Arthur Pledger stood in the street a few yards from the water's edge. If he had looked up, he would have seen the red moon rising low in the sky, and the cooking fires of Washington's besieging army across Boston's harbor. He would not have seen the boat hidden in the shadows under the dock, and the man sitting in it, watching him. But in any case he did not look up; he squinted at his book and read:
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
"What are you looking at?" said Isaac, grabbing the book from Arthur's hand and turning it so that he could read the cover in the moonlight. "Rousseau, that traitorous heathen? He's poisoning your mind, you know. If father found out you were still reading him -- "
Arthur wasn't expecting Isaac to be back from gate duty so soon, and he almost cried out in alarm. But he controlled himself. "Hush, Isaac," he said. "You don't know anything about it." Arthur snatched the book back and put it in his vest pocket. "What are you doing off duty?" He tried to ask it casually, as if it were no concern of his.
Isaac sighed and unshouldered his musket. "They've mixed up the guard roster is all," he said. "I come home early tonight, but I've got extra duty the rest of the week. Seriously, though, why are you out here reading in the street by moonlight? It's getting cold out."
"I needed some air," said Arthur.
Isaac looked at his older brother. Arthur stared back at him, trying to hold his gaze. "You're lying," said Isaac at last. "I can always tell. Seriously, what are you doing?"
Arthur decided to try a more plausible lie. "Alright. Honestly, I am afraid Father will take the book away if he catches me reading it again."
Isaac snorted. "He wouldn't. It's your own book, and you're practically a man, what's he going to do, steal it from you? I mean, it's true though, he doesn't like it, and it is garbage -- "
"It isn't garbage," snapped Arthur. Good, he thought: let's argue about Rousseau instead of talking about why I'm standing out here in the cold. An excellent distraction. "How would you know? You haven't even read it."
"I know better than to read it," sneered Isaac. "A bunch of anti-monarch, pro-Catholic nonsense, like half the stuff coming out of France these days. And pro-Indian or something, too, isn't it?"
"Where are you getting this crap?" cried Arthur, his mind racing as he tried to decide what to do. He'd been working up to this moment for a month, and here was Isaac, stepping in and ruining it. Because Isaac, too, was a soldier... "Rousseau talks about the equality of man, mutual respect, and other moral principles that are inherent in man and are crushed by the rules and indignities of civilized -- "
"In other words, he's some kind of liberal king-hater," said Isaac, waving a hand dismissively. "Seriously, Arthur, what are you doing out here?"
Damn. He hadn't had time to think of another lie. He stared at Isaac, frozen in indecision.
"What?" said Isaac after a moment. "Arthur, what? What's gotten into you?"
The words came into his mind unbidden, and Arthur spoke them:
"There is but art and mummery in even honor, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting. How abject we are! In the midst of so much philosophy, benevolence, politeness, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness."
"What the hell was that?" said Isaac.
"Rousseau," snapped Arthur, feeling himself blush in the darkness. But the words had decided him. He turned and opened the door of his father's house and stamped into the light and warmth, knocking the filth of the street off his boots. Isaac followed him in, and was still in the doorway as Arthur marched across the room to where his mother and father were sitting in by the fire -- he mending a clock, she knitting -- and said, "Father, I'm deserting."
For a long moment, his father and mother stared at him, and there was no sound but the ticking of the clock and Arthur's heavy breathing.
"Explain yourself," said his father quietly, setting down his work. His mother looked back and forth between them, fearfully.
Arthur swallowed. His father, he knew, would start out speaking softly and reasonably, but at any moment his temper would snap. "Father, I know you're disappointed," he said, "but please understand. I can't stay here and fight like this." He paused, but his father said nothing -- just stared at him -- so he pressed on. "Look, father, I know you believe in the King, I know you believe he is God's representative on Earth, I know -- "
"And you don't," said his father quietly. He looked at Arthur a moment, then turned away. He went over to the fire, leaned over, and stirred the fire with the poker. "Go on," he said, "I'm listening."
"No," said Arthur, taking a deep breath. "I don't. I do believe that all men are created equal -- well, if not equal, at least they should have equal opportunities in life. And... And it's simply unjust that the law should treat different people differently. Everyone should have the same rights and obligations, and..." His father was not looking at him, just stirring the fire. His words petered out.
"And?" said his father.
"And so I cannot support the crown," said Arthur. "I don't believe in it, and I cannot fight for it, and I will not die for it. I cannot stay here and wear the King's uniform any longer."
"But that's treason," said Isaac.
"Arthur," said his mother, standing and coming over to him, "think what you're saying! If you desert, you become an outlaw. You'll be a traitor! You'd be hanged!" She shook her head. "This isn't you. This isn't my son talking. You've allowed yourself to be bewitched by those friends of yours, with all their mad talk of democracy and -- "
"Arthur, this is madness," said Isaac. "Look, I know you don't like the King, but really, in a few more months this whole unpleasantness will be over and the colonies will be peaceful again. At that point you'll be out of the army and no one will think the worse of you. But you can't desert the army during a siege, it's just common sense -- "
"My mind is made up," said Arthur firmly. "Really, it's not up for debate. No, be quiet. Listen to me. I decided a month ago. The only question in my mind was when I would desert, and whether I would tell you of my decision, or just go. I felt I owed you an explanation -- "
"You owe us a lot more than that," said his father. "Traitor," he added softly. And then, with surprising swiftness, he turned, still holding the cherry-hot poker, and hurled it like a harpoon at his son. But Arthur had been waiting for the snap of temper, and was ready. The poker caught him a gash on the leg -- his father had been aiming to cripple, not kill -- but the pain lent him speed, and in an instant he was out the door and into the night, headed for the waiting boat under the dock in the shadows.