Excerpt of If Two Are Dead
Tuesday, March 23, 1762
“Dead, you say?” my employer spluttered.
All the hubbub in our busy office halted. It was exactly what the man had said.
“But that’s impossible!”
“I’m afraid it must be so, Mr. Leavering,” the man persisted, the curiosity of his Scottish accent dissipated by the substance of his message. For a second, he and Leavering stared at each other in grim silence.
“What on earth brings you to believe this could be Mr. Sproul?”
“Sproul is the very portrait of health—a man of enormous vigor!”
“Mr. Leavering, I know nothing of him, but this pamphlet was found on the man’s person.” He held out a slim, bound, new-looking tract. Leavering grunted uneasily on seeing the spine, and he appeared unwilling to take hold of it. The visitor turned the cover. “It was this—”
Leavering gasped on beholding the bookplate and reared backward as if struck.
Glasby practically threw Mapes out of his chair in order to get it behind Leavering. “Do sit down, sir!” he begged. Leavering collapsed so heavily, I feared the chair would splinter to the floor. “Thomas, brandy!” Glasby whispered urgently. “And, uh …” He nodded at the dumbfounded group of clerks, agents, and carters in a frantic hint that I should try to manage some privacy. While pouring from the decanter, I reciprocally whispered to Mapes to clear everyone from the room.
Leavering took a swallow and coughed but stared silently ahead, breathing huskily. “Do loosen your neckcloth, sir, I pray you!” Glasby fussed. Red-faced, Leavering slowly obliged, taking measured sips. Given his advancing years, his substantial girth, and the unprecedented disruption, the uncharacteristic torpor that suddenly overtook him was not unnatural. Glasby faced the tall, somber bringer-of-news. “I didn’t catch your name, sir? I’m John Glasby, Mr. Leavering’s second at this office.”
“Liam McCraney, assistant to the public coroner. I’m very sorry to …” He gestured awkwardly about the room.
“What exactly … ?”
“At six fifteen this morning, sir, the constable reported a dead man—a gentleman by appearance—found in an alleyway near the New Jersey ferry. It seems he must have been taken ill and gone there to lie down—”
“Into an alleyway?” I broke in incredulously.
“So it seems, um …”
“This is Thomas Dordrecht, my assistant,” Glasby muttered.
“Your servant, sir,” I affirmed mechanically, chagrinned by my impertinent outburst.
“To lie down?” Glasby resumed. He gulped. “There is no suggestion, then, of …”
“Of foul play? No, no, none at all. Rest assured, there!”
“But that makes it all the more incomprehensible! I know Sproul well, myself, and a sturdier man of forty-eight or so you’ll—”
McCraney looked suddenly hopeful, as if he truly wished to oblige in the matter. “Well, perhaps then … I came because we must, of course, obtain positive identification, gentlemen. None of us knows the man. Mr. Sproul was—er, is not from New York, I take it?”
“Castell, Leavering & Sproul is originally a Philadelphia firm, sir. Mr. Leavering moved here three years ago to expand its business. Castell and Sproul are his partners.”
“Mr. Sproul often visits here, then?”
“No, actually. This was … this is his first appearance here. We …” Glasby suddenly looked lost.
“We are anticipating his arrival at any moment today,” I furnished for him. “He wrote that he expected to reach Paulus Hook, or at least Newark, last night, so—”
“There must be some error!” Leavering exclaimed, suddenly revivified. He slammed his fist down on the arm of the chair. “Must be! This cannot be Daniel Sproul!”
“All we had to go on was this book, sir. A gentleman down at the Royal Exchange recognized the surname and directed me here.”
The connection of the book with a corpse made Mr. Leavering blanch again, but he stood up, resolved. “We must attend to this at once!”
“I shall go with you, of course, Mr. Leavering,” Glasby announced.
A practical decision seemed abruptly to bring our employer back to his usual self. “Um, no. Thank you, John, but someone must be here if he … when he … and besides, Mr. Helden is due presently to talk about the flour consignment. I’ll take Thomas with me.”
