[Continuing chapter four]
"I've looked over your paper on denying the Yankees access to the Mississippi," General Magruder said. "I'm a bit concerned about its effect on our own traffic. How do you propose to allow us full access to the river while denying it to the Federals? That could cause you a world of trouble. As could your insistence that their blockade not apply to the mouth of the river." There was a murmur of agreement from a mixed group of Confederate and Canadian officers, which surprised Stewart almost as much as the fact that an equal number of men from both sides of the table seemed to disagree. Fellow-feeling between his comrades and their hosts was not something he wanted to see. He had made no effort to accommodate himself to the views of people he considered to be English, rather than British and Canadian, and couldn't understand why his companions bothered.
"We're still thinking this through." The British naval officer's smile was smug and condescending. "But as for our denial of the blockade, the United States were quite vehement about maintaining their right to trade with France during the wars of the French Revolution. We propose to inform the Americans that those rights also apply here. Since the Mississippi River enters the sea in Canadian territory, the United States has no right to enforce a blockade at the river's mouth, or to deny access to any portion of the river south of its confluence with the Ohio. They can't very well decry our attempts at blockading France, then turn around and expect us to ignore their similar actions against the Confederacy."
The man spread his hands in a gesture of mock generosity. "Of course, we might not be quite so blunt in our phraseology. No doubt we'll remind the Americans that it is our intent to allow free access to the Mississippi to all who wish to use it. We will only forbid them access if they make any effort whatever to thwart you gentlemen from using the river."
Stewart wished he were back on the verandah with Mr. Benjamin. It galled him to hear the English and the Canadians so confidently discuss the ways in which they would use their hegemony in the western half of the continent to the benefit of their new Confederate friends. This is a bad bargain, he told himself. The English simply could not be trusted. Why did no one else recognize that?
"Of course, you must understand that in order for this proposal to work, neither side in the conflict must be allowed to use the river as a means of attacking the other side." The naval officer maintained a stern expression as he said this, but Stewart could detect the smug satisfaction in the man's voice.
"I beg your pardon?" General Magruder said, and Stewart thought, Bad bargain indeed.
"It is likely that demilitarization of the river will have to be a component of our agreement," a Canadian general said. His name was Howard or something; Stewart had made a point of not memorizing any of their names. "Our intent is to assist you in obtaining international recognition of your independence. Beyond that we cannot now go. To allow Confederate military forces to use the river in attacks on the North would be to ally ourselves with the South. Since we do not intend to do so—indeed, you have made it clear that you do not wish such an alliance—then the only workable solution is to prevent either side in the conflict from using the Mississippi for anything beyond the needs of commerce."
"What about trade in military goods?" Patton asked. Stewart silently cursed him for an idiot.
"My understanding is that the treaty commissioners are agreed that there will be no restrictions on trade," the general said. "The port of New Orleans will be open to ocean-going vessels of both sides. Or," he said with a hint of a smile, "you may continue to trans-ship goods at Natchez, as I believe some of your people are currently doing."
Trading in violation of our laws, Stewart thought. No doubt Mr. Benjamin would consider it expediency. I call it smuggling at best, if not treason.
"I will of course have to consult with my government before I can agree to such a restriction," Magruder said. "Captain Stewart, I'd like you to review the minutes of this meeting to ensure that they're accurate. Then please write me a brief summary that I can post to Richmond. I will try to have an answer for you," he said to his Canadian and British counterparts, "within a couple of weeks."
* * * *
"There's another ball tonight," Patton said as the train left the lakeside station. "Attendance is optional, though. You planning to go?
"If I thought that Magruder would give us leave to entertain ourselves tonight, of course not." Stewart sighed. "But that's not going to happen. You know, I think I saw more of the world at Harpers Ferry than I have since we came here."
"I can't imagine why Prince John is being so schoolmarm-ish," Patton said. "You'd think he'd heard unfortunate stories about us."
