Book One in
Elizabeth and I began to rush toward him, but he swiftly brought up one hand to stay us. He did not look at us but at Mother.
She glared back. “And where have you been while this wickedness has been going on? Or have you been a part of it? Have you?”
He declined to answer that one, his glance shifting briefly to me and back to her again. “Library. Both of you.”
We fled. In the hall we met Beldon hurrying along with a black case in hand and his sister in tow. He was dressed for bed, but had thrown on a coat and shoved his bare feet into shoes. Neither spared a word for us, though Mrs. Hardinbrook paused as though sorely tempted. But she went on to be with Beldon and thus watch whatever might come next. She was welcome to do so.
Partway down the stairs we encountered the first of the servants roused by the row, a sleep-drugged maid. I ordered her to the kitchen to brew a pot of strong tea. She tottered out of our path, her face coming awake with questions. I ruthlessly confiscated her candle.
The library was cold, but the fireplace had been swept and readied for tomorrow. I knelt and busied myself with the tinder, bringing it to fiery life with the candle flame while Elizabeth sank onto a settee.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
Silence, and then an eloquent sniff. She rubbed her swelling and now wet cheek with an impatient hand. “Are you? Your face…”
“It’s nothing.” But I began to tremble. A piece of kindling slipped from my suddenly fumbling fingers and hit the stone hearth. “My God, Elizabeth.”
“What she did…what she thinks…it’s monstrous.”
“It’s impossible. She’s impossible. We can’t live like this.” Elizabeth hated crying and I hated watching her fight it. I left the fire and sat next to her, an arm around her slumped shoulders. It was as much for my solace as hers.
With only the one candle and the embryonic fire, the library was overcrowded with shadows. I’d seen it like this many times, foraging down here for a book when the house was asleep, but never with such a heaviness in my heart.
I was afraid. I was in my own house and afraid.
It was not a child’s fear of the dark, or even of that time when I’d fallen into the kettle, or of a hundred other times and incidents. Those fears pass quickly and may eventually be laughed at; this was of an altogether different kind. It would not go away so easily, if at all.
“Why did she ever have to come home?” I muttered.
Elizabeth had recovered somewhat when the maid turned up with the tea. I let the girl pour; neither of us were steady enough to do it.
“What’s going on up there?” I asked her. I’d heard a lot of rushing about and voices.
“They’re all taking care of Mrs. Barrett, sir. Mrs. Nooth is with her and so’s that Dr. Beldon. Mrs. Nooth said she’d had some kind of a fit.” The girl waited, perhaps hoping to glean more information from me. I disappointed her with a nod of thanks and a clear dismissal.
“‘Some kind of a fit’?” Elizabeth echoed sarcastically when we were alone.
“That seems to describe it well enough.”
She pulled herself straight and reached for one of the teacups. “I can see us describing it like that from now on. What are we going to do with her? Lock her in the attic? Or will we build her a little block house and hire someone to feed her through a slot in the door?”
“It won’t come to that,” I said.
“Better that than to go through this again. I didn’t hate her before, Jonathan, but I do now. What she…what…oh, I can’t bear it. It’s unforgivable. It’s perverse and horrible. She has to go.”
“This is more our house than hers. She had no right to come here and do this to us. We were happy until she came.”
True. All true.
Elizabeth put down the cup, her tea untouched. “Father will have to do something. After this, he must do something. He must.”
We fell silent. I went back to building up the fire. The chill of the room—and of other things—seeped past my skin and into the bones. It was devastating enough that Mother had violently struck us, but for her to have hurled such a revolting accusation was agonizing. Until now I’d not suspected the depth of her lunacy. She’d just shown it to be nigh to bottomless.
Father came in just as the logs began to properly blaze. As one, Elizabeth and I rushed to him for the embrace we’d been denied earlier. It was something we’d done as children and now we instinctively returned to that simple and much-needed comfort. He smiled and opened his arms wide, folding us in close. I felt better for that solid weight around my shoulders. No matter how bad the situation, I knew that he would be able to make it better.
“Is that tea I spy?” he asked after a moment.
We loosened our grip and Elizabeth glided over to pour. He made a side trip to a cabinet and brought out a bottle of brandy, adding some to each cup.
“I think we all need this,” he observed.
He’d shed his cloak at some point, but still carried some of the outdoors with him in his manner. His riding boots were smeared with old mud. He’d been wearing them, I remembered, when he’d taken his morning walk with Mrs. Montagu. Such earlier pleasures had clearly been driven away by tonight’s pains, for he looked tired. Older, I realized with another chill, but instead of being burdened by age, he was a man aged by a burden. His wife.
“Well?” he asked. “Which of you wants to talk first?”
Elizabeth stepped in. “Where’s Mother?”
“In her room. That fellow with the popping eyes gave her a dose of laudanum to calm her down. He and that silly woman are sitting in with her. Said he was a doctor. Would he be Beldon, then?”
“Yes. The woman is his sister, Deborah Hardinbrook.”
Father had heard enough about them from Mother to need no further introduction. “Proper little pair of toadies, but they seem to be making themselves useful for the moment. Now, please, tell me what happened.”
Between us we managed to garble the narrative enough for him to raise his hand in protest.
“Jonathan, your turn,” he said firmly. “Pretend you’re in court.”
It was his way of reminding me to present all the facts, but as simply as possible and in good order. I did my best. Elizabeth added nothing, but nodded agreement as I spoke. When I’d finished, our brandy-laced tea was gone.
Father sighed and ran a hand through his graying hair. It was his own, tied back with a now-wilted ribbon. He wore a wig only when engaged in court business or seeing a client. “A pretty mess,” he concluded. “Are you badly hurt? Elizabeth?”
She shook her head. I did the same, though my cheeks were tender to touch and likely as red as hers.
“But it might have been worse,” I said. “If Mother had kicked her as she’d intended…if I’d not been there to pull Mother away…”
Elizabeth dropped her gaze. “We must do something, Father.”
“Indeed,” he said, neither agreeing nor disputing. He stood and paced the room a few times. On the last round he checked the hallway for any listeners and closed the door before coming to stand before the fireplace. It was unlike him to behave so. I saw it as more evidence of how Mother’s presence had changed life for the worse.
“There are more bad tidings, too,” I said.
“Out with it.”
“She wants me to go to England to study law.”
Father only nodded, which was a bit disappointing. I thought he’d show some kind of dismay or denial. “What else?”
“She wants to sell Jericho and hire an English servant to take his place.”
This was news to Elizabeth. “That’s—no! No, she mustn’t!”
“I told Jericho I’d sooner run away to sea and take him with me.”
Father gave out with a chuckle just then, but quickly smothered it. I’d sounded foolish, but just then we needed some foolishness. Some of the shadows looming over us seemed to drop back.
“But Jericho said that I’d be arrested for stealing him,” I added.
“Jericho is a most level-headed young fellow. Well, you need not worry about him being sold. Since I bought Archimedes with my own money, both he and his son are my property. Your mother can’t sell either of them without my permission, and that is something I shall happily withhold. If she wants an English servant for you, she may hire one, but he will have to take his orders from Jericho.”
I blinked with surprise, but Father was serious. We knew enough about the household hierarchies to know that no man of the type Mother would be looking for would accept such work under that condition. Elizabeth smiled at me, new hope and cheer blooming on her face.
Father’s own smile came and went more quickly. “England.” He sighed.
“I don’t want to go, but she said that it’s all been arranged.”
“Then I’ve no doubt that it has. Cambridge, I suppose. Yes, she’s mentioned it before and no, I did not know that she’d pursued it this far.”
“Why?” I asked. “What is it she wants? Is Harvard not good enough for her?”
“That and many other reasons, laddie. Tell me everything you know.”
I summarized this morning’s conversation, leaving in Mother’s tantrum, then went on to her lecture in the afternoon. The latter was little more than a sketch because of my muzzy condition at the time.
”She seems to have everything well in hand,” was his comment when I’d finished. “It looks like she’s been cooking this up with that bloody sister of hers for some goodly time.”
“Aunt Theresa?” The name was not unknown to me, but unfamiliar on the tongue. She lived in London and wrote often to Mother. Hardly a week passed without a thick packet of letters arriving by way of whatever ship had made the crossing. It took months for her correspondence to get here and she filled reams of paper with her spiky, precise hand. Mother had several boxes of those letters in her baggage when she’d moved in.
Father went to his desk and shuffled the papers on top, plucking one from the pile and bringing it back to the better light. It was the same one Mother had been studying this morning. “This is it. You’ve been accepted at Cambridge; according to this, your studies are to begin at the Michaelmas term. How like her to leave it there for me to just ‘find.’”
