A Trail of Fire (Page 23)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(23)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

‘Have you a map of the district?’ Surely it hadn’t escaped Warren that if indeed the maroons were burning their way straight toward King’s Town, it should be possible to predict where their next target lay and await them with several companies of armed infantry?

Warren drained the glass and sat panting gently for a moment, eyes fixed on the tablecloth, then seemed to pull himself together.

‘Map,’ he repeated. ‘Yes, of course. Dawes . . . my secretary . . . he’ll— he’ll find you one.’

Motion caught Grey’s eye. Rather to his surprise, the tiny snake, after casting to and fro, tongue tasting the air, had started across the table in what seemed a purposeful, if undulant, manner, headed straight for him. By reflex, he put up a hand to catch the little thing, lest it plunge to the floor.

The governor saw it, uttered a loud shriek, and flung himself back from the table. Grey looked at him in astonishment, the tiny snake curling over his fingers.

‘It’s not venomous,’ he said, as mildly as he could. At least he didn’t think so. His friend Oliver Gwynne was a natural philosopher and mad for snakes; Gwynne had shown him all the prizes of his collection during the course of one hair-raising afternoon, and he seemed to recall Gwynne telling him that there were no venomous reptiles at all on the island of Jamaica. Besides, the nasty ones all had triangular heads, while the harmless kinds were blunt, like this little fellow.

Warren was indisposed to listen to a lecture on the physiognomy of snakes. Shaking with terror, he backed against the wall.

‘Where?’ he gasped. ‘Where did it come from?’

‘It’s been sitting on the table since I came in. I . . . um . . . thought it was . . .’ Well, plainly it wasn’t a pet, let alone an intended part of the table décor. He coughed, and got up, meaning to put the snake outside through the French doors that led onto the terrace.

Warren mistook his intent, though, and seeing him come closer, snake writhing through his fingers, burst through the French doors himself, crossed the terrace in a mad leap, and pelted down the flagstoned walk, coat-tails flying as though the Devil himself were in pursuit.

Grey was still staring after him in disbelief when a discreet cough from the inner door made him turn.

‘Gideon Dawes, sir.’ The governor’s secretary was a short, tubby man with a round, pink face that probably was rather jolly by nature. At the moment, it bore a look of profound wariness. ‘You are Lieutenant-Colonel Grey?’

Grey thought it unlikely that there was a plethora of men wearing the uniform and insignia of a lieutenant-colonel on the premises of King’s House at that very moment, but nonetheless bowed, murmuring, ‘Your servant, Mr Dawes. I’m afraid Mr Warren has been taken . . . er . . .’ He nodded toward the open French doors. ‘Perhaps someone should go after him?’

Mr Dawes closed his eyes with a look of pain, then sighed and opened them again, shaking his head.

‘He’ll be all right,’ he said, though his tone lacked any real conviction. ‘I’ve just been discussing commissary and billeting requirements with your Major Fettes; he wishes you to know that all the arrangements are quite in hand.’

‘Oh. Thank you, Mr Dawes.’ In spite of the unnerving nature of the governor’s departure, he felt a sense of pleasure. He’d been a major himself for years; it was astonishing how pleasant it was to know that someone else was now burdened with the physical management of troops. All he had to do was give orders.

That being so, he gave one, though it was phrased as a courteous request, and Mr Dawes promptly led him through the corridors of the rambling house to a small clerk’s hole near the governor’s office, where maps were made available to him.

He could see at once that Warren had been right regarding both the devious nature of the terrain, and the trail of attacks. One of the maps was marked with the names of plantations, and small notes indicated where maroon raids had taken place. It was far from being a straight line, but nonetheless, a distinct sense of direction was obvious.

The room was warm, and he could feel sweat trickling down his back. Still, a cold finger touched the base of his neck lightly, when he saw the name ‘Twelvetrees’ on the map.

‘Who owns this plantation?’ he asked, keeping his voice level as he pointed at the paper.

‘What?’ Dawes had fallen into a sort of dreamy trance, looking out the window into the green of the jungle, but blinked and pushed his spectacles up, bending to peer at the map. ‘Oh, Twelvetrees. It’s owned by Philip Twelvetrees – a young man, inherited the place from a cousin only recently. Killed in a duel, they say – the cousin, I mean,’ he amplified helpfully.

‘Ah. Too bad.’ Grey’s chest tightened unpleasantly. He could have done without that complication. If . . . ‘The cousin – was he named Edward Twelvetrees, by chance?’

Dawes looked mildly surprised.

‘I do believe that was the name. I didn’t know him, though; no one here did. He was an absentee owner, ran the place through an overseer.’

‘I see.’ He wanted to ask whether Philip Twelvetrees had come from London to take possession of his inheritance, but didn’t. He didn’t want to draw any attention by seeming to single out the Twelvetrees family. Time enough for that.

He asked a few more questions regarding the timing of the raids, which Mr Dawes answered promptly, but when it came to an explanation of the inciting causes of the rebellion, the secretary proved suddenly unhelpful – which Grey thought interesting.

‘Really, sir, I know almost nothing of such matters,’ Mr Dawes protested, when pressed on the subject. ‘You would be best advised to speak with Captain Cresswell. He’s the superintendent in charge of the maroons.’

