An "Emerging Authors" Selection at Target Stores
Winner, San Diego Book Award, Best Historical Fiction
Director's Mention, Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction
"...very well written and a pleasure to read, and presents an aspect of the Civil War saga that is out of the ordinary."
Finalist, ForeWord Book of the Year Awards, Historical Novel
Ballantine Books 2011
Description: It is 1861. Fearing that England will support the Confederate cause, President Lincoln sends Charles Francis Adams to London. But when Charles arrives, accompanied by his son Henry, he discovers that the English are already building warships for the South. As Charles embarks on a high-stakes game of espionage and diplomacy to save the nation, his son crosses swords with Baxter Sams, a classmate and Southerner who has fallen in love with Englishwoman Julia Birch. Julia's family reviles Americans, leaving Baxter torn between his love for Julia, his friendship with Henry Adams, and his obligations to his family, who entreat him to run opium to the Confederacy. As tensions mount, irrevocable choices are made that test the bonds of brothers, lovers, fathers, and sons--and change the fate of the entire country.
An excerpt from...
Broken Promises, A Novel of the Civil War
"Then came the outbreak which had been so often foretold, so often menaced; and the ground reeled under the nation …"
—John Bright, member of Parliament and friend of the Union,
Speeches of John Bright on the American Question
Charles Francis Adams curled his fingers around the armrest of the ancient mahogany chair, feeling for the familiar groove on the underside. Wearing a finely stitched suit from London, he sat erect and still, as his mother had taught him during dark, snowy afternoons in Russia, when winter’s cocoon confined them to the solemn embassy for months. But his fingertips betrayed the anxiety under his exterior calm. The chair had been at the White House since his father was president. Generations of politicians and other favor-seekers had camped on the Regency velvet until the brown backing showed through like the fallow field in Quincy, mowed close to the sod. The emerald plush of the armrest was dry stubble now. The president’s living allowance must be as puny as ever.
Charles silently traced the deep scratch he had worried countless times as a student, waiting for his father to invite him into the book-lined office and deepening the crack as only a bored child would. He was hardly that disheveled youngster anymore. Charles was nearly as old as his father, John Quincy, had been when he labored in the White House. At fifty-three, Charles was two years older than the man who kept him waiting like a boy now.
He hoped, more intensely than he would have acknowledged even to Abby, who knew him better than anyone but his father, long dead, that the time would be well spent. He had anticipated this moment his whole life. Year after year, dreading the catastrophe, he still ached for the opportunity to prove himself. At last, the summons to history had arrived. It had been delayed so long that he almost ceased expecting it. Now, to distract himself, he concentrated on the flaw that meandered under his fingertips like the Charles River winding through cobble-stoned Boston.
The door to the office opened abruptly.
“President Lincoln will see you, Mr. Adams,” William Seward announced, poking his head through. Seward’s words were as formal as his black wool suit, but he angled one eyebrow and flashed Charles a quick smile as he opened the door wide. “Charles,” he added sotto voce, gesturing toward the inner office.
Seward’s bushy white hair struggled against the pomade he used to press it flat. The thick tufts reminded Charles of the pompadour crest on the barnyard rooster back home. His old friend was only secretary of state, not president as the abolitionists had expected, yet he was still cock of the walk. Seward had let Lincoln stew in Washington’s cook pot three long weeks before finally accepting the public offer of secretary. The brash New Yorker had enough nerve to equip two presidents. Charles knew no one else in politics with as much self-assurance, and he envied it.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Adams,” the president said, barely glancing up from a stack of letters as Charles entered the room. A sheaf of telegrams spilled across the opposite corner of the desk. Lincoln waved a long hand at a chair across from him. “Take a seat, please. I’ll be with you in a moment.” He continued stabbing at the letters, signing his name in jerky bursts.
Charles studied the obscure Westerner whom fate had elevated to the republic’s highest office. It was the first time he had seen Lincoln up close, aside from shaking hands in the inaugural reception line, and he marveled anew, with no conscious disrespect, at the strange debris kicked up by the wheels of the American political process.
