Alfred followed England out of the dining room and up the dimly lit stairs to a smaller than expected room whose walls were covered with books. There was just enough room for a cozy seating nook with two burgundy leather couches facing each other in front of a hot coal fire.
Whereas the first floor communicated style and power, this room felt almost rustic. The deep green carpets and throw pillows working with simple oak furniture to create the atmosphere of a small cottage. Alfred immediately felt more at home.
England motioned that Alfred should take a seat while he gathered a decanter and two small cut-glass tumblers from a shelf and set them on a low table between the couches.
America sat easily on a couch, this time completely confident it would bear him, while England poured a hearty slug of amber coloured liquid into each glass. England handed a glass to Alfred and sat down on the other couch, lounging comfortably into the corner. Alfred noticed that England's body language was more at ease in his inner sanctum than it had been downstairs in the more public, showy areas of his home.
"Cheers," England stated holding up his glass.
"Cheers," Alfred echoed, tapping the rim of his glass against England's, thankful for the gesture of goodwill and the change of atmosphere. He drank in a small mouthful of the liquor and rolled it around his mouth. "Tasty."
"Mmmm," England agreed, draining his glass. "Just the thing in the evening." He poured himself some more. He leaned forward to top off America's glass, but pulled back as it was still full. "Well. What is your spirit of choice these days?" He set the decanter back on the table.
America swished his brandy around a bit, admiring the way the cut glass twinkled in the firelight. He knew that England's renewed effort to have a civil conversation was his way of apologizing for his outbursts as well as regaining face. England prided himself on his maturity and aplomb, after all. "Whiskey," Alfred answered distractedly, thinking of other memorable times he had made England loose his temper. As soon as the word left his mouth he frowned, knowing he had left himself open for more jabs if England chose to take them.
To his credit, England didn't push the topic. "I fancy a good Irish whiskey from time to time myself," was all he said, finishing his drink and fixing himself another.
Alfred felt his shoulders relax and he crossed his legs, propping an ankle on a knee. "I shouldn't have mentioned the gin, not with my own issues," he offered in his own roundabout apology. He took another small sip.
England effortlessly batted the conversational ball back at him. "They are calling it the 'Whiskey Rebellion', correct?" He only seemed politely interested.
Alfred chuckled morosely. "They are. It's been going on for a few years, and just this last July it all came to a head." He clucked his tongue. "It was a good thing in the end though."
"Do tell?" England stretched his toes towards the warmth of the fire. He took a slow sip of brandy, this time not gulping it down and looked again at Alfred's glass. "Are you ever going to finish that drink?"
Alfred placed a hand over the top of his tumbler. "I'm good, thanks." He didn't drink very often and between the brandy and the wine at dinner he was already feeling a pleasant tingle.
England shrugged. "Suit yourself. As you were saying? The Whiskey Rebellion was a good thing?"
Alfred leaned forward, excitement lighting up his face. "Well, see, it was a test. Pennsylvania didn't like the new Federal government saying they had to pay taxes. The fact that the Federal militia was able to enforce it strengthened my government more than anything else could have done."
England pinched his nose and closed his eyes. "That sounds terribly familiar," he said dryly. His eyes cracked open and bestowed an ironic expression upon America as he sipped his brandy.
Alfred laughed nervously, sounding decades younger for a pained moment. "Er, I suppose so. I was just...you know..."
A bored hand waved away the concerns. "No harm done. What else have you learned?"
Alfred pulled at the finger tips of his glove. "I know we were pretty upset over your taxes...but...well, building a government that can't levy a tax was pretty stupid. Do you how much debt I am in?" Alfred gazed into the glowing coals so he didn't have to look at England while admitting such a monumental mistake.
"At least you figured it out in time to fix it. Governments need money to run. Even Anarchy isn't completely free." England snorted as if remembering some of own debacles. "That lesson comes to all."
"All of my tax paying states are represented in my legislative system. I am hoping that makes it easier for the people to take," America said carefully with a sheepish cough. He didn't want to come off as if he were trying to get a dig in about his past grievances as a colony.
"Represented to their satisfaction?" It sounded like England already knew the answer.
Alfred groaned. "Can you believe the answer is no? All they do is debate about proportional representation. Its either too much or too little, depending on who you ask!" He scuffed his shoes along the fringe of a rug. "They worry more about their neighbors than their own affairs!"
"Listen to you talk." There was pride in England's voice. "You are coming into your own." Eyes shining he leaned forward and meet America's gaze.
Alfred rubbed at his nose. "I'm making all kinds of mistakes." He lowered his eyes. "You are being too kind."
