Read Strange Yesterday Online

Authors: Howard Fast

Strange Yesterday

Strange Yesterday

Howard Fast

For

MY FATHER

CONTENTS

PART I: THE INN

PART II: THE INNKEEPER

PART III: THE GARDEN

PART IV: STEER'S HEAD

Note: Probably, Inez Vetchen, Inez Preswick's grandmother, was the child of Inez Preswick. Thathcer Demity: and in that case the descent upon both sides of the family is traced with no break. Though this is not indicated in the cale it is almost obvious.

PART I

1783–1792

THE INN

THE INN

1

I
N
the last months, old John Preswick had aged a great deal. His cheeks had fallen in, and beneath his eyes, wrinkles had gathered in little sacs. When he walked, he rested heavily upon his frog-headed, banded hickory stick. But it was not often that he walked. Most of the time, he sat in the chair behind his great mahogany desk in his office, his elbows resting upon the wood, his face in the palms of his hands, his eyes staring blankly away into space. Sam, the colored servant, would sometimes come in and stand in the open doorway, waiting to be noticed; but old John Preswick never saw him until he coughed, low and apologetically. Then old John Preswick would glance up, shake the distance from his eyes, and murmur: “Sam?—eh, Sam?”

It was always the same, no more than that, no less. And Sam, who could well remember when John Preswick had talked to him as one white man talks to another, who could remember when John Preswick had dandied up, to strut along Cherry Street and down the Bowery Lane, alive for a chance to sneer in that contained way of his at the redcoat occupants, twirling his frog-headed stick as though he were the governor of New York, aloof and superior—Sam always felt a succession of shivers tingle up and down his spine, same kind of shivers as when one sees a ghost.

Sam would wonder what old John Preswick saw, staring ahead of him from behind the desk.

This day the oars of the last British hand-boats had clicked their way over to Staten Island, and after that General Knox led his troops down from Harlem to take over occupation of the city. When he left his troops to join General Washington at the Bull's Head Tavern, half of the city tagged at his heels, cheering him with already hoarse voices. And when he returned in magnificent parade with General Washington, with Governor Clinton, with Lieutenant-Governor Van Cortlandt, with their-attachés riding eight abreast, the citizens lined the roadway and screamed and waved their hats as the general went past.

Old John Preswick, Sam at his elbow, his stick in hand, found himself a place where he could watch the thing; but he stood through it all without opening his mouth, and when it was over and they were taking their way back, he leaned more heavily than ever upon Sam's arm. He sank into a chair behind his desk, asking Sam to pour him a whisky in the way he liked, with a little hot water and a lump of sugar. He said, as Sam gave it to him:

“A triumph—and a victor's entry. I suppose the scales are full.”

Sam nodded, stirring the whisky. In the tray he had placed upon the desk, there was a demijohn, and, leaning against the wicker, a letter, address inwards. As the slow eyes of John Preswick turned upon it, he explained:

“That came this morning, sir, with one of the officers. It's funny the way the post get's here an' there, afore it goes to who it's intended for.”

Old John Preswick dropped his eyes, taking up his whisky. “Leave it, Sam. Leave the tray.”

The whisky scarce an inch from his lips, his eyes assumed the old lackluster glaze, and after the negro closed the door, he remained like that, staring ahead of him. Then he put down his drink, untasted. He took the letter, turning it around that he might read the address. As he stared at the smudged ink lines, his jaw fell, and he shivered like a man who is about to have a fit. Lifting the whisky, he half drank it, half spilt it over the front of his waist-coat. The letter slipped to the desk, a few drops of whisky upon it.

Then his mouth tightened; a light came into his eyes; his fingers were suddenly firm; and he tore open the envelope and read the enclosure. This was the letter:

M
Y
D
EAR
F
ATHER
:

Pray God this will reach you. Now, with the country all in a turmoil, the post is but a haphazard chance. However, I shall attempt to get a note ahead as I come. I cannot but conjecture of what has passed your mind in the year since you have had word of me. In Georgia, under General Wayne, I fought in my last battle. I was captured by the British and held four months. Then, with two others, I managed to make my escape. We were pursued, and the two were killed. I received a ball in the upper part of my arm, shattering the bone, which has since caused me much grief. However, I made good my escape and had the fortune to be taken in and sheltered by an innkeeper, whose wife and daughter nursed me back to health. They have been wonderfully kind and wonderfully considerate; their patience has been tried to the limit, for it is half a year now that I have lain with the festering of my wound. My strength is gone entirely, but I have some small part of my health. I am learning to walk all over again, so long is it since I have been upon my feet. The place is very beautiful, and near to the inn there is a hill. Today I climbed to the top of it, and I imagined, though I was not entirely sure, that I could see the ocean. Somehow, after that, I could wait no longer; very soon I shall take carriage to the north, and perhaps I shall arrive not too long after this letter. If I have caused you worry or bewilderment, God forgive me for it.

