Disclaimer: I own none of the characters or fictional incidents from the film, The Patriot. However, I have as much right to the history of the American Revolution as any one else.
Chapter 1: Guests of the House
William Tavington lay sprawled on the huge carved bed, the early morning sun of May warming his naked skin. A slave brought in water, set the receptacles on the wash stand, and vanished soundlessly from the room. The outside of the larger pitcher sweated with coolness; the other steamed. Tavington rolled out of bed and stretched, a long, luxurious, bone-cracking stretch like a lithe and lazy cat. He moved to the window, and pushed aside the translucent muslin curtains. The delicate fabric teased his belly and thighs as he looked down at his strange new surroundings: the low country of South Carolina. He and his officers had arrived last night at their assigned billets in the great country house of Ashbury Rutledge, one of the wealthy "Rice Kings" of the colony.
As billets went, it was among the best he had ever had in his years as a soldier. The Rice King's mansion of red brick sat foursquare to the ground, anchored by the two great chimneys. The entrance faced onto a symmetrical courtyard of outbuildings composed of the same red brick. The first two, a kitchen and a laundry, were two-storied, and were better than most colonists' homes. Further down the courtyard, a granary and a carriage house continued the array of prosperity. Barns and stables stretched on either side—red brick too. The brick, he had discovered, was made on the estate; at Mr. Rutledge's own kiln. To the back of the mansion was the little house of the overseer and row upon row of slave cabins,
The plantation, Cedar Hill, was a place of plenty and comfort: almost smug in its self-sufficiency. The food at the table came from Rutledge's coops and sties, from his fields and gardens, his orchards and vines. Above all, the rice, the deliciously tender and subtly yellow rice, the famous Carolina Gold rice, was the mainstay of the dining table and the foundation of Ashbury Rutledge' fabulous wealth.
Outside his window, the plantation was bustling with activity. Unless one leaned further out the window and saw the lines of white tents, one would never guess that Cedar Hill was now home to a half-dozen British officers and their men, newly arrived with Sir Henry Clinton in April to help bring South Carolina to heel. The house was an easy hour's ride from Charlestown, and seemed remarkably untouched by siege and conquest. Tavington snorted. Appearances were deceiving. Most of the horses in the paddocks were now the property of the British Army, necessary replacements after their disastrous voyage to this treacherous shore.
A vigorous wash splashed water recklessly onto the pristine pine floor. The hot water eased his morning shave, and Tavington groomed and dressed himself with particular care. The long, dark hair was disciplined into its neat queue: a clean linen shirt rippled over his head, brushing his nipples into alertness. As he shrugged into the rest of his uniform and pulled on the tall boots, he smiled; looking forward to a capital breakfast downstairs, and looking forward even more to furthering his acquaintance with the ladies of the house—or at least one of them.
Selina had dressed this morning with particular care, Jane noted, in her favorite apricot silk trimmed with narrow white braid. A delicate white lace fichu tucked into her décolletage gave the dress a modesty it would have otherwise lacked. Her stepmother was more than three years younger than herself—only twenty, but already married three years to Jane's father. Today she was aflutter with excitement.
It's clear, Jane reflected, that Selina finds handsome British officers more agreeable company than an ailing husband, a baby boy, her distantly civil stepdaughter and said stepdaughter's former governess.
Perhaps she should summon up more compassion for her stepmother. It could not have been easy to marry a man thirty years her senior—a man she had called "Cousin" all her life--and find herself in the lonely grandeur of Cedar Hill much of the year. On the other hand, Selina had never particularly shown her any consideration.
Maybe beautiful women are simply different from every other form of life. Jane had never forgotten the dinner at which their engagement had been announced, an engagement that had fallen on Jane like a thunderbolt. She had never liked Selina Pinckney as they grew up, thrown together often since they were second cousins and close in age. Selina was everything she was not, and had reminded Jane of it—so very sweetly--at every opportunity.
