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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1934 Howard Melvin Fast
All rights reserved.
In the last months, old John Preswick had aged a great deal. His cheeks had fallen in, and beneath his eyes, wrinkles had gathered in little sacs. When he walked, he rested heavily upon his frog-headed, banded hickory stick. But it was not often that he walked. Most of the time, he sat in the chair behind his great mahogany desk in his office, his elbows resting upon the wood, his face in the palms of his hands, his eyes staring blankly away into space. Sam, the colored servant, would sometimes come in and stand in the open doorway, waiting to be noticed; but old John Preswick never saw him until he coughed, low and apologetically. Then old John Preswick would glance up, shake the distance from his eyes, and murmur: "Sam?—eh, Sam?"
It was always the same, no more than that, no less. And Sam, who could well remember when John Preswick had talked to him as one white man talks to another, who could remember when John Preswick had dandied up, to strut along Cherry Street and down the Bowery Lane, alive for a chance to sneer in that contained way of his at the redcoat occupants, twirling his frog-headed stick as though he were the governor of New York, aloof and superior—Sam always felt a succession of shivers tingle up and down his spine, same kind of shivers as when one sees a ghost.
Sam would wonder what old John Preswick saw, staring ahead of him from behind the desk.
This day the oars of the last British hand-boats had clicked their way over to Staten Island, and after that General Knox led his troops down from Harlem to take over occupation of the city. When he left his troops to join General Washington at the Bull's Head Tavern, half of the city tagged at his heels, cheering him with already hoarse voices. And when he returned in magnificent parade with General Washington, with Governor Clinton, with Lieutenant-Governor Van Cortlandt, with their-attachés riding eight abreast, the citizens lined the roadway and screamed and waved their hats as the general went past.
Old John Preswick, Sam at his elbow, his stick in hand, found himself a place where he could watch the thing; but he stood through it all without opening his mouth, and when it was over and they were taking their way back, he leaned more heavily than ever upon Sam's arm. He sank into a chair behind his desk, asking Sam to pour him a whisky in the way he liked, with a little hot water and a lump of sugar. He said, as Sam gave it to him:
"A triumph—and a victor's entry. I suppose the scales are full."
Sam nodded, stirring the whisky. In the tray he had placed upon the desk, there was a demijohn, and, leaning against the wicker, a letter, address inwards. As the slow eyes of John Preswick turned upon it, he explained:
"That came this morning, sir, with one of the officers. It's funny the way the post get's here an' there, afore it goes to who it's intended for."
Old John Preswick dropped his eyes, taking up his whisky. "Leave it, Sam. Leave the tray."
The whisky scarce an inch from his lips, his eyes assumed the old lackluster glaze, and after the negro closed the door, he remained like that, staring ahead of him. Then he put down his drink, untasted. He took the letter, turning it around that he might read the address. As he stared at the smudged ink lines, his jaw fell, and he shivered like a man who is about to have a fit. Lifting the whisky, he half drank it, half spilt it over the front of his waist-coat. The letter slipped to the desk, a few drops of whisky upon it.
Then his mouth tightened; a light came into his eyes; his fingers were suddenly firm; and he tore open the envelope and read the enclosure. This was the letter:
My Dear Father:
Pray God this will reach you. Now, with the country all in a turmoil, the post is but a haphazard chance. However, I shall attempt to get a note ahead as I come. I cannot but conjecture of what has passed your mind in the year since you have had word of me. In Georgia, under General Wayne, I fought in my last battle. I was captured by the British and held four months. Then, with two others, I managed to make my escape. We were pursued, and the two were killed. I received a ball in the upper part of my arm, shattering the bone, which has since caused me much grief. However, I made good my escape and had the fortune to be taken in and sheltered by an innkeeper, whose wife and daughter nursed me back to health. They have been wonderfully kind and wonderfully considerate; their patience has been tried to the limit, for it is half a year now that I have lain with the festering of my wound. My strength is gone entirely, but I have some small part of my health. I am learning to walk all over again, so long is it since I have been upon my feet. The place is very beautiful, and near to the inn there is a hill. Today I climbed to the top of it, and I imagined, though I was not entirely sure, that I could see the ocean. Somehow, after that, I could wait no longer; very soon I shall take carriage to the north, and perhaps I shall arrive not too long after this letter. If I have caused you worry or bewilderment, God forgive me for it.
