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The Pleasures of Men
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CITY OF MEN
Two men in overcoats stand by our gate. My uncle would have me believe them working men, leaning and talking before going on. The dark one I have seen three times over the past week. He is so close that I can see the black flecks of hair at the edges of his beard, and I imagine reaching up and pulling at them, the rough brown skin resisting and releasing until there is nothing there but clean skin, like a child's.
Even as late as last winter, I saw many people from my window. Couples walking arm in arm, maids carrying milk pails, laborers shouldering baskets of bricks, old women shuffling past. Now July steams our street and all I see are men. Men saunter past my home and stop by the gates. When I pass in my carriage along the street, they watch. They lean against doors, look at my dress, and brush my arm.
"Please try this afternoon, Catherine." My uncle was pretending to adjust the Hogarth etching of Gin Lane on the wall so he did not have to look at me. "It would not inconvenience you so very much to smile." He stepped back and over the African death statue from the eastern part of the country propped on the coal scuttle. "Mr. Janisser is a very wealthy man."
My breath was rising. "So you have said."
My uncle batted at his dusty sleeve, turning to swirl his eye at me. "Is that the prettiest gown you have?" I had grown so much over the past few months that even the pale yellow dress, bought not long after I arrived at Princes Street, was too short at the ankles. The green trimming touched the top of my boots.
"I shall sit. Buying dresses is difficult at present."
He shrugged. "Life must continue, my dear. We cannot live prisoners of fear. No one is going to trouble you. Always are the poor the victims. Well, I shall ask Thomas to take you out in the coach next week to a dressmaker."
When my uncle's mind reflected back at me, I saw an old, unmarriageable woman, locked up in her small room, adorned in the faded dresses of her youth.
"I shall resolve to stop growing."
"That would be wise." The dark clock to his side struck, and the gold man on the top began his slow turn. "If you rose earlier, Jane would have time to help you arrange your coiffure." His face was quite still in the hot air. "After our meal, I wish you to return to your room and have her tidy your hair. And find a more becoming gown." He raised an eyebrow. "The pale lilac. Our visitors this afternoon are of consequence."
He turned away, and my eyes caught the large brown spot that sat in his cheek, like a bite that would not heal. He always combed his black hair very carefully off his forehead, and he had no mustache or beard, so that his face, sun-scored with wrinkles, was bare to the world. I longed to be back in my room with Grace, her hands flickering at my hair as she imitated my uncle and made me laugh.
"I have met your friends before."
"The occasion would not be the same without you, my dear." He reached out, and the signet star ring glittered on his little finger.
I had to pour the tea for the South American mines man and his weasel face, but I didn't wear my lilac gown for him.
"Mr. James Leith Janisser is the brother of our dear friend Mr. Belle-Smyth. He is not in the most splendid of health."
I would not give my uncle the satisfaction of a reply. At the window, our neighbor Mr. Kent passed and waved, his child face shiny in the warm air. I looked back at my uncle, and a sly expression was illuminating his face. "I hear that the younger Mr. Janisser has a great facility for pleasing the ladies." He patted his hand as if he was making a full stop.
Our house was three stories and over a hundred years old, in Princes Street, in the eastern part of London. Most of the other buildings were crammed with families, thirty, even forty bodies in one house, tailors, furniture makers, and weavers whose French I could not understand. They kept lit candles in their windows all night long. I grew up in Richmond and came to this area once before, but that visit was all pain in my head and the streets I could not remember. When I arrived in the coach to live with my uncle, not even a year ago, my mind had been turned blank by Lavenderfields, as if I had never seen the east of London in my life.
I could not credit the noise, in those first weeks. All day and night, the shouts of men, the cries of babies, howling dogs, and an endless clanging and crashing of wood and metal. The smell assaulted my nose, human sewage, rotting vegetables, dirty bodies and dogs, seeping into my chamber. I would turn the corner from the corridor into my bedroom and feel certain I could see the yellowish smog from outside drifting onto my counterpane. In Lavenderfields, the noise was made only by us inside. Outdoors was calm and quiet, and all you could smell was grass. Number 17 Princes Street was always invaded by the outside world. On those first nights I lay in bed certain that the grimy pigeons on the roof were about to come tumbling down the chimney and start flapping over my bed, the filth of the street falling after them.
