Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 125


“They scratch themselves to rid their skins of parasites,” Bonnet said casually. “We are no more to them than a floating stone.” He drew heavily to start the flame, blew fragrant smoke, and tossed the burning paper overboard. It vanished in the mist like a falling star.

Roger let out a breath only slightly less noisy than the whales’. How close had Bonnet been? Had the Captain seen him coming out of the hold?

“They will not damage the ship, then?” he said, matching the Captain’s casual tone.

Bonnet smoked for a moment in silence, concentrating on the draw of his cigar. Without the illumination of the open flame, he was once more a shadow, marked only by the glowing coal of the tip.

“Who knows?” he said at last, small spurts of smoke puffing out between his teeth as he spoke. “Any one of the beasts might sink us, should he have a mind in him for mischief. I saw a ship once—or what was left of it—battered to pieces by an angry whale. Three feet of board, and a bit of spar left floating—sunk with all hands, two hundred souls.”

“You don’t seem troubled by the possibility.”

There was a long sound of exhalation, a faint echo of the whales’ sighing, as Bonnet blew smoke between pursed lips.

“ ’Twould be a waste of strength to worry myself. A wise man leaves those things beyond his power to the gods—and prays that Danu will be with him.” The edge of the Captain’s hat turned toward him. “Ye’ll know of Danu, will ye, MacKenzie?”

“Danu?” Roger said stupidly, and then the penny dropped, an old chant coming back to him from the mists of childhood—something Mrs. Graham had taught him to say. “Come to me, Danu, change my luck. Make me bold. Give me wealth—and love to hold.”

There was an amused grunt behind the coal.

“Ah, and you not even an Irishman. But sure I knew you from the first for a man of learning, MacKenzie.”

“I know Danu the Luck-Giver,” Roger said, hoping against hope that that particular Celtic goddess was both a good sailor and on his side. He took a step backward, meaning to go, but a hand descended on his wrist, holding tight.

“A man of learning,” Bonnet repeated softly, all levity gone from his voice, “but no wisdom. And are you a praying man at all, MacKenzie?”

He tensed, but felt the force of Bonnet’s grip and did not pull away. Strength gathered in his limbs, his body knowing before he did that the fight had come.

“I said a wise man does not trouble himself with things beyond his power—but on this ship, MacKenzie, everything is in my power.” The grip on his wrist tightened. “And everyone.”

Roger jerked his wrist sideways, breaking the grip. He stood alone, knowing there was neither help nor escape. There was no world beyond the ship, and within it, Bonnet was right—all were in the Captain’s power. If he died, it would not help Morag—but that choice was made already.

“Why?” said Bonnet, sounding only mildly interested. “The woman’s no looker, sure. And a man of such learning, too; would you risk my ship and my venture, then, only for the sake of a warm body?”

“No risk.” The words came out hoarse, forced through a tight throat. Come at me, he thought, and his hands curled at his sides. Come at me, and give me a chance to take you with me. “The child doesn’t have pox—a harmless rash.”

“You will forgive my putting my ignorant opinion above your own, Mr. MacKenzie, but I am Captain here.” The voice was still soft, but the venom was clear.

“It is a child, for God’s sake!”

“It is—and of no value.”

“No value to you, perhaps!”

There was a moment’s silence, broken only by a distant whoosh in the empty white.

“And what value to you?” the voice asked, implacable. “Why?”

For the sake of a warm body. Yes, for that. For the touch of humanity, the memory of tenderness, for the feeling of life stubborn in the face of death.

“For pity,” he said. “She is poor; there was no one to help her.”

The rich perfume of tobacco reached him, narcotic, enchanting. He breathed it in, taking strength from it.

Bonnet moved, and he moved, too, settling himself in preparation. But there was no blow forthcoming; the shadow dug in a pocket, held out a ghostly hand in which he caught a magpie glitter from the diffuse lantern light—coins and bits of rubbish and what might have been a jewel’s quick gleam. Then the Captain plucked out a silver shilling, and thrust the rest back into his pocket.

“Ah, pity,” he said. “And did yez say you were a gambling man at all, MacKenzie?”

He held out the shilling, dropped it. Roger caught it, only by reflex.

“For the suckling’s life, then,” Bonnet said, and the tone of light amusement was back. “A gentleman’s wager, shall we call it? Heads it lives, and tails it dies.”

The coin was warm and solid in his palm, an alien thing in this world of drifting chill. His hands were slick with sweat, and yet his mind had gone cold and sharp, focused to an ice pick’s point.

Heads he lives, and tails he dies, he thought quite calmly, and did not mean the child below. He marked throat and crotch on the other man; grip and lunge, a blow and heave—the rail was no more than a foot away, the empty realm of the whales beyond.

There was no room beyond his calculations for any sense of fear. He saw the coin spin up as though it were thrown by another hand, then fall to the deck. His muscles bunched themselves, slowly.

