To the city of York, in the year of our Lord 1780, there came a young man who had fallen upon hard times. Now a wise reader may discern that this phrase, oft-used and -abused in our age, has little enough meaning suo jure. A matron who finds that the finances of her household have been spread like a sliver of butter over just a bit too much bread may realise that her daughters cannot be permitted to purchase new bonnets this Autumn, and decide that she has fallen upon hard times. A young buck dismayed to see the end of the Season with nary a prospect that pleases him may turn to his friend and say that, by George, these are hard times. Even a King or Queen may recall an instance where he or she gave an address that was ill-received by the people, or failed to respond to some tragedy or other at a pace the rabble found timely, and say of it, what times those were, and a listener will take the meaning.
But these, at least, were not the nature of the times upon which John Childermass had fallen.
"Ay, I'm sorry, John," said his friend Larkin, shaking his head and letting loose droplets of pale ale from his ragged beard. "But it's fine to see you again, if I might say that. It's fine to see you in York."
Childermass looked up at the Paper Crown's1 arched ceiling, a crude, rough-hewn child of York Minster's own buttresses. He saw no use in saying he'd missed Yorkshire as well; he hadn't, in fact. When his mother'd taken him away with her he could think of little but London, and then, like a Londoner, he came to think of nothing but London.
The North was dull and old and he resented it. This mingled with a nagging, filial guilt, which just made him resent it more. Guilt sat ill with him, which was a trifle ironical, because in the eyes of the King's Bench guilt sat very well indeed with John Childermass.
Sitting at the bar of the Paper Crown, Childermass found that he possessed the most damning quality that could burden any young man of low birth, crueller even than sickliness or ill-favoured looks. Childermass was unemployable. He knew this much, of course: though scraping just the floor of twenty-two, most every one who knew him agreed that he was a clever, proud boy who'd grown to a clever, proud man, deviant enough to make trouble for himself and sharp enough to know that he had.
"It's fine to see you also," he said with a smile. Childermass had learnt to smile by reflex, as an afterthought. It was prudent. "You needn't fuss over me. I've my letters. I have it on the highest authority that any solicitor's firm would turn away an honest man for one with his letters."
"Solicitors' firms want references, my friend," said Jem Larkin with a gulp of his bitter drink. He wasn't a friend who told a kind lie. "Have you got a reference?" The barmaid's eyes flickered up at them, but she moved on; barmaids belonged to that sacred brotherhood of silence with priests and physicians, perhaps more devoutly.
"I know several fine Londoners who've testified at length to my personal character," said Childermass with a dry laugh, thinking of the King's Bench.
Larkin did not laugh. He regarded Childermass with doubt wrinkling the corners of his eyes. "It is your bleeding pride, John, if you don't mind me saying," he said in the frank manner of someone aware that his audience did mind him saying; "There's day-labour here if you want it. Hired labour, too, if you look for it. Not in the mills, either. Maybe not in London, for you, but no one knows you here and no one cares to."
Childermass glanced at his fingertips, scrubbed down raw and calloused over. "I've done day-labour," he said.
At that Larkin did laugh, then flinched, ashamed of himself. He looked askance at Childermass and found his friend smiling, so fled the subject with considerable relief. "Ay, you'd be wasted on labour, you lazy sod," he opined and cuffed him in the arm, the traditional olive-branch between young men of their station. "I'm sorry, I am. You're no man's horse-groom." He reflected. "And they do ask horse-grooms for a reference, I think."
"I'll move on," said Childermass, already wondering if there was a city in England where they cared less for the moral character of a horse-groom. He passed his flagon without looking to the barmaid, who wiped it out with a rag. "It isn't any trouble. There's nothing keeping me here."
"I'm sorry, John," said Larkin again.
"You're wrong there. There's a position opened up," said the barmaid. The two young men blinked at her, surprized at once by her interruption and her existence. She shrugged and returned to her scrubbing-out, cleaning out two more glasses with two more twists of the rag. "Keeps opening up, I hear."
Larkin blinked once, in puzzlement, then once again, in disbelief. "You mean with Mr Norrell?" he said. "Good God, woman, that hardly counts. Don't get the poor sod's spirits up for nowt."
Childermass frowned, leaning on his elbow. The name rang a bell, but a very faint, minor one in a long-neglected belfry. "Mr Norrell who employed your sister-in-law? Thought I heard of an aneurism?"
"You did," said the barmaid, mouth set in a neutral line. "It's the son we mean."
"I didn't know he had a son," said Childermass, as the lives of the Yorkshire landed did not number among his many interests. He supposed they had sons. Their lands had to go somewhere in the event of aneurisms.
Larkin snorted and flicked a look at the barmaid, a look that was half conspiratorial and half accusing, like a corrupt official. "Oh, he's got a son," he said. "Had a son, I suppose. Now he's dead, the elder, that is: and mark it, we never thought we'd miss the man."
The idea of brushing ponies for some squire with a weak chin in exchange for a few years' wages had crossed his mind before. Service was looked upon as a good placement for a lad of his background. He'd always resented that. The idea of a few years had crossed his mind, to be certain, but a life there had not.
If Larkin had alluded to some amiability in young Norrell, Childermass would have dismissed the suggestion, as amiability in a gentleman was another word for patronisation. If he'd called him kind, Childermass would have laughed it off, because kindness in a gentleman was another word for deceit.
This, by contrast, nipped at his curiosity. Gentlemen were notoriously dreadful people, by John Childermass's accounting; when one actually became notorious for being dreadful, it was an accomplishment. "I'm not suited to service, Larkin, you know that," he said. "What's wrong with Norrell the younger, then? Is he cruel?"
Larkin exchanged a look with the barmaid. "Well--"
"Beats the help?" Childermass enquired. "Bothers the maids?"
"Not exactly," said Larkin, "he's--"
"Better than half his cousins, then," said Childermass, who was two-and-twenty and still given to saying that all of the rich men in Yorkshire were cousins. He leaned forward and said, with some hypocrisy, "Come off it, there's no need to be mysterious. What's the matter with him? Is he an atheist? A sodomite?"
"Worse," said the barmaid: "A magician."
This hadn't reached Larkin's ruddy ears. "Is he? Collects books, you mean?" He hitched a breath: "I'd just heard he'd bought Hurtfew Abbey and all his valets quit on the inside of a fortnight, or he sacks them. Collins called him a shit. He's gone through all the lads with half a decent reference to their names."
The woman who tended the bar at the Paper Crown twisted another rag through a glass one, two, three times and gave the grey world outside a sidelong look through the dirty windowpane, like she thought she was being watched. "No," she said simply. "Well, yes. He collects books too."
"Does he pay for the fortnight?" asked Childermass.
Larkin and the barmaid blinked at him.
"You said his valets are gone within the fortnight," said Childermass slowly. "Do they get their wages for it?"
James Larkin frowned. "I don't know," he said. "I suppose not if they quit. John, what are you thinking?"
That night sitting with his legs crossed on his mattress, Childermass sorted through his copied-out Marsellaise cards. The deck was starting to feather apart at the edges.
He turned over Le Bateleur with two fingers and considered it for a while. It was only a fortnight, Childermass thought, a fortnight and his curiosity would be satisfied and he'd be able to move on to better, or to worse, things. A man could tolerate any thing for a fortnight.
He remembered Hurtfew Abbey.2 He'd never been there, of course, but he'd heard it in variants of York skipping-rhymes and songs3 about the Raven King that told of a girl's husband and named all the King's Northern seats at the same time. There was nothing otherwise to recommend the name Norrell to John Childermass's memory, after all, but that the Norrell family was wealthy. They'd never taken interest in John Uskglass, as far as he'd known, or in magic. Old Henry Norrell had liked to hunt4.
