Richard Caswell had got up by himself, and while looking rather affronted, was evidently not disposed to hit anyone. He stood brushing dried grass from the back of his coat, lips pressed together in disapproval.
“Your fan, Mrs. Fraser?” Jerked from my appraisal of the conflict, I found Major MacDonald politely offering me back my fan. He looked quite pleased with himself.
“Thank you,” I said, taking it and eyeing him with some respect. “Tell me, Major, do you always go about with a loaded pistol?”
“An oversight, ma’am,” he replied blandly. “Though perhaps a fortunate one, aye? I had been in the town of Cross Creek yesterday, and as I was returning alone to Mr. Farquard Campbell’s plantation after dark, I thought it would be as well to go canny on the road.”
He nodded over my shoulder.
“Tell me, Mrs. Fraser, who is the ill-shaven individual? He seems a man of guts, despite his lack of address. Will he take up the cudgels in his own behalf now, do ye think?”
I swung round, to see Hermon Husband nose-to-nose with the risen Barlow, his round black hat thrust down on his head and his beard bristling with pugnacity. Barlow stood his ground, red-faced and thunder-browed, but had his arms folded tightly across his chest as he listened to Husband.
“Hermon Husband is a Quaker,” I said, with a slight tone of reproof. “No, he won’t resort to violence. Just words.”
Quite a lot of words. Barlow kept trying to interject his own opinions, but Husband ignored these, pressing his argument with such enthusiasm that drops of spittle flew from the corners of his mouth.
“. . . an heinous miscarriage of justice! Sheriffs, or so they call themselves, who have not been appointed by any legal writ, but rather appoint themselves for the purposes of corruptly enriching themselves and scorn all legitimate . . .”
Barlow dropped his arms, and began to edge backward, in an effort to escape the barrage. When Husband paused momentarily to draw breath, though, Barlow seized the opportunity to lean forward and jab a threatening finger into Husband’s chest.
“You speak of justice, sir? What have riot and destruction to do with justice? If you advocate the ruin of property as means to redress your grievances—”
“I do not! But is the poor man to fall a spoil to the unscrupulous, and his plight pass unregarded? I say to you, sir, God will unmercifully requite those who oppress the poor, and—”
“What are they arguing about?” MacDonald asked, viewing the exchange with interest. “Religion?”
Seeing Husband involved, and realizing that no further punch-ups were to be expected, most of the crowd had lost interest, wandering away toward the buffet tables and the braziers on the terrace. Hunter and a few other Regulators hung about to give Husband moral support, but most of the guests were planters and merchants. While they might side with Barlow in theory, in practice most were disinclined to waste a rare festive occasion in controversy with Hermon Husband over the rights of the tax-paying poor.
I wasn’t all that eager to examine the rhetoric of the Regulation in detail, either, but did my best to give Major MacDonald a crude overview of the situation.
“. . . and so Governor Tryon felt obliged to raise the militia to deal with it, but the Regulators backed down,” I concluded. “But they haven’t abandoned their demands, by any means.”
Husband hadn’t abandoned his argument, either—he never did—but Barlow had at last succeeded in extricating himself, and was restoring his tissues at the refreshment tables under the elm trees in company with some sympathetic friends, who all cast periodic glances of disapproval in Husband’s direction.
“I see,” MacDonald said, interested. “Farquard Campbell did tell me something of this disruptive movement. And the Governor has raised a militia on occasion to deal with it, you say, and may again. Who commands his troops, do you know?”
“Um . . . I believe General Waddell—that’s Hugh Waddell—has command of several companies. But the Governor himself was in command of the main body; he’s been a soldier himself.”
“Has he indeed?” MacDonald seemed to find this very interesting; he hadn’t put away his pistol, but was fondling it in an absentminded sort of way. “Campbell tells me that your husband is the holder of a large grant of land in the backcountry. He is by way of being an intimate of the Governor?”
“I wouldn’t put it that strongly,” I said dryly. “But he does know the Governor, yes.”
I felt a trifle uneasy at this line of conversation. It was—strictly speaking—illegal for Catholics to hold Royal land grants in the Colonies. I didn’t know whether Major MacDonald was aware of that fact, but he did plainly realize that Jamie was likely a Catholic, given his family background.
“Do you suppose your husband might be prevailed upon for an introduction, dear lady?” The pale blue eyes were bright with speculation, and I realized suddenly what he was after.
A career soldier with no war was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of occupation and income. The Regulation might be a tempest in a teapot, but on the other hand, if there was any prospect of military action . . . After all, Tryon had no regular troops; he might well be inclined to welcome—and to pay—an experienced officer, if the militia were called out again.
I cast a wary eye toward the lawn. Husband and his friends had withdrawn a bit, and were in close conversation in a little knot near one of Jocasta’s new statues. If the recent near-brawl was any indication, the Regulation was still dangerously on the boil.
