Chloe Helton | Historical Fiction

The Red Pearl: Chapter 12

Chapter 12

 

Four sharp knocks on the door. “Don’t worry,” Betty assured me, patting Sally’s back, “they’ll love you.”

My journal was stowed under my arm: If you still have that thing, Betty had told me, you should bring it, just in case. I didn’t know what she could mean by that, but I did as she bid me. I was a stranger here, after all.

The woman who answered the door was tall and thin, with spindly arms and a face of sharp lines. “Betty,” she said, taking a second to coo at the baby, “and you’re Lucy?”

I nodded, my journal pressed between my hands, nervous like a little girl.

“Welcome,” she said, and with that I entered into a world entirely new.

There were about a dozen women in the parlor, most dressed little better than me and Betty, but by the looks of this house, our hostess was quite well-off. I was instantly nervous; I didn’t know how to sip tea with my smallest finger up, or however the rich did it, and I knew I’d curse or misspeak and these women would turn up their noses and laugh at me, the wife of a pub owner, for daring to impose myself on them. But Betty was here, and she loved them dearly, and Betty had grown up the same as me. My friend walked close to me now, pointing me to a chair while she sat beside me. We sat, circled around a little tea-table, while the rest of the guests poured in. Clearly this was a familiar group; our hostess, Martha, greeted them all by name and the women around us chatted about intimate things, husbands and brothers and children, some of them with babies in their laps just like Betty.

Finally, Martha settled down with the rest of us, and I noticed most of the women who weren’t juggling infants were knitting or embroidering. Betty leaned over and, in a low tone, explained that many of these women had started making all of their families’ clothes, which meant spinning the cloth and sewing, all by themselves. That explained how these ladies, most of whom seemed like they belonged in the finest French imports, wore clothes that, now that I recognized the look, were clearly homespun.

“We have a new member,” Martha announced, first thing, gesturing to me. “Ladies, this is Lucy. Why don’t you introduce yourself?”

“Lucy Finch,” I said, saying my whole name as if I were proud of it, proud to be Jasper’s wife. “I - ah, I’ve lived in Boston all my life. I grew up with Betty, and we’ve supported the cause since we could remember. We knew people in the Tea Party, and we were at home that night, boiling vinegar and waiting for them to come home so we could clean them up. I have a brother in the army, too.”

I expected a barrage of questions, but they simply nodded and smiled and muttered a round of welcome, glad to have you, and so on. They offered me a drink - not tea or alcohol but something different, which I’d briefly heard of. Coffee.

“Like tea,” Betty said, “but instead of herbs, coffee beans.” It tasted bitter, even with sugar and milk, but I was no stranger to bitter drinks.

“It takes some getting used to,” a woman beside me confided. “I thought I could never give up tea. But rather this than a single sip more of a British drink.”

I was inclined to agree with that. God, Jasper would have my head if he knew I were here. I don’t want my wife turning radical, he would say, pretending that his pub was a neutral, peaceful place when lately it was anything but.

So we chatted for awhile, most of the women talking about the hard work of making everything at home, at least everything that couldn’t be bought domestically. Tea and sugar were taboo: instead, coffee with molasses and honey. And, of course, shaming women they knew who didn’t participate. “You think it’s bad when they talk about it,” Betty said, “but at the beginning of the war, anytime they saw a woman walking the streets in imported fashion they’d throw red paint on her.”

I imagined carrying red paint wherever I went, ready to toss it right down the bodice of women on the streets. But it would have worked, wouldn’t it? No use paying extravagant money for an imported dress when you couldn’t even wear it outside your home.

I had not oft considered this before, from the insulation of The Red Pearl, but the revolution wasn’t just a pastime: it was a way of life. These women breathed revolution; every waking moment, when not spent making goods to replace the British imports they refused to buy - and which, at this point, weren’t even available in Boston at all - was spent dreaming up the philosophies of it. When we were finally independent, would we have another king?

“Well, we’d have to be careful with that, wouldn’t we?” I said. “If we’re not vigilant in our new government, we’ll end up just like the English. The same old thing, but a different face. And if that’s how it turns out, then what’s all this fighting for?”

It was the first time I’d spoken since I introduced myself, and the women looked a bit surprised. Even Betty gave me a look, because I’d never said any of this to her. She knew that I wrote these things, though perhaps she didn’t know the extent of it, but I kept it to myself.

“Well,” another woman replied, “isn’t the point that we have our own? A king overseas is no true king to us, that’s why we need our own. If we can have a king who will seat us in his parliament, who will listen to us if we complain that the taxes are tyrannical, who we can drag out of his home and tar and feather him if he becomes a tyrant like King George, that’s all we ask for. A king of our own is a thousand times better than an English king who treats us as his slaves.”

