Copley, Watson and the Shark

Shark Alley

THE MEMOIRS OF A PENNY-A-LINER

James ‘Jack’ Vincent (1808 – c.1888) was a Chartist novelist and journalist whose name is now as obscure as it was once, briefly, famous, his popular fiction from the first half of the nineteenth century quickly eclipsed by the next generation of literary authors, a generation that seemed to proliferate genius. Described by Dickens as a ‘Manichean novelist,’ and designated ‘The last of the Romantics’ by his friend and fellow author W.H. Ainsworth, Vincent was the product of a culture in transition, no longer Regency but not quite yet Victorian. His writing was equally mercurial, and although extremely fashionable in the 1830s, little of Vincent’s work has survived. His descent into the murky world of penny dreadful publishing, where nameless authors slaved for a penny a line, also makes much of his material difficult to identify and attribute. Even less is known of his life, and Professor Malcolm Elwin does not even consider him worthy of a mention in his book on bestselling but largely forgotten nineteenth century novelists, Victorian Wallflowers. Jack Vincent has always been a mystery, at least until now.

Jack Vincent’s private papers came to light three years ago, rescued from a dead hoarder’s collection bound for the council incinerator. Apparently undisturbed since the Second World War, the collected hand-written manuscripts include personal correspondence, drafts of original fiction, and a series of unpublished memoirs. As a literary historian specialising in this period, I have no doubt as to the authenticity of this material. The paper on which it is written, the ink used, and the entire external aspect of the documents put their date beyond the reach of question. Even allowing for the inevitable issues surrounding truth and memory in life writing, when Vincent refers to the historical record he is consistently accurate and easily cross-referenced.

Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner (Vincent’s original title) is the first volume of the autobiographical papers, although it might be more adequately described as a ‘creative non-fiction,’ foreshadowing as it does the New Journalism of the 1960s as much as it reflects the more conventional Victorian ‘triple-decker’ serial romance. Vincent’s memoirs therefore eschew the more traditional form of autobiography in favour of the devices of literary fiction: there is scenic framing and dialogue, the plot is non-linear, and the author casts himself as the protagonist and point of view narrator. The present narrative is also of particular historical significance as it includes the most complete eyewitness account of the final voyage of the troopship Birkenhead ever discovered, and equally because of Vincent’s close association with many of the major writers and artists of his day, most notably Egan, Thackeray, Cruikshank, Mayhew, Reynolds, and Dickens.

Aside from the correction of a few minor spelling and grammatical errors, I have left the manuscript as I found it. I continue to transcribe and edit these papers, and it is my hope that these fascinating works of fiction, and the even more compelling autobiography that frames them, will once more see print, shedding as they do so much new light on English popular fiction, publishing and politics in the age of Dickens and Victoria.


‘I can fancy a future Author taking for his story the glorious action off Cape Danger, when, striking only to the Powers above, the Birkenhead went down; and when, with heroic courage and endurance, the men kept to their duty on deck.’

William Makepeace Thackeray, speech to the anniversary meeting of the Royal Literary Fund Society, reported in The Morning Herald, May 13, 1852.

‘How do you like Forster’s Life of Dickens? I see he only tells half the story.’

William Harrison Ainsworth, letter to Jack Vincent, January 25, 1872.

CHAPTER ONE

Great WesternWe were approaching the islands of Madeira, about midway in our journey, the day we lost a man and a horse. The animal belonged to Sheldon-Bond, and he was considerably more put out by its passing than he was that of the human being that accompanied it into the void. The young subaltern remained in a foul humour for the rest of that miserable and ill-omened day, his unfortunate man, Private Dodd, getting the worst of it. I tried to avoid him, as there was already bad blood between us, but this was difficult given the confines of the ship. As he stormed around the deck like a vengeful wraith in a graveyard, I could read the message in his eyes when they connected with my own quite clearly.

My suppositions were verified when our paths finally collided in the corridor that led to the wardroom later that evening. ‘Do not dare to write about today’s events, you Chartist swine,’ he had said, his voice soft yet pregnant with menace, ‘or things might go very badly with you before we reach our destination.’

But I did, of course, damn him, for that was my job.

The accident happened towards the end of the forenoon watch. It was a calm, clear morning, and not unpleasant to be above deck. The air was far too still for the ship to go under sail; and, as was not uncommon, we were therefore becalmed while Whyham and his engineers made repairs to the engines. These were, like several of the ship’s company if truth be told, prone to seizures, as well as other mechanical ailments too various and incomprehensible to innumerate. Whyham, the Chief Engineer, was a good sort, and fancied he had found in me a mouthpiece by which he could share his passion for marine engines with the empire. He had therefore explained the working of this great machine to me at length, although I must privately confess that I had not the wit or wisdom to truly appreciate the functional beauty of the thirty foot connecting rod which was currently being straightened on deck by the ship’s blacksmith, an ancient and spark-scored creature who would obviously have preferred to work unhindered by Whyham’s constant and nervous interruptions. Although such delays drove our Captain to despair and distraction, they were a welcome break for the rest of us, when the weather was fine at least, affording a tranquil respite from the constant drone of those Tartarean engines.

It was at these times that Herbert Briscoe, a stoker from Liverpool, took it upon himself to provide us with some light entertainment. When the drift anchor was deployed and the ship relatively static, several blinking soot-stained stokers would emerge on deck to take the air; and if Speer, rather than Davis, had the deck, Briscoe was given leave to do his popular mélange act. He would begin by taking a running dive off the bow, after first hesitating to indicate mock apprehension like a Harlequin in a low opera, before expertly plunging into the depthless dark. He would then swim the length of the hull underwater, before surfacing astern to a muddle of Flash obscenities and enthusiastic applause, much of either stripe on account of the wagers placed upon the length of time it had taken him to run the keel, the winners dropping ropes that he might re-embark, temporarily cleansed of engine room filth and several shillings the richer. We would all count together in order that the timing be accurate, bellowing the numbers aloud as one. He usually did it in about two minutes.

I declined an offer from Private Moran to place a bet. A man of my means should never gamble. His countenance, in reply, was a strange combination of obsequiousness and contempt, suggesting that he imagined me a swell or a cheese screamer: either too full of myself to game with common soldiers, or opposed on ecumenical grounds. The reality was that with all his wheeling and dealing he was likely much wealthier than I, and that God was as dead to me as to him. I liked Moran though, and through his patronage I had been able to interview many of his companions. I therefore did something that would have appalled my dear wife, and responded by turning out my trouser pockets with an exaggerated shrug and a winsome smile. I doubt he believed me, but the old pirate rewarded me with a sympathetic grin before darting off into the mass of men crowding the rails in search of Briscoe.

