A Trail of Fire (Page 28)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(28)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Philip Twelvetrees rather obviously did not want his sister alarmed by any mention of the present situation. Grey gave him the faintest of nods in acknowledgement, and Twelvetrees relaxed visibly, settling down to exchange polite social conversation.

‘And what it is that brings you to Jamaica, Colonel Grey?’ Miss Twelvetrees asked eventually. Knowing this was coming, Grey had devised an answer of careful vagueness, having to do with the Crown’s concern for shipping. Halfway through this taradiddle, though, Miss Twelvetrees gave him a very direct look and demanded, ‘Are you here because of the governor?’

‘Nan!’ said her brother, shocked.

‘Are you?’ she repeated, ignoring her brother. Her eyes were very bright, and her cheeks flushed.

Grey smiled at her.

‘What makes you think that that might be the case, may I ask, ma’am?’

‘Because if you haven’t come to remove Derwent Warren from his office, then someone should!’

‘Nancy!’ Philip was nearly as flushed as his sister. He leaned forward, grasping her wrist. ‘Nancy, please!’

She made as though to pull away, but then, seeing his pleading face, contented herself with a simple, ‘Hmph!’ and sat back in her chair, mouth set in a thin line.

Grey would dearly have liked to know what lay behind Miss Twelvetrees’s animosity for the governor, but he couldn’t well inquire directly, and instead guided the conversation smoothly away, inquiring of Philip regarding the operations of the plantation, and of Miss Twelvetrees regarding the natural history of Jamaica, for which she seemed to have some feeling, judging by the rather good watercolours of plants and animals that hung about the room, all neatly signed ‘N. T.’

Gradually, the sense of tension in the room relaxed, and Grey became aware that Miss Twelvetrees was focusing her attentions upon him. Not quite flirting; she was not built for flirtation. But definitely going out of her way to make him aware of her as a woman. He didn’t quite know what she had in mind – he was presentable enough, but didn’t think she was truly attracted to him. Still, he made no move to stop her; if Philip should leave them alone together, he might be able to find out why she had said that about Governor Warren.

A quarter-hour later, a mulatto man in a well-made suit put his head in at the door to the drawing-room and asked if he might speak with Philip. He cast a curious eye toward Grey, but Twelvetrees made no move to introduce them, instead excusing himself and taking the visitor – who, Grey conceived, must be an overseer of some kind – to the far end of the large, airy room, where they conferred in low voices.

He at once seized the opportunity to fix his attention on Miss Nancy, in hopes of turning the conversation to his own ends.

‘I collect you are acquainted with the governor, Miss Twelvetrees?’ he asked, to which she gave a short laugh.

‘Better than I might wish, sir.’

‘Really?’ he said, in as inviting a tone as possible.

‘Really,’ she said, and smiled unpleasantly. ‘But let us not waste time in discussing a . . . a person of such low character.’ The smile altered, and she leaned toward him, touching his hand, which surprised him. ‘Tell me, colonel, does your wife accompany you? Or does she remain in London, from fear of fevers and slave uprisings?’

‘Alas, I am unmarried, ma’am,’ he said, thinking that she likely knew a good deal more than her brother wished her to.

‘Really,’ she said again, in an altogether different tone.

Her touch lingered on his hand, a fraction of a moment too long. Not long enough to be blatant, but long enough for a normal man to perceive it – and Grey’s reflexes in such matters were much better developed than a normal man’s, from necessity.

He barely thought consciously, but smiled at her, then glanced at her brother, then back, with the tiniest of regretful shrugs. He forbore to add the lingering smile that would have said, ‘Later.’

She sucked her lower lip in for a moment, then released it, wet and reddened, and gave him a look under lowered lids that said ‘Later,’ and a good deal more. He coughed, and out of the sheer need to say something completely free of suggestion, asked abruptly, ‘Do you by chance know what an Obeah-man is, Miss Twelvetrees?’

Her eyes sprang wide, and she lifted her hand from his arm. He managed to move out of her easy reach without actually appearing to shove his chair backward, and thought she didn’t notice; she was still looking at him with great attention, but the nature of that attention had changed. The sharp vertical lines between her brows deepened into a harsh eleven.

‘Where did you encounter that term, colonel, may I ask?’ Her voice was quite normal, her tone light – but she also glanced at her brother’s turned back, and she spoke quietly.

‘One of the governor’s servants mentioned it. I see you are familiar with the term – I collect it is to do with Africans?’

‘Yes.’ Now she was biting her upper lip, but the intent was not sexual. ‘The Koromantyn slaves – you know what those are?’


‘Negroes from the Gold Coast,’ she said, and putting her hand once more on his sleeve, pulled him up and drew him a little away, toward the far end of the room. ‘Most planters want them, because they’re big and strong, and usually very well-formed.’ Was it— no, he decided, it was not his imagination; the tip of her tongue had darted out and touched her lip in the fraction of an instant before she’d said ‘well-formed.’ He thought Philip Twelvetrees had best find his sister a husband, and quickly.

