Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chapter 18: BAD BARGAINS

It hurt so much to straighten up, Tory no longer even tried. The constant dull ache in the small of her back was preferable to the searing stab of pain that shot up her spine and into her shoulder when she attempted to stand erect. So she remained stooped, as she leaned again into the tin laundry tub. Her chapped, reddened hands and wrinkled fingers could scarcely feel to grasp under the water, but she extracted the next sodden garment with particular care. Yesterday she had been cuffed across the face for bringing back a torn cotton stocking.

She had received worse blows in her time, but never under such humiliating circumstances. Never as a piece of property being broken to obedience. Still, that was not the worst humiliation she had suffered. Not by a long shot.

It was her last night in her solitary little cell in Basseterre. It was her last chance. Tory had not been imprisoned with the rest of the suspected runaways and vagrants, but kept in this dark lonely place. No one came to take down the particulars of her case, or offer to sell her a hearing at the Court of Policy—not that she could have produced any legal evidence in her defense. She was fed twice a day, corn pudding and cassava bread and baked yams. Starchy food to sleeken her for market. And this morning her gaoler had told her this was her last day under his care.

She had never seen her gaoler. He passed her meals to her through a waist-high opening in the wooden door, an oblong slot about the length and width of a large papaya. But he was a man, and Tory had nothing else left to sell or trade, not her knife nor her gold coin, nor any other thing of value. Nothing but the coin women had been forced to trade in since the morning of the world.

When she heard his familiar shuffling step outside her cell door, she sank to her knees in the straw, resting her fingertips on the sill of the slot. She heard the rap of knuckles on the door above her head, and his bored cry of, "Plate!"

"Friend," she whispered through the slot. "I need a favor."

"Who don’t, in this place?" the gaoler grumbled back.

Tory pushed her fingertips out the slot and felt stiff linen clothing, with flesh and muscle underneath. Trousers, not a coat.

"I’ll pay," she murmured, her fingers moving along fabric until they felt a buttoned flap.

"What’s this?" came the startled voice from he other side of the door. But he did not move away. Tory played her fingertips back and forth across the flap, and the fellow angled himself toward her. She slid one finger between two flap buttons. Warm, damp flesh quickened to her touch, and she rubbed, slowly.

"What’s this?" His voice was weakening.

"I’ll pay very well for my favor," Tory purred. It was clumsy with her wrists bound together, but her fingers worked one button open and she slipped three fingers inside, stroking with more vigor.

"What kind of favor?" he groaned, wrestling open another button.

Tory closed her fingers snugly around thickening flesh, the excited, anonymous male prick that was her only possible escape. "Unlock the door," she whispered, and drew him in through the slot as the door shuddered between them. She didn’t know if he was young or old, fat or lean, or even what complexion he was, for it was now quite dark in the cell. She could only pray he didn’t have the pox as she lowered her face and took him in her mouth for a minute, then took him out.

"Unlock the door," she repeated, his flesh hard in her hand, "if you want me to finish the job."

"You can...finish...from there," he grunted.

"Aye, but why should I?" She licked once, and waited.

"If you want me to...say aye."

Swallowing an impatient sigh, Tory closed her eyes and sucked. The door quaked steadily between them as he thrust his weight against it, and she tried not to think how ridiculous they must look. It was a farce, after all, and she had played it dozens of times, Columbine teasing what she wanted out of helpless Mr. Punch. She would not let herself remember how Jack tasted, or imagine him in the dark on the other side of the door. She would not bring Jack into this place to see what she did.

"Let me hear the key in the lock," she demanded.

"Aye. Aye!"

He jolted so suddenly in her mouth, Tory had to close her throat to keep from gagging. She jerked her head away and spat into the straw. Damn. His organ had slithered out of her grasp, but when she hooked her fingers around the sill of the slot and tugged, the door did not budge.

"Our bargain?" she whispered. But she already knew what the answer would be.

"I said ‘aye,’ didn’t I?" He was still panting, but she could hear the sneer creeping back into his voice, now that he’d had what he wanted. What she’d given up for free, like a fool. "I don’t have the key, my love," he went on, resettling his trousers. She could see his hands working efficiently through the slot, just out of her reach. "Only the chief constable has the key. But I’ll pass your offer along to him, if ye like."

