ALL EYES TURNED TO ADAM FLETCHER when he entered the dining area of the Topsail Tavern.
“My, my! Doesn’t he look handsome?” Mary Fletcher exclaimed as her son held his arms out to the sides and gave a proud turnabout.
“It’s amazing what a waistcoat, coat, and dress shoes can do,” said Valentine. “You look like a proper gentleman.”
Adam smiled broadly. His brown eyes glistened. He was even more handsome than usual, with his face clean-shaven and his dark, wavy hair pulled back.
“Go on and have a good time,” said Mary. She started to walk Adam to the door before she abruptly stopped him. “Wait a minute!” She grabbed his coat sleeves one at a time and adjusted them. Adam was a bit taller than Valentine, whose dress clothes he had borrowed, so the sleeves were a little short. Because they were cuffed, it wasn’t hard to bring their lengths down a bit by moving the folds.
As soon as she had him adjusted, he was out the door.
Adam met up with Jackson, a busboy who also worked at the tavern, in front of Jackson’s house. They walked the mile to the estate of Richard Rasquelle, a young, successful shipping merchant who was hosting a party for the town, and were impressed before they had even set foot on the property.
The sound of harpsichord music drifted across the lawn. A footman stood at the front gate, instructing partygoers where they should go. The event was already fancier than anything the boys had ever attended.
As Adam and Jackson followed the long walking trail across the lawn and around the house, they were excitedly anticipating what the party would be like. They were not disappointed when they finally reached the back garden, where they found more people than they’d ever seen gathered in one place in their tiny seaport town.
Everyone was wearing their best. In some cases, that meant church clothes, but the wealthier citizens wore finery imported from London and Paris.
“Look at all these people,” said Adam.
The boys studied the crowd.
“Ho there! Attendant!”
Someone had tapped on Adam’s shoulder. He spun around to see his nemesis standing there before him. Francis Smythe was a spindly young man about his age. He was wearing a curled, blond wig with a tricorn hat and a fancy powder-blue suit.
“Fetch me a drink, would you? And some hors d’oeuvres,” Smythe snidely demanded.
“Go get ’em yourself, Smythe,” said Adam.
“We’re not working here today,” said Jackson in an attempt to smooth over his friend’s coarse manners.
“Oh really?” chuckled Smythe. “With what you’re wearing, I’d assumed you were the hired help. I mean, why else would you be here?”
Adam rolled his eyes. He wasn’t going to dignify Smythe’s comment with a response.
But apparently Jackson didn’t mind answering his question. “The whole town was invited. I reckon near ’bout everybody’s here.”
“Ha ha. Of course,” said Smythe. “You lads would never merit a proper invitation if this were a private party.”
“Why are you here, Francis?” asked Adam. “On your daddy’s business, I reckon.”
“My father is traveling. I came in his stead.”
Adam scoffed. “Really? I’d think it might be a conflict of interest, you coming to fraternize with a shipping merchant, what with your father being who he is and all.”
Francis hesitated for a moment before he responded. “We like to keep an eye on things.”
“Uh-huh,” said Adam. “Whatever you say.”
“Well, since you boys are probably bewildered at a social function, just watch me. Do as I do and maybe you won’t embarrass yourselves too much.” At that, Smythe tipped his hat and made his way into the crowd.
“What an ass!” said Adam under his breath.
“Just ignore him,” said Jackson. “You know he’s only trying to egg you on.”
The two of them resumed looking around to see if there was anyone else they knew among the partygoers.
“Who is she?” Jackson exclaimed as he tilted his head in the direction of an arbor that was covered in climbing roses.
Adam scanned the crowd in that general direction until his eyes fell upon a young lady with honey-blond hair. She was wearing an ivory gown embroidered with pink roses. An older man and woman were conversing with her, motioning at her dress and the arbor, probably commenting on the similarity between the blossoms on the arbor and those on her gown. Adam guessed the girl was about his age. He wondered if she was from out of town—at least he knew he had never seen her before. He would certainly have remembered if he had.
Her hair was put up in the most intricate style Adam had ever seen. It was something that must have been done with the help of one or more servants. Her eyes sparkled in the sun, and once he’d caught sight of her, he couldn’t look away.
Suddenly the girl happened to glance over in his direction. She caught him gazing at her and quickly looked away. He, on the other hand, was not embarrassed and made no attempt to hide his interest.
One thing Adam Fletcher did not lack was confidence.
“I’m gonna go talk to her,” he said to his friend.
Jackson’s jaw dropped. “No, you’re not! You can’t go up to her! She doesn’t even know you!”
“She’s about to.” Adam grinned, then slapped his buddy on the back and walked away.
He strode across the garden toward the young lady. As he neared the arbor where she was chatting with the elderly couple, he grabbed two glasses of punch from a silver tray that was being held by one of Rasquelle’s servants.
Adam threw a quick glance back at Jackson, who stood with his mouth agape as he watched his friend approach this group of people, who were well above the two of them in social standing. Adam stopped short before he interrupted the trio.
