Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Chapter 35: THE MERRY GREENWOOD
It was too much to think about all at once; she would go mad. She must solve one problem at a time, Tory told herself, and keep going. Carrying Captain Billy’s coat and hat back to the Bruces’ caravan, she noticed a faint whiff of rum on the damp collar, and had her first inspiration.
"Jack is...indisposed," she told them, leaking just a trace of irritation into her voice. Neither of them had ever seen Jack drunk, but she dare not endanger them with the truth.
"Not seriously, I hope?" chirped Ada.
"Oh, a simple combination of heat and nerves, I suspect," Tory shrugged, in a tone that implied she was putting the best face on it. "But if he’s still, um, unwell by curtain time tonight, I thought you might like to have an extra routine or two prepared. Just in case."
"My dear, we are professionals!" Captain Billy declared. "We shall sing and dance until dawn, if that is what’s required!"
Cybele had taken the other children into town, to deliver some herbal remedies and fancywork promised to some ladies in time for the ball. But Tory saw Marcus under a stand of acacias with an open satchel of props, juggling furiously to an inner rhythm pounding away in his own head. The wiry boy had not grown much taller in these last months, but his trunk and arms and legs, once so thin, had thickened with noticeable new strength. Soon he would spurt up like Cully had, his limbs stretching to their full length. But for now... she stared hard at the boy. Hellfire, it might work.
"That’s fine, Marcus!" she called to him. "Do you know any of the Punch business?"
"Handsprings," he replied eagerly, "tree in a row! Me can somersa’t all round the stage, and juggle the bat and the club. And..." he hesitated for an instant, then his grin widened, "... me roll under you skirt and tief you big cookspoon!"
"Good," Tory laughed. "We’ll have to do twice as much tonight, if... until the others get back. I’ll come out and practice with you as soon as I can. When Cybele returns, ask Calypso to come see me."
She was sorting out costumes when Calypso found her in the wagon.
"Alphonse no return today," Calypso said without preamble at the door. "You know where he is?"
Tory measured her reply. "Do you?"
Calypso shook her head.
"Jack does. He’s gone to find him. Don’t ask me to tell you any more."
Calypso nodded and Tory held up the little Punch costume. "Can you alter this to fit Marcus? Can you do it by this evening?"
Calypso gazed at the little white tunic, with its flounced black edging and dancing bells, and at the short leggings.
"I can. But it no look like Alphonse."
Tory blinked. The alert girl was already a step ahead of her.
"If I tuck it in to fit that boy, it only show off how they be different."
"Can you pad it?" Tory suggested. "A little roll of scraps or straw sewn inside, to fill the chest and shoulders? In the trousers, just above the knees?" A little ox, that was how Jack had once described Alphonse, thickset and powerful in the shoulders and thighs.
"Yes, I tink so."
"Nothing heavy or awkward," Tory hurried on. "Marcus must be able to move. Only enough to—"
"Trick the eye," murmured Calypso, taking up the costume.
Tory choked down another wave of unease. This would never work. But it must, she told herself. Their audience would not expect to see anyone but Alphonse in the Punch costume, and Alphonse they would see. She would have to rehearse Marcus carefully in the padded costume, but he already knew how to work in a mask. Still, she must not let him try anything too dangerous that might injure him or give them away; no torches or knives. They were in no position to thrill a crowd, with their two daredevils absent. She had better come up with some knockabout comedy business, to take up the slack. Not that she was in much of a laughing mood.
Calypso retired to her sewing basket, and Tory pawed through the rest of their costumes. At the bottom of the pile was Jack’s patchwork Harlequin outfit, unused since St. John’s. Who among them could fill it? She lifted out the shirt and trousers, held them up, inspected them. She could still make out some faded rusty stains on the right side of the shirt, could see where Calypso’s clever fingers had mended the patches back together. With an effort, Tory forced the image of Jack’s beaten, bloody body out of her mind, and flung the costume into a corner. Calypso looked up, then away. But Tory continued to stare at its twisted rag-doll shape on the floor.
