Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Chapter 26: FORTUNE'S WHEEL
"I might have known with Mistress Lightfoot aboard, ye’d not be far behind," chuckled Ed Hart, as he handed Jack a jug of his best rum. "It gladdens me to know when my people swear an oath to each other, they see it through."
Jack sucked down a liberal portion of the rum, which made the friendly acquaintance of the brandy he’d had, earlier, steadying his nerves somewhat. Hart had invited him and Tory into his stern cabin to have a word in private.
"'Twas Nada recognized her in that Basseterre hellhole," the captain went on, nodding to his mate who crouched in the open doorway, where he could keep one eye on the companion ladder out in the passage. "I’d have thought all females were one to Nada, but it only shows how well ye may think ye know someone and still be surprised by 'em." Hart grinned fondly across at Nada. "He felt it reflected poorly on the dignity of the Providence for one of her crew to be sold into slavery."
Nada grunted off this evidence of his concern, and glared up the hatchway.
"I never even saw him in the place," Tory continued the tale, eagerly. "I was blinded by the lights around me, and he must have hung back in the shadows. Afterwards, I was so intent on getting away with Van Brugge and onto his ship, my guard was completely down. I never saw what was coming."
"Fought like a hellcat, she did," Hart chuckled. "Clouted poor Nada in the belly and damn near unmanned him before he had a chance to reason with her. He had to knock her on the head to get her aboard quietly."
Nada muttered something belligerent in Spanish about the female sex.
"Then, you were not forced to go with the Dutchman, this Van Brugge?" Jack asked Tory.
"He had a ship," she explained. "I had to get out of Basseterre."
"She was in a rare temper when she woke up," the captain continued. "Mad as a wet hen."
"Until I saw where I was, and with who," Tory smiled. "It was like a miracle."
"It’s Blesséd Providence," Hart agreed, taking another swig of rum.
"But how do you even happen to be in the Leewards?" Jack asked the captain. "We thought you were off to the Republic of Colombia."
"Oh aye, so we were. But Bolivar had alrady waged his last campaign at some Godforsaken outpost in Peru, on the far side of the continent, before we ever joined the fray. We sailed up the coast to Mexico for a time, to join the Mexican fleet blockading the Spanish garrison at San Juan de Ulua. But that’s not what any man would call action, certainly no fit duty for the Providence. It’s police work, and none of the men had any heart for it. We later heard that Bolivar’s ships had taken some rich prizes out of Havana, Spanish supply ships bound for San Juan de Ulua, and some of the men wanted to slip off home to Cuba and collect our share of the spoils. But the hell of it is, Cuba has become a way station for Spanish troops and warships trying to regain a toehold in Mexico, not only Havana but Santiago de Cuba. We can’t go home to Cabo Cruz with half the Spanish fleet stationed in our back yard."
He gave a bitter shake of his head and passed the jug to Tory.
"By the time we caught up with the Colombian fleet, it was stranded off Cartegena without enough seasoned hands to work their ships nor so much as a reale left in the Colombian treasury to pay 'em. So ended a damned unprofitable year, and an unlucky one. The fleet, as she pleases to call herself, is still off Cartegena for all I know, but we peeled off to cruise the coast to Caracas on our own account. But we didn’t like to disturb the commercial shipping bringing supplies to Bolivar’s republic—that’s what politics does to ye, warps your perspective."
"But what happened to the Providence?" Jack asked.
"Ah, what didn’t happen to her? As if the general wear and tear on that thankless cruise to Mexico and back wasn’t enough, she was pummeled in a gale in those rocky isletas off of Caracas."
"Dismasted, for one thing. Her sternpost rattled, missing stays. Oh, we jury-rigged her, got her fit for the sea again, but she’s not what she was. But then our fortune changed." Hart’s black eyes lit up with cunning. "Fast as she is, we took this sweet prize out of Curacao; a smuggler all loaded up for market into the bargain. Ye must never, ever underestimate the value of surprise, especially when your enemy is a complacent fool."
"Maldito holandes," muttered Nada.
