A raucous flock of scarlet macaws rose screeching from the huge jacaranda, scattering lavender-blue petals beneath the horses' hooves as the riders entered the muddy stable-yard. Sir Andrew looked about at the neat, white-washed adobe buildings, their red tiles aglow in the rosy light.
"Welcome to the Hacienda del Inglés," said his grey-haired companion, his host, then called out, "¡Hola!"
From one of the buildings emerged a young woman dressed in a white shirt and a calf-length skirt of brown homespun cotton over leather riding boots.
Andrew concentrated on dismounting as gracefully as possible from the ornate Spanish saddle. In the months of travel south from Mexico he had learned to appreciate its comfort, but he still found its high back made leaving it awkward.
As his foot touched the ground, a shot rang out, then another.
His mount shied and Andrew sat down in the mud. The echo of the shots was replaced by a trilling laugh.
Outrage warring with embarrassment, he raised his eyes to see the girl standing with pistol in either hand. From its perch on her shoulder, a bright green parrot scolded, "¡Hijo de puta! ¡Hijo de puta!"
She hurried forward, hand outstretched. "¡Perdóneme, señor!"
"Sir Andrew is an Englishman, Teresa," interrupted the older man, grinning as he dismounted.
Andrew scowled up at the cause of his discomfiture, who was attempting a curtsy, no mean feat in riding boots. Annoyed as he was, he could not help but notice delicate features, golden complexion, huge dark eyes, and a delectable figure emphasised by a wide leather belt ornamented with silver, from which hung her pistols.
"Hello!" said the parrot, fixing him with a beady eye. It stretched its red- and blue-barred wings, flapping them wildly so that a breeze stirred escaping tendrils of her glossy black braids. "Hello, hello, hello!"
"I beg your pardon, sir!" She spoke English with no trace of an accent. "There was a snake, so close I had no time to warn you."
Moving very fast, Andrew scrambled to his feet and looked down. A four-foot snake, reddish brown with dark bands and bright red sides, lay there twitching, its head a bloody ruin.
"Good God!" he gasped, shaken. "Lord Edward, this is indeed a stimulating welcome."
An enchanting ripple of laughter greeted his feeble witticism, as his host introduced, "My daughter, Teresa. Querida, this is Sir Andrew Graylin, an envoy of the British Government."
"Miss Teresa." Andrew bowed his most elegant bow, trying to forget the mud that coated him from the waist down. "Pray permit me to express my eternal gratitude for your rapidity in coming to my assistance."
He looked down into twinkling brown eyes, and her lips twitched at the pompous solemnity of his words, but she said gravely, "Con mucho gusto, Sir Andrew. I hope you will forgive me for startling you." Then she giggled. "It sounds so funny to hear you calling Papa 'Lord Edward.' Here he is known as Don Eduardo, you know."
"Enough of your teasing, minx," ordered her father. "Take Sir Andrew to meet your mother and then I expect he will want to?ah?tidy up before he faces the entire family at dinner."
"Dinner!" shrieked the parrot, which still clung to Teresa's shoulder. "Hello, hello, hello, dinner!"
"Gayo wants to be introduced," Teresa explained. "Will you shake hands with him, sir?"
Andrew held out his muddy hand, gingerly, and the parrot inspected it with care. Then it came to a decision, hopped from Teresa's shoulder to a firm grasp of the Englishman's forefinger, then sidled up his sleeve to grip his collar. It rubbed its yellow-naped neck against his head, nibbling gently on his ear and crooning.
Teresa watched in amazement. "He practically never does that to anyone but me!" she exclaimed. "You are indeed honoured, sir! It seems he has fallen for a handsome stranger.?
Andrew flushed. Far from comfortable with the bird clucking to him intimately, he wondered in alarm what on earth this extraordinary young woman was going to say next.
Nothing out of the ordinary. "Come through to the house now, sir. I am sure you will prefer to 'tidy yourself,' as Papa so tactfully put it, before you meet Doña Esperanza. Your servant arrived hours ago, with my brother Oscar."
"Lord Edward?Don Eduardo?sent them ahead from Cartago," he explained. The parrot flapped back to her as Andrew followed her from the stables through an arch into another courtyard, where purple, crimson and orange bougainvillea climbed riotously up the walls. "They were to inform Lady Edward that he had invited me to stay."
"Lady Edward!" Again her infectious laugh rang out as they climbed wooden stairs to the open gallery that ran along the first floor. "I did not believe Papa when he said that that was what Mama would be called in England. Here in Costa Rica she is Doña Esperanza, which is much prettier, you must agree. Here is your room. I hope you will be comfortable. I must go and change for dinner, and then I shall come back to show you the way."
