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If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?
As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen year old Isabel wages her own fight for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion.
She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.
From acclaimed author Laurie Halse Anderson comes this compelling, impeccably researched novel that shows the lengths we can go to cast off our chains, both physical and spiritual.
-- Petition for freedom from a group of slaves to Massachusetts Governor Thomas Gage, His Majesty's Council, and the House of Representntatives, 25 May 1774
The days started early in the Lockton kitchen. Since Becky lived in a boardinghouse on Oliver Street, it fell to me to wake first and build up the fire. She did the proper cooking, and I did near everything else, like washing pots and plates and beating eggs till my arms fell off for Madam's almond jumbles and plum cakes with icing. If not in the kitchen, I was removing colonies of spiders, polishing tables and chairs, or sweeping up a mountain of dust. I saved the cobwebs, twisting them around a rag and storing them by our pallet in the cellar.
Cobwebs were handy when a person had a bloody cut.
Madam complained every time she saw me: I left a streak of wax on the tabletop. I tracked in mud. I faced a china dog toward the door after I dusted it, which would cause the family's luck to run out. At the end of every scolding, I cast down my eyes and said, "Yes, Madam."
I kept careful track of her the same way as I used to mind the neighbor's bull when I took the milk cows out to pasture. She had not hit me again, but always seemed on the edge of it.
Mostly Madam slept late, wrote letters, and picked out melodies on a badly tuned spinet. A few times, she and her husband conversated fast and quiet about Mr. Washington and when the King's ships would arrive for the invasion. They argued fierce on Thursday night. Lockton shouted and called Madam rude names before storming out of the house, the front door crashing behind him.
Ivowed not to cross neither of them.
Madam went to bed early that night, so we did too. Ruth snuggled next to me and fell asleep quick. I lay awake, praying hard but gaining little comfort.
I was lost. I knew that we were in the cellar of a house on Wall Street, owned by the Locktons, in the city of New York, but it was like looking at a knot, knowing it was a knot, but not knowing how to untie it. I had no map for this life.
I lay awake and stared into the darkness.
Madam called for tea in her bedchamber the next morning and sent for Ruth, who was pumping the butter churn with vigor.
"Why would she need Ruth?" I asked as I wiped my sister's hands and face with a damp rag.
"Why does she do anything?" Becky asked. "I'm to climb to the attic to fetch the cast-off clothing in an old trunk. Maybe she'll set the little one to rip out the stitches so the dressmaker can use the fabric. This best be the last of the day's fanciful notions. My knees don't like all this upping and downing of the stairs."
Ruth stayed in Madam's chamber for hours. I spilled the fireplace ashes on the kitchen floor, then kicked over the bucket of wash water I brought in to clean up the mess. I stubbed my toe and near cut off my finger whilst peeling an old, tough turnip.
When I could stand it no more, I snuck out of the kitchen and tiptoed down the hall. I could hear the sound of Madam's voice from the bottom of the stairs, but not the words she was saying. I wanted to march up there and tell Ruth to come back and finish the butter.
I did not. I forced myself to work.
Becky took a tray of cookies and a pot of tea upstairs late in the afternoon. I pounced when she returned to the kitchen.
"Is Ruth well? Why does Madam keep her?"
Becky chose her words with care. "Madam has taken a liking to your Ruth, on account of her being so tiny and quiet." She sat at the kitchen table. "She means to use her for a personal maid."
"Most of Madam's friends have a slave to split wood and carry chamber pots, like you. If Madam has a slave dressed in finery, well that makes her more of a lady. Ruth can fan her when she's hot, or stir the fire when she's cold."
I forgot myself and sat down across from Becky. "She's making Ruth into a curiosity?"
Becky nodded. "Aye, that's a good word for it."
I went cold with anger, then hot, then cold again. It wasn't right. It wasn't right for one body to own another or pull strings to make them jump. Why was Madam allowed to hit me or to treat Ruth like a toy?
"Take care," Becky warned, pointing to my lap.
I looked down. My hands were clenched into fists so tight the cords that held my bones together could be seen. I released them.
Becky leaned across the table and spoke quiet. "I don't imagine you like this much. Can't say I blame you. But don't lose your head. Madam is not afraid to beat her slaves."
I rubbed my palms together. "Do they own more than us?"
"Half a dozen down to the Charleston place, none up in Boston. Never been to the Carolinas, so I don't know how they get along. But you need to calm yourself and heed what I am about to tell you."
