The fourth book in the popular Elm Creek Quilts series explores a question that has long captured the imagination of quilters and historians alike: Did stationmasters of the Underground Railroad use quilts to signal to fugitive slaves? In THE RUNAWAY QUILT, Jennifer Chiaverini revisits the legends of Elm Creek Manor as Sylvia Compson discovers evidence of her ancestors’ courageous involvement in the Underground Railroad.
The fourth book in the popular Elm Creek Quilts series explores a question that has long captured the imagination of quilters and historians alike: Did stationmasters of the Underground Railroad use quilts to signal to fugitive slaves?
In her first novel, The Quilter’s Apprentice, Jennifer Chiaverini wove quilting lore with tales from the World War II home front. Now, following Round Robin and The Cross-Country Quilters, Chiaverini revisits the legends of Elm Creek Manor, as Sylvia Compson discovers evidence of her ancestors’ courageous involvement in the Underground Railroad.
Alerted to the possibility that her family had ties to the slaveholding South, Sylvia scours her attic and finds three quilts and a memoir written by Gerda, the spinster sister of clan patriarch Hans Bergstrom. The memoir describes the founding of Elm Creek Manor and how, using quilts as markers, Hans, his wife, Anneke, and Gerda came to beckon fugitive slaves to safety within its walls. When a runaway named Joanna arrives from a South Carolina plantation pregnant with her master’s child, the Bergstroms shelter her through a long, dangerous winter — imagining neither the impact of her presence nor the betrayal that awaits them.
The memoir raises new questions for every one it answers, leading Sylvia ever deeper into the tangle of the Bergstrom legacy. Aided by the Elm Creek Quilters, as well as by descendants of others named in Gerda’s tale, Sylvia dares to face the demons of her family’s past and at the same time reaffirm her own moral center. A spellbinding fugue on the mysteries of heritage, THE RUNAWAY QUILT unfolds with all the drama and suspense of a classic in the making.
When her sister Claudia died childless at the age of seventy-seven, Sylvia Bergstrom Compson became the last living descendant of Hans and Anneke Bergstrom and the sole heir to what remained of their fortune. Or so she had thought. She had certainly searched long and hard enough for someone else who could assume responsibility for Elm Creek Manor, for as difficult as it was to believe now, at the time she had thought the estate in rural central Pennsylvania too full of unhappy memories to become her home again. Her lawyer had told her she was the sole heir, an opinion corroborated by her private detective.
Now she wondered if they had overlooked something, a familial connection lost to memory but documented in a threadbare antique quilt.
She had never seen the quilt before; that much she knew to be true. She saw it for the first time after a speaking engagement for the Silver Lake Quilters’ Guild in South Carolina. One woman had stayed behind to help Sylvia and her companion, Andrew Cooper, pack up Sylvia’s lecture materials. As the three folded Sylvia’s quilts and placed her slides carefully into boxes, the woman introduced herself as Margaret Alden and said that they had met before, for she was a former camper.
“Of course I remember you,” Sylvia declared, but after a skeptical look from Andrew, she confessed otherwise. Margaret laughed and said she understood completely. So many quilters attended Elm Creek Quilt Camp each year that it was impossible to remember every one, although Sylvia felt that she ought to at least try. The campers were, after all, guests in her own home.
They chatted about quilt camp as they carried Sylvia’s lecture materials to Andrew’s motor home, but even after Sylvia thanked her for her help, Margaret lingered. “If you could spare me another few minutes,” she said, “I’d like to show you a quilt. It’s been in my family for generations, but I think it might have some connection to Elm Creek Manor.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Sylvia. “What sort of connection?”
“That’s what I hoped you might know.”
Andrew and Sylvia were eager to begin the first leg of their long drive back to central Pennsylvania, but Sylvia rarely passed up the opportunity to see a quilt, and certainly couldn’t resist seeing one so intriguingly described. Margaret hurried to her car and returned carrying a bundle wrapped in a cotton bedsheet. With Sylvia’s assistance, she unfolded it to reveal a quilt–or rather, what remained of one.
The pattern caught Sylvia’s eye first: Birds in the Air blocks, each a square divided along the diagonal, a solid right triangle of medium or dark fabric on one side, three small right triangles surrounded by lighter background fabrics on the other. The blocks were arranged on point so that all the right angles of the triangles, large and small, pointed in the same direction. The fabrics themselves seemed to be primarily muslins and wools, so faded and worn that Sylvia could only guess their original colors. Water stains and deterioration suggested age as well as rough handling, as did the muted colors of the once-bright dyes and the worn binding, through which the cotton batting was visible. Fine stipple quilting held the three layers together–where they were still held together. Elsewhere, the thread had been removed or torn out by accident, and the middle batting layer it should have held in place was long gone.
Only a reluctance to appear hypocritical prevented Sylvia from scolding Margaret for risking further damage to the quilt by bringing it to the quilt guild meeting, for Sylvia was very glad to see it. “It’s lovely, dear.” She bent closer and peered through her bifocals at the quilting stitches. There was something unusual about them, something she couldn’t yet place.
“Lovely?” Margaret laughed. “Most people look at it and say, “‘Hmm. Interesting.'”
“You can tell Sylvia’s a true quilter,” said Andrew. “She never fails to see through the wear and tear and find the beauty.”
“True beauty stands the test of time,” said Sylvia, straightening. “Although I must say it’s a pity its previous owners did not take better care of it.”
“I know,” said Margaret apologetically. “But my mother says it was just one of many quilts her grandmother had around the house. They didn’t realize they were sleeping under a family heirloom.”
