The Rake’s Progress (or the lack of it)
Part the First
In which the notorious rake, whorer, gambler and secret government agent Robert Everett receives a mission.
I wake up, in an inn, with aching head,
And peer out on the day with bleary eye.
The strumpet I had taken to my bed
Has vanished in the passage of the night
Back home to her hovel near the docks,
And leaving me most likely with the pox.
Oh that this too solid flesh would melt,
I think, as I splash water on my face,
And curse with a disgust most deeply felt
At the relentless squalor of this place.
I’m here, I’m damned if I know why nor how,
At the %!$@-end of the empire, Curacao.
And then the wall-eyed loon who keeps the inn
Comes thumping up the stairs in wooden clogs
And bursts into the room, reeking of gin
And in a slurred drawl straight from Erin’s bogs,
Assures me that the Virgin sent this day
And asks me when did I intend to pay.
Out the window I can see the rain
Come driving in over a leaden sea.
I point out to this drunken Irish swain
the Virgin seems to have stopped to take tea
a sound idea – once he’s made me a cup,
I shall be down forthwith to settle up.
He turns to go, then stops. “Oi near forgot.
Sure, this came for ye.” He hands me a note
Folded and seal’d, and marked with a red spot.
He pauses, looks at me and clears his throat.
I stare straight back into his one good eye
“My cup of tea? And then we’ll say goodbye.”
He clatters off and stumbles down the stairs,
While I fumble with the paper’s seal,
Which is one used by Admiral Sir John Villairs
He of the triple chins and eyes of steel.
Snug inside his office in Whitehall
Planning the secret doings of us all.
The red dot is a simple order: Kill.
Inside the page seems blank, but a flame
When held close to the paper’s surface will
In a few seconds bring to light a name.
‘Manuel Rodriguez’ – I read the words and freeze
This name is known throughout these bloodstained seas.
That he is Spanish, and an enemy
Is neither here nor there. Nor is his rank -
Admiral of the Caribbean Fleet.
What makes my palms sweat and my mind go blank
Is the delight that he is known to take
In torturing his captives at the stake.
I quickly pull on clothes, and check my purse
To make sure that last night’s harlot bold
In giving up the treasure ‘neath her skirts,
has not robbed me of my sovereigns gold.
Pistols, sword, stairs, tea, pay the lout
Wish him a curt “Good day” and then I’m out.
Out into the insalubrious street
Which stinks of every foul thing cast into it
My mind is full of murder, swift and sweet,
and how to make the dream of it bear fruit.
My footsteps take me down to the quay side:
I must take ship to Cuba on the tide.
I spot a likely lugger and hang around
The bottom of her gangway, till a tar
Hails me and I ask him: “Whither bound?”
He answers me with one word: “Havana”
I see the captain and make good my place
With two gold coins that bear King George’s face.
Part the Second
In which Robert Everett arrives at Havana and forms a plan.
Havana is a lot like Curacao –
Another sticky squalid little port
The mock grandeur of the actual town
Dwarfed by the looming menace of the fort.
Its streets awash with whoares and rum and sin,
And, near the docks, a sordid little inn.
A frowsty jade with over-coiffured hair
And face thick-painted, greets me at the door
And leads me to my room up narrow stairs
Over a stained and splint’ring wooden floor.
“Breakfast at eight,” she says and then retreats
And I gaze out of my casement at the street.
How to kill this man? He is surrounded
By a score of loyal guards, armed to the teeth,
And many an attempt has been confounded
And the would-be killers lie beneath
The soil, their bodies bearing testament
Of their last few hours’ vile torment.
I stare out at the street, lost in thought
While a docker, much the worse for drink
(Like every second creature in this port,)
Adds his pis to the prevailing stink.
And while he p***es, I tuck the thought away
That we all pis, as I watch him sway.
Then I hie me to a better part of town
To a coffee shop that at the least, looks clean,
And I slip quietly in and sit me down,
Unmarked by all, and by most unseen.
I read a Tatler, seemingly absorbed,
While listening to the gossips of the port.
