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The Kent Family Chronicles (Book Eight)
By John Jakes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 John Jakes
All rights reserved.
AT THE RED COD
Of all the waterfront dives in Boston, none looked meaner or dingier inside than the Red Cod—and none was more dangerous.
The place catered to the rough men who worked the fishing boats, and to others who cleaned, cut up, and packed ice around the fish the boats brought back. There was also a smaller group of patrons even more reckless and amoral than the first two. These were the men and women who lived off the fishermen and the packing house workers.
It was a female in this smaller group whom Carter Kent had decided to visit tonight. The visit was possible only because Carter had hoarded his allowance for several weeks. Like many parents of young men at Harvard, Gideon was generous with his stepson—perhaps overly generous. Carter often thought with great amusement that if his stepfather knew how the so-called pocket money was being spent, there would be no more of it.
Unlike Gideon, Carter did not go to the docks for peace and contemplation, but for excitement and physical gratification. He liked the Red Cod because it was so distinctly different from his college surroundings. There was an air of casual disregard of the law, a refreshing contrast to the discipline under which he suffered as a student. He found the atmosphere of barely suppressed violence exciting, though he was well aware that it was risky for Harvard men to set foot in the tavern. Few did. Even his friend Willie Hearst, who also had a liking for excitement, didn't come down to this part of the city.
Tonight—Washington's birthday, 1883—the Red Cod seemed unusually crowded. The stench of sweat, beer, gin, and fish hit Carter like a bludgeon as he stepped inside, feeling, as always, the quickening of his pulse that accompanied a visit here.
The tavern was noisy and the constant calls for service almost uniformly profane. The landlord, a graying runt named Phipps, looked annoyed by the commotion. When he recognized Carter, his gaze grew even more sullen.
Carter slid past a table of rowdies to an old deacon's bench that had just been vacated near the smoky fireplace. At a table behind the bench and close to a little-used side door sat Tillman, an obese fisherman who worked for Carter's sometime drinking companion, Captain Eben Royce. Tillman waved his battered pewter mug. Carter grinned and returned the greeting. Phipps, meantime, came out from behind his serving counter with three tankards in each hand. "One side, one side, you damned lazy louts."
Carter spied the serving girl he hoped to engage for a few minutes later on to relieve the tension that had built up recently. Josie was illiterate, and rather stout, but still in her twenties, and good-natured. She had breasts of positively amazing dimensions. She was displaying them by leaning over while she served a table in back. Carter saw the redness of a nipple showing above the line of her none too clean blouse.
She in turn saw Carter watching, and smiled. Phipps gave his girls time to make a quick dollar or two, and in return for his generosity he collected a portion of their earnings.
A number of patrons gave Carter surly, even hostile looks. At twenty-one, he was a broad-shouldered, handsome young man with jet black hair and eyes. His skin had a swarthy cast—a heritage from his paternal grandfather, an officer in the Mexican army. His coloring might have induced some to take him for one of the Portuguese fishermen who frequented the tavern, except that he didn't move or speak like a sailor; his upbringing in a wealthy household gave him a certain polish and grace he couldn't entirely disguise. And although he always wore old clothes to the Red Cod, they were cleaner and neater than those of the other patrons.
He reached the high-backed bench and dragged it across the dirty floor to a place immediately next to the fire. He was chilled. It had been a long walk down from Beacon Street, through streets wet with the melting of last night's heavy snow. Phipps, on his way back to the serving area, passed close to Carter just as he moved the bench. The landlord reacted with a loud exclamation.
"Leave the damn furniture where I put it, boy."
Carter's face darkened. He knew Phipps wouldn't have picked on him if he were one of the regulars. Phipps despised Harvard students. Last fall, several of them had come in, ostensibly for ale, and had uncorked bottles of bugs especially collected for the occasion. Even the patrons of the Cod, who were familiar with vermin of all sorts, still talked of the prank. The bugs had numbered in the hundreds—the count depended on the source—and Phipps had been violently antagonistic toward the college crowd ever since.
