Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 170

   

The array of Jocasta’s acquaintance was staggering. Still, Brianna had noticed an increasing tendency of late for the callers to be men. Single men.

Phaedre verified Brianna’s suspicions, voiced as the maid dug in the wardrobe for a fresh morning gown.

“There ain’t a lot of single women in the colony,” Phaedre observed, when Brianna mentioned the peculiar coincidence that most of the recent visitors appeared to be bachelors. Phaedre cast an eye at Brianna’s midsection, which was bulging noticeably under the loose muslin shift. “ ’Specially not young ones. To say nothing of women who’s got River Run a-coming to them.”

“Who’s got what?” Brianna said. She stopped, hair half pinned, and stared at the maid.

Phaedre laid one graceful hand across her mouth, eyes wide above it.

“Your auntie ain’t told you yet? Thought sure you knew, or I’d not’ve said.”

“Well, now you’ve said that much, go on saying. What do you mean?” Phaedre, a born gossip, took little coaxing.

“Your daddy and them hadn’t been gone but a week, before Miss Jo sent for Lawyer Forbes and had her will changed. When Miss Jo dies, they’s some little bits of money goes to your daddy, and some personal things to Mr. Farquard and some of her other friends—but everything else, that’s yours. The plantation, the timber, the sawmill…”

“But I don’t want it!”

Phaedre’s elegantly lifted eyebrow expressed profound doubt, then dropped, dismissing it.

“Well, it ain’t what you want, I reckon. Miss Jo is kind of inclined to get what she wants.”

Brianna laid the hairbrush down, slowly.

“And just what does she want?” she asked. “Do you happen to know that, too?”

“Ain’t any big secret. She wants River Run to last longer than she does—and to belong to somebody from her blood. Seems sense to me; she got no children, no grandchildren. Who else is there to carry on after her?”

“Well…there’s my father.”

Phaedre laid the fresh dress across the bed and frowned at it appraisingly, glancing back at Brianna’s middle.

“This one going to last no more than another couple weeks, the way that belly’s growing. Oh, yes, there’s your daddy. She done tried to make him her heir, but the way I hears it, he wasn’t havin’ none of it.” She pursed her lips in amusement.

“Now there’s a stubborn man for you. Go off into the mountains and live like a red man, just to keep from doing what Miss Jo want him to do. But Mr. Ulysses reckons your daddy had the right of it, at that. Be him and Miss Jo buttin’ heads day and night, if he’d a-stayed.”

Brianna slowly twisted up the other side of her hair, but the hairpin slipped out again, letting it fall.

“Here, you be lettin’ me do that, Miss Bree.” Phaedre slid behind her, pulled out the slipshod pinning, and began deftly to braid the sides of her hair.

“And all these visitors—these men—”

“Miss Jo out to pick you a good one,” Phaedre assured her. “You can’t run the place alone, no more than Miss Jo can. That Mr. Duncan, he’s a godsend; don’t know what she’d do without him.”

Sheer astonishment was giving way to outrage.

“She’s trying to pick a husband for me? She’s showing me off like—like some prize heifer?”

“Uh-huh.” Phaedre appeared to see nothing wrong with this. She frowned, drawing a straying lock skillfully into the main braid.

“But she knows about Roger—about Mr. Wakefield! How can she be trying to marry me off to—”

Phaedre sighed, not without sympathy.

“I don’t reckon she thinks they’re going to find the man, tell you true. Miss Jo, she knows a bit about the Indians; we’ve all heard Mr. Myers tell about the Iroquois.”

It was chilly in the room, but prickles of sweat broke out along Brianna’s hairline and jaw.

“Besides,” Phaedre went on, weaving a blue silk ribbon into the braid, “Miss Jo don’t know this Wakefield. Might be he’d not be a good manager. Better—she thinks—to get you married to a man she knows will take good care of her place; add it to his own, maybe, make a truly grand place for you.”

“I don’t want a grand place! I don’t want this place!” Outrage in turn was giving way to panic.

Phaedre tied the end of the ribbon with a small flourish.

“Well, like I say—it ain’t so much what you want. It’s what Miss Jo wants. Now, let’s try this dress.”

There was a sound in the hallway, and Brianna hastily flipped the page of her sketchbook over, to a half-finished charcoal drawing of the river and its trees. The steps went by, though, and she relaxed, turning back the page.

She wasn’t working; the drawing was complete. She only wanted to look at it.

She’d drawn him in three-quarter profile, head turned to listen as he tuned his guitar strings. It was no more than a sketch, but it caught the line of head and body with a rightness that memory confirmed. She could look at this and conjure him, bring him close enough almost to touch.

There were others; some botched messes, some that came close. A few that were good drawings in themselves, but that failed to capture the man behind the lines. One or two, like this one, that she could use to comfort herself in the late gray afternoons, when the light began to fail and the fires burned low.

