Copyright © 2015 Karen Kay
All rights reserved
Albany, New York
Gasping, Marisa Jameson awoke suddenly. Sitting up, she coughed, breathing in swiftly and wheezing as she dislodged whatever it was that seemed intent on choking her.
With eyes wide, she wondered if it were only this that had disturbed her sleep. Or was it something else? A dream perhaps? She searched her memory. She couldn’t remember.
Sighing, she reached for the cup of milk resting atop her nightstand. As she clasped her hand around what should have been a cup, it met with nothing but air. She frowned, then lifted her brows.
Oh, yes, she recalled it now. She had asked Sarah to take the distasteful milk back to the kitchen, and good riddance to it. It had been sour, something Marisa could barely tolerate.
Throwing back the coverlets of the finest wool and cotton, she sat up. Casting her legs over the side of the four-poster bed, she plunged her feet into the slippers that had been positioned there especially for her.
As she stood, the soft beaver felt that lined the slippers warmed her feet. But she took little notice of the convenience, since such luxuries surrounded her.
After grabbing her sleeping jacket, she pulled the linen material over her chemise and padded toward the pitcher of water Sarah was certain to have set on the nightstand. Not bothering to pour the liquid into a cup, Marisa took a sip of the water from the ladle.
That was when she heard them. Footsteps and hushed voices. Outside her door.
Her heart skipped a beat, and her head came up. Was she in danger?
She held her breath.
No, thank God. The footsteps were fading into nothing. The creaking of a door being opened and closed at the end of the corridor announced that whoever was out there had no intention of disturbing her.
But it was odd. It was the middle of the night. Could her step-uncle, John Rathburn, be entertaining at this hour? Or was it Governor Shirley?
Perhaps it was Shirley, since the governor had made the Rathburn house the center of his command. Was the governor liaising with someone at this hour? With an officer of the militia perhaps?
Marisa drew out a long breath. War. What could be more inconvenient?
She frowned as a thought crossed her mind. It was doubtful that whoever had disturbed her was the governor, since his quarters, which were situated alongside her step-uncle’s, were stationed in the west wing of the Rathburn residence. Marisa’s rooms, on the other hand, were located in the east wing, far away from the governor or any other male member of the household.
Then who was it? What was it? She had not imagined those footsteps. Or had she?
Marisa stirred uneasily. She supposed she would have to be the one to discover if it were phantom or human being that had passed by her door. Otherwise she would worry over the possibilities the night through.
If only Sarah’s rooms were situated closer to her own.
Again Marisa sighed. Because there was a chill in the house at this time of year, Marisa opened her chest of drawers and grabbed hold of a dressing gown. After shoving her arms through its long sleeves, she tied the ribbons, which held the robe in place, around her neck in front.
Her hand reached for the candlestick holder. But halfway to it, she hesitated.
No. That wasn’t wise. If there was a clandestine meeting occurring within this wing of her home, a light—any light—would only serve to announce her approach. Besides, she could see well enough without a stream of light, since her eyes were already accustomed to the dark.
Slowly, she pulled open the door to her chamber and tiptoed into the corridor. She turned to her right, since it seemed the footsteps had faded in that direction. Cautiously she swept forward.
Farther along the corridor she saw it at last, a shaft of illumination quivering beneath the doorjamb of the farthest room in the east wing. Barely daring to breathe, she stole toward that door, plodding one careful footfall after another, until she had come so close she could hear the muffled voices in the room beyond.
Pressing her ear to the door, she recognized her step-uncle’s voice at once. “Ye will be required to dress as the Indians do,” he was saying. “Are there those amongst ye willing to shave their head so they might resemble the Indians more closely?”
“Aye, Gov’nor. For what you be paying them, this be no problem. No problem a’tall.”
Marisa couldn’t place the ownership of that low and gravelly voice. She drew in more closely to the door.
It was her step-uncle speaking once more. “The town is just across the Pennsylvania border. ’Tis a Dutch village, which ye will find…right here.”