Now she was standing in the stream at an hour past noon, with cold water up to her calves and the West Indian sun beating down on her back, gluing her bodice to her skin. Sweat was puddling in her armpits and streaming in little rivulets down her arms as she pried the next shirt out of the tub and sprinkled it with a handful of white sand. She threw the soggy thing upon the large, coarse rock that protruded out of the bank, and beat it flat with a long, thick wooden paddle, still stooping, for the rock was at a low point in the bank, just above the water. Then she peeled the shirt off the rock and plunged it into the stream for a vigorous rinsing.

After wringing it out between her hands, she turned to step out of the stream and scoop up more sand. Then she carried the shirt up to a grassy sward above the bank, flattened it out, covered it with another coat of sand and left it to whiten in the sun with the other things—three other everyday shirts, two fine Sunday shirts and assorted nightshirts, petticoats, chemises and handkerchiefs. Tory risked the white-hot flame up her spine to straighten a little, and glanced back down at their work. The clothing was almost finished, but they had not yet begun on the basket of bed linens.

Sweat leaked out from under her headscarf, but she wiped it off her forehead and walked back down the bank to the stream. The bubbling cool of water still drew her, although she could scarcely remember why. She didn’t mind the heavy labor; it took her away from the gossiping tongues and censorious eyes in the great house, and brought her down here to the water, to dream again of the sea. Her dreams, at least, were still her own. But they had never been so far out of her reach.

How clever she had thought herself, that last day in Basseterre. Having failed as a gaolhouse temptress, she had been so glad to get out of her dark little cell and into the open air, she could even bear the shame of appearing in the auction yard with her wrists bound, like a criminal. It was like being onstage, and she had decided on a new character to play. Only pure-blooded Negroes worked in the field, and if they meant to sell her as a servant, she would show them the folly of their plan.

"And do you sew?" chirruped the auctioneer when she was brought forward, the last of a group of black and colored females.

"No, sir."

"Cook, then?" the fellow continued to beam.


"Are you trained in the husbandry of herbs? Can you nurse the sick? Dress hair? Plant a garden?"

"No, sir."

"Then what are your accomplishments, girl?"

"I have none." She need not show defiance, only her natural incompetence. No one wanted to buy into such a bad bargain.

And it looked as if she might succeed. None of the mumbling, covertly chuckling crowd would meet the auctioneer’s opening bid. Tory contrived to look dull and downcast to conceal her rising spirits. Surely, if she went unsold, and could not earn the township a profit, they would let her go. Raleigh’s vengeful sport could not weigh against her continued incarceration at the town’s expense. The auctioneer grudgingly lowered his opening bid to no response, and Tory’s thoughts raced excitedly on. Even if she was bound over in Basseterre gaol while they decided what to do with her, it might yet buy her some time. She might yet get word to Mr. Greaves, whose kind face she had looked for but not seen in the crowd, this morning. And it was always in the back of her mind that Jack might learn of her plight, somehow, and effect some plan to free her. She wanted to be where he could find her.

But her plan turned against her. Her bid price fell so low that the only bidder at the auction desperate enough to have her could meet it. She had been brought to this narrow, unprosperous sugar estate in an unforgiving district high on a mountain—she was not at all sure which one. It seemed like hours that the hard wooden cart continued on, after the green, forested foothills below cut off Basseterre and the rest of the coastline from view. She only believed she was still on St. Kitts because she had not crossed any sea.

Well convinced that she had no particular skills, the proprietor of the place, Mr. Birney, had turned Tory over to his domestic staff to make what use of her they could. Unconnected by kinship to anyone else on the household staff, she was forced to take their leavings and put to as many menial tasks as they could crowd into her day. Up at dawn, she swept out all the downstairs rooms in the great house and the veranda, and hauled water up from the stream to scrub the stone front steps. It was not a wealthy estate, so the facade of grandeur was doubly important. She prepared the dining room for breakfast, mopping the sideboard and laying out the plate, silver, service and linens.

