William Dempsey was a wonder among wonders.
By 18, he had risen from a gang of London street rogues to be the personal plaything of the Marquess of Argyll. Maintained in splendour, celebrated at masquerades – with everything he could wish for. Now all has come crashing down. He is put out in the rain without patronage, his West End apartment, or a place among the ton.
So on a stormy night, he arrives at a house in Southwark. Marathon Moll’s in the Mint – the bawdyhouse he worked in during his ascent and where he earned the name Blue Billy.
But is Marathon Moll’s a place from which to rise again? For there is one in the crowd, who catches his eye. Who takes his hand and promises something better.
Or does Moll’s signify a return to his roots? For one day, a second and very different young man raps on the door. Takes his hand and asks him to return to his past. To the cat language of vagabonds. The canting dialect of thieves. To the schemes, and the dreams, of his youth.
NOTE: an early and pivotal scene in the novel, when Billy, a former street boy and prostitute who has been thrown out of his West End apartment, tries to get back on his feet and earn a bit of money the only way he knows how. A revelation about Billy happens during the exchange which is integral to the entire arc of the story and informs the theme of the book.
After a melancholy hour roaming the city, without even a Chandler to speak to, his spirits had risen upon discovering a candidate – a man reading a book outside Savoy Gate. Blotting his brow with a white handkerchief, Billy came forward. As soon as he could, for there was a terrible throng, he passed by, twirling the kerchief behind his back in the manner of a horse’s tail. He turned once to observe the man, who was now scrambling to his feet, and, grinning, continued on. That voracious look meant a sovereign for himself, a meal, and a bed for the night at the Talbot Inn.
And so full circle into Southwark into the picaresque arms of the Talbot, a rambling, two-storied building ranged in dormer windows. Mr Leonard was a man of decent, though not decadent, means. He confessed to being somewhat inexperienced, upon which Billy raised his fee to one guinea. As they supped, Leonard laughed overmuch, nodding incessantly as though fearing a rebuff for what he was already assured of attaining. By his frequent glances about the Inn, he appeared not to understand that the Talbot was long established as a place of assignation for their lot. Dempsey made much of his inside knowledge, flirting openly with him before the waiter, then summoning the chamberlain to garnish one cosy bed with two nightcaps and two romantic red-tinted candles.
“And a tankard of claret,” he added, as he often encouraged a companion to drink. This Leonard did prodigiously. Once upstairs and half the tankard had been consumed, Dempsey donned his nightcap and, relieving himself of every other stitch of clothing, slipped under the bedclothes. The man followed, stripping off and jumping in, growing so excited at the touch of the young, warm body against his own that Billy contrived to discharge his obligation with what should have earned him just half a crown.
“Bloody hell…” sputtered Mr Leonard, “I didn’t intend—”
“Oh, but the night is young, Leo!” said Dempsey. “We shall remain together for many hours more. ‘Tis a usual manner of commencing a night of frolic. Now take a tipple, then rest in my arms as we consider how next my lion shall ravish me.”
The man took his tipple and was soon snoring like a docile lamb. An ideal moment to slip away, but tonight, having no place to slip away to, Billy remained where he was. During his wine-scorched daze, the man placed wet kisses on his cheek, forehead, nose – anywhere his claret-slumber led him. Something in the man recalled to Billy his first long-term benefactor, Benjamin Sallow. Gullible to the point of foolishness. But kind. Loved reading to him. And hardly ever bothered him about the other.
“You’re a reader too, Mr Leo,” Billy crooned at eyelids too heavy to open entirely. “Though reading that book was just a pretence while hoping a boy would pass by waving his tail at you. Still, I know a book lover when I see one. You’d like to read to me, wouldn’t you, my lion?” And believing this a stroke of insight, Billy was cradling the book to his chest as Leonard emerged from his peat bog of inertia.
Leonard immediately grew ardent in his addresses but pushing him gently back, Billy propped the book between them. “I knew you was my sort of fella when I saw you reading this book. My favourite of all time.”
“Spare no thought for books now,” groaned Leonard, now fully awake, “not now…” sucking at Billy’s neck and crushing the book between them.
“But I adore this novel. Do read to me…”
“Read?” said Leonard, as though The Vicar of Wakefield were an actual rival to himself. Casting it to the floor, he threw his companion onto his back, then commenced upon a better compensation for the loss of his guinea. Billy tugged the lip of his nightcap down over his eyes while his lion nipped and nuzzled them into a twisted and trembling embrace, at last grunting to a roaring conclusion as he held their slick limbs together, the air punctuated with one perfect, round belch from the fermenting claret below.
