Persons, going into the other Colonies, may be supplied with any Number of counterfeited Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream. They are so nearly and exactly executed, that there is no Risque in getting them off, it being almost impossible to discover, that they are not genuine. This has been proved by Bills to a very large Amount, which have already been successfully circulated. Enquire for Q. E. D. at the Coffee-House, from 11 P. M. to 4 A. M. during the present Month.
New York Gazette, 14 April 1777
The end of the world, brother—or at least the end of any part for your own poor self to play in it. Come now, come now, on your knees now, surrender, and show me if you be but a traitor, or traitor and coward also!
Steel pressed to jugular.
Enoch Crosby (if that was truly his name) dropped to the floor but laughed out loud.
O yes! he said. Yes indeed, we shall make a fearless spy-taker of you yet.
Don’t laugh, Augustus Burnham complained. A lax teacher spoils the student.
I beg you sir, Crosby said with only a hint of a chuckle—spare my life and I’ll tell you all, all, O mercy sir. Mercy!
A knock at the door.
Burnham slid the knife back up his sleeve and stepped away. Crosby stood, swatting at his stockings where grit smudged both knees; winked a clear, blue eye at him.
Yes, my dear? he called.
Caroline, the tavern’s maid-of-all-work, hugging to her chest a steaming pitcher near as big as she was, shuffled in and plunked it down on the little deal table—the room’s only furnishing apart from a racked chair and the swayback bed. The table creaked, the pitcher teetered.
Thank you, my dear, and have you a word for me?
Yessir, the gentleman as you asked about done called for his wagon to be hitched up not a quarter an hour ago and his black servant too what slept in the barn.
Crosby dropped a worn halfpenny into her outstretched hand.
And Joe, that’s the stable-boy, he said he gave him a whole dollar, a Continental, as for grattatooey!
She bounced up and down on her toes, palm still thrust out.
Crosby let drop a second halfpenny.
I’m so sorry, Burnham said.
Caroline glanced over at him and her face twitched, a slight grimace. Burnham rubbed his own face, scar rough under his palm.
Sorry, sir? Why for?
His paper is false, Crosby told her.
How d’you know?
Do men often stay here who flutter dollars so?
Caroline clapped her empty hand to her mouth. Crosby placed a third coin into her other hand, folded her fingers over them, patted her fist. She curtsied roughly and rushed out—
Please to serve, sir, as what you will—
She clattered down stairs. Crosby shut the door.
Prr-prrr: a mourning dove nesting in the eaves. Burnham thrust his head out the window; a fluster of wings and the bird was fled. Last night’s thunderstorm had cleared the air and laid the dust, and the day’s glare promised another sweltering forenoon, to say nothing of the evening. Wagon wheels creaked, hooves clip-clopped: their quarry was on the road already.
We seem to have missed our breakfast, Burnham said.
Ah, woe, Crosby said as he crossed the room to the hot water. But the road runs without a branch to Peekskill, and our faithful mounts shall easily catch up that heavy wagon. We can spare an hour for baptism and communion both.
Their inn, the Olde Grape-Vine, was built nigh on forty years ago; not wholly disfavored by travelers on the Albany Post Road, it was also the only accommodation on this stretch of that most estimable road for twenty miles or more. In the public room, crazed plaster bellied overhead, straining around the blackened summer beam like the button-popping shirt of a well-fed patroon. Flies buzzed on scraps flung into the vast hearth.
Master Pieter Davitts, the tavern-keeper, when they arrived last night (footsore, saddle-chafed, rain-drenched) had promised a brave breakfast—and it was indeed a breakfast for the brave alone. A rasher of bacon, more grease than meat. A heap of beans first boiled perhaps as recently as last week. A pocked and scraped loaf—to mend it of mold—and patriot tea, doubtless patriotically brewed of acorns and weeds and what noxious whatnot God Himself prefers not to know.
Crosby asserted that his sausages were actually quite fine, though perhaps not of the freshest, indeed, perhaps somewhat elderly, and also, it could be, a trifle overexposed to the fire—one could say charred—yet withal edible enough for all inhabitants of this sublunary world.
Finally, defeated, Burnham sighed and pushed his trencher away.
This war of ours, he complained, it stretches on and on without respite nor any sign of ending. But shouldn’t we, perhaps, hasten on our way?
All things end, even wars. O soon there shall be books enough again, and time to read them too. Or else, why do we fight? Til then, patience and hope.
Two qualities devoutly to be wished for.
Caroline bustled over with a tray, eyed his half-eaten (no, less than half, third-eaten, quarter-eaten) breakfast. Hungrily, Burnham thought. He cleared his throat.
She looked up at him.
Insipid swill, Burnham said, this tea.
Caroline blinked, glanced around the room.
Hardly a fit drink for a man, Burnham said.
No sir, I don’t like it none neither, Caroline said.
Perhaps, Crosby said, perhaps something more suitable to the refined palate might be procured...?
He slid a coin across the table, tapped the King’s head bossed on it.
For loyal patrons of the tavern?
Caroline stared at the coin like a trapped animal. It was gold.
She half-curtsied and fled to the kitchen.
Tis true enough however, Burnham said, sipping again and pulling a face. Would that we had better drink than this markedly vile specimen of a poor species.
O noble cause, Crosby said, we salute thee and endure the punishing of our palates.
And bellies, Burnham added.
He picked at the bacon with the tip of his knife, freed an almost choice morsel.
Tis time, Crosby said. Shall we make our weary way we know not where?
The stout kitchen door in the far corner creaked open a few inches. A shiny pate slowly emerged, followed by eyes that swiveled back and forth. The head retreated. The door creaked shut.
But lo! Crosby said, I fear mine host is about to make an appearance.
The kitchen door swung wide and Master Davitts bustled out, all dimples and smiles, his dun brown coat, waistcoat, and breeches stuffed full of more pink and white flesh than any suit should be asked to bear.
Gracious guests, he called across, virtuous visitors! A word! A word, if I may.
Davitts hurried over, grasped both edges of the trestle tabletop, leaned in close.
I have, he whispered, I have heard it said that...
He glanced around the empty public room again.
Yes? You’ve heard? Burnham asked.
That is to say, Davitts went on, that silly girl of mine, O dear what troubles she brings down on us, and I so generous to her—
Your daughter Caroline? Burnham asked.
Daughter? No! Not my daughter! No one’s daughter, if you understand, sir, or no one who... Bah, she’s no worse than might be expected of such a one—
I’ve no interest in tattle of your hireling, Crosby said.
O no, no sir, what I mean, sir, is—she said that you said that the gentleman from New-York, the New-York City, natural, not the New-York Colony—occupied New-York that is, O what a bad circumstance, death and destruction, woe, and bad for business too, and all for what...?
You wish to speak of tea, perhaps? Burnham ventured.
Tea? O no, no sir, what I mean is, sir, well—
He looked around again.
Counterfeits! he hissed, leaning closer yet.
He threw his hands in the air, frayed lace flapping at his wrists.
Bad bills! Clipped coins! If the times wasn’t troubled enough already, what with armies traipsing up and down, and worse; vagabonds and brigands and riffraff and gangs—didst hear the howling of that dog in the night? a fearful omen!—all honest upstanding tradesmen cut off from the markets, O ruined—
If you wish to ask something of us, pray do so, Burnham said. And soon.
Well, sir, you see, sir, I fear, sir...
Davitts fretted his hands.
Even the most upstanding citizen may sometimes fall, quite innocently, into error, Burnham said.
We would be most happy to oblige however we can, Crosby said.
Well, you see, our Caroline, she said that the gentleman—
He nodded at Crosby.
—had remarked on one such, when she mentioned it to him.
Crosby looked at him blankly.
The stable-boy’s dollar, Davitts added. A counterfeit!
Let me see it, Crosby said.
Davitts pulled a crumpled and dirtied bill from his waistcoat pocket.
A dollar, sir, a Continental, sir, he said, or so I believed when I accepted it, much against my will...
Crosby smoothed it flat on the table, placed another note from his own pocketbook next to it, glanced between them. His gnaw-nailed index tapped the paper.
See you here, he said, the middle bar of the E is whole but on the genuine note—
His finger stabbed at the other paper.
It is broken, you see? And also, the sage leaf, on the false note the stem is missing. There are more signs, but these two suffice.
Crosby folded both notes, pocketed one and handed the other to Davitts, who rubbed it worriedly and held it up to the light.
O, O, what shall I do, what shall I do?
Burn it, Burnham said.
But—but I have already paid accounts—to the butcher—and—
Retrieve them all, and burn them, Crosby said.
Tis death to counterfeit, Burnham said, and the stocks to pass them.
And branding and cropping, Crosby added. Most likely.
O dear, O dear, but I cannot, cannot...
Will you lose your ears to keep a dollar?
Davitts bobbed up and down for a moment, indecisive, then scuttled back into the dim reaches of the back of the house.
Crosby took the bad note from his pocket again. He placed a glass half-sphere on it and peered through, sliding the glass back and forth across the paper, humming softly.
This note cannot be from our acquaintance’s cargo: far too crude for British work. And the paper is too thick. He is toying with us.
Do you suppose Master Davitts will take our advice to heart and burn his now genuine Congress-note? Burnham asked.
He will give it back to the stableboy, whom he snatched it from, and not a whisper of burning or counterfeits shall pass his pious lips. As for ourselves, the road beckons!
Low slope folded upon slope shelved green, like pleated taffeta, to meet sky milky with haze; range after range, blue and bluer, lost to the horizon. Westward, slices of river, like beaten silver, glinted through gaps as the road turned and rose. After crossing Sparta Brook, north of Ossining (“a stony place”), the Post Road turns north, away from the North River, also called Hudson’s River, to find a crossing over the Croton River; approaches the shore again to get around Hessian Hill; swings east to pass between the many ponds on Furnace Brook; returns to the great river finally near Peekskill.
Crosby and Burnham’s horses jogged along at a healthy trot for about an hour before they caught sight of Doctor Hedges’s wagon rounding a far curve. They stopped and waited till it was out of sight.
I have been reflecting, Burnham remarked—
—been reflecting on the difference between counterfeit and genuine notes—
Have I not described all the minutest differences between them?
No, not how to distinguish them, but how they differ in truth—
The one is real! The other not!
Are they not both real? Can I not inspect them both equally, finger and pinch them, smell them indeed, and, most important, spend them, the one sort just as well as the other?
To spend the one is a civic virtue, to pass the other a capital crime. What more need you know?
But you have remarked yourself, of the difficulty of detecting these new British forgeries that we are in chase of.
All the more reason to suppress them.
And so reduce the amount of money in general circulation. But all the merchants complain of business lost for lack of money to conduct it in. If both buyer and seller believe the paper passed between them be fair, what difference to them are all your certain marks and signs?
Because the genuine notes are backed by the faith and gold of the Continental Congress, but the false ones only embarrass that faith and deplete that gold, which is the enemy’s intent.
One says, I shall offer you this paper for those silver pennies, or so many paper bills printed with different numbers for those gold sovereigns. Because a slip of paper will fit in my pocket when a heap of silver or gold will not. And all His Majesty’s coffers stocked full of His Majesty’s gold and silver so that His Majesty’s armies might be sailed across the ocean—is there so much silver in the world? So much gold? And does it matter if there is not?
Burnham worked thumb and forefinger between scalp and peruke, an elegant, dandyish item curled fore and aft. A wriggle, a pinch, a satisfying crunch. He withdrew the fingers and examined the blooded tips.
Fleas, he said.
It is difficult to conceive, Crosby commented, how one could have expected otherwise.
He wore his own hair, coppery-red under the indifferently applied powder, but he scratched his head vigorously.
Just to hear mention of them makes me itch, bless you.
He clucked his tongue and kneed his horse, which shook its head and snorted, started off again at a gentle walk. He sat the saddle upright, whip-thin, lean as a dog, and with something of a dog’s hungry look in his eye.
Crosby said that it seemed a fit time to rehearse their practice of the detection and defeat of conspiracies, beginning with stage the first. Burnham replied that this was ingratiation, meaning to render oneself easy and agreeable, so as to command favor. The second was identification—
Burnham stopped, hand raised. Crosby reined in.
The bushes shook again.
Crosby slipped one hand under his coat. A sharp click. He nodded.
Ho there! Burnham called. You there!
A frantic rustling, then silence.
Come out! Burnham shouted. I can see you.
The bushes shook, branches parted, a ragged soldier stumbled out, lacing his falls. A root snared his foot, he staggered towards the ditch where a poor excuse for a stream trickled along. Burnham leaned over and caught a strap of his pack, his horse snorted and stamped and sidestepped, the soldier dangled for a second, pulled back and straightened. He looked up at Burnham.
Whoah whoah, well now, Burnham said. What have we here?
Who’re you? the soldier retorted. You’ve an ugly phiz!
Only a kind fellow who has just now prevented your falling face-down in the muck, Burnham said.
Well, I thank you for that then.
He stamped mud off his soles.
Sir, he added.
A man of the Connecticut Line, if I mistake not the device, Crosby said.
Startled, the soldier whirled round to face him, raised his eyebrows.
Eh, don’t I know you? he asked Crosby.
Seen you somewhere before, I have.
No, Crosby repeated. Not I.
The soldier squinted at him, then shrugged and turned away.
Why are you not with your regiment, soldier? What’s your name? Burnham asked.
Waklee, Thomas B., if you must know, sir, private in Captain Fitch’s company, sir, of Colonel Sumner’s regiment, that’s to say the fourth regiment, of the Connecticut Line, as he says, sir, Continental Army, and upon official business, by your leave, sir! And I might very well ask the same!
Abram Bell, Burnham said. Your servant.
John Smith, Crosby said.
Kind regards, pleased to make acquaintance, et cet’ra, Burnham said.
Waklee hitched his pack up.
I’ll just be on my way.
He retrieved his hat from the ditch, shook it off, clapped it to his head, and trudged off northwards. Burnham looked to Crosby, who shrugged. They urged the horses forward.
Waklee glared back at them with a scowl.
Tis a lonely road and a long one and no mistake, Burnham remarked.
I imagine that we shall meet none but vagrants and villains, Crosby said, cowboys and skinners, so I hear, and neither friends of no one.
Tis a dangerous time, no doubt of it, and makes honest travelers wish for friendly company, Burnham said.
Little enough chance of that, Crosby said, considering the folk we’ve met with so far.
Waklee stopped in the road and let them come up to him.
Hail, fellow, well met, Crosby said. We go the same way, it seems.
So it seems, Waklee admitted.
Have you business in Peekskill?
Wonderful! As do we. Let us make good time then.
They all set off again at a walk neither brisk nor lazy.
What brings you on this your long and weary way? Burnham asked.
Of what sort?
Dispatches, no doubt, Crosby commented. The daily General Orders, in triplicate. Muster rolls, copies of same, copies of passes, tallies of those copied passes, receipts, index to the receipt book—all such tedious stuff that officers scribble scribble scribble at all the long day, do I not speak the truth?
Not the half of it, Waklee said.
Traipsing back and forth, hither and yon, with great bundles of papers.
That’s right. No end to the stuff.
He looked up, winked.
But I volunteered!
You don’t say! Burnham said. Whatever for? A love of callus and blister?
I’ve a sweetheart, he said. In Peekskill.
Why you young rogue! Crosby exclaimed. Has she a name?
Ann. Ann Smith.
And does Ann Ann Smith have a sweetheart as well?
That’s the question, aint it? Burnham said.
But Waklee held his silence.
I fear we have wounded the gallant, Crosby said.
No, never, surely, Burnham said. Never so ardent a heart did burn, et cet’ra, wouldn’t you say? And noble too.
Crosby fished in his coat pocket and produced a silver flask. He unscrewed the cap, saluted the sun, pressed the flask to his lips, and tossed back. He smacked his lips.
He offered the flask to Waklee, who gurgled a slug, another, recapped the flask, frowned at the engraved monogram, and handed it back.
You’re a right enough trump after all, he said.
That’s the spirit, Burnham said. Never admit impediment!
Despite appearances—hats shed, coats unbuttoned, handkerchiefs knotted around foreheads, muskets planted butt-down on the dirt, like so many walking sticks, or aslant one shoulder—the soldiers blocking the road meant business. Private Waklee waved cheerfully, called out—
Sergeant Wood! Sergeant Wood, sir!
—and scurried up to the soldier on horseback, who bent down to listen to him. Waklee kept pointing back down the road at Crosby and Burnham.
Who traded glances. But they could hardly turn back now. And Doctor Hedges’s wagon must have already passed through this checkpoint. They let the horses amble towards the squad.
At an order from Wood, the men formed up in a line, two deep, across the road.
Halt! Sergeant Wood shouted.
Crosby started patting his pockets.
Halt! Sergeant Wood shouted again.
The blockade bristled with bayonets.
Reins released, Crosby’s horse stopped and shook his head. Burnham came up behind him.
Make a run for it? he hissed.
Don’t be silly. Remember that you are an American soldier posing as a tory who pretends to be a patriot—let us not confuse our parts further. Ah!
Crosby pulled a bundle of papers from his pocket and flourished it.
