Summary: All Ben wanted was a night alone with his eldest. What he got was something quite different. Reference made to the episode “The Burma Rarity.”
Word Count: 2400
“Joe, just hear me out,” pleaded Adam.
Joe stopped his exodus from the barn, planted his feet, and folded his arms across his chest. Adam took his brother’s silence for permission to continue and, putting aside a fleeting image of a young Joe with fingers in his ears babbling nonsensical syllables at the top of his lungs, launched into a verbose and eloquent explanation. When he finished, Joe’s position, both literally and figuratively, had not changed.
“Well?” asked Adam.
“I will not play Puck!”
“Does that mean you’ll take another part?”
“Not even Lysander? He is described as handsome and passionate.”
Joe rolled his eyes and continued out of the barn and across the yard towards the house. Undaunted, his brother followed.
“It’s not the whole play, just a scene for the Literary Society’s annual tea party!”
“Lavinia Lawson is playing Hermia.”
Joe hesitated. Lavinia Lawson was Virginia City’s voluptuous new schoolteacher. All the eligible young men in town had been vying for her attention without much success. Although comely, she was aloof. Joe wasn’t sure whether she was haughty or just shy, but he aimed to find out. “Vinnie?”
Adam saw the flicker of interest. “Yes. You’d have to rehearse with her two, three . . . maybe even four times a week given the date of the Tea.”
Joe kept walking, albeit slower.
“Lysander, not Puck?”
Got him! Now, all Adam had to do was convince Miss Lawson to play Hermia.
With Hop Sing visiting a sick cousin in Carson City and Hoss and Joe riding fence for a few days, Ben savored the time spent in the kitchen with his firstborn. They worked side-by-side to prepare the evening meal, enjoying conversation and a bottle of wine. It reminded Ben of the years spent on the journey west when they shared the evening chores and discussed what had transpired that day and the lessons learned. Those trail suppers had been wholesome, but meager. Tonight’s abundant fare included fresh vegetables along with grilled beef steak over which Adam poured mushrooms simmered in Cajun gravy. An apple brown betty left by Hop Sing topped off the meal. Sated, they retired to the great room to read while enjoying their coffee and brandy.
Ben picked up a book and settled into his red leather chair while his son chose the settee over his favorite blue velvet chair. Ben was about to comment on the unusual choice of seating when the reason became apparent. Adam laid flat a worn and well-loved volume of Shakespeare’s plays on the plank table and began making notes on a tablet. Smiling, Ben sipped his brandy and resumed reading. After a time, however, he grew frustrated.
“Argh!” he grunted and slammed the book shut.
Adam arched an eyebrow. “Trouble in Wonderland?”
“If I am going to read nonsense, I prefer Edward Lear.” Ben rose and selected a pipe from the rack on the mantel. As he filled the bowl with tobacco, he glanced at the diagram of a stage his son had drawn.
“Do you think that was fair?”
“Whatever do you mean?” Adam asked innocently.
“I heard the way you manipulated Joe. You never were going to cast him as Puck, were you?”
Adam’s dimples grew larger but he said nothing.
“And I’ll wager Miss Lawson has yet to be convinced to participate in this venture, am I right?”
“I am going to the Widow Hawkins’ tomorrow to ask her. Care to join me?” Adam batted his eyelashes. Ben nearly choked.
“No!” he coughed. Unsatisfied with his pipe, he knocked the ashes into the fireplace and then wandered over to his desk to retrieve the Territorial Enterprise. He couldn’t seem to concentrate, however, and after fifteen minutes, he folded the paper neatly and watched Adam diagram the scene’s blocking. “I heard Miss Watson is a bit standoffish.”
“Probably just nerves—first assignment and all—not to mention being accosted by everything in pants from Virginia City to Gold Hill. The Literary Tea will afford a more fitting introduction to the ‘proper’ elements of society, don’t you agree?”
“You mean rather than the riff-raff stalking her since she arrived?”
“Are you calling your youngest son ‘riff raff?'”
“You’re an incorrigible reprobate at times, do you know that?” Ben laughed.
“More brandy, Pa?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m feeling a little light headed as it is.”
“Can’t handle your liquor, ey what?”
“Watch it, boy!” Ben smacked Adam on the knee with the folded paper. “I’m finished with this,” he said, tossing the paper on the table. “Do you have anything else to read?”
