Gibbous House 6
The day being so fine, and cheered by this contrast with its earlier misery, I embarked upon a circumambulation of the Cathedral, the better to admire its proportions. Turning left from Cheapside into the Old Change I turned right on Church Yard. At the foot of Ludgate Hill a crowd had gathered. Moving closer, I percieved they were watching a performance. A stall like that of a Punch and Judy show, only exceedingly more capacious, was almost blocking the thoroughfare. It seemed too grand to be wheeled along by its proprietor, however strong he might be. I saw no dray or mule in its vicinity. Drawing nearer still, I apprised myself of the nature of the show. Wooden figures japed around the stage jerked by strings manipulated by an unseen hand. In no way were these movements natural, rather the jerkings of the palsied interspersed with episodes of St. Vitus. Such shows were still known amongst their performers as ‘The Fantoccini’. Fashionable London preferred to use ‘Marionette’ after the Exhibition at the Adelaide.
Coming to the entertainment in medias res detracted not a whit from its comprehensibility - the show being a hotch-potch of imitations of circus acts and lampoons of actors from the legitimate theatre. I remained to the end for want of anything better to do. A hurdy gurdy player provided an infinite variety of musical accompaniment to the clacking of the stringed dolls. The final figure was introduced as ‘The Scotchman’, a riot of plaid and whiskers, who capered energetically in a ‘Highland Fling’ not even Scott would have recognised. I made to leave as the hunchbacked proprietor begged some indulgence of the audience, while his assistant played a Magyar reel.
A voice like cracked bell assaulted my ears:
‘Wait, Sir. Wait. Did you not enjoy the spectacle?’
It was no London voice, but neither was it Italian as one might have expected. I felt the hunched figure to be a Jew or Gypsy and his swarthy looks did not gainsay me.
‘I liked it well enough, except for the last.’ I replied.
‘Then remove a sum from your payment accordingly, sir. That is fair, is it not?’
He tugged my sleeve for emphasis.
‘I am not bound to pay for street entertainment.’
‘Ah, a Scot yourself then.’ And he cackled, mouth wide open showing an absence of any teeth and the presence of a brimstone breath.
I was shaken to the core, wondering how he could possibly have divined my origins, for whose concealment I had striven so hard, that only my name bespoke them. I snatched my sleeve from his grasp. I stalked off to the cries of
‘Keep your balsam for the catchpoles, you nimmer!’
Which exclamation showed that he was a Londoner now, whatever he had been before.
There was little for me to fear from the Bailiffs, I believed. Gibbous House should bring enough ‘balsam’ to satisfy the lowest of thieving nimmers: it was time to go north and play the hand out, no matter what other cards might fall.