Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Chapter 16: UNFINISHED BUSINESS
"Slow down, Marcus," Tory laughed. "You’d think the devil himself were after you!"
"But Jack going to teach me a new ting to juggle," the boy pleaded. He had obediently pulled himself up short, but he was so agitated to be off again, he was literally hopping from one foot to the other waiting for Tory to catch up, despite the bulky satchel of props he carried.
"Well, he won’t start without you."
They had already put in a full morning of performing at the Sunday market with Alphonse, whom they had left behind in conference with some market women at a produce stall. Jack’s ribs were paining him, so Tory urged him to stay behind and rest, even though he complained he was turning into one of those creaky old fellows who predict the weather with their rheumatics. It had been a damp morning, but the afternoon had turned sunny and breezy. Climbing the road out of town, overlooking the green and purple waters of the bay under a brilliant blue sky, Tory could not blame Marcus for wanting to racket around like a mad thing. She would have done the same when she was nine years old.
"You will out outrun the four winds," her mama would laugh. "They will torment the old man in the House of the Winds fearfully to keep up with you."
"Mind, Victoria, or you’ll end up in the middle of next week," her papa would tell her soberly. Funny, she could not remember either of them ever telling her to slow down and behave like a little lady.
Marcus was about to burst out of his skin, fighting with all of his youthful energy to keep himself apace with her. Glancing at him now, Tory could scarcely recognize the ragged little scavenger she had first encountered in Old Road Town. He kept the red bandanna about him, but it no longer covered his head. His hair had grown into a short, neat cap, high on his forehead. He was still small and wiry, but he was when he was juggling, it was possible to glimpse the play of sturdy young muscles in his small arms and calves. Jack’s training was paying off. But then, Tory knew what a thorough and patient teacher he was.
"Jack is very proud of you, you know," she said, and the boy’s head swiveled around to face her, his eyes huge and hopeful.
"But me be so clumsy, sometime," he sighed.
"Aye, but guess what? Jack was a boy, once, too."
"You know him, then?"
"No," Tory smiled. "I wish I did."
Marcus’ eyes strayed up the road again, and Tory laughed. "All right, off you go. Keep to the road and run straight to the wagon..."
"Me know, Tory, me be careful!" And the child was out of sight up the hill by the time the words were out.
Perhaps Tory did know what Jack was like as a boy. She glimpsed him every time Jack and Marcus were rehearsing tricks or playing together, more like a pair of children then a tutor and his student. And for the first time, it occurred to her to wonder what Marcus would do when she and Jack returned to the sea. The boy was so attached to Jack, and who could blame him? But he would have Cybele to look after him, and—
It was a sharp, high cry, so sudden it made her jump. Then nothing. A dozen species of bird might make such a cry, or a stray monkey down from the forested mountaintop, but Tory knew it was a human cry. A child’s cry.
She was running before she knew it, up the road and around a bend bordered by high scrub and a rambling grove of dense, leafy trees and coconut palms; the cry had come from here. Marcus would have no reason to venture into this grove, he was in too great a hurry to see Jack, but the road was straight up ahead and she could see no one on it.
"Marcus?" she called, straining to hear a reply that did not come. Marcus was a playful child, but he would not play this kind of game. He was not foolish. Damn, why had she let him out of her sight? She knew about the flesh peddlers who stole Negro children to sell as slaves. She hesitated, her eyes boring into the greenery again. One step closer and she saw it, the corner of a canvas satchel on the ground, half-hidden behind the gnarled roots of an old tree.
With her heart in her throat, Tory darted into the grove, shaking her own satchel off her shoulder, fingers closing tightly round its neck. Inside were only hollow gourds and wooden balls, but they would have some impact. It was the only weapon she had to hand; there was no time to unsheath her knife.
In the next instant, she was yanked almost off her feet from behind. Her hat was knocked off and something thick and heavy closed around her face, choking off the air. Blinded, sucking in the hot, sour stench of straw and sweat, tasting hemp, she flailed her satchel out in a fierce arc, cleaving only air. Then all was blackness.
Salt brine, sour rotting wood and old tar. Tory heard the creaking of rope as she came to herself in the dark, felt the damp seeping through her clothing from the rolls of cordage over which her body was sprawled, recognized the familiar rise and roll of a swell under it all. The sea! She was aboard a ship in the sea! Her old berth in the Providence, home at last! And the rest—but it must have been a dream, all of it, the islands, the pantomime, Alphonse. Jack...
