“Captain Hollee, you must allow me to invite you to dine tonight. Annie will be so pleased to see you.”
“I intended on leaving as soon as I could get a cargo,” Hollee said ruefully, “And if you have a cargo bound for the Indies, then that could be tonight.”
“Always business with you! Do you never stop for a moment’s pleasure?”
“I’ve just had a week’s holiday, Cobb, what more could I ask?” A momentary flash of Fanny’s face—now several hundred miles away—sped across Hollee’s mind and disappeared.
Cobb forced his face to take on a serious look, an attempt that was not entirely successful. “Well then, to business. Shall we haggle like a pair of fishwives on the wharf?”
Cobb’s warehouse and office were larger than Mr. Maccaby’s, but they were not so neatly kept. Instead of Mr. Maccaby’s imposing green ledger, Cobb pulled a tightly bound sheaf of papers out from behind his desk and set them down, shooing away a small tabby cat. Hollee sat across from him and pulled out his own small journal, where he kept a list of the goods he had transported across the ocean. He read off the items he had for sale and Cobb told him in return what he would pay for them. For a few minutes the two men were lost in a web of back and forth business as prices and descriptions flew between them. But in the end, both were mutually satisfied. Cobb made marks on various papers in front of him, and then offered Hollee a slip of paper with a credit drawn on his bank. While Hollee trusted Mr. Maccaby to keep his money safe for him, he could not, alas, extend the same courtesy to Mr. Cobb. Cobb was a fair, shrewd, honest businessman, but he was also prone to fits of forgetting. Hollee accepted the credit slip gracefully and slipped it into his pocket without looking at it.
“Now then, Captain Hollee, I have emptied your ship. And I think I have a novel way of filling it up again.” Cobb was leaning across the desk, his face beaming like a bear that has just landed a juicy trout. “Go see to the unloading of your ship and then we shall have dinner and I will tell you about my idea.”
“If it’s indigo, I’ve told you already there’s no market for it in the Indies.”
“It’s not indigo.”
“Soon enough! Soon enough! Go now and mind you’re careful with my rum!”
Hollee could see that there was no possibility of getting it out of the man when he was like this—his face was sparkling with a secret in the same way that small children grinned when they are keeping something from their parents. Shaking his head with a smile, Hollee clasped the man’s hand and took his leave. The Windies would be glad to hear the cargo had been dealt with so efficiently and that they were virtually at liberty already. Hollee walked back toward the harbour. In many ways, Charleston was similar to Nevis—there was that same bustle and hurry near the docks, but there was also an affected air of respectability. Liveried servants ran through the streets importantly, carrying messages. Sedan chairs wove in and out of the stopped carriages, servants shouted to one another to give way. The closer Hollee got to the dock the shabbier the buildings became, and he saw fewer and fewer carriages. The women moving along the sidewalks were no longer hurrying past him, clutching shawls and packages, but drifting up to him and insinuating services in low voices that made him speed up without making eye contact. As the masts and spars of the docked ships came into view, Hollee passed by the slave pens that held fresh cargo from Africa, the faces as frightened and confused as those of the animals which were housed a little way away from them. Their voices were raised in foreign languages, adding an extra layer to the din that already accompanied life at the docks. Laborers were working to lift cargoes into or out of sea-going vessels. Vendors and peddlers were shouting, proffering their wares to anyone who would pass. Young boys operated efficiently, picking the pockets of the inattentive. The different impressions came so suddenly to Hollee that it was impossible to pick out any one sound or image to focus on. He felt as though he were moving through a play, on his way to make an exit, a bit player with no lines, merely there to give dimension to a scene, and then gone.
How different the feeling from Nevis! He felt comfortable here, unafraid, but he did not feel as though he could comfortably belong here for longer than was necessary to unload and take on different cargo. Although Mr. Cobb might count him among his dearest friends, he was intimate with very few other people. And there was little chance of his breaking into a higher level of society. For a moment Hollee amused himself wondering if Nelson would even deign to greet him, should they cross paths here in Charleston—an impossibility, since no British warships had been seen since 1780. For a moment, Hollee wondered what would happen when he and Nelson crossed paths again—if he would be allowed to dock at Nevis—or if he would be unable to ever set foot on Caribbean soil again. What then? Should he try to make a home for himself in America? Charleston was most likely out of the question—although Captain Reeve might insist that every man was equal in this new world, privately Hollee had not found it so. The city was a curious mishmash of the old with the new slapped on top of it. The changes of the War for Independence had come so quickly the town had not had time to acclimate. Nevis, on the other hand, wore her age gracefully, accepting change gradually, like a dower matron watching scandalized while her granddaughter parades new fashions. What a strange world this is, Hollee mused as he sighted the Windsong, and all of it connected by the sea—the only constant in an uncertain world.
