Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 21

   

Her brother gave her a narrowed eye.

“I believe I have also heard that Mr. Fraser is the nephew of Mrs. Cameron of River Run,” he said pleasantly. “Have I been correctly informed, Mrs. Fraser?”

Cousin Edwin, who had undoubtedly been the source of this information, buttered his roll with sedulous concentration. Cousin Edwin looked very little like a secretary, being a tall and prepossessing young man with a pair of lively brown eyes—one of which now gave me the merest suggestion of a wink.

The Baron, as bored with newspapers as with taxes, perked up a bit at hearing the name Cameron.

“River Run?” he said. “You have relations with Mrs. Jocasta Cameron?”

“She’s my husband’s aunt,” I replied. “Do you know her?”

“Oh, indeed! A charming woman, most charming!” A broad smile lifted the Baron’s pendulous cheeks. “Since many years, I am the dear friend of Mrs. Cameron and her husband, unfortunately dead.”

The Baron launched into an enthusiastic recounting of the delights of River Run, and I took advantage of the lull to accept a small wedge of fish pie, full not only of fish, but of oysters and shrimps in a creamy sauce. Mr. Lillington had certainly spared no effort to impress the Governor.

As I leaned back for the footman to ladle more sauce onto my plate, I caught Judith Wylie’s eyes on me, narrowed in a look of dislike that she didn’t trouble to disguise. I smiled pleasantly at her, displaying my own excellent teeth, and turned back to the Baron, newly confident.

There had been no looking glass in Edwin’s quarters, and while Jamie had assured me that I looked all right, his standards were rather different from those of fashion. I had received any number of admiring compliments from the gentlemen at table, true, but this might be no more than customary politeness; extravagant gallantry was common among upper-class men.

But Miss Wylie was twenty-five years my junior, fashionably gowned and jeweled, and if no great beauty, not plain, either. Her jealousy was a better reflection of my appearance, I thought, than any looking glass.

“Such a beautiful stone, Mrs. Fraser—you will permit me to look more closely?” The Baron bent toward me, pudgy fingers delicately poised above my cl**vage.

“Oh, certainly,” I said with alacrity, and quickly unclasped the chain, dropping the ruby into his broad, moist palm. The Baron looked slightly disappointed not to have been allowed to examine the stone in situ, but lifted his hand, squinting at the glinting droplet with the air of a connoisseur—which he evidently was, for he reached into his watch pocket and withdrew a small gadget that proved to be a combination of optical lenses, including both a magnifying glass and a jeweler’s loupe.

I relaxed, seeing this, and accepted a helping of something hot and savory-smelling from a glass dish being passed by the butler. What possessed people to serve hot food when the temperature in the room must be at least in the nineties?

“Beautiful,” murmured the Baron, rolling the stone gently in his palm. “Sehr schön.”

There were not many things about which I would have trusted Geillis Duncan, but I was sure of her taste in jewels. “It must be a stone of the first class,” she had said to me, explaining her theory of time travel via gems. “Large, and completely flawless.”

The ruby was large, all right; nearly the size of the pickled quail’s eggs surrounding the fully plumed pheasant on the sideboard. As to its flawlessness, I felt no doubt. Geilie had trusted this stone to carry her into the future; I thought it would probably get us as far as Cross Creek. I took a bite of the food on my plate; some sort of ragout, I thought, very tender and flavorful.

“How delicious this is,” I said to Mr. Stanhope, lifting another forkful. “What is this dish, do you know?”

“Oh, it is one of my particular favorites, ma’am,” he said, inhaling beatifically over his own plate. “Soused hog’s face. Delectable, is it not?”

I shut the door of Cousin Edwin’s room behind me and leaned against it, letting my jaw hang open in sheer relief at no longer being required to smile. Now I could take off the clinging dress, undo the tight corset, slip off the sweaty shoes.

Peace, solitude, nak*dness, and silence. I couldn’t think of anything else required to make my life complete for the moment, save a little fresh air. I stripped off, and attired in nothing but my shift, went to open the window.

The air outside was so thick, I thought I could have stepped out and floated down through it, like a pebble dropped in a jar of molasses. The bugs came at once to the flame of my candle, light-crazed and blood-hungry. I blew it out and sat on the window seat in the dark, letting the soft, warm air move over me.

The ruby still hung at my neck, black as a blood drop against my skin. I touched it, set it swinging gently between my br**sts; the stone was warm as my own blood, too.

Outside, the guests were beginning to depart; a line of waiting carriages was drawn up on the drive. The sounds of goodbyes, conversations, and soft laughter drifted up to me in snatches.

“…quite clever, I thought,” came up in Phillip Wylie’s cultured drawl.

“Oh, clever, certainly it was clever!” His sister’s higher-pitched tones made it quite clear what she thought of cleverness as a social attribute.

“Well, cleverness in a woman can be tolerated, my dear, so long as she is also pleasant to look upon. By the same token, a woman who has beauty may perhaps dispense with wit, so long as she has sense enough to conceal the lack by keeping her mouth shut.”

