He saw Lady Stanhope again over dinner that evening. She sat opposite Sir Walter at the head of the table, her hair, like the other women’s on this formal occasion, elaborately dressed with fanciful decoration, in her case a generous endowment of flora, including daffodils. Her son and daughter and the other guests occupied the long sides of the table. Charles sat facing his sister, while Eagle, tightly ensconced between Mr Percival Wright Esquire and his flint-faced wife, had for his opposite number Theodore Greene, a snub-nosed man whose large estate, with lucrative mineral rights, bordered Sir Walter’s. Along with Mr Wright he was important to the Baronet because his loyalty to the canal project was sorely needed. Wealth and interest was at the heart of everything Sir Walter did, hence the invite of these relative strangers to such an intimate family affair.
Eagle saw the reason for his own invite: he might be useful to the Baronet in helping him cajole and persuade. He felt uncomfortable in his role and found himself glancing at Lady Stanhope for reassurance. Behind the powder and the rouge was the same sad resignation he had noticed that afternoon. Catching him in the act of scrutiny, she addressed him pointedly in her soft, whispery tone: ‘Did you find the book you were looking for, Mr Eagle?’
‘Yes, I did thank you, Madam,’ Eagle replied, blushing in spite of himself.
Sir Walter glanced up sharply from his plate. The sweat glistening on his forehead was from heat of the fire, made worse in his case by a heavily-powdered wig. ‘And what book was that?’ he wanted to know.
‘It was a book on …’ – Eagle cast about for a subject – ‘…butterflies.’
Charles spluttered into his food, dropping his fork with a clattering chink.
‘Is something amusing you, dear?’ asked Lady Stanhope, cutting her meat daintily into small pieces.
‘No, Mother, not any more. My mirth has passed like a …’ said Charles, making a little flutter with his fork, ‘…like a butterfly.’ This time Augusta laughed too, and Eagle’s blush felt hot as the fire.
‘Pray tell us,’ said Sir Walter, chewing hard, ‘why you found it necessary to go to my library for a volume on butterflies. You were here to study my accounts, were you not?’
Improvisation saved Eagle for the moment; he spun a tale about checking some details for the Baronet’s brother, who wished to know about the breeding habits of the Camberwell Beauty.
‘I see,’ said Sir Walter, frowning. The attorney had touched a sore point, which had wiped the smile off every face. Evidently Benjamin had been invited to the gathering but had declined, citing as his reason a growing estrangement from the family. An uncomfortable silence had settled round the table, which Sir Walter found displeasing. His convivial occasion was so far not convivial, and for solution he chivvied the musicians assembling nearby. Charles added his weight to the thing, pouring himself a large glass of claret and clicking his fingers at the minstrels. Soon the violins were sounding in gentle harmony, the sweet music drifting towards the diners. The notes found so much breathing space in the vacuous hall that each one hung bird-like in the air, prolonging, it seemed, by several seconds its usual allotted span. It was a plaintive refrain, and Charles, who had wanted livelier music, made a nuisance of himself by drumming a bottle upon the table and whistling a different tune. But his animus was tamed by his mother’s stare, and soon the music helped foster an appropriate mood.
Conversation revived and refused to flag. Subjects were varied, and surprisingly worldly given that ladies were present. Talk turned to the war with France, and then inevitably to Sir Walter’s regiment. ‘By the way, John,’ said the Baronet, digressing from his anti-French diatribe, ‘have you given any further thought to your contribution? I trust that you appreciate the urgency from the crown’s point of view,’ he added, with murmurs of approval from the other men. ”Tis regrettable, but true, that we are not killing enough of those blackguardly Jacobins. Why, if you and Charles weren’t so useful to me here, I’d be sending you out there yourselves to slit a few bellies.’
‘That blue and white uniform of theirs shows the blood up very well, I hear,’ said Mr Wright, whose flinty wife said ‘Yes, it does,’ and nodded corroboration. Such a casual response was frightening, thought Eagle, the sort she’d have made about tea-stains not coming out in the wash.
