The hopes and fears of downstairs

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Writing beyond the certainties of collective memory (however illusory those might be) is tricky territory for the contemporary novelist. Your work might be as literary as the crispest Booker shortlistee, but it will most likely be branded a “historical novel” – and relegated to the shelf below the one where “serious” books are kept.

Perhaps this prejudice is not entirely undeserved – because often, without the intimate knowledge of milieux they’ve never experienced, writers who set novels in the past can easily descend into pastiche, cliché – representing only our own misconceptions of bygone times instead of something unflinchingly true and real.

Then there are those who not only set their books in the past, but appropriate zealously guarded territory – that of a much-loved literary classic. Jo Baker is one such writer who has undertaken this risk. And my, how it has paid off!

Baker’s latest novel, Longbourn, is a triumph. She has used Pride and Prejudice’s plot trajectory and characters as a framework to write a wholly new novel – about the servants who work for the Bennett family. This is not about Elizabeth or Darcy – though you will catch glimpses of both. It is about the housekeeper, Mrs Hill. It is about the maid, Sarah, and the new footman, James.

And so, while we know what scandalous Wickham will get up to with impressionable Lydia, and that Jane in the end will marry her beloved Bingley, we are still in new territory. Baker elegantly maps this out with unsparing detail, producing a richly textured world of gruelling domestic work – cleaning fireplaces, stirring laundry, lugging chamber pots to the sty. But although she has done her homework, she wears her research lightly. Because, above all, this is a novel about people – and they are wondrously brought to life. Baker shows the exquisite complexity of the relations between the family and their servants. She illustrates the latter’s own hopes and fears and aspirations. And, perhaps most wrenchingly of all, she shows how class – then as now – can result in vastly differing trajectories, and that without the cushion of a comfortable income, the consequences of actions are all the more grievous for those below the stairs.

Longbourn is published by Doubleday.

FICTION: The Death of Neville Pickering

BY TENDAI HUCHU

“We must move with the utmost haste, Mr. Rhodes. Jackals and vultures and all manner of unsavoury speculators descend from every bent corner and cranny of the colony, more so now they’ve heard that you are here. The Diamond Fields Advertiser, every paper, will print something now,” said Hans Sauer, his voice quivering with anxiety as he stared into Rhodes’s impenetrable blue eyes.

Rhodes paused, his left hand stroking his cheek, rough from the stubble that grew because he’d not visited the barber since they left Kimberley a month ago. He looked at Rudd who sat at his right hand side, drinking hot coffee, grimacing with every swallow. Sauer knew Rudd was even more sceptical than Rhodes, but saw an opening in their hesitation and launched into his final pitch: “You must trust my judgement in this. I have been across the entire colony and beyond, to many a savage place where the blacks would not hesitate to stick an assegai up a Christian’s… The point I’m trying to make here, rather ineloquently, is that you are a diamond man, but I know gold and it’s here in the rand. Plenty of it. Mr. Rhodes, you’ve come this far, I have shown you every possible test. Imagine you held Kimberley and Witwatersrand, together—no man in history has ever had such an opportunity. Tell me you don’t see what I see.”

Rhodes sighed and pushed away the plate of boiled beef, potatoes and watery peas which he’d barely touched in front of him. He reached for a glass of water, grimy with unknowable particles in it, and took the smallest of sips. Sauer’s face was frozen in intense concentration, eyes fixed on Rhodes as though he were a papish icon.

“Very well, Dr Sauer,” said Rhodes coolly.

“Then you will do it? You will buy the claims, the land—all of it?”

Rhodes inclined his head a fraction. A man burst through the doors of the saloon, his boots pounding on the dagga floor. His clothes had the dust-coated look of a traveller fresh off the coach.

“Is there a Rhodes in here? Cecil. John. Rhodes!” The man’s voice was unmistakably that of a Boer, guttural and coarse to civilised ears.

“He is here,” Rudd replied, knowing that Rhodes was not wont to shouting in public spaces.

