Act I--The Curtain Rises
In a court-yard in the City of London, which was No Thoroughfare either for vehicles or
foot-passengers; a court-yard diverging from a steep, a slippery, and a winding street
connecting Tower Street with the Middlesex shore of the Thames; stood the place of
business of Wilding & Co., Wine Merchants. Probably as a jocose acknowledgment of
the obstructive character of this main approach, the point nearest to its base at which one
could take the river (if so inodorously minded) bore the appellation Break-Neck-Stairs.
The court-yard itself had likewise been descriptively entitled in old time, Cripple Corner.
Years before the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, people had left off
taking boat at Break-Neck-Stairs, and watermen had ceased to ply there. The slimy little
causeway had dropped into the river by a slow process of suicide, and two or three
stumps of piles and a rusty iron mooring-ring were all that remained of the departed
Break-Neck glories. Sometimes, indeed, a laden coal barge would bump itself into the
place, and certain laborious heavers, seemingly mud-engendered, would arise, deliver the
cargo in the neighbourhood, shove off, and vanish; but at most times the only commerce
of Break-Neck-Stairs arose out of the conveyance of casks and bottles, both full and
empty, both to and from the cellars of Wilding & Co., Wine Merchants. Even that
commerce was but occasional, and through three-fourths of its rising tides the dirty
indecorous drab of a river would come solitarily oozing and lapping at the rusty ring, as if
it had heard of the Doge and the Adriatic, and wanted to be married to the great conserver
of its filthiness, the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor.
Some two hundred and fifty yards on the right, up the opposite hill (approaching it from
the low ground of Break-Neck-Stairs) was Cripple Corner. There was a pump in Cripple
Corner, there was a tree in Cripple Corner. All Cripple Corner belonged to Wilding and
Co., Wine Merchants. Their cellars burrowed under it, their mansion towered over it. It
really had been a mansion in the days when merchants inhabited the City, and had a
ceremonious shelter to the doorway without visible support, like the sounding-board over
an old pulpit. It had also a number of long narrow strips of window, so disposed in its
grave brick front as to render it symmetrically ugly. It had also, on its roof, a cupola with
a bell in it.
"When a man at five-and-twenty can put his hat on, and can say 'this hat covers the owner
of this property and of the business which is transacted on this property,' I consider, Mr.
Bintrey, that, without being boastful, he may be allowed to be deeply thankful. I don't
know how it may appear to you, but so it appears to me."
Thus Mr. Walter Wilding to his man of law, in his own counting- house; taking his hat
down from its peg to suit the action to the word, and hanging it up again when he had
done so, not to overstep the modesty of nature.
An innocent, open-speaking, unused-looking man, Mr. Walter Wilding, with a
remarkably pink and white complexion, and a figure much too bulky for so young a man,
though of a good stature. With crispy curling brown hair, and amiable bright blue eyes.
An extremely communicative man: a man with whom loquacity was the irrestrainable