fter the pattering of rain late last night, a fresh, warm breeze and the scent of cut grass greeted me when I left the Smith home to hike. Sir Arthur's pages were neatly stacked on the desk Senator Smith had graciously relegated for Sir Arthur's use, waiting for him to arise. Despite having finished the typing in the early-morning hours, I woke before dawn rested. I'd dreamed of Walter inching to the edge of the Bartholdi Fountain, trying not to fall and get his knees dirty before he proposed. The image brought an irrepressible smile to my face. I was happy and relished the thought of a hike in the fresh air.
Wearing my storm rubbers, I strolled down Seventeenth Street with the intention of hiking through the Potomac Flats, an often muddy, marshy strip in and around the tidal reservoir, created by the dredging of the river west of the Washington Monument grounds. I'd been there several times, successfully finding new species of plants for my botanical collection including wormseed and smartweed.
As I'd done before, I stopped at the expansive Fish Commission's carp ponds on the corner of B Street and Seventeenth, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. I enjoyed lingering at the edge of the largest, studying the surface for a glimpse of one of the gigantic fish that populated the ponds. A light, cool breeze rippled across the water, obscuring my view. I shivered and wrapped my arms around me. I stood gazing across the pond, waiting for a fish to break the surface.
The early-morning silence was broken as a huge specimen of carp leaped into the air and crashed back below the water, sending circular waves where it had disappeared. I clapped my approval, thrilled to have been a witness, but stopped mid-clap when the sound of a fast-approaching carriage caught my attention. The two-passenger trap careened along B Street, the horse jerking his head about in protest at the speed. The driver, as his neck scarf flew in the wind, blocking his vision as well as my view of his face, snapped the reins at the poor animal again and again. The passenger, a hatless young woman in a crimson evening gown covered with flounces of alternating yellow and lavender lace that flapped with every step of the protesting horse, held a large wine bottle in one hand. As she tipped her head back to drink straight from the bottle, a sleeve fell, revealing her bare shoulder. She propped her foot on the dash, allowing her bare leg, all the way to her knee, to be plainly seen. I was mortified and yet couldn't look away.
Could there be more than one of those garish dresses? I wondered. I doubted it.
When finished with her bottle, she sent it shattering to the pavement, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and cackled maniacally, urging the driver to drive faster and faster. Walter was a notoriously reckless driver, but I'd never seen anyone drive like this.
I was far enough away that I was in no danger, but I couldn't say the same for the people in the trap. And as they attempted to turn onto Seventeenth Street, my prediction horribly became reality. They turned too sharply, missing the pavement of the street and hitting the curb instead. The trap tipped and, for a breathless moment or two, it was propelled along solely on two wheels. As the driver lost control of the horse, the trap jumped the curb, sped across the grass, and crashed against the cobblestones embanking the pond. And then the horse reared.
The woman screamed again when the horse bolted, flinging both man and woman through the air. Her scream was cut off when she plunged into the pond, quickly disappearing beneath the surface. I watched in horror as the runaway horse, dragging the trap behind it, galloped away down Seventeenth Street. I rushed over to the point where the driver and woman had gone in, and I held my breath waiting for them to resurface. The man, his back to me, immediately rocketed upward and gasped for breath before plunging beneath the water again. All was silent as the man's fedora floated over the ripples his splash had created.
Why don't they surface?
I had once been forcibly thrown into deep water and had struggled with all my strength to surface. But there were no new signs of a struggle, no more signs of the man or the woman trying to keep their heads above the water, to mar the calm.
Finally, a loud inhalation drew my attention along the shore ahead of me. The man, still facing away from me, was, thank goodness, crawling out of the pond about fifteen yards away. He must have swum all the way underwater. I cringed at the thought of having to navigate through the schools of giant carp.
“Sir!” I yelled. “Are you all right?”
Without turning to look back at me, he stood, staggered a bit, and then ran stumbling as fast as he could toward the Washington Monument.
“Don't leave!” I shouted at his retreating figure. “Your companion needs your help. Sir!” He never looked back and soon disappeared into the expansive Mall. I focused again on the water. The woman still had not surfaced.
She's going to die!
I glanced about and saw no one else. Before I could question what I was doing, I plunged into the water. It was shallow at the edge, and within a few forced steps, my skirt beneath the waist-high cold water clung to my legs, weighing me down.
What am I doing?
I wondered as I slowly pushed forward through the water, now up to my chest. I can't swim. How am I going to help the drowning woman if I can't even swim? Holding out my arms for balance, I took another step.
Still several yards from where the woman had crashed into the water, something solid bumped into my waist and I froze. The water churned and shadows dashed about as hundreds of carp encircled me. Several rose to the surface, their gaping mouths inches from my sides.
“Help!” I screamed. The rush of swishing tails made waves as the startled fish darted around me. “Help! Help!” I closed my eyes and screamed again and again.
My eyes flew open at the rumble of carriage wheels. A rickety wagon with a banner on the side reading W
was approaching the pond.
“Help!” I yelled again as they passed.
The driver turned his team toward me. As I waded back to dry land as fast as I could, two young, rough-looking men alighted. One was tall with unkempt, long, flaxen hair, a shaggy mustache, and clothes that needed more than a wash and a mending. He wasn't wearing a hat, yet his green eyes were bright and attentive. The other man, significantly shorter, wore a slightly misshapen brown derby, had unevenly cut curly brown hair, was in desperate need of a shave, and had the most peculiar nose that twisted to the side with a gnarled bump in the middle. Not the type of men I would've chosen to meet in this distressing time or at this early hour, but someone needed to help that woman.