She tried to sit up, but her head was throbbing. Her shoulders ached and her wrists were chafed raw, pinned behind her back. Her every breath reeked of the wet burlap still enclosing her head. A more recent memory struggled to surface in her brain.
"Marcus?" she whispered.
"Me here, but me no see noting."
The child’s voice was soft and shaking. It had been no dream and this was definitely not the Providence.
"Where are you?" she whispered again. Then she crept clumsily along on her side, over stiff tarred lines and hard surfaces and sacking, until she felt the boy’s shivering back.
"Are you all right?" she asked. He gave a small affirmative grunt, and she wrapped herself around him as best she could to comfort him for a few minutes, murmuring that everything was going to be all right. His small hands were bound behind his back as well, but she could feel his fingers were free.
"I’m going to lower my head behind you," she told him. "See if you can get a grip on this blasted hood and pull it off me."
"Me try it," the boy agreed.
He pulled out more than a few of her hairs in his eagerness, but the old hempen sack was finally wrestled off her head. The fetid air outside the sack was not much more fresh, but at least Tory could see what she was about. They were in the hold of a small vessel, a sloop or a coaster, cast on the junk pile with the rest of the refuse. There was no light in the hold, not even a stray beam from a skylight in the deck. It must be night outside. But Tory’s eyes were adjusting somewhat to the dark. She turned her back to Marcus and maneuvered the sack off his head, then had him turn around so her fingers could feel the rope around his wrists.
"Me try to get free, but the knots too big and tight," he told her.
"I know something about knots. Hold as still as you can and tell me if I hurt you."
It seemed funny that she had to close her eyes to concentrate her fingers, when it was nearly pitch-black already, but it did help. She had tied and untied every kind of sailor’s knot there was and she soon had the boy’s wrists unbound. She chanced sitting up again—her head hurt less now, or else she was too anxious to notice—and when Marcus had rubbed some of the soreness out of his wrists, he gamely went to work on the rope that bound her. It was harder work for him, but he applied himself with the same determination he always showed when Jack was teaching him a new trick, and he finally worked her hands free, as well.
They both froze when they heard a heavy tread and voices on the deck above them. The companion ladder was not far away and as the voices moved beyond it, Tory crept closer to listen. She could not make out all they said, but she heard one thing distinctly. Basseterre Road. They were putting into Basseterre.
Marcus sucked in his breath; he'd heard it, too. Tory knew Marcus could not be seen unmasked in Basseterre, where he might meet up with his old overseer. She knew of the cruel punishments for recaptured slaves who had run away. But she would not let that happen. She would not let Marcus be sold back into slavery.
"Keep as still as you can," she whispered to the boy. "We can’t let them know we’re awake, we’ll need every advantage. And it’s night, that’s another advantage. We’ll be able to see better, from being down here."
"What we going to do?" he asked, daring to sound hopeful.
"We’re going to get out of here." She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. She waited another minute, straining her ears, all her senses alert. "Hear that scraping? Feel the bump? We’re tying up to a dock." Some private smuggler’s dock, no doubt, but a dock attached to land. Not the open roadstead of Basseterre Bay, where they would have to be rowed ashore.
"Lie down," she whispered. "Lay that sack on top of your face, but make sure you can still see. All right? Hold your hands behind your back. They’ll come for us soon. We have to be ready."
There was more activity above and more thumping. Tory nestled back into the junk with one hand groping in the dark until it closed around something hard and heavy. A brick, for ballast. There was always something useful in a ship’s hold.
"When we get above, we’re going straight for the rail tied up to the dock. I’m not sure where we are in relation to the town, but can you find your way around?"
"Me come to town all the time wit’ obisha."
"Good. As soon as you’re free, run for the trees and head south into the Neck. Find the Louis family and don’t speak to another soul until you do. They can get you back across the Narrows to Nevis. Can you do that?"
"Me run farder than that, befo’," Marcus insisted.
"And here," Tory added. She slipped her hand into the split in the seam of her skirt and felt down her leg. Her knife was still there, in its sheath. She pulled out the blade and worked her fingers into the sheath until they closed around the gold coin. Then she pressed it into Marcus’ small hand. "Take this for food if the journey takes longer. It’s a Spanish dollar. Try to make it last."
"But..." there was a slight quaver in his voice now. "Where you be?"
"Right behind you," she promised. "But if we are separated for any reason, go straight home to Jack. Tell him what’s happened." She paused for another moment, listening to the activity above. "We’ll only have one chance," she went on, her voice falling even lower. "Here’s what we’re going to do…"
A hatch in the deck above was thrown open, and they heard footsteps on the upper ladder. Then the hatch into the hold was slammed up and a minute ray of lantern light washed over them, where they both lay still, their faces covered.
