Virginia, September 1708
The lone crackling log in the fireplace and the five dancing flames of the iron chandelier failed to remove the somber and chilly feeling the young man was experiencing that evening. Sitting stiffly at the table in the whitewashed dining room, he occasionally forced a nervous nod to feign interest in what the large, round man in his mid-fifties was saying from the end of the table. Having finished a twenty-minute diatribe on England’s politics, the man was then going on about local matters when the eighteen-year-old was again reminded that starting the next day he would be alone with him for the next seven years, and was again covered by an anxiety much like he had experienced when bedded down in the ship’s belly during the nine-week voyage there, though not as strong as what he had experienced during the ocean storms.
“And I say that’s another reason to keep to ourselves the happenings on this plantation. They exaggerate and distort all if only for the attention they earn through the gossip,” the man said before itching his chin’s stubble and then grinning to reveal several missing teeth. “I believe I’ve said that before, have I not; though, it does no harm and possibly some good to repeat it.” Pausing for a moment, he stared at his thin companion. “Move the hair from your eyes, stripling. I prefer to see them when talking to you.” After watching the young man brush his brown bangs to the side, the man said, “Ben, we won’t be harvesting Chalmers’ field tomorrow, instead I’ll send you to mine. I’ve business in Williamsburg and expect you’re almost capable now. I don’t expect to return before you finish hanging the bundles, so do be certain to hang them in the last curing barn. We don’t want to confuse mine with Chalmers’ do we?”
Replying with a nod, Ben realized his error and changed it to a shake of his head.
“That’s correct —we don’t. And I expect you to harvest most, if not all. It’s only forty acres…until I persuade that Huguenot LaValle across from it to sell his thirty. The man’s so proud of his land one would believe he has a hundred, the LaValle Hundred,” he huffed. “He’s cleared only six, six! Not near enough to feed and clothe his offspring, and it shall be years before he builds onto that shed he calls home, perhaps having to stack their bunks four high before then,” he huffed again.
A young, barefoot Black woman in a stained calico robe tied at the waist by a cord entered the dining room with a wooden tray. Placing it on the table, she began clearing the three sets of pewter dishes.
“Ann, don’t distract us with such needless noise. It’s bad enough we must see you. We mustn’t be forced to hear you as well.”
“Sorry, Master Philpot,” she whispered as she grabbed the last bowl from the table and gently placed it on another.
“You may nod your understanding. Next, you shall want to dine with us.”
“No, Master Philpot. My apologies, Master Philpot,” she whispered, bowing nervously before turning to leave.
“Again, I require only a bloody nod,” he growled.
“Yes, Master Philpot.”
As she left the room, he hissed to Ben, “It’s too stupid not to talk back. As He is my witness, one day I’ll fix it.”
With the sounds of shoes coming down the hall, both looked toward the entrance to watch a curly-haired woman no older than eighteen enter the room, a smock covering the front of her plain brown skirt and loose beige bodice.
Philpot forced a smile. “Ah, Margaret, we heard your shoes and expected Jeremiah.”
“M-my apologies, Master Philpot,” she whispered.
He struggled to pull his pocket watch from his tight-fitting waistcoat. “No reason to apologize, my dear.” Opening it and eyeing the time, his face showed his frustration. “I say if he wants to be in town before…before eleven, he must be on his way,” he said, confusing Ben, who didn’t expect the man to have cared.
“Is there anything more you require?”
Pressing the watch back into his waistcoat, he asked, “It’s been two months, yes?”
“You’ve been with us two months now, yes?”
“I have,” she nodded.
“Then you know your duties well enough to make time to eat here, eat with us rather than in the kitchen with them, and I say starting tomorrow you shall share our table.”
As you wish, Master Philpot,” she said, turning to leave just as a husky man in his mid-twenties wearing an opened long coat appeared at the dining room entrance. Moving out of her way, he adjusted his eye patch that had an eye painted on it, which from a distance looked almost natural.
“Come in, Jeremiah. Come in, I say,” Philpot said, forcing a smile as he stood up from the table with Ben following.
“Master Philpot, Ben, I’ll be taking my leave.”
“Yes, it shall be more than an hour’s walk, and I do hope you don’t think poorly of me. I would have Ben drive you, but it would be a two-hour journey there and back, not to mention the harnessing and then the stabling on his return. I say it’s far too inconvenient for him, and more so when considering he shall need his full sleep for his first day alone tomorrow.”
