Bittersweet Meetings

by Prince von Vlox

Tags: Historical,

Desc: : Kalliste meets a grandson.

Anna was looking downcast when Kalliste Periakes entered the Women's Co-op that afternoon. Kalliste was whistling a catchy number that somehow seemed familiar. She was a slender woman, an archaeology grad student of indeterminate age, with her black hair spilling across her shoulders in a riot of curls. She had an upturned nose, a generous mouth and large eyes that, this afternoon, sparkled in the sunshine.

"What's got you so upbeat?" Anna asked from her seat behind her ledger. She was paying the bills of the Co-op, something that always brought a scowl to her face.

"Cubs 6, Pirates 4," Kalliste replied. Though she was from Greece she had this strange love of baseball that none of the other women at the Co-op shared. "In the last three innings the Cubs rallied from four runs down and won the game in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run homer. The Pirates' closer came on and..."

Anna tuned out Kalliste's description and went back to writing checks. After a bit Kalliste noticed, and came over.

"What's wrong? Is something bothering you?"

Anna stared at the checkbook without really seeing it. "I saw someone today," she said in a low voice, "someone I never expected to see."

"Oh?" Kalliste sat down, studying Anna's face. "I assume it was an unhappy occasion."

"It shouldn't have happened." Anna moved the checkbook around the table, rearranged her pens and even adjusted her adding machine slightly. "People tell me I should have been overjoyed."

"Who was it?" Kalliste asked softly.

"My... son."

"Son?" Kalliste hid her reaction well. This was the first she had heard that Anna had a son. "Go on."

"I gave my son up - when I was younger I made a mistake, and..." Her voice trailed off as she stared at her desk. "This is hard."

"Nobody will hear it from me."

Anna nodded, biting her lip. "I, uh, when I was, uh, when I was 14, barely 14, I had a baby. I thought I could care for him," she added in a rush. "My school had a day care and I thought I could take care of him and still have my own life."

"You had to give him up for adoption, didn't you?" Anna nodded. "And today you saw him."

"The people who adopted him, they're good people. We've stayed in touch. I don't know why, the adoption agency recommended against it, said I'd be better off if we didn't, but I had to. He was my baby, my child. I couldn't... couldn't sever all ties with him. They sent me pictures, and today they took him to the baseball game."

"I didn't know you liked the game."

Anna grimaced. "I don't, not like you. But I knew where they'd be. I had to see him; I didn't want to touch him, or do anything like that. I needed more than a picture. I needed to see my son, my child, my baby, in the flesh."

She stared at the traffic outside, and the ebb and flow of people on the city street. "Did you ever run into someone, Kalliste, someone who was... someone it was painful to meet? Someone you shouldn't have seen, but somehow did?"

"Once," Kalliste said, staring at the desk. "Oh, more than once, but this one hurt." She gave Anna a troubled smile. "Let me tell you a story."

I loved Amsterdam from the first moment I saw it. You could almost smell the money being made. As my coach rattled over the bridge I could see a haze about the city, a haze I had seen hanging over many of the cities I'd passed through on this trip. At least there wasn't that horrible smell I'd noticed in Rome, an odious mélange of horses, manure, mud and unwashed people. And in Amsterdam it was the people I noticed first. They were rich! Even the street wanderers who would have been vagrant beggars in any other city seemed well-fed and intent on productive work. Seeing those prosperous folk made me realize how many others in the world were painfully poor.

More places than I cared to think of had an objection to a woman making money. After all, we were 'not meant' for the rough and tumble of the business world. Our 'duty' was to 'stay home and make babies'. Such thinkers never walked through the marketplace in the afternoon and saw who sold the food they ate or the clothes they wore. I had been in Amsterdam only a day when a Spanish friend from Barcelona explained it to me.

"The Dutch are the dullest thinkers in Europe, Belle," Domingo said. "They don't think about anything but Guilders. Everything else is secondary. They will tolerate anything, if it makes them money."

"Will they tolerate a woman who makes money?" I asked. I was Belle d'Argois right now, a young to middle-aged widow with a comfortable income and religious views that were best not expressed in Spain or any other Catholic land.

"If she makes money? It is possible." He turned his head, his aquiline nose probing the air like a dog scenting something. Knowing Domingo it was probably a loose coin somewhere in the room. "You will need a partner, though," he added, "for the owning of money and property is still a matter of law, and the lawyers are all men."

His smile was so enchanting I knew he was considering what was to him that most delightful of circumstances, an alliance with a lady of means; pleasure, wealth and leisure, not necessarily in that order. Domingo was so transparent he should have been made of glass.

"Leave that to me," I said with a smile and a subtle nod that took the sting out of my refusal.

He laughed. "Belle, I would have been honored."

