top of page

The Prentice-Boy by Ray Rumsby


Meet me in Millers Yard, young’un, he said. I knows that place—a cobbled square, an all the dwellins leanin-in above you. No locks nor glass. There is but shutters the children swing upon, an dogs gone wild. Folks livin in Millers is dressed in rags, like me. They holds-to their doors with twine, an no way back to daylight but down a alley too small for a cart. You’d fink London was wantin to close the whole place over, stitch it tight, forget it ever was.

From the alleyway I can see him now, waitin—someone what don’t belong among Millers people. His garments tells you he’s got a job. He don’t shovel muck for a livin, neither. So why might a stranger want to meet me in this sorry place? A man what promises pastries, not cash, talkin all the whiles of sugar an jellies an rich fruit cake till your belly rumbles? No need for you to go thieving today, lad. Big wink. Kept special for you, y’see?

Out upon the streets the last shower did rinse the air, the dust much settled by it. The alley is different, bein slime-damp. Near the far end come sharp in your nostrils yard-smells of moss, an wood-rot soaked afresh, an muck-heaps. Amid this reek, I smells a rat.

At six o the clock by the bells of St. Martin’s I crosses the cobbles into the stranger’s sight. He near slips when backin neath the timber of an overhang. Children at their game is quick called within by their mother. Just an echo of little voices left behind. Not right for a whole yard to be so still afore dark. Why did he not come forward? It ain’t no errand he wants me to run, no message to some secret lady-love, no pothecary parcel to be buried or picked up, an now I’m close enough to see little raindrops from the eaves upon his shoulders, he ain’t carryin no cakes at all.

Sudden he grabs me like you might a hen, turns me about, shoves me agin the wall.

‘Just bend forward, son, stay quiet, and you will get your reward.’

None here to stop him. Much as I struggle, he pushes me down.

‘Still, lad, still!’

From neath his arm I see the belt buckle hangin loose. I am his prey.

‘Still, I say!’

Again, an echo acrost the Yard—his voice, or another’s. Loud enough for him to look up, long enough for me to wriggle low an elbow him in the crotch. I got sharp bones, not much flesh on em, an in pain he doubles-up, stretchin out a hand, mouth wide as a Billingsgate cod.

I’m off full-tilt down the alleyway, out from the shadows an along the street, jiggin this way an that twixt the strollers, passin gigs an carriages, till I dares look back. Walk quick by Leicester Fields. Lose myself in the crowd makin its way to the Aymarket.


The shower being over, unfold my canvas sketching-seat. Sitting thus by the theatre’s footway I am enough sheltered from wheels, spray, and horse-droppings. Pointless to wear the smock for public appearances in the Haymarket—too many insults about milking-stools and missing cattle—but the brass-cornered equipment box, my Old Faithful, is at hand. Pin a fresh sheet to the block. Sufficient advertisement, along with a list of fees, um, prices.

Humble portraits, these, which pay the petty costs of our artistic programme.

We have laboured years upon our passionate undertaking: tinted etchings from camera obscura images, capturing the landscapes and ways of life, region by region, around our shores. Ruth listened close when first we talked, as is her way. Views by William Daniell A.R.A., Commentary by playwright, critic and essayist, Richard Ayton! They were newly married then—all was hopeful. And now? Our enterprise scarce two-thirds complete, the remote eastern coasts unvisited.

I no longer put much faith in maps.

Bestow my easeful smile upon those stopping to watch: potential subjects for my sketches. One grows used to it. Today’s swift exercises in line-work have earned a few shillings; my latest aquatint, exhibited in Durham at eight guineas, remains unsold. Volume Five of our voyages cannot be issued without Richard’s commentary. He maintains that it is underway.

The usual, desperate, pre-tour quest for funds. In truth, our venture lacks a noble patron in the old way, to grant us income, purchase volumes, mention our tour in high places. Little has changed: artists still must bow and scrape. How Richard mocks it all!

