Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 120



Before shipping with the Gloriana, Roger had assumed himself to be in reasonably good condition. In fact, compared to most of the obviously malnourished and wizened specimens of humanity who constituted the rest of the crew, he considered himself well endowed, indeed. It took precisely fourteen hours—the length of one day’s work—to disabuse him of this notion.

Blisters he had bargained for, and sore muscles; heaving crates, lifting spars, and hauling ropes was familiar labor, though he hadn’t done it for some time.

What he had forgotten was the bone-deep fatigue that sprang as much from the constant chill of damp clothes as from the work. He welcomed the heavy labor in the cargo hold, because it warmed him temporarily, even though he knew the warmth would be succeeded by a fine, constant shiver as soon as he emerged on deck, where the wind could resume its icy probe of his sweat-soaked clothes.

Hands roughened and scraped by wet hemp were painful, but expected; by the end of his first day, his palms were black with tar, and the skin of his fingers cracked and bled at the joints, scraped raw. But the gnawing ache of hunger had been something of a surprise. He hadn’t thought it possible to be as hungry as he was.

The knobbled lump of humanity working beside him—one Duff by name—was similarly damp, but seemed unfazed by the condition. The long, pointed nose that quested, ferret-like, from the upturned collar of a ragged jacket was blue at the tip and dripped regularly as a stalactite, but the pale eyes were sharp and the mouth beneath grinned wide, displaying teeth the color of the water in the Firth.

“Take hairt, man. Grub in twa bells.” Duff gave him a companionable elbow in the ribs and disappeared nimbly down a hatchway, from whose cavernous recesses echoed blasphemous shouts and loud bangings.

Roger resumed his unloading of the cargo net, heartened indeed at the prospect of supper.

The after hold had already been half filled. The water casks were loaded; tier upon tier of wooden hogsheads, squatting in the shadowy gloom, each hundred-gallon cask weighing more than seven hundred pounds. But the forward hold still gaped empty, and a constant procession of loaders and quaymen streamed like ants across the dock, piling up such a heap of boxes and barrels, rolls and bundles, that it seemed inconceivable that the mass should ever be condensed sufficiently to fit within the ship.

It took two days to finish the loading: barrels of salt, bolts of cloth, huge crates of ironmongery that had to be lowered with rope slings because of their weight. It was here that Roger’s size proved of benefit. At the end of a rope belayed round the capstan, he leaned back against the weight of a crate suspended at the other end and, muscles popping with the strain, lowered it slowly enough that the two men below could catch and guide it into place in the increasingly crowded hold.

The passengers came aboard in the late afternoon, a straggling line of emigrants, burdened with bags, bundles, caged chickens, and children. These were the cargo of the steerage—a space created by erection of a bulk-head across the forward hold—and as profitable in their way as the harder goods aft.

“Bondsmen and redemptioners,” Duff had told him, looking over the incomers with a practiced eye. “Worth fifteen pund each on the hoof in the plantations, weans three or four. Bairns at the teat go free wi’ their mithers.”

The seaman coughed, a deep, rattling noise like an ancient motor starting up, and hawked a glob of phlegm, narrowly missing the side rail as he spat. He shook his head as he looked the shuffling line over.

“Happen some can pay their way, but no many in this lot. They’ll have had a job to come up wi’ twa pund a family for their feed on the voyage.”

“The Captain doesn’t feed them, then?”

“Oh, aye.” Duff rumbled in his chest again, coughed and spat. “For a price.” He grinned at Roger, wiped his mouth, and jerked his head toward the gangplank. “Go and lend a hand, laddie. We wouldna want the Captain’s profit to be fallin’ intae the water, now, would we?”

Surprised by the padded feel of a little girl as he swung her aboard, Roger looked closer and saw that the stout build of many of the women was illusion, occasioned by their wearing several layers of clothes; all they owned in the world, apparently, beyond small bundles of personal possessions, boxes of food put by for the journey—and the scrawny children for whose sake they took this desperate step.

Roger squatted, smiling at a reluctant toddler who clung to his mother’s skirts. He was no more than two, still in smocks, with a riot of soft blond curls, his fat little mouth drawn down in fearful disapproval of everything around him.

“Come on, man,” Roger said softly, putting out a hand in invitation. It was no longer an effort to control his accent; his usual clipped Oxbridge had elided to the gentler Highland speech with which he had grown up, and he used it now without conscious thought. “Your Mam can’t be pickin’ ye up now; you come with me.”

Grossly mistrustful, the boy snuffled and glowered at him, but suffered him to peel the grubby little fingers away from his mother’s skirts. Roger carried the little boy across the deck, the woman following him silently. She looked up at him as he handed her down the ladder, her eyes fixed on his; her face disappeared in the darkness like a white rock dropped down a well, and he turned away with a feeling of unease, as though he had abandoned someone to drowning.

As he turned back to his work, he saw a young woman, just coming down above the quay. She was the sort of girl called “bonny”—not beautiful, but lively and nicely made, with something about her that took the eye.

