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Mehuru 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 coop-coop-coop 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.
In the Bristol roads where salt water meets fresh in the Bristol Channel the slaving ship Daisy 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 Daisy 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 Daisy and wait for the arrival of his second ship, the Lily, laboring slowly through the seas from the West Indies, heavy with a cargo of sugar and rum. His third ship, the Rose, 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 Daisy 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.
Frances opened Josiah's letter and reread it for the tenth, the twentieth time. She tucked it into the pocket of her plain gown and went down the vaulted, marble-floored hall to his lordship's study. She tapped on the door and stepped inside.
Lord Scott looked up from his newspaper. "Frances?"
"I have had a reply," she said baldly. "From the Bristol merchant."
"Has he offered you the post?"
She shook her head, pulling the letter from her pocket. "He makes no mention of post or pupils. He has offered me marriage."
"Good God!" Lord Scott took the letter and scanned it. "And what do you think?"
"I hardly know what to think," she said hesitantly. "I can't stay with Mrs. Snelling. I dislike her, and I cannot manage her children."
"You could stay here...."
She gave him a quick, rueful smile, her pinched face suddenly softening with a gleam of mischief. "Don't be silly, uncle."
He grinned in reply. "Lady Scott will follow my wishes. If I say that you are our guest, then that should be an end of it."
"I do not think that I would add to her ladyship's comfort, nor she to mine." Her ladyship and her three high-bred daughters would not welcome a poor relation into their house, and Frances knew that before long she would be fetching and carrying for them, an unpaid, unwanted, unwaged retainer. "I would rather work for my keep."
His lordship nodded. "You're not bred to it," he observed. "My brother should have set aside money for you or provided you with a training."
Frances turned her head away, blinking. "I suppose he did not die on purpose."
"I am sorry. I did not mean to criticize him."
She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. Her ladyship would have fluttered an embroidered handkerchief. Lord Scott rather liked his niece's lack of wiles.
"This may be the best offer I ever get," Frances said abruptly.
He nodded. She had never been a beauty, but now she was thirty-four, and the gloss of youth had been worn off her face by grief and disappointment. She had not been brought up to be a governess, and her employers did not treat her with any particular consideration. Lord Scott had found her her first post but had seen her grow paler and doggedly unhappy in recent months. She had replied to an advertisement from Cole and Sons thinking that in a prosperous city merchant's house she might be treated a little better than in the country house of a woman who delighted to snub her.
"What did you think of him as a man?" he asked.
She shrugged. "He was polite and pleasant," she said. "I think he would treat me well enough. He is a trader he understands about making agreements and keeping them."
"I cannot write a contract to provide for your happiness."
She gave him her half-sad, rueful smile. "I don't expect to be happy," she said. "I am not a silly girl. I hope for a comfortable position and a husband who can provide for me. I am escaping drudgery, I am not falling in love."
"You sound as if you have made up your mind."
She thought for a moment. "Would you advise me against it?"
"No. I can offer you nothing better, and you could fare a lot worse."
Frances stood up and straightened her shoulders as if she were accepting a challenge. Her uncle had never thought of courage as being a woman's virtue, but it struck him that she was being very brave, that she was taking her life into her own hands and trying to make something of it.
"I'll do it, then," she said. She glanced at him. "You will support me?"
"I will write to him and supervise the contract; but if he mistreats you or if you dislike his life, I will not be able to help you. You will be a married woman, Frances; you will be his property as much as his ships or his stock."
"It cannot be worse slavery than working for Mrs. Snelling," she said. "I'll do it."
Mehuru, dressed very fine in an embroidered gown of indigo silk and with a staff in his hand carved with Snake, his personal guardian deity, strolled up the hill to the palace of Old Oyo with Siko walking behind him.
