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Laughter In the Dark and Other Things

ISSUE:  Spring 1983

This being part of a letter, written in the spring of 1626 by Sir Robert Carey (newly made Earl of Monmouth) and addressed to his old friend—Sir Ferdinando Gorges. A letter from one old man to another. Both of them survivors of the age of Elizabeth. Left behind by the times like a couple of crabs left stranded in a tidal pool.

Carey, a courtier, a soldier, and a gambling man, was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth. It was he who carried the news of the death of the Queen, and the proclamation of James VI of Scotland as James I of England, to the King of the Scots. Riding hard from Westminster to Holyrood Palace in less than three days. He wrote an autobiographical memoir which was first published in the middle of the 18th century. It is this memoir which he is preparing himself to write in 1626. . . .

* * * *

I am grateful to you for sending me the young clerk, and I thank you kindly. All in all, the lad is working out well for me. Better than I had hoped for. For, my good friend Ferdinando, though I trusted you completely, as ever, still I could scarcely have imagined that you would find the right man for this odd little problem. How could I when, in truth, I had no notion what it was I truly needed?

In this memoir of mine, which I am planning to set down in writing as soon as I am able and (I hope and trust) before the dying coals of my mind have all burned out, I shall be addressing not any general audience of readers, but rather speaking directly and only to my own posterity. Meaning my own children and grandchildren to be sure. But meaning also, God willing, their children and grandchildren and so on and so on. For as long as the Lord wills that our line shall continue.

I know, sir, how all your thoughts and dreams are pointed on a course toward the future. How you, as much as this lad you have sent to aid me, have your heart set on the New World now. It may be that which keeps you so much younger than your sum of years, Ferdinando. And you must find my own course, sailing against the wind, tacking slow and awkward into the past, a puzzling and perhaps a foolish choice. And so may it very well be. And yet, sir, I do believe that we are prompted by somewhat the same spirit and purposes. For my destination, though roundabout, is toward the future also.

It’s true enough that I do not share your strong desire to go and see the New World (20 years ago, perhaps, or 30 . . .but not now); still, I confess it is a source of consolation to me to know that it is there. Meantime I keep my men busy planting oak trees for my garden and the park. Not imagining for one moment that I shall live long enough to dawdle in the deep summer shade of them and to rejoice in it. Yet hoping (thus believing) that my grandchildren will walk in the shade of those trees. And perhaps their grandchildren also. . . .

And so, by the same token, it is my intention to plant and leave a few words behind me. Some kind of an accounting of my days. And of the various and sundry ways that I have walked in.

To begin to do this I must, then, waken a weak and sleepy memory. And the plain truth is that I have commenced too late to do it well, almost too late to do it at all. And so this young fellow is proving to be excellent for my purposes. For he listens well enough. And pays a deferential, mannerly attention to an old man. Yet being young and lacking the fine finish of experienced duplicity, he cannot disguise it when his attention begins to wander away or when tedium falls over his shoulders like a yoke.

What might have been annoyance, even an outrage, coming from my own servants or, especially, from my own family or kinfolk, is both a benefit and a blessing coming from him. Indeed I sometimes find myself suing for his attention. Which, though it is an exercise in humility, is also far better than losing his interest without knowing so. Secondly, I perceive that much that I rehearse for him is altogether strange to him. From his puzzlement and from his questions I discover that much that we took to be given and granted in the world has either vanished entirely or else become so curious and baffling as to be nearly incredible to these young folks who have never known anything of it.

Take, for instance, the wars, our wars. . . .

These fellows, like this lad, who were born into and grew up in the slack time of peace accompanying the late King James’ reign, they have no kind of memory of it. There is none other than our own. Nothing beyond the recollections of the oldest veterans. Which, as we know well and ought to be first to admit, are faulty enough. Often more sham and fantasy than truth. And all the more so as more time passes. So when you speak to the young of soldiers, they call up the images of what they have seen for themselves. And what they have seen is poor shabby wretches plucked out of the prisons or pressed into service by brute gangs. Ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-equipped, poorly trained in their craft by fellows who know (except by the books) no more than they do, they are shipped away off this island on rotten and leaky ships. To die of fever or ague (if not of starvation) if they are lucky. They will have seen, then, the leftover scum of our late continental disasters, sitting on stumps of legs at the gates of great houses, leaning on crutches and canes in the marketplace, begging for a living. . . .

