The ship passes over the slate-colored ocean like a schoolhouse duster, erasing the whole of John’s previous life in its wake. On the wharf in New York City, he waits in line with his fellow immigrants, a restless tributary of dark-clothed humanity canyoned in by tall stacks of barrels and cargo crates. The smells of the city waft out across the harbor, pricking their avid nostrils: roasting meat, oiled leather, flowering trees, horse manure. A party of local merchants gathers beyond the customs table at the end of the line, calling out job offers to the likeliest of the new arrivals before they melt into the river of humanity that jostles along the avenue beyond the wharves. John waves off all propositions and strides away with a tolerant smile, having no inclination to spend his first week in America — nor any future week, truth be told — blistering his hands for a workman’s wage. He joins the river instead: carpenters and cartmen, bricklayers and fishmongers, merchants and freedmen and fastidiously dressed clerks walking with their eyes downcast so as not to ruin their shoes in the piles of dung and rotting garbage littering the streets.
He finds his way to a quiet neighborhood of squared-off brick townhouses with tall windows that glint red in the falling light. His eye catches on some furtive movement in the shadows of a narrow alleyway. It’s a couple, a well-dressed lady with her backside pinned against the brick by a corpulent man in a ridiculously tall, bell-shaped hat. Their faces are close, and at first John assumes they’re lovers, but a shift in angle shows him the glint of a sharp blade pressed to the lady’s throat.
He walks by, pretending not to have noticed. At the last moment he wheels and lunges, taking the lady by the wrist and yanking her free. He flips the cane in his hand and swings its solid gold head, striking the robber’s temple with a resounding crack. The silly hat tumbles off, rolling to a stop in a nearby puddle, and the criminal, touching his head with a look of surprise rapidly turning to crimson-faced fury, comes after him with the knife. A well-placed thwack to the hand sends the weapon boomeranging harmlessly off, and a further sequence of quick thwacks — to the groin, the forehead, the jaw — brings the crude pretender to his elbows, where he spits a slurry of blood and teeth onto the cobbles. A final thwack to the side of the skull lays the man face-down in the same fetid puddle as the shipwrecked hat.
John holds the sobbing damsel to his chest, soft and plump and nicely redolent of roses. When she’s sufficiently calm, he holds her by the shoulders and inquires politely if she’s quite all right.
“I should say so,” she says, wiping away her tears with a gloved hand. “Thanks to you, my dear man. Will you accept a reward for your trouble?”
“It is my aim to rebalance injustices when I see them, madam. I can accept no payment for it.”
“A Scotsman!” She’s a clear-skinned, Rubenesque beauty, mid-thirties perhaps, her face red from crying, with seawater eyes and wisps of blonde hair escaping alluringly from her bonnet.
“Correct, madam. Just off the boat.” He bows his head modestly.
“But how chivalrous you are! I’m determined that you shall be rewarded, sir. Give me your name and I’ll write a detailed account of your heroism for the Commercial Advertiser.”
He smiles ruefully. “I thank you for your offer, good lady. However, I’m far too modest to abide the sight of my own name in print.”
He walks her to her townhouse door. She pauses on the steps to hand him a calling card. “If you find yourself in need of anything, sir, absolutely anything — a reference, an introduction, even a small stake of money to get you started here — my husband and I are very much at your service.”
“Thank you kindly, madam.” He brings the gold headed cane to the brim of his hat.
Further along the street, once he’s sure that he’s beyond view of her front windows, he crumples the card and lets it drop to the cobbles. The last thing he needs so soon after his arrival is to attract that kind of notice. And certainly not, God help him, to have his description written out in a New York newspaper.
In the end he decides the city is not a suitable home. Its inner workings are too opaque, its hierarchies too camouflaged. He finds it difficult to orient himself amid its seething multitudes, and as a port city it has far too much intercourse with the wider world. He dreads constantly having to worry about who or what might be coming down the gangplank of the latest disembarking ship. So he consults the maps, and makes his way upcountry.