“She also waited until you were away before telling me. She did it on purpose, I think—”
“She does ’most everything with a purpose,” he growled, putting the paper aside.
“But I don’t have to go . . . do I?”
Father did not answer right away. Elizabeth’s hand, resting on mine, tightened.
Always decisive and in control, he hesitated, frowning at the floor. “I’ll talk to her,” he said.
“Talk to. . . ? What does that mean?”
His chin snapped up at my tone, and I shrank inside. Father had no patience for whining; I’d forgotten that he’d taught me better than to indulge in it. But his face softened. “It means that both of you need to know what’s really beneath all this so you can understand and make the best of things.”
That didn’t sound too terribly hopeful.
He poured out another swallow of brandy and drained it away, then looked up at his wife’s portrait. “Firstly, I married your mother because I loved her. If her father had realized that, then our lives might have been quite different. Whether for good or for ill, I could not say, but different, perhaps.
“All this took place in England. You know that I went to Cambridge myself. I was out and working with old Roylston when I met Judge Fonteyn and his family. He was wealthy but always looking to either increase it or raise his status in society. I did not fit his idea of an ideal son-in-law, and he saw me not as I was, but as he perceived me to be. He put himself in my place and assumed that I was paying court to his daughter for her inheritance.
“Admittedly, the money made your mother that much more attractive to me, but it was never my real goal. We might have eloped, but Marie persuaded him to consent to our marriage. He did so with ill grace but provided her with a generous allowance. He also drew up a paper for me to sign, stipulating that this allowance was hers and hers alone and I was not to touch it.”
“But doesn’t a wife’s property become her husband’s?”
“That’s the law, but old Fonteyn’s paper was a neat bit of work to get around it. The only way I could marry was to agree with his conditions. I signed it readily enough. He was surprised that I did, and at the same time contemptuous. There was no pleasing the old devil.”
That sounded familiar, I thought.
“The marriage took place and we were happy for a time, at least we were when there was sufficient distance between your mother and her family. Her father was a terrible tyrant, couldn’t and wouldn’t abide me, and it was because of him that I decided to leave England altogether. Marie went along with it, because in those days she still loved me. You both know how we came to settle here, but it was your mother’s money that bought this place and it still pays for the servants and the taxes.”
“The paper you signed…” said Elizabeth, beginning to see. It was like crystal to me.
“Means that I own none of this.” He gestured, indicating the house and all the lands around it. “I have Archimedes, Jericho, and whatever I’ve gleaned from my practice. Now, I have made something of a decent living for myself, but as a rule, lawyers enjoy far more social status than they do money. When Fonteyn died, he divided his fortune between his daughters. There was quite a sum involved, but I’d promised to touch none of it and have kept to that promise. It…has never bothered me before.”
“So Mother is paying for my education,” I said.
“She always has. It was she who hired Rapelji, for example.”
“And mine, too?” asked Elizabeth.
Father smiled with affection and satisfaction. “No, that was my idea. It is a sad and wasteful thing, but the truth is your mother didn’t think it worth trying. She’s always had the mistaken idea that an educated woman is socially disadvantaged.”
“And yet she herself—?” Elizabeth began swiftly sputtering her way toward outrage.
Father waved a cautioning hand. “I must clarify. She thinks a woman has gained sufficient knowledge if she reads and writes enough to maintain her household and be agreeable in polite company.”
“I never saw it that way, though, so I made sure that Rapelji was well compensated for the time he spent on you. Your mother was under the impression that you were learning no more than the limits she’d set: your numbers, letters, and some French.”
“And my music from Mrs. Hornby?”
“Because every girl in polite society must know how to sing and play?” It was not a question so much as a statement of contempt.
“On the other hand, being able to reason and think would place me at a severe disadvantage?”
“In her view, yes.”
Elizabeth rose and threw her arms around him. “Then, thank you, Father!”
He laughed at the embrace. “There now. I may not have done you any favors, girl.”
“I don’t care.” She loosened her grip. “But what about Jonathan going away to England?”
His laugh settled into a sigh. “It is her money that runs this place, puts clothes on your backs, and food in your mouths, and because of that she feels entitled to choose where you are to be educated. She appears to have entirely made up her mind, but I will talk with her. There are other reasons for you to go to Harvard than the fact that it is closer than England.”
“And if she doesn’t listen?” I asked glumly.
“That possibility exists. You may have to face it.”
“But after tonight . . . Mother isn’t . . . well.”
“You need not mince your words, Jonathan. We all know she wasn’t in her right mind then. Her father was the same. He’d work himself into a ferocious temper until you’d think his brain would burst, then the fit would pass and like as not he’d have forgotten what angered him, even deny he’d been angry. Whatever poisons lurked in his blood are in your mother as well.”
“And us?” Elizabeth’s eyebrows were climbing.
Father shrugged. “It’s in God’s hands, girl, but I’ve tried to raise you two with the love old Fonteyn was incapable of giving. I think it has made all the difference.”
“We’re nothing like her,” she said thankfully.
He touched her chin lightly with one finger and glanced at me. “Perhaps a little, on the outside. I wish you could have known her in those days.” He indicated the portrait. “Everything was so different then, but over the years the poisons began to leech out. She changed, bit by bit. She began to expect things of me that I chose not provide. She wanted me to advance on to the bench, but I never had the inclination to become a judge. She became fixed on that as hard and fast as her father was fixed upon his money. I could have done as she wanted, but it would not have been what I wanted. Eventually, I could see myself turning into her own little dancing puppet. I would not have been my own man, but rather something tied to her and, in turn, tied to her dead father. In her lucid moments, she knew this, but could never hold on to it for long.”
“Is that why she moved away?” I asked.
“In part. In the years after you were born, she got worse. Nothing to do with you, laddie. You were as sweet a child as anyone could ask for, but her nerves were bad. She no longer loved me by then and I…well, there are few things in life so miserable as a marriage gone wrong. I hope you two will make a better job of it than I did. She had some distant cousins in Philadelphia, so off she went. I think she found some happiness there with such friends as she’s gathered ’round. I know I have been happy here.”
One of the logs popped noisily. Happiness. I’d taken it for granted until now. Looking at Father, I began to see the heaviness of the burden he’d carried without complaint, all these years. He hadn’t told us everything, I could sense that, but I wasn’t going to presume on him for more. What we’d just learned was sufficient. Because of it I suddenly knew I was not yet a man and able to carry such a weight, but a boy of seventeen and frightened.
# # #
I slept poorly for what remained of the night and was up to watch the dawn long before its advent. The house was quiet, and I imagined it to be waiting, wondering what was to happen once Mother woke from her own laudanum-soaked slumber. I dressed warmly and crept outside to the stables to saddle two horses. Elizabeth and I had not changed our plan to spend time with Rapelji. Father knew and had encouraged it. He would have his hands full dealing with Mother and her guests and preferred us out of the way.
Rolly poked his head from his box hopefully, but I passed him by for Belle and Satin, two mares out of the same dam who shared a calm temperament as well as a smooth gait. Rolly vocalized his displeasure, waking the lads who slept over the stable. One of them came down to investigate and sleepily stayed on to help with the saddling before wandering off to the kitchen in hope of an early meal.
I led the horses out to wait by one of the side doors, then went to fetch Elizabeth. She was just inside, pulling on her gloves. There was a sodden look about her indicating that she hadn’t slept well, either. On her face, where Mother’s fist had landed, was a large, evil-looking bruise. She’d made no effort to cover or disguise it.
“We don’t have to go,” I said. “It’s not likely that you’ll be called upon to be visiting the neighbors.”
“No, but I can’t bear to be in this house with her. Besides, this was not my fault.” She tilted her head to indicate the damage done. “I’ve nothing to be ashamed of and people may think what they like.”
“You don’t care if they know about Mother?”
Elizabeth’s face grew hard in a way that I did not like. “Not one whit.”
“Why not? Sooner or later they’ll start their speculations, their gossip about her. They may as well get the truth from us as make it up for themselves.”
“But it’s none of their bloody business!”
“As you say.” She shrugged. “But mark me, they shall make it so, whether we like it or not. We have only to be calm and truthful and let Mother rave on as her fancy takes her. Then we shall see how many friends she has about her.”
I was quite confused by this harsh attitude, for it was an alien one in Elizabeth, then I began to see the point of it all. “You’re doing this hoping that Mother will …?”
“A word here and there and she will be shunned by what passes for polite company in these parts. That’s what she craves and lives for, the puerile attention and approval of her so-called peers. She’s welcome to it, if she can find any willing to endure her company after this.”
“What if they believe her and not you? What if she repeats her—that awful accusation against us? You know adults are more likely to believe other adults.”
“But they know us here. They do not know her. And we are Father’s children, raised to be honest and truthful. I think that favors us, Jonathan, so you needn’t worry.”
