Boston, Province of Massachusetts, 1738
Nellie Treat set a tallow candle in the desk-corner, and drew her heavy account-book from the shelf. It should have been able to keep until morning, but all she could see in the darkness was HMS Garland riding at anchor beyond Long Wharf, and little Mr. Moreland’s face gone rigid in the market while the new-comer officers forced him through his paces, and after fruitless tossing and turning and trying to concern herself with Sam’s Latin or Polly’s embroidery roses that had more in common with cabbages or what to give Mary (now that their father was dead) for her marriage and how to pay for that – she’d just given up. Fumbling her way out of bed, she drew her late husband’s banyan around her, and padded through the heavy darkness to the downstairs.
God, poor Moreland. She’d felt a twinge for the man, caught between that hawk-eyed Commodore and Thomas Hancock, but only just: the Lord above knew how well she’d lined the crooked customs-man’s pockets, and she wasn’t especially fond of him in the first place. So perhaps she had been a little glad to see the weasel dressed down for all of Boston to see. No crime in that, and none in the looks of relief she’d caught from Small and Whitcomb, or any other Captain or merchant thanking Providence that it had been Hancock caught smuggling and not them. After all, the only thing in between herself and forfeiting a hold full of Dutch molasses was a fake bill of sale and a prayer – and the Royal Navy keeping their noses elsewhere.
She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. I can’t afford to lose that shipment, and yet, Nellie had to plan for what should happen if her Breeds Hill was re-inspected before she could transfer the hogsheads to Gookin. She’d be out the whole cargo and have broken her word to the distiller – and still be in his debt. Setting aside the legal proceedings! Moreland’s voice might have been shaking, but if Norrington managed to have Hancock hauled before an Admiralty Court? And if it happened to her? Well, at least Mr. Bishop is indebted to me. At least her lawyer could be paid for.
Indeed, she thought wryly, turning a page to yet more credits and debts, it might even burnish my standing in town. Avarice might have been Boston’s besetting sin, but among its slender virtues was the stubborn clannishness of men stuck together in an open boat. What a change that would be from the suspicion with which she’d been regarded, an unknown woman, a new bride on Captain Treat’s arm those twelve years ago!
But that was not the point. Fellow-feeling wouldn’t keep her and her children fed for long, and certainly wouldn’t pay for Sam’s schooling or Polly’s dowry – or her own standing. She needed plans, a course: one, in case she lost the molasses aboard Breeds Hill, and two, how to proceed in the future. Smuggling into Boston was fast becoming a much more difficult proposition than it had been only a few weeks ago …
Nellie woke herself when her head dropped out of her hands and onto the desk – the world outside was lightening, and the cheap tallow had long since gone out, if the foul-smelling wax was anything to go by. Ridiculous, she thought, bundling her books away. Nothing more than a child’s nightmare. But her hands were unsteady as she turned the key in the lock, and she cursed herself for allowing herself to fall prey so easily to her own worst imaginings.
It was so easy to be afraid when you were alone, but that wasn’t the truth of it. Nellie Treat was not alone in this world, or even under this roof: Sam and Polly, her sister Mary, even Susannah and Sally depended upon her (setting aside her captains and sailors!). If she had been alone in the world, she could have resigned herself to withstand whatever befell her and Captain Treat’s memory. Responsibility – that Captain Treat had no brother or cousin he trusted half so well as his wife, and so left all of his affairs to her outright – made each fear cast a swollen shadow, a terrifying blackness that overwhelmed the object itself.
She paced in the parlor for a few minutes before resigning herself to wakefulness and the day. In her chambers, she hastily pinned herself into her sober grays and blacks, not wanting to wake Susannah yet – that was as good as an admission of last night’s folly as anything, and it would be a long enough day without her maid’s disconcertingly clear-eyed sympathy. Besides, this was the sort of thing you got used to, a widow, having once had the Captain to help with the office. Asking for another’s aid seemed an admission that – that she’d accepted he was gone.
Enough of that, she warned herself, smoothing her hands over her hips.