‘Do you have Koromantyn slaves here?’

‘A few. The thing is, Koromantyns tend to be intractable. Very aggressive, and hard to control.’

‘Not a desirable trait in a slave, I collect,’ he said, making an effort to keep any edge out of his tone.

‘Well, it can be,’ she said, surprising him. She smiled briefly. ‘If your slaves are loyal – and ours are, I’d swear it – then you don’t mind them being a bit bloody-minded toward . . . anyone who might want to come and cause trouble.’

He was sufficiently shocked at her language that it took him a moment to absorb her meaning. The tongue-tip flickered out again, and had she had dimples, she would certainly have employed them.

‘I see,’ he said carefully. ‘But you were about to tell me what an Obeah-man is. Some figure of authority, I take it, among the Koromantyns?’

The flirtatiousness vanished abruptly, and she frowned again.

‘Yes. Obi is what they call their . . . religion, I suppose one must call it. Though from what little I know of it, no minister or priest would allow it that name.’

Loud screams came from the garden below, and he glanced out, to see a flock of small, brightly coloured parrots swooping in and out of a big, lacy tree with yellowish fruit. Like clockwork, two small black children, nak*d as eggs, shot out of the shrubbery and aimed slingshots at the birds. Rocks spattered harmless among the branches, but the birds rose in a feathery vortex of agitation and flapped off, shrieking their complaints.

Miss Twelvetrees ignored the interruption, resuming her explanation directly the noise subsided.

‘An Obeah-man talks to the spirits. He, or she – there are Obeah-women, too – is the person that one goes to, to . . . arrange things.’

‘What sorts of things?’

A faint hint of her former flirtatiousness reappeared.

‘Oh . . . to make someone fall in love with you. To get with child. To get without child . . .’ and here she looked to see whether she had shocked him again, but he merely nodded, ‘—or to curse someone. To cause them ill-luck, or ill-health. Or death.’

This was promising.

‘And how is this done, may I ask? Causing illness or death?’

Here, however, she shook her head.

‘I don’t know. It’s really not safe to ask,’ she added, lowering her voice still further, and now her eyes were serious. ‘Tell me – the servant who spoke to you; what did he say?’

Aware of just how quickly gossip spreads in rural places, Grey wasn’t about to reveal that threats had been made against Governor Warren. Instead he asked, ‘Have you ever heard of zombies?’

She went quite white.

‘No,’ she said abruptly. It was a risk, but he took her hand to keep her from turning away.

‘I cannot tell you why I need to know,’ he said, very low-voiced, ‘but please believe me, Miss Twelvetrees – Nancy – ’ callously, he pressed her hand, ‘it’s extremely important. Any help that you can give me would be— well, I should appreciate it extremely.’ Her hand was warm; the fingers moved a little in his, and not in an effort to pull away. Her colour was coming back.

‘I truly don’t know much,’ she said, equally low-voiced. ‘Only that zombies are dead people, who have been raised by magic, to do the bidding of the person who made them.’

‘The person who made them – this would be an Obeah-man?’

‘Oh! No,’ she said, surprised. ‘The Koromantyns don’t make zombies. In fact, they think it quite an unclean practice.’

‘I’m entirely of one mind with them,’ he assured her. ‘Who does make zombies?’

‘Nancy!’ Philip had concluded his conversation with the overseer, and was coming toward them, a hospitable smile on his broad, perspiring face. ‘I say, can we not have something to eat? I’m sure the colonel must be famished, and I’m most extraordinarily clemmed myself.’

‘Yes, of course,’ Miss Twelvetrees said, with a quick warning glance at Grey. ‘I’ll tell Cook.’ Grey tightened his grip momentarily on her fingers, and she smiled at him.

‘As I was saying, colonel, you must call on Mrs Abernathy at Rose Hall. She would be the person best equipped to inform you.’

‘Inform you?’ Twelvetrees, curse him, chose this moment to become inquisitive. ‘About what?’

‘Customs and beliefs among the Ashanti, my dear,’ his sister said blandly. ‘Colonel Grey has a particular interest in such things.’

Twelvetrees snorted briefly.

‘Ashanti, my left foot! Ibo, Fulani, Koromantyn . . . baptise ’em all proper Christians and let’s hear no more about what heathen beliefs they may have brought with ’em. From the little I know, you don’t want to hear about that sort of thing, colonel. Though if you do, of course,’ he added hastily, recalling that it was not his place to tell the lieutenant-colonel who would be protecting Twelvetrees’s life and property his business, ‘then my sister’s quite right – Mrs Abernathy would be best placed to advise you. Almost all her slaves are Ashanti. She . . . er . . . she’s said to . . . um . . . take an interest.’

To Grey’s own interest, Twelvetrees’s face went a deep red, and he hastily changed the subject, asking Grey fussy questions about the exact disposition of his troops. Grey evaded direct answers beyond assuring Twelvetrees that two companies of infantry would be dispatched to his plantation as soon as word could be sent to Spanish Town.