Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Chapter 1: BUSKERS

They were a cutpurse's dream, the pair of them. There could be no better diversion than the juggling couple keeping their small audience rapt at the corner across from the square, not if Abel Wylie had conjured them up special. There were beggars aplenty in these islands, raggedy drunkards and runaway slaves, but Wylie had never seen the like of these two.

The fellow was tall, scruffy, dark hair like a Spaniard, but with a patter of fancy English: not flash, but riddled with jests and poetic foolery, juggling like a demon. Old, rubbishy balls, they were, but spinning too fast to count. His wench didn't say much. Comely enough, but a sharp eye could spot the dusky bloodline in her dark hair and eyes. What few pure white women the island of St. Kitts had to offer would never expose their complexions to the tropical sun at midday, let alone display themselves with such vulgarity. She was less skilled than the dark fellow, but more of a draw, the way her bosom rose and fell and her skirts swirled above her ankles as she juggled her three dried gourds. They were no better dressed than field hands, but that wench held all eyes, whatever she was.

Two gentlemen in sober coats and frothy linen had stopped to gawk, joining the circle of Negro boys, and mariners, and colored shopgirls. Gentlemen of means. And Wylie moved in a little closer.

"We play but for your pleasure and we strive to please you every day, as the poet says," cried the tall juggler, concluding his trick with the balls. "You have only to ask and we shall do whatever lies in our poor power to amuse you."

"Show us the dusky wench," Wylie called, from behind a broad-shouldered Negro.

The juggler extended an arm back toward the woman, who came forward a few steps, still spinning her gourds. Her partner tossed her a wooden ball, then another. The objects flew higher and faster between them, the fellow alert but relaxed, the wench bobbing and twirling to keep pace. One of the gents cried, "Jove, indeed!" and tossed a coin into the jugglers' upturned straw hat. A glint of gold. Abel Wylie crept closer still.

Now they were asking the audience for objects to juggle. One of the gents proffered his top hat and a Negro boy produced a bristly coconut. A female voice piped up, "My fan?" And as the fellow in front of him shifted, Wylie saw his prize. A young lady of quality, she was, done up in yellow silk, face and bosom swaddled in veils against the sun. A glimpse of creamy white arm emerged as she stretched out her closed fan to her colored maid; from her gloved wrist dangled a lace reticule on a slender silken cord.

All eyes were on the fan, coconut and topper as the jugglers cut their figures—all eyes but Abel Wylie's. It was going to be so easy; he'd buy himself the friskiest whore in Basseterre, this night. The juggling wench finished by snapping open the fan and dipping into a low curtsy. The onlookers cheered and clapped their hands and the girl in yellow swayed up on her toes to get a better view as her maid left her to retrieve the fan. Wylie coaxed his knife out of his sleeve, cool steel, then the solid haft in his palm, as he closed in. His thin blade was only a wink away when the chit jerked her arm up to fumble with her purse.

"Stop! Thief!"

That sharp mulatto was shrieking, pointing at him. Heads were turning all around as the girl in yellow half-turned, bewildered, her purse twirling on her wrist. Wylie grabbed her round the waist and brandished his blade; such a frail, useless little thing, like all of her class. But good for something. She screamed when his blade looped under the cord to draw the purse off over her gloved hand. It spun by its cord, then settled down over his wrist as he feinted his knife back toward her veiled throat.

"Back away," he growled to the clerks and slaves behind him, but there were too many of 'em back there, a gauntlet, what with his burden. His shield. He jerked the whimpering girl in the other direction, past her maid and the jugglers, toward the cover of a side street round the corner; Abel Wylie knew every forgotten passage and back alley in Basseterre. But that damned juggler took a step to block his path. Wylie pressed his blade into the gauzy veil. The juggler froze.

"Easy friend," he murmured, his dark eyes fixed on Wylie's. Unnerving eyes, cold as steel. "The girl's no use to you. Let her go. You've got what you want."

