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Latitudes and Departures
Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as
of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off
Delaware,--the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried
and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot
Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since
Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and
Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated
Sugar,--the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of
Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon
each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the
rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults.
Here have come to rest a long scarr'd sawbuck table, with two
mismatch'd side-benches, from the Lancaster County branch of the
family,--some Second-Street Chippendale, including an interpretation
of the fam'd Chinese Sofa, with a high canopy of yards of purple Stuff
that might be drawn all 'round to make a snug, dim tent,--a few odd
Chairs sent from England before the War,--mostly Pine and Cherry
about, nor much Mahogany, excepting a sinister and wonderful Card
Table which exhibits the cheaper Wave-like Grain known in the Trade
as Wand'ring Heart, causing an illusion of Depth into which for years
children have gaz'd as into the illustrated Pages of Books...along with
so many hinges, sliding Mortises, hidden catches, and secret
compartments that neither the Twins nor their Sister
can say they have been to the end of it. Upon the Wall, banish'd to
this Den of Parlor Apes for its Remembrance of a Time better forgotten,
reflecting most of the Room,--the Carpet and Drapes a little fray'd,
Whiskers the Cat stalking beneath the furniture, looking out with eyes
finely reflexive to anything suggesting Food,--hangs a Mirror in an
inscrib'd Frame, commemorating the "Mischianza," that memorable
farewell Ball stag'd in '77 by the British who'd been Occupying the City,
just before their Withdrawal from Philadelphia.
This Christmastide of 1786, with the War settl'd and the Nation
bickering itself into Fragments, wounds bodily and ghostly, great and
small, go aching on, not ev'ry one commemorated,--nor, too often, even
recounted. Snow lies upon all Philadelphia, from River to River, whose
further shores have so vanish'd behind curtains of ice-fog that the City
today might be an Isle upon an Ocean. Ponds and Creeks are frozen over,
and the Trees a-glare to the last slightest Twig,--Nerve-Lines of
concentrated Light. Hammers and Saws have fallen still, bricks lie in
snowcover'd Heaps, City-Sparrows, in speckl'd Outbursts, hop in and out
of what Shelter there may be,--the nightward Sky, Clouds blown to
Chalksmears, stretches above the Northern Liberties, Spring Garden and
Germantown, its early moon pale as the Snow-Drifts,--smoke ascends
from Chimney-Pots, Sledging-Parties adjourn indoors, Taverns bustle,--freshly
infus'd Coffee flows ev'ryplace, borne about thro' Rooms front
and back, whilst Madeira, which has ever fuel'd Association in these
Parts, is deploy'd nowadays like an ancient Elixir upon the seething Pot of
Politics,--for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the
Distance to a Star.
It has become an afternoon habit for the Twins and their Sister, and
what Friends old and young may find their way here, to gather for
another Tale from their far-travel'd Uncle, the [Rev.sup.d] Wicks
Cherrycoke, who arriv'd here back in October for the funeral of a Friend
of years ago,--too late for the Burial, as it prov'd,--and has linger'd as a
Guest in the Home of his sister Elizabeth, the Wife, for many years, of
Mr. J. Wade LeSpark. a respected Merchant active in Town Affairs,
whilst in his home vet Sultan enough to convey to the [Rev.sup.d], tho'
without ever so stipulating, that, for as long as he can keep the children
amus'd, he may remain,--too much evidence of Juvenile Rampage at the wrong
moment, however' and Boppo! 'twill be Out the Door with him, where
waits the Winter's Block and Blade.
Thus, they have heard the Escape from Hottentot-Land, the Accursed
Ruby of Mogok, the Ship-wrecks in Indies East and West,--an Herodotic
Web of Adventures and Curiosities selected, the [Rev.sup.d] implies, for
their moral usefulness, whilst avoiding others not as suitable in the
Hearing of Youth. The Youth, as usual, not being consulted in this.
Tenebrae has seated herself and taken up her Needlework, a piece
whose size and difficulty are already subjects of Discussion in the House,
the Embroidress herself keeping silence,--upon this Topick, at least.
