Authors: Eve Karlin
“Moral squalor causes yellow fever,” said a slight woman sniffing tomatoes.
I wanted to ask her if a bad tomato had caused her pinched expression, but when she set it down, her features remained sour.
“Forty-five people died yesterday,” she added. “The dead cart's overflowing and the pits at potter's field are full. Course, that's the only place families are allowed to bury fever victims.”
I nearly dropped the berries as I silently vowed to keep the children inside, in my bedroom, if need be.
“Sailors are burning corpses at the Battery,” the woman said. “At this rate, the city will soon be a ghost town.”
The vendor looked past her, clearly eager for her to go. The macabre chatter was not good for business. “Isaac!” he called.
I caught a glimpse of a navy jacket. “Is that Isaac Hatfield?” I asked, because the man had not stopped.
“Do you know him?” He shook his head. “Of course you do, he's sweet on your cousin.”
“Elma?” I said, as if there were any doubt.
“A pretty girl is likeâ” The vendor smirked, fanning gnats off the fruit.
Downy feathers landed at my feet, and I turned to see an elderly woman with cloudy eyes plucking a headless chicken. Stalls away, flies swarmed moldering slabs of meat.
Cannon fire pierced the air.
I jumped, knocking the vendor's stand, making berries spill and tomatoes roll. One hit the ground, bursting into pulp and seeds. “What on earth?” I asked, looking around the empty market for a place to seek cover.
“Some magistrate thinks firing cannons to concuss air will chase the fever away.”
Sick to my stomach, I bought a few potatoes and a handful of leeks and practically ran home.
An earthenware water jug sat in the corner of our doorway. It was not one of ours, and it was not filled with water. As I picked it up, I noticed a slip of paper plugging the spout.
Liars and Thieves
was written across the top in stiff block letters. For the life of me, I did not know what to make of it. I turned to see if anyone was watching. Isaac Hatfield had been at the market. Was he watching me? I glanced up at our windows, but no one was looking out. Behind me, Greenwich Street, like the market, was deserted.
Liars and Thieves.
The cryptic message was printed on a torn newspaper scrap. The ink had bled, obscuring most of the story beneath, but my eye caught a familiar name:
It gives us pleasure to learn that measures for supplying the city with water are going into immediate effect. A number of laborers are busily employed in clearing out the spacious well at Lispenard's Meadowsâ¦.
“Mama!” Charles said, flinging the door open so that it banged on the hinges.
“Charles,” I snapped, “it's not safe out here.” The empty streets seemed stalked, haunted.
“I thought Hamilton was for commerce,” Elias complained as I entered. “Closing the ports is bad business.” He and Levi sat at the dining table, exactly where I had left them an hour earlier.
Elma stood over Levi. Her lashes fluttered against her cheek as she gazed down at him. I was not insensitive to the affection between them. Nor did I consider it a small thing. I had lain awake every night since Elma's recovery, worrying that he would hurt her, and she already had a fragile constitution. It felt frivolous, almost unlucky, for them to so intensely focus on their dalliance when an invisible killer was consuming the city outside.
“There are those, including Hamilton's own doctor, who believe the fever arrived on merchant ships,” Levi said.
“Well, it's here now. What's the point of closing the ports?” Elias asked.
“Perhaps we can prevent the scourge from spreading,” Elma said.
Elias shook his head, making it clear he not only disagreed, he resented her input. “Without trade, we may all die of starvation.”
While Elias's habit of prioritizing business over practically everything else was a constant source of worry, in this instance I did not disagree. Closing the ports would only add hardship to heartache.
Elma took my basket and began unpacking. “Were the streets very quiet?”
“Empty. People are afraid to venture out. Everyone has an opinion about what causes the fever, and rumors are spreading as fast as the disease. A woman in the market blamed it on sin.”
“It is polluted water that's killing people,” Elma said, “but Levi's going to fix it.” She spoke as if Levi could single-handedly destroy the menace beyond our walls. And Levi did not disagree.
