MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
HEARTFIRE (1 Gooses)
Arthur Stuart stood at the window of the taxidermy shop, rapt. Alvin Smith was halfway down the block before he realized that Arthur was no longer with him. By the time he got back, a tall White man was questioning the boy.
"Where's your master, then?"
Arthur did not look at him, his gaze riveted on a stuffed bird, posed as if it were about to land on a branch.
"Boy, answer me, or I'll have the constable ..."
"He's with me," said Alvin.
The man at once became friendly. "Glad to know it, friend. A boy this age, you'd think if he was free his parents would have taught him proper respect when a White man--"
"I think he only cares about the birds in the window." Alvin laid a gentle hand on Arthur's shoulder. "What is it, Arthur Stuart?"
Only the sound of Alvin's voice could draw Arthur out of his reverie. "How did he see?"
"Who?" asked the man.
"See what?" asked Alvin.
"The way the bird pushes down with his wings just before roosting, and then poses like a statue. Nobody sees that."
"What's the boy talking about?" asked the man.
"He's a great observer of birds," said Alvin. "I think he's admiring the taxidermy work in the window."
The man beamed with pride. "I'm the taxidermist here. Almost all of those are mine."
Arthur finally responded to the taxidermist. "Most of these are just dead birds. They looked more alive when they lay bloody in the field where the shotgun brought them down. But this one. And that one...." He pointed to a hawk, stooping. "Those were done by someone who knew the living bird."
The taxidermist glowered for a moment, then put on a tradesman's smile. "Do you like those? The work of a French fellow goes by the name 'John-James.'" He said the double name as if it were a joke. "Journeyman work, is all. Those delicate poses--I doubt the wires will hold up over time."
Alvin smiled at the man. "I'm a journeyman myself, but I do work that lasts."
"No offense meant," the taxidermist said at once. But he also seemed to have lost interest, for if Alvin was merely a journeyman in some trade, he wouldn't have enough money to buy anything; nor would an itinerant workman have much use for stuffed animals.
"So you sell this Frenchman's work for less?" asked Alvin.
The taxidermist hesitated. "More, actually."
"The price falls when it's done by the master?" asked Alvin innocently.
The taxidermist glared at him. "I sell his work on consignment, and he sets the price. I doubt anyone will buy it. But the fellow fancies himself an artist. He only stuffs and mounts the birds so he can paint pictures of them, and when he's done painting, he sells the bird itself."
"He'd be better to talk to the bird instead of killing it," said Arthur Stuart. "They'd hold still for him to paint, a man who sees birds so true."
The taxidermist looked at Arthur Stuart oddly. "You let this boy talk a bit forward, don't you?"
"In Philadelphia I thought all folks could talk plain," said Alvin, smiling.
The taxidermist finally understood just how deeply Alvin was mocking him. "I'm not a Quaker, my man, and neither are you." With that he turned his back on Alvin and Arthur and returned to his store. Through the window Alvin could see him sulking, casting sidelong glances at them now and then.
"Come on, Arthur Stuart, let's go meet Verily and Mike for dinner."
Arthur took one step, but still couldn't tear his gaze from the roosting bird.
"Arthur, before the fellow comes out and orders us to move along."
Even with that, Alvin finally had to take Arthur by the hand and near drag him away. And as they walked, Arthur had an inward look to him. "What are you brooding about?" asked Alvin.
"I want to talk to that Frenchman. I have a question to ask him."
Alvin knew better than to ask Arthur Stuart what the question was. It would spare him hearing Arthur's inevitable reply: "Why should I ask you? You don't know."
Verily Cooper and Mike Fink were already eating when Alvin and Arthur got to the rooming house. The proprietor was a Quaker woman of astonishing girth and very limited talents as a cook--but she made up for the blandness of her food with the quantities she served, and more important was the fact that, being a Quaker in more than name, Mistress Louder made no distinction between half-Black Arthur Stuart and the three White men traveling with him. Arthur Stuart sat at the same table as the others, and even though one roomer moved out the day Arthur Stuart first sat at table, she never acted as if she even noticed the fellow was gone. Which was why Alvin tried to make up for it by taking Arthur Stuart with him on daily forays out into the woods and meadows along the river to gather wild ginger, wintergreen, spearmint, and thyme to spice up her cooking. She took the herbs, with their implied criticism of her kitchen, in good humor, and tonight the potatoes had been boiled with the wintergreen they brought her yesterday.
"Edible?" she asked Alvin as he took his first bite.
Verily was the one who answered, while Alvin savored the mouthful with a beatific expression on his face. "Madame, your generosity guarantees you will go to heaven, but it's the flavor of tonight's potatoes that assures you will be asked to cook there."
