Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Chapter 9: HARLEQUIN IN BASSETERRE
Chief Constable Stephen Raleigh sat at the duty table in the ground-floor apartment that served as a watch house in the Basseterre Court House. It was a fine, dry Sunday morning, the night watch had been dismissed and he had sent the constables out on their rounds. At such a moment, he could persuade himself that the public peace of Basseterre lay entirely in his hands, for the Deputy Provost Marshal preferred to keep planters’ hours and was never expected in his office before noon on Sunday. Or any other day.
Not so Stephen Raleigh, who believed in vigilance. With vigilance, he had gotten this far. With more vigilance and a judicious investment of his pay in certain ventures, he would go further, still. He had his eye on a commissioner’s office, Commissioner of Public Roads, perhaps, or Clerk of the Market. Both were positions in which a clever fellow might bargain for the sort of interest necessary to advancement, the sort of interest naturally bestowed upon the wealthy of good family. And Raleigh was clever. If he were in the position of the Deputy Provost Marshal—and he paused to savor the sound of it, Deputy Provost Marshal Raleigh—he would not be caught napping of a Sunday morning, when there was work to be done.
But the current holder of that title, that ridiculous bird-like creature, was too fond of his drink and too weak not to give in to it. Raleigh believed in rooting out weakness. There was no trace of what he had been born in the man he was, now. He was as respectable as any white man in Basseterre, more so than most, for he scarcely ever drank and never gambled at cards nor dallied with colored whores. Still, he had to admit to one lingering weakness—his anger. He must contain it until he rose to a position of enough authority to put it to good use.
Not so easy, he thought, leafing through the watch reports and public notices on the table before him, when there were so many abuses going on. The damned slaves grew more insolent every day, and all this foolish abolitionist talk only made them more bold. And the free darkies were worse. Agitating for their so-called civil rights, as if they were as good as the whites, buying plantations, owning their own slaves, as if their blood were as pure as anyone’s. Like dogs who thought owning other dogs put them on the same level as their masters. But strip away their tawdry finery and they were still dogs underneath.
It was hard to credit that there were white gentlemen of standing who would enter into business with the coloreds, dine with them, have them into their homes. White lawmakers who had given them a vote, votes the magistrates and Assemblymen might buy back at their convenience, Raleigh acknowledged, but a vote all the same. More than they’d ever given the Irish. That was the sort of thing that happened when a dog tried to usurp its masters’ place and gentlemen of authority were too weak to stop it. Such things would never occur when he was Deputy Provost Marshal, whatever orders came out of London. He knew right from wrong, if no one else did.
His eye strayed across a bill among the notices and he pulled it out. Another runaway. That was two in scarcely more than a week, counting the notice he’d received from St. Anne’s parish, near Sandy Point Town. And just when the planting season was getting under way, as well, when they could least be spared. It all came from want of vigilance. One or two darkies getting that damned abolitionist drivel into their heads and the next thing anyone knew, they were running off from their masters and fomenting risings to demand their freedom. But there would be no disturbances of that kind in his parish. Not like that business on Demarara some years ago. Or that notorious rising at —what was the name of the place? Whitehall, yes, that aborted rising that had cost the Barbados treasury so much in property damage and compensation for dead slaves. All that trouble and expense because some insolent coloreds were never taught their place—
A discreet tapping made him look up to see young Constable Baker standing in the doorway to the small outer office.
"Beg pardon, sir. A Captain Trent is here to see you."
"Show him in, constable."
Raleigh affected a smile and rose as far as his dignity would allow as Captain Trent of the Barbary Anne sauntered in, looking every inch the smuggler he was. With his hat tucked under his arm, ruddy, chapped face and keen—one might say mocking —grey eyes, beneath a curly salt-and-pepper thatch and side whiskers, he looked pickled in brine. Raleigh hoped the man would not presume to bring his business into the watch house, but as the two of them were engaged in a private venture, he must not seem impolite.
"Captain. What a pleasant surprise."
"Your servant, Constable Raleigh. Aye, ‘tis a fine morning to be out visiting one’s friends," the captain beamed, lowering his large frame into a chair across the table from Raleigh.
"What a pity you find me on duty," Raleigh half-smiled back. "Is it, ah, business that brings you out this morning?"
"No, indeed," grinned Trent, his voice dropping suddenly low, "we cleared all that up last time we met, as I recall. And I’m thankin’ ye again for your generous terms, Mr. Raleigh. Much more reasonable than the Custom House."