“Pipes have already been laid from Pearl Street down to Chapel,” he said. “In less than a month, homes there will have water.”
“A month?” I said, recalling Burr's plan to lay miles of pipes. “Surely it will take longer than that to tap water all the way from the Bronx.”
“Our men are digging wells instead,” Levi said.
“Wells?” The newspaper scrap fluttered in my hand. Somehow I knew it was meant for me. It was hurtful but ultimately harmless, mischief, the kind of thing meant to stir trouble. And it reeked of Richard Croucher. I was certain he had left it, though I was less sure why. If he had a bone to pick with Levi, he could do it himself. Still, there was something about Levi's arrogance that begged response.
“Thy men are digging wells at Lispenard's Meadows?” I asked. The disgruntled man named Lispenard who spoke at the water meeting had referred to his land as a swamp.
Levi's challenging gaze met mine. “Yes.”
“But that water's filthy. Burr and thy brother promised freshwater.”
Levi frowned, and for the first time I saw a clear resemblance to his older brother. “It can be fixed if street wash is kept out and people stop dumping garbage.” He looked at me so severely, it was almost as if he believed I tossed the trash there myself.
“Digging wells is faster,” Elias said. “Water could be available this fall.”
Should I have been impressed? Digging wells in a teeming cesspool instead of piping in freshwater seemed like a major concession.
There was a knock on the door. When I went to answer, I found our neighbor Elizabeth Watkins wiping away tears.
“I won't come in,” she said, twisting the top button of her dress until it dangled by a thread. “It's just that Lily Forrest died this morning. They're taking her out now. I thought perhaps Charles shouldn't see.”
“Lily Forrest?” Charles was the same age as Lily, and the two often played together. I thought of her yellow ringlets, which we all admired, then shuddered, imagining them streaked red with blood.
Liars and thieves
. It was wrong to think the message was harmless. Polluted water was killing people. Not just people, but children.
Liars, thieves, and murderers.
“It started early yesterday with hiccups, then the whites of her eyes turned yellow; her lips too,” Elizabeth said, clearly savoring each gory detail. “After supper, the poor dear started vomiting black bile by the mouthful, and when she cried, her tears were as bloody as a demon's. Lorena was screaming loud enough to wake theâ”
Mumbling an excuse, I shut the door in Elizabeth's face. To my eye, her complexion had a distinctly yellow hue.
“Elias,” I said, turning to him, “it's high time we take the children to Cornwall; the sooner the better.”
Elias rubbed his temples, where gray hairs were rapidly overtaking brown curls. “Every person with a dung cart or carriage has fled to Greenwich or Harlem Village. Next there will be vagrants on the streets, robbers looting and burning homes.” He shook his head, gazing toward the store door. “Even if goods are rotting, I have to stay and protect what's left.”
I was sympathetic to his plight, but I was also scared, frightened of vagabonds and disease. “Then I'll go with the children. Elma will come with us.”
Elias scraped his chair away from the table. “It may be best.”
“Elma,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief, “if we start packing now, we can catch tomorrow's boat.”
“Caty,” she said, “I can't go.”
“Why on earth not?”
“If I go, who will care for the men?”
I lowered my voice. “They'll make do. Even Elias thinks it's necessary.”
necessary for you and the children. But I will stay.”
I understood her desire to prove herself but not her timing. “Elma, dozens are dying each day. Let's not argueâ”
“I'm not arguing,” she said, raising her chin. “I'm insisting.”
If I could have left immediately, I would have. Concern for the children surpassed all other worries. Distracted by fear and grateful that Elma was charitable enough to remain behind and care for the men, I did not have time to question her motives.
Settling into Cornwall was harder than I could have imagined. I had never seen my aunt Mary without Elma, and the changes in her were troubling. They had once been as intertwined as our white picket fence and its rosebush; it was difficult to say who supported whom. With Elma gone, the answer was clear. Stripped of Elma's bloom, my aunt looked run-down and spindly. It was impossible to shake the sense that I had stolen her child away.
