Nellie intended to sleep indecently late the next day, but despite Susannah’s best efforts Sam and Polly came roaring into her bedchamber before their breakfast, demanding an account of the ball, the arbitration of a dispute over the ownership of a new book from Captain Hendricks (A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, Captain Charles Johnson, she sleepily read), praise for their multiplication tables and memorization of Psalms and embroidery and all manner of things – and, with such a wake-up call, who could return to their dreams? Begging a moment to wash and dress herself, Nellie pushed herself out of bed to kiss her children, and resigned herself to exhaustion and the business of the day.
There were the lessons, of course, and her correspondence – and the latest figures from her warehouse and captains regarding the sale of goods, which she had to work through twice on scrap paper before she could copy into her ledgers. She waved away her breakfast with inky fingers. Polly, who she’d set to un-picking a particularly shapeless rose in her embroidery work, watched her mother scribble through her sleep-addled mistakes with badly-concealed amusement; Sam ceremoniously put Captain Johnson’s book aside and went to her desk and fetched a penknife, as though that were the true source of her problems. Mary, who’d risen close to noon, and divided her time between yawning into a dish of tea and the half-quilted petticoat pooled in her lap, watched these proceedings with an indulgent smile – eventually taking pity on her sister, and summoned Polly over to her side to inspect her progress.
Things went on in this vein for some time. By and by, the frank light of a summer morning faded into something altogether weaker, promising another afternoon storm.
She grimaced. Nellie’d intended to go out and speak with Aunt B – an after-action report, one might call it: there was the judgment on how successful her first ball in over a year and a half had gone, but there was the more pressing matter of the hornets’ nest the fleet had kicked in Cape Ann – and what that meant for the Commodore’s attention and activities. The one had fairly overshadowed the other – no one wanted to speak to prettily-dressed Widow Treat about such things, not when the prize was her late husband’s estate and business, not when they could flatter her instead.
And it wasn’t as though Commodore Norrington, or any of his subordinates, had been likely to speak to her of these things, either.
Polly and Sam frowned as they watched her draw on her mitts, and pin down her straw hat, able to look out the window and do the same math as their mother.
“Will you be home before the rain?” asked Sam.
“Of course,” she replied, kissing their foreheads, “Mind your tables and your Aunt Mary. It won’t be long.”
Ushered into the parlor, Nellie found Aunt B drinking chocolate in her banyan, looking like a queen of some far-off place.
“You slept well,” she observed, sitting wearily on her Aunt’s best-upholstered chair.
“And you, not at all,” Aunt B replied, before going to speak with Mercy about tea. Nellie took advantage of the moment to scrub the heels of her hands against her face, as though she could scour the drowsiness away by force of will alone. Alas. If the bitterest dish of coffee she’d ever asked Susannah to brew couldn’t make a dent in her fatigue, well. Night would fall eventually, wouldn’t it? And eventually, Sam and Polly would be of an age that they would rather stay abed than rattle through the house, though the thought was not a wholly welcome one.
Aunt B returned, and spoke mildly about the weather for a few minutes, before Mercy could bring in hot water and the tea service, and then she set about that with a quiet vengeance. Nellie let the steam of her dish wash across her face.
“A successful evening,” said Aunt B, after a few moments had passed.
Nellie replied that she hoped it was so, a little more unsure than she wanted.
“Mm. Your minuet was particularly admired.”
“I’m sure Mrs. Lloyd will be pleased to hear I have not disgraced her tutelage.”
“I heard Mrs. Graham reply that one would not guess you had been unsociable in your mourning this last year and more,” said Aunt B, with an expression that might have been called ‘pinched’, if Nellie were to wear it. But Aunt B was far too dignified for that. “Which I think might be the worst of it. We are not our severe ancestors; to dance well is not an indictment.”
“I have never had her good opinion, and I do no business with her family. This is no great loss to me.”
