Marina J. Neary, Wynfield’s Kingdom
Publisher: Fireship Press
October 2009Length: 468 pp.
Dr. Thomas Grant, a disgraced physician, adopts Wynfield, a ten-year old thief savagely battered by a gang leader for insubordination. The boy grows up to be a slender, idealistic opium addict who worships Victor Hugo. By day he steals and resells guns from a weapons factory. By night he amuses filthy crowds with his adolescent girlfriend — a fragile witch with wolfish eyes.
Wynfield senses that he has a purpose outside of his rat-infested kingdom; but he never guesses that he had been selected at birth to topple the British aristocracy.
The King and the Robber Maiden
(The Golden Anchor Inn, Bermondsey, 1850-1854)
1: Dr. Grant’s Living Portfolio
Had Tom Grant been a religious man, he would have crossed himself to make sure he was not having demonic visions. However, being an enlightened agnostic, all he could do was pinch himself, time after time. None of this could be happening to him. Every morning he awakened to the sound of a dog’s whimper and two children’s voices. Clearly, it was some metaphysical mistake. Those sounds did not belong in his world. They were from someone else’s life, not his. How did they make their way under his roof? Was it just a bizarre dream? If so, then fifteen years is a long time for a dream to last. And it all started on that fateful January night in 1839 when he first had seen the blood on the snow in front of his tavern and heard the strange noises in his cellar.
Eventually Tom gave up looking for a legitimate excuse to get rid of the two orphans dumped on him by Fate and decided to keep them as a living portfolio of his medical practice, if nothing more. His attempt to treat members of aristocracy may have ended in a disaster, but with commoners he had better luck. When the time came to remove the bandages from the boy’s face, Tom showed signs of anxiety. He did not worry that the boy might faint from his own reflection. The patient’s reaction was the last thing on his mind. Most of all Tom feared that he would be embarrassed by his own work. But when the last layer of gauze came off, Tom sighed with relief. The results surprised him pleasantly.
“Not hideous,” Tom said. “I expected far worse, considering it was my first surgery, and you didn’t follow half of my orders afterwards. You surely took your time healing, like a true aristocrat would. There goes my theory that the flesh of the paupers heals faster than that of nobles. I’ve always thought that plebeian blood was hotter, stronger. I almost wrote an essay comparing the healing process of soft tissues in patients from various social levels. As it turns out, I was mistaken after all. But the important part is that you’ll live, my boy, and perhaps even break a few hearts. All girls will want to touch your face and hear your stories. Women, with all their outward squeamishness, gravitate towards atrocities. They like interesting disfigurements. My trouble is that I am revoltingly dull and predictable. I have neither scars nor horror stories. I don’t even have enough imagination to improvise something interesting about myself. But you, dear boy, don’t need to invent wild fables. In your case the truth is more unsavory than any fable. Those who won’t run away from you in terror will follow you. At least you’ll eliminate those with weak nerves. Why, you are a walking nightmare! And I am a brilliant doctor.”
That day Tom said more kind things to the boy than he did in the subsequent fifteen years. He almost wished that his Cambridge colleagues could see his masterpiece. Wouldn’t they be amazed to see what fine work he did without any preparation, having at his disposal only a few primitive instruments that had sat in their case without use for almost a decade and just a few drops of laudanum for anesthesia?
The little girl, who was not expected to live through the night, had survived into adolescence. Tom had named her Diana, because it was the first name that popped into his head. There was absolutely no hidden symbolism behind Tom’s choice, apart from the fact that he preferred Latin names over Anglo-Saxon. He had spent six month choosing a name for his dog, because it truly was a serious matter. With the girl it was far simpler. Tom had no time for ceremonies. He just did not want for her to die nameless. But the baby had survived. And, that randomly picked name suited her well.
Picture the little robber maiden from “The Snow Queen” at the age of sixteen. Picture a pale austere face half-hidden behind black tresses that the girl had never learned how to comb properly. Her concave cheeks, pursed up lips, bluish eyelids and the tips of her eyelashes bore the stamp of rebellious melancholy.
That face, in spite of its sickly coloring and the gloomy expression, was surprisingly beautiful. Diana should have been born in France, in a family of some bohemian painter. In that circle she would find due appreciation. Victor Hugo, with his affinity for the gothic, admired pale brunettes with protruding collarbones and dark circles around their eyes. He created a cult around fragility. Alas, England abided by more pragmatic views and healthier tastes. What inspires a jaded French aesthete will only irritate an ordinary Englishman.
Nobody ever spoke of Diana’s beauty, and the girl never wondered about that herself. There was but one mirror in the entire inn, and it never occurred to her to look in it. It would be presumptuous to say that she had risen above vanity. Rather, vanity had never been awakened in her. After all, the girl had neither a mother nor sisters. Having grown up among men, she was estranged from all things female. She always wore the same skirt of rough wool, a man’s shirt with its sleeves rolled up and tied at the waist with a belt, and a pair of narrow leather boots on her feet. Some of the words that escaped from her sweet lips would make sailors blush.