She’d have enough cause to think about the Captain later, when she went to pay Smibert and collect the family’s portrait, long left lingering on the painter’s studio walls. How fortunate that she’d had the excuse of bereavement to give the man! – when the truth was her affairs were in such a state after the Captain’s death, after the expense of his funeral and then her little baby Jennet’s, that she couldn’t have paid him. It seemed the height of foolishness to pay Smibert now, even so – with the new Commodore intent on the enforcement of the empire’s customs and duties and the threat of losses and seizures so close at hand, Nellie felt as though the last year’s smuggling and scraping had been for naught. Still. She had told Smibert to expect her. And, she owned to herself, braiding her hair and pinning it away, she wanted to bring them home.
Nellie went down to the kitchen after she heard Sally begin raking out yesterday’s ashes and Susannah start the morning’s baking, moving between them to brew coffee (perhaps that’s why I’m always broke, she thought wryly) and grab the stale ends of Saturday’s bread. She tore at the scraps more than consumed them while she and Susannah went over accounts. Off Sally went to the market, officially for milk, and unofficially for whatever gossip regarding the Hancock seizure or the doings of Commodore Norrington were on offer – and then a scarce half-hour to review Sam’s Latin grammar before it was time to wake Mary and the children.
A typical morning, Nellie reflected, with her hand on the door of Polly and Sam’s room: “My dears, it’s time to wake up …”
Folding her scrap-paper calculations into her pocket, Nellie kissed Polly and Sam and bade them mind their lessons and their Aunt Mary, before hurrying out the door and about her errands. It was early, but how could anyone in Boston have slept? Mr. Bishop, managing the legal affairs of twenty captains at least, would have spent a long and sleepless night – as sleepless as the harbor’s business, likely carried on into the darkness to cheat Moreland and Norrington. No, Bishop would be awake to listen to her concerns and her plans, and Small would have a report of his progress – and Hendricks, with his fast little Watch and Wait about to sail for the West Indies, would be collecting letters from shipowners and merchants to their Captains in those waters, with new instructions and intelligence related to the changing legal ground in Boston. He’s probably charging a king’s ransom for the office, too, but Nellie grudgingly respected her friend's eye for profit. She had two copies of letters to her men in her pocket, a handful of coins to pay their illegal postage, and a strange mixed feeling of apprehension and buoyant defiance – all jangling together as she moved from the quiet of Summer Street to Cornhill, and thence into the noisy heart of Boston.
Bishop, looking like pallid Death beneath his periwig, was not best pleased to see her again in less than a half-day, fobbing her off on Minot, his student – it was Minot who had run between Bishop and Gookin yesterday, and had a better sense of what was said in the streets about Moreland, Norrington, and any illegal cargos. At the Green Dragon, he’d heard that Norrington had seized Moreland’s books and was intending to review every cargo, every transaction; at the Blue Anchor, that Norrington had been over the books and had already planned his next seizures. The second possibility was alarming, the first only uncomfortable. She knew which she’d rather, but gossip was gossip, and perhaps there were harder facts.
“Has he been seen today?” Nellie asked, forcing her hands to stay still in her lap, feeling her stomach twist and knot instead.
“No, ma’am,” Minot answered, with a glance out the window to the street, “No one’s been on or off the Garland all morning.”
At least she could count on the truth of that. HMS Garland was more closely watched than any other ship in the harbor – than a babe in a room of aunts. She had no cause to walk down King Street towards Long Wharf, but she did anyway. Easily a dozen men stood – at corners or in doorways – staring out across the water towards where the black-hulled frigate rode at anchor.
She swiveled her gaze to the Breeds Hill, and the vast barrels being swung out of her hold. Would it be fast enough?
Foolish, Nellie told herself, turning on her heel. Foolish to come down here, where she’d learn nothing new, and only worry herself further by watching Small carry out his business. Norrington, damn him, would do what he would – and, as things stood, she could only respond to his movements as he made them. She stalked off towards the Watch and Wait, where her last piece of business lay, before she could go ask Aunt Bendish for intelligence – if not assistance.
