A Pearl of Great Price
December 23, 1979
"Well, I’ll be damned." Hugh Fitzcairn gave the newspaper a shake and folded it into quarters before pushing it across the table. "Look at this, Mac."
Duncan MacLeod put down his coffee and inspected the obituary Fitzcairn pointed out to him. "Charles Davenport, junior, industrialist and one of the richest men in America . . . " he mumbled, " . . . survived by a sister and his mother . . . services in scheduled for early next week."
"Do you remember the Davenports?" Fitzcairn asked.
"Steel, oil, railroads. New York, nineteen twenty something, " MacLeod said between sips of coffee.
Fitzcairn waved for the waitress and fumbled for his coat.
"Where are you going, Fitz?" MacLeod asked.
December 23, 1922
MacLeod and Fitzcairn stood at the open doorway of the magnificent Upper East Side home. MacLeod nodded and headed toward the bar. Fitzcairn decided to take care of more pressing matters first, the most pressing matter of all being the two beautiful women standing next to a bowl of steaming punch.
"Wassail," Fitzcairn supplied. "It’s called wassail, ladies."
The shorter of the two women picked up a ladle and poked at the pair of clove-studded oranges that floated in the hot punch, which bobbed and spun, releasing a spicy fragrance into the air.
The woman stood armed for battle—ladle in hand, warm smile on her face, a fierce desire in her eyes, and Fitzcairn knew that the war was lost in that very moment; she had vanquished his heart. He gave a long and appreciative look at her, his eyes stopping at the level of her own heart, and muttered a silent damnation at the hideous fashion dictates of the day. Were it not for flapper dresses and chests bound to look like a boy, she would be bobbing in as enticing way as the oranges in the punch. Fitzcairn conjured his most charming and seductive smile and extended an empty crystal punch cup. The two women’s giggles were nearly drowned in the music from the five-piece band.
"I don’t suppose you’d know how to make it?" the shorter woman asked.
Fitzcairn hooked his left thumb in his vest pocket and leaned forward with a twinkle in his eye. "First, you must catch a pair of wassails."
He poked one of the floating oranges. Both women exploded in laughter.
"Round up a hundred of them, pen them, and then open the gate. The last two out are the sleekest, fattest, most flavorful ones. Twist off their heads and tails and pop them into the punchbowl with . . . " Here he paused and sniffed with a clinical, bemused look on his face . . . "a fifth of the finest apple brandy your hostess has been able to procure despite the dreary strictures imposed by Prohibition."
All three collapsed into fits of laughter, drawing the attention of MacLeod, who crossed the room with a teacup of whisky. He stood between the two women and gave each a kiss on the cheek. Then he placed his arm loosely on the waist of the taller woman. Fitzcairn gave a little sigh of relief.
"Ladies, may I present my friend Hugh Fitzcairn?" MacLeod said. "Miss Daphne Throckmorton." He indicated the blonde woman at his side. Fitzcairn murmured greetings over her outstretched hand and then turned anxiously to her companion.
MacLeod barely suppressed a smile. "And Mrs. Charles Davenport," he said, happily emphasizing her marital status.
Mrs. Davenport put down the ladle and extended her hand. Fitzcairn bowed deeply to bring his lips to her fingers. "I am eternally at your mercy, Mrs. Davenport," he said. "Would you care to dance?" MacLeod’s mouth fell open.
"Call me Pearl. I’d love to." She smiled at Daphne and started toward the dance floor. Fitzcairn took his eyes from the hypnotic shimmy of the fringe stretched across her dress long enough to watch MacLeod’s crestfallen face.
"I am in your debt, laddie," he said.
"Fitz, she’s married."
Fitzcairn waited, eyebrows raised expectantly, to see if his frieind would explain what the lady’s marital status had to do with anything, and concluded that MacLeod’s exasperated roll of the eyes was a wish for good luck in his pursuit of Mrs. Davenport’s affections.