"Naw," shouted the fellow at the top of the ladder to his companion, above. "Still sleepin’ like babes in arms."
Tory was near enough to feel the ladder shiver under his bulk as he climbed down. Only the one man, alone. Then Marcus whimpered softly in the dark and the fellow turned in his direction. He hunkered down a little, over the child, Tory rose silently behind him, and crashed the brick down across his skull. He slumped forward with only the softest little "oh" of surprise, and Marcus squirmed out from under him, diving for the lantern to turn down the light.
Tory ripped off her skirt, nodding the boy to the base of the companion ladder to see if anyone else was coming down. She yanked at the sailor’s trousers, peeled them off him and slithered into them, tying them tightly round her own waist. Then she rolled him over to one side, dragged off his shirt and threw that on over her bodice. He had on a little knit watchcap against the night chill on the water and she pulled that on too, stuffing in swatches of her hair that had come loose from their pins. Then she crouched down and Marcus jumped up into her arms and stretched out over her shoulder. She resettled the hemp sack on top of his head. It would be too dark for anyone to notice he wasn’t wearing it.
"Can you see?" she hissed, and the boy nodded. "Tell me if anyone’s coming. And hold on."
Marcus’ weight over her shoulder and the bulky, unfamiliar clothing made it a difficult climb all the way up the companionway past the orlop to the top deck, but Tory managed it. They would have no other chance. No one approached her as she emerged on deck, so she headed amidships for the break in the rail, where the cargo would offload. Someone called to her, "The wench is still down there, eh?" and she replied with as deep and throaty an "Aye," as she could muster, and kept going.
She heard someone else starting down the hatch behind her, but they were so close now. She could see the dock itself in the lantern light from the mast, and the darkness of freedom just beyond, in the bush. Marcus tensed over her shoulder, ready to flee.
Then there was a yelp from behind them, coming up the hatch.
"Damnation, it’s Pete! Above, there! She’s loose! She’s getting away! Stop 'er, there!"
Tory ran the last few steps, wrestled Marcus off her shoulder and swung him by his armpits over the rail with all of her strength. She felt him lunge out of her grasp, across the gap between the side of the hull and the dock, and heard the satisfying thump of his body landing on wood. She leaped up onto the rail to dive down after him, but hands clawed at her waist, and before she could wriggle free, another hand grabbed her leg. The rail slammed into her ribs as she was hauled down and she heard Marcus wailing "No!" from far below her.
"Run!" she yelled at him, and the shadow that had been the boy on the dock was gone.
Hands were restraining her from all sides now. Someone pulled the cap off her head, snagging a few hairpins with it. She shook back loosened clumps of her hair and stood her ground, panting, sweating inside her ridiculous stolen clothing and glaring at her captors. Some of them were swearing, others laughing, as if it were all a game.
"Never mind," called one to the others. "It’s the female he wants, not the brat."
"Aye, and what a dainty morsel she is," sneered another, to a chorus of more laughter. He turned to the ship’s boy hovering nearby. "Run ahead, there, and tell Chief Constable Raleigh we’ve captured his prize bitch!"
Tory’s expression betrayed nothing, but inside some part of her spirit withered. Chief Constable Raleigh. She should have known.
"We have unfinished business, you and I," said Chief Constable Stephen Raleigh.
Tory had spent the night in a damp stone cell, kept entirely in the dark and sitting upright to keep off the tiny clawed feet of her overactive cellmates. The coasting crew, who had amused themselves wrestling their shipmate’s clothing off of her, had returned her skirt, but relieved her of her knife. Not that a weapon would be much use here, in the heart of the Basseterre Court House, in a little closet off the watchroom the chief constable kept as his private office.
"Am I charged?" she asked, calmly. She knew better than to show this man fear; she would not give him the satisfaction.
"Why bother the courts when we are both well aware of your crime?" Raleigh reasoned with careless authority from where he sat enthroned behind his desk. "All that remains in your punishment."
"I’m ready." Tory stood up so suddenly, she saw him actually start backwards in his chair, even though her wrists were once again bound. "Oh, I forgot," she added, "this is the way you prefer to meet your opponents." And she turned her back to him.
Tense and waiting, she heard him walk around the desk toward her. If she could needle that vein of rage in him, make him careless, throw him off his guard, she might get away. Then she felt his fingers knot in her loosened hair, and he jerked her head back.
