by Yamanashi Moe (山梨もえ)
Suppose that a fine, honest-looking young man, walking through the streets of the West End one afternoon, should stop suddenly and make a loud exclamation of surprise. A wealthy gentleman nearby might see the young man bend down to pick up a diamond ring. The young man, eager to share the news of his good fortune, tells the gentleman that he might well get five pounds for the ring at a pawnbroker’s shop. Believing the ring to be of far greater value, the gentleman offers to save him the trouble and purchase it himself on the spot. The exchange takes place and both parties walk away satisfied.
I have neither the strength for honest labour, nor the will to pick pockets, so it is no great surprise that I should be what I am. My name is Nat Carter and I make my living as a grifter.
My mother never spoke of my father – never, in fact, spoke much at all. I remember her as a thin, grave-faced woman who took odd jobs and whose only solace was gin. We lived, with two other families, in a single room in the rookery of the Mint. She was an industrious woman when sober, but opportunities were scarce, and she took to selling herself in times when the need was most pressing: the result being my younger sister Martha, my younger brother Thomas, and an influenza that killed her when I was thirteen years old.
I had no time to mourn her passing. I was the sole relative of two young children, and if I did not find a means of supporting us more substantial than my occasional work as an errand-boy, nothing would keep us from the street or the workhouse.
My advantages in life consisted of my appearance and my skill with the English language. I was, and remain, blessed with a fair complexion, delicate frame, and blue eyes which hold the promise of an innocence I do not possess. With my face clean, and a decent suit of clothes to wear, I looked practically angelic. If I sound vain, perhaps I am, a little. Nevertheless, I do not exaggerate.
The second of my limited advantages had developed almost without my knowledge. I possessed the uncanny ability to mimic styles of speech. Despite my limited exposure to citizens of the upper classes, I could pass myself off as a young lord fresh from Eton, and could just as easily become in the next moment a Yorkshire coal miner seeing the big city for the first time in his life. When my mother was alive, I had used this gift primarily to try and entertain her, but I was aware that it would assist me in any deceptions I wished to carry out.
And so I set about to use these talents in the best way I knew how: as a confidence man.
My goal was to provide the means for my siblings’ stations to improve, but this desire was based on entirely selfish motives. I could not stand the thought of Martha as a prostitute on the streets, or Tom as a crossing-sweeper or factory wretch. I was willing to go to significant lengths so that I would not have to see those nightmares become reality.
I began with such schemes as the simple one which I related above, as well as occasionally acting as a shill for other grifters, or sometimes fencing goods. I learned how to gain people’s trust and betray it in the same moment, how to play the part of any sort of man as circumstances required it, and how to make my way in that most complicated of social circles, the London underworld.
There are men born to greatness in the criminal professions, but I am not one of them. My cons were strictly small-scale and my income modest, especially in the beginning. It was enough, however, to leave the rookery for somewhat more comfortable lodgings, provide sufficient food for the three of us, and ensure that Tom and Martha were free to attend the local board school. That was enough for me.
On the night upon which my story begins, I had come back to our little set of rooms in Soho to find them sitting on the faded yellow chesterfield beside the stove. I was pleased to see that, judging by the dirty dishes on the table that took up most of the front room, they had done a pretty fine job at making themselves afternoon tea, but that was not my primary concern at the moment.
“Martha,” I exclaimed, horrified, “don’t tell me you’ve been fighting again.”
Martha stood up and faced me. Her blonde hair was loose and tangled in a way that suggested it had been pulled. Her pinafore, never tidy at the best of times, was scuffed and torn, and her face was bruised.
“Sorry, Nat,” she said, with a shrug of her shoulders. “Can’t help it, is all.”
“She didn’t start it, Nat,” said Tom, jumping to his feet beside her. In contrast to his sister, his hair and clothes were neat, which did not surprise – he disliked fighting. “It was that girl what sits behind her. Suzie Hawkins. She was…” Martha gave him a sharp look, and he trailed off.
I sighed. “Was she talking about our mum again?”
“Yeah,” said Martha, shuffling her feet uncomfortably.
“Called you a bastard, did she?”
“Called me one too,” added Tom quietly.
“Martha, I know it’s awful hard to stand it, but you can’t fight every twist who insults you. You’ll just be making trouble for yourself. Besides, how could she know about our Mum, eh? For all she knows, you’re a princess in disguise.”
Tom chuckled. “Some princess.”
Martha elbowed him sharply in the ribs, then turned back to me with a gloomy expression. “Yeah, I know. But she shouldn’t’ve said it, Nat.”
“No, she shouldn’t, and honest, I’m sort of glad you whipped her. But I don’t want you to get a bad reputation, Martha. You and Tom have to be well-behaved – leastwise, as far as your teachers know. Then if you’re lucky, once you’re done schooling you can both find good jobs and -”
“I know, I know,” interrupted Martha. I had given this speech a number of times before, and clearly she was tired of receiving it. “I’m sorry I done it. I’ll try to be good.”
“Oh, let’s not keep going on about this,” said Tom impatiently. “I want to read Mrs. Seacole.”
“That’s right! It’s your turn to read to us tonight, ain’t it,” said Martha, who immediately returned to good spirits.
I sighed again, but there was no use in pressing my point. I knew that Martha was naturally hot-blooded and went to great pains to control her temper. She, and Tom, too, worked harder than many children their age in helping to organize our little household. While I was out and about at all the hours of the day and night, it was they who paid the rent, went to the shops, and took care in saving the money I brought in. I could hardly blame them for wanting to act like their schoolmates now and then.
“Right, then, we’ll forget about the whole thing for now. Mrs. Seacole it is.”
‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’ was one of several books we owned, but it was by far the most interesting. It was published some twenty years earlier by a Creole doctress who had traveled the world and served in the Crimean War. I had read from it to Martha and Tom before they learned their letters, and now we all took turns reading it to one another in the evenings. Perhaps it was the description of faraway places we would never go, and the varied characters who inhabited those places, that brought us so much pleasure; perhaps it was simply that reading the book was one of the few occasions on which we could be together as a family.
