Tagged: Ruth

TUESDAY: Flight to the Frontier

BY RUTH ZAVITZ

A novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.

CHAPTER 1

A COLD west wind, blowing across the Hudson River, kicked dust in Phoebe Carey’s face as she walked home from her father’s store along rutted Prince William Street. Intent on placing her feet precisely in a narrow rut, she was unaware of her surroundings. It was a childish game, and her mother would frown if she saw her waving her arms so vigorously, trying to keep her balance.

“Hey, you Quaker,” someone shouted.

Startled, Phoebe tripped over a rut and sat down abruptly. The basket she’d been carrying cartwheeled across the road.

“Aha. That’s the first quake. Show us another.”

She scrambled to her feet. Archie O’Neil and Tommy Johns were standing in the middle of the road ahead of her, pounding each other on the back and hooting with laughter. This was not the first time moon-faced Tommy and scrawny Archie had tormented her. Wherever she went around the village it seemed they were always there, taunting her. Usually other people were about and the boys restricted their hostility to jeers. But right now she could see no one. Embarrassed at her fall, and apprehensive, she retrieved her basket and approached the boys.

Tommy waved his arms and shouted, “We should tar and feather the lot.”

Archie seized on the rhyming phrase. “Quaker shakers, Quaker shakers. That’s good, Tommy.”

She gingerly approached the boys. “Let me by, please.”

Archie twitched his shoulders. “Yah, it’s time for the afternoon shakes.”

“Or to bow down to that tyrant across the water.” Tommy bowed low, sweeping the ground with his tattered cap, then cackled with laughter.

“Please let me by.”

“Oh, no,” said Tommy, grabbing her arm.

She lashed out with her boot, catching him on the shin and he let go, moaning. She swung the heavy splint basket at Archie who approached from the other side. The basket flew into the bushes beside the road.

Her attackers temporarily disabled, she fled down the road. Her grey wool shawl slipped from one shoulder and streamed out behind her. Stones rattled as the boys retaliated. She turned to see if they were following and a pebble struck her cheek. By the time she reached the white picket gate in front of her house, the patter of stones had ceased.

She ran up the dirt path to the porch. Hens scattered and the cock protested loudly from his perch on the picket fence. Hurrying in the front door she slammed it shut and leaned against it to catch her breath. What was wrong with being a Quaker and why did people hate the King? He lived away across the ocean and couldn’t harm anyone. He had to be a great man or he wouldn’t be the King, would he? She pulled her handkerchief out of her sleeve and, with shaking fingers, wiped away the drops of blood from her cheek.

Her mother came out of the keeping room. “Phoebe! What has thee been doing?” Her thin lips tightened and the two horizontal lines in her forehead deepened. Phoebe tried to brush back the curly black tendrils that had escaped her braids. Mother was going to scold about her untidy hair and the dirty patches on her skirt. When would Mother realize she was a grown-up? Well, almost.

She had to admit, though, her present appearance didn’t match the starched white apron covering Mother’s black gown or the smooth hair that scarcely showed under the edges of her white mob cap.

To forestall the lecture and justify her dishevelment, Phoebe, mindful of her mother’s abhorrence of violence, said, “Archie and Tommy were pestering me about being a Quaker. They threw stones at me.”

Sarah patted her daughter’s shoulder. “Thee does not appear to be hurt except for that scratch on thy cheek. Peace, now.”

“Why did thee leave England and come to this awful place? I hate it here.”

“England was worse. Thy father was . . . well, we will not talk about that. Haventown has been a good home–until the war came. Thy father chose it because of the name. Thee knows we settled first in Albany but John thought a small place would be better. Now I am not sure.” Sarah sighed. “Come in by the fire.”

Not sure? Mother had always seemed to be certain about everything. Did that mean they were in real danger?

She followed her mother into the keeping room where the massive loom by the front window dominated the furnishings.

The front door opened and her father came in, hung his broad-brimmed black hat on the coat stand in the hall and ducked his head to avoid the lintel as he joined them. He smoothed down his white-streaked black hair that, like Phoebe’s, sprang up in curls as soon as he removed his hat.

He touched her cheek. “Phoebe. What happened to thee?”

“Some boys were tormenting her about her religion,” said Sarah.

“Why, Father, why? I don’t understand,” Phoebe broke in.

“So it begins again,” said John, shaking his head. He sat down on the settle by the hearth, patting the bench beside him. “Now tell me what happened.”

“I was coming home from the store, minding my own affair —”

“As thee should,” interjected Sarah, pursing her lips.

John held up a warning hand.

“—and Tommy Johns and Archie O’Neil called me names. They said . . . bad things . . . about the Friends . . . and about the King.”

