Excerpt from The Printer & The Strumpet
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was an age of reason when…
When what? Well, when reasonable men should be reasonable, I suppose.
“Flog the frog!” I cursed.
I looked at the words I had written and felt disgusted. I scratched them through with the ink-armed tip of my quill, cursing the gods above from A to Z—Apollo to Zeus—and every minor deity in between, giving no quarter for whether they represented Team Christian or Team Heathen.
Best of times? Worst of times? Rubbish. No self-respecting author would use words so trite to begin an important piece of literature, yet I was having a dickens of a time coming up with anything better. And yet, they did seem to capture the spirit of our current affairs.
Inside Boston’s Reckless Goat Tavern, I sat at my usual table next to the massive oak pillar that was as solid as a sentry at one edge of the bar. The crowd was sizable for a Tuesday, and the tavern at the foot of Long Wharf had a raucous spirit, filled with clusters of sweaty longshoremen, tradesmen, and red-coated soldiers from one of His Majesty’s regiments on a quick leave from their garrison on the Commons. The crowd mostly ignored a pair of performers in feathered caps wandering through the room making music with a fiddle and mandolin, which added a pleasant harmony to the hum of conversation. As they passed my table I raised my glass, winked at the fiddler, and tipped him with a shilling I slipped into his waistcoat pocket.
I dipped the tip of my quill into the inkpot, holding it in a grip that was both confident and gentle whilst I waited for my muse.
And waited more.
With my left hand I lifted a glass of modest Portuguese Madeira to my lips, relaxed in the smoky glow of light from a lantern on a peg above my head. I was laboring to author a pamphlet addressing the political fever that had gripped the town. Actually, I had been struggling to write the damned thing for several weeks and had gone to the Reckless Goat that night hoping the liveliness of a public inn and a bottle of wine might provide inspiration to finish the manuscript. Finding the perfect opening sentence befuddled me most.
The title was fine. More than fine, truly. It was rather brilliant, in my humble opinion. I had crafted it in my finest hand across the top of the page, dressing the letters with a flourish, and now I stroked it with a tender finger as one might tickle the fancy spot of a good woman.
Treason or Reason: A Guide to Navigating a Divided Land.
Nice, I thought. I dreamed the pamphlet could have some measure of influence on public opinion, a work that might bridge the chasm tearing Boston apart, so badly needed at that moment in time. It was as if my adopted town had split into two cities. Loyalists to the King of England on one end and aggrieved liberal colonists on the other. No one had yet come out in print to take the middle ground and promote peace, so I could see no one better suited than myself to publish a work encouraging pacifists to rise up and smack the snot out of both.
You see, I am a journalist, a wordsmith with a printing press at my disposal and a modest following for the newspaper I published the New England News-Journal . I relied on the brawn of my back to work the press and the strength of my words to inform the public and frequently shape opinions. I took another sip of wine. A large sip because I needed to quench thirst for two—the muse and myself. I reloaded my weapon, put that quill to paper, and began again.
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their…
Their what? Their fellow fellows?
More rubbish. Damn! I crossed that out too. The mother-flogging muse was playing me for a fool. Since it was Tuesday, I had purchased copies of that morning’s editions of the Boston Gazette and the Weekly News-Letter , and spread them open on the tabletop, along with three copies of my own. I placed the News-Journal prominently on the edge of the table with the masthead beckoning attention to anyone who might pass by.
“Buy me,” it called to the curious, like a strumpet at Flagg Alley or any other bordello in Boston. “Let me entertain you for a mere two pence-half penny.”
I looked again at my feeble attempt to start my pamphlet. I envisioned, after some judicious editing, it would take six small pages. Eight at most. We must not be too wordy. Sadly, politics were not really my cup of tea. No, I didn’t do politics well. Give me blood and lust, scandal and misfortune, criminal and marital misdeeds of public figures intertwined in gossip-birth coitus. It sells newspapers and I could write blood and lust like nobody’s business. In fact, I had a saying about those kinds of stories that I would prefer to feature front and centered in the News-Journal . If it bleeds, it…
That’s me. The bark of my name exploded in my ear like a musket shot at close range. The hearty slap on the back that followed rocked me as if its ball had hit its mark.