And just like Andersen’s heroine, Diana carried a knife with her. It was not a hunting knife but a kitchen knife, with a long blade and a greasy handle. Diana was working as a servant at the Golden Anchor Inn. Tom gave this position to her, because he thought that it was the only position suitable for her.
When Diana was old enough, Tom told her what happened on that winter night in 1839, how she came to stay at the Golden Anchor. He saw no need to conceal the truth from the girl. She had the right to know why she had blurry vision, constant ringing in hear ears, numbness in her fingertips, heart palpitations and difficulty breathing. So he explained to her in a very casual tone to what tortures Ted Frasier had subjected her, how much blood she lost and how much, or rather how little, she could expect from life.
“You survived, but you never recovered completely,” Tom concluded. “Heart tissue, unlike that of lungs, does not regenerate itself. What is lost cannot be restored. The best we can hope for is to slow down the progression of your disease. Try to avoid infections and worries, all of which come from other people. If you touch someone, wash your hands at once. If you hear something unpleasant in your address, wash your memory. You can’t allow yourself the luxury of anger or jealousy. They will devour what’s left of your heart. All that foolishness is for healthy people, and you aren’t one of them. If you wish to thank anyone for your fate, thank Wynfield. He’s the one who insisted on saving your life. It’s true what they say about good intentions. You could’ve been in heaven by now, but here you are, in this luxurious tavern, in the most delightful company imaginable, under the paw of an angry old bear who does not hesitate to tell you the truth. You’ll never be whole. Accept it. But there is no reason why you can’t be useful.”
And he handed her a dish rag. It was a formal, almost solemn gesture. One could imagine that Tom was entrusting her with Christ’s shroud. He believed that light physical work would be wholesome for her. He had read somewhere that sedentary life caused blood to become stale and increased the risk of pneumonia. After all, pneumonia was what nearly killed Lord Middleton’s nephew after Tom had prescribed him bed rest.
Tom had never fully accepted the idea of having other human beings living with him. Having a dog for a companion was enough for a stretch. When fate threw two orphans his way, he provided them with shelter and his services as a physician, but it seemed almost blasphemous for him to propose himself for a fatherly role. He was not the paternal type, and Wynfield and Diana were not easy children. They brought along their nightmares.
For the first few years the little girl would wake up in the middle of the night, shaking and screaming, so the boy was made responsible for calming her down. On some nights he had to hold and rock her for hours. The moment he would put her down, she would start stirring and whimpering again. He would have to sleep through the night in a semi-upright position, holding the girl on his chest. In the morning he would wake up feeling stiff, as if he had worked in a factory for fourteen hours.
Tom lodged the children in the attic, where nobody could hear them. He gave them a mattress, a blanket and a night lamp to share. Most customers did not even know that there were children in the house. Eventually, to the boy’s credit, the girl’s sleep became sounder. The night screaming stopped.
As for the boy himself, he suffered no less than the girl, but did so in silence. On some days he would go about pale and withdrawn. His knees would twitch, and he would smoke a little more frequently than usual. Those were the only signs of his turmoil. All in all, the boy did not inconvenience Tom. He always obeyed and completed his chores in time. When he turned thirteen, he went to work at the docks as a longshoreman. At the end of each week he would hand over his meager earnings to Tom without a word of complaint.
“The boy didn’t turn out to be such a bad find after all,” Tom would say to himself. “Who would’ve thought?”
The girl, on the other hand, was driving Tom to madness. As she was maturing, her temper was growing more uncontrollable. It was not unusual for her to lash out without a warning. She always found reasons to be displeased. Then she would clench her fists and curse until she would run out of breath. A few times she brought herself close to fainting. Tom could not help but marvel at how much aggression her frail body could contain. Before his eyes this tiny match would turn into a blazing torch in a matter of seconds.
Tom’s concern kept escalating and his patience wearing out. He did not trust Diana. She may have been helpless but certainly not harmless. Feebleness and innocence are not synonyms. At least, they weren’t in Diana’s case. She was dangerous precisely because of her physical weakness. One could expect anything from her. Tom feared that she would torch the tavern out of sheer spite.
“She’s your burden now,” he told Wynfield. “I wash my hands. You brought her here, so you watch over her now. If she starts making trouble, I’ll kick both of you out on the streets. I won’t have any nonsense in my house. You both came here as patients. I allowed you to stay here, and that alone was unwise on my part. In God’s name, I can’t possibly adopt all of my patients! See that you both stay on your best behavior. For if one of you goes, the other will follow.”
