“Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful.”
—Poor Richard’s Almanack
A ruddy harvest moon cast long shadows that wavered in the damp July night. I dug in the garden till my shirt clung with mud and sweat. At last I stood over a shallow pit. A distant bell rang the night hour. An echo tolled back, as two separated voices calling to one another. I turned nose to sky and wiped my brow. My cuff smelled of damp loam, and of rum.
I dumped the horror in the grave.
Scoop by scoop I filled the hole, some rocks jumbled in where twine formed careful edges for planting: basil, thyme, dill, Saint John’s wort, fennel. I kicked at another pebble, then from its yield I realized it was one small toe from one bare foot. With one thrust I covered it with more the rubble. My vision seemed bloody at the edges from exhaustion.
“May God have mercy on my soul.”
Can a man pray to a God in whom he is not certain he believes?
I leaned to rest on the shovel, more fatigued than I had known a man could be. The surge of energy coursing through my veins earlier had drained, leaving the muscles in my shoulders aching from exertion.
A figure wended up the path, hunched in the wind like a crab against the tide, one hand keeping his tricorn hat fast to his head. “Ah, no,” I breathed.
Governor William Keith trotted along, his straight-lasted shoes crunching the crushed-shell drive. I smoothed my hair back but could feel moist earth on my fingers and knew I’d streaked mud on my brow. I attempted to stand at ease upon the rutted mound.
“You’ll never believe—” He scurried to a halt, eyes darting from the shovel to my filthy clothes. “For God’s sake, Ben.” His voice frayed to tatters. “What have you done?”
Three Hours Earlier
Dead leaves crunched under the wood of my heels as I strode toward the manor house. My eyes widened to take it all in. A full two stories tall and five bays wide, it dominated the riverbank. I stared through the clear, lustrous windows at rooms I could only dream of living in. A lad of merely sixteen years, I still could not believe I’d been invited to meet the man whose father’s name was eponymous of the entire colony, Proprietor Penn. Magnificent carriages approached with the incessant creaking of iron wheels. Governor Keith spied me and came running to clap me on the back.
“There you are, lad.” His Scottish brogue was warm, welcoming.
I swept the hat from my head and bowed. “I wouldn’t miss tonight for the world.”
I jogged alongside him, still unused to Pennsylvania’s governor treating me so. He’d come into the shop where I worked and had taken a liking to me. He was supportive and world-wise, everything my father had never been.
Keith paused, pretending to be fiddling with a button as he considered me with sharp eyes. “You look quite smart, Ben.”
I dusted down the front of my waistcoat, proud of affording this one neck cloth of white silk and my one embroidered, sleeveless coat. My hair was washed to a honey luster for the occasion, tied in a neat queue. A great step from when I’d owned little more than a torn jacket.
With a determined smile, I nodded. I had spent the morning nerving up; the time was now.
Servants stood to each side and opened the doors. Another servant snatched my hat and carried it away. The ballroom was a richly yellow hall ablaze with so many lights I wondered it didn’t go up in flames. A crystal chandelier hung from the coffered ceiling. Chairs sat in parentheses around the room, their scale dwarfed by the great windows. The softly napped carpets were rolled into fat cylinders against the wall to clear the floor for dancing, and the wood that lay underneath was polished to a ruddy gleam. Dancers moved in an intricate zed-shape across the floor. Ladies swung past in embellished skirts hung wide over whalebone panniers, coiffed hair pinned with gems and feathers.
I had always yearned to be so much more than a mere workman. Even owning my own print shop didn’t seem enough. I yearned to be someone more like Leonardo of Vinci—to search for truth, to do things that benefited mankind. And I felt that, at last, I had found my people.
At once an odd dissolving sensation shivered up and down my body, as though I might float up through the ceiling at any moment. I felt somehow larger, no longer contained even by this capacious house.
Keith pinched my elbow. “Keep your mind in the game, lad. Remember what it is we’re here for.”
The floating feeling deflated. My faraway smile faltered. “Quite right.” I nodded. I’d spent months convincing Keith I was the man for this job. I could not disappoint my patron.
