Short story: Mr Cromerty Of Boston

Outside, a cold, clear evening, men going about bundled in woollens, steam rising from a rubble of horse manure in the road, the air steeped in stovesmoke – a hard frost in the night mail, if I am any judge. Inside, a table by a fire, ink and a pen, two heaps of paper, a mirror trimmed with a little holly. A glass on the table beside the paper, and in it a measure of bourbon whisky.

Between them the fire and the whisky almost keep the cold at bay.

It’s queer to think that before last spring I had barely ever written a word (aside from the dry documentation I assembled, the legal letters I drafted, the contracts and covenants I compiled in my work at at the real-estate office). Oh, as a young man I had attempted poetry, awful stuff, as young men do, but I always knew I had no aptitude for it, and soon gave it up. And then in more recent years I never seemed to have the time.

Now – tonight, last night, the night before that, a string of nights and days reaching back into darkness – time seems to be all that I have.     

For some time (days, weeks?) they would send a boy round, each morning, to enquire, begging your pardon, sir, but when might Mr Cromerty be returning to work? Sometimes I told him, soon, soon; sometimes I gave him no answer, but only sent him away, angrily this day, with apologies the next; more often I did not even go to the door, but remained in my bed or at my desk, and obliged him to call his entreaty through the letterbox.

Then on a morning in March – it must have been cold, for he wore a heavy scarf, and stamped snow off his boots in the hallway – Mr van Hooven paid a visit. I was still in my slippers. A small and almost-forgotten part of me acknowledged the tribute (it was not as though they had sent Mr Mackeever himself, of course, but they might very easily have sent only a Mr Bumbridge, or a mere Mr Gladstock).

He was kind, after his fashion. He enquired after my health. He said that it was a little early for him, being not much after nine, but that I might go ahead and drink, if I liked. We spoke of the firm’s business, of lettings, rents, evictions, mortgages – notions as dead and dull to me as fossils.

Then – not without awkwardness, but with an air, too, of seasoned authority – he told me some things that I already knew: that it is a pity, but young women, be they never so hale and hearty, do take fever, sometimes, and die; that it is a crying shame before God, Mr Cromerty, but young babes –

‘Be they never so innocent,’ I put in, ‘be they never so blameless’ –

Even so, he said, they do sicken, sometimes – they too do die, sometimes.

I thanked him; again offered him a glass, to warm his journey back to Hofstader Street; fetched him a piece of wine-cake from the kitchen, wrapped in a napkin; saw him to the door, helped him in the hallway with his boots (the fellow suffers from a sore hip); waved him away. Closed the door.

As I remember it, Maggie came into my life that day. 

Now I stand at the window and watch the street. A thin cat lopes along the sidewalk. Across the road there is faint light in the slotted windows of the old jailhouse. We call it that, although it has not served in that capacity for some decades now; it passed into private hands in the ’fifties (Mr van Hooven handled the business), and thence was bequeathed to a trust of charitable gentlemen who – for the time being – maintain the property as a refuge for indigent children.  

I consider the faint light. They will need firewood enough tonight.

At length I return to my little desk. I regard the top page of paper, a third filled with my untidy handwriting, and take a sip of whisky. The thing is expected by Mr Prendergast no later than the twenty-fourth. Today is the twenty-first. I sit, and take up the blackened pen.

In the mail this morning there was a letter from a minister in a place called Darien, Connecticut. He was displeased with me. He said that I had – these were his very words – birthed an imp.

She is wilful and unChristian,’ the minister wrote. ‘She is discourteous and boylike – she is bold and presuming – she is impertinent and grubby – she is intrusive and without shame – she is wild and unnecessary.

It made me smile. Indeed she is!

But this, the holy Nutmegger went on, was by no means the worst of it. The worst of it was this, that she goes, this imp, unpunished – she learns no lesson, is taught no moral, feels no stick or caneMr Cromerty, goes scot-free, goes quite scot-free.

It made me smile. I must write to thank the good reverend.

They died two days apart but we buried them on the same day – Anne and Elizabeth, we buried the both of them on January sixth, eighteen eighty-two. They were laid and lie still in coupled graves at Milk Row. Anne was twenty and Elizabeth a little less than a year.

They do die, be they never so innocent.

My wife and daughter both died baptized. They are in heaven, I suppose (but can just easily suppose that they are not; all I can state for certain is that I am not, that James Cromerty is not, that James Cromerty is here still in Boston, this cold December Boston, in smoke and dark, filth in the streets, the weeping of children unheard beyond the jailhouse wall).

They did not want to die. Anne certainly and Elizabeth I am sure. I did not want them to die; our Dr Kvasniak, he did not want them to die, even as he counted his dollar bills, and our own Reverend Longhouse, he did not want them to die, though I suppose he knew their souls were bound for a great reward. And yet they did die. Yes, they did.

