“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 entice the body into its plush comfort. The chairs of the drawing room were carved out of smooth mahogany, their slender curves varnished to a glossy sheen. Clara’s legs suddenly felt leaden with fatigue; how she longed to sink for just one moment into one of these chairs.
“You look like you’ve never been inside a drawing room before, girl,” Mrs. Quigley remarked, fluffing a silk pillow on a nearby settee.
“Not one like this, ma’am, I haven’t.” Clara’s eyes roved hungrily over every detail of the quiet room, the only sound issuing from an encased clock, taller than Clara herself, that occupied a far corner. Oil paintings in bronze frames adorned the walls. A soft splash of May sunlight streamed in through the windows, mingling with the dancing shadows cast by the fresh white candles in their sconces. How fine they must be, the people who frequent these spaces, Clara thought. At night, when the sunlight vanished and only candlelight remained, how easy it must be for them to slip into a corner and whisper a piece of gossip or listen to a verse of an admirer’s poetry.
“Enough of your daydreaming. What do you think, girl?”
“It’s . . . it’s lovely here,” Clara stammered, looking around with ill-disguised awe.
“It’s nice, isn’t it? Course, you’ll hear every day how the money’s gone and the furniture is growing outdated, but I think it’s just fine.” Mrs. Quigley smiled, the skin around her serious eyes creasing into a soft, worn pattern. “Well, Clara, you’ve had a long trip from the countryside; let’s have you come in and catch your breath.” Mrs. Quigley led Clara through the drawing room past a smaller, smartly decorated parlor with salmon-colored walls, shelves of books, and a silk sofa across from a card table.
“Books for the judge, cards for the ladies. That’s how they’ll spend their evenings. Course, Miss Peggy won’t be contented with either activity—she wants to be out dancing every night.” Mrs. Quigley kept a brisk pace as she crossed the room. Once through the parlor, a doorway allowed entry into a separate wing, which could be closed off from the front of the house. The two women proceeded now down this long, narrow passageway. No light shone here except for that which pierced the small windows of the rooms on either side of the corridor, and there was no ornamentation on the clean white walls. Clara stole quick glances into the rooms as she followed the housekeeper. Some rooms appeared occupied, others abandoned. This wing, she realized, housed the Shippen family’s servants.
Clara peeked into the empty rooms she passed—most held just bedframes and unused chamber pots, but they looked comfortable and of a good size. “Mrs. Quigley, if you please, why are all of these rooms empty?”
Mrs. Quigley sighed, jingling a set of brass keys as she led Clara farther down the hall. The old woman appeared unsure how to answer the question. “Just a few years back we were at full capacity, with two servants in each of these rooms. But we’ve had to let so many folks go, most of the rooms are empty now.”
“On account of the war?” Clara asked.
“You’re a curious one, aren’t you?” Mrs. Quigley glanced back over her shoulder at Clara, studying her for a moment before answering in a hushed tone. “You’ll have heard that Judge Shippen has refused to take a side—either Tory or Rebel.”
Clara nodded. The Shippens were one of the city’s most prominent families. The news had traveled as far as Hartley Farm when Doctor William Shippen, the judge’s brother, had come out strongly for the colonials. That’s when his brother, Clara’s new employer, had cut all business dealings to avoid appearing partial to either army.
Mrs. Quigley continued in a muted tone. “Without much coming in, we run a lean operation now that the war is on.”
Clara wondered why it was that they were bringing her into the household under these circumstances. Mrs. Quigley must have guessed at her thoughts.
“But Mistress Peggy fought hard to fill your post; she insisted to her father that we had need for a lady’s maid in the household. What with me, well, I’m busy enough running the home that I barely have time to tend to the missus, let alone her two daughters.”
“What are they like?” Clara asked.
“The Shippen ladies?”
“Aye,” Clara nodded.
Mrs Quigley considered the question. “You shall see for yourself, soon enough.” The old woman halted at the end of the corridor. “Here we are, Clara. After you.”
Clara hesitated, standing still.
“Your bedroom, child,” the housekeeper said. “Go on.”
Clara passed the housekeeper, her eyes lowered. Her bedroom? It would be the first room she’d ever had to herself. At the farm, she’d always slept on a straw pallet beside the kitchen fire, Oma’s snoring frame curled up beside her. But here she had a bedframe. And a door that could shut, offering an entirely new privilege: privacy.
Of course, when compared to the front of the Shippen house—with tables serving no purpose other than to host card games, and silver bowls serving no purpose other than to hold flowers—these quarters were dull. But Clara could barely contain a giggle over the thought of having her own room.
“Nothing fancy, I’m afraid. Will it suit you?” Mrs. Quigley fidgeted with her brass keys, apparently in a rush to get to her next chore.
“Suit me? Why, a room to myself . . .” Clara looked around her new domain. There was a single straw mattress on a rusted iron frame. A simple dresser of dark walnut stood against the opposite wall, and a thin desk and stool occupied the corner. The window, small but bright, faced out the back of the house. Clara crossed the room and peeked out the window. She spied the formal garden, done in the Continental style with tightly clipped shrubs, pruned rose bushes, and a tidy carpet of green lawn. Beyond that was a small orchard, its trees appearing to hold the first signs of apples. Cherry blossoms bloomed in the May warmth, forming neat columns of shady pathways. The manicured grass, so unlike the wild fields of the farm, was intersected by meandering pebbled walkways, where her ladies must tread when receiving finely dressed visitors. Birdsong pierced the blue sky, as did the aroma of fresh-petaled flowers. It was an Eden in the midst of the colonies’ busiest city.
Behind the garden stood a rectangular stable, where Clara spied a young man sitting between the large doors. Clara watched this figure as he plucked out a simple melody on a handmade guitar, as if entertaining himself while awaiting the arrival of some riders. Suddenly aware that he was being surveyed, the stableboy paused his singing, looking up in time to catch Clara’s gaze. She ducked her head back behind the window, blushing.
