Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Chapter 14: FOOLS' REVELS

Jack had tried so hard not to think about the Spanish ring these past weeks, it was never very far out of his mind. He had no other evidence that Tory cared any less for him; indeed, the evidence of his heart and his own senses told him otherwise. But his heart had been wrong before, and the senses were so easily fooled. And just when he'd convinced himself he was behaving like a half-wit schoolboy, this happened. Had he become so burdensome to her she was scouting for her next opportunity to leave him? Perhaps he should have sampled Cora Harvey when he'd had the chance.

Purple evening shadows were lengthening across the clearing by the time Tory came trudging up the road from town. She'd been gone half the day; she hoped Jack hadn't worried. Her plans had come to naught, in any case. The Bruces’ caravan was shut up, they must have an engagement in town, and Alphonse must be off on one of his calls. She hopped up into the wagon to find Jack waiting for her, standing very still beside the bed.

"Where have you been, Rusty? It’s very late."

"I know, hombre, I’m sorry." She was still a little breathless from her walk. "I"

"In the tavern?"

Tory darted a sharp glance at him as she unpinned her hat. "As a matter of fact, yes. I went back with Cybele after the market."

Jack frowned. Would she lie to him so boldly? "Did you a man?"

"Aye, there was a man there. Hellfire, there were dozens of men, it’s a market day. What’s the matter with you, Jack?"

"Nothing at all," he replied, with icy calm. "Only I’ve been sitting here for two hours thinking of nothing but that madman constable on the loose and hell-bent for revenge, wondering where in hell you were, and then Ada Bruce waltzes in to tell me she’s seen you in a tavern having a drink with a strange man."

"And you thought I was having an assignation?" Tory laughed, as she made a mental note to strangle Ada Bruce. "You know me better than that."

"I thought I did."

The chill in his voice sobered her. "He was a merchant captain, Jack. He had a ship..."

"Are you so anxious to leave?"

"Leave?" Tory cried, astonished. She felt like a rope-dancer; one misstep and she would plunge to her doom. "Hellfire, you’re the one who’s aways trying to run away from me, I’m always fighting to keep you! I was thinking of us!" But Jack was already folding into himself, fading away from her like a dream; another moment and he would be out of her reach. "Why else would I need a ship?" she reasoned.

"To find Matty?" Jack suggested coldly.


"I found his ring."

"His ring?" It was as if Jack were suddenly speaking Chinese.

"The one he had off that Creole boy," Jack went on, with elaborate patience. "I found it in your things. He murdered for that ring. It must have meant a great deal to him to give it to you."

Tory stared at him for a full minute, shocked beyond speech. Then she spun around to the shelves, shoving aside gourds and odd scraps of clothing and an old newspaper as she dug out her basket. She fished the pouch out and broke the knotted cord with one angry tug; yanking out the gold ring, she advanced on Jack, waving it in his face.

"Oh aye, it’s a fine, sentimental token of Matty’s great affection for me, this ring! He threw it at my feet and called me a whore for daring to suggest there might have been something unmanly in the way he obtained it. I’ll certainly cherish that moment forever!"

She lunged across the bed to the window and threw open the shutter.

"I’ll show you how much this ring means to me. And Matty fucking Forrester, as well!"

And she hurled the ring as far into the shadowy night, she couldn't even hear a plop in the dirt. Slamming the shutter closed, she came about to face him.

" never told me," Jack faltered.

"I had forgotten all about it!" Tory exclaimed. "It wasn’t worth remembering."

Jack was backing away, shaking his head. "But what was I to think when I found it hidden away like some treasure?"

"Did you not think to ask me about it?"

"I thought about it," he muttered, looking anywhere but into her eyes. "But I was afraid to hear what you'd tell me."

"I would have told you the truth," Tory declared. "That Matty isn’t even the ghost of a memory to me. Why can't you believe me?"

