Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 36

   

“That must be quite a remarkable spectacle,” I murmured. “What is she not able to manage, though?” From all appearances, Jocasta Cameron had her house, fields, and people well in hand, blind or not.

Now it was his turn to look surprised.

“Och, it’s the bluidy Navy. Did she not say why we came today?”

Before I could go into the fascinating question of why Jocasta Cameron should wish to manage the British Navy, today or any other day, we were interrupted by a cry of alarm from the far side of the clearing. I turned to look, and was nearly trampled by several half-naked men running in panic toward the sheds.

At the far side of the clearing a peculiar sort of mound rose up out of the ground; I had noticed it earlier but had had no chance to ask about it yet. While the floor of the clearing was mostly dirt, the mound was covered with grass—but grass of a peculiar, patchy sort; part was green, part gone yellow, and here and there was an oblong of grass that was stark, dead brown.

Just as I realized that this effect was the result of the mound’s being covered in cut turves, the whole thing blew up. There was no sound of explosion, just a sort of muffled noise like a huge sneeze, and a faint wave of concussion in the air that brushed my cheek.

If it didn’t sound like an explosion, it certainly looked like one; pieces of turf and bits of burnt wood began to rain down all over the clearing. There was a lot of shouting, and Jamie and his companions came rocketing out of the shed like a flock of startled pheasants.

“Are ye all right, Sassenach?” He grasped my arm, looking anxious.

“Yes, fine,” I said, rather confused. “What on earth just happened?”

“Damned if I ken,” he said briefly, already looking round the clearing. “Where’s Ian?”

“I don’t know. You don’t think he had anything to do with this, do you?” I brushed at several floating specks of charcoal that had landed on my bosom. With black streaks ornamenting my décolletage, I followed Jamie into the small knot of slaves, all babbling in a confusing mixture of Gaelic, English, and bits of various African tongues.

We found Ian with one of the young naval ensigns. They were peering interestedly into the blackened pit that now occupied the spot where the mound had stood.

“It happens often, I understand,” the ensign was saying as we arrived. “I hadn’t seen it before, though—amazing powerful blast, wasn’t it?”

“What happens often?” I asked, peering around Ian. The pit was filled with a crisscross jumble of blackened pine logs, all tossed higgledy-piggledy by the force of the explosion. The base of the mound was still there, rising up around the pit like the rim of a pie shell.

“A pitch explosion,” the ensign explained, turning to me. He was small and ruddy-cheeked, about Ian’s age. “They lay a charcoal fire, d’ye see, ma’am, below a great pot of pitch, and cover it all over with earth and cut turves, to keep in the heat, but allow enough air through the cracks to keep the fire burning. The pitch boils down, and flows out through a hollowed log into the tar barrel—see?” He pointed. A split log dangled over the remains of a shattered barrel oozing sticky black. The reek of burnt wood and thick tar filled the air, and I tried to breathe only through my mouth.

“The difficulty lies in regulating the flow of air,” the little ensign went on, preening himself a bit on his knowledge. “Too little air, and the fire goes out; too much, and it burns with such energy that it cannot be contained, and is like to ignite the fumes from the pitch and burst its bonds. As you see, ma’am.” He gestured importantly toward a nearby tree, where one of the turves had been thrown with such force as to wrap itself around the trunk like some shaggy yellow fungus.

“It is a matter of the nicest adjustment,” he said, and stood on tiptoe, looking around with interest. “Where is the slave whose task it is to manage the fire? I do hope the poor fellow has not been killed.”

He hadn’t. I had been checking carefully through the crowd as we talked, looking for any injuries, but everyone seemed to have escaped intact—this time.

“Aunt!” Jamie exclaimed, suddenly recalling Jocasta. He whirled toward the sheds, but then stopped, relaxing. She was there, clearly visible in her green dress, standing rigid by the shed.

Rigid with fury, as we discovered when we reached her. Forgotten by everyone in the flurry of the explosion, she had been unable to move, sightless as she was, and was thus left to stand helpless, hearing the turmoil but unable to do anything.

I recalled what Josh had said about Jocasta’s temper, but she was too much the lady to stamp and rant in public, however angry she might be. Josh himself apologized in profuse Aberdonian for not having been by her side to aid her, but she dismissed this with kind, if brusque, impatience.

“Clapper your tongue, lad; ye did as I bade ye.” She turned her head restlessly from side to side, as though trying to see through her blindfold.

“Farquard, where are you?”

Mr. Campbell moved to her and put her hand through his arm, patting it briefly.

“There’s no great harm done, my dear,” he assured her. “No one hurt, and only the one barrel of tar destroyed.”

“Good,” she said, the tension in her tall figure relaxing slightly. “But where is Byrnes?” she inquired. “I do not hear his voice.”

“The overseer?” Lieutenant Wolff mopped several smuts from his sweating face with a large linen kerchief. “I had wondered that myself. We found no one here to greet us this morning. Fortunately, Mr. Campbell arrived soon thereafter.”

Farquard Campbell made a small noise in his throat, deprecating his own involvement.