“Leeds Merriweather, you pitiful excrement-producing son of a snake in the pulp,” Jacob Addison hollered. He was a solid man, round in shape with beady eyes and a nose that was only slightly less sharp than his wit.
“Mr. Addison,” I said. I laid down my quill and hit him with my most withering stare. “If you were not the offspring of a skirt-dropping Tory lover, I would take exception to that remark. As it is, I cannot hold your mother’s rogue breeding habits against you.”
Jacob Addison was my most cherished friend and confidant. I loved him more than my own brothers, though one of those played a significant role in my being banished from the family estate in England when I was a mere teenager, so I will admit my standards were justifiably low by the time I escaped to America seven years ago.
“Leeds, if I actually believed in hell, I would damn you for eternity. But that would be an utter waste of fire and brimstone.” He dropped onto the bench across the table from me, holding one hand on the mouth of his tankard to avoid wasting a single drop of ale.
I smiled. Typical Jacob. He was born into a wealthy, established Boston family. Harvard College provided him with divinity training and a bright future in the clergy, but he failed as a Congregationalist pastor primarily because he severely lacked the ability to accept dogma. For three years he shepherded the flock at a church on White Street, where he avoided the trap of Christian hypocrisy by allowing those who filled its pews to vote democratically on matters of faith. A sound idea if you don’t think about it too hard. In practice, however, his followers appeared to change doctrine more often than they changed their knickers.
He scanned the newspapers spread across the table between us and gave only a brief glance at the foolscap of useless scribble that I had been working on.
The Boston Gazette , in particular, seized Jacob’s attention. He raised it, opened to page two, and smacked it with the back of his meaty hand. “My God! Will you look at this?”
I merely shrugged.
“Did you see this wretched piece?”
“I saw it,” I replied.
“The Gazette is attacking you. It’s dastardly, I must say. You should read it.”
“Yes, Jacob. I have. Several times.”
The Boston Gazette and Country Journal was unquestionably the most influential newspaper in the Massachusetts Bay Province and surrounding colonies. Isaiah Thomas’ Massachusetts Spy had a greater reach, with thousands of subscriptions all the way down to the Carolinas, but if you were a bleeding heart liberal Whig with fantasies of rubbing King George’s nose in rancid Thames River muck, Gazette publisher Benjamin Edes and his main contributor, Samuel Adams, published your newspaper of choice.
The latest edition featured a lengthy lynching of Parliament over the Tea Act and Massachusetts Governor Hutchinson’s enthusiastic vow to enforce the law at all costs. It was all the normal things you would expect from Sam Adams, unmistakable in style and tone even though he authored it under the pseudonym F . Muck Raker.
“It has Samuel Adams written all over it,” I said. “Poor syntax, random capitalization, and truth as loose as a goose. No, this is Sam-the-sham’s work, for certain. Not that I was paying attention.”
“Of course not.” Jacob winked at me. He pointed to a paragraph well down in the piece that cut from the bottom of the second column and jumped to the top of the third column.
The WEAK-KNEED publication, New England News-Journal, like many a Tory sympathizer, will NOT stand up for the rights of man, OUR RIGHTS as Americans, whilst hiding behind a thin veil of what it purports to be common sense and objectivity. It is time for all American publications to TAKE A STAND, yet it is clear that—for this failing newspaper—fealty to Governor Hutchinson the AUTOCRAT TRUMPS all else.
“Why attack you? Because you refuse to take a strong stance?” He asked and snorted like a horse with a head cold. Then he read a bit more silently. When he looked up again, he asked, “Are you really a mealy-mouth marmot? What did you do? Bed his wife?”
