Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chapter 7: The Barracuda

St. John’s, the principal port town on the northern coast of Antigua, was not so bustling a place as Basseterre. But the very dullness of the place made the sudden appearance of the patchwork Harlequinade all the more of a sensation. Particularly among the homesick idlers with leave to visit the town, while their ships weathered the season at English Harbour, on the southern coast.

They had brought the wagon over on the barge from St. Kitts, camping in it at the edge of the open pasture overlooking the town where the public market was held. The island’s three main roads converged nearby, so they could keep watch on the traffic between the naval station and the town. Still, Jack kept to the refuge of the wagon. And since Cybele had stayed snug in Sandy Point Town with the rest of her children, Jack also kept watch over Marcus. Alphonse had warned of unscrupulous flesh traders who could profit from a healthy Negro boy on any estate in the Indies, so Jack kept the boy in his sight at practice, or when he was off scavenging about the marketplace after the stalls were taken off for whatever boyish treasures he might turn up.

Jack enjoyed their practice on quiet mornings like this, with Tory busy at her logbook and Alphonse off in town. But today was muggy and overcast with no trades to chase off the sticky heat. Jack’s shirt was soaked through in minutes and even Marcus was growing fretful. A gourd slicked out of the boy’s grasp and caromed down the hill into a stand of acacia trees. Jack scrambled down after it and when he drew aside one of the long, leafy branches that drooped almost to the ground, he nearly bolted out of his skin to find Alphonse sitting frozen beneath the hanging branches. He gazed up at Jack in solemn silence.

"Alphonse! Hellfire, are you unwell?" Jack gasped, struggling to recover his normal heartbeat.

"Unwell? No," Alphonse echoed. "It is nothing mortal."

His head turned away again toward the prospect of the town. The twin towers of St. John’s Church rose at one end, above a flat basin of orderly streets, municipal buildings and whitewashed townhouses. The bay lay beyond, a hazy blue-grey in the indifferent sunlight, dotted with small, steep islands and promontories. Three industrious Negro washerwomen were pummeling their master’s linen on the bank of a freshwater pond at the edge of the town. Alphonse saw none of it.

Jack crawled in under the shelter of the branches. "I thought you’d gone to town."

Alphonse only nodded. Jack noticed that he had a paper rolled open on his knees. Alphonse looked down at it, too.

"I was on my way," Alphonse's voice was without expression. "I am pledged to deliver this."

He handed the paper to Jack. It was a petition, two columns of neatly inscribed names and addresses. There was also an inscription at the top. Jack sat back and tilted the paper toward the light.

"We, the undersigned..." he muttered, his eyes quickly scanning through the script, "...free Persons of Colour of the Leeward Islands...loyal subjects of his most Royal Highness, King George Fourth of England…desiring to share in the Legal Rights enjoyed by all subjects of His Majesty, etcetera, etcetera…do pledge our regard for His Majesty’s sovereign Laws...and our opposition to the Abolition of Slavery..."

Jack stopped and looked up at Alphonse.

"Tell me I have misread it," said Alphonse, in that same empty voice. "I am not yet very skilled."

"Skilled enough. What are you doing with this?"

"I am pledged to carry it from the free people of St. Kitts to their fellows in Antigua, for conveyance to London. The first ships bound for England will leave from English Harbour when the storm season ends and I often carry such papers. Much is done through the writing of letters and the sending of petitions to agents in London, who lobby the members of the English Parliament on behalf of the freemen of color. But...never before have I been able to read what I carried. The ribbon on the paper came loose and I thought, who would be harmed if I stop a moment to improve my skills?"

"You mean to say that your associates, whoever gave you this..."

"I was told this was a petition in support of abolition," Alphonse explained in the same quiet voice. "I am betrayed."

Jack handed the petition back, marveling at Alphonse’s apparent composure. Ever one to mask his own feelings, Jack still supposed he’d rage like a lunatic if he ever found himself so deceived in a matter so close to his heart, as impotent as he knew his rage would be. There was something eerie about Alphonse’s calm, something infinitely more frightening than the heat of rage. For an instant, Jack remembered the silent purpose with which Alphonse had choked a man nearly to death in the hills above Old Road Town.

"But what purpose do they believe this will serve?" Jack asked.