“But how did thee get the cut?”

“They grabbed me. I kicked Tommy. Tore his stocking. And hit Archie with the basket.”

“Phoebe! Surely thee did not.” Sarah’s tone expressed her dismay. “Tell me thee did not engage in violence.”

“Yes, I did. I had to get away. I ran, and they threw stones at me. One hit me on the cheek.”

“Attacking them probably incited them to stone throwing. I cannot believe a daughter of mine would resort to violence.”

“But . . . but they wouldn’t let me —”

“Thee should have more faith. The Almighty will protect thee.” Sarah brushed at the stains on Phoebe’s skirt. “Go and wash thy face and put on a clean frock. There is salve for thy cheek in the cupboard over the wash basin in the kitchen.”

John tipped her chin up to inspect her cheek. “Is thee all right?”

“Yes, Father. I feel better, now.”

“That is my good girl. It is a shame how the lads are running loose, now their fathers are away at the fighting. They sorely need some guidance.”

In the kitchen, Beulah the hired girl, was peeling potatoes. “What you up to now, girl?”

Phoebe told her of her encounter and the black woman nodded her head, “Uh huh. That how it goes. You hit somebody, they liable hit back. I guess you found that out. Put some of your mother’s salve on that scratch and help me with supper.”

When supper was ready, the family moved to the trestle table at the end of the keeping room next to the kitchen. As Phoebe pulled out her rush-seated, ladder-back chair it scraped on the bare boards with an ugly sound.

Sarah frowned. “Pick it up, Phoebe. Do not drag it.”

Beulah trudged in, the floor creaking under her weight. A voluminous, snowy apron covered her body and a bright red kerchief swathed her head, contrasting with her dusky skin. She carried the blue-patterned tureen, filled with stew that had been simmering all day in the iron kettle in the kitchen fireplace. She set it on the table in front of John and took her place across from Phoebe. They bowed their heads in silent Grace and Beulah uttered a fervent “Amen” as they raised them.

“Mmm, it smells delicious,” said John as he filled the crockery bowls and passed them to each of the others. Hot pan-bread, cooked in the three-legged spider on the hearth, accompanied the meal.

Supper finished, Sarah stored the leftovers in the pantry off the kitchen. Phoebe and Beulah washed the dishes, Phoebe chattering so much that the hired man, Isaac, left his place by the hearth and went, grumbling, out to the barn. A hunchback, and loner, he spent most of his time in the stable or in his bedroom in the loft over the kitchen, although welcome to join the family.

As she hung the dish towel on the rack by the fireplace to dry, Phoebe said, “I’m going over to see Betsey.”

“Thee would be better occupied finishing the towels. Thee spends too much time with Betsy,” Sarah continued as Phoebe’s lip began to protrude. “The towels must all be finished by the end of the week.”

Tidying the kitchen, Sarah said, “Phoebe, where is the splint basket thee took to the store?”

Where was it? “Oh, I dropped it when the boys….”

“Then thee had better go and get it.”

Go out again with the boys out there, waiting? “But, Mother . . .”

“The boys will be long gone to their suppers. Hurry, it is getting dark.”

“All right, Mother.” Phoebe reluctantly put on her shawl but hurried when she went outside and saw how dark it was.

What was that up ahead? She squinted, trying to make out the form in the gathering mist. Was it Archie, or Tommy? She turned for home, then turned back, gritted her teeth and filled her hands with stones. Mother or no, she would not turn the other cheek.

As the boy came nearer she saw he was carrying a basket. “Hello, Phoebe. Look what I found.”

It was Andrew McBain from the farm across the road. She was safe with him. She relaxed and the stones dropped from her hands.

“Hello Andrew. It’s mother’s basket.”

“What was it doing in the bushes?”

“Archie and Tommy were pestering me. I dropped it when I ran away.”

“Arrgh. Those two. They didn’t hurt you?”

“Not much, but I kicked Tommy and hit Archie with the basket. That’s why it’s crooked,” said Phoebe, trying to pull the splints back into shape.

Andrew chuckled. “They deserved it.” He gave her the basket and strode off.

When she returned to the house, her parents were sitting by the keeping room fire.

Her mother said, “You found it. Good. Put it in the kitchen. The towels are waiting.”

Phoebe sighed, did as she was told, then sat down and worked on the newly woven towel stretched over her left hand, the needle in her right making quick neat stitches to secure the hem. Mother’s knitting needles clicked in a steady rhythm. An ember snapped in the fire, and the tick of the clock on the mantel seemed to intensify the silence. How dull. Was this the way she’d spend the rest of her life?

