THE FRIDAY FOLLOWING RASQUELLE’S party, Adam was working at the Topsail Tavern, like always, when a group of upper-crust boys came in. And what a surprise. Francis Smythe was with them.
They took one of the tables near a window and sat chatting and laughing until Francis finally shouted in Adam’s direction, “Boy! You there!”
Adam had just begun taking an order from another customer. He raised up his finger to Smythe, motioning “just a minute,” but otherwise ignored him, determined to finish with his current customer. Then he would try to get somebody else to wait on Smythe’s table.
Smythe turned to his buddies and whispered something, prompting them all to laugh before he spoke up again. “Hey, Fletcher, do you think you might wait on us anytime soon? We’re dying of thirst.”
Adam gave an embarrassed smile to his customer and said, “I apologize, sir. One moment please.”
The customer nodded in understanding.
“I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done helping this gentleman,” said Adam, making every effort to not take Smythe’s bait.
“Fine, fine,” said Smythe. “What choice do we have?” He was quiet for a moment and then said loudly to his friends, “I didn’t realize the Topsail Tavern had such slow help!”
Adam glanced over at the bar and tried to motion for Valentine to wait on Smythe’s table, but he had no luck. The tavern keeper shook his head and pointed at Adam, then Smythe’s table, before disappearing into the kitchen.
Adam shrugged and made his way over to the group of young men.
“What can I get you fellas?”
“We’ll each have a pint. Go fetch that first, then we’ll give you our orders.”
Adam nodded. “Fine. I’ll be right back with those.”
Francis was trying to show off to his friends by needling Adam, but he was unsuccessful so far at getting him riled up. Adam was used to dealing with rude patrons, and when he returned with their drinks he verbally bobbed and weaved between all of Francis’s efforts to provoke him.
But then it happened. Francis ventured into forbidden territory.
“So where’s your mother today?” asked Smythe.
“Out making a delivery,” Adam responded.
Smythe looked at his friends, raised his eyebrows, and then pressed his lips together, nodding knowingly. “Mm-hm. Is that what they call it nowadays?”
“She’s taking food to a widow.” Adam hated the fact that he even felt it necessary to qualify his earlier response.
“I see,” said Smythe. He smiled and then looked at his friends and chuckled. Adam began to walk away when Francis turned his attention back to Adam, calling out, “Tell me, Fletcher, does the lovely Miss Martin know what your mother does for a living?”
Adam turned back to face Smythe. He wrinkled his brow. “What is that supposed to mean?”
At this point, other patrons in the tavern were beginning to point and whisper as the boys had their increasingly public exchange.
“Ah, Fletcher. I’m only asking if the young lady knows that your mother is a practitioner of, well, shall we say the old profession. I saw you attempting to talk to her the other day, you know. She’s just a dream for you, Fletcher.”
Adam rushed over to Smythe’s table. “You listen to me, Smythe, and listen good. You can say whatever you want about me, about anybody, but you start running your mouth about my mother, and you’re gonna find out you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.”
“Oh really?” said Smythe. “Now you see, fellas”—he turned back towards his friends, who were now starting to look a little nervous—“this is what separates us from them. No class, no upbringing. Of course, what else would you expect from the little bastard son of a barmaid?”
One of Smythe’s friends nudged him and tried to whisper something to him, but Smythe dismissed whatever he was saying.
“Maybe we should take this outside,” said Adam.
“Am I embarrassing you?” said Smythe.
Adam shook his head. “Nope, but I’m about to embarrass you.”
Moments later, Adam and Francis had moved their argument to the docks outside the tavern, followed by a slowly growing crowd of tavern patrons turned spectators.
The boys were in a standoff, just feet apart, when Adam pointed his finger at Francis and said, “I’m going to give you one chance to apologize for what you said.”
“Like hell I will,” said Smythe. He suddenly ran at Adam, who was stunned by the boy’s sudden aggression but was able to hold him off easily just the same.
The boys wrestled with each other. Adam hoped to tire the boy out when Francis attempted to swing at him. Adam’s reflexes were too quick, though. He swerved in time to miss the punch and then almost instinctively threw his own, knocking Francis to the ground with a single blow.
