Authors: Eve Karlin
I touched Elma's shoulder. “I suppose the tea-water men are our only option.”
Her face registered the same confusion I had felt during my early days in the city. “T-water men?”
“They cart barrels of water through the streetsâ”
“And overcharge for it,” the woman said.
“The water comes from the Tea Water Pump next door to the Old Punch House on Chatham Street,” I said. “They say it once brewed the city's best tea. Cartmen gather there in the morning, fill their casks, and hawk it through the streets.”
“And food?” Elma's brow furrowed. “Is there a market nearby?”
“The city has four. The Bear and the Crown are near the Hudson, but the Fly Market's best.”
“No more flies than the others, though, ha!” the Brit interjected again, slapping his arm as if squashing a mosquito. “It's a Dutch name.” His distinguished companion was nowhere in sight, but he continued to hover. He had milky gray eyes and seemed to possess a heightened sense of awareness, as if compensating for a deficiency. “Collect's Dutch too, means âpond.'â”
“The Fly Market's across Maiden Lane,” I told Elma. Soon enough, she would be making the trip on her own.
“Maiden Lane,” he called after us. “I was by that way last night. There were several ladies, but none of 'em were maidens. I'd mind your purse.”
Elias met us outside the front door, frowning at our empty buckets. Still in his nightshirt, Charles skipped behind his father, tossing a ball of my best yarn, the tail unraveling like a streamer.
Elma snatched the ball mid-flight. “Do you think Patience can catch?” she asked, lobbing it back to Charles.
“No!” he said, though he looked doubtful.
“Shall we see?” Elma asked. “Maybe you can teach her.”
Charles grinned as if Elma had suggested a grand adventure.
“No water,” Elias said, shaking his head as if I were at fault.
“That water's not fit for animals,” I said. “We'll have to buy from the tea-water men.” I looked down the street. “Provided they come. Honestly, I don't know how I'm to manage a boardinghouse without water.”
“Did you say you were running a boardingho
I turned, disturbed to see the portly Brit with the troubling cough.
“Richard Croucher's my name.” He bowed slightly, revealing his hat's tattered rim. “I'm in need of a room.”
I felt the hair rise on my neck. He had followed us.
“There's a vacancy on the top floor,” Elias said.
“That cramped space under the eaves?” I shook my head, troubled by the idea of sharing intimate quarters with such a man. “I'm sure this gentlemanâ” I had to look away to get the word out. “He'd find it uncomforta
Croucher smiled, or leered. His teeth were yellow and broken. “I don't require much.”
A lean horse hobbled down the street, lugging an oversize barrel. “Water! Water!” called the tea-water man, looking as exhausted as his horse. “Penny a gallon.”
“What? That's robbery!” Elias said, loud enough for the man to hear.
“Elias,” I said. “We can't live without water.”
Elias scowled as if I had asked to buy a new ribbon or some fine lace. He had always been frugal, but a plain life was in keeping with our beliefs. Now, as he dug into his pockets, he seemed stingy.
With a flourish, Croucher produced a tightly knotted sack from his behind his back.
Elias glanced up and watched closely. “Tell me,” he asked, “what's thy line of work?”
“Odd jobs, but I'm not one to owe.” Coins jingled and Croucher's mottled fingers shook as he pried open the handkerchief, which had a delicate floral border. I recognized it at once. It belonged to the man carrying the yardstick who had been at the water pump with Croucher. I had a hunch the coins came from him as well. I was pondering the unlikely duo when Elias's eyes lit upon the money.
His hand was out before I could stop it.
“I'm a respectful sort,” Croucher said, “especially to the ladies.” He cocked his head and looked past me.
“Eliasâ” I began.
“Just a minute,” he said, pocketing the money and shaking hands, a glimmer in his eyes that I hadn't seen in a long while.
I felt tears welling up as I tried to understand how Elias could choose his purse over our home. I could still hear them talking as I took the empty buckets to the barrel. As water splattered against the cracked leather pails, a musty odor rose like a warning.
A fortnight later, Levi Weeks joined the family. It was Independence Day.
Levi was young, perhaps one-and-twenty, tall, with broad shoulders made muscular from his work as a carpenter. His hair was long and fashionably tied. A casual observer would have said his eyes were black, the lashes were so thick and dark, but a second glance showed them to be dark blue. He was unambiguously handsome, except for a restless expression that I attributed to youth and good fortune.
“We've saved the best room for thee,” I said when Elias introduced us.
“I'm grateful.” Levi bowed. His tone was smooth, as if he fully expected, and deserved, to occupy the best room. He tapped his thigh while he spoke: a sign of anxiety or impatience, I couldn't decide.
Levi walked to the fireplace and ran his hand along the mantel, as if to examine its construction. “My apprentice, Will,” he said, waving backward.
A tall boy with sandy hair waited in the entrance. He was lugging a large sack, and his shoulders floated clumsily by his oversize ears in greeting.