“Damnation, I will if I want to.”
“Please yourself, then, but support me on this and there’s a chance that Mother may move out, bag, baggage, and toad-eaters, and leave us all in peace.”
That silenced me.
She handed me a leather bundle. “Here, you’d forgotten your books and papers.”
“Thank you,” I said faintly, my mind busy with all sorts of things. I couldn’t choose whether to approve of her plan or not, but knew that she would go through with it, regardless of my objections.
She led the way into the yard and I helped her onto Satin, her favorite. I swung up on Belle and we set off down the lane leading to the main road, turning into the rising sun. It gave no warmth save within the mind, but was still a cheering sight.
Rapelji lived in a fine, solid farmhouse at the eastern edge of our property. The farm was not his—that had been annexed onto our own lands—but he had a good garden plot for himself and found additional support from several other students in the area. Some of them boarded with him for part of the year and helped with the chores to pay for their tutoring.
As early as we were, Rapelji was already up and about, a short, stocky figure in the middle of his troop of students as he led them through a peculiar series of hops and skips for their morning exercise. Though gray of hair, he was as energetic as any of them. At a distance, you could only tell him from the boys by his flashing spectacles, which somehow stayed on no matter how vigorous his actions. As we drew near, he had them all jumping and clapping their hands over their heads in time to shouting the multiplication table at the top of their lungs. It was great fun, and I’d done it myself at their age. He had the view that since boys were prone to making noise, it might as well be for a constructive purpose.
They got as far as four times twelve when he called a breathless halt. Some of the group had noticed our approach and lost the count.
“Concentration, gentlemen,” he admonished. “Concentration, discipline, and courtesy. What is required when you see a lady?”
As one, but with grins and playful shoving, the boys pretended to sweep hats from their bare heads and bowed deeply to Elizabeth. From her saddle, she returned their salute gracefully. My turn was next and I doffed my own hat to them. Rapelji said they’d done well and announced it was time to start the chores. The boys scattered like stirred-up ants. Chores first, then breakfast, then studies.
“Good morning, Miss Elizabeth, Mr. Jonathan. Come in, come in. It’s a baking day for the girls’ and the first loaves are just out of the oven.” He gestured us inside. There was a rich smell of hot bread in the air, wafting over the yard from the oven behind the house.
We left the horses to the care of the boys and joined him. Along with a varying number of students, he shared the big house with his two housekeepers, Rachel and Sarah, two elderly siblings that he couldn’t always tell apart, so he called them “the girls.” They weren’t much for intellectual conversation, but kindly toward the students and doted on the teacher. Their cooking and herb lore were legendary.
The front room was where he taught lessons. A long table lined with many chairs took up most of the floor. The walls boasted all kinds of books, papers, some stuffed animals, and his prize, a mounted skeleton of some type of small ape. He used it to explain anatomy to us. On another shelf he kept his geological finds, including a rather large specimen of a spiral-shaped sea creature, so old that it had turned to stone. He’d dug it up himself miles inland and delighted in speculating about its origins. The thing had always fascinated me and had sparked many a talk and good-natured argument.
Elizabeth took off her cloak and hat, hanging them on the pegs next to the door: This was a second home to us, Rapelji our eccentric uncle, but we hadn’t been over together for some time, a point he commented upon.
“Things are a bit hectic at the house,” said Elizabeth. “Two of Mother’s friends have come to stay with us for a while.”
“Ah, that’s good. Company always helps pass the time away.” Rapelji, as evident by his huge household, liked having people about him.
“Have you ever met Mother?” I asked. He’d never before mentioned her and I was curious to have his side of the story.
He pursed his plump lips to think. “Oh, yes, but it was years ago and only the one time when I answered her advertisement for a tutor. She interviewed me and sent me on to here. I was the only one willing to make the journey, it seemed. Your good father made the rest of the arrangements and that was that. Perhaps since she is here I should stop over and pay my respects.”
“No!” we said in unison.
“No?” he questioned, interested by our reluctance. Then he noticed Elizabeth’s face for the first time. Until now, she’d been keeping herself slightly turned away. “Good heavens, child, what has happened to you?”
Though his shock must have been in accordance with Elizabeth’s hopes and plans to socially oust Mother from the community, it was still difficult for her. She dropped her gaze. “We’ve had some problems at home,” she mumbled.
“Indeed?” Rapelji could see there was more to be learned. “Well, come sit here and rest yourself.” He solicitously held a chair for her. He peered closely at me, now, and noted the swelling that I’d seen in my shaving mirror earlier. I felt myself going red and not knowing why. As with Elizabeth, I had nothing of which to be ashamed.
One of the girls came in to set the table—I think it was Rachel—and her sharp eyes suddenly froze onto our faces in that way old women have.
“Goodness, children, have you been quarreling?” she asked.
Elizabeth’s hand went to her cheek and she went very red. I kept my hands down, but nodded to the concerned woman. “Yes, ma’am, but not with each other.”
“I’ll make you a nice poultice of sugar and yellow soap,” Rachel promised.
Sarah appeared next to her, squinted at us, and shook her head. “No, dear, that’s for boils. What you want is some cotton dipped in molasses.”
“That’s for earache,” said Rachel.
“Really? I could have sworn ...”
“Please, ladies,” Elizabeth interrupted. “It’s nothing to trouble over. I am in no distress. We…we must get back to our studies.”
Dissatisfied as they obviously were and wanting to stay, Rapelji came to her support, and the two ladies eventually removed themselves and their good intentions. He waited until the door to the kitchen was shut, then gently asked for an explanation.
“And your father agreed?” he asked with surprise. “To this?”
“No, sir. He persuaded her to cease.”
Elizabeth heaved an impatient sigh, told me not to be such a diplomat, and gave Rapelji the bald truth. She did not, however, mention Mother’s obscene accusation, only that she’d thrown an unreasonable fit. She went on to relate that Father had interrupted things in time and mentioned that Beldon’s services as a doctor had been employed. I found myself listening with surprising interest. It seemed that Elizabeth had a talent for storytelling.
Rapelji, the poor man, was out of his depth, as I’d expected. He had no heart for violent domestic disputes, preferring his battles to remain in history books; the more ancient the quarrel the better.
“I know I’ve embarrassed you, sir,” she said. “And I do apologize, but I felt that of all people, you needed to know the truth of what has happened.”
“Yes, yes. Oh, you poor girl.”
“Anyway, I did not think it fair that you should be unaware of our situation. Mother has a horrible temper, and it is liable to get away from her at the least provocation. Father said she’d inherited it. The doctor visiting us seems to have things in hand, though.”
Rapelji heaved a sigh of his own. “Well, then, I can promise that your confidence will stay here”—he tapped his temple—”and shall go no farther. I am so sorry that you have this problem. If you are ever in need, I am at your service.”
Past him, the ostensibly closed kitchen door moved slightly. Rachel and Sarah had heard everything, of course, and Elizabeth knew it. She’d made a point of speaking clearly and without moderating her tone to a lower level as others might have done while relating a confidence. A very canny girl, my sister.
“Mr. Rapelji, you have already helped, just by being here,” she said, patting his hand.
Our tutor smiled broadly. “Why, then, you are very welcome!”
This made Elizabeth smile and he inquired if we had any other problems requiring assistance. That’s when I stepped in and told him about the Cambridge business.
“And you don’t want to go?” he cried. “Why ever not?”
“It’s so far away,” I answered. “And it was how she presented it.” That sounded feeble even to me and Rapelji pounced on it.
“So it is the wrappings you object to, but not the gift.”
“Gift?” This was not the sort of reaction I’d been expecting from him.
“Try looking at it as a gift, not a punishment, Mr. Jonathan. What difference is it if you had a rough introduction to the idea? The idea itself is what matters: the chance to attend one of the great and ancient centers of higher learning in the world.”
“I had thought of it a bit, sir,” I said with very feeble enthusiasm, but the subtlety was lost on my tutor.
“Good! Think on it some more. If your father cannot turn Mrs. Barrett’s mind from the idea, then you won’t feel so badly about going.”
“I should not like to wager, upon that, sir,” I muttered. Rapelji thumped my shoulder, still beaming.
The front door swung wide just then as two of his other students arrived for the day’s lessons. They were the Finch boys, Roddy and Nathan.
We stood and greeted them and Rapelji put them through the social ritual of giving respects to my sister. Roddy, my age and awkward, blushed his way through his bow.
Elizabeth was no doubt very beautiful to him despite her bruise. He gawked with curiosity, but said nothing except for a general inquiry about her health. For that he received a polite, but general reply that she was well enough today, thank you.
Nathan, a sullen-faced boy of fourteen who knew that manners were a waste of his time, barely got through his bow. It was just enough to accomplish the job, but not so little as to draw a reprimand.