It was a pity that Tom renounced Diana like that, because she would have made an ideal daughter for someone like him. They had one thing in common — profound mistrust for the human race. Had Tom exhibited a little more interest in her, he would have gained a loyal partner in misanthropy. He could have instructed her in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. They could have sat and ranted for hours about the evil nature of human beings and the futility of life. What a satisfying feast of pessimism it would have been! Yet Tom had denied himself this joy.
Being a fanatic for cleanliness, Tom made the children bathe once every three days, even during winter. He did it not because they were filthier than any human beings. He simply wanted to get that children’s smell out of them. Tom insisted that all children had that peculiar smell about them. It was similar to that of wet sparrow feathers.
“It is bad enough that I am forced to put up with the dog and my customers,” he would say. “All day I inhale tobacco and sweat. Little choice I have, in my business. At least I can be spared the smell of children under my roof.”
Thanks to Tom’s persistence, Wynfield and Diana were the cleanest children in Bermondsey. Their clothes may have been threadbare, but their skin and hair always smelled of soap.
If Tom’s feelings for the children had ever evolved into anything remotely kin to paternal affection he hid it at all costs. The softer he felt, the sterner he spoke. He firmly believed that tenderness was a dangerous luxury.
In conversations with them he avoided certain words that he could not explain adequately. “Friendship” was one of those words. Still, one way or another, this word slipped into the children’s vocabulary. They must have heard it on the streets and figured out its meaning. Every so often they used it, appropriately or not. They communicated between each other in their own language of riddles and metaphors, a language nobody else could understand, a code established in early childhood.
Tom did, however, allow the two children to take his surname.
“If anyone asks you what your surname is, just say Grant. With such things I’m not greedy. I won’t be richer or poorer for that.”
His surname was his gift to the children, along with the mattress, the blanket and the night lamp.
1850 was a prosperous year for the Golden Anchor. Tom managed to buy the space above his tavern and create a miniature inn. Now he needed more hands. Since he could not rely on Diana to handle all the chores, he hired two more women, Brigit and Ingrid. One was Irish and the other one Swedish, but they could pass for sisters. Both were in their late twenties, big-boned and freckled. Both spoke with heavy accents. The customers did not always understand them, but the two women understood each other perfectly. Brigit cooked, and Ingrid waited tables. Together they loved to taunt Diana, quite good-heartedly, but the young girl, unaccustomed to female humor, snapped back at their jokes. Sometimes she would even grab the handle of her knife, thus doubling the amusement of the two women.
“A fine comedy I have unfolding under my roof,” Tom would mutter, watching the catfights in the kitchen. “I sincerely pity those poor devils with wives and daughters. Thank God I have the boy and the dog on my side, to counter all that female squealing.”
Apart from that, Tom was pleased with his new maids. What pleased him most about Ingrid and Brigit and what made him decide to hire them in the first place was the fact that they were not particularly attractive. Unversed as Tom was in matters of aesthetics, he still found those women plain. And even if he were prone to foolish acts, he certainly would not pursue the likes of Ingrid and Brigit. These two were perfectly safe additions to his household, for they posed no threat to one’s flesh or soul. They embodied that very philistine stability that Tom so sorely needed in his life. He was hoping that their presence would have a calming influence on Diana, bring her a little closer to earth. The harder they tried to lighten her mood, the more malicious she grew.
“Stupid cows,” she would mutter to herself. “How I hate them!”
2: A Sketch of a Folk Hero
If asked whom she did not hate, Diana would answer without a moment of hesitation: “Wynfield.” However, if the same person asked her who that man was to her, Diana would not quite know what words to use to describe their peculiar kinship. If she had heard the word “hero” often enough, she would have ascribed it to Wynfield. Who else would merit this title?
Heroism always remains in fashion, to a greater or lesser degree. In Victorian slums the cult of a hooligan-hero reigned supreme. Adolescent boys tried to adopt this image, but they could not compete against Wynfield Grant with his hacked up face, bitter sneer and an endless reserve of melancholy robber songs that he sang to a Spanish guitar in his hoarse from tobacco voice.
It’s only a blizzard, only a storm.
Who should care that I am forlorn?
Miles away in the cold ocean waves
My false mates will find their graves.
The guitar that he had bought from a sailor for a mere shilling added yet another winsome touch to his image. After all, what is a robber without a guitar? So what if he only knew a few chords? They sufficed to create a theatrical effect. Wynfield worshipped his guitar, which did not keep him from using it as an ashtray on occasion. When he stuck a burning cigar into the wooden corpus of the instrument, the gesture did not look barbaric or blasphemous.
