Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The end of the sugar cane harvest was called crop-over, the second most important holiday after Christmas in the sugar islands. On the plantations, the grinding mills and boiling houses were finally shutting down after their long spring labors. The cane juice had been struck, potted and cured, and all the molasses drained out and sent to the rum distillery. Roads were filling up with carts carrying hogsheads of sugar to the warehouses of Basseterre, to be traded locally to pay the planters’ debts or sold for shipping to England. The town was all abustle with merchants and attorneys, planters or their managers off the estates, overseers recently paid off in cash, slaves newly released from their crop-time labors, and crowds of Negro wainmen, carters and livestock herders accompanying the sugar into town. Enterprise and opportunity were in the air and coin would be changing hands one way or another.
But Tory was more interested in the ships sailing every day in and out of Basseterre Bay. Sloops, coasters, sugar droghers, cargo ships, all manner of vessels, all searching out a share of the crop-over profits. The waterfront was thronging with boatmen and sea captains all doing business on their own account. If she and Jack were ever to find another ship, it would be here.
After a breakfast for which their landlady refused to accept any payment, they emerged into the warm early morning. Tory carried her basket of belongings on her head, like any respectable island lady of color. But she was feeling frisky and invulnerable, her wits still pleasantly scrambled after last night’s lovemaking, and reeled off toward her first glimpse of blue water, beyond the square and the row of warehouses lined up along the beach overlooking the bay.
But their way was hindered by a press of people crowding into the square. In its center, Tory noticed a low wooden platform, like a stage. But the people being led onto it by a young constable were not players. A brawny mulatto sailor, an older black man whose hair was just beginning to whiten, an elderly African woman, a plump Negress of about thirty and two small children, a black boy and a mixed-blood girl. And all of them, even the children, were chained at the wrists.
"Do they imagine those babies will mount an insurrection?" Tory whispered to Jack. The boy might have been six, the girl less.
"I feel safer already," Jack muttered.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," cried a florid fellow who had hefted himself up onto the platform and strode out to its edge, clutching a fistful of papers. "We have some fine specimens for your approval this fine day. Gather round, now, and don’t be timid. The boldest bidding shall strike the soundest bargains today."
The prospective bidders crowded in. But for the threadbare sailor, all the people on the auction block were decently dressed and deferential. The older man bore it stoically when the auctioneer peeled back his lower lip to display his teeth, claiming he was sound as a gold guinea with years of service in him, yet.
"If slaves are so valuable, how do they end up here?" Tory wondered.
"Owners die or go bankrupt," Jack whispered back. "Slaves are part of their property sold to pay ther debts. Or some ailing planter forgets to manumit his black mistress and their mulatto children in his will, or his will is contested by his legitimate heirs. Or some unfortunate free person misplaces his papers and is taken up for a vagrant and sold as a runaway..." His hand closed gently on her arm. "Let's go," he urged her.
"Here’s a likely fellow for the fishing and boating trades," the auctioneer sang out, sweeping a hand toward the sailor. "He's..."
"I born free in Jamaica," the mulatto interrupted. "Cook's mate on the troop ship Valiant."
"So you claim," said the auctioneer, consulting his papers. "But in three months, you have produced no credible witnesses to testify on your behalf."
"Send to Jamaica, where I sign on. Evahbody know me, there."
"Why are you not on your ship?"
The sailors eyes flicked away. "I be...detained."
"Indeed you were, in the guardhouse for illegal gaming after the Sunday market," the auctioneer countered, eyeing his notes.
"And the Valiant sail next morning for Portsmouth wit'out me," the sailor cried.
"And all your witnesses with her. How convenient," the auctioneer rejoined, sliding a knowing smile toward the crowd.
Tory knew how easy it was to lose one’s shipmates in port. Jack was urging her away again when the auctioneer drew the plump black woman forward, the children following hesitantly in her wake. They were a family, Tory realized, despite the lighter complexion of the girl.
"What a fine breeder, eh?" the auctioneer cried, gesturing toward the woman’s broad hips. "Two brats already and capable of many more. This one," and he pointed out the darker boy, "is ready for the pickney gang already."
"Is there a discount for the lot?" queried a gentleman in the front row of bidders.
"Why, terms can always be arranged, sir," replied the auctioneer, and the bidding began.
