01 February, 2019

Dixie's Land 4.4

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[Concluding chapter four]

"He was going to Natchez," Stewart told Patton as they rode up Canal to the hotel.  Patton's uniform was, if anything, more a mess than Stewart's.  Stewart felt a small pride at the way in which his younger friend had pitched in, without question or waiting for orders.

"Makes sense," Patton said.  "Natchez is a Mississippi port, and probably the closest to Jefferson, wherever that is."

"You're missing the point," Stewart said.  "The Comet wasn't supposed to stop at Natchez.  We don't trade with the Canadians, remember?  If Mr. Barber"—the late Mr. Barber now, sadly—"wanted passage to Natchez, he should have found it on a Southern-owned boat."

"After that careful explanation," Patton said, "I'm still missing the point.  So a Canadian steamboat captain decides to make a few extra pounds or dollars or what-have-you by dropping a man in a hurry at a Confederate port instead of making him cross the river.  How does this constitute a—well, what do you think it does constitute, Stewart?  Why are you so wrought-up about this?"

"I don't really know," Stewart admitted.  "But after I left Barber a man told me that the Comet’s master was known for smuggling between the Confederacy and Canada.  That makes me wonder if the Confederacy was somehow a target of this explosion.  Captain Menard has gone to the authorities with his story of a bomb, and I don’t think him clever enough to have invented such a story.  It certainly defies belief that he could have convinced a dying man to support such a fiction, and I heard that Irish stoker's claim with my own ears, Patton.  The Comet was engaged in smuggling, somebody blew her up, and Confederate citizens suffered as a result."

As they dismounted and passed their horses to a stable-boy, Stewart said, "The Federals have a legation here.  Could they have bombed that boat in an effort to throw off our negotiations?"

"Good Lord, man," Patton said.  "What diplomat would do such a thing?  And even if it was as you suggest, what could have persuaded any Federal that such an act would inspire anything but outrage?"

"I don't know," Stewart said.  "That any government could even contemplate such an action is beyond me."

"Still feel like attending the ball tonight?" Patton asked.  He sounded very tired.

"I want to have a bath and go to bed," said Stewart.  "I've had more than enough excitement for today."
* * * *
Grant didn't like being out of uniform, but he didn't figure he had much choice if he hoped to succeed with his plan to unearth Major Brown's plot, and foil it if necessary.  It wasn't the spies themselves he was worried about; it was the city watch and the occasional patrol of militia dragoons he wanted to avoid.  He'd been surprised, late last fall, at how dramatically the police and militia presence on the streets had increased once Lord Byron and the government had returned to winter quarters from the summer capital at Kingston, in Ontario province.  A man in the uniform of a United States Army captain was bound to attract the notice of the authorities, and while Grant figured he had their best interests at heart, he didn't think he'd have much luck persuading the police of that.

He stepped off the St Charles Street omnibus at Poydras and walked riverward in the direction of King William Square.  If Sherman had been correct in his guess about the man they'd seen breaking into the building yesterday, Grant was going to need advice about their next step.

He had to look around for a few minutes before he could locate the building he was looking for; the only other time he'd been here he'd been rather the worse for whiskey.  It didn’t help that all the buildings in this neighborhood looked pretty much the same.  King William Square was home to the city hall and many businessmen whose regular dealings were with the civic government.  A lot of the buildings had been put up at about the same time, and apparently designed by the same person.  And a lot of them contained lawyers’ offices.

He eventually identified the right building by spotting the small sign for The Celtic Canadian, the newspaper edited by the man he was looking for.  “Good Lord,” Tom McGee said when he saw Grant in his doorway.  “Captain Grant.  This is an unexpected pleasure.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”  McGee’s fingers were speckled and smudged black, and behind him Grant could see sheets of proofs hanging to dry on a flimsy wooden rack.  A long, broad desk was covered with piles of loose papers.

“Not at all.  Come in.  Can I send down for some coffee?”

“You’re very kind,” Grant said.  “But I’m here to ask your advice on a matter of some—delicacy, I guess, is the word—and I was hoping we could go out for a walk, or some such, while we talk."

“I’m not at all sure I know you well enough, Captain, to be discussing the ladies with you.”

McGee was joking, Grant was certain.  He felt a flush spreading upward from his neck anyway.  “It isn’t that sort of delicacy,” he said.  “The subject is political, after a fashion.”

“Ah, that’s different.”  McGee reached somewhere behind the door; when his hand reappeared it held a bottle-green coat of a superior cut.  “In New Orleans, you gain sufficient acquaintance with a man to discuss politics in the time it takes to order and receive a pint.  I know just the place, too.”  He led Grant out of the building and into a tavern on Magazine Street.

“So,” he said when they’d seated themselves and he’d put a bottle on the table between them, “what does Captain Grant want to discuss that’s political in nature—after a fashion?”