Then she retrieved her Columbine skirt and petticoat. There might be a way, after all, if she could only make it work. She must come up with the performance of a lifetime, for lives depended upon it, a triumph in the art of stage illusion. A quartet for two. If only she played bravely enough. And she reached for her logbook.
Jack kept Shadow to the high road, traveling due east, as they climbed into the foothills surrounding the central cone of Nevis. He knew enough to keep the silhouette of Saddle Hill well to southward, past a distinctive fork in the road Marcus had described, and bore away to the left above a ravine. The higher they climbed, the more relaxed the horse began to feel beneath him. These must be the back roads where Shadow had plied his trade as a cart horse in his former life.
When Jack reckoned they were near the borderlands of the estate he sought, perhaps even on the place, according to the signposts, he gave Shadow his head. Within moments, the animal turned off the high road for a hidden path through the wild scrub, just wide enough for a narrow cart. A path some wainman must have forged to hide his progress until he was ready to appear; Tory had told him how slaves cherished every moment out of their master’s eye. Jack was just as glad to stay out of sight of the main house and mill works now. He had already passed several carriages in the road, trundling down the mountain for town, but could not be sure the people from this place were among them. The sun had already passed its zenith as well, so the slaves were no longer in the fields, but were off enjoying their traditional Saturday afternoon holiday before the Sunday market. But where would they be? To what private place would they have gone to set their plan into motion?
The path wound through the brush, skirting wide, sprawling cane pieces. Most were fallow in this season, or just beginning to be holed and planted, while others boasted green cane as tall as a man, that had been too young to harvest last year. Soon, Jack saw the big house in the distance, and the mill works beyond, deserted at this time of year. Riding on, he passed above flimsy slave cabins, down in a gully. In the still, hot afternoon, he could hear the thin wailing of babies. Surely the plotters would not meet there, in the middle of the day, endangering their children.
The trail gave on to a stable yard, and Jack had to pull Shadow back into the protection of the scrubby woods, away from the cabins, up into the high ground, searching now for watchman’s huts or a patch of provision ground hidden from the estate below. He passed one dilapidated shack and a few tiers of vegetable plots; he must be going in the right direction. Then he came to the edge of a cleared, plowed field on a broad plateau, hidden from below by a dense treeline. The field was planted in all kinds of small food crops, but there was a path through the middle of it. Across the clearing, at the other end of the path and almost hidden in more leafy woods, Jack spied some kind of outbuilding. Long and low, like a barracks. Well hidden. Defensible. That was where he would plot, far away from any overseer’s prying eyes.
But he would have to cross the open clearing to reach it. He might search for hours to find a roundabout path through the increasingly steep and treacherous hills, and the dense woods, but he didn’t have hours to spare. Alphonse could not spare them. Jack reined in Shadow, and sat still and upright, peering across the flat, neat rows of the leafy green tops of root vegetables and long, flowering runners of beans and peas. He could not see any activity in the long, low building hidden in the underbrush, but he could sense it. That was where they were.
What if Alphonse had already taken himself away, possibly off the island? That would explain why he had not turned up this morning. Alphonse knew first-hand what a rising might lead to; the sensible thing to do would be to disappear. But if Alphonse were acting sensibly, he would never have become involved in this plot. What could have induced him to ignore his bitter memories of Whitehall to join another group of plotters? And in that event, what if he were still with them, now? If plantation families were already making their way into town for the ball, the militia might be making its way up the mountain at this very moment. Alphonse had failed at Whitehall by not warning the people in time that they had been betrayed. Jack could not make that same mistake.
Tory’s face swam suddenly into his mind, the way he had last seen her, tense, anxious, biting back words she dared not speak. He wished now that he had held her for a moment, coaxed a smile from her to carry with him now. That had been no way to say goodbye. But he shook off the thought before it paralyzed him. He could never have found Tory again if not for Alphonse. He owed him everything. And he nudged Shadow out of the cover of the trees and into the open field.