The men paused, and Marisa could only surmise that her step-uncle was pointing to a map.
“Over here, to the south and the west,” he continued, “are the tobacco fields, which should be barren at this time of year. They had a good crop this year.” There was the sound of the map being rolled together. “Now here be the plans: Ye are to set the entire area to flame, do ye understand? Nothing is to be spared. Town and fields are to be burned so that nothing is left standing.”
“I understand, Gov’nor.” It was strange, because no emotion echoed in the unusually low voice, as though the man were being asked to do no more than walk the dog. “What I fail to grasp, beg pardon, is why?”
“’Tis not yer place to understand why I ask this of ye. Are ye not being paid enough to make the act worth yer while?”
“But I need tell the men something,” that low voice insisted. “If they are to destroy everythin’ there, there must be a reason.”
A long pause followed, then, “Very well,” said Rathburn. “If ye be insisting on telling them something, tell them that certain of the Dutch colony molested a young girl. That should set their sense of duty afire.”
“Aye, Gov’nor. That it should. But pardon, sir, is it the truth? Did someone from the colony molest a maiden?”
“Of course ’tis not true. But I’ll not be having ye force me to speak the truth to yer men.”
“But ye will tell me? The truth?”
“I will, provided I have yer word that it goes no farther than this room.” Rathburn paused.
“Ye have it.”
“Very well,” said Rathburn, and Marisa could easily envision her step-uncle’s self-satisfied smile. “Suffice it to say that the destruction of the Dutch homes and their fields will cause their loans to be called in, which the townspeople will be obliged to pay to me.”
“Aye, Gov’nor. But if all the Dutch land is destroyed, how will they pay ye what they owe ye?”
Rathburn laughed. “’Tis a problem, indeed.” Again Rathburn hesitated. “Perhaps the land will have to be confiscated as payment.”
“Ah. ’Tis a means by which to extend your influence?”
“Exactly,” agreed Rathburn. “Their fields will be ready to bear more tobacco within a year or perhaps two, and the Dutch will be obliged to work the fields, which will then belong to me.”
“Ah, now I understand.”
“Do ye? Do ye grasp it in full, then?”
“I believe so. Ye will own the land. The profit will be all yers.”
“And the people,” added Rathburn. “Don’t forget that the people and their labor will also be mine.”
“But they is white people, a free people. If ye own them, then… What you speak of is…it’s slavery, ain’t it, Gov’nor?”
“Perhaps. At least it will be so for five years.”
“The amount of time it will take the people to work off their obligation, I think.”
“Ah! I understand. ’Tis indentured servitude ye seek from them.”
“Yes. And the profits will be quite…shall we say, profitable?”
“Aye! That’s right smart, Gov’nor.”
The two men laughed.
On the other side of the door, Marisa frowned. Was there something innately intelligent about the destruction of others’ livelihood and property?
But perhaps she was too naive to understand it. Mayhap such deeds as this were commonplace amongst the wealthy, a means by which fortunes were made. But if this were so, did she approve?
It wasn’t as if she cared about people she didn’t even know. It was only that the scheme seemed to be pure trickery and stealth.
Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door, nearing her position. Marisa panicked.
She mustn’t be discovered.
Taking a quick step backward, Marisa spun on her heel and fled. Her escape required her ability to be as noiseless as possible, but as her nightgown swished out behind her and her slippers whispered over the hardwood floor, she doubted her success. Her white chemise and dressing gown billowed out in back of her, adding to her discomfort and causing her to feel much like a phantom.
It seemed to take forever to run the distance of the corridor, but at last her door loomed before her. It swung easily open, and she stepped into her room none too soon. Footsteps echoed in her wake, and Marisa leaned against the door, gasping, praying she hadn’t been seen.
The footsteps came closer and closer. Was it her imagination, or were they loud? As if her uncle and his guest, the unknown gentleman, had no care that they might awaken the single resident of this wing.
