Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 39

   

Thus I give you to each other, and may God’s blessing—and mine—be with you both.

Write as soon as you may. We hunger for News of you, and for your accounts of the exotic precincts in which you now Abide.

Your Most Affectionate Brother,

Ian Murray

Jamie carefully folded the letter, and put it into his coat.

“Mmphm,” he said.

11

THE LAW OF BLOODSHED

July 1767

I became gradually accustomed to the rhythm of life at River Run. The presence of the slaves disturbed me, but there was little I could do about that, save to call upon their services as little as I could, fetching and carrying for myself whenever possible.

River Run boasted a “simples” room, essentially a small closet in which dried herbs and medicines were kept. There was not much there—no more than a few jars of dandelion root and willow bark, and a few patent poultices, dusty from disuse. Jocasta professed herself delighted that I should want to use the space—she had herself no talent for medicinals, she said with a shrug, nor had any of the slaves.

“There is a new woman who may show some skill in that direction,” she said, long fingers drawing out the line of wool from the spindle as the spinning wheel whirred round.

“She is not a house slave, though; she was fresh come from Africa only a few months past, and has neither speech nor manners. I had thought to train her, perhaps, but since you are here…ah, now the thread’s grown too thin, d’ye see?”

While I spent some time each day chatting with Jocasta and attempting to learn from her the art of spinning wool, Jamie spent an hour or two with the butler, Ulysses, who in addition to serving as Jocasta’s eyes and as major domo of the house, had evidently also been managing the accounts of the plantation since Hector Cameron’s death.

“And doing a fair job of it, too,” Jamie told me privately, after one such session. “If he were a white man, my aunt would have no difficulty in handling her affairs. As it is, though—” He shrugged.

“As it is, it’s lucky for her that you’re here,” I said, leaning close to sniff at him. He had spent the day in Cross Creek, arranging a complicated exchange involving indigo blocks, lumber, three pairs of mules, five tons of rice, and a warehouse receipt for a gilded clock, and as a result, a fascinating variety of scents clung to his coat and hair.

“It’s the least I can do,” he said, his eyes on the boots he was brushing. His lips tightened briefly. “Not as though I were otherwise occupied, is it?”

“A dinner party,” Jocasta declared, a few days later. “I must have a proper festival, to introduce the two of ye to the folk of the county.”

“There’s no need of it, Aunt,” Jamie said mildly, looking up from his book. “I think I shall have met most of the county at the stock-buying last week. Or the masculine part of it, at least,” he added, smiling at me. “Come to think on it, though, perhaps it would suit Claire to be acquainted wi’ the ladies of the district.”

“I wouldn’t mind knowing a few more people,” I admitted. “Not that I don’t find ample occupation here,” I assured Jocasta, “but—”

“But not of a sort that interests you,” she answered, though with enough of a smile to take the sting out of the remark. “Ye’ve no great fondness for needlework, I think.” Her hand went to the big basket of colored wools and plucked out a ball of green, to be attached to the shawl she was knitting.

The balls of wool were carefully arranged each morning by one of the maids, in a spiral spectrum, so that by counting, Jocasta could pick up a ball of the right color.

“Aye, well, not that sort of needlework,” Jamie put in, closing his book and smiling at me. “It’s more the stitching of severed flesh that appeals to Claire. I expect she’ll be getting restless these days, wi’ no more than a cracked head or a case of piles to be dealing with.”

“Ha ha,” I said tartly, but in fact he was quite right. While I was pleased to find that the inhabitants of River Run were on the whole healthy and well nourished, there was not a great deal of scope for a physician. While I certainly wished no ill to anyone, there was no denying that I was getting restless. So was Jamie, but I thought that was a matter better left unremarked for the moment.

“I do hope Marsali’s quite well,” I said, changing the subject. Convinced at last that Jamie would not require his aid for a little while, Fergus had left the day before, bound downriver for Wilmington, thence to take ship for Jamaica. If all went well, he would return in the springtime with Marsali and—God willing—their new child.

“So do I,” said Jamie. “I told Fergus that—”

Jocasta turned her head sharply toward the door.

“What is it, Ulysses?”

Absorbed by the conversation, I hadn’t noticed footsteps in the hallway. Not for the first time, I was struck by the acuteness of Jocasta’s hearing.

“Mr. Farquard Campbell,” the butler said quietly, and stood back against the wall.

It was an indication of Farquard Campbell’s familiarity with the house-hold, I thought, that he should not have waited for Ulysses to return with an invitation for him to enter. He came into the drawing room on the butler’s heels, hat carelessly thrust beneath one arm.

“Jo, Mrs. Fraser,” he said with a quick bow to Jocasta and me, and “Your servant, sir,” to Jamie. Mr. Campbell had been riding, and riding hard; the skirts of his coat were thick with dust, and sweat streamed down his face beneath a wig crammed on askew.