“Pardon me, sir,” he said to the old man. “I hope you don’t mind, but the sun is so bright and these two ladies looked as if they could use a bit of refreshment. Do you mind if I offer them some punch?”
The gentleman, already cheerfully intoxicated, smiled and took a step back and said, “Certainly not, my boy! Very kind of you. Very kind.”
Adam first offered a glass of punch to the old man’s wife, then offered the young lady a glass, along with a little bow.
“My lady,” he said.
The girl demurred as she smiled and accepted the glass.
“What a gentleman,” remarked the old woman.
“Indeed,” said her husband. “What is your name, boy?”
“Adam Fletcher, sir.”
Although Adam was answering the old man’s questions, his eyes kept coyly darting back to the young lady.
“I’m Reginald Farrington, Esquire, and this is my wife, Martha.”
“How do you do, ma’am?” said Adam, bowing his head.
“Very well, thank you. Mr. Fletcher, you said it was?” said Martha.
Mr. Farrington then motioned to the young woman. “And may I introduce you to Miss Rocksolanah Martin?”
“Miss Martin,” Adam cooed as he bowed his head. “I’m delighted to meet you. How do you do, m’lady?”
“I’m quite well, thank you.” She gave him the obligatory cordial smile and kept her eyes fixed on the crowd, careful to avoid his gaze.
The old man chuckled and said, “Yes, well, my wife and I were just observing that the roses on this arbor are exactly like the ones—”
Just then a bell was rung from a little stage that had been fashioned on the other side of the garden, and a man at a podium called out to the crowd, “My dear ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?”
The crowd’s murmuring died down, and all eyes turned toward the stage.
The man continued: “Ladies and gentlemen of Port Beaufort, I am delighted to be here with you today, at the request of Mr. Richard Rasquelle, to celebrate his successful start in this town and a promising future.”
Some of the audience cheered and offered applause. Others just listened.
“You were all invited here today because Mr. Rasquelle attributes his success to the good people of this town, and on this occasion he wanted to express his gratitude with a bit of fine food and entertainment.” The man motioned to the long table set up on the opposite side of the garden near the arbor and then to the musicians, who quickly played a few bars of an upbeat tune.
“Now, I’m assuming you all know me—at least, if you’re from Beaufort—but if not, my name is Everett Bell, and my family has been here since we ventured down this way from the Pamlico more than a decade ago.”
The Farringtons were speaking to each other in hushed tones. Mrs. Farrington mumbled something unintelligible, then Mr. Farrington said under his breath, “I’ve been here twice as long and I’ve never heard of him.”
Adam smiled at the old couple. “Me neither,” he whispered.
Miss Martin stifled a giggle and said, “Nor have I.”
The man at the podium continued his speech. “And in all the time I’ve been here, I’ve never known a gentleman as kind, as generous, and as heroic as Richard Rasquelle. And while you may have heard about his greatest deed in the papers over a year ago, you may not know about the depth and breadth of his goodness.”
The crowd was attentive as Mr. Bell continued his speech.
Just then, Francis Smythe came to stand on the other side of Rocksolanah. “Miss Martin,” he said, bowing to the young lady. “Mr. and Mrs. Farrington.”
Adam clenched his jaw and dug his fingertips into his palms in an effort to restrain himself from saying something ungentlemanly. He knew Smythe had only come over to antagonize him.
“Fletcher,” whispered Smythe, “I had no idea you knew these fine people.”
Adam furrowed his brow at Smythe, then looked back towards the stage in an effort to ignore him. Smythe gave him a cocky grin and then excused himself from their company. Adam, Miss Martin, and the Farringtons turned their attention back towards the man at the podium.
“This man,” said Mr. Bell. He stopped speaking and motioned off the stage to where Rasquelle was standing. Rasquelle bowed his head and raised his hand in a reserved wave to the crowd. Mr. Bell continued: “This man is too humble to publicize his good deeds. Those of you who are newcomers to Port Beaufort, or perhaps visitors, may not have heard about this, but not too long after this honorable gentleman set up shop here, he put himself, his crew, and his cargo vessel, Fortuna, at great risk in order to rescue another ship that was sinking not far off our coast. That other vessel, the Sea Sprite, was carrying not only valuable merchandise from Europe but, more importantly, the most priceless cargo—nearly seventy souls, including several women and children, whose lives would have surely been lost had the aptly named Fortuna not been able to come to their rescue that day.
“While some of the cargo containers were lost to the tides, more of them were recovered and, most importantly, not a single life was lost. All thanks to the leadership and bravery of this man and his crew.”
The crowd across the garden burst into thunderous applause.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Mr. Bell, “I’d like to introduce our gracious host, Mr. Richard Rasquelle.”
At that, Rasquelle stepped up onto the stage. He smiled self-assuredly and gazed out affectionately over his garden full of guests before he began to speak.
“Dear friends,” he said, “I don’t know that I can express the deep gratitude I have for all of you who decided to join me here today. And to be honest, we are here because of you. You all have made the success I have enjoyed these last couple of years possible, and I am humbled and most appreciative.”
