Nathaniel Collins, captain of the sloop Golden Horizon, walked the morning streets of Bridgetown, Barbados. The cries of vendors, the soft laughter of the islanders and the noises of animals all blended into a pleasant change from shipboard life.
He ambled from shop window to market booth, his rangy walk and lanky frame carrying him faster than most. Ladies giggled behind their fans and their eyes followed him. He paused to check himself in a shop window, making sure he had no spots or stains on his trousers or coat. He straightened his stock, adjusting it around his throat. He only wore it ashore and the damn collar and tie always felt as if they were strangling him. He smoothed back his long brown hair, making sure the green velvet ribbon—his one concession to vanity since it matched his eyes—held it tightly.
Collins felt more eyes on him, and checked again for threats. Seeing only ladies, one flirtatiously dropping a handkerchief, he turned and walked on. He made his way through the market, taking in the morning and the life of the city. An auction notice on a building caught his eye.
The Estate of one Elijah Goodman was to be sold in its entirety—house, furnishings, slaves and other livestock—beginning at eight. The sugar plantation called Breakfront was to be liquidated to pay the deceased owner’s debts.
Collins checked the sun. He had time and he had money—a great deal of the latter from a Spanish ship—silver mostly, from Spain’s mint in Mexico; but also some American gold, Spanish reales and even a few louis d’ors and English crowns were jumbled into the mix. His orders from the King were explicit in his Letter of Marque and Reprisal. Spaniards, French, Barbary corsairs—any ship not flying the flags of England or her former colonies—were all fair game. An attack on the colonial ships could reopen the hostilities that had only ended twenty years before. He often regretted he was born too late to see heroism against the American rebels.
Even so, there was one colonial ship he was more than willing to make an exception for. He’d seen the Kestrel lying at anchor in the bay. He only hoped to avoid Captain Thomas Harrison for the length of his stay.
The fragrant island air cloyed now as he thought of the rival captain, the flowers and fruit that had been so pleasant blending into a reek that clung like the powder and cologne the other captain favored. Collins remembered the scent well; remembered it beside him on deck and above him in the captain’s bunk.
He’d sailed under Thomas Harrison for six years, learning all the man had to teach. The captain had been smitten with him. Collins hadn’t minded at first. Thomas was a handsome man, tall, clean featured and strong. But the second position had never sat well. He could accept a lesser share of treasure, but being always ignored, always second and always on the bottom in bed wore badly.
Now he was his own man, with his own ship and crew. He shared all spoils fairly and took only the willing to his bed. They never left unsatisfied.
He found the auction. Goodman had been quite wealthy, but had left no heirs and a great many debts beyond the death duties. The Crown would sell it all, keep the proceeds and tax the next owner, thus doubling their share on Breakfront. The slaves were first. The field slaves went in lots of ten, their dark skin gleaming in the sun. Collins saw nothing worth having at the prices being asked.
He ignored the maidservants and cooks. Women were bad luck aboard ship and he would no more sail with one on his sloop than he would set sail on a Friday. The various grooms and skilled laborers commanded high prices. He gave strong consideration to a carpenter, but the price of three hundred guineas made him pass. His current one was competent, if not over-skilled. Last on the block was Goodman’s body servant.
Collins had expected a doddering old man, barely capable of looking after his equally aged master. Instead, the man on the block was young, not halfway into his twenties. Like the other male slaves, he wore only pants. But even at a distance, Collins could tell they were good cotton and not the slubby stuff put on the others. He was not muscular from working in the fields. Nor was he as dark as the others. Their skins gleamed blue-black from working in the sun; his was the color of coffee mixed with rich cream.
“Adlai. Age twenty-three. Can read, write and cipher, intelligent and diligent. Suited to light work, butler duties, body service and clerking.”
What struck Collins was the color of his eyes. The color of sea and sky and deep enough to fall into, instead of the usual brown, they stood out like spots of light in his dark face. They rested on Collins for a moment. The sadness he saw there granted him an epiphany.
He wanted the man. He wanted to make that closed mouth laugh and talk. He wanted to see those odd blue eyes sparkle. He wanted to see Adlai happy. He wanted to be the one to make Adlai happy.
Bidding had opened at two hundred guineas and was climbing steadily as he debated. A familiar voice offered four hundred. Collins saw Captain Harrison on the far side of the crowd, his trademark black velvet coat like crows’ feathers among the island color. A slim exotic youth clung to his side, as flamboyant as any woman. The youth’s black hair curled to his waist and his clothing was expensive with indigo and embroidery.