“That might be done,” I said cautiously. I couldn’t see any reason why Jamie would object to providing a letter of introduction to Tryon—and I did owe the Major something, after all, for having averted a full-scale riot. “You’d have to ask my husband, of course, but I’d be happy to put in a word for you.”
“You shall have my utmost gratitude, ma’am.” He put away his pistol, and bowed low over my hand. Straightening up, he glanced over my shoulder. “I think I must take my leave now, Mrs. Fraser, but I shall hope to make your husband’s acquaintance soon.”
The Major marched off toward the terrace, and I turned, to see Hermon Husband stumping toward me, Hunter and a few other men in his wake.
“Mrs. Fraser, I must ask thee to give my good wishes and my regrets to Mrs. Innes, if thee will,” he said without preamble. “I must go.”
“Oh, must you leave so soon?” I hesitated. On the one hand, I wanted to urge him to stay; on the other, I could foresee further trouble if he did. Barlow’s friends had not taken their eyes off him since the near-brawl.
He saw the thought cross my face, and nodded soberly. The flush of debate had faded from his face, leaving it set in grim lines.
“It will be better so. Jocasta Cameron has been a good friend to me and mine; it would ill repay her kindness for me to bring discord to her wedding celebrations. I would not choose that—and yet, I cannot in conscience remain silent, hearing such pernicious opinions as I have received here.” He gave Barlow’s group a look of cold contempt, which was met in kind.
“Besides,” he added, turning his back on the Barlowites in dismissal, “we have business that compels our attention elsewhere.” He hesitated, clearly wondering whether to tell me more, but then decided against it. “Thee will tell her?”
“Yes, of course. Mr. Husband—I’m sorry.”
He gave me a faint smile, tinged with melancholy, and shook his head, but said no more. As he left, though, trailed by his companions, James Hunter paused to speak to me, low-voiced.
“The Regulators are a-gathering. There’s a big camp, up near Salisbury,” he said. “You might see fit to tell your husband that.”
He nodded, put his hand to his hat-brim, and without waiting for acknowledgment, strode off, his dark coat disappearing in the crowd like a sparrow swallowed by a flock of peacocks.
FROM MY VANTAGE POINT at the edge of the terrace, I could see the whole sweep of the party, which flowed in a stream of festivity from house to river, its eddy-pools obvious to the knowledgeable eye.
Jocasta formed the eye of the largest social swirl—but smaller pools swirled ominously around Ninian Bell Hamilton and Richard Caswell, and a restless current meandered through the party, leaving deposits of conversation along its edges, rich in the fertile silt of speculation. From the things I overheard, the question of our hosts’ putative sex life was the predominant subject of conversation—but politics ran a close second.
I still saw no sign either of Jamie or of Duncan. There was the Major again, though. He stopped, a glass of cider in each hand; he had caught sight of Brianna. I smiled, watching.
Brianna often stopped men in their tracks, though not always entirely from admiration. She had inherited a number of things from Jamie; slanted blue eyes and flaming hair, a long straight nose and a wide, firm mouth; the bold facial bones that came from some ancient Norseman. In addition to these striking attributes, though, she had also inherited his height. In a time when the average woman stood a hair less than five feet tall, Brianna reached six. People were inclined to stare.
Major MacDonald was doing so, cider forgotten in his hands. Roger noticed; he smiled and nodded, but took that one step closer to Brianna that said unmistakably, She’s mine, mate.
Watching the Major in conversation, I noticed how pale and spindly he looked by comparison with Roger, who stood nearly as tall as Jamie. He was broad-shouldered and olive-skinned, and his hair shone black as a crow’s wing in the spring sun, perhaps the legacy of some ancient Spanish invader. I had to admit that there was no noticeable resemblance between him and little Jem, ruddy as a fresh-forged brass candlestick. I could see the flash of white as Roger smiled; the Major kept his lips pulled down when smiling, as most people over the age of thirty did, to hide the gaps and decay that were endemic. Perhaps it was the stress of the Major’s occupation, I thought; perhaps merely the effects of poor nourishment. Being of good family didn’t mean a child in this time ate very well.
I ran my tongue lightly over my own teeth, testing the biting edge of my incisors. Straight and sound, and I took considerable pains to see they would stay that way, given the current state of the art of dentistry.
“Why, Mrs. Fraser.” A light voice broke in on my thoughts, and I looked round to find Phillip Wylie at my elbow. “Whatever can you be thinking, my dear? You look positively . . . feral.” He took my hand and lowered his voice, baring his own fairly decent teeth in a suggestive smile.
“I am not your dear,” I said with some acerbity, jerking my hand out of his. “And as for feral, I’m surprised no one has bitten you in the backside yet.”
“Oh, I have hopes,” he assured me, eyes twinkling. He bowed, managing in the process to get hold of my hand again. “Might I have the honor to claim a dance later, Mrs. Fraser?”
“Indeed you may not,” I said, tugging. “Let go.”
“Your wish is my command.” He let go, but not before planting a light kiss on the back of my hand. I suppressed the urge to wipe the moist spot on my skirt.