“And as I said earlier, it’s best to go on a full stomach rather than an empty one, but I hope you’re not leaving with that leather coat, the estate’s coat. I only loaned it to you to protect your clothes in the field…and I say those new breeches fit you well, but then they should for the sterling I paid. Still, I didn’t give you that fine coat to take with you. It’s not part of the contract. The one before you used it, and this one shall use it after you. It’s slightly too large, but he shall grow into it, I say. You can lay it over the chair if it pleases you.”
“Certainly,” an embarrassed Jeremiah said before taking it off to reveal a clean white shirt under a tan waistcoat that matched his breeches.
“I say I believe I’m doing you good by keeping the coat and having you reach the inn faster. The faster you walk the less chill to fight off.” Forcing another smile, he shook the young man’s offered hand and added, “I shall say too it was a pleasure having you here, and I’m confident you shall do well in South Carolina.”
“I thank you, Master Philpot. It was a pleasure working with…for you.”
“I’m sure it was, and more so when you’re leaving with a small fortune, yes? One no indentured would see at the end of a contract, so do keep it close.”
“Yes, I believe that’s true, and I will.”
Also shaking Jeremiah’s hand, Ben said, “I wish you the best, and may He be with you.”
“And I, you,” Jeremiah nodded. “Now, if you both would excuse me, I must be on my way.”
“And the whip?” Philpot asked.
“Have you taken it?”
With an awkward smile, Jeremiah said, “No, I’m certain that’s the plantation’s. I placed it on my bed. And I gave the pocket watch, pistols, and sword to Ben.”
“Very good. Perhaps we shall cross paths in Williamsburg before you’re off on your short voyage. But if not, as the French bastards say, bon voyage.”
As Jeremiah left the room, Philpot remained standing as he hissed to Ben, “I shall be surprised if he finds South Carolina. He might go too far and have to learn Spanish, the idiot.”
Ben nodded, reluctantly.
Comfortably hidden in the woods of tall and slender longleaf pines, Robert and his shorter brother, Stuart, stood holding their oil lanterns while impatiently watching their bowlegged brother shovel the last of the loose dirt into what was recently a rectangular hole. Swatting the back of his neck, Robert said, “Harry, don’t make a mound. We don’t want someone believing there’s treasure there.”
Harry released an exaggerated sigh, threw the spade to the ground, and dropped to his knees to brush the fallen leaves impatiently over the filled hole. “I don’t see whys I’m to do all of ’er!”
“Doing the last share isn’t doing all of it,” Robert said as he walked over to pat the dirt down with his shoes.
“Depends on who’s doin’ the last, don’t it?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
After struggling to stand, Harry brushed the dirt from the knees of his trousers. “Still, we could’ve dropped ’im in the river and be done with ’im.”
Joining them to help pat down the dirt, Stuart said, “He wanted him buried.”
“Who’s to care? We could’ve said we did and still drop ’im in. But no matters, we did as we said. Good boys, we are, and ’ow much gooder are we now?”
“Almost ten,” Robert replied.
“Ten? That’s not what ’e said!”
“Ten each. Near what he said.”
“And what o’ the clothes? They should fit me and Stuart with some work,” he said, hobbling to a small pile of clothes lying near a flour sack. Picking through them, he held up a white blood-stained shirt. “This ’ere’s finished. Why put one in ’is chest?”
Stuart huffed. “As we said then, he heard your steps! They heard them in Williamsburg! If you had stayed with the horses, as we agreed, you would’ve profited from a clean shirt! We would’ve crept up on him, as agreed!”
“Would’ve crept up on ’im,” Harry repeated, poorly mimicking his brother. “Always my fault, is it? Look ’ere, ya ruined the waistcoat too, ya did. A waste o’ fine clothes!” He dropped the shirt and began impatiently going through the contents of the flour sack. “Would’ve ruined that long coat too if ’e was wearin’ ’er.” Then shaking its contents onto the forest floor, he raised his voice to say, “Bloody ’ell! I was ’opin’ ’e packed ’er.”
“Pack it all and we’ll be gone!” Robert demanded, “And he wants the patch.”
“The eye patch. The one you pocketed, and it escapes me why you would want it.”
“Why’d ’e want it? ’As no value.”
“Perhaps to destroy it himself. Make certain there’s nothing to identify him,” Robert replied, swatting his neck again.
