Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 151

   

“I wasn’t planning to take up residence here,” I said tartly. “I don’t care what they think.” Not pausing to argue further, I began walking down the road, toward a distant murmur of noise that I took to be the slave market.

“Yer face will…get…red!” Murphy said, huffing indignantly alongside me, attempting to open the parasol as he stumped along.

“Oh, a fate worse than death, I’m sure!” I snapped. My nerves were strung tight, in anticipation of what we might find. “All right, then, give me the bloody thing!” I snatched it from him, snapped it open, and set it over my shoulder with an irritable twirl.

As it was, within minutes I was grateful for Murphy’s intransigence. While the road was shaded by tall palms and cecropia trees, the slave market itself was held in a large, stone-paved space without the grace of any shade, save that provided by ramshackle open booths roofed with sheets of tin or palm fronds, in which the slave-dealers and auctioneers sought occasional refuge from the sun. The slaves themselves were mostly held in large pens at the side of the square, open to the elements.

The sun was fierce in the open, and the light bouncing off the pale stones was blinding after the green shade of the road. I blinked, eyes watering, and hastily adjusted my parasol over my head.

So shaded, I could see a bewildering array of bodies, naked or nearly so, gleaming in every shade from pale café au lait to a deep blue-black. Bouquets of color blossomed in front of the auction blocks, where the plantation owners and their servants gathered to inspect the wares, vivid amid the stark blacks and whites.

The stink of the place was staggering, even to one accustomed to the stenches of Edinburgh and the reeking tween-decks of the Porpoise. Heaps of wet human excrement lay in the corners of the slave pens, buzzing with flies, and a thick oily reek floated on the air, but the major component of the smell was the unpleasantly intimate scent of acres of hot bare flesh, baking in the sun.

“Jesu,” Fergus muttered next to me. His dark eyes flicked right and left in shocked disapproval. “It’s worse than the slums in Montmartre.” Marsali didn’t say a word, but drew closer to his side, her nostrils pinched.

Lawrence was more matter-of-fact; I supposed he must have seen slave markets before during his explorations of the islands.

“The whites are at that end,” he said, gesturing toward the far side of the square. “Come; we’ll ask for news of any young men sold recently.” He placed a large square hand in the center of my back and urged me gently forward through the crowd.

Near the edge of the market, an old black woman squatted on the ground, feeding charcoal to a small brazier. As we drew near, a little group of people approached her: a planter, accompanied by two black men dressed in rough cotton shirts and trousers, evidently his servants. One of them was holding the arm of a newly purchased female slave; two other girls, naked but for small strips of cloth wrapped about their middles, were led by ropes around their necks.

The planter bent and handed the old woman a coin. She turned and drew several short brass rods from the ground behind her, holding them up for the man’s inspection. He studied them for a moment, picked out two, and straightened up. He handed the branding irons to one of his servants, who thrust the ends into the old woman’s brazier.

The other servant stepped behind the girl and pinioned her arms. The first man then pulled the irons from the fire and planted both together on the upper slope of her right breast. She shrieked, a high steam-whistle sound loud enough to turn a few heads nearby. The irons pulled away, leaving the letters HB in raw pink flesh.

I had stopped dead at the sight of this. Not realizing that I was no longer with them, the others had gone on. I turned round and round, looking vainly for any trace of Lawrence or Fergus. I never had any difficulty finding Jamie in crowds; his bright head was always visible above everyone else’s. But Fergus was a small man, Murphy, no taller, and Lawrence, no more than middle height; even Marsali’s yellow parasol was lost among the many others in the square.

I turned away from the brazier with a shudder, hearing screams and whimpers behind me, but not wanting to look back. I hurried past several auction blocks, eyes averted, but then was slowed and finally stopped by a thickening of the crowd around me.

The men and women blocking my way were listening to an auctioneer who was touting the virtues of a one-armed slave who stood naked on the block for inspection. He was a short man, but broadly built, with massive thighs and a strong chest. The missing arm had been crudely amputated above the elbow; sweat dripped from the end of the stump.

“No good for field work, that’s true,” the auctioneer was admitting. “But a sound investment for breeding. Look at those legs!” He carried a long rattan cane, which he flicked against the slave’s calves, then grinned fatly at the crowd.

“Will you give a guarantee of virility?” the man standing behind me said, with a distinct tone of skepticism. “I had a buck three year past, big as a mule, and not a foal dropped on his account; couldn’t do a thing, the juba-girls said.”

The crowd tittered at that, and the auctioneer pretended to be offended.

“Guarantee?” he said. He wiped a hand theatrically over his jowls, gathering oily sweat on the palm. “See for yourselves, O ye of little faith!” Bending slightly, he grasped the slave’s penis and began to massage it vigorously.

The man grunted in surprise and tried to draw back, but was prevented by the auctioneer’s assistant, who clutched him firmly by his single arm. There was an outburst of laughter from the crowd, and a few scattered cheers as the soft black flesh hardened and began to swell.

