Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 45

   

“I see.” I stared down at the ground, thinking. “You don’t suppose he’s been fiddling the accounts or anything sordid like that?” I hoped not; I liked Jocasta’s butler very much, and had thought there was both fondness and respect between them; I didn’t like to think of his cold-bloodedly cheating her.

Jamie shook his head.

“He is not. I’ve been over the ledgers and accounts, and everything is in order—verra good order indeed. I’m sure he is an honest man and a faithful servant—but he wouldna be human, to welcome giving up his place to a stranger.”

He snorted briefly.

“My aunt may be blind, but yon black man sees clear enough. He didna say a word to prevent me, or persuade me of anything: only told me what my aunt meant to do, and then left it to me what I should do. Or not.”

“You think he knew that you wouldn’t—” I stopped there, because I wasn’t sure myself that he wouldn’t. Pride, caution, or both might have caused him to want to thwart Jocasta’s plan, but that didn’t mean he meant to reject her offer, either.

He didn’t reply, and a small cold chill ran through me. I shivered, in spite of the warm summer air, and took his arm as we walked, seeking reassurance in the solid feel of his flesh beneath my fingers.

It was late July, and the scent of ripening fruit from the orchard was sweet, so heavy on the air that I could almost taste the clean, crisp tang of new apples. I thought of temptation—and the worm that lay hidden beneath a shining skin.

Temptation not only for him, but for me. For him, the chance to be what he was made for by nature, what fate had denied him. He was born and bred to this: the stewardship of a large estate, the care of the people on it, a place of respect among men of substance, his peers. More importantly, the restoration of clan and family. I am already part of it, he’d said.

He cared nothing for wealth, of itself; I knew that. Neither did I think he wanted power; if he did, knowing what I knew about the future’s shape, he would have chosen to go north, to seek a place among the founders of a nation.

But he had been a laird once. He had told me very little of his time in prison, but one thing he had said rang in my memory. Of the men who shared his confinement, he said—They were mine. And the having of them kept me alive. And I remembered what Ian had said of Simon Fraser: “Care for his men is now his only link with humanity.”

Yes, Jamie needed men. Men to lead, to care for, to defend and to fight with. But not to own.

Past the orchard, still in silence, and down the long walk of herbaceous borders, with the scents of lily and lavender, anemone and roses, so pungent and heady that simply to walk through the hot, heavy air was like throwing oneself headlong onto a bed of fragrant petals.

Oh, River Run was a garden of earthly delight, all right…but I had called a black man friend, and left my daughter in his care.

Thinking of Joe Abernathy, and Brianna, gave me a strange sense of dislocated double vision, of existing in two places at once. I could see their faces in my mind, hear their voices in my inner ear. And yet reality was the man beside me, kilt swinging with his stride, head bent in anxious thought.

And that was my temptation: Jamie. Not the inconsequentials of soft beds or gracious rooms, silk gowns or social deference. Jamie.

If he did not take Jocasta’s offer, he must do something else. And “something else” was most likely William Tryon’s dangerous lure of land and men. Better than Jocasta’s generous offer, in its way; what he built would be his own, the legacy he wanted to leave for Brianna. If he lived to build it.

I was still living on two planes. In this one, I could hear the whisper of his kilt where it brushed my skirt, feel the humid warmth of his body, warmer even than the heated air. I could smell the musky scent of him that made me want to pull him from his thoughts into the border, unbelt him and let the plaid fall from his shoulders, pull down my bodice and press my br**sts against him, take him down half-naked and wholly roused among the damp green plants, and force him from his thoughts to mine.

But on the plane of memory, I smelled yew trees and the wind from the sea, and under my fingers was no warm man, but the cold, smooth granite of a tombstone with his name.

I didn’t speak. Neither did he.

We had made a complete circle by now, and come back to the river’s edge, where gray stone steps led down and disappeared under a lapping sheen of water; even so far upstream, the faint echoes of the tide could be felt.

There was a boat moored there; a small rowboat, fit for solitary fishing or a leisurely excursion.

“Will ye come for a row?”

“Yes, why not?” I thought he must feel the same desire I had—to get away from the house and Jocasta, to get enough distance in which to think clearly, without danger of interruption.

I came down, putting my hand on his arm for balance. Before I could step into the boat, though, he turned toward me. Pulling me to him, he kissed me, gently, once, then held me against his body, his chin resting on my head.

“I don’t know,” he said quietly, in answer to my unspoken questions. He stepped into the boat and offered me a hand.

He was silent while we made our way out onto the river. It was a dark, moonless night, but the reflections of starlight from the surface of the river gave enough light to see, once my eyes had adapted to the shifting glimmer of water and tree-shadow.

“Ye dinna mean to say anything?” he asked abruptly, at last.