The Boer rushed across the room, knocking against a table, earning a curse from an infuriated patron.

“I have a message from Kimberley,” he said, taking off his well-worn smasher to reveal a leathery face and a balding head before he addressed Rudd. “Neville Pickering is very sick.”

“What do you mean?” Rudd asked. Rhodes turned pale.

“The man is dying, possibly dead by now if I know anything about it,” the Boer replied with the vulgarity of his kind.

Rhodes reached into his pocket, took out a shilling and gave it to the Boer who took it and left without so much as a word of thanks. What he left behind shocked even Sauer who was, after all, a man of the world. It was a pallid, languid Rhodes, drained of all colour, a man thrown into turmoil, grief and confusion, barely clinging to the present, his mind no doubt far away, every thought turned to his companion.

“Mr Rhodes—”

“I shall return to Kimberley on the evening coach,” said Rhodes in a firm voice.

“But surely—” Rudd held out his hand for Sauer to stop. The gesture was like the loud bang of an open door slammed shut. Sauer trembled with indignation, to have come so far and fail now because of this, this, this Pickering fellow. Yes, Rhodes had purchased a few claims, but nothing close to what Beit and Robinson held, and now the whole thing was scuppered by a few words from a Boer. The doctor saw his ambitions undone by no less than the hand of the Moirai. He tried one more time.

“Let us at least close the last few deals. We need your signature for those.”

“I’m off!” Rhodes declared, and got up from his chair and headed for the door with Rudd, his faithful shadow, following close behind.

They came out into the dusty street, kaffirs in animal skins carried heavy loads, piles of dung all over and the scent of sewage assailed refined noses, carriages trotted back and forth, white men in hats smoked pipes and spoke in loud voices. Rhodes instructed Rudd to get him a seat on that evening’s carriage, before returning to his lodgings at Walker’s Hotel.

He changed into his breeches, the better for travelling, and fresh shirt. His mind flitted here and there, unable to find a place of calm. Rhodes took a deep breath and put a hand to his heart which beat a little too rapidly. He felt faint and sat on the edge of the bed, praying he would not swoon; he dared not to, he had to go to Kimberley come hell or anything else. The Gladstone beside him, shut tight, contained his essentials, he was ready to go.

There was a knock on the door. It was Rudd.

“The evening coach is full. I can get you a ticket for the morning’s.”

“Buy a seat from someone who has already booked,” said Rhodes. “Get a special coach—anything; I am going tonight.”

“I’ll do what I can,” replied Rudd, rushing out.

Alas, that evening’s coach was filled with bankers, lawyers and prospectors, cigar smoking men of commerce whose pride and deep pockets would not suffer them to give up a seat, not at twice, thrice, ten times the fantastic price that Rudd offered. Not even when they heard that no less than Cecil John Rhodes of Kimberley wanted it for himself. But Rudd, ever the man of ingenuity, did not let up. He arranged something else with the driver.

That evening, the residents of the Transvaal were treated to a spectacle. The distinguished personage of Cecil John Rhodes, clambering up the stagecoach and ensconcing himself amidst the mail bags like a… well, there simply was no comparison. To his credit, Rhodes cared not an iota for what anyone thought, his mind fixed as it was on getting home to Pickering.

*

The stars in the vast canopy of heaven that is the African sky looked like 6 / 7 / 8 carat diamonds scattered across a black velvet sheet. Many a night Rhodes had stood outside and looked at them, reaching out with his hand as though he could pluck the stars and make a fine necklace for the Queen of England. The air was fresh and sweet, and in the distance, across the grassy plains stood dark silhouettes, trees in the wilderness. It was a beautiful sight, but all Rhodes could see that night was the dark, capricious savagery of Africa.

The coach trotting along the dirt road made steady progress. The driver spoke to his mate in a Scots accent, he was probably from the city of Glasgow, and every few minutes or so they laughed at something. It seemed unjust to Rhodes that anyone should laugh now, that these ruffians should live while the young, beautiful Pickering should die. Every bump they rode over was a jolt through Rhodes’s body. He clung onto the railing to keep his perch. It was impossible to sleep or rest for at any moment he risked being thrown off. He endured the discomfort, desperate to return to his beloved.

