Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chapter 3: ENTER PUNCH

At first, no one realized it was a competition. Jack was too busy watching Tory, relieved that she was being so attentive this morning at the busy Sunday market, the day the slaves ventured down from the hillside estates to sell their own produce, livestock and wares on their own account. The marketplace was thriving with custom, but Jack noticed their audience thinning. Glancing off to see why, he spied a Negro boy just down the way, juggling. No, it was a small man, powerful arms and a muscular torso above short legs, juggling gaily painted wooden pins.

Damn the little fellow, could he not find some other corner in all the town? They could not claim the whole market for themselves, of course, but they had a right to defend their pitch. Jack concluded his trick with Tory, who spun around to catch the last ball and sank into a curtsy. Coins clinked into his hat as he handed Tory to her feet, showing her off.

When they were finished, the other fellow began a new trick, somersaulting four pins in the air at a time, two up, two down, as effortlessly as blowing kisses. Tory noticed him now, too, waiting until he finshed before she began again. Jack wished their gourds were brightly painted, but contented himself with tossing them in more elaborate patterns to Tory than any performer could alone.

By now, the two groups of casual spectators had stretched into a ragged half-circle facing all three performers, shouting out cries of encouragement or challenge. When their gourd trick concluded, and their rival produced rings, Tory signalled to Jack that he should continue without her, having already reached the limit of her skill. Jack delved into his memory for the most senstional tricks he had ever seen, or performed or could improvise on the spot, including throwing his knife with two of their balls, which drew a chorus of ghoulish delight from the crowd. But the other fellow responded with equal dexterity and invention. Jack‘s hand was on his razor to double the danger when he suddenly realized how winded he was; he was not a lad of fifteen any more. Tricks not done gracefully, with the appearance of ease, were not worth doing. His foster father had taught him that.

"Never beg your audience, lad," Old John’s soft Cornish voice advised him. "Do all 'ee can and quit when 'ee must, or you’ll lose their respect. And once that’s gone, there be no getting it back."

And Jack turned and made a sweeping bow of submission to his rival, who bowed graciously back. Jack knew he ought to be disappointed, but between the high pumping of his blood and the sudden, sweet memory of Old John, all he felt was exhilaration.

"If we are defeated," murmured Tory, passing nearby to pick up his straw hat, "why do you look so damned happy?"

Jack grinned, but could make no rational reply.

His grin dissolved when Tory returned with the straw hat and a perplexed look. Their take was small, for all his heroic efforts, just when he'd been feeling so pleased with himself. Then he turned to see the little black fellow standing before them. Hardly a boy, but neither was his an old face, despite sun-creased pockets under the eyes and furrowed lines on either side of his sober downturned mouth.

"Do you know Pugh’s Tavern, off the Bay Road?" the little fellow asked.

Jack nodded.

"Allow me to buy you dinner there in half an hour." Turning to Tory, the stranger added, "Please do not refuse, it will be my pleasure. We have much to discuss."

It was not a place frequented by the first class of white men, Tory observed, but it was too neatly kept to attract the commonest wharf rats. Most of the custom were freemen and women of color, merchants or shopkeepers. Some of them spoke to the little juggler in English or French, as he led Jack and Tory to a small table in a back corner, to which he responded with equal facility in both tongues, overlaid with a harmonious trace of island lilt.

"Alphonse Belair," he introduced himself, when they were settled. "I am very pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Your servant, Monsieur Belair," Jack smiled. "And may I present Miss Lightfoot?"

Belair took Tory's fingertips in his small, warm hand, and made a courtly little bow where he sat, across the table. "Enchante," he murmured.

Tory tried not to giggle over his solemn formality. "And this is my partner, Jack," she responded.

"Only Jack?" Belair frowned. "But that is a slave name." When Jack only shrugged, Belair sighed. "Since we are being informal, you must call me Alphonse."

"And please call me Victoria," Tory chimed in. Something about him encouraged her to produce her most civil, best-remembered manners. Such as they were.

"Did we not see you here in Basseterre last Christmas?" Jack sallied, as the boy brought the wine. "You were dressed as Punch."

Alphonse nodded. "But I did not see you."

"We weren’t performing, only watching. And a damn fine job you made of it, too," Jack smiled. "I’ve rarely seen the like, not in fifteen years at the fairs. You have a gift."

"Ah, but you have her," Alphonse nodded at Tory, who could only gape in surprise at the compliment. "But I fear we are working at cross purposes here in Basseterre," Belair went on. "Crop-over is a busy time. Most people have only a few moments to be diverted before they must be off about their business, and we offer them only confusion."

"Some customers who could not choose between us today kept their purses closed," Tory agreed.

"Or spent their coin wagering with each other on the outcome," Alphonse nodded. "If anyone is to profit by our skill, I believe it ought to be us."

"Aye, but what’s the remedy?" Jack said, on guard. "Surely you’ll not suggest that one of us forfeit?"

