City of Liars and Thieves (6 page)

BOOK: City of Liars and Thieves
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The more inflamed Croucher grew, the more his speech deteriorated.

“He had a love affair and was blackmailed,” Levi said. “It was disgraceful, but he explained his position.”

“ 'Is position!” Croucher broke into a fit of laughter. “Which one? Wonder 'ow 'e explained
'is position
to 'is wife. What do you say, Mrs. Ring?”

“She has nothing to say!” Elias nearly shouted. While it was impossible not to be offended by Croucher's vulgar manner, Elias's words were infinitely more insulting. His obliviousness to the slight made it worse.

“Hamilton's mother left a husband who beat her,” I said, stating the facts as I knew them.

“To be with the man she loved,” Levi added. “She's a fallen woman.”

“Fallen?” Croucher barked. “Did she stumble into 'er lover's bed?”

“She fell victim to temptation and sin. Human beings…” Levi's voice faltered. “People can be weak.”

“Leaving a cruel and nasty husband is the opposite of weak,” I said, feeling color rush to my face. “She was
brave
.”

A vein at the base of Elias's neck throbbed as he scraped his chair away from the table—a habit he employed, like clearing his throat, to remind the household that he sat at the head.

“Thy brother, Ezra, knows Hamilton,” Elias said. “What does he think?”

Levi sliced his meat, separating out fatty bits and pushing them to the edge of his plate. “Hamilton's a cut above the rest,” he said, holding a well-trimmed piece of beef at the end of his fork before popping it in his mouth. “Of course, my brother and I also work with Burr. Burr is wellborn but”—he gazed down and smiled—“hard-bitten. He has no future with the Federalists so long as Hamilton is at the helm, so he's turned to Jefferson and the Republicans.”

“Jefferson needs Burr to woo New Yorkers,” Hatfield said.

“It's a marriage of convenience,” Croucher grumbled.

Elias sat taller, or perhaps it was merely his ears that perked up. “What business does Ezra have with Burr?”

“Burr doesn't like Hamilton either?” Elma asked sweetly.

Elias cringed as Levi, ignoring his question, responded to Elma.

“Burr hates him most of all. Some say it's because they're too alike: both New Yorkers with brilliant legal minds, and both wildly ambitious.”

“What work is Ezra doing for Burr?” Elias asked more firmly.

“Burr plans to fix the city's water shortage. Ezra and I are providing the lumber and the labor,” Levi said.

Hatfield sat back and whistled. “If Burr can pull that off, he'll be more popular than God.”

It was the first I'd heard that anyone was trying to solve the water problem, and I imagined a hundred ways my life could improve.

“The water committee meets often,” Levi said. “Elias, you should join us.”

“Republican meeting?” Croucher asked.

“We discuss sanitation, not politics.”

“Politics
is
dirty business,” Croucher said, chuckling to himself.

Elias sat forward. “Will Burr be there?”

“Yes,” Levi said. “Colonel Burr is very serious about public welfare.”

Croucher stood. “Burr and Hamilton aren't any more interested in public good than they are in wedding vows.” He dug deep in his pocket and tossed a flyer to the center of the table.

A
ARON
B
URR!
The words blazed in bold type.
A
CCUSED OF
A
BANDONED
D
EBAUCHERY.

—

Oppressive summer heat had settled over the city when we woke one night to cries of “Fire!” Church bells were ringing, night watchmen were hollering, and Elias was pulling on his boots and shouting orders. Levi, Will, and Isaac Hatfield raced down the stairs, and Richard Croucher was steps behind.

“Keep the children inside,” Elias screamed, “and get the buckets!”

Elma, tousled with sleep, stood barefoot on the second-floor landing, gazing serenely at the mayhem. She wore a thin cambric shift, and only her black curls and the dark night prevented it from being entirely transparent.

The men were scrambling for buckets, boots, and hats, but each one stopped in his tracks as Elma descended the stairs. She paused on the last step, a breath away from Levi.

“Be careful,” she whispered, so quietly that I was not sure if she spoke the words or merely mouthed them.

I rushed over and wrapped my shawl around her shoulders, but it was impossible to cover the subtle curve of her hips. “Go back to bed,” I said, trying to redirect her upstairs.

“Levi!” Elias shouted, though he was only steps away. He seemed as determined to separate the pair as I was. As Levi stole one last wistful glance at Elma, Elias practically shoved him out the door.

