“I intend to visit 727 (New York) before long and think by the assistance of a 355 (lady) of my acquaintance, shall be able to outwit them all.”
-Samuel Culper, Sr., August 1779
Meg stared at the bayonet blade, now only inches from her breast, and felt beads of sweat form under her bonnet. She met the eyes of the bayonet wielder, the shorter of the two men—one could hardly call them “gentlemen,” though they were wearing the red waistcoat of the King’s army—before taking a step backward. She forced her voice to take on a demanding tone. “Sir?”
The short man narrowed his eyes. “Stealing apples, eh?”
Meg hid the hand holding the offending fruit behind her voluminous skirts. “I was going to give them to my horse.”
“Those apples belong to the British Army.” The short man stepped forward, narrowing the gap Meg tried to put between them.
“Sir, my father serves the King as well. Captain Moncrieffe.” She glanced across the channel to Staten Island. Her father was on that island now, too far away and too occupied with fighting the Patriots to come to her rescue.
“Haven’t heard of him.” The short man straightened his arm, aligning the bayonet with Meg’s eyes.
Her heartbeat, already at a canter, quickened even more. The other soldier stepped closer to peer into her face. He flicked his hand out, forcing her bonnet back before he pushed his partner’s musket away. “Leave her alone. Can’t you see she’s a child?”
Her hand tightened on the apple as she refrained from stating her customary reply: that she was no longer a child.
The bayonet wielder seemed inclined to agree with her. “She’s old enough to provide me some relief.”
Panic rose again in her chest. She had heard of women being raped during this infernal war, but usually by the rebel army, not her own countrymen. Thankfully the other man replied, “Save yourself for the whores in York City. If her father is indeed a captain and gets word that one of his own spilled his seed in his daughter, you’d hang from that same apple tree.”
Meg took the deepest breath her stomacher would allow as the men left the orchard. Mrs. De Hart was right: this was no place for a woman, especially not one without a chaperone. She went into the house to fetch a sheet of paper and quill.
No man in the world had more of an attachment to King George than her father, but that created a difficult living situation for her in the midst of the revolution. Since Meg had returned from Europe, it seemed she found herself thrust upon Whig host after Whig host, all extolling the evilness of His Royal Highness.
She’d been with the Bankers in Elizabethtown and accompanied them when they departed for the countryside after the British Navy arrived in the Lower Bay. But Meg had soon grown tired of hearing Mrs. Banker’s list of complaints against the Crown and the army that served it, including Meg’s father himself. She’d fled the company of the Bankers while they were at church and rode out to the De Hart’s farm on the coast. The De Harts, like the Bankers, were patriot sympathizers, or Whigs, while Meg and her father were opposed to independence and known as Loyalists or Tories. Nonetheless, the De Harts had been friends with her late stepmother.
Mr. De Hart was reluctant to take her in at first, stating that, since her husband had been called away to help draft the state constitution and her youngest son had joined the Continental Army, she could offer Meg little protection. Mrs. De Hart eventually relented, herself frightened by the presence of the warships stationed across the bay, and the two of them had fallen into a peaceful routine, at least up until the scene earlier that morning.
Meg comprised a hasty message to her father, imploring him to find a safer place for her to reside, preferably with a family affiliated with their own cause.
A few days later, Mrs. De Hart and Meg were sewing in the living room when they heard a horse approaching. They exchanged looks of alarm as someone’s fist rapped on the front door.
Mrs. De Hart rose to open the door. “Yes?”
“I’m looking for a Miss Moncrieffe,” a gruff voice stated.
“For what purpose?”
“I am Major Aaron Burr, aide de camp for General Putnam. He has sent for Miss Moncrieffe on orders of Captain Moncrieffe.”
“Father got my letter!” Meg exclaimed as she walked to the door. Major Burr looked to be around 20 years old. His facial features were even and lean but for his cheeks, which still held a boyish roundness to them. He wore the navy blue uniform of the Patriots, his dark hair tucked under a tri-corner hat. His eyes, black as pitch, fixed on her as he bowed. “Miss Moncrieffe?”