“News from New York,” Aunt Mary called from our back porch, waving a letter so that it fluttered like a flag in the breeze.
Beneath a cloudless sky, a scattering of gold leaves foretold the end of summerâand, hopefully, the end of the scourge. Thanking my aunt, I found a seat in the shade of a nearby oak. It had been weeks since I had heard from Elias.
The letter was fastened with three drips of wax, more puddle than seal. Elias often performed two tasks at once but usually did both well; mess was unusual. With trembling hands, I tore it open and was startled by the scrawl that confronted me.
Elias wrote that the yellow-fever epidemic was mercifully mild. Still, many had fled the city and business was slow. His tone was alternately petulant and tender: “My shirts are soiled and need mending, and I miss the sound of the children in the morning and thy warmth beside me at night.”
I rested my head against the tree, touched by his candor. It was unlike him to be affectionate, and I wondered if he had come to appreciate me in my absence.
Aunt Mary came and sat by my side. “What's he say?”
“Not much,” I said, aware that she was really asking for news of Elma. Sun peeked through the foliage, and the sound of Charles's laughter as he battled imaginary foes warmed my heart. No matter how he grew, he would always be my firstborn, the tiny infant who had nestled by my side as I marveled at his perfection and worried after his needs. I wondered if my aunt felt the same way about Elma. What a mixed blessing her birth must have been.
“How is Gulielma?” Aunt Mary asked. I couldn't remember the last time I had heard her full name spoken aloud. I studied Elias's words, as if I might find a sentence or two about Elma if I just searched a bit harder. My eyes focused on the bottom of the page. “Caty,” he wrote, “come home.”
It was a direct appeal, but I read and reread the sentence as if it were written in code. The baldness of his plea mystified me. Elias had books to keep and orders to plan and had promised to fix the shutters, which were missing slats and rattled in the wind. He had been cold and standoffish since our move to Manhattan, and the situation had grown worse since Elma's arrival. Perhaps he felt threatened by our affinity, the sisterly bond he would never be able to replicate. He came to bed long after I had gone to sleep, woke before I rose, and passed whole days in the store, only returning for meals. We had a houseful of boarders, so I could not imagine that he was lonesome. I wasn't exactly alarmed, but I was troubled. Something wasn't quite right.
“Does he mention Elma?” my aunt asked again.
“Not specifically, but it sounds like the household is in order. I'm sure she is helping enormously.”
Aunt Mary smiled wanly. “I worry about her, especially now that no one is there to look after her.”
I watched Charles climb a discarded barrel. On warm summer days, we tied the barrel to the oak and floated it in the creek, where Charles rode it like a horse and called it Cider, in homage to its original contents. But while the sun was still powerful each midday, the nights had become brisk, and Cider had been retired for the season. I held my breath as Charles scurried over the slimy barrel, slipped down the side, and climbed up again. Worry is part and parcel of being a parent. While the sight of Charles toppling headfirst into the grass made me want to leap to my feet and catch him, I also knew the importance of letting go; I would have thought my aunt understood that.
“Elias is there with her,” I said.
My aunt's eyes followed a bumblebee as it hummed beside a scarlet rose. “You know Elma. Once she had her mind set on moving, there was no holding her back.”
I was sympathetic to Aunt Mary's loss, but I could not understand why she wanted Elma to share her lonely fate. The town didn't openly gossip about the two of them anymore, but no one had forgotten. If Elma had stayed, her prospects for marriage were slim to none. I did not know what the city would offer, but I understood that Elma could walk down its streets in anonymity and peace. She would continue to help me with the boardinghouse, perhaps find work in a millinery, and one day, God willing, she would marry and have a family.
“There are opportunities for young and industrious people in New York,” I said, aware that I was beginning to sound like Elias.
“Opportunities can be dangerous for a young woman. Elma wants to be acceptedâand loved.”
