|Available in trade paperback from Pocket Books.ISBN: 978-1416552611
His epic masterwork Speaks the Nightbird, a tour de force of witch hunt terror in a colonial town, was hailed by Sandra Brown as “deeply satisfying…told with matchless insight into the human soul.” Now, Robert McCammon brings the hero of that spellbinding novel, Matthew Corbett, to eighteenth-century New York, where a killer wields a bloody and terrifying power over a bustling city carving out its identity—and over Matthew’s own uncertain destiny.
The unsolved murder of a respected doctor has sent ripples of fear throughout a city teeming with life, noise, and commerce. Who snuffed out the good man’s life with the slash of a blade on a midnight street? The local printmaster has labeled the fiend “the Masker,” adding fuel to a volatile mystery…while young law clerk Matthew Corbett has other obsessions in mind. Earnest and hardworking, Matthew spends his precious spare time attempting to vindicate the abuses he witnessed growing up in the Sainted John Home for Boys, at the hands of its monstrous headmaster. But Matthew’s true calling lies not in avenging the past but salvaging the future—for when the Masker claims a new victim, Matthew is lured into a maze of forensic clues and heart-pounding investigation that will both test his natural penchant for detection and inflame his hunger for justice.
In the strangest twist of all, the key to unmasking the Masker may await in an asylum where the Queen of Bedlam reigns—and only a man of Matthew’s reason and empathy can unlock her secrets. From the seaport to Wall Street, from society mansions to gutters glimmering with blood spilled by a deviant, Matthew’s quest will tauntingly reveal the answers he seeks—and the chilling truths he cannot escape.
The Queen of Bedlam
By Robert McCammon
The nightlife was, in a word, lively. Though the town awakened before sunrise to the industrious bells of mercantile and farming labors, there were still many who preferred to apply their sleeping hours to the avocations of drinking, gambling, and what mischief might follow those troublesome twins. The sun would certainly rise on the morrow, but tonight was always a temptation. Why else would this brash and eager, Dutch-groomed and now English-dressed town boast more than a dozen taverns, if not for the joy of intemperate companionship?
But the young man who sat alone at a table in the back room of the Old Admiral was not there to seek companions, be they of humankind or brewer’s yeast. He did have before him a tankard of strong dark ale, which he sipped at every so often, but this was a prop to blend into the scene. One watching him would see how he winced and frowned at the drinking, for it took a true hardgut to down the Old Admiral’s keel-cleaner. This was not his usual haunt. In fact he was well-known at the Trot Then Gallop, up on Crown Street, but here he was within a coin’sthrow of the Great Dock on the East River, where the masted ships whispered and groaned on the night currents and the flambeaux from fishermen’s skiffs burned red against the eddies. Here in the Old Admiral the blue smoke of clay pipes whirled through the lamplight as men bellowed for more ale or wine and the crack of dice hitting tables sounded like the pistols of little wars. That noise never failed to remind Matthew Corbett of the pistol shot that had blown out the brains of…well, it had been three years ago, it was best not to linger on such a foregone picture.
He was only twenty-three years old, but something about him was elder than his span. Perhaps it was his grave seriousness, his austere demeanor, or the fact that he could always forecast rain from the aching in his bones like those of a toothless senior muttering in his pudding. Or, to be more correct, the ache of ribs below his heart and left arm at the shoulder, bones broken courtesy of a bear known as Jack One Eye. The bear had also left Matthew with a crescent scar that began just above his right eyebrow and curved into the hairline. A doctor in the Carolina colony had once said to him that ladies liked a young man with a dashing scar, but this one seemed to warn the ladies that he’d come close to a cropper with Death, and perhaps the chill of the mausoleum lingered in his soul. His left arm had been almost without life for over a year after that incident. He’d expected to live on the starboard for the rest of his days but a good and rather unorthodox doctor here in New York had given him arm exercises—self-inflicted torture involving an iron bar to which horseshoes were chained on either end—to do daily, along with hot compresses and stretching. At last came the miracle morning when he could rotate his shoulder all the way around, and with further treatment nearly all his strength had returned. Thus passed away one of the last acts of Jack One Eye upon the earth, gone now but surely never forgotten.