Meg curtsied toward him in the manner she’d been taught at her Dublin boarding school and offered her hand. “Indeed.” His skin was softer than his appearance, bronzed by many months spent outdoors, would have avowed.
His hand freed of Meg’s, Major Burr put both arms behind his back and drew his legs together. “I am to convey you to General Putnam’s residence in York City.”
“York City!” Mrs. De Hart repeated. “With all of the British warships in the harbor?”
“I will make sure Miss Moncrieffe is safe at all times,” Major Burr replied.
Putnam was a rebel, but at least she would be under the protection of a general, Meg surmised. Her relief at being sent for was being quickly eclipsed by exhilaration at the possibility of riding alone with the handsome Major Burr. “Is it far to the city?”
“About ten miles. We must leave soon, my orders are to have you at the Putnam residence tonight.”
Mrs. De Hart beckoned him inside. “Let’s get you some food and drink while Meg packs her things.”
“I shan’t be long,” Meg promised as she hurried to the guest room. She had not brought much to the De Hart’s as she had not had much time to pack when they originally fled Elizabethtown. Most of her fine gowns were still at the Bankers’ house. Meg threw the only riding dress currently in her possession on the bed. It hadn’t been cleaned since she had last worn it and dust still covered the burnt orange fabric. She shook it out and sneezed. Despite its state of unwash, the close-fitting dress would both make riding easier and show off her womanly curves. She added an ostrich feather onto the matching bonnet and tucked her blond hair underneath it.
When Meg returned to the kitchen, she noticed Major Burr had removed both his sword and hat. He had fine hair, Meg noticed. Dark and thick, it curled underneath the blue ribbon that held it back in a queue. He rose upon seeing her. “Ready, Miss Moncrieffe?”
“Please, Major Burr, call me Meg.” The white edge of his forehead, previously hidden under his hat, spoke even more of long days in the sun.
His smile lit up his face, including those dark eyes. “If you would call me Aaron.”
“Aaron it is.” Meg turned her shoulders as she moved past him, offering him a glance at her décolletage. When she turned to get his reaction, she noticed the smile had left his face.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Why, Aaron, I am a woman of seventeen.”
“Not much of a woman,” he grunted, rising from the table.
“How old are you?”
“Just shy of 20.” He gave her a meaningful look before putting his hat on and tucking his sword back under his belt.
“That is not so much older than me.”
“Older in years, and in experience.” He picked up her valise from the doorstep and walked out the back door.
“Have you seen many battles?” Meg fell into step with him as they headed to the stables.
“I was with Benedict Arnold in Quebec.”
“I see.” Meg assumed he knew where her loyalties lay, her father being a British captain and all.
“Do you have a horse of your own?” Aaron asked.
“Yes. Father brought him over from England.”
“Is he as majestic as his master?”
“Of course.” Meg turned toward Aaron and batted her eyelashes. “And yours?”
“My horse was dispatched to me by General Washington himself.”
“Oh!” Meg exclaimed. “You are an important man.”
They reached the stables. Normally Salem wouldn’t let anyone else handle him, but Aaron gave off a calming air that seemed to charm her horse. He expertly saddled Salem and then led him to the side of the house where a brown steed was tied to the fencepost. Aaron handed Meg Salem’s lead as he mounted his own horse.
Mrs. De Hart came to give her a hug and Meg thanked her profusely for her kindness in taking her in. The elder lady waved from the front porch as they departed. Despite their differing viewpoints on the outcome of the war, Meg hoped that she would remain unharmed and that Mr. De Hart would soon return from Trenton.
“I actually came from Washington’s staff,” Aaron said casually after a few minutes of silence.
“You were under the direction of the leader of the Continental Army?” Despite herself, Meg was impressed.
“Indeed. But I resigned and began working for General Putnam a few weeks ago.”
“You didn’t like working for your Commander-in-Chief?”
