The three-story mansion loomed before him, composed of the grayish-red brick so prevalent in Charleston—Tempeste had told him it was manufactured here. Climbing wisteria cloaked the garden wall with blue-violet blossoms—Tempeste had worn a dress with a similar hue the day she entered his suite for the first time. With a kerchief, Heath mopped his sweaty brow and grumbled at the hot, oppressive temperature—Tempeste referred to it as gummy weather. A breeze off the Ashley River a block beyond smacked of fish and the noxious odor of the mud-flats—pluff mud, Tempeste had called it on another one of their numerous excursions—
Heath closed his eyes and shook his head.
Why cant I get the woman out of my head? he wondered, as sunlight bathed him in torrid heat. Everything in this town triggered memories of something she had said, some place they had visited, some moment they had shared. Already he missed her company. He imagined Tempeste stretched out on the mattress where he had left her not a half-hour earlier, and a surge of yearning filled his being. Indeed, after he coerced himself off the bed to wash and shave for this mornings appointment, it had become evermore difficult to kennel his need for her.
Now, opening his eyes to the building before him, he felt torn. Part of him was anxious for the meeting to conclude successfully. He wanted to race back to the Mills House, wine and dine Tempeste at a fancy restaurant in a celebration feast, then make manic love to her for the remainder of the evening. But another part of him prayed for a second postponement of business, thereby giving him a reason to remain in Charleston with the engaging courtesan who had curiously invaded his heart.
Yet, regardless how todays meeting concluded, he knew he would eventually have to book passage on a Virginia-bound steamer and leave her behind. Perhaps never to see her again. And the thought unsettled him.
On Meeting Street, the bells of St. Michaels chimed. Eight o the clock and all is well, trumpeted the watchman from his perch in the lofty steeple, drawing Heath back to the present. He clenched his jaw and stalked up the steps to the mansions veranda. But as his underdrawers chaffed the raw flesh of his overworked groin, he again thought of Tempeste and her heartfelt display of gratitude for saving her from an abusive client. The two-hundred dollars had been worth it. He had experienced a slice of heaven. More than most men his age could say. And when he returned to Culpeper, married into the Spears clan, and received his deserved promotion at Kingsbury Mills, he would at least retain his memories of the glorious week in Charleston.
A Negro servant girl answered his knock. She led him up a spiral staircase to a long, dark-paneled room smelling of furniture oil and cigar smoke. Behind a massive mahogany desk at the rooms western end, draperies suspended from crossed javelins twisted in a light breeze. At the opposite end of the room, where windows were shuttered against the morning sun, stood a pedestal supporting a marble bust of John C. Calhoun. A gilt-framed portrait of the long-dead statesman covered the wall behind it. Flanking candelabras, two on either side of the intricately carved pedestal, cast dancing light against the fierce stone face and gave the impression of a sacred memorial to the champion of the radical states-rights faction.
In the rooms center, beneath an opulent crystal and bronze chandelier, four leather-upholstered chairs formed a circle; two of them were occupied. After the girl exited the room, a slight, gray-haired gentleman climbed to his feet and extended his hand.
Glad you could make it, Mr. Kingsbury, said Horatio Branchfield with an affable smile. Welcome to my home. I trust you had an enjoyable fortnight in our fair city?
Heath shook Branchfields hand and forced another round of pleasant remembrances aside. Ive never known a more gratifying time, he replied in truth to the manager of the Farmers and Exchange Bank.
The craggy-faced Branchfield nodded his delight, then turned toward his balding companion. Mr. Kingsbury—may I present Mr. Edmund Steele? He is another fourth of our secret partnership and, I believe, an old friend of your fathers.
Heaths stomach tightened as he recalled his fathers words regarding Steele—He may appear nothing more than an oaf who suffers from gluttony and talks a grand fanfaronade—but dont be fooled. Watch your manners around him. Hes a Charlestonian powerhouse with considerable capital and significant business connections. One wrong move and he becomes nothing less than a male Gorgon with the tongue of an adder. Do not embarrass me or therell be hell to pay!
Heath drew a deep breath. He put on his most businesslike face and held out his hand to Steele. A pleasure, sir.
