When Chris came to himself he woke from sleep and lay for a moment without opening his eyes. He waited with his usual sense of irritation for Aunt Rachel's step at the door, and her voice saying, "Get up, Chris! You're late again!" But the step did not come, and feeling rested and hungry, Chris opened his eyes.
What was this? The high regular walls of his bedroom were not around him, nor the familiar furniture. Chris sat up, rubbing at his eyes as if this would help to clear his vision, and looked about him.
He was in a narrow bed in a small sunny room. An attic room, it would seem to be, for the walls slanted down in different sharp angles from the low ceiling to the broad wood planks of the floor. Two dormer windows projected from the room beyond the roof, making two niches in the wall across from where Chris lay, and a third window in the wall above his head showed that the room, as well as being at the top of the house, was also at a corner of it. A door was just beyond the foot of the bed; a chest of drawers and a table with a blue and white porcelain wash bowl and pitcher, stood along the farther side. Wooden pegs were placed at hand level here and there, and a rag rug in bright colors lay on the floor by the bed. The walls were white and the sunlight poured in to dash itself upon the floor and splash up the walls in irresistible gaiety. There was no doubt about it, bare though it was, it was a pleasing room, snug, clean and cheerful, and somehow well suited to a thirteen-year-old boy. Chris half smiled as he looked, leaning on one elbow, and then his smile faded as he caught sight of the chair and what it held.
The only chair in the room was laid with carefully folded clothes. But they were not Chris's clothes. Chris jumped out of bed and then looked down with a quick startled intake of his breath. He was wearing a white nightshirt, something he had never even seen before and barely heard of. The sleeves were long and cuffed, and the nightshirt fell in linen lines to his feet.
"Golly Moses!" Chris exclaimed, completely baffled.
He returned to the examination of the clothes that were obviously laid out for him. There was a fine white shirt with full sleeves and turned-back cuffs. White cotton stockings; knee breeches of a blue-gray worsted material, and matching frock coat with silver carved buttons. Below the chair, Chris saw, was a pair of black leather shoes with polished silver buckles.
"Fancy dress, huh?" Chris murmured, and then, as if he had been slapped into full awareness, came the remembrance of the evening before, of Mr. Wicker, and of the dark flickering shop.
Chris sat down suddenly on the edge of the bed, his mouth, in spite of all his efforts, drawn down at the corners, and his eyes blank with confusion and misery.
"Oh my golly!" Chris said, and stared at the clothes he still held in his hands.
Then another idea struck him, and he jumped up to run to the nearest dormer window, the floorboards, where the sun had lain on them, warm under his bare feet.
But no. No freeway, no factories. The window looked out over Water Street, skirting the edge of the Potomac banks, and there below Chris's amazed eyes rose a forest of masts and spars of ships at anchor along the shore. Water Street, below him, was swarming with activity, but not the activity that Chris had previously known. Men dressed in the same sort of clothes as those laid out for him pushed at cotton bales, rolled hogsheads along to the docks, or rowed out to ships anchored in midstream. Most of the stevedores were hatless, and Chris snickered at the sight of the short braid of hair at the napes of their necks. Many wore brilliant scarves tied around their heads, red, or mustard-yellow or green, and the sound of deep voices swearing, laughing, or rising in unfamiliar sea chanteys excited Chris and sent the blood tingling along his veins.
He rushed to the high-placed window overlooking Wisconsin Avenue. No Key Bridge was to be seen in the distance, only stretches of fields and orchards, scattered with occasional houses of russet brick, and when he craned his neck there was the inn where the People's Drugstore ought to be, the sign swinging high above the road.
Wisconsin Avenue! Chris had to laugh. If it could see itself! Only a wide muddy road full of ruts and puddles, along which someone's line of geese was waddling, impervious to the cursing of passing carters and riders on horseback. A little below him Chris could see the two old warehouses he remembered from the night before. But now they looked quite new, their bricks bright and their walls solid. Barrels were being lifted by the winch and tackle into the upper loft, and Chris watched the busy scene for quite some time.
His rolling stomach and a simultaneous smell of food reminded him of his hunger. Dressing quickly in the strange new clothes, he opened the door and peered outside.
His bedroom door was at the top of a narrow curling stair that twisted away to the left out of sight. It was steep, and Chris stood silent and intent on the top step, listening. A deep woman's voice loudly singing, "Farewell and Adieu, to you, Spanish ladies--" came rolling up the stairwell to the accompaniment of a brisk clatter of pots and pans. What rose also to Chris's nostrils was a smell of newly baked bread, frying bacon, and woodsmoke, and the combination put an end to his indecision. For a while he decided to call a truce to any attempt at solving the mystery in which he found himself, and following his nose, went softly down the stairs.