Aaron shrugged. “Our Commander-in-Chief has little military training. He fought in the Indian wars, but has yet to win a great battle. And he’s a slave owner.”
“I suppose you have extensive military expertise.”
Aaron shot her a sly smile. “I did go to Princeton.” His gaze traveled from her boots up to the fichu that barely covered the bodice of her dress. “I suppose you are one of those English-educated girls, er, women.”
“I went to boarding school in Ireland,” Meg told him proudly. “And I was raised by General Gage until I was three.”
Aaron leaned over to spit onto the ground.
“One of my stepmothers was the sister of William Livingston, the governor of New Jersey, the other stepmother was the sister of John Jay,” Meg continued.
“All Whigs. Why did your father marry so many women whose families spoke out against the Crown?”
It was her turn to shrug.
“And yet your father espouses a futile cause in the king’s name,” he continued.
“The King is the anointed ruler.”
“He is not my anointed ruler.”
Aaron rounded his steed as they approached the checkpoint into the city. One of the men in charge stuck his fingers into his mouth and gave a loud whistle. Other men in blue uniforms quickly mounted their horses and fell into line behind them. “A cavalry charge?” Meg asked Aaron with a slight hint of mock to her tone.
“An escort,” he replied. This time Meg was the first to break eye contact as she felt her face heat up under Aaron’s searching gaze.
Another rider came beside Salem and Meg. “That is a fine horse you have, Miss.”
“Thank you.” Meg glanced over at him. His face bore smallpox scars, but it was still well-shaped. The epaulettes at his shoulders revealed that he was officer. He nodded back at her staring. “Captain Webb at your service, Miss.”
“Watch it, Webb.” Aaron called from the other side of Meg. “She’s only seventeen.”
Meg squeezed her legs, causing Salem’s pace to quicken, and glanced back at the rebel soldiers. Aaron held a tight smile, but Webb made no secret of the fact his eyes were fixed on her backside.
The York City at present had changed much from her youth. Meg was fourteen when she had returned from overseas. At that time, Father had been married to Catherine Livingston, daughter of the Whig judge. Meg hated her—she wore a permanent frown and, worse yet, was staunchly in favor of breaking from the King. Luckily Meg spent most of her time under the care of a governess, but she cannot say she was sorry when Catherine died a year after her arrival, leaving part of her immense family fortune with Meg’s father.
Back then Meg had been shocked at how many slaves wandered the broad streets, performing various tasks for their masters and dampening a vision that had otherwise been unmarred by the handsome residents and grand brick houses. York City had been bustling with trade and shipbuilding.
Now the harbor was occupied with war ships instead of whaling vessels. The wide expanse of Broadway, still bordered by mansions interspersed among the oak and hickory trees, seemed deserted. Aaron halted his horse at the corner of Reade Street in front of Number One Broadway, a grand two-story brick house with carved Palladian windows. “We’ve arrived.” Aaron dismounted, handing the reins to Webb as he came to stand by Salem. He pulled off his riding gloves and offered Meg his hand. She took it, trying to not reveal the swelling of emotion the simple contact had stirred in her. Despite her supposed youth, Meg was well acquainted with male attention and welcomed it for the most part, the British brutes in the garden notwithstanding. But Major Burr, with his distinguished record and handsome countenance, was at a level that Meg was unaccustomed to. Not to mention he fought for the other side.
Aaron, for his part, also seemed to be affected. His already weathered face grew even darker as he put his arm around Meg’s waist and helped her down.
They were greeted at the door by Mrs. Putnam, who exclaimed that they had arrived just in time for the evening meal. She had a wide, honest face and stocky figure. She introduced Meg to her daughters, Belle and Molly, both who appeared to be in their early 20s. They paused in their fussing over Meg as a large, rotund man with long gray hair entered the room. His face was as well-worn as the battle maps that hung from the walls. His uniform was ill-fitting, the buttons attempting to hold their own over his protruding belly on their last threads. Like his wife, there was a kindly air about him.