“Sure,” I said, “but perhaps the nature of King George’s tyranny is not in that he’s a foreign king, but the simple fact that he’s a king at all.”

The women all gaped at me. Clearly they thought I was speaking nonsense, and maybe I was.

“Well,” another asked, “if you don’t want a king, then what do you suggest?”

I hesitated. “I don’t know.” But I did know; I’d written pages and pages about it. Thousands of years ago, before the empire, the Romans had elected consuls, who were in charge of the city for a year at a time and were voted in and out of office. Couldn’t we have the same? Nobody would rule forever, and if a man was too corrupt or incompetent he could simply be voted out. When I had written about it months ago, it seemed perfectly reasonable, but in front of all these puzzled women I hesitated to explain it. It had been a thousand years since any nation lived without a king, and in that case the Roman Republic hadn’t even lasted without dissolving into an empire.

I intended not to speak another word, but then I looked at Betty, who was so eager to hear me speak my mind that she was almost beaming. And I realized that, although I had kept it quiet for so many years, I actually had something to say. “I wrote an essay about it,” I said, flipping through the pages of my journal. “The Romans had a republic, did they not? They had consuls who were elected each year, meaning that no single man was in charge for too long. And because they were elected, not God-anointed, they had to please their people. They made sure everyone had grain and that the army was paid on time and the taxes were never too high or too unfair because they knew they could end up with a knife in their throat. And I was thinking, why can’t we have all that, too? Think how many of our brothers and fathers and friends have died on that battlefield to escape the wrath of one king - and what, just so we can fall right into the hands of another? There must be a better solution for us.”

The room was silent but for the sound of a baby babbling across the table. “You said you wrote an essay about this?” Martha said, and I nodded. “Could you read it to us?”

I stared at her, and then at the rest of the women. Some looked highly doubtful, but others tilted their heads just a bit like they were beginning to understand what I was saying.

I turned the first page and began to read. “The first thing to note is that America, if we become a country of our own, will not be like any other. Never before, in recent memory, has a colony dared to declare independence from its king, and thusly, never has a colony been forced to form its own government. The question we must ask, then, is what exactly we want from our new government, and how it should be different from that of the tyrannical English kings who ruled us for so many years.”

I read on and on, outlining my theories, explaining that we could have a sort of republic, something like the English parliament but not quite, something based on known structures but still entirely our own. When I was done, the women gaped at me, and I felt like a cockroach that had crawled in and disrupted their peaceful meeting.

Another woman - Sarah, her name was - cleared her throat. “My husband owns a publication,” she said. “The Patriot’s Gazette. If we’re cunning about it, I can get that article in the next edition.”

“Really?”

“Well, you’d have to use a male pseudonym, of course, and usually he doesn’t accept articles from new writers, but I could push yours to the top of the pile. If I ask him to publish it, he probably would, if he’s as intrigued by it as I am.”

“Intrigued?” I repeated. “So you don’t think it’s crazy?”

“Of course not. People write things like this all the time - why, he just published an article on the Roman Republic, actually. By someone a bit more learned in the subject, I’ll admit, but you’ve got theories as good as any of them.”

“That can’t be true. I just wrote this as a thought, I didn’t mean for anyone to read it -”

“Well, we’ve heard it,” Martha said, “and I, for one, think you should share it.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, my hands trembling as I closed the journal. I was no radical, and what would Jasper think if he discovered that I’d been writing for a paper called The Patriot’s Gazette?

Betty was grinning at me, and a wicked part of me didn’t even care what Jasper would think.

On the way out of the meeting, my friend elbowed me. “They loved you! And you must take Sarah’s offer.”

“I’m not sure about it.”

“What’s not to be sure of? It’ll be anonymous, so Jasper will never find out, and if they all think you’ve got something worthwhile to say, probably others will, too.” A little painful that she knew Jasper was one of my main detractors, especially because if I’d told her about Sam she’d be giving me a look, that look which she gave me less and less nowadays but very much when I was first married. You could have had something better, Lucy. You didn’t have to settle for this.

“I’ll think about it,” I repeated. I’d agreed to come with her to this meeting, finally, which was already more than she’d expected of me. And at that moment, I thought I would have to make excuses to all these women until the suggestion passed - in fact, I didn’t know if I’d even attend another meeting. That night, though, as I swept and poured drinks, I was thinking about my words leaping right off the pages of my journal, right under my husband’s nose, and landing in the hands of eager readers.

You’ve got theories as good as any of them, Sarah had said, and maybe she was right.