She laughed and made as if to hit him with a spoon. "Verily Cooper, thou smooth-tongued lawyer, knowest thou not that Quakers have no truck with flattery?" But they all knew that while she didn't believe the flattery, she did believe the warm heartedness behind it.
While the other roomers were still at table, Mike Fink regaled them all with the tale of his visit to the Simple House, where Andrew Jackson was scandalizing the elite of Philadelphia by bringing his cronies from Tennizy and Kenituck, letting them chew and spit in rooms that once offered homesick European ambassadors a touch of the elegance of the old country. Fink repeated a tale that Jackson himself told that very day, about a fine Philadelphia lady who criticized the behavior of his companions. "This is the Simple House," Jackson declared, "and these are simple people." When the lady tried to refute the point, Jackson told her, "This is my house for the next four years, and these are my friends."
"But they have no manners," said the lady.
"They have excellent manners," said Jackson. "Western manners. But they're tolerant folks. They'll overlook the fact that you ain't took a bite of food yet, nor drunk any good corn liquor, nor spat once even though you always look like you got a mouth full of somethin'." Mike Fink laughed long and hard at this, and so did the roomers, though some were laughing at the lady and some were laughing at Jackson.
Arthur Stuart asked a question that was bothering Alvin. "How does Andy Jackson get anything done, if the Simple House is full of river rats and bumpkins all day?"
"He needs something done, why, one of us river rats went and done it for him," said Mike.
"But most rivermen can't read or write," Arthur said.
"Well, Old Hickory can do all the readin' and writin' for hisself," said Mike. "He sends the river rats to deliver messages and persuade people."
"Persuade people?" asked Alvin. "I hope they don't use the methods of persuasion you once tried on me"
Mike whooped at that. "Iffen Old Hickory let the boys do those old tricks, I don't think there'd be six noses left in Congress, nor twenty ears!"
Finally, though, the tales of the frolicking at the Simple House--or degradation, depending on your point of view--wound down and the other roomers left. Only Alvin and Arthur, as latecomers, were still eating as they made their serious reports on the day's work.
Mike shook his head sadly when Alvin asked him if he'd had a chance to talk to Andy Jackson. "Oh, he included me in the room, if that's what you mean. But talking alone, no, not likely. See, Andy Jackson may be a lawyer but he knows river rats, and my name rang a bell with him. Haven't lived down my old reputation yet, Alvin. Sorry."
Alvin smiled and waved off the apology. "There'll come a day when the president will meet with us."
"It was premature, anyway," said Verily. "Why try for a land grant when we don't even know what we're going to use it for?"
"Do so," said Alvin, playing at a children's quarrel.
"Do not," said Verily, grinning.
"We got a city to build."
"No sir," said Verily. "We have the name of a city, but we don't have the plan of a city, or even the idea of the city--"
"It's a city of Makers!"
"Well, it would have been nice if the Red Prophet had told you what that means," said Verily.
"He showed it to me inside the waterspout," said Alvin. "He doesn't know what it means any more than I do. But we both saw it, a city made of glass, filled with people, and the city itself taught them everything."
"Amid all that seeing," said Verily, "did you perhaps hear a hint of what we're supposed to tell people to persuade them to come and help us build it?"
"I take it that means you didn't accomplish what you set out to do, either," said Alvin.
"Oh, I perused the Congressional Library," said Verily. "Found many references to the Crystal City, but most of them were tied up with Spanish explorers who thought it had something to do with the fountain of youth or the Seven Cities of the Onion."
"Onion?" asked Arthur Stuart.
"One of the sources misheard the Indian name 'Cibola' as a Spanish word for 'onion,' and I thought it was funny," said Verily. "All dead ends. But there is an interesting datum that I can't readily construe."
"Wouldn't want to have anything constroodled redly," said Alvin.
"Don't play frontiersman with me," said Verily. "Your wife was a better schoolteacher than to leave you that ignorant."
"You two leave off teasing," demanded Arthur Stuart. "What did you find out?"
"There's a post office in a place that calls itself Crystal City in the state of Tennizy."
"There's probably a place called Fountain of Youth, too," said Alvin.
"Well, I thought it was interesting," said Verily.
"Know anything else about it?"
"Postmaster's a Mr. Crawford, who also has the titles Mayor and--I think you'll like this, Alvin--White Prophet."
Mike Fink laughed, but Alvin didn't like it. "White Prophet. As if to set himself against Tenskwa-Tawa?"
"I just told you all I know," said Verily. "Now, what did you accomplish?"