“Or as a memento,” Stuart added. “Whatever the reason, we shouldn’t concern ourselves with it…since it has no value.”
“Memento? Robert, Stuart ’ere learned ’im a new word!”
England, May 17, 1715
For the last two hours with his back against the sideboard of the cart’s small bed, a stuffed sack on one side of him and his chubby eleven-year-old brother, Oscar, on the other, William had sat with his knees pulled in to give his two white-capped sisters across from him space to straighten their legs so their five-year-old sister bundled in a blanket could lie across their thighs.
Though content that the youngest could sleep through the rough ride rather than have to bear the boredom of it, he still found himself hoping the next bump or jolt would break or knock off one of the two solid wheels, and he expected his father who seemed intent on rolling over every large rock in their path was hoping for the same thing. Then turning off the Roman-built stone road to take a shorter route separating fields of young maize, the additional bumping of the cart staggering in and out of the tracks left in the dried mud the day before and the single axle’s whine for tallow added to his anxious state.
With the late morning’s gray sky threatening to soak them and the cool spring breeze picking up, no one spoke of what was to come. Even Oscar, who had asked his parents one too many times how much further they had to go, said nothing out of fear his father would carry out his threat of making him walk behind them.
Wondering what his oldest sister was thinking, William looked across at her, and when she raised her fourteen-year-old head to return his look, her watery eyes caused a wave of guilt to splash over him. Needing to escape her stare, he turned his head to his brother, who whispered, “How much further would you say we have?”
William shrugged and shook his head.
He shrugged again.
If only to pacify the boy, he nodded. “Five miles seems correct.”
“Five! At this pace, that’s another hour!”
Fifteen minutes later, the boy whispered the same question and was disappointed by the same reply.
As the carts casually passed in both directions between the docked ships and the mostly limestone buildings, their heavy solid wheels thundering against the planks of the pier, the only ship showing any activity that Friday afternoon was the Colonist. Belittled by the navy ships moored on both ends of it and behind a day in loading its cargo because of the storm the day before, it rushed to fill its belly. With the line of full carts parked beside it slowly growing, the barefoot sailors in their off-white calico trousers, matching shirts, and red wool caps took a crate from the bed of the first cart in line, struggled and cursed their way up the gangway hugging the ship’s side, and once aboard, disappeared behind the main deck’s wall. Seconds later they descended a rope hanging from the end of the lowest yard of the stern’s mast to grab another crate.
Eight ships away, with the clouds darkening and the seagulls heckling them, the five did as their mother had told them and huddled together within a group of almost fifty people waiting near the opened double doors of a warehouse. It was their first time seeing ships up close, their first time being engulfed by a salty breeze that forced the three sisters to hold their cloaks closed, and their first time seeing sailors who stumbled in and out of what the siblings assumed was a tavern one block down.
When their parents entered the warehouse to mingle with the larger crowd inside, the five separated themselves from the tight group, and the two youngest with no interest in their surroundings took advantage of hearing themselves speak by discussing the patterns of fabric they hoped to find in the small textile village their parents planned to visit on their return home.
Where Oscar was excited to be at the pier, showing no concern for why they were there, William’s anxiety smothered any excitement he would have had. With his bulging flour sack over his shoulder, he tried to distract himself from what was to come by listening in on his sisters whose passion for fabric was beyond his understanding, and when his five-year-old sister screamed, “Brown is for boys!” and his ten-year-old sister replied, “It’s for anybody!” he looked at his brother and tossed him a smirk and a raised eyebrow.
When Oscar replied with an eye roll, their ten-year-old sister caught it and asked, “What do you two think?”
“My opinion is worth less than nothing. I’ve never had reason to give women’s clothes much thought,” William replied.
“Mine as well. I only wonder how Willy would look in them,” Oscar said through a grin, and as he turned to wander off, William pulled him back by the collar of his jacket.
“Willy is pretty in a dress, a green dress!” the five-year-old shouted, causing the oldest sister who hadn’t said a word that morning to replace her gloom with a slight grin.
“William, how do you see me in a yellow dress with blue flowers?” the ten-year-old asked.
“With my eyes.”
She huffed. “No! How would I look?”
“As you do now, with your eyes,” he said, before grabbing at Oscar, who was just out of reach. “Oscar, come back!”
“No, Willy! I only want to see the ships in the harbor. I’m not going far and not too long.”