Lincoln’s nomination had been a surprise. He had served one forgettable term in Congress a decade earlier and was just as homely as the newspaper artists sketched him, with a plain, plowed face. His beard softened the angular jaw but it couldn’t hide the deep furrows running under his prominent Indian cheekbones or the dark bruises around his sunken eyes. The man was as raw as the frontier. Lincoln made weather-beaten Andrew Jackson look like a Broadway dandy. Of all the presidents Charles had known, and he had known most of them, none seemed so unfinished.
God help us, Charles thought. If appearances meant anything, the man was as fit to be president as the Quincy blacksmith—though probably less inured to the heat.
Lincoln finally pushed aside the last letter with the tip of his index finger. He wore a black broadcloth coat, tight across the shoulders, and his wrists stuck out from the cuffs. He sat at the Louis XVI table like a school desk, angled sideways to fit his knees. The spacious office shrank around the gangly Kentuckian, who now looked expectantly at Charles.
“Mr. Adams. Secretary Seward tells me the Senate has accepted your appointment as minister to England. It looks like Congress has seen fit to give us our way—for once.”
Clasping his hands behind his head, the president leaned backward in a long, slow stretch. His cuffs hoisted themselves higher on the bony wrists and the buttons quivered against the strain, ready to pop. Charles noticed that one was sewn on with white thread, the other with brown. Lincoln’s grey eyes bore down on him. He wondered what plan Lincoln had devised for handling Great Britain. It would have to be ingenious.
Charles leaned forward, deferent but poised. He knew he looked every bit the Boston Brahmin for which most people took him, the elegant embodiment of America’s only aristocracy and its severe, Puritan rectitude.
“So it seems, sir. Even the opposition hardly objected. It was most gratifying—especially in light of our present circumstances.” Charles paused, but Lincoln remained silent, watching. “I would like to thank you for your confidence, Mr. President, and for the appointment,” he continued. “I’ve studied the issues closely. It will be tough to bring St. James’s to our side, but I believe we can do it. As you know, my father and grandfather occupied the same position.”
Charles stopped himself from saying more. The chronicler in him wanted to add that they, too, served in desperate times. Grandfather had bearded the British lion after the revolution and toasted the King who threatened to hang him from a yardarm in Boston harbor. Thirty years later, Charles’s father signed the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812—the second time that mighty paw had knocked America sprawling. Charles was third in his line to act as minister to the Court of St. James’s. A direct descendent of the American Revolution.
But he held his tongue. To anyone outside the family, it was ancient history. The worn tale would reveal only vanity. “Beware of pride, Charlie,” Grandfather had cautioned. “Strive to be useful. God alone is our witness.” Besides, Lincoln would be well aware of his family’s long association with these matters.
With his hands still clasped behind his head, the president now swiveled to look at Seward, causing the chair’s iron mechanism to bray in protest. The secretary of state was studying a patch on the ceiling as if looking far into the future, where no one else could see. Lincoln glanced from Seward to Adams, taking the measure of one man against the other. He then placed his hands on the table with a deliberate air, and responded, “Very kind of you to say so, Mr. Adams. But there’s no need to thank me. You’re not my choice. You’re Seward’s man. I’ve no claim on you a’tall.”
Lincoln pursed his full lips, perhaps aware this statement was hardly a compliment, and then smiled. “I reckon you’ll do just fine, though,” he added. “England can’t have much interest in our affairs. When can you sail?”
Years of training repaid Charles in an instant. Dismay might have shown on a less controlled man, but he had governed the display of his emotions since the age of six. All the ladies in St. Petersburg had commented upon it: a miniature diplomat. Old before he was out of short pants. The more intensely Charles felt, the more unemotional he appeared, as drum-tight as a Chinese cabinet.
“I’ll be ready for London in two weeks, sir,” Charles answered, his level tone unchanged. “I’ve already turned the family farm in Quincy over to my eldest son.”
“That’ll do, then,” the president said, a faint twang in his tone. “Mr. Seward will send your instructions presently.”
“He will send my instructions?” Charles spoke with more emphasis than he intended. Despite his low-tide opinion of Lincoln, it simply hadn’t occurred to him that the president wouldn’t want to discuss the looming dangers. If not now, when? Once the Royal Navy turned its lethal broadsides on America’s paper fleet? Was Lincoln aware that Europe crouched in the shadows while the country careened toward war? He couldn’t imagine why else Lincoln would have requested a meeting. “That is, surely you wish to discuss my instructions before I leave?” Charles asked.