"I don't know, I've been working on parliament since the 13th century. You are making astonishing progress." England leaned back and tilted his head against the back of the couch. "Indeed. It's quite remarkable."
Alfred's throat closed up. England sounded proud of him. He swallowed thickly. He hadn't realized how much he still wanted England's approval. He felt warmth on his cheeks and compensated by throwing back the rest of his brandy and setting his glass on the table between them.
Even England looked affected – a bemused smile on his lips as he leaned over the table and refilled Alfred's glass.
The silence carried on, full of things they couldn't find the words for, as they both gazed into the fireplace.
"Do you still live in the house I built for you?" England asked after a moment.
"No, you know it burned down in the war," Alfred's words were almost a whisper. He had always thought England had done it as a sort of emotional warfare. It had been quite effective.
"It wasn't me," England corrected the unsaid accusation, sorrow etching his words. "I didn't know. I regret to hear of its fall." He turned to face Alfred. "Truly."
"Oh." Alfred toyed with his cravat. That home was the symbol of everything good about their shared past and the concept of England destroying it had broken something in him. Hearing this wasn't true meant everything. "We had a nice life there." He glanced briefly at England, hardly able to take the tenderness in his expression.
"So we did." England stared in to the middle distance for a bit and shifted to a safer topic. "You now live where?"
Alfred decided against picking up his now full tumbler. His emotions were already to swinging to extremes without further assistance from spirits. "I live in Philly... with the President. We are renting a house while the Federal City is being built in the District of Columbia." Alfred pushed the glass away from him on the table. "You know, I really miss our old house. It was private. Hidden in the middle of the woods. A man could be on his own; do as he pleased; hear himself think."
"I take it your residence in Philadelphia is not so?" England hesitantly put his glass next to Alfred's on the table and looked balefully at the remaining inch of bandy.
"Not at all. The house is really too small to run a government out of. People are tripping all over each other trying to get their work done." Alfred pursed his lips, wondering if he should share his next thought. "And there is always someone looking for me: Wanting to persuade me, or get my opinion, or have me do something for them." He gusted a breath up at his cowlick, making it bob around. "I haven't been hunting or even gone for a walk in the woods for almost a year."
England gave Alfred an almost affectionate look. "It is so very ironic. How we nations loose our personal freedoms even as our people gain their own."
"I hadn't expected that," he admitted rubbing his temple as if chasing away a headache. "Not that I regret anything," he was quick to add.
"Quite," England agreed. "Since you cannot run wild across the countryside any longer, what do you do instead?"
America looked at him blankly.
"Oh you know," England prompted, "what do you do for yourself? Do you read out outrageous novels? Haunt the taverns? Spend afternoons deep in prayer?" That last one had a flavor of sarcasm.
"Well..." America frowned. "I do read, but its all recommended by my bosses. Books on philosophy, history, judicial writings. They want me to understand what they are building." He winced. "It's boring." The wince merged into a guilty frown. "But it is really important – the foundation of our ideals and all."
"You do nothing just for yourself personally?" England took back his glass and finished off the brandy.
A deep sigh proceeded any words. "Not really, there is so much to do, so much the people need from me. Maybe in a few years things will settle down and I can spend some time in the countryside again." The moving shadows of the firelight cast dark circles under Alfred's eyes instantly aging him.
America's eyes widened. It was the first time England had used his name in years.
"Lad, I beg your pardon if it is still too soon for me to presume to give you advice. Don't make the mistake of loosing yourself to your government. It is not who YOU are. Find time to be just Alfred."
America shook his head. "I don't see how I can find the time to do the things I want to do. My leaders won't let me leave them for long, not when we have so much to accomplish."
England leaned forward. "You are civilized now and can no longer wander away for months at a time, true. You need to find something else you enjoy. Something portable if possible. Whatever it is, it is important that you find it and make time for it. Otherwise you will loose perspective. When you loose yourself, you will make dreadful decisions. Your people will suffer."
Alfred looked closely at England's face. "Are you speaking from experience?"
"Regrettably so." England's empty glass clattered as he placed it on the table. "Trust me, there will always be too much to do – your work will never be complete, no matter that you will live forever. You must make sure to keep an identity distinct from what you represent. Having an interest is a place to begin."
"So what is it that you do then?" America asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I think you can already answer that question if you can think back a bit. I dare say you have seen more of my private life than most."
"I thought you just implied reading boring old books didn't count!" Alfred cast a jaundiced gaze to the bookshelves framing the fireplace.