From the start, it must be admitted, John cuts a romantic figure in bucolic Windham County, Vermont. Tall, broad-shouldered, exuding that mix of relaxed athleticism and infectious high spirit that has always drawn the eye of people on the street. Children stop their games. Ladies pause mid-sentence to glance his way with sidelong curiosity. Men adjust their postures in unconscious imitation. He dresses fashionably, in a long-tailed coat, a scarlet waistcoat of glossy silk, a beaver hat with a subtle modern taper. He will never be seen without the fine walnut cane with its heavy, filigreed gold head. It’s said that he’s an Edinburgh-trained scholar, a learned man with a vast storehouse of knowledge in fields as wide-ranging as natural philosophy, theology, surgery, and architecture. Somehow the rumor gets started that he’s descended from a line of Scottish earls going back to the House of Bruce; whether or not this is true (it is not), he’s indisputably well off, and a philanthropist. One of his first public acts in the community is to donate a generous sum for the construction of a new Congregationalist church.
It’s only natural that the leaders of several adjoining townships, in need of a new schoolmaster and having learned through well-placed gossip that John was amenable, decide to offer him the position. He buys a plot of land tucked into the same secluded valley as the schoolhouse, and hires a crew of workmen to build a modest and tastefully designed brick home. The project is complete by the middle of August. He installs a step-top cookstove, fills the rooms with imported furniture, and buys a drawing horse, a fine little chaise-top buggy, and a glossy sleigh for the winter months.
September comes. The schoolboys trudge in from the surrounding farms and woodlots, with hearty breakfasts in their bellies and minds primed for learning. The newly minted schoolmaster doesn’t disappoint in this regard, though an outside observer might notice that his lessons are unconventional. The Gunpowder Plot and the pirate Blackbeard receive more attention than Latin or the Magna Carta, for example, and quite a lot of classroom time is taken up with entertaining tales of adventurers and outlaws as opposed to penmanship, arithmetic, or grammar.
It hardly matters. Local dignitaries invite the new schoolmaster over for tea, or out for an invigorating walk in the hills, keen to discuss natural philosophy, Greek mythology, the latest advances in medical science. John is self-taught but well-read, and clever enough to make a more than plausible go of it. He’s a gifted raconteur, capable of enrapturing his listeners even on topics of which he actually knows very little. He’s much in demand as a party guest, and indeed, those parties he’s unable to attend soon come to be regarded as dull affairs.
And yet this new life is not, as he’d hoped, an unmitigated triumph. Specifically, it’s marred by unbidden moods that often slither into his mind like vengeful little snakes. Every so often an attentive observer notes a dark cloud passing over his countenance, suddenly making him appear less friendly and a good deal more ominous. In some cases the mask slips entirely. A cutting insult for a clumsy workman; a venomous tongue-lashing for a merchant suspected of cheating; a scarring rapier-point of humiliating sarcasm for a harmless but particularly dense schoolboy. On such occasions the look in John’s eyes is terrifying to behold. The word murderous comes to mind.
Such moments are rare enough, however, and they pass quickly, returning Dr. John Wilson (as he now calls himself, though only the Christian name is truly his own) to the good humor, infectious enthusiasm, and magnetic charm for which he’s become justly famous.
Behind the public façade, however, as the months go by, he finds himself increasingly ill at ease. The schoolhouse is dim and mildewed. A cracked Franklin stove fills the room with smoke and noxious gases when lit, so he tries not to use it except on the coldest days. Soot-blackened cobwebs darken every corner, and the tomb-like space has only one vantage point on the outside world, a small, smudged, north-facing window that offers no prospect other than a claustrophobic rectangle of leaf-bare forest. By mid-November he’s drafted plans for a new schoolhouse more in line with his needs and principles.
On fair days, he brings his pupils outside for their lessons.
“We shall meet in the open air today,” he informs them, “like the Athenians in their Acropolis, only instead of marble columns we’ll have the stone-grey trunks of ash and maple surrounding us, and instead of a dais we’ll use this sun-warmed granite boulder. A good morning shiver is healthy for the constitution, lads, and to warm our upturned faces we shall have the same fiery orb once driven across the sky by the chariot of Apollo, god of light.”
