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       A Spectacle of Corruption, p.1

           David Liss
A Spectacle of Corruption


  Title Page

  Historical Note

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27


  About the Author

  Other Books by David Liss



  In the course of writing this novel, I’ve taken considerable pains to try to convey clearly the relevant terms and concerns of early eighteenth-century British politics, but I’ve provided the following information for readers who may want a quick review or some historical context.

  Time Line of Significant Events

  Leading Up to the 1722 General Election

  1642–49 England’s civil wars are fought between the Royalists in support of Charles I and the Parliamentarians, who rebelled against the king’s Catholic leanings and sought to instill a government based on radical Protestant ideals.

  1649 King Charles I is executed.

  1649–60 During the Interregnum, Oliver Cromwell and later his son, Richard, lead the nation, along with Parliament.

  1660 The Restoration of the Monarchy, the army supports the return of Charles’s son, Charles II. The new king is a declared Protestant but is suspected of having Catholic leanings.

  1685 Upon Charles II’s death, his openly Catholic brother, James II, becomes king. James has two Protestant daughters from a previous marriage but is now married to Mary of Modena, a Catholic.

  1688 Mary of Modena gives birth to a son, also named James. Parliament, fearing the beginnings of a new Catholic dynasty, invites William of Orange, husband of Mary, the king’s elder daughter, to take the crown jointly with his wife. James II flees, and Parliament declares that he has abdicated.

  1702 Anne, James II’s younger daughter, becomes queen.

  1714 In accordance with Parliament’s Act of Settlement, on the death of Anne the crown passes to the Elector of Hanover, Anne’s distant German cousin, who becomes George I.

  1715 The first significant Jacobite uprising, headed by James Stuart, son of James II and now known as the Pretender.

  1720 The South Sea Bubble collapses, causing the first stock market crash in England. As a result of corporate greed and Parliamentary complicity, the country falls into a deep economic depression. Jacobite sympathy grows.

  1722 The first general election since George became king takes place and is widely viewed as a referendum on his kingship.

  Key Political Terms

  Tories The Tories were one of the two key political parties. They were associated with old money, the landed wealth, a strong Church, and a strong monarchy. They vigorously opposed changes to the law that would aid non–Church of England Protestants, and especially Catholics and Jews. Following the accession of George I, the Tories were effectively barred from power.

  Whigs The second important political party, the Whigs, were associated with new landless wealth, the stock market, nonconformist Protestantism, divesting power from the Church, and Parliamentary power over royal power.

  Jacobites Those who believed that the crown should be restored to the deposed James II—and, later, his heirs—were called Jacobites (from Jacobus, Latin for James). Jacobites often masqueraded as Tories, and Tories were often suspected of having Jacobite sympathies. Scotland and Ireland were strong centers of Jacobite support.

  Pretenders The deposed James II—and, later, his heirs—were known as Pretenders. The Pretender in this novel is James Stuart, the would-be James III, son of James II. He was also known as the Chevalier.

  Franchise Who was permitted to vote in eighteenth-century Britain and who was not can seem a very complicated issues to modern readers. Election districts were composed of two units: boroughs and counties. To vote in one of the counties, a person needed an annual income from property equaling forty shillings or more a year (an amount that had seemed like significant wealth when the law had been written, three hundred years before the events of this novel). Condition for election varied from borough to borough. Some had wide franchises, some were composed of a small body of men who met in private and voted among themselves. In rural communities, farmers were generally expected to vote as directed by their landlords.


  SINCE THE PUBLICATION of the first volume of my memoirs, I have found myself the subject of more notoriety than I had ever known or might have anticipated. I cannot register a complaint or a lament, for any man who chooses to place himself in public sight has no reason to regret such attentions. Rather, he must be grateful if the public chooses to cast its fickle gaze in his direction, a truth to which the countless volumes languishing in the scribbler’s perdition of obscurity can testify.

  I will be frank and say that I have been gratified by the warmth with which readers responded to the accounts of my early years, yet I have been surprised too—surprised by people who read a few lines of my thoughts and consider themselves near friends, free to speak their minds to me. And while I shall not find fault with someone who has read my words so closely that he wishes to makes observations on them, I confess I have been confounded by the number of people who believe they may comment with impunity on any aspect of my life without a moment’s regard to custom or propriety.

  Some months after publishing my little volume I sat at a supper gathering, speaking of a particularly noxious criminal I intended to bring to justice. A young spark, on whom I had never before set eyes, turned to me and said that this fellow had better be careful, lest he meet the same end as Walter Yate. Here he simpered, as though he and I shared a secret.

  My amazement was such that I did not say a word. I had not thought about Walter Yate in some time, and I had no idea that his name had retained any currency after so many years. But I was to discover that, while I had not contemplated this poor fellow, others had. Not a fortnight later another man, also a stranger, commented on a difficulty I faced by saying I should manage that affair in the same fashion that I had managed my business with Walter Yate. He said the name with a sly nod and a wink, as though, because he had uttered this shibboleth, he and I were now jolly co-conspirators.

