The Doctor and the Dead Man's Chest (7 page)

BOOK: The Doctor and the Dead Man's Chest
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I have no doubt many persons have heard a remark made of the durability of the bricks of which our old houses are composed; their enduring quality is owing principally to a law which was passed in 1683, regulating the size of bricks. The brick to be made must be 2 ¾ inches thick, 4 ½ inches broad, and 9 ½ inches long to be well and merchantable burnt. They were to be viewed and appraised by two persons authorized by the court, and if they found the bricks faulty, they were to be broken, and the makers of them fined by the court.
—
An Historical Account of the First Settlement of Salem (1839)
by Colonel Robert C. Johnson, from
Down Jersey
by Cornelius Weygandt
W
hoever wrote, “What is so rare as a day in June …” knew what they were talking about. The day of the Strawberry Festival dawned without a cloud in the sky or a drop of humidity in the air. Fenimore awoke with that Saturday anticipation he had had as a boy—when anything was possible.
By eleven-thirty he had completed his hospital rounds, seen three office patients, and even signed some Medicare forms. He left the office whistling. On the way to the car, he reminded himself that the purpose of today's excursion was not purely pleasure; he had a serious mission to accomplish. He continued to whistle, serious mission not withstanding.
To save Fenimore from having to park, Jennifer was waiting outside the bookstore. She had a wicker basket over one arm.
Lunch, he hoped. Signing Medicare forms always gave him a hearty appetite.
Jennifer slipped quickly into the seat beside him, but not before the driver behind them began to honk. As Fenimore drove off, he savored the fleeting impression of bare arms, lavender print, and a light floral scent. Having Jennifer at his side was like stumbling unexpectedly into a cool garden in the city.
“Rus in urbe,”
he murmured.
“I beg your pardon” asked Jennifer.
“Garden in the city,” he mumbled.
Fenimore had the disconcerting habit of uttering Latinisms at odd times. Jennifer had never regretted not taking Latin until she had met Fenimore. When she had been a teenager, it had been the only time she had rebelled against her father's wishes. “What am I going to do with a dead language?” she had demanded, and signed up for French instead. Now she wished she had taken both. Above the noise of the traffic, they heard the resonant tones of the City Hall clock striking noon.
He was heading toward the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, but their progress was slow. “Everybody seems to be headed for the shore,” he said. “I forgot about the weekend crowd.” He glanced at his watch. “
Veni, vidi, sedi.

“Excuse me?” She tried to hide her annoyance.
“I came, I saw, I sat,” he translated.
She laughed, grudgingly. “It should open up once we cross the bridge. Have you been to this place before?”
“Yes. But it's easy to get lost. Here.” He handed her a rumpled map.
As they drove, he filled Jennifer in on Lydia Ashley's problem and the real purpose of their visit.
“Good grief!” She stared at him. “What do you want me to do?”
“Just be yourself. But keep your eyes and ears open and report anything unusual.”
Before she could answer, there was a bend in the road and a
house suddenly appeared on their right. He stopped short. “Sorry,” he said, but his eyes were riveted on the house. Built primarily of red brick, the side facing the road had a “patterned brick end” worked into the wall with blue bricks. The design included two initials, J & W, and the date, 1725. This was framed by an ornate zigzag border of blue bricks. How had he missed this on his first trip down? “That's called a diaper pattern,” he said. “Very unusual.”
“Hmm.”
“The main body of the wall is Flemish bond,” he explained. “But the pattern is worked in blue brick. The technique goes back to the Middle Ages in France. The French taught it to the English. If you really want to trace it back, you can find ornate brickwork in Babylonia in the fourth century B.C.” He stopped, afraid he was boring her.
“Those first settlers must have really cared about their homes,” she said. “I guess they didn't have to worry about being transferred.”
“No,” he laughed, “they were farmers.” With a shock, he realized how important it was to him that she like this place.
“Why don't we picnic there.” Jennifer pointed to an ancient sycamore on the other side of the road.
Hoping no trigger-happy farmer would pop up with a shotgun, Fenimore cautiously parked his car under the tree.
“I don't think any farmer will mind if we borrow his shade for a half-hour.” She had read his mind.
He glanced over his shoulder.
“And stop worrying about bulls!” (She
had
known him for over three years.)
He gave her a weak smile. As she began to break out the contents of the picnic basket, he asked, “How is the book business?”
