A New Species of Tyranny
Isak Poole sat watching his old friend Naz. What he saw troubled him. Naz was talking to one of the soldiers from General Lafayette’s camp – a man who had come along with them to deliver the rifles and supplies they had taken from the Hawkstrike – and while he talked, Naz busily drummed his fingers on his thigh. It was a small thing. Of little consequence. Except to Isak who remembered other times he had seen Naz do the same thing. Like the time they had been caught with butter hidden under their hats, stolen from the master’s larder. Or the time they lied and said the master’s youngest girl, Polly, hadn’t given them an ABC book so they could learn their letters. Putting it politely, Naz was a great storyteller. Not so politely that also made him a great liar.
And each and every time Isak had seen Naz lie, his friend’s fingers had danced against his thigh.
Like they were doing now.
Isak took another swig of coffee, hoping it would warm him. It was a cold afternoon that promised to become a colder night. The sun hadn’t quite surrendered. It was hanging on close to the horizon. The trees and grass blazed orange as the tip of an iron rod thrust in the fire. But it wouldn’t last long. Night would descend as surely as if he had tossed water on the coals. The blacksmith frowned as he spit out coffee grounds, and then cast the rest of the lukewarm liquid away. After wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he rose to his feet and approached his friend.
Isak had tried to shake it off – the feeling that something was wrong. But no matter how hard he tried, he found that he couldn’t. What Naz had said about General Lafayette still troubled him. He couldn’t forget the look in Naz’s eyes as he spoke of the young major-general. Isak had seen that look before. More often than he cared to admit. Prejudging was prejudging. It didn’t matter if the one doing the looking was a black man, or white.
Either way they were dead wrong.
“Isak!” Naz had noticed him. His old friend dismissed the soldier he spoke to with a sharp salute and then walked his way. “Everything is secure. Now all we have to do it wait,” he said as he drew to a halt before him.
Isak hesitated a moment and then asked, “Naz, do you know these men we’re meeting up with?”
His friend shook his head. “Not personally, but through correspondence. Why?”
“It’s mighty important that these rifles fall into the right hands,” he answered, glancing at the wagons.
His old friend nodded. “That’s what I am here for. To see that they are delivered into the hands of those who most have need of them.” Naz paused. “Isak, is something wrong? You don’t seem yourself.”
The blacksmith stared at him. “I’ll answer your question, if you’ll answer one for me. Deal?”
“What do you think of General Lafayette?”
Naz hesitated. He shifted uncomfortably. “You want the truth?”
His old friend shrugged. “I don’t like him. I think he’s false, and one day – soon – will show his colors. Lafayette is the darling of the moment. Who wouldn’t adore him? A scion of ancient nobility, willingly risking his life for the cause of liberty for the common man? They have missed the fact that he is kept carefully out of harm’s way,” Naz added with a snort.
“What about Brandywine?”
“A mistake. Washington never intended for him to be placed in danger. His own desire for glory propelled him into it.”
“I saw him on the field. He was wounded….”
“He probably shot himself in the leg to gain sympathy,” Naz muttered.
Isak caught hold of his old friend’s arm. “I don’t understand. Where does this hatred of Lafayette come from?”
Naz glared at him. “He’s French to start with, Isak. They’re not to be trusted. Secondly, he’s filthy rich – a child of privilege. Do you really think he cares what happens to you or to me?”
“General Washington holds him in high regard –”
“So you think Washington cares?” Naz scoffed. “You and me, we’re just a couple of black negers to him. In the beginning, your mighty Washington didn’t even approve of us fighting for the Cause! He only gave in because he needed us. Washington didn’t want black men fighting for his freedom because he feared it would give us uppish ideas.”
Isak drew a deep breath. His rising anger threatened to make him grow careless. “And has it?” he asked, forcing his tone to remain calm. “Has it, Naz?”
Naz’s dark eyes narrowed. “What exactly are you suggesting?”
“Naz, I have to know,” Isak said as he released him. “Just who are you taking these weapons to? Whose side are you on? Washington’s? Or Lord Howe’s?”
His old friend fell silent. So did the fingers that had earlier drummed his thigh.
“Neither,” Naz answered honestly. “I’m on my own.”
