The sailboat heeled sharply to starboard, bucking against the inrushing tide and contrary winds at the broad mouth of the Hudson River. Entering New York’s Upper Bay, it tacked to the right and hugged the lee of the New Jersey shoreline, indistinct in the darkness, where a scattering of small islands provided concealment from the sleeping British men-of-war that swung lazily on their anchor cables off Staten Island.
Above Elizabeth Howard’s head, the sultry July wind boomed in the bellying sail of the small vessel, incongruously dubbed Implacable. Fluttering Elizabeth’s loose farmer’s smock, it tugged at the broad brim of her battered hat and teased strands of the brown wig beneath that concealed her own deep auburn curls.
She maintained her balance instinctively by shifting her weight with the deck’s rise and fall, in the same movement clamping her hand over her hat’s crown to keep it from flying off her head. After a moment she glanced uneasily toward the black silhouette of the muscular Negro youth who held the tiller steady.
From what she could make out of his easy stance and calm countenance in the fitful ripples of light that reflected up from the waves, he appeared unperturbed. Reassured, she swung back to probe the misty, wooded shoreline of Staten Island drawing rapidly closer off the port bow. To their good fortune, the waning quarter moon had not yet risen, and only faint starlight danced across the fast-running, choppy sea.
“You’re certain this stretch of the island is safe, Pete?” she hissed, keeping her voice to an urgent whisper.
“The nearest farm is more’n a mile that way,” he growled, gesturing off to the west. “Ever’ time I come before, this cove been deserted. I scouted it extra careful.”
Nodding, she took a steadying breath, consciously releasing the tension that clamped her stomach in a knot. “Then let’s pray no one’s developed the urge to wander tonight.”
With practiced skill, Pete negotiated the narrow Kills between the looming bulk of the large island and Bergen Point, jutting out from the New Jersey bluffs. After reefing the sail to slow her speed, he brought the nimble craft into the breakers close to shore.
Elizabeth wasted no time clambering out into the seething surf. “Be back an hour before daybreak. If I’m not waiting for you . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“I’ll find you if I can,” Pete responded, his voice low and grim.
With a grunt she shoved the sailboat back into deeper water. Pete’s only response was to briefly touch his hand to his hat brim. He feathered the Implacable into the current and once more hoisted the graceful sail to the top of the mast.
Elizabeth waited only a moment to watch the boat tack out of reach before turning to wade through the hissing waves to the narrow strip of beach. When she turned again, the vessel’s sail had already diminished to a barely discernible triangle, pale against the gloom that wrapped the New Jersey shore. Though by habit he spoke little, she knew that Pete, the younger son of Isaiah Moghrab, the sergeant of a black platoon in her uncle’s regiment of Continentals, would keep his word.
Heart pounding, she melted into the dense underbrush that cloaked the low, sandy hills above the beach to find a concealed vantage that allowed her to observe the surroundings unseen. For some moments she waited, motionless, watching and listening intently. No unexpected sounds disturbed the sibilance of waves gurgling across the shingle, the sigh of wind in the full-leaved treetops farther inland, and the creak and groan of branches rubbing against one another.
Finally satisfied no one was in the vicinity, she transferred her attention to her damp attire. Although the lower edge of her breeches had been thoroughly drenched by the waves, thankfully her tight fitting, knee-length boots had spared her feet and most of her lower legs. According to Pete, more than two miles lay between her and the British camp, a less than pleasant walk with brine-soaked shoes and wet feet. At least, dressed as one of the local farmers, she should attract little attention in the unlikely event she encountered another wayfarer abroad at this late hour.
Frowning, she struggled to focus her thoughts on her mission. Her safety and the fortunes of the badly outnumbered American army, whose lines stretched all the way from New Jersey to Long Island, depended on her using both caution and daring to secure the intelligence General George Washington needed if he was to counter an attack by British General William Howe’s overwhelming invasion force. Her thoughts, however, stubbornly kept drifting to more personal concerns.