“Of course. This is all a mistake! We’ll be back in thirty minutes. Let’s be off, lad.”
Mr. Leavering grasped his walking stick, opened the door for Mr. McCraney, and followed him out and down the stairs. I grabbed my coat, exchanged a worried nod with Glasby, ignored the stares of Mapes and the others, and rushed after them.
On reaching the bright sunshine of the street, Mr. Leavering briefly looked about Peck Slip as if he had no idea where he was. “What we must see is adjacent to the poorhouse, Mr. Leavering,” McCraney tactfully asserted.
“Yes!” Immediately, he turned and strode off toward the Common, having instantly calculated that walking would be more expeditious than any form of transportation. Mr. Leavering is a tall and portly man of sixty-four years, whose frankly ungainly appearance causes people unfamiliar with his gentle nature to scatter from his approach, particularly when he is urgently purposive, as now.
McCraney and I, however, dodged the crowds as we struggled to keep up with him. When McCraney stepped in a horse’s leavings crossing William Street, we fell further behind while he balanced on my shoulder to clear his boot against a step. “I feared for your employer’s heart at first, Dordrecht,” McCraney panted as we resumed our pursuit, “but I perceive he remains capable of strenuous exertion.” Probably not a decade older than me, he seemed impressed with Leavering’s stamina.
“He is a man of many surprises, you’ll find, but I admit I, too, was concerned.”
McCraney cast me a glance of curiosity as we both automatically jumped to avoid a cart that was being backed into a loading dock. “Mr. Sproul is more than a partner to Mr. Leavering. Important as that relation is, he is also his son-in-law.”
“Father to his only grandchildren.”
“Ah. How awful, then, if … You still fear for Mr. Leavering, then, when it comes time to look?”
“I …” I wanted this to be a mistake every bit as much as my superior did. “I’m glad he shall not be alone,” I mustered.
McCraney cast me an appraising glance, which I interpreted as disparagement of my apparent youthful bravado. “It is not necessary that you also view the body, Dordrecht. If you’d rather—”
“I was in Abercromby’s army at Ticonderoga four years ago, Mr. McCraney,” I said plainly. “I can stomach a corpse.”
But his intuition was correct that I was not looking forward to it.
* * *
The morgue was located in a small outbuilding on the north edge of the Common, between the poorhouse and the new barracks, which were now sitting desolately half-empty. The main floor of the structure was apparently the headquarters of such constables and night watchmen as the town could afford. We proceeded down to the cellar, which, to my relief, had a full standing room and windows at the level of the ground outside that permitted light and air and kept it from smelling as foul as I’d anticipated. At the foot of the stairs was a desk with a few chairs next to a door made of heavy timbers. McCraney dropped his hat and the book on the desk, which I took to be his own. “Are you quite ready, gentlemen?” he inquired considerately. “This can be—”
“Please do get along with it,” Mr. Leavering said hoarsely.
“Of course, sir.” McCraney had to lift the door in order to push it open. Inside was a room the size of a drawing room, walled only by the rough stone foundation. In the middle was a table covered by a coarse, woolen blanket with an all-too-familiar shape beneath it. Mr. Leavering moaned briefly, as the shape clearly matched the slight and diminutive figure of his partner. Mr. McCraney moved to the far side of the table, took hold of a corner of the blanket, and again looked to Mr. Leavering for an indication. I noticed my employer was trembling—something I’d never seen in nearly three years of his employ—and I confess my own stomach was churning. McCraney pulled the blanket down and uncovered the bust.
“Ah!” Mr. Leavering virtually shrieked, both hands flying to his mouth. “No! No!” He abruptly turned, fled out the door, and collapsed at McCraney’s desk, weeping profusely into his handkerchief.
McCraney hurriedly replaced the blanket and we followed. He observed my employer closely for a minute; then, evidently convinced Leavering was not himself endangered, he produced a glass of water from a sideboard and handed it to me to give to him. “All I have here, Dordrecht,” he whispered apologetically.
