Colony of Connecticut
“I forbid it!”
The Widow Hope Hawley addressed the young couple in a tone as hard as granite. Then she focused her fierce glare on the nineteen-year-old daughter who shared her name. “And you are a wicked, ungrateful child to defy me so!”
The younger Hope Hawley stared back, upset but undaunted, for mother and daughter possessed the same iron will. The older woman had drawn on the indomitable spirit they shared to sustain her when her husband Jehiel drowned in the Great River at Middletown in 1727, leaving her, just thirty-two, a widow with three children. It had given her the strength to resist pressure to remarry, as most widows did at the earliest respectable opportunity. A new husband would be undisputed master of the Hawley family, would take ownership of the Widow Hawley’s house and farm – to sell, lease, or give away, without so much as telling her.
The appearance of Hope and John Lyman around the side of her unpainted clapboard house on this summer morning had taken the Widow Hawley by surprise. She studied them with narrowed eyes as they picked their way to where she stood in the kitchen garden of flowers and herbs.
At slightly over six feet, John Lyman stood a head taller than either Hawley woman. He was lean but not lanky. Years of working on his family’s farm in Durham, the town immediately south of Middletown, had given him a well-muscled physique.
John was two years older than Hope. His clear, dark-brown eyes were set too close to the prominent Lyman nose for him to be considered handsome. But they shone with a warmth and openness that made his long face appealing. His chestnut hair was tied back in a plain queue. He wore close-fitting leather breeches, a white linen shirt with long, full sleeves, and a buttoned-up waistcoat, open frock coat, and hat, all of brown wool.
John was shortening his stride to keep from outpacing Hope, who trembled with suppressed anticipation. Hope had bright hazel eyes, flawless skin, and a pert nose set in a heart-shaped face. Her abundance of wavy light brown hair was mostly covered by a white cotton cap. She wore a full-length petticoat, and a blue-and-white striped short gown, both of linen. A wide blue kerchief draped around her shoulders and tied in front over the gown’s low scoop neck modestly covered the swell of her breasts.
As they approached the Widow Hawley, Hope could tell her mother had perceived their purpose. The older woman offered no word of greeting when John and Hope reached her, but simply studied them in stony silence. She knew she was a formidable presence, and used that fact to her advantage.
John respectfully removed his hat. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight. His manner was respectful, yet, Hope was proud to see, he showed no sign of being overawed by her mother.
They stood there awkwardly, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of a Connecticut farm in mid-summer. Chickens clucked and scratched in the barnyard, milk cows lowed in the pasture, the stench of manure contested with the fragrance of the flowers, in the distance a churn pounded steadily, turning cream into butter.
At last John spoke. “Mistress Hawley, I ask your permission to court Hope.” Hope’s cheeks, already flushed by the July heat, turned even redder.
John didn’t wait for a reply, but continued with the speech he’d carefully rehearsed. “I reached my majority of twenty-one three months ago. I’ve been admitted as a freeman in Durham. My family is well-regarded. My father was elected to represent Durham at the General Assembly.”
John paused to give the Widow Hawley a chance to respond. She deliberately waited just long enough for John and Hope to feel the first faint twinges of uncertainty before replying.
“Hope’s great-grandfather was a graduate of Harvard, and the first minister of Middletown more than four score years ago,” the Widow Hawley said matter-of-factly. She paused a beat before adding pointedly, “That was a full fifty years before your Lymans set foot in Connecticut.”
John and Hope had expected her mother to counter with these facts. It couldn’t be disputed that the Lymans boasted no such illustrious ancestor as the Reverend Samuel Stow. And they were undeniably relative newcomers; John’s father had moved from Massachusetts to Durham when John was a baby. But the Widow Hawley had made her points with a cutting condescension that increased the young people’s uneasiness.
John glanced down and fidgeted with his hat, sliding the brim through his fingers. Abruptly he stopped, but kept his head bowed thoughtfully.
Hope could tell what was going through John’s mind. His hat had been hand-crafted by Jehiel Hawley, making it silent yet solid evidence that Hope’s own father had started life as a simple tradesman. Heartened by the thought, John raised his head to look the Widow Hawley square in the eye. He forged ahead with the case he’d prepared.
“As one of only two sons, I can expect to receive a share of my father’s property,” John said. “That land will serve as a foundation for my own farm.”
The Widow Hawley arched a skeptical eyebrow. She knew John still lived under his father Ebenezer’s roof and worked on Ebenezer’s sixty acres.
“Your father is a hearty man not yet sixty,” the Widow Hawley countered. “God willing it will be many years before you come into any portion of his estate. Whatever you do inherit will likely not be enough to support a family.”