“Most girls dream about finding love.” I thought about Elias romancing me on the breezy banks of the Hudson. I had been deeply moved the day we first kissed, but those feelings were now as distant as summer heat on a bitter winter night. I could recall my pleasure but not the sensation. Marriage was far different than I'd imagined it would be. We were both exhausted. Elias always worried about money. And I alternately resented his distraction and was relieved when he left me alone. But we had two beautiful children. Life was not a fairy tale.
Aunt Mary seemed lost in her own thoughts. “The man I fell in love with,” she said, “Elma's father, was very kind. Elma has his eyes, and his stubborn streak.” In a gesture I had always associated with Elma, my aunt tucked a loose hair behind her ear, and, for an instant, her expression was almost youthful. “Together, it was as if we were one. He made me feel more like myself than ever before but
. I wanted to be better, for him. I was sure we would share a wonderful life.”
I could not recall an instance when anyone in my family had revealed a detail of Elma's birth. I wondered why my aunt was telling me these things now.
“What happened?” I asked, a breath above a whisper.
“The war happened. Perhaps we should have married before he left. He offered,” she said, her tone challenging, as if she had imagined defending herself many times, “but I was convinced there would be plenty of time to wed under happier circumstances. Elma's father marched alongside General Arnold in Quebecâ¦” Her voice trailed off. “He never returned.”
“He lost his life,” I said, filling in her words. Was she worried that Elma too would never come back?
“By the time word reached me, I was four months along.” She smoothed her skirt. “A woman who gives birth out of wedlock is a villain, no matter the facts. Some part of me foolishly hoped his family would embrace Elma, that they would see his legacy in her. Maybe if she had been a boyâ¦We went to live with them, but the situation was unbearable. As young as she was, Elma sensed their disapproval. One day I found her in the yard, picking dandelions. She was crying. When I asked what was wrong, she couldn't answer, as if sadness were a condition she had come to accept. That's when I left.”
“And came here?”
“Yes. Your father's been very generous.”
“But not Mother.”
A single cloud screened the sun, darkening Aunt Mary's expression. “Your mother is frightened by what she doesn't understand. There was an incident after you left. Elma was quite taken with a man, and he seemed to return her affection. But your mother was convinced nothing good would come of it.”
“Elma never breathed a word,” I said, feeling stung.
“As I said, nothing came of it.”
“Who was he?”
“A handsome fellow. But he was just passing through, and your mother didn't trust him. More than once, she pointed out that a man like that would never marry a girl like Elma. She practically chased him away. It seems my bad choices will forever color Elma's life.” She shook her head. “Caty, I was frightened to let Elma go to the city. I thought she would be safer here with me, but I suspect you are right. It is selfish of me to hold her back.”
“I never said that.”
Aunt Mary smiled, or at least her lips curved upward. It was the saddest expression I had ever seen. “Not in so many words.”
The wind blew, rustling the letter on my lap. I turned from my aging aunt to Elias's letter, and my concern for him began to fade. It would have been kind to include a word or two about Elma, but he was too focused on his own needs to consider anyone else. No doubt he had written late at night after a hard day's work. Candlelight and exhaustion make even the hardiest souls lonely. Maybe he did miss me, or perhaps he was simply suffering a moment's weakness. Elias and I had our entire future ahead. Aunt Mary would spend the rest of her life alone.
I folded the letter and tucked it in my pocket. I would return home sooner than later, but, in truth, I was in no great rush.
We remained in Cornwall three more weeks.
Elias met us at the boat slip. He embraced Charles and took Patience in his arms, more loving than he had been since the early days of our courtship.
“Caty,” he said, when he came to me. His eyes, so full of pride while greeting his children, were mixed with an emotion closer to humility. He took me in his arms, and I smiled to think that perhaps he had truly missed me.
