Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Chapter 15: THE RIDDLE OF THE STARS
New Year’s was the last night of the holiday revels. At dawn, the slaves returned to their masters to receive their annual allotment of clothing and were dispersed back to their labors. But the island militia remained in possession of the town to discourage the last vestiges of rebelliousness, if not open rebellion. A sinister kind of quiet was restored to Charlestown. The hotel guests kept to their terraced gardens, their music room and their hot springs. Market trade fell off after the gluttonous feasting of the holidays, and the pantomime players were reduced to a week or two of idleness.
But Jack came to the tavern every day to fetch Marcus up the hill to work on new business for their stage productions. Jack and Alphonse worked him hard, but Marcus liked the work. He liked to hear their audience cheer, and he liked to get a share of the coins in the hat, after. His old obisha man worked him twice as hard and never paid him one black dog for his trouble.
Just now, he was scuffling through the sandy dirt at the edge of the clearing near the road, while Jack and Alphonse and Tory were fussing over the speeches. The road to and from the town had been full of revelers every night during the holidays, and there was always something to be turned up in the dirt wherever people had been. Especially people with too many coins to keep track of them all.
Nothing Marcus found went to waste. He kept all the coins for Cybele. Most of the rest of what he found were useless but pretty trinkets, good only for trading at the slave market for sweets. But anything finer—silken fans, stickpins, silver shoe buckles—he sold to that colored fellow at the tavern, that Mr. Tinker. Alphonse was always telling him there was no profit without enterprise and Marcus was proud of his arrangement with Mr. Tinker, who was known to give good value for merchandise received. All the folk of the town went to him with their gleanings.
Marcus wondered sometimes if he ought to share his bounty with Jack and the others, who shared everything with him. But then he reminded himself that he worked in the pantomime for his share of the profit and anything beyond that was the fruit of his own enterprise. Besides, how much fun it would be some day to surprise them all with a potful of money he had earned by himself. Jack would be so proud of him, and Cybele—
But what was that flash? Something glinted in a soft patch of hoof-trampled earth near the road. Probably only another shiny bead or bit of gilt; that was what he found most often after the revels. He stretched out his toe, scuffed up some dirt, saw it again, that vivid spark. It was a piece of jewelery, gold as a doubloon. Surely not paste. He stooped down and swept it up. It was a ring, and when he wiped off the dirt he saw a carved crest with a fancy design. There were so many loops and swirls in it, he had to study it for a long time before he recognized them as letters Tory had taught him. Two "Rs," all tangled together.
He rubbed the ring with the hem of his shirt, held it up to the sunlight, felt its weight in his palm. Here was a prize! Mr. Tinker would pay him well for this pretty thing. And he thrust the ring into the square of red bandanna he kept knotted inside his trousers.
When the militia was dismissed, Cybele moved the children back to the camp; too many vagabonds frequented the tavern for her taste. Jack and Alphonse invested in a second horse for the wagon, Shadow, a powerful draft animal from a Nevis plantation, stronger and younger than True, and nearly as placid. He would be invaluable when it was time for the traveling players to move on in March, when the Bath Hotel shut down for the season. Secretly, Tory hoped that she and Jack would move on to the sea when they departed Nevis. Jack had promised her, and the others—well, Alphonse and Cybele and the Bruces were accustomed to making their own way. But for today Tory was content to idle in the shade of the wagon while Cybele spread out her cards: La Roue, the Wheel of Fortune; L'Amoureux, the Lovers. The quiet was broken now and then by the light tapping of Jack’s hammer as he inspected the wagon for wear.
"Men always tinkering," Cybele observed.
"Aye, you’d think a few whacks of a hammer would cause more damage than it fixed," Tory agreed.
"At least I’m not sitting idle," Jack responded, from the far end of the wagon. "The little green pixies of Devon would pinch you black and blue for your laziness."
"Green pixies," Cybele scoffed. "It sound like obeah. What do you know of such things?"
"We traveled all over Britain to the fairs when I was a lad, and I heard all the stories." Jack’s voice wafted to them from under the carriage. "Tom Thumb and Tom Tit Tot. My father was a Cornishman, so I heard a lot about the pixies and the knockers who mine the tin."
"Jack was a foundling," Tory explained to Cybele, hoping Jack was in a humor to tell them more. He so rarely spoke of his boyhood, and she hungered for any scrap to help complete the picture of his life. "He was raised by tumblers."
"You never know your blood family?" asked Cybele.
Jack came round the front of the wagon to join them, shook back his hair and offered up a shrug. "All I know is I was found in a box behind a row of tents on the second day of the May Fair in some West Midlands village. I might have been only hours old, or possibly a day or two, but no more. Starving, they told me, and squalling like all bloody hell, wrapped up in a cloth, and scarcely cleaned up. Someone must have been in an awful hurry to get rid of me." He smiled a little. After all, it was not as if he could remember being alone and starving and cold and afraid, it was just a story he’d been told.
"You born under the the bull star," Cybele observed. "Too stubborn to die. Fortune make some bigger plan for you."