“I killed a rabbit today,” he announced proudly, eager to introduce a subject more to his liking.
“Did you now?” said Rapelji.
“A good fat one for the pot.” From the cloth bag that carried all his things he hauled out a long, limp bundle of brown-and-gray fur. “Caught ’im in a snare and snapped ’is neck m’self. Next year Da said ’e’d teach me ’ow ter shoot ’em.”
“That’s ‘I caught him in a snare,’ Nathan,” began Rapelji, always the teacher.
The boy scowled. “You did not, I did. If’n you did, an’ it were on our land, then Da will shoot you dead for a-poachin’.”
Roddy gave Nathan a cuff. “Mr. Rapelji didn’t say he was a-poachin’, he was telling you how to talk right.”
Nathan glowered and grunted with disapproval. He was one of the more difficult students and would have been happier working the fields or hunting. Rapelji had often recommended it, but their father was determined that they learn their letters and grimly paid for the effort. Roddy had a better head and might have progressed more if he didn’t have Nathan to constantly look after and keep in line.
Morning chores finished, the other boys began to wander in for their breakfast along with half a dozen others from neighboring houses. Nathan’s rabbit was the subject of much interest and conversation and he was compelled to repeat his story of how he’d snapped the animal’s neck.
He was happy enough to demonstrate this to everyone’s satisfaction, but his method sparked a debate on the various ways of snapping animal necks of all kinds. Elizabeth was not in the least fainthearted, but after several minutes of gleeful discussion she began to visibly pale. Rapelji noticed and dispatched Nathan off to the kitchen with his prize, as it was part of Finch’s payment for his boys’ tutoring.
Later, over tea, fresh bread, and hot porridge, we talked about all sorts of things that had nothing to do with Mother. Rapelji used these times to teach the boys how to conduct themselves in civilized conversation as he called it. He was popular, but often their natural high spirits got away with them and pandemonium would reign as each boy contributed a comment more loudly than his neighbor, and at the same time. When this happened, Rapelji usually restored order, with a gavel kept handy for this purpose.
When lessons began in earnest, Elizabeth lent a hand supervising some of the younger lads while Rapelji took a moment to check my Greek. He pronounced himself satisfied, which surprised me, considering the interruptions my work had suffered.
“Next, we shall try some original composition,” he announced jovially, as though it were an event to celebrate. “Something with a rhyme to it. They often hold competitions at the universities on this and you’ll want to have the practice.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, looking toward Elizabeth for sympathy and only getting a smirk for my pains.
Rapelji sketched out my exercise in Greek for the day, then I was privileged to help the others with their work. Our tutor was of the opinion that nothing drove a lesson home so squarely as one that you must teach to another. He was also careful to be sure that the information we used was correct. On one memorable occasion a boy had given his “students” the impression that Columbus had made landfall in 1493, which was cause for much confusion and at least one fistfight when Rapelji’s back was turned.
The lively company around us did indeed help pass the time away as Rapelji maintained. The girls emerged from the kitchen to announce the midday meal, which was received with extreme enthusiasm by one and all. Papers and books were cleared away, hands were washed of chalk and charcoal, and the plates were set out once more. Elizabeth and I stayed on until well into the afternoon, enjoying every minute. There was a bit of unease when one of the younger ones unabashedly asked Elizabeth why she had a black eye and cheek. She gently pointed out that it was impolite to ask such questions. She also told him a simple version of the truth, that her mother had struck her.
This did not cause much alarm, as most of the lads had no small experience with corporal punishment. They’d been curious and, once their need was satisfied, went on to other concerns.
“Why didn’t you say you’d run into a door?” I asked her afterward, when we were riding home.
“That would have been a lie.”
“I know, but if any of them mentions it to their families, it might start up a lot of gossip with no fact behind it. I thought you wanted to make sure people knew the facts.”
“I do. But keep in mind what you said about adults more readily believing other adults. I doubt if it will come up in conversation when they return home, anyway. Nathan’s rabbit drew far more attention than I.”
“Hah! Roddy Finch couldn’t keep his eyes off you. This will, get around, dear sister, don’t you worry.”
“You’re doing enough for both of us, and what objections do you have to Roddy Finch?”
“None, really, just to his beastly little brother. That Nathen’s going to be trouble one day.”
Too soon and we were on the lane to our house. Never before had we been reluctant to return home. Neither of us knew what might be waiting there nor did we especially care to find out. After the cheerful noise and activity of Rapelji’s everything seemed ominously silent and sinister.
“I hope Father’s straightened things out,” I said.
Elizabeth quietly agreed.
I almost expanded on that theme, then realized I had no heart for it, having left my good cheer behind at the school.
We rode around to the stables and dismounted. The lads there went about their business with the horses as usual, but apparently they knew something of the happenings of last night. Elizabeth endured their staring curiosity in silence. It would have been unseemly for her to answer their unasked questions.
“It’s probably all over the place by now,” I said as we trudged toward the house.
She nodded. “Today is Saturday. I shall have to decide what to wear to church.”
I gulped at the implications. The whole village would see her tomorrow. Her bruising would not nearly have faded by then.
“And if anyone asks, I shall answer them truthfully,” she added, looking serene.
Jericho was the watch for us. He opened the side door and saw to our cloaks and my bag of books.
“What’s happened today?” I asked.
“It’s been perfectly calm. Your mother kept to her room until the early afternoon, when she came down to eat. Mrs. Hardinbrook sat with her and the doctor looked in several times. They’re all up there in her sitting room now, having tea and playing cards.”
“What about Father?” That morning I had asked Jericho to especially keep his eyes and ears open on my behalf. I had also told him what Father had said in regard to his being sold. At least one of us had been spared from suffering the tortures of an unknown future for the day.
“He had a very long talk with her—” He broke off, for Father emerged from his library and strode toward us. He looked quite grim but his greeting was warm. Jericho, sensing that he was redundant, vanished.
By now I couldn’t contain myself. “Father, tell me—”
“Yes, Jonathan, I did speak with her.” He looked very tired and my spirits fell, for I knew what he was going to say. “She would not be moved, laddie.”
“Oh, Father.” I felt a knot tightening at my throat as surely as if I’d been standing on a scaffold with a hangman. “Please, I don’t want to. Can’t you try again?”
“She was like a stone. She won’t be moved on this.” he said, his voice as thick as my own. “You are to go to England and Cambridge.”
Elizabeth groaned and put an arm around me.
“Then God have mercy on my soul,” I said mournfully, and found it impossible to hold back the tears wanting to spill out.
“Ho, sir! Would yer likes ter get married?”
The nearly toothless young man who accosted me as I descended from the coach was sodden with gin.
“I’ve a pretty wife for yer, sir! Sweet ’n’ willing.”
That’s not how I would have described the woman lurking just behind him. Over-used and apathetic came to mind. She was also drunk.
“A good ’ousekeeper and seamstress. She knows a’ there is ter know ’bout threadin’ a needle, haw-haw!” He jabbed an elbow into my side.
It was an even chance that if his ribald joviality didn’t knock me over his breath would. I pushed him off and checked to make sure my money was still in place. It was, thank goodness, so I bulled past him, seeking the sanctuary of the inn.
“A pretty wife, sir. A good wife ter carries a’ the family name!” he cried after me.
Now that was an idea. Bringing home such a wench for a daughter-in-law would certainly set Mother on her ear, or even flying head-first over a cliff.
I smiled at that pleasing picture. Suitable reparation for all that I’d been put through.
My thoughts were as sour as the sea smell clinging to my clothes. Instead of the clear air washed by miles of ocean waves, they stank of filthy bodies, damp wood, and, disgustingly, rat droppings. Such was what I’d discovered upon opening a trunk in search of new linen. I’d grimly shook out the cleanest-looking shirt and neckcloth and donned them. Bad as they were, the stuff was still better than what I’d been wearing. I was to meet my English cousin at this inn today and futilely hoped to give a good impression of myself.
“A pretty wife for yer!” said the pander to the next man off the coach, who cursed and shoved him out of the way much as one would an annoying dog.
The door of The Three Brewers beckoned. I ducked through, bumping into another man before me. The entrance hall was dark compared to the outside, and he’d paused to let his dazzled eyes adjust. We begged one another’s pardon, and I pretended not to notice as he surreptitiously touched a pocket where he must have his own money secreted. Perhaps I was not as well dressed as I thought, that or pickpockets had so great an income in London that they could afford such clothes that would allow them to pass for gentlemen.
