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A Curious Habit

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Childermass had a certain air of mystery about him that drew gossip in the servant’s hall. It might have been a carefully cultivated air, or perhaps it was unconscious, but either way there grew up around him certain legends. These were much repeated and consequently much embroidered. I cannot speak on the truth of whether Childermass had once chastised a Duke or the Duke had been chastised by Mr Norrell for some affront to Childermass, nor whether Childermass saw faeries in the looking glass. I may not pass comment on whether his low voice was caused by some person who had been so annoyed by Childermass’ insolence that he nearly throttled him for it. (In some versions of the tale the man escaped unharmed but lost his fortune within a week, in others the man went to sea and was never seen again.)

One persistent legend held that Childermass never slept within a bed. Of course any of the maids could tell you that when his bed sheets were changed they had quite plainly been slept in, but fact should never be allowed to spoil a good tale. In truth the man had a persistent habit that gave enough credibility to the story to make it worth the telling: in his years of service to Mr Norrell, Childermass had often been found quite asleep in the strangest of places.

Mr Norrell himself had once found Childermass asleep upon the hearth in the library, curled quite snugly between the mantelpiece and the fender with no care for sparks or cinders. Of course the Master had thought him drunk and quite a scene had taken place but since he had been obviously sober when woken, Mr Norrell was forced to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred at all. Any future incidents were similarly never mentioned.

When the household removed to London, it was not only Mr Norrell who observed this curious habit. His guests certainly found it rather peculiar that his man of business should choose to sleep in the space beneath the stairs in the hallway or were surprised when seeking to retrieve a hat or other article and discovered Childermass instead, slumbering beneath the hat stand. A certain polite blindness had to be employed where Childermass was concerned, for Mr Norrell would not hear criticism of him. Bad enough that the man never stood up when his betters were present, to say nothing of his insolent habit of lounging against the wall whenever he was upright: to openly acknowledge that a servant had been asleep over his desk through one’s entire visit was more than any self respecting man could bear.

Mr Lascelles, being so often in the house, should have become used Childermass’ habits but never quite achieved it. When Mr Strange had taken his books to the Penninsula, a reorganisation of the library had to be undertaken to spare Mr Norrell the pain of seeing gaps upon his shelves. The space remaining, condensed to one out of the way place, evidently held a considerable lure to Childermass, for when he returned from long journeys he was found stretched out along the empty shelf, quite hidden by the library door. Mr Lascelles impotent fury on finding him there was really quite pleasing to Childermass.

Such were his ways that on the day of Lady Pole’s attempt on Mr Norrell’s life, when Davey found him slumped on the last step of the staircase, he initially assumed the Childermass was taking one of his customary naps. Davey was used to this curious habit but not all of the staff were so familiar with it. One poor young scullery maid roused the household with her screaming over the dead body in the laundry room and had been particularly mortified when it turned out to be Childermass asleep in the laundry basket. He only slept in the clean laundry once. Man of business or not, cleanliness of the linens was a serious concern to any self respecting housekeeper and her chasing him out with a broom put an end to the practise.

Childermass could be found asleep anywhere. The gardeners at Hurtfew Abbey reported that he was once found asleep atop a dry stone wall which was a feat of balance no mortal man could reproduce. He could also perch like a raven in a treetop and fall asleep with no fear of falling. Dido said he must have been homeless one time and never had a proper bed, poor thing, while Hannah said that it was the fault of Mr Norrell summoning him all day and night and stopping him sleeping the night through in his own bed. Charlotte, who was not one of his favourites among the maids, said he did it to be an inconvenience to everyone, the great lump, for he was sometimes found across doorways or on staircases where one had to step over him and nothing would wake him but Mr Norrell’s bell.

When he began his wandering days, the days After Norrell as he sometimes thought of them, there were no more of Mr Norrell’s servants to gossip about him but even fewer chances for sleep in a proper bed. Wandering with Vinculus he could always find a bed of sorts, quietly unobserved by any passer-by who might trouble him and looking as peaceful as if he slept on the finest feather mattress, but it was not the same as being safely within four stout walls. Thus being generally more tired than in the service of Mr Norrell he slept more soundly when he was at liberty to do so. His times of greatest respite appeared to be at Starecross where he once startled the men in the stables by arriving fast asleep on horseback. (It took great effort to rouse him so that Brewer might be stabled and Mr Segundus had to be summoned to persuade him to go to bed). Mr Honeyfoot had also found him asleep across the front step one morning after spending the night there rather than ringing the doorbell like any sensible Christian folk. The students found it a source of merriment; particularly when he fell asleep with his head pillowed on the table during dinner or disrupted a dull lesson by waking suddenly from his resting place at the back of a classroom.

A large and regal feline graced the school with her presence and she was fond of any space where she might curl up and sleep in comfort. Nobody dared speculate whether she had learned the habit from Childermass, or he had learned from her, but many a student or maid found Childermass asleep on a windowsill, in a patch of pale Yorkshire sunshine with the cat asleep upon him. Once she had dared to sleep on Childermass’ hat while he was still wearing it. The event had been recorded by a student, who quickly sketched Childermass, and the cat before waking him. The sketch was widely copied and school rumour, almost the equal of servants’ hall gossip, said that even Mr Segundus had a copy affixed to the wall of his office.

When Mr Segundus announced at dinner that Childermass was expected a great deal of chatter broke out among the students as they took bets on where Mr Childermass might be found asleep on this visit. The roof of the hen house (currently popular with the cat) and under the piano appeared to be the favourites.

“Well,” said Mr Honeyfoot, “what’s your best bet Mr Segundus? Where is the strangest place you’ve found Childermass sleeping?”

Mr Segundus replied that indeed he could not say: he could not remember the precise location because there had been too many. Mr Honeyfoot thought that this was a rather dull reply for everyone had his or her favourite story of Childermass’ sleeping habits. It would certainly have surprised him had he known that when Mr Segundus retired early to his rooms he found Childermass, in perfect repose in the middle of Mr Segundus’ bed. But while the staff and students of Starecross might have found this the most astonishing and scandalous place of all to find a sleeping Childermass, Mr Segundus did not find it unexpected at all.