"But the Neck be too nearby," complained William Ibo, leader of the field gang. "Ol’ Mas’ take a fishing boat and come find we."
"If he has any reason to suspect you are there," Alphonse replied patiently. "Which he will not. He will assume you have all fled into the bush here on Nevis, and spend all of his time and energy trying to hound you out, again, while you are safe away on St. Kitts."
"Why we all no go direct to English Harbour?" asked Mama Lizzy, the hothouse nurse, sucking on the stem of her corncob pipe.
Alphonse glanced again at Paris, who looked back at him expectantly, like the others, as if he, too, needed to be convinced. Again. Even now, with the time so short.
"The military ships weathering the season there cannot absorb so many recruits, unless it is wartime. Send one or two of your boatmen to find work now, at the Dockyard, and they can help those who follow them later. But dozens of people appearing all at once, without papers and seeking passage or employment, will incite suspicion."
"The sooner away, the better off we be," muttered Paris.
"You will be away, in the safe places I have found for you. In the Neck on St. Kitts and other villages on Antigua, where there are people to help you. The people you place in the Dockyard now can report back as soon as shipping arrives in English Harbour bound for England. Or Cuba, or Jamaica, where there are large enough populations of free people to take you in. If only you wait—"
"We wait too long, already," grumbled William Ibo, and several of the others nodded in agreement.
"It is only a little while longer. And once you are off Nevis..."
A sudden, low thumping on the outside of the wooden wall cut short Alphonse’s plea. Paris sprang to the door and threw the bolt and in tumbled Remus, one of the athletic twins from the boiling house sent to keep watch in the brush, panting out a message.
"A buckra stranger in the woods! Him come this way."
The others were on their feet on the instant, crowding to the high, narrow window that faced the provision grounds, the only means of approach to this hidden storehouse.
"Where?" "Alone?" "Armed?"
The questions snapped at Remus, who could only splutter back that the fellow was on horseback and carrying no weapon that could be seen. The click of a musket sent a charge of ice up Alphonse’s spine. He had never contracted to be a party to murder, but these people were fighting for their lives now, not only their freedom. If they were discovered here in the thick of a conspiracy, it would be the gallows for all of them. He saw Henry, the senior watchman, prop the long snout of the musket on the window sill and sight down the barrel. It was an older weapon, the kind assigned to only the most loyal watchkeepers for scaring off pigs and cattle from neighboring estates foraging in the borderlands. But Henry had cleaned and cared for it and taught himself expert marksmanship. He drew a breath and the others breathed with him, hushed now, watching. The stranger was in sight. In another moment he would be in range.
Alphonse might have peeked out a knothole in the wall below the high window into the field, like the others. But he turned away.
"You do not approve?" Paris challenged him.
"Should we not find out who he is?" Alphonse suggested.
"No white man ride among us today of all days on any innocent business," Paris replied. "We have too much at stake."
Alphonse gazed down at his clenched hands, tensed for the report of the shot. What a hypocrite he was. How could he preach freedom to these people and not expect them to fight for it? What other choice did they have? And yet he was so thoroughly, bitterly sick of the killing...
Henry's finger stretched toward the trigger. But in the instant before he squeezed it, Alphonse heard the fragment of a song, incongruously cheerful, wafting toward them on the hot, still air.
"...and we will go to the merry greenwood
To see what they do there—O..."
"No!" Alphonse cried, bounding to the window, his entire body a clenched fist of furious strength. He slammed into Henry so hard, the marksman could scarcely hang on to his weapon, as the shot erupted high into the air. The singing stopped outside. Alphonse clambered to the window sill, and saw the familiar straw-hatted figure astride one of the draft horses halted in the clearing, and still sitting upright. Waiting. Then the others were grabbing at him, their faces seething with outrage.
"I know this man!" Alphonse exclaimed, rebounding on them all from the window. "He means you no harm. I stake my life on it."
"And our lives?" spat Paris.
"Yes! Kill me if I lie, but give him a hearing!"