Announc'd by Nasal Telegraph, in come the Twins, bearing the old
Pewter Coffee-Machine venting its Puffs of Vapor, and a large Basket
dedicated to Saccharomanic Appetites, piled to the Brim with fresh-fried
Dough-Nuts roll'd in Sugar, glaz'd Chestnuts, Buns, Fritters, Crullers,
Tarts. "What is this? Why, Lads, you read my mind."
"The Coffee's for you, Nunk,--" "--last Time, you were talking in
your sleep," the Pair explain, placing the Sweets nearer themselves, all in
this Room being left to seize and pour as they may. As none could agree
which had been born first, the Twins were nam'd Pitt and Pliny, so that
each might be term'd "the Elder" or "the Younger," as might day-today
please one, or annoy his Brother.
"Why haven't we heard a Tale about America?" Pitt licking Gobbets of
Philadelphia Pudding from his best Jabot.
"With Indians in it, and Frenchmen," adds Pliny, whose least gesture
sends Cookie-crumbs ev'rywhere.
"French Women, come to that," mutters Pitt.
"It's not easy being pious for both of us, you know," Pliny advises.
"It's twenty years," recalls the [Rev.sup.d], "since we all topped the
Allegheny Ridge together, and stood looking out at the Ohio
Country,--so fair, a Revelation, meadow'd to the Horizon--Mason and
Dixon, and all the McCleans, Darby and Cope, no, Darby wouldn't've
been there in 'sixty-six,--howbeit, old Mr. Barnes and young Tom
Hynes, the rascal...don't know where they all went,--some fought in the
war, some chose peace come what might, some profited, some lost
everything. Some are gone to Kentucky, and some,--as now poor
"'Twas not too many years before the War,--what we were doing out
in that Country together was brave, scientifick beyond my
understanding, and ultimately meaningless,--we were putting a line
straight through the heart of the Wilderness, eight yards wide and due
west, in order to separate two Proprietorships, granted when the World
was yet feudal and but eight years later to be nullified by the War for
And now Mason's gone, and the [Rev.sup.d] Cherrycoke, who came
to town only to pay his Respects, has linger'd, thro' the first descent of
cold, the first drawings-in to the Hearth-Side, the first Harvest-Season
meals appearing upon the next-best Dishes. He had intended to be gone
weeks ago, but finds he cannot detach. Each day among his Devoirs is a
visit, however brief, to Mason's grave. The Verger has taken to nodding
at him. In the middle of the night recently he awoke convinc'd that 'twas
he who had been haunting Mason,--that like a shade with a grievance,
he expected Mason, but newly arriv'd at Death, to help him with
"After years wasted," the [Rev.sup.d] commences, "at perfecting a
parsonical Disguise,--grown old in the service of an Impersonation that
never took more than a Handful of actor's tricks,--past remembering
those Yearnings for Danger, past all that ought to have been, but never
had a Hope of becoming, have I beach'd upon these Republican
Shores,--stoven, dismasted, imbecile with age,--an untrustworthy
Remembrancer for whom the few events yet rattling within a broken
memory must provide the only comfort now remaining to him,--"
"Uncle," Tenebrae pretends to gasp, "--and but this Morning, you
look'd so much younger,--why I'd no idea."
"Kindly Brae. That is from my Secret Relation, of course. Don't know
that I'd phrase it quite like that in the present Company."
"Then...?" Tenebrae replying to her Uncle's Twinkling with the usual
play of Eye-lashes.
"It begins with a Hanging."
"Excellent!" cry the Twins.
The [Rev.sup.d], producing a scarr'd old Note-book, cover'd in cheap
Leather, begins to read. "Had I been the first churchman of modern times
to be swung from Tyburn Tree,--had I been then taken for dead, whilst
in fact but spending an Intermission among the eventless corridors of
Syncope, due to the final Bowl of Ale,--had a riotous throng of
medical students taken what they deem'd to be my Cadaver back beneath
the somber groins of their College,--had I then been 'resurrected' into an
entirely new Knowledge of the terms of being, in which Our
Savior,--strange to say in that era of Wesley and Whitefield,--though
present, would not have figur'd as pre-eminently as with most
Sectarians,--howbeit,--I should closely resemble the nomadic Parson
you behold today... "
"Mother says you're the Family outcast," Pitt remarks.
"They pay you money to keep away," says Pliny.