"I've been in Philadelphia for two weeks and I haven't accomplished a thing," said Alvin. "I thought the city of Benjamin Franklin would have something to teach me. But Franklin's dead, and there's no special music in the street, no wisdom lingering around his grave. Here's where America was born, boys, but I don't think it lives here anymore. America lives out there where I grew up--what we got in Philadelphia now is just the government of America. Like finding fresh dung on the road. It ain't a horse, but it tells you a horse is somewhere nearby."
"It took you two weeks in Philadelphia to find that out?" said Mike Fink.
Verily joined in. "My father always said that government is like watching another man piss in your boot. Someone feels better but it certainly isn't you."
"If we can take a break from all of this philosophy," said Alvin, "I got a letter from Margaret." He was the only one who called his wife by that name--everyone else called her Peggy. "From Camelot."
"She's not in Appalachee anymore?" asked Mike Fink.
"All the agitation for keeping slavery in Appalachee is coming from the Crown Colonies," said Alvin, "so there she went."
"King ain't about to let Appalachee close off slavery, I reckon," said Mike Fink.
"I thought they already settled Appalachee independence with a war back in the last century," said Verily.
"I reckon some folks think they need another war to settle whether Black people can be free," said Alvin. "So Margaret's in Camelot, hoping to get an audience with the King and plead the cause of peace and freedom."
"The only time a nation ever has both at the same time," said Verily, "is during that brief period of exhilarated exhaustion after winning a war."
"You're sure grim for a man what's never even killed anybody," said Mike Fink.
"Iffen Miz Larner wants to talk to Arthur Stuart, I'm right here," said Arthur with a grin. Mike Fink made a show of slapping him upside the head. Arthur laughed--it was his favorite joke these days, that he'd been given the same name as the King of England, who ruled in exile in the slave shires of the South.
"And she also has reason to believe that my younger brother is there," said Alvin.
At that news Verily angrily looked down and played with the last scraps of food on his plate, while Mike Fink stared off into space. They both had their opinions of Alvin's little brother.
"Well, I don't know," said Alvin.
"Don't know what?" asked Verily.
"Whether to go there and join her. She told me not to, of course, because she has some idea that when Calvin and I get together, then I'll die."
Mike grinned nastily. "I don't care what that boy's knack is, I'd like to see him try."
"Margaret never said he'd kill me," said Alvin. "In fact she never said I'd die, exactly. But that's what I gather. She doesn't want me there until she can assure me that Calvin is out of town. But I'd like to meet the King my own self."
"Not to mention seeing your wife," said Verily.
"I could use a few days with her."
"And nights," murmured Mike.
Alvin raised an eyebrow at him and Mike grinned stupidly.
"Biggest question is," Alvin went on, "could I safely take Arthur Stuart down there? In the Crown Colonies it's illegal to bring a free person of even one-sixteenth Black blood into the country."
"You could pretend he's your slave," said Mike.
"But what if I died down there? Or got arrested? I don't want any chance of Arthur getting confiscated and sold away. It's too dangerous."
"So don't go there," said Verily. "The King doesn't know a thing about building the Crystal City, anyway."
"I know," said Alvin. "But neither do I, and neither does anyone else."
Verily smiled. "Maybe that's not true."
Alvin was impatient. "Don't play with me, Verily. What do you know?"
"Nothing but what you already know yourself, Alvin. There's two parts to building the Crystal City. The first part is about Makering and all that. And I'm no help to you there, nor is any mortal soul, as far as I can see. But the second part is the word city. No matter what else you do, it'll be a place where people have to live together. That means there's got to be government and laws."
"Does there have to be?" asked Mike wistfully.
"Or something to do the same jobs," said Verily. "And land, divided up so people can live. Food planted and harvested, or brought in to feed the population. Dry goods to make or buy, houses to build, clothes to make. There'll be marrying and giving in marriage, unless I'm mistaken, and people will have children so we'll need schools. No matter how visionary this city makes the people, they still need roofs and roads, unless you expect them all to fly."
Alvin leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed.
"Have I put you to sleep, or are you thinking?" asked Verily.
Alvin didn't open his eyes when he answered. "I'm just thinking that I really don't know a blame thing about what I'm doing. White Murderer Harrison may have been the lowest man I ever knowed, but at least he could build a city in the wilderness."
"It's easy to build a city when you arrange the rules so that bad men can get rich without getting caught," said Verily. "You build such a place and greed will bring you your citizens, if you can stand to live with them."
"It ought to be possible to do the same for decent folks," said Alvin.
"It ought to be and is," said Verily. "It's been done, and you can learn from the way they did it."
"Who?" asked Mike Fink. "I never heard of such a town."
"A hundred towns at least," said Verily. "I'm speaking of New England, of course. Massachusetts most particularly. Founded by Puritans to be their Zion, a land of pure religion across the western ocean. All my life, growing up in England, I heard about how perfect New England was, how pure and godly, where there were neither rich nor poor, but all partakers of the heavenly gift, and where they were free of distraction from the world. They live in peace and equity, in the land most just of all that have ever existed on God's Earth."
