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Chapter 1: “Stay back, Abigail. I swear those bloody lobsters are everywhere,” Garrett snarls, looking out the sitting room window through the heavy, floral draperies at what I have to imagine are dozens upon dozens of British soldiers tramping past in their bright red coats.
Hence the reason behind the nickname, “lobsterbacks” or “lobsters.”
It isn’t the most polite language to use in front of a lady, but I don’t correct him for a whole host of reasons. Numbers one and two are that I’m not really a lady in his eyes. I’m his younger sister and therefore a completely different category of femininity altogether. Moreover, I’m a sister who has kept him from serving under General Washington for the last several months.
Never mind that our soldiers under that command are ill-equipped and downtrodden after being run out of New York and pushed through much of New Jersey. They should be in Trenton by now, about thirteen miles away. But everyone knows they’ll likely have to leave even that town soon enough if William Howe – general and commander in chief of Britain’s army here in America – keeps pressing his troops forward. Which everyone knows he will, thereby lending even more pain and misery to what our Continental Army has already endured.
It’s no wonder that so many of our men refused to re-sign their military contracts at the beginning of the month. I don’t condone their decision, but I do understand the reasons behind it. I can’t even completely condemn those soldiers who don’t have the luxury of leaving legally, so simply desert every day. They’re disheartened after losing so many times over so many months. Anyone would be.
Anyone but Garrett, that is. Still burning with patriotic fervor, he is desperate to be down there with our father and three older brothers, taking a stand to free New Jersey and our newly minted country, the United States of America.
A large part of me sympathizes with him here, since I wish I could be with them too.
All of that factors into my final decision not to chastise him for his word choice. The fact that it won’t do a lick of good, I’ll admit, crosses my mind as well. But the main reason I hold my tongue is because he’s right: There are redcoats everywhere. They’ve been encroaching on the Jersey countryside almost since they first arrived in this state on November nineteenth, when they captured Fort Lee. And they’re still going strong today, certainly much stronger than our ever-retreating forces can claim.
After taking over Hackensack, Newark and Brunswick, they’re now here in Princeton. Like the Biblical plague of locusts, they’re marching through our streets, devouring everything they can and then surging forward to claim the next location, wherever that might be. Worse yet, they’re sure to be with scores of those horrible Hessians, who I’m told dye their mustaches pitch black with the same concoction they use on their shoes.
Just thinking about the German mercenaries makes me shudder. I’ve heard the stories. Everyone in New Jersey has after so much of our lands have been plundered by their scouting parties and the troop deployments dispatched to collect supplies, starting with the very first day they stepped foot onto this state’s soil.
As if the British soldiers by themselves aren’t bad enough. They were too often insufferable before minutemen fired on them at Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts last year, thereby declaring war on the sovereign crown of England. But since then, they’ve gotten so much worse. Those “bloody lobsters” as my brother so disrespectfully deems them, have been wrapping their claws around everything they take a fancy to, from food to horses to ammunition to women.
In their eyes, we appear to be just as much a commodity as everything else.
That’s a despicable attitude to take toward any person, but it somehow seems worse when both sides considered the other to be countrymen barely five months ago. Today is December seventh, 1776, and it was only July fourth that the Second Continental Congress announced our secession from Great Britain. Before that, we were proud to be British citizens. All we wanted was our due rights as such: proper representation in Parliament, a fair tax system, and some acknowledgement of how very good we are at governing ourselves overall thanks to the great distance between us and the motherland. Give us that, and we would settle down as nice as you please, singing “God Save the King” and “Rule Britannia” all the way home.
At least I know I would have. There are a few people, Garrett included, who were itching to sever ties well before our colonial leaders banded together to declare independence. I guess that’s what happens when you live in a town filled with idealistic students who are, in turn, filled with revolutionary ideas.
The College of New Jersey is only three blocks away from us, which is very well for my father’s groceries and goods shop, but maybe not so much for my brother’s temperament. He’s always been the hotheaded member of our family of six.
At twenty-five, Richard is the strong, silent one. Jacob is the mathematics-savvy businessman who can manage the books like nobody else I know. Andrew is the wit; he can talk himself out of any scrape, and he very rarely fails to make me laugh no matter how bad of a mood I might be in. (I’m ashamed to say that I do have my bad moods more often than I’d like.)