When Martha was younger, she would often play at being Mrs. Seacole, carefully nursing Tom or I back to health from illness, or doctoring our wounds. She was too old for playacting now, but she still seemed to enjoy the book even more than either of us.
Smiling at her, I brought the book from its shelf, and Tom took it from me eagerly. Perched on a stool, he opened to where we had left off the last time, speaking words I had heard so many times I could almost recite them along with him.
“Before I left Jamaica for Navy Bay, as narrated in the last chapter, war had been declared against Russia-”
Just as he was beginning, a knock on the door interrupted our reading, and I motioned to my siblings into the next room as a precaution. We moved frequently, and I did not seriously expect the police at our door. More likely it was a fellow grifter or thief. But I did not want Tom and Martha to come into contact too frequently with others of my profession, for fear they should be drawn into it and all my plans to make honest citizens of them ruined.
“Yes?” I called, and opened the door.
If a con-man means to make any good sum from his trade, he must find a partner, and mine was an older man who had been a friend and, I suspected, a client or lover of my late mother’s. Plump, blue-eyed and somewhat red-faced, he was an expert at looking like a buffoon, but had in fact a shrewd mind and was the mastermind behind most of our joint ventures. For no reason I could ever discern, he was called “the Newt” by those around him, and this was the only name I knew him by.
I motioned him to come in, shutting the door behind him so that the other tenants would have more trouble should they try to eavesdrop.
“I’ve got the perfect mark,” said the Newt, without a word of greeting. “A physician what just inherited his father’s fortune. His family’s rich as sin, but they don’t have no connections to hush up a scandal. Benjamin Howe’s his name.”
“Married?” I inquired, slightly hushed.
“No.” The Newt grinned, in what would have been a pleasant, friendly way, if not for a certain gleam in his eye. “And he won’t be, if’n word gets out. You know what I mean.”
“And you’re sure he’s the right sort?”
“Sure as can be without having it off with him meself.”
He winced at his own words, but I broke into a smile. “Right, then,” I said, feeling the excitement of a new job rise within me. “Let’s bank the rag.”
The plan was first thought up one night at a crowded little gin-shop in Drury Lane. I found the bright lights and mirrored walls gaudy, but the customers were too busy with their revels to pay attention to others’ conversation, so I frequently met to confer with the Newt there. On this occasion, I had come directly from the West End, where I had met a soldier and spent a pleasant half-hour with him.
Many young men I knew with no money and no particular moral scruples offered themselves to rich gentlemen as prostitutes, but my brief meetings were strictly for enjoyment. I had known from a young age that women held no attraction for me. Had I been brought up as a devout Christian, my preferences would likely have been cause for guilt. As it was, I remained cheerfully ignorant of the harm in two men having some fun together, if that was their mutual wish. I did not drink to excess, nor had I money to spend on other pursuits, so this was one of my few pleasures, and I indulged in it often.
“Someone’s been busy,” commented the Newt dryly as I took a seat beside him.
I looked into the mirror behind the bar, and, discovering that my hair was mussed and my clothes rumpled, proceeded to smooth them down as best I could. “What’s it to you?”
“Oh, nothin’.” The Newt waved his hand dismissively.
I nodded. “Good.” I had found that most of my acquaintances had their own vices, and could scarcely afford to judge me for mine.
“Popular with the gentlemen, are yeh?”
“‘Fraid you’re not my sort, Newt.”
The man turned white, then purple. For a second it seemed he could barely speak. “That ain’t-” he spluttered, slamming his fist down on the bar. “How dare you, you little-”
“Calm down, man,” I answered, slightly taken aback by his response. “I’m only joking.”
My words had at least a moderate effect. The Newt took a deep breath, downed more of his ale, and recovered his composure somewhat. “Well, it’s your own business, long as you’re careful.”
I wanted to ask, if that was the case, why his reaction to my comment had been so virulent, but decided not to press the matter further.
“What I mean to say is,” continued the Newt, “bet your popularity could be a good thing for business, too. Remember Lily Barker? From Martin’s Dry Goods?”
I nodded. The grift in question was one where the Newt had played a shopkeeper whose successful business had left him wealthy enough to retire, and who wished to sell his shop to an enterprising gentleman. I had been the chief clerk, and Lily the shop-girl. We had kept the pretense up for a week before abandoning shop and gentleman both. All three of us had profited handsomely.
“She’s moved on to badger games. Says they’re a right bit easier, and cheaper, besides.”
“For a Judy, maybe.”
“Or for you – if we find a toff with,” the Newt wiggled his eyebrows rather comically at this statement, “a certain inclination.”
I had never participated in a badger game myself, but I knew they were one of the oldest and most effective forms of blackmail. The goal was to lure a wealthy man – married or seeking to marry – into a compromising situation with a young woman, whose “father” would catch them in the act and demand monetary compensation. I had never heard of it being done with a young man, but that did not mean it was not possible.
“All the more scandal to threaten the fellow with, I s’pose.” I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, I’m certainly up for it. You provide the toff, Newt, I’ll provide the charm, and we’ll pull a tidy profit.”
After that, we had moved on to other topics. I had nearly forgotten the conversation until the Newt showed up at my door that night with Benjamin Howe’s name on his lips.
Having decided on a mark, the next step was to create a suitable situation in which I could meet the good doctor and determine his suitability for our purposes. To that end, the next week I found myself in Russell Square at the time when he was frequently seen taking constitutionals in the gardens.
The flowers were lovely, the day warm and bright, but I payed little concern to these things. Instead, I scanned the pathways, looking for a dark-haired man with mutton-chops and a black top hat.
I had somehow expected Dr. Benjamin Howe to be approaching middle age, and so was surprised to find him little older than myself. Unlike me, however, he was a tall, broad man, with square hands and jaw, and a ruggedly handsome face. His dress was conservative in nature, but it fit him well: I could hardly imagine a man like this as an aesthete. His overall appearance seemed more suited to a humble farrier in some faraway country town than a fashionable doctor of London.
As I walked towards him along the path, I affected a slightness of breath. For good measure I threw in a wheeze or two. Just as he was passing by, I stumbled, falling to my knees, racked by coughing.
