(Please enjoy this work in progress)
Hazel entered the mercantile, ignoring the new display of salt-glaze ceramics. She’d didn’t have time for shopping. Violet, her younger sister, jingled in just behind her. She could feel her smug expression. Normally Violet would have been tempted by a glossy sauce boat, but today she just wanted to embarrass her.
“How do you do, Mrs. Hawkins?” Hazel said to the bespectacled woman behind the counter.
“Fit as a glove,” the shop owner replied, abandoning a mound of grain on the scale.
Violet joined Hazel’s side at the polished oak counter. “It’s a short list today, ma’am.”
“Oh? What brings the Robbins girls here? I’ve more Marzipan if that would please the Burgess.”
Hazel glanced at the colorful candy jar presented like the imperial crown at the end of the counter. “It would please Father well enough, but I only need fabric.”
Mrs. Hawkins’s face lit. “My dear Hazel, are you going to sew something?”
“Heavens, no, I’ve no talent for that sort of thing. Betsy, the maid, has enough skill for both of us.”
“Oh pish, such an attitude frightens suitors away.”
“It’s not her attitude that frightens men,” Violet said. “It’s her tongue.”
“What do I need a man for?” Hazel was already appraising the shelves of fine silk and coarse muslins.
“Go ahead, sister, ask her,” Violet urged. “It’s the most ridiculous request I’ve ever heard.”
Hazel eyed her sister, feeling her patience shorten. Violet was only eighteen and judgmental to a fault but at least was talented enough to sew hems, darts, and other feminine frillery nillery. “Do you have any fabric that’s particularly quiet?”
Mrs. Hawkins adjusted her spectacles. “What do you mean?”
“See?” Violet said with a flick of her hand. “You’ve utterly confused her. A sensible woman never judges her skirt by its noise.”
“It’s a perfectly valid question,” Hazel insisted.
Violet pointed to the shelves. “We’ll have that pretty flowered fabric just above the brown cotton.”
“Only if it’s very quiet.”
“My lambs,” Mrs. Hawkins laughed. “You’re addling my brain. I don’t know what you mean by quiet fabric. None of the bolts have uttered a word all week.”
Violet looked at Hazel with a haughty smile.
“Mrs. Hawkins,” Hazel said exasperated, “you know very well I love to hunt. I’m looking for fabric that doesn’t rustle. I very nearly startled a fat buck yesterday with the swish swish swish of the most irritating damask.”
“You startled a deer with your gown, you say?”
“I nearly startled a rabbit,” Hazel corrected, “a male one.”
Violet leaned over the counter. “She’ll examine the one with blue blossoms.”
Hazel shot her sister a look of warning. “I’ll see the brown cotton.”
“Of course.” Mrs. Hawkins turned to retrieve the brown bolt.
As Hazel tucked a strand of hair into her bonnet, she noticed an elderly man and woman having a lively conversation beside a display of hair powder.
“He’d defend the king to his deathbed,” the gentleman said, turning a pamphlet over. “It’s complete rubbish. He’s blind to George’s thirst for power.”
Hazel glimpsed with surprise the black scepter on the pamphlet’s cover. It was her father’s, The Divine Composition of Monarchy. He’d published it in response to Mr. Henry’s speech only weeks earlier. It seemed her father’s colleague, a hot-heated orator, had inflamed the entire church with his call for arms.
“The king has no more wisdom that any schooled man,” the woman responded. “He must be checked!”
“Hazel, don’t say anything,” Violet warned. “You don’t even know those people.”
“Who will check him?” Hazel called to the elderly couple as she advanced a few paces. “Will it be you, or perhaps your husband? Which of you is qualified to rule a nation?”
“Not me,” the woman responded, her surprise drawing images of a gray pug in a straw hat. “A governing body.”
“And who will check your governing body?”
“You take a lot of interest in politics for such a young woman,” the gentleman said with a frown.
Hazel curled her nails into her palms. “I’m five and twenty, but does this matter? I’m a citizen same as you.”
“Forgive the intrusion on your private conversation,” Violet said. “Our father worked very hard on that pamphlet.”
“You are Trent Robbins’s daughters?” The man’s brows rose.
“Yes,” Hazel answered, “and you impugned Father’s ideas without even reading the pamphlet.”
“Oh, yes, same ideas and the same green eyes,” the woman observed.
“Now is not the time to boast being a Robbins,” the man counseled. “Tempers are flaring all over town, but especially in the warehouse district.”
“There was no boasting,” Hazel corrected, “though I am proud of my father.”
“We both are,” Violet added.
“As young girls should be,” the woman said, “but two privileged girls wearing imported silk gowns haven’t the faintest idea of how the world really works.”
Hazel’s spine tightened. “Madam, my father’s success as a planter does not negate his ideas or mine!”
“Take heed,” the man said, donning his hat. “There’s a lot of anger towards your father right now. If I were you, I’d go home and keep your lips sealed until this storm passes over. I wouldn’t want you girls to get caught in any crossfire.”
After the couple left the shop, Hazel looked back at her sister. “What storm is he talking about? There hasn’t been any fighting in weeks.”
Violet held a pouch of potpourri to her nose. “People are just mad because he’s the best writer and orator in Richmond. The rebels hate that people listen to him.”
Hazel looked through the shop’s large display window. Everything was peaceful outside. A British soldier rode by on horseback while a woman in a feathered hat dismounted from a wagon. On the other side of the street, two men blathered on cordially in front of the post office. If there was any danger brewing on the horizon, both she and her sister had been as ignorant as two milk-lipped babies.
That night, the shadowy images of a dream slipped from Hazel’s mind as smoke filled the room. She coughed into her pillow before her eyes sprang open. The—kitchen—is—outside. This thought settled stupidly before her gaze shot into the darkness. Smoke moved hot and alive across her skin. So much smoke—too much for a blocked flue. Fire!Fear jolted through her as her feet slapped to the floor.
The only light was an eerie orange glow that stole through the window. “Mother! Father!” Her toe rammed painfully against the trousseau as she reached for the smooth papered walls. At once she found the doorframe and thrust herself into the hallway.
There was a haze of smoke in the hallway, and she coughed violently into her sleeve. Through the window at the end of the hall, she could hear men hollering.
“We’re—in—here!” she cried through a string of coughs. The Shockoe District and the edges of town were an hour away on foot, but there was no time to reason the distance. She was certain that merchants and farmers were already united and hurling buckets of water onto her family’s home.
She burst into her sisters’ room horrified by the monstrous orange flames hungrily licking the windows and wall. Violet’s carefully stitched sampler fell with a hiss and the floorboards groaned underfoot. Her gaze shot frantically to the two slight forms stirring under the covers. “Violet! Sarah!” she screamed.