Jack was still waiting outside. The wild shot had neither frightened him off, nor flushed out any unseen confederates from the brush. Everyone looked at Paris, whose eyes narrowed in angry frustration, but he nodded once to Alphonse. The little man stood up in the window and made a motion, and the stranger rode quickly across the rest of the field toward them.
"You are betrayed," Jack told them, when he had hidden Shadow in the underbrush and darted inside.
"At what?" asked Paris. "Tending our provisions on a Saturday afternoon?"
"The planters know of your plot here. They’re setting a trap. After they send their families to the ball, the island militia is coming back here to surprise you in the act. All of you."
A murmur of alarm rippled through them, but Paris’ scornful voice carried above the rest. "They nevah know to come here."
Turning to Jack, he added, "But you do." And he glared at Alphonse.
"Alphonse would not have confessed your plot to God Almighty on his deathbed," Jack retorted. "I found my own way here."
"A spy!" cried Remus. "Ol’ Mas' send him here to trap we!"
William Ibo, heavily muscled from the field, took a menacing step toward Jack. Henry was quietly reloading his musket.
"Hear him out," cautioned Alphonse. "You may kill us both if he lies, but you are all in grave danger if he tells the truth."
"What you hear?" demanded Mama Lizzy.
And Jack explained about the three men in the tavern, the blustery, impatient fellow, the reasonable, but sinister one, and the older fellow, melancholy and cultured, who must have been the owner. "I only wish there were some other way," Jack mimicked the man's weary voice. "Paris is like my own son."
There was absolute silence in the close, dark little room. Paris was staring at Jack with a molten mix of defiance and despair.
"If he keep his son in chains," Paris whispered in a voice as dry as scrub.
"Him be Ol’ Mas’ to the life," whispered another, staring at Jack.
"And Justice Shepherd," nodded William Ibo. "And the manager from Dunbar’s."
The plotters began to exchange uneasy glances.
"Who betray us?" Paris demanded.
"It doesn’t matter, they’re on your trail now," said Jack. "That shot won’t make it any harder to find you. You must disband—"
"No!" seethed Paris. "It be a plot to break us up! Because we be too strong. But they no keep us here, not any longer!"
There was some agreement with this show of defiance.
"It’s the island militia," Jack repeated emphatically. "Scores of armed men. Whatever you’re planning, you can not win. If you are found here together, you are all dead. Your only hope is to get back to your houses before—"
"Why should we trust the word of a white man?"
"Why would he risk his life to come here if he were not in earnest?" Alphonse countered.
"To defeat us!" cried Paris. "To destroy us!"
There were more voices seconding Paris’ now, and still others raised in anxiety and doubt.
"We are not a mob." It was Alphonse’s clear voice piercing the hubbub of confusion. "Leaders from all the gangs are present— house, field, kitchen, mill, boiling-house. We must vote what to do."
"I vote to stand and fight!" declared Paris.
"Fight?" echoed Alphonse. "This is not a rising!"
"Two years of my life I give to this plan. I work and study every day to free us from this place," Paris countered. "For what? Must I bide the rest of my life in Ol’ Mas’ house? Do all his bidding, fetch and carry, feed on his scraps like livestock? The son he treat like a dog? And all the time, I dress him in his fine cloting, watch him fatten on my provision at his table, hear how he speak to his guests about the right of a man to choose his master, profit from his labor, live like a man. But I be noting in this place. I have noting. My labor come to noting. Evahting belong to Ol’ Mas’ until the day I die. And I say sooner bettah than later. I no go back to live like a dog. I rather die."
"And how many others must die for your pride?" muttered Jack.
Paris’ clenched fist smacked like a shot across Jack’s face. "Buckra know noting about it!"
"I know that when the militia gets here, people will die!" Jack spat back, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth. "Don’t sacrifice yourselves like pigs. Think of your children—"
"Our children belong to Ol’ Mas to use as him please!" hissed Mama Lizzy.
"And our women," cried Remus.
