Tidbits: Fleet Street

Deleted scene from My Father's Son

by Penny Freeman
Holborn, January, 1809

     Accustomed to their drafty garrets and scanty meals, too little coal for their fires, too few hours in their days, the overworked, underpaid, unappreciated solicitor apprentices of ‘the pit’ gallery at Schoonover, Pensinger, Conroe & DuPre knew that despite the terms of their articles being fulfilled, they may spend years more as a ‘fledgling’, as pompous Pensinger delighted in calling them, and thus never questioned their fate.
      Rather, they endured it for, after all, theirs were the oldest, most respected chambers in The Temple.  To represent Schoonover even as a lackey afforded a man a certain measure of respect.  The chamber’s portfolio of patrons was second to none and in such a situation, an alert, attentive apprentice could find his fortunes made.
      Thus, they guarded their places of honor and subjugation, ‘the nest’, as Schoonover dubbed it long before the birth of any there.  Flanked by the long row of windows which lit the room and guarded by an iron rail as solid as the firm, the nest sat situated atop the closet for the chamber’s most closely held documents.  It overlooked the pit, a warehouse of clerks and attorneys perched atop their high stools, row upon row, scratching their lives into oblivion.
      Their own desks too narrow and confined for the books and folios which overburdened them, each allowed far too little space in which to work, the fledgling solicitors performed their own tasks conscientiously.  They toiled ever with an eye for appeasing Stickler, their master, for they knew him impossible to impress.  A brittle old man of failing eyesight and short temper, with ears to compensate for one and exacerbate the other, he possessed not an humane bone in his body.  Taut, sharp, and austere, they knew the ancient yet breathed for he was far too near to brook the expense of dying.

      The fledglings knew their lot in life.  It was comforting in its familiarity.  They had scrambled and worked their fingers to the bone to get themselves that far and refused to grow discontented.  They forgot the grand designs of their recent youth and shut their eyes to what might have been lest they lose hope and abandon their hard-won places.
      However, the one truth they could not escape was Archer Arlington.
      Arlington was a mate, a chum, a right good chap who never failed a friend in need.  Despite his own scanty means, he ever had a bit of copper to spare, and his own garret at least had a rag rug on the floor and a bit of coal for the fire, and a welcome place for the ill-fated to shelter from the cold.  He was the one to see when Stickler turned the screws too tightly but refused to offer the least bit of assistance or direction.  Arlington had the answers and never sought to promote himself when he produced them.  He was as solid as Gibralter, but few of his fellow fledglings felt they knew him at all.
      Arlington, open and obliging on any other subject, fiercely guarded his privacy.  He never spoke of his friends or connections.  He never complained of the foibles of his family.  He never shared a bottle of claret with his mates when their day was finally done.  He never took a holiday.  He never was ill.  His closest associates were his volumes of law in his garret.  But, the fledglings could not hate him despite his exceeding youth for Arlington kept his head down, his nose to the grindstone, determined to pay his dues.  They knew him more earnest, with more purpose and direction than any man in the Temple.
      Moreover, they suspected Arlington possessed patrons of his own, a thing which only decades of dedication produced.  However, none found it surprising, considering the company he kept when just a lad.  His brilliance refused to be stifled, but this they attributed to his ability to conceal it.  They knew him wise enough to keep such inspiration where it belonged, outside the doors of Schoonover.
      They knew to match Arlington's brilliance beyond their wildest dreams, and so emulated him instead.  But, they could not suppress their desire to be him if only for one day, Thursday.
      From the first week he assumed his own place in the nest, it became glaringly apparent Archer Arlington had a life.  He had attachments, although he never mentioned them.  However, once a week during the season, invariably on Thursday, a liveried footman appeared outside the rear entrance of the firm in the train of two very young ladies.
      Sometimes bearing parcels, others naught but his wig and tricorn hat, the rather protective footman hovered over those lasses possessively.  They patiently tarried in the courtyard behind the noble edifice, although the lasses did tend to skip and scamper as they awaited their friend’s leisure.  Then, finally, when Stickler cut him loose at the end of the day, Arlington ducked into a cupboard, emerged dressed for the evening, dashed into the street, took a lass on each arm and the trio disappeared into a life which existed beyond that legend firm’s walls.
      That they were girls, not yet out, seemed apparent to the dullest wit of them all, even from the height of the nest as the fledglings gazed down upon them tarrying on the street.  One fair and mild, the other dark and lively, the fledglings laughed to themselves at the thought of Arlington tethered to such apron strings, his time and talents subsumed to the whims of two little girls.  They were young, to be sure, but neither their close bonnets nor their demure frocks, their hems scarcely dusting the tops of their neat little boots, concealed the beauty swelling within them, buds on a vine awaiting the warmth of the sun to burst into bloom.

