All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
Trot Trot to Boston
The 1830s in America were like all times in America, a time of intense change. Steamboats were a new invention, Andrew Jackson was the president, trains were almost nonexistent, transcendentalism was all the rage in New England, most people knew Latin, the West was rapidly developing, a college named Oberlin for girls had opened in Ohio, and the slavery debate had become more vicious and divisive.
It was into this peculiar, exciting world that Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was born to an unusual family in 1832. Sarabeth Wheatly’s story is partly based off the life of Louisa May Alcott. Like Sarabeth, Louisa vowed to “make a battering-ram of my head and make my way through this rough and tumble world.” She said, “I have troubles, so I tell jolly tales,” and these tales in her books are the inspiration behind Trot, Trot, to Boston.
Like Sarabeth, Louisa had four sisters—one prim, one frail and sweet, and one spoiled and vain. Like Sarabeth, Louisa took whatever work was available to women at the time, which was not much. She went to work as a Civil War nurse and took in sewing and tutored children. Ultimately, it was her persistent fury to write that won the heart of Boston, and finally, the world.
Sarabeth Wheatly’s eyes flew open in the blackness. What was that sound? Crackling flames! Smoke singed her eyes. Shouts from the streets grew louder and more raucous.
“Mama!” she screamed. “Mama! Papa! Tess and Sal, wake up! The house is—”
Her mother flew past her, a wooden water-bucket in hand. Her lips were white. Beside her on their straw-tick mattresses, Tess and Sal, the twelve-year-old twins, leaped like white-nightgowned phantoms. Sarabeth grabbed her mother’s arms.
“It’s them again, isn’t it? Come for Papa? I’d like to kill them all!”
Her mother didn’t answer; they heard only the mob chanting outside their ramshackle, white-frame house.
“Down with the insurgents and shameless rebels—!”
“We have the right to our own property!”
“We’ll learn you to stop disturbing the peace in Boston!”
Disturbing the peace in Boston. Why, Lord? Sarabeth wondered. What had her Papa ever done to deserve this? True, he had stood in the Boston Common and shouted like a prophet that “All men are equal in the sight of God our Creator.” Still, why did they call him a liar from hell and a criminal? Didn’t they have two hairs of sense?
Walls crumbled and sparks shot like rockets. Broken planks fell from the roof, igniting the straw mattresses, making the rats run for their lives. Sarabeth and her mother and father flung water at their home, while Tess coughed on the smoke and Sal cried with anguish.
In a few desperate minutes, the Wheatly family home was no more—except for their Bible and a few trunks of clothes. They shivered and wondered where to turn next. Suddenly, a gunshot rang in the darkness and Sarabeth saw her father fall, clutching his chest.
“Papa,” Sarabeth whispered, sinking down beside him. “Oh, Papa, you’re bleeding hard!” She recklessly tore her apron in half to stuff into the wound.
“No use…leave me be. Sarabeth, keep your mother and sisters together. Make me proud…make me proud of my favorite girl. Do you understand? I’m sorry, but…but I have to go.” His voice trailed off, a question, like an unfinished song.
Tears ran down the soot on her face. It was June 1830, and fifteen-year-old Sarabeth Wheatly was fatherless.
This wasn’t the first time that the Wheatly house had burned. The first time was in 1816, the Year Without Summer, and they had lived on a farm called Green Acres in New Hampshire.
They had been a family of six, with four girls’ names in the family Bible—Annemary, Sarabeth, Teresa (Tess), and Sarah (Sal). Annemary was much older and did not figure into Sarabeth’s childhood memories, as she married a farmer named Joe and moved to western Kentucky in 1825.
“Mama, I’m hungwy!” Baby Sarabeth had cried, tugging her mother’s dress.
“Aren’t we all hungry? Will we ever stop being hungry?” muttered Mrs. Wheatly.
The onions and potatoes froze in the fields. The sky was a dull icy color, and snowflakes fluttered desolately. Winds crashed against the house and cracked every nail with rust. Winds threatened to rip the tarpaper covering their heads. Inside, their feet were swollen and eggplant-colored, their eyes hungry.
All the firewood burned in Mr. Wheatly’s study, where he tutored neighborhood children. Sarabeth wandered into the study and dozed before that fire. Her father’s talk made a pleasant soothing sound, even as he said long-winded and useless things and the students groaned. Curiously, she moved the fireplace poker and poked burning coals onto the rug. Pretty coals!
“Master Wheatly, that baby set the room afire!” shouted a pupil.
Sarabeth jumped, terrified at the sudden smoke and terrible heat. The family beat the flames with wet gunnysacks, to no avail. The Wheatly farmhouse had burned, and they were homeless.
“It is a fortunate thing,” said Mr. Wheatly, wiping soot from his face, “a fortunate thing indeed. We will walk to Pennsylvania to live with my good friend, Avram Dunker.”
Poor Mrs. Wheatly, who was so young and defeated, only sobbed into her handkerchief. Sarabeth felt awful and alone. She reached for her father’s hand, and he picked her up, comforting her, saying that it wasn’t her fault.
Sarabeth Wheatly was less than two, and she’d managed to burn her family’s house.
Years passed, and Sarabeth grew into a tall, willowy, mule-headed girl. While her sisters Annemary and Tess and Sal were docile and liked to play dolly tea-party, Sarabeth climbed trees and bowled hoops and jumped into ponds like the boys. She kept her mother frantically mending her ripped petticoats and stockings.
“You are no young lady,” her mother often scolded. “Heaven knows what will become of you!” Truly, Sarabeth wished to God she had been born a boy, but she had to content herself with playing brother to her little sisters.
How her little sisters loved her! She always thought up jolly games to play. They got up a theatrical society and a Pickwick Club and the Wheatly Family Post Office. They were savages and pirates. They set sail in the apple-trees.
Alone, Sarabeth loved nothing better than to spend hours in the hayloft, scribbling stories which she dreamed would make her famous. Famous. Being rich wouldn’t hurt, either. Then Mama wouldn’t have to take in laundry and scrub floors until her hands chapped raw. Papa wouldn’t have to keep moving around New England. She could wear silk ballgowns, and they’d live like kings and eat creampuffs for breakfast.
She sprang from the hayloft, petticoats flying, and got a duck-egg bump. She raced across the meadows like a young colt, hollering at the robins, gathering bundles of mayflowers and flinging them wildly. She raced along the river and rowed in a dory. She climbed a stately old maple into which Paul Revere had carved his initials; she ate green apples, and daydreamed. She made wishes on the old broken wishing-wheel. She lay on the cool grass and watched the summer clouds for hours.
“These happy days can never change,” she told her sisters.
Times did change, though. Her oldest sister, the prim and ladylike Annemary, left the family to get married and move West. After Annemary faded from their lives, words like bankruptcy and debtor’s prison were spoken in whispers. Adults’ faces turned pale and screwed with worry. Then there was the printing-press and the pamphlets which read GOD’S JUDGEMENT AGAINST OUR INSTITUTIONS, DECLARE FREEDOM THROUGHOUT THE LAND, and so on. Word got out that Mr. Daniel Wheatly and his wife Mollie were abolitionists, and his country schoolhouse closed. Nobody wanted their children taught by Mr. Wheatly. They had to move into the slums of Boston to escape notice.
There were dark boardinghouses. More hushed adult conversations. The Wheatly family practically lived on bread and vegetables. There were the strangers who stayed overnight with the Wheatly family, and whom the girls were never, ever allowed to speak of. They came silently with their faces disguised in shawls and slept on cots. When Mr. Wheatly gave thanks to God for their food, he always slipped in a prayer that the people in shawls would be protected on their perilous travels.
Sarabeth and her sisters left school to help take in sewing with their mother. She sewed until her eyes hurt too badly to write and her fingers bled. “Sewing is the most detestable invention,” she often griped.
Her mother rebuked her. “Many are far worse off than us, girls; you have Mama and Papa and each other. Let us carry our own loads and be grateful.”
Sarabeth loved walking about Boston, and she loved the place names: Beacon Hill! Frog Pond! Tremont Street! The streets were full of sidewhisker-ed and top-hat wearing gentlemen in streaming coats, fashionable ladies in huge sleeves and sweeping skirts. She loved the fishy smell of the sea and the hollering peddlers and the confusion. Boston was full of theaters, and Sarabeth loved nothing better than the theaters.