“This is not an opportune moment, Mr. Adams,” the President said, waving his hand at the stacks of documents. One slipped sideways in the breeze and drifted to the carpet, but the president appeared not to notice. Seward bent over, then put the paper back on the desk.
“With respect, sir, don’t you wish to apprise me of your plan? The Queen’s ministers will surely demand an explanation of our blockade. Blockades are permissible only against a foreign enemy, and yet we assert that the Confederacy remains part of the United States. It’s a contradiction. Perhaps even illegal.”
Charles pressed his lips together, damming the other arguments that threatened to flood forth. He mustn’t appear to be instructing the president—a member of the bar, dear God—on the finer points of maritime law. Massachusetts had best be careful lecturing Kentucky. Charles knew that more than a few Westerners—whose ancestors had braved the Appalachians for the wilds of the Ohio valley—were tired unto death of pontificating New Englanders and the fiery rhetoric which had brought the country to the brink of destruction on which it now trembled.
“I wish I had something to tell you, Mr. Adams, but there are any number of matters that require attention at the moment. Washington is in a perpetual hurry. Appointments to be made. The army to organize. I must skip to catch up. Mr. Seward will send your instructions as soon as possible.” Lincoln’s expression was mild but unyielding.
Seward redirected his gaze from the ceiling to Charles. “Indeed,” he confirmed with half-hooded eyes. The secretary of state stood topmast straight, his expression enigmatic.
Charles knew what Seward thought. No instructions meant no plan. The president was incapable of subtle strategy or decisive action, and he had all the savoir-faire of the Mississippi River boatman he had been a few decades earlier. Seward had implied as much over breakfast a few days earlier at Willard’s Hotel, around the corner from the White House. The secretary wasn’t explicit, but he shook his head as he diced his sausage and eggs, reluctant to report all the gaffes from which he had had to rescue his unsophisticated superior.
Lincoln unfolded a lanky arm and handed Seward a letter from the sloping pile on his desk. “Now here’s something. I do believe I have solved the vexatious problem of the Chicago Post Office,” he said with a satisfied air. “We’ll give it to the fellow from Peoria who lost his seat last November. A perfect spot for him to land. Like a bullfrog on a lily pad.”
“Excellent, sir,” Seward said. He glanced at Charles and gave a quick nod of dismissal. Apparently the interview was over.
Charles excused himself, though Lincoln hardly looked at him again. The president and Seward had moved on to other matters. Charles walked out with a dazed feeling, blinded by memories. In what was once the family office, someone neither familiar nor familial now occupied the seat of power.
Seward’s man. The short phrase cut to the bone. He was no one’s man, Charles thought, stunned at the implication. Appointed to the Court of St. James’s—America’s slyest enemy—and then dismissed as casually as a two-bit party hack. Like an office seeker. An Adams. In the same breath as the Chicago Post Office. It was mortifying. And what about his instructions? How could he sail without them?
His own concentrated, intense father had toiled over every detail of strategy, every line of his correspondence, every crinkle in the boundary lines that he wrested from Spanish negotiator Don Luis de Onís. The Adams-Onís treaty of 1821 took the United States clear to the Pacific Ocean. Did Lincoln have any idea what it was like to deal with a great power? Did he understand what they were up against, as he allowed the country to drift rudderless into war? If Great Britain lent her warships to the South, as France had aided the colonies in 1776, they would cleave the country into kindling. And how could Charles possibly implement Lincoln’s strategy when the man did not have one? Seward was right. The Kentuckian was unequal to the hour, leaving so much to chance.
Charles stopped at the old mahogany chair in the hushed anteroom and looked up at the oil portrait of his grandfather that hung above it. His grandfather’s face looked down as dignified as ever, but Charles thought he caught a glint of amused irony playing at the familiar blue eyes. John Adams had endured a whole cabinet of men handpicked by the rival who wanted his job. Like Seward, the imperious Alexander Hamilton couldn’t let go of the idea that he was the one who really ought to have been president, and Grandfather never knew whom to trust.
A small sigh escaped Charles’s lips. His shoulders drooped like an abandoned Punch doll. Perhaps the “prairie statesman,” as Seward had branded Lincoln when they were both vying for the Republican ticket, was reticent for a reason. Lincoln couldn’t have traveled this far without being something more than he appeared.
