Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 152

   

“Villiers didna ken. He said he had spoken some time wi’ the captain of the Bruja, and the man seemed verra secretive about where he’d been and what he’d been doing. Villiers thought no great thing of it, knowin’ as the Bruja has a reputation as a crook ship—and seein’ as how the captain was willing to sell the slaves for a good price.”

“Still”—he brightened slightly—“Villiers did show me the papers for the slaves he’d bought. Ye’ll have seen those for your slave?”

“I wish you wouldn’t call him that,” I said. “But yes. Were the ones you saw the same?”

“Not quite. Three o’ the papers gave no previous owner—though Villiers says they were none of them fresh from Africa; all of them have a few words of English, at least. One listed a previous owner, but the name had been scratched out; I couldna read it. The other two gave a Mrs. Abernathy of Rose Hall, Jamaica, as the previous owner.”

“Jamaica? How far—”

“I dinna ken,” he interrupted. “But Mr. Warren will know. It may be right. In any case, I think we must go to Jamaica next—if only to dispose of our cargo before we all die o’ disgust.” He wrinkled his long nose fastidiously and I laughed.

“You look like an anteater when you do that,” I told him.

The attempt to distract him was successful; the wide mouth curved upward slightly.

“Oh, aye? There’s a beastie eats ants, is there?” He did his best to respond to the teasing, turning his back on the Barbados docks. He leaned against the rail and smiled down at me. “I shouldna think they’d be verra filling.”

“I suppose it must eat a lot of them. They can’t be any worse than haggis, after all.” I took a breath before going on, and let it out quickly, coughing. “God, what’s that?”

The Artemis had by now slid free of the loading wharf and out into the harbor. As we came about into the wind, a deep, pungent smell struck the ship, a lower and more sinister note in the olfactory dockside symphony of dead barnacles, wet wood, fish, rotted seaweed, and the constant warm breath of the tropical vegetation on shore.

I pressed my handkerchief hard over my nose and mouth. “What is it?”

“We’re passing the burning ground, mum, at the foot o’ the slave market,” Maitland explained, overhearing my question. He pointed toward the shore, where a plume of white smoke rose from behind a screen of bayberry bushes. “They burn the bodies of the slaves who don’t survive their passage from Africa,” he explained. “First they unload the living cargo, and then, as the ship is swabbed out, the bodies are removed and thrown onto the pyre here, to prevent sickness spreading into the town.”

I looked at Jamie, and found the same fear in his face that showed in my own.

“How often do they burn bodies?” I asked. “Every day?”

“Don’t know, mum, but I don’t think so. Maybe once a week?” Maitland shrugged and went on about his duties.

“We have to look,” I said. My voice sounded strange to my own ears, calm and clear. I didn’t feel that way.

Jamie had gone very pale. He had turned round again, and his eyes were fixed on the plume of smoke, rising thick and white from behind the palm trees.

His lips pressed tight, then, and his jaw set hard.

“Aye,” was all he said, and turned to tell Mr. Warren to put about.

The keeper of the flames, a wizened little creature of indistinguishable color and accent, was vociferously shocked at the notion that a lady should enter the burning ground, but Jamie elbowed him brusquely aside. He didn’t try to prevent me following him, or turn to see that I did; he knew I would not leave him alone here.

It was a small hollow, set behind a screen of trees, convenient to a small wharf that extended into the river. Black-smeared pitch barrels and piles of dry wood stood in grim sticky clumps amid the brilliant greens of tree-ferns and dwarf poinciana. To the right, a huge pyre had been built, with a platform of wood, onto which the bodies had been thrown, dribbled with pitch.

This had been lit only a short time before; a good blaze had started at one side of the heap, but only small tongues of flame licked up from the rest. It was smoke that obscured the bodies, rolling up over the heap in a wavering thick veil that gave the outflung limbs a horrid illusion of movement.

Jamie had stopped, staring at the heap. Then he sprang onto the platform, heedless of smoke and scorching, and began jerking bodies loose, grimly pawing through the grisly remains.

A smaller heap of gray ashes and shards of pure white friable bone lay nearby. The curve of an occiput lay on top of the heap, fragile and perfect as an eggshell.

“Makee fine crop.” The soot-smeared little creature who tended the fire was at my elbow, offering information in evident hopes of reward. He—or she—pointed at the ashes. “Put on crop; makee grow-grow.”

“No, thank you,” I said faintly. The smoke obscured Jamie’s figure for a moment, and I had the terrible feeling that he had fallen, was burning in the pyre. The horrible, jolly smell of roasting meat rose on the air, and I thought I would be sick.

“Jamie!” I called. “Jamie!”

He didn’t answer, but I heard a deep, racking cough from the heart of the fire. Several long minutes later, the veil of smoke parted, and he staggered out, choking.

He made his way down the platform and stood bent over, coughing his lungs out. He was covered with an oily soot, his hands and clothes smeared with pitch. He was blind with the smoke; tears poured down his cheeks, making runnels in the soot.

