At the tail end of his eighteenth year, John Childermass finds himself in service to one Mr Gilbert Norrell, Hurtfew Abbey, Magician.
He has lost his taste for pickpocketing after time in jail, and sailing did not pan out, so this seemed like the last remaining option. Especially because he wants to learn things, and be something, something other than the skinny tattered crow most people see when they look at him. He is quite prepared; he has references. None of them, of course, are real. They are very good references, none the less - not too flattering, not too negative, just the right type of handwriting to put a rich man off his guard.
But service is nothing new to him. He has been trying it on and off for almost two years now, with good references and better lies, in different parts of Yorkshire. The trouble is, he is unsuitable. Childermass's masters tend to sack him without ceremony approximately a fortnight into his employment. There are a number of reasons; he is developing a collection. He leans too much; he is inquisitive; he is insolent; he is "clever" (a grave sin for a servant in the eyes of many gentleman); he turns up late to things and takes too long at tasks; he speaks when not spoken to; he does not speak when spoken to; he is proud.
Some of this he could change, but he will not. He hides most of his knowledge and talent - it is instinct - but he will not allow gentleman to pretend they are better than him. This is, he realizes, an attitude incompatible with his station in life. But at eighteen years old, Childermass is already very tired of being reminded of his station in life.
Service is nothing new, no. But Norrell is.
He is a small, colourless, dull man, but one with very peculiar habits. For instance, Childermass was hired as a valet, and therefore part of his duties include helping Norrell dress. But Norrell is always half-dressed before he calls Childermass in. Generally, Childermass helps him with the smaller, less-accessible buttons, his cravat and waistcoat and coat, and his shoes. Most gentleman would not do any such things for themselves. Norrell certainly has no unusual independence in matters other than this. Childermass thinks there is some secret - perhaps a scar.
He is just as picky and entitled as the rest of the rich heirs Childermass has met, that is certainly true - but he does not hunt or go to parties or speak, as far as Childermass can see, to anyone outside his house if he can get away without doing so. He spends all day with his books and starts if anyone addresses him unexpectedly. He blushes if you look at him too long, and does not like to look you in the eye, and flinches when you touch him, and speaks in a small voice that is barely audible, as if he is talking to himself. Somewhat paradoxically, he also orders his servants around unthinkingly and complains endlessly about Childermass's work, in his thin petulant voice.
Childermass thinks he must be about thirty, give or take a few years, but his manner is that of a much older man.
His house, also, is very peculiar, though in quite a different way from its master. Every day now, Childermass has tried to get to the library with tea and had to be led, for he gets lost every time. He is beginning to suspect it is not natural, the way the corridors seem to twist and turn and go a different direction than they look.
If so, Childermass is determined to see more. No matter how unpleasant Norrell might be, he can stick out a fortnight in the interest of seeing some magic.
Besides which, the library itself is nothing to sneeze at. There must be a thousand books in it. Childermass likes books, although he has owned very few in his lifetime. He would quite like the chance to get acquainted with these ones.
Also, there is the money. Childermass is a practical man and Norrell pays well. Books have their own allure, ands so does the possibility of fulfilling some of his ambitions, but neither will keep him alive the way money will.
So: he is going to stay. He is going to stay long enough to get wages, and buy himself a good warm greatcoat at the very least, which will be an improvement on his current situation. And then he will have had at least two weeks' worth of good meals, which is something too. If he manages to see some magic, or read some books, or acquire some learning which will be useful elsewhere, then so much the better.
Books, magic, and money. Just for the fortnight, at the very least.
Childermass, apparently, cannot tie a cravat knot with any skill whatsoever. He hears about this in detail from Norrell on a near-daily basis. He must be adequate at shaving - Norrell's face is always smooth - but he himself shaves with no great degree of regularity and care, and so Norrell complains. Norrell complains about virtually everything Childermass does, in fact, but Childermass has not been sacked thus far, and it has been three weeks now.
This is a bit of a mystery. But since the job pays well it is one one Childermass is especially interested in unraveling just at present.
Childermass has been called to serve Norrell in the library almost every day now. He has still not yet seen any magic.
That, however, is remedied one day when he is called to serve in the library again. Typically, the routine goes like this: Childermass helps Norrell dress, and then Norrell goes down for his breakfast and Childermass tends to various duties related to Norrell's clothing and minor personal affairs. When Norrell begins work for the day, he summons Childermass from whatever duties he is attending to; Childermass then spends part of his day in the library, attending to Norrell's small wants.
