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CATHARINE RAY: A WINTRY LOVE They first meet around Christmastime 1754 while he is inspecting New England's postal network. He is 48 and at the peak of his scientific glory; she is 23, vivacious, opinionated and uninhibited. Basking in his attentions on a visit to Boston from her home on Block Island, off the Rhode Island coast, Catharine Ray chatters away. She makes him sugar plums, which he pronounces better than any he has ever tasted. A few days later, they set off for Rhode Island. It is a wintry journey marked by "a wrong road and a soaking shower" and an icy hill that has their horses stumbling so badly they are "no more able to stand than if they had been shod on skates," he later recalls. But they talk for hours on end, mutually smitten. Back in Philadelphia, he responds to her first letter with rhapsody and rue: the northeast wind "is the gaiest wind," he writes, because it brought her promised kisses mingled with snowflakes, as "pure as your virgin innocence, white as your lovely bosom..."
Catharine's ardor rises. "Absence rather increases than lessens my affections," she writes. But by now Franklin senses all this may be going too far, and he retreats to an avuncular tone, advising her to marry and surround herself with "clusters of plump, juicy, blushing, pretty little rogues like their Mama."
And that is just what Catharine does. By their next meeting, she is Mrs. William Greene Jr., wife of Rhode Island's future Governor and mother of the first two of their six children. She and Franklin will always remain friends, remembering their wintry interlude.
POLLY STEVENSON: A SECOND DAUGHTER When Franklin returns to Britain in 1757 as a political agent of the American colonies, he moves into a four-story town house near London's busy Strand. Its owner: a solicitous widow named Margaret Stevenson, with whom he may have had an affair during his 15 years under her roof. But Franklin's real interest is her brainy daughter Mary, who went by the nickname Polly. Only 18 years old when she first enters his life, she shows such an eagerness to learn that it stirs all his strong mentoring instincts.
When she leaves London to live with an aunt in the country, they begin an extraordinary correspondence. It covers the full breadth of moral and natural philosophy. Always prim but also refreshingly direct, Polly poses her questions--about barometers, insects, river tides, electrical storms--and he responds in the flattering style he inevitably uses with young women who catch his eye. He ends one dense six-page tract, for example, by musing how he might sign off to so receptive a mind as hers. "I had rather conclude abruptly with what pleases me more than any Compliment can please you, that I am allow'd to subscribe myself Your affectionate Friend."