It was past ten o’clock, Sunday, July 7, 1776. It had been a year since Washington had denied permission for her and Brigadier General Jonathan Carleton to wed. A year since the American commander had sent Elizabeth back into the besieged city of Boston to continue spying on the British, and Carleton far to the west to negotiate with the Indian tribes to support the colonists in their rebellion against the British king.
A year since Carleton had disappeared into the wilderness.
In that time, all she and Carleton’s aide, Colonel Charles Andrews, had been able to learn was that Carleton had been captured by the Seneca and enslaved, a fate worse than death. In spite of every effort, they had not been able to find him or even to learn if he was still alive.
At least neither had the British. For they sought Carleton as well --- on charges of treason. The reward offered for his arrest was calculated to tempt even a loyal Son of Liberty to betray the man who, as the spy Patriot, had transmitted crucial military intelligence to the rebels in Boston while serving as British General Thomas Gage’s aide-de-camp.
Elizabeth blinked back stinging tears. Even her deepening relationship with Pieter Vander Groot, a young Dutch doctor in whose surgery she assisted several days a week, had not been able to erase her longing for the shelter of Carleton’s arms or the love that refused to relinquish its claim on her heart. In truth, her growing attraction to this handsome, gentle colleague had only intensified her anguish over Carleton’s unknown fate and equal confusion as to what course the Lord would have her follow.
Her heart contracting, she lifted her face to the warm sea breeze and stared toward the western horizon, beyond which stretched the vast forests into which Carleton had vanished. Despair flooded over her, as it had that afternoon on the terrace at Montcoeur, the temporary home she shared with her aunt Tess Howard on the outskirts of New York City.
Every fiber of her being cried out to go in search of him, to track him down if it took the rest of her life. But sober reflection assured her that such a course would only cause worry and hardship to those she left behind and offered no guarantee of success. For now, all she could do was to keep on blindly trusting that, although she could not understand what good could ever come of hers and Carleton’s suffering, the Almighty had a hidden purpose for their good.
Letting out a lingering sigh, she dashed away her tears with the back of her hand. At length she rose stiffly, then turned with reluctance toward the island’s interior and the duty that called her.
“Hsst! Silence, or I’ll slit yer throat!”
Pulsating purple spots danced in front of Elizabeth’s eyes as her shadowy captor’s fingers dug deeper into her neck. Struggling against his relentless hold, she fought to suck air into her burning lungs.
“Let go! Didn’t mean . . . no harm . . .” The words emerged in a hoarse croak.
Warily the man loosened his grip. When her knees buckled, his arm kept her from collapsing to the ground. She could feel him shaking as much as she was.
“Not a sound now!” he hissed, gesturing toward the rows of tents and campfires short yards away on the other side of the densely overgrown sandbank where they crouched. “If we be discovered, I swear ye’ll be dead afore they get to me!”
Helpless, she nodded, the breath wheezing in her lungs. He jerked her roughly backward, dragging her to the narrow lane down which she had crept with what she had thought exceptional stealth ten minutes earlier.
It was obvious he knew every inch of the vicinity. No crackle of fallen branches or dry leaves betrayed their presence to the camp that sprawled across a broad meadow behind them.
From the beach she had easily found her way unnoticed to the British encampment between Castle Town and the island’s eastern shore. There the Narrows gave passage to Oyster Bay and York Island, currently invested by the Continental Army.
She had gained her goal only to be promptly captured, she now reflected in dismay. Icy fear trickled through her veins.
Through the fog that still muffled her head, she made out the crunch of footsteps approaching down the lane to the left. Clamping his hand over her mouth, the man swung her back under the cover of a thicket and shoved her to the earth.
For tense minutes she cowered beside him, sweat trickling down her face and dampening her shirt. Her pulse thundered in her ears as she fought to still the rattle of her breath.
Out of the darkness loomed a burly figure. The glimmering rays of the rising moon slanted across his coat, lighting it to a dull crimson, and shimmered on the sharp point of his bayonet.
The sentry’s footsteps slowed, stopped. For what seemed an eternity he hesitated at the edge of the lane not twenty paces away, his eyes searching the underbrush that concealed them. Her nameless captor’s fingernails clawed into her cheeks, and his rough palm ground her lips against her teeth until she tasted blood.