Without thinking, Collins yelled “Five hundred.” It was an automatic gainsaying, nearly all the money he had upon him. Harrison sketched a mocking bow, wrapped an arm around his boy’s waist and melted away into the crowd. There were no further bids and Collins stepped to the side to pay for his purchase.
Adlai looked him over, his face neutral, the sadness in his eyes even deeper up close. Collins wanted to make sure he never needed to wear that look again.
“I’m Captain Nathaniel Collins of the sloop Golden Horizon. Have you ever sailed?”
“No, Master Captain.” His voice was soft and sweet and his face did not change. A slow closing of his eyes was the only sign of emotion.
“My ship rides at anchor in the bay. We’re re-supplying her.” He removed the rope halter the auctioneer had handed him. It looked too much like a noose for his liking. “Act like a man and I will treat you as one more member of my crew.”
Adlai nodded. Collins knew there was no place for Adlai to run. He knew he himself would be tempted to do so, but had no idea whether Adlai had any notions of freedom. Barbados was a small island, the sloop was an even smaller ship and there could be no escape.
Adlai said, “Yes, Master Captain,” then fell into step beside Collins, with the stride of a man used to matching another’s gait.
Collins smiled. As they walked back to the harbor, he told Adlai of the Golden Horizon. He checked his purse and found he still had a few small pence left, enough for some lunch. He bought a bundle of red bananas, a couple of buns and a mango. He offered a bun to Adlai.
“When was the last time you ate?” he asked, watching the alacrity with which Adlai polished off the bun. His purchase’s manners were impeccable, but it was apparent the man was hungry.
Adlai looked up from the last crumbs of the bun and took a proffered banana. “Yesterday morning, Master Captain. The sale began early today and they did not feed us.”
Collins finished his banana, tossed the peel in the gutter and handed the other two to Adlai. He took out his dirk and began to slice the mango. He ate a strip off the blade and offered some of the juicy fruit to Adlai. “We’ll get better food aboard ship. I try not to stay in port long, but I visit often. I like my food fresh, not ship’s biscuit and slimy water cut with rum and limes.”
They reached the harbor and Collins gestured to a fast-looking sloop. “The Golden Horizon.” He led Adlai to a rowboat where two other men sat, one small and beautiful, the other black and massive, his hair in wild, tangled locks that fell halfway down his back.
“Matthew, Stephan,” Collins nodded to each in turn. “This is Adlai. I bought him. If he serves well for six years, I’ll free him. Sooner if he can buy himself with his shares.”
Stephan nodded and closed his enormous hands over the oars. “And in the seventh year he shall go out free,” he quoted. “We are all aboard, Captain.”
Adlai listened, a stunned look on his face. Very few men, upon spending so much money for a slave, would casually speak of allowing him to purchase his freedom, let alone freeing him as if he were no more than an indentured convict. Collins knew this and didn’t care. He knew that after sailing, Adlai would need his freedom.
They rowed out to the ship. Collins looked back at the shore and saw a dark figure, his coat billowing like a crow’s wing. Harrison raised one hand in mocking salute. Collins turned back to looking at the Golden Horizon. His stay had been as good as he could have expected. And any day he did not have to pass words with Harrison was a good one.
Once aboard, he took Adlai to his cabin. He looked the young man over and said, “Make yourself comfortable, but you’d be wise to stay in the cabin for now. My crew is not the best.” He shot Adlai a grin. “I’m remedying that.” With that he headed back up the ladder.
Adlai looked around. He’d never been on a ship before, and certainly not a pirate ship. The cabin was rich, but reasonably neat. A good broadcloth coat lay over an oaken chair that was bolted to the deck. There were no heaps of treasure spilling from every corner, just a writing desk, a chart table and a fine bed. The bed was big enough for two and bolted to the deck and walls, mounted on gimbals to avoid too much pitching. There were plenty of covers in all sorts of cloth. He folded the pair of woolen pants that had been flung over the other chair, put them with the coat and sat down.
Collins reappeared in a few minutes with a stack of clothes on his arm. “I think these will fit. Weaver is pretty handy with needle if we need to take anything in. You can keep your good pants for when we go ashore. They’re too fine for the work aboard ship.”
Adlai looked the clothes over. He chose a pair of heavy canvas trousers in gray. He hesitated, then dropped the good cotton pants he wore. He tried to ignore Collins looking at him as he pulled the canvas ones on. They fit reasonably well.
