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Authors: Jodi Daynard

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BOOK: The Midwife's Revolt
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Reader, I tasted no poison. But at this dinner I had my first taste of the rebel spirit within myself. It was a tincture that galvanized my soul. As I found myself tasting food for my beloved Abigail, I knew I was then prepared to stake my life for her. And not just for her, but for John, their children, and the Cause, for which the esteemed Admiral d’Estaing and his men did battle.

Unlike Abigail, who helped her husband with her marvelous words, I had no one I could influence in that way. Indeed, I had no husband and no child to whom my existence mattered. While I mattered to myself, I understood then that beyond me, things far more significant than I hung in the balance.

Manly thoughts in a manly time!

It grew late, and Abigail and I soon took our leave. I paused by the men’s parlor to thank the colonel and the admiral, catching them in passionate private conversation. The aides spoke among each other, also in French. I caught the admiral’s fervently whispered words to the colonel, “
C’est la Rose en ville où on droit faire la reconnaissance scrupuleuse
.”

When the men saw us, they abruptly ceased their conversation, and an awkward silence followed.

I said, “Excuse us. We merely wish to take our leave, as it is quite late.”

They all rose to bid us good-bye. Admiral d’Estaing bowed, brushed his lips across my hand, and said, “It has been a great pleasure.”

His blue eyes searched mine, or so I imagined. He then turned to Abigail, bowed, kissed her hand, and said, “I hope to have the pleasure of seeing you again. If you write to your husband, please give him my very best wishes.”

Abigail curtsied, and we exited the house somewhat tipsily. The admiral’s phrase had meant nothing to any of the others. Indeed, Abigail had heard it not. I, however, had not only heard, but knew its meaning.

In her carriage, Abigail regarded her hand and announced, “I shall never wash this hand again.” Then she giggled like a schoolgirl and departed.

I had laughed with her, but as I walked through the dunes my soul was on fire. For, hearing the admiral’s words, I had finally determined upon a course of action.

32

I SLEPT VERY ill that night. In
the morning, Martha complained that my tossing and turning had kept her awake. She then proceeded to torment me until I confessed to her what I had heard. I translated the words for her. Though she had learned some French from a nanny, she had retained almost none of it.

Alone,
C’est la Rose
meant nothing. However, there was a well-known tavern, the Rose and Crown, on Rowe’s Wharf, which even I knew to be a Loyalist meeting place. It was this tavern that Admiral d’Estaing, intimate friend of George Washington, suggested needed “scrupulous watching.”

What I had resolved during that sleepless night was to return to my house in Cambridge and take up residence at this same Rose and Crown tavern. Not as a woman, naturally—for such a creature would instantly be suspected as either a spy or a whore—but as a messenger boy. The freedom I felt astride Star, and my earlier, unbidden wish that I could don a disguise and rise free and unobserved, now seemed destined for this one purpose.

It may be difficult to fathom how a young, well-bred woman such as I became a spy. But one need only remember how desperate we women were. We wished to be of some use. When there was little to grow and even less to buy, what we were left with were our wits. As for myself, so little did I feel like a woman in those days that I could have spoken as Hamlet did: “What have I to fear? I do not set my life at a pin’s fee!”

Martha was dead set against it. I would be gone too long and too frequently, and she would be kept in a state of constant anxiety. “You know not what you do!” She turned to me angrily.

“We’re none of us born heroes,” I replied. “Our heroism or ignominy must come from the choices we make. You yourself have argued that, in certain times, the ends justify the means.”

“Yes, but I had no idea of you going so far beyond the bounds of—”

“Propriety? Indeed. However, recall that it is only a mask, as many of us apparently see fit to wear these days. Beneath the board you place upon my breast, beneath my trousers, I assure you I am as much a woman as I ever was.”

“You’re incorrigible is what you are.” She turned away, upset and no doubt afraid for me.

I moved to face her. “A fork in the road has presented itself to me, Martha. I have no one to support, no children or husband. Oh—don’t object. I say this not to gain your pity, or to pity myself, but because I’m in the right. I know I am, and so do you. I’m resolved.”

I continued. “Luckily, we have finished the heaviest of chores, so I hope to burden you but little with my absence.”

We had already dried and milled our scant corn, pressed our cider, carded our tow, and killed a young hog, which had been given us for the birth of twins. We saltpetered it and hung its parts to dry.