“Of course not. I’m not faulting you or your ancestors. I’m not one of those who believes quilts should be showpieces kept safely away from anyone’s bed.” Sylvia returned her gaze to the quilt. “It’s a simple pattern, pieced from scraps. It wasn’t intended as the family’s best quilt. I’d say by using it so well, your family was acting well within the quiltmaker’s wishes.”
Margaret smiled, pleased. Then Andrew caught Sylvia’s eye, and she was suddenly aware of how her lecture had wearied her and how long they planned to drive before stopping for the night. She couldn’t imagine what possible connection the quilt could have to Elm Creek Manor, unless Margaret hoped Sylvia would buy it and display it there. Briskly, she said, “Now, were you looking for an appraisal of the quilt or an estimate of its age? If so, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I could place it in the mid- to late nineteenth century, but you’ll need to consult a textiles expert for a more precise answer. As for what it’s worth in terms of dollars and cents–”
“Oh, I could never sell it,” said Margaret, shocked.
“I’m pleased to hear that.” Sylvia wished all families would show such appreciation for the heirloom quilts their foremothers had so lovingly made. “Then tell me, what did you mean by a connection between this quilt and my home?”
Margaret turned the quilt so that only the solid muslin backing was visible. “When you look at the quilting stitches, what do you see?”
Pursing her lips, Sylvia carefully scrutinized the quilt. Without the distraction of color and pattern, the stitches were more clearly visible. “The stippling pattern isn’t consistent,” she said. “Some of the stitches are long, others quite small, and the small ones seem to be grouped together.”
Margaret’s nod told Sylvia she had responded just as the younger woman had hoped. “When I told my mother I had attended quilt camp at Elm Creek Manor, she told me that she had an old family quilt her grandmother had called the Elm Creek Quilt.”
Sylvia looked up in surprise. “Did she, indeed?”
“At first I thought its name came from the quilting pattern used in the border. See the elm leaf motif, and how these wavy lines look like running water?”
“I suppose.” Sylvia saw the leaves now that they had been pointed out, but in her opinion, the wavy lines resembled a common cable pattern more than a creek.
“It had another name, too. The Runaway Quilt.”
“Runaway?” Andrew chuckled. “I’ve heard of quilters getting carried away with their work, but I didn’t know a quilt could actually run away.”
“Perhaps the quilt turned out much larger than its maker had intended,” said Sylvia. “Perhaps she felt it ran on and on, with a life of its own.”
“Maybe, but my mother says it was most often called the Elm Creek Quilt,” said Margaret hastily.
Sylvia nodded and exchanged an amused glance with Andrew. Margaret seemed most eager to prove her point, but she had said nothing yet to persuade Sylvia.
“Now look at these designs.” Margaret pointed out groups of stitches that she said resembled, in turn, a tobacco leaf, a star, a mountain pass, a group of horses–
“And these,” said Margaret, watching Sylvia expectantly, “form a picture of Elm Creek Manor.”
Sylvia could no longer nod politely at the woman’s wild imaginings. “I’m sorry, dear. I just don’t see it.”
“Remember the quilter was working from the other side,” said Andrew, more mindful of Margaret’s feelings than Sylvia had been. “The designs would be in reverse.”
Sylvia carefully unfurled the quilt before the motor home’s full-length mirror and studied one small section near the top. To her amazement, the reflection revealed a perfect outline of a pass between several low mountains.
She stared at the quilt, speechless. “My goodness,” she finally managed. “I must admit, that bears a striking resemblance to the pass into the Elm Creek Valley.” She held up another section. “This could indeed be the west wing of Elm Creek Manor.”
“You told us at camp that the west wing predates the rest of your home,” said Margaret.
“It would have been the only part standing at the time this quilt was made.” Sylvia traced the design with a fingertip. “The original entrance is in the proper place.”
“So it’s a side view now,” said Andrew. “But back then–”
“This would have been the front view of the house.” Sylvia shook her head as if to clear it of nonsense. “I admit I’m tempted to believe there’s some connection, but I’m afraid it’s all a bit too fanciful for me. Many houses share a similar design, and elm trees and creeks are hardly exclusive to my family’s estate…”
Her voice trailed off in disbelief.
Not far from the image of Elm Creek Manor appeared the outline of another building, one so unique and remarkable that there could be no mistaking it: a two-story barn, partially concealed by the slope of the hill into which it was built, exact in proportion and scale to the barn on the grounds of Sylvia’s estate.>/P>
Andrew photographed the quilt, front and back, with close-ups of the quilted images, while Sylvia recorded Margaret’s memories. Based upon family stories, Margaret surmised that her grandmother’s grandmother had sewn the quilt, but the five years Margaret had spent researching her family’s genealogy had turned up little information from that era, since many important documents had been destroyed during the Civil War. Then Margaret added, almost as an aside, “If my grandmother’s grandmother didn’t make the quilt, I suppose one of her slaves could have.”
“Her slaves?” echoed Sylvia. “Goodness. Your family owned slaves?”
“Yes,” said Margaret, “but you don’t have to look at me like that. I never owned any.”
“My apologies, dear. I didn’t mean to be rude.” Sylvia composed herself. Of course, she had probably met the descendants of slave owners before, just as she had certainly met the descendants of slaves. It was just unexpected to hear someone admit to one’s ancestors’ moral failings with such nonchalance, especially since Sylvia’s family had treated their forebears with respect bordering on reverence.
“It seems to me, the person who made this quilt must have seen Elm Creek Manor,” said Margaret as she finished her tale.
“Could be she was recording memories of a visit,” said Andrew.
“I suppose there’s no way to know for certain.” Sylvia gazed at the sections of the quilt where the thread had been removed. What patterns would they have found within those stitches?