Her father had hovered that day, goggling adoringly, the very proof positive that there is no fool like an old fool. He had not even spoken to Jane beyond an introduction to "your beautiful new Mamma." Selina had giggled, and pretended to kiss Jane's cheek, and then clutched at her greying husband's arm as they strolled away to tour her new domain. Jane's heart had been broken before, but she discovered that day it was possible to have one's heart broken in unpleasantly new ways.
Selina's chatter drew her from her memories. "—and his uncle is an earl! Imagine! Here in this very house!"
"I beg your pardon, Selina," Jane apologized. "Whose uncle is an earl?"
Her stepmother huffed indignantly, and Miss Gilpin, once her governess, now her companion, and always her friend, interposed smoothly. "Mrs. Rutledge was speaking of our guest, Colonel Tavington. His uncle is Lord Colchester."
"How very grand. Do you suppose he will eat humble bacon and eggs, or should I have attempted to procure nectar and ambrosia for such an exalted being? I fear I shall have to send to Charlestown."
"Oh, Jane!" cried her stepmother, "how can you joke about such a thing? I'm sure I am very grateful to Sir Henry for sending us such a distinguished gentleman, and not some of the hobbledehoys that have come with the Army." She simpered. "I thought him very handsome, and so dignified. Such a noble, reserved air. One can see at once that he has lived in the highest circles!"
Jane turned to Miss Gilpin for her opinion, before the gentlemen came down to the breakfast parlor. The Englishwoman smiled faintly. "I cannot presume to penetrate Colonel Tavington's character on the strength of last night's introduction. I believe I need to see him in the full light of day to judge him fairly."
"True," agreed Jane, with a sly glance at her companion. "Perhaps we shall discover that he wears a corset and has false teeth!"
Selina gave a dainty squeak of horror.
Jane laughed, and added, "At least we may learn whether he is simply reserved, or if he is actually disdainful of his Colonial hosts. If he is, I shall not like him, though he were the nephew of two earls!"
"Well," declared Selina, adjusting the set of her fichu a little lower on her breasts, "I am determined to like him."
Tavington heard this last remark, as he came down the stairs, following the servant's directions and the delicious scents. He smiled, guessing of whom the lady spoke. Bordon stepped out of his own room and greeted his commander. Tavington paused briefly, and the two men entered the breakfast room together.
The mistress of the house was a rare beauty. Tavington found his attention riveted by the young woman—for she was obviously quite young. The tiny pinner cap did not hide her shining golden hair, artfully arranged. Her skin, pearl-white and silken, begging to be touched, seemed a miracle in this place of blazing sun and heat. It was so fine that the blue veins showed in it clearly, the same blue as her lovely eyes. A shame that she was utterly thrown away on the querulous, sickly old man he had met last night when they had arrived. Rutledge had had some sort of fit, or stroke, or something of the sort upon hearing that Sir Henry had confiscated the entire rice harvest. Possibly that was why he was still here, while the rest of his fellow Rice Kings, the leaders of the rebellion against the King's authority here in South Carolina, had decamped for the backcountry or parts north. Their host's cousin John was the rebel governor, but so far the Rutledges had avoided any mention of him.
The fair Mrs. Rutledge showed him to the place of honor beside her. Tavington felt himself in high luck. He seated himself smiling, and let his eyes wander over the charms of his hostess until transfixed by the glare of the young woman opposite him.
Ah yes. The daughter. Dressed in a drab muslin gown she was quite overshadowed by the fair-haired beauty at the head of the table. Last night, Tavington had taken her for a paid companion or some poor relation, until the introductions made the situation clear to him. Among other things, it appeared that she was the de facto housekeeper, for she, rather than the lovely Mrs. Rutledge, carried the household keys. The sunlight pouring in through the windows shone mercilessly on the girl's mouse-brown hair, her sallow skin, her long knife-blade of a nose, and her lashless, commonplace eyes, hard with hostility. Do we have a rebel here? Or just a sour old maid?