Nellie heard the sound of fluid notes and arpeggios as she approached the Bendish house, faint but certain, building up towards a flourish like a stalk to a bloom. Lydia, she thought, and then: good. Poor Hal Bendish was tone-deaf, and swore the sounds of his sister’s scales were as good as his mother’s good silver tossed to the ground all at once – so if Lydia was at her spinet, then Hal and his father were about their business in town. It wasn’t that Uncle Bendish was unhelpful or untrustworthy: John Bendish was as keen and honest as a July day was long, and therein was the problem, when he was so involved in the Crown’s business. Better he be out, and leave her to sort through her precarious affairs alone with Aunt Bendish. Aunt B had never and would never help her with the actual business of smuggling, but did not see it as a contradiction of terms to indirectly advise her wayward niece-by-marriage from time to time – especially when the Treat fortunes were on the line.
She thanked Providence that the day which had begun so inauspiciously had at least given her this. Mercy met her at the door with a bobbing curtsey, and, before Nellie could apologize to the maid for her unexpected visit, ushered her aside into the fashionable dining room, where traces of breakfast had long since been swept away.
Perhaps she had been expected, after all? Nellie heard footfalls on the narrow front stairs and her Aunt’s voice in the hall, and then she glided in, with a rustle of fine cotton and silk.
“Good morning, my dear!” Aunt B caught her in a warm embrace, stepping back only to take in Nellie’s somber greys and blacks, and the dark hollows from the long night. Then, softer: “Hard going?”
Hard going? The subdued colors and trim had become a habit, and a comforting one at that – while she’d gone to her parlor in the small hours, numbers having lost their meaning and thinking only what Captain Treat would have had her do, she looked at the wall where the portrait would go, she’d accepted the empty space between sconces and by her side: Captain Treat was gone, and little Jenny with him. It wasn’t the loss, it was what had been left – a name, debts, two children who needed care, a sister without much of a dowry. “Sleep eluded me,” she said, aware it was not precisely an answer, but the easiest thing to say.
“I imagine,” murmured Aunt B, and, with a delicate pause to listen to the sounds of the house, continued in a low and cool voice, “I half-expected you earlier, truth be told.”
“I would have come, but -”
“You wished to speak with Captain Small and Mr. Gookin first.”
Nellie nodded, settling into a chair by the window, and, pulling a length of fine white cotton into her lap, picked up her whitework. Keeping her hands busy at least forestalled the worst of her nervous fidgets. “I did – I wanted to, and I did, at least to Small. I had to send Mr. Bishop speak to Gookin for me, yesterday.”
Aunt Bendish nodded encouragingly, beginning to sort through Nellie’s disordered work-basket.
“Nothing surprising from either. Captain Small is moving the molasses as fast as he’s able, and Gookin assists him.”
“You had Mr. Bishop ask about the possibility of alternate payment if the cargo should be forfeit?”
“I haven’t got anything Gookin wants, save everything in the Breeds Hill’s hold. Molasses, and if not, gold.”
“I won’t insult you by asking you if you have another plan to settle Captain Treat’s debt.” Folding up a ragged chemise Nellie had marked for kerchiefs, Aunt B came to a half-made shirt for Sam, the left sleeve indifferently pinned. She immediately set to correcting it.
“Plans,” Nellie corrected, and thinking back to the long and sleepless night she’d passed, pressed her lips together to keep the rest from falling out in a rush. She forced herself to take a breath, and another, and watched Aunt B pull and reset pins for a few long moments while she marshalled her thoughts. “If Norrington has the cargo seized, I’ll sell – something. Gookin’s never liked me and he won’t wait any longer for payment. Captain Hendricks has offered to buy the Tryall from me before – he came up in her, she needs some repairs and he knows he can get her cheaper because of it. I’ll be sorry to let her go, but – well. I’d be sorrier to lose my reputation.”
“And if Hendricks doesn’t have the capital?”
Nellie stabbed a few messy stitches in her kerchief and huffed, angry that she’d even thought it, much less have to admit it out loud. “I’ll sell our holdings in the Equivalent Lands. Governor Belcher’s bought up land there before, and he’ll pay in coin or specie. I know the Captain set that land aside for Sam’s Harvard fees,” Nellie added hastily, watching a cloud of dismay cross her Aunt’s face, “And I like this plan worse than the last. But I had rather lose the lands and keep the good name, my business standing – I can make up the necessary money somehow, with those.”