When she had filched what breakfast she could from whatever their masters had left, Tory accompanied the head launderess, Pearl, down to the stream for the day’s washing. Whatever remained of her afternoon was given over to the scrubbing and polishing tasks of a maid-of-all-work. Yet, because she had the lightest complexion of all the household slaves, Tory was also required to wait upon Mr. Birney and his nephew when they dined, standing in the corner at their pleasure, to fetch or carry or serve. Dinner at three or four in the afternoon was always an exhausting meal, coming so soon after Tory’s return from her laundering chores. But supper in the evening could last well into the night, if there were guests at table, and made no difference at all in the hour Tory was expected to rise the next morning to begin it all again.

"Have you not enough useless colored wenches about the place, already?" Mr. Lawrence, the attorney, had fumed to Mr. Birney, the first time he saw her at supper. "Why did you not buy another stout Negress for the field?"

"They came too dear," retorted Mr. Birney. "This one came cheap and my second book-keeper thought she would do for hard work, with the household so understaffed."

"The household is understaffed because your second book-keeper has removed his concubine to keep his own house," said Mr. Lawrence. "Lucy, the washerwoman’s daughter, is it not?"

Mr. Birney responded with a sullen look.

"Don’t imagine that I don't know what goes on about the place," the attorney continued. "I caution you not to make so free with my client’s money, in future."

Tory had heard that Mr. Birney was in fact the overseer of the estate, not its owner. But the legal proprietor had been so long in England, attempting to organize his financial affairs, that Mr. Birney had moved himself into the great house, and dignified his position with the name of "manager" under the supervision of Mr. Lawrence, a gentleman of business from Basseterre.

"Could you not have found something more presentable?" Mr. Lawrence grumbled on, casting another dubious glance at Tory. "Why is her jacket in such ill repair?"

"I gave her her allotment of cloth, but the willful thing refuses to make use of it," sniffed Mr. Birney.

The linen cloth, needle and thread still sat untouched in a neglected corner of the cook-house. Even if Tory could claim an hour to herself out of her daily labors, she could no more turn them into a new jacket than she could conjure a Spanish galleon out of thin air. She had only an old, worn jacket of Pearl’s to cover the bodice she’d worn since the day she was abducted in Charlestown, and the new linen petticoat she had been issued.

"And what is wrong with her hair?" demanded Mr. Lawrence. Tory noticed that one of her hasty plaits had slipped its pins and dropped onto her shoulder. "She must cut it short if she cant keep it tucked up under her kerchief. Darky wenches don't wear plaits."

"I am Indian, sir," Tory protested. Before she knew better.

The attorney glared at her as if a piece of the furniture had presumed to speak.

"Oh, aye," chuckled Mr. Birney to his guest. "Half the field hands on the place are Carib princes. The rest are Ibo kings."

There was a guffaw from the other side of the table as Mr. Rathbourne, the manager’s nephew, noisily hoisted the port decanter again. Young, dark, lean and haggard, he had a flushed face and a dissolute mouth. The servants said Mr. Rathbourne had fled to the Indies to avoid prosecution in London, taking advantage of his uncle’s sudden good fortune. He poured himself another drink, leaving a deep red puddle on the tablecloth that would be hell to scrub out tomorrow, and saluted the others.

"Well, at least with her looks and airs, she ain’t likely to run off with a book-keeper now, is she?" And the others laughed, too.

Yet, as much as Tory detested waiting at table, it was seen as a mark of favoritism by the other domestics, who resented her for it. She was as much an outsider here as she had ever been at the Worthen Female Academy, and her only feeble response was to sink deeper into the role expected of her, to assume the character of the dull, docile servant. It was the only way she could protect her true self, buried deep inside, until she could think what to do.

But she had no time or place to think. Domestics had no quarters of their own. They were fed like dogs on the scraps from master’s table, and slept in the hallways at night, deprived of any kind of privacy. The Negro field workers were treated worse than dogs, Tory knew, lashed and driven like beasts, now that the mill and boiler-house had begun their round-the-clock operation. But they at least lived in their own houses, far out of the manager’s sight. They cooked their own meals and had their own kin and friends around them through all their trials. Tory had no one.

"Why you no trouble to fix youself up, girl?" Pearl’s question startled Tory out of her thoughts as they spread out the last of the bedsheets on the bank.

"What for?"

"Fo’ you pride. Young colored girl mus’ tink of her future."

