In the family Bible it was written that “Michael Eisan married for the third time at the age of 101 and died of his excesses at the age of 103.” That was enough to convince me to write about this man who was my four times great-grandfather, and so began years of research and writing culminating in my historical novel The Loyalist.
The novel is told from two points of view. The first is Michael Eisan who takes 30-year-old Sarah Lawrence as a wife. An old man now, Michael remembers his experiences in South Carolina during the American Revolution. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Michael chooses the losing side and fights in a Loyalist militia in this bitter civil war. Among other skirmishes, he fights at the Battle of King’s Mountain and the Siege of Ninety Six.
The second point of view is Sarah Lawrence, a widow who marries the old man, for the sake of her young son. In spite of her apprehensions, she finds herself falling in love with the centenarian. Embarrassed by this, she tries to find out all she can about his youth, but Michael remains secretive of his past. Sarah is resented by his many children, especially his oldest daughters, Janet McCarthy and Lizzie Eisan. This animosity comes to a head when Michael suffers a stroke and Sarah nurses him back to health in spite of his advanced age.
The historical incidents that are described in The Loyalist really took place, and my ancestor Michael Eisan, over the course of his long life (c. 1730- 1833), took part in them. However, he did not pass this story down to the next generations. I initially discovered much of it, including the quotation from the family Bible, on the Eisan family website, but my further research has revealed many more details about his amazing life.
I opened the door and there stood an old man, looking like a goblin with his big nose, bandy legs and old-fashioned clothes. A jellyfish ball of fear settled in my gut.
“May I come in, Mrs. Lawrence?” he asked.
I opened the door wider to admit my landlord, old Mr. Eisan. When was the last time I had paid him?
“Come and sit by the fire, sir,” I said, taking him to the two cane chairs before it as I tried to still the fluttering of my heart.
He stood, hat in hand, appraising the log cabin, perhaps looking for something of value among the sparse furnishings. He must have seen nothing, for he handed me his hat and seated himself on one of the chairs.
“Can I get you some tea, sir?” I asked as I placed his conical top hat on a wooden chest by the door.
“No, dank ye,” he said, with his slight accent.
I took the chair beside him, waiting for him to ask why I hadn’t paid the rent.
At last he spoke.
“May I offer my condolences on your bereavement.” He spoke as if he had long rehearsed these words, and I was quite sure he had said them exactly so at Jacob’s funeral six months before.
“Thank you, sir.”
“It is said you have asked the parish for aid.”
How did he know? But of course, it wasn’t possible to keep anything a secret for long in Ship Harbour. He shook his head with sadness or disapproval; I was unable to determine which.
“It is so sad that you cannot provide for your child. Where is your little boy, by the way?” He looked around the cabin again. I wished he would come to the point soon.
“James is in the bedroom, playing. Would you like to meet him, sir?” Perhaps a child would soften the old man to my plight. Surely he wouldn’t evict a mother and child in November.
“No, leave him play,” he said, and immediately returned to business. “Have you no family to help you?”
“No. My parents are both dead, as you know, and I was their only child.”
“And your husband’s family?”
“His parents are dead as well,” I replied.
“Had he no other family?”
“No, sir. This farm was all we had.” Old Mr. Eisan had bought it from us when Jacob was ill.
“Ah,” he said, as if I was confirming his expectations. He leaned forward, resting on his cane. “I want you to know that pity is not the reason for the proposal I have come to make to you today.”
Proposal? Perhaps he wasn’t going to evict me after all. But what could he possibly be proposing?
“You keep a clean and proper house.” He glanced around the cabin again and I wondered if he was thinking to hire me as a housekeeper. Here was some hope. I was not afraid of hard work, though I didn’t know what I would do with James while I was working.
“But that is not the reason for my proposal neither. I find you to be,” and he cleared his throat, “a very attractive woman indeed.” The jellyfish in my gut squirmed.
His sharp black eyes peered down his long goblin nose. “Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
The blood drained from my head so quickly that I thought I would faint. He’d been an old man even when I was a child. In fact, ancient was a better word to describe Mr. Eisan. He’d just celebrated his 101st birthday, although he was remarkably hale for someone that age. My first instinct was to shout ‘no’ and push him from my house, but there were other considerations. I took a deep breath to steady myself.