Everyone began to applaud. A few even whistled and cheered.
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” he said as he gently raised up his hand to silence the crowd. “I do hope you all are enjoying the food, the music, and the fine company of your friends and neighbors. I hope we can have many more days like this in the future—celebrating our success together as a town.”
“I’d like to tell you my story, in hopes that for some of you younger fellows, I can perhaps offer a bit of encouragement as you contemplate your futures. I’ll admit I haven’t always lived in a home like this, or worn finery such as this, or been able to have parties like this one. I wasn’t poor by any means, but my upbringing was a rather unremarkable one. Unfortunately, although my father worked hard, he never was able to achieve greatness. He was a follower. He didn’t lead. He didn’t determine to do whatever was necessary to be successful. One thing I’ve learned from watching his example—and, granted, he was a good, morally upright man and a kind father, may he rest in peace—is that if you always want to be average, to stay exactly where you are, just continue doing that which you have always done. In his case, it was working as a bookkeeper for a shipping merchant. He never thought he could be the shipping merchant, the man in charge. I’ve learned that if you want excellence—in fact, if you want anything in this life—you have to go after it. You mustn’t let anything stand in your way of achieving all that you hope to achieve.”
When Rasquelle finished his speech, the party guests began to clap and cheer once more. Adam noticed that his friend Jackson was now standing near him, but Miss Martin was not. He surveyed the crowd, trying to see where she’d gone, but she was nowhere to be found.
When Reginald Farrington noticed Adam looking around, he said, “If you’re looking for Miss Martin, she left a little while ago.”
“Oh?” said Adam. “I didn’t even notice her leave.”
“Indeed, she slipped away just as Mr. Rasquelle went up on the platform. Whispered that she had another appointment.”
“What a pity. And we only just met,” said Adam.
Mr. Farrington shook his head. “My wife and I have met her once before, and we were delighted to see her here today, but we didn’t chat long before you arrived. I believe the young lady lives just northeast of here, over ’round Lennoxville Point.”
Adam nodded. “I see. Well, I only regret that I was unable to bid her farewell. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, however, sir and ma’am.”
“The pleasure is all ours,” said Reginald. “I noticed you appear to know young Mr. Smythe.”
Adam nodded and took a deep breath before he said, “I do, sir,” through a forced smile.
“And do you know Mr. Rasquelle personally?” asked Reginald.
“No, sir. Unfortunately, I do not. Although he does occasionally visit our place of employment.”
Adam noticed Reginald looking at Jackson when he realized he never bothered to introduce him. “Where are my manners? This is Jackson Willis, a friend and associate.”
Jackson extended his hand to Reginald. “How do you do, sir?” He tipped his head slightly to Martha. “Ma’am?”
Martha smiled. Reginald shook hands with Jackson. “Pleased to meet you, young man. So where is it that you two fellows are employed?”
Jackson answered before Adam could say anything. “Oh, we work over at the Topsail Tavern. Well, I should say I work there. Adam and his mother actually live and work there.”
“Oh, really? What a surprise,” said Reginald. “I never would have thought—”
Adam chuckled nervously. “Well, sir, ma’am, we better be going. It was a pleasure to meet the two of you.”
“Likewise,” said Martha.
“Indeed,” said Reginald. “Russell’s Tavern is nearer to where we live, so that’s where I normally go. But perhaps I’ll see you there at the Topsail sometime if I’m over that way.”
Adam smiled and nodded. “That would be nice, sir. Hope the two of you enjoy the rest of the party.”
He bowed his head and excused himself, then grabbed Jackson firmly by the arm and led him away from the festivities.
“What did I do?” said Jackson.
“You had to say all that about the tavern?”
Adam walked ahead at a brisk pace.
Jackson hurried to catch up. “He asked. There’s nothing wrong with that. We do work there!”
Adam stopped walking. Jackson did the same.
“But you told them my mother and I live there!”
Jackson scoffed. “Well, you do live there.”
“They didn’t need to know that!” said Adam. “I was trying to leave a good impression. That man is an attorney. You never know what sort of connections can be made through a man like that. What impression do you think he’ll have knowing I live at a tavern with my mother—no mention of a father?”
“Well, uh. . .” Jackson stammered. “What would you have told him?”
“I simply would have told him that my family runs the Topsail. It’s true, and it sure leaves a better impression than the scant details you chose to share.”
Adam’s eyes were big, and he cocked his head, waiting to see if Jackson would have a response.
Jackson started to speak but could think of nothing to say. He suddenly motioned over to a bench near the entrance. Miss Martin was standing there talking with Francis Smythe. Adam couldn’t believe it. Sure, Smythe was wealthy and the son of a royal appointee—the port’s customs agent—but still, Adam couldn’t understand how a girl like that would have anything to talk about with someone like Smythe. He seemed so transparently slimy.
Apparently, Adam’s gawking was a little too obvious, because Francis turned his pale blue eyes from the conversation just long enough to offer a smarmy smile and shoot daggers from his pupils at his adversary.
Adam and Jackson left Rasquelle’s estate and returned to Front Street in silence.