Aunt B said nothing for some long moments. Had she gone too far? The Connecticut Equivalent lands predated her marriage – Captain Treat’s father had purchased lands to divide between his children over a score of years before. If anything that had come to her after the Captain’s death could properly be said to belong to someone else it would have been that. Nellie tallied up figures and possibilities in the silence, listening to the tick of the hall clock and to Lydia’s sure-handed playing. “Sensible plans,” Aunt B said, at last, “But I would be pained to see you have to enact them. We will pray that it does not come to that. Indeed, I believe you will not have to.”
“It’s said, in town, that Mr. Hancock had gone to speak with Governor Belcher – late, as befits the business. If that is the case, and Belcher chooses to involve himself? I do not think you may count upon the Commodore’s attention being completely – distracted. But if Captain Small can finish in the next few days …”
“There is a very good chance Moreland won’t have time to re-inspect?”
Nellie exhaled a shaky breath she had not realized she was holding, and rest her head in her hands a moment, while Aunt B pressed a handkerchief onto her.
“Thank you,” Nellie mumbled, and other inchoate things besides – a blessing, and invocation, pure relief at such news, which turned – somehow or other – into a watery laugh. “You really have to lead with these things – how long were you going to let me fret and destroy my whitework?”
“Not much longer, at any road,” Aunt B replied, with an anxious smile, “I am expecting company.”
“I’d guessed by your dress.”
“It’s the Commodore,” said Aunt B sharply, setting aside Sam’s shirt, “Commodore Norrington. Mr. Bendish has asked me to take tea with him, and he will be arriving shortly. He has a sitting with Mr. Smibert this afternoon.”
Nellie spluttered, gathered herself, and spluttered again. “Norrington?”
“Yes, recently arrived to these shores.”
Nellie, still feeling as though she were trying to run on ice, started and stopped several times more – hadn’t Aunt B listened to a thing she said? That Norrington had seized Thomas Hancock’s cargo, and was threatening to seize the cargoes of half the ships in Boston Harbor? The man whose actions had robbed her of any peace for the last two weeks, and of any sleep for the last day? Why on earth should she want to take tea with him? Nellie shook her head violently, and shoved the set-aside shirt into her work basket. “No, absolutely not, Aunt. I wish you the best, but I cannot join you.”
“Because of the Breeds Hill cargo?”
“Because of my livelihood and the livelihoods of your relations, yes!”
Quick as a snake, Aunt B seized her hand in both of hers, and held purposefully. “Please, my dear, will you hear me out? You may leave after, but I ask that you listen to what I have to say first.”
Nellie grimaced, and sat again.
“Good.” Aunt B dropped her voice still further, forcing Nellie to move the basket from her lap and lean forward. “It is because of the Breeds Hill and all the rest of your activities that you ought to stay for tea, Elinor. Boston is a small city. You cannot escape the acquaintance forever, and so you must make the smart choice while you can. Would you like to meet him on the deck of the Breeds Hill, scrambling in the face of a party of bayonet-bearing Marines? Or here, in the parlor of Mr. John Bendish, one of his most important allies in the colony of Massachusetts?”
It was a good argument, Nellie owned, but that didn’t mean she liked it. She nodded. “And knowing that I am John Bendish’s niece will buy me mercy?”
“I can’t say. The Commodore doesn’t have much of a reputation for it. The ‘Scourge of Piracy’– one doesn’t gain a name like that with an aversion to brutality.”
Nellie had heard the nickname before, of course. It had been as worrisome then as it was now – even though it was an unconscionable stretch to call a smuggler a pirate in the truest sense of the words. Still – it had not been so long since William Fly’s war against all humankind ended in his bones swaying in the breeze at Nix’s Mate – and Nellie shuddered, involuntarily.
Aunt B saw her reaction, and passed her a grim smile. “There is the matter of why such a man is here, which perhaps will clarify my ambivalence. Mr. Bendish tells me Norrington is in disgrace with the Admiralty at present – over the issue of ‘mercy.’”
“Because he would not offer it?”
“Because he did. Whether than means a sea-change, as Mr. Shakespeare would have it, or has encouraged him to return to form remains to be seen. But even if the family association will not purchase you clemency outright, it will give him pause – he knows his position here depends on the goodwill of William Shirley and Samuel Waldo and, I flatter myself, the Bendishes – and that will give you time.”
