Authors: Lillian Stewart Carl
Copyright ©2001 by Lillian Stewart Carl
For Alan Stewart Carl and his bride, Jennefer Sutton, M.D. We haven't lost a son, we've gained a doctor
By late afternoon the Virginia landscape was drenched with heat. Amanda wanted to rip off her stays, hoops, petticoats, and gown and run naked across the lawns to the river. But the tourists’ ticket of admission to Melrose Hall didn't include a strip show.
She opened the front door of the house and curtsied. “My thanks, sirs and mesdames, for your kind attentions. Please do us the honor of visiting the gift shop upon your departure."
Her flock of visitors, smelling of sunscreen and sweat, piled into the glare. A little boy pointed his plastic flintlock at her. “Stick ‘em up!"
"Pray tell me, sir,” Amanda replied with her brightest smile and a flick of her fan, “which items you would have me paste, and where I should cause them to be affixed."
Some of the tourists laughed. Others looked slightly bewildered.
Still smiling, Amanda turned the sign reading “Hall Open” around to “Hall Closed. Please Come Again.” She slammed the door, locked it, scooped the cap from her head, and announced, “Hey! Twenty-first century! I'm back!” to the paneled walls of the entrance hall.
Her voice echoed and died. A tread of the staircase creaked. A stack of leaflets slumped over the edge of the Chippendale sideboard and pattered to the floor. The sweaty roots of her hair made her scalp feel cold. Shrugging away her chill, she told herself that they knew how to build houses in the eighteenth century. Thick brick walls and wooden doors kept out not only heat but noise.
Amanda stuffed her cap and her fan into her pockets and stooped painfully to pick up the fallen leaflets. On their covers the words, “Melrose Hall, Gateway to the Past", topped a trio of period portraits: Page Armstrong, the planter-patriot who built the house in 1751. Sally, his daughter, the belle of Tidewater Virginia. James Grant, a British officer, dazzling in scarlet coat and tartan kilt.
Inside the leaflet were early prints of Melrose and a sketch of the battle of Greensprings Farm, fought on a similar July day at a nearby river crossing. Amanda felt sorry for the British soldiers in their high collars and stiff coats, trying to conduct a proper battle in spite of the heat and opponents who hid in the underbrush like homicidal squirrels.
"Whew,” said a voice behind her. “I feel like a steamed dumpling."
Amanda spun around. One of her fellow interpreters was walking down the staircase. “Carrie! It was so quiet I thought everyone was gone!"
"Not quite,” Carrie replied. “I found two strays. Young sir and miss?"
A teenaged couple emerged from the shadows of the upper hall and shyly descended the stairs. Amanda had to look twice to figure out which of the scrawny, long-haired, T-shirted figures was the boy and which the girl. Inspiring, she thought, what maturity did for the male body. Not that she'd encountered any inspiring men recently. She stacked the leaflets back on the sideboard. Carrie unlocked and opened the door.
"Sorry,” said the girl. “I wanted to hang out in Sally's room for a minute. I mean, she was cool, so pretty and everything."
"Not necessarily,” Amanda explained, abandoning her role as character in favor of teacher. “Portrait painters in Sally's day spent the winters painting generic bodies and the summers going around from plantation to plantation adding faces. She may have had smallpox scars, or Page a lumpy red nose, or Grant knobby knees and jug ears."
The boy looked out from beneath his hair like a small animal from the underbrush, warily. He urged the girl toward the bright light of the outside world. But she hung back, her lipsticked mouth a stubborn line. “It says in that leaflet Sally and Captain Grant fell in love, but he was killed at Greensprings Farm, like, a tragedy, you know."
"So they were automatically drop-dead gorgeous?” returned Amanda.
"I'm afraid,” Carrie, mother-of-teens, said gently, “the story about Grant is probably just that, a story. Like the one about Sally turning down Thomas Jefferson's proposal. We know from Jefferson's diaries that he hardly knew her. The 71st Highlanders were billeted at Melrose for ten days or so, yes. But Sally might not have been here then. We know from the regimental rolls Grant was here, but that doesn't mean he had the time of day for Sally. He probably spent his off hours polishing his shoe buckles or powdering his wig."
"But Grant ran up this staircase,” the girl countered, “yelling at his troops, ‘The Yankees are coming! The Yankees are coming!’ and slicing the banister with his sword."
"If he liked Sally so much, why the vandalism?” Amanda asked. “And there might have been some other officers upstairs, but the troops would have been outside. Probably downwind.” She ran her hand along the silky wood of the banister. Her fingertips detected several grooves, rounded by years of varnish. “Dr. Hewitt, the archaeologist, thinks these scars date from the Civil War. Or even later, when that Armstrong cousin sold the paneling, the balusters, the glass, and finally the entire place."
The girl shrugged away the lecture in historical method. Taking the boy's arm, she paraded him out the door as though imagining them in long gown and knee breeches respectively.
"Thank you for coming!” Amanda shook her head. She liked a good romantic tragedy just fine. She liked a good they-lived-happily-ever-after romance even better. But at the end of the day a story was just a story.
Carrie locked the door. “You know, I'm really rather glad she didn't believe us. So few young people have any sense of romance these days."
romantic illusions have been thoroughly trashed,” Amanda told her.
"That's a shame. By the time you get to be my age you could use a few."
Laughing, Amanda turned toward the staircase. “You going home now?"
