Wednesday, March 10, 2010
"Constable, what the deuce is going on here?"
The blackness ebbed away and Tory saw a well-dressed white gentleman of middle years astride a fine horse riding toward them through the remaining onlookers. A black youth about Tory’s age, walked alongside the horse; he was not tall, but stocky through the shoulders, and dressed in a waistcoat and rolled trousers above bare feet.
"This man is a public nuisance," declared the head constable. "I’m taking him up on charges."
The gentleman’s face clouded and he looked at Jack.
"We are players, sir," Jack explained, with a nod that took in the three of them and their patchwork costumes. "We were not aware there was an ordinance against the pantomime."
"Why, there isn’t," replied the gentleman, leaning his arm on the horn of his saddle. "Did you apply for a permit?"
Jack hesitated for an instant. "No, sir."
"Ah. Well, there’s some small fine," the gentleman shrugged, sitting up straighter. "I forget what, exactly, but as a justice of the peace, I can impose..."
"I beg your pardon, Dr. Spence," the constable interrupted. "The play was indecent. They were agitating the darkies."
The justice shot him a noncommittal glance, then gazed around the remaining onlookers.
"Why, they seem rather peaceful, just now, Mr. Raleigh." Leaning forward again, he added, "Best to keep it that way, eh?"
"But they were disturbing the peace and creating a nuisance," the constable protested.
The justice sighed. "Mr. Raleigh, what will happen if you charge this fellow? He’ll have to be held in separate quarters from the Negroes, probably in the Deputy Marshal’s office, or in yours. You will need to find six justices to hear his case, which will be difficult now, with the planting underway, and all of us off about our private business. It will cause a great deal of bother for a very minor nuisance."
He had been speaking very low, as if to save Constable Raleigh further embarrassment. But while the constable held his tongue, his face remained choleric.
"Now, in my capacity as a justice, I am authorized to impose a fine in lieu of imprisonment..." The justice broke off and glanced again at Jack. "You’re not an indigent, are you?"
"We can pay," Jack replied.
"Ah. You see, constable, how easily it’s all arranged. I find for a fee of, ah, five pounds to be forfeit to the island treasury, payable at once to the chief constable here. I shall have my secretary draw up the legal papers for the report. In the meantime, Mr. Raleigh, I instruct you to convey these players safely out of town." He tilted his head vaguely eastward, his voice dropping again. "Just see ‘em down to the Neck and keep ‘em out of trouble. It’s too late in the day to transport 'em off-island, and I frankly don't care what they get up to, as long as they’re out of our district, eh?"
The conspiratorial approach did not mollify the officer.
"But, sir, I don’t believe you realize the danger..."
"Ah, but I do." The justice lost his veneer of joviality. "It is a Sunday. Leave your men to disperse this crowd and get those people away from here. Now, sir." He sat up a bit in the saddle. "Take along my boy here, to save yourself the bother of reporting back to me." He leaned forward one last time to add in a whisper, "Although you shouldn’t have much to fear from one man, a woman and a dwarf."
Constable Raleigh’s agitated face hardened to stone. "Aye, sir," he snapped coldy, and gave his commands. The justice spoke privately to his black slave in the waistcoat, and then rode off, leaving the silent youth behind.
Alphonse produced two gold Portuguese joes from their profits and made up the rest in Spanish dollars and shilling pieces to pay their fine, which Constable Raleigh accepted without comment. They gathered their things in their satchel and were herded through the streets, like a flock with an ill-tempered shepherd.
"Hurry along, now," he commanded them.
The officer had his club out in his hands, the silent black youth following behind him. Jack fell into step between Tory and Alphonse, two paces ahead of Raleigh, in the still-bustling Bay Road. Tory was glad of all the people still in the street, watching this odd parody of their pantomime procession. It was almost funny, but that the seething constable frightened her beyond measure. She had seen the hatred in his eyes when he looked at Jack, and that was before the justice had rebuked him in public. Her instinct told her to run away, but she knew they must enact this charade of simple players with nothing to hide until they were safely away across the town limits.
But the white stone buildings of Basseterre were soon behind them. They passed the last of the little wooden outbuildings that clung stubbornly to the margins of every West Indian town, then the Bay Road gave way to the scrubby track that sloped down into the lowlands and salt ponds of the panhandle called the Neck, the eastern extremity of the island. They were quite alone out here; the path was growing more treacherous through outcroppings of exposed rock and thorny brush, but still the constable herded them forward.
"You were fortunate today, but you won’t be, next time," Raleigh hissed from behind them as they passed through a little grove of palms. Tory saw Jack mouth a silent oath as he hitched the strap of the cumbersome satchel higher over his shoulder. "I saw you going about the town, speaking to slaves," the officer continued. "The law is very specific about trash like you. If ever I see you again in Basseterre, I’ll have your neck in a noose, and there’s an end to your playing. Do you understand me?"
