Authors: Philippa Gregory
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This book is dedicated to the children of Sika village, in The Gambia, and to all the peoples of Africa, wherever they are today
EHURU WOKE AT DAWN
with the air cool on his outstretched body. He opened his eyes in the half darkness and sniffed the air as if the light wind might bring him some strange scent. His dream, an uneasy vision of a ship slipping her anchor in shadows and sailing quietly down a deep rocky gorge, was with him still.
He got up from his sleeping platform, wrapped a sheet around him and went quietly to the door. The city of Oyo was silent. He looked down his street; no lights showed. Only in the massive palace wall could he see a moving light as a servant walked from room to room, the torch shining from each window he passed.
There was nothing to fear, there was nothing to make him uneasy, yet still he stood wakeful and listening as if the
of the hunting owls or the little squeaks from the bats that clung around the stone towers of the palace might bring him a warning.
He gave a little shiver and turned from the doorway. The dream had been very clear—just one image of a looped rope dropping from a stone quayside and snaking through the water to the prow of a ship, whipping its way up the side as it was hauled in, and then the ship moving silently away from the land. There should be nothing to fear in such a sight, but the dream had been darkened by a brooding sense of threat that lived with him still.
He called quietly for his slave boy, Siko, who slept at the foot of his bed. “Make tea,” he said shortly as the boy appeared, rubbing his eyes.
“It’s the middle of the night,” the boy protested, and then stopped when he saw Mehuru’s look. “Yes, master.”
Mehuru waited in the doorway until the boy put the little brass cup of mint tea into his hand. The sharp, aromatic scent of it comforted him. There had been a stink in his dream, a stink of death and sickness. The ship that had left the land in darkness, trailing no wake in the oily water, had smelled as if it carried carrion.
The dream must mean something. Mehuru had trained as an obalawa—a priest, one of the highest priests in the land. He should be able to divine his own dreams.
Over the roofs of the city, the sky was growing paler, shining like a pearl, striped with thin bands of clouds as fine as muslin. As he watched, they melted away and the sky’s color slowly deepened to gray and then a pale misty blue. On the eastern horizon, the sun came up, a white disk burning.
Mehuru shook the dream from his head. He had a busy day before him: a meeting at the palace and an opportunity for him to show himself as a man of decision and ambition. He put the dream away from him. If it came back, he would consider it then. It was a brilliant cream-and-white dawn, full of promise. Mehuru did not want such a day shadowed by the dark silhouette of a dreamed ship. He turned inside and called Siko to heat water for his wash and lay out his best clothes.
—where salt water meets fresh in the Bristol Channel—the slaving ship
paid off the pilot who had guided her down the treacherously narrow Avon Gorge and cast off the barges that had towed her safely out to sea. She put on sail as the sun rose and a light wind came up, blowing from the west. Captain Lisle drew his charts toward him and
set his course for the Guinea coast of Africa. The cabin boy had laid out a clean shirt for him and poured water for him to wash. He poured it back into the jug, holding the china ewer carefully in grubby, callused hands. It would be two months at least before they made landfall in Africa, and Captain Lisle was not a man to waste clean water.
Cole and Sons,
Monday 15th September 1787
Dear Miss Scott,
I write to you Direct on a delicate matter which Perhaps should best be addressed to his lordship. However, since I have not Yet his lordship’s Acquaintance, and since you indicated to me that you have to make your Own Way in the World, perhaps I May be forgiven for my Presumption.
I was Delighted to meet you at my Warehouse when you applied for the Post of governess, but your Family Connexions and own Demeanor convinced me that I could Never think of You as an Employee of mine. It was that Realization which prompted me to draw the interview to a Close.
I had an idea Then which I now Communicate to you: Namely that I wish that I might think of you as a Wife.
Some might say that as a Bristol Merchant I am overly Ambitious in wishing to Ally myself with your Family. But you say Yourself that your circumstances do not permit the Luxury of Choice. And tho I am in business—“in Trade” as I daresay his lordship might say—it is a Respectable Trade with good prospects.
You will be Concerned as to the House you would occupy as my wife. You saw Only my Warehouse apartment, and I assure you that I am moving Shortly, with my Sister, who will remain living
with Me, to a Commodious and Elegant house in the best Part of town, namely Queens Square, which his lordship may know.
As to Settlements and Dowry—these certainly should be Arranged between his lordship and myself—but may I Assure you that you will find me generous if you are Kind enough to look on my Proposal with favor.
I am Sensible of the Honor you would do me, Madam, and Conscious of the Advantage your connexion would bring me. But may I also hope that this Proposal of mine will Preserve you from a lifetime of employment to which your Delicate talents and Aristocratic Connexions must render you unfit?
I remain, your most obedient servant,
Josiah sprinkled sand on the letter with a steady hand and blew it gently away. He rose from his chair and went to the high window and looked down. Below him were the wharves and dark water of the Redclift Dock. The tide was in, and the ships were bobbing comfortably at the dockside; a steady patter of sound came from their rigging, rattling in the light, freezing wind. There was a heap of litter and discarded bales on the Coles’ empty wharf, and mooring ropes were still coiled on the cobbles. Josiah had seen his ship
set sail on the dawn tide. She should be at sea by now, with his hopes riding on her voyage. There was nothing that he could do but wait. Wait for news of
and wait for the arrival of his second ship, the
laboring slowly through the seas from the West Indies, heavy with a cargo of sugar and rum. His third ship, the
should be loading off Africa.
Josiah was not by nature a patient man, but the job of a merchant in the trade with only three little ships to his name had taught him steadiness of purpose and endless patience. Each voyage took more than a year, and once a ship had sailed from his dock, he might hear nothing from her until she returned. He could do nothing to speed her, nothing to enrich
himself. Having provisioned and ordered
and watched her set sail, there was nothing to do but wait, gazing down at the rubbish slopping on the greasy water of the port. The distinctive smell of his ships—fearful sweat and sickness overlaid with heady alcohol and sugar—hung around the dockside like an infected mist.
Josiah’s own clothes were lightly scented; the hair of his wig and his hands were impregnated. He did not know that throughout Friday’s interview with Miss Scott she had been pressing her handkerchief to her face to overcome the acrid smell of the trade, overbearing in his little room above the warehouse and never stronger than when a ship was in dock.
He glanced at the letter in his hand. It was written very fair and plain, as a man of business writes when his orders must be understood and obediently followed. Josiah had never learned an aristocratic scrawl. He looked at it critically. If she showed it to Lord Scott, would he despise the script for its plain-fisted clarity? Was the tone too humble, or was the mention of the Queens Square house, which he had not in any case yet bought, too boastful?
He shrugged. The stubborn ambition that had brought him so far would carry him further—into social acceptance by the greater men of the city. Without their friendship he could not make money, without money he could not buy friendship. It was a treadmill—no future for a man. The greater men ran the port and the city of Bristol. Without them Josiah would forever cling to the side of the dock, to the side of the trade, like a rat on a hemp rope. Miss Scott and her uncle, Lord Scott, would open doors for him that even his determination could not unlock . . . if she so desired.