  It does not offend me that these men chose to reference incidents from my past. It does, however, perplex me that they should feel at liberty to speak of something they do not understand. I cannot fully express my bewilderment that such people, believing what they do about this incident, should mention it to me at all, let alone with more than a dash of good cheer. Does one go to a raree show and make light with the tigers regarding their fangs?

  I have therefore decided that I must pen another volume of memoirs, if for no other reason than to disabuse the world of its ideas concerning this chapter of my history. I wish no more to hear the name Walter Yate spoken in naughty and secretive tones. This man, to the best of my knowledge, did nothing to deserve becoming the subject of a private titter. Therefore, I shall say now, truthfully and definitively, that I did not act violently upon Mr. Yate—let alone with the most definitive violence—something which, I have discovered, the world generally believes. Further, if I may disabuse the public of ano
ther misconception, I did not escape the most terrible of punishments for his murder by calling upon the influence of friends in the government. Neither of those tales is true. I had never known of these rumors because no one had ever spoken them to me before. But now, having published a few words of my life, I am every man’s friend. Let me then do the friendly service of revealing the facts about the incident, if for no other reason than that it might be spoken of no more.

  Walter Yate died, beaten in the head with an iron bar, only six days before the meeting of the King’s Bench, so I had mercifully little time after my arrest to reflect on my condition while awaiting trial. I will be honest: I might have put that time to better use, but not once did I believe, truly believe, that I would be convicted for a crime I had not committed—the murder of a man of whom I had scarcely heard before his death. I ought to have believed it, but I did not.

  So great was my confidence that I often found myself hardly even listening to the words spoken at my own trial. Instead, I looked out at the mob packed into the open-air courtroom. It rained a fine mist that day, and there was a considerable chill in the February air, but the crowds came anyway, crammed onto the rough and splintering benches, hunched against the wet, to watch the proceedings, which had attracted some attention in the newspapers. The spectators sat eating their oranges and apples and little mutton pastries, smoking their pipes and taking snuff. They pissed in pots in the corners and threw their oyster shells at the feet of the jury. They murmured and cheered and shook their heads as though it were all an enormous puppet show staged for their amusement.

  I suppose I might have been pleased to be the subject of such a broad public curiosity, but I found no gratification in notoriety. Not when she was not there, the woman I most wanted to look upon in my time of sorrows. If I were to be convicted, I thought (only in the most romantical way, since I no more anticipated a conviction than that I should be elected Lord Mayor), I should only want her to come and cry at my feet, tell me of her regrets. I wanted her teary kisses on my face. I wanted her hands, raw and coarse with wringing, to take mine as she begged my forgiveness and pleaded to hear my vows of love repeated a hundred times. These were, I knew, mere fantasies of an overwrought imagination. She would not come to my trial, and she would not come to visit me before my fanciful execution. She could not.

  My cousin’s widow, Miriam, whom I had sought to marry, had wedded herself six months before to a man named Griffin Melbury, who at the moment of my trial busied himself with preparations for standing as the Tory candidate in the election soon to commence in Westminster. Now a convert to the Church of England and the wife of a man who hoped to rise as a prominent opposition politician, Miriam Melbury could ill afford to attend the trial of a Jewish ruffian-for-hire, one to whom she was no longer attached by the bonds of kinship. Kneeling at my feet or covering my face with tear-wet kisses was hardly the sort of behavior to which she was inclined under any circumstances. It would surely not happen now that she had given herself to another man.

  Thus, in my hour of crisis, I dwelled less on the possibility of impending doom than I did on Miriam. I blamed her, as though she could be held accountable for this absurd trial—after all, had she married me, I might have abandoned thieftaking and would not have brought myself into the circumstances that had led to this disaster. I blamed myself for not pursuing her more vigorously—though three marriage proposals ought to meet any man’s definition of vigor.

  So, while the lawyer for the Crown attempted to convince the jury to convict me, I thought of Miriam. And, because even as I dwell with longing and melancholy I remain a man, I also thought about the woman with yellow hair.

  It must be seen as no surprise that my mind wandered to other women. In the half year since Miriam had married, I had distracted myself—not with the intent of forgetting, you must understand, but with the aim of making my sense of loss more exquisite—largely by indulging in vices, and those vices consisted principally of women and drink. I regretted that I was not of a gambling disposition, for most men I knew found that vice to be as distracting as the two I favored, if not more so. But in the past, having paid the high price of money lost at game, I could not quite grasp the entertainment in viewing a pair of greedy hands collecting a pile of silver that had once been my own.

