Authors: M M Kaye
M. M. Kaye
First published by
St. Martin’s Press
The scene is teeming Zanzibar just before the American Civil War, when the Isle of Cloves was a center of African slave trade. To it comes Hero Athena Hollis, a Boston bluestocking filled with self-righteousness and bent on good deeds. Then she meets Rory Frost, a cynical, wicked, shrewd and good-humored trader in slaves. What is Hero to make of him (and of her feelings for him)?
“Tightly plotted, crammed with detail and irresistibly romantic.”
Goff, Carolyn and Nicola
In view of the far-reaching effects that a few words mumbled by a disreputable old Irishwoman were to have on the life of Hero Athena Hollis, only child of Barclay Hollis of Boston, Massachusetts, it would be interesting to know to what degree, if any, pre-natal influence was responsible for her character and opinions.
Heredity clearly had a finger in the pie, since her mother, Harriet Crayne Hollis, had always been a fervent supporter of charitable institutions, crusades and causes. A fact that Barclay, unexpectedly trapped by a classic profile and a pair of blue eyes, had been fully aware of when he became a suitor for her hand, though at the time he had only seen it as the sign of a sweetly compassionate and truly womanly nature, and proof that his Harriet’s beauty was far from skin deep.
What he had not bargained for was finding himself married to a wife who expected him to share her enthusiasm for good works. But the honeymoon had been barely over when he discovered that his bride, not content with adding her name to numerous subscription lists, conceived it her duty to serve on boards and committees, write and distribute pamphlets protesting injustices and urging reforms, and campaign vigorously against such evils as drink, child labour, prostitution and slavery. Particularly slavery…
Barclay, an indolent and peace-loving man with a fondness for horses, chess and the classics, had never suffered from any urge to set the world and his neighbours’ affairs to rights, and he considered that his Harriet was carrying things too far. Naturally any thinking person must agree that the world was (and always had been) over-full of cruelty, oppression and injustice. But it was surely both unnecessary and unfeminine for Harriet to take it so passionately to heart and make such a personal issue of it? He was, in consequence, doubly delighted when his wife announced herself pregnant, since he imagined that in addition to providing him with an heir to inherit the broad acres of Hollis Hill, maternal cares and the setting up of a nursery would divert her interests and energy into quieter and more domestic channels.
A large, healthy family, decided Barclay, was just what Hatty needed: handsome, intelligent sons who would share his own interest in Greek mythology and the raising of blood stock, and pretty, lively daughters who would keep their mother busy and fully occupied at home.
But it had not worked out like that. His wife’s too easily aroused emotions, and a few lines of print on a crumpled sheet of newspaper, had put an end to that dream—and to Harriet.
The instrument of fate had been a parcel containing a knitted shawl and a pretty silver rattle, sent in anticipation of the coming event by an erstwhile school-friend who had married a planter in Georgia. A sheet of newspaper had been used as an additional protection for the rattle, and on it a single paragraph, printed in bold type, had had the misfortune to catch the expectant mother’s eye:
To be sold. A negro woman and four children. The woman 23 years of age, of good character, a good cook and washer. The children are very likely from 6 years down to 1½. Can be sold separately or together, to suit purchaser.
The advertisement was only one of many. But to Harriet, always a passionate opponent of slavery and herself shortly to become a mother, the callous inhumanity of that concluding sentence was like a blow in the face.
Can be sold separately or together, to suit purchaser
She had paled alarmingly and cried in a high, strangled voice: “But surely they cannot take her children from her? Not her own children? They have no right! It is vile—horrible! It should be stopped!…Oh God, why doesn’t someone put a stop to it?”
Dropping the crumpled sheet of newspaper as if had been some loathsome insect, she had favoured her husband with a hysterical denunciation of the whole hideous institution of slavery, and ended by snatching up shawl, rattle and paper and flinging them violently on to the fire, where the paper, bursting into flames, created a sudden draught that sucked one of the wide muslin sleeves of Harriet’s neglige into the blaze. The filmy material had flared up as if soaked in oil, and though Barclay had leapt at her and crushed out the flames with his bare hands, she had been so badly burned that the pain and shock had brought on a premature and protracted labour, and a day and a half later her daughter had been born, and Harriet herself had died.