“Oh, so you’ve seen Caleb.” Mrs. Quigley was beside her at the window, swinging it open to allow in the fresh spring air.
“Who is he, ma’am?”
“The resident troublemaker.” Mrs. Quigley smirked, wiping the dust from the windowsill.
Clara glanced back outside and noticed that the young man named Caleb was no longer sitting at his post. She inhaled, taking in the heady scent of fresh flowers. “Mrs. Quigley, have you grown accustomed to all of this?”
“Aye, it’s a beautiful old home, all right, but don’t let it seduce you. There’s plenty to be seen in this house that ain’t so beautiful.” Mrs. Quigley’s eyebrows arced a moment before her face softened. “Clara, I hope you don’t mind my saying so, especially after I’ve only just met you, but you look just like your grandmother did. Course, when she was a lot younger.”
Clara lowered her eyes, her focus blurring at the mention of her Oma.
Mrs. Quigley continued. “She was a dear friend of mine, and I was happy to have the opportunity to help her.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“I know you’ll miss her.”
“Indeed.” Clara’s eyes stung with the threat of tears, but she did not wish to weep before her new employer. Still, it seemed strange, illogical, to refer to her grandmother as someone from her past.
“When she wrote, asking me to find a post for you in the Shippen household, I was eager to help. Anything to make her final rest a bit easier.” Mrs. Quigley sighed, and Clara bit her lip, hesitant to respond in case her voice cracked.
“But enough of that business. Where were we? You think you shall be comfortable here?”
“Very.” Clara straightened her posture, grateful to change topics.
“Good.” Mrs. Quigley slapped the mattress once, producing a cloud of dust. “You’ll get one fresh candle a week, and not more, so mind you how you use your nighttime lighting. Quills and ink you’ll have to request on a need-by-need basis.”
Clara thought about this: she had no one to write.
“Judge Shippen tries to be generous, but there’s only so much he can manage, especially with trying to keep Betsy and Peggy in the latest fashions.” Clara could tell from the housekeeper’s terse manner that this was a topic she’d discussed before.
“Now, Clara, I suppose you’ll want to change before you meet Mistresses Peggy and Betsy?”
“Change?” Clara looked for the second time with disapproving eyes over her own appearance. “Oh, ma’am, I’ve got just the one other petticoat in my sack, a wool one.”
“One other petticoat? Did they not give you clothing on that farm?” Mrs. Quigley was a kind woman, but she could barely conceal her dismay.
“Only what Oma and I had time to sew. Sorry, ma’am.”
“Oh, don’t be sorry, child.” Mrs. Quigley sighed. “I’ll talk to my husband. He’s the judge’s valet and the foreman of the servants. We’ll see what we can arrange. Perhaps we can advance you a little bit of your wages to get you some fresh clothes. You’re a lady’s maid to the Shippens now, and we will want you to look the part. Now,”—the housekeeper paused, girding herself with a long, slow inhale—“let’s go meet the Misses Shippens.”
Clara followed Mrs. Quigley up the staircase that connected the servants’ quarters to the second floor. “This is our passage, so that we can travel up and down without disturbing the family.” Mrs. Quigley’s breath grew uneven as she climbed upward. Clara noticed a short, round woman with orange hair descending the staircase toward them, weighed down by an armful of linens.
“Oh, hello, Brigitte, you’ve changed the beds?”
“Aye, Mrs. Quigley.”
Mrs. Quigley paused, looking at the woman. “Clara, this is Brigitte, the chambermaid. Brigitte, meet Clara, the new maid to Miss Peggy and Miss Betsy.”
“Nice to meet you, Brigitte.” Clara curtsied to the older woman.
Brigitte nodded a wordless greeting in their general direction before continuing past them down the stairs.
“We’ll have time for introductions to the rest of the servants later. For now, it’s important that you meet your ladies.” Mrs. Quigley’s voice grew quieter as Clara followed her farther up the steep, narrow flight of stairs. “The ladies should be back from riding any moment, so first we’ll return this shawl to Miss Peggy’s bedchamber. We’ll meet Miss Peggy first, and you must try to make a good impression. You’ll see very quickly that Miss Peggy is the favorite of the judge.”
“Does the judge have just the two girls?” Clara asked.
“The judge and Mrs. Shippen had four children. Miss Elizabeth—they call her Betsy—is the eldest. She’s to be married soon, which will be a tremendous relief for his Judgeship. Betsy is followed by Miss Margaret—Peggy they call her. And then two boys, both of whom died.” Mrs. Quigley sighed. “Such sweet boys, such a shame to lose them so young.”
Clara nodded her silent reply.
“So now it’s just Miss Betsy and Miss Peggy. As far as I was told, you are to wait on both Miss Betsy and Miss Peggy, but we’ll see how they do about sharing. Miss Betsy does not seem to need her own maid, especially since she and Mrs. Shippen are so preoccupied these days with the coming wedding.” The housekeeper cocked her head. “Once Miss Betsy marries Mr. Burd, it’ll be just Miss Peggy in the house. She shall probably be the one who demands most of your time and attention.”
“Are they close, the Misses Shippens?” Clara paused atop the stairs.
“Well . . .” Mrs. Quigley weighed her next words. “They are very different. I don’t think I’ve ever had a cross word from Miss Betsy. Miss Peggy . . .” The housekeeper looked down at her young mistress’s light blue shawl, musing on its unseen owner. When she continued, her tone was barely a whisper. “I’m sure you’ve read about Miss Peggy—in the society pages?”
“No, ma’am. We servants didn’t get much chance to read the society pages at Hartley Farm,” Clara answered.
“Miss Peggy is”—the old woman paused—“quite pretty. A favorite of the young British officers in Philadelphia. Smart. And . . . strong-willed.”