Matthew’s cool gray eyes, flecked with dark blue like smoke at twilight, were aimed toward a certain table on the other side of the room. He was careful, though, not to stare too pointedly, but only to graze and jab and look into his ale, shift his shoulders, and graze and jab again. No matter, really; the object of his interest would have to be blind and dumb not to know he was there, and true evil was neither. No, true evil just continued to talk and grin and sip with puckered lips at a greasy glass of wine, puff a smoke ring from a black clay pipe, and then talk and grin some more, all while the gaming went on with its hollerings and dice-shots and shadowy men yelling as if to scare the dawn from ever happening.
But Matthew knew it was more than the humor and drinking and gaming of a tavern in a young town with the sea at its chest and wilderness to its back that brought out this festivity. It was the Thing That No One Spoke Of. The Incident. The Unfortunate Happenstance.
It was the Masker, is what it was.
So drink up wine from those fresh casks and blow your smoke to the moon, Matthew thought. Howl like wolves and grin like thieves. We’ve all got to walk a dark street home tonight.
And the Masker could be any one of them, he mused. Or the Masker could be gone the way he’d come, never to pass this way again. Who could know? Certainly not the idiots who these days called themselves constables and were empowered by the town council to patrol the streets. He reasoned they were probably all indoors somewhere as well, though the weather be warm and the moon half on the hang; they were stupid, yes, but not foolish.
Matthew took another drink of his ale and flicked his gaze again toward that far table. The pipesmoke hung in blue layers, shifting with the wind of motion or exhalation. At the table sat three men. One elder, fat and bloated, two younger with the look of ruffians. But to be sure, this was a rumpot of ruffians, so that in itself was not surprising. Matthew hadn’t seen either of the men with the fat bloatarian before. They were dressed in rustic style, both with well-used leather waistcoats over white shirts and one with leather patches on the knees of his breeches. Who were they? he wondered. And what business did they have with Eben Ausley?
Only very seldom and just for a quick flash did Matthew catch the glint of Ausley’s small black eyes aimed at him, but just as swiftly the man angled his white-wigged head away and continued the conversation with his two juniors. Anyone looking on would not realize that the young Corbett—with his lean long-jawed face, his unruly thatch of fine black hair, and his pale candlelit countenance—was a crusader whose quest had slowly, night upon night, turned to obsession. In his brown boots, gray breeches, and simple white shirt, frayed at the collar and cuffs but scrupulously laundered, he appeared to be no more than his occupation of magistrate’s clerk demanded. Certainly Magistrate Powers wouldn’t approve of these nightly travels, but travel Matthew must, for the deepest desire of his heart was to see Eben Ausley hanged from the town gallows.
Now Ausley put down his pipe and drew the table’s lamp nearer. The companion on his left—a dark-haired, sunken-eyed man perhaps nine or ten years elder than Matthew—was speaking quietly and seriously. Ausley, a heavy-jowled pig in his mid-fifties, listened intently. At length Matthew saw him nod and reach into the coat of his vulgar wine-purple suit, the frills on his shirt quivering with the belly-strain. The white wig on Ausley’s head was adorned with elaborate curls, which perhaps in London was the fashion of the moment but here in New York was only a fop’s topping. Ausley brought from within his coat a string-wrapped lead pencil and a palm-sized black notebook that Matthew had seen him produce a score of times. There was some kind of gold-leaf ornamentation on the cover. Matthew had already mused upon the thought that Ausley was as addicted to his note-taking as to his games of Ombre and Ticktack, both of which seemed to have a hold on the man’s mind and wallet. He could imagine with a faint smile the notes scribbled down on those pages: Dropped a loaf this morning…a fig or two into the bucket…dear me, only a nugget today…Ausley touched the pencil to his tongue and began to write. Three or four lines were set down, or so it appeared to Matthew. Then the notebook was closed and put away and finally the pencil as well. Ausley spoke again to the dark-haired young man, while the other one—sandy-haired and thick-set, with a slow oxen-like blinking of his heavy eyelids—appraised the noisy game of Bone-Ace going on over in the corner. Ausley grinned; the yellow lamplight fairly leaped off his teeth. A group of drinkers stumbled past between Matthew and his objects of interest. Just that fast Ausley and the other two men were standing up, reaching for their hats on the wallhooks. Ausley’s tricorn displayed a dyed crimson feather, while the dark-haired man with the leather-patched breeches wore a wide-brimmed leather hat and the third gent a common short-billed cap. The group strolled to the tavern-keeper at the bar to settle their bills.