"Yes, ma'am," I said stiffly.
"Two, three years ago, there was another girl here, slave like you. She talked back. Madam called her surly and took to beating her regular-like. One day she beat her with a fireplace poker."
"Did she die?"
"No, but her arm broke and didn't heal right. It withered and hung useless, so Madam sold her."
I could not hold the hot words in my mouth any longer. "She best not come after me with a poker. Or hurt Ruth."
Becky leaned back and studied on me a bit. "You ain't never going to say something like that again, not in my kitchen. I get paid decent here, and I won't let some girl like you get in the way of that. Wearing pretty dresses ain't going to hurt the little one, so wipe that look off your face and fetch me some more wood."
After that, Ruth's every waking moment was spent with Madam. Though we worked in the same house and slept under the same blanket, we had little time to talk. Ruth was permitted to sleep until the sun rose, went to bed when Madam retired, and rarely had to work in the kitchen or garden.
I lay awake every night, heart filled with dread, recalling the dangerous offer made by the boy in the floppy red hat.
Copyright © 2008 by Laurie Halse AndersonCHAPTER IXThursday, June 6, 1776...hundreds in this [New York] Colony are active against Us and such is the weakness of the Government, (if it can deserve the Name) that the Tories openly profess their Sentiments in Favour of the Enemy, and live unpunished.
-- Letter of William Tudor, Washington's chief legal officer, to John Adams
I was stuck on the back steps with a pile of dull knives and a whetstone. It was a dreary job. First, spit on the stone. Next, hold the knife at the proper angle and circle it against the stone; ten to the left, ten to the right, until the blade was sharp enough to slice through a joint of beef like it was warm butter.
As I sharpened, I imagined using the knife to cut through the ropes that tied us to New York. I'd slice through the ocean, and Ruth and me would walk on the sand all the way home. Ten circles to the left...
Ruth was abovestairs, standing by whilst Madam prepared herself for company. The master was locked in his library. Becky was somewhere in the crowd watching General Washington parade down Broadway with five regiments of soldiers. The sounds of beating drums and whistling fifes, and the cries of "Huzzah! Huzzah!" blew toward me over the rooftops.
I pushed everything out of my mind, save my task. Ten circles to the right...
Becky came back from the parade an hour later, overflowing with stories. She nattered on about the spectacle whilst assembling the tea things for Madam and Lady Seymour, who had come again to call. I pretended to listen. Truth be told, I didn't notice when she left carrying the tray.
Ten circles to the left, ten circles to the righty, all make the blade sharp and mighty. Ten circles to the left, ten to the right...
Becky called for me twice before I heard her proper. Her voice was high and tight. "...I said to hurry! You want to get me put on the street? Madam wants you in the parlor."
T he knife near slipped from my hands. "Is it Ruth?"
"No, the Lady Seymour wants to see you. And the master just arrived with gentlemen friends all calling for food and drink. Hurry!"
I washed up in the cold water bucket, quickly pinned on a clean apron, checked my kerchief was on proper and followed Becky to the parlor. She rapped lightly on the door and pushed it open. "The new girl, ma'am," she said, setting a plate of fresh-baked strawberry tarts on the table.
"Show her in," Madam said.
Becky waved at me to enter.
Madam and an older woman sat at the table, but my eyes were drawn behind them, to my sister, dressed up as Madam's pretty pet in a bleached linen shift, a navy-blue brocade short gown, and a full skirt patterned with lilacs. When she saw me, she clenched her hands together and bit her lower lip. Her eyes were red and swollen with crying.
My belly went funny and my mind raced. Why had she been crying? Was she sick? Scared? Did Madam hurt her?
Becky poked me gently in the back. This was not the time for questions.
I quickly dropped into a curtsy, bowing my head. When I stood up, the older woman, the lady aunt with all the money, gave me a shadow of a smile. She was smaller than Madam and wore a silk gown the color of a mourning dove and gray lace gloves. Her hair was curled high and powdered snow white. A necklace set with black stones shone from her neck. There were deep lines at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth, but I couldn't tell if they were from laughing or from crying.
She turned in her chair and looked at Ruth, then back at me. "And these two girls are the sisters?" she asked.
Madam reached for a tart. "That's what the man said."
The older woman sipped her tea. "What is your name, girl?" she asked me.