Technically, Childermass thinks, some of what he does ought to be the duty of a footman, but then he is not going to complain, because it means he gets to stay in the library. All of the other servants find it uncanny, and Childermass cannot blame them, for there is a very uncomfortable feeling in it - light that does not seem to come from anywhere, and whispers on the edge of hearing. It is quite dizzying. But Childermass does not mind that, for the library is quiet and peaceful and contains books on magic. Even reading the titles is a lesson.
On this day, Childermass is standing in a corner, leaning as subtly as he can against a pillar for balance. If he stands straight too long, his knees often extend too far backwards and he might stumble or fall. Most gentlemen do not consider this conduct becoming of a servant. On the other hand, most gentlemen do not consider leaning conduct becoming of a servant either, but Norrell has not seemed to notice. It is yet another of his peculiarities, although one that Childermass certainly has no quarrel with.
He is watching Norrell bend over a book, running a finger down a list. He has piled a small group of objects on the side table very neatly. It was Childermass who fetched the objects - an apple, a piece of wood, an egg, and a clear dish of water.
Norrell touches the objects one after the other. He is speaking quietly under his breath, glancing every so often back at his book. Childermass watches more closely, trying to make out the words, but they are too soft; he does not think Norrell is saying them out loud, only mouthing them soundlessly.
Abruptly, Norrell stops talking and shuts his book with a thud. At just that moment there is a sensation like the warmth of a good fire on his skin, and a sudden smell of parchment and the earth after a summer shower. It is like the feeling of rain on windows, like being on the inside of a storm yet untouched by it - an immense tension just outside yourself. It blows across Childermass like a wind and then disappears, leaving him dizzy with the notion that the world has changed and himself with it in the most minutely unobservable way.
Childermass just manages not to gasp. He wants to say, "You are a magician", but he has not been so naively open since he was ten years old. Instead he says, "What was that meant to do?" because there are no observable effects, and nothing like that could possibly have failed to be effective.
Norrell glances back at him. "What was what meant to do?"
Norrell frowns. "How do you know it was magic?"
Childermass raises his eyebrows. "The world turns itself out - what else is it?"
"You could feel that?" Norrell is openly staring now. Childermass thinks this must be the longest Norrell has looked at him at one time for the entire period of his employment thus far.
"Of course I could," says Childermass. He is beginning to feel that he has made a mistake and revealed too much, but it is too late to cover up now - best to brazen it out.
"Hmm," says Norrell. His eyes sweep over Childermass, as if looking for evidence of - something. Childermass does not quite know what it is meant to be. Nor can Childermass entirely interpret his expression, for all his skill at that. He is not sure if it is wariness, or some sort of longing, or sadness.
"Well," Norrell says at last. "I see. Do you feel any other magic?"
"At the moment, or in general?"
Childermass shrugs. "The library feels full of it," he says and he has just now realized that is the case, now that he has felt it truly. He hesitates, and then continues. "It is a - disorienting feeling. It turns your head around."
Norrell finally breaks his gaze. "It is for protection," he says. Then he adds, "The spell will make a pear tree in the orchard fruit apples."
Childermass blinks. "Why?" he says.
Norrell looks at Childermass as if he has done something very alien and improper. Childermass supposes he ought not to have asked the question, but inquisitiveness has always been one of his faults. Besides, there is a curious sparkle of excitement in Norrell's eye, behind the censure. Childermass thinks perhaps he does not get to speak of such things very often.
Norrell says, "The spell has some applications for other magic I am interested in. I wanted to see if it worked. We shall not know until the fruit begins to grow."
Childermass considers. "I suppose you would have to do it before it fruited," he says. "Or else it would not take effect."
"Yes. That is correct."
Norrell turns back to his book. He seems to be done teaching magic, which is a shame, as Childermass was enjoying learning about it.
But, he thinks, perhaps he now knows how to get Norrell to talk about it. That hint of excitement - that might be something he can use.
A month, then. He thinks he can make it a month.
Out of all the features of his new life, it is getting around that he finds most troublesome.
The labyrinth around the library gives him a certain amount of difficulty. On regular mornings it is not so bad. Norrell has a routine, and generally he sticks to this with respect to the times he begins work, so Childermass can anticipate when he will be called. If he lingers in the general area of the corridor to the library, he can generally make it in a timely fashion even on bad days. And he is learning to navigate rather well, so that he does not have to trouble the other servants.