"Your Grandsire Cherrycoke, Lads, has ever kept his promise to remit
to me, by way of certain Charter'd Companies, a sum precise to the
farthing and punctual as the Moon,--to any address in the World, save
one in Britain. Britain is his World, and he will persist, even now, in
standing sham'd before it for certain Crimes of my distant Youth."
"Crimes!" exclaim the Boys together.
"Why, so did wicked men declare 'em...before God, another Tale...."
"What'd they nail you on?" Uncle Ives wishes to know, "strictly
professional interest, of course." Green Brief-bag over one shoulder, but
lately return'd from a Coffee-House Meeting, he is bound later this
evening for a slightly more formal version of the same thing,--feeling,
here with the children, much as might a Coaching Passenger let off at
Nightfall among an unknown Populace, to wait for a connecting Coach,
alone, pedestrian, desiring to pass the time to some Revenue, if not Profit.
"Along with some lesser Counts," the [Rev.sup.d] is replying, "'twas
one of the least tolerable of Offenses in that era, the worst of Dick Turpin
seeming but the Carelessness of Youth beside it,--the Crime they styl'd
`Anonymity.' That is, I left messages posted publicly, but did not sign
them. I knew some night-running lads in the district who let me use their
Printing-Press,--somehow, what I got into printing up, were Accounts of
certain Crimes I had observ'd, committed by the Stronger against the
Weaker,--enclosures, evictions, Assize verdicts, Activities of the
Military,--giving the Names of as many of the Perpetrators as I was sure
of, yet keeping back what I foolishly imagin'd my own. till the Night I was
tipp'd and brought in to London, in Chains, and clapp'd in the Tower.
"Oh, do not tease them so," Tenebrae prays him.
"Ludgate, then? whichever, 'twas Gaol. It took me till I was lying
among the Rats and Vermin, upon the freezing edge of a Future invisible,
to understand that my name had never been my own,--rather belonging,
all this time, to the Authorities, who forbade me to change it, or withhold
it, as 'twere a Ring upon the Collar of a Beast, ever waiting for the Lead to
be fasten'd on.... One of those moments Hindoos and Chinamen are ever
said to be having, entire loss of Self, perfect union with All, sort of thing.
Strange Lights, Fires, Voices indecipherable,--indeed, Children, this is
the part of the Tale where your old Uncle gets to go insane,--or so, then,
each in his Interest, did it please ev'ryone to style me. Sea voyages in
those days being the standard Treatment for Insanity, my Exile should
commence for the best of Medical reasons."
Tho' my Inclination had been to go out aboard an East Indiaman (the
[Rev.sup.d] continues), as that route East travers'd notoriously a lively
and youthful World of shipboard Dalliance, Gale-force Assemblies, and
Duels ashore, with the French Fleet a constant,--for some,
Romantic,--danger, "Like Pirates, yet more polite," as the Ladies often
assur'd me,--alas, those who controll'd my Fate, getting wind of my
preference at the last moment, swiftly arrang'd to have me transferr'd into
a small British Frigate sailing alone, upon a long voyage, in a time of
War,--the Seahorse, twenty-four guns, Captain Smith. I hasten'd in to
Leadenhall Street to inquire.
"Can this be Objection we hear?" I was greeted. "Are you saying that
a sixth-rate is beneath you? Would you prefer to remain ashore, and take
up quarters in Bedlam? It has made a man of many in your Situation.
Some have come to enjoy fairly meaningful lives there. Or if it's some
need for the Exotic, we might arrange for a stay in one of the French
"Would one of my Condition even know how to object, my Lord? I
owe you everything."
"Madness has not impair'd your memory. Good. Keep away from
harmful Substances, in particular Coffee. Tobacco and Indian Hemp. If
you must use the latter, do not inhale. Keep your memory working,
young man! Have a safe Voyage."
So, with this no doubt well-meant advice finding its way into the
mid-watch sounds of waves past my sleeping-place, I set sail upon an
Engine of Destruction, in the hope that Eastward yet might dwell
something of Peace and Godhead, which British Civilization, in venturing
Westward, had left behind,--and thus was consternation the least of my
feelings when, instead of supernatural Guidance from Lamas old as time,
here came Jean Crapaud a-looming,--thirty-four guns' worth of Disaster,
and only one Lesson.