Barclay had not married again. He had been thirty-nine when he had offered for Harriet, and his brief experience of matrimony had been enough to convince him that he was not cut out to be a family man.
Having shocked his relatives by insisting on having his daughter christened ‘Hero Athena’ (the latter name, to make matters worse, being bestowed in honour of a favourite mare rather than the Goddess of Wisdom), he had then touched and surprised them by declining his sister Lucy’s generous offer to bring up the motherless infant among her own large and thriving family. Though if the truth were known, his refusal of Lucy’s offer had not been prompted by any excess of parental feeling for the tiny, squalling hideosity in the lace-draped cot, but by the fact that Lucy too was addicted to good works. In her case, foreign missions.
Barclay felt that he had had quite enough of that sort of thing, and he had no intention of allowing his daughter to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become an active and vocal supporter of Causes. In his opinion, a woman’s place was in the home and not on a public platform. And had it not been for the fact that some few years later he had elected to visit a sick friend on the same evening that his daughter’s governess, Miss Penbury, had promised to deliver her contribution to Lucy’s latest Sale of Work, it is quite possible that Hero Athena would have obliged him in this. Though one cannot of course be sure, since she was, after all, Harriet Crayne’s child. But in the event the temporary absence of Mr Hollis left the way clear for a certain Biddy Jason to pay a surreptitious call at Hollis Hill—something that would never have been allowed to happen if the master of the house had been at home!
It was said of the Widow Jason that she was the seventh daughter of the seventh son of that Bridey Clooney of Tyrone who had been famed as a Wise Woman and burned as a Witch. And it may even have been true. Certainly there were plenty of folk in Boston who were willing to believe it, and to believe too that old Mrs Jason had the Second Sight and could foretell the future: among them Mrs Cobb, the cook at Hollis Hill.
Mrs Cobb had sent word to the seeress that the coast was clear, and she was engaged in having her fortune told, in return for a packet of snuff and two ounces of China tea, when her master’s daughter, six-year-old Hero Hollis, sidled into the kitchen.
By rights, Hero should have been in the nursery. But her governess would not be back for another hour, her Papa was out and she was bored with sewing the singularly dull sampler that Miss Penbury had given her to keep her occupied. She was also accustomed to doing what she pleased, so she folded up the sampler and went downstairs in search of cookies and crystallized sugar.
The lamps had not yet been lit and the hall was in darkness, but Hero could hear voices from the kitchen, while a warm gleam of light showed that the door at the far end of the long stone-flagged passage had been left ajar. She tiptoed towards it very quietly, and easing her small body through the narrow gap, stood listening in the shadow of the big dresser: enthralled by the sight of the strange, witchlike old crone in the old-fashioned tall-crowned hat, and the sound of a muttering voice that spoke of unexpected meetings, dark men and journeys over water, and warned Mrs Cobb to beware of a fair woman who boded no good.
“That’ll be Alice Tilberry from the Stonehavens’ place,” said Mrs Cobb, breathing heavily with excitement. “If I ever catch the hussy…! Go on, tell me more.”
“There’s no more,” said Biddy Jason, pushing the plump palm away.
“An’ I’ll thank you for the tay and the snuff. Though I’m thinking it’s the master of the house should be getting me thanks, for well I know you niver paid for either!”
Hero had made no sound, and Mrs Cobb, owl-eyed and absorbed, had not seen her. But perhaps Biddy Jason was in truth the granddaughter of a witch, for though she had been sitting with her back to the door she appeared to know that Hero was there, and now, unexpectedly, she turned her head and spoke over her shoulder: “And what is ut that you’re wishful for, ye young spalpeen? Come away out now, and let owld Biddy get a sight av ye. My, my! ‘tis a big colleen you are, and a rare pretty one too.”
