I was only fifteen when I first met him. Only fifteen. Just a girl.
The day was chillier than it ought to have been and I had forgotten my muff. Instead, I stuffed my fingers beneath my cloak and rubbed them together very quickly, finding only a scant amount of warmth there but a steady bit nevertheless. My shoes clacked against the cobblestones of the street and I wore a great red cape the color of pomegranate. With each step, I lightly stomped out the tune of a melody. And beneath my breath, I sang its words.
"One morning, one morning, one morning in May,
I spied a young couple all on the highway,
And one was a lady so bright and so fair,
And the other was a soldier, a brave volunteer."
No one could hear me. Of that, I was sure. For if they had, if any passersby had so much as glanced in my direction, I probably would have died of embarrassment. A slight exaggeration, yes, dear reader, I will admit, but not a completely illogical one. Although I had been told my voice was very fair and very sweet, I scarcely ever let it be heard. Not in conversation, not with my tutor John Witt, and especially not in song.
In those days, I went about my life in a very simple, quiet fashion. I always did as I was told and I adored the stability that sort of life brought me. But of course, if you remember the date of the story I have begun to tell, you will realize that a stable life was a rather difficult attainment at that time. With the colonies upset with their mother, King George upset with the colonies, and my own family growing rather restless, the years to follow would be very difficult for me, very straining upon my young heart. But as it is only 1768 on the afternoon I have begun to portray for you, the greater unrest had not yet begun. You needn't worry over that yet.
But I do suppose I ought to give you a little history as to the situation I was living in then. The Quartering Act, it might be mentioned, had been issued in the colonies three years before but as of yet it had placed no great disturbance in my daily routine and lifestyle. I saw British soldiers around town rather often, always walking in groups and dressed in their clean red uniforms. And I saw the sentries stationed at various streets as well, walking back and forth with their muskets perched upon wide shoulders. But I'd never spoken to one of the soldiers before and I hadn't the slightest knowledge of where they must all be living. I'd never given the matter a thought. As long as I never came in contact with one of the soldiers, I didn't see why they were of any great importance to me.
And as I am no great deceiver, you must realize that this would be the afternoon I would finally come in contact with them. It was inevitable, I suppose, but I still wasn't quite ready for it. I was no great expert when it came to the male person- their entire sex was a complete mystery to me- so British men were even more foreign and more frightening. I was only a young girl, practically a child, and I wasn't ready for it, that much is certain. But then again, I'm not sure I ever would have been ready for it.
When I arrived at my Uncle David's inn, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I walked in the back door, like always, and immediately found myself in the kitchen beside the pink-cheeked cook Martha.
"Oh bless you, child!" Martha said quickly, her voice bubbling. She was stirring a large pot of stew at the stove. The linen cap atop her head was falling to the side, nearly ready to jump, and her dress was covered in wrinkles. Smiling widely, her gums showed like pink strips of ribbon. But the smile, I soon saw, was a nervous one. "Your uncle's nearly at his wit's end, dear," she said. "He wasn't expecting you till four, but oh, will he be glad to see you've come early! We've had a bit of a surprise, you see."
"A surprise? What sort of surprise?"
"Never mind that now, Bess. Hang your cloak on the peg and grab an apron. Your uncle's upstairs. Best get to him quick, now."
My mind was running very quickly, wandering and wondering and wandering some more, but I managed to follow her instructions and took a white apron from a stool in the corner. I tied it quick about my waist and then, flustered, adjusted the kerchief upon my neck and made sure my cap was in place. My cheeks and nose were still flushed pink from the cold, the color of salmon, and my hands were white. As I leaned back against the door of the kitchen, which led to the inn's parlor, my hands were still fixed to my head, trying to make sure all my curls were in place. My eyes were at the ground.
But immediately upon turning my back, I realized what the surprise was and gave a quick gasp. My hands both flew to my breast and my face went quite pale. Beneath the cloth of my gown, I could feel my heart beating madly. It throbbed inside me like a giant clock, ticking and ticking until I feared an alarm might ring and I would fall faint. But I didn't. I stood before them and swallowed the dryness of my own mouth, hoping I didn't look half so bad as I felt.
There were almost a dozen coats of red about the room. In chairs, at tables, reading books, smoking pipes. And they were soldiers. British soldiers. My stomach plummeted further within me and my head felt suddenly light. For the worst of it all was that they were staring. At me. As though I were a doll or a statue or a painting. As though I were something that was meant to be stared at.
With my mouth parted and my hands quivering behind my back, I gave a small curtsy, hoping that it would turn away their wandering eyes. And it did, thanks be to God. For at my movement, all eleven of the soldiers returned to their conversations and books and pipes. And I was left, once more, quite unseen.
With my heart still beating madly, I scurried up the staircase in the corner and down the upstairs hallway calling, "Uncle David! Uncle David!"
Almost at once, a rusty-haired, bespectacled man popped out from one of the rooms. My uncle, David Holloway. His arms were laden with sheets and his breath was gone. Yet at the sight of me, he seemed to calm. One more pair of hands, though small, would be a great help, he knew.