“Why did I leave Kimberley, chasing gold like my fool of a brother, Herbert? I should have been home nursing Pickling. He needs me. His poor heart must have given out knowing that I would leave his side for a thing as base as business. Oh, my boy, I am on my way.”

It came to him that he only needed to make it back to Kimberley in time and Pickering would live. The thought was illogical, it made no sense at all, perhaps the natives’ superstitions were rubbing off on him. But Rhodes didn’t care, he held onto this thought, the little amber of hope burning in a dark mineshaft.

At the Stage, Rhodes absolutely refused to leave the coach, not even to stretch his limbs, or smoke a cigarette, or answer nature’s call as the other travellers did. Mr. Henry Hershey of Natal, aboard the coach on business, tried to engage him in good natured conversation on the subject of their journey, but found Rhodes so morose and distracted that he took it for rebuff and returned to his travelling companions somewhat wounded. The only voice Rhodes wanted to hear was Pickering’s.

The stagecoach changed from four to six horses as the next part of the journey was up an incline on rough terrain. The driver, in his thick accent, swore the leads were the best horses he’d ever worked with. He spoke about them fondly as though the horses were his own family. Rhodes could not help but listen to the Scot yakking on and was relieved once they got back on the road again, riding through the African night. His eyes were fixed on the dark horizon as though his will alone drove the carriage on. In the distance, he saw the flickering flames of fires in native huts, as he endured the cold air and mosquitos that supped on his British blood.

Pickering had been thrown off a horse and fell into a thorny bush which pierced him in the knees. “The young fool!” His health had deteriorated after that when dark humours set in. He was a good rider, but always so keen to show off, an excess of good spirit. It was this spirit Rhodes was drawn to. In many ways, Pickering was everything he was not: physically fit, impeccable breeding, not to mention the dashing looks that had many a fine lady ensnared, enchanted.

Kimberley appeared in the distance at dawn under so much smoke it looked like London’s fog had descended upon it. The coach drove through the dusty, rocky road, past the great opencast pits filled with natives, black as ants, working under the watchful eye of their bosses. Rhodes was familiar with the noise of the Babel of tongues, both savage and civilised, the sound of picks and shovels turning the earth, and the great engines pumping water out of the mines. From his vantage point atop the coach, it looked like Hell on earth.

Past the mines, the town itself was a higgledy-piggledy mix of canvas tents sprawling out, pole and dagga huts, wooden buildings with zinc metal roofs that glistened under the morning sun, shops, taverns, and all manner of hastily constructed edifices that were the footprints of progress. The exhausted Rhodes, every muscle aching, bones ground to dust by the journey, took it all in. This was where Pickering was.

This was home.

*

The healthy man looks at the sick man with compassion, true, but mixed in with this are other feelings from a less pure place; he cringes his nose and feels a little revulsion at whatever miasmas emanate from the sickbed, there is the relief that says, “Thank-God-it’s-him-not-me,” hidden in some shameful nook in the heart, and a little annoyance at the inconvenience the sick bring—the burden they place on those who would otherwise be doing more useful things. Not so with Rhodes. Never was there a greater man who took it upon himself to become nursemaid, in all but name, to an ailing companion.

For Rhodes, to be beside Pickering was the greatest joy. He had never known love like this. It was bliss to see Pickering, to hold him, to breathe the same air he breathed. Of course there had been murmurings here and there by persons of a less than salubrious character that Cecil Rhodes and Neville Pickering made house together like man and wife. Indeed, the two were eligible bachelors with good family names and sound means, Rhodes by way of speculating and Pickering in his role as company secretary for Rhodes. Both men were a credit to the Anglo-Saxon race and no mother, high-born or low, in the colony could not have desired a son-in-law in either man if she had a daughter of marriageable age. That the two men chose a chaste path—they were not known to frequent brothels or elicit the services of native women like some Boers—is of itself a remarkable thing. Rhodes and Pickering were at the frontier of the empire and selflessly chose service and industry to remain as they were from the womb, as Paul put it to the Corinthians. Of the busybodies, slanderers and quidnuncs, no serious person gave ear to their nefarious attacks on these two Englishmen of the highest character. Still, a seed had been cast into wind that would follow Rhodes for the rest of his life and beyond.

