Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chapter 29: GONE A-MAYING

It ought not to have taken long, the overland journey from Falmouth on the southern coast of Antigua across the interior to St. John’s. But Jack kept their pace slow. It wasn’t only concern for the horses, who were accustomed to pulling their loads in the tropical heat; Jack wanted to savor the spectacle of their procession in the landscape. The Bruces’ caravan had a fresh coat of red and white paint, and the pantomime wagon had been festooned with honey-scented white and yellow jasmine vines and pink oleander just this morning. It was their triumphant return to the English islands after a long interlude, and they wanted to make a show.

Which indeed they did. Jack and Cully walked at the horses’ heads, keeping their pace stately. Jack wore a colorful patchwork waistcoat pieced together from scraps, while Cully played a wobbly but cheerful tune on a cane pipe. Alphonse sat on the box, driving the pair, with a sprig of red flamboyant stuck in the band of his straw hat. Cybele and Calypso strolled behind with Tory, dressed in Columbine’s motley skirt and juggling painted pins. Marcus and Edward racketed around in the road between all the others, and the Bruces in their brilliant caravan brought up the rear. There was not much traffic on the road this morning: one or two astonished Negroes driving ox carts, occasional white gentlemen on horseback riding off on plantation business, washerwomen with their bundles of laundry, hucksters sniffing the back roads for items to trade. But Jack tipped his hat to one and all. He would never have thought he’d be so happy to be back among the English.

They had spent a happy and profitable spring in the French islands. Cybele had purchased a license and set up a stall in the Pointe-a-Pitre marketplace on Guadeloupe. After exploring the countryside, they began to perform their Harlequinade at the Sunday slave markets. The colony was made up of two large islands, and an aggregate of smaller ones, inhabited by sugar planters or fisher-folk, so there was no shortage of market towns to play at of a Sunday.

Tory had thrown herself into the work with her whole heart when told of their true purpose, inspiring Jack to devise ever more exuberant and hilarious business. Alphonse, of course, roundly proclaimed they must never endanger themselves on his account again. But they paid him very little mind, and when it became clear they would play the Harlequinade with or without him, he grumbled that he must resume his Punch role if only to maintain the quality of their performances.

They had all reunited with the Bruces yesterday in Falmouth, here on Antigua. It would be the rainy season, soon, yet they might get another month of playing out of the Sunday market in St. John’s before they retired to the protection of English Harbour for the hurricane season, to plan for the Bath Hotel.

But Jack could not worry about the future on such a fine, dry morning. It surprised him how much this trek through the interior lowland of Antigua reminded him of England. This arid island was not so lush and hilly, but the rolling flatlands planted in green and gold cane might have been any farmland in rural England. The few creeks and riverbeds they saw were dry at this time of year, but they passed a freshwater pond where mill cattle were driven to drink by straw-hatted boys. Of course, the boys were black, and the tall palm trees and clusters of spiky aloe, with their willowy shoots erupting in sunbursts of flame red, would have looked strangely exotic in Devon or Gloucestershire. But Jack had once seen English May Day revelers in Jamaica dancing around a towering aloe as if it were a Maypole.

May Day had come and gone while they were in the French islands, and with it another year of his life. It must be midsummer by now. But as he looked back to see the boys gamboling and giggling in the road, and Tory sauntering along, smiling up slightly at her work, he realized that every day felt like May Day to him, now that he knew how much Tory loved him. A fragment of an old Maying song from the West Country began to play in his head, an exuberant air he could no more suppress than he could have stopped the beating of his heart.

"Robin Hood and Little John
Are both gone to the Fair-O.

And we will go to the merry greenwood
To see what they do there-O!"

"Bravo!" came Billy Bruce’s hearty cry from the box of his caravan on the road behind the wagon. Jack laughed, and finished up what he could remember.

"For we were up as soon as any day-O.
And for to fetch the summer home,

The summer and the May-O!"

Jack had spent his childhood traveling through green country villages in company every bit as motley as this. For so long, he had forbidden himself to remember his boyhood at the English fairs; it hurt too much, with the reminder of all he had lost. But his boyhood memories were flooding back now, from every hidden corner of his heart, and he welcomed them, cherished them. Then his eye fell on Tory again, and he knew he was no longer a boy.

I heard Jack singing today, after a fashion, Tory wrote in her logbook, that evening. I would not have missed that for all the seas in all world!

She found herself smiling at the memory, and the memory of these last few busy and prosperous months ashore in the French islands. I don’t believe any man can truly understand how important it is for a woman to have something useful to do. Calypso has her needle. Cybele has her herbs and the raising of her children. And her cards, for which she is duly famed in Pointe-a-Pitre, where she is called la diseuse de bonne aventure, teller of fortune. To think that Alphonse tried to deny me the one contribution I have learned to make on dry land, my Columbine, because of the risk. There is risk in every moment of life, but we can't stop living because of it.

