THE TOPSAIL TAVERN WAS PACKED, as it typically was on a Friday night. In colder months, diners were left to compete for tables closest to one of the hearths at each end of the establishment, but in the month of May the warmer weather outdoors began causing the air inside the place to feel thicker. Tables near windows were preferable because of the fresh breeze that would blow through.
Year round the air was layered with a bouquet of scents that included the more pungent briny odor of the old salts who came in to drink, the cloying perfumes of the women who occasionally came to sit with their sailors, the intoxicating fragrance of spilled rum and sweet tobacco smoke, and the yeasty aromas of strong ale and hot bread. Added to all of that was the melody of smells that emanated from whatever dishes were being brought out from the kitchen.
In spite of the high energy in the tavern, Adam struggled to put one foot in front of the other on this night. He confused several orders and had forgotten to wait on one group of men entirely. When one of them finally lost his patience, Valentine had to intervene and wait on their table himself—something the tavern keeper rarely did.
Valentine returned to his place behind the bar and began to pour ale for the men. Adam was there leaning against the bar, absentmindedly staring out into the dining area.
“Listen, I know you’re upset, boy, but there’s work to be done, and it ain’t going to do itself.” The sixty-something-year-old barkeeper grabbed the four mugs by their handles and quickly delivered them to the thirsty men before returning to the bar.
“Can’t this day just hurry up and be done with?” said Adam.
“Ah, don’t wish your time away, boy. You know what the Good Book says—that life is but a vapor; it appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” Valentine waved his fingers in the air as he said that last part.
“I know. But if any day could vanish, I wish it would be this one.”
“What are you whinin about? Don’t seem too bad to me. Seems like things could’ve been a lot worse for you after what happened this afternoon.”
Adam scoffed. “I don’t see how.”
“They coulda thrown you right into the gaol, boy—or the stocks. How would you feel about spending the night in there? Then you’d really be wishing the time would go faster. And can you imagine what Francis Smythe would do then? Huh!”
Just then Mary Fletcher joined her son and Valentine at the bar. “Hello, boys.”
Adam gave his mother a weak wave but wouldn’t speak.
Valentine said, “Finally back, eh? How’s she doing? Must’ve talked your ear off.”
“Oh, you know how the Widow Simpson is,” said Mary. “Bless her sweet heart, she’s just lonely.”
“Course she is,” declared Valentine. “You know that’s the only reason for her standing order here. Yes indeed. The Widow Simpson has her servants. She don’t need to order food from this tavern, but she sure does love having you sit and talk with her on Friday evenings. I reckon it’s the best part of her week.”
Mary smiled. Her youthful brown eyes sparkled. As young as she looked, one would never guess she had a seventeen-year-old son. The dark-haired beauty had given birth to Adam when she was only eighteen herself. Her son’s coloring and features were so similar to her own, passing sailors who dined in the tavern frequently mistook them for brother and sister rather than mother and child.
She noticed Adam’s downcast expression and put her hand on his back before asking, “What’s wrong with you?”
Adam looked at her and said, “I’ve been waiting for you to get back all day.”
“You know I go to the Widow Simpson’s every Friday,” she said.
“I know, but there’s something I have to tell you.”
“He got in a fight this afternoon,” Valentine interjected. “With Francis Smythe of all people.”
Adam rolled his eyes.
“Please tell me you’re joking,” she said.
Adam shook his head. “He’s not joking. But that’s not the worst of it.”
Mary gave a nervous chuckle. “Well, it can’t be that bad, can it? I mean, you’re here. You’re not in the gaol.”
“It must be bad,” said Valentine. “He’s been useless all night. Wouldn’t tell me what happened, though. Said he was waiting for you to get here.”
Mary put her hands on her hips. “Well, I’m here now. So what is it?”
Adam took a deep breath. “Mr. Robins says he wants to put me in an apprenticeship. He told me to pick a trade and let him know what I’ve decided by Monday.”
The color left Mary’s face. “He can’t make you do that. Can he?”
She looked at Valentine with desperation. The old man had been the closest thing Mary had to a father since she was a young girl. Valentine Hodges and his wife, Margaret, now deceased, had taken Mary in at the request of her father when he was on his deathbed with yellow fever. Mary’s mother died in childbirth, so she and her father had lived in a rented house owned by the Hodges. Since Margaret and Valentine had never been able to have children, Margaret joyfully looked after Mary as though she were her own, and Adam was like their grandson.
Valentine stroked his stubbly chin. “I don’t know, girl. Mr. Robins could’ve locked the boy up today. You should’ve seen Francis Smythe’s face. Adam busted his nose up good-fashioned.”
Mary shot a disappointed look at her son and struggled to speak past the lump that had formed in her throat. “What have I told you about fighting, Adam? Huh? What have I said? You just had to do it, didn’t you? Why couldn’t you just ignore the arrogant little toad?”
Adam inhaled sharply, then shrugged.