“It seems Danu is with ye the night, sir.” Bonnet’s soft Irish voice seemed to come to him from a great way off, as the Captain bent and picked up the coin.

Realization was only beginning to bloom in his chest, when the Captain gripped his shoulder, turning him down the deck.

“You’ll walk with me awhile, MacKenzie.”

Something had happened to his knees; he felt as though he would sink down with every step, and yet somehow stayed upright, keeping pace with the shadow. The ship was silent, the deck under his feet a mile away; but the sea beyond was a live thing, breathing. He felt the breath in his own lungs rise and fall with the shifting deck, and felt as though there were no boundaries to his body. It might have been wood under his feet, or water, for all he could feel.

It was some time before he made sense of Bonnet’s words, and realized, with a vague sense of amazement, that the man seemed to be recounting the story of his life, in a quiet, matter-of-fact sort of way.

Orphaned in Sligo at an early age, he had learned quickly to fend for himself, he said, working as a cabin boy aboard trading ships. But one winter, with ships scarce, he had found work ashore in Inverness, digging the foundation for a grand house that was building near the town.

“I was just seventeen,” he said. “The youngest of the crew of workmen. I could not say why it was they hated me. Mayhap it was my manner, for that was rough enough—or jealousy for my size and strength; they were an unchancy, whey-faced lot. Or maybe that the lasses smiled on me. Or maybe ’twas only that I was a stranger.

“Still, I knew well enough I was unpopular with them—little did I know quite how unpopular, though, until the day the cellar was finished and the foundation ready to be laid.”

Bonnet paused to draw on his cigar, lest it go out. He let out puffs of smoke from the corners of his mouth, white wisps that curled past his head into the greater white of the fog.

“The trenches were dug,” he went on, the cigar clenched between his teeth, “and the walls started; the great block of the cornerstone standin’ ready. I had gone to my supper, and was just walkin’ back to the place where I slept, when to my surprise I was caught up by a pair of the lads with whom I worked.

“They’d a bottle; they sat down on a wall and urged me to drink with them. I should’ve known better, for they were friendly, which they’d never been before. But I did drink, and drink again, and in no time at all I was reelin’ drunk, for I’d no head for liquor, havin’ never the money to buy strong drink. I was well fuddled by the time ’twas full dark, and scarcely thought to pull away when they took me by the arms and hastened me down the lane. Then they seized me, tossed me over a half-built wall, and to my surprise, I found myself lyin’ in the damp dirt of the cellar I’d helped dig.

“All of them were there, the workmen. Another man was with them, too; one o’ them had a lantern, and when he held it up, I could see the man was Daft Joey. Daft Joey was a beggarman that lived beneath the bridge—he had nay teeth, and he ate rotten fish and floating dung from the river, and he stank worse than a blackbirder’s hold.

“I was so dazed with the whisky and the fall that I lay where I was, only half hearin’ them as they talked—or argued, rather, for the chief o’ the gang was angry that the two had brought me. The daftie would do, he said; a mercy to him, at that. But them that brought me said no, better me. Someone might miss the beggarman, they said. Then someone laughed and said aye, and they would not have to pay me my last week’s wages, and ’twas then I began to know they meant to kill me.

“They’d talked before, while we worked. A sacrifice, they said, for the foundation, lest the earth tremble and the walls collapse. But I had not listened—and if I had, would not have guessed that they meant any more than to chop the head off a cockerel and bury it, as was usual.”

He had not looked at Roger through this recital, his eyes instead fixed on the mist, as though the events he described were happening again, somewhere just beyond the white curtain of fog.

Roger’s clothing hung on him, clinging, wringing wet with mist and cold sweat. His stomach clenched, and the cesspool smell of the steerage might have been the stink of Daft Joey in the cellar.

“So they palavered for a bit,” Bonnet went on, “and the beggarman began to make noise, for he wanted more drink. And at last the chief said it was not worth so much talk, he would throw for the choice. Then he took a coin from his pocket and he said to me, laughin’, ‘Will ye take heads or tails, then, man?’

“I was too sick to say a word; the sky was black and whirling round and bits of light kept flickering at the edges of my eyes, like fallin’ stars. So he said it for me; by Geordie’s head should I live, and by his arse I should die, and he threw the shilling up in the air. It came down in the dirt by my head, but I had nay strength to turn and look.

“He bent to see and gave a grunt, then he stood up and took nay more notice of me.”

They had reached the stern in their quiet pacing. Bonnet stopped there, hands on the rail, smoking silently. Then he took the cigar from his mouth.

“They pulled the daftie to the wall that was built, and made him sit down on the ground at its foot. I do remember his foolish face,” he said softly. “He took a drink and he laughed wi’ them, and his mouth was open—slack and wet as a old whore’s cunt. The next moment, the stone came down from the top of the wall, and crushed his head.”

Drops of moisture had gathered on the spikes of hair at the back of Roger’s neck; he could feel them run down, one at a time, trickling cold down the crease of his back.