"Thank you, Miss Teresa."
"Oh no," she said with that infuriating gravity belied by the mischief in her eyes, "you must address me as Miss Danville, for though I have ten brothers I am the only girl. You see, Papa has taught me the proper forms. Hasta luego."
In the dusk, he watched her walk away along the gallery, her graceful form made lopsided by the animate hump of the parrot on her shoulder. Lord Edward Danville had the strangest notions of bringing up a daughter, he mused. The younger son of an English duke, however long separated from his noble family, might have been supposed to have more concern for propriety than to let the girl go about in short skirts with pistols at her belt!
The door to his room stood ajar; oil lamps burned within and he heard his servant moving about. The tropical night was falling fast and here in the mountains a pleasant coolness replaced the humid heat of the day. Andrew entered a chamber similar to those he had occupied during most of his mission to Central America--whitewashed walls with woven hangings in brilliant hues, heavy wooden furniture gleaming with beeswax, wood plank floor polished and meticulously swept?until he stepped onto it and the drying mud cracked from his clothes and boots to fall in little heaps about his feet.
Once again he felt the humiliation of his arrival. He was not sure which was worse, to owe his life to a female marksman or to land in the mud in front of her.
Rowson turned at the sound of his master's entry and gaped.
"Lawks, sir, you're a right mess, you are! What ever happened?"
"Never you mind. See if you can get me a bath, will you? And be quick about it, for Miss Danville will return shortly to fetch me."
"Right you are, sir. I'll have a word with Sanchita, the cook. One bath coming up." The manservant left, closing the door behind him.
Andrew checked that the curtains thoroughly covered the barred but unglazed window onto the courtyard, then began to undress. Recalling Miss Danville's reference to him as a 'handsome stranger,' he paused to study his face in the mirror on the wall. It was the same face that had looked back at him any time these dozen years, unexceptionable but less than striking.
His one good point, he had always thought, was his patrician nose, but that was now reddened by an excess of sun. The rest of his face was acceptably tanned; somehow his nose could never come to terms with the climates to which their lordships at the Foreign Office insisted on sending him.
Blond hair, bleached pale by that same sun, and blue eyes completed the inventory. Possibly Miss Danville had never seen such English colouring before, and therefore admired it. More likely she had been quizzing him. Stripping off his mud-coated riding breeches he turned before the mirror. At twenty-nine he was leaner than he had been at twenty, muscles turned to whipcord by his travels through the wilds.
He frowned. The impertinent chit had him posing like a man-milliner!
Half an hour later, clean and refreshed, he was adjusting his cravat before the same mirror when Miss Danville knocked.
"Are you ready, Sir Andrew?" she called.
Rowson opened the door and bowed. "Perfect timing, miss, if I may make so bold."
"Good. You know where the kitchen is, Rowson. Sanchita will feed you, if your Spanish is good enough to tell her what you want."
"Mootchers grassiers, singyereeter. I find sign langwidge works best, miss. Give a cook a kiss and you'll get a meal anywheres in the world." He winked, and she chuckled.
"That will do, Rowson!" said Andrew sharply. "You forget yourself."
Turning, he realised why his man had been moved to such familiarity. Miss Danville was clad for all the world like any peasant girl in her fiesta clothes. Like her earlier dress, her full skirt of scarlet cotton reached only to mid calf: Since she wore sandals instead of boots, this displayed an unseemly length of slender ankle. Her open-necked shirt was embroidered with crimson and green and blue, flowers and birds and intricate curlicues; her hair, freed from its braids, fell loose to her narrow waist in a rippling ebony tide, adorned only by a scarlet hibiscus tucked behind her ear.
In the light of the oil lamps Andrew saw that she was older than he had supposed; in her early twenties, he guessed. The warm light, together with the vivid hues, made her amber skin glow. She looked colourful, pretty, and thoroughly amused by his scrutiny.
"Yes, Sir Andrew, I do occasionally set aside my pistols," she said drily.
He flushed. "Where is the parrot?" he asked to cover his confusion.
"Doña Esperanza will not allow Gayo in the dining room. Besides, he gets his claws tangled in the embroidery when I dress up. He is in the stables. Do come on, I'm so hungry!"