"Not that I've ever noticed," Jack laughed.
"The pattern in the stars," Cybele murmured over her cards. "Every thing connected. Past and future. Man and boy. Male and female. Love and hate. Pixies and obeah," she winked at Jack. "All part of the pattern the Great Mother weave together from the day you born."
"And there’s nothing you can do about it?" Jack wondered. "Trapped in the spokes of Fortune’s wheel?"
"You can try to understand the pattern. Everything you do, every choice you make become a part of the weave. Only the Great Mother know the whole design. You can only listen to your heart and do what you must."
Jack moved off again to his work, but Tory could not resist when Cybele nodded for her to choose a card. It was L’Etoile, the Star, a woman pouring water into a river under a canopy of stars.
"This card speak of time, which flows like a river and feeds all of life. The stars be dreams waiting to be born, leading you forward. The river of time carry you always into the future. You cannot stop it. You cannot outrun it. You can only ride its currents."
"Or drown," Tory suggested.
"But we all drown in it, one day, every one of us. What matters is the journey."
When Jack came back to the wagon to clean himself up, Tory followed him in.
"Solved the riddle of the stars, have you?" he teased.
"You don’t believe in it?"
He cast her a wry half-smile as he crossed to the stool in the corner with a clean shirt. "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie which we ascribe to heaven. All this talk of destiny and stars...it’s like blaming mala suerte. If things don’t go right in the event, you can always say, Ah! It’s not my fault. It was destiny, fortune, mala suerte. It was never meant to be."
"So you think there is no destiny," said Tory.
"Oh, aye. Destiny is what happens when you don’t lift a finger to help yourself. Life happens when you do." He turned again to the shirt in his lap, then paused. "Sometimes, onstage in the middle of a play, you might get lost in the text. It happens now and then, however well you think you know the piece. You know where you’ve got to go, but the pathway of words has entirely evaporated. The performance can’t wait, so you must make up the play as you go along, whatever it takes to propel you forward." He shook out his shirt. "There are no promptbooks to life to tell you what to expect, and when. You must make your own play. Invent your own destiny."
Tory was looking at Jack’s bare, scarred back. How often had he stubbornly refused to play the role Fortune had set him? From the very first hours of his existence, a newborn in a box at the May Fair, screaming for his life. She came up behind him and slid her arms around him.
"Si, hombre. The way I made my destiny when I bullied you into loving me."
Jack drew her arms more closely around himself. "Aye, and now you're stuck with me, and none but yourself to blame."
The private room at the back of the Medusa Tavern could be entered from the shadows after nightfall in Basseterre. On this night, at an hour past bell-ring, a broad, rustic table stood in a corner of the spartan room laden with all sorts of small goods. A man hovered in the shadows just beyond the circle of lamp light that bathed the merchandise before him. Even off-duty, without his cap of office to distinguish him, there was something charged and intimidating in the carriage of Chief Constable Stephen Raleigh.
Before him were spread the contents of one small chest and two hempen sacks delivered here tonight by an acquaintance of an associate. Raleigh knew many such gentlemen of venture. They brought him merchandise they had acquired off-island and were willing to pay handsomely for the privilege of selling it unaccosted in the Basseterre market. A fellow had a right to profit by his office, after all. Members of the island Council and Assembly sold their influence every day. Many of the first class of white gentlemen in Basseterre were professional attorneys who derived income from the several estates they managed on behalf of absentee planters, and sold credit to the planters most seriously in arrears. There were staggering financial rewards available to anyone fortunate enough to rise to a lucrative post like Casual Receiver or Collector of Impost on Liquor, if only one had the wit to pursue them. It was all business.
But there were small pickings tonight. Raleigh, sifted through the goods before him: handkerchiefs of lace or lawn, an enamel snuff box, two fancy carved pipes, a pair of pewter candlesticks, a damask tablecloth, a handsome silver bowl. Items a foolishly indulgent master might bestow upon his slaves as gifts, but more likely to be pilfered from him, in that quaint way the darkies had of rationalizing their thefts. How often had he heard some thieving slave claim that one possession could not steal another possession from his master, as if there were no moral issue involved. What a bestial race they were.
There was a larger pile before him of handsome silk gowns, a setting of fine china plate, combs and mirrors with pearl or ivory handles and several pieces of cheap jewelery, mostly gilt and glass but pretty enough in their way. The sort of things mulatta whores were often forced to sell when their white lovers turned them out. Normally, Raleigh would not bother with items of such dubious provenance; larger cargoes of liquor and tobacco brought the biggest payoffs. But he could no longer afford to turn down any possible profit, however small. He was still cash-poor, having paid far more than he could afford for that slave at auction last month. But he’d had no choice after that debacle in the Neck.