"Isabel, ma'am," I said. "Isabel Finch."
"Ridiculous name," Madam said. She opened her fan and waved it in front of her face. "You are called Sal Lockton now. It's more suitable."
I forced myself to breathe in slow and regular instead of telling her that my name was not her affair. "Yes, ma'am."
She glanced at my feet. "And you must wear your shoes. This is a house, not a barn."
Ruth stepped out of her corner. "Isabel."
Madam snapped the fan shut and rapped it against the edge of the table, startling us all. "What did I tell you about silence?" she said roughly.
Ruth raised one shaking finger to her mouth and said, "Shh."
"Precisely." Madam set the fan in her lap and reached for a piece of sugar with silver tongs. When she plopped it in the cup, the tea overflowed into the saucer.
Ruth stood there like a carved statue, her finger still held to her lips. I took another breath, slower than the first, and tried not to think on the newly sharpened knives on the kitchen steps. Lady Seymour curled her fingers around the teacup, her gaze marking first Madam, then Ruth, then me. She said nothing.
"Would you like Sal to serve you and Lady Seymour while I wait on the gentlemen?" Becky asked.
"Absolutely not. Show her the library and make sure the men are fed. And bring fresh tea. This has already gone cold."
We curtsied and left the parlor. Ruth's sad eyes followed me to the door.
Ten circles to the left, ten circles to the righty, all make the blade sharp and mighty.
Back in the kitchen, Becky took a large silver tray off a high shelf in the pantry. "Hold this." She loaded the tray with plates of cold sliced tongue, cheddar cheese, brown bread, and a bowl of pickles. I could not stop thinking about the way Ruth had jumped when Madam shouted, nor the tears in her eyes.
Becky took down a second tray and set upon it four goblets, two bottles of claret wine, and a crock of mustard. She swung the kettle back over the fire to heat up more water, picked up the tray with the wine, and said, "Hop to."
I followed her to the front of the house. "But, what about my shoes?"
"The master won't notice long as he gets his grub." Becky balanced the edge of the tray on her hip and knocked on the door on the right side of the front hall. When a deep voice answered, she opened it.
Lockton looked up as we entered. "Oh, good. Sustenance," he said, pushing aside a stack of newspapers to clear off the desk.
The room was the same size and shape as the parlor, but two of the walls had bookcases built into them. A large painting of horses jumping over a high hedge hung on the third wall. A thin layer of dust lay over everything. The front windows were open, bringing in fresh air and noise from the street; carts rolling over the cobblestones and church bells in the distance mingled with the voices of the four men who sat around the enormous desk.
One man looked poorer than the others; the cuffs of his coat were frayed and his hands were stained with ink. Next to him sat a man with suspicious gray eyes and a liver-colored coat with a double row of gold buttons fastened over a large pudding-belly. The third man wore something on his head that looked more like a dead possum than a wig, but his coat was crisp and new and the buckles on his shoes gleamed. The fourth was Master Lockton, looking like a cat who had just swallowed the last bite of a juicy mouse.
Becky set her tray on a sideboard. I held mine as she poured the wine and served the gentlemen. Then she had me hold the food tray so that she could serve the tongue and cheese. Talk halted as the men started in on their meal.
"Becky!" Madam called from across the hall.
"Go see to her," Lockton told Becky. "The girl can stay here. Does she know where the wine is?"
"Yes, sir," I said. Becky and Lockton both stared at me. I had spoken out of turn. My job was to be silent and follow orders. Ruth had already learned that. Shhhhhh...
"Keep the wine flowing and the plates full," Lockton said. "My friends eat more at my table than their own."
As Becky left, Goldbuttons drained his wine, then raised his goblet. I hurried to pour him another, and topped off the drinks of the other men. Lockton gave me a curt nod when I was finished. "Stand over there," he said, pointing to the corner where the two bookshelves met each other.
I gave a wordless curtsy and took my place.
The men dove back into their conversation. "Who has been arrested because of the oath?" demanded Lockton.
"Fools unschooled in the art of fence-sitting," said Goldbuttons.
"Plank-walking, you mean," said Inkstained.
Shabbywig leaned forward and pointed his finger at Inkstained. "Don't you turn the coward on us. Not when we're this close."
"Close?" argued Inkstained. "Do you see His Majesty's ships in the harbor? I don't. I might argue that England has fled and the rebel traitors have won."
