Benjamin Franklin leaned back in the creaky chair, sighing contentedly. He had had his fill of turnspit-roasted duck, dripping with fat, courtesy of the New Jersey militiamen whose accuracy in shooting was surpassed only by their speed at preparing what they’d killed. Only two birds, off to the edges of the flight that had darkened the sky, had survived the onslaught of fire from the hungry soldiers’ muskets. He thought of them fondly.
“Increase and multiply, “ he murmured. “I wish you many eggs and many more little ducklings. And, for all of us, many more such dinners.”
Franklin glanced around at the encampment, where men whose clothes were a bit too loose were eating hundreds of roasted ducks down to the bones, and smiled. He had nothing to complain about, and leisure in which to think. Because of his age he had been given one of the camp commander’s folding chairs to sit in, and his gouty foot was propped on a log near the fire, which warmed his toes from a comfortable distance. For the moment he was content simply to observe. To his left, a militiaman at the next firepit was describing his shot to a woman of the camp who was doing laundry. She nodded to him, listening, her head moving in the same rhythm as her hands moved on the paddle with which she stirred the cloth in the bubbling pot. To his right, men who had been on night patrol were lying on the ground under the trees with their hats over their faces, sleeping off their meal, oblivious to the noises around them.
Yonder stood John Adams, chewing on a drumstick and nodding as he listened to two of the general's staff tell him their troubles. Ah. That was it. The aides had found the only reliable way to silence John: feed him and, while he was busy with the food, talk faster than he could chew. Franklin resolved never to mention this to Congress. John was far too entertaining to be silenced, especially since he was usually right.
A woman walked up to the fire where he sat and bent to reach over the flames toward the last bird that still cooked there. She had several small tin pans in her hands, and was attempting to position one of them between the rocks so as to catch some of the grease dripping off the duck before it sputtered in the flames.
“Here, my dear, let me assist you,” he said, rousing himself to sit a little straighter. “Is there anything I may do from this position that would be of service? Something I might hold, perhaps?”
She smiled, though she was not looking at him, and said, “I thank you, sir, but there’s naught for you to do. Ducks aren’t geese, but the grease is useful for so many ailments, it’s a shame to let it waste in the fire.”
“It is, indeed,” he said. “Allow me to help keep your clothing intact, madame.” He suited the word to the deed by hooking the handle of his cane in front of the hem of her dress, holding it away from an errant ember. As he watched her, the back of his mind idly considered the design of a turnspit that would catch the grease without obstructing the heat. How close would it have to be to the heat? How could he keep the captured juices from catching fire and maintain their usefulness? It should drain to the side away from the fire so that the dripping would solidify and be more easily stored…
She propped the pan in place, secured it with a rock she pushed with a stick, and straightened. “I thank you, sir. It is kind of you to help.” She raised a hand to secure a strand of dark hair back under her mob cap, and smiled at him. Her teeth were even and whole; he revised his opinion of her upward in the social hierarchy. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties but was not worn out with childbearing; her garb, while far from new, was well maintained and mended with such care that he could barely see the seam.
“Madame, it was my pleasure.” He bowed slightly in his chair. “Allow me to introduce myself: Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, at your service.”
She gave him a small curtsy. “Mistress Elizabeth Elmer, sir. I am glad to meet you. You are the author of Poor Richard, are you not? My late husband doted upon it.”
“Your late husband? I am sorry for your loss, madame.”
Mistress Elmer nodded in acknowledgment. “He died of the ague last winter.”
“Excuse me, then, but if he is gone – “
A boy of about 16 years ran up to her. “Ma, the general is asking for you.”
“Yes. What is it, Ben?” She ran her fingers through his thatch of hair in an attempt to create an acceptable appearance. “Mind your manners and make your bow to Dr. Franklin, who wrote that book your father used to read to us. Dr. Franklin, this is my son, Ebenezer Elmer.”
“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Franklin,” the boy said, bobbing a bow. “Ma, they want me as a dispatch rider, but you know the road better than I do. Come and show me on the general’s map?”
“I certainly don’t want to hold up the progress of the war,” Franklin said. “It’s been a pleasure, ma’am.”
“Thank you, sir,” She gave him a smile and a much less formal nod and the two of them were off on their way toward where John Adams, having disposed of his drumstick, was holding forth on … something.