The woman’s face remained impassive. But when one of the bidders finally named a price high enough to squelch the others, then added, "For the boy, as well," some of the stony resolve melted out of the slave mother’s face.
"Tanky, massa," she murmured.
"But I’ll not have the little colored wench," the bidder declared. "No profit in 'em."
The woman’s expression crumpled, but no sound came out of her mouth. She turned toward the girl, but the young constable stepped between them. The last thing Tory saw before she had to turn away was the stark incomprehension in the little girl’s face as her mother and brother were led away from her forever. A terror Tory knew all too well.
"Come away, Rusty," Jack said again, and lurched into the thoroughfare, winding around the hucksters, gangs of idlers and groups of festive latecomers still hurrying into the square. Tory stumbled after him, momentarily blinded by her own angry tears. But the next hand that gripped her arm was not his.
"Look what you’re about there, girl!"
Tory blinked up under the rim of her basket. The stranger’s features were in shadow, with the sun behind him, but she felt impatience in his grip and recognized the constable’s cap and jacket he wore.
"There’s no huckstering in the square today," he added, nodding up at her basket. When daylight caught his eyes, Tory saw a glint of vivid green in an otherwise unremarkable face, a pale, gemstone green like seawater over a sandy bottom. But there was no warmth in them; they were slits of cold green ice.
"No, sir. But I’m not..."
"Oh, no, ye never are," he mocked. "It’s sheer chance you happen to be out with a basket of rubbish to sell in the middle of a slave auction. But look here girl," and he jerked her arm for emphasis, "there’s some as turn their heads when you lot spill into the streets as if ye owned ‘em and do as you please. But not me. I know the law as well as you, and in this town you’ll confine your business to the market on legal market days. Understood?"
"Perfectly, sir." Tory didn’t know how much groveling she could do in her present temper, with a basket on her head, but this was not the moment to pick a fight.
"Unless you want the Clerk of Markets to reconsider your license." He paused and peered at her with renewed menace. "You have a license, I suppose?"
"I’m afraid you misunderstand me," Tory replied, as humbly as she could over her suddenly pounding heart. "I’m not selling..."
"No? Then let’s have a look in your basket. What’ve ye got in there, eh?"
Nothing of value Tory knew, only a few scraps of clothing and a ship’s logbook. The log of the Blessed Providence, in which she’d scribbled a history of her life in the pirate trade. Hers and Jack's. The constable’s hand manacled her wrist, there could be no twisting away from him. So many people in the busy street and not a single friendly face. She could only pray that Jack was far away.
"I’ll have a look," the constable repeated, and Tory reached up to lift the basket off her head, as slowly as she could. It was clumsy work one-handed, but she wrestled it onto her hip.
"These are only personal things, sir. Nothing of interest."
"But you would be surprised what interests me."
Tory had to force herself not to jerk the basket away when he reached for her tortoiseshell comb.
"Now if this is not merchandise..."
"Why, here you are, my dear!" sang a cheerful voice, and Tory looked around to see a beaming Amos Greaves, tilting his top hat off his clipped, receding curls as he bustled toward her.
"Mr. Greaves! What a pleasant surprise!" Tory cried, with more feeling than she had ever before uttered the phrase.
"Not so surprising, as I walk these streets every day of my life! Indeed, I was just popping round to see how you had passed the night. But I do hope there is nothing amiss," he added, casting only a mild glance at her captured arm. "If any mischance has befallen you in my establishment, my dear Miss Lightfoot, I shall naturally see to the matter myself."
His amiable gaze strayed to the constable for one brief instant, and Tory felt the hand melt away from her wrist.
"No mischance, sir," Tory smiled, thanking every god she could think of that Mr. Greaves had remembered her name. "There is such a crowd today, I’m ashamed to admit I lost my way."
"Then you must allow me to escort you, my dear," Mr. Greaves declared, offering her his arm and tucking her freed hand into the crook of his elbow. With another brief nod and a dismissive, "Thank you, officer," he swept Tory off into the street.
Behind them, Tory saw a distinct flash of green anger before the constable lowered his eyes and mumbled a response as deferential as any slave. Then he strode off in pursuit of a colored vendor of spruce beer. Not knowing how to explain what Mr. Greaves had just witnessed, Tory thought to distract him instead.
"How is your daughter this morning?" she prompted, resettling her basket on her hip.
