In the week before Lady Sefton's ball, the conversation in the house on Hanover-square focused entirely on Mr. Norrell. This was natural under the circumstances; the ball would be Mr. Norrell's debut as a recently biographied gentleman. Though the Essay on the Extraordinary Revival of English Magic was not yet released, proof copies were circulating and every member of the quality claimed to have read one. Mr. Norrell would soon be the topic of conversation everywhere, especially at the ball.
Mr. Norrell clearly wished that he could take such interest with modesty and grace. After a long acquaintance, Childermass doubted that Mr. Norrell was capable of either, except perhaps accidentally. Given an entire week to fret, Mr. Norrell was leaving nothing to chance. He must decide what exactly he should say, and how to say it. He practiced snatches of monologues and looked solemn at mirrors. It was vital to appear as a distinguished crusader for the cause of English magic, established as the greatest magician of the age, but not resting on his laurels. It was an excessively complicated task, Mr. Norrell complained.
Childermass would have been happy to offer his advice, to provide a more reasonable alternative to Mr. Norrell's instinctive bombast. Unfortunately Drawlight and Lascelles quickly turned the conversation from what Mr. Norrell should say to who he should speak to, and how he should stand as he did it, and what, exactly, he should wear. The latter topic soon dominated the conversation, and every further word on it made Childermass grind his teeth in frustration.
"I urge you, Mr. Norrell, urge you to modernize your dress." Drawlight made an expansive gesture. "You draw the eye as it is, and would it not be better to delight the eye rather than cause it to blink in dismay?"
"I suppose," muttered Mr. Norrell.
"You might wear that coat I gave you, the one with the shorter lapels?"1 Drawlight outlined them with his fingers. "Longer breeches, certainly, better fitted to your form. A plain shirt, no fussy frills at the cuffs. Leave your wig at home, style your hair—"
"No." Mr. Norrell patted his wig with some anxiety. "I cannot go so far in the name of fashion."
Childermass smiled to himself as he reshelved Mr. Norrell's books. The smile faded when he caught Lascelles looking at him, however. Lascelles did not approve of servants being amused by their masters, and was likely to say so. Childermass hadn't the patience for another argument.
Drawlight heaved a great sigh, using all the breath he could muster. "I suppose it would be impossible for you to grow your hair out in such a short time. A shorn skull is not very fashionable either. Unless there is some spell you might employ?"
"There is Wyford's Folly," said Mr. Norrell, musing. He was quick to seize on the turn of the conversation toward magic, but slow to realize when he was driving himself into a trap. "There is no recording that even Wyford performed it successfully, but I am sure I could find some way—"
"I wouldn't," said Childermass. "Unless you want to be truly shock-headed. It was stopping the hair that Wyford struggled with, not producing it."2
"Oh, no," said Mr. Norrell. "That would be most unsuitable."
Lascelles was glaring, now. Childermass favored him with his blankest expression. Do not smile, do not talk; Lascelles' servants must have a hard time of it, if he managed to keep any.
As you wish, Mr. Norrell." Drawlight spread his hands in placation. "But you might, at the very least, wear a new waistcoat."
"I thought," said Mr. Norrell, hesitantly, "that I might wear the double-breasted one. With the stripes."
This had been Mr. Norrell's first London purchase, bought as a sign of the increasing respectability of English magic. After seven years, its broad lapels and vertical stripes of white and cream were hopelessly out of fashion, but the waistcoat was much-loved and continued to be worn. Mr. Norrell had no real conception that style might change over a century, much less that it might vary from year to year.
"Mr. Norrell, I beseech you," said Drawlight, half-panicked. "You cannot do that to yourself. You cannot do that to magic!"
Mr. Norrell, startled by Drawlight's vehemence, glanced at Childermass.
"Wear your double-breasted waistcoat," said Childermass, not turning from the bookcase. "You'll be more comfortable, and you'll speak better because of it."
"I wouldn't listen to Childermass in matters of fashion," said Lascelles, abruptly. "I mean, look at the man."
Three pairs of eyes assessed Childermass. His long hair, his unshaven chin, his low collar. Even Mr. Norrell would be able to see that Childermass was completely unqualified to comment on waistcoats. His appearance was very...effective, for certain duties and in certain circles. But he could not be called respectable.
Childermass thought that Mr. Norrell valued respectability more than it warranted, often to the exclusion of sense. But he would not say so, at least in the presence of Lascelles and Drawlight. He continued replacing the books until he was settling the last one on its shelf.
"Perhaps I should buy another waistcoat," said Mr. Norrell. A hint of acerbity crept into his voice. "If Childermass will give me a writ to take to the shops."
Drawlight laughed, and Lascelles allowed half a smile to crawl onto his face.
"I will," said Childermass. "If that is what you want." He left Mr. Norrell to ponder it.
Childermass' office in the basement was quiet, warm, and completely free of Mr. Norrell's supposed friends. In fact, he thought it likely that Mr. Norrell did not know where it was. It was a good place to withdraw when the pressures of service became too much; he could actually work down here.
Childermass shuffled through the papers on his desk, looking for his hiring file. The office was dimly lit and densely cluttered, and a single dropped candle would inevitably catch some pile of paper and send the whole room up in flames. An outsider would be hard-pressed to find a spare piece of floor, let alone a specific document. But it was Childermass' office and Childermass' papers, and he soon located the file under a mass of old receipts.
The mundanity calmed Childermass a little; hiring servants was a regular task in Mr. Norrell's household. For once, the cook's helper had not been scared off by a spell or by Mr. Norrell's pique; she'd simply got herself married to a publican. Conveniently, Davey had a sister in need of a position. Childermass was inclined to hire her, though he wanted to spend a little more time with her letter of reference. It seemed just a touch too good to be written by the busy society lady Davey's sister claimed as her last employer.