“Sylvia,” asked Margaret. “Did any of your ancestors leave the family estate and move south?”
“Do you mean to say you think our families might be related?”
“I think it’s possible. I had hoped your family records would be more complete than mine.”
“I suppose it’s not entirely unlikely. My cousin, Elizabeth, left Elm Creek Manor when I was a young girl, but she and her husband went to California…”
“Anything else?” prompted Margaret. “Someone earlier?”
Sylvia searched her memory as best she could under the circumstances. Hans and Anneke Bergstrom had come to America in the middle of the nineteenth century, but Sylvia did not know the precise date. She knew they had had several children, but she could not recall how many had survived to adulthood. Surely some of them must have left to start families and households of their own, but if one of them was indeed Margaret’s ancestor–
“I’m afraid I just don’t know,” said Sylvia, and lowered herself into a nearby seat.
Andrew must have seen how Margaret’s questions had affected her, for he left her to her thoughts. He and Margaret exchanged addresses and phone numbers, then, with a promise to share whatever they discovered, Andrew showed her to the door. A few moments later, Sylvia heard him start the engine. Only then did she rouse herself and move to the front passenger seat beside him.
They drove in silence for nearly an hour before Sylvia spoke. “Do you suppose Margaret and I could have an ancestor in common?”
“It’s possible.” He kept his eyes on the road. “What do you think?”
“I think I was much more content before I learned I might have slave owners in the family.”
“All families have members they’re not so proud of.”
“Yes, but slave owners?”
“Don’t be too hard on them. They were people of their times.”
“Plenty of other people of their times didn’t own slaves. Hans and Anneke, for example. Elm Creek Manor was a station on the Underground Railroad, did you know that?”
He gave her a sidelong glance. “You might have mentioned it once or twice.”
“If I’ve bragged, it’s because I’m proud of them. I should be proud. That was brave and dangerous work. And now I’m supposed to accept that some of my relatives–well, I don’t accept it.” She folded her arms and glared out the windshield at the lights of other cars speeding down the freeway. Night had fallen, but the sky was overcast. She wondered where the North Star was. It ought to be directly overhead, or nearly so. So long ago, it had shown the way to freedom, and her family had offered sanctuary to many of those who had braved the hazards of the path it illuminated.
But Elm Creek Manor was so secluded, the North Star alone would not have been enough to guide a stranger to its door.
“Andrew,” said Sylvia, “I don’t believe the quilt preserved memories of Elm Creek Manor. I think it was meant to show the way.”
She had heard of such things before, quilts with coded messages or even maps revealing safe pathways along the Underground Railroad. The very name of Margaret’s quilt suggested it might be one of those legendary artifacts. But in all of Sylvia’s decades as a quilter and lecturer, she had never seen one of these quilts, only heard lore of them around the quilt frame. Her friend Grace Daniels, a master quilter and museum curator, had once told her that not only had no one ever documented a map quilt from the era, no slave narrative or Abolitionist testimonial she had read mentioned one.
Sylvia respected Grace’s expertise, and yet, in the stillness of her own heart, she yearned for the folklore to be true. Within her own family, a tale had been handed down through the generations about a quilt used to signal to fugitive slaves. Folklore carried a stronger ring of truth when one loved and trusted the person who spoke it.
But now, torn between her memories and the questions Margaret Alden’s quilt raised, Sylvia would need more than folklore and family histories to discern the truth. She needed evidence only Elm Creek Manor could provide.
Andrew and Sylvia preferred to drive at a leisurely pace, so it wasn’t until several days after the encounter with Margaret Alden that they pulled off the freeway and headed down the two-lane road past picturesque farms and rolling, forested hills toward home. Sylvia sighed with happiness when they turned onto a gravel road that wound its way through a familiar leafy wood. Before long, Elm Creek came into view, marking the southern border of the estate.
When the road forked, Andrew stayed to the left, following the road that led to the parking lot at the rear entrance of the manor. The right fork would have taken them over a narrow bridge and across a vast lawn up to the front entrance–a more grand approach, especially for visitors, but impractical for Andrew’s ocean liner on wheels. Before long the creek wound north and disappeared from sight, but the road continued west for a little way before turning north.
The wood gave way to a clearing. To the left was the orchard, where several women strolled among the apple trees. They waved as the motor home passed, and Sylvia waved merrily back. Ahead and to the right stood the two-story red barn built into the side of a hill. Sylvia’s gaze locked on it.
“It’s an accurate picture,” said Andrew, meaning the pattern of stitches in Margaret’s quilt. His words echoed Sylvia’s own thoughts, but she merely nodded, unwilling to commit herself.
Just beyond the barn, the path crossed a low bridge over Elm Creek and widened into a driveway lined by tall elms. Then, at last, the manor itself came into view, its gray stone walls solid and welcoming. It was three stories tall–not counting the attic–and L-shaped, with black shutters and black woodwork along the eaves. Four stone stairs led to the back door, and as the motor home pulled into the parking lot, Sylvia watched as women bustled in and out.
“My goodness,” said Sylvia. “It certainly is busy around here this morning. Isn’t anyone in class?”
“You forget how many more campers you have these days,” said Andrew.
“Only fifty each week.”
“Yes, but your first year, you had only twelve. No wonder it looks like you have a crowd milling around.”
