Chapter One Boston—May, 1765
“JANE, I HARDLY UNDERSTAND THE NECESSITY OF subjecting my hands to this harsh lye soap when they will be concealed in white gloves all afternoon,” Abigail complained.
“They will not be concealed when you are at your spinning wheel on the Common, amongst friends and neighbors,” Jane countered tartly, then looked to Abigail’s hands covered with thick suds. “Rinse them, if you please,” Jane ordered.
Dressed in her muslin stays and hoop petticoat, Abigail stood at the washbasin and swirled her hands in the heated well water. When the last of the suds was washed away, she removed her hands and examined her slender fingers. The printer’s ink stains were barely visible and she secretly admired the fresh whiteness of her hands. During the course of the week as she wrote and assisted her brother, Levi, in setting the type and inking the large press for Friday’s issue of the Boston Word,
she had neither the time nor inclination to think of such vanities. However, still disgruntled at having to leave her commentary but midway composed in order to attend the Spinning Celebration, she refused to reveal her pleasure to Mrs. Jane Stewart, who at the moment was scrutinizing Abigail’s hands. Jane’s kindly face was set in a stubborn expression that matched her own displeasure, Abigail had no doubts.
With a shake of her head, Jane turned her stout back to Abigail and walked to the bed. As she began to ready Abigail’s apple green homespun dress and matching bonnet, laid out beside her stockings and gloves, Jane was able to relax her face from its forced sternness which she had assumed to match Abigail’s own obstinacy. For despite Abigail’s headstrong and stubborn nature, no one knew better than Jane how kind and sensitive Abigail was and how deeply she pained when her stubbornness or flair of temper injured the feelings of someone she loved. Cajoling Abigail would have little effect. Jane knew she had to meet Abigail’s will with her own when it came to matters of principle or obligation—especially since Abigail had assumed the printing business and newspaper after her father, John’s, tragic death.
Jane knew that Abigail hated spinning as she hated most domestic chores. Moreover, Abigail saw her attendance at the Celebration as frivolous, despite its patriotic nature, compared to those essays she wrote expressing alarm and displeasure with the Parliament’s latest acts to bring the colonies to their knees. It was useless to tell Abigail that an afternoon among good company in the warm May sun would not alter the fate of Boston. She was her father’s daughter, most certainly, in a way that Levi had never been his father’s son. Yet Jane was certain that if John Peabody were still alive, he would be equally adamant about getting his lovely Abigail to the Common this afternoon, especially if he had learned, as Jane had at the market this morn, that Jeremy Blackburn had returned from England. As certain as she was that God watched over them, was Jane that Jeremy would present himself at the Celebration. Once he again set his eyes upon Abigail’s shining red hair and lovely large green eyes . . .
“I do wish you would go along with Katie instead and leave me to my work,” Abigail complained once more, as she lathered and scrubbed her hands again. She knew better than to voice further complaints when she had already tried Jane’s large reserve of patience, but her obstinacy pushed her on. “I know that it’s the fifteenth year since the formation of the Spinning Society, but I have last year’s column. All I need do is change the names to those who shall win this year, though I doubt if the names will ever
change. The same can not be said about my report on the latest outrages of Governor Bernard. That man’s audacity to urge the Assembly to humbly accept the advent of the scurrilous Stamp Act! So why should I while away the afternoon spinning, for which I have little talent and less inclination—”
Jane turned swiftly, despite her bulk. Her doe-like hazel eyes darkened with anger, causing Abigail to instantly regret her words, as heartfelt as they were. “Enough, Mistress Peabody,”
Jane declared. “Kindly close your mouth and apply your wrath onto those hands.” With one long scathing look, Jane then turned away again.