I followed them outside. Up and down Greenwich Street, people stood in doorways or leaned out of windows, watching as brigades of men, hands laden with water buckets, marched north.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Chambers Street,” said our neighbor Elizabeth Watkins. She, like Elma and me, was dressed in a nightgown with a shawl thrown hastily over her shoulders, though with her buxom build and graying hair, she cut quite a different figure from Elma. The mother of three grown boys, Elizabeth served as the neighborhood matriarch.

“My dear, you'll catch a chill!” she cried.

I looked over my shoulder, dismayed to find Elma standing there in her flimsy shift.

“Stay inside,” Levi said to her. Elias turned, clearly surprised to hear him giving orders.

Charles trailed Elias in nightshirt and bare feet, carrying a bucket. “I want to help,” he said.

Elias brushed him away. “Caty, there's no time for this.”

Charles began to sniffle and Levi patted his shoulder, gently taking the bucket from him. “We need a man to stay behind and look after the women.”

Whether or not Charles accepted Levi's explanation, he stayed put.

Men were racing up the street. “Come now, Charles.” I reached for his hand, then withdrew, thinking that he might prefer to walk on his own.

Assured that we were not in imminent danger, Elma and I gathered the children in the front room. Charles narrated from the window. “Joseph Watkins is hitching his wagon,” he called. “And I see the old widower. He's swinging a lantern and wearing slippers!”

“It's a wonder he doesn't start another blaze,” Elma said.

“And there's Levi,” Charles said. “But he's going the wrong way.”

“What?” Elma leapt from her chair to join Charles at the window.

“Levi!” Charles banged on the windowpane.

“He must be going to get more men—or supplies,” she said, squinting.

I felt secretly gratified that Levi, who claimed to be so interested in public welfare, would shirk his responsibi
lities. Bells were ringing throughout the city, so I didn't believe he was going to fetch more men. And water was the only thing to fight fire. Walking the opposite way was no help. I turned to Elma, wondering what she thought of Levi's cowardly behavior. Her face was pressed so close to the windowpane that her breath clouded the glass, but she didn't say anything.

“Rest now. It will be a long night,” I said to Charles, though I was also speaking to Elma.

As the candles burned down, the street became quieter. Elma curled up with Patience, and Charles fell asleep in my bed. I kissed the top of his head, cherishing the increasingly rare opportunity to inhale his boyish scent. Perhaps I should have taken my own advice. Instead, I headed outside.

—

It had not rained for more than a week, and Greenwich Street was dusty and dry. I could smell smoke and see a distant flicker of flames. I can't explain what drew me to the danger. It was more than curiosity or restlessness. The air grew thick and my eyes stung. I walked steadily north with a sense of encroaching doom.

Chambers Street was in the middle of the island, where the buildings were most tightly packed. Most were made of wood. At least three were engulfed in fire, and a fourth had bright-orange flames soaring from windows and under the roof. One wall had collapsed and men swung axes at the others, trying to contain the blaze. People raced to the scene, carrying buckets and ladders; others fled with children, dishes, even bedding, in their arms. There were shouts and tears, the sound of crackling, and the hiss of flames.

“Factory fire?” someone asked. Gray soot was smeared under his nose like a mustache.

An elderly man leaning on a cane shook his head. “Private home.”

“Lizzie!” a woman screamed. Barefoot, she was dressed in a worn dress with a singed hem, and her hair was unruly but her expression was truly wild. “Lizzie, are you here? Come out. Mama won't be angry. Lizzie!”

No one, including myself, stirred. Panic swept my soul, a fear so intense it left me mute. The elderly man next to me seemed to be holding his breath. It was only when the poor woman rushed away into a cloud of black smoke that I heard him exhale.

“How did it start?” I asked. It wasn't just macabre interest. I wanted to shield my family from whatever it was that had spawned this nightmare.

“A servant girl spilled a shovelful of live coal while carrying it from one room to the next,” he said.

“Nah.” The lady next to him shook her head. “Heat caused a compost pile to ignite.”

“See that house there?” another woman said. “The bedsheets caught fire.”