Was the president keeping a safe distance in case Charles fell flat on his face? In all truth, Charles thought, forcing himself to look at the situation from another’s point of view, he was an office seeker. And with the appointment to St. James’s, Lincoln had given him the opportunity, at long last, to be useful—the one thing he coveted.
Charles’s mouth tightened. But he would never, not ever, be Seward’s man. He was an Adams. If he couldn’t speak on Lincoln’s authority, then vanity be damned. He would speak for the two ancestors who bequeathed him a nation to defend. He wouldn’t let them down.
He squared his shoulders. Steadied by the sermon, the new minister to Great Britain gave his grandfather a curt nod, drew up every inch of his average frame, and strode purposefully from the White House.
The South fight for independence; but what do the North fight for, except to gratify passion or pride?
—Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Secretary of War,
to Viscount Palmerston, Prime Minister
A flapping of yellow outside the window caught Julia’s eye. The broad-shouldered poultry monger wore an old dun greatcoat and a tattered but very bright woolen muffler whose ends danced together in the wind. The kitchen girl was shaking her head dubiously at the pale chicken that he held up by its sorry drumsticks. A gust kicked up the canary scarf again and the merchant shoved it between the tarnished buttons of his coat. He leaned closer to the flustered servant, obscuring her slight figure while he gestured with his blunt free hand at the plucked bird.
Julia draped her book over the brocade arm of the sofa to save her place and took up a paisley-patterned shawl that had slipped to the carpet. The cook must have left Nettie in charge of ordering provisions for the dinner that Father was giving the Confederate emissary. But the girl couldn’t be expected to pick the best birds, and Sir Walter Birch was anxious for the soiree to go well. There was business to be had.
She stepped out into the chill, bluish light of an unseasonably frigid morning and walked briskly down the stoop. She was tall, with an unconscious aura of command. A cushiony softness to the cut of her chin revealed she wasn’t far from her teens, but she ran Belfield Manor as if she slept with Mrs. Beeton’s Household Guide under the pillow, determined to get every detail just so. Julia now pulled her wrap close against the frost that pierced the thin fabric.
“Good morning, Mr. Penfield. What have you brought us today?” she asked. Her breath blew back at her like fog in the cold air.
“Ah, Miss Birch,” the husky man said, drawing back on his heels. “I was showing your girl here some fine, fresh birds we just got in from the countryside. She said you’d be wanting four today. I have just the ones: four beauties.”
Julia glanced at the slat-sided poultry cart. A canvas tarp covered the wares to protect them from London’s sooty skies. The merchant’s daughter Mary sat on an upturned crate in the back, minding the merchandise. It made Julia sad to see her there. The girl used to lead the horse herself. She had earned respect among the housekeepers on Pembroke Lane for refusing to discount her prices, yet selling quality birds in return. “Quite the lady, that one,” Cook had sniffed. “Thinks she’s the queen of Bond Street.”
But Julia rather liked the saucy, freckle-faced girl who drove her own cart and pitted her wits against the Praetorian matrons of Mayfair. Mary and she were about the same age. When the girl expertly wheedled an extra sixpence from Cook for a particularly fine brace of partridges, ones that wouldn’t look bad on a table in Buckingham Palace, Julia hadn’t bothered to smother a smile at the girl’s triumph. Cook was ferocious with a penny. And then Mary was gone without explanation, replaced for most of the winter by her father, whose set face and short answers gave everyone to know that questions about his daughter’s absence weren’t welcome or necessary. Today she was back with a bundle on her lap.
“That’s right, we need at least four,” Julia said. She turned her back to Penfield. “Nettie, could you please show me the ones you’ve picked?”
“Yes, miss. Mr. Penfield thought these would be good.”
Julia looked at the plucked birds that the merchant had arranged on a clean plank. They were meaty, but the pocked skin under the wings looked wrinkled and papery, and the yellowing breast had lost its sheen. She pressed a practiced thumb into the thigh of the nearest bird, leaving behind a sad dimple. The color blanched not at all.
“Mr. Penfield, these are a good size, but they don’t look as fresh as I would like.”