I placed the glass on the desk in front of Leavering, who was facing the wall, wracked with more emotion than I’d dreamed him capable of. “I’m … so terribly …” Not looking backward, he emphatically waved me away.
McCraney caught my eye, nodded me back into the larger room, and shut the door. He put a glass of water into my own hands, and I was surprised how much it relieved me. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Dordrecht,” he stated. I merely nodded, trying to get a grip on my own emotion. “I take it we do have a positive identification?”
“Were you personally acquainted with Mr. Sproul?” he asked.
I drew myself upright and faced him. “I … only met the gentleman once, for a mere half-hour. It was near a year ago, when I was on my one business trip to Philadelphia.”
“I see. But you, too, have no doubt that this is, in fact, Mr. Sproul?” I must have looked baffled. “I have no wish to distress your employer further … and it is often more certain if persons not as intimately connected can make the identification.”
“Ah, and I have not yet shown you this.” He lifted the blanket slightly from the middle edge of the table, took hold of the corpse’s right forearm, and, with difficulty, twisted it outward so I could see the top of the hand … which instantly banished my last doubts. “Very noticeable,” McCraney remarked of the old-but-terrifying scars on the thumb and top of the hand.
I sighed and nodded. “Mr. Glasby once related to me that Mr. Sproul was raised on a farm twenty miles out of Philadelphia that was attacked by … Delawares, I think … His father was killed, and a savage was about to brain the boy as well when his mother, having managed to reload the musket, shot him dead. But the tomahawk dropped on his hand, and his dexterity was impaired all his life.”
“You do make positive identification, then? We could spare Mr. Leavering, you see. Your signature will be as adequate as his, if you would.”
“Of course.” He produced a printed form from inside the sideboard and filled it out. After inspecting it, I signed. Then there was another paper, which he completed and gave me, explaining that it should be given to the undertaker, so the body and clothes could be reclaimed. I placed it inside my jacket. These formalities completed, we both seemed at a loss for words.
Mr. Leavering was still sobbing inconsolably, and I was reluctant to disturb what little privacy he had.
“Mr. McCraney, have you not got any notion what on earth brought Mr. Sproul to this pass?”
McCraney looked relieved at the prospect of more dispassionate discussion. “Frankly, Mr. Dordrecht, it is as baffling a matter as any I’ve ever seen. You say the man was in good health?”
“Mr. Leavering and Mr. Glasby say so, and certainly that was my impression a year ago.” I recollected my brief conversation with the deceased, which had not touched on our mutual business at all. “In fact, he and I shared the recreation of canoe-paddling—which can be rather demanding exercise.”
“Particularly for a man of his years. Near fifty, I believe Mr. Glasby said?”
“My understanding, yes.”
“Looks considerably younger. Hair’s barely touched with gray. And his face is … remarkably composed for an individual suddenly overtaken.”
“How so, sir?”
“A man suddenly stricken with a fatal apoplexy or asphyxiation or befouled food usually expires with an expression of great pain or alarm on his face. Not to mention vomit on his person. I hope I’m not distressing you?”
Had I been as close to Sproul as Mr. Leavering, I daresay he would have been, but my curiosity was now regaining the fore. “No, sir.”
“Whereas Mr. Sproul appears perfectly calm, indeed asleep, and his corpus was found to be clean.” A thought struck him. “The book suggests he was of the Quaker persuasion. Is that so?”
“Oh, very definitely. But not at all a zealot. His father-in-law would not have loved him if he were a zealot.”
“I ask only because there was no hat found. His garments are what you’d expect of a Quaker—well-made, but plain cloth without embellishment—but don’t they always wear those odd, flat hats?”
I tried to think of the men I’d seen leaving the Friends’ Meeting House on Crown Street. “I’m not sure it’s required of them, Mr. McCraney, but come to think of it, Mr. Sproul was wearing just such a hat during the one interview I had with him.”
“Strange. You’d think a man traveling, particularly, would want his hat?”
