Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 110

   

Jared eyed him dubiously, well aware of his response to seagoing craft of any kind. Jamie could scarcely set foot on a ship at anchor without going green; the prospect of his crossing the Atlantic, sealed inescapably in a small and constantly tossing ship for two or three months, was enough to boggle the stoutest mind. It had been troubling mine for some time.

“Well, I suppose there’s no help for it,” Jared said with a sigh, echoing my thought. “And at least you’ll have a physician to hand,” he added, with a smile at me. “That is, I suppose you intend accompanying him, my dear?”

“Yes indeed,” I assured him. “How long will it be before the ship is ready? I’d like to find a good apothecary’s, to stock my medicine chest before the voyage.”

Jared pursed his lips in concentration. “A week, God willing,” he said. “Artemis is in Bilbao at the moment; she’s to carry a cargo of tanned Spanish hides, with a load of copper from Italy—she’ll ship that here, once she arrives, which should be day after tomorrow, with a fair wind. I’ve no captain signed on for the voyage yet, but a good man in mind; I may have to go to Paris to fetch him, though, and that will be two days there and two back. Add a day to complete stores, fill the water casks, add all the bits and pieces, and she should be ready to leave at dawn tomorrow week.”

“How long to the West Indies?” Jamie asked. The tension in him showed in the lines of his body, little affected either by our journey or by the brief rest. He was strung taut as a bow, and likely to remain so until we had found Young Ian.

“Two months, in the season,” Jared replied, the small frown still lining his forehead. “But you’re a month past the season now; hit the winter gales and it could be three. Or more.”

Or never, but Jared, ex-seaman that he was, was too superstitious—or too tactful—to voice this possibility. Still, I saw him touch the wood of his desk surreptitiously for luck.

Neither would he voice the other thought that occupied my mind; we had no positive proof that the blue ship was headed for the West Indies. We had only the records Jared had obtained for us from the Le Havre harbormaster, showing two visits by the ship—aptly named Bruja—within the last five years, each time giving her home port as Bridgetown, on the island of Barbados.

“Tell me about her again—the ship that took Young Ian,” Jared said. “How did she ride? High in the water, or sunk low, as if she were loaded heavy for a voyage?”

Jamie closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating, then opened them with a nod. “Heavy-laden, I could swear it. Her gunports were no more than six feet from the water.”

Jared nodded, satisfied. “Then she was leaving port, not coming in. I’ve messengers out to all the major ports in France, Portugal and Spain. With luck, they’ll find the port she shipped from, and then we’ll know her destination for sure from her papers.” His thin lips quirked suddenly downward. “Unless she’s turned pirate, and sailing under false papers, that is.”

The old wine merchant carefully set aside the lap desk, its carved mahogany richly darkened by years of use, and rose to his feet, moving stiffly.

“Well, that’s the most that can be done for the moment. Let’s go to the house, now; Mathilde will have supper waiting. Tomorrow I’ll take ye over the manifests and orders, and your wife can find her bits of herbs.”

It was nearly five o’clock, and full dark at this time of year, but Jared had two linksmen waiting to escort us the short distance to his house, equipped with torches to light the way and armed with stout clubs. Le Havre was a thriving port city, and the quay district was no place to walk alone after dark, particularly if one was known as a prosperous wine merchant.

Despite the exhaustion of the Channel crossing, the oppressive clamminess and pervasive fish-smell of Le Havre, and a gnawing hunger, I felt my spirits rise as we followed the torches through the dark, narrow streets. Thanks to Jared, we had at least a chance of finding Young Ian.

Jared had concurred with Jamie’s opinion that if the pirates of the Bruja—for so I thought of them—had not killed Young Ian on the spot, they were likely to keep him unharmed. A healthy young male of any race could be sold as a slave or indentured servant in the West Indies for upward of two hundred pounds; a respectable sum by current standards.

If they did intend so to dispose of Young Ian profitably, and if we knew the port to which they were sailing, it should be a reasonably easy matter to find and recover the boy. A gust of wind and a few chilly drops from the hovering clouds dampened my optimism slightly, reminding me that while it might be no great matter to find Ian once we had reached the West Indies, both the Bruja and the Artemis had to reach the islands first. And the winter storms were beginning.

The rain increased through the night, drumming insistently on the slate roof above our heads. I would normally have found the sound soothing and soporific; under the circumstances, the low thrum seemed threatening, not peaceful.

Despite Jared’s substantial dinner and the excellent wines that accompanied it, I found myself unable to sleep, my mind summoning images of rain-soaked canvas and the swell of heavy seas. At least my morbid imaginings were keeping only myself awake; Jamie had not come up with me but had stayed to talk with Jared about the arrangements for the upcoming voyage.

Jared was willing to risk a ship and a captain to help in the search. In return, Jamie would sail as supercargo.

“As what?” I had said, hearing this proposal.