She paused for a heartbeat, then delivered her next words as if striking an anvil with a hammer. “When my grandfather the Reverend Samuel Stow died at the great age of eighty-two, he bequeathed me more than two hundred and fifty acres in Middletown.”
To Hope’s relief, her mother’s revelation of just how great a financial gap separated their families failed to make a dent in John’s determination. He responded with the argument he and Hope agreed represented their best chance of gaining the Widow Hawley’s approval of their courtship.
“Residing as my wife in Durham, Hope – and our children – will never be far from you.”
The Widow Hawley quickly looked down, but not before Hope saw a melancholy yearning flicker in her eyes at John’s words. Her eldest daughter, Mary, lived with her husband in the town of Windsor thirty miles from Middletown. In good weather it was a two-day journey, including a crossing by ferry of the Great River. Hope’s mother had been deeply disappointed when she couldn’t attend the birth of Mary’s first child – her first grandchild – because snow-clogged roads made the trip to Windsor impossible in December.
The Widow Hawley kept her head bowed. After what seemed like an eternity to Hope and John, she raised her head – and Hope’s heart sank.
The flinty resolve on her mother’s face told Hope she’d made her decision – and that she’d based it solely on the practical factors raised in her exchange with John: wealth, piety, education, longevity, public service, ecclesiastical office, and “dignity of descent” – the quality and accomplishments of a person and his forebears. These determined an individual’s standing in a New England town. By this measure, John Lyman’s status was indisputably inferior to Hope’s. The Widow Hawley knew it, Hope knew it, and John knew it.
The Widow Hawley looked John straight in the eye as she delivered her verdict. “Hope must look to wed a man of background and fortune equal to her own,” she said firmly. “You do not have my permission to court her.”
“But I love her!” John exclaimed. It wasn’t a plea, or an argument, but a simple fact that to him counted more than everything else combined.
“And I love John!” Hope echoed desperately.
There followed an uncomfortable silence. Honey bees buzzed industriously among spiky scarlet bergamot blossoms, their beating wings producing a high-pitched thrum that heightened the aura of tension to an almost unbearable level.
The Widow Hawley at last spoke, addressing herself only to John. “You have my answer,” she said with finality.
“No, Mama!” Hope blurted out, her eyes ablaze. She surprised herself by actually taking an aggressive step toward her mother. “You must give your consent! You will!”
The Widow Hawley froze, as stunned as if her daughter had slapped her across the face. Hope had always been willful, but never disrespectfully defiant. It was this shocking challenge that had caused her temper to snap, had goaded her into calling her daughter wicked and ungrateful.
Her mother’s cruel, unfair charge hurt Hope deeply, but she didn’t flinch. She opened her mouth to make a sharp retort, but stopped when John touched her lightly on the elbow.
Hope looked up and saw in John’s eyes reassurance that this was merely a setback, that they would find a way to gain her mother’s approval. Trusting in his judgment, she closed her lips against the protest she’d been about to make.
That subtle, intimate exchange disturbed the Widow Hawley as much as Hope’s outburst. She returned her piercing gaze to John. “You should leave now,” she said coldly. She signaled the end of the discussion by turning away and striding down the garden path toward the barn. Hope Stow Hawley might be a homespun-clad widow managing a family farm on the fringe of the British Empire, but she bore herself with the pride and dignity of an elegantly gowned duchess in a London palace.
John took Hope’s hands in his. “Don’t lose heart,” he said encouragingly. She gave him a brave smile in return.
At that moment the Widow Hawley reached the garden’s edge. She glanced back to see the two young people looking lovingly into each other’s eyes. “Don’t forget, John,” she called out menacingly, “a man can go to prison for drawing away a maid’s affections without her parent’s permission.”
Startled, Hope and John turned their heads sharply toward her mother. The Widow Hawley stared at them until John at last walked around to the front of the house. He mounted his horse and rode off.
Hope watched until John was out of sight. Then she began running toward the rear of the house, desperate to reach it before the tears brimming in her eyes spilled over.
Hope yanked the plank door open by its iron latch. She stepped over the threshold of the lean-to kitchen, then pulled the door shut behind her. She swiped the tears from her cheeks, then leaned back and closed her eyes, struggling to gain control of her roiling emotions.
As Hope’s breathing slowed, and the rush of her pounding pulse faded in her ears, she heard a faint clicking. Opening her eyes, she spied her sister Mary, eight years her elder, seated on a stool by a window that looked out onto the garden. The sash was raised to let in fresh air and sunlight by which Mary was deftly manipulating four steel needles to knit a stocking out of brown wool yarn.