Not that Childermass would report a forged reference; it was quality that concerned him, not veracity. An excellent forgery took skill, not only in penmanship but also in knowing when to be just modest enough and critical enough to ring true. A bad forgery was often more transparent in its boastfulness than anything else. A forgery could testify to either a clever and daring character, or a foolish and careless one, just as truly as an authentic letter. Childermass' own letters of reference, when he was first hired by Mr. Norrell, had taken him several days to perfect.3
After twenty minutes, Childermass had almost forgotten about Drawlight and Lascelles. He was therefore especially displeased when they barged into his office.
"What a dirty little hole," said Lascelles.
Childermass looked at the man with distaste. "What do you want?"
"Is that how you address your betters?" Drawlight insinuated himself into the office, neatly stepping over the piles, and leaned over Childermass' desk. "Say: 'how can I help you, sir?'"
"I don't need any help that you could give me," said Childermass, ignoring the correction.
Drawlight's nose wrinkled, and his hand twitched, as if he'd considered slapping Childermass and thought better of it. Childermass supposed the man had some sense.
"This attitude of yours may have passed in the north," said Lascelles, from the doorway, "but it is an embarrassment in London."
Childermass sat back in his chair and regarded the two men. Drawlight was a little red in the face, while Lascelles was a little white. The colors deepened the longer Childermass practiced his silence.
Mr. Norrell will wear a new waistcoat to Lady Sefton's ball," said Drawlight, voice loud as he tried to reclaim control of the conversation. "I don't want you to persuade him otherwise while we're gone."
Childermass didn't laugh, but he didn't stop his smile, either. "Mr. Norrell will wear what he likes."
"What Mr. Norrell likes is entirely unsuitable," said Drawlight. "And what you like should be kept to yourself. It is vital that he attend to my advice, and not be distracted by—"
"Why do you bother arguing with him?" asked Lascelles. "He's only a servant."
Childermass left his smile in place; it seemed that an argument was unavoidable now.
Drawlight didn't turn, but his eyes slid left. "You don't understand the power this man has, Lascelles. They won't even speak to me at Schweitzer and Davidson's. They pretend to be shut when I approach."
"Oh, perhaps he has some little influence over merchants," said Lascelles. "But it is Mr. Norrell's money that buys that influence."
"Perhaps," said Drawlight. "Childermass, I am willing to compromise on the color of the waistcoat, if only the cut—"
"Don't haggle," said Lascelles.
"I do wish you'd stop interrupting me." Drawlight finally swiveled his head to glare at Lascelles.
"Let Mr. Lascelles speak his piece," said Childermass, still smiling viciously. "And then you and I might do business, Mr. Drawlight."
Drawlight rolled his eyes. "The floor is yours, Lascelles."
Lascelles looked at the cluttered floor and raised his brows. "I have little to say. Only that a good servant would know his place, and not contradict his master nor his peers. Seen and not heard, you know."
"That refers to children," said Childermass.
"Does it?" Lascelles shrugged. "There is little difference." He turned and walked away, down the hallway. Childermass heard his creaking steps on the stairway.
"Now, to business," said Drawlight, and then stopped his tongue as he looked on Childermass' face.
Childermass could feel his smile twisting, and he let it slip away. "Mr. Norrell shall wear what he likes. As I've said. It does us no good to discuss it."
"No compromise?" Drawlight sighed, and then produced a broad smirk. "Well, then, let the better man win. How fortunate that I am he."
He followed Lascelles' path, out and up the stairs, knocking over a great stack of documents as he went. Childermass waited until they were both well away before hurling his pen against the wall. It did little to relieve his feelings, but the spatter of ink suited the atmosphere of the office.
"All right, Mr. Childermass?" asked Hannah, as she walked down the hallway with Mr. Norrell's fresh laundry.
"I will be," said Childermass, "when I see those b------s hanged."
Hannah giggled, and Childermass' mood eased.
"Hannah," he said, "please tell Mr. Norrell how much you like his double-breasted waistcoat when you're putting his laundry away. You're clever enough to be subtle about it."
"That ugly thing?" Hannah's brow wrinkled. "Whatever for?"
Childermass considered explaining, but it would only make his concerns sound trivial. They were not, even as they might seem so. "Never you mind," he said instead. "You might say something about his coat, as well. Tell him you much prefer his old one."
"Whatever you say, Mr. Childermass," said Hannah, still confused but quite willing. Childermass knew there was a reason he liked her.
He returned to his hiring file, but the quality of the forgery held little interest now. After a few moments he got up and collected the papers that Drawlight had disordered. Once those were properly stacked, he retrieved his pen from the pile of old envelopes that had cushioned its fall.
The office was quiet again, Drawlight and Lascelles only a faint memory. Faint, but still vexing. Childermass sat back at his desk, fetched a fresh sheet of paper, and began to plan his campaign.
Mr. Norrell was having a very trying week. He was an inward sort of man, who appreciated others' attentions in an abstract sense but soon grew bored and annoyed with their repetition. The recent obsession of his household with waistcoats, of all things, was repetitious to the highest degree. Lucas held forth on waistcoats whenever he helped Mr. Norrell dress. Davey pointed out especially good examples of waistcoats as he drove Mr. Norrell about town. Even the housemaids appeared to have opinions on the matter, leading Mr. Norrell to realize that he had a surfeit of women in his household. He'd always thought that there was only one housemaid; there was only one house, after all, and they all looked rather similar. But they had very different though equally grating voices. He mentioned the matter to Childermass, trusting that he would do away with the surplus maids. In the meantime, the maid with the high-pitched voice informed Mr. Norrell that he looked very well in stripes.4
Twice, Mr. Norrell had been reading and found himself distracted by thoughts of waistcoats. It was almost as if someone were whispering in his ear about them as he tried to work. The impression of a voice had been so strong that he'd actually stopped reading to look around his library, in case a rival magician had broken into his home again. But the only person in sight was Childermass, doing the household accounts at his desk. Mr. Norrell had returned to his book, disquieted and still plagued by thoughts of lapels.
Lascelles and Drawlight spoke of waistcoats whenever they visited, and they visited too often for Mr. Norrell's tastes. How was he to do his work with such distractions?