Thomas D’Arcy McGee was a few years younger than Grant, but his eyes suggested someone older.  He’d been, Grant had learned, a follower of O’Connell in Ireland and had been imprisoned for it.  On his release he’d gone to New York, but apparently had found the Irish community in that city not to his liking.  He had once told Grant that his friends had considered him mad for coming to Canada, but McGee himself seemed to think that New Orleans had more potential for an Irishman than did either London or, God help it, Dublin.

In New Orleans McGee published his newspaper, worked as a lawyer, and was, if Grant’s guess was correct, carefully preparing for a political career.  He was well-connected and seemed to be both happy and successful.  Grant couldn’t see much evidence of the radical that McGee had once been.
Hoping he’d guessed correctly, Grant asked him, “Would you be prepared to give me your honest and frank opinion of certain aspects of the Irish in this city?”

McGee, caught in the act of pouring, lifted the bottle and sat back.  “That’s a loaded question,” he said.  “Wouldn’t you agree?  Suppose you give me a bit of an idea of which aspects of my countrymen you are interested in, and why you’re suddenly so curious.”

“Fair enough,” said Grant.  “I don’t mind a bit of bargaining.  But you will give your word that what we’re about to discuss will stay between the two of us.  You can tell no one of this without my permission.”

“You can generally trust a lawyer to keep a secret,” McGee said.

“I don’t know about ‘generally’,” Grant said.  “But I’m prepared to trust you.”

He waited until McGee had finished pouring whiskey into their glasses before he continued.  “I am investigating a pair of officers assigned to our legation here.  Recently I saw them in communion with a man who I then saw break into a building.  Another informant has told me that the man was likely Irish, a member of a gang that sets fires and takes advantage of the disruption to burgle nearby buildings.”

“I’m familiar with the practice,” McGee said, his voice flat.  “There are American and Canadian gangs that do this as well.”

“You are right,” Grant said.  “Germans too.  But for reasons I can’t tell you right now, I’ve already eliminated Americans and Creoles.  Now I’m investigating the Irish.”

“What would a pair of American officers want with an Irish criminal gang?”  McGee raised his glass to Grant.  “Your good health, sir,” he said, then drained the glass.

“I came to you because I believe that you are among the most likely to be able to answer that question,” Grant said.  “I know full well that there are many Irish here who hate the British.  Some of them, I’m sure, work for change within the law.  Others are less scrupulous, and I’m in no doubt would be happy to combine political crime with their more traditional larceny.  The United Irish movement may have been broken up, as the British claim.  But there are undoubtedly others.  Can you help me tell the latter from the merely criminal?”

“Ah,” McGee said.  “And where, exactly, is my interest in possibly betraying my countrymen?”

“Aside from seeing that the law is upheld?” Grant asked.  “Probably in preventing a disaster that would seriously damage the lives of those Irishmen who just want to live here in peace.  Is that sufficient justification for taking a small risk?”

“Part of me says ‘No, it isn’t’,” McGee said.  “But another part of me recognizes that the Irishman has a better chance of building an honest life for himself and his family in Canada than he does in Ireland, Britain, or the United States.”  He nodded to Grant.  “No offence meant, captain.  But my brief experience in New York suggested that an Irishman is as likely to be exploited and abused in a republic as in a kingdom.”

He poured and drank another glass of whiskey.

“So let me tell you about the Ribbonmen and the Defenders and the Whiteboys and the Garda, and then you tell me if you think that they’re the answer you’re looking for.”
* * * *
An hour after he’d dismissed Thomas and gone to bed, Stewart stepped out of his room.  He’d been unable to sleep, and while he knew that a swallow or two of laudanum would certainly help him to drop off, he couldn’t bring himself to open the flask.  For one thing, he’d feel wretched tomorrow morning: laudanum-sleep was restless, murky.  He’d could have called for a bottle of whiskey, but whiskey wasn’t what he wanted.  Besides, he’d dismissed Thomas for the evening and it would be a bother to try to roust him again.  Thomas was a hard worker as negroes went, but the fact remained they were lazy and prone to sulk if you pushed them too hard.

What he needed, he decided, was diversion, something to drive from his mind the visions of blood; scarlet, weeping skin; and milk-colored eyes.  Stepping into the hall, he wondered if Patton would be interested in joining him.  The carnage on the levee had to have affected him as well.
Patton didn’t answer his door.  Stewart waited until he’d counted to one hundred before admitting that the younger man wasn’t in his room.  Typical of Patton to have gone down to supper without him.  You did tell him you were going to go straight to bed.

Stewart couldn’t make himself feel too sorry that Patton wasn’t available.  Before he’d reached the stairwell, he was mentally calculating the route he’d take to Gravier Street and Placide’s Varieties.

Chapter One     Chapter Two     Chapter Three    Chapter Four

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