Read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Online

Authors: Susanna Clarke

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Literary, #Media Tie-In, #General

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (9 page)

It so happened that Mr Norrell arrived at the same moment as a very old lady. Though small and disagreeable-looking she was clearly someone of importance (she was all over diamonds). The servants clustered round her and Mr Norrell proceeded into the house, unobserved by any of them. He entered a room full of people where he discovered a cup of punch upon a little table. While he was drinking the punch it occurred to him that he had told no one his name and consequently no one knew he was here. He found himself in some perplexity as to how to proceed. His fellow-guests were occupied in greeting their friends, and as for approaching one of the servants and announcing himself, Mr Norrell felt quite unequal to the task; their proud faces and air of indescribable superiority unnerved him. It was a great pity that one or two of the late members of the Society of York Magicians were not there to see him looking so all forlorn and ill at ease; it might have cheered them up immeasurably. But it is the same with all of us. In familiar surroundings our manners are cheerful and easy, but only transport us to places where we know no one and no one knows us, and Lord! how uncomfortable we become!

Mr Norrell was wandering from room to room, wishing only to go away again, when he was stopped in mid-perambulation by the sound of his own name and the following enigmatic words: ". . . assures me that he is never to be seen without a mystic robe of midnight blue, adorned with otherlandish symbols! But Drawlight — who knows this Norrell very well — says that . . ."

The noise of the room was such that it is to be marvelled at that Mr Norrell heard anything at all. The words had been spoken by a young woman and Mr Norrell looked frantically about him to try and discover her, but without success. He began to wonder what else was being said about him.

He found himself standing near to a lady and a gentleman.
was unremarkable enough — a sensible-looking woman of forty or fifty —
, however, was a style of man not commonly seen in Yorkshire. He was rather small and was dressed very carefully in a good black coat and linen of a most exquisite whiteness. He had a little pair of silver spectacles that swung from a black velvet ribbon around his neck. His features were very regular and rather good; he had short, dark hair and his skin was very clean and white — except that about his cheeks there was the faintest suggestion of rouge. But it was his eyes that were remarkable: large, well- shaped, dark and so very brilliant as to have an almost liquid appearance. They were fringed with the longest, darkest eyelashes. There were many little feminine touches about him that he had contrived for himself, but his eyes and eyelashes were the only ones which nature had given him.

Mr Norrell paid good attention to their conversation to discover if they were talking about him.

". . . the advice that I gave Lady Duncombe about her own daughter," said the small man. "Lady Duncombe had found a most unexceptional husband for her daughter, a gentleman with nine hundred a year! But the silly girl had set her heart upon a penniless Captain in the Dragoons, and poor Lady Duncombe was almost frantic. `Oh, your ladyship!' I cried the instant that I heard about it, `Make yourself easy! Leave everything to me. I do not set up as any very extraordinary genius, as your ladyship knows, but my odd talents are exactly suited to this sort of thing.' Oh, madam! you will laugh when you hear how I contrived matters! I dare say no one else in the world would have thought of such a ridiculous scheme! I took Miss Susan to Gray's in Bond-street where we both spent a very agreeable morning in trying on necklaces and earrings. She has passed most of her life in Derbyshire and has not been accustomed to really
jewels. I do not think she had ever thought
upon such things before. Then Lady Duncombe and I dropt one or two hints that in marrying Captain Hurst she would put it quite out of her power to make such delightful purchases ever again, whereas if she married Mr Watts she might make her choice of the best of them. I next took pains to get acquainted with Captain Hurst and persuaded him to accompany me to Boodle's where — well I will not deceive you, madam — where there is gambling!" The small man giggled. "I lent him a little money to try his luck — it was not my own money you understand. Lady Duncombe had given it to me for the purpose. We went three or four times and in a remarkably short space of time the Captain's debts were — well, madam,
cannot see how he will ever get clear of them! Lady Duncombe and I represented to him that it is one thing to expect a young woman to marry upon a small income, but quite another to expect her to take a man encumbered with debts. He was not inclined to listen to us at first. At first he made use of — what shall I say? — some rather
expressions. But in the end he was obliged to admit the justice of all we said."