“I don’t know. I might have. What does she look like?”
He laughed. I laughed. And yet I fretted. As much as I wanted to shrug off Adams’ jab at my newspaper, it was not easy. Two weeks previous I had bashed the bugger in a News-Journal piece, suggesting that Adams had a hand in stoking anger amongst the Sons of Liberty that led to various acts of violence disguised as protest. I must have tweaked his nose when I wrote that tar and feathering Tories was excessive mob behavior.
Keep calm and carry on, I proposed.
So as I sat in the Reckless Goat that night, I pondered the masthead of the Gazette and wondered if Sam Adams’ words might provoke an attack on my business. Last week, the Sons of Liberty ransacked William Baker’s luxury import shop after Adams called for boycotting Tory merchants. Would I be next? I took the quill, scratched three exclamation points on the foolscap next to my pamphlet title, and vowed silently to be more wary in public just in case Adams had planted a seed of retribution in the thick skulls of a mob.
Jacob’s eyes, red though they were, twinkled behind a haze of inebriation. “Your passion for apathy is an inspiration, Leeds. But that doesn’t excuse Mr. Adams to single you out for vicious attacks simply because you choose to remain neutral.”
“Honestly, Jacob, it becomes more difficult with each passing day with journals like this.” I poked The Gazette and judged it with a bit of envy. Four sheets. Three pence. A way with rhetoric that grows an audience daily. Priceless.
I let the next sip of wine rest on my tongue longer than necessary, looking to the far side of the tavern. Hannah, the barmaid, backed spritely away from the groping hands of two red-coated soldiers, part of His Majesty’s Twenty-ninth Regiment. A very large, rough-looking bloke at the table next to them jumped to her rescue. Both sides were spoiling for a fight. There was a good deal of profanity and posturing that stopped short of blows. I nodded in that direction. “Do you see that? This town could very well go to war over a mere dispute in the tavern.”
That would not be good. I was only recently feeling comfortable with my lot in life, having achieved my lifelong dream to command a printing press and an influential (if limited in sales) newspaper. And I was deeply in debt still for the effort. The News-Journal was my pride and joy but it did not make much income. It was the government contracts, printing official documents, pamphlets, maps, public notices and such that kept me in business. Several Tories close to the governor’s circle provided monthly revenues as I printed for them books, business advertisements, and calling cards—and, in the case of Pastor Graham Franklin, selling his wildly popular monthly sermon guaranteed to be your stairway to heaven for a mere two shillings-six per edition. Pastor Franklin was the governor’s spiritual advisor and supporter from the pulpit. And so if my flaccid politics had a most practical motivation, it came with being in bed, financially if not literally at least, with the governor and his pals.
Now, all that I worked for could go up in flames unless somebody could tamp out the smoldering resentment building on both sides.
Jacob understood this more than most. It was his father who established the print shop and the New England News-Journal thirty years ago. He owned several other businesses but had a fondness for print. I worked for the old man for three years until Spencer Addison’s health failed. When Jacob took over the family’s holdings, he offered to sell me the print shop and the newspaper in exchange for a mountain of debt. I still owed more than a thousand pounds, to be paid off with interest. It was my dream; what can I say?
I lit my pipe and then exhaled a pleasant stream, adding to the haze of tobacco smoke that shaded the air in the tavern with a ghostly effect. A soft pillow of flesh, bound in a barmaid’s shift, pressed gently against the spot behind my ear as Hannah appeared from nowhere, leaned over me to pour ale from her pitcher, and filled Jacob’s tankard. The scent of rose petals after a spring rain replaced the smoke in my nostrils. It was more intoxicating than the drinks she served. As she leaned back, I turned and admired the lace rising to her left shoulder, and the lace rising to her right shoulder and lingered on the cleavage in the valley of her neckline between them. She rewarded me with a smile, and placed another bottle of wine on the table.
“I believe she fancies you,” Jacob said after Hannah glided away to serve the longshoremen.