The porter intruded at this point, giving a cheerful welcome and ringing his bell for a waiter to come see to us. We were shown into the strangers’ room with others from the coach and there made our needs known. I was famished and settled that part of my business promptly, even before taking a chair. Used to dealing with an endless number of similar starving guests, the man wasted no time in seeing to everyone’s comfort. This inn had a favorable reputation, and I was thankful and pleased that it was living up to the praise.
A noisy family with an infant shrieking in its nurse’s arms rolled in. They disdained the strangers’ room and were shown to some more private place away from the other guests. Well and good, for my brain was feverish from the journey and lack of food, and I might have been tempted into slaughtering an innocent had they remained.
Only when a hot plate of fatty, boiled beef was placed before me along with a deep cup of wine did my disposition improve. I hurriedly handed over a shilling and fell upon my meal with ravenous abandon. When the plate was clean, I followed it up with pigeon pie and an excellent boiled pudding. Nearly replete, the dessert of apples and walnuts filled the last empty corners. It was the first fresh food I’d had since we’d run out of eggs on the ship. If I ever gnawed salt beef and weevil-infested bread again it would be too soon.
Well, perhaps not. Given the chance to turn ’round and sail straight back to Long Island today, I’d have taken it. I was dreadfully homesick and likely to remain so. Rapelji had said to regard this as an adventure. If adventures meant bad food, coarse company, weeks of staring at miles of bottomless cold gray water, bumpy coach rides, and encounters with a gin-soaked pander and his trollop, then he was welcome to mine. To be fair, London promised many interests and excitements, and the victuals of The Three Brewers were filling, but not as good as Mrs. Nooth’s table at home.
I cracked two walnuts against each other and wished for a speedy return. Regardless of Mother’s presence, it was at least familiar. I smashed the shells into smaller shards and picked out the meat.
Mother. Other men regarded the word with warmth and sentiment; all it inspired in me was anger and frustration.
Father’s reasoning had not moved her to change her mind, neither had my tears—not that I wept in her sight. To do so would have only invited her contempt. Instead, I arranged for a private interview, hoping that a direct plea might work, but it was an absolute failure before I ever opened my mouth to speak. The naked disgust on her face as she looked upon me shriveled my liver down to nothing. I had no experience dealing with the mad, nor did I wish to acquire any. My only desire was to leave the room and never see her again. Since my effort at persuasion had died stillborn, I had to supply another reason to justify my visit. Red-faced and with the sweat tickling under my arms I blathered out a stuttering apology to her and concluded with a little speech of gratitude for her kindness toward me.
I did not state what I was apologizing for; I would not give a name to an evil that only existed in her sick mind. Thankfully, she did not refer to the events of the previous evening. Had she done so I’d have fled. I did feel like a complete fool, for this was uncomfortably like an admission of guilt.
If one wishes to count childish fibs, then it was not the first time I’d ever lied, but it was the first time I had ever lied at length and so convincingly. The further I went, the worse I felt. Even as the words bubbled up into elaborate constructions of remorse, I vowed to never place myself in such a position again. The experience left me feeling foully humiliated and in no doubt that if I hadn’t utterly tarnished my honor this day, then I’d very definitely thrown a shadow upon it.
It was an impossible situation, as Elizabeth maintained, but what else could be done? The woman was mad, but she was our mother and until we came of age, we were unhappily subject to her whims. The other problem, as Father had pointed out, was the money. For a good education I needed the sum that she’d set aside for me—which would be denied if I insisted on Harvard. Very well, then I’d go to Cambridge. If groveling to this demented creature for a few minutes would curry her favor, then I would grovel, and did so. Thoroughly.
It worked. A creaking, rattling ghost of a smile drifted across her face, smacking of arrogant triumph. I’d been forgiven. My future was assured. It was time for her evening tea. I had permission to be excused.
After that bitter degradation, I was less ready to so harshly judge Beldon and Mrs. Hardinbrook for their toad-eating.
My shameful scene with Mother concluded, I went to see Father. It took me a while to work up the courage, but I finally introduced an idea that had been stirring uneasily in my brain: the possibility of having her declared incapable. I had feared he would be angry with me, but came to realize that he’d already thought it over for himself.
“How do we prove it, laddie?” he asked. When I faltered over my answer, he continued. “It would be different if she wandered about raving at the top of her voice all the time, but you’ve seen how she is. She’s been in a temper over that incident, but you need more than that to take to court. In public her behavior has always been above reproach.”
“But we’ve plenty of witnesses here to the contrary.”
“To what would be dismissed as an unpleasant altercation within a family. No court would judge in our favor with—”
“But surely as her husband, you are able to do something.” I could not quite keep a whine from invading my tone. Damnation. I was better than that, but desperate.
Father’s face darkened, and with an effort, he swallowed back his annoyance.
“Jonathan, there are some things that I will not do, even for your sake. One of those is compromising my honor. To go down the path you are suggesting would do just that.”
My gaze dropped; my skin seemed aflame. For the second time I stammered an apology, only now I meant what was said.
He accepted it instantly. “I do understand exactly how you feel, I’ve been there many times. Life is not fair, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make the best of what fate—or your mother—drops on us.”
Cold comfort, I thought.
The morning after those talks marked the official opening of Elizabeth’s quiet campaign against Mother. We rose early and left early for the church. She’d managed to keep out of Mother’s sight since the fight for fear that Mother might stop her from showing herself in public once she saw the extent of the damage done. Elizabeth’s dress had been carefully chosen for its color, which brutally accented her fully developed bruises. She made no effort to hide them. Being a favorite among the women of our village, she was surrounded by a group of the concerned and the curious almost as soon as she stepped from the carriage. While I sent the driver back to the house for the rest of the family, Elizabeth made excellent use of her time.
I still disapproved, but since she was telling the plain truth, I had no difficulty supporting her. When the carriage rolled up again to discharge Mother, Mrs. Hardinbrook, Beldon, and Father, the atmosphere of avid curiosity mixed with revulsion was nearly as thick as a morning fog. Distracted by her guests, Mother did not notice it. A few late-comers who hadn’t yet heard the tale came over to greet her and meet her friends, but as soon as they detached themselves, others took them aside for a confidential whisper. Mother had been oblivious to the subtle change in the people around her, Father was not. But what he guessed or knew, he kept to himself and stood next to his wife in our pew.
Somehow we got through the service and returned home, me to brood on my disappointment, Elizabeth to her first feeling of triumph. She was all but glowing with satisfaction when I found her in the library. This dampened somewhat when she looked up and successfully read my face. Not wishing to intrude upon her, I’d kept my news, or lack of it, to myself throughout the morning.
“She wouldn’t listen, would she?” she asked, all sympathy.
I threw myself onto a chair. “I don’t think she knows how. I talked with Father, but it’s hopeless. He can’t do anything.”
“You’re not angry with him?”
“No, of course not. If he could help, he would. I’m going to have to leave.”
“I wish I could come with you, then.”
“So do I, but you know what Mother would make of that.”
“Something evil,” she said. “What will you do at Cambridge?”
“Be miserable, I’m sure.”
“It will be a long, long time. When you come back, you’ll be all grown up. We won’t know you.”
“You think I’ll change so much?”
“Perhaps not, little brother. I’m being selfish, though.”
“Whatever shall I do with myself while you are gone?”
“You’ll miss me?” I gently mocked.
“Certainly I’ll miss you,” she said.
“Nothing selfish about that.”
“I’m selfish because all I can think of is my own troubles, of spending day after day facing that horrible woman and her toadies without you here to comfort me. I should really be worrying about you being off by yourself.”
“Don’t think badly of me, Jonathan.”
“I don’t. Believe me, I do not. I’ve just never thought of how things might be for you while I’m gone.”
“Then thank you for thinking of it now. But it mightn’t last forever, you know. You saw how it went at church today. She and that precious pair plan to go calling tomorrow, but I believe many of the people they’ll visit to be unavailable. Oh, dear, what’s wrong?” Her forehead wrinkled at my expression.
“I just don’t feel this action is worthy of you.”
She started to either object or defend, then caught herself. Her face grew hard. “Indeed, it is not, but she hurt me terribly and I want to hurt her back. It may not be very Christian, but it does make me feel better.”
“I know, I just don’t want you to become so accustomed to it that it consumes you. Otherwise when I return, I shall not recognize you, either.”
The feeling behind the words got through to her. “You believe I might become like her?”
“Not at all, but I should not like to see you influenced by her into becoming someone you are not.”
“God forbid,” she murmured, staring at the floor. “Mirrors can be awful things, can’t they? But they do give you the truth when you bother to look in them.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you…”
“No. I understand what you mean.”
“What will you do?”
“Whether my actions demean me or not, I will see them through. If Mother leaves, well and good, if not, then perhaps I may adopt Father’s example and leave the house myself. I have many friends I can visit, but give me some time, little brother, and trust in my own sense of honor.”