“General Putnam,” Meg approached him and reached for his hand, which he promptly grasped. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Nonsense,” he said, his voice lisping slightly over the s’s. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for your father. We fought on the same side during the Seven Years’ War. He is only my enemy on the battlefield. Privately, he can always command my services. And that of my family,” he said, dropping her hand as his wife stepped forward.
“Come, Miss Moncrieffe, let’s get you settled in your room before supper,” Mrs. Putnam said.
“Please call me Meg,” she told her.
“And I’m Dolly, not Mrs. Putnam.” She gestured toward her husband. “You can call him Old Put. Everyone else does.”
Old Put placed an arm around his handsome aide-de-camp’s shoulders. “Fancy a drink after your journey, old boy?”
“Yes sir,” Aaron replied, his gaze following Meg as Dolly led her up the stairs.
“The Commander of the British Army, General Howe, has left Virginia,” Elizabeth’s husband Jonathan told her as they sat down to dine.
Elizabeth motioned for their maid, Abigail, to serve her more stew. “What does that mean?”
Jonathan sighed and rubbed the graying whiskers on his chin before he answered. “It means he probably has his spyglass set on York Island, if he has any thought to him.”
“Why is that?”
He waved toward the window that looked onto the East River. “The ports. The fact that New York is in the middle of the country. If he closes down the harbor, the Continent will suffer greatly.”
“Thus the reason for the Yankees’ arrival.” Since the spring, the city had been filled with soldiers in a rainbow of neutral colors: brown, light gray, buff, and even green. “Food’s been hard enough to lay hold of without these New Englanders coming for it.” Elizabeth took another swallow of stew. She hadn’t had much of an appetite at this time during her other pregnancies, but for some reason she was perpetually hungry with this one.
“Hush, woman. Them New Englanders are the only chance we’ve got in this Loyalist city. York City didn’t come to the aid of Boston, yet here Boston comes to aid us. Makes a man think real hard about where his priorities lie.”
“Jonathan,” Elizabeth’s spoon clattered in the silver bowl. “You can’t possibly mean…”
“That’s right.” He plunked his wineglass down resolutely. “I’m thinking about joining the army.”
Fear began to rise in Elizabeth’s chest as she contemplated the next few months without Jonathan. She was nearly seven months pregnant. And then there were the other children to think of: Jonathan James, who was almost six, and Catherine, now four. Elizabeth turned her back to her husband while she fed the remaining scraps of bread to her hound dog and thought of a suitable reply. Her brother James had been killed last year during the Siege of Boston. Jonathan was an intensely religious man, and if Elizabeth brought up James’s death as an argument, Jonathan would simply tell her that if he were to die in battle, it would be due to God’s will. She swallowed back her next rebuttal—that Jonathan was too old. He was nearing fifty, which was how she convinced him not to join the Continental Army when the first shots had been fired at Lexington and Concord over a year ago. She decided to reason with him, a policy that she learned, after eight years of marriage, worked the most often. “Who will take care of the shop?”
“You must.” He gestured toward Abigail. “Abby will help with the children, right?”
As Abigail nodded, Elizabeth couldn’t stop her mouth from dropping open. Jonathan was of the mindset that women were not to be involved in financial affairs. It did not seem prudent for Elizabeth to remind him of the fact she had no idea of how the shop was run. “And you?”
“If I die, I will have died for a great cause rather than as a coward in my bed.”
Elizabeth wanted to say, “A coward that still could have provided for his family,” but she realized the futility of it. It had not been a marriage of love—Elizabeth’s father had arranged for his daughter to wed the wealthy merchant, Jonathan Burgin, on his deathbed. He wanted to assure that someone would look out for his oldest daughter—a girl of only just sixteen—after he had passed. But, despite her initial reluctance to marry him, admiration had grown out of trust and reliance.
Elizabeth wondered how she would survive without Jonathan. Ever since the war began, Jonathan had complained of a lack of customers at his store and that money grew tighter. She felt a swell of indignation: she had already lost her only brother due to this conflict and now she was being asked to sacrifice her husband as well?