Childermass rode in with a produce cart. It was a wet morning and the land sloped up before them like a low, grand staircase. Not long, not long, my father said, the song came curiously to his head. Not long shall you be ours.
He must have been whistling, because the driver leaned back to him and said, "That the Raven King's ballad, mate?"
"Aye," he said, surprized.
"Aye, well, I'd be quieter than that with the master about," said the driver, "if I were you."
Childermass was silent for the rest of the ride to Hurtfew, more puzzled than ever.
As it turned out, he was not to see the master. He was given to a weary butler with mutton-chops and eyes like a basset-hound's, who said of him, "We've got another one, Mrs Higgins." Then he had a sit-down in his clean, ill-fitting suit with Mrs Higgins the housekeeper and the butler, whose name turned out to be Mr Mayhew, and they looked him over.5 The meeting was perplexingly short.
"You're Mr Childermass?" said Mr Mayhew the butler, looking him up and down.
"He's awfully young," said Mrs Higgins with a remarkable amount of candour.
Mayhew looked at her through the edges of his drooping eyes, as if to say, does it matter?
Childermass fidgeted in his chair. Neither seemed to notice. "Have you your letters? All of them?" Mayhew asked him.
"How many are there?"
Mayhew wasn't amused. "He'll know," was all he had to say on the matter, looking back at Mrs Higgins. "Mrs Higgins?"
"Do you know how to black a boot?" said Mrs Higgins.
"Yes," said Childermass.
"Are you a thief?" she asked.
"No," lied Childermass.
"Then he'll do," said Mrs Higgins and pushed herself up out of her chair on both plump hands, thereby concluding the briefest interview for the position of gentleman's valet of which Childermass had ever heard.
He did meet the master the following day, but it wasn't quite accurate to say that the master met him. One of the footmen, Liam, led Childermass to Mr Norrell's study to shew him how he preferred his desk ordered. But the master had risen early--or stayed up through the night, Childermass wondered--and was already sitting there with a letter by the time they arrived. Liam paled; Childermass watched curiously over Liam's shoulder.
Gilbert Norrell was very small, which obscured his age. He was young enough, not much older than Childermass himself, but the too-big housecoat he was bundled up in made him look like someone's granny. He had a dusting of mousy hair and little fingers that tapped out a pensive tattoo on the desk when he stopped to consider his writing. He didn't look up when they came in.
He hardly looked a magician. Maybe the sort that collected books.
"Liam," he said without even a flicker in their direction. "I'm hungry. I thought I sent Brockway for breakfast."
Liam half-blanched, to Childermass's astonishment. He looked like he was being forced to speak to an enormous spider, not a slight young man in a brocade housecoat. "Er--"
"Yes?" Mr Norrell went back to writing. He had a narrow and cramped hand; Childermass didn't envy the letter's recipient.
"Brockway--Brockway isn't here any more, Mr Norrell," Liam stammered. "You dismissed him, sir. Last week."
This was absurd. Childermass stifled a snort. That was just as well, as Mr Norrell did look up at them the instant after: he had blue eyes, his only claim to discernible colouring. "Ah," he said. He had a quiet voice that would never carry over the ambient noise of a London house. "Then who is this?"
"John Childermass, Mr Norrell," said Liam. "Your new valet."
Mr Norrell stared at Childermass, who stared directly back at him--imprudent, but at that moment it didn't occur to him not to. He really had never been in service. Mr Norrell was too preoccupied to notice any insolence, perhaps, as he glanced back down at his writing in the next moment. "Oh," he said, half to himself. "Childermass, then. What are you doing here? I wanted breakfast a half-hour ago."
And that was Mr Norrell. Childermass stole another curious glance in his direction as Liam elbowed him out in the direction of the kitchen with a pitying look, one that one might give a cock being dumped out of a bag into a fighting ring. As if to say, God help you. Mr Norrell had gone back to writing; when Childermass returned with hot porridge and two rashers of bacon the magician dismissed him with a snap of his fingers, as to a dog.
"Well, John?" asked one of the footmen, Jacob, over a midday drink: "What do you think of Mr Norrell?"
Across from them, a maid made a face and Liam looked upstairs like the mention of the master's name might summon him. They were all square, home-spun Northern people, all dark and dark-eyed though none quite so much as John Childermass. He'd already overheard a maid refer to him as 'the gipsy from London' when his back was turned and wondered what they'd make of his cards. He'd pushed the deck under his new bed, into a dark little corner that hadn't seen a feather-duster in years.
Childermass shrugged. A fortnight was a fortnight. If he was to be gone on the inside of a month, what was the use in concealing his opinion? "I don't see the fuss," he said. "He sent for porridge and then dismissed me. He didn't ask me to dress him for the day. Evidently I'm a chamber-maid." Secretly he was a bit disappointed. He'd devoted some time to practising on a cravat.
"He isn't getting changed for the day at all, then," Jacob pointed out. "I own the man doesn't know how to do up his own buttons. Most likely he's got work to do."
"Work?" said Childermass.
Jacob and Liam exchanged looks.
Childermass took another sip from his dirty glass and sighed. "Ah, well, I don't understand," he said. "I imagine I will tomorrow, or the day after. Give me my time. You'll see the back of me soon enough."
That snagged at Liam's attention, like a crooked nail; "You don't mean to stay?" he asked.
"Does it matter what I mean?" said Childermass with a candid tilt of his head.
No-one had an answer for him.
By night, first frost was tracing the windowpanes of Hurtfew like silver lettering. "They call it the King's letters6," Childermass was telling a maid, an insubstantial Cumbrian girl with a lot of brown hair that seemed to swallow up her head. "Or they used to, in any case. It meant that John Uskglass had written something over your house, and there were men who said they could tell you if it was a blessing he'd written you, or a curse. They called themselves magicians. I suppose every one called himself a magician then."
Staring from the inside of the Camden workhouse, thirteen or fourteen years of age, John had sometimes tried to read the King's letters. Nothing of consequence. Just Northern superstition: Northern superstition, and fairy-tale, and when had the Raven King ever taken up but a handful of oakum for him? He'd been sure he'd never think of John Uskglass again.
The maid smiled at him here and now and he smiled back at her. "Pardon me, Gillian," he said. "I don't really know why I'm telling you this."
"Neither do I," said Jacob and looked up from his boot-blacking. "Say, John. I thought you were from London."
"I've been from London," Childermass said.
Mayhew the basset-hound butler defused things by trundling in sadly, like he'd been kennelled without food. "Mr Childermass," he addressed him. "You're needed in the library."
It was the oddest thing, like a draught passed round the room as Gillian looked to Jacob and Jacob looked to Gillian and Mr Mayhew. No-one was telling Childermass any thing, of course; he was accustomed enough to that, so he just picked himself up with a nod and said, "Of course, Mr Mayhew," and tried to remember the direction of the library.
Mayhew had to have shewn him where. He must have. And yet--Childermass frowned in irritation, unaccustomed any more to a world that he couldn't bring handily to his bidding when he needed it most, and went to Mr Norrell's chambers in the hopes he'd find some signifier there. He remembered those. Yet when he arrived he found he was staring at an empty desk, tidy and devoid of the papers that'd been there before.
Hurtfew was the finest building he'd ever seen from the inside. One would think he could recall its layout. This wasn't right.
Liam came up behind him. He'd taken pity, of course. There was always one who took pity. "I'll take you," he said quietly.
Childermass looked at the frost outside of Mr Norrell's windows, which taunted him with his own incomprehension, and thought of superstition and fairy-tale. Then he shut his eyes.
