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Authors: Jodi Daynard

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8

NEWS OF MY having worked some “witchery”
out at Grape Island spread quickly in our small parish. Colonel Quincy and his wife mentioned it the very next day, when they had me to dine at the great house.

I have not, I realize, mentioned the Quincys or their extreme kindness to me during my period of mourning, and I would be remiss if I did not.

Colonel Quincy was a blustery man of about fifty with a growing paunch and a large red nose. His wife, Ann, was far more genteel, younger than her husband, and nearly a head taller.

For the first two weeks after Jeb’s death, the Quincys thought it prudent to leave me be. Ann sent a servant with baskets of provisions to set at my door. I greatly appreciated these gifts, though I hardly touched them—dried apricots, preserves of various kinds, and an assortment of breads. But by the third week, the Quincys clearly felt I might be ready for company, and thus I found myself invited to their great house upon the hill the day after Susanna’s delivery.

As I approached through the dunes, I came upon a family walking up the circular path toward the front door. At once I felt ashamed of making my way like a vagabond, emerging as I did through the tall grass. But upon seeing me, the couple came quickly toward me with smiles.

“Elizabeth Boylston?” asked the man, warmly shaking my hand. Suddenly I realized I knew these people: they were the Cranches, Richard and Mary. Mary was Abigail’s older sister.

“Yes. It is I.” I smiled. “I live just there, in a cottage. That’s why—”

“Of course.” Mr. Cranch forestalled my apology. “You need no carriage to make your way a stone’s throw through the dunes.”

“And I’m Mary. We’ve seen you at meeting, though not for some time now.”

“No,” I replied.

“We are most sorry for your loss,” Mr. Cranch said as we approached the door.

“Yes, most sorry,” Mary agreed, and by her pained face, I knew her to be in earnest.

Two children, a tall boy and his little sister, came running round the bend, out of breath.

“Children!” Mary scolded. “Stop running at once!”

“But Mommy!” the little boy, Will, objected. “We saw a porcupine!”

“Will poked it with a stick!” cried the girl.

“You foolish boy,” Mary admonished. “Come here.” She hugged him tightly.

I smiled. A normal family with normal children. Gazing upon them, I doubly mourned my loss.

Twice before I had been in the great house, when Jeb and I had first moved to our cottage. It had been autumn and the leaves had all gone from the trees, making the large house feel forlorn. But it was mid-summer now, and it seemed that Mrs. Quincy had ordered more furniture or taken some out of storage, because I felt within a warmth of color and texture I had not noticed previously.

We sat in the north parlor, and a servant brought us some refreshment. Sherry, I believe it was. I admired the imported tiles surrounding the fireplace and at first did not join the conversation between Colonel Quincy and the Cranches. Mr. Cranch, a judge, spoke of a new case. I nearly offered the information that my father had been a judge but then thought better of it. I knew the Cranches to be ardent patriots, and my father had been a loyal servant of the Crown. In his last year, however, he had begun to have doubts
. . .

There was a sudden knock on the door, and when the butler opened it, I saw Abigail Adams and her children. Oh, was I glad of it! For while the Cranches were amiable, I found I could not speak of trivialities in the usual way and so sat there quite silent, unable to contribute.

Seeing me, Abigail grinned and came up at once to embrace me. Her children were ushered off to another part of the house, perhaps to the kitchen. Her lively presence changed the course of the evening for the better, for she seemed to sense that I could speak but little, and she took up the lion’s share of that task, unconsciously leaving her hand in mine the entire time. I loved her greatly at that moment!

We were soon called for dinner, which was delicate and delicious and consisted of five courses beginning with aspic of fish. Over dinner, I found something to talk about with Richard Cranch, and Mary’s warm looks in my direction made me feel safe in my grief. Her glance seemed to say,
You need not pretend for our sakes.

And so I did not. But, as one must eat at a dinner party and have at least some conversation, Mary began by asking whether I needed anything for my home.

“Yes, indeed,” Mr. Cranch added gladly. “I would be happy to loan you my Shakespeare collection.”

Mary frowned at her husband. “Shakespeare? I had in mind some chickens or a flax loom.” She sounded so serious that suddenly Colonel Quincy guffawed, and everyone laughed.

“But Mr. Cranch,” I cut in, “how could you know that I love Shakespeare? Indeed, I have a volume of Tragedies from my father’s collection, which is very precious to me.”

“Then allow me to loan you the Comedies.”

At this solecism Mary nudged her husband with her foot. I know because it was my foot she nudged beneath the table. Richard Cranch meant no harm. I thanked him and said, “At some point, I shall love to borrow them.”

“Then let us agree,” he said, to close the conversation on Shakespeare, “that we shall discuss one of his plays on another occasion.”

“Oh, yes, let’s,” Abigail joined in. “I am heartily tired of farming and chores and long for ten minutes of intelligent conversation.”

“Mrs. Adams, you shall have it.” Mr. Cranch smiled. “For it seems that such conversation might prove medicinal. I shall leave you to choose the subject. Shakespeare, Virgil, or perhaps Pliny—”

“Oh, no government,” Abigail quickly objected. “Please, no government.”