Aunt B hummed her agreement, before turning her attention to her tea, and urging Nellie to do the same – but while she stared at the whirlpool she’d created in her dish, she found herself drifting: the turn of partners matching the swirling Bohea; the almost-friendly way the Commodore had asked after her sister’s marriage. She’d been distracted then, too. There was Mary, in her finest green silk, glittering like a precious stone in sunlight – and yet, all she could see was her sister as she had been, those thirteen years ago: thin as a reed and lighter than a sparrow, perched on Nellie’s lap as they were rowed out to meet Captain Treat’s Sally, riding at anchor in Newport harbor. The gentle swell of Narragansett Bay gave way to a violent Atlantic chop; the only life they’d ever known disappearing – first behind Brenton Neck, and then in the haze of distance. Nellie’d gotten sea-sick immediately, and Mary wanted to go home. How had Nellie stood it, then? A little better than eighteen, married in her dead mother’s old-fashioned mantua (itself remade from something older), wed to a man she had known for two months. If S–
If Captain Treat, even at twenty-two, had not been certainty embodied, more sure to last than rocks and tides and stars – could she have withstood it? This was an older, darker path, leading deeper into her memories than she generally cared to follow: her spendthrift father and overwhelmed step-mother, the drafty house too cramped for nine children – and when her father had driven John out, how cruel that the loss of her brother and closest friend in the world came as nothing but a relief to the rest? Not even the sudden interest of her Aunt and Uncle Coggeshall could make up for it. When Captain Treat had walked into her Uncle’s parlor as she was balancing the business’s books and he decided he liked the look of her – she made up her mind then and there: even if the tall, laughing Boston captain proved to be the worst man in Christendom, wherever he was bound, she would go with him – Heaven, Hell, or Massachusetts.
Luck was with her, then. If she’d withstood too-early motherhood – the brutal moment when her own stepmother had seized her wrist and begged her to take any of the younger ones with her, transforming Mary from ‘sister’ to something closer to ‘daughter’ – it was because Captain Treat had been a willing father. A partner. Any part of the pride in seeing Mary so widely admired and loved always came, this last year and more, with the hollow feeling that he should have been there to see it.
Enough of that. Nellie shook herself out of her reverie, and when prompted by her Aunt, responded almost truthfully: that she had been thinking that the Commodore had complimented Mary’s dancing when it was her turn at the minuet. Aunt B smiled. It was difficult for a woman to be too much admired, after all, and any evidence that Commodore Norrington thought highly of the family was a welcome development. And Mary was as good as married – she was in no danger from the unwed Commodore there.
“On that score, my dear, how are matters progressing?”
“Well enough. The date is set, Reverend Prince has been consulted, and I’ve met with Mr. Bishop to discuss her dowry some six times at least.”
“And the difficulty with your brother Peter?”
“Resolved,” she replied, with a tight smile and a silent oath of condemnation, “I made up the deficit. The Winships are satisfied with what I and I alone have settled on Mary, and that is the best closure for the affair I can think of.”
Aunt B nodded, murmuring a few soothing words of approval in the face of her niece’s temper, but Nellie was not so easily placated – not after Peter had been so irresponsible, and not when her righteous anger at her worthless half-brother was much more pleasant to dwell on than memories of her late husband, or the girl she’d been before him.
“And after all this, he will still attend the wedding,” she fumed, before stuffing a bite of buttered bread in her mouth.
“He is Mary’s brother.”
“Oh, sure, sure. No one but family could feel so entitled to money that isn’t theirs.”
Aunt B set aside her dish with a polite clearing of her throat, and once more put down the conversational tiller:
“On the subject of your sister: Mary informed me that the Commodore – hm – intervened, between you and Mr. Loring,” she said, delicately, taking a purposeful sip of her still-steaming tea.
“He did,” Nellie agreed, before pausing to collect her thoughts. She had been so grateful for an escape from the one man that she was more than halfway through a dance with the other, before she thought – How!? It was unsettling. Either the Commodore had preternatural timing, or he had known, somehow, that she couldn’t stand Loring – feared him, even – but was not exactly in a position to say so. If she was transparent as glass to the Commodore …
Well. That would be an inglorious end to her independent career as a smuggler.
“Did you mention anything regarding Mr. Loring to Commodore Norrington?”
