Read an Excerpt
On the first day of September in the year of 1721, a galley with a center mast and one sail glided through the waters of the James River in His Majesty King George I’s Royal Colony of Virginia. It was manned by slaves on oars, and in its middle, as if to emphasize her importance, sat its principal passenger, Barbara Montgeoffry, widow to an earl, and therefore a countess: the Countess Devane. She was young to be widowed already, only one-and-twenty, like the century. She sat small, exquisite yet fragile-looking in her widow’s weeds—clothes solidly black as the manners of the time demanded.
Other passengers included the Deputy Governor of the colony and the Countess’s servants, a young French maid and a page boy, a slave himself. Two pug dogs, a cow, and six willow baskets with chickens inside were wedged in and around trunks, wooden boxes, barrels, and furniture wrapped in oilcloth.
The river was wide, the sky blue-white. Birds chirped in trees that stood like ancient sentinels on the banks. For some time now, from the east, from the direction of Williamsburg—the principal town and capital of the colony—clouds had been gathering, rolling over and into each other. At this bend in the river, there were no houses, only fields and trees, a forest of trees, huge trees, primeval trees, as old possibly as the land itself, certainly older than the colony, which had existed upon the shores of this river and three others to the north only since 1607.
“Governor Spotswood, how much farther?” asked Barbara impatiently.
She was the reason the Governor had taken time from his duties to man a galley up the James River.
“We are not half the way yet. Are you unwell again? Shall we land? Perry’s Grove is an hour or so ahead,” Sir Alexander Spotswood answered. An older man, in his fifties, he was deputy governor of the colony. As he spoke, a sudden wind came up to shake the fringe on his buckskin coat and pull at the sides of his wig, a full, formal, dark wig, in the style that the late king of France, Louis XIV, had made fashionable. It was parted in the middle to hang down majestically around the face.
“I’m quite well, just impatient to reach First Curle.”
She’d come to Virginia from England to look over her grandmother’s plantation, but there had been a delay of a week while she recovered from a fever. Her arrival was completely unexpected, as was her fever; to the Governor, it was as if a shimmering butterfly had landed unexpectedly in his colony, a butterfly with the most impressive of ancestors. The Countess’s grandfather Richard Saylor had been a renowned and beloved general in the long war with France that had taken up the Governor’s young manhood—and that of so many others—in the 1680s and 1690s and into the beginning of this century. Richard Saylor’s military exploits had earned him a dukedom. The Governor had served under him once upon a time.
Is there going to be rain? thought the Governor, staring at the sky. The clouds were suddenly closer; he’d swear they had moved at least a mile since the last time he checked them. He looked at the shore, estimating where they were, where to take shelter should it begin to rain.
He looked over to the young Countess, his fragile black butterfly. He did not imagine her responding kindly to a storm of rain, though she had displayed nothing but beautiful manners so far, beautiful manners that matched a beautiful face the precise shape of a heart, a fair and sweet face.
The Lionheart’s granddaughter, thought the Governor, for a moment taking time to wonder at the world, at its smallness. Richard Saylor had been called the Lionheart by his soldiers. To imagine that he took the Lionheart’s granddaughter to a river plantation that belonged to the family. What honor. And what obligation. He glanced once more at the sky. The clouds were above them now. It was going to rain.
Do I land or keep going? he thought. Will she be more angry to be wet or to be delayed? She’s been ill. She’s in mourning. She is not used to our roughness—only look at the entourage she’s brought with her: a French lady’s maid, a page boy, and two pug dogs. Her dogs, her servants, were the talk of Williamsburg. I’d better seek shelter and see that she is protected, he thought.
Large, determined drops of rain splattered the oilcloth covering the table and chairs, the barrels and trunks. The waters of the river stirred underneath the galley, as if something large and menacing had turned over. Wind rattled the ropes and iron rings on the sail, and the galley rocked back and forth in spite of the steady, powerful rhythm of the rowers. The cow, wedged among boxes and barrels, stretched out her neck toward land and lowed.
At that moment, the wind struck like a fist, and a basket of chickens fell over, the chickens in them escaping, clucking, squawking, flying into everyone. The dogs began to bark, and the young page boy, Hyacinthe, leaped up to lean dangerously over the side after a chicken.
“Hyacinthe! Sit down! Never mind the chickens! What is happening, Governor Spotswood? Thérèse! For God’s sake, shut those dogs up!”
It was the fragile black butterfly, Barbara, who spoke, yanking her page boy back down on the plank seat beside her as she did so.
Spotswood did not answer, for he was maneuvering his way through the cargo to get to the center mast and let down the sail, which was whipping in its rigging like something desperate to be free. A squawking chicken flew straight into his face. It screamed. But not any louder than he did.
“Damnation and blast and confounded hands of Jesus Christ! A storm, that is what is happening, Lady Devane. A large one!”
He sent the chicken whirling overboard. Over them, the sky was rolling ominous, cresting clouds. The day was, in a moment, dark, as if evening had come. Barbara watched yet another chicken cluck and cry and run amok until it flew into the water and disappeared, squawking and screaming to the last, under water that was now foaming and cresting dangerously.
