Voices in the Walls 20

Chapter three, continued

I held in my hands a piece of family history. My great grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War on board a privateer out of Charleston, and his part of the prize money had made him wealthy. Afterward, he had never quite trusted the ability of the new American government to keep order, so he had had this pistol made by a Williamsburg gunsmith as a wedding present for his bride. It was .36 caliber, small for the day, and he had required that it be compact enough for a lady to conceal in a purse or in the folds of her skirts. It had been built as a flintlock, with twin, side-by-side barrels.

When their son, my grandfather, entered the Navy, Great-grandmother Williams gave it to him to carry. It was two carefully aimed shots from this pistol that had stopped a charge by Tripolian pirates during a small boat action off North Africa, saving my grandfather’s life and the lives of his crew.

After Grandfather married and retired to Waterside, he gave the pistol to my grandmother. She had carried it with her whenever she went riding in the countryside, and when her son, my father, had gone out in the coasting schooner Eva, she had had it converted to percussion caps and had given it to him.

It had gone from husband to wife to son for three generations until my mother, with her Quaker repugnance for guns, had refused to take it from Father. He had taught me to shoot using this gun, and now he was passing it on to me for the protection of my sister. It was more than a weapon. It was a touch of my father’s hand across the miles, and a trust passed now into the fourth generation.

With reverence, I took the pistol out of its place in the box and examined it. As always, it was in perfect condition. I took the horn and filled the measuring cup with powder, poured it down the right barrel, then again down the left one. Two bullets wrapped in greased patches of cloth went into the barrels and were rammed carefully home. Two percussion caps went onto the nipples and I lowered the hammers carefully to half-cock.

I closed the case and put it into the bottom of my carpetbag, then hid the pistol at the back of a small drawer of my dresser, behind paper and pens where Aunt Rachel was unlikely to look.

I was asleep within thirty seconds of hitting the bed.


My interest in all things maritime led me to read the Hornblower books when I was young. My interest was captured by the sailing of the ships, the strategies, and issues of leadership, but I also had to put up with sea battles and all the unpleasantness that makes up the reality of war at sea. I never cared for that part of the books, although if it had not been there, they would have sounded quite hollow.

In Lord Hornblower (as I remember; I don’t have a copy handy), Hornblower’s new wife gave him a pair of double barreled pistols fitted with then-new percussion caps. As he examined them in his cabin, he realized that that they might mean life itself in the coming conflict.

I was intrigued by the idea of the gift of a firearm as a gift of life. Later, when I was writing Voices, I dredged it up and placed in into this multigenerational context.


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