Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Chapter 6: HARLEQUIN AND COLUMBINE
Tory was not accustomed to being cloistered indoors with the women and children. But it was proving a wet season, if not yet a violent one, and when she could find nothing more to write about in her logbook than how much she missed Jack at night, she realized she must find some occupation. When the boys were off underfoot at the tavern yard, she helped Cybele sort out the wild grasses and roots collected on her travels. What Cybele could not find growing wild, she traded for, bartering her potions for what the slaves cultivated on their provision grounds at the Sunday market, or journeying up to the mountain estates on foot. Her mother had been an African medicine woman who came to the French island of Guadeloupe as a slave and knew the properties of everything that grew in the earth.
In the damp, sultry evenings, Tory hit upon the idea of teaching the children to read. Jack said it was the governess in her coming out, the governess they would have made of her had she stayed in Boston. When she had a moment alone with Alphonse, she invited him to join them. He regarded her for so long without speaking, she feared she had insulted him.
"You realize," he spoke up, at last, "it is a crime to teach a slave to read in these islands."
"I shall add it to my catalogue of crimes," Tory shrugged. "If there's room."
In the event, Alphonse was not too proud to join them, and he took his lessons very seriously. So it was unusual for him to miss two nights while off about his calls. On the third day, he called Tory and Jack into the wagon; it still smelled strongly of whitewash, but it was more private than the tavern, or the lodging house.
"It is nearly September, our obligation to Cybele is almost over," Alphonse told them. "It is time to move on. I suggest English Harbour on Antigua."
"The Leeward Island Station?" Jack gaped. It was the heart of the British military presence in the Indies, the naval base at English Harbour on the island of Antigua. "Why not throw a rope over that tamarind tree and string me up right here?"
"We can consider that in a moment," Alphonse agreed. "English Harbour is the best-sheltered port in the Leewards. In the hurricane season, every British warship in the islands must go there to ride out the storms. Thousands of sailors and soldiers are stranded there, in need of diversion."
"Aye, a good hanging always fills the house," Jack grumbled. "Besides, there’s no profit in a lot of poor seamen who won’t be paid off until they return home to England."
"But what of the officers with private incomes who take lodgings in the town? What of the civilians employed upon the station and the tradespeople who profit by them? There is money to be made there, if we act soon."
For a moment, Tory was dazzled with the vision of a harbor full of shipping destined for ports all over the Indies—the Windwards, Jamaica, perhaps even the Republic of Colombia, where the Providence had gone. But they would be military ships, warships sweeping for pirates. And her vision of a welcoming harbor alive with possibilities gave way to a bleaker vision, a hempen rope around Jack’s neck. She could not risk it, not even for the sea.
"It’s too dangerous," she decided, shaking her head. "I don’t mind for myself; no one is likely to pay any mind to another colored wench in the Indies. But I won’t put Jack in any danger."
"But there will be no danger," said Alphonse. "You have seen the costume I wear at Christmas time?"
"Yes. But before he was a puppet in a box, Punch was a player in the pantomime," nodded Alphonse. "At Whitehall, we had many kinds of entertainment. Once, an English puppet theatre. Once, a pantomime. Mr. Punch had associates at one time. Partners. A ragged man in patches, always up to mischief, and a saucy girl."
Jack was beginning to grin. "Harlequin and Columbine. In the English pantomime," he explained to Tory. "Theyre a tedious pair now, but for centuries before, at the fairs, they were a very ribald couple. Harlequin is a merry devil who tweaks the beards of anyone in authority. And Columbine is his paramour, a lusty serving wench twitching her tail at all the men and laughing at her masters."
"But...are they jugglers?" Tory was still puzzled.
"Jugglers, tumblers, acrobats," Alphonse nodded. "Things in which you are already very skilled. Why have we never thought of this before?" he demanded of Jack. "Imagine the profits."
"But how is this more safe than what we do now?" Tory wondered.
"Because Harlequin wears a mask," Jack beamed. "Harlequin is always masked. There’s nothing suspicious about it. We could do it all with tumbling and mime. But...we’ll want costumes." He frowned. "It might be costly."
"Any old patchwork clothing will do," said Alphonse.
"Cybele and Calypso keep scraps for mending," Tory volunteered.
"How much time have we got?" asked Jack.
"It will be September in another week."
"A week," Jack echoed, sobering again on the instant.