Alvin shook his head. "Verily, if Arthur can't go to Camelot, it's a sure bet you and I can't go to New England."
"There's no slavery there," said Verily.
"You know what I mean," said Alvin. "They hang witches."
"I'm no witch," said Verily. "Nor are you."
"By their lights we are."
"Only if we do any hexery or use hidden powers," said Verily. "Surely we can restrain ourselves long enough to learn how they created such a large country free of strife and oppression, and filled with the love of God."
"Dangerous," said Alvin.
"I agree," said Mike. "We'd be insane to go there. Isn't that where that lawyer fellow Daniel Webster came from? He'll know about you, Alvin."
"He's in Carthage City making money from corrupt men," said Alvin.
"Last you heard of him, maybe," said Mike. "But he can write letters. He can come home. Things can go wrong."
Arthur Stuart looked up at Mike Fink. "Things can go wrong lying in your own bed on Sunday."
Alvin at last opened his eyes. "I have to learn. Verily's right. It's not enough to learn Makering. I have to learn governing, too, and city building, and everything else. I have to learn everything about everything, and I'm just getting farther behind the longer I sit here."
Arthur Stuart looked glum. "So I'm never going to meet the King."
"Far as I'm concerned," said Mike Fink, "you are the real Arthur Stuart, and you've got as much right as he has to be king in this land."
"I want him to make me a knight."
Alvin sighed. Mike rolled his eyes. Verily put a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "The day the King knights a half-Black boy..."
"Can't he knight the White half?" asked Arthur Stuart. "If I do something real brave? That's how a fellow gets hisself knighted, I hear."
"Definitely time to go to New England," said Alvin.
"I tell you I got misgivings," said Mike Fink.
"Me too," said Alvin. "But Verily's right. They built a good place and got good people to come to it."
"Why not go to that Tennizy place as calls itself Crystal City?" asked Mike.
"Maybe that's where we'll go after we get run out of New England," said Alvin.
Verily laughed. "You're an optimist, aren't you."
They mostly packed before they went to bed that night. Not that there was that much to put in their satchels. When a man is traveling with only a horse to carry himself and his goods, he gets a different idea of what he needs to carry from place to place than does a man riding a coach, or followed by servants and pack animals. It's not much more than a walking man would be willing to tote, lest he wear down the horse.
Alvin woke early in the morning, before dawn, but it took him no more than two breaths to notice that Arthur Stuart was gone. The window stood open, and though they were on the top floor of the house, Alvin knew that wouldn't stop Arthur Stuart, who seemed to think that gravity owed him a favor.
Alvin woke Verily and Mike, who were stirring anyway, and asked them to get the horses saddled and loaded up while he went in search of the boy.
Mike only laughed, though. "Probably found him some girl he wants to kiss good-bye."
Alvin looked at him in shock. "What are you talking about?"
Mike looked back at him, just as surprised. "Are you blind? Are you deaf? Arthur's voice is changing. He's one whisker from being a man."
"Speaking of whiskers," said Verily, "I think the shadow on his upper lip is due to become a brush pretty soon. In fact, I daresay his face grows more hair on it already than yours does, Alvin."
"I don't see your face flowing with moustachery, either," said Alvin.
"I shave," said Verily.
"But it's a long time between Christmases," said Alvin. "I'll see you before breakfast is done, I wager."
As Alvin went downstairs, he stopped into the kitchen, where Mistress Louder was rolling out the dough for morning biscuits. "You didn't happen to see Arthur Stuart this morning?" asked Alvin.
"And when wast thou planning to tell me ye were leaving?"
"When we settled up after breakfast," said Alvin. "We wasn't trying to slip out, it was no secret we were packing up."
Only then did he notice the tears running down her cheeks. "I hardly slept last night."
Alvin put his hands on her shoulders. "Mistress Louder, I never thought you'd take on so. It's a rooming house, ain't it? And roomers come and go."
She sighed loudly. "Just like children," she said.
"And don't children come back to the nest from time to time?"
"If that's a promise, I won't have to turn these into salt biscuits with my silly tears," she said.
"I can promise that I'll never pass a night in Philadelphia anywhere other than your house, lessen my wife and I settle down here someday, and then we'll send our children to your house for breakfast while we sleep lazy."
She laughed outright. "The Lord took twice the time making thee, Alvin Smith, cause it took that long to put the mischief in."
"Mischief sneaks in by itself," said Alvin. "That's its nature."
Only then did Mistress Louder remember Alvin's original question. "As for Arthur Stuart, I caught him climbing down the tree outside when I went out to bring in firewood."