“There’s no reason I should have,” Aunt B replied, “But Mr. Loring has been caught with French sugar since the squadron’s arrival. Perhaps his temper left an impression.”
“How gallant of the Commodore,” she said, sourly. But she was being mulish and ungrateful and she knew it, and nodded like a chastened child when her Aunt reminded her that it was better for her to be in Norrington’s debt than in his black books. And Nellie had been grateful – grateful enough, worn down enough by dancing and the hour and the punch – that she’d said it, and because of that gratitude, had felt a twinge when the man’s look turned distant and haunted in the middle of the set. She recalled the quick path her thoughts had taken – had he turned down another, more welcome dance partner, only to come to her aid? Perhaps, but if Commodore Norrington was courting anyone in Boston, surely the whole city would have known it. He hadn’t been looking at anyone specific – ah. It was the dance itself, Nellie had guessed – and if there was nothing much in the present to trouble him, then the answer lay in the past: the man’s broken engagement?
(This was as much informed by the awful hole in her gut that appeared whenever she heard a man whistling ‘The Nut-Brown Maid,’ even without the particular glee Captain Treat had always mustered for “I am the knight, I came by night” as any other factor or reasonable assumption; it was hard to get out of the habit of looking for someone who had gone away from you.)
“I know you have little reason to like Commodore Norrington, fortunate intervention or no,” Aunt B said, after Nellie had dwelled on her words for a few moments, “Though in some respects, he may be a hazard preferable to that of the Hugh Lorings of this world.”
“A temporary, and not a permanent one? Or that no one has yet accused him of beating servants or his sister?”
Indeed. He seems too conscientious, for the latter, in any case.”
Did he even have a sister? Nellie recalled that Aunt B had said he was a younger son, and vaguely agreed with her Aunt’s assertion – before pivoting to the news that was everywhere in Boston, and what really had been the purpose of this visit: “Conscientious enough for what his junior’s done in Cape Ann?”
Aunt B’s brows knit together, and she let out a sigh that sounded suspiciously like a hiss, setting aside her dish of tea to rub her temples. “If I never hear of Ipswich again, my dear, it would be too soon.”
Nellie encouraged her to continue, having not heard much of the news at the officers’ ball.
“It is apparently all the Acting Captain, Lieutenant Nibley’s doing. His Teal had suffered greatly from desertions and he consequently went to great lengths in order to recapture those sailors – or not, as he seized at least two men who were not enlisted in the Teal’s books, and claimed they were, despite all proofs to the contrary.”
“The usual inducements to enlist had no effect?”
“Lieutenant Nibley appears not to have made any serious efforts to recruit new crew members to fill deficiencies in the muster books.”
Aunt B smiled a thin, sour smile. “Just so. He preferred to catch the deserters.”
“And failing that, he wanted to –” Nellie filled in, before trailing off herself, thinking quickly of what she knew – there had been similar cases, she was sure, though her memory barely extended to the last major war, Bourbons and Hapsburgs and eventually Britain, too. There had been some – well, Aunt would call it uneasiness, though riots (entirely justified, she thought) might have been closer to the case, over the impressment of British sailors in colonial ports. Boston, particularly; she knew little of other ports save Newport, and her long-ago home been spared.
“It is unlawful, at least by one interpretation of the Trade to America Act. But, of course, Lieutenant Nibley does not call his actions ‘impressment’ – that happy office,” she said, with a sour twist of her features, “fell to the Gazette.”
“Oh,” said Nellie. There was that familiar hole in her gut.
“Indeed. I have heard that Governor Belcher lost his considerable temper over Mr. Green’s editorializing. The damage, however …”
“Has been done?”
And, Nellie imagined, the lengths to which Commodore Norrington and Lieutenant Nibley had gone to enforce duties had surely prevented anyone from extending them any grace or period in which to explain themselves.
“I think it has. How did you find the streets today?”
“As they normally are, outside of Sunday. Should I have noticed something?”
“There was, from some reports, an effigy of Lieutenant Nibley hanged from a tree in Ipswich, before some sensible soul cut it down – one can only imagine what would have occurred, had it been Nibley left to the task. Nehemiah Parsons, one of the men he seized, was evidently a popular man.”