Elizabeth marveled at the changes that overcame her native city as more Yankee troops arrived from Boston. Because the family quarters were located on the second floor above the Queen Street shop, they had a good view of the city below from both the east and west. The harbor, which had been practically deserted in the spring with the arrival of General Lee from England, now teemed with American soldiers. It seemed a company was always conducting drills outside their building, their fifes and drums audible long into the night.
After the British settled on nearby Staten Island, Jonathan had officially enlisted under General Woodhull and was ordered by the Committee of Safety to help garrison the East River beach. Jonathan would often come home exhausted and sunburned. Gone was his previous reticence to talk politics with his wife. He filled her in on what was happening outside, including a supposed plot by the Loyalists to kidnap General Washington which resulted in the hanging of a man in the gallows near Bowery Lane. Every day after that he had stories of Tory turncoats being tarred and feathered or dragged through the city while straddling a fence rail.
Confined to her apartments and the store below it, Elizabeth could still feel the tensions rise in the streets of York City. She was not opposed to war. She had read snippets of Jonathan’s copy of Common Sense, and agreed with most of what Thomas Paine had written, specifically that England, so far removed, had no right to govern America. But with the conflict building right outside her window, Elizabeth began to question whether it was worth her and her family’s lives.
The military occupation, thankfully, brought business to the shop. Jonathan owned a dry goods store that sold such necessities as stationery, tobacco, and tea (the local herbal kind as Jonathan had refused to sell Bohea after the Boston Tea Party), along with a few other various items like walking sticks, ribbon, and scraps of cloth. The first morning Elizabeth opened the shop, she was relieved to see Jonathan’s longtime friend Hercules Mulligan enter, ducking underneath the doorframe as he did so.
“Hello, Elizabeth,” he said warmly, taking both of her hands in his. Hercules’s palms, like the rest of his body, were massive. In addition to his height, he had a girth that could have been imposing; his manner, however, had always been most affable to Elizabeth. “How long until the baby comes?”
“About two months,” Elizabeth said, retreating back behind the counter. With her previous pregnancies, Elizabeth went into a self-imposed confinement at this stage, but the necessity of making money meant appearing in public with her swollen belly.
“I have to pick up some things.” The stocky Irish immigrant would have made a hardy soldier, but instead he owned the finest clothier shop in York City. “Do you have any sugar?”
Elizabeth glanced down at the ledger in front of her. “Sugar?”
Hercules set a few items down on the counter. “If you do, it would be in the back room.”
Elizabeth nodded and ducked underneath the curtain that led to the stockroom. There she was confronted with an endless sea of objects wrapped in brown packaging. The bell on the front door of the shop rang as Elizabeth fumbled with a packet similar in size and shape to what she imagined a bag of sugar would be.
“Never mind, Elizabeth,” Hercules called out.
As she reappeared in the front of the store, she noticed Hercules eyeing the new customer with disdain. The unfamiliar man wore a powdered wig and a well-cut suit. He had a long, crooked nose and shrewd blue eyes. “I’m looking for ink.”
“To print more of your treasonous lies, Rivington?” Hercules asked, a growl in his voice.
“Actually,” the man called Rivington turned to his accuser, “it’s for personal correspondence.” He faced Elizabeth. “I would like to purchase some ink.”
Elizabeth looked hopelessly at Hercules. He inclined his head toward a shelf on her left side. She grabbed a pair of inkwells and placed them on the counter.
“Three,” Rivington stated.
Elizabeth retrieved another before opening the ledger to a fresh page.
“I’m on credit here,” Rivington said.
“I hardly believe Jonathan would let you purchase on credit.” Hercules walked to stand at Rivington’s side. “Not with your Loyalist tendencies well-known.”
“They are so well-known because I have a readership that numbers in the thousands, which leads me to conclude that there are plenty of people still loyal to the King in this town, despite what you may see outside.” Rivington lifted his chin as a regiment of soldiers in green coats marched past the door. “Credit, then?” he asked Elizabeth.