"I have ruined men for far less insolence," the chief constable hissed behind her. "Don’t think it doesn’t tempt me, to give you what you deserve, you mongrel bitch. But I’d lose my profit if you were marked and I’m sworn to protect the investment of the township."
He turned her loose, and Tory’s heart sank a little lower. He had learned to master himself. He stalked back to his seat and Tory sat down again to face him.
"I am an officer of the law," Raleigh continued, "and there are legal remedies for vagrants."
"You know I’m not a vagrant."
"No? Then name your business in Basseterre. Show me the means by which you earn your lawful living."
"Send to Nevis, from where you had me abducted."
"Oh, that won’t be necessary. The law is already quite specific on the subject of colored females without means of support."
"I am not a runaway," Tory declared, over her pounding heart.
"Ah. You have papers, then?"
"I have no papers because I have never been a slave."
"You can prove this, of course?"
Tory was not sure how to respond. Alphonse and Cybele could produce manumission papers, but without them—
"You have reliable witnesses to testify in your behalf in Basseterre?" Raleigh suggested.
Tory’s mind raced. Jack had conjured up the formidable image of Amos Greaves once before. Had she any right to drag that kind gentleman into the middle of this turmoil? But she had no other card to play.
"I am acquainted with Mr. Greaves, the printer," she fenced.
"Ah," chirped the chief constable, lifting a pen from the inkwell and scribbling a note. "And how long have you known Mr. Greaves?"
"We met last year."
"And the year before that?" Raleigh persisted, maintaining a mask of official crispness that was somehow more chilling to Tory than his anger had been. "The law requires proof that you have been free for at least two years. Where were you the year before last?"
Aboard the Blessed Providence, Tory knew, plundering the ships of all nations. She sat stone-faced, making no reply.
"Oh, come, take your time. Surely there must be someone who will speak for you?"
Who would speak in her defense? No one in the islands knew she had been born free in Massachusetts; she had taken great pains to pass herself off as a mulatta wench. The only witnesses who knew the truth about her were a Negro dwarf of dubious repute, a mulatta fortune-teller with a brood of runaway children who were not hers, and a white vagabond with no property who dared not appear in a court of law for fear of being recognized for the pirate he had been. Runaways, all of them. She had never been anything else.
"No?" The chief constable’s smile was a nasty leer. "Well, don’t ye be worrying about it, now. we’ll find a place for you. We’ll auction you off to some worthy estate, not a fine place, perhaps, but a person in your position can’t afford to be too selective. Colored wenches are as common as dust in the road."
Auction. The word roared through Tory’s brain like a shot. Every muscle in her face strained to maintain a closed, fixed expression, empty of any emotion, but she was screaming inside. To be led away in chains to the auction block. To be sold. To be owned. Had she not heard of a waiting period for captured runaways, to see if their rightful masters reclaimed them? But what would that gain her? Another month or two in custody in another vermin-infested cell, postponing the inevitable. Even if she could smuggle some message out to Jack, and it was no certain thing that she could, he had no legal claim to her, nor any proof of her freedom that would stand in a court of law. And she would endanger him, luring him back to Basseterre where Raleigh would be waiting to take him up on some pretext, as he had taken her. She might even be the bait the chief constable hoped would yield him Jack. But she would be no party to his scheme. Whatever the cost, she would not help him to bring Jack back here. And she said nothing.
Chief Constable Raleigh finished straightening up his papers, stood up and strolled around to lean on the side of his desk.
"You’re kind is no use in the field," he observed, gazing down at her, watching her face. "But you’ll do for a kitchen wench, I should think, or a maid in the big house. You’ve a taste for white men, I know, but I’m afraid you’ll find the master and overseer too far out of your reach. But control that savage temper of yours, and assume a more becoming disposition, and you might attract some lonely book-keeper about the place who can’t afford to be too discriminating. At least until he finds out what a hellcat ye are, or abandons you for a more promising situation on some other estate. In the meantime, breed him enough light-colored whelps and he might even set you up in a little shack of your own, to lord it over the other wenches. You’d like that, wouldn’t ye, now? Mistress High and Mighty."
The false joviality had ebbed out of his voice, leaving nothing but a sneer.
"But we’ll see how long your insolence lasts under the lash and the brand."
Tory had learned enough about acting to show no response. Her only reward was Raleigh’s momentary expression of disappointment that his neat trap had not devastated her. But she was devastated inside. She could not fight her way out of this. Her freedom was over.
(Top: Tory and Marcus, by Lisa Jensen © 2010)