My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
In the place Jack Maggs had most recently come from, the houses had been, for the most part, built from wood. They strained and groaned in the long hot nights, crying out against their nails, contracting, expanding, tugging at their bindings as if they would pull themselves apart.
Tobias Oates’s house in Lamb’s Conduit Street was built from London brick. It was newly painted, newly furnished. Everything in it glistened and was strong and bright and solid. This was a house that would never scream in the dark, nor did it reek of sap or creosote. Its smells were English smells—polished oak, coal dust, Devon apples. The intruder breathed these strange yet familiar odours for as long as it took the master to get himself to bed.
Then he crept up the stairs and, on the upper landing, drew his long arms around his chest. It was an action such as the Devil might make when surrounding himself with his cape. It might also have been by a mortal man wishing to cloak himself in Night, and if the latter were the case, Jack Maggs might be said to have succeeded, for a moment later he appeared, a slow and smudgy phantom, in a small room off the landing. Here he stooped over the small wooden crib in which lay Tobias Oates’s firstborn son.
Maggs’s inky shadow flooded the crib. He leaned very close, so close indeed he might have bitten the child. Instead, he brought his wide nostrils almost up against that soapy skin and, with his arms clenched behind his back, inhaled John Marshall Oates’s breath. This act he repeated three times, and when he was done he straightened himself and placed his hands deep in his pockets. In the next room, the child’s father turned in his bed and coughed a most wide-awake cough. The intruder removed his hands from his pockets and moved slowly back into the shadow by the tall cupboard, and there his breathing became very slow and deep.
In other circumstances, Maggs had been known to act violently, but in Tobias Oates’s house he was a sloth. His heavy limbs bled into the darkness and as the clock ticked loudly in the downstairs hallway, he seemed to flow from room to room as slow as a moon-made shadow.
He stood above the bed of a young spinster. The vigour of her dreams had served to push her night cap from her head. Her hair was loose, floating like seaweed around her sleeping face. One bare white arm was flung out across the sheet, the other held between her knees beneath the covers. Beside her bed was a dresser where the intruder found a piece of jewellery, a necklace. He picked it up and ran it through his three fingers, before quietly laying it down again.
Two o’clock found him in another room, his severe hawk-nosed face an inch away from Mary Oates’s small down-turned mouth. He stood over Tobias Oates who was sleeping on his stomach in a perfect imitation of his son.
As the hall clock struck the quarter-hour, he reluctantly retreated to the kitchen. There he took a draught of cold water, and splashed a little on his face. The extreme agitation which had hitherto marked his face and body was no longer to be seen.
He sat himself at the kitchen table with his glass of water, and rested his eyes.
He woke with a great start to find a woman, an older big-bellied woman with strong forearms and large hands, standing over him.
She had the oil lamps lit. She was in cap and apron. “Did he tell you to wait?” she said.
“He did, Ma’am,” said Jack Maggs, automatically smiling and showing her his strong straight teeth.
“Said he was going to fetch you a shilling? Said you were to tell him your story, is that so?”
He stood and stretched. “So he said, Ma’am.”
The cook—for he assumed her to be so—shook her head and went about readying the kitchen for breakfast, riddling the grate, throwing in the coal, getting the great kettle back in its place on the cold black top.
“He cannot help himself. He saw your livery, and thought: there’s a chap with dirty livery. Just what you would think or I would think, but Mr. Oates, he can’t stop there—he’s thinking, how did that fatty-spot get on his shoulder? He’s wondering, in what circumstances were the stockings torn? He’s looking at you like a blessed butterfly he has to pin down on his board. It is not that he hasn’t got a heart. Indeed, I’m like as not cold-hearted in comparison. But he is an author, as I’m sure you don’t need telling, and he must know your whole life story or he will die of it. There’s a boy from Tetley’s with a porcelain eye, he left the poor little mite waiting half the day. Miss Lizzie found the little tyke crying on the doorstep when she was going walking with the missus.”
“Well, I’ll be on my way then,” said sleepy Jack, noticing for the first time his torn stockings. “For to tell you the truth, Ma’am, I must be explaining myself to my own master.”
“Sit up all night and not get your shilling? No, no. You must go up.”
“I’ve a long way to travel, Ma’am, and a household to attend to.”
“You can’t leave now. He’s left you sitting for hours. You go up and tell him. He’s a fine man, a good man. You won’t find a better one.”
“Just the same,” said Maggs.
“Just the same, my aunt. You go, Sir, or I’ll bring him down myself.”
“But surely he’s asleep.”
