Defying Conventions (Part II)
The Dancing Rooster was one of Nathaniel Aldridge’s favorite places. The ale was weak and the food was too greasy, but there were many nooks and shadowy hollows where a man could savor his food unobserved--or while observing others, if the lighting was just right. This evening, Nathaniel--simply Nat to friends, if he had any--was doing the latter.
His mark was now on his fourth mug of ale with a fifth on the way. Even with the watered down swill that they served at The Dancing Rooster, Nat could see that the man was already quite inebriated. That would only make his job that much easier.
A few minutes after finishing his fifth mug of ale, the man decided that he had had enough and rose to leave--not before almost getting into a shouting match with the barkeep over whether he could keep drinking on credit. As he staggered toward the door, Nat drained the last of his own mug and rose just as the icy blast from the front door chilled the half-hidden booth where he had been sitting. The man passed closely enough for Nat to smell the ale all over him, but he was oblivious to everyone else in the world at that moment. As he exited, Nat followed.
The man turned left just outside the door, nearly stumbling over a snowdrift that surely would have sent him flying head over heels. Having missed that opportunity to strike, Nat spied a dark alley a stone’s throw ahead. A light wind muffled the sound of boots crunching in the snow, allowing him to follow completely unobserved, not that this drunkard would have noticed him anyway.
As they approached the alley, Nat checked around them; there was not another soul in sight. Just as the man stepped past the mouth of the alley, Nat sprung into action. He took two quick steps into the street so that he could launch himself at the man from an angle. Plunging his shoulder into the man’s side, just below the rib cage, it felt as if he might break the man in half, so severely did his body buckle. Nat’s blow knocked the wind out of the man, preventing him from crying out, and he fell back into the alley in a heap. He immediately pounced, turning the man over on his stomach, pinning his arms underneath him, and forcing his face down into the snow.
“Who are you?” the man managed to gasp.
Nat just pushed the man’s face down a bit harder. “I suppose I should be the one asking the questions, don’t you?” The man groaned as Nat ground his knee into the small of the man’s back. “Now then, do you want to tell me where your purse is or shall I rummage through your pockets after a club to the head?”
“My right coat pocket,” the man managed to groan.
Using his free hand, Nat reached into the man’s coat and retrieved a billfold. Weighing it with his hand, he could tell it contained nothing but paper notes.
“No, that won’t do. That won’t do at all, sir. You know that your gambling debts were to be paid in coin.”
“Wait, if you just--” the man protested, but he did not finish the sentence. Nat retrieved his cudgel and rendered the man unconscious with a single blow. He rolled him over onto his side so that he would not drown in his own vomit and then searched the rest of his person. He found, in the left boot, a small purse; the clinking told him that he had found what he was looking for. He reached down and replaced the man’s billfold. After all, Nat reminded himself, there were unscrupulous men about who might not be able to pass up the temptation of an unconscious man whose billfold is left lying in the open.
A short walk later, Nat was back at his boarding house. Mrs. Daniels ran her establishment only marginally better than her competitors, but she had a soft spot for a veteran such as Nat and so let him pay the rent late every now and then. Perhaps most endearingly to Nat, she didn’t ask too many questions about his comings and goings.
He trudged up the stairs and let himself into his room, setting the purse on the table next to the solitary candle that provided him light and leaning his cane in the corner behind the door. The cane was purely for show--or for a weapon in a pinch. Nat found that a man with a limp and a cane could often go unnoticed where other men might be seen as a threat. He would do his work quickly and then snuff the candle out; each candle had to last as long as possible. Loosening the drawstrings on the purse, he gently emptied the contents onto the table. Sorting the coins was a task he completed in fairly short order--too short order, in fact. The scoundrel did not even have enough coin here to cover the gambling debts Nat had been hired to collect, let alone enough left over for Nat to collect his fee. He scraped the coins back into the purse and set it aside.
He moved from the chair to his bed and removed his boots before putting out the candle. He wasn’t particularly tired, but there wasn’t all that much for him to do right now either. Before he reclined, however, he fumbled for the bottle of whiskey he had on the table and took a few hearty swallows. It warmed him as it made its way down and he set the bottle back in its place.
Staring up into the dark he cursed his fate for having to go to the trouble of tracking down and accosting a man only to find out that the prospect of any sort of payment was exceedingly unlikely. The gentlemen for whom Nat typically performed these services could hardly be expected to acknowledge their gambling, let alone collect their own debts. A man such as Nat, however, could easily move in and out of all the disreputable places that they dare not be seen. It wasn’t a terribly lucrative business, but most of the time it kept food in his belly, a roof over his head, and drink close at hand. Nat had come to accept that those few comforts were just about the best a war veteran had any right to expect from the country he had fought for.