“There’s a stack of Harper’s Weekly on my bookshelf.”
“Good idea. I missed a few issues. I’m going up then. Bank the fire before you come to bed?”
“Of course. Goodnight.”
“Adam?” Ben called when he reached the first landing. “I enjoyed this evening; it was like old times, wasn’t it?”
Adam nodded. “Me, too, Pa. Sure you wouldn’t you like to go down the rabbit hole with me tomorrow?”
“Go down the rab-? Oh. GOODNIGHT!”
Adam chuckled. “Goodnight, Ducky!”
Ben Cartwright approached the Widow Hawkins’ boarding house with something less than enthusiasm. His first visit here with Adam had been interesting, to say the least.
Harry Hawkins had been a circus strong man and memorabilia of his life filled Clementine’s home. As he recalled, Adam had said the décor was more ridiculous than sublime, lacking only a trapeze to complete the effect of living under the Big Top. Nevertheless, it was the cleanest boarding house on the Comstock, providing reliable and comfortable accommodations for transient and newly-arrived citizens.
When Ben knocked on the door, it opened but no one was there. “Hello?” he said, stepping over the threshold only to lose his balance as he ungracefully struck an immovable object. Steadying himself against the door jam, he was surprised to hear a disembodied voice.
“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday-but never jam today.”
Ben peered into the room. There was no one there, but again he heard a voice.
Ben scanned from left to right to no avail. Improbably, he looked down. To his surprise, a tiny man no taller than his knee looked up at him with a quizzical expression.
Ben’s mouth opened and closed-not once, but twice-giving him the appearance of a large mouthed bass, prompting the doorman to state, “No good fish goes anywhere without a porpoise.”
“My purpose,” Ben said, “is to see the Widow Hawkins.” Before he could say Jack Robinson, Clementine appeared in her nightdress.
“Coo! If it isn’t Ducky come callin’!” She grabbed Ben by his elbow and plunked him unceremoniously onto the loveseat. “Have you come with an answer then, dearie?”
Never taking his eyes off the green-eyed, curly-haired greeter who looked strangely like Little Joe, Ben repeated, “Answer?”
“To my invitation.”
“Goodness, dearie, pay attention! My birthday party for Lavinia and Joseph. The General wants to have one right ‘ere in my humble abode.”
“General? What General?”
“Please forgive my cousin, Mr. Cartwright. She seems to have forgotten her manners. Clemmie, dearest . . . may I suggest you start with introductions. It might facilitate Mr. Cartwright’s comprehension.”
“Blimey! Where ARE my manners. Benjamin, may I present Charles Stratton of Connecticut.”
Finding his voice at last, Ben extended his hand. “Forgive me, Mr. Strat-er, General.”
“Charles is fine, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Then you must call me Ben. My apologies for almost trampling you at the door. I wasn’t expecting a-”
“Lilliputian? No, I don’t imagine you were.”
“I do, however, have some experience with Leprechauns.”
“Yes. Well, dwarves, actually. My son Hoss made the acquaintance of several a few years ago. They settled near Truckee and took up farming.”
“Your son is a horse?”
“Actually,” interrupted Clementine, “Benjamin named his middle son Eric, but everyone calls him Hoss. Fine, strapping man. Rivals my Harry, he does,” said Clementine.
“Speaking of sons, I actually stopped by to see if you had seen him.”
“No. Adam. Have you seen Adam? He had business here yesterday and he did not return home when expected.”
“Adam’s ‘ere all right, Ducky, just upstairs with Miss Lavinia, fourth floor, second bedroom on the right.”
“Bedroom! Why . . . why . . . that’s not moral!” sputtered Ben,
“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it,” said Charles.
Ben’s jaws snapped shut before he could utter words that were inappropriate in a woman’s presence.
At the fourth floor landing, Ben gasped for breath. There were doors to the left, but no doors to the right.
“Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love that makes the world go round,” a woman panted. “Oh, kiss me through the hole of this vile wall.”
“I kiss the wall’s hole, but not your lips at all,” responded a timbered voice.
“Adam! Adam, is that you?” cried Ben. All he heard in response was calliope music and the ticking of a watch. He rushed the nearest door, which opened magically, sending him crashing into the wall opposite, lacerating his scalp and rendering him momentarily speechless.