Clara tried to imagine her new mistress sitting in the formal drawing room downstairs, holding forth amidst a group of admiring officers, but she suddenly found it hard to conjure the image; none of the girls at the Hartley farm had inhabited the same world as Peggy Shippen.
“It’s best you don’t ever keep Miss Peggy waiting. And under no circumstances should you ever argue with her. Try not to arouse her temper.” Mrs. Quigley eyed Clara in the dark stairwell with—what was it—pity? “Of course, you’ll learn all this for yourself, in time. That is, if you last.”
And with those final words, Mrs. Quigley pushed open the door to move from the servants’ stairwell into the second-floor corridor. Here, even in daylight, the candles on the walls were lit, producing a pale, amber light that danced off the framed oil paintings. How was it possible, Clara wondered, to own this many paintings? Clara scanned the quiet hall, covered by finely stitched red carpet, no doubt bought from a London carpet maker. She tried to step softly, but the wood of the floor creaked below her boots and made her feel as graceful as an ox. This hall, the quiet inner realm of the Shippen family, felt like a private space in which she had no business treading. Did Miss Peggy realize how lovely her home was? Clara wondered. Or was this corridor just another hallway to her?
Mrs. Quigley led Clara past an open doorway that peeked into a grand bedroom, its windows as tall as the ceiling, its bedframe draped in ivory-colored curtains. Clara glanced in but did not pause until they reached the next doorway.
“Miss Peggy’s suite.” The housekeeper hovered on the threshold, looking once more over Clara’s humble appearance. “Are you ready?”
“Aye.” Clara nodded, but all this pomp had succeeded in thoroughly wracking her nerves. When they stepped in, Clara gasped, her gaze flying upward to the high ceiling. Opposite her, floor-to-ceiling French windows offered a view over the same gardens Clara had just admired. From somewhere below, horses clipped by, the sound of hooves on the cobblestones reaching them in an even serenade. Miss Peggy’s four-poster bed soared high off the ground, and looked like it could easily fit four people under its creamy silk canopy. On top of the bed, in addition to a heap of satin-covered feather pillows, there were several silk dresses, any one of them costing more than Clara’s monthly wages. They lay in wrinkled and unceremonious disarray, cast aside after a past revelry now complete, like leftover dishes at a formal feast forgotten once the guests move on to dessert.
“How about some fresh air, what do you say?” Mrs. Quigley crossed the room with her authoritative stride, pulling roughly at the French windows, as if she felt no need to tiptoe through this space. “Well, don’t just stand there like a sack of flour, Clara. Help me open these windows.” Mrs. Quigley looked at her new hire with a mixture of bemusement and frustration.
“Miss Peggy has been riding all afternoon with her sister, Miss Betsy, and Miss Betsy’s suitor, Mr. Edward Burd.”
“Does Miss Betsy sleep in here too?” Clara looked at the oversized maple bed, thinking that perhaps there were two who occupied the space.
“Share a room? Ha! You think the Shippen girls would ever share a bedroom?”
“It’s certainly big enough for two.”
“This house itself isn’t big enough for those two at times. They’d last one day before Miss Peggy shredded her sister like a wildcat. No, Miss Betsy is in the bedroom next door, the one we just passed.”
“Oh. What a grand room to have all to one’s self,” Clara said. Back at the Hartley farm, five people would have lived in this space. “Are all the rooms in the house this big?”
“You think her room is something, you should see her wardrobe.” The housekeeper pointed toward the corner of the room, where an imposing structure of varnished pine stood. Mrs. Quigley walked toward the armoire, folding the blue silk scarf neatly and tucking it into a drawer. “Course she frets and complains that they are all outdated dresses, but I think they look very fine. With the war, it’s a wonder she gets new dresses at all.”
In the distance across the garden, figures moved toward the stable. Clara watched from the window and saw the same young man—Mrs. Quigley had called him Caleb—whom she’d noticed earlier. He’d put his guitar away and was leading a broad-chested horse of a rich chestnut hue by the bridle. Clara’s heart leapt; did this mean her new mistresses had returned home from their ride?
“Come away from the window, child, and listen to me,” Mrs. Quigley snapped, her pose suddenly rigid. “After a day of riding, the ladies will want to change out of their riding habits. Best you help Miss Peggy first, just so that there’s no unpleasantness. Miss Betsy has no problem dressing herself. The misses have got a social event to attend tonight, so Miss Peggy will select one of her fancier gowns. She’ll probably complain to you that she has nothing new to wear. That girl never lets her poor father forget that she wants new clothing.”
Clara nodded, feeling her nerves tighten.
“And you’ll need to do her hair for dinner. Can you do hair?” Mrs. Quigley asked.
“I can. I did Mrs. Hartley’s hair sometimes.” Clara answered, relieved that she would be up to the job in at least one way.
“It’ll probably be a different fashion for Miss Peggy, but that’s all right, just do what she tells you.” Mrs. Quigley crossed her hands in front of her waist.
From downstairs, a door opened and shut. The front hall filled with the sound of female laughter. “I hear them, they are back. Quick, Clara, stand up straight.”
Clara felt a growing sense of discomfort as she tried to calm her unsteady nerves. It didn’t help that the old woman now appeared tense as well. How had she allowed herself to think she, Clara Bell, belonged in a house such as this one? She patted down her skirt and adjusted her cap.
“Don’t fidget, child. Just be still.” Mrs. Quigley’s snappy order did little to soothe Clara’s worry.
Footsteps ascended the grand spiraling staircase, the click of a lady’s heels on the wood. Then the heeled tapping grew muffled as Peggy paraded down the carpeted corridor. Clara’s eyes were fixed on the door, so that she saw it opening wider. Clara took a deep breath and put on the mask of a polite smile as a slight, trim figure appeared in the doorway. The young lady, who appeared to be the same age as Clara, fixed her clear blue eyes on the two figures by her bedside.