"Because I'm a fool." Jack glanced up, his dark eyes too full of shame to even register relief. "You’ve every right to pitch me out, Rusty, I wouldn’t blame you if..."

"Oh, stop it!" Tory lurched away from the bed and threw her arms around him. "Idiot," she murmured. His arms came around her in a grip of iron and she held him as tight as she could, sore ribs be damned.

"Oh, mi vida, I am so sorry," he whispered. "I’m such an ass."

"Aye, you’ll get no argument from me. When did you stumble across that damned ring?"

"The day of our first Macbeth," he confessed.

"But that was weeks ago!" Tory cried. "And you’ve been torturing yourself with this fantasy ever since?"

"It was the only way it seemed to make sense."

Tory lifted her head to look into his face. "I love you, Jack. Don’t you know that by now? Sense hasn’t anything to do with it."

"Evidently not." And he drew her close enough to crack her own ribs. "I was just…so afraid I was finally going to lose you."

She shook her head in exasperation. "Hellfire, I didn’t even know what we were fighting about."

"Civilization," Jack muttered. "It’s coming too damned close."

"Then let’s leave this place!" Tory urged him. "Let’s return to the sea, where we belong! Two less buskers in these islands will never be missed."

"But...I...Rusty, you know why we can’t," Jack faltered. "Merchantmen are miserable berths, smugglers are worse, and besides, you’re a woman..."

"There are all sorts of ships, Jack, with all sorts of crews. This fellow today is heading straight back to the States, but there must be others! Can we not try? There’s nothing but strife and trouble and danger for us ashore. What would we be leaving behind?"

Jack did not answer. Until this moment, he’d had no idea how much she still yearned for the sea, when all this time he'd been foolishly trying to build them a life ashore. But Tory would always be half-wild; it was what he loved most about her. He might as well try to domesticate a mermaid. How could he tell her how much their playing meant to him? Harlequin, Macbeth, even Aguecheek, as fragmented as they were, gave him more joy than he could ever have imagined. But it seemed like such a selfish, frivolous pleasure, now, weighed against Tory’s freedom.

"We’ll find a way, companera." He drew her closer so he couldn’t see the eager light in her eyes. "If that’s what you want."

Christmas at the Bath Hotel was a series of lavish affairs. In December, the wealthiest planter families of Nevis hosted splendid dinners and dancing parties for members of the Bath Hotel elite. On Christmas Eve, the military band from St. Kitts was engaged to play English carols for the hotel guests. And on Christmas Day, after morning services at the parish church of St. Paul’s in Charlestown, a fancy-dress ball was held at the hotel, where guests could mingle with all the fashion of the island.

Jack and Tory’s little company of players were engaged to perform the pantomime at the Bath Hotel on Christmas evening, before the dancing. Jack said every English Christmas celebration had a pantomime and Alphonse added there were not likely to be many mercenaries abroad during the Christmas revels; they were all needed in the island militias to keep watch over the slaves. Calypso sewed new patches over the rips in Harlequin’s shirt and they devised some new comic business with less ribaldry to offend the ladies and no hired drum to beat them in. Alphonse said all the drummers on the island were engaged tonight in their own revels.

The courtyard behind the Bath Hotel had been magically transformed. Glass-globed lanterns lined up along benches and hung in the trees defined and illuminated a performing space in the center of the yard. Chairs that had been set up along the back veranda and in the balconies above were filling up with spectators. Jack said it looked like the gallery and boxes of a proper theatre, to which Ada Bruce was heard to add a nostalgic sigh.

The crowd was in a holiday mood boosted by plenty of rum punch and sangaree; even the most decorous matron was not likely to confine herself entirely to sugared lime juice on such a festive day. They applauded Marcus’ brash tricks and Punch’s flaming torches. A fiddler from the military band accompanied Captain Billy’s ballads and Mrs. Bruce’s Highland fling and tarantella. Then the pantomime began. Harlequin engaged in less knockabout tumbling and more nimble dancing than before, but the others played all the more brightly, and they were received with vigorous approval. For an encore, Jack took off his mask and threw a cloak over his motley to give two famous speeches from Hamlet. The performance concluded with the players standing in a line singing the stirring patriotic song Captain Billy had told them was all the rage in London the previous spring, drawing most of the audience to its feet.