Julia lifted her eyes and caught Mary’s gaze. The girl was silent. “Mary,” Julia asked, “don’t you have something better we could look at?”
Before the young woman could answer, her father cut in.
“Don’t be minding Mary, Miss Birch. The stupid girl has a brat to look after now. These birds were butchered before dawn. You can’t get anything fresher than that.” The merchant lifted a carcass. “Feel the heft of this,” he offered, wrapping a piece of clean linen around the bird. “Near the size of a goose, with meat as tender as a gosling. Practically still warm.”
Julia’s eyes narrowed. A provident, conscientious God would have given liars red hair or a third eye. “No, thank you, Mr. Penfield,” she said. “I believe we’ll just wait until tomorrow. Cook can serve fish tonight before the beef.”
“Oh. Wait now.” Penfield turned toward his daughter, as if he had just thought of something. “Mary. Where did you put those other birds, the ones from Murphy’s farm?”
Her arm crooked securely around the baby, Mary bent over to lift the rear of the tarp. “They’re back here, Father,” she said.
“Ach, you haven’t a brain in your head! Didn’t I tell you to put them up front? You’re plain worthless, you are.”
Penfield shook his head with exasperation and climbed up onto the wagon. He leaned over, deftly scooped up the chickens, and plumped them on the raw board. The new birds were far superior to the ones he had shown Nettie, as any fool could see.
“These will do nicely, Mr. Penfield. We’ll take them. At the usual price,” Julia said.
“Well now, sorry about that, Miss Birch. I wish I could. But these ones are considerably more.”
Julia raised her eyebrows as if perplexed. “Why is that, Mr. Penfield? They are the same size as the others. I assume they were also butchered this morning—practically still warm and all.”
She knew she had him in a corner and was pleased that he had walked into it so readily. His petty swindling rubbed like a cocklebur between stocking and shoe—as did the way he spoke to Mary.
“Well, it’s just that old Murphy charges such a dear price,” Penfield protested. “He’s close to town. Knows he can drive up the cost. A real Jew.”
“Then you’ll have to strike a better bargain with Murphy, Mr. Penfield. We won’t accept anything less than the best quality, and we won’t part with more than a fair price—as in the past.”
That should set him straight on which member of the Penfield family she preferred to market with.
Julia turned to Nettie, who was observing the exchange with round-eyed attention. “Please pay Mr. Penfield, Nettie,” she instructed. “Good day,” Julia said with a nod.
Penfield frowned, yet reached into the back of the cart for a piece of sacking to wrap the birds. Julia looked over his bent shoulders at Mary.
The girl didn’t speak, but shot a rapid glance at her father and then at Julia. The shadow of a conspiratorial smile flickered across her face. Julia crooked one eyebrow discreetly.
The merchant grumbled something under his breath that Julia couldn’t hear and didn’t want to. She turned to let Nettie complete the purchase. The kitchen girl took the shillings out of the pantry coin purse and counted them on the plank one at a time.
Once indoors, Julia picked up her book, slipped off her shoes, and settled back into the deep sofa. But instead of reading she gazed out at the leafless beech tree scratching cobwebs in the hoarfrost on the windowpanes. It was the first time Julia had seen Mary since the baby came, no husband in view, no ring to make it right. Mary would get nothing but abuse from her father for her mistake.
No one else would be any more charitable, Julia reminded herself, trying to be fair. Penfield must have been humiliated beyond endurance—a respectable merchant with a hussy for a daughter. Mary was irretrievably ruined. Most people would consider her lucky to be allowed to help from the back of the wagon; at least her father hadn’t turned her out onto the street to starve.
Goose bumps climbed Julia’s arms and she shivered. She couldn’t imagine emotions so compelling that they would tempt one to such a wild, unguarded act, at odds with family and fortune. French novelists called it la passion—feelings that led a girl to hurl the future into the fire with both hands. Julia couldn’t i envision any young women of her acquaintance taking that risk; yet despite the terrible consequences, some obviously did.
Julia wondered if she would ever have to struggle against such a head-turning, judgment-defying infatuation. It seemed there was little fear of that happening. Unfortunately.
Just then, the door to the morning room swung open with a soft push and her father strode in with a newspaper under his arm. Sir Walter Birch wore an impeccable frock coat of fine Scottish wool that suited his silver hair and dark eyes.