When she was certain she could not suppress a whimper any longer, the sentry’s taut form relaxed and he moved on. The sound of his footfalls receded out of her hearing.
At last her captor dropped his hand from her face. She rocked back onto her heels and let out a shuddering breath.
Gradually the pace of her heart steadied. She became aware that her companion’s breath was coming in short, sharp pants and that a tremor shook his limbs.
After a short interval, he dragged her unceremoniously to her feet. Too faint to resist, she stumbled in the direction he prodded her. A short distance farther along, the undergrowth thinned out into a narrow clearing where the moon’s quarter crescent cast misty bars of light and shadow through the trees.
Grabbing her by the shoulders, her captor spun her around and peered into her face. “Why . . . ye ain’t a soldier! Yer no mor’n a boy --- and a spy to boot, I’ll wager.”
She gingerly rubbed her throat where his fingers had bruised the flesh. “The pot would appear to be calling the kettle black,” she croaked when she was able to resurrect her voice.
Even in the moonlight she could see the flush that heated his face.
“What I be doin’ here ain’t none o’ yer business,” he growled. “Who be ye?”
She glared at him. He had come very close to strangling her, but in his favor he had clearly believed her to be a British sentry and feared capture.
Who was he spying for? Dared she trust him? Unfortunately, it appeared she had no choice.
After a brief hesitation, she said, “I’m a son of liberty.”
He instantly broke into a grin and pounded her on the back. “Then ye be right lucky I stumbled onto ye ’stead o’ one o’ the local turncoats. Ye’ll forgive my discourteous introduction. I took ye for one o’ the king’s men.”
“So I gathered. You all but strangled me.”
His expression instantly reflected contrition. “Ye’ll understand my caution with near ten thousand o’ Howe’s troops just over the way, and the island riddled with Tories. They welcomed these cursed bloody backs like they was long lost brothers. Where ye come from?”
Eagerness lit his face. “Ye’ll be able to get a message through to Washington?”
When she allowed the possibility, he grasped her by the arm. “Then follow me, my friend. My wife and I have intelligence Gen’l Washington can make good use of.”
He quickly led her to where his horse was tethered. Indicating that she was to ride, he helped her to mount, then took the reins and led the animal at right angles away from the bay, putting ever greater distance between them and the British encampment.
By degrees, the easy rhythm of her mount’s movements caused the knot in Elizabeth’s breast to dissolve. She began to look around her.
The thick growth of fragrant firs interspersed with wild nut and fruit trees and flowering vines soon gave way to cleared land. Following an overgrown path that meandered through the gently undulating landscape of wooded hills and valleys, her guide gave a wide berth to several scattered villages and farms. Elizabeth was pleased to see that they moved back in the direction of the beach from which she had come, thus shortening the distance she would have to cover to meet the Implacable’s return.
The night air was as warm as bath water, but the slight breeze refreshed her. An hour’s walk brought them to a cluster of buildings nestled at the bottom of a secluded valley intersected by a sparkling stream that emerged from the surrounding woodland.
Native stone formed the thick walls of the square, two-story farmhouse, the barn and outbuildings, and the stone wall that enclosed them. The misty silver moonlight now pouring down from well above the treetops gave the compound the illusion of a fortress.
Despite the late hour, a shaded lantern glowed in a downstairs window. As soon as they passed through the gate into the farmyard, a woman threw open the side door and stepped outside, her kerchief drawn over her head, the tension in her stout frame evident even at a distance.
Elizabeth’s companion helped her to dismount and led the horse into the barn. He quickly returned to usher her into the welcome coolness of the house. Once inside, he barred the door behind them before introducing himself and his wife as Thomas and Marie Mersereau.
“It’ll be safer if you don’t know my real identity,” Elizabeth cautioned, keeping her voice lowered to a deeper timbre. “Call me Joseph.”
When Mersereau had explained the circumstances of their meeting, his wife welcomed Elizabeth to their home with heartfelt relief and delight. She seated them at a rustic trestle table whose broad board was worn to the smoothness of marble. Bustling around the low-ceilinged kitchen, in short order she laid before them platters of cold roast pork, thick slices of bread and yellow cheese, and mugs of foaming cider, refreshingly cool from the cellar.