Winter comes in hard, with snowdrifts as high as the crown of a tall man’s hat. No amount of wool is capable of keeping out the arctic wind that freezes John’s innards and burns his fingers and toes the moment he steps outside. The locals confront the misery of the season by stepping up the merriment. In the villages the rollers go out before daybreak, packing the main streets for sleighing. There are harness races, house parties, snowshoe outings. Mid-January brings an annual skating party organized by a committee of apple-cheeked do-gooders who bundle themselves in wool and furs and spend a week clearing a long windowpane of ice on a convenient stretch of the Connecticut River.
The day of the party dozens of men and women demonstrate their athletic prowess (or make foolish spectacles of themselves, depending on your outlook) by dashing around the ice on their skates. John himself has no interest in skating. The idea of balancing his weight atop what is effectively a well-sharpened knife blade while hurling himself across a frozen sheet of water over a chasm of slow-moving black water is unimaginable to him. There are stories of people falling through, and he’s heard the traveling boom of the ice as it settles and cracks. He prefers to linger at the river’s edge, where he builds a fire and suspends a cauldron of hot buttered rum from a stout tripod. A festive crowd gathers round, and it is here, as he ladles the steaming ambrosia into the proffered mugs, that he makes the acquaintance of Clara Holcomb, a somber, dark-eyed widow who happens to be the sole heir to one of the county’s most accomplished men of business.
By the time the flowers of May have bloomed he’s secured the consent of both Clara and her father to join hands in marriage. The rite itself is scheduled for the first Saturday in October, coinciding with the changing leaves. Meantime, with the help of a hand-picked crew, he applies himself to the construction of his new schoolhouse. The design, based on his memories of Scottish watch houses, calls for a perfectly round brick building with a conical roof. The benches of his pupils will be arranged in concentric circles; large windows will provide abundant sunlight and a 360-degree view covering every possible approach. He’s bought shares in a new steam sawmill and a few large tracts of land for timber and pasture. His future father-in-law has mentioned several possibilities for future business ventures on which they might collaborate, and John’s overall prospects appear to be exceptionally bright.
He has no reason at all to doubt his good fortune — until, that is, a certain fresh afternoon in September, 1822. A crowd has assembled in a field adjacent to the newly completed round schoolhouse for its official dedication. In attendance are a few hundred local residents, the town clerk, some magistrates, two delegates of the state legislature, and even — a surprising last-minute honor — the Lieutenant-Governor of the entire state, who’s addressing the crowd now in an endless torrent of flowery language that John finds increasingly tedious. Not that he isn’t proud of his new building, but the L.G .is a starch-collared, red-faced bore who appears to worship the music of his own voice.
It’s a wonder anyone in the crowd is listening, actually, though as he gazes out over the faces beneath the bonnets and the tall hats he’s mildly surprised to note that many of the attendees seem less annoyed than he. Clara and her father are there, beaming proudly up at him from the front row, Mr. Holcomb hawk-nosed and white-mustached, Clara fiercely beautiful in a slim-fitting navy riding dress, her dark cheeks flushed in the September air. Noticing his gaze, she gives him a faint private smile, and his heart leaps. He’s formed a good and useful alliance; that he genuinely desires her is icing on the cake.
In the distance he can see the house the two of them will soon cohabit, its freshly mortared brick walls tucked snugly into a hemlock glade at the edge of a meadow no more than ten minutes’ walk from the schoolhouse. The meandering brook with its reeds and cutbanks; the gentle pastures sloping upward; the miles and miles of picturesque fieldstone wall; the hillsides slanting steeply upward to enclose the idyllic valley like protective, densely wooded fortifications; the sky above the treetops the sky blue and serene, with little sheep-like cumulus clouds scudding beneath a smiling sun: the entire scene is as harmonious and well-composed as a fine Dutch painting. It constitutes quite a remarkable change in circumstance, he reflects, given the hardships of his earlier life, and the especially dangerous situation he found himself in just a few years back and one ocean away. The idea of himself spending the rest of his years in peace and prosperity protected by this valley’s buffering hillsides fills him with an enormous sense of well-being.
It’s when his gaze lowers back down to the assembly that his eye catches on a singular flaw in the composition. At first it registers only as a vague sense that there is something wrong with a particular spot near the back of the crowd, a slightly ugly or disharmonious element; his gaze keeps gravitating back to the same spot, like a shaken compass needle repeatedly aligning itself to true north. Then he sees it, and his heart stops beating. A cloud passes over the sun, and the forested treed hillsides lurch inward. He staggers, gasping and pressing down on the cane to keep his balance.