"Their own," Alphonse replied. "For what other reason do men ever take action? The freemen no doubt believe that if they pledge to support the business of slavery, the English will be less afraid to grant them their own civil rights. Only cowards would stoop to it," he added, darkly. "Unscrupulous men and their credulous dupes."

"You can’t blame yourself, Alphonse. You couldn’t know..."

"But for my own common sense, which I chose to ignore. The freemen have no interest in ending slavery; they own slaves themselves. They might as well burn their own cane-pieces and plunder their own stores. I knew they did not share my goal, but I failed to see how determined they are to oppose it, now that they have throttled some few little rights of their own out of the English king. Such petty victories, Jack, you would laugh to hear them. The right to vote for the white Englishman to speak for them in the island Assembly. For some select few, the right to stand for the Assembly themselves, if they are white enough in their thinking to earn a grant from the governor. No one speaks of the right of the slave to be free. No one but the little fool they dupe to do their bidding."

"They can’t dupe you any more," said Jack.

"No," Alphonse agreed. "And I am very much afraid there has been an unfortunate mishap in the crossing." He gouged a little hole in the soft, damp earth with his heel and began slowly tearing the petition into bits. "It is always such a jumble at sea," he went on, his small, strong fingers working with precision until there was only a tiny pile of white parchment powder in the hole in the earth. He nudged the loose dirt over it and methodically tamped it down.

Jack felt his spine chilling at the utter composure of Alphonse’s fury, rivulets of sweat turning to ice against his back.

"What will you do now?" he ventured. "Sooner or later they must learn that their petition is not delivered."

"I suppose so," Alphonse nodded. "Although it will be no great matter to draft another one."

"Let ‘em do their own dirty work from now on, you’re well out of it," Jack agreed. "You can spend more time on the Harlequinade."

"The Harlequinade?" Alphonse sounded as if he'd never heard the word.

"Aye, we’ve still got a living to make. Tory, Marcus, we all need you. Your career as a messenger may be over, but there’s still plenty of useful work you can do."

Alphonse’s black eyes began to grow more thoughtful.

"Yes, that is so," he agreed. "My work is just beginning."

Even amid the slave vendors in their gaudy finest, heads turned when a trio of patchwork clowns and one small boy came tumbling into the Sunday market, behind a Negro youth slapping a drum strapped over his shoulder. Alphonse had engaged the drummer for the morning and curious vendors and customers blinked up from their business to hear it, following them with their eyes. It was a busy market; with no shipping out from Europe, the slaves’ provisions kept the town fed. Tory could feel an intensity of interest all during their performance, one of their typical comic stories about Harlequin and Columbine tripping up Mr. Punch in some folly, a riotous chase and the lovers’ escape.

"Must we have that confounded drumming all the time?" Jack grumbled later, when their drummer was off amusing himself. "I feel like I’m being marched to the gallows."

"It draws custom," replied Alphonse.

That afternoon, Tory was outside writing in her logbook while Jack, Alphonse and Marcus were poking about the wagon. The horse Calypso had christened "True," for his dependability, was cropping at the scrubby grass nearby when Tory looked up and saw the stranger.

"A good day to you, Miss, and a grand day it is!" the gentleman sallied, doffing his battered topper as Tory scrambled to her feet.
"Might I presume to introduce myself? William Bruce, at your service, Miss, although I am known to one and all as Captain Billy."

The man scarcely looked like a naval officer in his bottle-green coat and checkered trousers. Of middle years, his pink complexion did not look weathered and his cravat was tied with too giddy a flourish for a sober mlitary man. But Tory glanced off to see that Jack was still hidden behind the wagon.

"Captain," she nodded to his little bow. "I am Miss Lightfoot."

"Ah! The fair Columbine, if I am not mistaken? I wonder if you might conduct me to the proprietor?"

"Perhaps you can discuss the matter with me."

"The fact is, it’s a matter of some delicacy." Captain Bruce’s voice dropped so low, Tory braced herself for blackmail. What else could this brash fellow want with them, if he were not some mariner paid out of his ship in search of a quick profit?

"Perhaps I can help you," said Jack, materializing at Tory’s side. He was wiping wagon grease off his fingers with a rag, but his dark eyes were very keen. He was not wearing his Harlequin mask.

"Captain Bruce," Tory said, and Jack nodded at her inflection.

"Your servant, Captain. Please call me Jack."