“Ah!” Peggy Shippen screeched, recoiling in the doorway. “Oh, Mrs. Quigley.” She said the name like a censure, clutching her bosom with a small, gloved hand. “You gave me such a fright.”
“Please, I beg your pardon, Mistress Peggy.” Mrs. Quigley nodded submissively, and Clara mimicked her. “We should have warned you we were in your bedroom.”
“Yes, indeed, I thought I had seen a ghost.” Peggy looked from the housekeeper to the unknown girl beside her. Clara longed to fidget, to make sure her hair was tucked neatly into her white mobcap, but then she remembered Mrs. Quigley’s instructions to be still. “And who is this with you?” Peggy crossed the room, tossing her horsewhip haphazardly onto the ground as she approached the two servants.
“Miss Peggy, this is Clara Bell. Our new maid. She will be attending to you and your sister.” Mrs. Quigley stepped forward, gesturing toward Clara.
“I see.” Peggy nodded, narrowing her eyes on Clara. “So you are to be my new maid?” Peggy ran the length of Clara’s height with her eyes, circling her as she would examine a horse on the auction block. Having a girl like Peggy Shippen this close to her was a sensation entirely new to Clara; Peggy’s presence seemed to loom larger than her petite frame, spreading throughout the room like the scent of her rosewater-steeped skin.
If Peggy Shippen thought her own appearance looked plain or out of fashion, what must she think of her maid’s apparel? Clara wondered. Peggy was short and thin, with her elaborate dress fitted to draw attention to her narrow waist. She wore a silk riding jacket of a rich forest green with a black velvet collar and matching cuffs. The buttons down the front were closed so that the jacket fit snugly, tailored perfectly to her frame. The accompanying skirt draped over a wide-waisted pannier so that her trim waist expanded into an alluring, hourglass shape. On her head Peggy wore a small bonnet of the same green silk, which rested neatly on the blond curls she had clipped back above her neck.
“Mrs. Quigley”—Peggy turned back to her housekeeper—“thank you for bringing her to me. You may leave us now.”
Mrs. Quigley curtsied, and then, with a fleeting glance in Clara’s direction, left the bedroom. Clara, aware that etiquette dictated that she should not speak first, kept her gaze fixed on the wooden floor.
“The new maid.” Peggy was opposite Clara now. Even in her heeled, leather riding boots, she stood several inches shorter than Clara. “Look at me.”
Clara obeyed, lifting her focus from the floor into a pair of bright, round eyes.
“What did you say your name was?” Peggy walked toward her new maid, shocking Clara by taking her hand in her own.
“Clara Bell, ma’am.”
“And what do you expect you shall be doing in my room for me?”
“I was told to help you and Miss Betsy dress for supper, Miss Peggy.”
“Never mind helping Betsy,” Peggy said. “She’s downstairs teasing her fiancé, giving him hope he might get a goodbye kiss. Poor Neddy, he might as well be wooing a nun.”
Clara felt her cheeks redden as she lowered her eyes to the floorboards.
“You shall help me dress, Clara.” Peggy paused a moment before smiling. “It’s not right that you should split your time between me and my sister. Why, Betsy’s already got herself a fiancé.”
“As you wish, ma’am.” Clara balled her fists, twisting the cotton cloth of her skirts in her fingers. Best stay quiet, best not to have an opinion on this sisterly struggle, she told herself.
Peggy continued. “I think you and I shall be great friends.” With that, Peggy lifted her skirt, offering a sudden view of her bloomers, as she loosened the laces of her heeled boots. “Feels good to take these boots off.”
Clara nodded, stretching her arms forward to receive the boots from her mistress. In stocking-clad feet now, Peggy crossed the room and sat at her vanity table before a broad, clean mirror. “I had too much wine this afternoon.” Peggy yawned, unclipping her riding cap and shaking her blond curls loose. “I just get so enthralled by the good wine, the French wine, like what we used to drink before the war. Father doesn’t buy it anymore.” Peggy ran her fingers through her hair, still yawning. “Besides, wine is the only way to pass the time with the two of them, they’re so dull.”
“Perhaps you have time for a nap, my lady?” Clara suggested timidly, not sure what else to say.
“No,” Peg answered absentmindedly, as she leaned closer to the mirror to scrutinize her face. “I must dress. After dinner Betsy and I have a big evening—dancing and card games at Lord Rawdon’s.”
“I see.” Clara nodded.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Peggy turned, staring at her maid. “Dress me!”
“Oh, yes, of course.” Clara fidgeted, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
“Well? What is it?” Thinly veiled frustration permeated Peggy’s voice now, and Clara remembered the advice of the old housekeeper: never anger Peggy.
“My lady, I will be happy to help you dress. It’s just . . .” Clara held forth her hands—her nails caked in grime, her palms stained from the dusty road. “Perhaps I might wash my hands first?”
Clara’s spirits sunk with the look of irritation that crossed her new mistress’s face. “Very well. Come here.” Peggy offered her basin of fresh water. While Clara dipped her hands into the cool bowl, sending the floating flower petals aflutter, Peggy watched. “How did you get this job, Clara? Where did you work before this?”
“If you please, my lady, I worked at Hartley’s farm in Lancaster.” Clara dried her hands on her apron. “Right next to your own family’s farm, where you lived for two years at the outbreak of the war.”
“I know where Lancaster is.” Peggy narrowed her eyes, her tone suddenly chilly. “Do not mention that farm again, understood?” Peggy shook her head, blinking her eyelids as if to tamp out the recollection Clara had summoned to her mind. When she spoke again, her voice had regained its composure. “There are things that happened there that . . . that I do not wish to remember.”