I remain your humble and most obedient son,
Old John Preswick folded up the letter, tucking it beneath his shirt, its crumpled surface against his skin. He stood up, felt for his stick, gained it, and rested upon it. Then, going to the window, he unbolted it, opened it, and stepped out upon the balcony. He leaned over the balcony, looking down the street to where the lines of soldiers were still drawn up, the lowering sun glancing off the blue of their uniforms, off the white of their breeches. From the flagpole that swung up over the ramparts of Fort George, the colors of England lilted to the breeze. That morning he had seen the British sailors greasing the pole after nailing their jack to it. Now a boy was laboriously making his way up the pole, fastening cleats to the wood as he went, a red and blue and white flag knotted about his neck. When he reached the top, he cut down the Union Jack, held it for a moment, and then loosed it to the wind. It sailed out, over the upturned heads of soldiers and people, over the bay like a giant kite, spreading and drifting down until it rested softly upon the waves. Then, gripping the pole with one arm, he untied the flag from his neck and nailed it on where ragged bits of the other still clung to the pole. As it opened itself to the current of air, old John Preswick turned back to the room.
But he left the draped windows open that the sun might flow in; that he might see the tossing of the new and bizarre banner occupying the place where for seven years the colors of Britain had spread.
For a while he sat, the cool November air flooding in upon him, before he rang for Sam.
"Why, sir, you'll take cold," Sam said, going to close the windows.
"No. Leave them be, Sam." He paused for a moment, tapping his knuckles upon the desk; then he went on:
"Sam, I want you to prepare Mr. John's room—fresh linen, fresh curtains. I want you to lay out his gray coat and his tan skin-breeches."
The black's eyes opened wide. Was the man mad?
"And one other thing—you will go to Miss Inez, and you will tell her that this evening I shall expect her to wait upon me."
"You will do as I say, Sam!"
Shaking his head, the negro went out.
But then he was back. Perhaps a moment or two had gone by, and he was back, facing old John Preswick, who had not moved at all. The negro, who was, indeed, even older than John Preswick, stood in the doorway, his mouth open, his eyes popping.
"Well," inquired old John Preswick, "what is it, Sam?"
"He come back! Now he's out there in the hall, his hat in his hand, jus' as he was, livin' an' movin'. It's the curse of God that ol' Sam should see this. It's the curse of the devil. It's—"
"Johnny—I swear it was Johnny!"
Old John Preswick smiled, folding his hands together upon the top of the desk. He turned his head a little, catching, from a corner of his eye, a glimpse of the sun streaming past the window and over the roofs of the houses opposite. He smiled, and with a hand that shook just a bit, he poured himself a glass of whisky. He said:
"You may show him in—Sam."
And then he gulped his drink and waited.
No boy stepped in as the door opened. Instead, there was a man, with a dry, thin face, with gray-streaked hair caught in a knot at the back of his neck, with one sleeve bent up and fastened near the shoulder by a brass pin. There was no age to him. He might have been thirty; he might have been more, or less.
At the door, he stood looking out of tired gray eyes at John Preswick. And old John Preswick rose and came around the desk, staring at his son, at the empty left sleeve. He was in a blue coat, a bunch of lace at his throat, and he wore military breeches of whitish-yellow doeskin. In his hand he held a cocked hat. But John Preswick saw only his eyes, large gray eyes, fathomless in their depth.
Old John said: "Hello, Johnny lad." Fumbling in his vest, he found the letter and drew it out. "I got it," he said, opening it and glancing down. "I got it, so I knew you'd be coming soon, Johnny. Otherwise you would have surprised me. Were you counting to surprise me, Johnny?"
He sought for his stick. Had not his son come forward and taken him about the shoulder, he would have fallen. And as he held his father, the younger man's eyes went over his head, through the window, to the bit of bunting on the pole. His gray eyes grew even more somber; and with his gaze still upon it, he led his father over to a deep, leather-upholstered chair, standing beside the desk.
"But I am back now, Father. You must be easy. It is all over."
"It's all over, isn't it, Johnny?" His glance wandered up, from the breeches to the blue coat, from the blue coat to the drawn face. "I thought you were dead, Johnny. There was a letter from Alexander Hamilton telling me how you had fought in some battle down south. Then in the end, he said you had died for your country, and that I should be glad. As though I could be glad, Johnny!"
"But that was a mistake. I was taken by the British."
"I know now, Johnny. But that was what I thought. I thought you were dead. And to-day, while I watched the general marching his troops down to the Battery, it kept running through my mind to the sound of their feet that you were dead, Johnny."
The younger John Preswick stood before his father looking down at him. The younger John Preswick was twenty-nine; the older John Preswick was seventy. And they had not seen each other for seven years. Now they were of an age, and they both understood it. Old John Preswick was smiling, striving to keep his eyes from the empty blue sleeve. "Johnny," he said. "Johnny, sit down over here and tell me—"
First placing his cocked hat upon it, his son took a turn about the desk, seating himself in the chair the old man had occupied just before he entered. He looked over to his father, smiling reassuringly. Then he dropped his eyes to the desk, which was bare of papers.