The elderly lady, an Englishwoman by the name of Sophia Gilpin, was the daughter's companion, he now understood. Tavington acknowledged her politely, suppressing a shudder at a type he felt he knew all too well. Stiff, and he presumed censorious, she was watching him unsmilingly, on the alert for questionable conduct. He was reminded of one of his sisters' governesses—what was her name?—Miss Brodie. The same suspicious, watchful scrutiny: it had been an irresistible temptation to misbehave simply to satisfy her low expectations.
The breakfast table was generous in its offerings. He smiled to himself, thinking of military rations. Bordon caught his smile, and they shared a moment of companionable understanding. It was an agreeable thing, to be enjoying the food, the comfortable lodgings, the beauty of the lady of the house—all made more pleasant by contrast to their miseries of their voyage, and their hardships for the past weeks as they had slogged through the coastal islands and swamps before taking the prize of Charlestown.
Tavington considered this luxury, and reconsidered his impressions of the plantation. The appearance of self-sufficiency was an illusion. Not just the silk and muslin the ladies wore: there was the Wedgwood breakfast set, the silver spoons and forks, obviously more imports. The tea, the coffee, the sugar, the lace on Mrs. Rutledge's gown: everything brought home to Tavington the intertwined nature of the Crown's trading with its colonies. How could these colonies hope to function independently? Their laws, customs, their church—the very political ideas embraced by the rebels—all were English transplants, or derived from English ideas.
More of his officers joined them, the younger cornets grinning and jostling one another as they found places at the breakfast table. Tavington decided to indulge a little horseplay. The boys were so young, and had suffered so much—and he rather liked some of them. On the other hand, there was Mr. Fenton, who was a bit of ninny. He plumped himself down next to the daughter, as the only other young lady at the table. Tavington pitied his taste, but would have been more annoyed if Fenton had tried to insinuate himself with Mrs. Rutledge, whom Tavington had immediately marked down as his own object of prey.
Fenton must have brushed against Miss Rutledge, for the young lady flinched and gave him a resentful frown. Fenton grinned back, and sidled closer.
Miss Gilpin noticed her charge's distress, and observed acidly, "I wouldn't have thought such a skinny young man would need two chairs, Mr. Fenton. Can you not sit still?"
Unabashed, Fenton looked at his plate, and stifled a guffaw. The other officers looked at each other, some amused, and the better sort a little embarrassed. Tavington ignored it all, admiring instead the white throat and shoulders of Mrs. Rutledge. The spinster daughter could look out for herself. If she were the prudish sort to wilt at a little frank admiration, she needed to broaden her knowledge of the world.
Jane pushed the boy's hand away from her knee for the second time. If he tries it again, I shall stab him with my fork, she decided. She looked expressively at Selina, holding court at the end of the table. There was no help for her there. Selina was flirting shamelessly with the Colonel, batting her eyelashes and giving the man little sidelong glances. She tugged on her fichu again, as if unthinkingly, pulling it lower still. The man's eyes took in the tops of her white breasts, now entirely exposed. It was a revolting scene, and Jane's heart swelled with indignation for her father upstairs, ill and forgotten.
In a way, she could understand Selina's foolish flirting. The Colonel was extraordinarily handsome. Jane had not seen many handsome men in her life. Her experience did not extend much beyond their family circle and its tangle of relations, their slaves, and acquaintances she might meet in social situations or on the street in Charlestown. She had never seen a picture, even, of a man as handsome as the Colonel. Selina, she was certain, had never seen his like, either.
Her own flippant words about corsets and false teeth now seemed very silly to her. Sunlight did not lessen the man's good looks: his features were still as striking—and better seen--in the improved light. Jane could not find a fault in them, not in the mouth, the strong nose, or the pale, beautiful eyes. His figure was firm and upright, radiating strength and vigor. He was, in all honesty, just what a man and a soldier ought to be—at least in looks. It was a struggle not to stare. His voice, too, charmed her: its refined accent, its musical resonance, the hint of a purr in it like a panther lying in wait.
She gave her head a little shake, distracted out of her contemplation of Colonel Tavington by the stupid boy beside her. He would not understand her rejection of him; teasing her with pokes and prods and suggestive winks until it was all she could do not to box his ears.