He felt like he was waking up, or, really, dropping into the first stage of sleep; he was walking with Liam, and then he was sure he'd lost his way, because the Hurtfew staff always lit every candle and he was in darkness. Then he was in a warmer room and he opened his eyes to adjust to the lamplight again. He was in a great, half-empty library. The lower shelves were peopled with books--leather-bound volumes, bundles of papers trussed like Christmas hams--but only by half-, and where the books ended mid-shelf they were bookended by a shapeless black statue.
His new employer was sitting at a broad table, at the other end of which sat a shallow silver dish filled with still water. By the reading-light Mr Norrell's sleeplessness was starting to shew around his eyes. He had a stack of books in front of him, and one book open, and his chin in his hand, with such a vengeance in his expression that the book might have issued him a challenge of honour. It was a little charming. Childermass supposed the library was addling his head.
"Liam, leave us." Liam bowed and faded. "Mr Childermass," said Mr Norrell, to Childermass's general surprize. "You're a Northern man, aren't you? You speak like a Londoner, but not entirely."
"I am, sir," said Childermass.
Mr Norrell gave a brusque nod as if impatient that Childermass had spent his time confirming something he'd already known. "You look a Yorkshireman," he said and looked at him squarely for what felt like the first time.
Childermass met his eyes; and to his surprize, Mr Norrell glanced down and away immediately. Of a stranger behaviour from an heir, Childermass couldn't conceive. What on earth could someone like Gilbert Norrell have to fear from him?
There were no outside-facing windows in the library at Hurtfew. Childermass knew because he'd looked for them to determine where the room sat in the house. Everything was warm and quiet here too, no soft murmur of the staff speaking, and if Liam hadn't been present moments before Childermass might have doubted that there was any such thing at all as the rest of Hurtfew Abbey. The sort that collected books, indeed.
Mr Norrell blinked at him. "What are you goggling at?" he said sharply. "I didn't send for you to loll about staring at me like a half-wit. Fetch me a book. Lemarchand, Histories."
The spines on the shelves were all facing the same direction, to be more easily read, but they weren't in order… not in alphabetical order, any how. No, there was no chance that they weren't in order. No-one who set them all in the same direction wouldn't have put them in order. Childermass glanced over the titles, then another handful, and then located the slim, half-faded spine of a book labeled Le Marchand and slid it out with two fingers.
He turned to find Mr Norrell with an artless look of surprize on his face. He wanted to say, You really are a magician. Instead he said, "Are the narrative histories clustered together, and the practical manuals too? That makes sense enough. But I'm sure it confuses Liam." And he placed the book cover-up on the table before Mr Norrell could decide he was holding it the wrong way too. "You'd be able to organise with more complexity if you used all of the rows."
Mr Norrell shot him such a glare that Childermass was sure he was going to sack him right there. But he said, simply, "Thank you," and then left Childermass standing there as he leaned over his silver dish and peered at it. He brought an unsure hand up and drew a line in the water with his fingertip, bisecting the surface. Childermass watched, fascinated, until Mr Norrell said without looking up, "What are you doing now?"
"Watching you," said Childermass before he remembered to append a "sir," too interested in the water to be afraid.
"I never gave you permission to do that," said Mr Norrell. He leaned back over his peculiar task.
Childermass stayed where he was. Mr Norrell chewed his fingernails, then balled up his hand in a fist and put that in his mouth, then finally snapped, "I don't have enough water. Go to the river. Once you have, you can have Liam--"
"I don't think that will be necessary," said Childermass, "sir." When Mr Norrell raised his eyebrows at him he smiled in spite of himself. "I've a good sense of my bearings," he said. "I'm from London."
Most oddly of all, the smile seemed to upset Mr Norrell the most. He flushed and looked away. Childermass didn't wait to be dismissed, or for any further insults to his intelligence--he bowed and left.
"And now?" Gillian asked him over porridge, early in the cold and dark of the morning. "How are things with Mr Norrell?"
Childermass leaned on his elbow. "He's shy," he said.
Every one--Gillian, the footmen, a maid called Annie and one of the cooks' maids, Eliza--stared at him with creases in their mouths that all said, shy?
"He's an arsehole, I think you mean," said a boy whose name Childermass didn't know.
Gillian and Eliza looked scandalised, but Mrs Higgins and Mr Mayhew weren't here and words flowed freely downstairs unsupervised. "That's also likely," said Childermass in reply, ambivalent. "It doesn't preclude his being shy. How long has he--" --practised magic, he wanted to say, but the circle of stout, wary faces around him gave him pause. He wondered what they thought of magic. He wondered how much they'd seen at all of what Mr Norrell did in his mystifying library. Perhaps not much--he hadn't either, he realised, and in fact he found his memory of what he'd seen fading from his mind. In fact, he was starting to wonder if he'd seen any thing at all. But he was beginning to have some idea of why that was.
That was irritating. He drummed his fingers and considered what to do.
That morning he was certain he'd be sacked just for being a rubbish valet. The position had sounded so simple. He'd tied that cravat at least seventeen times. But though he didn't fumble when he did up Mr Norrell's boots, when he was finished he received a very cross, "That's very good. Or it would be if I were going out riding. Why on earth did you put on my boots? Shoes, you daft boy."
Childermass restrained a remark upon Mr Norrell's own age and pursuant rights to call him a boy, and also an enquiry about why he hadn't said something sooner about the boots, and just ground his teeth together and found a pair of small, black shoes. For his efforts he got an eye-roll from Mr Norrell and, "Yes. You're very clever, Childermass. I do hope I'll be dressed before Sunday." And: "Boots. Where did you even find boots?"
When he was done Mr Norrell lifted up his foot to inspect the shoe. "I should sack you," he said.
"Yes, Mr Norrell," said Childermass.
Later, when he was summoned to attend Mr Norrell again, he shut his eyes and found his way to the library at Hurtfew as he had before. "This is the third instance on which you've been tardy, Mr Childermass," said Mr Norrell.
This is the third instance on which I've been here, Mr Norrell, he thought. "I'm sorry," he said.
Mr Norrell wore a crisp grey wig when he was dressed for the day, which Childermass was sure he thought made him look mature and distinguished, but gave the impression in fact of playing barrister with his Papa's clothing. "I'll be needing a few things from the house," he said, gesturing to the array of chalk-lines and paper on his table, "for my--work. I'd like--"
"That will be difficult," said Childermass, "if the spell you've laid upon this place makes it impossible to hold more than one thing you've said here at a time in my head."
Mr Norrell drew in a sharp breath.
"Sir," Childermass added.
Mr Norrell made a childish face. Even so, he didn't seem able to argue the point. He stood up at the table, which brought him barely above Childermass's shoulder in height; he rested his hands on it and curled his small fingers around the edge. "Come here," he said.
Childermass complied and stood still while Mr Norrell dipped the tips of his fingers in the water and brusquely traced something on one of his cheeks, then the other, then put his palm flat on Childermass's forehead like he was checking him for a fever. "There," he said. "The labyrinth only recognises the magician who enchanted it. Now you are a second magician, for the purposes of the enchantment."
"You're not actually a magician," said Mr Norrell, peevishly.
"Yes, Mr Norrell," said Childermass.
Childermass did not really understand the process by which Gilbert Norrell became an object of fascination for him. He supposed that if he were to be quite honest, there'd been no time when he hadn't been: Mr Norrell's very existence was fascinating, that of a rich young man who concealed assiduously from the world what made him fascinating in the first place. He did not seem like he should be a rich young man. Rich young men liked horses, women, gaming--Mr Norrell cared only for books and magic.
