The Traitors Wife

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Most American school children grow up learning the history of this notorious traitor and his co-conspirator, and I had grown up knowing that I lived across the street from where Arnold and his family had once lived. What I did not know, however, was whose face belonged to the portrait of the beautiful young woman beside Benedict Arnold.

I stared at the image of the fine-featured woman, her hair piled high atop her head, a quizzical smile on her face. Peggy Shippen Arnold was described as a devoted wife, loving mother, and popular socialite who, with suspected fealty to the English crown, might have incited Benedict Arnold to his infamous treachery. Who was Peggy Shippen Arnold? How must she have felt about these infamous events that unraveled around her? And what role, if any, did she play in this mesmeric plot? This is a gem. We have certainly heard of Benedict Arnold but it was fun meeting his cunning wife.

I could not wait to dig deeper into these historical questions, and as I did so, I uncovered a tale and a cast of characters that proved truly Shakespearean in its scope and drama. Peggy Arnold is a confounding character — charming yet dangerous, loyal yet duplicitous, cunning yet reckless. 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.

That girl never lets her poor father forget that she wants new clothing. Can you do hair? 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. Quick, Clara, stand up straight. 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. Then the heeled tapping grew muffled as Peggy paraded down the carpeted corridor.

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.

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Quigley nodded submissively, and Clara mimicked her. Clara longed to fidget, to make sure her hair was tucked neatly into her white mobcap, but then she remembered Mrs. She will be attending to you and your sister. Quigley stepped forward, gesturing toward Clara. 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. You may leave us now. Clara, aware that etiquette dictated that she should not speak first, kept her gaze fixed on the wooden floor. Even in her heeled, leather riding boots, she stood several inches shorter than Clara.

Poor Neddy, he might as well be wooing a nun. Best stay quiet, best not to have an opinion on this sisterly struggle, she told herself. In stocking-clad feet now, Peggy crossed the room and sat at her vanity table before a broad, clean mirror. While Clara dipped her hands into the cool bowl, sending the floating flower petals aflutter, Peggy watched. Where did you work before this? When she spoke again, her voice had regained its composure. This was not going well at all, and Mrs.

Clara detected the sound of footsteps ascending the staircase. From her spot, Clara could see Miss Peggy but not the elder sister. Well, did you let Mr. Neddy Burd see an inch of flesh? Perhaps a kiss, if only on the cheek? He may be patient, but even saints have their limits. Quigley tells me our new maid is here. Quigley said she was with you. Clara receded farther behind the armoire, feeling as guilty as a thief. Quigley just told me. What would you like me to say?

Be a dear and close the door? She waved her hand. Clara treaded forward, keeping her eyes down. Clara felt uncomfortable, ill at ease over unwittingly taking part in a lie to one of her new ladies. For a farm girl. Go fetch my rose-colored silk dress. But there must have been twenty pink dresses in the wardrobe.

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. Or worse, my sister. 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. 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. If they only knew it was the corset. She held the dress wide to help Peggy slip into it. Peggy pointed down at her dress.

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The Traitor's Wife

And now the British. 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: Each time Peggy caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her features seemed slightly more alight.

Was it not time that she leave and go assist Miss Betsy? Hartley ever asked me to fashion her hair like that of a queen. Since the British seized the city from the. Before they got here, it was all homespun. But now the shops are open once more, and we get fresh silk, ribbons, lace. 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? The man wore the British regimentals and tricornered hat, and his features were handsome, slightly delicate even. 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. 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. How did it go with the Miss Shippens? Quigley looked over from where she was sorting a set of silver wineglasses. She told the housekeeper about the exchange between the Shippen sisters and her orders to hide behind the wardrobe.

That one she knew. Cook for the Shippens. 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. Quigley addressed her husband formally, though Clara noticed the way her stern eyes had softened. Quigley leaned over the table and handed her husband the tray of neatly arranged wine goblets. Hair styling, sewing, mending. Quigley answered, taking the wine decanter from his wife.

Quigley interjected, answering for Clara. Quigley fidgeted with the collar of his shirt, as if to render its stiff creases even more crisp. Like her, this man was younger than the other servants in the kitchen, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. She felt her cheeks grow warm. Quigley said, interrupting them. Quigley raised a finger. Quigley snapped at Caleb. Now start getting these dishes out on the table. 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. Quigley announced to the kitchen.

His voice set off a fresh round of errands among the staff. 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: Accompanying the meat were heaping bowls of rosemary potatoes, carrots from the garden, steamed fiddleheads, spinach, and roasted beets. 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. 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. 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. This was a well-known piece of gossip. Caleb considered this, his features folding into a casual, cockeyed grin.

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. At the opposite end of the table from the judge sat the lady of the house, dressed in a simpler style than her two young daughters. Shippen had graying hair and wore nothing on her face except a tense expression, but she listened attentively as her husband spoke.