Tory lifted her pen and thought back to the day she and Jack had returned to the others. Her homecoming. Alphonse was so relieved, he almost smiled. Then he insisted they give up the Harlequinade.

"Has anyone actually run away because of our playing?" she countered.

"One or two of those Alphonse spoke to as slaves have become his informants in the free communities," Jack offered.

"Hellfire, we’ve actually done some good?" she crowed. "And you expect us to give it up? Besides, all your people depend upon you, Alphonse."

"What people?" he frowned.

"Those you employ in the hills. To aid runaways." To his astonished look, she added, "Do you not know a fellow called Quashie?"

"I know dozens. It is an African name for a son born on the first day of the week. Planters often use it as a name of derision, Quashie or Cuffee, or a salutation to a Negro they do not know."

Tory told him of the naked young Quashie, glistening with goose grease, who had helped her get off the mountain. She told him of the safe houses she had visited in her journey, some overgrown shacks but others neatly tended.

"But—I employ no one," said Alphonse.

"Perhaps he was on his own account," Tory suggested. "It must mean something to them, maintaining those places. Keeping the dream alive."

"You’re sure this fellow called himself Quashie?" Alphonse asked.

Tory nodded.

"In African tales, Quashie is sometimes the name of a hero who helps the people trick their masters. But he is...a myth."

"This fellow was real flesh and blood," Tory laughed. "But here’s another odd thing. I could swear once or twice, he called himself Jonkanoo. Like the parades."

"It is often spoken as a name, two words," Alphonse mused. "John Canoe. A personage."

"The Lord of Misrule," Jack smiled. "Like you, Alphonse. You show them a looking-glass world where slaves outwit their masters and invite them to act out the dream. Like the Lord of Misrule."

Since then there has been no more talk of giving up the Harlequinade, Tory wrote. And now that the performer in him has been unleashed again, Jack can scarcely be contained. I often find him in grog shops of a market afternoon, spinning tales to whatever sea dogs he can find who understand even a smattering of English or Spanish, embroidering some fanciful yarn about something he calls the Devil’s Ring. It may be that he's plotting a new scenario and wishes to try its effects before he puts it on the stage. It sounds a great load of rubbish to me, but perhaps it's one of those stories that comes off better in the playing.

A mild morning had given way to the dull, brassy heat of noon as Alphonse trudged up the hill from town toward their campsite. But he scarcely minded the heat when the morning’s business was so successfully concluded.

He had met with Mr. Jepson’s agent at his branch office in St. John’s to dispose of Jack’s business. Jack insisted on setting aside a generous share of his profits from the French islands for that fellow Hannibal in Basseterre, the informant who told Jepson where Tory had gone. It was enough for a manumission, and Alphonse was promised that Jepson would see to the matter without delay.

Alphonse was feeling almost chipper for another reason. At no time in their interview had Jepson’s agent spoken a word about the situation on Nevis. Their remove to the French islands had kept Alphonse far out of the way of Nevis and her troubles. He could not be accused of failing to honor his pledge if he were never contacted. Now that they were back in the English islands at Crop-over, with traffic between the islands at its busiest, however, he might be held accountable for his pledge at any time. But the situation might have changed on Nevis, he tried to convince himself. Perhaps the business would come to nothing, after all.

But Jack’s business had come to something and Alphonse was eager to tell him so. He found the clearing deserted, their wagon and the Bruces’ caravan standing quiet with the horses tethered nearby, and so decided to try the wagon. He jumped up onto the step, swung open the door and popped in over the threshold. His reception was a sudden, fearful gasp from Calypso, perched on the stool in the corner. She dropped her sewing in her lap as her dark eyes rounded in terror, then snatched it up again in two small, trembling hands.

"Mist’ Alphonse, you 'bout scare me to death!" she exclaimed. There was a deep, wine-dark flush on her cheek. "Jack say bolt the door, but I forgot."

"What does he mean, leaving you all alone like this?" Alphonse's voice came out too sharp, to cover his embarrassment. A sensible man would have knocked first. "Where are the others?"

"Cybele and Tory picking herbs, but I stay behind to finish this mending. Then Cully and Marcus come say they lose Edward playing chase in the wood, so Jack go off wit’ them to find him."

"Perhaps I ought to go help them."

But Calypso merely shrugged. "Edward get lost all the time. He like the attention."

The unfamiliar twinge of a smile tugged at Alphonse’s mouth.

"It is very dangerous to stray too far from the wagons. I wish you..." He had been about to say "you children," but that word did not seem to fit the small, neat young woman sitting before him, her fingers working with such industry. "I wish the boys would believe me," he amended.

"Cully getting too big to trifle wit’, Marcus be too fast and Edward too little for anyone to notice."

"Marcus was not fast enough in Charlestown."

"We can no be hiding all the time," Calypso reasoned.