“O Dainty duck! O Dear!” said Adam, swinging from the trapeze attached to the ceiling. “What, stained with blood?”
Wiping the blood from his brow with the back of his hand, Ben looked up astonished. “Explain yourself, young man!”
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, because I’m not myself, you see.”
“No, I don’t see. In fact, I do not believe anything I am seeing. It’s not logical!” Ben said as a fox walked through the room carrying a goose.
“Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” Adam replied. “Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
“I’m not mad!” Ben bolted straight up in bed. “I don’t want to go among mad people.”
“Hush, now Ben,” replied Dr. Paul Martin. “It’s all right. You are going to be all right. Calm down.”
“What do you make of it? Delirium?” asked Adam.
“Mild hysteria. He’s not running a fever, but it’s almost like he’s been drugged.”
“He did mention feeling light-headed last night.”
“I know Hop Sing is away and Ben doesn’t like to cook for himself. Did he eat yesterday?”
“Joe and Hoss were gone, but I was here. We had dinner together; nothing special.”
“What did he eat, specifically?”
“Steak, roasted potatoes, vegetables, dessert, and a little brandy afterwards.”
Paul wrote Adam’s responses in his casebook. “What sort of vegetables?”
“Mixed. Hop Sing brought home a bushel of assorted vegetables from Grayson’s to try out.”
“That new market on K Street? Mmmm. How long has this behavior been going on?”
“He woke me in the middle of the night screaming my name. Then he started babbling. I couldn’t make out most of it. At one point, I had to restrain him. It was lucky you stopped by this morning, Paul.”
“I’ve been up all night delivering the Jorgenson twins. Thought I’d steal a cup of coffee before heading back to town.”
When Paul leaned over to use the stethoscope, Ben grabbed Paul’s coat lapels and pulled him close. “We have to talk! The ship! Tell the king the ship is in danger! Seal it and bring me my shoes! ” then he dropped back to the pillow exhausted.
“Well, he’s definitely hallucinating!”
Adam stroked his chin. “Cabbages and kings.”
“What? Not you, too!” Paul said.
“No, no. Not me. It’s what Pa said. “Ships and shoes and sealing wax, cabbages and kings.”
“Whatever are you going on about.”
“It’s a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Pa was complaining about its literary nonsense before he went to bed.”
“Mmmm. Were there mushrooms in that basket?”
“Yes. In fact, I made a Cajun gravy with them. I checked them, they weren’t poisonous.”
“Some edible varieties nevertheless have hallucinogenic properties. Did you have any?”
“No. I made it for Pa using one of Marie’s recipes. No one else likes it, so he rarely gets the opportunity to have any. He put quite a bit on both the steak and potatoes.”
“That may be it then. Well, no lasting harm. The effects should wear off soon. Just make sure he doesn’t thrash around and hurt himself anymore in the process. That’s a bit of a nasty cut on his forehead, but the bleeding’s stopped and it doesn’t require stitches.”
Paul got his cup of coffee before leaving. At the door, he paused and said, “I understand about Alice in Wonderland, Adam, but what was all that about kissing holes?”
“It’s a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream–the scene I’m directing for the Literary Society Tea next month.”
“How the mind works, mixing a book and a play.” Paul did not even want to guess how a trapeze entered the picture. “Well, let him sleep it off and then follow a bland diet for a day . . . no liquor. Send for me if you need me.”
“Will do. Thanks for stopping by, Paul.”
Adam waved farewell to the doctor and closed the front door. Grateful the ‘no liquor’ rule was not applicable to him, he poured a brandy and returned upstairs to ensure Ben continued to rest comfortably. When he sat down in the chair, he noticed a Harper’s Weekly on the floor. On the cover was a photograph of Charles Stratton also known as General Tom Thumb and his bride Lavinia Warren. The article described their opulent wedding as well as the White House reception hosted by Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. The side bar gave the couple’s vital statistics and listed Lavina’s birthday as October 31, 1842–the same day as Joe’s.
Curiouser and curiouser, indeed!
Written for a 2013 challenge where words were assigned. Mine were: thumb, hysteria, birthday, and tea party
The story contains actual quotations from Alice in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can you spot them?