Still, after a few months, I grew habited to Princes Street, forgetting until I saw our visitors, pale and surprised at the door, that we lived in an environ many in London would revile.
I climbed the stairs to my small room. I dreamt that Grace was already there, waiting, her pale hair like a candle in the gloom.
"You need a gown for this afternoon, I hear." I turned, and she began to unbutton my dress. Her fingers were on my neck as she moved aside my hair. She smoothed the lilac over my shoulders, and I wanted then to lean against her. Reach for her with the hands that only a year ago had been tied with rope.
"Trying again with the suitors." I sat on the chair at the table.
"You must marry sometime."
"Never." I want to stay with you. "I wish we could take a house together."
"I would like that." She moved her hand under my hair and began to brush it. I smiled as she did so. I leaned against the bosom of her dress, and my skin turned to fire.
But there was no one in the dark room but me, the masks my uncle found in Africa that stared out from the walls, and the two little dolls that looked like hunters. I took my tangled hair in my hand and brushed it, then called for Jane to form the style.
The visit was as I expected. Constantine Janisser, skinny, slack-jawed, stretched out his legs in front of him like two long drains. His mother admired and his father sat too close, extolling.
"Our son had great success at school."
My uncle nodded. "Catherine received excellent reports from her governesses."
Oh, all so polite! My uncle and Mr. Janisser began exchanging questions about business and family (two younger daughters finishing their education in Bath, and a niece living with them, eighteen and already affianced), and talked of the health of their relatives, the Belle-Smyths. Mrs. Janisser clutched for pleasant words about our ramshackle curiosity shop of a parlor. I poured tea, clumsily, and offered Mrs. Graves's tea cakes and shortbread biscuits on our best flowered plates. I smiled. How I smiled.
I found myself desiring an aunt. A motherly female presence to flurry our visitors with chatter in a way I could not. I imagined her warming the room with her words, freeing us from the silences that hung over our heads like icicles. But then, my aunt Cross was not comforting or kind, and a wife of my uncle would have surely been the same.
Grace would tell me I looked well. But this man and his family would flee from me, and I hated that they could make the choice to do so. I had my mother's small nose and the green eyes a friend of my father's said reminded him of paintings in Rome. And even when I was chained to the wall with it cut short, someone would say, My but she has handsome hair. So dark! Surely some Indian blood? Now my hair was blacker than ever, and since I had come to live with my uncle, it had grown down to my back. My appearance was not the problem. It was my manner. Anyone could see that I did not fit in, and every part of me was out of place, in my body and in my soul.
I wanted to ask my uncle, "Why do you show me around as a potential wife?" A responsible father might inquire about my past.
I turned my head and saw the footman by the glossy Janisser carriage, upright, every sinew of his body tensed to show resentment at standing in Princes Street, where scrawny dogs scratched at the corners of houses and rainwater ran brown down the center. I looked past him at the small face etched on the front wall of the opposite house, eyes, mouth, nose, and allowed the features to throb behind my eyes. Since every street in the east was controlled by a gang, Princes Street was fortunate, said my uncle, to be under the rule of the Malays. The collector came to our door for money twice a month, and then we were protected.
Mrs. Janisser reached out her beeswax fingers for a biscuit and ventured a declaration that the walls must be very strong. My uncle looked up and, as if his voice had been stoppered in a jug and set free, began to talk.