Not understanding why the ships in the harbor would be more interesting than those along the pier, William shook his head, dropped his sack, and walked over to his brother. He was about to pull him back to his sisters when it occurred to him that doing as his brother wanted might distract his mind. “But only for a moment. We must return before mother and father, or you’ll sleep tonight with yet another growling stomach.”
“We will, and we’ll see better from there,” the boy said, pointing to a large space between two ships further down.
As Oscar ran along the raised walkway dodging those in his path, William apologized to those he dodged as he ran after him, and his heart skipped a beat when his younger brother failed to look both ways before running across the pier, barely avoiding a cart whose driver let loose several loud expletives. “Our apologies,” William said to the man and then waited impatiently for the cart and two more to pass.
At the edge of the pier, in the large space between the stern of one ship and the bow of another, the two looked out at the ships floating in the harbor with their sails tucked into their yards, and as William expected there was little in the harbor to interested them other than the two men rowing a small boat toward them.
With the stronger breeze doing little to cool his anxious state, William unbuttoned his jacket and released the top three buttons of his shirt. Following him, Oscar released the straining buttons of his jacket that was a size too small, unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt to reveal his pudgy cleavage, and adjusted his breeches that were tight around the waist but yet ended two inches further below his knees than they should have.
As the small boat came closer, the brothers realized it was towing a thick rope, and when it reached them, they stepped to the side as one of the two men climbed a ladder built into the pier, caught the thick rope thrown up to him and wrapped it around an iron mooring. After the man descended the ladder, the brothers watched them row back to a ship almost two hundred feet away. Curious with the rope stretching, they realized the ship lifting the small boat from the water was also pulling itself into the pier. With the ship creeping closer, neither mentioned to the other that they had expected the ships to sail into the pier, and after twenty minutes when it was only fifty feet from them, they heard muffled shouting from somewhere within it, and as it pulled itself closer, recognized it as singing.
Come hang, come haul together,
Come, hang for finer weather,
Hang, boys, hang.
I’d hang a brutal mother,
I’d hang her and no other,
Hang, boy, hang.
I’d Hang to make things jolly,
I’d hang all wrong and folly,
Hang, boy, hang.
They call me hanging Johnnie,
They call me hanging Johnnie,
Hang, boy, hang.
The ship’s bow rising ten feet above them creaked against the pier, and when the singing stopped and Oscar’s foot stopped tapping along with it, William said, “Come. We’ll watch from the other side.” Expecting his brother to protest, Oscar only did when William grabbed him by the shoulder and forced him to wait for two carts to pass.
On the walkway near the door of a limestone building, the two stood watching a sailor hang from the bow of the ship before dropping onto the pier. Catching a thick rope dropped to him, he walked to where the stern of the ship would be when docked, and after wrapping it around a second mooring, several sailors near the stern braced themselves on the deck as they heaved on the rope to bring its hull against the pier.
With nothing more to interest him, Oscar grabbed the arm of William’s jacket and pulled him down the walkway until they were across from the Colonist where they sat to watch the sailors remove crates from a long six-horse cart. The crates that clanged, William guessed, were cookware; those that clattered were wooden plates, and the few that jingled, he joked, were the King’s jewels. Oscar guessed the lighter, silent ones were bundles of silk and the heavier ones were bars of gold wrapped in cloth so their clanging wouldn’t announce their precious presence.
“The crates would be much heavier than they are, and they would never send gold on a ship like that,” William said. “It only has four things on its side. This one wouldn’t be any challenge for pirates.”
Oscar’s grin accentuated his chubby cheeks. “Perhaps, or perhaps that’s what they’re hoping we believe. If I were them, that’s what I would do: put it in a ship that no one would suspect…and they’re called gunports.”
After the emptied cart rolled away, another with a mountain of sacks took its place, and a man shouted from the ship, “Grab those hardtacks. Hurry now,” the sailors formed a line to have two men standing on the cart’s bed drop a heavy sack over their shoulders, causing them to shrink slightly, and as they struggled up the gangway, one hand on the sack and the other on the railing of rope, several times it seemed one might stumble back and knock over those behind him, but none did.
When they carried the last of the sacks onto the ship and the cart rolled away without another to replace it, William’s heart began beating hard and fast.
A few seconds later, a sailor on the ship yelled toward the waiting crowd, “ALL ABOARD WHO’S COMIN’ ABOARD!”
William couldn’t get to his feet.
His legs refused to move.
As his face went pale and he became dizzy, a hard tug on his shoulder knocked him onto his side.