If I refused him, and he turned me out of my home, where would I go? Without a home, I would not be able to take in boarders. I would be at the mercy of the parish, and I had a son to look after. If I was destitute, they might take Jamie away from me and place him in an orphanage. I could not allow that to happen. As well as being the oldest, Mr. Eisan was also the richest man in town. If I accepted his proposal, my son and I would live in comfort, and I would be provided for after his death. Surely he could not live very much longer. For the sake of my son, I could bear to be his wife for the few years he had left. And surely such an old man would not lust after me. I blushed at the thought.
“I don’t expect an answer now. You need time to consider my offer. If you marry me, you and your son will be looked after.”
“Yes sir,” I said, still feeling overwhelmed by his proposal. “May I ask why you have taken such an interest in my situation?”
“I promised your husband when he was dying that I would look after you.”
I could not remember any occasion on which he could have made such a promise, nor did it sound like a request my husband would have made. I was puzzled why the old man would make up such a story.
“Will a week be enough?”
“I beg your pardon, sir. A week for what?”
“To make your decision.”
“Yes,” I said, wishing for a year.
“Well then. I shall return at the same time next week.”
The next day, a small delegation of gentlemen stood outside my door. “Can I help you?” I said.
“May we come in, Mrs. Lawrence?” one of them asked me. I recognized him as John Michael Eisan, old Mr. Eisan’s son and the captain of the Halifax ship. “We have come on behalf of the church to interview you.”
When I’d applied to the parish for aid, I had not expected an interview. “Well, come in then,” I said, stepping aside to let the three men enter. Behind John Michael came a taller, straighter man, old Mr. Eisan’s youngest son Frederick, who had married my friend, Barbara Shelnut. The third man I did not at first recognize, but after some scrutiny, I realized the rotund, balding man was Mr. McCarthy, who was married to old Mr. Eisan’s daughter. So many family members could not be a coincidence.
“Would you like some tea?” I asked, though I was loath to part with the few crumbs of tea leaves that remained in the pantry.
The gentlemen all declined any refreshment, but, at my invitation, they seated themselves at my table.
“The Bishop has asked us to ascertain that your character is above reproach before the church gives you money.” Mr. McCarthy asked.
The Bishop, I thought. Is that what you call your father-in-law? “Are you really here on behalf of the church, or has old Mr. Eisan sent you?”
They looked surprised at my question. Perhaps they were very good dissemblers. “Why would our father send us?” Mr. John Eisan asked.
Jamie came into the room at that moment, looking happy to see so many men.
“We would rather not have the child present while we interview you, Mrs. Lawrence.” Mr. McCarthy said.
“Well, it’s too cold and wet to play outside today.”
“Can he not play in the other room while we speak?” Mr. John Eisan asked kindly.
“If he wishes, but I won’t restrain him for your benefit.”
Mr. Frederick Eisan then spoke. “May I look after your boy while these gentlemen ask their questions?”
“Yes, of course.” I smiled at his kindness. “Jamie, go play with this gentleman in your room.”
Looking very pleased, he took the man’s hand and went out.
Mr. McCarthy cleared his throat and began. “Now then, first of all, I’m sorry to have to ask you these questions, but we must follow the process.” He pointed to a paper with a long list of questions written on it. “It seems that you attended a picnic not three months after the death of your husband.”
As this was not a question, I did not respond.
“Do you consider that proper behaviour for a widow?” Mr. McCarthy finally asked.
“I would gladly have foregone the pleasure of a picnic for myself, but I went for the happiness of my son.”
“You enjoyed the picnic yourself, Mrs. Lawrence,” Mr. McCarthy said. “You did not wear black and you were seen smiling.”
“I have only one dress,” I said. “As to why I was smiling, perhaps someone said something amusing.”
Mr. McCarthy continued. “You could have worn a black arm band, at the very least.”
How could I explain to such a gentleman that even the cost of a strip of fabric was beyond my means?
