Saturday, April 19, 2008

chapter 7

[Author's note: Hello readers! After being away for awhile, I am happy to announce that I am back, and so is Bell. I'm afraid that the joined up bits are showing a little, but I hope that it's not too confusing. Enjoy!]

Keith Cobb had given Hollee a letter of introduction, and the captain set off now to present it to the first respectable merchant he could find. The city around him fairly crawled with excitement—a different excitement from Nevis and Charleston. Most cities will have a certain bustle around their ports, but Philadelphia seemed especially busy, her self-importance evident. Servants in bright livery rushed around, some of them speaking foreign languages, soldiers—veterans—of the recent war walked proudly down the streets, their coats brushed. Carriages hurried past, each more fashionable than the last, an inch of lacquer blinding passersby. To Hollee’s untrained eye, it appeared that Annie was correct about Philadelphia’s place in the fashionable world: certainly the women here wore some outlandish costumes. A few were so low cut as to make the modest captain blush for the women wearing them, although they appeared otherwise to be respectable and unconcerned with the figure they cut. Everyone seemed eager to cast off the drab clothes forced on them by war and hardship, as they had cast off an outdated form of government.

Not normally a modish man, Hollee considered himself in a shop window while he waited for a carriage to rumble past. Fanny had spoken well of his appearance the night of the party—was it really nearly two months ago?—but would she feel the same way if she could compare him to the dandies rushing past now? Nothing had changed about his appearance, but he felt a certain disquiet, the same feeling that had prompted his purchase of white silk stockings. It was followed by a strong desire to see Fanny, to describe to her what the Americans were wearing, to ask her opinion on the new fads. To hear her voice. A week spent in the company of Annie Cobb had made Hollee grow used to a woman’s voice, a woman’s opinion constantly being offered even when it was not solicited. Fanny, of course, would never say any scandalous thing about what she was seeing, although Hollee could practically see her raised eyebrow that would convey everything she was thinking. Almost subconsciously, Hollee smiled, his eyebrow raised in a familiar arc—and then he looked across the street and saw Captain Reeve bearing down on him.

Damme! Hollee thought frantically—there was no hope for escape, the man had spotted him and anyway, the street was too full for Hollee to get away without pushing people over. Besides, Captain Reeve was waving now, quite enthusiastically, and hallooing his name. Hollee waved back weakly, indicating that he would wait and praying that Reeve would shut up. People looked at him curiously as he went past, churning through the crowd like an eel through a school of tropical fish. If anything, Reeve was even fatter and taller than he had been when Hollee last saw him, as though determined to settle into the life of a gout-ridden gentleman naval officer as soon as possible.

“Hollee! My God! Never for a moment thought I’d see you in Philadelphia!” Reeve squashed Hollee’s hand in an effusive handshake and for one horrifying moment, Hollee thought he was about to be hugged. “What on God’s green earth brings you to Philadelphia? And why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“I did not know myself until a week ago, and then I did not know where I could find you,” Hollee said, leaving out their last meeting where Reeve had very nearly been strung up on the mainstay of a Royal ship, “I thought the Liberty was cruising south of here?”

“Lost our foresail in a storm,” Reeve said cheerfully, as though it were a wonderful stroke of luck. “The spare had gone to the Franklin two weeks before, so there was nothing for it but to make port. But what chance we should meet now! And on friendly ground!” he added, growing serious (or as serious as Reeve could ever be), “now we may discuss my little proposal at length and without fear of being overheard.”

“My answer will remain the same,” Hollee said hastily.

“But surely you cannot deny me the pleasure of attempting to change your mind?” Reeve said. “The Bunch o’ Grapes has fresh turkey, I’ve heard, fresh today.”

“I would love to join you, but I’m afraid I must attend to some business,” Hollee said, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

“But surely you do not have a man here?” Hollee was forced to shake his head. “Well then! Let me recommend Mr. Keifer. He is an honest man, or I am not, and a friendlier soul you could not wish for. Capital! Well, that’s settled—let me take you to him and then we’ll to the Grapes!”

Reeve took Hollee in hand, steering him through the streets with one ham-sized fist firmly lodged in Hollee’s back. Perhaps his effervescent nature had expanded since the last time they met—or perhaps his good nature did not quite extend to the belief that Hollee would show up at the tavern, should he let Hollee out of his sight for a moment. Hollee was unable to extricate himself without great personal embarrassment—and probably no small physical harm, either—and so he was forced to endure being driven through the streets like a sullen donkey.

Philadelphia, Hollee recalled dimly, had endured British occupation at one point, and the scars of that presence were hastily being erased. Hollee had never seen such a flurry of building before, as though the citizens were determined to scrub every trace of England out of the very boards and sawdust. The whole town was simultaneously being torn down and built up. Hollee liked Philadelphia because of its neat, logical grid of streets, each given a sensible number or an easily remembered name of a fruit-tree. And he was surprised at how much he approved of the new buildings being thrown up—he, Hollee, who despised anything new or changing. But he could see how the new buildings would present a clean face to any passerby (even a passerby traveling as rapidly as he), sweeping away the dirty alleys and corners that existed in any city, even the port city of Nevis. It would be tidy and orderly, once construction was completed, beautiful in its symmetry and logic.

Reeve’s perambulations took them to a little shop a few blocks north of the harbor. Mr. Keifer, Hollee was relieved to see, was a sensible, dour little Scotsman, who shared a sympathetic glance with Hollee as Reeve made his enthusiastic introductions. Hollee liked him at once, and they concluded their business quickly.

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