Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 165

   

“Surely one of him is sufficient,” Jamie said dryly. “Given the quality of his opinions.” He picked up the wig and fitted it carefully on his head, raising little puffs of scented powder as he poked it here and there. “Is Mr. Housman an acquaintance of yours, then?”

“You might say so.” I sat down on the bed to watch. “It’s only that the doctors’ lounge at the hospital I worked at had a copy of Housman’s collected works that someone had left there. There isn’t time between calls to read most novels, but poems are ideal. I expect I know most of Housman by heart, now.”

He looked warily at me, as though expecting another outburst of poetry, but I merely smiled at him, and he returned to his work. I watched the transformation in fascination.

Red-heeled shoes and silk stockings clocked in black. Gray satin breeches with silver knee buckles. Snowy linen, with Brussels lace six inches deep at cuff and jabot. The coat, a masterpiece in heavy gray with blue satin cuffs and crested silver buttons, hung behind the door, awaiting its turn.

He finished the careful powdering of his face, and licking the end of one finger, picked up a false beauty mark, dabbed it in gum arabic, and affixed it neatly near the corner of his mouth.

“There,” he said, swinging about on the dressing stool to face me. “Do I look like a red-heided Scottish smuggler?”

I inspected him carefully, from full-bottomed wig to morocco-heeled shoes.

“You look like a gargoyle,” I said. His face flowered in a wide grin. Outlined in white powder, his lips seemed abnormally red, his mouth even wider and more expressive than it usually was.

“Non!” said Fergus indignantly, coming in in time to hear this. “He looks like a Frenchman.”

“Much the same thing,” Jamie said, and sneezed. Wiping his nose on a handkerchief, he assured the young man, “Begging your pardon, Fergus.”

He stood up and reached for the coat, shrugging it over his shoulders and settling the edges. In three-inch heels, he towered to a height of six feet seven; his head nearly brushed the plastered ceiling.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking up at him dubiously. “I’ve never seen a Frenchman that size.”

Jamie shrugged, his coat rustling like autumn leaves. “Aye, well, there’s no hiding my height. But so long as my hair is hidden, I think it will be all right. Besides,” he added, gazing with approval at me, “folk willna be looking at me. Stand up and let me see, aye?”

I obliged, rotating slowly to show off the deep flare of the violet silk skirt. Cut low in the front, the décolletage was filled with a froth of lace that rippled down the front of the bodice in a series of V’s. Matching lace cascaded from the elbow-length sleeves in graceful white falls that left my wrists bare.

“Rather a pity I don’t have your mother’s pearls,” I remarked. I didn’t regret their lack; I had left them for Brianna, in the box with the photographs and family documents. Still, with the deep décolletage and my hair twisted up in a knot, the mirror showed a long expanse of bare neck and bosom, rising whitely out of the violet silk.

“I thought of that.” With the air of a conjuror, Jamie produced a small box from his inside pocket and presented it to me, making a leg in his best Versailles fashion.

Inside was a small, gleaming fish, carved in a dense black material, the edges of its scales touched with gold.

“It’s a pin,” he explained. “Ye could maybe wear it fastened to a white ribbon round your neck?”

“It’s beautiful!” I said, delighted. “What’s it made of? Ebony?”

“Black coral,” he said. “I got it yesterday, when Fergus and I were in Montego Bay.” He and Fergus had taken the Artemis round the island, disposing at last of the cargo of bat guano, delivered to its purchaser.

I found a length of white satin ribbon, and Jamie obligingly tied it about my neck, bending to peer over my shoulder at the reflection in the mirror.

“No, they won’t be looking at me,” he said. “Half o’ them will be lookin’ at you, Sassenach, and the other half at Mr. Willoughby.”

“Mr. Willoughby? Is that safe? I mean—” I stole a look at the little Chinese, sitting patiently cross-legged on a stool, gleaming in clean blue silk, and lowered my voice. “I mean, they’ll have wine, won’t they?”

Jamie nodded. “And whisky, and cambric, and claret cup, and port, and champagne punch—and a wee cask of the finest French brandy—contributed by the courtesy of Monsieur Etienne Marcel de Provac Alexandre.” He put a hand on his chest and bowed again, in an exaggerated pantomime that made me laugh. “Nay worry,” he said, straightening up. “He’ll behave, or I’ll have his coral globe back—will I no, ye wee heathen?” he added with a grin to Mr. Willoughby.

The Chinese scholar nodded with considerable dignity. The embroidered black silk of his round cap was decorated with a small carved knob of red coral—the badge of his calling, restored to him by the chance encounter with a coral trader on the docks at Montego, and Jamie’s good nature.

“You’re quite sure we have to go?” The palpitations I was experiencing were due in part to the tightness of the stays I was wearing, but in greater degree to recurring visions of Jamie’s wig falling off and the reception coming to a complete stop as the entire assemblage paused to stare at his hair before calling en masse for the Royal Navy.

“Aye, we do.” He smiled at me reassuringly. “Dinna worry, Sassenach; if anyone’s there from the Porpoise, it’s not likely they’ll recognize me—not like this.”

