Chloe Helton | Historical Fiction

The Red Pearl: Chapter 2

Chapter 2

 

I swept. Sometimes I swept all day, not even reaching the far end of the room before a mess reappeared on the other side. Crumbs, spilled drops of gin, that sort of thing. Usually Jasper kicked the customers out before they got so drunk as to spill a whole goblet of gin - this was a respectable place, after all - but it still happened often enough. Because I spent most of my time sweeping and weaving around tables with a pitcher of rum, I was a good listener. After enough time, you learn to blend in like a cat, slinking around, squeezing between chairs, swiping a broom underneath a pair of feet. And then, when you realize that these strange, chattering faces hardly notice you, it’s hard not to listen.

“Ridiculous,” a short, bald man was saying. “Jenny and I wanted to stay with my brother, but he has no room. A pair of lobsterbacks took up in his house, kicked the kids out of their room. Now his daughters sleep on the floor next to him. Imagine that! The whole family in one room like paupers while those officers show up smoking tobacco pipes and order them around in their own home.”

“Really? I can’t believe it. But my cousin said the same; he came home one day and his wife had bruises on her face and her arms. He asks what in God’s name happened to her. Pair of ‘em decided to make a surprise search, banged the door open and when she tried to fight back they beat her. Made off with all his flour, too. Don’t know how his wife made the bread for the week, and the bakers are so expensive these last few years.”

“You ever tried Timothy Allen? He’s a block over, always a good bargain if you know how to haggle with him. I suspect he’s gone under the table, you know, because there’s no way you can get supplies so cheap otherwise.”

“Well, who isn’t these days? There are things you just can’t get the legal way. . .”

I bumped my elbow against the corner of the bar, spilling my pitcher a little. Too close to the conversing men, apparently. “Watch it, broad!”

“Sorry.”

“Look at that,” the other muttered as I slid away. “You ever seen tits like hers on a girl who wasn’t a whore?”

I pressed a fingernail into my palm. There’s nothing you can do. Men talked. At least this time it wasn’t to my face. Where was Jasper? They wouldn’t dare say anything while he was on the other side of the bar.

Once the overnight guests cleared out, which was about midday, I found Jasper. “Floor’s swept. Kitchen’s stocked. Robby put a pot on for the supper stew.”

Jasper looked at me expectantly.

“I was hoping to visit Betty,” I explained. “To see how she’s doing with the baby.”

He nodded. Sometimes his eyes flashed with envy when I mentioned her children; I knew he wanted sons of his own to inherit The Red Pearl. “Well, it’s been slow today.” Always was on Mondays. “As long as you’re home before the suppertime crowd starts coming in.”

I smiled and pecked his cheek. “I know we need cream for the flip.” Flip was an old favorite, a drink this place had been famous for since his grandfather owned it. “I’ll get some while I’m there.”

Since Betty lived just a few blocks away, I didn’t take the horse. If I was in a hurry I sometimes did, but today it was a leisurely visit, and the suppertime crowd wouldn’t show for several hours. On a Monday, we were lucky to get a considerable crowd at all.

Betty had the baby at her breast when I walked into her family’s little shop. If it were anyone else, she might have put a cloth over herself before letting them in, but not with me.

“She’s crawling now,” she said, gesturing to the baby. “And she keeps picking dustballs off the floor and putting them in her mouth. Did you know they do that? They’ll eat anything. Just anything. It’s a wonder any of them make it past the first year.”

“Yes, they do that.” I was six or seven when I had to start following my sister Thea around the house to pick mud and rat droppings out of her hands before she could swallow it, so I knew. But Betty was the youngest in her family, and now the only one left, so she’d never taken care of a baby.

“You know,” she said, “sometimes I think you’d make a better mother than me, Lucy. It’s a shame you and Jasper haven’t got one.”

“I suspect it’s on his part. My family are like rabbits, you know. Thea’s got three already, so I remember, and Thomas has so many he can’t remember all their names.”

“Isn’t that terrible? I hate to think that will ever happen to Henry; he told me once that his brother still calls Jacob by the name ‘Joseph’ sometimes.”