The ancient creature cackled with laughter and beckoned with a gnarled and crooked finger, and Hero moved out of the shadows into the lamplight: a small girl in a red velveteen dress, ruffled pantalettes and pinafore, with a mop of unruly chestnut-coloured curls inadequately confined by a ribboned snood.
“Who are you?” enquired Hero, interested. “What were you talking about?”
“Nothing to do with you, miss!” scolded Mrs Cobb. “Just you get right back to the nursery this minute. You’ve no business to be creepin’ about down here, giving folks a start. Go on now, or we’ll be havin’ that governess of yours down looking for you.”
“Miss Penbury’s taken a parcel over to Aunt Lucy’s house, and it’s cold in the nursery. What were you doing?”
“Jus’ readin’ av her palm I was.”
“Her hand, child. Sure an’ it’s all there for them that can see it. What ye’ll be and what’ll happen to you. Yes, yes, it’s all there. Your fortune writ plain.”
Hero stared down at her own small palm and could see nothing in it except lines, and an ink stain that she had tried to remove with spit but that was still clearly visible. “What’s a fortune?” she enquired.
“The things that’ll happen to you when you’ve grown up. The good luck an’ the bad.”
“But Mrs Cobb is grown up already,” protested Hero indignantly.
“She’s old! so how can she have a fortune?”
“That’s enough,” said Mrs Cobb sharply. “You’ll get along out of my kitchen. Hurry now!”
But Hero was not afraid of Mrs Cobb. And nor, it seemed, was the Widow Jason, who laughed until her little eyes disappeared into folds of yellow wrinkles: “Ah. sure now, there’s always somethin’ ahead of folks they don’t know about, no matter how old they get Like what’ll happen to ‘em tomorrow, or the next day. Or next week. Always somethin’ they don’t know.”
“Do you know, then?” demanded Hero, her eyes as round as dollars.
Biddy Jason’s eyes were small and black, and despite her age very bright and observant They reappeared now from among the wrinkles and stared into Hero’s grey ones, and presently she looked away again and said in a harsh whisper, and almost as though she were talking to herself rather than to the child: “Not always…No, not always. There’s times it seems I do, and times I don’t. But when I don’t I just tells the fools what they’re wishful to hear, an’ that’s just as good for ‘em—or better!”
She gave another shrill cackle of laughter and stretching out a claw-like hand, gathered up the two small packets that Mrs Cobb had laid on the table, and stowed them away in the recesses of her rusty garments: ‘ril be goin’ on me way now. “Tis a cold night and a dark one, an’ there’ll be rain before long. Good day to ye. Missis Cobb.”
She rose stiffly, and Hero took another step forward and said breathlessly: “Would you know about me? What will happen when I grow up, I mean? Do you think you could read my—my what you called it?”
She held out her hand for inspection as she had seen Mrs Cobb do, but old Biddy Jason shook her head and said sourly: “Tell ye for free? Now how would I be getting me living if I were to tell folk their fortunes for naught? Things ye want ye have to pay for. You should be knowing that.”
“I’d ask Papa,” said Hero breathlessly. “He’d pay you. I know he would.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” intervened Mrs Cobb, understandably agitated. “I’ll not have you worritin’ your Pa with such stuff, and that I tell you. Now be a good girl and quit bothering and I’ll give you a sugar lump.”
“I don’t want a sugar lump,” said Hero obstinately. “I want to have my fortune told.” Suddenly, it had become important to her.
“What would you want your fortune told for?” snapped Mrs Cobb. “You heard Mrs Jason say it was all lies, didn’t you? Now be a good girl.”
But Hero was not paying attention to her. She was busy searching in the pocket of her pinafore, and now she found what she was looking for: a cheap gilt brooch that had come out of a Christmas cracker and that for months past had been one of her most cherished possessions. Even now, looking at it, she hesitated. It was such a pretty thing! But curiosity, that fatal and ineradicable legacy from Eve, was too strong for her, and she held it out and said huskily: “I don’t have any money, but you can have this. You could sell it, couldn’t you? It’s—it’s gold!”