As much as I had pretended to gentility and counterfeited its like upon the stage; nothing could have prepared me for the inside of White’s Chocolate House. The hushed tones of subservient lackeys contrasted with the ring of privileged laughter and combined with the clinking of chocolate equipage created a fog of sound. The smell of warm chocolate was so thick and heavy that I felt I could have forgone all meat and lived off that vapour alone.
I was led, pushing my way through clumps of chairs and around tables, to a fine, old skeleton with an inquisitive, protruding nose that thrust upwards as if it owned the sky yet brought down to earth by a brown ring around the nostril of expensive, finely-ground snuff. He wore a fine wig, curled and powdered, looking like a fat contented ewe on the promontory of his head.
“A candidate for your new position, my Lord”.
“My new position,” said Lord Broadfield, slurring the last word. “I haven’t fired anyone recently, what new position would that be?” He jerked his head round, jutting his nose like a woodpecker.
“For your Ornamental Hermit, My Lord,” I said quietly.
“Oh yes!” He exclaimed. “I’d forgotten about that. Come, come lad, let’s have a look at you.”
I was ushered in front of Lord Broadfield, where my teeth were examined with a peculiar squinting look that may have owed its origin to concentration or drink. I did my best to project hermit-like qualities the Lord continued his peering.
“Yes, yes,” he nodded. “I think you will do nicely. Tell me, do you always wear this exquisitely gloomy hang-dog expression.”
“This is my normal expression, My Lord.”
“Excellent. I think you shall do nicely. Report to Cullins and he shall take you back to my estates and get kitted out. I want you deep in contemplation by the time I return to the country.”
“Thank you, My Lord. I have but one question.”
“What is that?”
“What does an ornamental hermit do?”
“Do? Why, he does nothing. He contemplates, as far as I am led to believe. He contemplates and he doesn’t shave or cut his fingernails, nor does he speak.”
“For how long?”
“How long?” He taps his teeth with his finger. “For five years. That seems a fine time to have someone contemplating in my garden. Five hundred pounds for five years, I like that, it’s tidy. I pre-ordered a hermitage ready for you, it should be complete already. Now hurry along, and no speaking now.”
I nod my head and follow the White’s employee to a footman in scarlet livery. The White’s employee explains who I am, why I cannot speak and what Lord Broadfield wants done with me. The footman looks surprised but resigned and he gives me directions and money to hire a horse to Lord Broadfield’s estate where my needs will be taken care of afterwards. I open my mouth to thank him but he shakes his head sharply and motions me to the door. The night not being the best time to start a journey, I pace the streets I went to Covent Garden and slept under the portico of St Paul’s before hiring my horse and taking myself to Lord Broadfield’s Sussex estate.
I am not expected, and am disallowed entrance as a poor, dumb beggar. I tried to explain but mindful of my Five Hundred Pounds, I dared not speak. My hired horse returned to a correct agent, my ready money dissipated and with no ideas of what to do next, I settled against the wall of the estate and tried not think nor sob, as one would have led me to the other. It was then that an angel appeared with a small loaf of bread and a little cheese. She was dressed simply, more likely a maid or some sort of lower servant. I snatched the food and started to bite big chunks from the bread, nodding my thanks because my mouth was too full to speak. Then she told me that the meal I was devastating was her own lunch and I felt guilty at my rapaciousness. I motioned to her to stop so I could swallow the bread that had become a thick wadding in my mouth and then thank her properly but as I did, Cullin’s, the footman from White’s Chocolate House thundered to the gate.
“Mary, Has this man spoken?”
“No, we think he’s a mute beggar.”
“This is our new hermit, he is not permitted to speak for the next five years. If he had spoken, he would have lost a position and five hundred pounds. Go inside and inform the staff, I shall make the hermit comfortable,” the footman smiled, “as comfortable as he shall be in the next five years at any rate. Come, hermit.”
Cullins walked his horse and me through the gate and handed it to a stable boy. He called me to follow him out into the grounds. I was born in a village and have travelled up, down and across this fair land but I had never seen land that had been so planned and commanded. There was a lake, twisting and turning just as a real lake does but each twist revealed a new vista to look out at. It was like walking through a print shop of sublime sights rather than a real place. My sentiments were moved with each new sight. It was in a part of the garden that had been bullied into growing immaculately unkempt that I caught sight of the place that was to become my home for the next five years.
It looked like a ruin of antiquity that had been left to grow bindweed, columns rose to nowhere and statues lay around with the faces smashed. The room itself was small, only six large paces from one end to the next and open to the elements on one side. There was a small nest of blankets designed for my comfort and a bookcase with a number of tattered volumes on it. Behind the temple lay a small hole for my convenience, my modesty protected only by the bushes overgrown in that area. That was all.
Cullins explained the rules in more detail. I was to keep to my hovel at all times, where I was to read the volumes and appear in deep thought. I was not to cut my hair or nails and I was only to bathe occasionally, using the lake for that purpose. Finally, I was to wear one outfit of clothes, which I would have refreshed every six months. If I was to stray, it was not to be beyond the unkempt area of the grounds because my appearance would look inelegant with the order of the other designs. Each morning, food would be brought to me, which I was to ration throughout the day. The most important rule, to be maintained above all others that I was not to speak, write, gesture or communicate in any way whatsoever. Failure to keep to this cardinal rule was expulsion from the garden in the rags I had on and nothing else. He smiled slyly at me and informed me that he would take particular interest that this rule was kept. I crouched into my hovel and examined the bookcase at the tomes, which were to be my only comfort, and company for the next five years. There was a Bible in English and the rest of the books were in Latin, a language I knew not. I began to worry that the next five years may pass very slowly indeed.
I was distracted from my apprehensions by Mary, the maid who had previously fed me, running towards my new home carrying a bundle of hessian sacks. These sacks turned out to be my new clothing. One had holes cut in the top and sides for my arms and feet, another was slit open with holes for arms like a jacket and another was a loose bolt of material to wrap around me however I saw fit. They were thrown to me.
“Change,” the footman commanded. I looked towards him and Mary before creeping under the bundle of cloth and fur that was to serve as my bed and changed with as much dignity as I could muster. The sacks were rough and irritated my skin, my legs and feet were bare and I felt ridiculous. Even Robinson Crusoe had dressed with more dignity and comfort than I and he had lived in a land far from comfort and civilisation.
“Let’s look at you,” he said. I stood up, the housemaid hid her face and smiled. “No, not right yet,” he footman said, striding up to me. He grabbed me, pulled me out of the hovel and towards a patch of mud, shoving me in it and shouting at me to roll around. I lay still, like a frightened dog so he started to kick me until I rolled around in the mud.
“A hermit needs to be filthy,” he shouted at me. Mary begged the footman to leave me alone and he allowed me to stand up, as dignified as I possibly could.
“Come on, we have work to do,” the maid said and the two strode off, she offering little backwards glances towards me as I stood still and tried to calm myself down.
Walking back towards my hovel, I stood barefoot on the prickle of a bramble. Leaping in the air, I had to suppress every desire to shout and scream out loud, forcing every curse to bellow silently. I hobbled back to my rags and tried to prise the prickle out of my foot with my hands. Somewhere I heard laughing. So began my life as a curiosity.