Matthew waited. When the coins were down in the moneybox and the three men going out onto Dock Street, Matthew put on his own brown linen cap and stood up. He was a little light-headed. The strong ale, currents of smoke, and raucous noise had unhinged his senses. He quickly paid his due and walked into the night.
Ah, what a relief out here! A warm breeze in the face was cool compared to the heated confines of a crowded tavern. The Old Admiral always had such an effect on him. He’d tracked Ausley here on many earlier occasions so he ought to be immune to such, but his idea of an excellent evening was a drink of polite wine and a quiet game of chess with the regulars at the Gallop. He smelled on the breeze the pungence of harbor tarbuckets and dead fish. But there on the very same breeze, wafting past, was quite another scent Matthew had expected: Eben Ausley wore a heavy cologne that smelled of cloves. He nearly bathed in the stuff. The man might as well have carried a torch with him, to illuminate his comings and goings; it certainly helped to follow Ausley by on these nights. But tonight, it seemed, Ausley and his companions were in no hurry, for there they were strolling up ahead. They walked past the glow of a lantern that hung from a wooden post to mark the intersection of Dock Street and Broad Street, and Matthew saw their intent was to go west onto Bridge Street. Well, he thought, this was a new path. Usually Ausley headed directly back the six blocks north to the orphanage on King Street. Better keep back a bit more, Matthew decided. Better just walk quietly and keep watch.
Matthew followed, crossing the cobblestoned street. He was tall and thin but not frail, and he walked with a long stride that he had to restrain lest he get up the back of his bull’s-eye. The smells of the Great Dock faded, to be replaced by the heady aromas of hay and livestock. In this section of town were several stables and fenced enclosures for pigs and cows. Warehouses held maritime and animal supplies in stacks of crates and barrels. Occasionally Matthew caught a glimpse of candlelight through a shutter, as someone moved about inside a countinghouse or stable. Never let it be said that all the residents of New York gamboled or slept at night, as some might rather labor clock-round if physical strength would allow.
A horse clopped past, its rider wearing polished boots. Matthew saw Ausley and the two others turn right at the next corner, onto the Broad Way near the Governor’s House. He made the turn at a cautious pace. His quarry walked a block ahead, still just ambling. Matthew took note of candlelight in several upper windows of the white-bricked governor’s abode beyond the walls of Fort William Henry. The new man, Lord Cornbury, had arrived from England only a few days ago. Matthew hadn’t yet seen him, nor had anyone else of his acquaintance, but the notices plastered up announced a meeting in the town hall tomorrow afternoon so he expected to soon have a look at the gent who’d been awarded the reins of New York by Queen Anne. It would be good to have someone in charge of things, since the constables were in such disarray and the town’s mayor, Thomas Hood, had died in June.
Matthew saw that the red-feathered cockatoo and his companions were approaching another tavern, the Thorn Bush. That nasty little place was even gamier than the Admiral, in all senses of the word. Matthew had been witness in there last November when Ausley had lost what must have been a small fortune on the game of Bankafalet. Matthew decided he wasn’t up to any more tavern-sitting tonight. Let them go in and drink themselves blue, if they liked. It was time to go home and abed.
But Ausley and the two men kept walking past the Thorn Bush, not even pausing to look in the door. As Matthew neared the place, a drunk young man—Andrew Kippering, Matthew saw in the bloom of lamplight—and a dark-haired girl with a heavily painted face staggered out into the street, laughing at some shared amusement. They brushed past Matthew and went on in the direction of the harbor. Kippering was an attorney of some renown and could be a serious sort, but was not unknown to tip the bottle and frequent Madam Blossom’s household.
