CHAPTER IV. HUMAN MERCHANDISE
Mr. Pollexfen was at one and the same time right and wrong--a conditionmuch more common than is generally supposed.
He was right in his indifferently expressed thought that a man whosemien and words could daunt such a lord of terror as Jeffreys, should bythe dominance of his nature be able to fashion himself a considerabledestiny. He was wrong--though justifiably so--in his assumption thatPeter Blood must hang.
I have said that the tribulations with which he was visited as a resultof his errand of mercy to Oglethorpe's Farm contained--although as yethe did not perceive it, perhaps--two sources of thankfulness: one thathe was tried at all; the other that his trial took place on the 19thof September. Until the 18th, the sentences passed by the court of theLords Commissioners had been carried out literally and expeditiously.But on the morning of the 19th there arrived at Taunton a courier fromLord Sunderland, the Secretary of State, with a letter for Lord Jeffreyswherein he was informed that His Majesty had been graciously pleasedto command that eleven hundred rebels should be furnished fortransportation to some of His Majesty's southern plantations, Jamaica,Barbados, or any of the Leeward Islands.
You are not to suppose that this command was dictated by any sense ofmercy. Lord Churchill was no more than just when he spoke of the King'sheart as being as insensible as marble. It had been realized that inthese wholesale hangings there was taking place a reckless waste ofvaluable material. Slaves were urgently required in the plantations,and a healthy, vigorous man could be reckoned worth at least from tento fifteen pounds. Then, there were at court many gentlemen who had someclaim or other upon His Majesty's bounty. Here was a cheap and ready wayto discharge these claims. From amongst the convicted rebels a certainnumber might be set aside to be bestowed upon those gentlemen, so thatthey might dispose of them to their own profit.
My Lord Sunderland's letter gives precise details of the royalmunificence in human flesh. A thousand prisoners were to be distributedamong some eight courtiers and others, whilst a postscriptum to hislordship's letter asked for a further hundred to be held at the disposalof the Queen. These prisoners were to be transported at once to HisMajesty's southern plantations, and to be kept there for the space often years before being restored to liberty, the parties to whom theywere assigned entering into security to see that transportation wasimmediately effected.
We know from Lord Jeffreys's secretary how the Chief Justice inveighedthat night in drunken frenzy against this misplaced clemency to whichHis Majesty had been persuaded. We know how he attempted by letter toinduce the King to reconsider his decision. But James adhered to it. Itwas--apart from the indirect profit he derived from it--a clemencyfull worthy of him. He knew that to spare lives in this fashion was toconvert them into living deaths. Many must succumb in torment to thehorrors of West Indian slavery, and so be the envy of their survivingcompanions.
Thus it happened that Peter Blood, and with him Jeremy Pitt and AndrewBaynes, instead of being hanged, drawn, and quartered as their sentencesdirected, were conveyed to Bristol and there shipped with some fiftyothers aboard the Jamaica Merchant. From close confinement underhatches, ill-nourishment and foul water, a sickness broke out amongstthem, of which eleven died. Amongst these was the unfortunate yeomanfrom Oglethorpe's Farm, brutally torn from his quiet homestead amidthe fragrant cider orchards for no other sin but that he had practisedmercy.
The mortality might have been higher than it was but for Peter Blood.At first the master of the Jamaica Merchant had answered with oaths andthreats the doctor's expostulations against permitting men to perishin this fashion, and his insistence that he should be made free of themedicine chest and given leave to minister to the sick. But presentlyCaptain Gardner came to see that he might be brought to task forthese too heavy losses of human merchandise and because of this he wasbelatedly glad to avail himself of the skill of Peter Blood. The doctorwent to work zealously and zestfully, and wrought so ably that, by hisministrations and by improving the condition of his fellow-captives, hechecked the spread of the disease.
Towards the middle of December the Jamaica Merchant dropped anchor inCarlisle Bay, and put ashore the forty-two surviving rebels-convict.
