POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY
A Mystery by Elena Santangelo
"Strong-Beer, Stout Syder and a good
Are things this season doth require."
–Titan Leeds, The
American Almanac, December, 1714
December 3, 1783 — The Eagle's Nest,
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
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