Monday, January 24, 2011

A Masonic Matter

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Christmas, 1754

There was a pounding at the door. Steadfast, sitting upstairs by the indian's bed, said, "I'll get it," dashed downstairs, and flung it open. It was raining, as usual, but the drops were laced with ice. Benjamin Franklin stepped in, removing his cloak.

"Thank you so much for coming, sir," said Steadfast, "especially on such a night -- "

"Are you mad?" said Franklin mildly. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything, if half of what you said is true. You say he is ill?"

"He is very weary, and as the night has come on, he's gone feverish and started talking nonsense, sir. Clearly he's had smallpox, but the scars are old and he seems well over it."

"Is there a doctor?"

"Dr. Rogers is up there with him now, sir."

"Can he have visitors? May I come and speak to him at once?"

"Certainly, sir. Chastity! Please put on the tea."

"Yes, father."

As Steadfast led the way upstairs, Franklin asked, "So he arrived this afternoon?"

"Yes, brought into town on a coach, if you can believe it, sir! He came from the west, over the mountains, with his two dogs, and was begging at a farmhouse. The farmer took pity on him, and listened to his story, and brought him to Germantown in his cart. From there the mayor, who as you know is one of us, arranged for the coach to bring him here this afternoon."

Steadfast opened the door and led Franklin in. Black Egret lay in bed, eyes closed, breathing deeply. Dr. Rogers had been reading the paper by the bed, and Steadfast's wife, Labor, had been knitting. They both stood up as Franklin came in.

"Good evening, Labor. Dr. Rogers." Franklin shook hands, and then went and stood by the bed, looking at Black Egret carefully. The scars of smallpox were easy to see, and so was the bone-deep weariness of the man -- not in any specific feature, but in a hundred small things, like the limpness of his strong hands, the pattern of creases around his eyes and mouth, and the streaks of premature white in his black hair.

Franklin went to the bedside. "He speaks English?" he asked.

"Well enough," said Steadfast.

Drawing up a chair, Franklin said, "Hello."

Black Egret opened his eyes, but said nothing.

"My name is Benjamin Franklin," Franklin continued. "I am a tradesman and scholar here in Philadelphia. I am told you came a very long way to join us."

Black Egret's breathing became shallow, and said, "He is father. He is father. Bastard made bastard."

Franklin glanced back at Steadfast, who shrugged. "He has been raving for hours, sir."

Franklin nodded. "Do you have the journal?" he asked. Steadfast pointed to it on the bedside table.

"Mr. -- Black Egret, is that your name?"

Black Egret nodded.

"I am very pleased to meet you," said Franklin. "Black Egret, may I look at your journal?"

Black Egret nodded again. "They come home," he whispered. "They come home, and father is dead." Franklin smiled gently and took the leather-bound book -- battered and stained, its pages yellowed and crinkled and thinned -- and paged through it gently.

"These first entries are definitely Russian," said Franklin. "Here is a name -- Vitus Bering -- that is the Russian explorer who was lost six years ago. My, my, my." He turned the pages. "There is a lot of writing here in a language I don't recognize," he said. "It looks syllographic. Black Egret, do you know what that is?"

"Me," said Black Egret.

"You wrote this? Is it in your tribe's language?"

"Mine," said Black Egret. "I make writing."

"You mean you made up your own writing? A code?"

Black Egret scowled and turned his head away. "Hand," he said, and he weakly raised his scarred hand off the covers and shook it. "Hand withered. He kill him, go east."

"Can you hear me?" said Franklin.

"Yes," said Black Egret.

"Good," said Franklin. He smiled. "Mr. Pledger here sent me a message with some of your story. I was extremely intrigued, since I am interested in geography and history and so on. Are you willing to tell me the story in your own words?"

"No. Very tired," said Black Egret.

"Really?" said Franklin. At that moment Chastity arrived with the tea tray, and then bowed out again.

"She is half slave," said Black Egret. "He marry her anyway."

Franklin sipped his tea, and said, "Steadfast, you said he'd been feverish all evening?"

"For the past few hours, sir."

Black Egret groaned, and then said, "Not sleep well."

"You did not sleep well last night?"

"Yes," said Black Egret. "Not sleep well in six years."

"Six years!" cried Franklin. "Why not?"

"She not let me," said Black Egret. He frowned and closed his eyes. "They all three girls want fight. Both want children." Then his eyes popped open, and he gripped Franklin's hand, stared into his eyes, and spoke a few urgent sentences in rapid indian language.

Franklin nodded and said gently, "I do not understand your language. Please speak English."

Black Egret frowned and closed his eyes.

"Who will not let you sleep, Black Egret?"

Black Egret glared at him. "Ghost," he said.

Franklin sat back in surprise. "A ghost! A spirit is disturbing your sleep?"

Black Egret nodded, and closed his eyes again. "Iron horse," he said wearily. "Iron horse rolls and iron bird flies and red man takes the law. Two sisters gone. Bright path up the grandfather mountain."

Franklin looked at Steadfast, who shrugged again, and then he sat a moment in thought. At last he said, "Black Egret, we're going to try and break your fever. Dr. Rogers, do you have some boneset weed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Boil some up for us. Labor, could I ask you to leave the room?"

Labor started in surprise, and then said, "I -- well certainly, sir. Is there a problem?"

"I apologize, but I'm afraid this is becoming a Masonic matter."

"Of course," said Labor. She stood up, gathered her knitting, and left at once.

Franklin then went round the room, closing windows and shutters, and snuffing candles. Rogers arrived with the boneset, crushed it into a tea ball, and boiled the water. Franklin took the one remaining lit candle and put it by the bed. "Black Egret," he said, "I may be able to help you. I have some training in these matters. Would you be willing to allow me to try?"

