Book One in
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Being the First
Book in the
© 1993, 2007
“You are a prideful, willful, ungrateful wretch!”
This was my mother speaking—or rather screeching—to me, her only son.
To be fair, it was not one of her better days, but she had very few of those, and it was difficult to discern any improvement in her temper at the best of times. Good or bad, it was wise to treat her with the unquestioning respect that she demanded, if not openly, then by implication. I had failed to observe that unspoken rule of behavior, and for the next few minutes was treated to a sneering, acid-filled lecture particularizing the apparently numberless negative aspects of my character. Considering that until recently she’d spent fifteen of my seventeen years removed from my company, she had a surprisingly large store of knowledge to draw upon for her invective.
By the time she’d paused for breath I’d flushed red from head to foot and sweat stung under my arms and seeped along my flanks. I was breathing hard from the effort required to contain my own hot emotions.
“And don’t you dare glower at your mother like that, Jonathan Fonteyn,” she ordered.
What, then, am I to do? I snarled back to her in my mind. And she’d used my middle name, which I hated, which was exactly why she’d used it. It was her maiden name, yet one more tie to her other than blood. With a massive effort, I swallowed and tried to compose my face to more neutral lines. It helped to look down.
“I am sorry, Mother. Please forgive me.” The words were clearly forced and wooden, fooling no one. A show of submission was required at this point to prevent her from launching into another tirade.
Unhampered by the obligation of filial respect, the woman was free to glare at me for as long as she pleased. She had it down to a fine art. She also made no acknowledgment of what I’d just said, meaning that she had not accepted my apology. Such gracious gestures of forgiveness were reserved only for those times when a third party was present as a witness to her loving patience with a wayward son. We were alone in Father’s library now; not even a servant was within earshot of her honey-on-broken-glass voice.
I continued to study the floor until she moved herself to speak again. “I will hear no more of your nonsense, Jonathan. There’s many another young man who would gladly trade places with you.”
Find one, I thought. I would just as cheerfully strike a bargain with him on this very spot.
“The arrangements have been made and cannot be unmade. You’ve no reason to find complaint with any of it.”
True, I had to admit that in spite of my anger. The opportunity was fabulous, something I’d have eagerly jumped for had it been presented to me in any other manner, preferably as one adult to another. What was so objectionable was having everything arranged without my knowledge and sprung without warning and with no room for discussion.
I took a deep breath in the hope that it would steady me and tried to push the resentment away. The breath had to be let out slowly and silently, lest she interpret it as some sort of impertinence.
Finally raising my eyes, I said, “I am quite overwhelmed, Mother. This is rather unexpected.”
“I hardly think so,” she replied. “Your father and I long ago determined that you would go into law.”
Liar. I had decided that for myself in the years she’d been living away from us in Philadelphia. If only she had stayed there.
“It is our fondest hope that you not only follow in his footsteps, but surpass him in your success.”
My jaw clamped tight at the unmistakable sarcasm in her emphasis of certain words. This time the anger was on Father’s behalf, not for myself. How could she think him a failure?
“To do that, you must have the best education possible. Don’t think that this is a mere whim of ours. I—we—have studied the choices carefully over the years and determined that Harvard is simply not capable of delivering the best that is available....”
Just after breakfast, she’d sent for me to come to her in the library. I was mildly apprehensive, wondering what the trouble was this time. It was yet too early in the day for me to have done anything to offend her, unless she’d found something to criticize in the way I chewed my food. I’d not discounted it as a possibility.
As with most of our meals now we’d eaten in uncomfortable silence, Mother at her long-empty spot at one end of the table, and my sister, Elizabeth, across from me in the middle. Father’s place at the head of the table was empty, as he was away on a business errand.
Such silence at the morning meal was new to this household. It had settled upon us like a heavy scavenger bird with Mother’s return home. Elizabeth and I had learned that it was better to remain quiet indefinitely than to speak before spoken to lest we draw some disapproving sharpness from her.
The servants were not as lucky. Today one of the girls chanced to drop a spoon, and though no harm was done, she received a lengthy rebuke for her clumsiness that left her in tears. Elizabeth exchanged glances with me while Mother’s attention was distracted from us. It was going to be a bad day for everyone, then.
Somehow we got through one more meal under this threatening cloud. Weeks earlier, my sister and I had agreed to always finish eating and leave at the same time so that neither had to face such adversity alone. We did so again, asking permission to be excused and getting it, and had just made good our escape when one of the servants caught up to us and delivered the summons. I was to come to the library at seven of the clock precisely.
“Why couldn’t she have said something when we’d been right there in the room with her?” I whispered to Elizabeth after the servant was gone. “Is speaking to me directly so difficult?”
“It’s her way of doing things, Jonathan,” she replied, but not in a manner to indicate approval. “Just agree with whatever she says and we’ll sort it out with Father later.”
“Do you know what she wants?” I felt justified in my apprehension. Mother was an expert at criticism. She could turn the smallest of errors—real or imagined— into a capital offense.
“Heavens, it could be anything. You know how she is.”
“Unfortunately, yes. May I come see you afterward? I might need you to bind up my wounds.”
She burst into that radiant smile reserved only for me. “Yes, little brother. I’ll go look for some bandages immediately.”
I took myself away and knocked on the library door just as the mantle clock within struck seven. Well, she could not criticize me for being too late or too early.
Mother had seated herself in the chair next to Father’s desk; it would have been overdoing things to actually take over his chair. She was canny enough to avoid that. The idea was to suggest his invisible presence approving her every action and word. I was sharply aware of this and not at all fooled, but also not about to make mention of it. In the month since her return, I’d had to face her here alone on a dozen minor transgressions; this was starting out no more differently than the others. I’d speculated that she’d noticed the new buckles on my shoes and was going to deliver a scorching opinion of their style and cost. The other lectures had been on a similar level of importance. I was glad to know that Elizabeth was standing by ready to soothe my burns when it was over.
Mother had assumed the demeanor of royalty granting an anxiously awaited audience, studying some letter or other as I walked in, her wide skirts carefully arranged, the tilt of her head just right. She could not have been an actress, though, for she was much too obvious in her method and would have been hooted from the stage in a serious drama. Farce, perhaps. Yes, she might have been perfect at farce, playing the role of the domineering dowager.
Marie Fonteyn Barrett had been very beautiful once, slender, graceful, with eyes as blue as an autumn sky, her skin milk white and milk soft. So she appeared in her portrait above the library fireplace. In the twenty years since its painting the milk had curdled, the grace turned to stiff arrogance. The eyes were the same color, but had gone hard, so that they seemed less real than the ones in the painting. Her hair was different as well. No more were the flowing black curls of a young bride; now it was piled high over her creased brow and thickly powdered. In the last month it had grown out a bit and needed rearranging. Perhaps she would even wash it and begin afresh. I could but hope for it. Her tense stabbings and jabbings at that awful pile of lard caked with rice flour with her ivory scratching stick got on my nerves.
The curtains were open and cold April sunshine, still too immature for warmth, leached through the windows. The wood in the fireplace had not been lighted, so the room was chilly. Mother was a great believer in conserving household supplies unless it concerned her own comfort. The lack of fire gave me hope that our interview would be mercifully short.
“Jonathan,” she said, putting aside the paper in her hand. I recognized it as part of the normal litter on Father’s desk, something she’d merely grabbed up to use as a prop. Why was the woman so contrived in her deportment?
“Mother.” The word was still awkward for me to say.
She smiled with a benevolent satisfaction that raised my apprehensions somewhat. “Your father and I have some wonderful news for you.”
If the news was so wonderful, why was Father not here to deliver it with her? “Indeed, Mother? Then I am anxious to hear it.”
“You will be very pleased to learn that you will be going to Cambridge for your university education.”
That was hardly news to me, but I put on something resembling good cheer for her sake. “Yes, I am very pleased. I have been looking forward to it all year.”
Her brows lowered and eyes narrowed with irritation. Perhaps I was not as pleased as had been expected.
“I shall do my absolute best at Harvard to make you and Father proud of me,” I added hopefully.
