“That son of yours is incorrigible, Mary, and if he were home today I’d be tempted to beat him with a horsewhip.”
Johanna was perched on the settee, carding wool in one end of the long parlor, and when her mistress swept into the room she tried to make herself as invisible as possible, knowing from experience that the sharpness of the lady’s eyes was matched only by her tongue. But fortunately at the moment both the lady and her companion were too preoccupied to notice the downstairs maid, and spoke as freely in front of her as if she possessed no greater powers of observation than the loom and spinning wheel she often employed.
Mary Hopkins said, “Well, Brother, what has Tom done this time that you’re so upset about?”
Johanna peeked at the pair from the corner of her eye. Mary may have been a beauty in her day, with her fine dark eyes and well-chiseled nose and mouth, and even now could be called a handsome woman, in spite of the touch of disdain in her countenance. Her green silk gown, worn on a weekday and not the Sabbath, proclaimed her social position, as did the waistcoat, knee breeches, and silver buckles on the shoes of her companion. The man who had followed her into the parlor now dropped into a chair and stretched his long legs toward the fire. His dark eyes and fine features resembled the lady’s, but his expression was grim, and when he spoke his voice was more subdued.
He said, “Farmer Dawson spoke to me today on his way to market. He told me that Tom has been inveigling his daughter’s affections. She’s been sneaking off, and the neighbors have spotted them together, alone.”
“Oh.” Johanna, glancing at her again, saw Mary lift one shoulder in a barely perceptible shrug. “And what did you tell him?”
“I told him that I would speak to Tom, which of course is impossible, now that he’s run off to New York again.”
Johanna thought she perceived a hint of irony in the man’s tone, but her mistress ignored it.
“I’m sure Tom has no serious intentions toward Rachel Dawson, after all.”
“That’s exactly the point, Mary. Her father could bring charges against him, and I won’t have the least bit of sympathy for him if he does.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Andy Dawson, Justin. In my opinion he just needs to keep his daughter under better control.”
Justin opened his mouth as if to speak, then seemed to reconsider. For a moment he sat in silence, then kicked a stray wood chip toward the fire. Finally he said, “I do wish you hadn’t sent Tom to New York again. He has far too much freedom there and doesn’t use any of it for good.”
“Young men his age need some freedom. You were always too serious for your age, Justin. Tom will settle down in a few years.”
“He gambled away that money I gave him to pay for the lumber, and never had to pay it back.”
“What difference does it make? It will all be his someday anyway.”
“Aye, and he'll lose it all.”
Johanna peeked up at the two of them, framed by the lintel of the huge fireplace, silhouetted by the light of the fire like a handsome painting of colonial gentry. But Mary Hopkins was apparently all too ready to change the subject and at that precise moment happened to glance around the room and spy her servant peering around the edge of the settee.
“Johanna! What are you doing here?”
Johanna rose to her feet, hoping by her downcast eyes to appear meek and dutiful. “Carding wool, madam.”
“You don’t need to do that in the parlor. Get back to the kitchen where you belong.”
Johanna was halfway to the door when her mistress stopped her. “And another thing, Johanna. I noticed when you scrubbed the pots yesterday you rearranged them all in the kitchen.”
“Aye, madam, I was trying to put them in order by?”
Mary cut her off. “Johanna, there’s no reason for you to be changing things, when I give you a job to do. Go back to the kitchen now and put them back the way they were.”
Johanna bit hard on her lip and turned on her heel to hide her expression, her thick yellow braid bouncing on her shoulder as she stalked to the kitchen door. She opened the door, resisting the urge to slam it as the pungent odor of baking shad assaulted her, and she heard the man named Justin ask, “Is she a new servant?”
“Aye, I got her last month from New York, and I think her first mistress must have been terribly lax with her. If I don’t tell her exactly what to do, she just does what she pleases. Imagine using the parlor to card wool! But she only cost me five guineas with sixteen months left on her indenture, so it was a good bargain: seven shillings a month. And she’s a good worker when she bothers to listen…”
Johanna marched to the wall beside the fireplace and pulled all the pots into a heap, hoping her mistress could hear the clatter from the parlor. Patience, the kitchen maid, turned to watch her.
“Johanna, what are you doing?”
Johanna scowled. “The Duchess didn’t like the way I arranged the pots, so I have to put them back the way they were. 'There’s no reason for you to be changing things,’” she mimicked.
Patience giggled. “I told you she would make a fuss.”
“Why? I thought they looked better this way. Didn’t you?”
“It ain’t that,” Patience said. “She don’t like nobody to do nothing without asking.”
“My old mistress wasn’t so bossy.”
“Oh, Mistress Hopkins ain’t so bad,” said Patience. “After all, she hardly ever beats us, unless she’s really provoked.”
“I suppose.” Johanna sighed, and began to replace the pots. “It’s just the way she talks to us, so superior, like she’s Queen Mary herself.” Johanna laughed suddenly at the unexpected pun she had made.