I scoffed. “Nonsense.”
“No? She nearly tripped in eagerness to service you, planting her bosom, quite deliberately I assume, against your inebriated noggin, while I sit here ignored to the point of death. You can’t fool me, Leeds. I have seen the way your eyes follow Hannah as they did after the brush she gave you with her blouse. Not only did you chase her skirt with your eyes, but were I to inspect further, I would find your loins were not far behind.”
“You are married, Jacob. And she has a beau, I hear. No, my friend, as much as I appreciate her ability to raise my, uhm, interest, if you will…”
“Are talking carnality?” Jacob interrupted me with a snicker.
“Call it what you will. Nevertheless, I know it is nothing more than an agreeable way to enlarge…”
“Enlarge the gratuities she collects at the end of the night.”
I directed his lewd attention to Hannah serving a rowdy group several tables behind him. We watched as Hannah laughed with three men seated there, exchanged tantalizing glances with each one as if he suddenly, for that one moment, became the only man in the universe, and proceeded to serve each one with the same, suggestively innocent physical contact that she had bestowed upon me.
“Ah, just as well, I say.” Jacob winked at me. “No woman could ever compete with your true mistress, that alluring printing press of yours. It has always been so for you. Though you are getting on in years. Thirty years is not so far away. I will tell you once more, we need to get you a woman. One of flesh and blood.” He laughed. “With maybe a dash of carnality?”
I took the quill and held it like a dagger that I feigned plunging into my heart. He was right, more than I was willing to admit. The work of the print shop had become satisfying, and yet I found myself thinking more often of how my life needed more. My life needed a woman.
“But not just any woman,” I told Jacob.
Nearly seven years in America and I had yet to find one to capture my heart with the perfect combination of wit and a zest for life to match her loving soul and feminine charms. Yes, I was lonely.
On that dispiriting note, and after a wistful silence, Jacob said he was off. His regular game of dice was waiting for him. He left me alone with my uninspired muse, though since neither of us could find the words we needed, we surrendered for the evening.
Before leaving I required a trip to the privy in the yard behind the tavern. I had barely exited the little house and started my return to the public room when voices stopped me. Two figures wrestled in the light of a lantern near the tavern wall. My initial embarrassment at stumbling upon what I assumed were passionate lovers gave way to confusion and anger. I recognized Hannah and her most drunken patron. It was clear she wanted none of him, and yet he persisted, tearing at her clothing.
I lunged forward to the rescue, but before I had taken two steps I was knocked to one knee by a soldier who materialized from nowhere. He set upon the drunken beast, pulling him off Hannah who he had pinned to the ground. With ease, the redcoat cast the attacker aside and threatened him with severe violence if he did not retreat immediately. Then the soldier removed his coat and placed it over the girl to protect her bodice-ripped modesty. Her attacker rose up over the soldier. Too late, I climbed to my feet and tried to stop him as he drove a knife into the soldier from behind. I chased the coward out of the yard but tripped on some discarded lumber.
“Mother flogging bugger,” I cursed. That hurt. Blood oozed from where a nail had scratched me above my right eye. I wiped it with my sleeve but did little more than smear it along my cheeks and neck.
I turned back. Hannah was gone. The soldier was alive, a small boot knife still buried in his back. I knelt and offered him encouraging words. The wound was not deep, and I removed the knife quickly. Give credit to the young redcoat. He flinched with less agony than I might if I had been on the wrong end of that blade.
I wiped again at the blood on my face. A commotion at the door of the tavern near the corner of the building was a clear signal. The British were coming.
“Thank god. Reinforcements,” I said to the soldier with a grin.
I rose to greet them and handed their leader the attacker’s knife. Whatever relief I felt was crushed in the confusion of the moment and then panic when, before I realized it, I was pinned against the wall by a burly soldier at each shoulder as the tip of their commander’s sword prepared to carve the Adam’s apple from my throat.
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