The Queen of Bedlam


Robert McCammon


Part One: The Masker


‘Twas said better to light a candle than to curse the dark, but in the town of New York in the summer of 1702 one might do both, for the candles were small and the dark was large. True, there were the town-appointed constables and watchmen. Yet often between Dock Street and the Broad Way these heroes of the nocturne lost their courage to a flask of John Barleycorn and the other temptations that beckoned so flagrantly on the midsummer breeze, be it the sound of merriment from the harbor taverns or the intoxicating scent of perfume from the rose- colored house of Polly Blossom.

The nightlife was, in a word, lively. Though the town awakened before sunrise to the industrious bells of mercantile and farming labors, there were still many who preferred to apply their sleeping hours to the avocations of drinking, gambling, and what mischief might follow those troublesome twins. The sun would certainly rise on the morrow, but tonight was always a temptation. Why else would this brash and eager, Dutch-groomed and now English-dressed town boast more than a dozen taverns, if not for the joy of intemperate companionship?

But the young man who sat alone at a table in the back room of the Old Admiral was not there to seek companions, be they of humankind or brewer’s yeast. He did have before him a tankard of strong dark ale, which he sipped at every so often, but this was a prop to blend into the scene. One watching him would see how he winced and frowned at the drinking, for it took a true hardgut to down the Old Admiral’s keel-cleaner. This was not his usual haunt. In fact he was well-known at the Trot Then Gallop, up on Crown Street, but here he was within a coin’s throw of the Great Dock on the East River, where the masted ships whispered and groaned on the night currents and the flambeaux from fishermen’s skiffs burned red against the eddies. Here in the Old Admiral the blue smoke of clay pipes whirled through the lamplight as men bellowed for more ale or wine and the crack of dice hitting tables sounded like the pistols of little wars. That noise never failed to remind Matthew Corbett of the pistol shot that had blown out the brains of…well, it had been three years ago, it was best not to linger on such a foregone picture.

He was only twenty-three years old, but something about him was elder than his span. Perhaps it was his grave seriousness, his austere demeanor, or the fact that he could always forecast rain from the aching in his bones like those of a toothless senior muttering in his pudding. Or, to be more correct, the ache of ribs below his heart and left arm at the shoulder, bones broken courtesy of a bear known as Jack One Eye. The bear had also left Matthew with a crescent scar that began just above his right eyebrow and curved into the hairline. A doctor in the Carolina colony had once said to him that ladies liked a young man with a dashing scar, but this one seemed to warn the ladies that he’d come close to a cropper with Death, and perhaps the chill of the mausoleum lingered in his soul. His left arm had been almost without life for over a year after that incident. He’d expected to live on the starboard for the rest of his days but a good and rather unorthodox doctor here in New York had given him arm exercises-self-inflicted torture involving an iron bar to which horseshoes were chained on either end-to do daily, along with hot compresses and stretching. At last came the miracle morning when he could rotate his shoulder all the way around, and with further treatment nearly all his strength had returned. Thus passed away one of the last acts of Jack One Eye upon the earth, gone now but surely never forgotten.

Matthew’s cool gray eyes, flecked with dark blue like smoke at twilight, were aimed toward a certain table on the other side of the room. He was careful, though, not to stare too pointedly, but only to graze and jab and look into his ale, shift his shoulders, and graze and jab again. No matter, really; the object of his interest would have to be blind and dumb not to know he was there, and true evil was neither. No, true evil just continued to talk and grin and sip with puckered lips at a greasy glass of wine, puff a smoke ring from a black clay pipe, and then talk and grin some more, all while the gaming went on with its hollerings and dice-shots and shadowy men yelling as if to scare the dawn from ever happening.

But Matthew knew it was more than the humor and drinking and gaming of a tavern in a young town with the sea at its chest and wilderness to its back that brought out this festivity. It was the Thing That No One Spoke Of. The Incident. The Unfortunate Happenstance.

It was the Masker, is what it was.

So drink up wine from those fresh casks and blow your smoke to the moon, Matthew thought. Howl like wolves and grin like thieves. We’ve all got to walk a dark street home tonight.

And the Masker could be any one of them, he mused. Or the Masker could be gone the way he’d come, never to pass this way again. Who could know? Certainly not the idiots who these days called themselves constables and were empowered by the town council to patrol the streets. He reasoned they were probably all indoors somewhere

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