Authors: Celia Rees
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Historical, #General
‘You understand nothing.’
‘I understand more than you think. I ain’t a complete brute. One thing I do know, you can’t make friends of them. It just don’t work.’
‘Because they are
.’ He pronounced the last word with slow deliberation, as if speaking to an imbecile.
‘They are human beings. Flesh and blood. Just like us.’ I looked at him. ‘What if I were to say I don’t believe one people should enslave another?’
He look genuinely shocked. ‘I’d say you were a foolish girl and tell you not to speak like that. Then I’d remind you what puts bread on your table and clothes on your back. Besides, it’s
for one people to enslave another. We’re just taking advantage, putting it to profit, you might say. The Africans sell the slaves to
, for God’s sake. All we do is collect ’em from the forts. You don’t understand, Nancy. It’s how things are and ever will be.’ He paused. ‘Duke’s a hard man, I’ll own that, but we need him. You might not like his methods, but they are necessary. Plantations cannot be run without discipline.’ He wagged a finger at me. ‘So don’t you go thinking about interfering. You cannot change things. You will only make difficulties for everybody, including your favourites.’ He thought for a minute. ‘For them, especially. You’re giving them ideas above their station, for one thing, and that ain’t fair to them. Don’t be stubborn about this, Nancy. You might think you’re helping them, but all you are likely to do is cause them unhappiness.’
He went to his study, shouting for Thomas to bring rum. It was clear that Duke had already been to him, complaining about my behaviour. I did not know that he had also been advising him to get rid of Phillis and Minerva, urging him to sell them separately. Phillis as a field hand, Minerva to a woman he knew who kept a brothel in Kingston.
If I’d known that, I might have changed my behaviour, but I was young and headstrong. I never liked being told what to do, my natural inclination being to do precisely the opposite, and my brother’s reprimand made me smart. I took absolutely no notice and carried on exactly as before, putting myself before everyone around me. I had no idea then how evil men could be. If I’d had any inkling as to how things would turn out, then I would have acted differently. But such could be said at every twist and turn of this story.
Duke continued to watch me, but I still thought there was nothing he could do. I tried to make light of him, but he was an oppressive and malevolent presence. My brother was weak, but he was not inhumane. He did not condone overly harsh treatment of the slaves, but he was easily swayed, and the beatings increased. The great tree in the marketplace was put to use more frequently. Duke administered punishments himself, that great black whip of his tearing huge gouts from the backs of the unfortunates he singled out. He punished even trivial misdemeanours in the same way, with no difference or moderation.
When I went to my brother, he told me again not to interfere.
‘Duke has plans for your favourites,’ he said, by way of warning. ‘Ones that you will not like. If you want to save them, keep your distance and turn a blind eye.’
Phillis and Minerva became subdued in my presence. They fulfilled their duties, but withdrew their companionship. I did not understand how great the threat was to them and was hurt and puzzled when they failed to meet my gaze, or looked at me with vacant expressions.
Things might have gone on in much the same way, my life settling into patterns that I was powerless to alter, but then one day came that changed everything. I remember it particularly, because it was my sixteenth birthday, but I remember it for other reasons besides that. A rider came up to the house. He was mounted on a bay horse and dressed all in black. He was fine-boned and handsome, his skin was the deepest shade of ebony, and his crisp curled hair was cropped close to his head. He reached into a saddle bag marked with the letter
in an elaborate swirl of serifs and brought out a note. It was sealed with the initial of his master: Bartholome, the Brazilian.
The note was for my brother and contained a dinner invitation. Joseph replied immediately. He came out on to the veranda, pale and unshaven, but sober enough. He handed the man a note, folded and sealed, the writing on it shaky but legible. He did not tell me the contents, but called for Thomas to shave him and told Phillis and Minerva to lay out my finest clothes and make me look like a lady, or he’d sell them to the swamps of Surinam.
‘And how could that be worse than here?’ Phillis muttered to herself, but she did as she was told and when they had finished I hardly recognised the girl in the mirror.
My brother waited for me on the veranda. He wore a dove-grey coat with gold frogging over a cream silk waistcoat delicately embroidered with butterflies and flowers. Lace spilled from his cuffs and shirt front. His breeches were of soft chamois, his boots shone like mirrors. I hadn’t seen him dressed like that since Bath. He was freshly barbered. He smiled when he saw me, and gave me a look of relief and admiring approval, as if for once I was doing right by him. He took one swift shot of rum, for the tremor in his hands, he said, then conducted me to the open carriage.
Thomas was dressed in livery and wore a pistol at his side. My brother had a pistol, also. And a sword. Out of the little kingdom of one’s own plantation, the island was a dangerous place. Runaways, black and white, lurked in the forests and there were maroons camped up in the hills. The road we were to travel took us by the coast and pirates sometimes roamed up from the shoreline. It was best to be prepared.
The evening was coming on as we left the plantation. Parrots and cockatoos darted through the forest trees, splashes of brilliant colour, blue, red and yellow against the green, adding their harsh calls to the shrilling din of the cicadas. The sea lay rippling like a cloth of gold, lit by the setting sun. A skein of pelicans beat its way on broad wings, the birds flying low to the water, as if their heavy beaks weighed them down.