When he caught Collins’ eyes on his bare chest, he asked, “Does Master Captain prefer a shirt or no?” He hesitated a moment before asking, “And are there shoes for me? I am not accustomed to bare feet and the walk was most uncomfortable.” He knew many sailors went barefoot aboard ship and did not wish to ask for special treatment.
* * * * *
Collins swallowed and stopped staring at the small curly tufts of black hair on the dark skin. He had been wondering if Adlai would taste of coffee or chocolate or of wood and spices. Glancing down, he could see there were no calluses on Adlai’s feet. “All my crew wear shirts on deck. We’re not some tattered band of pirates and cutthroats. We sail under the auspices of King George III. We search, seize and destroy the enemies of Crown and Country in the names of God, St. Michael and St. George.” Collins gave a small grin. “Sounds all very grand and noble, doesn’t it? Letters of Marque and Reprisal always do.” He dug in a drawer under the bed and brought out several pairs of shoes and a couple of boots. There was even a pair of thick woolen socks. “Here. I’m hoping one fits. Nothing worse than shoes that hurt or rub.”
Adlai nodded. He put on the cleanest and smallest of the shirts; it was still a little big. He drew the socks on and found the pair of shoes that fit him best. He turned in front of the mirror. “Do I meet your approval, Master Captain?”
Collins looked him over, taking in his way of standing quietly and waiting. The sorrowful slave he had bought had almost vanished. Adlai seemed to have a purpose again and was moving back into what Collins guessed were old patterns. “Hmmm. Just one more thing.” He set an old-fashioned tricorn hat, in relatively good condition, on Adlai’s head.
Adlai reached a slow hand up to touch it, his nose crinkled and lip curled. “Do I need it, Master Captain?” he asked.
“Once we’re at sea and in the sun all the time, you will.” Collins could see Adlai hated it. “Don’t want you getting sunstruck.”
Adlai looked resigned. “I will wear it.”
“You only need to when abovedecks.”
“What will be my duties for you, Master Captain?” The calm voice never wavered, but there was fear in the blue eyes.
Collins sat down and unlocked his desk, hoping to soothe the fears. He knew where Adlai’s mind had gone, as surely as he had seen the glance at the bed. He took out a logbook, a ledger, ink and a quill. “At the auction, they said you were literate?”
Adlai nodded. “English, French, a little Latin for church.” At Collins’ soft impressed sound, he added, “My master taught me. I kept the household accounts for him.”
Collins decided to be honest. “I can barely read and write English. You could be a great help to me.” He pushed the books at Adlai. “Your primary responsibility will be taking care of the log and the ledger. Eventually, you will be responsible for dividing shares and making sure the King gets his.”
“I will do my best, Master.” Adlai leafed through the log. The writing was neat, but with many misspellings. “Your hand is clear,” he said.
“Not mine. Tobias kept the log. I simply dictated.” Softly, Collins tried the name for the first time. “Adlai.”
“If you wish me to be.” Many masters changed their slaves’ names upon purchase. “It is not heathen, but from the Bible. First Chronicles, chapter 27, verse 29. ‘Shitrai the Sharonite was in charge of the herds grazing in Sharon. Shaphat, son of Adlai, was in charge of the herds in the valleys.’ It is not common.”
Collins nodded. “It suits you. Better than Shitrai or Shaphat anyway.”
“It is what I am used to.” He didn’t react when Collins touched his hair briefly.
“You have the most striking eyes.” The blue of them had caught his gaze again and Collins knew he was staring. Between the eyes and the full, springy hair, he was enraptured. He reached one hand out to touch the dark curls.
Adlai looked at the floor and whispered, “My father’s eyes.” His grief was palpable, from the tight voice to the clenched hands.
Collins hazarded, “Mr. Elijah Goodman?” It explained the sadness he so wanted to ease. It explained a great many things about Adlai. He did not stop touching, but gentled it to a comfort and not an imposition.
“It was never made public, but we all knew. He acknowledged me privately, and was to have made me his heir, had he not died.” Adlai held his head level, but his eyes were too shiny, and Collins knew it was time to change the subject.
His own father had been a Dover cooper with too many sons. One got the house, one got apprenticed, but there had been nothing for him, the third son, not money nor schooling nor trade. He could only imagine how Adlai, only son of a man who could not even claim him, must feel to be sold with the estate instead of inheriting it.