"Well, as opposed to you, I actually enjoy it," England conceded, a hand coming up to unpin the broach at his neck. He laid it by his glass while his other hand loosened his cravat. "Surely you can think of some thing else?"
Alfred pretended to think. He didn't need to try very hard as his memories of happier times with England blazed brightly within him, liberated by the knowledge that England had not incinerated them along with their home. "Let's see. You like to grow roses, and you always had some kind of needle work going."
"Correct. I still enjoy those activities. However, working in the garden only suits certain seasons and locations, while I can take my needle work anywhere. Portable, you see."
America nodded politely, but he just couldn't see himself sewing.
"So are you inspired to think of any pursuits for yourself?"
"I don't know, all the things I like to do are too messy or dangerous." America's brows drew together as he thought back on the stern lecture Washington had given him when he had shown up at a Congressional session after working at a local farm for a morning. The horse shit on his shoes and the dirt in the beds of his finger nails had not been appreciated.
"Some things never change, do they?" England asked with sincere fondness.
They looked at each other, both open and vulnerable. Their past pressed close about them in an intertwining of happiness and despair, forming into a platform of possibilities for moving forward.
"Thank goodness," Alfred said shyly, scratching his head. He allowed his hopes for their relationship to show on his face, laid bare with no protective masks. "Arthur."
England's face softened. He leaned over the table and lifted a hand towards Alfred's face as if to stroke his cheek.
Alfred found himself moving forward to receive that caress.
Three sharp raps on the door had them jumping apart self consciously.
Thomas entered the library with his typical cool efficiency. "Mr. Jones' carriage is waiting." Announcement delivered, he turned and left. The open door a reminder that the visit was over.
"Well," England said briskly looking at a clock on the mantel. "It is time for you to be on your way. You must have much to do before you set sail tomorrow."
"Yes," America agreed with a flush. "It is a long journey." He was off balance and uncentered. One second they were talking and remembering, and the next he was leaving, with no transition in between.
"One I have made many a time." England slid to the edge of his couch and laid a soft hand on Alfred's shoulder. "Safe travels."
The hand was a warm comfort on America's skin. A touch at last. "Arthur?"
"Yes, my boy?"
Alfred didn't want to go. Not when they had just started to really talk, to heal the wounds they had inflicted upon each other. He wanted to stay. It was impossible to foresee if and when he would ever make the long journey back. Without serious political business there would be no reason for either of them to travel to each other's shores. "Is it really so late?" he asked weakly, unable to voice his thoughts.
The wistfulness in Arthur's face showed he understood exactly. "I'm afraid so." England squeezed his shoulder once and released it. He eyed Alfred's still full glass on the table.
"May I write to you?" At least that way they could keep this new conversation going.
"Of course." England picked up Alfred's glass and took a long drink from it. "I fully expect reports on America's progress in the New World as well as Alfred Kirkland's personal affairs."
"Good." Alfred didn't have the heart to remind him that his last name was now Jones. He rose and eased around the table between the couches, taking a step towards the door. When Arthur didn't rise, Alfred paused and peered back over his shoulder. "Will you see me off?"
England's face looked pained before it closed off into the same neutral expression he had worn at the start of the evening. He finished off Alfred's drink and clenched the empty glass. "I believe I will keep my old bones up here by the fire. Thomas can see you to your carriage better than I. You can find your way?"
Alfred nodded, his chest tightening. Tonight had gone almost too well and the parting was hurting them both. England was right, it was best to not linger over it. "Farewell."
England jerked his head towards the door and gestured for him to go with a flick of his fingertips.
Alfred hurried into the hall, hearing England pouring himself a drink behind him. It sounded terribly lonely.
The other side of independence was illuminated in that moment: Independence was being left behind. Independence was going on alone.
It was a farewell without the guarantee of reunion.
Alfred paused at the stairwell and looked up into the dark hall above him. He would bear it and keep moving forward to create his future. However, England was a fixed star he would use to keep his bearings and navigate back to the best parts of his past.
For now, it was time to move on.
This last chapter was a bear to write. I wanted to end on a positive note because while the Jay's Treaty was in effect the two nations had a good relationship. It was difficult to transition to this from the angsty argument over dinner. I'm still not thrilled with it but I have done my best.
I had so much fun writing this. I learned/remembered tons about early American history by doing the research. The best learning was about the rhotic aspect of American speech – I had no idea. I went on to research more about American English and its divergence from British English and it is all quite fascinating. In many ways American English is a time capsule- many of what feel like uniquely American turns of phrases are really antique British phrases that are not often used any more across the pond. For example – American use "Fall" as a term for Autumn. The colonists brought this term with them. It was a shortened version of "Fall of the leaf" from 16th century middle English. This ultimately fell out if vogue in Britain and Autumn was used instead.