“Come!” Oscar demanded, trying to pull his brother to his feet. “We have to leave or I’ll not eat tonight. Come!”
“ALL ABOARD WHO’S COMIN’ ABOARD!”
William forced himself out of his shock and to his feet, and with another tug from his brother, they ran toward their sisters whom they joined just as their parents emerged from the waves of people leaving the warehouse to pool on the pier and ignore the curses thrown from the drivers of the blocked carts.
“The game has ended. Let’s go home,” Oscar proclaimed to his family.
None seemed to hear the boy as all but the youngest focused their eyes on William, who was considering his brother’s words before his father distracted him by pulling back his little sister, who had turned to walk toward the blocked carts.
“No! I want to pat the horsey, the dark one there!” she protested as her father picked her up and stepped out of the way so William could take his teary-eyed mother’s offer of a hug.
Kissing his cheek, she broke their hug and wiped an eye. “Listen to your master…and be safe.” Trembling as she released more tears, she added, “We’ll send letters.”
“I’ll do the same. I…I’ll send one soon after arriving.”
She hugged him again. “And remember, I love you…we all love you.”
“I love you too,” he said, fighting to control the pressure growing behind his eyes.
Forcing himself away from his mother, he faced his watery-eyed oldest sister, and after he hugged her and kissed her cheek, she whispered, “I hope you find what you’re seeking, and I hope you won’t forget about me…about us.”
With the lump in his throat making his voice lower, he said, “Alice, I can’t forget you,” and as he wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket, added, “This salty air is hard on the eyes, yes?”
“Know this, William, I’ll be thinking of you every sunset, hoping you’re safe and hoping too that you’ll return for a visit. Even when I’m married with a dozen children, I’ll always think of you as the sun goes down, wondering what has become of my big, brave brother with a heart bigger than his brain.”
Only able to reply with a nod, he turned to his ten-year-old sister, who hugged him tightly and with the side of her face against his stomach, said, “Goodbye, William. I’ll miss you very much. Please try to return when your contract ends.”
As she broke her hug, he bent down and kissed her cheek. “I’ll miss you too, and I’ll try…if only for a visit. And…and you would look pretty in yellow with blue flowers, though it seems impossible to be any prettier than you are now.”
Clearing his throat, he looked down at his youngest sister who was looking curiously up at him and giggled when he picked her up. “I must go now.”
“Be home tomorrow?”
“N-no, much later.”
“Two weeks?” she asked, holding up two fingers.
“Yes, I’ll be back then,” he lied.
“Bring me a horsey,” she whispered in his ear. “Don’t tell Father, and not a big one, a small one.”
“I’ll bring you a pony.”
The child’s eyebrows tilted in and her voice rose. “No! Did you not hear me? I said a horsey! I want a small horsey! Bring me a small horsey…and don’t tell Father!”
“I’ll bring you back the best small horsey I can find,” he said, breaking a smile that slightly reduced the pressure behind his eyes.
Causing her to giggle again by kissing her cheek, he set her gently down and turned to his father, shaking the offered hand that had a weaker grip than he would’ve expected.
“This is it, then. As your mother said, listen to your master and be safe. Watch the weather and do as the others do. They’ll know how to avoid the bad air,” the man said, releasing his son’s hand. “Do you have your paper close?”
William tapped the left pocket of his jacket. “In my pocket.”
His father pulled out a handkerchief, released a wet cough into it, and wiped his mouth. “Good. Watch your footing on the ship, and if there’s a storm, as there’s certain to be, perhaps as early as today, make certain you’re below.” The man cleared his throat. “You’ve escaped the mines, but I expect this new life will have its disappointments too and expect it will change you enough to make you almost unrecognizable when I see you again. The voyage itself may change you too, and I hope the change is for the better, though how much better you could be is beyond my understanding. You’re a good son, a great son. One any father would be proud of.” Then surprising William with a hug, he whispered, “I will think of you always.”
“And…and I, you,” William whispered back.
His father broke the hug and said, “You must be off, but we’ll stay for a last farewell. We’ll wait for you to settle in and be on deck to…to see you one last time.” Pausing to collect himself, he added, “That is if this sky doesn’t break and wash us into the sea.”
“I’ll see you then, but before I go, I want to give you this,” William said, holding out a small leather sack that jingled.
“What I saved over the last few years, five pounds six. I don’t see any use for it there, since they provide all.”