I had planned this meeting on the assumption that the good physician would not be one to ignore a citizen in distress, and my assumption was correct. Dr. Howe sprang immediately to my side, evidently distressed at my collapse. “Excuse me! Are you alright?”
“Just… a little bit faint,” I murmured, letting the doctor help me to my feet. My manner of speech, I had decided, would be working-class but genteel, with none of the coarseness I demonstrated in conversation with my family or friends. “Thank you, sir. I… I’ll be fine…”
“Do you suffer from asthma?”
I had not thought of what disease I would actually pretend to suffer from, and decided this was as good as any. “Just a touch, sir… it creeps up on me sometimes. I’ll… I’ll be myself again shortly.” I continued to cough. “Don’t worry about me, sir.”
“Nonsense.” Taking me by the hand, Dr. Howe gazed at me with an expression of concern that would have touched me had I not been concentrating on wheezing appropriately. “Dr. Benjamin Howe, at your service. My surgery is nearby. You can rest there, and recover at your leisure.”
I shook my head. “Oh, no, sir, I couldn’t trouble you like that…”
“I’m afraid I must insist,” he answered, politely but firmly. “I should be a poor kind of doctor if I passed a fellow in need without offering some assistance.”
“I… alright, sir.” Inwardly I was flushed with triumph. Many doctors would have done just that, especially to a poor man, without any pang of remorse. Either Dr. Howe was of a particularly kind and trusting nature, or he had merely been disarmed by the sight of an attractive young man in distress. Either boded well for my plans.
I was escorted, with the doctor watching me intently for any sign of further collapse, to his surgery in the next street. It appeared to be the front room of his lodgings – a small room, but well-furnished, in a way which indicated that Dr. Howe was indeed too wealthy to care much for appearances.
Beckoning me to take a seat on the velvet-upholstered sofa, Dr. Howe went to a side door and knocked there. A middle-aged woman whom I presumed to be his housekeeper appeared at the door. “Mrs. Snowe,” he said, almost apologetically. “Could I trouble you to prepare a pot of strong coffee?”
“Certainly, Doctor,” replied the woman. “I’ll have it out in a moment.”
“Thank you.” Having made his request, the doctor turned towards me. “Is your breathing growing easier now?”
“I… I think so,” I answered, uncertainly.
“Good. A cup of coffee should help open your bronchial tubes – make you breathe easier.” He took a seat in the armchair across from me. “What is your name?”
I had, of course, by no means intended to tell him my real name, and it was foolish of me to do it, but I found that I could not help myself from opening my mouth and saying, “It’s Nat.” I quickly added “Nat Stewart.” I told myself it made no difference, as my first name was common enough.
“Well, Nat,” replied Dr. Howe, somewhat wryly, “I’m sure you’ve been told many times, but the best cure for asthma is good, fresh air. Of course, such air is nearly impossible to find in London.”
I answered him with a laugh. “I’d be happy to jaunt off to the seaside for some fresh air, except I doubt my father would like it much, sir, as I’d be shirking my duties at the shop.”
“Ah. So your family is in business, then?”
“That’s right, sir. Run a shop down in Fleet Street. We’re in dry goods.” I had learned a good deal during the Martin’s Dry Goods job, and would be able to answer any questions the doctor should pose.
He did not ask any further questions about the business, but nodded. “And you do well, I hope, in your trade?”
“Well enough, sir,” I replied. “We’re not going to be wealthy any time soon, but there’s food on the table and a roof over our heads, and that’s more than some folks can say.”
Dr. Howe nodded solemnly. “It is indeed. Unfortunately, the air in a shop such as yours can be dusty, and may be aggravating your condition. Perhaps if you made sure to step outside every so often…”
“Oh, I’m sure can do that.”
A knock came from the side door, and Mrs. Snowe entered, bearing two steaming cups of coffee and a plate of teacakes on a tea-tray which looked wrought of silver. “Here you are, Doctor,” she pronounced cheerfully, setting the tray on the elegant low table between us. “There’s more on the stove, if you need it.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Snowe.”
I had never been one for coffee, but this was much better than the stuff sold in stalls on the streets of Soho. The doctor watched me carefully as I drank. “Is that better?”
Assuming the drink would need time to take effect, I waited before replying. “Yes… yes, I think so. Thank you.”
“Mrs. Snowe makes an excellent cup of coffee,” commented Dr. Howe, lifting his own cup, “and her baking is just as splendid. Please, help yourself.”
I nodded and reached for a teacake, attempting to seem polite – but not too polite – as I bit in.
We made short work of the cakes. After we had finished our coffee, I allowed myself to relax slightly onto the sofa. Now was the time to put Howe to the test. “You’ve been so kind to me, Doctor,” I said, softly, as alluring as possible without compromising my mock innocence. “Please, if there’s anything I can do to repay you…”
From the way I gazed at him I had intended my meaning to be fairly clear, but rather than responding in kind, as I had hoped he would, Dr. Howe looked rather bashful. “No, not at all, Nat. I wish that there were a better remedy for your illness – coffee is a temporary relief, and those ridiculous medicinal cigars, as they call them, are worse than useless. You do not smoke them, I hope…”
I was taken aback by my failure, but determined not to lose hope. “Are you sure there’s… nothing?”
“The best way to repay me,” replied Howe, with such a gentle smile that I felt nearly ashamed of myself, “will be to try and take good care of yourself. Then I will feel my work has not been in vain.”
“Of course.” That was that, then. If this was how things were going to be, I had wasted my time, and might as well leave as stay any longer. “I should start home, or they’ll be wondering where I am.”
“Oh, yes,” exclaimed Howe, “I’m sorry to have kept you.” He hurried to the door to let me out. “If you have further difficulties with your condition, come and see me here, or at the Royal Free Hospital – I spend most of my weekday afternoons visiting patients there.”
“Well, I’ll drop by sometime, then,” I said, as I departed, a charming smile on my face. “You can be sure of that.”
On the way back from the surgery, I stopped by the gin-shop, where the Newt was waiting for me with an empty mug of ale beside him. Perched beside him were several women who seemed to have been prematurely aged by too much gin. When he saw me, he waved them off and they scattered towards other men sitting in the establishment.
