The Aristocrat and the Free Man

by Robert Conroy

My latest novel, Liberty: 1784, takes place in a dark world where the British have won the Revolution and are hell bent on imposing a harsh regime mirroring England’s. This is a short story dealing with, among other things, how black people existed in a New York City at that time. Thus, this tale of a free black man in the alternate world of 1784. – Robert Conroy

William thought he felt a tug on his fishing line. As usual, he was wrong. The dead worm was still there, but he didn’t care. This was his afternoon off from working with Tom Dawson in his inn and stable. He was a free black, a privileged black, and didn’t have to worry about someone scolding him for lazing away an afternoon. There were still many enslaved blacks in New York despite the fact that both sides in the recent war had tried to convince blacks to fight for them. Both sides had promised them the moon but had yet to deliver. William laughed softly. What the hell would he do with a moon? Someone had told him that nearly ten thousand blacks had lived in the city before the war, but who knew for certain. Besides, war, fire, and the British occupation had changed the population. Many Negroes were slaves but many, like William, were free.

William had created his own freedom. Already powerfully built at fifteen and named Ajax by his owners, he’d been abused and was being beaten by his master when he suddenly turned on the smaller man and bashed his skull against a tree, killing him. He’d hated the master, not just for the beatings but for the many times he’d raped William’s mother when William was young. He considered it a mercy for her that a fever had carried her away.

Knowing that a terrible fate awaited him if he was caught, William had run for his life and hadn’t stopped until he reached New York. He’d then found work with Tom Dawson, an Irish immigrant and innkeeper who was also a decent man and one who deplored slavery. Dawson had taken a liking to the hard-working and intelligent William and had even gotten the runaway forged papers showing that his name was William, and that he was a free man and not a murdering slave named Ajax. Of course, William had not told Dawson the exact circumstances that forced William to flee, but the Irishman understood they had to have been dire. Dawson further encouraged William to learn to read and write and do his figures. This kindness was reciprocated and William worked even harder for his benefactor. Now, twenty years later, their relationship was one of friendship rather than employer-employee.

His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the familiar sound of men marching. A column of redcoats was coming down the road. He watched them with a professional eye. He had spied for Washington’s army because the rebels seemed to promise the most, particularly in New York where there was a small but strong anti-slavery movement, typified by Tom Dawson.

These soldiers William was observing were straight off one of the scores of transports that lay at anchor in the harbor and they looked like hell. Several weeks locked up in a leaky, stinking and disease-ridden tub will do that, he thought. Worse, these looked like the refuse of society which they were. They were pale, scrawny, and sullen. They might as well be slaves, he thought. He had already noted that the average British soldier was shorter by several inches than the average American. He thought it was because Americans had access to better food.

Yes, William was a free man but that freedom only went so far. He could not vote in local elections and many professions were blocked to him. For instance, he could not become a doctor—as if anyone would want to go to a black doctor except blacks who had no money to pay him. Nor could he walk around with a weapon, such as a sword. He had a large knife in his belt, but that could be construed as a tool.


Startled, he turned and smiled. It was May, the attractive mulatto who worked at Dawson’s inn and who occasionally shared William’s bed. “What is it May? You miss me already? Wasn’t last night more than enough?”

May giggled. “You’d better get back to Tom. I think he’s about to kill that damned major.”

William rose to his feet and wrapped up his line. “Oh, we wouldn’t want that to happen, although I’d pay money to anyone who did kill the bastard.”

The bastard in question was Major Sir Arthur Harper, a portly thirty-year old who’d been living in Dawson’s inn and stabling his horses and carriage at Dawson’s stable. From the first day, he’d been a boor and a bully and, worse, hadn’t paid a penny of his bill. Now the British were stirring themselves and moving north to Albany from which they would head west and destroy the remnants of the shattered rebel army. Harper was minor nobility and lusted to increase his stature and his wealth. He had only recently come to realize that there wasn’t much in the way of treasure out west. As a result, he’d become bitter and frustrated, concerned that he was on a fool’s errand.

The rebels had collapsed after their crushing defeat at Yorktown and what remained of their forces had headed west where they’d hoped they wouldn’t be noticed.

William hadn’t been anywhere near Yorktown but he knew enough to curtail his activities and curb his tongue with so many redcoats around. So far it had worked. White people scarcely noticed black people except to order them around. Otherwise they were like the furniture, mute.

It was several short blocks to Dawson’s inn and William made it a point to step out of the way of white people, especially British soldiers, even if it meant walking in the street. Several redcoats knocked some people into the muddy street because they didn’t move out of the way quickly enough. Only a few streets in the city had been paved and even those were covered with dirt. The fires, especially a great one that had raged a year or so after the revolution began, had destroyed much of the city, dotting it with charred ruins. Even some of the buildings built by the Dutch a century ago had been destroyed. William thought that was a shame. The Dutch built elegant homes and businesses.