"Not at all," Alphonse replied. "I propose we join forces. Occupy the same corner, pass only one hat and divide the results."

"A partnership," said Jack.

"Exactly. A fellowship of colleagues. But one which may be dissolved at any time if it does not succeed, so long as we agree."

"I only wonder what you want with us," Tory ventured, "when you have cleary done very well for yourself on your own."

"Aye, that is puzzling," Jack agreed. "You scarcely know us."

"But you are too modest. It does me no discredit to work with such skilled performers."

Jack took no notice of this flattery. Tory watch as he and Belair regarded each other for a silent moment.

"I have many calls to make in Basseterre," said Alphonse. "If I am seen in the company of a white man, it will be...advantageous."

"I’ll not pass myself off as a slaveowner," Jack frowned.

"Nor I as a slave," said Alphonse. Leaning slightly forward, he added, "Only seem to employ me, as you do Victoria..."

"But I don’t employ..."

"People see what they like," Belair interrupted, with a wave of his hand. "And she is seen to be under your protection."

Jack’s mouth twitched. "You wish me to protect you?"

"I wish to travel unimpeded."

Jack had to swallow a laugh. "I’m afraid I have little influence with the law in these parts. Despite my obvious wealth and rank."

"But you have powerful friends," Belair observed, gazing into his wine. "Mr. Greaves sits in the island Assembly."

Jack was watching him keenly. "Mr. Greaves is Tory’s conquest."

"Conquest, rubbish," Tory injected. "The poor man is desperate for a sensible woman to speak to about his daughter."

She could see Jack wondering what Belair was up to. There was nothing but his color to suggest he had ever been a slave; indeed, his manner, speech and well-tailored clothing all denied it. He did not behave as if he had anything to hide, far bolder about his business than she and Jack dared to be. But it was the Indies. Color was a factor. It could be unfortunate for a runaway to ally himself with a couple of outlaws.

"You are not without papers, I suppose," Jack finally asked.

Alphonse reached inside his waistcoat and withdrew a small leather tube. From it, he extracted a scroll of parchment, which he rolled out on the table before them. It was a certificate of freedom, the ornate script a bit blurred in the printing. On the line for the bearer’s name, Alphonse Belair had been inked in. Beneath it was a crude 'X' and the notation, his mark. Various official-looking seals, stamps, and signatures in one corner identified courts and officers from the island of St. Vincent. The document was dated 1818.

"I am a free man," Belair told them calmly. "I am manumitted these seven years."

"I did have a reason to ask," Jack apologized.

"But I do not object to showing you this document. I am always happy to show it. I worked very hard for it."

"You manumitted yourself?"

"Fortunately for me, Victoria, I was very cheap to buy. As you see, I am only a poor cripple of no use in the fields. It was not worth keeping me for the slave tax I cost my master. But there was a price, and court costs, and then the fees to recognize the document."

"It must have taken you forever," Jack marveled.

"Ten years, beginning when I was a boy of six clowning at the Sunday market. But worth the trouble, no?"

He rolled the paper into its leather tube and slipped it back inside his waistcoat.

"Do you mind if I ask how you came by this trade?" ventured Jack. "Not the usual sort of thing to learn on a plantation, is it?"

Alphonse sipped at his wine. "There was a Negro watchman on the place when I was a boy, a man of middle years. As a youth, he had been sold to a troupe of players touring the islands. They took him back to England, where he became a clown at a famous London circus..."

"Not Astley’s?" Jack interjected.

"The very place. But he grew lame in the trade and had to leave it. He was a free man by then, but he had no more money to show for it than when he started out."

"Aye, that’s a player’s life, all right," Jack laughed.

"He came home to the Indies, to his sister, a cook on our estate who cared for him. He was a kind old fellow, full of stories. He taught me handstands, at first, to strengthen my arms, when I understood how little use my legs would be to me. And then the rest, when I knew I would need a living. A steady living, it has proved out." Alphonse reached again for his wine. "Which I look forward to sharing with you both."

"To partnership," Jack agreed, and he and Tory raised their glasses.

"Drink, Constable?" asked the Deputy Provost Marshal, rising to cross to the sideboard of his small office in the Court House.

"I am on duty," replied Stephen Raleigh, sitting straight in his chair on the far side of the Deputy Marshal’s cluttered desk. "Sir."

"Commendable, I’m sure," muttered the Deputy Marshal, pouring himself a generous tot of island rum. He came back to his desk, lowered himself into his own chair with an immoderate sigh and poked wearily through the rat’s nest of papers before him. Not yet forty, his thinning hair was already going grey, tufting up around his balding dome from the pressure of his recently removed cap. With his beaky nose and rapidly blinking eyes, the Deputy Provost Marshal looked like the bald, downy offspring of some grotesque bird. And his visitor wondered how a man in his position could allow himself to look so ridiculous.

