Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Chapter 17: HARLEQUIN IN HELL
The cookfire had burned down to embers, as low as Jack’s spirit. Something hot still glowed at the very core, but it was crusted over with thick layers of cold black dread and helpless desolation. It was late, and the others were long abed. Cybele and the rest of the children were in the wagon, where they slept every night now; the Bruces in their caravan. Alphonse had retired to his nest behind the wagon, under the trees. Only Jack still sat up, propped up against their little platform stage, staring into the dying fire.
It had been over a fortnight now, since he'd slept. Over a fortnight since he'd been able to eat or drink with any kind of appetite, or do any useful work. Over a fortnight since Tory and Marcus had disappeared.
Jack twisted around where he sat and raked his hand back through his hair. He had gone over it a thousand times, and it still made no sense. They had simply vanished. Alphonse had made discreet inquiries through all his networks of associates all around the town, but had been able to learn nothing. The last anyone had seen of Tory, she had been heading up the road out of town with Marcus after the Sunday market, heading for their campsite.
Had she been raped? Assaulted? Murdered? Had they been set upon by thieves? Jack and Alphonse and Captain Billy and Cully had searched every inch of the roadway from here to town, and all the outlying scrub and rock and forests, and come up with nothing. They had found Tory’s straw hat, whose saucy ribbons and peach-colored rosebuds mocked Jack now, and the two canvas satchels with the props spilling out of them in the brush within the palm grove. No signs of violence, no bodies mouldering in the overgrown gullies nearby, but there were hidden ravines and dense, bramble-encrusted bush, and desolate, out-of-the-way places all over the Indies where a body might never be found. And there was always the sea.
No, she could not be dead. He would know it, somehow, feel it. His own heart would surely stop beating. Imprisoned then, for some infraction? But nobody answering Tory’s description had been taken up in Charlestown gaol, nor brought before the magistrates; Captain Billy had visited the place, himself. Had she been recognized for a pirate and made off with by some enemy of the Providence? But why should Tory be recognized and not Jack? As to personal enemies, of course that rabid constable in Basseterre sprang to mind, but how could Jack be sure? There were many possibilities, and not one shred of solid information. Jack needed to be up and doing something, plotting a strategy, following a trail, fighting an enemy, but he didn’t know where to start, which direction to rush off in. And he dared not stray too far from camp, in case word came in from somewhere. He could only wait and hope and try to understand.
He shivered, drew up his knees, crossed his arms over them and buried his head in his arms. Some tiny, rational part of his brain knew he needed sleep. If he could only stop thinking, going over the same information over and over again, until it was picked as clean as a carcass left by crows with nothing left to yield up; if he could only sleep, maybe his wit would be sharper when he woke again. Maybe then he could make some sense out of it. But there was no sleep for him, not any more.
A dry twig popped in the heart of the fire and Jack’s head snapped up. He tensed, waited, but there was no footfall in the dark. Only a twig in the fire. He lowered his head, again, went back to the place where his exhausted thoughts were still waiting, were always waiting, back to the one he feared more than any other. What if Tory had run away? Run off to the sea she longed for more than anything else, or run off with someone who could give her what she wanted? Or simply run away from Jack, despite all her assurances. They had made up their differences that night she threw the Spanish ring out the window—for as long as Tory thought he would take her back to the sea.
But suppose she had heard otherwise. Suppose she had somehow got wind of the tentative bargain Jack had struck with that chipper young factotum from the Bath Hotel. He'd sought Jack out to offer them a lucrative booking at the hotel for the next year, Friday evenings of song, dance and recitations in the hotel ballroom for the duration of the season, November to March. And at a regular salary, not dependent on the gleanings from the hat. How could Jack refuse? An indoor venue, a ready audience, a steady wage—they were none of them in any position to turn down such an offer. The children needed to be clothed and fed, and their own independence maintained, all very dear. None of their goals could be accomplished without money. Jack had dared not refuse, nor even postpone his answer to consult first with his partners, lest the offer be withdrawn.