Ausley and the others turned right onto Beaver Street and crossed Broad Street once again, heading east toward the riverfront. Here and there lanterns burned on cornerposts, and every seventh dwelling was required by law to show a light. A dog barked fiercely behind a white picket fence and another echoed off in the distance. A man wearing a gold-trimmed tricorn and carrying a walking-stick suddenly turned a corner in front of Matthew and almost scared him witless, but with a quick nod the man was striding away, the stick tap-tapping on the brick sidewalk.
Matthew picked up his pace to keep Ausley in sight, but making certain to step carefully lest he mar his boots with any of the animal dung that often littered both bricks and cobbles. A horse-cart trundled past with a single figure hunched over the reins. Matthew walked on a narrow street between two walls of white stone. Ahead, by the illumination of a dying post-lamp, Ausley and the others turned right onto Sloat Lane. A fire had broken out here at the first of the summer and consumed several houses. The odor of ashes and flame-wrack still lingered in the air, commingled with rotten cloves and the smell of a pig that needed to be roasted. Matthew stopped and carefully peered around the corner. His quarry had slipped out of sight, between darkened wooden houses and squat little red brick buildings. Some of the houses farther on were blackened ruins. The lantern on the cornerpost ahead flickered, about to give up its ghost. A little prickling of the skin on the back of Matthew’s neck made him look around the way he’d come. Standing a distance behind him was a figure in dark clothes and hat, washed by the candlelight on the cornerpost he’d just passed. This was not his area of habitation, and it struck him suddenly that he was very far from home.
The figure just stood there, seemingly staring at him though Matthew was unable to make out a face beneath that tricorn. Matthew’s heart had begun to hammer in his chest. If this was the Masker, he thought, then damned if he’d give up his life without a fight. Good thinking there, boy, he told himself with a twinge of morbid humor. Fists against a throat-slashing blade always won the day.
Matthew was about to call to the figure—and say what? he asked himself. Fine night for a walk, isn’t it, sir? And by the by would you please spare my life?—but abruptly the mystery man turned away, strode purposefully out of the lantern’s realm and was gone. The breath hissed out of Matthew. He felt the chill of sweat at his temples. That wasn’t the Masker! he told himself with a little stupid fury. Of course not! It might have been a constable, or someone just out walking, the same as himself! Only he was not out just walking, he thought. He was a sheep, tracking a wolf.
Ausley and his tavern companions had gone. There was no sight of them whatsoever. Now the question was, did Matthew continue along this ash-reeking lane or retrace his way back to where the Masker was waiting? Stop it, idiot! he commanded. That wasn’t the Masker because the Masker has left New York! Why should anyone think the Masker was still lurking in these streets? Because they hadn’t caught him, Matthew thought grimly. That’s why.
He decided to go ahead, but with a watchful eye at his back in case a piece of darkness separated itself from the night and rushed upon him. And he had gone perhaps ten paces farther when a piece of darkness shifted not at his back, but directly in front of him.
He stopped and stood stone-still. He was a dried husk, all the blood and breath gone from him on a summer night suddenly turned winter’s eve.
A spark leaped, setting fire to cotton in a little tinderbox, and from it a match was lighted.
“Corbett,” said the man as he touched flame to pipe bowl, “if you’re so intent on following me I ought to give you an audience. Don’t you think?” Matthew didn’t reply. Actually his tongue was still petrified.
Eben Ausley took a moment lighting his pipe to satisfaction. Behind him was a fire-blacked brick wall. His corpulent face seethed red. “What a wonder you are, boy,” he said in his crackly high-pitched voice. “Laboring at papers and pots all day long and following me about the town at night. When do you sleep?”
“I manage,” Matthew answered.
“I think you ought to get more sleep than you do. I think you are in need of a long rest. Don’t you agree with that, Mr. Carver?”