Mr Norrell saw the sensible-looking woman of forty or fifty give the small man a look of some dislike. Then she bowed, very slightly and coldly, and passed without a word away into the crowd; the small man turned in the other direction and immediately hailed a friend.

Mr Norrell's eye was next caught by an excessively pretty young woman in a white-and-silver gown. A tall, handsome-looking man was talking to her and she was laughing very heartily at everything he said.

". . . and what if he should discover two dragons — one red and one white — beneath the foundations of the house, locked in eternal struggle and symbolizing the future destruction of Mr Godesdone? I dare say," said the man slyly, "you would not mind it if he did." She laughed again, even more merrily than before, and Mr Norrell was surprized to hear in the next instant someone address her as "Mrs Godesdone".

Upon reflection Mr Norrell thought that he ought to have spoken to her but by then she was nowhere to be seen. He was sick of the noise and sight of so many people and determined to go quietly away, but it so happened that just at that moment the crowds about the door were particularly impenetrable; he was caught up in the current of people and carried away to quite another part of the room. Round and round he went like a dry leaf caught up in a drain; in one of these turns around the room he discovered a quiet corner near a window. A tall screen of carved ebony inlaid with mother-of- pearl half-hid — ah! what bliss was this! — a bookcase. Mr Norrell slipped behind the screen, took down John Napier's
A Plaine Discouverie of the Whole Revelation of St John
and began to read.

He had not been there very long when, happening to glance up, he saw the tall, handsome man who had been speaking to Mrs Godesdone and the small, dark man who had gone to such trouble to destroy the matrimonial hopes of Captain Hurst. They were discoursing energetically, but the press and flow of people around them was so great that, without any ceremony, the tall man got hold of the small man's sleeve and pulled him behind the screen and into the corner which Mr Norrell occupied.

"He is not here," said the tall man, giving each word an emphasis with a poke of his finger in the other's shoulder. "Where are the fiercely burning eyes that you promised us? Where the trances that none of us can explain? Has any one been cursed? — I do not think so. You have called him up like a spirit from the vasty deep, and he has not come."

"I was with him only this morning," said the small man defiantly, "to hear of the wonderful magic that he has been doing recently and he said then that he would come."

"It is past midnight. He will not come now." The tall man smiled a very superior smile. "Confess, you do not know him."

Then the small man smiled in rivalry of the other's smile (these two gentlemen positively jousted in smiles) and said, "No one in London knows him better. I shall confess that I am a little — a very little — disappointed."

"Ha!" cried the tall man. "It is the opinion of the room that we have all been most abominably imposed upon. We came here in the expectation of seeing something very extraordinary, and instead we have been obliged to provide our own amusement." His eye happening to light upon Mr Norrell, he said, "
gentleman is reading a book."

The small man glanced behind him and in doing so happened to knock his elbow against
A Plaine Discouverie of the Whole Revelation of St John
. He gave Mr Norrell a cool look for filling up so very small a space with so very large a book.

"I have said that I am disappointed," continued the small man, "but I am not at all surprized. You do not know him as I do. Oh! I can assure you he has a pretty shrewd notion of his value. No one can have a better. A man who buys a house in Hanover-square knows the style in which things ought to be done. Oh, yes! He has bought a house in Hanover-square! You had not heard that, I dare say? He is as rich as a Jew. He had an old uncle called Haythornthwaite who died and left him a world of money. He has — among other trifles — a good house and a large estate — that of Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire."

"Ha!" said the tall man drily. "He was in high luck. Rich old uncles who die are in shockingly short supply."

"Oh, indeed!" cried the small man. "Some friends of mine, the Griffins, have an amazingly rich old uncle to whom they have paid all sorts of attentions for years and years — but though he was at least a hundred years old when they began, he is not dead yet and it seems he intends to live for ever to spite them, and all the Griffins are growing old themselves and dying one by one in a state of the most bitter disappointment. Yet I am sure that
, my dear Lascelles, need not concern yourself with any such vexatious old persons — your fortune is comfortable enough, is it not?"