Speaking rapidly and interrupting each other in their exuberance, the Mersereaus explained that in the three days since the British landing, they had already developed a thriving business supplying the troops with fresh provisions from theirs and the neighboring farms, while gathering every scrap of information that came their way. That night, in fact, Mersereau had been trying to get an accurate count of Howe’s forces in hopes of finding a way to transmit the information to Washington.
“We been prayin’ every day for a contact in the city,” Mrs. Mersereau confided.
Still ravenous after her first foray into the offered provisions, Elizabeth gratefully accepted a second generous helping of beef and bread from her rotund hostess. “And tonight the Lord answered your prayers,” she noted between bites, waving her sandwich for emphasis, “though had just a tad more pressure been exerted on my throat, the Almighty’s purposes would --- unhappily --- have been thwarted.”
Again Mersereau offered profuse apologies, a tide of mottled red climbing from his neck to his brow.
“Ah, my Tom’s all bluster and blow.” Her merry blue eyes twinkling, Mrs. Mersereau flapped her apron to shoo away the fly that droned around the platter of beef. “Why, he’d never hurt so much as a fly.”
“I wouldn’t vouch for that.” Laughing at Mersereau’s pained expression, Elizabeth decided to pardon the chagrined farmer.
The Mersereaus needed no urging to tell her all they had learned. According to gossip, Howe was spending most of his time aboard his ship, Greyhound, entertaining his mistress, Betsey Loring, the wife of his brutish commissary of prisoners. Engrossed in endless card parties, they whiled away the time waiting for the arrival of the general’s elder brother, Admiral Richard Lord Howe, with 150 more ships.
With the admiral would also come additional soldiers, including the hated German mercenaries called Hessians, to bolster the general’s forces, which already decisively outnumbered Washington’s army. By now the younger Howe’s troops had set up a tidy camp and were occupied in raising earthworks and building what appeared to be a flotilla of boats --- for use in transporting an invasion force to either York Island, the New Jersey shore, Long Island, or all three at once, Mersereau supposed.
The Mersereaus had also learned from a Tory neighbor, whose friendship they diligently cultivated, that from aboard the ship Duchess of Gordon, New York’s royal governor, William Tyron, had sent couriers throughout the region to plot a Tory uprising. While General Howe attacked the American front, armed loyalist units were to attack the rear, blow up the Continental Army’s powder magazines, seize their artillery, and block their escape from York Island. Washington and a number of his top officers were either to be kidnapped or assassinated.
Amazed, Elizabeth soaked up the wealth of information the Mersereaus had gleaned. Finishing a last bite of cheese, she washed it down with an energizing swallow of cider.
“Happily, their plans for sabotage have already been discovered,” she mumbled, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “They went so far as to infiltrate even General Washington’s Life Guard. Mayor Matthews and more than twenty of the conspirators were arrested, and two weeks ago one of them, Thomas Hickey, was hanged.”
“Thank the good Lord!” exclaimed Mrs. Mersereau. “We could get no news from the outside and had no way o’ alertin’ anyone. We been prayin’ night and day ever since we learned o’ their schemes.”
“Your prayers are having a good effect,” Elizabeth responded with a smile. “Please don’t stop. We need all the aid from on high that Providence is willing to lend us.”
“As long as ye can get to us regularly,” Mersereau put in, “we’ll do our part to discover anything that may be helpful.”
“With so many British ships patrolling the waters, getting here is not an easy task,” Elizabeth warned them. “But I will come as often as possible. Keep your eyes and ears open, and confide in no one --- not even in your children.”
“Ah, both our girls is grown and gone,” Mersereau assured her.
His wife’s eyes took on a far-away look. “Our boy, Tommy, he’s been gone these eight years now. Always wanted to go to sea, and soon’s he was old enough, he took off on a merchantman.” Her voice broke. “In all these years we heard nothin’ o’ him nor the ship.”
Mersereau reached to take her hand. “Time’s come we got to stop hopin’,” he pleaded. “We finally got to accept he ain’t never comin’ back, Mama. Why, for all we know, he’s in heaven.”