Now her mouth thinned. “You will be going to Cambridge, Jonathan.”
“Yes, Mother, I know. Harvard University is located in Cambridge.”
Fury, red-faced and frightening to look upon, suddenly distorted her features so she hardly seemed human. Somehow, I had said the wrong thing. I almost stepped backward. Almost. Her rages were common. We’d all seen this side of her many times and learned by trial and error how to avoid them, but this one mystified me. What had I said? Why was she—?
“You dare to mock me, Jonathan? You dare?”
I raised one hand in a calming gesture. “No, Mother, never.”
“You dare?” Her voice rose enough to break my ears, enough to reach the servants’ hall. Hopefully, they would know better than to come investigate the din.
“No, Mother. I swear to you, I am not mocking you. I sincerely apologize that I have given offense.” Such words came easily; she’d given me ample opportunity for practice over the weeks. I finished off with a bow to emphasize my complete earnestness. Yet another occasion to study the floor.
Thank God that this time it worked. Straightening, I saw her color slowly return to normal and the lines in her face abruptly smoothed out. This strange, swift recovery was more disturbing than her instant rage. Since her return, I’d quickly adjusted to the fact that she was not like other people, which was hardly a comfort during those times when her differences from them were so acutely displayed.
Dominance established, she resumed where she’d left off, almost as though nothing had happened. “You are going to Cambridge, Jonathan. Cambridge in England, Jonathan,” she repeated, putting a razor edge on each syllable as though to underscore my abysmal ignorance.
It took me some moments to understand, to sort out the mistake. I suppose that she’d been anticipating a torrent of enthusiasm from me. Instead, my face fell and from my lips popped the first words that came to mind. “But I want to go to Harvard.”
That’s when the explosion truly came and she started calling me names.
You know the rest.
What was she saying now? Something about the virtues of Cambridge. I did not interrupt; it would have been pointless. She wasn’t interested in my opinions or plans I might have made. Any and all objections had been drowned in the hot tidal wave of her temper. To resurrect them again now would only aggravate her more. As Elizabeth had reminded me, I could sort it all out with Father later.
Did Father know about this? I couldn’t believe that he would not have spoken to me about it before leaving yesterday. Surely he would have said something, for he, too, had planned that I should go to Harvard. That she had waited until he was absent before breaking her news took on a fresh and ominous meaning, but I couldn’t quite see the reason behind it yet. It was difficult to think while she talked on and on, pausing only to collect the occasional nodding agreement from me at appropriate points.
Why was she so concerned about my education after fifteen years of blithe neglect? Marie Fonteyn Barrett had been singularly uninterested in either of her children since we were very small. It was a mixed blessing for us; growing up without a mother had left something of a blank spot in our lives. On the other hand, what sort of broken monsters might we have been had she stayed with Father instead of moving to Philadelphia?
She’d made the long journey from there to our home on Long Island because of the turmoil in that city. With the rebels stirring things up at every opportunity, it had become too dangerous to remain, so she had written Father, and he, being a good and decent man, had said her house was there for her, the doors open. Her swift arrival soon after the receipt of her letter caused us to speculate that she had not actually waited for his reply.
She’d just as swiftly assumed the running of the household in her own manner, subtly and not so subtly disrupting every level of life and work for everyone on our estate. Surprisingly, only a few servants left. Most were very loyal to Father and had the understanding that this was to be a brief visit. When things had settled back to normal in Philadelphia, Mother would soon depart from us.
A likely chance, I thought cynically. Surely she was enjoying herself too much to leave.
She paused in her speech; apparently I’d been delinquent in my latest response.
“This is . . . is marvelous to hear, Mother. I hardly know what to say.”
“A ‘thank you’ would be appropriate.
Yes, of course it would. “Thank you, Mother.”
She nodded, comically regal, but not a bit amusing. My stomach was roiling in reaction to the tempest between my ears. I had to get out of here.
“May I be excused, Mother?”
“Excused? I should think you’d want to hear all the rest of the details we have planned.”
“Truly I do, but must confess that my brain is whirling so much now I am hardly able to breathe. I beg but a little time to recover so that I may give you my full attention later.”
“Very well. I suppose you’ll run off to tell Elizabeth everything.”
To this, a correct assumption that was really none of her business, I made another courtly bow upon which she could apply her own interpretation.
She sniffed. “You are excused. But remember: no arguments and no more foolishness. Going to Cambridge in England is the greatest opportunity you’re ever going to receive to make something of yourself.”
“Yes, Mother.” I bowed again, inching anxiously toward the door.
“This is, after all, for your own good,” she concluded serenely.
Anger rushed through me again as I turned and stalked from the room. How fond she was of that idea. God save me from all the hideous people hell-bent on doing things for my own good. So far there’d been only one in my life, my mother, and she was more than enough.
Quietly shutting the door behind me, I slipped down the hall until there was enough distance between us for noise not to matter, then began to run as though the house were afire. Not bothering with a coat or hat, I threw myself outside into the cold April air. The woman was suffocating. I needed to be free of her and all thought of her. My feet carried me straight to the stables. With its mud, muck, and the irreverent company of the lads, this was one place I would be safe.
“Over here, Mr. Jonathan!”
My black servant, Jericho, waved at me. He was just emerging from the darkness of one of the buildings. Though he was primarily my valet and therefore supposed to keep to the house, neither of us paid much attention to such things. He was fairly high up in the household hierarchy and able to bend a rule here and there as long as nobody minded. If he chose to play the part of a groom, he suffered no loss in status, because working with horses was a source of pleasure for him. Right now, he was a godsend, for he’d saddled up Rolly, my favorite hunter, and was leading him out to me.
I couldn’t help but laugh at his foresight. “How did you guess? Magic?”
“No magic,” he said, smiling at the old joke between us. He used to tease the servant girls about being able to read their deepest thoughts and as a dedicated observer of human nature he was right more often than not. The younger ones were awed, the older ones amused, and one rather guilty-hearted wench accused him of witchcraft. “I’d heard that Mrs. Barrett wanted to speak to you. Every other time that’s happened you’ve come here to ride it off.”
“You’re uncanny. Thank you, Jericho. Will you join me?”
“I rather assumed you would prefer the solitude.”
Right again. Perhaps he did have hidden powers of divination.
He held Rolly’s head as I swung up to the saddle and helped with the stirrups. “I’ll tell Miss Elizabeth where you are,” he said before I could ask him to do exactly that.
I laughed again, at the wonderful normality he represented, and took up the reins. Knowing what was to come next and how eager I was to get started, Rolly danced away and sprang forward with hardly a signal from me. Doing something that Mother would disapprove of was what I needed most, and leaving the stable yard at a full gallop to jump over a wall into the fields beyond was a most satisfying form of rebellion.
Rolly was almost as perceptive as Jericho and seemed to sense that I wanted to fly as fast and as far as possible. The cold wind roaring past us deafened me to the strident echoes of Mother’s voice and blinded me to the memory of her distorted face. She shrank to less than nothing and was lost amid the joy I now felt clinging to the back of the best horse in the world as he carried me to the edge of that world—or at least to the cliffs overlooking the Sound.
We slowed at last, though for a moment I thought that if Rolly decided to leap out toward the sea instead of turning to trot parallel to it he would easily sprout the necessary wings to send us soaring into the sky like some latter-day Pegasus and Bellerophon. What a ride that might be, and I would certainly know better than to try flying him to Mount Olympus to seek out the gods. They could wait for their own turn . . . if I ever let them have one.
The air cutting over us was clean with the sea smell and starting to warm up as the sun climbed higher. I drank it in like a true-born hedonist until my lungs ached and my throat burned. Rolly picked his own path, and I let him, content enough with the privilege of being on his back. We went east, into the wind, him stretching his neck, his ears up with interest, me busy holding my balance over the uneven ground. The trot sped up to a canter and he shook his head once as though to free himself of the bridle as we approached another fence.