"Of a certainty you would, you old lecher. You haven't changed at all in the years I have known you. For my own peace of mind I should get you married off."

"And you haven't changed either," he responded gallantly. "Soft, sweet, demure, with just a hint of steel in those lustrous eyes, and ever a touch of mystery in the business you make. Some day I'll have to find out what really happened to that husband of yours."

"You would be disappointed," I said. "As I told you before, he was killed by pirates."

"Turks," he said. I did not bother to correct him. "And he with no brothers or uncles to relieve you of the onerous duties of managing his fortune? No prelates or noble seigniors leaping forth to guard you and your inheritance from worldly depredations? So sad, my Belle, all alone in this dismal world with her memories and her money." We had been down this route before, but he played his part well, and I mine, like the moves of a pair of matched chess masters.

"None of my brothers are alive," I said truthfully, and sadly, "nor his. I mourn them still." Again, the Lady's own truth, though little he knew it.

"What a world it would be," he mused. "Your talent for making two florins into four, and my contacts. What would our children be like?" He poured us both another cup of wine. "To lost futures, Belle."

"To lost futures, Domingo," I agreed, raising my cup to touch his.

He pulled a small piece of parchment from his purse. "See this man tomorrow," he said, flicking it across the table to me as if it were the merest trifle. "It will be worth your while."

"Who is he?" Domingo knew me well. If I gained profit from his advice I would see that a share of the guilders found their way into his purse. A point of honor as we had each helped the other in times past.

"A gentleman who is offering shares in a trading venture."

"Which is going where? What does he trade?"

"He represents the cloth merchants of Ypres. He controls a considerable share of their production."

I picked up the parchment. "How do I find him?" I carefully noted the directions he gave me and then settled back in my chair, nodding and saluting him with my cup. He smiled, inclined his own, and our contract was made.

It was good to do business with Domingo. He treated me with respect as a partner should, and not just as a tactic in his never-ending pursuit of my hand in marriage. Together we had earned profits in other ventures. He recognized and valued my ability to make money grow. That was a rare treasure in a man - it still is. And what did I see in him? I doubt there was a merchant in Europe Domingo did not know. As he had said, his contacts and my talents would make a wonderful combination.

Serious business discussion gave way to more pleasant conversation. "So, my friend, what have you been up to? How did you avoid the inquisitors in Barcelona?"

"You heard about that?" he asked dolefully. "It is a terrible day when a man of my talents finds himself being chased by priests who are less interested in his orthodoxy than in the florins he has set aside. That is a long, sad story."

I refilled his cup. "I like long stories. I grew up on them."

"Well those holy brothers have no respect for profit not of their own making, and-"

The next morning I followed Domingo's directions to a modest house overlooking one of the canals on the northeast side of town. The merchant's secretary eyed me with obvious reluctance - I was dressed in the Spanish style this morning. That could lead to problems in the Spanish Netherlands as the Dutch had no love for their Spanish overlords, but I was willing to live with that this morning. My skirts and petticoats were warm in the brisk morning air.

"I am Mademoiselle Belle d'Argois," I said in French. "I have an appointment to see Master Trader van Voorthuysen. Señor Domingo Juarez de Santiago y Valencia has recommended the Trader to me."

Master van Voorthuysen's secretary looked at a list uppermost in the neat stack of work on his desk, then reluctantly opened the door and showed me to his master's study. "She says she is expected," he said with a sniff. Master Trader van Voorthuysen reflected the annoyance of his secretary as he gestured me to a chair.

"Belle d'Argois," I introduced myself in French. Better for him to dislike me for my cosmopolitan airs rather than my Spanish dress. "I have a letter of recommendation to show you." I removed it from my sleeve and handing it across the desk.

He opened the envelope and read its message, suspicion narrowing his gaze. As the words sank home his expression turned to wide-eyed amazement. His hand darted furtively to a pocket and he touched a small lace handkerchief to his forehead to blot away the sudden sheen of perspiration. My envelope held a letter of credit for 750,000 Guilders made out to me and drawn on the largest bank in Florence.

"I see you come well recommended," he said at last.

"That one has friends," I said, playing coyly with my fan. "Many friends. They may miss their friend here and want to join it." I gauged his eyes carefully. "Those friends are larger." I waited for that to sink in, and then added, "Some are much much larger."

He had to swallow twice before continuing. "You are interested in the cloth trade?" His voice came out with a slight tremor. "I deal in nothing else."

"I have some experience with the business," I said dryly. "Cloth holds its value. People need clothes to wear."

"We don't do much with ships," he said. "Most of our trade is overland."

"For a beginning, that will be adequate." I reached across the table and plucked the letter of credit from his fingers, placing it squarely between us. "What is the current price of your shares?"

He gestured at the letter. "That doesn't buy shares," he said. "That buys ownership."

