MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Love is said to be an involuntary passion and it is therefore contended that it cannot be resisted.
YONKERS-ON-HUDSONFEBRUARY 14, 1756
Mary Eliza lay upon cold leaves whose color had washed away a season ago, wishing she could bring back the living. Dead things surrounded her; every flower bud hung shriveled. The dull winter had brought only a few flakes. Spring, when fragrance emerged from its cocoon, was her favorite time of year. That was not this time. Today nature emitted not even a scent to smell.
Wan light peeked through the dark cloud hovering above her. She’d been here at Hudson’s Hook since sunrise, writing poetry in her head:
Here I lie,
As mine eyes, my heart, wait,
So close art thou and I.
Here I lie,
Where the ravens fly,
And the guardian’s wall, my gate.
Here I lie,
As mine eyes, my heart, wait.
The gallop of approaching stallions echoed. She attempted to rise, but alas, guilt confined her limbs like a fetter. The horses halted. She knew who had arrived. Boots crunching across hardened grasses came next. His silly chain clinked louder as he drew closer. She expected her brother to holler. She assumed that was coming. Instead, he just stood there, glaring at her. His murmuring sounded as if impatience was boiling in a kettle.
A long silence followed. She heard another audible exhalation from him. Frederick lay down, leaving just inches between them. “Polly.” He never used her birth name. “I have a great inclination to take you back by force!” Agitation combined with steam in his threat.
She added a few more inches between them.
A deep groan released from his lips. His body shifted sideways. “This trial of my patience … ends now.” He spoke through teeth clenched.
She didn’t respond. What would she even say? Worrying thoughts had taken up much of the space in her head, for no ordinary winter’s day was before them. This night, as the sun found its repose, the Philipse family would welcome the hero of the South to a grand banquet and pleasure ball with beaux dressed in princely garments and belles adorned in royal costumes. For most hosts, it would be reason for celebration. For Mary, it was reason for tumult. In the midst of such crowds, the noisomeness of hair powder lingered like a fog, bringing back the image that forever haunted her: the little boy’s eyes filled with horror, filled with fear. The memory caused her to cringe.
She would rather have remained here with her disquiet fading into the season’s emptiness. But with her brother about to snatch her from her stillness, she closed her eyes and repeated to herself the words she promised Papa she would say each day: You are capable of the impossible, for you have survived the unthinkable.
Slowly, she rose and retied her riding dress’s silk sash into a proper bow. Throughout, she envisioned the man of honor of the evening, the most celebrated colonel of the colonies, riding more than five hundred miles to be in attendance. His name was George Washington.
* * *
THE TRIP BACK to the manor was quiet, except for the clank of the chain Frederick was wearing. Then he began lecturing her. “Two hundred and twenty of the highest-ranking citizens will converge on our home, each of them viewing each of us, including you, Polly.”
Mary could not even acknowledge him, not with the confusion of emotions affecting her spirit. Certainly she would want to meet the hero. She already knew more about Colonel Washington than she was comfortable talking about. He was a brave one, unlike her. But the number of guests—220—it sat like a weight upon her chest.
If she made the decision, she would be riding Willoughby back to the Yonkers manor. This four-wheeled, horse-drawn, covered carriage was the kind people of quality rode in, always moving at a leisurely pace to make the journey comfortable. She didn’t need comfort. She needed air.
The carriage was conveying them along the dirt roads that belonged to her and Frederick and their sister Susannah. Theirs was an immense treasure of land along the Hudson River, stretching from the center of Manhattan Island to parts north in the Highlands, 390 square miles in total. As she looked upon it now, she could see only winter’s barrenness instead of a season of torpid inaction when even love’s embrace could not force a flower’s bloom out of a dormant state.
Mary’s brother waved to the elderly fellow with a pile of white hair upon his face and head who was keeping order at the bridge they needed to cross. Other travelers, including farmers with livestock and merchants with their wagons full of goods, formed a long, chaotic line. But the Philipses never needed to wait nor pay the three-pence toll, unlike every other man or animal to cross. They had inherited this, too—a toll bridge twenty-four feet in width, with a draw, the first and only link connecting the metropolis to the mainland. They called it King’s Bridge. The franchise had been granted to their great-grandfather by British charter.
Frederick turned back to her and bumped upward as they crossed over the bridge’s wooden planks, “As for your attendance, Polly, what is your answer?”
Mary attempted to sit up straight. “You summon these men to our home, Frederick, and expect I should open the door to let a stranger in.”
“You speak as if I’ve brought commoners.”
