Defying Conventions (Part XIII)
Camden was slipping out of his boots, muddied by the late autumn rain, when Mr. Randolph came down the stairs.
“Please step into my office when you finish there.”
Camden had finished all of his assignments for the day and so was unsure what Mr. Randolph could want to discuss. In addition, with the General Assembly already having met and approved the amendments that were to be proposed to Congress at its next session, political matters seemed to be in a state of lull. He entered to find Mr. Randolph holding a small piece of paper--a card, rather, Camden discovered upon closer inspection.
“I need not tell you how much effort has been expended by the members of the General Assembly in recent weeks. That the result has been agreement on proposed amendments to be sent to Congress is, if not a miracle, then certainly cause for celebration.”
“Indeed, sir. Tension amongst the members was certainly a thing that could not be ignored. I doubted whether they would find agreement.”
“Quite, quite. The relief is no less real for those who wanted something more from Philadelphia. To that end, Senator Burwell has invited both of us to a celebration at his home on Saturday. Shall I respond that we will both be in attendance?”
“Yes, please do!” Camden immediately blurted out. “Although--”
“Although what, Mr. Page?”
“I hesitate to trouble you with it, sir.”
“It’s no trouble, Mr. Page. Nor is it a mystery that your hesitation concerns my niece. And there is no need to look puzzled. What else should cause you to hesitate in this instance?”
Camden shrugged his shoulders and sank back into his chair. “Mr. Randolph, I can think of very few things I should want more than to have the opportunity to see Georgiana and to speak with her in person. Conversely, I can think of few things in this life that I should dread more than being told that she and I will never become husband and wife. Yet I cannot know before actually arriving, which of those prospects I face.”
“It is a dilemma, I admit. One that I assure you, despite my age and present state of bachelorhood, I can understand.” He steepled his fingers and drew in a deep breath before continuing. “I think you will find, Mr. Page, that there are relatively few things in this life worth having that are not also worth at least some small measure of risk--risk that you might be hurt in the process of pursuing them. Those things most worth pursuing tend to be accompanied by a proportionately greater degree of risk. I cannot predict what my brother in law will do, whether he will see in you what I see and what my niece sees. One thing I do know, however: if you are half the man that I believe you are becoming then you will not let fear of the unknown conquer you.”
“Thank you for saying so, Mr. Randolph. I . . . your confidence in me is not something I will take for granted.”
Mr. Randolph and Camden arrived at the Burwell house early, but not so early that they were the first guests to arrive. It had been months since Camden had been there and now, decorated and lit up, it seemed a wholly new place to him. More serving platters than he had ever seen were carried about the house by a seeming army of servants, causing him to reconsider his initial assessment of the Burwell family’s wealth.
Entering what Camden assumed must be the home’s largest room, he surveyed the space for a sight of Georgiana. His eyes found hers quickly, but she looked away, turning back to the conversation in which she was engaged with two other young ladies. The picture of her in his mind’s eye seemed utterly dull and lifeless now that he was finally in the same room with her again. Her gown, a deep green that he was sure would compliment her eyes wonderfully, was, he was equally sure, the most magnificent he would see that evening. Her hair was curled and layered on top of her head, accentuating her neck and giving her chin a most graceful appearance. He realized that he was staring and was suddenly thankful that Georgiana had turned away, lest she notice his fixed gaze.
He wanted nothing more than to walk across the room and speak to her immediately. Camden discovered that that very thought must have been as plain as the nose on his face, because just as he was about to take that first step across the gulf of the room that stood between them, Mr. Randolph took him by the wrist and leaned in to say something.
“Wait for her and wait for Senator Burwell,” he said, barely above a whisper. “Patience is a virtue and know that she is struggling to exercise that virtue every bit as much as you are at this moment.”
Camden took in a deep breath and let it out. Waiting would be difficult. To be so close and still seem so far was practically unbearable, and so he resolved to find something, anything, to occupy his attention. To his relief, Mr. Monroe entered the room just then, and came over to where he and Mr. Randolph were standing.
“Good evening, Mr. Randolph. Mr. Page.”
“Don’t look so surprised, Mr. Page,” Mr. Randolph said. “Yes, Mr. Monroe and Senator Burwell are not on the best of terms politically, but Senator Burwell knows--and Mr. Monroe is certainly learning--that politics requires keeping both friends and enemies on amicable personal terms. If politics is the art of compromise, then it will never do to alienate anyone, no matter how deep the differences.”