"You should be fitted at once," said Drawlight. "There's hardly time to make a waistcoat to order, but I'm sure Schweitzer and Davidson would make an exception for a personage as great as Mr. Norrell."
"We could go today," said Lascelles. "If Childermass will allow it."
Childermass said nothing. He seemed sullen, lately, and it preyed on Mr. Norrell's nerves.
Mr. Norrell rarely concerned himself with others' emotions,5 but Childermass' more persistent moods were sometimes worth concern. A surly Childermass often preceded trouble, either because Childermass was losing his grip on a ticklish situation (Mr. Norrell recalled the sorceress of Cowthorpe), or because Childermass was planning something dire (Mr. Norrell recalled, with somewhat greater trepidation, the time Childermass had changed grocers without informing him). Mr. Norrell had gone so far as to ask Childermass if something was bothering him. Childermass had said no. He'd also said something about waistcoats, but at this point Mr. Norrell had been so tired of the subject that he'd simply stopped listening.
"Mr. Norrell?" said Drawlight. "Would Schweitzer and Davidson suit you? I can assure you that they are the mode at the moment, and very respectable."
"I have plans for the day," said Mr. Norrell. "A review of The Instructions—"
"You do not think to read that again?" Lascelles sneered. "We heard much discussion of Belasis during the writing of the Essay, but in the end you relegated him to a footnote. I thought you had dismissed him entirely."
Mr. Norrell had to admit this was true. It had never before prevented him from rereading Belasis' work, however.
"I confess that I have already made you an appointment." Drawlight looked at his pocket watch. "We shall have to hurry to be on time."
Mr. Norrell looked, rather helplessly, at Childermass. Childermass stood up, his expression dark. "I'll get your coat," he said.
Being fitted always made Mr. Norrell anxious. Even when it was only for a waistcoat, there were still unfamiliar hands touching him and moving him about. Lascelles and Drawlight did not help, although they seemed to think their assistance invaluable. Childermass, leaning against the shop wall and frowning at the tailors, was even less reassuring.
"Does this color suit?" asked Mr. Schweitzer. He held up a light blue fabric. Mr. Norrell bit his lip, not wanting to reveal that he had no earthly idea if it would suit or not.
"Perfect," said Lascelles.
"Exquisite," said Drawlight.
"It won't match your coat," said Childermass. "His best coat is a dark green."
"Oh, I see." Mr. Schweitzer whisked the fabric away. "No, periwinkle won't do at all."
"The coat I bought is grey," said Drawlight.
Childermass leaned against the wall a little more pointedly. "I spoke of Mr. Norrell's best coat."
Mr. Norrell was developing a headache.
More fabrics were produced and rejected by Childermass. The only one which Childermass liked, a cream with thin white stripes that reminded Mr. Norrell of his old waistcoat, was dismissed as impossible by both Lascelles and Drawlight. The next fabric was a simple black.
"Dull," said Childermass.
"Elegant," said Drawlight, rather forcefully.
"I'll take this one," said Mr. Norrell. If he hurried, perhaps he could read a little before dinner. Perhaps he could read during dinner as well.
Everyone looked pleased with Mr. Norrell's choice except Childermass. Childermass looked as though he were trying to burn a hole in the fabric with his mind.
Mr. Schweitzer regretfully informed Mr. Norrell that it would be impossible to have a waistcoat made to order in time for Lady Sefton's ball, not even for the greatest magician in England. It would be possible to adjust an existing waistcoat to fit, however. Fortunately Mr. Schweitzer had one in just this color and the most fashionable style. He displayed it.
The waistcoat was single-breasted, with no turned lapel at all. It soared upwards in a high and open collar, the better to display the cravat. The only decoration was a line of silver buttons, the top three clearly meant to be left undone.
"Beautiful," said Drawlight. "Positively Brummellian."
"You have a good eye, sir," said Mr. Schweitzer. "This was a test for one of Mr. Brummell's new waistcoats."6
"Can't see you wearing that," said Childermass.
Mr. Norrell looked again at the waistcoat. He could see himself wearing it, as clearly as a nightmare. He'd look foolish. Like he was play-acting.
But the present prospect of another interminable discussion of fabric and style was more unnerving than the future prospect of social embarrassment. "I'll take it," said Mr. Norrell. "Childermass will sort out the payment."
He escaped the shop as quickly as he was able, leaving Childermass glowering in his wake.
"Well done," said Lascelles, as he and Drawlight followed Mr. Norrell up the street to his carriage.
"What?" said Mr. Norrell. His head was still pounding. It was something about the atmosphere in shops. They always felt so close, so dense.
"Very decisive," said Drawlight. "And an audacious choice."
"Oh dear," said Mr. Norrell. Davey gave him a hand up into the carriage.
"Where to, Mr. Norrell?" he asked.
"Home," said Mr. Norrell. "It's almost time for dinner, isn't it?"
"May we join you?" asked Drawlight. "I wanted to discuss the minor matter of—"
"No," said Mr. Norrell, and closed the door.
"Goodbye, then," said Lascelles, a little crossly. "I suppose we must find our own way home."
Mr. Norrell, safe in the confines of his familiar carriage, pressed both hands against his eyes. Shopping was such a harrowing experience.
"We're not waiting for Mr. Childermass?" asked Davey.
"No," said Mr. Norrell. "I'm very tired. Childermass must take care of himself."
"Suppose it's not too long of a walk." Davey snapped the reins and the carriage began to trundle down the street. Fortunately, gratifyingly, Davey said nothing at all about waistcoats.
Mr. Norrell rather hoped that this would be the complete end of the waistcoat fanaticism. He had made a decision, under great pressure and pain. The matter could be considered closed.
"Mr. Norrell!" called Dido, just as he entered his home. "I've brushed your beautiful waistcoat, so you can wear it to the ball."
Mr. Norrell stared at her. It was unlikely that he recalled, in that moment, that he employed any maids at all.
