The Lady From Baltimore

The Passamaquoddy trader, Samuel, looked pensively over the bay and wondered to himself if any other rich and elderly widow had ever taken the trouble to leave the security her well-appointed home to visit his less than salubrious reservation.

He rubbed his chin quizzically, pondering why the woman who called herself Mrs Spillman had chosen to do just this. She must be at least eighty years old, he reasoned. What had inspired her to leave an affluent area of Baltimore and travel the five hundred or more miles to this particular part of Maine?

What Samuel was to learn, a day so later, was that this recent visitor had journeyed with a purpose; a purpose that would have sounded very much like a wild goose chase to most people.

Mrs Lilac Spillman, although of very mature years, was an exceedingly determined woman who knew her own mind. There had been another trader here, many years ago, who, along with his little family, had welcomed her and her friend, Amelia, into their home. Lilac had been no more than a girl then and to her eternal shame, had walked out on them without a word of thanks. She  disappeared without even saying goodbye, slipping away like a thief in the night on the arm of a gambling man named Abner Badbrook. Badbrook eventually abandoned her in New York, leaving the hapless girl alone in a strange city, friendless, penniless and pregnant.

Lilac shuddered to think how she had betrayed the Indian family’s hospitality. She remembered that the trader had biblical name – Abraham – and that he had rescued Amelia and herself from a grim fate on the island of her birth; a place that she once vowed never to visit again. Abraham must be long dead, she thought, but maybe – just maybe – someone living on the reservation might still be visiting the island occasionally. One trip was all she wanted; just the one. She knew that her remaining months, possibly weeks, were few and despite her earlier disdain, Hopeless, Maine was calling to her.

 

When she heard that there was, indeed, a trader, Joseph, now living on Hopeless and due to arrive any day, her heart leapt. Could this be the Joseph that she remembered? Abraham’s son? He had been a boy of eight or ten at the time. That would make him seventy, at least. She thought it unlikely that it was the same person. However, when she saw Joseph standing outside the governor’s house she recognised him immediately. He was the image of his father. Although hazy about many things, Mrs Spillman’s long-term memory was as sharp as an eagle’s eye.

It took a moment or two for her to notice the burly man who was standing quietly, almost shyly, behind Joseph. Despite his very pale skin and tendency to walk with a stoop, as though he was accustomed to carrying a heavy burden upon his back, there was something about him that reminded her of someone she knew long ago. Then, when she was introduced to him, she thought her heart would break.

 

After forty years as Hopeless, Maine’s Night Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet had taken the unusual step of giving up his post to his apprentice. The new-found freedom of being able to associate with his fellow islanders had not lost its novelty value, even after some weeks following his abdication. Therefore, when Joseph invited Randall to join him on a trip across to the mainland, the former Night Soil Man was as apprehensive as he was excited. His life had changed greatly recently; he little suspected the new direction it was about to take.

 

You will recall that the first part of this tale concluded with Mrs Spillman sobbing into Randall’s neck and calling him her son. To say he was taken aback is an understatement. Randall had always understood that his mother had died in childbirth. To find, after fifty-five years, that she had been alive and well and living in somewhere called Baltimore was a surprise, to say the very least. The torrent of emotions that stormed through him at that moment was overwhelming. Feelings of joy and anger, love and betrayal, all mixed up with a generous helping of confusion, almost bowled him over; that, and the not insubstantial weight of the elderly lady clinging to his neck.

The elected governor of the tribe – or the  sakom, as he is known – had been entertaining Mrs Spillman in his family home for a few days prior to Joseph’s  arrival. After the necessary introductions had been made the sakom made it his business to linger and eavesdrop on their conversation. Upon seeing Mrs Spillman’s reaction to meeting Randall the sakom diplomatically ushered the three of them back into the privacy of his home, where, over coffee and biscuits, Mrs Spillman apprised her son of the details of her history and the reason why she had left him on the steps of a convent. How he had arrived on the island of Hopeless, though, was a total mystery to all. Randall had never been told the story of his rescue by Sebastian Lypiatt and the nun, Sister Mary Selsley.

 

A lifetime of being the Night Soil Man on Hopeless had made Randall something of a stoic, although this was not a word he would ever have used or even recognised. To adopt an attitude of accepting, without complaint, the ups and downs of daily existence is a necessary way of thinking on an island where unpredictability is the only predictable thing that the future holds. There was no point in regretting the lost years or blaming his mother for abandoning him. It would achieve nothing. Besides, she had had her reasons.

 

There was one other thing. Mrs Spillman had sold almost everything she possessed when she left Baltimore. Her worldly goods, including a large town house, had been converted into cash and lodged in a bank account.

“It’s all yours,” she told Randall. “I had no idea what would happen to my estate when I die. Now I know.” With that she reached into her travel-chest and retrieved a canvas bag. It was full of silver dollars.

“This will tide you over until suitable arrangements have been made,” she said.

Randall was aghast. He had little use for a lot of money. Hopeless was not the type of place where you could spend very much. He looked at Joseph for help.

“Take it and make her happy,” Joseph advised.

Randall looked about him at the spectre of poverty that stalked the reservation. Even Hopeless looked comfortable, compared with the poor living conditions many endured there. This place needed a helping hand. He knew what to do with at least some of his new-found wealth.

 

A few days passed and Joseph enlisted the help of his cousin, Samuel. Although refusing to set foot on Hopeless himself, Samuel reluctantly agreed to ferry Randall and Mrs Spillman across the treacherous channel to that strangest of islands. Joseph’s own canoe was full to bursting with furs, textiles and beaver pelts, purchased at a vastly inflated price by the suddenly wealthy Randall Middlestreet.

 

Although Randall was willing to pay Isaac Lypiatt, the landlord of The Squid and Teapot, to give his mother comfortable lodgings, Isaac refused, having inherited his parents’ generosity. He happily gave Mrs Spillman a room in which she could live out her remaining days in comfort. The Squid had been her home once and it was only fitting that it should be so again. It was the very least he could do.The Lady from Baltimore had come home to die.

The artist (Tom Brown, in this case) apologizes that there is not a new drawing this week. He is very much engaged with the final bits which will ensure that the next volume of the graphic novel series (Sinners) comes out on time and is as wonderful as we can manage.

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