Too late, Matthew heard the movement behind him. Too late, he realized the other two men had been hiding in the burned rubble on either side of—
A lumberboard whacked him square in the back of the head, stopping all further speculations. It sounded so loud to him that surely the militia would think a cannon had fired, but then the force of the blow knocked him off his feet and the pain roared up and everything was shooting stars and flaming pinwheels. He was on his knees and made an effort of sheer willpower not to go down flat on the street. His teeth were gritted, his senses blowsy. It came to him through the haze that Ausley had led him a merry traipse to this sheep-trap. “Oh, that’s enough, I think,” Ausley was saying. “We don’t want to kill him now, do we? How does that feel, Corbett? Clear your noggin out for you?”
Matthew heard the voice as if an echo from a great distance, which he wished were the truth. Something pressed down hard upon the center of his back. A boot, he realized. About to slam him to the ground.
“He’s all right where he is,” Ausley said, in a flat tone of nonchalance. The boot left Matthew’s back. “I don’t think he’s going anywhere. Are you, Corbett?” He didn’t wait for a reply, which wouldn’t have arrived anyway. “Do you know who this young man is, my friends? Do you know he’s been trailing me hither and yon, ’round and about for…how long has it been, Corbett? Two years?”
Two years haphazardly, Matthew thought. Only the last six months with any sense of purpose.
“This young man was one of my dearest students,” Ausley went on, smirking now. “One of my boys, yes. Raised up right there at the orphanage. Now I didn’t take him off the street myself, my predecessor Staunton did that, you see. That poor old fool saw him as a worthwhile project. Wretched urchin into educated gentleman, if you please. Gave him books to read, and taught him…what was it he taught you, Corbett? How to be a damned fool, like he was?” He continued merrily along his crooked road. “Now this young man has gone a far travel from his beginnings. Oh yes, he has. Went into the employ of Magistrate Isaac Woodward, who chose him as a clerk-in-training and took him out into the world. Gave him a chance to continue his education, to learn to live a gentleman’s life and to be someone of value.” There was a pause as Ausley relit his pipe. “And then, my friends,” Ausley said between puffs, “and then, he betrayed his benefactor by falling in with a woman accused of witchcraft in a little hole of a town down in the Carolina colony. A murderess, I understood her to be. A common tramp and a conniver, who pulled the wool over this young man’s eyes and caused the death of that noble Magistrate Woodward, God rest his soul.”
“Lie,” Matthew was able to say. Or rather, to whisper. He tried again: “That’s…a lie.”
“Did he speak? Did he say something?” Ausley asked.
“He mumbled,” said the man standing behind Matthew.
“Well might he mumble,” Ausley said. “He mumbled and grumbled quite a lot at the orphanage. Didn’t you, Corbett? If I had killed my benefactor by first exposing him to a wet tempest that half robbed his life and then breaking his heart by treachery, I’d be reduced to a mumbling wretch too. Tell me, how does Magistrate Powers trust you enough to turn his back on you? Or have you learned a bewitching spell from your ladyfriend?”
“If he knows witchcraft,” another voice said, “it hasn’t done him any good tonight.”
“No,” Ausley answered, “he doesn’t know witchcraft. If he did, he’d at least make himself into an invisible pest instead of a pest I have to look at every time I venture out into the street. Corbett!!”
It had been a demand for Matthew’s full attention, which he was able to give only by lifting his throbbing brain-pan on its weakened stalk. He blinked, trying to focus on Ausley’s repugnant visage.
The headmaster of King Street’s orphanage for boys, he of the jaunty cockatoo and the swollen belly, said with quiet contempt, “I know what you’re about. I’ve always known. When you came back here, I knew it would start. And I warned you, did I not? Your last night at the orphanage? Have you forgotten? Answer me!”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Matthew said.
“Never plot a war you cannot win. Isn’t that right?”
Matthew didn’t respond. He tensed, expecting the boot to come down on his back again, but he was spared.
