Sneak Peek: Down Salem Way

I wanted to continue sharing a sneak peek of Down Salem Way with you. Rather than writing in the same style as the other Loving Husband stories, going back and forth between the past and the present, Down Salem Way is strictly historical fiction written diary-style from James’ point of view when he and Elizabeth lived in Salem between 1691-1692. It still needs some polishing, but we’re among friends here.

If you missed the Prologue, here it is.

Here’s the first part of Chapter 1. Enjoy.

20 January 1691

This morn I walked along the seaside toward the near empty dock by the bay. The men who mulled about pulled their long hats closer over their ears and their woolen coats and scarves closer to their chins to keep away the wicked winter wind that poked at our ribs with pointed sticks and whipped our lips and chapped our eyes raw. I had to focus my eyes on the the horizon where the gray line of the sky met the black line of the sea, making the distance appear as though there were no sea and no sky but rather everything blurred into one vast array of nothingness. With my eyes turned toward gray, I bumped into one man, who must have been a ship builder since that was the only trade happening on the docks during the inclement weather. Ship builders abounded in Salem with the plentiful timber available within arm’s grasp. The man’s flat cap fell to the ground, his leather pouch flung from his shoulder, and he grimaced at me with great severity.

“My apologies,” I said. “I did not see you there.”

“Blind, are you? A pox on you!” The man spat tobacco on the ground near my boot and skittered toward the sea, his gray doublet and breeches blending into the slate colors surrounding us and he was gone from my sight as quickly as he appeared. I laughed to myself as I thought, indeed, I am blind. I cannot see without my spectacles, which are at home, and I care not to see anyone who is not my Lizzie, who is also at home, where it is warm, where she is warm, her embrace and her soft body warm, and I am here, being whipped like a thief in the stocks by the angry winter wind. I squinted into the distance, seeking out my father on this dark, frigid day. Standing on one of the docks, I shivered as I remembered how those who lived closest to the port were suffering from smallpox at that very moment, and once again I realized that I would rather be at home sitting in my chair before the amiable fire in the hearth, reading Samuel Pepys, Memoirs of the Navy, my wife sitting in her chair beside me knitting or mending or reading. I pictured my two-gabled wooden house and the dark-haired angel waiting for me inside, and suddenly the docks became even more miserable than they were when I first set out that morning.

Suddenly, near the ship builders I saw a group of men clustered close to one another and I guessed that my father was among them. Banging and clanging and shouted conversations among the ship builders filled the empty space alongside the waves crashing against the shore and the crisp cries of seagulls. I shivered,  shaken nearly senseless by the biting wind.

It was quiet by the docks today, as it normally is in January, the ship crossings lessened during the frigid winter weather. It was hard enough for the ships to pass through the unfriendly triangle seas of their destinations during calmer weather. While it may have been warmer in the southern destinations, in winter in Massachusetts it was virtually impossible to navigate the ships safely to harbor. For some reason, the weather did feel colder in January in Massachusetts than it did in London. Virtually, the sky was the same, deepening shades of gray that shed wind, sleet, or snow depending on its mood, but in London, more than 1600 years old and not yet three decades past the Great Fire, there are more people, more ways to deal with the discomforts of the cold. Especially at our home along the Thames between Westminster and London where we lived among earls and dukes. In Salem Town, where we have lived for more than a year now, everything is sparse. There are a few buildings, a few homes, a few artisans, and they call this a town. It makes me laugh when I think of home. Here there are so few people. So few ways to deal with vexations. There’s just so little of everything here, and it’s still a shock to walk outside my home and see nothing but a few trees and the sea. But my father and I decided to have a go here, settling in the Massachusetts Bay Colony since tis the epicenter of trade here. My father, already a successful merchant in England, had risen from the working class, his father being but a sailor for hire by whomever needed his hands. In England, we could never be anything but new rich, an uncomfortable realization since we lived alongside aristocrats and nobility. But here, in Massachusetts, there was the chance to begin again and see where our wits would take us.

I arrived near the group of huddled men and found my father standing among them as I predicted, near the dock where our ship, The Elizabeth, named for my wife, would be expected in the next few months. My father smiled his hearty smile when he saw me, threw his arm around my shoulders, and though he were a good eight inches shorter than me there was something about his infectious laugh that always made him appear taller, as though he might fill any room he entered. His head was covered under his hat, his balding head left his brain exposed to the cold, he liked to say, and his slanted, small blue eyes brightened. The other men, also merchants with their fortunes resting on the good behavior of the unpredictable seas, shook my hand and nodded in my direction.

“James!” my father said. I have always been certain that, had we remained in London, he could have made his living treading the stage with that hearty, sometimes exaggerated voice that carried over the hammering of the ship builders in the distance. “You see. Here he is. My James. What better son could any father wish for.”

