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Authors: Elena Santangelo

Tags: #mystery, #fiction, #midnight, #ink, #pat, #montello

Poison to Purge Melancholy (9 page)

BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
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“Oh.” The word spoke volumes. Volume one: Glad was a woman who stuck to her traditions. Volume two: no one had ever asked before. Or ever showed interest outside eating the final product.

I pressed my advantage. “Hugh said your Christmas meals are unique.” He had, but the tone of his voice equated “unique” with “oddball,” which was why Beth Ann’s description of usual holiday fare surprised me a bit. “So I’m fascinated. And you shouldn’t have to do everything yourself.”

“I don’t mind. Ev’ll be back soon. But, um, perhaps you could help me with the black caps.”

Black caps? Sounded like burnt mushrooms to me. “Be happy to. Show me what to do.”

Glad set the dish on the long table beside the stove. “The problem is that I’ve never made this recipe before.”

And you’re serving it at a dinner party?!
I almost shrieked, horrified. Sure, I’d been known to improvise recipes to feed last minute guests, but my meals were always based on time-tested formulas, stretched to go further, or altered to make do with ingredients at hand. New recipes I tried on myself first.

I recalled Beth Ann’s “we always have the same things” and wondered why Glad had gone adventuresome all of a sudden. Not on my account, I hoped. But, slapping a smile on my lips, I said, “Let’s have a look at it.”

Glad crossed to the hutch opposite, slid open a drawer—which was stuffed to the gills with pieces of paper—extracted a standard eight-and-a-half-by-eleven specimen, and brought it back to the table.

The page was a photocopy. “Black Caps” was in italics at the top—innocent enough—but then I read, “Chuse for this Dish a Dozen of large sound Apples.”
Whoa!

“It’s from Martha Bradley’s
The British Housewife
,” Glad explained, “published in London in 1756. Ev found it for me. Let me get the apples. You can halve them.” She bustled over to the pantry while I read on.

Understanding the recipe wasn’t the problem. Cut the apples in half, core them, place them face down in the dish, dust them with sugar. Easy. The difficulty came where it said to take two “Spoonfuls” (size apparently wasn’t an issue back in 1756) of the clear juice of a lemon and “add one Spoonful of Orange-flower Water.” Huh?

“I bought Empire apples,” Glad said, returning with two clear grocery bags, with a half dozen each. “They have a nice round shape and aren’t too big. Eighteenth century fruit was smaller than our modern hybrids, you see.”

She headed for the sink, so I went over to help wash the fruit. “What’s orange-flower water?”

“Used to be a flavoring liqueur, made by distilling orange blossoms. The closest I could find was orange extract, though I’m sure the taste won’t be the same.”

I was tempted to point out that since no two-hundred-fifty-year-old food critics would be eating our version, authenticity mattered less than yumminess. I took the tactful route. “Modern extracts are probably a lot stronger. Let’s put just a drop or two in a tablespoon of water. Or maybe a drop of the orange with a drop of vanilla extract might be closer to the right taste.” Since I defined “right taste” as anything that wouldn’t drown the Empire’s cidery tang, I added, “Less lemon, too—I assume their lemons were smaller and not as fresh as we’re used to?”

“Absolutely. Citrus came by sailing ship from the Mediterranean.”

Picturing shriveled, moldy fruit in the stalls of Market Square, I was thankful I lived in this century. Then again, those colonials never had to deal with stubborn produce stickers.

While I halved the apples and arranged them in the baking dish, I asked Glad more questions about eighteenth century foods, not to get on her good side, but because I was genuinely interested. Cooking was my main creative outlet and recipe-collecting my favorite hobby. Here was a new source—the past.

Glad was more than willing to educate me, chattering away as she took a covered bowl from the fridge. Spices, I learned, were in the same boat (so to speak) as non-native fruit. They were shipped from the East Indies, with no tight-closing jars or tins sealed for freshness and tamper-proofing, and so they would have had a weaker taste than we’re used to. I also learned that Glad’s covered bowl contained fresh pumpkin diced into half-inch cubes, which she put into a frying pan with a pat of margarine.