Miranda Hawksworth stood in her cabin, staring down at the young Frenchman chained to the leg of her table. Lafayette was asleep. Outside the day was waning. The lamplighters were out. The small fires they had lit glinted through the Hawkstrike’s porthole turning the young Frenchman’s dark brown hair to bronze. It was nearly time for the changing of the watch. Only a skeleton crew remained aboard the ship. Unfortunately, Seaman Marlowe was one of them and he had placed himself in charge. She could hear him now bellowing orders above, threatening to swab the decks with any sailor who failed to obey him instantly. If she was to get the American major-general off the ship, she would have to get him past Asa Marlowe.
And that meant she needed someone’s help.
There was one man she thought might join her. If she appealed to his patriotism. But she wasn’t sure. He was very angry. Like so many he had been torn from his home, bound and cast below decks amidst disease and death, brought to Philadelphia, and then sold as if his life had no meaning – as if he was nothing more than a trinket to be traded.
Or given away.
Miranda started at a sound in the passage outside. She held her breath until she heard the man speak.
“Mistress Hawksworth? You sent for me?”
Opening the door, she stepped into the corridor. The mulatto looked at her, his expression frozen somewhere between expectation and fear.
“Scipio,” she greeted him.
“You had something for me to do?” he asked.
Miranda gnawed her lip for a few seconds, and then threw caution to the wind. “I want you to help me help the Marquis escape.”
The young man’s eyes went wide. “You want me to what?”
“You heard me,” she answered. “Scipio, do you want the rebels to lose the war?”
He glanced around nervously. “Don’t you?”
She shook her head. “No. I believe their cause is just. No man should live as a slave to another.”
He grew angry as she knew he would. “Tell him that,” Scipio snarled, pointing at the cabin door. “Tell that Frenchman he’s wrong!”
“Do you truly believe General Lafayette agrees with slavery?”
“He took me – as a gift – didn’t he?”
“In order not to offend the men whom he had come here to serve.”
“The men at the head of your glorious cause!”
Scipio’s voice had risen in strength. Miranda resisted hushing him. She only prayed no one would hear. “Aren’t there black men fighting for General Washington?”
The mulatto scowled. “Yes.”
“Why do you suppose that is?”
“They’re fools!” he spat, and then avoided her eyes by looking at his elegant shoes.
She could tell. His heart wasn’t in his hate.
“You know that isn’t true. It is because they love liberty. Never before in the history of the world has such a thing been done. If it succeeds – one day – it will be for all men. Is this not true?”
Scipio said nothing.
Miranda rolled back the sleeve of her crimson gown. “Look at my skin, Scipio. I’m the same as you.”
“You’re the master’s daughter.”
“No. My mother was a slave. Off this ship, I’m a slave just like you. My father protects me, but I’m not truly free. I never will be if this rebellion fails.” She nodded toward the cabin behind her. “And if we do not get this good man out of here, it very well may.”
“He’s just one man.”
“He is more than that. He is hope. Hope for something better. And if we allow evil men to use him, then are we any better than them?”
“It’s war, Mistress Miranda. He’s a prisoner, and if we – ”
Miranda couldn’t help it. A tear fell from her eye. “No, Scipio. Even in chains Lafayette is free.
“It is you and I who are the prisoners.”
Lafayette jerked awake at a sound. He had fallen asleep unwitting – and unwillingly. Perhaps the physicians had been right and he should have gone to hospital. If he had, he would not have stupidly fallen into Nysell Hawksworth’s trap. He shifted, seeking to ease the pain in his leg, but only succeeded in sending a sharper pain through his shoulder which left him breathless. If this fresher wound was not attended to soon, it would mortify.
Which was not a good thing.
He closed his eyes, waiting for inevitable wave of nausea to pass. As he did, the sound was repeated and he recognized it as the cabin door swinging in. Wary, uncertain who it was that entered, he remained still and feigned sleep. A moment later a hand gently touched his shoulder.
“General. I have come to loosen the bolts holding the table to the floor and free you. Remain still.”
Lafayette’s eyes flew open. “Scipio?” he asked, astonished.
The young man glanced at him but said nothing as he set himself to the task.
After watching him a moment, the Frenchman asked, “Why are you doing this? After what I have done?”