From behind a blanket of cigar smoke, Steele used his cold gray eyes to scan Heath from head to toe. After a long moment, he pushed his pudgy body out of the chair and shook hands with Heath. Glad t know you, said Steele in a gruff voice, without removing the smoldering cigar from his fleshy mouth. The wary look never left his eyes. Why, how is your father?
My father is in good health and sends his compliments.
A shame he couldnt join us, continued Steele. He gave a snort through his mammoth, heavily veined nose. Why, its nigh on five years since Ive had the pleasure of Armstrongs company. But then, hes an important gentleman. The running of an empire leaves a man little time for business matters outside his domain. Though I spose I dont need to tell you that—youre his eldest son and right-hand man. Why, Im surprised he could spare you for these many weeks.
Heath suppressed sudden irritation. Right-hand man? he mused. A lowly clerk, plain and simple. A pariah his father usually avoided unless he found himself in need of a verbal punching bag. But that would soon end if Heath had anything to say about it. Now, he managed a smile, then looked around the room and changed the subject. Where is our fourth partner?
Mr. Young should be along forthwith, said Branchfield, consulting first the mantel clock, then his pocketwatch.
He had better be, groused Steele, plopping back into the chair. I wont tolerate another delay.
Branchfield plucked a cigar from a humidor, clipped its end, and handed it to Heath. After his host offered him a demitasse of steaming coffee, Heath lit his cigar, then took a seat beside Steele. Am I to assume Mr. Young was the gentleman detained in New Orleans? asked Heath, running a hand over his pomade-sweetened hair.
Wasnt me, I can tell you, barked Steele and stabbed the air with his cigar. Why, heck—Ive got enough here to keep myself occupied. My plantation on the Ashley is preparing for harvest. The mercantile business and the factorage, not to mention Steele Worldwide Shipping is—
Similar to Rittenhouse Shipping? blurted Heath, as Tempestes face flashed through his mind. He instantly scored himself for his loose tongue.
Rittenhouse? Steeles brow furrowed. Youre familiar with that firm?
Heath swallowed a mouthful of coffee, hoping to mask his embarrassment. Just heard someone talking about it recently.
Much to Heaths relief, Steele accepted the half-answer with a shrug. Tell me—you know anything about the constant demands of the shipping trade in a port town like Charleston? Keeps me hopping, by golly. Specially with that good-for-nix hobbledehoy in my employ. He swatted the chair arm with an open palm. After three months that idiot still cant cipher the difference between shipping forms and bills of lading. Incompetent lummox!
Branchfield chuckled. He is your nephew, Edmund.
Through marriage, Ill thank you to remember, Horatio. And that doesnt mean he aint touched in the noggin. Why, if I wasnt so fond of my little missus Id kick his sorry behind into the Ashley and not give a stiver if the fishes devour him! Not one stiver! Steele snorted, then directed his attention back to Heath. Funny you should mention ol Rittenhouse, though. A thousand pities. Jolly fellow. Blasted hurricanes! Why, I still say, Horatio—had his ship not gone down, Rittenhouse might have been a perfect member for our secret circle.
I wouldnt go that far, Edmund, said Branchfield and propped himself against the ornate red-marble fireplace. Rittenhouse wasnt exactly the god of money management, you know. After all, look what happened to his daughter.
Heaths scalp prickled. What about her? he asked, managing to keep his voice steady.
Rittenhouse left her with nary a cent. I felt terrible for her, but as a newly appointed manager of the Farmers and Exchange I had no alternative but to foreclose on her property. And the creditors just about scampered off with all her possessions—nearly every stitch of her clothing. Shameless moneygrubbers.
She was a dazzler, said Steele, his crude voice taking on a dreamy quality. Ill never forget that year at Saint Cecelias Ball when Rittenhouse presented her into society. The picture of ultimate beauty in that snow-white gown. Why, many a potential suitor left in a huff for not being able to secure a slot on her dance card. And my own Adeline is still in a holy snit over that demoiselle receiving all the attention. You remember that, Horatio? Why, I do believe that was the year you moved your family t Charleston.
I remember it well, Edmund, replied Branchfield with a grumble. My Henrietta was equally envious and has never let me forget it. I do wonder whatever happened to Tempeste Rittenhouse.
Heath smiled to himself, thankful the news of Tempestes humiliating life under Mrs. Bettencourts care had not become public knowledge.
