Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 37

   

Wolff frowned at the paper, and swayed a little.

“Just there, sir,” murmured the elder ensign, putting the quill into his senior’s slack hand and pointing at the paper.

Wolff picked up his cup, tilted back his head, and drained the last drops. Setting the cup down with a bang, he smiled vacantly around, his eyes unfocused. The youngest ensign closed his eyes in resignation.

“Oh, why not?” the Lieutenant said recklessly, and dipped his quill.

“Will ye not wish to wash and change your clothes at once, Nephew?” Jocasta’s nostrils flared delicately. “Ye stink most dreadfully of tar and charcoal.”

I thought it just as well she couldn’t see him. It went a long way beyond stinking; his hands were black, his new shirt reduced to a filthy rag, and his face so begrimed that he looked as though he had been cleaning chimneys. Such portions of him as weren’t black, were red. He had left off his hat while working in the midday sun, and the bridge of his nose was the color of cooked lobster. I didn’t think the color was due entirely to the sun, though.

“My ablutions can wait,” he said. “First, I wish to know the meaning of yon wee charade.” He fixed Mr. Campbell with a dark blue look.

“I am lured to the forest upon the pretext of smelling turpentine, and before I ken where I am, I’m sitting wi’ the British Navy, saying aye and nay to matters I ken nothing of, wi’ yon wee mannie kickin’ my shins under the table like a trained monkey!”

Jocasta smiled at that.

Campbell sighed. In spite of the exertions of the day, his neat coat showed no signs of dust, and his old-fashioned peruke sat squarely on his head.

“You have my apologies, Mr. Fraser, for what must seem a monstrous imposition upon your good nature. As it is, your arrival was fortuitous in the extreme, but did not allow sufficient time for communications to be made. I was in Averasboro until last evening, and by the time I received word of your arrival, it was much too late for me to ride here to acquaint you with the circumstances.”

“Indeed? Well, as I perceive we have a bit of time at present, I invite ye to do so now,” Jamie said, with a slight click as his teeth closed on the “now.”

“Will ye not sit down first, Nephew?” Jocasta put in, with a graceful wave of her hand. “It will take a bit of talk to explain, and ye’ve had a tiring day of it, no?” Ulysses had materialized out of the ether with a linen sheet over his arm; he spread this over a chair with a flourish, and gestured to Jamie to sit down.

Jamie eyed the butler narrowly, but it had been a tiring day; I could see blisters amid the soot on his hands, and sweat had made clear runnels in the filth on face and neck. He sank slowly into the proffered chair, and allowed a silver cup to be put into his hand.

A similar cup appeared as if by magic in my own hand, and I smiled in gratitude at the butler; I hadn’t been hoiking logs about, but the long, hot ride had worn me out. I took a deep, appreciative sip; a lovely cool rough cider, that bit the tongue and slaked the thirst at once.

Jamie took a deep draught, and looked a little calmer.

“Well, then, Mr. Campbell?”

“It is a matter of the Navy,” Campbell began, and Jocasta snorted.

“A matter of Lieutenant Wolff, ye mean,” she corrected.

“For your purposes the same, Jo, and well ye know it,” Mr. Campbell said, a little sharply. He turned back to Jamie to explain.

The majority of River Run’s revenues were, as Jocasta had told us, derived from the sale of its timber and turpentine products, the largest and most profitable customer being the British Navy.

“But the Navy’s not what it was,” Mr. Campbell said, shaking his head regretfully. “During the war wi’ the French, they could scarce keep the fleet supplied, and any man with a working sawmill was rich. But for the last ten years, it’s been peaceful, and the ships left to rot—the Admiralty’s not laid a new keel in five years.” He sighed at the unfortunate economic consequences of peace.

The Navy did still require such stores as pitch and turpentine and spars—with a leaky fleet to keep afloat, tar would always find a market. However, the market had shrunk severely, and the Navy now could pick and choose those landowners with whom they did business.

The Navy requiring dependability above all things, their covetable contracts were renewed quarterly, upon inspection and approval by a senior naval officer—in this case, Wolff. Always difficult to deal with, Wolff had nonetheless been adroitly managed by Hector Cameron, until the latter’s death.

“Hector drank with him,” Jocasta put in bluntly. “And when he left, there’d be a bottle in his saddlebag, and a bit besides.” The death of Hector Cameron, though, had severely affected the business of the estate.

“And not only because there’s less for bribes,” Campbell said, with a sidelong glance at Jocasta. He cleared his throat primly.

Lieutenant Wolff, it seemed, had come to give his condolences to the widow Cameron upon the death of her husband, properly uniformed, attended by his ensigns. He had come back again the next day, alone—with a proposal of marriage.

Jamie, caught mid-swallow, choked on his drink.

“It wasna my person the man was interested in,” Jocasta said, sharply, hearing this. “It was my land.”

Jamie wisely decided not to comment, merely eyeing his aunt with new interest.

Having heard the background, I thought she was likely right—Wolff’s interest was in acquiring a profitable plantation, which could be rendered still more profitable by means of the naval contracts his influence could assure. At the same time, the person of Jocasta Cameron was no small added inducement.

