Bruce Alexander

Jack, Knave and Fool


In Which We Visit the Crown and Anchor and a Lord Falls Dead

Because I have taken it upon myself to write of Sir John Fielding’s feats of detection and of the most notorious matters which came before him as Magistrate of the Bow Street Court, I fear that the picture I have presented of him and his little household is somewhat unbalanced at best and most crudely distorted at worst. Each time I have taken up my pen, I have drawn a portrait of the man in crisis, so to speak, obsessed as he could indeed become with the solving of some puzzle and the apprehension of some malefactor. It was not always so. Indeed, through the years that I spent in the warmth of his association, Sir John was quite generally of an even and pleasant temper, a just and gentle ruler of his household.

Of the time I write, early in the year 1771, that household did consist of four: he, the master; his mistress, Lady Fielding; the widow Katherine Durham, whom he had taken as his second wife; Annie Oakum, our most capable cook, who had then just turned sixteen years of age; and I, Jeremy Proctor, a few months younger, Sir John’s “man Friday,” or so he called me, a fellow of all work — porter and house cleaner for Lady Fielding, and for Sir John scribe, reader, runner of every sort of errand, and whenever needed, a ready pair of eyes. (It must be remembered, reader, that all of his remarkable accomplishments were made more remarkable still by the fact that he was blind.) We two younger members of the household were treated as near like the children of Sir John and Lady Fielding as ever any could be. True, we had our duties, but so also do the children of any proper family. Yet we sat at table with the elders not only in our quotidian routine, in the kitchen, but also when guests did attend in our modest dining room. On such grander occasions we were permitted to join in table talk, respectfully, as children should, when we were addressed directly. There were never two who counted themselves to be as lucky as Annie and me.

We went oft to the theater, all in a great party of four, and always to the Drury Lane, where David Garrick did hold forth. He and Sir John were well acquainted and greeted each other as friends. Yet it was not merely Mr. Gar-rick’s generosity with tickets that took us so frequently to his performances. No, more, it was that he brought Shakespeare so often to the boards. None excelled him in his love for the Great Bard — save perhaps for Sir John Fielding. It was to Mr. Garrick’s productions of Shakespeare that Sir John would take us, and to none other. No matter what hints Annie would drop in his path, he could not be moved to test what he called “the new plays.” And when Lady Fielding rather pointedly read an enthusiastic notice given the Drury Lane’s production of Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife (not, certainly, a “new play,” but rather revived after a space of some fifty years), she found that it availed her nothing. Sir John refused to take the bait.

“Ah, Kate,” he had replied to her, “it may be a very good play indeed, but surely not of the but quality. Why not wait a bit for the best?” Then, after a moment, as if the thought had just struck him, said he: “You know, Kate, I do believe that David is doing Hamlet again next week. Now, how would that suit you, eh?”

So it was that we had the best — or nothing at all. And we were, to my mind, all the richer for it. I do well recall Annie Oakum’s introduction to the theater. It came not long after she had entered Sir John’s employ and shortly after the departure of Tom Durham, Lady Fielding’s son, on his first voyage as midshipman. Annie was so plainly heartbroken at Tom’s farewell that Sir John thought to cheer her-indeed, to raise all our spirits-with a dose of Shakespeare, the best medicine he knew for spiritual elevation.

Not Hamlet but Othello was the fare on the Drury Lane’s menu that night. Mr. Garrick s preference for the tragedies over the comedies was well known, or at least widely suspected. It came naturally to him, I believe, for he was a man of serious mien; there was nothing about him of the fool. Yet there can be no doubt that the best roles in Shakespeare are to be found in the tragedies, and as manager of the company, he did not hesitate to choose those plays for presentation which showed him off as actor to the best advantage. He was certainly in grand form as the Moor for Annie’s introduction to the theater. As any who saw him will admit, he was not so much a great physical actor. Which is to say, he did not leap around the stage and throw his arms about as he spoke those great lines; such behavior, he would no doubt have said, befitted the dignity of neither the character nor the playwright. But never was there one — who, with a matchless voice, could find such music in the words of Shakespeare. It was that quality which so pleased Sir John. And it was that quality, too, which on the night in question struck dear Annie utterly dumb.

