Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Chapter 33 THE DEVIL'S RING
"Ain’t interested, sir," declared the little Cockney trader with one squinty eye.
"It is solid gold, Mr. Swallowes," retorted Stephen Raleigh, battling to best his temper. "Surely, it must interest you a little."
"Aye, but it’d be the ruination of me to 'ave such a fing in me possession, wouldn’t it? Bein’ it’s cursed and all."
"Oh, you can’t believe such an idle load of mischief," Raleigh wheedled, trying out a smile that only gave his expression a grisly cast. "A man of your sophistication."
He knew Freddy Swallowes had the sophistication of a barn rat, and less breeding; it galled Stephen Raleigh to be in the same room with the fellow, much less to have to humiliate himself pleading with him in this manner. But there was no one else.
"But there’s others does believe it, others less sophisticated than meself. Them as I might try to sell it to, was I to 'ave it off you. It’s business, i’n’it, constable? What can I do?"
"Surely, a man of your connections should have no trouble disposing of such a valuable item in a busy place like Basseterre?"
Freddy Swallowes picked up his tankard and downed the last of his rum. "Aye, but was it as easy to fence as all that, you’d 'a never 'ad to come to me. Would ye now?"
The insolent fellow rose and sauntered off as Raleigh felt his face burn with rage; fortunately, as always, it was too dark in the Old Medusa Tavern for his rage to be seen. How dare this beggarly fellow turn down any honest offer of profit, when he scarcely had the means to keep body and soul together? That damned curse. Everywhere he went, he heard the same tale. Even Captain Trent, for whom he had done so many favors, claimed he couldn’t have the golden ring aboard his ship, or his crew would mutiny on him. Extraordinary, the power of superstition on idle minds. There wasn’t a smuggler, merchant or huckster in all of Basseterre who hadn’t heard of the Devil’s Ring, and the curse of death upon whoever owned it. You’d think he’d been offering them a vial of poison instead of a valuable piece of gold. Wretched fools, the lot of them. And more the fool he, for keeping the damned thing in the first place. But there had been no talk of curses, then. It was only his due, his personal commission on his dealings with Trent. He'd only thought to put it by for a rainy day, as any prudent man might do. But it was raining now. In buckets.
When had his luck gone so sour? Fortune had smiled when he captured that darky slut, and auctioned her off for a slave in this very room, outwitting that mountebank of hers. Funny, the fellow had never dared return to make good on his threat, the posturing ape. Raleigh had broken them both, that was one victory he could still cherish. And made enough of a profit on the sale of the whore, together with a sum of money borrowed on credit from some gentlemen of business he knew, to invest in a seafaring adventure recommended to him by Captain Trent.
But the voyage failed, a merciless blow to Raleigh’s precarious finances, for even a man of his modest habits must put on some sort of display to maintain the dignity of his office. Especially a man with his eye on better offices to come. And then, struggling to recover himself from the brink of ruin, there was that wretched business with his slave, Hannibal, his only property, who had the gall to sue for his manumission. Raleigh knew he’d been cheating him all this time, how else could the beggar have come up with the money to buy himself free?
Raleigh would never have agreed to it, had he not been in such straitened circumstances himself. He inflated the purchase price, as if Hannibal had ever been worth his keep, determined to ruin the yellow dog into the bargain if he wanted his freedom that badly. But Hannibal paid the sum and his fees besides, and promptly disappeared, robbing Raleigh of the entertainment of watching his slide into degraded poverty for his precious freedom. Although he heard later from one of Trent’s cronies that Hannibal was employed as second mate on one of the fancy trading ships of that colored merchant, Jepson. The spiteful dog.
But his profit on Hannibal wasn’t enough to satisfy his creditors from that other failed venture. In fact, the interest was accruing at an alarming rate. It was extortion, all the more infamous practiced on an officer of the law, but he had entered into a contract with these fellows on the advice of that Judas, Trent; he could not now bring suit against them without looking like a prize gull. But neither could he pay them off now that he had lost his only property in Hannibal, not on his salary from the constabulary alone. If he were imprisoned for debt, he would not even have that. It would be the end of his political ambitions, all that sustained him in this wretched place. He could never endure such humiliation. And time was running short.
He did have one other asset, this golden ring. Yet everywhere he turned, he heard the same foolish talk of a curse. No one would touch it, and now Raleigh was desperate. Why else treat with a lowlife like Freddy Swallowes? He had not a single friend who might undertake this business on his behalf, no one he could trust in so delicate a matter. But there must be someone in this neighborhood, at this hour, who could be persuaded to pay for this ring, cursed or not, if only he were drunk enough. And Raleigh rose from the little table with a furious new resolve. It was no longer a mere business transaction. His entire future was at stake.