One powdered crone shoots me a sharp glance
But she spies the English paper and relaxes
No doubt she thinks that there’s as much a chance
Of me speaking Spanish as of her paying taxes.
She turns away with just the slightest sneer
And chatters on for all the world to hear.
“Look at the slimy Anglo – I’ve a mind
To call the Guards and see him clapp’d in jail.”
I hold my paper up as if I was blind
To hide my face which must be going pale.
Her fat friend looks my way, adjusts her wig,
Then, smiling, says to me, “Hey, English pig.”
I look up as if a friend had hail’d me
And smiling at her, in English, say “Good day.
I marvel at the beauty that assails me
Would you ladies care to join me?” and I wave
My hand at the table and two vacant chairs,
And am rewarded by two frosty stares.
They turn away. “A fool,” opines the crone.
“Yes, harmless and stupid,” her fat friend replies.
“Manuel would waste his time upon that one,
The effort would not justify the prize.”
The old one cackles. “Manuel has a way
Of making English spies and traitors pay.
“I saw him last night at the Don’s masked ball.
My he looked fine.” She pauses to drain her cup.
“Was he alone?” “No, that Castilian whoare
Has got the poor man totally tied up.
Night after night to dances and to shows
Led by his heart – or something else – he goes.”
“I hear he loves the opera.” “That’s true.
He sits and listens as if in a trance.
The Castilian’s not so fond of it, mind you.
She likes to sway her body and to dance.
So often he will go there all alone.”
A gem! Oh how I love you, vile old crone!
I signal for my bill, and leave the shop,
Remarked on by the gossips not at all.
And walk the streets, till something makes me stop
And stare transfixed at a poster on a wall
Advertising, opening tomorrow night,
Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice.
To this, I think, I really must attend
Although I loathe the opera with a passion.
I really cannot seem to understand
Why all this screeching is so much in fashion.
But such cacophonies of human breath
May drown out the sound of violent death
And with that thought my plan begins to form.
It will require a quantity of ale,
And that rare thing, a willing, trusting whoare,
Young and fresh, not used and lined and stale.
And a passage in the opera that’s replete
With drama, action and some loud drum-beats.
Part the Third
In which Robert Everett meets Rose, and the plot thickens nicely.
I loathe the inn, its keeper and its fare
So next morning I rise late and venture out
To a modest market in the city square,
Where, idling, I am startled by a shout
In an accent that is music to my ear,
A cockney strumpet – “My, you’ve got some cheek!
Py me fer th’ shag, yer Dago creep!”
A short fat man comes scuttling out the door
Of an inn even less salubrious than my own,
Pursued by the fury of a cheated whoare
All young & fiery in a torn green gown.
I trip the gentleman, and down he falls
And my cockney harlot kicks him in the balls.
He howls and doubles up – his face goes green
But his tormentor will not let him be.
“Give me my money, BASTA! Give it!” she screams
In Spanish while he scrabbles to his knees.
I point my pistol at him, and with a curse,
He throws the whoare some money from his purse.
He staggers off. I put my pistol up,
And, catching the harlot’s eye, I wink and say
“Tha’s firsty work, that is. I could murder a cup
Of Rosie Lea. ‘Names Bob, by th’ way.”
She stares with eyes as green as river water
And says “Right. An’ I’m Ethel th’ Pirate’s Daughter.
“Spare the accent. Yore a bleedin’ toff.”
“Well, almost perhaps. But tell me, how did you know?”
She grins. “’Cos yore all over the shop.
Half Lissan Grove, and a good bit Ol’ Kent Road.”
Palms up, I shrug. “You win. What’s it to be?
A pint of decent gin, or a cup of tea?”
“’This time o’ day, Bob, it’d better be tea.
An’ we orter scarper, ‘cos the Guardia’s comin’.”
Hastily we duck down a side street
Into a low den with a kettle boiling
And a vacant-looking slack-jawed Spanish wench
Singing off-key while wiping down a bench.
She brings two teas, then slouches out the back
and ends two whining children’s sibling quarrel
with a loud curse, an order and a smack.
I catch my whoare’s eye and decide to level.