"I suppose not," Alphonse agreed, gazing at her. How much more poised she seemed, these last months, than the timorous girl they had first met, wanting only to hide behind Cybeles skirts. When did the change happen? How could he have been so foolish not to notice? Alphonse did not know the precise nature of whatever had made Calypso so afraid, but he had lived long enough as a slave to imagine several plausible scenarios, each more horrible than the last and none of them at all out of the ordinary in the normal course of plantation life. Then he realized her dark eyes were dancing at him.

"Mist’ Alphonse, you boring a hole clean t’rough me."

Mortified, Alphonse stammered an apology and fled to the water jug on the sideboard. Glad of the chance to collect himself, he poured water into the gourd cup, which he managed with no little dexterity as he climbed the two-step ladder to perch on the edge of the bunk. From up here, Alphonse was almost at eye-level with any adult who came in the door, and slightly higher than Calypso, whose short black curls bounced above her shoulders as she bent her head over her sewing.

"I wish you would not call me 'Mister'," he spoke up, after a sip of water. "It makes me feel a hundred years old."

"Cybele say we must speak to you wit’ respect because you all be so kind to us."

"Oh? I notice no one ever says Mister Jack."

"It no suit him."

Did he himself seem that exalted, Alphonse wondered, that aloof from his companions? "It will suit me if you simply call me Alphonse."

The girl nodded and went back to her work.

"Mending for those boys must keep you awfully busy," he observed, to be saying something.

"But I don't mind. I expect to 'prentice out to a seamstress in a shop, one day. Or else I hire out for a place wit' some fine lady of the town."

"As a servant?"

"One day. I must live free two years in one place to get my certificate. Then I hire out."

Alphonse’s mouth compressed into a taut line. Even if they were able to settle down tomorrow in one place, this girl would be nearly twenty years old before she could be declared legally free. Free to enter into another kind of bondage, in many ways as dreary and humiliating as the one she had escaped.

"You no tink much of my plan," Calypso observed, watching him now with a more guarded expression.

"In my experience, there is little difference between servants and slaves."

"Servants earn a wage," snapped Calypso. "It be no shame to work."

Alphonse stared at her, amazed not because her sudden anger was so unexpected but because it was so familiar. It was exactly the tone he took himself whenever some well-meaning idiot was determined to offer him pity or sympathy. He knew what it was to be laughed at, jeered at, pursued, even assaulted; there were sure ways to deal with those things. But he would not be patronized like a child. In those moments, he could not bear his own fury and that was what he saw in Calypso’s eyes now.

"We must all work for our living, of course. I had no right to speak to you like that." There was nothing humble in his apology. He merely stated the fact and Calypso nodded, satisfied.

He set the cup behind him on the window sill and sat watching her work. It occurred to him he never saw her idle.

"If you had the choice," he began again, "to do or be anything you wanted, what would you choose?"

Her eyes were smiling when she met his gaze. She did not need to rebuke him with a reminder that she had very few choices and she was still child enough to be intrigued by the fancy of it. "Why, I tink I like to have a child of my own."

Alphonse kept his face composed, only wincing inside. How easily she would reach that goal, he thought, no doubt with the help of the husband of the fine lady she would serve. "And a home of your own?" he prompted.

"Or a shop!" she grinned. "So the fine ladies come to me!"

"And a fine, strapping husband, I suppose..."

Calypso’s sparkling eyes clouded immediately. "Yes...I s'pose... only..." she faltered, then gave him a plaintive look. "It no be easy for me to men, you see."

"You are talking to me."

It was out before he could stop himself and Alphonse wanted to bite off his tongue. Now he had invited her to compare him to other men. But Calypso did not laugh or dismiss him. If anything, her expression cleared a bit.

"Yes that’s so," was all she said.

Alphonse wished he had some sewing in his lap to distract him from that calm, steady gaze. But there was nothing for it but to bear her scrutiny until she spoke again in a more playful voice.

"And what about you...Alphonse? If you could do anyting at all in the world, what it be?"

"I’d see an end to slavery."

This time she did laugh. "Oh, that be a very fine ting, but it nevah happen. I mean for you’self. What you want for you’self?"

Alphonse had never been asked what he wanted personally out of life, nor had he ever asked himself. What did he want? What any normal man wanted, he supposed, although it would be fatuous of him to say so. He was hardly a normal man. Work he had aplenty. And companionship? That was new to him, but not unpleasant. Before Jack and Victoria, he'd had ony acquaintances. Love? But he had bolted the door of his mind to that subject long ago.

"You want more than a shop and a child, I tink."

No, less, he thought. If she only knew how much less he would settle for, if only it were possible.

"I have...much to do," he said, at last. "My...wife...I am afraid, would have to be a saint."

"Then you have a long wait," said Calypso, returning to her work.

(Top: View to St. Johns Harbour, Antigua, by J. Johnson, 1827. As seen on

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