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Verdict Smolens’s (The Schoolmaster’s Daughter; The Anarchist) lastest novel offers an accurate portrait of a post-Colonial New England community, but his promising story line gets pulled under by the lack of a strong central figure. The weak hero gets overshadowed by some of the supporting actors. Readers who enjoy tales of early America and can overlook the mostly sketchily drawn characters should enjoy the mix of history, ravaging illness, and avarice.—W. Keith McCoy, Somerset Cty. Lib. Syst., Bridgewater, NJ(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
It was past ten bells when the harbormaster sent his son to fetch the doctor. Leander Hatch was nineteen, and as he sprinted from Sumner's Wharf, across Market Square, and then up State Street, the smell of the salt marshes at low tide filled his lungs until he arrived, winded and sweating, at Wolfe Tavern.
Roger Davenport, who sat on a tall stool outside the open doorway, clutched Leander's shoulder. "What's your rush there?" Davenport seemed to have spent his entire life determining who should gain admittance to the ordinary.
"Doctor Wiggins is needed down to waterside."
Davenport let go of the boy and folded his arms. "Now why would that be?"
Leander stared at the man, his hairless, round skull, his bulging neck. He was missing the lower portion of his right ear, which, according to rumor, had been bitten off by either a drunken sailor or a Water Street prostitute. "I was sent by my father, the harbormaster."
"Caleb Hatch—he be your father?"
"Yes." Leander hesitated, and then added, "Sir."
Davenport leaned close, tilting his head to one side. "And what would he be wanting with Doctor Wiggins, at this hour?"
"I cannot say." Leander peered into the smoky tavern, which reeked of tobacco, meat, and clam chowder. The room was crowded with men, sitting around tables, standing along the bar, the din of their voices at once jocular and angry. Women served them tankards of beer, bowls of flip, and platters of charred beef.
"All right. But you wait here." Davenport slid off his stool and went inside the tavern, his big head just ducking beneath each low ceiling beam. He stopped at the booth nearest the fireplace, where a man was slumped over the table, his head resting on his forearms. Taking hold of his coat collar, Davenport lifted up Dr. Wiggins's head, his wire-frame spectacles cockeyed on his face. Davenport yanked him out of the booth and pushed him back to the door, bringing jeers, laughter, and some applause from the other men in the room. Wiggins tried to resist, but he was too unsteady on his feet.
"You've been summoned," Davenport said pleasantly as he shoved the doctor out onto the porch. "Take a whiff of low tide out there and you'll be tolerably sober."
The doctor stumbled down the steps and began wandering along State Street. Dr. Giles Wiggins was, by Leander's estimate, in his late thirties, but he had the constitution of a man a full score older. He wore a frock coat that was rent, patched, and ill-fitting, and he appeared in perpetual need of a decent meal. Dark hair fell about his shoulders in disarray; yet, even though intoxicated, Leander thought his gaze suggested decorum and a manner of kindly inquiry uncommon in this harbor town. He was one of only three physicians in Newburyport, and merely a surgeon, whose only distinction was that he had learned his trade at sea during the war with England.
"What's this about?" he said over his shoulder.
Leander followed a few steps behind, as though he were herding livestock. "My father wants you to accompany him out to a ship at anchor in the river basin. He has denied its request to tie up at the wharf."
"He needs you to perform a medical inspection, Doctor."
"What ship?" When Leander hesitated, the doctor stopped walking. "It has a name."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"You don't know?" the doctor asked, turning around. "Or you cannot say?"
"I was told only to fetch you down to the wharf."
The doctor began walking again, now with Leander at his side. "Tell me, how did the harbormaster determine that this ship might need to be inspected?"
"The pilot, Mr. Wainwright, he had been rowed out to Plum Island to guide the ship around the shoals and upriver."
"Nothing unusual there—"
"He came right back to the wharf claiming that there be some illness aboard the ship."
"What form of illness?"
"Fever, it appears, sir."
"I see. You might have said so in the first place."
When Leander didn't reply, Doctor Wiggins studied him for a long moment. "Your eyes, they do take after your mother's," he said. Leander's surprise caused the doctor to smile. "Well, we best not tarry with idle talk."
He quickened his pace as they entered Market Square. Spars and masts stitched the night sky, and as they neared the water, the doctor appeared to take better possession of his faculties.
* * *
As the harbormaster's skiff pulled away from Sumner's Wharf, Giles Wiggins leaned over the side and heaved his guts into the river.
"Feel better now?" Caleb Hatch asked from the bow.
"I do, yes," Giles said, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his coat. "As a man of medicine, I'm a great believer in the benefits of vomit."
The four oarsmen laughed. They were Thomas Poole, the current high sheriff, two constables, Jotham Poe and his brother Elisha, and Leander. They sculled downriver on the falling tide, entering the wide basin that was bordered to the north by the salt marshes of Ring's Island and to the south by the clam beds of Joppa Flats. Due east, Plum Island's dunes were lit by a three-quarter moon rising above the Atlantic. Straight ahead, a three-mast brigantine lay at anchor.
"Starboard," Caleb Hatch called out. "Keep us upwind of her."