So he had accepted on their behalf, then spent three or four days in agony trying to find a way to break the news to Tory. And then Tory vanished. But even if she had learned of the booking, somehow, had to face the prospect of one more long, dreary year ashore, would this be her response? To run away without a word? That was hardly like her, to deny herself the pleasure of venting her anger. Had she been angry enough to want to punish him, hurt him this badly? But even if that were true, why would she take Marcus with her? Had the boy caught her in her escape and followed her? Joined her? It made no sense.
In the meantime, there was still a living to be made. He and Alphonse and the Bruces worked the markets now for pennies. He had worked up some recitations for their evening stage shows, Hamlet and Richard III, male voices whose speeches did not require a female presence, just to keep their steady customers from the hotel amused, to provide some sort of respite for the Bruces between their musical renditions. But the Bruces could not remain with them much longer, at this rate. Their performances were not much good without the diversity Tory and Marcus provided. Jack was not much good without his compañera, the other half of himself.
He blamed himself every minute of the day for not going into town with them on the day they disappeared. Alphonse blamed himself for staying behind to talk, and not escorting them back. There was no shortage of blame to go round, and nothing at all to be done, but wait, sick with worry and regret. And for what? For the trail to grow colder? For his own life to end?
Jack lowered his head into his hands and rubbed hard, all over, as if he could pummel his wits into better order. When he looked up again, the waning moon was on the rise, a maimed ghost of itself casting eerie shadows, like a mockery of the sun. Something snapped nearby, another pop in the fire, he supposed. But then he saw a quivering in the banana leaves at the edge of the clearing. True whickered questioningly from the other side of the wagon, and Jack was on his feet, the hair standing up on his forearms.
There was a whisper of dry underbrush and a little figure stumbled out from behind the banana leaves. No bigger than Alphonse. Too small for Tory, Jack thought, his heart sinking. The shadowy little thing crept two steps into the clearing, then froze when it saw Jack standing silent as stone on the other side of the dying fire. There was just enough light for Jack to make out torn, scraps of clothing clinging to thin, dark limbs, to look into the face of a child, frightened and exhausted.
"Marcus?" Jack could scarcely croak out the name. "Hellfire, lad, is that you?"
He was crossing the clearing on the run before the boy could reply, and scooped him up into his arms. He was a cold, grimy, sweaty, foul-smelling armload, covered in dirt and scratches, his clothing in tatters and shaking as hard as a leaf in a gale. But Jack pressed the boy to his chest and felt the small, trembling arms wrap around his neck. In the next instant, the child was sobbing against him. Jack stood where he was, rocking the boy in his arms, rubbing his quaking back.
"It’s all right, lad, all right," Jack murmured, pressing his cheek into Marcus’ grimy hair. "I’ve got you now. You’re back, you’re safe. Everything's going to be all right."
"No," sobbed the boy, shaking his head against Jack’s chest. "No, no!" He was fighting so hard to check his tears, he was starting to hiccup.
"Shh-h-h, get your breath, lad, don't talk. Thank God you're not hurt."
But Marcus twisted his head up, his tear-streaked face imploring. "Tory!" he wailed.
Jack’s heart lunged, and he swept his eyes all round the dark underbrush surrounding the camp. "Is she with you?"
"Her ‘posed to come wit’ me! Her fight all the men so me get away, but they catchy her!"
"On the ship where they take us. Tory, her pitch me onto the dock, tell me run away! Run home to Jack, her say. And me run away so deep in the dark, they nevah catchy me."
Where? Jack’s mind screamed, when? A ship, they might be anywhere. But he would not let himself interrogate this child, who had clearly been through too much already.
"You did well," he said, cradling the boy against him. How small he was, and how young. What sort of ordeal had he been through? Who would do this to a child? What were they doing to Tory? "You must be starving," he hurried on. "We’ll go to Cybele and find you something to eat. You’re sure you’re all right?"
Marcus nodded vigorously, but he did not loose his arms from around Jack’s neck.
"You did exactly what you were supposed to," Jack assured him. "You got home to us."