"Play a part and the part is what people shall see," Alphonse urged. "The best place to hide is often out in the open."
It was not his usual nightmare of the slave ship that kept Jack awake that night, but his own misery. A week! So little time to see Cybele and the children properly manumitted, to somehow teach that eager boy Marcus everything he knew. Only a week, and he would never see Tory again.
He rolled over to the edge of the thin mattress, eyes open in the dark, his back to Alphonse, who slept on a cot beside the bed in their upstairs tavern room. His thoughts were thundering so loud, he was afraid Alphonse would hear them, and know what he was up to. Alphonse and his damned Harlequinade. Masked or not, Jack knew he could not go into English Harbour. Not only to save his own skin; if that were all that was at stake, he might brazen it out for the sheer joy of playing at Harlequin. But there was Tory to consider.
No one would take her for a pirate any more, not as ripe and blooming and female as she was now. She was right about that. It was only her proximity to Jack that put her in danger. But anyone might recognize Jack, any sailor who had ever served on a merchant ship or a cruiser chasing pirates in Cuban waters. Hellfire, there must be a dozen English merchant captains in the Indies at this moment who had watched Jack plunder their cabins for books.
And if he were taken up for piracy, how could he trust Tory to keep her mouth shut to save herself? Piracy was a capital offense, and in this one respect no distinction was made between the sexes. He and Tory would be gallows-mates as surely as they had been shipmates and bedmates, and that was one crime Jack would not commit. He had already stolen her maidenhood and robbed her of the freedom of the high seas. But he would not be the agent of her death. Whatever it cost, however much it hurt, he must give her up. And he only had a week.
Tory sucked on her pricked finger. She was hopeless with stitches, yet she felt obliged to help with the sewing in the short time they had to transform their spare garments into patchwork costumes. But too often, nodding over the monotony of her work, she would poke herself with the needle or start awake to find the irregular track of some drunken fowl across her cloth, not the neat, even rows produced by Calypso and Cybele. She glanced up to see Cybele’s pitying smile, as knowing as any voudon priestess.
"Was your mother an obeah woman?" Tory demanded.
"Obeah," scoffed Cybele. "She was a healer. When the slaves fell ill, she tend them in the sick house. She nursed young master through the fever and lived with him in the great house after."
"Lived with him?" Tory echoed.
"He was my papa," Cybele explained, stitching calmly.
Tory nodded, impressed anew at her friend's eventful history. "Could she read fortunes too?" Tory ventured. "Your mother?"
"No, oh no," Cybele chuckled. "My French grandmama taught me the cards. She saw the Revolution coming, the Terror. She saw it in the cards. When I be no bigger than my Edward, my grandmama say I had the gift. Her gift. The gift of sight. She named me for the mother goddess more ancient than the Greeks. And she taught me to respect La Grande Mere. The Great Mother."
"You mean Fortune?"
"Something far greater than Fortune, cherie. The mother of the earth and sky who is older than the gods of men."
"Sky Woman," Tory offered, her expression brightening. "My mother said she gave birth to Creator, who made all the world."
"Many people call her by many names," Cybele nodded. "She is the Virgin or the Lady. My African mother call her River Woman. She is the voice of the wind, the eye of the moon, the turning of the seasons. She is the heart of the world. Some hear her voice in dreams. Some, like my grandmama, see her hand in the cards."
"But, I thought the French were all Papists. Jack says that’s why the English distrust the Irish, because they share the French faith."
"The gods of men," Cybele snorted, working her needle. "What do they bring? Terror. Ruin."
"What became of your grandmother?" Tory wondered.
"She grew very old and wished to die in France. My papa sold his estate and took her home. We never saw them again."
"They left you behind? His wife and daughter?"
"White men do not marry their slaves," Cybele shrugged. "And these islands full of children left behind."
Tory scrutinized her friend for a long moment. "Like yours," she ventured. "You're not their real mother, are you?"
Cybele stitched on, undisturbed. "I clothe them and feed them and raise them up when no one else will. These little island mistakes nobody else care for."
"But…why do you do it?"
"Because somebody must. I have a gift for it, you see, for raising children, and it be most unwise to squander a gift from the Great Mother." Turning to Calypso, she added, "Run to Marcus' things, che, and bring me his old red kerchief. I snip a scrap that child never know is gone."
Calypso scrambled up and trotted out the door for the boys' little attic room, under the eaves.