“Well, I guess they’re finally getting what they wanted,” she said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Adam.
Just then the men at the table where Valentine had delivered drinks a few moments earlier called out. “Oy! We want to order somefin to eat. Any chance of gettin served ova ’ere?”
“Be right there, fellas,” said Valentine. He turned his attention back to Mary and Adam. “You two might as well go upstairs to discuss this. I can see ain’t neither of you gonna be fit for work tonight. I’ll take care of these boys.”
* * *
The tiny one-bedroom apartment shared by Mary and Adam was sparsely furnished. In the center of the room was a small table with four chairs. Mary’s bed was on one side of the room, Adam’s bed on the other. The connecting wall had only one small dresser and a fireplace, which didn’t get much use for cooking in warmer months.
The tavern had been the only home Adam had ever known. That, coupled with his assumption that he would end up spending his life working at the tavern, made the fact that he was now being forced into an apprenticeship all the more troubling.
“Sit down, Adam.” Mary was fuming. She stood with her arms crossed, tapping her foot.
He paced back and forth across the room. He didn’t feel like sitting.
“Adam Fletcher! I’ve told you, I’m not going to try to talk to you like this. Now I said sit down!”
Adam huffed as he pulled the other chair out from the table and sat in it. He rested his elbows on the table and thought a moment before asking his mother, “What did you mean downstairs just now when you said they’d finally gotten what they wanted?”
“We’ll get to that in just a minute, but first, have I not told you before that your fighting would get you into trouble? But you! You hardheaded child! You just don’t listen!”
“Where does this temper of yours come from? I don’t understand it. I’ve never been a hothead like you. And for the short time I knew your father, he didn’t have a hot temper, either. So tell me, what is your problem? Why do you let those stupid boys get to you?”
“Mama, would you please just answer my question? What did you mean by what you said downstairs?”
Mary sighed and sat down with him at the table before she answered him. “Well, if you have to know, this isn’t the first time they’ve wanted to take you away from here and put you in an apprenticeship. They’ve been after me about it since you were just a little thing. I never would agree to it, though.”
Adam wrinkled his brow. “Are you serious?”
She nodded. “Yes. And even Valentine had to step in and help me one time. They were going to take you away from me and place you with a mariner so you could learn the seafaring trade.”
“And you wouldn’t allow it,” said Adam.
“Of course not! I’m your mother. I’d never give you to some stranger to raise. Much less a mariner—I know exactly how they can be.”
Adam tried to refocus the conversation. “You said Valentine had to step in and help you. Why did he have to get involved?”
“Well, because I was raising you without a father. The town doesn’t want to be responsible for the well-being of fatherless children. If we were wealthy, that would’ve been one thing, but we’re not, so I needed to be able to assure them that I could care for you, so Valentine stepped in as surety for me.”
“He did that?” Adam was surprised. “Why have you never told me about this before?”
“Why would I have?” said Mary. “We took care of things, protected you. Why worry you with it?”
“But you never even mentioned anything about an apprenticeship.”
“No,” said Mary. “It was never something I’ve ever wanted for you. You don’t understand. Unless your master is a family member or a friend, you’ll normally just end up being somebody’s cheap labor, and I didn’t want that. I certainly wasn’t going to see you leave on a ship when you were just a little boy to serve some old salt. A white slave is what you’d have been. That’s all.”
“Hmph. Doesn’t look like I have much of a choice now.”
“Well, pat yourself on the back, son. For seventeen years I’ve kept you out of a mess like that, and it sounds like it took you about two minutes to mess things up for yourself.”
The two remained silent for a couple of minutes, contemplating what all of this would mean.
Finally Mary spoke. “I’m not happy about this. But it all goes back to that temper of yours. And I’ve told you a thousand—”
“I know that! I know! But I wasn’t going to let that little cretin talk about you like that.”
Mary shook her head in frustration. “I don’t know what Francis Smythe said today, but I can assure you I have heard it all before. The fact that you got into yet another fight, and this time the law had to get involved—well, now you’re just going to have to pay the consequences. And Adam, I want you to know something: you having to be taken away from here and bound out—well, that hurts me more than any insult Smythe or anyone could ever invent.”
The full gravity of the situation finally hit him and he dropped his head in shame. “I’m so sorry, Mama.”
“You do understand this means you have to leave here, right?” said Mary. Her voice was shaky. Adam could tell she was trying not to cry.
He dropped his head onto his arms, which were folded across the table. “I know,” he said, his voice muffled.
“Listen,” she said, “this isn’t a good thing, but at least you get to pick a trade. This is such a small town, that’s almost as good as you being able to pick your own master.”
Adam raised his head. He said nothing for a moment, then spoke. “Maybe you’re right, but who would I choose? I mean, I’ve always thought I would work here, live here.”
“That’ll have to be your decision, but at least you have the weekend to figure things out.”
Adam nodded and took a deep breath.