Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Chapter 24: SOMETHING ON ACCOUNT
Mr. Theophilus Jepson, gentleman of business, sat back in his comfortable armchair in the private apartment above his warehouse overlooking the docks of Basseterre. He had offered to pour his visitor a glass of port from the crystal decanter that occupied the small end table between them, but his offer had been graciously declined. As ever, his old friend Belair was one for getting straight to the business at hand.
"I need not tell you how grateful I was to receive your message," said Alphonse. "I had begun to think our cause was lost."
"Never give way to despair," Jepson advised. "Anything may happen. Growing up in these islands ought to have taught you that."
Alphonse had thought himself beyond any more despair until these last few days. Jack grew more haggard and ashen with each false lead that came to naught, each informant who had nothing to barter, each day that Victoria’s trail grew colder. A gaunt and withered desolation was stealing into the the limbs that had been so agile, the face that had been so alert with pleasure when Jack was playing Harlequin. The role Alphonse had duped him into playing, at such cost.
"Even so, if you have any news at all, you must consider me forever in your debt," Alphonse replied.
"Oh, come, my friend, we are beyond such petty score-keeping after all this time," Jepson chuckled. When he smiled above his glass of port, in that open-faced way, round-cheeked and merry-eyed, his curly brown hair cut short above neat side-whiskers, he looked to Alphonse very like the enterprising Bristol merchant who had sired him. Brought up in the family business when his father’s legitimate heirs proved unfit for the labor, Jepson had a nose for profit and an aptitude for delicate negotiations that rivaled that of any full-blooded Englishman in the Indies. "It’s my pleasure to return a favor to a friend. Have we not always fought on the same side in all of our battles together?"
"Against all reason," Alphonse admitted. On the petition endorsing slavery by the free people of color in Basseterre, the signature of Theophilus Jepson had been notably absent. "But I must say I find your morality somewhat aberrant among free gentlemen of your class."
"Slavery is bad for business," Jepson replied crisply. "You and I both know it. A fellow needs to earn something on his own account to take an interest in the work. Raise your laborers to the lash, and you breed a work force of sullen rebels itching for revenge, a damned reckless situation and an unprofitable one. Factor in the expense of keeping 'em all fed and clothed, and tending their sick, and your profits dwindle even further. No, the institution cannot last, and any aid we can give toward its demise shall only improve everyone’s lot in the long run." He took another sip of port and set down his glass. "I employ only free persons who earn a wage. All of them, domestics, clerks, porters, warehousemen, even the sailors on my ships, have an interest in the business, a stake in our mutual success. It is amazing what a vast and loyal network they have become. Very little occurs in Basseterre that escapes their notice. Or cannot be found out."
Alphonse straightened in his armchair. This was what he had come to hear at this late hour, in this private place.
"My people have been making discreet inquiries for days to no avail," Jepson continued. "It seemed that your friend had disappeared from the very sight of Almighty God, himself. But this morning I spoke to one of my boatman. He has a lady friend whose cousin is a slave jobbed out in private service. He often walks abroad at night along the waterfront. This fellow has a story to tell that might interest you."
"It might, if it is true. I have heard a great many stories this week that were not."
"There is nothing to be gained from lying. I have offered no reward. From what my people have gleaned since he came to us, his tale seems very plausible, indeed."
"Is the person I seek alive?" Alphonse asked quietly.
"As far as anyone knows. There is no reason to suspect otherwise."
Alphonse allowed himself to breathe again, grateful not to have to imagine Jack’s face if the answer had been different.
"More than that I cannot reveal at this moment," Jepson interrupted calmly.
Alphonse cast him a sharp glance. He knew his old ally far too well, the canny trader. Too clever by half. "Because there is a price?"
Jepson inclined his head very slightly, as if to duck the implication of Alphonse’s word. "A condition only, and a very slight one."
"What sort of a fellow bargains when a woman’s life is at stake?" Alphonse demanded. "Has he no conscience?"
"He has. That is why he came to me," Jepson replied. "But I have a conscience as well. And so do you, my friend." When Alphonse did not respond, he went on. "It is a wrong and shameful thing that has been done to your friend. But wrong and shameful things are done to people every day in these islands. I can tell you where your friend has gone. But I will need something on account."
There was nothing but still, black night out beyond the shuttered windows. A warm, conspiratorial darkness surrounded them in their two armchairs, lit only by a single lamp upon the little table between them. A dark, secretive place for striking bargains. But the shadows were alive to Alphonse. He could see Victoria’s vibrant, laughing face as she tumbled about in her Columbine patches, then he imagined her broken, bowed, and enslaved. Because of him. He saw Jack’s desolate face of these last few days, without hope, his life in ruins. Because of him.
"What must I do, Theo?"
"It is a small thing only that we ask of you," Jepson assured him. "A pledge. There are persons on the island of Nevis who may be in need of your particular skills and knowledge in the future."
Alphonse knew it was not his skill and knowledge of the juggler’s art to which Jepson referred. And he had heard enough rumors on Nevis to understand the gravity of the situation there.
"Are you not engaged to play at the Bath Hotel next season?" Jepson went on. "Never mind how I know, that is the very point of having informants. You must understand that your position as a trusted employee of the Bath Hotel, coming and going as you please, could be very useful."
In the event of a rising, or some other foolhardy action, Alphonse supposed. He saw again the flames of Whitehall, and shook his head.
"The cause of freedom needs no more martyrs," he said.
"Yet every man and woman has a right to be free," Jepson countered. "You of all people would not dispute that principle. Who are we to judge who may gamble with Fortune and who must bide their time in chains?"
