Our Own Country: A Novel (The Midwife Series)

BOOK: Our Own Country: A Novel (The Midwife Series)
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The Midwife’s Revolt

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016 by Jodi Daynard

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle


Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503954809

ISBN-10: 1503954803

Cover design by Laura Klynstra

Disobedience is the foundation of liberty.

—Henry David Thoreau

I never thought of myself as a very good sort of person. I had no particular gifts, as did my midwife sister-in-law, Lizzie, no taste for rebellion, as did my soldier brother, Jeb. Nor did I possess a sharp pen, like that of my friend Abigail Adams. Yet so powerful were my desires that I eventually defied my family, and even the law, in pursuit of them. In being bad, my friends like to say, I eventually became good—which was fortunate, for they had not much liked me previously.

—Eliza Boylston
Quincy, Massachusetts, 1794

Part I


resplendent light that streamed through our windows in slanted beams and made a kaleidoscope of my small world. Beyond the windows, light filtered through the orchards, stippling the apple and peach leaves and the squirrels that scuttled beneath the gossamer canopies with a lacy web of sun and shadow.

Our estate stood on the road to Watertown, now called Brattle Street, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We owned about twenty acres that descended gently to the Charles River. Next to us stood John Vassal’s house, built in 1759, when I was three and Jeb was five. Every morning that year, at breakfast time, my parents complained about the racket that interrupted their morning sleep.

“I understand he wishes to finish by spring, but must he have them start with the dawn?” my mother complained. Mama was then big with child, and the rings around her eyes bespoke a wakeful night.

“I’ll have a word with him,” said my father, for he was on good terms with the Vassals and all the other prominent Cambridge families. Before the Troubles, we were always at one grand house or another, and I can still recall the feeling of being lifted up into our carriage and the sound of Papa proudly bellowing to our old Negro coachman, “To the Borlands’!” or “To the Phillips farm!” or “To the Hutchinsons’!”

The interiors of these homes now blend together in my mind to form a single stunning image: footmen in red wool coats, combed clean and brass buttons shining, stand tall and erect, and I have to look very far up to see the undersides of their dark noses. They dare not smile at me, but allow me to pass through into a grand foyer, which smells of lilies and paste wax. There I stand in astonishment at the living display of fine silk gowns—lilac, emerald green, snow white—all of them direct from London or Paris. Soon enough, however, I grow bored and wend my way to the kitchen, drawn to it as a mouse seeks warmth in winter.

I recall the Borlands’ cook. She was a very black woman who seemed to take up a full quarter of the smoky room. Directly after I entered, her giant hands would lift me up and set me upon a table beside a pile of trimmed vegetables. Her voice, dancing with the cadences of a far-off place, would say to me, “You don’ wan’ deerty yah frock, now.” And then came the joke, repeated at each visit: that if I got in her way, sh
bake me along with the meat. This made my chin wobble, which set her heaving with laughter.

We had not the large staff of these other homes, but we did have two stableboys, a coachman, a footman, a lady’s maid for Mama, a parlormaid, the nurse, the tutor, Cassie, our cook, and her husband, Cato. Cassie was young when I was a small girl—in her middle twenties. She was not tall, but her strong, lithe body was well proportioned, and from her oval face, with its slightly receding chin and judgmental mouth, a pair of quick brown eyes gazed discerningly upon the world.

Cato I rarely saw, for he was usually abroad chopping or hauling wood, digging the garden, or carrying bushels of hay. He was very tall, thin, and dark. I thought he would have made an excellent scarecrow, and indeed, he often seemed one to me as he stood between tasks in the garden. I did not know the sound of his voice, but when I chanced to come upon him he always bowed gravely. Cassie spoke to me of him with great pride.