“Now get on up and start running your mouth again!” said Adam. “I dare you. You do it and so help me, I’ll knock your teeth right out on these docks!”
Francis Smythe tried to get up. Adam’s adrenaline surged as he looked down at his opponent, who appeared to be so stunned he couldn’t coordinate his limbs enough to pull himself upright. When he finally moved his hand away from his face, Adam could see Smythe’s nose was bloody, probably broken, and he was clearly in searing pain. Meanwhile, Adam felt as though he’d broken his knuckles, but he wasn’t about to let Francis know that.
Anyone who had just seen the boys, let alone knew them personally, would have placed their bets on Adam. He was a couple of inches shorter than Smythe, but he was muscular and sturdy, whereas Francis was a willowy young fellow, tall and thin, as if a good wind might blow him away.
As Adam saw blood drip down Smythe’s face onto his clean, white shirt, he asked him, “What were you thinking? How did you think this would turn out? That I’d be on the ground with a bloody face and you’d be standing over me?”
Adam knew Francis had probably never been in a fist fight, and he couldn’t imagine what made him want to start one today. He certainly never wanted to fight with Francis. There was no way it could have ended well, not with him being the son of Ellison Smythe, but now what was done was done, and there was no avoiding the repercussions that would certainly follow.
A mass of spectators had gathered on the docks around the brawling teenagers, including some of the friends who had accompanied Francis to the tavern. They were all pressing in, trying to get a closer view of the action, until the crowd parted to make way for Constable Squires, who was closely followed by one of Francis’s friends, who had reported the altercation.
“Alright, boys,” said the constable, “you’ve had your fun for the day.”
He snapped his thick fingers and motioned for a couple of men in the crowd to help Francis Smythe get back on his feet.
“Now, what’s this all about?” he asked them.
“That peon attacked me!” Francis grunted.
The constable turned to hear Adam’s story. “And what do you say for yourself, young man?”
Adam was seething. “He started this! That arrogant ass wouldn’t stop running that big mouth of his, and then he ran at me!”
The constable quickly glanced over at Francis, then responded to Adam. “Everybody knows Smythe has a big mouth, but what I want to know is, what caused the fight—and you better come up with something good, Fletcher, ’cause Smythe’s here bleedin and you ain’t got a scratch.”
“He’s lost his mind! He came into the tavern and just started talking about my mother,” said Adam.
“Everybody talks about your mother,” Francis smirked, even as he held a handkerchief over his nose.
“I’ve already busted your face once. What difference will it make if I do it again?” Adam lunged forward to have another go at Francis, but Constable Squires stepped between them and held him back. “Now just you calm down, Fletcher. You ain’t gettin anywhere by fightin with this one.”
Adam fumed as Francis cracked a mocking smile.
“You boys need to come with me,” said the constable.
“Us boys?” asked Smythe. He looked incredulous. “You mean he needs to go with you. And in irons, I’d say.”
Squires spun around and leveled his gaze at Francis. “Both of you are coming with me. And I don’t care who your daddy is, Mr. Smythe.”
“My father won’t like this! He’ll be back in town soon, and I can assure you he’ll hear all about it.”
“I don’t care, boy,” said Constable Squires.
He grabbed the young men by the backs of their shirts and marched them straight to the magistrate’s office.
* * *
There was nothing about Port Beaufort Magistrate’s Office that looked judicial. Instead, it just looked like a simple one-story house. The little cedar shingle-covered building was situated catty-cornered across Front Street from the same docks where the Topsail Tavern was located.
The local magistrate, Peter Robins, was only thirty-two-years-old, but he displayed the maturity and wisdom of a man twice his age.
When Squires entered the magistrate’s office, he tipped his head and removed his hat before he spoke. “Excuse me, sir.”
It was strange for Adam to see a middle-aged man as big and brawny as Constable Lawson Squires show such respect and deference to a man who was young enough to be his son.
“Good day, Constable,” said Mr. Robins. “Come right in and state your business.”
“Mr. Robins,” said the constable, “these two boys were fighting on the docks down by the Topsail.”