She borrowed books from an Irish boy named Willie McKanna, who smuggled them from a library, and she read poetry-volumes while she walked. Willie’s friendship was a delight, and he shared half his cold-boiled potato besides. Always, he popped out with his grin and measle-red hair and leaped away before she could say, “Thank you!” Next to theaters, poetry was best. “Thanatopsis,” especially, sent delicious chills down her spine.
When she walked and read poetry, Sarabeth could forget hunger and dirt and sewing. She could forget Papa’s abolitionism and the fugitives and Mama’s tired face. Boston was hers to enjoy, and none could take this dream-world away.
Often, when Sarabeth came home from her “tramps” about Boston, she found Tess mending a ragged coat that was still warm. She sewed a package of garlic and onions around the lining. “That will keep the bloodhounds far away from catching the poor creatures,” she said pityingly, wiping her red eyes.
Tess’s peaceful face was a magic lantern in the darkness of that Boston boardinghouse. Sarabeth never caught her complaining, but Sal hated sewing and housework even worse than Sarabeth. Sal’s temper was a trial to everyone. What she really wanted was to wear silk ballgowns and live in France and draw pictures, not to be a drudge and slave away at a broom and dust-mop like a pauper. Her blue eyes were smudgy with hurt, her pretty mouth sulky.
Tess and Sal both caught scarlet fever from a fugitive slave who hid at the Wheatly family’s house, and Sal was only moderately ill, but Tess nearly died, leaving her frail health a worry to them all. That winter was the hardest they’d seen yet. Even Mama’s hands shook, and her resolve weakened. Sarabeth had never seen her mother so disturbed.
“The good thing about trials, girls,” Mama said, “is that once you reach the worst of them, nothing can scare you or shake you.”
Then the worst thing happened in June. The mob with their torches came by the Wheatly’s house and burnt it to a crisp and shot Mr. Wheatly. All this was spinning, turning in Sarabeth’s mind…
“What will we do, Mama? What will we do?”
Tess pressed her silent face into her mother’s shawl, while Sal cried her pretty eyes out. What could they do, homeless women on this street-corner? What if the mob came back to kill them? Their Papa had always protected them before. Now they were like four walls without a roof.
The funeral had been yesterday. The Wheatly family’s charitable friends had arranged it as cheaply as possible, complete with wilted flowers and flimsy black dresses for the girls. Sarabeth cringed to think of that ceremony. Well, it was all over now—she didn’t have to remember.
“Children, children,” Mrs. Wheatly said, “you must be still and listen to me. We can stick together or survive—but not both.”
“We must stick together. I promised Papa we’d stick together,” Sarabeth protested, hot-faced.
“Don’t send Sarabeth away, whatever you do,” Tess pleaded. “I always feel strong when she is around, and she is so very good to me.”
“Don’t send us to the orphanage, Mama! Don’t!” blubbered Sal. Rain had started falling, and she looked like a rain-soaked, feather-ruffled canary.
“I thought this over a long while,” said Mama. “We may go to the poorhouse or the streets, if we do not put Sarabeth out to work.”
The determination in her voice made Sarabeth cold. “Where, Mama, where? Where are you taking us?”
Steel hardened on her mother’s face. She had always been such a strong woman, but now her husband was gone; she’d come to the end of her compassion, her motherliness. Like it or not, Sarabeth must go away. Tess was too frail and Sal too spoiled to lift a finger for money, but Sarabeth was always ready for trial. No one else in the Wheatly family could stand suffering, but she could. The Puritan, enduring spirit of her ancestors had been good to her.
“Sarabeth must go to Springview, to Aunt Barclay’s house. She will have to walk, with no money for the stagecoach. Dear Aunt Barclay will take her in, and she will be a servant.”
“God willing, we will all see each other soon,” cried Tess, kissing her sister goodbye. “God bless us, each and every one.”
Why? Sarabeth’s teenage heart cried, selfishly, unreasonably. Why is it always me who must look after the family? Papa, I promised you, but what good will my promise do? I will never go to school again, never be a writer. I cannot make you proud. I am so sorry, Papa…
When morning came, Sarabeth took her last dress and two dollars in a ragged carpetbag and started walking. Walking to Springview. Walking to Aunt Barclay’s house. Mama had put Tess and Sal into the Boston Female Orphan Asylum. She had gone to Beacon Hill to seek work from a rich family—changing her name, so that no one would know she was an abolitionists’ widow.
For an abolitionist was never safe, even after he was dead. The mob wanted Mr. Wheatly’s entire family dead, to erase his family name. Mrs. Wheatly’s only thanksgiving was that all the telltale abolitionist tracts had burned up, so nobody had any evidence to prove it against them. The police, for the most part, sided with the pro-slavery mobs, so they were no help. Still, she feared for Sarabeth talking to strangers who might have known her father. With Mr. Wheatly’s endless speeches, who didn’t know his name?
They could no longer afford to worry. They didn’t have the strength.
“Goodbye, Sarabeth, and Heaven bless you at Aunt Barclay’s house,” Mama said, wearily. “Watch out for mud; your boots are so worn. Don’t ask directions from strange men. Travel the Brighton Road straight to Springview.”
“Sarabeth! Do not let Aunt Barclay turn you away. Get down on your hands and knees and beg if you must. We count on you.”
Thunder crashed from the metallic sky and lighting stabbed the horizon. Sarabeth tromped in her ill-fitting boots. Rain had turned the roads to mud and the stagecoaches were stuck. Rain mixed with tears down her face as her eyes strained for Aunt Barclay’s house. What did she know of Aunt Barclay? Adults had discussed her in whispers. She was Papa’s wealthy, elderly stepsister, who had temper enough for twenty bulldogs. Rumor had it that she’d cheated Papa out of his inheritance when their father died.
Sarabeth’s eyes fell on a gloomy, Gothic spectacle of a house. Picket gates swung open as though by phantom hands. Windows banged and slammed. The iron lionheads leering at her seemed alive. This was like the ghost stories she’d told Tess and Sal—come alive.
Mud swirled about her ankles, as she delicately tried to lift her skirts. Looking respectable was impossible under her circumstances, but Aunt Barclay had better not be fussy. She lifted the doorknocker. Tried to lift her head high.
A horror of a woman peered out and said, “Yes, pauper, what on earth do you seek?”
“I am Sarabeth Wheatly. My father, your stepbrother, is dead, and I am seeking work as a servant in your house to help my family…if you please, kind ma’am, don’t throw me outside, for I’ve nowhere to go.”
Aunt Barclay clasped her withered claws with glee. “Ah! The Prodigal Daughter returns. ‘I am not worthy to be called thy niece; make me as thy hired maid.’ Ah! But we shall slaughter a fattened calf, shan’t we? We shan’t throw you out on the street. I am by all means a compassionate woman.”
Sarabeth forgot her mother’s instructions to kneel before Aunt Barclay. “Your heart is as worthless as coal-dust,” she muttered. “You don’t mean it.”
“Now, now, now, child! No need to carry on so. Do come into the house and make yourself welcome. We do love visitors here at Barclay Manor.”
Aunt Barclay looked at her young niece and felt revulsion. Here was no mild-mannered, cowering young lady. Dirty and grief-stricken though she was, her eyes were dark and determined. Tall and willowy, she walked into the doorway with a peculiar dignity that irked her soul.
Sarabeth ogled her surroundings. Her footsteps echoed in the hollow, deserted rooms. Aunt Barclay had velvet and French carpets and porcelain, but all those luxuries had a faint dust covering. Uncle Barclay’s tea-chests from far-off Arabia and China collected dust also. Barclay Manor reeked of dead rats. Aunt Barclay was the smelliest dead rat in this house. “You are the smelliest dead rat in this house,” Sarabeth said, not thinking.
Aunt Barclay burst into tears, burying her withered face in her lace handkerchief. “Nobody understands me! Nobody ever loved old Dorothea Barclay, though she was secretly married to George Washington and dressed up as a man and fought in the War of 1812 and drowned the entire British fleet in Boston Harbor. Oh yes! I did all those things, and more!”
Sarabeth fought back a tremendous laugh.
Aunt Barclay slapped her. “You’re laughing at me! How dare you, sniveling little—little—scamp!”
“Very sorry, ma’am,” Sarabeth said. “Now, when may I start house-cleaning?”
“Tell me all that’s happened to you! Don’t tell me that your mother and sniveling sisters will come to live here, too. This is not a poorhouse, girl!”