Please to examine our passes sir! he called. Our passes and all such matters in good order!
Crosby took up the reins again, patted the horse’s flank. He stopped, facing the captain, and handed the papers over. Wood shuffled through them, frowning and grunting and smacking his lips.
Smith, sir, John Smith, at your service.
Smith, Wood repeated. You?
Your faithful servant, sir, Abel Buell.
Waklee tugged at Wood’s sleeve. Wood looked down, Waklee whispered excitedly, and Wood handed him the papers.
Well then, Wood said, well then, Mister Smith, Mister Buell, you’ll be coming with us now.
Men! Form up!
He raised his arm. Musket butts smacked shoulders. The soldiers stamped, stepped, squared up around the three horses.
Are you detaining us? Crosby (or “Smith”) asked.
Now then, Wood said, now then. Yes.
Might I inquire as to why? Are the passes not in good order? Burnham asked.
Well then, Wood said. No. That is to say, not exactly.
Waklee waved the rolled-up papers at “Smith” like a baton.
I know you, he exclaimed, I know you! You’re that Harvey Birch what was rounded up with your fellow tories on the way to join the lower party and was stopped by our good patriots. I saw you with them. Then you escaped! But we’ve got you now, we’ve got you good now.
My dear sir, I fear you mistake me—
Ho, no I don’t! What’s that initial on your flask? It’s a B, ain’t it, H B, Harvey Birch!
I won the flask at cards, natural—B for Brookes, as I recall.
(He had won it, true enough; but that wasn’t an H but an A. And B for Burnham.)
And you, Waklee said to Burnham, you’ve an evil look, what with your face split in twain almost.
Burnham touched the crooked ridge that seamed his cheek and snarled his brow.
Now then, now then, the Commander-in-Chief will sort it all out neat to rights, Wood said. And I’ll be obliged to you for any guns or knives or suchlike as you might have about your persons.
His Excellency is at Peekskill? Burnham asked.
Don’t you pretend to be surprised, Waklee said, the neutral ground is teeming with you spies and tories and traitors.
Well then, well then, gentlemen, shall we, shall we now? No taste for violence, myself. Not at all.
Company! Wood cried to his men. Forward! March!
As prisons go, it was far from the worst. Evidently sometimes also used as a hospital, Saint John’s Chapel was of plain, dark, weather-stained clapboard, with two handsome windows flanking wide central doors; inside, whitewashed plaster, bare oak floor. A narrow stair gave access to a gallery along the west and north walls.
The soldiers herded them into a box pew and locked their chains to staples hammered deep into oak posts. They closed the pew door and went back to their guard post outside. Crosby (no, no: Smith) spat on the floor, rubbed his boot sole over some figures and lines chalked there. He lay down, clanking.
Rest, he said. Sleep if you can. We’ll be having a busy night of it.
He closed his eyes.
Well, it was a brave effort, Burnham said. I regret that we cannot now trace the bad bills to the gangs that utter them.
Stuff. We’re much more mobile than that hopped-up farm wagon.
We’re not very mobile at the moment.
We shall be so soon enough. Sleep now. You’ll thank me later.
O I thank you, Burnham said, indeed, I thank you for the bedbugs, and the fleas, and the muskets in my face, and a special thanks for these charming chains, I thank you for my hollow belly, and my aching back, and shall I go on?
But he was answered only with snores.
The westering sun dazzled the glass, cast grids across the floor that crept slowly along and up the wall, turned amber, turned crimson, shed violet fringes and dimmed. Clatter and stamp, Yessir!, tramp tramp: outside, the relief of the guard. A whiff of tobacco smoke. A curiously muffled silence, like snowfall, crowded close; twilight bluer and bluer. Then it was completely dark and Burnham sat straight up, startled by the sense of some animal pressed close—
What! Who’s there?
“Smith” (or Crosby) touched his shoulder.
Quiet. They can hear. Take this.
He slipped something cold into Burnham’s hand. Rough metal edges, sharp burrs: a file. Burnham set to work on his fetter.
I have reason to believe that the upper sash of the northeast window lacks a latch.
How can you know that? Burnham asked.
How can you find your way there in the dark?
I counted my steps as we came in. Be quick with that file.
A click and a creak as he opened the pew door; a faint snuffling, doubtless from dogs outside; then silence. Burnham fingered the notch he’d scored: about an eighth inch through the link. He set to rasping again. The file had no handle—no doubt to make it easier to conceal—and already his fingers were blistering. Freedom was never without its painful price.
Rattling overhead; a grunt; the complaint wood makes when forced against wood.
Hssst! Burnham warned. Someone’s coming.
A scratching overhead as if of claws on wood, a hoarse yelp of breath, and Smith (that is, “Crosby”) was back at the pew, quick as a terrier leaping upon its prey. The pew door clicked, chains clinked. Burnham slid the file into his stocking.
You move so quickly! he said. And quietly!
Thank you, Smith replied. A skill born of long practice, I recommend it to you.
The door flung open. Torchlight and lanterns. Smith and Burnham rose from their benches groggily, shielding their eyes from the brightness.
Well then. Up. Up with you now.
Ahem: Wood cleared his throat.
You are wanted, gentlemen, at Birdsall House.
Wood’s squad conducted them by torchlight across a field, down the road, into Peekskill village.
Hark! the guard there called.
Sergeant Wood, Wood called back, with prisoners.
Hull, the guard said.
Here, Wood replied.
Get on with you, Jeremiah, and your scoundrels too.
What, my men, then, or my prisoners? Wood asked.
The guard laughed.
They marched up to a brooding stone house—Dutch-built, all granite and hewn timbers, with a clutter of clapboard add-ons jutting left and right—illuminated by cressets at either end of the broad piazza and candles at most of the windows. Another guard halted them. They exchanged the countersigns, but this time the guard directed them to wait outside.
Two officers came out onto the piazza, one in a Major General’s full dress uniform and gleaming red high-heeled boots, holding himself ramrod straight, a spruce personage indeed; stiff waistcoat buttoned to an unwilted cravat. He settled his hat just so on his head, stroked the plumes that jutted from it, saluted. The other officer was older, a trifle stooped, weary-eyed, his cuffs unbuttoned, his breeches wrinkled and hose saggy at the ankles, but graceful of stride, as if stepping out onto the dancing-floor of some gentleman’s fête. He acknowledged the salute casually.
An orderly brought a horse up.
The Major General limped, as if his leg were wounded and ill-knit, or artificial, to the piazza’s edge, allowed the orderly to assist him to mount the saddle, kicked the horse’s flanks, and rode away.
The older officer glanced at the two prisoners, nodded at Sergeant Wood (who saluted), and returned inside.
Shortly, an adjutant instructed Wood to disperse his squad and accompany his prisoners inside. He brought them to a whitewashed, low-ceilinged room at the back of the house, two tiny windows high up on the chimney wall open to the night air. He locked Burnham and Smith’s fetters to heavy oaken benches backed up to either side of the inglenook, pushed the plank door shut, locked it, and plopped down on another chair, musket athwart his knees. Then they waited.
Who is it? Wood demanded.
And who might that be then?
Open the door.
Very unmilitary-like, Wood complained.
He stood, leaned his musket against the jamb, turned the key in the lock, opened the door a crack.
Ah, he said. Well then.
He swung the door wide. A servant—one of those bosomy, ruddy, plump Dutch girls so common thereabouts, hair yellow as virgin oakum—bustled in bearing a crowded tray.
And His Excellency’s compliments, she said, and the Sergeant will have missed his mess, and the prisoners too, and we all know men must eat betimes.
She set the tray down on the chair. A jug, cups, half a loaf, a chunk of cheese, a bowl of boiled greens.
Now then, Wood said, most grateful, most grateful.
The maid bobbed down, up; clutched her mobcap, straightened it.
Also! she said.
She dug in her apron pockets, pulled out a bundle of paper, a pen.
And as I’m told the prisoners ought to be about of writing down their confessions.
She crossed the room to hand over the writing materials to Burnham, leaned close.
Don’t drink none of that wine, she whispered.
She straightened, wiped her hands on her apron, and beamed at them.
Smith sat up straighter.
Pen mightier than the sword, eh? he said.
Forsuch! the maid replied. Forsuch. And put the tray out the door when you’ve done with it.
Wood relocked the door, regarded the tray, rubbed his hands together.
Pardon my manners, he said, but as there’s hardly enough for one here—
There are three cups, Smith said.
Why then so there are, so there are!
Wood filled a cup, drank it off, refilled it. He brought the other two cups over to his prisoners and splashed a mouthful into each.
I thank you, Burnham said, most gracious.
When Wood’s back was turned, Burnham held his palm flat over his cup and shook his head. Smith lifted his eyebrows but nodded.
Wood moved the tray to the floor and set to his supper, by no means neglecting the wine-jug.
Confession! Smith said. I hear it does a soul good.
Tis a most Biblical notion, Burnham agreed.
And yet I lack the means so to salve my aching conscience.
Perhaps the Sergeant could be of help?
Wood looked up, munching.
Sergeant, would you be so good? Smith asked.
He gestured as if writing. Burnham held up the paper and pen.
Don’t see the point of that, Wood said. No ink.
Even so, Smith replied. Most kind of you to assist. The twinge of sinful guilt and all that. Or is that guilty sin?
Wood harrumphed. He slurped more wine, swallowed, wiped his mouth, lumbered to his feet. Burnham handed him the pen and paper, and Wood carried them over to Smith, then shuffled back to his chair, leaning slightly to one side, and could it be that he was swaying a little? He tried to top up his wine, but the jug was empty. He wiped the bottom of the bowl with a sop. Belched.
Much obliged, Smith said.
But he just sat there, idly flicking the shaft of the pen with his thumbnail.
The heel of the loaf dropped from Wood’s hand onto the floor. He stared at it, then bent down to pick it up, missed, tried again, sent it skidding, bent farther, stretching to reach—and fell off the chair on his face. He grunted. He struggled to sit up, to turn over, then with a deep sigh gave in. In a minute, he was snoring.
Another knock on the door, quieter this time.
Yes, my dear, it’s time, Smith said.
The key rattled in the keyhole. A creased news-sheet slipped under the door; the key shivered, slipped forward an inch, another; tipped out, hung aslant; then clattered to the floor, and the paper whisked it under the door. The lock snicked. The door opened a little but smacked into Wood.
A soft thump, like a pillow being plumped up, the door quivered, and with a scrape and a creak it pushed Wood an inch or two.
(thump, another inch)
The door shuddered and pushed him a good half a foot this time; the maid squeezed through the gap, panting a little. She looked down at Wood as she brushed off her skirts. Then she knelt down next to him and fished another key from his pocket, and opened the locks that bound the prisoners to their chairs. Smith pocketed the pen.
Follow me, the maid said, and don’t you speak. And hold fast by them ugly things, that they don’t make no noise neither.
She returned the shackles key to Wood’s pocket; closed the door and relocked it. She set this key on the floor and gave it a sharp kick under the door.
Smith and Burnham followed her down the servants’ passage that ran along the back of the house, hugging their chains close, through a cluttered pantry, up two steps to a shelf-lined room that smelt strongly of cheese, and squeezed out through a whimsical little door probably meant for barrels or the like.
They were in the kitchen garden, in the lucid night, lambent moonlight flooding field, forest, mountain.
Burnham turned to their rescuer.
But how have you—
She smiled and raised one hand.
Doctor Miller’s opiates are wonderful powerful when mixed with wine or spirits, she said.
She tugged off her mobcap—
Now, fly for your lives!
—which pulled her hair askew.
The sentinel’ll be on his feet when the relief come, you’ve not a moment to lose.
She doffed the wig as well, shaved pate silvery in the moonlight.
I’ll be back in uniform and at my post by when the alarm is given.
The plump bosom was balled-up rags, which served also to rub off powder and rouge.
Not another word—
He stripped off the bodice and shed the skirts.
His Excellency is your protector. Fly! Fly!—
And he scuttled, naked, into the house.
First they ran, then they walked. Then they ran some more. At last, winded, they lay in a little hollow against the dirt-clotted roots of a toppled tree. There was plenty of moonlight to set to work with the file again.
Smith looked up from prying at the fetter’s hasp.
I doubt it. The General has enough on his hands persuading Sir Henry Clinton to return to New-York City and stay there.
He picked up a rock and hammered it on iron. Again.
Mind my ankle bone, Burnham said.
Smith struck it again.
The fetter fell open. Burnham rubbed his foot. Smith pushed the shackles under the root-ball, stuffed handfuls of leaves into the space.
Well, he said, brushing dirt off his hands. We’d best see to what His Excellency has given us.
Smith pulled out the serving-maid’s pen. He held it out in mock en-garde posture, thrust it at air.
Tis far too late, Burnham said, for confession, I fear we are in it now up to our necks.
Smith chuckled and bent the pen in half. The slit he’d been worrying with his thumbnail gaped open. He held his other palm out and rapped the pen against it. A little paper worm fell out. He threw the pen away and untwisted the paper—a strip marked all over with inked lines, swoops, dots.
He peered at it in the moonlight, frowned. Turned it over, turned it upside-down, held it up to the light. Frowned harder.
There has been some mistake, he said. This is not our usual cipher, not even the pigpen His Excellency sometimes uses when hurried.
He handed the strip to Burnham.
Burnham squinted at it. Squiggles blurred in the dim light. He turned the paper right side up:
Γεντλεμεν, φιρστ, τω σαφετι ἁρμινγ νονε; 2δ, φολλω κουντερφειτερς το δεστινατιον, 3δ το Αλβανι, Βριτιθ σεκταριες αρε δισαρμινγ θε μιλιτιας, ιτ ις σαιδ, σεεκ ινφορματιον. Ιφ μθστ σεπαρατε, Σμιθ εαστ τω Κονν, Βελλ νορθ ρεπορτ Γενεραλ Σχυιλερ. ΓEΩ ΥΥΑΣἹΝΓΤΟΝ Αυγτ 3δ 80
I do not believe the General intends any great perplexity, Burnham said. Tis but English writ in the Greek letter, with some few pressed into unorthodox service.
Hmm, is it? I’m no scholar; tis all Greek to me. What does it say?
It lacks his usual complaisance and elegancies but then as I suppose he had not much room.
No, nor time. Come, what does it say? Even this old dog may learn new tricks.
We’re to Albany, Burnham said. But the counterfeiting gang! How are we to discover them now?
Let us first remain alive, Smith said, and then pursue our best course.
Yes, Burnham said. Well, and the General says—
Smith sliced the air with his hand.
Shh! What’s that? he whispered.
Distant voices, tramp of boots, lantern light between trees.
Smith and Burnham took off at a run.
A bugle, a drum.
They ran faster.
One difficulty with running for your life was that you couldn’t hear your pursuit. The young, tow-haired private was as startled as they were when they all broke into the same clearing, bathed in moonlight: stood frozen for a moment.
The private shouldered his gun.
Halt! he cried.
O! No! Not again, Smith muttered.
Smith looked left and right, dove under a bush, shadows devouring his shape. Burnham squatted, scuttled towards the shelter of a tree, but the private swiveled towards him, pointed the rifle; it was as if Burnham could gaze straight down the barrel at the ball lodged there. He raised his arms in surrender—
A crash. The private’s head jerked round, his rifle too. Shadows leapt out of the trees onto the private’s back, who screamed.
Burnham jumped to his feet, ran.
A shot. A battering of wings rushed up, squawks and chirps and caws. A dog howled.
Another shout, another shot, Burnham blundered into brambles, stepped false, both legs buckled, his own weight felled him, he skidded down the slope;—
On his back for a second, as saplings lashed him, looking straight up into the moon—how cold its indifference! how beautiful its coldness!—when black loomed over it, fell, struck him a blow like a hay bale falling out the loft onto him as a boy, knocking the air clean out of him, and hairy, with hot breath stinking like a dog’s, clasping him round the neck as they tumbled heels, head, arms thrashing—; fetched into a ravine, flailing for purchase, rocks, dirt, trees and roots and thorns—and a granite boulder, rounded as a giant’s skull, moss-crowned, filled all of Burnham’s sight, and.
Birds! The worst trouble with sleeping rough isn’t the insects and creeping things, nor the uneasy sense of vulnerability, nor even the dew. It’s the confounded birds and their confounded racket.
Burnham rubbed his eyes and sat up.
A hammer battered his skull, like woozy gong-strokes, in the dim gray dawn light, the landscape wavering as if underwater. Burnham groaned, palmed his forehead. No blood. He took a deep breath, let it out slow. The world steadied.
That crimson shirt sleeve was not his own. He turned carefully. Smith lay splayed against him, gory as a battlefield corpse, eyes shut. Burnham couldn’t decide if Smith’s chest was rising and falling, shallowly, or if his own bleary eyesight made it seem so.
He untangled their limbs and pressed an ear against Smith’s shirt. Alive, yes, the soul not yet fled his body; Burnham clasped him with both arms. Then he climbed to his feet like a broken straw man.