Because I, unlike the Custom House, need not share my profit with the island treasury, thought Raleigh to himself. These fellows were going to offload their illegal cargoes one way or another, in any event. Why should he not use his position to claim a share of the profits? Basseterre was his town, after all, and there were many ways for a clever man to get on. But it would never do to speak of such things here.
"Fact is, I’m here to extend an invitation. As I recall, you was wanting to invest in some property in slaves. It might be worth your while to come round to the Medusa tonight, an hour after bell-ring. We’ll be holding what ye might call a private auction, if you take my meaning." Trent smiled and angled forward to lean an elbow on the table. "Fair prices guaranteed. In return for the favors you done me."
The Medusa Tavern, possibly the most squalid grog shop on the waterfront. Raleigh knew of the illegal vendues held there among the smugglers, the quickest way to dispose of unclaimed runaways, mutinous crewmen and cast-off mistresses. He could well believe the goods would come cheap. But he only smiled back.
"It’s good of you to think of me, Captain. But a man in my position must confine his purchases to the public auction." When he was advanced enough to own property, he intended his purchases and his prosperity to be a matter of public record.
"Well, I suppose you know best," replied Trent, with an affable shrug. "But the invitation stands, should ye be changing your mind."
His visitor was about to depart when Raleigh heard some kind of racket out in the street, more than the usual Sunday din of country slaves heading for the marketplace. He could swear he heard some sort of Negro drumming above distant shouting and laughter.
"Baker!" he cried, "What’s that damned commotion outside?"
"That’d be the mummers, sir," reported the young constable. "I passed 'em earlier in the street."
"Mummers?" echoed Raleigh. "Has a permit been issued for the Court House?"
"No, sir. I believe they was headed for the market."
"The slave market?" Raleigh frowned. "What the deuce have mummers to do with the darkies?" It was probably nothing, but anything unusual in the lives of the slaves might be a matter of concern in these troubled times. "You run along after 'em and see what they’re up to," he said to the lad. "Report back to me at once, if you see anything odd."
The Sunday market in Basseterre was kept closer to the Court House than Tory liked, but today the slave vendors were even more jubilant than usual at having emerged from another dreary gale season. Cybele set up her stall in the shade of the wagon while the Harlequinade players roved out into the bustling marketplace. Flouncing her Columbine ruffles at the hapless Punch and feinting away from his clumsy lunges to fly into Harlequin’s arms, Tory stole a lewd kiss under his mask for the fun of seeing how Jack would repay her. He retaliated by dodging out of her sightline, then rolling between her legs, emerging, bat and all, from beneath Columbine’s ruffled skirt. Jack said the Italians called it furioso, playing with such abandon, like crashing chords in music. The crowd was delighted, and Jack was insufferably pleased with himself.
A tavern-keeper offered to trade them supper if they would play in his yard just east of the public square to attract custom from the crowds of mariners, hucksters, freemen and slaves dispersing from the marketplace. It was mid-afternoon by then, the market was closing down and they had already dismissed their drummer, but Jack said they deserved a free meal, if not a medal, and so off they went.
Tory had a new set of props to play with, some rusted old cook house utensils purchased for next to nothing in Old Road Town, which she began to juggle in the street on the way to the tavern yard. Jack joined her, and when Alphonse gave chase in Mr. Punch’s mincing side-stepping trot, the pantomime was in full swing. With Marcus in his black silk mask galloping alongside with their satchel of props, they cut a riotous path across one street and down the next, as a merry band of onlookers began to follow them, shouting out gleeful encouragement. Harlequin leaped upon a railing for tying up horses, and pirouetted down its length like a rope-dancer while Punch tumbled cartwheels beneath him. They landed on opposite sides of Columbine, tumbling over and under each other as they danced around her. When Punch lurched to grab her, the crowd yelled, "Look out, ya, Missy!" and "Devil him come!" Columbine turned handsprings over Punch’s head to get away and the crowd howled with victorious laughter. When Harlequin tapped him lightly on one shoulder with his magic bat, danced behind him when he spun around and bowled poor Mr. Punch over with a somersault, the onlookers cheered.
Jack was about to administer the last light tap of his bat to cue Alphonse’s three-handspring finale, when the crowd suddenly split apart before them.
"Stop! Stop this at once!" shouted a furious voice. "This is a public disgrace!"
There were three of them shoving their way through the spectators. Two were ordinary constables, one rather young. The third, the man shouting, had a little extra braid and brass on his cape to distinguish him as their commander. His face was purple with outrage, but not so discolored that Tory failed to notice his cold green eyes. He might not remember her; she had been dressed more plainly when they met before. But she was frightened, all the same.