“This young man…boy…fool,” Ausley corrected himself, speaking now to his two companions, “decided he didn’t approve of my correctional methods. All those boys, all those grievous attitudes. Some of them like animals wild from the woods, even a barn was too good for them. They’d bite your arm off and piss on your leg. The churches and the public hospital daily bringing them to my door. Family perished on the voyage over, no one to take responsibility, so what was I to do with them? Indians massacred this one’s family, or that one was stubborn and would not work, or this one was a young drunkard living in the street. What was I to do with them, except give them some discipline? And yes, I did take many of them in hand. Many of them I had to discipline in the most strict of manners, because they would abide no—”
“Not discipline,” Matthew interrupted, gathering strength into his voice. His face had reddened, his eyes glistening with anger in their swollen sockets. “Your methods…might make the church elders and the hospital council think twice…about the charity they give you. And the money the town pays you. Do they know you’re confusing discipline with sodomy?”
Ausley was quiet. In this silence, the world and time seemed to hang suspended.
“I’ve heard them scream, late at night,” Matthew went on. “Many nights. I’ve seen them, afterward. Some of them…didn’t want to live. All of them were changed. And you only went after the youngest ones. The ones who couldn’t fight back.” He felt the burn of tears, and even after eight years the impact of this emotion stunned him. He pulled in a breath and the next words tumbled out of him: “I’m fighting back for them, you jackal sonofabitch.”
Ausley’s laugh cracked the dark. “Oh ho! Oh ho, my friends! View the avenging angel! Down on the ground and fighting the air!” He came forward a few steps. In the next pull of the pipe and the red wash of cinder-light, Matthew saw a face upon the man that would have scared even the winged Michael. “You make me sick, Corbett! With your stupidity and your fucking honor. With your following me, trying to get under my feet and trip me up. Because that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? Trying to find out things? To spy on me? Which tells me one very important thing: you have nothing. If you had something—anything—beyond your ridiculous suppositions and made-up memories, you would have first fetched your dear dead magistrate Woodward upon me, or now your new dog Powers. Am I not correct in this?” His voice suddenly changed; when he spoke again he sounded like a nettled old woman: “Look what you’ve made me step in!”
Then, after a meditative pause: “Mr. Bromfield, drag Corbett over here, won’t you?”
A hand grabbed Matthew’s collar and another took hold of his shirt low on his back. He was dragged fast and sure by a man who knew how to move a body. Matthew tensed and tried to convulse himself, but a knuckled fist—Carver’s, he presumed—jammed into his ribs just enough to tell him that pride led to breakage.
“You have a filthy mind,” Ausley said, standing closer with his odors of cloves and smoke. “I think we should scrub it a bit, beginning with your face. Mr. Bromfield, clean him up for me, please.”
“My pleasure,” said the man who’d seized Matthew, and with diabolical relish he took hold of the back of Matthew’s head and thrust his face down into the fly-blown mass of horse manure that Ausley’s boot had found.
Matthew had seen what was coming. There was no way to avoid it. He was able to seal his mouth shut and close his eyes, and then his face went into the pile. It was, by reason of the analytical part of Matthew’s brain that took the cool measure of all things, distressingly fresh. Almost velvety, really. Like putting one’s face into a velvet bag. Warm, still. The stuff was up his nostrils, but the breath was stuck hard in his lungs. He didn’t fight, even when he felt the sole of a boot press upon the back of his head and his face was jammed through the wretched excess near down to the cobblestones. They wanted him to fight, so they could break him. So he would not fight, even as the air stuttered in his lungs and his face remained pressed down into the filth under a whoreson’s boot. He would not fight, so he might fight the better on his feet some other day.
Ausley said, “Pull him up.”
“Get some air in his lungs, Carver,” Ausley commanded.
The flat of a hand slapped Matthew in the center of his chest. The air whooshed out of his mouth and nostrils, spraying manure.
“Shit!” Carver hollered. “He’s got it on my shirt!”
“Step back then, step back. Give him room to smell himself.”
Matthew did. The stuff was still jammed up his nose. It caked his face like swamp mud and had the vomitous odor of sour grass, decayed feed, and…well, and stinking manure straight from the rump. He retched and tried to clear his eyes but Bromfield had hold of his arms as strong as a picaroon’s rope.