She had not done one thing wrong. This is difficult for a fellow to stomach.

Oh, Anne may have sinned in small ways, spoken sharply to a maid or to her mother, envied some other girl’s hat, let slip ‘damn’ when one time she cut her finger with a kitchen-knife –

But Elizabeth cannot have done one thing wrong. She had no time to do anything wrong. She did nothing but sup her mother’s milk and babble nonsense and fumble with her toys and listen to the stories we read to her. Sometimes she cried but there is no sin in crying (or God help me).

After Mr van Hooven had left me I sat for a little while, emptying first my glass and then the remainder of the bottle.

It was then that I went (a little unsteadily) to my desk, and wrote the first story, and then in quick succession the second, third and fourth. I was resolved from the moment that the nib touched the page that Maggie Misbehavior (it was and is a silly name) would do exactly as she pleased. And I was no less surely resolved, Reverend Nutmeg, that she would suffer no consequence, no retribution for all her mischief, that she would feel no belt or whip or stick or cane, that she would take no moral, and learn no lesson. The man that would strike her would be outfoxed, and fall in a mud-puddle. The woman that would scold her would find her path diverted, and would later spread hot mustard on her bread in place of butter. Maggie was to be a naughty little girl. And she was always to go free – scot-free, as you say, dear minister.

The stories would have been for me alone, had it not been for Joshua, Anne’s elder brother. The pages of those first stories were strewn on the desk when he visited one day. He read them, laughing – I think for the first time in weeks – and when next he visited he brought with him his friend Mr Prendergast.

Mr Prendergast is one of these modern fellows who cares not a jot for the traditions of morality. Quite the opposite, in fact. Wherever Mr Prendergast spies public decency his first instinct is to outrage it.

There isn’t a publisher in New England, Joshua told me, who would have touched Maggie Misbehavior with a long pole – save Mr Prendergast.

Things proceeded from there.

I am almost at the end of this second volume. My writing-thumb aches. The stack of pages at my left elbow is an inch thick – and on each of them my little Maggie causes trouble, and upsets the respectable, and eats the jam, and chases the cat, and climbs the tree, and pinches the pie, and breaks the window with a ball, and, just for fun, hides crickets in the minister’s riding boots.

The sorts of things my Elizabeth was never given the chance to do, but was punished all the same.

I stand up to stretch my legs and refill my glass. I shall meet Mr Prendergast’s deadline with days to spare. I don’t imagine that I shall return to the office afterwards. Besides anything else, it will be Christmas. Perhaps I will call on friends and family. I shall certainly walk to Milk Row.

And there will be affairs to attend to at the jailhouse. In addition to the good reverend’s letter – and of course to the many dozens of other letters, addressed mostly (but not always) in childish handwriting, to Mr Cromerty, Esquire, or Mr Cromty the Riter, or Dear Mr Comety, Arthor of Boston, USA, or, sometimes, Miss Margaret Misbehavior – there was a slim envelope from Mr Prendergast. Inside, only his card, and a check. A considerable sum in authorial royalties, corresponding to some forty-odd thousand copies of the book.                     

Little boys and girls do not mind, it seems, that Maggie Misbehavior always goes scot-free.

Earlier today I spoke again with Mr van Hooven. I wished to discuss a point of business, one that had crossed my desk in my last days at the Hofstader Street offices – the sale of the old jailhouse, for was not the price of Boston real-estate rising steeply, was not the jailhouse in a prime location, were the charitable old gentlemen expected to sit on their hands forever and let an undoubted profit pass them by? The documents I saw concerned the sale of the holding to a banking firm, for conversion to offices. The documents did not say what was to be done with the indigent children.

I had to pay above the odds, of course, but I believe that the legalities will be concluded by Boxing Day. I was careful with the paperwork. Mr van Hooven will see it is all in order (he was somewhat astonished by the proceedings, of course, remarking that mine seemed a frivolous occupation for a full-grown man – but that all the same, his dear granddaughter Sarah did adore that Maggie Misbehavior).

There remains, as I say, much to be done. Restoration of the crumbling building; new furnishings, well-trained and kindly nurses and teachers, supplies of food, clothing, fuel and books; a sign above the door, The Elizabeth Cromerty Home for Children or some such (though I have a secret hope that children will come to call it ‘Maggie’s’).

My bottle is empty and my fire is dead. There is a basket of firewood in the hallway but that is not for me to burn. I stand at the misting glass and look again at the weak-lit jailhouse windows. I will take it over to them now. There is a hard frost in the night mail, if I am any judge.  

Written for the Liars’ League in 2018, and performed by the marvellous David Mildon: watch here.

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