Aunt B was not looking at her, but had taken her dish of tea into her lap, if only to have something to do with her hands. Nellie paused, suddenly very aware of how still and oppressive the afternoon had grown, and how dark – how nice of the weather to provide such an appropriate backdrop to the drama playing out here and in Cape Ann, she thought – and then balked, a little surprised at her own irreverence. “And has this Mr. Parsons been returned to his friends?”
“He has, along with the others. Commodore Norrington’s orders must have been very strongly worded, if the haste with which the men were sent back ashore, and with which the Teal left her station are anything to go by.”
“And what will he do now?”
“The Commodore? He cannot let the Lieutenant’s actions stand, either from his own convictions, or for the sake of public order.” Aunt B looked up from her restless stirring, and dropped her voice to little more than a murmur. “But then, well. Lieutenant Nibley, our relations in England have written, is the child of an affair, and his natural father has a great deal of power at the Admiralty. And conversely, Commodore Norrington may have the Byngs on his side, but it has been full six years since Admiral Byng, the Viscount Torrington passed. Wager, the current First Lord, will likely be unwilling to alienate any possible allies with war so close at hand – and there are none of the Viscount’s family among his Council.”
Nellie frowned, and took a sip of her cold tea: between the Devil and the deep blue sea suggested itself to her, though any sympathy for Norrington came unavoidably twisted with a hard thought: as much as Nibley could distract him from the smugglers of Boston, that would be to her benefit – a contemptible thing to think, when it was her countrymen who were suffering by Nibley’s high-handed actions.
Aunt B seemed to take the measure of her thoughts in a glance, for she pinned Nellie with a sharp look. “I know any distraction on the Commodore’s part is of benefit to the harbor’s illicit business, but allow me to observe that of the two men, only one is proposing to interpret the law to flatter his pride.”
“And the other, I suppose, is Commodore Norrington.”
“Just so, my dear. Just so.”
Nellie set her dish and rubbed her temples, not trusting herself to make a reasoned response: between the exhaustion and the strange circumstance of feeling at once indebted to and nearly sorry for the grim Commodore, she could feel the start of a splitting headache. The amassing storm, too – that never helped.
Pleading that headache, and that she had promised Polly and Sam to return before the rain, Nellie came to her feet, and made to wish her aunt a good afternoon – and, to her surprise, Aunt B dismissed Mercy to the kitchen, saying she would see her niece out herself.
In the hall, Aunt B put her hand to the door as she opened it, and gave her a last, thin smile. “A word, before you go. We dine with the Phipses and Hutchinsons tonight, and while your uncle has high hopes that they will support the Commodore in this matter, Mr. Hutchinson’s demeanor at the officers’ ball does give me pause. No one has ever accused him of being a friend of the laboring classes, but it seems the vehemence of the reaction in Cape Ann has troubled him – as have whatever rumblings exist, in Boston.”
This Nellie granted, impatiently checking her kerchief and cap-ribbons.
“If matters are not satisfactorily concluded tonight, I will ask you to speak with Margaret Hutchinson, and ask her to advise her husband to publically support Commodore Norrington, if only in the matter of the unjustly-seized men. Lean on your family connection – appeal to her as a fellow Sanford – however distantly so,” Aunt B, paused, and then smiled like a fox. “If her late grandfather could have found it within himself to work with Andros in the bad old days, surely supporting a loyal servant of a rightful monarch is not beyond the scope of the possible.”
Nellie frowned, but promised to do so.
“Good. God be with you, my dear.”
Aunt Bendish embraced her quickly, and disappeared into the parlor.
And this was, of course, when Nellie swung the door fully open, discovering Commodore Norrington walking up the door yard.
The blue-coated officer looked up when she hailed him, surprised for a moment, before returning her greeting with his usual courtesy. In the grey light of day, far less forgiving than the candle-lit long rooms, he looked half-dead: oddly pale for a sailor at the best of times, Commodore Norrington was completely ashen-faced. Nellie felt a pang – almost – that she had been complaining of the few hours of dreaming she'd managed when the man before him had clearly not slept at all. This was all because of Lieutenant Nibley's conduct, she assumed.
