A Mystery by Elena Santangelo


"Strong-Beer, Stout Syder and a good fire
Are things this season doth require." 
–Titan Leeds, The American Almanac, December, 1714

December 3, 1783 — The Eagle's Nest, Williamsburg, Virginia

"Ye've angels dancin' on your fiddle, lad." As John Brennan spoke, he set his pint of beer and his snuffbox upon the table. Every man in the room turned toward him in amazement.
    Some twenty of us were gathered in the West Room of Mrs. Vobe's tavern, warmed by fire and drink and the company assembled at the long tables. The oaken panels softened the hearthlight so that our faces glowed the color of fine brandy. Our tall shadows swayed upon the walls not starkly, but as grasses 'neath the water of a millpond. I'd brought my violin and Jim Parker helped himself to one of the house guitars, so the lot of us had been enjoying an evening of song. No one had taken heed of Brennan, sitting quiet by the door, until he spoke of angels.
    'Twasn't his praise that drew our notice. Compliments came to Brennan's tongue like mold to cheese. Once there, the flattery was tinted a soft Irish hue and delivered through a generous smile, the effect being that few listeners doubted his sincerity. However, he reserved compliments for his customers, not for poor men such as myself who could ill afford the luxury of snuff, even at Brennan's price.
    But no, all eyes viewed his snuffbox. 'Twas never out of his hand in public and that hand never dropped below the plane of his shoulders, except to replenish his box from a cloth pouch in his coat pocket. He kept the snuff at the ready so that when a potential buyer happened within hearing, Brennan could sniff in a dose and remark upon the excellence of the tobacco. Red veins stood out on either side of his nose as testimony to the practice, but I'd seen him sell his wares on the street in this manner, and take away more shillings in an hour than I took in all week.
    Now here he was, beer and snuff forgotten, the smile gone from his lips and perplexity in its place, his gaze lingering upon my fiddle, his eyes becoming rounder, as if every host of Heaven now occupied the instrument's curves...

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