No wonder, indeed. What would her sister think if she could see how their family estate had been transformed? More than fifty years before, grief and anger had driven Sylvia away from her family home and into estrangement from her elder sister. Only after Claudia’s death had Sylvia returned, intending to prepare the manor for sale rather than live there haunted by reminders of departed loved ones. She never imagined that hiring Sarah McClure as her assistant would force her to face all those old resentments and painful truths about her own mistakes. Elm Creek Quilts had been Sarah’s vision and Sylvia’s lifeline, for turning the estate into a retreat for quilters had made the halls ring with laughter and happiness as they had not for decades. Now Sylvia knew that, except for her occasional jaunts with Andrew, she would live out her days on the estate her ancestors had founded. She knew this was exactly as it should be, and her heart was full of gratitude for the friends who had made this second chance possible.
Eager for the company of these friends, Sylvia kissed Andrew on the cheek and hurried inside while he remained behind to look over the motor home. Sarah met her at the back door and greeted her with a hug. Sarah launched into a description of the week’s events, but Sylvia’s news would not wait. “Sarah, dear,” she interrupted, “I have a special favor to ask of you. Would you join me in the attic, please?”
They began the search that afternoon.
Throughout the drive from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, Sylvia’s thoughts had returned again and again to her Great-Aunt Lucinda’s stories and the trunk she had described more than seventy years before. Somewhere among the dust and clutter of four generations there was a cherry hope chest with engraved brass fastenings, and in it–if Lucinda’s stories were true–was a quilt Great-Grandmother Anneke had made.
Sylvia had always meant to find that quilt, but her long exile had made the search impossible, and upon her return, the improbability of finding it had been so daunting that she had put off the task. Even Grace Daniels’s persistent requests to study the quilt had not been motivation enough. Now everything had changed. She did not know if Anneke’s quilt could prove or disprove a connection between Margaret’s quilt and Elm Creek Manor, but if it existed–and Sylvia refused to believe it did not–it might at least provide evidence that the manor had been a station on the Underground Railroad. Sylvia would be willing to acknowledge whatever other, more distant relations had done if she could first be certain her own direct ancestors had played a more noble role.
But after climbing the narrow, creaking staircase and surveying the attic, Sylvia knew that finding the trunk would be difficult, if not impossible, even with Sarah’s help. The shorter, older west wing lay to her right, and the longer, newer south wing stretched out before her. Up here the seam joining old and new was more evident than below, the colors of the walls subtly different, the floor not quite even. Little visible evidence betrayed that fact, as the belongings of four generations of her family covered nearly every square foot of floor space.
“Four generations, and not one individual could be spared to tidy the attic,” said Sylvia, her voice lost in the vast space. “Until me.” Still, she was pleased her ancestors had left so much of themselves behind. She only hoped Great-Grandmother Anneke had not been the one exception to the family rule.
“We’ll find it,” said Sarah. She chose the nearest pile of stacked items and began. “But we’ll save time if we leave tidying up for later.”
Sylvia agreed and set herself to work. They could spare only a couple of hours before camp duties summoned them downstairs, but after the evening program, they resumed the search. Matt Sarah’s husband and the estate’s caretaker, joined them, moving heavy loads Sylvia and Sarah had been unable to budge, but promising leads turned repeatedly into dead ends. By the time Sylvia went to bed that night, she had begun to suspect that the search could take much longer than she had anticipated.
All week Sylvia and Sarah stole moments from their busy days to ransack cartons and uncover old furniture, all in vain. They found trunks, to be sure–dozens of them, full of historic mementos, or so a cursory examination hinted, but Anneke’s hope chest eluded them. Sylvia had never been a particularly patient woman, but each day’s frustrations only made her more determined to keep looking.
It didn’t do her temper any good that Sarah squandered valuable time digging through trunks that didn’t meet the description, marveling over an antique toy or portrait, uncovering the hidden treasures Sylvia, too, was tempted to study. Nor did the tenacious July heat, or the dust they stirred up as they worked, or Sarah’s shrieks at the discovery of yet another spider.
On one particularly humid Friday afternoon, Sarah dared to voice the same question that had been nagging Sylvia. “Are you sure the trunk is even up here?”
Sylvia refused to hear her discouragement. “If you want to quit, go ahead.”
“It’s not that–”
“No, go on. I’m sure you have more important things to do than help me.”
Without a word, Sarah left, rebuking Sylvia with her silence. Sylvia continued on alone, ashamed, but too proud to go downstairs and apologize for her short temper.
Sensing progress in the increasing age of the artifacts she uncovered, for another hour she resisted thirst and fatigue until she was forced to admit that even her strong will was no match for the stifling conditions. She decided to return after the campers’ evening program, when nightfall would bring restful quiet and cool breezes to Elm Creek Manor.
She left the attic assuring herself she would find the trunk that night or some day soon thereafter, but darkness seemed to foster doubt. Perhaps her memory had failed her, or Great-Aunt Lucinda’s had failed her. Or maybe Lucinda’s tale had been nothing more than a fiction meant to amuse a young girl. Of all the possibilities, that was the one Sylvia dreaded most. She couldn’t bear it if the stories of Elm Creek Manor that had sustained her throughout her long absence turned out to be false. At one time, they were all she had had to remind her of home and the family she had left behind.
She picked up the search where she had left off earlier that day and soon forgot her exhaustion and the late hour. Only a small portion of the attic remained to be searched, a far corner of the west wing where the ceiling sloped so low Sylvia could not stand upright. Her grandparents might have used the chair that now sat covered in dust before her; some unknown aunt or cousin might have sewn a wedding gown on the treadle sewing machine now rusted and missing its belt. Melancholy colored her thoughts, and she forced herself to admit that even if Lucinda’s story were true, the chest with its contents might have been lost to the fire that had destroyed part of the manor in her father’s youth, or sold off like so many other heirlooms when the family’s fortunes waned. So many misfortunes could have befallen it–
But perhaps none had after all, she thought, as she glimpsed beneath a film of dust a trunk made from cherry and brass.
