The hiss of whispered voices swept like a wave over the crowd, and their cries dulled to a low hum.
"Good sir!" Feigning confusion, James shouted louder, "I beg your pardon? Yes, down here, my good fellow."
He flashed the frightened crier a dazzling smile. Despite the strong carry of his voice, James's tone was equable as he continued, "So, to clarify, my good servant of His Majesty, is it that Charles, by the grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France, etcetera, would have ministers read to their flock from behind pistols cocked upon red velvet pillows?"
The crowd, which had for a moment been mesmerized by the cavalier Scots nobleman, surged into renewed outrage. Shouts of "Popery!" and "A papist plot!" resounded through the square.
A drunken voice cried, "Keep your bloody English… popish… mass service book away from the Scot's Kirk!"
"Aye," another slurred, "dinna fash the Scot's Church!" Laughing, James resheathed his sword. "There's the spirit, lads!"
"James!" Tom scolded, grinning despite his shaking head and furrowed brow. He jabbed an elbow in his friend's calves and pleaded, "James, get down from there. I swear, you'll not be at rest till you yourself be lifted above us in three fathom of rope."
"Why Tom!" He hopped down from his perch. "Dear man, you flatter me! But you are the thespian, not I. Do you think it possible that I could play the hero in the court's next spectacle of public humiliation and shame?" His friend grimaced, but James only laughed.
"Come now. Tom." He clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Fear not. You're of brisker stuff than that, I know." Tom was sweating mightily in the press of people, and a stripe of perspiration ran down his back, darkening the fabric between the shoulders of his tightly buttoned coat.
Market sounds gradually replaced the hum of the crowd as the mob began to thin and merchants resumed their daily business. "It looks like you could use some refreshment, my good man. I'd spot you a pint. Or," James added, "think you that the king has outlawed ale in Scotland as well?"
" Wheesht." Tom silenced him, looking around nervously. "You'll be the death of me, James Graham. If you manage to keep your own self alive so long."
"Nerves, man," James exclaimed. "I'm a Scotsman in the middle of Edinburgh. My king cannot hear me when he's nowhere to be found."
"Hush, I say. The king's men are everywhere, and I'll not join you on the gallows." Fleshy cheeks blotching crimson, Tom pursed his lips in thought, his normally jovial demeanor turned solemn.
James barked a quick laugh. "But I've upset you!" He hugged his friend to his side. "Let's see to that pint, aye? I'd have a spot of refreshment be fore we go."
"And pray, where are we going?" Tom asked with exaggerated dread.
"Back to my home in Montrose." James walked them briskly to a public house on the edge of High Street. "I need some time by the sea before we fight."
"Alright, James." Tom stopped in his tracks, and the apprehension in his voice belied the lightness of his words. "You have my attention. Before we fight whom?"
"And who else?" James cocked a single brow as a rakish smile split his face. "Before we fight our king, of course."
It was a pleasant walk from the Fifty-Eighth Street library to the Met, surrounded by the whir of traffic on one side and the happy squeals of kids and distant thumps of boom boxes emanating from Central Park on the other. The early morning brought a light breeze, and Magda was reminded how much she loved New York City. Long walks buffeted by the sounds of the city always blunted the sting of loneliness she'd felt since her brother Peter died.
The rare ringing of her cell phone shattered her serenity. Spying the number on the caller ID, she girded herself to answer. "Hi Dad."
"Magdalen, dearest! How's my little butternut?"
"Oh I'm alright," she sighed, "I—"
"Your mother is very upset with you, you know."
And just like that, her father executed his greatest signature move, the sudden flip from Daddy-boisterous to Daddy-business. It was a skill she could just picture him using in the boardroom. Skip Deacon lets them in with his chumminess, gets their defenses down, then goes in for the kill. And damned if she didn't get sucked in every time.
"We had a lovely time at last night's Founders Gala," he added, "though your presence was sorely missed."
"Uhhh… oops." Magda had forgotten her mother's latest benefit. The usual parentally induced headache seized the top of her skull. Rubbing between her brows, she couldn't stop herself from asking, "Remind me, what'd mom found this time?"
"Magda, you know how much your mother does for the community."