He danced with Pearl through several lively numbers, both skilled enough—and daring enough with their high kicks—to have cleared a small space in the center of a crowd of appreciative onlookers.
"And how was it again that you removed the heads from wassails?" Pearl asked at the start of a slower dance.
"As cruel as it sounds, it’s best to nibble them off," he said, closing in on her neck for as close a demonstration as he dared in public. "The slower, the better."
She shivered. "What exquisite torture! And the wassail tails?"
"That, dear lady, is best reserved for a more private venue."
Pearl excused herself after the dance was over to find Daphne, and Fitzcairn strolled over to the punchbowl, where he found MacLeod. They followed Pearl and Daphne’s exit from the room with admiring gazes.
"Why do women always say they’re going to powder their noses?" MacLeod asked.
"I suspect it’s because they don’t want to admit they’re talking about us." Fitzcairn peered into MacLeod’s teacup. "It’s a damned good thing William Wallace is already gone; seeing whisky served like that would have struck him dead in his tracks."
MacLeod swirled the liquid in the teacup. "I imagine that our hostess think it looks less illegal this way."
Fitzcairn bounced on the balls of his feet and searched every corner of the room with his eyes. "Have you by any chance seen Mr. Davenport?"
MacLeod gave him a smug, unreadable smile and, despite repeated prompting, refused to answer until fine beads of perspiration broke out on Fitzcairn’s forehead.
"He’s out of town for the week," MacLeod said finally.
Fitzcairn beamed. "Really? The man must be a very great fool indeed to leave such a beautiful creature as Pearl unattended and lonely during the holidays."
"It’s a business trip, and Daphne says that the beautiful Mrs. Davenport insisted that he go. She has very expensive tastes, Fitz."
The musicians began to play a Christmas carol. Fitzcairn hummed along, stopping only long enough to say to MacLeod, "What say you offer them a ride home, Mac, and maybe I can arrange for old Fitzie Claus to pop down Pearl’s chimney tomorrow night and give her a special gift?"
"You’re a worry, Fitz."
Fitz turned a winning smile on his friend and sang, "Let nothing you dismay . . . "
"You’re incorrigible, Fitz."
"That’s part of my charm, laddie," Fitzcairn said.
"She’s got very expensive taste, and you’re broke," Duncan reminded him.
"The true spirit of Christmas isn’t measure in material gifts."
MacLeod snorted. "She likes jewelry, Fitzcairn, Big, gaudy jewelry."
Daphne and Pearl returned to the room and crossed the dance floor. The jet beads that looped Pearl’s neck and draped nearly to her hips bounced rhythmically as she walked.
Fitzcairn sighed, "Come on, Mac. Have a heart and offer them a ride. You can’t tell me you haven’t considered if God wouldn’t rest ye merry, too, if you let Daphne unwrap a present or two under your tree?"
December 23, 1979
There was only a half an hour left until the mall closed, and Fitz was lost in a sea of desperate, rushing last-minute shoppers. He passed a greeting card shop with its window done up for Valentine’s Day and made his way to a jewelry store. He looked from case to case to case before leaving the shop without making a purchase.
Santa was looking none too jolly; nor were the frustrated parents of tired children who still queued up at an hour that must have been past their bedtime.
Fitzcairn stopped in front of display of the North Pole and directed a question to a flocked, animated reindeer. "It was so much easier before all of this crass commercialism, don’t you think, bucko?"
December 23, 1922
Fitzcairn had long since decided that his good friend Duncan MacLeod was soft on new-fangled contraptions and ideas, and the 1921 Packard was no exception. Still, as new-fangled contraptions went, the car was a fairly inoffensive one, and the benefits reaped on that single ride with Pearl Davenport more than made up for the noise and gasoline fumes.