Over a week's time Childermass gathered this much more about Mr Norrell: he was about five-and-twenty years of age. He'd grown up in Yorkshire, closer to the south, and he had a mother living and two elder brothers named Stephen and Winston. Spirits gave him the headach; tobacco smoke made him cough. He blushed if he noticed that any one looked at him for too long. He did not intend to marry.
At one point, Childermass was roused at midnight by a blood-curdling shriek. He scrambled out of bed, thinking of the maids, only to realise he wasn't entirely certain of the shriek's direction. That gave him an idea. He hurried faster.
The library at Hurtfew was more difficult to find with his heart beating quickly, but only just, and he was a bit astounded only to find Mr Norrell in his housecoat standing atop one of the chairs. Mr Norrell looked astounded to see him as well: all the colour had drained out of his face. "There's a rat," was all he said.
Childermass blinked and looked around in the limited light. He had rather a bit of experience with rats, and while he had nothing against them personally he also harboured no sentiment on the matter7--not seeing one, he was about to suggest Mr Norrell purchase a cat when a tiny blot moved on the floor.
He peered at it. "Mr Norrell, that's a spider," he said.
"Don't say that!" shouted Mr Norrell with his hands over his ears.
This was one situation Childermass had never actually encountered--not a spider, of course, but a man so petrified by one. He felt more lost than he had in the labyrinth. He looked at the spider, which looked back at him, arms waving. "Here, I'll--"
"Childermass!" Mr Norrell's voice hit the ceiling.
The arachnid scuttled off into the dark under the table. Childermass dropped to his hands and knees and pounced after it--Mr Norrell cried out--and smacked his palm down on a likely shadow. He came up with a large spider in his hand and wrinkled his nose in disgust. Mr Norrell now had his arms braced over his eyes. Childermass dropped the spider and smashed the heel of his shoe down on it, then smashed it again, until it was in too many pieces to be alive. He was about to say so, then thought better of it and reached down to bundle it up in a pocket-handkerchief.
Mr Norrell didn't stir. "It's all right," said Childermass. He had the compulsion to do something silly, but he dismissed that too and instead disposed of the carcass and said, louder, "It's gone now."
Over a fortnight's time Childermass gathered this much more about Mr Norrell: he was frightened by insects and rats and mice, cats and dogs too, and he didn't entirely trust horses. He would admit all of that with defiance and a blush. He was also a bit afraid of the dark, which he would not admit.
Once Mr Norrell sent Gillian to wake him in the middle of the night, about four hours after midnight. Childermass made the groggy trudge over to his new master's chambers, expecting another spider. Instead he got a sharp, irritable Mr Norrell, which was not any better. "There you are," he said. "You sleep too much. I've a task for you."
"If it be your will, sir," said Childermass with more than a trace of sarcasm.
This time he was sent out to the wood to dig out the roots of a plant--the deepest, tenderest naked roots of the dog's mercury, said Mr Norrell like he was reading aloud, and five crowns of ivy and a worm from the roots of the hawthorn-tree. Childermass went outside alone with a trowel and a lantern and looked up at the stars' vertiginous ceiling--so much brighter here than in London--and, briefly, enjoyed the night air. Then he remembered that he was tired and he wanted to be sleeping and he'd be expected up at the same time tomorrow morning, so he went to work.
He thought he heard the laughter of a crow.
When he came back with his dirty gains, Mr Norrell bunched up his little nose at him. "You're disgusting," he said. "Wash up and don't come back here in this state. You'll soil something."
I could quit, Childermass thought. I could quit. It's been a fortnight. Instead he went to bed.
Over a month's time Childermass gathered this much more about Mr Norrell: he never spoke of the Raven King.
John Childermass knotted Mr Norrell's cravat at his throat with three tidy motions. Mr Norrell fixed his gaze on a point on the wall, like always, and Childermass smiled at him just to see him glance skyward and colour. He was certain he'd perfected the art of the no-fuss, no-nonsense cravat, too, but when he stepped away and Mr Norrell looked in the mirror he shook his head and said, "You can't properly tie a ballroom knot. Fix it."
"Yes, Mr Norrell," said Childermass and undid the cloth, then re-tied it again.
When he was finished Mr Norrell glanced back in the mirror. "I don't recognise that knot," he said.
"I can't properly tie a ballroom knot," Childermass reminded him.
"Go away," ordered Mr Norrell with a snap of his fingers.
For their midday meal they had half a leg of lamb downstairs, somehow, and every one was jolly and in their cups except for Childermass, who was cheerful and not in his cups. He did not relish the thought of being in his cups and then discovering Mr Norrell wished him to promptly get with child a mandrake root or something similarly demanding.8 "Do you know, Liam and I have been impressed," confided Eliza to him jovially with a cup of watered-down wine in her right hand. "He really does like you."
Childermass's mind had wandered far afield and he blinked, a little taken back himself. "Excuse me?"
"The master," agreed Liam. "He likes you. No one here's seen it done before." Mrs Higgins caught their eye, but gave a wink as if to say, it's true.
Childermass furrowed his brow. "I can't tell the difference," he said. He'd already resigned himself to the humiliating fact that he liked Gilbert Norrell for some reason. The reverse hadn't actually occurred to him.
"Oh, he likes you," said Jacob with a snort.
Mr Norrell kept worrying at his unorthodox cravat with his fingers and giving Childermass edgewise looks when he joined him in the library, but he soon forgot about it in favour of muttering aloud about something he was working on--Childermass had come to understand some of the basic principles of magic, some of the properties of offers and exchanges and binding, but whatever Mr Norrell's spell in the silver dish, he hadn't mastered it yet. Childermass didn't ask him. There was no one quite so loath to volunteer information as Mr Norrell, especially if asked. He tended to treat people who asked him questions as enemy spies.
So Childermass listened to the best of his ability and leaned over Mr Norrell's shoulder to better see what he was trying to shew him. Mid-sentence Mr Norrell blinked, stopped, and took a deep breath.
"What--I'm working on," he said, "is a spell of seeing. It should allow me to locate and see any one in the water here, provided that I know his name."
Childermass cocked his head and listened.
"It isn't working," said Mr Norrell with a scowl.
Childermass waited. Mr Norrell took a deep breath and went on, "It involves dividing the world--metaphorically!--into quarters, and then quartering again by region until one may isolate the location of one's quarry. It's--easier with a lay understanding of geography, of course--I got the idea from something--something William of Lanchester is recorded as having performed for his master. John Uskglass." That seemed to wake something very moody in him. He shook his head. "It's no matter. I'm not going to be able to bring it to fruition, I'm sure of it. I don't have enough books--there's another book on the subject, but it's not here. Not in Yorkshire. I've looked."
"You don't know that you won't find it," said Childermass with a half-smile.
"I've looked," said Mr Norrell with a definitive shake of his head. After a long moment, however, he looked up at Childermass again and hesitantly cleared his throat and resumed his explanation.
Winter and 1781 came to Hurtfew on surprisingly light feet. Not to Yorkshire: it came to Yorkshire that year in sleet and howling wind, and Childermass heard that an old woman had up and died in the middle of Christmas Mass in York Minster, but drafts only curled in the corners and doorways of Hurtfew Abbey, even in the servants' quarters. Childermass was surprized, in such an old building: he supposed that Mr Norrell might have cast a spell. Or he supposed that such a spell might have been cast, one way or another.
The King's letters curved a feathery signature over his bedroom window. Childermass lay with his head on his thin little pillow and recalled the years of his life from which he'd banished John Uskglass like a hated relation.