The property it marked belonged to a farmer named Finch who kept a few horses of his own. His lands were smaller than Father’s, and he could not afford to have riding animals, but the rough look of the mares on that side made no difference to Rolly, aristocrat though he was. In his eyes a female was a female and to the devil with her looks and age as long as she was ready for mounting. Obviously one of them was in season. I barely had time to turn him and keep him from sailing over the fence right into the middle of them all.
Rolly snorted and neighed out a protest. One of the other horses answered and I had to work hard at getting him out of there.
“Sorry, old man,” I told him. “You may have an excellent bloodline, but I don’t think Mr. Finch would thank you for passing it on through his mares.”
He stamped and tried to rear, but I pulled him in, not letting him get away with it.
“If it’s any consolation, I know just how you feel,” I confided.
I was seventeen and still a virgin . . . of sorts. I’d long since worked out ways around certain inevitable frustrations that come from being a healthy young man, but instinctively knew they could hardly be as gratifying as actual experience with an equally healthy young woman. Damn. Now, why did I have to start thinking along those paths again? An idiotic question; better to frame it as a syllogism of logic. Premise one: I was, indeed, healthy; premise two: I was, indeed, young. Combine those and I rarely failed to come to a pleasurable conclusion when the desire was upon me. However, I was not prepared to come to any such conclusions here in the open while on horseback. That was definitely something guaranteed to garner maternal disapproval ... and I’d probably fall out of the saddle.
The true loss of my virginity was another goal in my personal education I’d planned to achieve at Harvard—if I ever got there, since Mother had said that everything was settled about Cambridge. I wondered if they had girls at Cambridge. Oh, God, this wasn’t helping at all. I kicked Rolly into a jarring trot, hoping that it would distract me. The last thing I needed was to return home with any telltale stain on my light-colored breeches. Perhaps if I found a quiet spot in the woods …
I knew just the one.
As children, Elizabeth, Jericho, and I had gone adventuring, or what we called adventuring, for we really knew the area quite well. Usually our games involved a treasure hunt, for everyone on the island knew that Captain Kidd had come here to bury his booty. It didn’t matter to us that such riches were more likely to be fifty miles east of us on the south end of the island; the hunting was more important than the finding. But instead of treasure that day, I’d found a kettle, or a sharpish depression gouged into the earth by some ancient glacier, according to my schoolmaster. Trees and other vegetation concealed its edge. My foot slipped on some wet leaves and down I tumbled into a typical specimen of Long Island’s geography.
Jericho came pelting after me, fearful that I had broken my neck. Elizabeth, though hampered by her skirts, followed almost as quickly, shouting tear-choked questions after him. I was almost trampled by their combined concern and inability to stop fast enough.
The wind had certainly been knocked from me, but I’d suffered nothing worse than scrapes and bruises. After the initial fright passed we took stock of our surroundings and claimed it for our own. It became our pirate’s cave (albeit open to the sky and to any cattle that wandered in to graze), banditti’s lair, and general sanctuary from tiresome adults wanting us to do something more constructive with our time.
Now it seemed that it was still a sanctuary, not from adults, but for adults. Just as I’d guided Rolly down to the easy way into the kettle, I noticed two people far ahead near the line of trees marking the entry. A man and woman walked arm in arm there, obviously on the friendliest of terms.
And even at that distance I abruptly recognized my father. What was he doing here…oh.
The woman with him was Mrs. Montagu, his mistress for the last dozen years. She was a sweet-faced, sweet-tempered widow who had always been kind to me and Elizabeth, was everything that Mother was not. Mother, thank God, knew nothing about her, or life for all of us would truly become a living hell.
It was a quietly acknowledged fact in our household that most of Fathers business errands took him no more than three miles away so he might visit Matilda Montagu. Their relationship was hardly a secret, but not something to bring up in open conversation. They had not asked for this privacy, but got it, anyway, for both were liked and respected hereabouts. They were discreet and that was all that was required for people to turn a blind eye.
I’d pulled Rolly to a stop and now almost urged him in their direction to tell him what had transpired, then changed my mind.
No. Not fair, to interrupt them, I thought.
Father had little enough happiness of his own since Mother’s return; I would not trespass upon their tryst with my present troubles. We could talk later. Besides, I had no wish to embarrass him by bringing up the disagreeable details of his wife’s latest offenses before his mistress.
Father and Mrs. Montagu continued their leisurely morning walk, unaware of me, which was just as well. It was interesting to watch them together, for this was a side of Father that I’d never really seen. I was somewhat uncomfortable with my curiosity, but not so much as to move on.
Not that I expected them to suddenly seize each other and start rolling on the cold damp ground in a frenzy of passion. Nor would I have stayed to watch, my curiosity being limited by the discretions of good taste. But between the demands of my preparatory education and all the other distractions, of life, I’d had few opportunities to observe the rules of courtship in our polite society. So far it hardly looked different from the servants’, for I’d occasionally seen them strolling about with one another making similar displays of affection.
He had one arm around her waist, one hand, rather. Her wide skirts kept him from getting much closer. He also leaned his head down toward her so as to miss nothing of whatever she was saying. And he was laughing. That was good to see. He had not done much of that in the last month. What about his other hand? Occupied with carrying a bundle or basket. Full of food, probably. It was hardly the best weather for eating comfortably out of doors, but they seemed content to ignore it as long as they were together.
Interesting. Now they paused to face each other. Father stooped slightly and kissed her on the lips for a very long time. My own mouth went dry. Perhaps it was time to leave. As I dithered with indecision their kiss ended and they turned to walk into the shadow of the trees. They did not come out again.
Rolly snorted impatiently and dropped his head to snatch a mouthful of new grass just peeping through last year’s dead layer. At some point my fleshly cravings had also altered so that carnal leanings had been supplanted by extreme hunger. The sun was high and far over; I’d been out for hours and had long since digested my breakfast. And there was Elizabeth, who would be wondering whether I’d been thrown. She loved horses too, but didn’t trust Rolly to behave himself.
I turned him back up the rise leading around the kettle, heading home.
The horse being more valuable than its rider, I took care of Rolly myself when we reached the stables. As a menial job, I could have easily left it for one of the lads to do and no one would have thought twice about it. Especially Mother. I was raised to be a gentleman and clearly imagined her disapproval while going about my caretaking tasks. But where horses were concerned, such work was no work at all for me. Defiance doubled, I thought, humming with pleasure. Jericho wasn’t there or he might have willingly helped out—if I’d invited him. I made a fast job of it, though, and before long was marching up to the kitchen to wheedle a meal from the cook.
Then someone hissed from around a corner of the house. Elizabeth stood there, eyes comically wide and lips compressed, urgently waving at me to come over. Curiosity won out over hunger.
“What is it?” I asked, trotting up.
“Not so loud,” she insisted, grabbing my arm and dragging me around the corner. She visibly relaxed once we were out of sight from the kitchen.
“What is it?” I repeated, now mimicking her hoarse whisper.
“Mother was furious that you missed lunch.”
I gave vent to an exasperated sigh and raised my voice back to normal. “Damnation, but I’m an adult and my time is my own. She’s never minded before.”
“Yes, but she wanted to talk to you about Cambridge.”
“She told you all that nonsense?”
“In extraordinary detail. She seems to have decided how you’re to spend your next few years—down to the last minute.”
“How very thorough of her.”
“She’s in the kitchen with Mrs. Nooth planning out meals, and I didn’t think you’d want to run into her.”
I took one of Elizabeth’s hands and solemnly bowed over it. “For that, dear sister, you have my undying gratitude, but I am famished and must eat. A fellow can hardly spend his life going about in fear of his own mother.”
“Ha! It’s not fear, it’s only avoiding a disagreeable encounter.”
She was quite right. I really didn’t want to face the woman on an empty stomach; some alternative needed to be thought up, but not out here. The day had warmed a little, but Elizabeth’s hand was icy. “Let’s go inside, you’re freezing. Where’s your shawl?”
She shrugged, indifferent to the chill. “Upstairs someplace. You should be the one to talk; look at yourself, riding all morning without hat, coat, or even gloves. It will serve you right if you get the rheumatics, God forbid.”