"Why, she is well, Miss Lightfoot, very well, thank you," the gentleman beamed again. "She is fashioning quite a tale out of her narrow escape from that cutpurse. I heard it three times at Mrs. Hampton’s recital last evening, with the result that my Emily is invited out to a tea and a luncheon next week to tell it again. She embroiders it and tucks it up with each retelling, you see, so that one may say it has become the very tablecloth of her existence, in that she shall dine out upon it so often!"
"That must please her," Tory laughed.
"Indeed, her invitations are from the nicest sort of people."
"And that must please you."
"Yes, yes. Only now that her circle is widening...why, it pains me to say it, but even the nicest sort of young gentlemen do not always behave with perfect discretion, although I’m afraid you would blush to hear it, my dear."
Tory doubted that. "But even very, ah, inexperienced young girls will behave sensibly, if given half a chance," she ventured. "You must trust your daughter."
"It is not my daughter I mistrust, but...why, look here, Miss Lightfoot, here comes your friend!"
Tory had almost begun to relax until she saw Jack’s face, bloodless and worried, as he came slicing toward them through the crowded street. His color deepened when he saw her, and he even managed an actor's practiced smile when he recognized her companion. But silent anger darkened his eyes. Tory knew that look.
"Good morning, Jack!" cried Mr. Greaves. "See who I have found!"
"Why, thank you, sir," Jack sallied back. "I was just wondering where I’d mislaid her."
Greaves was ready to hand her over like a parcel of goods, but Tory dug in her heels and kept hold of the gentleman’s arm.
"Mr. Greaves has been telling me about his daughter," she prompted.
"Indeed, I’m afraid I was complaining to Miss Lightfoot about how easy it is for the fair sex to be misled. To make mistakes. Do you not find it so?"
"Yes. Often," Jack agreed.
"But she must learn from her mistakes," Tory suggested.
"Why, it is all very well to say such a thing," sighed Greaves. "But quite another to step aside and let the person one loves above all else gallop out unprotected, as it were, into the maelstrom."
Jack stood rapt, awaiting Tory's response.
"But what better expression of your love than to allow her the freedom to make her own choice?" Tory rejoined carefully. "How else will she ever learn to choose wisely?"
Something flickered in Jack's expression, but he glanced away before she could read it.
"I daresay you're right, my dear," Greaves sighed again. "But here I am boring you with my trifling affairs," he exclaimed, brightening again. "Behaving like an old fool when my intention was to call on you and wish you good morning. And here I find you out and about your business already. Most admirable!" He patted her hand as he released her, and Tory moved discreetly nearer to Jack.
"We must make our living, Mr. Greaves," said Jack, rallying as well. "You can appreciate that, as a man of business."
"Indeed I can, and I find it most admirable," Mr. Greaves repeated. "I confess, you intrigue me, sir. It takes determination to set up in this sort of trade, living hand-to-mouth, depending as it were upon the generosity of strangers, which is no certain thing. Considerable determination."
"No more so than setting up as a planter," Jack reasoned. "Or a printer. One makes use of whatever poor skills one has."
"Yes, but I wonder that more fellows of our complexion don’t follow your example. Some of these fellows, er, the lower orders," Greaves continued, his voice dropping low, "...er, the Irish, you know, and the like, so many of ‘em can’t be bothered to do a decent day’s labor. Act as if it’s beneath ‘em, even if it would earn them the means to get a leg up in society, and buy some little property in slaves. As you have done."
"Miss Lightfoot is not my property." It came out so fast, it might have been taken for a retort had Jack not engineered an affable smile and a look of only mild surprise. "She is a freewoman, sir. We are partners in business."
"Oh, indeed? Then how fortunate for you to have such an enterprising protector, my dear," Greaves smiled at Tory, not losing an atom of his conviviality. "Most enterprising."
"Indeed, we ought to be off about our business before we lose any more of the day," said Jack. "We’ll not keep you any longer, Mr. Greaves. It was kind of you to call."
"Most kind of you to humor a prattling old man." And shaking hands again, Amos Greaves bustled off into the crowd.
The road was filling with people dispersed from the auction as Jack slung the satchel of props over his shoulder and slid a hand gently but firmly under Tory’s arm to steer her into a quieter street.
"I thought you were right behind me," he whispered, at last.
"I was! That constable came out of nowhere."