As he had predicted, the Windies were much heartened by the news that he had concluded their business quickly, and offloaded the cargo with a will. They lined up at John’s table and collected their pay, then disappeared into Charleston’s underbelly to spend it in the few hours ashore that they had. Pritchard had had the nerve to ask Hollee if he had any parties to attend, prompting the captain to ask Pritchard if he had any other ships he intended to crew, and the seaman had gone stomping good-naturedly down the dock.
“He’s got a wife in this city, y’ know,” John said, as he closed his small strong-box.
“Does he?” Hollee said, surprised. “I never knew that.”
“Well, it’s hardly an appropriate topic ay conversation on board a ship now, especially when I’ve heard he’s also got a wife in Philadelphia,” John noted sagely. He noted Tom looking at him with interest. “Don’t ye go getting idears now. And don’t y’ go wandering off too far. I’d rather face a hungry wolf than Queenie if she finds out I let y’ go wanderin’ around Charleston on yer own.”
“Do I get paid, sir?”
“Y’ d’ not, not as ship’s boy. Y’ stay on for a year, learn yer trade, and we’ll sign ye up as an able seaman and then y’ can expect some pay. Well, that’s doesn’t mean we’re gonna let y’ starve!” John added hastily, noting Tom’s crestfallen face, “I’ll take y’ to the Rover and if y’ can finish a plate ay their stew, I’ll give y’ a shilling.”
The boy’s eyes widened at the thought of such riches, causing both John and Hollee to laugh. “Will ye join us, Captain?”
“I would love to, John, but I’ve been invited to dine with Mr. And Mrs. Cobb tonight.”
“Mrs. Cobb, now, who would that be?”
“That would have been Miss Annie Hallam, who married Cobb sometime after our last voyage.”
“Oh, well, that makes sense. It’s about time, then. Now Tom, go put your shoes on, and we’ll be off.”
“Oh, Mr. Waggs, must I?”
“Yes, and trust me, y’ don’t want to be wanderin’ around Charleston with yer bare feet on.”
Tom did as he was bid. As soon as he disappeared into the hatchway, John turned a worried eye on Hollee.
“Bell, I don’t suppose you could see yer way to lendin’ me a shilling, could ye? Did you see that boy’s face? He’ll win that bet in a second—I forgot how young boys eat.”
Hollee laughed and handed over the coin.
The Cobbs lived on a quiet side street, far enough out of the center of Charleston that the voices and music from the taverns did not reach their tall windows. Hollee had thought briefly about donning his new silk stockings again, but decided against it at the last minute. The walk was slightly longer than he thought it was, and he arrived a few minutes late, much to his displeasure. The second storey windows were open to the cool night breeze, translucent white curtains fluttering in the breeze.
When he was admitted into the parlour, Hollee found his hostess seated in a neat wooden chair, a basket of neat sewing at her feet. Annie Hallam was a beautiful vivacious woman without much of a fortune, but she had more than compensated for that by her outgoing and engaging personality. She was also, according to some, incredibly headstrong, and more than one suitor had been discouraged by her quirk of telling every man exactly what she thought of him. Few men—like Mr. Cobb—were either man enough to laugh off the slights, or possessed such excellent characters that Annie was unable to find fault with them. It was obvious that matrimony suited her, Hollee thought. She fairly glowed with the pleasure of greeting him and welcoming him into her house, attentive to his every need.
“Keith sent word that we were to expect you for dinner,” she said, when the greetings had subsided. “I was so pleased to hear you were in town again! It has been far, far too long.”
“Yes, it has,” Hollee said, relaxing. “The last time I was here, you were entirely unattached, and now I understand I have the pleasure of congratulating you on your marriage.”