The men murmured their agreement, then turned their eyes to the gray wash from the bay into the horizon. Tis a worrying time for the ship owners, the waiting. Anything could happen from here to there and back again, and it was all too easy to lose goods, men, and most importantly, profits from their merchant trade. In a burst of a bad decision, or a bad wind, everything they depended on could disappear to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean Ships from the Massachusetts Bay Colony carried rum made in New England to Africa where it was traded for the human beings meant to be sold as slaves, who were then brought to the Caribbean plantations where liquid sugar was purchased and brought back to New England to make rum. It could take a complete year for the ships to travel the triangle, and that was a year of worry for the ship owners. Together, these men had built wharves along the bay, a safe place to unload goods destined for local markets or to load cargo onto ships bound for distant ports. They also constructed warehouses and fashionable homes so everyone would know that they were not merely merchants, but successful ones at that. These men were more than shopkeepers who bought and sold goods. Some, like my father, had come from England with success already filling their pockets. Some had come from England with nothing more than the clothes they wore and they created wealth for themselves because of their enterprising spirit.

The ship owners like to congregate near the shore these winter days to gossip. They, including my father, are well dressed men in their finely fitting, jewel-toned fabrics and their jewelry. They are not so overdone as to be ostentatious since there are those in the Village who call them sinful for their vanity, but they are done just enough for others to see that they can afford that ruby ring. The ship owners leaned their heads close as they shared whatever they knew of interest in the Town or the Village. They held their heads high, letting the five-inch cock feathers on their hats reach towards the sky as though together they might lift off in flight like a bird at any moment. They kept their eyes on the barely visible horizon, as though, if they squinted, they could see their ships sailing smoothly across the Atlantic. It was, I thought as I stood near the lapping waves of the bay, not unlike a wake for ships not yet sunk or sailors not yet lost. I was not happy to see the men my father kept company with, but I daren’t bring up the subject with the men themselves stood there. My father had a small but profitable role in the trading—his ship traveled exclusively back and forth from England, sending fish, rum, and molasses to the mother country, receiving beads, copper, cloth, and hardware in return, which he sells round the colonies for a healthy profit. Still, he needs the cooperation of those with more extensive roles in the triangle trade, and my father, ever ready with the bawdy joke and the vivacious actor’s laugh, found that cooperation often in his reach.

My father clasped my shoulder more firmly and brought me into the circle of men. Again, I nodded to the others, waiting for the swift wind to lift away the distinctly sweet smell of the rum my father traded wafting from the breaths of the men leaning toward me.

“Ah!” Mister Boxley was one of the leading shipping merchants, one of the wealthiest men in Salem Town, as displayed by his fine fur-collared robe, white linen neck ruff, and fingers glittering with gold. I watched his hands flash like lightning during a storm, and I wondered if Lizzie might like gold of her own, but then I reminded myself of my wife’s simple tastes and I put the thought away. As if reading my mind, Mister Boxley grabbed my arm as though we were the greatest of friends. I had to turn away or else become intoxicated by the rum induced fumes emanating from his very pores. “There you are, young Wentworth! I was wondering why we haven’t seen you about. Too busy at home with that pretty little wife of yours, eh?”

I would have said something rude in reply if my father hadn’t stepped between Mister Boxley and me. “Now, now, George. You know that my James has been married but a month. What else should he be doing these days, and nights for that matter?”

George Boxley slapped his hands together. “Ah, aye indeed, the bliss of early married days. But they pass, young man. They pass. Enjoy them while you can.”

“My wife and I intend on remaining always as we are now,” I replied. “We are quite content together, I assure you.”

“Aye, but weren’t we all quite content when we were first married?” Mister Boxley looked round at the others, and each nodded as though this were all quite serious. “You see, young James. There is joy, but then it is gone. As I say, enjoy it while you can.”

“And as much of it as you can!” said a small, round man whose name I did not care to know.

“Hush!” My father looked around as though looking for spies among the ship builders in the distance. “If the farmers from the Village hear you speak in such a manner they’ll cite you for vulgarity. Perhaps they’ll set you in the stocks for your sin!”

The men slapped their knees at the mere mention of it. Good rum will do that to you, and my father was always keen to allow the merchants whose help he needed to sample as much of that rum as they liked.

“The Villagers can go to the devil,” said Mister Davies, “if they haven’t already. What with their superstitions and beliefs in things unseen. The invisible world they call it. Ha! That’s what happens when you’ve no proper education—you’re too easily manipulated to the biddings of others. Tis no wonder their reverend’s own family suffers. ”

“They have no thoughts other than that which their Reverend tells them to have,” said another, a Mister Stevens, “and I’ve heard he speaks of nothing but the spread of the devil’s own magic everywhere in the Village. Tis no surprise his own family suffers.”

“They’re simple folk,” said the small, round man. His white-shirted stomach pressed his coat aside as though it were only meant to stretch halfway round his waist. “Uneducated. Unthinking. Tis like living down the road from a field of cattle who allow themselves to be led to wherever someone else decides they should be.”

