It’s a dark, damp November night when Richard Smith gets off a merchant ship in New York in 1746, and heads, with great purpose, into the streets of Manhattan. But it takes 300 pages of treachery, misunderstanding, adultery, dueling, politics and race to find out what that purpose is.
“Golden Hill” is British author Francis Spufford‘s first novel, and is written in an 18th-century style. Spufford joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss the book, its themes and pre-Revolutionary New York.
By Francis Spufford
20 Geo. II
The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour—and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock—and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New-York—until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno—and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water—and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap:—all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning. (He meaning by the offer to signal his esteem, having found Mr. Smith a pleasant companion during the slow weeks of the crossing.) But Smith would not have it. Smith, bowing and smiling, desired nothing but to be rowed to the dock. Smith, indeed, when once he had his shoes flat on the cobbles, took off at such speed despite the gambolling of his land-legs that he far outpaced the sailor dispatched to carry his trunk—and must double back for it, and seizing it hoist it instanter on his own shoulder—and gallop on, skidding over fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port—asking for direction here, asking again there—so that he appeared most nearly as a type of smiling whirlwind when he shouldered open the door—just as it was about to be bolted for the evening—of the counting-house of the firm of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, and laid down his burden while the prentices were lighting the lamps, and the clock on the wall showed one minute to five, and demanded, very civilly, speech that moment with Mr. Lovell himself.
“I’m Lovell,” said the merchant, rising from his place by the fire. His qualities in brief, to meet the needs of a first encounter: fifty years old; a spare body but a pouched and lumpish face, as if Nature had set to work upon the clay with knuckles; shrewd and anxious eyes; brown small-clothes; a bob-wig yellowed by tobacco smoke. “Help ye?”
“Good day,” said Mr. Smith, “for I am certain it is a good day, never mind the rain and the wind. And the darkness. You’ll forgive the dizziness of the traveller, sir. I have the honour to present a bill drawn upon you by your London correspondents, Messrs. Banyard and Hythe. And request the favour of its swift acceptance.”
“Could it not have waited for the morrow?” said Lovell. “Our hours for public business are over. Come back and replenish your purse at nine o’clock. Though for any amount over ten pound sterling I’ll ask you to wait out the week, cash money being scarce.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Smith. “It is for a greater amount. A far greater. And I am come to you now, hot-foot from the cold sea, salt still on me, dirty as a dog fresh from a duck-pond, not for payment, but to do you the courtesy of long notice.”
And he handed across a portfolio, which being opened revealed a paper cover clearly sealed in black wax with a B and an H. Lovell cracked it, his eyebrows already half-raised. He read, and they rose further.
“Lord love us,” he said. “This is a bill for a thousand pound.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Smith. “A thousand pounds sterling; or as it says there, one thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New-York money. May I sit down?”
Lovell ignored him. “Jem,” he said, “fetch a lantern closer.”
The clerk brought one of the fresh-lit candles in its chimney, and Lovell held the page up close to the hot glass; so close that Smith made a start as if to snatch it away, which Lovell reproved with an out-thrust arm; but he did not scorch the paper, only tilted it where the flame shone through and showed in paler lines the watermark of a mermaid.
“Paper’s right,” said the clerk.
“The hand too,” said Lovell. “Benjamin Banyard’s own, I’d say.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Smith, “though his name was Barnaby Banyard when he sat in his office in Mincing Lane and wrote the bill for me. Come, now, gentlemen; do you think I found this on a street-corner?”
Lovell surveyed him, clothes and hands and visage and speech, such as he had heard of it, and found nothing there that closed the question.
“You might ha’ done,” he said, “for all I know. For I don’t know you. What is this thing? And who are you?”
“What it seems to be. What I seem to be. A paper worth a thousand pounds; and a traveller who owns it.”
