All London adores Eliza’s parrot, save Mary Durdy who cannot abide a caged bird. Eliza slips it nips of sugar, commanding it to talk. It whistles at her like a furious kettle.
Eliza locks the tea caddy and sits, straight-backed in her stiff brocade. Her parlour glows in the spitting light of its well-fed fire. It is a haven. Everyone says so. When Mary Durdy comes, in her grey gown, it feels as though a cloud has stolen in from the street.
Eliza pours. Samuel steps forward, passes the cup to where Mary Durdy perches, drizzling her persistent sermons.
“Will you take a little sugar, Mary,” Eliza asks, “against the bitterness?”
Samuel offers the bowl as if it were a scoop of diamonds. He is a magnificent creature, Eliza thinks. His red coat blazes, bright as the bird. She has powdered his hair with white, swaddled his legs in silk. His life is sweeter here, surely, whatever Mary Durdy says, than in the salt sweat of Papa’s plantation.
Mary Durdy declines, drones something Eliza does not care to catch about decay and rot. The parrot sidles up the bars of its cage. Samuel retreats to the wall.
Soon Eliza will be Lady Poole. Time, then, to leave behind the tedious duties of childhood. Such as entertaining Mary Durdy. Eliza dips her spoon into the bowl, glimpses in its sparkle the jewels she has been promised.
Mary Durdy starts, slops tea into her saucer. “Sugar! Sugar!” shrills the bobbing parrot. Eliza claps in triumph, rewards it with another sliver, sucks it a kiss from her pursed lips.
Mary Durdy, after merely the briefest pause, recommences. Eliza sighs and stirs her tea to glittering sweetness. She smoothes her India cashmere, admires the way the firelight plays across its rich gold threads. It shows their colour off just so.
Samuel, as a good footman should, says nothing, eyes fixed ahead. As evening falls, he watches his face emerge, reflected on the window like an unforgiving ghost glaring in through the pane.