The spectators drifted indoors as lights blazed on inside the hotel, gilding all the doors and windows in red and gold until the building resembled a huge, glowing ember in the night. A youthful English factotum from the hotel came out to invite the players to stay for the dancing, and Captain and Mrs. Bruce were delighted to accept. But the others were eager to make their way back down the road again, where the pounding of a hundred Christmas drums rose up to embrace them from the town. Let Ada Bruce execute the fussy figures of the cotillion with the English, Tory thought; this was more to her own taste. It was the music of abandon.

Their riotous patches and ruffles were perfectly suited to this topsy-turvy night. They passed a troupe of mummers crying, "Make way fo’ Ole Mas, King of all the buckras!" and Tory saw a Jonkanoo figure in a whiteface mask and a long, curled wig with a Napoleonic hat full of feathers. Another small party Tory took to be girls, at first, in rather slipshod finery. But as they drew nearer, she saw they were young males dressed in ruffled petticoats and ladies’ jackets festooned with all manner of ribbons and bows. Whenever they passed any prosperous-looking person, one masked boy fell to his knee, clasping his hands and pointing to his stomach while his attendants circled round him, crying "Koo-koo! Koo-koo!"

"Him be Actor-Boy," Marcus told her. "Him beg fo’ food. ‘Koo-koo’ the noise him ‘tomach make when him be hungry."

A party of white spectators was passing by and the Actor-Boy and his entourage raced over to them, crying,

"We play fo’ you, massa. We make very fine play fo’ you!"

The boys withdrew long wooden sticks from within their skirts and brandished them, menacing each other in quick little jig steps as an older boy pounded on a long drum held between his knees. The boys shrieked and flailed away at each other until only the chief boy was left, dragging his wooden sword along the ground, past the inert bodies of his fallen comrades, crying for a horse.

"B’God, it’s Richard The Third, or I’m damned," Jack exclaimed. "A bloody deed, and desperately dispatch’d," he noted, as the Actor-Boy keeled over into his flounces.

"We ought to have brought out our Macbeth," Tory laughed. "How did we overlook this venue, Alphonse?"

"The people do their own playing, tonight," said Alphonse.

"That drummer ought to keep still during the performance," Jack observed, as the Actor Boy’s little troupe scampered off. "I recall very few opportunities for dancing in Richard The Third."

"Not every drum good fo’ dancing," said Cully, standing nearby. "Some only good fo’ talk."

"Talk?" echoed Jack, glancing at the lad. "What do they say?"

"Me only know drum talky, sometimes," Cully shrugged. "The Africans say so."

Jack turned to Alphonse, but he was already hurrying off to greet Cybele and Calypso, who was holding the squirming Edward by both hands to prevent him roaring off and getting lost. But once Marcus and Cully took charge of the boy, Alphonse gallantly offered Calypso his arm. And off they all strolled under the mocking moon on this night of fools' revels, when the slaves played at being masters of their own fate.

It was not difficult for Alphonse to disengage from the party. The difficulty was in making himself stay as long as he did, for the sake of civility, parading around like any other fatuous black fool with Calypso on his arm. As if it could ever be anything more than a crude burlesque, one night’s foolish fancy.

He made his way up the Main Road out of town, nodding to the strays and drunkards who reeled past, wishing him the compliments of the season. In fact, the season had always depressed him, with its false merriment and false freedom, while militias all over the Indies went on alert against the slightest infraction. The planters only played at indulgence; it was all part of the greater farce.

