Friday, November 13, 2009


I lay on the Sultan’s deck gazing up at the stars, lulled by the gentle rocking motion, fantasizing about Betsy Eden, pressing her handkerchief to my face, my eyes watering from an explosion of lights. The lingering smell of rose water set my mind reeling, reawakening memory of the times we’d traipsed over the fields near our homesteads collecting dew-damp nuts and berries, our shoes soaked to the soles.

On the night before I sailed for England, five years ago, I had set off across the dark fields for Betsy’s house, balancing my sea chest on my shoulder. She had lit a candle in her second floor bedroom window as a will o' the wisp to lure me out of the moonless night into her arms. I deposited the chest under a gnarled hickory, a former chastiser and now an abettor, that grew close by to the house, shinnied up the tree, and clambered through her bedroom window into her waiting arms.

 “So, in a few hours you'll have discarded me like an old dishrag or a faded flower, then?” she said, snuffing out the candle. We fell onto the bed fully clothed, locked in each other’s arms.

“How can you say such a thing,” I mumbled into her ear, smothering her face, her neck, her breasts with kisses as Betsy giggled madly. "My greatest regret is that I have to leave you here alone." “I shall miss you coming here to keep me warm nights.”

“Just make sure that no one else usurps my place,” I said, laughing.

As I grew older I had probably spent more time at her house than my own, joining her family for supper by the hearth in the kitchen, relishing her mother’s homemade butter and fresh-baked bread, and at night sharing her chaste bed in a custom known as bundling. The next morning I’d be on board the Seraph, bound for England, and as one chapter of my life came to an end, another would unfold. I felt a rising sadness; it would be years before I saw Betsy again.

“I wish you weren’t going, Roger,” Betsy said. “Or rather, I wish I was going with you.”

“It can be a wild and dangerous place for a woman, the East Indies.” “The East Indies! Sounds dreamy.”

“Dreamy, yes, as a place to make money.”

“India, Fort St. George, Madras, will I ever see them?” I could feel her excitement as she snuggled up against me. “They seem so far away. Francis has been gone for years and we hardly know what’s become of him.”

 “Oh, my brother can take care of himself. I’ll bet he’s made his pile already, just waiting to come home and spend it. Anyway, in two or three years, with enough saved, I’ll send for you to join me.”

 “You’d better do it sooner, or you won’t find me waiting for you.” It was too dark to see her face, but I knew she would have that peevish look she adopted whenever she was being thwarted. “Tell me again about Madras. Does everyone have dozens of servants and hold parties and balls every night?”

 “Once we’re wealthy, we’ll return to Boston and settle down. Then, Mrs. Davenport, you can have parties and balls to your heart’s delight.” I dreamed of making my fortune and returning home to set myself up. Betsy only dreamed of a life of luxury and pleasure. I should have realized what a hedonist she was.

After a while I dozed off and dreamt of being in an exotic city and meeting strange people, only to wake up to find Betsy propped up on her elbow, staring into my face by the relit candle. She leaned over to kiss me on my eyelids. “Go back to sleep,” she whispered. But I fought to keep my eyes open, to fix in my mind the vision of us lying together in her bed, in the mist of her perfume, the perfume I could detect still, and bask in the heat of her presence, as real to me now as if she’d been by my side.

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