Authors: Mignon G. Eberhart
HE FIRELIGHT ROSE AND
fell. It picked out gold lettering on a rank of leather-bound books, glinted against a silver inkstand, touched the red hair of the man seated in the great chair. His face was in the shadow of the wing of the chair; his hand lay on the arm of the chair and the light wavered over a carnelian seal ring; as a boy he had worn the ring on his third finger but it was now wedged on his little finger. The rest of the room was in shadows. It was not yet time for the house to take on another, secret character but the short winter twilight was thickening.
The man in the wing chair said at last, “It won’t work, Amity.”
“You could do worse,” she said shortly.
He laughed and fell silent. She wished that he would move so she could see his face. Life was not fair to women, she thought dismally. If she’d been a man now, she could have spoken the truth: I need you, I need your help, but I would never have turned to you like this, if I didn’t love you. Astute as Simon was, this clearly did not enter his red head. So pride alone demanded that she keep this interview on a sternly practical level.
The fire sighed and a wind moved the heavy red curtains. It was a cold day, unusually cold for December twenty-first; it had been an early and unusually cold winter. In the north, it was said, the snows had begun in November and already rivers and creeks were frozen solid. Pride or no pride there was something Amity had to know; she spoke in what she hoped was a light and casual manner. “Have you found a wife then? Have you found a sweetheart?”
“Why, you’ve always been my sweetheart.”
“Don’t tease, Simon.” No good was going to come of this.
He said more soberly, “To tell you the truth, I never thought to marry—certainly not until the war is over. But it won’t work. There’s nothing in the world I can do for your father.”
“Oh! You knew then why—”
“I didn’t know why you sent for me. Your father forbade me this house three years ago. But there is clearly a reason for your very flattering suggestion. That is the reason. Isn’t it?”
His face was still in the shadow. She waited a moment to test his voice. She tried to plumb the firelit space between them, for some significance, a question within a question which she longed to find.
She could sense nothing but the plain question and replied, stiffly in her disappointment, “Don’t give me words, Simon. I asked you to marry me.”
“I am honored.” In the dusk she thought he sketched a bow, one hand over his heart. “Your father’s property is likely to be confiscated. Others have been. I can’t stop it.”
She leaned forward, her face full in the rosy light from the fire. “As my husband you could put in a claim to his property.”
She thought he was surprised. “But what of China? Her boy?”
“My father made me his sole heir, long before he married China. He didn’t change his will after his marriage or after Jamey was born.”
“I’ve forgotten. How old is Jamey? Four—”
“Is he a nice boy?”
“All Mallam. He’s rather like you, Simon.”
“He’s a red-headed hellion then.”
She was sure that Simon was smiling. “But you love him.”
“He’s my brother. Half-brother, but it’s the same thing. My father’s will is legal. Why, Lawyer Benfit told me that Mr. Washington’s father left all his property to the children of his first marriage and nothing at all to his second wife and to your Mr. Washington—”
“General Washington,” he said softly.
She ignored that. “It’s legal.”
“Dear, your father is alive.”
He sat up. “Amy! Don’t you know?”
“We’re not sure.”
“When I asked you how he was, you said he was well!”
“That’s what I tell myself. But we’ve not heard from him in over a year.”
“But he is in Jamaica, a British colony. You can’t expect letters.”
“We had some letters though, not many, sometimes months after they were written. But it’s been too long since the last one. If he’s—dead, there’s his will, Simon. I can’t let everything my grandfather—yes, and my great-grandfather—worked for and loved, go to this rabble.”
“Not a rabble. Men who are making a new nation.”
Simon’s voice was as chill as the wind that shivered the small squares of glass at the window and sent icy little drafts along the floor. “You call me a traitor. Yet you choose me to help you if our American Army wins. It surely has occurred to you that the British may win.”
She knotted her hands together. She had thought out all her reasons; she had planned every reply. She hadn’t known it would be so hard but she went on. “Well, then, if my father is alive he’ll return and you know he’s always fair. He’ll see to your interests as my husband. If he’s—dead, then the property comes to me and I promise you that I’ll see that your claims are respected.”
“Bribery. You amaze me, Cousin.”
No, it was hopeless. It would have been far easier if she hadn’t been in love with Simon. As it was she felt rejected on every score and his teasing emphasized it. She said shortly, “You’re no cousin of mine.”
“Oh, yes, I am. In a remote way. Let me see. Our great-grandfathers were cousins. I’m a Mallam.”
Her heart was so sore by then that she turned ruthless and seized the weapon he had given her. “Yes, and my father went to Virginia when he heard that you were orphaned and brought you here to his home. He brought you up as his own son. He loved you—and you broke his heart.”
She saw his hand tighten on the arm of the chair. “I loved your father. Among many other things he taught me to respect the truth.”
“So you’re an officer in this so-called Continental Army! You joined in a rebellion against your country and your king.”
“I’m fighting for my country! The fat Hanoverian who sits on England’s throne and makes enemies for her, along with his stupid advisers, is no king of mine!” He added more temperately, a little sadly, “God knows I wanted no quarrel with England. I hoped that it could be averted and we could settle our differences without war. We are Englishmen. In a way—yes, we still love England. That is the core of the trouble. We
Englishmen. We have been misgoverned and affairs grew worse instead of better. Can’t you see, Amy, that justice is a part of our heart and bones, too?”
“I didn’t send for you to talk politics.” She used her weapon relentlessly. “You owe my father much.”