"This is the Miranda?" Giles said.
Jotham Poe raised his head from his labor, grinning. "Aye, one of your brother's ships, Doctor, come north from the Caribbean. Named after your own mother, I believe?"
The doctor glanced at Leander. "I asked if you knew the name of this ship."
The boy looked to his father, who said, "Upon my instructions, Doctor. The boy was only following orders."
"I see." Giles settled a haunch on the port gunwale. "Everyone knows that at night I can usually be found in the public house."
Jotham and Elisha Poe laughed again as they pulled at their oars. Constables had a rather dubious distinction in Newburyport, and the title often brought more fear than respect. Some of the high sheriff's men had served in the militia against the British, while others merely shouldered sticks during marching drills on the training field at the Mall; all worked for small coin and required other forms of employment.
Giles looked toward Joppa Flats, which was dotted with dozens of clam diggers' lanterns as they worked the low tide. Suddenly he stood up and cupped his hands about his spectacles. In the middle distance he thought he made out two low black lines, moving through the water. The splash of an oar caught the moonlight.
"They're rowing ashore." Giles pointed toward the two boats.
Caleb Hatch turned his head and leaned forward. "Two?"
"No," Leander said. "Three." He pointed toward another dark line in the water that was closer in toward shore.
The boy was long-limbed but not awkward. He had his mother's lean face, her fair hair. "Very good, Leander," the doctor said.
"Jotham," the harbormaster said. "I sent you out with explicit instructions that no one was to disembark from that vessel without my consent."
"Aye, sir," Jotham said, and then he snorted. "But you can't keep sailors on deck when they can smell the rum and pussy ashore. And I wager you'll find goods from the Miranda sold in Market Square tomorrow. Enoch Sumner—there's a man who knows how to line his pockets."
The skiff drew alongside the Miranda. Several of the ship's crewmen were standing along the rail. "Who's your captain?" Caleb Hatch called out.
There was a moment when the crew looked amongst themselves, and then one man said, "I am in command of this ship." His voice was laced with a French accent.
"And you are?" the harbormaster asked.
"Captain Antoine Delacourte."
"Captain, I'm Caleb Hatch, the harbormaster, and you were given instructions that no one was to leave this ship."
"That is so."
"We saw boats rowing ashore."
"Boats? We have seen no boats rowing ashore." Delacourte looked to his left and right, and then held his hands out over the railing as though to show that he wasn't concealing anything. "I assure you, we have complied with all requests."
"I see," Hatch said. "I've brought the doctor here to inspect your ship."
After a moment, the captain said, "Very well, Monsieur."
Delacourte then barked orders in French, and lines were thrown to the oarsmen. Once the skiff was secured, a rope ladder was rolled down the side of the ship's hull. Giles climbed aboard and found a small band of crewmen on deck. Their clothes were reduced to rags, and several wore no shirts. They stared at the doctor as though they were prepared to draw knives and defend their ship to the last.
Delacourte was an obese man in a tattered white coat that was stretched taut across his belly. "We arrive on the morning tide and wait for the pilot to come and guide us to port. This pilot, he will not take us up to harbor. You must replace this man."
There was a faint cough from somewhere below.
"What's your cargo?" Giles asked.
Delacourte cleared his throat. "Molasses and sugar, mostly. Lumber. Livestock. And horses, fine stallions for Mr. Sumner, the owner of this ship."
"I wish to go below," Giles said.
Delacourte straightened up, as though determined to refuse this request.
"I am Dr. Wiggins, Captain. Enoch Sumner's my half-brother, and Mr. Hatch down there in that skiff is the harbormaster, along with Mr. Poole, the high sheriff, and I have the authority to inspect this ship. Do you understand?"
Delacourte considered this a moment, then said, "I will accompany you myself—"
"I'd prefer to go on my own, Monsieur. It sounds like you have a sick man down there."
Delacourte hesitated a moment before he said, "Indeed. Anything for my crew." He turned to one of them, an older man in a cook's apron. "Mead, take the good doctor below."
Mead nodded obediently and led the doctor astern to the companionway. Giles descended and paused at the bottom of the stairs—the air below was close. Mosquitoes hovered around the dim lanterns that hung from the low deck beams. There was an odor of something fetid that had turned days ago in the heat. He looked up at Mead, who remained up on deck. "What's that smell?"
"Don't know, Doctor. Just me cookin'?"
Giles went below. He had to stoop as he moved forward in the ship. There were perhaps two dozen hammocks strung from the ceiling beams, ghostly shapes in the near-dark. Farther below, in the ship's hold, he could hear pigs grunting, the heavy knock of horse's hooves. Forward of the mainmast there were two hammocks. He took a lantern from a ceiling hook and approached the first hammock, which was occupied a boy who couldn't have been more than eighteen. His eyes were closed, and his face and shirt were soaked with sweat. Giles hung the lantern from a nearby hook and placed his hand on the boy's forehead; he was burning with fever. Startled, he opened his eyes, confused and fearful.
"It's all right, son," Giles said. "I'm a doctor." With his thumb he rolled up the boy's left eyelid. Even in the flickering lamplight he could see that the eyeball had a yellow tinge to it, as did the boy's skin. "What's your name?"