John watched her as the fitful flames threw an illusion of colour on her pale face, reflecting sparkles of light from the thick dark braids hanging over her shoulder. The fire highlighted the salve on her cheek and shadowed the deep-set eyes. Startled, he noticed the curve of her blouse. Why she was a woman, grown. What would the future hold for her? He feared it might not be good in these unsettled times. Today was an example. He would protect her as much as he could, and hope the Almighty also kept an eye on her welfare. A loose joint in his rocking chair creaked as he swung back and forth, immersed in his thoughts.

The fire subsided to glowing coals, John rocked forward and said, “Time for bed.”

He took the New Testament from the mantel and moved to the settle, near the fire’s light for the evening reading.

After Phoebe had gone upstairs, he banked the fire with ashes and Sarah tidied the room. She could not possibly have gone to sleep until everything was in its proper place.

As she plumped a cushion she said, “I am concerned about Phoebe. My teachings seem to sit over-lightly on her.

“In what way?”

“Today was a perfect example. Imagine. Kicking those boys and throwing stones. I’m really at my wits’ en

“But Sarah. The boys attacked her.”

“I doubt they attacked her. She tends to exaggerate as thee well knows. I blame thee, John. Thee is much too indulgent with her.”

That was probably so, he thought. But he couldn’t agree with Sarah’s advice to Phoebe to submit to persecution. He was rather pleased at her courage, but of course he could not let Sarah know that. It would only confirm her opinion that he did not live up to Quaker principles.

Sarah was a good woman, strong enough in her faith to endure even serious physical harm to herself or Phoebe. He feared he would never be her equal, especially if it concerned his daughter’s welfare. For himself, he could, and had endured. But he could not countenance anything happening to his daughter.

 

CHAPTER 2
On Seventh Day morning Phoebe persuaded her father to give her work at the store. She much preferred working there to doing chores at home under her mother’s critical eye.

As they walked down the road past Nathaniel Grieve’s farm, his absence reminded her of all the people affected by this terrible war. It had started six years ago, when she was nine. She could barely remember a time when there was no fighting, although there hadn’t been any battles right here in Haventown. The little hamlet nestled on the banks of the Hudson River south of Albany and they probably weren’t important enough to fight over. Even so, the effects were felt here.

When the war started, Nathaniel had gone to join the British forces and Terence O’Neil abandoned his blacksmith forge to fight with the rebels. Duncan McBain joined the rebels and had been killed at the battle at Freeman’s farm. Phoebe thought his father, Dougald, would have been angry at the British for killing his son, but he made no secret of his allegiance to the British Crown and said he’d deal with any rebels who came near. The community was torn apart as people chose sides. And the more radical members of both groups held a grudge against the Quakers who were against violence and would not join either party.

“Father, I don’t understand why all the fighting.”

He sighed, “We have to pay taxes to England but have no say in how the money is spent. On the other hand, the old country has invested a lot, sending soldiers to keep order here.

“Part of the fault, I think, is the nature of the people here. Many, like us, came because of persecution back home but others are just adventurous, determined to form a new life on their own terms. I think some of the proposed changes are ill-advised, but perhaps it will all come right in the end.”

“What if it doesn’t? What if people keep doing bad things? What happened in England that made thee come here? Thee never told me.”

“Thee knows the Society of Friends believe that no person is better than another. They put me in jail for refusing to take off my hat to the lord of the manor.”

“In jail? Just for that?”

“Yes. At my trial they gave me the choice of staying in jail or leaving the country. Deciding was not difficult.” He grimaced. “The jail was hardly pleasant.”

“Oh, Father. How terrible.”

“Well, it has not been pleasant for thy mother, either, leaving all her family. And especially losing Daniel to a shipboard fever and watching him being buried in the ocean.” John pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his eyes.

Phoebe swallowed a lump in her throat. “Little Daniel,” she whispered. “I never knew him.”

“No, that was before thee was born. Well, here we are. Now to work.”

They entered the store and he set her to straightening the shelves while he swept out the previous day’s dust and dirt.

She breathed in the mixture of aromas that saturated the air: pungent tanned leather, spices, and vinegar from the open pickle barrel by the counter. Lovely.

“Father, thee should order more candles. The box is almost empty.” She tipped it to show the three remaining candles.

“I know, but we probably will not get them. We may even be reduced to candles made of rushes, like the old days, before this war is over.”

“Oh, Father, surely it won’t get that bad.”

“Who knows?” He put away the broom at the back of the store and began re-piling the stack of woollen mittens, knitted by old Abigail and traded for supplies.

Phoebe was sorting the spools of thread by colour and painstakingly lining them up on the shelf when the cowbell, hung over the door to announce customers, clanged and Arthur Trevlyn rushed in.

