A Dickensian tale of Greed and Opportunity
It was one of those damp, dark and so dreary fog-rotten days, to induce dreams of a warm settle perch, the chirp of crickets, the ambrosial waft of turf in a roaring hearth and a cinnamon scented rum toddy, scorched by a red hot poker.
It was not a day for standing, waiting and stamping feet while Alderman Sylvester Crook completed his creaking preparations and deigned to receive him.
‘Alderman Crook, your honour, I trust your night was good and your day ahead will be better,’ he greeted the hunched politician.
Donald Trumpet, respected merchant of the manor, felt his own teeth grind destructively, such was his grovelling obsequiousness.
This did not please him, the teeth were just newly bought, fashioned from ivory bought at a discount from a scaly Chinese with whom he traded, for fish and opium. The Alderman is well named, he thought, Crook by name and so, by nature.
Now Crook shrugged off his greatcoat, taken away to hang in a closet by his elderly manservant, Bench — who smelled of mildew and old fish — straightened his wig in a looking glass behind the door, yanked the bunched seat of his trousers with one fist before farting, loudly and sat, in a high backed chair behind his wide, teak desk.
He arranges items, a leather cuffed blotter pad, a goose quill and ivory inkwell before deigning to look at and acknowledge Trumpet’s existence.
This he does, head tilted, squinting down the length of his thin, aquiline nose before pausing to plunge one nostril into a pocket of sturdy miner’s snuff that left a thin brown thread, made him squint sharper and then sneeze, like a yapping lapdog.
All this he did without losing his disdainful aplomb, as though possessed of a surplus pair of hands and all the while giving Trumpet the uneasy feeling he was something he’d trailed in on his boots.
And it was then, in this pause, pregnant with impatience and repugnance, Trumpet realised the Alderman was waiting for him to speak, to begin his entreaty.
He needed labourers, a workforce of pliant toilers and he needed them cheap. The Alderman held the keys to Trumpet’s future or, at least, another fortune in Trumpet’s unscrupulous and trenchant march to the top of the mercantile ladder.
Trumpet was a tall man, taller than most and carried himself with an air of entitlement so entrenched, he was certain his own shit didn’t smell and his head, prematurely bald and covered with a perfumed wig, was an unseen rival’s evil plot.
First apprenticed to a local moneylender, Trumpet took to his trade with a gusto that expanded the coffers of his master while lining his own in almost equal and soon greater measure.
Trumpet foreclosed on dockside traders faster than clams shut in shallow sand. Soon, he controlled the shellfish market for inns and alehouses, never mind the household orders and shorefront trade so he turned his attention to the clam surfers and cockle and whelk wranglers who he welched and cheated until they lost their boats, buckets, rakes, forks, shovels and nets in a mess of debt for which he owned their note.
Which was why he sat here now, not so much in the company of but the audience to the venerable local Alderman, Sylvester Crook who, with a stroke of his pen, could give leave and licence to him to explore and exploit a goldmine of vagrant labour, a colony of beleaguered immigrant tramps, the human flotsam of continental war, landed here as either a curse or Heaven sent manna and encamped on a corner of that very same shoreline where great profits were waiting to be harvested.
The ageing Alderman listened to Trumpet’s plea without responding, leaving the irritated merchant to fidget and wonder if the septuagenarian was either asleep or simply senile.
Crook slumped but still sat upright. His right hand clutched his soiled and snot sodden hanky, his right nostril had the brown smudge of snuff and there was an expectorant drizzle on the greying ruffle of his shirt but his eyes had sunk deeper and lower than a winter sunset.
There’s no light there,Trumpet thought, the old fart’s dead.
Momentarily disturbed and discombobulated by the ailing Alderman’s effrontery, to die at such an inopportune time, it was, Trumpet thought, inconvenient and downright inconsiderate.
He was about to make the old fart’s future retirement comfortable beyond his wildest dreams or what penurious pension he might expect from his years of public service. The satchel of golden guineas that weighted his pants were a testimony to that.
Then it occurred to Trumpet, this fortune sits safe and unspent and, while he was no nearer his goal, an opportunity now presented itself that, with brief reflection, fell to him like a natural birthright.
He would bury the Alderman in the graveyard for local dignitaries for which he owned the burial rights, with full honours and at a discount rate, yet to be determined.
The burial, of course, would be an ideal platform from which to announce his own candidacy for the departed’s vacant seat at Council and, since every other councillor was already in his pocket, he would soon secure his position and, along with that, his licence to hire the immigrants and all this he would achieve with no cost to himself and, if possible, a substantial profit.
It was sound business practice, he told himself.
In the seconds elapsed since he discovered the ageing Alderman not just unresponsive but dead, Trumpet mapped out his future and the future enlargement of his coffers and deemed them an inalienable right for which he was born to receive, not achieve, he never noticed the arrival of Crook’s manservant, Bench, until he smelled him.
The wizened retainer appeared to straighten when it dawned on him his master had departed this mortal coil then emitted a sound like a cackle of remorse or a chuckle of delight.
Trumpet recoiled from the morbid scene and Bench’s intoxicating stench.
He barked an order at the offending lackey to clear the table and lay out his master and to go thence to Benjamin Grief’s, the undertaker and his employee, to procure him to arrange the funeral services.
With any luck, he thought, he’d bury the old bastard, get elected and still have a jingle in his pocket by week’s end.