Martha looked at me gravely. “If you are resolved, then there is nothing I can do,” she said. “But know that if you fail in your disguise, it will prove fatal to you and perhaps to others as well.”

Her argument sent chills through my body, but I merely nodded.

Martha had nothing more to say. She ignored me the rest of the day, took her supper alone, and retired to the second chamber, without giving me her usual embrace.

“What is all the fuss I heard?” Eliza asked upon my descent into the parlor, where she sat giving little Johnny to suck. She had been oddly subdued since her return from her father’s funeral the previous evening. “Have you had words with Martha?”

“Oh, it is nothing,” I said, not very convincingly.

I knew she did not believe me, but she continued to nurse her babe contentedly.

History would not write about me, nor judge me as it would my friend Abigail. But each man or woman must judge himself on this earth, and, like Abigail, I wished not to look back years hence and find myself lacking.

In general, I was not a good sleeper. But the night before my first foray as “Johnny Tucker,” I had a great deal of difficulty. I had not the warmth of another soul beside me, and in the absence of the noise and clutter of the day, my thoughts swooped down upon me like dark, noisy vultures, creating a cacophony of regret and reproach. On this night, I was afraid of discovery and of discovering equally. I was afraid for Abigail and for Martha. And yet, how quickly heroism can seem like self-importance! I, like Sancho Panza upon his donkey! The vultures cried until dawn broke and at last I was able to rise.

It was frightfully cold that morning. The sky was dark. Steel-gray ocean waves crashed pitilessly upon the shore; my breath enshrouded me.

I dressed slowly and carefully, finding the buttons of Jeb’s breeches difficult to fasten; a slight trace of his smell in his shirt made me catch my breath and doubt my mission, but only momentarily. I finally descended the stairs when, halfway down them, I bumped into Eliza. Seeing me, she shrieked, “Help! Someone, help!”

“Shh!” I grasped her arm. “It is I, Lizzie!”

“Lizzie? What on earth are you about?”

I descended the stairs and Eliza followed me into the kitchen.

Martha, who was already within, replied, “She goes to get her neck broken by the enemy.” Martha had just set three porridge bowls down on the table. She now picked something up and came toward me with a hairy black thing.

“What do you have there?” I asked warily, stepping back.

“It is a mustache.”

“A mustache? Whose?”

I suddenly had the impish image of Martha, Queen Mab–like, removing a mustache from someone’s face in the night. Knowing Martha as I did, it would not have been entirely out of the question.

“Yours,” she said gravely. “For if you’re to do something, you must do it correctly. Not like that farce that had Mrs. Adams recognizing you from across a crowd.”

“Oh, Martha.” I went quickly to embrace her. “You don’t hate me.”

“Not entirely,” she said, her coldness finally wearing thin.

And what of Eliza? Did she remain in the dark? Our home was small. Secrets were a luxury that could be kept about as long as toast with jam.

“Would you kindly tell me what is going on?” she asked.

Martha and I exchanged glances.

“Eliza, sit yourself down a moment and I shall tell you,” I said.

We then recounted the horrifying story of the murders. While Eliza listened, Martha endeavored to attach the mustache to my upper lip. I finally bade her leave off until I had finished my story.

I was loath to tell Eliza the truth for many reasons. Mainly I still believed her to be indifferent to the Cause and loyal to her family, her upbringing, and all she’d known.

As I spoke, Eliza took up the activity before her: powdering my medicinal herbs, which we had set to dry weeks earlier. She did so carefully and methodically, using a clean surface. I had taught her to be scrupulous around my medicines.

First I told her about Dr. Flynt and Mr. Thayer and something of their characters—one as affable as the other was taciturn. I told her of their dilated eyes and blue lips, and that all of us who knew of the deaths presumed a plot to unhinge the Cause. I told her about Mr. Cleverly, who’d saved our crops and nearly proposed marriage to me, but who had fled the scene after Mr. Thayer’s death. Finally, I told her what I went to do that day: become a Rebel spy.

I waited for her reaction, my heart beating in my throat and my eyes close to tears for fear of reprobation.

But Eliza merely looked up from her work, sighed, and said, “How I admire you, Lizzie, you cannot know.” She smiled sweetly, yet forlornly, too.