She nodded in acquiescence, mainly because she had no idea what to charge him. “For now. I will speak with my husband later about settling your debts.” She was aware that Rivington ran the Royal Gazette, York Island’s most popular Tory rag. Once she’d seen one lying in the street, a headline about Washington’s supposed illegitimate children marching across its front page. Elizabeth noted, Rivington, 3 inkwells, in the ledger as the printer left the shop.
“How are your wife and daughters?” Elizabeth asked Hercules when she’d finished writing.
“Safe, thank you. They have gone to live with my mother in New Jersey.”
She took stock of the goods he had helped himself to as Hercules continued, “You ought to think of leaving the city, too. It’s getting very dangerous for women and children.”
Elizabeth closed the ledger. “I must look after the shop. If we leave, chances are it will be looted and everything we have will be lost.”
Hercules grabbed his purchases. “Challenging times we live in nowadays.”
“Indeed,” Elizabeth agreed as he walked out, the bell ringing behind him.
July 9th was yet another sweltering day in summer full of hot days. Elizabeth threw open the second-floor window, but no breeze rustled the trees. The west windows of the apartment showed ominous storm clouds approaching.
Jonathan appeared from the bedroom clad in his blue uniform. Since housing for the troops was scarce, his superior had allowed him to remain living in his own home, but every morning he rose to continue building the fortifications on Broad Street. Tonight he had been called to the Commons for the reading of a declaration from Congress.
Despite his age, Jonathan had taken on the manner of a giddy schoolboy. He twirled Johnny around the room, shouting, “Free men, my boy, we’re free men!” Johnny joined in his father’s giggling.
A blessed wind finally stirred the room, but with it came a clap of thunder. “Must you go out in this weather?” Elizabeth asked.
“I’ve been ordered by General Washington himself,” Jonathan said, setting Johnny on the couch and picking up his hat. He gave Elizabeth a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll probably be home quite late.” A bolt of lightning flashed as he left the apartment.
The storm finished as evening fell. The sudden silence previously occupied by thunder was soon permeated with shouting and drumming that continued all night. True to his word, Jonathan stumbled into the apartment, still slightly drunk, near dawn. He filled Elizabeth in on the words of what was being called The Declaration of Independence, an assertion that the American colonies were free from British rule.
“When the whole of the army in York cheered, we were louder than the storm overhead.” After it was read, Jonathan told her how he’d followed a group of men, led by Hercules Mulligan, down Broadway to the statue of King George that stood in a nearby park.
“I know it,” Elizabeth stated. “The one near all of the mansions.”
“Aye,” Jonathan agreed. “We then knocked down the statue and drew arms upon it, cutting off the metal head. It was almost as if we had pulled the King himself from his pedestal.”
“An act of treason,” Elizabeth murmured.
“It’s not treason in America,” Jonathan corrected her. “The metal will be melted down into bullets for our army. A fitting end, I should think.” He grabbed his wife’s hands in his. “Just imagine, Elizabeth, the glory that shall be our new nation once this war is over and we are forever freed from England’s grasp.”
Elizabeth nodded wearily before getting up to return to her bed.
“Robert!” Sarah Townsend exclaimed on catching sight of her youngest son striding up the path.
His father, Samuel Townsend, clasped Robert on the shoulder as he ascended the steps. Robert’s clothes, tattered in spots and clearly in need of a wash, were in stark contrast to Papa’s smart wardrobe, complete with his ever present gold-tipped cane. Papa’s blue eyes held an uncustomary look of worry as he asked Robert, “What has become of Staten Island?”
Robert shook his head. “Howe’s now got Hessians fighting for their cause. The Island is lost, the Bay nothing but a sea of British naval brigades. York Island is still ours, but likely not for long.”