  Drink and women: Those were vices on which I could depend. Neither needed to be of particularly fine quality; I was of no temper to be overly choosy. Yet, here was a woman, sitting at the edge of one of the benches, who absorbed my attention as nearly as anything could in those dark times. She had pale yellow hair and eyes the color of the sun itself. She was not beautiful, but she was pretty and had a kind of pert demeanor, with her pointy nose and sharp chin. Though no great lady, she dressed like a woman of the middling ranks, neatly, but without flair or much of a nod to fashion. Rather, she let nature do what her tailor could not, and exposed to the world in a deeply cut bodice the expanse of a dazzling bosom. There was, in short, nothing that would have kept me from finding her a delight in an alehouse or tavern, but no particular reason why she should command my attention while I sat on trial for my life.

  Except that she did not once take her eyes from me. Not for a moment.

  Others looked at me, of course—my uncle and aunt with pity and perhaps with admonition, my friends with fear, my enemies with glee, strangers with unpitying curiosity—but this woman fixed on me a desperate, hungry gaze. When our eyes locked, she neither smiled nor frowned but only met my look as though we had shared a lifetime together and no word need be spoken between us. Anyone observing would have thought us married or sweethearts, but I had never to my recollection—none the best during those six months of hearty drinking—seen her before. The enigma of her gaze monopolized my thoughts far more than the enigma of how I came to stand trial for the death of a dockworker I’d never heard of two days before my arrest.

  The rain had begun to fall harder and turn frozen when the prosecuting lawyer, an old fellow named Lionel Antsy, called Jonathan Wild to the stand. In that year, 1722, this notorious criminal was still widely believed to be the only true bulwark against the marauding armies of thieves and brigands that plagued the metropolis. He and I had long been rivals in our thieftaking efforts, for our methods were none too similar. I believed that if I helped honest folk to recover their lost goods, I should receive a handsome reward for my labors. Granted, my work was not always quite so principled. I was willing to track down elusive debtors, to use the skills I’d gained in the pugilist’s ring to teach lessons to rascals (provided they deserved such treatment in my eyes), to intimidate and frighten and scare men who required such usage. I would not, however, inflict harm on those I believed undeserving of rough treatment, and I’d even been known to let a debtor or two escape my capture—always with an apologetic lie to my employer—if I heard a credible tale of a starving wife or sick children.

  Wild, however, was a ruthless rogue. He would send forth his thieves to steal goods and then sell the same items back to their owners, all the while pretending to be the lone voice of London’s victims. These methods, I admit, were far more profitable than mine. Hardly a cutpurse in London lined his pockets without Wild taking his share. No murderer could hide his bloodstained hands from Wild’s scrutiny, even if the great thieftaker had ordered the murder himself. He owned smuggling ships that visited every port in the kingdom and had agents in every nation in Europe. The stockjobbers of ‘Change Alley hardly dared to buy and sell without his nod. He was, in short, a remarkably dangerous man, and he bore me no love.

  In our incompatible efforts, we had clashed more than once, though our clashes tended toward the cool rather than the hot. We circled around each other, like dogs more eager to bark than fight. Nevertheless, I could not doubt that Wild would relish this opportunity to see me destroyed. As he had made a career out of perjuring himself before any jury that would listen, I now only waited to discover the severity of his condemnation and the verve with which he delivered it.
br />   Mr. Antsy hobbled toward the witness, hunched over to keep the frozen rain from his face. He looked to be anywhere between fifty and one hundred years of age—gaunt as death itself, with his skin hanging loose about his face like an empty wine bladder, and his head bobbing above the mass of his greatcoat. His peruke, limp from the rain, hung askew and was of such a horrible condition I could only suppose he had purchased it at the dip in Holborn, where a man might pay threepence for the chance to blindly pull a used wig from a box. Not having bothered to shave that morning, and perhaps the morning before, his face was fertile with strands of weedy white hair that poked from out the rugged earth of his face.

  “Now, Mr. Wild,” he said, in his shrill and quivering voice, “you have been called here to testify to the character of Mr. Weaver because you are widely regarded as something of an expert in criminal matters—a student of the philosophy of crime, if you will.”

  “I like to think so of myself,” he said, his country accent so thick that the jury leaned in closer, as though proximity might help them to understand better. Wild, on whom the rain hardly dared to fall, held himself erect and smiled almost pityingly at Mr. Antsy. How could an old pettifogger like Antsy inspire anything but contempt in a man who routinely sent his own thieves to hang that he might retrieve the forty-pound bounty offered by the state?

  “You are widely regarded, sir, as the metropolis’s most effective agent in the sphere of thieftaking, is that not right?”

  “It is,” Wild said, with an easy pride. He was advancing into his middle years then, but he appeared nonetheless handsome and vibrant in his trim suit and wig. He had a deceptively kind face, too, with large eyes, rounded cheeks, and a warm and avuncular smile that made people like him and trust him at once. “I am known as the Thieftaker General, and it is a title I bear with both pride and honor.”

  “And in this capacity, you have come to know the many aspects of the criminal world, yes?”

  “Precisely, Mr. Antsy. Most people understand that if they should lose an article of some importance, or wish to track down the perpetrator of a crime, no matter how heinous, I am the man to seek.”

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