Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Chapter 19: PALE HECATE

"I shall speak to this fellow," Jack declared.

"If you must, but wait until nightfall," Alphonse advised. "It is not safe for you to be seen in the street. If the chief constable discovers you at large in his town—"

"If I find he’s had a hand in this business, he’ll see more of me than he bargained for," Jack muttered. And how could it be otherwise? There could be no one else who harbored such a grudge against Tory who also had the authority to make her vanish so completely. No sign of her had been seen here at Pugh’s tavern, where he and Alphonse had taken a tiny attic room. The landlady at Mr. Greaves’ lodging house had not seen her about the town, nor had any of the vendors at the public market who had enjoyed their Harlequinade last year.

Alphonse had turned to his friend, Mr. Theophilus Jepson. A free gentleman of color, Mr. Jepson was a trader out of Basseterre whose white father had sent him to be educated in England, to make contacts in Bristol that would further the success of the family importing and exporting enterprise. Mr. Jepson had gone himself to the Court House on a matter of business, and searched the gaol as well, but could find no one answering Tory’s description up on charges or awaiting trial.

Jack was tempted to believe Marcus had got the wrong town, but that the boy knew Basseterre so well. It broke Jack’s heart to think of that stout-hearted lad clawing his way back to Charlestown with nothing but a gold coin and his own determination. And all for naught, now that the trail had gone cold. Until today. A drummer they'd once hired for one of their Sunday performances told Alphonse he knew a fellow who might know something.

"Do not waste your breath on idle threats until we understand what 'this business' is," said Alphonse.

"You’re right. That’s why we must talk to this fellow now."

Jack was on his feet, again, but Alphonse motioned him back down. "Wait here," he sighed. "Downstairs, in an hour. Not before. I will fetch him here."

Alphonse bent over to roll his trouser cuffs up above his bare feet. He had replaced his tailored jacket and waistcoat with a tattered old shirt Cully had outgrown with the sleeves hacked short. With his wide straw hat pulled low on his head, he looked enough like a Negro boy to be ignored in a crowd. Or so they hoped.

In an hour, Jack stood in the shadows just beyond the back stairs at Pugh’s, in the alley that separated the tavern from the mercantile shop next door. A Negro youth of about twenty stood before him. He had set down his iron cook-pot, empty now, but for a few sticky yellow clumps of the corn pudding the islanders called fungee, and the half-gourd he used to ladle it out. He must have had a successful morning huckstering at the Tuesday market.

"Me auntie, her cook fo’ the gaol house," the lad explained to Jack. "T’ree days and nights, they bid her make up a special plate and one gaoler, him boast it be fo’ a special prisoner only him may see. A woman, him say. On the fourt’ day, him tell me auntie no more special plate."

Jack frowned at Alphonse.

"There was a public slave auction held on that morning," said Alphonse. "I have found the bill."

He unfolded a battered paper, yellowing and torn in the corners from its posting, and handed it to Jack. It was a public notice of slaves to be sold and let at auction, with a date over three weeks old, already. Jack scanned down the list of female names: Sarah, 14, House Servant; Sheba, Washerwoman; Queenie, used to the Nursery; Nancy, Servant and Nurse.

"But this tells us nothing," he said to Alphonse.

"There be anoder woman in the yard," the youth went on. "Her put up too late fo’ the bill. That gaoler, him boast too much, me tink he tell a tale. So me go see fo’ meself."

"You saw her?"

"Me see somebody," the youth shrugged. "Her be no much to look at, fo’ true. Tall, light-colored gal. Hair in a state o’ confusion."

"In what way?"

"Long. All the time fall out of her pins. Me auntie say long hair be too much provoking."

"Did she speak differently than the others?" Jack pressed on. "Not island? Not British?"

"Her nevah say noting but ‘no,’ but when they ask her name."

"What name did she give?" Jack was clutching the paper so tight, he was near ripping it in two.

"Why, her give a comical name, Massa," the fellow grinned. "Hecaty, or someting such. Auctioneer, him say it two times, it be so comical."

"Hecate?" Jack echoed, his voice faint. Pale Hecate, queen of the witches in Macbeth. "You’re sure? It didn’t just sound like Hecate?"

Alphonse glanced up at him. "Nothing else sounds like Hecate."

"Someting such," the huckster repeated, blandly. "Me nevah hear such a name before."

