Chloe Helton | Historical Fiction

The Red Pearl: Chapter 9

Chapter 9

 

“Another meeting tonight.” Jasper said it nonchalantly, as I was washing bed-sheets for the guest rooms, and as I dipped my hands in the soapy water I felt a chill run down my back.

“The same men?” I asked, as if it would be any different. As if God would be so kind.

He hummed in confirmation, stepping behind me to access the study.

Leaving one of the sheets to soak in the water, I scurried into the kitchen. Robbie was out back emptying the chamber pots, so I had a moment alone here, where broth boiled on the stove for the dinner stew and barrels of whiskey lined the wall. I was looking for a knife.

Next to the stove, strewn haphazardly across a cutting board, were a handful of knives. I chose the one with the sharpest blade, the same one I had used last knight as I sat catatonically before the fireplace. It was small enough to stow in my waist-pocket, where it would jangle with a few loose coins and a small handful of hairpins.

“Have you started dinner?” Jasper’s voice nearly made me jump out of my skin. I hastily tucked the pocket under my apron, although it wasn’t inherently suspicious to be fiddling with it.

I struggled to regain my voice. “No, I was finishing the washing.”

“Well, I should hope you’ll finish soon. Dinner doesn’t cook itself, and unfortunately the boy can’t cook it, either.” There was humor in his voice. Or perhaps there wasn’t. It was hard to tell while my head was still spinning with fear.

I cleared my throat. “Well, there’s some apples in the corner there if you’re starving. I intend to make a pie, but if one’s missing I won’t tell on you.”

“Good girl.” He chuckled at my joke and strode past me to pluck an apple into his mouth.

Jasper left without a noise, and I went back to the washing with trembling hands. When I had put the sheets out to dry, and the skin on my fingers was wrinkled from the water, I went back to the kitchen to chop celery and carrots.

The voice from the other side of the wall was sickeningly familiar. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything in the past few days?”

My fingers shook, and I had to put the knife down.

“No,” his companion replied. “Paul says it won’t be coming in for a few weeks, and that’s if the weather’s good. Storms have been nasty lately, he tells me. A few ships lost already this year.”

That’s because your folk are not supposed to come here, I thought. God has made thunderous storms along the Atlantic so traitors cannot pass. But perhaps it was not so. Would God make storms to protect our colonies from British ships and then leave women such as myself whimpering and terrified under Tory hands? Would He make His gifts so bittersweet?

The boy Robbie passed through the kitchen, and I resumed with the carrots. That short question had reduced me to quivers - the sound of his voice, just for a moment, was like a crack of thunder through my whole body.

Slowly, the night crept along, until the drunks poured out the doors in the wee hours and the overnight guests filtered upstairs to their rooms. I lit an extra candle in the kitchen for light, and Robbie decanted whiskey from the barrels into smaller jugs that we would pour into pitchers or mix into specialty drinks. I wanted their drinks to taste like piss tonight, all of them, so awful that their faces twisted from the bitter taste and they spat it onto the floor by their feet. I wanted their drinks to taste like regret.

“What are we making tonight?” Robbie asked, hauling the first jug onto the counter near the sink.

“The usual. These men always drink stone fence, that terrible British mix - I’ve taught you how to make it, yes?”

He nodded. “Should we try serving the rest of the flip first? We’ve got lots left.”

He had a point; the flip would keep another day or two, but not as well as the hard liquors in stone fence. But flip was creamy and sweet, hard as nails at first sip but then soft as it went down, and these men didn’t want that. Nasty brutes as they were, they wanted a drink that would taste like rusty nails the whole way.

I sighed and shook my head. “They won’t take to it.”

Jasper emerged from the dining room, where the men were settling around their usual table, and nodded to me that it was time to hurry out there with the pitchers.

I emerged from the kitchen, hobbling toward the men with shaky hands. He couldn’t hurt me here, not with Jasper just moments away. I should be safe now.

Making my way around the table with the whiskey, I felt his sharp, heavy gaze. Like a hunted deer, I wanted nothing more than to dash away, fold myself into the safety of trees and brush, never to be seen again. I wanted to be invisible.

At last, I reached him. I leaned as far away as possible, while not being too obvious, as I decanted whiskey into his glass. “Good evening,” he crooned, and I shivered. Was it thrilling for him, to know that he had violated me under my husband’s roof, that Jasper smiled and clapped him on the back like an old friend without knowing of it?