"You are here for my Uncle," she said.
"I am. He is at home?"
Nellie replied she had been with her Aunt, but presumed her Uncle to be in his office, which the Commodore acknowledged with all the enthusiasm of a man about to face the scaffold, and made to knock and announce himself.
"My Aunt is speaking with the servants about evening arrangements, I think," Nellie said, glancing at the sky, "So there'll be no one for the door. I can show you in, if you like? It's not a day for waiting out of doors."
He assented and thanked her, and Nellie retraced her steps into the cool shadows of the house, rapping on the office door and poking her head in when addressed. "Commodore Norrington to see you, Uncle."
Uncle Bendish nodded, Norrington went in, and Nellie rushed out the front door for home –
Only to be turned back halfway down the street, when the skies opened with a mighty crack of lightning, as though they were in some rehearsal for a second Deluge.
This, thought Nellie Treat, shaking out her petticoats in the Bendish hall, was all of a piece.
She said as much when she stalked to the kitchen to tell her Aunt she intended to wait out the worst of the storm, and allowed herself to be pushed before the fire to dry out, while Aunt B excused herself and took Mercy with her, saying she needed to dress for the evening, and that Nellie ought not to leave without saying farewell, should the storm let up soon. There was another roll of thunder, by means of punctuation. Aunt B patted her hand, said that Sam would understand, and sailed along on her way.
Nellie plucked at her damp, clammy kerchief unhappily, and listened to the noise of the storm, hoping that it would be of short duration.
Her prayers went unheeded. Uncle Bendish, not ten minutes later, swung open the door, and asked Kitty if she’d have Mrs. Bendish serve tea, before ducking back into the office without even seeing Nellie; the maid abandoned her potatoes to rush up the kitchen stairs.
“Mrs. Bendish is at her dressing table, Mrs. Treat,” the young woman reported, coming down the stairs in a clatter, not a handful of minutes later, dropping a quick curtsey at the bottom “And asks that you perform the office."
Nellie supposed that her Aunt’s request was really more of a command – and Kitty seemed to have interpreted it as such, as well, for she went about setting the kettle above the fire and unlocking the tea-chest, and the dozen other little preparations.
This seemed a little like something Aunt B might have planned, had she the ability to command thunderous storms; but, Nellie reflected, all she needed was a familiarity with Boston’s pattern of summer storms to play the odds of probability. Nothing for it; she was stuck here, now, however wet and unhappy, and might as well hear what Aunt B wished her to.
While she waited, Nellie pressed Kitty for some cake or bread or something to send in with the tea itself – she wholly misliked how haggard the Commodore had looked on his way in, and, she supposed, she was feeling a little charitable. She could afford to, under the circumstances.
The kettle came to a boil, Kitty assembled the rest of the service, and thus she took the whole tray into the office.
The gentlemen rose to their feet. “Ah. Elinor. I thought you had left us, for the day. Is Imogene – ?”
“Occupied, at present,” said Nellie. A lie, but certainly better than saying her aunt was at her dressing table. “The rain caught me as I was leaving; Aunt sent me in her stead.”
This answer satisfied Uncle Bendish, though Norrington still looked at her a little warily, and hesitated to speak before prompted by his host: a letter from his sister, whose news came from her husband in the House of Commons, and who had been present when Captain Jenkins laid his grievances against the Spanish Guarde Costa (Tho’, he read from his sister’s missive, with something Nellie might have called amusement, the Reports of Jenkins giving his pickled ear to Walpole are a Scandalous Exaggeration.)
Nellie kept her curiosity to herself and worked quietly: a rinse of the pot before steeping the leaves, the same of the dishes, laying out the molasses cake and plates for the two. At the same time, she pieced together what she’d heard at the door, and the vague hint Aunt B had given her. Not Nibley – no, this had something to do with the last letters from London, if the Commodore’s news was anything to go by. She’d heard Uncle Bendish speak before of Walpole’s troubles, the pressure on him to go to war with Spain and the insurgency of the Patriot Whigs – much of which she’d made a note of but largely had little use for; the King and Parliament had done little meddling in Boston affairs within her memory.