      From one year to the next, from September to June, the fledglings watched and wondered as life in the nest became marked by an endless succession of Thursdays.  As each lass grew taller and their skirts grew longer, as their form and stature bloomed into young womanhood, the fledglings appeased their growing envy with the thought of the constant vigilance required to hold the ravening wolves at bay and Arlington attempting to provide it.  Voyeurs that they were, they never thought to consider themselves of that number but had the presence of mind to mention neither to Arlington.
      The spring the eldest wore an open bonnet, her frock that of a lady full grown, the fledglings in the nest despaired for they knew gentlemen’s daughters never haunted Lombard Lane.  Their bearing professed their good breeding.  Although light of step and fond of laughter, they no longer scampered about as they waited.  They no longer taunted the poor beset footman with their teasing.  The day they no longer took their exercise in fetching Mr. Arlington but rather arrived in a fine barouche, when the footman stepped down and presented the lady’s card at the door, the fledglings knew they would see them no more.
      They knew for Arlington was never quite the same again.  To mark the occasion, they gathered at a particular haunt, morose in their imaginings of Arlington enjoying such amiable company amidst wealth and luxury somewhere in the West End.  They raised their glasses to toast ‘Arlington’s ladies’, then cached away the recollection in their hordes of lost hopes and forgotten dreams.

       After a long and stultifying summer, after Arlington disappeared for months on end and none but the fledglings seemed to note it, ‘their’ young ladies fulfilled their expectations in remaining away.  The solicitor apprentices squelched their disappointment for such bred discontent and they refused to indulge in the sentiment long lest the weakness lead to the loss of their hard-won places.
      One early January day, a frigid blue sky accompanied a brittle, biting cold which not even the solid walls and glowing stoves of Schoonover held entirely at bay.  The streets choked by drift and snowbank, the fine powder squeaked in protest of carriage and pedestrian alike, the product of a storm which had paralyzed the entire town for three days.  Horses steamed beneath their blankets.  Ice collected on mufflers and lashes.  Gloves, hats, hoods and scarves mummified those within as a feeble protection from the bitter cold.
      Then came the girl in mid morning, a wild, desperate look about her, her knock frantic on the door.  Her face red and chafed from exposure to the elements, she glowed from the exercise.  Her hood disregarded, her scarf hung down and she seemed insensible of the bitter cold.  Her dark hair blazed auburn in the brilliant winter light.  The tumbled mass of tresses escaped the meager constraints she attempted and compounded her air of childlike vulnerability.
      Her rap brought them all to the window, a glimpse sent Arlington flying over the rail to the floor below.  The blast of cold from the door which assaulted them left all confounded for neither hack nor carriage was in sight.
      A sore and vocal cursing alerted the room entire of momentous doings at the door.  The only thing which more surprised them was Stickler’s insistent protection of the lady.  They never knew the man possessed a private study of his own, and to see Arlington and the lady disappear within left them thoroughly bewildered.
      The room beneath their feet may have been Stickler’s own, but it was anything but private.  They felt its essentials all they believed, but the sounds emanating from within professed it far more.  A fire was stoked, a coal bin emptied, a kettle placed upon a stove.  The fine bone china betrayed the depth of Stickler’s agitation as it rattled and clinked in his tremulous hand.
      They tried not to listen, well and truly.  Every clerk, every lackey bent their heads to their ledgers and briefs.  But Arlington would chide her for her recklessness and Stickler would clear his throat interminably in an effort to stem the tide.  But most, the frantic lady—that lass—that child had beguiled them all with the passion she could not subdue, the spirit she could not conceal despite or perhaps because of the depth of her grief.  She could only redirect it lest it overrun her for her heart could never contain it.
      The pit fell so silent, the fledglings heard her quiet sobbing and overwhelming grief, and Arlington’s muffled attempts to console her.  They understood why Stickler shunned his private room, for they heard far too easily what transpired within.  It rose to them through the planks, through the stovepipe in the corner which had remained unexplained and disregarded for years.  Even so, Arlington spoke little, she even less, and in their minds the fledglings saw her weeping upon his breast.

