ADAM WAS HAPPY TO SEE Valentine Hodges in his usual spot behind the counter when he entered the Topsail Tavern. The ruddy-faced tavern keeper was sitting on a stool, sleeves rolled up and spectacles on, studying over the ledger. Adam could tell he didn’t immediately notice the boy, but when Valentine looked up and saw him, he said, “Well, well . . . They fire you already, huh?”
“Ha-ha! Very funny.” Adam gave a sarcastic laugh. “No, they didn’t fire me already. Actually, Mr. Rogers said he doesn’t mind if I come down here, so long as I’ve got my work done.”
“Oh really? Well, I know your mama’ll be glad to hear it. She just got back from the Widow Simpson’s.” He tipped his head back towards the kitchen. “Go on back there. I reckon she’s fixin herself something to eat. Prob’ly talkin to Aunt Franny.”
Adam smiled and slapped the counter as he darted past it on his way to the kitchen. He gently pushed open the door and saw his mother on the opposite side of the room, her back to him, doing just as Valentine had said. She was fixing a plate of food and talking to the elderly black woman who was the main cook for the Topsail Tavern. Adam didn’t know what her full name was. She’d always just been Aunt Franny to him. The short, plump, mahogany-complected woman was working at the Topsail long before Adam was born—even before Valentine had been made guardian to Adam’s mother. Everyone called her Aunt Franny.
Franny saw Adam come in, but he put his finger to his lips and silently mouthed, “Shh . . .”
He grinned mischievously at her before sneaking up behind his mother and grabbing her at her sides.
Mary jumped and spun around, nearly dumping the plate she held in her hand. When she realized who it was, she gasped. “Adam! It’s you! What in the world are you doing here?”
“What does it look like?” he said. “I’m back, Mama. They fired me.”
Mary took a deep breath, then exhaled sharply. “Adam! What did you do now?”
Aunt Franny smiled at him. “You a little rascal,” she said to him under her breath.
She gave him a wink as she walked past him and excused herself to go check on some pastries that were in the oven.
Adam laughed. He couldn’t keep up the ruse.
“I’m just teasing you! Mr. Rogers told me I can come back here anytime, so long as I get done with my work first and get back to the warehouse by eleven.”
Mary’s eyes grew wide and she smiled broadly. “Did he really say that?”
Adam nodded. “Sure did.”
“Thank God! That’s such good news. You know, you’re lucky. A lot of apprentices aren’t allowed to go home to see their families very often.”
She hugged her son with her free arm, carefully holding her plate in her other hand.
“Look, I was just fixing myself a plate.” She motioned to the two huge iron pots that were suspended from hooks over the fire. “Let me fix you something to eat.”
Adam was thankful he could eat in the tavern with his family. He chose Aunt Franny’s beef stew with potatoes, onions, and carrots, and grabbed a couple of rolls from a basket near the oven. He and his mother went back out into the tavern and sat at the bar to eat their meal. Adam told his mother and Valentine all about his first day as an apprentice as they enjoyed their supper.
Adam ate ravenously. Mary observed him and then asked, “Didn’t they feed you today?”
“Yeah, they did. But I just didn’t have much of an appetite. So did I miss anything interesting today?”
“Nah,” said Valentine. “Just like any other day.”
“Actually, Mr. Rasquelle was here today,” said Mary.
“Yep. I had his table. Told him you’d just started your first day as an apprentice in his trade.”
“Really? What’d he say.”
“Well, I might not should tell you this, but he said had he known you were looking for an apprenticeship, he’d have gladly taken you under his wing.”
Adam dropped his spoon and wrinkled his brow. “You’re joking. That means Mr. Robins never even bothered to tell him about me! He knew that Mr. Rasquelle is the whole reason I chose that trade!”
“Well, maybe Mr. Robins thought you’d be better off with someone more experienced,” said Valentine. “Emmanuel Rogers has been supplying the tavern for decades now. He’s got a good, steady business.”
“But I never even met Mr. Rogers until today. I had wanted to be bound to Mr. Rasquelle. That’s the whole reason I wanted to be a shipping merchant in the first place. Mr. Rasquelle is an impressive businessman, and he goes after what he wants. He’s determined to be successful. And, well, learning under someone like him—I think it could help me be successful, too.”
“Well,” said Mary, “he did mention that if you wanted to come by sometime and see him, that he’d be interested in talking to you. Says he may still be able to help you out.”
“Really?” said Adam. “How? I mean, the papers have already been signed.”