This was different – Norrington was talking as though war with Spain was a certainty, not an abstract possibility, which neither pleased nor shocked her: just one more piece of information to use and circulate. It was Uncle Bendish’s remarks, derived from the handsomely-written letter on the table, that struck home.
“It’s not only the usual reasons. There are the typical willful misunderstandings between merchants in the Indies – and then there’s the South Sea Company and the Royal African Company, of course, and their compulsion to needle Madrid over the asiento.”
Commodore Norrington’s expression markedly soured, if only for a moment.
“The cost, of course, is a major concern,” her uncle went on, with a glance at Nellie, who was sitting with eyes downcast, waiting for the steeping to be done, “And it is difficult, we might say, to forget what occurred after the last conflict over the Spanish throne, and what was done to pay off the Crown’s debts. No rational man wants a repeat of the South Sea Company's bubble. My cousin writes that he has heard, hmm. Considerations, of what might be done in the Caribbean to protect revenues, and close down the less-legal avenues of trade with foreign ports, and administer the Molasses Act. With force, if necessary.”
“Much as the Crown has been interested in Boston revenues?”
Nellie’s blood froze.
Hastily and silently, she thanked the Higher Power that her hands had been folded in her lap as she waited, lest she have dropped the teapot or knocked it over – and how would that look? Nellie darted a glance through her lowered lashes at the two men – Commodore Norrington, contrary to usual his immaculate posture, was tapping the table in thought, but Uncle Bendish had noticed and minutely shook his head. A warning? An apology? She refolded her hands in her lap under the table, pushing at her rings, and tried to think of nothing but counting down the time that was left in the steeping, though her worries wedged their way between the numbers.
The conversation continued, but it might have been a thousand miles away, for all she paid attention to it – she heard the words, but she might well have been listening to Mr. Corcellis arguing with his father in French for all she understood.
“There’s some talk that the East India Company is involving itself in West Indian matters, and that the push for enforcement has come from their director – though I can’t see to what end. Your father had some dealings with the East India Company, did he not?”
“They’ve been anxious about piracy since Avery took the Mughal emperor’s treasure ship, those decades ago,” Uncle Bendish suggested, by means of explaining – something.
“The Company worked closely with His Majesty’s Navy even into the Admiral’s time, I recall.”
“Yes. Something about a Captain Tick? Teed?”
“Perhaps this is a return to form, then…” And so on.
She finished her counting, and poured out two cups. All the sugar that could dissolve for her Uncle – Nellie thought a moment, knowing she’d just had it, if she could only get what had been said out of her mind – right, heavy hand with the cream, little sugar for Norrington. The men barely broke from their discussion of the past conduct of the East India Company to thank her.
Her office performed, Nellie excused herself with a painstaking curtsey, feeling loose and out of her own control, like a puppet whose strings had been yanked too roughly (if puppets had a mind for these things, which, one assumed, they didn’t) – and walked stiffly to the kitchen where she found Aunt B, dressed and pomaded, ordering and organizing for the evening. Nellie seized her aunt’s arm, half for attention, and half because she really did feel like she might drop then and there. “It’s not just Boston?”
Aunt B’s brows knitted with concern: that Nellie was going to have a spell in her kitchen, that Mercy could overhear Nellie’s hissed words, and that if there were a lull in the conversation, Uncle Bendish and Commodore Norrington could, as well.
“Come along to the parlor, my dear. You ought to sit.”
“It’s not just Boston,” Nellie repeated, unable to keep a thin, high edge out of her voice.
“The whole of the Caribbean. War with Spain. I’ll – I’m –”
“Sit down, dear,” Aunt B insisted, pulling a chair up to the empty parlor hearth and telling her to wait – returning in a few moments with a blanket, and Kitty with a little glass of spirits, and a basket of wood to lay the fire.