“It’s not my choice to make,” I said, feeling a tightness in my chest that had nothing to do with stays.

“No?”

“She’s your aunt. It’s your life. It has to be your choice.”

“And you’ll be a spectator, will you?” He grunted as he spoke, digging with the oars as he pulled upstream. “Is it not your life? Or do ye not mean to stay with me, after all?”

“What do you mean, not stay?” I sat up, startled.

“Perhaps it will be too much for you.” His head was bent over the oars; I couldn’t see his face.

“If you mean what happened at the sawmill—”

“No, not that.” He heaved back on the oars, shoulders broadening under his linen, and gave me a crooked smile. “Death and disaster wouldna trouble ye ower-much, Sassenach. But the small things, day by day…I see ye flinch, when the black maid combs your hair, or when the boy takes your shoes away to clean. And the slaves who work in the turpentine camp. That troubles ye, no?”

“Yes. It does. I’m—I can’t own slaves. I’ve told you—”

“Aye, ye have.” He rested on the oars for a moment, brushing a lock of hair out of his face. His eyes met mine squarely.

“And if I chose to do this, Sassenach…could ye stay by me, and watch, and do nothing—for there is nothing that could be done, until my aunt should die. Perhaps not even then.”

“What do you mean?”

“She will not free her slaves—how should she? I could not, while she lived.”

“But once you had inherited the place…” I hesitated. Beyond the ghoulish aspects of discussing Jocasta’s death, there was the more concrete consideration that that event was unlikely to occur for some time; Jocasta was little more than sixty, and aside from her blindness, in vigorous health.

I suddenly saw what he meant; could I bring myself to live, day after day, month after month, year after year, as an owner of slaves? I could not pretend otherwise, could take no refuge in the notion that I was only a guest, an outsider.

I bit my lip, in order not to cry out instant denial.

“Even then,” he said, answering my partial argument. “Did ye not know that a slave owner cannot free his slaves without the written permission of the Assembly?”

“He what?” I stared blankly at him. “Whyever not?”

“The plantation owners go in fear of an armed insurrection of Negroes,” he said. “And d’ye blame them?” he added sardonically.

“Slaves are forbidden to carry weapons, save tools such as tree knives, and there are the bloodshed laws to prevent their use.” He shook his head. “Nay, the last thing the Assembly would allow is a large group of free blacks let loose upon the countryside. Even if a man wishes to manumit one of his slaves, and is given permission to do so, the freed slave is required to leave the colony within a short time—or he may be captured and enslaved by anyone who chooses to take him.”

“You’ve thought about it,” I said slowly.

“Haven’t you?”

I didn’t answer. I trailed my hand in the water, a little wave purling up my wrist. No, I hadn’t thought about the prospect. Not consciously, because I hadn’t wanted to face the choice that was now being laid before me.

“I suppose it would be a great chance,” I said, my voice sounding strained and unnatural to my ears. “You’d be in charge of everything…”

“My aunt is not a fool,” he interrupted, with a slight edge to his voice. “She would make me heir, but not owner in her place. She would use me to do those things she cannot—but I would be no more than her cat’s-paw. True, she would ask my opinion, listen to my advice; but nothing would be done, and she didna wish it so.”

He shook his head.

“Her husband is dead. Whether she was fond of him or no, she is mistress here now, with none to answer to. And she enjoys the taste of power too well to spit it out.”

He was plainly correct in this assessment of Jocasta Cameron’s character, and therein lay the key to her plan. She needed a man; someone to go into those places she could not go, to deal with the Navy, to handle the chores of a large estate that she could not manage because of her blindness.

At the same time, she patently did not want a husband; someone who would usurp her power and dictate to her. Had he not been a slave, Ulysses could have acted for her—but while he could be her eyes and ears, he could not be her hands.

No, Jamie was the perfect choice; a strong, competent man, able to command respect among peers, compel obedience in subordinates. One knowledgeable in the management of land and men. Furthermore, a man bound to her by kinship and obligation, there to do her bidding—but essentially powerless. He would be held in thrall by dependence upon her bounty, and by the rich bribe of River Run itself; a debt that need not be paid until the matter was no longer of any earthly concern to Jocasta Cameron.

There was an increasing lump in my throat as I sought for words. I couldn’t, I thought. I couldn’t manage it. But I couldn’t face the alternative, either; I couldn’t urge him to reject Jocasta’s offer, knowing it would send him to Scotland, to meet an unknown death.

“I can’t say what you should do,” I finally said, my voice barely audible above the regular lap of the oars.

There was an eddy pool, where a large tree had fallen into the water, its branches forming a trap for all the debris that drifted downstream. Jamie made for this, backing the rowboat neatly into quiet water. He let down the oars, and wiped a sleeve across his forehead, breathing heavily from exertion.

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