The young woman wearing the mobcap sniffs and plucks a bag of lavender from her bosom.
"One needs it," she murmurs, "what with the streets so choked with rubbish."
We're in Annapolis, but the lavender lady is in the 18th century, a docent leading a group of visitors in a lantern-lit pub crawl through the first peacetime capital of the United States. While her charges polish off a plate of country ham and crab cakes, she regales them with gossip about the money problems of Samuel Chase.
Samuel Chase? He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence who ran out of money before his 1769 house on Maryland Avenue was finished. Son of a minister, where would he get the necessary funds? Common gossip, really.
"Passed down from docent to docent?" inquires a man at the end of the table amid general laughter.
Here in Harbour House, overlooking the water, it's easy to blur the 18th and 20th centuries in a game of let's pretend. Everyone has paid $35 to follow the guide with lantern in hand along the brick walks and to sup and drink in the best Bay County tradition. Primed with rum-spiked cider in the old Maryland Inn, we've been introduced over a first course of spinach salad, fruit, cheese, wine and warm Maryland biscuits -- no relation to the beaten biscuits that resemble hardtack. Plodding along behind our guide between courses of a progressive feast, we've caught an insider's glimpse of this old town and in the process become friends, as close as any shipboard acquaintances.
Tucking into the food, we all watch as our guide swings a basket onto the table and rummages through it. It's the 18th century again, as she pulls out a brick of pressed tea, a dried and twisted tobacco leaf, a quill pen, powdered ink and some beeswax. Last of all emerges a board resembling a cheese board, which she calls a child's hornbook -- a piece of wood covered with parchment and a horn lid on which a Colonial child once learned alphabet and numbers.
Like the rest of the tour, this is a painless history lesson administered with imagination and flair: Annapolis by moonlight, the oldest state house in continuous use, a gawk at the Governor's mansion and a little gossip about its various inhabitants. We've walked past the 1763 house of William Paca, another signer of the Declaration, and the house of financially troubled Samuel Chase; heard about some of the troubles of the Carrolls, those early Maryland settlers, and of the Mandells, those recent front-pagers. Seated here comfortably overlooking the water, sipping wine in the pleasant warmth, we're in a time warp, hungry for more.
Guides for this innovative walking tour, eight-year-old brainchild of two Annapolis women, are adept at blending centuries. It's part theater, part masquerade, part history and all great fun.
And the evening isn't over yet. After a stop at Harry Browne's, where out in the garden behind, we've sampled his famous fish gumbo in foam cups to carry along on our walk, it's on to Riordan's Saloon at the head of the town dock; there, in a private dining room upstairs, a festive 18th-century finale awaits.
Sherry and pastry are what Riordan's is serving. Do you care to smoke? Each place is laid with a clay pipe so that people who don't ordinarily indulge can puff away to get into the spirit of the century. The waiters are in knee breeches and wigs; at the end of the table, two 20th-century guitarists are tuning up. They lead off with Christmas carols until one of the docents, perhaps spurred by the sherry, leaps to her feet and, waving a Union Jack, renders some ballads of her native Yorkshire.
The evening is hitting its stride. The husband of one of the docents gets up to sing a tear-jerking 18th-century number comparing the love of a woman to the joys of beer and ale. From the street below rise the voices of strolling carolers, heralding the holiday with an ancient Christmas song. By 11 o'clock when it's time to go home, it seems almost as if Samuel Chase himself might be passing, lifting his hat to the homeward-bound guests. Whomever one meets, it's a pleasant stroll back to the Maryland Inn. Annapolis is a town for walking, even without a lantern.
The inn itself is right for a journey back in time, a 1770 beauty showing her age with genteel charm. The old hostelry takes well to Christmas, looking its best in pine boughs and hurricane lamps. Twenty fireplaces warm its guests, and in the lobby glass cases hold early letters including one from President Lincoln. The ceilings tower and the rooms are cozy, if not chic.
By day, Annapolis offers other attractions: good antique shops within walking distance of the inn, a tour of the state house itself and a look at the Naval Academy. John Paul Jones lies in a crypt here and Techumseh, a replica of the figurehead on the USS Delaware, stares impassively down at visitors. ANNAPOLIS AMBLE To make Pub Crawl reservations, call 301/263-5357 before December 8. Tours are scheduled for December 14, 15 and 16, from 7 to 11; $35 includes food and drink. Three Centuries Tours, P.O. Box 29, Annapolis 21404..