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As the British scheme to kidnap George Washington and bring the Revolutionary War to an end in one bold stroke, a tide of espionage ebbs and flows between the two opposing armies. It is 1780, and two very different men are sucked into these vicious currents. Tides that pull the men towards the bewitching embrace of Flora Kuyper, the beautiful spy who holds the future of America in her hands. This is a world of plot and counterplot, where a night of passion could lead to an act of treason and a man's avowed ...
As the British scheme to kidnap George Washington and bring the Revolutionary War to an end in one bold stroke, a tide of espionage ebbs and flows between the two opposing armies. It is 1780, and two very different men are sucked into these vicious currents. Tides that pull the men towards the bewitching embrace of Flora Kuyper, the beautiful spy who holds the future of America in her hands. This is a world of plot and counterplot, where a night of passion could lead to an act of treason and a man's avowed ideals could fashion a noose around his neck.
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IT WAS ALMOST MIDNIGHT ON the thirtieth day of January in the year 1780. Flora Kuyper shivered in her canopy bed, on the icy second floor of her gambrel roofed farmhouse in the town of Bergen, just across the river from New York. Outside the diamond-paned window, the frozen earth cracked, echoing like a musket shot across the eerie white-dark landscape. The house heaved and groaned in the grip of the northeast wind. Crack went the earth again. Flora shuddered, wondering if it were an omen. She seized the playing cards from the mahogany table by her bed and quickly dealt thirteen of them, facedown. Holding her breath, she turned up the thirteenth card. It was the Queen of Spades.
Death. In Louisiana, that green hot world south of winter where she had been born, Flora had seen the women sit in their shuttered parlors, laying out the cards while a fever victim struggled for breath in the next room. Mother Levesque, the juju woman, her immense black face a sweating parody of the moon, would turn up the thirteenth card. Flora remembered the groans and cries when the Queen of Spades cast her baleful eyes at the dim ceiling.
Flora drew another card from the pack, remembering that the Queen of Hearts could break the spell. She turned it over. The Jack of Spades, the black Queen's leering accomplice, confronted her.
There was no Mother Levesque in Bergen, New Jersey, to curse the cards, to summon the spirits of Africa to fight the evil jinn of America. Flora was alone in this frozen world, where winter had become perpetual. The Great Cold, the Americans were calling it. Old men and women, people like Jacob and Mary DeGroot, her nearest neighbors, said theyhad never seen anything like it in their lives. For thirty consecutive days now, the temperature had not risen above zero. For a week at a time, stupendous blizzards had howled out of the north; huge drifts had blocked the roads. More than once, desperate men knocked at Flora's back door to beg food and shelter. They were deserters fleeing the American army camp in Morristown, forty miles away. They told stories of men being buried in their tents by the storms and dug out days later, frozen, dead.
Footsteps on the first floor. A door slammed. Angry African voices quarreling. Flora reached for a green bottle on her night table. She poured its viscous contents onto a spoon and let five drops fall into a glass of water. She drank it quickly as a man's booted feet mounted the stairs. A sweet calm enveloped her. She thanked God--or the devil--for laudanum.
The bedroom door opened; Caesar stood there in his blue-and-buff uniform. Firelight and candle glow mingled on the intense blackness of his face, with its wide flat nose and proud thick-lipped mouth. Flora had seldom seen a Negro as black as Caesar. Perhaps that was where her love for him had begun--with a wish to be devoured, consumed by his blackness, to escape her lying white skin.
Flora sensed his unease, his dislike of her bedroom. He was so big. The enormous head, the massive neck and shoulders, belonged to nature, Africa. She told herself that he had a right to feel out of place in this feminine room, with its royal-yellow wallpaper, its glazed-chintz curtains, the four-poster bed with its camlet hangings and parti-colored quilts. She regretted the contempt with which Caesar regarded these luxuries. She remained confident that she could persuade him to admire beautiful furniture, clothes, paintings, even if they were made by white people.
Was she right? Could she ever change this huge, willful creature? Flora suddenly remembered what her husband, Henry Kuyper, used to call Caesar: the brute. Henry had used the term affectionately, even admiringly, as he always spokeof Caesar. But a cruel meaning had lurked within the word. Too often lately, it had become the only meaning.
"I've decided to go," Caesar said.
"Why, why?" Flora said.
"I told you why--for the ten guineas."
"We have enough money."
"No one ever has enough money."
Those last words reminded Flora of another man, with a similar attitude toward money. Caesar thought she was still thinking of the risk he was taking to return to the American camp in Morristown.
He smiled and sat down on the bed, shoving the cards aside. Caesar was not superstitious. He believed in nothing but himself, his size, his strength. Luck, devils, God--they were all nonsense compared to the power of his body, his will, the shrewdness of his brain. Flora knew he was wrong about the devils and God; she had no doubt both existed; she feared the devils and despised God. Flora even knew that Caesar was not as shrewd as he wanted her--and himself--to believe. No man who spends the first twenty-two years of his life as a slave, forbidden to read, unable to write, could learn enough to outthink the treacherous white world he was determined to defy.