"You know," said Dido, a little mechanically. "The double-breasted waistcoat? In cream? It's so lovely."
"I won't be wearing that," said Mr. Norrell.
"Oh." Dido's face fell. "But Mr. Childermass said—"
Mr. Norrell went up to his library and locked the door.
Arabella Strange was not especially fond of having Mr. Norrell to dinner. The man clearly resented the extraction from his home, and his table conversation revolved exclusively around magic. He typically viewed Arabella, if he noticed her at all, as a passive audience for his lectures. Arabella's attempts to steer the conversation were bluntly ignored, and Jonathan was usually too wrapped up in his own thoughts to give any assistance. All in all, Arabella would have been quite happy if Mr. Norrell stayed away altogether.
But Jonathan was still trying to make peace with the man, still valuing Mr. Norrell's knowledge over the harsh restrictions he placed on Jonathan's activities. Arabella did not like Mr. Norrell, nor did she think Jonathan was making the wisest of choices. But she could concede a dinner in the name of peace.
She would be happier about such concessions if Mr. Norrell was always as entertaining as this.
"...Even the maids seem to be fascinated by my clothing," continued Mr. Norrell. "One of them, D-something—"
"Daisy?" suggested Jonathan.
"—Almost cried when I told her I'd bought a new waistcoat." Mr. Norrell's eyes widened, and he looked at Arabella almost pleadingly. "Mrs. Strange, I know that women are much occupied by matters of dress. But surely this is beyond all sense."
"Oh, yes." Arabella hid her smile behind her napkin. "It approaches hysteria."
"It is not limited to the women," said Mr. Norrell with some despair. "Childermass will hardly speak to me."
"Typical," said Jonathan, abstractedly.
"Drawlight and Lascelles will speak of nothing else," said Mr. Norrell.
"The fiends," Jonathan told his plate.
"And the ball is in two days' time," said Mr. Norrell. "I don't know what I shall do."
"A tragedy," mumbled Jonathan. He appeared to be drawing a diagram in his potatoes.
"Mr. Norrell," said Arabella, trying to subtly kick her husband under the table, "do you like the new waistcoat?"
"I am told it is the height of fashion." Mr. Norrell touched his wig, shifting it to a more secure position. "I am afraid that I am not."
Arabella could see it in her minds' eye. A dandified Mr. Norrell, new clothes and shining shoes, with his small worried face and elderly wig enveloped by the high collar of his waistcoat. She had to cover her face with her napkin again and fake a coughing fit.
Jonathan looked up. "Are you all right, Bell?"
"I'm quite well," said Arabella, recovering. "Mr. Norrell, may I give you some advice?"
"You might as well." Mr. Norrell sighed. "Everyone else has."
"If you feel uncomfortable at the very thought of your new waistcoat, you will be even more uncomfortable when you wear it." Arabella patted Mr. Norrell's hand and he flinched. "It might be wiser not to."
"But what will I wear instead?" Mr. Norrell was unwilling to have his problem so easily resolved after he'd already spent several days worrying over it. "I'm quite convinced that nothing in my wardrobe is suitable."
"Jonathan can lend you something, I'm sure." Arabella glanced at Jonathan, who was still absorbed in his food. She aimed another gentle nudge of her shoe, and finally connected with his ankle. "Jonathan?"
"What?" Jonathan's potatoes began to glow with an eerie light as his concentration snapped, and he hastily destroyed the diagram with his fork. "Yes, of course. What?"
"We differ a little in size," said Mr. Norrell, dubiously. Arabella judged that to be an understatement. Jonathan was several inches taller, and his shoulders were significantly broader. Mr. Norrell was inclined to be charitable about his own height, apparently, if little else.
"You can have it altered," said Arabella. "It needn't be returned. Jonathan has far more waistcoats than any one man could use."
"I don't think that's true," said Jonathan, finally catching on to the conversation. "I can't give away my clothing willy-nilly—"
"Mr. Norrell is in need," chided Arabella. "Haven't you been listening?"
Jonathan shot her an annoyed look that said 'no, of course I haven't.' But for once in his life, Mr. Norrell managed to say the tactful thing.
"It would be a great service to me." Mr. Norrell glanced hopefully at Jonathan. "I believe I can trust you in matters of style. You are much less conservative than I am, and appear to always wear something suitable to the occasion."
"Well." Jonathan sat a little straighter in his chair. "Well. I'm sure I can spare something." He smoothed the lapels of his embroidered waistcoat, preening. Arabella smiled at him, indulgent in her victory.
"You're very kind," said Mr. Norrell. "And I observe that you're experimenting with Smythe's Circle. Have you had any luck?"7
The conversation turned to magic, and Arabella finished her dinner as a passive audience. Peace reigned over the table.
She wondered if peace would reign at the ball. Jonathan had eccentric taste, which favored bright clashing colors and rich decoration. Arabella always found Jonathan a joy to look upon, especially since he'd returned from the war, yet he did make her eyes a little tired. Tonight's waistcoat, light purple with orange and yellow flowers, was a fine example. Perhaps it was cruel to inflict one of Jonathan's waistcoats on the unsuspecting Mr. Norrell, but Arabella still felt gleeful at the prospect of her petty trap. Mr. Norrell had been inflicted on her for so long, after all.
"I'm pleased to see you so happy," said Jonathan. "I didn't think anyone could enjoy Smythe's Circle as much as that."
"What?" Arabella pulled herself back into the conversation and moved her leg out of the way of Jonathan's playful kick.
"You were smiling," said Jonathan. "I imagine it is a testament to Mr. Norrell's skill as a speaker."
Mr. Norrell gave the old familiar smile of a northerner who knows that the soft southern folk are teasing him. At least, it was the same rough shape as a smile. When viewed at a distance it might almost be called friendly. No one would make such a mistake across the short expanse of a dinner table, however. Arabella returned the expression and rang the bell for dessert.