Folklore characters — and Wynfield was nothing short of one — can allow themselves almost anything. Deprived populace seeks solace in its fables, even if those fables are frightening and do not promise a happy ending. Commoners will not always follow a prince, but they will follow a charismatic robber. The hero must have a certain air of enigma, while maintaining his approachability. Wynfield easily fulfilled both requirements. When people saw his face, they naturally wondered what kind of demons he had grappled with and what an ordinary human being could expect from him. Wynfield remained silent on that subject, for he did not like to remember that horrid night in 1839 when he, freezing, bleeding and delirious, wandered the streets. One thing that the people of Bermondsey did not question was his ability to slit a throat. At the same time, he clearly took delight in making crowds laugh. This mysterious bandit could easily become a mountebank without any injury to his pride. His jokes horrified, and his tales of horror entertained. He became the symbol of grim British comedy.
In short, Wynfield possessed everything needed to enchant a twelve-year old girl. And Diana was exactly that age when she discovered her attraction to her childhood companion. First desires were awakening in her feeble and sickly body, leaving her bothered, bewildered and furious. She could not understand what was happening to her. There was nobody to explain to her the difference between sisterly and spousal love, and how one can turn into the other.
The wretched girl was afflicted with a double curse — poor vision and a wild imagination. This lethal mix gave rise to an idol. Whatever entered her brain from the outside world became inevitably distorted. She kept humanity at arm’s length, which was as far se she could see clearly. Beyond that point stretched chaos.
Unlike Wynfield, Diana was completely deprived of a sense of humor, which aggravated her conflict with the universe. Even a most innocent joke in her address seemed like an insult. The girl had convinced herself that the world was not merely indifferent but hostile. She imagined cold hands reaching out from the twilight with the purpose of strangling her. Thus she walked through life, her teeth clenched, her hand resting on the handle of the knife.
The more hideous seemed the humanity, the more beautiful seemed Wynfield. In the universe of wavering and colliding shadows she saw one star — the burning tip of Wynfield’s cigar. When tenderly disposed, he would cup her face with his calloused hands and, whispering “Come to me, wolf cub!” draw her to his chest. Holding her breath, she would savor his sadistic jokes. Where was this embrace, too intimate to be fraternal yet too chaste to be amorous, leading? Diana never asked those questions. She knew no other embrace, no other hero. Enchanted and disarmed, she would fully surrender herself to Wynfield’s bad influences. All his atrocious habits and bizarre pranks seemed divine to her. What would repulse most women delighted Diana.
“How beautifully you swear!” she would say to him.
Diana knew that she owed her life to Wynfield, although he tried to down play his heroism. He presented his deed as a result of a whim rather than of some high principle. He saved her life just so, in between this and that, for lack of better plans.
“I did this out of spite for Neil Harding,” he would say, chuckling. “He promised me a brilliant career as a circus acrobat. I spent the first ten years dangling upside down, watching the world from the height of the circus dome. One day Neil pulled me down from the trapeze and said: ‘You’ll be my assistant.’ How that maddened me! The scoundrel took me away from my beloved audience, from my glory and applause. Who in my place wouldn’t rebel? So I planned my escape, even in bitter cold. Then I stumbled across you. So I thought it would be merrier for us to freeze and starve together. And behold, after all these years, we’re still making merry. So we took a little beating that night! Who hasn’t? You and I have suffered our fill in our infancy. It won’t get any worse. I hope you don’t regret being alive. I’m glad that I took the chore of pulling you out of that pile of rags, even though you bit me on the thumb, wolf-cub.”
Such negligent attitude towards his own suffering elevated Wynfield in Diana’s eyes even higher. She owed him great many things other than her life. After all, it was he who enriched her speech with those colorful expressions. He was the one who taught her how to whistle, throw rocks and play cards. He was the one who gave her the knife with which she never parted.
Listening to his jokes and songs, Diana felt her own bitterness retreat. At time she felt the temptation to end this silent war with the universe, to become amicable and gentle, to please those around her. Alas, all of her clumsy attempts to make contact with the society led to failures, and Diana fled back to Wynfield.
3: Dr. Grant Is Forced to Revise the Content of His Medicine Cabinet
Tom had made a relatively minor but nevertheless embarrassing mistake in regards to Diana. He had allowed the little one to develop a love affair with opium. On several occasions he had given her laudanum solution for pain relief. The addictive qualities of opiates were not publicized then. Even small children were given the mixture. Apparently, the potion worked well on Diana, a bit too well. Before long, the girl was getting up in the middle of the night to help herself to the magic substance. She would open the bottle and pour a few drops of undiluted opium under her tongue. Perplexed by the frequency of Diana’s night trips to the medicine cabinet, Tom began hiding the bottle from her. Amusingly, the wretched girl, who could not even find her own shadow, never failed to find opium.
One time she overindulged and slept for eighteen hours. Wynfield and Tom feared that she would never wake up. It would not take too much to kill a ninety-pound girl. When she finally regained consciousness, Tom told Wynfield:
“You must wean her off. It won’t be easy to break that habit, but we have no other choice. It’s out of my hands. Only you can reason with her.”