“Where the devil has Penn got to?” Keith craned his neck.
Groups eddied and converged. I was introduced to a stream of names and faces that blurred into dreamlike impressions. I began to feel that the ballroom was as extensive as the athletic track of ancient Olympia, and as exhausting. The air became hotter than it had been a half-hour before. I loosened the cloth at my neck.
Eventually, we followed the herd toward another, smaller room in which men sat on green velvet divans. A crystal decanter sat uncorked on the center table with small glasses scattered all about, half-drained.
“Ah, the Withdrawing Room,” Keith muttered out of the side of his mouth. “I should have known. Penn speaks like a preacher, but drinks like a fish. There he is.”
Penn stood at the far end. He was a long-jowled gentleman and, with his wig flat to each side of his head, his face looked pressed between its halves. He was pontificating as Keith had suspected, his voice like a drum. But he stopped on seeing us, and gestured us forward.
“Keith, who is this you’ve brought us?”
“This is a young man of my acquaintance, Benjamin Franklin. The lad’s a writer,” Keith proffered impressively.
“Ah! Perhaps the lad would be so kind as to give me your opinion on our discussion?”
I stepped up. “Certainly.”
“My friends were saying that a man’s destiny is entwined with that of our King as much as it is with God Himself. England must not accept disruptive behavior from our people here in the Colonies, for to do so is to rebel against God Himself.”
Many of the men shouted, nodded, raised their glasses or thumped their knees in agreement.
I felt my face flush with heat. I bit my lip. But Keith’s elbow nudged the small of my back. “And your thoughts, Ben?”
“If the Colonies might be unified into a single voice, all tasks would become simpler for England and king alike.”
Mumbles met my proclamation. Penn beckoned me and I took another step forward. “But you are nothing more than a boy. How, pray tell, might one such as you go about such a monumental task?”
“Here is my suggestion, gentlemen. A series of newspapers to tie the Colonies as a whole.”
Laughter and anger spattered forth, rash as fistfuls of thrown coriandoli.
Penn thumped a fist into a palm. “The idea of the riff raff communicating across borders is unconscionable. Dissent would spread like disease.”
“But thoughts can be influenced through newspaper,” I insisted. “One may do things worth writing or write things worth reading. Either way, we can influence a vast number of people. And at any rate, there can be no dissent where there is good governance.”
Keith, bless him, held up a hand. “We need a good newspaper here, and that is only to start with. Ben is a young man of great promise, and must be encouraged. The printers in Philadelphia know nothing about their business. If Franklin will set up a press, I will do a great deal for him. I wish for him to have all the public printing in the province. But he must go to England to buy his types, and whatever else he may need. I myself would be glad to set Franklin up in business. He will need everything for a first-class printing office. We must see to it that he is properly fitted out. I have already planned his voyage, but I need additional investors. I’ve asked Franklin to tally our needs, and he—”
“What kind of man are you to have so little judgment to think of setting up a mere boy in business of this kind?” Penn crossed his arms. His mouth turned down as he snorted. “He is too young to be trusted with so great a duty.”
“Young men can sometimes be trusted with great undertakings.”
“Excuse me.” A dapper fellow with smoothed hair and trim beard entered the room. His gaze snagged on Keith and his face drew back in a foxlike grin.
“The former governor, John Evans,” Keith whispered.
I knew the former governor’s name, and guessed Evans’ wounds were still fresh from Keith replacing him.
Short though he was, he tilted back his head so that he might peer down his nose at us. “It was Governor William Berkeley of Virginia who thanked God there were no free schools nor printing, as either can bring about only disobedience, heresy, and libel.”
“With due respect,” I put in, “William Keith entrusts me with this task, and he is a wise man.”
“Do you know,” Evans drawled, “the difference between yoghurt and Scotsmen? Yoghurt possesses a bit of culture.”
The ladies and gentlemen chuckled.