"Elizabeth!" he exclaimed. "Oh my dear Elizabeth! Whatever brought you here so early? Did Martha send for you? Will your sisters be coming early too? Heavens, I'm in such a rush I can barely find my breath. Forgive me. I must look a fool."
"Of course you don't look a fool," I told him. "You look as calm and . . . and delightfully clever as ever."
David chuckled. "You're a splendid liar."
I curtsied again, smiling.
"As you can see, we've quite a quandary here. Eleven soldiers and not one being seen to. Can you believe they threw this all at me so quickly? I only just got the message this morning. Eleven soldiers needing rooms. Lucky for me, I've got the rooms. Lucky for them, they've got that damned Quartering Act to stuff down my throat and make sure I do everything according to rule. Who knows how long they'll stay. Here's hoping it's not more than a month though, eh Bess?"
"Of course, uncle," I said. "Shall I prepare their rooms?"
"No, no. I'm getting that taken care of now. But I've got another job for you."
"They've been here an hour already and I haven't even been able to get them drinks. Go back downstairs and fetch them some tea or whiskey or whatever it is they drink, alright? Can you do that for me?"
"Yes, of course."
I had started to tremble again. Although I didn't dare debate my uncle's order, I wished he might have let me work in the empty rooms instead. I had always preferred linen to company. But without so much as a sigh, I made my way back down the steps and found a kettle of tea and some cups in the kitchen. When I opened the door this time, carrying a wooden tray before my apron, not one man turned to look at me. They didn't even seem to notice my entrance. I couldn't have been more thankful, of that you can be sure.
So, taking a short breath, I made my way around the room to offer each soldier his cup of tea. Half said yes. Half requested something else, some sort of alcohol or another. For the most part they were polite, always saying "please, miss" and "thank you," but there were the few who could only grunt and gulp. Still quite pink in the face, I brought each man's drink and set it before him with a curtsy. Because I spoke so little, they didn't try to make any conversation. And because I was staring at the floor so much, I was able to keep myself from becoming blinded in their scarlet coats and white buttons. If I hadn't done that, God only knows how far I might have gotten before falling faint from their still ever-staring eyes.
There were so many of them. Their eyes, I mean. Not that any man had more than two, of course- that would have been quite a sight, I daresay! But all those pairs added together, the strips of blue and brown and green and black, seemed like a thousand stars that might cast me blind at any moment. I suddenly felt so very small, lucid, delicate. I felt as though those little strips of color might cut me. They traveled up my skirts, landing at my waist and breast and the flesh of skin at my neck. I was too young to have a woman's figure, I'd never been a beauty, and my hair wasn't as fair as I might have liked, so why these men should stare at me, I didn't know. They must have taken in every inch of my body. But if you'd asked me, still staring at the floor, to describe one of the men's faces, I couldn't have said a word. I didn't see them and I didn't want to see them. My only thoughts were on leaving the room as quickly as possible and returning to the sanctuary of the kitchen.
He, by luck's hand, happened to be the last man I spoke to that afternoon. But even with him, I kept my eyes cast downward. I seemed to speak to the floorboards.
"Excuse me, sir," I murmured, "but would you like some tea?"
"Yes. Thank you, miss."
I set a cup upon the table before him, where he was playing a game of solitaire with a deck of old French playing cards. Sitting so near to the fire, the flames cast shadows against his breeches- white, like all the others'- and his tri-cornered hat was perched against the table leg.
But when I leaned down to pour the tea, I didn't see the hat. My foot took a naïve step forward, just coming down upon the hat's top, and I foolishly stumbled over it. My foot lost its placement and my legs lost their balance. If I hadn't been trembling so much, I could have steadied myself. But as it was, my thigh bumped against the table and tea spilt out upon the young man's game. It spread across each pile of cards like a muddy river, separating at points and flowing into the cracks of the wood. The deck of cards was soppy with tea. It was ruined now, I knew. And it was, undoubtedly, my fault.
He looked up and I felt his eyes upon me, though I couldn't quite see them. Shaking worse than ever, I stared at the kettle.
"Miss?" he said.
"Miss? Do you have a rag or a handkerchief? We ought to get this cleaned up before it ruins your fine table here."
I nodded. My hands went searching through my apron until, from its pocket, I found an old brown rag. My eyes met the soldier's and I blushed. Although he didn't look angry, I still felt horrible and my face had begun to burn in embarrassment. His eyes were gray, like soot, and his hair was black. He gave a lopsided smile, hoping to calm me, I suppose, but it didn't help. I bent over and began dabbing at the tea, praying no one else was looking at us.
"It's alright, miss," the man said. "Only a bit of tea. Do you have another cloth? May I help you?"
Keeping my eyes upon the table, I pulled another rag from my apron and gave it to him. At first he cleaned some of the tea on the table, as I was doing. But then, leaning down, I saw him dab the cloth on his boots too. The tea had fallen there as well. His shiny black boots were now covered in tea. Biting my lip until it nearly bled, my face burned brighter.
