“Never Anger Miss Peggy”
CLARA KNOCKED on the front door once, twice. She checked the address scrolled on the worn piece of parchment again. Her grandmother’s familiar handwriting directed Clara to arrive at the Shippen mansion on the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, deep in the district that housed the city’s wealthiest residents.
A crack of a coachman’s whip drew Clara’s attention away from the Shippens’ door, and she gazed over her shoulder toward the street—a noisy thoroughfare of horse hooves, carriage wheels, and the deafening drum of marching British soldiers. A servant leaned out of a window several houses down and emptied a series of chamber pots onto the cobblestone street before disappearing once more into the home. The closeness of the noise and stink was unlike anything Clara had ever experienced on the farm.
The Shippen mansion, like its adjacent structures, was composed of red brick and built with an orderly symmetry: the sort of architectural purposefulness she’d heard about since George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had built their homes in this style. The tight row of brick society homes lining Fourth Street resembled one another but for the shutter shades; some houses had green shutters, some light blue, some dark blue, some white. The Shippens had elected to paint their shutters black.
The Shippen mansion sat back from the street, flanked in front by a small patch of grass and two cherry trees in the full bloom of late spring. The entryway, a wide wooden door, stood above three short steps and below a triangular pediment. A top row of arched dormer windows poked out from the sloping roof, with two rows of shuttered panes below. The windows—built not only for allowing in light, but also for their decorative appeal—testified to their owner’s wealth; a passerby on the street might be so lucky as to catch a glimpse of the famous Judge Edward Shippen studying his books, or spy one of his beautiful daughters as she flitted through the vast parlor on her way to receive a gentleman caller.
This must be the right home. Clara knocked at the imposing front entrance again. The door opened, and Clara was greeted by the lined face of a woman past her youth.
“Good afternoon.” The woman had soft features framed by a graying bun, which peeked out around the edges of a clean, white-linen mobcap. She greeted Clara with an appraising smile.
“Is it Clara Bell, come at last?” The aged woman opened the door wider to reveal a fine appearance—an indigo petticoat made of linen to accommodate the warmer weather, draped by a clean linen apron. On top she wore faded gray stays over a crisply pressed white blouse. A fichu was tied around her neck to ensure the modesty required for service in such a fine home. She rolled back her cuffed sleeves and waved Clara inside.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Clara entered through the open door, clutching her tarpaulin sack as she stepped over the threshold. The woman closed the front door behind her, shutting out the noise and stink of the street and allowing Clara to ease into the airy interior of the home. Its soundless tranquility was a welcome relief after the hustle of Fourth Street.
“Well, Clara Bell, we’ve been awaiting your arrival all day.” The older woman smiled, taking Clara’s sack from her arms. “Was it a tiring journey from the country?”
“It was fine, ma’am,” Clara answered, even as she was certain her haggard features betrayed her fatigue.
“You took a post carriage?”
“That must have cost you a small fortune.”
“I’m grateful to have the employment, ma’am.” Clara managed a timid smile, finding words evasive in the grand hallway in which she’d suddenly found herself. She felt as though she’d awoken into this buffed and varnished grandeur without a clear recollection of the circumstances that had brought her to Philadelphia. Clara blinked, remembering. The abandoned farmhouse. Oma dying. In her last moments, her old grandmother penning a letter to a friend from years ago. Oma urging Clara to leave the Hartley farm, as the Hartleys themselves had done, fleeing the approach of the British and the Iroquois.
“I am Mrs. Quigley, housekeeper for the Shippens.”
“Very nice to meet you, Mrs. Quigley.”
“Yes, well . . .” The housekeeper’s reply faded to a sigh as she surveyed Clara’s appearance. Clara stood still, feeling her cheeks grow warm; her warm-weather petticoat of linen was creased and dusty from the trip, but it was the only one she possessed of its kind. She’d only rotate it out of her wardrobe when the weather changed and the crisp autumn air required her wool petticoat. Unlike this housekeeper, Clara’s clothes were not bought in a store, but were homespun, sewed by Oma. Clara wore her petticoat and stays in the cotton ticking pattern, off-white fabric with blue stripes. Her apron, once white, had been laundered so many times that it now bore a yellowish tint.
“Follow me, Clara.” Mrs. Quigley turned and crossed the room in several brisk strides. Clara followed, hurrying to take in the surroundings as she kept apace. The Shippens’ front hall was well lit by a wall of broad, clean windows. The focal point at the center of the hall was the expansive staircase, which drew the eyes up in a languid arc until it reached the second floor. Removed from the entrance was a maple fireplace. A fire crackled even on this warm spring afternoon, filling the front hall with its welcoming aroma, which mingled with the distinct scents of furniture polish and ladies’ perfume.
“Quite a bit grander here than it was at the farmhouse, I imagine.” Mrs. Quigley turned just in time to catch Clara, eyes rapt, examining a feather-light shawl of creamy robin’s egg blue. It was store-bought and fine, its border embroidered with yellow silken flowers, its colors as bright as a springtime morning. It had been left, haphazardly discarded over the back of an upholstered armchair, as if its owner could be reckless with an item so fine.
“Miss Peggy’s shawl. We better put it back in her closet where it belongs or we’ll never hear the end of it.” Mrs. Quigley scooped up the expensive item. “All right, then, follow me, child.” Clara trailed the housekeeper through an open doorway into an ample drawing room. The Shippens’ furniture seemed designed to impress the eyes with ornate decoration as much as to
The Traitor's Wife
Everyone knows Benedict Arnold—the Revolutionary War general who betrayed America and fled to the British—as history’s most notorious turncoat. Many know Arnold’s co-conspirator, Major John André, who was apprehended with Arnold’s documents in his boots and hanged at the orders of General George Washington. But few know of the integral third character in the plot: a charming young woman who not only contributed to the betrayal but orchestrated it.
Socialite Peggy Shippen is half Benedict Arnold’s age when she seduces the war hero during his stint as military commander of Philadelphia. Blinded by his young bride’s beauty and wit, Arnold does not realize that she harbors a secret: loyalty to the British. Nor does he know that she hides a past romance with the handsome British spy John André. Peggy watches as her husband, crippled from battle wounds and in debt from years of service to the colonies, grows ever more disillusioned with his hero, Washington, and the American cause. Together with her former love and her disaffected husband, Peggy hatches the plot to deliver West Point to the British and, in exchange, win fame and fortune for herself and Arnold.
Told from the perspective of Peggy’s maid, whose faith in the new nation inspires her to intervene in her mistress’s affairs even when it could cost her everything, The Traitor’s Wife brings these infamous figures to life, illuminating the sordid details and the love triangle that nearly destroyed the American fight for freedom.
Allison Pataki: What Are You Reading?
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Reading Group Guide
When turncoat Benedict Arnold aided the British during the Revolutionary War, he wasn’t acting alone. Orchestrating the espionage was his spouse, the beautiful socialite Peggy Shippen, whose treachery nearly cost the fledgling nation its fight for freedom. In The Traitor’s Wife, Allison Pataki brings to life an intriguing slice of American history, told from the perspective of Peggy’s maid, Clara Bell, who must decide where her own loyalties lie.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Before moving to Philadelphia, Clara spent her entire life on a farm in the Pennsylvania countryside. How does Clara’s identity evolve throughout her years of service to Peggy and Benedict Arnold? What character traits does Clara retain? Discuss which characters have the greatest impact on Clara’s growth and development.
2. Why does Clara take a nearly instant dislike to Major John Andre? Why is she relieved when the Judge and Mrs. Shippen refuse to allow Pegg see more