Gillian opened his door and he stood up immediately, by reflex. "The master needs you," she said.
Childermass went for his coat. From the doorway she added, "Bring your gipsy cards," and he stopped with an arm halfway through a sleeve.
She hadn't specified in the library or in his chambers, and perhaps neither had Mr Norrell, so Childermass first shut his eyes and tried to find his way to the library. He found quickly that his feet had no memory of such a place; so this was what occurred if someone sought out the library at Hurtfew when its master was not in residence. Mr Norrell really did fear--he feared something. Childermass didn't quite understand what.
A large hide-bound book was sprawled out over the desk, illuminated with lines of French calligraphy. Childermass could pick out a few words here and there: le dédale, perdue, several instances of le magicien.9 Mr Norrell flicked a glance over the page and then turned it with two fingers. He read quickly. Childermass had wondered on more than one occasion whether Mr Norrell would have preferred a world where every one could write and far fewer could speak to the reverse. Conversation only ever appeared to hinder his thoughts.
Mr Norrell clapped the book shut and shot Childermass a suspicious look. Childermass had to wonder what Mr Norrell suspected him of: surreptitiously memorising spells written in French? He hardly knew whether to be insulted or flattered.
"Sit," he said. "Tell me a fortune with your cards."
Childermass hesitated and looked at him.
Mr Norrell's fingernails were chewed down to the quick. "Did you think I had no idea of what you keep under your bed? I suppose you also think that I don't know what you are?"
It was late, and Childermass was too weary to be afraid of being sacked, he supposed, though it seemed the likeliest outcome. He rested his head against the wall. "What am I, Mr Norrell?" he asked.
"A thief," said Mr Norrell. "Do you think I am content having no idea at all of who comes to live under my roof?"
There were times when all of Hurtfew seemed to go to sleep around them, often when they were in the library. Tonight it felt uncomfortably awake, like everything around Childermass was holding its breath. He could hear the indistinct murmur of women's voices and the far-off whickering of the horses as Jacob or one of the boys brushed them out. Childermass sat and wondered again if Mr Norrell was going to dismiss him, but Mr Norrell just folded his arms and gestured with two fingers. He was not a man who could conceal his anger, in Childermass's estimation, and he did not look angry.
Childermass shuffled the cards of Marseilles and laid out nine in a row. He turned over the first. The picture was a man, copied out unfinished in Childermass's hand. "Le Roy de Bastons," he said. "For the present your actions are governed by a man. Your countryman, it would appear."
Mr Norrell gave a bitter laugh. "You tell me nothing which I do not already know," he said.
"The cards of Marseilles often do," said Childermass with a little smile. He sobered again when he saw Mr Norrell and the way he looked at the King of Wands, so he turned over the next card without a flourish. It was Le Pendu, suspended by his feet. He turned over L'Empereuse and considered her with brief puzzlement, as it seemed very unlikely to his accounting that Mr Norrell entertained an interest in some woman of which Childermass had never heard. He thought about it differently and then turned over the Two of Wands.
Together he could see it more clearly. "You have waited for some-one, or something," he said, "and this could indicate that you intend to wander. But I do not think that is what it means. You have waited for some-one or something, and you are alone--you have looked, in your way, the entire world over," he said, "and what a great and enchanting place it has been, but you have not found what you are looking for."
"How repetitive," said Mr Norrell at the bottom of his voice. "Tell the cards of Marseilles that they need not humiliate me further on the subject of the Raven King: Le Roy de Bastons was quite clear."
Queerly enough, it was not the Raven King to which Childermass thought L'Empereuse and the Two of Wands referred, though what instead he could not say. John Uskglass had never humiliated Childermass because he had never wanted any thing from him enough to ask for it.
Again, he had the impulse to do something silly. Instead he turned over L'Ermite and half-smiled. The cards of Marseilles rarely presented him with any thing so facile, though, so he considered: "You are hiding something," he said. "Something within yourself that you fear beyond reason, though you know it very well." He reached for the next card.
Mr Norrell held up his hand. "I tire of this game," he said. "I do not want to hear the rest."
"Go to bed, Mr Childermass," said Mr Norrell with his forehead in his hand.
In his little downstairs bedchamber where the calligraphic frost had melted and then frozen again into mess and nothingness, Childermass closed his eyes and formed a silent prayer to John Uskglass the Raven King.
It all went to rot again in the middle of January when Gillian tossed the wrong bundle of letters into Mr Norrell's hearth-fire. Childermass was scrubbing out the silver basin with Castile soap and a chamois when he heard the screech. It was a sound like wind ripping its way out of human flesh too soft and fragile to hold it; it was the cry of a dead or dying thing. It did not come from Gillian. It did not come from Mr Norrell.
Childermass turned and so did Jacob, from his post dusting the desk, and the room was all filled up with metal wings.
Jacob had the presence of mind to scream. Gillian had frozen, staring at her empty hands, and the hearth-fire, and the harpy, whose bronze body was still trapped within the grille though her razored pin-feathers sliced perilously this way and that through the air of the study. Childermass was staring too, with the soap still in his hands. He'd seen Mr Norrell say words to the Yorkshire earth that pulled ivy up through the dirt like six weeks had passed in an instant. He'd seen his own feet mislead him, his eyes deceive him when he tried to map in a composition-book a path to the library at Hurtfew that couldn't be mapped. He had never seen any thing like this.
If not for the Jacob and the harpy both screaming they all might have been lost. The harpy thrashed and gouged out half of the ornate iron-work on the fireplace. Childermass threw an arm up over his face.
It occurred to him that the creature was going to kill him, Gillian, and Jacob, and possibly every one else as well. He cast about for a fire-poker or a coat-hook and it was in this useless endeavour that he was made aware of Mr Norrell's arrival. The magician was breathing hard in the doorway of his study. His eyes were wide and blood-shot. He looked paler than Gillian. Just then Childermass was absolutely certain that all he was going to do was join Jacob and the harpy in shrieking.
He did not. He came up next to Childermass and seized the basin--with some effort--and dumped its soapy contents onto harpy and fire. The flames were sucked up in an instant, then the harpy too in another screech that tapered off into a smoky wail, then into nothing. Gillian had her hands over her mouth. Childermass gaped. Jacob was still screaming until it occurred to him a few seconds later that there was no reason for this any more, and then he just closed his mouth and looked embarrassed. Save the mistakenly burnt letters and the doused fire, there was now no evidence at all that they'd ever stopped tidying Mr Norrell's study.
Mr Norrell's breath was still coming in epileptic bursts. He dropped the empty basin on his desk with a clang and leaned against the desk and wrapped his arms around himself. His complexion had gone from white to red. Childermass opened his mouth to say something to him, but Mr Norrell looked up and fixed on Gillian first.
"What," he said, "did you burn?"
The three of them, Gillian, Childermass, and Jacob had been tasked with tidying up Mr Norrell's study in the service of moving all his materials for his new labyrinth to his library. Mr Norrell had assigned Jacob to dusting, Childermass to the basin, and Gillian brusquely to sorting through the letters from the rest of the Norrell family.
Gillian shrivelled. There were tears already in her voice when she answered: "I--I thought they were the letters from your brother--I'm so sorry, Mr Norrell, I didn't--I'm so--"
"You thought? You thought they were the letters from my brother?" Mr Norrell interrupted her with lye dripping from every syllable. "Gillian, does it seem likely to you that I labelled Hellenic glyphs of summoning with 'Mr Winston Norrell' by accident?"
"I--I can't--" Gillian stammered.
