Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Gin Lane, London. 1720.
They make an incongruous couple, Grotius and Forlan, as they pick their way along Gin Lane. Grotius is a stocky figure, strong and confident, dressed soberly with sensible boots, while Forlan is slight, although tall, and decked out in silks and folderols, twirling a cane as he walks along one pace behind Grotius.
"Hold on to your purse, Master," says Forlan. "They can steal it away and replace it with one full of counterfeit coins, whilst you don't feel it."
Grotius looks at him pityingly. "Do you really believe that?"
"No," says Forlan.
They have come from Covent Garden, walking along Henrietta Street and turning into Gin Lane, making for The Strand. Gin Lane is filthy, dirty gutters, wretched houses with broken windows, ("beware the slops, Master," says Forlan), windows patched with rags and paper and, out behind, hideous stinking drains and latrines with, behind them, the dark hulk of Newgate Prison. The only building in good repair is the pawnbroker's shop, its windows heavily barred.
A drunken woman sprawls on the pavement while her child picks about in the gutter. A man fights with a dog for a bone. Old men, drunken, besotted, stagger by. Wretched, broken-down, miserable women shuffle along. A group of young men standing on a corner look at Grotius and Forlan, with feral eyes, move forward, but then hesitate. Grotius and Forlan step round a drunken fight between labourers in the gutter. A man dressed like a parson stands in the middle of an ill-coloured puddle reading loudly from a tattered bible.
In a doorway is a group of young women. They have rouged cheeks, matted hair and are dressed in scant and dirty apparel. One of them approaches Grotius.
'Very well, sir," she says. "You are here and so am I. What say you then?"
Forlan lifts his cane and pushes it into her stomach. "Let your business be whatever it will, but leave us," he commands. She trots along beside them.
"Come, sir," she says. "Why, this is a civil gentleman and cannot he answer for himself?"
"Do not be more stupid than you are, woman," says Forlan. "Go now, before I call the magistrate."
Call the magistrate! In Gin Lane!" she cries and laughs in his face. Grotius stops and looks at her. He sees a dirty face, of no beauty, not even pretty, but with a certain determination and spirit. Not yet destroyed by the years of poverty no doubt to come. He pities her and knows that this is not a good reason to be kind.
"Let her come with us," he says. Forlan says "Surely not, Master. 'Tis a harlot, simple." Grotius says nothing and strides on.
A young man blocks his path.
"And what kind of a man are you, sir? Eh? This young lass is my sister. What would you have with her, eh?" Grotius looks at Forlan and says "This fellow may delay my business this morning."
Forlan steps up to the young man and says "Do you wish, sir, to continue this folly? Or do you wish to see your mother tonight? Your mother would regret it greatly were you not to kiss her cheek again. Think on't." He shoots his cane out at the young man.
The girl says "Oh, shove off, Bart, and leave me alone. Go! Do!"
Bart replies, "Make it pay, girl." And walks off laughing.
Forlan says "Master?" Grotius says "Leave him."
Before they had left Rillstein's house, where they had spent the day comfortably, Rillstein had said to them, "In Gin Lane, the young woman will come and when you show interest in her, then comes a blood who says she is his sister and then come his friends to rob you."
"It's an old act," Forlan had said, twisting the handle of his cane and looking at the blade inside.
"Are you back tonight, Grotius?" Rillstein had asked. "There is the new opera. It's called 'The Beggars' Opera'. Apparently, particularly enjoyable after a walk through Gin Lane."
"It will depend on my business," Grotius had replied.
They reach the end of Gin Lane and turn into The Strand. Here all is light and brilliance. Cleaner. Ornamented parapets, illuminated clocks, plate glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, gas lights glinting in richly gilt burners, finely dressed men, showily dressed women. The hum of many voices issues from the gin-shops on either side - elegant gin-shops with French-polished mahogany bars. Grotius strides on down towards Charing Cross. Forlan and the girl follow, she marvelling at the women's dresses. Forlan is singing to himself;
"Ye walkers all that youthful colours wear, Three sullying trades avoid with equal care;
The little chimney-sweeper skulks along, and marks with sooty stains the heedless throng;
The dustman's cart offends thy clothes and eyes, when through the street a cloud of ashes flies;
Protect thy shoes and coat; resign the way; And shun the surly butcher's greasy tray."
Opposite the stone cross, Grotius turns into a large, brightly- lit gin-shop. The bar, elegantly carved, extends the whole width of the place and on each side there are great casks, painted green and gold, enclosed within a brass rail and labelled for the different varieties of gin, 'Old Tom 549', 'Young Tom 360', 'Samson 1421'. Beyond the bar, is a lofty and spacious saloon. On a counter in the middle are little baskets of cakes and biscuits, continuously renewed by a garishly dressed woman wearing a faded feather hat.
Forlan looks around admiringly. One wall of the saloon is hung with a jumbled collection of bric-a-brac and military paraphernalia. Swords and lances (all firmly secured), breast-plates, shakoes, copper pans and pots, a few small paintings in dirty wooden frames, pieces of textile with Arabic writing, a saddle bag and, proudly situated in the middle, a poor but colourful painting of a mounted soldier.
Grotius walks purposefully through the saloon to the back and knocks at a door marked 'Office'.
Forlan and the girl sit at a table and he orders a half-quartern of gin and peppermint.