“Good evening, sir.” My voice was surprisingly even. I could not let him see me tremble.

He leaned forward to whisper, “I might have more coin for you this evening.”

I watched the faces of his fellows. They didn’t seem surprised by his attention to me; nor were they particularly interested. Had he told them everything, and they were inwardly grinning as they watched me struggle to keep my composure? Would they all roar with laughter as soon as I left the room?

I could not falter. Whether they knew or not, I could not let any of these men think me weak. I remembered the knife tucked in the pouch under my apron, imagining how I would use it, if I had to.

I gave the man a shallow curtsy. “I’ll be back momentarily with more drink.”

Though I scurried back to the kitchen as fast as I could, it did not seem fast enough. No human movement could relieve me of his presence as quickly as I wished.

Luckily, Jasper did not appear to notice my desperation. His back was toward me as he brought a new jug of whiskey up from under the floorboards, where they were kept cool. He gestured Robbie to dispose of the empty one.

“The stone fence is almost ready,” Jasper informed me, apparently having heard my entrance. “I’ll pour it for you in just a moment.”

“I can do it,” I said.

Years ago, Jasper used to make the stone fence with just rum, but when the harbor closed and Caribbean imports became almost impossible to acquire, we started using whiskey instead. These days, through some under-the-table practices that Jasper didn’t tell me much about, we were able to get enough rum to splash it into the drink - just enough to give it a pinch of its old taste.

Jasper had mixed the whiskey, rum, and cider together in a large pitcher: only flip and stone fence, because they were so popular, were mixed in large quantities rather than by the glass. My husband had already set out the glasses, so I poured six glasses, for the six men at the table tonight. I let Robbie zest a lemon, which he had just learned how to do, and sprinkle it over each of the glasses.

After herding the glasses onto a wooden tray, I was back out in the vulnerable air of the dining room. I was back under the uncomfortable heat of his gaze, back into the room where all the men, certainly, knew that I had been made unclean.

“Thank you, doll,” smirked one of them as I clinked his glass onto the table. I shivered.

“My pleasure, sir.”

He leaned forward, and I anticipated the drunken stench of his hot breath before I smelled it. “I hear the women around here can be easy, for the right price.”

Around here. Weren’t they native Bostonians? Some of these men had the Tory accent, but plenty of colonists spoke the same, likely even some of the Sons of Liberty. An accent did not make a Tory.

“You must have heard wrong, sir,” I said stiffly. “Most of us would not accept rough, dirty hands for any price.”

The silence was palpable. Had I spoken too plainly? Perhaps they would strike the table, breaking their glasses, and storm out, and I would be left with a pile of broken dishes and no way to explain it to my husband.

Do not be angry, I prayed. Please take it in jest.

Across the table, he smiled. “Sometimes it’s not much of a choice, is it?”

Back in the kitchen, I felt for the bump of the knife beneath my apron. I wanted to feel the blade, no matter if it dug into my skin; I wanted to know that it was sharp and menacing, even if I never used it.

Oh, what use was it? It was a kitchen knife, not a sword. I was helpless against men such as the ones in our dining room. I was simply helpless.

I stayed in the kitchen for awhile to help Jasper prepare snacks for the men. They’d eaten dinner, but one of Jasper’s friends outside the city made scrumptious beef jerky - or so Jasper claimed; I’d never tried it - and he was slicing the strips smaller and dusting them with flakes of peppers.

“Everything all right out there?” he asked.

I gulped. I almost drove them out. “Yes.”

As he helped me arrange the strips onto a tray, his hand brushed against mine. Six years ago, when we were first married, his touch would have made me shiver with distaste. A few weeks ago, it would have been comfortable and warm. Now, I wasn’t sure.

By the door, there was a bucket of water that Robbie had brought in for the morning, and I knelt beside it with a pitcher, thinking the men might want a splash of the ice-cold water in case their drinks had gotten lukewarm. These men could nurse a single drink for an hour, not like the true continental men who could down five glasses of stone fence, which was indeed one of our hardest drinks, in the same span of time.

As I approached the dining room, a tray of jerky in one hand and the cold water in the other, I overheard them. “D’you think the colonials caught on?”

“No,” one of the other men said, “it was a coincidence. We were bound to lose a ship or two -”

“Is it worth the risk, then? To lose ships right here in the heartland of the rebellion? At least in New York there’s plenty of compatriots who might make use of it; here, we can be entirely certain the goods would fall into the wrong hands.”