“Aye … Surely there must be something to explain this calamity?”
“Well, can you bear looking again? I was planning to wait until you were gone, but …”
We moved back to the table. “Can you at least estimate when Mr. Sproul was deceased?” I asked, blurting a new thought. “He was found at six fifteen? That’s nearly four hours ago now.”
McCraney pulled the blanket down to the waist, and I forced myself to look as if through his eyes—the eyes of one who had no personal relation to the corpse. It was hard not to think ill of oneself for so purposely invading another’s privacy. Yet Mr. Sproul’s fine features were as serene as if an undertaker had already prettified him. I jumped, however, when McCraney pulled an eyelid open to examine the eyeball. “Sorry!” Finding nothing to remark, McCraney attempted to open the jaw—Mr. Sproul’s lips were parted, but the mouth was nearly closed—but soon gave up. “Rigor mortis is in full force, here. I think he must have yielded up the ghost earlier in the night, but I’ve really no idea when exactly.”
“Can you help me turn him up on his side?” He pushed as I pulled. I had to banish grim memories of handling the dead and wounded during my stint in a provincial regiment. McCraney examined the back and legs. His nether underlinen had been left on him; all I noted was that it was unsoiled. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” We settled it—him—back down, and shook our heads. “I wondered if perhaps he was struck by lightning … but my understanding is that the victims always have burn marks on their skin somewhere.”
“And there was no storm last night.”
“Grasping at straws!”
“Ah! Actually, Mr. McCraney, correct me if I’m wrong, but I did handle corpses up north, and … Does this body not strike you as unusually cold to the touch?”
McCraney looked a trifle surprised, but immediately pressed his palm onto the corpse’s midriff. “It’s not a warm day, Mr. Dordrecht,” he said cautiously.
“Aye, but for the first week of spring, it’s blessedly pleasant.”
“That’s so.” He pressed his palm back onto his own forehead, perplexed. “I know: we’ll compare him with the other one!” As he moved toward the far wall, I realized with a start that the dark heap of rags I’d barely noticed on the floor against the wall … was another corpse. “This one came in just an hour after Mr. Sproul,” McCraney said almost cheerfully. “I was just about to walk out in pursuit of kinfolk of Mr. Sproul when Jennet brought this bravo in.” He squatted down, grasped the blanket, then checked himself. “Oh. This fellow’s not as composed a sight, Mr. Dordrecht!”
I gulped. “Very well.”
He casually pulled the blanket back, revealing the snarling and bloodied face of a thickset man not much older than me, with wild hair, a fortnight’s stubble, a deep, old scar across the forehead … and numerous holes in his filthy shirt surrounded by dried blood. “No question what did in this lout!” McCraney said, opening the shirt to put his palm directly on the chest. “Hmph!” he grunted. He stood up, walked back to the table, felt Sproul’s chest again, and repeated the action on the stabbing victim. “I can’t imagine why, but it does seem to me that this one is not as cold as Mr. Sproul.”
“Where and when was this one found?”
“What did Jennet say? He was spotted on the Hudson riverbank just north of town, shortly after dawn, by a workman on the Greenwich road. But no one called the constable until somewhat later.”
“A knife fight, do you suppose?”
“Could be. But they know who this one is, at least. He’s spent many a night as a guest of the city fathers—the jail, not the poorhouse.” He attempted to manipulate the corpse’s arm, but found it resistant. “Probably been dead since well before dawn too. But I … I can’t explain why there should appear to be a difference in body warmth, Mr. Dordrecht.”
Just then, there was a commotion outside that brought a fresh spate of weeping from Mr. Leavering. Another voice was heard.
“A woman?” McCraney asked. He automatically straightened his neckcloth, and then thought to cover the two corpses again.
I recognized the voice with warm relief. “Mr. Glasby’s wife,” I explained, “a great friend of the Leaverings.” There was no reason to add that Adelie Chapman Glasby was also a great friend to me. We were about to open the door when I realized that she, too, was in tears. I turned back to the assistant coroner and cleared my throat. “This constable, Jennet? I might want to talk to him. It’s all just … so peculiar.”