“Oh—well,” Annie said, blushing prettily, “As to that, I suppose Keith simply found he had the courage to ask me once and for all. Not that I answered right away,” she continued, impishly, “No, I left him dangling for several days. And then, when I did accept—why Captain Hollee, you would not believe some of the stories I heard after I accepted. Mr. Cunningham, who has been a very close friend of mine, you know, he threatened to call Mr. Cobb out, and Mr. Lee (that would be Fabian Lee, no relation to the Richmond Lees) actually sent me a letter telling me he was considering self-harm!” Far from looking horrified by these anecdotes, Annie Cobb looked quite pleased at herself to have left such a string of broken hearts beside her. Hollee reflected it must get rather boring to be a desirable young lady and be sitting around waiting for proposals. “Mr. Cobb is unfortunately working late tonight. I cannot believe that he is as late as this! I have had notes from him all afternoon—one telling me you were coming, and another saying he would be late, then another saying he would be quite late and even one saying he wanted to—“ But she stopped abruptly and looked down at her hands, her ears turning pink. Hollee chose to ignore the abrupt silence. What on Earth made women feel so comfortable confiding in him? Hollee couldn’t quite figure it out—like any man of the time, he was entirely comfortable with the fact that there were large swaths of female mysteries that were unknown to the male mind. Mysteries that should stay that way.
Fortunately, they were saved from further awkwardness by the arrival of the master of the house. Keith Cobb came in through the front door shouting heartily for Annie, and his wife rose from her chair to greet her. Hollee found it quite necessary to avert his eyes for a moment while the two newlyweds greeted one another. Then Cobb turned to Hollee and treated him to another crushing handshake.
“So glad you could make it! I’m so sorry I am late! I only hope Cook has managed to save our supper without drying it too much!”
They retired to the dining room almost immediately. The massive table could have easily have sat a dozen, but the servants had set one end of it in a cosy tableau of plates and silver. Early blossoms spilled out of a vase, their faint perfume wafting through the air like a song. Cobb called out for the soup to be called as soon as they were seated. Apparently the delicate formality of some society houses had yet to be adopted here. But the servants were no less efficient than their counterparts the world over. Food appeared and wine was poured by silent hands, faces concentrating on the movement of the vessels.
Cobb launched into his business proposal without preamble, the same way he had called perfunctorily for dinner to be served: “So, Mr. Hollee, what do you think of my house?”
“I find it very beautiful sir—and much improved since the addition of Mrs. Cobb.”
“You do not find it bare, sir?”
Hollee thought that an odd question, and in response he took another look around the room. Now that the merchant had pointed it out, the room did appear sparse. The grand table stood forlornly alone in a room that could have easily have held a pair of sideboards or a cupboard. The parlour, visible through the open doors, looked practically empty without Annie’s buoyant personality, a pair of wooden chairs flanking a forlorn table.
“I see what you mean,” Hollee said slowly. “It appears that you have not quite finished with the furnishings.”
“But that is precisely what I mean!” Cobb said, lowering his wine glass to the table. “You’ve got it in one. Annie and I have been so busy we have been unable to furnish our home properly. Why, you should see our bedroom—we have been forced to sleep on a—“ But he was cut off abruptly, accompanied by what sounded like a small female foot being brought down forcefully on top of his boot. “Er—that is, I mean to say—we are in a bad way all over. Now, I do not wish to demean the merchants and carpenters of this town, but they are, I am ashamed to say, sadly out of date with the latest fashions. Or so my dearest wife tells me. So she would like to go to Philadelphia to buy furniture. And I would like to engage the Windsong to take her, and bring back her purchases. Philadelphia,” he continued, adopting a sage tone of voice, “has had the benefit of several years of culture, in the form of various ministers and foreign ambassadors, an infusion, if you will, of European sensibilities. And their styles are among the newest and most fashionable of the day. Just the thing for my Annie—who has always had a good eye for such things.” Hollee rather suspected that Cobb’s views on Philadelphia were formed entirely by his wife’s but he did not say so. “What do you say, man? Will you allow me to hire your ship?”
“Why, Mrs. Cobb,” Hollee said innocently, “I am surprised at you. Here America has thrown off the yoke of European tyranny and you are all eagerness to continue to be a slave to their fashions?”
“Oh Mr. Hollee, you are teasing me!” Annie cried, splitting Hollee’s face into a wide grin.
“Naturally. What do I know about furniture or fashions? You may buy your chairs from India and I would not be able to say if that was wise or no. But I can tell you that I would be most honored if the Windsong carried you to and from Philadelphia.”
“Excellent!” Cobb said, beaming.
“Now I do not know if I wish to go aboard Captain Hollee’s ship, if he is going to be so hateful to me,” Annie pouted.
“It’s true, I have not been to Philadelphia for quite some time,” Hollee said, relishing the hot food in front of him. The beef was only slightly dried out, but the potatoes were excellent and the small bowl of fresh salad greens was most welcome. “Perhaps the fashionable capital of America has moved? Have you considered Boston? Or—of course, if you truly wished to have the finest house in Charleston, there is no substitute for Paris. But before you ask—the Windsong is too small to make that voyage safely or without a convoy.” Annie was not entirely clear what a convoy was, but she was polite enough not to argue with Hollee.
