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Chains, Page 2

Laurie Halse Anderson

  As I patted, her eyes grew wide at the sight of a thick slice of buttered bread perched near the edge of a table. We hadn’t eaten all day, and there had been little food the day before, what with Miss Mary dying. I snatched her hand away as she reached for it.

  “Soon,” I whispered.

  Mr. Robert pointed to a spot in the corner. “Stand there,” he ordered.

  A woman burst through the kitchen door carrying a tray heavy with food. She was a big woman, twice the size of my mother, with milky skin and freckles. She looked familiar and caused me to search my remembery.

  “We’ll have Jenny fatten up the British navy and make their ships sink to the bottom of the sea!” yelled a red-faced man.

  The big woman, Jenny, laughed as she set a bowl in front of the man. The proprietor called her over to join us. She frowned as she approached, giving Ruth and me a quick once-over while tucking a stray curl under her cap.

  “These are the girls,” Mr. Robert explained.

  “It don’t matter,” the proprietor said as he put his hand on Jenny’s back. “We don’t hold with slaves being auctioned on our front steps. Won’t stand for it, in fact.”

  “I thought this was a business establishment,” Mr. Robert said. “Are you opposed to earning your percentage?”

  “You want to listen to my Bill, mister,” Jenny said. “Advertise in the paper, that’s what we do around here.”

  “I don’t have time for that. These are fine girls, they’ll go quickly. Give me half an hour’s time on your front steps, and we both walk away with heavier pockets.”

  Jenny’s husband pulled out a rag and wiped his hands on it. “Auctions of people ain’t seemly. Why don’t you just talk quiet-like to folks? Or leave a notice tacked up, that’s proper.”

  “I recall an auction not twenty yards from here,” Mr. Robert said. “One of Brown’s ships brought up a load of rum and slaves from the islands. They must have sold thirty-five, forty people in two hours’ time.”

  “Rhode Island don’t import slaves, not for two years now,” Jenny said.

  “All the more reason why folks want to buy what I have to sell. I want this done quickly. I have other business to tend to.”

  “Is that our problem, Bill?” Jenny asked her husband. “He says that like it’s our problem.”

  “Ease off, Jenny,” Bill said. “The girls look hungry. Why don’t you take them to the kitchen?”

  Jenny looked like she had plenty more to say to Mr. Robert, but she gave Ruth and me a quick glance and said, “Follow me.”

  Mr. Robert grabbed my shoulder. “They’ve already eaten.”

  “No charge,” Jenny said evenly. “I like feeding children.”

  “Oh.” Mr. Robert released me. “Well then, that’s different.”

  Jenny closed the kitchen door behind her and motioned for Ruth and me to sit at the table in the middle of the room. A cauldron of stew hung above the fire in the hearth, and two fresh pies were cooling by the window.

  “Eat first,” she said. “Then talk.”

  She cut us slices of brown bread and ham and poured us both big mugs of cider. Ruth gulped hers down quick and held out her mug for more. Jenny smiled and refilled it. I made short work of the food, keeping one eye on the door in case Mr. Robert walked in. The back door to the kitchen was wide open to let in the breeze. Should I grab Ruth’s hand and try to escape?

  Jenny read my mind. “No sense in running.” She shook her head from side to side. “He’d find you right away.”

  I scowled at my bread and took another bite.

  “I’d help you if I could,” she said. “It’d be the least I could do for Dinah.”

  I wasn’t sure I had heard her right. “Pardon me, ma’am?”

  “You’re Dinah’s girl. Knew you when you walked in the door.”

  “You knew my mother?”

  Jenny stirred the cauldron of stew. “Your mother and your father both. I held you when you were just a day old. I heard she passed away last year. My condolences.”

  She cut two pieces from the apple pie and gave them to Ruth and me. “I was indentured when I was your age. Old Mister Malbone had five of us from Ireland, along with near thirty slaves. Worked us all just as hard, but after seven years, I could walk away, thank the Lord. Dinah was real friendly to me when I first got there, helped me get used to a new place, and people ordering me around.”

  “I thought I knew you,” I said.

  She smiled warmly and snatched a piece of apple from the pie plate. “You always were the best rememberer I ever saw. We used to make a game of it. Tell you a line to memorize, or a song. Didn’t matter how much time passed, you’d have the whole thing in your mouth. Made your parents proud.”

  A serving girl came through the door and the talk stopped. Once Jenny had loaded up her tray and sent her back out, she sat down next to me. “How did you come to be with that man?” she asked. “I thought you were at Miss Finch’s place.”

  I quickly explained the dizzy events of the last two days.

  “There’s no telling what happened to the lawyer,” Jenny said when I was finished. “Boston is a terrible confusion—first the King’s army, and now Washington’s.”

  “What should I do?” I asked. The words came out louder than they should have.

  Jenny gently covered my mouth with her hand. “Shhh,” she warned. “You got to use your head.”

  I grabbed her hand. “Could you take us? Please? You knew Momma …”

  She slowly pulled her hand from mine, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Isabel. I dare not.”


  Bill opened the door and poked his head in. “He wants the girls. Best to hurry.”