“Then you do not wish to leave?”

“Not at all. Why would I? I’m happy here.”

“So you approve my course of action?”

She smiled again without looking up from her work.

“It’s not for me to approve. History and God alone will know whether you’re in the right. But to follow your conscience: that is your great gift. Yes, the courage to follow your conscience
. . .

“Will you help me, then?”

Eliza sighed. “I feel so weak, Lizzie. So useless. In my life I had everything. All the comforts and luxuries, society, and admiration. But freedom to exercise my will, my
conscience
, I never had. I hardly know what freedom is. But I am willing to learn.”

My heart reached out to her then. “Oh, Eliza, you’re a
brave
girl!” I embraced her, tears in my eyes, for I could feel her suffering.

She smiled. “Hardly. But I have borne it, haven’t I?” She looked at me inquiringly.

“You have borne it like a soldier,” I said. “Your brother would be proud.”

Finally Martha interceded with an impatient air. “Enough chat. We must continue Lizzie’s transformation if she’s to have any chance of fooling even the most foolish of men.”

Eliza did indeed blanch at the notion of my becoming a man. That was a frontier that nothing in her breeding or sensibility would allow her to cross. She could accept treachery, war, even death. But riding astride a horse in breeches with a musket across my back, my breasts tied flat with board and cloth? Oh, no,
that
she objected to most strenuously.

Her refusal on this, the easiest point of necessity, had Martha and me laughing and near prostrate on the floor. Unlike Eliza, whose womanhood was in full effulgence, ours slept within us, hibernating like bears. What was it to me to bind my breasts? I hardly knew what they were
for
, except upon other women’s bodies.

After we had washed our cups and dishes, I went about creating a parcel. Little Johnny Tucker, messenger boy from Weymouth, would need one. I found a scrap of paper and twine and wrapped an old box with it. I then wrote a direction very ill upon its front. Thus, the address was visible, but not the name. I could say I received this parcel from someone in town, but the name had become smudged in transit. The parcel was for someone thought to be passing through Rowe’s Wharf.

At long last, I was ready to set off astride Star. Thaxter had given him a good, long grooming, and I had told Martha to go out to retrieve the animal on some pretext so that the man would not wonder at my strange person.

Martha brought him up to the front door. His dark chestnut coat fairly shone in the wintery sun, which was already high in the sky when I mounted him. It was only slightly unsettling that he whinnied immediately upon seeing me, unfooled by my disguise, and I fervently hoped that man had not half the wits in these matters as a Narragansett pacer.

At the last moment, Martha came running out with a blanket. “Here. You will be cold.”

“No, I need it not. It is but extra weight, and too womanly, besides, to place it upon my lap.”

Martha turned to move inside, but something about Star caught her attention.

“He is too good,” she said.

“Star?” I looked at the noble beast and realized the truth of Martha’s words. He was something an officer might ride upon, not an errand boy. “Martha, what do you suggest?” I felt my plan about to unravel.

But Martha considered the problem for a moment and said, “Alight from him before you arrive at the wharf. When you give him to the stable hand, say it is your master’s.”

“That is good; that will do,” I said, relieved. Martha eyed me once more as I used a stool to mount my horse. She then moved back inside. Heading down the road, I looked back at my beloved cottage one final time. I felt a clutch in my breast as I saw my friends wave at me from the parlor window. Soon their warm breath obliterated them to my eyes.

We took the path to the road. It was slick with ice and, unprepared, Star skidded, nearly sending me flying over his withers. I slowed our pace. The fields of grain to either side of the road were now utterly desolate, covered with a light dusting of snow. There was no bird in the sky, no sound whatsoever save the eerie scrape of frozen leaves in the wind and the distant, lonely clink of the blacksmith at his lap stone.

I was cold almost at once and regretted not accepting the extra blanket Martha had begged me to take. Within my house, I had felt the cold but not the wind. I frowned at the thought that one’s imagination is never strong enough to plan as well as one ought. I felt the wind keenly now and urged Star to a trot. He sensed my excitement and advanced swiftly. I had to hold him back to keep him from breaking into a canter across the hill, for, with the unpredictable patches of ice, we surely would fall and break our necks. We settled on a trot through Milton, which kept the blood flowing in my poor limbs.

BOOK: The Midwife's Revolt
10.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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