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The Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles: Book One
The young man was trapped at the top end of Shockoe Slip where a crowd had gathered in Cary Street. The young man had smelt the trouble in the air and had tried to avoid it by ducking into an alleyway behind Kerr's Tobacco Warehouse, but a chained guard dog had lunged at him and so driven him back to the steep cobbled slip where the crowd had engulfed him.
"You going somewhere, mister?" a man accosted him.
The young man nodded, but said nothing. He was young, tall and lean, with long black hair and a cleanshaven face of flat planes and harsh angles, though at present his handsome looks were soured by sleeplessness. His skin was sallow, accentuating his eyes, which were the same gray as the fog-wrapped sea around Nantucket, where his ancestors had lived. In one hand he was carrying a stack of books tied with hemp rope, while in his other was a carpetbag with a broken handle. His clothes were of good quality, but frayed and dirty like those of a man well down on his luck. He betrayed no apprehension of the crowd, but instead seemed resigned to their hostility as just another cross he had to bear.
"You heard the news, mister?" The crowd's spokesman was a bald man in a filthy apron that stank of a tannery.
Again the young man nodded. He had no need to ask what news, for there was only one event that could have sparked this excitement in Richmond's streets. Fort Sumter had fallen, and the news, hopes, and fears of civil war were whipping across the American states.
"So where are you from?" the bald man demanded, seizing the young man's sleeve as though to force an answer.
"Take your hands off me!" The tall young man had a temper.
"I asked you civil," the bald man said, but nevertheless let go of the younger man's sleeve.
The young man tried to turn away, but the crowd pressed around him too thickly and he was forced back across the street toward the Columbian Hotel where an older man dressed in respectable though disheveled clothes had been tied to the cast-iron palings that protected the hotel's lower windows. The young man was still not the crowd's prisoner, but neither was he free unless he could somehow satisfy their curiosity.
"You got papers?" another man shouted in his ear.
"Lost your voice, son?" The breath of his questioners was fetid with whiskey and tobacco. 'Me young man made another effort to push against his persecutors, but there were too many of them and he was unable to prevent them from trapping him against a hitching post on the hotel's sidewalk. It was midmorning on a warm spring day. The sky was cloudless, though the
dark smoke from the Tredegar Iron Works and the Gallegoe Mills and the Asa Snyder Stove Factory and the tobacco factories and Talbott's Foundry and the City Gas Works all combined to make a rank veil that haloed the sun. A Negro teamster, driving an empty wagon up from the wharves of Samson and Pae's Foundry, watched expressionless from atop his wagon's box. The crowd had stopped the carter from turning his horses out of Shockoe Slip, but the man was too wise to make any protest.
"Where are you from, boy?" The bald tamer thrust his face close to the young man's. "What's your name?"
"None of your business." The tone was defiant.
"So we'll find out!" The bald man seized the bundle of books and tried to pull them away. For a moment there was a fruitless tug of war, then the frayed rope holding the books parted and the volumes spilt across the cobbles. The bald man laughed at the accident and the young man hit him. It was a good hard blow and it caught the bald man off his balance so that he rocked backward and almost fell.
Someone cheered the young man, admiring his spirit. There were about two hundred people in the crowd with some fifty more onlookers who half hung back from the proceedings and half encouraged them. The crowd itself was mischievous rather than ugly, like children given an unexpected vacation from school. Most of them were in working clothes, betraying that they had used the news of Fort Sumter's fall as an excuse to leave their benches and lathes and presses. They wanted some excitement, and errant northerners -caught in the city's streets would be this day's best, providers of that excitement.
The bald man rubbed his face. He had lost dignity in front of his friends and wanted revenge. "I asked you a question, boy."
"And I said it was not your business." The young man was trying to pick up his books, though two or three had already been snatched away. The prisoner already tied to the hotel's window bars watched in silence.
"So where are you from, boy?" a tall man asked, but in a conciliatory voice, as though he was offering the young man a chance to make a dignified escape.
"Faulconer Court House." The young man heard and accepted the note of conciliation. He guessed that other strangers had been accosted by this mob, then questioned and released, and that if he kept his head then he too might be spared whatever fate awaited the middle-aged man already secured to the railings.
"Faulconer Court House?" the tall man asked.
"Baskerville." He had just read the name on a fascia board of a shop across the street: "Bacon and Baskerville," the board read, and the young man snatched the name in relief. "Nathaniel Baskerville." He embellished the lie with his real Christian name.
"You don't sound like a Virginian, Baskerville," the tall man said.
"Only by adoption." His vocabulary, like the books he had...Rebel
The Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles: Book One. Copyright © by Bernard Cornwell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Rebel by Bernard Cornwell
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