  A thin woman stood next to Mr. Robert. Her plum-colored gown was crisp and well sewn, and expensive lace trailed from the small cap on her head. She was perhaps five and forty years, with pale eyebrows and small eyes like apple seeds. A fading yellow bruise circled her right wrist like a bracelet.

  She looked us over quickly. “Sisters?”

  “Two for the price of one,” Mr. Robert said. “Hardest-working girls you’ll ever own.”

  “What’s wrong with them?” the woman asked bluntly. “Why such a cheap price?”

  Mr. Robert’s snake smile widened. “My haste is your good fortune, madam. These girls were the servants of my late aunt, whose passing I mourn deeply. I must quickly conclude the matters of her estate. The recent unrest, you know.”

  A man joined the woman, his eyes suspicious and flinty. He wore a red silk waistcoat under a snuff-colored coat with silver buttons, a starched linen shirt, and black breeches. The buckles on his boots were as big as my fists. “And what side do you take in the current situation, sir?” he asked. “Are you for the King or do you support rebellion?”

  Conversation at nearby tables stopped as people listened in.

  “I pledge myself to our rightful sovereign, the King, sir,” Mr. Robert said. “Washington and his rabble may have taken Boston, but that’s the last thing they’ll take.”

  The stranger gave a little bow and introduced himself. “Elihu Lockton, at your service, sir. This is my wife, Anne.”

  Mr. Robert bowed politely in return, ignoring the muttering at the table behind him. “May I offer you both some sup and drink that we might be better acquainted?”

  They all sat, and Jenny swooped over to take their orders. Ruth and I stood with our backs against the wall as Mr. Robert and the Locktons ate and drank. I watched them close. The husband was a head taller and twice the girth of most men. His shoulders rounded forward and his neck seemed to pain him, for he often reached up to rub it. He said he was a merchant with business in Boston, New York, and Charleston, and complained about how much the Boston uprising cost him.

  His missus sipped Jenny’s chowder, shuddered at the taste, and reached for her mug of small beer. She stole glances at us from time to time. I could not figure what kind of mistress she would be. In truth, I was struggling to th
ink straight. The air in the tavern had grown heavy, and the weight of the day pressed against my head.

  When the men took out their pipes and lit their tobacco, Ruth sneezed, and the company all turned and considered us.

  “Well, then,” Lockton said, pushing back from the table to give his belly some room. “The wife is looking for a serving wench.”

  Missus Lockton crooked a finger at us. “Come here, girls.”

  I took Ruth by the hand and stepped within reach. Missus Lockton studied our hands and arms, looked at our feet, and made us take off our kerchiefs to look in our hair for nits.

  “Can you cook?” she finally asked me.

  “Not much, ma’am,” I admitted.

  “Just as well,” she said. “I don’t need another cook. What do you do?”

  I put my arm around Ruth. “We can scrub your house clean, care for cows and pigs, work your garden, and carry just about anything.”

  “My aunt trained them up herself,” Mr. Robert added. “And they come with blankets and shoes.”

  Lockton sighed. “Why not wait, Anne, and procure another indentured girl in New York?”

  His wife sat back as Jenny arrived with coffee. “Indentured servants complain all the time and steal us blind at the first opportunity. I’ll never hire another.”

  Jenny set the tray on the table so hard the cups rattled in their saucers.

  Lockton reached for a plate of apple pie. “Are you sure we need two? These are uncertain times, dear.”

  Missus regarded Ruth. “This one looks simple. Is she addlepated?”

  Ruth gave a shy smile.

  I spoke before Mr. Robert could open his mouth. “She’s a good simple, ma’am. Does what she’s told. In truth, she’s a harder worker than me. Give her a broom and tell her to sweep, and you’ll be able to eat off your floor.”

  Jenny poured a cup of coffee and set it in front of the missus, spilling a little on the table.

  “She’s prettier than you,” Missus said. “And she knows how to hold her tongue.” She turned to her husband. “The little one might be an amusement in the parlor. The big one could help Becky with the firewood and housekeeping.”

  Jenny pressed her lips tight together and poured coffee for Lockton and for Mr. Robert.

  Missus bent close to Ruth’s face. “I do not brook foolishness,” she said.

  Ruth shook her head from side to side. “No foolin’,” she said.

  The missus cocked her head to one side and stared at me. “And you. You are to address me as Madam. I expect obedience at all times. Insolence will not be tolerated, not one bit. And you will curb your tendency to talk.”

  “Yes, ma’am, M-Madam,” I stuttered.

  “What say you, Anne?” Lockton said. “We sail with the tide.”

  “I want these girls, husband,” Madam said. “It is Providence that put them in our path.”

  “How much do you want for them?” Lockton asked.

  Mr. Robert named his price. Our price. Two for one, us being sold like bolts of faded cloth or chipped porridge bowls.

  “Wait,” Jenny announced loudly. “I’ll … I’ll take them.”

  The table froze. A person like Jenny did not speak to folks like the Locktons or Mr. Robert, not in that manner. Lockton stared at her as if she had grown a second head. “I beg your pardon.”