"My pleasure, sir," beamed Captain Bruce. "The juggling Harlequin, capital stunt! The fact is, I’ve a little proposition of business to put in your way. You see, I myself am in the theatrical trade—Captain Billy Bruce, nautical songs and sentimental ballads. And my wife, sir, the famed Mrs. Bruce, is a follower of Terpsichore. You’ll never see her like in the matter of country dances, pas seul and the sailor’s hornpipe! We are but newly arrived on Antigua, that is, I was posted to the Station as a lad in the wars against old Boney, but this is my first visit back as a civilian, the winters being so damnably cold in England and the theatrical profession being what it is, as you well know. Mrs. Bruce and I are stopping at English Harbour with an old messmate of mine. Commissioner of the Dockyard now, and a grand good fellow, with the most pleasant little wife."

"A proposition of business?" Jack prompted, gently.

"In plain fact, Mrs. Bruce and I are looking for an engagement. We would consider ourselves most honored, no indeed sir, indebted to you should you consider the offer of our services."

Tory saw a grin tug at the corner of Jack’s mouth.

"Sir, we are only poor strollers who pass the hat," he replied.

"But you put on a capital pantomime; I saw you today in the market. What a sensation you would be in English Harbour! Mrs. Bruce and I are granted leave to perform there, not on the Dockyard itself, for women, Lord bless ‘em, ain’t allowed on the place, but a snug little situation in the village. We would be most honored to share it with your pantomime, to show you what we have to offer."

"Of course we must go," counseled Alphonse after Captain Bruce had gone. "We are invited by a personal friend of the Commissioner of the Dockyard. No one will trifle with us."

Harlequin’s mask was a wondrous device, Tory decided. She perched inside the wagon before the shelf that held the little glass, watching Jack dress behind her. It was dark brown paste, and it covered the top half of Jack’s face, leaving only his mouth and chin visible, the features that had been concealed when he’d worn a pirate’s beard. Yet the single painted expression could seem comic when Harlequin was engaged in knockabout tumbling battles with the little whiteface Punch, or poignant when he was pining for his Columbine.

And it kept Jack safe here in English Harbour, this wet, gloomy, festering place. The high, flat hills overlooking the deep twin pools of the harbor protected the ships anchored there from the brunt of any gales off the Atlantic, but also prevented any offshore breeze reaching the harbor, trapping all heat and moisture in the basin. Worse, the Bruces’ "snug little situation" was, in fact, the yard at Fort Shirley, the naval settlement of officers’ quarters, battery, hospital and canteen. But bored military men and their servants made an appreciative audience for the pantomime, as the English called their Harlequinade.

Tory tugged her neckline lower and fluffed out her full skirt with its riotous patches. She did love playing Columbine.

"I feel like we’re going to be rollicking today," she declared, winding up her hair into a knot on top of her head as Jack came up behind her. "I only wish we were playing back at St. John’s. Have you noticed how the market folk are always so excited over us?"

"Oh, they like us well enough, here, but the English are far less demonstrative than slaves and freemen," said Jack. "Unless Ada Bruce is flipping up her skirts."

Mrs. Ada Bruce was a small, shapely woman with vivid red curls who wore her bodices tightly boned and painted her eyebrows and rouged her lips, even during the day. Upon being presented to Jack for the first time, she dropped into a low curtsy and beamed up at him with so much ferocious blinking, Tory thought there must be something troubling her eyes. Onstage, she danced like a Fury, hiking up her skirts to tremendous response, while Captain Billy played his fife or sang one of his salty shanties.

"Aye, the English are entertained by our little shows," Tory agreed, "but it seems to mean more to the slaves, somehow."

Jack was leaning in over her shoulder, adjusting his mask in the glass. At that instant, they both found themselves gazing into Harlequin’s brown face.

"B’God, Rusty, you’re right," Jack murmured. "In English pantomime, Harlequin is always in a dark mask and Punch puppets are always white. But of course, an audience of slaves or any people of color would see things differently."

How must it look, Tory thought, a blackface man and a woman of color besting whiteface Mr. Punch at every turn. "Do you suppose Alphonse had this in mind when he suggested our pantomime?"

"It would not surprise me," said Jack. "He certainly enjoys taking Punch’s falls. And of course, he could depend upon the complacent English never noticing. Hellfire, I never noticed, and I’m part of the play."