"And you didn't wake me? Or stop him?"
She ignored the implied accusation. "I forced some cold johnnycake into his hands before he was out the door again. Said he had an errand to run before ye boys left this morning."
"Well, at least that sounds like he means to come back," said Alvin.
"It does," said Mistress Louder. "Though if he didn't, thou'rt not his master, I think."
"Just because he's not my property don't mean I'm not responsible for him," said Alvin.
"I wasn't speaking of the law," said Mistress Louder, "I was speaking the simple truth. He doesn't obey thee like a boy, but like a man, because he wants to please thee. He'll do nowt because thou commandest, but does it only when he agrees he ought to."
"But that's true of all men and all masters, even slaves," said Alvin.
"What I'm saying is he doesn't act in fear of thee," said Mistress Louder. "And so it won't do for thee to be hot with him when thou find him. Thou hast no right."
Only then did Alvin realize that he was a bit angry with Arthur Stuart for running off. "He's still young," said Alvin.
"And thou'rt what, a greybeard with a stoop in his back?" she laughed. "Get on and find him. Arthur Stuart never seems to know the danger a lad of his tribe faces, noon and night."
"Nor the danger that sneaks up behind," said Alvin. He kissed her cheek. "Don't let all those biscuits disappear before I get back."
"It's thy business, not mine, what time thou'lt choose to come back," she said. "Who can say how hungry the others will be this morning?"
For that remark, Alvin dipped his finger into the flour and striped her nose with it, then headed for the door. She stuck her tongue out at him but didn't wipe the flour away. "I'll be a clown if thou want me to," she called after him.
* * *
It was far too early in the morning for the shop to be open, but Alvin went straight for the taxidermist's anyway. What other business could Arthur Stuart have? Mike's guess that Arthur had found a girl was not likely to be right--the boy almost never left Alvin's side, so there'd been no chance for such a thing, even if Arthur was old enough to want to try.
The streets were crowded with farmers from the surrounding countryside, bringing their goods to market, but the shops in buildings along the streets were still closed. Paperboys and postmen made their rounds, and dairymen clattered up the alleys, stopping to leave milk in the kitchens along the way. It was noisy on the streets, but it was the fresh noise of morning. No one was shouting yet. No neighbors quarreling, no barkers selling, no driver shouting out a warning to clear the way.
No Arthur at the front door of the taxidermy shop.
But where else would he have gone? He had a question, and he wouldn't rest until he had the answer. Only it wasn't the taxidermist who had the answer, was it? It was the French painter of birds, John-James. And somewhere inside the shop, there was bound to be a note of the man's address. Would Arthur really be so foolhardy as to...
There was indeed an open window, with two crates on a barrel stacked beneath it. Arthur Stuart, it's no better to be taken for a burglar than to be taken for a slave.
Alvin went to the back door. He twisted the knob. It turned a little, but not enough to draw back the latch. Locked, then.
Alvin leaned against the door and closed his eyes, searching with his doodlebug till he found the heartfire inside the shop. There he was, Arthur Stuart, bright with life, hot with adventure. Like so many times before, Alvin wished he had some part of Margaret's gift, to see into the heartfire and learn something of the future and past, or even just the thoughts of the present moment--that would be convenient.
He dared not call out for Arthur--his voice would only raise an alarm and almost guarantee that Arthur would be caught inside the shop. For all Alvin knew the taxidermist lived upstairs or in an upper floor of one of the nearby buildings.
So now he put his doodlebug inside the lock, to feel out how the thing was made. An old lock, not very smooth. Alvin evened out the rough parts, peeling away corrosion and dirt. To change the shape of it was easier than moving it, so where two metal surfaces pressed flat against each other, keeping the latch from opening, Alvin changed them both to a bevel, making the metal flow into the new shapes, until the two surfaces slid easily across each other. With that he could turn the knob, and silently the latch slid free.
Still he did not open the door, for now he had to turn his attention to the hinges. They were rougher and dirtier than the lock. Did the man even use this door? Alvin smoothed and cleaned them also, and now, when he turned the knob and pushed open the door, the only sound was the whisper of the breeze passing into the shop.
Arthur Stuart sat at the taxidermist's worktable, holding a bluejay between his hands, stroking the feathers. He looked up at Alvin and said, softly, "It isn't even dead."
Alvin touched the bird. Yes, there was some warmth, and a heartbeat. The shot that stunned it was still lodged in its skull. The brain was bruised and the bird would soon die of it, even though none of the other birdshot that had hit it would be fatal.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" asked Alvin. "The address of the painter?"
"No," said Arthur bleakly.
