This story is by Rosemary Nichols and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A GLASS OF FINE BRANDY
Jamie was missing Maggie. This was the first night they had spent apart since they married. No, he corrected himself. This was the first night they had spent apart since he helped her escape from the nunnery into which her father had forced her just after her eighteenth birthday.
The bed was just too lonely. Jamie decided to give himself a drink or two to make it easier to sleep. He carefully poured two fingers of brandy into an Irish crystal tumbler, one of two Maggie had securely packed among their winter clothes. The glass and the brandy had both survived the late winter 1817 trip across the ocean to New York City, up the Hudson River to Albany, and along the wretched road to the oddly named village of Rome on the New York frontier. Anything less like the Rome he had seen in his travels after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo would be difficult to imagine.
He doubted there was anyone else in this dreary little village sitting in the darkness by their bedroom window drinking expensive brandy from an Irish crystal glass. In fact, the brandy had not been opened before tonight because he and Maggie normally shared a pot of tea in the parlor the last thing before bed. But the idea of a man stumbling around her kitchen for any reason would have caused palpitations in his nervous landlady. So solitary brandy in the bedroom it was.
He couldn’t look at and talk to his wife, but he could think about her. Jamie couldn’t remember whether it was Maggie or himself who decided they should marry. In his recollection, it was always a given. Jamie and Maggie were a team. They would always be together. That Jamie came from an old Irish-Catholic family and Maggie’s family, to the extent they had any religion, were Anglicans hadn’t mattered – until it did. That wasn’t the only reason they had no choice but to leave Ireland, but it was one reason.
But before the two families had needed to rise up in outrage at a proposed marriage between them, Jamie had been forced to flee his homeland. It wasn’t his fault. Even on his worst day he didn’t think he was to blame. He was a fifteen year old student at Trinity College in Dublin. He had the misfortune to inspire the envy and anger of a highly privileged and regularly drunken upperclassman.
Jamie’s older brother William had warned him when he arrived at school to avoid Lord Templeton Thorne. Jamie had tried to take his brother’s advice. But Thorne kept seeking him out and insulting him. Jamie never knew what it was about him that so annoyed the older boy. Was it his height? Was it his appearance? When he inquired of his classmates, the answer always was that “Thorne was a mad dog about Catholics”. Even though the restrictions on the Catholic majority in Ireland had been relaxed and Catholic men were permitted to take degrees at Ireland’s premier university, the Irish lord still singled out Catholic boys for abuse.
On the disastrous day that drove Jamie from his home, Thorne was barely standing with the amount of alcohol he had consumed. He insisted upon grabbing at Jamie, cursing him for a “worthless Irish, better behind a plow than behind a desk”. Unfortunately, they were standing on the landing at the top of stone stairs on the outside of Jamie’s lodgings.
Jamie flinched away from Lord Thorne, who lost his balance and fell down the long flight of stairs. The older boy landed on his neck, breaking his back. There were six witnesses to the incident who unanimously declared Jamie had not touched the Irish lord, that Thorne’s fall was an accident Jamie had not caused. One of the boys had sense enough to run for Jamie’s brother William while the others tried to summon help for their injured classmate.
William quickly sized up what was going to be a terrible situation and deposited his stunned brother in the care of Maggie’s grandfather, a respected solicitor in the city. On the way to safety William had the forethought to identify the witnesses to the incident. While Thorne was being cared for in the provost’s quarters, Henry Simmons’ clerk was taking notarized statements from the witnesses.
Unfortunately, Thorne did not die from his injuries. He was simply paralyzed. The incapacitated sole heir to an Irish dukedom would not be removed or replaced until he died. His dragon of a mother daily prayed for her son’s recovery and would not hear of his being dispossessed as long as he lived.
Even the undisputed, notarized testimony of the young men who witnessed Thorne’s fall was not sufficient to keep the highly influential Thorne family from seeking to punish Jamie. They convinced a cooperative justice of the peace who owed his appointment to his wealthy neighbors to issue a writ of arrest for Jamie.
While Simmons prepared to fight the legal battle to protect Jamie, William dumped his brother into a closed carriage with the driver and outrider sworn to secrecy and with firm instructions not to stop traveling until they got Jamie home.
As fortune would have it, Jamie’s Uncle Hippolyte was recuperating from an injury he had received fighting for Napoleon. He had been granted compassionate leave to deliver treasured heirlooms from his mother’s estate to his sister in Ireland. When Hippolyte and Jamie’s parents realized there were going to be major consequences from the Thorne accident from which it would be beyond their power to protect their son, Hippolyte cut short his visit and took his stunned nephew with him to school in France.
Following the family tradition for third sons, Jamie had expected to become a soldier. Since an Irish education was closed to him and there was no possibility of a French-Irish male successfully buying an appointment to Sandringhurst in England, the newly created military academy of Saint Cyr outside Paris was a suitable substitute. Jamie was in France before he had recovered from the shock of the total disruption of his life.
For the next six years, Jamie’s mother wrote to him weekly. Included with that letter was usually a longer missive from Maggie. While his mother told him all the family news and admonished him to study hard and be careful with his friends (and enemies), Maggie talked about all the things that were happening on their respective properties.
She kept him up-to-date on which horses, dogs, and cats had offspring or, alternatively, had passed to their reward. Maggie talked about the harvest, who in the village was courting and marrying whom, and what was in the local newspapers. That she regularly read the press and passed the information on to her friend would have reduced her father to foaming fury. Women’s feeble brains were not suited to public affairs. Tucked into her letter was always one or two drawings of something Maggie had found interesting – a plant, a puppy, the way the clouds looked with the rain coming in, or a shepherd on a hill.
Even when Maggie was allowed to go for three years to her grandparents’ house to study at Miss Simpson’s School for Girls in Dublin, she managed to send letters home to Jamie’s mother for inclusion in her regular correspondence. Over the years the connection between the two friends remained strong. Even the two years when Jamie was traveling after Waterloo, he kept in close touch with Maggie. Especially when his mother became ill with consumption while Jamie was in Egypt, Maggie’s letters were Jamie’s lifeline home.
It wasn’t Maggie’s fault Jamie’s mother’s health was so much more fragile than anyone had anticipated so that his parent was in her grave before he received the news he must come home as quickly as possible. Jamie didn’t know until he discretely arrived in Dublin that his mother was gone before he even began the long trip home from Egypt, where he had been touring canals.
Jamie tipped his empty glass in honor of his beloved mother and silently assured her that he and Maggie were doing fine and that he had every expectation of success in this raw new country. After all, his letters of recommendation from famed English engineer William Weston had already gotten him successful interviews with now Governor Clinton and employment from Chief Engineer Benjamin Wright, who was supervising construction of New York’s Great Canal.
He was right where he most wanted to be – working on the greatest canal project in the world. If only his wife was safe at his side.
But all things in good time. Tonight he was sitting in a comfortable chair, drinking a fine brandy in a crystal glass while he watched the featureless night out his window. Hopefully his wife would be home tomorrow.