Read They Hanged My Saintly Billy Online

Authors: Robert Graves

Tags: #Novel

They Hanged My Saintly Billy (10 page)

Up came the singers, half a dozen of them being boys with well-controlled trebles, and their rendering of Locke's beautiful melodies entranced us all. A decorous silence reigned, the audience abstaining from any clatter of hardware; but at the end broke into tumultuous applause, clapping their hands and beating on the table with fists and knife-handles.

I kept my ears open for some sublime or witty remark from the famous novelists, but apart from 'May I trouble you, Sir, to pass the mustard?' or 'These arc indeed capital chops,' I heard nothing of interest except Mr Dickens's discourse on the beneficial effect of Sunday Schools in increasing the number of children who can read and write, thus yearly swelling the literate public. 'I rely upon these former Sunday School pupils to keep my young brood in beef, mutton and potatoes, my dear Thackeray,' said he, 'not upon th
e University men and their famili

'So I judge by your style and your subjects,' Mr Thackeray replied with a sigh that doubtless referred to his own childless
state; though it would have sounded deuced crushing to any writer who had a lower opinion of his talents than Charles Dickens.

The Chairman then rapped for a comic singer, whose name escapes me, but I remember that he sang 'The Derby Ram' in a very arch manner, persuading the audience to expect obscene words because of the rhymes that led up to them, yet shutting his mouth fast like a freshwater mussel when he came to the point, and treating us to a most prodigious wink, as who would say: 'If you know the missing
words, laugh by all means, gentl
emen, but do not blame me for indecency—for I did not teach you them myself.'

Will kept replenishing my glass, only occasionally sipping at his own, and derived considerable amusement from the calf-eyes which a great, bearded, bald-headed Fellow of the Royal Academy was making at a handsome boy-soloist, as he sang:

Mother would have wed me with a Tailor

And not gi

en me my heart's delight,

But give me the lad with the tarry trowsers

That shine to me like diamonds bright!

He remarked: 'Although Cupid is said to have been a beautiful boy, I think it both foolish and unnatural to worship at any shrine save that of his mother Venus.'

The next song happened to be 'Here's a health to the King and a Lasting Peace', bawled by a tremendous
and Will nudged me delightedly with his oyster-knife at the lines:

And may misfortune still pursue

The senseless woman-hating crew . . .

Soon after eleven o'clock we slipped out. Will called a cab and we drove to Moss's, a first-class hell in the aristocratic neighbourhood of St James's Street. Moss's had a bright fanlight over the door, and a police constable stood guard on either side of the entrance. They had orders to take account of all visitors, their style of dress and apparent station in life; and hoped to be rewarded for their quiet 'good-night' with a half-crown, or a good cigar. 'Many little perquisites like these solace the arduous duties of the West-End peeler,' Will told me confidentially, as he pulled at an ivory bell-knob.

At once, as in the children's story of the White Cat, the portals
flew open. In we went, and they closed behind us as if by magic. Wc found ourselves faced by a second door, iron-panelled and covered with green baize, from
centre of which a gleaming eye viewed us through a small square aperture. When Will nodded affably, an iron bar swung back, two bolts were shot, we mounted a flight of softly-carpeted stairs, and I was at last introduced to the mysteries of a London gambling-house. Splendid rooms they were: brilliantly lighted, warmly curtained, much-mirrored; and in one of them stood a table spread with cold fowl, ham, tongue, beef and salads. 'These are provided gratis,' said Will, 'and so are the wines, spirits and cigars. Help yourself at Rabbi Moss's expense!'

Seeing me somewhat embarrassed by my situation, he muttered jovially: 'Cheer up, my hearty! Though you may not be one of Swan & Edgar's young men, nobody will mistake you for anything but the gentleman you are. Step over to the gaming table!'

This was an ordinary billiard table, furnished with cushions, pockets, and a rack of cues to disguise its illegal employ. Police raids had been frequent lately, and no sooner did the alarm go, than a billiard game began. As an added precaution, the lame croupier, a sharp-looking, wiry manikin, dispensed with the rake in vogue at Baden-Baden and Aix—using instead a hooked stick which was also his crutch. He called the odds, never making
slightest miscalculation; and a tall, blond-moustached, handsome man shook the dice box. Will told me afterwards that the latter was of noble family, held a commission in the Blues, and did not come here in the hope of pecuniary gain. It was merely to pass the time on his way home from the club, for he had a horror of going to bed. Two years later I saw this same swell leaning against the orchestra at the Opera, and examining the house through an enormous tortoiseshell lorgnette. He is now dead: killed at Balaclava with the Heavy Brigade, I understand.

'Seven's the main!' the blond moustache shouted.

'Seven's the main!' echoed the croupier. 'Make your game, please. The castor's backing in at seven, gentlemen!'

Down came the box, o
ut rolled the dice. 'Eleven's th
e nick,' said the croupier. Stakes were raked in with the crutch, winners paid, and a fresh main called a quarter of a minute later.

Will ventured a five-pound note,
and lost. Presently a bright th
ought occurred to him. 'Confess, lad,' said he, 'have you ever played ?'

'Never,' I answered, 'and don't intend to.' 'Ah, but for me you surely will? I'll lay heavily on your virgin luck.'

'I haven't a shilling in my pocket,' I protested.

'Then here's a couple of sovereigns,' he said. 'I'll stake you. Lose, and it costs you naught. Win, and we go snags.'

Very reluctantly I placed the two coins on the nearest number. The main was again called, the dice shaken, and before I knew what had happened, six sovereigns were in my hand. 'I have kept my half-share,' he told me. 'Now stake your winnings.'

' No, no!' I cried. 'Let it be my perpetual boast that I never lost at dice, and never won less than six times my stake.'