Branchfields brows knit together as he again glanced at the mantel clock. Well, Mr. Kingsbury—as long as were waiting for our other partner, why dont I show you the schooner. He moved toward the burnished desk and gestured for Heath to follow, while Steele remained seated and puffed away on his cheroot. The bank manager freed a roll of pages from a long tube, then spread the paper across the desktop, anchoring the sides with his palms. These are the Fairchilds original design pages. Shes quite a beauty, Id say.
Heath stared down at the blueprints. He knew little about ships, but held his tongue as Branchfield rattled off the schooners specifications. The Fairchild was 104 feet in length, with a keel length of 95 feet and a beam set at 26½ feet. Both her draft and depth of hold were 10½. Then Branchfield pointed out the length of the mainmast, topmast, main boom, gaff, and bowsprit before looking up at Heath.
Do you know what this means, Mr. Kingsbury? he said, a smile lighting his aged eyes. This three-year-old was designed for speed.
Why, our flush-deck craft could have won the Americas Cup, interjected Steele with a prideful tone from his chair.
Branchfield snickered. She might have at that. But we had other plans. He released one of his palms and allowed the top page to curl over. Another page lay below it, this one showing the interior of the ships hold. Row upon row of stick figures were sketched on the paper, suggesting the cramped sleeping accommodations for the illegal cargo. A space for seven-hundred and fifty bucks—or more, if theyre smaller.
And prices continue to soar, said Steele. Just yesterday, a field hand went for three-thousand at auction. Three! Pathetic specimen too, if you ask me. Why, just think of the potential earnings with fresh young bucks at our fingertips.
A grin slithered up Heaths face—one-fourth of those stick figures crammed into a hold approximately 90 x 26 x 10 feet belonged to his family. Intrigued, he returned to his seat and folded his arms before him in satisfaction. Tell me more about her.
Steele leaned forward in his chair. She was built at Port Jefferson, Long Island, for a member of the New York Yacht Club. Just after her launch in 57, Branchfield and myself, along with two other gentlemen, decided to purchase her and set our plans in motion.
We were all elected members of that prestigious club, too, said Branchfield with a grin and settled himself across from Heath. He released a contented sigh. But we didnt stay to reap the benefits. Instead, we sailed the Fairchild back to Charleston and had immense water tanks installed in her.
One-hundred-twenty-thousand-gallon capacity, said Steele, and sent a plume of smoke into the air. Then we hired a captain and crew, and had the Fairchild cleared for Trinidad. From there, she set sail for West Africa. Steele then gave a lavish account of the schooners three voyages, all ending in money-making success. Heretofore, our luck has held. Only a few close calls with naval patrol ships—and once with a British man-o-war near Dahomey on the Gulf of Guinea. And that luck also extends to the chattel, with a ninety percent survival rate, more or less.
It pays to have teen-age bucks, said Branchfield. With an average age of fifteen, theyre stronger to sustain the rough journey and have years in which to produce offspring.
Heath frowned. How does the captain and crew gather the cargo? Do they kidnap the bucks?
Steele guffawed, giving Heath a sour look. Maybe a few for sport, but swashbuckling tactics are hardly necessary. They simply purchase the stock from a local Negro king for several dollars a head.
They sell their own people?
Why, they not only sell them, they buy them. Dont know what its like up in the Ol Dominion, but hereabouts, some free-blacks are slaveholders as well. If they have the capital, that is. You see—even darkies, the ones who possess a smidgen of brains, appreciate the necessity of our fine institution.
Hear! Hear! added Branchfield.
Steele patted his bulging belly and sank deeper into his chair. Ah—I just love business. The click of the mantel clock marred a lengthy silence. Suddenly, Steele whipped out his pocketwatch and thumped his fist against the chair arm. Where in the hell is Young? This tardiness is inexcusable, Horatio. Hardly an admirable first impression.
Youve never met him? asked Heath, confused.
Branchfield squirmed in his chair. Only I have met the man. You see, Mr. Kingsbury, Grayson Young is new to Charleston. After our original partners pulled out of the scheme—
Fearing the wrath of God or governmental prosecution, Steele cut in, and I cant decide which one they feared more. Weak cravens, both of them!
There is, after all, the possibility of a death penalty if were caught and convicted, replied Branchfield in a matter-of-fact tone.