There was a word to make me wince.
Hopes of a reprieve from Cambridge dashed, there was little else to do but follow Father’s advice. I played the puppet in Mother’s presence, and it paid handsomely. The allowance Father was able to arrange for me was more than generous. Perhaps she was trying to buy my affection. Perhaps she just didn’t care. Only later did I realize that her purpose was for me to make an impressive show to others. She gave many tedious lectures instructing me on how to behave myself once I was in England. I’d had lessons a few years before, but for a while feared that she’d hire another dancing master to refresh my memory about correct posturing in polite company.
The next month saw me through a round of farewell parties with our friends, fittings for new clothes, and careful decisions over what to take along. As Elizabeth had predicted, Mother’s reception into our circle had turned decidedly cool, but there were some occasions that required the presence of our whole family, so the woman got her share of social engagements. These were enough to satisfy her, but Elizabeth was sure that once I was off to England a dramatic drop in invitations would take place. She promised to write me in full detail. Perhaps her first letters would be in the very next ship to arrive in port after my own.
Something to look forward to, even if the news was over two months old.
As the hubbub of The Three Brewers played around me, I used my penknife to work out more pieces from another broken walnut. Across the room an argument was going on between two drunken workmen that looked to develop into a full-blown battle. Their accents were so thick I couldn’t make sense of what they were shouting, though the swearing was clear enough. A group of ladies huddled together and stopped up their ears, except for one who fell to praying. She started with a little scream when one of her friends accidentally brushed her ear with an upraised elbow.
My teeth crunched against a bit of overlooked shell. I spat it out and continued munching more cautiously.
One of the men took a wide swing at the other and missed, generating a lot of amusement in the crowd. Bets were made, but called off when the landlord and a couple of younger men intervened and escorted the drunks outside. A few others joined them, perhaps to see if the fight would continue. I had half a mind to follow, but was too full of food to be bothered.
I loutishly spat another shard of walnut, pleased with the knowledge that what went unnoticed here would have sorely offended Mother.
Across the room the ladies had unstopped their ears and put their heads together for a good talk. One of the younger ones smiled at me. Resuming my manners, I nodded back, lazily wondering who and what she was. By her dress, manner, and the company around her I decided that she was not a whore, or else I might have done more than nod. I hadn’t forgotten the promise to myself about taking the earliest opportunity to lose my virginity.
The pander and his woman came to mind again, only to be dismissed with disgust. I wasn’t that desperate or drunk.
The young lady turned her attention back to her friends. My face grew warm as I deduced by their manner that they were talking about me. From the smothered smiles and bright looks thrown my way I concluded that their opinions were highly favorable. I smiled back. Perhaps an opportunity was about to present itself.
Or perhaps not. The fight between the workmen had developed into what sounded like a proper war. Though I hadn’t followed the two combatants outside, others had, and in a few scant moments sides were taken and blows were struck. Members of the inn’s staff abruptly disappeared, though two of the maids clogged the room’s one window trying to keep up with the course of the battle.
“Jem’s got that ’un!”
“Arr, he’s bitin’ orf ’is ear! Get ’im, Jem!”
Then both girls squeaked and jumped back. A young tough with a bleeding ear sprawled half in and out of the opening. Before his admirers could rush to his aid, he raised up, threw us a foolish grin of pure glee, and bobbed from sight. The girls returned to the window to cheer him on.
The more refined ladies of the neighboring table had produced screams of alarm, and crowded toward the door for the purpose of escape. They were hampered by others in the hall without, who were apparently trying to get out for a better view of the fight. The smiling girl was among them.
So much for that opportunity, however slim it had been. I stood, brushed stray crumbs from my clothes, and made for the window. Offering my apologies to the maids, I pushed past them and stepped through it into the courtyard to see what all the commotion was about.
A wild-eyed man who had lost his shirt, but retained his neck cloth, rushed past me waving a bucket and howling. The man he seemed to be pursuing was making an equal amount of noise but in a slightly different key. A dozen other men were having a sort of wrestling match with one another in the middle of the yard. On the edge of their muddy sprawl of arms and legs, I spotted the porter swinging a cudgel and bellowing in triumph each time he connected successfully with someone’s head. He’d worked out a simple routine of knocking a man senseless, then moving on so the waiters could pull the body from the fray. They had the start of a fine stack of them, though it wasn’t much of a discouragement to newcomers eager to join the riot.
“What’s it all about?” I asked a young gentleman next to me, who was content to be a witness rather than a participant. He wore dusty riding clothes and an eager expression on his long face.
“God knows, but isn’t it grand? Five shillings that that big fellow with the scar will be the last to drop.”
“Done,” I said, and we shook on it. I kept my eye on the porter and was not disappointed. Before long, he worked his way ’round to the fellow in question and gave him a solid thump behind the ear. The result fell short of my expectations, for he only went down on one knee, shook his head, and was up and swinging as though nothing had happened. The waiters wisely passed him by.
“Bad for you,” said the gentleman.
“There’s time yet.”
My faith in the porter’s arm was given a second test. As he made another circle of the gradually diminishing fighters, he was able to use his cudgel on the man again. This time more force was applied and the fellow was knocked to both knees. He got up more slowly, but he did get up.
“What’s his skull made of?” I asked. “Stone?”
“Cracked him a good one, though. He’s drawn blood, see?”
That was a good sign. Stones don’t bleed. I called encouragement to the porter for another try, but he was distracted when the man with the bucket blundered into him. Both fell over into the general melee and were momentarily lost. The porter emerged first, roaring with outrage. When he swung his cudgel back to deal with the newcomer, it caught the scarred man in the belly by mistake and he suddenly dropped from sight.
“Third time’s the charm,” I said. We waited, anxious for different reasons, but the man remained down. The waiters darted forward and dragged him out. Three more men waded in to help the porter and amid groans, curses, and with the breaking of a few more skulls, order was gradually restored to the courtyard.
The gentleman shook his head and paid up. “What a show. Pity it was so short.” He was about my age, with a high forehead, cleft chin, and a broad, childish mouth, the corners of which were turned down as he settled his debt. His was not the frown of an unhappy loser, merely concentration for the count. He had very wide-awake blue eyes that added to the somewhat foolish but generally good-natured cast of his overall expression.
“Pity indeed,” I agreed. “Since there’s second no chance for you to win this back may I buy you something to ease the sting of your loss?”
He cheered up instantly. “That’s very generous of you, my friend. Yes, you may. It’s too damned hot out here, don’t you think?”
We retired to the common room, but found it quite clear of waiters, maids, and guests.
“Probably still cleaning up the mess,” he said, then bellowed for assistance. A pot-boy cautiously appeared, and I promptly sent him off to fetch us beer.
“Unless you’d prefer something else?” I asked.
He threw himself into a chair, putting his feet on the table. “No, no. Beer’s what’s wanted on a day like this. I’ve been on the road all morning and have a great thirst.”
“Traveling much farther?”
“Only to this roach trap. I’m supposed to meet some damned cousin of mine and take him home.”
“Damned nuisance it is, but—” A new thought visibly invaded his brain. “Oh, dear, suppose he’s out there among the wounded?” He launched from the chair toward the window and leaned out, shouting questions to the men in the yard. I sat back to watch the show. He excused himself to me and went over the sill to investigate something, but returned just as the beer arrived.
“Did you find your cousin?” I asked.
“Thought I had, but the man was too old.”
“What does he look like?”
“Oh, about this tall, forty if he was a day, and bald as—”
“I mean, what does your cousin look like?”
“Oh . . . him. Damned if I know. He’s fresh off the boat from one of the colonies, so I should spot him quick enough. Probably gets himself up with feathers and paint like a red Indian. I saw an engaving once of a frontiersman, dreadful taste. He was in a canvas suit covered head-to-toe with white fringe, trousers going all the way to his ankles, bare feet, and topped it all with a beard like a prophet. Can you imagine?”
“Sounds dreadful. What’s he over here for? New clothes?”
“Come to get an education. We’re going to be at Cambridge together, but since he’s supposed to be reading law and I’m doing medicine, we’ll likely be spared one another’s company for the most part.”
“What? You’ve never met the chap and you don’t like him?”
“I daresay I won’t if he has Fonteyn blood in him. Not that I’m too very much against my own family, but some of the folk out of Grandfather Fonteyn’s side of things would be better off in Bedlam, if you know what I mean.”
“That great asylum where they put the mad people. Damn, but that was good beer. Here, boy! Bring us another! That is, if you care to have another one, sir.”
“Yes, certainly. You intrigue me, sir. About this cousin of yours…would he be about my age, do you think?”
He squinted at me carefully. “I’d say so.” His mobile face suddenly went slack, then his eyes sharpened with alarm. “Oh, good God.” He nearly fell from his chair getting his feet down from the table.
