Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Chapter 30: HARLEQUIN FAREWELL
The summer rains came sooner to Antigua than expected. There was little custom on wet days at the Sunday markets in St. John’s. It was a sign, Jack supposed, that he must buckle down and work up some diversions for the Bath Hotel. It would be so important to succeed. And not only financially, so they could continue their more important work; if they were seen to be under the patronage of influential people, they might have less to fear from constables in the future as they plied their dangerous trade. Their safety might depend on how fervently the ton might clasp them to its bosom. But it would require a great deal of cozying up to the rich and frivolous, at which sport Jack was woefully out of practice.
He much preferred the company of Marcus. They were taking advantage of a dry afternoon after a drizzly morning to rehearse. Rain spent itself out quickly over Antigua, with no high, forested mountains to catch and hold the clouds, but showers came frequently and without much warning. Every moment one could steal out of doors was precious.
Jack was completing the second of three somersaults across the dampened ground outside the wagon when Marcus came careening into his right side, knocking them both askew. Marcus wasn’t heavy enough to do much damage, but Jack’s ribs took most of the impact; he had to stifle a sudden gasp as he sprawled over on his left side. Marcus, who had been turning cartwheels, easily disentangled himself as Jack scrambled up to his knees, fighting off the urge to seize his sore right side. It was the damp weather that made his ribs throb, Jack knew. How much longer he would be able to lark about like a boy?
"Sorry, Jack, but you say go on two," Marcus told him.
"I said three," Jack protested.
Marcus shook his head emphatically and held up two fingers, as if that proved all.
"Well, I meant three."
"You no teach me to hear what you mean, only what you say."
The spry boy was already up on his feet again. He offered Jack his small hand, and Jack felt like a feeble old man. Kneeling upright, he was just about eye-to-eye with the lad.
"Are you all right?" he asked, solicitously. "How’s your knee?"
Marcus had sprained his knee in the French islands, which had kept him out of their performances for a minute or two.
"Like it nevah happen," the boy crowed. He shook one supple young leg and hopped from foot to foot. "Cybele, her fix me up, for true. We try it again?"
Hellfire, the boy had joints of elastic, Jack thought, with an inward groan. So had he, when he was nine. Centuries ago.
"In a minute," he said, hauling himself up to his feet. "I thought Alphonse was going to join us."
Marcus made a face. "Him be off in the wood wit’ Calypso. Picking wildflowers."
Jack regarded him. "Alphonse is picking wildflowers?"
"No, him carry her basket for her. Ready?" Marcus was already in position to cartwheel again. Jack had an idea for a trick in which Harlequin and the little Pierrot Marcus played would come tumbling in from opposite sides and just miss each other. It was the near-miss they had not quite worked out, yet.
"Straighten your spine," Jack called, hoping to buy an extra minute to quiet his ribs. "Extend those arms. Like the spokes of a wheel." He crouched down for his somersaults. "Now, on three..."
Billy Bruce was descending from the door of his caravan across the clearing, then he turned to hand down his wife. Both were dressed in their most tasteful finery.
"Good evening, Captain," Jack sallied back, jumping quickly to his feet as they advanced upon him. "Mrs. Bruce. How splen..."
But he was interrupted by Marcus careening hell-bent in their direction, a whirlwind of flying feet.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa there!" Jack lunged forward to block the boy’s progress, dodging his feet to grab him by the waist, and roll him more or less upright. Out of breath and laughing, Marcus fell back against him.
"You say tree!" he gasped, giggling.
"I’ll deal with you in a moment, sirrah," Jack pretended to scold, holding the boy in a death grip against his own stomach, before he could get up to any more mischief.
"What a dervish the boy is," murmured Ada Bruce, with the practiced politeness of someone who has been obliged to admire too many other people’s children. She surreptitiously dusted her silken skirt with the fringe of her shawl.
"Mrs. Bruce, you are a vision," Jack beamed at her. "What is the occasion?"
"We’re off to dine at Dr. Fletcher’s," chimed in Captain Billy. "Capital old fellow, a dear friend of the Commissioner, you know."
"All the fashion will be there," Mrs. Bruce added, eyes alight.
"And I’m sure you’ll outshine them all," Jack told her.
"Oh, really, Jack..." she giggled, the color rising in her cheeks, and Jack could feel Marcus squirming in his grip.
"I’m told he’s hired a fiddler from the regimental band for the evening’s entertainment," Captain Billy continued.
"Is there often entertainment at these affairs?" asked Jack.
"Yes, at the very best dinners," sniffed Ada. "Otherwise, the men would play at that horrid hazard all night, and there would be no conversation."
"But are you not driving your caravan? It will be a dusty walk," Jack suggested.
"Oh, no, Dr. Fletcher is sending a carriage. Ah! And here it is!"
Jack and Marcus watched as a Negro driver in livery handed the Bruces up into a small barouche with a monogram on its side. Jack thought about how far the Bruces had risen in island society through their friend, the Commissioner. It was no wonder they chose to stay on here, season after season. In England, no player of their modest status could ever expect an invitation to dine with a well-placed gentleman. But things were different in the Indies. Captain Billy had just enough of a nautical background to win him friends on the naval station, and Ada was that most rare commodity in the islands, a well-spoken and attractive white woman. Jack could see what a coup it would be to have her at one’s dinner table in this bleak season, especially when the warships came in, with their weary officers pining for England and wondering how to pass the time. What else was there to do but attend dinners? Dinners with entertainments.
"Him must be mighty fancy buckra to keep such a carriage," Marcus observed.
"Fancy enough," Jack mused.
