Memorizing the material was not the issue; rather, it was the potential for who the product of this affair would prove to be. The prospect kept Elizabeth Schuyler restless for the fortnight proceeding the Union Exam, and as she lay in her spacious bed with the ideas of who she’d soon be wedding looming over her head, she couldn’t help but force tears behind her eyelids.
Surely her husband would not be a bad man; after all, only the wealthiest, most privileged and sociologically deserving of the young colonies-fighting-to-become-country would be allowed in their candidate pool. Despite the union being a formal affair that had very little deviation from the events that took place publicly, her parents would still have to approve the marriage, so even in the event he was awful she would still have potential redemption.
“Unable to find the elusive ‘sleep’?” Her closest in age younger sister whispered from the doorway, breaking up her frantic thoughts and not alarming her to the degree it normally would within such an early hour.
“Indeed,” Eliza admitted with a soft sigh. “Won’t you join me, dear sister? I need companionship before I am sent off to a new life with a gentleman I may not even love.”
“Such grim talk for a theoretically happy occasion,” Peggy noted as her feet pad against the cool floor, her curvier frame easily fitting around that of her beloved sibling with the same familiar adjustments they’d learned from a lifetime of being tightly knit. “Are you that reluctant? They cannot make you go if you openly refuse, you know.”
“And risk the possibility of being disowned or being matched with some random rich man against my genuine will, or even God forbid a family member?” The older of the two immediately grunted and rolled closer to her sister’s warmth. “I think not, little one.”
“I’m not so little anymore,” the younger protested sleepily.
“You are little enough to be exempt from Mother’s reign,” Eliza reminded, not unkindly.
She did prefer it this way, at any rate. Catherine Schuyler had been insistent that her three eldest children, her eligible daughters, go to the examination and ceremony as one tightly bonded unit to ensure the best results and to inflate the reputation of their remarkable family. It had been their father, the much beloved and visibly aging Phillip Schuyler, that swayed his wife into allowing the freshly eighteen Peggy to wait another year or so before she followed in her sisters’ footsteps or wed by her own resourcefulness. For the twenty year old Angelica and nineteen year old Elizabeth, however, there was no budging the strict old woman, and thus they’d found themselves prepped, taught, conditioned and endlessly scolded upon every little imperfection until the night before the current day’s dawn.
Men don’t like a woman with a sharp tongue, they’d both been told while their mother struck their hands or seized their hair unforgivingly. You must work quietly and diligently. Don’t you dare think about dressing so plainly around anyone you expect to make children with.
Of course, she’d already made up her mind even before the especially cruel treatment began. She would never go through with the union of a person who did not love and respect her completely, not even to appease her mother, and she’d almost immediately divorce and estrange from her female parent if his tendencies forced themselves outside the realms of her consent or comfortability. Regardless, her heart still fluttered painfully against her chest as her sibling fell back asleep and she was left with only her thoughts until she heard the familiar rhythm of her father’s footsteps through the hallways.
“Good morning, Papa,” she greeted politely, her shawls falling all around her thick winter shift as she made her way to the kitchen. “Did you sleep well?”
“I should ask quite the same of you,” he mused with a welcoming smile. “You look as though you have been of waking world for quite some time.”
“Despite my best attempts, you are not wrong,” she admitted with a tired sigh. “I did rest for most of the nighttime, but I have opened my eyes before the dawn more often than not recently. It cannot be helped.”
Her father smiled knowingly and began to brew their morning tea. “There are always natural sleep remedies if you seek them. Please notify me next time you’re having a hard time sleeping; I believe that is something passed down from myself.”
“How dare you,” she teased, earning a affectionate laugh and reassuring hand squeeze from her papa.
It was not much longer before the sun was rising slowly in the sky and the familiar sounds of their large family filled their home. The eldest teenager found herself relaxing in the routine of the morning, helping to feed and clean up her siblings while she hummed or made pleasant jokes and told stories with her older family members. It wasn’t until she was heading to clean off the plates that she was halted by her mother’s grasp on her dress, a gesture that alarmed her enough to make her outwardly gasp; she scolded herself internally for showing such a sign of weakness before her powerhouse of a parent.
“Darling, you surely don’t think you’ll be doing such peasant work, especially not on a day like today!” As she turned around, she was slightly disgusted to see the amount of age-reducing makeup and fanciful decorations adorning her mother along with her nicest clothing. “Leave that to the household help and get yourself into the bath house!”
She didn’t have to be told twice, swiftly gathering all the materials she’d need to bathe and rushing out to no doubt meet her older sister. Angelica pulled her into a tight hug the second she stepped in, her own gaze somber but overall resigned in its stress.
“It will be alright, Liza,” her beloved eldest sister murmured comfortingly as they held each other as though they were the only glue keeping themselves whole. “Mother has blown this into a proportion that it cannot realistically be, and they’ll have to go through me to wed you to someone who will not make you happy.”
“You’ve said yourself joy is not inherent, only satisfaction,” the younger whispered back, and though she’d reply differently, she did not miss the slight hitch in comforter’s breath or the tensing in her front.
“That is only in my case. It is not law,” Angelica replied as she pulled back to smile at her. “Now, let’s get clean before the water cools.”
Eliza spent more time in the basin than she normally would for more reason than one. For one, the fire heated water was a welcome contrast to the general chill of the early spring, and she was able to smooth, prod at and scrub away every imperfection that she made her feel dirty most of the week. The occasion also called for her attention to detail on herself, so she was even able to change the tub with a fresh load of water without being punished for it; she took this opportunity to scrub and clean her hair until it was smooth, silky and failing down her back in soaked waves. Angelica, of course, primped herself well but didn’t take near the time, saying she had to worry more about the makeup before hurrying into the unpleasant, starkly cold space between the bathing quarters and their home.
“Pale as a flower,” she murmured to herself as she gazed into the looking glass once she made her back into her own room. “Does the matchmaker wish to have a porcelain doll or a human being?”
Regardless of the churning feeling of reluctance in her stomach, she stroked and painted her face until it looked exactly as her mother had taught to during their dozens upon dozens of practice sessions. Even with all the paints, creams and powder meticulously applied, she still felt she looked more like a spirit than a person with eyelids that resembled rust and eye shapes that were so styled to look like almonds that she felt she looked like some horrendous fox-person hybrid. Regardless of all of this, she knew Mother’s wrath was worse than her discomfort and kept this in mind as she pinned her hair back underneath a brand new powdered wig that felt heavy on her scalp and shed fibers before her vision. The final piece was another freshly sewn dress, one with seven hoops and that was a painfully gaudy silver, one that she required two sets of extra hands to slip on. As Angie fastened her in, she couldn’t help but be jealous of how eloquently her senior looked in her carefully dyed golden and pink gown, skillfully dabbed makeup and well-groomed wig; women like her were meant for pleasantries and cordial unions for perfect ladies and gentleman, not women like herself who liked to get dirty and preferred comfortable, casual one pieces to corsets and jewelry.
“My baby girls are all grown up!” Mother lamented before pulling them both into a hug so heartfelt, Eliza feared her hard work would be wiped right off (which would mean she didn’t have to wear it for time constraints, pray it be.) “Now, don’t you forget what I taught you! Say to me your response to what is expected of a proper wife!”
As she recited the words drilled into her head with her sibling, the middle sister could not help but wonder how Mother had come to such nasty conclusions when Papa was the model loving, supportive husband regardless of these empty promises. “A woman’s place is with round stomach and warm heart. She is to tend to every need of her husband before every wish of her own, but is not to be so off putting to not be seen in public. She is beautiful, silent, forgiving, and loyal to the point of death before betrayal. These things, Madame, are all characteristics of myself until death shall I part from my beloved.”
To seemingly add insult to injury, Mother immediately wiped an imaginary tear from her eye before taking their hands firmly between her own. “My girls, you make me too proud for words. Now, run along for your carriage; the coachmen shan’t wait for any of your dawdling about!”
“Elizabeth,” her female parent quipped before she could flee to the safety of the front foyer. “Do remember what I taught you. If your pretty brown eyes roll any further back when you assume I’m not looking, you’ll be blind and homeless before you’ve had the chance to retrieve your things.”
“Yes Mama,” she replied in an empty tone, curtsying politely before rushing all the way to where her siblings were all gathered in excitement.
As she entered and scooped up little Cornelia, Angelica gave her a sympathetic smile. “Pay no mind to her, Betsey. She only wants what is best for us, but that does not mean she is always right.”
She did love her mother quite a lot, Eliza affirmed in the privacy of her thoughts as she straightened her youngest sister’s gown. It was no secret Catherine Schuyler was strict and that her old age had sucked most of her joy dry, but she was still attentive and did her best for the interest of her offspring. If it meant sacrificing her life, the young woman knew Mother wouldn’t hesitate, but it also meant she’d stop at nothing to do everything she was capable of to see them into a future she saw fit. For all of her masked compassion and somber affection, there was no point resisting their futures, but she couldn’t play along quite as well as her older sister and younger siblings- save her rebellious Peggy, of course-always had. Truth be known, she was not sure where she’d be had she not been blessed with such a devout older Irish triplet and equally open minded younger Irish triplet, and for that she clung to them as the women she cared for the complete opinion of.
“So what’s his name??” Little Rensselaer, the youngest of her brothers at the tender age of three, chirped excitedly while carefully grabbing at Angelica’s skirts. “Does he like boats??!”
“I haven’t met him yet, but I will soon!” The eldest sibling said gently while gently picking him up long enough to spin him around before setting him on the couch. “Worry not, that will be the first question I ask him!”
The toddler giggled excitedly as Phillip Jeremiah sighed and studied his hands. “Does this mean you won’t come over to play, Betsey??”
“Of course not! I’ll be over here to play with you every chance I get!” Eliza exclaimed before giving him a gentle kiss to the cheek. “No matter what husband I’m given, you boys will always be my #1 men!”
“Can’t all be #1, though! Teacher said we can’t!” John gasped with a horrified expression.
“Just because Teacher says it doesn’t make it law!” The nineteen year old exclaimed with a mischievous grin as the boys giggled at her scandalous comment; her own teacher was overcharging gentleman who hadn’t the slightest clue how to teach young ladies properly, so she’d carried this philosophy through much of her life to keep her sharp wits about her.
“The carriage is here!” John exclaimed post looking out the window. “Go on, you gotta go now or you’ll miss everything!”
“We’ll see you at the ceremony!” Eliza called as Angelica swiftly took baby Cornelia from her and handed her off to Peggy before rushing her out of the door. “Be good, I love you lots!”
The chorus of ‘Love you more!”s were enough to keep her spirits high until she was properly loaded and forced to face the reality rapidly dawning upon her. Even her bold, man-crushing Angelica looked pale to the face as they rode on their way, her fan open and rapidly trying to keep the sweat from falling despite the cold weather. Eliza therefore took her sister’s hand tightly and didn’t release it after receiving a squeeze, a gesture that earned her a small smile and a tighter grip until they were obligated to lift themselves out and file into an orderly line within the courthouse.
“Good morning, ladies!” A young gentleman, one who looked far out of his league and flushed enough to color a thousand roses. “I-it’s a pleasure to b-b-be escorting you inside! I’m su-sure your guardians and nannies have briefed you as to the events of today, but I was t-told to repeat it one last time before the first l-lady begins! Today is all about being your most proper and genuine selves, something you all are bound to be v-very aware of! Answer honestly and freely, but do not be so bold to show disrespect; y-you are still before a gov-government official! Your answers will be recorded, assessed, and the ceremony announcing your engagements will take place shortly thereafter an intermission for dining! Now, if an M-Miss Abigail Smith will join me, w-we shall begin!”
A short but lusciously dressed young woman stepped out from the front of line with perfect posture and a stern expression, one that made the young escort blush more profusely if it were possible, and wasted no time entering the spacious room behind two heavy locked doors. It felt like days before she later emerged, face stained with sweat and hair disheveled but otherwise looking triumphant. Throughout the waiting period, all of the waiting women, who were finding themselves able to sit after quite a while of uncomfortable standing, were offered very light snacks and tea, which Eliza graciously look. Right before she was meant to be called, she realized with a pale-causing horror that a large splatter of the liquid had stained the bottom half of her dress and that it was far too large and set to be subtle or easily scrubbed away. A petrified look of absolute horror to her sister, who was now proudly exiting with a big smile on her face, sent the twenty year old rushing over and her hands clasping behind her own lower back.
“Act natural,” Angie whispered, and nearly at once three of her previous septenary of hoops were swished away and rapidly folded beneath her still moving sibling.
Faced with no other options than run and destroy her life, Elizabeth straightened and confidently shed her excess overcoat before walking boldly to the escort. She could only imagine how she looked coming in with a plain and simplistic base compared to her heavily styled and layered top, her posture pore due to her shifting within her heels and makeup smeared from the snacks, but she still strode in as naturally and nearly as daringly as she imagined Angelica did before her. Instead of a crotchety hag or bitter widow, she was met by a younger lady with minimal makeup, a clearly comfortable dress, and a polite smile as she was deposited eloquently on the chair facing her; for this she was immediately grateful.
“Miss Schuyler, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” the Matchmaker greeted easily. “As you know, I spoke with your sister before you, and she has set the bar exceptionally high. I expect on the best of you, little lady.”
Being called such a derogatory term made her instinctually move to scowl, but she caught herself in a silent, polite ‘yawn’ behind her dress sleeve under the rapid revelation that comment was likely a stab to test her manners. “Yes Madame Matchmaker. May I prepare the pastries and some drink?”
The Matchmaker’s brown eyes sparkled daringly. “As you will.”
Throughout the long minutes it took to gather and serve, Eliza was forced to endure several critical comments about her posture, the choices she made with arranging snacks, and her clothing with a shut mouth. She found herself relieved when the Matchmaker paused to daintily eat and drink, and yet she did not partake aside from a polite mini sip to save a little face.
“You seem like a fairly intelligent woman,” her evaluator said post her light dining. “Tell me, child, have you had any schooling?”
“Doctor Pretorius along with various mentors of the Schuyler family,” she replied evenly. “The doctor commented that I had a decisive intellect when it came to reading and writing, and I have always made excelling exceptional marks on duties of the house and home.”
“I see.” The Matchmaker took note of something before continuing. “Tell me about your strengths, then.”
Not surprisingly, the things she said were her strong points were immediately to be shown for demonstration. Elizabeth obediently sewed clothes into clothes, fashioned back together simple toys, and sang a lullaby that made the waiting escort sway along subconsciously before cooking a traditional meal that took what felt like an excessive amount of time while she entertained more eloquently than she felt comfortable with.
“And what would you say is expected of the perfect wife?” The tester finally inquired as she served out the lunch platters.
“Her place is with a full belly and warm heart,” Eliza replied in the same pointedly sweet tone, her mother’s words hounding inside her head on repeat. “She is to attend every need of your husband over-”
She halted as she felt her throat tighten to close off her fake dialogue. What she said in this room was going to determine the rest of her life, and though Mother prodded and abused and demanded one thing, her maternal parent had no say or knowledge over what would truly take place now. Therefore, she finished carefully setting the table before stepping back and looking the Matchmaker for the first time directly in her eyes all session.
“A perfect wife ought to tend to every need over her husband over every wish of her own, but not neglect her own needs in the process,” Eliza continued confidently despite how her knees trembled beneath her skirts. “A husband and a wife are to work as one unit, not as two separate beings so opposite in expectation that should not make the other happy. The wife shall rear children at her husband’s side and to make them all proud, and in their old age when death looms over their part, they shan’t regret a bit of their lives together. These things, Madame, are all characteristics of myself and that I expect of whoever you deem best for me.”
The Matchmaker’s eyes again seemed to sparkle before she made several rapid marks upon her pieces of parchment. “Very well. Exceptional work, Miss Schuyler, and thank you for preparing my lunch. You are dismissed.”
A blush of immediate and hot rage blossomed across her face; she’d been kept longer just to serve one pretentious woman her food without reaping any of her hard work. Rather than tell down the smug lady like her mind was screaming for her to do, she ducked her head low, said a quiet ‘Thank you, Madame’ while curtseying deeply, before essentially dragging the escort along so she may leave. He gave her an apologetic look before opening the second side of doors into the main waiting area, and as soon as she slipped away from his hold she was storming out of the courthouse and chucking her shoes as far as they’d go while she let out a choked up sound of intense anger and frustration.
“Betsey?! What’s happened, did it go poorly??” Angelica was at her side like always with immediate haste for wherever she’d been waiting beforehand. “Dear sister, there is more to life than marriage, I know you know this. As for Mother-”
“No!” She cried out before burying herself to cry into her beloved older sister. “It was immaculately! She made me prepare her next meal and I have never felt so dispensable and lowly in all my days!”
As on time and steadfast as she’d always been, Angie comforted her and treated her to an exquisite meal of their own that was enough to encourage her to straighten up her remaining makeup and have a street vendor clean up her excess skirts before getting them back on. As per her sister’s blessing, she gratefully discarded the wig and brushed her down and out so it flowed nicely down her back in its natural beauty before they headed to the ceremonial stage. Despite the ominous dread settling in her mind like she swallowed bricks, the middle born ‘Schuyler sister’ could not help but admire the lavishly done up stage while those of the poor class who’d just finished their own ceremony either rejoiced or uncomfortably resided along their new partners. She caught one woman’s eyes, ones that were full of sorrow and dark resignation as her betrothed yanked her unforgivingly away; the cold reality of her potential future made her feel terribly ill.
Time moved too quickly thereafter, as she stood proudly alongside the other ‘cultured pearls’ of the colonies who sent their women for political union, she kept her eyes decisively above the heads of the massive crowd. She didn’t even allow herself to eye at the future husbands of every young woman there, for she didn’t trust herself to deflate her schoolgirl dreams any more without openly showing her fury and sorrow. When the Matchmaker, escort and mayor had properly welcomed everyone and stated all of the pleasantries to begin the announcements, she stole a look over to her sister, who’d been stood several people away from her and more closely to the center of stage.
“Sybil Ludington!” The mayor announced. “I am pleased to announce your arrangements have been made with Mister Edmond Ogden!”
The by furthest youngest woman walked briskly to the center stage and shook hands with her betrothed, and as they formally introduced themselves and flirted playfully, Eliza longed for such a smooth transaction for herself. As others were called and paired off with the confidence of a thousand generations before them, she finally allowed herself a glance over the row of formally dressed and mostly handsome young men. Not to her surprise, she recognized most of them from her family’s various affairs by at least last name, and she let her mind wander into who she’d inevitably be given over to.
“Angelica Schuyler!” Her sister’s name being announced snapped her back to the ceremony, and she felt herself clenching at her dress until her knuckles drained of color as Angie turned to meet her face head on. “It is my deepest honor to announce you shall wed one Mister John Church!”
Her sigh of relief was easily masked with the squeal of elated surprise that erupted from her sibling; John Church was a fine young gentleman, one that she knew her senior had been seeing for quite some time in secrecy due to his family’s reputation, and Eliza was struck with the idea they likely planned their responses to be nearly identical to ensure this result. The nineteen year old watched with overflowing pride as her sister ran into his arms, throwing her own around his neck and laughing when he spun her around. There was a smile on everybody’s face as the young betrothed took their seats together before the stage, and her own heart ached with a twinge of longing for a similar fate despite it being impossible.
A few more names and couples were announced before her fate was upon her. “Elizabeth Schuyler!”
She turned profile and made her way to the center of the stage; she wondered if her fear was at last seeping out externally. As she neared the center, the sound of her harshly beating heart nearly distracted her from the gentleman’s name, but she knew him easily. He was a very tall and dapper man in his thirties, an outlier in the sea of youths, and when he approached her she subtly recoiled immediately. This was Thomas Jefferson, a known leader of the most prominent Loyalist party in all of America, and they wanted her to be wed to the likes of a man with a reputation for being cruel, smug and very, very particular.
“It’s a pleasure, ma’am,” he drawled in his thick Virginian accent while he took her hand and kissed her knuckles. “You’re even more beautiful than my beloved and deceased.”
He was referring to his late Martha Jefferson, of course, but the comparison made her feel ill. As he rose and spun her around the face the pastor blessing the arrangement, she stole a glance back to her family, all of which looked shocked or somber save for her mother, who just looked relieved. She was about to mouth a ‘What do I do?’ to her now stunned sisters before her face was squished between a set of long fingers that easily forced her gaze to meet his own.
“Now, now,” Jefferson mused with a slightly sinister set to his gaze. “I don’t want a pretty wife who thinks it’s alright to act so finicky around me. Perhaps you are due for some lessons in how to be a good little girl.”
The rage she’d been tending over all day burst up, and she hardly processed how quickly she yanked away from him and stood with the upmost righteous pride. “You have some nerve speaking to me like that, Mister Jefferson!”
“You are my intended, you ought to get used to it. I assure you that you won’t miss what your parents failed to instill in you,” he announced with equal gall as he seized her forearms. “Don’t you know your place?!”
She met his steely hazel eyes resolutely before pulling back, causing his nails to dig in deep enough to scratch her and rip right through the dainty sleeve fabric. “I do, and it is not by your side, Thomas. I shan’t go through with it, not even if I were lame and reliant upon nobody else!”
The back of her neck was suddenly within the bony grip of the Matchmaker, who spoke with a sweeter tone than her hold implied about her mood. “Not too worry, sir; I am terribly sorry about all this, she must be ineligible for the upper class if she is to behave like this.”
“Bold talk coming from a lady who can’t be bothered to prepare her own meals during a regulated exam!” Eliza practically roared while using her shoulder to break distance between her and her awful judge. “You waste our time and resources on a system that is hardly effective! You claim to know best and to pair us as happily as any naturally proceeding courtship, and yet I have seen more women cry of fear, anger and grief than I have ever seen before! You are a fraud, Madame Matchmaker, and you shan’t pass any more judgement of value upon me!”
“You little imp!” The woman shrieked, and before she could fully storm off the stage her senior had her hair unforgivingly in her hands and was yanking her to the Schuyler family. “You are NO lady, you are a disobedient child who would do well for a proper thrashing for that tongue of yours! Dare I say you ought to be hung for such public indecency, you stupid bitch! You have failed at every stage of your life, and you shall never be wed so long as I have say about it. Catherine Schuyler, you may have raised up one decent offspring, but if this is how the others have been weened? Ha! You are hardly a mother at all for raising such an ignorant whelp, and may she die a lonely widow within your neglectful grasp due to your own incompetence!”
Eliza felt nothing but the burning light of her rage as she struck the Matchmaker across her face, and she hardly felt present as her family got her out of trouble with the police and rushed her back home. As she stepped off the carriage and ran inside, she let out harsh sobs of raw emotion, locking herself within her room long enough to change into comfortable clothes before rushing out the ancestral prayer room. It was there she continued to weep unashamedly and demand to know why she was too bold to fit in with everything that was expected of her, though that was mostly out sorrow and fear of Mother’s wrath. She eventually settled well enough to properly pray for her life and straighten up for dinner, which was consumed with tense silence before Catherine finally rose.
“You have dishonored me,” she said with stone cold apathy. “You have brought shame upon our family’s very name like some ill-mannered child, and as such, you ought to be beaten bloody like you ought to have been long ago.”
Eliza screamed along with her younger siblings as she was yanked by the hair yet again out of her chair, her hands clawing desperately for freedom; her parents had never dare lay a hand of any of them for discipline despite the popular beliefs, and she was not about to let Mother begin on her when she was a grown woman. Luckily, she was separated with an easy light push from Papa, whose gaze was unreadable despite the kind gesture.
“You shall not lay a hand upon our daughter,” he commanded firmly to his wife. “Emotions are high and the situation is tense, but it shall pass as everything does. Be seated.”
“Phillip-” Mother hissed, but Papa simply shook his head.
“Be seated,” he repeated in a stern tone, and though her mother did as she was instructed, she made haste in fleeing far enough from her home that she was finally came to rest underneath a cherry blossom tree.
The night grew darker as she sat underneath the budding tree, but she found no reason for her return to a home where she was at least now partially completely unloved. She held her knees to her chest and shivered terribly, the sounds of the outside world seeming all the scarier now that she was completely alone, but she resolved anything was better than what she’d fled from. All that said, she was relieved when her father’s familiar figure joined her upon the hilltop and settled beside her before draping a couple of thick blankets around her trembling frame.
“The blooms are sure to be beautiful this year,” Papa said softly as he craned his head back to look at the hundreds of buds above them. “You can always tell by the shape of the root, I hear.”
“What if some of them never blossom, or not at least not how they’re supposed to?” Eliza inquired after a long moment of heavy silence. “What if it comes out…wrong? Will they still be as worthy of celebration as the regular ones?”
“My darling daughter, each and every flower is unique and perfect in its own way. Some minds are not meant to understand why, but they dance and create beauty either way,” he responded while giving her a reassuring smile. “The cold night is no place for a flower, I do think.”
Tears formed fresh in her eyes as she wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace. “You shouldn’t have pushed yourself so far just to come get me. The doctor told you you’re not the man of your youth; perhaps you’d consider believing him?”
He simply scoffed good-naturedly. “Doctors don’t know me better than myself, though I must admit a nice cup of tea would be excellent about now.”
Despite how the world felt like it was burning all around and trapping her underneath its smoke that suffocated her, Eliza smiled and even gave a ghost of a laugh for the reminder of her father’s obsession with the beverage. “Of course, Papa. Let’s go home.”
“Betsey?” Rensselaer quipped softly from where he’d been happily coloring at her feet. “I’m so hungry, Betsey. It hurts!”
Of course Eliza knew how the rations worked, and that even the wealthy had to cut back on more than leisurely spending, but she couldn’t bear to see her youngest brother so clearly hungry. She stole a few glances either way before handing him a small apple from their container, hurrying him underneath the cabinet to chow down discretely while she continued on their dinner. In the nearly three weeks since the events at the Union Exam/Ceremony, she’d happily gone about the household duties while Mother planned Angelica’s wedding and tended to the baby. Despite the fact she knew her maternal unit would likely never fully forgive what she’d done and how the menial work sent aches deep into her body, she had never been happier to be largely left alone by her birth giver and do all of the things she’d always liked to do to make life easier on the ‘household help’.
“ELIZA!” Peggy’s voice cut through the general serenity of their home as she ran at full speed into the kitchen with wild eyes. “ELIZA, ELIZA!”
“Peggy, darling, I’m right here!” She reminded slightly loudly in an attempt to calm her sibling, but she was clearly having none of the comfort.
“READ THIS!” Her little sister practically shrieked, shoving a letter in her face with reckless abandon.
Though she disliked the gesture, Eliza clearly saw the fear in her sibling’s eyes and said nothing as she read over the parchment. With every word and description of how the current war was going, her heart felt heavier in her chest, but the latter half was far worse; they were putting out a mandatory call for men between the ages of sixteen and fifty to serve in Washington’s army as a means of having a real fight against the British. Their father was well within that age range despite how poor his health had become over the years, and when she looked back to Peggy, they both had tears budding in their eyes.
“Mama will be devastated,” the eighteen year old whispered hoarsely. “He can’t go, Betsey, he won’t last a full day!”
“Then they’ll have to send him home! Surely General Washington would not allow an unable bodied man to fight,” the older of the two tried to reason.
“You read that elaborate report just as well as I did,” Peggy replied somberly before gripping her sister more tightly. “The war is going really badly; he needs all the help he can get, and the only person who can give help from one of the most prominent families in the whole freaking country is our father.”
“But he’s served his time!” She exclaimed as her eyes fogged with her own tears. “Dying for your country is only acceptable for young men or men of active duty!”
“Does this inscription sound like he cares?” The younger sister demanded with a small sob barely concealed behind her hand. “We’re losing Angie, now Papa too? It’s too much to bear!”
“My daughters, what has anguished you so?” Papa’s familiar voice inquired as he entered from the front foyer, and though they exchanged equally pain filled glances before, Elizabeth very reluctantly relinquished the message to their father.
To say the very least, Mother was incredibly disappointed in the general and their efforts to become a country as a whole. She’d openly cried- something the eldest trio had only seen once or twice in their lifetime- and begged, then screamed, then profusely begged Papa not to go due to his health, his principles, his past, and their family. Just like Eliza knew he would, he shot each down very carefully; his health had been slightly better, his principles and past were dedicated forever to the Continental Army, and the family would be quite alright without his presence as he fought valiantly to protect them. Not a pair of eyes were left dry after a very impassioned dinner where Papa stormed out to retrieve his army clothing and practice with his weapons, and Eliza found herself gathering up her siblings for storytelling, comforting and tucking in all together in her room.
As she carefully laid John down at last, she found herself starkly aware that her poor Peggy had not joined the emotional fest. She fully expected to find her sister in Angelica’s old room, which had been vacant since her engagement with Mister Church, but grew gradually more anxious as she made her way through their entire mansion and could not locate her. It was only when she halfheartedly checked the small room (and former closet) that held the family’s various achievements that she located her younger Irish triplet, eyes wide and face full of guilty as Papa’s old armor draped over her shoulders.
“What are you doing?!” Eliza hissed at once, making haste in ridding her sibling of such gruesome garments. “This is no time for dressing up and mucking around, young lady!”
“Papa cannot go to war and expect to survive!” Peggy hissed back while getting to her feet rapidly. “I will not allow him to be slain, even for a noble cause, when everyone here desperately needs him!”
“Everyone here desperately needs you as well!” The older teenager shot back while rapidly smoothing back down her sibling’s curls, much to said sibling’s displeasure. “You are my baby sister and you will be doing no such illegal, insane plan!”
“Oh, please!” The younger grunted. “I’m just ‘and Peggy’, never ‘Peggy Schuyler’ or ‘beautiful, witty Margarita’. I’m an afterthought and you know it, and if it means saving my new country and family, then I’ll do it!”
“And I’m currently the most massive family embarrassment since our uncle did unspeakable things on the public stage!” The elder insisted. “Our parents need someone like you to lighten the mood, and our siblings need someone incredibly strong like you to look up to against Mother’s well-intended but extremely flawed ideals. Can you imagine the blow if you were to leave our lives?!”
“I agree with Papa that there’s no more honorable way to die!” The junior grabbed the armor decisively and attempted to pull it back over her torso. “That law against women enlisting is outdated, anyway! Why should an old man put his values on the judgement block when he has three able bodied daughters?!”
“The law is the law!”
“You and Angie have both said that some laws are meant to be broken and that many of them have been formed out of fear!”
“And yet we must still comply so we are not slain for treason! Would you rather be serving more than yourself or dishonoring us all permanently when you’re either slaughtered on the battlefield or by our own Patriots?!”
“Honor means nothing and you know that better than anyone! It pales in comparison to lives!” Peggy finally said with enough conviction and strength that she was able to slide on the chest plate.
“Then I will go!” Eliza snapped, yanking the metal off of her younger sister unforgivingly. “I will bring no further shame to appease Mother, Papa will be spared, and you will live on. I understand how much I mean to you all, but I’m not the one with suitors lining up left and right while I am on the cusp of all of my successes. For now, I am the family reject, and should I live, I will bring more wealth and security than we could’ve ever imagined for ourselves in such terrible times. It must be me logically, my dear Margarita, and you know that as well as we know each other’s heartbeats.”
Seeing the tears pouring again out of her eyes broke Elizabeth’s heart, but she would stand for a risk that cost so, so much. Slowly, the newly anointed adult before her lifted up a pair of scissors, their eyes meeting just long enough to understand what they’d now do against all of the formalities and rules. She stood with her eyes closed as her closest in age younger sister carefully cut and styled her hair to look masculine, her breath hitching slightly when a ribbon was slipped around the leather piece holding her hair into a small ponytail.
“For good luck,” Peggy justified when she was turned back around. “You might something from home to…to get you through.”
Together the two packed up the saddlebags of their fastest stallion along with a knapsack with all she’d need, all of her feminine items stowed securely beneath essentials. As she slid on her father’s bulky armor and suit, she struggled to sit still upon realizing it would have to be taken in just a tad. The sun hadn’t yet risen but the sky was slightly brighter in color when they finished sloppily mending and writing out her goodbye note, the bags under their just a bit more prominent now, and they embraced tightly for what they both knew may well be a final time.
“I will follow you, I swear it,” Peggy whispered with tears weighing down her voice. “I will enlist as a nurse and find you.”
“You don’t have to subject yourselves to the horrors of war, my darling sister,” she whispered shakily while cupping her youthful face.
Instead of breaking down further or looking away, the younger held her gaze and gave a watery smile. “Somebody has to have your back in a world full of men and war. Now go, I’ll hold back our parents and Angelica, but it won’t matter if you’re within reaching distance.”
Before mounting her house, she gave her forehead a long, sincere kiss. “I love you so much. No matter what happens, I will do whatever it takes to make all of this enough to effort we spent.”
“I love you more,” Peggy affirmed with a proud but grief-stricken smile. “And hey, just stay alive. That would be enough.”
With the sun beginning to consider rising beyond the hills, Elizabeth Schuyler rode her stallion to the designated campsite of soldiers fighting American Revolution.