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Note: This chapter will talk about race relations. I don't intend to harp on it throughout the story, but it is a pivotal part of this chapter, and I'm giving you this warning before you dive in.
The wind picked up the snow as it blew past the coach. The woman climbing down from the carriage shuddered, holding the small child more tightly to her chest. She shushed him as he shook against her, stepping down carefully to the street. Her feet sank fully into the snow, the wet powdery substance covering them completely. Though she could feel her toes becoming numb as the snow melted into the material of her shoes, the woman continued walking, hoping she would be able to keep the feeling in her legs long enough to make the trip back to the coach for her other son.
Setting the young toddler in her arms down on the porch of the shop at the edge of the road, she turned to make her way back out to the coach. A hand on her arm caused her to turn back quickly. She had expected to find her child tugging at her arm, and instead found a woman a little younger than herself coaxing her up onto the porch.
"I have to get my other son." Her voice was hoarse and barely audible. The woman on the porch did not let go of her arm, though. Realizing that she was not going to come up onto the porch, the younger woman leaned down to her.
"Zophar – my husband – went to get your son. Here he is now."
Turning quickly to see a tall man approaching, she could see the twin to the child she had carried through the thick blanket of snow covering the ground in his arms. She noticed that the path she had taken from the coach had been completely obliterated by the continually falling precipitate. The scarf protecting the boy's face from the harsh weather had fallen down, his caramel skin exposed to the elements. As Zophar got closer, she could clearly see the tear tracks on her son's face. Once his feet touched the platform, the boy rushed forward, falling into his mother's arms even as his brother wrapped himself in her skirts to reach her legs.
Marie could clearly see, as she looked at the family, that they had nowhere to go. The porter quietly brought over the two small bags the woman had traveled with, and Zophar discretely tipped him enough for both his service and the driver's. The sound of the carriage pulling away caused the woman to look up sharply. Motioning to the bags, Marie tried to keep her face from reflecting the pity she felt for the woman and her two young boys. The woman nodded, turning back to her children. Several moments passed in silence on the porch before Marie stepped forward, the board under her foot creaking loudly as she moved.
The woman and her children both visibly startled, their eyes wide with fear as they looked up to see Marie approaching. Keeping her face as neutral as possible, she reached her hand out to them, helping the other woman to her feet. "Come inside and warm up a little." The quite tone of Marie's voice was almost stolen away completely by the howls of the passing wind. She leaned forward at seeing the confusion on the other woman's face, raising her voice slightly. "Let us get the children out of the cold." The other woman nodded, following Marie as she led the way into the store.
The boys stamped their feet as they entered, knocking piles of snow from their shoes. The pair looked up as they heard a young girl's giggles. They stared wide-eyed at the child being held in her older brother's arms. Her hands loudly clapped against one another as she struggled in the boy's grasp. Bending double so that her feet touched the ground, he loosened his hold on her to try to get a better grip. Once she was down, though, she had other ideas entirely, quickly waddling across the floor. She chortled the whole way, plopping down next to their boots. She slipped her fingers into the powdery piles on the floor, her hysterical giggles bringing smiles to the boys' faces.
Coming in last with the two small pieces of luggage, Zophar nudged the door closed, shaking his head as he heard Marie begin pestering their daughter. "Pippa, watch your fingers, baby. They cannot see your tiny little hands underneath all that snow."
Shaking his head as he walked to the counter, he whispered to her as he passed. "Marie, let the child play." She colored slightly, still wringing her hands in worry of her child's hands being crushed beneath the boys' boots. Seeing his mother's concern, Jackson motioned the two boys over, showing them the toys he had brought to town. Smiling at her son, Marie breathed a sigh of relief before turning back to the woman who was gently shaking the snow from her coat at the door.
Walking over to help her, Marie gave her a gentle smile. "What brings you to town?" It would have been impossible not to notice the tension that entered her frame. "I am sorry." Marie's voice was soft, barely carrying past the pair. "I do not mean to pry."
Placing her hand gently on Marie's arm, the older woman spoke quietly. "It is alright. I don't mean to offend."
Smiling gently, Marie shook her head. "You certainly have not done." Taking her elbow, Marie led the other woman over to the fire. "Is there at least someone we can contact for you?"
Gingerly sitting on the bench in front of the burning logs, she reached her hands forward, warming them while staring into the fire. After several moments, she answered Marie softly. "No, Madam. I have no family here, other than my two angels." Her gaze flitted from the fire to her sons, still enraptured by the crude, homemade toys. A small smile lifted her lips slightly.