Mary had arrived three days earlier to visit, bringing her eighteen-month-old daughter, still the Widow Hawley’s only grandchild. The toddler was napping in a cradle in the hall, as the room in which most of the family’s everyday living took place was called.
Hope hurried over and planted herself in front of Mary. “Mama won’t allow John Lyman to court me!” she declared indignantly.
Mary hadn’t been blessed with her younger sister’s head-turning good looks – but she also hadn’t been cursed with Hope’s high-strung temperament. “So I heard,” she said wryly, tilting her head toward the open window while keeping her eyes on her needlework. Hope realized that even if Mary hadn’t heard all the conversation in the garden, she couldn’t have missed their mother’s final, heated words.
“She says John isn’t a fit match for me!” Hope went on, waiting impatiently for Mary to look at her. When Mary finally did, she continued knitting, as if her hands had a mind of their own.
“Papa was a common hat maker with little to his name when he came to Middletown,” Hope continued, stoking her own anger. “And Mama was an heiress who would come into a handsome inheritance upon her marriage. But no one scrupled over Papa’s family or fortune being inferior to hers. Certainly Mama didn’t! They wed when she was barely fourteen years old to his twenty-three!” She paused, overwhelmed by her mother’s hypocrisy and unfairness.
“Maybe that’s why Mama refused John’s request,” Mary said with a somber thoughtfulness
“What do you mean?” Hope demanded in surprise.
“When Mama and Papa wed, everything Mama owned, including the land she inherited, became Papa’s to do with as he pleased,” Mary began.
“Of course it did,” Hope interrupted impatiently.
Mary let her sister’s rudeness pass without comment. “You were too young to notice such things,” she continued after a moment, “but I doubt Papa ever once talked to Mama when he did something with the land she brought to their marriage – except to show her where to make her mark on a document. I think it pained a woman as clever and proud as Mama to be ignored so.”
Mary dropped her knitting into her lap. She clasped her hands together in front of her before continuing slowly, as if reluctantly sharing a sorrowful secret. “I think Mama may have come to wonder if Papa wed her more for her marriage portion than for her person.”
Hope frowned as she pondered this new, unsettling perspective on their mother. She tried to envision the Widow Hawley as resentful at being ignored, uncertain about her husband’s affection. But Hope couldn’t imagine her mother as anything other than the confident, capable woman she’d been since their father’s death when Hope was just eight.
“Do you think that’s why she hasn’t remarried?” Hope asked.
Mary shrugged, picking up the knitting and resuming work. “Mama adored Papa – of that I’m sure. Whether she’s never found a man to rival Papa’s place in her heart, or is unwilling to again subject herself to a husband’s control, only she knows. She hasn’t needed to remarry, for she’s managed the farm as well as any man.”
Hope considered Mary’s observation for a long moment. Was it possible that her mother wasn’t cruelly thwarting her wishes, but trying, even if misguidedly, to protect her? At last Hope shook her head. “Whatever passed between Mama and Papa, it’s no reason to deny me a chance at happiness with John,” she said resolutely. “I fear Mama will never see that,” she added on a note of despair.
Mary nodded in agreement. After a long pause, she said with studied casualness, “There is a way to secure Mama’s consent for you and John to marry.”
After a moment of puzzlement, Hope’s eyes grew wide as she grasped her sister’s meaning. “You mean–,” Hope dropped her voice to a whisper, “get myself with child?”
Mary glanced up to meet her sister’s eyes with a cool, knowing stare, then looked back down at her needlework.
“But – fornication is a sin!” Hope hissed. “You know how zealously Mr. Chauncey ferrets it out. When Abigail and Nathaniel Griswold’s baby came five months after they wed, he wouldn’t baptize it until they confessed to fornication before the entire congregation! At least they weren’t fined or whipped as the law allows,” she said with a shudder.
Hope’s mind reeled at the other perils of such a gamble. If she got with child, some evil might befall John before they could wed. Another risk – that John might refuse to marry her – couldn’t be ignored.
“Why should John and I have to pay a price of sin and shame to wed?” Hope demanded indignantly. “If I did this, I would be as wicked as Mama said,” she added unhappily. “But it doesn’t matter,” she went on dejectedly. “John would never do something so sinful and dishonorable.”
Mary glanced up to cast her sister a look of blatant skepticism. Hope had little awareness of the power of her good looks. Any man she couldn’t entice into lying with her would have to be a saint – which John Lyman, as good a man as he might be, most definitely was not. . . .