Death? Sudden tremors besieged Heaths hands. He barely managed to keep himself from spilling his coffee. After setting the demitasse on the side table, he steadied himself with a deep breath and prayed neither man had noticed his shock. How can the 1808 ban on slave importation bring about such a penalty?
It doesnt, answered Branchfield. Its the statute of 1820 which claims seizure of persons amounts to nothing short of piracy, and imposes penalties up to death. But that could change if John C. Calhouns dream of an independent South eventually comes to pass. Then the new South, free from Northern interference, will create its own laws.
In unison, Branchfield and Steele turned toward the candlelit marble bust, a look of reverence crossing their faces.
Well, said Steele, puffing on his cheroot, I still say our former partners were weak! And good riddance! The man turned to Heath, skewering him with a piercing gaze. Are you a weakling, Mr. Kingsbury?
Edmund, please. Branchfield groaned and shifted in his seat.
No, Horatio, grumbled Steele, his eyes still fixed on Heath. This young man received a jolt a second ago. As much as he tried to cover it up, I heard the clink of the demitasse against the saucer. His face went dead white, no pun intended. You were quick to recover your poise, Mr. Kingsbury—Ill give you that. But I demand an answer! Are you a man who stands on the side of the late-great Calhoun?—Or do you wet your underdrawers at the thought of some inane legal hurdles?
A lump came to Heaths throat while his mind grabbled for an answer. He had no idea his trip to Charleston could possibly result in his own demise. And he suddenly wondered if his father knew it.
Did his father see him as expendable? Could that be the reason he had been sent him to Charleston in his fathers stead? Violence played a part of Armstrong Kingsburys nature—but death?
No—impossible—ludicrous! Heath shook off the frightening thought, not wanting to believe his sire would do such a thing. His father finally trusted him. Armstrong saw his potential and was willing to give him his long-deserved chance to prove himself. And Heath refused to abandon his fantasy of a prosperous future. He just had to make certain the scheme succeeded without the authorities catching wind. But above all else, he had to prove to the man before him—the man, who with his frigid stare, bulging belly, and fragile temper, became a replica of Armstrong Kingsbury—that he was reliable and trustworthy. Prove he was a man to be reckoned with.
Steele stomped his foot on the patterned carpet. Well, Mr. Kingsbury? Im waiting for your answer, sir?
As his fingers wrapped around the leather-upholstered chair arms, Heath raised his jaw and puffed out his chest. How can one make money if one doesnt take a risk now and again, Mr. Steele? Laws of the Northern government do not apply to me.
A thick silence engulfed the room, while an equally thick curtain of cigar smoke poured out of Steeles mouth and shrouded his features. Holding his breath, Heath stared into the roiling smoke and prayed he had passed the test. Only after the fog cleared to reveal the mans broad smile did Heath draw air into his starving lungs.
Good answer, Mr. Kingsbury, said Steele in a low voice. Very good answer, indeed. Your sire has taught you well.
Branchfield, looking relieved, gave his bald partner a reprimanding grimace, then folded his hands in his lap. As I was saying, Mr. Kingsbury—after our previous partners abandoned our circle, we needed other investors to take their places. Mr. Steele recommended your father, who graciously purchased a share of the schooner. And Mr. Young, who was highly recommended by one of our original partners, purchased the other share. I met him early last month when he came into the bank and transferred capital into our joint account. He then left immediately for New Orleans to make inquiries about their slave market.
Well, said Steele, the fire returning full force, perhaps you should have inquired of him where he stood on the subject of punctuality. I declare, Horatio, sometimes you can—
From the hallway, the frantic staccato of angry boot heels silenced Steele. Seconds later, the door swung open. A husky, well-dressed man of approximately forty years of age pushed past the servant girl and entered the room. He swept off his stovepipe hat, revealing a wild shock of red-brown curls. His mouth and chin lay hidden behind a flaring mustache and fan beard.
Behind steel-rimmed spectacles, his dark, bloodshot eyes fell on Branchfield and he offered his hand. I humbly beg your forgiveness, he said, his strong baritone laced with vexation.
We were growing concerned, Mr. Young, said Branchfield, taking the mans hand. Problems?