“Mama went to find work on Beacon Hill. Tess and Sal had to go to the Boston Female Orphan Asylum.”
Aunt Barclay got a vacant, detached look on her face, intensely unpleasant to see. She didn’t move or speak or get up from her Oriental wingchair, but Sarabeth felt like a cornered mouse.
“What are you thinking of, Aunt Barclay?”
Then Aunt Barclay leaped to her feet. She grabbed Sarabeth by her ear. Forced her into the kitchen, where she had to take a freezing cold bath and put on some scratchy wool dress. She shoved before her a plate of codfish livers, cold gravy, and stale biscuits. “Eat, ungrateful scamp,” she said. She glared at Sarabeth, destroying whatever appetite the girl might have. After Sarabeth had finished, Aunt Barclay grabbed her ear again, dragged her upstairs. Shut her into the garret, her new bedroom.
Huddled inside the garret, Sarabeth shivered as she listened to her aunt’s laughter.
Servitude was bad enough, but Aunt Barclay was worse. Aunt Barclay took it into her head to beat Sarabeth with a fireplace-poker every morning. “Just to learn you for invading my home!” she shouted. She fed her old milk and greens fit for the cats. Not only that, but she made Sarabeth sleep in the cold, rat-filled garret.
“I wish I were dead,” Sarabeth sobbed, trapped in her garret, after saying her goodnight prayers. Visions of her family always swam before her eyes, and they hurt her worse than the cold and hunger and constant work. Sarabeth never thought of running away, but a peculiar incident caused her to flee that woman’s house, like a sewer-rat out of Hades.
It had to do with that locked and barred room where Uncle Barclay had died many years before. Aunt Barclay had given Sarabeth explicit instructions never to enter that room. “Enter that room, and it’ll be fifty whacks with a fireplace-poker!”
The fireplace-poker. Sarabeth shuddered, recalling how she’d burned her family’s house when she was still in diapers. Lord, save me from the curse of the fireplace-poker!
On one black vacuum of a night, Sarabeth had tiptoed downstairs for a dipper of water and found a marble statue of a woman, frozen in the moonlight. The statue’s face was utterly expressionless. Its eyes were bloodshot, and it held a large axe.
“Aunt Barclay?” she whispered. Horror raced through her veins. Aunt Barclay was sleepwalking. She had an axe. Before the woman noticed her, Sarabeth raced back upstairs, her teeth clattering like hailstones.
Weeks later, Sarabeth once more ventured from her garret at night. Foolishly, Sarabeth carried a bent nail and inserted in into the keyhole of Uncle Barclay’s chamber. THE CHAMBER.
What on earth will I find inside? She laughed to herself. Aunt Barclay would not control her, not this time!
A dreadful musty smell hit her senses. She jerked open the bureau and saw it. She could not hold back a ripping shriek. Her voice was sharp scissors, ripping apart the black shroud of night. The shriek woke Aunt Barclay, who clattered upstairs with a candle and discovered her young niece.
Aunt Barclay’s response was quick and severe. Her thin lips curled back, revealing cracked teeth. She removed the fireplace-poker from its stand.
“Yes, Miss Sarabeth. Do you see yonder drawer? That sniveling brute of a husband drove me to commit the crime that nobody will ever know. He was a doctor. He helped all his patients, but never paid his wife a snip of attention. Do not look at me in that horrified way! I simply did what any sane woman would do. Now, if you tell a soul what is in that bureau drawer, you will regret it. Keep your mouth shut—”
Run! Sarabeth grabbed her sack of clothes, without a scrap of food or cent of money, and raced downstairs to the door. Aunt Barclay cursed her all the way, but her feeble strength could not outrun Sarabeth.
Slam! The Gothic door shut the nightmare behind her.
Now, where would Sarabeth turn?
No home. No family.
No money for the stagecoach.
Tears blinded her, but she dashed them away, staring at the stars. The answer came to her as a child’s voice chanting, a silly nursery rhyme she’d once known:
Trot, trot to Boston,
To buy a stick of bread,
Trot, trot, home again,
The old mule is dead.
Trot, trot to Boston,
Cross the bridge to Lynn,
Watch your steps, little one—
You might fall in.
Trot, trot to Boston,
Cross the hills to Dover,
Watch your steps, little one—
You might fall over.
She could hear herself and Tess and Sal, laughing, flying like bluebirds over the Concord meadows. Where were those carefree, childhood days? Why couldn’t she repair the family?
Sarabeth was only sixteen, but she aged many years that night. What about those daydreams of mine? Literary success. Finishing school. Silk ballgowns and travels to Europe? Her hopes drifted past the horizon like boats on Boston Harbor. What about her promise to dear Papa? Making him proud and keeping the family together? How would she do that?
“Yes, Papa, I will.”
She gazed at her hands, strong and callused and work-worn hands. Her hands were the key. She would travel to Boston and slave as a scullery-maid, working with her hands till they dropped off, if necessary. She would write her stories and poems whenever she could keep her eyes open. She would send them off to newspapers like The Boston Evening Star and The Christian Watchman, so perhaps they would be published. Really published!
Her thoughts were like bright balloons. Oh, the things she would do as a writer! Buy Mama a warm shawl and new work-boots. Buy Tess a parlor-organ. Buy Sal an easel and paints for her artistic ambitions. They would never need again. Just a beginning!
“When they publish my stories, I will keep the family together,” Sarabeth said. This was her hope. Blindly, she set out walking the old Springview Road to the only city she would ever call home. Boston.
Trot, trot to Boston
To buy a stick of bread
Trot, trot home again,
The old mule is dead.
That rhyme rang in Sarabeth’s mind as she entered Boston, three hungry days and nights later. Words spun in her mind like stagecoach wheels stuck in the mud. She muttered, “I will help Mama, I will help Mama, I will help Mama, I will help Mama—”
Stop being silly! Now look at you, Sarabeth Wheatly—find work and settle down. Don’t waste any time daydreaming! She stopped at the Park Street Hospital, begging a job as a scullery-maid. The black girl at the door took her in, offered her a cup of bitter coffee, handed her a bucket and rag. Set her to work at once. She would live in the room above the Park Street Hospital.
Thus, began Sarabeth’s career in floor-scrubbing.
Desperately hungry and fatigued, worried about Mama and Sal and Tess, she became dizzy and saw spots dancing on the hospital walls. It was very likely that she would be a patient here before long. Work, work, work. Don’t stop to think—just set to work!
For Sarabeth, the days passing by were a dark, greasy blur. The Park Street Hospital rang with shouts from the surgery units. That was a sound she could never get used to. She grew paler than ever on a diet of salt-pork, potatoes, greens, and coffee. All day, she scrubbed floors with a rough horsehair brush and gritty lye soap; she worked as the kitchen-maid’s assistant. At nighttime, her muscles ached so badly that tears leaked from her eyes. None of the nurses paid her so much as a sniff of attention, bustling around on their endless duties.
Still, the Park Street Hospital in Boston was far better than Aunt Barclay’s house. She would rather be shot like Papa, than return to Aunt Barclay’s house!
Better to be a scullery-maid and free, than trapped in that Gothic spectacle of a house. At least here, Sarabeth could think up poems and stories while she scrubbed. She did not have Aunt Barclay sneering in her face, driving out the light from her life. Her mind was as free as on the kite-flying hills of Concord.
At least here, she was closer to freeing Mama and Tess and Sal.
She had visited her sisters at the Boston Female Orphan Asylum, and she was sadly disappointed. Tess had deeper hollows in her cheeks. They were not getting enough sunlight, enough fresh air and healthy food. “Sarabeth’s coming to rescue you soon,” she said, trying her best to smile brightly. Still, how could she forget or help those poor, pigtailed ragamuffins who looked like they’d been squashed under the wheels of carriages?
Scrub, scrub, swish-swash, went her brush, as she vented her fury on the dirty floors. Lately she was so mad she couldn’t see straight. Swish-swash. Splash! She wrung her brush into the bucket, squeezing the Wheatly pride along with the sooty water.
TO A CHIMNEY-SWEEP—S. Wheatly
He ne’er has time to ramble.
‘Neath the light of the Cyclops moon,
Among the thorns and brambles,
From Stygian midnights back to noons
From noons back to midnights
Ne’er the sun he sees,
God help the little chimney sweep,
Crawling on his knees!
The editor of the Boston Weekly Trapezoid took off his monocle as though he hadn’t seen Sarabeth’s poem rightly. His editorial hands shuffled through her blotted pages.