The back seat was cozy, with a wide seat and lovely glass vases hanging above the windows. MacLeod or perhaps Daphne had taken the trouble of filling them with holly and mistletoe. Fitzcairn snagged a sprig of mistletoe and dangled it over Pearl time and time again, to the grudging amusement of MacLeod and Daphne, who occupied the front seat.
Pearl wondered out loud why she and Fitzcairn had never met before. He buried his answer in a roundabout story of travels in Great Britain and the Continent. The plain fact of the matter was that he hadn’t a snowball’s chance of being invited into Pearl’s social circles without MacLeod’s introduction. But he had a borrowed tuxedo, several lifetimes worth of clever stories, and centuries of experience with the fairer sex, and that was all he needed with Mrs. Davenport, whom he was tickling and calling "Pearl-my-girl" within ten minutes’ time.
The back seat of the Packard was a smashingly successful place to arrange an illicit assignation. It was so successful that before the night was through, Hugh Fitzcairn had decided that as soon as he was solvent again—a situation that will likely entail smug tutelage from that blasted Scothe thought—he was going to buy himself his very own new-fangled horseless carriage.
December 23, 1979
Fitzcairn made his fifth and final empty-handed loop around the mall, then protested out loud and cursed under his breath when the security guard shepherded him outside and locked the door.
"If my friend Mr. Dickens had met you, you unfeeling clod," Fitzcairn threatened through the mall door, "you’d have had the chance to appear in a novel, but I doubt you’d would have had such a happy ending as old Ebeneezer did!"
Fitzcairn had liked Christmas a great deal more before malls and catalogues. A song, a poem, a lovely feat of derring-do had all been enough of a gift in other times. He shoved his hands in his pockets and headed for the only store that was still open—a corner gas station and minimart.
December 26, 1929
MacLeod cracked open the hotel room door and demanded,"Where have you been sleeping for the last two nights?"
"On the davenport." Fitzcairn winked.
"What happened to your shirt?" MacLeod asked.
Fitzcairn rubbed at the bloody stains on his cuff and collar. "Let me in, and I’ll tell you."
MacLeod swung open the door and gestured toward the couch of his hotel room.
Fitzcairn sat with a sigh."There’s a good lad."
"One of us?" MacLeod asked.
"Worse," Fitzcairn said. "I met Mr. Charles Davenport rather unexpectedly, and he gave a whole new meaning to ‘Boxing Day’. It seems he concluded his business a day earlier than we anticipated."
MacLeod winced and clapped Fitzcairn on the knee. "For a minute, I was afraid you were going to tell me that Pearl didn’t like your Christmas present."
Fitzcairn smiled. "She adored my present."
"Daphne said that Pearl likes jewels, and you’re so broke right now that the only ones you’ve got are the family jewels."
Fitzcairn drew himself up with dignity. "I wrapped them up in a silk ribbon. Presentation is all, MacLeod."
"Please stop, Fitz."
"But first, MacLeod, I visited every candy and pastry shop in New York until I found what I needed. I made up a small plate of Venus’s Nipples and Lady’s Navels, and I demonstrated how to eat them."
MacLeod rubbed his hand over his forehead and pleaded in a weak voice, "Do stop now, Fitz."
"I found a curiosity called a ‘Whoopie Pie’ with which I, quite naturally, dear boy, supplied a demonstration. Then," Fitzcairn added triumphantly, "we shared some Turkish Delight."
MacLeod winced as if he were in pain. Fitzcairn smiled, eyes half closed.
He sat up abruptly then, and his eyes popped open. "And then . . . well, then Mr. Davenport returned home early."
"Why don’t you get changed?" MacLeod suggested. "I’ll drive you to the train station."
Fitzcairn rubbed his cheekbone. "Well, laddie, the thing is that I’ve decided to stay in New York for a while. Davenport’s off to Texas tomorrow, and I can’t have my girl Pearl all alone for the New Year or her birthday, now can I?"