“I’m not that awful, am I?” I asked, after he’d sorted himself.
His jaw flapped as he tried to put words to a situation that required none. As he floundered, the beer was set before us.
“Would you care for anything to eat, Cousin?”
“A pox on you, sir, for misleading me,” he finally cried.
“And my apologies, sir, for being unable to resist the temptation to do so.”
“Well-a-day, I’ve never heard of such a thing!”
“Perhaps it is my Fonteyn blood showing through. Jonathan Barrett, at your service, good cousin.” I stood and bowed to him.
“A fine introduction this is, to be sure.” He stood and gave a hasty bow in turn. Then we bestowed upon each other a second appraisal.
“Well?” I said.
“Do we become friends or act like our less genial relations?”
“Oh, pox on it!” He extended his hand and smiled broadly. “Oliver Marling, at your service.”
“Oliver ‘Fonteyn’ Marling?” We shared the same middle name, I knew.
He made a face. “For God’s sake, call me Oliver. I absolutely detest my middle name!”
Not that I’d had any misgivings about the man after the first few moments of speaking with him, but now I hailed him as a true kinsman in heart as well as by blood. We enjoyed more than a few beers that afternoon, ate like starving pigs that evening, drank an amazing amount of spirits, and talked and talked and talked. By the time we’d passed out and had been lugged upstairs to our room by the staff, we were the best of friends.
# # #
The morning sunlight was mercifully subdued through the tiny window, but it’s brightness was still enough to dangerously heat my brain to the bursting point. My eyes felt as though someone had poured gravel into each socket. I groaned, but refrained from touching my head for fear that it might pop from my neck and go rolling around the floor. The noise alone would have killed me.
All I could see of cousin Oliver were his riding boots, which were on the pillow next to mine. For all the movement on that side of the bed he might have been a corpse. A blessing for him if he were dead, for then he’d be spared the abominable pain of recovery. Our drinking bout was such as would have left Dionysus himself flat on his face for a week.
Around and below us came the sounds of the inn, which had apparently awakened some time ago. With no consideration whatsoever for our possibly mortal condition, business was proceeding as usual.
When I’d reached the point where walking around in agony would be no different from lying around in agony, I made an attempt to get out of bed. The thing was rather high, so the drop was an awful shock. The thud I made upon landing must have been heard throughout the rest of the house. It certainly echoed through my fragile head with alarming consequences. How fortunate for me that I was now within grasping distance of the chamber pot. I seized and dragged it toward me just in time.
The next few minutes were really horrible, but when the last coughing convulsion played itself out, I felt slightly improved. I wanted to crawl back to bed again, but hadn’t the strength for it. Shoving the pot away, I flopped on my back on the bare floor and prayed for God to have mercy on one of his more foolish sheep.
Some idiot pounded on our door as though to break it down. Without pausing for an invitation, one of the waiters entered and looked things over.
“Thought I’d ’eard you stirrin’, sir. Would yer be wantin’ ter breaks yer fast now?”
I was wanting to break his neck for shouting so loudly, but couldn’t move. All I could do was give him a glassy stare from where I lay at his feet and think ill thoughts.
“Well, p’haps not. Tell yer what, I’ll ’ave some tea ’n’ a bit of bread sent up. Twill do ’til you find yer legs, haw-haw.” Booming with his own cleverness, he left, slamming the door so hard I thought the bones in my skull would split open from the sound.
There was a bowl and a pitcher on a table across the room. The idea occurred to me that splashing water on the back of my neck might be of restorative value. I managed to get to my knees and crawled over. The pitcher was empty. It seemed pointless to exert effort to return to bed, so I gave up and sat with my back to the wall, waiting for the man to reappear with the promised tea.
He must have been distracted by other duties. The whole long dizzy morning seemed to pass before he pounded on the door again and came in with his tray.
“Yer lucky, sir. Cook just had some fresh made, ’ot ’n’ strong.” He put the tray on another table, poured out a cup, and brought it over. I held it tenderly with trembling fingers and sipped. “That’ll set yer right as rain. Now what ’bout this ’un?” He indicated Oliver, who had not yet moved.
“Leave him,” I whispered.
“Shouldn’t leave ’is arm draggin’ on the floor like that. ’E’ll lose all feelin’ in it.” He helpfully pulled Oliver’s arm up, but it only dropped down again. A second attempt got the same results, so he lightly flipped Oliver over on his back. Bidding us both a good morning, he left, thundering down the hall and stairs like a plow horse with eight legs.
I drained the cup, waited a few minutes, and decided the stuff would stay down after all. Pushing against the wall, I stood, staggered to the table, and poured another, but drank it more slowly. Bit by bit, my brain began to cool and a few of the more alarming symptoms subsided. The chance that I would ultimately recover seemed more likely now.
On his back, with his mouth sagging wide, Oliver began to snore. There was an almost soothing note to it, though it gradually increased in loudness. To take my mind from my own miseries, I waited, interested to learn just how loud he could get. When one is in the throes of a terrible recuperation, the oddest details are welcome distractions from the pain.
My interest soon waned as the very blood under my hair began to throb in time to his rumblings. It was a wonder he did not wake himself from the noise. He snorted and snarled, gave out a gasp as though he’d inhaled an insect, and suddenly a prodigious sneeze exploded from his slack lips. It was enough to stir the cobwebs in the far corners. This did succeed in waking him, poor man. He stared at the ceiling with the same kind of glazed stupefaction as I had earlier.
Still whispering, out of respect to his heightened senses, I said, “It’s just under the bed on this side.”
He didn’t take my meaning at first, but gradually his face turned a predictable green, and with the color came comprehension. He floundered onto his stomach, clawed for the chamber pot, and made his own contribution to it.
“Oh, God,” he moaned pitifully afterward, quite unable to move. With a cautious toe, I shoved the pot and its offensive contents back under the bed. Oliver put his hands over his ears and moaned again as it scraped over the bare wood of the floor.
I was merciful and said nothing and poured him half a cup of tea. His hands were unsteady. Still lying on his stomach, partly off the bed, he drank it, and I caught the cup before he could drop it.
“Well-a-day,” he murmured, his head hanging down and his mouth muffled by the bedding. “We must have had a magnificent time last night.”
“Indeed we did. We may never survive another. Was it you or that other chap who poured wine on the fiddler?”
“What other chap?”
“The little round fellow who lost his wig in the fire.”
“He didn’t lose it, you threw it there.”
I took a moment to recollect the incident. “Oh, yes. The fool was bothering the serving maid and I thought he needed a lesson.”
“Good thing for you he wasn’t the sort to demand satisfaction or you’d have had to be up at dawn.”
So terrible was the idea of getting up that early with such a pain in my head that it hardly bore thinking about. “Was it you or him?”
“That poured the wine in the—”
“Oh. Him. Definitely him. Fellow had too much to drink, y’know. Disgraceful. What did you think you were doing defending that wench’s honor, anyway?”
“I just can’t abide a man forcing his attentions on a woman.”
“Didn’t know they raised knight-errants in the colonies. Have to be cafrill . . . I mean, careful. The next man might force the issue, then you’d have to kill him and marry the girl.”
“Why should I have to marry the girl?”
He paused in thought. “Damned if I know. What time is it? What day is it? Is there any more tea?”
There was and I gave it to him. Neither of us were ready for even the simplest of food, so we left the bread alone. When we each became more certain of our slow improvement, I slowly opened the shutters to bring in some fresher air. The chamber pot was rapidly becoming a nuisance.
Oliver managed to leave the bed and join me at the table. He surveyed himself, peered closely at my face, and shook his head.
“This won’t do. Can’t go home looking like this. Mother would burst a blood vessel if she knew about this drunken debauch and we’d never hear the end of it.”
In our rambling talk last night, he’d made frequent mention of his mother. His descriptions bore a remarkable similarity to my own parent. “Won’t she be just as angry if we’re late?”
“Oh, I can say your ship was held up or something. We needn’t worry about that. A day’s rest will do us a world of good, but I don’t fancy spending it cooped up here. What we want is a bit of activity to sweat the wine out of us.”
He lapsed into a silence so lengthy that I wondered if he wanted me to take on the responsibility of finding a solution. Being an utter stranger to London, not to mention the rest of the country, the odds against my being of any help in the matter seemed very high.
“Got it!” he said, animation returning to his vacuous face. “We’ll go over to Tony Warburton’s. You’ll want to meet him, so it may as well be now.”
“Won’t we be an intrusion?”
“Hardly. Tony’s used to my turning up at odd times. He’s part of our circle, you know, and since you’re with me, that means you’re in, too. He’s studying medicine as well, but I’ll see to it that he doesn’t bore you with it.”