The weak sun going down, warmth failing. Where are the ready customers for one’s portraits? What has happened to human vanity? Before the entrance to a theatre, in Heaven’s name! And irksome to sit by this playbill on the wall, without correcting the impossibility of Lydia Languish’s hand.

The purse safe in my pocket. Undo the strings. Once more count the pence, though it wastes time to tout for custom like some pie-seller, and needless, had Richard and I been able to agree the finance. The present coolness seems—

A bristled face tilts close before me. Side whiskers and the collar of a heavy shirt, fraying green neckerchief tied loose. Smell of onions, or sweaty woollen stockings, or both.

‘You do pictures then, do ye?’ A small man, keen-eyed despite the defeated expression. Pushing back his cap, rubs his head with it.

‘That is my profession, yes. Do you wish to sit for me?’

‘Do what?’

‘You wish me to draw your picture, for a fee?’


‘Then take a seat, my good sir. Ten pence for a sketch, I’m afraid.’

‘You’re afraid?’

Sigh. ‘Do you have ten pence?’

The man nods, tapping his pocket.

A pause.

‘You pay me before I do it, y’see.’

The grizzled fellow hesitates with coins in his fist. ‘What if I don’t like it?’

Others stop by to watch me unclasp the felt-lined box, take out a tray of goose-quills, ink tub, glass bottle, brushes, small sponge and a folded cloth, before securing the lid with some style.

‘Sir, I assure you that those who purchase William Daniell’s services delight in their portraits.’ Place the tray upon the box.

‘Should you remain uniquely dissatisfied, I return one half of your payment, and keep the sketch. I cannot conjure a Prince Charming; you cannot deny a finished work.’

Smiles among the growing audience. My subject narrows his eyes, twists his mouth this way and that, rubs his nose, counts out ten blackened pence.

‘Thank you. Please look toward me ... and perhaps a little to my left ... that way, to my left, thank you. My drawing shall be in ink. No corrections. Kindly stay as still as possible. I shall not long detain you.’

The watchers come near: a mother with her son; a large family at the side; a young woman with a basket. Gainst the nearest column of the footway leans a pale, barefoot youth—sixteen years perhaps, old enough for gaol, gaunt enough to have spent time there—who inclines his head, peering across. Those queueing for the box office turn toward this free spectacle.

A fine brush-head for the outline and the hints of shape; one thicker for this man’s heavy brow, his shadowed right ear, the neckerchief’s gathered material.

‘Try to hold your position, sir.’

‘It’s these people, they—’

‘Your position, sir!’

His lips push forward in childlike displeasure. Of more interest, worth capturing, is that glimmer in the subject’s eyes, his shrewd narrowing.

Now, spot water upon the back of my hand. Dip an inked brush into the area of wetted skin and swift establish pale shadows neath the eyebrows, a hint of wide nostrils, his darkened neck.

They shuffle close about me.

Shade below the cheekbones, deeper for his collar. Sponge-dab the top of one sleeve to suggest texture beyond the drawn line.

Smudge substance into the hat.

Smiles of appreciation.

That pale street-boy is at my shoulder. His stale garments!

With one grubby hand half-raised in imitation he peers at the method as if I were Rembrandt. Meanwhile my subject blinks rapidly, stretches his neck, resumes position.

‘Near done, sir.’

‘Glad to hear it.’

Lines upon pale wash, streaked shades, produce the chin’s stubble. Distressed wave patterns for the side whiskers, shadow-lines for the shirt-collar’s hollows. Nod my head, gracious, gracious, to a beaming admirer. Enough. Close my hand upon the brush-stems and sit back—a stage Neptune.

‘You may relax.’

‘Should think so, too!’ He points toward the theatre wall.

‘Havin to look at that dreary woman the whole time.’

Mere pence, yet more cash in my purse. An adequate likeness—too heavy about the chops. However, the calculating wariness in the man’s eyes I have caught, the element which intrigues.

Bottom right in charcoal: ‘William Daniell A.R.A.’, a flourish for authenticity, and the year. Unpin the finished sheet and set it upon the rest. Several watchers press forward: A dead spit, that is. My subject stamps about, tugs the neckerchief, arches his back: Oo-aw-w-wh!

