1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 42

Chapter 22

Oranjestad, St. Eustatia

Moments after retrieving the already-anxious Cuthbert Pudsey, a familiar voice with a Dutch accent inquired, “Do you approve of the preparations, Lady Anne Cathrine?”

She turned after an instant’s delay: the time it took for her to be sure that she had successfully pasted a smile over her expression of surprise and fear that, somehow, someone had seen her eavesdropping in the infirmary.

Maarten Tromp was standing just to one side, hands folded before him. As he often did, he radiated fatherly approval and regard — which at this moment, made her feel incongruously like a naughty, sneaky, child, even thought she had now almost reached the unthinkably advanced age of eighteen. “Why yes, Admiral,” she answered, glancing at the sail-derived pavilion and the crude tables beneath it, “I could not approve more. Not that my approval is of any particularly importance!”

Whereas Leonora nodded and announced, “They seem quite wonderful!”

He smiled, beginning to stroll as he gestured at his intended path, inviting them to walk with him. “I must differ with you regarding the importance of your approval, Lady Anne Cathrine. You and your sister have seen more of such events than anyone else here. With the exception of the others that came with you from your father’s court, none of us are well-acquainted with the staging of such large celebrations.” He chuckled. “I fear that you will have to be willing to tolerate a large measure of what burgers and the gentry consider ‘an entertainment.'”

Anne Cathrine did not have to summon or amplify her responding laugh. “Admiral, if you could only imagine how dull and downright plodding the majority of state affairs prove to be. Most of the men are too old, busy, and ‘dignified’ to dance, whereas their wives are equally old, busy, and self-conscious of the infirmities that impede their grace. And for every such infirmity that is actual, there are a dozen that are imagined, though they may be painfully real in the minds of those who believe themselves afflicted. The food is plentiful, and so, wasted in quantities that would feed whole villages. The wine and drink is equally plentiful, but the opposite problem obtains; so much is consumed that felicity becomes besotted carousing.”

“And conjugal incapacity later on,” Leonora added casually. When she noted Tromp’s startled stare and Cuthbert’s delighted surprise, she blinked. “What? Are we not simply speaking truths that society is typically too polite to utter?”

Anne Cathrine smiled winningly, while thinking, Dear sister, would that your social sensibilities were so well-tuned as your intellectual gifts. Aloud: “My sister’s convictions, and the courage with which she shares them, are among the rarest of gifts. Alas that she hasn’t the time to share more.”

“I don’t?”

Anne Cathrine tried to make sure that her smile did not evolve into a grimace. “You have forgotten? That you and Sophie agreed to prepare for the party together?”

Leonora’s eyelids opened wider. “Oh, yes! I quite forgot! You must excuse me!”

The others waved her on her way. Anne Cathrine was simply glad that the excuse was genuine; Sophie and Leonora had indeed felt that it would be pleasant for them to help each other primp for the great event. Whereas, had Anne Cathrine fabricated a groundless excuse on the spot, Leonora would almost certainly have argued that there was no such appointment, rather than taking the hint. Instead, she ran off with the blind abandon spawned by that sudden fixity of purpose observable in fourteen-year-olds the world over, nobility or not.

Pudsey looked around for her escort. “Er, Lady Sophie, about your sister…”

Anne Cathrine was doubly relieved. “Go with her until she is safe in our house, Cuthbert. I am sure that the admiral or one of his staff will see me safely home.”

Tromp smiled at the mercenary-become-protector-of-noble-ladies. “My word on it.”

“Obliged, sir!” Pudsey answered and trundled after Leonora.

Before Anne Cathrine could speak, Tromp began walking, murmuring, “I am glad for this opportunity to speak with you.”

“What about, Admiral?”

Tromp made a huffing sound that took her a few seconds to recognize as a heavily suppressed chortle. “Merry-making.”

She smiled. “I doubt I am your best resource for that! I have attended many balls and dances and dinners, but have not spent a moment ever planning one or observing the process.”

Tromp nodded as they strolled out from under the west pavilion and crossed in front of the entrance to Government House. “And yet you have more experience of them, from which we may hope to interpolate what must go into their making.”

She tried not to frown. “Admiral, I am flattered that you reside such trust in my opinions, but at this late hour . . .”

He held up a hand as they stopped in front of Government House. “I fully realize that this is an extraordinary imposition, made more so by coming to you at, almost literally, the last possible minute. But before you object, please, let me explain.

“Lady Anne Cathrine, as you could not have failed to notice, I am not a man who has spent much time observing society, let alone the ways of the nobility. All I know about entertainments, regardless of their type, is whether I am enjoying them or not. My colleagues and officers are cut from the same cloth; our involvement has always been in matters that are intensely practical, if not barbaric. We are military men, after all.

“In consequence, we planned carefully for these days when so many people would come to Oranjestad, for this opportunity to fix it in so many minds as a hub not only of commerce and power, but society, opportunity, and entertainment. So naturally, we always envisioned a party, but particularly a dance, an event where new romantic friendships may be kindled and so, start to bind all our islands together with even stronger ties. But in all of those considerations, no one ever stopped to ask: ‘but who shall oversee this party?'”

He looked up at Government House, the facade of which was three stories high. Its wings and the rear extension were only two floors. “We considered the space we needed, we allowed for food and drink, where they would be prepared and in what quantities. We asked for volunteers to help with that service and promised tariff relief as an incentive, and so accrued more willing hands than we know what to do with. We even contacted the musicians among us, who used the last two days of strolling the streets as a time to rehearse and prepare.

He sighed. “We were military men approaching this objective as we would any other; identify and gather resources at the time and place where they are needed.” He huff-laughed again. “But somehow, we missed the final analogy that should have been the first thing we determined: to recruit a knowledgeable commander for this enterprise.” He glanced at Anne Cathrine.

“Admiral, even if I was capable and willing to take on this great enterprise” — God forbid! I’m better at a council table or commanding defenders, and I’d prefer the dangers of either before the drudgery of this! — “I am expected to be at the party. I was honored to have so many notes sent to my house expressing the fond hope that I might reserve a minute of the evening to spend with its sender.” She smiled. “I also know what those requests really mean. They are oblique attempts to gain access to my ear. The majority of those correspondents hope to enlist my support, or acquaint me with an issue germane to their own interests, or speak to any one of a number of important people who are routinely in my circle of acquaintance: Hannibal Sehested, Governor Walbeeck, you, my husband, even my father.”

She put a hand to her head; it was really rather dizzying as, speaking it out all at once, she realized just how big a fish she had become in this little pond. “I agreed to dozens of such brief meetings that will, I am sure, all go on too long. Governor van Walbeeck prevailed upon me to do so, if for no other reason than these are all persons who are wealthy, influential, or ambitious. And the more of them who know that they will be able to speak with me, the more of them will attend. And the more of them who attend, the more prestigious the event becomes, and so the desire to be seen at it spreads like wildfire. And so it has. And so I may not be absent from the event, given the role to which I am already committed.”

At about the halfway point of her explanation, Tromp had again folded his hands patiently in front of him. “That is why I am asking you to give us only an hour now. To answer the questions of the volunteers and servers, not officer them through the event. We lack the knowledge to tell them what will please the guests the most, what music and dances were last in fashion, how and when to best serve food and drink.”