"Yes. The boys have baseball games, thankfully on neighboring fields. Jack has to work late so I get to be parent-designate. See you Friday. Let's hope it's a bit cooler then."
"Why do you want to work here two days a week when you could spend all five in the nice air-conditioned stacks at the library?"
"I'd be missing half the fun of working in Colonial Williamsburg if I didn't get to dress up now and then. At least I get to play a servant, and don't have to wear stays."
"Thank you, that's just what I needed right now."
Carrie grinned. “Let me know if there's anything you want from town."
"I sure will. Thanks. Wish the guys home runs from me."
"Cheerio.” Carrie disappeared into the kitchen wing of the house.
Melrose was only a few miles from Williamsburg, and Amanda's car was parked in a tool shed behind the house. Carrie, though, had taken her under her wing last May, right after Amanda's ascent into graduate school, when she'd interviewed for the internship at the newly restored mansion. Of course, getting the internship meant she was now not only a character interpreter but the official caretaker, and had better go close the lined drapes in Sally's bedroom before the fabric of the bed hangings faded.
The original of Sally's portrait hung at the head of the stairs, picked out from the shadows by a ray of sunlight. In the glare Amanda could see the ridges of paint swirling one into the other. This painting was a custom job. Sally really had been attractive. She'd had large blue eyes, blond curls, a soft, rounded chin that could have been either demure or stubborn, and a minuscule waist that implied frequent sinking spells. After marrying one of the Mason boys, whose father had signed the Declaration of Independence, she'd produced a pack of children and lived to a ripe old age. Maybe she got her jollies remembering an affair with an enemy officer, maybe not. Whatever, Amanda had a hard time seeing a tragic heroine in that banal face.
She didn't see herself in that face, either. Her eyes were brown, not blue. Her wavy brown hair was cut so short she had to conceal its ends beneath the period cap. Her chin, far from being soft, was cut as distinctly as her cheekbones. At five-nine she was probably taller than Sally, and, if the portrait was accurate, not as buxom. Although the cone-shaped bodice of an eighteenth-century dress acted like a primitive Wonder Bra, which is why Sally—and Amanda—wore a scarf called a fichu tucked into its low neckline.
Chin forward, Amanda turned into Sally's bedroom and creaked across the floorboards to the window. Beside it stood a small table holding a bit of embroidery, a thimble, and the original of Captain Grant's portrait, a miniature of his face and red-coated torso. According to the picture, at least, he'd definitely had the chiseled features of a romantic hero. A white wig set off ironic dark eyes that seemed to know what people were saying about him behind his back. Amanda wondered where the picture had come from. It certainly could've inspired a few fantasies.
She squinted out of the window into the sun. At the end of the garden an archaeological team plugged away at the remains of the summerhouse, or gazebo, or pavilion, depending on what period of history you were considering. Just below the window strolled several plainly-dressed men and women, playing only a few of the slaves who'd watered Virginia's prosperity with their blood, sweat, and tears.
Behind them came Carrie, Wayne Chancellor at her side. He'd already taken off his coat and waistcoat and was making hangman's noose gestures with his knotted neck cloth. Wayne was as hearty and as heavy as his character Page Armstrong—like a Keebler elf on steroids—although at twenty-four he was only a year older than his “daughter” Amanda. For somebody who'd never made it out of adolescence socially, she thought, he played pompous middle age to a tee. But then, his family had once owned Melrose. Blue blood will tell.
She knocked on the window. The departing figures looked up, smiled and waved. Wayne sketched a low bow. His gray wig slipped over his forehead. He peered upward from beneath its rim like a nearsighted sheep and blew kisses toward the window.
In your dreams.
Amanda pulled the curtains shut and turned around. Her eyes still adjusted to the light, she tripped, lurched forward, caught her foot in the hem of her dress, and fell to her hands and knees. The table thunked to the carpet beside her, spilling its contents. “Way to go, Grace!” she exclaimed.
She sensed a vibration in the floorboards, an echo of her fall, or of the tourist buses revving up and pulling out the main gate, or maybe even distant thunder.
Using the bedpost as support, Amanda hauled herself to her feet. She set the table upright and checked it for damage. Nothing, thank goodness. The embroidery, thimble, and miniature had landed safely on the rug. She arranged them on the table top, then turned to smooth down the edge of the carpet. It was already flat, its fringes lined up like little soldiers. She must have tripped over her own feet.
That was it. Time to change back into civilian clothes.
Her apartment at the end of the service wing of the house was a module of real time, complete with television, microwave, CD changer, computer, and Melrose's resident pet. The electronics were silent when Amanda opened the door, but the pet leaped down from the seat of the most comfortable chair and meowed. Like his namesake, the Marquis de Lafayette, he expected to be obeyed.
"Yes, Master, yes, Master,” Amanda told him, and went into the kitchen. The whir of the can opener sent the gray and black tabby into ecstasies of affection. Entangled in both skirts and cat, Amanda got a reeking mound of meat by-products into a bowl and on the floor. Dumping her now that she'd served her purpose, Lafayette went to work on the food.
In the bedroom Amanda shed her costume, struggling with persnickety laces and hooks. If she'd learned nothing else from this job, she'd learned why eighteenth-century aristocrats had body servants. And yet in her own clothing, a loose T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, she felt oddly awkward, her gestures broader, her stride longer, her voice louder. She seemed to occupy more space. Weird, when the period dress contained so much more fabric.