The dinner passed pleasantly after that. Just as we were about to take to our separate parlors, the colonel raised his glass and announced, “I would like to congratulate our esteemed lodger on certain patriotic activities of her own yesterday.”

Ann looked at her husband as if he were mad. She was used to his loud, unreserved ways and was clearly anxious lest this should be some new faux pas.

Mary inquired, “Lizzie, what activity might that have been?”

I felt my face grow hot. “Oh, it is hardly worth mentioning, but I was called to the side of a woman in travail. She was safe delivered of a little girl.”

“Balderdash!” bellowed the colonel. “The woman would have died without you. It is said the baby was breech, and the poor foolish mother was stranded on Grape Island, all alone.”

I glanced quickly at the colonel, amazed by the fact that a man of such great stature should so enjoy the gossip of servants.

“Grape Island?” asked Richard, looking at me with new interest.

“Dear, do you think this is really the time and place
. . . 
?” Ann began.

But the colonel would not be gainsaid. He told the entire story as he had heard it from a servant, who apparently had heard it from a friend of the Brown family.

“After all,” he concluded, “we must have babes to populate our new country, mustn’t we?”

“Josiah!” Ann finally put her foot down. “You are mortifying this poor woman. Can you not see?”

Indeed, I must have looked beet red, for Ann quickly asked a servant to bring me a glass of water.

Abigail came to my rescue. “Lizzie is indeed to be commended, but I suggest we save our praise of her for others’ ears.”

“Well, Lizzie,” said Mary kindly, “if news spreads as quickly as I think it does around this parish, you shall soon be run quite off your feet.”

Abigail closed the discussion by adding, “Yes, and I truly believe she will need help if she is to stay with us.”

“Stay?” Ann asked. “Is there even a question of that?”

“Indeed there is,” Abigail replied. “Her in-laws, staunch Tories, mean to remove her from our midst.”

“Well, that won’t do,” said the colonel. He sat erect in his chair and leaned across the table to Abigail, bellowing, “She needs a servant, you mean?”

“A servant or an apprentice. Yes, that is exactly what I mean, Colonel Quincy,” Abigail answered.

“Oh, no, no,” I began to object.

“Well, then, you shall have one as soon as may be.”

With that, the master of the house bade us leave the table for our separate parlors.

9

THE PROSPECT OF having a servant in
my house was not a welcome one. It would take a frightening event, which would befall me later that autumn, before I would accept not only the idea of a servant but also the servant herself. Still, as I fell asleep later that night, I felt it had done my wounded soul good to dine with caring friends. I had liked the Cranches at once, and Abigail had shown great tact in suggesting they all spread the word about my midwifery. The colonel, too, had proved a loving father in his readiness to help me.

I had little time to congratulate myself, however, for the very next morning I was awakened by a knock at the door. It was Abigail, come to tell me that old Deacon Williams had fallen ill with the bloody flux, and two others besides.

“I’m terrified, Lizzie,” she said, grasping my arm. “This must be some new calamity the Lord has seen fit to try us with.”

“Nonsense.” I moved to dress myself. I never could believe our Maker would force us to suffer on purpose. “It’s those filthy soldiers marching to and from town. They bring sickness on their clothing, on their boots.”

I asked her did the deacon wish me to attend him, but she said no. She had only stopped in to warn me of things to come.

“Well, I hope you won’t hesitate to send for me, Abigail, if I am needed.” Then I blushed. I was, after all, but twenty years old, and she was a worldly thirty.

“Never fear, Dr. Boylston. I shall call upon you at the slightest sign of a sniffle.”

I shall always remember Abigail’s ironic tone. From nearly our first meeting, she evinced an almost uncanny ability to see all my flaws. She remarked upon my tendency to self-pity; she laughed at my occasional grandiosity; and she could always put me in my place with a well-timed joke. But always, always, her prods were blunted by the tender restraint of love.

As July went on, the air grew even hotter, and more people sickened and died. Disease acquired a lusty taste for us. So many men were gone that women were left to suffer alone with only ignorant child-servants to help. The youngest and oldest died first. In August, our own Parson Wibird fell gravely ill, and as a result there was no meeting on the Sabbath during August or September.

God had abandoned us, it seemed. From our homes, rivers of blood and feces ran such that no one dared step anywhere. Houses, hot and filthy, stank. I shrank from going inside them, and yet I did. Though people will say I was brave to do so, I will say it was the path I took back to life, for nothing eases one’s own pain more than to ease that of others.

This same month I delivered my second newborn, having been called to the bedside of the tanner’s wife, Hannah Baxter. And on the eleventh, I was called in the middle of the night to tend a young farmer, Elisha Niles, who seemed to be expiring. When I arrived, he was conscious but very low. His skin was hot to the touch and dry. I cooled him down as best I could, but I knew he was near his end. There was nothing I could do but hold his hand. At dawn, he shut his eyes and departed this life without struggle.