“What took you so long?”
“Lost track of time, that’s all.” Indeed, it was almost an hour past when we had agreed to reconvene. I had spent longer in the good doctor’s surgery than I had intended.
“I think you’ve got the wrong toff,” I said, with a sigh. “He’s no mandrake, that’s for certain.”
The Newt shook his head. “He’s been seen hanging about the picture-shops in the Strand.” These shops were notorious for selling pornography of a certain nature, and I had met fellows there many times. “And I have it on good faith a lad or two’ve seen him at those fancy-dress balls you fellows have.”
“Oh, sure, he may have gone, for a gander. Some gents do. But all that ganderin’ don’t mean nothing if he don’t,” I paused, searching for an appropriate word,”well, respond. I’d know if he was, and I’m pretty sure he ain’t.”
“Give it another go, eh?” Newt grinned somewhat wickedly. “Took time to find a mark like this, it did. Be a shame to pass him up just ’cause he’s too careful to ravish you first time he lays eyes on you.”
I chuckled. “Won’t find a better looking one, at any rate. He may not suit those tarts over in Mayfair, but I can tell you what I’d do with him if I had half the chance.”
The Newt frowned for a moment, but said nothing, and I changed the subject to an upcoming scam involving myself masquerading as a Earl’s son at a society ball the next week.
As I had said I would, I returned to the surgery two days later to pay my respects to Dr. Howe. A man whom I assumed to be a patient was leaving as I came in the door; his clothes were shabbier than my own, and his breathing laboured. He nodded to me, smiling, and I responded in kind.
The Doctor was seated at his solid oak desk, writing determinedly in a sort of log-book. Beside him was a jar which seemed to hold only a swab of cotton.
“Nat!” he called, looking up with a smile on his face. “Nat Stewart! How are you feeling today?”
“Very well, thank you, Doctor,” I answered, humbly. “My lungs haven’t troubled me at all, not since the last time I saw you.”
Dr. Howe smiled. “I am certainly glad to hear it. And your family are well? Business is still good, I hope?”
“Same as always, thanks.”
“Please, sit down – you must excuse me for a moment.” He rose from his desk, taking with him the jar. It looked tiny in his large hands. He took it to a cabinet in the corner, which was full of small glass jars, stacked neatly one on top of the other. Howe placed this newest jar among its fellows, and returned to sit beside me on the chesterfield.
“What was that?”
“A sample of saliva from the patient I saw just now,” he answered. “I have been unable to diagnose the fellow. I shall take a look at it later tonight and hopefully find some clue as to his condition.” He sighed. “Of course, it may well amount to nothing. We shall see.”
I noticed that there was a microscope on his desk, beside the sheaves of paper. “You’re a biologist, then, as well as a doctor?”
“Oh, I just try my hand at it now and again,” Howe answered in a self-deprecating fashion. “Unfortunately, the study of bacilli was not commonly performed when I was in training, so I have little formal knowledge of the subject. I find it fascinating, despite my lack of skill. It has been useful to me on occasion in making a diagnosis, and perhaps the more I study, the more successful I shall become.”
“And you study here?”
“Yes, sometimes. There is a laboratory at the Hospital, which I use when time permits.” The Doctor stopped himself. “I’m sorry, Nat. You must find this dreadfully boring.”
“No, not at all!” I answered. It was not really a lie – I was somewhat intrigued, but I needed to steer the conversation in another direction. “You must excuse me for saying so, but you seem to work very hard.” I allowed a hint of salaciousness to creep into my voice. “I wonder if a rest now and then would do you good.”
“Most likely it would,” replied Dr. Howe, with a wry little laugh. Once more, he seemed to have missed my meaning entirely. I had to wonder if my manner was still too subtle, or if he was simply oblivious. “If I could bring myself to take one. I like my work – I do not know why. It seems I am the opposite of my father.”
“Is he a doctor, too?”
Dr. Howe laughed again. “No. My grandfather was a Baronet, and my father a professional gentlemen. Even that was too much trouble for him.”
I had known, of course, that Howe’s father was dead, but I gasped. “I’m so terribly sorry. I didn’t mean-” My hand flew to his. It was a cheap ploy, but some men responded well to sympathy, and I hoped that would be the case now.
“Not at all,” said Howe. My hand was not brushed away, but to my disappointment, it was ignored completely. “He passed away some time ago. I am glad, though, to know that your own father is in good health.”
I made up some small, pleasant lies about my father the shopkeeper, and the conversation moved on. We talked about nothing in particular for another half-hour, until he discreetly pulled out his timepiece and politely apologized that he must leave to attend to a patient at the hospital. Frustrated by my lack of success, I left, promising that I would be back another day.
“It’s a rum thing,” I told the Newt, the next time he inquired about my relations with Dr. Howe. “Sometimes I’m sure he’s a pouff, mostly I’ve got no clue. Tell the truth, I don’t know what to do.”
I had worried that the Newt would chastise me, but he merely shrugged. “We’re in no hurry for this one. Might as well drop in on him once in a while, eh? Make him comfy with you, maybe he’ll be more like to – how did you put it? – respond.”
So for the next two months, in between conducting various other schemes, I met with the good Doctor frequently, looking for a sign that I could successfully entice him into a compromising situation.
Even had I not been attempting to scheme him out of his fortune, the idea of our becoming friends would have been close to absurd, and yet the more I saw of him, the more I liked him. Ben – for in time I came to think of him as Ben, though I always called him Benjamin – was by nature considerate and gentle. Some might have called him timid, but there was a core of determination in him which revealed itself only when the situation called for it.
He was, it seemed, a somewhat solitary man. Of course he had friends – among others, a military surgeon who had been wounded in Afghanistan – but he belonged to no club as far as I knew, and rather than moving in London’s high society, as was his right, he preferred to be at work. Between his private practice and his much more frequent visits to the hospital, it hardly seemed that he should have time to sleep.