Friendly hands reach forward to steady him. Even the Lieutenant Governor notices, pausing mid-sentence to glance back over his shoulder. John brushes away the hands, forces a smile, and nods encouragingly for the man to resume his ridiculous oration.
Inside is turmoil, for he has seen a face in the crowd. A youthful, freckled, familiar face. A taunting, torturing, sparsely whiskered face. A face from a nightmare, glaring up at him from beneath the brim of its travel-stained buff hat with an expression of knowing contempt.
When he finally works up the courage to glance once again at that terrifying spot in the crowd, the offending visage is no longer present, and it is with a sense of profound relief that John convinces himself his mind was only playing tricks.
He shakes hands with the out-of-town luminaries and heads to a nearby tavern, accompanied by a jolly group of local familiars. He’s leaning on the bar, enjoying the day’s very first taste of Spanish brandy and preparing to launch into an entertaining though wholly invented fiction of his days as a young scholar at Edinburgh, when his glance, flickering appraisingly over the crowded barroom, lands once again on the appalling specter in the travel-stained buff hat. The same appalling specter, that is, that he’d convinced himself he did not see at the dedication ceremony.
There’s no mistaking that face now, and seeing it for the second time in one day sends shock waves radiating out through John’s limbs. The young man is seated at a table near the front window, regarding him from across the room with a bitter half-smile. He’s an Irishman, copper-haired, athletic-looking, handsome enough John supposes, though hard-bitten in a way that speaks unmistakably both of a childhood spent in rural poverty and of more recent experience in the ways of violence and forcible larceny. Once an understudy, later an associate on relatively equal terms. A partner in crime, John supposes, though it pains him deeply to think in those terms. Never in a million years would he have expected to see this young man living and breathing again, much less so on this side of the ocean. To encounter him here, staring insolently across the barroom of John’s own neighborhood tavern, seated at one of his favorite tables no less — well, it is a source of grave concern.
The newcomer gets to his feet and strides over to the bar. He may have matured slightly in the last few years, John thinks — if putting on a few extra pounds and growing a scribble of copper-colored whiskers can be called maturation. His knowing half-smirk is horrifying.
“Well, John? How are we?”
The barman raises his brows questioningly, guessing from John’s stricken expression that all is not entirely well. John recovers quickly, however, ordering two tankards of cider to reassure the tapster that the situation is in hand. He excuses himself from his well-wishers, takes the young stranger by the elbow, and leads him back to the table at the window.
“What a pleasant surprise to see you here, lad,” he murmurs, gesturing to the same chair the youth had risen from. He takes a seat across from him and smiles hospitably, resting the gold-headed cane against the table leg.
“Is it pleasant?”
“I’d been so curious about what had befallen you! But tell me. What brings you to this part of the world?”
“I’m a proud American now, John, same as yourself.” His voice is too loud for the small tavern, and the unfiltered County Kilkenny accent turns heads, causing John to cringe internally.
“Well done, my lad,” he exclaims softly. “I must admit that I wouldn’t have expected you to make the jump. But I’m pleased to see that you did.”
“Are you pleased, John?”
“Of course, I am! And I very much look forward to hearing your stories. But I assume you’re just passing through at present?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. I’m looking for a good place to put down roots.”
The barman delivers the tankards. John thanks him and takes a sip of cool cider, trying to hide his dismay.
“Schoolmaster now are we, John? Wealthy man of charity too, I’m gathering?”
John wonders how many locals the young man has spoken with so far. “Tell me, lad,” he says, doing his best to keep his voice both cheerful and low. “How can I be of help to you?”
The newcomer lifts his tankard for a gulp of cider and wipes his mouth with a fraying sleeve. “It’s not what I’m wanting, John. It’s what I’m owed.”
“I’m afraid your memory is confused,” he says, leaning in and lowering his voice even more. “We spent most of our earnings on drink and high living, and split the remainder half and half.”
“Come now, John Doherty. Do you expect me to believe such nonsense?”