‘They feed their young on their own blood,’ Joseph remarked. ‘Or so it is said.’
I made no reply, only thought of how free they seemed, leaving the land far behind them and flying off west into the sunset.
The entrance to Bartholome’s plantation was flanked by two huge trees. A single letter
swung between them, made with the same curling serifs as on the slave’s saddlebag.
Thomas turned in at the sign. Before us lay a long drive made up of small white stones, shining chips of marble which turned the road to silver in the twilight gloom.
A sudden fluttering movement in one of the great trees that lined the drive caused our horses to shy. The wheels skidded on the chippings, and the carriage lurched, threatening to spill. Joseph cursed, roaring at Thomas, calling him an incompetent fool. Thomas looked back at us, his face grey in the half light, his eyes huge and wide. He looked as if he had seen a ghost.
There was something suspended from one of the great branches of the tree before us, something large and heavy, swinging ever so slightly. Shapes moved above it. Huge black birds fought with each other, trying to keep their balance on a surface too small for them. Our approach had disturbed them and they had flown up with a heavy flap of wings into the spreading tree branches. Thomas fought to quieten the frightened horses, bringing us up right in front of the creaking gibbet. The birds settled back down, their ragged plumage hanging about them like filthy gowns as they vied for purchase on the iron cage that hung from the tree.
I had seen gibbeted men before. Bleached bones dropping through the bars at the top of Gallows Acre Lane. A body, roped and tarred, slung low over the marsh out at Hungroad. This was different. The man inside the cage was still alive. The birds had pecked out his eyes. Their cruel beaks had slashed his face and shoulders to the bone. Blood dripped like tears down his ruined cheeks, dropping into black pools on the dusty ground. I covered my nose, for the stench was terrible, as though the body were already corrupting, but a convulsive movement from the man jerked the iron cage on its chain, sending out a frenzied black cloud of furiously buzzing flies. His hand twitched. His lips drew back, as if he would speak.
We were only stopped there for seconds as the horses regained their footing, but in my memory it seems a much longer time. I saw everything, every detail. I can never cleanse my mind of it. If I close my eyes, I can see him still. We all stared, transfixed and unbelieving, unable quite to take in what we were seeing, until my brother roared to Thomas, ‘Drive on!’
‘Who would do that?’ I turned to my brother. I could see he, too, was shaken, although he was trying not to show it. ‘Why?’
‘He must have done something bad. Hit an overseer, something like that. Dare say the rogue deserved it,’ he added, trying to regain his composure, but his lips were white and his hand was shaking as he took out the silver flask he kept about him and took a swig. He offered the flask to me, but I declined. ‘Don’t say anything. Don’t say a word.’ He leaned forward, keeping his voice low so that Thomas would not hear him. ‘That’s how life is out here. I told you. There’s nothing you can do about it. So it’s time you left your sensitivities at home and grew up.’
I did not reply. I had no words, there were no words to express the shock I was feeling. I stared from the back of the carriage until a sweep of the drive took us away from that dismal sight.
Bartholome, the Brazilian, waited for us on his veranda. He wore a suit of black velvet, just like the last time I had seen him, but he was adorned with far greater opulence than before. A rainbow of rings studded the knuckles gripping the rail. His silk neckcloth was secured with a sapphire; his jacket hung open to show a shirt of cream satin buttoned by pearls the size of peas. He came down the steps to greet us, taking my hand in his. His gap teeth gleamed inside his black beard, and his night-shade eyes smiled down into mine.
‘Miss Nancy.’ He touched my fingers to his lips. ‘I am honoured to welcome you to my home.’ He held on to my hand and led me up into his mansion, the stones and metal of his rings feeling cold and hard against my skin.
It was a great house with marble floors and stone-built walls that made ours seem like a flimsy cabin. Half of Europe had been ransacked to furnish it; the rest of the world plundered to provide suitable decoration. Jewelled icons and masks made of gold looked down from the walls. A face made up of plaques of turquoise grinned with what looked like human teeth and stared with glinting eyes formed from some kind of shiny black stone. Antique marble statuary stood on plinths next to pagan idols and golden animals encrusted with jewels. A cross bright with huge square-cut emeralds stood at least a foot tall and made an altar of a table set with gold patens, ruby-embossed chalices, pierce-work boxes carved from ivory and jade. Chinese silks and Indian carpets hung next to Italian oil paintings. I had never seen anything like it. I was walking into a robber’s cave, a glittering magpie’s nest filled with booty acquired from every continent.
‘I cannot resist beauty.’ He waved his hand to indicate the priceless furnishings. ‘I am a collector, as you see. I will go to considerable trouble to get what I want. No price is too much, and no place is too far for me. I have objects from India, China, even Japan. When I have something, I like to keep it here, where I can see it and enjoy it. Come.’
He offered me his arm and conducted me to the dining room, shuttered and panelled in dark wood, illuminated by crystal chandeliers suspended from the carved ceiling. The long table was set with the finest ware. Silver and crystal glittered. Milky-blue porcelain gleamed with duck-egg translucency in the steady light given by golden branches of fine beeswax candles. Servants stood round the walls, still as statues.