His “business” tended to ebb and flow, but a recent bit of news gave him hope that there would be plenty of business to be had in a few months’ time. The delegates to the convention would be arriving in late spring. Nat had no affection for politicians--and he was sure most of them would be politicians, probably of the worst sort--but many politicians tended to be men of no small means. It was those sort of men that tended also to get themselves into the sort of trouble that required his particular set of skills. So perhaps the cloud of politicians would come with a gilded edge.
At that thought--one that passed for pleasant these days--he reached for the bottle once more, draining its contents, and slowly fell into a deep sleep.
Services at the First Baptist Church began promptly at ten on Sunday morning. The new congregation could not boast the historical pedigree of a St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Patrick Henry had given his rousing speech to the Second Virginia Convention--casting the choice between liberty or death--but despite his love of history, that fact was no impediment to Mr. Randolph’s love for the church and its people. John Morris, their first pastor, had left to journey west, but in the interim, various men had taken to a rotating preaching schedule, among them Roger Clarence, who would preach today. Mr. Randolph knew that his new apprentice was bound to attend church somewhere--having promised his aunt as much--but it was his hope that in accompanying him to this church, and hearing the Gospel preached by Mr. Clarence, the young man would come to see church attendance not as a duty to be performed, but rather as an act of worship to be longed for.
“Is this it?” Camden asked him as they arrived.
“Yes. Until the congregation can purchase a building of its own we meet from home to home.”
They were greeted at the front door by Mrs. Doolittle, the lady of the house, who welcomed them and directed them to the formal dining room where chairs had been arranged to face a makeshift pulpit area. A clock in the corner began to chime the hour and the congregation all stood. A man wearing an old-fashioned wig strode to the front and led the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. Mr. Randolph was sure that he had met the man before, but he could not immediately remember his name.
Mr. Randolph overheard Camden reciting the words, but it seemed clear that a recitation was all that it was. From that point the service proceeded according to their usual order of things: a hymn, then a reading from Scripture, followed by another hymn, and then the sermon.
Roger Clarence was a sawmill owner rather than a formally-trained minister. Theology and preaching were, he once told Mr. Randolph, his first calling but his second profession. To hear his sermons, however, no one would have supposed that to be the case.
“Continuing our study of the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, we come now to the thirteenth chapter. We read in the first seven verses as follows: ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.’”
Mr. Clarence continued reading, but Mr. Randolph was more interested in his apprentice in that moment. Whereas the service up to that point had seemed to be utterly uninteresting to Camden, now he seemed to be totally immersed in the sermon. Mr. Randolph supposed that that should not be so surprising, given the young man’s interest in government and politics and the passage they were reading.
“. . . tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” Mr. Clarence finished the reading and set the large, pulpit Bible down on the desk beside him. “We come now to the apostle’s admonition to the church at Rome regarding the governing authorities. No doubt some in this room have struggled with these verses over these last number of years. Indeed, devout men of God took great umbrage with those of us Americans who saw no conflict between these verses and our taking up arms on behalf of our independence. The powers that be are, in fact, ordained by God. We know that God has ordained everything that comes to pass and that must include governments too. But that does not mean that governments may act as if they are God. That is a blasphemy so obvious it would hardly seem necessary to state it.”
Mr. Randolph looked over to see that Camden was still engrossed in Mr. Clarence’s words, perhaps even more engrossed than before. He continued on the same theme for several minutes, describing how Christians should relate to earthly authorities and what were the limits on the submission that Paul told them they must observe.
He then went on to talk about the relationship between the church as a body and the government. "In truth, the government has no more to say about religion than it does about the principles of mathematics, that is to say: nothing."
That statement seemed to shock Camden. Mr. Randolph felt him shift in his seat and glanced over to see that both of his eyebrows were raised. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom had passed only the year before, so the idea of complete freedom of conscience and a separation between church and state were still novel concepts for some.
After the service, Mr. Randolph’s curiosity got the better of him before they were even halfway back to his house. He had led Camden on a more circuitous route back from the church in order to allow more time for conversation.
“What did you think of the service today?”
“Mr. Clarence seems to hold a perspective on government I had not heard from a minister before.”
The expression on his face seemed to suggest that the sermon had given the young man much to think about, or at least new ways to think about familiar ideas. Sensing this, Mr. Randolph, considered that perhaps it would be best to leave him to this thoughts for the time being.
“Are you familiar with the writings of Roger Williams, by chance?” he asked, seeing whether he could approach the issue obliquely. “The founder of Rhode Island?”
“I know of him, but I do not believe I have read any of his works.
“Ah, well, then you shall have to remind me to locate a work of his that I think might be of interest to you. That is, of course, if you make time for reading it after your other assignments and duties.”
“If it comes with your recommendation, Mr. Randolph, then I am sure I will find a way to make the time for it.”