"Sorry," she said. And she did know, having witnessed her mother's glory from the sidelines as she was raised by a series of well-meaning, albeit thickly accented nannies. "I got pulled into a project at work and couldn't get away." "Your mother and I do not understand why you keep that job. If you're so set on a museum, join your mother on the board. You'll never "—
"I know, I know," she interrupted. "I'll never meet a nice man cooped up in the basement at the Met. I said I was sorry I missed it." She'd dated her share of well -to-do boys in school, and then moved on to rising young businessmen after college. None of them ever quite took, though, and now her folks no longer even bothered to be subtle about their matchmaking.
"She'll be happy to hear it. Call and tell her yourself."
"You mean actually speak to her?" Magda' s attempt at humor fell flat, and she added, "How about I just send some flowers instead?"
"Call her, Magdalen," he scolded. "Though flowers would be lovely too. And please?"
"Yes?" she asked, the trepidation clear in her voice.
"Don't forget, it's off to Saratoga come June!" And there he was, Daddy-boisterous peeking his head up again. "I don't expect you to make it for the Tipton auction, but I'll see your shining face in our box for opening day."
"You guys don't even own a racehorse." She massaged her temples, squeezing her eyes shut tight. "Your fascination with the track is beyond me."
"Don't be difficult, butternut. You know your mother likes to summer on the lake, and many of her friends have their own boxes."
"I'll go to the races." She stopped walking. Hand still on her forehead, her vacant gaze landed on a street vendor selling Indian-print skirts and scarves. "I'll even wear one of those ridiculous hats, but I refuse to join you at your lake house."
" Our lake house," he chided. "Try as you might, you will not forget you are a member of this family. Saratoga opens at month's end, and we expect you in attendance there and at the lake afterward. And this time you will dress in a manner appropriate to a young Deacon daughter." And there it was, the full shift. Daddy-business was back, and he stuck his landing.
After a moment of tense silence, Magda pleaded, "Please don't make me go to the lake, you know I hate it there." "Well, we all need to move on. Your mother and I are in terrible pain every day, but it's what Petey would have wanted."
"Move on?" she blurted. "I can barely make it through the summer and you suggest I move on?" Magda knew that even though they mourned differently than she did—in fact, did most things differently than she—her parents had been heartbroken at Peter's death. And yet she heard herself say, "Meanwhile, you and your pals toodle around all season in your boats "—
"That's quite enough." he snapped. "Just… just…" Flustered, he fumbled for words, then finished, "just promise you'll make it to opening day. Now go send your mother some flowers. She's on a peony kick."
"Sure. Bye, dad." Magda flipped the phone shut before he could say any more.
Growing up, she'd idolized her father. He'd appear in their Upper East Side apartment every night, just about the time she was about to slip into bed, and scoop her onto his lap for a goodnight hug and kiss. She had visceral memories of these moments: tracing her small fingers along the top edges of his crisp shirt collars, hugging her nose into the powdery dry-cleaning smell of his suit jackets, rubbing her cheek along the cool silk of his ties.
Magda walked on, pushing away the memories. In some abstract way she loved her parents, and in their way they loved her, but that only meant they knew the most effective ways to hurt each other. Mostly they were just strangers. She silently thanked Walter for giving her work to do that weekend. Her routine reassured her—padding around the workshop barefoot and silent with just a cup of tea and her tools for company—and slipping into it was like shrugging on an old cardigan.
Missing last night's fund -raiser was a gaffe, but her mother spearheaded so many organizations and boards and benefits, they were impossible to keep straight. She'd always had her brother for reality checks after those sorts of missteps with her parents. The two of them had gone away to boarding school for their high school years, and it'd been best for everyone. Their mother could tend to her busy social calendar without the complications of messy childhood faces and feelings, and Magda and Pete had forged their own, however unconventional, mini nuclear family.
But now that he was gone, the only thing that managed to bring her back to the realm of the ordinary was, ironically, her very unordinary work. She'd felt aimless since Peter's death, as if some inner light that once filled and guided her had been snuffed out. Tunneled in her workroom and immersed in a single painting, though, she'd wonder at all the emotions the artist had poured into the work and feel her old vitality return, imagining the energy that had been directed toward the subject, musing whether the artist had been happy, or aloof, or moved, marveling that each brushstroke was a purposeful gesture made by that person so long ago. She could almost sense how it might be to tap into such a consuming passion, remembering for a moment what it had been like to feel joyful, expansive.