Alvin went to work on the bird, quickly as he could. It was more delicate than metal work, moving his doodlebug through the pathways of a living creature, making tiny alterations here and there. It helped him to hold the animal, to touch it while he worked on it. The blood in the brain was soon draining into the veins, and the damaged arteries were closed. The flesh healed rapidly under the tiny balls of lead, forcing them back out of the body. Even the ball lodged in the skull shrank, loosened, dropped out.
The jay rustled its feathers, struggled in Alvin's grasp. He let it loose.
"They'll just kill it anyway," said Alvin.
"So we'll let it out," said Arthur.
Alvin sighed. "Then we'd be thieves, wouldn't we?"
"The window's open," said Arthur. "The blue jay can leave after the man comes in this morning. So he'll think it escaped on its own."
"And how will we get the bird to do that?"
Arthur looked at him like he was an idiot, then leaned close to the bluejay, which stood still on the worktable. Arthur whispered so softly that Alvin couldn't hear the words. Then he whistled, several sharp birdlike sounds.
The jay leapt into the air and flapped noisily around the room. Alvin ducked to avoid it.
"He's not going to hit you," said Arthur, amused.
"Let's go," said Alvin.
He took Arthur through the back door. When he drew it closed, he stayed for just a moment longer, his fingers lingering on the knob, as he returned the pieces of the lock to their proper shape.
"What are you doing here!" The taxidermist stood at the turn of the alley.
"Hoping to find you in, sir," said Alvin calmly, not taking his hand off the knob.
"With your hand on the knob?" said the taxidermist, his voice icy with suspicion.
"You didn't answer to our knock," said Alvin. "I thought you might be so hard at work you didn't hear. All we want is to know where we might find the journeyman painter. The Frenchman. John-James."
"I know what you wanted," said the taxidermist.
"Stand away from the door before I call the constable."
Alvin and Arthur stepped back.
"That's not good enough," said the taxidermist. "Skulking at back doors--how do I know you don't plan to knock me over the head and steal from me as soon as I have the door unlocked?"
"If that was our plan, sir," said Alvin, "you'd already be lying on the ground and I'd have the key in my hand, wouldn't I?"
"So you did have it all thought out!"
"Seems to me you're the one who has plans for robbing," said Alvin. "And then you accuse others of wanting to do what only you had thought of."
Angrily the man pulled out his key and slid it into the lock. He braced himself to twist hard, expecting the corroded metal to resist. So he visibly staggered when the key turned easily and the door slipped open silently.
He might have stopped to examine the lock and the hinges, but at that moment the bluejay that had spent the night slowly dying on his worktable fluttered angrily in his face and flew out the door. "No!" the man shouted. "That's Mr. Ridley's trophy!"
Arthur Stuart laughed. "Not much of a trophy," he said. "Not if it won't hold still."
The taxidermist stood in the doorway, looking for the bird. It was long gone. He then looked back and forth from Alvin to Arthur. "I know you had something to do with this," he said. "I don't know what or how, but you witched up that bird."
"No such thing," said Alvin. "When I arrived here I had no idea you kept living birds inside. I thought you only dealt with dead ones."
"I do! That bird was dead!"
"John-James," said Alvin. "We want to see him before we leave town."
"Why should I help you?" said the taxidermist.
"Because we asked," said Alvin, "and it would cost you nothing."
"Cost me nothing? How am I going to explain to Mr. Ridley?"
"Tell him to make sure his birds are dead before he brings them to you," said Arthur Stuart.
"I won't have such talk from a Black boy," said the taxidermist. "If you can't control your boy, then you shouldn't bring him out among gentlemen!"
"Have I?" asked Alvin.
"Have you what?"
"Brought him out among gentlemen?" said Alvin. "I'm waiting to see the courtesy that would mark you as such a one."
The taxidermist glowered at him. "John-James Audubon is staying in a room at the Liberty Inn. But you won't find him there at this time of day--he'll be out looking at birds till midmorning."
"Then good day to you," said Alvin. "You might oil your locks and hinges from time to time. They'll stay in better condition if you do."
The taxidermist got a quizzical look on his face. He was still opening and closing his silent; smooth-hinged door as they walked back down the alley to the street.
"Well, that's that," said Alvin. "We'll never find your John-James Audubon before we have to leave."
Arthur Stuart looked at him in consternation. "And why won't we?" He whistled a couple of times and the bluejay fluttered down to alight on his shoulder. Arthur whispered and whistled for a few moments, and the bird hopped up onto Arthur's head, then (to Alvin's surprise) Alvin's shoulder, then Alvin's head, and only then launched itself into the air and flew off up the street.
"He's bound to be near the river this morning," said Arthur Stuart. "Geese are feeding there, on their way south."