“Asleep? He never sleeps. It’s half past five and he’s in his room. Come, I’ll show you where it is. If he’s writing in his book, don’t mind. Just say, here I am and John’s my name and I am here for to get the tip you left me all night waiting for.”
So Maggs ascended the stairs a second time. It was just as well, he thought. If ’twere done,’twere best done quickly …
Tobias Oates had an obsession with the Criminal Mind. He found evidence of its presence in signs as small as the bumps upon a pick-pocket’s cranium, or as large as La Place’s Theorie analytique which showed the murder rate in Paris unchanged from one year to the next.
There was a little shop in Whitechapel, the province of a certain Mr. Nevus, where Tobias was in the habit of purchasing what he called “Evidence.” Here he had recently paid a very hefty sum for the hand of a thief. With the exception of the tell-tale little finger, which was malformed, the fingers of the hand were long, thin, very delicate; sadly in opposition to the skirt of skin which trailed back from the harshly butchered wrist. This hand floated in a large wide-throated jar of formaldehyde identified by a brown discoloured label, on which was inscribed a legend in Arabic, the meaning of which was not, as yet, available.
He had many such secrets hidden in his study. There, in that cubby hole labelled “M,” were the notes he had made on his visit to the Morgue in Paris. There, on that very high shelf up against the ceiling, was a parcel wrapped in tissue paper and tied with black ribbon—the death mask of John Sheppard, hanged at Tyburn in 1724.
There was much of the scientist about Tobias Oates. The study, with its circular window and its neat varnished systems of shelves and pigeon holes, was ordered as methodically as a laboratory. There was not a loose piece of anything here, not a nightingale feather or an unbound sheet of paper: everything was secured in its own place, tied up with ribbon, or tucked away in labelled envelopes. In these corners Tobias Oates stored not only his Evidence, but also experiments, sketches, notes, his workings-up of the characters who he hoped would one day make his name, not just as the author of comic adventures, but as a novelist who might topple Thackeray himself. And it was this ambition, always burning bright within him, which brought him to his desk before dawn on that day when Jack Maggs came knocking on his door.
The sharp, demanding nature of these knocks announced a visitor who was unfamiliar with his household. Tobias swiftly slid the jar into the corner of his desk. He placed an open encyclopedia in front of it, and picked up his quill. He opened his chap book. He appeared, as he turned his head towards the door, rather as he does in the portrait Samuel Laurence painted of him in 1838. That is, he looked towards his visitor as at a bailiff, or some other person with the power to knock him off his perch.
The door swung open to reveal Percy Buckle’s footman.
Tobias Oates took in the splashed stockings, sooty knees, damage to the powdered hair.
“Is this bad news?” he asked.
The dark eyes stared back at him balefully.
The writer reached for the golden cord which tied his gown, pulled it loose, tied it once again.
“The pain returned?” he guessed, but he was very confused by such a visitor at such an hour.
The fellow took a half-step into the room.
“What happened to your stockings?”
“I fell,” the footman said curtly, blinking and looking hard around him.
“For heaven’s sake, man, it is five in the morning.”
“The hours are hard, Sir.”
“You were dragged out from your bed? Does that mild man really send his servants out at such hours?”
For answer the visitor clenched his two hands and held them out strangely from his sides. This gesture was queer and unexpected, suggesting more power than any servant had a right to assume. It was then Tobias began to feel afraid.
“Some wrong has been done you?”
“I’ve been waiting all the night, since you finished your pudding.”
The footman took a further step into the room. Toby picked up the only weapon available, his paperweight. It was a two-pound weight belonging to the kitchen scales.
“But where, dear God? All night?”
“In the street.” Jack Maggs closed the door behind him.
“This street? Outside my house?”
“And then most recently, I was conveniently inside your kitchen.”
“Man, you’re shivering.”
“I know it.”
Tobias did not relinquish his two-pound weight, but he offered the chair he had been sitting on. “And what is your true purpose, old fellow?”
Jack Maggs had sat himself in the chair but immediately stood up again, folding his great arms across his chest. “What was it you did to me at dinner time? To be blunt, Sir, that’s what’s on my mind.”
“Ah, so that’s it. The pain has come back!”
“Tell me what you did to me.”
For answer Tobias attempted to lay his hand against the servant’s cheek, but Jack Maggs jerked back his head, curled his lips, and showed his gums.
“You pried into my secrets.”
“That’s why those gentlemen were looking at me so strange when I woke up.”
