Betsy heaved a sigh of relief and smoothed her party dress. In the center of the table sat the tea, steaming in a fine English china pot her mother had given her. The surrounding fare was substantial. The guests were obviously enjoying their repast. It was a full-scale affair, a long table covered with savories as well as sweets.
Some, Betsy had made herself, some she had brought in from famous Philadelphia bake shops. From her kitchen had come apple, pumpkin, kidney and pigeon pies, conserves of pears and plums, and loaves of bread.
That wonderful Dutch treat, oleykoecks dusted with sugar, those that had escaped the nimble fingers of the children, were not an hour old and wafting fragrance over the table. From the German baker there were sticky honey cakes and high tortes of nuts, cake and cream. A fine ham sat in state beside the tea pot with slices cut to order by Davie, who had stayed with them. He was resplendent tonight in a fine new wig, coat and pants.
Betsy knew that to the Philadelphians, as well as to the rich southerners, her tea was a simple affair. No roast pig, no pheasant, no songbirds stuffed in pigeons stuffed in ducks stuffed in turkeys. Nor any French cook backstage drowning everything in sauce, such as Mr. Jefferson employed.
Betsy didn’t have money for such luxuries on the slender salary of her public servant husband. Even if she had had, her Dutch housewife’s upbringing wouldn’t have allowed her to ever feel easy with a French cook in the kitchen.
After a little time, she overheard the judgment of Philadelphia society upon the table of Mrs. Secretary of the Treasury.
“Pumpkin custard baked in the pumpkin. How quaint!”
“Yes. Good Lord. I haven’t been intimate with the dish in years.”
“Well, try some. It’s delicious. I’d quite forgotten how good it can be.”
The first speaker was Mrs. Willing, a tall and fashionably dressed brunette, a member of an old Philadelphia family. The second, Mrs. Bingham, was younger, fair and bejeweled.
“Look at this whipped cream! I must say, this is the first edible Republican tea I’ve had. The torte is Herr Kumkraker’s, certainly, but excellent as usual. The rest, I divine, came from her kitchen. I must confess it’s all extremely well prepared.”
Betsy, holding her chin high, strode to confront the speakers. Mrs. Willing, she thought, was, as usual, sailing just to the lee of rude, but then, what else could be expected from someone whose father had been a war profiteer? The other lady’s maiden days had been spent coquetting it among the red coats during the occupation. One of her bosom friends had been the glamorous, notorious, and now forever banished Peggy Shippen—Mrs. Benedict Arnold.
“Ah, Mrs. Secretary Hamilton, such a marvelous table!”
“Yes, and so perfectly apropos for our Republican Court.” Mrs. Willing caught the flash in Betsy’s dark eyes and quickly added, “These days, with so many well-trained émigrés to employ, one is liable to overlook one’s native diet.”
“Such satisfying food! Why, it’s the kind of tea my worthy Grandmother Chew often served.”
“Your chef…is, ah, from New York?”
Betsy was certain they were fishing for an admission that she had “stooped” to cooking. Gazing into those smug, smooth, carefully made-up faces, she was ready to give them something to gossip about—these foolish women, too proud to enter their kitchens.
A man’s arm slipped beneath hers, interrupting.
“Ladies!” Alexander saluted Betsy’s companions, bowing gracefully. Both women returned his greeting with the responsiveness that Betsy knew usually welcomes a man who is both good looking and powerful.
“I overheard you ladies discussing our chef.” His glorious blue eyes flashed at Mrs. Bingham. The reigning beauty’s color rose beneath her rouge.
The secret of his power over all of us, Betsy thought with a deal of irritation, is that he acts as if he’s not only been in our bed before, but that he’s eager to get back in!
“Actually, a mere cook, ladies.” Alexander began smoothly, sending the merest flicker of a wink to his wife. “She is a marvelous Dutch woman from Albany, sent to us by Mrs. Major General Schuyler. If you can believe it, she speaks not a word of English. My wife is the only one who can communicate with her.”
While Mrs. Bingham and Mrs. Willing were mulling this astonishing fiction, he added, “Plain fare it is, but, I must confess, ’tis quite rich enough for a man with a delicate constitution.”
“You, Mr. Secretary?”
“Ah, yes, unfortunately so. Please excuse me, my dear.” He set Betsy’s arm free. “It is imperative that the ladies taste the pigeon pie.”
Collecting them, one gorgeous belle on each arm, Hamilton began to steer them along the length of the table to where the pigeon pie sat in state, rich brown gravy flowing from a generous cut where the Knoxes had already assailed it. Davie, helpfully attentive, picked up a plate and a server, ready to offer whatever the ladies fancied.
“I confide, of course.” Hamilton spoke in lowered tones. “Trusting implicitly in your discretion.”
The ladies nodded, curls dripping from their towering hairpieces, eager to have his attention.
“Did I hear you say something about a delicate constitution?” asked Mrs. Bingham. “That you should have any weaknesses at all, Mr. Secretary, is an astonishing notion.”
“Ah, Madam, if only I had none. In fact, I have several. A Spartan diet takes care of one.” Here he paused, blue eyes tantalizing them. “Marriage, I confess, assuages the other.”
The buxom Mrs. Willing leaned closer and tapped his chest with her fan. “But, surely, if the weakness is still with you, you must occasionally experiment with other cures...”
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