Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Chapter 21: IN MEDUSA'S WEB

Boisterous laughter, fiddling, and singing erupted out of the waterfront tavern, drawing Tory along through the night shadows. She was near enough to see its fanciful wooden sign, swaying and creaking in the light breeze, a crudely carved figure of a mermaid with a head full of snakes, like the tangle of a spider's web. The Old Medusa Tavern, it was called, hard by the broad beach overlooking the bay. Sailors were notoriously loose talkers; if she was ever to find a ship to take her off this wretched island, it would be here.

It was typical of Tory’s recent fortune to find herself in Basseterre again, the last place on earth she ought to be. But the river had brought her to the southern coast, some little distance west of Basseterre, but considerably east of Old Road Town, and she didn’t think her scavenged food or her luck would last long enough for her to make her way to some friendlier town. Besides, Basseterre in crop time was the busiest port in the Leewards, and she knew the dockside area well, knew it was her best chance get back to the sea. How else would she ever find Jack again?

She had tried to close Jack out of her thoughts during her captivity; she would not conjure him up in that place to share her misery. But during the long nights on the run, and tense waiting days of her journey down the mountain, she had been able to think of nothing else. Not only the comfort of his warm, strong body, which she ached for every hour, but the solace of his companionship. And something much more—she hungered to be known, again, to be recognized for who she was. Not the prisoner, not the slave, not the runaway. So many people knew bits and pieces of her, by the patchwork motley she dressed herself in out of necessity in her erratic journey through life. But only Jack understood the whole of her. Only Jack could tether her to the truth about herself.

It was long dark by the time she'd ventured into the town and made her way through the back streets for the waterfront. She could see masts bobbing out in the open roadstead, their lights winking in the dark, but she dared not present herself to any honest captain, looking as she did, a mud-caked runaway in filthy rags with nothing of value to trade for her passage. But she might stow away aboard a vessel in secret; she’d done it before. Getting out of Basseterre was her first concern, she would worry about the rest later.

It was not impossible that she might work for her passage, female or no, once the ship’s master saw what she could do. A trader between the islands would be best, with stops in Nevis and Antigua, where she might hear news of the pantomime players. But any vessel would do, so long as it got her out of Basseterre and back on the open sea, where she could clear her wits and get a grip on herself. Then she could decide where to head next. Wherever Jack had gone.

She knew Chief Constable Raleigh patrolled the town in the daylight, but the nighttime belonged to the watch. What business would Raleigh have down by the docks in the dead of night? So she'd made her way through the shadows to the noisiest tavern, the Medusa, hoping to find out who was sailing where, and on what ships, and how soon. It should not take long to overhear what she needed to know. Anything worth hearing, she would hear there.

Tory turned down into the alleyway behind the buildings, keeping to the shadows. She felt in her dirty apron pocket for her last strip of salt fish. Remembering Alphonse’s advice about kindly kitchen women, she had gone begging last night to an old Negro woman tending a pot of cook-up at a cluster of slave cabins above the river. Tory said she was going to visit her mama in Basseterre without a ticket-of-leave, and the old cook took pity on her and gave her a small, precious ration of salt fish. It had been an easy lie to tell, and effective, for slaves often wandered off to visit their relations without their master's knowledge. Slaves accomplished a great deal, she was learning, without their masters' knowledge.

The abandoned little hut by the broken bush had grown close and sweltering in the heat of the day, but it kept Tory securely hidden until nightfall. On her second night following the river down the mountain, she found another shelter, a tiny lean-to hidden under a carpet of green moss and climbing jasmine. There were many such places hidden along the river route, if one had the wit to look: here an abandoned watchman’s hut inhabited only by spiders and lizards, there a hand-built shelter hidden behind the huge fan of a traveler’s palm, recently swept clean. She couldn't account for it. In the pirate trade, she would have called it Bless├ęd Providence.