‘You are right, Mr Wright,’ said Charles, distracted by the chance rhyme, adding, when he’d stopped sniggering, ‘But do we worry about their bleeding? No, sir, they are renegades, and renegades should be made to bleed. What larks our boys must be having in spilling their blood, spilling it all the more copiously for knowing they deserve it.’ He pushed aside his plate and picked the meat from his teeth. ‘Why, I’d wager it’s be better than pheasant shooting,’ he said, staring at the remains of his bird. ‘A battue of renegades to make the soil run red.’
‘Well said, son,’ broke in Sir Walter, and silly Mr Greene muttered his appreciation and ventured a little clap. ‘And so, young John,’ said the Baronet, turning once more to his faithful attorney, ‘how much shall I put you down for? – ten guineas? – twenty? It’s not so much the sum, you understand, as the name. Your position, though rather modest in the scheme of things, is eminent enough hereabouts to make the list weigh a trifle heavier. I trust that you have given the matter all the thought it requires? After all,’ he said grinning, ‘whoever heard of a renegade attorney?’
‘Who indeed?’ Eagle answered, swallowing hard. Flustered by the question, he impressed upon him all the claims the Baronet’s business had had upon his time, so much so that he’d given no thought to anything else.
‘Except for his Nigger boy,’ cut in Charles, gloatingly.
‘You have purchased a black servant?’ asked Sir Walter. ‘Yes, well if that is your taste, I wish you fun in it.’
Charles acted the eager school-boy, hemming and coughing to gain the Baronet’s attention. ‘Father! Father!’ he called, showing in his spite an upper row of wine-stained teeth. ‘You’ve got hold of the wrong end of the cane. Mr Eagle has not purchased his Nigger boy, he’s taken him on as a paid clerk. By all accounts he has his own bedchamber, eats at the same table as the head of the house, and for all we know pisses in the same pot …’
‘Charles!’ his mother interrupted. ‘That’s enough. I’ll have manners from you if nothing else.’
‘Very well, Mother,‘ answered the son, knowing he had his father’s attention.
‘I see,’ said Sir Walter, sniffing hard as he turned to face Eagle. ‘And is this true? The blackamoor lives with you as an equal?’
It was time to spill the beans, on that score at least. With all eyes upon him, and it seemed that none had sympathy, he told the story of Lucas Thorpe. The urge to go beyond the facts and ruin his prospects for good was tempting. With him again was the old childhood trait of daring to break what he mustn’t break – a window perhaps, or an ornament he’d been told not to handle. Having read Rousseau lately and found him excellent company on a long coach journey, he came close to airing his radical views: reform of Parliament and the country at large; progress for the good of all mankind; less poverty and more equality. But though Eagle was a radical at heart, his head was saying otherwise, and by that he must be ruled.
‘I see,’ repeated Sir Walter, when he’d heard him out. His manner was oddly calm, as if Eagle might be ill. He seemed about to ask just that when Lady Stanhope spoke next, saying with just a trace of smile, ‘I think Mr Eagle has done a very noble thing regarding his black boy.’
The silence lasted only seconds but it had the force of a gale. Even the musicians caught wind of it, and quietened their playing accordingly. Eventually it was Charles who broke it with a great hoot of amusement. ‘You see!’ he said, barely able to control himself, ‘you’ve become a laughing stock already! What excellent value for money you are, Mr Eagle. You’ve sent me underwater with laughter, and I wish you’d let me up for air.’
‘That’s enough,’ snapped his father, and rose from the table. ‘I think it’s time we gentleman retired and left the ladies to their own devices. ‘Madam,’ he said to his wife, ‘I shall speak with you later, and to you too Augusta. As for you, John Eagle, will you stay with the ladies or come with us men?’ He was looking at him hard, waiting for his answer.
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