The American Boy
For Sarah and William. And, as always, for Caroline.
I would not, if I could, here or to-day, embody a record of my later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime.
From 'William Wilson' by Edgar Allan Poe
I would like to thank the small army of people who have helped this novel find its way into the world – so many that it is only possible to name a handful of them: Vivien Green, Amelia Cummins and others at Sheil Land; Julia Wisdom, Anne O'Brien and their colleagues at HarperCollins; Patricia Wightman; Bill Penn; and the long-suffering members of my immediate family to whom the novel is dedicated.
A historical novel inevitably depends on the unwitting assistance of the dead. I wish to record my particular gratitude to Clarissa Trant (1800-44), a remarkable woman whose journals deserve to be far better known than they are.
THE NARRATIVE OF THOMAS SHIELD
We owe respect to the living, Voltaire tells us in his
I first saw Sophia Frant shortly before midday on Wednesday the 8th of September, 1819. She was leaving the house in Stoke Newington, and for a moment she was framed in the doorway as though in a picture. Something in the shadows of the hall behind her had made her pause, a word spoken, perhaps, or an unexpected movement.
What struck me first were the eyes, which were large and blue. Then other details lodged in my memory like burrs on a coat. She was neither tall nor short, with well-shaped, regular features and a pale complexion. She wore an elaborate cottage bonnet, decorated with flowers. Her dress had a white skirt, puffed sleeves and a pale blue bodice, the latter matching the leather slipper peeping beneath the hem of her skirt. In her left hand she carried a pair of white gloves and a small reticule.
I heard the clatter of the footman leaping down from the box of the carriage, and the rattle as he let down the steps. A stout middle-aged man in black joined the lady on the doorstep and gave her his arm as they strolled towards the carriage. They did not look at me. On either side of the path from the house to the road were miniature shrubberies enclosed by railings. I felt faint, and I held on to one of the uprights of the railings at the front.
'Indeed, madam,' the man said, as though continuing a conversation begun in the house, 'our situation is quite rural and the air is notably healthy.'
The lady glanced at me and smiled. This so surprised me that I failed to bow. The footman opened the door of the carriage. The stout man handed her in.
'Thank you, sir,' she murmured. 'You have been very patient.'
He bowed over her hand. 'Not at all, madam. Pray give my compliments to Mr Frant.'
I stood there like a booby. The footman closed the door, put up the steps and climbed up to his seat. The lacquered woodwork of the carriage was painted blue and the gilt wheels were so clean they hurt your eyes.
The coachman unwound the reins from the whipstock. He cracked his whip, and the pair of matching bays, as glossy as the coachman's top hat, jingled down the road towards the High-street. The stout man held up his hand in not so much a wave as a blessing. When he turned back to the house, his gaze flicked towards me.
I let go of the railing and whipped off my hat. 'Mr Bransby? That is, have I the honour-?'
'Yes, you have.' He stared at me with pale blue eyes partly masked by pink, puffy lids. 'What do you want with me?'
'My name is Shield, sir. Thomas Shield. My aunt, Mrs Reynolds, wrote to you, and you were kind enough to say-'
'Yes, yes.' The Reverend Mr Bransby held out a finger for me to shake. He stared me over, running his eyes from head to toe. 'You're not at all like her.'
He led me up the path and through the open door into the panelled hall beyond. From somewhere in the building came the sound of chanting voices. He opened a door on the right and went into a room fitted out as a library, with a Turkey carpet and two windows overlooking the road. He sat down heavily in the chair behind the desk, stretched out his legs and pushed two stubby fingers into his right-hand waistcoat pocket.
'You look fagged.'
'I walked from London, sir. It was warm work.'
'Sit down.' He took out an ivory snuff-box, helped himself to a pinch and sneezed into a handkerchief spotted with brown stains. 'So you want a position, hey?'
'And Mrs Reynolds tells me that there are at least two good reasons why you are entirely unsuitable for any post I might be able to offer you.'
'If you would permit me, I would endeavour to explain.'
'Some would say that facts explain themselves. You left your last position without a reference. And, more recently, if I understand your aunt aright, you have been the next best thing to a Bedlamite.'
'I cannot deny either charge, sir. But there were reasons for my behaviour, and there are reasons why those episodes happened and why they will not happen again.'
'You have two minutes in which to convince me.'
'Sir, my father was an apothecary in the town of Rosington. His practice prospered, and one of his patrons was a canon of the cathedral, who presented me to a vacancy at the grammar school. When I left there, I matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge.'
'You held a scholarship there?'