The mulatto’s lips pursed. “Mistress Miranda asked me to.”
“Miranda?” Lafayette glanced at the door. “Where is she?”
One of the bolts came free. Scipio caught it before it struck the floor. “Making sure the route out of here is clear.”
Lafayette frowned. “And how is she doing that?”
face registered disgust. “By
dealing with the Devil.”
Miranda drew a breath and held it as she slipped her short gown off her shoulder, revealing the creamy brown skin beneath. Then she let it out with a shudder. Seaman Marlowe lay at anchor before her, still bullying her father’s men. His bulky form was planted on a crate that blocked the gangboard leading off of the ship. Before coming up top, hoping against hope to prevent what she was about to do, she had gone to see her father. Maybe, she had thought, just maybe she could make him see reason. But her father hadn’t been in his cabin. When she questioned his cabin boy, the youth told her Captain Nysell had gone to town. In a way it was a good thing – her father’s absence. Still, she had hoped to see him.
One last time.
Miranda had brought a colorful shawl along. She draped it now over her left hand. In her shaking fingers she held the small pistol she had threatened seaman Marlowe with before. It was her hope that she wouldn’t have to use it. Still, knowing Marlowe, there was little chance of it – unless he believed her charade.
She was counting on his monumental ego to make him do so.
Miranda glanced at the black water, and then at the still sky above. The stars shone with an unusual clarity. It was bitterly cold. The British soldiers on the wharf were huddled over a small fire. It was near the end of their watch when they would be the least attentive. Along with his orders, she had given Scipio a suit of clothing and told him to help the Marquis change. When Lafayette emerged from the cabin, it was her hope he would appear nothing more than a common seaman. Fortunately the rolling gate of a sailor – coupled with the common affliction of rheumatism that gave many a young man a halting walk – would explain his limp.
The wooden handle of the pistol she clutched was warm. Her heart was cold with fear. Still, with one final glance back toward the stair and her cabin below, Miranda stepped into the pallid light that washed the main deck and approached seaman Marlowe. He was still shouting, so he didn’t notice her until she reached out and touched his shoulder.
When he turned, she greeted him with a pout.
“Don’t you know the routine?” Miranda asked, pitching her voice low and adding a sultry note.
Marlowe’s eyes went wide with surprise and then narrowed in appreciation as he took in her sloppily laced chemise, her loose gown and the flesh it exposed. “Routine?” he asked as he rose to his feet.
She tapped his chest with her finger, emphasizing each word. “You pursue. I refuse. And you…come…back.”
Appreciation turned to suspicion. “What?”
“My father doesn’t give you the credit you deserve. Why, without you this ship would fall apart. I’ve watched you,” she said as the finger trailed down his arm. “I’ve watched you watching me.”
“Why should I believe you?” he growled. “You told me before you’d blow my brains out if I so much as thought of touching you.” Marlowe was quick. He reached out and caught her wrist. “Where’s that precious pistol now?”
Even as her fingers clenched it and clung to the weapon’s promise of safety hidden beneath the shawl, she leaned in close to his ear and whispered, “Why don’t you come back to my cabin. I’ll show you where I keep it hidden when it is not in my box.”
Miranda saw it in his eyes. Like a false dawn, a lustful hope arose that her offer was true. “You’re inviting me to your cabin?” he breathed hard.
Pressing her lips to his ear, she nipped it and lied. “Not to my cabin.
“To my bed.”
“Hurry, Scipio! Time is running out!” Lafayette prayed the mulatto took his words as the warning they were meant to be, and not as a reprimand. Miranda had given them fifteen minutes. It would take no more time than that – and most likely less – to lure seaman Marlowe to her cabin. Calling on the blessed saints, Lafayette prayed the young woman would be all right. The gambit Miranda was playing was a dangerous and potentially deadly one.
For all of them.
“That’s…the last…one!” Scipio declared as the final bolt came free of the floor.
Lafayette thanked him and then rose shakily to his feet. The weight of the iron cuffs circling his wrists threw him off balance, but he managed to remain upright.
Scipio caught a bundle up from the floor and turned toward him. “Mistress Miranda forgot. You can’t change your clothes wearing those!” he exclaimed.