It was yet another full meeting of the council in two long months of meetings. The alafin the king was on his throne, his mother seated behind him. The head of the military was there, his scarred face turning everywhere, always suspicious. The council, whose responsibility was for law and enforcement throughout the wide federation of the Yoruba empire, was all there; and Mehuru's immediate superior, the high priest, was on his stool.
Mehuru slipped in and stood at the priest's shoulder. The debate had been going on for months; it was of such importance that no one wanted to hurry the decision. But a consensus was slowly emerging.
"We need the guns," the old soldier said briefly. "We have to trade with the white men to buy the guns we need. Without guns and cannon, I cannot guarantee the security of the kingdom. The kingdom of Dahomey, which has traded slaves for guns, is fast becoming the greatest of all. I warn you: They will come against us one day, and without guns of our own we cannot survive. That is my final word. We have to trade with the white men for their armaments, and they will take nothing from us but slaves. They will no longer buy gold nor ivory nor pepper. They will take nothing but men."
There was a long, thoughtful silence. The alafin, an elected monarch, turned to the head of the council. "And your view?"
The man rose to his feet and bowed. "If we capture our own people, or kidnap men from other nations, we will be ruined within a generation," he said. "The strength of the kingdom depends on its peace. A nation that trades in slaves is in continual uproar, making war on individuals, on other nations. And we will never satisfy the white men's need for slaves. They will gobble us up along with our victims."
He paused. "Think of our history," he continued persuasively. "This great nation started as just one town. All the other cities and nations have chosen to join with us because we guarantee peace and fair trading. We have to keep the peace within our borders."
The king nodded, and the queen, his mother, leaned forward and said something quietly to him. Finally he turned to the chief priest, Mehuru's superior. "And your final word?"
The man rose. His broad shoulders, thickened by a cape of rich feathers, obscured Mehuru's view of the court and their serious faces. "It is a sin against the fathers to take a man from his home," he began. Mehuru knew that his vote was the result of months of meditation and prayer. This was the single most important meeting that had ever been held. On it hung the future of the whole Yoruba nation, perhaps the future of the whole continent of Africa. "A man should be left free with his people unless he is a criminal. A citizen should be free."
Mehuru glanced around. The faces were grave, but people were nodding.
"It is a sin against the earth," the chief priest pronounced. "In the end it all comes back to the earth, the fathers, the ancestors, and the gods. It is a sin to take a man from his field. I say we should not take slaves and sell them. I say we should protect the people within our borders. They should be safe in their fields."
There was a long silence. Then the king rose to his feet. "Hear this," he said. The old women who had the responsibility for recording decisions of the council leaned forward to hear his words. "This is the decision of the council of the Yoruba kingdom and my command. Slave trading with white men of any nation shall cease at once. Kidnap of slaves within our borders is forbidden. There shall be no safe passage for white men or their agents when they are on slaving hunts. Other trade with the nations of white men such as gold, ivory, leather goods, brassware, and spices is allowed."
There was a murmur of approval, and the king seated himself again. "Now," he said with an ironic smile, "we have the policy all we have to do is to enforce it while black slavers hammer at our western borders and white men's ships cruise up and down our coastline in the south."
Mehuru leaned forward and whispered to the high priest. The man nodded and rose to his feet. "The Obalawa Mehuru has made a suggestion," he said. "That we of the priesthood should send out envoys to the country and the towns to explain to the people why it is that we are turning away from this profitable trade. Already some cities are making handsome fortunes in this business. We will have to persuade them that it is against their interests. It is not enough simply to make it illegal."
The king nodded. "The priests will do this," he said. "And we will pass the orders down to the local councilors, from our council down to the smallest village." He shot a little smile at Mehuru. "You can organize it," he said.
Mehuru bowed low and hid the look of triumph. He would travel to the far north of the Yoruba kingdom; he would speak in the border towns and convince people that slaving was to be banned. He would serve his country in a most important way, and if his mission was successful, he would make his name and his fortune.
"I am honored," he said respectfully.
Copyright © 1995 by Philippa Gregory Ltd.