After their pantomime, Alphonse collected their coins and took Tory aside to smooth out an awkward moment in one of their falls. Marcus was poking about the field where the audience had been, seeing what he could turn up. Captain Billy and Ada Bruce were regaling a handsome young post-captain and a handful of boyish midshipmen. Jack had his head down, as usual, intent on getting back to the wagon, when he felt a hand on his arm. He glanced up, startled, into the cat-like amber eyes of an elegant-looking woman. Her dark hair was swept up under a tasteful black straw bonnet, its veil rolled up to reveal a humorous red mouth and milk-white skin with a trace of crepeiness around the throat to mark her as a woman of maturity. But the swell of her bosom was no less alluring, even under its decorous covering of ruched black silk.

"Forgive my boldness, my dear Harlequin. I spoke, but you did not appear to hear me." The lady glanced apologetically at her hand, but she did not remove it from his arm.

"It is I who must beg your pardon, Madam," said Jack, trying to muster some gallantry to cover his surprise. She was a tall woman who did not have to look up very far to meet his eyes.

"I know it’s very naughty of me to approach you without an introduction," she smiled, "but you see, I do have a chaperone." She made a vague gesture behind her, where Jack saw a plump Negro girl tarrying at the edge of the clearing, some way off. "I was depending upon that rogue, Captain Bruce, for an introduction, but as you see, he is otherwise engaged at the moment, and when I saw you hurrying away..."

"Not at all," Jack smiled patiently. The lady’s hand slid very slowly off his arm, although her fingertips lingered a moment longer.

"But then, I feel like I’ve quite known you forever, my dear Harlequin," she smiled back, a reckless glint in her feline eyes.

"Then you have the advantage of me, Miss...?"

"Mrs. Captain Harvey. Widowed." She lowered her eyes for the merest instant.

"Please accept my condolences, Ma’am."

"You are far too kind, Mr. ..."

"Ah, but you know me already, dear lady," Jack fenced, not at all eager to reveal any part of himself to the wife of a British naval captain, deceased or otherwise.

Mrs. Harvey’s cats’ eyes brightened with intrigue. "My intimate friends call me Cora," she said.

"And how may poor Harlequin be of service to you, Madam?"

Her eyes lingered on him in shameless appraisal. "Do me the honor of coming to tea this afternoon. The girl will tell you the way. There will be sweets beyond imagining, for I know what a glutton my Harlequin is."

But it was Mrs. Harvey’s eyes that were doing the devouring; Jack wondered his paste mask didn’t melt. He hadn’t been so boldly propositioned since he was a lad, certainly not by a lady of quality, and he could not recall the last time anyone had asked him to tea. He supposed he ought to be flattered by her attentions, but he felt instead as if he had wandered into a rather mediocre play.

"I’m afraid I must decline your kind offer, Mrs. Harvey. We have, ah, an engagement this afternoon."

Mrs. Harvey looked mildly surprised, but nothing daunted.

"What a pity," she sighed, voluptuously. "But your next free afternoon, you must take tea with me. I won’t hear of a refusal."

"Madam, we would be most honored," Jack replied with a bland smile. Tory and Alphonse were collecting Marcus and heading for the wagon. "And now please do excuse me, I’m rather late."

"Not the Widow Harvey!" Billy Bruce chuckled later that night, over a bottle of porter the Bruces had brought them. "Keep a sharp lookout, my boy, she’s quite the barracuda!"

"You know her?"

"Ye gods, the whole station knows the Widow Harvey! The woman’s notorious! She’s buried three husbands, divorced one and, if memory serves, had one annulled. And there’s no telling how many, er, liaisons in between, eh?"

"Mr. Bruce!" cried his wife, looking thoroughly scandalized.

"But it’s true, my dear. The woman's quite a man-eater."

Jack wondered how the heat from those cats’ eye would have affected him if he were still an impressionable lad of nineteen. "But if she’s such a terror to all the poor little middies at the station, why do they not simply pack her off home?"

"Why, that’s the thing of it. The late Captain Harvey was a well-respected old fellow and a man of some means. Bought his wife a fine country house over in Falmouth, on the far side of the harbor, and now there’s no dislodging her, not with her taste for men in uniform."

"Then what the devil does she want with me?" Jack muttered.

(Top: St. John's, Antigua. J Johnson, published 1827. As seen on www.brunias.com/)

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