Burnham tramped (slowly, unsteadily) down to the little stream that gushed the gully’s bottom—he’d call it a brook but Smith would probably insist it was a burn—same difference—and rested at its verge for a minute. He scooped up water in his hands and splashed his scar-seamed face. Pink rivulets dribbled off his chin. He splashed his head until the water ran clear, rinsed his poor wig free of clotted blood, and brushed at his coat and breeches with a pinecone. This last operation was wholly unsuccessful.
Then he drank his fill and carried more, in his hat, up to Smith.
A sopping handkerchief wiping Smith’s face failed to wake him. A bad sign. Burnham dribbled a little more water between Smith’s lips, then opened his shirt and mopped blood from his side. A puckered gouge still seeped red. Bad, bad. But where does one find a barber-chirurgeon in the wilderness? An apothecary? Or a road even? Not that the roads were safe for them. Yet—
Deep in his belly, a clenched fist.
Smith’s eyelids fluttered. He moaned.
Dear friend! Burnham urged, awake, awake—
Smith’s eyes slid open, like blue sky as fog lifts, in his slack face.
Ah... my dear... forgive me, he sighed and was gone again.
But still he breathed. Burnham clapped his battered wig to his head, the sodden hat, brushed twigs and dirt from off his coat, fingered the rips in his stockings, and sighed.
He turned Smith onto his belly, hooked his elbows under Smith’s arms, and hoisted him onto his shoulders, staggered, got the weight balanced. O how he yearned for breakfast, yesterday’s greasy slop would be a very feast. Patriot tea, even!
Shaking his head, belly growling, he picked his way up the rocky slope.
4th August (Burnham’s journal, if he were so foolish as to compose and carry such a thing, might begin): Hot and horrible and hopeless. The air already a soup, scarce an hour after daybreak, and the road as empty as my soul—and to think that on this very date, in East Hartford, Connecticut, was birthed a squalling babe who was myself! Smith feverish, myself peckish and snappish, our mission a shambles, what with us both hunted men, and though there be no sight of the army there is also no sight of our prey who will have long since absconded beyond the American lines. And whither have they dispatched their trove of forgeries? Aye, tis the question—but we must heed His Excellency’s instructions.
A black dot on the horizon (not far away, among these hills) at the foot of a feather of dust, like an admiration-point. Then gone, behind another hill.
Burnham waved his hat to shoo the flies from Smith’s face.
Smith’s lips mumbled, drooped. His eyes active under the lids. Was he sleeping—dreaming?
And that journal might well continue: The student is now made the master, not by desert, nor ability, nor even probationary state, but by merest happenstance; ἁνερρίφθω κύβος, as they say, or, in the vernacular tongue, let us ford that river as we come to it. Tis a war to the end.
The horsecar, when at last it hove round the curve of the dusty road, was as unprepossessing as any Burnham had ever seen: a piebald jade, harness creaking and jangling, plodded along between weather-gray poles; the driver slumped in his seat on the box, under a broad-brimmed hat, as if asleep, except for the rhythmic flicking of the lash-end of his whip; the cart’s body bearing a few peeling licks of its once gay coloring, blue below and red above; frowzy canvas knotted down over the load with a much-bended and -mended rope. (Not that Burnham was such an impressive sight himself—and Smith much the less.)
Burnham waved at the driver.
Hail, good fellow! he called out.
The driver took no notice, the cart rocked from rut to rut.
Burnham stood and waved his hat.
I beg your aid, sir, a sorry traveler, he called.
The driver looked neither left nor right, the cart wheels grumbled on dust.
Burnham strode to the middle of the road and straddled it, hands on hips. The cart creaked to a halt in front of him. The sun passed behind a cloud.
Good tinker, Burnham said, or peddler, or what-you-be, we, my companion here and I, were overtaken by darkness and set upon by brigands, cowboys or skinners as it may be, vicious in either case, who robbed us of all but the clothes upon our backs. I beg your aid! Only so far as the next town or homestead! I pledge to pay howsoever I can!
The driver twitched his buggy-whip. The horse stamped, stood.
Burnham said, He has lost much blood, I fear for his life.
The horse, goaded by a fly, shook its head and snorted.
Burnham said, I harbor great love for the taciturn Yankee, but surely this is carrying it too high!
The driver tilted his head up slowly, squinted at Burnham from under the straw hat, face dark as oiled ebony.
He said: Get in.
Under the horsecar’s canvas covering was a wonderful congeries of miscellaneous mismatched goods—tin pots, tin pans, tin water-pails, and tin dippers; tin bowls, cups, plates, mugs, platters; tin canisters, all sizes, from peppercorn-small to cornflour-large; tin whistles, tin kettles, tin colanders, tin nutmeg graters; tin candlesticks, -molds, -stands, -sconces, and -snuffers;—
What’s this? Burnham asked, no tin shoes?
He pushed aside the bulkier items and padded the space with a folded blanket. Smith breathed a pitiful groan when Burnham hoisted him up, laid him down like settling a babe in crib, touched the back of his hand to Smith’s brow. Burning. O bad, bad. He must come under a doctor’s care soon, or die.
The driver set the cart in motion almost before Burnham could mount up next to him on the box. Burnham pushed his hat forward, to shield his eyes from the sun, and leant back. They were in motion at last, and not just shank’s-mare but an actual mare, albeit a poor one. Perhaps further improvements in their fortunes might imminently be expected.
Burnham grunted at the cart’s wheels jolting into a rut. He turned round to check on Smith. Waxen-faced, gore-mottled. Burnham had never before noticed how hairy Smith’s wrist was. His pulse was thready.
Have you a name? he asked the driver.
The driver let the cart creak along for a while.
Steele, he said.
He flicked his buggy-whip.
Murphy Steele, he added.
Please to meet, Burnham said. Absalom Babcock, your faithful, at your service, et cet’ra. And John Smith, if you please, the vacillating and inconclusive corpse in the back.
Murphy cleared his throat but said nothing.
Whither do we wander on so fine a summer’s day, then? Burnham asked.
Northwards, I presume, for else you are on the wrong road.
So far as Albany, by chance?
After a stop for water at a freshet tumbling down a broken rock face near the burnt-out remnants of Continental Village, Burnham stumbled back to the cart and clambered in next to Smith. Tinware makes but a poor pallet, yet one untalkative body’s as boon a companion as the next one.
Joe-Pye weed, as heavy-headed as a sleepy child, alternated with straight-stemmed goldenrod, and the hills to the east were smoothly rounded as though molded in a tea cup and turned out. It was not wholly impossible that Burnham fell asleep. Gradually, over the rumble of the road, the soprano tinking of tinware, and the creaking of the cart’s timbers as it rocked to and fro, he grew aware of a muttering voice, like a droning fly, roving in and out of his hearing. He rolled onto his side, raised himself on one elbow.
Smith’s face was drawn and haggard, with a beak of a nose and a remarkable growth of beard that reached almost to his eyes, which twitched and flicked beneath closed lids. Burnham felt for and grasped his hand. The long nails rasped his palm. He was hot as a banked oven. One long tooth, a canine, snagged at his beard as his lips moved fitfully, slack then taut. Burnham wiped Smith’s mouth with his sleeve.
And O he stood there, Smith was saying, and stared—
Who? Burnham asked, who was standing there? And where?
O worthy preceptor of mine, Smith was saying, beholding me manacled, dragged to prison, charged with treason...
Treason! Burnham repeated.
And he gazed as if unwilling to believe his senses and he seized me by the hand and exclaimed, O Harvey Birch!
Did you use that name then, Burnham asked, after all?
—It cannot be possible?—Explain this horrid mystery?—How is it that I see you here?
O friend, my dear friend, Burnham said, I am here, still here with you.
And I cast my eyes on the ground, saying, you see me as I am, I have no explanation, and he: Is it possible, you, a traitor? You? A prisoner?
Burnham clasped Smith’s hand, hot, dry, and shivering, and said, Wake, wake from this terrible dream.
O were it not so, and who shall tell my poor old father this, the news will break his heart...
Burnham raised the hand to his lips, kissed it.
Twas too late to recede, I had put my hand to the plough, I dared not look back, O beg, beg his mercy, farewell...
Can love of country, Burnham asked, burn so hot it consumes that of a father for his son? Of brother for brother? Of friend and friend?
O! Smith whispered, what a price, what a cost.
What then am I, Burnham asked, to you?
Smith’s eyelids flapped like a butterfly in a gale. Then snapped open. He fixed Burnham with a burning gaze and said: Count the five stages in the building up of a student by his teacher: they are, firstly, endearment (and O my dear, how dear you are to me), the foundation; secondly, resistance; thirdly, emulation, or discipleship, and this is the longest, just as the next is the most crucial: rebellion. And then the last, independence. Go. Go on, to Albany.
He groaned. His eyes fluttered shut.
Burnham turned restlessly on the blanket. And found his leg wedged in a gap opened between cans and cart-side. He pushed up with his elbow, to get some leverage for his hips. A rut lurched the cart and his leg wedged in farther, hips too, and his shoulder wrenched. Another pitch and he sank further. Why, it was a very quake-mire of unsold merchandise!
But a peculiarly quadrilateral quake-mire, like roof tiles stacked all asway. Burnham slipped a hand down, groped, grasped a rectangle, and pulled it up—a bundle of paper. A bundle of—of—! He scrabbled in the depths again. There must be—this must be—
If the notes are so fine that they pass without question, even under the scrutiny of the Treasurer himself, then what difference does it make except to the two of us—or more precisely our two pocketbooks? Or, more to the point, mine? Under the canvas, Burnham tugged out two bundles, pocketed them; stuffed two more into his boots; into Smith’s boots; and two more, why not?
O father, father, Smith was mumbling again, I am but the stalking-horse of freedom’s ingrates...
Burnham wiped his brow, touched his burning lips.
The cart had stopped. Burnham struggled, sat up. Another thump!: the buggy-whip’s shaft against the side-board, inches from Burnham’s face. The driver leaned round to face him.
He pointed to the weedy roadside.
Don’t make me go, I like it here, it’s so very interesting here, don’t let me go, Smith said as if breathing his last.
He twitched the blanket over his face, like Lazarus in his shroud.
Burnham rose to his knees, hoisted Smith up, and half-fell, half-staggered out of the cart with him, and stood in the roadway, swaying, as the cart creaked away.
TEMPLUM ÆSCULAPIO SACRUM
ELECTRICAL Anti-Consumptive, Anti-Convulsive MAGNETICAL Medicated Universal Family Christian PANACEA (Trade-Mark), The Famous NEAR EASTERN CURE Which Hath Wrought Wonders In BETHLEHEM AND JERUSALEM, Soddom & Gomorah
Boluses, Clysters, Cordials, Draughts, Dropps, Juleps, Sirrups, Tinctures, Vermifuges
THEATRUM ORBIS TERRARUM
A skew Conestoga by the lonesome wayside, mired up to its axles. A tall marquee of weather-drabbed canvas in the midst of a mown meadow, where two placid mares, tethered to a tree, snorted at the peddler’s cart lumbering away, then bent their necks back to the yellowing grass. Pennants and banners, faded and tattered, drooping in the sultry, listless air. At the marquee’s peak, a banderole that intermittently flaunted: The Old Wizzard.
Burnham reshouldered his burden and tramped across the field to the awning at the marquee’s entry. He shrilled the string of bells hung there. No response. He shook them again.
Ahoy! he called.
My friend is gravely ill, he called.
Burnham pushed past the entry’s hangings into still, dim, dust- and hay-scented, oven-hot air. A fat and stolid ginger tom raised his head, eyed Burnham and his burden, ambled away. Another, pied white and buff, hissed, backed away, spine arched and tail puffed, pole-stiff. Two more tabbies growled, eyes glaring green. More eyes glinted out of shadows under tables, chairs, bedsteads; between trunks stacked five and six high; behind walls of crates all higgledy-piggledy with dusty bottles, all sizes; and out of piles of books that towered higher yet.
He shooed cats (hiss! yowl!) and lay Smith in his blanket down on what was probably a rolled-up carpet.
Ahoy, he called again uncertainly, ahoy...
An arm emerged from a mound of cats, a bare foot, the back of a stuffed armchair, a head with wig askew, as cats scurried away; another arm, then shoulders blanched with wig powder like snow on a cemetery bust.
The arms lifted a cat high, brought it close to the face still half hidden under the wig—a vast and quaint full-bottomed one, ribbands all asnarl—which face planted a juicy kiss on its nose. Released, Figaro fled under a table. The others scattered.
My dear! Balance, Vademecum, Baguette! And not to forget little Newton burrowed here.
He excavated this cat and cradled it to his breast.
He startled, dropped the cat.
O! And who might you be?
A supplicant, sir, a mere supplicant of the Old Wizard, to seek his help, if I may, and my friend is dying.
And dearest little Vico.
This one, a tiny kitten, he plucked from within his wig.
Perhaps his life could yet be saved, with the aid of such a skillful apothecary as yourself...
Merp, Vico said.
The figure in the armchair fixed Burnham’s eyes with his own.
I beg your indulgence, he said, sir, for a moment, to explain a matter of some little moment. An apothecary forsooth.
He planted the wig squarely on his head, spread his arms wide to take in the whole of his bottle-cluttered, book-bedecked, cat-haunted lair—
I am a physician!
It says so right there. Medicina Doctorem. Latin, don’t you know, don’t read the jargon myself. On my diploma, glorious things, obvious, diplomas, and costly too, both in years and wealth—pray to overlook the coffee stains—youthful clumsiness—Medicinae Doctor, Doctor of medicine, your servant, Doctor Lang Gordon. They called me Long Gordon, on account of my height, always nose-deep in some mouldy tome under the feeble light of a guttering wick as the dawn light pales the dusty window panes. Did I mention the cost to my health? Edinburgh. St Andrews, specifically. In absentia, natural, I never having yet braved the great briny. No matter. Long ago.
He plucked at the blankets on his lap, as if looking for more cats hidden there.
I beg your pardon, Burnham said, and bowed as floridly as ever he had. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Doctor Master Gordon Esquire Sir. Honored, et cet’ra. But perhaps I might direct your attention to my friend, who is injured...
Two cats, sniffing at Smith, both reared back, hissing.
I suppose you wish me to bleed him, Doctor Gordon said.
If you perceive the necessity—
O tis always bleed this, bleed that. Fever? Bleed em! Chills? Bleed em! Anorexia? Bleed em! Gluttony? Bleed em! Is there some magic in the lancet’s cut that only blood thus let is therapeutic? So sayeth the great Benjamin Rush at least. Never mind.
He glanced over at the blanket bloodily enwrapping Smith.
But no, not at all, I reckon that one has surrendered blood enough. What he needs is magnetical traction. Can we misdoubt? No, not at all. Tis quite clear. Here, I think—
He pointed to his own temples.
His left hand vaguely indicated some region roundabouts his kidneys.
As the redoubtable Burton sayeth, our body is like a clock, if one wheel be amiss, all the rest is disordered, the whole fabric suffers, with such admirable art and harmony is a man composed, such excellent proportion. Bodies indeed!
And yet, Burnham ventured, our patient now lies dying. A physic, a drop, a powder, a pill... for the fever...
O yes, indeed, compound some pills and cure what ails us. Ha! James’s Powder—which is but antimony dissolved in aqua fortis. Norris’s Drops—which is but antimony again. Bateman’s Drops—I beg your pardon, sir, Doctor Bateman’s Pectoral Drops—which is but opium and camphor. Is there never an end to these these nostrums, these poisons? Get down.
He pushed away the rangy black cat that had just leapt onto his lap and levered himself up out of the chair.
What was I saying?
But if I might beg you to examine the patient... a wound, a gun-shot wound... from his own gun, mind, a most grievous accident...
Yes yes, I have it. Or eureka, as one is sagely advised to say at such moments. Now where did I read that? Never mind. An amputation should prove most advantageous! A beautiful operation, you know, the amputation. Beautiful.
For a chest wound? Burnham asked. Surely not.
Surely not, Doctor Gordon repeated. O surely not!
He shuffled barefoot to a many-drawered cabinet and rummaged.
Agaric of oak, he muttered, cinnamon quills—how now my lovely—flowers of sulphur, Jesuit’s bark...
...oil of almonds, peppermint water, and, ah, here we are, Perkins’s Metallic Tractors!
He tossed the little box to Burnham.
But these proved of no use, no use at all. Burnham kept on stroking the two rods, one silvery, the other golden, and flat on one side, across and down Smith’s torso, just as the Doctor had instructed. Nothing; only Smith’s labored, crackling breath.
What result? Doctor Gordon asked.
Burnham, unable to speak, shook his head.
Yet they cost twelve pound the pair! But perhaps more heroical measures are needful. Coffee?
Doctor Gordon proffered a China-ware cup, which clattered in his unsteady grip.
None of that foul liberty tea here but the pure Jamaican—very difficult of acquisition during the present unpleasantries—obvious—but fit to make the most dour Saturnian chirk as a kitten.
Double for me then. Now what’s that? Turn your face to the light.
Doctor Gordon grasped Burnham’s chin and peered closely.