The people closest linger. Sufficient light for another sketch?

Slim chance: the lamp-lighter is ahead of the hour. Hurried foot- steps along the stone floor at my back. Swish of a lady’s skirts, her escort’s tapping cane. With a thump the creaking doors of the King’s Theatre are unbolted. Settles the matter: no more clients today.

‘Your portrait, sir. I believe you shall, er, you shall...’

Something odd about my subject’s sideways look. The bearer of a large bale hurtles into us from the right, losing his balance and grip of the bundle. Straw spills across my shoulders, face and neck. Now this careless porter seeks to haul himself upright against his own impetus, grabbing my collar with his free hand before clinging to an outer pocket, as our graceless dance topples sideways in slow, inevitable collapse.


‘Sorry, sir. Sorry. The crush!’

Bedding trapped between us where we sprawl upon the damp ground.

‘Get from me, man!’

‘I was pushed!’

Glare upward between stems of tangled vegetable matter, clutching a paintbrush posy pressed gainst my chest.

‘Just... get...’


A huge weight rolls upon me.

‘This is ridiculous! Puh—!’ away a length of straw from my lip.

Others hasten to the theatre’s entrance. And does some chasing-game take place—that child, leaping over us, pursued by the street-boy who stood next me?

Chiding family-members haul the bale-carrier away into the Haymarket throng.

Get to my feet. Dignity requires at least a semblance of disdain. Rub the fresh marks upon my better jerkin. Take stock. Brass-cornered box beside. Canvas folding-chair retrievable, though trampled. Flick the scattered bedding’s insects from my sleeves and neck. One great sneeze. And um...

Pocket. Pat-pat.

Not there. My other pocket. Try there.

Or little pocket. No. Never used.

Or the... pocket he ripped?

‘Thief! Thieves! I am robbed! My purse—stolen! Thieves!’ 

Step this way and that, arms outstretched, brandishing brushes, eyes wide, watery and blurring. (Must not neglect the brass-bound box.)

‘Thieves! Thieves! My cash stolen! Thieves!’

Spectators become passers-by, all smiles gone. Those prepared

to observe me now, maintain their distance.

Who spied this theft?

None. Pickpockets everywhere, all agree.

Or has there truly been a robbery?

Is this man’s pleading a hoax?

I stand a-tremble here as the three Fates assess my own guilt

of the crime upon me!

Deranged? These days, cannot be too careful.

Perhaps an actor from the Theatre?

A play about a robbery, yes! That old fairground ruse!

Dispersing, gone: lives to lead.

And I am desolate.


Gather my trampled canvas seat. Slump upon the footway with pounding heart—stricken, faint, abandoned. A day spent in this heat, some performing beast in a travelling fair, to end with less than I had before! Stare at the sable brushes. The familiar pain across my back stems from long hours leaning over copper plates, my wheezing breath from nitric acid. Richard is right: our tour of Britain lacks investment. We must beg wealthy West Countrymen to purchase two dozen tinted etchings of harbours, naval yards, and clifftop Cornish mines.

Yes, and geese may fly, um, pigs. 

My embarrassment must not become known. The joke would do the rounds. Thieves took the pence and left his works! Doubtless a ribbing from Richard. Constable snorting his great horse-laugh, Turner’s usual doleful commiserations, and—

‘Sir, ain’t this yours?’


My purse, heavy in my palm!

‘Best grip such fings tight in hand, sir—not leave em swingin about for someone to grab.’

‘You fetched it back?’

‘I chased that nipper. Saw what would come about an caught im afore he could pass it over—an if you would, sir, perhaps put your, er, fing-what-I-rescued out of sight.’

‘Were you next me during that last sketch?’

The scrawny youth smiles. ‘I was followin best I could when you did them shadows, an that stuff was suckin the colour up. Name o Cloud, sir, Jesse Cloud.’

The Prentice-Boy is available for purchase in paperback and ebook

bottom of page