I stayed to wash his body and, with a servant’s help, got poor Elisha into his burial clothes. After I had finished my work, the sun was just rising above the sea. It had never cooled during the night; the air was still warm. Greatly fatigued, I hurried home and went to bed after stripping down to my skin, so close and hot was it in the house. I left all the doors wide open for the breeze. An Indian or a king’s soldier could have entered quite easily, and yet I slept without fear.

I should have been afraid. Indians lurked about the perimeter of our parish. British soldiers trawled the coast road, looking for women. Bears, wolves, and thieves roamed the land, taking advantage of our chaos. And wayward sailors, whom I could see beyond my kitchen window, stared at the shore, longing for one night in a warm bed. I should have been afraid, but I was not. Not of strangers, anyway. Only of the Boylstons, for to live with them would have been a living death.

August of the year of our Lord 1775 wore on, with no abatement of disease. Indeed, it seemed to grow worse. I did what I could, glad to be too busy to think of myself. Abigail fell ill, followed by Tommy, and I gave them every comfort I could, though medicine was in short supply. By now, word had spread that I was a goodly midwife, and the women of the North Parish began to call upon me to tend their sick children, which I did to the best of my abilities.

By the middle of September, the bloody flux had seized the neighboring village of Weymouth. Every last household contained the sick and dying. Abigail’s mother fell ill with it. After several days, it seemed as if the crisis had passed. But then, on September 30, she had a relapse and fell unconscious.

I knew that Abigail had removed to Weymouth to be with her mother, but did not know how gravely ill the elder woman was until I received a panicked boy at my door. He spoke so quickly that I could hardly understand him. He asked could I come quickly to the parsonage in Weymouth—but as for the rest, I could not make it out. Abigail’s mother had either expired or was thought to be expiring.

“Well, which is it, child?” I asked with ill-concealed impatience. The poor flustered boy could not say. The first indeed required haste; the other, none at all.

For Abigail I would summon my energy. I had Thaxter saddle Star, and once again, I set off astride him. I resolved to gaze neither left nor right as I passed through town, imagining that if I did not see them, the people of the parish could not see me. This time riding Star, the thought occurred to me how much easier it would be if I were a man. I’d heard of women dressing up to go to battle as recently as in our war with the French and the Indians. Such thoughts fled when I arrived in Weymouth, however, and Abigail espied me from the dooryard of her father’s parsonage.

She came flying out of the ancestral home perched on its pretty knoll as I dismounted and tied Star. She hugged me close, whispering, “Thank God. Lizzie, I am despairing.”

I asked her for water for my horse as it was a very warm day, and I had not stopped once for him. When Isaac had been called for that purpose, I walked up the knoll, for which effort I was awarded a fine view of the broad white beach, the dark-blue bay, and Boston beyond. The leaves of the maple trees had just begun to turn, and to my left, Weymouth village was awash in warm reds and golds. How indifferent Nature can seem, at times, to our suffering!

There was no such heartening view within. I found Abigail’s mother alive but very gravely ill. I touched the woman’s arm. She turned and groaned. Even a slight touch upon her skin tortured her. She was shut in and bundled against her chill, even on this warm day. I took it upon myself to open a window and remove the bolster.

“Could you fetch me some cool water in a bowl, please?” I asked one of the Smiths’ servants. The girl nodded and returned with a bowl of water. Very gently, I proceeded to cool Mrs. Smith, pressing the wet cloth to her arms and legs and neck.

At one point she opened her eyes and saw me—a total stranger—and appeared frightened.

“Do not be alarmed.” I smiled. “I’m Lizzie Boylston, a friend of your daughter’s.” Abigail had been dozing in a chair by the bed, but upon hearing my words she sat up.

“She is an angel,” added Abigail, touching her small hand upon my shoulder.

“I thought my eyes played tricks,” the mother murmured. She seemed to fall asleep then, but awoke in the middle of the night unable to breathe. Parson Smith entered with Dr. Tufts. Together we watched her final struggle. There was nothing at all to be done for her. When there is a struggle for life, the end is always much worse, and so, while I didn’t know if she would hear me, I bent over and whispered, “You may go to your Maker knowing you did good on this earth. You created one of the finest women alive.”

My words seemed to calm her; her breaths became easier, but also farther apart. Soon they ceased. She was gone.

Abigail wept inconsolably. I made her a good strong tea, which she took, and when she was able, she turned to me and asked, “What did you say to her? She seemed to rest easier after that.”

“I told her she could be proud of you,” I said simply.

She thanked me, then wept again. “Oh, my poor mother. My poor, dear mother.”

It was near dawn when she had calmed herself somewhat, and I asked her if she would like me to wash the body or if they had a servant, for I did not wish to intrude upon this sacred task.

She said her father had no particular person in mind. And so I did it. I can still see Abigail staring in mute awe as I washed her mother’s body.

“When my turn comes, I want you to wash my body like that.”

I hesitated. “Oh, I am sure to go to my Maker long before you. You are made of flint.”

“Promise me,” Abigail replied most gravely. At dawn on October 1, 1775, I promised her.

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