Hopping gingerly off, Leonard retrieved his book from the floor. After lighting a fresh candle and placing it on the bedside table, he returned to bed, tugging Dempsey’s nightcap up to reveal his eyes.
“Not sleepy yet? It’s not gone nine.”
“Christ crucified, I can’t again as yet!”
Mr Leonard shook his head. “The book, Billy. You said you admire The Vicar of Wakefield.”
Suddenly showing more life than at any point during his ravishing, Billy sat up and said, “Yes. Sure.”
Leonard handed him the book and, settling back into his pillow, said with a dreamy smile, “How about you read me a bit in that sweet voice.”
After rather a long moment, Billy laughed, “Nay, you don’t want that Mr Leo. You want to read to me.”
“I think I know my own mind, lad. Read us a bit now, go on…”
“Sir, I don’t enjoy that sort of thing. And you’ve such a sweet voice, much sweeter than mine.”
Leonard held the book between them in the candlelight: “Nothing to be embarrassed about. I shall begin. ‘I was ever of opinion, that the honest man, who married and brought up a large family, did more service, than he who continued single, and only talked of population.’”
Dempsey snorted. “That is the famous Vicar of Wakefield? Doesn’t promise much of interest, ‘pon honour.” He was chuckling for some time, then said, “But go on, it must improve, and I adore the way you read.”
Leonard frowned. “You lying to me?”
“You told me this was your favourite novel. Haven’t you read it?”
Shaking his head, he replied, “I thought it was Sir Charles Grandison I observed you reading. I’d have laid half a dozen of burgundy it was Sir Charles Grandison, but my eyes ain’t worth spit, and there’s the God’s honest. Grandison’s my favourite, not this.”
Leonard propped the book open on Billy’s chest. “High time you read Goldsmith then. Read me the first page.”
“Sir, I just said my eyes ain’t no good. Anyhow,” he added, extending a hand into the nether regions of the bedclothes, “you shan’t have a willing lad in bed forever. I’m feelin’ right neglected…”
But Leonard failed to succumb, appearing to see him in an entirely new light. “It ain’t a crime you can’t read, Billy. Many cannot. But a man don’t like being lied to…”
“Shut up with talk of I can’t read! I read, and write, beautifully. My Marquess often had me write out special notes and billets for him simply for the high craft of my penmanship. That’s the Marquess of Argyll, what maintained me in luxury in a West End apartment.”
With disgust, Leonard said, “Christ Almighty. You’re a pretty piece, but you need to leave off lying. I ain’t a fool and won’t be treated as one. There is no Marquess, and you are illiterate. I don’t condemn you for it. Just admit what you are and let us have no more words…”
Billy pulled away, dropping the book to the floor as he sat on the edge of the bed. “You know nothin’ of me, or my Marquess, who told me daily I was the prettiest in all London as he strutted with me on his arm, the regalest hanger girded to his thigh with the most elegant handle of pure gold. And, nightly, he presented me with another hanger of comparable size and strength I can tell ye, unlike that melted bit of butter knife ye’ve got down there…” Billy kicked the book across the floor. “Aye, and—” but received such a crack on the head, nothing more was heard until his face connected with the edge of the bedside table.
“Shut that mouth, you dirty little w—e!”
A moment of stunned silence elapsed. When Billy remained on the floor, sputtering, and choking, Mr Leonard experienced a twinge of remorse. Seeing his companion would remain bracing himself on the bedside table, he rose and came around the bed to observe at a safe distance. Then, retrieving a posset bowl from the tallboy, he placed it under the red stream issuing from Billy’s fingers where they cradled his nose…
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Meet David Lawrence
David Lawrence is the author of two queer historical novels – ‘Hugh: A Hero without a Novel’ and ‘Blue Billy’s Rogue Lexicon’. As a writer, he loves taking a deep dive into the politics, social norms, and events of 18th century England while presenting humorous and unique coming-of-age tales.
A native of the American Southwest, David has spent much of his life in Great Britain, France, and Finland. He now lives in the American Northwest – Helena, Montana – with his Finnish partner.
By day he loves hiking under the Big Sky of his beautiful adopted state.
By night, however, he prefers wandering the byways of 18th century London…
Connect with David
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