"I would prefer if someone else ran the business. When I took over my husband's shipping business I found it more expedient to have a man as a partner and to remain in the background." I gauged him carefully, liking more and more what I was seeing. He was old enough to know well the responsibilities and workings of his trade, but neither so old nor so successful that he could ignore my offer. "And I mean partner, not puppet." His thoughtful expression showed that he understood my meaning.

He gestured at my purse. "In Amsterdam those are the only partners you need, Mademoiselle d'Argois." He was telling me bluntly that I did not need him. He was honest. Excellent. Domingo had definitely earned another afternoon of wine and conversation.

"Merchant van Voorthuysen," I said, folding my hands neatly in my lap. "I am told you know more about the cloth trade than any two men, and you are very good friends with the Merchants of the Cloth Hall in Ypres. I am sure you also understand your fellow men. To you, and many of your peers, what you say is true, the only thing that truly matters to you is the size of my purse. To the good wives of your friends, though, and to others from outside this city, I am a woman without a man. To them that is far more important than my purse. The wives will see strangeness and independence, in their eyes a threat. Most men would see my sex and take it as a weakness. To most of them I would be an opportunity ripe for the taking. We women are so weak, after all," I added. French is a good language for sarcasm, and his quick smile showed me he understood my point. "Everyone knows we have no head for business." My hands fisted in a momentary gesture of impatience. "I choose not to waste time or effort fighting that which will not change in this or any other life."

He smiled as if to show me that such thoughts had never crossed his mind. "Mademoiselle d'Argois, I can assure you that is not the case in this establishment."

My laugh was short. "Few men are clever enough to mask their true opinions behind the common beliefs, Merchant van Voorthuysen. I will leave this letter with you for investing in your cloth trade. That is my principle business on this trip to Amsterdam."

His eyes flicked across the letter of credit. He snapped his fingers, and his secretary appeared in the door. "Draw up an agreement of partnership," he commanded. "Mademoiselle d'Argois has invested a number of guilders in our trading venture. In the future, when she appears at the door, she is to be admitted without delay, even if I am with someone else."

"Yes, sir," the secretary said, his eyes trying to judge me. I smiled sweetly and said nothing.

"Some wine?" the Master Trader asked, producing a bottle and two cups. "I am afraid it might be a touch plebeian for your palette, but-"

I interrupted him with another laugh. "Master Trader, I am not of the nobility. Monsieur d'Argois was a by-blow of a cadet branch of a very minor house. My father was a trader, much like yourself, my husband too, and but for the accident of my sex, I am also a trader. I appreciate flattery, but I do not let it turn my head." I took the bottle he offered and filled both our cups. "Let us drink to the guilders we are going to make. Your guilders and mine, may their union produce lots of little guilders."

"A worthy toast," he said with a laugh, his wattles shaking. "Lots and lots of little guilders."

And so they did. By the time I left Amsterdam 80 years later the guilders I had placed on the table that morning, and their friends, had begotten other guilders with the enthusiasm of rabbits. Our cloth was traded from Boston colony in America to the far ends of the Middle Sea. We were the first and largest traders in the Indies. Our tumblehome ships dominated the Baltic trade and our caravans were seen and respected from Sweden in the north to the farthest Spanish colonies of the Americas.

Master Trader van Voorthuysen died well respected by his peers, not the least for his fortune. As for myself, I left my fortune to my 'daughter', who likewise showed a skill for turning small piles of guilders into large piles of guilders. In that persona I married Master Trader van Voorthuysen's grandson to cement our partnership. Between us we owned out right several dozen ships at sea, and we owned shares in more than 200 others. Our trading caravans plodded from one end of Europe to the other, from far Muscovy to sunny Madrid, from Stockholm to Istanbul. In our name, and carrying our goods, caravan masters prodded their laden beasts across Africa and into the depths of India. In all the councils of the Dutch the guilders we owned cast our vote for peace and open markets.

In time I had to move on. Too many people noted an uncanny resemblance between the granddaughter and her grandmother. Worse, the French and English both began to covet the wealth of the Dutch and the Stadtholder had to plan for war. By the time things came to a head and conflict broke out with France I was far away, relaxing, or so I thought, in Crete.

I had left a real son and a real daughter to take over the family fortunes. I had played with their children, Junius and Amanda, satisfying myself that what they would inherit would be in good hands. As usual, I made a clean break of it. There was no way they could trace me, save possibly for a sum to be deposited every year in a bank in Florence. But even that was covered through several intermediaries; I had some small experience in doing that, after all.

But I had little need of that money when I moved to England 60 years later. London and the English were a far cry from the early Britons who stirred in my memories. I had heard stories but had never been to that island in the time of Caesar. In many ways I found London dirtier than Istanbul, the people poorer and their living conditions even more wretched than the beggars before the Grand Mosque.