"You no longer have your business here?" he inquired, seeking for something commonplace to speak of.
"There is no business since the occupation. They confiscated the ships."
"I had forgotten. That would be so. It must have been difficult."
"Yes." The old mail wondered that he could consider anything as difficult—now.
"I would have written before, only—"
"I understand," said old John.
They looked at each other. If for a moment they had forgotten the bond of breed that held their emotions expressionless, they recalled it now.
"I am glad to be back," the younger man said.
"Your room is ready for you. I took the liberty to have Inez over here this evening."
"Yes, you would have preferred—"
"I see. Well, if you have sent for her, let her come. It is seven years."
He rose, and he went to the open window, the breeze that rustled his hair turning the flag in his direction. His father came over and stood beside him; their hands crept together, the old man closing his tightly over his son's.
That evening Inez came. Inez was of the old Spanish Marannos. There was a swing to her stride, and glossy black hair lay in a pile where her neck met her shoulders. Her eyes were deep brown; her lips were good; her nose was small and fine. From the Netherlands, her forbears had come, by the way of Brazil, under the leadership of Asser Levy, in the year of sixteen hundred and sixty-four. And in the manner of her tribe, they had not bred out. New blood filtered in slowly, and the dark skin and eyes, part Castilian, part Moorish, part Semite, held.
But old John Preswick loved her very much, and he had been determined—in the years past—to have her for his daughter. Then John Preswick, ivory Portuguese lace flowing from the cuffs of his coat, all dark velvet with mother-of- pearl buttons, was an iconoclast and a dandy. He was sneeringly superior, in the broadest city of the colonies. When his son fell in love with a Jewess, whom he had loved, too, in the twenty years he had known her, for she had grown up on Cherry Street, he said: "Marry her, and be damned. She is worth it." That was in seventeen hundred and seventy-five. He had not married her, for a year later, on August 27th, he had stacked his musket on Harlem Heights, and the day afterwards ferried himself across to Brooklyn, not to see New York again for seven years.
Now he was back, a sleeve of his coat pinned up to his shoulder, his face haggard with fever, his hair streaked with gray. Old John, his father, had called for Inez, and she came, knowing neither that he was back nor that a sleeve of his coat hung empty.
Black she wore, for her lover had died—black gown of smooth silk, black shoes, and a lace shawl of black about her head; and Sam, seeing her face standing forth from the dark frame of black hair and black cloth, had not the courage to tell her of what had been.
Her chair brought her the short distance to the Preswick door. Leaving it, she entered the house alone, following the shambling figure of Sam to the dining-hall. The dining-hall was lit with twenty-eight long candles, in four seven- socketed candelabras. Their flame was smooth and dazzling, so that for the first her eyes were bewildered by the lights.
Then she saw.
The men rose and came towards her. There was old John Preswick, and there was another in the uniform of an American officer—only his left sleeve was empty and pinned up to his shoulder. In her eyes there was no hesitation. As quickly as she recognized old John, she recognized the other. And she saw his sleeve, realizing what it meant. All this she realized, and she knew it with possession, but the restraint was not hers, nor the control of emotion. Just for a moment, she stood rigid, mouthing the single word Johnny; then she sprang forward.
"Johnny!" she cried. "Johnny, Johnny!"
With his single arm, he caught her to him, and she lay against him, her face in his breast, her hands on his neck. She was sobbing into his white waist-coat, and he had his mouth pressed to the top of her hair. When they stood apart, she was half laughing, half crying.
"Johnny—I knew you would come. They tried to tell me that you were dead, dead, Johnny. But I knew. I knew that if I only waited, you would come; It has been so long—seven years. But that does not matter!"
"What does matter?"
"That you are here—alive. God help me, I am so happy."
But with his face suddenly sober, he glanced down at the empty sleeve. "You see—my arm."
She went close to him, and she laid her hand against his cheek. "How you must have suffered," she whispered.
"A part of me is gone. It will be different."
"You child—you strange old man of a child."
"A part of me is gone," he repeated; and then, finding her at his very breast, he crushed her to him again, forgetting everything in the fragrance of her hair.
And old John Preswick, the years fallen from him, stood and watched it. He was in pearl-gray, old John Preswick, with a white flower in his buttonhole, with a clump of worked silk at his chin, with lace dangling from the cuffs of his coat covering his hands. He leaned upon the frog-headed stick with the gold bands, and he twirled the ends of his long white mustache.
Excerpted from Strange Yesterday by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1934 Howard Melvin Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART I: THE INN,
PART II: THE INNKEEPER,
PART III: THE GARDEN,
PART IV: STEER'S HEAD,