“You deserve an explanation,” said Tobias carefully, “but you’ll not get it by glowering at me. Here, I’ll take this stool and you have my chair again. No one wishes you ill, you have my word. What you call ‘strange’ was human sympathy. They are gentlemen, perhaps, and you are a footman, but they were moved by you. You are filled with Phantoms, Master Maggs. It is these Phantoms who cause you such distress. Did you know that? Do you know what hobgoblins live inside your head like beetles in a fallen log?”
“But how did you make me speak?” cried the visitor, sitting forward again in the chair, his hands upon his spattered knees. “In all my life I never have spoke in my sleep, not never.”
“Last night you were a Somnambulist.”
“Whatever it is called, it is a terrible thing, Sir, for a man to feel his insides all exposed to public view, a thousand times worse than to come before you with my stockings in this state.”
“Would you rather keep the pain?”
“I would have it back ten times over, if my secrets came with it.”
There was a long silence.
“Do you read?” Tobias asked at last.
“I am not an ignorant man, if that is what you’re thinking.”
“You might like to read that little chap book by your elbow. There, that’s the one. Turn to the third last page. The date is the 16th of April. There you may read exactly what secrets you have given me.”
Jack Maggs stared at the book but did not touch it. “Oh Sir,” he said, very quietly. “I do really wonder whether that were wise of you.”
“Open it. Read.”
The footman shivered so violently that Tobias Oates was reminded of Pharaoh, a race-horse belonging to his father whose freckled flanks would twitch and shiver at the onset of the saddle. Then, as Jack Maggs slowly and carefully read the two pages of handwriting, Tobias Oates hatched his scheme.
“This is all I said? Naught else besides?”
“That is all.”
“Then I was drunk, Sir, if you’ll forgive my French.”
“But this Phantom lives within you,” said Oates earnestly. “You have a creature who wishes you harm, who lives within you like a worm lives in the belly of a pig. It is the Phantom who hurts your face.”
“I ain’t acquainted with any Phantom, Sir. I never heard his name before.”
“I believe that I can remove this pain of yours forever.”
“Oh, I have had the pain for many years, Sir. It is an old friend by now.”
“Was it friendly to be so attacked in public?”
Jack Maggs closed the little chap book and placed it carefully back upon the desk. “I am happy as I am, Sir.”
“But what if I should take the demons from your heart where they are causing you pain? What if I write them on paper and then place the pages in this box here? When we are done, we can go to this fireplace, Jack Maggs, and we can burn them together.”
“But what is it to you, Sir? It is my pain after all.”
“I am a naturalist.”
“I heard you was an author.”
“Yes, an author. I wish to sketch the beast within you. If you were to continue with this experiment I would not only attempt the cure, I would pay you wages.”
“I do not want money, Sir.”
Tobias laughed suddenly, bitterly. “Good. What other inducement might I offer you? Not to cure your pain? You are fond of your pain.”
“I don’t need nothing.”
The footman hesitated. Oates felt that hesitation, like the dull pressure of an eel on the end of a baited line.
“What mean you by introduction?”
“I was imagining you might like an introduction to a superior household …”
The footman waved this away.
“It was some other type of introduction that you sought? Speak up.”
“Well, I had planned to ask you, Sir, if you had visited the house again. It took my attention when you spoke of it.”
“There are still Thief-takers in business,” the footman began. “Is that what I understood you to have said?”
“You were robbed?”
“You mentioned a Thief-taker at dinner. Partridge. Him who can find any man in England.”
“There is someone you want found?”
“It’s a family matter, Sir.”
“So that could be our bargain?” Tobias Oates leaned forward on his stool and put out his small square hand to shake on it.
“I never said I wanted it.” Jack Maggs folded his arms across his chest. There was a pause. “But if I were inclined that way, when would you deliver him?”
“No, no. Good heavens. There would have to be value in the bargain for me. Four weeks, three.”
“No, no,” the footman stood, shaking his head and knocking his knuckles together. “I could not wait four weeks.”
“Three,” said Tobias Oates, also standing.
“Two,” said Jack Maggs. “Two or nothing.”
“Two then. Can’t say fairer than that.”
The footman put out his hand to shake and Tobias Oates imagined he could feel an equal but opposite enthusiasm in the other’s violent grasp.
—Peter Carey was born in 1943, in Bacchus Marsh, Australia, and was educated at Geelong Grammar School. He is the author of a short story collection, The Fat Man in History, and of five other novels: Bliss, Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda, The Tax Inspector, and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. He lives in New York City with his wife and their two sons. Jack Maggswill be published in February by Alfred A. Knopf.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.