"I bought this house twenty years ago," he explained. "The value has much increased. But speculation was not my ambition. No. I was entranced by the history." He held out his arms. "I walked in and could immediately sense the past. Do you not agree?" Mr. Janisser bit at his tea cake. My uncle turned to open the drawer behind him. "I dug these pieces of pot from the garden," he said, holding them up to the light. "Surely from the medieval age, would you not say? The thirteenth century, I think. Consider that family, cooking over a small fire, in fear of invaders. Or the inhabitants of later years in a black and white house on this spot, hearing talk of Queen Bess entering London, then others seeing their possessions aflame in the Great Fire." Mrs. Janisser was gazing at the African death masks on the wall behind my uncle's head. "This house was built anew in 1720. I picture the master silk weaver stepping out of his brand-new door and taking a sedan chair to drink coffee in Covent Garden."
I ran a finger over my teacup, wishing I could flick the china so hard that it would break. I thought the Janissers were probably tormented by the smell of incense. My uncle sent Jane for incense sticks from the sellers near the docks, in the hope that they would mask the damp. I was used to the smell, but I knew visitors were not. I hoped they were confused by it. I could not understand how a man as established as the elder Mr. Janisser could have struck up any acquaintance with my uncle. The Belle-Smyths too, whom he had recently begun to visit. I could not see what they would want with him, even if he were as rich as they believed.
"Sometimes," my uncle was saying, "I feel I can hardly work, such is the weight of history here. I prefer to sit and absorb the intense mass of Time." He sat back, quite satisfied. "Your dress is of fine quality, madam. Spitalfields silk?"
I knew we were ridiculous to them, two oddities adrift in their shadowy, paneled house in a part of London no one would wish to visit. They screwed up their eyes at the Hogarth prints filling the walls, the lopsided couch bought in a market, the death masks, and the table etched with astrological signs. They ornamented their white houses in St. James's with choice pieces of Sèvres rather than lumps of Babylonian frieze, candleholders from India, Malian death dolls, and pots from old China. Their bodies were gowned in fashion, but my dress was puffed-out lilac and I had only an Egyptian necklace of green and blue beads that my uncle had allowed me to take from the pin on the wall. His black suit edged with velvet was not what a man would habitually wear, that I knew.
"Your collection must be a trouble to dust," ventured Mrs. Janisser, eyes on the Damascene warrior by the fire.
"Ah, madam, but when one acquires items of beauty, one cannot consider the housework they may entail. Regard this coal holder from Siberia. Mahogany and tiger skin, very ornate. The shopkeeper offered me his child instead, but I insisted."
I looked at Mrs. Janisser. If I married her son, I would wear those same high-necked gowns, fuss about parlor fittings. I would spend the morning perusing tradesmen's catalogs and the afternoon suffering a mild headache on the couch, until the time came for an overcooked dinner in a room hot with light. With child by Constantine, discussing choices for table for hours on end, no interest in what was important or beautiful in life. I would not bear it. I refused to. That would not happen to me.
"The fireplace induces my particular pride," my uncle was saying. "It was part of the original house and works splendidly. New is not always superior."
My uncle could not tell them, of course, that our roof leaked, servants had to be paid large sums to stay, and our neighbors were not respectable. The richer silk weavers had moved away to set up in the country, and so the houses were cheap, and Mr. Horace next door lived here because he could not find another rental after debtors' prison. The Kents, mother and son, came here from Chatham, so that the son could study art, they said, but Jane told me she had heard the elder brother was hanged. Uncle did not care, such was his love for History.
"I could not live without shelves," Mrs. Janisser said (we could not attach them to the paneling). "And do you not find the interior dark?" At first our visitors were interested, and then, after half an hour or so, the condescension bubbled up like water in a well after the leaves have been cleared. The Janissers were like the others. They, not we, were the explorers; they returned home confirmed in the happiness of the choices they had made.
