“Genesee van Cortlandt,” her cousin giggled. “Good Lord! What are you doing? You’ll break your neck.”
The prettily rounded figure of a young Dutch woman with rosy cheeks and an enviable head of tumbling honey brown curls leaned out an open window. Close by the substantial two-storey brick house a huge tree grew, an apple tree with spreading limbs, a tree her father had been so fond of that he had put his workmen to the trouble of enduring its presence while they built the house.
The speaker was in fashionable undress - a shift and stays covered by a crewel stitched morning gown that had, in quieter times, come from London. Behind her a couple of well dressed and well fed Black girls crowded, peering out the window and adding their exclamations to hers.
“Look at Miss Jenny,” one of them cried. “Just like a cat!”
On a broad limb of the tree, a limb which had been rudely cropped in order to keep it from intersecting with the wall of the house, her long straight black hair held with a scarlet ribbon, without a cap and dressed only in a fine white muslin shift, was a slender, supple girl. For a heartbeat, she steadied herself and then proceeded on small brown bare feet along the mottled limb.
Genesee didn’t acknowledge the others. All her attention was focused on balancing. There would be a whipping descent through a lattice of branches to a bone-snapping conclusion if something went wrong.
Jenny knew what she was doing was foolhardy. Still, it was always fun to play the wild frontier woman and shock her elegant Cousin ‘Nelia.
When she reached the trunk, Jenny smiled triumphantly. A flash of even, healthy white glowed against nut-brown skin.
“And where are you goin’, Miss Jenny?” asked one of the slaves, her round face and beribboned cap bobbing beside that of her young mistress.
“Down,” came Jenny’s casual reply as she indicated the grass, "and then I shall climb back up again."
“Never!” her pretty cousin declared with a giggle of disbelief.
“Wait and see.” Jenny caught a lower branch and swung boldly down onto the limb below. The ease and daring of the maneuver led to gasps from the onlookers and a shower of apple blossom, for it was that time of year.
Although this descent was taking place by the window of an untenanted bedroom, Jenny was low enough now for caution to be in order. She didn’t want one of the housemaids to catch sight of her.
Cousin Cornelia had accepted a proposal of marriage from a man her father, wealthy Stephan van Cortlandt, deemed unsuitable. Hence for the last month, she had been imprisoned in her bedroom. Only ‘Nelia’s maids and a few female relatives were allowed access.
No one will ever lock me up, Jenny thought.
“You know Papa’s going to have an apoplexy if he finds you downstairs,” Cornelia exclaimed. Her pretty face expressed a most unfilial pleasure at the idea.
Wrapping her arms around the trunk, Jenny stared into the spiral of limbs below. Perhaps if she went sideways she could see where next to go. It was still too far to risk jumping.
That was when two young men in the blue and buff uniforms of the Continental army came rapidly around the corner. Their gaze was aimed at the upper window, as if they had come expressly to speak with the lady imprisoned there. As soon as they spied Cornelia, they removed their hats.
“Do I have the honour of addressing Miss Cornelia van Cortlandt?” The shorter and fairer of the two politely queried the lady as she languidly leaned upon the sill.
“You have, sir,” ‘Nelia replied, coolly withdrawing her gaze from the limb upon which her cousin stood, imperfectly screened by white blossom and new leaves. “And who might you be?”
“Captain Alexander Dunbar of the Army of Independence, at your service, Miss Cornelia.”
The taller officer kept looking over his shoulder, as if he were expecting to be caught. The speaker appeared unconcerned. His blue eyes were fixed upon the buxom girl framed in the window.
Jenny, peering down through the branches, saw a perfectly erect and slender young man of medium height. His fair skin and rosy cheeks gave him a china doll beauty.
Many young officers defied regulation with flowing locks, but in this case the cut was military, shorn close to the head. Alexander Dunbar’s coppery hair was curly, doing its best to defy the extremity that had been worked upon it. There was only one nod to fashion, a thin braided queue which made a bright rat’s tail down the back of his neat blue jacket.
“I would love to make your acquaintance further, Miss Cornelia, myself and Captain Troup,” he gestured at his tall friend, who smiled and inclined his head. “For tales--not only of your beauty--but of the charm of your conversation have reached our ears.”
“Get to it, Alex,” the other man urged.
“Miss Cornelia, I have been entrusted by a mutual friend with billets doux.”
At this, Cornelia bounced like a puppy and clapped her smooth hands together. Both of the young men grinned, and theatrically raised fingers to their lips.
Jenny was praying that they would keep their eyes on Cornelia and not look into the tree. Beneath her shift was nothing at all. The faint breeze of this warm spring day was gently tickling bare flesh.
“Are you a good catch, Miss?” curly headed Dunbar inquired.
“Saucy!” Cornelia was merry, choosing to misinterpret. She tossed her curls. “What do you think?” She had missed flirtation dreadfully ever since she had been locked up.
“In two minutes’ acquaintance you have taken his measure, Miss.” Captain Troup wore a big grin.
Dunbar took what looked like a tennis ball from his pocket and waved it at Cornelia. “Ready!” he called, missile in hand. As he prepared to throw, he moved back, seeking a better angle. The black maids giggled in anticipation.