If these unfortunates had imagined--as many of them appear to havedone--that they were coming into some wild, savage country, theprospect, of which they had a glimpse before they were hustled overthe ship's side into the waiting boats, was enough to correct theimpression. They beheld a town of sufficiently imposing proportionscomposed of houses built upon European notions of architecture, butwithout any of the huddle usual in European cities. The spire of achurch rose dominantly above the red roofs, a fort guarded the entranceof the wide harbour, with guns thrusting their muzzles between thecrenels, and the wide facade of Government House revealed itselfdominantly placed on a gentle hill above the town. This hill was vividlygreen as is an English hill in April, and the day was such a day asApril gives to England, the season of heavy rains being newly ended.
To inspect them, drawn up there on the mole, came Governor Steed,a short, stout, red-faced gentleman, in blue taffetas burdened by aprodigious amount of gold lace, who limped a little and leaned heavilyupon a stout ebony cane. After him, in the uniform of a colonel of theBarbados Militia, rolled a tall, corpulent man who towered head andshoulders above the Governor, with malevolence plainly written on hisenormous yellowish countenance. At his side, and contrasting oddly withhis grossness, moving with an easy stripling grace, came a slight younglady in a modish riding-gown. The broad brim of a grey hat with scarletsweep of ostrich plume shaded an oval face upon which the climate ofthe Tropic of Cancer had made no impression, so delicately fair was itscomplexion. Ringlets of red-brown hair hung to her shoulders. Franknesslooked out from her hazel eyes which were set wide; commiserationrepressed now the mischievousness that normally inhabited her freshyoung mouth.
Peter Blood caught himself staring in a sort of amazement at thatpiquant face, which seemed here so out of place, and finding his starereturned, he shifted uncomfortably. He grew conscious of the sorryfigure that he cut. Unwashed, with rank and matted hair and adisfiguring black beard upon his face, and the erstwhile splendid suitof black camlet in which he had been taken prisoner now reduced to ragsthat would have disgraced a scarecrow, he was in no case for inspectionby such dainty eyes as these. Nevertheless, they continued to inspecthim with round-eyed, almost childlike wonder and pity. Their owner putforth a hand to touch the scarlet sleeve of her companion, whereuponwith an ill-tempered grunt the man swung his great bulk round so that hedirectly confronted her.
Looking up into his face, she was speaking to him earnestly, but theColonel plainly gave her no more than the half of his attention. Hislittle beady eyes, closely flanking a fleshly, pendulous nose, hadpassed from her and were fixed upon fair-haired, sturdy young Pitt, whowas standing beside Blood.
The Governor had also come to a halt, and for a moment now that littlegroup of three stood in conversation. What the lady said, Peter couldnot hear at all, for she lowered her voice; the Colonel's reached himin a confused rumble, but the Governor was neither considerate norindistinct; he had a high-pitched voice which carried far, and believinghimself witty, he desired to be heard by all.
"But, my dear Colonel Bishop, it is for you to take first choice fromthis dainty nosegay, and at your own price. After that we'll send therest to auction."
Colonel Bishop nodded his acknowledgment. He raised his voice inanswering. "Your excellency is very good. But, faith, they're a weedylot, not likely to be of much value in the plantation." His beady eyesscanned them again, and his contempt of them deepened the malevolence ofhis face. It was as if he were annoyed with them for being in no bettercondition. Th
en he beckoned forward Captain Gardner, the master of theJamaica Merchant, and for some minutes stood in talk with him over alist which the latter produced at his request.
Presently he waved aside the list and advanced alone towards therebels-convict, his eyes considering them, his lips pursed. Before theyoung Somersetshire shipmaster he came to a halt, and stood an instantpondering him. Then he fingered the muscles of the young man's arm,and bade him open his mouth that he might see his teeth. He pursed hiscoarse lips again and nodded.
He spoke to Gardner over his shoulder.
"Fifteen pounds for this one."
The Captain made a face of dismay. "Fifteen pounds! It isn't half what Imeant to ask for him."
"It is double what I had meant to give," grunted the Colonel.
"But he would be cheap at thirty pounds, your honour."
"I can get a negro for that. These white swine don't live. They're notfit for the labour."