Mrs. Mersereau glanced over at him, her eyes brimming with tears. “I won’t never stop prayin’ for my boy to come home, Tom. Not till my dyin’ day.”
Clenching her hands involuntarily, Elizabeth looked from one anguished face to the other. Eight years rang in her ears.
If the boy was not dead, it was likely he had been impressed into the British navy, a fate that was only a minor improvement over shipwreck. Or --- depending on the captain one ended up with --- not.
The passage of eight years had not diminished the couple’s grief at the loss of their son. And she had to wonder whether the bitter, unyielding ache at Carleton’s loss that gnawed at her own breast would ever diminish enough to become endurable.
“We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Holding himself stiffly astride his mount in front of the long lines of his comrades, Washington’s aide lowered the document from which he had been reading.
As he watched Washington ride forward on his long-legged, pale grey horse, Dr. Pieter Vander Groot shook his head, the muggy breeze ruffling his blond hair. His clear blue eyes reflected deep apprehension.
“Well, there’s no turning back now,” he allowed, his tone glum. “If the rebels fail to win this conflict on the field of battle, these colonies will be ground under the heel of George the Third’s boot, and all of us will suffer grievously.”
Still clad in the plain blue linen gown and long white apron she wore while assisting him in surgery, Elizabeth met his sober gaze with a veiled one. Three weeks earlier he had tenderly confided how dear she had become to him. Although she had managed to forestall a more serious declaration, the incident had left her emotions in a tangle that seemed to grow more knotted with each passing day.
To his credit, the young doctor had done everything possible to resume the easy companionship that had quickly developed between them after she and her Aunt Tess moved to New York. And Elizabeth was determined to pretend the undercurrents that now ebbed and flowed between them did not exist.
Determination was easier than practice, she was learning. The two of them were inescapably thrust together every few days during regular social visits and attendance at worship with the Vander Groots at the New Dutch Church.
Their professional association further complicated their relationship. Trained as a surgeon by her father, Elizabeth assisted Vander Groot in his medical practice several days each week. And as they worked side by side to care for their patients, her respect and admiration for him steadily deepened.
At the same time the nagging hunger for Carleton that tormented her thoughts day and night continually tore apart every resolution to lay aside what was past and open her heart to another love. It felt as though her breast had also become a battlefield.
Now, seeing Vander Groot’s eyes warm when he looked down at her, she hastily transferred her gaze to the motley lines of soldiers. They were drawn up in ragged columns down the length of the Common across from where she and her companions stood in the crush of onlookers at the edge of Broad Way.
It was a little past six o’clock on this stifling Tuesday evening, July 9. Astride his striking, part Arabian mount, Blueskin, Washington regarded his army with earnest intensity. His voice reached them across the triangular green, clearly audible in spite of the distance.
“I hope this important event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage, knowing that now the peace and safety of his country depend, under God, solely on the success of our arms, and that he is now in the service of a State possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit and advance him to the highest honors of a free country.”
A roar went up from the troops, echoed faintly by a minority of the assembled crowd. Here and there a hat flew skyward in jubilation.
As Washington and his staff rode from the field, a number of the troops fired their muskets into the air. Dismissed by their officers, they surged down the wide street toward Fort George, the decaying British fortification inside the Battery at York Island’s extreme southern tip, shouting to one another in rough glee.
Mrs. Van Cortland, Dr. Vander Groot’s elderly great-aunt, leaned heavily on her cane, her wizened face quivering. “You mark my words, they’re out after mischief. Someone’s going to get hurt.”
A head taller than the older woman’s shrunken frame, Tess Howard placed her arm around Mrs. Van Cortland’s bent shoulders. While shopping at the docks, she had overheard rumors that the infamous document declaring the colonies’ independence from Britain was to be read to the American troops that evening and had hurried to Vander Groot’s surgery to alert them. After collecting Vander Groot’s great-aunt, they had hurried to the Common on the north end of the city.
“It sounds as if their object is the king’s statue on the Bowling Green. I’ll wager George the Third is the only one in danger of losing his head --- in absentia, of course,” Tess returned with a smile.