For the next three nights Wynfield had to hold Diana down against the mattress, as she was shaking, sobbing, shouting obscenities and begging for a drop of opium. Observing her sufferings, Wynfield was on the verge of sobbing himself, but he maintained composure and comforted her with his usual ballads about beasts and hanged criminals.
For many months after this incident he was reluctant to leave Diana alone for the night. After work he would go straight to Golden Anchor, to keep an eye on her. The clever girl realized that her affliction gave her the chance to sleep in the arms of her hero.
“I’m not feeling well tonight,” she would sigh mournfully. “You better stay with me. Or else I’ll wonder off again.”
The addiction was not easy to shake, and Diana was not known for her willpower. A few times Wynfield caught the girl late at night with the forbidden bottle in her hand. Then he would scold her gently.
“Back to your old ways, eh? What did I tell you about drinking opium straight? Remember what happened last time? Look, if you can’t manage without drugs at all, at least dilute them with alcohol. Or better yet, ask me, and I’ll do it for you. It won’t inconvenience me one bit.”
He would take the bottle with opium, pour a few drops into a glass of whiskey, stir it and serve it to Diana.
“There, now you can drink it.”
Diana would take a few sips and smile blissfully, as if the disgusting concoction in the glass were heavenly elixir.
“You’re so good to me, Wyn,” she would say.
“Don’t prattle,” he would object, grimly. “I’m a monster. You have no idea how horrible I am. When I walk down the street, mothers chase their children inside the homes. Do you know what they say about me? ‘How can there be a soul behind this hacked up muzzle?’”
“Don’t heed those idiots,” Diana would reply irascibly under the effects of laudanum. “I know how the righteous ones scatter away when the time comes to lift a finger. It must be their custom. My own relations left me to die. And who came to my aid? A ten-year old thief! Now I truly know how God works. He doesn’t send angels to run the petty errands.”
“He doesn’t, you say?”
“No. Why should they dirty their wings on the likes of me? God sends other hapless, unwanted children. Let them save one another. Every time I slip into the grave, you pull me out. What for? Who needs me here on earth? How am I useful, and to whom? So many children die, stronger, healthier than me. And I’m still alive. It’s against nature. Now try and sink your teeth in life’s mystery! You wonder why I never go to church. And I’m telling you that this is my church, right here, in this attic. This is my place of worship. Why wouldn’t it be? And this is my communion wine, in this glass with a cracked edge. Another sip, Wyn! I love you.”
“You are drinking too fast, Diana. For God’s sake, slow down.”
“Didn’t you hear me?”
“I heard you. Didn’t you hear me? Pace yourself. You’ve given me plenty of scares. Should anything happen to you...”
“Nothing will happen to me, as long as you’re by my side. Stay with me tonight.”
Diana would take him by the arm and bury her face in his shoulder, a gesture against which Wynfield was powerless.
“So be it,” he would reply, abdicating. “I’ll stay until you fall asleep.”
“No, stay the whole night. Tell me the horror tale about the severed hand, my favorite. I can feel it crawl through my hair. How I wish that creatures from your tales could come to life!”
“I’m glad you’re amused.”
“And afterwards,” Diana would continue animatedly, “we could play that game again. We could pretend that we’re husband and wife.”
At that point Wynfield would become visibly restless and attempt to free him arm.
“I don’t like that game.”
But the girl would only laugh all-knowingly and cling to him even tighter.
“Surely, you like it! Remember how one night you were changing your shirt, and I snuck up behind you and ran my hand over your bare back, right between your shoulder blades? It pleased you. I know it.”
“Christ Almighty!” Wynfield would exclaim. “Must you mention it every time? You want me to burn in hell? I’m begging, you mustn’t sneak up like that. Or else we’ll both be in trouble. If you are as fond of me as you claim to be, don’t endanger my soul, at least not for another five years.”
Then Diana would release his arm reluctantly and fall back on the pillows.
“You really think that God will punish you for this?”
“Perhaps God won’t punish me, but Dr. Grant will surely throw both of us out. You wouldn’t want that, now would you? He doesn’t like us being in the room alone with doors closed. Imagine what he’d do if he caught us that night?”
“I forgot! The holy Dr. Grant is above flesh.”
“Oh, he’s above many a thing. Flesh is only one of them. Whichever way you turn it, he is still our landlord, and will be for the foreseeable future.”
4: On the Dangers of Literacy
At the time when the twelve-year old Diana was at the very dawn of her infatuation, the twenty-year old Wynfield was at the peak of insolence. Ambitions attacked him from every corner. He had one major advantage over other youngsters of his circle — literacy, a skill he owed to the austere Dr. Grant. Tom never talked about his days at Cambridge or the circumstances of his trial and dethronement. It was a forbidden topic. Still, he had kept most of his old textbooks. Wynfield was allowed to flip through them. Among a multitude of medical encyclopedias that Wynfield never even opened, there were a few books on history and political philosophy. He would open those books at random, read those passages that were written in a more or less accessible language, and then lay sleepless all night, formulating his own conclusions. The next morning he would get up with dark circles under his eyes and a great sense of enlightenment.
