In the second part of Rupert Millar’s Edwardian caper, Thaddeus’s plan has come together and he leads his companions to an address in Gower Street where he will reveal all…
They clattered up a darkened staircase and Thaddeus led them to a room on the second floor. Valtravers and Lovell stood, utterly perplexed, at the entrance to the room as Thaddeus divested himself of his coat and hat and collapsed into a comfortable-looking chair by the window.
“Well?” said Thaddeus looking at his dumbstruck friends still standing outside.
“Stop standing there like a pair of ninnies. Come in, close the door. Let me explain all. Lovell, what time do you make it?”
“A quarter to seven,” said Lovell.
“Capital!” said Thaddeus. “Gentlemen, welcome to number 9 Gower Street. Across from us, out of that very window,” he said, pointing at the aperture in question and out of which his friends now curiously peered, “is number 12, the quiet abode of a certain Mr and Mrs Macaw. I have taken temporary residence here, ostensibly as an eminent Egyptologist by the name of Theodore Hook. As a scholar of minor renown I needed convenient lodging not far from the British Museum where I am pursuing a line of enquiry into the origins of none other than the Rosetta Stone. In fact, this setting will provide us with a veritable royal box from which to watch the act I have prepared unfold in its entirety.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Ah, right on time,” said Thaddeus, “That’ll be our supplies for the day, I shouldn’t wonder. Valtravers, answer that would you? There’s a good fellow.”
Valtravers let in two men, each carrying an immense hamper, the first of which was set down upon a table.
“Begging you pardons, sirs, but is one of you Mr Hook?” asked the first man.
“Yes,” said Thaddeus, “I am Mr Hook. Are these the hampers from Fortnum & Mason I ordered?”
“That which they are, sir,” said the man.
“Excellent, my thanks, put the second over there,” he pointed to the other side of the room.
“And here’s something for your troubles,” he said flicking each man a shilling.
They caught the coins deftly. A chorus of “Thank you, sirs,” and knuckling of foreheads ensued as they left.
Thaddeus got up and began to unpack the first hamper, picking up his discourse where he had left off as he did so, “As I was saying. We are here to observe the coming events, which, I am sure, will demonstrate to you that I have won our wager. In precisely…Lovell, what time is it?”
“Five to seven.”
“In precisely five minutes’ time the first of a number of visitors will knock,” he pointed again out of the window across the street, “on that very door.”
At exactly seven o’clock, as Thaddeus had so confidently predicted, someone knocked on the door of number 12. Mabel, the housemaid, bustled up, opened it and looked quizzically at the visitor standing outside.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Morning, miss,” said the chimney sweep happily. “You needs a sweep, I ‘ear?”
“Not that I knows of,” said the girl, “certainly my mistress has not said we have need of one. Why, the chimneys was swept only last week. No, we didn’t call for a sweep at all.”
“Well, someone at this address asked for a sweep,” said the sweep sounding peeved.
“Well, I don’t know who, honestly I don’t,” said Mabel. “P’raps they got the wrong address?”
“No, no mistake,” said the sweep adamantly. He dragged a crumpled letter, out of his pocket and pointed to the offending paragraph.
“There,” he declared, “that’s your address ain’t it? 12 Upper Gower Street? That’s what Mr Braithwaite said anyway.”
Mabel glanced at the letter but was unmoved. “This is 12 Upper Gower Street,” she confirmed, “but whether it says that or not we don’t need a sweep. Your time would be better spent going back to Mr Braithwaite and telling him so, now good day,” said Mabel tartly, closing the door on the bemused sweep.
She had hardly gone back to work for more than a few minutes when there was another knock. Frowning, she hastened back over. Another sweep presented himself and the poor man was given very short thrift indeed by the bossy little house maid and likewise sent on his way. Ten minutes later there was another knock but this time as Mabel stormed out with a face like fury she was confronted with two soot-covered figures on the steps outside.
In all, 12 sweeps called that morning but they were not alone. Indeed, as the morning went on, and around the time of the arrival of the ninth sweep at a quarter to eight, the tempo and variety of the visitors to number 12 Upper Gower Street upped dramatically.
By eight o’clock the street outside was thronged with several cake makers, thirteen bakers, ten butcher’s boys, eighteen grocers and six wine merchants bearing some two thousand custard tarts, four hundred loaves, seventy-five roast chickens, thirty geese, ten sides of beef, two hundred sausages, innumerable quantities of fruit and vegetables and four hundred bottles of wine between them.