Papa’s frown deepened as Robert peered at his mother and middle sister, Sally. Sally was aware that most other Quakers would have shooed the women away, claiming that this was “man’s business,” but Robert believed that war affected all of his family. Papa claimed to be one of the few townspeople of Oyster Bay who hadn’t taken a side, but Sally knew others whispered of Samuel Townsend’s rebel leanings.
“The Loyalists are informing on their Whig cousins.” Robert leaned back on the column of the narrow portico and folded his arms. “Men and their families are fleeing Long Island in droves, leaving behind their houses and farms.”
“Worldly goods,” Papa said. “Still, our Friends might do with a word of warning.”
Robert straightened. “Your cousin, George?”
Papa nodded. “Especially after that stunt he pulled in the spring.”
Sally glanced back and forth between her father and brother, trying to follow. She knew enough that Oyster Bay’s Committee of Safety, of which their relative George Townsend was a member, had arrested several of their neighbors a fortnight ago and accused them of being loyal to the King, and therefore anti-American.
Feeling suddenly smaller than her eighteen years, Sally slipped her hand into her father’s. “Papa, are you in any danger?” Everyone in town knew of Papa’s arrest during the French and Indian War years earlier when he had protested against the way the prisoners of war were treated. For his crimes, Papa was jailed for a few days and forced to pay a hefty fine.
He squeezed Sally’s hand before letting go to ruffle her copper curls. “Of course not, little Sally.” He turned back to Robert. “Probably John Kirk as well.”
As if to match the solemn mood that had descended upon them, the sky opened and a torrential rain began to fall. The four of them huddled closer underneath the portico that offered little protection as the rain blew sideways. Mother and Sally ran inside, leaving Papa and Robert to endure the soaking downpour.
Like many of their Oyster Bay neighbors, the Townsends owned slaves, but they were usually kept for outdoor work, such as caring for the livestock and helping with the harvest. The regular household duties fell to Mother and the Townsend girls, although Sally would much rather have been outside with the horses and chickens.
The night Robert returned, Audrey, the eldest Townsend sister, and Phoebe, the youngest, helped their mother prepare dinner while Sally set the table with earthenware plates. There was a time when the Townsend meals had been clamorous and full of entertainment—three of Sally’s brothers, with the exclusion of the reticent Robert, were boisterous and quick-witted, and spent their mealtimes exchanging jokes and laughing loudly. Visitors, either out-of-town patrons from Papa’s store or friends and family, often joined them as well. But now, with the war dividing the neighborhood into Tories and Whigs, guests were a rarity. The oldest Townsend son, Solomon, was currently away at sea and, Samuel Jr., Sally’s second oldest brother, had passed away a few years ago. There was plenty of room around the pinewood table in the kitchen, where Papa nowadays preferred his family to dine. The crackling of the fire didn’t much compensate for the solitude of these new family dinners.
Whenever any of Sally’s brothers were present, the dinner conversation characteristically turned to war. Tonight was no different. William, older than Robert by three years, asked his father what he thought of Congress’s Declaration of Independence.
Papa chewed and then swallowed before replying. “I think this has turned what some thought was a rebel skirmish into a real war for the new America, where one side struggles for the right to be free and the other for the right to oppress.”
Robert nodded. “I fully agree. And with that, I am ready to take up arms for our new country.”
“No, Robert.” Papa reached for his son’s hand. “You cannot. You know as well as I do of the strict pacifism we adhere to as Quakers.”
Robert pulled his hand back. “But Papa, as Paine wrote, we must follow our own Inner Light.”
Sally glanced at William, whose face looked blank. Papa had given both William and Robert a copy of Common Sense, the pamphlet advocating independence written by fellow Quaker Thomas Paine. Sally had been curious as to what part had gotten the residents in Oyster Bay so divided. She had snuck into William’s room one night and grabbed it, intending on returning it as soon as he noticed it was missing. It had been several months and she had read the now dog-eared copy front to back at least six times. Each time she read it, she became more in favor of America eschewing the monarchy and becoming its own republic. Sally knew—and William clearly didn’t—that Robert was referring to the part where Paine urged his readers to follow their own conscience.