“Ah, you’re alone. I thought you would be instructing Mr. Thomas about the seating arrangements,” Walter said. His voice resonated with the elevated, rounded tone of an Eton education, acquired in youth. “It’s an important occasion, don’t forget.”
“Good morning, Father,” Julia said with a smile, rising to her feet. She put her book down again and crossed the room to kiss his lined cheek. “I took care of that yesterday. We went over everything. I gave Mr. Thomas strict instructions not to sit any Tory near a Whig lest they skewer one another’s livers before the second course.”
“Very amusing, my dear. Just be sure that you seat Captain Bulloch near my end of the table, and your uncle somewhere in the vicinity of Wales.”
“Yes, Father,” Julia said. Her smile faded. She didn’t want to engage him on the subject of her mother’s brother, whom her father cordially disdained, partly for the liberal causes in which he was active and that Sir Walter thought ludicrous—from granting the vote to working men, to reforming the laws that deprived married women of property, to abolition of the poor houses. A committed bachelor, Randolph Barclay doted upon Julia as the very image of his sister Constance, and his niece adored him in return. Unfortunately, neither her father nor uncle was inclined toward compromise on their differences. Points of argument were like cue balls, meant to send the colored ivories caroming across the cloth to sink a point.
“Who is Captain Bulloch?” she asked instead, as she retook her seat on the sofa. Her father sat down on the divan opposite and crossed his long legs comfortably. “Is he part of the Confederate delegation?”
“He’s not an official representative,” Walter said, already unfolding his newspaper and scanning the headlines, “but he’s in charge of building their fleet on the quiet. I’m hoping he’ll take a look at the Laird shipyards. Counting on it, in fact.”
“What do you mean, on the quiet?”
He looked up. “Everything has to be confidential. Private merchants are not allowed to sell warships to the Southerners. The neutrality law, you know.”
Julia cocked her head in query, and he explained, “Merchants aren’t supposed to supply belligerents who are fighting a country with whom the Queen is at peace.”
A small frown collected between Julia’s eyebrows. “But then how can you sell him ships? Isn’t it against the law?”
Walter set aside the paper. “There are ways around, my dear—but make sure you don’t ask such sticky questions at dinner. Everyone in London is vying for the Confederates’ business. Lincoln’s blockade off the American coastline means that prices will go through the roof. Mind you, just last week Sir Geoffrey sold a hundred thousand brass buttons for a profit of 500 percent. He says the brass on grey is quite handsome.”
Warming to his subject, he leaned forward. “But even prettier is the profit on steamships. My only worry is that we’ll get the keels down for merely a handful of vessels before the whole unpleasantness blows over.”
He gave a short laugh, but then sighed and looked far away for a moment, as if contemplating a fond, distant dream, and the hush of the well-insulated house fell upon the room. “Too bad it won’t be a long war.”
Julia knew only a little about her father’s financial affairs, but she was aware that his portfolio was enviable. Profits from shipbuilding, cotton textiles, and the rent of country tenants meant that she needed to spare little expense on her father’s frequent soirees. He replenished the household account without comment.
“Do you think the United States will split apart, then?” she asked, curious.
“Undoubtedly. The Federals can’t hold half the country hostage. The South is bigger than all of Europe.” Walter dismissed the American nation with a wave of his hand. “It’s kaputt, as the Queen’s German cousins say.”
Her father suddenly smiled, revealing deep dimples, and his black eyes sparkled with a boyish mischief that belied his sixty-plus years. “Oh, how I wish your grandfather were here,” he said. “America’s position isdelicious! Half of her citizens have voted to secede in defense of their inalienable rights, and the other half are trying to rob them of the privilege. It’s democracy at its finest—mad as ever.” He boomed with laughter.
Julia nodded. The U.S. position did seem absurd, like so much about the country that her father considered an unbearable upstart. But she couldn’t help recalling her uncle’s position on slavery, with which she agreed. The practice ought to be outlawed.
“But won’t that mean slavery will go on?” she asked.
“I suppose so, but that’s not really our business. We can’t reform the world, my dear, and it’s utter folly to try. Parliament ended slavery in all of England’s colonies thirty years ago. We’ve cleaned our house; let others clean theirs.”
