In defiance of the opinion of the Ancients, who famously preferred to start their tales in media res, viz. the midst of things, I disdain to commence this narrative with the reasons for my arrest or to pass comment on the charges laid against me. Instead, my fixed intent is to relate the history of my life ab ovo—aye, inde a conceptione, since the seed of my fate was perchance sown in the moment of my bastardising. Indeed, many there are who would assert that the entire course of my life, from birth to death, was writ out for me in that first instant when light sprang out of the darkness and the Spirit, moving over the face of the heedless waters, gave form unto the void. These same pious men proclaim that each character in the book of my life was contained within that first Word, so that the first cause of my story, the primum movens of my wayward odyssey, lies in that instant when God proclaimed, Let there be.
Be that as it may, it occurs to me that providing any summary of the first four and a half thousand years of the world’s existence might make for a somewhat tedious prelude to the history I intend to relate in these pages. I shall, therefore, move expeditiously to the unusual circumstances that surrounded my nativity, leaving the diligent reader to persue his own investigations into the events leading up to my conception. For truth be told, divers opinions about my origins are entertained amongst my acquaintance and I would fain put an end to the more fanciful speculations. Some hold that I sprang, like a mandrake, from the spilled seed of a traitorous rebel hanged at Tyburn. Others hold that I am the product of an alchemist’s sperm, a misshapen homunculus grown in a flask to the dimensions of a natural man. Some say that my mother lay with an incubus, and that I quickened in her womb from wanton dreams and a devil’s seed.
I confess I should count it a rare honour to owe my begetting to any of these illustrious progenitors, though I fear my accuser would but point to that chapter wherein we read that all things were by God created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, powers, principalities, malignant spirits, chymerical sorcerers or the priapic members of dead traitors. Besides, I was not always this maimed and blasted creature you see before you now: time was when I was held the properest man that ever trimmed his hat with a feather or wore his mistress’s favours in his breast.
No, I owe my existence to a more mundane accident of fortune. Though I never heard any word on the subject of my paternity from my mother’s lips, I have since learnt how my mother, Madeleine, was beguiled by a gentleman, the youngest son of a lord, then apprenticed to her father, Oliver Jefferies, of Basinghall Street in the parish of St Michael Bassishaw. Though this name is, alas, destined to figure but seldom in this history, Oliver Jefferies was thus my grandfather; and this young rake, whose name I durst not divulge in these pages, was my only begetter and earthly father.
Having lived a dozen or more years in the city of Aleppo, my grandfather, Oliver, had built up a thriving merchant venture business trading with the Levant. He had returned to England two decades previously, becoming a leading figure in the Royal Exchange and marrying Alice, the eldest daughter and firstborn child of Sir Abraham Flint, baronet, of Aldeburgh in the county of Suffolk. As is customary, my grandfather was in the habit of taking a couple of young men of quality as apprentices to learn the trade and to profit from the experience he had reaped and garnered in all his years of honest labour. One such young gentleman was my father; but in those dark days, which were as the gathering of clouds before a great storm or sea-tempest, many families found themselves divided against themselves, and many a household awoke to find itself harbouring a secret spy. This young gentleman, feeling himself rebuked for his devotion to the King’s cause, sought to revenge himself upon his precise master before he took his leave of London.
Or so I surmise. What is certain is that this young rake crept into the bosom of Oliver’s daughter, so that he became the serpent in the garden, as it were. Aye, that sober godly maid, my mother, Madeleine, fell under the spell of this young gentleman’s perfidious vows and amorous blandishments, and in a wanton moment, on the very eve of his quitting the house, she did lie with him.
Some have told me this young rake must have forced my mother to his will or made threats against her person, thinking that such surmise about the actions of my sire would somehow mitigate the shame of my birth. I have naught but contempt for such prevarication. For my own part, I hope my father had good sport in my making, and that my mother gave herself to his embraces with delight, for I hold this solitary night of carnal liberty was more estimable far than any number of her years of pious devotion. For, Madeleine, my mother, spent the remainder of her youth repenting of her transgression, as if any number of days of humility and prayer could not wash away the stain left on her soul by a single night.