Time to do what you must, Nellie understood her to say. Grim, but what Aunt B had and had not said was correct. It was better, however unpleasant, to sit and plan for the worst eventualities than it was to have none and be left whistling for wind. If Aunt B wanted to offer her the shelter of a good name, far be it from Nellie to turn up her nose – for her own sake, and the sake of her own family.
Aunt B watched her process this, periodically glancing through the door to the hall clock. “We have not much time before the Commodore is expected, my dear, so permit me one last observations. Mr. Bendish wishes me to lay out the shape of the Governor’s current disputes to the Commodore, so anything true you wish to contribute on that score will be welcome, I imagine.”
“Captain Treat’s dealings with Mr. Waldo?”
“Just so. Mr. Waldo has been loud in his complaints about illegal lumbering that Belcher has turned a blind eye to, and, because of his contracts with the Admiralty Norrington takes him seriously.”
Nellie pursed her lips and nodded.
“Good, my dear. We will manage this to your advantage.” Lydia rapped softly on the lintel and leaned into the room, reminding Aunt B that it was ten minutes to and she had asked to be notified. She smiled and pressed the cabinet key into Lydia’s hand, asked Nellie to help with the laying out of the china, and excused herself to the kitchen to manage the rest.
When unfamiliar voices sounded on the front walk, they both turned to the windows, Lydia nearly shaking with excitement. Nellie was not half so pleased, but pressed her young cousin’s hand anyway and smiled, arranging them both so that Lydia would be the first seen – and Nellie inconspicuously behind. It is discretion, she told herself, and that could not be faulted. There was a knock – Lydia smiled – and Nellie held her breath, until Mercy swung open the door and –
“Ah, Commodore Norrington,” Aunt Bendish said, moving towards the hall with a whisper of skirts, “I’m so pleased you could come.”
He’s here. Nellie’s mind – a clatter of worries all of the morning and all of the night before – shuddered to a halt, abruptly empty for a half-second before the fear came rushing in. Don’t be ridiculous, she snapped, half-listening to the exchange of pleasantries. Aunt Bendish told you he would come, and you knew the justice of what she’s said. Calm yourself. Thinking that if she wasn’t calm she could at least act it, Nellie exhaled slowly, and unclenched the fists she’d made in her skirts – just as the Commodore stepped into the formal parlor, and bowed at herself and Lydia.
She told herself she knew what to expect – she had seen him once – the day before, by the wharves, flanked by a column of scarlet-coated marines and Moreland, pale as dough and wringing his spindly hands. The party split the muttering crowd like a wedge in logwood, and Nellie had held her breath until he passed by the Breeds Hill. Where he was going after that, she didn’t much care. Captain Small had seen her panick and ushered her below decks and, with a degree of delicacy she hardly expected from the grizzled old shellback, stepped outside the cabin while she vomited her nerves into a bucket.
She doubted the Commodore wanted to hear that her first response to him was intense nausea.
Still, it was something to hold on to, in the face of the most hated man on the Boston wharves. She noticed his coat first, as she had to assume was the intention – it had enough gold braid to set Boston’s plain-dressing ancestors to turning in their graves. Unbendingly correct or a popinjay? She couldn’t tell. He didn’t look nearly as severe, as he had the day before, and had Nellie been at all kindly-inclined towards him, she might have called him handsome. Tall, though, was the best she could do at present – and that with a swift and loyal addendum: but not as tall as Captain Treat was.
“My daughter, Miss Bendish.”
Lydia, was clearly awestruck by their august visitor, or perhaps only the gold braid that so liberally decorated his coat – still, she was her mother’s daughter, and dipped into an elegant curtsey. And that, of course, left her …
“Commodore Norrington,” said Aunt B, sure and elegant in her gesture, “May I make my niece, Mrs. Treat, known to you?”
The Commodore manners, Nellie begrudgingly admitted, were as flawless as his coat – as was his bow. Nellie responded to the best of her abilities.
His gaze dropped to her sober grey dress and black trim, before gesturing to the young man – boy, really, trailing behind him in a coat that was clearly not his own. “Mrs.Bendish. Miss Bendish. Mrs. Treat. Allow me to make one of my officers, Midshipman Jarsdel, known to you.”