Perhaps it was only her posture; straight as a lily stem among the hunched and drooping backs around her. Or her face, which showed apprehension and uncertainty, but had still about it the brightness of curiosity. A darer, that one, he thought, and his heart—oppressed by so many downcast faces among the emigrants—lightened at the sight of her.

She hesitated at sight of the ship and the crowd around it. A tall fair-haired young man was with her, a baby in his arms. He touched her shoulder in reassurance, and she glanced up at him, an answering smile lighting her face like the striking of a match. Watching them, Roger felt a mild pang of something that might have been envy.

“You, MacKenzie!” The bosun’s shout pulled him from his contemplation. The bosun jerked his head aft. “There’s cargo a-waitin’—it’s no goin’ to walk aboard by itself!”

Once embarked and under sail, the voyage went smoothly for some weeks. The stormy weather that accompanied their exodus from Scotland quickly diminished into good winds and rolling seas, and while the immediate effect of this on the passengers was to make the majority of them seasick, this ailment also faded in time. The smell of vomit from the steerage subsided, becoming only a minor note in the symphony of stinks aboard the Gloriana.

Roger had been born with an acute sense of smell, an attribute he was finding a marked liability in close quarters. Still, even the keenest nose grew accustomed in time, and within a day or so he had ceased to note any but the most novel stenches.

He was fortunately not subject to seasickness himself, though his experiences with the herring fishers had been enough to give him a keen appreciation of the weather, with the sailor’s unsettling knowledge that his life might depend on whether the sun was shining that day.

His new shipmates were not friendly, but neither were they hostile. Whether it was his “teuchter” accent from the Isles—for most of the Gloriana’s hands were English-speakers from Dingwall or Peterhead—the occasional odd things that he said, or simply his size, they regarded him with a certain watchful distance. No overt antagonism—his size prevented that—but distance nonetheless.

Roger wasn’t disturbed by the coolness. He was pleased enough to be left to his thoughts, his mind ranging free while his body dealt with the daily round of shipboard duties. There was plenty to think about.

He had taken no heed to the reputation of the Gloriana or her captain before signing on; he would have sailed with Captain Ahab, provided only that that gentleman was bound for North Carolina. Still, from the talk he heard among the crew, he gathered that Stephen Bonnet was known as a good captain; hard but fair, and a man whose voyages always turned a profit. To the seamen, many of whom sailed on shares rather than wages, this latter quality plainly more than compensated for any small defects of character or address.

Not that Roger had seen open evidence of such defects. But he did see that Bonnet stood always as though an invisible circle had been drawn around him, a circle that few were bold enough to enter. Only the first mate and the bosun spoke directly to the Captain; the crewmen kept their heads down as he passed. Roger remembered the cool green leopard-eyes that had looked him over; little wonder that no one wanted to attract their notice.

He was more interested in the passengers, though, than in either crew or captain. Little was seen of them normally, but they were allowed on deck briefly twice each day, to take a bit of air, to empty their slop jars over the side—for the ship’s heads were woefully inadequate for so many—and to carry down again the small amounts of water carefully rationed to each family. Roger looked forward to these brief appearances, and tried to see to it that he was employed as often as possible near the end of the deck where they took their fleeting exercise.

His interest was both professional and personal; his historian’s instincts were roused by their presence, and his loneliness soothed by the homeliness of their talk. Here were the seeds of the new country, the legacy of the old. What these poor emigrants knew and valued, was what would endure to be passed on.

If one were handpicking the repository of Scottish culture, he thought, it might not contain such things as the recipe for warts about which an elderly woman was berating her long-suffering daughter-in-law (“I did tell ye, Katie Mac, and why ye chose tae leave my nice dried toadie behind, when ye could find room to bring all yon rubbish that we be squattin’ on and pickin’ oot from under our hurdies day and night…”), but that would last too, right along with the folksongs and prayers, with the woven wool and the Celtic patterns of their art.

He glanced at his own hand; he vividly remembered Mrs. Graham rubbing a large wart on his third finger with what she said was a dried toad. He grinned, rubbing a thumb across the spot. Must have worked; he’d never had another.

“Sir,” said a small voice by his side. “Sir, may we go and touch the iron?”

He glanced down and smiled at the tiny girl, holding two tinier brothers by their hands.

“Aye, a leannan,” he said. “Get on; yourself will be minding the men, though.”

She nodded and the three of them pattered off, looking anxiously up and down to be sure they were not in the way, before scrambling up to touch the horseshoe nailed to the mast for luck. Iron was protection and healing; the mothers often sent the little ones who were ailing to touch it.

They could have used iron to better effect internally, Roger thought, seeing the rash on the pasty white faces, and hearing the high-pitched complaints of itching boils, of loose teeth and fever. He resumed his job, measuring out water by the dipperful into the buckets and dishes the emigrants held out to him. They were living on oatmeal, the lot of them—that, with dried peas now and then and a bit of hard biscuit, was the sum total of the “provisions” supplied them for the voyage.