I cannot know what promises passed between the lovers, or what this rogue’s intentions might have been when he persuaded my mother to yield to his entreaties. Perhaps he truly planned to marry her till cold reason and the worldly counsels of his friends prevailed upon him. Perhaps she gave into the madness of desire, and her actions were no more reprehensible than the actions a man might make in the ravings of a fever. Alas, the secrets of their hearts must remain a mystery to all but that One unto whom all hearts are open and unto whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid, or so our religion tells us. For, if Scripture tells us that not a sparrow falls without the order or permission of the Almighty, we may confidently assert that the fall of my mother, Madeleine, was equally fixed by the inescapable decree of Providence.
I used to find relief from this forlorn conclusion in the teachings of the divine Lucretius, whose name I yet revere above those of all the other philosophers of antiquity. For did not Lucretius teach that all nature is naught but the visible product of invisible atoms, each colliding one with the other, bouncing and rebounding in a dizzy dance, as they tumbled pell-mell into the abyss of empty space? In this way, Lucretius believed the everlasting chain of cause and effect might break in twain, that living beings might wrest control of their several destinies from the bonds of fate. But when I later reflected that no will on my part might shape the path each atom described in its descent into futurity nor any desire I might harbour in my breast might decide which atoms should strike which other atoms, I unhappily concluded the godless universe of the Epicureans only condemned us to being the playthings of happenstance instead of being the slaves of divine Providence.
Nevertheless, I am pleased to ascribe my fondness for gambling and games of chance to my passion for natural philosophy, for in the fall of the dice or the turn of a card we feel for an instant the sweet giddy illusion of liberty. Aye, all things arbitrary or perverse, all things that seem to curve away from the unwavering path of necessity, inspire a strange delight in my reprobate soul, for who would not prefer the drunken delusion of freedom to the sober apprehension of fate?
Much as I would relish the opportunity to pursue this line of speculative enquiry, I durst not tax my reader with further digression. To return then to the question of my conception, I conclude that some tender feelings must have existed between the lovers, for my father continued to provide for my upkeep until his death upon the field of Naseby some three years later, and he left behind a small bequest to pay for my education in the last will and testament he dictated on the eve of the battle. This sum, though meagre, amounted to the entirety of his estate, after his creditors had been paid and tradesmen’s accounts had been settled. Doubtless, only poverty and distress could have prevailed upon my mother to accept money from this knave, but having considered the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field, and compared their monthly outgoings against her own, she discovered at length a hidden providence in the regular sums she received to provide for her maintenance and for the care and education of her child.
I should not mock at her affliction: the shame of accepting money from her wronger never sat easy with her conscience, though I have heard said how this wild young man—this reckless despoiler of maidenhood—would have offered marriage in reparation, had not the two families fallen into wrangling over the size of her portion and jointure, and the bitterness between adversaries in the great events of those days poisoned good will between the parties. It is also hard to resist the conclusion that Oliver Jefferies’ heart was hardened against his daughter because he had intended her for Sir Matthew Steele, a distant cousin by marriage and a member of one of the foremost families of the county of Suffolk.
In truth, I have no grounds for imputing so base a motive in my relative, but there is no question but my grandfather possessed a harsh, unyielding temperament. He saw himself as deceived by his daughter, slighted and belittled by this deception, and remained ever implacable in his determination to punish her deceit. In his eyes, his daughter had become an abomination unto God, a sinner detestable to man, a thing unclean that must be ripped out and cast away. I have since learnt it was only after much persuasion (and more worldly calculation of the damage to his own good name and the reputation of his family) that he yielded from his intent that a magistrate be called, Madeleine and her seducer prosecuted, and his own daughter whipped through the streets like a common stale or harlot. For, it would seem all this Christian gentleman’s study had overlooked that passage in John where we read how Jesus forgave the woman taken in adultery, telling her to go and sin no more.