The sound of his true surname uttered between these four walls, and none too quietly either, within earshot of at least half a dozen people who know him, is almost too much for John to endure. Reaching for his cider, he nearly spills it.
“I can offer you two hundred dollars,” he says under his breath. “And three of the finest gold watches. That will be enough to ruin me, if it makes you any happier to know it.”
“You should have thought of that when you went around digging up all our treasure before you boarded that ship, John. But I’m afraid two hundred dollars isn’t nearly enough to buy my silence.”
John nods, silently taking stock. “Well, what would be enough?”
“Five hundred would keep me nicely quiet. And those gold watches.”
“You came on a horse, I presume?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Just making conversation, lad. Stop worrying.”
“I bought a Yankee Morgan when I disembarked. A fine animal; you may have noticed it in the stable on your way in. I used the last of my funds to purchase it, knowing that I could count on an old friend to replenish my reserves.”
“I see. Well done.” John leans forward, narrowing his eyes conspiratorially. “It won’t do for the two of us to be seen leaving together, do you understand, lad? I assume you’ve sleuthed out where I live?”
“Not only have I sleuthed it. I sat and watched you split wood for half an hour yesterday evening.”
“What a fellow you are! Well, give me ten minutes, then follow me. The only thing I ask of you? Once our business is done, you must ride off on that fine new horse of yours and never return to this valley.”
“Whatever you say, John. You were once like a father to me, and your word was law. Of course, that was before I discovered that a blood oath meant nothing to you.”
“If I could go back in time and do things differently, lad, I would.”
“Well, you can’t,” the young man pronounces sourly, setting down his mug.
John stands, picking up his cane. The young man grins up at him, and for the first time John notices that one of his teeth is missing. The gap makes him look dissipated, wayward, and sad.
On the way out he takes leave of the barman, opening his hands and producing a wordless grimace by way of an apology to the familiars he’d come in with. Out in the stable he has a look at the Morgan, which is indeed a fine horse, tall and well-balanced. A fairly young animal too, judging by its teeth.
When the rap comes on his pinewood door he wheels mid-pace and strides across the room to show the young blackmailer in. He pours two tumblers of Spanish brandy and the former associates sit facing each other in John’s prize upholstered wingbacks, sipping from the tumblers. He attempts a bit of small talk but the lad is restless, glancing around the room as if hoping to spot his share of the treasure.
“It’s a very nice place you have here, John. It’s no wonder you can only afford five hundred to pay me off.”
“And the gold watches.”
“Yes. And the gold watches, many of which I remember handling as if it were yesterday. It makes me think you ought to give me more than three. How many do you have left?”
“We’ll have to bring them out so we can count them.”
“Well? What are you waiting for, old man? Bring them out!”
“I keep none of the treasures inside the house,” John says, leaning back in his chair. “We’re going to have to dig them up.”
The youth’s face reddens. “Damn your eyes, Doherty. I should have known you would try to trick me!”
“Calm yourself, it’s not far. You remember how to use a shovel, don’t you?”
“You’d best not be playing games with me, John.”
“Stop worrying! Finish your brandy and we’ll get right to it.”
When the tumblers are empty John plucks his cane from its stand beside the front door, and they walk to the back shed for two shovels. The afternoon is humid, overcast, warm for September. He leads them uphill to a hemlock grove at the edge of the forest where a granite boulder lies split by a vein of snow-white quartz. They use the shovels to pry up the big rock, overturning it with great effort and rolling it out of the way.
The digging is slow. The upper layers are spongy and resistant, interlaced with hemlock roots that have to be hacked through with the shovel blades. Beneath that the soil yields more readily, the pale bodies of grubs and severed earthworms squirming at the edges of the deepening pit. Sweating, they remove their coats. The youth, imagining his prize almost within grasp, digs energetically, his dirt-streaked face flushed with exertion and brandy. Soon they’re down to the mineral soil, in using their shovel-blades as levers to pry out cobbles and even larger rocks.
John climbs up out of the pit, explaining that he needs to relieve himself. He leaves his shovel plunged upright in a dirt pile, and picks up the cane. Downhill a few paces with his back to the laboring youth, he pretends to fiddle with the front of his trousers, unscrews the cane’s filigreed gold head, and slowly draws the concealed sword-blade. He leaves the sheath in a bed of ferns and makes his way back up to the excavation, where he stumbles, knocking his shovel down into the pit along with a hissing cascade of dirt.
