DON’T BLAME ME for what follows. Simon, one of the orphanage’s boys, insists there are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. But when me and the other boys in the Earl of Gravel Lane’s gang put our heads together, we could come up with only nineteen of them—and I still say that some of them sound more like they came across the Channel on the same boat as Yiddish than belonging properly to the King’s English.
Simon, when he heard our list, says we went wrong by mixing together the letters “k” and “q,” and by insisting there is a letter “ch,” as well as forgetting a few whose names I still don’t remember. Why anyone needs so many letters, when so few people say much that is worth hearing, is beyond me. But for now, the point is this: If you are looking for a tale filled with “Milord this” and “Milady that” and every word spelled as neat and crisp as one of Beau Brummell’s cravats, you had better move on, because this is not that kind of tale.
This is a hanging kind of tale, and the only reason why I am telling it is because I want to be sure that the person who gets hanged is not me. Or the Earl of Gravel Lane. Maybe you don’t think that London would be any the worse if there were no Earl of Gravel Lane or General Well’ngone in it, but we rather like being alive.
This is all I have to say for my story’s pre-amble. If it had been up to me, I would not have wasted ink on copying out any of it. Simon, though, says that any book that wants to consider itself a proper book has to have a pre-amble, which, he says, is a sort of ambling around the book’s subject before the story begins. Simon has read a book, so I suppose he should know. I would rather get straight to the telling, and that is what I am going to do now.
The Earl and I were having our morning tea in our rooms in Gravel Lane, minding our own business, when there was a knock on the door.
I may as well tell you that I already have to stop because the boys are laughing their heads off. It is very difficult to write a book—even when you are just telling it and someone like Simon is doing the hard work and spelling all the words—when a dozen ne’er-do-wells, who should be at work at this hour, are looking over your shoulder and guffawing at every word, as if they were editors at The Gentleman’s Magazine, instead of being usefully employed in the streets of London picking gentlemen’s pockets. I will therefore explain. The Earl is not an Earl. The tea is not tea. And as for minding our own business ...
Not that it is any of your business, but our situation is this: We are all orphans. Jewish orphans. Since there are more Jewish orphans in London than there are beds in the Jewish orphanage, most of us live on the streets, which in our case is a street in the easterly part of London called Gravel Lane.
I have been told that most people would not choose to live in Gravel Lane. It is the sort of place you fall into when you are so down on your luck that sleeping at the bottom of the River Thames looks like a step up. I don’t mind it, because I cannot recall ever living anywhere else. But some people who come from the other side of Houndsditch will wave about their handkerchiefs and put on airs, as though the dirt and the smell is too much for their fancy clothes and delicate noses.
The Earl says that he was born on the other side of Houndsditch, but thank goodness he is not a snob. He is not a real Earl, either, of course. Everyone knows that a Jew cannot be a member of the gentry. But he is like royalty in our part of town. I always say that he could be called the King of Gravel Lane and it would be the truth. The Earl is modest, though, and has said more than once he has no wish to overreach.
But, getting back to my story:
The Earl and I were having our morning gin ...
Well, what did you think we were drinking, when everyone knows how much a tin of tea costs and that only the gentry can afford to drink it? If you’re one of those types who is always jabbering on about the evils of drink, next time you come round to Gravel Lane you can leave a tin of tea or coffee on our doorstep instead of one of your cheap, tasteless pamphlets.
But I see I shall never get to the end of my story if I keep interrupting it. I am therefore going to go open the door, without any more pre-ambles or explanations.
STANDING ON THE doorstep was an acquaintance of ours called Mr. Hamburg. I doubt that is his real name, because he once let slip that his family came from a town in Bohemia, while everyone in the smuggling business knows that Hamburg is a port town in the north of Europe. Since we are not too particular about names in Gravel Lane, we let the slip pass.
Mr. Hamburg was looking particularly amiable, even jolly. He even let out a chuckle as I led him down the hallway and into our drawing room. We never call it a sitting room, since there are rarely more than three unbroken chairs in the room to sit on and we like to be precise with our words. With a drawing room, a person is forced to draw his own conclusions as to what he will find inside and it is not our fault if a person’s conclusions are, invariably, wrong.
“Well, Earl, I hope it is not too early in the morning for you to do a little business,” said Mr. Hamburg.
