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Rivers of War: Snippet Seventy Six

       Last updated: Friday, May 13, 2005 12:21 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 75:

    “And how did I get talked into this, too?” Driscol grumbled.

    Houston had no sympathy at all, as could be expected from a man who was not only the favored dancing partner of the evening but who could also—was there anything the blasted youngster wasn’t good at?—dance superbly well. He was only at Driscol’s side to hear the grumble, in fact, because he was taking a moment’s break.

    “Stop grousing, Patrick. You could learn to dance, if you wanted to. All that stands in your way is that surly peasant attitude.” He mimicked Driscol’s rasping voice: “‘Dancin’s for stinkin’ decadent gentlemen. Damme if I will.’ ”

    He gave Driscol a grin, and then was swirled away by yet another Washington belle. Her matronly dame, rather, who plucked Houston off with expert skill in order to introduce her daughter.

    Or daughters.

    Or nieces.

    Or several of each, all at once.

    It was almost laughable. Not only was Houston the young and glamorous hero of the hour. Sooner than Driscol could have imagined possible, the word had spread through the city’s distaff elite—most of Baltimore’s, too, it seemed, British threat be damned—that he was a bachelor to boot. Dolley Madison’s sponsorship of the evening’s affair would have guaranteed a large crowd, anyway. With the added attraction of Houston . . .

    —he’s got Monroe’s favor, they say—

    —Jackson’s too, I hear. Of course, he’s a roughneck—Jackson, I mean; they say Houston’s quite the gentleman—but still—

    Driscol did chuckle, then. Why not? Like his brother had been, Houston was a man who found women just as charming as they found him. Driscol might feel completely out of place here, but Houston was in his element. And if there wasn’t much chance that he’d be successfully wooed tonight, or even in the few weeks before they’d have to leave for New Orleans, there was always the possibility that the basis might be laid for later success. Marriages in America’s high society rarely proceeded with any great speed anyway. Calculating matrons always knew they had time on their side, after all.

    Whatever else he might be, Houston was obviously ambitious. That was considered a virtue in the new republic, not a vice—but it still had to be done virtuously. That meant marriage, among other things, and at a reasonably early age. The commonly held attitude, among men and women alike, was that if a man was still unmarried in his thirties, he was suspect for some reason. Whether because he was riddled with vice, or simply unwilling to assume the responsibility of an adult, who could say?

    But any hope of a political career would start plummeting thereafter—and in the United States in the year 1814, there was no real distinction between a political career and most others suited to a gentleman. Officer, lawyer, planter, merchant—they all wove in and out of the political corridors.

    So, Houston would have to make a suitable marriage, sooner or later. That was a given, and matrons could calculate accordingly. If he dillydallied for a few years—which he very well might; he was only twenty-one, still young to be a husband—there were always younger daughters or nieces coming down the line.

    Driscol’s wry observations were interrupted by a hand on his shoulder. The left shoulder, which surprised him. Most people were gingerly about—

    Most people. He knew who owned the hand before he even looked. She’d not care, he realized. Neither about the missing arm, nor about whatever sensitivities he might have regarding the loss.

    Well enough. It struck him as a reasonable bargain. If she’d accept the missing limb, he’d accept the fact that she didn’t care about it.

    “And what may I do for you, Miss Rogers?”

    “You still haven’t answered my question, Lieutenant. Neither one, in fact.”

    Driscol tried to remember the first question. He couldn’t. Couldn’t remember the more recent one, for that matter. It was a bit frightening, the way the woman could muddle his mind.

    She wasn’t smiling impishly, though. Smiling, yes, but the undertones seemed a bit melancholy. Without warning, she changed the subject.

    “Can you teach me to dance? Like this, I mean. I don’t dare go out there and start dancing the way we do at the Green Corn ceremony.”

    Driscol stared at the city’s upper crust, busy with their elaborate . . . whatever it was. A quadrille, he thought. He wasn’t sure.