Black Egret whispered, "What you do?"

"Just lie back and relax. There will be no pain."

Black Egret looked at him a long moment, and finally nodded.

"Very well," said Franklin. "Steadfast, stand right over there by the door, if you would. Do you have a weapon?"

Steadfast took a knife from a drawer and took up his post.

Franklin took up the infusion of boneset -- the smell of it was acrid -- and dipped a cloth in it, and then lay the cloth over Black Egret's forehead. The indian shivered and cried out, "He dying! Who give him his last name?"

"Just relax," said Franklin. He waited a few moments. Black Egret muttered, "Crazy uncle. Six tens and six. The Keepers of the Eastern Door."

"I want to speak to the spirit that keeps this man awake," said Franklin softly.

"Anna," said Black Egret.


"Anna her name," said Black Egret.

"Thank you," said Franklin. "I want to speak to Anna. Anna, are you there?"

"The black man king," whispered Black Egret. "He my friend, you all killed, leave me alone. Iron minds. Touch face of God."

"Anna, are you there? I need to speak to you."

There was a long pause, and then Black Egret breathed, "What you want."

"Am I speaking with Anna?"

"Anna here," whispered Black Egret.

Franklin glanced at Steadfast, whose knife gleamed in the dim candlelight. "Anna," said Franklin, "I need to know why you will not let this man sleep. He is very sick, very tired."

"Journal. Journal to Russia."

"Anna, you want the journal taken to Russia?"

"Yes, journal to Russia."

Franklin paused a moment in thought. "Anna," he said at last, "if this man dies, the journal will not get to Russia."

Black Egret did not reply.

"Anna," said Franklin, "you must release this man, if you want the journal to reach Russia."

Black Egret did not reply.

"Anna, do you want the journal to get to Russia?"

"Journal to Russia," whispered Black Egret.

"Then you must release Black Egret," said Franklin.

"Journal to Russia," whispered Black Egret.

"You have made him sick," insisted Franklin. "He will not make it to Russia unless you let him be."

"Journal to Russia," whispered Black Egret.

Franklin put his hand on Black Egret's forehead. He sighed. "His fever is getting worse, Rogers," said Franklin.

"We will need to bleed him soon," said Rogers.

Franklin nodded and frowned. "I don't think this Anna is a full personality," he muttered. "An echo of a ghost, nothing more. All that is left of her is the desire to get the journal to Russia."

"Is that good or bad?" said Steadfast.

"Less good," said Franklin. "She won't be reasoned with. She hasn't got enough of a mind for that." He closed his eyes and bent his head in thought.

Steadfast, Rogers, and Franklin sat in silence a while. Black Egret's breathing grew faint and ragged.

At last Franklin looked up and smiled. He drew a small knife from his pocket, placed the journal carefully on the side table, and gently, softly cut the pages from their leather binding. He handed the pages to Steadfast. "Get me some other paper," he said very quietly. Steadfast nodded and went to the desk at the far side of the room. He put the journal pages into a drawer, took out some loose paper, folded them small so that they would fit in the journal cover, and handed them to Franklin. Franklin smiled approvingly and slid them into the journal.

"Anna," said Franklin, and he put the journal into Black Egret's hands. "Anna, is this the journal?"

"Journal," whispered Black Egret. Eyes still closed, his fingers caressed the journal as if it were a child. "Journal to Russia."

"No," said Franklin. "Anna, I am going to destroy the journal. Watch me closely. Watch me, Anna." Black Egret's eyes snapped open, and in the light of the single candle they seemed to blaze blue. But Franklin took the journal from Black Egret's weak fingers, and stood, and carried it over to the fire. Black Egret's eyes followed him as if fascinated. "Watch me, Anna!"

As he dropped it, Black Egret rose from the bed, moving with the speed and silence of a bird's shadow. Rogers reached out for him and missed. Steadfast was quicker: his knife found Black Egret's side, and his arm went round his neck. Black Egret fought and twisted, while Franklin cried, "It's finished, Anna! It's finished! The journal is gone! It's gone! The journal is gone!"

All at once it was over: Black Egret crumpled, all strength emptied. Rogers gently took him from Steadfast's arms, and with Franklin's help, carried him back on the bed. Rogers bound the knife would and Franklin checked his temperature and breathing.

"The fever is broken," said Franklin. "And... he is asleep."

When the morning came, and Black Egret woke, the fire was out, and only Franklin was in the room with him, still in the bedside chair, but asleep. Next to his hand on the bedside table was the journal. Black Egret lay there a while, listening to the silence of the dawn.

When Franklin woke up, not long afterwards, Black Egret had started the fire again, and was standing by the fireplace, leaning on the warm brickwork and holding the journal.

"Good morning, Black Egret," said Franklin. "How do you feel?"

"Better," said Black Egret. "Anna gone."

Franklin nodded. "Good," he said. He watched Black Egret carefully. The Indian stood absolutely still, eyes locked on the journal in his hand.

"You are going to burn it?" asked Franklin at last.

Black Egret did not answer at once; he sighed and looked at Franklin and laughed a little. "I thought maybe yes," he said. "But no. -- Not today."

Franklin nodded. "Tomorrow?" he asked.

"Maybe," said Black Egret.

Franklin watched the Indian another minute, then stood up and stretched. "Fine," said Franklin. "It is your journal, you can do what you want with it. What will you do today?"

Black Egret tottered back to bed. "Today I sleep," he said. "Tomorrow, maybe I burn journal. Or... maybe I find boat to Russia."

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