“Watch what you’re doing, John! Christ almighty. You’re getting clumsy in your old age.”
“Sorry about that, lad. Hand me up my shovel, will you?”
As the youth bends to retrieve the shovel, John raises the cane-sword, its heavy gold head gripped firmly in his hands, like a matador poised for the kill. As the young man begins to straighten, John musters all the force he can, and drives the blade home.
It enters cleanly between the shoulder blades. The youth falls to his knees, staring down into the pit for a moment as if baffled. Then he cranes his face around to fix his murderer in an incredulous stare.
“Not to criticize, lad,” John says. “But you really didn’t think this whole thing through, did you?”
“I didn’t think—” But the youth’s expression is suddenly vacant. The air whistles from his lungs as from a punctured bagpipe. John keeps a firm hold on the cane handle, retrieving the blade neatly as the body tumbles forward into the pit.
On a cold December evening, a sleigh drawn by a spirited young Morgan pulls up in front of a grand Federal-style brick mansion. Golden lamplight and candlelight spills from the house’s rippled glass windows, casting flickering shadows on the snow and gleaming on the lacquered sleighs of many of the county’s most consequential citizens. Handing the reins to the stableboy, John reaches for his gold-headed cane and bounds up the stairs. As he enters the hall he’s enveloped in warm interior air. Feminine laughter and the clinking of glassware greet his ears, and the festive scents of mulled cider, candle wax, and clean-burning spermaceti oil fill his nostrils.
He makes his way in through the crowded hall with a certain ease of ownership, clapping shoulders with apple-cheeked revelers, shaking their hands, and accepting a quick kiss on the cheek from his lovely bride Clara, the daughter of the house, who’s been present since early morning directing her father’s household servants to prepare for his annual holiday party. He moves through the house patiently, bestowing a conspiratorial wink here and a quick forearm squeeze there, referencing inside jokes, inquiring about children whose names he remembers from the schoolhouse. It’s said that he’s been recruited by the Anti-Masonic party to stand for governor, an unlikely turn, perhaps, given his foreign birth, but he doesn’t discourage the rumors. Indeed, his father-in-law has arranged an informal meeting later tonight with two prominent lawyers and a select cabal of interested citizens. Not that this meeting will ever occur, of course. Tonight will put an end to any further talk of John’s career in state politics.
He enters the great room, made bright by a battery of candles and spermaceti lamps, and walks up to his father-in-law, who stands with his back to the fire chatting with several old friends.
“Welcome, John! I’m glad to see that you braved the cold to get over here.”
“I would have crossed the frozen arctic, Holcomb.”
“Yes. Good. Well, before we get distracted by small talk, I’ve been eager to get your opinion on this.” He hands his son-in-law a slim, clothbound booklet. “It came in the mail yesterday, and my thoughts immediately turned to you, given your eloquent reform-mindedness. I was just telling these fellows here that I believe you’ll have a thing or two to say about it.” He glances at his companions, who stare expectantly at the distinguished younger Scotsman.
John flips absently through the closely typeset pages, not really looking at them. “What is the pamphlet’s main import, if I may ask?”
“As you can see, it’s the confession of an outlaw, John. The apparently true story of a duo of notorious thieves who rampaged through the British Isles a few years back, and who are now, if you can believe it, thought to be at large right here in New England! One of these villains is your countryman, John. I wonder if you’ve ever heard of him? Nothing like yourself, of course. This man is a brute. A murderous ruffian, through and through.”
Blindly, John gropes for a chair beside the fire. He would never in a million years have figured the lad for a writer — though, of course such a narrative could easily have been dictated to a journalist. And sure enough, in bold lettering right on the pamphlet’s front cover is the familiar, dreaded name:
The Life of Michael Martin
Being the Sworn Testimony of an Irish Highwayman
As Given by Himself.
“We were just discussing whether we should buy a copy for every library in the state, John,” his father-in-law is saying, “as a cautionary service for our impressionable youth. Sit and read the first page or two while we refresh our drinks. We eagerly await your opinion.”