"You can't, Gillian?" Childermass found himself marvelling in a detached manner that Mr Norrell knew Gillian's name at all. He always had thoughts like this at the wrong times. "You can't be trusted with dusting my study without destroying my work and putting my household in indescribable danger? I don't even know what I have--"
Childermass's throat was cramping up. Before he could stop himself, he cut in with, "Mr Norrell, sir, she--"
Mr Norrell ignored him and advanced a few steps on Gillian, who backed into the mantelpiece. Beats the help? Childermass remembered his own lazy question of not so long ago. But no, that wasn't the character of Mr Norrell's anger. Gillian was sniffling: "I can't--I'm so sorry, I told Mr Mayhew that I could, but I can't, I don't know the difference, and when you told me--"
The master of Hurtfew Abbey had fixed her with a cold, uncomprehending stare. "What are you talking about?" he said.
"She doesn't have her letters," said Childermass, who had surmised this weeks ago. Mr Norrell turned his head to look at him. "Mr Norrell, she doesn't have her letters. She can't learn them. She doesn't know the difference between Roman lettering and Greek. Sir, I don't know what she said to Mr Mayhew, but she's illiterate."
He'd backed around to join Gillian at the mantelpiece without realising, protectively. She'd stopped sniffling long enough to give him a hopeful askance look that he didn't return. Childermass cast his eyes down, then up again, beseeching: "She couldn't have known the difference," he said. Then he saw the way that Mr Norrell was looking at him and realised that he'd made a mistake.
Mr Norrell hit Gillian across the face with the back of his hand, not hard. The blow let off a sharp crack all the same. Childermass flinched. Gillian stumbled. "Get out," said Mr Norrell.
"Collect your belongings and leave," said Mr Norrell, his voice rising an octave. "I will not suffer a maidservant who lies to me."
It did not take Gillian Hammersmith long to pick herself up, curtsy one last time to Mr Norrell, and flee the room. Childermass did not know how long it took her to gather her things and leave. He had never seen someone sacked from service before. He remembered a John Childermass who was unsuited to service. That John Childermass had nothing to say that could have helped Gillian right now. Mr Norrell was staring into where the hearth-fire had been. Jacob had turned his face away, but he didn't look distraught, or even surprized.
Mr Norrell's voice had calmed a bit. His hands were shaking, though. "Mr Childermass," he said.
"Do not contradict me in front of any of the other employees," said Mr Norrell, "ever again. Unlike Miss Hammersmith, I am giving you the lenience of a warning."
"I didn't contradict you," said Childermass.
Mr Norrell peered at him in disbelief. "Pardon me?"
Jacob had set himself to re-kindling the hearth-fire, after which he trained his gaze wisely on the ceiling. Childermass took a deep breath--in for a penny, he supposed--"I didn't contradict you," he said. "Gillian did not have her letters, sir. Most of the maids don't. I wouldn't examine the footmen either, if I were you--you have Mr Mayhew ask them all, of course, he asked me, but the fact is that most of them don't. And Gillian couldn't have. She had a--she couldn't make sense of letters at all, I know Jacob tried to teach her." (Jacob shot him a sharp look.) "Mr Norrell--"
"Stop," Mr Norrell said; "stop talking right now, Mr Childermass, or I promise that I will--"
"That you'll do what?" Childermass snapped and put both his hands on the desk. "Sack me along with Gillian? Sack any one who says a cross word to you, or makes a mistake? Your household's in a shambles, Mr Norrell. You'll have no one left to hire but liars and thieves. Like Gillian. Like me."
Mr Norrell took a small handful of the remaining papers and sorted through them, like he was purposely ignoring Childermass. It wasn't very effective. His fingers were still shaking. "Then go," he said. "You're obviously so fond of her."
Childermass gritted his teeth. "Oh, for Heaven's sake," he said. "Don't--"
At least one of the papers was inscribed with Mr Stephen Norrell. Mr Norrell cast it aside and took up another one, and tore it in half. "In the case that it's not exceptionally clear, Mr Childermass, I'm sacking you," he said. "You're not immune. You wouldn't be the first."
"No," said Childermass, feeling like a child.
Mr Norrell furrowed his brow in utter astonishment. "No?"
"No," Childermass repeated and tried to avoid thinking about what he was saying, and meeting Jacob's incredulous eyes, for that matter, in favour of holding Mr Norrell's: "You can't just dismiss everything that displeases you, sir."
"You," said Mr Norrell, who had gone back to his business of disposing of letters in the flames, casting in a yellowing document which blackened and peeled at the edges, "are an unbelievably arrogant creature."
"Perhaps I am." Behind Mr Norrell, Jacob was shaking his head furiously.
Mr Norrell put down the rest of his bundle and walked up to Childermass, who expected him to strike him like he'd struck Gillian, or seize him by the cravat, or something similarly furious. His face was contorted with scorn. He did none of these things, though: instead, he put his dainty palms out flat and said coldly, "I said you were dismissed, Mr Childermass," and shoved Childermass backwards into the fire.
The fire didn't burn him. John Childermass covered his face with his arms by protective instinct, but the fire didn't burn him and he didn't knock his head on the stone mantelpiece. His first step back went into fire and cinders. His second caught scrub and wet grass. He uncovered his eyes, which was when he realised that rain was now pouring onto his shoulders and hair.
His first thought was that this was some element of the labyrinth. His second thought was that his first thought was ridiculous.
He pulled his coat up over his head, to little avail. The black clouds above were unloading all their burdens onto him, wherever he was--wherever Mr Norrell had sent him--and he had never seen this place before. The wind bit him too, chafing his cheeks and hands and throwing rain sideways into his eyes when he tried to look out over the land. He was on a road, at least, a muddy road strewn with gravel and marked with waggon-ruts.
He blinked water out of his eyes and tried to ascertain that what he was seeing was real. In his limited capacity and without any training as a magician, he was certain that he didn't have the same dizzy feeling that the Hurtfew labyrinth gave him. It didn't feel magical, not any more, any how. No black birds wheeled over his head mocking him.
At least it wasn't especially cold here, despite the wind and the sideways rain. It was warmer than Yorkshire, by any measure. Childermass surmised he was near the sea, which was of little help to him in England. If he was in England at all. Mr Norrell was a magician, after all; he could have sent him to Brighton (though this did not look at all like Brighton), or he could have sent him to Scotland, or to Araby. This did not look at all like Araby either. That didn't narrow the possibilities much.
He hazarded a look at the ground, then to the left and the right, wondering if he was in one of the Raven King's realms. Nothing he saw signified that he was in any thing other than a rainstorm in a very desolate, rock-covered part of England.
Childermass picked himself up, held his valet's jacket over his head, and walked.
Unemployable, he thought. A fortnight. A man could tolerate any thing for a fortnight. To the Devil with a fortnight. To the Devil with Gilbert Norrell. At this juncture Childermass would have sworn that he knew of nothing wickeder in Creation, not Bedlam or the workhouse or the smirking gentlemen of Piccadilly or even John Uskglass the Godforsaken Raven King, than Gilbert Norrell. To the Devil with John Childermass, too.
It didn't take him long to find a cluster of lights. At least Mr Norrell hadn't sent him to starve somewhere far from the reaches of civilisation. Probably he hadn't thought of it. Childermass wondered how he looked, a haggard young man in the drenched uniform of a gentleman's valet, and found he did not give one whit. He trudged through the mud and ignored stares and looked for the likeliest man who might give him the time of day, or, more importantly, the place.
He found a non-threateningly grubby-looking old man and hoped he spoke English. In fact, he did, and he furthermore removed the need for any awkwardly phrased enquiries on Childermass's part when he goggled at Childermass and said in a salty, distinctly nasal voice, "What happened t' you, lad?"