I shrugged as well. The ailments of age were still very far away for me. My morning’s ride was worth a spot of stiffness in the joints. We went in by the same side door I’d used to escape, and Elizabeth led me to the library. A good fire was blazing there now, and abruptly forgetting our lack of concern about the cool day, we rushed toward it like moths.
“So you think your going to Cambridge is nonsense?” she asked, stretching out her hands and spreading her long fingers against the flames.
“Mmm. The woman’s mad. When I see Father I’ll sort it out with him as you said.
“She’s very sure of herself. What if he’s on her side?”
“Why should he be?”
“Because he usually does whatever she wants. It’s not as wearing on the soul, you know. Or as noisy.”
“I don’t think he will for something as important as this. Besides, look at the impracticality of it. Why send me all the way to England to read law? It may garner me some status, but what else?”
“An education?” she suggested.
“There’s that, but everyone knows you really go to university to make the kind of friends and acquaintances who will become useful later in life. If I do that in England, they’ll be left behind when I return home.”
“You’ve become cynical already, little brother?” She was hardly a year older than me, but had always taken enjoyment from her position as the eldest.
“Realistic. I’ve spent a lot of time in this very room listening to Father and his cronies while they’re sharing a bottle. I can practice law well enough, but I’ll be better at it for having a few friends ’round me as he does. Which reminds me . . .” I quit the fireplace to open a nearby cupboard and poured myself a bit of wine to keep my strength up. My stomach snarled ingratitude at the thoughtful gesture. It wanted real food.
Elizabeth giggled at the noise. She looked remarkably like the portrait above her. Prettier, I thought. Livelier. Certainly saner.
“What is it?” she asked, taking note of my distraction.
“I was just thinking that you could have almost posed for that.” I indicated the painting.
She stood away for a better look. “Perhaps, but my face is longer. If it’s all the same to you, I would prefer not to be compared to her at all.”
“She may have been different back then,” I pointed out. “If not, then why did Father ever marry her and have us?”
“That’s hardly our business, Jonathan.”
“It certainly is since we’re the living results of their . . . affection?… for one another.”
“Now you’re being crude.”
“No I’m not. When I get crude, you’ll know it, dear sister. Who do I look like?”
She tilted her head, unknowingly copying Mother’s affected mannerism, but in an unaffected way. “Father, of course, but younger and not as heavy.”
“Father’s not fat,” I protested.
“You know what I mean. When men get older they either go to fat or put on another layer of muscle.”
“Ugh. But not you. You’ve put on the muscle and look just like him.”
“That’s reassuring.” We always regarded Father as being a very handsome man.
“Peacock,” said Elizabeth, reading my face and thus my thoughts. I grinned and saluted her with my glass. It was empty, but I corrected that. The wine tasted wonderful but it was shooting straight to my head for having nothing in my belly to slow things.
“Mother will burst a blood vessel if you turn up drunk in the kitchen,” she observed without rancor. “Or anyplace else for that matter.”
“If I really get drunk, then I shan’t care. Would you like some?”
“Yes,” she said decisively, and got a wineglass. “She’ll make drunkards of us all before she’s finished. I’m surprised Father isn’t…”
“Father has other occupations to distract him from unpleasantries,” I said, pouring generously and thinking fondly of Mrs. Montagu.
“I wish I did,” she muttered, and drained off half her portion. “Father goes out, you have your riding and studies, but I’m expected to sit here all day and find contentment with needlework, household duties, and numbering out my prospects.”
Elizabeth’s mouth twisted in disgust. “After she finished going on about Cambridge, she started asking me about the unmarried men in the area.”
“All of them, including old Mr. Cadwallader. He must be seventy if he’s a day.”
“But very rich.”
“Now who’s taking sides?”
“Not I. I was thinking the way she would think.”
“Please don’t.” Elizabeth groaned and finished her wine. I made to pour her another, and she did not refuse it. “I hope things settle down quickly in Philadelphia so she can go back. I know that it’s wicked, wishing one’s mother away, but ...”
“She’s only our mother by reason of birth,” I said. “If it comes to it, Mrs. Montagu’s been more of a mother to us. Or even Mrs. Nooth. I wish Father had married her instead. Mrs. Montagu, that is.”
“Then neither of us would have been ourselves, and we wouldn’t be sitting here getting drunk.”
“It’s something to think about, isn’t it?”
“A most wicked thought, though,” she concluded with an unrepentant grimace.
“Yes, I’m born to be hanged for that one.”
“God forbid,” she added.
As one, we lifted our glasses in a silent toast to many different things. I felt pleasantly muzzy now, with my limbs heavy and glowing from inner warmth. It was too nice a feeling to dispel with the inevitable scolding that awaited me the moment I stepped into the kitchen.
“P’haps,” I speculated, “I should leave Mother and Mrs. Nooth to their work. It would be boorish to disturb them.”
Elizabeth instantly noted my change of mind and smiled, shaking her head in mock sadness for my lost bravado.
“P’haps,” I continued thoughtfully, “I could just borrow a loaf of bread from one of the lads, then pick up a small cheese from the buttery. That would fill me ’til supper. Father should be home by then and Mother will have something else to be bothered about besides me.”
“And have one of the servants blamed for the theft of the cheese?”
“I’ll leave a note, confessing all,” I promised gravely. “Mrs. Nooth will surely forgive . . .”
Then something soured inside and the game lost its charm. “Damnation, this is my own house. Why should I creep around like a thief?”
Someone’s shoe heels clacked and clattered hollowly against the wood floor of the hall. Elizabeth and I instantly recognized a familiar step and hastily replaced the glasses and wine bottle in the cupboard. The answer to my plaintive question swung into the doorway just as we shut everything away and turned our innocent faces toward her in polite regard.
She wasn’t fooled by our pose. “What are you two doing?” she demanded.
“Only talking, Mother,” said Elizabeth.
Mother sniffed, either in disbelief or disdain. Fortunately she was too far away to pick up any scent of the wine. She turned an unfriendly eye upon me. “And where were you all day? Mrs. Nooth placed a perfectly good meal on the table and your portion went to waste.”
With as many servants as we had, I doubted that. “I’m sorry, Mother.”
“You’ll tender your apologies to Mrs. Nooth. She was very offended.”
And very forgiving. And in the kitchen. With the food. “Indeed, Mother? I shall go to her immediately and make amends.”
She’d heard me but had not listened. “Where were you, Jonathan?”
“Inspecting the fields,” I answered easily. It was mostly true, but I resented that this woman was turning me into a liar.
“Never mind such things. You’ve far more important duties before you than farming. From now on leave menial work to those men who have been hired for it.”
“Yes, Mother.” My head began spinning with that peculiar weighty disorientation that I associated with intoxication. With each passing minute the wine soaked more deeply into me, increasing its effect, but I was careful not to let it show.
“As long as you’re here I want to continue our talk about your education. Elizabeth, you are excused.”
From where I stood, I clearly saw the flash of anger in my sister’s eyes at being dismissed as though she were one of the servants. Her mouth tightened and her chin lifted, but she said nothing, nothing at all, quite loudly, all the way out the door.
Mother did not ignore her so much as simply not notice. Her attention was entirely fixed upon me. She crossed the room to the chair she’d claimed next to Father’s desk and arranged herself. I was not invited to sit, nor did I ask to do so. It might unnecessarily prolong our interview. My stomach, presently awash with wine, would provide me with a valid reason to depart soon enough. I was still hungry, but that was outweighed by the need to hear her out and to gain information in order to present a logical argument against it later. To Father. I knew better than to contend with his wife, who was partial to only her own unique logic and no one else’s.
She produced her ivory scratching stick from somewhere and tapped it lightly against the palm of one hand. “And now, Jonathan,” she announced importantly, “we will plan out what you are going to do once you get to Cambridge.” She paused to poke vigorously at a spot above the nape of her neck with the stick. My teeth instantly went on edge.
Never, never in all my life was I so glad to be drunk.
Some twenty minutes later Mother generously excused me, by which time I’d developed a pressing need to rid myself of the wine. A good deal of it remained behind in my head, though, for it was aching badly. The pain so interfered with my thinking that afterward I couldn’t decide whether to visit the kitchen or retreat in misery to my room to sleep it away.
