Friday, May 24, 2013


Today, I awoke with a sense of purpose.  I was nearly 15 years old but had never attempted anything like this before.

My feet strode resolutely towards the Palace Green.  Papa had instructed me to sweep street corners with my eyes, searching for moving shadows.  A secret dispatch, in cipher, was tucked between my petticoat and navy Brunswick.  I scratched at it, wishing I had used it to line my straw hat instead.  The paper was folded and sealed.  Just this morning, Papa had impressed the wax with his twisted horn emblem -- the Unicorn's horn.  

I thought back to a week ago, when Papa had sat me at his desk. He had wanted a key for a cipher.  (He trusted no one else, and knew I had a head for puzzles.  He often said I was the best son he never had.)  

Papa had pulled out a Bible from the shelf.  But lo!  it was hollow, nesting another book within.  The binding read "Montesquieu."  Together, we had settled on a key based on the book.  My eyes had questioned Papa wordlessly:  Who is this for?  His only reply had been a stern shake of the head.

Now, I strolled to the Palace Green, forcing nonchalance into my steps.  I wondered if the Governor and his daughters were home. Perhaps they were in England?  I was lucky enough to have been invited to the Governor's Palace for tea by his daughter last summer.  

We'd had a lovely time losing ourselves in the labyrinth.  Tired of wandering, I had clambered up the hilltop, shouting to the girls "Left!  Right!" The governess had told me to shush, but the girls had giggled encouragingly.  That was long ago now.  Since then, Papa had told me not to get too friendly with the Governor's family.

My mind snapped back to my mission.  The instructions were to leave the secret dispatch with the basket maker, just off the Green, and so I did.  Someone else was supposed to retrieve it, but neither she nor Papa would tell me more.

The basket maker concealed the paper in the straw.  Ah, a needle in the hay stack, I thought.  But my eyes flew to a little fleur-de-lis etched into the wood next to the hearth, barely perceptible behind the straw.  The basket maker followed my gaze.  Had she been the recipient of the key last week?  ...  probably not.  Mixing keys and ciphers seemed awfully foolish, and Papa was never foolish.

Only two fortnights ago, he'd relayed the story of our neighbor's slave who had been thrown into the Public Gaol for treason. He'd gotten caught with both halves of a secret letter, to be delivered.  Papa knew not to make that mistake.

So, I casually went about my business, just as Papa had trained me.  I bade the basket maker good day.  Then, I checked my purse for the few shillings Mama had handed me for some fabric and ribbon,

and turned into Duke of Gloucester Street towards the Millinery.  

The Tailor was there.  Papa trusted him.  He not only made our gowns and Papa's coats.  The Tailor and the Milliner were secretly supplying shirts to the continental army!  

(Papa thinks I know nothing.  I was re-shaping Mama's wig one afternoon in the small room by Papa's study.  Low voices were murmuring about an army.  A quick peek through the keyhole revealed the back of a man in a powdered wig and General's uniform.  Fearing discovery, I ceased all motion until they had left.)

I supposed I could trust the Tailor as well.  He always showed me the latest in English and European fashions.  Occasionally, he'd even give me pretty feathers for my hat. 

This time, he generously offered up some bolts of fabric.  The linen was coarse to the touch.  But the watery silk felt smooth, bordered by nubs of embroidery.  The rhythmic nubs under my fingers suddenly unlatched a memory of keys and ciphers.  Startled, I looked up and found the Tailor eyeing me sideways.  A vague discomfort crept up behind my ears, so I excused myself quickly.

Back along Duke of Gloucester Street, everyone seemed rapt in conversation.  As I walked by, I heard snatches of names I'd heard from Papa before.  Montesquieu, Rousseau, Locke.  None of them sounded like anyone we knew from the colonies.  

Nervous whispers and furtive glances were thrown my way as I passed by.  An occasional gentleman tipped his tricorn hat.

The only smiles I received were from the sun-worn gardeners by the Church.  They offered me fresh herbs to take home to Mama.  

I suppose the old man driving the oxen had nothing to hide either.

I kept on course and swung by Mary Dickinson's shop.  Mama needed her frayed hat ribbon replaced.  

The luxurious scents of soap, freshly shipped from England, engulfed me as I swung the door open.  I took a delicious whiff, but Papa had warned me that all those goods were heavily taxed.  I didn't understand too well, but the taxes apparently gave us no equivalent voice in government.  So, ribbons in hand, I satisfied myself with the memory of gardenia and lavender for my next bath.