  Jenny set the kettle on the table, stood straight, and wiped her palms on her skirt. “I want them two girls. I need the help. We’ll pay cash.”

  “Keep to your kitchen, woman.” Madam Lockton’s words came out sharp and loud.

  Did she change her mind? Will she really take us?

  Work in the tavern wouldn’t be bad, maybe, and Jenny would be kind to Ruth. I could ask around about Lawyer Cornell’s papers. When we found Miss Mary’s will, I’d work extra to pay Jenny back for the money we cost her, fair and square. Ruth and me would stay together, and we’d stay here, close to Momma.

  Please, God, please, God.

  “Leave us,” Lockton said to Jenny. “And send your husband over.”

  Jenny ignored him. “It’ll take us a couple of days to get your money together,” she said to Mr. Robert. “We’ll give you free lodging in the meantime.”

  Mr. Robert’s eyes darted between the two bidders. Ruth yawned. I crossed my fingers behind my back. Please, God, please, God, please, God, please.

  Madam Lockton flicked crumbs to the floor with her handkerchief. “Dear husband,” she said. “These girls are a bargain at double the price. With your permission, might we increase our offer twofold?”

  Lockton picked at his teeth. “As long as we can conclude this business quickly.”

  Madam stared at Jenny. “Can you top the offer?”

  Jenny wiped her hands on her apron, silent.

  “Well?” Madam Lockton demanded.

  Jenny shook her head. “I cannot pay more.” She bobbed a little curtsy. “My husband will tally your account.” She hurried for the kitchen door.

  Mr. Robert chuckled and reached for his pie. “Well, then. We had a little auction here, after all.”

  “Such impudence is disturbing,” Lockton said. “This is why we need the King’s soldiers to return.” He pulled out a small sack and counted out the coins to pay for us. “I thank you, sir, for the meal and the transaction. You may deliver the girls to the Hartshorn, if you please. Come now, Anne.”

  Madam Lockton stood and the men stood with her. “Good day to you, sir.”

  “Safe voyage, ma’am,” Mr. Robert replied.

  As the Locktons made their way through the crowded room, Mr. Robert dropped the heavy coins into a worn velvet bag. The thudding sound they made as they fell to the bottom reminded me of clods of dirt raining down on a fresh coffin.

  Ruth put her arm around my waist and leaned against me.

  Chapter IV

  Monday, May 27–Wednesday, May 29, 1776


  It took two nights and two days for the Hartshorn to sail from Newport to the city of New York. Ruth and me were housed below the packet-boat’s deck with six sheep, a pen of hogs, three families from Scotland, and fifty casks of dried cod. At the far end of the hold were crates of goods stamped LOCKTON & FOOTE and casks of rum with the same marking.

  I spent most of the voyage bent double over a puke bucket, bringing up every scrap of food and swallow of brackish water I choked down. Ruth stood on a box looking out of a porthole, counting seagulls and waves in a whisper that could barely be heard over the creaking of the hull.

  The seas calmed late on the second night, and I was able to walk a bit. Ruth was sound asleep in our hammock, thumb in her mouth. The hatchway to the deck was open and tempting. I climbed up the ladder slowly. The few sailors on watch saw me but didn’t say a word.

  The fat moon lit the water like a lantern over a looking glass. A clean, cold breeze blew from the north, pushing the ship so fast across the sea we seemed to fly. I sat on a crate facing the back end of the ship and hugged my knees to my chest. A mist of salty spray hung in the air.

  The coastline of Rhode Island had long disappeared into darkness. I could not see where we came from or where we were going. Maybe the ship would spring a leak and sink. Maybe we would be blown off course and land in a country without New York or people who bought and sold children.

  Maybe the wind would blow us in circles until the end of our days.

  I wiped the mist from my face.

  Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too, an
d taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither.

  They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.

  Chapter V

  Wednesday, May 29, 1776


  The Hartshorn docked in New York the next morning, just after a sailor brought down some old biscuits for our breakfast. I picked out the worms and tossed them through the porthole, then gave the biscuits to Ruth.

  Madam Lockton’s voice rose above the shouting sailors. “Bring those girls up,” she said.

  A fellow missing most of his teeth stuck his head down the hatchway and waved us over to the ladder. We climbed up, shading our eyes against the bright light of day. Men of all types and colors swarmed the deck, carrying casks and chests down the gangplank, scurrying up the rigging to tend to the sails, unloading gear, loading gear, and making me feel very small and in the way.

  Ruth stood at my side and stared so hard, her thumb fell out of her mouth.

  The ship was tied up at a long dock, one of many that jutted into the river. The sun sparkled off the water so strong I had to shade my eyes. Tall houses of brick and stone faced us, with rows upon rows of windows looking down at the street. They reached higher than the oldest trees back home. There were smaller buildings, too, all crowded shoulder to shoulder, with no room for a feather to pass betwixt them.

  We had arrived soon after a heavy rain. Soldiers splashed through the glittering puddles, toting wood, emptying wagons, carrying buckets hither and fro, and standing about on corners conversating with each other. Some wore uniforms and carried long muskets. Others, in homespun clothes, dragged fence posts to a barricade.