Still, Carter automatically resented the order. Then he remembered what sort of place he was in, and smiled the bright, charming smile that was one of his few assets.
"Mr. Phipps, I'm damn near numb from the trip down here. Can't hurt to let me sit by your fire a min—"
"Leave it where I put it!" Phipps shoved him aside and then pushed the bench back to its original position. Chairs scraped, heads turned, and men snickered at Carter's expense.
Anger consumed him then. But instead of giving in to it, as he wanted to do, he had the good sense to call on his only real talent, one he'd discovered years before. He had a certain quickness of mind and facility with words which made it easy for him to speak persuasively. And he had that charming smile, which somehow gave credibility to even his most outrageous statements.
"What a thing to do to a frozen patron—especially in this city and on this day!" he said with a grin, quite aware of the splintered bung starter Phipps kept in his belt. The landlord was resting his hand on it, as if hoping to find an excuse to use it on his young customer. But Carter's remark confused him.
"This day?" Phipps repeated, blinking.
"The first president's birthday! Old George fought for freedom, and on his birthday, in the town that was the very cradle of liberty, I should think a man would be free to move a bench a few inches when he's frozen his ass to come here and give you his money. Seems to me you're not a very proper, liberty-loving American, Mr. Phipps."
The glibness of the words caught the fancy of some of the previously hostile patrons, who laughed and applauded.
"He's got you there, Phippsy!"
"Let Harvard put his bench where he wants it."
Phipps eyed the crowd, and Carter, with disgust.
"Ah, do it, then." He pivoted away.
Carter kept that glowing smile in place and executed a mock bow to the man. "President Washington thanks you, and so do I"—he was bent over at the bottom of the bow, and thus his face was hidden from the landlord as he added in a whisper—"you ignorant jackass."
Suddenly he blinked. That was it. The solution he'd been seeking for weeks—ever since it had become clear that his nemesis, Eisler, would give him failing marks this year, too. In this distinctly unlikely setting, old Phipps had inadvertently triggered the answer to Carter's problem.
Royce's fat cohort, Tillman, congratulated him on winning the battle of the bench. Carter grinned again, thanked him and sat down, barely able to contain a new kind of excitement. The scheme for revenge had jumped full-blown into his mind. His friend Willie, one year his junior but already a connoisseur of pranks, would love it. The only question was— did Carter have the money and the nerve to carry it off?
He'd completely forgotten Josie. He realized it when he felt her big breast pressing against his right shoulder; she had come up beside him at the end of the bench, feigning a pout.
"Hello, Carter my sweet. I thought you'd come to see me, an' then all at once, you looked a hundred miles off."
He grinned and pulled her down on his knee. He ran his hand up beneath her skirt—she never wore drawers—and fondled her.
"Ah, that feels lovely," she laughed, wiggling. "But you know Phippsy don't allow samplin' of the goods."
"He doesn't allow much of anything," Carter grumbled, withdrawing his hand.
She giggled again. "You showed him up good. That tongue of yours is a wicked instrument."
"Of course you speak from experience—"
She batted at his nose in feigned anger. In an age in which the stern and upright British queen set the moral tone for the entire Western world, tavern sluts liked to mock their upper-class counterparts; this Josie proceeded to do with elaborate gestures, sniffs, and grimaces. But she hadn't the talent to carry it off more than a few seconds, and Carter soon grew bored.
"I mustn't be too annoyed with Phippsy. He gave me a splendid idea for getting back at Eisler."
"That German still giving you fits, is he?"
"He's out for my balls—academically speaking, of course."
Again she laughed. "Trouble with you, sweet—you can't stand to have anybody tell you what to do."
"You've discovered that, eh?" He bussed her cheek. "Well, that may be. On the other hand, Eisler can't do anything but tell people what to do—" Suddenly dejection overcame him. "I really don't belong in that damn college, Josie. I don't know whether I'm more inept scholastically or socially."