They were interrupted by the blowing approach of a hard ridden horse. Without so much as a by-your-leave, Captain Dunbar and his friend ran the other way.
Above, Cornelia wrung her hands. Jenny crouched, still as a hunted cat.
The horseman now in view was a fat young man who reined in his sweating animal just beneath the window.
“Still playin’ Juliet?” he shouted. “If you’d say yes to the right fellow, you know, you could get out of there.”
“Say yes to you, I suppose you mean, John de Laet,” Cornelia retorted with a disdainful toss of her curls.
“Of course,” the interloper replied. “What do you know about this Gray fella anyway?”
Jenny leaned her dark head against the tree, studied the top of de Laet’s hat, not many feet away, and prayed he wouldn’t look up. John would not only report to her uncle, but do his best to see under her shift.
“Mr. John Gray is a gentleman of Oxfordshire,” Cornelia retorted. “His family is not only high born but probably twice as rich as yours.”
“Oh, that I doubt very much,” cried de Laet, much nettled. “Why hasn’t he proved it to your father?”
Cornelia didn’t deign to reply. Instead, she scornfully flounced away from the window.
“Gotta talk to Miss Cornelia nicer den dat, Mr. John,” advised Black Betty with an impudent white grin.
“‘Nelia! Please!” The fleshy lover rose in his stirrups.
Another horseman joined him. This, Jenny saw, was ‘Nelia’s younger brother, Nick.
What luck, she thought. There had not been a soul around until she had climbed out the window. Now it was like market day.
“Do stop bawling,” Nick chided. “You sound like a calf who has lost his mother. Come on, old fellow,” he added a little more sympathetically. “If you dine with us, Papa will make her come down. Then you may gaze at the capricious creature to your heart’s content.”
Not waiting for a reply, Nick tapped his horse and trotted away. After a final yearning glance at the window, John de Laet sadly followed.
Cornelia reappeared hopefully. Jenny looked left and right, wondering what was next. The officers had, after all, dodged away in the direction of the heavily trafficked kitchen wing. If Mrs. van Cortlandt caught sight of them, they would be warned off, for ‘Nelia’s Mr. Gray was in the Patriot army too. Any blue coat near the rear of the house was suspect.
Catching hold of the limb above, Genesee began to pull herself up. Retreat, at this point, seemed prudent. It was impossible to know when or if the messengers would return.
She ascended a level, but wished that she hadn’t. Here, hunkered down among the leaves and glowering from a nest, was an anxious mother robin.
At a near run from the back of the house, the blue coats made a rushing return. Jenny stood rock still, and pretended, to the bird and to herself, that she wasn’t there.
This time with only the preamble of a wave, Captain Dunbar tossed the ball. The missile flew unerringly.
The smack of the landing was greeted by a muffled shriek of laughter. The young men took several judicious steps backwards, taking cover beneath the spreading limbs of the apple.
That was the moment the robin decided Jenny was not to be tolerated. Taking wing with a squawk, she made a swooping dive straight at her shiny black head.
Jenny, who had spent enough time tree climbing with her brothers to have felt the wrath of disturbed nest sitters before, instinctively flung up a hand to ward off the bombardment.
The gesture threw her off balance. Accompanied by a gasp of surprise and a rip of muslin, she fell.
Captain Dunbar, head up at the last minute, gallantly tried to catch the girl accelerating towards him. In the next instant they were sprawled upon the ground, the young officer on his back, Genesee across him.
For a dazed instant, Alexander Dunbar was drowning in a cascade of night, of black hair thick as a pony’s tail. The girl, with a wild toss, threw it back over her shoulder.
The eyes that gazed into his were as black as her hair. Though her features were delicate, he thought she was too brown, too all over dark, to be anything but a slave.
Dunbar knew about more than what was normally exposed - face, neck and arms - because the loose fitting white shift, not held in place by stays, had slipped off her shoulders. The fine brown of her skin was the same everywhere, right down to one pert, girlish breast.
“Miss - ah - are you all right?” Alexander, still flat on his back, attempted a formal inquiry. He rested a hand upon one delectable bare silken shoulder.
He did not obey his impulse and seize the girl. He did not press his lips to that tender new-budded breast. He was a perfect gentleman, although a lusty voice inside was calling him a thousand kinds of fool for not taking advantage of the situation.
Stunned by the fall, Jenny stared at the young man beneath her. Apple blossom dotted his close-cropped head like confetti.
The cue came from his exotic eyes, a kind of hot-spring blue flooding with black. Truth was felt and seen at the same time. The breath of this bright day - and of the young officer - warmly touched her nakedness.
Yanking the shift into place, embarrassed to her soul, she slapped him. Then, with a leap and a flashing flurry of white muslin and brown bare legs, Jenny dashed into the high grass of the orchard and vanished.
“Wait till I tell McHenry about this!” Troup grinned from ear to ear as he extended a hand to help his friend up. Alex took the offered hand, but not before pocketing a scarlet ribbon this Beauty had left behind.
From above came a chorus of choking laughter.
“I didn’t mean to offend your servant, Miss Cornelia,” Alexander offered, stepping out from under the tree.
