“I need another cook,” Madam Von R-- said to me. “Slave and servant sale is today usually. Go on into town and see if you can buy me one. Just a helper is really what I want. All these hungry girls are putting a strain on Esse. Don’t get a young one no matter how pretty she is.” She handed me a heavy purse. “Spend what you must,” she said with a smile. “no more than that.”
So I rode on into the city using my well-forged passes and hitched my horse and light rig behind the shed where the slaves were held. The sale began right at noon with field hands from some of the surrounding farms and then came the house servants being sold by people who were leaving New York for greener and safer pastures.
When a small woman wearing a head bandanna, announced as an experienced cook and house keeper, mounted the box, I looked her over. She seemed tidy, mature and confident to me so I doubled the first bid and got her for twelve pounds, hard money. She told me her name was Jess, and I asked if she was hungry. She nodded and I got her a meat pie while the auction ran down to children and old men.
“Now, gather ‘round,” the sweating auctioneer cried, getting the attention of those of us who had no place better to be, “here’s a surprise for y’all, a bond servant. We don’ get many of them no more. My boys done found her on the road, a runaway likely, so we guessed her age and she comes with a five-year contract, but y’don’ wanna look at it too close. Get up here, girl.”
A lean white woman in a stained and tattered dress stepped up on the platform. She looked about with frightened eyes, the corners of her mouth turned down, her hair hanging in ropes. She seemed to have a black eye, and her legs were a bit wobbly. She was not very big, but she was full grown.
“Damn if she weren’t a virgin when Bobby brung her in,” the paunchy man was saying with a laugh. “Course she ain’t no more, but they’s only five a’us so she ain’t been poked much more’n a score a’times.”
The girl sniffed and looked around. I studied her some since we rarely saw white women being sold off. It was common down in Maryland, but not here in New York.
“Five years,” the auctioneer cried, “shoot, she can make a hundred a year on her back. What’ll y’bid?”
“A hundred Continental,” one man yelled. “Two hundred paper,” said another, and so it went in various currencies until I felt the slave I had bought pulling on my sleeve.
“She’s a good girl, that ‘un,” the woman said. “I talked to her some las’ night.”
The bid was at twelve hundred Continental so when I said, “Twenty, silver,” things got right quiet. The fat man looked around and then brought down his mallet. “You done bought ‘er,” he said, “but you’re too damn big to horse ‘er.” The few people left laughed and shuffled out. I paid for my two purchases. The girl I had bought for no particular reason was not much bigger than the slave who was, I suppose, twice her age.
“You got any other clothes?” I asked the shivering girl who had her arms crossed over her chest. She was barefoot.
She shook her head so we went out to a general store and bought her a shift and a coarse dress and some study clogs and then some knit stockings. “Need anything else?” I asked.
“Stays,” she said quietly.
I guess I must have made a face.
“I always wore stays,” she said.
She and Jess went off and found what she needed, and the storekeeper wrapped everything up for us with string. We set out for home after we ate. The young woman told me her name was Jen. I had forgotten to ask. She ate like she had been starved and the slave ate more than I expected too. It was good to see people enjoy food like that.
Madam Von R-- was, to say the least, surprised to see Jen and happy to see Jess. The cook was sent off to the kitchen and I was dismissed so I don’t know what happened next. I went back to my duties and it was a week or so later that I had a chance to see the servant whose five years I had purchased with the Madam’s coins and then all but forgotten in the hurly-burly of war.
I would not have recognized her.
“Well,” she said with a grin, “why are you gawking at me?”
“This is Miss Jennifer Trimble of Joppatown, a fellow Marylander,” said Madam Von R-- with a gleeful smile. “Isn’t she pretty?”
The girl gave me a small curtsey, holding out her hem. “Now do you recall buying me shoes and stays?” she said.
“By damn,” I said. “I can’t believe it. You sure were worth the price.”
“Why thank you, kind sir,” she said, “such a compliment. But you do own me, you know, at least my time and faithful service.”
“Not me,” I squawked, “it was the Madam’s money. She ‘s got your paper.”
“You bought me, you big oaf,” she said. “If you hadn’t, I’d be slaving in some bawdy house instead of eating high on the hog and wearing fine clothes.”
“She’s going to her first big party this evening,” the madam said. “She’s a bit nervous. You two go along; I’ve things to do.”