Regina Silsby’s Secret War
The Tea Party
Rachel Winslow stumbled on a cobblestone. Icy winds billowed through her cloak, almost hurling her headlong.
“Mind your step, Rachel,” said Abigail Sutton. “Stay with me in the lamp light.”
Rachel bent her back to the wind and wrestled the hood whipping about her face.
“Such a bitter night,” she said.
“At least the snows have stopped.”
Trees in the King’s Chapel cemetery writhed like tormented souls. The houses opposite were dark, their chimneys streaming ribbons of smoke. A black sky of boiling clouds rolled overhead.
“For pity’s sake,” Abigail said, her breath frosting on the wind. “Why are you stopping?”
“I think I have muddied my skirts,” Rachel said. She stooped to inspect the fabric blustering about her ankles.
“Get you home and look at them there,” Abigail said, “or you’ll lose your fingers to frostbite, and then you won’t be able to play the organ at Christmas Eve services.”
“Fetch your lantern here.”
“Are you mad? I’ll not go near that graveyard. You’ve heard the stories. Those wretched corpses will break through the soil and drag us to perdition with them.”
Rachel heaved a sigh that iced in front of her. She trudged to Abigail’s side.
“Why should we be any safer here in the street?” she said.
“A wicked place, that cemetery,” Abigail said, “especially tonight. Every demon in the colony will be cavorting there. ‘Tis a wonder they haven’t spied us already. Now come along.”
“Wait,” Rachel said, grabbing Abigail’s sleeve. “I haven’t yet seen my skirts.”
“I shan’t tarry here another moment. We’ll be carried off to our dooms.”
“I’m more fearful of tumbling into the gutter.”
Abigail eyed the snowy mounds lining the lane. Animal waste and the muddy wheels of a hundred wagons had reduced them to rutted, filthy mire. She shuddered.
“Let us be off,” she said. “One way or another we shall surely catch our deaths “
A bellow paralyzed the girls. From an alley lunged an enormous man, his shoulders wrapped in a ragged blanket. Feathers sprouted from his braided hair. The brute’s face was painted black, and with fierce eyes he glared at the girls. A tomahawk quivered in his fist.
Abigail screamed. She dropped the lantern and flung herself into Rachel’s arms. The Indian gazed quizzically at the girls, then scooped up Abigail’s lamp and returned it to her. Lace cuffs fluttered at his wrists.
“Home, ladies,” he said in impeccable English. “‘Tis not a night for young women to be wandering about. Off with you, now. Hurry on.”
Under his ragged cloak the Indian wore a waistcoat of rich brocade, with a watch chain draped across his belly. Silk stockings stretched from the knees of his breeches to a pair of leather shoes with silver buckles. He left the girls staring after him and tramped down the lane. From the alley at his back tumbled an avalanche of screaming savages. Painted warriors poured past the girls waving hatchets, clubs and staves.
“Good evening, ladies. Begging your pardon,” the Indians said as they hurried by. The warriors’ frayed shrouds hardly hid the fine woolen cloaks, linen ruffles and silk stockings worn beneath. Brass lanterns bobbed in gloved hands, and hobnailed shoes clattered on the cobbles.
“Peter Slater,” Rachel said, recognizing the ropemaker’s apprentice.
“Rachel,” he said, his white eyes popping from his blackened face. “What’s got you out and about this night? Come to join in our merriment, I suppose?”
“You don’t know? All Boston is turning out for it.”
“How do you come to be here?” she said. “Hasn’t Mr. Gray taken to locking you in your room?”
“Do you think I’ve learned nothing, being apprenticed to a ropemaker as I am? I knotted my bedding together and escaped through the window. Come along to Griffin’s Wharf with us. You come, too, Abigail.”
“Griffin’s Wharf?” Abigail said. “It is halfway across town.”
“‘Tis but a few streets,” he said. “You won’t want to miss this. The harbor’s to be a tea pot tonight.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” Rachel said, “as usual.”
“Not at all. You must come, Rachel. ‘Twill be a grand spectacle – something of an early Christmas present for King George.”
“Gracious, I shouldn’t want to miss that. What say you, Abigail? Let’s go see.”
“My father will be in fits. Yours, too, I daresay.”
“We’ll only be a minute. Come along.”
Peter grabbed Rachel’s wrist and dragged her into the mob.
“Rachel,” Abigail said, “don’t leave me all alone. Rachel!”
She gathered her skirts and ran after them.
“Unhand me, Peter,” Rachel said. “I can walk well enough by myself.”
“Hush, Rachel, no names.”
“Who’s to hear me in this bedlam? Peter, you are hurting me.”
“Make way, make way,” he said, wading through a cascade of savages spilling from the Hound’s Tooth Tavern. Others poured from the Old State House. The war parties traded cheers with tailored men and bonneted women bustling along the walkways. Children scampered down the streets tooting fifes and tapping drums. Even dogs loped about baying and barking. Overhead windows flung open, and sleepy inhabitants gazed down on the tumult swirling toward the waterfront.