Rounding the last turn of the staircase, Chris remained in its shadow while he stared with unbelieving eyes at the room and figure before him. If this is a dream, he said in himself, it's the best one I've ever had--the very best!
What confronted Chris was Mr. Wicker's kitchen. This room took up almost all of the side wing of the house. Across from Chris two casement windows showed the shrubs and flowers and white picket fence of Mr. Wicker's garden, and at his left was the back door opening onto Water Street, flanked by two smaller windows. These seemed most inviting, each possessing a window seat from which one could watch the busy comings and goings of the docks, with a view of the ships beyond.
But what drew Chris's eyes and made them grow round with wonder was the extraordinary figure in front of the fireplace. The vast, deeply set fireplace was in the wall that faced the back door. So deep it was, that there was even a bench on one side of it, and over the smoking logs were hung all manner of trivets, spits, and cooking irons. It was, in short, a fireplace such as Chris had never dreamed of. Yet the tall buxom woman stirring the hissing pots and singing to herself was what held Chris rooted to the last step of the attic stair.
The woman stood easily six feet, broad and brawny enough to be a match for almost any man. Countless yards of sprigged cotton must have gone into the making of her dress, to say nothing of her apron. A massive fichu of freshly laundered muslin went around her neck and was tucked into her bodice; a white turban was on her head, but on top of the turban--! Chris simply could not believe his eyes as he counted rapidly. On top of this amazing woman's head was a gigantic hat supporting twenty-four roses and twelve waving black plumes! Chris's jaw dropped at the sight of the turbaned, hatted head, the flowers bobbing and swaying, the ostrich plumes blowing and curtseying with every slightest movement.
As if blissfully unaware that her costume was not the usual one for cooking, the woman hummed and stirred, tasted, and hung up her ladle. But the sight was too much for Chris. Before he could stop it a shout of laughter exploded from his lips. He laughed and laughed, and the indignant expression on the woman's face when she turned, to stand glaring at him with her hands on her jutting hips, only added to Chris's laughter. At last, sobering up somewhat as he realized that his behavior was rude, to put it mildly, Chris stopped and caught his breath, shaken only now and again by a diminishing paroxysm. Seeing the spark of bad temper in the red face of the enormous woman, Chris decided to pour oil on the troubled waters.
"Good morning, ma'am. I--I'm Chris Mason, from upstairs, and I'm sorry I laughed so loud. I--" he floundered and grabbed desperately at any passing idea "--I saw something comical out the window there"--he pointed wildly--"and it just set me off. I hope I didn't disturb you?"
Mollified, though not entirely, the woman accepted this effort at peacemaking and her face eased a little.
"Well now. So you are awake at the last, eh? And hungry, bein' a boy, I don't doubt?"
She moved to the dresser and took down a mug and plate, the roses and ostrich plumes nodding in evident agreement.
"So you are Chris, did you say? Christopher, that would be? And I am Mistress Rebecca Boozer, should you be wanting to know. Becky Boozer, they call me."
She bustled over to a covered bowl, dipped out creamy milk with a long-handled dipper, and set bread, butter, and bacon in front of Chris at a table pulled up to one of the window seats.
"Eat up now, young man," Becky Boozer advised, every red rose and feather accenting her words, "for Mr. Wicker will be wanting to see you when you have done. It's late. Past eight of the clock." She glanced out the window. "It might be just possible that Master Cilley will be passing by before long for a midmorning snack and here I am gossiping with you instead of getting on with my work."
Chris ate with a will, looking around as he chewed. The spotless brick floor and the starched curtains at the windows, the shining copper pans hung beside the huge fireplace, were proof of Becky Boozer's housekeeping.
"Don't you have an icebox?" Chris asked, his mouth full.
"What may that be?" Becky asked sharply.
"To keep the food cool," Chris answered.
Becky stopped to consider this, her hands on her hips. "We have a larder on the cool side of the house, if that be what you mean," she told him, nodding. "Keeps the food pretty well up to April or May. Then the heat makes everything go. Oh! This heat! Prosperity, Maryland, where I come from, and on the sea coast as it is, was never like this!"
A table with a wooden tub and dishes stacked nearby caught Chris's eye. Buckets of water stood beneath the table, and presently Becky Boozer took off a small pot of steaming water from a hook above the fire, poured it in the tub, and dipped cold water from one of the buckets into it.
What a system! Chris thought as he watched Becky busy with her dishes, thinking of the neat white kitchen he knew at home.
Aloud he said: "If you had a little wooden trough that led from that tub out through the window there, you could pull out a bung when you were ready and the water would run outdoors. It would save you carrying that great tub about, when you are in a hurry."
Becky Boozer rested her soapy hands on the edge of the tub and looked at him admiringly over her shoulder.