      After some three-quarters of an hour, the sounds within forewarned them of Stickler’s coming.  When his door opened, they reassured him with the clamor of foolscap fluttering, quills scratching, stools scraping, noses sniffling, and ladders sliding along their rails before a wall entirely filled by volumes of law.  They felt him standing there, alert, expectant and searching, eager for the least tell of ungentlemanly manner.  The clerks, attorneys and apprentice solicitors neither saw nor heard a thing.
     “But a moment, darling,” escaped through the door.
      “Archer—” It was the only clear word they heard her utter and, tear-laden though it was, it rang of crystal and resounded in their hearts.  It lodged there, a singular treasure.
      The door shut, Arlington turned—and visibly startled at the sight of an elevated gentleman standing before him.
      Cold, aloof, rigid and unbending, the gentleman stood a moment, Arlington captured in his piercing gaze.  Hard and lean, erect and ascetic, the fine dusting of grey at his dark temples provided the only hint of his age.  His inner tumult betrayed in his eyes, the muscles of his jaw rippled as he fought to marshal his sensibilities into order.  He would thrash the boy later, without his entire chambers looking on.
     “Sir,” Arlington at last managed, but just.
      The gentleman’s looks grew harder still, but he simply glared and the impediment before him stepped aside, relinquishing all claim to Stickler's study and his guest.  As the gentleman entered, Arlington disappeared out the street door, then returned momentarily, laden with a mass of furs.  They all marveled that he so well understood the elevated gentleman, as Arlington scattered the rugs about the room to toast on the stove fenders.  They wondered when Stickler sent for the gentleman, or had he simply known where to look all along?
      A few murmured words, an attempt at reproof which melted to relief in passing his lips, a timid response, an abject apology surely more than the titan could bear.  Then, the hush stilled to silence and they realized neither anger nor rage drove the man but desperation and fear.  As did they all, he did what he must to get on.
      As the minutes ticked by, as Arlington made himself sentry and assumed post at the door, they groaned in silent commiseration.  They could not deny the attachment between their lass and the gentleman.  They knew their mate saw him as his greatest rival for when the faintest of tunes escaped through the floorboards—a lullaby, a hush of bass and scarcely detectable—Arlington began to pace.
      After perhaps half an hour, perhaps longer, the door opened, allowing a rush of heat to escape.  Arlington disappeared within, but when he emerged with the visitors, the elevated gentleman bore in his arms a snug cocoon, a precious babe wrapped against the cold.  Not the least wisp of chestnut tresses betrayed the lass, her face buried deep in her protector’s neck.  With Stickler waiting at the door, the fledglings winced to see Arlington the lackey bringing up the rear bearing naught but the excess furs for use in the carriage, with her sodden boots and cloak tucked beneath his arm.
      “I thank you for your indulgence, Mr.  Stickler,” the gentleman said quietly.  “I failed to consider.  .  .”
      “He loved her as his daughter, sir.”
      “He did indeed, an attachment reciprocated.”
      Stickler nodded his head knowingly.
      “I cannot express the depth of my gratitude.  If she has not caught her death, we will have you to thank.”
      “Your lordship—”
      “I speak not only for your ears, now do I, old friend?”
      Stickler merely jerked his chin, although some (those too young and inexperienced to know better) swore his cheeks flushed a touch pink.  “I took the liberty of sending braziers to the carriage.  I fear they shall do precious little.”
      “Every bit shall help.  Again, I cannot repay your kindness.”
      A sound from within the furs in his arms drew the man’s attention, he tipped his ear to her, unable to conceal the tenderness which would escape him as he rested his cheek upon her head.  Then, without another word, he turned to the door.
      The elevated gentleman turned to Arlington, his brow furrowed in consternation, but they could not deny the silent consultation which flew between them.  “Mr.  Stickler," the senior man intoned after a moment, never turning his gaze from the lad, “I shall require Mr. Arlington to manage the braziers, if you can spare him.”
      “Of course, your lordship.  Perhaps the House—”
      “You do my thinking for me, old friend,” the gentleman agreed.  “Westmark will surely require him until after the wake. . . —Hush, princess.  Be still.”
      “Shall I send round the folios, your lordship?”  Stickler asked rather loudly.  Nothing else would do but to conceal the man’s careening loss of control.
      “No—no,” he hesitated.  “Allow the man to catch his breath.”