The Earl waved his hand, a vague gesture that implied he was neither interested nor uninterested, but his visitor may as well take a seat, since he was already there.
While Mr. Hamburg decided which of the two available water-stained chairs would do the least harm to his greatcoat—it had been an unusually cold and snowy winter, and more than a little of that cold and water had found its way inside our humble abode—I took down from the mantelpiece the teacup that is reserved for guests and poured in it a generous amount of gin. The Earl is very particular about providing hospitality to our guests, as befitting his grand station in life.
“Thank you, General Well’ngone,” said Mr. Hamburg. He then raised his glass and said, “To your good health, gentlemen.”
Although he swallowed down the gin in one gulp, I did not refill the glass and Mr. Hamburg did not ask for a second drink. Hospitality is one thing, business is another, and it was understood by all that we had now moved on to the latter.
“I have come across a very interesting item. A very interesting item.”
Mr. Hamburg reached into his greatcoat to extract the “very interesting item.” As you may well imagine, no one shows up at our doorstep with an item that is not interesting. It would be like the apple seller yelling “Come buy my mealy, wormy apples!” and who has ever heard an apple seller say that?
By then a handkerchief had been removed from the greatcoat and Mr. Hamburg was busy unfolding its folds. At last, he picked up the item and showed it to us.
It was a snuff box, decorated with what some people call an eye miniature, but which the pawnbrokers call a “Lover’s Eye.” The snuff box itself was of a goodish quality, but I could never understand what the gentry saw in this one-eyed affair. To paint two eyes along with the rest of a person’s head on the top of a snuff box is fine, but to paint just one eye—and only that one eye, without the rest of the head—is, in my opinion, more than a little unnerving. It is as though the whole person is squeezed into that small oval and the eye is watching you, watching you.
“You bought that object from Mr. Teller, if I am not mistaken,” said the Earl. He did not take the thing into his hand. He did not like a “Lover’s Eye” either. He said it reminded him of the Evil Eye—pooh, pooh, pooh—and that next time it would be better to leave such a thing in a gentleman’s pocket than bring it into our home and allow it to do us harm.
Mr. Hamburg raised his bushy eyebrows. “You were the one who sold it to Teller?”
The Earl gave his guest a weary smile.
I am not sure how old the Earl is—I do not think he knows for certain either—but let us say he is about eighteen. Mr. Hamburg is on the wintry side of life; let us say he is at least fifty. Even so, with most encounters of this type, it is the Earl who has worldly wisdom on his side. Many people wonder how the Earl can be so wise when he very seldom leaves Gravel Lane. What they do not understand is that if he remains at home, everyone must come to him—and they do.
Yet Mr. Hamburg did not appear to be disturbed by this piece of news concerning the snuff box. Indeed, if anything, he was in higher spirits than before.
“You think you are smart, Earl,” he said, stretching the tips of his muddy boots toward the hearth.
He did so out of habit, I suppose, since a fire was never lit in the drawing room so early in the day, no matter how cold it was outside. The Earl, as the leader of our little band, said he did not like to sit in a heated room while we, the troops, were out on the freezing streets earning our daily bread. The only reason why I was still in the drawing room, instead of being outside with my boys, was because that morning I had been engaged in business with one of our associates in the secondhand linen trade, which had kept me at home.
“Yes, you think you are smart,” Mr. Hamburg continued, “but can you do this? I have heard ... yes, I have heard ...” He glanced over his shoulder, as though a Lover’s Ear was listening in one of the room’s corners. Then, satisfied that we were alone, he hunched forward and said, in a hushed whisper, “What if I were to tell you there is a break-in planned. Can you tell me when, where, and who plans to do it?”
“Break-ins occur every day,” replied the Earl.
“Not like this one. This one is tip-top. If you had kept this snuff box in your possession, your share of the booty would have left you well equipt for the rest of your life. No more relying on the contents of a gentleman’s pocket to fill your stomach. No more dealing in watch fobs and secondhand linen and clothes. Set for life, you’d be, in a proper home. A proper home, I tell you.”
“I congratulate you on your luck.
“It weren’t luck. You’re not the only one who has brains. This time it is me, Hamburg, who has got the goods.”