Neither Vander Groot nor his great-aunt appeared amused by Tess’s humorous attempt to reassure them. “For all their vaunted courage, our brave Provincial Congress has fled in panic to White Plains,” Mrs. Van Cortland noted acerbically as her nephew helped the women back into his chariot. “They evidently find the king’s guns to be a more daunting adversary than his statue.”
The horses shied at the press of the milling throng. Concern creasing his brow, Vander Groot directed his driver to steer the carriage into the clear a short distance down the street.
“The Continental Congress undoubtedly hopes to draw France and Spain into the conflict on their side,” he said. “With the colonies declaring a permanent separation from England, they open the door to alliances with other nations. The French certainly have a large score to settle for their defeat in the French and Indian War and the loss of their American territories.”
Elizabeth hardly heard him. As the chariot rolled south along Broad Way, a wave of exhilaration swept over her. At the same time, she felt as though all of them had stepped off the edge of a very high precipice.
She did not have long to wonder what would happen next. At midday that Friday, the batteries along New York’s Hudson River docks came to life in a sudden, roaring barrage. Startled by the thundering reverberation, she wasted no time donning masculine garb, then stealthily slipped away from the sprawling, Italianate mansion she and Tess leased along the Hudson’s steep bank just outside the city.
Hurrying south along Greenwich Road, she arrived at the nearest of the American army’s batteries in time to see a modest fleet consisting of three British tenders escorting the twenty-gun Rose and the forty-gun Phoenix up the Hudson as though to flaunt British power and remind the Americans of their vulnerability. To her dismay, the only apparent damage the ships sustained from the furious cannonade was some torn rigging and a few holes in the sails of the vessels closest to the near shore.
While she watched, the two men-of-war together unleashed a massive broadside. Solid shot traced fiery arcs overhead before plowing through the roofs and walls of several nearby houses, sending geysers of earth and missiles of splintered beams, shingles, bricks, and other debris flying through the air all around her. Involuntarily she ducked and crouched to the ground, eyes squeezed shut, shielding her head with her arms.
Before she could run to safety, the surrounding streets had become a seething tide of refugees. Gunpowder-laden clouds of smoke from the ships and the shore batteries burned her eyes and throat, while the screams and cries of the terrified women and children who hurried past and the repeated roar of cannon deafened her.
Watching the panicked mob scurry by, she repeatedly dashed away tears with the back of her hand, her breath choked by emotion. The chaotic scene drove home the fearful truth: The inhabitants of that pleasant, bustling city --- whose concerns until now had revolved around accumulating wealth and enjoying all the pleasures and comforts of their luxurious society --- were destined to experience firsthand all the destruction and horror of war.
Elizabeth spent the afternoon wandering through the city, where fearful or defiant crowds swirled around her at every step. The weather had turned fiercely hot and dry that summer. Overheated by her exertions in the hot sun, a little before sunset she made her way to the Battery, hoping to find some relief in the sea breeze.
She paused on the ancient stone battlement that curved around the tip of York Island all the way from the East River to the Hudson and lifted her face to the wind. After a moment, her gaze was drawn to a distant ship just then threading its way through the Narrows into the Upper Bay.
The lowering sun caught its sails and tinted them gold. Skimming over the swells with delicate grace, it drew steadily nearer until at last it dropped anchor just off the northern tip of Staten Island.
While she watched with apprehension, signal flags and the pipe of whistles transferred messages from one man-of-war to another. In short order, sailors began to flood on deck all across the bay, crying out in jubilation, while the closely crowded vessels fired repeated salutes that were echoed by the British batteries on Staten Island.
A sudden tightness squeezed the breath from Elizabeth’s lungs. Shading her eyes with her hand, she climbed onto the ledge of the Battery wall, squinting in the attempt to make out any recognizable detail. The newly arrived ship was too far away to be certain without a spyglass, but she had a sinking feeling that the commotion could mean only one thing.
Admiral Howe had finally arrived.
If so, then his fleet could not be far behind. And the suspense that had held the city in thrall for months was at last nearing its end.