I rejoined the count at sixty-five. Briscoe should now have been about halfway, just past the huge steam driven paddle-wheels on either side of the hull that would, were they in motion, have ground him to pie filling in an instant, like the victims of the demon barber of Fleet Street himself. I swear the old bake head was more fish than man. I knew many seamen did not swim, but Briscoe was not of that kidney. He loved the water as much as I feared it, for I could barely swim a stroke. I knew that this was a skill I should acquire in order to swim with my son, but I had thus far declined Briscoe’s offer of ‘a few pointers.’ He expected me to practice in the open water and I could not bear the thought of entering such a vast expanse of nothingness. To my mind, Milton would have done better to imagine the hellish void through which Satan travelled as the black Atlantic rather than some frozen wasteland. At least on land a man might have a chance, but consider the horror of being lost at sea, with no land in sight or beneath your feet, no cognisance of what moved beneath save your worst imaginings, and the odds of rescue so long that even Moran’s most reckless customer would shake his head and keep his money in his pocket. This was why many seamen to whom I had spoken would not learn to swim, a stance that might have surprised many but not me. No, I would not swim, especially in that God cursed ocean.

The count had now passed eighty, which was close to Briscoe’s best time on the voyage thus far (which was ninety-six seconds). While the count continued, I was distantly aware that Cornet Bond and his man were attending to the young officer’s horse, which like the other animals on board was corralled in a temporary but well-constructed stable on the upper deck. When the ship was not violently in motion, Bond liked to walk his horse so that it remained in good fettle throughout the arduous journey. He was a Lancer, and those men valued their mount above all else in the world; but as one of only two cavalrymen on board, Bond’s fellow officers obviously viewed his relationship with his horse as somewhat obsessive. I could sympathise, though I did not care for the man. I knew his type, and he, it would seem, knew mine. Nonetheless, he possessed a very fine horse, a young solid white gelding, and his attention to its care was admirable. If only he afforded his human subordinates the same level of kindness I would have been glad to have counted him an ally, despite his social rank. I could not hear him from my position, but I could tell he was berating his orderly, the long suffering Dodd, a gentle soul of twice the years of his master. I could see the petulance in Bond’s features (when he lost his temper he revealed his true face, which was that of a spiteful youth several years shy of twenty), while, similarly, he was always shouting at poor old Private Dodd.

The count approached two minutes. No one else was watching Bond, but I could see through the open stable gate that his horse was becoming agitated, like a child, by his mood. Dodd was hanging on to the frightened animal’s bridle as if his life depended upon his very grip, which looking at his officer it may well have done, while Bond, to give him his due, attempted to calm the creature by whispering in its ear. Between them they guided the nervous animal onto the deck, Bond now taking the bridle, to Dodd’s obvious relief. The upper deck was perhaps thirty yards in length, and was cluttered with lashed down military equipment and a complex web of rigging. Mindful of obstacles, Bond carefully walked his horse through that decidedly unsuitable paddock.

Would that we could communicate with the lower forms, for how could such a creature possibly have comprehended the point and purpose of sea travel? I was reminded of the feelings of helplessness attendant in the care of the very young, when one cannot explain to a baby yet to acquire language why she or he must be cold or sick or hungry. Perhaps, I thought, Bond communed with his horse as I did my son, by means of a kind of desperate kindness, a non-verbal reassurance made of soft sounds and gentle gestures.

When I saw my boy again he would probably be talking in quite complex sentences. How I hated to miss such a significant development. I also feared that this thinking, speaking child would not remember his father, despite our early attachment. I banished the thought as best I could. In that environment, I could ill-afford the kind of black mood that such ideas engendered. His mother would not let him forget me, I decided, and when the Morning Chronicle paid me I would be better placed to raise a family. My present situation was, as my friend Reynolds put it, ‘a tour of duty,’ much like that of the soldiers and seamen about whom I was charged to write. It was a necessary means to an end, and at least I was still working, albeit in the face of my original promise to Grace that I would never allow my career to remove me from my family. No, that was another train I must let pass me by. We needed the money, and there was no decent work for me in London anymore.

The count was by then becoming decidedly less enthusiastic. How long may a man hold his breath under water, I wondered; two, perhaps three minutes? If our collective enumeration was accurate, then Briscoe was now approaching three minutes without air. Speer, the Second Master, was looking decidedly queasy. The mood of the men on deck had changed as well, and they looked to the officer in charge for guidance, for a clear sign from above. No one counted after the fourth minute has passed. We stood in helpless silence while Speer weighed up his options. Even Bond had come to a halt.

‘Man overboard!’ screamed Speer. The spell was broken, and the seamen exploded into activity. Aldridge sounded the alarm from the poop, hammering on the great bell as if the French were attacking. Speer bellowed the order to lower a boat, putting Able Seaman Blake in charge of the rescue. There was a deafening babel of competing voices. Everywhere seamen were shouting, mostly trying to clear the rest of us from their way.

It was clear that Bond and his horse were a serious obstruction. ‘Mr. Bond,’ yelled Speer above the general cacophony, ‘will you please remove that animal.’

It was my guess that Bond was so taken aback at being thus addressed that he slightly relaxed his grip on the bridle. In that instant, the horse, already panicked by the general alarm, bolted. Seamen scattered like churchgoers menaced by a vagrant, and, as if to confirm his master’s frequent boasts that he could have been a steeplechase champion, the horse cleared the port rail like a five bar gate. Bond screamed like a woman and ran to the bar, followed by several of the men, myself included. The hapless animal had survived the drop and was swimming, quite adeptly, in an uneven circle about five yards from the ship. Blake had steered his boat in the direction of the commotion, hoping no doubt that someone had spotted Briscoe. Bond was shouting at Blake in the gig, but the latter was signalling with his hands that there was nothing he could do. Bond ran off to request the deployment of the windlass.

‘This is better than the penny theatre,’ said Private Moran.

All the senior officers were now on deck; Major Seton looking nervous, Brodie, the Acting Master, looking annoyed, and Salmond, our Captain, looking drunk. Drake, the marine Colour Sergeant, was ushering the women and children below deck, while Lakeman, the mercenary, struck a long match and lit a cigar. There was still no sign of Herbert Briscoe.