Grey was surprised at this.

‘Escaped slaves? They have a superintendent?’

‘Oh. No, sir.’ Dawes seemed relieved to have a more straightforward question with which to deal. ‘The maroons are not escaped slaves. Or rather,’ he corrected himself, ‘they are technically escaped slaves, but it is a pointless distinction. These maroons are the descendants of slaves who escaped during the last century, and took to the mountain uplands. They have settlements up there. But as there is no way of identifying any current owner . . .’ And as the government lacked any means of finding them and dragging them back, the Crown had wisely settled for installing a white superintendent, as was usual for dealing with native populations. The superintendent’s business was to be in contact with the maroons, and deal with any matter that might arise pertaining to them.

Which raised the question, Grey thought, why had this Captain Cresswell not been brought to meet him at once? He had sent word of his arrival as soon as the ship docked at daylight, not wishing to take Derwent Warren unawares.

‘Where is Captain Cresswell presently?’ he asked, still polite. Mr Dawes looked unhappy.

‘I, um, am afraid I don’t know, sir,’ he said, casting down his gaze behind his spectacles.

There was a momentary silence, in which Grey could hear the calling of some bird from the jungle nearby.

‘Where is he, normally?’ Grey asked, with slightly less politesse.

Dawes blinked.

‘I don’t know, sir. I believe he has a house near the base of Guthrie’s Defile – there is a small village there. But he would of course go up into the maroon settlements from time to time, to meet with the . . .’ He waved a small, fat hand, unable to find a suitable word. ‘The headmen. He did buy a new hat in Spanish Town earlier this month,’ Dawes added, in the tones of someone offering a helpful observation.

‘A hat?’

‘Yes. Oh— but of course you would not know. It is customary among the maroons, when some agreement of importance is made, that the persons making the agreement shall exchange hats. So you see . . .’

‘Yes, I do,’ Grey said, trying not to let annoyance show in his voice. ‘Will you be so kind, Mr Dawes, as to send to Guthrie’s Defile, then – and to any other place in which you think Captain Cresswell might be discovered? Plainly I must speak with him, and as soon as possible.’

Dawes nodded vigorously, but before he could speak, the rich sound of a small gong came from somewhere in the house below. As though it had been a signal, Grey’s stomach emitted a loud gurgle.

‘Dinner in half an hour,’ Mr Dawes said, looking happier than Grey had yet seen him. He almost scurried out the door, Grey in his wake.

‘Mr Dawes,’ he said, catching up at the head of the stair. ‘Governor Warren. Do you think—’

‘Oh, he will be present at dinner,’ Dawes assured him. ‘I’m sure he is quite recovered now; these small fits of excitement never last very long.’

‘What causes them?’ A savoury smell, rich with currants, onion, and spice, wafted up the stair, making Grey hasten his step.

‘Oh . . .’ Dawes, hastening along with him, glanced sideways at him. ‘It is nothing. Only that his Excellency has a, um, somewhat morbid fancy concerning reptiles. Did he see a snake in the drawing room, or hear something concerning one?’

‘He did, yes – though a remarkably small and harmless one.’ Vaguely, Grey wondered what had happened to the little yellow snake. He thought he must have dropped it in the excitement of the governor’s abrupt exit, and hoped it hadn’t been injured.

Mr Dawes looked troubled, and murmured something that sounded like, ‘Oh, dear, oh, dear . . .’ but he merely shook his head and sighed.

Grey made his way to his room, meaning to freshen himself before dinner; the day was warm, and he smelled strongly of ship’s reek – this composed in equal parts of sweat, sea-sickness, and sewage, well marinated in salt-water – and horse, having ridden up from the harbour to Spanish Town. With any luck, his valet would have clean linen aired for him by now.

King’s House, as all royal governors’ residences were known, was a shambling old wreck of a mansion, perched on a high spot of ground on the edge of Spanish Town. Plans were afoot for an immense new Palladian building, to be erected in the town’s centre, but it would be another year at least before construction could commence. In the meantime, efforts had been made to uphold His Majesty’s dignity by means of beeswax-polish, silver, and immaculate linen, but the dingy printed wallpaper peeled from the corners of the rooms, and the dark-stained wood beneath exhaled a mouldy breath that made Grey want to hold his own whenever he walked inside.

One good feature of the house, though, was that it was surrounded on all four sides by a broad terrace, and overhung by large, spreading trees that cast lacy shadows on the flagstones. A number of the rooms opened directly onto this terrace – Grey’s did – and it was therefore possible to step outside and draw a clean breath, scented by the distant sea or the equally distant upland jungles. There was no sign of his valet, but there was a clean shirt on the bed. He shucked his coat, changed his shirt, and then threw the French doors open wide.

He stood for a moment in the centre of the room, mid-afternoon sun spilling through the open doors, enjoying the sense of a solid surface under his feet after seven weeks at sea and seven hours on horseback. Enjoying even more the transitory sense of being alone. Command had its prices, and one of those was a nearly complete loss of solitude. He therefore seized it when he found it, knowing it wouldn’t last for more than a few moments, but valuing it all the more for that.