Wednesday, March 17, 2010
"You mean I cracked his ribs for him?" Tory groaned.
"No, cherie, the club do that," Cybele replied. "You only give him some extra bruises for his trouble."
Tory turned away, hands stuffed into her folded arms as if to prevent them doing any more damage, furious at herself. Furious at the world. Cybele knew that feeling very well.
"But for you, his ribs all be broken, now," she pointed out. "And his head, too."
She rolled up what few clean rags were left after she'd got done bandaging Jack. She had waited until dark to drive the wagon down to this place, according to the instructions Alphonse had given Marcus. If there was no word from the others by dawn, she was to take the children and the wagon and get away across the Narrows for Nevis. But they were here when she arrived, and in a fine mess of confusion, too.
Jack was not as bad as he looked, once you got past the dirt and blood. A twisted shoulder, a knot on the head, some flesh torn and swollen purple on the right side over his cracked ribs. Two, Cybele guessed. They would pain him awhile, but it might have been much worse. Still, she was glad to find him in a faint when she arrived. It was easier to clean him up that way, once she finally chased Tory out of the room, so she might work in peace.
Alphonse’s friend, Madame Louis, was well-stocked in sickroom supplies, living out of the way like this with her husband and his father and younger brother to look after. Salt-rakers, they said, their family had worked these same salt ponds for generations. Mme. Louis had given over her little cook-room behind the house to Cybele to brew up her comfrey poultices for Jack. She had a pot of broth on the fire as well. It would be dawn soon, and they must eat. She got up again to stir the pot. Tory was still pacing, hugging herself in agitation.
"Eh bien, cherie," Cybele sighed. The girl would never get any rest this way. "Take this mug of broth in to Jack. Sit with him a while."
Tory plunged out into the dark night, past the wagon where the children were, and into the house. She nodded to Alphonse, keeping watch by the front door, and slipped into Jack’s room. A small light burned low at the far end of the room, so Jack would not wake up alone in the dark. He lay on his back, propped up on pillows, but he turned his head when she came in.
"I’m right here, hombre." She put the crockery mug on the little table and laid her warmed hand on his arm. "Go back to sleep."
Jack started to shake his head, but thought better of it. One narrow bandage was wrapped around his forehead and layers of pungent poultices were fixed to his right side under a network of muslin strips that looped around his middle and across his bare chest over and under his sore shoulder. "It’s not so easy, trussed up like a Christmas goose. Stay and talk to me instead. How long have we been here?"
"Since nightfall. It’s not yet morning." She perched on the bed and nodded at the mug. "Cybele wants you to eat something."
"This is Cybele’s handiwork, then?" Tory nodded. "And the others? Marcus? There’ll all safe?"
"Everyone else is fine," Tory sighed, gently stroking his hair.
"And what about you?"
"Me? Nothing happened to me."
Jack peered at her a moment, reached for her hand and held it in his own. Tory could feel hers trembling, even now.
"It’s all right, Rusty," Jack murmured. "I’m all right. It was my own damn fault."
"It was not!"
"We should never have left the marketplace. At least we should have cut and run when that madman constable came along, but like a fool, I..."
"You were trying to protect us. You did the best you could."
"Aye, and so did you."
"I would have killed him. I wanted to kill him. And I would have enjoyed it."
It took her a moment to realize she was nearly crushing Jack’s fingers in her agitated grip. Horrorstruck, she jerked her hand away.Choking back the urge to sob like a useless female, she made herself keep talking instead. "I thought I knew what hate was. That rage to crush, to destroy, like some kind of beast. I've seen it in others, but I’d never really felt it before. But when I saw…that bastard…"
"Out came the beast." Jack finished for her. "Rusty, I’m so sorry..."
"I’d do it again," she declared fiercely. "In a minute."
"I know you would, compañera."
"But...hellfire, Jack, I almost killed you, myself; I didn’t know what I was doing," Tory groaned, her bravado ebbing away. "If I … killed that constable, we’ll be hunted like outlaws. Oh, hombre, I’ve put us all in danger."
Jack half-smiled in the dim light. "If you’re looking for a scolding, you’ve come to the wrong fellow."
"We would know by now if the constable were dead," Alphonse told them, just after sunup, when he slipped into the bedchamber. "If there were a charge of murder against us, the Deputy Provost Marshal would have the militia out combing the island for us. But the younger Monsieur Louis rode into the town, and there is no disturbance."
"He could say I attacked him," said Jack. "It would give him the perfect excuse to have me up on charges."
"Perhaps, but he would take a foolish risk bringing you into a court of law, looking the way you do."
"Surely he looks as bad as me," Jack reasoned.
"I doubt that. Victoria struck blindly, but he assaulted you with more intent. He knew what he was doing. He would be very foolhardy to claim that you had turned around and beat him after he had inflicted such punishment on you. Or the other way around." Alphonse paused to consider. "If you were a man of color, the accusation of a white man alone would be enough to convict you, in spite of the evidence. But if the constable brings you before a magistrate, you can testify against him. It would be your word against his."
"The word of a landless vagabond," said Jack.
"The word of another white man," Alphonse corrected him. "Think. The chief constable holds the lowest rank of any officer. Only constables and the watch of the night serve under him. For any major disturbance, the island militia is called out, or the regiment at Brimstone Hill. If neither you nor he can afford any property in land or slaves, you are both equal in the eyes of the law, but for his position as an officer of the peace. A position he dare not endanger. Remember, he had no authority to harm you; he was given explicit orders to conduct us safely out of town."
"But it was me committed the crime," Tory spoke up glumly. "Why not simply tell the truth and prosecute me?"
