Cool off from summer with a story of winter: Read Part I of "Lighting a Dark December."
New London, Connecticut
Jane Lawson grabbed her cloak and headed for the door, running into the fading daylight. She ignored the pleas of Carrie, the housekeeper.
“Miss Jane, you’re gonna ruin those shoes without your patins,” Carrie yelled at her.
“I don’t care,” Jane yelled back. “Gilbert is home. He will buy me new ones.”
Her skirts dragged through the snow that came up over her ankles. She pulled her cloak tight around her. Heavy flakes fell onto her eyelashes, tickling the corners of her mouth and the tip of her nose. She put her head down, pushing forward. The snow was worse than she feared, but it didn’t matter. She had to see Gilbert, who had been patrolling the coastline as a privateer and hadn’t been home for two months.
She couldn’t wait to tell him the secret she’d been keeping. Her clothes were getting tighter, and the stares of people in the house were getting more frequent. She and Gilbert must make haste; they had to marry before Mr. and Mrs. Saltonstall, Gilbert’s parents, whom she had been living with since her loyalist parents went back to England, discovered her condition.
As she ran, she heard the voice of Mr. Allen, the owner of the mercantile. “Miss Jane, are you headed to the quay? I hear the ships are in.”
“Yes, “ she hollered over the sounds of the screaming wind as she passed him.
He ran after her. “Here; take my lantern. You will be blinded soon by the snow and the darkness.”
She grabbed it. “Thank you, sir,” she yelled back at him, “I will return it to you on my way back.”
“Bring it back at your convenience,” he responded. “And tell that boy of yours we are happy to have him home.”
As she ran, she gazed briefly at the empty space that was once the large and elegant home of Thomas and Elizabeth Lawrence, who died when their home exploded, caused by the gunpowder stores Mr. Lawrence was hiding from the Redcoats. Snow covered the piles of rubble that had never been cleared. The pungent odor of burnt gun powder still lingered one year and a half later. A momentary pang of sadness came over her. The house was a reminder of better days before the war; when she was tutored there by a governess named Sarah Carrington. It also reminded her of her beloved sister Emma, who died in childbirth six months ago.
Almost everyone from those times before the war was gone from New London. Some, like her parents, had left because of their loyalty to the crown and returned to England. Others, even though they were patriots, left and moved farther inland; afraid living in a coastal town was too dangerous. Others had left to fight, either for the Continental Army or the British. Her best friend, Ivy Templeton left with her mother shortly after the Concord alarm to follow her brother who was in the militia. At first, the letters from Ivy came regularly, but then they fell off, and she hadn’t received one in about three months.
She would have had to return to England with her parents if not for Emma inviting her to live with her, and promising her parents she would make sure Jane was looked after. But two months after her parents sailed, Emma and her newborn daughter were dead. Soon after she was buried, Emma’s husband General Beechum asked for Jane’s hand in marriage. He was returning to England soon, and he said it would be a perfect solution; she was the aunt of his son, and the boy could be raised by a family member if they married. But she found Beechum, a pompous old Tory general her parents forced her sister to marry to be repugnant. One night he came to her bed, insisting she give herself to him. When she would not, he tried to force her. She fought him off, and left his house the next day, having no idea where she would go. It brought tears to her eyes to remember her little one- year old nephew, his sad face at the window as she waved good-bye, his tiny handprint leaving a mark from the morning dew on the window.
The best boardinghouse in town, Alden’s, was gone; Mrs. Alden and her daughters going back to England on the same ship as her parents. The tavern keepers that were still here would not take her in, wanting to avoid the scandal of taking in a young girl without a chaperone.
It was Gilbert that found her one night, walking alone on the quay. When she told him what happened, he insisted she come and stay with his parents. At the time, Jane said no. She didn’t think much of Gilbert Saltonstall, who Emma had loved very deeply once, and who jilted her quite cruelly and treated her ill. But he insisted.
She didn’t know what the Saltonstall’s would think. Samuel and Jocelyn Saltonstall were among the founding families of the town and garnered respect from everyone. What would they think of her; a girl with no parents and no home forced into the streets? She finally agreed, only because she knew Carrie was there. Carrie, who was the Lawrence’s former slave, was now the cook and housekeeper with the Saltonstall’s. Jane knew her from her days as Miss Sarah’s student.
Luckily, Mr. and Mrs. Saltonstall showed much kindness and understanding and didn’t ask any questions about her plight. And after getting to know Gilbert, and discovering he was no longer that cruel person Emma knew, they fell in love, keeping their feelings to themselves with the exception of Carrie, who caught them in the barn one day. She gave them a tongue lashing about being indiscreet but also promised she would not say a word to anyone if they promised to behave. Of course, they didn’t; they were just more careful where they spent time together.