“I hope not. Do you think anyone from the ship will be there tonight?”

“I doubt it.” He scratched viciously at the wig above his left ear. “Where did ye get this thing, Fergus? I believe it’s got lice.”

“Oh, no, milord,” Fergus assured him. “The wigmaker from whom I rented it assured me that it had been well dusted with hyssop and horse nettle to prevent any such infestations.” Fergus himself was wearing his own hair, thickly powdered, and was handsome—if less startling than Jamie—in a new suit of dark blue velvet.

There was a tentative knock at the door, and Marsali stepped in. She too had had her wardrobe refurbished, and glowed in a dress of soft pink, with a deep rose sash.

She glowed somewhat more than I thought the dress accounted for, in fact, and as we made our way down the narrow corridor to the carriage, pulling in our skirts to keep them from brushing the walls, I managed to lean forward and murmur in her ear.

“Are you using the tansy oil?”

“Mm?” she said absently, her eyes on Fergus as he bowed and held open the carriage door for her. “What did ye say?”

“Never mind,” I said, resigned. That was the least of our worries at the moment.

The Governor’s mansion was ablaze with lights. Lanterns were perched along the low wall of the veranda, and hung from the trees along the paths of the ornamental garden. Gaily dressed people were emerging from their carriages on the crushed-shell drive, passing into the house through a pair of huge French doors.

We dismissed our own—or, rather, Jared’s—carriage, but stood for a moment on the drive, waiting for a brief lull in the arrivals. Jamie seemed mildly nervous—for him; his fingers twitched now and then against the gray satin, but his manner was outwardly as calm as ever.

There was a short reception line in the foyer; several of the minor dignitaries of the island had been invited to assist the new governor in welcoming his guests. I passed ahead of Jamie down the line, smiling and nodding to the Mayor of Kingston and his wife. I quailed a bit at the sight of a fully decorated admiral next in line, resplendent in gilded coat and epaulettes, but no sign of anything beyond a mild amazement crossed his features as he shook hands with the gigantic Frenchman and the tiny Chinese who accompanied me.

There was my acquaintance from the Porpoise; Lord John’s blond hair was hidden under a formal wig tonight, but I recognized the fine, clear features and slight, muscular body at once. He stood a little apart from the other dignitaries, alone. Rumor had it that his wife had refused to leave England to accompany him to this posting.

He turned to greet me, his face fixed in an expression of formal politeness. He looked, blinked, and then broke into a smile of extraordinary warmth and pleasure.

“Mrs. Malcolm!” he exclaimed, seizing my hands. “I am vastly pleased to see you!”

“The feeling is entirely mutual,” I said, smiling back at him. “I didn’t know you were the Governor, last time we met. I’m afraid I was a bit informal.”

He laughed, his face glowing with the light of the candles in the wall sconces. Seen clearly in the light for the first time, I realized what a remarkably handsome man he was.

“You might be thought to have had an excellent excuse,” he said. He looked me over carefully. “May I say that you are in remarkable fine looks this evening? Clearly the island air must agree with you somewhat more than the miasmas of shipboard. I had hoped to meet you again before leaving the Porpoise, but when I inquired for you, I was told by Mr. Leonard that you were unwell. I trust you are entirely recovered?”

“Oh, entirely,” I told him, amused. Unwell, eh? Evidently Tom Leonard was not about to admit to losing me overboard. I wondered whether he had put my disappearance in the log.

“May I introduce my husband?” I turned to wave at Jamie, who had been detained in animated conversation with the admiral, but who was now advancing toward us, accompanied by Mr. Willoughby.

I turned back to find the Governor gone green as a gooseberry. He stared from Jamie to me, and back again, pale as though confronted by twin specters.

Jamie came to a stop beside me, and inclined his head graciously toward the Governor.

“John,” he said softly. “It’s good to see ye, man.”

The Governor’s mouth opened and shut without making a sound.

“Let us make an opportunity to speak, a bit later,” Jamie murmured. “But for now—my name is Etienne Alexandre.” He took my arm, and bowed formally. “And may I have the pleasure to present to you my wife, Claire?” he said aloud, shifting effortlessly into French.

“Claire?” The Governor looked wildly at me. “Claire?”

“Er, yes,” I said, hoping he wasn’t going to faint. He looked very much as though he might, though I had no idea why the revelation of my Christian name ought to affect him so strongly.

The next arrivals were waiting impatiently for us to move out of the way. I bowed, fluttering my fan, and we walked into the main salon of the Residence. I glanced back over my shoulder to see the Governor, shaking hands mechanically with the new arrival, staring after us with a face like white paper.

The salon was a huge room, low-ceilinged and filled with people, noisy and bright as a cageful of parrots. I felt some relief at the sight. Among this crowd, Jamie wouldn’t be terribly conspicuous, despite his size.

A small orchestra played at one side of the room, near a pair of doors thrown open to the terrace outside. I saw a number of people strolling there, evidently seeking either a breath of air, or sufficient quiet to hold a private conversation. At the other side of the room, yet another pair of doors opened into a short hallway, where the retiring rooms were.

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