He laughed at that and clapped me on the shoulder, saying:' Ah, my lad, if only I had your firmness of character, what a noble life mine would be—and how infernally dull into the bargain!'

Then he placed his winnings on the number I had favoured, lost, and scratched his head. 'I believe old Moss rigs it somehow,' he mused. 'I wonder what the trick is. The dice aren't cogged.' He selected a splendid cigar from a box stamped 'Benson', offered it to me, took a couple for himself, and when I had been regaled with a glass or two of excellent hock, out we went.

To one policeman at the door he handed half-a-crown, to his companion the third cigar. We hailed another cab. Our next port of call was a Dance Hall in the vicinity of Leicester Square. We paid a shilling each to the money-takers at the entrance, with another sixpence for a reserved seat, and watched the noisy, ragged polka in progress.
have not been able to find th
is establishment since; but I remember thinking it strange that the gentlemen would dance, tall hat on head, and umbrella, or knobbed walking-stick, clasped in the same hand which guided a partner's delicate fingers. The buffet here was not a free one: indeed, I considered the prices exorbitant. However, Will settled me in a plush
chair and supplied me with live
r-sandwiches and more hock, while he went in search of a dancing partner. I felt most disinclined to follow his example, especially with one of the ladies of the Town who frequented this place—I recognized two or three among them as our out-patients—and therefore sat still, drinking and dozing, until Will appeared at about one o'clock and loudly condemned my lack of enterprise. I begged to be taken home and, though protesting that the night was yet young, he steered me from the hall into a cab. Back at Bartholomew Close, he helped me remove my togs—or, rather, his own. I have never before or since seen double: but Will now had two heads and, true to form, I took a deep clinical interest in the phenomenon.

Afterwards he made coffee, a large cup of which soon improved my condition. Then he sat on my bed and divulged yet more family secr
ets—including some horrible tale
s about his father's callous treatment of the workmen. But of his mother, he said gently: 'True, she's a vulgar and lecherous woman, but she's helped me out of many a scrape—a kindness for which I've rewarded her most filially. I've always taken her side against my four brothers—the first, Joseph, a drunkard; the second, Walter, also a drunkard; the third, George, a close-fisted and ambitious lawyer; the fourth, John, a narrow-minded saint of the sort they call "prigs". All she needed, when my father died, was a capable bedfellow; and when she lost her first fancy man, a collier, and her second, a Belfast linen-draper whom she wished to marry—but my brothers would not allow it—I induced Jerry Smith to take the Irishman's place and keep her sweet-tempered. Jerry's an obliging fellow, and quite enjoys his commission; besides, he's always short of money, and she's no niggard.'

From any other man's mouth this would have been a disgusting admission; but he had never yet, he said, confided in a fellow-student as he now did in me; which I found flattering. And Will spoke in such a humorous, affectionate way that I made no protest; being indebted to him for the many kindnesses he had done me, as well as for the night's entertainment. This much is certain: he showed great tenderness towards the poor patients at Bart's, supplying them with such dainties and nourishing foods as they had neither enjoyed before in our wards nor, some of them, ever in their lives; and he would often get u
p subscriptions for them when th
ey were due to leave, and head the list with a couple of guineas.

As the summer advanced, Will realized that not many weeks remained for him to take the College examination, and that he was sadly in arrears of study. All at once he abandoned his usual free and easy course of life, and joined me in my grind, working eight or nine hours a day, Sunday included, and only last week did the reason for this sudden furious industry appear. I came across a letter of his hidden in the leaves of an anatomical treatise which I had then possessed; he must have put it there to mark a page, and later forgotten its whereabouts. The letter was addressed to Mr

Dawson's ward, the very lady whom he afterwards married, and I have given it to Serjeant Shee, Will's Defence Counsel, to prove what manner of man he was in those
days. It ran something like th

My dearest Annie,

I snatch a moment from my studies to write to your dear, dear, little self. I need hardly say that the principal inducement I have to work is the desire of getting my studies finished so as to be able to press your dear little form to my breast.

With best, best love, believe me, Dearest Annie, your own


Will would often sit up until midnight, dissecting, and beg me to keep him company. He used to say: 'I don't feel quite comfortable over such work when I'm alone. It's very stupid, I know, but one can't always control one's thoughts.' And when I happened to fall ill for a few days, he would pay a porter to occupy my chair of nights. Will Palmer, if he set himself to accomplish a task, always brought it to a successful conclusion. He had a remarkable memory, a delicate hand with the lancet, and a surprising power of correct diagnosis. Though none of my former chums—many of whom were ignominiously plucked—expected him to win his diploma, and some even swo
re that he must have hired anoth
er student to impersonate him, he passed very creditably. It was also said that he defrauded Dr Stegall of his grinder's fee; but that I cannot believe, because he was most conscientious about paying his debts and Dr Stegall, who was equally conscientious about Ins grinding, would not have failed to dun Will if he had not paid up. The origin of
story was, I surmise, Mr Jeremiah Smith's failure to pay
promised ten guineas, and the conversion to his own use of the further ten guine
as offered by Mrs Palmer. Dr Ste
gall issued a w
rit against Smith
, but the case was settled out of Court, Mrs Palmer paying.

That I myself satisfied the examiners, and even earned their praise, I attribute largely to Will's generosity, which enabled me to work undisturbed. And if it is true
he spent the better part of two thousand pounds while at Bart's, what business of mine was that?

No, I have only met him once or twice since, our ways having parted. He presently devoted himself wholly to the service of the God Apollo, Patron of Racing, and I to that of Apollo's son, Aesculapius, the God of Healing.

Chapter VII


ILLIAM PALMER, Esq., Surgeon', as he could now style himself, returned to Rugeley from London with the intention of abandoning all his former irregular ways and settling down decently. The principal reason was, it appears, a serious attachment which he had formed.

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