"Do you recall what happened to her?" Jack was fighting to keep the tremor out of his voice.

"Her sold up t’oder side of the mountain, St. Peter’s parish, Mas’ Birney’s place. Poor, shabby place, evahbody say. Him book-keeper buy her. Me sell fungee to him driver."

"We must go at once," Alphonse fumed, half an hour later, upstairs in their room.

"Aye, but what are we to say?" Jack countered. "I’m terribly sorry, sir, but your new slave was sold you by mistake. Hand her over like a sport, won’t you? There’s a good fellow."

"Offer him the purchase price and something extra for his trouble," Alphonse replied, with forced patience. "Never have I met a white man so reluctant to use the power of his race. It is not a wealthy place. They will take your offer."

"I cannot buy her," Jack protested. "I can’t compromise her freedom like that."

Alphonse stared at him. "You do not believe her freedom is at all compromised in being enslaved?"

"You don’t understand, Alphonse. All she has ever wanted is her freedom."

"I understand," Alphonse said quietly. "Those of us born into slavery are not any better suited to it."

"No, no, you know I didn't mean..." Jack's voice trailed off, but he tried again. "For Tory...this is her worst nightmare. When I think of her alone, possibly in chains, possibly beaten, possibly...Christ, I’ll do anything to get her out, you know that. But she will not appreciate being owned by me, don’t you see? It would always be between us, always. She would come to hate me for it."

"Then sell her back to herself." Alphonse was still exasperated, but his voice had softened. "Can you not make some arrangement later, when the danger is passed?"

"I would never hear the end of it."

"Then for the love of Almighty God, go in secret and spirit her away!"

"Steal another man’s lawful property? Hellfire, Alphonse, you’re a revolutionary after all."

"These are desperate circumstances. And I know many people on this island who will aid us."

"But that would make her a runaway in fact. With a price on her head," Jack shook his head. "The next time some overzealous constable takes it into his head to ask for her papers, it will be perfectly legal—"

He paused, staring hard at nothing. Slowly, something began to kindle in his expression. Alphonse narrowed his eyes.

"What?" he demanded.

Jack glanced at Alphonse, his dark eyes suspiciously alert.

"Whatever you are thinking, I don't like it," grumbled Alphonse.

It was close to midnight when Tory slipped away. The gentlemen had retired upstairs and the last of the supper things were being cleared away to the cook-house for the kitchen girl to wash. While the cook and the houseman were gossiping in the corner, Tory stopped at the table to nibble her share of the scraps off the plates. She folded the last of Cook’s little spice cakes, a quarter of a round of flat cassava bread, and a handful of sweet pickled peppers into a napkin she had removed while helping Pearl bundle up the table linens. She was tempted by the last of the cold pork, but meat spoiled too quickly in the islands, even overnight. This would have to be preserved in brine and boiled in a stew. It would be no use to her where she was going.

It would not be difficult to get away. She was not in chains, after all, and there were scarcely enough slaves in the household to do all the work, let alone patrol the grounds. She stuffed her napkin of food into her apron pocket and picked up Rathbourne’s grime-encrusted boots. If the others took any notice of her at all, they would think she was off blacking them, or else keeping her appointment upstairs. Nothing happened in the household that the domestic staff did not know about.

As an afterthought, she picked up the tin slops bucket, turning her face away from the bitter stench of ashes from the cookfire mixed with the contents of the household chamber pots. She carried it outside, away from the lights of the cook-house, and down some little distance to the waist-high dung heap near the kitchen garden. She had no trouble finding it in the dark; the warm, acrid, festering stench of rotting refuse, animal droppings, old cane trash, and mould and mud from the stream nearly choked her. There were many such piles around the place, on every place, the entire island in ferment, all ripening up until they were ready to be carried in leaky baskets on the heads of field hands to fertilize the newer cane-pieces.

Tory poured the contents of her bucket onto the heap. Then, grasping the bucket by the rim with both hands, she hollowed out a little depression in the crest of the heap, picked up the riding boots and plunged them deep into the squishy, yielding muck. That’s what I think of your orders, Mr. Ratbone.