“It must have been the rain, my dear,” she said, soothingly, taking the glass and pressing it into Nellie’s hand, “The sudden wind and damp, on top of such a long evening and so little rest – it’s little wonder you became overwhelmed. Indeed, I am only surprised it did not overtake you sooner.”
This was mostly for Kitty’s benefit, and the young maid did gave her a pitying look, which was all well and good for her to do – at that age, Nellie felt she could have weathered anything. Youth. Nellie shook off her irritation at Aunt B’s overly-solicitous excuses. “I don’t mean to make a nuisance of myself. I have not heard thunder in some time, and the rain appears to be letting up. Please, just a moment, and let me be on my way – I promised Sam I’d be home before the storm broke and –”
“And it has already arrived. You may as well wait.”
To Hell with that. Nellie downed the little glass with ill grace and came to her feet, thinking how much Sam hated thunder, yes – but of the coming regulation of Caribbean trade and the war, and how badly she needed to warn Hendricks – warn all her captains, really, make allowances, make plans. Maybe Hendricks had had the right of it – shipping train oil and whalebone to London, or perhaps the same leg in tobacco – but until that day –
Aunt B pushed her back into the seat. Gently, of course, but the insistence was there, and it really hadn’t taken much effort, not much, not at all. Her thoughts were skittering, she vaguely noted.
“Please, my dear. Sit. Rest. You’re as pale as the grave.”
Unwillingly, she did.
Nellie woke neither suddenly nor slowly, hardly aware that she had fallen asleep – noting at once the unfamiliar footfalls and the shut of the officer door, the staccato tap of her Aunt descending the hall stairs, the humid quiet that had followed the thunderstorm.
“Oh, Commodore,” came Aunt B’s voice, low and measured, “I am sorry to ask you this, as I understand it to be out of your way, but will you escort my niece back to Summer Street? She’s taken ill.” She continued to her excuses: The Hutchinsons, as well as Lieutenant Governor Phips and his lady, were expected at any moment to speak of the unrest in Cape Ann, otherwise either she or her husband should be happy to undertake the office.
Nellie heard his agreement. Of course. He valued courtesy as he did his allies; why wouldn’t he consent to an errand that would take little of his time? She huffed and came wobbling to her feet, in time for Aunt B to bustle in and wrap her in a wool shawl too heavy for August, promising to visit in the morning.
Commodore Norrington waited in the hall with an appropriate look of concern. Sluggish as her thoughts were, they all spelled anger and resentment, the sick worry from her uncle’s news flooding back in: was it not enough he was here, leading London’s campaign against smuggling with all the implacability that he’d apparently demonstrated against pirates in the Caribbean? Did Parliament have to begin to interfere more strenuously with illicit trade in the West Indies at the same point in time? And the war with Spain that was coming, that Walpole couldn’t or wouldn’t hold off any longer – that would shut off near a full third of ports to colonial trade! She wanted to curse at all of it, and all of them! But then – Parliament was many hundreds of miles away, and all cursing at Norrington would buy her was a featherweight of satisfaction and several stone of troubles.
Nellie smothered a sigh. Mechanically taking the officer’s arm, she allowed herself to be ushered out into the afternoon.
They proceeded in silence for some time – and, absent of other focus, Nellie found herself looking about the city for evidence of any uneasiness, as Aunt B had hinted. That nothing suggested itself did not put her mind at ease, only allowing space for the two portentous conversations to chase each other around her mind: Nibley’s autocratic conduct forcing unrest on the one hand – on the other, forceful imposition of order in the Caribbean. Neither was good news; both personally galled her, and promised yet more difficulties for trade. It was her own little version of the Devil and the deep blue sea, entirely devoid of Commodore Norrington’s tale of titles and lost status with the Admiralty: only the law, its capricious enforcement, and the unpredictable path to walk towards her survival between.
Nellie glanced up at her escort, though Norrington seemed equally as lost in thought as she was, and consequently did not notice. Where it was between him and Nibley, she supposed she’d rather him – smuggling was one thing, but human lives were another; interrelated at times, but in this instance the lines of conduct were pretty clearly drawn. Nibley was playing the despot; Norrington, at least, adhered to the law.
Which, to the root of her problems, she deplored.
