Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 20

   

She squinted up at me, nodding slowly.

“It’ll do for fit, and the bit o’ piping’s good; brings out the color in your cheeks. But begging your pardon, madame, you do need something above the neck, not to look too bare. If you won’t have a cap nor a wig, might be you’d have a ribbon?”

“Oh, ribbon!” I said, remembering. “Yes, what a good idea. Do look in my basket over there, and you’ll find a length that might just do.”

Between us we managed to get my hair piled up, loosely bound with the length of dark pink ribbon, damp curly tendrils coming down—I couldn’t stop them—around my ears and brow.

“Not too much mutton dressed as lamb, is it?” I asked, suddenly worried. I smoothed a hand down the front of the bodice, but it fit snugly—and trimly—around my waist.

“Oh, no, madame,” the sempstress assured me. “Quite appropriate, and I say it myself.” She frowned at me, calculating. “Only it is a bit bare over the bosom, still. You haven’t any jewelry, at all?”

“Just this.” We turned in surprise as Jamie ducked his head to come in the door; neither of us had heard him coming.

He had somewhere managed to have a bath and procure a clean shirt and neckcloth; beyond that, someone had combed and plaited his hair into a smooth queue, bound with the new blue silk ribbon. His serviceable coat had not only been brushed, but improved by the application of a set of silver-gilt buttons, each delicately engraved with a small flower in the center.

“Very nice,” I said, touching one.

“Rented from the goldsmith,” he said. “But they’ll do. So will this, I think.” He drew out a filthy handkerchief from his pocket, from the folds of which he produced a slender gold chain.

“He hadna time for any but the simplest mount,” he said, frowning in concentration as he fastened the chain around my neck. “But I think that’s best, don’t you?”

The ruby hung glinting just above the hollow of my br**sts, casting a pale rosy glow against my white skin.

“I’m glad you picked that one,” I said, touching the stone gently. It was warm from his body. “Goes much better with the dress than the sapphire or the emerald would.” The sempstress’s jaw hung slightly open. She glanced from me to Jamie, her impression of our social position evidently going up by leaps and bounds.

Jamie had finally taken time to notice the rest of my costume. His eyes traveled slowly over me from head to hem, and a smile spread across his face.

“Ye make a verra ornamental jewel box, Sassenach,” he said. “A fine distraction, aye?”

He glanced out the window, where a pale peach color stained a hazy evening sky, then turned to me, bowed and made a leg. “Might I claim the pleasure of your company for dinner, madame?”

7

GREAT PROSPECTS FRAUGHT WITH PERIL

While I was familiar with the eighteenth-century willingness to eat anything that could be physically overpowered and dragged to the table, I did not subscribe to the mania for presenting wild dishes as though they had not in fact undergone the intermediary processes of being killed and cooked before making their appearance at dinner.

I thus viewed the large sturgeon with which I sat eyeball-to-eyeball with a marked lack of appetite. Complete not only with eyes but with scales, fins, and tail, the three-foot fish rode majestically on waves of roe in aspic, decorated with a vast quantity of tiny spiced crabs, which had been boiled whole and scattered artistically over the platter.

I took another large sip of wine and turned to my dinner companion, trying to keep my eyes off the bulging glare of the sturgeon by my elbow.

“…the most impertinent fellow!” Mr. Stanhope was saying, by way of describing a gentleman he had encountered in a post-house whilst on his way to Wilmington from his property near New Bern.

“Why, in the very midst of our refreshment, he began to speak of his piles, and what torment they caused him with the coach’s continual bouncing. And then damme if the crude fellow did not pull his kerchief out of his pocket, all spotted with blood, to show the company by way of evidence! Quite destroyed my appetite, ma’am, I assure you,” he assured me, forking up a substantial mouthful of chicken fricassee. He chewed it slowly, regarding me with pale, bulging eyes that reminded me uncomfortably of the sturgeon’s.

Across the table, Phillip Wylie’s long mouth twitched with amusement.

“Take care your conversation doesn’t incur a similar effect, Stanhope,” he said, with a nod at my untouched plate. “Though a certain crudeness of company is one of the perils of public transport, I do admit.”

Stanhope sniffed, brushing crumbs from the folds of his neckcloth.

“Needn’t put on airs, Wylie. It’s not everyone can afford to keep a coachman, ’specially not with all these fresh taxes. New one stuck on every time one turns around, I do declare!” He waved his fork indignantly. “Tobacco, wine, brandy, all very well, but a tax upon newspapers, have you heard the like? Why, my sister’s oldest boy was awarded a degree from Yale University a year past”—he puffed his chest unconsciously, speaking just slightly louder than usual—“and damned if she was not required to pay half a shilling, merely to have his diploma officially stamped!”

“But that is no longer the case at present,” Cousin Edwin said patiently. “Since the repeal of the Stamp Act—”

Stanhope plucked one of the tiny crabs from the platter and brandished it at Edwin in accusation.