Blind or not, she was a striking woman. Beyond the simple beauty of flesh and bone, though, she exuded a sensual vitality that caused even such a dry stick as Farquard Campbell to ignite when she was near.

“I suppose that explains the Lieutenant’s offensive behavior at lunch,” I said, interested. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but the blokes don’t like it, either.”

Jocasta turned her head toward me, startled—I think she had forgotten I was there—but Farquard Campbell laughed.

“Indeed they don’t, Mrs. Fraser,” he assured me, eyes twinkling. “We’re fragile things, we poor men; ye trifle with our affections at your peril.”

Jocasta gave an unladylike snort at this.

“Affections, forbye!” she said. “The man has nay affection for anything that doesna come in a bottle.”

Jamie was eyeing Mr. Campbell with a certain amount of interest.

“Since ye raise the matter of affections, Aunt,” he said, with a small edge, “might I inquire as to the interests of your particular friend?”

Mr. Campbell returned the stare.

“I’ve a wife at home, sir,” he said dryly, “and eight weans, the eldest of whom is perhaps a few years older than yourself. But I kent Hector Cameron for more than thirty years, and I’ll do my best by his wife for the sake of his friendship—and hers.”

Jocasta laid a hand on his arm, and turned her head toward him. If she could no longer use her eyes for impression, she still knew the effect of downswept lashes.

“Farquard has been a great help to me, Jamie,” she said, with a touch of reproof. “I couldna have managed, without his assistance, after poor Hector died.”

“Oh, aye,” Jamie said, with no more than a hint of skepticism. “And I’m sure I must be as grateful to ye as is my aunt, sir. But I am still wondering just a bit where I come into this tale?”

Campbell coughed discreetly and went on with his story.

Jocasta had put off the Lieutenant, feigning collapse from the stress of bereavement and had herself carried to her bedroom, from which she did not emerge until he had concluded his business in Cross Creek and left for Wilmington.

“Byrnes managed the contracts that time, and a fine mess he made of them,” Jocasta put in.

“Ah, Mr. Byrnes, the invisible overseer. And where was he this morning?”

A maid had appeared with a bowl of warm perfumed water, and a towel. Without asking, she knelt by Jamie’s chair, took one of his hands, and began gently to wash the soot away. Jamie looked slightly taken aback by this attention, but was too occupied by the conversation to send her away.

A slight wry smile crossed Campbell’s face.

“I’m afraid Mr. Byrnes, though usually a competent overseer, shares one small weakness wi’ the Lieutenant. I sent to the sawmill for him, first thing, but the slave came back and told me Byrnes was insensible in his quarters, reekin’ of drink, and could not be roused.”

Jocasta made another unladylike noise, which caused Campbell to glance at her with affection before turning back to Jamie.

“Your aunt is more than capable of managing the business of the estate with Ulysses to assist her in the documentary aspects. However, as ye will have seen yourself”—he gestured delicately at the bowl of water, which now resembled a bowl of ink—“there are physical concerns to the running of it, as well.”

“That was the point that Lieutenant Wolff put to me,” Jocasta said, lips thinning at the memory. “That I could not expect to manage my property alone, and me not only a woman, but sightless as well. I could not, he said, depend upon Byrnes, unable as I am to go to the forest and the mill to see what the man is doing. Or not doing.” Her mouth shut firmly on the thought.

“Which is true enough,” Campbell put in ruefully. “It is a proverb amongst us—‘Happiness is a son old enough to be factor.’ For when it’s a matter of money or slaves, ye cannot trust anyone save your kin.”

I drew a deep breath and glanced at Jamie, who nodded. At last we’d got to it.

“And that,” I said, “is where Jamie comes in. Am I right?”

Jocasta had already enlisted Farquard Campbell to deal with Lieutenant Wolff upon his next visit, intending that Campbell should keep Byrnes from committing folly with the contracts. When we had so opportunely arrived, though, Jocasta had hit upon a better plan.

“I sent word to Farquard that he should inform the Lieutenant that my nephew had come to take up the management of River Run. That would cause him to go cautiously,” she explained. “For he would not dare to press me, with a kinsman who had an interest standing by.”

“I see.” Despite himself, Jamie was beginning to look amused. “So the Lieutenant would think his attempt at a good down-setting here was usurped by my arrival. No wonder the man seemed to take such a mislike to me. I thought it was perhaps a general disgust of Scotsmen that he had, from what he said.”

“I should imagine that he has—now,” Campbell said, dabbing his lips circumspectly with his napkin.

Jocasta reached across the table, groping, and Jamie put out his hand instinctively to hers.

“You will forgive me, Nephew?” she said. With his hand to guide her, she could look toward his face; one would not have known her blind, by the expression of pleading in her beautiful blue eyes.

“I knew nothing of your character, d’ye see, before ye came. I could not risk that you would refuse a part in the deception, did I tell ye of it first. Do say that ye hold no grudge toward me, Jamie, if only for sweet Ellen’s sake.”

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