“I’m not sure that is correct,” I said. “My wife is from the Village, and from what she says the people sound like no fools to me. They fight firmly and forever if they believe they’re in the right, as might anyone else.”

“What do they have to fight about?” asked Mister Stevens. Mister Davies, who stood beside him, nodded sagely. “Someone stole their livestock? Someone borrowed their plow?”

“Yes, and they argue about who has the deeds to which lands and who had legally inherited those lands and who has too much land and who has lost too many children. And they argue about their reverend amongst themselves. Some want him at the head of the church in the Village, and others cannot stand him and want him gone. And so they bicker amongst each other.”

“Some of these families have been bickering amongst each other for generations.” Mister Boxley shook his head. “The intolerance they display toward anyone or anything they do not understand is unbelievable.”

“When you, of course, have the utmost tolerance.” My father smiled. The small, round man laughed, thinking my father teased him. But I knew. I heard the sarcasm underlying my father’s actor’s voice. My father said nothing else, looking from man to man as though making some vital decision about each of them. Then, as though the thought only just occurred to him, the small round man said to me, “Your wife is from the Village? My blessings on you, young man.” There was something behind his words, some glint in his small eyes, that made me think he included my wife in his small opinion of the Village though he had never, to my knowledge, set eyes on her.

My father’s hand touched my arm, imploring me to stay silent. He knew what I might say, and he would not have me say it there where I could do some harm.

“We speak not of Goodwife Wentworth when we speak of those in the Village,” said Mister Davies.

“Not at all,” said Mister Boxley. “Goody Wentworth is as fine and lovely a lass as one is likely to see.”

“Mistress Wentworth,” I said.

I am not a violent man. I am not the sort who gives vent to his frustrations by thrashing others. But that is exactly what I was about to do to these supposed gentlemen in that moment. By referring to Elizabeth as Goody Wentworth, they had essentially reduced her social rank. She may have been born into the farming class, but she was now my wife and she is due the respect of her proper title. Still, I stayed silent. I did not wish to impede my father’s business because I could not hold my tongue, or my fists.

“My point,” my father said, “is merely to say that not everyone is the same, no matter who they are or where they’re from. You cannot make generalizations about those in the Village any more than they can make generalizations of us in the Town.”

“Ha!” Mister Boxley poked my father in the ribs. “They make plenty of proclamations about us. We are sinful. We are wrong. We are bound for hell. What it boils down to is that we are too worldly for their simple ways.” He looked at me as though he pitied me. They could not bear to be in our church because they could not stand the proximity to us. They believe themselves to be too goodly, too godly for our kind of people.”

“Ignorant farmers,” Mister Davies said. “That is all they are. When the new charter arrives and we are a people under law again, we will put them in their place.”

“Massachusetts is a theocracy,” my father said. “With the loss of our charter, they have lost their ability to make the laws. That frightens them. When people become frightened of losing their power, they become even more far-reaching in their demands.” My father bowed toward the other men. “I shall meet up with you Thursday next. As always, gentlemen…” The others shouted their thanks for the rum, to which my father returned another bow. My father and I walked away from the shore, leaving behind the hammering of the ship builders and the shouts of the fish sellers in the distance and the rum-fueled laughter of the merchants who were still scanning the bay for their ships hundreds of miles and an ocean away. The further toward land we walked the faster our steps became, as though we could not put distance between ourselves and the shore fast enough. The smell of dried codfish was everywhere around us, and we watched the fishermen sailing into the bay in their boats. My father nodded toward them, hoping to expand his business in sending the codfish places where people might be willing to buy, perhaps in Spain or the West Indies. My father removed his flat hat and scratched at his balding head under its wrap. Finally, nearing the road where the farmers from the Village carted their flour, salt beef, pork, firewood, and cider to the market, my father stopped. He has a faster gait than I do since he is  shorter than me, and I was feeling winded from our brisk escape from the sea.

“Why are they so intent on cutting down those in the Village?” I said. I felt the anger thumping my heart briskly against my ribcage. “Did you hear them?”

“Never mind them, Son. They are foolish men with enough prejudices between them to stop everyone in the world from getting anything done.”

“And your business partners.”

“From necessity, James. We are here but a year, and I am still learning my way round these ports.”

I exhaled. “And what were they saying about the Reverend Mr. Parris in the Village? That his family suffers?”

“Ah.” My father smiled, always happy to share any new story he had. It was how he made friends so easily. “The Reverend Parris’ daughter and niece have had a turn, a burst of sickness that came on just sudden like. The girls have been overcome with fits and screaming or they are trance-like. Parris knows not what to make of it. Some say it is the work of witchcraft.” I laughed at the thought. “Do you not believe in witchcraft, James?”

“I prefer demons I can see,” I said.

To be continued…