"I am not needed at camp this morning, Miss Rutledge," he whispered, with a significant look.
"Really," she replied calmly. "How nice for you. Perhaps you can catch up on your correspondence, or take some time for some improving reading."
"We could read to each other," he smirked. "I know a book by Mr. Cleland that you might find fascinating."
"I've never heard of him. I am currently reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné. Perhaps you might find them fascinating."
The boy looked rather foolish. "In French? I don't parlay-voo much!"
Jane smiled in a very superior way. "That will not inconvenience me in the least." Seeing his confusion, she dismissed his efforts. "Perhaps it is best that we keep each to our own taste. I am certain that you can find delightful ways to spend your free morning that do not involve me." She gave him a thin, insincere smile. "Sorry."
Mrs. Rutledge had been chatting with Tavington in a rather vapid but pleasant way. Jane's conversation was now loud enough to attract her attention.
"Why, Jane! There's no reason you can't spend a little time with Mr. Fenton." She remarked to Tavington in a perfectly audible whisper, "A little bashful, you know. She gets so few offers, poor thing!"
Jane was hardened to Selina's cruel jibes, and answered very matter-of-factly. "Actually, I'm extremely busy today. I have meals to organize for a much larger household, laundry to inventory, my father and little brother to tend to, and that wool-work you wanted me to finish off for you, Mamma."
Selina's eyes nearly popped at Jane calling her "Mamma."
Jane went on ruthlessly. "So you see, Mr. Fenton, unless you wish to count napkins and towels with me—and very hot and tiresome work it is—you will just have to enjoy the prose of Mr. Cleland alone."
Bordon, hearing the name, looked up startled, not believing that even Fenton was such an imbecile as to propose reading Fanny Hill to a young lady. His eyes narrowed. Perhaps it would be a good idea to keep a closer eye on him.
Too dense to notice his superior's disapproval, the young officer laughed, not believing Jane was serious, "You would banish me from your presence? Surely you would not be so cruel, Miss Rutledge."
Jane felt a familiar anger surge. She slashed angrily at her defenseless eggs, and found she could not restrain herself today.
"You know, when men speak of the 'cruelty of women' it always makes me laugh. We are at war, Charlestown has been shelled, soldiers are being killed in battle, and civilians on both sides have been robbed and murdered. Have women done any of this? I think not. No. When a man calls a woman "cruel" he means she has not consented to be his plaything. I hardly think when men with swords and guns and women with mere words are put in the balance, that a rational being could find us the crueler sex."
Mr. Fenton looked quite chagrined. Tavington snorted a laugh. "You are severe on us, Miss Rutledge."
Jane was too angry to give ground. She glared at him, a hot rush of resentment spurting inside her, hating the superior smile, the handsome face. "Oh, I imagine you'll survive my displeasure."
Miss Gilpin touched her arm, recalling her to herself. Jane fell silent, and Selina, terribly ashamed of Jane's outburst, left the table with a smile, a curtsey, and a sharp gesture commanding Jane and Miss Gilpin to follow her.
Jane rose, still glaring at Tavington. With a dismissive flick of her petticoat, she turned and followed her stepmother, back formidably straight.
The men continued to wolf down the plentiful breakfast. Bordon poured himself some tea and sat back, grinning at Tavington. "Interesting, wouldn't you say? There are secret fires burning beneath that prim exterior!"
Fenton was still offended. "I have not been rebuked so since I was in school! And at that, she's worse than my headmaster! I was just trying to pay her a little attention. You'd think she'd be grateful!"
There were grunts of agreement.
"--Probably a blue-stocking."
"--A satirical girl—when she's thirty, she'll be intolerable!"
"--You know what she needs!"
Bordon whispered low to Tavington. "You are not saying anything, I'm glad to note."
"What more is there to say? And why should I care? A dried-up Colonial spinster is not worth quarrelling with."
"Because, my friend, you should not dismiss Miss Rutledge so readily. She has charms of which you know nothing"
Tavington pricked up his ears.
"What do you mean?"