“I do apologize.” Clara cringed. This was not going well at all, and Mrs. Quigley’s warning suddenly seemed prophetic: she wouldn’t last here. It had been foolish to think that she, Clara Bell, a servant from Hartley’s Farm, would be up to the task of serving a lady like Miss Peggy Shippen.
Clara detected the sound of footsteps ascending the staircase. “Peggy?” a woman’s voice called out.
“It’s Betsy.” Peggy turned to the maid. “Quick, run behind my closet, out of sight. Go!” Peggy practically pushed Clara away from her, and Clara obeyed, heart racing as she dashed behind the hulking piece of furniture.
“Peggy.” A timorous voice now drifted in from the doorway of the bedroom. From her spot, Clara could see Miss Peggy but not the elder sister.
“Oh, Betsy, hello. Well, did you let Mr. Neddy Burd see an inch of flesh? Perhaps a kiss, if only on the cheek?” Peggy’s voice was cool and taunting as she turned from her seat before the mirror.
“Stop teasing, Peggy.”
“Poor man looks wound up tighter than a spring. Won’t you at least let him see a glimpse of your ankle, Bets? He may be patient, but even saints have their limits.”
“Peggy, quit being vile or I shall tell Papa.”
“Oh, what do you want, Bets?” Peggy cocked her head to the side.
“Mrs. Quigley tells me our new maid is here.”
“Is she?” Peggy sounded bored.
“Yes. Mrs. Quigley said she was with you.”
Peggy raised her hands as if to ask, where? Clara receded farther behind the armoire, feeling as guilty as a thief.
“But . . . Mrs. Quigley just told me.”
“Bets, you see perfectly well that I am here and this so-called maid is not. What would you like me to say?”
Betsy paused, quiet. “Where did she go?”
“I do not know, Bets, I have yet to lay eyes on her.”
“Oh,” Betsy said. “Well, if she turns up, will you send her my way? I’d like help dressing.”
“Of course,” Peggy agreed, her tone obliging.
“But do you promise, Peggy?”
“I shall send her your way, I promise. Now, Bets, I’m about to dress myself. Be a dear and close the door?”
Betsy left without a word, quietly closing the door behind her.
“Come here.” Peggy wheeled back around, so that her gaze now fixed on her maid through the mirror. She waved her hand. “I said come here.” Her face was encouraging, even sweet. Clara treaded forward, keeping her eyes down.
“Thank you.” Peggy took Clara’s hand in hers and gave it a soft, conspiratorial squeeze. Clara felt uncomfortable, ill at ease over unwittingly taking part in a lie to one of her new ladies.
“Lean down beside me, Clara.” Peggy urged her maid closer, her voice suddenly silky, and this sweet tone did more to put Clara on edge than any previous iciness had. “You know, Clara, you are not ugly. In fact, I’d say you’re quite pretty. For a farm girl.” Clara looked into the glass before them, staring at the two faces. Hers was stained an unattractive, rosy pink after her long journey in the sun from Lancaster, while Peggy’s was creamy and unlined, like freshly pressed lace. Their complexions were similar—both fair, with light eyes—but Peggy’s hair was silky, the texture of freshly spun gold, while Clara’s appeared more like dried straw at the end of the harvest. Clara thought her eyes looked dull and colorless, while Peggy’s shone blue under shaped eyebrows and long eyelashes. Peggy’s gaze was alert, her features active, as though they were perceiving things, understanding things, which Clara herself had not even noticed.
“You flatter me, Miss Peggy.” Clara pulled her face back from the mirror, retreating behind her mistress.
“No, I don’t flatter people,” Peggy answered matter-of-factly, powdering the tip of her nose. “They flatter me. Go fetch my rose-colored silk dress.”
“And I’ll need my white satin gloves, my white heels, my widest pannier hoopskirt, and any of the ribbons—either white or pink—that you think would be agreeable with the rose silk of the gown.” Peggy pointed Clara in the direction of her wardrobe, and Clara crossed the room to retrieve the requested items.
“Tonight shall be very festive. Of course, every night is festive now that the British officers are in Philadelphia,” Peggy chattered, coating her lips in pink lard to tint them a bright hue. Clara stared into the vast abyss of Peggy’s crowded armoire. A rose-colored gown. But there must have been twenty pink dresses in the wardrobe. She saw silks in shades of pink that mirrored nature’s softest petals: cherry blossom, tulip, begonia, hydrangea. How would she ever determine which one her mistress had meant by “rose”?
“Well?” Peggy was still at her vanity, applying rouge to her cheeks.
“Rose, rose, rose,” Clara muttered as she fingered the parade of gowns. How lucky the girl who possessed just one of these gowns, and her mistress owned them all. Clara settled on what she determined to be the correct one, removing it gently from its hook and carrying it toward her mistress. When Clara advanced toward her mistress, she saw that Peggy had stripped down to her shift and stays, prompting Clara to blush and lower her eyes. She supposed a lady need not be modest with her maid, but Peggy didn’t seem self-conscious of her near nakedness at all.
“Oh, you’re as bashful as a nun. Or worse, my sister.” Peggy giggled. “I want you to re-fasten my stays to make them tighter.” Peggy turned around so that her backside was to Clara. Fixing her grip to one of the posters of the bed, Peggy braced herself for the assault on her waistline.
Clara untied the existing knot and pulled on the laces. The hourglass shape ensured by a lady’s bone stays looked much less comfortable than the cotton stays worn by servants like herself, and Clara felt a moment’s appreciation for her less-constricting wardrobe.
“Tighter, I can manage a bit tighter,” Peggy urged her maid, even as she appeared to struggle for breath. “I’m to have the smallest waist at the party tonight.”
Clara nodded, pitying her mistress but obeying her orders as she redoubled her efforts and pulled anew on the stays. The top of Peggy’s corset fanned out to add to the appearance of a full bosom and also to ensure that a woman was forced to hold her upper arms out, like a ballet dancer. With elbows bent and hands clasped together in front of her waist, she’d be in the position considered most ladylike.