“I don’t know what help Jennet could be to you, Mr. Dordrecht. I’m afraid his mental acumen is naught to speak of, although he’s at least one of the honest ones. But his shift is from midnight to noon, so you’ll find him just upstairs daily at midday, when he reports in.”
“I see. Thank you. And … you’ve been very helpful.”
“Not an easy matter for anyone,” McCraney said modestly. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed, striking his palm against his forehead. “His purse, his effects!” He rushed to unlock a cabinet opposite the door, from which he extracted a leather coin purse, the contents of which he spilled out onto the sideboard. At his request, I counted up the score of coins, which totaled two pounds, eight shillings, sixpence—substantial proof that Mr. Sproul had not been molested either before or after his demise. “Could you bring the clothes over, please?” he requested, nodding at a table in the corner and pulling out an inventory sheet.
I moved to collect the garments, wondering how severely affected my own reason must be, given that I’d not previously noticed them and, worse, not thought to inquire about them. But I’d not taken two steps back when I was stopped cold. “Mr. McCraney! These garments are reeking of liquor! Of rum!”
McCraney turned to me, quill in hand, looking perfectly stunned. “But that’s …” He met me in the center of the room, lifted the bundle to his nose … and gagged. He absently set them back in my arms. “I … I don’t see … There’s no trace of alcohol on his person, Mr. Dordrecht.”
“You’re certain? But how could—”
“Perfectly certain. I always check for that.”
“Surely you must have noticed when you removed the clothes for the examination?”
McCraney looked ill with embarrassment. “The slave does that,” he said. “Given the absence of wounds on the body, I barely even looked at his clothes.”
“How could there be this much of spirits on the clothes, and yet no trace on the man? None on his undergarments!”
“Well, I can hardly say, but I dare not be squeamish about offenses to my olfactory sense, Mr. Dordrecht, I make a point … If you can stomach it, I suggest you compare the bravo to Mr. Sproul, in that regard.”
Though greatly tempted to take him at his word, I was now just dubious enough of McCraney’s abilities to feel compelled to make my own inspection. Stifling my repugnance, I knelt beside the wild fellow’s corpse, pulled back the blanket, and inhaled next to his mouth. It was quite foul, but there was one predominant odor. “Rum!”
“Aye,” McCraney said. “The bane of this city, Mr. Dordrecht!”
I summoned more courage and repeated the effort on Mr. Sproul’s corpse … and detected nothing.
“I doubt Mr. Sproul ever even indulged in tobacco,” McCraney observed.
I tried again, and again noticed nothing. “I recollect Mr. Glasby remarking as much once,” I said, glad to replace the cover. “And it was common knowledge that he never drank. But how … ?”
“I can only suppose the liquor was spilled on him in some accident.”
“Which … may have occurred after his decease, as well as before?”
McCraney shrugged. “That’s as plausible as anything.”
I sighed heavily, rather exhausted by the accumulation of imponderables. McCraney completed the inventory, and I signed it.
The voices outside were calmer.
I opened the door and heard Mr. Leavering moaning, “How am I ever going to tell her?” He was still facing the wall, shaking his head.
Adelie Glasby, one hand on his shoulder, turned toward me, her handsome face stricken. “Is there any—” she mouthed.
Doubt, I knew she meant. I shook my head and gestured to indicate the scars on the corpse’s hand.
“Oh dear heaven!” she breathed. She looked back at Leavering. “Does he need to stay here?” she said softly, asking both McCraney and myself.
“No ma’am,” McCraney answered. “Mr. Dordrecht’s handled all the immediate matters. Does he live far away?”
“Hanover Square,” I asserted.
“We have a wagon outside. I’ll have the slave drive you home.”
“That would be most kind, sir,” Mrs. Glasby said warmly.