He always had time for me, though. I became accustomed to dropping by his surgery at the times when I knew him most likely to be there, and he received me warmly. In addition, I sometimes met him at the hospital, and we would go walking together, or occasionally to a pub or even a cafe to eat. He seemed to hardly sense how strange it was for him to be seen with me in public. In fact, the difference in our classes seemed barely to occur to him, save when he paid my way somewhere, which he did as discreetly as possible.
What possessed him to keep company with me at all I could not guess. Even if he were attracted to me – and I was in no way certain of that – his lack of willingness to pursue such an interest was clear from the care with which he treated me. Surely my good looks could not be the only reason he would spend so much of his time with a shopkeep’s son.
Of course, as it gave me opportunity to assess his suitability as a mark, I could hardly complain. And I must admit that I did enjoy spending time with him. His life was so different from my own, and the morals which compelled him to work ceaselessly to help the sick were a source of fascination.
“It’s vexing,” said Ben one afternoon, in the midst of a discussion of his recent work, “to think that however far the study of medicine has come in the last century, there is still so much more to be learned. Even now, consumption rages through the streets of London, and those worst-off in life are hardest hit – and yet we doctors can do hardly anything to stop it. We do not even know what bacillium it is which causes it…”
“If you talk to everyone like this, no wonder you don’t get out much,” I responded, rather dryly.
Rather than taking my comment as an insult, Ben seemed rather to agree with me. “I know I must sound dreary, but sometimes, I cannot help but think of it. All the diseases without a cure, all the people suffering because of them… Surely you must know people who have died from consumption.”
I had indeed known several, and said as much. “But there’s not much point dwelling on it now. Maybe it’d be different if I could do something about it, find a cure or something – but I suppose I’ll have to leave that up to you lot.”
Ben sighed. “You no doubt think it foolish of me to think this way, and to do what I do,” he said, with a wry smile. “I have no need of a profession, after all. I might spend my days very pleasantly in idleness, or take up some other pursuit.”
I shook my head. “I can’t see you being satisfied with that life, Benjamin. In fact, I think you may be destined to over-work yourself in the service of others.”
“You may well be right,” he replied, in a way that suggested he would cheerfully accept that fate. “Ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to be of some use to my fellow man.”
“Why a doctor, then, and not some other useful profession?”
“It is a rather foolish reason. You may laugh when I tell you.”
“I promise that I won’t,” I replied, doing my best to look completely innocent.
“Very well, then.” Ben’s gaze shifted down, almost shyly. “When I was learning how to read, one of my first books was the story of a woman who had gone to the Crimea as a nurse. When other boys played at soldiers, I was the one tending their wounds on the battlefield. I dreamed of one day being as brave as that lady.”
“Do you mean Miss Nightingale?”
“No,” Ben shook his head, “not she. It was a Creole-”
“Yes, that’s right.” I burst into laughter at this, upon which he looked at me with reprove. “You did promise not to laugh, Nat.”
“No, I’m sorry,” I answered, attempting to compose myself again. “I’m not laughing at you, honest. It’s just – well, my family has the same book, and I have read it many times, although it did not inspire me to become a doctor. My siblings and I used it when we were learning how to read.”
Ben smiled, then chuckled. “How odd,” he said, and then paused. “You have siblings, then?”
“A younger brother and sister, both still in school.” I had meant, at first, to keep Nat Stewart’s life and my own as seperate as possible, but it was difficult for me to hide details from Ben when they seemed so inconsequential. “And yourself?”
He shook his head. “I was the first. I had two younger brothers, who died in infancy. I never knew them. After that, my mother wished for no more children.”
“Did they die of illness?” I asked quietly. “Is that another reason you chose to become a doctor?”
“Perhaps it is,” answered Ben distantly. He turned his eyes to the floor.
Sensing his discomfort, I winced. “I didn’t mean to distress you. Forgive me.”
“No, not at all.” He seemed to brighten at my words, sitting up straighter in his chair. “Since we are asking questions of each other now,” he said, “I suppose I may ask another of you. What would you choose to be, if you had no business to inherit?”
“I don’t rightly know,” I answered. The character of Nat Stewart, of course, probably had never aspired beyond the path chosen for him. He would be more than content to inherit his father’s business and live the humble life of a shopkeeper. When the question was posed to me by Ben, however, I realized that in all my years, I had never wondered this of myself.
It was, after all, not my destiny to be a grifter. I could have chosen some meagre, honest work, or prostitution, or even begging. But more than that, if the circumstances of my birth had been somewhat different, any number of choices would have been open to me.
Suppose I had been born with prospects beyond crime or dire poverty? What path would my life have taken?
After a minute or so, Ben interrupted my reverie. “Now it is you who must forgive me, for worrying you. I realize that I am more lucky than most to have the choice of a profession at all.”
“Maybe an author.”
I had gone so long without speaking that Ben appeared startled by the sound of my voice. “An author? Is that so?”
I thought a moment more, then nodded. “Yes, I think so. I should like to be able to make a living telling stories.” Stories, I meant, that were intended to entertain rather than deceive – I had told more than enough of the second kind already in my life. “Yes, that would be it. Of course, I’ve never written a thing in my life, but I expect I could learn.”
Ben smiled at me with the certain tenderness he always showed to me. “I expect you could.”
It was only after I left for home that I realized I had not made any advances towards the doctor that day, nor attempted in the smallest way to determine his suitability as a mark. I had barely even demonstrated the symptoms of my supposed asthma. I told myself not to be overly concerned at these omissions. After all, there was always the next time we met.
As the days went by, I must admit that there were often times I forgot the reason I was meeting with the good Doctor. This should have worried me, but instead I repeated the Newt’s words to myself: we were in no hurry. I was simply waiting for a sign.
When it came at last, it took me completely by surprise.
Ben and I were walking in Russell Square one evening, just as the sun was beginning to set. Neither of us had said a word for some time, until he turned to me, with a frown.
“Do you ever think about marriage?”
I had not been expecting the question, and the interruption of our companionable silence startled me. After a moment of deliberation I chose to answer honestly. “No. I’m sure it will happen someday-” for Nat Stewart, in any case, would surely marry a girl his parents approved of – “but until then, I don’t want to think about it.”
