Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 166

   

We knew no one, and had no social sponsor to make introductions. However, due to Jamie’s foresight, we had no need of one. Within moments of our arrival, women had begun to cluster around us, fascinated by Mr. Willoughby.

“My acquaintance, Mr. Yi Tien Cho,” Jamie introduced him to a stout young woman in tight yellow satin. “Late of the Celestial Kingdom of China, Madame.”

“Ooh!” The young lady fluttered her fan before her face, impressed. “Really from China? But what an unthinkable distance you must have come! Do let me welcome you to our small island, Mr.—Mr. Cho?” She extended a hand to him, clearly expecting it to be kissed.

Mr. Willoughby bowed deeply, hands in his sleeves, and obligingly said something in Chinese. The young woman looked thrilled. Jamie looked momentarily startled, and then the mask of urbanity dropped back over his face. I saw Mr. Willoughby’s shining black eyes fix on the tips of the lady’s shoes, protruding from under the hem of her dress, and wondered just what he had said to her.

Jamie seized the opportunity—and the lady’s hand—bowing over it with extreme politeness.

“Your servant, Madame,” he said in thickly accented English. “Etienne Alexandre. And might I present to you my wife, Claire?”

“Oh, yes, so pleased to meet you!” The young woman, flushed with excitement, took my hand and squeezed it. “I’m Marcelline Williams; perhaps you’ll be acquainted with my brother, Judah? He owns Twelvetrees—you know, the large coffee plantation? I’ve come to stay with him for the season, and I’m having ever so marvelous a time!”

“No, I’m afraid we don’t know anyone here,” I said apologetically. “We’ve only just arrived ourselves—from Martinique, where my husband’s sugar business is.”

“Oh,” Miss Williams cried, her eyes flying wide open. “But you must allow me to make you acquainted with my particular friends, the Stephenses! I believe they once visited Martinique, and Georgina Stephens is such a charming person—you will like her at once, I promise!”

And that was all there was to it. Within an hour, I had been introduced to dozens of people, and was being carried slowly round the room, eddying from one group to the next, passed hand to hand by the current of introductions launched by Miss Williams.

Across the room, I could see Jamie, standing head and shoulders above his companions, the picture of aristocratic dignity. He was conversing cordially with a group of men, all eager to make the acquaintance of a prosperous businessman who might offer useful contacts with the French sugar trade. I caught his eye once, in passing, and he gave me a brilliant smile and a gallant French bow. I still wondered what in the name of God he thought he was up to, but shrugged mentally. He would tell me when he was ready.

Fergus and Marsali, as usual needing no one’s company but each other’s, were dancing at one end of the floor, her glowing pink face smiling into his. For the sake of the occasion, Fergus had forgone his useful hook, replacing it with a black leather glove filled with bran, pinned to the sleeve of his coat. This rested against the back of Marsali’s gown, a trifle stiff-looking, but not so unnatural as to provoke comment.

I danced past them, revolving sedately in the arms of a short, tubby English planter named Carstairs, who wheezed pleasantries into my bosom, red face streaming sweat.

As for Mr. Willoughby, he was enjoying an unparalleled social triumph, the center of attention of a cluster of ladies who vied with each other in pressing dainties and refreshments on him. His eyes were bright, and a faint flush shone on his sallow cheeks.

Mr. Carstairs deposited me among a group of ladies at the end of the dance, and gallantly went to fetch a cup of claret. I at once returned to the business of the evening, asking the ladies whether they might be familiar with people to whose acquaintance I had been recommended, named Abernathy.

“Abernathy?” Mrs. Hall, a youngish matron, fluttered her fan and looked blank. “No, I cannot say I am acquainted with them. Do they take a great part in society, do you know?”

“Oh, no, Joan!” Her friend, Mrs. Yoakum, looked shocked, with the particular kind of enjoyable shock that precedes some juicy revelation. “You’ve heard of the Abernathys! You remember, the man who bought Rose Hall, up on the Yallahs River?”

“Oh, yes!” Mrs. Hall’s blue eyes widened. “The one who died so soon after buying it?”

“Yes, that’s the one,” another lady chimed in, overhearing. “Malaria, they said it was, but I spoke to the doctor who attended him—he had come to dress Mama’s bad leg, you know she is such a martyr to the dropsy—and he told me—in strictest confidence, of course…”

The tongues wagged merrily. Rosie MacIver had been a faithful reporter; all the stories she had conveyed were here, and more. I caught hold of the conversational thread and gave it a jerk in the desired direction.

“Does Mrs. Abernathy have indentured labor, as well as slaves?”

Here opinion was more confused. Some thought that she had several indentured servants, some thought only one or two—no one present had actually set foot in Rose Hall, but of course people said…

A few minutes later, the gossip had turned to fresh meat, and the incredible behavior of the new curate, Mr. Jones, with the widowed Mrs. Mina Alcott, but then, what could be expected of a woman with her reputation, and surely it was not entirely the young man’s fault, and she so much older, though of course, one in Holy Orders might be expected to be held to a higher standard…I made an excuse and slipped away to the ladies’ retiring room, my ears ringing.