“No, you’ll need it. You’ve given much to the family and you’ll never be wealthy if you continue giving away your sterling.”
“I’m not looking for wealth. I’m looking for a life where I’m my own man, where I own land and work for myself.”
His father swallowed and nodded. “And I’m more than certain you’ll find it.”
After William reluctantly pushed the sack back into his pocket, they shook hands again, both struggling to fight back tears.
“ALL ABOARD WHO’S COMIN’ ABOARD!”
An icy chill went through William when he looked across the pier at those heading toward the Colonist, some carrying stuffed sacks slung over their shoulders while others were balancing small crates on them. Realizing by their trousers that he had overdressed for the occasion, he turned to Oscar, who had been shocked silent. “This is it.”
“No! No, it’s not! You’re not going through with it, Willy! You don’t have to!”
“It is, and I am, and I’ll write as often as I’m able.”
“Then I’ll never see a letter because you can’t write,” Oscar said while not understanding how it was possible that he could be sad, angry, and even frightened at the same time.
William forced a poor smile, one where his eyes contradicted it. “Perhaps I’ll learn between here and there, and if I can’t, I-I’ll find someone who can.”
Staring at his older brother for a moment, Oscar spat on his trembling hand and offered it out. “Then swear it. Swear you’ll write…and swear you’ll send for me when you’re free from your contract.”
Having never thought about sending for him and at that moment believing it possible, William spat on his hand before shaking his brother’s. “I-I swear on it. I swear on both. I swear I’ll write and swear I’ll send for you.”
“Good. I’ll be expecting a letter soon and an invitation in seven years. That’s if I don’t take a contract myself before then,” the younger brother said, hoping to fight back his tears until after William left. “You should go. You…you don’t want to miss your ship.”
“True,” William nodded. “But you have to return my hand.”
After Oscar forced himself to release it, William wiped his hand on his breeches, picked up his stuffed flour sack, flung it over his shoulder, and said, “I’ll write…I’ll find someone to write the words for me after I’m settled.”
With wet eyes, no one said a word as they watched him cross the pier and walk toward the ship, consciously moving each of his reluctant legs.
“DON’T FORGET MY HORSEY…AND DON’T TELL FATHER!” his little sister yelled to him, before looking up at her mother looking down at her with a slight grin. “What?”
“ALL ABOARD WHO’S COMIN’ ABOARD!”
As his family continued watching William walk out of their lives, none noticed Oscar quietly release his tears as he walked off to mix in with those moving along the walkway toward the Colonist. Not able to take his wet eyes from his brother on the other side of the pier, he stepped into an alley across from the ship and watched him join the line of men ascending the gangway. On the deck, William presented his paper to a heavyset bearded sailor, and after the man examined it and handed it back, he disappeared into the ship.
In the dim and dank passengers’ quarters two levels down, William stood near several tight rows of bunks, each bed wide enough for two people. Across from the bunks were two long tables with built-in benches. Beyond that, there was what looked like a kitchen, and beyond that, sacks taking up one half of the floor and stacked to the ceiling, and taking up the other half of the floor were barrels lying on their sides, piled three high and held in place by ropes stretched from small iron hoops in the floor to others in the ceiling.
Walking over to the first bunk in the first row where a man about ten years older was unfolding a coarse sheet, he asked, “Would you know where they have the private quarters?”
“Told ya that too, did they?” the man asked without stopping what he was doing. “Me and me mate there were told the same thing, the same lie. Treated like royalty, my arse! If I was ya, I’d be grabbin’ a bunk quick like and prayin’ ya don’t have a bedmate…and prayin’ too that that was their only lie.”
“Many thanks,” a confused William said as he stepped to the side so a man could pass.
Finding it difficult to believe the kindly agent had lied to him, he decided to wait for the last of the passengers to board and then choose his bedmate from among them, but then a few seconds later it occurred to him that by waiting he might have to choose from the best of the worst bedmates, and he made his way to a bunk at the far end of the last row.
Virginia, May 17, 1715
Standing at a closed battened door while holding in one hand a wooden tray of only an empty pewter bowl and a spoon, she adjusted the clean smock covering her light-brown bodice and matching skirt, took a deep breath and slowly released it.
“Who?” a woman groaned in response to her knock.
“It’s Becky with Beth’s meal.”
Opening the door, she entered the room with its almost suffocating stench that she had yet to become accustomed to and couldn’t believe she ever would. “Good morning, Mistress Philpot.”