Mr. Norrell was late in coming home from dinner, and his visitors were obliged to wait for him. After the better part of an hour, Lascelles and Drawlight were becoming restless. Their tea was drunk, their biscuits eaten, and still Mr. Norrell was not here. Drawlight drummed his fingers along the arm of his chair.
"You could go home," said Childermass, leaning against the doorframe, "if Mr. Norrell's sitting room bores you."
"Perfectly comfortable," said Drawlight, immediately. "Thank you."
"Don't you have something else to do?" asked Lascelles. "Silver to polish?"
"No," said Childermass. He didn't like to think of Drawlight and Lascelles being unwatched, though he wasn't actually sure what mischief they could be expected to commit in a sitting room. Childermass knew what he would do, in their place. But, as had been recently pointed out to him, they were a better class of person and should not be compared to lowly servants; very probably they had a better class of mischief as well.
"I should have been more clear," said Lascelles. "Go and find something else to do. At once."
Childermass looked at him impassively and did not say any of the things that were on his mind.
"Let him alone," said Drawlight. "He's sulking because I've won."
"We shall see Mr. Norrell's waistcoat on Friday," said Childermass. "There's no winners or losers till then."
"Are you talking about waistcoats still?" said Mr. Norrell, behind him. "I suppose it's opportune, for once. Childermass, you're blocking the door."
Childermass made way for Mr. Norrell, who seemed almost cheerful for a change. He had something over his arm.
"We've been waiting for you half the night," complained Lascelles.
"What's that?" asked Drawlight.
Mr. Norrell displayed the article, with a strong hint of pride. "It is the waistcoat I will wear to Lady Sefton's ball."
The waistcoat was velvet, of good fabric, and that was the best that could be said about it. It was patterned in broad diagonal stripes of dark orange and bottle-green, with its stitching picked out in bright yellow thread. Childermass felt his jaw clamp shut when once he would have laughed. It was still very funny, even if he was unwilling to show it.
"That?" Drawlight affected a swoon. "It's too big!"
"I'll have it altered," said Mr. Norrell.
"It won't match your coat," said Drawlight. "Either of your coats."
"I'll wear my brown coat instead," said Mr. Norrell.
"It's extremely ugly," said Drawlight.
"I like it," said Mr. Norrell, and frowned.
"Where," said Lascelles deliberately, "did you get it?"
"Mr. Strange gave it to me," said Mr. Norrell. "He observed that I was a little agitated about my clothes for the occasion, and he was gracious enough to give me access to his wardrobe. Mr. Strange has much more modern tastes than I," he confided.
Drawlight's expression spoke volumes.
He and Lascelles did not stay long that night. They were annoyed with Mr. Norrell and disinclined to humor him; Mr. Norrell was very difficult to speak to without at least a little humor. Childermass walked them to the door, rather than leaving the task to Lucas. He wanted to see them gone himself.
"At least we are united in this, Childermass," said Drawlight. "All our advice is discounted when Strange becomes involved."
Childermass' lingering amusement died a silent death. He jerked the door a little wider and refrained from pushing the men out bodily.
"Can't think why Strange bothered to get involved," said Lascelles. "It's nothing to do with magic."
"We need to get between them," muttered Drawlight. "The war helped, yes, and the books, but—"
"Hush." Lascelles darted a glance at Childermass. "We can discuss it in the carriage."
Childermass closed the door behind them and shot the bolt with more vigor than was strictly necessary. He considered kicking the door, but did not want to explain himself to Lucas or Hannah or anyone else. He especially did not want to have the door repainted after he scuffed it. He leant against the wall instead, pressing himself into it, and closed his eyes.
Twenty-four years of service. Twenty-four years, a pistol-shot in the shoulder, an entire life spent on mice and magicians, and what did he have to show for it? Who did Mr. Norrell listen to about waistcoats? Jonathan Strange.
There was an aching itching pain in the back of Childermass' skull, crawling down sideways to the scar in his shoulder. He rubbed at his neck, trying to ease it. His other hand crept to his coat pocket, pulling at his cards, but he shoved them back down again. He didn't need to be told what he already knew.
Waistcoats. Childermass twisted his neck, listened to it crack. Mr. Norrell would have been uncomfortable in the new black waistcoat, but at least it would not have opened him to ridicule. This waistcoat of Strange's would. Drastic action was needed.
He'd burn the d--n thing.
No. Childermass rolled his shoulders and pulled himself away from the wall. Too far, too angry. This was only a small matter, in the grand scheme of things. He had to remember that.
But one way or another, the waistcoat had to go.
In the hour before Lady Sefton's ball, Mr. Norrell found his wardrobe empty. He looked at it in shock.
The hangers swung free of burden. Every drawer was bare, except the one containing his smallclothes.
Laid out on a chair were his green coat, a new pair of buff trousers, a clean white shirt, and stockings. The last item in the pile was his old double-breasted waistcoat.
The newly-altered waistcoat from Strange was gone with everything else. The new black waistcoat had similarly vanished.
"I've been robbed," said Mr. Norrell, to no one. Then he said it a little louder, and then a little louder than that, until Lucas knocked on the door and asked if he needed any assistance.
"Yes!" shouted Mr. Norrell. "I've been robbed!"
Lucas came in and surveyed the devastation. He didn't seem much concerned.
"We must call the police at once," said Mr. Norrell.
"Didn't Childermass tell you?" asked Lucas. "Lucy found a mouse nest in there."
Mr. Norrell stopped breathing.
"We killed the mice immediately," Lucas assured him. "And they didn't nibble the clothes too badly. But there was hair and leavings and a little blood, you see, so it all needed to be cleaned. Lucy and Hannah are working on it now."
"I see," said Mr. Norrell, rather hoarsely.
"Fortunately these new clothes were still in their bags," said Lucas. "The coat was hung up from when you wore it on Thursday."
"And the waistcoat?" asked Mr. Norrell.
"Another piece of luck," said Lucas. "Dido still had it downstairs from when she was brushing it."