Jericho resolved things when he emerged from the hall leading to the kitchen carrying a covered tray.
“Is that for me?” I asked hopefully in response to his smile of greeting.
“Miss Elizabeth suggested it,” he said. “Something to see you through until supper.”
“Then God bless her for being the dearest, sweetest sister anyone ever had. Where is she?”
“Out taking a ride of her own.”
“Yes. Since Mother came back the horses are getting more than their share of exercise. Come, put that down somewhere.”
“I would suggest that you take it in your sitting room. To avoid interruptions,” he added significantly.
I glanced uneasily back at the library and indicated that he should lead the way upstairs.
Somehow I was able to follow, leaning heavily on the rail and gulping frequently. Hot in the face and dizzy, I staggered the last few feet into my room and collapsed in my chair before the big study table. Jericho smoothly moved some books around to make space for my meal. He had the enviable skill of being able to balance the tray with one hand while his other quickly and quite independently made order out of chaos. Between the blink of one eye and the next he put down his burden and whipped off the cloth revealing a plump loaf of bread, some cheese, and a squat jug. From the latter he poured out drink and gave me the cup.
“More wine?” I asked dubiously.
“Barley water. It will thin the wine in your blood.”
“Good idea.” I drank deeply and felt better for it, looking at the food with more interest than before, falling upon the cheese. “There’s too much here for me, have some.” Jericho hesitated, looking uncomfortable. “Is something wrong?”
“No, sir, but I do not think it would be quite—”
“Of course it wouldn’t, so . . .” I kicked out another chair for him. “Those fools in Philadelphia are rebelling against the king without a second thought, so I shall rebel against our local queen. It’s been a hard day, Jericho, and I need your company. Eat or not as you choose, but do sit with me.”
He closed the door to the hall and only then allowed himself the ease of the chair and the comfort of good food.
He was slightly older than I, and his father was my father’s valet. After I was born, they decided that he should assume that duty for me once I had outgrown the nursery. Though a servant, Jericho and I had been friends long before the establishment of his place in the household, and this strict deference for convention troubled me.
“Is it Mother?” I asked, reaching to tear off a piece of bread. I made a mess of it, scattering crumbs everywhere.
“In an indirect way,” he admitted. “We’ve all heard that you’re to go off to England soon.”
“I most certainly am not. She’s got this idea lodged in her head, but Father will shake it loose and that will be the end of it.”
“My bomba isn’t too sure of that,” he said. Jericho spoke perfect English, but sometimes used a few words his father had brought with him from Africa, the only baggage he’d been allowed by the slavers.
Knowing that Archimedes might be privy to information I didn’t, I said, “Why does he think so?”
“Because your father does what your mother says.”
“Now you’re sounding like Elizabeth,” I complained. “But Father is the head of this house. Mother will have to do what he says and she knows that. She waited and told me only after he was gone. She thought to put me on her side so he would say yes to please me. I’ve gone along with it, but only until he comes home.” I took a vicious bite from the cheese. Damnation. The woman was treating me like a petulant child, and now I was beginning to sound like one.
“But until then nothing is settled,” he said.
“You’re worried? What is it?”
“I heard some things in the kitchen. She was talking to Mrs. Nooth, and I wasn’t supposed to be listening.”
“Never mind that. What was said?”
“She wanted Mrs. Nooth to ask around and find a proper English servant to look after you.”
For several moments I lost the power of speech. “To . . . to . . ?”
“To take my place,” he said calmly.
“Impossible. She can’t mean it.”
“But she does. She plans to sell me.”
The blood hit the top of my head so hard that black smoke clouded my vision. Without knowing how I got there, I found myself up and pacing the length of the room. Nothing intelligible came out of me for quite some time and Jericho knew me well enough not to interrupt.
“It’s not going to happen,” I told him finally. “It’s absolutely not going to happen. It’s ridiculous . . . utterly . . . stupid.” Then a cold thought rushed past. “Unless you want to . . . ?”
Now it was his turn to be upset, though he was so self-disciplined that in no wise was it comparable to my own display. “No. A man must work and if I must work then I would rather work here. I do not wish to be sold. But your father might still do it for the sake of peace in the family.”
I shook my head. “Mother can throw whatever sort of fit she pleases, but you are not going to be sold.”
He looked reassured. “I have hope then. This is a good place to be; I know of no better. When other servants visit with their masters I hear of the most terrible things. Here we are treated well and given good care. No beatings, no starvations.”
“That’s something the whole world can do without,” I added. He seemed to feel better, but I continued to pace. “Suppose Father arranged for your freedom? Then I could hire you. Mother couldn’t have anything to do with it then.”
“Except dismiss me and engage a replacement. You have no rights of your own until your twenty-first birthday.”
“Blast. Well, no matter what, I won’t let it happen. I’ll run away to sea first and you can come with me.”
A smile crossed his dark features. “But then you would be guilty of theft.”
“Jericho, you’ve been hanging about with lawyers too long.”
The smile broadened for a moment, then gradually fell in upon itself. I stopped my restless pacing and leaned against a wall and wished Father home immediately. “Why on earth does she want to hire another valet for me? You’re the best there ever was.”
He nodded regally at the compliment. “It is not a question of finding someone better. It is because Mrs. Barrett is extremely fond of all things English. She wants an English servant.”
“No, thank you. He’d only put on airs, correct my speech, and rearrange my clothes so that I couldn’t find anything for myself. And who would I have for company? Except for you and old Rapelji, there’s no one intelligent to talk to.”
His brows pinched together. “But your sister and father—”
“Are my sister and father. You know what I mean. Some of those long conversations we’ve had with Rapelji would have bored them to death.”
He nodded agreement and his brows dropped back into place. “Speaking of him, did he not give you some more Greek to interpret?” He looked at the pile of books on the table before him.
“Doesn’t he always?” Greek was not my favorite study. My tutor well knew that and thus emphasized it more than any other. “I’ll see to it later tonight. My head hurts too much for the work right now.”
“I’ll get you some moss snuff,” he said, rising.
“Ugh, no. Mrs. Nooth can take it herself. It’s never helped any headache I’ve had and never will. I’ll just lie down until the pain’s out of me.”
Pushing away from the wall, I wandered to the bed on the far side of the long room and almost dropped into its welcome comfort. Almost, because Jericho was instantly at my side to remove my coat. Since a refusal to cooperate would only inspire silent, long-suffering reproach from him, I gave in and gave up. Once started, off came the waistcoat and shoes as well, all to be taken away for brushing or polishing. I managed to retain my breeches and outer shirt; both would be changed before going down to supper so it didn’t matter if I napped in them or not.
“When Father comes home . . .”
“I shall inform you in plenty of time,” he promised, as he started for the door.
Then peevishly, I asked, “What the devil is that row?”
Jericho listened with me. “A coach, I think.”
My heart jumped, but only once. Father had left on horseback, not taken the coach. Jericho and I looked at one another in mutual puzzlement, then he gave back my shoes. Curiosity triumphed over my headache. I reached for an especially florid, Oriental-looking dressing gown that Elizabeth had painstakingly made for me, and shrugged it on. “Let’s go see,” I sighed.
No one was in the upper hall, but as we came downstairs we glimpsed one of the maids haring off to the kitchen, no doubt with fresh news for Mrs. Nooth. Mother emerged from the library like a merchant ship under full sail and stopped the girl with a curt order. The little wench came to heel and hastened to open wide the big front door. Outside stood a battered-looking coach and four, and there was much activity about the baggage and two alighting passengers. With a great smile, Mother went out to greet them.
I shifted uneasily and glanced at Jericho. He shrugged slightly. Having endured an extremely long month of Mother’s quirky temperament I was hard-pressed to imagine that anyone or anything could give her joy. Apparently the possibility existed; we’d just never seen it before.
“They must be friends of hers from Philadelphia,” I speculated.