It looked as if Bond had managed to convince Speer to save the horse, and the ship’s huge cargo winch was now swinging seaward with the aid of half-a-dozen ordinary seamen. The plan, it appeared, was that Blake would send a couple of men into the water to get the harness under the horse, but before the winch could be lowered to retrieve the terrified animal, a shout went up from the masthead.

‘What the devil`s that?’ said a man next to me, shading his eyes with the flat of his hand, ‘a whale perhaps?’ We all strained to follow his gaze. A dark shape in the azure waters lay.

An animal fear came over me, and I suddenly wanted to back away from the rail. That was no whale. We had seen such creatures on the voyage, and despite their immense size they had none of the menace that this shadow conveyed. Everywhere men began to bellow, ‘Shark!’ at Blake and his crew, who in their turn looked around in obvious panic.

The great fish approached Bond’s helpless mount and the horse began to swim frantically back towards the ship. The shark pursued unhurriedly, surfacing as it passed its prey, dwarfing it in size as it did the small open boat. It must have been fifteen feet long at least, if not more.

‘Christ and all his holy angels,’ said Moran.

I had read of sharks, and also written of them, but even the most lurid accounts of the illustrated press or my own imagination had not prepared me for this terrible apparition. There was something ancient in the simplicity of the beast. It was a flat, implacable grey with no features save dead, black eyes, like a doll or a devil. Bond watched the enormous animal glide through the clear water in total horror. I saw him call to a nearby marine, who unslung his rifle and handed it to the young officer. Bond raised it at once, sighted carefully and shot his beloved horse a fraction above its left eye. He hung his head, and offered the musket back to the shocked leatherneck. We became aware of more shots then, as the other marines fired on the shark, which was still close to the surface and circling the twitching carcass of the horse. Comparing the animal with the now limp body of the horse, I inwardly increased my original assessment of its length. I saw four shells strike it around its huge dorsal fin. Blood flowed from the broad grey back, but the shark did not even slow its pace or bother to dive. Then its huge triangular head seemed to hinge back, and its terrible mouth fastened onto the horse`s flank, shaking from side to side as it tore away a great chunk of marble flesh. Fascinated and appalled, I watched as the water turned to blood.

Lakeman, who had thus far taken no part in proceedings, called for his man. The steadfast Private McIntyre was immediately at his side. Words were exchanged, and McIntyre scurried off as Lakeman strode purposely towards us, still casually smoking. The men parted as he approached the rail, leaving the two of us together. Lakeman nodded in greeting but said nothing, watching the monster feeding below. McIntyre returned carrying a long rifle.

‘Loaded?’ said Lakeman.

‘Of course, sir,’ said his batman.

Lakeman held the rifle in the crook of his arm and inserted cork earplugs. ‘You might want to cover your ears,’ he told me, a trifle loudly, raising the rifle.

There was a crack of thunder and a split second later the shark’s great head exploded in a shower of blood and bone. Shuddering, it fell away from our horrified eyes, disappearing beneath the flat red surface of the water like a sinking ship.

‘Will sir take nuts or a cigar!’ cried Lakeman, delighted with his shot. A cheer went up from the deck, and Blake and his crew visibly relaxed.

‘Brute,’ whispered Bond, who had joined us at the rail. ‘Rotten filthy brute.’

The air around us was muddy with foul tasting smoke. Lakeman tossed the gun back to McIntyre and threw me a wink through the murk. He removed the earplugs and dropped them into McIntyre’s waiting palm. My ears were ringing like a man in a bell. ‘Elephant gun,’ he announced, ‘2 bore: half-pound ball. Hard on the arm and a devil to load in a hurry, but it’ll pretty much stop anything.’

‘You might want to start reloading now then,’ I said, as, God help us, there were more of them, three, at least, tearing into the body of the horse.

Lakeman, however, had lost interest. I received the impression that he had been conducting an experiment and, satisfied with the result, he saw no reason to repeat it. ‘It’d just be shooting fish in a barrel,’ said he, strolling away with the nonchalance of a winner at a faro table, McIntyre trotting dutifully behind.

Bond and I were left alone. I awkwardly tried to express my sympathy.

‘What would you know about it?’ he said vituperatively.

I shrugged and kept my own counsel as he took his leave. Needless to say he was right. I really didn’t care how he felt about anything, and as the probable fate of poor old Herbert Briscoe, forgotten in all the excitement, occurred to me, I ceased to concern myself with Bond or his bloody horse.

There was nothing for it but to finish the repairs, and when we were once more under weigh the sharks followed. Over dinner there was talk of some sort of memorial service for Briscoe, but during the discussion I found myself suddenly distracted and preoccupied by a curious childhood memory. The more I tried not to think of it, the more vividly I recalled an incident with a cat I had once owned. One spring, a baby sparrow fell from its nest in an elm in my parents’ garden, and my little cat was on it before I could help the unfortunate bird. She sat under the same tree every day for the rest of the month, waiting for another fledgling to fall.

CHAPTER TWO

Henry Nelson O'Neil, Eastward Ho! A few passengers, including myself, had embarked at Portsmouth a month earlier, on the first day of January, 1852. This gave us a day or so of relative peace in which to become acclimated to the ship and to each other, before she took on the bulk of her human cargo at Cork. The 12th Foot (the East Suffolks) were already on board, seventy-odd men and their officers, Granger and Fairtlough, as well as the mercenary Lakeman and his contingent, the Lancers Rolt and Sheldon-Bond, and about a hundred Highlanders from the 73rd, 74th, and 91st Regiments, including Major (soon to be Lieutenant-Colonel) Seton and Captain Wright, the senior military officers on the ship.

With the beginning of the New Year our journey also commenced, with a brief, uneventful jaunt around the south west coast and into the Western Approaches. As I had anticipated this adventure with a cold, sick dread for several weeks by that point, I was relieved that modern sea travel notionally appeared much less arduous than my research and limited personal experience had led me to surmise. On the contrary, I supposed that my initial concerns were groundless, and that sea legs were much more easily acquired than I had previously thought. Looking back, I was as a man receiving the first stroke of a surgeon’s blade or a sergeant’s lash, naively believing that such a short sharp shock could be endured, and not at all considering the duration of the torture. I recall my wife making a similar error of judgement regarding the pain of labour, assuming the initial stage to represent the whole, and wondering aloud to the attending midwife, with her usual sunny wit, why there was so much fuss and screaming normally associated with the miracle of birth. This misplaced bravado occurred a while before the true contractions commenced, turning her inside out with agony for the next five hours or so. And this was a remarkably short labour, I am told.