“That’s enough.” Peggy winced, closing her eyes for a moment. Clara tied off the laces and awaited her next order. With her corset tightened and waist pulled in, Peggy leaned on Clara as she slid into her ample pannier hoopskirt.
“Goodness.” Peggy closed her eyes and reached tenderly toward her abdomen, still adjusting to her constricted breathing. “Always takes a minute to adjust.”
“I can loosen them.” Clara reached for the laces, regretting that perhaps she’d tied the stays too firmly.
“No, no.” Peggy shook her head, her breathing still labored. “All the gents like to imagine that they take my breath away. If they only knew it was the corset.” Peggy opened her eyes and smiled at her maid. “Now, the pièce de résistance.” Peggy pointed at the gown that was fanned out on the bed, its skirt taking up the entire width of the bedframe. “I do love this one.” Peggy stroked the rosy silk affectionately. “And so does he.”
Clara, interest piqued, nevertheless let the comment drift aside like the breeze streaming through the open windows. She held the dress wide to help Peggy slip into it.
“Even loyalty to the British crown has its limits, I suppose.” Peggy giggled.
“Pardon me, miss?” Clara wrinkled her brow, unsure of the meaning.
“My dress,” Peggy said. “It’s à la française.”
Clara nodded. “Oh, of course.” But still she had little idea of her lady’s meaning, and Miss Peggy’s smirk indicated that she suspected as much.
Peggy pointed down at her dress. “The tight stomacher visible in front, it’s the highest fashion of the French court. And now the British.”
“It’s certainly very fine,” Clara replied, admiring her mistress’s figure. The bodice of the gown, with its white silk stomacher, hugged Peggy’s curves before the expansive skirt spilled over the side hoops and cascaded to the floor in its rich, silky splendor. The creamy white skin of Peggy’s arms peeked out under ruched sleeves of lace. The neckline came low to show the hint of Peggy’s bosom, decorated by a thin strand of pearls.
Dressing Peggy Shippen was an art form, Clara realized, and her mistress had more adornments in mind for this one evening than Clara possessed in her entire travel sack. After the gown was fastened snugly around the contours of her diminutive figure, there were the accessories to be put in place: stockings gartered above the knees, white satin shoes over her feet, pearl earrings that looked like large raindrops.
“You look like a doll, if you don’t mind my saying so, miss.” Clara marveled, her nerves softening under the comforting tonic of her lady’s increasingly ebullient mood. Each time Peggy caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her features seemed slightly more alight.
“We must hurry or we’ll be tardy for dinner, and we wouldn’t want Father to complain,” Peggy chirped, lowering herself carefully onto her cushioned seat before the looking glass. “Well, what are you waiting for, Clara?” She looked at her maid.
Clara stared back, baffled; what more could be done to tune Miss Peggy’s appearance? Was it not time that she leave and go assist Miss Betsy?
“I know what you’re thinking. Forget Betsy, come fashion my hair,” Peggy ordered, her tone dry.
“Aye, Miss Peggy,” Clara answered, sidling up behind her mistress. So perhaps she would not have time to make Miss Betsy’s acquaintance before dinner. “How shall we do it?”
“Continental fashion, like that French queen,” Peggy replied, as she smeared more color across her lips. “The higher, the better.” Clara had seen the occasional images of the French queen in the newspapers; she knew how Louis XVI’s bride had made the pouf the height of fashion.
“Did the girls on your farm dress this fine?” Peggy flashed a dazzling smile at Clara through her reflection in the mirror.
“Not at all, ma’am.” Clara pulled Peggy’s hair through her fingers. “I don’t think Mrs. Hartley ever asked me to fashion her hair like that of a queen.” She smiled, surprised but flattered by the interest Miss Peggy was taking in her.
“Well, you had better get used to it. Since the British seized the city from the . . . rebels”—Peggy could barely hide the contempt in her voice as it tripped over the word—“the hair must be higher, the corsets tighter. And the dresses! Before they got here, it was all homespun. But now the shops are open once more, and we get fresh silk, ribbons, lace.” She lined the lids of her eyes with charcoal as Clara wrapped strands of her blond hair around the iron, releasing them into buoyant curls.
Clara considered this, hesitating. Her mistress sounded as if she enjoyed the company of the British soldiers. Clara herself still nurtured a secret allegiance to the rebel cause. How could she admit this to her mistress? She could not, not if she hoped to keep Miss Peggy’s good favor.
“Everything has been so much more fun since the British got here! I think I’ve enjoyed myself more in six months than most girls do in an entire lifetime.” Peggy sighed, staring at a pair of silhouettes cut out of paper and leaning against her mirror. The lady looked just like Peggy in profile, drawn to the collar of an ornate dress, with her hair à la française. The man wore the British regimentals and tricornered hat, and his features were handsome, slightly delicate even. The silhouettes were arranged so the two figures appeared locked in each other’s gaze, immutable.
“Is that you, my lady?” Clara asked, studying the cut-paper silhouettes.
“Oh, yes. It’s me and Johnny.” Peggy’s forefinger reached for the paper and tenderly stroked the would-be cheek of the gentleman. “He made it for me—he promised that I’m the only one he made a silhouette for.”
Clara let that comment hover in the air, without response, as she continued her diligent styling of Miss Peggy’s hair. When her pouf was sufficiently high and her cheeks sufficiently rouged, Peggy sprayed her hair with the powder pump to infuse the faintest hint of white into her locks. She dabbed her wrists, neck, and bosom with floral-scented perfume, and stood to admire herself before the full-length looking glass. “Well.” She completed a twirl, the skirt of her gown and the smell of her perfume fanning out around her. “How do I look, Clara?”
Clara had never seen her equal. “I can’t imagine there will be a single gentleman in all of Philadelphia who will not want to stand beside you, Miss Peggy.”