“Oh no,” said Hyacinthe in French, “your grandmother the Duchess—” He did not finish. But then, he did not have to. Barbara’s grandmother, the Duchess of Tamworth, Richard Saylor’s fierce and indomitable widow, was quite proud of her chickens and cows, wanting them on her plantation in Virginia. She had been specific in her instruction.
“Never mind,” Barbara said, also in French. “The chickens have no importance as long as we are safe.”
She raised her face to the rain, to the dark sky, exhilarated rather than frightened by this sudden wildness coming up from nothing around her. During the week she had lain impatiently in the best bed in the best bedchamber in the Governor’s house in Williamsburg, ill with an ague, or fever, which was one of the hazards of coming to this colony, they had warned her of these sudden storms. They’d described ferocious lightning and deafening thunder as part of the storms.
Carters, Burwells, Lees, Pages, Fitzhughs, Ludwells. They were among the biggest landowners, the Governor had told her, the gentry of this colony, and she was wise enough in her fever to smile upon them as they buzzed around her sickbed like bees, buzzing colonial bees, attracted by her title and family, the surprise of her crossing the ocean to join them. They rode in from their plantations, the Governor said, to see her. They brought her flowers, wines, cooling fever waters; they were profusely apologetic that she should be sick, as if it were their fault she had the ague. They chattered to her of their colony—the vastness of its bay, the size of its rivers, the deadliness of its snakes—as proud of its flaws as they were of its beauties.
They begged her to visit their plantations, and she could feel the curiosity burning in them as deeply as the fever burned in her. She was exotic, a novelty. A countess. A young widow. Someone seemingly rich and secure, above them in all ways. The granddaughter of one of England’s most famous generals. Why was she here, they had to be wondering, when the world was hers in London?
Because the world was not hers in London. But, of course, she did not say so.
There was a sudden zigzag of blue-white lightning, and on shore, before her amazed eyes, a tree crackled, sizzled, and fell over, fire hissing in what was left. Now there came the accompanying rolling crack of thunder, so loud, so startling, so near, that she jumped, and her servant Thérèse looked ready to weep.
“Head for shore,” Barbara was glad to hear Spotswood command the slaves. She glanced at the boy beside her. Hyacinthe was looking afraid. Of course he’s afraid, she thought. He’s only ten.
“An adventure,” she said to him, to comfort him. She spoiled him, but he was quick and lively, easy to spoil. She loved him.
“You have no nerves, either of you,” snapped Thérèse. Rain had ruined her starched white cap, which was collapsed and limp about her pretty face. “We should have waited another day.” Thérèse’s words spilled out in hissing French. She clutched a growling, nervous pug to each breast. “You will catch the fever again, and then where will we be?”
“The chickens,” said Hyacinthe. “The Duchess said I must take care of her chickens, that you would be too busy with other things.”
There was another flashing, jagged blue-white streak of lightning, again very close, and Barbara thought: This is too much adventure. Are we going to drown on this colonial river? I didn’t come here to drown.
Loved ones came to mind. Roger, she thought, I may drown in a river and see you again, soon, after all. Harry, are you laughing at me, here in this storm, here in Virginia, in your place? Roger was her husband. He had died at Christmas. Harry was her brother. He had died in the summer a year ago. It was for them that she wore black, for them and for vanished dreams. The death of dreams. Nothing harder to overcome, so said her grandmother.
Lightning made another slash across the sky, the vibrating, ear-splitting thunder following in an endless roar. Rain was falling in sheets now. Grandmama, thought Barbara, counting off people she loved, Tony, Jane. The slaves had rowed into a creek opening onto the river.
“Abandon ship!” the Governor shouted, but Barbara didn’t need his command to be galvanized. We really are in danger, she thought. And when in danger, one fled. She’d known that since girlhood.
Scrambling out in the rain and wind, she stumbled in shallow water and fell to her knees, but another lightning bolt, another rolling crack of thunder, had her up in seconds and running through rain that fell in pellets, stinging the skin where it touched. The slaves were heaving bundles and baggage ashore—her trunks and barrels from England, her tables and chairs, her remaining baskets of chickens. The cow, eyes rolling back white in its head, strained and pulled at the rope that held it in the galley.
Barbara kept moving upward, kept urging Hyacinthe and Thérèse to follow, the three of them scrabbling in the dirt of the hilly bank, toward a grove of trees above them, giants: pines, oaks, maples, silverbells, cedars. She found herself half crawling on hands and knees upward as the rain pelted her. Underbrush scratched her face and arms, stabbed into her chest and belly. The wind rattled the trees above her as if they were thin saplings instead of oaks and pines hundreds of years old. It was a fierce storm. The colonials did not lie.
Barbara looked back to see the Governor. He was still inside the galley, where a slave was chopping at the mast with an ax. She heard the crack as it fell over like a tree. Then, the Governor and the slaves were out of the galley. They were all straining to turn it over on itself. Why? thought Barbara. The cow had either torn loose of her rope or been cut loose; she leaped out of the galley the moment it tipped over. Then the cow—Grandmama’s finest, thought Barbara; oh, well—was gone, splashing down the shore and away through the underbrush.
The Governor was shouting, pointing to the heavens.