"What is it you ask of me?"
"Only what any friend may ask of another. That if someone comes to you in need of assistance on Nevis, you will place yourself at their service."
Alphonse tried to shut out the shots and the screams and the acrid stench of death from Whitehall. The tentacles of riot and ruin were reaching out to engulf him again. It took all of his will to turn away from Betsy’s innocent, youthful face, and focus instead on Victoria’s face. And Jack’s. His partners and friends. Wounded and despairing, but still alive. So far.
"You have my pledge," he murmured.
"A smugglers' auction?" Jack echoed, dismayed.
"It is not so legal as the public vendue, yet the participants—"
"I know what goes on. But how did Tory fall into their hands?"
"She was delivered there." Alphonse breathed a grim sigh. "By the chief constable, himself."
Jack stared back at him. "Old mole, canst thou work i’ the earth so fast?" he muttered, almost to himself. Then he added, with chilling calm, "I’ll murder that bastard."
"Business before sport," Alphonse advised. "The high bidder was a Dutchman, who left the place with Victoria late that night. But he turned up the next day claiming he’d been waylaid and his... purchase made off with. He was known to be drunk the night before, so no one paid him any mind, supposing that his new slave simply got away from him."
"Might that not be so?" ventured Jack.
Alphonse shook his head. "Our witness saw the Dutchman and the woman leave the tavern. Because he is accustomed to hailing a boat for the Dutchman when he is in his cups, he followed them to the beach. He saw Victoria carried off by the crewmen from another ship, perhaps a rival ship. They sailed that night."
"But...why?" Jack frowned. Stealing hands to serve in ships was as old a practice as sailing itself. His own seafaring career had begun when he was knocked on the head outside a Thameside grog shop and spirited off aboard a merchant craft of such ill repute, she could not obtain a crew by any other means. But it was men who were snatched up in this manner, not women, and there had apparently been no doubt on this night of Tory's gender. Who would steal a woman in the dead of night? A slave trader, like those that still plied the Gold Coast of Africa? A procurer recruiting boat girls for the sailors at English Harbour? "Was this...rival ship some sort of slaver?" he asked Alphonse.
"I do not know. The witness believes it is another smuggling vessel, disguised as a coaster. He is acquainted with many smugglers in this neighborhood, but he knew no one from this ship, although he has seen her before."
"Does he know where she went, this ship?"
"He does not. But Mr. Jepson employs many people in the seaports and waters of this island. The ship we seek was seen sailing into the waters off of Sandy Point Town last evening. It would appear her people still have business on this island."
Jack was not at all surprised. There were dozens of private planters’ docks nestled in the reeds and scrub and hidden inlets of this coast. He and Tory had explored many of them on their first journey around St. Kitts, when he was teaching her the juggling trade. Any ship laden with goods the planters desired, that did not care to pay a call at the Custom House in Basseterre, might be kept busy for weeks along the coast, trading on her own account. It was not impossible to imagine that such a vessel might traffic in slaves.
"What does this ship look like?" he asked.
"A sloop with a single mast. Gaff-rigged and shallow draught, I was told, if that means anything to you."
"Fast, like a cutter," Jack nodded. "A smuggler, all right."
"She sometimes sails into port under Dutch colors, but not always."
Jack frowned. "That describes half the vessels in the Indies. How will I know her?"
"She flies a small pennant with a particular device. A gold circle marked with a cross under a star on a blue field." Alphonse shrugged. "It is some mariner’s symbol, perhaps?"
"It might be a compass rose, a charm for navigation. It doesn’t matter. I’ll find her." Jack got to his feet and plucked his purse out of the small litter of his few belongings on the scarred little table of their hired room, withdrawing two coins. "Have one of your people hire me a post-horse, the fastest in Basseterre," he went on, handing the coins to Alphonse. "I want it here in a quarter of an hour. And see if your friend Jepson can lend me a spyglass."
Alphonse hopped down to the floor, his face furrowed in irritation. "You know I do not ride—"
"Nor do you swim, and you sail only under protest," Jack agreed, pulling his things together. "That is why I must go on alone."
"You have done everything you can, Alphonse. I'm grateful beyond words, but there is nothing more you can do. A good horse will get me to Sandy Point Town in three hours, much faster than a carriage. Even another ship, assuming Jepson had one to spare, would have tides and wind to contend with, getting out of Basseterre road at this hour."
"But suppose the ship you seek has gone?"
"I’ll find her again," Jack declared. "There are smugglers’ coves all over this island and I know where most of 'em are."
"Victoria might not even be aboard—"
"But someone on that ship will know where she went," said Jack, sliding his knife into his waistband with cool, expert precision.
"This is foolishness!" Alphonse insisted. "You will need my help again."
"I need your help now," Jack urged him. "Please, Alphonse. Help me. We are wasting time."
"What am I to do after you are gone?" Alphonse grumbled.
"Go back to Cybele. I will feel much better knowing Marcus and the others are under your protection."
"What shall I tell them?"
"The truth. I’ve gone after Tory. But I must do this thing alone."
"And tell them..." Jack paused, and saw again Marcus’ small, dark, tear-stained face, awash with guilt that he had abandoned Tory and was sending Jack off to his doom. What could he possibly say to the boy? There was nothing more to be said, only work to be done. He turned abruptly back to his things. "Tell them I wish them well," he muttered.
"You may tell them yourself. When you bring Victoria back to us."
(Top: Urban Porters, Rio de Janeiro, 1819-1826. Image Reference vista06, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)