“I’m sure Meg Chew will be dressed just as nicely,” Peggy retorted, her features turning sour for a moment. “But Johnny told me he’s looking forward to seeing me tonight, not Meg Chew.”
Clara, not sure of how else to answer, nodded. “Of course he is.” As Clara gazed once more in the mirror to admire her mistress, she caught sight of her own reflection, and couldn’t help but feel fresh embarrassment over her own plain, homespun figure.
THE KITCHEN in the Shippen home was a hive of activity—filled with harried servants, fragrant aromas, and serving dishes being jostled from hand to hand. Clara watched in awe as food traveled from the hearth and somehow melded into the tantalizing presentations on the china platters. At the center of the kitchen around a long wooden table stood several servants, arranging the various ingredients into tidy, savory-looking dishes.
“Clara, there you are! How did it go with the Miss Shippens?” Mrs. Quigley looked over from where she was sorting a set of silver wineglasses. “You look lost child, come here and tell me how it went.”
“I hope it went well. I did Miss Peggy’s hair, and I helped her dress.” Clara gazed around, still distracted by the largest, noisiest kitchen she’d ever seen.
“And Miss Betsy? You’ve met her as well?”
“No, ma’am,” Clara answered, feeling guilty, as if it had been her own fault. She told the housekeeper about the exchange between the Shippen sisters and her orders to hide behind the wardrobe.
“Sounds about right.” Mrs. Quigley’s shoulders sagged as she listened. “Well, not your fault, Clara. And speaking of wardrobe”—Mrs. Quigley settled the final glass and then reached for a wine decanter—“I’ve spoken with Mr. Quigley, and we agree that you’ll need to spruce up your wardrobe a bit now that you’re a maid in the Shippen household.” The housekeeper looked over Clara’s attire disapprovingly again. “We shall be able to help you.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Clara could not help but smile—she could not remember the last time she’d had new clothes.
“It’s nothing, child. Now don’t just stand there completely useless.” The housekeeper took Clara by the arm and escorted her through the two rooms that abutted the kitchen. “The scullery is back here.”
“The . . . what, Mrs. Quigley?”
“I keep forgetting you’ve just come from a farm.” Mrs. Quigley sighed. “The scullery. It’s where the dishes are scrubbed, washed, and dried after the meals. You’ll help with that. And here”—the housekeeper moved fluidly to the next small room—“is the larder. The pantry?”
Clara nodded. That one she knew.
“Who’s this?” A wide-hipped, middle-aged woman with strong features and an accent Clara immediately recognized as German appeared from out of a nook in the pantry, her thick arms cradling a crate of peaches.
“Hannah, hello,” Mrs. Quigley said. “Meet the Miss Shippens’ new maid, Clara.”
“Ah,” Hannah shifted her cargo to her hip and wiped her hands on her dirty apron, reaching forward for a handshake. “The name’s Hannah Breunig. Cook for the Shippens.” She introduced herself with the same clipped diction as Oma.
“Clara Bell,” Clara answered politely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Breunig.”
“It’s Hannah. But I’m sorry to say I don’t think anything’s a pleasure right now, not when this dessert still needs baking. But just stay out of my way and we won’t have a problem.” Hannah turned back to the kitchen and both Clara and Mrs. Quigley followed her.
“Ah, so this is the young lady who needs the new wardrobe?” Clara turned to see a man with thinning hair the same gray hue as Mrs. Quigley’s.
“Oh good, you’re here, Arthur.” Mrs. Quigley nodded at the man, who wore a formal white collared shirt with a tailored black jacket, cropped breeches, and buckled shoes. His thinning hair was combed back neatly. Clara noticed the servants in the kitchen stopping their harried work to curtsy as he passed them. “Hello, Clara Bell. My name’s Arthur Quigley. My first claim to notoriety is that I’m married to Mrs. Quigley. My second title is that I’m the butler and valet for Judge Shippen.”
“Mr. Quigley, it’s a pleasure.” Clara curtsied.
“Arthur, I’ve just told Clara that we’ve made arrangements to assist her with the . . . deficiencies . . . of her wardrobe.” Mrs. Quigley addressed her husband formally, though Clara noticed the way her stern eyes had softened.
“We shall be happy to help.” Mr. Quigley nodded. “Can you cook, Clara? In a pinch?”
“No, sir. I’m sorry to say I’m not much use with cooking,” Clara answered.
Mrs. Quigley leaned over the table and handed her husband the tray of neatly arranged wine goblets. “I would think with a grandmother such as yours it’d be the first thing you’d learn.”
“Quite the opposite, I’m afraid,” Clara answered. “Oma always did all the cooking, never wanted anyone else to ruin her food. I learned all the ladies’ arts. Hair styling, sewing, mending.”
“Well, Miss Peggy will certainly have you laboring at each of those tasks night and day,” Mr. Quigley answered, taking the wine decanter from his wife. “And have you met Miss Betsy as well?”
Mrs. Quigley interjected, answering for Clara. “It seems that Miss Peggy required Clara entirely for herself this afternoon.” The housekeeper’s eyes rounded out the message, and Mr. Quigley nodded.
“I see.” He turned back to Clara. “Best not to get involved in any territorial disputes, Clara. We’ve got enough men fighting a territorial battle across this continent, without starting another war in the Shippen household. You just keep your head down and do as you’re told, and if it gets too out of hand, you come to Mrs. Quigley or myself. Understood?”
“Understood, sir.” Clara nodded.
“You shall meet Miss Betsy at supper.” Mr. Quigley fidgeted with the collar of his shirt, as if to render its stiff creases even more crisp.
“Who is this? There’s a face I don’t recognize.”