He seemed annoyed that I made no response again. “Do you deny that you were flirting with men at the picnic?”
“I do deny it.” My face felt hot and I tried to calm myself before I said anything I might regret. “If I smiled, I smiled at everyone and no one in particular.”
“Do you have any questions, John?” Looking embarrassed, Mr. McCarthy offered the paper to his brother-in-law, who declined it.
“I have my own question,” he said. “What will you do if you do not receive alms from the church?”
Finally a sensible question. “I shall have to take in a boarder,” I said. “But as you can see, I do not have much room here, and I don’t wish to expose myself and my son to any disreputable men who might apply.” I had experience of such men when I was a girl and my mother took in boarders after my father’s death. “I am a respectable woman, though your questions seem to imply otherwise.”
“You might take in a female boarder.”
“I shall indeed, if there are any to be had,” I said. “Do you have any other questions?” I asked, quietly simmering.
Mr. McCarthy looked at his list. “There are one or two others. For instance,” he said, “this one pertains to the character of your mother when she was accepting alms from the church.”
“I was a child then,” I said. Was that was this was about? I’d heard the rumours myself and I’d often been teased by the other children. I would not answer any of their questions on the matter because I simply did not know the answers. I never wanted to know. I loved my mother, and she always provided for me. That was all that mattered to me then.
“The apple does not fall far from the tree, they say.”
“I think it is wrong of you to malign my mother to me.” I was so angry I couldn’t speak, afraid I might say something I would later regret.
Mr. McCarthy coughed nervously. “There is just one other matter I am obliged to ask about. It is said that your husband Jacob used to beat you.”
“What if he did? It was not for anything I ever did, but for his own pleasure.”
“That may be, but the question I have to ask is whether you exacted your revenge on him when he was an invalid?”
“I nursed him and cared for him faithfully for the last years of his life,” I cried. Oh wouldn’t I have loved to, though? Still one shouldn’t be condemned for their thoughts. “No one can say otherwise.”
“Perhaps because no one was here to witness it,” Mr. McCarthy said.
“No one could blame you if you did,” Mr. John Eisan said, as if to draw a confession from me.
But I wouldn’t be drawn any further. “I cannot imagine where you’ve heard such idle and malicious gossip. If you have a Bible, I will swear on it that none of it is true.”
“You don’t have one?” Mr. McCarthy said.
I shook my head. Would he fault me for that too?
“And mine is not with me, so we will just have to take your word for it.” He folded up the paper and put it in his pocket.
“I pray you will,” I said.
They stood up. Mr. John Eisan called his brother from the bedroom and the three men left.
Poor little Jamie, having lost his playmate, started to cry.
“You miss your daddy, don’t you?”
I wished I hadn’t mentioned him. “Daddy has gone to be with Jesus. He won’t be coming home again. Mama told you this already.”
His little face scrunched up and he started to howl.
“Come now. You’re my little man now,” I said, taking him in my arms.
He had loved his father so much and missed him more than I did. Jacob had been kinder to Jamie than he’d ever been with me. Giving him a son was the only thing I ever did that he appreciated.
Three and a half years ago, Jacob had gone off to help a new settler fell trees on his property. They carried him back after a white pine fell on him. He never walked again, and so I nursed him, fetching and caring for him for the last three years of his life. He didn’t appreciate it; in fact, he hated that I was there, watching his manly body wither away slowly day by day. He had always lorded it over me when he was strong, and now I was in a position of strength. But I restrained myself; I never once hit him no matter how nasty he was. I tried to tell myself that anyone would be petulant and miserable in his place, but it was hard.
When we ran out of money, we sold the farm to old Mr. Eisan, who rented us the house, and we lived off the proceeds of the sale of the farm while Jacob lingered. Most of the money was gone by the time he died, and now I needed more to feed my son. If the church wouldn’t give me money, I might lose Jamie and I couldn’t let that happen.
I felt a new empathy for my mother. Perhaps the rumours were true that she’d slept with men for money. I would never condemn her if that was what she’d had to do in order to keep me. I wished I could have thanked her before she died.