At Griffin’s Wharf a great bonfire blazed. Stuffed effigies of soldiers and king’s agents dangled above the crowd. Men and boys were climbing the trees and hanging lanterns in the boughs.
“Citizens of Boston,” shouted a red-faced man with a woolen scarf bundled about his ears. “Countrymen! Read here of England’s latest assault on our liberties. One penny, one penny.”
He waved a pamphlet in Rachel’s face.
“One penny, lass,” he said. “Every household must see this. One penny, sir. One penny for an account of the king’s latest outrages against the American Colonies. I thank you, sir. One penny.”
Young men marched about the square singing and chanting verse.
“A wondrous sight,” Peter said above the din. “All Boston must be here.”
“This is madness,” Abigail said. “It is worse than a Pope’s Day celebration. Rachel, we shouldn’t be here.”
“We’ll be home soon enough. Peter, what is all this fuss about?”
“The tea ships,” he said, pointing along the wharf. “There’s the Dartmouth, and astern of her are the Beaver and the Eleanor. The Eleanor’s mine.”
“We’re going to empty them.”
“The Sons of Liberty, of course.”
“Upon my word,” Abigail said. “Are you one of that rabble?”
“Look there,” Peter said. A dour Indian chief was leading his war party aboard the Dartmouth.
“Stand aside,” the chief told the ship’s captain.
“I’ll not yield,” the captain said, “until I have your assurance that my crew will not be harmed.”
“No harm crew,” said the chief. “Only tea.”
The captain accepted his promise, and the chief ordered the ship’s crew detained on the quarter deck. Moments later Indian braves were swarming into the Dartmouth’s hold. With tomahawks they hacked the tea chests apart and dumped their canvas sacks over the rails. Cheers sounded along the wharf.
“Begging your pardon, Miss Rachel, Miss Abigail,” Peter said, “but I must pay my respects to the Eleanor. You’ll watch for me, won’t you?”
“Don’t be too long about it,” Rachel said. “My father shan’t look kindly on this.”
“He’ll never know you were here. As soon as I’ve done my duty I’ll see you both safely home.”
After a hasty bow he scrambled toward the wharf.
“He is mad,” Abigail said.
“And all Boston, apparently,” Rachel said. “Every gun in the Royal Navy is looking down on us.”
She gazed across the harbor, where a hundred British warships clogged the waterway. Two-deckers, frigates, sloops and transports huddled together beneath a forest of masts and spars. Cabin lights shimmered throughout the armada, and many decks were crowded with crewmen watching the commotion ashore.
“One shot would have this entire mob fleeing for their cellars,” she said. “I wonder why the fleet doesn’t do something.”
Her pulse quickened.
“Abigail,” she said. “Fort Hill.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Fort Hill and the South Battery are at our back. There must be six regiments of soldiers quartered there. They could easily trap us all in the square.”
“Oh, Rachel, ‘twill be another Boston Massacre. What shall we do? We could be arrested, or even killed.”
“Let us be gone at once.”
“But Peter…he promised to see us home.”
“He’ll be too long about his present chore, I expect. Come.”
She tugged Abigail through the crowd.
“Be on your guard,” Rachel said to everyone she passed. “Remember the soldiers at Fort Hill.”
“Let them come,” shouted a youth. “See if they have the stomach to join our tea party.”
“Bring on the redcoats,” said another. “We’ll show them who owns Boston town.”
“Tory,” a boy yelled. He hurled a rotten turnip that splattered on Rachel’s skirt. Other boys pelted her with stones and clumps of mud. A drunken man, his tri-cornered hat askew atop his head, grabbed her shoulders with grimy hands.
“You’re daft, lass,” he said through a toothless sneer. “What’s eighty or ninety lobster-backs against the whole of Boston?”
She winced at his odious breath and pried herself from his grip.
“Look at them run,” the boys said. “All girls are cowards.”
Together Rachel and Abigail fled beneath a hail of rock and rubbish. At Fish Street they paused to catch their breath.
“Lunatics,” Rachel said. “Stone and mud will be of little use against muskets.”
“Fie on those ruffians,” Abigail said. “Just look at my skirts. How shall I explain this to my mother?”
“My dress is hardly better. Follow me.”
The girls retraced their steps through the town. At each corner the crowds thinned, until at last the girls were walking empty lanes.
“What’s the time?” Abigail said. “We must be an hour past due.”
“Heavens,” Rachel said. In the halo of a street lamp appeared a cluster of grim figures. Their red coats were crossed by white straps, and tri-cornered caps of black crowned their heads. Muskets gleamed in the lamp light.
“Seal off that lane yonder,” said a sergeant. “Arrest anyone you see.”
“There’s a pretty pair,” the sergeant said. “Bring them here.”
“They are mere women,” said another, “not Sons of Liberty.”
“I’ll wager they’re in league with the scoundrels. Arrest them.”
Two soldiers tramped toward the girls, bayonets fixed to their muskets.
“Oh, mercy,” Abigail said. “We shall never be seen again.”
“Let us separate,” Rachel said. “They cannot chase the both of us.”
Abigail stood petrified.
“Your house is but a block from here,” Rachel said. “Go.”
