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Written with wit and exuberance by longtime friends and accomplished historians, Blindspot is at once fiction and history, mystery and love story, tragedy and farce.
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Jane Kamensky is a professor of American history and chair of the History Department at Brandeis University. She is the author of The Exchange Artist and Governing the Tongue, among other books. Her scholarship has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She is currently writing a biography of the eighteenth-century American portrait painter, Gilbert Stuart. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Had Columbus my gut, the world would be a smaller place. And maybe the better for it. O brave new world: wild, rebellious, mysterious, and strange. And distant. God above, who knew it could be so
Now begins a gentleman’s exile, and, with it, my tale.
You may wonder, dear Reader, dear, unfathomable Reader, why I have undertaken this voyage, why a man of parts, of fine parts, I may say, and education, better than most, would hazard a crossing and that, in April, the most treacherous of months—showers sweet turn to tempests bitter—and, worse, on a galleon with no berth for a gentleman but a bunk not fit for a dog, not even my mastiff, Gulliver—and I, though six foot tall, his Lilliputian—who, despite my best efforts, splays himself, fleas
and all, atop my moth- ridden blanket, with me huddled under it, as if I were a city and he a great army, equipped with cauldrons of drool, besieging me. While you wonder why I wander, know this: run I must.
Aye, I would have stayed home if I could. If I could. Instead, each day the winds blow me farther from the dales and vales of Jamesons past, clan of clans, men among men, though, truth be told—and here, dear Reader, it will be told, and without ornament—our tartan is sold by the yard at Covent Garden to every shaver, ever striver, every waster with twopence in his pocket and a plan to marry a merry widow with ten thousand a year and an estate in Derbyshire, with horses, comely, and tenants, timely in their rents. Had I ever come across such a lady—let us call her the Widow Bountiful—I would have wooed her with sighs enough to heat a stone- cold bed- chamber in the dead of winter. Perhaps she waits for me, my Widow B., somewhere on the other side of this
wretched sea. Hark, she pants for me. Or, no, ’tis only Gulliver, giant cur.
As a man of both sense and sincerity, I admit, freely, and with that same unsparing candor which you must henceforth expect of me, that I leave behind little but debt. Twould be an even greater sorrow to leave Edinburgh, that nursery of enlightened genius, did not each degree of longitude stretch the distance betwixt me and my creditors, to whom I owe so much gold, and so little gratitude, the brothers McGreevy, with their Monday duns, Tuesday threats, and Wednesday bludgeons. Suffice to say: I sailed on a Thursday, a day too late, with the scars to show for
it. Departed, the Sea- Serpent, April 5, 1764.
Sterner men on stouter ships have crossed this vast and furious ocean, training their hopeful gaze upon the horizon; I, ever squeamish, scan only the depths and see naught but gloom. I would blind myself—and spare you the sight—but I find, as ever, that I cannot close my painter’s eye. Here the blue sloshes into green, and there, gray, and just here, as I lean over the gunwales, lo but the ocean becomes a rainbow of muck, a palette of putrefaction. The lurching, the To and the Fro, are my twin tormentors; and the sea, my sewer and my jailer.
Wheel of Fortune, pray, turn: let some young Bluebeard take the Sea-Serpent as his prize. Let his pirates throw me overboard. Let them haul me ’neath the keel and drown me. Sweet Jesus, just get me off this ship. Captain Pumble, a bulge- eyed, blotchy frog of a man, hops about the deck, uncloaked, even against the fearsome wind, as I, shivering, lean over the rails once again. He tells me that Boston will be temperate by the time we dock.
“Yar, ’twill be blooming in the city,” croaks he, clapping me on the back, as jolly as if we were sat in a tavern, instead of steering through a storm. “Ladies walking about without shawls. And a dandy, and a Scots gent, no less, will be most welcome by the lasses. Or is it the gents you
Between you and me, Reader: this Pumble has not entirely earned my affection.
“At the moment, Captain,” I manage to reply. “I favor deep pockets. Deep pockets, and solid ground.”
It is customary, at this point in a narrative of a gentleman’s adventures in the world, be he knave or rogue, to offer a pedigree. So be it.