Splotches of scarlet crowned Youngs cheeks. A sleepless night, is all. It amazes me how so much can change over the course of so few weeks, he mumbled before looking at Heath and Steele.
Branchfield first introduced Grayson Young to Steele, who simply snorted a greeting and scowled. Then Young came to stand before Heath, who rose from his chair.
Heath gripped the mans callused, thick-knuckled hand. Youngs spectacles and whiskers had deceived Heath into thinking the mans surname was a misnomer. He now realized Youngs wrinkle-free face was in complete harmony with his name. As they exchanged several pleasantries, Heath mastered the urge to thank the man for his delay in New Orleans—had it not been for Young, the week of happiness with Tempeste would have never occurred.
Your accent, Mr. Kingsbury, tells me youre from the North, said Young as he took a chair. His visage told nothing, but the spectacle-shielded eyes displayed profound curiosity. Virginia is my guess.
You are correct, replied Heath.
And like myself, you are new to this circle?
Heath explained the reason for his presence in Charleston. My father is extremely busy this time of year.
I see. And your family is inů?
Textiles and farming.
Whereabouts in Virginia? prodded Young nonchalantly, but his eyes continued to spark with manic interest.
The Kingsburys own the largest plantation in Culpeper County, interjected Steele. And the most prosperous mills in the state. He crossed his legs, then poked his cigar in Heaths direction. His lips curled in an unexpected smile. And your unwavering attention to the proceedings this morning, my boy, convinces me you are destined to go far. Youre obviously devoted to the plan. Willing to learn from old coots like Branchfield and myself. I only wish I had someone like you working for me instead of that pimple-faced, brain-in-his-hindquarters nephew of mine. Armstrongs lucky to have such an intelligent, alert, and—a quick glance at Young—punctual man at his side.
Heath felt sudden warmth in his cheeks. Compliments to him were a foreign entity. His father would have never thought to honor him with such words. And praise such as this, especially coming from a successful businessman, touched him deeply. The momentary spate of wrath he felt toward his father melted away as his confidence returned. Though he realized Steeles plaudits were perhaps nothing more than a means to nettle Young for his sin of tardiness, Heath made a pledge to himself that he would prove the mans praise was justified.
And what line of work is your family in, Mr. Young? asked Heath.
A little of this, replied Young with a slight gesture, a little of that.
I understand youve recently moved to Charleston?
Young simply nodded and sipped from the steaming demitasse Branchfield handed him.
From where do you originally hail?
I have lived in many places, he replied, then lit a cigar. Though Ive never had the pleasure of partaking in Virginias hospitality. You must tell me all about yourself, Mr. Kingsbury. Im interested in hearing a Virginians views on the looming political crisis and—
Perhaps at another time, interrupted Steele with a clap of his hands. Shall we begin business, gentlemen?
For the next half-hour, Branchfield and Steele disclosed specifics regarding the current mission, while Young and Heath absorbed the information in silence. The Fairchild was due to arrive by weeks end at Jekyll Island on the Georgian coast, where a portion of the cargo would be transferred to a chartered river steamer and sent on to slave markets in New Orleans. The shooner would then journey on to Savannah, then to plantations along the Savannah River where the remaining cargo would be off-loaded and smuggled overland to chief slave markets.
Is that wise? asked Heath, breaking his long reticence. I mean, arent there forts guarding Savannah?
Branchfield smiled. Only one key fort, and that problem is easily solved. You see, theres just a small garrison, and we have connections. Well simply throw a grand ball for the garrison like we did three times before.
Once the merriment is at its height, continued Steele, the Fairchild slips unchallenged past the gun muzzles in the darkness. As for Jekyll Island—well—the owners have been paid to turn a blind eye. He gazed at Grayson Young. Hows the market in New Orleans?
Same as Charleston, replied Young evenly. His expression remained unchanged, as marmoreal as the bust of Calhoun over his shoulder. An odd light flickered in his eyes. I wouldnt worry, Mr. Steele. Things will go according to plan.
Of course they will, said Steele with a snort. I should expect the arrival of at least one-hundred bucks at Hazelcrest Plantation come months end. That fresh merchandise will certainly satiate the needs of the Charlestonian merchants. Now—word from our people on Jekyll Island should come along shortly. Once it does, I suggest we meet again and discuss any snags we might encounter. Do you all agree?