She would not be discouraged. "No air!" I could hear her think: a young girl shut up in this dim house, surrounded by old things. Not normal. "Do you enjoy the fresh air, Miss Sorgeiul?" I gazed back at her in the expensive pink dress with blue lacing she hoped would make her look like a drawing in a magazine. I willed her to know that I was a long piece of silver and her thoughts would slide off me, unable to find a place to grip. I cannot bear the rooms either! I wanted to cry. I sat in the house and felt the history seeping over me, trying to get under my clothes, thick and hot as burning sugar. I sensed the people who had lived in the rooms pressing on me through the darkness and knew they wanted to take my thoughts for their own. I looked at Mrs. Janisser, her husband, and Constantine, unextraordinary but so clearly from the land of the living, where lives were sunny, yellow, rose, or blue like imported flowers, and there were always choices.
My uncle lied! It was not the charm of the lives that attracted him but the heavy weight of death. There was so much death in the house: the masks, the skulls in the cupboard, the swords that had cut off heads in India, and all the possessions of people long in their graves. He was the king of the realm, the ruler who remained. I could not escape, so I had to make the masks into a consolation. They encouraged you to think that life was, if not painless, quick, when the truth was that the days stretched out forever and all you had were endless hours to wait.
But I could not say such things. Mr. Janisser's gleam would slide and his wife would cough and the son might even laugh. And paying a social call to friends, to a high, white room where delicate teacups clink, they might declare, Well, we visited Mr. Crenaban and Miss Sorgeiul, and, why, she is strange. And someone, one day, might think of my name and a tale she'd once heard, and soon my story would be known to all, and I would be lost.
So I simpered at her. "My uncle allows me to drive out whenever I wish. May I offer you more tea, madam?"
Mr. Janisser fingered his tea cake and shot his wife a quick glare. Within a minute, he had returned to describing the excellence of his son. Constantine Janisser was, we learned, possessed of a rapierlike intelligence, honed at Westminster and Magdalen, and now fully displayed in his daily work at Janisser & Smyth, Investors. Within a few weeks of arriving, he had discovered a host of accounts left to rot, contacted the clients, and renovated every account, and one owner had since brought two hundred pounds to the business.
"Well," I managed. "Truly an achievement."
"Yes, indeed." He could not stop talking, he leapt in and off he went, veering through his firstborn's virtues like a young deer hurtling past a river. I let the magnificence of Constantine's eye for detail pass over my head. Ever since their arrival, I had been fighting the desire to look back into my dream from the previous night. If I'd let the visions take me in the presence of others, they might have been able to tell. But a remark about Constantine's "prospects" pushed me over and I gave in. I had dreamt that I was outside our house, alone on the street past midnight, night air wrapping around me. And, yes, just as my uncle had said, overnight thick violet flowers had appeared, clinging to the front of our house and those of the Kents and the Horaces. They sprouted from the cracks in the pavement and over bricks. There was hot wind; a flower broke off its stem, and the petals began blowing toward me. I felt myself back there, my heart on fire. I gazed down at my hands, imagined them scraping the dirt of the wall under my nails.
"Catherine." I looked up at four expectant faces. "Are you in agreement?"
"Oh, yes." I smiled. "Mr. Constantine Janisser's attainments are truly impressive."
My uncle narrowed his eyes. Constantine Janisser let out a low laugh.
"Catherine," repeated my uncle, "we were discussing the recent surge of criminal behavior. Mr. Janisser informed us that there have been four robberies close to his office. All the windows of the neighboring gold merchant were smashed and the safe forced open." Here my uncle lowered his voice, for money was worthy of respect. "He lost six hundred pounds."
"We were remarking," Mr. Janisser added, hard-faced, "that each robbery was accompanied by the most curious acts. The culprits decorated the walls with daubings of animals and plants."
Constantine Janisser sat up, his torso all of a sudden rigid. "Yes," he rushed, a fold of black hair trembling over his right cheek. "I ventured there and thought them quite remarkable. I cannot imagine that they were produced by an inferior mind."
I could not look away.
"You should see them, Miss Sorgeiul. I would strongly advise you to go." There was a clatter of china from my uncle's side of the table. "That is, if Mr. Crenaban would allow."