And then there’s Garrett, who’s a mere fifteen months older than my seventeen years. He has the mind of a scholar and the temper of a rabid wolf. I love him, but it’s true. And right now, that disposition is scaring me almost as much as the thought of Hessians showing up on our doorstep.
Which is saying a lot. Because I am terrified of Hessians. They’re offensive on every single level.
I don’t know why it alarms me so much to know that King George III thinks it necessary to hire such despicable outsiders. He’s already made it very clear how little he thinks of us otherwise, so I suppose it makes sense for him to utilize such wicked measures. But I do find the decision particularly offensive nonetheless. They’re utter beasts by all accounts, running their bayonets through unarmed men who have already surrendered, chopping off heads and sticking them on pikes, and yes, treating women with the utmost contempt as well.
Complete savages, every one of them.
I smooth down my brown, woolen skirt with quaking hands. It’s not very cold out at all as of late. In fact, it’s unseasonably warm, and so we only have a small fire going in the sitting-room hearth. The physical temperature inside our home is quite comfortable, yet I feel I’m liable to start sweating underneath my petticoats and simple, brown bodice. My corset feels far too tight as well; and the hair along my exposed arms, from just below my elbows to my wrists, is standing on end.
Hot or cold, however, I hike up my neckline a little further. I’d rather be hot than showing too much skin when the enemy soldiers come storming through our door.
We know they will. There’s no question about it when they’re here to stay for as long as they like, and we have such a spacious house. My family has always been proud of our home, and what it says about us and our work ethic. But right now, I think I would much prefer far less roomy accommodations, if only because they would make for a far less attractive boarding option for presumptuous redcoats.
I wish so badly that we could have just left with my dearest friend, Ailish O’Doole, who took off yesterday when we first got word that the British were on the move yet again. She and her parents were some of the last patriotic citizens to leave since The College of New Jersey was shut down in sad anticipation of the inevitable. Most of the other two hundred families in town cleared off days or even weeks ago, heading wherever they could.
Ailish’s mother’s family lives outside Philadelphia, about a day and a half’s travel away. They should be arriving there right about now, even as their home here is being looted four blocks down on the Post Road, as I have to presume.
There is the very distinct sound of boots tromping outside our home, and then Garrett announces “they’re here” despite how unnecessary the comment is. His fists are clenched at his side, and his lanky self is rigid from head to toe.
Someone pounds on the front door.
I expect it, yet I still jump.
Beside me, Richard’s wife Elizabeth lets out a small squeak of alarm, then clamps both hands against her mouth like we can still somehow escape notice.
I brush my arm against hers in what is supposed to be a comforting gesture, though it does not a single bit of good. At least, I don’t feel comforted. And I’m quite sure neither is she.
Letting the curtain fall from his fingers, Garrett strides out of the sitting room. We women trail him nervously, stopping just shy of the hallway while he crosses to the door, throwing it open in challenge, not in greeting. As a result, a white-wigged officer in full, flashy kit stumbles inside, his arm still raised to knock a second time.
A pompous looking thing already, perhaps about twenty-two, it’s clear he doesn’t appreciate Garrett’s deliberate provocation. My eyes, already huge with apprehension, somehow manage to widen further. I want to say something calming to my brother, but I’ve already done so about forty times since we heard the news that the British were coming. It didn’t do any good then, and I have no doubt it will do any more good now.
The officer brushes past Garrett, purposely knocking shoulders with him so that Garrett has to take a step back. I trap a moan in the back of my throat, knowing that this isn’t going to end well when it’s already beginning so dreadfully.
Sure enough, another seven soldiers come tramping in, all in wigs and blood-red coats with their flared lapels in the back and rows of shiny buttons in the front. Their pants and undershirts are lily white, as I really hope their intentions are.
Judging by one of the officers barging in before me, I’m not going to place any bets on that wish. Not that I ever bet in the first place, but even I can see that the odds are not in my favor.
The redcoat in question isn’t very large. I’m just over five foot three, and I think he’s no more than six inches taller than me. By no means the most physically intimidating individual ever to wear the uniform. Nor is it like he features any disgusting scars or disfigurements that mark him as an immediate bounder and cad. His powdered wig is set just so, his tricorne hat tucked smartly under one arm, and his black boots shined from toe to knee.