The dining room occupied most of the ground floor of one wing of the house. The long table was spread with a white cloth embroidered in green, and set with European china and silverware. As Andrew and Teresa entered the room a hush fell on the group standing at one end. The young Englishman found himself confronted by a horde of young men and boys, all different sizes but all with a strong family resemblance and all looking at him with curiosity. One of them stepped forward, boot heels clicking on the red tile floor. To his relief he recognised Oscar, his host's eldest son, who had been present at the talks in Cartago.
"Come and meet Doña Esperanza," he said.
The horde parted to reveal a plump, placid matron, her dark hair touched with grey, dressed in an old-fashioned black gown in the Spanish style, with a lace mantilla. She looked no different from a score of starchy Spanish ladies Andrew had met on his travels, and as he bowed over her hand, he wondered how she had come to have such an unconventional daughter.
After a few minutes of polite conversation, in Spanish since Doña Esperanza spoke little English, he was whisked away by Miss Danville to be made acquainted with her brothers. In spite of his diplomatic training he found it impossible to fit all the names to all the faces. The only other female in the family was the timid wife of the second son, who spoke in a whisper that went unheard amid the clamour of all the male voices. Andrew began to realise why Teresa had grown up with such an outspoken nature. The alternative would have been total self-effacement.
Don Eduardo came in and gave his arm to his wife, who moved with arthritic difficulty to the table. As the rest took their places, Andrew found himself sitting beside Teresa. Apparently she ran the household, for at her signal a pair of maids carried in steaming dishes. Pork with pejibaye and beans, beefsteaks fried with onions and chiles, potatoes and yuca cakes and plantain fritters: the odours made Andrew's mouth water.
For some time conversation was limited to requests to pass the salt, as the hungry, hard-working family concentrated on putting away as much food as possible as fast as possible.
Teresa was the first to raise her eyes, and her thoughts, from her plate. "Sir Andrew." Her voice was reflective. "Are you a baronet, sir?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, ma'am. I am a mere knight."
Don Eduardo snorted. "Better a knighthood earned than a baronetcy inherited. Graylin started out as the 'mere' second son of a viscount, querida, and was knighted for his services to the British Government."
Once more the gaze of the entire family focussed on his embarrassed face.
"What did you do, señor?" demanded one of the younger brothers. "Did you fight Napoleon?"
"I'm afraid not. I'm a diplomat, not a soldier. The Foreign Office sent me to North Africa, on much the same mission I am on here, and they were sufficiently pleased with my reports to recommend a knighthood. I must confess that my father is a member of the Carlton House set and he dropped a word in the Prince Regent's ear on my behalf."
"So when they read your next reports, I daresay you will be made a baronet," said Teresa, looking pleased at the thought.
Her second brother spoke at the same time. "What exactly is your mission in Costa Rica, Sir Andrew?"
The Englishman sent a questioning look towards his host, who nodded.
"Nothing more dramatic than collecting information. I have been consulting with the leaders of the local populations throughout Central America, from Mexico south, to discover how serious is the general insurrection against Spain."
"Our people are changing their minds," broke in Oscar eagerly. "Since Fernando VII repudiated the 1812 constitution, even those who led our soldiers against the uprising in Nicaragua have decided to fight for freedom from Spain."
A lively political discussion ensued, in which Teresa bore her part admirably. She was thoroughly in favour of independence from Spain, and had no qualms about stating her opinions with vigour.
When the talk turned to hacienda business, Teresa asked Andrew to tell her about his adventures in North Africa. He insisted that nothing exciting had happened to him there, but she was fascinated by his descriptions of the ancient walled cities, the fierce, blue-faced Bedouin tribesmen who ranged the deserts on their camels, the veiled women and whirling dervishes and snake charmers.
A thoughtful look crossed her face when she heard about the snake charmers.
"I beg you will not try anything of the sort!" Andrew said in alarm, easily reading her expression. "No, I take that back. I absolutely forbid you to try, even with a harmless snake!"
She giggled, but said indignantly, "You cannot forbid me to do anything, sir. Still, I cannot imagine a viper, such as the one that nearly attacked you today, being enraptured by the sound of an ocarina."
He would have pressed her, but the maids came in to replace the empty dishes with pots of fragrant coffee and bowls of bananas, mangos, pineapples, papayas and melons. The bowls were beautifully carved out of an extraordinary purple wood; filled with colourful fruit they made an exotic display. When Sir Andrew admired them, Don Eduardo told him that one of his younger sons had made them.
"They're a talented lot, my family," he claimed with patriarchal pride, and proceeded to mete out tomorrow's chores.
Andrew realised that Don Eduardo made full use of all his offspring's talents. Much of the farm work was done by the family, though they did employ a dozen or so peons, both Indian and of Spanish descent.