Even at the best of times, Rhodes was not the gayest of men, this perhaps being the result of him being the son of a vicar, but when he was around his sick companion, he did his utmost to rouse his spirit, cracking jokes and acting like a silly school boy. Dr Jameson tried all manner of quackery to correct the melancholic humours in the patient. He recommended a change of air to the coast, but Pickering was too unwell to move, so for long periods Rhodes stood by the bed, fanning him. The good doctor also prescribed coloured liquids: bitter green to be taken at sunrise and sweet yellow at sunset. At times the patient looked like he was recovering and could sit up unaided and there would be hope, then a few hours later the fever took him again.

“You do so much for me, but you must rest,” said Pickering in a weak voice.

“If you think I’ll listen to Jameson and let a kaffir look after you, you’re in for another thing, my boy,” said Rhodes. He smiled sadly. “I would trade all the diamonds of Kimberley and every atom of dirt on this blasted continent, all of it, up to my own immortal soul if only you were to live.”

“Cecil.”

“I am older, I have drawn up my will, and after I am gone, you are to receive everything I own, yet now you would cheat our pact. How dare you! Such treachery and cruelty to one who loves you so, Pickling.” Rhodes held his companion’s hand tight, kissed it and wept.

“I am not going anywhere,” said Pickering, moved by his companion’s devotion and close to tears himself.

“Promise me.”

“I swear.”

But even as the promise passed Pickering’s sallow lips, they both knew it to be a lie, and took comfort in that lie.

Sauer sent a barrage of telegrams from Witwatersrand besieging Rhodes to act and buy more concessions before it was too late. Each new telegraph was more desperate than the last, but Rhodes answered not a single one. Without irritation or impatience, but with utter indifference, he declined to see anyone on the urgent and important matters of business that always needed attention. This shocked his partners who knew him to be unusually shrewd and meticulous with regards to business. A side of him, unbeknownst by any and all, revealed itself, for even when his own person was sick, Rhodes was known to rise early at dawn and attend to his industry. Yet, now, the selfsame man turned away from important matters and kept himself in his home like a grieving widow.

Those who saw him remarked on the lugubrious air about him in the rare moments he ventured to town to visit the apothecary or buy supplies. Rhodes felt pain in his heart and a deep frustration for not being able to do anything for the one he loved. He was a man used to pulling strings and had bought many a bent soul, but now he understood Atropos shears were not for rent.

Shortly after midnight, on 16 October 1886, a few weeks after Rhodes’s return, the mischief was lodged deep in Pickering’s lungs. Rhodes cradled him, resting Pickering’s head on his lap, holding him tenderly as though he were only a babe. He sent for Dr Jameson who could do nothing but watch and take pulses at intervals for Pickering had passed beyond medicine and science. With his very last breath, being at peace with this realm, Pickering uttered his final words to his companion:

“You have been father, mother, brother and sister to me.”

And thus, Neville Pickering expired. Rhodes was inconsolable and wept hysterically. He clung to the corpse as though he could bring it back to life. The core of his own being had been rent asunder, plunging him into violent despair.

It took all of Jameson’s coaxing and authority as a physician to separate him from the body and take him into the street for fresh air.

Outside the house, in the dusty streets of Kimberley that smelled of horse and cow, Rhodes looked at the horizon and remembered the promise Pickering and he had made to one another, how they would paint Africa red and build a railway from Cape to Cairo. In the paroxysm of grief, he made a solemn vow in his heart that he would see this done.