“Not bad. But we're running out of space. We have to reduce our stock. I have to control my impulse to buy books or Dad and I will be out in the street—or living in a motel. It's an addiction, I'm afraid.”
“Not a bad one,” said Fenimore. “I like books as well as bricks. Actually they have a lot in common—one builds buildings, the other—”
“—civilizations.” Jennifer laughed. “That's too philosophical on an empty stomach.” She munched meditatively on a carrot. “Maybe I should start a B.A … .”
He looked up from his deviled egg.
“Biblioholics Anonymous. If I get a craving for a book in the middle of the night, I'll call you—”
“And I'll tell you to go watch TV.”
“That would be like sending a drunk into a bar.” She laughed. “Our TV is in our library, remember?”
“Don't worry about your addiction,” he reassured her. “You'll be too busy with your computer to have time to buy books.”
“The computer makes it easier to buy them.” She handed him a chicken leg. “All you have to do is press a button and you can order a whole roomful of books.”
Fenimore looked aghast.
“Yeah, it's scary. I have to be careful. It's almost as bad as those day traders. Beep, beep, whoosh! and you're the proud owner of two thousand bushels of soybeans!”
Fenimore shuddered.
“On the other hand, it's great for inventory.” She poured lemonade into a paper cup and passed it to him. “Why don't you get one?”
“Mrs. Doyle takes care of my inventory. She tells me when a patient dies or a new one arrives. I don't need a computer.”
“That's what people said about the telephone. Think of it, you could store all your patient's histories, do your billing and your taxes in half the time, and Mrs. Doyle could devote herself to her nursing duties. Why are you so threatened by it?” She looked at him sharply.
Fenimore busied himself, stuffing their trash into a plastic bag.
“I'd be glad to show you how mine works,” she went on. “With your brains you'd have it eating out of your hand in no time.”
He was starting to mellow when the lazy hum of bees was replaced by a high-pitched whine. “Mosquitoes!” he cried.
Slapping their necks and ankles, they threw the remains of their lunch in the basket and ran for the car. As Fenimore turned the key in the ignition, he said, “Now we know why south Jersey is so underpopulated.”
The first Faire in the village of ____ was held October 16th and 17th of 1695 … . The little village was then a large active port … and had been declared a Port of Entry for the Crown with a customs house … . The wharf stood at the beginning of Ye Great Street … . Also at the foot of the street stood a store and the jail. The store was made of local stone … and the second story facing the river had small slotted windows made to slip guns through as protection against pirates that might come up the ____ River.
—from the
Cumberland Patriot/The Cumberland County Historical
Society
. Fall 1999
T
he green fields gave way to marshier ground, threaded by twisting streams bordered by reeds and cattails. They passed a roadside stand attended by two sun-bleached children—a girl and a boy. The girl had pigtails, and they both had freckles. They were selling strawberries in pint baskets. Jennifer ordered Fenimore to stop. They bought three baskets. The children waved until they were out of sight.
When they crossed the road that led into Winston, Jennifer caught sight of the wide main street lined with old shade trees. “It's so peaceful,” she said.
“It's hard to believe, but this quiet town was a bustling port in colonial times.” Fenimore could never resist an opening for a history lesson. “I read that they held fairs here twice a year, and people came from miles around to buy and sell goods.”
“Maybe the Strawberry Festival is a descendant of one of those fairs,” Jennifer said.
For the second time that week, Fenimore passed through Lydia's rusty iron gate and bumped along her poor excuse for a driveway. At the end, they caught sight of a tent—needlessly erected in case of rain—and Lydia herself, peering at them from under the brim of a white leghorn hat. Fenimore knew immediately that he had been missed. Recognizing his old Chevy, she gestured for him to park in the adjacent field.
“I thought you weren't coming,” Lydia began accusingly. Catching sight of Jennifer, she became more cordial. “So glad you could come, my dear. I told Andrew to bring a friend.”
After the introductions, Lydia led them into the center of things. “Now I want you to meet everyone. Oh, good, here comes Amory.”
Fenimore spotted the now familiar courtly figure making his way toward them.
Lydia beckoned.
“Here at last!” He trotted up, ebullient and beaming, as if their arrival was the most important event of the day. Taking charge at once, he supplied each of them with a dish of strawberries, whipped cream, and a cup of punch. “This is made from a colonial recipe. It's a great favorite in the neighborhood.”
“I'm leaving you in good hands,” Lydia said, and hurried off to attend to her many hostess duties.