"About you, you mean. I've never done anything disreputable in my life. In fact, I've never done anything, period." He hadn’t told Patton about being chastised by Magruder. For one thing, it was embarrassing. For another, he wasn’t entirely sure that Patton himself hadn’t been sneaking out in the evenings. The men who had recruited Stewart into the Texas plan had hinted that there would be at least one other agent on the commission staff, and Stewart was convinced now that Patton was that agent. To hear him describe it, Patton had got his captaincy through family connections, not merit, and there was no logical reason for his being on the treaty commission's military staff. That alone would have been enough to engage Stewart's curiosity. But Patton's elder brother lived in Texas, and that had clinched it in Stewart’s mind.
"Oh, stop moping, Stewart,” Patton said. “You never see me complaining about our enforced chastity, do you?" After a brief pause for effect, Patton threw his head down into his hands and sobbed loudly, to the apparent shock or bemusement of their fellow-passengers. In spite of himself, Stewart had to laugh, and for the remainder of the brief journey back to New Orleans he and Patton made crude jokes and he was able to forget for a while how much he hated just about everything about being here.
The new railway station, a brick and stone structure much more imposing than Richmond's, was right on the edge of the levee just downstream from the Vieux Carré. The easiest route back to the hotel, once they'd retrieved their horses from the livery stable, was to follow the levee around the curve of the river until they reached Canal Street.
They had just turned onto the levee, and Stewart had shifted in the saddle to tell Patton not to be so slow, when a bright flash caused Stewart to spin around again to look riverward. As he did so, the sound of the explosion reached him.
"Good God in heaven," Patton said. He pointed, though there was no need. The huge cloud billowed upward even as the shattered form of the riverboat fell back into the water and against the wharf. No one in the city, it seemed, could fail to see it.
As Stewart watched, a body—or a significant part of one—cartwheeled lazily through the air and splashed into the river. "Her boilers burst," he said to Patton, spurring his horse forward. "Come on—we'll be able to help."
The crowds on the levee melted away at their approach, no doubt persuaded to let them pass by a combination of fear of their horses and respect for what their uniforms implied. Stewart and Patton reached the scene of the explosion in minutes, and had arranged care for their nervous mounts and waded into the crowd of injured and frightened civilians well before the first of the volunteer fire companies arrived to fight the fires that had sprung up in the neighboring buildings.
There wasn't much to be done for many of the injured. Stewart had read plenty about steamboat explosions—there seemed to be one or two a week some months—but he had never before seen the results of such a catastrophe. Men with angry-looking red faces stared past him through blinded eyes, rasping breaths hissing from scalded lungs. Stewart found it easier to treat some of those who'd been standing or walking nearby when the boat exploded: crushed or shattered limbs he at least had some experience with.
As more and more physicians arrived, he was able to step back and leave the medical aid to them. His knee, which had behaved itself for the previous several days, was beginning to ache and he relished the opportunity to straighten his leg. Having lost track of Patton, he walked back onto the wharf to assist the mix of stevedores, police, soldiers, and sailors who were shifting the more manageable pieces of debris from atop bodies and still-living victims. The boat, he guessed from the debris on the wharf and floating downstream, had been fully loaded with cargo in preparation for departure when the boilers had burst. Her name, he learned, was Comet, and she'd been bound for St. Louis.
"Mon dieu, mon dieu," a familiar voice said. Stewart let go of the board he'd been wrestling with and stood upright. Captain Menard was standing beside him, his face streaked with black and grey and looking much older than it should have. "Why would someone do something like this?"
"Over-pressure the boilers?" Stewart said. "I don't know." He wiped his own face with the back of his sleeve. "Vanity? Riverboat captains are always bragging about how fast they can make the trip upstream to St. Louis."
"It wasn't the boilers failing," Menard said.
"I don't understand. They burst. Steam-boats are always bursting."
"This was a deliberate explosion," Menard said. He looked as if he couldn't decide whether to cry or hit someone.
"You must be mistaken," Stewart said. How does someone rig a boiler to explode when the crew is all around it?
"It's not me who says this thing." Menard took Stewart by the elbow and led him to where a group of bodies lay in neat rows. Some of them were still moving.