Bordon smiled, and glanced about to see if anyone might be listening. The others had turned the conversation to tomorrow's cricket match and were already into their second helpings. He lowered his voice even more.
"Miss Rutledge has twenty thousand pounds."
The words dropped between them, with a weight worthy of that mighty sum.
Tavington stared. "Really! You're certain?"
"Absolutely. A bit of useful gossip I picked up from some of our local friends. Although Old Rutledge changed his will when his son was born, leaving everything to the infant, Miss Rutledge has inherited her own mother's fortune. As she is now of age, she is fully mistress of it. She's a plum worth picking. If I weren't married I'd be after her myself."
"Sharp tongue, sour expression and all?"
"What does she say that is untrue? Encroaching behavior like Fenton's is annoying. She's an intelligent and discerning young woman. As to the sour expression—it's only to be expected. She's nursing a father who installed a silly beauty younger than herself as mistress of the house. A father who also disinherited her for the new infant son. I wouldn't be very happy in her situation myself. Would you?"
"Then she should have married."
"Perhaps she is fastidious. And the war, no doubt, has upset the usual marriage market."
Tavington grimaced. "She's so very plain."
"Pooh!" replied his friend. "There's nothing wrong with her that a better wardrobe and a French maid couldn't cure. Her features are regular enough: with a little rouge, she'd have the bloom she needs. She's been raised by that prudish battle-axe, whose own appearance proclaims she thinks such things a vanity. And you've only seen her in the company of the delectable stepmother, who could make many a prettier woman look plain beside her."
Tavington laughed shortly. "And so very bony."
"A little fattening up will do the trick. Come, Tavington! Don't be so fastidious yourself! You've come to America to make your fortune: here is a way surer than battle, and far less likely to kill you!"
Tavington tried to laugh again, but was silent instead. He had hoped to improve his fortunes with a good marriage in England, but many things had conspired to thwart him. Heiresses were not eager to ally themselves with the son of Mad Jack Tavington. His father's reckless career had ruined more than his own life. And his mother was so particular as to family…
He smiled at his friend. "I promise to think it over."
"That's all I ask."
Selina Rutledge, in the meantime, had plenty to say to Jane in the privacy of the back sitting room. She snatched some tatting out of her workbasket and began twisting the thread savagely, more interested in expressing herself than in keeping her work untangled.
"How could you mortify me like that, Jane? Whatever is the matter with you? What a way to speak to our guests! And Colonel Tavington—what he must have thought! He, the nephew of an earl, to listen to such ranting!"
"Oh, stop, Mamma. I'm tired of hearing about Colonel Tavington and his grand relations. What is Lord Colchester to us?"
Selina dropped her tatting and fanned herself, a huge apricot butterfly fluttering unsteadily. "And why, after all this time, have you taken to calling me Mamma? Are you trying to make me ridiculous?"
Jane kept her face straight, not even allowing herself to look at Miss Gilpin. She kept her head bowed as her stepmother sputtered her reproofs. "I shall never understand you! Miss Gilpin: speak to her, for nothing I say seems to help! Or better—" she flung out an impatient gesture---"let us have some music, Jane. At least if you are playing, you cannot further insult Colonel Tavington and the other officers—men upon whom our safety depends!"
Not thinking her stepmother deserving the compliment of debate, Jane sat to her spinet and began playing mechanically. A sonata by Scarlatti lay open on the music stand, so she played that. Fresh, brilliant; full of all the spirits she sometimes lacked. Selina was right in a way. If she were engrossed in her music, perhaps she would see no more odious flirtations.
Miss Gilpin sat beside her to turn pages. She gave Jane an appraising look, and then said, in her frank way. "There's no need to frighten all the young men away, my dear Jane. You should bless this opportunity. South Carolina may not afford you a prospect you fancy, but the King, in his wisdom, has just sent a few thousand more straight to Charlestown. Surely one of them will do for you!"
Notes: Those of you familiar with my stories know that I have always posted a great many explanatory notes. I do not intend to do so in this story. If you have questions about the historical background, by all means ask them.
Chapter 2: Curious Sounds from the Mistress' Bedchamber