Authors: Elizabeth George Speare
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
Copyright © 1957 by Elizabeth George Speare
Copyright © renewed 1985 Elizabeth George Speare
All rights reserved. For information about permission
to reproduce selections from this book, write to
Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 57-9017
HC ISBN 0-618-15075-7 PA ISBN 0-618-15076-5
Printed in the United States of America
EB 10 9
, 1754, on the brink of the French and Indian War, James Johnson, his wife Susanna, and their children were captured in an Indian raid on Charlestown, New Hampshire. They were taken from their home, forced to march through the wilderness to die north, and sold to the French in Montreal, where they were held for ransom. Years later, when she was nearly seventy years old, Susanna Johnson wrote an account of this journey, and it is from her narrative that the main events of this story are taken.
Captured with Susanna and her family was a younger sister, Miriam Willard. Her imagined adventures, as they might have happened, are recounted here.
was the last guest to leave the party. Miriam Willard had been aware, watching from the corner of her eye, of how he had maneuvered to be the last one out the door. The others were already out of sight down the dark path, keeping close together, their laughter and boisterous spirits stilled. The women hurried nervously beside the silent men who kept to the outside of the path, muskets ready at hand, for of late the Indians lurked very close to the settlement. But Phineas seemed in no hurry to join them. He stood just inside the warm lighted cabin, leaning easily against the heavy doorpost, as though the evening were just beginning. The crest of his short fair hair, bleached by the summer sun, reached a good four inches above the lintel log, so that he would have to duck his head to go through the door. Miriam, who was going to be small like all the Willard women, had to tip her head back to look at him.
"'Twas a very fine party," he said. "I had no idea that New Hampshire would be such a gay place."
Miriam's gray eyes widened. Could he be serious? "You can't judge by tonight," she protested. "Could you have seen us this summer you wouldn't have found us very gay."
"Are you sure it is not always a holiday here?" he persisted, as though he had not had plenty of chance to observe, in the past few days, the endless struggle it took just to survive in this northern settlement. "Watching you tonight, I should have thought you spent every evening dancing the reel."
Had that been true she would know better how to answer him, Miriam thought. She wished she had some easy bantering words like his own; but what chance had she ever had, here in the wilderness, to practice such words?
"To tell the truth," she admitted instead, "'tis the very first party I've ever been to. Once when the sawmill went up they danced on the new boards, but I was too young to be allowed."
"Then I'm thankful I came in time for your first party," said Phineas, dropping his teasing. "And 'twas the first I've been to for a long time. My family doesn't hold much with dancing. Besides, I've been away from home for two months. You can't guess what it means, after tramping through the woods for so long, to find such friendly folks. It is going to be hard for me to leave this place."
Miriam had always said straight out whatever came into her head, and the question was out now, before she could think better of it.
"Must you leave soon?" she asked him, and then gave herself away still further by a scarlet blush.
"I have to enter Harvard College in a few weeks," he answered. "I am going to study for the ministry. And with the war starting up again, travel is uncertain, and there may be delays on the way back. That is why I have to speak more urgently to you than I should. We have so few days left to get acquainted, Miriam. Will you think less of me if I make the most of them?"
No one had ever spoken to her like that before, nor looked at her as this young man was looking—so intently that she was not sure how her voice would sound if she tried to answer. Finally she grasped at a safe topic.
"I've heard about Harvard College. It must be a very grand place."
"Oh no, not grand at all. 'Tis a place for working and studying very hard. I visited there once. I'll tell you about it—if I may stay a little?"
Miriam looked back over her shoulder, but her sister and brother-in-law gave her no encouragement at all. Susanna, pretending not to notice the pair in the doorway, was already snuffing out the candles, scraping wax from the oak table where it had overflowed the saucer, and James stood in the middle of the room giving way to a great yawn. Phineas could scarcely miss such a hint.
"What must they think of me?" he said with chagrin. "I know it is far too late. After all, there is tomorrow, isn't there?"
"Of course there's tomorrow," Miriam smiled. "And I'm sure Susanna will invite you for supper. Now see if you can catch up with the others, Phineas. 'Tis not wise to walk far by yourself."
Still he lingered, lowering his voice so that only her ears could hear. "Do you realize," he asked, "that tomorrow morning will be the fifteenth time I have seen you? That first day you were standing inside the gate as we came in. The second time was when you brought the lunch to your brother in the clearing."