The tall man chose to disregard this particular piece of impertinence and instead remarked coolly, "I believe that gentleman wishes to speak to you."

The gentleman in question was Mr Norrell who, quite amazed to hear his fortune and property discussed so openly, had been waiting to speak for some minutes past. "I beg your pardon," he said.

"Yes?" said the small man sharply.

"I am Mr Norrell."

The tall man and the small man gave Mr Norrell two very broad stares.

After a silence of some moments the small gentleman, who had begun by looking offended, had passed through a stage of looking blank and was beginning to look puzzled, asked Mr Norrell to repeat his name.

This Mr Norrell did, whereupon the small gentleman said, "I do beg your pardon, but . . . Which is to say . . . I hope you will excuse my asking so impertinent a question, but is there at your house in Hanover-square someone all dressed in black, with a thin face like a twisted hedge-root?"

Mr Norrell thought for a moment and then he said, "Childermass. You mean Childermass."

"Oh, Childermass!" cried the small man, as if all was now perfectly plain. "Yes, of course! How stupid of me! That is Childermass! Oh, Mr Norrell! I can hardly begin to express my delight in making your acquaintance. My name, sir, is Drawlight."

"Do you know Childermass?" asked Mr Norrell, puzzled.

"I . . ." Mr Drawlight paused. "I have seen such a person as I described coming out of your house and I . . . Oh,Mr Norrell! Such a noodle I am upon occasion! I mistook him for you! Pray do not be offended, sir! For now that I behold you, I plainly see that whereas
has the wild, romantic looks one associates with magicians,
have the meditative air of a scholar. Lascelles, does not Mr Norrell have the grave and sober bearing of a scholar?"

The tall man said, without much enthusiasm, that he supposed so.

"Mr Norrell, my friend, Mr Lascelles," said Drawlight.

Mr Lascelles made the slightest of bows.

"Oh, Mr Norrell!" cried Mr Drawlight. "You cannot imagine the torments I have suffered tonight, in wondering whether or not you would come! At seven o'clock my anxieties upon this point were so acute that I could not help myself! I actually went down to the Glasshouse-street boiling-cellar expressly to inquire of Davey and Lucas to know their opinions! Davey was certain that you would not come, which threw me, as you may imagine, into the utmost despair!"

"Davey and Lucas!" said Mr Norrell in tones of the greatest astonishment. (These, it may be remembered, were the names of Mr Norrell's coachman and footman.)

"Oh, yes!" said Mr Drawlight. "The Glasshouse-street boiling- cellar is where Davey and Lucas occasionally take their mutton, as I dare say you know."Mr Drawlight paused in his flow of chatter, just long enough for Mr Norrell to murmur that he had not known that.

"I have been most industriously talking up your extraordinary powers to all my wide acquaintance," continued Mr Drawlight. "I have been your John the Baptist, sir, preparing the way for you! — and I felt no hesitation in declaring that you and I were great friends for I had a presentiment from the first, my dear Mr Norrell, that we would be; and as you see I was quite right, for now here we are, chatting so comfortably to one another!"


Spring to autumn 1807

ARLY NEXT MORNING Mr Norrell's man of business, Childermass, answered a summons to attend his master in the breakfast-room. He found Mr Norrell pale-faced and in a state of some nervous agitation.

"What is the matter?" asked Childermass.

"Oh!" cried Mr Norrell, looking up. "You dare to ask me that! You, who have so neglected your duties that any scoundrel may put a watch upon my house and question my servants without fear of disturbance! Aye, and get answers to those questions, too! What do I employ you for, I should like to know, if not to protect me from such impertinence as this?"

Childermass shrugged. "You mean Drawlight, I suppose."

A short, astonished silence.

"You knew of it?" cried Mr Norrell. "Good God, man! What were you thinking of? Have you not told me a hundred times that, in order to secure my privacy, the servants must be kept from gossiping?"

"Oh! certainly!" said Childermass. "But I am very much afraid, sir, that you must give up some of your habits of privacy. Retirement and seclusion are all very well in Yorkshire, but we are not in Yorkshire any more."

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