Despite her reassuringly gentle passage through the smooth waters of the Solent, the ship possessed an eldritch aspect, at least to me, from the beginning. There was something ancient and foreboding about her, the paradox being that she was a relatively new vessel, built only a dozen years or so before. As a steam powered ship of iron, she could not, in fact, have been more modern. I should note here that I tended towards Luddism as a general rule in those days, although if pushed I would concede that some of the new technology was not without a certain merit. I was grateful, for example, for rail travel over those interminable coach journeys, while pulp mills and steam driven paper making machines were a definite boon to my profession, bringing printed knowledge to the common man for the first time in history. Nonetheless, I feared that the savage pace of change, as Mr. Marx and Mr. Engels had so persuasively written, was of little benefit to my class.

My nostalgia for less complicated times did not, however, extend to matters maritime, and I found the political and popular arguments in favour of conventional wooden warships over iron and steam to be ill-informed, backward looking and ridiculous. I expressed these views to Captain Salmond upon our first meeting, and was invited to dine at his table thereafter. This was a fortuitous turn of events for me, given that the salty old cove liked a drink and bled freely, while my personal supplies were far from endless. (The fact that my sea chest audibly clinked was a source of much ill-disguised amusement to the bluejackets who had conveyed it to my quarters.) He also had coffee, which was a rare treat.

To be a journalist, one must be able to get the measure of a man very quickly and, in doing so, gain his trust whether he be of high or low estate. This was a facility I had always possessed, which I took to come from my youth, when I had to learn quickly how to adapt to very different social environments. Robert Salmond R.N., Master and Commander, was reasonably easy to read. He was a disappointed man. I had the hairy old spud hooked and landed as soon as I asked him where his guns should have been placed. In an impossibly low voice that seemed to rise from the very depths above which we precariously sat, he solemnly described the two 96-pounders mounted on pivots fore and aft, and the four 68-pounders, paired each broadside, imaginary guns that had been originally intended by her designer, commissioned, as he was, to build a warship not, said Captain Salmond, ‘a damn troopship.’

The ship and her architect were the victims of political expediency. John Laird was a visionary, who staked his reputation and his business on iron over oak. Cockburn, the First Sea Lord, was of a similar opinion, convincing Peel, then in his second term, that the future of England’s undisputed mastery of the waves was cast in iron. The frigate Vulcan was therefore commissioned by the Admiralty to be built by Laird as part of a proposed new fleet of iron vessels. Such armadas do not come cheap however, and not everyone in government approved of such unproven, they said, extravagance. Wooden ships had been good enough to best the Spanish and the French, argued the traditionalists. Would Nelson have triumphed at Trafalgar were he in command of a fleet of kettles, they demanded, did Raleigh assault Cadiz in a bathtub? It was a collision between the old world and the new, and for once the industrialists were routed. I covered parts of the story myself, although while most papers, whether for or against, were keen to support the Royal Navy in its on-going maintenance of world peace, we at the Northern Star continued to argue that the planet was, in reality, in a constant state of turmoil, much of it engendered by us.

The change from wood to iron thus proved much more contentious than the relatively smooth progression from sail to steam. Lobbyists for the timber shipbuilding industry argued that ships built of iron could not possibly float, despite the re-invention and refinement of the watertight bulkhead by maritime architects such as Laird. It was also widely believed that iron hulls were more easily subject to catastrophic damage than wooden ships, and there were also issues raised regarding the effect of the iron on magnetic compasses, a constant deviation, easily corrected, but presented in the popular press as damning evidence for the prosecution. As I reported at the time, many of these critics also had their own interests and investments to protect. I thus collected a few new enemies along the way, but it was not the first time and, in any event, that is always the nature of my profession.

By the time Laird had won his contract, Peel’s administration was on its last legs, battered by recession and deficit, and rotted from within. In my opinion, he gave ground on the naval budget in order to hold out long enough to repeal the Corn Laws. Cockburn’s building programme was cancelled, and Peel went out the following year. When Laird finally launched what was to have been the frigate Vulcan, completed only because she had been too advanced to scrap, she hit the water a hastily redesigned troopship. Just as Juno had cast her infant son off Mount Olympus, the Admiralty had rejected their Vulcan, pulled her teeth and prosaically re-named her Birkenhead after the city of her birth. The presence of the god of fire and iron was now marked only by an incongruous effigy of him as the ship’s figurehead, either left in defiance by Laird or not considered worth the bother of changing.

‘I have often felt that Mr. Laird and myself have much in common,’ Salmond confessed, ‘although we’ve never actually met.’

‘In what way?’ I said, wondering but not asking if Laird also had a beard like a wild hedgerow in winter.

‘In the manner of life seeming to promise one thing, and then delivering quite another,’ he said.

In that sense the Captain and I were also of a similar stripe. This affinity was more than I felt able to volunteer at that juncture, although no doubt he privately knew full well that Mr. Dickens and Mr. Ainsworth had no need to leave their families and supplement their incomes by freelancing as special correspondents, despite my mask of professional respectability. So natural was my performance by then that I sometimes almost fell for it myself.

Salmond loved his ship though, but it was obvious to me that he could never quite master that nagging feeling that he was no more than the driver of a sea-going omnibus, having previously seen active service on the Retribution and the Vengeance. Nowadays he carried passengers, always anathema to a sea captain of the old school, men and their families away to wars in which he would take no part. A man can justify his place in the world in many ways, and Salmond knew that ships such as his own were as much an organ of empire as the fast frigates, but, said he, again in confidence, ‘There are captains of warships, and then there are captains of troopships.’

He could trace his seafaring lineage all the way back to the reign of Elizabeth, with all that means to any navy man. He knew that he could have been more than he was, and you could see in his salt blasted eyes that this intelligence gnawed at his very soul. It was equally obvious that this frustration at his own sense of failure was not easily kept at bay by any intoxicant he knew of, and as a well-travelled man he knew of quite a few.

Having no military laurels to gain, Salmond had determined to distinguish his command by virtue of speed and efficiency. He therefore promised me that we would make the Cape in forty-five days, as against the naval and mercantile average, which was sixty-four. This was music to my ears, for every day spent away from my family was torture. If Salmond was as good as his word, I would spend about three months at sea, there and back again, while another three at the most should garner more than enough material from the regiments garrisoned around Port Elizabeth and in country for a decent series of articles. With a bit of luck I would be home before my son’s third birthday.