"Joseph, sir. Joseph Eagan."
"How long have you been like this, Joseph?"
"Can't say. Four, five days at least."
"How many crew have you lost?"
There was a moment of clarity in the boy's eyes. "Four." With effort he lifted his head so he could look toward the bow, where a man lay in the other hammock. "I haven't heard nothing from Pellatier there. He's been groaning something awful, but now he's stopped."
Giles went over to the other hammock, stepping round a pool of black vomit on the floor. Pellatier's mouth and beard were covered with dried blood. Giles felt his neck for a pulse but there was none.
"Are we in Newburyport, sir?"
The doctor returned to the boy. "Yes, Joseph."
"Can I go ashore?"
"I'm afraid you'll have to wait."
"Then I'll die here, too."
"We can't let any crew off the ship until we know what we're dealing with."
After a moment the boy closed his eyes and nodded his head. "I'm very thirsty."
"You're a brave fellow, Joseph. I'll see that you get water." Giles began to turn away, but then looked at the boy again. "Tell me, the other crewmen who died, they were buried at sea?"
"They were," the boy said. "Captain Frothingham was very swift about it."
"What is his name?"
The boy's eyes opened and he appeared puzzled. "Captain Frothingham, sir."
"Wears a white frock coat?"
"Delacourte wears it now."
"The first mate." Joseph nodded weakly. Then he suddenly tried to raise his head, and Giles took hold of his shoulders to help him. A fierce heat came through his damp shirt and his lips were cracked and parched. "Then the captain's took ill, too, has he?" the boy asked.
"I suspect so."
Joseph's eyes grew wide and perhaps fearful.
"What is it, son?"
"Delacourte. After dark he sent boats ashore."
"I know," Giles said. "We saw them."
The boy shivered as he eased back in the hammock.
"I'll have water brought immediately."
"Thank you, sir."
The doctor made his way back through the ship and climbed the companionway. Mead was sitting on the top step, and he got to his feet. He wouldn't look directly at the doctor. "You go down and give that boy water, plenty of water, Mead. And put a blanket over him—and broth in small portions, so he might have a chance to keep it down." The cook looked terrified as he stared down into the companionway. "Now, Mead."
Reluctantly, the man descended into the bowels of the ship, murmuring to himself. Giles went to the port rail, where Delacourte stood with his hands clasped behind his back.
"Awful business, isn't it, Doctor?"
"That's the captain's coat you're wearing," Giles said.
"I am the captain."
"You are the first mate, who put the captain's coat on after he died."
Delacourte lifted his chin and would not return Giles's gaze.
"You have sent boats ashore—we saw them. This is in direct contradiction to orders issued by the harbormaster. No one else on this ship is to go ashore." The doctor looked at the crew, who now appeared ready to rush at him. "None of you," he said loudly, "is to leave this ship. I will advise the harbormaster that this vessel should be placed under quarantine until further notice. Mr. Delacourte, you are to fly the yellow flag."
"We are under quarantine?" Delacourte turned to the doctor now.
"Until further notice."
"But we are nearly out of fresh water, and our provisions are low—"
"They will be sent out to you. And under the circumstances, I will recommend that the harbormaster have some of our constables stand guard."
"We are under arrest?"
"They will not come aboard but will remain in their boats."
Delacourte folded his arms. "This is an outrage."
"Their purpose is to see that you and the rest of your crew remain on this ship until further notice." Giles climbed over the rail to the ladder and descended to the skiff.CHAPTER 2
She heard the wagon coming up High Street, and when it turned into the drive she laid down her book and pushed herself up out of her chair. Her bedroom windows looked down on the courtyard and the stable in back. She watched the driver halt the team, the sound of hooves and harnesses reverberating off of the cobblestone. Two stable boys came out and tended to the horses. There was also much commotion downstairs, and soon her son Enoch emerged from the back door, leading this evening's entourage into the courtyard. As usual, he wore an enormous cocked hat and was accompanied by his nuisance of a small dog, Bowsprit. He walked with a cane, favoring his right foot, which was prone to gout. He hobbled toward the wagon and the large wooden cask tied in the bed.
As everyone gathered around the wagon, Enoch gave instructions while the driver and one of the livery boys untied the ropes that secured the cask. Jonathan Bream, Enoch's personal bard, spread out his arms and bellowed, "Ode to the mighty task of lifting so heavy a cask!" Delighted, the inebriated members of the entourage applauded. They consisted of the usual fools and fops who gathered most nights in the Sumner house, and, of course, they were accompanied by ladies of easy virtue, with gay voices, pinched waists, and powdered, overripe bosoms.
It took several men to lower the cask to the cobblestones. Enoch then removed his cocked hat and the others fell silent with bowed heads. He was not wearing a periwig, and she could see the bald crown of his head as he murmured a prayer. A solemn prayer made in jest, for it was all in jest, night after night, the food, the beverage, the women, all in the perpetual pursuit of what Enoch called Diversion. And as long as he paid for it, he would have company to help him seek these nightly entertainments.
Excerpted from Quarantine by John Smolens. Copyright © 2012 John Smolens. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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