A Tale of Benjamin Franklin's Family
In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution
Why do I believe he has gone too far? I have been feeling that way for the past fifteen months, ever since that awesome day in January 1774 when he was summoned to the Cockpit to answer troubling political questions. The Cockpit, as I learned at the time, is a London building across the street from Whitehall, our Foreign Ministry. They used to hold bloody cockfights there but now it serves as a meeting place for the Privy Council. "What's the Privy Council?" I asked our headmaster who was urging me to attend the momentous event. He explained that it is a group of advisers chosen by the King among the lords, the high clergy, and other luminaries of the realm. "I'm afraid they're going to excoriate our dear friend," he sighed. "He will need you there." Flattered by the prospect of being needed, but puzzled by the word excoriate, I promptly looked it up and learned that it means to "take off a person's skin."
Well, that is what it turned out to be, not literally, of course. Mrs. Stevenson, who sat next to me, cried quietly throughout that long, long ordeal.
Mrs. Stevenson's House on Craven Street
How could I have written so much without mentioning Mrs. Stevenson? Her house on Craven Street near the Strand has become my home when I'm not at school. She always has a kind word for me and something tasty to carry away. Come to think about it, there's another puzzle: Mrs. Margaret Stevenson and Dr. Benjamin Franklin.
She owns the house that he has been living in for years, but I'm sure they are much closer than landlady and tenant. She acts like a loving wife, always trying to please him. That's fine, but he has a real wife back in Philadelphia. In all the plays and poems we read in school, the wife gets angry when her husband even looks at another woman, but those two ladies, who have never met, seem to be really good friends.
Mrs. Franklin sends barrels of apples from America, especially of a kind called Newton Pippins, that the Doctor raves about. She also ships delicious red berries that they call cranberries over there. And squirrels when he asks for them, lovely tame squirrels for English children to keep as pets. Bacon, too, and other good things. And she thanks Mrs. Stevenson for taking such good care of her Pappy, as she calls him. Not to be outdone, Mrs. Stevenson sends the latest fashion in London clothes and bonnets, fine china that I help her pack, yards of silk, and lace for the Franklin daughter, Sally.
Polly Stevenson. Pastel. Artist unknown.
Mrs. Stevenson, too, has a daughter called Mary but everybody calls her Polly. I think that Polly is Dr. Franklin's favorite person in the whole world. Polly's father died many years ago and the Doctor seems to be a substitute father. He even gave her away on her wedding day. I was invited to that wedding and, as usual, was trying to find some clue as to how I fitted in with all those people. No luck. I was introduced as the American's young protégé, a fancy French word to say he took me under his wing, but why me of all people? Any time I suddenly burst into the Stevenson kitchen as the maids are gossiping, the minute they see me, they fall silent.
But I must get back to that dramatic morning in the Cockpit. The room was packed with lords and ladies, as excited and bloodthirsty as if they had come to a real cockfight. They laughed and applauded wildly when the Solicitor General, Alexander Wedderburn, denounced — should I say excoriated? — my old friend. The atmosphere was still more hostile than expected because news had reached London the previous week that a bunch of savages had dumped a whole cargo of East India tea into the Boston Bay. Dumping expensive tea into cold, salty water! Not heating the teapot! That is the ultimate crime in the eyes of the English. Why would they do such a thing in Boston? As I lingered near a coffee house on my way back to school, I heard a man declare that of course the perpetrators were not real Redskins, but cowardly Bostonians disguising themselves as Indians by painting their skin a reddish brown. However that may be, it did not help the public's mood and the Solicitor ranted on for well over an hour.
What I think I understood was that Dr. Franklin had received from a mysterious source certain letters that put the Royal Governor of Massachusetts and the Lieutenant-Governor in a very bad light. Instead of keeping those letters to himself as he had been asked to do, he had made them known by sending them back to Boston where they were allowed to circulate, provoking the population to acts of violence against the Governor's house. The Governor, whose name is Hutchinson, is now in England, and very, very angry.
Just as angry, the Bostonians have entrusted Dr. Franklin to present a petition to the King in order to obtain Hutchinson's removal. As I say, I did not understand much of what was going on, but thanks to the many hours of Latin I endured, I did understand one thing. That when Solicitor Wedderburn accused Dr. Franklin of being "a man of three letters," those three letters being "f-u-r," I figured that he was not comparing him to an animal's skin, but labeling him a thief. That's what FUR means in Latin. (From which FURtive derives, as my Latin teacher would say.)
Dr. Franklin was extraordinary! He stood there all that time, erect, silent, not a muscle moving, a statue. I could not take my eyes off him. He looked handsome in a golden-brown velvet coat I had never seen before. He seemed detached, serene. My heart was beating wildly for him, as the tears were rolling down Mrs. Stevenson's cheeks, but at the same time I could not agree with what he had done and with those ever- dissatisfied colonists he represents. Didn't they take any pride in the British Empire? I felt torn.
When his friends rallied around him at the end of the ordeal, he did not speak to them. When we sat down to dinner — easy to guess, Mrs. Stevenson was serving his favorite dish — he did not eat a thing, his jaws still clamped in silent rage. This was such a far cry from the jolly figure I had known, who enchanted us all at the boarding school with his magic tricks, his magic cane containing drops of oil to calm the waves, his clever mathematical magic squares. This was another man.
A simple magic square. Horizontally, vertically and diagonally, all lines add up to 34.
Everything changed after that day. He lost his position as deputy postmaster-general for North America. The petition from Massachusetts to remove the governor was rejected, of course. Dr. Franklin seemed to be totally in disgrace. We thought he would sail right back to America — and he talked about that — but he stayed in England and spent his time visiting various lords and high-placed people, writing proposals, dashing from place to place. Mrs. Stevenson's eyes were often red. I was hardly taken out on walks, though he did continue to take an interest in my studies and to praise me for my sketching ability. The big blow in the spring was the sudden death of Polly's husband at thirty-four. They had two little boys and a few months later she gave birth to a baby girl.
Tension between our Parliament and the American colonies grew worse and, while we didn't dare say it, we had the impression that Dr. Franklin's efforts toward a reconciliation were fruitless.
The year 1775 brought no relief. In late February he heard that his wife had died the previous December. He kept his grief to himself. I wondered if he would now marry Mrs. Stevenson and I'm sure she wondered about that too, but the only decision he made was to summon me from school in late March. He told me to join him as soon as possible with no more than my most important possessions, and not to breathe a word to my schoolmates. And that is why I am here, in mid-Ocean, floating between two worlds.