Chapter 31 The Snakesman Turns Nose

One week later, their plans were thrown into still further disarray. On May 17, 1855, a letter was delivered to Pierce. Written in a graceful and educated hand, it read:

My dear Sir:

I should be most greatly obliged if you could contrive to meet with me at the Palace, Sydenham, this afternoon at four o'clock, for the purpose of discussing some matters of mutual interest.

Most respectfully, I am,

William Williams, Esq.

Pierce looked at the letter in consternation. He showed it to Agar; but Agar could not read, so Pierce read the contents aloud. Agar stared at the penmanship.

"Clean Willy's got himself a screever for this one," he said.

"Obviously," Pierce said. "But why?"

"Perhaps he's touching you up."

"If that's all it is, I'd be happy," Pierce said.

"You going to meet him?"

"Absolutely. Will you crow for me?"'

Agar nodded. "You want Barlow? A good cosh could save a mighty trouble."

"No," Pierce said. "That'll set them hounding for sure, a cosh would."

"Right, then," Agar said, "a simple crow. 'Twon't be easy in the Palace."

"I'm sure Willy knows that," Pierce said gloomily.

A word should be said about the Crystal Palace, that magical structure which came to symbolize the Victorian mid-century. An enormous three-story glass building covering nineteen acres, it was erected in 1851 in Hyde Park, to house the Great Exhibition of that year, and it impressed every visitor who saw it. Indeed, even in drawings the Crystal Palace is stunning to the modern eye, and to see more than a million square feet of glass shimmering in the afternoon light must have been a remarkable sight for anyone. It is not surprising that the Palace soon represented the forward-looking, technological aesthetic of the new industrial Victorian society.

But this fabulous structure had a comfortingly haphazard origin. Led by Prince Albert himself, plans for the Great Exhibition began in 1850, and soon ran into arguments about the proposed Exhibition Hall itself, and its location.

Obviously the building would have to be very large. But what kind of building, and where? A competition in 1850 attracted more than two hundred designs, but no winner. Thus the Building Committee drew up a plan of its own for a dreadful brick monstrosity; the structure would be four times as long as Westminster Abbey and boast a dome even larger than that of St. Peter's. It would be located in Hyde Park.

The public balked at the destruction of trees, the inconvenience to riders, the general ruin of the pleasant neighborhood, and so on. Parliament seemed reluctant to permit Hyde Park to be used as the building site.

In the meantime, the Building Committee discovered that their plans required nineteen million bricks. By the summer of 1850, there was insufficient time to make all these bricks and build the Great Hall in time for the exhibition's opening. There was even some dark talk that the exhibition would have to be canceled, or at least postponed.

It was at this point that the Duke of Devonshire's gardener, Joseph Paxton, came forward with the idea of erecting a large greenhouse to serve as the Exhibition Hall. His original plan for the committee, drawn up on a piece of blotting paper, was eventually accepted for its several virtues.

First, it saved the trees of Hyde Park; second, its chief material, glass, could be manufactured quickly; and third, it could be taken down after the exhibition and reinstalled elsewhere. The committee accepted a bid of ��79,800 from a contractor to erect the giant structure, which was completed in only seven months, and was later the focal point of almost universal acclaim.

Thus the reputation of a nation and an empire was saved by a gardener; and thus a gardener was eventually knighted.*

* There was only one unforeseen problem with the Crystal Palace. The building contained trees, and the trees contained sparrows, and the sparrows were not housebroken. It was really no laughing matter, especially as the birds couldn't be shot, and they ignored traps set for them. Finally the Queen herself was consulted, and she said, "Send for the Duke of Wellington:" The Duke was informed of the problem. "Try sparrow hawks, Ma'am," he suggested, and he was once more victorious.

After the exhibition, the Great Hall was taken down and moved to Sydenham, in South-East London. In those days, Sydenham was a pleasant suburban area of fine homes and open fields, and the Crystal Palace made an excellent addition to the neighborhood. Shortly before four o'clock, Edward Pierce entered the vast structure to meet Clean Willy Williams.

The giant hall held several permanent exhibits, the most impressive being full-scale reproductions of the huge Egyptian statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. But Pierce paid no attention to these attractions, or to the lily ponds and pools of water everywhere about.

A brass band concert was in progress; Pierce saw Clean Willy sitting in one of the rows to the left. He also saw Agar, disguised as a retired army officer, apparently snoozing in another corner. The band played loudly. Pierce slipped into the seat alongside Willy.

"What is it?" Pierce said, in a low voice, He looked at the band, and thought idly that he despised band music.

"I'm needing a turn," Willy said.

"You've been paid."

"I'm needing more," Willy said.

Pierce shot him a glance. Willy was sweating, and he was edgy, but he did not look nervously around as an ordinary nervous man would do.

"You been working, Willy?"


"You been touched, Willy?"

"No, I swear it, no."

"Willy," Pierce said, "if you've turned nose on me, I'll put you in lavender."

"I swear it," Willy said. "It's no flam--- a finny or two is what I need, and that's the end of it."

The band, in a moment of patriotic support for England's allies, struck up the "Marseillaise." A few listeners had the ill grace to boo the selection.

Pierce said, "You're sweating, Willy."

"Please, sir, a finny or two and that'll be the end of it"

Pierce reached into his wallet and withdrew two five-pound notes. "Don't blow on me," Pierce said, "or I'll do what must be done."

"Thank you, sir, thank you," Willy said, and quickly pocketed the money. "Thank you, sir."

Pierce left him there. As he exited the Palace and came out into the park, he walked quickly to Harleigh Road. There he paused to adjust his top hat. The gesture was seen by Barlow, whose cab was drawn up at the end of the street.

Then Pierce walked slowly down Harleigh Road, moving with all appearances of casualness, as a relaxed gent taking the air. His thoughts, whatever they might have been, were interrupted by the wail of a railroad whistle, and a nearby chugging sound. Looking over the trees and roofs of mansions, he saw black smoke puffing into the air. Automatically, he checked his watch: it was the mid-afternoon train of the South Eastern Railway, coming back from Folkestone, going toward London Bridge Station.