Sitting next to her, Marie let the fire warm her as she watched the boys. Several minutes of silence passed between them before Zophar brought Pippa over, splaying her tiny nearly-frozen fingers before the fire to thaw. Smiling at the little girl as she tried to get free from her father to play in the warmth as she had done the cold, the other woman turned to Marie. "How old is she, Madam?"
"One year and nine months. Yours?"
Still grinning, she turned her attention to her sons. "Two years." Marie nodded, her attention also turning from Pippa's antics with Zophar to the boys. Jackson had handed each of them toys and the three were playing, completely oblivious to their mothers' observation. "Your son?"
"He will turn eight in a few days." Their calm conversation came to an abrupt halt as they overheard Jackson's innocently voiced question.
"Why does your skin look like that?"
Marie blushed a vivid crimson at her son's innocent question. No one in their small hamlet of Burgess was anything other than white. The only other skin color he had heard about – the one that the pastor was quick to denigrate from his pulpit – was red. Though the other woman's skin was darker than her sons', she was visibly embarrassed by the situation as well.
One of the boys shrugged. "Why does yours look like that?"
"Claude!" His mother's hissed admonishment was almost completely drowned out by Zophar's boisterous laughter.
It almost drowned out Jackson's response as well. "I was born like this."
The other boy shrugged. "So were we."
"Caleb!" The other woman dropped any pretense of rebuking them quietly. Both boys hung their heads as they gently placed Jackson's toys on the floor before walking over to her. She turned to Marie. "I am sorry." An accent was slightly audible in her voice. Marie had not noticed it previously. Zophar stood from his position by the fire, passing Pippa to his wife. He knelt down beside the other woman.
"They are only children." His smile was gentle, though slightly forced. She nodded, her eyes not venturing to his face. One of the boys met his gaze, however, causing the smile to fade completely. Leaning closer to her, Zophar kept his voice as quiet as he was able. "I have to ask..."
She nodded, reaching into a pocket in the skirt of her dress along the waistline. Pulling out some slightly wrinkled papers, she smoothed the creases from them, her hand shaking the entire time. She still kept her eyes averted, not looking at Zophar even as she handed them to him. He thanked her softly as she took them, looking them over carefully. As he handed them back to her, Marie noticed that his smile was no longer forced. She was grateful for that. The woman had carried herself as a freewoman, so she had thought little more on the matter.
"Well, Madam March, may I ask what brings you our way?"
She looked up at his face, her eyes reflecting tears she refused to allow to fall. "My marriage is no longer legal in my home." Gasping softly, Marie's right hand flew to cover her mouth even as her left reached out to comfort the other woman. Zophar passed her a handkerchief. Nodding, the newcomer dabbed her eyes gently. One of the boys climbed up into her lap, the other laid his head on her arm. Running her fingers gently through one of the twin's hair, she continued, her voice filled with her sorrow.
"My husband, he... We lived in Deerfield when the French came. His friends did not welcome me, so we moved from Wells. Word reached us later that the French and their allies had come there. We worried, of course. So when the French came to Deerfield, we were terrified. My boys were only a few months old." She stopped for a moment, taking a shuddering breath before continuing. "I was a servant when Paul and I met. He paid for my freedom. But the slaves in Deerfield did not know that when they told me about the tunnels."
Her voice cracked, the events of Deerfield playing out in her mind as though they had happened mere moments before she began talking.
"It was horrifying. The French... They were barbaric. I was not ashamed to hide, to hold my sweet babies in my arms as I followed a near stranger through tunnels winding underneath the city. They did not want to take Paul, but I made them." She shuddered at the memories, blinking rapidly as she fought off tears. She did not see Jackson walk over to her and sit at her feet, enraptured by her tale.
"We came out of the tunnel just behind the French line. The snow was still falling, and we were quickly covered in it. Our dark skin helped keep us in shadow in the night, hidden from the soldiers who were attacking the city. We rushed to the trees, turning to watch as the town was burned." She was quiet for several moments, gently dabbing at her eyes. Zophar handed her a glass of water. Thanking him, she sipped it slowly before handing returning the glass. "I can still hear their screams. They were so loud, so filled with pain, I thought that certainly everyone in the town was dying. The French allowed their allies to enslave the white men they took from the town, and now they play at being able to negotiate their return." She stopped to take a deep breath, her voice wavering as she continued. "And even as they spend time trying to recover those families, they use what little power they have to try to rip apart other families."
Marie leaned forward, placing a hand gently over the woman's hand, clenched tightly around Zophar's handkerchief. "Who?"
"The Massachusetts authorities – the same men who send troops to attack French villages in retaliation and men into Acadia to negotiate several months ago... These same men want to take my babies from me. It does not matter to them that I have my freedom. It only matters to them that my boys are not what they call pure."