"I order you to stop in the name of the Provost Marshal!"
Jack rolled instantly to his feet, and Tory saw Alphonse melt sideways to where Marcus stood with their satchel. He whispered urgently to the boy, and in the next instant, Marcus was gone.
"There must be some mistake," Jack said amiably, dusting off his patched trousers as Alphonse, then Tory, came up behind him.
"That there is. You made it when you decided to stage this... spectacle in my district."
"But it’s only a play—"
"Oh, aye, I know you fellows and your playing." The officer gave the word a peculiar, sneering emphasis. "But you don’t deceive me. I suppose you have a license?" He fisted his hands onto his hips and Tory noticed the short, stout club attached to his belt.
"No sir, we don’t," said Jack. "We have nothing to sell."
One of the constables sniggered and poked the toe of his boot into the pile of Columbine’s warped and rusted kitchen things.
"Look here, sir," he called. "Ask him for his ticket of sale."
"Aye, there’s laws against huckstering stolen merchandise," agreed the green-eyed chief constable.
"But we’re not selling anything," Jack repeated patiently.
"And you’ll have that off when you speak to me!" the chief constable cried, glaring at the Harlequin mask. Jack slipped it off over his head and Tory thought she saw an instant of surprise in the fellow’s expression. Had he actually mistaken Jack for an African? But his choler returned, hotter and more focused.
"There are other ways to traffic in stolen property," he hissed at Jack. "Can you prove that little darky is yours?"
"I cannot. He’s a free man."
The chief constable’s ice-green eyes rounded with malice. "Is he now?"
"I have my manumission papers," said Alphonse. The chief constable glared at him.
"Manumissions! I see a dozen a day, half of 'em forgeries and the rest improperly done. That’s all right, though, there’s a place for you at the workhouse 'til we sort yours out. If you’re unclaimed after two months, I have the authority to commend you to the road gang."
"My manumission is in order," Alphonse replied implacably.
Tory glanced again at the constables. One was seconding his leader’s every point with a righteous nodding of his head while the younger one looked uncomfortable, hanging back behind the others. Many members of their audience had slunk away, but there was still a sizable half-circle of dark faces looking on curiously, as if they were still watching a play.
"And what about this bonny wench?" the chief constable continued, fixing his mocking green eyes upon her. "I’ll wager your rightful master would love to have you back."
"She has never been a slave." Jack’s voice had lost none of its polite calm, but the very air around him turned cold.
"Seduced you away from your master, has he?" the constable sallied, pretending to ignore Jack, although he thought better than to try to step past him, closer to Tory. "No doubt he told you he’d free you, they all say that. But it’s a felony to carry off another man’s property, a hanging offense if he’s convicted. But don’t you worry, Missy, you’ll be locked up safe in the custody of the Provost Marshal until it’s all over. Then, if your old master don’t step forward, we’ll find you a new one."
"No need to trouble yourself," Jack broke in again. "There is a respectable white gentleman here in Basseterre who will testify to her free status."
The chief constable burst out with a nasty laugh. "Who? You?"
"Mr. Amos Greaves, member of the Assembly."
The laughter stopped, but the constable’s face was furious. Tory had forgotten about Mr. Greaves, but Jack had gambled wisely; Mr. Greaves would certainly not have forgotten them. And he must be a name to be reckoned with, judging from the constable’s reaction.
"We had the very great honor of meeting Mr. Greaves and his charming daughter this summer in Basseterre," Jack pressed his advantage. "They will testify that my companion was a free woman, then, as she is now, if only you might send for—"
"Don’t presume to tell me my business," the chief constable seethed. "I know the law. I’ll have you taken into custody and bound over for sessions—"
"On what charge?"
"Obstructing the roads. Disturbing the public peace. Inciting the niggers to riot."
Jack almost laughed. "But there’s been no rioting here. Not yet."
"There are extra penalties for threatening an officer of the peace!" The chief constable seized Jack’s arm. "And don’t expect any special treatment where you’re going. You give up the privileges of your race when you consort with niggers and whores..."
Tory didn’t hear the rest of the invective. She only saw the hand close on Jack’s arm and everything else melted into roaring blackness around that image. With a sudden, sick horror, she realized this madman had the power to take Jack away from her.
(Top: Mummers Vintage clip-art, hand colored by Lisa Jensen, 2010)