Chains of men formed to the west and south, passing buckets from fire-company tanks toward the burning homes. The wind picked up, water flew in men's faces, and the air filled with the stench of burned meat. I looked for Elias, but the darkness and commotion made it impossible to distinguish one man from the next. On second glance, though, I was certain I recognized the ranting zealot from the dock, showering bucket after bucket onto the swiftly rising flames. Or maybe it was merely his prophetic words ringing louder than any siren: “
Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames?”

“Tank's almost empty!” shouted a man at the head of the line.

“Fire company's not worth a damn,” said a man next to me.

“Form a line to the river!” the first man called. The line shifted and spread, though it did not seem possible to reach either river.

“Mrs. Ring?” Richard Croucher seemed always annoyingly underfoot, so the sight of him should not have surprised me. But it did. It was not his presence so much as his appearance. His face was smeared with ash, his shirt was soaked through, and his left hand was raw.

“What happened?” I asked, reaching for the injury.

He flinched, and a thin trickle of perspiration ran from his temple in a crooked line down his cheek. From thumb to wrist were several angry, oozing blisters.

“Got licked by flame. It'll mend.” Croucher pulled the wounded hand behind his back. “This is no place for you. You should be with the children, out of 'arm's way.”

The chilling cries of the woman calling for her daughter echoed in my ears. Down the street, half-dressed men and women ran from buildings, their arms weighed down by silverware, candlesticks, books.

“The children are with Elma. Maybe I can help those people,” I said, starting toward them.

Croucher caught my sleeve. “Mrs. Ring.” His voice, devoid of its usual bluster, was laced with concern. “Those folks are stealing.”

“Thieves?” One stout woman carried pots and pans; a girl, no more than ten, dragged a sack of flour. They looked like ordinary people, not criminals.

There were screams and a whoosh as a blazing wall tumbled to the ground. Red-and-gold flames leapt and danced as wood buckled and collapsed. Fiery ash landed inches from our feet, and a wave of scorching heat engulfed the street, followed by the blackest smoke I had ever seen.

Chapter 4

The smell of smoke was still in the air when Elias attended his first water meeting. After supper, he and Levi left the house in Ezra Weeks's elegant calash. Seated on the plush upholstery, Elias was clearly pleased, nodding at neighbors and laughing a bit too loudly. I may have shook my head, but, truth be told, I was relieved Elias was adjusting to city life. My days were infinitely easier when he was in good spirits. With childlike naïveté, I buried any concern that we might be punished for our complacency and pride. Caught in the whirlpool that was engulfing our lives, I set my values aside.

Elma disappeared the moment the men were out of sight. It was unlike her to leave without cleaning up. She had spent the afternoon sewing in silence, her head resting on the back of her chair as if observing the household from afar. I know now, with a crystalline pain, that we were both errant, soon to be lost entirely. But at the time I was more concerned with fussy children and dirty dishes.

I wanted to speak to Elma about Levi, though I wasn't exactly sure what to say. Could I tell her not to sway like a blade of grass while he spoke? Not to hover as if anticipating his every whim?

I called for her in the yard and up the stairs, increasingly bothered by the silent house. Charles tagged behind me, holding my apron strings and pretending to drive a horse.

“I want a story,” he said, his mood as bearish as mine. “Where's Elma?”

“I'm afraid I'll have to do tonight,” I said, steering him toward the bedroom.

Only half paying attention, I told a dull tale about a well-behaved boy who was kind to his little sister. Charles interrupted with endless comments: the boy had brown hair, not blond; he hated peas and deserved a later bedtime. Eventually, his objections became fewer until finally, he closed his eyes. I went in search of Elma.

Over the past year, I had grown accustomed to our home's odd sounds, from snoring men to rattling windows. But that night the entire house was still as death. My steps slowed, and I could hear my breath as I reached the third floor. Elma's bedroom door was closed. For some reason it filled me with dread. My hand shook as I turned the knob, and when the door swung open, I gasped. Croucher stood, candle in hand, leaning over Elma's narrow bed. For a stout man, he cast a long shadow.

“I 'eard 'er babbling,” he said. “Sickness came on fast.”

“Sickness?” I rushed to her side. The idea that Elma was ill had not occurred to me, but as I gazed down at her I could not help but wonder how I had been so blind. Her hair was tousled, her lips caked and dry, and her teeth chattering. I set my hand on her forehead, then snatched it back. Her face was flushed with fever, yet her skin was clammy. “She needs a doctor!”