“That little place? New York is nothing compared to Boston; our men don’t know it, and it’s too far south. We want them on land as soon as possible.”

“Well, we could have them dock in Boston and sail the coast down to New York, where the rebels aren’t so crazy-”

“If you want to go down to New York, Benny, you can do that-”

I emerged from the shadows, the water sloshing in the pitcher, and they fell silent. They eyed the jerky hungrily as I set it in the center of the table, and an array of hands jutted out to grab a piece.

“Water for the drinks?” I asked, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

A laugh. “What on earth would we need water for?”

To cool the drinks, I thought, which seemed obvious, but what I said was, “Seems perhaps you can’t finish the drinks otherwise.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I was in for it. I could have cracked a whip with the sharpness of the following silence; I was certain these men would storm out of the room cursing my name, and I would have to contend with my husband’s anger.

But they did not storm out. Instead, there was silence, and then a growl of laughter. One of the men said, “Nobody likes a woman with a mouth.”

He made a grunt of disagreement.

“Refills?” I asked hastily, but there were none. Plain-spoken as I had been, I had been right; these men couldn’t finish more than one drink in an hour. So I escaped the room, my breath light and my heartbeat louder than a drum. I did not see the men again for the rest of the night.

Later, Jasper stood with me as we watched them file out the door. “Our most precious customers,” I remarked wryly, but my husband would not understand the humor. All he saw was that they were dressed nicely, their shirts clean and their cravats in place, unlike some of the wild men who piled in for drinks at night. To him, this was all that mattered.

Before we went upstairs for the night, he grabbed my arm. “The men told me you were running your mouth.”

His grip tightened. I could say nothing to defend myself.

“It’s true,” I said. “I thought they might like a little fun.”

Jasper’s eyes met mine. “You are not to bother them.”

My jaw tightening, I nodded. “I will not.”

His arm found my waist, and he led me upstairs. It was not the same, him holding me, as it used to be. The comfort I used to feel within his arms had turned cold and strange. Had he changed, or was it only me?

Before bed that night, Jasper asked me to get the firewood again. “Promise you’ll actually come up to bed when you’re done this time?” he joked.

The thought of going out there again made me shudder, but I couldn’t very well say anything about it. “Okay.”

While he went upstairs, I opened the door and let the cool wind whip my hair. I couldn’t go out there, even with my knife. I just couldn’t. I shut the door; at least Jasper would hear the sound of the door opening and shutting and assume I’d gone out. I leaned next to the fireplace, rearranging the logs and praying they would keep through the night. I’d have to make some excuse to start bringing more in during the day. Usually the number of logs necessary for the whole night didn’t fit next to the fireplace, which was why we went out again just before bed, but I would have to find another place for the extra.

Again, Jasper was asleep by the time I crawled into bed. By the middle of the night, we were freezing. Jasper groaned. “Are you sure you brought enough wood?”

“I thought I did,” I lied. “The same amount as usual.”

“Well, I guess I’ll do it myself this time,” he hissed, pulling an extra shirt over his head and slipping into his night slippers. “Our guests must be freezing.”

He was gone fifteen minutes, perhaps. I spent that whole time pressed against the door, brandishing the kitchen knife that had been stashed in my trunk. When I heard Jasper coming back up the stairs, recognizing the footsteps I had heard so many times over the years, I quickly put the knife back and crawled under the blanket.

He stripped off the overshirt and the slippers, slid into bed, and pressed his cold body around me almost in one motion. “Something strange happened,” he mumbled. “I thought I saw someone out there.”

My heart froze. “What?”

“In the shadows. I thought I heard someone by the shed. But as I got closer, he was gone.” He squeezed my waist, snuggling closer. “I must be imagining things, Lucy. Maybe I’m going mad.”

“I’m sure you’re not,” I said, my heart still pounding. The redcoat was here, he was out there, he hadn’t left. “It was probably just a squirrel or a raccoon.”

“Or a rat,” he said.

“Or a rat.”

When Jasper was asleep, I carefully unwrapped myself from him, first moving his arm off my waist and then slowly scooting away, to the far side of the bed. He mumbled, but didn’t wake up. Without the warmth of his body, I shivered all night, but I couldn’t go back to him. I had to sleep alone.

 
 

It all started when…

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