Tory eyed her, suspiciously. But now that Pearl’s daughter Lucy was established in the second book-keeper’s house, Tory supposed the old washerwoman could afford to be charitable toward her.

"You must find a buckra man to care fo’ you," said Pearl.

Tory bent back over the sheet. She'd had quite enough of buckra men. "There aren’t any," she replied. Mr. Birney had installed his favorite mistress upstairs and there was no first book-keeper, now that Mr. Rathbourne had promoted himself into the gentry.

"Young Mas' Rat'bo'ne need a steady girl. Him cat around too much. Me fix it up fo' you. Jus' you recall you Auntie Pearl when Young Mas' be giving you favors."

"But surely Lucy gets you favors, now," Tory reasoned.

"Book-keepers, they come and go," shrugged Pearl. "This one be gone soon enough. But Young Mas', him no get a bettah position on any ot'er place, on account of him uncle. Him can no go home to England. Him be here a lifetime."

If anything could possibly be worse than her present predicament, Tory imagined it would be a lifetime with Young Mas' Ratbone. She had seen sharks with more winning dispositions. Fortunately, he had never taken the slightest interest in her.

Pearl, however, must have taken her silence for approval. An hour after dinner, as Tory knelt on the cook-house floor polishing silver candlesticks from a more prosperous era on the estate, her hands black with tarnished froth, Mr. Rathbourne appeared. He stomped over to her and dropped his filthy, mud-caked riding boots in a wet, odorous heap in the middle of her work.

"Black these, while you’re about it," he commanded.

Tory kept her head down, to make herself invisible. But he stuck his fingers under her chin and lifted her face to study her. Something like exasperation crossed his face, then reconsideration, as his blue eyes narrowed.

"Never had Indian before," he smirked. "Bring 'em up to my room tonight, after supper. Bring 'em up, yourself."

"I’m not allowed upstairs," Tory reminded him.

"You’re allowed wherever I say!" he cried, shaking her chin. "I can have you whipped for refusing me." Tory knew he wasn’t talking about the boots. Damn that meddling washerwoman. "I’ll be waiting," he hissed, letting go of her, and nodding to the boots. "And they’d best be spotless into the bargain."

"As spotless as your reputation. Sir." She knew he would cuff her for that remark, if he had any reason to suspect she had the wit for sarcasm; she could see the impulse kindling in his transparent eyes. But his vanity won out, refusing to admit he could be bested by anyone so far beneath him, and his harsh features eased into a smug grin of agreement as he nodded and sauntered away.

Tory stayed where she was, staring down at her cracked, blackened hands. Her hard work would never be rewarded, here. Her time and labor belonged to the proprietor. Only her wit and her person were still her own. But for how much longer?

How long could she play at dull stupidity before she became dull and stupid in fact? She had no fear of Rathbourne using her; she was not a green girl, after all. She supposed he would be as easy to rouse as the Basseterre gaoler, and about as rewarding. But she could never bear his presumption of sovereignty over her, to which he had every legal right. And she would not be broken to his will. Once he’d had her body, he would have established his right to possess her, and that Tory would not permit.

There was no longer any point in expecting a man to help her—not Mr. Greaves, not her gaoler. Not Jack. She had sustained herself those first few weeks with the dream that Jack might yet rescue her. But how could he find her, here? Even she did not know where she was. How could she even be sure that Marcus had made his way back to the others? He was only a boy. It sickened her to think of all the things that might have befallen him on the road, all alone. Tory didn't know how she would get back to them, with no money or friends. They might not even be on Nevis any more, if March had come, and the season ended at the Bath Hotel. She had no idea where Alphonse might lead them next. But she must try.

Of all the times she had run away in her life, this would be the most dangerous. She would be committing a crime, the theft of her owner’s property, for which there were legal punishments if she were ever caught. If bills were circulated with her description, she would be branded a slave and an outlaw for the rest of her life. She might not ever be able to rejoin Jack; her presence would endanger them all. But none of that mattered. She could not stay here. She had no other choice but to flee for her life. Could she have any less regard for herself than an infant squalling in a box? She might die a fugitive, but at least she would not die a slave.

(Top: Washerwomen, Jamaica, 1820-21. Image Reference HAKE7 as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)

No comments:

Post a Comment