William also considered it a shame that Trinity Church had been destroyed in the great fire of 1776. The Christians had built some elegant churches even though their faith had been such a contradiction. How could so many of them, including preachers, condone slavery? He had frequently attended services there, although always sitting in the back. He felt this had helped cement his reputation as a hard working free man who accepted his lot in life.

William could hear men shouting well before he got to the inn. A few weeks earlier, Dawson had been forced to sell it to a local Tory named Wilford. Wilford was permitting Dawson to pay an exorbitant rent as well as provide hospitality for Sir Arthur. Wilford had let it be known that Dawson would soon be kicked out and on his own, a source of concern for William, Dawson and May.

William entered the stable and stood beside Dawson. Major Harper had turned red from anger and William wondered—hoped—that Sir Arthur would explode.

“Dawson, you will get your money when I give it to you. Nigel, my servant, is responsible for maintaining my funds and he will see to it that you get what you deserve and not a penny more.”

William shook his head at the comment. Nigel was a sneak and a snake. He would steal and cheat for his master—who didn’t realize that Nigel was taking a large portion for himself. May told William that Nigel was cruel as well, and he had beaten her for declining to sleep with him. William hated Nigel for that and only May’s firm insistence that he not kill Nigel kept that man alive.

Dawson continued. “I expect to be paid in full. You’ve been here for weeks now, taking up space and eating my food and I’ve received nothing in payment. And now you’re going north with the army? Sir, if I am not paid, I will take it up with the sheriff and your commanding officers.”

Harper roared with laughter. “And those fine people will do nothing. They know what is going to happen in the future. All of this nonsense about democracy and equality will be meaningless as people of quality like me will be in charge and you will be as nothing. And as to my paying you, your lodgings were miserable and stank of horse shit, and so was the food you provided and for both I was criminally over-charged.”

“But you agreed,” Dawson said with a hint of desperation. William didn’t like to hear that from a man he very much admired and who had been a good friend. But Dawson was not rich and the inn, soon to be taken from him, was his and William’s source of livelihood.

“And that’s another point,” Harper said angrily. “Where I come from, people like you don’t argue with their betters. Nor do they shake hands, which is a disgusting habit. They bow slightly and touch their forehead with their fist. You will learn how to do that when your abominable revolution, which is an insult to God and king, is finally crushed.”

He shook his fist at William. “And you, sir, will once again find yourself a slave. You appear to be slightly white, which simply means that a white ancestor of yours fornicated with a black. Nothing wrong with that, of course, I’ve done it a time or two myself. Would have done it with May who is doubtless also part white, but the haughty bitch turned me down. That said, you are still black and you will be black forever, and blacks have been condemned by God and are not truly human. They merely have human shape and are sometimes able to parrot apparently intelligent sounds and even play music. Blacks are kept as slaves for their own good. They would not be able to function in a civilized white society. Doesn’t what is happening in Africa and Asia prove that?”
“I thought money had somewhat to do with it,” William answered drily and heard May giggle. He’d heard these points before. “And I’ve heard that England is thinking of abolishing slavery.”

“Insolent shit,” Harper said. He raised his hand as if to strike William then thought better of it. William was larger, stronger and impressively muscled. He would crush Harper like a bug. And there was that large knife in William’s belt.

Harper pulled himself up to his full height. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. Right now I’m going for dinner with friends who appreciate who I am and what I do. My luggage is locked so that people like you cannot get your dirty hands on it. I don’t care if we are going to a forest, I will go as a gentleman. Nigel will see to my baggage’s going north. Expect him and cooperate with him and perhaps you’ll get some money.”

After Harper disappeared, they looked at each other. “Now I truly understand why the colonists rebelled,” Dawson said. “This is what we have to look forward to if the British win.”

“Don’t you mean when the British win?” said William.

“Indeed,” said Dawson while May nodded sadly.

William grinned wickedly. “Then why don’t we get our pound of flesh while we can?”

Dawson nodded although he didn’t quite get the allusion to Shakespeare. They went to Harper’s room and saw the major’s three trunks stacked against a wall. As Harper said, they were locked.

William turned to May. “Do you still possess that unique skill that almost got you hanged?”

May examined the locks. “Just like Harper, they are cheap.”

She took a pin from her hair and had them open in a few seconds each. They were filled with Harper’s finery. A number of crisp and clean uniforms had been neatly stacked in the trunks. Harper wouldn’t be back until almost dawn and would sleep until noon. Nigel was their only concern and he’d gone out on a last night of drinking as well.

William took out a uniform and began to cut it into little pieces. He then took a second one and a third. The others joined in until Harper’s immaculate uniforms were nothing more than a pile of sliced rags.