I did not share these thoughts with the good Captain, but when I first spied his ship, she seemed an awkward marriage of sail and steam and wood and iron. She was rigged as a brigantine, but carried a tall funnel between fore- and main-masts, combined with a pair of paddle-wheels set on the outside of the hull, each a good half-dozen yards in diameter. Her hull was constructed of riveted iron plating, while her decks, paddle-boxes and masts were made of wood, the contrast made sharper by the paintwork, which was black on the iron and white on the woodwork. The ship was small by the standards of modern liners like the Oceanic, but back then she dwarfed all other vessels in the harbor, being a good seventy yards from stem to stern, and displacing a couple of thousand tons. The surrounding cutters, gigs and fishing boats were toys in her presence, fit for nothing but the bathtub or the boating lake.

Silent, lonely and sublime she was. Against the fading light of a brittle winter day the men in the triple-masted rigging reminded me of spiders, while the miserable looking figurehead glared balefully down with a look in his eye that I generally associate with management and magistrates rather than celestial metalwork. Child Rowland to the dark tower came, I had thought as I mounted the gangplank.

To my considerable relief I was accorded a private berth. The icy grey walls recalled the box of a stone jug, yet for all the unpleasant associations that this brought forth, I remained grateful to have a place to myself in which to retire and write. The men in the troop decks had naught but eighteen inches of hammock space to claim as their own, buried in low bulkhead compartments so airless that lamps and candles barely burned. When I paid a visit to the lower decks I felt like a miner, bent over and making my way to the coal face through ghostly lamplight; half crawling through low, jagged openings that snagged and scratched, cut as an afterthought into the ship’s bulkheads to improve the movement of the troops.

It was all too easy to lose one’s way, and to my shame I did just that the first time I descended into the blackness with the intention of documenting the layout of the ship for my readers. I collected a similarly bemused ranker along the way who had been sent on an errand from the troop deck and was now lost in the labyrinth. The man was a private in the 12th Foot name of Edward Moran, who, like me, had come aboard at Portsmouth. It was well worth my while to engage him in conversation. I needed a conduit to the soldiers in order to do my job, and I was much more likely to gain their trust if presented by one of their own rather than an officer. Upon making his acquaintance, I was gratified to learn that the private had read my work, and was particularly fond of The Darkman’s Budge (my life of Joseph Blake, or ‘Blueskin’), and The Black Grunger of Hounslow, which had both been serialized by Edward Lloyd.

He was a typical London Irishman, possessed of hair even darker than my own, and keen, intelligent eyes. ‘Love and murder suit me best, sir,’ said he, ‘but your stories set me a thinking too.’ I took from this that he had radical leanings, but politics aside I was absurdly flattered, especially when he went on to describe my fair weather friend Dickens as a jawbreaker and an anthem cackler of which he could make neither end nor side. ‘I’d like Mr. Dickens fine,’ he said, ‘if only he’d kept to being funny like he was in the Pickwick Club.’ I was compelled to agree, and had given up after Dombey and Son, a turning point in English letters so I’ve been told, but damned hard reading.

My new found friend had never seen the inside of an iron ship either, and had no more idea of where to go than I. An orange glow in the distance suggested lamplight, so we decided to head for that, in the manner of moths to a flame. But when the sepulchral light expanded, instead of arriving at the troops’ quarters we suddenly found ourselves at a dead end, face to face with two unblinking marines, armed and at attention, at either side of a great iron door. Oil lamps hung overhead, casting long shadows that gave the guards a similar aspect to that of the ship’s figurehead, as if they too were cast in heavy metal.

‘Halt!  Who goes there?’ demanded one of the frozen leathernecks, his musket suddenly rampant in the most alarming manner.

‘Friends,’ said my companion, gently diverting the long barrel of the gun with his index finger. Behind him, I shuffled around like a schoolboy, too nervous to appreciate that at least I could stand up straight for a moment. The marine growled at us. ‘I take it this ain’t the soldiers’ billet?’ ventured Moran.

‘This is the magazine, private,’ replied the marine, with danger in his eye, ‘there’s nothing for you here.’ He ignored me completely. This was insulting, but also a profound relief. I made a mental note that the magazine was physically guarded, instead of simply locked, which seemed unusual.

His comrade had been of a more understanding disposition. ‘Ain’t you got a guide then, mate?’ he asked gently, although he moved not a muscle below the neck as he spoke.

‘No, your worship, we have not,’ said Moran, ‘it’s more of a case of the blind leading the blind.’

‘So I see,’ said the second marine, dismissing me with a glance no doubt reserved for civilian males, which had no relevance in his world whatsoever.

‘I am The Press,’ said I, feeling the need for validation.

‘Then God help us,’ he said, with not a trace of humour. ‘There’s supposed to be bluejackets showing you lot where to go,’ he continued, in the overly measured tone of one permanently exasperated. ‘Take yourselves back where you came from until you see a set of steps. You came down one deck too many.’ He nodded towards the dark passageway behind us. ‘Now shake your trotters and don’t come back, and we’ll say no more about it.’

‘That’s very kind of you,’ said Moran, with a lick of the Blarney about him. The first marine then dismissed us with a dreadful oath, and we beat a hasty yet, I hope, dignified retreat; a manoeuvre to which I, in common with the British Army, was not unaccustomed.

A distant thunder, initially suggesting the movement and speech of a large body of men below decks had next led us along another narrow, dimly-lit passageway. As the sound became more unearthly and cacophonous, this new section of freezing maze coughed us out into the nave of a vast cathedral raised in praise of the new science. It was not soldiers we had heard but engines, unfeasibly large engines, their howl weirdly distorted by the acoustics below deck, and all being primed for our imminent departure.

My companion swore for several seconds, never, I noted, once repeating his self. He was in need of a berth not, as he put it, a frimicking manufactory. A dozen trains seemed crammed into the belly of the ship. Shimmering waves of heat from massive boilers and condensers seared our faces, while gigantic cranks spun storms of deafening volume to burst the eardrums and rattle the bones. Engineers swarmed around the machinery. Some dripped oil on exposed levers and cogs; some listened, with the benefit of ear trumpets, to shafts spinning in highly polished bushes, and yet more checked chronometric dials and screamed the readings to each other. Half naked beings, corded muscles blacked by soot, fed the insatiable furnaces. We stood there like tourists who do not speak the language, gazing uselessly into a cavern as tall as the ship herself, until a stocky man with a miner’s face looked up from the huge dial it was seemingly his sole task to carefully monitor, and waved us out with his slate, as if swatting flies.