I had dawdled enough.  It was time to meet Papa behind Shield's Tavern.  I came upon him nervously pacing, jaw clenched.  He was about to confer with an important General inside the Tavern.  Tentatively, I mentioned my visit to the basket maker.  His brow immediately uncreased, and a soft twinkle returned to his eyes.  "That's my daughter," he said approvingly.

Then he was lost in thought again, rumbling about a "revolution", a transformation, a new government, a new life.  I shifted anxiously.  Brought back by my presence, he drew up to his full stature, planted a kiss on my head, then marched into Shield's.

Papa's mumblings frightened me.  I didn't want anything to change.  I thought of going home, to Mama, to our quiet house on Nicholson Street.  I wanted everything as it had been from the previous day.

And yet, my childhood prelude of games and puzzles stirred something inside me.  The uncharted future - a future I was now part of with my cryptographic work for Papa - was like gibberish waiting to be deciphered.  And I thought on the message I had cast in cipher, still a mystery to me.  Papa had said I would understand words like "Congress" in time.  (I shan't say any more or I would be undoing my own encryption.)

Despite myself, I was curious to see where this Revolutionary road might lead to.

-- Pages from a girl's diary in Williamsburg, VA.  The edges were smudged but revealed a period around the 1770s.


This fanciful escapade was inspired by my recent trip to Virginia.  We visited Colonial Williamsburg, a place I hadn't explored since I was a young teenager.  It brought back memories of youth -- when I couldn't quite grasp the full context of history, but sensed the excitement and uncertainty leading to the Revolution, and the nervousness surrounding double agents loyal to the King.  

Caveat: These are loosely based on American colonial/revolutionary history.  All photos are mine, taken in Colonial Williamsburg.


  1. I absolutely loved this! So wonderfully written! And the use of the images is perfect!

  2. i loved loved loved the way you wrote the story!!!i could actually see it unfurling in front of my eyes like i was making a film out of it!

    1. Thank you! I think you'll understand why I love movies so much -- it's visual story telling! I'm sure you are doing a wonderful job unfurling your narratives in your films.

  3. What a wonderful story, really inspiring! And I love the accompanying images - that photograph of the tailor's studio especially and those wonderful hats and fabrics! Such a delightful, evocative post.

  4. What a wonderful excerpt to accompany your Williamsburg photographs!

  5. What a marvellous way to take us with you in Colonial Williamsburg. I was fascinated by some of the pictures... particularly, for some reason, the tailor's outfit!

    Did you take the pictures with the story in mind, or did you put it together afterwards? I think the former, because of joining up the halves of that letter...

  6. Jenny, I actually had no thought of this little "script" while we were in Williamsburg. I was just snapping hundreds of random photos. But I was inspired by so many families we came across that were involved in the Revolutionary Quest. The kids were trailing clues scattered around Williamsburg and piecing them together. The torn up letter was one of the final clues the Questers had. They were equipped with one half of the letter and the other half was to be discovered in the old jail cell. Anyhow, it wasn't until last week when I was re-living our visit through my photo files that the idea popped into my head to write a little fiction using the photos.

  7. Bella!
    You have an interesting blog
    Let's follow each other through GFC :)

    Danica Stark

  8. I'm taking a break from exam revision and have just been delightfully transported by your imagining of a 14 year old in pre-revolution Williamsburg. The photos really do suggest a strong narrative, so I'm glad to have been able to sit back and let your story carry me back in time and place.

  9. What a blissful merging of images and text! This brought back many lovely memories for me as well. My sister went to undergrad at William and Mary but even further back than that, our teachers used to take us here nearly once a year to see Colonial Williamsburg. I LOVED your mix of images and narrative. Please more, more, more!

    I wanted to check in with you anyway! Now that the baby is a bit older and has a regular schedule at last, I've started up a new blog about what I'm currently in love with: New York City, becoming a mother and the tonnage of books I've been consuming since I've been staying at home with the baby: Please check it out if you have a moment, and hope you're having a lovely summer (and writing another pictorial narrative :)).
    Much love,

  10. Beautiful post. I love places like this and the people who bring them to life. Xxxx


Dear Fellow Aesthetes, I love hearing your thoughts. I think the other readers find them valuable too! Much love xxx

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