I remember laughter, too, which echoed down hallways as Jeb and I chased each other on freshly waxed floors. Beyond the house, our laughter became lost behind the dense shrubbery, only to reassert itself in sudden shrieks as we darted in and out of the trees, on hunts for treasure or in violent games of tag. We lived in our own world, neither needing nor desiring others. Mama and Papa were as distant to us as the gods of Mount Olympus, pushy and irrelevant beings who now and again swept down upon us to insist that we eat, dress, or ready ourselves for bed.

If the grounds defined our kingdom, then the house itself was our castle. It had been built in 1746 and had two stories of five bays, with two fine parlors on either side of a grand entryway. But the house also had closets and dark halls in which to hide, and from these we leapt out at one another at unexpected moments. Or we would race down the stairs, grasp the ornately carved newel post—the unrivaled envy of all Cambridge society—and careen through the foyer in pursuit of each other. We would run past the round mahogany table upon which exotic flowers luxuriated in an antique vase, until Mama inevitably cried, “Take care! You shall break the vase!”

Maria was born in the spring of ’60, when I was four. Unlike Jeb and me, who were fair, she was as dark as a little Spaniard child. She was, as well, so quiet and contented as a babe that I often forgot she existed. Mama probably did, too, for she held her but a few minutes a day, when our nurse brought the dark little creature into the library for its diurnal petting.

Of all the rooms in our house, this library was my favorite. It housed a pianoforte, imported from Italy at great expense, which no one knew how to play but which Mama thought she might one day learn. There was a mahogany card table and a candlestand upon which sat a large tome of colored floral engravings. Here, my mother could usually be found working on a needlework screen or quietly perusing her flower book until she declared which species of flora she would have that year in her garden. If my father were present, he would frown and say, “Mrs. Boylston, one could as easily grow a palm tree.”

“Oh, but I’m sure there’s a way,” Mama would say, tapping her finger on the book’s cover for emphasis. “Surely there exists a special mulch or soil or other.”

“There is no way,” Papa insisted. Unlike Mama, he knew something about palm trees, since many grew on his Bridgetown sugar plantation. Neither Mama nor I had seen the plantation firsthand, but I felt I knew it intimately from a detailed watercolor in Papa’s library, which was painted during the time of my grandfather’s tenancy.

But Mama simply would not accept the realities of our harsh New England clime. Each year, having learned nothing from previous disappointments, she blamed the plants’ failure to thrive on the servants. “Something simply isn’t right,” she would say. “Cato must have made a mistake.”

I believed everything Mama told me then. About plants and palm trees, and the shameful ignorance of slaves. I believed that a real lady must never “lift a finger,” and so I let my stockings fall to the floor to wait for the maid to pick them up. Rising in the morning, I stood in the center of my chamber with my arms above my head, waiting for this same maid to remove the shift from my body. Indeed, beyond holding my own fork and knife, I rarely used my arms at all, and it’s a wonder they did not fall off from disuse.

Though just as sheltered as I, Maria seemed to have been born without that natural inclination to adopt the manners of the time, especially those meted out to young girls. She liked to play dress-up, but instead of being caught in Mama’s fine silk shoes and trailing petticoats, we often found her tripping down the hallway in Jeb’s breeches and heavy black shoes, their enormous pewter buckles obscuring her tiny, willful feet.

Nor would Maria suffer the servants to dress her properly—her little body would stiffen so that it became a Seven Years’ War to put the least thing upon her. She brushed her own hair, often coming down to breakfast with half of it pinned and the other half hanging down her back. Mama tried all manner of threats and punishments, eventually leaving my sister to her own devices.

I had but one friend apart from my siblings, a girl named Louisa Ruggles. Her family lived not far from us, just off Brattle Street. Louisa was a pretty girl, plump and slow, with dark hair and languorous brown eyes. I have little recollection of Louisa’s house. She was an only child and seemed to enjoy our lively home better than her own.

