The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 108

   

“Go away, child,” I said. I flicked my fan at him. “Shoo.”

Phillip Wylie was a dandy. I had met him twice before, and on both occasions, he had been got up regardless: satin breeches, silk stockings, and all the trappings that went with them, including powdered wig, powdered face, and a small black crescent beauty mark, stuck dashingly beside one eye.

Now, however, the rot had spread. The powdered wig was mauve, the satin waistcoat was embroidered with—I blinked. Yes, with lions and unicorns, done in gold and silver thread. The satin breeches were fitted to him like a bifurcated glove, and the crescent had given way to a star at the corner of his mouth. Mr. Wylie had become a macaroni—with cheese.

“Oh, I have no intention of deserting you, Mrs. Fraser,” he assured me. “I have been searching everywhere for you.”

“Oh. Well, you’ve found me,” I said, eyeing his coat, which was velvet, rose in color, and had six-inch cuffs of palest pink silk and button-covers embroidered with scarlet peonies. “Though it’s no wonder you had trouble. I expect you were blinded by the glare from your waistcoat.”

Lloyd Stanhope was with him, as usual, quite as prosperous, but much more plainly dressed than his friend. Stanhope guffawed, but Wylie ignored him, and bowed low, making me a graceful leg.

“Ah, well, Fortuna has smiled upon me this year. The trade with England has quite recovered, may the gods be thanked—and I have had my share of it, and more besides. You must come with me to see—”

I was saved at this point by the sudden appearance of Adlai Osborn, a well-to-do merchant from somewhere up the coast, who tapped Wylie on the shoulder. Seizing the opportunity afforded by the distraction, I put up my fan and sidled away through a gap in the crowd.

Left momentarily to my own devices, I strolled nonchalantly off the terrace and down the lawn. I still had an eye out for Jamie or Duncan, but this was my first opportunity to examine Jocasta’s latest acquisitions, which were causing considerable comment among the wedding guests. These were two statues, carved from white marble, one standing squarely in the center of each lawn.

The one closest to me was a life-size replica of a Greek warrior—Spartan, I assumed, from the fact that the more frivolous items of attire had been omitted, leaving the gentleman clad in a sturdy-looking plumed helmet, with a sword in one hand. A large shield was planted at his feet, strategically placed so as to cover the more glaring deficiencies of his wardrobe.

There was a matching statue on the right lawn, this one of Diana the Huntress. While the lady was rather skimpily draped, and her shapely white marble br**sts and buttocks were attracting a certain amount of sidelong appreciation from the gentlemen present, she was no match for her companion, in terms of public fascination. I smiled behind my fan, seeing Mr. and Mrs. Sherston swan past the statue without so much as a glance. After all, their raised noses and bored looks at each other said, such artworks were commonplace in Europe. Only rude Colonials, lacking both experience and breeding, would consider it a spectacle, my dear.

Examining the statue myself, I discovered that it was not an anonymous Greek after all, but rather Perseus. From this new angle, I could see that what I had assumed to be a rock resting beside the shield was in fact the severed head of a Gorgon, half its snakes standing on end in shocked dismay.

The evident artistry of these reptiles was affording an excuse for close examination of the statue by a number of ladies, who were brazening it out, pursing their lips knowingly and making sounds of admiration about the sculptor’s skillfulness in rendering every scale, just so. Every so often one would allow her eyes to dart upward for a split second, before jerking her gaze back to the Gorgon, cheeks reddened—by the morning air and the mulled wine being served, no doubt.

My attention was distracted from Perseus by a steaming mug of this beverage, thrust beneath my nose in invitation.

“Do have some, Mrs. Fraser.” It was Lloyd Stanhope, roundly amiable. “You wouldn’t want to take a chill, dear lady.”

There was no danger of that, given the increasing warmth of the day, but I accepted the cup, enjoying the scent of cinnamon and honey that wafted from it.

I leaned to one side, looking for Jamie, but he was still nowhere to be seen. A group of gentlemen arguing the merits of Virginia tobacco versus indigo as a crop were clustered round one side of Perseus, while the statue’s rear aspect now sheltered three young girls, who were glancing at it from behind their fans, red-faced and giggling.

“. . . unique,” Phillip Wylie was saying to someone. The eddies of conversation had brought him back to my side. “Absolutely unique! Black pearls, they’re called. Never seen anything like them, I’ll wager.” He glanced round and, seeing me, reached out to touch my elbow lightly. “I collect you have spent some time in France, Mrs. Fraser. Have you seen them there, perhaps?”

“Black pearls?” I said, scrambling to catch hold of the threads of the conversation. “Well, yes, a few. I recall the Archbishop of Rouen had a small Moorish page boy who wore a very large one in his nose.”

Stanhope’s jaw sagged ludicrously. Wylie stared at me for a split second, then uttered a whoop of laughter so loud that both the tobacco lobby and the giggling girls stopped dead and stared at us.

“You will be the death of me, my dear lady,” Wylie wheezed, as Stanhope declined into choked snorts of mirth. Wylie drew out a lacy kerchief and dabbed delicately at the corners of his eyes, lest tears of merriment blotch his powder.