I threw several coins to the keeper of the pyre, and taking Jamie by the arm, led him, blind and choking, out of the valley of death. Under the palms, he sank to his knees and threw up.

“Don’t touch me,” he gasped, when I tried to help him. He retched over and over again, but finally stopped, swaying on his knees. Then he slowly staggered to his feet.

“Don’t touch me,” he said again. His voice, roughened by smoke and sickness, was that of a stranger.

He walked to the edge of the dock, removed his coat and shoes, and dived into the water, fully clothed. I waited for a moment, then stooped and picked up the coat and shoes, holding them gingerly at arm’s length. I could see in the inner pocket the faint rectangular bulge of Brianna’s pictures.

I waited until he came back and hoisted himself out of the water, dripping. The pitch smears were still there, but most of the soot and the smell of the fire were gone. He sat on the wharf, head on his knees, breathing hard. A row of curious faces edged the Artemis’s rail above us.

Not knowing what else to do, I leaned down and laid a hand on his shoulder. Without raising his head, he reached up a hand and grasped mine.

“He wasn’t there,” he said, in his muffled, rasping stranger’s voice.

The breeze was freshening; it stirred the tendrils of wet hair that lay across his shoulders. I looked back, to see that the plume of smoke rising from the little valley had changed to black. It flattened and began to drift out over the sea, the ashes of the dead slaves fleeing on the wind, back toward Africa.

54

“THE IMPETUOUS PIRATE”

“I can’t own anyone, Jamie,” I said, looking in dismay at the papers spread out in the lamplight before me. “I just can’t. It isn’t right.”

“Well, I’m inclined to agree wi’ ye, Sassenach. But what are we to do with the fellow?” Jamie sat on the berth next to me, close enough to see the ownership documents over my shoulder. He rubbed a hand through his hair frowning.

“We could set him free—that would seem the right thing—and yet, if we do—what will happen to him then?” He hunched forward, squinting down his nose to read the papers. “He’s no more than a bit of French and English; no skills to speak of. If we were to set him free, or even give him a bit of money—can he manage to live, on his own?”

I nibbled thoughtfully on one of Murphy’s cheese rolls. It was good, but the smell of the burning oil in the lamp blended oddly with the aromatic cheese, underlaid—as everything was—with the insidious scent of bat guano that permeated the ship.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Lawrence told me there are a lot of free blacks on Hispaniola. Lots of Creoles and mixed-race people, and a good many who own their own businesses. Is it like that on Jamaica, too?”

He shook his head, and reached for a roll from the tray.

“I dinna think so. It’s true, there are some free blacks who earn a living for themselves, but those are the ones who have some skill—sempstresses and fishers and such. I spoke to this Temeraire a bit. He was a cane-cutter until he lost his arm, and doesna ken how to do anything else much.”

I laid the roll down, barely tasted, and frowned unhappily at the papers. The mere idea of owning a slave frightened and disgusted me, but it was beginning to dawn on me that it might not be so simple to divest myself of the responsibility.

The man had been taken from a barracoon on the Guinea coast, five years before. My original impulse, to return him to his home, was clearly impossible; even had it been possible to find a ship headed for Africa that would agree to take him as a passenger, the overwhelming likelihood was that he would be immediately enslaved again, either by the ship that accepted him, or by another slaver in the West African ports.

Traveling alone, one-armed and ignorant, he would have no protection at all. And even if he should by some miracle reach Africa safely and keep himself out of the hands of both European and African slavers, there was virtually no chance of his ever finding his way back to his village. Should he do so, Lawrence had kindly explained, he would likely be killed or driven away, as his own people would regard him now as a ghost, and a danger to them.

“I dinna suppose ye would consider selling him?” Jamie put the question delicately, raising one eyebrow. “To someone we could be sure would treat him kindly?”

I rubbed two fingers between my brows, trying to soothe the growing headache.

“I can’t see that that’s any better than owning him ourselves,” I protested. “Worse, probably, because we couldn’t be sure what the new owners would do with him.”

Jamie sighed. He had spent most of the day climbing through the dark, reeking cargo holds with Fergus, making up inventories against our arrival in Jamaica, and he was tired.

“Aye, I see that,” he said. “But it’s no kindness to free him to starve, that I can see.”

“No.” I fought back the uncharitable wish that I had never seen the one-armed slave. It would have been a great deal easier for me if I had not—but possibly not for him.

Jamie rose from the berth and stretched himself, leaning on the desk and flexing his shoulders to ease them. He bent and kissed me on the forehead, between the brows.

“Dinna fash, Sassenach. I’ll speak to the manager at Jared’s plantation. Perhaps he can find the man some employment, or else—”

A warning shout from above interrupted him.

“Ship ahoy! Look alive, below! Off the port bow, ahoy!” The lookout’s cry was urgent, and there was a sudden rush and stir, as hands began to turn out. Then there was a lot more shouting, and a jerk and shudder as the Artemis backed her sails.

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