Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Chapter 23: WHARF RATS AND SEAFARERS
Tory stood on a table in the back room of the Old Medusa Tavern. She had gladly scrubbed her face and arms, and sour water from the horse trough outside had been splashed over the rest of her, to dissolve some of the grime. Sodden patches of her frayed clothing stuck to her breasts and belly and thighs like a coarse second skin, and her unbound hair hung in long, damp, muddy clumps. She stood framed in an eerie halo of light from the lanterns set around the edge of the table and an old iron candelabra set up on the little bar behind her.
From this tiny stage she looked out on a roomful of men, drunkards, wharf rats and seafarers of every description. She couldn't see any of them very clearly, in the shadows, beyond the circle of light, but she heard them well enough, laughing and hooting and calling out lewd blandishments, hailing the Negro servers for more rum. There were many markets for slaves that were not as nice as the public auction, that’s what Raleigh had told her.
"Smugglers are always in the market for fresh slaves, since theirs are so likely to be killed or maimed in a chase with the revenue cutters, or some other hazard of the trade," the chief constable had explained merrily. "That’s the place for me to make a quick profit on my own account with you, since you were so ungrateful for your first situation."
For an officer of the law, he had been welcomed into this den of thieves with remarkable ease. They all knew him.
"I have an item to dispose of quickly tonight," he'd hailed the proprietor. "Can you arrange it?"
And here she stood, on display in a dim, smoky room full of what it pleased Alphonse to call the vermin of the sea. The sort of men she knew very well, indeed. One of them would be her passport out of this place. She would be off-island by morning. This was the last humiliation she would have to endure.
"Gentlemen, I give you prime, healthy woman-flesh!" crowed the publican, who was acting as auctioneer. "Maid of all work, I’m told. Used to all sorts of service," he added, with a leer. "And strong as a horse, as ye can see."
Tory felt a sharp poke on her bare leg, and looked down to see a servant prodding her with a stick. She resisted the impulse to kick it out of his hand and wrap it around his throat; he was only doing as he was bid, after all. Besides, this was no time to play the pirate wench, nor yet sullen Hecate. This play called for another character. She scooped up handfuls of her wet skirt, raising the tattered hem above her calves, and turned slowly around on the table, in a parody of female delicacy. The hooting intensified, and she swallowed a smile. Let 'em laugh, let 'em do as they pleased with her, so long as she secured a berth on a ship.
She made another half turn and saw the chief constable leaning on the bar in the shadowy back corner, watching her with his cold, enigmatic smile. Upon the instant, she altered her features into a mask of frightened desperation for his benefit. Couldn’t let the bastard know he was playing into her hands. Not yet.
Turning away from him again, toward the front of the room, as the auctioneer droned on, she peered into the crowd. There, that was the one she was looking for. He was a plain, stolid, middle-aged fellow, with a windburned face under a ruff of faded fair hair that stood upright, as if he were perpetually standing in a gale. He sat in the front row of tables, watching her, as he nursed his tankard of grog. A dull, workaday fellow, settled, not sly. Fond of his drink. No foolish companions to lure him away from his business. Easier to manage than most.
She shook forward her hair to conceal her face from Raleigh, and looked the fellow square in the eye. She smiled, and saw the dawning of interest in his dull expression. She batted a saucy wink at him, worthy of Columbine, and he half-smiled back and sat up, then glanced sheepishly to either side of him. She grinned at him and tossed her head, and half-turned away, again. Then she flung another smile over her shoulder at him. And he sang out a bid.
It was like working a puppet. She had only to encourage him with a secret, promising smile or a pregnant look, or even a strategic lowering of her eyes, and he would bid again. Tory had never in her life played such tricks to attract a man; Jack was far too sensible, he would only have laughed at her. Was this what it meant to be female in the civilized world? There was a sort of power in it, she supposed, if there was any value in wielding power over fools. But she also had to remember to pull down her ashen mask of terror whenever she briefly faced Raleigh, for she'd learned that only her fear would satisfy him. And that too was a kind of play.