I made discrete inquiries and found a solid middle-class burgher who reminded me of a gentleman I had known in Florence 150 years before. I brought wealth to the marriage, he brought contacts; it was just like with Domingo, save that I married Richard. Together we prospered. It was a form of marriage more akin to a business partnership than anything else. There might have been love between the solid English Whig and his foreign born wife, but just as possibly there was not; after I discovered his mistress I befriended her, my one true friend in Britain. She honestly loved Richard, but he considered her too far below him for marriage. The years went by, I bore Richard no heirs, she bore him three. I adopted her children to give them the legitimate place their father would not.

Business held Richard and I together, never more so than when the South Seas Trading Shares were offered.

"You bring me luck," he said one night after returning from his club.

"It is preparation and study," I disagreed. "It is not luck." We had this conversation every time he found a new investment. "What is it this time?"

"The South Seas investment looks sound." He tamped tobacco into his pipe. It was a long-stemmed one I had ordered from a pipe maker in Alexandria. "I think we should invest as much as we can in it."

"Durling Brothers, did they invest in it?"

"They are selling shares of other investments to raise the necessary money."

"Buy their other shares. Buy as many of their shares as we can afford. And do the same with Jonathan Clairborne and Sons, and that other one, the one in Plymouth."

"Virginia Shore Trading?"

"Yes, that one."

"Why? Why not just invest in the South Seas Trading Company? What is it you don't like about them?" He was not angry, or even unduly disturbed at my contrariness. He was simply curious, another of those rare men who considered my arguments worth hearing.

"Husband of mine, what is the bedrock of our success? Cloth. Bulk goods. Things that people need, things we can physically touch and count. What is in Virginia? Swamps and Indians and Mountains to be sure, but there is also Tobacco, something we can touch. What is in the South Seas? Islands. Small islands with backwards natives and blessed with little land to grow their own food, much less spice or other things for trade. They don't even have sugar, which we trade for in the Caribbean.

"If Durling Brothers, or Clairborne, or the others get rich, their stock will go up, and we will get rich because of them. If they fail, we will still have the core of our business, and whatever business we take from them in the next few months. We will lose some money if their investment is unsound, but not much, and we will make much more by the increase of our trade in Europe, trade we will take over as they get out of that market. What is there to lose? The only thing we lose is a chance to lose our money in large quantities."

He shifted back and forth in his chair. The lure of easily available money was pulling at him. He liked to gamble, but he knew it for a weakness, and at his club he did not wager large sums, only the coins he carried in his pocket. He started to say something, and then stopped.

"Oh, very well, Angela. I shall instruct our broker to buy their offered shares."

"I will tell him myself," I said, much relieved that Richard was so agreeable. I dashed off a quick note and then rang for the boy who would deliver it. "Take this to Stewart Featherstone," I told him, accompanying the note with a coin. "And please bring me a receipt."

"Yes'm," he said, touching his brow before running off. Turning back to my husband I smiled. "This will work, Richard. In two years you will be seen as a businessman of true genius."

He laughed. "You are the genius."

"Me?" My laugh was softer. "It is better that you have the credit, my dear. In time, in a few years even, perhaps it will all change and I might be recognized as your partner. But now? Now the only thing a woman in England can manage on any scale is a whorehouse." I thought of Queen Anne, and laughed. "England. You can be a Queen or a whore, but nothing in between."

"Humph. Yes, I suppose you have the right of that." He drew on his pipe. "Well," he added thoughtfully after a moment, "the dice are tossed. Now we can only wait and see."

It was a tense year, and then another just as tight. Every few months Richard mused about getting into the South Seas venture. We watched as the shares spiraled higher and higher. Every year we shelled out money to buy stock in other companies. Every year I was pushed harder and harder to cover our investments.

The only thing that made it all work was our own local trade. Others sold off their parts of their business to invest in the South Seas, which we were more than happy to snap up at inexpensive prices. Richard saw this, and quietly put his own money into expanding our trade with the colonies. By then he was as skeptical of the entire South Seas investment as I. He moved quietly to extend loans, first to Durling Brothers, then some of the others. He was as greedy as the rest, but he saw the wisdom of letting them take the greater risks.

In 1720, the South Seas Bubble collapsed. The City was in an uproar. Nearly everyone was hurt. We took a serious loss ourselves, but I had sold short on the exchange, something I had learned centuries ago from a Portuguese grain merchant, and we rode out the storm.

When Thomas Durling came to us and threatened Richard to get money to prop up his failing company, Richard bridled. "Why do I have to rescue you from your mistakes?"

There is more of this story...
The source of this story is Storiesonline

For the rest of this story you need to be logged in: Log In or Register for a Free account

Story tagged with:
Historical /