Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Chapter 8: THE INFERNAL HOLE
Jack was alone in the wagon the next Sunday morning, between performances at the market in St. John’s. Their little troupe did not care to spend too many days in a row amongst the naval officers at English Harbour. Alphonse and Tory were taking a turn around the market with their drummer and Marcus was seeing to True’s feedbag outside. The bell had rung at St. John’s Church to signal the end of the service and Jack was drinking water when Marcus tapped at the door.
"Message come fo’ you, Jack," said the boy, poking his head around the door.
Jack frowned. "From who?"
Marcus shrugged, holding up a little folded scrap of paper. Jack set his cup down next to his mask on the shelf before the glass and leaned slightly off the stool to take it. He raised a curious eyebrow, but the boy only shrugged again and scooted out the door, pushing it closed behind him. Unfolding the paper, Jack found a brief note in a bold, neat hand.
My Dear Harlequin, When shall we meet? I can wait no longer. Send a reply by the bearer. I know you will not think of being cruel to one who has ever been your devoted C. H.
Jack frowned again. He'd encountered Cora Harvey once or twice more in English Harbour, wriggling out of her invitations by pretending not to understand them. But the thought that someone was watching his movements here in St. John’s, for whatever reason, disturbed him. Reply by the bearer—what the devil did that mean? He stood and took one long step to the door, pushing it open a few inches.
The door suddenly swung wide, out of his grasp, caught in the unrelenting grip of Mrs. Cora Harvey, her form unmistakable although her face was hidden under gauze as she stood planted below the step. Jack spun around on the instant and dove into the corner for his mask, securing it just in time to see the widow sail in across the jamb, pulling the door shut behind her.
"I know you’re alone," she announced, unwinding her veil.
"I was." Jack was so furious, he could scarcely speak. "What are you doing here?"
"I’ve been to church. I do have a house in town, you know."
"I mean what are you doing here. It’s very improper for you to be here alone with me."
"I’m afraid I’m a most improper woman," she smiled. "As you would have known by now, had you accepted my civil invitations to tea. Think of all the time we’ve wasted." She tossed aside her gauze to reveal a most un-church-like and deeply flushed cleavage above her stays; her own audacity excited her.
"You must leave at once!" Jack declared. Even to his own ears, he sounded like somebody’s phlegmatic uncle.
"Oh, I think not, Harlequin. First we must talk. And if you mean to pitch me out, I warn you, I shall scream. The market is very busy today. It will be much worse for you than for me."
The thought had certainly crossed Jack’s mind, but he made himself stand still. If her late husband, the captain, had been held in such esteem, it was likely she was acquainted not only with the Commissioner of the Dockyard, but the Admiral in command of the station, and probably the Governor of the colony, let alone every other officer on the island. No matter how they spoke of her in private, none would fail to defend this flower of English womanhood if she claimed she’d been assaulted by a common mountebank.
"But why should we argue?" the widow continued, sitting decorously upon the edge of the bunk bed. She patted the open space beside her, between herself and the pile of rolled up sleeping pallets on the foot of the bed. "Come sit here and talk to me, my dear. I shan’t bite. At least not right away."
Jack stayed where he was. It was difficult to think clearly when he was this enraged, difficult to separate the heat of his anger from another, more insidious warming.
"Please yourself, then," Mrs. Harvey shrugged, enjoying herself.
"What...do you want with me?" Jack croaked.
"Why, I though that was rather obvious. Why have you not come to see me?"
"Call me Cora."
"...no matter with what regard I may hold you as a person..."
"Oh, spare me your morality, my dear boy, I’m not remotely interested," she interrupted, with an impatient sigh. "Do you know what our late Lord Nelson called English Harbour? The ‘infernal hole.’ And I promise you, he didn’t know the half of it. Have you ever been bored, Harlequin? So well and truly bored, you could spit?"
Jack almost smiled, in spite of himself. "Then why do you stay on? It ought to be a simple enough matter for a lady of your…accomplishments to find some gallant officer to escort her home to England."
"Because I do as I please here. That would not be the case back in England. Good works and ladies’ societies do not interest me. At least at the Dockyard I am liable to meet some amusing men. Like my fine, lithe, raven-haired Harlequin." She smiled again, rising from the bunk and gliding toward him. "But I have not come here to tell you the story of my life."
Dark ringlets were escaping from her upswept coiffure, her golden eyes glowed, and the rise and fall of her bosom was hypnotic. Her scent filled the wagon, a deep, musky rose, as heavy as incense, as muddling as opium. And somewhere, beneath his anger and surprise and confusion, it ocurred to Jack how easy it would be to give her what she asked for. He could not deny how compelling it was to be wanted so recklessly. Time was, he'd have taken what he wanted with no questions asked, and the widow must know how to keep her affairs discreet; she was a figure of much idle speculation and very little known fact. Who would be harmed, after all, if he gave himself up to this tidal wave of silk and scent and desire?
But it was no use pretending not to know the answer. Was he so ruled by his prick he would squander all the love Tory had trusted to him—for this? A lark? An interlude? Was he no better than that cruel, callow Matty Forester, after all? And he backed away from the widow in mute fury, as if his momentary willingness to betray the woman he loved were her fault.