My uncle held his gaze. "Miss Sorgeiul is a young lady of good family. She does not wander the streets around the Bank of England in search of paintings on walls." I presumed he was hoping that their carriage would not take the route through Brick Lane on their return.
The air cooled a little. Then Mr. Janisser spoke. "No, no. Of course not. My son was forgetting himself." He was eager to soothe, and I felt surprise. Perhaps we were more in demand than I had thought. "They said there would be moral breakdown after the financial crisis," hurried his wife.
"I believe the paintings are connected to the wider crimes." Mr. Janisser junior stared at my uncle, as if waiting for an answer.
There was a silence. The elderly cuckoo clock chimed in the corner, and it was time for the visit to be over. We all five of us felt relief.
Jane came with their wraps and moved toward Mrs. Janisser while the men stood awkwardly. "Certainly," Mr. Janisser suggested, still trying to please, "this area is not inconvenient for the City."
"But, sir," Mrs. Janisser broke in, "the streets must be teeming with crime."
"Especially now," said Constantine Janisser, staring at the floor, his voice soft. "After that girl."
I felt my heart clench. "What do you mean?"
Mrs. Janisser shuffled on her fur and in one quick movement reached for my hand. "I am very glad you do not go walking around, Miss Sorgeiul. I would be concerned."
"I blame the Queen," broke in Mr. Janisser. "A young girl is not strong enough to restrain society."
My uncle moved over. "This area is perfectly safe."
"Miss Sorgeiul, did you not know?" said Constantine Janisser.
"We have had some problems receiving news," I said, staring at him, willing him to say more.
"You would not wish to keep your coachman waiting," waved my uncle. I saw how much taller he was than anyone else as he loomed over the Janissers, pushing them out. They said their goodbyes, proposed we visit their house, and the dark door swung shut after them. My uncle took up the steel rod and began lacing the chains that kept us secure.
"Imagine their parlor," he said. "The same combination of gold and green cushions and curtains as in every other house in the street, copied from the magazines. Cheap cornices."
"What did they mean when they spoke of crime?"
"All the latest furniture," he mused.
"Mrs. Janisser seemed fearful."
"Ladies fuss. Now, I must leave you to your thoughts. My papers call." I looked at his face and saw the boredom and—yes—anger fall from it like dust. He was all brimming pinkness, eager desire to hurry upstairs to his study, where he fled from me every day, and most of the night.
That night, Mr. Trelawny came. I heard the tinkle of the bell at about ten, the heavy tread of my uncle down the stairs, whispers as they passed my door. I watched the shadows of the masks on the walls and listened to the cries from the street. I could not sleep while Mr. Trelawny was in the house, and yet I could not begin a candle to read, for I would not want him to see the light beneath the door and give any thought to me. He always rang, although he could use the spare key under the stone to unlock the back door. Sometimes, I wondered if he did so because he wished me to know he had arrived. I lay still, heavy with heat, listening for every sound, willing him to leave.
My uncle's house was comfortable in winter, but in summer the walls retained the heat until the place felt swollen with warmth. When I first came to live there, I found the rooms small. There was a parlor and a dining room off the hall, a corridor on the upper floor, and then my room, and my uncle's, and his study, which I was forbidden to enter. He did not even permit Jane to clean there. On the cellar level was our kitchen and next to it a door that was always locked. My uncle declared it false, with no room behind. At the back of the house, a small garden, the jewels two flowering trees.
Thoughts hurried through my head: Mrs. Janisser talking of crime, and memories I did not wish for. My leg was twitching. When the same had happened before, they forced me to lie still and take salt from their hands, but I knew now it was better to rise and walk a little. My room was cramped and there was little space, so I moved to pull at the door to the corridor. I opened it, and there stood my uncle and Mr. Trelawny.
"I could not sleep," I said to them, pushing myself behind the door as they stared at me through the gloom. "I desired a little water."
"Miss Sorgeiul." A white hand snaked toward me. I felt the plump palm around mine and made out Mr. Trelawny's cragged, red face and his blotchy nose. He moved a little closer. "Always a pleasure."