Outside, Mother exchanged a kiss on the cheek with a woman and extended her hand to a man, who bowed deeply over it. Rather too deeply, I thought. What sort of people would find Mother’s company so agreeable that they would come for a visit?
Past the broad threshold the wind blew in a few stray leaves and other . . . rubbish. That’s the word that occurred to me when I got a good look at them. They swept into the house, surveying it with bright eyes as if they owned the place. They noticed me at the same time and the woman gave a little exclamation of pleased surprise.
“Dearest Marie, is this your good son, Jonathan Fonteyn?” she demanded in a loud, flat, and childishly thin voice.
Mother was capable of swift thought and judgment and her conclusion was that now was not the time for introductions; I was not properly dressed to greet guests. “A moment, Deborah, a moment to catch my breath and then I shall ask him to come and meet you.”
Deborah, apparently deducing that she’d been importune, turned a beaming face to Mother and ignored me entirely. The man copied her.
Mother issued a sharp order to the maid for tea and biscuits and then invited her guests into the parlor with a graceful gesture. As they proceeded ahead, she swung a livid face in my direction and pointed upstairs meaningfully.
“Good God,” I muttered sourly from clenched teeth, masking my annoyance with a cordial smile and a nod of understanding. Jericho followed as I fled to my room.
“You know who they are?” he asked, putting down my clothes and smoothly moving toward the wardrobe.
“Friends of hers from Philadelphia. Deborah Hardinbrook and her brother, Theophilous Beldon. I’ve heard her talk about them. At length. She’s the widow of some captain who drowned at sea, and he’s supposed to be a doctor, God help us. Whatever you do, don’t mention my headache to anyone lest it get back to him and he offers to cure it.”
Jericho removed a claret-colored coat from the wardrobe and shook it out.
“Why this one?” I asked, as he helped me into it. “It’s not my best.”
“Exactly. To wear anything really nice might tell these two you wish to impress them. This coat declares that you care nothing about their favor, but at the same time inform them that you are the head of this house in your father’s absence and it is their job to impress you.”
“It will?” All that from one coat?
“It does. Trust me on this matter, Mr. Jonathan.”
I would, for he was always right on such details. “Elizabeth. She’ll have to be warned.”
“And so she shall be,” he promised, pulling out a pair of shoes and inspecting the silver buckles for tarnish. There was none, of course.
“I have these,” I protested, pointing at the ones on my feet.
“New buckles on old shoes,” he chided. “It doesn’t look right, not for a first meeting.”
“We can switch them to another pair.”
He firmly held the shoes out for me. “Wear these. They will demand respect. Save the others for Sunday.”
I grunted and did as I was told.
He was finished in a very few minutes. “There. Sometimes you cannot avoid going into the lion’s den, but when you must, it is better to be well dressed.”
“What makes you think this is a lion’s den?”
“What makes you think it is not?”
“Excellent point. Go find Elizabeth, will you?”
In deference to my sober garb and still-buzzing brain, I did not rush downstairs, though it was tempting. Head high and with a serious face, I paced slowly across the hall to the parlor and paused in the doorway, waiting to be noticed.
Mother had her back to me, so it was Deborah Hardinbrook who looked up and stopped her conversation. Her brother, seated next to her, politely stood. Mother turned and assumed an unfamiliar smile.
“Ah, Jonathan. At last. Do come in and meet my very dear friends.” She conducted us through formal introductions.
On my best behavior, I bowed low over Mrs. Hardinbrook’s hand and expressed my pleasure at meeting her in French. She was about Mother’s age, with a hard eye and lines around her mouth that may have been placed there by laughter but not joy. She assessed me quickly, efficiently, and was fulsome with complements to Mother about me. I felt like an over-priced statue on display, not valued for my own merits, but for the enlargement of its owner.
Dr. Beldon was in his thirties, which also made him seem quite old to me. He was wiry and dark, his brown eyes so large and rounded that they seemed to swell from their sockets. They fastened upon me with an assessment similar to his sister’s but with a different kind of intensity, though what it was, I could not have guessed. We bowed and exchanged the necessary social pleasantries toward one another.
Mrs. Hardinbrook resumed her talk with Mother, giving her a full account of the harrowing journey from Philadelphia. At first I listened with resentful politeness, then with interest, for despite her exaggerations of manner, she was amusing. Mother actually seemed to be enjoying herself. Beldon smiled at appropriate moments and occasionally added comments. Unlike his sister, he made an effort to include me in the conversation. Smiling. Smiling. Smiling.
Toad-eaters, I thought behind my own twisted lips. Fawning in deference to the family wealth. Father had taught me to recognize their sort and to be ’ware of them.
“They’re full of flattery and little else, laddie,” he’d told me. “Having no advantage of their own, they try to put themselves ahead by using others. Useless bloodsuckers, the lot of them, always looking out for their own good, but no one else’s, and with bottomless stomachs. Don’t let them fool you with fair words or use you in any way. No need to waste your time with any of them.”
Perhaps Mother had not heard his opinion, or chose to ignore it. “Where will your journey finally take you, Mrs. Hardinbrook?” I asked when an opening presented itself.
Her face was bright with a shortage of understanding. “I beg your pardon, Master Barrett?”
I ignored the little jibe of her address, meant to place me on a level with beardless children. “Your destination, madam. I was inquiring—”
“This is their destination, Jonathan,” Mother said firmly, indicating the house with the curve of one hand. “Deborah and her brother are my guests.”
This was not unexpected, but certainly unpleasant. Mother’s guests, not Father’s, and absolutely no mention was made of when they would leave.
“How delightful,” I told them, my smile entirely genuine.
There’d be the devil to pay when Father came home, and I looked forward to that confrontation.
# # #
Supper was less of a disaster than I’d anticipated.
When Elizabeth returned from her ride, Jericho headed her off at the stables and passed on the news. She charged up to the house immediately.
“What are they like?” she demanded, bursting in after a quick thump on my bedroom door to announce herself.
“You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.” I was at my table, trying to translate more Greek, but with indifferent results.
“Jonathan, you’re not a lawyer yet, so tell me.”
“Toad-eaters, without a doubt. They seem clever about it, though, so be careful around them. You know what Father says.”
She did, and hurried on to her room to change for supper. I waited in mine until it was time, then escorted her downstairs. She looked perfect in a dress of such a pale gray as to be nearly white with touches of dark pink throughout. The latter, I abruptly noticed, complemented my claret-colored coat in some subtle way. We would present a united front against these invaders, if they bothered to notice.
Mrs. Hardinbrook was again effusive in her praise when she and Elizabeth were introduced. Elizabeth returned one of the complements in French. Our guest was astonished that she was able to speak a foreign language so easily.
“It’s nothing,” Elizabeth demurred. “I understand that even the children in France do so.”
This went right over Mrs. Hardinbrook’s uncomprehending head; Mother glowered ineffectively, but Beldon smothered a knowing smile. When his turn came he bowed gravely over Elizabeth’s hand and expressed his enchantment with her. She was politely cool and made no reply beyond a civil nod. Even Mother could find no fault with her for that.
We went in to supper, which, oddly enough, was made bearable by the presence of the guests. They distracted Mother, and for the first time in a month the usual heavy silence was lifted from the table. The relief lasted for the whole meal. Elizabeth and I said next to nothing throughout, our ears instinctively open for information on these strangers.
Mrs. Hardinbrook managed to eat and talk at the same time, rolling along at a quick pace and cleaning her plate down to the last crumb. She spoke of this happening or that person, familiar to Mother, but not to us. Now and then she would touch on a general topic for a time and then our listening became less tedious.
Beldon was taciturn compared to his sister, who made enough speech for both of them. We already knew he was a doctor and learned that his practice had been unfairly disrupted by the unpleasantness in Philadelphia. One of the last people he’d been called to treat had been a victim of a mob of rebel ruffians.
“Poor fellow was dragged right from his home and beaten. They said he’d narrowly escaped being tarred and feathered except for the arrival of some of his friends. Then it was canes and clubs, gentlemen against the rowdies, who were soundly beaten themselves and sent away howling like beasts.”