“Of course,” Glad continued, “there were only springhouses and root cellars to keep food fresh. You’d go to market more often—every day in the summer—for your meat and eggs and milk, if you had no cow or chickens of your own. How’re the apples coming, Pat?”

Per Martha Bradley’s instructions, I’d dribbled the lemon-orange-vanilla concoction onto the apples and sprinkled on a tad more sugar (talk about your sweet tooth!), then set them aside to await their turn in the oven, where they were to “stand Half an Hour in quick Heat.” Given the “black” in their name, I guessed that the sugar ought to caramelize (candy apples!) and suggested to Glad that she crank the oven up to 425 F after the bird was done.

Then I asked what else I could do, and Glad, as she slid the now fried pumpkin cubes from the pan to a paper-towel-lined bowl, said, “Let’s see. I suppose we could boil the peas for Ev’s pudding. I’ll fetch them from the pantry.”

Pudding? Peas? Two words that, in my opinion, didn’t go together. But no sooner was she through the doorway, than I spied lights outside—the headlamps of a car pulling into the yard. Headlamps that I recognized: Hugh’s Ford. The porch light picked up the postal insignia on his car door (since he ran a one-man annex, he didn’t rate an official postal service Jeep, but the decals on his own car kept him from getting ticketed while delivering mail in our local housing development).

Shouting to Glad as I dashed outside, I was on the porch before he’d come to a stop and beside his driver’s door before he’d cut the engine. I could hear the radio through the closed windows. As I opened the door, I was nearly bowled over by Burl Ives singing “Holly, Jolly Christmas.” And by Miss Maggie, who was almost drowning him out as she harmonized in her wobbly alto.

The car’s dome light backlit the knee-melting grin Hugh gave me as he turned the key. Burl cut off mid-word. Miss Maggie took over the melody without skipping a beat.

Leaning in, I planted a quick smooch on my beloved’s cheek, which was fairly smooth and smelling of Old Spice, so I knew he’d shaved before driving down. I craned my head around his bulk to greet Miss Maggie, who had added padded reindeer antlers over her green- and red-striped stocking cap. She wore green stretch pants under a red ski jacket. Christmas Spirit personified.

Since she had her eyes closed as she belted out another verse, and since Hugh had already maneuvered his left hand around to my butt, I took the opportunity to plant more than a quick smooch on him, aiming for mustache and lower lip this time.

His other arm curled around my shoulders, drawing me closer, and though the steering wheel was digging into my ribs, I did my best to oblige, until something—not Hugh’s hands, because they were accounted for—slithered across my breasts.

“What the—?” Picturing a large slimy snake, I propelled myself out of the Ford, up against Acey’s passenger door. “Something . . . I . . . oh . . . it’s your seat belt.” I felt my face flush, but told myself, after the day I’d had, I could be excused for being a smidge jumpy.

The strap finished retracting as Hugh exploded into laughter. Shoving the belt aside, he got out, reaching for me again.

Mindful that Glad was watching from within—odd that she hadn’t come out, too—I side-stepped. “You’re early.”

“So make it worth my while.” He cornered me at Acey’s side mirror—not that I tried hard to get away.

“Hugh, your mom’s right inside.” The protest was negated by my traitorous hands sliding under his waist-length jacket.

“How’d you two hit it off?” he murmured, mouth brushing against my forehead.

That reminded me that I was mad at him for all the things he hadn’t warned me about. “You’ve got some explaining to do.”

“I’m good at explaining.” He grazed his lips around my right earlobe, sending a surge of delirium south.

“Save it, lover boy,” I managed to breathe out. “Miss Maggie’s on her last chorus.”

She’d wound into a big finish, but in the middle of the word “Christmas,” we heard a window creak open above.

“Hey!” Foot stuck his head out of the first dormer of the original house. Even as a dark silhouette against the dim light of the room behind him, I could tell he was shaking with fury. “I’ve been yelling for the past half hour. Didn’t anyone hear me? The damn door’s stuck—I can’t get out of this room.”

I felt Hugh’s laughter boil up inside him again, though he didn’t let it out. “I guess we should go rescue him.”

“You go. I’ll bring Rudolph inside.” Yes, I was avoiding the front stairs. But more than that, I had to talk to Miss Maggie alone. Foot was in the first bedroom—my panic-attack room, the room that, according to Glad, probably once had a lock on the hall side. And now Foot couldn’t get out.