"So many island children born for the wrong reason," Cybele continued, when the girl had gone. "Out of violence or because a woman know no better. Or because she wish to lessen her labor. Yes, it is a law," she added, to Tory's puzzled look. "A slave woman who give birth to six live babies may retire from the field to care for them."
"Six babies!" Tory blanched, seeing again her mother's lifeless face, dead in her childbed.
"Six live," Cybele corrected her. "Many women die in the attempt, and their babies with them. And some women wish to lighten the blood of their grandchildren with a buckra man."
Her look was so pointed, Tory knew she was speaking of Jack. A sore point for Tory, at the moment. Lately, Jack spent all his time with Marcus, or concocting business for their Harlequinade with Alphonse. Avoiding her. Retreating into that secret place inside himself where she could never follow. It was what she feared most, the cold, silent Jack as she had first known him on board the Providence, who gave nothing of himself away. She had fought so hard to earn his trust, loved him as ferociously as she could, yet she was always afraid it would not be enough. There were times she felt she might lose him in an instant, the blink of an eye, and never even know why. And she sighed aloud.
"Like your man?" Cybele murmured.
Tory glanced up to see Cybele attaching a patch to Jack’s trousers with swift, sharp strokes. Perhaps she was half-witch after all. "You think want Jack to—what did you say?—lighten the blood?" Tory fenced.
"But surely, he tell you what a precious gift it is, the white man’s seed," Cybele went on, addressing the trousers. "How women of our complexion long for it. Ah, there is witchcraft beyond the most skilled obeah! Three generations removed from the African grandmama and they call it Jamaica white. White by law. They all say their magic seed is a gift to the women they use, if she want to receive it or no."
"Jack does not 'use' me," Tory bristled. "We are partners in business."
"But, cherie, only two kinds of business a white man enters into with a woman of color. And, forgive me, but it be plain he no value you for your domestic skills."
"So if I am not his servant, I must be his whore?"
"Oh, la, la, la," Cybele cooed, as if she were soothing one of the children out of a temper, applying her needle vigorously to another patch. "Only listen, cherie. You need not submit to your man."
Tory could not suppress a laugh as she tried to imagine any aspect of her private relations with Jack that might be described as submission. But Cybele mistook the nature of her response.
"Or if you must, you need not suffer the consequences."
Tory looked up. "You can make the woman blood come?"
"I can. But that be a poor solution. Precaution always better than remedies after the fact."
At that moment, Calypso glided back into the room, Marcus’ red bandanna clutched in one hand and a fearful expression on her face. "I almost no find it, he hide it so deep away," the girl murmured, handing it to Cybele. "Then I find a ting inside."
Cybele shook out the red fabric and a roll of parchment fell into the patches in her lap. From the surprise, relief, anger and sadness that chased across Cybele's face as she gazed at it, Tory knew what it was.
Cybele nodded slowly. "He must have discovered it after we met up with you, and hidden it. He no want you to leave us. He want so much to be le bateleur, like Jack. He talk of nothing else."
"I’m sure he meant no harm," said Tory. "He’s a boy. He probably never even thought of the danger he put you all in."
"No, they never do think," Cybele sighed. "No one ever trouble to teach them. But they must learn if they are to survive." She glanced again at Tory, her expression apologetic but guarded. "I suppose Jack be very angry when he learn the trick we play on him."
"He was a boy, once," Tory smiled.
"We must tell him at once," Cybele decided. "He do us a great kindness in Old Road Town and we repay it by wasting your time."
"I’ll go now," Tory volunteered, gratefully pushing aside her half-patched skirt. "Only...first, Cybele, I need to consult you. On a matter of business."
Tory was soon scrambling down the rocky path to a hidden smugglers’ cove west of the town where Jack and Alphonse went to rehearse. When the tide was out, it offered privacy from the island road above, and a strip of soft, sandy beach for landing and falling.
She dropped down to the sand and followed the little crescent of beach back under the high, rocky overhang of scrub and dripping succulents. She was delighted to find Jack alone, standing at the edge of the blanket they spread out for tumbling, gazing up the leeward coast at nothing Tory could see.
"And I thought you came out here to work!" she called out.
Jack started and spun around to face her. "Rusty! What...a surprise. I was just thinking about you."
He had just been wondering when and how he was going to tell her goodbye, and damnation, here she was. But not now, not yet. It was too soon.