Miss Wylie might not be accused of cleverness, but had certainly adequate sensibility to perceive the barb in this. She gave a rather unladylike snort.

“She is a thousand years old, at least,” she replied. “Pleasant to look at, indeed. Though I will say it was a handsome trinket about her neck,” she added grudgingly.

“Oh, quite,” said a deeper voice that I recognized as Lloyd Stanhope’s. “Though in my own opinion, it was the setting rather than the jewel that was striking.”

“Setting?” Miss Wylie sounded blank. “There was no setting; the jewel merely rested upon her bosom.”

“Really?” Stanhope said blandly. “I hadn’t noticed.” Wylie burst out laughing, breaking off abruptly as the door opened to release more guests.

“Well, if you didn’t, old man, there were others who did,” he said with sly intonation. “Come, here’s the carriage.”

I touched the ruby again, watching the Wylies’ handsome grays drive off. Yes, others had noticed. I could still feel the Baron’s eyes on my bosom, knowingly avaricious. I rather thought he was a connoisseur of more than gems.

The stone was warm in my hand; it felt warmer even than my skin, though that must be illusion. I did not normally wear jewelry beyond my wedding rings; had never cared much for it. It would be a relief to be rid of at least part of our dangerous treasure. And still I sat there holding the stone, cradling it in my hand, till I almost thought I could feel it beating like a small separate heart, in time with my blood.

There was only one carriage left, its driver standing by the horses’ heads. Some twenty minutes later, the occupant came out, adding to his goodbyes a good-humored “Gute Nacht” as he stepped into his coach. The Baron. He had waited till last, and was leaving in a good mood; that seemed a good sign.

One of the footmen, stripped of his livery coat, was extinguishing the torches at the foot of the drive. I could see the pale blur of his shirt as he walked back to the house through the dark, and the sudden flare of light onto the terrace as a door opened to admit him below. Then that too was gone, and a night silence settled on the grounds.

I had expected Jamie to come up at once, but the minutes dragged on with no sound of his step. I glanced at the bed, but felt no desire to lie down.

At last I stood up and slipped the dress back on, not bothering with shoes or stockings. I left the room, walking quietly down the hallway in my bare feet, down the stair, through the breezeway to the main house, and in through the side entrance from the garden. It was dark, save the pale squares of moonlight that came through the casements; most of the servants must have retired, along with household and guests. There was light glowing through the stairwell’s banister, though; the sconces were still alight in the dining room beyond.

I could hear the murmur of masculine voices as I tiptoed past the polished stair, Jamie’s deep soft Scots alternating with the Governor’s English tones, in the intimate cadences of a tête-à-tête.

The candles had burnt low in their sconces. The air was sweet with melted beeswax, and low clouds of fragrant cigar smoke hung heavy outside the dining room doors.

Moving quietly, I stopped just short of the door. From this vantage point I could see the Governor, back to me, neck stretched forward as he lit a fresh cigar from the candlestick on the table.

If Jamie saw me, he gave no hint of it. His face bore its usual expression of calm good humor, but the recent lines of strain around eyes and mouth had eased, and I could tell from the slope of his shoulders that he was relaxed and at peace. My heart lightened at once; he had been successful then.

“A place called River Run,” he was saying to the Governor. “Well up in the hills past Cross Creek.”

“I know the place,” Governor Tryon remarked, a little surprised. “My wife and I passed several days in Cross Creek last year; we made a tour of the colony, upon the occasion of my taking office. River Run is well up in the foothills, though, not in the town—why, it is halfway to the mountains, I believe.”

Jamie smiled and sipped his brandy.

“Aye, well,” he said, “my family are Highlanders, sir; the mountains will be home to us.”

“Indeed.” A small puff of smoke rose over the Governor’s shoulder. Then he took the cigar from his mouth and leaned confidentially toward Jamie.

“Since we are alone, Mr. Fraser, there is another matter I wished to put before you. A glass with you, sir?” He picked up the decanter without waiting for an answer, and poured more brandy.

“I thank ye, sir.”

The Governor puffed fiercely for a moment, sending up blue clouds, then having got his weed well alight, sat back, cigar fuming negligently in one hand.

“You are very newly come to the Colonies, young Edwin tells me. Are you familiar with conditions here?”

Jamie shrugged slightly.

“I have made it my business to learn what I could, sir,” he replied. “To which conditions might ye refer?”

“North Carolina is a land of considerable richness,” the Governor answered, “and yet it has not reached the same level of prosperity as have its neighbors—owing mostly to a lack of laborers to take advantage of its opportunities. We have no great harbor for a seaport, you see; thus slaves must be brought overland at great cost from South Carolina or Virginia—and we cannot hope to compete with Boston and Philadelphia for indentured labor.

“It has long been the policy both of the Crown and of myself, Mr. Fraser, to encourage the settlement of land in the Colony of North Carolina by intelligent, industrious and godly families, to the furtherance of the prosperity and security of all.” He lifted his cigar, took a deep lungful and exhaled slowly, pausing to cough.

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