Modesty is too much to ask of a former child gangster who had gotten his hands on Plato’s “Republic”. Wynfield did have some legitimate reasons to feel proud. He wore his torn sailor’s jacket as if it were a king’s robe. At the same time he despised Queen Victoria and openly raged against monarchy as a whole. He proudly called himself an anarchist, as if he had full understanding of what that word meant. There was nobody to correct him. Wynfield turned to Tom only in extreme cases, for Tom was a reluctant teacher but an eager arguer. Then a minor war of wits would break out and continue for a whole week. Here is an example of such a war.
“Wyn, I propose a new house rule. When I enter your room, you hide your books, if only out of courtesy. The very titles make me sick. Like now, for instance, I see the name of Cromwell on the cover in bold letters. Have pity on my nerves. I may be a misanthrope, but I’m still a royalist.”
“Rest assured, Dr. Grant, it’s a perfectly harmless play.”
“Who wrote it?”
“Splendid! So you learn English history from a Frenchman? Of course, he has a tooth against the British crown, being a Frenchman and a republican. How did you get your hands on this heresy?”
“It’s not heresy, Dr. Grant. It’s drama.”
“You didn’t answer my question. Put the bloody book and look me in the eye, damn you! How did you come across it?”
“I bought it from an acquaintance of mine.”
“You mean the same acquaintance who sold you that wretched guitar that you use as an ashtray?”
“No, that’s another acquaintance. I have quite a few of those. Some are almost friends.”
“Bah, friendship is for weaklings and cowards. Noble beasts don’t run in packs. Mature men don’t need friends. Some moralists will babble about the sacredness of friendship and such, but I know that it’s nothing but exchange of diseases. Do you know how cholera spreads? That’s right, you shake another man’s hand, then take a sip from his beer glass by mistake, and later on that night you get chills and nausea. Ten hours later you’re dead. Trust me, I know these things. I’m a doctor. The human body is filthy. Even if it looks clean on the outside, it’s filthy on the inside. The only thing dirtier than the human body is the human soul.”
“Dr. Grant, you wonder why I inhale Victor Hugo’s writings? My life practically mirrors his plots. I could easily be one of his characters. I drink seawater like Han of Iceland, swing my axe like Cromwell, sing like Hernani and write poems like Gringoire. Hugo doesn’t merely justify rebels. He glorifies them.”
“And why shouldn’t he do it from the altitude of his own satiety! Listen, if the subject of class struggle interests you so, why don’t you read our fellow-countryman Dickens? Of course, Dickens does not romanticize poverty. He depicts it like it is, for he had experienced it all firsthand. And Mr. Hugo had never starved or performed manual labor, and that becomes obvious when you read his tearful nonsense. In his understanding poverty is but a few dirty stripes on a cherubic face of a child. And all bandits have a noble heart. How could it be otherwise? So he’ll continue glorifying bandits. It doesn’t cost him anything. But would he let you near his daughters? I doubt it. And honestly, if I had a daughter, I wouldn’t let you near her either. Be thankful that Diana is an orphan and has nobody to defend her. I certainly don’t have any motivation to move a finger in her honor. We aren’t bound by blood. She’s more yours than mine. In my eyes you both are one flesh, one trouble, one burden. But if I had a daughter of my own, you wouldn’t be allowed near her.”
A brief pause...
“What a fine family we are, Dr. Grant.”
“What’s so fine about it?”
“Some families fight over money and inheritance. We fight over literature.”
“That’s because we have neither money nor inheritance. And we are not a family. Now would you stop polluting your brain?”
“If we aren’t a family, why do you care with what I pollute my brain?”
“Because then you’ll get a headache, and it will be my concern. I’m still a doctor, you know. I may no longer have my license, but I’m still under the Hippocratic Oath. You take that oath for life. Even if you hate your patients, you still must take interest in their health.”
“Dr. Grant, when will England finally adopt Napoleon’s model of meritocracy?”
“How should I know? I’m a doctor. Perhaps, you should ask Victor Hugo.”
“I would, but he lives on an island and speaks English poorly.”
“Then why the hell does he write about Cromwell?”
“Dr. Grant, are you jealous?”
“You’re mad! Why on earth would I be jealous of some pompous Frenchman?”
“But you are! You think that I regard Victor Hugo above you.”
“I don’t care how you regard me. You are nothing to me but a leech! Oh, I should’ve kicked you out in the very beginning. There’s no profit in you.”
“You really want me to leave, Dr. Grant?”
“Right this instant! The door is wide open. Take that wretched girl with you and get out. Both of you! Take those idiotic French plays while you’re at it. Just be sure to leave my anatomy books. I need them. I’m a doctor.”