Cicatrix. Hypertrophic too. Stitched with catgut, I suppose? Poor work, poor work.Nothing like fine silken thread for the face, I always say. Bullet rebounded from the zygomatic, hmm?. Never mind. To business! We shall attempt the medical galvanic!
This proved to be a prodigiously large Leyden-jar, chained to an apparatus like an upset spinning-wheel, ornamented with toothed brass wheels, glass rods, and a large India-rubber cylinder.
The electrical fluid, Doctor Gordon said, according to its administration, is sedative, stimulant, or deobstruent, hence its application to contrary diseases. I have myself applied it to palsies, rheumatisms, inflammations, muscular contractions, amaurosis, chilblains, tumours, sprains, and other accidents. Application to the gun-shot wound will make a most edifying experiment.
The machine creaked and crackled as he spun it up.
You will please to place the patient upon the electrical bed.
He gestured to a wooden platform supported on glass legs. Burnham lifted Smith, who moaned—so he was still alive—and set him down as gently as he was able. Burnham squeezed his hand, hot and dry, furred with hair to the knuckles, nails ragged as claws; tucked it back under the blanket.
Doctor Gordon wheeled the mechanism to the bed.
And now, he said, the cephalic snuff!
He brandished a small bellows of black leather.
Burnham frowned, shook his head.
Ta, Doctor Gordon said, tis the dried leaves of asarabacca, with a drachm of nutmeg. Most healthful and stimulative. Obvious. O never mind.
The doctor dropped the bellows (a green puff emerged) then prodded at Smith with a pair of brass-ball-tipped glass rods. The discharge flashed and crackled. Smith yelped piteously. The doctor stepped back and trod on the bellows; a green cloud enveloped him. The rods sparked again. A stink, like meat and spice and hot oil, sent Burnham into a fit of coughing. Another electric sizzle.
Sir, you jape me, sir, this is a dog!
Doctor Gordon had pulled back Smith’s blanket. He prodded again.
A dead dog.
Eyes flooded, Burnham leaned over the table.
Muzzle agape, the dog exhaled a great sigh, shuddered all over, lolled its tongue out, and slobbered Burnham’s face; leapt to its feet, raised its muzzle to the tent’s peak, and howled!
Burnham’s heart was a prisoner battering his cell’s bars. Smith’s unbroken shackle! What fell from the trees! Smith’s face covered in—!
My God! Doctor Gordon exclaimed. The animal resurrection! O sublime mystery! What a marvel, what a wonder have I wrought! I must write up some notes to send to the international journals.
In his imaginary journal, Burnham might have concluded that day’s entry: The grave’s a private but distempered place, a foul mouth stuffed full with rot and dirt, where all lies are finally extinguished, and truth too—and poor Smith was denied even so much as that. How disnatural (heteroclite and theriomorphic!) an end for a kind man, and a good friend.
But Burnham had his instructions. To Albany, then. Where British sectaries were said to be disarming the militias, and where he might receive better or at least further instructions. And how to get there? On foot, for now; in saddle, if possible; by cart or coach, if failing that; or on hands and knees, if he must.
The moon, two days past full, shed light enough, through quick-scudding clouds, to follow the road northwards. In these parts, the land, mostly fallowed fields, rose steeply to either hand, backed by heavy woods rising into pine forest, with nary a flicker of light from farmhouse or friendly tavern. A good place for an ambuscade.
This stretch of the Post Road, like so many of the region, was once an Indian trail. Long, long ago, or so the story’s told, even before the mighty Manitou ruled, a great race as tall as the tallest forest trees lived here, dining on roots and leaves and the great water-rats that dwelt in houses built of mud and sticks in the lake that then filled all the north country. These rats were fierce fighters, and dangerous even to the giants when bathing in the water. There came a time when a swarm of these rats surprised a group of the giants and killed them all. Then a great council was called to decide on a means of revenge, but the giants could not swim and boats were unknown. A daughter of the tribe suggested breaking down the barrier that held back the water, thus putting the water-rats helpless on dry land. Soon all were at work at the narrowest spot with such rough tools as they could command, until a small stream began to work through, which washed out the earth and smaller stones, and became a flood thundering down the lower valley. In a few days the lake was drained and the water-rats exterminated, but their houses remain even today. The present Fishkill Mountain was their long-house, gradually solidified through the ages, and the little conical hills the playhouses of the baby rats.
The road came out into the open again where the mountain drops quickly to the plain, the wrinkled course of the Vis Kill, as the Dutchmen christened it, or Fish Creek, silvery under the moon. A dim red eye winked through undergrowth: a camp-fire, as must be. Foe or friend? Had Burnham any friends? But who was he to be over-fastidious in whom to nominate a friend? The good goddess Fortuna had not strewn his path today with the riches of choice. And indeed it proved to be none other than his old acquaintance, that taciturn peddler who had carried them to Doctor Gordon’s tent. He had parked the cart against the wind and now huddled close to the dying embers.
He dead? the peddler asked.
Perhaps, Burnham said.
Possibly, Burnham said.
I don’t know, Burnham said.
Yes, Burnham said.
Ah, the peddler said.
He pressed a wadded rag into Burnham’s hand.
Wiper, he added.
That your dog? he asked after a minute.
Dog? What dog? Burnham said.
The man turned away and threw a rock into the darkness: a yelp and a scuffling. After a while, he handed Burnham a tin plate, mounded with steaming spoonfuls.
Mess of pease, he said. Haint ate for days, have you?
Burnham could only grunt affirmatively. A feast, a feast, the most welcome occasion to befall him all day.
Daybreak was opening the bluest eye upon the earth. What wonder! What beauty! For a while, Burnham tarried, as if outside himself, in the rapidly paling dawn. And yet does duty in its dulcet tones ever call to us; onwards, upwards. He groaned; his body was one whole bruise, soles to skull, and everything in between. He rolled onto his side and set off a musical cascade of tinkling tinware. Handles poked him; edges pinched him. He sat up.
The bundle that had pillowed his head rolled open: green wool, rather fine, brass buttons, black ribbands, and embroidered crookedly inside the collar: MURFY STELE. Burnham glimpsed a regimental badge, berty To Sl, and quickly refolded the coat and tucked it away under the cargo. He clambered out of the cart. Yawned. Stretched. Squatted behind a tree and satisfied nature’s urgings.
His benefactor had rekindled last night’s fire, a (tin, of course) kettle on a trammel above it already steaming.
Tis dangerous, Burnham said, to wander the wilds alone, and all the more so for a runaway—
Haint a slave. Free! Run from Carolina, haint I, to the British ships where the Sir General Clinton...
Sergeant Steele, to you.
Sergeant! Of the British army! And behind the American lines, and out of uniform. That’s death—desertion and espionage and concealment—death three times over!
Haint no white man believe me. You believe me?
Yes, Sergeant Murphy Steele of the Black Company of Pioneers, late of New-York City, I believe you.
But if any soldiers of the upper party should come upon you—
They gone west, over the river.
You are better informed than I, then.
But the question is, what to do with you?
Don’t need doing with.
No, I don’t suppose you do, Sergeant Steele.
Got a mission—
—a holy mission, to the General Washington.
Steele eyed him, as if assessing how this revelation went over. Burnham nodded slowly.
Bout a fortnight ago, Steele continued, at noon in the barracks in Water Street, and I hear a voice like a man’s but haint nobody there, and Murphy, it say, Murphy Steele, you tell the Sir Henry Clinton to send word to the General Washington that he must render himself and his troops, and if he don’t the wrath of God fall upon them and he raise all the blacks in America to fight, and also the voice say tell the King George too.
Such a charge is truly a heavy burden.
And the same voice, it come several times after for three days, which I answer I was fraid to do it as I don’t see who speak, and the voice say that I must tell it and I was not to see him for that he was the Lord, and that I must quaint the General Washington it was the Lord that speak this and to tell Sir Henry also and the Lord Cornwallis and put an end to the bellion, for that the Lord is on their side.
But what brings you here to the Highlands of New-York?
Well! As I tell the Sir Henry and he say he will tell the General Washington presently, and the Lord Cornwallis and the King George too, but last week the voice tell me again and so I believe that he haint done it, and so I come myself to tell the General Washington what the Lord has say and by myself.
I see. How did you come by Doctor Hedges’s cargo?
Doctor Hedges, he say—well, the Doctor Hedges pay me to help with the horse. He be going to Necticut with his wagon and all, and he say the General Washington there too.
Where is he now?
The Doctor Hedges?
Burnham nodded. Steele flicked his eyes nervously side to side, and shrugged.
Trouble with soldiers. He say we meet later.
I doubt that you will never see his face again. As for the Commander in Chief, your way to him lies towards Albany.
You know where the General Washington go?
He has given me instructions to go there, to Albany.
Steele nodded at the ground pensively for a minute, then looked up.
I go there too, he said. The Lord, he will it. Haint go back to Carolina, never never.
The provincial legislature in the Lord’s Year 1703 commanded a roadway of the breadth of at least four English rods to be, continue, and remain forever a public common general road and highway, from King’s Bridge in the county of Westchester to the ferry at Crawlier over against the city of Albany. This being in the reign of Queen Anne, it was called the Queen’s Road, but in time that name fell into disuse and was forgotten, so that it came to be known, as it was now, as the Albany Post Road, its main use being the carrying of the mails. Beyond Fishkill this road traverses a high plateau, rich and well cultivated when not under contest by opposing armies, and ornamented there, on the western side of the highway, with a finely carved monument in red sandstone, round-topped like a grave-marker: 71 M. from N. York.
From Fishkill to Wappinger Falls, six miles. From Wappinger Falls to Poughkeepsie (apo-keep-sinck, “pleasant and safe harbor”), eight miles. From Poughkipsingh (said to be spelled some forty-two different ways in the old town records) to Hyde Park, six miles. From Hyde Park to Rhinebeck (also Ryn Beck, Rein Beck, Rhynbeek, Reinebaik) through Staatsburg, or Pawling Purchase, ten miles. And to Albany...? Some fifty miles, at least, as the crow flies; and as the footsore, sun-burnt, weary and hungry and dusty soldier-turned-peddler’s-companion trundles and trudges? O do not ask.
The westering sun was not halfway to the horizon when Steele declared a halt.
Here? Burnham asked.
To the east, tree-crowded ridges; to the west, a steep pitch to the river.
No friendly farmhouse or convivial tavern? Burnham asked. Nor even for bed somewhat but dear Mother Earth’s bosom?
Firewood, Steele replied.
A crow cawed from out of the woods. Another replied.
Hear that? Steele asked. Good luck, crows. Good birds for finding things.
He thrust a hatchet into his belt and tramped off.
At the edge of the wood, he called back: You see that dog what follow us, you beat it off.
What dog, Burnham muttered to himself, there’s no dog.
Burnham had found himself unwilling to cozen honest, upright citizens with any of their cargo of false notes (though he had felt no such compunction about paying Doctor Gordon’s rich fee with the same), and as for the tinware—well, perhaps another peddler had passed through recently or the work was inferior (to Burnham’s eye—accustomed to plate or, at the worst, pewter—it was all stuff), or they were too impatient to seal the bargain properly, or their hosts simply thought them coggers or were put off by the ruckus raised by the farmyard dogs at their approach and wanted them gone; but however the cause, their wares went cheap when they sold at all.
A hasty pudding, perhaps, from what might be rescued of the bread loaf; and some fried sausages, before they go off. For breakfast, beans again, the pot nestled in the hot ashes overnight, with the grease from the sausages.
Burnham was soon fast asleep on the cart’s backboard, dreaming of their last egg, soft-cooked, with a scraping of nutmeg, the yolk unctuous on his tongue.
Awoke to deep twilight, a scrap of moon overhead like a thumbnail paring.
Steele? Burnham called.
Burnham was no dab hand with flint and steel, but a pitch-knot is not difficult of ignition.
Under the woods, Burnham called out again:
The torch alternately murked his sight and dazzled his eyes, and the fickle breezes dashed smoke into his eyes.
Then the unmistakable click of a pistol’s hammer cocking and the cold kiss of its muzzle on the back of his neck.
Art thou, then, the chiefest mugwumps hereabouts? Burnham asked once the blindfold was pulled off.
The burly fellow’s jaw worked, and he emitted a brown arc of tobacco juice that splashed Burnham’s boot.
Be you cowboys or skinners? Burnham asked. Tories or patriots? British or American?
You call us raiders, a voice from the other side of the fire said, we call ourselfs enforcers of the King’s law.
Raiders? No, Burnham said. Irregulars, at the worst, surely. Tis a disputed place we find ourselves in, rudely tugged to and fro.
The leader (as Burnham supposed) scoffed.
It wasn’t a cave, quite, more of a scoop in the hillside shielded at the verge by large fallen rocks that broke the wind and hid the firelight from spying eyes. With stumps and broken crates as stools and tables, it was as merry a public-house as might be found in such a wilderness. The ruffians had whiskey, too, to judge by the stink of their breath as they’d bundled him here, and perhaps beer, or at least beer barrels, but of hospitality they offered Burnham none.
When the tobacco-chewer had finished staring at him, he spat again.
You look like you’ve been at the nastier end of a gun barrel before, he said in a Virginian drawl thick as treacle. And lived to tell the tale.
A short tale, and a dull one, Burnham said.
Is it? Well, you’ve got some property of mine.
I? I’ve lost far more of late than I’ve ever had.
Fellow name of Murphy.
Murphy? Murphy Steele? He’s no man’s but his own.
You know him then.
Yes, and I was searching for him when I made the happy acquaintance of your compatriots.
You find him?
Murphy ran away from my family’s place, nigh three years ago.
Fresh advice to me.
He’s been traveling with you as your servant.
We have been riding together, Burnham conceded.
I regard him as stolen property.
Is he not from Carolina, not Virginia? But I am in no position to dispute your claim. Yet Murphy, or Sergeant Steele as I should say, might himself—
A dog barked.
All the men jumped to their feet, peered out into the dark. Those that had guns drew them. A stone struck the fire, scattering sparks and embers.
The gunmen whooped, ran out of the firelight. A gust of wind, shouts; a gunshot. A squarish packet, tied in a rag, landed at Burnham’s feet. He toed the packet, flipped it over.
Gentlemen! he shouted.
The leader and those of his men who remained turned to him.
I should like to make a proposal.
Another packet thumped the dirt. Another. The fourth struck the Virginian square on the jaw, who swore.
Please to examine the missiles, Burnham said, and I wager you’ll find the contents pleasing.
Why tis banknotes! someone said.
Continentals, another said. Aint worth a turd.
These are new tenor, and while certainly much sunk, not worthless. Especially in the quantity that I propose.
There’s more? the Virginian asked.
Much more. Sufficient to buy Sergeant Steele his freedom and mine own too. And more besides, for your trouble.
Already the men were gathering sacks and bags and quenching the fire. They slashed the knots that bound Burnham’s legs but left the ones on his wrists; manhandled him upright; and marched him off between two of the cowboys at a brisk pace. Once in the woods, one of them released his grip, with a grunt and a swear, but another took his place instantly.
I am in a spot, the Virginian hissed in Burnham’s ear.
How so? Burnham asked.
You saw my men.
A fine troop!
But gripped with the gold-lust.
Hardly gold. Mere paper.
Greed’s a mighty powerful master.
My hands are tied.
Discretion, then, is indeed the better part of valor.
I am not taking a bribe.
Of course not! Tis a fair bargain between gentlemen.
A purchase, by my honor.
And tis of your own free will.
But of course.
No duress, despite the little matter of the guns and being tied up.
A mild misunderstanding, nothing more.
The Virginian released him. When they reached the spot where Murphy had stopped the cart, Burnham pushed aside the tinware, pulled back the canvas. The Virginian plunged an arm into the pile, grabbed a bundle, tore its wrapping, riffled the banknotes, sniffed them.
Behind him, one of his men muttered, If that aint tens of thousands then let King George roger me.
His comrades shushed him.
Tell the lot, the Virginian ordered. And bring up the pack horses.
Two men jumped into the cart and started throwing tinware to the ground.
And find that Murphy fellow, he added. I want a word with him again.
O Albany! O pure comfort! After so many days in a down-at-heels cart on a dusty road through wretched weather (to say nothing of the food), to have now, at last—well, not bathed, precisely (a mishap he planned to repair later), but to at least have made an acquaintance with the sponge; to have at last donned clean clothes, a new wig, a respectable hat—why, he was, himself, shaved and shorn and sprightful, a bit long of face and short of leg, perhaps; his hair, or what showed from under the wig, at best mousy; yet here he was, Mr Augustus Burnham, the very spitting image of the exquisite gentleman (if one might politely overlook the scar that plowed a red furrow across cheek and brow); an actor’s rôle to be played, without a doubt, but one that fitted him to the skin, like silken stockings on a well-turned leg. (But what was to be done about Sergeant Steele?) And not to forget the table-d’hôte at Lewis’s City Tavern, still, at this hour, undergoing a comfortable digestion: a fine gammon, roasted on the spit and basted in canary and crusted with grated bread and served cold, sliced, with parsley sprigs; tiny new potatoes boiled and dressed in plenty of fresh butter; an apple pie; and fresh and foamy small beer. He rubbed his belly, patted the side-curls of his new wig, and stepped forth into the street again from the haberdasher’s, whose boy had run his, Burnham’s, selection of lace to the tailor, one street over, whose shears were even now snipping out the beginnings of two new shirts, finest quality, and to be embellished, cuffs and collar, with the same. O, O indeed. (But what was to be done about Sergeant Steele, when any new indiscretion of his could bare their imposture? Even installing him in Burnham’s own room away from other servants hadn’t checked his heedless tongue. But he, Burnham, had promised to help his prophetic mission; and beside, Steele had been kind to him, and how rare a quality is kindness.)