“Quite so, Mr. Randolph,” said Monroe. “And who am I to refuse Senator Burwell’s food and excellent wine if they are on offer?”
As if on cue, a servant carrying a bottle of wine approached them and offered the men a glass. Exchanging a knowing look, the three of them utterly failed to suppress a hearty laugh, reassuring the man that it was nothing he had done. They thanked him for the wine and Monroe proposed a toast.
“To the United States. May they ever stand together as lights of freedom in a world prone to the darkness of tyranny.”
“To the United States,” Camden and Mr. Randolph repeated in union.
“Gentlemen, if you will please excuse me,” said Monroe. “Politics is, in fact, why I am here and I intend to make the most of the occasion. We shall speak again soon, I have no doubt. Good luck to you, Mr. Page.”
Camden mulled over what Monroe could have meant by that, but concluded that it could only have referred to his impending meeting with Senator Burwell. Despite not knowing how Monroe could have known anything on that subject, Camden took some small degree of comfort from the knowledge that he had the encouragement of another friend. Across the room, Georgiana was now seated on a couch beside her mother. She glanced briefly in his direction and let slip a momentary smile and Camden felt the corners of his mouth involuntarily curl into a smile as well. The moment was gone as quickly as it came, however, and she went back to her conversation.
Being unacquainted with most of the other guests, Camden chose to remain with Mr. Randolph. This proved to be a mostly successful tactic to occupy his thoughts with something other than Georgiana and allowed him to be introduced to a number of Mr. Randolph’s political and legal connections.
As the evening wore on, musicians were ushered into the room and a dance was announced. Camden was unfamiliar with the particular dance and watched as others took their places. Perhaps it would be simple enough that he could learn it simply by observing. A short but sharp pang of jealousy struck him as another young man took a place across from Georgiana on the floor. Though she was directly across from Camden at that moment, she seemed to avoid making eye contact with him now. He watched as she and the young man gracefully moved through the steps. Any lingering jealousy instantly melted away as he considered just how beautiful a thing it was to watch Georgiana in motion, even if from a distance, and even if with another man. She smiled as she danced and he could see her lips moving in conversation, but he assured himself that this was nothing more than the pleasantries one would exchange in sharing a dance.
As the dance ended, Mr. Randolph appeared at Camden’s side and said simply “Come with me for a moment.” He ushered Camden into a small room just off the main hall. Senator Burwell was seated in a high-backed chair, fiddling with a snuff box.
“Good evening, Joseph. Please come in.” He motioned to the other chairs in the room and also made a show of offering the box of snuff to his brother in law.
“No, thank you, James. But I am pleased to introduce my apprentice, Mr. Camden Page.”
“Mr. Page I am pleased to make your acquaintance. My brother in law tells me that your apprenticeship is proceeding very well and that you have done some very important work for Mr. Monroe while the two of you were in Philadelphia. I commend you.”
“Thank you, sir.” Camden was reluctant to say any more. In the presence of the man who would decide whether his growing affection for Georgiana would be allowed to transform into anything more, silence seemed the best course for now.
“I am given to understand that you met my daughter some months ago when she came to return some books.”
Camden merely nodded and Senate Burwell narrowed his eyes very slightly, as if the non-verbal response irritated him slightly and yet he did not want to show that it did.
“My brother in law has recently told me that you wish to be allowed to call on my daughter. He speaks very highly of you and he knows my daughter very well. Having also discussed the matter with her mother, I have come to the conclusion that we will allow you to visit Georgiana at our home, provided that she wishes to receive you.”
Camden managed a simple, “Thank you, sir” and then paused. “I hope that I will meet with your approval and with that of your wife and of your daughter.”
“You show much promise, Mr. Page. Continue on the path my brother in law has set for you and you will go far. Georgiana is here this evening and you may feel free to speak with her.”
The Senator took another pinch of snuff and then rose from his chair. “If you will excuse me, I must return to the rest of my guests.”
When the door had closed, Mr. Randolph gave Camden a fatherly clap on the shoulders.
“My brother in law is no great judge of character, but he is fiercely loyal to his family, including me. He may say that you show promise only because that is what I told him, but be sure that he accepts my judgment on the matter unquestioningly. I know you will not disappoint him or me.”