“The name is S. Wheatly, ain’t it?”
“Take care not to blot your poems. My poor eye can hardly make them out.”
“I beg pardon, sir. I live as a scullery-maid, and I only get a stump of candle to work with. I daresay I can’t see too well…”
“Go on home to your scullery and your lye soap. I don’t hold with servants who have literary ambitions; it makes me nervous. Never mind poems. That’s a good girl.”
Why don’t you go home to your own scullery, Mr. Sir Editor? Who says you’re better than a servant? You look like a duck with a monocle!
She did all she could do—write another poem and try another editor.
Spring has come to Boston,
The streets are all in bloom,
The fishmongers and venders,
The bridesmaids, brides, and grooms,
The booksellers, bank-tellers,
Carriages roll down Beacon Hill,
Where cries of flutes and harbors trill,
From Tremont Street to shining sea,
My heart with seagulls thrills…
“Pish! An idiot could do just as good,” said the editor of The Boston Wishing-Wheel.
Sarabeth’s face got hot. “I’m looking at a blabbering idiot right now, Mr. Editor! One who’s so fat that he hides old chicken-bones and gizzards under his paunches. He is you.”
The Editor’s servant-boy showed Sarabeth the door and kicked her out with a broomstick.
Next Sabbath, when Sarabeth was on a long cold walk, she ran into her old friend, Willie McKanna. He said, “Saints bless us, it’s Miss Sarabeth! Come to borrow poetry-books, hasn’t she? Come to steal them from the Possum?” Willie McKanna always called himself the Possum. The towheaded street-boy gazed at her tall, willowy figure and sweeping eyes with a look of awe, like she was the goddess, Athena. Willie worshipped the ground Sarabeth treaded upon.
Sarabeth said, “No, Willie, I’m…I’m going to visit my dear mother and sisters. We haven’t talked in ever so long.”
Willie gestured toward Sarabeth’s work-stained, ink-stained hands. “Is Miss Sarabeth a poet now? She said she’d be a poet.”
“A scullery-maid,” corrected Sarabeth, flushing hot.
“But you still want to write poetry, aye. By Saint Margaret, I swear—”
“None of your popish swearing, Willie. Childish days are over. I’m a woman of my own will, trying to push and shove my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”
Hurt tears came into Willie’s eyes, and Sarabeth thought she’d cheer him up by reading her scribbles of poetry. Willie, propped in the gutter, listened with an enchanted expression. Then Willie said, “Me helps the Editor of the Beacon Hill Evening Star.”
Sarabeth’s ears perked.
“Aye, Mr. Dashland is the only one who will hire Irish nowadays. I am janitor. I just get rid of the papers he throws away. He is a kind man, kind as the Heavenly Father and all his angels. He will listen to Miss Sarabeth’s poetry.”
Sarabeth wasn’t sure how ragged Willie had made it to Beacon Hill. Asking questions of Irish Micks didn’t concern her. She sighed from the bottom of her shoes. “I will visit the Beacon Hill Evening Star, then. Fame isn’t what I want, just to help Mama and Tess and Sal.”
“Miss Sarabeth will succeed, I swear by Saint Thomas’s right ankle,” said Willie. “My own life hasn’t been so good. Ay. My Mam and Pap and sisters, Margrid and Bridget, came from the isle of Erin when the potatoes gave out and we were starving. Ay, it was a time I won’t forget—rats and filth all over the ship. Mam died of smallpox not two weeks after we landed, Margrid fell overboard on the journey to America, Bridget went to the mills in Lowell, and Pap hanged himself with misery. Leaving me alone. Nowhere to go, nobody to love. Some days, I fear I will never escape my own melancholy shadow on the pavement…”
“Poor Willie,” she said, companionably.
He held out an apple with bite marks. Gratefully, Sarabeth took it, and they grinned like old times.
“Trash and rubbish,” said Mr. Dashland, removing his editorial glass eye.
“Thank you very much, kind sir,” said Sarabeth coldly. She swept up her poetry and started to leave the office.
“Stay!” barked Mr. Dashland. “Come here, girl!”
Sarabeth turned, suspicious.
“Write me some good, chilling, creeps-and-shivers stories. That’s all folks want nowadays. Washington Irving and his hobgoblin days are behind us. Now trash is all the newspapers are looking for—trash, and plenty of it. Bring it on! No more of your poetry—it ails my poor kidneys.”
When Sarabeth returned to her garret at the Park Street Hospital, seized her forbidden pen, and dipped it in ink, a demon of an idea seized her so hard that she lost her breath. Write about Aunt Barclay! She would call her story ‘The Lurid Sleepwalker of the Haunted Stair, and What Lay in her Drawer.’
Everything came back to her, as clearly as though she were telling ghost stories to Tess and Sal. Vivid images bled to life on paper. Aunt Barclay’s stones of eyes. That drawer. The locked room. Everything. She left nothing to her readers’ imagination—she worked from the depths of her soul.
“Wonderful, girl!” cried Mr. Dashland, eagerly making reckless pen-scrawls across her pages.
“What are you doing to my story, sir?”
“Just some editorial marks. Never mind your pretty head. Lord! You’ll be a rich girl. Where did you hear of such a woman as this Aunt Barclay?”
Sarabeth stamped home to her garret that day. Money in her apron-pocket! Fame! It was too wonderful! Wait till the other scullery-maids heard; they’d be so jealous!
She opened the garret door and saw a woman before the fireplace. The embers lay dying. The narrow bed had never looked shabbier. Sarabeth stopped dead.
“Hello…ma’am…? Are you a nurse at the hospital? What are you doing in my room?”
The woman turned. She was so large and fierce that she might’ve been a long-haired man. Sarabeth shrieked as she met the burning steel eyes of Aunt Barclay. Aunt Barclay had The Beacon Hill Evening Star in her fist, crumpling Sarabeth’s name still wet with ink. ‘The Lurid Sleepwalker’ had returned to Sarabeth!
Aunt Barclay flopped down on Sarabeth’s bed and wept. “You left a lonely old lady, Sarabeth. Left her to rot in that manor, a poor starving widow. I had no girl willing to do my cooking and cleaning—and you know how hard I am to be suited! I am a feeble and ill-tempered old woman. Who would ever care for my life? Of course, you abandoned me. Just like your father and mother. Just like my so-called doctor of a husband. I lay there moldering in my house, week after week, waiting for your return. If you had only returned, Sarabeth, crawling on your knees in repentance, I would have kissed your hands and made you my daughter. I would have saved your wretched mother and Tess and Sal. But then comes the postboy with this newspaper from Boston. I read it, and my blood boiled! You wrote it—you are a sneaking scamp—you wrote this pack of lies about me!”
Sarabeth smiled. “How do you like being famous, Aunt Barclay? Before next Sabbath, all of New England will know who you are!”
Aunt Barclay wept like a brokenhearted child. Every time she moaned, “My good-for-nothing doctor husband is dead!” Sarabeth wanted to pummel her. You killed your husband, Aunt Barclay! You belong on the gallows. Get out of my sight!
After an hour of this insanity, Aunt Barclay withdrew a gin-bottle from her dress and took a long pull. She offered the bottle to Sarabeth, who refused it like it was a snake.
“Take the gin!” Aunt Barclay swore like a Redcoat.
“Keep your gin, Aunt Barclay. I need nothing from you.”
Aunt Barclay’s eyes roamed around the garret. “Sarabeth, young lady, you shame your worth. Look at your hands. Just look at yourself!”
Sarabeth’s strong hands were no lady’s hands. Rubbed raw nearly to the bone, calloused from scrub-brush and pen, chipped nails and swollen knuckles, they rested at her sides.
“You’ve been toiling like a black slave or a steam engine, for that family of yours. Lord, I declare, why not go to Lowell, and join the Concord Corporation? They’d give you three times more pay than in this godforsaken hospital. Go and kill yourself over looms and threads. They’ll welcome you. You know what’s going around in this hospital? Typhoid. Black influenza. Swine measles. All the wretchedest illnesses Satan ever invented are swirling in your lungs. You’ve been eating nothing but bread, salt-pork, and weak tea. You’re catching the fever right this minute. It will take you out in three days. Your family will never, never know.”
“Stop!” said Sarabeth.
Aunt Barclay grinned. “You needn’t worry about the fever, young lady. I will dispose of your life. I will do it in a law-abiding way. I will keep my hands clean and bloodless. But I swear, you will die!”