I saw Jamie as I went, standing near the refreshment table. He was talking to a tall, red-haired girl in embroidered cotton, a trace of unguarded tenderness lingering in his eyes as he looked at her. She was smiling eagerly up at him, flattered by his attention. I smiled at the sight, wondering what the young lady would think, did she realize that he was not really looking at her at all, but imagining her as the daughter he had never seen.

I stood in front of the looking glass in the outer retiring room, tucking in stray curls loosened by the exertion of dancing, and took pleasure in the temporary silence. The retiring room was luxuriously appointed, being in fact three separate chambers, with the privy facilities and a room for the storage of hats, shawls, and extraneous clothing opening off the main room, where I stood. This had not only a long pier-glass and a fully appointed dressing table, but also a chaise longue, covered in red velvet. I eyed it with some wistfulness—the slippers I was wearing were pinching my feet badly—but duty called.

So far, I had learned nothing beyond what we already knew about the Abernathy plantation, though I had compiled a useful list of several other plantations near Kingston that employed indentured labor. I wondered whether Jamie intended to call upon his friend the Governor to help in the search for Ian—that might possibly justify risking an appearance here tonight.

But Lord John’s response to the revelation of my identity was both puzzling and disturbing; you would think the man had seen a ghost. I squinted at my violet reflection, admiring the glitter of the black-and-gold fish at my throat, but failed to see anything unsettling in my appearance. My hair was tucked up with pins decorated with seed pearls and brilliants, and discreet use of Mrs. MacIver’s cosmetics had darkened my lids and blushed my cheeks quite becomingly, if I did say so myself.

I shrugged, fluttered my lashes seductively at my image, then patted my hair and returned to the salon.

I made my way toward the long tables of refreshments, where a huge array of cakes, pastries, savories, fruits, candies, stuffed rolls, and a number of objects I couldn’t put a name to but presumed edible were displayed. As I turned absentmindedly from the refreshment table with a plate of fruit, I collided headlong with a dark-hued waistcoat. Apologizing to its owner in confusion, I found myself looking up into the dour face of the Reverend Archibald Campbell.

“Mrs. Malcolm!” he exclaimed in astonishment.

“Er…Reverend Campbell,” I replied, rather weakly. “What a surprise.” I dabbed tentatively at a smear of mango on his abdomen, but he took a marked step backward, and I desisted.

He looked rather coldly at my décolletage.

“I trust I find you well, Mrs. Malcolm?” he said.

“Yes, thank you,” I said. I wished he would stop calling me Mrs. Malcolm before someone to whom I had been introduced as Madame Alexandre heard him.

“I was so sorry to hear about your sister,” I said, hoping to distract him. “Have you any word of her yet?”

He bent his head stiffly, accepting my sympathy.

“No. My own attempts at instigating a search have of course been limited,” he said. “It was at the suggestion of one of my parishioners that I accompanied him and his wife here tonight, with the intention of putting my case before the Governor, and begging his assistance in locating my sister. I assure you, Mrs. Malcolm, no less weighty a consideration would have impelled my attendance at a function such as this.”

He cast a glance of profound dislike at a laughing group nearby, where three young men were competing with each other in the composition of witty toasts to a group of young ladies, who received these attentions with much giggling and energetic fan-fluttering.

“I’m truly sorry for your misfortune, Reverend,” I said, edging aside. “Miss Cowden told me a bit about your sister’s tragedy. If I should be able to be of help…”

“No one can help,” he interrupted. His eyes were bleak. “It was the fault of the Papist Stuarts, with their wicked attempt upon the throne, and the licentious Highlanders who followed them. No, no one can help, save God. He has destroyed the house of Stuart; he will destroy the man Fraser as well, and on that day, my sister will be healed.”

“Fraser?” The trend of the conversation was making me distinctly uneasy. I glanced quickly across the room, but luckily Jamie was nowhere in sight.

“That is the name of the man who seduced Margaret from her family and her proper loyalties. His may not have been the hand that struck her down, but it was on his account that she had left her home and safety, and placed herself in danger. Aye, God will requite James Fraser fairly,” he said with a sort of grim satisfaction at the thought.

“Yes, I’m sure he will,” I murmured. “If you will excuse me, I believe I see a friend…” I tried to escape, but a passing procession of footmen bearing dishes of meat blocked my way.

“God will not suffer lewdness to endure forever,” the Reverend went on, evidently feeling that the Almighty’s opinions coincided largely with his own. His small gray eyes rested with icy disapproval on a group nearby, where several ladies fluttered around Mr. Willoughby like bright moths about a Chinese lantern.

Mr. Willoughby was brightly lit, too, in more than one sense of the word. His high-pitched giggle rose above the laughter of the ladies, and I saw him lurch heavily against a passing servant, nearly upsetting a tray of sorbet cups.

“Let the women learn with all sobriety,” the Reverend was intoning, “avoiding all gaudiness of clothing and broided hair.” He seemed to be hitting his stride; no doubt Sodom and Gomorrah would be up next. “A woman who has no husband should devote herself to the service of the Lord, not be disporting herself with abandon in public places. Do you see Mrs. Alcott? And she a widow, who should be engaged in pious works!”

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