“We could be hanged for this,” Dawson said, but he was smiling. “But we won’t be since we won’t be anywhere near this place this time tomorrow. The new owner wants me out of here; well, he’s going to get his wish. I’ve gotten tired of this place, anyhow.”

William and May laughed and continued their destructive efforts.

“What the hell are you doing?”

They turned in astonishment. It was Nigel and he’d returned early. He reached the trunks and quickly pawed through what was now a collection of rags. “What have you done? What do you expect Sir Arthur to wear? Migawd, you will hang for this, all of you, but not until after you’ve been flogged to ribbons.” Nigel was so angry he was frothing at the mouth. He knew he would be held at least partly responsible for the vandalism.

“Harper can go stark naked like a red savage for all I care,” said Dawson.

“I’m getting the sheriff,” snarled Nigel, his pinched face red with fury. He was about to say something else when his eyes widened and his whole body went slack. May gasped when she saw William’s knife sticking out of Nigel’s back, right where his heart would be. Nigel slid silently to the floor.

“Leave the knife in him for a while,” William said. “It limits the bleeding and that means there’ll be less for us to clean up.”

Almost numb with shock they waited and continued to put Harper’s rags back into the trunks which they re-locked.

“Now what?” asked Dawson.

“It’s gotten dark. What we will do is strip him, wrap his worthless ass in a blanket and drop him in the river. With a little luck, he’ll wash out with the tide and never be seen again. Even if he is found and anyone asks, we’ll say he went out as he usually does and didn’t return. Obviously, he was the victim of some bandits or outlaws. If he isn’t found, maybe the noble Sir Arthur Harper will think his loyal servant deserted. Unless, of course, someone has a better idea.”

No one did. They wrapped the corpse in an old and stinking horse blanket and took him down to the Hudson River which was only a few score yards away. They walked quietly and in silence, holding their breath, concerned that someone might see them. They were especially fearful that the watch would see them and ask what the hell they were up to.

They reached the river without incident. May said a small prayer and Nigel’s remains were consigned to the sea. They watched for a few moments while his pale body drifted away. “He should sink and won’t bob back up for a couple of days,” said William and no one wondered just how the powerfully built black man knew about things like that.

“What shall we do now?” Dawson asked after they returned to the inn. “If Harper finds that we’ve gone, and Nigel is missing, he’ll get suspicious.”

“I suggest we act normal. We should go to bed and try to get some sleep,” William said.

May slipped her hand in his. “Stay with me and we will help each other sleep.”

Harper returned to the inn after noon and greatly the worse for wear. He was angered to find that Nigel was not present and that he had, according to Dawson, gone north with the trunks several hours before.

“People from the Quartermaster’s came shortly after dawn and told Nigel that the carriage and any baggage had to leave immediately. He said for us to tell you that he’d left with them in order to keep an eye on them.”

This was almost the truth. They had loaded the trunks onto the carriage and then hired a man to take them north with the military caravan, which was already leaving. With luck, the honorable major would not find or open the trunks for several days. With a little more luck, he might deduce that he’d been betrayed and diddled by Nigel who had clearly deserted him.

“Damn it all,” snapped Harper. “Now I’ll have to travel for a while in what I’m wearing. Damn.”

Dawson bowed slightly and managed to look humble. “May I please suggest that you consider paying me?”

Harper laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world to him. “Even if I wanted to pay you, which I don’t, I can’t because Nigel has all my money. Everything I had with me last night I managed to lose, which is why he keeps track of my funds.”

William turned away. They already knew that his lordship was broke. They had found a surprising amount of money in Nigel’s clothing and in the trunks. The noble major would have to beg or borrow to sustain himself in a lordly manner in the wilderness.

A short while later, Harper slowly rode away on one of the inn’s remaining horses. It had not been paid for. The money the three had taken would more than compensate.

Dawson grinned. So far they were safe. They should not press their luck. They talked and quickly decided to take everything of value that belonged to Dawson and simply ride away. William would set a slow-burning fuse to some rubbish that would set a fire in the inn that would spread to the now empty stable. They hoped it would further cover their tracks and infuriate the new Tory owner. There had been so many fires in New York since the revolution that one more might not seem significant.

As they rode north to where they could leave Manhattan Island, Dawson asked the question that was on all their minds. “Now where?”

William answered. “They say that Philadelphia is called a city of brotherly love. I say we check that out. There are thirty thousand people in Philadelphia and we should be able to both get lost and earn livings while we wait to see what will happen.”

Behind them, bells began to ring as a thin tendril of black smoke began rising.

Copyright © 2014 Robert Conroy

Robert Conroy is the author of a run of hugely popular alternate history novels, including Liberty: 1784. He lives in southeastern Michigan and, when not writing, teaches business and economic history at a local college.