The two men paused outside her door, and Marisa’s heart stopped in reaction, then it suddenly raced headlong. She shut her eyes and prayed to the Lord that she should remain undiscovered.
Perhaps it was the prayer that did it. Though she could feel every beat of her pounding heart in her throat, nothing untoward happened. The footsteps wandered on past her door until her step-uncle and his bully were well out of earshot.
Still Marisa barely dared to breathe.
Alas, she felt riveted to where she stood and was leaning heavily against her door when it occurred to her that this entire episode couldn’t possibly be real. It simply could not be. How could her step-uncle be involved in a plan to destroy the lands and livelihood of an entire village? Worse, with further plans to enslave every soul within that village?
Marisa forced herself to breathe in deeply, then out again. But the calming effect of the action did not materialize. Far from being consoled by her late-night discovery, Marisa was alarmed.
What should she do with this knowledge? Should she perhaps seek out someone of authority?
Not likely. She had no proof of any wrongdoing, and since she was herself under the jurisdiction of her step-uncle, she could not legally give witness against him. Nor did she wish to do so.
Though John Rathburn might be an indifferent guardian, he was still her only relative, her parents having perished long ago during the journey here to America. Luckily, Marisa did not remember the particulars of that journey. After all, she had been little more than a babe.
One thing was certain. She couldn’t stand here the night through. After propping herself away from the solid oak of the door, she began to pace her room. What to do? Should she try to forget the entire episode? After all, what was a town of Dutch settlers to her? They were faceless people.
Besides, were the Colonies not at war at this very moment? Was it not true that lives were already being spent? In fact, no lives in that Pennsylvania town would be at risk…or would they?
Might they not try to save their property?
Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not kill. The commandments from the scripture streamed through her mind.
What to do? What to do?
As she treaded down the length of her room and back again, Marisa gradually drifted toward her bedside table, where the basin and pitcher of water still stood, placed there at the start of the evening by her own dear friend Sarah.
Sarah, her maid. Sarah, her friend. Sarah, who was more like a mother or a big sister to her. If anyone would know what to do, it was Sarah. Heaving a sigh of relief, Marisa felt better almost at once.
Feeling calmer, Marisa wondered if perhaps she might yet be able to find some sleep this night. In preparation, she removed her dressing gown, as well as her sleeping jacket, and laid them at the foot of her bed. Crawling between the covers, Marisa at last settled in, knowing that on the morrow she would tell Sarah about the entire episode.
But sleep was not to be the restful pleasure that she sought, for her dreams were far from pleasant. When Marisa awoke much too early the next morning, she discovered that her head, particularly at her temples, was pounding.
No amount of rubbing her forehead eased the headache, either, and at last arising and grabbing hold of her sleeping jacket, she went in search of Sarah.
Sarah Strong listened to the concerns of the young woman she had come to love as though she and her young charge were related by the bond of blood, rather than by mere friendship. Because Sarah was ten years Marisa’s senior, she could easily recall the day when the captain of the Wayflower, the ship that had carried Marisa’s family to the New World, had delivered Marisa to this very home.
Tragically Marisa had been the only one of her family to survive the hard and long journey to the New World. She’d had a father, a stepmother and an elder brother, Sarah recalled. However, none but Marisa had lived to tell of the journey, not that Marisa had ever talked of it. In truth, Marisa never mentioned the incident.
At the time, Marisa had been four years of age, and Sarah fourteen. That had been fourteen years ago now. It had been a difficult and troubling time, Sarah’s first year of servitude at the Rathburn estate. Because Sarah’s parents had acquired a debt to John Rathburn and had perished in a fire shortly thereafter, it had been Sarah’s fate to live to pay off her parents’ debt.
Six years more was all that remained of that obligation now. Six years and Sarah would be free of this house. But free to do what, she wondered?