The gangling boy – how much older than her Polly could he be? – made his bows and haltingly thanked the Bendishes for their hospitality.
Introductions concluded to her satisfaction, Aunt B gestured to her guests to be seated around the little table, stationing herself next to the service, “A fine day, Commodore. Mr. Smibert will have no cause to complain of the light this morning.” She handed the guest of honor the first cup with a beneficent smile.
“The first clear day in a week,” he agreed.
“Mrs. Treat is on her way to Mr. Smibert’s this morning as well.” Aunt B handed a cup off to Midshipman Jarsdel, who looked at the fine china with eyes as wide as the saucer, “Are you not, my dear?”
What was she playing at? Nellie made an appropriate reply, looking into her cup as though there were some answer in the swirling Bohea. “Not a sitting, sir,” she added, quick and brittle, not wanting to make Smibert seem careless in scheduling appointments, for she owed the man both gold and kindness, “He’s recently finished a portrait of my children – my family.”
“Mr. Smibert does fine work. Massachusetts is lucky that he has settled here.”
“Yes,” agreed Nellie. She sipped her tea and shut the portrait out of her mind.
Aunt B nodded reassurance, before sitting down herself, and alluding to Nellie’s late husband’s dealings with Mr. Waldo in such a way that made clear to all why she was there. Nellie was grateful: Commodore Norrington’s gaze wasn’t any less sharp for proximity, and in the time between taking in her mourning and understanding her tenuous relationship to the matter at hand, there’d been something a little hard in his look. Had he thought – hellfire! – had he thought Aunt B was throwing her at him?
The conversation had shifted to ongoing repairs for the Garland, a subject about which Nellie had little to say. Lydia was no help, wrapped up in the presence of the Commodore as she was – and that left Nellie to watch the conversation over the rim of her cup. Aunt B was, well, Aunt B, ably picking up details to question and those which ought to be left alone. Being born a Treat helped; she might have been the only one of the extended family to have gone far from the water’s edge, but she could speak with the knowledge of her shipwright grandfather. Commodore Norrington appeared to appreciate that she spoke as easily of hackmattack and knees as she did of the weather and other social niceties. Midshipman Jarsdel, however, had begun to give up following the conversation – he was sneaking glances at Lydia, who had barely acknowledged his existence.
Perhaps Aunt B noticed, for she swayed the conversation from the Garland to the Garland’s midshipmen’s berth, and thence back towards Nellie herself, so smoothly one hardly recognized how sharply the tiller had been turned town: “And how are Samuel’s preparations for school progressing?”
“My youngest – My son,” explained Nellie, to the expectant stares of Commodore and Mr. Jarsdel. “He’s of an age to start at the Latin School here, although – although without his father, it has been – difficult.”
Lydia set her dish aside. “Sam says you’ve been tutoring him.”
“I have. Though at times, I’ve merely been learning alongside him.”
“Good tutors, even in Boston, can be difficult to come by,” Aunt B observed, as though the problem were supply and not the Treat debts and Nellie’s precarious finances. One could hardly admit to that at the table, at any rate. “My husband, Mr. Bendish, speaks so poorly of the man he had before Cambridge, I really wouldn’t have believed he could do more than Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.”
“I am lucky I have my Uncle’s learning to lean on.” said Nellie, loyally giving credit where it was due.
“When the Crown’s business permits it, of course.” Aunt B let the implication – that the Crown’s business did not normally permit it – steep in the air, before turning to the Commodore with a polite smile, “But I’m sure Latin has very little use in open water.”
“I’ve found that a facility with languages usually coincides with the same in numbers,” the Commodore said, with a respectful nod directed at Nellie, “If my officers wish to educate themselves, I have no objections. But it is not a usual part of our education. Would you agree, Mr. Jarsdel?”
Jarsdel, who had been caught staring at Lydia again, started. “Uh – no, sir. That is – Yes, sir, we’ve no Latin master aboard Garland.” He raised his dish of tea to his mouth quickly, evidently buying time. “But some of us, the midshipmen, had Latin in our schooling before we came to sea.”
Lydia looked like she would have been giggling, had she not been so well raised by her mother, and Nellie caught a flash of irritation (perhaps softened by fondness, perhaps not) on the Commodore’s face. She decided to take pity on the young gentleman. “Is this your first voyage, Mr. Jarsdel?”