Ausley gave a short, high, and giddy laugh. “Oh, look at him now! The avenger has turned scarecrow! You might even scare the carrion birds away with that face, Corbett!”
Matthew spat and shook his head violently back and forth; unfortunately some of this unpalatable meal had gotten past his lips.
“You can let him go now,” Ausley said. Bromfield released Matthew and at the same time gave him a solid shove that put him on the ground again. Then, as Matthew struggled up to his knees and rubbed the mess out of his eyes, Ausley stood over him and said quietly, the menace in his voice commingled with boredom, “You are not to follow me again. Understand? Mind me well, or the next time we meet shall not go so kindly for you.” To the others: “Shall we leave the young man to his contemplations?”
There was the sound of phlegm being hawked up. Matthew felt the gob of spit hit his shirt at the left shoulder. Carver or Bromfield, showing their good breeding. After that, the noise of boots striding away. Ausley said something and one of the others laughed. Then they were gone.
Matthew sat in the street, cleaning his face with his sleeves. Sickness bubbled and lurched in his stomach. The heat of anger and the burn of shame made him feel as if he were sitting aboil under the noonday sun. His head was still killing him, his eyes streaming. Then his stomach turned over and out of him flooded the Old Admiral’s ale and most of the salmagundi he’d put down for his supper. It came to him that he was going to be laboring over a washpot tonight.
Finally, after what seemed a terrible hour, he was able to get up off the ground and think about how to get home. His roost on the Broad Way, up over Hiram Stokely’s pottery shop, was going to be a good twenty-minute walk. Probably a long, malodorous twenty minutes, at that. But there was nothing to be done but to get to doing it; and so he started off, seething and weaving and stinking and being altogether miserable in his wretched skin. He searched for a horse trough. He would get himself a bath in it, and so cleanse his face and clear his mind.
And tomorrow? To be so impetuous as to once more haunt the dark outside the King Street orphanage, waiting for Ausley to appear on his jaunt to the gambling dens and so spy on him in hopes of…what, exactly? Or to stay home in his small room and embrace cold fact, that Ausley was right: he had absolutely nothing, and was unlikely to get anything at this pace. But to give up…to give up…was abandoning them all. Abandoning the reason for his solemn rage, abandoning the quest that he felt set him apart from every other citizen of this town. It gave him a purpose. Without it, who would he be?
He would be a magistrate’s clerk and a pottery sweeper, he thought as he went along the silent Broad Way. Only a young man who held sway over a quill and a broom, and whose mind was tormented by the vision of injustice to the innocent. It was what had made him stand up against Magistrate Woodward—his mentor and almost father, truth be told—to proclaim Rachel Howarth innocent of witchcraft in the town of Fount Royal three years ago. Had that decision helped to carry the ailing magistrate to his death? Possibly so. It was another torment, like the hot strike of a bullwhip ever endlessly repeating, that lay upon Matthew’s soul in every hour lit by sun or candle.
He came upon a horse trough at Trinity Church, where Wall Street met the Broad Way. Here the sturdy Dutch cobblestones ended and the streets were plain hard-packed English earth. As Matthew leaned down into the trough and began to wash his face with dirty water, he almost felt like weeping. Yet to weep took too much energy, and he had none of that to spare.
But tomorrow was tomorrow, was it not? A new beginning, as they said? What a day might change, who could ever know? Yet some things would never change in himself, and of this he was certain: he must bring Eben Ausley to justice somehow, for those crimes of wanton evil and brutality against the innocent. Somehow, he must; or he feared that if he did not, he would be consumed by this quest, by its futility, and he would wither into slack-jawed acceptance of what could never in his mind be acceptable.
At last he was suitable to proceed home, yet still a ragamuffin’s nightmare. He still had his cap, that was a good thing. He still had his life, that was another. And so he straightened his shoulders and counted his blessings and went on his way through the midnight town, one young man alone.
Copyright © 2007 by The McCammon Corporation