She was twenty and eight now, too old to marry. By the time she earned her freedom from the Rathburn estate, she would be thirty and four, well past the age where a respectable man might ask for her hand, unless that man were a widower who had been forced to seek an older woman in marriage, that she might care for his children.
Sarah sighed. How different her life would have been had her parents never acquired their liability to John Rathburn. But now was not the time to bemoan her lot in life. She would endure this for the sake of her parents. In the meanwhile, the young woman Sarah regarded as fondly as if she and Miss Marisa were sisters was upset.
Sarah fixed a smile upon her countenance before saying, “There, there, it cannot be all that bad, can it?” She rose from the stool where she had been sitting to pace toward the bed where Marisa sat. Seating herself alongside Marisa, Sarah laid her hand atop her friend’s. “I am certain it cannot be as terrible as it might seem to you now.”
“I hope you’re right, dear Sarah. For ’tis bad. Very bad.”
Sarah nodded in understanding. “Then tell me about it. I will listen.”
Marisa exhaled and swallowed hard. “It happened in the middle of the night last evening. I was awakened by what I know not, but I heard footsteps outside my door, and I decided to investigate.”
“Yes?” Sarah encouraged. “And what did you find?”
Marisa fidgeted. “’Twas my step-uncle and a bully,” she began, and though she stumbled often in the telling of it, eventually Marisa related the entire incident to Sarah.
At the tale’s conclusion, Sarah hardly knew what to say. Words failed her, and all she found herself able to do was frown.
“What should I do?” Marisa asked.
Sarah’s frown deepened. “You say your uncle—”
“He is my step-uncle, Sarah dear, and you know as well as I that he cares nothing for me. He is obligated to raise me only because of my stepmother. But beyond that, there is nothing to tie us. My mother died while giving birth to me, and it is only through my stepmother that I am here at all. I am not related to John Rathburn by blood, and I am glad of it.”
“Yes, of course,” said Sarah.
Marisa nodded, then stared at Sarah. “Dear Sarah, tell me, what is your impression of these goings-on?”
Sarah hesitated. “What was it that your uncle said to this unidentified man?”
“My uncle gave the man leave to hire others, who were to be instructed to burn the fields and all the concerns of a Dutch town, which name I do not know. Nor do I have knowledge of where that town is located. Not exactly.”
“And you say these Dutch people are in debt to your step-uncle, and he means to lay title to their fields as well as to their livelihood?”
Sarah gulped. Despite herself, a sickness was already invading her soul, and she wondered if her breakfast would long remain where it was. “And your step-uncle means to bring the people in that town into servitude to him?”
It was too much. Sarah laid her free hand across her stomach, her fingers clutching at Marisa’s hand. The feeling of nausea could barely be ignored. At first, she bent over at the waist, trying to stave off the feeling, and removing her hand from Marisa’s, she placed it over her forehead.
“Sarah, are you all right?” Marisa’s face loomed largely in front of Sarah’s vision. “Sarah?”
“I am certain that I am all right. ’Tis only that I feel suddenly very ill. Would you excuse me that I might go to my bed?”
“Of course, but, Sarah, there is more that I—”
“Would you like to accompany me to my own room, then, where we might speak of this some more?”
“Of course. I am sorry you do not feel well.”
“It is nothing. Nevertheless, let us retire to my own quarters where, God willing, if you are interested, I will tell you a story of my own.”
Marisa frowned. “You have a tale you have never said to me?”
“But I thought we shared everything.”
“And so we do…mostly. But it has seemed so unnecessary to relate this tale to you, for it is not a pleasant one. But perhaps I have been wrong to withhold it from you all these years.” Another wave of nausea shook her physically, and beads of perspiration formed above her lip. “Excuse me, dear Marisa, but I fear I must obtain my own quarters at once, for I suddenly feel worse than I did only a few moments ago.”
“Yes,” said Marisa. “Yes. By all means, let us go there at once.”
Sarah rose to stand by the bed, but Marisa remained seated, and she said, “Has this story of yours anything to do with my step-uncle?”