It rankled Raleigh even now to think of it, and his bruised back throbbed again with rage and humiliation. Himself, a chief constable of the law assaulted like a common beggar, and by a colored female, a damned harpy, no better than a slave. He had never even seen her coming, only looked up once over his shoulder before he got the crack on his head to see her wild eyes and her hideous, twisted face as she assaulted him with his own club; then the further shame of coming to himself again in the arms of Dr. Spence’s surly darky. It had taken all the cash Raleigh had to buy the fellow’s silence. Then a week on half-pay while he recuperated in private, claiming a spell of fever like a weakling child so he wouldn’t have to account for his wounds. Almost lost his promotion over it, but that he returned to his office with such renewed vigilance.
After that it was important to purchase his first slave property right away, whether or not he could afford it, to regain his standing in the community before any idle rumors of his declining powers or fortune could take root. Then he'd been unable to recoup his investment working the brute out because of the damned slave holidays. A miserable episode altogether that now left him in a position of having to treat with any common riff-raff with the means to purchase a favor. And in the meantime, those damned gipsy beggars had vanished into the air before they could be made to pay for their crime. But pay they would, one day, if he waited long enough. Stephen Raleigh never forgot an injury.
But what was this? Nestled into the folds of a silken veil with a necklace of fake pearls and a red glass hatpin, he noticed a spark of gold. It was a ring of remarkable quality and when he picked it up and held it under the light, he was dazzled by the workmanship. There was an elaborate family crest engraved into the top and when he turned the ring around and examined the inside of the band, he saw that it was inscribed with tiny, delicate words, a name or a motto, in some foreign tongue he could not read. More than a gentleman’s ring, then. A ring belonging to an aristocrat. Possibly even royalty.
Surely no planter nor any of his people would own a bauble like this. A wealthy merchant might acquire such a thing, or possibly a sea captain after an especially profitable venture, or a night of gaming in some foreign port. But how would this fellow come by it, this associate of Captain Trent’s who dealt in such small trade? Had the fellow been thieving above his station?
"Take a look at this, Captain," said Raleigh to the ruddy old seadog sitting in a chair on the other side of the table nursing a pint of porter.
Trent did not get up, but stretched his neck a little to gaze at the ring in the chief constable’s hand.
"Fine looking piece, that," he nodded, settling back again. "Ought to fetch a handsome profit in the market. You ought to increase your percentage, constable."
"It doesn’t belong to you, then?"
"Too fine for the likes o’ me," Captain Trent chuckled. "I prefer simple creature comforts to flash, I do. It’s the gaudy ship gets boarded, I always say."
"What do you know about the fellow who brought this lot in?"
"Good lad, works out of Nevis. We’ve done business before."
"Is he still about?"
"Aye, having a pint in the tap room. Shall I fetch him in?"
A moment later, Captain Trent ushered in a small, plainly dressed mulatto of middle years, the sort of fellow one would never even notice in the street. Raleigh kept to the shadows behind the table and held up the ring.
"This is a rather unusual piece. May I ask where you got it?"
"Oh, sir, me no can reveal the identity of me contacts. It be too bad for business."
"That may be, ah, Mr. Tinker, is it? But it is very bad for my business to traffic with thieves."
"Me no tief it, sir. Me pay a fair price to a little pickney boy in Charlestown, who be glad to get it. Him say him find it outside the Bath Hotel."
Raleigh paused to reconsider. Many rich, well-traveled people stopped at the Bath Hotel for the season, the ring might very well have come from there. How careless the wealthy must be with their possessions to allow some little darky to make off with something so valuable. But how fortunate for him. For an instant he had to repress a smile.
"Belongs to the hotel, does he?" Raleigh nodded. "What a fortunate arrangement for you, Mr. Tinker."
"No, sir, he be only a ragged boy who play antics for his living. Works the marketplace with a colored juggling wench and a black dwarf."
The lamplight seemed to intensify until all that Stephen Raleigh could see before him was white heat. A colored juggling wench and a black dwarf; there could not be another such pair in all the Indies. And as near as Nevis. No mention of that tall, patchwork clown, but that didn’t matter; he didn’t matter. The wench lived.
Alone in his lodgings less than an hour later, Stephen Raleigh had almost completed his plan. He sat in the silent dark so that nothing could distract him as he harried the situation from all angles in his mind. If that insolent Harlequin still lived, there was nothing at all to be done about him. It required far more interest than Raleigh could muster at the moment to get a white man hanged. But that damned colored whore he set such store by, Raleigh would be revenged upon her.
He could not prosecute her legally, of course, not without making himself the object of mockery and ridicule for the rest of his life. Besides, he could not defend himself in a court of law without sooner or later stumbling over the sticky issue of why she had assaulted him in the first place. Not that it mattered when a darky attacked a white person, but if that Harlequin was still about, he would be sure to press the issue. It was uncanny how these white fellows would stick up for their mongrel whores sometimes, even to the disgrace of their own race.
No, there were other, more sure and subtle ways to have his revenge. To break down her insolent pride. If she were alone in the world now, she would be all the more vulnerable to him; he would make her devastation complete. And if the mountebank lived, Raleigh knew that girl was his weakness. Destroy her and he would destroy them both.
(Top: L'Etoile (The Star), from the 18th Century Tarot of Marseilles, as seen on www.wischik.com/lu/tarot/index.html)