The narrative broke off there, where she’d risen to help Frisque retrieve his ball. She tried now to retrieve the thread of it, without including the embarrassing details of what had happened in the meantime:
—made the acquaintance of a fellow guest of our good host: a woman by the name of Mistress Jamieson who carried to Sir Redmond correspondence of a secret nature, which she carried hidden on her person. I suspect the name she gave him may be false, she having earlier declined to give a name at all and only acquiescing when his lady entered in the room and wanted introduction, but Sir Redmond, if he does suspect the same, seems yet well satisfied. I do perceive, from having seen him toast King James’s health last night at supper, that Sir Redmond is himself a Jacobite, and so this woman’s errand doubtless serves that same king who has long been favored with the love and loyalty of my own father and my brothers, and in whose lost palace I am soon to take up residence.
“Where did he lose it, then?” asked Mistress Jamieson.
Mary looked up, startled, with her pen still resting on the paper, and for a confusing moment she believed the other woman had divined what she was writing.
“I do beg your pardon, but—”
“The ball. Where did your dog misplace it?”
“Oh.” Relaxing, Mary pointed out the place. “Beneath the settee.”
The other woman found the ball and set it freely rolling. Frisque chased after it, delighted, and retrieved it for the woman who seemed happy to indulge him. Mary could have warned her that the little dog could play this favorite game all day, but there was no need after all because just then the promised tea arrived, delivered by a housemaid who on seeing Mary went and brought a second porcelain cup to set in place upon the little lacquered tea table. To Mary, who had only drunk tea twice before in all her life, her aunt not being fond of it, it was a fascinating thing to watch the housemaid set things out so carefully: the silver pot that rested in its stand above the warming flame, the water jug and sugar dish with gleaming silver tongs, the little cups so delicate in Chinese blue and white and sitting neatly in their saucers with a matching common bowl in which to empty out the dregs.
Too late she realized that her admiration had betrayed her inexperience, for when the housemaid had again departed, Mistress Jamieson asked in a tone that did not condescend but rather held a trace of understanding, “Shall I pour?”
“Yes, please,” said Mary.
Mistress Jamieson was clearly expert at the art of serving tea and Mary watched her carefully and marked the steps in order, so in future she could mimic them.
Her cousin had accused her once of being like an ape. “You always watch,” Colette had said, “and then you copy so completely it’s as if you’ve shed your own self and become another creature altogether, like the fairies in the tales you tell, who change their form according to their fancy.”
To which Mary had replied, “And how else would I hope to learn if not by imitation, since my life conspires to limit my experience?”
The life of Mistress Jamieson, thought Mary, must have done very much the opposite and bathed her in experience, for how else could so young a woman seem so self-assured and in control? Mary observed her closely, noting how she took her seat, arranged her skirts, and squared her shoulders all at once, as graceful as a falcon perched at rest upon her block, fully aware and in command of all around her. Even Frisque obeyed the quiet word she told him and lay down with rare obedience to settle with one paw at rest upon the hemline of her gown.
Mary held the little bowl-like teacup balanced neatly on her fingertips, the way the other woman did, and drank with care, deciding that unlike her aunt she rather liked the taste of sweetened tea. She cleared her throat. “Are you from Scotland, Mistress Jamieson?”
“I’ve never been to Scotland.”
“Have you lived in France your whole life, then?”
The other woman looked at Mary as though trying to imagine what that would be like, to spend one’s whole life in one place.
On the table between them the cards from last evening’s play still lay untidily stacked. Mistress Jamieson set down her cup and gathered all the cards into her two hands, at first seeming only to want to align them, but then as though the feel of them within her fingers altered her intent, she loosely shuffled them and turned the top one over to reveal the knave of hearts. Her mouth curved faintly in a private smile before she turned the card again and slipped it in among the rest. “Have you no wish to travel?” she asked Mary.
“Very much the opposite. I wish it more than anything, but women cannot up and see the world when we so choose. That is,” she stammered as she realized that the other woman had just come some distance on her own, “I mean—”
“No, you are right in that,” said Mistress Jamieson. “And I was told so bluntly as a child—a woman cannot travel with the freedom of a man. The road does rarely welcome us, preferring we should stay at home, but I have found the remedy is simply then to move my home itself to other places, and so gain a different view.”
Mary, feeling happy to have found some bit of common ground to stand upon, remarked, “I am now in the midst of doing so myself.”
“Oh, yes?” The other woman’s eyebrows arched a fraction, as once more she drew the knave of hearts from deep within the pack of cards and put him back again and shuffled all, not seeing Mary’s nod.