“You are well aware that titles are of no consequence to me.”
“Do you not realize who you are?”
“I am a woman who knows a good fortune does not necessitate the yearning for a husband.” She tried to keep her head from bouncing up and down.
“These are accomplished men. The sheriff is a fine gentleman with a superior estate.”
Mary had to cover her mouth, for the beginning of a giggle almost came from her lips. The previous attempt at a suitor left Frederick waiting alone with the sheriff for nearly an entire teatime.
“Colonel Washington is trekking from Virginia on horseback to be here!” Frederick’s nostrils flared when he raised his voice to her. “Polly, you will attend!”
“Will you be wearing this accoutrement about your neck?” She pointed to the ridiculous pendant she knew he enjoyed displaying.
Frederick’s eyes shifted down. “Do you not like it?” The hefty gold chain with a jeweled badge signified his role as Keeper of the Deer Forests. The ancestral office had been passed down through generations of the Philipses.
Mary only shrugged.
They arrived at Philipse Manor. The Georgian-style mansion, covered in brick and accented with ivory moldings, was the most exquisite example of refinement that could be found anywhere in the colony. It overlooked the immense Hudson River and provided a view of the Palisades’ earth formation, cliffs across the water that appeared as outstretched hands reaching for the heavens. A guardian’s wall is how she thought of it. She often wished she could climb to the top and embrace those who had been taken too soon.
She was glad of the weather’s crispness as she exited the carriage, for she was in desperate need of cooling off. The moment Mary entered the manor, she smelled its warmth. Baking. Fresh loaves. Bread made her mouth water.
Up the grand staircase she went and entered her bedchamber that had not changed her entire life. A gilded four-poster bed with a lofty canopy sat opposite a hearth framed with blue-and-white Delft tiles. An intricately carved desk and chair paired with a massively sized bookcase climbing high to the ceiling. A tall mahogany chest took up another wall. In the closet hid a space for washing.
The morning’s muted rays made the silver softly sparkle on the wall’s ornate fabric covering and cast faint shadows through silk draperies over the dark wood floor. The abigails rushed over to help Mary remove her riding clothes, until she was dressed in only a laced shift. A gaze at her reflection in a mosaic-framed mirror showed a figure that looked every bit of a woman, yet acted as an awkward lassie. Poise had never been her forte. If she brought back her shoulders, that might do it, but it didn’t feel quite right, as if she was pretending to be regal when she was really just Mary Eliza. Beautiful? Others had described her as such. Her sister Susannah—yes, she was definitively beautiful. Many admired her for her fair skin, her hair of light amber waves, and her feet; she had the prettiest little feet. Susannah carried herself with natural grace.
As for Mary, she was of a shy disposition when surrounded by strangers in dressy clothing. Guests weren’t fond of reticence. They responded to cheerfulness, to vivaciousness. They adored the social adroitness of Susannah, who spoke of all that was in vogue.
After the lady’s maids departed, Mary practiced smiling. She had to rely on the art of distraction; a dimple formed on her right cheek, providing a diversion when she had little to say. Tonight would be one of those times when she most missed her younger sister. The white plague slowly robbed Margaret of her vitality, until there was nothing left. Margaret was the free one, a madcap, the one who laughed her way through any crowd encircling Mary, taking her far from the frenzy. With Margaret now gone, Mary felt even more trepidation, imagining the crush of people who would enter the house, especially the presence of one of them. She did not like to think about him, and worked to banish him from her thoughts. At the last banquet she attended, he pointed his deformed finger at her and whispered something that nearly made her collapse: “As goes the mother, so, too, the daughter.”
The sound of a horn interrupted her thinking. One long sound was followed by a pause, and proceeded by two in quicker succession. She practically leapt toward the window overlooking the river. The usual disturbance tried to make its way into her being, as it did each time she looked out over the Hudson. She needed to put that aside now. She breathed in deeply and exhaled, leaving a cloud on the pane of glass. The water was tranquil, the sole movement coming from the ship with its lofty white sails carrying it toward the family’s dock. With her ear to the chilled window, she listened. The horn of the vessel sounded again—one slow, two fast. This was the signal she had waited weeks to hear. With a squint, she could see sea captain Garvan Rous at the wheel of the Gabriel.
Mary had little time to fuss. She was too anxious to learn the particulars. She raced to her high mahogany chest and pulled out a woolen Brunswick. She felt its heaviness when she placed it over herself. She quickly picked a ruffled cap from her collection. Slipping on her burgundy walking shoes, she rushed down the stairwell and into the kitchen. As she moved, she set her loose chestnut-brown hair under the head covering.