Other bidders chimed in halfheartedly, for the sake of sport. But her dull fellow had the stubborn look of someone who did not begin a thing he did not intend to complete, and he carried the day. The bidding ended with the smack of the tavern-keeper’s stick upon the bar. The payment was collected, and Tory watched as her fate was sealed in a handful of gold Spanish coins. Men swarmed toward the table, reaching up to her, but instead of escorting her down, two burly fellows lifted her off her feet, carried her away from the table, and dumped her into the lap of her new cavalier. He grinned like a boy, his light blue eyes shining over the bargain he had made.
"Yer my wench, now," he chortled.
Tory laced her arms lightly round his fleshy neck, and smiled. Only get me onto your ship, Uncle, she thought, and then we’ll see.
Fortunately, he had now lost his former dull complacency, and was all afire to return to his ship with his new prize. He pinched her backside through her damp skirt, and set her on her feet, then rose up clumsily beside her. He paused to drain the last of his grog, and reached for his battered canvas bag, stowed under the little table, which he thrust into Tory’s arms.
"Come along, there, wench," he commanded her, full of himself. "Time we were off."
Tory dutifully shouldered his bag, oblivious to the shouting and laughing and catcalls of the rest of the patrons. All of her attention was concentrated upon the broad back of her savior, and the door to freedom opening up now before him. He stepped over the threshold into the cool night and Tory followed, a half-step behind. The last thing she saw inside the tavern, as she darted one final glance back over her shoulder, was Chief Constable Raleigh counting up his handful of coins.
Her fair-haired fellow was none too steady on his feet, as they marched through the dark alleyway for the waterfront, but Tory had no desire to get away from him. She meant to get herself on that ship. Then a voice floated up out of the darkness.
"Evenin’, Cap’n Van Brugge."
"Ah, hallo, Hannibal."
Tory could see him, now, a young fellow, black or mulatto, loitering in the shadows across from the tavern. He didn’t seem to mean any harm, and her protector knew him.
"Me see you to you ship, Cap’n?" offered the younger man. "Me call fo’ the boatman, if you like."
"Not necessary tonight, Hannibal," said Tory’s companion, mustering whatever gallantry he could. "I am escorting a lady."
The dark eyes in the dark face flicked over Tory for an instant, and glinted with amusement. But all he said was,
"Then good evenin’ to you, sah."
The chief constable had arranged it far better than she ever could, Tory thought, gleefully, sending her off to sea with a captain who would pay for the privilege. A smuggler to be sure, but a canny, well-fed one, and a Dutchman at that, who knew how to turn a profit with a minimum of undue risk. No doubt, he knew a thousand secret ports in these islands, far away from the custom-houses and constables, and in one of them, Tory would take her leave of him.
In the meantime, she had little to fear from him. He would be in no condition to trifle with her tonight, from the way he was weaving through the streets. But he knew his way around the neighborhood, nonetheless, and she followed him down a side-street and around the corner of a warehouse. And she froze for a moment, awestruck, heart pounding like a thousand Jonkanoo drums: all of Basseterre Road stretched out before her just across the wide beach, a hundred gently rocking masts winking at her in the dark. Her freedom was so close.
It took Tory another moment to realize her Captain Van Brugge was now several steps ahead of her, lumbering toward the sand. And then, just beyond the far corner of the warehouse, his silhouette disappeared.
Tory blinked after him. Was he merely swallowed up in the darkness? She stared into the shadows; she was on the move again, alarm percolating through her. Had he turned a corner? Stumbled and fallen? They were so close to the sea! She plunged out into the sand, and something engulfed her from behind, powerful arms and a tall, heavy body. Not Van Brugge. Her arms were trapped, but she squirmed and kicked, flailing her hair. A deep, angry voice cursed her in Spanish, and then she heard no more.
(Top: Flamenco Dance, by Gustve Dóre. Hand-colored by Lisa Jensen.)