“I see.” The magistrate observed both boys for a moment before asking, “Who started it?”
“Sir, must you really ask such a question?” said Francis.
Adam scoffed and looked at Francis. “You must be joking, Smythe!” He turned his attention back to Mr. Robins. “He started it with that mouth of his!”
Mr. Robins looked directly at Adam and asked, “But did you start the physical altercation, Mr. Fletcher?”
Adam sneered at Francis. “No, but I finished it.”
“I want to know what happened. Why were you trying to kill each other?” asked Mr. Robins.
“Come on, sir! I’d never bother fighting with someone like him,” said Adam. “I mean, look at him! But I had to. He got out of line. He insulted my mother’s honor.”
Francis looked at Adam with contempt. “What honor? Your mother’s nothing but a harlot barmaid.”
It took every bit of self-control that Adam had within him to keep from pouncing on Francis once more.
The magistrate looked as if he could sense Adam’s percolating rage, so he motioned for him to settle down before he asked Francis, “Mr. Smythe, tell me, sir: Do you have personal knowledge as it relates to Ms. Fletcher’s occupation?”
Francis gasped. “Sir, I am a gentleman! I have no personal knowledge of the local strumpets.” He paused mischievously. “But one does hear things. And I heard that Fletcher’s mother practices the old profession. And that’s how she got him.”
He looked over at Adam and sneered.
Mr. Robins walked around to the front of his desk and leaned against its edge. “So, Mr. Smythe, let me understand this correctly. You admit you have no personal knowledge about Adam’s mother. You also admit your accusation against her character is based on hearsay. Is that a fair assessment?”
Francis wouldn’t respond.
The magistrate continued: “So indulge me if you would, Mr. Smythe. If you did not have personal knowledge as to the character or profession of Mr. Fletcher’s mother, nor proof, why would you make such an accusation?”
Francis’s eyes grew wide. “Because everybody knows it! Adam Fletcher is the bastard son of a loose barmaid, and he’s a hot-tempered brawler to boot. I want to know when you intend to lock him up!”
Constable Squires looked at Mr. Robins. Mr. Robins returned the constable’s gaze and nodded. Adam said nothing. He knew he’d blown it this time. This wasn’t just an ordinary street fight with another working-class boy like himself. This time he’d thrown a hard punch at someone who could effectively ruin his life.
The magistrate looked at Adam, then Francis. “Mr. Fletcher, Mr. Smythe.”
The two boys both stood a little more upright and looked at the magistrate. Francis looked like he was fighting a smile that was trying to spread across his face. He’d love to see me put away, thought Adam.
The two had never liked each other. Adam always hated how pompous Francis acted, and Francis had needled Adam since the first time they met. Adam was pretty sure it all came down to jealousy for Francis. Adam—in spite of his lower social status—felt sure he had at least a few qualities Francis wished he could possess. He was handsome, strong, and confident. Adam probably also seemed to have a more adventurous life, living and working at the Topsail Tavern, than eighteen-year-old Smythe, who mostly found himself being kept at home under the watchful eye of his father’s many servants.
“I’m either locking both of you up or neither of you up,” said the magistrate.
Francis was dumbfounded. “You are not locking me up. How dare you even suggest such a thing—I’ll have your job!”
Mr. Robins nodded. “You may certainly try, Mr. Smythe, but for now I am quite literally sitting in the judge’s seat. And I say that regardless of who started the fight, if you had insulted my mother that way when I was Mr. Fletcher’s age, I’d have probably done the same thing. What kind of a son wouldn’t step up to defend his own mother, for goodness’ sake?”
Adam couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t going to be locked up after all.
“And as for you, Mr. Fletcher, with age I pray you will grow in temperance. Fighting in the streets is hardly the way to build a successful life.”
“He’ll never be successful,” taunted Francis. “He’s a worthless urchin now, and fifty years from now he’ll still be a worthless urchin. You can’t turn lead into gold.”
Robins said, “That’ll be enough, Mr. Smythe. Keep up with your attacks and I may yet reconsider putting you behind bars.”