“Byrnes will be at the mill, I expect,” he said. “One of the slaves here told me there had been some trouble wi’ the main blade of the saw. Doubtless he will be attending to that.”

Wolff looked puff-faced, as though he considered defective saw blades a poor excuse for not having been appropriately received. From the tight line of Jocasta’s lips, so did she.

Jamie coughed, reached over and plucked a small clump of grass out of my hair.

“I do believe that I saw a basket of luncheon packed, did I not, Aunt? Perhaps ye might help the Lieutenant to a wee bit of refreshment, whilst I tidy up matters here?”

It was the right suggestion. Jocasta’s lips eased a bit, and Wolff looked distinctly happier at the mention of lunch.

“Indeed, Nephew.” She drew herself upright, her air of command restored, and nodded in the general direction of Wolff’s voice. “Lieutenant, will ye be so kind as to join me?”

Over lunch, I gathered that the Lieutenant’s visit to the turpentine works was a quarterly affair, during which a contract was drawn up for the purchase and delivery of assorted naval stores. It was the Lieutenant’s business to make and review similar arrangements with plantation owners from Cross Creek to the Virginia border, and Lieutenant Wolff made it plain which end of the colony he preferred.

“If there is one area of endeavor at which I will admit the Scotch excel,” the Lieutenant proclaimed rather pompously, taking a good-sized swallow of his third cup of whisky, “it is in the production of drink.”

Farquard Campbell, who had been taking appreciative sips from his own pewter cup, gave a small, dry smile and said nothing. Jocasta sat beside him on a rickety bench. Her fingers rested lightly on his arm, sensitive as a seismograph, feeling for subterranean clues.

Wolff made an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a belch, and belatedly turned what he appeared to consider his charm on me.

“In most other respects,” he went on, leaning toward me confidentially, “they are as a race both lazy and stubborn, a pair of traits which renders them unfit for—” At this point, the youngest ensign, red with embarrassment, knocked over a bowl of apples, creating enough of a diversion to prevent the completion of the Lieutenant’s thought—though not, unfortunately, sufficient to deflect its train altogether.

The Lieutenant dabbed at the sweat leaking from under his wig, and peered at me through bloodshot eyes.

“But I collect that you are not Scotch, ma’am? Your voice is most melodious and well-bred, and I may say so. You have no trace of a barbarous accent, in spite of your associations.”

“Ah…thank you,” I murmured, wondering what trick of administrative incompetence had sent the Lieutenant to conduct the Navy’s business in the Cape Fear River Valley, possibly the single largest collection of Scottish Highlanders to be found in the New World. I began to see what Josh had meant by “Och, the bluidy Navy!”

Jocasta’s smile might have been stitched on. Mr. Campbell, beside her, gave me the barest flick of gray eyebrow, and looked austere. Evidently, stabbing the Lieutenant through the heart with a fruit knife wasn’t on—at least not until he had signed the requisition order—so I did the next best thing I could think of; I picked up the whisky bottle and refilled his cup to the brim.

“It’s terribly good, isn’t it? Won’t you have a bit more, Lieutenant?”

It was good; smooth and warm. Also very expensive. I turned to the young-est ensign, smiled warmly at him, and left the Lieutenant to find his own way to the bottom of the bottle.

Conversation proceeded jerkily but without further incident, though the two ensigns kept a wary eye on the Drunkard’s Progress going on across the table. No wonder; it would be their responsibility to get the Lieutenant on a horse and back to Cross Creek in one piece. I began to see why there were two of them.

“Mr. Fraser seems to be managing most creditably,” the older ensign murmured, nodding outside in a feeble attempt to restart the stalled conversation. “Do you not think, sir?”

“Oh? Ah. No doubt.” Wolff had lost interest in anything much beyond the bottom of his cup, but it was true enough. While the rest of us sat over our lunch, Jamie—with Ian’s aid—had managed to restore order to the clearing, set the pitch boilers and sap gatherers back to work, and collect the debris of the explosion. At present he was on the far side of the clearing, stripped to shirt and breeches, helping to heave half-burned logs back into the tar pit. I rather envied him; it looked to be much more pleasant work than lunching with Lieutenant Wolff.

“Aye, he’s done well.” Farquard Campbell’s quick eyes flicked over the clearing, then returned to the table. He assessed the Lieutenant’s condition, and gave Jocasta’s hand a brief squeeze. Without turning her head, she spoke to Josh, who had been lurking quietly in the corner.

“Do ye put that second bottle into the Lieutenant’s saddlebag, laddie,” she said. “I should not want it to be going to waste.” She gave the Lieutenant a charming smile, rendered the more convincing as he couldn’t see her eyes.

Mr. Campbell cleared his throat.

“Since ye will so soon be leaving us, sir, perhaps we might settle the matter of your requisitions now?”

Wolff seemed vaguely surprised to hear that he had been about to leave, but his ensigns sprang to their feet with alacrity, and began to gather up papers and saddlebags. One snatched out a traveling inkwell and a sharpened quill and set them down in front of the Lieutenant; Mr. Campbell whipped out a folded quire of paper from his coat and laid it down, ready for signature.

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