Read Fever 1793 Online

Authors: Laurie Halse Anderson

Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure - General, #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Children: Grades 4-6, #Survival, #Historical - United States - Colonial, #Children's 9-12 - Fiction - Historical, #Pennsylvania, #Health & Daily Living - Diseases, #Epidemics, #Philadelphia, #Yellow fever, #Health & Daily Living - Diseases; Illnesses &

Fever 1793

BOOK: Fever 1793
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Fever 1793

Laurie Halse Anderson

This book is for my father,

Reverend Frank A. Halse Jr,
the finest man I know.



August i6th, 1793

The city of Philadelphia is perhaps one of the wonders of the world.

-Lord Adam Gordon Journal entry, 1765

I woke to the sound of a mosquito whining in my left ear and my mother screeching in the right.

"Rouse yourself this instant!"

Mother snapped open the shutters and heat poured into our bedchamber. The room above our coffeehouse was not large. Two beds, a washstand, and a wooden trunk with frayed leather straps nearly filled it. It seemed even smaller with Mother storming around.

"Get out of bed, Matilda," she continued. "You're sleeping the day away." She shook my shoulder. "Polly's late and there's work to be done."

The noisy mosquito darted between us. I started to sweat under the thin blanket. It was going to be another hot August day. Another long, hot August day. Another


long, hot, boring, wretched August day.

"I can't tell who is lazier, Polly or you," Mother muttered as she stalked out of the room. "When I was a girl, we were up before the sun ..." Her voice droned on and on as she clattered down the stairs.

I groaned. Mother had been a perfect girl. Her family was wealthy then, but that didn't stop her from stitching entire quilts before breakfast, or spinning miles of wool before tea. It was the War, she liked to remind me. Children did what was asked of them. And she never complained. Oh, no, never. Good children were seen and not heard. How utterly unlike me.

I yawned and stretched, then snuggled back onto my pillow. A few more minutes' rest, that's what I needed. I'd float back to sleep, drifting like Blanchard's giant yellow balloon. I could just see it: the winter's day, the crowds on the rooftops, the balloon tugging at its ropes. I held my breath. Would the ropes break?

The devilish mosquito attacked, sinking its needlenose into my forehead.


I leapt from my bed, and-thunk!-cracked my head on the sloped ceiling. The ceiling was lower than it used to be. Either that, or I had grown another inch overnight. I sat back down, wide awake now, my noggin sporting two lumps-one from the ceiling, one from the mosquito.

No balloon trips for me.

To work, then. I got to my feet and crossed the room, ducking my head cautiously. The water in the washbasin was cloudy, and the facecloth smelled like old cheese. I decided to clean up later, perhaps next December.

A squeaking mouse dashed by my toes, followed by a flash of orange fur named Silas. The mouse ran to a corner, its claws scratching desperately on the floorboards. Silas pounced. The squeaking stopped.

"Oh, Silas! Did you have to do that?"

Silas didn't answer. He rarely did. Instead he jumped up on Mother's quilt and prepared to pick apart his breakfast.

Mother's best quilt. Mother abhorred mice.

I sprang across the room. "Get down!" I commanded.

Silas hissed at me but obeyed, leaping to the floor and padding out the door.

"Matilda?" Mother's voice called up the stairs.


I made a face at the doorway. I had just saved her precious quilt from disaster, but would she appreciate it? Of course not.

No more dawdling. I had to get dressed.

I fastened my stays and a badly embroidered pocket over the white shift I slept in. Then I stepped into my blue linen skirt. It nearly showed my ankles. Along with the ceiling getting lower, my clothes were shrinking, too.


Once dressed, I faced the rather dead mouse and wrinkled my nose. Picking it up by the tail, I carried the corpse to the front window and leaned out.

My city, Philadelphia, was wide awake. My heart beat faster and my head cleared. Below the window, High Street teemed with horsemen, carriages, and carts. I could hear Mrs. Henning gossiping on her front stoop and dogs barking at a pig running loose in the street.

The sound of the blacksmith's hammer on his anvil reminded me of Polly, our tardy serving girl. That's where she was, no doubt; in the blacksmith's shop, eyeing Matthew, the blacksmith's son. I didn't like it there. The roaring furnace, sparks crackling in the air, the sizzle of hot metal into cold water-it all reminded me of that unmentionable place the preachers liked to go on about.

My favorite place was the waterfront. I squinted eastward. The rooftop of the State House, where the Congress met, was visible, but the August haze and dust from the street made it impossible to see farther than that. On a clear day, I could see the masts of the ships tied up at the wharves on the Delaware River. I promised
a secret visit to the docks later, as soon as Polly arrived to distract Mother.

A few blocks south lay the Walnut Street Prison, where Blanchard had flown that remarkable balloon. From the prison's courtyard it rose, a yellow silk bubble escaping the earth. I vowed to do that one day, slip free


of the ropes that held me. Nathaniel Benson had heard me say it, but he did not laugh. He understood. Perhaps I would see him at the docks, sketching a ship or sea gulls. It had been a long time since we talked.

But before I went anywhere, there was a dead mouse to dispose of. I couldn't throw it into High Street; it might spook one of the horses. I crossed the room and opened the back window overlooking the garden. Maybe Silas would smell his treat out there and get a decent breakfast after all. I flung the corpse as far as I could, then hurried downstairs before Mother boiled




August i6th, 1793

thefirst and most principal to be, a perfect skill and knowledge in cookery... because it is a duty well belonging to women.

-Gervase Markham
The English House Wife,

A soon as I stepped into the kitchen, Mother started her lecture.

"Too much sleep is bad for your health, Matilda." She slipped a freshly made ball of butter into a stone crock. "It must be a grippe, a sleeping sickness."

I tried not to listen to her. I had not cleared the wax from my ears all summer, hoping it would soften her voice. It had not worked.

"You should be dosed with fish oil. When I was a girl ..." She kept talking to herself as she carried a steaming pot of water outside to rinse the butter churn.

I sat down at the table. Our kitchen was larger than most, with an enormous hearth crowded with pots and kettles, and two bake ovens built into the brickwork beside it. The size of the room did not match the size of our family. We were only three: Mother, Grandfather, and me, plus Eliza who worked for us. But the roomy kitchen could feed one hundred people in a day. My family owned the Cook Coffeehouse. The soon-to-be famous Cook Coffeehouse, Grandfather liked to say.

My father had built our home and business after the War for Independence ended in 1783. I was four years old. The coffeehouse sat just off the corner of Seventh and High Streets. At first we were lucky if a lost farmer strayed in, but business improved when President Washington's house was built two blocks away.

Father was a carpenter by trade, and he built us a sturdy home. The room where we served customers filled most of the first floor and had four large windows. The kitchen was tucked into the back, filled with useful shelves and built-in cupboards to store things. We could have used a sitting room, truth be told. Father would have added one on if he had lived. But he fell off a ladder and died of a broken neck two months after the coffeehouse opened. That's when Grandfather joined us.

A coffeehouse was a respectable business for a widow and her father-in-law to run. Mother refused to serve spirits, but she allowed card games and a small bit of gambling as long as she didn't have to see it. By midday the front room was usually crowded with gentlemen, merchants, and politicians enjoying a cup of coffee, a


bite to eat, and the news of the day. Father would have been proud. I wondered what he would have thought of me.

"Good morning," Eliza said loudly, startling me. "I thought you were going to sleep the day away. Have you eaten?" She set a sack of coffee beans on the table.

"I'm starving," I said, clutching my stomach.

"As usual," she said with a smile. "Let me get you something quick."

Eliza was the coffeehouse cook. Mother couldn't prepare a meal fit for pigs. I found this amusing, considering our last name was Cook. In a manner, though, it was serious. If not for Eliza's fine victuals, and the hungry customers who paid to eat them, we'd have been in the streets long ago. Mother's family had washed their hands of her when she ran off to marry a carpenter, a tradesman (the horror!), when she was but seventeen. So we were very fond of Eliza.