“Really, Mrs. Fraser, have you not seen my treasures?” He grasped my elbow and propelled me out of the crowd with surprising skill. “Come, let me show you.”

He guided me smoothly through the gathering throng and past the side of the house, where a flagged path led toward the stables. Another crowd—mostly men—was clustered round the paddock, where Jocasta’s groom was throwing down hay for several horses.

There were five of them—two mares, a couple of two-year-olds, and a stallion. All five black as coal, with coats that gleamed in the pale spring sun, even shaggy as they were with winter hair. I was no expert in horse conformation, but knew enough by now to notice the deep chests, barreled vaults, and sculpted quarters, which gave them a peculiar but deeply appealing look of elegant sturdiness. Beyond the beauties of conformation and coat, though, what was most striking about these horses was their hair.

These black horses had great floating masses of silky hair—almost like women’s hair—that rose and fluttered with their movements, matching the graceful fall of their long, full tails. In addition, each horse had delicate black feathers decorating hoof and fetlock, that lifted like floating milkweed seed with each step. By contrast to the usual rawboned riding horses and rough draft animals used for haulage, these horses seemed almost magical—and from the awed comment they were occasioning among the spectators, might as well have come from Fairyland as from Phillip Wylie’s plantation in Edenton.

“They’re yours?” I spoke to Wylie without looking at him, unwilling to take my eyes away from the enchanting sight. “Wherever did you get them?”

“Yes,” he said, his usual affectations erased by simple pride. “They are mine. They are Friesians. The oldest breed of warm-bloods—their lineage can be traced back for centuries.

“As to where I got them”—he leaned over the fence, extending a hand palm-up and wiggling his fingers toward the horses in invitation—“I have been breeding them for several years. I brought these at Mrs. Cameron’s invitation; she has it in mind perhaps to purchase one of my mares, and suggested that one or two of her neighbors might also be interested. As for Lucas, here, though”—the stallion had come over, recognizing his owner, and was submitting gracefully to having his forehead rubbed—“he is not for sale.”

Both mares were heavily in foal; Lucas was the sire, and so had been brought, Wylie said, as proof of the bloodlines. That, I thought, privately amused, and for purposes of showing him off. Wylie’s “black pearls” were exciting keen interest, and a number of the horse-breeding gentlemen from the neighborhood had gone visibly green with envy at sight of Lucas. Phillip Wylie preened like a c*ck grouse.

“Oh, there ye are, Sassenach.” Jamie’s voice came suddenly in my ear. “I was looking for you.”

“Were you, indeed?” I said, turning away from the paddock. I felt a sudden warmth under my breastbone at sight of him “And where have you been?”

“Oh, here and there,” Jamie said, undisturbed by my tone of accusation. “A verra fine horse indeed, Mr. Wylie.” A polite nod, and he had me by the arm and headed back toward the lawn before Wylie’s murmured “Your servant, sir” had been quite voiced.

“What are ye doing out here wi’ wee Phillip Wylie?” Jamie asked, picking his way through a flock of house slaves, who streamed past from the cookhouse with platters of food steaming alluringly under white napkins.

“Looking at his horses,” I said, putting a hand over my stomach in hopes of suppressing the resounding borborygmi occasioned by the sight of food. “And what have you been doing?”

“Looking for Duncan,” he said, guiding me round a puddle. “He wasna in the necessary, nor yet the smithy, the stables, the kitchen, the cookhouse. I took a horse and rode out to the tobacco-barns, but not a smell of the man.”

“Perhaps Lieutenant Wolff has assassinated him,” I suggested. “Disappointed rival, and all that.”

“Wolff?” He stopped, frowning at me in consternation. “Is yon gobshite here?”

“In the flesh,” I replied, waving my fan toward the lawn. Wolff had taken up a station next the refreshment tables, his short, stout figure unmistakable in its blue and white naval uniform. “Do you suppose your aunt invited him?”

“Aye, I do,” he said, sounding grim but resigned. “She couldna resist rubbing his nose in it, I expect.”

“That’s what I thought. He’s only been here for half an hour or so, though—and if he goes on mopping it up at that rate,” I added, looking disapprovingly at the bottle clutched in the Lieutenant’s hand, “he’ll be out cold before the wedding takes place.”

Jamie dismissed the Lieutenant with a contemptuous gesture.

“Well, then, let him pickle himself and welcome, so long as he only opens his mouth to pour drink in. Where’s Duncan hidden himself, though?”

“Perhaps he’s thrown himself in the river?” It was meant as a joke, but I glanced toward the river nonetheless, and saw a boat headed for the landing, the oarsman standing in the prow to throw his mooring rope to a waiting slave. “Look—is that the priest at last?”

It was; a short, tubby figure, black soutane hiked up over hairy knees as he scrambled ignominiously onto the dock, with the help of a push from the boatmen below. Ulysses was already hurrying down to the landing, to greet him.

“Good,” Jamie said, in tones of satisfaction. “We’ve a priest, then, and a bride. Two of three—that’s progress. Here, Sassenach, wait a bit—your hair’s coming down.” He traced the line of a fallen curl slowly down my back, and I obligingly let the shawl fall back from my shoulders.

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