Tory noticed Jack was not smiling at her arrival, but she would soon fix that. "Where is Alphonse?" she asked casually.
"Off instructing the boys in the care of the wagon." In fact, he had lost patience with Jack’s melancholy and stalked off. "Did you not see them in the tavern yard?"
"I didn’t come that way. I was looking for you. I have good news."
Jack scarcely dared to look at her, she was so damned radiant about something. How could he even think of leaving her, even for her own good? But there would never be a better opportunity and he must stand firm in his resolve.
"I’ve something to tell you, as well," he murmured.
"Me first," she beamed up at him, slipping her hands around his waist. She thought she saw him hesitate for a moment before he rested his hands lightly on her shoulders. "You are a free man!"
"Cybele found her manumission paper. She and the children are no longer your responsibility." When he did not respond, she frowned. "Hellfire, Jack, I thought you’d be pleased."
"I am. For her sake," Jack said, quickly. But so soon? They might leave for Antigua tomorrow, if they wished, there was no reason to stay here now. This might be his very last opportunity to hold Tory in his arms. He drew her an inch closer. "It was kind of you to come and tell me," he whispered.
"I haven’t come out of kindness," she grinned, grasping him by the hips and pulling him closer. "That’s not all my good news," she added, leaning up to steal a bold kiss. Jack felt the flesh melting off his bones.
"Rusty, it’s the middle of the day..."
"Well, I’m to play this Columbine, am I not?" Her hands slid down to close around his backside.
Jack would not let himself hold her any closer, but he could not stop himself lowering his face into her loosened hair. "Rusty ...please...listen to me..."
She bent back a little to peer up into his face. "Let me show you something. Some little business. You’ll enjoy it."
Her hands slid up to the small of his back, she smiled like an angel and her right leg suddenly hooked round the back of his knees, toppling him off his feet. Jack collapsed hard onto his tail bone and sprawled across the blanket as Tory fell on top of him, laughing.
"Hellfire, woman, are you trying to cripple me?" Jack roared.
"I have not yet begun," Tory declared, drawing up her skirt and bracing her bare knees astride him.
Jack closed his eyes for an instant, pressing his fisted hands into the blanket, but it was like trying to resist a hurricane, all wet, roaring heat and furious motion. So much for his resolve; he was standing firm, all right, in the wrong damn place. The ache in his groin intensified under her weight and he began to forget what an artless, helpless innocent Tory was, in need of his manly protection.
Tory yanked his shirt free of his trousers and peeled it up to his armpits, then drew the fingers of both her hands lightly down his naked torso. Jack yelped, his body jerking upwards under her touch.
"How can your hands be so cold in the middle of the tropics?"
"It’s been too long since you warmed me up," Tory murmured, bending down again to establish a slow, meandering tributary of kisses from the mole over Jack’s heart down to his navel. He groaned and his body arched up again, more slowly, feeding himself to her hungry mouth, and the last of his resolve evaporated as he thought, why not? Why not, this one last time?
Tory slid herself down over his knees and set her hands to work unfastening the flap of his trousers.
"I’ll be no good to you frozen," Jack warned.
"I’m warming up by the minute," she purred, peeling back the fabric and liberating him. Then Jack felt her mouth on him again.
"You didn’t ask me," Tory murmured, between kisses, "what my good news was."
"It seems to have...completely...oh...Christ...slipped my mind..."
"Cybele. She’s an herb woman."
"Nothing...could delight me...more," Jack groaned again.
"You don't understand," Tory laughed, sitting up but still kneading him gently in both her hands. "She has herbs for me. For us. Protective herbs."
Jack's arms were still bound awkwardly inside the sleeves of his twisted up shirt. "I understand that if you expect any help from me, you’d better untruss me this minute before it’s too late."
Laughing again, Tory scooted herself up to wrestle the twisted shirt off over his head. Before she could straighten up, Jack reached for the front of her bodice. She wasn’t even wearing a chemise underneath; when he put his hands inside, he felt warm flesh under his fingers. Tory moaned with pleasure, and with a Herculean effort of will, Jack sat up—he was not an acrobat for nothing—cast off her bodice, and lowered his face into her breasts. He could feel one of her hands creeping up into his hair and the other snaking down his spine, caressing every one of his old scars. He lifted his face to kiss the upward slope of her breast, the hollow at the base of her throat, her neck, her chin, working his mouth at last along the underside of her jaw.
