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Authors: Elena Santangelo

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Poison to Purge Melancholy

BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
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Poison to Purge Melancholy
© 2006 by Elena Santangelo.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any matter whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from Midnight Ink, except in the form of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

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Any unauthorized usage of the text without express written permission of the publisher is a violation of the author’s copyright and is illegal and punishable by law.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

First e-book edition © 2010

E-book ISBN: 9780738720357

Book design by Donna Burch

Cover design by Gavin Dayton Duffy

Cover background image and pattern © Kamil Vojnar/Photonica/Getty Images, bottle © Photodisc

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Manufactured in the United States of America


When the Philadelphia Revels centered their December show around Christmas in Colonial Philadelphia, the director, April Woodall, allowed me to help with the research and writing, and so awoke in me a fascination for early American Yuletide customs. Through her, I met Clarissa Dillon, local historian and living history expert on women and cooking of the eighteenth century. I owe Clarissa especially for teaching me about the clothing and foods of the times.

Kris Dippre of Colonial Williamsburg’s Apothecary Shop went out of her way to give me an understanding of colonial medical philosophies and medicines, despite my first question to her being about poisons.

One website deserves much recognition: the online diary of Martha Ballard at, an awesome searchable primary source from an early medical professional.

On the nonhistoric side, Cynthia Garman gave me her perspective of Williamsburg as a William and Mary alum, Dr. Mathew Beshara answered all my questions gynecological, and Kristin Gagliardi helped me hear Beth Ann’s voice clearly. Linda Hanson and Dr. Deb Volker answered my eleventh-hour Virginia questions before a quarter to twelve.

If I got any facts wrong, I don’t blame the experts listed above, but my own dense brain.

In By Blood Possessed, I thanked Linda Gagliardi for letting me use her computer when mine died in the middle of chapter 13. She did so again with this book. Same chapter. Maybe I’ll skip thirteen in the next novel. And thanks to my brother and fellow author, Bob Brooke, who loaned me his laptop so I could keep working until my new PC arrived.

Thanks also goes to my Delaware Valley Sisters In Crime for their support, to Jean Geiger for her second set of eyes, and to Polly Whitney for her hellfire sermon on adverbs.

As always, I thank Linda Gagliardi and my other brother, Tom Santangelo, for being proofreaders, sounding boards, and for listening to me kvetch and moan.


my dear friend,

Polly Whitney

December, Present Day

The first e-mail came
the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving:

“hello how are you in dominion you know me”

The address was one of the free e-mail services with only “CMJSM43” as the name. The subject was simply “Message from the Internet,” meaning the sender hadn’t typed one.

He often got mail from unfamiliar addresses—the bane of having an e-mail link on an organization’s website. Some of the messages were legitimate inquiries, most were junk mail—spam. At least CMJSM43 could spell.

The obvious choice was to hit the delete button. One word stopped him:
. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to reply, either.

The next Sunday brought another message from the same address:

“hello how are you we played cards
hearts with spades remember”

Hearts with spades
. He remembered all too well. Can insanity be forgotten? This time, because he needed to know, he
reply, “Where are you now?” and typed his initials below.

No answer. A relief. Until Sunday, December twentieth:

“hello how are you joyce erased your note
i couldnt read it but Christmas
i find you play spades”

“Strong-Beer, Stout Syder, and a good fire
Are things this season doth require.”

—Titan Leeds,
The American Almanac
, December, 1714

December 3, 1783—The Eagle’s Nest, Williamsburg, Virginia

“Ye’ve angels dancin’ on
your fiddle, lad.” As John Brennan spoke, he set his pint of beer and his snuffbox upon the table. Every man in the room turned toward him in amazement.

Some twenty of us were gathered in the West Room of Mrs. Vobe’s tavern, warmed by fire and drink and the company assembled at the long tables. The oaken panels softened the hearthlight so that our faces glowed the color of fine brandy. Our tall shadows swayed upon the walls not starkly, but as grasses ’neath the water of a millpond. I’d brought my violin and Jim Parker helped himself to one of the house guitars, so the lot of us had been enjoying an evening of song. No one had taken heed of Brennan, sitting quietly by the door, until he spoke of angels.

’Twasn’t his praise that drew our notice. Compliments came to Brennan’s tongue like mold to cheese. Once there, the flattery was tinted a soft Irish hue and delivered through a generous smile, the effect being that few listeners doubted his sincerity. However, he reserved compliments for his customers, not for poor men such as myself who could ill afford the luxury of snuff, even at Brennan’s price.

