Dawn on a Distant Shore Page 18

The bush was a hard place; Nathaniel had grown up in the company of men and women who bore terrible scars with a combination of forbearance and dignity. But Pickering's face was not the result of a tomahawk blow or a battle with the pox or fire. Nathaniel suspected it was much harder to bear. It looked as if his maker had finished with him, disliked what he had produced, and attempted to rub out the errors, mashing an overlarge nose into a face like a soggy oat cake. Everything on him was lopsided, from the small, upward-slanted eyes to the low-hung shelf of brow.

"Maria save us, look at the man's snout," muttered Robbie. "He's mair pickerel than Pickering. Nae wonder he went tae sea."

"Mademoiselle." Pickering inclined his head. "I have brought you more than seafaring tales. If you'll permit--" he half rose, and gestured to someone out of sight in the next room.

Giselle laughed. "Horace. I knew I could count on you. A surprise. I do love surprises. Shall I try to guess?"

"Ha!" called Quinn. "It's anyone's guess what Pickering's got tucked away in that merchantman of his. Could have an elephant or two crashing about in the hold."

A servant appeared at the door, carrying a small lidded basket. There was a great scramble of serving men as plates and platters were cleared to make room for it just in front of Giselle.

"You brought me such a lovely set of ivory carvings from India when last you were here," she said, eyeing the basket. She had turned so that Nathaniel could see her face. Time had not left her untouched, but there was the same spark in her eye and high color in her cheeks, and he didn't wonder that Otter had got caught up, despite the difference in their ages. Stronger and more experienced men had floundered in the good fortune of attracting this woman's favor. There were some prime examples around the table.

Pickering was drawing out the suspense. "We were on our way to Halifax from Martinique ..."

Quinn put down his glass with a rattle. "Pickering, you sly dog, were you there when Jervis and Grey took Martinique?" They were no sailors, but the promise of direct news of a victory over France would have been very welcome to the army officers.

Pickering smiled politely but did nothing to satisfy their curiosity. Instead he put one hand on the basket, as if to quiet whatever was inside.

"I took these on board not knowing if they would survive the journey, but I had some luck. And my most excellent surgeon, of course, nursed them all the way." With a graceful flourish he flipped back the wooden lid of the basket and reached inside.

"You will note by the sweet smell that they are quite perfectly ripe." And he drew from the basket a pair of swollen and discolored human hands, no larger than those of a child of ten, with lightly curled fingers.

There was a moment of shocked silence as he held them up. Even Giselle's voice seemed to fail her.

A sandy-haired major of the Royal Highlanders leaped to his feet. "By God, man, have you been consortin' with cannibals?"

The room was suddenly in chaotic movement as all the men surged forward. Nathaniel's view was blocked by Otter, who stood with the rest of them. Robbie stood, too, and then, having lost his peepholes, sat again.

"Let me put your mind at rest, MacDermott. These grow on the islands," came Pickering's calming voice from the center of the crowd. "They are called ti-nains by the natives."

"That's a bluidy fruit?" demanded one of the merchants.

"Ah," said another, more composed voice. "Bananas. But not of the sort I et in India. These are much smaller. Damned difficult to transport, in any case."

"Ha!" cried Captain Quinn, heading back toward his wine glass. "Fruit! A good joke, that, Pickering! Fruit!"

Johnson was still at the head of the table, peering inside the basket suspiciously. "What civilized person would put such a thing in his mouth?"

"I understand the king is verra partial to bananas, when he can get them," said Moncrieff, leaning in closer to peer at them.

Johnson grunted suspiciously as Pickering held up a single example. "Looks like that dev'lish surgeon of yours lopped 'em off some poor bugger when he wasn't paying attention."

Quinn raised his glass. "If that's all a man has to lose, perhaps he's better off on t'other side of the fence!"

There was a moment of frozen silence, but Giselle's smile set the room at ease. "Please, gentlemen, sit down. James, I believe Captain Quinn would do well with some coffee, but do serve Major Johnson more of the candied quince, that seems more to his liking. Horace, tell me, where does one begin with your lovely ti-nains?"

Johnson looked on in sour disapproval, as if he expected to hear the snap of bone as Pickering peeled away the dark brown outer shell. The flesh inside was a pinkish tan, and the sweet smell was clear to them even behind the carved wooden panel.

"They are best eaten directly from the tree," Pickering said, putting the fruit on a small plate and presenting it to Giselle. "But I believe you will still find them very tasty."

As she leaned over to draw in the scent, the serving men quickly peeled and distributed the fruits to the rest of the table.

Giselle said, "We will all sample something so rare, will we not, gentlemen? And perhaps a glass of Madeira or champagne, and then it's time we roused ourselves a bit. Shall we have music, or games? What do you think, Mr. Bonner?"

"Suit yourselves," said Hawkeye, his arms crossed across his chest and the plate of banana untouched before him. "I'll watch."

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