As it was, pride overcame holy wrath, and worldly advantage prevailed over his zeal against sin, much as cold water will in time douse the fiercest fire. As soon as my mother showed the out-ward signs of being with child, she was spirited away to the country estate of her maternal grand-father outside the little town of Aldeburgh, never to return to her father’s house in Basinghall Street. So, it was there, on the coast of the wild German Sea, where the wind sings through the reeds and the curlew cries across the marshes, that I spent the first nine years of my life.
My memories of this time are, for the most part, happy and I now recall those first years growing up on my great-grandfather’s estate in Suffolk as the only days I have known free from care. So it was with surprise that I learnt, many years later, that during her lying-in and for some weeks after my birth, my mother was overtaken by a profound melancholy, haunted my sick fantasies that I was some kind of imp or changeling child. In her despair, she confessed to her grandfather how the devil had tempted her to take violent hands against her baby or to do away with herself. But Sir Abraham heard in my mother’s words no more than grief at her estrangement from her father and shame at her predicament, concluding that Satan as often tempts us with despair as with the sweetness of worldly pleasures: moreover, as a justice of the peace, Sir Abraham knew of women in the county hanged as witches after making like confessions, and he possessed enough knowledge of physic to know the common effects of a displaced womb. A local physician further advised him that excessive moistness of the womb may cause vapours to rise, oppressing the vital spirits and poisoning the imagination of a woman newly delivered of a child.
Had he known then what my fate was destined to be, and comprehended what his granddaughter had delivered into this world, he might have been less swift to dismiss her thoughts as products of globus hystericus or an excess of melancholic vapours. What is certain is that these dark fancies passed in time and Madeleine, my mother, never subsequently betrayed any deficiency in maternal devotion, though sometimes, much later in my childhood and coming of age, I came to feel that the love and care she gave to me so tirelessly sprang more from a sense of her debt to God and her duty as a pious Christian woman than from any delight she took in my person. Moreover, I confess that the freakish precocity of my intelligence has, from the first, possessed a power to bewilder as well as to charm. Every mother fancies her child keener than the offspring of her neighbours, delighting in the artless babble that tumbles from her baby’s lips, but it must have been daunting to bear a child able to shape his first words within the space of his first year and able to speak with facility before he was thirty months old. And this natural perspicacity, this facility and readiness of understanding, has ever stood as an obstacle to establishing an easy intimacy with my immediate acquaintance.
I know I run before myself here—and this manuscript should have no space for such ungrateful and unfilial reflections—particularly since the main point I was seeking to make at my commencement was that my first years were, for the most part, without cloud. My great-grandfather’s eldest surviving son, my uncle, Isaac Flint, was all this time away with the wars, having volunteered for the Eastern Association within months of the King taking arms against Parliament— but he had left behind him his wife, Louise, and his son and daughter, Harry and Elspeth, and so there were always other children in my great-grandfather’s household with whom I might play and pass my last guiltless days.
Only one incident in my earliest childhood stands out as pointing to the destiny that would be mine. When I was yet a child of seven or eight, I heard the minister preach a sermon on superstition and forms of vain worship, taking as his text those verses in Genesis where we read how Cain slew Abel after the Lord preferred the sacrifice of Abel, the keeper of sheep, over that of his brother, Cain, whose labour it was to till the soil. After the service, I enquired of the preacher why God had not accepted the sacrifice of Cain, reasoning in my childish innocence that the Lord perhaps cared not for bread or that he, like me, preferred the relish of meat.
The minister smiled and explained anew the burden of his text: the Lord, he said, cares for neither bread nor meat so much as he cares for honesty, obedience and unfeigned love. It was not the material sacrifice that counted, for God disdains all carnal and external acts of worship: it was the purity of heart that made Abel’s sacrifice acceptable where his brother’s sacrifice was not. For, the Lord knew that Abel loved him with true reverence just as he knew his brother Cain was a hypocrite, who only tendered his gift out of duty and a vain love of outward show. The true inward wickedness of Cain, the preacher said, was revealed when Cain took arms against his brother and slew him.
