The Letter Home

GM-Cvr6

Excerpt: “Triangle: A Memoir of Black Caesar

 

Gravesend, October, 1703

 

With the Arthur securely docked at the customs house pier in Gravesend, her cargo discharged, Clifford Richardson walked through the narrow streets of that riverside settlement, past the tavern and the inn, to Darnley Road. From there he turned south, following the well worn coach route into the countryside. The day was overcast, just as he remembered it, home, England. A chill, falling mist nested in the thick hairs of his overgrown beard and clung to the fabric of his outer clothing, promising he would be soaked by the time he reached his destination. The boy, his friend, Collin, had given good instruction and, knowing that Captain Doegood would soon have the ear of the boy’s father, Richy was determined to carry out his oath to deliver Collin’s letter to his mother before that could happen. So he slogged on in the direction of the London – Dover Highway, walking the high ground between the carriage ruts of Darnley Road, avoiding, as much as possible, the muddy water that occupied either side. Once he’d crossed over the highway the weather began to clear, the overcast breaking apart, occasional patches of sunlight falling on him as the clouds rushed by overhead. Though the air remained cool, the morning grew pleasant for his walk. It felt good just to be off the ship, at last, walking on solid ground.

Richy had gone about four miles when he spotted the steeple of a small church, appearing above the trees, across a sunlit meadow to the east. It was precisely as Collin had described it. A landmark that made easy the task of finding his father’s estate house, a short distance down a narrow lane, lined with Wyck Elm and Field Maples. He climbed the few steps to the door of the house, across from the chapel and, without hesitating, pulled twice on the bell rope.

Hearing the bell, Jeremy Wilcox looked up from the accounting books of Aldworth Enterprises. He removed his spectacles and rubbed his weary eyes. It was a curious thing to hear the bell. The Aldworth house was hidden among the trees well off the Darnley Road, in the countryside, far from the Dover Highway and London. Jeremy felt fortunate to have been offered a position that allowed him to live in the country, away from London’s chaotic masses, its expensive living and the gambling debts he’d incurred there, held by certain scurrilous individuals.

John Aldworth had hired him to keep the company’s books and care for the administrative needs of the business. He’d been provided a cottage on the family estate and an office in which to work inside the estate house. It was a perfect situation for a young man of his ilk. He needed only leave the estate once or twice a week to attend to business at the company’s offices and warehouse, on the wharf, in Gravesend. On those occasions he found everything he required in that small settlement, although he still made rare trips to London to visit old friends and family, he was always careful to avoid his vengeful creditors.

Jeremy stretched and yawned as he listened for Peggy, the Aldworth’s cook and house maid, to answer the door. When she didn’t, he remembered that she’d been given the day off and had gone into town with the master early that morning. Realizing that there was no one but himself to do it, the madam being occupied in her garden at the back of the house, Jeremy rose from his desk and went to see who was there. He was surprised and unsettled by the rough looking gent who stood on the small stoop at the front door of the house. He looked every bit a low criminal from London. Jeremy’s first thought was that his creditors had found him out. He also thought to run, but he pulled himself together and inquired politely. “Can I help you?”

“You be John Aldworth?” The man asked. His voice a soft growl.

The man was wet from the morning dew. His pocked face was filthy and covered by a wild, unkempt beard. He smelled as if he’d not bathed in a very long time, his tattered boots were covered with thick mud, evidence of a long walk. He stood, hulking, staring intently into Jeremy’s shifting eyes. Jeremy blinked and asked, “What is your business with Mr. Aldworth?”

“I’ve a letter ‘ere fer ‘is missus. Might she be ’bout?”

Jeremy answered , “I’m employed by Mr. Aldworth to handle such matters. You can give the letter to me and I’ll see that she gets it.”

Richy tilted his head and squinting, asked, “An’ whot be yer name?”

“Jeremy, Jeremy Wilcox.”

“There ain’t no such name on the letter. Is the missus to home? I’ll give it t’ ‘er.”

“You’ll give it to me and be on your way, sir.”

“I won’t, sir. An’ you don’ look able t’ tayke it from me. I promised ‘er son, Collin, I would deliver this ‘ere letter to ‘is Mum, or ‘is Pa, if she be indisposed, an’ that’s what I intend t’ do. So, I asks again, is th’ missus ‘ere?”

Jeremy flushed with anger. He glared at the man on the stoop for a very long moment, thinking to send him packing, but he worried it might come back on him so he answered, saying, “Wait here,” then he slammed the door and disappeared into the large house.

Richardson waited, admiring the house and the beautiful grounds. After a lengthy period the door opened again and Jeremy stepped outside, carefully closing the door behind him.

“Follow me.” He commanded tersely, descending the narrow stairs and leading the way around the side of the house into the lower gardens at the back.