After weeks in the country, returning to the city was like waking from a gentle dream to a colicky babe. Harbor winds gave way to rancid smells as our carriage rattled over each cobblestone. Others had come back to the city as the threat passed, and it was more congested than ever with hogs, dogs, and people vying for space. Elias turned toward Greenwich Street, narrowly missing an oncoming carriage. We bounced over a hole and swerved to avoid a peddler. The man shook his fist, sputtering obscenities.
Elma was leaning out our front door, craning her neck to see down the street, as we drove up. Levi stood by her side, their shoulders grazing in the tight doorway.
“Elma!” Charles jumped down before the carriage had stopped.
Elma twirled him around, and even Elias laughed. I bounced Patience on my hip. New York City was dirty and crowded, but in my absence it had started to feel like home.
“Elma, you'll strain yourself,” Levi said, setting his hand on her shoulder.
The gesture was subtle yet intimate. Elma seemed to physically soften when Levi touched her. She lowered her chin, her expression all but hidden behind a curtain of hair. Graceful and mature, her beauty more ethereal than ever. She had not gained back the weight lost during her illness. Her expression was drawn and her collarbones jutted out under her dress. Oddly, her frail appearance was now in vogue. Elizabeth Watkins told us that the fashionable ladies who strolled the Battery promenade took laudanum to achieve the dainty femininity that came so naturally to Elma.
“Levi,” Elias said, “come help with the baggage.”
Levi hardly acknowledged him. “I'll return the carriage,” he said.
Cradling Patience, I followed Elma inside. The house smelled like warm bread. Every chair, pot, and pan was in place and the hearth was freshly swept, yet something was wrong. I scanned the roomâmantel, windowsills, and pantryâbut was unable to find the source of my misgivings.
Richard Croucher shuffled into the parlor, breathless and flushed. It was as if he had walked up a flight of stairs rather than down. “About time you're back,” he said. It was an odd greeting, but one typical of the man.
Elias dragged the trunk inside.
“Busy as usual, eh, Ring?” Croucher said, slightly too loudly. “Always running 'ere, scurrying there.” Elias pointedly ignored him. Croucher widened his eyes at me, then turned to Elma, looking her up and down in a way that turned my stomach.
Elma scooped Patience from my arms. “Let me feed her. Charles, come help.”
Charles shook his head. “She's messy.”
“Come along now,” Elma said. I waited for her to craft some kind of game to entice Charles, but she hurried away.
I turned to Elias. “I thought thou said the store was quiet.”
“Quiet as the grave,” Croucher said. He pronounced each syllable with care as if determined to convey his point. “But your
managed to keep active.”
“Are the shutters fixed?” I asked, straining to sound light. Croucher enjoyed stirring up trouble, and I refused to allow it to spoil my homecoming.
Elias placed his hat back on. “I'll go help Levi,” he said, though I had already heard the carriage drive off.
Elias came to bed late that night. Despite his warm greeting, I could tell he was avoiding me. Sitting close in the darkness of our room, I smelled his breath and listened for slurred words but found no evidence that he had been back at the bottle.
“I think Elma is in love with Levi,” I said. I had thought of little else all day, and there seemed no point in mincing words. “And I believe Levi loves her too.”
Time away had given me a fresh perspective. Elma had managed the house in my absence. While it was easy for me to remember her as the vulnerable child who stood at our doorway on a cold winter's night, I could see that she was truly a woman now, capable of making her own choices. If I questioned her judgment or held her back, I was no better than my aunt.
Elias dropped a boot to the floor. “Ezra Weeks will never allow it.” He sounded resigned, not tipsy.
“Well, it is not his choice.” I had my misgivings about Levi, but I was loath to see Elma impugned or, worse, heartbroken.
The second boot landed with a thud. “It may as well be. Levi depends on his brother. Ezra raised him and supports him to this day. He won't be satisfied unless Levi marries up.”
“Ezra has a wife of his own.”
“She's barren. That makes Levi and any of his future children Ezra's only heirs. He hasn't worked this hard to watch it all disappear.”