She crept through the dark to the back of the tavern, where more modulated, businesslike voices hummed beneath the ongoing riot from the front. Some sort of meeting, she supposed, contrabandistas striking their bargains and getting ready to sail on the tide. She came out of the deepest shadows, crept up on the planked wooden porch to position herself closer to the jalousied windows next to the back door, where hushed voices and stripes of soft light filtered out between the slats. But the words were indistinct. She crept closer.

A sudden heavy tread shook the planks under her feet, and the door was flung open. Tory dodged backward into the dark as a cloaked figure stepped outside, but the shock of light behind him blinded her and she lost her footing. She tripped over a chicken in the dark who set up a fearful squawk, and stumbled backward into a cart in the shadows, with a thump and a rattling of traces. The man halted on the wooden porch, still framed in the light of the doorway.

"Who’s that?" he growled.

Tory wedged herself between the cart and the wall, but that damned chicken was still scrabbling about, clucking and complaining. Perhaps he would think that was all he’d heard. Any casual passer-by would let it go, the night was full of noises. But the man came out into the road, following the sound of the chicken, poking purposefully into the shadows. Some smuggler, no doubt, on the lookout for spies. Damnation. Could she possibly have any worse luck?

"You might as well come out of there," sneered a cold voice, and Tory knew her luck had turned worse. She could not run through walls or evaporate into the air. And as a hand closed on her arm and dragged her out into the pale light from the tavern door, she found herself staring into the scowling face of Chief Constable Raleigh.

"You!" gaped the constable, for an instant as shocked as she was. "What are you doing here?"

"I might ask the same of you," Tory snapped back, but the fight was already draining out of her, following the downward plunge of her heart. How could she have come this far, endured so much, only to have her last tiny scrap of hope so rudely ripped from her grasp? Which of the many gods had she so offended to deserve this punishment? But it scarcely mattered any more. Nothing mattered. Fortune had turned her wheel.

Raleigh had recovered from his surprise and was looking her up and down very keenly.

"Ye little bitch, you’ve run off, haven’t ye?" The most genuine smile Tory had ever seen him wear played across his face. "Why, there are very serious legal punishments for runaways, don’t ye know? It might be a hundred lashes. Or a branding. Or you might forfeit a foot, that would slow you down, eh? It’s all at the discretion of your owner," he leered.

Tory saw Rathbourne’s face in her mind’s eye, twisted with glee if he ever got his hands on her again, especially after he found his boots. Her legal owner, itching for his revenge. But she commanded her face to shut out all expression. She would not react.

"How I shall enjoy that particular entertainment when I take you back—" Then Raleigh paused.

Stephen Raleigh knew that damned Harlequin was still afoot, somewhere. And what of it? he argued with himself. The fellow had no legal means whatever of reclaiming his wench. But it was clear he had not found her, yet, for all his bold talk, judging from the state she was in. What could Raleigh himself do to ensure that he never did? Returning her to her owner was beginning to seem like a poor solution. These two were as slippery as shadows; that mountebank might yet help her to escape again and there would be all Raleigh’s effort wasted.

But suppose he could get rid of her for good and all tonight, even make a profit into the bargain? This harpy had humiliated him, ruined his finances, all but destroyed his career, she owed him that much. And suppose he could also guarantee that nigger-loving mountebank would never, ever see her again? Surely, that would break them both, the victory Raleigh craved above all others. That would cure their damned insolence, the pair of them. It was obscene, a white man making such a public display of his appetite for a colored wench, associating in public with Negroes, lowering himself to their level. And proud of it. The degraded fool didn’t seem to care who knew how deep he was in thrall to this...this...by God, just look at her! Covered in dried mud and tattered rags like something that had crawled out of a bog. What would make a man forfeit his dignity and betray his race to dally with such a filthy thing? He ought to give her back to him as she was, that would cure him of his affection. But a separation now, when the beggar thought he had almost recovered her again, that would teach him a lesson. His kind of behavior could not be tolerated in a decent society. Certainly not in any town run by Stephen Raleigh.

"But then, there are other punishments that might suit you better," he continued on, gazing at her again. "Not every slaveholder has a comfortable estate at his disposal. Some situations are far less...genteel. What would you say to a change of scenery? An ocean voyage, perhaps?"