Like most blacks in Philadelphia, Eliza was free. She said Philadelphia was the best city for freed slaves or freeborn Africans. The Quakers here didn't hold with slavery and tried hard to convince others that slavery was against God's will. Black people were treated different than white people, that was plain to see, but Eliza said nobody could tell her what to do or where to go, and no one would ever, ever beat her again.

She had been born a slave near Williamsburg, Virginia. Her husband saved up his horseshoeing


money and bought her freedom right after they were married. She told me that was the best day of her life. She moved to Philadelphia and cooked for us, saving her wages to set her husband free.

When I was eight, she got a letter saying her husband had been killed by a runaway horse. That was her worst day. She didn't say a word for months. My father had only been dead two years, so Mother knew just what lay in Eliza's heart. They both supped sorrow with a big spoon, that's what Mother said. It took years, but the smile slowly returned to Eliza's face. She didn't turn sour like Mother did.

Eliza was the luckiest person I knew. She got to walk from the river past shop windows, market stalls, and the courthouse up to Seventh Street every morning. She told stories even better than Grandfather, and she knew how to keep a secret. She laughed once when I told her she was my best friend, but it was the truth.

She dished up a bowl of oatmeal from a pot that hung by the side of the hearth, then carefully set it in front of me. "Eat up," she said. One corner of her mouth turned up just a bit and she winked.

I tasted the oatmeal. It was sweet. Eliza had hidden a sugar lump at the bottom of the bowl.

"Thank you," I whispered.

"You're welcome," she whispered back.

"Why is Polly late?" I asked. "Have you seen her?"

Eliza shook her head. "Your mother is in a lather, I


promise you," she warned. "If Polly doesn't get here soon, she may need to find herself another position."

"I bet she's dawdling by the forge," I said, "watching Matthew work with his shirt collar open."

"Maybe she's ill," Eliza said. "There's talk of sickness by the river."

Mother strode into the room carrying wood for the fire.

"Serving girls don't get sick," Mother said. "If she doesn't appear soon, you'll have to do her chores as well as your own, Matilda. And where is your grandfather? I sent him to inquire about a box of tea an hour ago. He should have returned by now."

"I'd be happy to search for him," I offered. "I could look for Polly, too."

Mother added wood to the fire, poking the logs until the flames jumped. The delicate tip of her shoe tapped impatiently. "No. I'll go. If Father comes back, don't let him leave. And Matilda, see to the garden."

She quickly tied a bonnet under her chin and left, the back door closing behind her with the sharp sound of a musket shot.

"Well," said Eliza. "That's it, then. Here, have some veal and corn bread. Seems like you've a long day ahead of you."

After she cut me two slices of cold veal and a thick piece of fresh corn bread, Eliza started to make gingerbread, one of her specialties. Nutmeg and cinnamon


perfumed the air as she ground the spices with a pestle. If not for the heat, I could have stayed in the kitchen for an eternity. The house was silent except for the popping of the applewood in the fire, and the tall clock ticking in the front room. I took a sip from a half-filled mug on the table.

"Ugh! It's coffee!" Black coffee, bitter as medicine. "How can you drink this?" I asked Eliza.

"It tastes better if you don't steal it," she answered. She took the cup from my hands. "Pour your own and leave mine be."

"Are we out of cider?" I asked. "I could get some at the marketplace."

"Oh, no," Eliza said. "You'll stay right here. Your mother needs your help, and that poor garden is like to expire. It is time for you to haul some water, little Mattie."

Little Mattie indeed. Another month and I'd be almost as tall as Eliza. I hated to be called "little."

I sighed loudly, put my dishes in the washtub, and tucked my hair into my mob cap. I tied a disreputable straw hat atop the cap, one I could never wear in the street, and snatched a bite of dough from Eliza's bowl before I ran outside.

The garden measured fifty paces up one side and twenty along the other, but after six weeks of drought it seemed as long and wide as a city block, filled with thousands of drooping plants crying for help.

BOOK: Fever 1793
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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