By nine o’clock ten men delivering pianos, six cellists, three violinmakers and an organ borne aloft by eight stout fellows provided some musical accompaniment to the disorderly throng.
It was at a quarter to ten when the wagon loads of coal and potatoes began to arrive (some six of each) that the street began to get crowded, the clamour grew as the tradesmen shouted at each other to clear the way and a traffic jam ensued.
Yet still they came; eight doctors, five priests and a man with a performing monkey next. By half past eleven a flock of sheep and six packs of bloodhounds straining at the leash and giving tongue fit to burst. At midday a disguising of drapers, dressmakers and tailors; several newspaper men; prospective house staff; lawyers; a palette of portrait artists; a haul of fishmongers; a drunkship of cobblers; a troupe of gymnasts; twenty jugglers and three fire eaters. In the early afternoon a brace of sword swallowers and four men carefully bearing a wedding cake had joined the multitude.
“Who’s dying?” cried the doctors and clergymen.
“Who’s getting married?” cried the dressmakers and wedding cake bearers.
“Where can we put the coal? Who needs all this fish? What’s going on here? Let me through, I’m chief correspondent of the Morning Gazette! Woof! Woof! Woof!”
The chaos continued and poor Mabel and Mr & Mrs Macaw thought themselves quite under siege.
Traffic unconnected with the prank began to build up in both directions, utterly incapable of getting through. Horses whinnied, men cursed and the residents of Gower Street craned their necks as they peered out of their windows and doorways to see what was causing the hubbub.
The few policemen who eventually arrived on the scene found themselves unable to do very much to ease the situation other than redirect traffic, and so the madness went on unhindered.
Then, at roughly two in the afternoon, some truly remarkable house callers plunged into the fervent hue and cry of Upper Gower Street. No lesser personages than the Lord Mayor of London, followed by the Governor of the Bank of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself began to force their way to the door of number 12.
“Make way!” they cried, “Make way! We have urgent business within!”
Watching all of this from the safety of the window of number 9, were a flabbergasted Valtravers and Lovell. As his friends struggled to comprehend how such a thing had come to pass, the chief architect himself sat tucking into a light lunch of pilchards, a meat pie and a jug of small beer. Snacking away happily and apparently unconcerned with the confusion of his own orchestration taking place a few dozen feet away, he was in fact listening with detached interest to the constantly developing amazement of his fellows.
“Look!” said Lovell, “there’s the Foreign Minister.”
“Oh, jolly good, he came,” said Thaddeus uttering a rare remark. “I must say this meat pie is quite excellent. I shall have to have them more often.”
“And there’s the Speaker of the House,” said Valtravers.
“Ah, Uncle Bertie’s here,” said Thaddeus as his fingers danced over a selection of raspberry and apple tarts.
“And…oh my…but it can’t be…my word it is! The Duke of York!”
And so it was, the grand old duke himself; less 10,000 men, which, given the practically impassable nature of the street by that time, was something of a blessing. Scarlet coated and ruddy faced the Duke and some of his staff dismounted with some difficulty from their carriage and struggled vainly to get through.
In the event, the Duke, minus his aide-de-camp, got to within a good eight feet of the door before he became well and truly stuck in the seething mass clamouring for attention at number 12.
Towards four o’clock the situation was easing somewhat, and not a moment too soon. At the height of the hullaballoo things had finally got out of hand. The monkey had broken free and scampered over the heads of the crowd, shrieking and cackling in simian delight. As it bounded away from its handler it stole the Duke of York’s ostrich-plumed bicorne before scaling the invested house and taking up position among the chimney pots, the Duke’s curses ringing in its ears. This feat of animal escapology was too much for the bloodhounds. Already cruelly tortured by the smell of sausages and roast chickens, they slipped their leashes and ran amok, routing the flock of sheep and one of them giving the Archbishop of Canterbury a nasty nip on the ankle. Men jumped this way and that to escape the stampeding animals. As they did so the Lord Mayor of London and Governor of the Bank of England were showered with a hail of apples, potatoes and coal that the jugglers had been using as improvised props. Several of the musicians made five shillings from interested bystanders with an impromptu concert. Meanwhile the Foreign Minister and Speaker found themselves forming the base of a human pyramid created by the gymnasts. Some of the artists had set themselves back to record the scene for posterity and at least three of the wine merchants could be seen tasting various vintages they had brought along.