Patience giggled again. “You wouldn’t believe it to see her now, but her father was only a joiner.”
“A joiner!” Johanna exclaimed, and almost added, “Why, my father was more genteel than that!” but she stopped herself in time. She had learned, since coming to the Hopkins household, that the other servants did not take kindly to references to her background. They were mostly from the uneducated laboring ranks; many of them could not read or write. During her first week here one careless display of her book learning had earned her the reputation for being uppity. So now she was careful to downplay it whenever possible.
And it was true that, although her family had been educated, they were certainly not wealthy. Her father had been a Dutch Reformed minister, but barely more affluent than the poor villagers which composed his flock. Johanna remembered wearing her cousin’s old cast-off clothes, and weeks when the same scanty food would appear on the table night after night, and even some times in the winter when their fuel had run out and the children had bundled up in cloaks and scarves to keep warm. Still, it had been a happy childhood, the happiest part of her life so far. As a girl she had taken the privations for granted, and it was only when she was older that she realized how poor they really were - when her parents were dead and she had nothing to rely upon but the providence of God, the charity of relatives, and her own good sense.
Life as an indentured servant was certainly no life of ease and luxury, but still, she told herself when she was tempted to question her past choices, it was better than life as a poor relation. At least now she knew that she was earning her own keep, and she did not have to concoct a false gratitude for the privilege of being treated as a servant. And she was one of the luckier ones, as Patience had said. There were cruel masters and mistresses, ones who beat their servants and abused them in other ways. Johanna’s first mistress had become rather fond of her and treated her almost as a companion, which was why this new one seemed difficult. But she could handle Mistress Hopkins's sharp eyes and critical tongue, if she had nothing worse to suffer.
She said to Patience, “If her father was only a joiner she’s certainly come up in the world!”
“It was her marriage,” Patience explained. “Her husband was the one with the money. The master now - he was a hard one. ’Tis certainly been more pleasant around here since he died. Though perhaps ’tis wicked to talk that way about a dead person.”
“What was he like?” Johanna asked, her curiosity aroused.
“He had a terrible temper. Mercy! You should have seen him when he got angry! He used to beat us for any little reason. And the children, too. And,” she lowered her voice, “there was one time when he was drunk I saw him knock the mistress to the floor.”
Johanna winced. “What did she do when he did that?”
“Do? What could she do? She was afraid of him, like everybody else.”
“I would have done something,” Johanna said. “I wouldn’t let anyone treat me that way.”
Patience shrugged. “There wasn’t much she could do. And I suppose for money a person puts up with a lot.”
“Not me,” Johanna said firmly. “I wouldn’t marry someone like that, not if he were the richest man in the world.”
Patience laughed. “Me, I wouldn’t mind having the chance.”
Johanna laughed too. Then she was silent a moment, thinking, as she carefully placed a pot on its hook on the wall.
Finally she said, “I really don’t care so much about being rich. I don’t particularly want to be poor, either. But if I had a nice comfortable home - not so fine as this - and a good husband who loved me, that’s all I’d want.”
Patience glanced up, raised her eyebrows, but said nothing, and Johanna knew she had made another error. She knew she was not really prettier than the other girls—she had the sort of looks that some men seemed to admire and others completely overlooked. But she guessed that something about the way she talked and carried herself exuded a confidence that she was destined for a better life than being a serving maid forever. She tried not to put on airs, as one of the menservants had once accused her of. Her confidence was a result of education and breeding, not deliberate snobbery, but she also guessed that a girl like Patience would believe she was overreaching to demand a comfortable home and a loving husband.
The kitchen door opened and Tib, the upstairs maid, sallied in. She was also a bondmaid, like Johanna, but a few years older and many years wiser. She was plump, attractive, and saucy, with a wealth of red hair continually escaping from her cap, and ample hips that swayed generously when she walked. Johanna knew that the menservants enjoyed her in more ways than one.
“Where have you been?” Johanna asked. “The mistress was after me, complaining that you hadn’t changed the bed-linen in Master Tom’s room. And I told her I didn’t know where you were.”
“Dickon and me, we went for a little stroll together.” Tib gave them a wicked grin. “And - well, the time just got away from us.”
Johanna shrugged. “I hope the Duchess doesn’t find out. You know what she’d say.”
Tib laughed at Johanna’s epithet. “You’d better hope she doesn’t hear you call her that. She wouldn’t think it was funny at all. As for me,” she shrugged and smiled to herself, “Dickon’s worth anything the mistress could do to me. I couldn’t hardly make him stop as it was.”
Johanna and Patience exchanged self-conscious glances. Tib seemed to enjoy shocking them with stories of her adventures with men, and they often heard her with a mixture of disapproval and fascination. Johanna’s own experience with men consisted of a few chaste kisses with the cooper’s apprentice in New York, and now, at nineteen, she had all the eager curiosity of a healthy and innocent young woman. She was often torn between a virtuous sense that she shouldn’t listen and the avid desire to learn as much as she could.
