The Mysterious Chest
Here, as promised, is an excerpt from my novel Dark Knowledge, set in late 1860s New York. (Release date January 5, 2018. Available now from the author.) Young Chris Harmony suspects that some members of his seagoing family, including his deceased grandfather, Caleb Harmony, may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba. Appalled, he is determined to learn the truth. He and his twin sister Sal have been looking at old documents in a sea chest that their grandfather left in their house. Their widowed mother has invited their Uncle Jake and Cousin Dwight to dinner.
Uncle Jake and Dwight came to dinner by carriage, which Ma considered just a bit flash, since we didn’t keep one. They had a hint of pomade in their hair, and both sported gold cuff links and a diamond tiepin. Ma used our best dishes, a set of blue-and-white chinaware that Grandpa had brought back from Canton long ago. Jake and Dwight raved about Ma’s roast turkey, which Jake carved with a flourish, eyes flashing, announcing, “The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat!” They ate with gusto, pronouncing Ma’s turnips and spuds delicious and her plum cake “confoundedly good.” Ma’s cooking was super, but I thought their praise just a bit much. Throughout dinner, and afterward in the parlor as well, they regaled us with stories, Dwight telling about running the Vicksburg batteries with Farragut and his fleet in ’62, and Jake relating how years before on the brig Hunter, bringing palm oil and ivory from the Guinea coast, he took command when the captain and mates were stricken with fever, and sold the cargo for a roaring good price in New York.
“You know how I never come down with fever, not in Africa or in the Americas either? I took the advice of a Spanish gent who’d been in those parts many a time: soak your feet in brandy, wear thick wool socks, avoid night air and the noonday sun. Other poor devils took sick, turned yellow, and wasted away, but I was in fine fettle.”
Finally he sent Dwight to fetch their carriage; a look passed between them. Then, to end the evening with a bang, he entertained us with a host of anecdotes about old merchants and skippers he had known. This was Uncle Jake at his best. He had us laughing one minute, and shocked or all but in tears the next. Yet as he talked, he kept fingering his gold penknife, which struck me as odd. When he launched into yet another yarn about a sailmaker who married three ladies of property – albeit one at a time – and had even Ma, who was kind of straitlaced, laughing to the point of tears, Sal slipped quietly out of the room. Moments later we heard her shout, “Chris, they’re stealing the chest!”
I was on my feet in a flash. Darting into the hallway, I found Dwight and Uncle Jake’s black coachman Luke lugging Grandpa’s heavy chest toward the open front door, while Sal shouted and protested. Making a flying leap, I landed on the chest, which under my weight crashed to the floor. Luke stepped back in astonishment, but as Sal and I yelled “Thief!” at the top of our lungs, Dwight’s look of surprise changed to rage. Lunging, he pummeled me with his fists. I tried to hit back, couldn’t, so I huddled up and fended off his punches as best I could, while still yelling “Thief! Thief! Thief!” By the time our cries brought Ma and Uncle Jake from the parlor, and the cook and the maid from the kitchen, my face was bloodied up and pretty much of a mess.
“Stop it, Dwight!” yelled Jake.
Dwight stepped back, breathing hard, scowling.
“Thief!” I cried, pointing at Dwight. I was sitting crumpled on the floor, one eye shut, nose bleeding.
“Sal,” said Ma, “fetch a wet towel and help your brother stop the bleeding. Annie and Meg, get back to the kitchen. Dwight and Jacob, what’s this all about?”
The servants left. Dwight started to speak, but his father cut him off.
“Martha, I was only taking what’s rightfully mine; I didn’t think you’d care. But Dwight’s too free with his fists; I’ll deal with him later.”
“Jacob, that chest isn’t yours.”
“I’d be doing you a favor to take it off your hands. What do you want with all those old papers?”
“More to the point, Jacob, what do you want with them?”
“Just a matter of winding up some loose ends from Pa’s estate. Dull legal stuff. Those papers may or may not be relevant.”
Ma eyed him something fierce. “The chest stays here. Put it back where you found it.”
Jake’s features tightened, but at a nod from him Dwight and the coachman lugged the chest back into the library.
“And now, Jacob, you and your minions can leave.” She said “minions” with a sting of contempt.
“That chest is mine, Martha, and I mean to have it.”
“Jacob, you are not a gentleman.”
“Martha, I never said I was. But thanks for the dinner. I hope you’ll make it into half mourning soon; Mark would approve. When you do, I’ll welcome you back to the land of the living.”
Preceded by his “minions,” he flashed a sour smile and left.
Sal came with a wet towel and dabbed my face; I was surprised by the splotches of blood on the towel: roses, a whole bouquet. Then she ran to a front window, looked out.
“They’re going,” she reported. “They’re gone.”
“Did they put the chest back exactly where they found it?” asked Ma.
Sal ran to the library, looked. “Yes, Ma, they did.”
“And that’s where it shall stay. Christopher, I advise you to take up boxing; I don’t think Dwight is done with you. As for the chest, the two of you must go on searching it. Jacob’s worried about something; find out what it is.”
“Yes, Ma,” we chorused.
“Sal, put some salve on your brother’s wounds. Annie and Meg will see to the dishes. I’m going to bed. I suggest that you two do the same.”
Of course we didn’t.
“Dwight really hates you,” said Sal, as she put on the salve.
My bleeding had stopped, but the sight in one eye was a blur. “I guess he does. I didn’t know it until today.”
“But why? I’ve never done him hurt.”
“He’s jealous, because you were Grandpa’s favorite.”
“I wasn’t! He liked all of us.”
“Dwight was the oldest, biggest, strongest, and fastest, and we all knew it, but Grandpa liked you best.”
“You were the youngest of the boys, not as big and strong as the others. You had a wonderful smile, an even temper, and you loved to hear his stories.”
“We all did.”
“Yes, but as Dwight got older, he got bored with them, he fidgeted. He didn’t want to hear any more about Grandpa’s adventures; he wanted to get out and have adventures of his own."
“He did. Look at all he went through in the war.”
“But he’s still jealous. Take Ma’s advice, learn to box. I’d love to see you punch him in the face.”
“So would I.”
“Chris, you’re a hero. The way you jumped right on that chest!”
“I feel like mush.”
“You’re a hero.”
“And I’ve never been in a war.”
“You’re in one now!”
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Coming soon: Wild, Crazy Dancing.
© 2017 Clifford Browder