Home > Time's Convert (All Souls Trilogy)(14)

Time's Convert (All Souls Trilogy)(14)
Author: Deborah Harkness

“When he’s finished.” His mother’s tone was unusually sharp, her face set in lines of worry under a starched linen cap. “Come, read me the next word.”

“N-ame.” Marcus slowly sounded out the letters. “My name is Marcus MacNeil.”

“Yes, it is,” his mother replied. “And the next word?”

“Ni-jit.” Marcus frowned. That wasn’t a word he’d heard before. “Ni-got?”

“Do you remember what I told you about silent letters?” His mother lifted Patience from the wide-planked floor and went to the window, her brown skirts swishing. As she walked, sand came up through the cracks between the boards.

Marcus did remember—dimly.

“Night.” Marcus looked up. “That’s when Father left. It was raining. And dark.”

“Can you find the word ‘rain’ in your book?” His mother peered out from among the spaces in the shutters. She dusted them every day, sliding a goose feather through each narrow opening. Marcus’s mother was particular about such things and allowed no one else to take care of the front room—not even old Ellie Pruitt, who came one morning a week to help with the other chores.

“Oak. Pain. Quart. Rain. I found it, Mama!” Marcus shouted with excitement.

“Good boy. One day you will be a scholar at Harvard, like the other men in the Chauncey family.” His mother was inordinately proud of her cousins, uncles, and brothers, all of whom had gone to school for years and years. To Marcus, the prospect sounded drearier than the weather.

“No. I’m going to be a soldier, like Pa.” Marcus kicked at the legs of his chair, a sign of his commitment to this course of action. It made such a satisfying sound that he did it again.

“Stop this nonsense. What is a foolish son?” His mother jiggled Patience up and down on her hip. Patience was teething, which made her fractious and soggy.

“A heaviness to his mother,” Marcus said, turning to the page of alphabet verses. There was the proverb—right at the top: A wise son maketh a glad father, but a foolish son is a heaviness to his mother. His mother was always pointing it out to him.

“Recite the rest of the alphabet,” his mother instructed, walking the edges of the room to keep Patience’s mind off her discomfort. “And no mumbling. They don’t allow boys to attend Harvard College if they mumble.”

Marcus reached L—Liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, his mother intoned when he had trouble reading out the words—when the wooden gate that protected their front garden from the geese and the traffic opened. His mother froze.

Marcus turned in his chair and pressed his eyes to the two holes bored into the top slat. The holes were for hanging the chair up on the pegs by the kitchen door, but Marcus had discovered they were excellent peepholes. He felt like a bandit or an Indian scout whenever he peered through them. Sometimes, when his mother and father were occupied and he was supposed to be doing his lessons or watching Patience, Marcus pulled the chair to the window and watched the world go by, imagining he was on the lookout for heathens or that he was a captain on a ship staring through a telescope, or a highwayman peering through the trees at his next victim.

The front door creaked open, letting in the wind and the rain. A black wool hat, wide brimmed and sodden with moisture, sailed through the air and landed atop the newel post. Marcus’s father used the globe-shaped wooden ball to teach him geography. Pa had inscribed the eastern coast of America on it with black ink that stained the wood, as well as an irregular splotch that showed how far across the ocean the king was. Even so, Pa said, he was watching over his people in America. Ellie polished the post on every visit, but the ink never faded.

“Catherine?” His father stumbled over something in the hall and swore.

“In here, Pa,” Marcus called before his mother had a chance to respond. Marcus had learned not to fling himself into his father’s arms the moment he arrived home. His father didn’t like to be taken unawares, not even by someone as small and familiar as Marcus.

Obadiah MacNeil stepped into the room, swaying slightly on his feet. The scent of smoke and something sweet and cloying followed him. He was holding the heavy iron bootjack that normally sat by the front door.

Peeking through the chair slat, Marcus saw that his father wasn’t wearing his woolen muffler around his neck as he usually did. It was a jaunty red that stood out like the color of the fruits left on the rose bush when the first snow fell. Today, his linen shirt was open at the neck, the simple cravat askew and stained.

“Chairs are for asses, not knees.” Obadiah ran a grimy hand under his long, sharp nose. It left a smear of yellowed earth. “Did you hear me, boy?”

Marcus swung around and slid his feet over the seat, cheeks burning. His father had told him that dozens of times. A rough hand pushed against the back of the chair, sending Marcus toward the table. The edge hit him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him.

“I asked you a question.” Obadiah braced his arms on the table, surrounding Marcus with wet wool and that sickly sweet smell. The bootjack was still in his hand. It was crafted in the shape of a devil, with the prongs of his horned head serving for the heel rest and the long body the brace. The devil’s eyes winked up at Marcus, two black holes above a leering mouth.

“I’m sorry, Pa.” Marcus blinked back the tears. Soldiers didn’t cry.

“Don’t make me tell you again.” Obadiah’s breath smelled of apples. He stood.

“Where have you been, Obadiah?” Marcus’s mother put Patience into her cradle by the fire.

“No business of yours, Catherine.”

“On West Street, I warrant.”

His father didn’t respond.

“Was Josiah with you?” his mother asked. Marcus didn’t much like Cousin Josiah, whose eyes shifted when he spoke and whose voice echoed against the rafters.

“Leave it, woman.” Obadiah’s tone was weary. “I’m off to the barn. Zeb is there tending to the animals.”

“I’ll help, too!” Marcus scrambled off the chair. Unlike Cousin Josiah, Zeb Pruitt was one of his favorite people. He’d taught Marcus how to string a fishing rod, how to catch mice in the barn, and how to climb the apple tree. Zeb had also made sure Marcus understood that the geese in town were more dangerous than the dogs, and could give a person a savage bite.

“Zeb doesn’t need your help,” said his mother. “Stay where you are and finish your lesson.”

Marcus’s face fell. He didn’t much feel like reading. He wanted to go to the barn and march up and down the center aisle to Zeb’s commands, playing at soldier and hiding behind the water trough when the enemy pursued him.

His mother hurried out of the room after his father, who had left the front door open to the elements.

“Mind that Patience doesn’t fall out of her cradle,” she told Marcus as she took her shawl down from a peg and left the house.

Marcus stared glumly at his sister. Patience sucked on her fist, which was shiny with spittle and bright red from the constant gnawing.

His sister would make a terrible soldier. Marcus brightened.

“Do you want to be my prisoner?” Marcus whispered, kneeling by the cradle. Patience cooed her assent. “All right, then. You stay where you are. No moving. And no complaining. Or you’ll be flogged.”

Marcus rocked the cradle gently, lessons forgotten, and imagined himself in a cave in the woods, waiting for his commanding officer to arrive and praise him for his valor.

* * *

“YOU MUST HAVE BEEN up all night with the commotion, and the traffic between town and the burying ground.” Old Madam Porter put a small cup and saucer on the table at his mother’s elbow. Marcus could see the wallpaper, blue as the spring sky, through the eggshell-thin cup.

Madame Porter’s house was one of the finest in Hadley. It had smooth wooden paneling and brightly colored paint as well as patterned wallpaper. The chairs were carved and padded for comfort. The windows opened up in the new way, not out like the old casements at their house. Marcus loved to visit—not least because there was usually Madeira cake studded with currants and spread with jam.

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