Our visitor stood up to go. But like many people who stand up to go, it is only a pre-amble to their actual leaving, because they still have something to say about the matter. “I doubt I shall see either of you again,” he said, looking more happy than sad, even though we never did him any harm and were always generous with our gin. “Once I am situated in my new home, I do not think I shall have much cause to visit Gravel Lane.”
He nodded his head in our direction, by way of saying farewell, and then he departed. I closed the front door after him and locked it; a person can never be too careful in Gravel Lane. When I returned to the drawing room, I was surprised to see that the Earl was looking perturbed.
“That man is a fool,” snapped the Earl.
I thought the Earl was acting peevish because he had been bested by Mr. Hamburg. Usually, we have at least a whiff of anything foul afoot in the city. I therefore tried to console the Earl by saying, “There is no conversation in weather like this. No one lingers in the cold air to speak. Why, even the River Thames has stopped its murmuring and frozen over.”
“Apparently the cold has addled your brains as well, General, since you mistake my meaning.”
I might have been stung by the Earl’s remark, but I knew him too well to take offense. When he hurled an insult my way, it was because I had failed to grasp in a quarter-hour something that he had seen in an instant. That he thought so highly of my intellectual faculties and expected me to be as quick as he was actually a compliment. Such is the world; it is all upside down and things are almost never what they seem.
“Mark my words,” the Earl continued, still looking uncommonly stern. “If Mr. Hamburg escapes from this misadventure with his life, he should consider himself lucky.”
I did not bother to question the Earl or even try to look as if I now understood. The Earl had sunk into one of his moods, and when he does that he does not notice much about him. Instead, I got busy sorting some of the linen that had come our way. Contrary to what many members of the press and pulpit say, we child thieves are not lazy, shiftless creatures. We are remarkably quick about getting and getting rid of our stolen goods.
It was already dark when there was another knock on the door, this one with a frantic pounding sound. I opened it and Saulty and some of the other boys tumbled inside. They were all nearly frozen and the younger ones raced to the drawing room, where the coal fire had been lit. Saulty, whom I consider to be my lieutenant in the field, remained behind.
I do not like remaining in the frosty front hallway, not when there is a warm fire burning away somewhere inside, and so I said, rather sharply, “Well, what is it?”
“A Runner is coming to get the Earl,” he stammered, as much from fear as from the cold. Saulty is a hard worker, but he does tend to be overly dramatic. I do not exaggerate when I say he has seen more ghosts than Kemble’s Hamlet. (A Covent Garden theatre is a warm place to sneak into on a cold night.)
“Why should a Bow Street Runner be after the Earl?” I asked, assuming an air of indifference. I could think of at least five reasons why the Law might choose to pick a quarrel with the Earl on this particular night, but none of them were serious enough to warrant the sort of fees that a Runner would request from the aggrieved party.
“It’s because of Hamburg.”
Saulty’s lips were shaking, and a chill went through me, too.
“Well, what about Mr. Hamburg?”
I closed my eyes. I think better when I do. This time, though, all I could see was that “Lover’s Eye” staring back at me, so I quickly opened them—both of them. “What does that have to do with us?” I said, hoping my shivers didn’t show.
“They say someone saw Hamburg come into this house.”
“No one saw him come out.”
I gave an inward sigh of relief. Such reasoning was typical of your average Bow Street Runner. I pulled myself up to my full height and said, rather grandly, “If his body was found elsewhere, he had to have left this house. Mr. Hamburg’s demise, although unfortunate, has nothing to do with us.”
I turned to go back to the drawing room, once again confident that my first impression had been the right one: Saulty was just being his usual over-reacting self. If writing was not such a chore and I could spell without Simon’s help, I might have decided to write a pamphlet of my own, this one about the dangers of letting our impressionable youth spend too much time in the theatres.
Saulty, though, had not yet grasped that the little drama had reached its final scene. He grabbed my coat by the sleeve and turned me around. Although he is younger than me, he is taller and stronger and so he can do that—even though I have told him more than once that a real lieutenant, one in Wellington’s army, could get hanged for acting so disrespectfully towards his commanding officer.
“Well?” I said, once again drawing myself up as high as I could, although the top of my bicorne hat still only reached the bottom of his chin.
“Leave, yes,” he said, his eyes open wide like two unchipped saucers. “But not alive.”
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