Menard crouched beside a black-haired man who was awkwardly propped on one side; the back of the man's shirt had been shredded and the skin thus revealed was the same angry red Stewart had seen too much in the last few minutes. "This man was a stoker in the engine-room. Tell him," Menard said to the poor wreck, pointing at Stewart. "Tell him what you saw." Stewart crouched, ignoring the protests his leg made, in order to place his ear as near as possible to the scalded stoker.
"Man came into the engine room," the man muttered. His accent was Irish; Stewart was reminded of the druggist Cleburne. "Told me to run. Threw something down. Beside the boiler." The man took a ragged breath. "Saw a fuse. Iron ball—like… artillery shell." He was silent for a time. When he spoke again, he shifted his head to look directly at Stewart. "Tried to tell the others to run. Wasn't fast enough." He let his head drop back down onto the sack that served as a pillow, his story evidently finished.
"Why did you insist I hear that?" Stewart asked when Menard drew him away from the bodies. Now I have to do something about it. And I don't know what I can do.
"You're a soldier and an officer," Menard said. "It's important that men like you bear witness if that poor fellow doesn't live to speak to a policeman or magistrate."
Stewart tried without success to make sense of what the stoker had said. Who would do such a thing, and why? "Lord," he said. "Bad enough that it happened at all. But done deliberately? It's inhuman, Menard. For what purpose?"
"I do not know," Menard said. "I only hope the city watch do, or can find it out. Thank you, though, captain, for helping. I will ensure that my superiors learn of it."
"Anyone would have helped," Stewart said. "Speaking of which, have you seen Captain Patton? He was with me, but I seem to have lost him."
"No," Menard said. "I've not seen him. But I'm sure you'll find him soon enough. He does rather stand out in a crowd, in that white uniform of his. And on the subject of uniforms, please send the cleaning bill for yours to the Cabildo."
Stewart looked at the front of his jacket: it was smeared with a mixture of soot, ash, blood, and other things he didn't want to be able to identify. He'd have to wear his fatigue jacket to tomorrow's session. "Thank you," he said. "That's kind of you."
He had just shaken Menard’s hand good-bye when an older man approached him. "M'sieu?" the man said. "Could you come with me? I believe there is a man who wishes to—who wants you."
Stewart felt a chill, suddenly convinced that Patton had been hurt. But when he followed the man, it was to a middle-aged fellow propped on a makeshift bed of flour-sacks. The man's clothes had been of a superior cut, once. His face and hands were red, blistered and weeping. He shivered as if cold.
The man raised an arm, pointing it shakily past Stewart at midriff level. "What can I do for you, sir?" Stewart asked, uncertain of what the gesture meant. A quick look behind him showed that there was nobody there but Menard, who was walking in the opposite direction and talking with a man in the blue uniform of the city watch.
When Stewart turned back around, the man was shaking his head, his breathing rapid and shallow and sounding like the rasp of a sword against the sharpening stone. "I don't understand," Stewart said, looking down at his filthy uniform. Then he realized what the man had been pointing at, and understood.
"You're a fellow-citizen, sir," Stewart said, touching the belt buckle and running a finger over the raised letters in its center: CSA. The man made no sign, but sank back against his rude pillow. "I will try to find someone from the legation to help you," Stewart said.
The man opened his mouth as if to speak, but no sound emerged. His eyes closed, he fumbled with his coat, trying apparently to get a hand inside. When the man opened his eyes to discharge a flood of tears, Stewart realized that his pupils were so tiny they were almost invisible. "Let me help you." As gently as he could, he opened the man's coat. This close, he could hear a high-pitched whine coming from the man's chest, underneath the rasping of his attempts to breathe.
"Is this it?" Stewart showed the man the billfold he'd taken from an inside pocket. The man gestured feebly with his hands. Assuming that this was what the man had wanted, Stewart opened the billfold. A small packet of visiting cards identified the man as Mr. Rupert Barber, of Jefferson, Mississippi.