But that’s all to be expected from an officer of His Majesty’s Royal Army. It’s his large blue eyes with their long fringe of lashes that make him stand out, alarming me above and beyond my initial forebodings. In truth, they’re upsetting all on their own, and they become even more so when they latch onto me, raking over my topmost brown curl down to the bottom of my altogether modest hemline. I don’t get the impression that he’s going to drag me up the stairs and ravish me right then and there, or even at all, but that doesn’t mean I appreciate the attention one bit.
Neither does my brother.
“Abigail. Elizabeth,” Garrett barks, backing up several steps closer to us in a territorial move.
We edge toward him as well. I usually take issue when he uses that tone with me. However, he isn’t going to hear a peep of protest in this situation.
Another officer, this one much taller with seemingly simple brown eyes and a giant nose that curves out beaklike from his face, gives the three of us a formal nod.
“I apologize about our rude entrance, but there’s no cause for alarm, I assure you.”
None of us Americans say a word in reply, though for varying reasons. Garrett is seething, I can tell. Elizabeth and I, on the other hand, are battling very different negative emotions.
“My name is Captain Andrew Sneeder,” he goes on. “And we’re in need of a place to stay for our time here in Prince Town. I’m sure you don’t have a problem with us utilizing your charming home?”
As nicely stated as it is, with no rifles pointed at us and no threats spoken, we Carpenters know very well it isn’t a request. The men in front of us will take over the place with or without our permission. It’s not like they and their countrymen haven’t tried to force colonists to house them during peacetime – another issue we’ve taken with the crown – so why would they hesitate to do so when we’re at war?
Her voice quavering, Elizabeth speaks up from behind Garrett. Knowing her youngest brother-in-law for the last six years, she is well acquainted with his habits and mannerisms. So she knows just as well as I that he was about to say something less than cordial. Or intelligent, for that matter.
“No, of course not.” She manages to speak with only a little tremor to her voice. “All I ask is that you gentlemen be mindful that my two young children live here as well.”
Those two precious darlings are the reason why we’re still in town in the first place. Little James had another bad bout of the croup yesterday into this afternoon, and none of us wanted to risk moving him in that condition.
“Of course we’ll keep the little ones in mind, ma’am,” Captain Sneeder assures smoothly. “How many rooms do you have available?”
“We have six all told, two of which we ask to keep for ourselves. My sister-in-law can stay with my children and me to make more space for you and your officers.”
I cast a quick, grateful glance at her. It isn’t like I want to give up my bedroom. Especially to some slimy redcoat like the blue-eyed one still staring at me from along the staircase, where he and his fellows have fanned out. Yet I know exactly what she’s doing all the same. Grouped together with little Rebekah and James, we’ll make a less attractive target for undesirable attention.
“I appreciate it, ma’am,” the captain says, like he has no idea that we have more than just his comfort in mind. “In that case, I, Lieutenant Robert Caverish, Ensign Christopher Matthews and Sergeant James Slasen will be staying here.”
My heart sinks further when the blue-eyed man nods at us, but mostly at me. I have the distinct urge to pull up my bodice once again. Beside him, Ensign Matthews and Sergeant Slasen incline their heads as well.
I have to say that the ensign looks entirely insipid, like he was meant to be a dandy and not a military man at all. He’s no doubt the second son of some moderate-level nobleman over in England who purchased him a commission because that’s the thing to do with second sons of lords and earls and whatnot. His face is shaped like an inverted egg, and his brown eyes are small in his face, radiating little but ignorance. It isn’t an attractive look on him, though at least it isn’t invasive.
Then there’s the much younger Sergeant Slasen, who I imagine is probably a decent gentleman when he isn’t shooting at freedom-minded men or commandeering solid citizens’ households. His hazel eyes are warm and friendly. And even if his nose is a little like one of those lions from Africa I saw drawings of just last week, I don’t think he will cause any more trouble than his very presence dictates.
I don’t care for him on principle alone, but I would much rather have him sleep in my room than his lieutenant.
“How soon can everything be ready?” Captain Sneeder asks in somewhat haughty tones.
My gaze wanders over his group once more, from the disconcerting blue-eyed man to the next redcoat and the next. We’ve already hidden all the valuables we could under loose boards in the kitchen pantry, and I usually do my best to keep a tidy house besides. Considering that Elizabeth has been staying with us ever since Richard enlisted, it’s been a much easier task, despite the fact that my typical house-help, Janey Lynn, took off to Williamsburg, Virginia, two weeks ago.