“Or a paper fit to wipe my arse, and a lying rogue. Ye’ll have to dobetter than that. I’ve done business with Banyard’s for twenty year, and settled with ’em for twenty year with bills on Kingston from my sugar traffic. Never this; never paper sent all on a sudden this side the water, asking money paid for the whole season’s account, almost, without a word, or a warning, or a by‑your-leave. I’ll ask again: who are you? What’s your business?”
“Well: in general, Mr. Lovell, buying and selling. Going up and down in the world. Seeing what may turn to advantage; for which my thousand pounds may be requisite. But more specifically, Mr. Lovell: the kind I choose not to share. The confidential kind.”
“You impudent pup, flirting your mangled scripture at me! Speak plain, or your precious paper goes in the fire.”
“You won’t do that,” said Smith.
“Oh, won’t I? You jumped enough a moment gone when I had it nigh the lamp. Speak, or it burns.”
“And your good name with it. Mr. Lovell, this is the plain kernel of the matter: I asked at the Exchange for London merchants in good standing, joined to solid traders here, and your name rose up with Banyard’s, as an honourable pair, and they wrote the bill.”
“They never did before.”
“They have done now. And assured me you were good for it. Which I was glad to hear, for I paid cash down.”
“Cash down,” repeated Lovell, flatly. He read out: “ ‘At sixty days’ sight, pay this our second bill to Mr. Richard Smith, for value received . . .’ You say you paid in coin, then?”
“Of your own, or of another’s? As agent, or principal? To settle a score or to write a new one? To lay out in investments, or to piss away on furbelows and sateen weskits?”
“Just in coin, sir. Which spoke for itself, eloquently.”
“You not finding it convenient, no doubt, to move so great a weight of gold across the ocean.”
“Or else hoping to find a booby on the other side as’d turn paper to gold for the asking.”
“I never heard that New-Yorkers were so easy to impose on,” said Mr. Smith.
“So we aren’t, sir,” said Lovell, “so we aren’t.” He drummed his fingers. “Especially when one won’t take the straight way to clear off the suspicion we may be gulled. —You’ll excuse my manner. I speak as I find, usually; but I don’t know how I find you, I don’t know how to take you, and you study to keep me uncertain, which I don’t see as a kindness, or as especial candid, I must say, in a strip of a boy who comes demanding payment of an awk’ard-sized fortune, on no surety.”
“On all the ordinary surety of a right bill,” protested Smith.
“There you go,” Lovell said. “Smiling again. Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir. Commerce is putting a hand in answer into a hand out-stretched; but when I call you a rogue, you don’t flare up, as is the natural answer at the mere accusation, and call me a rogue for doubting.”
“No,” returned Smith cheerfully. “For you’re right, of course. You don’t know me; and suspicion must be your wisest course, when I may be equally a gilded sprig of the bon ton, or a flash cully working the inkhorn lay.”
Lovell blinked. Smith’s voice had darkened to a rookery croak, and there was no telling if he was putting on or taking off a mask.
“There’s the lovely power of being a stranger,” Smith went on, as pleasant as before. “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’ve a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be. But the bill, sir, is a true one. How may I set your mind at rest?”
“You’ve the oddest notion in the world of reassurance, if you’re in earnest,” said Lovell, staring. “You could tell me why I’ve had no letter, to cushion this surprise. I’d have expected an explanation, a warning.”
“Perhaps I out-paced it.”
“Perhaps. But I believe I’ll keep my counsel till I see more than perhaps.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Smith. “Nothing more natural, when I may be a rascal.”
“Again, you make mighty free with that possibility,” Lovell said.
“I only name the difficulty you’re under. Would you trust me more if we pretended some other thing were at issue?”
“I might,” said Lovell. “I might well. An honest man would surely labour to keep off the taint of such a thing. You seem to be inviting it, Mr. Smith. Yet I can’t be so casual, can I? My name’s my credit. Do you know what will happen if I accept your bill, for your secret business, your closed-mouth business, your smiling business, your confidential business? And you discount it with some good neighbour of mine, to lay your hands on the money as fast as may be, as I’ve no doubt you mean to? Then there’ll be sixty-day paper with my name upon’t, going round and round the island, playing the devil with my credit just at the turn of the season, in no kind of confidence at all. All will know it; all will know I’m to be dunned for a thousand pound, and wonder should they try to mulct me first.”