“I could never act like Tib,” she thought, blushing, on more than one occasion. Still, she fully intended to marry someday, and it would be useful to have a little knowledge, and not go into the experience unprepared. She thought that, with the right man, it would be most exciting.
She said to Tib, “If you hurry up and do your work, maybe the mistress won’t know.”
Tib flitted back toward the door. “Help Patience with the dinner, will you, Johanna? I’ll do the same for you next time.” And she was gone.
Johanna, who had finished with the pots, went to the table where Patience was cutting up vegetables for dinner. She picked up a knife and began to peel a carrot. “I don’t know how she gets away with it,” she murmured to Patience. “What if she has a baby? He couldn’t marry her until her indenture is completed. And the mistress could claim extra service from her. Doesn’t that ever worry her?”
“Tib don’t worry much,” Patience said. “And I suppose it must be mighty fine, having all them fellows liking you.”
Johanna turned to look at Patience’s rather plain features and rabbity appearance. Her eyes were gray, and rather lashless, her hair a nondescript brown without a hint of gold; she had a long chin and pockmarked skin. She would never attract men in droves, but she was good-natured and hard-working, and she would make someone a good wife. A farmer’s wife, Johanna thought, with a bunch of little rabbity children just like her. She almost giggled at the thought.
“You know why all those fellows like her,” she said to Patience. “If you acted that way, they’d all be after you too.”
“Maybe.” Patience chewed her lip a moment. “Isaac thought you were mighty pretty, when you first came. How come you wouldn’t walk out with him?”
“Well, you know I can’t marry for another sixteen months. And neither can he. So?” Johanna hesitated. “I wondered exactly what he was looking for.”
“I only have sixteen months left on my indenture and I can hardly wait. I’m not doing anything to mess it up.”
But Johanna knew that was only part of the truth. Sixteen months was not such a long courtship, after all. The truth was that she really couldn’t picture herself marrying Isaac either now or ever. Johanna rated intelligence highly in a man, and she couldn’t quite imagine marrying someone that was not at least her equal in that area. She wanted a man like her father, one who liked to think and read books. But none of the young men who ever showed an interest in her were even remotely like the one she pictured.
Perhaps I’m being too particular, she had thought on more than one occasion. The type of man she wanted would probably not look twice at an indentured servant. But she wouldn’t be indentured forever.
Sixteen months! She was forever repeating the words to herself, like a talisman. In sixteen months she would be free, she could go wherever she liked and do whatever she pleased. She could actually earn money for herself and spend it as she wished. Of course, she didn’t expect to be rich, at least not right away; she’d probably have to struggle awhile to establish herself. But at least with her freedom she’d have the chance to become something besides a serving maid.
She had hoped, when her first mistress died, to obtain an early freedom - but that hope had proved to be in vain. Her previous mistress was an older widow, a New York midwife, who had trained Johanna as her assistant. Johanna enjoyed the work and had aspirations of becoming a midwife herself someday. It was a skilled and respected profession.
She had really been quite happy in New York, apart from her disappointment in not finding her brother. Her mistress had taken to her and treated her well, and there was satisfaction too in feeling that she was gaining valuable experience for the future. But when the lady died Johanna had completed just three years of her contract, and she became the property of the woman’s son. Not needing a maidservant himself and wanting to realize as much as possible from his mother’s estate, he sold Johanna to Mary Hopkins, a business acquaintance. And so Johanna found herself transplanted to Connecticut.
If only she could find Pieter! she sighed to herself for the hundredth time. Her brother Pieter had come to New York seven years ago and she had crossed the ocean, sold herself as a virtual slave, all in the hopes of seeing him again. He was the only member of her immediate family who was still alive - if he was alive. She had been so sure, when she set out for America from Holland, that she would find him right away, he would buy her freedom, and they would be reunited forever. But she continued to ask about him among all her acquaintances, even writing letters to other towns, all to no avail. No one had heard of Pieter Verseveldt. And here in Connecticut, her chances of locating him were much slimmer.
Perhaps the hardest thing to understand was that she prayed continually and God seemed deaf to her request. Johanna’s faith was simple and childlike, a direct heritage from her devout parents. She considered it such a small thing to ask, that after losing all the rest of her family she be reunited with this one surviving brother. It seemed like such a cruel irony that after coming all this way and enduring years of servitude, she would be denied the final object. But God in his mysterious wisdom had not seen fit to grant her request. After three years of asking in vain she could barely bring herself to frame that particular request again.
She sighed and tried to change the direction of her thoughts. It was blasphemy to question God and his sovereign purposes. She must accept his will humbly and go on. But there were moments when she could not wholly banish the doubts that had begun to seep through the dike which had held them back for so long.
* * *