He escorted me to my place, pulling out the chair for me to be seated.
‘This is my dear sister, Isabella.’
A lady seated at the end of the table inclined her head to me. She was wearing a towering black mantilla with the veils drawn back. I thought that perhaps she had been widowed, but later discovered that she had never married. It was the custom among these people for ladies to go veiled in mantillas, as we might wear a bonnet. I looked for a family resemblance, and could see none, although brother and sister shared the same oddly ageless quality. She was pale complexioned and very thin. One side of her mouth lifted up slightly, catching her in a permanent sneer. Her dark hair was pulled back under the mantilla, stretching the skin taut, making her gaunt face almost cadaverous. Her black silk dress was of heavy brocade and tight fitting with a high bodice and long sleeves, a style more suited to a European court than a tropical plantation, yet she seemed to feel no discomfort. She watched me, still as a spider, her hands loosely clasped, her long, thin arms gleaming green in the candlelight.
She spoke no English, her brother interpreting for her. Although she said very little, her dark eyes followed the conversation, flicking from person to person, and I began to suspect that she understood a great deal.
The table was set for an elaborate meal. Course followed course: choice foods of that bountiful country, perfectly prepared and elaborately presented. My brother ate heartily and drank copiously, complimenting his host on the quality of the wines he kept, exclaiming that he’d tasted nothing like them since Bristol. The Brazilian smiled at the praise, for they all came from his estates in Portugal. He declared Joseph to be a connoisseur, inviting him to try more, until my brother was quite drunk.
I, in contrast, ate very little, and drank only water. The Brazilian’s sister was equally abstemious, so perhaps they thought it appropriate behaviour. I did not want to explain my lack of appetite. I had eaten almost nothing since breakfast, and would normally have been ravenous, but the very sight and smell of the food made my throat close and my stomach clench like a fist inside me. How could they eat, drink, and enjoy such luxury, conversing about every kind of frivolity, when all the while outside a man was dying in the cruellest way that it was possible to imagine? I could not get him out of my mind. I looked at faces smiling, laughing, mouths chewing, gullets swallowing, and all I could see was a man hanging at their very gate, being eaten alive inside his gibbet.
At last, the table was cleared and set with candied fruit and nuts and various sweetmeats along with decanters of Madeira and port and bottles of French brandy.
Bartholome insisted I had at least a taste of ruby-red port, and when all our glasses were filled, he called for a toast.
‘I understand it is your birthday, Miss Nancy. We must drink to that.’
I wondered how he knew, as they all raised their glasses to salute me. Joseph must have told him, I decided, but I could not think why.
‘To friendship between our families,’ the Brazilian went on. ‘And to ties that will shortly bind us even closer.’ I thought that was the toast and was about to drink, when he lifted his glass even higher. ‘To Miss Nancy!’
I stared in confusion as they turned their glasses and drank to me. The Brazilian drank deep, the red wine seeping into his beard and staining his lips. He smiled, his eyes like those of the mask behind him: little black mirrors, flecked with tiny points of candlelight.
‘I have spoken to your brothers about this matter so close to my heart, and indeed to your father just before his sad and untimely death. He assured me it was his dearest wish, and that I had his blessing, although he desired me to wait until the occasion of your sixteenth birthday. I, of course, have respected his request of me, but now that day has come.’ He paused to clear his throat and his voice rose, becoming more sonorous and formal. ‘Miss Nancy, I have every hope that you will make me the happiest of men ... ’
He was proposing to me. For a second, I just stared at him, unable to think of a word to say. Then I looked to my brother, but he would not, or could not, meet my gaze.
The Brazilian faltered. ‘You do know of this?’ he said to me.
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. I heard my father’s voice again, as if he were there in the room with me:
You would do your part, wouldn’t you? For me? For the family?
And my answer.
Of course, Papa.
He turned to Joseph. His black-eyed stare as dark and cold as the waters of a bottomless well. The chill of his look seemed to sober my brother.
‘Not in so many words, maybe,’ Joseph began, twirling the stem of his port glass. ‘But Nancy understands how important such an alliance would be to the family and all who depend on us.’ He glanced at me, his pale eyes as hard as marble. ‘Susan, for example, and Robert; the captains of our ships, their families, the men that serve upon them. Henry has many friends at the Admiralty. A good word, or bad, can make all the difference to a man’s career. Many trade on our good name and need our patronage.’
I was caught in a trap laid by pitiless men: my brothers, my father, this Brazilian. All in it together. Their ruthlessness made me gasp. My mind raced as my brother spoke, trying to take in the depths of their duplicity, trying to find a path through the field full of hidden pitfalls and sudden dangers that I now found in front of me.
‘This comes as a very great surprise,’ I said at last. ‘I do not know what to say, Sir. You have utterly overwhelmed me.’ Which was very near to the truth. As I struggled to come to terms with the very idea, his sister spoke from the end of the table. I looked up, startled to hear her speak. Her voice was gruff, pitched low, with an almost masculine timbre.