The girl’s eyes rounded at him, filling with such tangible fear that Raleigh was startled—and delighted. So he had cracked her sullen mask at last, probed deeply enough to find her fatal weakness.

"Please sir, no," she gasped, her voice low and husky with terror. "Not the sea, oh please."

"'Sir,' is it? 'Oh please, sir,'" mocked the chief constable. "I’m afraid it’s a little late to be finding your manners."

Her face was growing wild with terror. The coating of mud made the effect all the more grotesque, a banshee, a gargoyle. Raleigh was hypnotized. Never, ever had he dared to hope for such complete despair.

"Send me back, whip me, chop off my foot, I don’t care!" she begged, in an utter frenzy. "But don’t put me on a ship! For the love of God, not the sea!"

His only answer was another grim smile.

Jack could not believe what the fellow had told him. He’d had a new colored wench, all right, calling herself Hecate; his book-keeper had bought her in Basseterre. But less than a month on the place, and she was gone. A damned runaway into the bargain, and he would have what she cost him out of the book-keeper’s wages, if not his hide.

That was the end of the conversation, and Jack turned away and walked back down the broad stone steps that led from the veranda to the road. He could feel the paper from Mr. Greaves inside his shirt, burning a hole in his heart. Here he had a legal document to claim Tory, or at least allow her to claim herself, and she was gone. She was a slave, a possession, how could she be gone? Why would she take such a dangerous step? Could she not have waited for him?

"You’re sure she’s not still about the place somewhere?" he asked Alphonse when they met again, further down the road, near the cook-house. Back beyond the great house, the mills were grumbling and the sugar works steaming away, turning the heavy air dank and sweet. In a little valley far below the road, there was activity in the slave cabins. It was midday, and the field hands were on their dinner hour, cooking and tending their kitchen gardens; a platoon of them had just marched off to their provision grounds. A middle-aged woman of color and a sullen girl came out of the cook-house carrying laundry baskets, to follow the wooden-sided aqueduct away from the road toward some hidden stream. Try as he might, Jack could not feel the spark of Tory’s presence anywhere in this place, yet everywhere he looked, he struggled to will her into existence. "They might be hiding her from me, if they’re so short of labor," he suggested.

"I spoke to several of the household," said Alphonse, shaking his head. "The last anyone saw of her, she had been summoned to the master’s chambers."

"The master?" echoed Jack, halting in his tracks. "That fellow Birney? If he’s lied to me—" and he spun around and took two angry steps back toward the great house.

"She never arrived," Alphonse interrupted, halting Jack again. "It was the young nephew that wanted her. The cook’s mulatto son is his valet. Tory never came to him. No one has seen her since." He shook his head again. "She’s gone, Jack. Gone these five days."

"But she can’t simply disappear," Jack protested. "Runaways... they rarely get very far, do they?" But he broke off the thought. He knew all about the dogs, the lashes, the brandings that were the fate of captured runaways; he could not seriously be hoping she were caught. But if she were not, how would he ever find her?

"Perhaps you should stay here," he told Alphonse, more briskly, trying to weave a scenario that would enclose Tory without harming her, keep her close until he could find her again. "I’ll return to town and stay near the Court House and the square. If she’s caught or taken into custody, perhaps I can intervene before she’s…" he paused, drew breath, "...hurt or punished. If she comes back here, you—"

"She may not come back," Alphonse interjected, with quiet finality. Jack blinked at him. "She may not be caught. There are... ways to get off this mountain. There are even ways to get off this island."

Jack stared at him. Alphonse returned his gaze, but there was something edgy and uncomfortable behind his black eyes.

"And go where?" Jack's voice was scarcely audible.

"Anywhere," murmured Alphonse, lowering his eyes at last, his expression grim. "She could be anywhere, by now."

Jack frowned. "How do you know this?"

Alphonse's eyes rose to his again. "Because I have helped her to escape."

(Top: The Old Medusa, by Lisa Jensen © 2010.)

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