Abigail refrained from releasing the laughter that bubbled in her throat whenever Jane sardonically addressed her by proper title. For in truth, Mrs. Jane Stewart was far more than housekeeper, and had been most of Abigail’s life. Mrs. Stewart was a widow who had arrived from Ulster, in Northern Ireland, as an indentured servant for the Peabodys when Abigail was five, fifteen years before. That was the same year that Abigail’s mother, Mary, had died in childbirth, the boychild stillborn as well. Levi was ten at the time. Jane Stewart became as much a mother to them, especially to little Abigail, as if she had borne Abigail herself. When Jane’s years of indenture passed, she stayed on as a hired housekeeper, but was actually a member of the family, for by then none of them, least of all Abigail’s father, could have done without her ministerings and love.
It had often puzzled Abigail as to why her father had not married this strong, kind-faced, and caring woman. She knew that most widowers married within a year. Many of their neighbors had taken two or three new wives after each died in childbirth or illness. Once, Abigail had broached the subject with her father. He had treated her question with the dignity and respect that was always the hallmark of their close relationship. He had explained that his love for her mother was so special and rare that it would be unfair to offer any other woman merely the shadow of that love.
Unconsciously, Abigail scrubbed more ferociously as she fought back the tears that welled behind her eyes. Even two years later, it was difficult for her to endure the grief of her loss, or to remember the nightmarish circumstances of his death in that terrible fire that had destroyed their house as well on that cold winter evening. She had done the only thing she knew—thrown herself into her work and hoped that she could carry on the pride of her father’s life, his Boston Word,
with the dignity and respect that his paper had engendered in Boston during the ten years he had published it. It had been a constant struggle, but she hoped that her father looked down upon her earnest attempt from his place in heaven and smiled at her.
Abigail rinsed her hands again. Finally they were immaculate. When she looked up, Jane was staring at her with a softness in her eyes that belied her impatient stance, with strong, stubby hands on broad hips. As usual, Jane knew what pained her without words having to cross between them. Abigail dried her hands and then walked to Jane and planted a kiss on her cheek.
“You are a sweet girl, even if you are enough to shake the calmest soul at times,” Jane said in her lilting Northern Irish accent that had not changed from the day she landed in the Boston Harbor. “It is just that I worry about you, shouldering your dear father’s work, may he rest in peace, while Levi spends far too much time in the harbor taverns, filling his head with stories of the sea. Though I don’t say that he isn’t as loyal a brother to you as one could hope for. It’s just that he’s as much a dreamer as you are a doer. You should be thinking about things besides politics. About finding a fine husband and having little ones of your own, like sweet Katie.”
“Oh Jane, I think that the babies you will see will be Katie’s. I am already an old maid, or haven’t you heard so? In fact there is a new word they have begun to use—spinster, from those ladies whose training at the spinning school have led them to lives of fruitful work when the fates didn’t bring them a pledge of marriage—”
“Nonsense! Do not speak such foolishness in this house. I will not hear it and I will certainly live to see many babies from you over the years!”
Abigail wiggled her long, tapered fingers before Jane’s face to break the conversation. “Are these not the hands of a fine lady, Mrs. Stewart?” she teased, and broke into a broad smile.
“Aye, a lady to be sure, Mistress Peabody,” Jane replied in kind. “Why I do believe that you could sashay into the governor’s house up on the hill with those lily-white hands. I am certain he would be most happy to receive you after having read your latest diatribe against the mother country,” she stated with a sniff, but her eyes twinkled. “Now, my fine lady, if you would honor me by allowing me to aid you with your fine silken gown?”
“The one with the French laced sleeves and bodice, of course?”
“Certainly, for I dare say it is too warm for the flowered brocade,” Jane added with a playfully pretentious air.
With a laugh, Abigail stepped into her homespun dress and Jane began to fasten the backhooks as Abigail stood before the looking glass.
“Did I hear words of silk and brocade gowns?” a smiling Katie called as she edged through the doorway, protectively covering her mound of belly with one hand and carrying one-year-old baby, Sarah, with the other against her shoulder. She rested herself heavily in the rocker chair. By summer’s end, she and Levi would have a new babe.