“Oh my God. What happened? Are you all right, ma'am?” the taller of the two men said. “Your clothes are soaked.” Suddenly self-conscious and shivering, I gratefully took the faded coat the shorter of the two men offered me and draped it over my shoulders. Luckily it was cleaner than it appeared and smelled only of dust.
“I'm fine. But there's been a terrible accident. A runaway horse crashed its trap into the pond embankment, plunging the passengers into the water. A woman is still down there. She never resurfaced.”
“She must've hit her head. Go get the police!” the man yelled to the driver of the wagon.
As the wagon raced off to find the nearest police station, its banner flapping from the sheer speed of the horses, the tall man stripped off his stained, crinkled coat, throwing it heedlessly to the ground. He plucked off his boots, revealing several holes in his stockings, and waded into the water. He dove in and he too disappeared beneath the surface.
“Is he okay?” I asked, when it seemed an interminable time since the diver had resurfaced. His companion nodded.
“Don't worry, I've seen Billy swim three miles nonstop down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.”
The man, Billy, resurfaced with a crash, splashing water about, gasping for breath. Before we on the shore could shout our questions, he plunged back into the deep. Again we waited, all hope for the woman fading fast. Finally, the man burst through the surface again. And yet again he was alone. One final time he bobbed about, catching his breath in one loud inhalation, and dove under again. This time when he resurfaced he shook his head.
“I can't find her,” he yelled before swimming back to the shore.
“Want me to have a look?” his companion said.
“No, Jasper. It's no use.”
“Strange for a woman to be out alone at this hour of the morning,” Jasper said, and then regarding me, realized what he had said. “Oh, pardon me. I hope you didn't take offense.”
“No offense taken. But in her case, you're mistaken.”
“She wasn't alone.”
“What?” Billy said, his eyes boring into mine.
“She wasn't alone. When the carriage went in, a man was driving.”
“You didn't say anything about a man,” Billy said, again stripping off the coat he had put back on to keep warm.
“No, you misunderstand me. He didn't drown. He resurfaced over there.” I pointed. “But when I called out to him, he ran away.”
“That's despicable!” Billy said, spitting out the words. “How could he not at least try to save her?”
Jasper shook his head in disbelief. “What is this world coming to?”
We all turned at the sound of a carriage rumbling past. Another lone traveler in the early-morning hours. Billy pulled out a solid gold watch with
engraved upon it.
Where did he get such an expensive watch? I wondered.
Did he steal it? Is it all that's left of a fortune misspent? I unconsciously took a slight step back. Luckily he had put away the watch and was busy wringing the water from his trouser leg and didn't notice. His companion, Jasper, did, though, and frowned.
“The police should be here soon. Hopefully they'll catch the vile snake and at least find some justice for her,” Billy said.
Jasper, watching the carp rise to the surface, scoffed. “You're too idealistic, Billy. The police bring justice? Ha!”
“You're too cynical, Jasper Neely.”
“Mark my words, Billy,” Jasper Neely said. “It will never happen. If you leave finding justice to the police, you'll wait until the end of your days.”
“At least they'll be able to get her out of there,” Billy said.
The police? In my shock I hadn't given the command Billy had barked to his driver another thought. I'd set out this morning to hike and maybe collect some plant specimens. But now, flanked by two strangers, one drenched from his foray into the pond in search of a dead woman, the other decrying the police, the implications were beginning to set in.
Oh, no! Not again!
* * *
“Shouldn't we be getting back?” Jasper Neely said, after silently watching me pace as we waited for the arrival of the police. “The police don't need or want us here.”
“You can go, but I'm staying here,” Billy said.
“We don't know anything. Why stay?” was Jasper's reply.
“If you don't know anything, why are you so eager to go?”
“Okay, fine. I'll stay.”
“Un, deux, trois . . .”
I counted in French, as the two men argued, trying to keep myself calm.
I couldn't believe I was entangled in yet another police affair. I'd had no cause to be in contact with the police for over nine months. I'd begun to hope that I would never have to speak to a policeman ever again, that the unfortunate incidents I'd been party to were happily in the past. However understanding Walter was, he would not appreciate his future wife being continuously entangled in police business. From now on, the only dead bodies I anticipated seeing would be unfortunate loved ones passing away from sickness or “old age.” I deplored being involved with another crime.
Quatre, cinq, six
. . . Oh!”
I nearly tripped on something. I picked it up.
“What's that you got there?” Billy said, approaching me. I showed him.
It was a lamp from the carriage, now mangled with its glass shattered on the ground, which must have snapped off as the horse dragged the trap away. I shuddered to think what would have happened had the horse, with the carriage still attached, fallen into the water.
“Where is the horse?” I said.
Could it still be wandering about with a shattered trap attached to it? Had it broken free? Was it even now nibbling on the green grass of the White House lawn? Or did it find its way home?
“We never saw it,” Billy said. “I suspect a stray horse without a rider, especially one with part of a trap still attached to him, will not go unnoticed.”
“So the police will find it?” I said.
“Yes, I'm sure it will be fine. Got spooked, obviously, but no harm done to it in the end.”
Unlike the poor woman,
“Then they'll be able to figure out who the man who deserted the woman is,” I said, “when they find his horse?”
“Assuming it was his horse, and he didn't hire the trap,” Jasper Neely said. “Then maybe.”
“Why maybe?” My family never owned a horse, living above my father's hat store as we did. When we wanted to go somewhere the train or stagecoach couldn't take us, my father hired a team and buggy. Otherwise we walked everywhere. So I was well accustomed to knowing which boots to buy that would hold up and be comfortable to hike in, but I knew nothing of owning, tending, or identifying a horse.