In his generosity, and because it was a slow night at the end of the run, Mr. Garrick provided us with a box quite near the stage. It seemed indeed as if we were upon it, and the actors played their parts left and right around us. I was next to Annie, and we two sat in front, hanging over the rail a bit, with Sir John and Lady Fielding behind us. Therefore was I able to observe closely the effect of this new experience upon her who had become like a sister to me. It was indeed quite remarkable. At first I thought that it was the physical beauty of the scene revealed to us when the curtains parted which so impressed her — the richly painted flats, the costumes of the actors. But no, it was more. A bit later, after a few glances her way, I noted that she was silently mouthing phrases and shorter lines spoken by the actors; not with them, of course, for she heard them for the first time, but just after, testing them upon her own lips. She paid no heed to me, and during breaks between the acts when I sought to engage her in conversation regarding the play and the performances of the actors, I found her quite unable to speak, so rapt was she in all that she had seen and heard. Lady Fielding, who had also been watching Annie closely, caught my eye and, smiling, shook her head; then did she whisper quietly in Sir John’s ear.

Though I would not have thought it possible, Annie became even more deeply absorbed as the play progressed. At certain points her mouth gaped at Iago’s evil lies. And when, believing him, Mr. Garrick, in the blackface guise of Othello, rumbled forth that awful malediction, “Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her! ” she caught her breath in horror. At the murder of Desdemona she cupped hand to mouth and let out a little shriek; but such was the power of David Garrick’s performance that hers was not the only voice raised in shock. With the final curtain, our brave spectator showed herself completely overcome; tears streamed down her cheeks and flowed so freely from her eyes that she was near blinded by them; she failed to see the handkerchief offered her by Lady Fielding until it was pressed into her hand.

Though I myself was uncertain of what would be the result, Sir John insisted on taking us all backstage that we might congratulate Mr. Garrick on the production and his performance and thank him for his generosity in providing us a box to ourselves. I led our party down into the bowels of the great building, knowing the way well from previous visits. Sir John kept his hand firmly on my shoulder as we descended the stairs, and the women trailed after, Annie seeming somewhat reluctant, perhaps wishing not to end the state of rapture in which she had dwelt these last hours.

As we approached his dressing room, a couple emerged, man and woman, dressed quite grandly and speaking together in a tongue I took to be Dutch or German. The gentleman and I exchanged bows, his lady smiled, and the two moved rather swiftly past us.

When we appeared at his open door, Mr. Garrick leapt from the chair on which he sat at his dressing table. As he greeted us, he made a rather strange appearance, for on one side of his face — the left side, as I recall — he wore still his dark stage makeup, and on the other, which had been wiped clean, his natural ruddy complexion shone forth. He looked half a Moor and half an Englishman. I happened to glimpse Annie’s face as she beheld him; she seemed quite shocked. Had she supposed the man onstage truly to have been a Moor?

Sir John inquired after the couple who had preceded us. “German, were they?” he asked. “I’d known you had a following in France. Has your great reputation traveled even farther?”

Mr. Garrick smiled modestly and bowed his head a bit. “I know naught of France,” said he. “And in general, I would say that when I am introduced on the Continent, I may as well be a greengrocer for all they have heard of me. No, Sir John, the two, man and wife, are Austrian, distant cousins of my wife. But as you say, they are Germans more or less, and as such are greatly gifted at finding fault. They offered a number of suggestions as to how my performance might be improved, even offered a bit of advice to the playwright.”

“To Shakespeare?” Sir John gave a short, scoffing laugh at the notion. “Well, I daresay they must be taught respect. One wonders how much they truly understood.”

“Indeed, but their objection was more fundamental. They thought it all wrong that this tragic hero should be African.”

“Ah, how little they know of the world — or of human nature. But David, dear fellow, I know I speak for all of us when I say that your performance could not have been bettered.”

We joined in general agreement to that. And again, Mr. Garrick blessed us with a smile, perhaps a little less modest this time, yet the bow he offered was truly a bow; his hands were clasped before him in a gesture of earnestness.

