The Purchase: A Novel
By Linda Spalding
Publisher: Random House Publishing
All rights reserved.
Daniel looked over at the daughter who sat where a wife should sit. Cold sun with a hint of snow. The new wife rode behind him like a stranger while the younger children huddled together, coughing and clenching their teeth. The wind shook them and the wagon wounded the road with its weight and the river gullied along to one side in its heartless way. It moved east and north while Daniel and all he had in the world went steadily the other way, praying for fair game and tree limbs to stack up for shelter. "We should make camp while it's light," said the daughter, who was thirteen years old and holding the reins. But Daniel wasn't listening. He heard a wheel grating and the river gullying. He heard his father – the memory of that lost, admonishing voice – but he did not hear his daughter, who admonished in much the same way.
Some time later the child pulled the two horses to a halt, saying again that they must make camp while the sky held its light. The new wife arranged dishes on the seat of the wagon, and the child, whose name was Mary, pulled salted meat out of a trunk at the back. It was their fifth day on the road and such habits were developing. By morning there would be snow on the ground, the fire would die, and the children would have to move on without warm food or drink. They would take up their places in the burdened wagon while Daniel's fine Pennsylvania mares shied and balked and turned in their tracks. A man travelling on horseback might cover a hundred miles in three days, but with a wagon full of crying or coughing children, the mountainous roads of Virginia were a sorrow made of mud and felled trees and devilish still-growing pines.
The children, being young and centred on their own thoughts, were only dimly aware of the hazards of the road and of the great forest hovering. They hardly noticed the mountains, which were first gentle and then fierce, because all of it came upon them as gradually as shapes in an unhappy dream. The mountains only interrupted a place between land and sky. The forest got thicker and darker on every side. They had, within a few weeks, watched their mother die, given up home and belongings, landscape and habits, school and friends. They had watched people become cold to them, shut and lock doors to deny them entrance. How were they to understand? There were other wagons leaving Pennsylvania and going south and west, but none were so laden with woe as the one that carried the five children and the widower and his new bride.
Daniel spoke of the trees and told his children which were the yellow pine and which the white oak. He pointed to a deer standing still as vegetation in the bushes, but he made no effort to hunt or to fish for the beings that swam in the streams. As a Quaker, he did not own a gun and would depend on his store of food until he could raise his own crops. It was November, an ill-advised time for travel, but in spite of rain and cold winds and sore throats, he looked down at the rushing river and told himself that he had no choice. The Elders had cast him out. He had been disowned and now he was rudderless, homeless, alone on a crowded road. He did not count the new wife or the children as companions. They were plants uprooted before they had formed into shape or type. They were adrift on this high road above a river that divided them from everything they had come to expect. "When I inherit we will have a good piece of land," his dear Rebecca had said whenever he'd chafed at his dependence on her family. She had always said it and he had eventually decided there was no shame in having a wealthy wife. He had spent twelve years working for the tobacco firm owned by his father-in-law, but then Rebecca had sickened after her fifth childbirth. All so sudden, it had been, and everyone bewildered while Daniel stared into the flame of his wife's bedside candle, trying to understand. Neglecting his work and forgetting to eat or wash, he gave over the details of the children's daily care to a fifteen-year-old girl he had brought in from the almshouse, an orphan. Her name was Ruth Boyd.
Mother Grube fussed in the kitchen while Rebecca lay in her four-poster bed holding her husband's sleeve. The entire Grube family kept arriving and departing without announcement, but when Rebecca died, on the twenty-first day after Joseph's birth, they seemed to evaporate. The sisters were married, with large families of their own, and the parents were elderly. Alone in his study, while neighbours brought food to the kitchen door, Daniel wept and prayed and waited to learn what was required of him.
"Thee shall cause scandal by keeping the servant girl in thy house," his father admonished. "Thee must find a proper mother for thy orphans."
"Ruth Boyd is also an orphan," Daniel had replied. It was a listless argument nevertheless. He had taken her from the almshouse on a bond of indenture and did not feel he could return her. He said simply, "I cannot take her back there." He thought of the way she had run out to his wagon wearing a torn plaid dress and boots so old they were split at the sides. Her cape was unmended, her felt hat unclean.
"And when thee is written out of the meeting for keeping an unmarried girl?" his father had asked. "Then where will thee go?"
"I will go to Virginia." It was a muttering, a threat. "Land of tolerance."
"Land of slavery." Daniel's father had a mason's heavy hands. "And does thee know what James Madison has done there?"
"Yes, Father. But it is only a very mild law which holds ..."
"Which holds the constitution in contempt," the old man spluttered, "although the Virginians are intent on breeding presidents and, in fear of justified reprisal by the Federalists, are building a militia." Daniel's father had taken his hat off and was fanning his face. "Next they will decide to leave the Union altogether."
"There is religious freedom ..." In Brandywine, the Elders sat in judgment, measuring each person's response to the voice of God within. Discipline. The sense of the Meeting.
"And no paid labour to be had," his father had stated gloomily.
"I shall labour for myself." This was said with a hint of sinful pride. "Thee once quoted John Woolman to me that if the leadings of the spirit were attended to, more people would be engaged in the sweet employment of husbandry." Daniel had gone out to his horse then, remounted, and tried to imagine himself as different from the quiet, internalized person he had always been. He would make himself worthy of farm work, although he had so far never lifted a hand in such labour. He would find rolling land and a fast- running creek. He would drive his children through the Blue Ridge Mountains and by the time they found a homeplace none of them would look back. They had already crossed the Potomac at Evan Watkins's ferry. They had pushed on into Virginia, the old Commonwealth. The children would see this as adventure instead of exile.
Excerpted from The Purchase by Linda Spalding. Copyright 2013 by Linda Spalding. Excerpted by permission of Knopf/Doubleday Publishing Group, a divison of Random House, Inc.
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