“I'm Catherine Ring, the landlady,” I said, sympathetic to what it must be like to be a stranger and servant in a new home.
Charles pointed at Levi. “I know him!”
“Charles,” I whispered, lowering his hand, “that's not polite.”
“Will, take the bags up,” Levi said.
Charles whirled around toward Will. “Him, too. They were at the dock.”
I did not recognize Levi, but I recalled the gawky boy standing next to Elma while she fought back tears. “Will
at the dock when Elma arrived,” I said, while Charles nodded.
“That was the day your pa met my brother,” Levi said, mussing Charles's hair, “and they arranged for me to come live here.”
Charles cocked his head and frowned, looking exactly like Elias. He had inherited his father's hazel eyes and his attentiveness. Youth made him even more observantâand less tactful.
“Charles,” I asked. “Thou saw Levi at the docks?”
“It must have been my brother, Ezra,” Levi answered, and I turned back to him. “Brothers are easily confused.” He grinned, though it did not quite reach his eyes. “I'm pleased to meet you, young man,” he said, shaking Charles's hand.
Charles stood straighter, his little fingers disappearing completely in Levi's grip.
“Elias speaks highly of thy brother,” I said, still trying to understand why a successful businessman like Ezra Weeks would not invite kin into his home. Elias's eyes gleamed with subtle warning, but I had a right to know about the people living under my roof. Isaac Hatfield, the trader, seemed harmless enough; Croucher was curious at best; but something in Levi's ingratiating manner troubled me.
Elias walked over to the hearth and picked up a poker, waving it in the air before bending to separate the logs. “The fire's too high.”
“I'm preparing dinner,” I said, nodding at the table, where plates were set out. “Elma's gone to the pump.”
“The streets are packed with Independence Day revelers,” Levi said. His voice sounded youthful and animated for the first time.
The front door blew open and Elma entered. Her hair was tousled and her shawl was bunched in her arms like a pile of rags. She was not carrying the water buckets. She backed up and slammed the door with her heel. Charles rushed to her side, and she stooped down. Loose curls brushed the bundle in her arms, and a tiny paw reached out to swat them away. Elma unfurled the shawl, exposing the ears, eyes, then whiskers of a pewter-gray cat whose fur was matted with mud.
“The poor thing was hiding under the back wheel of a carriage,” she said, placing her index finger on the smallest of white dots above the cat's nose.
“Filthy creature,” Elias said. “No doubt he's coated with fleas.”
Elma stroked the matted fur. “He's skin and bones.” She held the cat an arm's length away, and his tail flicked anxiously as he gazed back at her with steady amber eyes.
“This house doesn't need another stray,” Elias said, with a pointed glance at Elma.
Elma hugged the cat to her chest. “He won't be in anyone's way.”
“Cats are very useful,” Levi said.
Elma startled at the sound of his voice and turned to Levi with something more than curiosity.
“Martha Washington nicknamed her big old tomcat âHamilton,'â” Levi continued. It was as if he wanted to steer the conversation toward his illustrious connections. “Of course, Hamilton is a dapper sort.” Levi walked to Elma, reached out, and scratched the cat behind its ears. It stretched and purred while Elma stood entirely still. “This fellow is definitely more of a âBurr.'â”
“Burr rhymes with purr!” Charles clapped.
A shy smile flitted across Elma's lips and Levi watched, not bothering to hide his interest. I was not surprised she had caught his attention, but I was disturbed that she was returning it so blatantly.
“Levi,” Elias said. “Thisâ¦” He refused to look Elma's way. “This is my wife's cousin.”
Elma held out her hand and spoke in a stilted voice that matched her unfamiliar smile. “Pleased to meetâ”
There was an explosion outside that made us jump.
“Cannon fire for the celebration,” Levi explained. “Ezra says that this will be the most festive year yet.”
“Can we go see?” Charles asked, bouncing up and down.
“I think I hear drums,” Levi said.
Elias reached for his hat. I had the impression that he was loath to disappoint Levi. “Might as well take a look,” he said, shaking his head at Elma. “Seeing as dinner's not ready.”
“The water,” Elma gasped. “I completely forgot!”
“Fetch the buckets,” I said, dismayed at the idea of our leather water buckets flattened under the wheels of a carriage. We were in no position to replace the buckets or waste their precious contents. Elma had been lugging water home for two weeks now; I would have thought she understood this. Still, I tempered my annoyance. If I scolded her in front of company, I would be no better than Mother. That was not the reason I invited her to New York. I steadied my voice. “We'll make do with what's here.” No matter how I sealed the wooden tub where I stored water, it always had a film of gnats and dust.
“Forgive me,” Elma said, setting the cat on his feet. He scurried away and hid under the table, and Elma looked as if she would have liked to follow.
The clamor continued while we prepared dinner. Along with the cannon fire and drumming, there were shouts and singing in the street.