Through the cloying haze of smoking lamps and lighted pipes, he spied a prosperous-looking stranger at a table near the back door, with the weathered look of a seaman, and the bloated visage of a drunkard. A captain in search of a cargo during crop-over, no doubt, what might he not pay for a piece of gold to sell on his own account? Raleigh sidled over with his half-drunk rum bottle, and proffered it toward the fellow, who responded with a sleepy nod and offered a chair. Raleigh sat himself down.
"A seafarer, sir?" he bantered, refilling the stranger’s glass.
"I am that. And yourself?"
"A...gentleman of business. I have a cargo I believe might interest you, sir."
And as he reached into his jacket, extracted the box that held the ring and opened it, a shadow fell across the table. Raleigh’s head snapped up in irritation—and he found himself gazing into the placid face of the Deputy Provost Marshal.
"A bit out of your jurisdiction tonight, are you not, constable?" the Deputy blinked.
Raleigh might have said the same thing; when had the Deputy ever been known to appear in public after eight o’clock in the evening? And sober, besides.
"My, this is a lovely item," the Deputy observed, lifting the ring out of Raleigh’s guilty grasp.
"A...family heirloom," stammered Raleigh.
"Two 'R's," nodded the Deputy, as he examined the ring. "An extraordinary possession for an orphan raised at the charity school. Were your people Spanish, constable?" he asked, glancing at the inscription. He eyed Raleigh’s blanched expression. "I thought not," he sighed. "I confess, I found it difficult to credit Mr. Swallowes’ tale when he said he had an appointment to meet you here tonight."
Damn the fellow, Raleigh seethed to himself. An informer. So that was how he kept himself in the lean times.
The Deputy eyed him again. "Come see me in my office tomorrow morning, Mr. Raleigh."
"How does it look, sir, an officer of the law selling contraband in a public place like the Medusa?"
The Deputy Provost Marshal shook his head, his pop-eyes blinking wearily. Unaccustomed to the morning light, thought Raleigh, sitting rigidly on a chair, on the opposite side of the Deputy’s large, cluttered desk.
"I...was mistaken. Sir." Contrition was unfamiliar to Raleigh, begging more so, yet he must salvage this situation, somehow. "But it was only one item, a very small lapse as these things go," he pressed on, adopting a sportive, worldly tone, hoping the Deputy did not realize how deeply involved he was with the smugglers. "Surely more serious offenses are carried out by public officials every day."
"That may be so, but they are carried out with discretion," sighed the Deputy. "I’m afraid only the wealthy and well-placed can afford to betray the public trust with impunity. Whereas, a man in your circumstances..."
Raleigh cast down his eyes, angry that his circumstances were now the object of speculation, hiding behind the mask of humility that had served him before.
"It shall not happen again, sir."
"Oh, indeed, it cannot," agreed the Deputy. "I believe it will be best for you to leave the constabulary, Mr. Raleigh. This business is insupportable. A chief constable cannot be seen disporting himself in a tavern with criminals."
"Leave the constabulary?" Raleigh echoed, stunned. This could not be the end of his ambitions, not like this, all of his dreams going up in flames before his eyes.
"I promoted you, Stephen," the Deputy continued, surprising Raleigh with his earnestness. "I’ve become fond of you. Resign your post and I shall not take any disciplinary action against you."
Disciplinary action. Even worse than the humiliation of debtor’s prison, to be censured, publicly rebuked, like a slave, to be made an object of public ridicule.
"Resign your post," the Deputy repeated, "and you are free to go your ways."
"And do what?"
Raleigh had no income property, no exploitable skills, no well-connected friends. He was alone, without means, and in debt, besides, no better off than Irish Jimmy Reilly, for all his pains. He could hear the braying laughter of that Irishman now, mocking him. He did not notice the Deputy shuffling papers on his desk until he spoke again.
"You were once a member of the night watch, were you not? I have a notice here from off-island, a little township requesting extra manpower for its militia. Expecting some trouble, so it would seem." He blinked up again at Raleigh. "It’s not an official post, but room and board will be provided during the operation. It may be a way for a young man of your qualities to get back upon his feet. And in the circumstances I think it best if you leave St. Kitts."
He must get away from here, all right, if only to escape the laughing ghost of Irish Jimmy Reilly.
"Thank you, sir." It nearly choked him. "Where must I go?"
"The place is called Gingerland in St. George’s parish, on the island of Nevis. The Provost Marshal’s office in Charlestown is coordinating the business. Still in the early planning, it is, so take as much time as you need to settle your affairs here. I will arrange your transportation."
Transported. Like a criminal. There would not be much to settle here now that his dreams and plans were exploded in a blaze of treachery. He would not stay here now, in the smoking rubble of all his ambitions. At least off-island he would escape his creditors; he would have the last laugh on them. And he would rise again from the ash-heap they had made of his life. Somehow, he would find away to distinguish himself, and laugh in all their faces. On Nevis.
(Top: Dancing Devil, vintage print, as seen on orchardsforever.blogspot.com)