I also got completely obsessed with the development of public and private gas lightening. I even made a pathetic attempt to work it in to the story, but ultimately removed the scene because it did zero to move the story forward and lead to trying to have Alfred say something complimentary about England's embroidery which was lame and destroyed the mood I was building. So out it went. For fun, I will put the scene below, just like an out take section on a DVD. Be warned, it was taken out for a reason and is unedited.
Thanks to everyone for reading and for the great comments. I adore hearing from my readers and find you kind words inspirational. Thanks to the other creators of US/UK content as well. You are all so talented and I am humbled to stand among your ranks. Ours is a vibrant and productive community thanks to your efforts!
The Whiskey Rebellion- From Wikipedia: A new U.S. federal government began operating in 1789, following the ratification of the United States Constitution. The previous government under the Articles of Confederation had been unable to levy taxes; it had borrowed money to meet expenses, accumulating $54 million in debt. The states had amassed an additional $25 million in debt. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, sought to use this debt to create a financial system that would promote American prosperity and national unity. In his Report on Public Credit, he urged Congress to consolidate the state and national debts into a single debt that would be funded by the federal government. Congress approved these measures in June and July of 1790.
A source of government revenue was needed to pay the bond holders to whom the debt was owed. By December 1790, Hamilton believed that import duties, which were the government's primary source of revenue, had been raised as high as was feasible. He therefore promoted passage of an excise tax on domestically distilled spirits. This was to be the first tax levied by the national government on a domestic product. Although taxes were politically unpopular, Hamilton believed that the whiskey excise was a luxury tax that would be the least objectionable tax that the government could levy.] In this he had the support of some social reformers, who hoped that a "sin tax" would raise public awareness about the harmful effects of alcohol] The whiskey excise act, sometimes known as the "Whisky Act", became law in March 1791.
"The Super Amazing Gas Lamp"
England leaned forward. "You make need to find something new to enjoy. Something portable. Whatever it is, it is important that you find it and make time for it. Otherwise you will not be true to yourself, and you will loose perspective."
"Are you speaking from experience?"
"So what is it that you do?"
"I think you can already answer that question as you have observed me going about many of my hobbies."
"I thought you just implied reading dusty, boring old books didn't count!"
"Well, as opposed to you, I actually enjoy it."
"Let's see. You like to garden, and you always had a needle work going."
"Correct. I still enjoy those activities. Working in the garden only suits certain seasons and locations, while I can take my needle work anywhere. Portable, you see. Also, don't forget I often cook for leisure. You've enjoyed many a pastry from me."
America's mouth dried out as he remembered his diet of charred scones. "I sure did." He quickly changed the subject. "Are you knitting something right now?"
"No, I am embroidering a handkerchief. What you like to see it?" England was already rising and moving towards the back of the little library.
America got up and followed him to one of the rare section of wells not covered in books and watched as England turned a key on a wall sconce and a bright flame burst into light.
Below the light was a plush arm chair. England reached into it's seat and gathered up a length of white fabric stretched over a small hoop. "You see, it is an early Tudor Rose design." He held it up for Alfred to inspect.
"What is that?" America breathed looking at the amazingly bright light. "It's wonderful."
"It is called a gas light. One of my people is developing them for use to light the city. It will be several years, before it is ready."
"It's in your house," America breathed. "Its so steady. So bright."
"I only have the one. A perk of being who I am, I suppose. It is very nice for embroidering or reading. It is very easy on the eyes."
"Its in your house!" America repeated excitedly. "How does it work?"
England tapped the wall behind the sconce. " I have a reservoir of coal gas that is fed to this lamp by a system of pipes in the walls."
"That is amazing!" Alfred beamed. "I almost can't believe it. Thank you for showing me."
"You are welcome. Now, did you say you wanted to see my embroidery?" England held the hoop up to the light again.
Remembering his manners Alfred peered at the fabric with as much interest as he could muster. "That looks nice. I like how the thorns stick up a little."
"Yes it is a special kind of knotted stitch that makes it look that way." England sat the fabric back down on the chair. "So are you inspired to think of any pursuits for yourself?"
America tugged on the lapels of his jacket. "I don't know, all the things I like to do are too messy or dangerous." He winced thinking back on the stern lecture Washington had given him when he had shown up at a congressional session with muddy boots and dirt in the beds of his finger nails.
"Some things never change, do they?" England asked.