'Warming up now, are we?" he murmured against her ear.
"Mmm. Like a torch. You could roast a pig over me."
"Maybe later. If I run out of other ideas."
His hand gently cupped her cheek and he kissed her mouth. She had begun to rock to some purpose in his lap, and he managed to tumble her over onto her back while still cradling her close in his arms. She kicked free of her skirt, still fastened around her waist, and wrapped her long legs around his exposed backside. Her next breath came out in a whimper, and Jack smiled.
"Did I not tell you to let me help?" His mouth brushed her cheek again, then he whispered, "You’re sure about those herbs...?"
"Very, very sure," Tory moaned, sliding both her hands down the long curve of his back. Cybele had not won her reputation by not knowing her business. "It’s my worry now, hombre, not yours. Stop being so sensible."
"A sensible man would have burned you at the stake long before now, mi bruja."
"A sensible woman would never, ever let you out of her sight again." Tory urged her body upwards and pulled Jack down to her. How long had they been apart from each other? How long had she let Jack be the sensible one, protecting her? She must have been out of her mind. "I’ll not be...separated from you...any more," she whispered.
"Don’t worry, mi vida, I’m not going anywhere," Jack vowed. And he knew it was true; he could never give her up. He lacked the strength and the courage to give her up. And the cruelty. He could not abandon her, as he had abandoned others. They belonged to each other as surely as if they had been carved out of the same flesh and bone. They would face English Harbour together, as they had faced everything else, and damn the consequences. He was hers for as long as she wanted him.
Then, too, what a splendid, wanton Columbine she would make! What a pleasure it would be to play her Harlequin. He could not help chuckling as he rocked in her arms, just to think of it.
"It’s good to hear you laugh again, hombre," Tory murmured, raking his back very gently with her fingers. "I’ve missed you so much."
"I’ll be singing...bloody Heart of Oak ...in a minute."
"Save your breath," she giggled. "You’ll need it."
"I did promise to ruin you," Tory reminded him, much later.
"I assumed it was a figure of speech," Jack groaned, stretched out across the rumpled blanket with just enough strength left to keep his chin propped up on his folded arms. Hidden under the overhang of the cliff, they had loved each other with heedless abandon until they were bruised and sore and sated. Curled up beside him, Tory could not resist running her fingertips down the long, slick groove of his spine. Jack groaned again, his head dropped forward across his arms and Tory laughed.
After awhile, Jack fell asleep beside her and Tory was content to let her eyes rake over him. Sun and weather and hardship and fever had all taken their toll on his raw-boned frame. But rough-hewn as it was, Jack’s body was neatly plumbed and joined together, despite the fretwork of old flogging scars across his back, a relic from his time in the merchant fleet and other, less savory berths. Asleep, his long limbs carelessly outstretched under the overhang, beneath a primordial riot of flowering vines and plump, cascading succulents, he looked like the first man on earth in the morning of the world. And Tory knew she had reclaimed him. For now.
Later, he rolled onto his feet and sauntered down the sandy strip of beach to bathe in the warm sea. If there were such things as mermen, she thought they must look a lot like Jack when he emerged again out of the surf, seawater glistening like fish scales in the curly hair of his chest and belly and groin, dark hair slicked back and falling in wet coils to his shoulders.
The civilized world seemed very far away.
"Are you worried about English Harbour," Tory ventured, later, hoping that was all that had been worrying him all along.
"We’re in danger wherever we go, Alphonse is right about that," Jack replied." I suppose there's a sort of safety in numbers if we stay together."
"Marcus wants to come with us. Cybele told me."
"I know," Jack sighed. "I’ve tried to take no notice of his hints, but he’s damned persistent, that boy. What does Cybele think of it?"
"She says he talks of nothing else. She thinks he must hear the voice of the Great Mother because he wants it so much."
"The Great Mother?"
Tory nodded, "the goddess of all things. When the Great Mother makes you want something, you must pursue it at all costs."
"It can’t be much of a religion if it allows people to do whatever they want." Jack observed.
"It’s not a religion, exactly. She’s more like a benevolent spirit. Heed her wisdom and she’ll bring you good fortune."
"Well, we’d better have the lad along, then," Jack nodded. "And the Great Mother, as well. We’ll need all the good fortune we can get, where we’re going."
(Top: Harlequin and Columbine. Toy theatre illustration, published by William West, 1824. As seen on www.benpentreath.com)