Some small thing inside me suddenly snapped; I heard it, distinctly. Outraged by the market, the branding, the nakedness, the crude talk and casual indignity, outraged most of all by my own presence here, I could not even think what I was doing, but began to do it, all the same. I felt very oddly detached, as though I stood outside myself, watching.

“Stop it!” I said, very loudly, hardly recognizing my own voice. The auctioneer looked up, startled, and smiled ingratiatingly at me. He looked directly into my eyes, with a knowing leer.

“Sound breeding stock, ma’am,” he said. “Guaranteed, as you see.”

I folded my parasol, lowered it, and stabbed the pointed end of it as hard as I could into his fat stomach. He jerked back, eyes bulging in surprise. I yanked the parasol back and smashed it on his head, then dropped it and kicked him, hard.

Somewhere deep inside, I knew it would make no difference, would not help in any way, would do nothing but harm. And yet I could not stand here, consenting by silence. It was not for the branded girls, the man on the block, not for any of them that I did it; it was for myself.

There was a good deal of noise around me, and hands snatched at me, pulling me off the auctioneer. This worthy, recovered sufficiently from his initial shock, grinned nastily at me, took aim, and slapped the slave hard across the face.

I looked around for reinforcements, and caught a quick glimpse of Fergus, face contorted in rage, lunging through the crowd toward the auctioneer. There was a shout, and several men turned in his direction. People began to push and shove. Someone tripped me and I sat down hard on the stones.

Through a haze of dust, I saw Murphy, six feet away. With a resigned expression on his broad red face, he bent, detached his wooden leg, straightened up, and hopping gracefully forward, brought it down with great force on the auctioneer’s head. The man tottered and fell, as the crowd surged back, trying to get out of the way.

Fergus, baffled of his prey, skidded to a halt by the fallen man and glared ferociously round. Lawrence, dark, grim, and bulky, came striding through the crowd from the other direction, hand on the cane-knife at his belt.

I sat on the ground, shaken. I no longer felt detached. I felt sick, and terrified, realizing that I had just committed an act of folly that was likely to result in Fergus, Lawrence, and Murphy being badly beaten, if nothing worse.

And then Jamie was there.

“Stand up, Sassenach,” he said quietly, stooping over me and giving me his hands. I managed it, knees shaking. I saw Raeburn’s long mustache twitching at one side, MacLeod behind him, and realized that his Scots were with him. Then my knees gave way, but Jamie’s arms held me up.

“Do something,” I said in a choked voice into his chest. “Please. Do something.”

He had. With his usual presence of mind, he had done the only thing that would quell the riot and prevent harm. He had bought the one-armed man. And as the ironic result of my little outburst of sensibilities, I was now the appalled owner of a genuine male Guinea slave, one-armed, but in glowing health and of guaranteed virility.

I sighed, trying not to think of the man, presumably now somewhere under my feet, fed, and—I hoped—clad. The papers of ownership, which I had refused even to touch, said that he was a full-blooded Gold Coast Negro, a Yoruba, sold by a French planter from Barbuda, one-armed, bearing a brand on the left shoulder of a fleur-de-lys and the initial “A,” and known by the name Temeraire. The Bold One. The papers did not suggest what in the name of God I was to do with him.

Jamie had finished looking at the papers his Masonic acquaintance had brought—they were very like the ones I had received for Temeraire, so far as I could see from the rail of the ship. He handed them back with a bow of thanks, a slight frown on his face. The men exchanged a few more words, and parted with another handshake.

“Is everyone aboard?” Jamie asked, stepping off the gangplank. There was a light breeze; it fluttered the dark blue ribbon that tied back the thick tail of his hair.

“Aye, sir,” said Mr. Warren, with the casual jerk of the head that passed for a salute in a merchant ship. “Shall we make sail?”

“We shall, if ye please. Thank ye, Mr. Warren.” With a small bow, Jamie passed him and came to stand beside me.

“No,” he said quietly. His face was calm, but I could feel the depths of his disappointment. Interviews the day before with the two men who dealt in white indentured labor at the slave market had provided no useful information—the Masonic planter had been a beacon of last-minute hope.

There wasn’t anything helpful to be said. I put my hand over his where it lay on the rail, and squeezed lightly. Jamie looked down and gave me a faint smile. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders, shrugging to settle his coat over them.

“Aye, well. I’ve learned something, at least. That was a Mr. Villiers, who owns a large sugar plantation here. He bought six slaves from the captain of the ship Bruja, three days ago—but none of them Ian.”

“Three days?” I was startled. “But—the Bruja left Hispaniola more than two weeks ago!”

He nodded, rubbing his cheek. He had shaved, a necessity before making public inquiries, and his skin glowed fresh and ruddy above the snowy linen of his stock.

“She did. And she arrived here on Wednesday—five days ago.”

“So she’d been somewhere else, before coming to Barbados! Do we know where?”

He shook his head.

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