“Get rid of one tax, and another pops up in its place directly. Just like mushrooms!” He popped the crab into his mouth and was heard to mumble something indistinctly about taxing the air next, he shouldn’t wonder.

“You are come but recently from the Indies, I understand, Madame Fraser?” Baron Penzler, on my other side, seized the momentary opportunity to interrupt. “I doubt you will be familiar with such provincial matters—or interested in them,” he added, with a nod of benevolent dismissal at Stanhope.

“Oh, surely everyone is interested in taxes,” I said, turning slightly sideways so as to display my bosom to best effect. “Or don’t you believe that taxes are what we pay for a civilized society? Though having heard Mr. Stanhope’s story”—I nodded to my other side—“perhaps he would agree that the level of civilization isn’t quite equal to the level of taxation?”

“Ha ha!” Stanhope choked on his bread, spewing crumbs. “Oh, very good! Not equal to—ha ha, no, certainly not!”

Phillip Wylie gave me a look of sardonic acknowledgment.

“You must try not to be so amusing, Mrs. Fraser,” he said. “It may be the death of poor Stanhope.”

“Er…what is the current rate of taxation, do you think?” I asked, tactfully drawing attention away from Stanhope’s spluttering.

Wylie pursed his lips, considering. A dandy, he wore the latest in modish wigs, and a small patch in the shape of a star beside his mouth. Under the powder, though, I thought I detected both a good-looking face and a very shrewd brain.

“Oh, considering all incidentals, I should say it can amount to as much as two per centum of all income, if one was to include the taxes on slaves. Add taxes on lands and crops, and it amounts to a bit more, perhaps.”

“Two percent!” Stanhope choked, pounding himself on the chest. “Iniquitous! Simply iniquitous!”

With vivid memories of the last IRS form I had signed, I agreed sympathetically that a two percent tax rate was a positive outrage, wondering to myself just what had become of the fiery spirit of American taxpayers over the intervening two hundred years.

“But perhaps we should change the subject,” I said, seeing that heads were beginning to turn in our direction from the upper end of the table. “After all, speaking of taxes at the Governor’s table is rather like talking of rope in the house of the hanged, isn’t it?”

At this, Mr. Stanhope swallowed a crab whole, and choked in good earnest.

His partner on the other side pounded him helpfully on the back, and the small black boy who had been occupied in swatting flies near the open windows was sent hastily to fetch water. I marked out a sharp, slender knife by the fish platter, just in case, though I hoped I shouldn’t be compelled to perform a tracheotomy on the spot; it wasn’t the kind of attention I was hoping to attract.

Luckily such drastic measures weren’t required; the crab was disgorged by a fortunate slap, leaving the victim empurpled and gasping, but otherwise unharmed.

“Someone had mentioned newspapers,” I said, once Mr. Stanhope had been thus rescued from his excesses. “We’ve been here so short a time that I haven’t seen any; is there a regular paper printed in Wilmington?”

I had ulterior motives for asking this, beyond a desire to allow Mr. Stanhope time to recover himself. Among the few worldly goods Jamie possessed was a printing press, presently in storage in Edinburgh.

Wilmington, it appeared, had two printers in residence, but only one of these gentlemen—a Mr. Jonathan Gillette—produced a regular newspaper.

“And it may soon cease to be so regular,” Stanhope said darkly. “I hear that Mr. Gillette has received a warning from the Committee of Safety, that—ah!” He gave a brief exclamation, his plump face creased in pained surprise.

“Have you a particular interest, Mrs. Fraser?” Wylie inquired politely, darting a look under his brows at his friend. “I had heard that your husband had some connection with the printing trade in Edinburgh.”

“Why, yes,” I said, rather surprised that he should know so much about us. “Jamie owned a printing establishment there, though he didn’t issue a newspaper—books and pamphlets and plays and the like.”

Wylie’s finely arched brow twitched up.

“No political leanings, then, your husband? So often printers find their skills suborned by those whose passions seek outlet in print—but then, such passions are not necessarily shared by the printer.”

That rang numerous alarm bells; did Wylie actually know anything about Jamie’s political connections in Edinburgh—most of whom had been thoroughly seditious—or was this only normal dinner table conversation? Judging from Stanhope’s remarks, newspapers and politics were evidently connected in people’s minds—and little wonder, given the times.

Jamie, at the far end of the table, had caught his name and now turned his head slightly to smile at me, before returning to an earnest conversation with the Governor, at whose right hand he sat. I wasn’t sure whether this placement was the work of Mr. Lillington, who sat on the Governor’s left, following the conversation with the intelligent, slightly mournful expression of a basset hound, or of Cousin Edwin, consigned to the seat opposite me, between Phillip Wylie and Wylie’s sister, Judith.

“Oh, a tradesman,” this lady now remarked, in a meaningful tone of voice. She smiled at me, careful not to expose her teeth. Likely decayed, I thought. “And is this”—she gave a vague wave at her head, comparing my ribbon to the towering confection of her wig—“the style in Edinburgh, Mrs. Fraser? How…charming.”

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