“We were just sporting, as you could guess,” Abigail spoke to her smiling, sweet sister-in-law. Through the looking glass, Abigail noted that Katie looked paler than usual. Already her delicate blondeness, bright blue eyes, and girl’s pink-cheeked coloring had begun to fade, though Katie was not yet turned seventeen. But she was a good wife to Levi. In the past two years since their marriage, Levi’s green eyes, so much like Abigail’s own, had lost a bit of their wanderlust, though he still spent what pleasure time he had by the wharf where the largest masted vessels brought their cargoes from the farthest ports. Abigail thought of Katie as a sister-in-blood rather than as marrying kin.
“Levi and Nathan have taken our spinning wheels to the Common,” Katie announced, her pale eyes brightening with excitement. “Oh, I do so love the Spinning holiday!” she exclaimed as she rocked the sleeping Sarah in her arms. “I asked Levi to place the wheel ’neath the oak tree where we have agreed to meet Polly Smithers and Elizabeth and Penelope Osborn.” Katie watched as Abigail turned from the looking glass and impatiently shuffled her feet as Mrs. Jane stretched to afix her bonnet to her thick hair that shone crimson in the sunlight streaming through the small bedroom window. It was a shame, thought Katie, that Abigail’s glorious locks had to be tied away from her face for propriety. In the evenings she had often brushed her sister-in-law’s waist-long hair before they retired to bed, although recently, with the babe inside of her, it had become too wearying to raise her arms at length.
“Now, if you’ll place your stockings and shoes on those bare feet, the two of you might still reach the Common before the contest begins,” Jane said. “I did try to hurry her along, Mistress Katie, but I found Abigail tarrying with her hands blackened with ink—”
“I was trying to continue upon my essay—” Abigail started to defend, but then became contrite. How selfish of her. She knew how Katie so anticipated the Spinning Celebration. “I shall hurry, Katie, and we shall arrive in plenty of time for you to win first prize this year that should have been yours, by all rights, last spring!”
“I was honored to have taken second place,” Katie demurred.
“Aye, but if Gwendolyn Corey had not the advantage of such a fine London-made wheel, there is no one in Boston who could have even matched your facility! See, I am wearing the dress and bonnet created by your fine hand.” Abigail preened a bit, for modest Katie’s pleasure. “Do I not look as well as the finest lady?” she asked, her green eyes sparkling.
“Oh yes, sister, you look so very beautiful!”
“Beautiful, I don’t know, but it is a rare pleasure to see your sister-in-law in a frock that is not dull and ink-stained, that much I’ll say,” Jane sniffed. Then she turned from Abigail to give Katie a wink.
Katie watched Abigail quickly roll on her stockings and fix her feet into her fine buckled shoes usually worn for church. Beautiful indeed was Abigail. The soft, green, square-necked dress flattered not only her vivid coloring, but set off her graceful white neck as well. The bonnet likewise framed Abby’s delicate heart-shaped face, large sea-green eyes, and high cheekbones. Ezra’s cruel words of the other evening stung at Katie once more. For Levi’s friend to call Abigail a “cold-blooded old virgin” was more than hard-hearted, even if she were past twenty. But then, Katie remembered that Ezra had tried to court Abigail years before to no avail. They were drunken words, spoken from a spurned suitor, Katie reminded herself. For she could not bear an unkind word about her wonderful Abigail. Without Abigail to see her through the thirty-six-hour torturous birthing of baby Sarah, Katie was convinced that she would have given in to the calling of heaven.
“Let me take the babe,” Jane said as she lifted Sarah from Katie’s arms, bringing Katie back to the moment. “Be sure to fetch the basket with luncheon in the kitchen. Then the two of you be off!” Jane ordered. “And do try to keep Abigail at her wheel, as arduous a task as that might be, if you might, Katie. For knowing this one as we do, we can be certain that she will otherwise manage to be nosying about among the gentlemen busying themselves at their lawn games and whatnot, for more political notions to write in her newspaper.”
Abigail opened her mouth to protest, for surely Jane knew that she would conduct herself as a lady. Instead she broke into rich laughter. Once again, Jane had pronounced the simple truth.