Adam looked at his adversary and just grinned.
Francis was outraged. “I can assure you my father will hear about this episode today. May I leave now?”
Robins nodded his head and motioned for Constable Squires to show him out. Just as they were about to leave the office, the magistrate had one more thing to say to him.
“Mr. Smythe,” he said. “You were born a little gentleman. Your father is a gentleman.”
“Of course,” agreed Francis.
“I would like to suggest that you not dishonor your father, nor that you bring embarrassment to your family, by creating for yourself the reputation of being a spoiled brat. Just as you say you hear people talk about Mr. Fletcher’s mother, so too have I heard murmuring about you, sir. Your father is a good man. Do not make the mistake of bringing his good name down with your actions.”
Francis glared at the magistrate, then stormed out of the office.
Once he was out of the building, Mr. Robins walked over to look out the window. When he saw Francis crossing the road, he returned to his desk and sat down.
“Mr. Fletcher,” he said, “what do you think your greatest problem is?”
“If one were to ask me, I’d say you have too much free time on your hands.”
Adam remained silent.
“I think it’s high time you find an apprenticeship so that you can develop your talents—make something of yourself.”
“An apprenticeship, sir? You mean learn some trade?” The suggestion took Adam by surprise. “I’m working down at the tavern. I’ve grown up there—I like it there.”
“Apparently it isn’t keeping you busy enough if you have time to get into fisticuffs so frequently down at the docks, and with Francis Smythe no less.”
“He came in and started that fight, sir. I asked him to step outside, and figured that would’ve been warning enough to get him to back up and apologize, but he didn’t, and he kept at it, so I had to teach him a lesson.”
“Mr. Fletcher, while I can appreciate your desire to defend your mother—and I really do believe that is an honorable thing to do on your part—I will say it’s quite foolish of you to think you can go through life getting into fights whenever a man insults you.”
“He didn’t just insult me, though, Mr. Robins. If it had just been about me, I’d have ignored him. But he threw my mama’s name in the mud, and I just won’t have it.”
Just as Mr. Robins was about to respond, Adam continued: “I know folks say those kinds of things about her, but they know better than to say ’em to my face. Francis Smythe wanted that fight.”
“Perhaps he did,” said the magistrate, “but are you normally in the business of giving Francis Smythe whatever he wants?”
Adam rolled his eyes.
“You’re a clever boy, Mr. Fletcher. I wouldn’t think you’d fall for his bait so easily.”
“You mean when someone says something like that, I should just let it go?”
“That’s precisely what I mean, Mr. Fletcher.”
Adam shifted his weight from one foot to the other and said, “May I go now?”
Mr. Robins quickly shook his head. “No. You may go after we discuss the matter of your apprenticeship. Is there a particular trade that interests you, or should I choose something on your behalf?”
Adam thought for a moment before answering. “Do I have to decide right now?”
“I’m being quite generous by giving you this opportunity. You could face criminal charges for that attack on Mr. Smythe.” Adam was about to interrupt, but Mr. Robins raised his hand to silence him. “I’m not going to charge you with the assault. However, I do need to tell the boy’s father something if he asks about it when he returns—and mark my words, he will ask about it. I want to let him know that I’ve dealt with the matter, but more importantly, I want you to make something of yourself, Mr. Fletcher. I don’t want you to waste your life cleaning tables in that tavern and brawling in the streets in your free time. Wouldn’t you like to be a productive member of society?”
Adam leaned his back against the wall, but he was too frustrated to answer.
“Tell me, if you could learn any trade, what would it be?”
Adam shuffled his feet in place as he thought about the question. “I’d just as soon run a tavern, sir. Why can’t I do that?”
“That’s not an option,” said the magistrate sternly.
Adam hesitated, then said, “Will you give me the weekend to think about it?”
Mr. Robins gave him a strict look. “Monday morning first thing I want you back in this office with your decision. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir. May I go now?”
“You may. And do not forget. I expect you back here first thing Monday. If you’re not, I’ll be within my rights to impose a stricter punishment for your assault on Mr. Smythe.”
Adam nodded. He hung his head and left the office.