A swat to Abigail’s rump sent her scooting into the darkness. Rachel fled in the opposite direction. Boots thumped on the pavement at her back. Both soldiers were chasing her.
“You, there,” one said. “Halt, in the name of the king.”
She dared not. If caught she would be pilloried, thrown into prison, or worse. Up the hill toward King’s Chapel she tumbled in a rush of billowing lace and linen. The soldiers were closing on her. How could she escape them, when every corner was brightened by a lantern?
She pushed through a picket gate and fled into the garden beyond. Moments later the soldiers were banging through the same entry, one man cursing as he stumbled over a barrow. By then she was past the carriage house and crossing the street beyond. In a cluster of elm trees she paused to gasp for breath.
“There,” said one soldier from across the lane. She fled through the trees to the far alley.
At last, her lungs ballooning and collapsing with each breath, she staggered against the iron fence of the King’s Chapel cemetery. Home and safety were just beyond, but the void separating her from them suddenly seemed ferocious. Was there any truth to the horrible tales people told, of skeletons and spirits grasping at ankles, trying to pull trespassers into their graves? All Boston whispered of hapless souls snared by the graveyard’s ghouls. Would she become their next victim?
On the other hand, only a raving madman would pursue her there. She lurched through the spiked gate and stumbled into the maze of tombstones. Clumps of snow littered the earth like fallen bodies. The trees above formed a cavern of ice and frost.
Frantically she trampled the graves. If she ran fast enough, she might elude any evil spirits lurking beneath the frozen sod.
“Please, Lord,” she prayed, “let not the demons awaken this night.”
Her toe struck a stone and she fell, banging her brow on a granite marker. Dazed, she lifted her face from a snow drift and discovered a carved skull and crossed-bones leering back at her. The iron gate creaked open. Her pursuers were entering the graveyard.
There was no place to hide. She struggled through a hedge toward a second gate at the back of the chapel. The bushes clawed her cloak from her shoulders. She abandoned the garment and hurled herself against the back gate. It was bolted shut.
“This way,” came a brusque voice. The soldiers were searching among the graves, prodding shrubs and mounds with their bayonets. Rachel cringed against the iron bars. A frigid blast pierced her dress, chilling her marrow. Her jaw began to vibrate.
“Halt,” the first soldier said. “Who goes there?”
He leveled his musket at a dark phantom lurking behind a tombstone. The stranger reeled and staggered as if in great agony.
“Speak,” the soldier said. “State your name.”
Into the shadows the trespasser wandered. He sank to the ground and cowered in a trembling heap. The soldiers advanced on him.
“Get up, I say,” the first soldier demanded. He prodded the quivering lump with his boot.
“Empty,” said the second soldier. “‘Tis merely her cloak.”
Rachel peered through the hedge and recognized her own cape tangled on a gravestone. The soldiers were stooping to inspect the garment.
“Where did she go?” said the first, glancing about. His companion wiped a layer of frost from the stone.
“Silsby,” he read from the granite. “Regina Silsby.”
“Look here,” said the first. “Fresh footprints. They stop at the grave.”
“There’s blood on the head stone,” his companion said. “And what’s this in the snow? It looks like a face.”
“So it is. A woman’s face.”
The two men stared at each other.
“‘Tis a ghost we’ve been chasing.”
“Or a devil straight from hell.”
Slowly they retreated from the grave. Dead leaves danced about them on a sudden gust of wind. The trees spilled sheets of snow that swirled through the cemetery like living things.
“‘Twas not to chase spirits I joined the king’s regiments,” said the first soldier.
A limb cracked. Icy shards rained on the men. The fractured branch groaned in the wind, then snapped off and plummeted to earth. With a yelp the soldiers leapt backward.
“Saints alive,” said the first. “We may have been killed.”
“I’ll not stay another minute in this foul place,” said the other. He turned to flee and tumbled backward.
“I’m caught,” he shrieked, “She’s grabbed me.”
His companion was already bounding toward the cemetery gate.
“Help,” the fallen soldier said. “Let me go.”
His terrified screams filled the graveyard. Finally he freed himself and hobbled away into the darkness, leaving behind his boot. The iron gate groaned on its hinges and banged shut.
Rachel peered across the deserted cemetery. Her cloak was still flapping in the breeze, pinned to the grave by the fallen limb. Cautiously she crept from her hiding place. Despite the chill her blouse was damp with sweat, and her heart was pounding against her ribs. Strands of hair slapped her cheeks. She brushed aside the tousled locks and read the tombstone’s inscription:
Here lies ye
departed this life
Nouem 15, 1742
None but ye heart
knows its sorrow
and none can
The poem’s last line was obscured by dead grass and patches of snow. Trembling, Rachel tugged free her cloak and threw it over her shoulders. The soldier’s boot lay where he had left it, wedged between a foot stone and a granite slab. She picked her way past the graves and returned to the front gate. Seeing no one in the street, she slipped past the iron bars and fled for the warm, yellow windows of home.
Copied with permission from Regina Silsby’s Secret War by Thomas J. Brodeur. © 2004, BJU Press. Unauthorized duplication prohibited. | journeyforth.com