    “No, I suppose not. They’d be scandalized.”

    He was having a hard time—a very hard time—keeping his eyes on the dance instead of Tiana. Somewhere, somehow—Driscol suspected the subtle hand of the secretary of state at work—Tiana had managed to get herself outfitted in a real gown. It was the first time he’d ever seen her in clothing designed to be decorative, rather than utilitarian, and he’d been struck by her beauty even in such.

    Dolley Madison had transformed fashion in Washington, ever since her husband had become president. She favored French fashions, in particular what the French called the “Empire” style. That was their own, somewhat more flamboyant version of the Greek Revival fashions that had swept Britain for the past few years.

    Tiana’s gown was a fairly typical example. White in color, very simple in design, it was patterned after the flowing lines of ancient Greek robes. The soft muslim fabric clung to her body and was so thin it was almost sheer. For all the fancy lacework and geometric designs that decorated the hems—also patterned on ancient Greek models—the gown was basically a very expensive nightgown.

    Anywhere except at a formal ball, Tiana would have been wearing a chemisette underneath for modesty. But here, she wasn’t, and the low-cut square décolletage and the high waist of the gown emphasized her very feminine figure. She wasn’t an especially bosomy woman, but with her size and firm musculature, it hardly mattered. The bare flesh of her shoulders and upper chest was...

    Dazzling. All the more so because the long and slender lines of the gown as a whole made her stand out even more than she would have anyway. Tiana was the tallest woman there—and made no attempt to hide the fact.

    Dolley Madison was perhaps thirty feet away and having a conversation with several other women. Tiana glanced at them and smiled wryly. Then, stroked fingers through her long black hair.

    “At least I’m not wearing a turban, like they are. As if they were Cherokees! I think I scandalize these people enough as it is.”

    Driscol felt a moment’s anger, as he always did when confronted by hypocrisy. The scandal wouldn’t be caused by Tiana’s Indian heritage. Full-blooded Indians had been appearing at fancy affairs in European dress for two centuries now, in Europe as well as America, and no one thought anything of it.

    But Tiana was obviously a half-breed. Her hair, her skin color, her features—the blue eyes that were so startling against those prominent cheekbones and dark complexion—all these were signs, to a gentry that preferred to think otherwise, that the lines they drew around themselves blurred at the edges.

    It was mostly a southern gentry, too, which made it all the worse. None of those proper Virginia and Maryland matrons wanted to be reminded that, often enough, some of the children of their slaves had a readily recognizable father.

    He could feel himself starting to slip into an old, familiar bleakness. Vileness, everywhere he looked. But Tiana’s little laugh pulled him out.

    “But that’s not what I’m worried about!” Again, she sniffed. It was quite an impressive sniff, too; no proper matron could have done better. “I don’t care what those people think. It’s when I got back! The Green Corn Festival is a religious affair, you know. Well, no, you probably didn’t. But it is. If my people found out—” She shivered slightly. “I’d never hear the end of it.”

    Driscol realized again how little he knew about the Cherokees, or any other Indian tribe. “Well, look on the bright side. They wouldn’t be able to say much of anything to you, for a few years. You’ll be in school up here. By the time you get back, they might have forgotten.”

    She shook her head. “I’m not going to school. I’m going back with you and Captain Houston next month.”

    Driscol’s startlement must have been obvious. “Ah.”

    “Didn’t Sam tell you?”

    He tried to control the sudden excitement that filled him. Confusion also. He’d been assuming that in a few weeks, after he left for New Orleans, he wouldn’t see Tiana again for . . .

    Who was to say? Months, at the very least. Quite possibly forever.

    He’d become reconciled to the fact. Even relieved, in some ways. Now, realizing that he’d be in the woman’s company, indefinitely, he didn’t know what to think.

    Or do.

    Or feel.

    Well, that last was a lie. He knew exactly how he felt. He’d never been so thrilled in his life.


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