“If you’re a girl who’s got a bit of steel
And can take risks, then I have a deal
For you Ethel that will pay you well.”
She sits back, folds her arms. Her eyes go cold.
“Prob’ly I should just say go ter hell,
An’ the name’s not Ethel, mate, it’s Rose.
But ev’ryone’s got somfink they can sell.
So wot sad an’ sorry tale you got to tell?”
“I have a job to do, and while I’m at it
I need someone distracted for a while
Plied with lots of ale, cozened and flatter’d,
And he might require more than just a smile.
But you’d need keep sharp, for when the job is done
The both of us will have to cut and run.”
“It’s robbery,” she guesses, “Or a killin’.
It better not be raype.” I shake my head.
“I fink I might be jus’ a bit more willin’
If I knowed ‘oo it was you wanted dead,
Or what you wanted nicked.” In her green eyes
I see no expression, no surprise.
And now I have a tricky choice to make.
For if she’s genuine, she’s what I need.
But if she’s not, I’ll end up at the stake,
Wondering how much more I have to bleed
Before I die. I lift and drain my cup
Of tea, and set it down. My mind’s made up.
“My mission is to kill a Spaniard.”
“Spanish, English, all th’ same ter me.
‘Oo is the geezer?” “Manuel Rodriguez,
Admiral of the Caribbean Fleet.”
She smiles. “Well, ‘e deserves it. ‘Ow much tin?”
“I’ll pay you fifty guineas.” “Christ! I’m in!”
A whoare’s greed lights her eyes for just one second,
And silently I’m sighing with relief
For still the game goes on, just as I’d reckoned,
Confirming once again my one belief
In human weakness, wickedness and sin –
A handy faith, for the trade I’m in.
Part the Fourth
In which Robert Everett and Rose attend the opera, and divers and sundry consequences eventuate.
Rodriguez’ guard stands still outside his box
Unmoved by the hubbub of the crowd.
A bearded giant, steady as a rock
That stands ‘gainst a storm both rude and loud.
Until a vision, gown’d, perfum’d and pale
Wafts up to him and offers him some ale.
He smiles and shakes his head, even tho’ the sweat
Is running freely off his craggy face
His charge is not one lightly to forget,
He says, and he must keep his place.
She gives a sultry pout – then, with a smile
Promises to return in a while.
Then a bell sounds, and the orchestra
Commences tuning with many a doleful moan
The audience goes in through the doors,
Leaving the guard outside, all alone.
I too take my seat. Rose feigns unwilling.
Tonight is but the overture to the killing.
The singing starts, and soon she blocks her ears
“I can’t stand this” she whispers angrily,
Then quickly but not quietly disappears,
And more than one turns their head to see.
I pretend bewilderment and shame
While Rose plays out the next part of the game.
She glides back to the guard, still at his post,
Clutching a frosted glass of finest ale,
The loveliest maid who ever played Mine Host
And of course his stiff resolve just fails.
With no one there but her, what could go wrong?
He downs the drink – it does not take him long.
This with laughter and with many a jest
Is repeated as Act One wears on.
She trifles with the gold braid on his chest
Until she hears the Intermission gong.
She slips away then, with a saucy wink,
Promising to return – with more to drink.
“’E’s ‘ad three pints,” she murmurs in my ear,
while I pretend to upbraid her for walking
out during the show. “’E’s full to ‘ere,
an’ doesn’ want ter do much more than talkin’.
When it starts again, unless I’m much amiss
The poor sod’ll be bustin’ fer a pis.”
So it transpires. While I endure the clamour
Of harpies’ voices in the second act
And note with glee the drums crash like a hammer,
Our noble guard has nicked off out the back
For a pee – and (may the heavens send such grace!)
Leaving my wee harlot in his place!
But this night we leave the admiral be.
The guard tells Rose that in two night’s time
He will return, an opera devotee,
And that is when we plan to do the crime.
While she keeps the sentry busy out the back,
I’ll slip up to the box for my attack.
And on that night, to start with, all goes well.