I remain your humble and most obedient son,

J
OHN
P
RESWICK
.

Old John Preswick folded up the letter, tucking it beneath his shirt, its crumpled surface against his skin. He stood up, felt for his stick, gained it, and rested upon it. Then, going to the window, he unbolted it, opened it, and stepped out upon the balcony. He leaned over the balcony, looking down the street to where the lines of soldiers were still drawn up, the lowering sun glancing off the blue of their uniforms, off the white of their breeches. From the flagpole that swung up over the ramparts of Fort George, the colors of England lilted to the breeze. That morning he had seen the British sailors greasing the pole after nailing their jack to it. Now a boy was laboriously making his way up the pole, fastening cleats to the wood as he went, a red and blue and white flag knotted about his neck. When he reached the top, he cut down the Union Jack, held it for a moment, and then loosed it to the wind. It sailed out, over the upturned heads of soldiers and people, over the bay like a giant kite, spreading and drifting down until it rested softly upon the waves. Then, gripping the pole with one arm, he untied the flag from his neck and nailed it on where ragged bits of the other still clung to the pole. As it opened itself to the current of air, old John Preswick turned back to the room.

But he left the draped windows open that the sun might flow in; that he might see the tossing of the new and bizarre banner occupying the place where for seven years the colors of Britain had spread.

For a while he sat, the cool November air flooding in upon him, before he rang for Sam.

“Why, sir, you'll take cold,” Sam said, going to close the windows.

“No. Leave them be, Sam.” He paused for a moment, tapping his knuckles upon the desk; then he went on:

“Sam, I want you to prepare Mr. John's room—fresh linen, fresh curtains. I want you to lay out his gray coat and his tan skin-breeches.”

The black's eyes opened wide. Was the man mad?

“And one other thing—you will go to Miss Inez, and you will tell her that this evening I shall expect her to wait upon me.”

“But—?”

“You will do as I say, Sam!”

Shaking his head, the negro went out.

But then he was back. Perhaps a moment or two had gone by, and he was back, facing old John Preswick, who had not moved at all. The negro, who was, indeed, even older than John Preswick, stood in the doorway, his mouth open, his eyes popping.

“Well,” inquired old John Preswick, “what is it, Sam?”

“He come back! Now he's out there in the hall, his hat in his hand, jus' as he was, livin' an' movin'. It's the curse of God that ol' Sam should see this. It's the curse of the devil. It's—”

“Who?”

“Johnny—I swear it was Johnny!”

Old John Preswick smiled, folding his hands together upon the top of the desk. He turned his head a little, catching, from a corner of his eye, a glimpse of the sun streaming past the window and over the roofs of the houses opposite. He smiled, and with a hand that shook just a bit, he poured himself a glass of whisky. He said:

“You may show him in—Sam.”

And then he gulped his drink and waited.

No boy stepped in as the door opened. Instead, there was a man, with a dry, thin face, with gray-streaked hair caught in a knot at the back of his neck, with one sleeve bent up and fastened near the shoulder by a brass pin. There was no age to him. He might have been thirty; he might have been more, or less.

At the door, he stood looking out of tired gray eyes at John Preswick. And old John Preswick rose and came around the desk, staring at his son, at the empty left sleeve. He was in a blue coat, a bunch of lace at his throat, and he wore military breeches of whitish-yellow doeskin. In his hand he held a cocked hat. But John Preswick saw only his eyes, large gray eyes, fathomless in their depth.

Old John said: “Hello, Johnny lad.” Fumbling in his vest, he found the letter and drew it out. “I got it,” he said, opening it and glancing down. “I got it, so I knew you'd be coming soon, Johnny. Otherwise you would have surprised me. Were you counting to surprise me, Johnny?”

He sought for his stick. Had not his son come forward and taken him about the shoulder, he would have fallen. And as he held his father, the younger man's eyes went over his head, through the window, to the bit of bunting on the pole. His gray eyes grew even more somber; and with his gaze still upon it, he led his father over to a deep, leather-upholstered chair, standing beside the desk.

“But I am back now, Father. You must be easy. It is all over.”

“It's all over, isn't it, Johnny?” His glance wandered up, from the breeches to the blue coat, from the blue coat to the drawn face. “I thought you were dead, Johnny. There was a letter from Alexander Hamilton telling me how you had fought in some battle down south. Then in the end, he said you had died for your country, and that I should be glad. As though I could be glad, Johnny!”

“But that was a mistake. I was taken by the British.”

“I know now, Johnny. But that was what I thought. I thought you were dead. And to-day, while I watched the general marching his troops down to the Battery, it kept running through my mind to the sound of their feet that you were dead, Johnny.”

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