Alvin looked around. "It's still summer. It's hot."
"Not up north," said Arthur Stuart. "I heard two flocks yesterday."
"I haven't heard a thing."
Arthur Stuart grinned at him.
"I thought you stopped hearing birds," said Alvin. "When I changed you, in the river. I thought you lost all that."
Arthur Stuart shrugged. "I did. But I remembered how it felt. I kept listening."
"It's coming back?" asked Alvin.
Arthur shook his head. "I have to figure it out. It doesn't just come to me, the way it used to. It's not a knack anymore. It's..."
Alvin supplied the word. "A skill."
"I was trying to decide between 'a wish' and 'a memory.'"
"You heard geese calling, and I didn't. My ears are pretty good, Arthur."
Arthur grinned at him again. "There's hearing and there's listening."
There were several men with shotguns stalking the geese. It was easy enough to guess which was John-James Audubon, however. Even if they hadn't spotted the sketchpad inside the open hunter's sack, and even if he hadn't been oddly dressed in a Frenchman's exaggerated version of an American frontiersman's outfit--tailored deerskin--they would have known which hunter he was, by one simple test: He was the only one who had actually found the geese.
He was aiming at a goose floating along the river. Without thinking, Alvin called out, "Have you no shame, Mr. Audubon?"
Audubon, startled, half-turned to look at Alvin and Arthur. Whether it was the sudden movement or Alvin's voice, the lead goose honked and rose dripping from the water, staggering at first from the effort, then rising smoothly with great beats of his wings, water trailing behind him in a silvery cascade. In a moment, all the other geese also rose and flew down the river. Audubon raised his shotgun, but then cursed and rounded on Alvin, the gun still leveled. "Pour quoi, imbecile!"
"You planning to shoot me?" asked Alvin.
Reluctantly, Audubon lowered the gun and remembered his English, which at the moment wasn't very good. "I have the beautiful creature in my eye, but you, man of the mouth open!"
"Sorry, but I couldn't believe you'd shoot a goose on the water like that."
"Because it's--not sporting."
"Of course it's not sporting!" His English was getting better as he warmed to the argument. "I'm not here for sport! Look everywhere, Monsieur, and tell me the very important thing you do not see."
"You got no dog," said Arthur Stuart.
"Yes! Le garçon noir comprend! I cannot shoot the bird in the air because how do I collect the bird? It falls, the wing breaks, what good is it to me now? I shoot on the water, then splash splash, I have the goose."
"Very practical," said Alvin. "If you were starving, and needed the goose for food."
"Food!" cried Audubon. "Do I look like a hungry man?"
"A little lean, maybe," said Alvin. "But you could probably fast for a day or two without keeling over."
"I do not understand you, Monsieur Americain. Et je ne veux pas te comprendre. Go away." Audubon started downstream along the riverbank, the direction the geese had gone.
"Mister Audubon," Arthur Stuart called out.
"I must shoot you before you go away?" he called out, exasperated.
"I can bring them back," said Arthur.
Audubon turned and looked at him. "You call geese?" He pulled a wooden goose call from his the pocket of his jacket. "I call geese, too. But when they hear this, they think, Sacre Dieu! That goose is dying! Fly away! Fly away!"
Arthur Stuart kept walking toward him, and instead of answering, he began to make odd sounds with his throat and through his nose. Not goose calls, really, or not that anyone would notice. Not even an imitation of a goose. And yet there was something gooselike about the babble that came from his mouth. And it wasn't all that loud, either. But moments later, the geese came back, skimming over the surface of the water.
Audubon brought the shotgun to his shoulder. At once Arthur changed his call, and the geese flew away from the shore and settled far out on the water.
In an agony of frustration, Audubon whirled on Arthur and Alvin. "When did I insult you or the cauliflower face of your ugly mother? Which clumsy stinking Philadelphia prostitute was your sister? Or was it le bon Dieu that I offended? Notre Pere Celeste, why must I do this penance?"
"I'm not going to bring the geese back if you're just going to shoot them," said Arthur.
"What good are they if I don't shoot one!"
"You're not going to eat it, you're just going to paint it," said Arthur Stuart. "So it doesn't have to be dead."
"How can I paint a bird that will not stand in one place!" cried Audubon. Then he realized something. "You know my name. You know I paint. But I do not know you."
"I'm Alvin Smith, and this is my ward, Arthur Stuart."
"Wart? What kind of slave is that?"
"Ward. He's no slave. But he's under my protection."
"But who will protect me from the two of you? Why could you not be ordinary robbers, taking my money and run away?"
"Arthur has a question for you," said Alvin.
"Here is my answer: Leave! Departez!"
"What if I can get a goose to hold still for you without killing it?" asked Arthur Stuart.
