This is an excerpt from Peter Clothier’s newest book, The Pilgrim’s Staff, available here.
(The Pilgrim’s Staff has two counterpointing narrators. One, a contemporary figure painter, writes a blog. The other, an 18th century English gentleman, wrote a journal that falls into the artist’s hands. Both are men of mature years, reflecting on the exploits of their youth. In this excerpt, we listen to the 18th century English gentleman’s voice.)
I shall commence, then, at the beginning of it all, on an afternoon of uncustomary warmth and gentle sunlight in the well-known Green Park—a London landmark that, in my youth, a fresh young bachelor from University, I frequented in my first days in that city with simple, may I say entirely guileless pleasure, a friend to both the shy deer and the brazen cattle and sheep that shared its charming leas not only with distinguished members of the Quality in their roving landaus and carriages, but also with loiterers of the Middling Sort, like unto myself. ‘Twas here I sat upon the sward that fateful day in early June, with no earthly intent, upon mine honour, other than to find some moments’ surcease from the city’s grime and constant uproar in the shade of a spreading English elm tree, admiring the great lawns before me, now a lovely, gleaming emerald green after a long period of rain.
At peace, so I deemed, with myself and the world alike, I fell a-dreaming of matters of which I need not speak when two young ladies, cheerful in demeanour and filled, it seemed, with the joys of a late spring day, approached me with a fit of giggles and requested they be permitted to sit with me awhile. Conscious that it would be ungracious on my part to refuse them their desire, I overcame my timidity with the sex, and my natural embarrassment, and jumped up to invite them, with doffed hat and a courteous bow, to join me upon the grass. The ladies of whom I speak were, I judged, of years somewhat more numerous than mine own, perhaps five-and-twenty, whereas I myself had but recently passed my twentieth birthday. By their attire I took them to be of gentle class, not grand, to be sure, but, so I wished to believe, respectable.
Taking, to my surprise, each a place on either side of me, they drew me back down to sit tight betwixt the two of them. Once seated, they first made merry conversation for a while, with scant consideration of my presence. I scarce heard the words they spake, for, unaccustomed to the proximity of the fair sex nor, I judged, to such unrestrained boldness of behaviour, I was the more greatly occupied with wondering whether these two ladies be of the “libertine” philosophical persuasion, of which, during my years at university, I had heard reports from beyond the English Channel. A yet more severe shock awaited me, however, when one of them presumed to lay a gloved hand upon my thigh and looked directly into my eyes with her own dark, glowing orbs, saying, “Sir, you are surely of kind mien, and are just a surely a fine gentlemen who would not refuse the request of two gentle ladies at a time of need. We are…” said she, but did not finish her sentence, for her companion took up after her with ne’er a instant’s break.
“In short, sir, we are this day in need of a strong gentleman to provide some momentary assistance in the living quarters we are just now provided with. It is a matter of…”
“… but a few moments of your time,” the other continued, on her friend’s behalf, with a gay little laugh. “We would not presume to ask so great a favour, be assured, but that we have just today been constrained to dismiss our serving man…”
“An outright thief and braggart he proved himself to be,” pursued the second lady with an expression of high indignation. “And now we are left to our own devices, with certain tasks…”
“… that can be performed only by a gentleman of strength and vigour. A man,” the first concluded, gazing, with what I flattered myself to believe was admiration, upon my person, “quite like unto your good self.”
The two exchanged a hasty glance between them and looked back at me, their gaze so helpless and imploring, it would have taken a stonier and more churlish heart than mine to deny their pitiable request. It did, I confess, appear to exceed the ordinary, to receive so unconventional a plea; but at the age of not yet one and twenty and fresh in the city, as previously averred, I was able speedily to set aside all doubts and reservations, and indicated my willingness to provide the strong arm of which these ladies claimed to be in need. Moreover, since it is my strict intention to include in my narration nothing but the truth, no matter how shameful it might reflect upon my-self, I must also concede that I was in no way deterred by the comely appearance of these two vivacious young things; and that perhaps, in some secret place in my heart, there lodged a motive other than the noble desire to be of service.
So, “Aye,” said I, politely, with a small inclination of the head. “If I may be of service, I know not how to refuse so eloquent a plea.”
“Ah, sir,” replied the first lady, bounding to her feet. “You are too kind! Is he not, sister?” Whereupon the other leapt up also from her place beside me with a gay burst of laughter. “Too, too kind,” she added. And both reached boldly for my hands and brought me to my feet.
“Ladies!” I protested, at the familiarity of the touch of their fashionably glove’d hands. But they simply laughed, and clutched my arms on either side, and led me speedily away toward my destiny, from my peaceful patch of shade beneath the elm.
Sisters? I pondered this usage as I walked between them, flouncing jauntily toward the gate to the park, through which I had myself but lately arrived. Surely, they were not much like minr own sister, estranged from our family for many years—and for reasons I was deemed too young to understand. I remembered her as a fresh-faced lass of thirteen or so, with a jolly smile and an innocent twinkle in her blue eyes. Her loss remained a great sadness to me to that day. These two, I divined, were ladies of a certain cosmopolitan refinement, much of an age, the one perhaps a little older than the other, but strikingly different in both countenance and figure—the younger one fair-haired, round-faced, buxom, blue-eyed and pink of cheek; the other olive-skinned and slight, and darkly coiffed, as though she hailed not from our own beloved country but rather from some distant and exotic southern clime. Not sisters, then, I thought, but close enough to call each other by that appellation.
Certainly, they behaved as such, chattering gaily and with barely a pause as we left the park and dodged the madly clattering dash of speeding carriages and the curses of their drivers on the main avenue that bordered it. We walked on through a bewildering rook’s nest of narrower streets, up to the ankles in mud and I know not what other filth after the rains, all unfamiliar to me but, for this noisy metropolis, surprisingly quiet and respectable. Even the foul and too familiar stench of the great city seemed for the nonce to be wafted magically from the air. The ladies stopped before the newly painted door of a small house, one in a row of identical residences in this narrow mews, wide enough only for the passage of a single carriage, though none was now in sight. One of the ladies then produced a key from the flounces of her skirt and unlocked the door, proceeding in ahead of her “sister,” who beckoned me alluringly to follow her up the stairs. Which, shedding my boots at the door as did my lady friends, I did, with a certain trepidation and, I willingly confess, a wildly beating heart…
But enough, for this one day of writing. I hear my good wife Elspeth stirring down below, preparing a last cup of chocolate, I suppose, ‘ere we retire together for the night. I shall resume the thread of this narrative on the morrow in the evening. In the meantime, the album shall be returned to the place of concealment I have created for it, beneath a pair of the oaken planks in the floor of my writing chamber. Soon now, to bed…