"Aye, another Dutchman, he was," agreed Hart. "Funny, ye rarely see ‘em in the pirate trade hereabouts, but every other merchant or smuggler you meet is one of ‘em. This fellow was a damned poor specimen of the breed, no sense of adventure, and a poor sailor. Had commercial interests all though the Indies, but none of his crew liked him much. When I asked who wanted to come aboard the Providence, damn if every man jack of ‘em didn’t volunteer! The lay of it was, we needed a faster ship until we could get the Providence in trim again, and this sloop needed a new captain. So we put the Dutchman and his steward into a boat, and entered into this venture with his crew. Half of ‘em went into the Providence with our men to sail into a safe anchorage while the rest of us complete this smuggling cruise up the Antilles. We’ve taken a few prizes along the way; amazing how much more attractive the trading ships of Europe become when they’re carrying supplies to their own fat colonies. We’ve increased our profit into the bargain, and everyone seems satisfied with the arrangement."
Jack took another turn at the jug and wiped his mouth, surprised to feel a short stubble of beard against his fingertips. "But where is the Providence now?"
"Saba. A little Dutch outpost above the Leewards. She’s not a sugar island, so no one pays any mind to what goes on there. Her people are smallholders, mostly, and Dutch merchants. And the occasional contrabandista or picaron in need of a friendly port."
"And you’re sure you can trust ‘em with the Providence? These fellows from the sloop?"
"I left Cuervo in command," Hart shrugged. "He'll keep 'em in good order. Salvador Gris and Rudy and Diego and a few others are on board to see to her handling; with a bit of babying, she ought to do fine. I’ve kept Mr. Bustamante and his best gunners here on the sloop; she’s only got four six-pounders, but that’s all ye need with such a fleet sailer, if ye know what you’re about. The rest of this crew are Dutchmen, and a few Brits, late of the French wars. As it happens, the second mate is a Hanoverian name of Dykstra. One of Bolivar’s German mercenaries. Shipped out of Caracas a few times under my command, and we struck up an acquaintance."
Jack grinned. "Is there anybody in the Indies you didn’t ship out of Caracas with, sometime or other?"
"Not many," the captain laughed. "All the flotsam and jetsam of Europe has floated down to the Indies these last twenty years, and I've sailed with most of 'em. This Dykstra’s a good lad. Reads books, if ye can imagine, navigates like a fish, and solid as a gold Spanish ingot. Took to the smuggling trade after Bolivar carried his revolution inland. Fellow of his mettle deserves his own command. I’m giving him the sloop after we split the profits, and I get the Providence back in trim. But they all know if anything goes awry, I’m keeping her." He sent a satisfied grin round the cabin that encompassed the entire ship. "Trim little strumpet, isn’t she? Fleet as the wind. Christened her Fortune when we took her, Rudy ran up the ensign himself."
"A gold compass rose on a blue ground," Jack nodded. "That’s how I knew her."
"Some of the lads call it a ship’s wheel under the Pole star," said Hart. "Myself, I see a gold doubloon marked with its cross."
Jack nodded, again; every doubloon was stamped with a cross for cutting it up into quarter bits.
"The coin of Fortune under the stars," mused the captain.
"Or Fortune’s wheel," Tory smiled at Jack.
"But I confess, I’ll not be sorry to leave the smuggling trade," Hart went on. "Ledgers, bookwork, timetables; it’s a job for an accountant. Dykstra takes to it like a cat in cream, the man’s got a ledger-book for a brain! But once we get the Providence back to rights...Hellfire, it’s like old times already having ye both back aboard! However did ye find us, Jack?"
"I came after Tory. I’ve been trailing you for weeks," he told her. "Ever since Marcus got back to Charlestown to tell us—"
"Did he?" Tory cried. "All by himself? Oh, thank all the gods, I’ve been so worried! Was he all right?"
"Shaken and scared, but he’s a plucky little fellow." Jack could not smother a grin of pride.
"He would sooner die than disappoint you," Tory nodded. "I should have known nothing would stop him."
"Alphonse and I—" Jack began again.
"Alphonse came with you?"
"He wouldn’t let me go to Basseterre alone. We tracked you all over the damn island, even up to the Birney place and back, but you were always one step ahead of us. Fortunately, Alphonse—" Jack paused; this was probably not the moment to tell her all he knew about Alphonse, "—has powerful friends. Someone saw you carried aboard this sloop. When we learned she was still cruising St. Kitts, I sent him back to the others."
"But how did ye follow us?" Hart wanted to know. "Not by sea; we’d know if we were being pursued."