Once more we entered the gloomy passages, miserably retracing our steps. The ship seemed to have no end. ‘We are as Jonah, my friend,’ I observed, ‘trapped within the belly of a whale.’

‘Mark that place we’ve just been well, sir,’ he had shouted back, ‘for that’s where we’ll go when we die.’

More by luck than judgement, we found the troop section on the third attempt, forward of the engine room. By this point I would not have been surprised to have emerged under water. Those that knew Moran hooted from their hammocks.

‘Get lost did you?’ said an immaculately turned out marine who was obviously in charge, and whose features were distinguished by an ugly, livid scar beneath his chin. Like his fellow leathernecks at the magazine, he did not spare me the time of day.

‘Tour of the ship, Colour Sergeant,’ said Moran cheerily.

These early arrivals had already chosen their spots and stowed their kit, keeping to a vague regimental order with the Cockneys at one end of the troop deck and the Scots at the other, separated, I later discovered, by a tight huddle of labouring lads from East Anglia and the Home Counties. I followed Moran around the long mess tables running the length of the vast compartment, and along the narrow gangway down the middle of the deck. Everywhere men were netting their gear or lounging in hammocks slung from the low beams overhead. Like a cat, Moran had chosen a corner, up against a bulkhead and quite private by local standards.

‘Here we are, sir,’ he had said, ‘the finest room in the hotel.’

It was like climbing into a kitchen range, and not a large one either, but this tight little cranny was to become as much of a home from home as my own berth over the next few days. It was here that I came to know many of the future heroes of the Birkenhead, and a fair few of the villains as well, not that the company of thieves and murderers was in any way remarkable to my experience by then. But whether good, bad or, like me, somewhere in-between, I cared little for their moral disposition as long as they talked to me. And in that way something of these young men is preserved, for in under two months most of them would be dead.

CHAPTER THREE

Charles Murray Padday, MermaidTo the main, I preferred the company of the lower ranks to that of their officers, although in truth I fit no better with the former than the latter. Like the ship, I was an awkward hybrid: too educated to feel comfortable with most working men, yet lacking the breeding to move freely among the so-called upper classes, despite wasting several years in a foolish and ultimately disastrous attempt to do so when I was young. I had more recently come to understand that my place in the world was with my family.

I rather liked Lakeman, the condottiere. He was of my kind, although he would likely not have admitted this, being considerably richer than I (though how he came by this conspicuous wealth was a secret he was not willing to disclose). His rank was even more ambivalent than my own, for he travelled as an officer in charge of a large body of men, in common with the other senior military commanders on board, but he was of no army save his own.

When Lakeman and his party joined our little charabanc, there was obviously some confusion among the ship’s officers concerning what, precisely, to do with him. He was, like me, an outsider. Having failed to gain a commission on the terms that he wished, he had, in the great tradition of the East India Company, raised his own regiment. As an officer and a gentleman, it seemed appropriate that he should dine with the other senior ranks at the Captain’s table, although Major Seton had privately made it known that he considered Lakeman to be at best a deluded fop and at worst a vulgar adventurer, a soldier of fortune whose national affiliations were far from clear (his mother was French). As the Major had also made his views about warrant officers more than plain, I think the old dog Salmond, whose rank was by warrant rather than commission, kept Lakeman close because he knew that this irritated Seton. He did much the same with me, a known radical and iconoclast, presenting me to his military counterparts as a fait accompli, ‘Mr. Vincent: author and scholar.’ Lakeman seemed oblivious, and was possessed of an enviable self-confidence, although I would not have put his age at much more than twenty-five. I had no doubt when I made his acquaintance that he would go far, in whatever army he ended up serving.

Lakeman came aboard with a beautiful chestnut mare called Élise, his mount since the late-40s, when, as he never tired of telling us, he was attached to the French staff in Algeria. During this time, he fought in several campaigns against the Arabs and the Kabyles, when he was presumably no older than the teenaged subalterns presently under Seton. In addition to this fine Arabian charger, Lakeman was the proud owner of his very own hobby horse, also acquired in Northern Africa. While slaughtering the locals, Lakeman had become deeply impressed with the superiority of the new French Minié rifle over the old Brown Bess smooth-bore. Upon his return to England, he therefore took it upon himself to enforce on the military authorities the advantages of this new weapon, which he knew, from personal experience at the sharp end, to outstrip the range of the British Army Land Pattern musket at least six fold.

He somehow managed to arrange an audience with Wellington. The Commander-in-Chief’s response was that in the British Army it was not the weapon that counted but the man behind it, while also arguing that the rapid twist of the rifling in the Minié would so increase recoil as to render it useless to a true marksman, because, he said, ‘Englishmen take aim, while Frenchmen fire anyhow.’ His Grace then delegated the matter to his adjutant, who conceded that the Minié might be of some use for taking long shots from ramparts, but he was certain that it had no other practical application in the field. (The implication being that a rifle best suited to sniping was a coward’s weapon, and entirely what one would expect from a French designer.) Lakeman was then unceremoniously passed to a colonel at the Board of Ordinance, who expressed his surprise at the Duke having displayed so much patience with his outlandish and foreign ideas, before bringing the interview to a close.

‘I made him uncomfortable,’ Lakeman told me, ‘for, unlike him, I knew which end of the rifle the ball came out of.’ Shortly afterwards, the war broke out at the Cape, and while the British Lion slowly shook the cobwebs from its ears and set about gathering fresh food for spear and powder, Lakeman saw his chance and promptly volunteered his services, under the condition that the men that served under him should be issued with Minié rifles. ‘There is no such thing as luck,’ he liked to say. ‘One must simply be prepared when an opportunity arises.’

Such was the need for manpower that some lunatic at the War Office gave him leave to enlist up to two hundred volunteers, the government offering rations and pay, although no staff, with Lakeman expected to provide uniforms, weapons, and barracks at his own expense. Should Lakeman manage a force of at least a hundred and fifty strong (which he had), the military authorities had guaranteed this contingent free passage to the Cape, to go and shoot, and be shot at by the Basuto tribesmen presently harrying the settlers. Thus was formed the notorious Shoreditch Rangers, so named because of the area in which recruitment was most enthusiastic, who now travelled with us to the Cape. It was rumoured that upon learning this intelligence Wellington was heard to remark that this was as good a way as any for Lakeman to commit suicide. I heard Seton and his staff privately referring to Lakeman’s people as the ‘Newgate Rangers,’ which did not seem to me to be far short of the case. To further paraphrase the Iron Duke to the point of cliché, I did not know what the enemy would make of them, but they scared the browns and whistlers out of me.