“I wish I could say that I had the same option.” Ben sighed. “I attended a party last night, at my mother’s invitation. She had assured me it would be a private affair. I must have met twenty young ladies from respectable families, and strangely enough, they all wished to talk to no one but me.”
I had to smile. “They must have been charmed by your conversation.”
“That’s the trouble,” he answered. “I would not be nearly so frustrated by it, had I any appeal to them besides my fortune.”
A pang of guilt struck me. I was careful not to let it show on my face. “I think you are quite appealing,” I replied, instead. “That you aren’t a wit is true enough, but that’s not the only thing ladies look for in a fellow. You’re a hardworking, honest, kind, and gentle man… well.” I stopped, embarrassed that the previous lines had been my own thoughts on the matter, rather than meaningless flattery. “In any case, I’m sure they have every reason to want to talk to you.”
“Thank you,” answered Ben, turning a little red. “I suppose I must take your word for it.”
“Why is your mother so eager to see you married? You have plenty of time.”
“I imagine it gives her something to occupy her days,” he answered. “My father had been ill for a number of years, but he passed away sooner than we expected, and ever since then she’s been hard at work finding a companion for me. I don’t blame her, really. I’m sure she has noticed that I do not go out a great deal, except for when my work calls for it.” He gave a chuckle. “I imagine she thinks I am lonely.”
I meant it as a joke, but when Ben answered, looking directly into my eyes, his face was solemn.
“Not when I am with you,” he said.
Perhaps I really did suffer from asthma, for suddenly I found that my breath left me. Not knowing what else to do, I began to cough, and at once Ben was sufficiently distracted to leave the moment behind. He hailed a hansom cab immediately, paying my fare and suggesting firmly that I go directly to bed. I asked the driver to take me to Drury Lane, and then sunk into thought as the carriage clattered down the street.
If Ben had not responded to my advances in the past, it was, perhaps, because he was unused to being propositioned in such a way. Perhaps, too, his family had provided him with the moral upbringing I had lacked, and it was guilt that stayed him. But the expression on his face at that moment had made it very clear that the reason for his reticence was not a lack of interest.
It was true that there had been other signs – tender glances, insinuations, even a brief touch now and again – but I had dismissed them as insignificant. No, more than that, I had actively rationalized them away. And indeed, I would likely have done so on this occasion as well, had I not realized that this was precisely what I had been doing. For reasons I did not wish to analyze too closely, I had been delaying the final step of the con which the Newt and I had put into action. But I could not do so any more.
After this, there could be no doubt that Ben desired me. The time had come to spring the trap.
I tried to keep my mind on other things as I approached the gin-shop. I almost hoped the Newt would not be there. But there he was, of course, sitting in his usual place.
“And how’s the good doctor?”
I related the day’s events as simply as I could.
“Well!” A cheery grin spread across the Newt’s face. “Didn’t I tell you the man would crack?” He ruffled my hair affectionately, in a way that suggested he was nearly drunk already. “Now, Nat, I say this calls for a party. Let’s have a lush, eh?”
“I dunno, Newt,” I said, in what I hoped was an appropriately casual manner. “I’m feeling a bit tired. Think I’ll go home and have a lie-down instead. We’ll have a lush another day, alright?”
“Suit yourself,” he responded dubiously, raising his glass. “Cheers, my boy. You done a good job.”
“Thanks,” I answered, and headed out the door, away from the bright, loud gin-shop into the street, where the gas-lamps gave off the dim light that illuminated my way home.
My thoughts as I walked down the street were troubled. I resented my own lack of happiness at what was, after all, a resounding success. I knew perfectly well that everything was going to plan, that I was shortly going to come into a great deal of money, that all my work would pay off in the end when Tom and Martha made something of themselves. But thinking of all this did nothing to improve my disposition.
When I came in the door, my sibling were just sitting down to a tea of potatoes and what looked like boiled tripe.
“Nat!” exclaimed Tom. “You’re home!” He hurried to our little stove. “There’s some potatoes still here we can cook, and I’ll share my portion, if you like.”
I shook my head, taking a seat at the table. “Thanks, Tom, but I’m not really hungry. You two tuck in.” They commenced to do so, with vigour, and I had to smile despite myself. “How was school today?”
“Pretty good,” answered Martha in between mouthfuls of potatoes. “I finished my grammar today. Teach says I’m top girl in the class. And I didn’t even smack Suzie Hawkins when she called me a suck.”
“Good for you.”
“The recruiters were on the corner again,” said Tom. “Talked to ’em on my way home.”
The remark was clearly designed to bait me into a reply, as the recruiters were always on the corner, looking for poor young men who had no other hope for legal employment. Usually it would have prompted in me a exclamation that Tom was under no circumstances to even think of joining the army until he was a good deal older and sure he was ready for a life of violence, but that night my heart wasn’t in it. “I see.”
Finishing his tripe, Tom stared at me, somewhat mournfully. “You alright, Nat?” he asked. “Somethin’ bothering you?”
“Fine. Just tired, is all.”
“We could read some of Mrs. Seacole…,” offered Martha.
Reminded of Ben, and the story of how he chose to become a doctor, I shook my head. “No, I’m sorry. I’m just not up for it today. Don’t worry about me, ‘right?” I reached into my pocket for a penny. “Here. Why don’t you take this, and go down to the shops and buy yourselves some licorice.”
They both looked rather doubtful, but Martha accepted the coin dutifully, tucking into the pocket of her pinafore. “Do cheer up, right?” said Tom quietly. “It can’t be all that bad.”
“No, it’s not bad at all,” I replied. “In fact, it’s wonderful.” But my words rang hollow in my ears, and neither of my siblings seemed convinced by them in the slightest.
The occasion was simple enough to prepare. Ben and I had gone drinking together before, although not frequently, and there was nothing unusual in my asking him to stop and have a drink with me at an inn in Mayfield one evening after work.
Events progressed according to plan. I had only to fake a coughing fit in the middle of a sip of ale, and Ben sprang from his seat in surprise. “Nat! Nat, are you alright?”