He takes an armchair by the fire and begins to read. After a moment or two, close observers note a troubling change in his appearance. The color in his face drains completely, and the flesh of his body seems to shrink in upon itself, as if the armchair were home to a giant leech or spider that was rapidly sucking the blood out of him. Dr. Baldwin, an elderly physician visiting from Connecticut, assumes the man is suffering from a heart attack, and steps forward to offer his assistance.
John slaps the old doctor’s hand away without glancing up from the pamphlet. The gesture is mechanical, heedless, and so blatantly rude that it causes onlookers to gasp.
After a time he closes the pamphlet and takes several deep breaths, gradually recovering his normal color and appearance. He gets up, and walks over to the fire, and tosses the pamphlet in. The flames subside for a moment, then rise enthusiastically to consume the offending pages.
“I have no idea,” John explains to the room at large, “why anyone would waste their time on such poisonous, sensationalistic rubbish.”
Mr. Holcomb, crimson-faced by the insult of this public rebuke at his own hearth, stammers out a protest. But it’s too late. John turns to pat his father-in-law on the shoulder, attempting to deflect the awkwardness with a statement about the price of merino wool, but Mr. Holcomb shakes his head incredulously and turns away, coldly cutting his son-in-law dead.
Most of the guests, having as of yet no understanding of the emotions behind John’s extreme reaction to the pamphlet, consider his behavior to have been self-righteous and shockingly ill-mannered, even childish. Word of the scene spreads quickly throughout the party, and few of the guests will meet his eye. Eventually, he feels it best to make his way outside to retrieve his horse-and-sleigh. It will be forgotten quickly, he tells himself as the frigid wind stings and then numbs his face on the way home. But in this he is wrong.
The pamphlet’s fame grows, mostly by word of mouth, not only in New England but across the young republic. In Windham County, the rumors surrounding John’s resemblance to the Scottish highwayman in the bestselling story become rampant, though of course they’re never broached in his company. But hasn’t he often been known to use gold coins as tender? And isn’t it peculiar that he designed a schoolhouse like a watchtower, with windows providing a good view of every possible angle of approach? And isn’t he always carrying a gold-headed cane, one that very much resembles the treacherous weapon described in the young Irish highwayman’s confession? Though of course he’s never allowed anyone to examine it closely.
Still, all the rumors and speculation never result in a legal inquiry, much less an interrogation or an arrest. John smooths things over with Clara and her father, and the couple live for a time with a modicum of happiness in the snug little farmstead no more than a long stone’s throw from the famous round schoolhouse.
One afternoon in early May, invigorated by a lively session with his pupils, John is walking home along a footpath through the woods. He’s striding cheerfully through the trees, swinging the cane and humming under his breath, when he hears a terrible roar. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpses something horrific barreling down the hillside at him: a colossal wolf or lion with a huge, wide-open, snarling mouth and mane of silvery fur trailing behind it as it charges. Guided by instinct he launches himself off the trail, somersaulting downhill to land in an athletic crouch atop a moss-grown boulder with the sword-blade already drawn.
In the next moment he sees that his attacker isn’t a colossal predator after all, only a spring rivulet swollen by snowmelt and the recent rains, a self-contained whitewater torrent roaring down across the trail to form a leaping cascade into a mossy, boulder-strewn gully.
Get a grip on yourself, John thinks, his heart pounding with embarrassment and relief. You’ve nearly broken your neck because of a hallucination — and a pretty unlikely one at that.
He’s overcome, in the wake of this passing terror, by a feeling of unusual serenity. It’s a pleasant afternoon, after all, one of the first truly warm days of the year. The sun’s rays slant down through the bud-laden canopy, projecting gently swaying shadows onto the forest floor and giving the light a golden and slightly hazy quality, more like liquid than air.
The ghosts that are haunting you are exactly the same as that harmless waterfall, he tells himself, taking a few sips from his brandy flask. Imaginary demons. Fanciful illusions.
Soon he smells woodsmoke and cooking meat, and the snug brick house is in view, the never-ending ribbon of woodsmoke from Clara’s hearth-fire trailing from the chimney. At the edge of the hemlock glade above the house he stops to check on a certain patch of ground. A particular compulsion has kept him coming back to this exact spot, especially now that the snow has melted. An irrational need to reassure himself that the ground hasn’t been disturbed; that the hemlock needles and fallen sticks and marble-veined granite boulder are exactly as he’d left them. Which of course they always are.