Dining in the presence of that company was therefore reminiscent of being placed at the worst table in the wedding party, with the mad aunts, the ex-lovers, and the ginger step-children. This was meat and drink to me, though, in more ways than one. As those sons of empire struck sparks off one another, I marked their stories well; those they told, and those they did not.

The Captain held court in his cabin below the poop deck, where we repaired that first night, the senior ranks and I (less Fairtlough, who was already feeling seasick, and Granger, who was on duty). This was after a surprisingly acceptable meal in the recently redecorated wardroom, although the damn place had still reeked of paint. The old bene cove was usually sailing with Admiral Lushington by the sixth bell of the dog’s watch, much to the obvious discomfiture and disapproval of Seton. The Major was a son of the manse, and his commitment to the pledge was obvious. As for myself, I loved a good comedy drunk, as did Lakeman, it would seem. He kept catching my eye and grinning as our Master and Commander meandered through one of his interminable anecdotes concerning his certain belief that mermaids were not only quite real (he had, he confessed, been intimate with females of the species on more than one occasion), but that they were another branch of the human family tree that had taken to the water millennia ago in accordance with Maupertuis’ theory of natural selection and Erasmus Darwin’s concept of common descent.

‘To see one of these creatures, in the flesh,’ said Salmond, after the table was cleared, the bingo served and the stinkers lit, ‘is to know that they are, in fact, quite human.’

They were, he said, of a like appearance to us, only perfectly adapted for the life aquatic, being physically streamlined and in possession not of a fish’s tail, as was the legend, but a great leathery paddle where once were legs and feet, in the manner of the other great ocean-going mammals.

Seton was attempting to engage in a polite and balanced manner with his host that one could not help but admire. The Major was tall man from the Granite City, although he did not look it on account of his soft, almost androgynous features. He was a little younger than me, no more than forty, and he spoke like an academic (with the added gravitas that a refined Scots accent always seems to convey). He had thus stoically fastened onto Darwin’s name, and his thesis that all warm-blooded animals had arisen from one living filament, which, he said, the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations.

‘The First Cause,’ he said, ‘of course refers to Aquinas’ proofs of the Lord Our Father as the primary generator of all things material, regardless of how much they may alter through either random or selective breeding across the centuries.’

‘And whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas,’ added Captain Wright, the highest ranking army officer on board after Seton. They were of a similar age, but there any resemblance ceased, even though Wright, too, was a Scot. Behind whiskers of great ferocity, upon features as sharp as a sabre, Wright had the look of a soldier about him. He was confident, and comfortable with his own authority in a way that Seton was not. Wright, I had heard, had already been in the thick of it. Of all the army officers on board, only Wright and Lakeman had ever fired a shot in anger.

‘The Eighth Psalm,’ muttered Seton in absentminded reply.

‘Exactly so, sir,’ said Sheldon-Bond, nodding with exaggerated interest. I noticed Ensign Rolt kept his own counsel, but he probably knew that no one gave a bobstick for his opinions one way or another. Bond was more ambitious, and had weighed Seton up as a bit of an anthem cackler, which was a fair assessment, at least in provisional terms. I had arrived at a similar conclusion having watched him quaff nothing but rainwater the entire dinner.

Salmond motioned to his man to charge his glass and fixed Seton in a pernicious gaze, his ancient face horribly underlit by a squat glimstick that threatened to ignite his beard like a roman candle. ‘Balderdash,’ he said, in that low tone of his, like the echo within some great iron bell. Seton looked embarrassed, and for a moment no one spoke.

Salmond had quite a pronounced scar on his forehead, and although I later heard Bond and Rolt nervously joshing in private that he had probably fallen down some steps while in his cups, I wondered if this wound, however it may have been come by (more likely by ball and shot given his past), was the crack in his head by which a little bit of the dark world had crept in and found easy purchase in his disappointed soul. I had seen this sort of thing happen before, and I had lately began to wonder, as I slid past the middle age myself, if once all the hopes and dreams of youth were certain not to come true, and the demons and eidola of one’s heart had reached a particular density, with every missed opportunity, failed love, betrayal and defeat logged, stored and reviewed, that most of us simply went mad.

It was a quiet night, windless and calm but very, very dark. The cloud was low and thick, and what moon there was cast no light whatsoever. There was only the constant vibration of the ship’s great engines, that distant hammering, coupled with the sounds of the twin paddles slapping the sea. But now another sound interrupted Salmond’s increasingly deranged monologues, a booming, doom laden howl, which shuddered through us like the sounding of the seven trumpets.

‘What in God’s name was that?’ said Wright.

The echoing lamentation sounded again, long and mournful in the night. I felt it travel the length of my spine and then ruffle my hair like a troublesome spirit. I beckoned for more drink and took a cigar, for I could feel a familiar sense of building panic, the cold, hopeless dread that crawls over me when I look too closely at my station and my circumstances, like a man on a precipice who suddenly and foolishly looks down. And I had looked down. I was suddenly aware of the icy vastness of the black Atlantic upon which we presently balanced, bobbing atop the waves with no more presence than the floats my father once fashioned with cork to fish for pike. My fancy then turned to the huge creatures I knew to glide beneath, unseen yet ever present, as the siren song outside clearly evidenced. The fauna of a thousand childhood nightmares began to swim upwards towards me, and I imagined, too, the agony of drowning, of taking that final breath of freezing water until your lungs burst and your eyes popped. And contrary to polite and popular opinion, I was confident that you would feel every second of it. My chest tightened and my hands trembled, neither symptom connected, I knew, to the cheap cheroot between my teeth. I hoped that my companions had not noticed, and continued to draw upon the cigar.

‘Perhaps whale song,’ Salmond was saying, ‘perhaps something else.’

‘What exactly do you mean by “something else”?’ I asked him.

Salmond just stared, past me and into the heart, I fancied, of some fantastic and terrible memory which my own imagination was happy to embellish. ‘I have heard the mermaids singing,’ he said, ‘when there are sharks close by.’

‘And do the sharks join in?’ said Lakeman, his fine features twisted by a facetious mirth, ill-disguised yet, apparently, unmarked by the Captain.

‘Sharks,’ said Salmond, ‘snort like swine.’