“Not feeling so well,” I answered, truthfully, for I had drank more than I had intended trying to strengthen my resolve. “If I could have a lie down…”
“Of course!” Ben motioned to a serving-girl, and after a brief exchange, beckoned me to follow her. As we were heading up-stairs, I saw the Newt, just outside the inn, out of the corner of my eye. I thought he winked at me; I could not be sure, but suddenly I felt genuinely ill.
“Thank you,” I whispered, as Ben lent me his shoulder to lean on.
Our room was small but luxurious. The chief feature was the four-poster bed, with a brocade coverlet and large down pillows. It occurred to me that if the evening were actually destined to end in a tryst, it would have been an excellent location – but I tried to banish that thought from my mind immediately.
The maid left. Taking a seat on the bed, I gradually let my coughing subside into silence.
“Are…” Ben hesitated at the door, as though afraid to come closer. He was not so foolish as to believe me really ill. I knew he must at the very least suspect my true reason for asking for the room, or at least, what he thought was my true reason. “Are you alright now?”
Resolute, I stood up.
“I feel much better,” I said quietly, coming closer to him, “now that we’re alone.”
It was a foolish, insipid thing to say, but I did not feel altogether myself. My head felt too light, my heart too large. I was entranced.
Ben took a step towards me and time seemed to slow. I knew, with the certainty of a hunter who finds himself caught at the last moment in his own trap, that in a moment he would take me in his arms and kiss me. I also knew that this was what I wanted more than anything in the world.
Previously, whenever I had felt some twinge of guilt for cheating men out of their money, I had always been able to convince myself that my marks were merely the victims of their own greed. Now that defense rang false in my ears. For what was Ben’s crime? Desire for another man? A quality which not only did I not consider criminal, but which I myself shared?
The clock on the mantelpiece was ticking. Soon, the Newt would burst into the room in the guise of my father, and I would draw back, playing a wronged innocent. Newt would demand compensation for my compromised virtue in the form of a significant sum of money, else Ben’s predilections would soon be known to all of London.
Would the threat of scandal cause Ben to comply with the request? I believed it would. What would he think of the situation he found himself in? This sort of scene is easily identifiable as a con, but Ben was an honest man, and as he had demonstrated with me, apt to take people at their word. I did not know whether he would know himself deceived or not. And I did not know which was worse.
“I have to go,” I said, turning away so that he could not see the expression on my face. Let him think what he would. Without another word, I fled the room like a frightened animal.
The Newt was waiting for me just outside the door. “You fool!” he hissed. “What are you-”
“I can’t do it,” I said, cutting him off.
“What?” For once, the man seemed stunned. The anger drained from his face, replaced by a stupor.
“I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time. I’ll pay you back for what you’ve spent on this game, Newt, and more, if you like. But I can’t do it.”
Later, the Newt would box me about the ears, calling me, among less polite epithets, the poorest excuse for a grifter he had ever met. But in that moment – and I still do not understand why – he merely nodded his head, turned around, and headed back down the hall.
After that, my admittedly already negligible reputation in the underworld of London was in ruins. Hearing of what I had done, no one in their right mind would consent to work with me. I was left to return to the one man cons to which I had been accustomed in my youth.
The Newt did not ask anything of me, but repeated when he saw me on the street that I was no grifter and he and I should part ways. “I’m too old to change, boy, but you’re not like me.” A strange expression appeared on his face. “Never should’ve brought you into this in the first place.”
“Then why did you?” I asked. It was a question I had always wondered about.
But the Newt merely shook his head. “No,” he said, gently. “You’re better off not knowin’ that.” And he turned away.
Those were hard times for me – not only because of our finances, which took a substantial blow, but because thoughts of Ben haunted me day and night. I had known him for such a brief time, and yet somehow the knowledge that I must never see him again seemed like a great weight pressing down on my chest.
Foolish as it may have been, I even thought of going to the hospital once or twice, to see if I could catch a glimpse of him. After all, I had technically committed no crime, and should the police be summoned I should have no trouble making a clean getaway. The only penalty were I to be found out would be Ben’s scorn, or pity.
It was too high a price.
This state of affairs continued until one afternoon when I was sitting in our front room, looking out the window but seeing absolutely nothing. I knew that I should be working. I could not seem to rouse myself from the fog of despair that had settled over me.
“Nat,” called Martha from the doorway, rousing me from my thoughts. “Nat! You won’t believe what’s happened!” Turning to face her, I noted a flush of life in her cheeks which I had rarely seen there.
“What is it?”
“Nat, I’m going to be like Mrs. Seacole!” She stopped herself. “Well, no, what I mean to say is, I’m going to be a doctor.”
I stared at her, blankly. “You’re having me on.”
“Am not,” responded Martha cheerfully, crossing the room to sit at my side. “I’ve been chosen to go to the London School of Medicine for Women. Teach called me aside today. An anonymous benefactor,” she pronounced the words with relish, “will fund my schooling there, provided I work hard and all.”
“A… a doctor?” The thought was hard to comprehend. My most positive predictions had been that Martha would eventually become a schoolteacher or nurse. That she should enter a career in which perhaps thirty women in all of England were employed was a possibility I could not have dreamed of.
“Oh, well, I’ll have to have some tutoring first, I expect. Prob’ly have to learn Latin… on second thought, maybe it’s not worth it-” The expression on my face must have been horrible, for she continued immediately – “Oh, Nat, I’m only joking! Of course it’s worth it. Here, aren’t you happy for me?”
“Of course I am!”
“But Nat,” she responded, softer, “now you’re crying.”
I put my hand to my face, and was surprised to discover that she was right. My cheeks were wet. I could not remember the last time I had cried real tears. I felt strange: I had been carrying a load for so long I had forgotten how it felt to be without it, and now that I was, the lightness of it shocked me.
“It’s alright, Martha. I’m not sad. I’m just… I’m, well…”
From the pocket of her pinafore, Martha drew a rather grubby kerchief, and handed it to me. “Don’t worry, Nat,” she said. “Nothin’ wrong with a good cry now and then. Helps me, too, sometimes. You know, I always wanted to do something like what Mrs. Seacole did – go to all them places and help people and such – but I never thought I…” And she trailed off, looking at a loss for words.