Clara turned in the direction of a new voice in the crowded kitchen and found herself staring into a broad, smiling face. Like her, this man was younger than the other servants in the kitchen, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He looked familiar. Yes, from his brown wool breeches and loosely fitted linen shirt, Clara could tell this was the guitar-playing groom she’d spotted outside the stables.
“I think I saw you earlier,” the young man spoke first, grinning at her. “The name’s Little, Caleb Little.”
“Nice to meet you.” Clara curtsied, lowering her eyes.
“I saw you looking through the window,” he continued. She felt her cheeks grow warm.
“And you are?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, right, I’m Clara Bell. The new lady’s maid for the Miss Shippens.”
“Ah, Clara Bell, that’s an enviable post you have,” Caleb answered, cracking a lopsided grin. “I’m the stable groom.”
“And the footman, don’t forget, so wash your hands and get ready to serve dinner, Caleb,” Mrs. Quigley said, interrupting them.
“That’s right, I’m the footman now as well.” Caleb Little rolled up his sleeves and crossed the kitchen toward the washbasin. “Double duty since they sacked all the rest of the servants.” Caleb’s accent was more rough, more American, than the proper Quigleys or the German cook.
“And lucky to have the job, so I better not be hearing a complaint.” Mrs. Quigley raised a finger.
“Of course not, ma’am,” Caleb answered, leaning over to wash his hands and splash his face. Clara’s eyes lingered as he rubbed the back of his tanned neck with a wet rag.
“You’re going to be with Caleb at dinner tonight, Clara,” Mr. Quigley explained. “Watch how he serves, and you’ll fill in for him on occasion.”
Clara peeled her eyes from Caleb, turning toward the valet. “I’ve never served dinner for a family like the Shippens.”
“It’s not too hard, Miss Bell.” Caleb winked as he turned back to face her, toweling off his wet face. “As long as you keep Miss Peggy’s wineglass full, you should have nothing to worry about.”
“It is hard, and she should worry about it,” Mrs. Quigley snapped at Caleb. “And you could stand to worry a bit more too. Now start getting these dishes out on the table.”
“Sorry, Auntie.” Caleb nodded his head respectfully toward Mrs. Quigley before flashing Clara a mischievous grin. With that, the housekeeper handed her nephew the tray of wineglasses and pushed him through the door, ordering Clara to follow behind.
“DINNER IS ready to be served,” Mr. Quigley announced to the kitchen. His voice set off a fresh round of errands among the staff.
“The family is seated—go, go!” Mrs. Quigley kept Clara and Caleb running to and from the kitchen to the dining room, carrying tray after tray of hot food. Hannah had the Shippens starting with trays of meat: miniature game hens, a rabbit pie, and fresh sturgeon. Accompanying the meat were heaping bowls of rosemary potatoes, carrots from the garden, steamed fiddleheads, spinach, and roasted beets.
“My aunt acts like we are serving the royal family, but really you just have to make sure you don’t spill and you don’t trip. As long as you manage that, they’ll never even notice you’re in the room. All they’re looking at is the food and one another’s clothing,” Caleb whispered to Clara at the threshold of the dining room, but Clara wasn’t listening to the footman beside her. Her eyes were feasting on the scene before her, a tableau unlike the family meals she’d known at the Hartleys. The Shippens sat around a table of walnut, with ornately carved chairs showing the ornamental flair once again popular in Europe. The table was spread with a damask tablecloth, every inch festooned with the freshly polished silver and china plates wreathed in a floral pattern. “Ready?” Caleb paused beside her, weighed down by the plates of meat he carried.
“Caleb, I can’t. Let me watch you this first time,” Clara pleaded, placing her bowl of potatoes down on the buffet in the hallway. “I’ll drop something, or do something incorrectly, I just know it.”
“What’s the matter, Clara Bell? ’Fraid of a few Shippens just because they wear fancy clothes and pump powder into their hair?” Caleb smiled, his hazel eyes lit up with teasing.
“Let me see how you do it first. Please?” Clara pleaded.
“All right, just this once, then you’re helping me serve.” Caleb winked. “Here I go.” He straightened his posture, shrugging off the casual affability he’d displayed just moments ago in the servants’ quarters and marching into the dining room with sudden and impressive poise. Clara lurked in the hallway outside the dining room, watching the family from a concealed corner where they didn’t suspect her presence. She spotted her mistress first, the brightest spot in the dark, wood-paneled room. The candlelight danced playfully off her features, and the sight of Peggy Shippen made Clara freshly nervous. She stared on, admiring Peggy’s genteel features, her soaring hair, her perfect attire.
Caleb distributed the plates of meat evenly along the table and Clara watched, studying his graceful movements, the way he served the family members without getting in their way as they sipped their wine. Judge Shippen was greeted reverentially by each member of the family as he took his spot at the head of the table and led the group in a short prayer of thanks.
Beside the judge sat a man with a very similar likeness and a heavier frame. “That’s Doctor William Shippen.” Caleb was back by Clara’s side, whispering into her ear as they watched the family. “Doctor William is the judge’s cousin.” Judge Edward was like his cousin, Doctor William, in many ways, but seemingly more of a deflated version—as if there was less flesh on his bones and a wearier spirit shining through his eyes.
“Doctor William, unlike his brother, is known to be supporting the colonies,” Caleb explained.
Clara nodded. This was a well-known piece of gossip. “But Miss Peggy seems to have openly loyalist tendencies,” Clara whispered, thinking back to the conversation she’d had earlier with her new mistress.
Caleb considered this, his features folding into a casual, cockeyed grin. “Well, how many colonial men do you see in Philadelphia wearing store-bought suits, ready to serve her Champagne and caviar?” He stepped away to deliver a platter of sturgeon to the table.
Across from Doctor William, occupying the middle of the table, sat the Shippen girls, Peggy and the other young lady whom Clara knew to be Betsy. She was a less striking version of her younger sister. Like Pegg
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?
Read an Excerpt
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