December 23, 1979
A fluorescent tube near the cash register buzzed and flickered, lending a disorienting feel to the greenish light in the minimart. Fitzcairn was the lone customer at this late hour, but he knew that he needed a present for tomorrow, Christmas Eve. After having spent nearly forty-five minutes trawling the aisles in the hopes that inspiration would strike him, he was beginning to get nervous looks from the cashier.
He had given up and was on his way out when inspiration finally struck. He made his purchase, wished the tired and slack-jawed cashier a merry Christmas, and headed out into the cold.
Fitzcairn tossed and turned throughout the night, dreaming of his on-again, off-again relationship with his girl Pearl. He had kept the loneliness away from her—and she from him, when he dare to admit it to himself—for the better part of three years, until the day that her first child was born and filled her days and nights.
Shortly after nine o’clock on Christmas Eve morning, Fitzcairn rolled out of bed and headed for the shower. He sighed even now, so many years later. Pearl had been better off with Davenport after all; he had given her the life and the children that she wanted but Fitzcairn couldn’t provide. But he could still do this one thing for her, and he couldn’t bear to see her lonely.
He snatched up Pearl’s Christmas present and headed for the nursing home he had seen listed in her son’s obituary. Directed by the staff, Fitzcairn walked to the end of a long corridor to her room.
Inside the room was a silver-haired woman with Pearl Davenport’s unmistakable eyes; she was surrounded by a man and woman in their thirties, and a uniformed nurse holding a plastic bag of medications and a checklist.
"Charles, darling, come and sign this," Pearl called, and the young man bent over the nurses’ clipboard and scribbled something.
Pearl looked up again, squinted, and squealed, "Fitzie? Do come in!" She held our her hands in greeting, and the nurse took the opportunity to slip a blood pressure cuff over one of Pearl’s arms.
Fitzcairn waved his package. The young man crossed the room and extended his hand. "Robert Davenport," he said and then gestured to the woman next to the nurse, "and my wife, Linda."
"Hugh Fitzcairn." He shook hands with Robert."She called you Charles."
Robert lowered his voice, "Well, Grandmama is reliving her youth again. She thinks I’m my grandfather."
Fitzcairn inclined his head slightly. "My condolences on the death of your father."
Pearl helped push off the blood pressure cuff and gestured for Fitzcairn to join her. He bent down close to her and whispered, "It’s good to see you, Pearl-my-girl."
Pearl giggled and eyed the wrapped package. Fitzcairn presented it to her with a flourish, and she tore open the paper. She smiled and read the label.
"Hershey’s kisses," she said, dropping her voice. "Do they come with a demonstration, Fitzie?"
"Of course they do." Fitzcairn winked, then bent to kiss the fragile, papery skin of her cheeks.
Robert stepped forward, a small suitcase in his hand. His wife, Linda, was already out the door, and the nurse had moved behind Pearl’s wheelchair and was unlocking the brakes.
Robert said, "I’m sorry to intrude, but we have to go now if we’re going to beat traffic across the bridge. Do join us for Christmas Eve dinner tonight, Hugh."
"I couldn’t possibly intrude," Fitzcairn protested.
Pearl snatched his shirt, dragged him to her ear, and whispered, "Especially not if Charles is going to be there. We don’t want a repeat of Boxing Day."
"I’ll stop by for New Year’s and then the next week for your birthday," Fitzcairn promised.
Pearl looked at him, serious for a moment, "You know, you should come on your birthday, too. It’s not good to be alone, Fitz." The seriousness disappeared as Pearl was wheeled out of her room.
"Do give Daphne and Duncan a call for me," Pearl said.
Fitzcairn followed Pearl and her family nearly to the exit, stopping at a pay phone and waving goodbye with the receiver. He dropped in a dime and made arrangements to spend the evening with MacLeod.
When Fitzcairn left the nursing home, Pearl and her family were driving out of the parking lot. He pulled his pipe from a pocket and lit it, singing to himself as he went, "Tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy."