An Interview with Charles Tripp
October 1888, The Lamb and Compass, Limedock, London
This is not the most salubrious public house in the world. In fact, it is a haven for grimy sailors coming in from the docks after months at sea, looking for release in alcohol and whores of either sex. I am here, however, to interview Charles Tripp, a butler. We arranged the meeting several weeks past, but, as I will find out, Mr Tripp’s position has changed since our exchange of letters.
The man seems distracted. He is brooding about something, and although he is dressed in the manner of a man’s man, I can’t help but feel he is hiding dark thoughts.
Thank you for meeting with me, Mr Tripp. I would like to ask you a few questions if I may?
(As he acquiesces to my request, his mouth wrinkles into the kind of smile a trusted friend gives as he contemplates slitting your throat.)
Perhaps you could tell me your full name.
Charles Simon Tripp.
And you are the butler for Lord Clearwater of Riverside, correct?
(I sense this is the cause of the resentment apparent behind his eyes and decide not to probe. Yet.)
Can you tell me what being a butler entails?
The butler is the highest-ranking servant in the household. I am… I was responsible for the running of the house. This would include the organisation of the wine cellar, overseeing the work of the footmen at mealtimes, waiting on the master of the house, accounting for the silver and its cleaning, guarding the plate safe, and generally ensuring the house runs smoothly.
And how long have you been in service? Where did you start?
I entered service for the seventeenth Viscount Clearwater in eighteen thirty-six. Clearwater House had not long been built, and I was among the original staff, employed as a hall boy to fetch and carry for the older and more senior servants. By the age of seventeen, however, I had risen to the post of second footman to His Lordship, and soon after, received promotion to first footman at Larkspur Hall. On the death of my butler in sixty-five, His Lordship asked me to bypass the usual rank of under-butler and become his man. This I did willingly. On the death of His Lordship in eighteen seventy, I remained as butler for the eighteenth viscount, Mathias Riddington. On his sad passing two months ago, I retained my position.
Buttling for the current Lord Clearwater.
Oh? Have you retired from service?
No. I was retired from service by an ungrateful master.
(The answer is given with such a pointed stare I can feel his eyes prick the back of my own. I feel as though I am face to face with a wolf that has not eaten in days, and the slightest move on my part will give it the excuse to attack.)
I expect you have seen some great events at Larkspur Hall. Do you have a favourite time?
Butlers do not have favourites of anything, Sir. It is our job to uphold the nobleness of the household, to ensure work is carried out in a timely and quiet fashion. To ensure no speck blemishes the silver that adorns the impeccably clean crockery, and that the table is as much a credit to the Mistress as it is to her staff. Yes, there were many balls and dinners, hunting parties and Friday-to-Mondays at Larkspur Hall, and each one, to me, was a joy to serve. The joy, you see, comes from doing the job, being the best, and not letting the Master down on any front.
You must have met many important people.
I was once addressed by the Tzar of Russia, Alexander the Third, the Peacemaker, as his country called him. Our current Prime Minister once commented on my choice of wine during a dinner; the Marquis of Salisbury was a great friend of the family, as was Disraeli. It would be crass of me to mention more, Sir, but yes, there have been many great events held at Larkspur Hall and at Clearwater House. Although smaller gatherings during the season, they were no less grand and deserved, and received the same immaculate attention.
Forgive me, Mr Tripp, I failed to ask about your family life. You came to service when young, but from where?
From my family home in North London.
And do you have brothers or sisters? Are you still in touch with them?
My family was a large but tragic one. My father was a naval man, my mother remained at home. My eldest sister died in infancy before I was born, and a second sister was dealt a similar hand. I was the first boy of five, and the only one to survive past infancy. Ours was not a well-off district, and cholera was a regular visitor. My father attempted to move us several times, but his shipman’s pay prevented it, and when he too died, there remained but my mother and myself. She put me into service, and then, through grief, passed away. I was left with no family that I knew of, working in a large house, learning a new way of life, and realising I was on my own.
Was it then that you decided you would aim for a butlership?
You ask such trite questions, Sir. (A flash of annoyance, and I’d swear his eyes glazed red for a second.) I answer them only out of duty. No. It was not then that I set my sights on being a butler. Such a desire creeps upon a man without him realising. It becomes ingrained in a servant that one must always strive to be better, and one accepts without thought that a natural progression is to be expected. Hall boy to footman and up through the ranks either in the same house, but more often, in another. Once a servant, there is nowhere to go but upwards or sideways. One would never step away from the progression to step down. It is beneath a footman, for example, to become a delivery boy, and beneath a hall boy to become a sweeper of the roads. A maid will only leave to become a wife. A housekeeper, like a butler, is married to the position. I no more decided one day to set my sights on a butlership as I set my sights on becoming destitute.
(Dare I ask the question? The man is speaking with passion, but I fear it is not passion for his job, but an angry fervour that has something to do with his earlier statement that he was Lord Clearwater’s butler, and no longer is.)
Your next question, Sir, or I will be about my business.
Apologies, I was wondering… What is your business these days?
(That, dear reader, is how to ask a question without asking it.)
I am, through no fault of my own, currently a man of my own means. On leaving… When I was unfairly dismissed from service, I was presented with a piece of irony. It is the way I describe the centrepiece Clearwater gave me as I left. It is ironic because it was the eighteenth viscount’s most treasured possession, second only to myself. I was his most treasured ornament, and in giving it to me, Clearwater threw the greatest insult. Why? Because, for me to live, I had no choice but to sell it. To sell my only reminder of my former life, my glory, a state to which, I have vowed, I will one day return. The centrepiece shall be the cause of Clearwater’s undoing. His repayment for his treatment of me, for with its sale, I have secured finance enough to see my vow to fruition, no matter what it takes.
(I fear my subject has stepped from one path to another, and I have ceased to exist. The threat of his stare is now aimed at nowhere but inside his mind, and I choose not to think on what he may be imagining. An observer’s job, however, is sometimes to probe, and I dare one last prompt.)
You have something on your mind, Mr Tripp. Is it your future?
It is, and it is a dark one. A lengthy tunnel at the end of which is a light, and only one thing can bring me to that light. As my way ahead ends in illumination, so Clearwater’s will end in a similar atonement. You see, our paths can only run parallel for a certain time. At some point they will merge and cross, and when they do, there will emerge from the embroilment only one path, either his or mine, for we two cannot both exist in this world. There can be life for only one of us.
(At this point, I detected some kind of madness within the man. A paling of the skin, a tightening of the mouth, or perhaps the glint of the eye which came with a twitch of the lips, as though a devious thought had occurred to both excite and concern him. That, and the chill shiver I suffered, told me I had probed far enough and for my own safety, it was time I retired.)
This interview was conducted not long after the events depicted in ‘Deviant Desire’ the first of the Clearwater Mysteries. If you want to begin an ongoing series that develops from the time of Jack the Ripper, through ten books and into the second series, the Larkspur Mysteries, then you can find all the novels in order on the series page: The Clearwater Mysteries.