The light was fading over the river now, the water dimming from bright silver to the gentler glow of pewter.

There were others; sketches of Jamie Fraser, of her mother, of Ian. She had begun to draw them out of loneliness, and looked at them now with fear, hoping against hope that these fragments of paper were not the only remnants of the family she had known so briefly.

Tell you true, I don’t reckon Miss Jo thinks they going to find the man…Miss Jo knows about Indians.

Her hands were damp; the charcoal smeared at the corner of a page. A soft step sounded just outside the parlor door, and she closed her book at once.

Ulysses came in, a lighted taper in his hand, and began to light the branches of the great candelabrum.

“You don’t need to light all those for me.” Brianna spoke as much from a desire not to disturb the quiet melancholy of the room as from modesty. “I don’t mind the dark.”

The butler smiled gently and went on with his work. He touched each wick precisely, and the tiny flames sprang up at once, jinni called up by a magician’s wand.

“Miss Jo will be down soon,” he said. “She can see the lights—and the fire—so she knows where she is in the room.”

He finished and blew out the taper, then moved about the room in his usual soft-footed way, tidying the small disorder left by the afternoon guests, adding wood to the fire, puffing it into crackling life with the bellows.

She watched him; the small, precise movements of the well-kept hands, his complete absorption in the correct placement of the whisky decanter and its glasses. How many times had he straightened this room? Put back each piece of furniture, each tiny ornament precisely in its place, so that its mistress’s hand would fall upon it without groping?

A whole life devoted to the needs of someone else. Ulysses could read and write both French and English; could reckon numbers, could sing and play the harpsichord. All that skill and learning—used only for the entertainment of an autocratic old lady.

To say to one, “Come,” and he cometh, to say to another “Go,” and he goeth. Yes, that was Jocasta’s way.

And if Jocasta had her way…she would own this man.

The thought was unconscionable. Worse, it was ridiculous! She shifted impatiently in her seat, trying to push it away. He caught the slight movement, and turned inquiringly, to see if anything was wanted.

“Ulysses,” she blurted. “Do you want to be free?”

The moment the words were out, she bit her tongue, and felt her cheeks go red with mortification.

“I’m sorry,” she said at once, and looked down at her hands, twisted in her lap. “That was a terribly rude question. Please forgive me.”

The tall butler didn’t say anything, but regarded her quizzically for a moment. Then he touched his wig lightly, as though to settle it in place, and turned back to his work, picking up the scattered sketches on the table and tapping them neatly into a stack.

“I was born free,” he said at last, so quietly that she wasn’t sure she’d heard him. His head was bent, eyes on the long black fingers that plucked the ivory counters from the game table and placed each one neatly in its box.

“My father had a tiny farm, not too far from here. But he died of a snake’s bite, when I was six or so. My mother could not manage to keep us—she was not strong enough for farming—and so she sold herself, putting the money with a carpenter for my apprenticeship once I should come of age, that I might learn a useful trade.”

He set the ivory box in its slot in the game table, and wiped away a crumb of tea cake that had fallen on the cribbage board.

“But then she died,” he went on matter-of-factly. “And the carpenter, instead of taking me as an apprentice, claimed that as I was the child of a slave, I was by law a slave myself. And so he sold me.”

“But that’s not right!”

He looked at her in patient amusement, but didn’t speak. And what had right ever had to do with it? his dark eyes said.

“I was fortunate,” he said. “I was sold—cheaply, for I was very small and puny—to a schoolmaster, whom several plantation owners on the Cape Fear had hired to teach their children. He would ride from one house to another, staying in each for a week or a month, and I would go with him, perched behind him on the horse’s rump, tending the horse when we stopped, and doing such small services as he required.

“And because the journeys were long and tedious, he would talk to me as we rode. He sang—he loved to sing, that man, and he had a most delightful voice—” To Brianna’s surprise, Ulysses looked faintly nostalgic, but then he shook his head, recalling himself, and took out a cloth from his pocket, with which he wiped the sideboard.

“It was the schoolmaster who gave me the name Ulysses,” he said, back turned to her. “He knew some Greek, and some Latin as well, and for his own amusement, he taught me to read, on the nights when darkness befell us and we were forced to encamp on the road.”

The straight, lean shoulders rose in the faintest of shrugs.

“When the schoolmaster died as well, I was a young man of twenty or so. Hector Cameron bought me, and discovered my talents. Not all masters would value such endowments in a slave, but Mr. Cameron was not a common man.” Ulysses smiled faintly.

“He taught me to play chess, and would wager upon my success, playing against his friends. He had me taught to sing, and to play the harpsichord, that I might provide entertainment for his guests. And when Miss Jocasta began to lose her sight, he gave me to her, to be her eyes.”

“What was your name? Your real name?”

He paused, thinking, then gave her a smile that did not reach his eyes.

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