“The supercargo,” Jared had explained patiently. “That’s the man whose duty it is to oversee the loading, the unloading, and the sale and disposition of the cargo. The captain and the crew merely sail the ship; someone’s got to look after the contents. In a case where the welfare of the cargo will be affected, the supercargo’s orders may override even the captain’s authority.”

And so it was arranged. While Jared was more than willing to go to some risk in order to help a kinsman, he saw no reason not to profit from the arrangement. He had therefore made quick provision for a miscellaneous cargo to be loaded from Bilbao and Le Havre; we would sail to Jamaica to upload the bulk of it, and would arrange for the reloading of the Artemis with rum produced by the sugarcane plantation of Fraser et Cie on Jamaica, for the return trip.

The return trip, however, would not occur until good sailing weather returned, in late April or early May. For the time between arrival on Jamaica in February and return to Scotland in May, Jamie would have disposal of the Artemis and her crew, to travel to Barbados—or other places—in search of Young Ian. Three months. I hoped it would be enough.

It was a generous arrangement. Still, Jared, who had been an expatriate wine-seller for many years in France, was wealthy enough that the loss of a ship, while distressing, would not cripple him. The fact did not escape me that while Jared was risking a small portion of his fortune, we were risking our lives.

The wind seemed to be dying; it no longer howled down the chimney with quite such force. Sleep proving still elusive, I got out of bed, and with a quilt wrapped round my shoulders for warmth, went to the window.

The sky was a deep, mottled gray, the scudding rain clouds edged with brilliant light from the moon that hid behind them, and the glass was streaked with rain. Still, enough light seeped through the clouds for me to make out the masts of the ships moored at the quay, less than a quarter of a mile away. They swayed to and fro, their sails furled tight against the storm, rising and falling in uneasy rhythm as the waves rocked the boats at anchor. In a week’s time, I would be on one.

I had not dared to think what life might be like once I had found Jamie, lest I not find him after all. Then I had found him, and in quick succession, had contemplated life as a printer’s wife among the political and literary worlds of Edinburgh, a dangerous and fugitive existence as a smuggler’s lady, and finally, the busy, settled life of a Highland farm, which I had known before and loved.

Now, in equally quick succession, all these possibilities had been jerked away, and I faced an unknown future once more.

Oddly enough, I was not so much distressed by this as excited by it. I had been settled for twenty years, rooted as a barnacle by my attachments to Brianna, to Frank, to my patients. Now fate—and my own actions—had ripped me loose from all those things, and I felt as though I were tumbling free in the surf, at the mercy of forces a great deal stronger than myself.

My breath had misted the glass. I traced a small heart in the cloudiness, as I had used to do for Brianna on cold mornings. Then, I would put her initials inside the heart—B.E.R., for Brianna Ellen Randall. Would she still call herself Randall? I wondered, or Fraser, now? I hesitated, then drew two letters inside the outline of the heart—a “J” and a “C.”

I was still standing before the window when the door opened and Jamie came in.

“Are ye awake still?” he asked, rather unnecessarily.

“The rain kept me from sleeping.” I went and embraced him, glad of his warm solidness to dispel the cold gloom of the night.

He hugged me, resting his cheek against my hair. He smelt faintly of seasickness, much more strongly of candlewax and ink.

“Have you been writing?” I asked.

He looked down at me in astonishment. “I have, but how did ye know that?”

“You smell of ink.”

He smiled slightly, stepping back and running his hand through his hair. “You’ve a nose as keen as a truffle pig’s, Sassenach.”

“Why, thank you, what a graceful compliment,” I said. “What were you writing?”

The smile disappeared from his face, leaving him looking strained and tired.

“A letter to Jenny,” he said. He went to the table, where he shed his coat and began to unfasten his stock and jabot. “I didna want to write her until we’d seen Jared, and I could tell her what plans we had, and what the prospects were for bringing Ian home safe.” He grimaced, and pulled the shirt over his head. “God knows what she’ll do when she gets it—and thank God, I’ll be at sea when she does,” he added wryly, emerging from the folds of linen.

It couldn’t have been an easy piece of composition, but I thought he seemed easier for the writing of it. He sat down to take off his shoes and stockings, and I came behind him to undo the clubbed queue of his hair.

“I’m glad the writing’s over, at least,” he said, echoing my thought. “I’d been dreading telling her, more than anything else.”

“You told her the truth?”

He shrugged. “I always have.”

Except about me. I didn’t voice the thought, though, but began to rub his shoulders, kneading the knotted muscles.

“What did Jared do with Mr. Willoughby?” I asked, massage bringing the Chinese to mind. He had accompanied us on the Channel crossing, sticking to Jamie like a small blue-silk shadow. Jared, used to seeing everything on the docks, had taken Mr. Willoughby in stride, bowing gravely to him and addressing him with a few words of Mandarin, but his housekeeper had viewed this unusual guest with considerably more suspicion.

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