Wylie tightened his grip on his hostage, dared to glance away for an instant, and saw it there on the ground between them, the straw hat with its contents of coins. Without a grunt of warning, he flung the girl into the juggler, sent him stumbling backwards as Wylie scooped up the hat and raced for the corner. He heard cries and commotion behind him, the wailing of the maid, the spluttering anger of the men, now the danger was past. He'd laugh if he had the breath for it, gulls and fools, the lot of 'em, but he kept pumping along, behind a warehouse and into a deserted back street. But halfway down its length, something hard caught him square in the back, knocking the wind out of him, damn near bowling him over. Staggering to keep his feet, he spotted something rolling in the dirt, nearby. A wooden ball.

Wylie didn't relish a fight with that cold-eyed juggler, a rangy fellow who knew how to move, but he had a better weapon than a ball and no wind left for running. He spun round in a crouch, his blade at the ready—and damn near laughed out loud. It wasn't the juggler coming after him, at all. It was his wench, panting and red-cheeked, her dark eyes on fire. Running straight for him. Alone. By damn, but wasn't this his lucky day?

Tory was so outraged, she was galloping like a racehorse before she even knew it, skirts be damned, while Jack was still tangled up in that swooning girl with her ridiculous veils. She'd seen Jack nudge forward his hat with his foot, gambling the fellow would be greedy enough to trade the girl for their earnings. And the gamble paid off, but that didn't mean Tory had to let him get away with it; the day's profits gone, and all their effort wasted. They would have to make a meal of that coconut and sleep under the stars. Again.

She had noticed him earlier, sulky and pinch-faced with dirty blond hair straggling to his threadbare collar. One of those landless white men who had come out to the West Indies to make their fortune, and failed. She knew by his insolent gaze he took her for a submissive mulatta wench, ripe for the plucking. He thought so still, as he came about to face her, open mouth sneering into a smile.

"Is this what you want, Pet?" He shook the hat, clutched closed and rattling with coins, above his head as Tory circled him, the lacy little purse dangling absurdly from his wrist. As if he thought she was witless enough to dance after it, like a coddled cat. "Is it? Well, just you come and get it!"

He feinted at her playfully and Tory darted aside, but her kick glanced off his thigh. Hooting, he thrust his arm out again, but she watched for the instant he was off-balance to seize his wrist with both hands and bring her knee up hard into his belly. His laughter curdled, his open mouth desperately sucked for air as she shook the hat out of his grasp, its few pitiful coins rattling off in all directions. She yanked the reticule off his wrist, as well, and flung it far across the road, then spun around and kicked his legs out from under him. He toppled over, and she raced away to gather up the coins, before some other enterprising beggar beat her to it. She spied some Spanish gold—not doubloons, she noted sadly—among the misshapen bits, British shillings and twopenny pieces the islanders called "dogs." She and Jack were no more likely to make a fortune in this trade than the last one.

As something growled behind her, she turned to see the thief lunging for her in fury, knife outstretched, with all his weight behind it. She dropped beneath the blade and rolled into his legs; his own momentum carried him over her back to slam into the dirt road. Leaping up again, she stomped on the hand that held the knife; his fingers unclenched, she grabbed the weapon, and slipped it into the waist of her skirt as she danced out of his reach, pausing only to scoop out a dog, and fling it into the dirt near his head.

"Buy yourself a toy you can handle. Pet."

She sprinted off before he got his wind back to retrieve the rest of the coins and Jack’s battered hat; she only just remembered to fetch the yellow silk purse out of the roadway as well as she hurried out of the narrow street. Trying to pat her disheveled clothing into place, she threaded her way back through more populated streets for the square.

Basseterre in crop time was a bustling commercial town of imposing Georgian houses, shops and waterfront warehouses. Ladies swathed in gauze rode by in fine carriages for the shops on the square. Pink-faced gentlemen sweated in their linen and complained about the price of sugar. The place reeked of civilization. But for the tall, rustling palms, the colored hucksters with baskets of wares on their heads and the throngs of Negro slaves, it might have been a Boston street scene in miniature. It made Tory grimace with irony, after all the trouble she'd taken to get away from Boston.