A prospect of Albany, New-York, then, at—
What o’clock is it? he asked of a passer-by.
Just six, sir, by the dial at the fort, sir, came the reply.
Burnham nodded his thanks.
—on a fine summer’s afternoon, from under the elm tree at the corner of Pearl Street where it meets State Street: the great river and its wharves and docks busy as ant-hills; to his left hand the Dutch Church stolid in the middle of the street like a great stone warehouse; the houses of State Street, gabled in the Dutch manner, notched like stair-steps for angels. As he passed through the narrow arched passageway opposite the elm, a horse tethered at a post there lifted its tail with a swish and emitted a pile of dung, which Burnham neatly sidestepped without breaking stride. (But what was to be done about Sergeant Steele?) The horse stamped and loosed a flood of piss.
The passageway debouched into an open space, crossed by a stream, where low wooden out-buildings hunkered up against the backs of larger, brick houses. The street continued south, rougher and muddier. But despite all this comfort and joy, and the letter of credit from His Excellency that had been awaiting his arrival, yet here he found himself in this pretty pickle: what was he going to do about Sergeant Steele?
Met Albany 7th July 1780
Present: John M. Beekman, Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, Matthew Visscher, Isaac D. Fonda
David Darrow on his examination denying the Authority of this Board and all Civil Jurisdiction in this State and pretending that by his religious principles he is restrained from taking up Arms in defence of the Country and that he does not intend to do any kind of Military duty whatsoever nor does not in any instance intend to abide by the Laws of this State and declaring that it was his determined Resolution to dissuade others from doing the same and as such principles at the present day are highly pernicious and of destructive tendency to the Freedom & Independence of the United States of America—
Minutes of the Commissioners for detecting and defeating Conspiracies in the State of New York
Who are you, sir? Where is my faithful Crosby?
General, pah! A bitter commission, and I’ve resigned from the army. I had rather be called Senator.
Where is Crosby!
By one of our own soldiers, sir.
Who was but doing his duty as he knew it.
Through the heart, sir.
A true heart, and ennobled by love of country.
As you say. A noble heart.
But who are you?
Lieutenant Burnham, sir, of the Connecticut Line. At your service. His Excellency++ has sent me—
But why are you here? Why now?
I was Smith’s—that is to say, Crosby’s—student, sir, a poor enough student—
Schuyler, having risen to greet his visitor and seated himself again behind the small desk, turned back to the papers before him, rustling and sorting them impatiently.
His Excellency General Washington has sent me, Burnham tried again—
What? What? Still here? Schuyler muttered, peevish, without looking up.
Begging your pardon sir, but the General has placed upon me urgent instructions to root out a nest of traitors in this region.
Schuyler threw down his papers, rubbed his eyes, sat back in his chair.
O and what a cumber you are, he said. But what of that gang of counterfeiters? Have you found them?
No sir, Burnham said and ducked his head, flushing.
Schuyler’s cold stare bored into him.
That proved impossible after Crosby’s death, Burnham said.
Ah—! Schuyler replied.
But His Excellency has given me further orders. He wishes me to try the fidelity of some group of persons but lately come to this country from England, in or about Nisqueunia, who tax our patriots to lay down their arms.
He means those Shaking Quakers who call themselves the New Lights and who are inimically disposed to the war.
He did not name them Quakers, who surely are harmless enough.
These Quakers pretend that by their religious principles they are restrained in doing any kind of military duty whatsoever, and are daily striving to dissuade all friends to the American cause from taking up arms in defense of independence. We’ve in gaol now, where they may do no harm, the ring-leaders of that band of malefactors—one a woman!—but I think them not traitors, but fools rather, deluded by their own religious enthusiasm.
Between patriot and tory, Burnham said, there is no distinguishing sign, no mark of Cain, that gives sure discrimination; we wear the same clothes, if not in military garb; our speech is the same good English; we buy and sell, smile and nod, eat and drink (except for tea, as it might be), the one just the same as the other. The difference lies in thought and action, words and deeds, and if the traitor hides behind false words, pretended deeds, then he must be caught out. That is my calling: to cozen the lying devil and catch him by the nose and rip away his cunning veil.
I mislike this masquerade.
None will suffer save the guilty.
O no, I have no misgivings for those found out, but for those who put on the false face; I do fear for the state of their souls.
My soul, sir, is mine own affair, sir.
So it is, sir, so it is. O very well then, go to Nistigowonee and make your test.
Schuyler rose from his desk and paced the carpet by the windows, a trifle stooped, his hose saggy at the ankles, but as graceful of stride as His Excellency General Washington. The dull light pulled blood-red shadows across his long narrow face, nose and cheekbones like dabs of clay stuck on.
We Americans, he said as if talking to himself, of all people in the world, have cause to own and acknowledge Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, to be our true sovereign.
He paused to gaze at the sunset through the fine lace curtains, then turned and continued:
Between civil and religious liberties there is a necessary connection; when the one expires, the other cannot long survive. King George has, in my opinion, an undoubted right to the British throne, but his right is founded principally on the people’s right to set aside wicked rulers. Upon what principles, then, can England have jurisdiction over the persons of those free adventurers who settled the colonies? Because England is powerful? This would be founding right in might, an argument too absurd to need refutation. The wonder-working providence of God, in the events of this war, leads us to hope that God will not forsake this American people, for whom he has done such marvelous things; and we await the unmolested accomplishment of God’s moral judgment. But even so, even so.
The doors opened and servants bustled into the room carrying candles. A long sustained note, like a distant bugle badly winded, echoed faintly, followed by another, nearer, and another; a braying chorus like a vast, untuned pipe-organ.
It is the lamentation of dogs, Schuyler said.
These last weeks, after the late depredations of Sir John Johnson, a great number of dogs, for miles all about, set up their unearthly moaning just at sunset, and continue it several hours, a general canine mourning for friends and homes. How difficult it is to abide the hearing of it, it rends the heart in twain.
He stood, silent and somber, for a moment, then turned on Burnham.
What! Are you still here? You have your orders. Go! Go!
Man is the animal that laughs, because man alone can see the difference between what is or is not and what could be. Happiness is a virtue, and pleasure adds to happiness, just as whiskey is a pleasure and a happiness; or not whiskey per se but its virtue of acting upon the perfused brain, lofting it even unto the empyrean; yes, and poetry too, and all else that partakes of the sublime. But—two baths in as many days? An extravagance! When he recalled how he had had to flee before his ablutions were complete, or even properly commenced, at Beeckman & Oothout Sanitary Steam Public Bathing Rooms, which had proven (the women who had burst in on him perhaps as startled by his flight as he was by their sudden apparition) to be more bordello than bagnio—well, Burnham could only laugh.
O no, lordy lordy no, Mrs MacReynolds said. Mrs MacReynolds don’ run an esplashy-men as employs women. Meself apart, in course.
She shook her head as if mourning all the foolishness in this wide world.
Good, Burnham said. Excellent!
He fumbled shillings into her hand, dropped one, retrieved it. He’d entered those other premises (Sanitary! Public!) in full faith and ignorance, but not here, not this time.
Gold is as gold does, Mrs MacReynolds said, and silver just as well, copper too, but paper never crosses Mrs MacReynolds’s palm.
She turned and trumpeted: Jens!
Her tongue darted in and out of the wide gap in her wide smile in her wide face, and her grizzled curls once upon a time had perhaps been as yellow as virgin oakum.
Where is that boy? Jens!
Yes?: a blond head appeared at the window of the inner door.
The house was a ramshackle one built in the New England style of the previous century, two low-ceilinged, wood-framed rooms hugging a central chimney with stone hearth and brick flues; the room to the left of the entrance being Mrs MacReynolds’s dwelling, and the one on the right her bathing establishment. This room was presided over by a copper tank that nearly filled the massive fireplace and spouted steams and fumes into the air, coals flickering red and orange beneath. Sagging canvas curtains partitioned the space into narrow cubicles, like an indoors encampment; at the far side a ladder led up to a loft under the eaves. Burnham followed Jens across creaking floorboards to a cubicle where a single candle guttered in a saucer on the floor, next to a large earthenware jar abrim with steaming water.
Jens, Burnham said. Is that a Dutch name?
Jens was a tall, steep-chested boy with a wad of hair at his jugular notch, blond, and wearing only an unbuttoned cambric chemise that clung to him like the wet draperies on a Greek marble, rucked under his arms, and stretched creaseless across his back, the curves of hips and buttocks. He was blond below as well.
Are you born of Dutch parents or did you come to this country? Burnham asked as Jens unshod him and helped him off with his coat.
Jens hung hat, wig, coat, waistcoat, breeches, shirt on pegs on the back wall above the bench. Burnham sank down on it.
Does Mrs MacReynolds treat you well here then? he asked as Jens peeled the hose down his calves.
I am not accustomed to attend such places as this, and would not now, except—
Jens ladled hot water down Burham’s naked back, rubbed him with a nubbin of soap, applied the sponge vigorously, and rinsed him. He pushed gently on his shoulders. Burnham lay back on the bench. Jens poured more hot water over him.
A doctor of my recent acquaintance explained to me that the pores of the skin, when the mineral properties of the water heat them, open like tiny mouths and allow the bad humors to be exsufflated in the sudor, as he called it, the sweat, you see, as like is drawn to like.
Jens began to rinse away the soap lather.
Yes, he said.
Jens leaned over him and, as if it were hindering his movement, peeled off his wet shirt and dropped it on the floor. He dribbled oil onto his hands from a small vial, rubbed his palms together, and swayed his face so close to Burnham’s that his wide, clear, blue eyes were like patches of pure cerulean in a cloudy sky. His hands warm and smooth on Burnham’s shoulders, his chest, his flanks, his belly.
Every human settlement of any size has places—gaps—such as this—loci of sanctuary where the mask may be dropped, the pretense disposed of, the act, and the poor player strutting and fretting upon his private stage, abandoned.
Yes, Jens said.
Burnham pushed Jens’s hands lower down his belly, and gasped softly. As Jens cradled and pressed his flesh, washing and rinsing, caressing, Burnham wept. His eyeballs hot as banked coals. He pressed against Jens’s legs, clung to his strong arms.
Yes, Jens said.
Burnham gasped, and wept, and gasped again, as the tears streamed down his face, and the steam made curtains across the air, and they and their pleasures were both quite hidden away from the rest of world and all of its ills and harms.
O my friend, my friend, how can you have deserted me?
Yes, Jens said, yes.
In the window of Burnham’s room at Lewis’s, a single candle still flickered. The walk back from the quays had sobered and steadied him: he could perhaps face even Sergeant Steele.
Who started in without preamble:
They got a prophet here.
A prophet, what the Lord speak to, like he speak to me.
In the gaol, down to the water.
How do you know that?
Seen her, haint I, at the window, in the gaol.
A woman in the gaol. Who told you she is a prophet?
Why, she say so herself, and all the folk at the gaol, what come to listen to her. And she raise the dead back to life.
Raises the dead!
So they say.
His hand jiggled in his pocket, shaking like lucky dice the brass buttons he’d poked out of the ashes with a stick after Burnham had finally persuaded him of the folly of traveling through American territory with his British uniform.
Do they now. Could you mean one of those they call the Shaking Quakers?
Haint seen her shake, but she sure talk.
What does she say?
She say the Lord fixing to end the world!
She say the Lord return, he come back, and Heaven on its way.
I conceive that we’ll all see Heaven—or elsewhere—quite soon enough, though a long lifetime shall intervene, God willing.
No, Steele insisted, no, Heaven on the earth!
What? Here? Now?
What she say, the prophet, so stop making the war, so say the Lord to her, just like I tell the General Clinton.
I think I should like to hear this prophet speak for herself, in her own words. And to listen closely to what her followers have to say about our war.
And that voice, he tell me also tell the General Washington, Steele added, giving Burnham a resentful glare. You say he here but he not.
His Excellency’s migrations are dictated as much by circumstance as by strategy, and I can give you no good account of them as I do not know his mind. I know only that he sent me here to work his purpose.
And bring me along.
You are free to go.
Go where? The Lord, he don’t talk to me no more. The Doctor Hedges, he gone. Your friend Mister Smith, he dead. The army far away, but the prophet here, she say, Heaven on its way, now, just you believe.
I have at various times in my life believed many things, and none of them any the truer, despite my belief, however fervent—nor Heaven any the nearer—except by own efforts.
Steele shook his head, gazed at the floor.
Can’t go forwards, he said, can’t go backwards, haint no going nowheres. What do all your book learning tell you about that?
Nothing, Sergeant. Sometimes, as it may be, freedom lies in the embracing of no choice.
Sometime, I think, you haint so simple as you look.
Why thank you, Sergeant, I like to think so, Sergeant.
The public room of Lewis’s City Tavern: carved pine panelling below, painted a blue as brilliant as the cloudless sky visible in squares and slices through the glittering sashes; above, white walls and ceiling, the polished brass chandelier (uncandled this warm August morning) depending from a plaster rosette; at either end, the fireplaces’ summer screens framed in blue and white tiles; the floor’s broad oaken planks scrubbed and swept; ranks of bottles and jugs behind wooden spindles in the bar-cage.
Mr Burlington, spin us a tale! one of the merchants at a neighboring table said.
No word yet on your commission? asked the other. Your sword will rust in its scabbard. Give us another of your fancies, if you please, sir.
Burnham stopped stabbing at his breakfast, started pushing it around on the plate—boiled Irish potatoes browned in beef drippings, strewn with breadcrumbs, seared under the salamander and sprinkled with lemon juice. Wanting to say no, he began a yes. Then he frowned.
The merchants frowned too:
Drunk? (So early?) Old, certainly—a septuagenarian. Infirm, clearly. Or blind? Mad?
The wild-haired old man strutted in as if he owned the place and walked straight into a chair, sending it skittering; hip jolted a table’s edge, clattering plates and cups; rebounding, he staggered a few canted steps towards Burnham’s table; reeled; clutched the back of the chair next to Burnham, knobby knuckles tight, as if holding on for dear life, and fetched up in it.
Won’t let my man in, he announced. You know.
He tugged his velvet coat down, straightened the lace of his collar, smoothed the billow of natural hair that fringed his bald pate. Then he rummaged pocket to pocket, hands frantic as some burrowing animal eager to quit the sunlight and retreat to its chthonic home. The server brought a steaming toddy, which the newcomer clutched and slurped enthusiastically.
Burnham sighed. He returned his forehead to hand’s cradle, pushed potatoes back and forth across the plate. Speared one, chewed it slowly, without relish. Sighed.
The old man slapped a worn and mended map on the table.
Look, look, look, he said, stabbing at it with a forefinger. Look how the Allegany mountains, which run through all the states, here die away at the Mohawk River, and permit passage through into the inland country. Providence indeed appears to design it so! Do you see? Do you see?
Hmm, Burnham said. Is it so?
The man inched his chair closer to Burnham’s.
And tis universally allowed—universally! mark my words!—that if the interior country was settled, then inland navigation would follow apace. And tis also generally agreed—by all good men of discerning intelligence, such as yourself!—that if inland navigation was accomplished, then the settlement of the interior country would follow fast as a fox on a rabbit!
He elbowed Burnham’s ribs.
You know? You know?
Burnham nodded as affably as he could manage.
We must promote both these salutary purposes at the same time!
Aye, there’s the rub, Burnham said. At the same time. Indeed.
Now look here and see how the ground beyond the upper parts of the Mohawk River is perfectly level, as if designed to permit us to build a canal, and pass westwards so far as we please, even to the Great Lakes which so beautifully diversify this land.
I see that on your map that part of the country is largely blank, Burnham replied.
I admit it, I admit it! But—
He grasped Burnham’s arm.
—by this, the internal trade will be increased; by this the foreign trade will be promoted; by this the country will be settled; by this the frontiers will be secured!
To be sure, Burnham said, it could be so.
I hear doubt in your voice! But the genius of America has already soared above the common beaten track and has astonished the world.
A very fine project, Burnham said, that might be executed a century hence, when the wilderness is a little less wild.
And money, the old man suggested, in better supply?
Tis the other chief objection to the plan.
The old man grasped Burnham’s arm again, and shook it.
There your thought falters. Let a joint stock company erect a number of navigable canals, not dug into the soil as in Europe, but entirely elevated above the ground!
Yes, yes! Of timber! Twenty-four feet wide, four feet depth of water, locks ten and one half feet wide and fifty-two long, with a fall of four feet. O tis most wonderful! To supply water to the highest ground, one of the principal difficulties, we shall raise it by windmills! Just as the greater part of Holland has been reclaimed from the ocean! Tis perfectly practicable and not new.