She braced herself for the resistance of weight, but the trunk was surprisingly light. Quickly she pulled it into the open and brushed off as much dust as she could, for if a quilt were inside, she would not wish to soil it. Then she seated herself on the floor and studied it, reaching into her pocket for the key Great-Aunt Lucinda had given her decades before. Sylvia had saved the key more in remembrance of her great-aunt than from any certain plan to find the key it fit, but now she knew there was only one way to discover if Great-aunt Lucinda’s stories were true.
After a moment’s hesitation, Sylvia fit the key into the lock.
It turned easily, but the lid was more reluctant to cooperate, and only after several minutes of wrangling did it open with a groan. Sylvia scarcely noticed the odors of stale air and aged cloth, for within the trunk she spied a folded bundle wrapped in a sheet of unbleached muslin. Carefully she picked it up, and knew at once from its texture and thickness that it was a quilt.
Her breath caught in her throat. The protective sheet bore signs of age and decay. She never should have neglected the trunk so long. If she had come sooner she could have stored the quilt properly. She could blame only herself for a good half-century of its deterioration.
Praying that the quilt itself was in better condition than the muslin cover, she gently unwrapped it and unfolded it upon her lap.
And there it was, the Log Cabin quilt she half-feared existed only in Lucinda’s imagination.
The blocks looked to be about seven inches square, arranged in fourteen rows of ten blocks each. Sylvia’s first glance took in shirting flannels and chintzes, calicoes and velvets–the scraps of worn clothing, no doubt. The scraps had been cut in rectangles of various sizes and pieced in an interlocking fashion around a central square, light fabrics placed on one side of a diagonal, dark fabrics on the other. The blocks were arranged in a Barn Raising setting so that the overall pattern was one of concentric diamonds, alternately light and dark, just as Lucinda’s description had foretold. And to Sylvia’s amazement and gratitude, the central squares of each Log Cabin block were black.
Sylvia stroked the quilt reverently, hardly daring to believe what she held in her arms. According to tradition, the central square in a Log Cabin quilt should be red, to symbolize the hearth, or yellow, to represent a light in the window. According to folklore, however, in the ante-bellum United States, a Log Cabin quilt with a black center square was a signal to slaves escaping north along the Underground Railroad, a sign indicating sanctuary. As a child Sylvia had listened eagerly to Lucinda’s story of how Great-Grandmother Anneke Bergstrom’s Log Cabin quilt with the black center squares had welcomed fugitive slaves into the safe haven of Elm Creek Manor. This quilt provided the evidence she needed to document this important part of her family history.
“Not quite,” said Sylvia aloud, pursing her lips and scrutinizing the quilt. For all she knew, this quilt had been completed decades after the Civil War. Lucinda had always had an odd sense of humor. She could have pieced the quilt herself and left it in the attic for the young Sylvia to find, never imagining Sylvia wouldn’t discover it until Lucinda was beyond explaining the joke. The fabrics resembled those Sylvia had seen in other quilts of that period, but until a knowledgeable appraiser inspected the quilt, she had no more proof than before she opened the trunk.
She folded the quilt with care, and, setting it aside, was about to return the muslin sheet to the trunk when she saw that the Log Cabin quilt had concealed two other muslin-cloaked bundles, one considerably smaller than the Log Cabin quilt, the other approximately the same size.
Sylvia immediately took up the smaller bundle, hardly daring to hope that she would find more quilts sewn by her Great-Grandmother Anneke’s hands. In a moment the muslin sheet was on the floor beside her, revealing the age-weathered back of a second quilt. “Such an embarrassment of riches,” murmured Sylvia as she turned it over.
Then, as the pattern appeared, she sat back against a stack of cartons, stunned.
“Birds in the Air,” she murmured. It was impossible, but she couldn’t deny the evidence she held in her own hands. The quilt that lay before her used the exact same block pattern as Margaret Alden’s quilt. Only the arrangement of the individual blocks on the quilt top differed; whereas the blocks in Margaret’s quilt were placed on the diagonal, this quilt used a straight setting, with the squares arranged in neat horizontal rows. This quilt was much smaller than Margaret’s, too, and although it certainly looked antique, with the wear and tear of hard use and lye soap all too evident, it was in far better condition. Still, Sylvia could not dismiss the use of the Birds in the Air pattern as mere coincidence.
She studied the quilt for a long moment before carefully folding it and setting it on top of the Log Cabin. Then, with great deliberation, she reached into the trunk for the third bundle. Slowly, as if to prepare herself for yet another unsettling surprise, she unwrapped the muslin sheet, unfolded the quilt within–
–and stared in astonishment at what fell from the folds and tumbled to the attic floor.
“My goodness.” It was a book, its unmarked brown leather cover cracked with age. Mystified, she carefully opened the slim volume, wary of worsening the damage, only to discover pages covered in graceful script.
Without her glasses, and in the dim light of the attic, she could not make out the words so elegantly written, but the shorter lines and numerals heading some of the pages suggested dates. A journal. It had to be. A journal, most likely Great-Grandmother Anneke’s, hidden away within the folds of her most precious quilt. Sylvia clasped the book to her chest, forgetting her concerns about the Birds in the Air pattern in the growing awareness of her good fortune, and feared, for just a moment, that she was dreaming.
Quickly she gathered up the quilts and carried them down two flights of stairs to her bedroom suite on the second floor. She placed her treasures on the large chair beside her bed, put on her glasses, and took the journal into her sitting room, where she turned on the bright lamp beside her sewing machine and sat down. She caught her breath, then opened the journal to the first page.