“Mr. Randolph, I don’t know what to say. How can I possibly thank you? This seemed impossible not that long ago.”
“You can thank me by not keeping my niece waiting for you any longer. Do you think that you two are the only ones who have noticed the longing glances you have been exchanging all night?” Camden felt his face flush in spite of himself. “Go to her and enjoy the rest of the evening. This old man will stay out of your way.”
Camden felt as if he must be beaming, so rapturous was the feeling that welled up from within him. He could not say whether he walked or floated back out to the main room. He arrived to find that the musicians were playing another dance, but did not immediately see Georgiana. She did not appear to be taking part in the dance, so he worked his way around the outside of the room, excusing himself as politely as possible whenever a knot of conversation blocked his path.
Then, finally, he saw her. She was seated on the same couch where she had been talking to her mother earlier, only now she was seated alone. She broke off from watching the dance, and noticed Camden working his way in her direction. At that moment, Camden discovered that a look can often say much more than words. Her expression changed instantaneously from one of mild interest, to something he could not quite describe. He read in her face, all at once, relief, joy, and perhaps a dozen other emotions that he could not distinguish. Distinguishing them was unnecessary, however, because whatever they were, he was sure that he was feeling them along with her.
Approaching the couch where she was seated, it occurred to him that they must return to referring to one another more formally. “Miss Burwell, may I sit?” he asked.
“Certainly, Mr. Page. I welcome your company.”
The two sat facing one another, without speaking, for what seemed to Camden an hour. Being near Georgiana, being able to look into her eyes--noticing for the first time that they were not blue or green or brown, but seemingly all of them and each of them at the same time--these were enough by themselves even without the exchange of words. The moment that seemed an hour passed and it was Georgiana who broke the silence.
“Are you enjoying the party?”
“Oh, yes. Your family’s hospitality is without equal, I am sure. The refreshments, the people, and the music have all been marvelous.”
She leaned closer, lowering her voice. “You have spoken to my father, I presume?”
“I have. He consents to our visiting with one another.” He shook his head slightly before continuing. “I must confess that I was never more nervous in my life. Given his response to my initial letter, I was not at all confident that he would have changed his mind.”
Georgiana bit her lip and Camden could tell that something was not right. “Is something the matter, Georgiana?” He had let down his guard, slipping out of the formalities they both knew they must observe.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. I must confess something to you.”
Camden felt a lump tighten in his throat. For a moment he could think of nothing but the pain that would ensue if he were cast down from the airy heights of joy he was experiencing.
“My father did not, in fact, change his mind about you. He could not change his mind, because he never made it up in the first place. You see, Cam, he never read the letter you intended to deliver to him. When you came that day, I took the letter from Andrew and read it. Knowing how my father would react--he would have forbidden us to ever speak to one another--I wrote the letters that you and my uncle received shortly thereafter.”
Camden was stunned. He forced his jaw not to hang agape and resisted the overwhelming urge to hang his head. Georgiana continued, speaking even more softly now than before.
“It was horribly unkind of me to keep this secret from you for so long. I know that. I will understand if you cannot forgive my foolishness, but at the time it seemed to be the only thing to do. Can you ever . . .”
She trailed off, but Camden judged by her eyes that she simply could not find the words to say the other things she believed she needed to tell him. He looked down, only now noticing that she had rested her hand on top of his.
“Knowing you, Georgiana,” he began, “writing to you, speaking to you--all of these have been the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Were I to live another two lifetimes, I cannot imagine any person or thing that could bring more joy into my life than you. Believing that you and I might never be able to speak again was the most painful moment of my life.”
Here, he paused, wanting to choose his words carefully. He looked into her eyes and could tell that she was on the verge of tears. He dreaded the thought of making her cry far more than he supposed she dreaded the thought of crying in his presence.
“But that is all in the past.”
This, in fact, did release her tears, a single rivulet streaming from each eye down the porcelain contours of her cheeks.
“I forgive you without hesitation and without reservation. My affection has grown far too strong to be shaken by what you have confessed. I only hope that your affection for me has experienced a similar evolution, for I must confess something as well.”
Leaving her hand on his, she used the other to blot away her tears with her handkerchief.