It is far more difficult when Norrell calls him at odd hours of the day, or early in the morning before breakfast. Then he has to come from some place more distant, often another wing of the house. The labyrinth combined with the extra walking conspires to make him slow quite frequently, especially on days when he has overused his joints, or simply when they act up.
Today, just over a month into his employment, is one such day. Norrell has summoned him to the library at a ridiculous hour of the morning. Childermass is not unfamiliar with ridiculous hours of the morning, but he already begins his day early and ends it late. And Norrell is in a mood, it seems.
"You are late again," says Norrell, looking up from his book. "Really, Childermass, this is unacceptable."
"How am I to be on time when you surround your library with a labyrinth only you can successfully navigate? Sir?" Childermass asks. In truth, this is not the reason. In truth the real reason is that his legs hurt, and he is walking slowly today. But he knows well enough not to tell a gentleman that - he knows well what the consequences tend to be.
In any case, the labyrinth is extremely vexing and despite his increasing skill it is a serious impediment still when he is trying to find his way here in the mornings. To say nothing of trying to retain Norrell's orders when he forgets half of what happens after he walks out. The fact of the matter is that he is cross, and he is in no mood to put up with Norrell's complaints about problems of his own making.
Norrell is regarding him with suspicion. "You found your own way here?" he asks.
"I would have been later if I would've had to wait for one of the others to show me," says Childermass. Which is true. It is very inefficient to have to rely on someone else.
"Hmm." Norrell gets that look on his face again, the same one he did when he realized Childermass could see his magic. Childermass has still not managed to interpret it.
Norrell sighs and says, "Very well, then. If it will make you more timely, then I shall unlock you." He goes over to the desk and lights a candle. He stands in front of it, holding it between his hands, and his face settles into his doing-magic expression, concentrated and thoughtful and yet at peace. Childermass cannot hear what he is murmuring, but it does not sound like English. He thinks it might be Latin.
When Norrell blows the candle out there is a sudden shock, like for a brief moment it took the entire world with it. Childermass feels as though he has flickered, or the room has, or perhaps as though they have switched places for a moment. The fire-and-water sensation of Norrell's magic washes over him, and when it leaves it takes the continuous subtle disorientation that always troubles Childermass in the library. It feels rather like watching a bubble pop looks.
"There," says Norrell. "I trust you are satisfied. And that you will not be late any longer." He returns to his work without another word.
Childermass is caught between his delight at seeing the magic done and at being a part of it and his worry about the fact that he will no longer be able to use the labyrinth as an excuse for lateness, and what will he do now when he cannot move fast enough to get there on time? He resigns himself to starting out even earlier on bad days. It's a pity he cannot use a cane indoors - perhaps that would help somewhat. But it would be remarked upon. Generally, anything that would be remarked upon is not safe.
He cannot be sacked, not now. He wants to learn more, very badly, and he cannot do that anywhere but here. It is imperative that he stays here. It is imperative that he keeps being allowed to stay in the library, where he might read a book or two discreetly in the future perhaps, and where he might induce Norrell to speak of his profession.
Childermass stops and thinks. He says, slowly, "If you moved me to a room closer to the library - "
Norrell raises his eyebrows. "Most of the servants have no wish to be in the same wing as the library. They find it uncanny."
"I am not easily frightened," says Childermass.
"Well, you must speak to the housekeeper of it. I do not concern myself with such trivial matters."
The housekeeper says, "There's an attic room in the same wing as the library. You are sure you will not mind being there?"
"No, ma'am," says Childermass. "It does not trouble me."
She shakes her head. "Well, if it will help you do your duties," she says doubtfully. "And to keep Mr Norrell happy, of course."
"I am not sure any thing could achieve that," says Childermass. The housekeeper tuts, but does not reprimand him.
"He likes you, I am sure of it," she declares.
"I myself cannot see it."
"He has not dismissed you yet, has he?" she points out, which Childermass cannot contest.
The new room is only accessible by stairs, but they are shallow with a decent bannister. His former room was an upstairs one anyway, so he has lost nothing. It takes him longer to get to the servants' quarters, but that has, at least, regular hours. When Norrell calls him at odd hours now he can dress and descend more quickly now.
He is not late again, or not intolerably so. Norrell continues to complain, but Childermass is learning to differentiate when this means something and when it seems to be merely a way of taking his feelings out.
He thinks he is getting a handle on things.