October 2, 1895
Autumn has come again to Elm Creek, and I, too, am in the autumn of my years.
My history has barely begun, and already my pride has bested me, for I know all too well that I have long since passed into winter. If I cannot be honest about such a small matter of vanity, how can I hope to be forthright about the harder truths, which few but I remain alive to remember? Yet I must be honest, not merely for the sake of my own soul, but to honor the memory of those whom I love–those whom I loved even as they betrayed me, and she I came to love as she deserved only after she was betrayed.
I do not know for whom I write these words. They cannot be for my own eyes, which are failing me, for the memories burn too strongly in my heart for me ever to forget them. They cannot be for my descendants, for I have none living. Even so, the Bergstrom family endures in America, and shall endure, both in name and in truth. Anneke has seen to that.
If she knew I spoke within these pages, she would beg me to be silent, to protect her children, and their children. She would say the future generations of Bergstroms will not thank me for my frankness, and if others discover the truths we have all pledged to conceal, they would surely destroy us. But I remain hopeful, despite all I have witnessed since coming to this land of freedom, this land of contradictions, and I hold fast to the belief that we owe a greater duty to Truth than to our own earthly comfort. They are not my children or grandchildren who will suffer, so perhaps it is true that I do not fully comprehend the burden my tale will place upon them. But who among us knows how our choices will affect generations yet unborn?
Reader, if you bear the name Bergstrom, know first that you came from strong, proud people, and that it is for you I write, for if we can bequeath you nothing else, we must make you the heir of our truths, for good or ill. Know this first, and read on.
Sylvia read the passage again, slowly, underlining it with her finger. The graceful script had faltered near the end, as if written by a hand trembling with fear or anger. Or did she only imagine it so, shocked as she was by the words themselves?
Anneke could not have written those lines, that much was clear. But who, then, was the author? Surely not Hans; surely he would not have written such things about his beloved wife. The handwriting seemed feminine. Gerda, then? Was this the journal of Hans’s sister? But it seemed more like a memoir than a journal, something written after the outcome of events was known rather than recorded day by day, as they were happening. The author had had time to reflect, to consider the effects of her words, and of her silence.
Then Sylvia had a disturbing thought: The family histories said little of Gerda after her arrival in America and the laying of the cornerstone of Elm Creek Manor. Was it possible that Gerda was the hypothetical ancestor who had left Elm Creek Manor to become the owner of slaves in the south? Was Margaret Alden’s quilt her handiwork? How, then, did her journal come to be here, in the attic of Elm Creek Manor with Anneke’s quilts, rather than in South Carolina?
Those whom I loved even as they betrayed me, Gerda had written. Whom did she mean? Not Hans and Anneke. It was incomprehensible that they would have betrayed her, and yet, if they had been on opposite sides of the Civil War…
Future generations of Bergstroms will not thank me for my frankness.
Sylvia closed the book and set it on her sewing machine. Her pleasure upon finding Anneke’s trunk had transformed in a matter of moments into foreboding.
Gerda’s words haunted Sylvia as she tried to sleep. She woke at daybreak, restless and troubled, and her gaze fell upon the quilts she had left on the chair beside her bed. She had not even bothered to examine the third quilt, so captivated had she been by the journal.
She rose and made her bed, then spread the Birds in the Air quilt upon it. In the bright light of day, the deterioration seemed worse than she remembered. Some of the triangular pieces had entirely disintegrated, and the binding around the edges hung loose, where it remained at all. The quilting stitches were straight and even, pleasing though unremarkable in their layout, a simple cross-hatch of diagonal lines in each block.
“I should look as good after a century and a half,” remarked Sylvia, amused at her instinct to critique. This was obviously a utilitarian quilt, well used and no doubt well loved–and by a child, judging by the quilt’s small dimensions. The faded colors had been vibrant once, the worn pieces whole and sound and strong. Sylvia found herself admiring the little quilt, and liking the long-ago quiltmaker whose matter-of-factness and pragmatism appeared in every frugal scrap and solid stitch.
Compared to the Birds in the Air quilt, the Log Cabin seemed remarkably well preserved. A few small holes along several seams appeared to be the result of the quiltmaker’s large stitches rather than the consequence of heavy usage, and the blurring of the fabric print seemed due to time rather than frequent washing. Frowning, Sylvia studied the quilt from different angles, wondering if it had ever even covered a bed. Families often set aside a special quilt to be used only infrequently by guests, but those quilts were typically the finest in the household. While this quilt had probably been quite comfortable in its day, it was simply not as elegant or as finely made as one would expect for a quilt reserved for company. Perhaps the quiltmaker had rarely used it because she had been disappointed with it–or perhaps she had used it often but had taken especially good care of it because it was her first effort, and thus had great sentimental value. Sylvia didn’t suppose she would ever know for certain.
Her curiosity whetted, Sylvia carefully unfolded the third quilt and laid it beside the others. It was slightly larger than the Log Cabin quilt, and Sylvia soon found fabrics identical to those in the Birds in the Air quilt. That suggested the same hands had pieced both, but Sylvia wasn’t convinced. The pattern, four-patches in a vertical strip set, seemed no more complex than the Birds in the Air or Log Cabin, but only at first glance. By alternating the background fabric in adjacent rows, the quilter had created dark and light stripes, as well as a more difficult project, one with more seams to match and bias edges that might have stretched out of place if she had not been careful. And while the three layers were held together by simple concentric curves, the stitches themselves were smaller and finer, often seeming to disappear into the surface, as if the quilt had been etched with a feather.
Perhaps the Log Cabin and Birds in the Air quilts had been made earlier, and the third years later, after the quiltmaker had improved her skills. There was no way to say for certain, unless Gerda had written about the quilts in her journal.