“It does, for you know, I am here in servitude to your uncle—”
“He is my step-uncle. And you were saying?”
“The things that you have said to me are troubling—”
“I am sorry.”
“Don’t be. ’Tis only that this tale of yours is very similar to one I know all too well. The only reason I am here in your step-uncle’s employ is because my parents were indebted to him, and they perished in a fire, leaving only myself to recompense the debt.”
“But this is incredible. Then it would appear that my step-uncle has done this before?”
“Excuse me.” Sarah jumped away from the bed and fled across the room, arriving at the chamber pot with barely enough time to empty the contents of her stomach into it.
“Oh, Sarah, I am so sorry, I should not have bared my soul to you and told you what I have.”
“You most definitely should have,” said Sarah as soon as she was able. Straightening, she wiped her mouth upon her apron before rising to her feet. “’Tis only that—”
Just as quickly as she had stood up, she flopped down again, turning back toward the chamber pot as another bout of nausea swept over her. Once more she heaved, and the rest of what had been in her stomach took leave of her.
Glancing up toward Marisa, Sarah noted that her friend looked truly alarmed.
“Sarah,” said Marisa. “Come with me. I will escort you to your room, where I shall insist that you remain for the rest of the day.”
“No,” Sarah protested, “there is too much work to do.”
“I will hear no more about it. You are too sick to attend to your duties today.”
Sarah sighed. “A few hours of sleep might help me, perhaps.”
“I insist that you take the rest of the day for yourself.”
Sarah shrugged. “We shall see. At present, however, I do believe that I should like very much to take to my bed.”
“Then come with me. I will escort you. Was my step-uncle cruel to you?” asked Marisa, as she took Sarah’s hand into her own.
Sarah was reluctant to say anything.
“Sarah, was he cruel to you?”
“It was all so long ago, that…”
“He was, wasn’t he?”
Sarah didn’t reply, her silence making her answer evident. In due time, however, Sarah said, “For years I have lived in fear of John Rathburn, in fear that he might repeat…”
“That he might repeat what?”
Sarah couldn’t say more. It was beyond her to do so.
“Did he…take advantage of you?”
Sarah bit her lip.
“He did, didn’t he?”
Sarah turned away.
“You needn’t say it. I can tell from your expression that he has taken advantage of his position.”
“As many men do. Most men believe it is their right.”
“I suppose that’s true, but I still cannot champion the practice of demanding physical tribute from a maid.”
Sarah nodded. “If it makes you feel any better, I should tell you that once you came here, the practice ceased. Though I admit that the circumstance that brought you to this house was not a happy one, it is true that your being here has lent me much support.”
Marisa shook her head. “Sarah, I had no idea.”
“The worst of it happened long ago, at a time when you were much too young to know anything of it. But come, do not fret over my situation in life. What is more important is that your step-uncle is planning to do to others what he did to my parents.” Sarah’s voice caught. “To lose everything—home, livelihood, way of life…’tis enough to be the death of one. That one man should have leave to inflict such unhappiness upon so many…”
Marisa’s head came up, and her gaze seemed to center upon something in the distance. “You are right. ’Tis unbecoming of my step-uncle. Do you suppose we might be able to stop him?”
Sarah shook her head. “If there be a way, I do not know it.”
“Nor do I, dear Sarah. But there is one particular I cannot forget.”
“And that is…?”
“I shall confront him with this knowledge. Perhaps if he be made to understand that others are cognizant of his plans, he might restrain himself.”
Sarah breathed in noisily. “You mustn’t do so. Your uncle is capable of anything.” She placed her hand over Marisa’s. “Please promise me that you will not do this.”
Marisa hesitated before she said, “Perhaps you are right. But someone, somewhere has to say ‘no, ’tis not right’ to the man. Perhaps that someone is me.”
When Marisa said nothing more, Sarah shook her head. She had a bad feeling about this.