"That is his only legal recourse," Alphonse agreed calmly. "The punishment for any person of color striking any white person, no matter the circumstances, is public whipping at best. For beating him senseless, you might be transported, or hanged."
Tory's heart was thudding against her ribs. She had hoped Alphonse would tell her something reassuring. "And there was a witness," she groaned. She would have to leave them, for their own safety, Cybele, the children, all of them. She would have to part from Jack. Was this the sacrifice Fortune demanded? At least it hadn't been Jack's life, she must take some comfort in that. Or perhaps she ought to surrender herself to the law before they could hunt her down like an animal. Saying goodbye to Jack would be the end of her life; it wouldn’t matter what they did to her after that.
"You are not listening, Victoria."
She felt Alphonse’s hand on her arm and looked up.
"That slave witness is our best hope," he repeated. "No person of color can give testimony against a white man in court. But only think how damaging it would be to the chief constable if the justice’s slave were to speak up on his behalf."
Alphonse took a moment to assume the determinedly blank look of a slave under questioning by any white person of authority before he spoke again.
"Po’ massa, him beat bad. Young Missy, her beat him plenty hard wit’ him own club. Him no fight, no shout, no crawl away, but him lie ya like Devil hold him down and her whip him bad."
Tory and Jack could only stare as Alphonse calmly resumed his normal expression.
"He is only a chief constable, with precious little standing. He could prosecute you legally, Victoria, and have his revenge, but he would risk his reputation and his employment. How could he ever maintain the authority of his position if it were known he let himself be beaten so severely by a mere girl?"
A tentative grin tugged at Jack's mouth. "Have a care who you are calling ‘mere’." He reached for Tory's hand. "But surely our Chief Constable Raleigh won’t sit back and do nothing. I don’t read him as the type."
"No," agreed Alphonse. "But I doubt he will pursue any legal channels. The danger to us is if he gets up a party of vigilantes on his own—if he can pay for them. It will take a few days to lick his wounds and think up a plan. And by then, we must be gone."
"You don’t think he’ll try to pursue us?"
"He might. But he has his employment and his own injuries to keep him here for awhile. That is why we must leave St. Kitts."
"And go where?" asked Tory.
"Across the Narrows into the island of Nevis. The Louises know a family who operate a barge big enough for the wagon. It is a choppy ride, but a short one, and will keep us clear of Basseterre. Then we must drive down to Charlestown to recuperate. I also suggest we notify the Bruces to meet us there as soon as possible. They have a powerful friend in the Commissioner of the Dockyard at English Harbour."
"His jurisdiction does not extend to Nevis," Jack pointed out.
"No. But if anyone comes looking for us, any party of hired, armed men with anything short of a legal warrant from the Provost Marshal, the Bruces could appeal to the Commissioner for protection."
Jack nodded slowly. "But why Charlestown?"
Alphonse sat back to savor the moment. "The Bath Hotel," he announced, "the grandest place in the Leewards. In a few weeks, all the English fashion of the Indies will be gathering there for the season. They open their doors from November to March, but the most splendid time of year by far is Christmas."
"What sort of place is it?" Tory wondered.
"A resort where gouty old bankers and retired dowagers out from England come to take the waters," Jack volunteered.
"Wealthy dowagers and bankers," said Alphonse. "The idle rich are always in want of amusement. Especially during the holidays. Until then, Victoria and Marcus and I can entertain in the market, while you rest yourself. You must not risk further injury. You can plan some new business for us at Christmas."
Jack was starting to smile again. "A Christmas pantomime."
There was a scratching at the door and when Calypso put her head in, Tory motioned her inside.
"There be cook-up in the pot if you want someting to eat." She caught her breath—but only for an instant—when her eyes fell upon Jack. She stood in the doorway and stared. "You be one sorry sight, for true, Jack."
"So they tell me."
The girl strode across the narrow room to get a better look. Her wide, serious dark eyes moved slowly over his bandaged injuries, then rose to his face. There was something fierce in her expression, but her touch was as light as a breath when she laid her small hand on his arm.
"Cybele fix you up. Nevah you worry," she told him.
Jack could only nod back, too astonished to speak. The girl had never before shown him anything but fear. Then she turned to Tory, who stood beside the bed.
"For true, you beat the man who do this ting?"
"It’s true," Tory sighed.
Calypso nodded again, satisfied. Then she turned again to face them all. "The Louis brot’ers go to hear the news in the town. When we be ready, they say they take us down the Neck, but dark bettah."
"But only the three of us might be pursued," said Alphonse. "I doubt if the constable even noticed Marcus. You and Cybele and the boys might safely return to Sandy Point Town..."
"You no tink very highly of us if you tink we leave when trouble come," Calypso scoffed. "We nevah desert you in such a state."
For once, Alphonse was too discomfited to reply.
It was a miserable journey out of St. Kitts, that night, lying flat in a heavy wain drawn by mules along a rocky track where Tory felt every one of Jack’s silent grimaces like a blow. And then in the weathered cabin of the barge at daybreak, across the rough channel, with True wickering uneasily in a canvas stall outside, and the wagon made fast to the rolling deck amidships. Tory sat in the cabin with Jack propped up in her lap, attempting to cushion his bruised body from every swell and thundering boom of the heavy seas on the reef below.
Cybele sat nearby, hushing the boys. Alphonse, never comfortable on the water, kept an expression of fixed composure as he sat in the corner, speaking with Calypso. Every time Tory felt Jack’s body tense in her lap, she wished they’d had more time to rest him. She had never been so glad to get away from a place as she was to leave Basseterre behind, but why should Charlestown be any more friendly to runways and outlaws? How much longer could they hope to postpone their reckoning with Fortune?
(Top: Herman Moll, The Island of St. Kitts, 1729.)