Childermass put both his hands in his sodden hair. "I'm in Cornwall?" he said to no-one in particular.
The old man looked puzzled. "Were you in Kent before?"
Childermass said a very unpleasant word.
"All right, then," said the old man with a twitch of his white chenille-stem eyebrows and hobbled on his way.
The Juggler-and-Fool had obviously not always been a public house: in fact, Childermass very much doubted that any jugglers or fools had ever been in attendance. He felt like he was crowded in someone's re-purposed sitting-room. He pushed his lanky knees under a low table and studiously ignored all of the Cornish staring. It was Cornwall, after all, and he was appreciative enough of the roof and the fact that the place presumably served something that he could get smashed on if he ordered enough of it. He wasn't entirely sure of how he was going to pay for it, or of how he was next going to pick up employment at all, he supposed, but none of that seemed very important at the moment.
He leaned his elbow on the table and put his forehead in his clammy hand. Yorkshire wasn't very lovely at all in the winter, he reasoned, at least not outside of Hurtfew's windows. If only Mr Norrell'd had the decency to send him to the other end of the isle with his month's wages.
A man dropped into the chair across from him. Childermass looked up to see if he was a drunk, both in anticipation of trouble and in calculation of how easily parted he might be from his coin-purse.
He did not look like a drunk. He was a slight, dark man, dressed too well for this backwater hamlet in a coat that looked like it had been woven against the Northumbrian cold. He was well-made: patrician, even, and fair and smooth in the face like a handsome woman. But when he opened his mouth his words were much too rough to be a gentleman's; he sounded like a Northerner, almost, but also like a sailor, with the mixed-up vowels of someone who'd spent a long time very far away.
"You're wet," said the stranger with a smile. "Would you care for a drink?"
"Of course," said Childermass with a flicker of interest somewhere in his stomach, about which he couldn't really be buggered to feel guilty at present. "In the interest of honesty, I don't believe that I've ever answered that question in the negative."
The stranger laughed. "Barkeep!" he called and ordered them both pints with several gestures of his gloved fingers. Then when they had their drinks in front of him, and rather less than half of Childermass's was remaining, the stranger raised his glass and said, "You've had a day, haven't you?"
"You," said Childermass, "do not have any idea."
The stranger said, "I think I might."
It must have been the ale. It must have been the ale, or Childermass wouldn't have found himself so profoundly incurious about the man's name--because he had a curious nature, did Childermass, and would have asked. Something about him stirred recollection, though; something like he might have met him before, or at least should have heard of him. It seemed like a silly question. He would find out later. "Might you? I've just been sacked," said Childermass a bit more loudly than he intended. "I've just been sacked and I'm in Cornwall. That is a day. Have you ever had a day like that?"
"Not exactly," said the stranger--no matter how he sipped, his pint never did seem to empty, how funny--and rested his kid-gloved hand on the table. "But very few men have had your days, John Childermass. Or the ones that you will have."
Childermass tipped back more of his drink and said nothing.
The stranger smiled again, as if on a whim. "Tell me," he said, "would you read for me from your cards, if I asked?"
"I don't have my cards," said Childermass crossly through a mouthful of ale. "It was a very perfunctory sacking."
"Pity," said the stranger and bought him another drink.
Childermass knew that he must have been drinking for some time because he found himself deep in conversation with the stranger. He didn't know what he'd told him, though he had some deep-seated, rather arrogant confidence that it wasn't any thing he would regret, or it wasn't any thing the stranger didn't already know, at any rate. He was talking about Yorkshire and then he was talking about Mr Norrell: under his voice, so that the rest of the Fool-and-Juggler10, or whatever it was called, couldn't hear him.
It was in vague enough terms, he was certain, yet when he tried to summon up what the rest of the conversation had been to this point he found himself forgetful. That was the liquor, surely.
"--and really, I should loathe him," he was saying, "I've got every reason to, believe me that I do, but--"
His erstwhile companion shrugged an elegant, bespoke shoulder. He really did stick out here, but no one was looking at him. Well, people were remarkably incurious. "I believe you," he said. "The ordinary cruelty of men is a disappointing thing."
"He's not an ordinary man," said Childermass.
That elicited a pause. Around them, the Cornishmen laughed and the wind and the rain beat the eaves of the Juggler-and-Fool. "No," the stranger said, laughter suddenly gone from his mouth as he met Childermass's gaze level, "he isn't, is he?"
Childermass's second pint was half-empty. He put his chin in his hands and considered who it was that he was talking about. In some ways Mr Norrell was a very ordinary man, or at least, he was a mortal one--an unusual one, to be certain. Not all forms of unusualness were charming. Not all forms of unusualness were remarkable. Some were cruel and some were irritating, and some were just disappointing, and perhaps those were the worst of all. But--he didn't know. He didn't know how to justify himself, to Man or God or James Larkin off in York or any one else. But he knew he couldn't, and he knew, now, that he didn't have to.
Once again he thought that there was something very familiar about the stranger's voice. But he put it from his mind and remembered Gilbert Norrell again and shook his head.
The stranger peered at him again, up and down, like he was examining him for some feature he was seeking or comparing him to a sketch of a wanted man. He must have been satiated by what he saw in Childermass, as he leaned back in his wooden chair shortly and regarded him with his chin in the air.
"It is no matter what you want from him," he said, "and it is no matter what you get from him either, John Childermass. He will never be yours to keep."
"I know," said Childermass. "I don't care."
"So be it for you," said the stranger with one last sidelong, prideful smile. Then he reached across to the bar to pay the tab and Childermass fell asleep face-down on the table at the Juggler-and-Fool.
When he woke he had a terrible headach and the stranger had carelessly left behind his bag and his coat. The coat did not fit him, so he bundled it up and stuffed it in the bag with the intention of selling it. The bag was empty, too, except for a few pence at the bottom and a slim book with something unintelligible scrawled on the cover. Childermass peered at it through bleary eyes until it was intelligible.
It read Dédale. That was strange: of course the man was a magician, he thought, the sort that collected books, because Childermass had recognised him, after all. But he could not recall his name. And leaving a book in an ale-house was a very careless thing to do.
Mr Mayhew did not stop him when he came into the house, though he did blink a great deal. Word must have reached Mrs Higgins by the time he passed her by, because she did not blink quite as much, though she did not stop him either, and he even glimpsed a smile as she turned away and said, "This is a surprize, John."
He tipped his new hat to Eliza when he came across her in the hall and she raised her eyebrows and curtsied. "Well, hello, John," said Liam when they brushed shoulders downstairs.
"You mad son of a whore," said an admiring Jacob upstairs.
John Childermass shut his eyes and found his way to the library at Hurtfew with little more uncertainty than if he were re-tracing his steps from the doorway to his bed in the dark. In fact, navigating the sign-posts of southern England had proved a great deal more perplexing than any thing Mr Norrell had ever enchanted.
He rejoined Mr Norrell's company in finer, drier clothing than that in which he'd left it. It was ill-gotten, but no more ill-gotten than the vast majority of his life's gains and he cared little for those details. It did not match the livery of Hurtfew's footmen. He knew it did not. He'd abandoned the tidy queue of his hair that he wore as a valet and let it hang tangled and unkempt from the ride from York. He had shaved himself clean for the occasion, however, and he presented himself with his head high and the blithest expression that he could manage.
Mr Norrell was sitting with a book in his lap and another book on the desk, which seemed to be all that prevented him from taking to his feet immediately in alarm. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
"Hello, Mr Norrell," said Childermass, and bowed to him.
Mr Norrell closed his mouth. "Hello, Childermass," he said.