As Amory guided them through the crowd, Jennifer—following Fenimore's instructions—carefully observed her surroundings. Later she would describe the Festival as a cross between high tea at an English vicarage and the boardwalk at Atlantic City.
Bowls of punch and strawberries were set out on small tables under the trees. People helped themselves, on their honor to put fifty cents in the small baskets nearby. “The proceeds go to St. Stephen's Church and Academy,” Amory explained, pointing to a steeple and a small group of buildings in the distance.
Besides the strawberry refreshments, there were hot dogs, popcorn,
and soft drinks for sale. Cries of “Bop the Bottles!,” “Win a Teddy Bear!,” and “Fish for a Prize!” came at them from all directions. Most of the game booths were run by boys from the Academy. They were dressed in navy slacks and white sports shirts bearing the school emblem on the pocket, whereas the farm boys wore T-shirts and faded jeans.
“It's their job to set up the booths and run them,” Amory said. “The last project of their school term. Ah, here's the Reverend Osborne—our headmaster.” Amory paused before the punch bowl where Oliver, alias Percy, was laconically filling his cup. He was also in uniform—white slacks and a navy blazer, bearing the school emblem.
“Andy! Back so soon? Don't tell me you find our bucolic charms so irresistible. You must have some other reason to grace this godforsaken hole two weekends in a row.” He gave Jennifer the cup he had just filled and began filling another.
“Strawberries,” Fenimore said quickly. “Can't resist 'em.”
“Me either,” agreed Jennifer. “City strawberries taste nothing like these!” To prove her point she plucked one from her punch cup and ate it with relish.
“This is an old classmate of mine,” Fenimore introduced Oliver.
“You could have skipped the ‘old,' Andy,” Oliver said, looking at Jennifer appreciatively.
“Then you must have known Auden too,” Jennifer said with a glint in her eye.
“The poet,” Fenimore prompted. Knowing that his friend had spent his college years in an alcoholic haze, he feared he might not remember the great man's presence on campus.
“Oh, yes. I saw him shuffling down the halls. But my major was sociology and our paths seldom crossed.”
“Oh.” Disappointed, Jennifer changed the subject. “And what was our doctor friend like as an undergraduate?” She nodded at Fenimore.
“Andy? Serious. Very serious. Until exams were over. Then he cut up worse than the rest of us.”
Fenimore cast him a warning look, but there was no stopping him.
“Once he got so drunk he went over to one of the girls' dorms and serenaded them under their windows. It was after curfew. In those days the girls, er, young women, had to be in bed by midnight. And some goody-goody called the campus cops. They came and dragged him off. Where did they take you, Andy?”
“Some cell-like room in the basement of a dorm where they let me sleep it off.” He laughed.
While the two classmates reminisced and Amory was distracted by some friends, Jennifer took off to explore on her own. Of course, the first booth that attracted her bore the sign USED BOOKS. A small, severe-looking woman stood guard over the wares. Every time someone came to browse, they would pull the books out of order. With a grim expression, she would set them right again. As soon as she was finished, someone else would come and scatter them. An exercise in frustration.
After glancing at a number of volumes, Jennifer's hand lighted on a small, leather-bound volume of Jane Austen's
Northanger
Abbey
. She riffled through it quickly and looked up. “How much is this?”
“They're priced as marked,” the woman snapped.
“Oh, sorry,” Jennifer murmured. Finding the price penciled on the inside cover, she fished in her pocketbook for a quarter. As she held it out, a firm hand closed over hers.
“Ha! Caught you,” Fenimore exclaimed.
“Oh, but …”
“No ‘buts.'” He turned to the waspish woman behind the counter. Recognizing her immediately, he said, “Ah, Miss Cunningham, this young lady won't be making her purchase. She has quite enough books.”
Miss Cunningham stared at him.
“But,” he went on, “I don't want to deny you your sale.” He e took a quarter from his pocket and handed it to her. “Come along, Jennifer.” He steered her away from the book stall. “I'm going to
challenge you to a rousing game of ‘Bop the Bottle.' Nothing like exercise to take your mind off books.” He pointed to the pyramids of wooden bottles in a neighboring booth. Before Jennifer could speak, he had paid for three baseballs and placed one in her hand.
When she finally found her tongue, she burst out, “I wanted that book for business, not pleasure.”
“What's that?”