So he had noticed even then! Miriam kept her eyes on the line where the edge of her blue dress hid the crack on the floor. It was on the tip of her tongue to say that all of those fifteen meetings had not been by accident. She had been hard put to it to find excuses for so many trips to the fort. But Phineas hurried on, saving her from such an unseemly confession.
"There I go," he checked himself, mistaking her silence. "There'll be a better time to say such things. But not time enough. When I think how it was the smallest chance that brought me to Charlestown!"
Chance? Or was it something more than chance, this meeting? The question trembled in the air as plain as though one of them had spoken it. Suddenly the moment was too full.
"I am really going now," he determined, swinging open the door. But his steady blue gaze went on speaking so unmistakably that Miriam had to look away.
"You must hurry," she whispered, both regretful and relieved, "or they will have barred the gate."
She bolted the heavy log door securely behind him as he strode off down the path. Then she turned impatiently back to the room. How could they be sleepy? She herself was wide awake to her very toes, though it was well past midnight and she had been up before dawn, sewing when she could scarcely see the needle. She could have danced right through till morning. The air about her still seemed to vibrate with the twang of the fiddle and stamp of boots on the board floor.
For all her busyness with the candles, Susanna had not missed a detail. "So," she observed now, "we're to have company for supper tomorrow?"
Miriam was in a mood to ignore both the sharpness and the curiosity that shone in her sister's eyes. "You don't mind, do you Susanna?" she coaxed. "Oh, it was such a wonderful party! When can we have another?" Her hoopskirt swayed as her feet tapped out a soundless measure.
"If you want another party," Susanna snapped, tart from sleepiness, "you can help a little next time instead of sitting in a corner sewing a dress all day long." But she softened as she looked again at her sister, at the vivid young face, the shining gray eyes, the slim figure in the flowered calico.
"I guess it was worth it, at that," she admitted. "The dress is lovely, though 'tis a wonder some of that basting held, the way you were swinging through the reel. You do have a knack for sewing, Miriam."
"I will help next time," Miriam promised quickly. "But I couldn't go to my first party in that old brown homespun." She smoothed the skirt of the new dress, marveling at the way the clear blue had turned to a soft gray in the dim light from the embers. She did have a knack. Her grandmother had taught her to cut and match, to take tiny even stitches. But no one had taught her how to mold the bodice snugly around her tiny waist, or how to gather the skirt so that it swirled just so about her ankles. "Besides, if it hadn't been for the dress—" She couldn't finish the sentence.
Susanna laughed, seeing the pink come up in her cheeks. "I know. The young man from Boston might not have noticed. Looks like you've got yourself a beau, Miriam. Do you think I didn't see how his eyes followed you every move you made?"
James laughed sleepily, and reached out a long arm to give Miriam's chestnut curls a playful tug.
"What's happened to our little sister?" he asked. "Two months ago you were just a little redheaded tomboy. Seems hardly fair to fool a young fellow like that."
"She's as old as I was when you met me," Susanna reminded him, "and 'tis high time she had a little fun. It has been a dull summer for her."
"Be thankful 'twas dull," said James. "Could have been worse." His eyes were gentle as he looked at his wife. In another month her fourth baby would be born, and although she had not complained, the strain of the summer had put dark smudges under her eyes and an unaccustomed edge to her voice. Tonight she had been more like her old self, enlivening with her merry wit the sober faces of her guests, filling their cups with flip, or sitting contentedly against the wall watching the twirling couples.
"It is almost over," James reminded her now. "In a few weeks we will be back in Massachusetts. Have you told Miriam that she is coming with us?"
Miriam stared from one to the other. "Me? You mean you'll take me with you—to stay?"
"Do you want to go, Miriam?" asked Susanna. "Or would you rather stay here at Number Four and keep house for Father?"
Miriam's brightness clouded over. "Does Father want me to stay?"
"He says not, though he's like to be lonely when we've gone. Anyway, he may have to march off with the forces any day, and you shouldn't be here alone. You need more young ones your own age, and you can help the girls with their reading while Sylvanus is at school."
Miriam flung her arms rapturously around her sister. "Oh, Susanna, if you knew how I've hoped you would take me! I hate Number Four! I never want to see that fort again. 'Tis too good to be true. No dreadful Indians screeching in the night! And other girls to talk to!"