William Keith—Peterhead born and bred—mopped his brow and held himself with quiet courage, too temperate to respond in kind. The parlor jostled with people craning to cast looks at my patron and friend, a kindly, good man who did not deserve the censure of a jealous prig. My heart raced and my blood boiled. I rubbed my hands on my pants legs.
“Do you know,” I retorted loudly, “what they call John Evans with a bright idea? A thief.”
The crowd gasped. Then applause spattered, grew, until everyone went giddy with cheering.
John Evans scowled, hands clasped.
Keith lowered his voice. “You want might be a bit more cautious. Don’t make enemies.”
I bowed my head. The sting of his reproach was in the accuracy of it. Still, my little triumph had made me proud. “A man like that should clean his finger before he points at others’ spots. And you can’t say you didn’t enjoy that.”
His lips twitched in a fleeting smile. “All the same, you should be out of sight for now.” Keith grabbed a slave girl and pushed her in front of me. A pair of breasts blotted out my view. They pressed like fruits, sweet and swollen, against a bodice. Her skin was like tea, but her eyes were a startling blue. “Darling, please pour a drink for my friend.”
She poured red wine into a long, engraved goblet. Looking into her remarkable eyes, I downed it in one throw.
“Do you need more, sir?” She cast her gaze up and down my figure, lingering on my stocking-clad legs. A few tendrils of hair hung like lazy snakes around the flesh of her throat, escaped from her cap.
I cocked an eyebrow; she gave a roguish smile.
“Go on, Ben.” Keith flapped his hands to shoo us, withdrew into the room and shut the door.
“I’m afraid I made a bit of a fool of my friend.”
“Oh, what a shame! I’m sorry. What happened?”
“I spoke too freely.”
“Do you truly believe what you said?”
“Then your only fault was to speak the truth. There is no shame in that.”
“Still, I have learned from this mistake and shall not make it again. Tomorrow is today’s pupil.”
She let out a trill of a laugh. “Aren’t you an odd one!”
Games of backgammon rattled in corners where men sat against plump cushions, and women gathered in whorls of conversation. In the center of the room, a few couples still danced: the music had devolved into a jig, with pairs bouncing exhaustively until others cut in to relieve them.
“I believe I’ll take a moment to step outside for fresh air. Would you walk out with me?”
She flushed. Her gaze flitted like a bird uncertain of landing. “I might be missed.”
“In this crowd?” I nodded to the rooms. “And if you are, I’ll make your excuses for you.” I pressed my hand to the small of her back and found it delightfully hot. A fine mist of sweat beaded her upper lip. “I shall tell them you were seeing to my needs.”
She snatched a flask from a side table. Giggling, she held it up to show me. The liquor sloshed in the glass.
We escaped through the wide French doors. The orange moon shone down on the estate, lighting Penn’s winter-dead garden, roped in neat rows. We passed down to where a low rock wall ranged the river bank. The Delaware snaked away in the dark.
The girl paused there, upended the bottle for a deep swig, then handed it my way. I took a deep swallow. A sweet hint of raisins accompanied the burning alcohol down my throat.
“I mustn’t stay long,” she whispered, the kissable edges of her lips curling with a smile. She leaned upon the low wall.
“I told you.” I placed the flask atop the piled stones and pulled her near, pressed her against me. “No one will miss us for a short time.” I took that hand and brought it to my lips. “Then again, perhaps they will. You’re that unforgettable.”
With a bump of her hip against mine, she shared the drink once more. Glorious anticipation swelled up in my throat. I put the bottle in the grass, lifted her as light as a package, and placed her on the other side of the wall.
“Oh, my!” she squealed with a shiver. “You are so strong.”
“Shall I warm you?” I took her hands and blew on them gently. Then I leaned in and parted her lips in a kiss. I tasted West Indies spice on her tongue.
“Oh!” Her hands slipped from my sweaty clutch, causing me to lose my footing. Her eyes flew so wide that for a moment they were all I could see. She fell off of her perch on the wall.
“My dear!” I didn’t even know her name. I placed one hand on her to help her rise.