"From the coast. On horseback. On foot. We explored this part of the coast once before, remember, Rusty? I could only guess what your destination would be tonight."
"But the gamble paid off," Hart nodded approvingly.
"Aye, but that I nearly got my bowels blown away into the bargain," Jack replied. "When have you ever wielded a pistol?" he demanded of Tory.
"Since I joined a smuggling crew," Tory declared. "The watch is always armed. Can’t afford to surrender our cargo to any common brigand that boards us. You’re lucky I recognized you in time."
"You’re lucky you turned around at all, or you’d be nursing another headache now."
"I knew exactly when to turn around; I timed it to the instant."
"You never heard me board!" cried Jack.
"Up the port bow to the windlass to the mainmast," Tory countered. "Why do you think I kept my back to you all that time?"
"Because you had no idea I was there!"
"B’God, it’s good to have the both of you aboard again!" Hart’s bark of laughter interrupted them. "These contrabandistas are a clever lot but they haven't much in the way of conversation."
Jack darted a sheepish glance at Tory. How well she looked in her borrowed male outfit, completely at her ease. Coloring just a little from their exchange, fit and sun-browned, with a new dusting of soft, rusty freckles just below her throat in the V of her unbuttoned shirt collar. He’d been expecting to rescue her from abject misery and degradation, but she had rarely looked happier. He had never wanted her so much, nor felt so awkward about it. He couldn’t think how to put into words everything he had gone through to get here; he could only quarrel with her like an obstinate child to conceal his confusion.
"Ah, there’s our boat coming back," Hart announced, as Nada moved out to the hatchway and nodded to him. A deep, cheerful booming carried over the water above the muted slap of oars just outside the sloop. "That’ll be Dykstra gloating over the bargain he’s made. Make yourself a berth wherever ye please, Jack. Mistress Lightfoot will show you the lay of things." And he disappeared up the hatch after Nada.
Jack glanced again at Tory. All this time, he would have moved heaven and earth just to see her again, and now he was as tongue-tied as a boy.
"I can string up a hammock in any corner," he told her. "I’ll never know the difference."
Tory nodded, smiled at him a little, hesitated.
"You never heard me board," he added, and her smile bloomed.
"Of course I did. Who do you think taught me?" She put out a hand to touch his unshaven cheek. "I am so glad to see you again, hombre. I’ve missed you so much."
Jack reached for her hand and pressed it to his mouth, then held it in his lap in both of his. "Are you sure you’re all right? We heard so many—I didn’t know what to expect."
"I’m fine. Now. Now that you’re here."
Jack smiled, gently squeezed her hand. She leaned toward him and lightly kissed his cheek.
"Get some sleep," she whispered. "We’ll talk later."
Tory was glad to see that a watch below, lulled in a seaman’s hammock, seemed to fix Jack right up. When she saw him again in the morning, he was frisking about like a boy, as eager as she had been to find himself at sea again. When the captain invited him to go aloft, Jack flew up into the shrouds, and scrabbled through the Fortune’s rigging, getting the feel of her.
After breakfast, Jack renewed his acquaintance with Bustamante, the Cuban gunner, falling easily into the Spanish they had spoken for years aboard the Providence, and toured the ship with Captain Hart, learning all about her particular quirks. He met Mr. Dykstra, and thanked him for agreeing to allow Jack to come aboard. He made a friend of the young Cornishman who heaved the lead on their journey into the channel for their last port of call, the Dutch half of the divided island of Sint Maarten. Tory even glimpsed him off in the bows, jesting with Nada.
Every time she saw him, her heart rose. She and Jack were home at last. It wasn’t the Providence, but at least Tory was at sea, with work to do and people to care for. She was a free woman, again. And now she had Jack back too.
That evening, as the Fortune sped for Sint Maarten with the last of her cargo of French wine and champagne, Captain Hart invited Tory and Jack up to take a turn on the quarterdeck.
"We’ll raise Saba in two more days, if all goes well tomorrow night," he told them. "It’ll be a fine thing to see the Providence again. We’ve lost so many seasoned hands," he added, shaking his head. "Arne. Mateo, we sent him ashore in Barbados, did you know? Hector went home to Cuba, refused to leave his woman alone for so long a time."