"But me leave her all alone," Marcus wailed again.
"She was still…alive when you saw her?" Jack prompted, and the boy nodded again. There was still hope. "We can talk later," he hushed the child, over the racketing of his heart.
He turned to carry the boy to the wagon and saw Cybele standing beside the step, watching them. She had thrown a dressing gown over her chemise, and she gazed into Jack’s eyes for a long moment before turning her attention to the boy.
"Where was the last place you see Tory, che?" she asked, and Marcus spun around in Jack’s arms at the sound of her voice.
"In Basseterre," he whispered. "We be on a ship in the road. Her tell me run fo’ the Louis in the Neck. And me run, but they be hard to find in the dark. Then there be heavy seas in the Narrows and we no can make a crossing for days, and then me get lost on Nevis, her bigger than me tink, and—"
"Never mind," Jack interrupted, hugging Marcus to himself again. "You’ve come a long way and now you deserve a rest." He carried the boy over to Cybele and handed him into her arms.
"Me be so sorry, Jack," said Marcus, forlornly, from the safety of Cybele’s embrace.
"It wasn’t your fault, lad. You've done very well to get back to us."
"Me no want to leave her all alone."
"She won’t be alone for long," said Jack.
Calypso and Cully were peeping out the wagon door. When Jack finished helping Cybele up the step, he turned to find Alphonse standing in the shadows, waiting for him.
"She may not even be in Basseterre any more," said Alphonse, without preamble. "You have no idea where she has gone."
"I know a fine place to start," Jack replied, hurrying back toward the cookfire to roll up his bedding.
"You cannot do this. You cannot go to Basseterre."
"If that constable were going to take me up on legal grounds, he’d have done it by now," Jack muttered. "What’s he going to do, charge me with the crime of falling down under his stick?" He stood up and faced Alphonse. "Tory is in danger. What else can I do? What would you do?"
Alphonse sighed heavily, but held his gaze. "Then you must not go alone. I will come with you. It will be too dangerous for you if you are recognized."
"I'll be more anonymous in the company of a black dwarf?"
"What better companion for the shadows?" Alphonse shrugged. "And I know them all. I also know many people who may have information. People you will never be able to approach, alone."
"Your informants haven't helped much here in Charlestown."
"I am not as well connected here. But I have spent a great deal of time in Basseterre. I will save you a great deal of time."
Time was their enemy, Jack knew it, but how could he endanger Alphonse, on top of everything else?
"She is my friend, too," Alphonse added quietly.
In an hour, they were both standing inside the darkened wagon, speaking very softly to Cybele.
"In the morning, tell Captain Bruce we’ve been called away, but don’t tell him where or why," said Jack. "My guess is he’ll be prudent enough not to ask."
"If the Bruces decide to return to their friends at English Harbor, you might want to join them there," Alphonse suggested. "It might be safer for the children."
"Keep the wagon," Jack added. "Cully can manage the horses."
"I stay here until the end of the season," Cybele replied. "If we no hear from you by then, I take the wagon to English Harbor. Send to me there by the Bruces, if you need me."
Jack shouldered his small pack—his bedroll, his hat, some salt fish for the journey. His knife. His little purse of coins was strapped securely under his shirt, in the pirate manner. At the last minute, he'd also packed his dark Harlequin mask. For the shadows.
As Alphonse was fastening on his own wayfarer’s pack, Jack felt a small hand on his arm. he looked down to see Marcus standing sorrowfully beside him.
"It be me own fault for leaving her alone that you have to go," he whispered.
Jack crouched down to look into the boy’s face. "Nothing that's happened is your fault, Marcus. Don’t even think it. Do you understand?"
The child gave a slow, reluctant nod.
"Without you, I would never even know what happened. You've played your part very well. I'm so proud of you." From some deep reserve, Jack produced a fleeting smile. "Now Alphonse and I must go."
"When you coming back?" Marcus pleaded.
"When I find her," Jack replied. "Not before."
(Top: Arlechino (year 1858), by Maurice Sand, as seen on www.delpiano.com)