I had no desire to think on that, so while the Captain continued his soliloquy about sea monsters, both real and illusory, I attempted to follow some common advice from my wife and to ‘think of something nice.’ Yet despite my finest efforts, I was swiftly swamped by a wave of my own anxieties. I had heard tales of ships stove in by sharks and whales, like the Essex out of Nantucket, and I shuddered anew at the thought of entering the water myself.

I recalled then the river sharks of my childhood, the ugly pike with the thin snouts, vicious teeth and mirthless smiles that my father loved to fish, first for sport, later for food, though the damn things tasted muddy and were as full of bones as an eel. For an English coarse fish, Pike were powerful fierce, and would bite clean through anything but a wire line. I even saw one take a moorhen once. She was in the reeds when the big fish grabbed her and pulled her down, leaving nought but a few feathers and a cold ripple slobbering about the bank. Where I had grown up, folk said that a hungry pike would go as far as to grab a horse’s snout when it dipped its head to drink from the river, but I never witnessed that myself.

My father told tall tales of a giant pike that the labourers that worked the fields by the river called ‘Razorhead,’ that, local legend had it, was over a century old and a good two yards in length, if not more. My father dreamed of catching this creature, and carved elegant lures and tied beautiful flies to entice the beast. I remembered with a bittersweet pleasure those dawn trips we took to the river that snaked through the fields of lazy cows and bad tempered horses beyond our cottage to hunt the great fish, before everything went to hell.

We never caught the pike, but I was swimming once (for I swam quite happily as a boy), when I saw it, gliding beneath me on the sandy bottom. The thing was huge, easily as long as my father was tall, maybe six, even seven feet long. I froze, treading water like a ghost, my heart hammering and my eyes locked on the predator below. To my profound relief the brute continued on its solitary course, seemingly unconcerned by my presence in its domain. I could see it was approaching a bend in the river, and as soon as it was out of sight I raced for the bank.

I had my arms on dry land when the bastard grabbed me and dragged me under. There was no pain, but I could feel that the animal had a good hold on my right foot so I kicked as hard as I could with my left, my hands scrabbling uselessly for purchase and finding only liquid. I screamed and was rewarded with a burning lung full of water, and I knew then that soon I would be dead. I thrashed about wildly in the monster’s shredding grip, until finally my heel connected with something solid and it let me go. I had the presence of mind to do what my father had taught me when I was learning to swim, and I followed the path of the bubbles upwards to fresh air and safety. When I dragged myself out of the water I realised that two of my toes were missing. Some farm hands found me later, shivering from shock and grasping my ruined foot in horror. They gathered me up gently and took me home, and after that day I swam no more.

I returned my attention to the present company. The mysterious song outside was receding, and when the orderly replaced the candle the atmosphere in the cabin became lighter. The Captain had concluded his discourse upon the subject of mermaids, and Lakeman’s features were contorting into fantastic expressions as he struggled manfully to suppress the gales of laughter screaming for release. He took a reckless drag on his cigar and commenced to snort and cough convulsively. I bashed his back and he spluttered as if drowning.

‘By God, sir!’ he finally exploded, addressing the Captain, ‘that was a damn fine story.’

The party relaxed, with the exception of Salmond, who glowered at Lakeman with eyes like a brace of blown lamps. ‘There’s them that laughs,’ said he, ‘and them that know better.’ He nodded sagely and indicated to his man that his glass was once more empty. Fortified by a generous balloon of brandy he regarded us all with a baleful eye. It was interesting to me that the soldiers were wary of passing comment. The younger men were waiting for Seton to speak, I was sure, but he kept his opinions to himself. I had noticed that keeping even a normal conversation in train with him was quite difficult. His protracted silences tended to cause one to babble. I said nothing, because, at that moment, I believed the Captain’s chimerical stories of mermaids, or at least I wanted to believe, but I was equally reticent about declaring for his side, especially so soon in the collective acquaintance of the group there assembled. I doubted he cared what I thought anyway. He had the look of a man familiar with ridicule, and it was difficult not to concede that this particular yarn was ripe for parody if presented as anything other than a colourful fantasy. I wanted to believe him, though, because there was no magic left in the world, and what use is a world like that?

Wright was the first to crack. ‘I think,’ said he, leaning conspiratorially towards me, ‘that perhaps you might get a story out of this, Mr. Vincent.’ I took this in good part, and was beginning to feel quite flattered until he followed this with, ‘Even better, come to think on it, you could call upon your friend Mr. Dickens to write of this matter in Household Words.’

‘Yes,’ I said flatly.

‘’Sdeath, sir,’ said Lakeman. ‘Do you mean to say that you know Dickens personally?’

I nodded glumly, fabulous nautical beings forgotten in an instant. Dickens. They always wanted to know about bloody Dickens. You would think sometimes that there was not another writer active in England at the time. Even Seton was looking on hopefully, and from the expression on his face that old fool Salmond thought he was already halfway to a cover story illustrated by Knight Browne or Cruikshank. If he had read Dickens’ recent comments on the new American spirit mediums he’d not have been so keen. Dickens would have torn him apart for breakfast, and then tossed the bones to Thackeray, Forster and Hengist Horne to gnaw upon like dogs beneath his table.

‘Perhaps I can get you a headline in the Illustrated London News,’ I offered, although he looked less than impressed at this, and returned a bulldog stare, chewing his cigar and expelling smoke as if he were his own ship’s funnel. The illustrated press was a much better home for tales of madmen, monsters and mermaids though. Those things were de rigueur in New Grub Street.

But they had me outflanked. Like the rest of the world and his brother, they all wanted to know about Dickens. Well, I knew all about Mr. Dickens. We went a very long way back indeed. I knew him so long ago in fact that he had by then almost managed to convince himself that the young man he had once been was not him at all.

Now me, I knew exactly who I was and where I came from, as assuredly as I knew exactly where I was going. I had a gift for dramatic narrative, it was true, but I knew my limitations. I was no great novelist (although my work had sometimes sold well), and I had long since given up trying to be so. Dickens, of course, was great, if a trifle melodramatic and sanctimonious, and Thackeray, the insufferable son of a whore, was probably a genius, although I would be laughing in my grave before I ever told him so to his face. I was a good all-rounder, but only in the second eleven. I was not a great philosopher, a brilliant social critic, or a sophisticated literary stylist. I was, and had always been, a simple storyteller, and I wrote to live rather than the other way around. I was a penny-a-liner—

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