Jackson's brow was furrowed in confusion. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but a sharp shake of his father's head kept him from voicing what he wanted to know.
"Paul... He went with one of the groups of soldiers into Acadia. He has not yet returned, but some of the men who left with him have. I can not help but think the worst." Her voice cracked as she spoke, the uncertainty of her husband's life difficult for her to bear. The two boys wrapped their arms around her tightly, the one who was standing letting go after a moment to step back and look into her eyes.
"Vea?" The boy's voice was soft, almost inaudible.
"Does this mean we can call you mama now?"
Tears fell freely down Marie's face.
Samuel Vetch lit the imported cigar, slowly drawing on it as he relaxed into the high-backed chair. He allowed himself a small smile at the rich taste filling his mouth. He closed his eyes as he inhaled the sweet vapors, pointedly ignoring the sounds of the other men in the room. Approaching footsteps preceded the sound of the chair next to him creaking as someone seated themselves. Cracking open his right eye, Vetch saw the governor motioning to the servant to bring him a whiskey. He let his eye fall closed again, knowing that his old friend would speak when he was ready.
"Eleven, Samuel?" Several light puffs followed the question. He kept his eyes closed until he heard the clinking of ice. Slowly sitting upright in the chair, he opened his eyes as he slipped the cigar from his mouth.
"How many more did you want us to bring back?"
Silence greeted him. Even the sounds Samuel had expected were absent. He turned to see his friend staring at him, frustration plastered on his face. "It was bad enough that they went to the five nations. This is incredibly suspect behavior."
Samuel frowned. "Joseph." He sat up a little straighter, laying his cigar against the edge of the dish set aside for ashes. He took care not to stub it out before he turned to the side to face his longtime friend. "We had spoken at length of the lucrative nature of the venture. Before you condemn the entire enterprise, did you happen to examine what came back with those eleven captives?"
Joseph rested his elbow on the arm of the chair, his forefinger and thumb taking up residence on opposite sides of the bridge of his nose. "I saw the ship's manifest. And I saw what was actually in the hold. That is not the issue, Samuel." Sitting up straighter, he lowered his hand, meeting his old friend's gaze. "Those are people whose welfare I am responsible for."
"You were responsible for it – until they were captured." Samuel leaned back into the chair once more, gingerly picking up his cigar and closing his eyes. "The French allowed the Indians to enslave them. They are now no more than property." He took a long, slow draw from his cigar, rolling the flavor on his tongue before exhaling the smoke. "Do you know any way to get Indians to relinquish their property other than trade?"
Joseph grunted, relaxing back into his chair slightly. He was far from appeased, but recognized the truth of the statement. He took several stilted sips from his glass, not entirely certain how to phrase the response to Samuel. He needed the entrepreneur to understand that not only was popular sentiment against them, but there were political powers who would gladly see them both beheaded for treason. Samuel's huff of breath was clearly audible.
"Joseph, we offered the French things we cannot honor." Samuel looked over sharply as the governor's glass clinked harshly against the table sitting between them. "It matters not. I am not a citizen of England, nor a subject of her queen. So I cannot be held accountable for those agreements."
The governor leaned over the table, his voice barely more than a hiss as he responded. "Your argument is moot. You went as a representative of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Regardless of your nationality, any agreements you made must be honored!" Joseph's anger was visible in the lines of his face. His mouth was drawn into a grotesque moue of disgust, not believing the idiocy in which his business partner had engaged.
The color had slowly drained from Samuel's face. Waiting for Joseph to lean back into his chair, the Scotsman stubbed his cigar out in the dish. He sat on the edge of his seat, unsure exactly how he was going to answer his old friend. Clasping his hands together, he leaned his elbows on his knees, hanging his head slightly. Facing the governor, Samuel stared at him in silence for a few moments.
"Regardless of the promises, the fact remains that the negotiations are still underway. We can certainly rewrite the agreement, and changes can easily be blamed on the councilmen." Relaxing the overly firm grip he had maintained on his glass, Joseph nodded at the statement. "It is also indisputable that the best method of recovery is through trade. It is imperative that if we are to recover the English captives, we establish commercial routes with the natives."
The governor steepled his fingers, carefully considering his old friend's argument. After several moments, he nodded. He would simply have to find another focus for the ire of his political opponents. Failing that, he would require more powerful allies.
Joseph smiled, picking up his cigar. He motioned to the servant standing nearby to relight it, dismissing him once he was able to take a strong pull. Relaxing back into his chair, he exhaled the smoke, allowing his eyes to close once more.
"And if we happen to profit from this misery, what of it?"
The movement of the shadows in the corner seemed to Joseph to be a trick of the light. He could not, however, explain away the maniacal laughter that echoed through the room after Samuel's final words.