Joe Grimaldi, the famous clown, whose life was edited by Dickens, had many strange adventures, and among them is the affair of the Man with the Silver Staff. This happened in the year 1798. Grimaldi had become engaged to his manager’s daughter, and had settled in Penton Street, off Pentonville. He was employed at famous Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and he was accustomed to pass from his house to the theatre by going across some pleasant pastures called Sadler’s Wells Fields. These fields have long been covered by squares, the names of which are unfamiliar to most Londoners: Claremont, Myddleton, Lloyd, and Wilmington; and I will only say that he who is desirous of experiencing the sense of penetrating into outland and unknown territory cannot do better than explore this region, before the leases fall in and the great red flats go up.
One day, then, Grimaldi, on his peaceful way to rehearsal at the Wells, found the Fields occupied by a mob of about a thousand people, all of them scoundrels, engaged in a popular sport of the day. They were hunting an overdriven ox, and they were so densely packed and so extremely ruffianly that Grimaldi wondered whether he would not do better to turn back and go round by the Angel, Islington. Whereupon a young gentleman, looking at him attentively, came up to him and said.
“Is not your name Grimaldi, sir?”
“Yes, sir, it is,” replied Grimaldi. “Pray may I enquire why you ask the question?”
“Because,” answered the stranger, pointing to a man who stood among a little group of people hard by, “because I just now heard that gentleman mention it to a companion.”
Grimaldi looked round, saw “the gentleman,” and was not at all flattered to hear that he was being noted by him. The gentleman was “Old Lucas”, a “desperate villain”— we should say, an infernal scoundrel — and Parish Constable of Clerkenwell. The fact is Mr. Lucas was in the habit of taking advantage of his official position. He made a practice of accusing innocent people of this, that, or the other crime, of perjuring himself freely and of engaging other perjurers in the necessary quantities, and of pocketing certain small sums due to him on the conviction of the supposed guilty person. And so Grimaldi was not pleased to hear that Lucas had mentioned him, and still less pleased when he heard what came next. He asked the polite young gentleman if he were quite sure that Old Lucas had mentioned his name.
“Quite certain,” was the reply. “I can’t have made any mistake upon the subject, because he wrote it down in his book.”
“Wrote it down in his book?” exclaimed Grimaldi.
“Yes, he did, indeed,” replied the other, “and more than that, I heard him say to another man beside him that ‘he could lay hold of you whenever he wanted you.’”
Grimaldi was not at all pleased to hear this. However, he took the long way round to the Wells, avoiding the mad ox, and bad Lucas, and the worse mob, and forgot all about the matter in the business of rehearsal. In the evening, however, he recollected it and told the tale to his friends in the green-room, soon before the curtain went up. And Dubois, the comedian, and another actor named Davis, and Richer, the renowned rope-dancer, all roared with laughter, after the good custom of green-rooms everywhere. Dubois remarked that Old Lucas would stick at nothing, not even at Joe’s life, to gain a few pounds, perhaps even a few shillings. Then they speculated as to whether the charge would be murder or only forgery, though, as one remarked, that made little difference, since it was a hanging matter either way. And poor Joe tried to laugh, too, but did not feel really happy; and then a theatre messenger came in and said that Mr. Grimaldi was wanted directly at the stage-door.
“Who wants me?” enquired Grimaldi, turning rather pale.
“Old Lucas,” answered the messenger, with something between a smile and a gasp. Whereupon the green-room howled with laughter, the messenger joining in, till Mr. Dubois perceived that Grimaldi looked very unhappy indeed. Whereupon Mr. Dubois and the others said — again according to players’ custom everywhere and always — that having had their laugh they would back up their friend to the uttermost of their power. The whole party trooped out to the stage-door and defied Lucas, who told Grimaldi that he must come with him directly to the police office in Hatton Garden; the actors asked for the constable’s warrant, told him, one rather gathers, to go to hell, mentioning as, an alternative, a ducking in the adjacent waters of the New River. A joyous mob gathered at the sound of strife, and began to shout execrations against Lucas, who confessed at last that he had no warrant; “because people generally knows that I’m in authority, and thinks that sufficient.” Whereupon the happy mob shouted again, derisively, and perhaps with a little threatening note, too. So Mr. Lucas said that if Mr. Grimaldi would promise to come to the police office in Hatton Garden the next morning, that would do; and Mr. Lucas turned to go on his way. But the news became general that the villain of a constable was trying to arrest the great Grimaldi, the favourite of all London, and in a moment the whole quarter rang with whoops and yells. Here was better sport than ox-hunting. Mr. Lucas ran for his life with a volley of rotten apples, mud, and so forth following after him — and the curtain went up at Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
The next morning Grimaldi, accompanied by the famous rope-dancer and the two comedians, attended before Mr. Blamire, the magistrate of Hatton Garden. Old Lucas forthwith charged Grimaldi with hunting, and inciting and inducing other persons to hunt an overdriven ox in the fields of Pentonville, to the irritation of the ox and the hazard and danger of his Majesty’s subjects. In confirmation of this, Lucas summoned a few friends, who confirmed him in every particular. On the other hand, Grimaldi told the truth, and called the young gentleman who had first given him warning of the threatening attitude of Lucas. The magistrate said, finally, that he was quite sure that Grimaldi’s story was the true story and that Lucas and his friends were liars; still he was bound to act upon the deposition of the constable and his witnesses, and so he fined Grimaldi five shillings. As for Lucas, Mr. Blamire told him to be careful. In great delight the actors bowed to the magistrate, paid the five shillings fine, with a mysterious extra shilling “for the discharge,” and, oddly enough, it was proposed and unanimously agreed that the party should adjourn to the King of Prussia (afterwards the Clown), a tavern opposite the Wells. Here they had a little lunch and made merry over the small profits accruing to Lucas on a five shilling fine. And in the middle of their mirth a man ran into the room and cried: “Joe! Joe! here’s Old Lucas again.” More roars of laughter. Grimaldi and his friends thought this was a capital joke — when in walked Old Lucas. He was, really, a surprising fellow, this Constable of Clerkenwell. He declared that Grimaldi had not paid the five shillings or the aforementioned one shilling, and that he must either pay or “come along.”