I went away troubled and pondered the minister’s words for many days, then, when the next Sabbath presented itself, I returned to interrogate further the preacher on his text. Why, I asked, might it be that the Lord had suffered the first woman, Eve, to give birth to two such contrary sons, the one being good and the other wicked. The preacher again smiled and told me that evil had come into the world when Eve did first disobey him and eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Again, I pondered the minister’s words and I asked him why it should be that the Lord had suffered Eve to eat of the fruit, if by eating of the fruit she would bring evil into the world and give life and breath to one so wicked as Cain. The minister at once became grave and told me sternly that Eve was tempted by the serpent, Satan, and that this devil, Satan, was the architect of all mischief in this world of men.
This I said I knew, but why, I asked the preacher, why had the Lord suffered Satan to be created, if he were destined to tempt Eve and bring into the world the first murderer, Cain? At this, the preacher’s countenance fell, and he said it was the Will of God and told me sternly that it shewed insolence and a wilfulness most incorrect to Heaven to question the Providence of the Almighty. All things, he told me, were ordained by God: if one fell amongst robbers of wild beasts; if one’s ship founded upon a rock in a gale; if one met with deliverance when wandering in a wilderness; if one arrived safely in port after being tossed by waves, all these occurrences, prosperous or adverse, were the express will of God, who has writ the great book of Providence in which each man’s fate is but a sentence, a word, a mere single character.
I fell silent hearing these words, feeling myself rebuked by the minister, but I was troubled by all he had told me. I took no pleasure in learning that God had mapped out each man’s destiny, so that one man was chosen and another man rejected, and neither might do aught to alter the fate allotted him. Henceforth from that day, I wondered often why it might be that the Lord preferred Able to Cain, and why afterwards the Almighty should put a mark on the head of Cain that none might kill him. The fate of Cain seemed to me both terrible and strange: in my innocence, I wondered whether God perhaps repented of ordaining so terrible a destiny for this brother, and put the mark upon Cain’s brow in token of recompense. This blasphemy satisfied my childish mind for a little while, and it was not till many years later that it dawned on me how tragic was the fate that belonged to Cain: forever a stranger to man, forever a homeless vagabond, despised by his Creator and an object of horror to his fellows. So moved was I by this last thought, that I asked my nurse—a simple country woman of but little learning—what became of Cain after he was cast out and marked by the hand of God. She told me she had heard it said that Cain never died—for there is no mention of his passing in Scripture—and that even to this very day Cain still wanders the earth, with the mark upon his forehead proclaiming his eternal guilt. I shuddered at this thought, but when I asked Martin Symonds, my cousin Harry’s tutor, whether it was true that Cain was still alive all these centuries later, he dismissed the story as vain superstition and bid me put from my mind such foolishness.
I pray that Martin Symonds was right in what he told me, for I too have carried a mark on my head. Aye, from the very beginning, I was marked as separate from others, singled out as one of the goats that should not mingle amongst the sheep. At the beginning of this history, I mocked at some at the more foolish rumours that have congregated about my name since my arraignment. But one story about my nativity is true: in the week before my birth, one month before the outbreak of war between crown and people, a meteor fell upon the town of Aldeburgh, making a noise like a thunderclap. We are told it carried in its wake plague and smallpox, and brought appeals from the righteous for the citizens to repent before the Time of Tribulation.
This astronomical coincidence—whether the product of Providence or blind chance—the will of Almighty God or Lucretius’s crazy dance of atoms—makes me laugh. It is this strange event that gave me my nom de guerre, Wormwood, the only name that I will acknowledge mine before my accusers. Aye, whatever I was baptised, my name is now Wormwood, for I fell from the stars and was born to make the waters bitter.