The twenty-five-year-old woman lying on the top sheet of a small bed stretched out her legs from under her stained nightgown and moaned as she struggled to sit up against the headboard, revealing her long, matted curly brown hair and her pale, blotchy face that made her look forty-five. Setting a two-foot-tall doll beside her, she rasped, “Girl, only minutes ago Beth was telling me how hungry she is. Just look at her shrinking to nothing.”
Becky nodded as she placed the tray on the child-sized desk standing beneath a small window. Pulling out its chair, she turned it to face the bed, and not yet prepared that morning to look at the sickly woman without releasing a tear, she looked at the doll. “Would you like to sit on my lap, Beth?”
“What’s that you say, sugar?” the older woman asked the doll. “You can answer for yourself…be timid if it pleases you, but you shall receive no sweets after!” Offering the doll to Becky, who took it as she would a child, the woman added, “Eat everything in your bowl, and perhaps I shall change my mind regarding those sweets.”
Becky sat on the chair, placed the doll on her lap, picked up the spoon from the tray, and after dipping it into the empty bowl, she placed it to the doll’s lips. “You’re hungry this morning, Beth.”
As Becky dipped the spoon into the bowl for the doll’s second mouthful, Mistress Philpot said, “Girl, do not tell Charles, but I had the most wonderful dream last night, the most wonderful yet. Beth and I were in Alnwick, and with the sea between Charles and us, we were free to do as we wished, free to wander the fields. We had cheese and bread on Percy’s hill, and Beth told her silly jokes and made her silly voices. ’Twas wonderful, simply wonderful. And afterward, we rolled down the hill as if in barrels. Is that how ’twas, Beth? Swallow before you speak!” she scolded the doll. Then, looking up at the ceiling, she closed her eyes and cracked a smile. “She laughed so loud I can still hear it. She’s not laughed such as that for a long time. Warmed my heart.”
Becky laid the spoon in the bowl and nodded, “It does sound wonderful.”
“’Twas. ’Twas wonderful,” the woman giggled with her eyes still closed.
“Perhaps you could take Beth to your village for a spell.”
Mistress Philpot opened her eyes and rasped, “Perhaps, but ’twould only happen after Charles passes. He would never allow us out of his sight for more than a day. Far too jealous.”
The woman’s response startled Becky who would’ve expected her to say she had booked a passage on the next ship, or planned to row herself there the next week, or even swim, but never that her husband wouldn’t allow it because of his jealousy.
Reaching into the pocket of her smock, she pulled out a handkerchief and wiped Beth’s mouth. “That’s a good girl, Beth. I hope your appetite is as strong tonight,” she said as she stood to return the doll to the woman, who gently cradled it in her arms.
“Becky, before you leave, would you grab a doll from the dresser?”
Being addressed by her first name while being politely asked to do something startled her again, and she couldn’t help but stare at the sickly woman.
“Well, girl, why do you wait?”
Becky bowed her head. “M-my apologies, Mistress.” Walking to the group of smaller dolls neatly organized on the dresser against the far wall, she asked, “Which would you like, Beth?” Picking one up, she turned to face the woman. “This one in a pink dress?”
“I concur, Beth,” the woman smiled at the doll, “The one in the yellow dress would be a pleasant change.”
Becky exchanged the doll for the one in yellow and handed it to the woman, who placed it between Beth’s wooden arms.
“Mistress Philpot, I’ll be back in a moment with your meal,” she said as she picked up the tray of clean dishes.
“Good, and make certain ’tis you! That speechless Negro shall not be feeding me!”
“Understood,” she replied, not needing the hundredth-something reminder but accepting it as part of their morning routine. After she fed the doll, the women would remind her that the room was off limits to the slaves, and after returning to feed her, she would bathe her, brush her hair, put her in a clean nightgown, and try to convince her to take a brief walk outside, which the woman always refused to do. If there wasn’t an accident to address, she wouldn’t see the woman again until the midday meal, when she would again feed the doll before her.
Leaving the room, Becky glanced through the hole in the seat of the wooden chair by the door. Expecting its bucket to need emptying, she was curious to find it didn’t and hoped the woman hadn’t relieved herself in the bed again, though there was no noticeable addition to the room’s constant stench, which she partly blamed on the fixed windowpane for blocking out the fresh air and raising the room’s temperature by intensifying the afternoon’s rays.