He found their wagon secure in the clearing, True undisturbed under the trees. The caravan had not yet returned, the Bruces must still be making merry at the Bath Hotel. It was his turn to sleep in the wagon, but inside, pulling off his Punch costume, he realized he was too agitated to sleep—even if the drums would permit it. Victoria and Jack might have use for the bed if they came back late, flushed with rum punch and revelry and each other. He would leave it for them, then. It would be his Christmas gift.

Outside, he took his bedroll into the treeline behind the wagon, hidden from the road but near enough to hear any disturbance. True was idling nearby and Alphonse went over to identify himself; they would be on watch together tonight. He held up one hand and the old horse lifted his head. Then the huge head veered sideways at him, the grey, steaming muzzle plunged down into Alphonse’s palm, nearly devouring it, and Alphonse took a hasty step backward.

"Compliments of the season to you, too, old fellow," he muttered, wiping his wet hand on his shirt. What a perfect beast of burden the old horse was, no voice to protest, no dreams of a better life, and wholly unaware of his dormant power.

Alphonse sat down on his pallet and closed his eyes against the melancholy that separated him from the revelers below.

The murmur of voices is urgent, defiant, as the swarm of men and women and some children moves down the road, away from the slave quarters toward the mill. Blacks and mulattos together in plantation linens, three or four dozen of them, shouting and chanting and beating together their sticks like mummers in a Christmas parade.

Some carry torches of bundled kindling to light their way, scorching the black night. But the crackle of the flames and the rumble of voices give way to the drumbeat of hooves pounding along the hard-packed dirt road ahead, the hoofbeats of devils thundering toward them out of the dark. The slaves stop, confused. The militia riders, drunk on righteous outrage, rein up their jittery mounts a few yards away, under the direction of the Army colonel in command; some pace their huffing horses back and forth across the road in a menacing manner. Behind the riders, the first ranks of a regiment of foot are maneuvering into position, muskets and rifles at the ready.

A few slaves brandish their sticks and pikes. One or two have cutlasses for cutting the cane. A leader steps forward, a mulatto houseman in elegant livery, despite his lack of stockings or shoes. An emblem is sewn onto his jacket, a maroon W on a gold chevron. W for Whitehall. He steps into the road, unarmed, to speak to the colonel on horseback. The militia riders edge forward, taunting. The slaves stand their ground. The foot soldiers nervously cradle their guns.

At a sudden, sharp squeal from a frightened hog penned up nearby, a tiny figure is startled out of the shadows of a hay wain at the side of the road. Disoriented, the child bolts into the road, past the little crowd of slaves toward the horsemen. The slight figure of a young black woman breaks ranks and runs into the road after him. The colonel’s horse shies backwards. Another horse behind him rears up, the child stops, terrified, and the woman snatches him out of the way of the flailing hooves. As other slaves rush forward to help her, an explosive pop of flame from one of the torches prompts an answering shot from the soldiers. The spooked horse dances crazily, another shot is fired, and another, and the young woman jerks in place and sinks to the dirt as the shrieking child wriggles out of her arms. The horsemen charge into the crowd of panicked slaves, swinging swords and cartwhips, followed by the soldiers still firing their guns. The hay wain bursts into flames from a fallen torch and the figures are frozen in a hellish tableau of roaring fire and human screaming and shots and more shots...

Alphonse lunged up with a stark cry. He could still hear the shrieks and the horses’ pounding hooves, smell the smoke. Then there was another sportive shot, some young blood saluting the midnight hour on this festive night. More chanting drifted up from the town, more powerful drumming, more shouting and harsh laughter. It was Christmas night. The slaves were having their holiday. He had only dreamed the rest.

Alphonse sat back upon his pallet as True whickered curiously in the dark nearby. Shaking, Alphonse lowered his face into his hands. Allmighty God, it had seemed so real. He thought it was all happening again.

(Top: Koo-Koo, or Actor Boy, Jonkanoo Costume, Jamaica, 1838 Image Reference: Belisario03 as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)

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