"Mr. Trelawny was about to descend the stairs," said my uncle. "You do not normally rise at night."
"Bad dreams," I replied, staring at Mr. Trelawny, his baby-soft covering of blondish hair, the pinned-back ears, and his precise cravat and suit, at the neatest angle, such a contrast with the roughness of his face.
"About what, pray?"
"The crime. Robberies and flowers on walls."
My uncle patted my shoulder. "An unfit interest for a lady. When Mr. Trelawny has left, you may go down for your water."
When, finally, I heard the door slam, I crept to the shutter and peered out of the small holes. I watched his bent back shuffling slowly away, until I was quite sure he had gone.
In 1820, the mad old king died, his terrible son came to the throne, and Princess Victoria passed her first birthday. Two thousand men planned to invade a city in the north, and the longest winter in history froze over the Thames. And I was conceived in February, a cold month. I knew nothing of my birth. I used to wonder if very little children could remember the moment when they came into the world, but there is surely no memory without words. I had never been near enough to a young child to ask.
My mother, then, in the large bed, covered in the patchwork quilt, crying with the pain, the doctor talking to her. And I sprang into the world. Was I red and screaming at the wrench or impatient for life? Did I wail or settle to the nurse's breast? I could not guess. There was no one alive who could tell me.
I remembered a corner of our garden, at the front, near the house, where my father grew tropical trees, their leaves heavy and tinged with yellow at the tips. My mother wore long dresses for parties, violet and blue silk following her as she walked. My brother, Louis, and I begged my father for a dog, but he would not allow it. We played soldiers under the arched stained-glass window by the stairs.
The house in Richmond was large, handsome, and quite new, and you would declare it the ideal home for any family. Now, every day, I tried to forget it. I hoped that the size and shape of the rooms, our possessions, would fade from my mind, and so the green rugs in my bedroom, the vases in the parlor, the cool surfaces of the kitchen would become nothing, cleanly replaced by Princes Street, my home forever.
In Richmond, we had nursemaids and a governess, two maids for my mother's dresses alone. At Princes Street, there was only Mrs. Graves, Thomas, and Jane, whom I could not bear because she was not Grace.
At the beginning of this year, 1840, I walked into the parlor, and Grace Starling was there. In her gray dress, her hair looked yellower than ever, as if she had come straight from an egg.
"You and Starling met at the Belle-Smyths', I believe," said my uncle.
She curtsied to me, and I saw the top of her head, hair neatly parted over the thin skin. My leg twitched as I thought of her mouth at my ear. Tell me.
"I thought you would need a maid, my dear."
I could not speak, as if the air between us was like china that could break. Those Belle-Smyth girls, their hands on her.
- "A warning: Don't even think about starting Williams' tantalizingly unnerving thriller unless you've cleared your schedule for the next few hours."—More
- "A charged, fast-paced ride through the dark underbelly of Victorian London in the footsteps of a serial killer. Fans of Sarah Waters will love it."—Good Housekeeping (UK)
- "This is a wonderfully ripe, imaginative and gripping piece of Victorian pastiche, with a spider's web of a plot and a spine-tingling atmosphere of menace and suspense."—The London Times
- "The Pleasures of Men is an intense, intelligent and hugely entertaining read."—The Guardian
- "The Pleasures of Men shares with Wolf Hall an ambitious, challenging concern with form combined with a pitch-perfect historical ear. . . . This intoxicating and disturbing novel is properly thrilling and extraordinarily well-written. Kate Williams is already an accomplished biographer; The Pleasures of Men shows a soaring talent let loose."—The Independent on Sunday
- "Part bodice-ripper, part-slasher, the book's elaborate plot moves along at a brisk clip with a nod to the likes of Sarah Waters and Peter Ackroyd."—The Daily Mail
- "[A] promising first novel . . . Readers looking for more psychological sophistication than is usual in such historicals will be pleased."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Aug 7, 2012
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Hachette Books