Read by Peter Noble
How many is that? I have lost count. Is that five or six? Eight? Damn, you blackguard, how the devil can it be eight, I have barely been away from home for – for, well, what hour is it, Mr Calverley? It can’t be later than – oh. Gone midnight, is it. I see. Eight bottles? It seems a devilish large amount of claret, though I seem to be standing upright yet. Ay, it takes more than eight bottles of claret to bring Sir John Paternoster low! Hurrah, hurrah! Another, sir – I would drink to my own fortitude.
A pretty one, by God. Dark eyes – like my own daughter’s, Mr Calverley. Yes, a dark-eyed daughter, though beneath the peruke I’m the reddest of redpolls, you know. A beautiful child, she was, sir – as this one is. Hello, my dear. Nay, do not cry – do not weep, my child, for all will be well.
All will be well, won’t it, Mr Calverley? I fear I am not entirely myself.
There is something in the heart of a man that quails, is ashamed, before innocence. There is something that abhors corruption. There is something in our souls, sirs, that looks out through our human eyes and says: this shall not be. This foulness shall not stand, it says, Mr Calverley – even as we wade knee-deep in it.
Do not hurry me, sirs. I will not be jostled. Each thing in its turn. Pass the cup.
She pleads, sirs. Ah, my dear, my darling. She is afraid.
I shall, of course. I only feel that I cannot. What it is the woman says, the mad Scotch bitch in the Shakespeare play? Had he not resembled my father as he slept... ay. I should have done it by now, had she not such a look of my own dear one.
I had a conversation, Mr Calverley, in the inn just now. Before you brought me here. There was a fellow who told me that London was a fine city, a fair city, once upon a time. He was a drunken fellow, of course. I said to him: is it not still so? And he laughed, this fellow.
‘It cannot be, and will never be,’ he said, ‘as long as man puts his faith in man.’
I prayed to god, you know, sirs. Ay, ay, all in good time. I could not say that I put my faith in god – forgive me, Mr Calverley, for I know you are devout – but I prayed. I asked. By damn’, I’ve never asked any man for anything in my life, sirs, and yet I tell you I knelt by my daughter’s cot and I prayed to god.
This damn’ fellow in the Red Lion inn – I threw my wine in his face, and laughed as he spluttered.
Man is born into corruption, Mr Calverley, and he will die in its midst. There is no purity. Nothing is holy. There is no justice and I fear there is no mercy. Refill the cup, sir. And again. Listen: she prays, our pretty young lady here. By Christ! A joke, a filthy joke.
Be quiet, girl. Close your eyes. I cannot bear to look at them. Close your eyes.
What does he say? Mr Calverley, by god doctor Calverley, you must know – what does he say, that Scotchman in the play?
Ay: I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.
Now, now. Let’s get to it. Enough of this shillyshallying. Action, sirs; action is what the situation calls for. I’ll tell you, sirs, as you stand there with your Latin and your grand wigs and your fine university degrees – seven-eighths of all the evils in this damn’ world are brung about by fellows sitting around thinking, when what’s called for is action.
I know how it is, Mr Calverley. When a fellow sits alone, and descends into thoughtfulness. I cannot be alone, myself, sir. Since our Ruth was taken from us. Our dark-eyed girl. I even find myself fearful of the dark, like a child. No, sir – I must not be alone, do you hear that? Never! Thinking – curse it, is is a very hell. Action, my boys! Let us to it!
Who has wine? One of you has wine. Then fetch wine. Go, damn you! What will nine do that eight has not?
Now, now, my dear one. My pretty girl. Why do you weep? All will be well. Did I not say so? I promise it. I give you my word – my word as a Fellow of the College of Surgeons.
Mr Calverley? Hand me the saw.
© Richard Smyth, 2013
Richard Smyth is a freelance writer. His stories have appeared in The Fiction Desk, The Stinging Fly, Cent, Vintage Script and two anthologies from Arachne Press. He was the winner of the 2013 LS13 prize for Leeds writers under 40, and is the author of books of popular history. His first novel, Salt Pie Alley, will be published in 2014.
Peter Noble trained at LAMDA and the Royal Academy of Music. He is a regular narrator for RNIB Talking Books, and is in the middle of an MA in Creative Non-Fiction at UEA. He went to 18 schools in seven countries, on four continents, so there’s a lot to write about.