Constable Stephen Raleigh glanced down at his own impeccable uniform jacket, his clean, crisp cap sitting on his knees. No one could have any cause to complain of his appearance.

"Ah, I have it now," said the Deputy, liberating a file of official documents from the jumble on his desk. "You are recommended for a promotion, I see, Constable Raleigh."

"Yes, sir."

"Mmm. The committee has reviewed your performance..." the Deputy mused, glancing through the papers. "Most zealous in the pursuit of runaways, I see. And in clearing the streets of illegal hucksters."

"More often than not they are one and the same."

"I daresay..." The Deputy’s tired eyes blinked laboriously across the pages. "But upon occasion, I see you have apprehended colored hucksters in possession of a valid license."

"These people have their place," replied Raleigh. "They must keep to it."

"Mmm, the market, yes..." The eyes blinked up at him. "But as chief constable, you shall be responsible for protecting the rights and welfare of all citizens. Including the coloreds. They can vote now, you know, Constable, and there’s talk of some of 'em being granted permission to stand for the Assembly."

Raleigh nodded, not trusting himself to reply. Bide your time, that was his motto, watch and wait. But, it galled him to think that damned mongrel race had wrested away legal privileges so far above their station, when there were white citizens even now who were denied the right to vote in spite of their pure complexions. And why? Because of their ignorant Papism. The damned, ignorant Irish, no better than slaves.

"We’re obliged to treat 'em fairly. Whether we like it or not," the Deputy coached him. "It’s the law."

"I am sworn to uphold the law, sir."

The Deputy nodded. "Your service record appears to be in good order," he continued. "Employed for some time as a member of the watch in Sandy Point Town and never once absent from your shift. Most dedicated."

"We were privately funded."

"Ah. And turned out several times with the island militia. I wonder, Constable, with Brimstone Hill so near, that you never considered a military career."

"I...have no interest, sir," Raleigh admitted. "I am an orphan." And he certainly did not intend to spend the rest of his life among the rank and file.

"I see. Island-born?"

"Yes, sir. I was raised at the charity school." Best not to seem ashamed of humble beginnings. A direct manner engaged sympathy and convinced one’s hearers one had nothing to hide.

"And...your parents?"

"I was...very young." But not so young he could ever forget the smell of sour ale and sweat and oily soap steam from the laundry they boiled themselves because they were too poor to hire a Negro laundress. Or the drone of Irish Jimmy Reilly in his cups, prattling on about the dream they would never live, the new life in the New World. The Irish had come to St. Kitts like the Africans to serve as slaves to the English, but James Stephen Reilly had never risen above it. At the end of his seven hard years of indenture, he was surprised to learn that no one would do business with a damned Papist who was a transported convict into the bargain. Disillusioned, without income, he gambled and drank away the last of his payment in sugar, with nothing to show for it but resentment and the brat he got off the complacent Irish Town slattern who took him in.

"Family?" the Deputy persisted.

"Dead, sir."

"Of your own, I mean, Constable."

"Oh. No, sir." He sat up to focus his attention. It was dangerous to let it wander. "I wish to establish myself, first."

"Very commendable., no other dependents?"

Stephen Raleigh’s posture stiffened. Colored bastards, the Deputy meant. As if he would pollute his own bloodline, the only asset he possessed, with some colored wench. Faith could be denied, names changed, but his white complexion at least was irrevocable.

"No, sir."

"Dedicated to your profession, eh?"

Raleigh remained still. Was he being made sport of?

"Yes, well, everything appears to be in order...oh, see here, Constable Raleigh, have a drink with me, there's a good lad. And top mine off while you’re about it, eh?"

Raleigh set aside his cap and rose, took the Deputy’s proffered glass and went to the sideboard. He stared at the decanter with a fixed expression, but he poured a reasonable portion into the Deputy’s glass and a much, much smaller splash into a glass for himself. The Irish drank. It might be a kind of test.

"Not a Papist, are you, Constable?"

He straightened, nearly dropping both glasses, or crushing them, his back still toward the Deputy.


"Oh, just my little joke, Mr. Raleigh, too good to be true and all that. We shall have an opportunty to get better acquainted should your promotion come through. And I shall give it serious consideration, I promise you."

A small framed looking glass hung on the wall above the sideboard, and Stephen Raleigh found himself staring into it. The Deputy Provost Marshal was still seated behind him, fussing with his papers. It must have been a joke, after all. And then his gaze shifted to his own reflection. Neat brown hair, not too long. Plain, reliable face, not much given to color or emotion. Nearly thirty, nothing callow about him. A man of substance. A man of worth. There was nothing left of his father in his face or his speech or his manner or his heart. Not since the day he buried the old man’s cheap gilt crucifix, his only inheritance, and presented himself to the charity school with a more English-sounding name. There was nothing at all left of Irish Jimmy Reilly in his son but for those startling pale green eyes.

(Top image, Mr. Punch, by Lisa Jensen © 2010.)

No comments:

Post a Comment