“It was an early Jane Austen in perfect condition, and I could have had it for a quarter,” she wailed.
“Oh, in that case, I'll nip right back and get it.” He shoved the other two balls at her and hurriedly made his way back to the book stall. But when he arrived he was at a loss. If he asked for the Austen book again, the woman would think he was mad. “Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “I've been thinking of doing some research here—on your wonderful brickwork. As head of the Historical Library, I thought you might have some ideas about where I might start.”
“I might.”
“Does your library accept out-of-town members?”
“Not as a rule.”
“But you do make exceptions …?”
“If you have adequate references.”
“Is Lydia Ashley adequate?”
“Her Highness?” Her tone fell just short of a sneer. “I suppose.” She turned away to search for a membership card. It was the moment Fenimore had been waiting for. With the facility of a seasoned shoplifter, he slipped the copy of
Northanger Abbey
into his jacket pocket. Unfortunately his stethoscope was already stored there. He jammed the book down and prayed it was hidden from view. “Here we are.” She turned back to him. Why was his heart pounding when all he had done was retrieve a book he had already paid for!
“I knocked down all the bottles with one blow.” Jennifer reappeared at his side carrying a large purple teddy bear. “How did you manage that?”
“I imagined they were your head.”
“Fine. I'm involved in the intricate process of joining the Winston Historical Library.” He bestowed a bright smile on Miss Cunningham, which she didn't return. He signed the membership card with a flourish. “Would you like to join?” he asked Jennifer. “I'm sure Miss Cunningham has a card to spare.”
“Not unless she has references.” Miss Cunningham stared at the purple bear. It did nothing to increase Jennifer's credibility.
“Well, now that
I'm
a member,
I
can recommend her,” Fenimore said. “She has an honest face, don't you think?” He tilted Jennifer's chin for the librarian's closer inspection. Suddenly, he experienced a sharp pain in his left foot. Jennifer had brought her full weight to bear on it. He winced. “On second thought, I guess one out-of-town member is enough for one day.” He allowed Jennifer to drag him—limping—away.
“Well?” she asked, when they were barely out of the bookseller's hearing.
He patted his pocket. “Light-Fingered Fenimore does it again,” he said. “For the preservation of independent bookstores, I've just antagonized one of my prime suspects. She'll probably never speak to me again.”
“Never mind.” With the safe acquisition of the book, Jennifer's good humor had returned. “I'll talk to her and find out anything you want to know.”
“I want to know if she dislikes Lydia enough to plan an accident that might seriously injure her.” For a moment he looked as grim as Miss Cunningham.
“I'll do my best,” Jennifer said seriously. Then she smiled. “Maybe my friend here can help.” She nodded at the teddy bear she had just won. “How 'bout it, Ted?”
Fenimore saw nothing strange in this. He once had a teddy bear that he talked to.
“Here you are!” Amory confronted them with two fresh cups of punch. “You gave me the slip. I've been looking all over for you. Tom wants to talk to you.”
Fenimore recognized the tall, sullen young man from the house tour, lurking behind Amory.
“Jennifer's father is the proprietor of Nicholson's Books,” Amory told Tom. “The best bookstore in Philadelphia.” Amory's introductions always made the introduced feel either important or embarrassed, Fenimore noticed.
The young man gave a curt nod.
“Tom is our agricultural expert. He has a degree from the Bridgeton School of Agriculture, and he can turn the saltiest bogs and marshes into fertile soil for growing wheat and corn, right, Tom?” He patted the young man's shoulder.
Tom shrank from his touch. “The thing I'm working on now is more important,” he said. “I've invented this machine that'll harvest cranberries. Instead of picking the berries by hand, you flush them off the bushes with water.”
“Have you patented it?”
“Not yet. I'm waiting until I can get hold of some land near the river. If only Lydia would—”
“Didn't you say you wanted to show the doctor something?” Amory interrupted.
Tom shrugged. “I thought you might like to take a look at my brickwork.”
“Is your house near the road?” Fenimore asked.
Tom nodded.
“Does it have the initials ‘J & W' and the date ‘1725' worked into the wall?”
“Yes. That's it.”
“We just picnicked across from it,” he said. “Your ancestors were fine craftsmen.”
“The brickwork reminded me of my grandmother's needlepoint,” Jennifer said.
“Uh-huh.” Tom's attention had strayed. He seemed to be searching for someone in the crowd.
BOOK: The Doctor and the Dead Man's Chest
10.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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