“Being beasts, they only got what they deserved,” added Mrs. Hardinbrook with a chuckle for her own joke.
“Beasts, indeed,” sniffed Mother. “Why was he beaten?”
“He’s Tory, which is reason enough for them,” answered Beldon. “These rebel louts have nothing better to do with themselves than stay drunk most of the time, and that heats up the brain. Then it only takes the wrong word in the right ear to set them off like tinder. Some of these rebels are men of education, but most seem to be louts of the lowest class with more wind than brains and more willing to blame the king for their woes than apply themselves to wholesome work. If there had been any proper enforcement of the law, they’d be in jail for sedition instead of hailed as heroes by the ignorant. No good will come of it, mark me.”
“What about the injured man?” asked Elizabeth.
“Oh, he’ll be all right, by and by. He went to live with his daughter and son-in-law on their farm. After tending to the poor fellow I came to realize that dear Deborah and I would no longer be safe ourselves, so we closed up the house and came here to accept the kind invitation your mother extended to us.”
“And glad I am that you did,” said Mother. “Beatings, tar, and feathers. Why, the two of you might have been murdered in your beds.”
Mrs. Hardinbrook shivered appreciatively at her narrow escape.
“The lot of them should be in jail, down to the last cowardly dog, and the rabble-rousers hanged on the common. What do you think, Mr. Barrett?” Beldon turned toward me.
“I agree,” I said heartily. Anyone who had the least responsibility for shifting Beldon and his sister from Philadelphia to my home certainly deserved some sort of severe punishment.
After supper, Mother suggested—or rather ordered—us to remove to the music room so Elizabeth could entertain us by playing on her spinet. This was greeted with enthusiasm from Mrs. Hardinbrook and resignation from Elizabeth.
“Do you play an instrument, Mr. Barrett?” asked Beldon.
“Not a note,” I said. “I enjoy music, but haven’t the ear or hand to reproduce it for myself.”
“What a pity,” said Mrs. Hardinbrook. “Theophilous is quite good with a fiddle. Perhaps he could play a duet with Miss Barrett.” She had a crafty look in her eye, the idea behind it so insufferably transparent that Mother’s head jerked warningly. If his sister did not notice it, Beldon certainly did.
“Another time, Deborah, I beg you. I am quite worn out from the journey, and any sounds I might draw from my fiddle would not be worth the hearing.” He spread his hands in mock deprecation and a look swiftly passed between them that said more than his words. She burned for the briefest instant and abruptly subsided into a smile of sympathy for him.
“Yes, of course,” she said, not quite able to smooth the edge from her voice.
Elizabeth looked relieved and assumed her seat before the spinet. She played well enough but with little enthusiasm. I drifted toward the door and lifted my eyebrows at Jericho, who had made it his business to keep close and listen in.
“No sign of Father?” I whispered from the side of my mouth.
“None,” he answered morosely.
“Have one of the lads sit out by the road with a lantern, then. We wouldn’t want him to miss the gate.”
He knew as well as I that there was little chance of Father losing himself. If nothing else, his horse knew the way home. I suspected that Mrs. Montagu was proving to be more charming than ever and Father had elected to take supper with her followed by Lord knows what else. He might even spend another night with her.
Jericho promised to see to things and disappeared just as Elizabeth finished her piece. I joined in the applause.
Mrs. Hardinbrook gushed forth with more praise. This time it seemed directed less at Mother and more toward Beldon, in an attempt to draw his attention to Elizabeth. His praise was more subdued and disappointingly neutral, at least from his sister’s point of view. Then he stood and bowed to all of us.
“You will think me terribly rude, Mrs. Barrett, but I must beg leave to go to my room. I don’t know where Deborah gets all her liveliness, but I am absolutely exhausted.”
“I quite understand, Dr. Beldon. Pray do not let us keep you. Jonathan, show Dr. Beldon up to the yellow room, if you please.”
It hardly pleased me, but I offered my own bow and waited for Beldon to join me in the hall.
“Your mother is a very kind woman to take us in,” he said as we trudged up the stairs.
“I fully realize that this must be an imposition. Deborah and I are very grateful and glad to be here.”
What a surprise, I thought.
“I would like to take this opportunity to let you know that I am entirely at the service of you and your house should you require it.”
“As a doctor?” I asked, somewhat insolently, now that he was away from Mother’s protection.
A perceptive man, he decided interpret the light insult as a joke. “I’m afraid so. Doubtless I could make myself useful working in the fields, but I have more talent for doctoring than animal husbandry or farming.”
I paused on the landing and looked at him squarely. “You consider yourself a good doctor, then?”
“As good as most. I studied with Dr. Richard Shippen of Philadelphia,” he added with some pride.
“Did you really? The smallpox man?”
Beldon was surprised that I’d heard of him and said as much.
“I should think so. Years ago Mother instructed Father by letter to pack Elizabeth and me off to the man for an inoculation against the pox. I still have the scar. Couldn’t have been more than nine, but I remember it vividly, worst six weeks of my life. What a horrible thing to do to children.”
“Less horrible than dying of the pox,” he pointed out.
I was unwilling to relinquish my hostile opinion of the man. “I’d read that they had Shippen up for body-snatching three years back.”
Beldon was not to be drawn and only shook his head, amused. “Something that every teaching physician seems doomed to endure. He was accused of taking a woman’s body for his dissecting class, but those subjects only ever come from the Potter’s Field, never from Christian burial grounds. The whole business was utterly absurd. The woman he supposedly dissected in the winter had died months earlier in the summer—of a putrid fever. No physician would ever find use for such a long-corrupted subject in his classes. Most absurd,” he repeated.
“Oh, yes, very.”
Letting that one pass as well, he gestured at one of the doors. “Is this my room?”
“This one,” I said, taking him farther down the hall.
“I understand that you have a good library here.”
“Yes. Downstairs. Any of the servants can show you the way.”
“I’ll look forward to it. I was unable to bring many books. Perhaps you would like to inspect my own small collection?”
“Another time, Dr. Beldon. I must return to the ladies, you know.”
Again the incessant smile, this one tinged with regret and goodwill. “Yes. The ladies can be quite demanding. Good night, then, Mr. Barrett. Thank you once more for your kindness.”
The man sounded utterly sincere. A bit nonplussed, I left before he could try drawing me into another conversation. That macabre story about the doctor dissecting a corpse that did not exist had been interesting. Not the sort of tale one could relate in genteel company. Well, Mother’s company, anyway.
Tempting as it was to retreat to my room, I felt bound to go back to the parlor and look after Elizabeth. She was still grimly playing, missing a note now and then as her thoughts wandered. Mother was employing her scratching stick. Mrs. Hardinbrook looked bored.
At the end of the piece I applauded louder than the others and walked over to the spinet. “Excellent, Elizabeth. You get better every day.”
She knew what I was up to and seized upon it smoothly and with both hands. “You are so kind, Jonathan.” She stood up and away from the instrument and curtsied to her audience. “Ah, but I am weary myself. In another minute I’m sure I shall fall asleep on my feet.”
“You have had a very long day,” I agreed. “Mother, may we be excused? I want to see that Elizabeth makes it upstairs without stumbling.”
“Poor thing,” said Mrs. Hardinbrook, all sympathy. She started to launch into a no doubt pretty speech, but Mother interrupted her, granting us permission to leave. We took it.
Once outside, Elizabeth and I dropped our formal pretenses and marched toward the stairs as equals.
“Thank you for the rescue, she said.
“Always at your service.”
“It looks like we’re going to be lumbered with them for as long as Mother is here.”
“Or at least until Father throws them out. Did you see how that harpy was trying to push her brother on me?”
“I noticed that he refused.”
“Is that supposed to mean—”
“No slight intended toward you, dear sister. I only meant that Beldon is likely aware that such a liaison would incur Mother’s extreme displeasure. You have nothing to fear from him regarding unwanted attentions.”
“Thank goodness for that,” she sighed. “Do you think it would help to write to the king? We could ask him to send soldiers to Philadelphia to restore order there, then Mother and her friends could leave us in peace.”