Sarabeth’s teeth chattered, and she put her hand to her forehead. I must be delirious from overwork.
“I will call Boston Yard and have you thrown in prison for libelous slander, defamation of a worthy citizen of the free United States of America. They will hang you—you won’t see your mother or sisters again! You will rest peacefully in my bureau drawer!”
Sarabeth’s story crackled in the fireplace. Aunt Barclay cackled on, unrelenting. Sarabeth’s heart, which fancied itself a great white bird, crashed into a million pieces. She cursed Willie McKanna, Mr. Dashland, and her daydreams. A writer, indeed! How could she have made such a mistake?
Forgive me, Papa. I will see you soon in the Heavenly by-the-by…
Sarabeth always came to the rescue of her family members, but who would rescue her now?
Round and round she paced, in the coal-scattered back alley, her face chalky. Aunt Barclay was in Boston and prowling. Calling for Boston Yard right now. Calling for the Sheriff. Calling for a search-party. Oh, how will I escape?
She was startled when she slammed into the kitchen-maid at the Park Street Hospital—a young, black girl with a wooden bucket of water. The girl was terrified to meet Sarabeth. Coal scuttled under their shoes. They stared at each other.
“Lord, Miss Wheatly, your face—” stammered the girl.
“I’m sorry,” said Sarabeth.
“You see the Devil or something?”
“Yes, I have.”
The girl grabbed Sarabeth’s arm. “My name is Carnation Pansy Woodhill. Don’t leave me.”
“My aunt is sending for Boston Yard. I’m a fugitive.” Sarabeth stressed the importance of this word with five syllables.
“So am I,” said Carnation.
Sarabeth fell limply to the ground. Here was a poor, escaped slave-girl from the heathen South. Outlandish thoughtlessness! God help them both.
Carnation might’ve been ten or eighteen. It was impossible to tell. Her face was ancient and work-scarred, her hands supple and strong, her feet like withered flower-petals. She carried a child’s voice in a woman’s body, but it sounded husky and urgent. Strange.
“My babies all gone on a lobster-boat for Canada, my husband caught by the slave-catchers, I only made it halfway to freedom, and I can’t keep on hidin’ much longer. I gotta see them babies and I gotta find work to buy my husband’s freedom,” she said.
Sarabeth fought a war within herself as Carnation’s brown-raisin eyes bored into her. As they talked, it became painfully obvious that Carnation wanted Sarabeth’s help in escaping Boston for Canada.
“This here noggin ain’t no fragile egg to crack and break. You got no idea how many times them men tried to beat me, make me crawl on my knees, but I kept standing. This here noggin o’ mine has hatched a plan. We gonna disguise ourselves and git on a whalin’ vessel at Boston Harbor, you hear?”
Sarabeth heard. She smelled the smoke of her family’s burning house and saw her father’s blood spattered on the doorstep, her mother and sisters homeless on the street, the price they had to pay for hiding and helping slaves. Would she be willing to pay that price again? Would she ever see her family again? What would Papa have thought?
“My father was shot like a dog for helping people like you,” Sarabeth spat, her eyes darting around in the darkness, “and now my lunatic aunt wants my entire family. What am I to do?”
“Trust little old Carnation,” said the girl. “Don’t believe I ain’t got thirty years of wisdom and experience in this here noggin. I look twelve, I’m thirty, and lordy, I feel two hundred. Only a coward fool refuses to listen to Carnation Pansy Woodhill.”
Every trace of the small, timid servant girl was gone from Carnation’s face. Anger and determination were stitched to her. She beckoned with her finger for Sarabeth to follow, and Sarabeth followed. The darkness hid their faces, so they had no difference between them. They were only two servant girls in Boston, hotly pursued and fiercely determined.
“Wear this here garlic n’ onions round your neck, little gal, to keep the police-dogs away from our scent. I’m onna white my face, and you onna black your face, and let’s say, we’ll just change places. I’m onna be a gypsy fortune-teller, and you onna be my servant-wench. You ain’t minding that, are you?”
“The sea is rough and wild,” said Sarabeth, feeling acid rise into her throat.
“Trust Carnation,” said Carnation. Her bone-crunching handshake took Sarabeth by surprise.
As they stood in the darkness and chimes of church-bells, hearing the footsteps of the night watchman, hollers of drunkards and cries of the city, smelling fish drifting from the sea, Sarabeth swore she heard Aunt Barclay. Boston Yard was following her.
Now Sarabeth had nothing before her but the rough and raging Atlantic Ocean she had to stare down.
“This here is Cap’n Ahaziah Byrd,” said Carnation, hiding behind stacks of lobster-barrels. “Cap’n is onna take us girls to Cross Woods, Nova Scotia, smugglin’ us aboard his whaling vessel. You don’t mind sittin’ on a hundred pounds of whale blubber, do you? Trip’s bound to take over three days, and we can’t make a sound.”
Mama, Tess, Sal, forgive me! I want to return to you!
Carnation’s hot breath and the smell of onions distracted Sarabeth from the pounding, roaring, screaming sea-waves. Presently, she and Carnation, swathed heavily in disguises and crusted with face-paint, ran like rats into the open ship, Cap’n Byrd calling after them, “Ahoy, mates! Pull up the anchor!”
Sarabeth was wretchedly seasick all night, while Carnation snored on a barrel of whale-blubber. The voyage was a blur of sea-waves pounding relentlessly against the Princess Venus. Steam rose in billowing waves from the fires below deck, and the floor rocked beneath Sarabeth’s booted feet.
“We’re pulling for shore longer than expected, if this here weather keeps up,” Carnation said, bleakly.
On the fourth day, the storm was so severe that the boat threatened to splinter to bits, but Sarabeth was desperate for fresh air. Watching the sea-waves was oddly comforting to her. She had come to the point in her life when wild storms no longer frightened her—she melted her spirit and lay down and let the sea’s fury pound over her exhausted brain. Let the wind roar! She’d stare it down!
“Watch your steps, girl, the top deck has got a good foot of water,” Carnation warned.
Foolishly, Sarabeth leaned over the railing, and suddenly, gravity defied her. Hurling through white wind and waves, she was a helpless molecule tossed into the rage and froth. Water filled her lungs. Then the world went black, and she knew nothing.
She opened her eyes and coughed so hard that she was breathless.
“Where am I?” she croaked.
She had awoken on a ship, but not on Cap’n Byrd’s whaling vessel.
“Lord, child!” cried a woman’s voice. “You frighten me, the way you look. We’ve all been discussing who you are. You look like the bride of Leviathan. Are you an evil mermaid? Have you come to sink our ship?”
“You rescued me. You saved my life. You pulled me out of the sea-storm,” Sarabeth said, blankly.
She was on a featherbed in a bunk in a ship’s cabin lit by flickering whale-oil lamps. A bowl of yellow soup was on the nightstand. She was wearing a stranger’s nightgown and lying under a stranger’s quilts. Her memory of how she’d gotten here was very sketchy. She had fallen overboard and drowned…hadn’t she?
Then, everything crashed onto her mind. Carnation. Aunt Barclay. Boston. Her family. Troubles, troubles, troubles.
The woman, dressed in a white apron and cap, continued to stare at Sarabeth. “You gave the whole ship a scare. You were so drenched and battered. When you were asleep, you screamed out a nursery rhyme. I couldn’t make head or tale of it.”
Sarabeth said, “What was the nursery rhyme?”
Trot, trot to Boston,
To buy a stick of bread,
Trot, trot, home again,
The old mule is dead.
Trot, trot to Boston,
Cross the bridge to Lynn,
Watch your steps, little one—
You might fall in.
Trot, trot to Boston,
Cross the hills to Dover,
Watch your steps, little one—
You might fall over.
She might’ve known it would be that.
“Child, child, don’t look frightened! We shan’t throw you overboard. The captain and shipmates want to know who you are and why you were traveling, and where you come from. I’ve been stationed to watch you until you wake up, and then get the information out of you.”
“What is this ship called?”
“Nous sommes Français. Traveling from Quebec to Boston.”
“You will take me back to Boston?”
“Oui, nous le ferons.”
“God have mercy,” said Sarabeth. “They want nothing to do with me in Boston!”