She put the bucket on the ground, carefully settling the handle so it wouldn’t clank against the side, and continued walking down the slope. There were lights on in the mill and the boiling house below and behind her, where the night shift of slaves were crushing and boiling down the newly cut cane. But the still house was dark as she passed above it; rum-making would not begin until more of the sugar was cured. A few tiny lights twinkled in the slave cabins, clustered far below the still house down in the valley, but no one would be out here to interfere with her at this hour. Keeping to the shoulder of the hill, Tory followed the wooden-sided aqueduct that snaked away from the buildings and down into the welcoming dark.

It was her first time off the estate. She had no handiwork to sell, and had not been able to coax so much as a single green shoot out of her narrow allotment of provision ground, so she'd not been able to obtain a ticket-of-leave to attend the Sunday market in town. She was not even certain which town it was that the slaves paraded off to with such anticipation before dawn of a Sunday. But she knew her way to the stream, and water running down the mountain would lead her eventually to the sea.

A nearly quarter moon had risen much earlier and disappeared behind a high ridge of trees, but Tory didn't mind the dark as she made her way down to the stream and followed the soft burbling of its course. She could see why the slaves relished their Sunday escapes. It was not the expectation of riches, for few but the most industrious of them ever returned with more than a few coins, or rations of the precious salt fish that could be put away and eaten in the hungry times. No, it was the escape from master’s watchful eye that was so exhilarating.

Then the sound of the stream faded to silence. Tory tried to make her way down to the bank to follow it, but the slope had become too steep and it was too dark to see what lay below. It might be a cliff, or treacherous rocks.

The night suddenly seemed darker and less friendly. Tory turned reluctantly away from where the stream had been, and footed her way through the brushy dark until she felt some kind of trail that seemed to head in the same direction. It was very quiet now, without the comforting sound of the water, but for the hissing and clacking of the night insects, and stranger, wild-sounding noises from the forested mountain above her. Passing through more cultivated land, she dodged ripe cane stalks higher than her head, and stumbled across muddy fallow pieces. Twice, she ran into boundary fences that tore at her skin and clothing; she had to wrap her headscarf round her hand and drag open a passage to climb through.

The squat, dark shapes of outbuildings loomed ahead. She kept to the underbrush and moved as stealthily as she could. But one of them must have been a kennel; unseen dogs set to howling as she passed, lunging at their restraints. If they roused their master, if they were loosed to hunt her down, she would be torn to bits. She began to run blindly in the dark, frightened now, but no less determined. Hearing a cackle of chickens, she perceived a pinpoint of light ahead; a house or cook-house, near a coop. Still keeping to the scrub at the periphery of the cleared land, she crept closer, away from the sound of baying hounds, toward the light, hoping to draw near enough to get a better view of the landscape and still keep herself out of sight.

"Who’s there?" an angry male voice cried suddenly, just in front of her. There was a rattle of tin, the deadlights flipped open on a hand-held lantern, and she fell to the ground before the beam of light could find her. In the same instant, something snagged her by the waist, and rolled her down a short slope, into a little gully in the bush. She did not have to be told to keep still. The beam of light slowly probed the darkness overhead, fanning first one way, then back again. Tory did not breathe for an eternity, until the light began to recede and the grumbling male voice moved off.

Slowly she drew breath again. And over the drumming of her own heartbeat, she heard someone else breathing hard beside her, felt the heat of another body very near. She put out a hand to prop herself up and get her bearings—and felt feathers. The flesh beneath was warm, but unmoving. She jerked her hand away.

"Fowl no talky, Missy. Him be Quashie supper. Noting fo’ to fear now."

The masculine voice was soft, lilting, persuasive. Hands gently prodded her elbow and nudged her up into a crouch, urging her to feel her way along the slope of the shallow gully.

"No harm, Missy, no harm," her benefactor murmured. "Follow the gully. Quashie perteck you. Quashie know the way. Nevah ketchy Quashie."

The gully began to broaden and slope further downward. Somewhere below, Tory thought she heard the soft, clear, happy laughter of water.

"Is that the stream?" she whispered. "Where are we going?"

"Hist! Quashie know, but him nevah say."

Down they went, following the gully until they came out in a little clearing on the bank overlooking the water. A stream no more, but a river. This was her way off the mountain.

A deep cleft in the ridge of mountains above the river cradled the last of the quarter moon. Its sudden light seemed as bright as a bonfire, and Tory turned to face her new companion. He was a wiry young Negro, holding a dead chicken by its limp neck. He was a little taller than she, and completely naked; his slender, compact body, black as the night, glistened with more than sweat in the pale moonlight. He shone like liquid.

