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Authors: Siri Mitchell

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BOOK: The Messenger
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7

Hannah

 

I cracked the door and stood listening, and very soon I realized the origin of the noises. The sounds were coming from Robert’s old bedroom . . . the colonel’s room. It seemed as if he was entertaining. As my ears began to distinguish the sounds in the darkness, a blush swept my face.

I made my way down the hall to Father and Mother’s room, pushing at Father’s shoulder once I reached the bed.

He broke off snoring, and then snuffled and swallowed. But then he began snoring once more. “Father!” I shook him harder. He tried to shrug off my hand.

“Father—it’s the colonel!”

“What?” He struggled against the bedclothes for a moment and then succeeded in casting them aside. “What is it?”

“The colonel. He seems to be . . . entertaining.”

“At this late hour?”

“He seems to be entertaining a woman.”

Father’s brows disappeared into the hem of his nightcap. He bounded from bed, jerked the door open, and went out into the hall.

I stooped to light a taper in the embers of their fire before I followed.

When I joined him in the hall, Father was already pounding on the door. “Colonel Beckwith! What is the meaning of this?”

The noises stopped for a moment, but soon there came the sound of muffled laughter.

Father pounded on the door once more. “Come out of there at once!”

Down the hall I heard the patter of feet against floorboards and soon saw a pair of towheads, Ezekiel and little Jonah, peeking out at us around the doorframe.

I frowned at them and shook my head.

They vanished behind the door, and I could hear them scuttle back to bed.

Inside the colonel’s room, the bed creaked and there came the rustle of bedclothes. Footsteps sounded across the floorboards and the door cracked open. “I’m afraid I’m not really up to a social call at this hour.” Behind the door someone—some female—giggled.

“I insist thee come out.” Father’s nightcap trembled from the vigorous pronouncement of those words.

“Fire and damnation!” The door jerked open and the colonel appeared. He was dressed in nothing but his nightshirt and a wig, though the wig was riding his head at an odd angle. From behind him came a snigger.

“Thee have broken our terms of agreement. Thee are entertaining guests in thy room and thee’ve woken the household. I must insist that thee explain thyself!”

The door swung wider, revealing a rather pretty though scantily clad woman. The colonel slipped an arm about her waist. “This, my dear Mr. Sunderland, is
Mrs
. Beckwith.”

“Really, Colonel!” Father believed him not at all. And neither did I.

“Oh, dash it all! Her name is Maryann.” He slapped her on the bottom as he spoke. Her giggle ended in a hiccup as she wound a sinuous arm about his neck.

“In the name of all that is right and holy, I demand that woman leave. Immediately!”

The colonel belched, not bothering to cover his mouth with his hand. “Sorry, old man, but you can see that I’m not quite right.” He grinned and swooped down to plant a kiss on the woman’s neck. “And I’m far from holy.”

“Thee cannot—”

The colonel shut the door in Father’s face.

Father stood in front of that door for several long moments before turning to me. “Go back to bed, Hannah. I shall speak to the colonel in the morning.”

 

I woke near dawn with a fearsome ache in the pit of my stomach, a gnawing pain that threatened to eat right through my belly into my soul. It was all I could do not to bolt down my porridge. And even after I had finished I wanted to plead for more. But that’s when I knew for certain: Robert did need me. And he needed me
now
. If I waited any longer to try and help him, it would be at his peril. As I left the dining room, I grabbed my cloak from its peg.

Intending to go directly to the jail, I was stopped by the vehemence in the voices coming from the front room.

“I must insist that thee begin to comport thyself as a gentleman.” If the colonel had known Father, he would have known that this command was no suggestion. “And I require that thee stop using my house as a den of fornication.”

I peered around the corner and saw the colonel pass a finger around the scalloped edge of the tea table. Since he had taken it as his own, he had commanded all meals be served to him at that table. And he conducted all of his business there as well. He sighed. “And here I was thinking that the winter season might not be so bad after all.” He tossed his napkin onto his plate and then pushed back his chair and rose. “In any case, I am a colonel in the King’s army and I’ve requisitioned your house as my quarters. What I do—or fail to do—in my private room can be no concern of yours.”

“I will not condone the presence of such vice in my own home!”

He yawned. “Suit yourself. I won’t require you to stay.”

Father stalked from the room, nearly running into me on his way out. “And where are thee going?”

“I was just—”

“Thee are not to leave this house.”

I felt my brow lift. He had insisted the colonel leave, but the man had vowed to stay. He commanded that I stay, though I wanted quite desperately to leave. “I only—”

“Stay.”