They both looked up at a soft knock as Mrs. Worthy entered the room, gave a deferential bob in Sir Walter’s direction, and turned expectantly to Julia. Her round face was pink and shining. The heavy-set housekeeper was a loyal, pleasant woman upon whom Julia had depended since her mother died many years before, leaving behind not only a husband and seven-year-old daughter, but an infant son as well, Julia’s brother Edmund. Mrs. Worthy and the efficient Mr. Thomas were as reliable as clocks.
“Excuse me, miss,” Mrs. Worthy asked in her comforting West Country accent, “at what time would you like your tea this morning?”
Julia looked inquiringly at her father.
“I’m on my way to the club in a just few minutes,” he said. “Don’t bother.”
“Only a cup for me, then, Mrs. Worthy, when Nettie can be spared. And only the tea, please. I’m not hungry right now.”
“Yes, miss,” Mrs. Worthy said, and exited with another short curtsy to the master of the house.
Julia had wanted to keep her uncle out of the conversation, but was uneasy at the thought of her father’s new business partners. It hadn’t occurred to her that Englishmen would undertake to supply the slaveholders whose rebellion had made all the London papers. “Uncle Randolph says that if Lincoln holds the country together, he might just abolish slavery. Do you really think that we, I mean, Britain, should supply the South? The Rebels traffic in human souls, after all.”
Walter’s eyebrows shot to his hairline and he snorted. “Hah! No one believes the fight is about slavery except Randolph and a few misty old maids. Really, that’s terribly naïve. Randolph has it all wrong—as usual. The war is about wounded pride, like most wars, and both sides will empty out their treasuries to make the other side heel. Of course, British merchants will have to be careful not to get snagged in the blockade. But I believe our ships would sail into hell at the risk of singeing their sails if they could make a profit.”
“What happens to those who are caught? Surely they can’t be arrested for a barrel of brass buttons?”
Walter leaned forward again, picked up a Dresden shepherdess that was on the tea table, and set her down at a distance from a flock of ceramic lambs. “You see, the American president has announced a blockade. In essence, any ship, no matter what it is carrying, is expressly forbidden to enter a Southern port.” He traced a line between the figurines. “The blockade runs like this down America’s Atlantic coastline. Any British captain who crosses that line risks his entire cargo if the U.S. Navy catches him. They’ll confiscate it immediately.”
“But won’t you lose money?” Julia asked. “And won’t the blockade put our sailors at risk?”
“No. The cargoes that get through make up for those that we lose. And losses are only financial so long as the merchant is foreign. The Americans won’t dare imprison a British citizen. Rebels are a different matter, of course. They might be strung up for treason for all I know—but that’s not my concern. And I am placing most of my investment in ships. They’re harder to confiscate than cargo, so my money should be safe. I don’t plan to lose one more farthing to the bloody Yanks.”
Walter patted one coat pocket, and then the other, as if the talk of money reminded him of something in them. Finding what he wanted, he drew out a small, velvet box. “Enough about business. You really shouldn’t concern yourself with these matters, Julia. Make sure the soup is hot at supper, and your father will be a happy man.” He opened the box. “Here, now. I had it re-sized. You must wear your present tonight.”
Julia smiled with delight and reached forward to take the old-fashioned signet ring, set with an oval ruby surrounded by diamonds. It was the one her mother wore in the portrait that hung in the staircase. “Thank you, Father,” she said. “I was wondering if you had forgotten.” She placed the heavy ring on her right hand.
“Of course not. Twenty-one is an important milestone. Your grandmother brought that ring back from America—the only piece of jewelry she managed to keep. Now that you’re old enough to be mistress of this house, it’s yours. May you wear it in health for many years.”
Julia lifted her hand to catch the morning light with the polished gems. Sparks of blue light jetted off the small diamonds.
The ring was all she had left of her mother and grandmother, and she had looked forward to placing it on her hand. But her father’s comment now made her uneasy, like the unexplained squeak of a floorboard in the night, and it took her mind off the war across the sea and the plight of the slaves whose future was still undecided. She was twenty-one, a delicate age in a world where marriageable women far outnumbered eligible men. For how many more years would she be mistress of Belfield Manor? Would she ever have a life beyond it? Her father’s words weren’t the first to make her wonder.
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