The corner where they had set up their pitch commanded an excellent view of the open roadstead of Basseterre Bay, the finest deepwater bay in the Leewards. Tory paused to watch the bobbing of the ships' masts, smell the brine and fish, listen to the mocking laughter of the gulls. She could feel the tidal pull of the freedom they had lost.

But when she turned back again, a gentleman of some authority was accosting Jack. Dapper and middle-aged, he was too well-dressed for a constable, but he might have been a magistrate. The young lady in yellow was gone.

Tensing for another fight, Tory closed on them, fingers creeping over the haft of the knife. Then Jack smiled, the other man laughed, grasped Jack by the hand, and began to pump as vigorously as a market woman at a dry well. Tory chanced one shallow breath, dumped the contents of Jack's straw hat into their open satchel of props, and hurried toward them, holding the little reticule aloft. Jack turned, and she saw relief flood into his dark eyes.

"Here is my associate, sir, and see what she brings," Jack said to the stranger. "Miss Lightfoot, may I present Mr..."

"Greaves, Amos Greaves Printers," the gentleman spoke up, seizing her hand with the same enthusiasm. "Delighted, my dear!"

Tory wasn't sure if she ought to curtsy again. They were not accustomed to any sort of attention from the first class of white citizens, let alone public displays of goodwill. Then the gentleman glanced up at the trophy she held. "But see here, you don’t mean—"

"Fellow must have...dropped it. In the alley. In his haste to get away." She knew better than to claim any credit, trying on what she hoped was a demure smile as Mr. Greaves pressed her hand with renewed gratitude.

"How fortunate for you, my dear. And for my poor daughter. She told me what happened," he added, nodding to a carriage drawn up in the road, a whisper of yellow silk fluttering out the open door. "Fellow had a knife, they say. Well, ours is a precarious life in these islands, most precarious. Earthquakes, fire, pestilence. We can’t know where the hand of Fate will strike next! But for your intervention, sir, I daren’t think—"

"But I did nothing—" Jack began.

"Stuff!" declared Greaves. "A cool head in a crisis, that’s what counts, sir! I’ve lived on this island, man and boy, for forty years and I’ve seen far too little of it." His eyes strayed again to the carriage and he lowered his voice. "My daughter is most precious to me. I try to keep her safe, but it’s a world of temptation, as I daresay you know, Miss Lightfoot, a world of temptation. And young girls are not always the most sensible of creatures, especially young girls with my Emily’s youthful spirits. Poor thing, she lost her mother when she was still a lass and now she has only her old papa for company and no one to teach her the proper way to behave."

Tory was hardly an authority on proper female behavior, but she knew what it was to lose a mother at a young age.

"I’m sure your love is the best possible company, sir," she told him, handing him the little lacy purse. "And I’m sure she knows it."

Greaves bloomed like a bride and clasped her hand again.

"What a kind thing to say, most kind!" he cried. "See here, I mean to offer my thanks for the kindnesses you have both done."

"No thanks are necessary, Mr. Greaves," Jack assured him.

"Of course they are! My daughter is my life and to show my gratitude, I would be most honored if both of you would join me for dinner at my club this evening."

"’re far too generous," Jack stammered. His furtive glance swept across his own plain shirt and trousers and Tory's outfit, much the worse for wear, scarcely better than slave clothing. "It is you who honors us. But as you can see, we are only buskers who play in the road and hardly dressed for such an occasion."

"Dress?" echoed Mr. Greaves. "Stuff! I came out to the Indies a barefoot lad in rags, ‘prenticed to Mr. Jones, the printer, when he found me scavenging in his dust-heap. I own my own printing office, now, and a controlling interest in Greaves and Henley Mercantile and a sizeable share in the Fairhaven sugar estate on Monkey Hill, to say nothing of my seat in the Assembly. So I ask you," he concluded, drawing breath, "what has dress to do with it?"