"Very lucky," said Mr. Norrell, who was not as oblivious to the machinations of his household as some people appeared to believe.8
"Yes," said Lucas, impassively. "Would you like some help dressing, sir?"
The carriage ride to Lady Sefton's was very quiet.
"Mice," said Mr. Norrell, at one point.
"Hm," said Childermass.
"Odd that Daisy still had this waistcoat," said Mr. Norrell, a little later. "I thought I saw it in my wardrobe just yesterday."
"Your maid's name is Dido," said Childermass.
"I didn't see any mice yesterday," added Mr. Norrell.
"Very secretive creatures," said Childermass.
"Servants, you mean?" said Mr. Norrell.
"Mice," said Childermass.
They lapsed into silence again, until the carriage pulled up the driveway and the horses ambled to a stop.
"Stay out here, and keep your wits about you," instructed Mr. Norrell. "If you see anything or sense anything, send a message in at once."
"Of course," said Childermass.
"Don't use any magic unless it's necessary," said Mr. Norrell. "Don't draw any attention. But don't be too cautious, you understand?" He felt it was important to be clear, since his person was threatened so often.
"Don't worry," said Childermass. "I know what I'm about."
Mr. Norrell sniffed. "I suppose you do, at that."
He got out of the carriage with Davey's help, which was somewhat more difficult than usual. The mice had spared a new pair of court shoes which he had bought on his own account, from a cobbler who had gratifyingly recognized him and not pestered him for identification. They made him feel very tall, though he was aware that the heels scarcely added two inches. He smoothed the wide lapels of his striped waistcoat, and settled his green jacket around his shoulders. He thought for a moment about buttoning it; Drawlight had informed him that no one went around with their jacket open anymore. But the moment passed, and Mr. Norrell concluded that he, at least, might go around with his jacket open if he liked. It was more comfortable. He felt more comfortable.
"If the mice had to take the bulk of my waistcoats," said Mr. Norrell, apparently to the air, "I suppose I am glad that they left me this one."
"Your clothes will be clean tomorrow," said Childermass, a little cautiously. "No permanent damage was done."
"There is no hurry," said Mr. Norrell, running his fingers over his lapels again. "No hurry at all."
He strode off to the house and the ball, as ready as he ever would be. Then he had to shorten his steps, lest he fall. The stairs proved some difficulty. Perhaps the shoes had been a small mistake after all.
Lady Sefton greeted Mr. Norrell as soon as he was announced, which was a great honor. Mr. Norrell took it as his due.9
"I did enjoy reading about your exploits, Mr. Norrell," said Lady Sefton, still holding Mr. Norrell's hand. "You have done so much for the cause of English magic, I am sure. And your aid to the women of York—"
"I'm afraid you have mistaken the incident," said Mr. Norrell. "I did no washing in York. A confusion in the newspapers at the time."
"Oh." Lady Sefton looked momentarily disappointed, before brightening again. "You will do some magic for us, I suppose?"
"I think I can manage that," said Mr. Norrell. "Perhaps after dinner."
Mr. Norrell had become quite used to performing party tricks, although it still seemed beneath him. He was consoled by the fact that great doctors were often called upon to diagnose their hosts, and great painters asked for free sketches. Only great military men seemed immune from displaying their craft, since very few members of society desired a war in their homes.
Lady Sefton released Mr. Norrell's hand at last, and Mr. Norrell gave a little sigh of relief. Then he tried not to wince when Lady Sefton tapped him playfully with her fan.
"You are so very kind," said Lady Sefton. "And, may I say, I adore your waistcoat."
Mr. Norrell looked down at himself in surprise. "I'm afraid it's somewhat old. Out of fashion."
"Fashion." Lady Sefton snorted. "I would hope that the great Mr. Norrell is above the dictates of fashion. You look exceedingly distinguished. Professional. I can't stand those skinny lapels." She gestured at a man standing with a gaggle of young men and woman, holding forth to his adoring crowd. "I find Mr. Brummell fascinating for a number of reasons, but I can't help thinking his dress a little spare."
Mr. Norrell looked at Mr. Brummell, who was wearing a twin to the black waistcoat that had been so recently removed from his wardrobe. "Yes," said Mr. Norrell. "Well. I usually have other things to think about besides my waistcoat."10
Several yards away, Drawlight took another drink from his glass and scowled.
"At least it's not that awful thing of Strange's," said Lascelles.
"I don't care any longer," said Drawlight. "More serious crimes are being committed. Observe, if you will, what horror Lady Sefton is wearing."
Lascelles gave it an appraising eye. "Looks all right to me."
"Please." Drawlight waved a hand, encompassing Lady Sefton's entire being in his disgust. "She looks like my grandmother. Absurdly low neckline. No lace at all. Waistline too high. It's clearly last year's dress."
"I suppose you don't have to care when you're a countess," said Lascelles.
"You never have to care," said Drawlight. "It's a game, that's all. I hate to see it played so badly," he rolled his eyes at Lady Sefton, then smiled smugly at himself, "but I do so love to win."
"Didn't win this time," Lascelles muttered into his glass.
Drawlight said something very rude and then had to apologize to a nearby matron. He was not forgiven.
Outside, where the night was barely kept at bay by the light from the windows and the scattered carriage lamps, Childermass returned to Mr. Norrell's carriage with a bottle of champagne.
"Where did you get that?" asked Davey.
"I find friends wherever I go," said Childermass. "Friends who understand what it's like to sit outside on a cold night and wait for your master."
"Friends like that young lady over there?" Davey pointed at the maid who was creeping toward them, darting glances over her shoulder. "And it's not cold."
Childermass waved the maid over and Davey moved to the edge of the box so that the she could squeeze onto the bench with them, held on by Childermass' arm around her waist.
"I thought you couldn't get away, Sarah," said Childermass. "I hope you didn't sneak out."
"I finished my work first," said Sarah. "No reason why I shouldn't go outside, if I like. I couldn't get any glasses, though."