The book that Mr. Randolph had in mind was The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution. He had been raised in the Church of England (now the Episcopal church after independence), but Williams’ work, commended to him by a mentor of his own, had been an enlightening experience. He was certain that he did not agree with Williams’ every point on theology, but he could find little with which to disagree in The Bloudy Tenent on the topic of government and the use of force. Whether the ideas would influence his apprentice as they had him--and whether they would influence government in America’s future--remained to be seen.
He was roused from his thoughts about adding to his apprentice’s reading assignments by a familiar voice.
“Joseph! I had not thought to see you today.”
He looked up to realize that it was his sister greeting him. Had he not been so focused on his conversation with Camden he might have realized that the route he had chosen was bound to result in meeting his sister who would be returning from church about the same time. Georgiana walked with her, arm in arm, but the rest of the family was not in view.
“Bess! I suppose I acted more like a homing pigeon than a wanderer. I was merely on the way home after services. May I present Mr. Camden Page, my new apprentice. Mr. Page, this is my sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Burwell. You have already been introduced to my niece, of course.”
“Have you already met Mr. Page, Georgiana?” Mrs. Burwell asked. “Mr. Page you simply must forgive my daughter’s neglecting to have mentioned your previous meeting with her.”
Here, Mr. Randolph chimed in. “It was a very brief meeting in my study. You know that Georgiana does not always tarry after returning books.”
“In any event, it is good to meet you in person, Mr. Page. My brother has told us of the correspondence he has had with you prior to your arrival in Richmond. I hope you will find him to be a good mentor, because I know he has been anticipating that you will make a fine apprentice and a good lawyer one day.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Burwell. So far the apprenticeship has been everything I had hoped it would be.”
Mr. Randolph then addressed his niece. “Georgiana, just a few moments ago I was asking Mr. Page whether he was familiar with the works of Roger Williams. There’s a book of his that I would like for Mr. Page to read, but I seem to remember that you might have borrowed it.”
“Was it The Bloudy Tenent, perhaps? I too seem to remember borrowing that one, yes, but I was certain I had returned it. When we return home, I’ll be sure I have not misplaced it.”
“Yes, that’s the one. I will look through my study again as well.”
“The bloody what, Georgiana?” asked her puzzled mother. “Joseph, what are these books that you continue to supply to my daughter?”
“It’s The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, mother. It is Mr. Williams’ book about freedom of worship and the nature of government, nothing nearly as salacious as the title might imply. I do wonder, Uncle, whether Mr. Page would be very much interested in such a work?”
Mr. Randolph saw traces of Georgiana’s characteristic mischievousness in her question. Choosing to let Camden respond for himself, however, he merely turned slightly toward his apprentice. He was pleased to see that this time the young man rose to the occasion; he had learned that this young woman was nothing if not his intellectual equal.
“Oh, on the contrary, Miss Burwell, I am convinced that my study of the law--and I am sure Mr. Randolph would agree on this point--must be well-grounded not only in the common law and its more contemporary application, but also in the enduring principles upon which our legal system has been built.”
Georgiana smiled, a look that Mr. Randolph recognized as one of satisfaction. “You make a very good point, Mr. Page,” she said.
By this time, Elizabeth wore an expression of near-consternation. “Georgiana, I truly do not understand why you find it necessary to be so antagonistic sometimes.”
“I took no offense, Mrs. Burwell,” Camden was quick to interject. “In fact, I find it refreshing that a young woman such as your daughter takes an interest in such topics.”
“She is, indeed, somewhat unique in that regard. You will understand, I am sure, that many young men do not find her willingness to express her opinion quite as refreshing as you do.”
“Mother, please,” Georgiana muttered.
“Oh, you of all people should not be so sensitive, my dear. Mr. Page, the other unfortunate habit that my daughter seems to have developed is to read implications where none were meant.”
Georgiana looked as if she were about to speak again, but Mr. Randolph gave her a glance that he hoped would make her think better of it. Before he could find out whether he had been successful, his sister addressed Camden again.
“It has been delightful to meet you in person. The next time that my brother comes for dinner, we must be sure that he knows you are included in any such invitation. If you will excuse us, we really must be getting home now.”
“Good day, Mrs. Burwell . . . Miss Burwell.” Camden stepped aside to let the ladies pass by without their having to step into the street. Mr. Randolph made note of the fact, and also made note of his sister’s and his niece’s noticing it.
The renewed energy in Camden’s step after the brief meeting likewise did not escape his notice. Letting the young man down would now only be harder and it distressed Mr. Randolph that it was made more difficult only because Georgiana must only grow lovelier in his apprentice’s eyes with each encounter. He knew he should not delay that conversation, but the pain he knew it would cause weighed heavily on his mind. He passed the rest of the walk to the house in silence.
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