"Aye, that’s what constables do."
Tory glanced up and saw the tight line of his mouth; he was working so hard not to scold her like a child, he was like to choke with the effort. But she could see how frightened he had been, and knowing she was the cause cut her like a blade. Jack had been half a world away at sea when the only parents he had ever known and loved had died, poor and alone, with no one to look after them. He had blamed himself ever since. She knew how desperately he needed to protect what he loved, and yet she'd behaved like a wilfull child. Who was she to speak of wise choices, capering off into an officer of the law, getting herself accosted. Jack deserved better than a fool for a partner. Hers would not be the only neck in the noose.
"I’m sorry, Jack."
Jack halted, drew a breath, turned to face her. "Don’t be sorry," he murmured. "Be careful. Please, Rusty."
Tory nodded. "He took me for a huckster," she added.
"I know," Jack sighed. "He was moving ‘em out of the square during the auction. The colored ones, anyway."
"But why? They do no harm."
"People of color moving about freely, earning their own living? Sets a dangerous example for the slaves." Jack shook his head. "I only wish you would try to stay closer to me when we’re out in a crowd."
"But if I must hide in your shadow every minute of the day, I might as well be your slave." He looked at her sharply, but she hurried on. "Don't you see? If I must play the helpless female every day, in need of your protection, that’s what I'm in danger of becoming."
"It’s only play, Rusty, only a role. You’ve played others."
Tory sighed over her basket, tucking her things back in place. "You’re the player," she reminded him. "Not me."
Glancing beyond her basket, she saw her own shadow together with Jack’s begin to fade on the ground before them. Looking up, she saw a fat, moist wedge of silver clouds sailing across the sun. Thunderclouds grumbling with the season’s first rainstorm.
Rain forced them to spend coin on a sour-smelling tavern room that night. The pattering of rain on the tin roof of a shed in the yard seeped into Tory's dreams, like the simmering of shell-filled calabash gourds on Jonkanoo night. It all came flooding back to her, their first night in Basseterre, months ago, Christmas night, when the slaves were turned loose to dance and drum and sing in the streets, to play at being free.
The dark, forbidden spirit of freedom was pouring into the town. The streets were flooded with Negro dancers, drummers, chanters and singers, pipers and costumed mummers, a laughing, hooting, jostling tide, swelling and falling to the melody of the cane pipes and the pulsebeat of the drums. Their abandon could be felt all the way to the Court House on the square, where nervous white sentries from the island militia stood guard with their primed muskets. It was only a play rebellion, this licensed anarchy. But how easily it might become the real thing.
"Nobody's thinking about pirates, tonight," Jack assured Tory, as they moved along the outskirts of the crowd. "They're far too worried about a slave insurrection."
Vendors of spruce beer and hucksters bearing trays of pickles and sweetmeats and toys and ribbons on their own account threaded their way through the mob. Drumming and chanting filled the air, and the crowd swayed to the rhythm as the last of the day gave way to dark, and that giddy joker’s scepter, the moon, began to glow white in the black sky.
Freewomen of color, gorgeously dressed in the latest London fashion on their way to private balls, paraded through the square to show off their finery. Rambunctious parties of town slaves were trooping between the houses, accosting spectators in the street for coin. There were female groups dressed as gaudy queens and their trains, each boasting a young woman singing comic songs about their master. A troupe of male mummers passed by in more outrageous motley, grouped around a fellow in a white paste mask with white powder in his hair, under a gilt crown, brandishing a wooden "sword." His retinue cried, "Make way fo’ Ole Mas!" or "Make way fo’ the King!" When Tory heard "Make way fo’ King Richard the T'ird!" she caught Jack’s eye and laughed.
"Richard, George or Old King Cole, it’s all one to these fellows," Jack grinned back. "They only know that a king commands their white masters. And that’s worth some play."
"Play?" Tory echoed.
"Sport, show," Jack explained. "It’s only during the holidays a slave may joke at his master’s expense and not suffer for it. He’s only making play, you see; it doesn’t mean anything."
"Does the militia know that?" Tory wondered, recalling the strained faces of the Court House sentries.
"Every white man in the Indies knows the slaves' fiction of freedom must be maintained for this one night," Jack replied, "or they risk a riot in earnest. They're only fools' revels, so the masters must take no notice."
