besmirch and blacken the fine name of Brooks’s, and make us little more than a house of Ill-Repute such as can be found in any back-alley of Southwark or high-street of Philadelphia. We hope this missive finds you well, and we respectfully remain,
John Cholmondeley, Esq.
Brooks’s Private Secretary
I must admit, my face fell a bit at this. Nevertheless, it was always pleasant to receive such a firm vote of confidence from the tut-tutters and naysayers of High Society. It meant I was irritating the proper people. I was, however, slightly offended by the mention of "horse speculation." I appreciate horses, and a good horse race, but let me be clear: it is not speculation the way I do it.
I tried to be happy and gay despite this set back. This took some doing. Day and night I raged, shaking my fist as Lear did towards the heavens. I drank deep of gin and brandy. I smoked any number of fine cigars, fuming under my breath. I vowed vengeance, public humiliation. I tried to distract myself in books, in plays, in little works of poesy. I was counseled towards reason by the landlord, but I would not listen to reason, for reason always means what someone else has got to say. I raged, I fumed, I hated, I groaned in fury, I unleashed my wrath on the servants.
I applied to Boodle’s and was accepted the very next day.
Boodle’s is admittedly rather more louche than Brooks’s. As it so happens, though, I was considered by the fine gentlemen at Boodle’s to be prime material for membership, and so it happened that the following Friday evening I found myself at the gaming tables, of which Boodle’s has ever so many, drinking truly excellent brandy and increasing my wealth most hastily. Cutting the proper figure, I lounged in my chair, my cravat loosened, my hair disheveled, and my waistcoat most scandalously unbuttoned (I assure the ladies who may be reading these works, top button only. I have some standards.). Still, I was winning, and that breeds happiness in even the stingiest misanthrope’s heart.
Besides myself at the table, there was the usual collection of nobles and gentry, as well as a few exotic foreigners. Across the table a group of huge Danes gambled their money as though it were rubbish. One fellow, a bear of a man with a thick red beard whose name I heard as Fryktelig, seemed to be the leader, and fortunately for me and everyone else at the table was winning. Roaring with laughter, swinging a pitcher of beer, and wrapping his enormous meaty arms around his companions, he seemed the very image of Falstaffian pleasure. After one particularly fortuitous hand he cried, "De har steder som dette i Oslo ikke!" which I took to be a Danish cry of thanks to the Norse god of baccarat.
Some hours after my gambling had begun, rather the worse for alcohol, I was startled to discover a uniformed footman standing at my elbow. Apparently, he had been standing there for some time. In my experience, this situation usually precedes one being bodily ejected from an establishment. Therefore my first action was to hastily down the remainder of my drink. My second action was to scoop my winnings into my pockets as fast as possible. My third, and most belated, action was to realise I had not egregiously swindled anyone, nor insulted a duke, nor vomited on a courtesan, which is what usually triggers an ejection from one’s club.
I straightened myself with alcoholic dignity. "What d’you want?" I managed to slur this with minimal incomprehension on the part of the servant.
A most superior fellow, he had apparently seen young nobles in much worse condition than I, and merely replied, "There is a young...boy, for want of a better word, asking to see you, my Lord."
"At the servants’ entrance, my Lord."
"Take me to him," I said, wobbling only slightly. "Lay on, MacDuff."
The footman wove his way through the throng, as I somewhat precariously followed him. Eventually we reached the hot and crowded kitchen, and then the alleyway behind the club. The blast of heat from the ovens followed by the chill of the outdoors did much to return me to sobriety, and as a result I was not much surprised when young Gus grinned up at me from the bowl of soup he balanced delicately on his knees.
"He looks like a skeleton," said the footman with distaste. "I thought he needed some feeding, so I gave him some thin gruel, my Lord."
Gus held up the bowl. "Please, sir, I’d like some more."
"I wouldn’t, from the look of that," I said. "Have an Earl of Sandwich." I retrieved the somewhat inexplicable remains of the delicacy from inside a spacious pocket, where it had apparently migrated in the fashion of its species, with the distant hope of being eaten some day, most likely in a drunken stupor. Handing it to Gus, who eagerly tore into it as though it had not spent several hours in a silken hell, I upturned a bucket and sat upon it.
"I assume you have some news," I said after the footman had left us.
"Absolutely, Lordship," he said around a mouthful of bread and meat. "I’ve got me mates Hans and Fritz on his Nibs day and night, but they’ll want paying."
"Tell them to come with you next time, and I shall be sure they get their shillings. Now, what of Sir Julius."
"I didna crack the hogshead once, Lordship, and I got some pretty stuff resulting-wise."
"His Nibs, he acts like a right lambskin man when he’s out with his Parly mates, but I seed him strap a black-a-moor to a jigger and flog seven kinds of ‘ell out of him. Did it ‘imself, too. He only plays at being the crip."
"Well, I knew that already. What else?"
Gus swallowed heartily. "I ‘ung around his house when he was there. Grand old place. Nice floors. Not a richard in sight. Must be nice to live so high." He sighed, and rubbed his small forehead with his fingers. "His wife, his first one, she’s dead. Cholera. Got him a son, growed up though, so he’s a man. Wears the scarlet, that one."
"He’s a soldier?"
"Aye, a real lef-tenant. His Nibs, though, he married again. Some dell from the Germanies. He don’t dock her, but I don’t know why. I seen her in her buntlings," he grinned, and then tried to twist his face into a leer, which due to his young age he failed to achieve. "Pfwah, what a pair of--"
"Yes, yes, I understand."
"But his Nibs, he’s right jealous, keeps his dolly-mop locked up tight, he does. Buys her all sorts of things, though. I guess it keeps her happy."
"But what of Sir Julius?”
“Him? He’s right prompt about everything. Prompt to his carriage, prompt to the slave-yards, prompt back ‘ome. He don’t drink, he don’t gaff, he don’t even lollop when he takes his tea! This one, he’s a right thorough churchman. I mean, everything looks right iffen you don’t look too close."
I frowned. This might prove more difficult than I first imagined. "Anything else?"
Gus shrugged. "No, not hardly. His Nibs’ got a running man, name of Bumstead. Bit of a berk, if you ask me. Real penny-wise and pound-foolish. Eats a lot, though, out of His Nibs' larder and don’t imagine His Nibs cares for that at all. He might be a petticoat pensioner, though."
"Really? What makes you say that?"
A roguish smile. "He’s always hanging ‘round the lady of the house. Never lets her be."
I looked at him sceptically. "And Sir Julius allows that?"
"This Bumstead, he’s a berk, I tole you! Her ladyship wouldn’t look a brass farthing at him."
"And the son?"
"Oh he’s alright. Plays a bit o’ cards, likes the turf, you know. Don’t think he’s a picaroon, but he’s a bit sharp. Name of Jasper Dithers, esquire."
"And that’s all you have?"
"You know it, Lordship."
I handed him sixpence. "Bring your friends next time, and I shall give them their wages. Besides, you will need them. I have someone else for you to follow."
Gus beamed. "I’m turning into a right Isaac Gulliver," he said, and, pocketing the sixpence, turned and darted off into the night. Godspeed, young Gus, I thought.
My youthful spy had turned up some valuable information. Sir Julius appeared to have no weaknesses. "Appeared" being the key word. They were there, if one knew how to look for them. And I knew how to look. Sir Julius was finished, he merely did not know it yet.