Having seen these things and not much more, what can the young imagine except that we were madmen to choose to go to the wars in our lost green days? They cannot begin to imagine the wild, mad joy and glory of it. Foolish it may have been. Foolish it truly was. But, good Ferdinando, there were times, oh yes, when heart pounded and blood sang like a choir in the body, when breath came short and sweet and we seemed to carry our precious lives, our very souls, like water in our hands. Times of soaring exaltation which seemed then, however briefly, to be worth all the sweat and pain and danger and sickness and stink. Times when the cries of the wounded and the groans of the dying were like music from a minstrels’ gallery. For we were then most marvelously alive and whole.

God forgive me. God forgive us all. I know now there were bloody times more joyous than anything before or after.

How to explain that to a young man who has never known it and cannot believe it?

Only yesterday morning I was speaking to him about our part in the siege of Rouen in ‘91. When we were serving under Essex and the king of France. Remember that wild winter? Well, I was aiming to explain to him the folly of the great night scalado which we tried against the walls of St. Catherine’s Castle. How my Lord of Essex ordered us all to wear shirts over our armor. How, as a result of that order, I had to give up most of my shirts that night. Ones which I loaned out to others who proved to be not so lucky as I. How we crouched down in trenches with our scaling ladders, waiting upon the signal from my Lord. Then drums and trumpets, and we ran toward the walls to be welcomed by a gracious plenty of shot. For they were surely well prepared for us, though we were somewhat aided by the dark. Running forward, clumsy with our huge ladders, into that storm of shot and fire. Stumbling, sweating drops the size of pearls and grapes. Short of breath. Then just as suddenly in retreat. Running back the way we had come, still peppered and staggering, falling and tripping over the bodies of poor wretches who had fallen dead or wounded. Back into the trenches to hide our heads.

And then soon after, while we heaved and panted like spent hounds, catching for breath, there came a quiet. And into that quiet came the loud clear laughter of the Earl of Essex.

“Jesus, Jesus, oh sweet Jesus!” He was calling even as he laughed. “Sweet wounds of Jesus, we have done it again. The damned ladders are too short by two yards or more!. . .”

How all of a sudden, there in the aftermath of that brief and stupid and bloody charge, in the full failure of it, this did seem to be the greatest jest in all the world. And how then all of us still alive (many with wounds) in the muddy trenches began to laugh, too, until the darkness was full of a rich, resounding chorus of English laughter. And soon the French papists on their walls began to laugh, too, being unable to contain themselves against the noise of several hundred men, somewhere out there in the cold and dark, laughing as if to empty themselves of all laughter forever, once and for all.

Ferdinando, I swear that I began to laugh aloud again even as I was telling of it. He managed a smile, out of his good manners, but he stared at me as he might have looked at a Bedlamite.

So I sought to explain the sense of it. How time and time again, in the reign of the Queen, the English scaling ladders had proved to be too short for the walls to be taken. How we did well enough in the open field against all manner of enemies. Even the Spaniards. How we were best and bravest of all when besieged by others. Could hold a place or a piece of ground as well and as dearly as any soldiers he has ever heard of, ancient or modern. But how, time and again, in any attack to scale the enemy’s walls, we failed. Like clowns and yokels. How time and again the ladders were too short and failed us and left fields littered with dead and crippled Englishmen.

“Ah,” he said. “That is a terrible pity, sir. I cannot understand, though, how you could crouch down in your trenches and laugh about it.”

“Nor can I, lad. Nor can I. And I shall never understand it. But we did that. We laughed until we were more spent and gasping for breath than we had been before. Some staggering around like drunkards. Some rolling on the muddy ground.”

“Still, sir, you must agree that it is very strange.”

“Well, lad, the best that I can tell you by way of explanation is that we were laughing with all our hearts because we had long since spent all the tears we owned. We had no tears left by that time. So it was laugh or be silent and turn to stone.”

Since I had brought up the subject of the siege of Rouen, I could not let it pass into oblivion without some mention of your valor there. On a certain day. How you saved the life of my Lord and his friends (and myself also). How we had ridden up close beneath the walls on a fine morning and, as Essex always enjoyed, we were busy exchanging challenges and insults with the Froggies on the walls. Prattling with them. . . .

How while they had us thus engaged and distracted, they planned to cut us off from our own people—and likely next to cut us into many little pieces—by sending half a hundred men suddenly out of a sallyport. And they would have succeeded and done so, too, except for you, Ferdinando. You happened to be in command of the nearest trenches that day. And seeing Froggies come sneaking forth from the sallyport, you led a band of your best men out of the trenches to attack them first. Yourself—and indeed most of your men—all unready for combat. In doublet and hose, only, no armor. And yourself armed only with a rapier. Outnumbered and unready and poorly armed for it you and your men came shouting and roaring and raging out of the trench. So startled the French that some of them dropped their halberds on the spot. And all of them ran like a flock of frightened sheep for the safety of the sallyport.