Mary shrugged. “I don’t know what he has in mind. But it might be worth your while to go see him—see what he wants.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Adam thought for a moment. “Mmm . . . Actually, I don’t know. I mean, Mr. Rogers seems like a decent man. Boaz . . . he’s alright. He’ll be tough to work for, but I think I can learn from him.”
Mary shook her head. “You do what you want, son. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s going to have to be your decision.”
“I know. I’ll need to think about it. I mean, on one hand, Mr. Rogers doesn’t mind me coming back here whenever I want. It might not be like that with Mr. Rasquelle.”
“That’s true,” said Mary.
“But then again, Mr. Rasquelle is—”
“Mr. Smythe!” Valentine said. “Good evening, sir!”
Adam whipped around to see Ellison Smythe, the father of the boy whose nose he had broken. Dressed in his customary powdered wig and a well-tailored dark blue suit, the man cut an intimidating figure, reflective of his social standing and power.
Mary and Adam both stood from their stools.
“Mr. Smythe, what a surprise!” said Mary.
“You’re back, sir.”
As soon as the words had left Adam’s mouth, he felt like a fool for saying them. He didn’t know what else to say, though. The town’s customs agent was so formal, he made nearly everyone around him nervous.
“Mr. Hodges, Miss Fletcher, Adam, I am quite certain you can surmise why I am here this evening.”
None of the three responded.
“Fact is, I heard from Peter Robins earlier today that you had been bound apprentice to Emmanuel Rogers as a gracious compromise to a stricter punishment for what you did to my son.”
Adam opened his mouth to speak, but Mr. Smythe raised his hand to silence him.
“I had my coachman take me there to Rogers’s warehouse just a little while ago, but I was told you had come back here for the evening.”
“Yes, sir,” said Adam. “Mr. Rogers said he didn’t mind if I—”
“I just wanted to be very clear with you, young man. I was quite angry to arrive from my travels and learn about your vicious assault on Francis. Of all people, I know he can behave atrociously at times, but that is no excuse for you to attack him bodily. I have no tolerance for brutish behavior. That said, I think Mr. Robins exhibited his characteristic wisdom by offering you the opportunity of an apprenticeship rather than earning a criminal record at your young age. I was once a young man, too, of course, so I realize what a boy your age needs most is direction and guidance. Unfortunately, it does not appear that you have had enough of that here at this tavern.”
“Now you wait just a damned minute—” said Valentine.
Mr. Smythe ignored Valentine and continued speaking. “Because clearly, if you had proper direction and guidance, you wouldn’t have been allowed to get yourself into the situation that has led to your current circumstances.”
Valentine fumed. “First of all, Mr. Smythe, Mary wasn’t here when the boys got into their scuffle. Secondly, your boy was running his mouth about her. She is Adam’s mama. Do you really think I ought to have told Adam he shouldn’t defend her good name? If it’d been me, I’d have knocked that brat of yours out cold.”
“And you prove my point,” said Mr. Smythe. “You prove it perfectly. If you were wise, you’d have known that as proprietor of this establishment, considering Francis was apparently being loud and disruptive, it would’ve been entirely within your rights to ask my son to silence his insults or to leave. And if he refused your request, you’d have also been within your rights to have him physically removed from the premises. Instead, you thought it reasonable to allow Adam to take the argument outside. And so here we are.”
“Forgive me for saying so, sir, but I think your son wanted to fight,” said Adam.
“I have little doubt of that,” said Mr. Smythe. “Boredom will drive a young man to seek diversion in many foolish ways. That said, my son is no brawler. In fact, I would reckon that was his first fight. Had you taken the high road and not given in to his taunting, you’d not be in the situation you’re in. I believe your apprenticeship with Emmanuel Rogers will serve you well. I’ve known him for many years and I believe him to be a good, temperate man. If you commit yourself to learning as much as you are able under his tutelage, you will go far. If, however, you look for shortcuts or give less than your best effort in your training, you will compound your problems.”
“What are you saying, sir?” Adam asked.
“I’m saying that I believe once a man has made amends for a crime such as yours, he should be given a fresh start—his slate wiped clean. Once you complete your apprenticeship with Mr. Rogers, it might surprise you to know that I will be one of your most enthusiastic supporters in this town. On the other hand, if for some reason you do not complete your apprenticeship with him, I will see to it that Mr. Robins issues to you the harshest punishment allowable by law.”
At that, Adam was left speechless, but he nodded to acknowledge that he’d heard what Mr. Smythe had said. It appeared his decision about whether or not he should go see Richard Rasquelle may have just been made for him.