The forests on the route will supply the timber, I suppose.
The old man clapped Burnham heartily on the back, who choked on the sip of tea he’d just taken.
Yes, the old man exclaimed, you enter into the spirit of it!
All’s lacking, Burnham ventured when he’d recovered his breath, is some small seed, a pittance truly. But I fear that my pocket-book...
No no no. You mistake me! In good time! First the war must be won.
My apologies, Burnham murmured. You expect victory?
O tis certain. The theatre of our war is vast—a continent!—and England is tiny, and an ocean intervenes, a wide and capricious ocean. And one more thing.
We have more to lose: not just a nation but a future. They have merely an empire.
Pardon me— said a gentleman at the neighboring table. But I could not help but overhear your fascinating discourse...
Do you wish to lend support to this noble plan? Burnham asked.
He turned to the old man.
You surprise me when you speak of an American victory.
You expect—or wish—it otherwise? Burnham asked.
He turned again to the old man.
But are you not, sir, pray excuse me if I mistake you, but are you not the Secretary of State’s deputy, under His Majesty’s former government, that is, and recently of New-York City?
The old man faced his interlocutor, blinking slowly.
Was I? he said. Perhaps it was so. Yes, perhaps it was.
And were you not born in England? the gentleman persisted.
England? O! Yes. Yes, I was, and a fine and comfortable boyhood I had there. I am in America now.
Did you not greatly profit by your connection to the Crown?
Profit is a fine thing, when it may be had...
But are you not—
Enough! Burnham said.
He glared at the neighboring gentleman.
And who are you, sir? Burnham said. How many generations in this land may you boast of? How came you by your money? How solid is your manly virtue, how free of scandal? And what of your brother, or your brother’s wife, or the former servant of your grandmother’s sister? What do your neighbors say of you, when out of your hearing?
The gentleman harrumphed.
The old man peered over at him, a mild smile teasing at the corners of his lips. Then he turned back to Burnham.
I thank you, sir, he said. For now, I shall but take down your name and enroll you in the Canal Society. Cadwallader Goldsworthy, by the bye. My name, you know.
Burnham’s half-eaten potatoes had gone cold, the drippings congealed around them in a tallowy puddle. Another two shillings to his reckoning, and all to waste. He pushed the plate away. Sergeant Steele was probably already waiting for him at the Stadt Huys.
The servants’ stairs were so dark, cramped, and musty that emerging out the door even into the noisome alleyway behind Lewis’s felt like rebirth, or at least a second chance at a new day. The kitchen door slammed—
—and a kitchen servant flung a bone at a fox-colored cur that was nosing the spill from a split barrel. Hunched, the dog looked all around, then crept slowly towards the bone, snatched it up. It glanced back at Burnham, bone clenched between teeth, froze stock still for a moment, staring at him, its eyes a piercing blue—
John? Burnham called softly. Enoch...? Harvey...?
—then shook its head (fearfully? reproachfully?) and fled. Burnham pushed back his disreputable soft-brimmed wool hat, hitched up his canvas trousers, tightening the rope that served as belt, and followed it around the corner onto State Street.
And immediately ducked his head and sidled into shadow.
His interlocutor concerning canals, Cadwallader Goldsworthy, was passing by, having quit Lewis’s public room, led by a servant every bit as ancient as himself, as stout, as well-dressed, as grey, as tall, in every way the double of his master except for the gout and the blindness—and the color of his skin.
Peter, said Goldsworthy, you’re leading me into the mud.
Aint no mud here.
But I say there is.
I say there aint. You only stepped false, that’s all.
I’m thinking they put too much brandy in their toddy there at Lewis’s, Goldsworthy said.
I thought so too, when you were getting off the steps at the door.
I tell you, Peter, you are a fool!
Aye, so I am, a fool leading a fool.
Goldsworthy folded his arm up against Peter’s again, stepped back up onto the brick pavement; and the pair made their way towards the river.
Burnham wiped sweat from his face with the back of his hand. A broiler already! (But what was to be done about Sergeant Steele?)
Of the theory and practice of incarceration, many have committed their opinions to many a weighty tome, but the burden of the matter is neither ennobling nor edifying, nor at all tortuous: those with the will and means, do; and those without, suffer the means and will of the former. Albany’s Stadt Huys was a venerable, large, solid, and severely symmetrical building of three stories, surmounted by a cupola ornamented with a weather-vane and a golden ball. It had served as Provincial Court, Charter House, City Hall, County Court, State House, common prison, and, in the July four years prior, as the stage for a reading to an immense crowd of the ringing phrases of high sentiment of the Declaration of Independence. The lower story, or basement, was of stone, pierced with small windows barred with iron grates; its oaken doors were fitted with locks so ponderous that their keys required the whole force of a man to turn them. The whitewashed façade was a glare against brittle blue sky, the golden ball bright as its celestial twin.
Heretics! Bring them out!
Public entertainments must have been scarce in Albany for a transfer of prisoners to draw such a press of onlookers. Burnham pulled his hat’s brim lower over his eyes, wished for a tonic to quell his rebellious stomach. The baleful sun, the cramp and jostle, the heat and stink, the unmistakeable splatter of someone voiding a bellyful of beer. Already? So early? And where was Steele? An elbow in the small of his back nearly overtoppled him—
Here now, here now, someone said and lent him a steadying arm.
Much obliged, Burnham muttered.
Oyez, oyez! Be it known, this twenty-sixth day of August, Our Lord’s year seventeen hundred and eighty, whereas the Committee of Commissioners for Conspiracies—
Whatever gesture (obscene, Burnham assumed) accompanied the shout was invisible to him, but the crowd chuckled anyway, a low rumble like a train of carts over cobbles.
—by their conduct and conversation disturb the public peace and are daily dissuading the friends to the American cause—
A shout of laughter from the back of the crowd.
Bring them forth!
Hang the traitors!
Hang the witch!
—resolved that the said Ann Standerren be sent down to the Commissioners at Poughkeepsie for the purpose of being removed within the Enemy’s lines—
Gone to join her people!
Back whence she came!
—in the company of Mary Partherton who was some time ago confined for—
The Sheriff started, stared at the young woman, garbed in an ostentatiously drab costume, who had interrupted him.
My name is Partington. Mary Partington.
Is it, now.
—in the company of the said Mary Partherton, who hath been absolved of all such charges but does go as companion to the aforesaid prisoner Ann Standerren at her own request and which...
The Sheriff carried on; that is, his mouth continued to open and close and he continued to shuffle papers hand to hand with his assistants, but the clamor of the crowd was such that the whole performance was little more than one of those French theatrical entertainments of white-faced clowns who clasp their heads and loll their tongues and roll their eyes; the working of the majesty of the law expressed in gesture and symbol but none the less potent for that: for the chains were real, the gaol was real, and the gibbet, if the occasion had called for one, would have been real enough to perform its purpose sufficiently.
Burnham spotted Steele, a dark face in a press of pale ones.
It may be, perhaps, that freedom is easiest found behind bars, that greatest freedom which is freedom of mind; or that the greatest strength lies in yielding, like the tallest pines before the tempest; but what little Burnham had tasted of Heaven’s joys led him to believe that the only true freedom is escape: from bonds, from hunger, from persecution, from ignorance, from love, from himself.
But she looked so small, this Ann Standerren, when at last she was brought out into the sunlight—shielding her eyes with an upraised arm—and led to the horse-cart waiting in the street: just a bundle of clothes, like a rag doll, between two burly gaolers who lifted her bodily into the cart.
Look, that’s her, Steele hissed in Burnham’s ear, the prophet!
Mary Partington followed them, climbed up.
Another young woman, garbed as ostentatiously drably as Mary Partington, shifted a basket into the cart’s bed.
The guard lounging against the cart’s side jerked erect.
Ho, what’s that, stop your meddling there.
The woman bent, lifted, added another basket.
Stop, the guard repeated. What’s that there?
Bread, for the journey.
The guard pulled off the napkin that covered the basket’s contents: two bread loaves, golden-crusted.
And what’s inside, hey? What’s inside?
Tis but bread through and through.
The guard tore one of the loaves open and dug into it, strewing crumbs and crusts on the ground.
He tossed the remnants back into the basket.
The guard’s inspection left the second loaf in as poor a state as the first.
He pointed to the basket still in the woman’s hands.
A cheese, made by my own hands, but which you may destroy if you feel it your duty. And some cucumbers.
He pointed to a larger basket by her feet.
A change of clothes, so that the prisoner may modestly wash those that she wears.
All must be inspected! the guard barked.
As you wish, the young woman answered. But, unlike the bread, which remains nutritious after your inspection, if your duty demands that you tear the clothes in the same way, they will be made quite useless.
More prisoners were brought out, shuffling and clanking, their leg-irons chained ankle to ankle in a line, to be marched to a new place of confinement in the fort on the heights at the western edge of town. The crowd surged; Burnham stumbled; Steele’s sturdy arm caught his, lifted him back onto his feet. But the jostle of bodies separated them and he was pushed up against the side of the cart, clinging tight to its wheel to keep from falling. His head swam.
The Sheriff standing with the prisoner brought his staff down on the cart’s bed—boom—and shouted:
Make way! Make way!
The two gaolers, joined arm to arm, were trying to clear a path for the cart.
A hoot of laughter: half a cabbage knocked the prisoner’s cap askew and flew to pieces. She tugged it straight as a tomato plashed the cart’s backboard.
Make way! Make way!
An egg found its target.
A clergyman, to judge from his dress, and fallen on hard times, to judge from its state, shouted: Blasphemer!
The young woman who had loaded baskets into the cart turned to face him.
Not so, she said, not so. Once my feet walked in forbidden paths, my hands handled unclean things, and my eyes saw nothing of God aright. Now my eyes see, my ears hear, and my hands handle the word of life.
The clergyman snarled up his face and spat, but his missile fell short, splattering the hem of her apron.
O do not so, the woman said. You can never enter the kingdom of God with hard feelings against anyone. For God is love; and if you love God, you will love one another.
A man next to the cart pointed and shouted:
She’s a thief!
The crowd took up the cry:
On account her ears are cropped!
Why she always wears a cap!
Show us your ears!
Ann Standerren looked down at the man who had first accused her, met his eyes. She reached up and pulled off her cap and smoothed her hair back over her ears, which were whole and neatly rounded in the usual way.
The churning of mills bringeth forth butter, she said; the wringing of the nose bringeth forth blood: now run out your tongue as many times as you have told lies.
The man’s face convulsed, his jaw popped open, and his tongue lolled out of his mouth, darted back in, flicked this way and that quick as a snake’s. He clapped both hands to his mouth, as if to muffle a shriek, but the tip of his tongue poked out from between his fingers, here, there. His eyes stretched wide and rolled back and forth like an animal caught in a mortal trap.
Burnham’s belly heaved. He clapped both hands to his own mouth and hunched over. He dropped to his knees and, gagging, spewed potatoes mixed with quantities of that morning’s patriot tea and last night’s whiskey across the cart’s wheel.
The road, not much more than a track or an Indian path, meandered north by northwest through woodland and marsh and low hills that sloped gently eastward, from Albany (as in Duke of) to, or so they had been told, Nisqueunia (Nis-ti-go-wo-ne, “extensive corn flats”), where the new sect had established its settlement. The cart rocked from rut to rut. High, tall clouds like schooners under full press of sail swept silently overhead, west to east, a mutable convoy, dragging their shadows like anchors across the land. A few birds soared heavenward, calling hoarsely.
Crows, Steele said. Good luck. Look how they go, free up to the Heaven.
Of all those men and women that Burnham and Steele had been overtaking on the road—walking alone (usually men) or in pairs (often women) or small groups (always all men or, more often, all women)—only one accepted their offer of riding on the horsecar.
Valentine, their new passenger said, Rathbone. I have the honor of being the Pastor of the Baptist church in Pittsfield, in Massachusetts.
He doffed his hat.
Pleased to meet, Burnham said, touching his cap. Abel Bacon, your servant, et cet’ra.
Steele said nothing, not even a grunt, but he flicked the buggy-whip in the air, snap snap. The cart trundled forward.
Rathbone was a tall, narrow man, clad in parson’s black, grey-streaked brown hair brushed sleekly back and tied in a queue, and with small eyes, dark and shining, deep set on either side of a nose like an axe. He frowned at Steele, narrow lips tight.
He confirmed that, yes, all those they passed were of that sect commonly called Shaking Quakers, or Shakers, but who themselves preferred to be called Believers. Burnham had heard that these were the people who daily dissuaded patriots to take up arms. O they speak of many things but mostly of the gospel so lately revealed to them. A new gospel? O yes.
Rathbone greeted those they passed, nodding affably.—Brother Hezekiah.—Sister Lucy, Sister Thankful.—Brother David, Brother Abijah.
Burnham asked Rathbone if he himself was a Shaking Quaker, or, begging his pardon, a Believer. O indeed, Rathbone replied, a smile breaking out on his face, O indeed. Burnham asked him what it was that he and the others believed. Rathbone said that he believed in Christ’s second appearing upon the earth, and Burnham said that he was astonished. Rathbone confessed that he had himself been astonished, quite astonished, when first he recognized the truth of the matter, a realization that had come upon him like a stroke of thunder and bolt of lightning in a fierce storm; the fierce storm, he added, that is our sinful, ordinary life in the world—out of which, he further added, he found that he had come to a haven, and a new light shone upon him.
New Light? Burnham asked. I believe I have heard that phrase before.
The New Lights are— Rathbone said. Well, perhaps tis best merely to list a few. We may speak of the Modern Pilgrims; the Universal Friends of Jemima Wilkinson; Merry Dancers; Fessendonites, who profess the Science of Sanctity; worshippers of Nate Smith, who conveniently wears the label I AM GOD on his hat; Halcyons and Immortalists and Nothingarians; and, not by any means the least, we Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.
Indeed, Burnham said, a formidable host! And would you say they are patriots?
What is the difference between a prophet and a bedlamite? Valentine Rathbone told Burnham about that Shadrach Ireland who first felt the movements of God within him when he was twelve years old, during a traipse through the forest that surrounded his family’s homestead, and he came upon a snake in the process of molting its skin: a coiling mystery underfoot of motion inside movement, the black glisten of the scales and the shucked skin left behind like the snake’s ghost, his little sister shrieking foul! foul!, and Shadrach Ireland knew a thing that he had not known before. A few years later, he remembered the snake: for reasons unknown to his reasoning mind, his private parts engorged and he touched his foreskin so that it drew back from glistening flesh, and he discovered, much to his surprise, that his whole body trembled with—with what?—it was pleasure. Pleasure! He had stumbled upon a secret of human conciliation with God; grace poured into his hands like rain from Heaven. This redemption was affirmed not long after during a backwoods revival meeting, when he again felt it vibrating through his whole being, like an electerizing machine; he also could hardly avoid being rid of sin, like a ship broken free of its anchor. One day in the spring of 1753, he felt again the workings of God and fell into a swoon; recovering, he declared that his body would live forever. He left his wife and children, those hindrances to the Godly life; he built a large house based on the square and circle, the two perfect shapes; and he gathered a household of saints. Many years later, seized with some new work of God’s, he told his saints that he was going but not to bury him.
Naturally, in a few days, Valentine Rathbone said, the body began to stink, and they removed it to the cellar, but as the resurrection grew more and more delayed, they began to fear that their faith had been vain, and secretly buried the corpse in a corn-field.
This was about two years ago, he added.
Tis a tricky business, I take it, Burnham said, this raising of the dead, and much prone to failure?
We knew that you would come, one of the Believers said, walking up to the cart-horse and grasping her bridle.
O wonderful! said another. Welcome to Nistageune.
Brother Valentine! Have you brought us new guests? a third asked.
Our new guests have brought me, and a great kindness it was too.
Yet another of the Believers began to unhitch the horse from the cart.
Mother Ann said, he said, did she not? Last fall, when she had us setting aside stores, she said we shall have company enough before another year comes about to consume it all.
And here you are, said the first, and you are most welcome.
You are too kind, Burnham said.
The Believer busying himself with the harness said, Mother Ann says there is a daily duty to do; that is, for the Brethren to be kind to the Brethren, Sisters kind to the Sisters, and the Brethren and Sisters kind to each other. And so we strive to do.
Burnham clambered down from the cart.
And your servant is most welcome as well, said the Brother who had first greeted them.
Haint his servant.
(his eyes flicked towards something behind them)
—not your dog.
What dog? Burnham asked, looking around.
That red dog as has been hounding after you since the get go, Steele said.
Rathbone handed Steele down out of the cart then hopped down himself. He brushed at his coat and breeches as if they had become soiled.
Will you be so kind, Brother Valentine, the first Believer said, as to do me the favor of showing our guests where they might refresh themselves, as I see that some more of the world on their way to us are but a little distance down the road, and so I have not the time to do so myself.
Yes, of course. Most gladly.
I kindly thank you.
You are kindly welcome.