Audubon was on the verge of a sharp answer when it finally dawned on him what he had just seen Arthur do, summoning the geese. "You are, how do you say, a knack person, a caller of gooses."
"Geese," Alvin offered helpfully.
Arthur shook his head. "I just like birds."
"I like birds too," said Audubon, "but they don't feel the same about me."
"Cause you kill 'em and you ain't even hungry," said Arthur Stuart.
Audubon looked at him in utter consternation. At last he made his decision. "You can make a goose hold still for me?"
"I can ask him to. But you got to put the gun away."
Audubon immediately leaned it against a tree.
"Unload it," said Arthur Stuart.
"You think I break my promise?"
"You didn't make no promise," said Arthur Stuart.
"All right!" cried Audubon. "I promise upon the grave of my grandmother." He started unloading the gun.
"You promise what!" demanded Arthur.
Alvin almost laughed aloud, except that Arthur Stuart was so grim about it, making sure there were no loopholes through which Audubon could slip once Arthur brought the geese back.
"I promise, I shoot no gooses! Pas de shooting of gooses!"
"Not even powder shooting, whatever that is. No shooting any birds all day," Arthur said.
"Not 'powder,' you ignorant boy. J'ai dit 'pas de.' Rien! No shooting of gooses, that's what I say!" In a mutter, he added, "Tous les sauvages du monde sont ici aujourd'hui."
Alvin chuckled. "No shooting savages, either, if you don't mind."
Audubon looked at him, furious and embarrassed. "Parlez-vous français?"
"Je ne parle pas français," said Alvin, remembering a phrase from the few halting French lessons Margaret tried before she finally gave up on getting Alvin to speak any language other than English. Latin and Greek had already been abandoned by then. But he did understand the word sauvage, having heard it so often in the French fort of Detroit when he went there as a boy with Ta-Kumsaw.
"C'est vrai," muttered Audubon. Then, louder: "I make the promise you say. Bring me a goose that stand in one place for my painting."
"You going to answer my questions?" asked Arthur Stuart.
"Yes of course," said Audubon.
"A real answer, and not just some stupid nothing like adults usually say to children?"
"Hey," said Alvin.
"Not you," said Arthur Stuart quickly. But Alvin retained his suspicions.
"Yes," said Audubon in a world-weary voice. "I tell you all the secret of the universe!"
Arthur Stuart nodded, and walked to the point where the bank was highest. But before calling the geese, he turned to face Audubon one last time. "Where do you want the bird to stand?"
Audubon laughed. "You are the very strange boy! This is what you Americans call 'the brag'?"
"He ain't bragging," said Alvin. "He really has to know where you want the goose to stand."
Audubon shook his head, then looked around, checked the angle of the sun, and where there was a shady spot where he could sit while painting. Only then could he point to where the bird would have to pose.
"All right," said Arthur Stuart. He faced the river and babbled again, loudly, the sound carrying across the water. The geese rose from the surface and flew rapidly to shore, landing in the water or on the meadow. The lead goose, however, landed near Arthur Stuart, who led it toward the spot Audubon had picked.
Arthur looked at the Frenchman impatiently. He was just standing there, mouth agape, watching the goose come into position and then stop there, standing still as a statue. "You gonna draw in the mud with a stick?" asked Arthur.
Only then did Audubon realize that his paper and colors were still in his sack. He jogged briskly to the bag, stopping now and then to look back over his shoulder and make sure the goose was still there. While he was out of earshot, Alvin asked Arthur, "You forget we were leaving Philadelphia this morning?"
Arthur looked at him with the expression of withering scorn that only the face of an adolescent can produce. "You can go anytime you like."
At first Alvin thought he was telling him to go on and leave Arthur behind. But then he realized that Arthur was merely stating the truth: Alvin could leave Philadelphia whenever he wanted, so it didn't matter if it was this morning or later. "Verily and Mike are going to get worried if we don't get back soon."
"I don't want no birds to die," said Arthur.
"It's God's job to see every sparrow fall," said Alvin. "I didn't hear about him advertising that the position was open."
Arthur just clammed up and said no more. Soon Audubon was back, sitting in the grass under the tree, mixing his colors to match the exact color of the goose-feathers.
"I want to watch you paint," said Arthur.
"I don't like having people look over my shoulder."
Arthur murmured something and the goose started to wander away.
"All right!" said Audubon frantically. "Watch me paint, watch the bird, watch the sun in the sky until you will be blind, whatever you want!"
At once Arthur Stuart muttered to the goose, and it waddled back into place.
Alvin shook his head. Naked extortion. How could this be the sweet-tempered child Alvin had known for so long?
HEARTFIRE. Copyright 1998 by Orson Scott Card