"Lower your voices," Lockton said with a scowl. He closed the windows with a loud bang, then returned to his seat.
"His Majesty's ships are very close, closer than you know. This rebellion will be smashed like glass under a heavy boot, and the King will be very grateful for our assistance."
The mention of the King caught my ear. I studied the wide boards on the floor and listened with care.
Goldbuttons popped a piece of cheese into his mouth and talked as he chewed. "I sincerely hope you speak the truth, Elihu. These rebel committees are multiplying faster than rabbits in the spring. They've just about ground business to a halt."
"Have they interfered with you directly?" Lockton asked.
"Every waking moment," Goldbuttons said. "The latest bit of nonsense is a Committee to Detect Conspiracies. They've sent the hounds after us, old friend."
"Have you written to Parliament? They need the specifics of our difficulties."
"Parliament is as far away as the moon," complained Inkstained.
As the other men argued about Parliament and letters of protest and counterletters and counter-counterletters, Shabbywig stabbed at the last pieces of tongue on his plate and shoved them into his mouth. He turned in his seat to look at me, held up his plate, and grunted. If I had ever done such a thing, Momma would have switched my behind for having the manners of a pig. Even Miss Mary Finch had asked with a "please" and a "thank you" when Momma served her dinner.
This is New York, I reminded myself as I crossed the room and took the plate from his hand. The rules are different. I loaded his plate down with the last slices of tongue and set it in front of him before retreating to my corner. Everything is different.
My belly growled and grumbled in its cage. The smell of the tongue and mustard and the cheese filled the room and made my mouth water. I had eaten a bowl of corn mush at sunrise and only dumplings at midday. To distract the beast in my gullet, I tried to read the names of the books on the shelves without turning my head. My eyes were as starved for words as the rest of me was for dinner.
It was hard to read from the side like that. I wanted to pull down a book, open it proper, and gobble up page after page. I wanted to stare into the faces of these men and demand they take me home. I wanted to jump on the horse in the painting and fly over the hills. Most of all, I wanted to grab my sister by the hand and run as fast as we could until the cobblestones disappeared and there was dirt under our feet again.
"Girl," Lockton said. "Bring us more bread, sliced thin. And some of Becky's apricot jam. I've missed the taste of that."
I curtsied and hurried out of the room, leaving the door open a crack so I could easily open it when I came back with my hands full. Across the hall came the quiet conversation of Madam and Lady Seymour. I paused but heard no mention of Ruth.
There was fresh bread on the kitchen table, but it took a piece of time to find the crock of jam. I used one of my sharp knives to slice the loaf, set out the slices on a clean plate, and put the plate and jam on a tray. It was taking me too long to finish a simple chore. I feared the master would be angry with me, and I was angry at myself for being afraid.
I was just about to push open the library door with my foot when the master said, "Compliments of His Majesty, gentleman. There's enough money here to bribe half of the rebel army."
I stopped and peered through the crack.
Madam's linen chest, the one that she had fussed about when we arrived, was in the middle of the library floor, the top thrown open. Underskirts and shifts were heaped on the floor beside it. Lockton reached into the chest and pulled out two handfuls of paper currency.
"Huzzah!" said Inkstained as Goldbuttons let out a low whistle.
"Do you have a man ready?" Lockton asked.
"Two," Shabbywig answered. "One will operate out of Corby's Tavern, the other from the Highlander."
"Good." Lockton crossed back to his desk. I could no longer see him, but his words were clear. "Every man willing to switch sides is to be paid five guineas and two hundred acres of land. If he have a wife, an additional hundred acres. Each child of his blood garners another fifty."
"Makes me want to marry the next lady I clap eyes on," Goldbuttons said.
I gave the door a little push and it swung open. "Sir?" I asked in a hushed tone.
"Enter," Lockton said.
I walked in. The other men did not look my way. I was invisible to them until they needed something.
"Jam," he said with a smile. "Put it right here."
I placed the tray in front of him and took my place again in the corner. The men spread the jam on the bread and drank their wine, discussing politics and war and armies over the stacks of money on my master's desk. The smell of apricots filled the warm room. It put me in mind of the orchards down the road from Miss Mary's place.
I kept my face still as a plaster mask, but inside my brainpan, thoughts chased round and round. By the time the men rose to leave, I knew what I had to do.
Copyright © 2008 by Laurie Halse Anderson