Oliver assured me his friend would not only welcome our visit, but insist that we stay the night. With this in mind I gladly settled things with the landlord and saw to it my baggage was brought down. It took a surprising number of servants for this task, and several more turned up to receive their vails for services rendered during my overnight stay, including many that I’d never seen before. Perhaps they’d been on duty when I had not been in a condition to remember them later. It sufficed that some of the shillings I’d won from Oliver magically vanished in much less time than it had taken to win them.
In the courtyard, Oliver stood ready by his horse, a big bay mare with long, solid legs and clear, bright eyes. I couldn’t help but express my admiration for the animal and in turn received a list of famous names in her pedigree. None of them meant anything to me, but they sounded impressive, nonetheless.
He had hired an open pony cart for our conveyance, meaning to lead the mare rather than ride her. The cart’s inward-facing benches would allow us to enjoy conversation, yet there was enough space to stow my luggage. Another advantage was that the cart was narrow enough to navigate London’s crowded streets with reasonable efficiency.
I say reasonable, because once we left the inn and were well on our way, the noise and crowds of the city were nearly overwhelming to my country-bred senses. Everywhere I looked were people of all shapes, classes, and colors, each of them busy as ants with as many occupations as could ever be imagined, plus a few beyond imagining. My long-ago visit to Philadelphia had not prepared me for such numbers or variety. Even the busy colonial city of New York, which I had glimpsed on my way to the ship that carried me here, was a bumpkin’s muddy backwater village compared to this.
The air hummed with a thousand different voices, each calling their wares, services, begging, or just shouting for no other purpose than to make noise. Soldiers and sailors, chimney sweeps and their boys, panders and prostitutes, well-dressed ladies and their maids, men of fashion and threadbare clerics all jostled, laughed, argued, screeched, or sang with no regard for anyone but themselves and their business. I forgot my aching head and fairly gaped at the show.
“Is it always like this?” I asked Oliver, raising my voice as well so he could hear me, though he was hardly an arm’s length away.
“Oh, no,” he bellowed back. “Sometimes it’s much worse!”
I thought he was having a joke on me, but he’d taken the question quite seriously and expanded on his answer. “This is a normal working day in the city, y’know. You should be here on a holiday or when there’s a hanging or two at Tyburn, then things really liven up!”
Oliver drew my attention to various places of interest whenever possible. The buildings loomed so high in spots that it was apparent that the sun even at its summer zenith was an infrequent visitor to the streets between. In one patch of open area, though, he was able to point out the masts of a ship standing improbably among the buildings and trees.
“That’s Tower Hill, of course, and the ship itself is on perfectly dry land.”
“What good is that, then?”
“Oh, it’s done no end of good for the navy. If some unwary soul has the bad luck to stop for a look at it he has to pay dearly for his curiosity.”
“What? You mean they offer a tour of the place?”
“For a very costly price.”
“Is the fee so great?”
“Great enough for most. The fellow offering to show them around is part of a press gang. More than one hapless lad fresh in from the country has been trapped that way and may never set foot on land again. Foreigners are fairly safe, and so are gentlemen, and since you’re both in one, you’ve nothing to fear from them. Still, I can’t help but pity the poor men who wander into that pretty snare.” He gave a sincere shudder and by some leap of thought I got the idea that he may have had some personal experience in the matter.
We jolted and wove our way through the many streets for over an hour, though the distance we traveled could not have been more than a couple of miles. The views and distractions were many, and Oliver was pleased with my reactions to them, enjoying his role of playing the guide as much as I was at playing the sightseer.
Presently, Oliver gave the cart man more specific directions and we stopped before a tall and broad house of fine white stone with black paint trimming the proportionately broad windows. Because Oliver had mentioned the tax upon windows, I could see that the owner of this place was in such a financial position as to be untroubled by the added expense. This looked to be a highly favorable exchange for the mean little room I’d had at the inn.
We left the cart, mounted the front steps, and Oliver gave the bell a vigorous pull. A servant soon opened the door and welcomed us inside. He was well acquainted with Oliver and, after sending a footman off to inform the master of the house about his guests, showed us to a parlor and inquired how best to provide for our immediate comfort.
“Barley water, if you please,” said Oliver, after a brief consultation with me. “And some biscuits if you have ’em and some ass’s milk if it’s fresh.”
The butler appeared to be somewhat puzzled. “Nothing else, sir?”
“Crispin, if you’d drunk all that we had last night and woke up with all the agonies of perdition we had this morning…”
Abrupt understanding dawned upon Crispin’s face, and he vanished to see to things, including the cart waiting outside. He soon returned with another fellow carrying a large tray and made us feel at home, explaining that his master would be delayed from joining us immediately. Apparently we’ve arrived a bit earlier than Mr. Tony Warburton was accustomed to rising, so he had to dress. In the meantime, the barley water, though not as good as beer, quenched our thirst, and the biscuits settled the rumblings in our stomachs.
“I took the liberty,” said Crispin as he poured the milk from a silver pitcher, “of adding eggs and honey to this. Mr. Warburton swears by its restorative powers.”
“Lord, is he studying to be a physician or an apothecary? Never mind answering that. If old Tony has frequent occasion to turn to this for relief, then he’s going to be a drunkard. Oh, it’s all right, Jonathan, no need to look shocked. Tony knows it’s all in jest. He’s really a frightfully keen student, but like the rest of us, enjoys having a good time when he can.”
The mixture in the ass’s milk was more than palatable and after seeing to Crispin’s vail and to the footmen for fetching my luggage in we were left on our own.
Our room was decorated well and in good taste, though a bit stuffy. I suggested opening a window, but Oliver pointed out that the close air within was preferable to the noisome odors without. Sensing my restlessness, he tossed me a copy of the Gentleman’s Magazine. Father subscribed to it himself, but the issues we received were necessarily out of date by at least two months owing to the long ocean crossing. This one was only a month old and I welcomed the somewhat fresher news.
I flipped idly through the pages, taking note of an article about a comet that on my voyage had caused much excitement and interest back in the middle of June. It was fascinating to me that the same object I’d seen on the other side of the ocean, was—that same night—also seen in England. How high had it been? How fast had it been going to have hurled itself over such a vast distance?
Owing to clouds, the writer was unable to add to what I had been able to see trailing across the southern sky from shipboard. My chief memory was not so much of the comet, but the superstitious reaction the sailors had had to it. During the time that it was visible, there had been much muttering, praying, and wearing of charms against any evil it might bring. Though our captain was a man of very solid sense, he let them have their way in this, but saw to it that they were kept busy lest they brood upon their fears and get up to mischief.
I moved on to another article describing the bloody war raging between the Turks and Russians. There was an annex page that folded out into a very excellent map of Greece, and from it I was able to pick out some of the famous cities that had been mentioned in my study of the language with Rapelji. The many details delighted me, and I hoped that my father would share it with him when his issue arrived. I was about to comment to Oliver about it when the young master of the house chose that moment to make his entrance.
He was a bit haggard in his appearance, a match to our own, no doubt, and despite the amount of time he’d had to ready himself, he was clad informally in a sweeping mustard-colored dressing gown, plain cotton stockings, and bright red slippers. An elaborate turban covered much of his head, though it was very askew, showing the light, shaven scalp beneath. His eyes were a bit sunken and his flesh pale, but his manner was hearty as he came forward to greet us. Oliver introduced us and we made our bows to one another. Tony Warburton just managed to catch the turban in time to prevent it from dropping off at our feet.
“I hope this is no imposition,” said Oliver. “That is, us turning up on the doorstep like peddlers?”
“My dear fellow, I am delighted you’ve come,” Warburton said, righting the turban and himself. He fell wearily into a chair. “The truth is something’s happened and I if I don’t tell someone, I’m certain to burst.”
Oliver threw me an amused glance to assure me his friend’s somewhat theatrical attitude was normal. “What has happened? You’re looking a bit done in.”
“Really? I feel wonderful.”
“Not some calamity, I hope?”
“Hardly that. It’s truly the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life.”
My cousin now gave me a quick wink, which Tony missed, for he was staring wistfully at the ceiling. “If it is good news, then by all means, please share it.”
“The greatest news possible for any man.” He tugged absently at his indifferently knotted neck cloth. “Oliver, my best friend, the best of all my friends, I’m in love!”
Oliver clasped his hands around one knee, pursed his lips, and leaned forward with polite interest. “What? Again?”
“The greatest news possible for any man.” He tugged absently at his indifferently knotted neck cloth. “Oliver, my best friend, the best of all my friends, I’m in love!”
Oliver clasped his hands around one knee, pursed his lips, and leaned forward with polite interest. “What? Again?”
© Copyright 2010 P.N. Elrod