"Never mind," said Childermass, and released Sarah long enough to open the champagne. He did it carefully, letting the cork sigh out rather than pop; it was a waste of good alcohol otherwise, and might attract attention. He had Mr. Norrell's instructions to think of. When the champagne was ready, he passed the bottle to Sarah. "The patroness may have the first drink, if she likes."
Sarah laughed, full-throated. "Thank you kindly." She took a healthy swig, and gave the bottle back. Childermass passed it on to Davey.
Davey took a sip, then a larger gulp. Then he nearly dropped the bottle before Childermass relieved him of it. "Those bubbles go right up your nose, don't they?"
Sarah laughed again, and Childermass smiled. Then he held up the bottle, saluting the house. "Here's to knowing my place," he said, and took a long drink.
"Thought you were supposed to stay alert." Davey made a grab for the bottle. "Not get drunk."
"Have you ever," said Childermass, lifting the bottle out of Davey's reach, "ever known me to be drunk in the performance of my duties?"
"I won't answer that." Davey finally managed to claim the champagne. "I wouldn't want to shock our new friend."
"Like to see you try," said Sarah.
"Anyway," said Childermass, "without good company I might fall asleep in the cab."
"Just don't tell anyone." Sarah reached over him for the bottle. "I might lose my place."
"I'd say we'd hire you," said Childermass, tongue more loosened by success than the champagne, "but I don't know if I need another thief in the house."
Sarah shoved at his shoulder and nearly pushed herself out of the box. Childermass caught her and took the bottle.
"Anyway," he said, wiping his mouth. "We're hiring Davey's sister, and Mr. Norrell tells me we already have too many women about."
"Oh, are we?" Davey beamed. "She'll be pleased."
"Tell her it was a bloody good forgery," said Childermass. "Very modest. Fine phrasing. She just needs to be more careful with the consistency of her 'i's."
"Her eyes?" Davey peered at Childermass in the gloom. "There's nothing wrong with her eyes. Doesn't even need spectacles."
"No, her—" Childermass sighed and took another drink before letting Sarah pry the bottle out of his hands. "Never you mind. I mean to celebrate, not to perform a comedy."
Davey, quite wisely, said nothing further.
A good night was had by all, more or less, and according to their preferences. Mr. Norrell had his magic, Drawlight had his fashion; Lascelles, if nothing else, had his glass of wine. Arabella Strange did not have her revenge, but she was at home and with her husband, and much happier than she might have been. Childermass, happiest of them all, had his victory.
"Bottle's empty," said Sarah. "Davey's turn to go hunting for one."
"Do they all come with scullery maids attached?" Davey grinned, already tipsy. "The box is full as it is."
"The next one can sit in your lap," said Sarah. "Plenty of room there."
"Hush." Childermass raised a hand, feeling the air stiff with magic. It had a familiar tang to it, old paper and the whisper of leaves, and he relaxed. Mr. Norrell doing one of his tricks.
The lights of the house flickered, as if someone were waving their hand in front of a candle. A low buzzing noise rose and disappeared again. Childermass could imagine the scene inside, the gentry silent and awed, Mr. Norrell crouched over his task, the light illuminating his double-breasted waistcoat.11
"Feels odd," muttered Sarah, her fingers rubbing at her nose. "I'm not drunk enough for this."
"I'll get another bottle." Childermass pushed himself out of the box and to the ground. Someone had to do it, and he didn't mind the walk.
"Very kind of you," said Sarah. Her eyes were glued to the flickering of the windows. "What is that?"
"Mr. Norrell," said Davey. "Don't you mind it. He almost never uses scullery maids for his blood sacrifices."
Childermass slipped away as Sarah let out another barking laugh. It was fully dark now, the moon only a sliver in the sky, but his path around the back of the house was irregularly illuminated by Mr. Norrell's magic. Childermass' steps were sure as he skirted the garden and located the kitchen door. He knocked and then turned to the windows again, watching the spectacle as he waited to be admitted.
1 By which Drawlight meant the coat which he had ordered and charged to Mr. Norrell's household accounts. It is evident that these sorts of unexpected expenses annoyed Childermass, as he often made sarcastic notes to this effect when they necessitated a correction in his book-keeping. Childermass went so far as to periodically make a tour of clothiers to explain that no charge to Mr. Norrell's accounts should be made without Childermass' permission. Meanwhile, Drawlight always managed to find the only uninformed tailor in London and produce another extravagant charge. Caught in the midst of this silent war, Mr. Norrell attempted to buy a hat at Mack and Bennet's and was rudely rebuffed.
2 Edward Wyford's life is described briefly in a fragment by Gregory Absalom; Wyford himself was much too busy to pen a memoir. He appears to have been a powerful Aureate magician who nevertheless left little mark on history due to a consuming obsession with hair. Wyford had once been the proud owner of a shining brown locks, which had slowly disappeared in his middle-age. His attempts to magically rectify his baldness and recreate his glory were largely ineffective. After three years, his most successful spell did produce hair in the desired location, but the hair was frizzy, golden, and in such abundance that Wyford was compelled to reverse the spell or drown. Unfortunately, reversing the spell proved to be even more complicated than casting it in the first place, and it was another five years before Wyford reentered society, bald-pated, exhausted, and thoroughly disgusted with magic. His later works are unrecorded.
3 Childermass had presented letters of reference from a Mr. Willoughby and from one of the lesser Mr. Barings. Mr. Baring's supposed letter contained grudging admiration of Childermass' diligence, full praise of his literacy and arithmatic, and a few veiled words of warning with regard to his unfortunate tendency toward insolence. No mention is made of what position Childermass occupied in the household. As far as it is possible to ascertain, at this late date, he had never served Mr. Baring in any capacity.
Mr. Willoughby's letter was in a crabbed hand and entirely unreadable, although Mr. Norrell often claimed that it had afforded him many insights into Childermass' character. Former servants well remember the phrase "Just as Mr. Willoughby promised," spoken by Mr. Norrell whenever Childermass had especially displeased him.