“Arthur!” said John. “What is thee doing here so early? It must be something important to take thee off the farm on a weekday. Did thee leave Richard to do the chores?”

Arthur sank down on an upturned box. “There are no chores.”

“What is thee saying?”

Phoebe said, “Hello, Uncle Arthur.” Arthur Trevlyn was not really her uncle but a close friend of her father’s. A little man, well-tanned, his taffy-coloured hair cut at the level of his ears, he differed from her tall, pale-skinned father as much as a man could.
“A rebel foraging party came by yesterday. They wanted to buy some vittles. I refused, of course. That is all I need: to have the loyalists accuse me of aiding the rebels.” He ran his hands through his already rumpled hair.

Phoebe’s heart began to beat heavily. Richard. Richard had been in danger. Was he hurt?

“Did they hit Richard, too?”

“No, no. The family is all right.

She clasped her hands together against her chest. Thank goodness.

Arthur continued. “I suggested the soldiers might use their guns for something useful and shoot some deer to feed themselves–got knocked down for my pains.” He fingered his discoloured cheek.

John rubbed his finger up the side of his nose, a sign he was disturbed. “Is that what happened to thy eye?”

“Yes. The soldier gave me a smart clout.”

“That is not decent treatment, and at thy own place, too.”

“The officer said the army needs good meat to travel on. He insisted I provide them with what they required. Said he was requi . . . something. Gave me a paper to take to the rebel headquarters and I would be paid. Ha!

“When I refused they simply helped themselves. Took everything out of the smokehouse and root cellar. I hadn’t dug the turnips, yet, and I guess they were too lazy to dig them so they are safe, for the nonce. Our fresh cow was down in the brake by the creek with her calf. They didn’t see her but they took the others, as well as the two steers I had counted on for winter meat.”

“Is there anything I can do to help? Does thee require anything from the store? A barrel of beef to tide thee over?”

“Thank thee but I have nothing to trade.”

John gave Arthur a reassuring clap on the shoulder. “Thee knows thee is welcome to anything I have.”

“Yes, I know, but I think we’ll manage for now. Richard is a good hunter. He’ll keep us in meat.”

“Keep it in mind. I would not wish thee or thine to suffer if I can help.”

“I’ll remember. I only came to warn thee. Please tell everyone that rebels are about and they should protect themselves.”

“How can they do that?” asked Phoebe. This was serious.

“I don’t know, really.” Arthur rubbed his hands across his face, wincing as his fingers touched the purple bruise below his eye. “Perhaps hide what they can. The rebels seem to be after food, and animals to butcher. Food is not too hard to hide but I don’t know how anyone can get animals out of sight, or keep them quiet.” Arthur shook his head in despair. “I don’t know.”

“Does thy eye hurt?” asked Phoebe.

“Not unless I touch it.”

John peered at the discoloured flesh. “It is almost swollen shut. Can thee see out of it?”

“Very little.”

John gave a sympathetic cluck.

“Well, it is a good lesson to be peaceful in all things, even my tongue, though for me it comes hard.” Arthur managed a wan smile. “I had better be getting back home. The family is upset.”

Upset? They must be terrified. Except Richard. He wouldn’t be afraid of anything. Eager to help, Phoebe went to the back of the store and brought Arthur a gourd of water.

“Thank thee.” He drank deeply and handed the gourd back, giving her a weak smile. He rose from the box. “I’d best be going. I just wanted to give thee warning.” He pulled his hat down firmly on his head, and left.

Phoebe had been interested in the gossip and rumours of the war but it seemed far away and just stories. Now it was real. She shivered. Richard might have been hurt. She would never get over it if something happened to Richard. As she watched Arthur stride down the road she considered his warning.

“Father, what will we do if they come here?”

“I don’t know. I must think.”

She surveyed the stacks of blankets on the shelves along the wall and the many pairs of boots, hung by the laces from ceiling hooks. They would be very tempting to soldiers. But if they hid them away, customers would think they had none. She thought of the barrels of beef and flour stored under a trapdoor to the basement. She frowned at the door itself and the iron ring by which it was lifted, conspicuous in the middle of the floor.

She pointed to it.”We could set some boxes and barrels over that so the soldiers couldn’t tell there was anything under there.”

He shook his head. “Then customers could not get past them to the back counter. There is nothing we can do but trust in providence.”

She excitedly told the news to everyone who came in, causing considerable consternation. Shoppers looked to John for confirmation and, at his nod, concluded their purchases and rushed home to make what preparations they could.

John was more perturbed than he let on. No point in frightening Phoebe, but he was sure there would be more of this. They had been fortunate so far in this out-of-the-way place, but the armies were running out of resources and he thought they would be foraging farther afield. And he was helpless to do anything about it.