Her eyelids fluttered. “My head…”. She indicated the rock wall. “I hit my head.”
My gaze flew, looking for something, anything, to aid her. I removed my neck tie, soaked it in the cool water and wrapped it around her head, pressing it against her scalp.
“Here,” I said, my breath tracing light wisps of steam in the air that felt charged with danger. “Your head has a knot, and is swelling. Does your master have an ice house?”
She squinted, then nodded. She pointed. “That way.”
“Wait here.” I lurched into a run, aware that my clothes were caked with grime, my hair had come undone, my necktie hung askew and dirt was smeared across my face. But I could not care now. I crashed into the damp brick structure, snatched a chunk of ice from where it lay packed in straw, and dashed back to the spot where I had left the girl.
I did not see her.
“Hullo?” I called. There was no answer. “Young lady?”
I dashed along a slithering trail toward the water. The river seemed longer, darker, than it had before as I found no trace of her. I called toward the estate. “Hullo? Did you go back?” I took a few steps up the walkway.
On instinct, I turned back. She would not have returned; I had told her to wait while I retrieved the ice. I looked down at my empty hands; I had dropped the ice some time ago and not even realized it.
I turned to face the wide sweep of river and scanned uselessly.
There was something… a dark shape, low to the ground. I walked warily down the embankment.
I scrambled into the water. She lay face-down. I thrashed out, grabbed her, pulled her onto the freezing mud.
I bent to the girl, pressed on her chest, pressed again, then blew heavily upon the lush, ripe mouth I had kissed mere minutes before.
The first time Father took me out on the ocean, I was five years old and it frightened me terribly. When I began to cry, Father threw me in the water. I couldn’t swim. I looked up toward the surface as waves of light on the surface faded away. Then everything went black. It was one of the Lenape Indians of the Lenapehoking, natives of the watershed where I knelt now, who drew me out from the water. And by some miracle I could not understand, he pressed the air back into my lungs. I don’t remember anything but sputtering, coughing, to rise resurrect as Lazarus.
Whatever the wise man had done, it had worked. Would it work for me now?
I pressed and pressed and breathed, pushed, giving her my breath, praying to a God I did not think would hear me. I pushed again, breathed out hard in big rasps, watched for any flutter of life, any small sign.
I repeated the motions till dizzy flashes swarmed in my vision. I’d lost my breath and gone lightheaded, still her chest did not move. The heat was leeching out of her. It was no use. Whatever the secret magic, I did not have it.
I wiped my mouth on my sleeve from elbow to wrist and slumped, useless. My shirt clung with mud and sweat, and I smelled of moist loam and blood.
I tried to shake consciousness into her, one last time. My right arm bumped something solid—that damned rum flask—as the black panic rose. I knelt to her once more, this time bringing up the flask. I poured its contents down her yielding throat then repeated my earlier actions, breathing into her, but this time I shook her limp body to compel the breath back. A small dribble of rum trickled out of her slack lips. Yes, I thought, cradling her. Yes. This must work. It must.
I watched for her to twitch, for her life to return.
Slurred voices mumbled in the air. For a moment I stared, believing she had recovered. But her head hung like a weight on the slack rope of her neck. The noise had come from the estate.
I stared down at myself in shock. I was covered in mud and standing above a corpse. I must not be found like this! This would ruin all I had striven for!
With the blood pounding hard in my temples, it was impossible not to imagine the long walk to stand before the justices. Prison doors closing off light from me forever. A hempen noose around my neck. I pressed my hands against my jugulars, feeling the tense corded muscles and the frightened pulse beneath. I was barely more than a lad, his future dawning. I did not want my life to end like this, and all for a mistake.
I had seen a shovel lying in the dirt earlier. I’d only glanced at it in passing by the gardens, but now I went back and grabbed it. I dug and dug, until at last the poor dear lay buried.
I heard shoes crunch in the dead leaves and shell drive. I twisted round.
It was Governor Keith. His eyes darted from my streaked face to the girl lying before me. I gave a lost gesture with palms slick from sweat and the mud of a fresh-dug grave.