McCraney ran up the steps to make arrangements, and Mrs. Glasby and I began cajoling Mr. Leavering into walking out to the street. It took upward of ten minutes to get him into the wagon with her beside him. Even in the wagon, Mr. Leavering kept his face buried in his hands. It was horrible to see a man of such fortitude and enterprise—I rather hero-worshipped him—brought so fearfully low. I gave the slave a tuppence, and gave the purse to Mrs. Glasby. “What happened?” she whispered.
“They don’t really know, Adelie,” I said, having long before been excused the presumption of informal address. “I’m at a loss too. I … If you need me, I should go back to the office.”
Leavering moaned, and she turned to comfort him. I nodded to the slave, and finally they were off.
I was fifty paces on my return, when I heard McCraney calling my name. He ran toward me, waving the very book that had first led him to our office. “It fell onto the floor,” he explained breathlessly.
“Ah! Thank you yet again,” I said, taking it and waving farewell.
He touched my elbow. “Have I seen that extraordinary woman somewhere before?” he asked.
I smiled. Mrs. Glasby certainly does make a strong, positive impression. “You may have, Mr. McCraney. She is possessed of a fine singing voice and has several times appeared in concert at Trinity Church, among other places.” Absently, I gestured southward with the book, as if every New Yorker did not know perfectly well where Trinity was.
Something flew out of the pages, startling both of us. I bent over and picked up—four playing cards … of an unusual design that struck me as possibly foreign. Mystified, I turned them over several times before stuffing them back into the book.
“I thought Quakers disdained playing with cards?” McCraney said.
I could only shrug and shake his hand as we parted again.
* * *
My supervisor and patron, John Glasby, was horrified when I confirmed what he’d surmised from our extended absence—that McCraney’s corpse was in fact Mr. Sproul—but he dutifully managed to preserve his outward manly composure. “Adelie’s gone back to the house with Benjamin?”
“Aye. Thank you for sending her. Her arrival was a great solace to us both. They should be home by now, and I expect they’ve broken the news to Mrs. Leavering.”
“Sproul dead!” Glasby exclaimed breathlessly, his face slack. “I simply can’t … can’t …”
I shrugged helplessly.
“And this man, the coroner, has no idea what caused it?”
“He said it would probably be ruled a misadventure. All that can be observed for certain is that his heart ceased beating.” Glasby sat heavily on his desk. “And if that’s not implausible enough, his coat was saturated with rum.”
“Rum! Impossible! Sproul was adamant in—”
“I know, John, I know. But there it is.” We sat speechless for a minute, no consoling phrase coming to mind.
Finally, Glasby shook his head, sighed, and stood. “Well! We’ve got to decide what to do here. I’d like to set you and Mapes in charge for the rest of the day, Thomas. I think I should go to the Leaverings’ directly, in case I can be of any assistance. Helden’s straightened out, so you needn’t worry about that.”
I handed him the form for the undertaker. “Benjamin Leavering is not his usual self,” I asserted.
“No doubt. I can’t imagine what this will do to him. We should be closed, tomorrow, Thomas, for at least one day—a show of respect. The man was a partner of the firm.”
“Can you handle all the staff, then? Oh, and get some crepe for the door? And post a notice?”
“Of course. Would it be appropriate for me to come over after work?”
“I’m sure. If they’re indisposed, they’ll be frank enough to tell you.”
As Glasby collected his effects, summoned, and spoke to Mapes, I resolved to raise a matter of purely personal concern. I caught him at the door. “I’m sorry to be so forward, Mr. Glasby, but … do you imagine this event will change the plan to have me voyage with the Dorothy C.?” I was already entered as the supercargo on her next voyage to Santo Domingo in the Caribbean. It would be my first international business trip—my first ocean trip—and I’d been anticipating it for over a year.
Glasby looked blank for just a second. “Ah, I don’t know, Thomas. Shouldn’t think so, although … with one partner dead and another incapacitated by grief … Who knows how long it’ll last? He and Mrs. Leavering will travel back to Philadelphia, I feel sure of that, but … I know how much you want to go, but … it’s too soon to decide that.” He knew as well as I the ship would be laden and ready within a week. “If Mr. Leavering can spare a moment to think about the business, I promise I’ll ask him. Certainly, Helden’s flour will have to go, one way or another.” He straightened his hat and departed.