“Those slick doctors and their slimy leeches bleed you dry. I'd ask Ring first,” Croucher warned.

I wanted to tell him that I could call for a doctor with or without Elias's approval, but I knew with a pang of anger that he was right. Elias would be irritated at an extra expense, especially one for Elma.

“Elias has gone to the water meeting,” I worried out loud. “Would thou fetch him for me?” I did not like asking Richard Croucher for a favor. He was the kind of man who would request something in return.

He shook his head forcefully. “I wasn't invited,” he snapped.

I was suddenly calm with purpose. “A rather odd time to stand on ceremony, I should think,” I said, as I started out of the room. “Very well, then.” I would get our neighbor Elizabeth Watkins to stay with the children and find Elias myself.

“Where you going?” Croucher called.

I did not think I owed him an explanation, but it was easier to answer than argue. “I'm going to find Elias.”

Croucher grabbed my shoulder. “No respectable lady walks alone at night.”

I frowned, suspecting he was right. I had never ventured so far after dark. “Then come along,” I said, continuing down the stairs. Even if it was the insidious Richard Croucher, I would be grateful for the company.

—

Outside, the air was thick with fog. I pulled my shawl over my head and walked faster. Filthy men emptied soiled privies into the street—they were supposed to be dumped into the rivers, but after dark who would know? Feral cats glared at us from alleyways, their eyes shining in the moonlight. Whale-oil lamps cast dim light and bats swooped in doorways, hunting their prey. The curses of the Irish cartmen ricocheted through the streets, and the bells at St. Paul's struck eleven as we turned onto Broadway.

“Not that way,” Croucher said, taking my elbow and leading me in a wide arc around a door filled with laughter and light. The sound of a fiddle spilled out onto the street, along with a few tipsy dancers. “Fighting Cocks Tavern,” he sheepishly explained, “but the cocks 'ere aren't fighting, if you know what I mean.” Perhaps seeing shock in my face, he stood straighter and cleared his throat. “A lady like you should stay away.”

Croucher's concern for my modesty was strangely sweet. He was a conundrum: gruff, crass, and childish, prone to fibbing about tracking mud up the stairs or what time he came in at night. But he was clearly lonely and eager for attention.

“Soldiers and sailors—you know the lot. Take my word: This democracy of yours is nothing special. They can rename Crown Street ‘Liberty' and change King's College to ‘Columbia,' but men will be men. A city of scoundrels, adulterers, and—”

Boisterous chants came from the tavern as the door flew open and a scruffy man was tossed out into the gutter. He sat in the foul trough, lowered his head, then lay down. Moments later, another man hobbled out the door and began to pilfer through his pockets.

“—scavengers,” Croucher finished saying.

“It was kind of thee to accompany me,” I said, realizing I had not thanked him.

Croucher smiled widely, almost boyishly. “If I 'ad a wife, I'd 'ope she'd be a lady like you, not all fancy or frilly but 'ardworking and decent. Levi's boy is lucky to live in a”—he paused, inhaling deeply before pronouncing the next word with obvious care—“home like yours.”

“Were thee an apprentice?”

“Me? Nah.” Croucher, happy to sermonize on so many topics, was mum when it came to himself. He picked up his pace and, as he did, footsteps echoed behind us. I turned to look, but no one was there.

We headed south into the mist. At the end of the island, the sidewalks were planted with shrubs and the houses were brick, with gables and balconies facing the harbor.

“Pearl Street,” Croucher said, speaking once again with authority. “Not long ago the place was paved with oyster shells.”

“Where is the meeting?” I asked.

Croucher pointed to a handsome brick mansion.

I let myself in through the open door. There was a rumble of deep voices and the dull sound of ice being cracked with a hammer. I smelled sausage, but the pleasant cooking odors were overpowered by the ripe stench of men, cigar smoke, and hops.

The men's faces looked dull in the haze, but I easily spotted Elias seated at a small table on the far side of the bar. He was the only one wearing a broad-brimmed hat and dark overcoat. The others, Levi included, were stylishly dressed in tapered britches, topcoats, and gauzy cravats.

A man stood on wobbly legs and raised his glass high in the air. “When you swear, swear to your country,” he hollered. “When you lie, lie for love; when you steal, steal from bad company; and when you drink, drink with me!”

There was a roar of stomping feet and shouts. “Hurrah!”