Mary grabbed the basket she had asked to have prepared. She counted six glass jars, five of them containing pickled ingredients: fennel, onion, white plums, lemons, and walnuts. A jar of twenty-year catsup was filled to the brim. In the center of the jars was a silver spoon. She placed above the jars a steaming loaf that was a bit too hot to the touch. The delicious aroma excited her appetite. She knocked her hip against the back door to open it and moved as quickly as possible onto the porch, pinching her cheeks with her available hand as she went. Through the boxwood-lined gardens and down the stone path she went, dashing toward the family’s dock at the Hudson River’s edge, arriving just as the vessel was being secured.
“A miracle, Mary!” cheered Captain Garvan as he tucked his rumpled white linen shirt into his breeches. “A miracle has happened!”
She hurried faster, while carefully keeping her shoes from slipping off the path and into the mud nearest the dock. She put the basket down on the wooden planks. “Tell me! Tell me!”
Swiftly, he moved to greet her. His days at sea were apparent from his bronzed skin and sun-weathered wavy hair. “He is alive, Mary! My son lives … because of you.” He enveloped her in an embrace that wrapped her in the essence of an ocean breeze.
Elation poured over Mary. Concern for the child had given her such worry.
“He even took a step on his own without my help.” His eyes became watered. “The apothecary you sent to my home, Mary, he saved my boy’s life. What you have done for me…”
“Your wife would have been proud of all you have accomplished with him.”
“I wish she could have lived to see him.…” He took some time before continuing. “She would have loved his great flop of golden hair.” A tear trailed down his cheek.
Mary stepped back and held his hands in hers. “He will make a fine mariner, your William Rous, just like his father and his father before him.”
She made the prediction with confidence, knowing full well the fabric of which Rous men were made. It was a confidence established when she was just a child. Captain Garvan, then a lad in his teenage years, swept her right out of death’s door.
* * *
THAT EVENING, one cloaked in a deep red sunset, Mary’s world went dark. In the midst of a refined affair at the manor, a fright came over the little girl, causing her to run as fast as she could. She found herself outside, alone on the south porch, steps away from the smaller Neperhan River, which flowed into the Hudson. She was not by herself for long that evening. Young Elbert Peck came to ease her worry, walking out of his cottage that sat near the mansion on the property. He was the head gardener’s son, a playful, freckle-cheeked boy with ginger hair always in disarray.
Elbert’s head tilted. “Are you crying?”
She could not answer. Her hands covered a face full of tears.
“I will show you something. It will make you happy.” Elbert started to skip in the direction of the river. “I shall get it for you by the water.”
“No, Elbert. Mama says it is dangerous by the river.”
But Elbert had already begun to run along the garden path.
“No. No, Elbert.” Mary started after him. She cried out, “Mama says no! Mama says no!”
She reached him at the water’s edge just as he picked a stem of forget-me-nots.
“They are the color of your dress.” His stance became wobbly as he stretched his arm to hand the flowers to her. “They are blue.” His little black shoe was covered in mud. She knew Mama wouldn’t like that. No, Mama wouldn’t like muddy shoes. She stood still, not moving an inch. He reached farther toward her, trying to keep his balance to give her the blossoms, but the slippery earth forced him down. His body shifted ever nearer to the ancient, unyielding river. Mary lurched forward, her shoes now sinking into the mud. Her little hand got ahold of his, and she began to cry out as his body made a splash. His green eyes turned toward the unstoppable waters behind him. Then he stared back at her.
Without words, she knew; in his eyes, she saw desperation and terror.
Despite using every ounce of her strength, she could not bring him close enough to grab hold of the long grasses that lined the bank. Her right hand held on as mightily as she could to his right hand, which still held the flowers. Her wee voice yelled out for help. A wave pulled him, plunging Elbert under the water. Refusing to let him go, she, too, went into the river.
The current moved her to and fro. She could no longer feel Elbert’s hand in hers. As Mary frantically threw her head back to find breath, she caught a glimpse of Mama; Mama was coming. She looked scared.
“I am here!” Lady Joanna did not stop at the shoreline. “I am coming for you!”
Mary’s heart screamed out—It is dangerous, Mama.
Mama’s red dress with the pretty flowers spread out wide as she jumped into the water and tried to swim toward Mary. Mary could see her getting closer, calling out to her.
It was dark.
A chill overtook her body.
She was cold, so very cold.
* * *
THEN ALL she could see was light.
