On my way downstairs, I noticed Rhoda, my eldest, had also taken leave of the festivities. At the window in the front hall, she blew out one of the bayberry candles standing amid laurel leaves and a scattering of red winterberries on the sill. She inhaled with eyes closed and then touched the smoking wick to the flame of another candle to relight it.
“What are you doing?”
She turned. “Bayberry smells best right after I snuff the flame.”
“So it does. Back to the party, love.” I put my free arm around her shoulders. In the parlor, Aunt Jean played a sprightly tune on the pianoforte while Mollie and Nancy danced on the polished wood floor.
Rhoda sighed as she watched their skirts swirl. “There’s no one to dance with me.”
My heart went out to my little girl. She was lonely in this house full of adults with only her brothers, who were too young to be real playmates, for company. No doubt she would have preferred to spend the holiday with her cousin Sadie, Thomas and Betsy’s daughter, who was close to her age.
Determined to make the best of things, I stepped around my middle child, two-year-old Elijah, and settled into the wing chair beside my mother’s. Uncle William stood near the crackling fire, a cut-glass cup of rum punch in hand, presiding over the celebration in a manner befitting the patriarch of a household full of women, children, and servants.
Rhoda sighed again and leaned on the arm of my chair, chin on her hands. “There’s no one to dance with you either, Mother.”
Determined to present a cheerful front, I rescued the end of my kerchief from the baby’s grasp and stood him up on my lap. “You’d like to dance, wouldn’t you, William?” The chubby little boy churned his legs and squealed.
At this, Rhoda frowned. “Elijah and William are too young to care about dancing.”
“Come, Rhoda. I’ll be your partner!” Seventeen-year-old Nancy saved the day when she danced over to our corner, bowed, and extended her hand. Rhoda’s frown turned to giggles. She dropped a curtsey and skipped into the center of the room. Turning the baby so he could watch Rhoda, I bounced him in time to the music and mouthed a thank-you to Nancy. Elijah, who cared naught about dancing, beat one of his blocks on the floor.
A blast of wintry air set the fire flickering as it swept through the parlor. I leaned forward in my chair and saw a dark-haired, broad-shouldered man in the hall shed his cloak and hand it and his cocked hat to the butler. Could it be? A squeak was all I could manage as I rose to my feet.
Aunt Jean heard my soft exclamation and stopped playing. Everyone turned to follow my gaze, and I held my breath until light fell upon the man’s face.
“Uncle Thomas!” Rhoda ran to fling her arms around his waist as he came into the parlor.
As my brother-in-law and I locked eyes, I could tell something was very wrong by the way the corners of his mouth turned down. I swallowed hard as I passed the baby to my mother. “We weren’t expecting you, Thomas. When did you get home?”
He ignored my questions for the moment. “I thought I saw someone signaling ‘one if by land’ from the front window as I rode up.”
Rhoda giggled. “That was me. I like the smell of the bayberry tapers.”
He bent down to her level. “You’re shooting up like a weed, Rhoda Stone, and you favor your pretty mother more every time I see you. Before long we’ll be beating off your suitors with a stick.” He tweaked her nose. “Are you going to introduce me to your little brother?”
Rhoda took his hand and pulled him across the room. “This is our William, Uncle Thomas.”
Mother held up the baby with the tight-lipped look of disapproval she wore around my in-laws. Thomas pretended not to notice as he lifted the little boy into his arms.
“Well, hello, young sir! I’d know you anywhere, for you look just like your pa.”
The baby regarded him studiously and then broke into a grin, showing his two tiny teeth.
Thomas laughed. “You and your brother will roam the fields and forests with your cousins in a few years, won’t you?” He stared at little William for a long moment, as if to commit his face to memory, before handing him back to his grandmother.
My uncle harrumphed and set down his cup. “What are you lads playing at this autumn? Last year, Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise the Hessians at Trenton, but his performance of late has people calling for his replacement. Two defeats in as many months! He should have surrendered after the embarrassment at the battle of Germantown.”
When Thomas rose to his full height, he towered over my uncle. It was clear he took offense to the criticism, but he spoke with restraint. “His Excellency seems to have no plans to yield, and we Continentals still have plenty of fight left in us, Mr. Asbury.”
“On furlough, are you?”
“Something like that, sir.”
“They could have sent your brother home for a spell instead. He enlisted well before you, didn’t he?”
Desperate to know why my brother-in-law rode five miles over dark mountain roads to visit, I broke in before my uncle’s insults grew worse. “Thomas, would you like a drink to warm you up? Some hot cider or rum punch?”
“Cider would be welcome.” When I filled a cup, he took a sip before he addressed the room. “I didn’t know I’d be interrupting your celebration. Please, carry on. Anna, may I have a word?”
“Yes, of course.” I led him across the hall, hiding the dread clutching my insides.
Aunt Jean and the pianoforte launched into the opening strains of “The First Noel” as Thomas shut the door of my uncle’s study behind us. When he knelt to speak to Rhoda, I noticed strands of silver in his dark hair. Now, the harsh shadows cast by the flickering firelight accentuated his hollow cheeks and the worry lines on his forehead, making him look much older than his thirty-five years. “What news? Is it Benjamin? Tell me.”
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