Story 2 | Chapter I | Sir John Drinkwater is Eccentric | The Golden Incubus

Story 2—Chapter I.

“You’re an old fool, Burdon, and it’s all your fault.”

That’s what Sir John said, as he shook his Malacca cane at me; and I suppose it was my fault; but then, how could I see what was going to happen?

It began in 1851. I remember it so well because that was the year of the Great Exhibition, and Sir John treated me to a visit there; and when I’d been and was serving breakfast next morning, he asked me about it, and laughed and asked me if I’d taken much notice of the goldsmiths’ work. I said I had, and that it was a great mistake to clean gold plate with anything but rouge.

“Why?” he said.

Because, I told him, if any of the plate-powder happened to be left in the cracks, if it was rouge it gave a good effect; but if it was a white preparation, it looked dirty and bad.

“Then we’ll have all the chests open to-morrow, James Burdon,” he said; “and you shall give the old gold plate a good clean up with rouge, and I’ll help you.”

“You, Sir John?”

He nodded. And the very next day he sent all the other servants to the Exhibition, came down to my pantry, opened the plate-room, and put on an apron just like a servant would, and helped me to clean that gold plate. He got tired by one o’clock, and sat down upon a chair and looked at it all glistening as it was spread out on the dresser and shelves—some bright with polishing, some dull and dead and ancient-looking. Cups and bowls and salvers and round dishes covered with coats of arms; some battered and bent, and some as perfect as on the day it left the goldsmith’s hands.

I’d worked hard—as hard as I could, for sneezing, for I was doing that half the time, just as if I had a bad cold. For every cup or dish was kept in a green baize bag that fitted in one of the old ironbound oak chests, and these chests were lined with green baize. And all this being exceedingly old, the moths had got in; and pounds and pounds of pepper had been scattered about the baize, to keep them away.

“I’ll have a glass of wine, Burdon,” Sir John says at last; “and we’ll put it all away again. It’s very beautiful. That’s Cellini work—real,” he says, as he took up a great golden bowl, all hammered and punched and engraved. “But the whole lot of it is an incubus, for I can’t use it, and I don’t want to make a show.”

“Take a glass yourself, my man,” he said, as I got him the sherry—a fresh bottle from the outer cellar. “Ha! at a moderate computation that old gold plate is worth a hundred thousand pounds; and a hundred thousand pounds at only three per cent in the funds, Burdon, would be three thousand a year. So you see I lose that income by letting this heap of old gold plate lie locked up in those chests.—Now, what would you do with it, if it were yours?”

“Sell it, Sir John, and put it in houses,” I said sharply.

“Yes, James Burdon; and a sensible thing to do. But you are a servant, and I’m a baronet; though I don’t look one, do I?” he said, holding up his red hands and laughing.

“You always look a gentleman, Sir John,” I said; “and that’s what you are.”

“Please God, I try to be,” he said sadly. “But I don’t want the money, James; and these are all old family heirlooms that I hold in trust for my life, and have to hand over—bound in honour to do so—to my son.—Look!” he said, “at the arms and crest of the Boileaus on every piece.”

“Boileau, Sir John?”

“Well, Drinkwater, then. We translated the name when we came over to England. There; let’s put it all away. It’s a regular incubus.”

So it was all packed up again in the chests; for he wouldn’t let me finish cleaning it, saying it would take a week; and that it was more for the sake of seeing and going over it, than anything, that he had had it out. So we locked it all up again in the plate-room. And it took five waters hot as he could bear ’em to wash his hands; and even then there was some rouge left in the cracks, and in the old signet ring with the coat of arms cut in the stone—same as that on the plate.

I don’t know how it was; perhaps I was out of sorts, but from that day I got thinking about gold plate and what Sir John said about its worth. I knew what “incubus” meant, for I went up in the library and looked out the word in the big dictionary; and that plate got to be such an incubus to me that I went up to Sir John one morning and gave him warning.

“But what for?” he said. “Wages?”

“No, Sir John. You’re a good master, and her ladyship was a good mistress before she was took up to heaven.”

“Hush, man, hush!” he says sharply.