Martha Aldworth put the book she was reading down beside her on the ornately carved stone bench where she was seated. Richy could see that she had been pretty once, but her beauty was fading with age and weariness. Her once supple skin had begun to sag and there was a profound sadness etched in the pale lines of her face.

Martha looked up to see the scruffy man whom Jeremy had escorted to her. He was pathetic in every way, from his ragged clothing and filthy boots, to his scarred, leathery face and wildly overgrown beard. He respectfully removed a tattered hat and bowed awkwardly.

“Clifford Richardson at yer service, Mam. Me friends calls me ‘Richy’, Mam and I count yer son, Collin among ’em.”

Martha gasped at the mention of Collin’s name, her hand sprang to her breast. She was not aware that the Arthur had made port. Her husband, had not mentioned it.

“Where is he? Where is Collin? Why hasn’t he come himself?”

Richardson reached inside his frayed coat and unwrapped the letter from the sailcloth he’d kept it in all this time. He handed the letter to her, saying, “He asked me to deliver this t’ yer when we parted ways in Barbados, Mam. That was in May o’ oh-one, the last I laid eyes on ‘im, Mam.”

Martha took the letter and began to open it, but her countenance broke into sadness and the tears began to flow. Her hands shook as she tried to unfold the stiff parchment.

Seeing her distress, Richy quickly added, “He was well, Mam, when last I saws ‘im.”

As Martha began to read he added, “If there be any questions, Mam, Collin an’ I was pretty close. I’ll try t’ give ya answer as best I can.”

Later in the day, in a state of agitation, Jeremy met John Aldworth as he arrived at the door of his home. Before John could get in the door, Jeremy insisted on explaining the cause of his irritation, the man John Aldworth would find in the kitchen. John had already enjoined a dark mood by the time he had handed Jeremy his hat and cloak. John hurried to the kitchen where he found Clifford Richardson, eating at the table, from a plate overflowing with food. Martha was sitting across from him, tears streaming down her cheeks, a parchment held loosely in her delicate fingers.

“Why have you come here?” John demanded in a loud voice, as he rushed into the room.

Richy looked up from the plate of food he’d been enjoying. He saw John Aldworth’s angry eyes staring him down as if he’d stolen something.

“John, this is Clifford Richardson. He served aboard the Arthur with Collin.”

The man stood up, taller than John by several inches and extended his filthy hand. “Richy.” He offered.

John glared at him, ignoring his proffered hand and asked again, “What are you doing in my house, why have you come?”

“Why, I come t’ bring news o’ Collin.” He answered. “Like ‘e asked me too. I was ‘ungry ‘an your lovely wife invited me in fer a good meal, fer which I’m beholdin’ t’ ya, sir.”

“News of Collin? And whot would that be? I’ve spoken just this morning with your Captain Doegood. He’s told me all about Collin’s shameful behavior and his being put off the ship in Barbados.”

“John!” Martha cried, holding up the letter.

Clifford interrupted her, giving answer, “Shameful behavior, Sir? Collin? It’s not Collin whot behaved shamefully, Sir. No’ at all.”

“John!” Martha cried again. “Robert Doegood had your son whipped! He was so abusive of Doctor Barren that the man died.”

John turned to face his wife. His eyes closed in a mask of labored patience, as he answered, “I am beholding to Captain Doegood for bringing in a good profit in spite of all that Collin and certain others aboard his ship did to discourage it. I’m not only beholding to the captain, but thanks to Collin’s murderous behavior, I’m also in debt to him for damages and for Collin’s expenses in Barbados.”

“John!” Martha cried out again. “Our son is stranded in Barbados because of that man! He’s been beaten and abused, and forced to defend himself against a murderous cannibal.”

“I can assure you, Sir, that Collin acted honorably in everythin’ that ‘appened aboard that ship. Captain Doegood ain’t speakin’ the truth if ‘e says otherwise.”

John Aldworth turned to face Richardson. The spiteful look in his eye said it all, but John also gave voice to his disdain. “How dare you come into my house and assume to accuse my friend and associate of lying. I would ask you to finish your meal quickly and leave my home.”

Then, turning his back to the man, he ordered, “Jeremy. Please see to it that Mr. Richardson is amply compensated for his troubles and that he finds his way out without further insult.”

He glared then at Martha and said, “If you please, Madam. We will discuss this business of our son privately, in the library.”

With that he turned on his heel and left the kitchen.

Martha got up from the table sobbing. “I’m so sorry Mr. Richardson. Thank you for coming and thank you for being a friend to my son.”

Richy wrapped the food that remained on his plate in the same sailcloth he’d kept Collin’s letter in and departed from the Aldworth estate. He made his way to London to visit friends and family there and to meet the ship which would be moved by now to dry dock. When he returned to the Arthur he found he’d been sacked. He was given no explanation, but rumor had it that the Captain was angry over a complaint made against Richy by John Aldworth.

 

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