Behind her, a knock sounded on the door leading to the hallway. “Sylvia?”
“Just a moment.” Sylvia couldn’t resist a quick glance in the mirror as she pulled on her robe. Her hair needed combing, but Andrew knew what she looked like, and he seemed to like her anyway. She opened the door to find him dressed in neatly pressed slacks and a golf shirt. “Well, don’t you look dapper this morning.”
The compliment clearly pleased him. “And you look pretty, as always.”
Sylvia laughed as he kissed her cheek. “You say that because you aren’t wearing your glasses.”
“I say it because it’s true.” He looked past her to the quilts on her bed. “What’s that you have there?”
“Anneke’s quilts.” She beckoned him inside. “Or so I believe. I’ll need Grace to examine them before I know for certain.”
Andrew nodded, studying the quilts. “But she can’t know for sure who made them, right? She’ll only be able to tell you how old they are.”
“Hmph.” Sylvia gave him a sharp look, which she knew he noticed, although he pretended not to. “Spoilsport. If I know how old they are, then I’ll know who made them. Why would Anneke keep someone else’s quilts in her attic? Honestly, Andrew.”
He merely shrugged and grinned, used to her moods and her sharp tongue. Sometimes she suspected he baited her for the enjoyment of watching her temper flare, but she liked him too much to stay indignant long. “I suppose you’re right,” admitted Sylvia. “But perhaps Anneke’s sister-in-law will identify the quilter.”
She returned to the sitting room for the journal, and as Andrew examined it, her eagerness to read the book rekindled. All her life she had wondered about Hans and Anneke Bergstrom, the first of her ancestors to come to the United States. Now part of their history–Gerda’s thoughts in her own words–had been given to her. She told Andrew how she had found it, and was about to show him the troubling passage she had read the previous night when she noticed the time. She ushered Andrew from the room, promising to meet him downstairs for the Farewell Breakfast.
She readied herself quickly, unwilling to be late for one of her favorite parts of quilt camp. Since Sunday afternoon, the latest group of quilters had enjoyed classes, lectures, and fellowship with new friends and old, and it wouldn’t do to simply send them packing when the week of camp concluded. Instead the campers and staff gathered on the cornerstone patio for one last meal together. After breakfast, they would sit in a circle, as they had seven days earlier for the Candlelight welcome ceremony. This time, each quilter would show off a project she had worked on that week and share a favorite memory of her stay at Elm Creek Manor. For Sylvia, their stories were one of the most gratifying rewards of the business. The campers’ stories never failed to amuse or surprise her, and she was pleased to discover anew how much Elm Creek Quilt Camp meant to her guests.
Listening to their stories out on the gray stone patio made Sylvia treasure them even more. Surrounded by evergreens and perennials, the patio lay just outside what had once been the main entrance to Elm Creek Manor, back in the days of Hans and Anneke. Tree branches hid the cornerstone with its engraved “Bergstrom 1858” that had given the patio its name, but Sylvia thought of the marker each time she came there, and remembered how the patio had been her mother’s favorite place on the estate.
By the time she arrived, the fifty campers and some of her teachers and other staff had already begun breakfast, laughing and chatting one last time together. One of these years we’re going to outgrow the patio, reflected Sylvia as she returned the quilters’ greetings. They might have to move to the north gardens or eat in shifts. The business had grown more rapidly than any of the Elm Creek Quilters had imagined, and what once had been a small camp operated by eight friends had become a thriving company with more than twice the employees and four times the campers of their inaugural year. Sylvia had retired from the day-to-day operations after her stroke nearly two years before, but she knew Sarah and her codirector, Summer Sullivan, valued her opinion and would continue to include her in the major decisions the company encountered.
Sylvia valued their opinions as well, which was why she couldn’t explain her reluctance to tell them she had found Anneke’s hope chest. Instead she joined in the Farewell Breakfast activities and later bid the campers goodbye as if her only concern was that they had enjoyed themselves, would tell all their friends about Elm Creek Quilt Camp, and would return next year.
When the manor was empty of all but its permanent residents, Sylvia returned to her room and studied the quilts. Then, abruptly, she decided to put them away, making the excuse that it was to minimize their exposure to light. She carefully refolded the quilts along different lines rather than return the stress to the seams and patches that had born the burden for more than a century.
She then placed the quilts and the journal deep in the back of her closet and shut the door on them as if she could blot Gerda’s words from her memory.
That evening, Sylvia had an unsettling dream about Lucinda. In it, she was a little girl again, sitting on the footstool beside her great-aunt’s chair as Lucinda pieced a LeMoyne Star block.
“Your great-grandmother Anneke wanted the fugitives to know they would be safe here,” said Lucinda as her needle darted in and out of the fabric, joining two diamond-shaped scraps. “They needed a signal, one that the escaping slaves would recognize, but the slave catchers would ignore.”
“So she made a quilt?” prompted Sylvia, who had heard the story many times.
Lucinda nodded. “A Log Cabin quilt with black squares where the red or yellow squares belonged. You see, slave catchers thought they knew what signals to look for, so they paid no attention to a quilt hanging out to dry. But the escaping slaves did. They would cross Elm Creek to throw the dogs off their scent, and hide in the woods until Great-Grandmother Anneke hung this special quilt on the clothesline. That told them it was safe to come inside.”
Suddenly Lucinda set down her quilting and said, “I have something to show you.” She took an object from her pocket and lifted Sylvia onto her lap. “Something secret, something you mustn’t share with anyone, not even your sister or your cousins. Will you promise?”