Great volley of shot from the ramparts. And I think (do I remember it rightly?) that you were sore shot then and there. I do recall that you earned a bad wound at Rouen, but cannot remember for sure when that happened.

Well, here you are, still with us, Ferdinando. With only a very slight limp to show for your French wound. And you were never such an excellent dancer, if I may say so, that your wound has in any way seriously hindered you.

To continue. . . .

The innocence of my listening scholar has made me look again at the old world (and our spent time in it) somewhat through his own eyes. Which is like seeing myself, ourselves, in a trick looking glass. One of those which can make anyone seem to be fat or thin, short or tall, deformed or beautiful as the case may be.

It is as if he, himself, were just such a glass. And here I am striking poses and making faces before it. All of which can easily lead me astray from truth if I am not careful. But all of which also can be, I cheerfully confess, more than a little entertaining for an old man. Which is to say, good Ferdinando, that the labor and pain of raking my memory for a few small living and burning coals must finally entertain me, also, if the effort is to succeed. Indeed I do believe it must entertain and delight me first of all before it can in any way divert anyone else.

Now, sir, even the undeniable truth that he is something of a Puritan in matters of religion (or, anyway, is clearly inclined in that direction) has proved to be an aid and comfort to me. No matter how far I find myself from their philosophy and practices. Mind you, he is not so strict with himself, his conscience is not so rigorous as to deprive him of most of the singular pleasures of the City. I know for certain that he likes to eat well, with hearty appetite, and that he will drink deep, too, though (almost always) within the vague boundaries of moderation.

I have to tell you that I have set one or two of my most trusty people, dark sentinels with experience and the habits of discretion, to keep a watch upon him. For the chief purpose that he should not be allowed to fall into any kind of serious trouble or mischief while he is here with me and I am charged with his health and welfare. This City has changed as much with the passing years as we have, Ferdinando. It is ever so much more crowded now. Even the Plague of last year served no good purpose to relieve the crowding; for new bodies came to take the places of all those who were carted away and shoveled into their graves. The open fields on all sides are now taken over by a pox of dwellings and buildings. It’s a far more dangerous and troublesome place than it was when you and I were young and green. I believe that London daily grows more like Babylon than Jerusalem. Sometimes I find that I am almost smugly pleased when I consider that I shall not live long enough to worry about it or see the worst of it.

Meantime our young scholar, Puritan or no, can eat and drink as hearty as he pleases and without much regret. Oh, there have been some times, a morning or two, when he looked generally the worse for wear. But I should worry more about him if this were not so. And he has now discovered the stage. He haunts the playhouses more than any Puritan that I ever heard of. Perhaps he is gathering knowledge and experience for a book or pamphlet so he can join with that gaggle of precisians who do ceaselessly denounce the playhouses, thus ceaselessly arousing the interest and the curiosity of everyone. But I doubt it. From the little he has said about it—and we must not expect him to publish and advertise his weaknesses, must we?—I gather he relishes a good stage play. And so do I, though I can no longer go comfortably to the common playhouses. Too much effort for me. Still, on occasion I will attend a play at Blackfriars since it is comfortable and close by.

I have strictly instructed my people not to trouble me with report of which particular taverns and gaming houses he may choose to frequent. I take it from some of our idle talk, however, that he has already learned such essential truths of life in London, as that the best pies are to be had at the Woolsack and that the best frumenty is always found at the Dagger, the one near to Bow Lane in Cheapside. Nor do I desire to know the names and genealogies of the various whores he may be acquainted with—unless he takes one away to Ware or to Brainford. Instead I have ordered my men to take every reasonable care and precaution that he does not get his throat slit or his backbone unbuttoned in any kind of brawl. And I have warned that if he shall catch himself the French Pox from any fair, but itchy woman, why, then, sir, I shall see to it that they will at least share the pain and consequences of the cure of it.

By all of which I mean to report to you that he is as safe as anyone can be in a wicked world.

And though he may feel himself to be, by birth and education both, my moral and ethical superior, that, too, it seems, is proving an aid to my vagrant memory. I find that it is more gratifying by far to be able to shock this young man than (as is more usual in my company) to discover that confession and true accounts of my wildest excesses cannot raise a single eyebrow.