"What's your name?" I heard him ask, but I didn't speak. His eyes were bright as he asked it again. "Your name, miss?"
"Very nice to meet you, Miss McCarthy." He paused, expecting me to return the question, I suppose, but I said nothing. "My name is Oliver Crook."
"I'm sorry about your cards," I murmured. "They must be ruined. And your boots too. I can wash them, if you like. I didn't mean to spill it, sir. Honest."
"It's quite alright. A little tea never hurt anyone."
Still not looking quite at him, at Mr. Crook I should say, I took up some of his cards and tried to wipe them clean. The paper was damp and they'd begun to wilt and tear. Although I knew I hadn't the money for it, I offered to buy him another deck, but he refused.
"Thank you, Miss McCarthy, but I don't believe that'll be necessary."
I watched as he pulled another deck of playing cards from his pocket and slapped them down upon the table, shuffling them expertly between roughened, milk-white fingers. While he did this, I picked up the scattered cards of his last deck and set them in a soppy pile, pressing my rag against them. I asked if he should like them back, but he told me he had no use for them. He said he had five extra decks upstairs in his bag and had no need for a damp deck.
Although I ought to have thrown the cards in the fire then, for the tea had left them both stained and dripping, I didn't. Careful not to let him see, I placed them carefully in my apron pocket and then began cleaning up the teacup. When it and the table were both dry and cleaned, I poured Mr. Crook another glass of tea and finally let myself look at him. It was the perfect time to do so, I knew, because he was already very focused on another game of solitaire.
He was dressed in the standard British uniform. Red wool coat; white shirt, neck cloth, and breeches; black boots; and of course that evil black hat resting beside the chair. His skin was pale, his eyes dark, his features rather sharp. Although his shoulders were broad and I didn't doubt he carried a great height, there was something of a thinness, a slightness, about his figure as a whole. Something about it seemed not yet matured. Compared to the others, he did look rather young. He couldn't have had much more than twenty-one years of age, I felt certain, for there was a youthfulness about the curves of his mouth and the spread of his forehead. His hair was cut uncommonly short for the day, not being more than two or three inches long, and it was very straight and very black. Sitting beside all the others, with their tidy wigs and curled queues and black ribbons, he seemed rather out of place. Like a schoolboy sitting amongst kings. Or a thief sitting amongst gentlemen.
I do not know how long I watched him there, though it must have been more than a few seconds or so for I noticed that he'd commenced quite far in his game. Still feeling quite certain in my anonymity, I did not move my eyes from him as I cleaned up the last few drops of tea. Yet he must have felt my eyes or my shadow upon him for, within moments, he was looking up again. My face flushed crimson.
"Quite alright now, miss?" he asked.
"Thank you for the tea."
"And don't mind about the playing cards. They're only paper, after all."
I nodded again and he smiled. Whether he was laughing at my silence or my blushes, I didn't know. In fact, I wasn't quite sure that he was laughing at me at all. I had simply assumed it. It seemed only reasonable, after all, considering his origins; my father had always warned me against speaking with the British. He said they were a nasty lot, one that a girl like me oughtn't be treading into. And I believed him, as I believed almost everything else he said.
Finally, I stepped away and said, "Good day, Mr. Crook," and returned to the kitchen with my insides bubbling and my hands shaking.
I'll always remember that day, that moment. Even in the years to come, it always stood out with striking clarity. The haze in the windows of the kitchen, the gasp of Martha when I told her what I'd done, the way my fingers still shook even after I'd pressed them beneath my knees.
"Do you know the man's name?" Martha asked. I suppose she wanted to know for her own sake. She feared he was angry with the inn and its help and that he'd be particularly awful to her and Uncle David. I should have told her he seemed a rather kind, polite sort of fellow, that she needn't worry over him, but I didn't. It seemed ludicrous, considering all I'd been taught, to name a British man as kind.
"Oliver Crook," was all I said. I was still shivering. "His name is Oliver Crook."
O O O O O
When I returned home that evening, walking several steps behind my sisters, I let my hand fall into my pocket and find the deck of playing cards. They were still damp, I was surprised to find, and hadn't all gotten stuck together like paste as I'd imagined they might. I took them home and then, once alone in my room, pulled them out and began to separate them. With my heart beating fast, I held them close to the fire until the tea had dried and then laid them on the floor around me. Stained brown, wrinkled, and torn, they formed a ring of scattered shapes, with me as their center. My work was slow and patient, ever so careful. I made sure that each of the cards was dried before I stuck them within the pages of my school notebook. And then, pushing hard against the leather cover with my both my hands, then my knees, then my bottom, I pressed them flat.
I told myself that I did it because of the cards. Because I'd never had a deck of my own. Because it was foolish to throw away all those playing cards because of a bit of tea. But that was a lie.
If you want to know why I did it, you need only think of the soot-eyed man who sat before the fireplace playing solitaire.