"A very enlightened attitude," Jack agreed. Then, voice dropping, he added, "But I’m afraid ladies sometimes see things in a different light."

Mr. Greaves swiveled his eyes again at Tory, who tried not to bristle in irritation that Jack would suggest she was the type of silly female who gave a damn about dress. But she knew enough to drop her eyes. They had very good reasons not to wish to be paraded into the private club of the finest gentlemen in Basseterre, many of them sure to be Assemblymen, or members of the island Council. Their survival in the islands depended upon not being especially noticed, on melting into the margins of society.

" thoughtless of me," blustered Mr. Greaves. "I have no wish to cause Miss Lightfoot the slightest discomfort, certainly. But look here, if I cannot persuade you to dine with me, please allow me to escort you to the finest lodging house in town, just down the next street, run by the most genteel colored lady. I happen to own a share in the place and I can assure you, the rooms are first-rate. I insist you to stop there tonight as my guests. Assuming, ah, that you have engaged no other lodgings? No? Splendid! I must warn you both, you shall wound me greatly if you refuse."

Tory could not remember the last time she and Jack had slept under a roof. Jack must have been thinking the same thing, the way he was looking at her.

"Mr. Greaves, it’s not in our power to refuse so generous an offer," Jack smiled. "You do us a very great honor."

"Stuff!" chortled Amos Greaves.

Jack raked back his hair, and in the act of clapping his straw hat back on his head, tipped Tory a sidewise look so full of the devil, she felt a tremor like an earthquake. A room. With a bed.

It still astonished Jack that Tory had ever been mistaken for a boy. He knew about the element of surprise, how men at sea, terrified witless by a band of marauders, were not expecting to see a female in their midst, and so failed to recognize one, even when she strode right under their noses. Yet, even disguised in rough, shapeless male clothing, Tory’s body was a symphony of rounded female flesh. How could anyone who called himself a man fail to notice?

But few men had the opportunity to see Tory as Jack saw her now, standing before a porcelain washbasin, arms upraised, taking the pins out of her hair, full breasts rising under her muslin chemise. The last pin came out and Tory’s long, thick, dark hair, kissed with copper in the candlelight, tumbled down her back. Not black silky hair, like her mother’s must have been, but dark, lush, unruly and impudent. Like Tory herself.

Jack smiled and Tory glanced at him, as if she'd heard it.

"What a dainty figure you cut at your toilette," he teased.

"Had you left me more than a thimble-full of water, I should have bathed more heartily."

"I left you half the jug!" Jack protested, applying his towel more vigorously to his wet hair.

"Aye, but we’ll want some in the morning, too."

"They’ll bring another jug in the morning, Rusty."

"Will they?" She sent another covetous glance toward the water pitcher.

What a child she was. Jack wanted to put his arms around her and keep her safe forever from the world she still knew so little about. At the same time, he felt he ought to run out the door and never return. Tory was still so young, only just ripening into her womanhood. She ought to have a wonderful life ahead of her. But all she had was him. And he shifted his eyes away.

After a meal of fried fish cakes, roasted chicken, four varieties of local fruit and the best London Madeira, served in the dining room of the most genteel colored lady, Jack and Tory had been conducted upstairs to this private chamber. It was small, but after all the makeshift accommodations they had experienced on land and sea, it was a dream of luxury. A real iron bedstead with a thick mattress under a snowy satin coverlet stood against one wall, across from a large window with wooden jalousies that overlooked the square. The washstand, with its ewer, basin and glass, occupied a corner near the bed. A braided cotton rug protected the polished wooden floor under two upholstered chairs, and Jack was slouched in one of these, still rubbing the towel through his hair.

He had forgotten how dusty and dirty it was, the vagabond life ashore. He had grown up in that life back in England, following the fairs, but that had been long ago. The rains were late this year and the roads were hot and dry and there were days he prayed for a good squall, even a hurricane, if only to wash the dust away. But Tory never complained.