Franklin glanced about the camp seeking the third representative from the Congress, who had come to evaluate the army's expertise. Where had Samuel Chase gotten to? Good Lord, the man was difficult, though in an entirely different way than the Carolinans. Rutledge and his southerners were eloquent men with an argument to make, and make it they did, repeatedly. But it seemed that new ideas, from Rutledge or anyone else, were lost on Chase. Any new idea had a hard time finding a way into Chase’s mind; possibly it became lost in the man’s wig on its path into the brain and asphyxiated on the powder. However, when it did manage to make its way through the rolls of white horsehair, he clutched it to his bosom so tightly that it required main force to separate the two of them. If John had not brought Chase with them to New Jersey, Chase would probably have continued to believe the conventional wisdom, come hell or high water, and argue that held that a militia comprising irregulars would never stand or fight.
Chase had been converted, as much as either he or John might want, in a rain of ducks from heaven instead of manna. And, in this baptism of new belief, including the duck that had landed on his head, Chase had joined the ranks of John’s true believers.
Good. Turn a man that stubborn loose with his colony’s legislature and there would be no stopping him, and far less work for the rest of them once they returned to Philadelphia.
Franklin took off his glasses, wiped them on his shirtsleeve and returned them to his nose. Where could Chase have gone? He was nowhere in sight. Instead of Chase’s high-puffed wig nodding somewhere in the distance, Franklin saw John coming toward him at his usual energetic stride.
“John, where's Chase? I haven’t seen the man in hours.”
John waved a hand. “He’s over there in the general’s tent, reorganizing something. I think he’s decided that a lawyer’s touch was needed.”
“You know, John,” Franklin lowered his voice slightly, “I’ve heard that his colleagues in Annapolis call him ‘Old Bacon Face’. I didn’t think he was that old.”
“If wisdom accompanies age, then he’s quite young at times,” John said. “And, speaking of wisdom accompanying age –“
“Don’t flatter yourself, it’s unbecoming.”
“If I don’t, nobody else will.” But John smiled warmly, more relaxed than Franklin had seen him in months. “Since Mr. McNair isn’t in attendance, can I get anything for you?”
“Another round of whatever’s on offer, as long as those who are fighting have already had their fill.” He pointed at the mug that sat on another adjacent stump.
“That was a good idea we had, bringing a few small kegs of good ale for the commanders.”
“And some rum for the troops, don’t forget that. Though I’m not sure it went too far.”
John’s smile turned wry. “I saved a keg aside and told the corporal who took our horses to see it was well distributed. I’ve no doubt that it will be.”
“Oh, John, you think of everything.” Franklin smiled in return, but his smile faded a little as he watched the washerwoman boiling the cloth in her pot, lifting something white on her wooden paddle to check its color and dropping it back into the boiling water. It was hard to know if she were there taking care of her family, a company, the commanders, or the troops themselves. The third was the most likely, though the first or fourth might be possible if she were someone’s mother or aunt. He took in her careworn face. Or grandmother, perhaps.
The thought made him wince, remembering. It was not so long ago that Deborah was washing out the children’s smallclothes, making sure they were dressed and presentable, taking care of his own suits and stockings. It had been a hard year, first with her illness and then with her loss, and he wasn’t completely past it yet. Maybe he would never be immune to women of a certain appearance, with long light-brown hair and smiling eyes.
“What? Oh, thank you.” Franklin accepted the steaming mug. “Grog?”
“Best I could do. The commanders are reserving theirs for later. I think this may have been made from that last errant keg.”
“Here’s to the last keg.” Franklin lifted his tankard in a toast and took a drink. “Not bad, thought it’s a bit light on lemon.”
“Haven’t you heard there’s a war on?” John settled on the adjacent stump and rested his feet on a chunk of firewood that lay near it. “You’ll be pleased to know that Chase is no longer attempting to usurp the commanders’ prerogatives. Actually, I think they were amused by him, which is a refreshing response.”
“Oh? What happened?”
John leaned in closer. “The general's aides told him they were sure he would want to inspect everything, and sent him off to check out the whorehouses. He’s to report back on any nude bathing in the river, also.”
“Oh, that's brilliant, though I can’t imagine him joining in.”
“Chase? Remove his wig? Never.” But John’s laughter was affectionate rather than cutting. “I won’t expect him back before nightfall, then.”
“Perhaps not even then. The taverns are open in town, and he’s got more money to spend than either of us. He might take the chance to buy some souvenirs for his family.”
“Ribbons and things, yes." John, who had been idly gazing at the fire, turned toward Franklin. "Franklin, what do you know about ladies’ pins?”
“Pins?" This was something new. "What sort of pins?”
John waved his unencumbered hand, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate ... something. “You know, the kind ladies use to pin cloth together.”
“Ah, yes. Dressmakers’ pins, or tailors’ pins, we used to call them. Excellent for their intended purpose, and most uncomfortable when left in the finished garment. What about them?”
“Where can I find some? Abigail said there are none in Massachusetts.”