The other day I happened to tell him an old tale of ourselves—of you and me, Ferdinando. I trust—since it happened so many lost years ago—you do not object to my retelling it to the lad. But if you do mind, sir, it is now too late to undo it. The mischief is done. And all that remains is to smile and bear it with proper measures of patience and fortitude. For to all men of our age—even those rare few who are as vigorous as you are—all that rage against past mischief and old injustice is likely to accomplish now is the ruin of our digestion.

Anyway, sir, seeing that I was beginning to lose his attention, I told him the story of the hundred-crown wager. How we had both come back to Court from the wars in the Netherlands. And how we had looked to be rewarded for our services. And how we were not.

Told him how in those days, before time had frosted and fattened us one and all, you were regarded as a wonderfully handsome young fellow and were as handsomely dressed, too, as anyone at Court. How, with good reason, mind you, you allowed yourself a certain vanity about your appearance. And why not? After all, you were alive and well and unscarred and not much the worse for wear after those hard and futile campaigns in the Lowlands. Where many a good man and true had been turned into a cripple. And many another had found a home beneath six feet of wet Dutch sod. Those of us who were lucky enough to come home alive and well and whole in all our parts had sound reason to strut and swagger a little. And you more than most.

So I proceeded to tell the lad how one evening after supper you and I and some few others of our friends (whose names are lost to me now forever) were playing at cards in my father’s old chambers at Blackfriars. How you happened to make the brag that at a certain brothel in Southwark, an elegant fishpond frequented by the best gentlemen of the Court, you were so highly regarded by the ladies there, on account of your good looks and the excellence of your amorous performance, that you were never asked to pay any fee for their favors.

This claim resulted in an harmonious motet of hoots and jeers and rude skepticism. And one thing led to another until (as we drank ourselves silly and continued to deal and play the cards) you announced that you were willing to hazard a wager, at odds often to one, against any or all of us. That if we were to go there together, then, that offered a choice, those fine and fancy strumpets would surely choose you as best among all the rest of us. On account of your handsome appearance and on the strength of your reputation.

How the others were willing to concede the laurels of the brothel to you. But how after I had considered it for a moment or two, I accepted the wager. And I put up ten crowns, against your hundred, that they would choose me instead.

Up we jumped from the table then, one and all, and brushed and combed and polished ourselves the best we could. Put on our swords and called for torches and link boys. Rushed out into the misty night and directly down to Puddle Wharf. Where it required a string of several boats, a little whoremongers’ armada, as it were, to carry us across the river to Bankside. Torches burning brightly and all of us singing cheerful bawdy ballads we had learned (if nothing else) in the wars.

It’s a wonder we did not wake the Queen in her bedchamber in Whitehall Palace.

Landed and made a great show and confusion of paying (and cheating) the watermen. Then off we went, all in a drunken pack, following you, Ferdinando. Who knew the way so well you could have found it (I believe) blindfolded through the maze of twisty lanes and footways directly to the door. Much knocking and pounding ‘til the porter came. Then much talking and pleading (and the payment of a coin or two) before we were admitted. At last to stand there in the chamber like a rank of soldiers while they were to study us and pick the best man among us. How they slowly, carefully looked us over, one at a time, as we stood there solemn in our Court finery. And how when they came to look at me, I doffed my cap and made a deep, most courteous bow. Not for the sake of satirical good manners, as you and the others must have thought. But rather because, unknown to you and indeed unseen by you, I had pinned one shiny new gold Angel at the center of my head and hair. So when I took off my cap and bowed to those fine whores, that coin caught the candlelight like a little sun. And, just so, caught their eyes and hearts.

Which was why they chose me for their very own, then and there, ignoring you. Carried me away to the upper chambers. Whilst the rest of you were left to feed your vanity on astonishment and air.

Yes, it cost me the price of one gold Angel. Much too much for a night with any whore in London. But balanced against your extravagant wager of one hundred crowns it still provided me with a tidy profit for my pleasure.

The moral of which tale—as I told you at the time, Ferdinando—is never to make a wager against a man who has had to gamble for his living. For he will find a way to win the safest wager and to take your money for his own.

Well, sir.

When I told this boy the story of our brothel bet, all those years ago, he blushed like a girl. Which led me to make two inferences at once. First, that he is, himself, not altogether unfamiliar with such places. Secundo, that he has not yet made a regular habit of it. That it remains quite new and strange to him.

A third inference, of course, is his state of confusion. For to believe the story at all he had to stifle his doubts, Ferdinando, that the likes of you and I were ever as young and foolish as he is. . . .


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