Gardner broke into protestations of Pitt's health, youth, and vigour.It was not a man he was discussing; it was a beast of burden. Pitt, asensitive lad, stood mute and unmoving. Only the ebb and flow of colourin his cheeks showed the inward struggle by which he maintained hisself-control.
Peter Blood was nauseated by the loathsome haggle.
In the background, moving slowly away down the line of prisoners, wentthe lady in conversation with the Governor, who smirked and preenedhimself as he limped beside her. She was unconscious of the loathlybusiness the Colonel was transacting. Was she, wondered Blood,indifferent to it?
Colonel Bishop swung on his heel to pass on.
"I'll go as far as twenty pounds. Not a penny more, and it's twice asmuch as you are like to get from Crabston."
Captain Gardner, recognizing the finality of the tone, sighed andyielded. Already Bishop was moving down the line. For Mr. Blood, asfor a weedy youth on his left, the Colonel had no more than a glance ofcontempt. But the next man, a middle-aged Colossus named Wolverstone,who had lost an eye at Sedgemoor, drew his regard, and the haggling wasrecommenced.
Peter Blood stood there in the brilliant sunshine and inhaled thefragrant air, which was unlike any air that he had ever breathed. Itwas laden with a strange perfume, blend of logwood flower, pimento, andaromatic cedars. He lost himself in unprofitable speculations born ofthat singular fragrance. He was in no mood for conversation, nor wasPitt, who stood dumbly at his side, and who was afflicted mainly at themoment by the thought that he was at last about to be separated fromthis man with whom he had stood shoulder to shoulder throughout allthese troublous months, and whom he had come to love and depend upon forguidance and sustenance. A sense of loneliness and misery pervaded himby contrast with which all that he had endured seemed as nothing. ToPitt, this separation was the poignant climax of all his sufferings.
Other buyers came and stared at them, and passed on. Blood did not heedthem. And then at the end of the line there was a movement. Gardner wasspeaking in a loud voice, making an announcement to the general publicof buyers that had waited until Colonel Bishop had taken his choice ofthat human merchandise. As he finished, Blood, looking in his direction,noticed that the girl was speaking to Bishop, and pointing up the linewith a silver-hilted riding-whip she carried. Bishop shaded his eyeswith his hand to look in the direction in which she was pointing.Then slowly, with his ponderous, rolling gait, he approached againaccompanied by Gardner, and followed by the lady and the Governor.
On they came until the Colonel was abreast of Blood. He would havepassed on, but that the lady tapped his arm with her whip.
"But this is the man I meant," she said.
"This one?" Contempt rang in the voice. Peter Blood found himselfstaring into a pair of beady brown eyes sunk into a yellow, fleshly facelike currants into a dumpling. He felt the colour creeping into his faceunder the insult of that contemptuous inspection. "Bah! A bag of bones.What should I do with him?"
He was turning away when Gardner interposed.
"He maybe lean, but he's tough; tough and healthy. When half of them wassick and the other half sickening, this rogue kept his legs and doctoredhis fellows. But for him there'd ha' been more deaths than there was.Say fifteen pounds for him, Colonel. That's cheap enough. He's tough, Itell your honour--tough and strong, though he be lean. And he's just theman to bear the heat when it comes. The climate'll never kill him."
There came a chuckle from Governor Steed. "You hear, Colonel. Trustyour niece. Her sex knows a man when it sees one." And he laughed, wellpleased with his wit.
But he laughed alone. A cloud of annoyance swept across the face ofthe Colonel's niece, whilst the Colonel himself was too absorbed in theconsideration of this bargain to heed the Governor's humour. He twistedhis lip a little, stroking his chin with his hand the while. Jeremy Pitthad almost ceased to breathe.
"I'll give you ten pounds for him," said the Colonel at last.
Peter Blood prayed that the offer might be rejected. For no reason thathe could have given you, he was taken with repugnance at the thoughtof becoming the property of this gross animal, and in some sort theproperty of that hazel-eyed young girl. But it would need more thanrepugnance to save him from his destiny. A slave is a slave, and hasno power to shape his fate. Peter Blood was sold to Colonel Bishop--adisdainful buyer--for the ignominious sum of ten pounds.