Steele was standing next to the cart, deep in conversation with one of the Believers. Rathbone grasped Burnham’s arm and led him away.
Beyond the uncommonly tidy barnyard a straight lane led to a large dwelling-house, of one and a half stories, built of logs hewn, no doubt, to clear the surrounding fields, all neatly under cultivation in corn, barley, and the like. A frame farmhouse stood atop a low hill at a little distance, and between them, numerous dependencies, outbuildings, coops, and fenced enclosures of varying uses were scattered, not higgledy-piggledy, as need or whim dictated, as was the case on other farms of Burnham’s acquaintance, but all set at right angles to each other, as if to conform to some larger, yet unperfected plan. Where frequent passage between two points had worn a path, it was scattered with straw or sawdust to keep down the mud—for, as Rathbone remarked, there is no dirt in Heaven.
No, Burnham said, but there is much of it here on Earth.
Why, Rathbone said, this is Heaven, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou, he asked, that you have seen the face of God, and tasted the eternal joys?
A well-read man!
I like to think that my education was not wholly wasted on me.
...but do you eat all that you take, the Sister setting out the supper told him.
Plain food, but of a quality and a plenty that seemed—crocks and bowls and plates and platters lined the length of the trestle tables set up under the maples—the very height of gastronomic triumph:
bread (wheaten and Indian)
and butter (so fresh it was still dewed with the buttermilk)
applesauce (made in a curious manner with whole slices seethed in cider until the pieces swam in a thick, dark nectar)
corn boiled on the cobs
pickled lily (the vegetables bright and crisp, the vinegar heady with spices)
cucumbers (fresh and pickled both)
We have a surfeit of cucumbers, Rathbone said, they are unending, like the bread and fishes at Galilee. They appear even on the breakfast table.
Cucumbers baked in cream would make a dainty breakfast dish, perhaps with gratings of nutmeg.
No, plain cucumbers, crump and green.
Cucumbers, being cold and wet, do check the sanguine humor and spur the phlegmatic, or so I am informed.
Burnham wiped his fingers on his bread, no napkins having been provided.
(Ingratiation, he mumbled to himself, identification, invitation, exhibition...)
What’s that? Rathbone asked.
Burnham leaned over the table to catch a glimpse of Sergeant Steele at the far end efficiently absorbing the victuals.
But tell me, he asked Rathbone, in these troubled times...
Pass the butter, the Brother at his other side said.
O troubles! Rathbone agreed. War everywhere, and rumors of famine, disease daily taking away hundreds, and that terrible Dark Day a few months past.
Dark day? When?
The nineteenth of May last—over all of New England, darkness swept away the noon, did you not see it? Truly the end of time must be upon us.
I was in the Jerseys then. But tell me, you spoke of the war—
Mother Ann says, said the Brother across the table, that the rebellion is the providential work of God, to open the way for the gospel.
The sun was foundering in a wreck of dark cloud that whelmed the horizon. Not a breath of wind. Burnham wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve.
Hand down the bread, a Brother said.
The war, Burnham tried again, leaning in close to Rathbone and lowering his voice, it troubles me, by my soul.
It troubles us all, Rathbone said, but bring not your soul into it.
Brother taking up arms against brother, Burnham continued, son against father, whole towns and cities on the march, and for what end? What cause could—
Have you fought? Rathbone asked him gently.
Rathbone rested his hand on Burnham’s arm.
The year after my father’s death, Burnham said, I mustered at Boston, and saw battle at Breed’s Hill.
Was it there you were wounded? I hope tis not discourteous to ask, for one can hardly fail to remark it.
No. Not there.
Rathbone gazed into Burnham’s eyes.
Come, he said, open your mind to me. Something weighs heavy on you, I can see it.
I—I saw—I saw many men die that day.
A day of blood and thunder and smoke and terror it must have been.
The British cannons, you know, were so far away that one hardly heard them firing, until of a sudden a stockade was turned to splinters right before one’s eyes, or, as it might be, the man next to you to a heap of raw meat.
Does not the Bible tell us, thou shalt not kill?
True, it does. I have killed men. I know not whom, except that they were soldiers who would have killed me had they the chance.
And how many did you kill?
How could I know? I fired into their line.
Did you see any fall?
Yes. But if by a ball from my own gun, I cannot say.
Did you wish them dead?
No, I wished them gone.
Would you kill them still if they stood before you now?
For what cause?
The same one that you killed for then.
But that was in battle!
Can you truly believe that such violence is the coin of freedom? Rathbone asked.
Are you mad?
Rathbone only smiled, slightly; gently.
So would you have me lay down my arms? Betray the American cause?
Lay down your arms, confess your sins, and come to God. I would say the same to any of His Majesty’s soldiers, but they are thin on the ground in these parts.
I swore an oath!
That too is a grievous sin. It is contrary to the gospel to swear oaths or to bear arms, for Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, and tis a great error to have to do with war and fighting.
I am bound for Hell then.
No, Rathbone said, no. You need only to stop, and turn around, so that you may look truly and see Heaven before your very eyes.
The salt, if you please, said a Brother across the table.
A Sister stood at one of the dwelling-house’s two doors and beat upon a skillet with a horse-shoe.
Green was looming up the western sky. Wind was flicking leaves and bits of straw across the air.
Come, tis time for meeting, Rathbone said.
Both doors let onto the same broad, low-ceilinged chamber. The floors were pale as new-cut wood, so swept and scrubbed were they, and the shutters to the windows, small but unglazed, stood open to the air. The company was gathered into two groups, the men to one end of the room, the women to the other; some seated upon benches, others walking slowly back and forth, eyes cast towards the floor as if they might find some path or direction there; and yet others standing and singing softly, or mumbling to themselves, or stretching their arms and legs in energetic postures.
A man stopped before Burnham, bent down, pinched his fingers as if picking up something dropped on the floor, straightened and held his empty hand out to Burnham.
A flower from the Lord, he said, a gift fallen from Heaven.
Burnham stared at the madman.
Rathbone, next to him, reached out, pantomimed taking the proffered flower, brought empty fingers to his lips, opened and closed his mouth.
Tis sweet upon the tongue, he said, sweet as honey.
O sweet flowers of holy scripture! said the first.
Rathbone grasped Burnham firmly by the arm and brought him over to a group of men who had lined up together, arm linked in arm. Rathbone joined his arms with Burnham and the man to his other side and they all set together to lifting one foot, shaking it, setting it down, lifting the other, setting it down. Burnham turned his head left and grunted Ho! when raising his right foot, and Ha! on lifting the other; the other men imitated his example, as they progressed across the floor in a slow tramping.
Stamp stamp stamp.
After a little while they left off. Burnham sat on one of the benches and watched; the others wandered off, like lambs let out of their shed into a field. Some sang, others danced, still others laughed or barked or hopped on one foot or rolled on the floor. A few sat at the sides smoking and watching, smiling and nodding.
Rathbone sat beside him. Another Believer ran up to them and declaimed earnestly: Orumo imho impe rute scelete! Impe re scele lee luto!
They sing the song, Rathbone said, that no man can learn. I cannot learn their song any more than I can track the birds in the air. They seem like an innumerable company of angels.
Ombe te scele te, bere te kure kure. Sinte te luto!
In the middle of the room, a young woman stood, arms open wide and head back and eyes gazing upwards, and turned and turned and turned, so that her clothes filled out like a giant bell at her waist, as if they were kept out by a hoop, flapping with the wind of her spinning like sails. And she was singing:
Love to love what is belovèd,
Lovely souls shall love forever,
Loving lovely lovèd Love.
Burnham clapped his hands together when she faced him, then again, clap, as she came round, again, clap, and Rathbone joined in, clap, and soon some others, clap, as she spun, clap, and spun, clap, and sang, clap, and then, clap, she stopped and walked straight across the floor and out the door.
A flash of lightning.
Praise be to God! someone called out.
A moment later, the thunder.
—and then the door flew open and the rain swept in and the wind rattled and whistled and all the flames in all the lanterns tilted away from it and flickered—
Now where could he have been all this time? Because it was Murphy Steele.
Burnham called out to him.
Steele marched across the room as if he was blind.
Free! he announced to no one in particular. Free!
The door slammed shut.
Birds! Steele cried. Birds!
The men around him touched him with their fingertips, then turned and touched those behind them, like a crowd passing a flame from candle to candle.
We have many things for you, one of them said, which you are not yet able to bear, but as fast as you are able to receive it, we shall instruct you.
He took Steele by the hand and went round the floor with him, running and skipping about and laughing.
Be not melancholy, make you merry, he told him and then let him go.
Steele sat down on a bench. After a while, Burnham went and sat down next to him.
Confess my sins, Steele said.
I had surmised as much, Burnham said.
Free now, free always, free as the birds.
That’s good, isn’t it? Yes, that’s good.
Haint no man’s servant.
No no, never.
Touched by God.
Steele held his hands out in front of him, as if he’d never seen them before.
Touched by God, he repeated.
He turned and grasped Burnham’s arm, hard, as if he meant to tear it from his body.
I remember! he said. I remember in Africa, a little child. I— I remember what they did. To me. Before. In Africa. Before.
He stood up, trembling, eyes pressed tightly closed, one hand upon his heart.
Touched by God! he shouted.
And he started to sway and stamp as if to a music he alone could hear. Others joined in with him. And he started to sing.
Touched by, la la la, touched by, la la, by God, he sang in a rasping, unmusical baritone. La la, O—
His footwork became mere confused stomping.
Let! Me! Be! Free! he shrieked.
Flinging both legs out in front of him, he fell on his back. The song degenerated into pained screams, as his arms and legs flailed about. He beat his head violently against the floor.
Fly up to Heaven!
Thunder and lightning, and the rain beat down harder.
Free! Fly! Free! Fly!
All the worshipers stood in a silent circle around Steele lying motionless on the floor. Then he raised his left hand. Something throbbed inside his sleeve as he waved his arm up and down. He thrummed his heels on the floor. His hips quaked. His head thrashed. His whole body inside his clothing was like the sea in a storm, surf crashing against a rocky shore. His shirt tore open like a burst pillow, with a gust of feathers. Feathers! Flesh? What confusion of the two! And a black wing popped out, flapped, and another, another, another, his feet shook too and a beady black eye peered out from between his knees and his shivering flanks and his arms and all feathers and birds’ feet, like little squirming sticks. Where there should have been fingers in Burnham’s hand, they turned to fierce bones, a beak that struck at his thumb. Burnham jerked away. Steele’s clothes were all in tatters, and the rest was all muddle. Only a flock of crows there, pecking and hopping, hoarsely calling, broad black wings flapping and fierce glares as they tilted their heads this way, that way.
The wind howled and burst the door, slammed it against the wall. And the crows flew out through the open door, one two three four five six seven eight, straight and true as if guided on a string stretched out into the violent night.
Or were they ravens? Grackles? Some other clan of dark-feathered birds?
Someone moved to close the door against the driving rain, but everyone else stood still, staring, silent; and Burnham knelt next to the empty scraps of fabric.
As Burnham walked back from the necessaries the next morning, he reflected that he had never heard, here at Neskyeuna, a voice raised in anger. Yet there was Valentine Rathbone, railing and shouting and waving his arms at a young woman standing by the outer gate. As Burnham approached, Rathbone left off, glanced back towards Burnham, and stalked away along the road back towards Albany. He aimed a kick at the dog lying outside the gate, but it jumped out of the way, wagged its coppery-reddish tail tentatively, then settled back down.
The young woman was the one who had the day before yesterday loaded food and clothes onto the cart at Albany. She was tall for a woman, with strong shoulders. A few wisps of hair, brown as chestnuts, had escaped from under her cap and were flattened against her temples with sweat. (It was already a very warm day.) As she swiveled towards him, she met his gaze with her dark eyes, and it was as if she’d pointed a long gun at him and he was gazing straight down the barrel at the ball lodged there. All he could do was raise his arm in greeting.
Our friend Valentine seems in a transport of enragement, he remarked.
She almost smiled.
He finds himself disappointed in his ambitions, perhaps, she said.
I gather that he anticipated to be appointed Elder over his former congregation at Pittsfield, in Massachusetts, but he has not been.
Ah. But I forget myself! Burnham said.
He bowed and doffed his cap.
Abel Bacon, ma’am, your most servile servant, et cet’ra.
She pursed her lips.
He returned his cap to his head and reached for his purse.
I should like to offer some small—for the hospitality—and the—
Put your money away, tis no good here. You must understand that money is the absence of value; where money is, something of value was, as it may be, a few minutes ago, or will be again in a little while, but not now. I should like to believe that we offer something more here than can be bought with slips of paper.
I must confess, Burnham said—I hope you will excuse me—that my head was mazed by your manner of worship. Tell me, do your co-religionists often turn into birds?
She turned her gaze upwards, towards the pure, blue, bright, morning sky.
Birds? she said. That fly up to Heaven, I suppose. I do have it in mind how bodies can change to assume new shapes, and I would ask the help of God, who knows the trick, to let me glimpse the secret and speak of the nature of all things, from the first to the very last.
She looked back down at Burnham.
But how signal a question! Why, do your friends often turn into dogs?
I— I— You— But— Burnham stammered.
Lucy Wright laid her hand on his arm.
Have I touched upon something deep and painful of yours? I am sincerely sorry.
Burnham looked to the left and right, and whispered: Is it true that you can raise the dead?
Anyone may raise the dead. You are yourself dead in Christ. Arise! Arise to the new life!
O I see.
You are disappointed.
I should return home, he said.
Yes, she told him, you will go home soon, and yet you will find it in some wise no longer your home. Then you will turn your eyes westward, believing that there you might find, or build, in some future place, a new home. But I have never known an exception to the truth of the proposition that wherever riches are growing, especially vast riches and even more so sudden vast riches, that there also something far more valuable is being rapidly consumed, and all about it destroyed. So then you will go westward again, farther, where you will build again, and take at last a wife, and make with her five children, one woman and four men. And there too you will erect a monument, of granite three foot high and two foot broad at the base, and on the west face of it will be graven BURNHAM and the figures one eight two eight, and it will stand there, in a small dell among the trees, and you will lie down under it, and rot.
How can you say these things to me?
I see it plainly here, standing where you stand. Would you have it otherwise? That is easily done. Come.
You must turn your heart to God and your hands to work. Come. There is so much work yet undone.
Sisters, Lucy Wright said, nodding, as she entered the dairy.
Sister Lucy, they acknowledged.
Two were washing the close-set wood shelves along the back, or northern, wall and the third was sluicing the brick floor. Several buckets of water stood ready in a corner.
The butter is in the spring house, one of the Sisters at the shelves said.
Very good, Sister Lucy replied. And this morning’s milk?
Brother Asahel has carried it to the west kitchen, the third Sister said.
And I have already set Sister Polly to warming it, the first one said.
I kindly thank you, Sister Lucy said.
She examined the serried ranks of cheeses shelved on the east wall, nudged one with her thumb, sniffed another.
These seem prime cheeses. I shall send some salt from the kitchen for you to rub them with.
I kindly thank you, the first Sister said.
Burnham loitered awkwardly at the doorway. Sister Lucy brushed past him, her gaze distracted, as if she were reckoning accounts in an invisible ledger.
Surely any Heaven, Burnham said, if there is a Heaven, does not involve the rubbing of cheeses.
Heaven? she asked. Heaven is a habit of mind.
I would have said, Burnham replied, that Hell is a habit of mind, and Heaven freedom from habit.
Come, she said. And do not carelessly slam the gate behind.
The west kitchen was a shallow trench lined with cooking fires, roughly but serviceably roofed over, with canvas walls, which had obviously led former lives as sails, to direct the smoke and ward off wind and rain, so that the whole seemed half shed, half ship, sunk into the hillside. A dozen sisters bustled about, stirring, chopping, sorting, slicing, washing, and otherwise busy with preparations for midday’s dinner.
One sat at a fire a little separated from the rest, bent over a huge, dented, copper kettle, and stirring it. Sister Lucy greeted her and sent her back to the dairy with a jar of salt. She tested the milk with a finger dipped in.
Good, she said. Now we must take the milk off the fire. Help me to lift it. I kindly thank you. Let us place it here where it may remain warm.
She had brought an earthen jar with her from the dairy, and now she plucked out a gobbet with the string that was tied to it; when she had measured out a portion of the cloudy liquid into a tumbler, she returned the gobbet on its string and retied the jar’s paper lid.
Stir it gently as I pour, she directed. Now twice around again, bottom to top. Good. Good. Stop.
Burnham handed her the wooden paddle he’d used. She rinsed it and set it aside, then covered the kettle with a cloth.
She had Burnham scrub out half a dozen shallow wooden molds, like short buckets without bails, with sand, then with salt, rinse them several times, place them atop heavy boards, butter the insides, and line them with that soft, loosely woven fabric called cheese-cloth, which he wetted first. This operation occupied him for an hour or so. Sister Lucy herself paced up and down the length of the kitchen, approving some portion of the meal’s preparation, or directing its progress with further instruction, and always tendering a brief expression of thanks.
She prodded the surface of the kettle of milk with her thumb.