“While I was in Philadelphia you asked after my safety. Regrettably, I kept certain details from you, wishing to spare you any further worry for me. I told you that I was near the scene when Mr. Pinckney was murdered, but what I did not tell you was that I intervened to catch one of his murderers. I wrestled the man to the ground, but he drew a knife on me. I can only assume he was prepared to do the worst if it would have made possible his escape. I--”
Here, Georgiana cut him off. “I forgive you as well, of course. Held up to the pain I caused you, the worries that you spared me pale in comparison.” She gently dabbed her eyes again. “May we talk of something else now?”
Camden noticed Senator Burwell through a gap in the crowd. Sensing that Georgiana must have noticed the same thing, they both withdrew their hands.
“Of course. Perhaps you can explain the steps of this dance to me? We had dances from time to time in New Kent, but I do not recall ever seeing this particular dance. Is it new?”
“It is relatively new, yes, and not unlike the cotillion. It is called the quadrille.”
As the dance proceeded in front of them, Georgiana explained the steps and turns and exchanges that took place. Camden tried to absorb it all, sure that he could recall the steps if asked, but less sure that he could actually dance them. The music ended and the couples took their seats, allowing a new group to come to the floor.
“Shall we try?” Camden asked. To try was the best he thought he could hope for. He was unpracticed in dancing to begin with and had certainly not had many opportunities to hone his skills since beginning his apprenticeship.
To both his delight and his slight dismay, Georgiana said “I would most enjoy that.”
He led her out onto the floor and took his place, painfully aware for the first time that his mammoth farmer’s build stood out from all the other guests. Georgiana was tall for a woman, but she seemed almost tiny standing next to him. He thought he could feel eyes boring into his back and directly within his line of vision was none other than Senator Burwell. His face, somewhat to Camden’s surprise, seemed to convey a sort of pleasant curiosity. That it was not hostile was mildly calming. More calming still was the sensation of looking into Georgiana’s eyes as the music began. She returned his bow with a curtsy and the dance began.
Almost immediately, he nearly lost his timing. It was only when he stopped worrying about his feet and looked at Georgiana that he realized she was subtly but carefully guiding him through the dance with a glance or a nod at the appropriate time. He felt as if he had hardly had time to enjoy the experience before the music stopped and the dance was over. He clapped politely with the other couples to thank the musicians.
They found their way back to the couch and sat down again. Camden still felt as if he were being watched, a fact which was confirmed when he looked across the room to see a pair of older women looking toward Georgiana and whispering. She had noticed as well and said “Pay them no mind; they are my old spinster aunts who take it upon themselves to ruthlessly scrutinize any potential suitors. They mean well, I assure you.”
“I only wish that they could mean well a little less conspicuously.”
Georgiana quickly stifled a laugh by putting her hand to her mouth. “Indeed, subtlety has never been their strong suit.”
“Do you suppose they really see me as a potential suitor, then?”
“Oh, most certainly. I can hardly talk to any man of remotely marriageable age without stoking their speculation. But I do love them dearly.”
Settling back into the softness of the couch they contented themselves with each other’s company and conversation. He was frozen in rapt attention as she described every seemingly mundane detail that had not already been included in one of her letters. He was amazed when she could not seem to get her fill of his recollections of Philadelphia, the convention, and the debates in the General Assembly.
“What do you suppose all of it means for our beloved Virginia?” she finally asked. “What does the future hold?”
It was a difficult question to answer. In less than the span of a generation Virginia had gone from a royal colony to an independent commonwealth. She had cast off a monarchy in favor of a republic and only just now had fought back what surely would have proved to be a partial return toward the sort of centralization of power for which she had fought a war. Camden could not well say what the future might hold for Virginia or America. In the same vein, he could not say what the future might hold for him and for Georgiana. He had hopes and aspirations, of course, but he knew that nothing was guaranteed. It seemed to him that the question of his future and the question of Virginia’s future presented the same dilemma.
“What does the future hold?” he finally responded. “I don’t know, but as long as I have you with me I am eager to find out.”
Do you want to own a copy of Defying Conventions or give it as a gift? Order a copy on Amazon here.
This is the final installment of this short novel, but it’s not the end of the story for these characters. I’ll be starting a new section of The Tidewater Papers to publish the sequel to Defying Conventions in this same, serialized format. I hope you’ll enjoy that book, tentatively titled Fit for Freedom, very soon. Take a peek at what’s in store here.