Plume et parchemin

Plume et parchemin

Drums of autumn - prologue

“I heard the drums long before they came in sight.   The beating echoed in the pit of my stomach, as though I too were hollow…it was a hot day, even for Charleston in June.  The best places were on the seawall, where the air moved; here below, it was like being roasted alive.  My shift was soaked through, and the cotton bodice clung between my breasts.  I wiped my face for the tenth time in as many minutes and lifted the heavy coil of my hair, hoping for a cooling breeze upon my neck. 

I was morbidly aware of necks at the moment.  Unobtrusively, I put my hand up to the base of my throat, letting my fingers circle it.  I could feel the pulse beat in my carotid arteries, along with the drums, and when I breathed, the hot wet air clogged my throat as though I were choking.

I quickly took my hand down, and drew in a breath as deep as I could manage.  That was a mistake.  The man in front of me hadn’t bathed in a month or more; the edge of the stock about his thick neck was dark with grime and his clothes smelled sour and musty, pungent even amid the sweaty reek of the crowd.  The smell of hot bread and frying pig fat from the food vendors’ stalls lay heavy over a musk of rotting seagrass from the marsh, only slightly relieved by a whiff of salt-breeze from the harbor.

There were several children in front of me, craning and gawking, running out from under the oaks and palmettos to look up the street, being called back by anxious parents.  The girl nearest me had a neck like the white stem of a grass stalk, slender and succulent.

There was a ripple of excitement through the crowd; the gallows procession was in sight at the far end of the street.  The drums grew louder.

“Where is he?” Fergus muttered beside me, craning his own neck to see.  “I knew I should have gone with him!”

“He’ll be here.”  I wanted to stand on tiptoe, but didn’t, feeling that this would be undignified.  I did glance around, though, searching.  I could always spot Jamie in a crowd; he stood head and shoulders above most men, and his hair caught the light in a blaze of reddinsh gold.  There was no sign of him yet, only a bobbing sea of bonnets and tricornes, sheltering from the heat those citizens come too late to find a place in the shade.

The flags came first, fluttering above the heads of the excited crowd, the banners of Great Britain and of the Royal Colony of South Carolina. And another, bearing the family arms of the Lord Governor of the colony.

Then came the drummers, walking two by two in step, their sticks and alternate beat and blur.  It was a slow march, grimly inexorable.  A dead march, I thought they called that particular cadence; very suitable under the circumstances.  All other noises were drowned by the rattle of the drums.

Then came the platoon of red-coated soldiers and in their midst, the prisoners.

There were three of them, hands bound before them, linked together by a chain that ran through rings on the iron collars about their necks.  The first man was small and elderly, ragged and disreputable, a shambling wreck who lurched and staggered so that the dark-suited clergyman who walked beside the prisoners was obliged to grasp his arm to keep him from falling.

“Is that Gavin Hayes?  He looks sick, I murmured to Fergus.

“He’s drunk.”  The soft voice came from behind me, and I whirled, to find Jamie standing at my shoulder, eyes fixed on the pitiful procession.

DRUMS OF AUTUMN opens with a hanging.   One of Jamie’s old companions from his days in Ardsmuir prison is being hanged for theft, and Jamie has come to lend what support he can.   Suddenly the proceedings are disrupted, as another prisoner makes a break for it–and Jamie, moved by the death of his friend, impulsively helps the man, a pirate named Stephen Bonnet, to escape; a decision that will have long-reaching and unforeseen effects.



19/03/2013
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