Forlan says "Art hungry?" She nods. Forlan orders soft biscuits. When the gin arrives, the girl dips her fingers in it and wipes her face clean. She sips from her pot.
"Ugh!" she says. "I don't like that!" Forlan sighs and beckons the waiting-woman.
"Does your Old Tom have all the right herbs in it?" he asks.
"Oh yes, sir. All of 'em is present."
"Then bring us a pot," says Forlan.
"What 'erbs is that, then," asks the girl.
"Juniper, angelica, coriander, cardomon and orange peel," Forlan tells her. "You will like that, I warrant."
"I dunno," she says, dubiously. "Still. 'Tis a frolick, mister. Bein' with you, 'ere."
Grotius knocks again, harder. The door is opened by a thin fellow with sandy whiskers, wearing a fur cap to one side of his head.
"Yiss?" he says squinting at Grotius. "Ah. Is it Mr. Grotius, sir?"
"I am he. And you, I collect, are the Captain's brother in law? Is the Captain here?"
"No, Mr. Grotius. 'E's gorn away."
"'E's a gorn to the colonies."
"To the colonies? Which one?"
"Virgineeyah in the Americas. Gorn to make 'is fortune, 'e said."
"Indeed." says Grotius.
"Yiss, sir, but 'e did say as how 'e was indebted to you and what a fine and civil gentleman you was, but 'e got in a sad pickle over a sword fight, wot 'e won of course, and so 'e went."
"Who is in charge now?"
"Me and his wife, my sister."
"I don't think I have made that lady's acquaintance."
"That's 'er, in the fevvered 'at."
"Well. I am here to collect the final part of payment owing to me for the provision of 47 barrels of best genevers to the Captain. A debt which is now one month overdue. Did he leave payment with you?"
"Not exackerly, Mr. Grotius. No. But 'e did leave you a inventry. Excuse me whiles I get it." Grotius turns, glances at Forlan and the girl.
" 'Ere we are, sir. The inventry! All writ up wonderful."
"What use is it to me?" asks Grotius.
"Well. The Capting offers you all the items on that wall as part payment of 'is owings to you. An' 'e 'oped you, bein'g a 'onest and sober gentleman, would not think that you 'ad been robbed by 'im, which considers 'imself a friend and 'opes to see you again under better circystances. An' 'e draws up the inventry of the items, all square and legal like."
Grotius takes the inventory and approaches the wall. Looks carefully at the various items, takes a small painting off the wall and turns it over, looks at the back, turns back a corner edge of the backing cloth. Replaces it on the wall.
"Is you Mr. Grotius, sir?" It is the lady in the feathered hat.
"At your service, ma'am."
"I warrant there's good value in some of those items, sir. Would you not say so?"
"I shall have my agents retrieve them shortly and then we shall see where they can be sold profitably. I shall advise you truthfully of the amount of my profit and how much that leaves owing by your husband. These are mostly curios with a limited market. They are not select artefacts, ma'am."
"Oh," she says. "Oh. Then you might, as a gentleman, Mr. Grotius, let me keep the picture of my husband on his charger. He looks so fine and it will do me good to see him there every day whilst he is away, sir."
"With pleasure, ma'am. On one small condition."
"Oh, thank you, sir! What small condition might that be?"
"That you take that girl over there in employment."
"Oh, bless you, sir, but we get twenty girls a day asking for employment! We cannot afford the dress and the food for a girl, no matter how hard she work!"
"I shall make it easier for you. I shall give you money for her clothes. I shall have that disappointing painting of your husband improved by an artistic acquaintance of mine for your personal greater pleasure. Which will also make it more valuable. In three months' time we shall come for the girl and take her away. Does that suit?"
"Well. I suppose.... I suppose I could use her. Just three months, you say, Mr. Grotius?"
"Yes. However, when I come, she must be in fine health. And have not been abused or ill-used by either your customers or your brother. Do you agree, ma'am?"
"Oh yes, sir."
"If she has been, then I shall take her away and sell her in Africk."
"Sell her in Africk! You could not do it! Surely not, sir?"
"I most certainly could. And the guilt for that would be on your head. And your brother would be punished by my man Forlan.
"Oh, sir! Don't you trust me?"
"I trust no-one." He gestures to Forlan. "Bring the girl."
"Listen carefully, girl. You are to stay and work here for this lady who will house you, feed you and look after you for three months, when I and your friend Forlan will return for you. No harm will come to you. But if you drink one drop of gin during that time, I will know of it and will not come for you. Do you agree?" The girl is numbed by what is happening and nods feebly, looking for re-assurance to Forlan. He smiles at her, touches her shoulder.
Out in the street, Forlan says, "So I'm her friend, am I?"
"I observed she was interested in you and you in her." replies Grotius.
"Do we go back through Gin Lane?" asks Forlan excitedly, twirling his cane.
"No, we must go to Hartshorn Lane, near the river," replies Grotius, striding out once more. "To give the inventory to my agents."
"Why did you offer to improve the painting of that man who owes you money, Master?"
"Before I was a merchant, I did some soldiering and he and I were friends. He was a good fellow, unafraid and brave. But wild. And our ways drifted apart until I sold him the gin."
As they walk down towards the river, Forlan sings to himself, "There is a lady sweet and kinde, Was never face so pleased my mind......"