Good, she said, the clabber is ready. Let us return it to the fire.
It was still warm, warm as flesh, and firm, but yielded to Burnham’s touch as flesh does, one’s lover’s thigh, perhaps, or his arm flung across a pillow. Sister Lucy drew a stick swiftly through the clabber, cutting it into squares, and the squares jostled as pale gold seeped between, then lapped over them, as they slowly sank into cloudy gold-green-gray. Burnham settled on a little stool next to the kettle on its slow fire and plunged his hands into the whey, just as he was instructed, caught and lifted the white clods, gently letting them break apart and fall back.
Break it gently, Brother Augustus—
My name is Abel, Burnham objected. Abel Bacon.
—be not too rough with it, for else a great deal of the richness of the milk will go into the whey.
As the whey heated till it was warm as bath water, gradually the curds began to squeak like rosin on a fiddler’s bow when he pinched them between his fingers. At last, Sister Lucy declared the process complete and helped him to remove the kettle from the fire. She commanded him to ladle its contents into a loose-work basket draped with cheese-cloth, set on a frame over a small barrel to catch the whey. When the basket was full, he was to gather up the edges of the cloth and squeeze and twist the bundle until it stopped dripping, then drape new cheese-cloth over the basket, and so on until the kettle was emptied. Then the bundles had to be opened, broken apart, and the curds, now rather dry, strewn with a handful of salt and piled into the molds, heaped up an inch above the brims, then kneaded and pressed and flattened into wheels. More whey leaked out of holes drilled round the lower part of the molds. Finally, Sister Lucy had him fold the loose cheese-cloth flaps up over the wheels and fit the snug wooden covers (called followers, she told him). She patted the cheese-molds’ closed tops affectionately, as one might the head of a favored dog or a small child.
Now, as anyone may plainly see, Lucy Wright said, you have somewhat of value and utility to show for your time and work expended—and truly I hope tis not the first such occasion. Brother Daniel will be along to carry them to the cheese-presses.
Burnham rinsed his hands.
My time here has been most justly and abundantly expended, he said, truly, but I have urgent—
It has ever been a proverbial but undeniable truth, Lucy Wright asserted, that no task is well and truly complete until all its tools have been gathered up, washed, dried, repaired if necessary, and returned to their places.
Burnham crouched by the kettle turned on its side, his head half inside it.
The milk has burnt to the pot here, he complained, and it will not wash off.
Why then, Lucy Wright said, take up a handful of sand and scrub it.
Burnham threw down his dish-clout.
Enough! he said. You should tend to the scrubbing of your own soul, and when you’ve scrubbed it free of sin, what will be left of it?
You fear that too little of yours will be left, or nothing. The first and original sin is concupiscence.
But where can you go now?
Back to the world, Burnham said. Into the real, only, whole world.
He kicked the overturned kettle and it gonged like a death knell, and he kicked it again.
(In a few days, Sergeant Steele of the Black Company of Pioneers will march with his regiment up the street, and march with his regiment down the street, in occupied New-York City. There will be much talk and rumor about where he’d gone and how he came back again, and some will even tell a wild tale of how he came to lose his uniform, but the Sergeant himself has always been a man of few words; let people believe what they wish. He’ll say to himself, I touch the Heaven and it bring me here, never go back there, never.
(And Peter, having seen, with much fuss and to-do, his master to bed, will lie on his own bed and gaze out the little window at the moonlight on the treetops. How beautiful, he’ll whisper, are the feet of them. Now what, Peter will think, did he mean by that? He won’t know! And he’ll laugh, softly, so as not to wake the rest of the household unnecessarily.
(Jens the bath attendant will lie on his straw pallet, a strip of firelight from below aslant the blanket. He’ll hold his manhood, grown large and hard, in his left hand. Yes, he’ll say, yes.
(John Witbeeck will fidget nervously in his chair, eyes glancing up, eyes looking down, fret his hands, and finally say, Yes I will, yes I do, yes. I’ll go there with you.
(Cadwallader Goldsworthy will gulp his toddy (which’ll be growing cold) and bend so that his eyes are but an inch from his papers. I have with the assistance of God, he’ll write, invented a practical mode of exhibiting figures, letters, words, and sentences, by night or day, viz.: The Numerical Telegraph, composed of a frame of timber, and an index or hand like a clock, that revolves round the center, and is work’d by a spoke-wheel, such as is used for steering ships.
(And Private Augustus Post, having joined Captain Fitch’s company of the fourth Connecticut regiment hardly more than two months ago, tow-headed, tall, sixteen years old, will thrash and doze on the hospital cot and mutter, And like a dog twas and like a man too and it fell like shadows out of the trees...
(Soon, too, Senator Schuyler shall raise his arm again, bring the cane down, whistling swift, upon his servant’s naked back again. Eight, nine, he’ll say, ten, eleven, twelve.
(Caroline, the maid-of-all-work at the Grape-Vine in Sparta, will clasp her head and stare in dismay at the broken chamberpot she’ll have just dropped. It’ll have been empty, but—O! O! O! She’ll gather up the pieces in her apron and say, I’ll go ask Joe, he’ll know what to do.
(But, next month, Ann Lee (Standerren is her husband’s name and even that stubborn man has long since acknowledged that the marriage is void) will stand and raise both hands. I felt the power of God come upon me, she’ll say, which moved my hands up and down like the motion of wings; and soon I felt as if I had wings on both hands, and I saw them, and they appeared as bright as gold.
(Doctor Lang Gordon will turn the page of the medical journal, a French one, from Paris, and not more than five years old, propped up against his coffee pot. Such great steps of progress, such advancements, in the study of the animal magnetism! Meow, he’ll say, mockingly, to Quidnunc; then to Mississippi and Gavotte and Leibniz, each in turn: Meow. Meow. Meow.
(John Smith, if that’s truly his name (and what are names but what we are called by men; if we choose not to answer when so called, then what kind of name could it ever have been?), will lie by the fire, the hot air that it exudes warm on his flanks, his belly gratified by a hasty but wholesome meal, and will tip gradually from wakefulness into sleep, and from sleep into wakefulness, his eyelids slowly closing then widening, glistening, and will, for now, be content to be doing nothing at all.
(Mary Partington will sit in a corner of James Boyd’s house, in Poughkeepsie, knitting. Click click, click click, click click her needles will go as the stocking lengthens and lengthens.
(In December, Valentine Rathbone will strike out three lines from the printer’s proof so violently that his pen will break. No, it’ll only be the nib bent. He’ll recut it, dip the repaired pen, and write: And now while I am writing, I am informed, by good authority, that two men in that pernicious sect have murdered themselves, one cut his throat, the other stabbed himself, after he had twice tried to kill his wife, &c.
(Lucy Wright will square the papers on the table, lift and dip her pen, scratch it along the top sheet’s surface. When we clasp our hands, she’ll write, our right thumbs and fingers should be above our left, as uniformity is comely.
(And Charity Kohlhaas (for that is the name that the soldier goes by when out of uniform—which he’ll not be, at the moment—and dressed as a wench: and quite a fetching one, too, or so he likes to believe) will sit whittling a stick into a spoon, with a broad thick bowl, and at the tip of the handle a heart, which he’ll be planning to paint red and green, if he can find some paint, and so will send it home to his mother as a token.
(Next year, Abraham Cuyler, who has long served, first King and now Country, as one of the gaolers at the old Stadt Huys, will lean over the crib, brush aside the dimity hanging, and pinch the plump pink cheek of his daughter. She’ll squeal delightedly. Little little, he’ll say, little plumpkins! Little twiddlekins mine! He will wonder if she’ll live long enough to learn to call him papa.
(Sergeant Jeremiah Wood will tug his jacket neat, turn, enter the officers’ tent, and salute. Now then, now then, he’ll say, and the regiment’s at strength, Captain Fitch, sir, save for two sick in camp, and one as is on leave, and two on detachment, sir.
(The Virginian leader of the clan of cowboys above Rhinebeck will pace the length and breadth of their cave, and poke into the corners, looking for things left behind that ought not to be left behind. Never have I ever, he’ll say, seen such a lax and lazy crowd of cut-throats and robbers, slow-bellied monkeys, perjured shavelings, shifty and outcast pettifoggers, sun-shunning night-birds and corner creepers, dull-pated and base bumpkins, common braggarts, one-eyed lamed toothless tattling chattering clowns, dog-leeches, and suchlike useless baggage.
(Thomas Waklee will kneel on the floor and press his hands against his cheeks and say Ann, Ann, Ann, Ann. But he’ll be able to say nothing more, and would weep in frustration, but she’ll take his hands in hers and smile.
(After the war, Hendrick J. Wendell will seat himself at table in the public room of Lewis’s City Tavern with all the pomp and grace as befits the dignity of the High Sheriff of the City and County of Albany, by appointment of the Governor and Council; and will command a leg of mutton, roasted, and a dish of boiled greens and all the appurtenances proper thereunto.
(Master Pieter Davitts will prod the rumps and flanks that heap the butcher’s counter. He’ll sniff his thumb, lick it, frown. Very dainty, he’ll say, but very dear. Can you not dress this brisket to resemble a sirloin?
(Mrs MacReynolds will limp back to her private room and ease her old bones into the chair by the fire and say, Mrs MacReynolds has her own, O yes she does, she has her own.
(And so many years from now, as he plods down that gang-plank, at last, at last, as empty-hearted as he’s empty-handed, in the harbor at Sierra Leone, where he’ll have come by ship from Nova Scotia, where he’ll have come by ship from New-York City, where he’d come by ship from Carolina, where he’d come by ship from God only knows, some dusty African shore but not this one, not this one, beaten bare by a high bronze sky; Mr Murphy Steele will stop there in the middle, for a moment, and say: I had forgot where I was!)
What and who he was attend a while, and you shall understand that it was even I, the writer of myne owne Metamorphosie and strange alterations of figure. I crave and beg your pardon, lest I should displease or offend any of you by rude and rusticke utterance; Gentle Reader, if thou wilt give attendant eare, it will minister unto thee such delectable matter as thou shalt be contented withall.
Apuleius (translated by William Adlington)
Colonel Burlington! Colonel Burlington, if I may!
The young server from Lewis’s City Tavern was running down the street after him, one hand clutching his wig to his head.
You have forgot your change, he said when he had caught him up. Here.
He pressed a wad of notes into Burnham’s hand.
But no no no, my dear boy, Burnham said. Tis for you! A gratuity.
The server smiled uncertainly.
But so much...?
A trifle, Burnham said. Twice as much would yet be too little!
The young man blushed but he pocketed the money. Thank you, sir!
He gazed at his feet for a moment, then glanced up at Burnham.
You are, he asked, you are leaving today, to join your regiment?
(Burnham had that very morning flourished his new commission to the general acclaim of the habitués of the City Tavern’s public room, then quickly retired the fabled document—which had previously played the rôles of pass, dispatch, and warrant—to an inner pocket.)
O no, not yet. Soon.
But your servant—
Your black servant.
O! He was never my servant—what is your name, again?, beg pardon—
John, sir. John Witbeeck.
—not my servant, John, nor any man’s, and he is gone away. Quite where, unfortunately, I cannot say.
He shook John’s hand.
Well then, John, all’s well, and your intendant Mr Lewis must be wondering where you’ve got to.
O tis true, I must go. Good morning, sir! Thank you, sir!
He made a leg to Burnham, then scuttered up the street. Burnham entered the shop he had stopped at near the Dutch Church: THOMAS BARRY, DRY GOODS—Just Imported From Europe! Books—Bibles and Psalm books, Testaments, Spelling Books, Primers, Entick’s Pocket Dictionaries, Almanacs, Young Men’s Companions and Arithmetics, —Books—Just Imported From Europe!—THOMAS BARRY, DRY GOODS.
Burnham ran his fingers lightly along the books’ spines. No novels here, nor plays, nor poetry, but a number of handbooks of model letters, and of course pamphlets of sermons. Almanacs sometimes printed diverting topical verses, but—he flipped rapidly through its pages—this one did not. He set the book back among its companions. No, nothing here.
He patted the books as one might an old friend, bade the shopkeeper good-day, and left.
Burnham at last ran his quarry to ground at the Coffee House on Green Street, David Trowbridge, Proprietor—a printed handbill:
Departing once a week, on Thursday evenings, from Green’s Coffee House, stage wagons, the most easy and agreeable, for New Haven and points between, viz.:
Green River, £0.11s.8d.
Egremont near by the foot of Nabletown mountain, £0.15s.4d.
Baker’s in Great Barrington, £1.0.4d.
Phelps’s (Green Woods), £1.11s.—
And today was Wednesday.
A hand threw down a mixed wad of money, all kinds: Congress-bills and colonial paper and Bank of England notes and suspiciously crumpled and foreign-looking scraps.
It was the server from Lewis’s again, now out of the absurd livery that the hostelry obliged him to wear.
You, Colonel Burlington, are a scoundrel, sir!
Burnham set his ale on the deal table, scarred but sanded pale and smooth.
Am I? he asked. But happily I must tell you that I have never had truck with dueling.
Your money is false.
O surely not. Come, let us see. I am somewhat of an authority on such things.
He looked up at—John, was it?
Please! Sit, sit. Indulge me, John, for but a moment and we shall set all to rights. Would you have a draught?
He waved to the barman.
John sat reluctantly. A few runnels foamed over the lip of the tankard placed before him.
Tis quite good, Burnham said, Master Denniston’s best ale, and sinful to put it to waste.
John raised the tankard and sipped, then took a large swallow.
Good, Burnham said. Now let us see.
He plucked a bill out of the pile and rubbed it between his fingertips.
The paper is good, he said. The paper is very good. And the water-mark.
He placed it on the table and bent close to examine it.
But not perfect, he said. See? Here? This letter e, how its eye is clear? On the genuine notes, having been printed somewhat hastily, the ink has clogged it.
So you confess to passing me false notes!
No, John, not knowingly. Most are good and but a few false. Each must be judged singly. The counterfeiters’ end is to mix their false money with the good and so make us to doubt it all. But I had not thought that these false British dollars had made it so far as Albany.
Yes, they print them in New-York City and put them about by the cart-load.
How can you know that, unless you conspire with them?
It would pain me greatly, John, to think that you contemn me.
But how can you know?
Ah! Now thereon hangs a story. Tis a long story and a strange one and some of it is secret still. But if I tell you what I may, won’t you also tell me somewhat about yourself?
Yes. I may look the knotted and ravaged veteran, but only half a dozen of years ago I was very like you. Except that the war was in its infancy then, not waning towards its end.
John relaxed in his chair, swallowed more of his ale.
Once upon a time, Burnham began—
—a young man heeded the call that went out after Concord and Lexington, and said good-bye to his mother and brothers and sisters, and left his comfortable Connecticut home, and left behind too all his books, and marched to Boston. But soon he met another man, about the same age senior to me then that I am to you now, who showed him how to follow the hidden paths below the American lines but above the city, dangerous paths, where friend and foe look all alike, and names and costumes might be assumed or cast off as easily as ranks and loyalties.
You were a spy! John exclaimed.
Shh—! Burnham said. I was, yes. I was. But tis a secret!
John tilted his tankard back, draining it. Burnham called for more.
So, Burnham said. Tell me, John, have you always lived here in Albany?
O yes! And my father and his father too. He tells a tale of how his father—my great-grandfather that was—came up the river trapping beaver while the Dutch was still the patroons of the land.
And did trade with the Indians and the Dutch factors, I imagine.
Yes, just so. A wild place then.
The barman thunked down their refilled tankards.
Dangerous paths, I was saying, Burnham continued. Coming out of them, all in one piece still, after some dire assignation or melee, twas as heady as one’s first whiskey, or like when the girl you admire admits her own heart is smitten too.
He winked at John.
The blood sings at such moments! But the song may sometimes be not a paean but a dirge.
How long has your secret service been? John asked.
Long enough. Long enough to acquire tales to regale young new friends with.
Tell me one, John said.
Hmm, Burnham said. Well.
In our first operation together, we—I—my compeer and I—introduced ourselves to some men who were conspiring to form a company of recruits for the King’s army. One Captain Robinson, an English officer, was living secretly in a cave and would meet with the men, a few at a time, in his troglodytic billet—
His what? John asked.
In the cave. And we made a list of names for the Committee of Vigilance. When the men were all gathered under arms at a farmhouse, the time was so short that we resorted to a dangerous expedient, and one of the men saw Crosby—O! I had not meant to name him. No matter, tis not his real name. He was seen riding to warn the Committee. At the farmhouse, the Captain called us two out of doors, but his suspicion had fallen on the man who had informed. When he sent for him, that man brought with him his gun, and hearing the accusation, turned it upon the Captain. Crosby leapt upon him and in the struggle the gun discharged.
Burnham sat back in his chair.
Then what happened?
The farmhouse was already surrounded, and they took the gunshot as a signal, and I was carried to a patriot doctor. God was with me that day or else I had lost the eye.
I am happy you did not lose it.
Yes. Am I forgiven the peccadillo with the money? Are we friends now?
Burnham laid his hand atop of John’s.
John did not pull his away.