“What is it, Farquard? Has something happened?” Jocasta sat forward on the edge of her chair, her face reflecting his obvious anxiety.

“Yes,” he said abruptly. “An accident at the sawmill. I’ve come to ask Mrs. Fraser—”

“Yes, of course. Let me get my box. Ulysses, will you have someone fetch a horse?” I rose hastily, searching for the slippers I had kicked off. I wasn’t dressed for riding, but from Campbell’s look, there wasn’t time to change. “Is it serious?”

He put out a hand to stop me, as I stooped to pull my slippers on.

“Aye, bad enough. But you needn’t come, Mrs. Fraser. If your husband might fetch along some of your medicines and such, though—”

“Of course I’ll come,” I said.

“No!” He spoke abruptly, and we all stared at him. His eyes sought Jamie’s, and he grimaced, lips tight.

“It’s not a matter for the ladies,” he said. “But I should be most grateful for your company, Mr. Fraser.”

Jocasta was on her feet before I could protest, gripping Campbell’s arm.

“What is it?” she said sharply. “Is it one of my Negroes? Has Byrnes done something?”

She was taller than he by an inch or two; he had to look up to answer her. I could see the lines of strain in his face, and she plainly sensed it as well; her fingers tightened on the gray serge of his coat sleeve.

He glanced at Ulysses, then back at Jocasta. As though he had received a direct order, the butler turned and left the room, soft-footed as ever.

“It is a matter of bloodshed, Jo,” he said to her quietly. “I do not know who, nor how, nor even how bad the injury may be. MacNeill’s boy came for me. But for the other—” He hesitated, then shrugged. “It is the law.”

“And you’re a judge!” she burst out. “For God’s sake, can you not do something?” Her head moved jerkily, blind eyes trying to fix him, bend him to her will.

“No!” he said sharply, and then, more gently, repeated, “No.” He lifted her hand from his sleeve and held it tightly.

“You know I cannot,” he said. “If I could…”

“If you could, you would not,” she said bitterly. She pulled her hand out of his grasp and stood back, fists clenched at her sides. “Go on, then. They’ve called ye to be judge; go and give them their judgment.” She whirled on her heel and left the room, her skirts rustling with angry futility.

He stared after her, then, as the sound of a slammed door came from down the passage, blew out his breath with a wry grimace and turned to Jamie.

“I hesitate to request such a favor of you, Mr. Fraser, upon such short acquaintance as we have had. But I would greatly appreciate your accompanying me upon my errand. Since Mrs. Cameron herself cannot be present, to have you there as her representative in the matter—”

“What is this matter, Mr. Campbell?” Jamie interrupted.

Campbell glanced at me, plainly wishing me to leave. Since I made no move to do so, he shrugged, and pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his face.

“It is the law of this colony, sir, that if a Negro shall assault a white person and in so doing, cause blood to be shed, then he shall die for his crime.” He paused, reluctant. “Such occurrences are most thankfully rare. But when they occur—”

He stopped, lips pressed together. Then he sighed, and with a final pat of his flushed cheeks, put the handkerchief away.

“I must go. Will you come, Mr. Fraser?”

Jamie stood for a moment longer, his eyes searching Campbell’s face.

“I will,” he said abruptly. He went to the sideboard and pulled open the upper drawer, where the late Hector Cameron’s dueling pistols were kept.

Seeing this, I turned to Campbell.

“Is there some danger?”

“I cannot say, Mrs. Fraser.” Campbell hunched his shoulders, “Donald MacNeill told me only that there had been an altercation of some kind at the sawmill, and that it was a matter of the law of bloodshed. He asked me to come at once to render judgment and oversee the execution, and then left to summon the other estate owners before I could obtain any particulars.”

He looked unhappy, but resigned.

“Execution? Do you mean to say you intend to execute a man without even knowing what he’s done?” In my agitation, I had knocked Jocasta’s basket of yarn over. Little balls of colored wool ran everywhere, bouncing on the carpet.

“I do know what he’s done, Mrs. Fraser!” Campbell lifted his chin, his color high, but with an obvious effort, swallowed his impatience.

“Your pardon, ma’am. I know you are newly come here; you will find some of our ways difficult and even barbarous, but—”

“Too right I find them barbarous! What kind of law is it that condemns a man—”

“A slave—”

“A man! Condemns him without a trial, without even an investigation? What sort of law is that?”

“A bad one, madame!” he snapped. “But it is still the law, and I am charged with its fulfillment. Mr. Fraser, are you ready?” He clapped the hat on his head, and turned to Jamie.

“I am.” Jamie finished stowing the pistols and ammunition in the deep pockets of his coat, and straightened, smoothing the skirts down across his thighs. “Sassenach, will ye go and—”

I had crossed to him and grabbed him by the arm before he could finish.

“Jamie, please! Don’t go; you can’t be part of this!”

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