 

“It’s been decided.” Mother had kept all the children home from school and now she was tossing things into her trunk.

“We can’t just leave. And we can’t just leave the house to
him
!”

“He’s made staying here untenable, and it’s required that we keep peace.”

By whom?
Another thought that I dared not speak. “I thought
they
were here to keep the peace.”

“Hush now. And do be quick about helping the children pack their things.”

It didn’t take much time to press their clothes into the trunk and place their things atop them. Little Jonah’s top for spinning and Sally’s doll. Eight-year-old Ezekiel’s slingshot and ninepins. The hired man carried it down the stair when I was done. I followed along behind him, waiting in the front hall along with the others. I could hear the colonel in the front parlor.

We all could.

“What do you think, Private?”

“I’m sure it’s much fancier now, sir.”

“Aye. I would have to agree. I find I like it much better.”

Mother lifted Jonah and grabbed Ezekiel by the hand, taking them out to the waiting carriage. Sally followed behind, dragging her heels across the stoop and lingering on the steps. I was as reluctant to leave our house as she. As I walked toward the door, I paused and looked into the parlor. My gasp must have been louder than I knew, for the colonel spun in my direction.

“Ah! Miss Sunderland. What do you think of my handiwork?”

He was standing in front of Father’s highboy, knife in hand. He’d clearly been carving at the wood for a crude Union flag had begun to take form in relief.

“That is not thine!”

“True. It’s not. But I’m the one who has to look at it day after day and I find it rather plain.”

The best, but plain. That’s what Friends always bought. “There’s nothing wrong with it.” It had come from Gostelowe’s workshop and was a masterpiece of craftsmanship.

“There is when I’ve a taste for all things fancy. But have no fear; I’ll take great care with your things while you’re gone.” As I watched, he gouged a furrow across the smooth varnished surface of its side. “Oh, dear.” He looked not at all apologetic. Giving me a salute with the knife, he went back to his work of defiling our furnishings.

I ran from the house, passing Sally on the walk. Tears of rage pricked at my eyes.

Mother stretched out a hand to help me into the carriage and then she extended it to Sally. “We nearly left thee behind! Is anything wrong?”

Sally’s hand crept into mine beneath the cover of our skirts. I shook my head in reply to Mother’s question. Nothing was wrong that could be fixed, and knowledge of the colonel’s abuse would only cause her pain. It wasn’t long after we had turned the corner onto Third Street that I thought to ask where we were going.

Father answered with a scowl. “To Aunt Rebekah’s.”

Aunt Rebekah’s? “I didn’t think . . . they aren’t . . .”

Mother shook her head. A warning to be silent.

 

Father’s paper manufactory had provided overabundantly for our family’s needs, yet even the finest wove paper in the colony could not command the wealth of my uncle Edward Pennington’s fleet of merchant ships. And since the British had occupied the city, even the most ragged of linen and cotton cloths had been commandeered for use in the hospitals. There were none left for the superfluous making of paper; the manufactory had long since locked up its doors. Father had been cautioning thrift and patience, and I knew he looked on the vain pursuits of the city’s wealthy Loyalists the same as I did: uncharitably.

It didn’t take long for us to reach Pennington House on Front Street. For good reason it had been called the finest mansion in the city. Built of handsome red brick with double chimneys, it was pierced with a multitude of windows on each side of its central door. As the carriage rolled up the drive, Aunt Rebekah stepped out to greet us. My uncle joined her a moment later and stood beside her, an arm about her waist.

It wasn’t often that Mother visited her sister. Upon her marriage to Uncle Edward, an Anglican, Aunt Rebekah had been disowned by our Meeting. It might not have had the effect of separating her from the rest of the family, only they had taken to worshipping with the Anglicans. It’s not that we never saw them; I noticed their carriage often on its trips about the city. And it’s not that I didn’t know my cousins; I knew who they were. It’s simply that they didn’t move in the same circles we did. And since Friends didn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays, there wasn’t much call to spend time with those who did not believe as we did.

I’d seen enough, however, of my aunt to love her. And perhaps rather too much of her daughter, Polly, to say the same. We were of an equal age, ’tis true, but I doubt any would accuse us of having the same mind or soul.

“Come in, come in!” Aunt Rebekah was kissing Sally’s still-plump cheeks and caressing little Jonah’s bright curls. She enfolded Mother in a loving, if fierce, embrace. “Come have tea while your things are put away.” As we’d been standing on their front porch, a small army of Negro servants had begun to port our trunks from the carriage into the house.

BOOK: The Messenger
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