The lack of clothes and shoes - and especially the brown skin - all signaled this was the station of the pretty creature that had fallen upon him. Captain Dunbar was West Indian bred, a place where dark skin and servitude naturally went together.
“Even if she was climbing a tree in her nightgown, she’s Miss van Cortlandt too, you wicked impertinent fellow!” Cornelia cried passionately, shaking a finger at Dunbar like a schoolmistress. “How dare you insult my cousin? ‘Tis shameful behavior in one - one who professes to be a gentleman.”
“Please - ah - excuse me, Miss Cornelia,” Alexander replied, stammering with astonishment. “I - I did not know.”
“Nelia spun away from the window, and then executed a sweeping return, for she’d remembered the precious letter.
“Nevertheless, Sirs,” she amended in a voice again gone sweet, “I owe you all my thanks for the treasure you have so trustily delivered.”
Summarily, long pale hands pulled the shutters closed. The two men were left staring at each other in a shaft of light and idly drifting blossom.
“God, Alex, how ever do you merit such adventures?” his friend exclaimed, slapping him on the back. “Still, at least I was privileged to be your witness. A pretty, nearly naked lass did actually fall out of that tree. A gift better by far than an apple.”
Alex, grinning, didn’t answer. Instead, he bent his head and concentrated upon brushing petals from his hair.
“That must have been,” Troup muttered, “the half-breed Miss van Cortlandt I’ve been hearing about.”
“A half-breed Miss van Cortlandt?” Alexander asked, straightening.
They started a leisurely stroll towards the front of the house. The message for their friend Gray delivered, they could now present themselves to the master of the place, Stephen van Cortlandt. They actually had business, having been sent to discuss some matters of provisioning by their commander, General Schuyler.
“Odd that Gray didnt say anything about her,” Alex remarked.
His mind was full of the girl. Those beautiful eyes, those white teeth, the spicy fragrance, the elastic feel of her body, had been violently arousing.
“Well, Gray did most of his courting before the war started, in New York City,” Troup explained. “He and Miss Cornelia danced together for an entire winter season at the Governor’s house. Then the war began and her Papa called her home, and a good thing, too, the way things are going.”
“And Gray is still a gone man,” Alex mused.
“A wealthy English Tory converted to our Cause - and all because of a fair Patriot lady,” Troup replied. His grin showed that he enjoyed the irony.
“Yes, the lady above is indeed fair.” Alexander unabashedly adored the fair sex, fell in love with comic whole-heartedness, a kind of pratfall of passion, like an unwary walker stepping into a hole. The ladies wholeheartedly returned the compliment, for Alexander was not only handsome and well made but utterly charming.
Still, most of these recent plunges had stopped well short of consummation. Since coming from Saint Thomas to a more puritanical New York to attend college, Alexander had sternly controlled this side of himself. It hadn’t been easy, for he had a sensual nature and his schooling in the arts of physical love had been thorough, but he was too poor to marry and he had too much care for himself to join his college friends when they went to the New York brothels.
“So,” Alexander asked, “did some van Cortlandt gentleman take an Indian wife and keep the child?”
“Well, its something of a scandal, I gather, for everyone goes deaf and dumb any time she comes up,” Bob replied, “but I’d assume she’s a souvenir of someone’s fur-trading days.”
Alex nodded thoughtfully. The sun was high, warming him through his jacket. He had been in New York for four years, long enough to know that days like this were rare in an upstate spring.
He threw a wistful glance at the orchard. He wished he could see the girl again.
A fantasy was spinning, one in which he gave chase, caught her in his arms. He’d start by kissing her soft fragrant mouth and quickly move to taste that high breast, to savor the all over sweetness. Then, when she was panting and trembling, there’d be a paradisiacal struggle, ending in a hot, spilling conclusion.
Troup noticed the far away expression. “What’s the matter, Alex?” he teased. “Did you think that was a pretty slave girl they’d thank a handsome fellow like yourself for jumping?”
“What do you take me for?” Alex grumbled. His friends words had sent the fantasy up in smoke, not the least because it reminded him of things he wanted to forget, like the day his Master, Peter Cruger, had sold Diana off the island.
Fiercely, he thrust the bitter memory away. That he had been young, that he had been poor, that he had been unable to rescue the first woman to whom he had ever given his heart, did not bear thinking about.
“Oh, you don’t fool me,” Troup continued with a broad grin. “I know your taste for brown skin, Dunbar. Today, I think, you were tumbled upon by the queen of them all, a veritable nut brown maid, just like the old song.”
“She was indeed a most beautiful girl. Her skin was like satin.” Alex stopped himself from saying more. It was hard not to confide at least a part of what the encounter had stirred.
Troup looked knowing. “I’ve heard she has a small dowry,” he offered. “Nothing like Miss Cornelia, of course. It’s wild land I think, somewhere down the Mohawk where it’s touch and go to keep your scalp.”
“As you know,” Alex retorted, taking a deep breath and attempting to chivvy himself back to sanity, “a poor man can’t fool about with country virgins no matter how delectable. My destiny, Sir, is a widow with a house in town.”