Updated: Sep 28, 2020
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Chapter 1 (continued): I’m ladling out a scoop of beef and barley stew into the next bowl for Elizabeth or Garrett to take out as soon as they get back from their current trip. That’s when the kitchen door slams open with a force that has me screaming and dropping the dish in my hands. Steaming liquid splashes all over the bottom of my dress, though I don’t feel any of it thanks to my layers of petticoats underneath. But while I don’t get scalded, I’m not in the right frame of mind to be grateful for that bit of providence, too busy staring open-mouthed at the latest uninvited guest.
It’s a Hessian if I have ever seen one.
He looks nothing like I expected him to, starting with how he’s not tall, perhaps a mere three inches above my own height. The reports I’ve heard make the Hessians out to be brute beasts with all but flashing eyes and horns on their heads. And this one is on the slender side, on top of being short.
He’s wearing a blue woolen coat with a red collar, cuffs and lapels; a tannish vest and breeches of a similar color; and a bewilderingly high hat that slopes into a brass point at the top. For some reason, that last detail is the most alarming to my terrified brain, though not as much as his black mustache, which practically shines in the firelight from the hearth.
Standing there in my kitchen doorway, he doesn’t approach me. Saying nothing to quiet my nerves, he only regards me with utter disdain. Long after the moment passes, I am quite sure I can explain the thoughts running through his head based on his expression alone. If he could speak English, I’m certain he’d be saying something along the lines of, “Here’s another one of those ridiculous colonists shrieking for no good reason. No wonder they’re losing so miserably.”
In my defense, civilized folk don’t go barging into other people’s homes. And so my responding scream is loud enough, I’m sure, to hear from the next house down. I’m certain of it. My brother is at my side in short order, with Elizabeth on his heels.
Yet they’re somehow not quick enough.
Sergeant Slasen beats them both into the kitchen. What he’s doing outside, I don’t know. Perhaps using the outhouse. But he’s nevertheless the closest to me and the fastest. Which proves to be my household’s undoing.
He pushes past the Hessian with a commanding “Move aside!” before addressing me, one hand going so far as to press against my back. “Are you alright, Miss Carpenter?”
I suppose I must look like I’m about to faint, because his face is looming close to mine, his expression set in genuine concern. Of course, that has to be the moment Garrett barges in, looking very panicked. I don’t know how he manages to not notice the Hessian with his absurd and horrible hat, but he doesn’t nonetheless, seeing nothing other than me all but in the arms of one of our uninvited guests.
“Get away from my sister!” He shouts, grabbing onto the sergeant with one arm and cocking his other hand back in a menacing fist.
Since I can’t seem to speak past that first scream, I don’t get the chance to explain that Slasen was only trying to help. That he hadn’t been attacking me like Garrett is assuming.
My brother’s knuckles are already slamming into the officer’s face.
Elizabeth is pulling me away, and other people are streaming in, and it is one enormous mess of a scene. Men are shouting and two of them drag Garrett off of their friend, who is trying to explain what happened, ignoring his slightly split lip and reddened cheek.
Through my stupor, I somehow manage to recognize that Slasen will have quite the bruise in the morning. My brother, it appears, didn’t hold back. Which isn’t surprising. He never does.
It also isn’t surprising how poorly the situation progresses from there. It is exactly as I predicted. I can only be surprised that something else didn’t spark a fight sooner.
“Is this how you repay our hospitality?” Held fast by two redcoats, my brother is spitting, he’s so mad. “After forcing your presence on this house, you try to –”
“No!” Slasen interrupts, his voice raised in dismay. “Captain Sneeder, I would never! I heard Miss Carpenter scream; and when I ran into the kitchen, I thought she was going to faint. That’s all!”
I finally manage to pull myself together enough to try to say something intelligent. But Sneeder starts speaking before I get anything out.
“Take him to the College of New Jersey’s Nassau Hall. Parts of it, I’m told, are being used as a prison for dissenters and the like.”
“No!” This is all going wrong, and it’s all my fault. If I had only screamed a little more quietly at that dreadful Hessian’s ill-mannered entrance. “It was a misunderstanding. Please, Captain, I’m sure it won’t happen again!”
“Captain,” Elizabeth implores beside me. “I’m begging you to show some compassion. Surely you can understand why a brother would want to come to his younger sister’s aid?”
“Ma’am,” Sneeder says, regarding her over his beak of a nose with unflinching resolve. “With all due respect, I cannot understand nor tolerate the striking of an officer in His Majesty’s service. This action cannot go unpunished, if for nothing else than setting a poor standard.”
I start crying. I don’t want to cry, but I do nonetheless. I can’t help myself. It’s already been such a trying day, right from the very beginning when we heard the official news that Lord Cornwallis was indeed marching thousands of troops into town.
Elizabeth presses me into her shoulder like I’m one of the babies upstairs. “But, Captain.”
“Missus Carpenter, I will thank you to tend to your business and leave me to tend to mine.” And just like that, he whirls on his heel and walks out the door back whence he came.
The Hessian follows him, just as silent as before. I can see his long, long hair drawn into a tightly bound ponytail that drops all the way down to his waist. That detail, like his tall brass hat and mustache, is so foreign to me that I cry even harder.
With clear orders set out in front of them, the two redcoats restraining my brother drag him away. It is Ensign Matthews with his beady little eyes, and one of the other ones who won’t be staying with us. I don’t know his name, nor do I care.
Garrett struggles. He’s held his temper long enough today, and has no real reason to tone it down now when he’s already headed for prison. My one consolation in the whole mess is that at least it isn’t a regular prison. It’s a college building. And while some of our own troops didn’t take care of it the way they should have while they were there, it still shouldn’t be infested with rats and other vermin the way that Princeton’s regular lockup probably is.
This single reassurance isn’t enough to keep me from sobbing aplenty, altogether useless as I huddle on the wooden floor while Elizabeth is forced to finish serving the remaining officers their stew. Her face is very tight the whole time, and she very nearly loses her temper when Slasen stays behind a moment to offer his apologies yet again.
In his defense, he looks miserable for playing any part in the debacle.
In my defense, I’m not in any state of mind to care about his guilty conscience. The same seems to go for my normally mild-mannered sister-in-law. She doesn’t yell at him the way I know she wants to. I can see it on her face even through my tears. Instead, she tells him that he has done enough, and informs him she’ll have his supper out in a minute.
It’s as direct a dismissal as she dares in that moment, and he follows it like the order she means it to be. She might not have spoken the words “If you’re any kind of gentleman, you’ll leave us be;” but there is more than one way to express a sentiment, and she utilizes almost every other means possible.
I doubt King George himself could have couched a command so exquisitely.
Clearly, I can’t claim any such skills.
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