“We’ll need just half an hour to ready your rooms,” my sister-in-law states, her voice a little less unsteady now.
“And a warm meal?”
Garrett’s shoulders somehow manage to stiffen further. I can’t blame him. Housing the enemy is bad enough, but feeding them too? I can’t say I’d rather die than suffer the injury, but there are plenty of other activities I would much prefer. Even washing laundry sounds more desirable.
It hits me in the next instant that they will doubtlessly require us to handle that chore for them too. Unlike my brother’s, my posture slumps. I don’t mean to make the movement so obvious, but I can feel Sergeant Slasen regard me with what seems like genuine concern for delicate female sensibilities.
Somehow, I doubt that concern would go so far as to wave the duty for me and take it on himself. If I weren’t so despondent right now, that thought alone would have me in quite the snit.
Elizabeth is speaking over my unhappy thoughts. “We can handle that as well, of course.”
“Good. Good.” Another nod from Sneeder. “Much obliged. Missus?”
“Missus Carpenter, then. We won’t keep you any longer.”
In other words, we’re dismissed and should see to our assigned duties immediately. The three of us understand that, no matter how little we like it.
I suppose I should be grateful, at least, that Garrett has somehow managed to restrain himself overall. It isn’t like he’s been cordial by any means, but he hasn’t punched anyone in the nose or mouthed off badly enough to land himself in the pillory, as I feared. Much to my surprise, he even goes so far as to obey Captain Sneeder’s politely-couched command to help out with the horses.
Thanks to my family’s usually burgeoning business, we do have stables, even if those stables are now empty. My father and older brothers took our horses when they left, of course. For the cause.
At the time, I had been rather sad to say goodbye to my white-legged mare, Hightail. But I’d much rather have her out there with true patriots than being commandeered by the likes of Sneeder. Or Caverish.
I try to put both men out of my mind while I move my basic belongings from my room into Elizabeth’s, which used to be Richard’s. Though it’s little surprise when I fail spectacularly in that first goal.
Half an hour later, the horses are watered and fed, the beds are all made and the children are checked on. The twins are compliant little dears, and they aren’t making a sound now that the house is occupied. Garrett is helping us women in the kitchen, in large part because the sitting room is occupied with officers, who are lounging around with glasses of brandy they’ve hauled in from somewhere. Despite the mere four men we’re to house, all eight of them are staying for supper.
Presumptuous lobsters with their pretentious airs and irritating conversation.
When it comes to serving them, Elizabeth and Garrett both tell me in no uncertain terms to tend the remaining food while they bring the dishes out. Normally, we could just set platters out on the table and let any guests – welcome or otherwise – serve themselves, but I’m afraid we’ve lost some of our serving set to looters.
That happened when the Continental Army was stationed in Princeton, which was up through this morning, truth be told. Because of that, we had the good fortune to see my father and brothers again, who welcomed a number of other soldiers to sleep in the sitting room and such. Most of those individuals were perfectly respectful, including one Lieutenant Benjamin Tallmadge, whom I took a particular liking to. A native of Setauket, New York, and a graduate of Yale, he has the intellect of a scholar and the religious conviction of a clergyman, which makes sense considering that his father is a pastor. I found him to be quite entertaining, as he told me all about his time at college, where he participated in a number of theatrical productions. That much was delightfully scandalous, considering many people’s opinions that playacting is downright sinful. He did, however, take the time to ask me my opinion on the subject before he revealed any such details, and I told him that I thought it mere frivolity and not wicked at all.
But that friendship aside, there were some of his companions throughout the town who were quite rude and made off with property not of their owning. What in heaven’s name they should want with serving dishes, I don’t know. But we’re without such niceties nonetheless, meaning that we’re left to more closely serve Captain Sneeder and his men.
Or at least Garrett and Elizabeth are. I’m left in the kitchen.
This leaves me walking a straight line of about five yards between the six-foot hearth, where we have a large cauldron of stew bubbling, and the kitchen table that I use for meal preparations. I am genuinely not sure if I’ve been relegated to this space because I’m a single woman, or because they’re taking more specific issue with Caverish’s stares. Either way, coward that I am in this situation, I don’t protest too much.
Here’s the thing about cowards though: They usually run into some nastiness because of their weakness, either in this life or the next. It’s almost inevitable. So I don’t know why I’m so surprised when it doesn’t go well for me.
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