What a day, she thought – and because she truly was starting to feel she’d reached the end of her rope, recklessly wondered what else could possibly happen.
(Later – when she watched Norrington disappear down Summer Street from her parlor window – she would mentally upbraid herself for tempting fate like that.)
At last, he spoke, providing them both with an excuse for their unsociability: “It was a late evening.”
“It was,” she replied, and then, because she was trying not to think about his conversation with Uncle Bendish, lest she give herself away, rallied to a smile. “But a pleasant one.”
She very nearly went on to say she had not had such an evening of dancing in some time, but Nellie could see explaining that sentiment would bring up her period of mourning, so she shunned it. Instead, she tried a compliment, or, at the very least, gratitude: “At the risk of sounding like a sycophant, I do thank you again for the signal honor you paid me, and for ‘Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot’. You were a far more agreeable partner than – than – ”
Oh, hellfire, there was no salvaging that: either she had to say she disliked Mr. Loring (instead of implying it), or that she hadn’t expected much from Norrington as a dance partner. Nellie winced, and miserably pinched the bridge of her nose with her free hand – both unavoidably noticeable at such close quarters.
“You looked ready to flee; I only felt obliged to offer you an avenue of retreat.”
Nellie darted another look up at Norrington, who was gazing down the street, and whose expression gave nothing away. She blurted a smart remark before she could bite it off: “Military strategy even in at a ball, Commodore?”
“The habit of a lifetime, Mrs. Treat.”
“I suppose the two lines do suggest battle-order, and, perhaps, ball-dress might be said to resemble signals and pennants. But in that, I must defer to your superior experience. Is it appropriate?”
“The comparison has its points, but I find it imperfect.”
Nellie, nearly enjoying the turn the conversation had taken, asked what about it was incorrect.
“It presumes the party opposite must be your adversary, chiefly.”
She hadn’t expected that.
“Yes – ah – if I were to believe that to be universally true, it would be a jaundiced view of the world,” she replied, lightly as she could, more flippant than she felt, surely. Commodore Norrington saw her as an ally? The thought was discomfiting – one she fairly tripped over – though, with a sinking feeling in her gut, she could clearly see how he arrived at that conclusion. She had been a relation of John and Imogene Bendish, a willing commenter on the economic background of Massachusetts’ political divisions, a courteous conversationalist; she had saved his life at the hazard of her own. There had been the matter of the Pequot’s illicit cargo, but no matter: she had kept her head down and paid the fine, and neither she nor Captain Sargent had made any serious protests. On the balance of appearances – yes, certainly: polite, capable Mrs. Treat could be counted upon to support the King’s order in his colonies.
What a letter to John this would all make.
She knew it was for the best, but the realization tasted bitter – frankly puzzling, Nellie thought, that though her livelihood depended in no small way on dishonestly, she should find it unpleasant here. She balled the realization up, to examine later - or never, if the Heavens were kind.
And, as if he could tell the tack her thoughts had taken, Commodore Norrington broke from the superficial conversation. “I have not personally expressed my gratitude for your conduct, either on Long Wharf, or in company the past several weeks.”
“The honor of the ball was enough, sir; you owe me no further thanks.”
He protested that a man’s life was worth more than a dance – Two, she swiftly corrected, a little wryly – and that, at any road, he also considered her conduct in (he said, indirectly and judiciously) the most recent difficulty.
“I hadn’t intended to, and I only raise the matter to thank you.”
“I would have you save your thanks until I have something to show for it,” she said, too quickly, as the feeling she’d had in Uncle Bendish’s office – of being a puppet whose strings had been carelessly yanked – returned. “The Bendishes might persuade him, or I might fail. Thomas Hutchinson and my late husband did not agree on much, and my family connection with Mrs. Hutchinson is a distant one.”
The Commodore nodded, and Nellie, belatedly thinking her tone was snappish, pushed at her mourning rings and sighed. “Please forgive me. It was a late evening, and I’m not quite myself.”
“It was,” he agreed, “But you need apologize for nothing.”
She murmured her thanks, and the rest of the walk home passed by in relative quiet.