Sylvia quickly did, and Lucinda placed a slender brass key in her hands. “Somewhere up in the attic,” said Lucinda, “in the hope chest she brought over from Germany, Great-Grandmother Anneke hid her Log Cabin quilt. This key opens the trunk.”
“Why would she hide her quilt?” asked Sylvia, turning the key over in her hands.
“To keep its secrets safe.”
“From who? The slave catchers?”
“From whomever might use them to hurt the people she loved.” Her great-aunt fell silent for a moment. “One day it will be safe to tell those secrets. Maybe you will be the one to tell. Or maybe your granddaughter. I don’t think my mother wanted those secrets kept forever.”
“Do you know what the secrets are?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
But Lucinda merely smiled and busied herself with her sewing.
That was where the dream ended, the dream that was really a memory. But the memory had never unsettled Sylvia until she read the troubling words in Gerda’s book. Sylvia had assumed the secrets were about the Underground Railroad, but now she suspected something more lay behind Gerda’s decision to hide the quilts away and to record her secrets in a journal. Why had Lucinda trusted only Sylvia with the key to the trunk? And why had Gerda’s journal not found its way into Lucinda’s stories?
She woke several hours before dawn, brooding and unable to fall back asleep.
She dragged herself downstairs to breakfast in the kitchen, for on Sunday mornings, in the absence of the campers, they preferred the more intimate space to the banquet hall. She seated herself, bidding good morning to Sarah, Matt, and her own dear Andrew, who knew at a glance something troubled her. She patted his hand, a silent message that she was all right and would explain later, and fixed a smile to disguise her inner turmoil.
But she couldn’t fool Sarah. “What’s wrong?” asked the younger woman in an undertone as they left the kitchen after the meal. “You seem upset.”
Sylvia regarded her fondly. In the years Sylvia had known her, Sarah had changed so much, but that core of compassion and frankness had always been present, and had grown with the passing of time. It was difficult now to remember that when they first met, Sylvia had found Sarah self-absorbed and unduly dissatisfied with her life. Elm Creek Quilts had been good for Sarah, allowing her to truly shine, to learn the great extent of her gifts. Ever since Sylvia’s stroke, when Sarah had been forced to shoulder the greatest burden of day-to-day camp operations, she had transformed from an awkward, somewhat flighty girl into a confident, self-possessed woman.
Sylvia loved Sarah like a daughter. She owed her nothing less, as Sarah had befriended her after her long, self-imposed exile from her family home, and had saved Elm Creek Manor by proposing they create a quilters’ retreat there. But she had come to love her fellow Elm Creek Quilter Summer Sullivan, too, and when Sylvia compared the two young women–which she knew she shouldn’t do–she couldn’t help thinking of herself and her elder sister. Claudia, the prettier and more pleasant of the two, had been admired and adored by all, unlike Sylvia, with her moods and tempers. Recalling her and Claudia’s bitter sibling rivalry, Sylvia had feared jealousy might ruin the friendship between Sarah and Summer, especially when Summer had assumed a position nearly equal to Sarah’s with Elm Creek Quilts. To her relief, Sarah and Summer proved themselves to be of stronger character than the two Bergstrom daughters. Sarah preferred to operate behind the scenes, working tirelessly on countless financial and managerial tasks, and never minded that Summer, with her more public role directing the teachers and activities, became the appealing face for the company. Neither envied the other her role or thought her own–or herself–superior.
“I’m not upset,” answered Sylvia finally, regretting, as she had for most of her life, that she and her sister had not been friends. Gerda’s cryptic remark in the journal hinted that Anneke had known her share of familial conflicts, too, although all the family tales of her and Hans portrayed them with virtues bordering on heroism. It would not be easy to relinquish those golden tales for the truth, but Sylvia wanted her real family, not idealized heroes.
The longer the ideal remained, the easier it would be to let it linger.
“What’s bothering you, then?” asked Sarah.
“Come upstairs with me,” said Sylvia. “I have something to show you.”
Chiaverini’s fourth offering in her Elm Creek Quilts series weaves a modern-day family mystery around a pre-Civil War tale of bravery, deception and the Underground Railroad… Chiaverini manages to impart a healthy dollop of history in a folksy style, while raising moral questions in a suspenseful narrative.
— Publisher’s Weekly
Jennifer Chiaverini brings a new depth and maturity to THE RUNAWAY QUILT, her best book yet. Whether you believe quilts were used to signal passengers on the underground railroad, you’ll know that the original residents of Elm Creek Manor used the products of their hearts and hands to aid runaway slaves.
— Sandra Dallas, author of THE PERSIAN PICKLE CLUB and ALICE’S TULIPS
THE RUNAWAY QUILT is a fascinating tale, exploring women’s roles in our past and present. Jennifer Chiaverini will surely garner a large audience with this one.
— Jo-Ann Mapson, author of BAD GIRL CREEK and ALONG CAME MARY
The latest in the Elm Creek Quilt series explores the lore surrounding the use of quilts to signal runaway slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. Sylvia Compson, owner of Elm Creek Farm and the last of the Bergstrom family line, is intrigued when a quilting student shows her a quilt that complicates the family legend of her ancestors’ involvement in the Underground Railroad. She finds old quilts hidden away in the attic, accompanied by a memoir written by Gerda, the spinster sister of the Bergstrom patriarch. The quilts and the memoir raise questions about the Bergstrom family’s history that trouble and intrigue Sylvia. Chiaverini switches between passages in Gerda’s memoir and current-day events at Elm Creek Farm, including genealogical and historical research, taking the reader back and forth between the present and the past to reveal a long-forgotten family secret. Fans of the three previous Elm Creek Quilts novels will enjoy this latest installment.