Tory felt Jack’s hand on her arm and saw his other hand on Alphonse’s shoulder, propelling them slightly forward, putting himself instinctively between the two of them and the danger behind them. She hurried forward, abreast of Alphonse now, until a muffled thud made her spin back around. Jack was stumbling forward, the constable behind him, his club clenched high. The awkward swing of the satchel tangled up Jack's arm as his shoulder slammed against the stony ground. Before he could get his feet under him, Raleigh trotted up to kick him in the side, and the constable's club came down a second time.
"Damn it! You’ll answer me when I speak to you!" the constable shrieked, hovering over Jack, who sprawled on the ground with one arm over his head and the other twisted beneath him, struggling to draw up his knees. The constable's club slammed down again with the sodden thunk of hardwood hitting flesh and bone, an officious Mr. Punch beating a defeated Harlequin who did not spring up, roll over, fight back, as the club flew up again.
Tory never even knew she was moving. She only saw that upraised arm and charged it out of instinct, throwing all her weight against the constable’s side, feeling him go down under her. She kneed him flat against the ground, threw herself astride his back, and somewhere in the dirt her hand closed around the dropped club. Her first clumsy blow caught him across the shoulders, but the next one came down harder, and the one after that, one blow for every scar Jack bore, once for everyone in the world who had ever hurt him.
She had half-risen to a crouch when a hand closed around her upraised wrist from behind. But she pulled free and feinted back with her elbow, striking something solid.
"Christ Almighty, Rusty," Jack wheezed behind her. She whirled around to see him stumbling away from her, doubled over in pain, his face drained, both arms curled over his right side, a mess of torn and tattered patches and blood.
Tory dropped the club—she could not remember why she was holding it—and ran to Jack, catching him by his right elbow when he started to sway toward her. But he caught himself, shook his head and kept his feet, and Tory saw Alphonse materialize on Jack’s other side, supporting him with his powerful arms.
"This way," Alphonse hissed, propelling them once more south-by-east into the Neck. Behind them Tory glimpsed the constable’s motionless figure on the ground and the impassive face of the young black man, watching them. He had not moved when the constable assaulted Jack, nor when Tory attacked the constable. He made no move to stop them, now, as they hustled Jack away, but he did take one step toward the constable, then knelt down beside him.
"Victoria!" Alphonse snapped, and she turned quickly forward to help steer Jack away from a patch of prickly scrub. They were stumbling through bush and briar and flinty rock, but all of her attention was on Jack panting beside her, head down, bent forward, leaning heavily on the support of her hands under his arm. His body was so battered under the torn patches, she dared not hold him anywhere else, and she had seen blood trickling down his face from somewhere under his hair. He stumbled every other step and almost fell twice, but kept going. His labored breathing had taken on the low, steady cadence of words, and Tory began to recognize a litany of vivid, animated curses.
The sun was sinking below the treeline behind them, the shadows were lengthening and a mist was forming out on the water. It would soon be too dark to see where they were going, yet Alphonse kept urging them forward.
"We’ve got to stop!" Tory blurted out.
"No!" hissed Alphonse.
"Jack needs to rest! Are you trying to kill him?"
"Don’t stop," Jack grunted, his jaw clenched.
"No, don’t," Alphonse agreed, glancing up at her sharply from Jack’s other side. "Unless you’re planning to carry him the rest of the way. I know I cannot do it."
"Oh, hellfire," Tory muttered, angry and close to panic as they staggered along. "Bloody goddamned hell..."
"That’s…the idea..." Jack grunted again.
Tory did not know how long they blundered along in the shadowy dark, only that Alphonse kept them to some kind of track. Jack labored to keep himself alert and on his feet as they dragged him along until at last the outline of a small wooden house loomed up within a stand of concealing evergreens. Alphonse steered them onto the front veranda and rapped loudly at the wooden door. After a moment, it was drawn slightly back to reveal a man’s brown, wrinkled face under a receding cap of silver curls peering out at them under an upraised lantern. Alphonse spoke to the man in French and the door opened wide enough to admit them all.
Two younger black men and one woman rose to their feet as they tumbled into the plain room, inside. After some brief, terse conversation in French, one of the younger men took Jack’s left arm from Alphonse and drew it over his own sturdy shoulders. The woman moved to Jack’s other side, but Tory would not let go of him.
"Eh, bien," murmured the woman, backing away to an inner doorway on the far side of the room and motioning them toward it. Inside was a very spartan sleeping chamber with a wooden bunk built into one corner.
"Entrez," said the woman, gliding ahead to peel back a thin blanket from the straw-filled pallet on the bed and directing them to bring Jack in.
Thanks were beyond him, but Jack made a heroic effort to acknowledge his benefactors with a nod before the last of the color drained out of his face, and he slumped across the bed.
(Top: Detail, Orestes Pursued by Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.)