"I've come back every other time. Why do you still worry?"
"The cards are bad."
"The hell with the cards."
With a flick of his hand he swept the cards off the bed. "When are you going to realize that you finally have a man who's not going to disappoint you?"
"We should have gone in the fall. We'd be in New Orleans now. Safe--happy."
"We would have been poor. I don't believe the poor are ever happy."
"My father was poor. I never knew a happier man."
Caesar curled his lip. "I'm sick of hearing about this marvelous father of yours."
For a moment she was afraid of him. She stared at his hands, with their wide pink palms and thick black fingers. She remembered what those hands had done in another bedroom only a few feet from this one. She remembered last night's dream, Henry Kuyper's contorted face on the pillow, the dream she had every time Caesar slept in the house.
She was glad she had taken the laudanum. It allowed her to think about the dream without weeping.
"You said you'd buy your discharge. Once you had that, you could stay here at the farm."
"I can buy that anytime I want it. I'm going back for the hundred guineas they offered me to find Twenty-six."
Bits of blowing snow scratched against the windowpane. For a moment Flora saw William Coleman, the man Caesar called Twenty-six, shivering in an icy tent somewhere in the American camp at Morristown. She simultaneously rejoiced in his agony--and pitied him. She was afraid to tell this to Caesar. He thought Twenty-six was a stranger to her, an impersonal number in their network.
"It's too dangerous. If Beckford even suspected what you're doing, he'd have you killed."
"Beckford worships me. He almost kissed me when I brought him word of the raid Washington was planning on Staten Island."
"The Americans would hang you for that."
Caesar shook his head contemptuously. "I'm their one hope of finding Twenty-six."
"You don't have time to find him," Flora said. "Beckford tells me they're ready to start the mutiny whenever he gives the signal."
Caesar's mouth curled skeptically. "Why hasn't he given it?"
"General Knyphausen doesn't approve of one part of the plan."
"I think maybe Beckford's mutiny is not as ready as he says it is. He still seems to be trying to stir up the troops. Last week a new chaplain preached a sermon that practically told themen to attack the officers. Has Beckford mentioned him? His name is Caleb Chandler. I'll bet twenty guineas he's working for the British."
Flora shook her head. The name Caleb Chandler meant nothing to her. "If the mutiny succeeds, the war will be over. I want to be in New Orleans before it ends. Before Beckford can stop me."
"How can he stop you? You're an independent woman. You own this farm now thanks to Caesar. You're not going to forget that part of it, are you? No matter how much money or power that red-coated pig gets?"
"No," Flora said.
She could not take her eyes off Caesar's hands. Doubled into a fist, one of them could smash her face. Together they could seize her throat and snuff out her life. She, too, would become a bloated face on a pillow.
For a moment Flora wanted to tell Caesar that it was not Major Walter Beckford, it was the other man, Twenty-six, who would stop her. Who would claim her. But it was impossible. If she told him the truth about Twenty-six, Caesar would never go to New Orleans with her. He might even let those hands turn her into that ugly face on the pillow. She did not want to die that way.
"Maybe I ought to have the certificate freeing me before we leave for New Orleans," Caesar said.
"I'll give it to you now."
"No. It'd make talk when you registered it. There's too much talk around here already. Cato and Nancy with their shit about sin and damnation. They're born slaves. I'd still like to sell them before we go."
"I'll sell no one," Flora said. "You'll never get that certificate if you mention such a thing again. I might even sell you--"
Caesar's right hand sprang like a snake toward her face. It stopped a fraction of an inch from her cheek. She could feel its heat, as if it had a mouth, a soul of its own. Then it fell backonto the bed. "You'll always own me," he said. "And I'll always own you. Come downstairs and sing me one last song."
He helped her into her night robe and led her through the cold dark house by the light of a single candle. He put the candle on the harpsichord and stood beside her while her fingers found the familiar keys and her voice repeated the words she had whispered to him after their first time together.
Plaire à celui que j'aime Est ma seule victoire Et mes talents pour lui Sont des noveaux tributs.
On that blazing July day, two and a half years ago, Caesar had believed her when she told him that she had never spoken or sung those words to the man he hated, the man who owned him, Flora's husband, Henry Kuyper. She did not know then that the loving words were Henry Kuyper's death sentence. She did not know they would echo through the house as she looked down on her husband's lifeless face.
As Flora sang the last line in her delicate contralto and the final notes dwindled inside the harpsichord's mahogany frame, Caesar put on the black woolen watch coat that had once belonged to Henry Kuyper. "Sing it again," he said. He wrapped a scarf around his face, covering his nose and mouth. "Keep singing it until you're sure I can't hear it anymore."
Tears streamed down Flora's cheeks. She sat there, playing and singing the song long after the front door closed and Caesar began his frigid forty-mile journey to rejoin the American army in Morristown.
Copyright © 1983 by Thomas Fleming