A chance to remove the British threat from this continent and ensure his hold over Canada? Of course Louis will join the war. The French have made that apparent after the colonial victory at Saratoga. The eyes of the judge and Mrs. Shippen turned upon Clara, and she froze near the threshold of the dining room. Silence filled the room. The only noise was a pop from the hearth, where a log collapsed. When the judge did not speak first, Doctor William addressed Clara. Are those potatoes for us, then? I happen to be starving. But you promised you would.

For her part, Clara wished to finish serving the potatoes and disappear from this room. Shippen snapped at her elder daughter, rubbing her temples in a slow, rhythmic gesture. I cannot bear another row tonight. Betsy, having lost the round to her sister, changed tracks. Clara braced herself, struggling to keep the dish steady.

Shippen threw a weary look to her husband, already fatigued by the coming spat. Shippen turned a mirthless expression on her daughter. If your sister will not accompany you, you shall not go. How have I been made the subject of ridicule? Peggy turned wild eyes to her father, and when he cocked his head, she saw that she might in fact be kept at home. You must let me go. Betsy is just being petty.

I planned on this long ago. Please tell me I may go. Peggy glanced from her father to her mother, her lips pursing as she watched her chances recede. She avoided her sister, who smirked beside her. Then, glancing up at her new maid, Peggy showed a flash of inspiration.

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Shippen spoke quietly, almost inaudibly. Quigley vouches for her character, then perhaps she may become a companion. Papa, how about if Mrs.


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Quigley and Clara accompany me? Judge Shippen threw his brother a look as if to congratulate him on not having daughters. Please tell me that I may go. Quigley and this new girl. And try not to spend money at cards, please. Smiling at Clara, Peggy nodded. The thought of such a party filled Clara with dread: She smiled, relieved to be in this quiet corridor with him and away from the Shippens.

Shippen complains of headaches every day—but how could she not have a headache with that chorus to listen to? Now, these meat pies need serving.


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  6. How about you help me? Clara tiptoed in behind Caleb, offering a meat pie to Judge Shippen. Shippen fed herself a small bite of fish, looking to her husband. Her brother-in-law answered first. Benedict Arnold, in winning at Saratoga, has proven to the French that the Americans can actually win this war. Arnold provided the proof that those reluctant Frenchmen needed. Why must we sever our ties with a country that shares our religion, our history, our sensibilities, even our blood?

    And they will fight now, I believe, with French assistance. Such language could get you in trouble. Peggy ignored the comment from her sister. Or the colonies as a whole. How shall they defeat us once we have the purse of Versailles backing us? The judge, shifting in his seat, seemed less enthused by the topic. You will stay and eat with us.

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    Edward, I think this is a mistake. I think Margaret should do as her sister plans to do, stay home tonight and do something to feed her mind. Shippen rubbed her temples once more, shutting her eyes. Judge Shippen eyed his daughter and wife wearily. Peggy made a face. Shippen opened her eyes, still massaging her forehead. Your mother has ordered a peach tart for dessert. Shippen clenched her jaw. Shippen sighed in frustration, dropping her silverware down on her plate. Please, call me Clara.

    You survived your first Shippen dinner. All that remains is dessert. After the dinner, the judge and Doctor William retreated to the study while Peggy excused herself. Clara remained in the dining room to clear the table. She cleans the dishes, strips the bedding, dumps the chamber pots. All the sorts of jobs that allow her to avoid speaking to anyone. Does she not know that wherever the general goes, the best officers are sure to follow? Peggy let her eyes slide sideways toward her maid. Clara entered the carriage behind her mistress, receiving a teasing grin from Cal as she did so.

    Quigley entered last, complaining that she did not have the luxury of taking a night off to attend a soiree, not when there was silver to be polished, china to be scrubbed, table linens to be pressed and sorted. The carriage carried them west past the bustle of Market Street, just as the shop owners were shuttering their windows and wishing one another a pleasant night. As the last rays of daytime poured down, the Shippen carriage sped forward on an increasingly rural road toward the Schuylkill River.

    Quigley rested her hands in her lap, twisting a kerchief in tight knots. She did not look at her maid or her housekeeper, but rather kept her gaze fixed firmly out the window, staring at the sun-streaked river, which appeared as if engulfed in flames, and the darkening evening into which she could not wait to be set loose. Caleb slowed the carriage as they approached a mansion, large and well-lit, perched on the hill above the river. In the indigo pall of twilight, a large British flag was visible where it hung at the front of the mansion.

    Peggy spotted their destination and pinched her cheeks, drawing a rosy blush from her ivory skin. Peggy, however, seemed all too happy to reply. Peggy alighted from the carriage, clapping in delight at the military band that stood on hand to serenade the arriving guests. Had she practiced that perfectly coy mannerism before the mirror of her bedroom?

