Something was different tonight. Normally, the late-night men talked freely, perhaps leaving out the key details while I was about them but never falling to silence as soon as they caught sight of me. Now, though, they were eerily quiet while I was in their presence.
A matter of importance, perhaps: more significant than all the others. I had to pay attention.
I passed out the six glasses of stone fence, one for each of the men, and as I approached Charles he waved it away. “What’s that drink with the cream?”
He nodded. “I want that instead.”
I took his glass back, tempted to pour it over his face, and set it aside in the kitchen, in case one of the others wanted a refill.
Once I’d ladled a cupful of flip from the barrel into a glass, I made my way back to the dining room. I hovered in the little room between the kitchen and the dining room, which could not be seen by inhabitants of either room, and waited. Certainly, they were running their mouths now that they were alone.
“I can’t believe how cold it is. We should be nearing spring now, isn’t that right? And still I fear my balls will freeze off.”
Another few minutes, and more of the same talk. I approached them and clinked the glass onto the table.
“That took awhile,” Charles remarked.
I pursed my lips. “Yes, well I wanted to make sure it was just right.”
A wolfish grin. “Good girl.”
I turned my back, shivering. They would say something eventually, of course they would; they never held a meeting like this without discussing another shipment. Had I lost my mind?
“Oy!” It was directed at me. I turned around, and one of the men asked, “Do you have any of that beef jerky?”
I shook my head. “We might have buffalo, though. I will let Jasper know you’ve requested it.”
When I told Jasper, he sighed and went to the back, returning with a small sack of the jerky. “These men have quite the appetite.” They’d eaten dinner with us, and now wanted to snack on strips of meat throughout the night.
Appetite. Sure. If only they would keep spilling secrets.
Jasper plated the jerky, and I reached across the counter for nutmeg to sprinkle over it. “Make sure to keep refilling their drinks,” he said. “We’d much rather have them drink a barrel of stone fence than wolf down our delicacies.”
I wasn’t sure what he intended to use the buffalo jerky for, if not to feed these ravenous regulars, but perhaps he was simply hoping the supply would last.
As I deposited the plate in the middle of the table of men, whose fingers snapped out eagerly to grab their share, I heard it. “It’s called The Blue Orphan. Jeremy, you should be at the port at sunset on Sunday to watch it come in, and I’ll give you the proper papers -”
Strange name for a ship, I thought as I walked away, satisfied. I knew the information would come. Just took a bit of whiskey, sometimes.
“You should be careful, Jeremy,” Charles said, loud enough for me to hear. “You never know who might be listening.”
My heart hammered. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be that he had figured me. I was so paranoid now that I was hearing things.
Back in the kitchen, I made up some soapy water and began to scrub dishes. The water was cold now, but I had put a small pot on to boil, and when it was hot enough I’d pour it into the bin to warm up the water. I shivered as I plunged my hands in and out of the chilly water, scrubbing vigorously.
Sunday at sunset. The Blue Orphan. I was repeating it, over and over, committing it to memory. As if it didn’t stick well enough already. Instead, what began to circulate were the words, You never know who might be listening.
If he had made me, I was dead. In all probability, at least.
Finishing with a glass, I picked it out of the water to lay it on the counter. In a moment, it fell from my hand, spiralling slowly toward the ground and shattering with a loud crash.
Jasper, who was rifling through the pantry, turned toward the sound. He was surprised to spot me as the culprit, it seemed; it was more likely that Robbie had done it.
“What the hell?” Jasper hissed.
“I didn’t mean -”
“Quiet,” he said, and with that word I lost my voice anyway. “Shut your mouth and clean it up.”
Terrified, I obliged. Jasper’s outbursts weren’t unheard of, and I’d experienced much similar from my father, but they still shook me. My instinct was to apologize, and my tongue was empty without those words, but I knew he didn’t want to hear it. He just wanted to see it cleaned up.
Soon after, the men retired to bed, and once I’d cleaned up all the broken glass, I glanced at Jasper, waiting for his cue to retire. He was sorting through the pantry, and he didn’t look at me.
I approached him slowly, hesitantly, wondering if he would strike me. Likely this was a baseless fear, as he had never done it before, but if there was one thing I’d learned lately, it was that safety was unpredictable. Life could be warm and comfortable, and in the snap of a finger go cold and dark. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before my husband struck me.
“Shall we retire?” I asked shyly. “Or is there something I can help you with before we do?”
“Nothing,” he said, carefully placing a few lightly-peeled onions near the enormous bags of flour: his way of keeping rats out. My mother had always used spices and strongly-scented leaves, which she claimed were the best deterrent, but Jasper swore by the onions, and I obeyed his word.
Once the onions were staged, he turned around, and I prepared to walk towards the stairs, but Jasper didn’t move. Just crossed his arms and looked at me. “Now, tell me what’s wrong with you.”
“For the past week - and longer, I suppose, but that’s when it started to get worse - you don’t look at me, you jump in fear at nothing, you look terrified of the guests, and you’re dropping shit -” he gestured to the floor, where little bits of glass were probably buried in the wood, “which you never do.”
“I -” My lips stuck together. I had no defense for it; I couldn’t claim that everything was normal. I had to think of something. “I’ve been hearing stories lately,” I said. “Of men raiding Tories, stealing from them, burning their shops. These men make me nervous, because if anyone knew what they were, they would make us as Tories, too.” It was believable, at least. And part of the reason I was afraid.
“You think I would put you in danger?” he asked, and it was perhaps an accusation.
“Of course not. I - um, I think people can get the wrong impression. Especially these days. If they knew we were housing Tories -”
“You don’t even know that they’re Tories, Lucy!” he hissed. “You’re imagining things, and now you want to risk our livelihood over it, is that it?”
“So you’re going to cower in fear like a little kitten because of some suspicions of yours?”
It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that. “Why don’t you listen to me?” I stepped closer, pulling my chin up to face him eye-to-eye. He could hit me, he could do it now, and the intensity of his eyes hinted that he had a thought to do it.
He didn’t hit me. “I don’t understand what you mean, Lucy. You talk and talk and talk, and I always listen.”
“Not about this. Those men are no good, and I know because I hear what they say.”
He crossed his arms. “If you can’t handle rough talk, you shouldn’t be here.” In a pub, was what he meant. A barmaid should accept harsh words, veiled threats, untoward attention.
That moment, I felt his hands on me, all over, my skin bare and vulnerable and violated. “I’m going to bed.”
“No, you’re not. Not until you promise to stop being so ridiculous.”
He was my husband. I was supposed to listen to him, so when he told me to stay, I should have stayed. Perhaps if I were a better wife, I could have. “No. I’m going to bed.”
I turned to do it, and his grip was on me, firm and binding.
My words, somehow, were steady. “Don’t touch me.”
“I’ll touch you as I please,” he hissed. “You can’t stop me.”
I tried to pull away, but it was no use. So, weakly, I accepted it. But once he had me, he didn’t touch me, not as I expected he would. He simply looked at me, trying to solve some puzzle in the planes of my face.
“Perhaps we should go to bed,” he said, and after a tense moment we went upstairs silently, and we fell asleep on opposite sides of the bed.