“But I won’t discount it.”
“I won’t discount it. I can wait. There is no hurry. I have no pressing need for funds; sixty days’ sight, it says, and sixty days will suit me perfectly. Keep the bill; keep it under your eye; save it from wandering.”
“If I accept it, you mean.”
“Yes. If you accept it.”
“And if I don’t?” “Well, if you protest it, I shall make this the shortest landing in the colonies that ever was heard of. I shall walk back along the quay, and when the Henrietta is loaded, I shall ship home, and lodge my claim for damages with Banyard’s.”
“I don’t protest it,” said Lovell, slowly. “Neither yet do I accept it. It says here, our second bill, and I’ve not seen hide or hair of first nor third. What ships d’ye say they’re bound on?”
“Sansom’s Venture and Antelope,” said Mr. Smith.
“Well,” said Lovell, “here’s what we’ll do. We’ll wait and we’ll see; and if the others of the set turn up, why then I’ll say I accepted the bill today, and you shall have your sixty days, and if you’re lucky you may be paid by quarter-day; and if they don’t appear, why then you’re the rascal you tease at being, and I’ll have you before the justices for personation. What do you say?”
“It’s irregular,” said Mr. Smith, “but something should be allowed for teasing. Very well: done.”
“Done,” echoed Lovell. “Jem, note and date the document, will you? And add a memorandum of this agreement; and make another note that we’re to write to Banyard’s on our own account, by the first vessel, asking explanations. And then let’s have it in the strongbox, to show in evidence, as I suspect, for the assizes. Now, sir, I believe I’ll bid you—” Lovell checked himself, for Smith was feeling through the pockets of his coat. “Was there something else?” he asked heavily.
“Yes,” said Smith, bringing forth a purse. “I’m told I should break my guineas to smaller change. Could you furnish me the value of these in pieces convenient for the city?”
Lovell looked at the four golden heads of the King glittering in Smith’s palm.
“Are they brass?” said one of the prentices, grinning.
“No, they’re not brass,” said Lovell. “Use your eyes, and not your mouth. Why ever—?” he said to Smith. “Never mind. Never mind. Yes, I believe we can oblige you. Jem, get out the pennyweights, and check these.”
“Full weight,” the clerk reported.
“Thought so,” said Lovell. “I am learning your humours, Mr. Smith. Well, now, let’s see. Wedon’t get much London gold, the flow being, as you might say, all the other way; it’s moidores, and half-joes, mostly, when the yellow lady shows her face. So I believe I could offer you a hundred and eighty per centum on face, in New-York money. Which, for four guineas, would come to—”
“One hundred and fifty one shillings, twopence-halfpenny.”
“You’re a calculator, are you? A sharp reckoner. Now I’m afraid you can have only a little of it in coin; the reason being, as I said when first we began, that little coin is current at the present.” Lovell opened a box with a key from his fob chain and dredged up silver—worn silver, silver knocked and clatter’d in the battles of circulation—which he built into a little stack in front of Smith. “A Mexica dollar, which we pass at eight-and-fourpence. A piece of four, half that. A couple of Portugee cruzeiros, three shillings New-York. A quarter-guilder. Two kreutzers, Lemberg. One kreutzer, Danish. Five sous. And a Moresco piece we can’t read, but it weighs at fourteen pennyweight, sterling, so we’ll call it two-and-six, New-York. Twenty-one and fourpence, total. Leaving a hundred and twenty-nine, tenpence-halfpenny to find in paper.”
Excerpted from the book GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford. Copyright © 2017 by Francis Spufford. Republished with permission of Scribner.