She was doomed to return to that city…
She was forced to land once more at Boston Harbor, and she thanked her French rescuers and kissed their hands. She watched the St. Alphonsin sail away into the freezing open seas, beyond the fog-misted horizon and wheeling gulls. She heard the horns and cries and bells of whaling-vessels, and she saw boys hauling barrels down the gangplanks.
She stood with her shoes buried in sand, small clumps of seaweed and foam washing about her. Night was over, and morning had come.
Fearing Aunt Barclay would help nothing—if she died at her hands, well, she died. There was nothing she could do about it, anyhow. Uncertainty and fear wouldn’t keep her from making a joyful sound.
She cried out to God as she walked the city streets of Boston once more, having nothing but the clothes on her back, having no friends and nobody to turn to. She prayed for Mama and Tess and Sal, for Carnation, and strangely enough, for Willie McKanna. She could not make herself pray for Aunt Barclay.
“Have you seen…have you heard…?” Sarabeth asked the people on the street, inquiring about her family.
Nobody offered her information. Finally, a scrubwoman in a Boston alley offered her a bowl of fetid soup and said she’d had word of Sarabeth’s mother.
“Ay, you looking for that Mollie Wheatly? We scrubbed floors together at yonder poorhouse.”
Poorhouse! Sarabeth gagged on soup.
“Ay, poor young Mollie, she had her share of troubles so hard, she couldn’t take it. Her oldest daughter was hired out, she said, and her younger daughters were in the Orphan Asylum. Mollie said that her oldest daughter had broken loose and put the family in danger.”
The Irish woman had work-scarred hands and frizzy red hair and wormy-looking eyes. She was rough and rude and dirty. To Sarabeth, she was a messenger of Heaven itself. This woman had seen Mother! She had to find out where Mother and Tess and Sal had gone!
“You knew Mother,” Sarabeth cried.
The Irish woman stared closely at Sarabeth. “Ay, you said your name was Sarabeth Wheatly? You a writer? Didn’t you make a stir in the Boston newspapers last week? You wrote a story about a wicked woman in a haunted house.”
“You illiterate Irish don’t know—of course, I never wrote a story. You are mistaken.”
“How many Miss Sarabeth Wheatlies are there in Boston? Ay, I knew you were poor Mollie’s daughter!”
The Lurid Sleepwalker! She must never think of that failed story again.
“Mollie Wheatly went off to a Shaker farm in Lebanon, New York,” said the Irish woman.
“How did you hear that? She wrote a letter?”
“Ay, I can’t write letters. I’m illiterate. She simply told me she was moving to a Shaker farm in Lebanon, New York. Those Shakers are dreadful heathens, you know. They believe God is a woman and they forbid marriage. They dance like savages. They all dress alike in matching uniforms, and they adopt orphan children into their foul religion—”
“I’ve heard enough, thank you,” said Sarabeth.
“You must leave, so soon?”
For shame, Mama! For shame! Shame on you!
After all she’d been through, Mama had run off on the family. How would she dig herself out of this hole?
Sarabeth begged a room at a sleazy boardinghouse, begged money for a pen and paper, and wrote a letter by the light of a flickering candle. Pressing the boardinghouse people, she found out the name and address of the Shaker farm in Lebanon, New York, where Mother and Tess and Sal had moved. The stationmaster in the stagecoach would send out the letter the next morning.
“This isn’t charity,” Sarabeth told Mrs. Reed, the boardinghouse lady. “Let me work in the kitchen. I will pay every cent back.”
“Who needs a stray cat of a girl like you?” Mrs. Reed said, coldly.
Shocked by the news about Mother, Sarabeth raged at Mrs. Reed calling her a stray cat. She was a writer! Writing would pave her path in life. All she needed was a pen, an inkwell, and a stack of paper. Newspapermen knew her name—she had determination, and she would start fresh!
Dear Mother—I am exceedingly shocked at the news I heard of your departure to Heavenly Oaks Farm in Lebanon, New York. I trust you are well? Forgive me for abandoning you so long, Mother. Terrible things have happened to me. Send word of dear Tess and Sal. I am working and toiling day and night to reunite us all. Trust in God and take good care of my sisters. God willing, I will send extra money for your feeding and clothing the girls in my next letter. I am, as always, your loving daughter, Sarabeth Wheatly.
Hiding inside her rented windowpane, pen in hand, Sarabeth watched the world with longing eyes.
Winter raged by. Ice-skaters raced down the rivers. Sledges left runner-marks zigzagging across mounds of snow, snow, snow. Spring and summer and fall whirled round again. She was a steady and determined worker. She took all the jobs she could get. Scrubbing boardinghouses. Taking care of small, bratty children. Sweeping streets. Taking in laundry and ironing. Scrubbing, scouring, washing, wringing rags, drying floors. Beating rugs.
Life was dizzy and endless. Nothing seemed possible, except finding food and shelter for one more day. She lived from one bowl of soup to the next, one straw mattress to the next, one dirty floor to the next. When her strong arms ached, she forced them to keep moving. When snow beat down and winds howled, she took long walks to refresh her spirits and clear her mind.
Struggling on and on, she saved money, coin by coin, for pen and ink and paper. Once she’d rented a small room for shelter, she spent her evenings writing stories by the flicker of a candle. On Saturdays, she submitted her manuscripts to newspaper editors. On Sabbaths, she slept all day in utter exhaustion.
Mother answered Sarabeth’s letter only once:
Dear child—Tess and Sal and I do well at Heavenly Oaks Farm. We entreat you to leave your life of sin and come join us. We have found the Heavenly Light and the Simple Ways of mankind. Leave behind your shackles and join us in a new and better society. Your loving mother.
“This story will do,” Mr. Dashland said, with a charming editorial smile. His was the smile of a fat child with a heap of peppermint candy. “Keep coming back and give me more and more. We want more of your stories, girl.”
More of her stories! Sarabeth set her mind to writing with fury.
Willie McKanna discovered her house, and he dropped by in his lazy, Irish way, to slip her a boiled potato or a poetry-book. She kept a watch for his grimy, friendly face through the dirty windowpanes. His friendship was as beautiful and constant as ever. Willie McKanna, more than anybody, gave Sarabeth a will to survive—and more than survival. She would live!
By her nineteenth birthday, Sarabeth’s life was improving. She had yellow curtains in her bare, ugly windows. She posted a sign over her door that read WHEATLY’S SEWING AND MENDING, and she sewed till her fingers bled. She laughed to think how as a girl, she’d detested sewing. Now, it was easy to keep her needle and thread whipping in and out of cloth, if only she had a story or poem in her mind to occupy her. She would say, “I am sewing for the future. I am sewing to reunite my family. I am a seamstress of poems and stories.”
“Why do you have all those ripped, ugly dolls in your window?” Willie asked.
“My house is a dolly hospital,” said Sarabeth. “I sew little girls’ dolls back together. I don’t play with dolls!”
“Of course, you do,” Willie smirked.
She stitched a dream into each garment she mended. Opening a small schoolhouse and taking in young girls as pupils. Little schooling as she’d had, she was a great reader, and she knew she had enough knowledge to stuff into other young, impressionable minds. Anything was possible if she set her mind to it—that’s what Papa had preached to her.
“If only Papa could see me now!” she sighed.
One blue summer day, the hammer-blow crashed Sarabeth’s dreams. A letter from Mama arrived, via Willie McKanna, her personal messenger-boy, on a fading and tear-blotted scrap of paper:
Dear Sarabeth—I have very very troubling news I write with a heavy and shaking hand. Heavenly Oaks Farm was not successful as planned. Quarrels and strife have let our house run down. Freezes and blizzards have ruined all the crops but flax. Many members have left God’s fellowship. We have had little food and fuel to sustain us. An epidemic of the dreaded influenza has taken many souls. Tess and Sal and I all had it; Tess is very poorly. She kept saying, ‘Take me home. I must go home to Sarabeth. I want my big sister near me.’ We are sending the poor little thing by stagecoach, in hopes that your cheerful presence will restore her health and spirits. I am sorry and a very troubled woman. Yours always, Mother.
“That makes two troubled women,” Sarabeth said.
Everyone said the Shakers were a thriving religious community, known for their temperance, hard work, and fine furniture. Even they could go wrong, though. Plain old hard luck…she pictured her family, starving and freezing on a farm with heathens, and her hands clenched into their old, defiant fists.
“Once I see Tess, I’ll never let her go back to those people.”