    It would be my honor to be seated beside the host. A host is in high demand at his own party. Once my guests have arrived and we are a full company, I will meet you there for cards and Champagne. Peggy curtsied once more, perfectly polite, before lifting her skirts up and walking briskly across the lawn. Quigley, who labored to keep apace. A canopy hung against the velvety blue of the early evening sky, and a trellis draped in ivy welcomed the guests inside.

    Small, circular tables for parties of six were arranged throughout the tent, covered in white damask tablecloths and crystal Champagne flutes. Chandeliers of tiered candles hung overhead, and the light not only danced on the faces of the revelers but on the glasslike surface of the nearby Schuylkill River. Clara trotted toward the figures of Mrs.

    Quigley and Miss Peggy and reached them just as they stepped inside the tent. Quigley was pulled immediately into the task of fetching Champagne by a servant, and Clara stood alone beside her mistress before the assembly. His cheeks were bulbous, cherry-colored orbs stained in blush, below a heavily powdered wig of tight curls. How is your store? Clara balled her fists but bit her lip to prevent the utterance of an impolite retort. Clara, this is Joseph Stansbury, the china merchant on Market Street. She could see the resemblance to the cut-out paper silhouette in the bedroom, but he was more arresting in person.

    He wore his dark hair pulled back, a ribbon tied loosely at the nape of his neck. He was close enough now that Clara detected the faint, sweet scent of Champagne on his breath. As she stood beside her mistress, Clara felt the smoldering intensity of his brown-eyed gaze. Clara cringed at how bare and vulnerable her mistress suddenly appeared: Your military bands—your drums and your fifes—are all fine for your marches and battles, but for cards and Champagne, I just want the violins.

    Quigley clasped her hands together in front of her skirt, turning toward the receding figure of Miss Peggy. Her movements, so honed and subtle in their natural elegance, reminded Clara of a willow branch lilting in the breeze. Quigley frowned at Clara, who made a sudden effort to throw back her shoulders and not appear so entirely rapt with the surroundings. Quigley sighed, clasping her hands together behind her back. Quigley snapped, suddenly ornery. Clara decided against telling the old woman how excited she was by the idea of watching this evening unfold.

    Quigley jerked her chin toward Peggy. Shippen to make sure Miss Peggy was not unaccompanied. And lots of folks have been talking about the. Quigley looked at Clara, her eyes serious. Clara could not help but smart at the comment—it did in fact seem as though Miss Peggy sought her companionship at least, if not friendship.

    And why should she not? If only Oma could see her tonight, at a grand soiree hosted by a lord! Quigley and Clara turned to see a large woman, breathless, hovering outside the threshold of the tent. Quigley, she wore calico print and a linen cap, and carried herself with an air of determined—if not a bit harried—authority.

    Quigley turned toward the woman and slid out of the tent, with Clara following behind. Quigley answered, her voice thick with irritation about this fact. Quigley turned to Clara with a stern expression. Clara, alone outside the tent, pulled her neckerchief closer around her shoulders and turned back toward the party, fixing her gaze on her mistress. Clara leaned in, too timid to enter the tent on her own, and instead paused at the threshold and strained her ears to pick up the strands of their quiet conversation.

    He stood beside the musicians in the corner, his attention occupied with another gowned beauty. This lady was arresting in a manner entirely different than Peggy Shippen. While Peggy was petite in stature, with golden hair and a fair complexion, this woman was tall and full-figured, with glossy brunette locks and a warm skin tone. She was dressed in a silk gown of a rich scarlet red. This man did not wear the uniform, as most of the men in the tent did, but he looked more dapper than a servant in his black wool coat, starched white linen top, and matching black breeches.

    Around his neck he wore a maroon cravat, and he held his black tricornered hat in his hand. Clara straightened her posture. And where was Cal? How did you manage to get that position? She answered him, keeping her eyes fixed inside the tent. She had to admit he was handsome, even if she found his manners a bit uncouth. My grandmother helped the Shippen family and their servants stay fed that first winter. One favor returned for another favor? I meant no offense. Clara turned to him. Clara did not like the way he spoke of Miss Peggy with such familiarity.

    Miss Peggy introduced me to him when we first arrived. The illustrious china merchant from London. How brazen the men were at this gathering! Her only rival, really. And he was not alone; Clara noticed that most of the men in the tent seemed to be angling to speak with one or the other. She simply watched from the far side of the tent, smiling as if Lord Rawdon were the most charming man at the soiree. Peggy had a girlish vitality, a mischievous glimmer in her eye, while Meg Chew seemed haughty, supremely confident, even regal.

    Something about him—he writes a poem about them, speaks a little French, or draws their likeness, and they fall for him.