The Iron Bridge

The Iron Bridge

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Joan Joffe Hall
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Abraham Darby III: September 1775

From the moment he stepped off the Diligence onto the cobblestones of St. Paul's Church Yard - Paul's Yard, as Quakers preferred to call it - Abraham was distracted as always by the bold tempo of London, the vainglorious fashions: Wooden French heels painted bright red clicking past; ladies' wigs as tall as grenadiers' hats; enormous wheels of phaetons rolling past mounted on springs so absurdly high as to require an eight-foot ladder to climb into them; shop-windows filled with earthly temptations which he kept reminding himself he did not need. He kept his purse snugged to his breast, eyes alert. Still, while gawking he was nearly run over by a coach-and-eight arriving on the heels of the Cambridge machine. He was accosted by peddlers and by punks in soiled laces, jostled by chairmen, and proselytized by a ragged wild-eyed man reeking of lavender and rum who took a swipe at his hat and declared himself the last of the Ranters. "We know God by our sin!" the man cried, whirling in circles.

Abraham reminded himself he was here on serious business - to obtain a solicitor to shepherd the Act through Parliament that would authorize the bridge. All the same, he lingered outside a famous trunk-maker's shop to admire a portmanteau with little drawers trimmed in calfskin and silver; walked inside, smelt the new leather, and toyed with the idea of replacing the old valise he was carrying which had belonged to his father.

In a bay-window he saw a pair of silver sleeve-buttons that made him think of Maggie Foster and Becky Smith. He considered purchasing them - for sixteen shillings - but he did not know for which lady. Plain oval buttons. Still, just a dangerous touch of luxury! Flushed at the thought, he moved on, caught up in the crackling rhythms of the city.

The Lloyds were expecting him. Resolving not to tarry further, he followed Ludgate Street past the Bull's Head coffee house. Laughter inside. A gathering place for Freemasons and Druids, it was said. He crossed the stone bridge that spanned Fleet Ditch. To the right loomed Fleet Prison; to the left, the waterfront, with the new Black Friars bridge and the masts of ships filigreed like lace against the broad Thames. The smell of sewage mingled with coal-smoke in the damp September air. He thought of the Ranter whirling about on the cobblestones, denouncing "stinking chastity." He pictured Rebecca Smith's pale smooth brow and the almost giddy way she had clutched his arm on her last visit - unnecessarily, he was tempted to say; yes, it was the very unnecessariness of it that excited him - the insistent pressure of her fingers affecting him like some mysterious perfume.

And Maggie Foster. Her endless questions. Eyes like green agate, pouring forth the insistent inquiring force of her mind. The purposefulness of her long strides. Her voice freighted with meaning, firm and delicate. That's good, Abraham.

None of it reasoned, the thoughts poured through him: the fragrances, the poised flesh, the magic. Until he saw those sleeve-buttons he would not have supposed himself in any turmoil - although it was true that during the coach-ride both their faces kept coming to mind. The heaps of golden corn made him think of Becky's hair, her tinkling laughter. Maggie's hand on his shoulder. These secret thoughts occupied him dreamily the whole journey. The pleasurable feeling in his stomach worked its way downward, where, to his dismay - the coach being crowded - the mischievous flesh began to gambol and strain. He kept his coat on his lap, listened to the fat merchant snoring next to him, watched the woman with two young children sitting next to a pock-faced draper with a bolt of calico standing between his knees, and tried to turn his thoughts to the divine Spirit, and, failing that, to the business of obtaining a Solicitor. Still, he would not have called it agitation, that merry seesawing between those two faces (and what other secret parts he tried not to imagine). It was only now, caught up in the noisy tumult of the city, walking along Fleet Street and thinking of the sleeve-buttons, that he felt it all shifting into new complications like a cat's cradle. Her voice echoing Father's. That's good, Abraham. The sense of being laid open. Exposed. Why could he not bring himself to turn and face her? Was he ashamed? And if ashamed, was it from feeling exposed or from his own yearning?

He did not know.

Was it the boldness of her questions that took him so deep within himself?

The missing ledger came to mind. Of all the old ledgers, it was the one that would offer a glimpse of Father taking over the reins from the dying Ford, ceasing to make cannon, and beginning the great expansion of Coalbrookdale - a feat that Abraham could not begin to emulate; his own life was a pale echo of it. And yet he had taken over the reins from Richard Reynolds; he had arranged to buy back the Goldney shares; and the bridge would be his own great labor: he could not help but draw comparisons.

Was he worthy?

He prayed so.

Suppose, he had turned to face her. He might have embraced her. The thought rushed through him like a torrent. But whether the fear was of embracing or being embraced, or feeling so dreadfully exposed, he could not say.

Continuing along Fleet Street, he stopped to admire the instruments displayed in Ramsden's, where he had purchased his electrical machine three years ago. He admired the telescopes and solar microscopes of polished brass. His attraction to such earthly objects was, he knew, a kind of idolatry. Mixed into all of this were thoughts of Maggie's tapered fingers. With an effort he tore himself away and continued to Lombard Street, where the Lloyds and the Barclays had established their Quaker banks within a few doors of each other.


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