Hunt for White Gold - By Mark Keating


Charles Town, South Carolina, September 1717

The young black boy did not cook for his master although he was the only servant in the house. The desire for privacy outweighed his need for slaves to attend him, so the boy’s trusted daily task was to fetch his master’s meals from a different inn or coach-house each day – his master had stressed that point – and from what he had gleant of his master’s work in the past year this habit was not just an eccentric quirk.

It was always simple suppers: smoked fish and potatoes, a steak or loin of pork, but his master would prepare his own breakfasts, a honey or nettle porridge, depending on his mood; and he would graze on hard-boiled eggs throughout the day to sustain him. The boy would watch his master examine the eggs with a jeweller’s loupe, searching for pinpricks before coddling them in the water, but never queried his odd compulsions. Despite his solitary position of power within the household he was still his master’s possession. Silence was his prime attribute.

The lamps had started to be lit along the walls of the street and a curfew against unescorted slaves was one of the colony’s strictest edicts. The boy began to hurry with his silver charger of Scotch Bonnet peppered steak. He crossed the street, his eyes on the dish warming his arms through his scarlet coat, the concentration on his balance too intense to see the black velvet fist as it almost plucked him off his feet.

He gasped. The strong hand held him tightly and the boy stared wide-eyed into the face of the man who had seized him. He was fifteen but not tall for his age and had to look upwards into the pale face and its elegant beard shaved to a knife-edge.

The piped purple doublet, black cloak and long blue-black hair gave the man an almost medieval appearance, like a figure from a stained-glass window. Despite the violent arrest his voice was sable soft, his eyes darting, alert for witnesses.

‘Take me to Ignatius.’ There was something foreign in the voice. ‘I will not harm you, boy,’ he promised, but the golden basket hilt at his side suggested other possibilities.

‘My master has no visitors,’ the boy said bravely, daring the malice in the tall man’s eyes.

The gloved fist shook him roughly. ‘He will see me!’ He pushed the boy forward along the street, the right hand crossing his body to rest on the pommel of the sword. The boy obeyed.

The man in the suit of black sat at his desk of Office in the rented home in Charles Town. It was a fine building, as fine as that of Lt Col Rhett, champion of Charles Town, but indrawn, without the friendliness and swagger that the presence of the soldier and famed Indian fighter seemed to bestow on his own residence.

The town knew nothing about the stranger in black who had settled among them. He had rented the house from Governor Johnson himself over a year ago but still did not stroll the summer streets or attend any of the churches, French or English, that the town had already grown famous for.

Lamps flickered in the windows of the stranger’s house all through the night and the children of Charles Town had already begun to whisper that the house was haunted.

His oak desk was buried under a heap of papers and ledgers, the dark-suited man further darkened by their shadow. His lithe frame was hunched over paper and pen and he scribbled like a frustrated widow embroidering her past. The room too was dark, its corners hidden from the single candle that burned low on his desk. He did not notice that the time to eat had arrived, and his silver Dassier watch, open, ticked unheeded. It was only the knock upon the study’s door that made him drop his pen and slide open the drawer that held the pistol.

The knock was not the prescribed three-tone rap but rather a single tap against the door. His boy was not alone. The man in black calmly pulled the hammer to half-cock and let the pistol lie in the open drawer. He glanced at his watch. Seven o’clock and his supper due. That could wait for now.

‘Enter,’ he called, his right hand beneath the desk.

The door swung open and the servant was pushed inward, scrabbling with his tray. The man in the purple doublet bowed his way into the room which was briefly lit by the