I gritted my teeth, almost ashamed to contemplate the pettiness of my hopes when compared to the turmoil facing the Leavering and Sproul families, but it would be a bitter disappointment if this tragedy were to prevent me from sailing.
There was no point in fretting it. I threw myself into the tasks at hand. When the church bells struck twelve, I recalled that I’d contemplated stepping out to see if the constable McCraney had named might alleviate some of my perplexity. Not possible. Perhaps the morrow would offer a better opportunity.
* * *
An extraordinary, but very pleasant friendship had developed since the fall of 1759, when I had been taken on as a de facto, though not a legally-bound apprentice by Castell, Leavering & Sproul, between Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Leavering, Mr. and Mrs. John Glasby, my eccentric cousin Charles Cooper, and myself. Neither the Leaverings nor the Glasbys had any family in the city, and Charles and I were as yet unmarried and unencumbered. Though separated by decades in age, we six found ourselves largely harmonious in sensibility, interests, and opinion. I, the youngest of them, felt enormously privileged to be included in their supper parties, discussions, and excursions—blessings over and above my opportunity to learn the lucrative and challenging business of importing and exporting goods by ship.
I therefore had no hesitation in presenting myself early that evening at their handsome home on fashionable Hanover Square, in the East Ward, to offer my condolences. Mr. Glasby met me at the door. “Ah, Thomas!” he said softly. “You just missed your cousin. All settled at the office?” I nodded affirmatively. “Very good. Mr. Leavering took to his bed immediately on his arrival here, but Mrs. Leavering’s bearing up, despite the awful shock of it. Adelie and I have done what we could, but it’s a sad, sad household.”
“Ah. I should like to pay my respects.”
“Yes, yes, come in, of course.”
Hermione Leavering was, like her husband, a large, rotund, and plain person of some three score years. If anything, however, she was usually even more gentle, bright, candid, and jolly of disposition. Since moving to New York, she had thrown herself into some of the charitable endeavors that have supporting women’s auxiliaries, making many friends—several of whom, having seen the tokens of mourning I had posted on our office door, had apparently already visited to extend their sympathies. Mrs. Glasby, sitting next to her in the drawing room, rose upon seeing me and encouraged me to take the seat while she fetched me a glass of cider.
“Thomas, my good lad. Thank you for coming!”
Though she was able to get the words out, I could sense that she was still reeling from the blow. “Please accept my profoundest sympathy, Mrs. Leavering.”
“Thank you, Thomas, I …” She clutched my forearm. “Thomas, I understand it was you who … at the coroner … Benjamin was so overwrought! Is there any, the slightest, doubt that …”
I had to look away before facing her. “Dear madam, I grieve to tell you, there may be others whose comely face and figure might be confused with his, but … the scars on the hand were not mistakable.”
“The right hand?” she demanded.
“Aye, ma’am, the right.”
She clutched a handkerchief to her mouth with both hands for half a minute, struggling to restrain an outburst of tears. I fear I had just extinguished a last ray of hope. “Oh, I wasn’t really dreaming that … We have already posted a letter to my daughter. The hardest thing I have ever written! Adelie had to transcribe it for me, I couldn’t hold the pen! It’s all so unfair, so unjust! If it wasn’t blasphemy, one would … We—none of us—even have the slightest inkling what Daniel was doing, coming to New York. He’d written us to expect him, but … Evelyn will presently turn forty, but he need hardly have traveled here to arrange a celebration. In March, for heaven’s sake! No one travels in March when it’s not necessary!” She was not normally a babbler, and she shortly caught herself. Mrs. Glasby handed her a small glass of brandy while her husband added a log to the fire.