"I would never have thought it," she said, "by the look of you. Never in this world. You have brains, young lad, that's what you have. A better idea than that I never heard! Indeed, it is just what I have been a-needin' since years, and that simple I might have thought it out myself! I shall set Master Cilley to work on it when he comes. He's right handy with tools, is Ned Cilley."
At this moment a short knock sounded on the back door, and an instant change came over Becky Boozer. It was impossible to imagine that anyone as ponderous as Becky could be coy, but at the sound of the knock, this is what she became. Wiping her hands hastily on one of many petticoats, she pushed and pulled at her hat (which remained immovable), straightened her fichu, and smoothing her dress, she minced her huge bulk to the door with a welcoming smile.
A little man scarcely higher than Becky's barrel waist, with a rolling sea gait and twinkling blue eyes, bounced into the room and strained up on tiptoe toward Miss Boozer's blushing cheek. Chris, behind the opened door, had not yet been perceived.
"Come now, Becky me love!" shouted Cilley the sailor in a good-humored roar, "How can I start the day right 'thout a kiss from my Boozer?"
Becky blushed and simpered and cast down her eyes. "Get along with you, Cilley! What a way to behave," she admonished, delighted and abashed. "See--there's company here."
She pushed her suitor off with an elephantine shove and gestured to Chris.
Chris was feeling the contagion of laughter catching up with him again at the scene he had watched, and was glad when the sailor turned and came over to where he sat.
"A visitor, eh? Well, well. Off a ship?"
"No--no!" Becky put in quickly, and gave Chris a look. "No. He is a friend of the master's, from--" she searched her mind--"from another part of the country. He got here last night and slept late, as you see."
"Indeed and indeed!" said the sailor, settling himself comfortably, and as if for a long stay, in his chair and observing Chris through his keen blue eyes. "Well, young man," he announced genially, "I am Cilley," he said, and stretched out a hard brown hand.
"Christopher Mason," Chris said in return, and they solemnly shook hands, taking account of each other as men do when they meet.
"I shall sit here, Mistress Becky, by your leave," Cilley called out, as if Becky Boozer were a mile away, "to keep this lad company, as it were."
"So you shall!" Becky answered warmly, smiling broadly, wrinkles of pleasure at the corners of her eyes. "And could I tempt you with a morsel, Master Cilley?"
Ned Cilley appeared to consider this invitation from all sides before he gave his reply, cocking his head on one side like a parrot as he reflected. Finally, he answered.
"How could I refuse when I know your fame as a cook?" he said with a smile at Becky and a wink at Chris, and put his horny forefinger and thumb the distance of a thread apart. "But a crumb, Mistress Becky. A morsel. A taste. Just to pay my respects to your art, as it were."
Then such a commotion took place in the kitchen. Chris watched flabbergasted, as Becky set before Cilley a meat pie, a large cheese, fruit preserves, two kinds of bread, cakes and cookies, latticed tarts, and pickles in jars. And with a beaming smile Becky drew from a cask a jugful of ale which she set down on the table with a thud.
"Just a morsel, Master Cilley," she said, adding in a coaxing tone, "Try just a taste, to please me."
Ned Cilley, his eyes winking with anticipation and smacking his lips, attacked the meat pie and the cheese, tarts and pickles, with a will.
"Here--try this," he urged Chris, heaping the boy's plate as lavishly as his own, and the two ate in silence and gusto while Becky stood by with roses and feathers bobbing.
"You must keep your strength up, Ned Cilley," she admonished, "for 'tis a hard life that you lead," she warned him.
Ned paused long enough to swallow. "Aye, that it is, that it is!" he agreed, wagging his head, champing his jaws, and digging into the food. "A hard life, has a sailor," Ned said with an effort at sorrow, which failed signally, and he took a great draught of the ale.
After a while Cilley slowed, wiped his mouth with his hand and leaned back in his chair, rolling a dazed eye at the anxious face of the waiting Becky Boozer.
"Mistress Boozer," he announced, "I am a new man." He heaved a sigh of repletion. "You have saved me again. Ah! Mistress Becky, what a treasure you are!"
Becky curtsied and giggled, her fabulous hat shaking as if with a secret all its own. Just then a bell tinkled, at the end of the kitchen passage.
"That will be the master," Becky said, bustling away. Then she turned. "I shall be back, Master Cilley! I pray you, do not leave!"
Chris seized his opportunity. "Please, Master Cilley," he asked, leaning across the empty plates in his interest, "Why does she wear that queer hat?"
Master Cilley cocked an eye at the boy before him, picked comfortably at his teeth with an iron nail which he took from his pocket, and loosened his belt buckle.
"Ah!" he said, "So you've not heard? Quick, then, I shall tell you, for that is truly a tale."
The sailor stretched back in his chair, one hand holding the mug of ale. His short nose and red, wind-burned cheeks seemed to share the joke with his eyes as he finally leaned forward across the table with an air of conspiracy.