"My, my," she sighed, "what a lot of big words. You act like they're all mighty important. You'll feel a lot better as soon as you decide they aren't."
He gave her a long, thoughtful look. "I think you may be right. There's one thing I'm going to do well at Harvard, at least. I'm talking about paying that bastard back."
"I know something you do very well," she said, leaning over to kiss his ear. His cheek itched from contact with a piece of her false hair. The hair was made of tow, he suspected. On occasion his mother wore expensive natural hair imported from France, but tavern harlots couldn't spend that kind of money just to enhance a hairdo."
Phipps banged his palm on the counter. "Josie! Get back to work. He don't get to feel till he pays up."
"Told you," Josie whispered with a resentful glare at her employer. She slid off Carter's lap, causing him to lose the pleasurable stiffness he'd been enjoying ever since she plumped her hefty buttocks onto his lap. What a pity that stiffness was all he'd enjoy this evening. He had decided to dispense with Josie's services. He'd need every cent to rent the equipment necessary for carrying out his splendid scheme.
"Be ready for me soon?" Josie asked as she started off.
"I imagine," he replied in a vague way. "Right now bring me a pot of beer, will you? And tell Phippsy to go to hell."
While another patron grabbed Josie's wrist and engaged her in conversation, Carter noticed the leather-faced Phipps watching him through the slow-moving smoke. Carter would have liked to smash the landlord's face for him, but he was determined to avoid trouble tonight. He wanted to concentrate on planning his revenge against the man he loathed above all others.
Associate Professor Edmund Eisler taught German. He had given Carter failing marks twice the preceding year, had failed him again at the end of the first term this year, and had made it clear that he intended to fail him a fourth time in the spring. Carter had asked university officials why, when he was required to repeat the introductory German course, he was put back into Eisler's section. The answer was blunt: Eisler had requested it.
In Carter's opinion the man belonged in the Prussian army, not in a classroom. His curly blond hair lay over his forehead in damp, effeminate ringlets. He had protruding blue eyes, and a superior manner, and loved to strut in front of his classes with a gold-knobbed cane in hand. He issued study instructions as if they were military orders, emphasizing them by whacking the cane on the desk.
What had really precipitated the trouble between them was a tea Eisler and his dumpy wife had given for the professor's students during Carter's first term at Harvard. There Carter had met the Eislers' daughter, a yellow-haired, dumpling-shaped girl whom some of Carter's fellow students said would take on any boy who asked. Over hot tea and lemon snaps, Carter asked—but not softly enough; the professor was standing just a step behind him.
Eisler's daughter protected herself by pretending moral outrage. And from then on, Eisler was the foe.
He missed no chance to demean Carter. It was widely known in Cambridge that Eisler's wife had social pretensions, and curried the favor of women considered to be leaders of Boston society.
Once, after a particularly heated exchange, Eisler had sneered, "Why should I expect anything but boorishness from you, Herr Kent? I know, after all, what your stepfather did to McAllister."
The more Eisler bore down on Carter's deficiencies as a student of language—"You speak German as if you were an immigrant from the moon—and a rather dim-witted immigrant, at that"—the more Carter resisted. When Eisler assigned homework due the next day, Carter finished a day late. When Eisler doubled the assigned work as a means of reprisal, Carter handed the assignment in a week late—or not at all.
In class, they argued over everything; Carter had a talent for that. They went round and round on subjects as diverse as the pronunciation of the umlaut and the worth of the campus humor magazine, the Lampoon, the efficiency of Boston's Metropolitan Horse Railroad and, not many weeks earlier, the music of Richard Wagner, which Eisler adored. Knowing absolutely nothing about it, Carter classified Wagner's work as turgid and bizarre, two words he'd read in a newspaper article about the composer. This last, supreme insult had provoked an outburst from Eisler which reminded Carter of where he stood.
Excerpted from The Americans by John Jakes. Copyright © 1980 John Jakes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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