The laughing and singing and percolating rhythms seeped into Tory’s bones, recalling another Christmas night and the first slave revels she had ever seen, in the town of Santiago on the southern coast of Cuba. Memory conjured up a fair, handsome face, blue eyes like a turquoise sea under a halo of golden hair. Matty. What a night of foolery that had been, searching for love in Matty’s powerful arms and astonishing body, but finding only humiliation—and damn little relief. Had it only been a year ago that she had been that ignorant chit, trusting herself to Matty’s reckless affections? She valued herself more highly, now, thanks to Jack, yet she could not repress a shiver of shame for the fool she had been. Jack felt it and drew her closer, and she smiled to herself in the dark.
Now, gangs of Negro men and boys were flowing into the square, some masked and costumed, others carrying wooden frames stuck with candles to light the way. Candlelight skittered crazily across the faces of dancers and spectators alike, turning them all into eerie masks, a sea of phantoms glimmering in the dark.
"Look, Rusty," Jack cried, "it’s a Jonkanoo party! There, that fellow in the huge headgear and his companion."
Tory saw a black man capering into the square in satin breeches that had once been white and a tailcoat studded all over with gilt and glitter and broken bits of mirror. He danced a rousing jig, despite the impediment of what looked like an entire house in miniature perched upon his head. It was missing one wall, so the interiors of the rooms were on display. The entire edifice sat in the hull of a pasteboard boat that served as the brim of the hat, all of it painted in hilarious colors. Another Negro man trotted alongside draped in a brown nappy cloth, wearing long paste horns on a circlet around his head. Every so often, both men paused, made a formal bow to each other, and began to dance in place in a kind of duel, the horned man leaping and prancing as the other jigged. A gang of whooping boys canvassed the crowd for tribute.
"It’s the Jonkanoo man and his bull or devil or whatever it may be, nobody remembers any more," Jack laughed. "Jonkanoo comes out at Christmas and all the rules are turned upside-down. Everyone has license to go about in disguise and deceive their fellows and poke fun at their betters and do whatever they please, all in the name of Jonkanoo. He’s like the Lord of Misrule."
The Jonkanoo party came dancing up with the capering boys banging sticks together and shaking gourd rattles.
"Say how-day Mist’ Jonkanoo," one of the boys chanted at Jack. "Him playing antics for you, massa, fo’ one macaroni."
Jack bowed and opened his empty palm to show he had no money. The Jonkanoo man and his bull-devil found this a great joke, laughing and slapping each other on the back, and began to dance a fast, frantic, scissor-kicking step. The howling boys closed in and Jack joined in, dancing the same frenzied step, in lieu of tribute.
"What was that all about?" Tory laughed, when the dancers had moved on and Jack had caught his breath.
"Just playing my part. All these fellows know how to play at Jonkanoo."
A sudden burst of light and shouting drew them further along the bustling street to the next corner. Peering over shoulders and between backs, they spied a tiny juggler perched upon an upturned crate, spinning three flaming torches in the air. Each torch somersaulted dangerously high, yet the juggler always caught them handle-first. He was dressed in a loose white tunic with black-edged ruffles at the cuffs. His star-pointed collar jingled with tiny bells and he wore a conical white hat with a tufted black ball at its peak above a garishly white paste Punch mask. And he was very small, scarcely any bigger than a Punch puppet, certainly no bigger than a child.
"It’s only a boy," Tory whispered to Jack.
Jack shook his head. "No doubt he earns much more if they think so. But his skill is far too mature. And look at his arms, small but muscular, like a little ox. What an artist! If that’s the sort of busker they’re accustomed to, here, we’ll have to hone our skills in the provinces before we play here in Basseterre."
"But surely the profit is here in the capitol," Tory protested.
"Not until later in the season, when the sugar crop comes in. Until then, we ought to make our way about the smaller towns and practice."
When Jack looked away from the square and out toward the dark bay, Tory heard his thoughts as clearly as if he had spoken them. She too saw the tiny points of light that marked the swaying masts of the ships in the bay, with their promise of flight and freedom. And then, again, at the edge of the square, the militiamen with their muskets at the ready, perched on the Court House steps.
"We’re not at sea any more," Jack sighed. "We must play at Jonkanoo every day to survive in this place."
(Image above: Harbour Street, Kingston, Jamaica, 1820. Image Reference: HAKE6, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.)