It seemed a not inappropriate moment to change the subject. “I have to return this object to you, ma’am,” I said, producing the book, “which was inadvertently separated from his purse and effects at the coroner’s.”
“Very odd of Daniel to travel with only two pounds!” she exclaimed. “Nothing makes any sense!” This thought took me aback. Were I to carry two pounds eight and six in my purse, I’d think myself quite flush; but on second consideration, Mr. Sproul was a well-to-do businessman in the middle of a trip that would have to last at least a week … “I’m sorry, my dear. The book?” I put it in her hands. She winced on beholding the ex libris. “Ah! We had Mr. Franklin—Doctor Franklin—print these up as a Christmas present, oh, fifteen years ago.” She turned to the title page. Despite my customary infatuation with books, I’d not ventured so far, being greatly busied at the office. It was a volume by the Quaker minister John Woolman—widely regarded in New York City as an obstreperous madman—entitled Some Considerations on Keeping Negroes, Part Second. “Oh, of course,” Mrs. Leavering said mildly. “Daniel thought the world of this gentleman, and this is just published. It was Daniel, you know, who persuaded Benjamin to manumit his three slaves before we moved here. That’s not even legal in this province. Daniel could be very convincing!” Glasby nodded sadly. Mrs. Leavering absently began to read the book.
I cleared my throat, a recalled curiosity getting the better of me. “If I may, ma’am,” I said, taking the book again and riffling its pages, “I wonder if you’ve any idea how these came to be stuffed inside?”
The sight of the playing cards did not seem to disturb her at all—though both Mr. and Mrs. Glasby’s eyes widened with surprise. “Hmpf,” she grunted, amused. “Well, we all have feet of clay, you know! If my dear son-in-law had a peccadillo, it was cards. He just loved to play card games. The other Quakers were most disapproving. Even my daughter was most disapproving! But he was very sociable, and he found it agreeable and relaxing, so I thought, wherever was the harm, eh?”
“That … couldn’t have anything to do with there being only two pounds in his purse?” Glasby asked tentatively.
“Oh no! Daniel was emphatic that he never ventured more than a penny a card, though it sometimes irked his playing partners. He said he was flayed for risking too much on the one hand, and not enough on the other!”
“He certainly knew his own mind!” Mrs. Glasby said admiringly.
“Oh yes! Well, thank you, Thomas. These must belong to a deck they have at home. I’ll give them to Evelyn.”
I knew a little about cards. “They seem to be from a continental set,” I ventured. “These are the four Varlets, not Jacks. Probably pulled out for a game of Whist.”
“Really? Curious! Are you a regular player, then?”
“Oh no, ma’am, but you may recall, my family owns a tavern over in Kings County. And tavern-keepers always maintain a deck or two for the amusement of their clientele.”
Mrs. Leavering’s eyes were glazing over. “I think it’s time we should leave our hostess alone, gentlemen,” Mrs. Glasby said.
The lady whimpered slightly, but did not protest the idea. “All the arrangements are made, ma’am,” Mr. Glasby said gently. “Adelie and I will be back at eight in the morning to do what we can. The weather looks to hold, so I thought it would be easier to sail to Perth Amboy and go overland from there. Happily one of our own coastal boats—the Janie, Captain Ford—can oblige us. Even has a reasonably comfortable cabin. Barring the unforeseen, you should be in New Brunswick tomorrow night, and Philadelphia by Friday Noon at the latest.”
“Oh, that’s good. And the, uh—”
“The undertaker will bring the casket directly to Peck Slip by eight thirty. High water will be at nine thirty.”
“Ah. Thank you all so much for everything.”
Under a lighted tavern sign at the corner of Nassau Street, I bade goodnight to Adelie and John Glasby. “I don’t know whether the inexplicability of his death makes it harder or easier to bear,” Adelie sighed. “On the one hand, you have no one and nothing to blame, so you can concentrate on simple grief, but—”
“But on the other hand,” John continued for her, “it’s just maddening that you can’t explain it. Can’t begin to explain it!”
“It nags so at you!” she concluded with a shrug.