The brown hound that whelped my Gulliver belonged to a butcher who cut meat for the Laird of Firth, a corpulent and stingy man—for I find that podginess and parsimony generally travel together—who claimed that his mastiffs were descended from the kennel of the Kubla Khan, brought West by Marco Polo, and on down, across the generations, to the court of Henry VIII and his bloody Mary, and thence to Scotland. In Firth, the Laird fed his dogs better than most gentlemen feed their valets. But the old miser—too cheap to pay for the meat—instead gave the butcher his best bitch, her belly swollen with pups who, once weaned, nearly ate the butcher out of his shop. Cheated and bested, he returned the litter to the Laird. Twas then came I to town, to paint a portrait of the Laird and his favorite dog, a beast as big as himself, with teeth a sailor might scrimshaw. The subject would have defeated even my friend Gainsborough. My portrait, a study in Venetian red, caught the Laird’s greed in his ruddy cheeks, his bleary eyes, his dog’s great maw. Alas, rarely does a man love his true self. Seeing his and his mascot’s likeness so well captured displeased this gentleman, who refused to pay the balance of my fee, instead tendering a black- and- white pup, the runt of the litter, though as tall at the withers as a lad of ten. And so was I saddled
with Gulliver, sired by gullibility, son of a butcher’s bitch.
A devil’s bargain, you might think, Reader: ’twas either the cur, or naught. Would you deny me the dog’s company? Surely my exile would be even lonelier had I forfeited my fee. And be forewarned: I have made worse bargains.
chap t e r 2
In Which Our Author Secures a
Situation in a City on a Hill
As Pumble navigated the Sea- Serpent through the harbor—I craving land more than poor, scurvy Magellan ever did, and Gulliver, galumphing about deck, in a frenzy of anticipation—we sailed past a
chain of small islands, perfect refuges for pirates.
“Are you quite sure we won’t run aground, Captain?” I ventured, for, though the day was clear and the water calm, we tacked perilous close to the isles.
“I could put you at the helm, if you like, Jameson. Got the sea in your blood, eh?” he smirked. But then he softened, slightly. “No, you sorry Scot. Rest easy. I won’t smash her to bits. Though this shallow harbor has wrecked many a ship, I don’t mind saying.”
“Shallow, Captain?” I asked nervously.
“Yar, she’s deep enough for the Sea- Serpent, but New York, where I’m bound, has deeper. Which is why that city builds banking houses, while this here Boston builds churches.” He nodded toward the town—cut against the sky, as if in silhouette—and pointed out the North Church, with its proud wooden spire, the tallest among a thicket of steeples. Prim, pious, and provincial. Trim, trim, and tidy, all.
“Ah, well then,” I answered, brightening. “Tis proved: a merchant measures his prospects by a port’s fathoms and not by its people’s piety, just as a whore measures a man’s parts by the bulge of his purse and not of his breeches.”
Pumble rewarded me with no more than a mincing smile.
Mark me, dear Reader: bidding my captain farewell will not break my heart.
Closer to shore, I spied people bustling about—along streets riddled with ruts and gutters of mud and manure whose stench reached us even before we docked—everyone hurrying, but at a trot and not a gallop. Here is no London, where men race as foxes chased by hounds. Here is
a place where, pray God, I can stand still.
I put on my hat, left my bags on board, and stepped ashore. Stumbling about the dock, my spirits soon improved, and my gut seemed to slow and finally halt its orbit round my middle. Along what is called the Long Wharf, I found a tavern, the Blue Herring, and I quaffed. Say I: there is fine beer here, brewed, I am told, by a man named Adams, in barrels built of the pine woods of New Hampshire. Steadied, fortified, I took a brief tour of the waterfront, and report, also, this: if there is nothing elevated and fine in the town of Boston, there is little to be found that is particularly unpleasant, save the restraint of the townspeople, who stare at strangers—even at a tall, brass- buttoned Scottish gentleman, and likelier than most—with a coldness that runs to cruelty.
I next made my way west along King Street, cluttered with shops, though whether this ambitious avenue is a credit to our third George in this, the fifth year of his reign, I could not claim. The trade seemed lackluster at best. Along a street called Corn- hill, I saw an utter desolation: the ruins of dwelling- houses, stores, and shops, burned in a fire that looked to have raged some winters ago, in a city too straitened to rebuild.
Just in front of a brick building called the Town House, which sits in the very middle of King Street, I found a spindle- shanked boy, no more than ten, peddling salted cod wrapped in old newspaper.
“I’m afraid I can’t stomach the fish, lad,” I said to him. “But be so good as to tell me where I might find fresher news than what’s printed in your wrappers.”
He directed me up an alley dubbed Crooked Lane—though all the streets here would equally well bear that name—to a dark, cluttered print shop whose stink made my eyes to tear ere I crossed the threshold. (My father had once wanted to apprentice me to an engraver, Reader, but I forswore the trade just as soon as I learned that every printer washes his plates in his own water. I would not toil in a piss- house.)
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