"A favor then, Harlequin."
Something had changed in Cora Harvey’s voice, as the widow began gathering up her hat and gauze. Her face had lost its color; she looked older in the harsh light from the little window above the bed. "I have little use for shame, but I do retain some pride," she told him. There was more resignation than anger in her tone.
"I’m sorry. You’re...a damned attractive woman," Jack said, honestly.
"And you’re a damned attractive man. It’s a pity we could not find some common ground, but..." She lifted one shoulder in a provocative gesture. "All I ask is one more glimpse beneath your mask. To remember you by."
She reached for his mask. But his eyes met hers in a clear warning, and after an instant’s hesitation, she drew her hand away.
"You don’t surrender much, my Harlequin."
She turned away with a defeated rustle of her skirts, and Jack sank back down onto the stool, shaken and furious with himself. They were playing a dangerous enough game in these islands as it was. How could he have let a stranger get so close, for whatever reason? The civilized world was a dangerous place, and he was too long out of practice at its games...
He started when a hand touched his shoulder, and jerked his head up to find not Cora Harvey, but Tory smiling down at him.
"Sorry, I thought you heard me come in. And why on earth have you still got that mask on? You haven’t been wearing it all this time, have you? You must be roasting." She undid the ties at the back of his head as she spoke, taking care not to pull his hair. "Who was that I saw skulking out of here a few minutes ago?"
"What? The notorious widow? And I missed her...?" But Tory’s grin faded when she saw Jack’s face. "Hellfire, Jack, you’re as flushed as a bride. What have you been up to in here?"
In answer, Jack reached up with both hands and drew Tory’s face down to his. The voraciousness of his kiss surprised them both, but Tory had no breath to protest. The mask thudded to the floor as her arms found their way around his neck and she sank down across his lap, surprised again by what she felt under Harlequin’s patches.
"What...has she done to you?"
"Nothing you can't do a thousand times better."
He steered her mouth back to his, pulled open the laces of her bodice, and dipped one hungry hand inside. She twisted in his lap, and when he felt the stool give way beneath him, he got his feet under him, stood up, and lifted her to the edge of the bunk, where the pallets were piled.
"We’re due...outside...in a few minutes," she panted.
"This won’t take long."
Her arms were closing fast around him, pulling him between her legs where he stood while she braced her back against the pallets. He shoved aside handfuls of patchwork skirt as her legs wrapped around him and he held on to her with all his strength, fighting for forgiveness, until he heard her soft cry and felt her shudder in his arms. Slowly, he became aware of her mouth moving very gently now, against his neck and his cheek and his ear.
"It’s all right, hombre," she murmured, holding him tight. He realized he was shaking; there could be a lot of reasons for that. He closed his eyes, buried his face in her neck, let her comfort him.
"Shh," she whispered, cradling him like a child. "Why do I feel I’ve just saved you from a fate worse than death?"
She was teasing, but Jack was too ashamed to smile back.
"I love you, Rusty," he told her plainly. "I just wish we were away from here."
Tory held his face before her and studied his expression, reading in his eyes what he didn’t say.
"Then let’s tell Alphonse,” she said, stroking his dark hair. "It’s time we got Marcus back to Cybele, in any case. We’ve tempted fate too long in this place."
Jack was so relieved to be leaving Antigua, he didn't notice the change in Marcus until the day they brought the wagon to the loading dock, from which they would board the barge for St. Kitts. Alphonse had told them custom in Basseterre would be brisk with the end of the gale season and the trade ships returning. They had sent word to Cybele to meet them there, but not even the prospect of seeing her again could dispel Marcus' gloomy mood.
"You don’t want to go to Basseterre?" Jack quizzed the boy.
"Me ol’ massa live in that place," the boy murmured.
"In Basseterre?" Jack prompted. "In the town?"
"On the hill. But obisha man, him be in town all the time fo’ the grog shops."
By this name, Jack knew Marcus meant the overseer of a plantation. Tory had confirmed the obvious, that Cybele's children were not really hers, but he'd never pressed the question of where they'd come from.
"We come down one day wit’ the driver wit’ provision fo’ the market," Marcus went on. "But all we coops upset and when t’oter boys run off to fetch the fowl, me run off, too, but...me keep running. Me stay off the road and one day, that Cully, him find me napping in a ditch and take me to Cybele."
"Was there no one to miss you on the plantation?" Tory asked.
"Obisha, him miss me most. Me used to fetch him rum." The boy shook his head, his face glum. "Obisha, him hide me for true, him evah catch me after me run off."
"Nobody’s going to hide you," Jack declared. "We'll put you in a mask, like Punch and Harlequin. Would you like that?" Marcus' expression grew more eager, in spite of himself. Jack smiled and caught the boy's shoulder in an affectionate shake. "I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise. We'll be fine in Basseterre," he vowed, hoping it was true.
(Top: English Harbour, Antigua. J Johnson, published 1827. As seen on www.brunias.com/)