“And it’ll break my heart nearly not to see young Master Barclay when he comes back from school.”

“Then why do you want to go?”

“Well, Sir John, a good home and good food and good treatment’s right enough; but I don’t want to be found some morning a-weltering in my gore.”

“Now, look here, James Burdon,” he says, laughing. “I trust you with the keys of the wine-cellar, and you’ve been at the sherry.”

“You know better than that, Sir John. No, sir. You said that gold plate was an incubus, and such it is, for it’s always a-sitting on me, so as I can’t sleep o’ nights. It’s killing me, that’s what it is. Some night I shall be murdered, and all that plate taken away. It ain’t safe, and it’s cruel to a man to ask him to take charge of it.”

He did not speak for a few minutes.

“What am I to do, then, Burdon?”

“Some people send their plate to the bank, Sir John.”

“Yes,” he says; “some people do a great many things that I do not intend to do.—There; I shall not take any notice of what you said.”

“But you must, please, Sir John; I couldn’t stay like this.”

“Be patient for a few days, and I’ll have something done to relieve you.”

I went down-stairs very uneasy, and Sir John went out; and next day, feeling quite poorly, after waking up ten times in the night, thinking I heard people breaking in, as there’d been a deal of burglary in Bloomsbury about that time, I got up quite thankful I was still alive; and directly after breakfast, the wine-merchant’s cart came from Saint James’s Street with fifty dozen of sherry, as we really didn’t want. Sir John came down and saw to the wine being put in bins; and then he had all the wine brought from the inner cellar into the outer cellar, both being next my pantry, with a door into the passage just at the foot of the kitchen stairs.

“That’s a neat job, Burdon,” said Sir John, as we stood in the far cellar all among the sawdust, and the place looking dark and damp, with its roof like the vaults of a church, and stone flag floor, but with every bin empty.

“Going to lay down some more wine here, Sir John?” I said; but he didn’t answer, only stood with a candle in the arched doorway, which was like a passage six feet long, opening from one cellar into the other. Then he went up-stairs, and I locked up the cellar and put the keys in my drawer.

“He always was eccentric before her ladyship died,” I said to myself; “and now he’s getting worse.”

I saw it again next morning, for Sir John gave orders, sudden-like, for everybody to pack off to the country-house down by Dorking; and of course everybody had to go, cook and housekeeper and all; and just as I was ready to start, I got word to stay.

Sir John went off to his club, and I stayed alone in that old house in Bloomsbury, with the great drops of perspiration dripping off me every time I heard a noise, and feeling sometimes as if I could stand it no longer; but just as it was getting dusk, he came back, and in his short abrupt way, he says: “Now, Burdon, we’ll go to work.”

I’d no idea what he meant till we went down-stairs, when he had the strong-room door opened and the cellar too and then he made me help him carry the old plate-chests right through my pantry into the far wine-cellar, and range them one after the other along one side.

I wanted to tell him that they would not be so safe there; but I daren’t speak, and it was not till what followed that I began to understand; for, as soon as we had gone through the narrow arched passage back to the outer cellar, he laughed, and he says, “Now, we’ll get rid of the incubus, Burdon. Fix your light up there, and I’ll help.”

He did help; and together we got a heap of sawdust and hundreds of empty wine-bottles; and these we built up at the end of the arched entrance between the cellars from floor to ceiling, just as if it had been a wine-bin, till the farther cellar was quite shut off with empty bottles. And then, if he didn’t make me move the new sherry that had just come in and treat that the same, building up full bottles in front of the empty ones till the ceiling was reached once more, and the way in to the chests of gold plate shut up with wine-bottles two deep, one stack full, the other empty.

He saw me shake my head, as if I didn’t believe in it; and he laughed again in his strange way, and said: “Wait a bit.”

Next morning I found he’d given orders, for the men came with a load of bricks and mortar, and they set to work and built up a wall in front of the stacked-up bottles, regularly bricking up the passage, just as if it was a bin of wine that was to be left for so many years to mature; after which the wall was white-washed over, the men went away, and Sir John clapped me on the shoulder. “There, Burdon!” he said; “we’ve buried the incubus safely. Now you can sleep in peace.”