“Dr. Grant, I just learned that one of Hugo’s daughters drowned. What a misfortune... Who would’ve thought?”
“Monsieur Hugo could’ve drowned her himself, for all we know. That’s what I should’ve done with you two scoundrels. I should’ve tied you in a sack like a pair of kittens and dropped you in the Thames. But it’s too late now. You won’t fit in a sack.”
“Dr. Grant, you are the kindest wicked stepfather a bandit could ever have. While we’re on the subject, I need to ask you something. What must one do to receive a nobility title? I have read that peerage is granted commoners or untitled noblemen by the Sovereign as a reward for good deeds. What kind of deeds are those?”
“Why does that interest you?”
“What if I want to serve in the Parliament one day? And since I am not a peer’s son, and I can’t inherit the title, my only hope is to earn it through good deeds. Don’t you understand now?”
“You have a fever, boy. Your pupils are dilated, and you babble nonsense.”
“Why don’t you believe me? I read somewhere that Queen Anne created twelve peerages in one day.”
“That was a century and a half ago! At any rate, I am not a politician. I am a doctor. And it is my medical opinion that you are delirious. Keep up the spirit, and I’ll take those books away from you. You shouldn’t be allowed near those books. You are too impressionable. I already curse the day when I let you read Peerage and Baronetage . Burke is not concerned with objectivity. He writes to flatter the rich and to tantalize the poor. Take my advice, boy. Don’t quote books you have read only in part, or not at all. You have no idea how foolish you sound. Besides, England doesn’t need more peers. Didn’t you know that eighty new peerages were created under King William IV? The House of Lords is already bursting at the seams! And even if you ever set your foot there for some miraculous reason, you’ll faint from all the French cologne in the air. And you should hear them speak! That’s a horror of its own. They squeal, giggle and gossip just like women do, perhaps even worse. It’s frightening to think that those men rule the country. One is better off not knowing what goes on behind the walls of the Westminster Palace. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about. I’ve met some of Baron Middleton’s friends when I lived at his estate.”
Sometimes, not often, Tom succeeded at sobering up the boy and putting him in his proper place.
“It’ll happen for you, I know it,” Diana told Wynfield the same evening. “You’ll make your way to the Parliament. They need a good deed from you? Why, you already have one. You helped capture a criminal. Doesn’t that count?”
“No,” sighed Wynfield. “For that deed I’ve already been rewarded — with freedom. The authorities could’ve easily jailed me along with Neil Harding. I wasn’t exactly blameless myself. But the constable let me go. Believe me, if every bandit got rewarded with peerage for turning in his mob leader, half of England would be wearing ermine robes by now. I suppose, there’s no other way out for me but to become an army general first. Maybe then I’ll gain notoriety.”
“You’ll become a general,” Diana said without a trace of doubt. “You’re so brave. I am the one who’s a coward.”
“You’re not a coward. I’ll prove it to you, some day soon.”
5: A Few Ideas on How to Brighten Up Exile
What Wynfield had shared with Diana about the mothers of his peers was true. For a long time the women of Bermondsey perceived him as a hell spawn and grasped at every chance to express their amicable disposition.
“Behold, here comes Grinnin’ Wyn,” they would hiss to their sons. “Mingle with him, and he’ll pretty you up after his own likeness.”
Wynfield made no effort to battle his diabolic reputation. Naturally, every community needs a monster, and he happened to fit the role conveniently. There are far worse roles. His job was to stroll in the alleys with his collar elevated and his hands hidden in the pockets, and the virtuous matrons’ job was to curse him out. It was street theater of sort.
He did not suspect what thoughts were brewing in the minds of his peers. One evening after work Wynfield was amusing himself by throwing knives into the ground. Absorbed by the game, he did not notice an audience forming behind him. The boys elbowed each other, marveling at his precision. When Wynfield turned around and saw all the hanging jaws and the rounded eyes, he snapped.
“Run to your mothers, before they box your ears!”
The little spectators scattered away instantly, and Wynfield was left alone once again. Having no desire to continue the game, he returned home. From that day on he never practiced precision in public again.
He had his share of abysmal days, when even his labored optimism would not help. He shuddered at his reflection, his thoughts and his songs. His ghost stories served as a mere distraction from the real horrors he carried inside himself. How could he justify his fascination with Cromwell? To bow to a republican is almost like admiring Lucifer. Contented, balanced men do not fill their heads with historical and political rubbish, and Wynfield had realized long ago that he would never one of those men. He could not even find solace in any traditional religion, his beliefs being a wild mix of paganism and Puritanism. He would have loved to go to a Sunday service, but his legs would freeze on the church steps. Some force was pushing him in the opposite direction. He tried praying but could not get past “Our Father”. Inevitably, his prayer would turn into an avalanche of profanities.