“Not paid?” said the unfortunate clown. “Why, I paid the six shillings before I left the office.”
Old Lucas only grinned, and said: “Pay the money, or come on with me.”
Grimaldi swore he would not pay another farthing. The constable advanced to seize him and tore his shirt and waistcoat to ribbons. Whereupon, the mild Grimaldi was roused to anger and knocked Lucas down, causing the “porochial” nose to bleed grievously. But he got up again and produced his staff, and the fight was just going to begin again when a Mysterious Stranger rose from his place in the tavern room. He rose and drew from his pocket a Silver Staff, which he shook at Lucas; and, at the sight of that Staff, Lucas withered and collapsed. At the command of him of the Staff, the whole party returned to the police office, where Mr. Blamire remarked with amazement the change that had taken place in the shape of the constable’s nose. And Mr. Blamire seemed to know the Mysterious Stranger very well indeed, and greeted him cordially. The matter was heard, the Silver Staff corroborated Grimaldi’s story, and Old Lucas was fined five pounds, the money to go to the poor of the parish. Whereupon Old Lucas foamed at the mouth, like the hunted ox, and swore with frightful oaths and “great expressions of disrespect” that he would pay nothing. Then the worthy magistrate ordered Old Lucas to the cells, where he remained for five or six hours, devoting the whole time to howlings and imprecations, and at last paid up and wrote a penitent letter to Grimaldi.
And the Man with the Silver Staff? “Who,” said Grimaldi, with profound respect and an air of great mystery: “Who this gentleman was, I never could ascertain; but that he was a person possessing a somewhat high degree of authority was evident to me from the great respect paid to him at the police office.”
And here is another queer business in which Grimaldi was engaged, a few years later. He had a professional friend named Bologna, and Bologna knew a wealthy country gentleman, a Mr. Mackintosh, who lived down in Kent. Now Mr. Mackintosh had often pressed Bologna to come down to his place for the shooting and bring a friend; and so one October Grimaldi and Bologna hired a gig (the date is 1804) and drove in the direction of Bromley. Here they met a man in a fustian jacket, driving a lame horse in a taxed cart; and greatly to Grimaldi’s amazement, this was Mr. Mackintosh the wealthy. And the magnificent house was a small roadside tavern, kept by Mr. Mackintosh’s mother; and Bologna was mortified, and Grimaldi was inclined to laugh. However, the two actors had a good plain dinner, and in a day or two were taken out for the shooting.
“Now’s your time,” said Mackintosh, pointing to a field where a great number of pigeons were feeding.
The actors were cross. They said they had come to shoot birds. Mr. Mackintosh said that pigeons were birds, and the two comedians fired in a rage and slew twenty-five of them.
“And now,” said Mackintosh, “if you will take my advice, you will cut away at once.”
They were the squire’s pigeons. Grimaldi and Bologna were chased to the Lane by the squire’s gamekeeper, on Mr. Mackintosh’s information, but that difficulty was surmounted by a moderate payment on account of the pigeons, a rumpsteak dinner and a bottle of wine.
And so, you will say, the end of Mr. Mackintosh and his odd sense of humour. Not at all. In three years’ time a much smartened, spruced-up Mackintosh calls on Grimaldi, hopes his little joke has been forgiven, and trusts that Grimaldi and his wife will accept the hospitality offered by some friends in Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square. Grimaldi drives round one night after the play, finds a splendid mansion, splendidly furnished, a blaze of light, luxurious furniture, and noble meats and nobler wines for supper. There were just twelve people present besides Mackintosh and Grimaldi: Mr. and Mrs. Farmer, host and hostess, and five other married couples, all exquisitely dressed. The jewellery of the ladies was superb, the liveries of the servants were gorgeous. Again and again the Grimaldis partook of this Arabian hospitality; and always the party was the same; the six ladies, the six gentlemen, and Mr. Mackintosh. Mr. Grimaldi was a little perplexed; he thought that there was something peculiar about the manners of these people, but he could not quite say what it was. He puzzled his head, he felt that the Charlotte Street ways were different from the ways of the noblemen and gentlemen he met in the green-rooms of the Lane and the Wells; but he could not make out what the difference was.
And now for the solution of the puzzle. Alas! Mr. Mackintosh and his friends were all “desperate characters.” Mr. Farmer had been reprieved while he stood on the drop under the gallows; they were a pack of burglars, forgers, passers of forged notes. And what did they want with Mr. Grimaldi? Simply to be amused; that was all.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58