The tradesmen were the first to realise that there was little to be gained by staying and began to slip away, under the watchful gaze of the monkey which was still sitting on the roof wearing the Duke’s hat.
By five o’clock the monkey had been coaxed down (leaving the Duke’s hat among the chimney pots), the blood hounds and sheep re-gathered and the only persons remaining were the Duke of York, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Mayor, Governor of the Bank of England, Foreign Minister and the Speaker who had recognised each other and come together as the thinning crowd was dispersed by the police.
The street around them, though now empty of people, looked like a battlefield after a particularly furious engagement. Coal and potatoes lay strewn around like spent cannonballs while intermingled with other detritus from the day’s visitors lay the ill-fated wedding cake in a sugar-coated heap.
In number 9, Valtravers and Lovell were gazing at their friend in utter amazement. Said friend was trying, quite inelegantly, to pick a particularly stubborn bit of cold chicken out from between his teeth and paying them no attention at all. Finally Valtravers spoke.
“Good Lord, Thaddeus, you did it. I do believe you really did it.”
“Extraordinary, simply extraordinary,” echoed Lovell.
“Oh, pish,” shrugged Thaddeus.
“I think it fair to say you’ve won,” said Valtravers turning to look out of the window at the wreckage.
“Fair and square,” agreed Lovell. “There won’t be a paper or journal or pair of lips in London that won’t be talking of this for weeks to come. Bravo Thaddeus, Bravo!”
“Bravo indeed,” Valtravers echoed.
“Oh, stuff and nonsense, it was nothing really,” said Thaddeus looking into his glass of claret. “We shall have to wait to see the newspaper reports after all. It was though a simple matter of playing to the hearts and desires of men. The sort of simple conjuring anyone could master if they put their minds to it…”
“Um, I say, Thaddeus old chap…”said Valtravers hesitantly.
“Just a bit of letter writing in the end…no secret to it. The tradesmen were easy enough to get to come along but the likes of the Duke and Archbishop were much trickier… ”
“Thaddeus?” Lovell now interjected more forcefully.
“Yes?” Thaddeus asked looking at the suddenly concerned faces of his friends.
“I do believe that you should see this.”
Thaddeus strolled to the window and looked out at the little group of worthies standing just below. Their ill-tempered conversation was clearly audible.
“All I know is that I received a letter asking me to be here at two o’clock,” said the Foreign Minister.
“And I at a half past two,” said a disgruntled Duke of York.
“Gentlemen,” said the Speaker, “I do believe that all of us have been the victims of a malicious practical joke.”
“I agree,” said the Governor of the Bank of England.
“Whoever it is,” said an irate Archbishop of Canterbury, “the bastinado is too good for him!”
“Hear, hear,” said the others in unison.
“And,” The Speaker went on, “I think I may know the culprit.”
“Who?” they asked “Who? Who is it? We’ll skin him alive!”
“I am sorry to say that my layabout nephew, Thaddeus Watts, is no doubt behind this,” said the Speaker with a solemn shake of his head.
“He lives not far from here. I have no doubt we shall find him at home if we hurry.”
“We can take my carriage!” proclaimed the Duke of York. “Come, gentlemen, to horse!”
And the little group headed with great haste for the liveried carriage with retribution in their hearts.
Back in the little room of number 9, Thaddeus looked a little concerned. “Ah!” he said. “Gentlemen, I fear I may have been undone by a slight dose of hubris. I did, perhaps, ‘overstep the mark’ somewhat.” He turned from the window and stalked back to his chair pensively.
“What are you going to do now?” asked Lovell.
“I think it may be wise if you laid low for a week or two,” suggested Valtravers. “Perhaps take yourself off for a tour of the north. You could always stay with my uncle in Northumbria.”
Thaddeus sat in silence, his hands clasped in front of him staring ahead intently. Then, very slowly, a wry smile crept over his lips and he looked up at his friends with the old twinkle in his eye.
“Have no fear,” he declared, “I intend to hide myself away once more and I know the perfect spot.”
“Where?” asked Lovell and Valtravers, quite none the wiser.
“Why, right here of course,” Thaddeus announced and he looked again at the second hamper from Fortnum & Mason’s against the opposite wall.