But no, all eyes viewed his snuffbox. ’Twas never out of his hand in public and that hand never dropped below the plane of his shoulders, except to replenish his box from a cloth pouch in his coat pocket. He kept the snuff at the ready so that when a potential buyer happened within hearing, Brennan could sniff in a dose and remark upon the excellence of the tobacco. Red veins stood out on either side of his nose as testimony to the practice, but I’d seen him sell his wares on the street in this manner, and take away more shillings in an hour than I took in all week.

Now here he was, beer and snuff forgotten, the smile gone from his lips and perplexity in its place, his gaze lingering upon my fiddle, his eyes becoming rounder, as if every host of Heaven now occupied the instrument’s curves. All from my rendering of “The Jolly Miller.” A common rendering it had been, since my bow was in need of new horsehair and to make it last, I’d been forced to restrain my customary musical vigor.

Sam Walker, the only one of us seemingly unaware of Brennan’s unnatural behavior, stood and raised his leather tankard. “A toast, gentlemen.”

Everyone laughed, for ’twas Sam’s custom to make such a proposal no less than twice with each new round, and to address every man thus, regardless of his birth and status.

I’d first beheld Sam’s lean, red face at Germantown in ’77. In the thick fog that day, he’d been estranged from his militia and had come upon me, wandering senselessly, knocked on the head by the wayward musket barrel of a less fortunate comrade who’d taken a British ball to his chest. Sam had led me to safety and stayed the bleeding of my skull with a strip of homespun from his own shirt. He’d saved my life thrice more in the next six years, and I his as many times.

“To Mr. Dunbar’s angels,” he said now. “May they cavort upon his fingerboard for many an evening to come.”

“Huzzah!” the company shouted as one, hoisting their cups to their lips.

I bowed deeply. “Your pleasure is my own, good sirs.”

“Ah,” said Sam. “A wager then.”

The men gathered closer, for Sam’s wagers were more legendary than his toasts.

“Benjamin Dunbar has delighted us with his fiddle since coming to Williamsburg a month ago.” Sam paused to allow the lads to express agreement and, to a man, all did, many pounding the table for punctuation. “From the Eve of All Souls onward, each time we’ve gathered here, Mr. Dunbar has played every song or dance requested of him, not once claiming unfamiliarity.”

Agreement once more, mingled with a bit of wonderment. Sam hushed them by raising a hand. “I propose that, for a stake of tuppence apiece, each man buys the chance to name a tune unknown to Mr. Dunbar. Winner take the pot, or Mr. Dunbar, if he can play all.”

Further conditions were set. I was to play each melody through, at which I insisted that, should I fail, my challenger be prepared to sing his own ditty, to prove its existence.

Tucking a wayward lock of my red hair back behind my ear, raising my fiddle to my chin, we began. I played better than three dozen tunes that evening, triumphing until the fourth go-round, when the stake had risen to half a shilling and two, and those wagering had dwindled to four souls.

Then Will Knox asked for a Welsh hymn he’d heard as a boy, of which he recollected not the name, but recited the first couplet. I’d heard the song once, though my memory brought forth only the opening phrase. To resolve the chord, I added the refrain of “Yankee Doodle,” which made all laugh.

So ended the wager known ever after as “Walker’s Fiddler’s Challenge.” Though Will took the biggest pot, by the close of our evening amusements, I had in my pocket five shillings four and three bits of a Spanish dollar which had not been there before. Placing my fiddle in its hemp case, I bid the barkeep goodnight and, with Sam at my side, stepped out into the wintry air, both of us buttoning our coats across our chests. The chill penetrated the wool of my stockings. I tilted my tricorn down to shield my face from the wind, saying, “By rights, Sam, you should have half of tonight’s purse.”

“You earned it, Ben. You’re the best fiddler in Williamsburg. Nay, in all Virginia.” Yet no smile colored his voice, and he turned not west along the path, but stopped to gaze eastward, toward the end of the street and the old capitol building. ’Twas now a grammar school by day, but after dark it took on a gloomy, forsaken aspect.

“Here are your own wagers, at least,” I insisted, holding forth a shilling. “I’ll not accept money from a friend.”

Sam allowed me to place the coin in his palm, though by his expression, you’d think he’d never before felt silver. His only remark was, “The days grow short, Ben.”

Puzzled by his mood, I replied lightly, “That they do, as always in December. ’Tis your favorite time of year, Sam, for the nights are long enough to allow for several trysts.”

His mouth twitched into a smile then, but there was no jollity behind it. “I meant for Williamsburg. Not five years ago these windows were ablaze with light each evening.”