"Should you like to see the farm tomorrow?" Teresa whispered. "If you can persuade Papa to let me show you around, then I shall be able to escape my own chores in the house."
"It is always a pleasure to come to the aid of a lady," he said with mock gallantry. "But yes, I should enjoy seeing the place. I cannot stay here long, for there will be a Navy vessel waiting for me off Puerto Limón at the beginning of next month, and your father tells me one must allow a week for the journey to the coast."
"How I wish I could travel like you!" she cried. "I have never been even so far as Limón, which is no distance at all. It takes a week to get there, and much longer with ox-carts, only because the road is so bad. And Don Eduardo says there is nothing there when you arrive. I should like to see London, and Paris, and the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara and the Bedouin. And the snake charmers," she added with a twinkle in her eye.
"Come to think of it," he said, "considering the way you have charmed your parrot, I daresay you would not have the least difficulty with a snake! This coffee is delicious," he went on, sipping the aromatic brew. "I do believe it is the best I have ever tasted."
"Papa! Sir Andrew thinks our coffee the best he has had!"
For the third time that evening, the diplomat found himself the cynosure of all eyes.
"Now that," said Don Eduardo, grinning, "is precisely what I wanted to hear. Though coffee growing is a new venture for us, Graylin, I am convinced that we produce the best in the world and that there will be a great future for it if we can but develop an export market. We need to learn more about the proper cultivation, too, for our yield is very low. I am thinking of sending Oscar to Jamaica to learn more about the business."
"I shall be sailing to Jamaica on my way to England," said Andrew, holding out his cup for more coffee. "Perhaps I might persuade the captain to allow Oscar to go with me."
Don Eduardo gazed at him with an arrested look. "That would be most helpful," he said slowly. "I must think about this." He glanced at his wife, then at Teresa, then at one of the boys who had been sitting quietly, rarely joining in the conversation.
"Yes, I must think. We shall speak more of this tomorrow, Graylin."
Shortly after this exchange, the household retired. Most of them would be up before dawn, ready to fit in a long morning of labour before the afternoon siesta.
The young Englishman was not sleepy but he had no wish to disrupt the routine of the house. He went up to the gallery outside his chamber, and leaned on the railing overlooking the courtyard, pondering the completion of his mission. He must start soon to write the report of the Cartago meeting, while the details were fresh in his mind. However, he could spare a day to tour the hacienda with Teresa. Though she would undoubtedly be condemned as "farouche" by London society, she was a pretty and amusing young woman and he had no doubt that he would enjoy his time with her.
It had been raining, and from the courtyard rose the fresh smell of damp earth, mingled with the overpoweringly sweet fragrance of some unknown jungle flower. Andrew breathed it in and was about to go to bed when he heard footsteps approaching along the gallery. In the near darkness nothing was visible but the pale blur of a white shirt-front.
For a moment he almost hoped it was the unconventional Miss Danville, looking for a romantic tryst beneath the tropic moon. Then he recognised the boy who had been so quiet at dinner. Marco, he thought his name was.
"Sir, would you mind if I asked you something?" the youth blurted out shyly. "Were you ever at a university?"
Andrew confessed to having read history at Oxford. He was hard-pressed to answer the flood of questions that followed. Marco wanted to know everything there was to know about university life.
At last he said passionately, "If only I could go there! The new school in San José is supposed to be an alternative to universities abroad but it teaches only the rudiments of philosophy, and indeed most classes teach basic reading and writing!"
"How much schooling do you have?"
"I expect I should have to have a year or two of tutoring," Marco said in a humble voice. "Don Eduardo has bought me all the books he could lay his hands on, even though it is illegal to import them except from Spain. And I have had some help from the priests in Cartago."
"I fear Catholics are not allowed at Oxford and Cambridge, though many Emancipation bills have been presented in Parliament and perhaps one has passed since I left."
"Oh, I am not a Catholic. Papa would not permit Mama to have us baptised. It is one of the few things they ever argue about. Papa says he is still an Englishman and an Anglican though he has not set foot in England or in church for a quarter of a century, and as far as he is concerned we, as his children, are all honorary Englishmen and Anglicans. No, that is not a problem. The problem is getting to England in the first place."
Andrew looked at him. "If Oscar is to go with me to Jamaica..." he said slowly.
"You don't suppose you could persuade...?"
"I shall see what I can do," promised Andrew recklessly, then wondered why he felt he was letting himself in for far more than he realised.