Steam rose from the bowl and colored Elma's cheeks as she mashed potatoes. “Levi's very handsome,” she said.
It was impossible to deny Levi's good looks, but the clear effect they had on Elma made me uneasy. “He's ratherâ¦wor
ldly,” I said.
Elma tasted the potatoes. “He's intelligent. Is that bad?”
“No, of course not,” I said, striving to articulate my precise concern. Calling Levi too sophisticated implied she was naÃ¯ve.
“Caty, you're always slow to warm to new faces. If you don't stop worrying, those lines”âshe reached over, smoothing the skin between my eyebrowsâ“will become permanent.”
I couldn't disagree: I had always been slow to trust new acquaintances. My aunt's plight had made an impression on me, but Elma appeared surprisingly unscathed in that regardâshe remained trusting and open. It was something that I loved about her, but it also made me worry about her judgment.
“Isaac Hatfield is very kind,” I said, “and he's always trying to make conversation with thee.”
“Isaac Hatfield!” Elma looked over her shoulder and lowered her voice. “He has hairy knuckles and a potbelly.”
“I can't speak for his knuckles,” I said, fighting back a smile, “but it's nice to have a healthy appetite.”
“Oh, Caty!” She shook her head, still mashing vigorously.
Elias, Levi, and Charles returned. Elias seated himself at the head of the dining table with Levi to his right, and Charles inserted himself between the pair. When the scent of warm food filled the house, Richard Croucher and Isaac Hatfield joined the men at the table.
“Charles, go fetch Will,” I said, curious to see if Elma would recognize the boy from the dock. But when Will took a seat beside Levi, she did not look up.
“My brother, Ezra, says it will be Jefferson in 1800,” Levi announced suddenly, and the other men turned to face him.
Elma elbowed me. “Handsome
well-informed,” she whispered.
“Serve the potatoes,” I told her. I did not appreciate her teasing. I had always imagined Elma would find a modest husband, not necessarily as morally upright as Elias or Mother, but a man with a deep and true faith. Someone who had experienced heartache and could understand her hardships; who would be sensitive enough to look past her shortcomings and see her for the sweet and forthright young woman she was; who would value virtue over birth. Levi was not the type I had in mind.
Elma placed the potatoes in front of Levi and helped him to a hearty spoonful. Her braid brushed his shoulder as she leaned over, and he smiled appreciati
“Those smell tasty,” Hatfield said, tucking in his napkin. He seemed more focused on Elma than on the potatoes, but his mirth faded as she heaped another serving onto Levi's crowded plate.
“Ezra likes Jefferson?” Elias asked. Just weeks earlier he had referred to politics as the devil's religion. Now he sounded keenly interested.
I served from a platter of stewed beef as I listened to the men around the table. Hearing their varying perspectives had proven to be the best thing about running the boardinghouse. I could never have imagined how the business being discussed would soon unravel our lives.
“Jefferson and the Republicans are sharpening their pitchforks and their tongues and tossing a load of rubbish about Hamilton's contempt for liberty,” Croucher said. Cutlery clanged as he picked each piece up and wiped it with his napkin. “And the Federalists are lobbing it back, calling Jefferson a fanatic.”
“For an Englishman, you're well versed in our system,” Levi said, sounding more suspicious than impressed.
“I make it a point to understand what's going on around me,” Croucher said, stabbing meat with his fork.
“Word has it Jefferson plans to build a guillotine on Capitol Hill to lop off his rivals' heads, and Hamilton's will be first to go,” Hatfield said, chuckling and nodding at Elma as if encouraging her to join in.
She obliged. “Jefferson doesn't like Hamilton?” she asked.
“Are there more potatoes?” I said, hoping to distract her. I secretly admired Elma for participating in the conversation, but I did not understand her need to be quite so bold at a table full of men.
“Why don't they like each other?” she persisted. She addressed Levi, but Hatfield responded.
“They have different plans for the country. Hamilton is growing banking and business, while Jefferson has manicured gardens and slaves.”
Levi's expression softened as he turned to Elma. “President Adams
running for reelection and he
the rightful head of the Federalist Party, but everyone knows that Hamilton is really in charge. He was Washington's top adviser, and many cabinet members still listen to him. Jefferson resents him. Adams does too.”
“Why doesn't Hamilton run for president?” Will asked.
Croucher banged a fist into the table, rattling the dishes. “Alexander 'amilton is the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler whose mother was a common whore!”
Charles's eyes grew wide and a hush fell over the table. I could hear Hatfield chew and see Elias clench his jaw. I couldn't bring myself to look at Elma.
“Is it fair to judge him because of his birth?” Levi asked.
Elma's eyes locked on his with unmistakable gratitude.
“â'E can dress 'imself up in silk and ruffles, but 'e don't fool me,” Croucher said. “â'Amilton's no better 'an 'is mother. 'E couldn't cool 'is iron in 'is own trough and was conned by a pair of ne'er-do-well tricksters because of it.”