He gestured along Main Street, where too few lamps twinkled—faint stars through the damp air. The dim flicker of hearthlight shown in both taverns and in one upstairs window of Dr. Galt’s apothecary, but no candles at this hour. Candles were conserved in times like this, when money was hard won. Yet—and I thought of the surplus of coin in my pocket—’twas times as this when fools entered most into wagers, in hopes of easy winnings.

Sam turned to view the Eagle behind us. “Williamsburg once had fourteen taverns, Ben. Now two are all that remain. Before the Revolution, this one was called the King’s Arms. Only gentry passed through its door. Today I heard that Mrs. Vobe plans to sell.”

“What then will you do for venison tarts?” I asked, joking, for Sam had a great appetite for Jane Vobe’s meat pies. Yet the news was unsettling, for I was reminded how the citizens of Williamsburg seemed daily to dwindle in number, and that boded ill for my plans to situate myself here.

Sam moved then, turning westward, his feet crunching upon the oyster shells of the path. “The devil of it is that I cannot bear to stay behind Old Man Greenhow’s counter much longer.” Sam was a clerk in John Greenhow’s store and had in the last month often stated his displeasure with the work.

“And yet,” he continued, “the import trade is all I know. In truth, I fancy my own establishment.” Sam paused, using his hands to outline an imaginary signboard in the air. “‘Samuel Walker, Purveyor of Fine Goods.’ A fine sound that has to it.”

“You need wealth to open a store, purchase inventory, pay the ships—”

“Precisely my point.” Sam resumed his walk, jamming his hands into his pockets in frustration. “Even if I had the means, with everyone leaving Williamsburg, who would be my patrons? Greenhow already provides for the gentry still here—”

“And no one else can afford imports of late,” I concluded, “with all the embargoes.”

Sam agreed. “Still, if I could begin small, offering one item—French wine, perchance—that could be sold from my current lodgings, as Brennan does with his snuff.”

I scoffed. “John Brennan’s snuff is but the lowest quality tobacco, ground up with dry mint to make it tolerable. He sells for a shilling what costs him less than a penny to produce.”

Sam paused, one foot poised in the air. When it came down, he touched his hat to me, saying, “Sir, I bow to your insight.” Then he laughed, clapping me upon the back. “Do you see? I need not sell to gentry at all. I can claim as my customers Brennan’s patrons—those middling folk who desire the luxuries of the gentry within their own means, and who already frequent Mrs. Carson’s to deal with Brennan.”

“Those folk can ill afford imported wine, even at cost.”

“Imported from France, no. I could do my importing a bit closer to home. York County, say.”

“And pass local wine as French? You’d be caught out.”

We came even with the old powder magazine, an octagonal building used since the war as a market storehouse. Sam waved me ahead, for the path here was ill kept and it forced us to go Indian file to avoid the worst of the mud, but he carried on his plotting. “I’ll call it Rhenish then. And if need be, I could travel farther afield for my stock. See you here, Ben, we’ve both maintained since the war began that Americans ought to trade more in their own goods. Why, I could make unwitting patriots of the lot of them.”

I could but laugh at that and say over my shoulder, “I suppose this is no worse than your last week’s scheme to marry a rich widow ’fore the New Year.”

“The outcome is more pleasant. The wealthy widows hereabout all long ago lost their comeliness, if indeed they had any to start with. Why should beauty and fortune be so opposed, I wonder?”

“’Tis a device of rich men, to keep Sam Walker from bedding wife and daughter.”

“A faulty device, then. A homely lass is often more willing than a pretty one, and the view remedied with ease by blowing out the candle. ’Tis only for the years of marriage that I require a handsome face, to gaze upon across the dinner table each day and not be put off my victuals.”

The path widened before Mr. Greenhow’s tenement and we walked abreast once more. “Moreover, Sam, no widow would marry you, rich or poor, given your present income.”

“Nor you,” he returned with a laugh. “None save our landlady, at least, who’d meet you at the altar on the morrow if you showed a willingness. What about it, Ben? Elizabeth Carson owns her house and a half acre, and her Thomas has been in his grave more than two years now. Have the banns announced this month and you could be wed Twelfth Night.”

I felt my face grow warm, for in truth, the prospect of marriage was one reason I’d come to Williamsburg. Yet the memory of Thomas Carson, my lieutenant for the late years of the war and as good a man as I’d ever known, could not be so easily dismissed. My reply was, “I’ll not marry until I have means enough to improve my intended’s circumstances.”

BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
13.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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