Branchfield and Young nodded. Heaths heart leapt—his days with Tempeste would continue indefinitely. But then a horrible thought erased his joy—could he afford to stay in this beautiful city and have the equally dazzling courtesan in his bed with what little remained of his funds? Before he could speak, however, Branchfield leaned forward in his chair and presented a wide grin.
Lets talk money, gentlemen, said the banker, as if reading Heaths mind. Obviously, our overall profits can be decided only after the Fairchild arrives safely and live heads can be counted. Until then, you may each come to the bank tomorrow and receive an advance on your potential earnings.
How much? asked Heath, hoping to eliminate the desperation from his voice. Im here as a representative of my father, you understand, he added. He will need to know immediately.
Of course, said Branchfield. He pursed his lips and used his fingers to make a swift calculation. Based on the modest market value of two-thousand per head, and guessing six-hundred head survived, Id say we can guarantee a gross of at least three-hundred-thousand each—minus, of course, the money spent on the expedition, ship upkeep, bribery, and the salaries of our underlings. Therefore, I can easily draw each of you a draft for ten-percent of that come morning. Branchfield rose and went to a cellaret beside the mantel, where he poured each of them a snifter of cognac. To celebrate our venture, gentlemen.
As the others raised their glasses in good cheer, Heaths heart pounded. Thirty-thousand dollars at his disposal—it was too good to be believed. He drew a mouthful of the ardent liquid, thought of Tempeste, and barely restrained himself from rocketing out the door to engage in his own form of celebration.
After draining his glass, Young stood and bowed to the men. Im looking forward to our future meeting. But now if youll excuse me, gentlemen—I have a pressing problem that requires my immediate attention. He crammed the stovepipe hat on his head, then turned to Heath. And I meant what I said earlier, Mr. Kingsbury—you must soon tell me all about yourself and your life in Virginia. Culpeper County was it? Yes. I most certainly want to hear more. Perhaps dinner one evening? Where are you staying?
The Mills House.
I will send word and arrange a date.
And where might I contact you in reply?
As of yet, I have no permanent residence. Youngs eyes, glinting from behind his spectacles with a sudden and mysterious intensity, caused the hair on the back of Heaths neck to crawl. But Ill keep in touch. Until then, enjoy the remainder of your stay in Charleston. Without another word, Young bounded from the room, as if a fire nipped at his heels.
A short time later, after himself bidding adieu to the other gentlemen, Heath sank into the seat of the hired carriage as it rattled over the cobblestones toward the Mills House. And instead of the boyish giddiness he expected to feel, especially now that he was returning to the arms of the beautiful Tempeste Rittenhouse, a prodigious sense of wariness churned his stomach when his mind replayed the mornings meeting.
But why? he wondered. Certainly he dreaded the possibility of prosecution, even death, for his role in the illegal venture, but Branchfield and Steele, both prosperous and influential gentlemen, seemed indifferent to the risks involved. The plan had worked before, and they assured him it would work again.
It was Grayson Young, Heath told himself. Something about the man made him uneasy, uneasier than he had felt in the presence of the surly Edmund Steele.
Perhaps it was Youngs appearance and manner—in many ways a paradox. A face frozen in perpetual disinterest, with eyes alight with questions and missing nothing. Spectacles and whiskers, advertisements of advanced age, contradicted the youthful face hidden below. The mans sprightly vigor and strong handshake also negated the characteristics of a fortyish man.
Or perhaps it was Youngs boundless interest in Heaths personal life? Or Youngs mastery at providing non-answers when questions were directed at him? Heaths brow furrowed in thought as he tried to recall anything specific the man had revealed about himself. He could think of nothing.
By the time the five-story Mills House Hotel came into view, Heath had made up his mind to say nothing regarding his suspicions of Young to the others. After all, Branchfield and Steele were accomplished and educated gentlemen, and he was nothing more than a young upstart in their world, merely a proxy for his absent father. They knew better, and apart from Steeles displeasure at Youngs lack of punctuality, they seemed to have welcomed Young into the syndicate. Heath wouldnt want his nescience in business to make him look foolish, or cast his father in an unfavorable light.
Nevertheless, he intended to accept Youngs invitation. He intended to keep his eyes peeled, his ears open, his mouth shut.
And above all else, he intended to make his father proud.