      The minions again ducked their heads to their work as Stickler shut the street door and ascended to the gallery.  However, rather than return to his post on his tall stool overlooking the floor, he stepped to the window and supervised as Arlington carefully set everything in its place in the carriage below.  Their master had captured the imaginations of them all, for although he was a stringent man of business with no room in his life for the clutter of sentiment, his concern with those doings was personal indeed.
      “Follow Arlington, my lads,” he told the windows when the carriage pulled away.  “He shan’t lead you astray.”
      The sound of the carriage crunching through the snow at last faded, but Stickler remained at the window.  They thought perhaps the excess heat of the nest bothered his eyes which watered, and surely he had caught a cold from venturing out in the snow, as a sniffle escaped him.  Surely he had taken a chill, for Stickler could not know grief and loss unless he knew the reverse.
      “There goes the finest gentleman you are ever likely to meet,” he mused quite involuntarily.
      “Westmark, sir?” their youngest queried.  Jennings was far too new and too foolhardy to hold his tongue.
      “Westmark has passed, muttonhead,” the senior apprentice muttered beneath his breath.
      “No,” Stickler denied.  “No.  Westmark has just come into his own.”
      Jennings grew bold with Stickler’s extreme abstraction. “Is he Arlington’s patron, sir?”  he asked.  Stickler blinked and turned to the fledglings, the full dozen of their number hanging on his every word.  “I beg your pardon?”
      “The gentleman—his lordship—is he Arlington’s patron?  Does he send for him especially?”
      A wry smile escaped the unapproachable old man and he actually laughed—at least, he may have laughed, or he may have coughed from his cold.  “You should have such a patron, boy.  Sir Alistair is Arlington’s father.” 

      Arlington's desk remained vacant for more than a week: beyond the three days the entire town mourned for Westmark, the legend soldier, and well after the wake at Westminster arranged by the Prince of Wales.  Each day of Arlington's absence compounded the chambers' fear of the influenza which ravaged the town that winter and their lass who made herself susceptible to it.
     The fledglings of Schoonover, Pensinger, Conroe & DuPre never thought of their master the same way again, but no improvement in his manner inspired the change.  Rather, as if to compensate for his temporary lapse, Stickler became more cross and surly, more exacting and less forgiving than ever before.  His mood lasted until Arlington returned to the nest.
      Then, as on every other morning, Stickler assigned tasks for the day. He eyed the stacks of folios which had accumulated on the absentee's desk.  “What word, Arlington?” he asked cryptically. Arlington offered a simple jerk of the chin, but it proved the proper incantation to set Stickler’s apprehensions and his sour mood to rest.

      At that moment, as Stickler returned to his stool without another word, they knew—even mutton-headed Jennings—that Stickler concerned himself intimately with their education. They were not slaves in a galley to him. They were his lads. The best the Temple had to offer, they were flush with promise. He pushed them for life would never hand them all the answers simply for the asking.  They realized Arlington emulated his mentor who schooled him more roundly, more gruffly and harshly than them all, surely due to his fondness for the boy.
      Stickler groomed them, Arlington especially, but how the partners utilized the results of his efforts he could not control. From that day, the fledglings at Schoonover, Pensinger, Conroe & DuPre began to wonder if so many of Stickler’s lads left those chambers due to failure, or if, perhaps, he opened the cage and set them free, proud he had helped just one more fledgling learn to fly.

—A Chaotic Mind


Weaver said...

Nice. And this is a deleted scene?

Love, love, love that picture of the library!

Unknown said...

Thanks. I'm just too dang long-winded. Something has to go. And,check this out: http://bit.ly/M0RA5o. This is as close as anything I have found that matches the library in the London palace Westmark House I built in my head.

Peggy Urry said...

It seemed very 'Dickens' to me, but the descriptions brought me into the story rather than the opposite. Lovely.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Peggy. I admit that Dickens has been a strong influence in my Regency writing. I always thought Dickens invented the fantastic names like Choakumchild, Flintwitch, and Blunderstone. In actuality, it's a longstanding English tradition in literature, but he perfected it, I think. I can't resist the temptation to throw in a few of my own. I have a reverend and his maiden sister named Lilywhite--a real British name in my sister-in-law's family. Love it!