“Too much to permit his daughter to marry a man with every chance of stopping a British bayonet.” He leaned forward so the light fell now on his rangy Mallam face with its fine nose and stubborn chin, and the slash of black eyebrows above extremely observant, green-gray eyes. She studied it eagerly, yet secretly from the safe shadow of her own chair wing. She felt that she must store it up for her memory, hoard every shadow and light, every changing expression, but in fact her memory of him was already as clear as a portrait to be looked at and hungered over.
He hadn’t changed, except to grow a little older, a little finer drawn; there was now a barely perceptible authority in the set of his mouth. It seemed like a miracle that he was actually there, so near she might have touched him. It was to be a brief miracle. In another few moments he’d be gone again.
He said gently, “Let’s make peace, Amy. Has there been any actual threat of confiscation?”
“Not yet. It will come. Some men—they said they were sent by the Council of Safety—came to warn my father. They were friends,” she said grudgingly but fairly. “Old friends, most of them, kind. Of course my father never made any secret of his loyalty to England and the King. The Loyalists are strong in South Carolina. Even those who have gone over to the rebellion are still in their hearts half-Loyalist.”
“How well we know that,” Simon said dryly.
“They urged him to leave at once before pressure was brought by others, hotheads, rebels, who might take violent measures.”
“How did he manage to get to Jamaica?”
“A neighbor, Mr. Throgmorton—you remember him—said he could arrange it and did. My father left at once. We had a few letters from Jamaica and then nothing.”
“How did the letters reach you?”
“Hand-delivered as a rule. Once by a sailor, once by a wagoner—again by a sailor.”
“By way of privateer turned smuggler? The Caribbean must have as many smugglers as a dog has fleas. Most of the Loyalists who got out of America went to the Bahamas or Nova Scotia or England. Why did your father choose Jamaica?”
“He has a small plantation property in Jamaica. It’s called a penn. Actually it came to him from Aunt Eliza Mallam, your side of the family.”
“I didn’t know I had an Aunt Eliza Mallam.”
“Apparently she knew nothing of you. Fairly, Simon, it ought to have gone to you. She died only three years ago and my father said that—” she stopped.
“He said that no Mallam property should go to a rebel.”
“He’d have changed his mind. Oh, we both know him. He’s hotheaded but he’s honest.”
Simon was acute as a hunter. He said, watching her, “Did your father advise you to wed someone who might be able to protect you and his property in this way?”
“Before he left he talked to me, alone. There wasn’t much time. He said that I must see to China and Jamey. He said he was leaving them in my care as if I were his older son, instead of a daughter. He said it was too late for him to do anything to insure their safety and care, so I must take that responsibility. And then he said that if things grew too difficult I should perhaps wed someone who would see to all three of us.”
Amity’s father had been so sure of her strength and good sense; so sure that she would do what he had left undone. She felt dismally that she had failed him, yet neither of them could have foreseen the circumstances which were to arise.
Simon said, “Did he suggest me as a husband?”
Pride dictated that she answer: yes, this proposal of marriage was my father’s command to me. “No,” she said flatly. “In fact, he said anybody but Simon Mallam.”
Simon nailed it, as she might have expected. “Then why did you choose me?”
Again she hunted for a deeper meaning than the question alone offered. She even thought desperately that now was the time to coquette; now was the moment to lure and bait the trap.
Simon knew her too well. He would see straight through any coquetry and wiles even if she knew what to say and how to say it. She leaned back deeper into the shadow of her chair. “I trust you.” That, too, was the truth.
“Oh,” Simon said after a moment. “I see.”
No, it was all a mistake; how foolish her fancy had been in suggesting, even for a moment, some quite different scene between them. Simon loved her as a cousin, as a younger sister, a companion, but not as a man loves the woman he wants for a wife.
He crossed one knee over the other. The firelight flickered briefly on flat brass buttons on his coat. “Then you and China have been here since your father left?”
“He couldn’t take us with him.”
“You haven’t had any trouble, have you, Amy?”
“These three years, since the men calling themselves the Council of Safety have taken over South Carolina government, have not been pleasant years.”
“No,” he agreed, “a civil war, neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, is a cruel war. But here, on the plantation—there haven’t been any incidents?”
“Well, we haven’t been tarred and feathered. The house hasn’t been burned over our heads, if that is what you mean by incidents.” She added, honestly, “Actually we’ve had very little trouble. My father stood well in the county. He was respected and he was liked. Oh, there were a few incidents. A barn burned. Our storehouse was looted but they did that openly, they said they needed supplies. A rock through the carriage window one time when China and I drove to Blackstable.”
“You mean that you and China are alone here?”
“No, my Uncle Grappit came here after his property was confiscated by the rebels.”
“Colonials is a better word. Americans still better. I’m surprised at Mr. Grappit, sticking to the Loyalist side of this war. He was ever discreet. Ever on the winning side.”
“He says the King’s party will win.”
“And you are not so sure?” She could see the flash of Simon’s quick smile. He said though, soberly, “Why did Grappit come here?”
“He said because China and I needed him.”
“He also had no home. And your Aunt?”
“Oh, yes, she’s here. Neville, too.”
“Neville! Hasn’t he joined the redcoats by now?”
“I suppose he will. When Aunt Grappit lets him.”
Simon shook his head, half-smiling. “I could never understand how two such strong characters as your Aunt and Grappit could have produced a will-o’-the-wisp like Neville. Still, perhaps that’s his only way of survival. Has Grappit tried to get his greedy hands on your father’s estate?”
“N-no. But he says he is sure that my father is dead. He says we would have heard from him if he were alive.”
“Does he know how your father’s will stands?”
“Nobody knows except Lawyer Benfit. He drew up the will. Uncle has asked me about it. Hints, point-blank questions. …”