“Joseph’s the one who died in ‘77?”

She nodded, eyes wide. “Can you imagine such a thing? Calling your son by the name of his dead older brother?”

I shuddered. “But tell me how Henry is.”

She shrugged. “He hasn’t been on leave since that time a month ago.”

“Has he written?”

“A few times. But not much news. Oh, he did mention that his company captain’s been sending him off on missions as a messenger. Thinks he might make courier, if the current one ever actually gets caught drunk on the job.”

“Aren’t they always drunk on the job?”

She shot me a look. “Not the couriers. Maybe you can have whiskey breath while you shoot muskets, I don’t know. But you must be of good mind to ride through enemy lines, at least from what Henry says. That’s why it’s such a good job. I think there’s a pay raise in it, too, and God knows we could use that.” She took the baby Sally off her breast and put the little girl on her shoulder to burp her.

“And to think I’m an innkeeper’s wife,” I grinned. “The most exciting thing Jasper’s ever done is boot a blacksmith out of the bar when he started throwing punches.”

“You could have been a soldier’s wife, too,” she said. If you’d married Sam.

Here we were, again. My mouth tightened. “As if my father would’ve allowed that.”

“Well, you didn’t have to listen to him, you know.”

“And marry without a dowry? I would’ve been penniless with Sam. God’s sake, he’s a fourth son. We would have nothing.”

She pursed her lips. “I know, Lucy. The reason I was so upset about your marrying Jasper all those years ago is - well, I just wanted you to be happy.”

“Jasper and I are happy.” She didn’t believe me, I could tell by her expression, and I wasn’t about to argue that I was in love with him. “I go to bed every night with a full stomach, and he’s never belted me. He’s a good husband.”

“Maybe he is,” Betty said, “but when you tell him about that bald man who always calls you a whore, he doesn’t even care.”

Not that he doesn’t care, I thought. But we’d go bankrupt if he turned away customers for foul comments. We’d had this conversation a thousand times, so she’d heard that before.

Sally was done burping, and she gave me a big, toothless smile. Well, she had a few teeth. I cooed at her, and Betty smiled. “You want to hold her?”

I took the baby into my arms. “At least my husband is home to warm my bed every night,” I said, sticking my nose out at Betty in jest. She shrugged. I turned to Sally and cooed, “Do you miss your papa, baby?”

Betty crossed her arms, grinning. “Oh, shush. He’ll come home a war hero and you’ll be biting your tongue with jealousy.”

She was probably right. There was nothing heroic about Jasper. Whether we were free people or slaves under the Crown, he wouldn’t care either way. Sometimes I wished he had a mind for things other than The Red Pearl.

“You should stand up for yourself, Lucy,” my friend advised me while I bounced her daughter in my arms. “Tell him what you think sometimes. What you really think, I mean, not just what he wants to hear.”

What’s the use in that? “Yes, sure.”

She shrugged. “Fine, don’t. Just know that if he ever locks you in your room for a month like your father did after the Tea Party, I’ll come rescue you.”

“It wasn’t a month.” It had been eleven days. I hadn’t had many candles with me in there, and occasionally I suspected my eyes never recovered from writing in that dim light for so long. The tavern was never well-lit, though, so it wasn’t much of a bother. Only in the sun. “Jasper would never do that, but if he did, I would gladly await your rescue.” I smiled at Sally, whose glazed-over eyes were staring at something the room. “Right, sleepy girl?” I pulled her closer. “You and your mama could come rescue me.” I hugged her tight for a minute, not wanting to let her go. “Okay, I’ll give her back before she falls asleep on me.”

“Shame. She sleeps better with you than with me.”

I looked at her seriously. “You’re a good mother, Bett. Don’t forget it. And if you ever need help with her, I’ll come to your rescue.”

She took her baby back and cradled her. “I’ve needed your rescue since the day she was born. But I suppose, eight months after the fact, I’ll accept it.”

I smiled. “I should get some cream from you before I go.”

She carried the giggling girl to the counter, where she produced a few jars and gave me back too much change. However I tried, she refused to charge me full price.

With a wave goodbye, I scooped up the jars. “Good to see you, Betty.”