Alphonse Belair was not a man given to much easy sentiment. He felt things as deeply as any man, indeed he had cause for much deeper feelings than most. But he had learned early in life that the expression of fine feelings and noble sentiments would forever be denied him. He knew he was a ridiculous little man, and had learned to accept his fate, even revel in it, as it provided him with his living. And a good living it was, unaffected by blight, recession or any other random act of God, unlike most other West India incomes. He had no cause to curse his fate when so many others suffered far worse every day. And as a rule he had little patience for the occasional traitorous emotion that wormed its way into his heart.
But this was different. Calypso was a raw wound gnawing at his vitals. He could not look at her now without seeing Betsy's face, and recalling Betsy's fate. He could scarcely offer her the protection of a suitor; he knew his deficiencies in that respect. There was no point allowing himself to even acknowledge such useless, self-indulgent, distracting feelings that might endanger his purpose. And not only his purpose: Jack and Victoria put themselves at risk every market Sunday as well. Still, there was something he might yet do for Calypso, for all of them, four young people of color who had the rare opportunity to live free, thanks to Cybele.
Jack had given him the idea, with his provision for that fellow, Hannibal. For years Alphonse had kept a share of his personal profits in a fund established by Mr. Jepson. When the amount grew large enough, he invested it in one of Jepson's commercial voyages. Jepson’s markets in England were secure, and his captains prudent; he rarely lost a cargo or failed to turn a profit. Alphonse's usual habit was to siphon off a modest share of the profit to live on, and reinvest the rest in Jepson's business on an annual basis. But how much more useful the fund might be if he transferred it into Cybele's name.
Cybele was a prudent woman; she would not squander her profit. Better still, the investment could provide her with an income that would allow her to settle in one place for the two years necessary to establish her children as legally free. Calypso and the boys: four more lives to weigh against those lost at Whitehall. It was not enough, it could never be enough, but it would be something. He was equipped to provide a signature now, and a date, and current address to legalize the deed; all he had to risk was one more visit to Mr. Jepson's agent in St. John's.
When Tory climbed into the wagon, she found Jack sitting cross-legged on the bed, his Harlequin mask on the window sill above the bunk, and his volume of Shakespeare open beside him.
"All settled in, are they?" he asked, when she came in.
"Oh, aye. Edward upset a barrel of corn meal and the place was invaded by chickens. But once we rousted them out, Cybele brewed Mrs. Meade a restorative for her nerves, and all was set to rights."
"I miss all the fun," Jack grinned.
Cybele had accepted an invitation to remove herself and the children to rooms above a dry goods shop off the parade in St. John’s. The proprietor, a free woman of color who styled herself a widow, offered to board them in exchange for Cybele attracting custom to the shop with her herbal remedies and cards at this damp and unhealthy season. Tory and Alphonse had ridden down with them in the cart to help them settle in, but Alphonse said he had some business in town, so Tory had come back up the hill to report to Jack. She knew he felt guilty not coming along to help, but they were still leery about a former pirate exposing his face in a town with such a military character.
"How is it that Cybele always manages to insinuate herself into the life of the town, wherever we go?" Jack said now. "Even with those calamitous boys to herd about."
"She has skills to trade that everyone needs. As long as people are ill or injured or lovelorn, Cybele will always be in demand." Tory leaned over to kiss him, then perched on the edge of the bunk, glancing down at the open book. "Hamlet?" she asked.
"We can't play the Harlequinade for much longer at the market," Jack sighed. "People buy necessities in bad weather, from whatever dwindling supply the island has to offer, but they don’t linger to watch a performance. Besides," and his voice dropped low even though the clearing was deserted and the wagon door firmly shut, "it’s madness to encourage runaways in the hurricane season, with no shipping off the island. And yet, we shall have to keep ourselves until the season begins at the Bath Hotel."
"Doing what?" When Jack went to such lengths to explain a thing, Tory knew it was something she was not going to like.
"There is a market for entertainment that we've overlooked, here in St. John's. In island society, at the private dinner parties they hold for each other, and the officers from English Harbour when the fleet comes in for the season."
Tory looked at him doubtfully. "Dinner parties? Awfully close quarters for the pantomime."
He shook his head and glanced at the window sill. "I must leave my mask behind."
"Jack, you can't!"
"I’ll have the element of surprise on my side. No one will be expecting a pirate when they engage a player, and a player is all they'll see," he assured her. "We'll do recitations, comic speeches. A word to the Bruces, and I expect the Commissioner would have us in to a few dinner parties, to recite after the porter and cigars. And those guests might have us in to their dinner parties. There’s precious little else to do during the storm season, we might find ourselves in high demand."
"Higher than we bargained for if you end up swinging from a noose!" Tory exclaimed.
Jack took her hand as if to prevent her pitching any more abuse at him. "We must be seen in society, and accepted, if we are to continue the Harlequinade. Everything depends on the approval of the gentry, everything Alphonse has worked so hard for. And it's not just for the Harlequinade," he went on, more gently. "I need to do this for us, Rusty. This is no way to build a life, running away, hiding in shadows. Do you know, when I went to call on Mr. Greaves in Basseterre, I couldn’t even send in a name. His people would not admit me. It was only through the kindness of that dear man that I was able to gain an audience. I need to be more than Harlequin, if we are to make a life together. I need to know who I am."
Tory swallowed the rest of her protests; they burned like bile, but she knit her fingers through Jack's, marveling again at his gift for making insanity sound so reasonable. She supposed he was right, in an abstract way. At least she could not complain he was not ready to commit himself to their future.
"It's not you knowing who you are that worries me," she sighed.
(Top: Sunday Market, Antigua, 1806, by W.E. nach Beastall, as seen on http://www.kunst-fuer-alle.de)