"But will they be any better off without you? Don’t abandon them to make some futile gesture." Jack pleaded. "Your plan for today is exploded, whatever it was. You can’t save it. But you can still save your lives if you act quickly."
"I have seen what happens," Alphonse agreed. "Every man will have a musket or a pistol. Most will have horses. They are so afraid, they will run down anyone at all, man or woman or...child. They will not ask questions. Whoever is not shot now will be hanged later. I have seen it all before."
"And I see enough of this life to know I nevah return to it," declared Paris. "Who is with me?"
"Me bring too many of you into this world to see you shot down like dogs," muttered Mama Lizzy. She clamped her few remaining teeth onto her pipe and strode to the door.
"Me got a wife and pickneys to tink of," murmured William Ibo. "If we run off togeter, it be wort the risk, but me no see them killed for no reason." He shook his head. "Me go back to me cabin."
"Me fight!" cried Remus.
"And me," added Henry, cradling his musket in the crook of his elbow. "Not all the dead be black when this day ovah."
Most of the others elected to return to their cabins and slunk off through the underbrush without further delay. A few still wished to attempt an escape, and Alphonse lingered among them, describing the hidden bay where the boat would come and the safe houses to search for across the Narrows on St. Kitts. Jack waited in quiet agitation at the door, while Paris and his handful of defiant followers made their last, hasty plans. Then the door creaked open, and a breathless William Ibo poked his face back inside.
"Horsemen!" he hissed at them all. "On the Upper Round Road, only half hour away!" And then he was gone.
Jack caught Alphonse’s eye over the ensuing commotion. Those few still determined to flee thundered out the door, and melted into the bush. Alphonse grabbed his hat. But as Jack pushed the door open for them, Paris’ voice split the charged air behind them.
"Don’t go yet, buckra."
Jack turned at the door to glance back. Henry, the marksman, was standing with his musket leveled at Jack’s midsection.
"Do not be a fool, Paris," Alphonse hissed. "He came to warn you."
"And he still useful to us, Belair. His militia maybe no shoot so fast if we have a buckra hostage."
"It’s not my militia," Jack pointed out. "I doubt they’ll hesitate on my account."
"We see," shrugged Paris. The musket clicked again.
"But what use is a hostage?" protested Alphonse. "There are too few of you to fight. You cannot make demands."
"But we be heard, if only for a short time. Others will hear what we do. We will die like men, not dogs."
"Fair enough," agreed Jack. "If Alphonse goes now."
Alphonse turned to frown up at him.
"One of us must get back to the others," Jack muttered to him, "and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be me."
"He’s right," Paris said to Alphonse. "You honor your pledge. But this not your fight any more. Go." He nodded toward the door.
"But this is nonsense," Alphonse fumed. "The only useful hostage is one your enemy cares about keeping alive. Jack is only a player. He has no value to them, or to you."
"But for his white skin. It be very funny how they can nevah bear to see any harm come to one of their own."
"If there’s no performance tonight, we'll all be under suspicion," Jack whispered to Alphonse. "Tory can't do it all by herself."
"Oh, hellfire," muttered Alphonse, and pushed out the door.
He suffered Jack to set him up on Shadow’s back, to exchange their last, hasty, covert words. Hugging tight with his short legs, and leaving very little play in his grip of the reins, Alphonse kept upright as the horse carried him across the open ground and back to the hidden trail. Jostled along in the underbrush as the trail wound down its long, slow descent, he was roundly cursing every misfortune that had brought him to this day when Shadow whuffled and hesitated. Muted noises came from a gap they were passing in the scrub.
Alphonse peered into it and saw that they were on a wooded ridge some little way above an open road. A troop of militia was passing in the road below. And what Alphonse saw in their midst made him pull up and drag on the reins with all of his strength.
But Shadow only shook off this annoyance, and continued his dogged descent down the trail in an irritated trot, so that it was all Alphonse could do to keep his seat. It was beyond his power to turn the obstinate beast around. There was no way to warn Jack now.
(Top: Plantation Slave House, Surinam, 1839. Image Reference BEN-C, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)