“No, it shall be Philadelphia,” Cobb said. “Annie has been writing letters, she has catalogues and descriptions from the merchants there. She’s already ordered our new bed! A week or two should be sufficient for her to spend my fortune, and then home again.” Cobb sighed heavily with feigned despair. “A lifetime to build up my fortune and she’ll have it gone within a week!”
“And then I shall be able to entertain properly and everyone will say ‘Oh, doesn’t Mrs. Cobb give wonderful parties!’ And they will think that you are a wise businessman to be able to afford such lavish entertainments and they will all want to do business with you.”
“My partner,” Cobb said affectionately, and Hollee felt a sudden stab of jealousy. Not for Annie, for though she was lively enough for a night’s entertainment, her mercurial moods would be wearing in longer doses. Mr and Mrs. Cobb presented such a cosy picture of domesticity that Hollee felt he was standing in front of a painting, looking in on a scene he could never hope to enter. He felt—for lack of a better term—lonely, although both people in the room were now looking at him attentively, waiting for his answer.
“It appears then, that I am engaged,” Hollee said, smiling broadly. “And I am most happy to be of service. As soon as you are ready to go, we shall set sail. I am at your service.”
The rest of the meal was vaguely celebratory. Cobb could barely take his eyes off his wife, who was clearly excited over the prospect of a shopping trip. She kept running over lists of furniture that were absolute necessities and other items which were only secondary—although there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she would come back with everything she mentioned. Hollee could offer little more than encouragement, while Cobb mentioned this or that advertisement he had seen and vague opinions on what he would like to see in their house.
After dinner, the two men retired to the parlour. Without another lady present, it was difficult to justify a post-dinner pot of coffee, and so Annie excused herself and went upstairs to prepare for bed. Hollee sipped on his snifter of brandy. Cobb was glowing with happiness.
“Isn’t she a jewel? My God, Bell, I am the luckiest man in the world.”
“I will not argue with you.”
Cobb had lit a small pipe and he puffed on it meditatively for a second. “I cannot recommend matrimony highly enough, Bell. Have you ever considered it? I thought I should be perfectly content with my business, with my own bachelor way of life, but I never realized how much I was missing.” Hollee’s emotions vacillated wildly: part of him tried to raise and eyebrow and smirk, the other part continued to feel that awkward stab of loneliness. But Keith Cobb’s speech was so obviously sincere and heartfelt that Hollee could no more ridicule the man than he could have sailed the Windsong singlehandedly.
Perhaps sensing he was sailing too close to the wind, Cobb tacked into another topic of conversation. “I must confess that I am surprised you took up our commission with such alacrity,” he said, “I expected you to take up another load and beat it back to Nevis—with the weather we’ve been having, I wouldn’t have blamed you. Annie has been excited to go to Philadelphia for weeks now. I was hesitant to let her go with just anyone, but if you are with her, I will feel as comfortable as if I were there my own self.”
Hollee inclined his head. “I must confess myself flattered that you trust me with your most precious possession. As for my own motives, the waters around the Caribbean have grown somewhat more hostile of late.” And he outlined briefly the new situation with the Boreas’ new captain, leaving out the part where he despised Nelson for being an ingratiating little toad. “I am certain that we will shall be taken should the Windsong cross paths with the man, and so I am eager to avoid that unhappy event as long as I can.”
“But Bell—if that is the case, then come to America!” Cobb leaned forward earnestly. “There are so many ports here for you to trade between, and the trips would be shorter, the time ashore longer. Why bother with the Caribbean and the British at all?”
Cobb had seen most of his business stopped or seized when the war had broken out, and his ambivalence about independence had grown from an ember into a fire, fanned by the mistreatment of his ships and his goods. He was an earnest patriot, not a firebrand like Reeve, and when he spoke now, his genteel love of country shone softly out of his face. Hollee wished mightily he could return that goodwill. He leaned forward as well.
“Keith, your feelings toward Annie—toward your home, your life together—that is precisely how I feel about Nevis.”
“My dear sir, is there a Mrs. Hollee at last?”
“No. I do not mean this about another person, but about Nevis herself. If I ever had to leave her for good, I should feel like you would should your Annie be taken from you.”
Cobb frowned, he did not exactly comprehend how a man could feel so strongly about a place. But he understood love and quiet passion, even if it was directed at an island and not a person.
“Well, we are glad to have you while we can,” he said, breaking into his familiar smile again.