Tory glanced at Jack. Hector, the African who was Jack’s closest compañero, had taken passage as a slave to get back to Cuba. When they'd met him by chance last year in Tortola, he'd run away from his master, insisting Jack and Tory turn him in for the reward. That was how they'd paid their passage to St. Kitts.
"Once we’ve put the Providence to rights, I’d be pleased to have both of you back in my crew," Hart went on. "I can offer you nothing but a fair share of the profits, and the freedom of the seas. But so long as I draw breath, I’ll see ye never receive anything less."
Tory’s heart was pounding; she wondered how her frail flesh would ever contain so much joy.
"Captain—do you mean it?"
"It must be Blesséd Providence sent ye back here," Hart chuckled. "I'd be a rare fool not to make use of such fortunate circumstances."
"Then, yes!" Tory cried. "Si, gracias, Capitan. You can’t know what this means to us! Oh, Jack—" but as she spun around and saw Jack’s expression, her exuberant words died in her throat. He stared at her for a moment, his dark eyes anguished, glanced at the captain, then looked away.
"Captain," he murmured, slowly raising his eyes again. "I am honored beyond words by your offer. But...I can’t."
"What?" Tory gaped at him.
"I have to go back to the others," Jack told her. "I owe it to them."
"And you owe nothing to me?" she cried. "I thought you came all this way to find me."
"I did! But there are...other considerations." He looked miserable.
"What other considerations?"
"Alphonse, for one. I can’t simply disappear after all he went through to help me find you. He cares very much what happens to you. And then there’s Marcus. I promised him I’d come back. If I don’t, he’ll think we’ve both perished. And he’ll think it’s his fault. I can’t let him bear that kind of guilt."
"He’s nine years old!" Jack’s eyes were pleading with her. "It will cripple him for the rest of his life. I can’t let that happen."
Tory put a hand out to the rail, to steady herself. She felt as if the ship were being scuttled, the deck sliding sideways out from under her. Jack had been fifteen, almost a man, when he ran off from his foster parents; they had died alone soon after, and Jack had spent the better part of his adult years trying to throw his own life away out of guilt and remorse. He would do anything to spare Marcus that kind of misery, anything.
"Can you not...send him a message? By way of Cybele?" She was struggling to appear rational.
"He would never believe it." Jack shook his head. "Would you? If you were only nine?"
"But perhaps we could...visit. Let him see we’re all right..."
"And abandon him again? Besides," Jack added, eying Hart, "the captain isn’t running a transport service."
"We-e-ell," shrugged Ed Hart, "we might offload ye one time—"
"Not at English Harbour. That’s where they are by now."
"The Leeward Island Station, is it? Not the safest port for a smuggler, at that," Hart agreed. "Much as I’d like to see Mistress Lightfoot happy—"
At that moment, Nada signaled the captain from where he and Dykstra stood at the binnacle, and Hart went to join them.
"There’s more," Jack admitted to Tory, when they were alone. "We are engaged to play at the Bath Hotel next winter. Four months, for the season. Friday evenings in the ballroom. Upon a real stage." His fragile attempt at a smile failed. "I signed the contract."
Tory stared at him. "When did this happen?"
"Just before you...disappeared."
"And you never even asked me?"
"Ours is a gipsy profession. How could I deny Cybele and the Bruces the right to earn a steady income?" Jack reasoned.
"How could you deny me the right to choose for myself?"
Jack looked away. "I...didn’t know what you’d say."
"You knew I would refuse!"
He nodded, looking wretched. Tory was ashamed of herself for causing his wretchedness, and furious at Jack for forcing her to do so. All the long, lonely time without him, wanting him, needing him, and this was how she was treating him? She didn’t want to badger him like a fishwife, but she must make him understand.
"I can’t go back with you, hombre," she reasoned, as calmly as she could. "I’m a legal runaway ashore, an outlaw. There might be bills posted for my capture. I can be taken up and sold at auction."
"I know," Jack whispered, meeting her eyes again. "I could never ask you to take that risk. But I can’t stay with you."
"You could if you wanted to badly enough!" she cried, in desperation. "The fact is, you care more for your engagement and your damned stage than you do for me! You may go back to your gipsies, Jack, but my profession is the sea!" And she heeled round to the hatch and stormed off below.
(Top: Wheel of Fortune Original drawing by Lisa Jensen © 2010.)