No, he did not deny his monstrosity. He would gladly run away from himself if he could. The thought of vanishing had occurred to him more than once. At times he imagined that it would be wisest to vanish and stop frightening himself and others. The only thing that held him back was Diana.
“I’m starting to perceive myself as Han of Iceland,” he confessed to her once. “People don’t know for sure whether or not I exist, yet they fear me.”
Diana smiled, for she knew how much how much that Scandinavian monster from Hugo’s novel signified to her friend.
With each day the young girl fascinated Wynfield more. She appreciated a good horror story. In her twilight resembling a Nordic winter she built her fortress and populated it with fantastical creatures. Her favorite plays were Webster’s “Duchess of Amalfi” and Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”. She kept asking Wynfield to reread the bloodiest scenes until she learned them by heart.
During the work day Wynfield would count hours until he could be alone with his frail drinking mate, this demigoddess with the mannerisms of a wolf cub. One sip of whiskey, one guitar chord, and the exterior world dissipated. The two of them played the same games and never got bored. They could have spent an eternity digging through obscure Elizabethan plays.
In the meanwhile, the platonic barriers between them were beginning to crumble. Wynfield had matured well past the point at which one can endure celibacy comfortably. A man of twenty can endure hunger and sleep deprivation with greater ease. Diana, even at twelve, was already showing signs of curiosity. And even though the two of them had not yet become lovers, it was clear that they had ceased being siblings. Wynfield was in no way opposed to knowing Diana as a man knows a woman. He did not chastise himself for those thoughts too harshly. With all the romantic absurdities that filled his head, he did not believe that a carnal union would demean the spiritual one. The only thing that stopped Wynfield was Diana’s age, even though she, at twelve, considered herself a grown woman and strove to convince her beloved of the same.
Diana kept reminding Wynfield of that evening when he abandoned his brotherly duties for the first time. She spoke of that incident with pride, for to her it was her first feminine triumph. Wynfield remembered that evening well. Fatigue and whiskey had dulled his shame, so he began changing out of his work clothes while Diana was in the room. Suddenly he felt her fingers strolling up and down his spine. A second later Diana slipped her arms around his waist and hid her face between his shoulder blades. It happened so unexpectedly that he did not have the time to react and recoil. Why did this gesture throw him into such turmoil? Had she not fallen asleep on his chest countless times before? What was different now? Too exhausted to exert willpower, Wynfield could not bring himself to unlock those thin arms.
Nobody knows how the evening would have ended, had they not heard Tom’s footsteps which made them recoil from each other in a hurry.
After that incident Wynfield made sure there were enough layers of clothes between them when they embraced. Still, there was no doubt as to where their drinking sessions were heading. One day he would no longer need to restrain himself with Diana.
So he waited, as patiently as Nature allowed.
He foresaw no other love prospects.
Marina Julia Neary is an award-winning historical essayist, multilingual arts & entertainment journalist, published poet, playwright, actress, dancer and choreographer. A specialist on the obscure works of Victor Hugo, she has lectured at the French Alliance.
Her historical tragicomedy Hugo in London featuring the adventures of the French literary genius in England during the Crimean War was produced in Greenwich in 2008 and recently acquired by Heuer Publishing. A sequel, Lady with a Lamp: an Untold Story of Florence Nightingale, premiered in 2009 as a theatrical benefit for The Wyatt Foundation.
In 2007 she was commissioned to collect and publish the memoirs of residents from an affluent retirement community in Stamford, CT. The project involved interviewing over forty senior citizens over the age of ninety. A new Connecticut-based leisure publication Norwalk Beat has recently brought her on board as a steady contributor. She focuses on the entertainment industry in Connecticut. Her poems have been accepted by literary journals such as Alimentum and The Recorder and First Edition (UK). After having her short story accepted by Bewildering Stories Magazine, she was invited to join the editorial staff.
Wynfield's Kingdom is her first novel, in which she celebrates her love for Victorian history and the Romantic movement. The novel was published by FireshipPress, a publication specializing in historical and nautical fiction. Here are some of the reviews:
The spirits of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo haunt this darkly compelling novel of the mid-Victorian underworld. Exhaustively researched, ambitious in scope and rich in period detail, King Wynfield is a harrowing tale of wretched poverty and desperate survival, of monstrous child abuse and atrocious acts committed in the name of science. Diana the wild robber maiden and her bandit lover Wynfield are larger than life anti-heroes destined to linger long in the reader's imagination. — Eileen Kernaghan, author of Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural
Neary writes with unbelievable power, yet never loses her sense of emotional insight... Wynfield's Kingdom is truly an extraordinary first novel. — Tom Grundner, author of Midshipman Prince.
In addition to her writing career, Neary has a career in the performing arts. She has starred in several independent horror films shot in Connecticut and New York and placed second in the Miss LaSalle beauty pageant.
Copyright © 2010 by Marina J. Neary