Our guard consumes a quantity of ale
And by the intermission, Rose can tell
He’s going to need to Go, without fail.
But this time, when he slips out the back,
After a pause Rose follows his track.
She catches him with member still displayed,
And feigns a lustful interest in the sight
And with little effort she persuades
Him to go with her where the night
Will shield from view their lecherous embrace,
Leaving the hunter free to make the chase.
But then I find the stairs to Rodriguez’ box
Are locked. I have to find and use my pick,
Which takes up time, and I call down a pox
On doors that rattle and on locks that stick.
Eventually prevailing, I slip through
And then a voice says “Soldier! Is that you?”
There is no cover – just a flight of stairs,
More shadowed on one side, where I stand.
So there I freeze, cold sweat in my hair,
My trusty pistol clammy in my hand.
I cannot risk ascending now, for fear
Rodriguez will be drawn and waiting there.
He gets up and paces to the top
Of the flight of stairs, and looks around
I stand there rigid and my heart just stops
As I see myself caught here and cut down.
But he doesn’t see me, and he looks away
Back to where the drums and trumpets play.
I aim and fire, and hit him in the head.
He turns, unslain, and gives a choking cry
The music tails off – with growing dread,
I sense the game is up – but he must die.
My second pistol’s bullet drills his skull
Right between the eyes, and he falls.
And then I run, with no attempt at stealth.
And clear the theatre well before the mob
Erupts from the doors, like hounds from Hell.
I find Rose and the guard still on the job.
My sword takes him completely by surprise,
And he succumbs with lust still in his eyes.
We leave him with his britches round his feet
And run into the night like things possessed
And even the unsalubrious air is sweet
When Terror to its taste gives of its zest.
But once we’ve cleared the scene, we slow the pace
And walk an innocent, untroubled gait.
To her lodgings we repair, and at once strip
Our clothes all off, and I cast an eye
Over Rose’s body in her slip.
She catches me and says, “Yer’ll have ter pay
A few more guineas if you wants a bit.
Nuffink’s for free, Bob, that’s the truth of it.”
“A man can look,” I answer, and she grins
As into a fresh gown she deftly wriggles.
“Yes Bob, but anyfink more will cost some tin.”
Then she glances at my crotch and gets the giggles.
“What?” ask I, both madden’d and amused.
“My oath,” says she, “Yore tackle looks well used.”
I sigh and roll my eyes, and turn away,
Pulling on breeches and a fresh waistcoat.
We slip out quietly in our new array
And, unnoticed, walk to where our boat,
The self same lugger that carried me here,
Awaits us moored to its darkened pier.
Aboard the lugger, I give Rose her cash
And ask her what her plans are. She replies,
“I’m goin’ home ter Blighty. Wiv my stash
I’ve more’n enough for a better enterprise
Than whoarin’. I could buy a real nice Inn
An’ make my fortune sellin’ Bombay gin.”
Then she asks me if I’ll give up the Game
And settle down and live a quiet life.
“Wiv your looks, you’re bound ter catch some maid
An’ turn her into your devoted wife.
An’ have kids, an’ evenin’s round the fire.
Wot more could any bloke really desire?”
What more indeed? I think of Curacao
And shudder at the squalor of it all
And for the thousandth time, I wonder how
The cards I hold were ever dealt at all.
But then I bring to mind the pistol’s flash
The running footsteps, and the dagger’s slash.
The moment when the prize is there to take
Be it a target, or a beauteous jade
The pleasure of the killer or the rake,
That I can seek again afore it fades,
Until that moment when I lose my skill
And destiny closes for the kill.
And everywhere, from Curacao to Cairns
Where Britain’s hordes go, bidden by the breeze,
The silent legions of Sir John Villairs
Bite and draw blood, like the Empire’s fleas.
A murder here, and there, a treasure lost -
A small and secret war, with a small cost.
I bid farewell to Rose down at the docks,
And troop back slowly to the tired old inn
I wake the Irish landlord, who unlocks
My same old squalid room and lets me in.
He turns to go, and then he clears his throat.
“This came fer you.” And hands me a note.
edited once for spelling.