“You’re too kind, all of you. In truth, I am no judge of my own performances, for once I am up there on the stage I become quite transported in the beauty of the great poet’s language. I do feel, though, that I played well enough, considering I did the whole of it on a gouty foot.”

(I had, by the bye, noted that standing before us he seemed to favor one leg over the other, supporting himself on the left side by keeping a firm grasp on the back of the chair from which he had risen.)

“We’d no ideal” said Sir John. “Do sit down, please.”

“Yes, I fear I must take next month off and give it a rest.”

In the moment it took him to resume his seat upon the chair, Lady Fielding ventured to say, “Mr. Garrick, there is one of our number who exceeded us all in her appreciation of the play and the player. I have never seen such copious tears.”

“All shed in good cause, Lady Fielding,” said he, “for it is indeed a beautiful and terrible tragedy. But who is this person you speak of? “

So saying, he fixed his eyes upon Annie, who seemed to shrink back almost in terror at being presented to so grand a personage. Nevertheless, Lady Fielding put her hand firmly on the girl’s elbow and brought her forward.

“She is our cook, Annie Oakum, and very capable she is, notwithstanding her young years. This night was her first experience of the theater.”

Annie stumbled slightly as she bobbed down in a curtsy. For a long moment she was quite tongue-tied, but then at last: “Pleased I am to meet’cha, sir.”

“Ah, a good cook are you, Mistress Annie?” said Mr. Garrick, smiling indulgently. “Then you shall have no trouble making a good marriage, rest assured.”

“I …” Annie began, stopped, then blurted out: “That is not my intention, sir.”

“Not marry? What a shame, a pretty girl like you.”

“Perhaps someday, sir, but I have an ambition.”

“And what is that?”

“To be an actress on the stage. One day I shall be Desdemona.”

At that we all laughed — and I with the rest. It was not meant cruelly, of that I am certain. We did but laugh in surprise.

Always considerate, Lady Fielding hastened to make things right. “Do forgive us, dear Annie, but we had heard naught of this before.”

Annie turned to her with a great blush reddening her cheeks. “You could not’ve, mum, for I’ve decided just tonight.”

Then did Mr. Garrick fix her with a most sober look. “I must say, my dear girl, that half the young ladies who visit me after a performance make declarations such as the one you have just made. I tell them, as I tell you now, that to be on the stage is not near so grand a lark as it looks to be. To be an actor or an actress requires more than a wish. You must needs have talent. You must be willing to work hard. And you must learn to take disappointment. It is a harder life than ever you’d guess.”

Annie returned to him a look ever as grave as he had given her. “I thank you for your caution, sir,” said she to him, “but I shall be chosen.”

Of all of us assembled there, I believe it was I who took her words most in earnest.

Next day she would have me read Othello to her. That took hours snatched from our tasks parceled out over a few days. Then would she hear Romeo and Juliet, which she adored. And so on, through most, if not all of them. I did not begrudge her time spent thus. I quite enjoyed reading the plays aloud, for Shakespeare’s words are, after all, meant to be spoken. I had performed the same service for Sir John. I had read to him A MuXmmmerNigkt‘4 Dream and had begun his brother’s romance Tom Jones, though we had not got beyond the first volume of that long book when his marriage to Katherine Durham intervened — and there we had left it, though I pressed on alone and finished it.

But as the year 1770 drew to a close and I continued with Annie our journey through the works of the Great Poet, she got it in her head one day to dispense with my services. Here is how she put it to me:

“Jeremy,” said she, “if I’m to be an actress, it will not be enough to know the plays from having heard them read, now will it?”

“I suppose not.”

“I must know how to read them myself.” Then did she give me a hard look. “I want you to teach me how to read.”

Thinking upon that, I had not the slightest notion of how to go about it. I myself had no memory of how I had come by that knowledge; it seemed to me that I had simply begun to read-and at quite an early age. I could recall going to my mother or my father and asking what this word meant, or that, but as to when or how any sort of fundamental instruction had taken place, that was simply lost to me. All this I explained to her, yet she was not to be so easily denied.

“An idea has come to me,” said she. “Here we sit face-to-face at the kitchen table. You read, and I listen. What if I sat next you, and you were to point to the words as you read them? Then I would remember them and soon be able to read them myself. How does that strike you?”