As if heaven wrapped her in its embrace, Mary felt strong arms lift her from a wet grave. Cradled to a young man’s chest, she could hear a voice commanding, “Breathe, child. Breathe.” She remained in this angel’s arms, bundled in a quilted blanket embroidered with blue flowers. Her hand held tightly to wilted forget-me-nots as pandemonium swirled around them.
She watched as they carried Mama out of the river with her pretty red dress dragging upon the ground. Papa laid her mother’s body on the porch. Lantern light shone upon her pale face. Mary saw her father’s hands tremble. He was crying.
Papa placed a kiss upon the forehead and closed its eyes.
* * *
MARY’S ANGUISH OVER the loss never ceased. Why did they perish? Why did she survive? Why didn’t she immediately reach for the flowers? If only she had held on tighter to little Elbert’s hand.
Though years passed, the trauma never left her. With certainty, though, she knew what she needed to do. Papa helped her find her purpose. “Protect. Save. As a beacon in the darkness, be the light,” he told her. Every year on the anniversary of that fateful day, he would take her to light a tall lantern at Hudson’s Hook.
Now a woman, Mary stood here near the shore. The lad who rescued her a grown man, Captain Garvan gave her a quick peck on the forehead. “I am forever in your service, my dear Mary.”
“As I am in yours.”
As the two spoke, the sailors transferred crates aplenty of goods and liquors from the Gabriel to the dock.
“They have not much time. Hasten your walk!” He pointed his men toward the cases of Madeira. His face turned back to Mary’s. “This man they call a hero—I understand he arrives here this night.”
Mary felt a breeze blowing from the water. “At sundown, yes.” She lowered her eyes to her arms, crossed.
“He comes to see you, Mary.”
She lifted a wayward curl off her face and tucked it behind her ear.
“With my own eyes I have seen it. Washington is the best chap in the regiment, riding the most splendid horse. A fitting choice.” Never before had the captain offered praise for one of her potential suitors. He knew them or of them all, as gossip flowed freely on board his ship. “I believe it in your benefit to meet the major.”
“Colonel.” Mary corrected him. “He is now Colonel Washington.”
“Seems you know of this fine fellow and his unparalleled reputation.”
She listened carefully to each detail spoken about him. His auburn hair fell below his shoulders. His face carried a square jaw, a nose that was large and straight, and penetrating eyes. Not a week earlier, her cousin Eva Van Cortlandt quoted the poet John Dryden when describing him: “a temple Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine.” And Mary read Washington’s journal over and over. As she stood here now, she tried to think of how many times. Ten? Fifteen? Could it be twenty times, maybe more?
To fill the moment’s quiet, which lasted a heartbeat too long, she picked up the basket and placed it in Captain Garvan’s hands as she told him her wish for young William: “A wind to steer the course to true happiness.”
The captain responded with a wide grin. Those were his words to her on her twenty-first birthday. “And my wish for you always, Mary.”
With his farewell kiss upon her cheek, Mary turned to the manor, which bustled with preparations for the affair. The nervous excitement that now filled her whole being could hardly be contained. The words “I believe it in your benefit to meet the major” replayed in her head. In equal parts, she eagerly anticipated and dreaded this night. She wished she could meet the colonel under different circumstances than a ball, which, like so many others, brought back memories of the day her world changed. It was not her decision. She should have fought her siblings on this matter; she did not, thinking it would never come to pass. Colonel Washington agreed to travel five hundred miles to see her! This surprised her completely.
As she entered the manor and walked up the back steps behind the East Hall, she heard Frederick’s voice.
“Drag her out myself! I shall do it!”
Mary rolled her eyes and made sure to stay behind a wall, out of his view.
“Oh, Frederick. Every belle blooms in her own way, at her own time.” Her sister spoke softly between sighs. “Tonight will be glorious.”
“Just as you said about the last reception and the one before that.”
“Dearest Frederick, like a jewel being polished to an utmost shine, so will our sister be. You must be patient.”
“Our family’s reputation is at stake. I’ve invited every royal justice of the colony, the barons of New York, the Speaker of the House, the members of the Assembly, the newly installed mayor, the sheriff, the aldermen, and the lords of the manors. Susannah, we have a colonel traveling from Virginia to be here.”
“She will be glad to be in Colonel Washington’s presence.”
“Are you certain of this?”
An empty moment in the conversation lingered.
“If it takes force, then so be it!” Frederick declared like his usual scolding self.
“Curing what ails her cannot be done with coercion. We have learned tenderness is the only path to sensibility.”