“None? Oh, my.” Franklin gathered his scattered thoughts. His last tailor had moved away from Philadelphia at the start of the war; he would have to find a new one. “Well, they’re usually made of metal – something hard and very smooth that doesn’t discolor the cloth. But I’ve seen country women using bits of animal bone, carved small.”
John shook his head. “I think Abigail would have my head if I tried to offer her splintered chicken bone for her pins. No, there must be something else, some French trade ship that ran the British blockade and brought in French dressmakers’ pins.”
“Maybe even a dressmaker to come with them.” Franklin chuckled at John’s raised eyebrow; really, sometimes the man was such an easy target. “You could send someone to New Brunswick to find Chase. Maybe he’s seen some.”
John shook his head decisively. “No, no, Franklin. Abby will have to wait a little longer. Not even for pins will I take the chance of getting caught in one of Chase’s long-winded discussions.”
“John, I’m shocked.” Franklin’s eyebrows rose. “There’s actually someone who can outtalk you?”
“Many people can outtalk me, Franklin. Very few are worth listening to.”
“Well, there you have it.”
The shadows were growing longer, between the trees and the tents. It may have been summer, but the dampness rising from the river not so far away could still be felt in the cooling air. “We are staying here the night, I presume?”
“Not here in the camp; I’ve engaged us the last room available in the town. We’re bundling together, and I hope you don’t snore.”
“I haven’t had any complaints of late.” But Franklin felt himself slipping into melancholy, and he sipped his grog and stared at the fire.
John put his empty mug down. “Is something amiss, my friend? Are you ill?”
“No, I’m not ill.” Franklin nodded toward the washerwoman, and John’s eyes followed her. “She reminded me for a bit of Deborah, from when we were both younger.”
“I’m sorry.” John’s voice deepened with penitence. “I shouldn’t twit you so often about the women you visit. You must miss her very much.”
“More than thirty years we were together, John. After that much time, even our arguments were endearing. You know, we were never able to marry, but it didn't matter.” Franklin sighed. “I see a little bit of my Deborah in every woman I meet, and truth be told, John, much of the time when I visit them it’s for conversation. Women have such interesting minds, and they order thoughts in so different a way, coming at ideas from corners and finding their way through conversational thickets that tangle most men. It fascinates me. That’s one of the things I miss the most, talking with her.” Franklin looked over his glasses at John. “Not all the time, of course.”
“Well, you do have a reputation to keep up, whereas I suppose I have one to live down.”
“But not with the fairer sex, John. I see you with the ladies, and you’re as courteous and kind a gentleman as they might ever hope to meet. You could avail yourself of the goodwill that comes with that more often, you know.”
“Truth in return, Franklin. I won't deny that I’m tempted, sometimes, when I see a woman with a certain shade of hair and a straight nose, and a direct gaze, who has opinions –“
“What woman does not have opinions?”
“And who isn’t afraid to share them. But Abigail has my heart, and it would be a poor return to her to bring her back some of the ailments that women of the trade suffer from.”
“You’re right, of course.” Franklin took his pipe from one pocket of his waistcoat and his roll of tobacco from the other and tamped a pinch into his pipe with his thumb. “Would you be so kind as to light a twig for me?”
“Certainly.” John brought a split twig from the fire to the pipe, and Franklin nodded his thanks. He tossed the twig back into the flames. “Anyway, Franklin, you didn’t answer me – do you snore? Abigail tells me I am the quietest man in the world when I’m asleep.”
“It’s good to know that you give the world a rest sometimes. And as to the snoring, I have been informed that I whuffle.”
“Whuffle?” John raised an eyebrow, ignoring the smoke from Franklin's pipe as it drifted in his direction.
“Whuffle.” Franklin observed him over the top of the pipe. “How long has it been since you’ve seen Abigail?”
“Months. Nearly half a year.”
“And I've been widowed longer than that. Hmm." He observed John for a moment. "Would you be willing to consider something that might give you a measure of ease while neither betraying your vows to Abigail nor chancing the transferral of any dread disease?”
John’s eyebrows rose. “My hand already gets a fair amount of exercise, Franklin.”
“I was speaking of my hand, John.”
John’s mouth opened but no sound came out.
“Oh, my. John Adams, speechless? Shouldn't there be an historian to record the event?”
“Franklin?” came out in a squeak.
“Oh, John, trust me, they do these things in Boston, too.”
“I had no idea –“ John blinked, started to speak but coughed instead. Franklin pounded him on the back. “Allow me to rephrase: what exactly did you have in mind?”
“We’re going to be in the same bed, John. I propose that we, er, exchange hands for our mutual benefit and recreation. And I won’t take it badly if you call her name instead of mine, you know.”