When the stagecoach pulled up at Sarabeth’s house, delivering its little invalid, she took her shivering little sister indoors. Sarabeth’s worst fears were confirmed. Mother had sent Tess home to Sarabeth to die. She stood over her bed, a bottle of smelling-salts in hand and a teaspoon of Boston mackerel-oil in the other. Nasty stuff as it was, this was the only medicine in the house, save a bottle of brandy-wine.
“How do you feel, my precious?” she said tearfully.
A muffled voice from the pillow said, “I feel as though I woke up from a dreadful nightmare and found myself with God and his angels in Heaven.”
The girl was sixteen, but she looked no older than she had at twelve. Her once-generous black hair had begun falling out with the fever. She was as thin as a child and seemed all scrawny, pleading, black eyes.
“Don’t cry, precious. You can tell Sarabeth what they did to you at the Orphan Asylum and on the farm.”
She clasped her thin hands. “Tell me you won’t send me back, and that we will never be apart. Mother’s near the end of her rope, and Sal’s no comfort. She says she will break free from this ragbag of a country and stow off for Europe. Sal and Mother had such dreadful quarrels…she insisted she would be an artist in France one day. Mother and I tried to pull through, until I got so weak, I couldn’t work another day.”
“My poor baby,” said Sarabeth, cradling her head, as when they were small children.
The patient, pathetic voice said, “Don’t think that I suffer. Nothing bothers me anymore. I trust in God and Nature, and Sarabeth, I plead for you, do not grieve or cry when I go…home. I’ve never dared speak my mind, and I am very small, but I have this thought—I have always felt that Earth would not be my home very long. Sarabeth, I pictured you settling West, teaching school, writing fine books, getting married…I pictured Sal an artist in Paris…but I never pictured myself doing anything. All I saw was a vast blank in my future, and in the cold and hungry winter, how I despaired. Now I am all better. I will soon be free, and think how happy I will be, with Papa. My only regret is I have never helped anyone, as you helped me, dearest Sarabeth.”
Sarabeth could hardly listen to this speech without screaming. She wanted to stuff cotton wool in her ears. She forced a smile onto her dry lips. “Goodness…we have so much to tell, so many stories. Did you hear, how I stowed away on a whaling vessel? I and a poor escaped slave-girl named Carnation escaped Boston. She made it to Canada, God willing, and I fell overboard.”
“Why were you fleeing Boston?” Tess looked confused.
“Don’t worry yourself; you’ll only make yourself sick again.”
“I hope poor Carnation got to Canada, and I hope she was as happy as she deserved to be. Remember Papa’s fugitives? Remember how I sewed packages for them, to bless them on their perilous travels?”
Sarabeth did not want to talk about slavery. The two of them talked of better times, long-ago times…Concord and Papa’s farm. They talked of the clouds reflected on the river, the Wishing Wheel, the apple trees in bloom, running and frolicking over the meadows, theatricals in the barn. Sarabeth lit the fire and read from her well-worn Pickwick Papers until the placid and white face smoothed out in sleep. She kissed the cold forehead and let the fire die over her knitting-needles.
How old her tiny sister looked, like a faded woman in a girl’s body. Sarabeth had the creepy feeling that she was not seeing into Tess at all—she saw only the quivering smoke of a candle that had long burned out. Tess wasn’t herself anymore. Sarabeth closed her eyes and pictured her little sister in the Concord grass, hollering as she bit into a sour apple, catching the monarch butterflies in her net, or acting in a family play. She saw Tess’s plain and contented looks in the looking glass, beside Sal’s showy and vain blond curls, as Sal said mockingly, “See how I’m the prettiest girl in the world!”
Was Sarabeth the only survivor of the Wheatly family?
How much longer did her candle have to burn?
Tess grew delirious the next day, said that she was a poor, escaped slave following the North Star to freedom in Canada. She dreamed she was in line at the Orphan Asylum or hauling endless wood on the Heavenly Acres farm.
“Look at that North Star, Sarabeth. It is going to fall soon. The stars are burning,” said poor little Tess.
“Hush, now, go to sleep, baby, go to sleep like a good baby.”
Her baby sister died very quietly, the third day, in her arms.
Once upon a time, the Wheatlies were a family…she began every story. Sarabeth wiped the transparent tears from her black dress, pulled the shades tighter, and laid her head on her worn-out desk. Her stories were dry nothingness. She had nothing left to say.
Sadness crushed her. Yes, she had known grief and terror and loneliness before, but never like this. Sleep was elusive. How could she have let Tess die? The child always said Sarabeth was her only comfort, and Sarabeth felt that she’d failed her. She had failed the whole world.
She placed black sealing-wax over her letter and addressed it to Mama, handing it to Willie McKanna, who ran it to the mail-coach. If only somebody would write her a letter. How could she feel so alone?
She tried to hang on. Taking a walk one day in October, her eyes scanning the Christian Lighthouse publishing office for signs of life, watching bright New England leaves cascade in the gutter, she was startled when she ran into a very dirty street-pauper, who held a very dirty letter.
“Willie,” cried Sarabeth.
Willie was breathless. “Wonderful, bless us, Miss Sarabeth, wonderful, wonderful, it’s magic, it’s wonderful!”
“Oh, goodness, what’s happened?”
“I, the Possum, have news! I’ve received a letter at the post where I work, for Miss Sarabeth. Bless the saints, it looks like it’s from a foreign land. Don’t look at me, wide-mouthed, like I’m a monkey—I can’t read a letter.”
Who could have sent Sarabeth a letter but Mama? Annemary and her husband were the only other relatives in America. Sarabeth grabbed the letter from Willie. Tears blurred the ink. This letter was full of odd stamps and read Madeira, Spain, Barclay Hall. She ripped it open, accidently ripping the letter in her eagerness.
Dear Miss Sarabeth, we regret to inform you that the esteemed old gentleman of great fortune, Rutherford John Barclay, has died in his Madeira estate last Saturday, of natural causes. He left behind an incredible fortune, homes in England, France and Spain, which will be distributed among his surviving relatives, according to the terms in his will. He left behind a beloved wife, Dorothea Barclay, in Massachusetts…
In a few seconds, Willie had to revive the fainted Sarabeth and keep the letter from blowing into the gutter.
Shock and horror, all over again.
How could this be?
Aunt Barclay had not killed her husband, then, after all, but she had done some evil sorcery to ruin all the Wheatly family hopes.
“Uncle Barclay wasn’t the one Aunt Barclay killed, then,” Sarabeth muttered.
“Whom are you talking about?” Willie demanded, understandably shaken. Did this have to do with the troubled expression on his friend’s face, and how she kept disappearing from his sight?
“Oh, Willie… let me catch my breath…”
So Sarabeth, feeling she was safe enough, explained the whole Aunt Barclay situation, the bureau drawer, the shriveled and loathsome form, and Aunt Barclay’s boasts of bloody exploits.
Willie listened, and his knowing, kind eyes were blue and guileless. Looking into his tender Irish eyes, Sarabeth wanted to cry—blubber—weep like a child, for all the horror and misery and ruin she’d seen over her lifetime. In all her life, only Willie had been totally loyal to her.
“If Aunt Barclay deceived me about…her, well, husband…well, then…I am swept off my feet. How could I have a mystery uncle in Madeira? Might he really remember us poor Wheatlies and provide for us? Was he kind enough to remember us poor Wheatlies? The Ways of Providence are far beyond me.”
“I pray your best hopes are true, Miss Sarabeth.”
Willie crossed his fingers. The code of freckles on his face read love.
“You are a kind boy, and I love you dearly,” she blurted.
Six years ago, he had been a little weasel and a stray scamp with an impudent grin. In the shadows this afternoon, he was grown up and strong. He was holding a hand-carved flute he used to charm frogs at the local circus-show, which was his living. He was still homeless and owned no clothes but the ones he was wearing. He often talked wistfully of traveling the world in a gypsy wagon; he had restless eyes that were hard to read. Sarabeth suddenly felt that she could read them. She could read the unspoken things he wanted to tell her, about how he felt being here with her.
Lost on the street-corner, her bonnet flapping loosely about her flushed pomegranate cheeks, clutching the letter, she swept herself home to pour over the letter.
The Ways of Providence are far, far, far beyond me…
Might we truly be happy, even after what happened to poor little Tess?
Might even I be happy? Might the sun dare to shine?