The Frenchman scowled. He was right. “Still, I can put on the drawers and stockings. Then you can place the canvas coat over my shirt to hide the chain.”
Scipio glanced toward the door. “Maybe when the mistress brings Marlowe here, we can take the key.”
“The man is a beast,” Lafayette spat.
An unlikely smile broke on Scipio’s worried face. “A dumb one, we can hope.”
Lafayette stared at him for a moment. Then he laughed. Sobering quickly, he said with heartfelt honesty, “I thank you, Scipio. I do not deserve this for the way I treated you. I am a coward.”
“Sir, no! I was there at Brandywine….”
“A bullet, it is nothing. Shame. Fear. These are the enemy. I should have said ‘non’ when the men of Congress offered to give you as a gift to me, but I did not wish to offend them. Instead I offended God and nature. You are a man, Scipio. You belong to no one. No man does.” He held his hand out, chains and all. “Will you forgive me?”
The mulatto hesitated, though he could see he was genuinely touched. Scipio opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment a sound in the passage drew their attention.
A moment later the cabin door began to open in.
Dieu! It is Miranda!”
“I didn’t think you were the kind who wanted an audience,” Marlowe remarked as they entered the room. Miranda was horrified to find Lafayette sitting on the floor and still in his own clothes. She paled at the sight and her gun-hand trembled, but then she noticed the bolts were missing from the ring that bound the table to the floor. The Marquis was free. As she watched, Marlowe crossed to the Frenchman’s side and knelt. “What you think, john-and-john, ready to see what you’ve been missing?”
Lafayette’s chin rested on his chest, as if he did not have the strength to raise his head. His flesh was pale and covered with a sheen of sweat. He muttered something unintelligible in reply and then fell silent.
Marlowe leaned in closer. “What was that, frog?”
The Marquis looked up. His brown eyes were rimmed with pain, but they held a spark the seaman should have recognized as explosive. “I said,” Lafayette began, his voice gaining strength, ‘how unfortunate for you that this john-and-john knows exactly where to strike!”
Miranda winced. That had to hurt. Both of them. Lafayette had used his wounded leg to strike Marlowe where it counted most. The villain lay doubled-up on the floor, silenced by wracking pain. Worried he would regain his voice and shout for help, she quickly knelt down beside him and pressed the barrel of her small gun into the skin just above his ear.
“Not a sound!” she ordered.
Marlowe’s eyes went wide. He whimpered once and fell silent.
“Scipio!” Lafayette called out as he rose shakily to his feet. “If you will. Quickly, bind and gag him.”
“You’ll pay for this,” Marlowe growled as the cloth came near his teeth. “All of you!”
Lafayette answered him
with a shake of his head. “I do
not think so. When Nysell
Hawksworth discovers you have let me slip out of his net, I believe, Messier
Marlowe, that it is you who will have Hell to pay.”
Isak Poole stood at the side of the road, masked by the evening’s shadows. The men they were expecting – the ones who had come to take the guns and supplies – had arrived. Naz was talking with them now.
And his old friend’s fingers were tapping.
Isak didn’t know any of the men. Not that that was surprising. They were from South Hampton, a town fairly far away from Chester. They had come overland and then down-river on empty flatboats which were being loaded even now. He had lent a hand early on, but left in the end so he could think. Naz had acted as if everything was going according to plan. But that was the problem. Naz was acting. Isak knew it. He had seen him do it before.
And all the while his fingers kept moving.
Isak didn’t want to admit it, but he was afraid he had no choice. They had been betrayed. He had been betrayed. The rifles weren’t going to end up in rebel hands, but in the hands of their enemies. And whether those enemies were bloodthirsty Loyalists or British soldiers, it didn’t really matter much. In the end those who fought for liberty would be just as dead.
Isak shifted so he had a better view of the proceedings. The wagons were nearly empty. He glanced from one moon-washed face to the next. There were about a two dozen. For the moment there was nothing he could do. Nothing but pretend he suspected nothing, and carry on as if nothing was wrong. But later, after Naz had let down his guard…. Maybe, before they left, he could conceal himself on one of the boats and find a way to stop them. With so many weapons and so much powder at stake, failure was not an option –
Even if it meant he had to sink himself with the boats.