4 It appears that Childermass never followed through on his admittedly vague instructions to 'do something' about the number of maids in the house. All three of the maids involved in the waistcoat incident remained in Mr. Norrell's employ even after Childermass himself had left his service. Childermass may have simply ignored the issue, out of fondness and loyalty for the women. Another possibility is that Mr. Norrell soon forgot how to differentiate the three housemaids and merged them into one again, resolving the problem without need for further action.
5 This is attested by several contemporary sources.
6 George Bryan Brummell (1778-1840) will be immediately recognizable to the educated reader as one of the icons of London society during this period. Brummell began his career in Prince George's personal regiment, but resigned his commission when the regiment departed London for Manchester. Civilian life was an acceptable alteration; Manchester was not. Brummell remained in London as a favorite of the prince regent and a leader of fashion. He pioneered such affectations as daily baths and full-length trousers, while entertaining all but his targets with his cutting wit. When asked what he thought of the miraculous revival of English Magic, Brummell replied that he had met a magician and rather thought his boots needed polishing. It is unclear whether he was referring to Mr. Norrell, Jonathan Strange, or some less reputable personage. Certainly it was difficult to meet Brummell's standards for boots, as he recommended that they be polished exclusively with champagne.
In 1813 Brummell quarreled with Prince George, and in 1816 he escaped England and debtor's prison by fleeing to France. During the interim, however, he remained for many the most important man in London. By comparison to Brummel, as Mr. Schweitzer himself often stated, even the prince regent had a somewhat poorer sense of style.
7 Smythe's Circle is an Argentine spell meant to increase the bounty of the field contained within the drawn circle. Like many Argentine spells, it is unclear if it ever worked. Magicians certainly claimed that good harvests were a result of the spell. Bad harvests, however, were ascribed to poor weather, careless farmhands, or faerie interference. Jonathan Strange seems to have attempted to increase the bounty of potatoes, without much effect; his purpose is difficult to divine, since he had not yet eaten what was already on his plate.
8 Historians of modern magic are always ready to debate not only the extent of John Childermass' influence on Mr. Norrell, but also the extent to which Mr. Norrell was aware of that influence. Some authors advance the argument that Childermass worked in subtle ways, as either a pernicious or a mollifying force. Other scholars argue persuasively that Mr. Norrell employed Childermass as a goad to his ambition, displaying a remarkable degree of self-awareness. At one point, John Segundus gathered the courage to ask Childermass himself if he could settle this debate once and for all. Childermass answered that he was unable to do so, and would like to be informed if a conclusive answer was ever found. Indeed, the question had been bothering him for quite some time.
9 Lady Maria Sefton (1769-1851) was an important social figure both through her husband, Lord 'Dashalong' Sefton and through her position as a patroness of Almack's Assembly Rooms. Among the august ladies who governed Almack's, she was older, quieter, and rather more amiable than her peers. Lord Sefton was equally amiable but much less quiet, with a penchant for racing carriages down the streets of London. In the history of magic, Lady Sefton is best known for employing a number of magicians in the 1820s to find some alternative to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which Lord Sefton vehemently opposed. Unfortunately the perils of mass magical transportation were never overcome; horses made of air would blow away unexpectedly, persons who entered mirrors rarely came out again, and the fairy roads, while passable, were predictably plagued by faeries.
Ultimately, the railway began service in 1830 to great acclaim. During the opening ceremonies, one of the trains struck and killed the MP from Liverpool, the Right Honorable William Huskisson. Upon hearing the news, Lord Sefton was heard to remark that at least the faeries would have only kidnapped the unlucky fellow. The attending company judged this to be both inaccurate and in poor taste.
10 Though most modern magicians profess similar sentiments, it is nevertheless true that the sartorial choices of the first modern magicians were almost as influential upon their early followers as their theories were. While exact imitation was only a short-lived phenomenon, even now it is useful for a host or hostess to note that Norrellites tend toward the conservative in their dress, while Strangites dabble in outlandish. By spotting these differences, the wise host(ess) can seat disputing magicians as far away from each other as possible and thus avoid a trying evening. It is unclear if there is a Childermass 'style,' since few magicians will openly declare their allegiance to him. It must be admitted, however, that long hair and a certain carelessness of dress is often the mark of a free-thinking magician. The wise host(ess) should certainly not seat these persons with other magicians. Indeed, it might be wisest not to extend an invitation to them at all.
11 Which looked, as Lady Sefton told almost every member of the attending company, very fine. She repeated this so often that Mr. Norrell began to believe it, and the waistcoat became his constant companion at public functions. It is depicted in both his portrait by Thomas Lawrence, and the fantastical painting by Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, Les Magiciens. The waistcoat is particularly striking in Les Magiciens, which portrays Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in the midst of their enchantment. Shrouded within the Pillar of Darkness, Strange stands at a window looking out, his eyes searching the dim sky. Mr. Norrell sits at a desk, his own eyes searching the brittle pages of a heavy tome. His wig and his waistcoat provide the only hint of light color in the entire painting, which is otherwise rendered in rich tones of brown and grey.
In fact, Lady Sefton was not especially enamored of Mr. Norrell's iconic waistcoat. She describes it in a letter to Lady Jersey as "rather affected and actually a little faded with age." However, she continues, "I was obliged to compliment it most highly, as Mr. Brummell had arrived in a waistcoat that was entirely unsuitable for public wear. I am sure I was a success—I heard Mr. Mildmay talk of buying a Magician's Cut waistcoat, and Mr. Brummell nearly flew into a rage. He said something very nasty about Mr. Norrell's stockings, which were perfectly inoffensive." It appears that Mr. Norrell had become a casualty once again, this time in a minor social skirmish. The debate of the Magician's Cut continued for several months before Brummell, disgusted with the topic, began to leave his coat buttoned at all times. Society followed suit, concealing their waistcoats and banishing them from their minds. Conversation passed to the proper color of a coat, and Mr. Norrell became irrelevant to fashion. It is unlikely that he noticed, although Childermass was much amused.