“Well…my men are all well taken care of here. We’ll see about your own cut and I’ll gladly share mine with you. I can’t promise you won’t want for anything, but we all share the burden times when they come.” He stood up. “I’m going to make a tour of the ship before it gets dark. You can look over the books.”
Adlai nodded, without further words. He lit the oil lamp against the gathering dusk and set to work, reading the log and making the day’s entry. Collins smiled and left the warm lamplight to make his tour.
He returned a couple of hours later, the scent of rum in a faint cloud about him. He smiled at Adlai again and started stripping for bed. He set the hat and cutaway coat aside, unlaced his cuffs and stock and removed his shirt.
Adlai closed the books, stopped the ink and knelt to help him with his boots. The movement was automatic and drew a bigger smile from Collins. Adlai looked up, slowly. “Where will you have me sleep, Master Captain?”
“Only one bed.” He gestured to it. “You’re welcome to share it. Or you can find a hammock or make a pallet and sleep on the floor.” Adlai nodded gravely, found two blankets and made himself a bed at the foot of the bunk.
Collins merely watched over the next few days. He’d never owned a slave before and it had been nearly a year since he’d shared his cabin with another. He found he enjoyed watching Adlai.
Once the seasickness had passed, Adlai had gotten his sea legs with a will. He was all over the ship, from crow’s nest to bilge, observing and learning. Because of his willingness to work, the crew did not resent his questions.
Matthew Gibbs taught him to shoot the sun. Adlai’s calculations were rapid and always accurate, to everyone’s surprise but Collins’. On more than one afternoon, Collins saw Tobias teaching him to tie knots. Simple bowlines and hitches at first, then the more complex monkey fists and turk’s heads. Adlai was slower to grasp this, requiring more time, but seemed to enjoy his lessons. Collins was uncertain he wanted Adlai associating with that precious pair. The speed with which Tobias had tumbled into Gibbs’ bunk after leaving his was suspicious. Gibbs was not a man he trusted entirely.
Deering taught Adlai to mend sails and Brown showed him how to repair nets. He was clever and worked uncomplainingly. He spent hours over the log, his handwriting meticulous and the details of the day set down perfectly, from what the galley had served to any discipline that had taken place.
Collins noted that Adlai was fastidious. No matter how low water rations ran, he always found a few drops to wash his face each morning. He shaved with sea water when he had to, but he was always neat, always shaved. He didn’t tar himself a pigtail or, like many of the island sailors, allow his hair to dread up. He claimed a comb from the stores in the hold and his hair lay in the same neat curls it had on the block. Once he had borrowed a mirror and braided it, making half a dozen short, tight braids that lay along his scalp like ropes. Collins loved the look, so Adlai maintained it.
* * * * *
Adlai knew why he’d been bought. Captain Collins’ predilections were no secret among the crew. Tobias, with all the venom of a scorned favorite, was partial to wild stories told just within Adlai’s hearing. Tales of rapine, coercion, torture and even belaying pins came to Adlai’s ears during their knot tying lessons.
He could not reconcile the whispers with what he knew of Collins. The captain had been unfailingly kind to him, the only exception his insistence on the hated hat. Adlai hated hats, wigs and anything that went on his head. He’d had to wear the classic powdered wigs for serving at formal dinners and he’d loathed them from the time he was a child. The only beating he’d ever gotten had been at the age of eight when he’d ripped the wig off his head, thrown it to the ground and stomped it. Master Elijah had not had him whipped by the overseer like any other slave, but had rather turned Adlai over his own knee and spanked him, like his own ill-behaved child. Hats were to keep the sun off when he had to go outdoors, and they always felt like a lowering, like being cast out to be a field hand. He had never taken to wearing them for fashion.
Collins treated him with respect and seemed to genuinely value his skills in log keeping, accounting and other clerical work. Even the few kisses the captain had stolen had been light, almost friendly, with little sensuality beneath them. Adlai gave no credence to Tobias’ phantasms.
He worked through his days and spent his nights on a pallet near Collins’ bunk. It was not the great house of Elijah Goodman, the one he should have been master of had his father not died before freeing him. But he knew it could have been worse. He could have been sold for field work and made to labor under the Barbados sun until he dropped. He could have been sold to one of the port brothels and turned bottom up for a dozen men a night.
The first nights were uneasy. The motion of the ship made sleep difficult and Adlai rose often to sacrifice to Neptune through the porthole of the cabin. When his body calmed, all his dreams remained bad and the underlying tension only grew. Collins hadn’t requested him, but Adlai knew the day would come.