He glanced at her again, swallowed another smile as she perched on the edge of the bed. Her face lit up like a child’s.

"Feathers, by all the gods!" she grinned. "Not straw."

Her natural complexion was the color of milky tea, but her face and arms were sun-baked, sprinkled here and there with those rusty freckles Jack found so irresistible. Did anyone ever trouble to study her, they might see she was not mulatta, white and African, but what the Spanish called mestiza, white and native; her mother had been a Mohawk Indian from America. There was a proud arch to Tory's nose, and no trace of island, much less African in her speech. But for all the islanders obsessed over shades of color and degrees of dark blood, Jack knew there were only two colors that mattered in the Indies—white and not white. Just as there were only two distinct classes, free and slave. And once Tory was perceived as not white, no one troubled to look any closer.

It suited their purpose to pass her off as a lady of color, since white "buckra" men and their colored mistresses were so common in the islands. But at least Tory was also seen as free colored, that class of mixed-blood islanders descended from slaves whose lighter complexions had helped them obtain their freedom. And Jack knew that freedom was all that had ever mattered to Tory, ever since she'd run away from that fancy Boston girls’ school they’d caged her in after her mother died. She had dressed as a boy, run off to sea, even joined a crew of brigands, to earn her freedom. She would be sailing, still, if not for Jack and his damned fever. That was how they’d fetched up here in the Leewards, without a ship, to make what living they could. The only other living Jack knew was the tumbling trade he’d learned as a boy, a pauper’s trade to be sure, but it kept them alive. As mere buskers, they fell between the cracks of the rigid social strata that governed colonial life. Tory was able to keep a measure of the freedom that was life to her. As she was life to Jack.

Tory had tucked up her legs and was now combing her hair with a little tortoiseshell comb Jack had bought her at the Sunday market. One of the few presents he could afford to give her.

"You made quite a fetching picture with that fan, today," he observed. "Perhaps we ought to get you one."

"What would I do with a fan?" she laughed.

"I don’t know, whatever ladies do with fans. Flutter it about and make sheep’s eyes at all the young men."

"Like that worthy specimen we saw today?" she teased.

"How obliging of him to drop that girl's purse."

Tory shrugged. "Perhaps now he’ll think twice before he tries to rob a woman on a public street."

"Perhaps. But that’s hardly the way a lady behaves in public."

"No? The next time I meet a lady, I’ll let her know." Tory gave the comb a purposeful tug. "Why should I stand idly by and allow some lout to rob us?"

"Because we’re in the civilized world, now," Jack sighed. He knew how feeble it sounded.

"Where women must hide behind their men like children?"

Jack sighed again. How he wished he could give her back the life she craved, the free life on the open sea he had stolen from her when he’d fallen ill with the fever. But they were stranded here now, and the Blessed Providence and her crew were far away.

"You taught me better than that, Danzador, she reminded him.

Jack smiled at the Spanish word for dancer, that’s what their Cuban shipmates had called him for his acrobatics in battle, tumbler’s tricks he'd taught Tory to defend herself. And she'd learned well. He stood up, tossed his towel on the washstand, and stretched. It was a warm night, dry and hushed; even the clacking of the night insects was subdued. There was still no hint of rain. He longed for a fresh breeze off the trades to cool them down, but knew better than to open the shutters, not until they’d turned down the light and gotten under the netting. Night breezes brought with them whole battalions of biting, stinging, flying creatures on dry land. He reached for the yoke buttons of his shirt.

"Is there anything else about life ashore I ought to know?" Tory wondered, behind him.

"Only that it’s not much of a life," Jack mumbled into his buttons. "I wish I could give you a better one."

"I don’t need any better. All I need is you."

"You deserve more," he declared, hauling his shirt off over his head.