The lantern improved her vision, and she was able to see the docks illuminated by the lights on the ships. Men were working as fast as possible, bellowing orders as they emptied their cargo. She saw Gilbert’s ship at the end of the dock.
As she ran toward the ship, she caught the attention of Gilbert’s man Tully. “That you, Miss Jane? What are you doing out here? You’ll catch your death.”
“Where is Gilbert?” Is he still on the ship?”
“No, miss,” he yelled, the icicles bobbing on his frozen beard as he spoke. “He didn’t even stay to help unload. Someone handed him a message as he was getting’ off the ship. He’s very upset. He said he was going to Miner’s Tavern.”
“Miner’s Tavern? Why did he go there? Do you know what the note said?”
“It was about his friend, you know, that schoolmaster that taught here before the war. I guess he was a pretty good friend of his.”
“You mean Master Hale. He is now Captain Nathan Hale. He is Gilbert’s best friend.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Seems he was hung in New York by the redcoats. They said he was a spy...”
Jane didn’t hear the rest as she turned away, running toward the tavern.
The sign for Miner’s Tavern was barely visible covered in a fresh coat of snow. It creaked in the heavy gusts on its old hinges, as if it had been there since time began. In some ways, it seemed as though it had. For several years, it was the place in town where everything happened. Passionate men and women came there every night to share the day’s news, to hide from Redcoats, and to argue the most revolutionary concept ever heard, that being the idea of breaking from a monarchy and beginning a free republic.
But on this night there were only a few people there. She found Gilbert alone in a corner, several empty shot glasses in front of him. He clung to a piece of paper. He wiped his eyes, then put his head down in the crook of his arm.
“Gilbert!” she exclaimed.
He picked up his head. His eyes were bloodshot. “Jane,” he said, pushing the table away and running into her arms. “My darling. I’ve had terrible news. I can hardly believe it.”
“I know,” she said, wrapping herself in his embrace. “Nathan is dead. I’m so sorry, my love.”
He ran his hands over her coat. “You are soaking wet. Come, let’s sit by the fire and get you warmed up. Why did you not wait for me at the house? You could have gotten lost in the storm.”
“Mr. Allen loaned me his lantern. I’m fine. I just couldn’t wait to see you. And now our reunion is mired by terrible news.”
Gilbert’s eyes filled up. “It is much worse than you can imagine.”
“Who is the letter from?”
“It was from Dudley. Dudley Livingston. You remember him. He was the redcoat that Thomas Lawrence turned.”
“Yes, he is Miss Sarah’s fiancée.”
“Well, it seems Dudley and Sarah and Nathan were arrested over in Huntington.”
“What? What were they doing over there? It’s full of Tories. Why would they take such a risk?”
“Nathan and Sarah were on a mission for Washington. It seems Dudley was captured and held on a Tory ship, and he escaped to Huntington, only to be caught again later with Nathan and Sarah.” Tears filled Gilbert’s voice. “They let Dudley go because of his rich loyalist sister and brother-in-law. But Sarah is in prison in New York, and Nathan, they hung him the next day for treason.”
“When did this happen?”
“They were captured in September. This letter is dated October 1.” He handed her the letter. “Here, look for yourself.”
She took it, scanning over it. “None of that makes sense. Why would Miss Sarah be on a mission with Nathan? I can’t imagine Washington would allow such a thing.”
“Dudley didn’t say anything about why she was on the mission with Nathan.”
“But what will happen to her? If she was working for Washington, can’t he get her out?”
“Dudley says no. The king wants her brought back to England to stand trial for that theft of those Hutchinson’s letters years ago.”
Jane felt her stomach turn. If Miss Sarah went back to England, she would surely hang. Trying to push that image out of her mind, she shifted her focus back to her true purpose. “Gilbert, one of the reasons I came to find you is we must talk, darling.”
“I know,” he said, caressing her hand. “But can it wait till tomorrow? I know you have been waiting patiently for me, but truly, I feel terrible.” He stood, looking up at the front of the tavern where Nathan Hale made many recitations and speeches. “Our Dear Nathan; he was magnificent, wasn’t he? I can still see him up there; in front of everyone. He could get through to people like no one I have ever known. When he stood up there and spoke, there wasn’t a noise in the room. When he finished speaking, people would be standing on their seats cheering. He made everyone believe in the cause. He was so beautiful, you know. How can he be gone, Jane? It hurts so much.”
She pulled him to her. “I know, my love. We will all miss him. But drowning yourself in whiskey won’t bring him back.”
He stared to speak. He turned away from her, heaving all over the floor.
“Get him out of here!” hollered the barkeeper. “Go puke at home.”
Jane grabbed a rag, wiping his face. “Come. Let us get you home.”
He clung to her as they ventured back out into the snowy night.