“You’ll be perfect at it,” I said. “Just you wait, Martha. Here, I… did you come home for a lunch?” I rose from my chair. “I can make you something…”
“Oh, no, I left my lunch at the school.” Returning to her cheerful expression, she put her arms around me. “I just wanted to come and let you know. I’ve gotta hurry back before we start again for the afternoon.”
I returned the hug with a smile. “Of course. Give Tom my love when you see him.”
“‘Course I will. We’ll be back tonight!”
She flew out the door, and I could hear the clatter of her feet along the hall and down the stairs. Once again, I was alone – but not for long.
Almost immediately after Martha left, there was a knock on the door. Thinking it might be the landlord, for surely it could be no one else, I came to the door and opened it. There, I stopped short, shocked.
“I saw your sister on the stair,” said Ben, gravely. “She seemed pleased about something.”
It was the last thing I had expected. The absurdity of the situation left me too stunned to retort. “How did you,” I stuttered, taking a step back, the sound of my heartbeat hammering in my ears.
“A colleague of mine,” replied Ben, still on the threshold, “has a friend – a private detective of some renown. I went to him to find your identity, with the understanding that the police could not become involved. I tell you this because I want you to know that I do not wish you ill.”
“Then you must know…” Unable to finish the sentence, I motioned him to enter and shut the door behind him.
Ben did as I wished, then nodded once. “I suspected, after a while. I hoped to be proven wrong. Even when you fled that day, I thought perhaps that…” He stopped. “No, that is not true. I may have hidden it from myself, but I knew. To be perfectly honest, I believe I knew from the day we met.”
“You fool,” I replied, trying to sound careless. “What would you have done if I had gone through with it?”
A wan smile spread across his face. “I suppose I would have given you the money. What else could I do?”
“And my sister’s benefactor?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“The School uses our hospital for internships, so I have met the Dean before. I informed her there was a certain promising young woman I wished to sponsor, and she agreed to give her a place in the School. It was not difficult. I merely wished to do your family a good turn. ”
I stared at him, rather incredulously. “A ‘good turn’? Your ‘good turn’ is going to cost you more money than I’ve seen in my life!”
“You may not be aware,” replied Ben, in so dry a tone that I almost failed to recognize the wit, “but I am a wealthy man.”
It was too much to take. To hear Martha’s good news would have been enough of a shock, but to see Ben once more on the very same day had thrown my heart into turmoil. I was not ready for this confrontation. That expecting outrage, or disdain, I should be met with kindness… I was at a loss.
Ben must have seen something in my expression that troubled him, for his own grew sombre. “Are you angry with me?”
“Angry?” I answered, with a snort. “You should be angry with me!”
“I can’t be.”
Desperately, I told myself to be calm. “Why are you here?”
Ben’s face was steady, but in his eyes was a kind of weary pain. It was the expression of a feeling I had learned well these past weeks. “Because I must ask you something,” he answered, a slight tremble in his voice, “or I cannot rest. You may find it a foolish question, but I hope you will answer it honestly.”
“Yes?” I answered, feigning calm, inwardly almost nauseous.
“Why did you not go through with it?”
I said nothing.
“I ask because-” He paused, shook his head, and then pressed on. “Because I hope I know the answer, Nat. I hope that it was because you bear the same affection for me, which I bear for you.”
Whether it was delight or terror that filled me the moment those words were spoken, I could not tell. I only knew that I was, indeed, as poor a grifter as the Newt had called me.
“Yes,” I whispered, and closed the distance between us.
Ben pulled me close, letting out a deep sigh, as if he had been holding his breath for a long time. “Thank God,” he murmured against my ear.
“You idiot,” I replied, but only to keep from crying once more.
Ben held me as though I was a fragile thing which might shatter at any moment. Wishing quickly to disabuse him of this notion, I leaned up and kissed him passionately, reaching to undo the buttons of his shirt. I did my best to divest us both of our clothes, at the same time steering him towards the dingy chesterfield, where I pushed him down and straddled his lap.
“I’ve got you now,” I declared, somewhat short of breath.
The hardness I felt beneath me told me that I had not, after all, gone too far. Benjamin was flushed and breathing heavily. He drew his arms around me. “Now that you have me,” he asked, with an almost bashful grin, “what do you intend to do with me?”
A number of uncomfortable experiences had taught me always to carry in my coat pocket a little bottle of Vaseline. Now I took it from its place and unscrewed the top, dipping my fingers in. Once they were suitably coated, I reached between the cleft of my legs to press them inside myself.
Ben took a deep, ragged breath. “You don’t mean to…”
“I’d like to,” I replied, with a grin. “If you’re game.” I took his kiss as a reply, and continued my work, until I was sure I was prepared to take him inside me. “Right, here goes…”
A strangled moan escaped Ben’s lips as his member slid into me. “Nat!”
“Be careful, please,” I whispered, adjusting to our position. “The walls are thin.”
Ben nodded, his mouth clamping shut.
I regretted my words soon enough. I was used to this – had been with men a great deal more experienced than Ben no doubt was – but never with someone I cared for so deeply. The feeling of him inside me, thrusting up into me, seemed too intense to stand. First I bit my tongue to keep from crying out. Then, bolder, I pressed my mouth to his neck, teeth grazing his bare skin.
Shuddering, Ben responded by pushing into me deeper than before, one large hand reaching out to grasp and stroke me. It seemed he was a fast learner, I thought, in the moment before every coherent thought vanished from my mind.
At the beginning of my tale, I stated that I make my living as a grifter. That was a lie. It was true once – it is no longer the case. The story which tells exactly how that came to be is a great deal more appropriate for public consumption than this one, once some of the more intimate details of the continuing association between myself and Dr. Benjamin Howe are removed. It is, in fact, soon to be serialized weekly in the London Times.
Therefore, entirely out of the selfish hope of increasing readership, I will chose to leave off with the caveat that this is not the end of the story. The story that I have told you here has not ended yet. From the bottom of my heart, I hope that it never will.