Childermass crossed the remaining distance in the room, resisted the strange, half-sad urge to smile when Mr Norrell pulled back in his chair by wary habit, and dropped himself into the chair opposite Mr Norrell at the library table without being invited. Mr Norrell looked drawn, he thought, like he'd portioned out his sleep over the past several nights with too much economy.
Neither of them said any thing for at least half a minute. Childermass found himself just looking at Mr Norrell; Mr Norrell coloured and looked back at him, and at his books and the ceiling and at everything. "I should have you thrown out," Mr Norrell said.
"No, you shouldn't," said Childermass.
He leaned back and cleared his throat. "I'm here to rejoin your service, Mr Norrell," he said. "But not as a valet. It serves me well enough that you sacked me, Mr Norrell. It saves me the trouble of having to resign. I will not be your valet." Childermass crossed his arms. "I will follow you until you dismiss me again, and then I promise I will go. I will follow you anywhere. But I will not tie any more of your cravats or wait upon you like a footman. You'll have to find better uses for me than scrubbing out the silver basin."
Mr Norrell could not meet his eyes for a while. He had his hand to his mouth and then bit the skin of his knuckle as he composed his thoughts, which was as distracting as it ever was. Then he folded his hands in his lap and sat still before he answered. "Very well," he said. "I will take you on as a man of business. I expect you not to disobey me again in front of the rest of the household."
"Not unless your skin or your soul depend upon it," said Childermass with a grin, "or mine, in which case I make no excuses."
Mr Norrell said, "There will be questions."
"There are always questions."
"You were an awful valet," said Mr Norrell.
Childermass shrugged. "I've heard damning things about my ballroom knots," he said.
Mr Norrell bit his lip. "I do not understand you," he said finally.
Childermass looked back at him: he was Mr Norrell, a little mouse in a very old place. He had faint dark circles under his pale eyes and though he was not old for his age, exactly, he was older every day. His wig still made him look like he was playing dress-up. His housecoat still looked like it belonged to his mother. Even now he only thought of himself, most probably, or of magic, and sometimes they were the same thing. He was scared by spiders. He was scared by the dark. He was scared by any one who looked at him too long, or touched the bare skin of the underside of his wrist. His heart beat faster than any human heart when he was afraid, or incensed, or delighted. He had more dislikes than he had fine hairs on his body. His temper was vicious and cruel. He never apologised to any one.
He was the only magician in the world and the Raven King had broken his heart not so very long ago. It was worse than if he'd never truly had one at all. He lived in Yorkshire and he waited for something to which he could not put a name.
He will never be yours to keep.
John Childermass smiled. It was the merciless little smile of the victorious and the condemned. "No," he said. "You do not. Look here, I've brought you a book."
1 Once a young stonemason, smitten hopelessly with the third daughter of a Yorkshire baron, learnt that the girl had been presented at the Northern court of the Raven King and found himself overcome with a terrible and foolish jealousy. In the common room of a York public house, he first denounced the name of the Raven King; then, when another guest asked him if he truly had no need for his King, he forswore his allegiance to him; then, when the stranger reminded him of the King's deeds, he boasted that he could build a castle that would rival any of the King's fairy kingdoms. When the stranger challenged him once more, the stonemason fashioned himself a crown from the paper of three letters he had written to his unattainable paramour and declared that he, she, and York had no need for the name of John Uskglass.
The stranger stood and said that, if that were so, he would have his crown and his kingdom indeed, and bowed to the stonemason, and mason and crown were changed instantly to grey rock.
The statue of the crowned mason was moved to the courtyard of the public house, where it stood until the rain wore it down to sand and the wind swept the sand away. However, it is rumoured that on the date of Gilbert Norrell's infamous enchantment of the stones of York, two bathing children in Brighton were frightened away from the beach by the angry and stricken voice of a Northerner calling out for his lady-love.
Not all tales of the Raven King render him as a figure of patience and mercy.
2 Hurtfew Abbey's penultimate owner was a Nottinghamshire investor called Fitzhenry Blythe who had bought the property decades before on a whim and had never managed to think of any thing profitable to do with it. When approached with a handsome offer from a young Mr Norrell, he sold the house and lands with very little thought--for Blythe had been born into the sort of money that enabled him never to look closely at the digits of his business transactions, retaining accountants and solicitors for this very purpose. He passed away from syphilis in 1801 at the age of seventy-three, never to learn of the ultimate fate of his Yorkshire holding.
3 Fortune-teller, fortune-teller, who will my husband be?
What man, what beast, what Fairy-King rides here to marry me?
Once for a conjure-man, twice for a slave,
Thrice for a murderer and once more for a knave;
My bride-groom, he has lost his heart,
My bride-groom is a fool;
My bride-groom is the Raven King, and no more shall he rule.
The origin of this rhyme is unknown.
4 There is little surviving documentation of Gilbert Norrell's relationship with his immediate family: the Norrell family has categorically refused to comment. A reader may draw his own conclusions from Mr Norrell's last will and testament, which is a matter of public record: despite his own inclinations to careful planning, he did not have one drafted until 1817, in a brief document that left Hurtfew Abbey and all of his personal effects to Jonathan Strange.
The authenticity of Mr Norrell's 1817 will has been contested. Sceptics have pointed to the animosity in his relationship with Mr Strange at this time, just five months previous to their simultaneous disappearance. However, after the testimony of Mr Norrell's solicitor Mr Robinson, academic consensus is now in favour of the document's legitimacy.
5 Most of Hurtfew Abbey's servants were quartered in a wing that stretched out from the eastern edge of the house, opposite and physically disconnected from Hurtfew's famous library. No-one objected to this distance: Hurtfew's library was greatly regarded as uncanny by Norrell's staff, according to later interviews, and some expressed concerns for the ill-effects that closer proximity to its magic might have incurred.
The sole exception to these living arrangements was John Childermass, who, between his promotion in 1781 and his dismissal in 1817, kept separate quarters of his own, intended for the family of Hurtfew's master prior to Mr Norrell's 1777 acquisition. Following the 1817 disappearance of Mr Norrell, of his colleague Jonathan Strange, and of Hurtfew Abbey itself, scholars (such as Stephen Patchett in his 1834 Mr Norrell and Mr Strange) have speculated on whether Mr Norrell, if alive, has hired new staff. Some fanciful theorising has erupted involving fairy-servants and magical enslavement, to the dismay of many respectable historians.
6 Also known as the King's script and, archaically, the King's mark.
7 Jonathan Strange is quoted to have once referred to rats and mice as "charming, wretched little things." John Childermass is not known to have harboured any similarly whimsical sentiment.
8 John Donne's 1633 "Song: Goe and catche a falling starre" presents a hyperbolic list of commands to one's beloved: a more sensible demand to a magician might read, "get with child a flowering cherry with the use of a mandrake root." Mandrakes are notoriously masculine in nature.
9 Mr Norrell's Hurtfew Abbey labyrinth has been the subject of much scholarly speculation since his 1817 disappearance. Magicians now surmise that the bulk of the spell's text is his own invention, with possible later additions by Mr Strange. Johannes van Dyk's Third Age Magicianry points to a possible early inspiration for Mr Norrell in Châteauroux's 1699 treatise Dédale, which describes in detail a hypothetical maze very similar to Mr Norrell's, though provides no steps to its successful execution: see M.R. Cramer's 1855 review of van Dyk's Third Age Magicianry as published in The Friends of English Magic.
10 By 1805, enough patrons had made this mistake that the Cornish public house re-painted its sign to read, The Juggler-and-Fool, or Fool-and-Juggler.