Today a flock of crows has gathered. Half a dozen of the birds with their glossy blue-black feathers, come to peck at beetles he supposes, or some other small insect involved in the decomposition of dead matter. He strides up to the crows, brandishing his cane.
“Bugger off, now! This is a burial site, not a feeding place for scavengers!”
The crows tilt their heads to stare up at him. Their obsidian eyes are insolent, almost bored-looking, by the sight of the heavy filigreed cane-head whistling through the air above them.
“Very well, then. But don’t say I didn’t give you fair warning.”
He takes careful aim and swings. The crows flap off, but one wheels, cawing and swooping belligerently back down at him. He aims the cane and swings again, and this time he feels the jolt of an actual connection. The crow lets out a low grunt as it flips to the ground, one black wing jutting out from its broken body as it struggles to get up from the hemlock needles.
He brings the cane-head down on the crow’s skull; it collapses with an audible crunch, like a boiled egg. He draws the blade and skewers the creature’s broken body, walking it up into the forest where he digs a little trench in the sodden ground, kicks some leaves over it, and wipes the blade clean.
That’s more like it now, he says to himself, sheathing the blade as he walks down toward the house. You just have to confront them one by one.
Unfortunately for John, this strategy doesn’t work. The demons that haunt him don’t ease up on their torments, and his sleepless nights get worse. He resorts more and more often to the brandy flask. His temper flares, and while he never resorts to physical abuse, his tongue is often laceratingly sharp with Clara. Before long she will retreat to her father’s mansion in town, from the safe confines of which she will, with her father’s enthusiastic consent, file for divorce.
A crash in the price of merino wool, along with the increasing allure of the western frontier, causes a steep decline in the county’s population. The shortage of new pupils means that school districts have to be consolidated, and John’s schoolhouse is the first to be closed. This represents a serious problem for him, not because he has any special fondness for teaching, but because due to the failure of his investments and without the alliance with his former father-in-law, his fortune rapidly dwindles. Increasingly pressed for income to pay his bills, he embarks upon a career as a house-calling physician. He has the fictional degree from Edinburgh to back him up, and some actual experience in rudimentary field surgery from his days as a fugitive, and can glean whatever else he needs from medical texts.
By now most of the locals view him with suspicion if not outright distaste, and it’s widely understood that he’s a charlatan. Still, a shortage of physicians allows him to find enough patients to get by, though many are so poor they have to pay with barter goods: a scrawny chicken or a bucket of newly dug potatoes or a few pumpkins. The snug little house falls into disrepair, and he must sell off his fine sleigh and jaunting gig, making do with a crudely built farmer’s cart to complete his rounds. He becomes known as a bitter eccentric, an irascible drunk, a man to be feared and avoided. It’s a far cry from the life he’d envisioned for himself. And although the law never does catch up with him, his misery may in a sense be seen as payment for his crimes.
He manages to cling to this meager existence until a raw night in March, 1847, in the town of West Brattleboro, where he contracts erysipelas, an acute bacterial infection, after spending the night in a patient’s recently vacated deathbed.
To his pupils, patients, and other acquaintances, the man who called himself Dr. John Wilson never spoke of his youth or upbringing other than to say that he’d been born in Scotland and had received his education at Edinburgh, though no record of his attendance at that institution has ever been found. Witnesses to his final hours recounted that his mind wandered in a state of delirium, and he would begin to reminisce aloud, only to snap awake and demand of those attending: “Tell me, what have I been saying?”
He’s buried at the Prospect Hill cemetery in Brattleboro, Vermont. His gravestone, with its lettering inscribed in lichen-covered granite and contained within the shape of an upside-down horseshoe, reads simply
John Wilson, M.D.
Educated at Edinburgh, Scotland
Died March 22, 1847
The unusual round schoolhouse has been kept up by town officials over these many decades, and remains in excellent condition to this day, a local curiosity on a quiet back road. The gold-headed cane has never been found.
Image: Vermont by Eric Chen, Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.