Two weeks later, while she did her autumn housecleaning, singing like a teakettle, Sarabeth dropped her broom and duster. Willie shoved a letter under her shabby, wooden door. This might be the one! From Uncle Barclay’s estate in Madeira…
Flashing money sparkled in her work-worn hands. Practically, she counted the money. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred fifty dollars. More than enough—it was more than enough for Mama, to bring Mama home. She did not shout or scream or dance. To her, seeing Uncle Barclay’s money, resting in the blue, shallow warmth of that September day, it looked like a deep, deep sigh. Three hundred fifty dollars was a sigh of relief.
Not so fast.
There were more changes, and it was 1836 now. Abolitionism in Boston was no secret—violence had picked up speed, like a runaway, drunken horse-cart race. Houses burned. Gunshots rang out. Printing-presses were smashed. Newspapers screamed about it. Two sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, cried for women’s rights as well as total, complete, and instant abolition of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison had started the most radical abolition magazine ever, The Liberator. Meanwhile, Boston’s red-gold autumn and stately buildings were the backdrop of the greatest, headiest philosophical movement America ever saw, transcendentalism, and its crooked-nosed hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sarabeth crept out to the Boston Common in her best dress to hear him talk. How could she understand these changes? Plato and Socrates and Simplicity and Nature were all people cared for, believing they could band together and live on farms and form perfect societies. Utopias. This was the dream for which Mr. Wheatly died, for which Tess had died, and Mrs. Wheatly was caught in a living death because of his lingering dream. Sarabeth hated the idea—wasn’t she trying with all her might to rescue Mama from the Heavenly Oaks Farm? How dare the world stand in her way!
She wrote a letter to Mama in the neat, firm backhand slant of an experienced writer:
Dear Mama, you will be exceedingly shocked by the news that fortune, and Providence have looked favorably upon us, a windfall has blest us, and we will be free at last…
I am sending money for your stagecoach fare home to Boston. You will have a long, good rest, and then I will send both you and Sal across the sea to our dearly departed uncle’s fine estate at Madeira. Your spirits will revel in the warm tropic breezes and among fine fruit-trees, trellises, balconies, and gardens. Sal will study art and have everything her own way. Do not thank me for this. For years, I have wanted to be the wings to make my sisters fly. Tess is gone to God, and Sal is our only hope.
Do not think of me. I am only a withered little spinster of twenty-one, with a pen and notebook, needle and thread for my family. My stories are beginning to show promise beyond my scribbling days. I hope someday to write a book, a book about the lives of us Wheatly girls…
Dearest Mama, wherever you are, if you are happy and rich and contented, I am happy.
She looked up from her inkwell into the changing leaves, happy as a skylark. All she needed was Willie’s face in the window for company, and the world would be perfectly wonderful.
She leaped to her feet. A face met her at the window, a horribly familiar face. This shrunken-up face brought the taste of vomit to her throat. A witch pounded on her window.
Her feet had no feeling as she raced outside to meet her dear, darling aunt. Strangled screams caught in her throat as the fierce hound-dog of a woman clutched her and shook her. She shook her like she was a naughty puppy, who might as well be shaken because she was standing in the way.
“Show me that letter, girl,” snarled Aunt Barclay.
She cursed. “Don’t act like a dunce. You know what letter I’m talking about. It came from that accursed wretch in Madeira, Spain, that imposter who posed as my husband. He duped you. Not one penny of that money was yours. His will was promising you money, I suppose?”
“Show me the letter and the money, girl. Do it quick, girl.”
Sarabeth shook free. “I will not!”
Aunt Barclay rubbed her temples and sighed. “We’ll have to try a different tactic, shan’t we? The girl’s always been a difficult nut to crack. I’ll crack her yet! Shan’t we crack her? She’s got too much spirit in her.”
“Are you crazy? Do you think I do not know why you came here? You want to kill me, and to kill my family. Well, Mama and Sal are protected. They’re going to Europe in a few weeks. My family is faded, but I will defend what is left of my family, at least, I try.”
“Don’t think I haven’t watched you, girl. I’ve whispered in your ear when nobody was around. I’ve haunted every one of your nightmares. Confess. Tell. You knew I would come around again.”
“How did I know?”
“Remember a cold, icy night, many years ago, when you hitched a whaling ship with a young, poor escaped Negro kitchen-wench?”
“Yes,” Sarabeth blurted, stupidly.
“Didn’t I tell you I had second sight? I knew you helped a wretched fugitive escape to Canada, and I will inform the police that you have violated the Constitutional laws, just as your good-for-nothing father did. They will lock you in prison, or perhaps a mob will kill you in your sleep, as they did to your father. Do you recall what happened to your father after his damned abolitionist tracts were discovered?”
“Stop talking!” Sarabeth shouted. She was so fierce that she destroyed the web of words Aunt Barclay weaved around her.
Time rose and fell. For one instant, she saw Aunt Barclay through the layers of horror and mystery—just a feeble snip of an old woman. She was a fool, an absurd and crazy hag with a big mouth. That was all.
She stepped confidently toward the old woman. “Come to think of it, you never killed anybody. You never dug up a corpse. You never stashed your husband’s hideous form in his drawer.”
Teeth gnashed. “My husband, God rest his soul, has what he deserves—worms and misery forever.”
“You fiend, you said long ago that your husband was a doctor, a respected apothecary, who never cared for you.”
“Yes…indeed. His laboratory was his life. He cared for nothing, unless it was a dead body he could cut up and explore.”
She remembered Uncle Barclay’s portrait—a grim, foreboding horror of a man. All the Barclays’ ugliness and temper was legendary. No wonder he had found it easier to get along with dead people. Suddenly, she said, “Don’t speak! You drove him from the house with your madness, and he moved to Spain. Then you invaded his laboratory, stole the dead body he did experimental research on, and you put it in his drawer—a useless and putrid revenge. Of course, you did it. I just read it in your eyes.”
“Yes, indeed, girl!”
“Don’t speak to me like that.”
“Who cares what I call you? You will soon lie peacefully in my husband’s bureau drawer!”
“I’m free now. I don’t care what you think of me.”
Aunt Barclay was losing her feud with Sarabeth. Her colorless eyes watered with rage. Sarabeth, calm and ladylike, folded her hands and gently described her life plans to the old lady.
“My Mama and Sal are going to Europe, where Sal will study to be a fine lady artist. As for me, I will write books and sew in Boston. Furthermore, I am going to marry—an Irish boy, a street Mick, who hasn’t a penny to his name.”
“Scandalous, illegal, immoral…”
“His name is Willie McKanna.”
“I will call Boston Yard to arrest you both.”
“We’re going to meet his priest, after we see Mama safely aboard on the Atlantic.”
“They will put you in stocks and have you beaten.”
“I love Willie, and he has always been loyal to me.”
“They will cover you with tar and roll you in feathers.”
“Boston is my forever home.”
“Shame on you, cursed little impudent minx!”
“Goodbye, Aunt Barclay.”
Sarabeth closed the door to her little house and watched the old lady wobble off down the street, curses muttered in her wormwood teeth. Who cared? Aunt Barclay would go her way; Sarabeth was free. Free at last—and she had to find Willie McKanna!
Mama buried her face in Sarabeth’s neck and hugged and kissed her till she was nearly suffocated. Mama’s voice was so good to hear. “How tall you’ve grown, my dearest darling…”
Sal smiled her French artist grin, her pretty, plump hands closed over a palette of delicate watercolors, a makeshift easel under her arm. She was seventeen—it was the first time Sarabeth had seen her since she was in pinafores and pigtails. Neat golden ringlets rested against her delicate pink cheeks. A true young lady, Mama said with a deep, deep sigh.
“Ma chere, Sarabeth, why aren’t you coming to Spain?” Sal said. “Why aren’t you setting sail on the Princess Lily?”
Even still, Sal still looked like a silly, vain, frivolous girl who could not, would not understand why this and that unfairness had to be in the world.
“Boston is my home,” Sarabeth said, firmly. “Besides, didn’t I tell you? I’m getting married.”
“Till we meet again…goodbye, goodbye, goodbye!”
She stood on the sunny sand at Boston Harbor. Gulls wheeled about in the blue, salty air. She watched Sal throw airy kisses over the deck as the ship sailed out of sight. Wiping a tear from her eye, Sarabeth wished so hard that she might follow. If only…
Then Willie’s determined footsteps rang behind her, and she did what she’d always done—walked back to Boston. Her city. Willie was waiting for her—her future of travel, writing, and adventure. So she went by him.