Finally, an easy question, the gawky midshipman’s face seemed to say. “Yes, Mrs. Treat.”
He said nothing else, and Nellie was on the point of asking him if he missed his home, but thought better of it – Jarsdel, thirteen if he was a day, likely felt exposed enough as it was, having stammered through a response in front of his commanding officer and beautiful Lydia. Homesickness was a weakness he’d never admit to. She mildly observed, instead, “Such a long way from England. My first voyage, Mr. Jarsdel, was from Newport, in the colony of Rhode Island, to this city. It was only two days.”
Across the table, Lydia smiled, and Nellie knew she was recalling the rest of the story, well-loved by the larger Treat family: Nellie, only a Treat since the day before, and only “Nellie” for a hasty courtship, had spent the whole of the stormy voyage with a bucket between her knees. Thankfully, Aunt B stepped into the conversational breach with another welcoming smile, and an easy remark with a clear sequel, “Yes, that was when Mrs. Treat was first married.”
“You are not from Boston, then?”
“No, sir,” she replied, “I was born in Newport, and lived there until my marriage. You have not been there, I think?”
Commodore Norrington inclined his head, No.
“Boston is larger, but Newport has its charms. It is the largest community in Rhode Island – though you will not hear the colony much spoken of in Massachusetts, unless it be by its more colorful nickname: ‘Rogues’ Island.’ The first English settlers had been exiled from Massachusetts for one reason or another, you see, and did not much care for the Massachusetts way of doing things.” Nellie reflected that the antipathy between colonies, however amusing to herself, might not have been the same to their English visitors, and gestured apologetically. “Ancient history, as life in the Americas goes, sirs.”
Aunt B, at the head of the table, gave her a grateful and reassuring look, before putting her hand to the tiller again, and deftly compared the contested histories of Massachusetts and Rhode Island with that of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, delicately omitting the name of Governor Belcher without actually avoiding discussing his conduct in the current border disputes between the two colonies. This had been the point of the genteel tea and conversation, and the Commodore focused intensely on Aunt B’s words. Lydia, concluding her part in the conversation was over, darted a quick look to establish the adults and Mr. Jarsdel were occupied elsewhere, rolled her eyes, and addressed herself to the dregs of her tea.
Nellie, less the eye-roll, did much the same. Evidently Uncle Bendish didn’t quite feel it within his power to give the lay of the land to the Commodore, but Aunt B! Nothing she had said could be deemed objectionable by a reasonable man (not that Governor Belcher was), all couched in indirect language and vague allusions as it was. When prompted, Nellie spoke of Mr. Waldo’s ongoing quarrel with Belcher over lumber in the Eastern Territories – apologetically adding that Captain Treat had once owned land there, and so she spoke from her memory of her husband’s interests.
True to Aunt B’s prediction, Commodore Norrington – did not smile, exactly, but something close to it – when she spoke what she knew of the Belcher-Waldo dispute, and what role William Shirley, of the Admiralty Court, played. So: whoever his friends were, in England – they knew enough to tell him how tottering Belcher’s hold on the governorship was growing. This wasn’t Nellie’s strongest suit – she stayed as far away from the notice of power as she could, and as her habits went it had served her well for some time. Her words, though, had their effect: when the clock struck the hour, the Commodore included Nellie in his thanks to the Bendishes and afforded her every courtesy – which Aunt B (Nellie noticed) observed with an approving eye.
Aunt B was yet more gratified when Norrington recalled Nellie’s destination and offered to escort her there – which she wished she could refuse. The worst of her fear of the Commodore had dissipated, but Nellie reasoned it was her Aunt’s mediation which had made the tea pleasant, and did not think she could converse half so well on indifferent nothings between the Bendish house and Mr. Smibert’s Cornhill studio. If this is the price of keeping myself above suspicion, I'll pay it. “Thank you, Commodore,” she managed to say, before turning to farewell her family.
“God keep you, my dear. Mr. Bendish and I will call tomorrow.” Adjusting Nellie’s kerchief, Aunt B took her niece’s hands into her own and pressed warmly.
Nodding at Commodore Norrington’s polite gesture, Nellie Treat walked through the open door into the light of the afternoon.