“. . . to make Provision for the Support and Maintenance of Idiots, Lunaticks, and other Persons of unsound Minds . . .”

—Bill to establish the Public Hospital,
General Assembly of Virginia, 1770

December 24, 1783—The Eagle’s Nest

At first, John Brennan
carried on his business as usual, though his patrons now were required to knock upon his door. He let in but one at a time, all others tarrying in the hall as if awaiting an audience with Governor Harrison. And when Brennan took his leave, he secured his lock with its heavy key, which he wore on a chain about his neck.

But Brennan’s mania increased even as the December sun diminished. He returned to his room at more and more frequent intervals, inspecting the lock each time to ensure its working order, until at last he would leave only to use the privy or bring food from the market or tavern. On those occasions, he became as a man pursued by demons—in truth, he seemed to see such creatures on the street.

His countenance, too, changed. He grew gaunt and ever paler, moving as if his limbs pained him, and the smell of onions followed in his wake from poultices applied to his joints. Around his head, he had tied a compress soaked in feverfew tea. His hands often shook and his teeth began to forsake his mouth, until the top lip curled over his gums. Gone was his cockiness, displaced by dread and a mounting tendency to blame all who lived beneath the Carson roof for his affliction.

On the eve of Christmas, he came to the west room of the Eagle. I’d scarcely settled myself at the hearth, with a gill of stout cider to warm my bones before the evening’s mummery in the streets of Williamsburg. Near at hand sat Alex Fisher, Will Knox, and Jim Parker, the latter sipping at a hot whiskey toddy to ease a stubborn croup in his throat. We awaited the arrival of Sam and young Tom to complete our troupe.

The hour being early, only a trio of lads shared the fire with the four of us. Talk was of Brennan’s mania.

“He came into the apothecary today,” Alex said, “asking after specific cures and the maladies that occasioned their use. I advised him to tell me of his ailment, so I could then say which physics might give him comfort. Comfort, he said, would not help him, but rather, knowing what would make him the worse.”

“Mad,” Jim coughed out, and all concurred.

“And when I put it to him that he might consult with Dr. Galt or young Riddick,” Alex went on, “he said Dr. Riddick might have saved him once, but could no longer be trusted since he took his bed from Widow Carson. ‘And
with
her,’ he told me. ‘The lot of them do.’ Brennan’s very words.”

Will laughed, a deep rumble in his spacious chest. “Your rent is a bargain, sirs, if it includes such service.”

The others joined in the mirth, saying, “I shall change my lodgings directly,” and “What does Mrs. Carson serve with dinner?” and, from Alex, “Ben certainly wishes it so.”

I chose to let them have their jest, to laugh with them and hold my tongue, but Jim spoke out, “Say nothing against the lady.” His tone was good-natured, though the firelight brought out the blush of his neck, and he hid his displeasure behind his tankard. “What other matron of this town would take John Brennan into her house and tend him in his illness as if he were kin? None would, that’s assured.”

“Aye,” came a quavering voice at our backs. We turned to behold Brennan standing in the doorway, or rather, leaning his weight upon the jamb. The hearthlight, a jovial gold on our faces, seemed ghostly upon his ill-shaven cheeks, and his eyes were sunken in shadow.

“Aye, she took me in,” Brennan said, his brogue bitter as rue. “Took me in when her husband was off in the war. Gave me a warm hearth and victuals while her Tom froze and starved at Valley Forge. Blessed me with her smile, while he could only gaze upon the likes of you.” He let forth the cackle of a lunatic. “Took me in, and now I must take myself out. A dollar to any man who assists me in the removal of my belongings from Mrs. Carson’s house.”

“I should assist you for no pay,” Jim said, rising, “and when your possessions are in the street, I shall be pleased to remove your hide as well.”

Brennan took a step back, bumping a serving lad passing behind him. “No, Mr. Parker. ’Tis not you I require, nor Mr. Dunbar, nor the others who scheme ag’in me. They come into my room, sirs, and poison my food and drink.”

Jim scoffed. “How can we do that? You lock your door always when you leave.”

BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
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