"But use every man after his desert and who shall 'scape whipping?" she teased back. It was their old habit, bantering Shakespearean quotes, ever since Jack had been fool enough to admit to her he'd once been a player. But now her voice die away in her throat, and when he saw his shirt in his hand, he realized why. His flogged back was not a sight for the faint-hearted, a lasting souvenir of his early years at sea on less fortunate berths than the Blessed Providence. Tory should be accustomed to it by now, but it was the last thing she'd want to see while making a jest about whipping.

In a heartbeat, Tory's arms came around his waist from behind. Her cheek nestled into the hollow between his shoulders and her warm mouth moved gently against the ridged flesh of one of his old scars. "I’m sorry, hombre," she murmured. "I didn’t—"

"I know, I know," he dismissed her apology, smiling again. "Hellfire, Rusty, you’re the most tender-hearted pirate there ever was. How did you ever survive in the trade?"

"I had you to look after me."

Jack closed his eyes, relaxed into the warmth of her body, and let her comfort him. That was his weakness, letting Tory comfort him, allowing himself to believe they could make a life together. An honorable man would have cut her loose by now, freed her to make her own way in the world. She could be whatever she wished, make a fortunate match with some wealthy planter; there were still plenty of men who had made and kept their fortunes in the Indies. But Jack would never be one of them. He could see nothing in his future but hard labor and small profit and dust and disappointment, and he had no right to drag Tory down with him. But she would not let him go. She had not allowed him to die in peace of the fever when they were marooned together in a damp cave on some Godforsaken rock in the Virgins. When he tried to run away, she tracked him down and had her way with him into the bargain. And that was the end of his feeble attempts to behave like an honorable man.

Sooner or later, Tory must realize how much better off she would be without him. But Jack would not press the issue. He had never expected to survive in the pirate trade, had certainly never expected to love, or be loved. But Tory took him by surprise, breaking all his rules, as she had broken so many others. He might wish he'd come by her love more honestly, that he'd won her on his own merits, not merely through the circumstance of their having been marooned together on that wretched rock. It was only the fear of contagion that caused the captain to put her ashore with Jack at all. But she was his now. And he was still pirate enough to take his prize where he found it, and not trouble overmuch about how he had obtained it.

"Come to bed, Jack," Tory whispered, nuzzling his back.

He turned around in the circle of her arms, lifted her face in both hands, and kissed her soundly. "You’re right, mi vida," he smiled. "Who knows when we’ll ever find another bed? It would be a crime to waste it."

In the dark, the feather mattress was as soft and buoyant as a sigh, like sinking into a cloud. Tory imagined the feathers taking flight, bearing her aloft through a black sea of stars, her hand on a tiller as sure and solid as bone, as inviting as flesh. She didn’t realize she was dreaming until Jack’s hand stroked her breast and her moan of pleasure woke her.

"Are you sleeping, Rusty?" Jack whispered, trying to sound wounded as he lowered his face into the curve of her neck.

"Not any more." She gently squeezed his hip under her hand.

"Have you any of your herbs left?" he murmured into her hair.

"I...think so."

Jack’s hand stilled. He lifted his head. "You’re not sure?"

"I think I do," she repeated firmly. "Where is the moon?"

"On the wane, I believe," Jack sighed, regret creeping into his voice. "Not a good time for planting seeds, I suppose."

"But a fortunate time for me, at the moment," she assured him, sliding her fingertips gently down into the coarse, curly hair below his belly. She had become expert at calculating time by the moon, her woman time. She had to, or Jack would not lie with her, not since she’d told him her mother had died in childbirth. He could be as stubborn as a bull, would do anything, deny himself anything, to keep her safe. No matter what it cost her to deny herself him.

But not tonight. They were safe, tonight, shuttered away in the dark. Jack stirred under her touch, groaned softly, and caressed her again, slowly, rousing her. This was the only advantage there was to being female, creeping into the shelter of Jack’s strong, battered body, feeding his need and her own. Tonight they would deny themselves nothing, adrift on a sea of stars in the dark of the moon.