I watched, horrified, as Elias drained his glass in a single gulp. Another man flung his over his shoulder, where it smashed on the floor. As Elias reached for a decanter of treacle-colored liquor, I was reminded of the broken glass the morning after Elma arrived and the puddle I had assumed was water. While our beliefs did not expressly prohibit drink, I had never known Elias to partake. His features were rigid, his expression unreadable as he swigged another glass.

A commotion broke out. “This city's water is no better than that of a common sewer!” a man yelled, his voice quivering with age and drink. “I want to know who's going to fix it.”

“Lispenard's right,” a portly fellow bellowed, then belched. “The rich buy water and leave us drinking filth.”

Whiskey spilled as the fellow named Lispenard slammed his hands on the table and pulled himself to his feet, grimacing. Squat and bald, his face looked sallow in the hazy light. The lapel on his coat was unfashionably wide, and his shirtsleeves were frayed at the cuffs.

“Worse than filth,” he said. “It's poison. That's my land by the Collect, a swamp of pest and plague. Every glue factory and tannery in town has set up shop practically at my dining table. I can smell the rotting hides on me now.”

An elegant man in a finely tailored topcoat stood. “Lispenard,” he said, “surely you know that Colonel Burr has closed those places down.”

Huddled in the doorway beside Richard Croucher, I felt conspicuous and stranded. I had expected him to spare me the embarrassment of announcing myself to a room full of men, but he seemed equally out of place, hanging back, shuffling his feet, removing and replacing his hat—an annoying tic.

“That's Ezra Weeks,” he said, more timid than I had ever heard him.

Ezra was shorter and stockier than Levi, cut from a coarser cloth than his younger brother but more distinguished. His thick hair was more silver than gray, as if he were surrounded by a halo of good fortune.

“I saw him at the water pump the day we met,” I said, half-expecting Croucher to deny it.

“I've done some work for 'im. But 'e's too good for the likes of me these days,” Croucher spat. “ 'E and his brother both.”

“The factories are closed now,” Lispenard was saying, “but what's been left behind? I've seen pits of standing water, animal carcasses, and decaying hides. Everyone knows foul water's to blame for yellow fever. Killed my son last summer, days before he was to wed.” He hung his head. “We buried him in his wedding jacket.”

The mention of yellow fever and the thought of Elma sick in bed made my heart skip. “We are here to get Elias,” I said, nudging Croucher forward.

Croucher let out a low whistle. “And that's the devil 'imself.”

“Who?”

“Burr.”

Marching across the hazy room, puffing a fat cigar, Burr did resemble the devil. He was a small man, five foot six at best, dark, with a receding hairline. In a rich brown coat and a white silk waistcoat, he was tastefully dressed without being showy. His heavily lidded eyes could have seemed indolent, but Burr's gaze was completely alive, taking in the bustling room with a single sweep. Smoke curled from the end of the cigar as he raised his hands, and the raucous crowd grew still.

“Mr. Lispenard, surely you know my Richmond Hill property abuts yours. We're neighbors.” Burr smiled as if the statement were slightly ironic. “Pray tell, would I settle my loved ones on polluted land?”

“Your estate and my farm are worlds apart,” Lispenard said. “I don't have your view or your influence.”

Burr nodded sympatheti
cally. “What man here has not worried about our city's water and the cost to remedy the problem?” he asked. “I am here tonight to announce that I am founding the Manhattan Water Company, whose sole purpose will be to provide our parched city with pure and wholesome water.”

There was a rumble of approval, but one voice stood out.

“Any company's got to be approved by the legislature,” Lispenard shouted. “The Federalists in Congress are not likely to support a Republican water company.”

“Not during an election year,” someone agreed.

Like the flame on the stub of his cigar, Burr's shrewd eyes blazed in the smoky room. “On the contrary, this is a civic-minded effort spurred by common interest. Every man here, no matter his politics, knows our city will never rival Philadelphia or even Boston if our factories are constantly threatened by fire. To that end, I have assembled a coalition of six—three Republicans and three Federalist
s—who will approach the legislature on our behalf.” Burr took a long drag, and smoke escaped his nostrils as his gaze veered to a table at the center of the room. “Certainly my esteemed colleague, Mr. Hamilton, needs no introduction.”

BOOK: City of Liars and Thieves
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