Mary caught a whiff of plum pudding and knew the conversation about finding her a mate would soon come to a close. The aroma would most certainly draw Frederick’s substantially sized nose to the kitchen. Thankfully, she was correct. She did not want to listen to her brother again this morning. She had had enough of his persistence and felt a tinge of irritation over the first line of the invitation, clearly written as a message to her:
While we live, let us LIVE
Your company is desired to dine with
Lord Frederick Philipse and the family of Philipse
At the Manor of Philipse
On the second month, 14th day,
Of the seventeen hundred and fifty-sixth year
Dinner to be on the table at six o’clock
Musical Entertainment at eight o’clock
Dancing to commence at nine o’clock
A group of select guests received these special invitations which included the private banquet ahead of the dancing. Expected to be welcomed in stately manner was Washington. The colonel was becoming one of only a few so highly esteemed in the military.
Hanging in an ornate frame beside the invitation on the second-floor landing of the manor was a diagram of the guests’ placement. Mary walked over to it. The principal guest of the evening, Washington, would be seated at the head of the long refectory table, flanked on his right by her brother and on the left by Susannah with her true. Next to Frederick would be Mary.
She took a breath. So close.
Mary was involved with each of the stages of the elaborate event, as her brother and sister requested. For the past month, she worked with a dancing master of her own choosing for another part of the evening that made her feel ill at ease. Even after intensive instruction, she wasn’t sure of her readiness. This was not due to his coaching. Dancing was an area for which the gift of natural talent was not afforded her. Whenever she pushed herself to try before at previous balls, dames around her muttered the words—“inelegant,” “untaught,” “unready.”
Mary heard delicate footsteps climb the stairs. Her sister leaned against a banister, elegantly posed. Mary wasn’t sure she knew any other way to stand.
“The time is drawing near,” Susannah chimed. “Your dancing lesson commences in one hour’s time, and we depart for your final fitting immediately afterward, my sister.”
“What if there’s a chill? The gown seems too open to be worn on a night like tonight.”
“You may find a gentleman’s arms to warm you, Polly. Quite a few will be attending tonight’s ball and certainly one in particular.”
The evening had been conjured up by Susannah. She had found love in Major Beverley Robinson. His brother, the Honorable John Robinson, carried the title of Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses. It was John Robinson who was in communication via letter with Colonel Washington. Beverley and John had spent many afternoons in childish play with George while growing up as neighbors and young schoolmates in Virginia.
At Susannah’s urging, an invitation to Washington was delivered directly to the colonel, inviting him to stay at the Philipse family estate. “The ball comes at a perfect time of year, Polly.” Mary knew to what she was referring. “‘For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,’” said Susannah.
“‘When every bird cometh there to chose his mate.’” The sisters recited in unison a line from Geoffrey Chaucer.
“I believe I have the perfect mate for the colonel to choose.”
“There will be many belles from whom the colonel may choose.”
“Correct you are. Many a lady in New York has found the stories of the hero intriguing, especially as he has evaded the capture of matrimony. But there stands none so beautiful as you, Miss Polly Philipse.”
“There are no what ifs.” Susannah folded her arms. “There will be no what ifs. Not tonight, my sister, not tonight. Now, change into your practice clothes.”
Mary headed into her bedchamber. This night would be the first time the sisters would meet the gentleman whom Major Robinson often praised. The major was not alone in his opinion of the newly appointed colonel. Commanders and laymen alike spoke of George Washington as a man guided by Providence. Mary knew this from her reading of The New-York Mercury. Nearly every newspaper in the colonies and in London had printed the Journal of Major George Washington. The edition of the Mercury was neatly placed at perfect eye level on a shelf of her bookcase. She’d read Washington’s firsthand account of his exposure to peril on the frontier, engrossed by his escapes from death. The hardships he survived through his acts of bravery were far from the comforts of polite life in New York.
For more than two years, the newspaper remained here. She would always place the publication back again on the same shelf in the same position after reading it. Mary picked it up, feeling the linen paper on her fingers. She moved toward the window’s light and turned to the page that displayed his writings, in wonderment that on this night, if she found the fortitude, she would meet the man described as having the courage of a hundred men.
He began simply:
I WAS COMMISSIONED and appointed by the Honourable Robert Dinwiddie, Esq; Governor, &c of Virginia, to visit and deliver a Letter to the Commandant of the French Forces on the Ohio, and set out on the intended Journey the same Day …
Tension welled up inside her. She knew well the feelings that overwhelmed her at every other lavish gathering. Mary wanted to attend, but what if …
This time, she hoped it would be different … that she would be different.
She read on.
Copyright © 2019 by Mary Calvi