“Franklin… Franklin, that’s –“
Whatever John was about to say was lost in the bustle of Samuel Chase hurrying toward to them. “Adams! Franklin! You would not believe what I just saw in the Raritan River!”
“If it wasn’t nude bathing and whores, I’ll be disappointed,” Franklin murmured.
“Well, yes, that, but there was this fish –“
“A fish? What kind of fish?” John asked, diverted.
“Some manner of enormous catfish, nearly six feet long. All the frolicking in the river must have disturbed it, for it came to the surface in a fearsome manner as if to go after one of the girls. She screamed, and it veered off, and when it came back again one of the militiamen on shore shot it. Amazing shot, what with the reflections on the water and all.” Chase’s hand motions were an obvious attempt to simultaneously portray the moving fish, the musket shot and the girl in the water, but proved inadequate to the task. “And so the camp is to have catfish stew this evening as well as whatever remains of this morning's ducks. Oh, um, mind if I –“ He reached toward the last remaining bird over the fire, now well cooked.
“Don’t jar the pan, Chase.” Franklin leaned forward. “Mistress Elmer would be most distressed to lose her pan of duck fat.”
“Her pan of – oh, yes, of course.” Chase moved around the firepit, calculating the best way to reach the bird.
“If you might allow me, sir.” Mistress Elmer had returned, and was reaching for the turnspit with her hand wrapped in a towel for protection. She dislodged it, brought it off the fire and handed it to Chase, who held it away from his clothes with one hand and picked off bits of meat from the duck breast with the other. As he stepped back from the fire, she came back around toward Franklin. “Might you assist me again, Doctor?”
“With the greatest pleasure.” Franklin handed his pipe to John, picked up his cane and held her skirts back from the fire as she rescued the pan of duck drippings. “I hope your son is happily on his way?”
“He is and thank you, sir. It transpires that the general wished to send a message to someone very near where my sister lives, so he will have a good place to stay the night before returning.” Mistress Elmer nodded in a general manner to the three of them, and left, in the direction of the tents.
“You knew her, Franklin?”
“Not like that, John. We talked a little when she set the pan under the bird. She’s a widow, with a son in the army.”
Chase, who had been steadily nibbling on bits pulled from the duck, came back to his company with a guilty expression on his face. “You pardon, gentlemen. First I interrupted your conversation and then I’ve taken your dinner.”
“That bird was left there for anyone who might happen by,” Franklin told him. “I’m certain that if you did not eat it, someone else would – though it would be good form for you to share what's left of it with someone less well-fed.”
“Certainly, sir. And, again, I do apologize for the interruption. You appeared to be discussing grave matters and I hope I did not throw your thoughts completely away by my impetuosity.” Chase’s round eyes appeared to be glazed with sincerity, nearly matching the glaze of duck fat on his fingers.
“Oh, nothing related to the war, sir. Merely an experiment I was considering attempting in which I thought that John might be able to assist.”
“Ah, one of your scientific ventures. I look forward to hearing of its results. Good afternoon to you, Franklin, Adams.” And Chase walked back toward the river.
“I don’t plan on publishing the results, John,” Franklin said quietly.
“I would think not,” John said, just as quietly. “And the answer to your proposal, Franklin, is yes. A certain amount of comfort would be welcome at the end of the day.”
“Let us hope that the bed is of a convenient size to hold all three of us comfortably, then,” he said, watching John’s eyebrows rise before adding, “yourself, me, and my foot.”
“Franklin, if there’s not enough room I’d be most willing to sleep on the floor –“
“Relax, John, it’s a joke. They do tell jokes in Boston, don’t they?”
“Yes, they do. It’s been too long since I heard one there. The jokes told in Philadelphia are not the same.”
“Nor are the ones in New Brunswick.” Franklin came to his feet, leaning on his cane. He tapped his pipe out against the side of the stump and put it back into his pocket. “Shall we see what the general has in store for us before we head back to town?”
“If I know Washington, it’s more dispatches, from New York and down the coast.” John offered him an arm as they crossed a patch of rough ground. “But perhaps there’s some better news than before.”
“Perhaps. And I wouldn’t mind trying some of that catfish stew, if it gets to the general's tent. Do you think he’d eat it?”
“Washington? The man would eat anything. I hear that he has even eaten a tomato and lived.”
“Truly? You must tell me about it, John.”
“Oh, I’ll save the tale for this evening, before we recline.”
“I’m sure it will prove inspiring. I have noticed that you appear to have quite a passion for polite social intercourse.”
“You know, Franklin, nobody’s ever said that to me in quite that way. Are you quoting yourself?”
“I’m hurt, John. It’s new. I said it just for you.”
“Then I thank you, my friend, very much.”