"Goose grease," he laughed at her astonished expression, rubbing at his own shiny forearm. "Nevah ketchy Quashie. Him always slip away."

"You do this often?"

"When Quashie must eat," he shrugged.

Tory glanced doubtfully around the shadowy bush. "Do you live out here?"

"Quashie live evahplace. Jonkanoo, him live evahplace."

Her eyes darted back to her companion. Was the fellow mad?

"Got to pickle this fowl. But Quashie roast him joint if you be hungry." He held the chicken up by its neck, suddenly sounding very rational. But Tory was not hungry for food.

"I’ve got to get off this mountain," she told him.

He nodded vigorously and pointed toward the river. "Follow water, water find the sea. Quashie hear the drums. Quashie know the way."

He crouched down and dipped his free hand in the dark, sticky mud of the bank, then bounced up again, his quick fingers streaking mud across Tory’s cheek before she could jump back.

"Covah up in mud," he told her, waving his muddy fingers at her. "Too much greasy to ketchy, like Quashie. Dark as night."

He was sounding more sane every minute. Tory dropped to her knees on the damp ground and began to smear dark mud on her arms and face. She shrugged out of Pearl’s old jacket, rolled it in the mud and eased the cold, slimy thing back on. She smeared dark mud all over her linen petticoat and apron.

"Her go in the dark, like a shadow," the fellow chanted softly, as she worked. "Hide in the day. Jonkanoo perteck you."

"Hide where?"

"Follow the river. The drums say so."

Tory cast him another sharp glance as she straightened up. "I don’t understand the drums."

The fellow clicked his tongue and shook his head. "No mattah, no mattah. Quashie, him know the way. Follow the river to the broken bush. Her must looky hard to find it."

"Find what?"

"The safe house."

The moon had already slipped below the crevice in the ridge, but Tory’s eyes had adjusted to the dark by now, and she meant to be well away from here by dawn. She fished out one, then two of the little spice cakes, and gave them to her benefactor, whose dark face lit up like a sun.

"Quashie, him feast tonight, fo’ true!" And then he was gone.

It had been a long day and night already, but Tory knew she must get off this mountain and find some port town. She must get home to Jack. Mindful of the dogs, she kept to the edge of the water, wading onto the cold gravel under the surface whenever she could, to hide her scent. She passed a little watchman’s hut on a rise overlooking the river that appeared to be unoccupied; further down, she crept past another hut above the opposite bank with a light inside. Grey dawn was glowing behind a high, forested ridge on the other side of the river when she came to a little clearing. It was not a natural clearing; the brush had been hacked away with the clean, slanted strokes, probably from the kind of cutlass the slaves used to cut cane. One single shrub remained in the small, cleared half-circle, a green, little bush whose upper third was nearly severed from its thin trunk. Its little crown of dead, browning leaves hung forlornly on one side, resting on the branches below. A broken bush.

Tory peered into the scrub beyond. Behind two tree trunks and overgrown with bramble and trailing vines, she thought she spied a wooden wall. Making her way past the clearing, through the scrub and around the trees, she found a wall with a door. Bramble covered part of it, but when she tried it, it opened inward.

With the sky beginning to lighten behind her, Tory pushed inside, into a very small, dark hut with a damp, mouldy smell. The roof sheared downward on one side, under its dense crown of thatch, but the walls were solid. A wooden latch was fastened inside the door frame to shut out intruders. There were no windows, only a slit between two of the boards in the wall facing the river, and another lookout cranny in the opposite wall, facing what Tory supposed was the nearest cane country. The most likely directions for pursuit. Between the trees and the thatch and the bramble, the little hut was scarcely visible from outside. A safe house.

Rolled up in a corner, she found primitive bedding. The canvas pallet stuffed with what felt like dried plantain leaves was as damp as everything else, but the coarse blanket rolled up inside was dry enough. She spread them out in a corner, plopped down, and wrapped the blanket around her against the pre-dawn chill. She thought about nibbling some more of her food, but she was sinking too fast into the irresistible whirlpool of sleep. The very last thought that sparked in her mind was of a far-off day in Old Road Town, when she'd overheard Alphonse speaking to a black stranger. A safe house, he had said.

(Top: Sale of a Slave, Surinam, 1839. Image Reference H016, as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)

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