When not with my siblings or Louisa, I could usually be found in Cassie’s kitchen. Neither Mama nor Papa ever entered there, nor were my siblings tempted to linger in its hot and smoky atmosphere. But this kitchen is where I scurried whenever I had been wounded by a defeat at tag, or by Jeb’s teasing, or by some other profound unfairness, such as the times Papa refused my request for a new bonnet or pair of gloves. Then Cassie would pick me up and sit me on the table, and handing me a mug of chocolate, would begin an artfully designed tale of woe:

“You tink you got a ’ard life, Mees Eliza, let me tell you about da time on de eye-land . . .”

On and on she went until I would forget all about my own problems and cry, “Oh, Cassie! Dear, poor Cassie!”

Every afternoon, I begged Mama to let me go with Cassie to the market. She would never have considered it had Dr. Bullfinch, our physician, not recently read something of Dr. Franklin’s upon the salubrious effects of “taking an air bath.” Once we had left our property, I would cling to Cassie, for the world beyond our door seemed so big and bustling. There were loud noises—a constant banging of hammers and sawing of wood—and strong smells, not all savory. The horses and carriages belonged to those adult gods, and I feared they would crush me. I was ready to return home, to watch the filtered light that traveled across the china vases and velvet settees, the Greek-key parquet floors and Turkey carpets, and to be enfolded once more in the soft, quiet safety of our home.

When I was twelve, Cassie bore a child named Toby. Almost from the moment of his birth, I thought of him as my special pet. Indeed, I secretly believed that Cassie had birthed him just for me. Whenever I went into the kitchen, I would cry, “Where, oh, where is my little lamb? Little lamb, where are you?” He was quite shy and seemed to live beneath Cassie’s petticoats. But when he heard me, he always giggled.

Later, once he had learned to speak, Toby would emerge from that dark, safe place, crying, “Here I am, Liza!” Then he would run into my arms. Sometimes he would sit in my lap and suck his thumb, the other hand grabbing on to a loose twist of hair.

I liked to hold Toby close and smell his warm baby smell and caress his soft, fuzzy “wool,” as we called it. Toby played with the gold cross I wore about my neck. At times, his fingers would leave off the cross to explore my white skin, and
laugh and say, “That tickles!” He
my little lamb, and I loved him dearly.

By the time Toby was three, he displayed an eagerness to learn. One morning, as I entered the kitchen to ask something of Cassie, I nearly tripped over Toby as he lay on the kitchen floor with a book open before him.

“What have you there?” I asked. I bent down and picked it up. It was my old primer. Smiling at the memory of it, I recited,

‘In Adam’s fall we sinned all. The cat doth play, and after slay

Toby laughed, and the sound sent an odd thrill through me. “Well, well,” I said, crouching beside him. “Do you know what this is, Toby? This is the alphabet. From it, we make words. Would you like to learn the alphabet? I could teach you.”

Cassie had stopped her work to watch us. “Maria give ’eem dat,” she said defensively. “She say y’all finished wit’ ’eet.”

It seemed that Cassie feared I would accuse her of stealing it. But I said merely, “He’s such a curious little dear. I should like to teach him very much. I could teach you as well, you know, Cassie.”

“Me?” Cassie laughed, showing a row of strong white teeth. “What I wan’ to read fo’? What I wan’ to know mo’ about da sufferin’ o’ dees worl’?”

“Well, suit yourself,” I said. “But I
teach Toby, if I may.”

Our lessons began that afternoon, after church. I was able to procure one of Jeb’s old copybooks from the nursery, and I prevailed upon Cassie to whittle a few cedar pencils, a task which made her mutter indistinct curses, for she was too impatient and kept breaking the tips.

The servants never came in to the family rooms without being called, and so when Mama saw Toby sitting in my lap in the parlor, she said, “Goodness, Eliza. What are you doing with that child in here?”

“I’m teaching him to read.”

“Read? What for, pray? Have you discussed this with your father? I doubt he would approve.”

, Mama,” I begged, ignoring her questions. “You know this is the best room to read by, for it gets a most glorious afternoon light.”

BOOK: Our Own Country: A Novel (The Midwife Series)
4.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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