“Oh, I’m sure he would find your suggestion of great influence in forming his policies.”
Her good humor and mine restored, I saw Elizabeth to her room and gratefully returned to my own. Jericho had my things set out for the night, and a fire was going. The tray from our small meal was long cleared away, but he’d left a cup of wine and a plate of biscuits on the mantel for later. He’d also lighted the lamp on the table where my studies waited. Well, even Greek was preferable to the company in the parlor. I readied myself for bed, wrapped up warm in the dressing gown, and opened the first book.
My tutor, Mr. Rapelji, had chosen an especially tricky passage for translation, but it took my mind away from present-day conundrums. The only time I looked up was when Mother and Mrs. Hardinbrook passed by my closed door on the way to their rooms. Their voices increased and faded along with their footsteps. I took the moment to stretch and look out the window.
High clouds obscured the stars and moon, making it very dark. Jericho would have called in the boy and his lantern by now. If Father hadn’t turned up at this late an hour, it could only mean that he would be staying out another night. Damnation.
The intricacies of an ancient battle and the warriors that fought it held my attention for another hour, then someone lightly knocked on my door. I knew who it was and, with a sigh of slight annoyance, answered.
Elizabeth stood waiting with a wan look and a drooping eye. “I couldn’t sleep,” she explained apologetically. My annoyance faded. As small children had been our habit in the past to visit one another for a late-night talk when wakeful. I’d missed those talks without knowing it.
I invited her in and shut the door quietly. “I could give you some of this Greek. Translating it often inspires me toward slumber.”
She threw herself face down across my bed and propped her chin on her fists. “Mother has that woman in her room and they’re still yammering away. I had no idea that two people with so little to say could do so for so long.”
“Why don’t you listen in? It could be entertaining.”
“I have, but they don’t talk about anything interesting. It’s always clothes, food, or people I’ve never heard of and wouldn’t care to meet. Rubbish, the lot of it. What did you say you were doing?”
“Greek. Care to try some?” I threw myself into my chair and offered her the book I was working from.
She considered, but turned it down. “Will you be seeing Mr. Rapelji tomorrow?”
“Yes, if I can get this finished. He’ll probably put me over the coals as usual.”
“Oh, may I come along and watch?”
“Yes, you may and be very welcome. With you there it won’t be so horrible.”
“What exaggeration. You know he never even raises his voice.”
“It’s the way he doesn’t raise it that bothers me.”
She chuckled a little, which was good to hear. “Perhaps he will find something interesting for me to do as well. I absolutely do not want to be here tomorrow. One thing I did hear through the wall was Mother making plans to visit some of the neighbors to introduce that woman. She said I’d be coming along. Nice of her to let me know about it, don’t you think?”
“We can be gone before breakfast,” I assured her, putting my feet up on the table. “Rapelji won’t mind feeding us.”
“Thank goodness. I’ll wager that Mother wants to look the men over hereabouts in hopes of matching me up with one. Ugh!”
“Don’t you want to get married?”
“Someday, but not to any man that she would pick.”
“She picked Father, didn’t she?”
“Huh. Her tastes have changed if Beldon is anything to go by.”
“He’s not so bad,” I teased. She made a face at me. “He has pretty manners.”
“So does my cat.”
“The odd thing is that I did get the impression that he would like to be friends.”
“Fine. You can be his friend. I’d sooner marry Mr. Rapelji.”
“Or your cat?”
She laughed out loud at that one, and I continued with speculation over what her cat would be likely to wear when they went to church.
“Of course, you’ll have to have a lot of cream for the wedding breakfast,” I went on. “For the cat’s side of the family.”
She added a comment of her own, but I couldn’t make it out for her giggling and asked her to repeat it. She struggled to take in the breath to do so, but in that moment my door was thrown open with such force that it crashed against the inside wall. Elizabeth choked with surprise and pushed upright. I hastily swung my legs from the table, knocking a book to the floor.
Mother stood on the threshold. Her eyes were wide with incredulity, her mouth torn downward with horrified shock. She looked from one to the other of us, unable to decide which deserved her immediate attention. Elizabeth and I stared back at her with shared confusion.
“Is there something wrong, Mother?” I asked, rising.
Her mouth flapped several times. It might have been comical but for the blistering fury contained in her. It did not remain there for long.
“You two . . . “ she finally gasped out, pointing at each of us.
“What is it?” I stepped forward, thinking she was ill. She looked feverish with those blazing eyes.
“You . . . filthy . . . filthy unnatural wretches!”
“What’s the matter with her?” Elizabeth asked.
“Mother?” I put my hand out. “Come and sit down, Mother.”
She slapped me away. “You miserable, depraved creature. How could you even think—you’re sickening, the pair of you!”
Elizabeth shook her head at me, a sign to keep my distance, and to communicate her own puzzlement.
“Mother…” I began, but she came at me and this time slapped me right across the mouth with all her strength. My head snapped to one side, my face afire from the stinging blow. I fell back, eyes smarting, gaping at her without comprehension, too startled to move.
She struck me again with her other hand, fairly rattling my head. Tears started from my eyes from the pain. Another strike. I backed away, suddenly aware of the invective flowing from her. None of it was coherent, broken as it was by her hitting me and the intensity of emotion within. Her temper tantrum this morning was but a shower compared to this gale.
Elizabeth was off the bed by now and shouting at her. I put my hands up to guard myself and tried to back around toward the door and escape. Elizabeth got between us and took solid hold of Mother’s arm. Now they were both shouting.
Then Mother hit Elizabeth. Not with an open hand, but a closed fist.
Elizabeth cried out and spun away, her hair flying. She fell against the bed, then dropped to the floor. Her next breath was a bewildered, angry sob. Mother loomed over her, shifting her weight to one foot. Before she could deliver what would have been a vicious kick to my sister’s face I caught both her arms from behind and dragged her away. Mother screamed and squirmed and her heels flailed against my shins.
“What is it? Oh, dear, what is it? Marie, what is happening?” Mrs. Hardinbrook dithered in the hall, adding her foolishness to the din.
Mother paid her no mind, thrashing madly about. She’d used up her words and much of her breath. Only hideous little animal grunts escaped from her clenched teeth.
I hoarsely shouted Elizabeth’s name, breathless myself. She shook herself and found her feet, moving slowly, and holding her face. She was dazed, but had sense enough to keep clear. Stumbling toward the door, she ran into Mrs. Hardinbrook, who didn’t quite know what to do with her.
“Get some help, you fool!” my sister bellowed, pushing her away. The woman squeaked fearfully and fled.
“I’m all right,” she stated shakily.
“Harlot!” Mother shouted at her. “Filthy, unnatural harlot!”
Elizabeth gaped at her, then her gaze darted to my bed, where she had been giggling hardly a minute past. “Oh, my God. She can’t mean that.”
Busy as I was, the realization of what she was talking about took longer to dawn upon me. When it did, Mother took advantage of my utter shock to twist from my grasp and round upon us. Her carefully made-up hair had shredded into a tangled mess framing her beet red face like Medusa’s snakes. Her eyes fairly popped with rage. She looked absolutely and utterly demented.
“You shameless creatures! It was a cursed day that either of you were born—that you should come to this! You dirty, disgusting ...”
“Mother, you are wrong! You don’t know what you’re saying.”
She could have scorched me with those eyes. “I know what I saw, you unnatural monster.”
Elizabeth came in to stand next to me. “She’s incensed, Jonathan, don’t try to argue with her.”
“That was ever and always the excuse,” Mother snarled. “I don’t know what I’m talking about! Is that it? Is that what you’ll say? This shame is upon you both. You’ll be the ones locked away. Dear God, I should have seen this coming and been here to prevent it.” She looked past us. “It’s your fault, Samuel. You raised them as you would and see what has become of them. I swear, if any vile bastard get comes of this unholy union I’ll drown it myself. Do you hear me? I said, do you hear me?”
As one, Elizabeth and I followed her gaze. Standing in my doorway, still wrapped in his traveling cloak, was our tardy father.
© Copyright 2010 P.N. Elrod All Rights Reserved.