Wednesday, March 24, 2010
"It looks like a mausoleum," grumbled Jack.
"It will seem more lively when it is filled up with the English and their money," Alphonse assured him.
They stood in the road looking up at the grey stone facade of the Bath Hotel. Behind a fantasia of terraced gardens, it rose like an immense volcanic cinderblock striped with rows of white lattice-work balconies. Many of its tall windows stood open today, eyeless black cavities in a massive grey skull.
There was something ghostly about the place, Tory agreed. But when Alphonse led them along the rising slope that skirted the gardens, and around to the great open courtyard in back, they found activity in full swing. Barefoot Negro men in livery were sweeping out the coach house and cleaning and polishing heaps of brass and leather tack. Through the open wall of the cook-house, kitchen women were scouring pots and arranging stores. Other slaves beat carpets out in the open air or fetched and carried between the hotel and the outbuildings while a procession of laundresses hauled baskets of sparkling white linens up the hill from a stream.
"The hotel is not yet open for guests," Alphonse explained. "And there is much to do before then, for the place has been shut up since last spring. No one will take any notice of us."
Tory kept one eye on Jack. It was only a short walk up the road from Charlestown, where they had left Cybele and the children and wagon, and Jack was careful to carry himself as if nothing were the matter. But Tory knew the labor every breath cost him, how sore he still was, how livid the purple bruises still were under his clothing. They'd been a week on Nevis, this round island dipped in green velvet with a steep, cloud-laced cone rising out of its center, but had not played at all, waiting to see if any official warrants were posted for the apprehension of a Harlequin, Columbine or Punch. None were, so far.
"How many people come here?" Jack wondered.
"There are rooms for fifty guests, most of whom stay for the season," said Alphonse. "But their numbers double in the evening if there is a ball or a recital to attract the fashion from the island."
"And what do they do here all that time?"
"Take the waters, dance, pay social calls. Play the piano. Read novels, play at cards and billiards." Alphonse shrugged. "All the usual ways the wealthy English find to idle away their lives."
"And you've lodged in this fancy place?" Tory asked Alphonse.
"Not in the hotel itself. But I have slept many nights in the cook-house. Cook-houses and tender-hearted kitchen women are the best friends a traveler can have in these islands."
Jack was gazing at him, shaking his head. "Whatever do you do with all your profit, when you live so simply, yourself?"
"I seem to spend most of it keeping you two out of mischief."
Three more black laundresses were bringing their baskets up from the stream, and when one of them noticed Alphonse, she beckoned a word with him. Tory and Jack waited apart as the young woman bent down to speak privately into his ear. He only nodded in response, but when he rejoined them, his face had grown so closed, Tory thought better than to tease him about his assignation.
Soon the season was under way in Charlestown. The Main Road hummed with the fine carriages of planters and their wives and daughters parading from the silk merchant to the hatmaker’s in preparation for the balls and fetes to come. The docks were busy with the smacks, coasters and mail boats that trafficked between the islands, then with the first voyagers out from England.
Tory, Alphonse and Marcus began juggling at the weekday markets, and the Bruces soon arrived from English Harbour. Alphonse engaged drummers for the Sunday markets, where they performed in plain clothes, not their pantomime costumes, and of course, without Jack. They worked up a new plot in which Alphonse imprisoned Marcus and Tory spirited him away; Alphonse said it was still important to tell a story.
Returning from the marketplace one afternoon, Tory sent Marcus ahead to Cybele for his dinner and bolted up the step into the wagon to see Jack. Their wagon and the Bruces’ horse-drawn caravan were camped in a broad, green, tree-shaded clearing off the Main Road, just south of Charlestown, at the fork in the road that led to the Bath Hotel. But when she found the wagon empty, panic seized her. Had Jack been captured? Arrested? But no, Cybele was just outside. Then a more sinister thought gripped Tory’s heart. Had Jack run away from her? He'd tried it once before; she deserved better, that’s what he’d said. And if he thought his presence put them in danger after Basseterre, he was just enough of a fool to...
"Hellfire, Rusty, what’s the matter with you?"
She spun around to see Jack hauling himself up into the doorway.
"Where have you been?" she gasped.
"Outside." He looked at her curiously as he stepped in over the jamb. "Are you all right?"
"I was...surprised you weren’t here." She was ashamed to tell him why. "You should be resting."
"I should be doing something." He had his old volume of Shakespeare under his arm, a prize he had once plundered from some merchant captain, and he set it on the bed. "I feel like a kept man, lounging about all day. Only I can’t even earn my keep in the usual manner," he added, with a wry grin.
"It’ll go on your account," Tory promised, recovering herself. "When you feel better."
"I feel fine now, but for the crashing boredom." He sat on the edge of the bunk. "How was the market?"
"We miss you. But the Bruces met an old friend who invited them out to dine."
"Good. I feel we’ve lured them here under false pretenses. They came out expecting to join a pantomime."
"It’s not your fault, hombre. When the season at the hotel gets under way..."
"It will only get worse," Jack finished for her. "Remember what Alphonse said, balls, billiards, recitals. The people who come to the Bath Hotel aren’t slaves or tavern-keepers, they’re the cream of West Indian society and those of the English ton with the means to winter in the Indies. How many of 'em do you think are likely to come tripping down to the market square, rubbing elbows with slaves, to watch common jugglers? How many of those will come back a second time?" He shook his head. "If we are to compete with balls and musicales for an entire season, we must do something sensational."
"We do throw knives and torches," Tory reminded him. "How much sensation can the public bear?"
"Let’s find out. Let’s give 'em Shakespeare."
"These people consider themselves sophisticates," Jack pressed on eagerly. "They’re sure to think ordinary busking far too low for their refined sensibilities. But a dose of the Bard will make us seem more legitimate and confirm their good taste in coming to see us. Everyone goes to the theatre in England and everyone is expected to have an opinion of the latest production. A juggling production could be the talk of the island. Not an entire play, of course, we lack the means, but a scene or two, in costume, if we can. I was thinking of Macbeth."
Tory regarded him. "A juggling Macbeth?"
"Don’t look at me like that," Jack laughed. "We’ll put up a stage, here in the clearing. Think of it—the dagger scene. At night. By torchlight. Macbeth and his lady murdering the old king. 'Why did you bring the daggers from the place? Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers!' Knives flying through the air as fine ladies swoon."
"It sounds ridiculous!" Tory was laughing now, too.
"But nothing of the like has ever been seen before..." Jack persisted.
"I can see why!"
"...and people will flock to the novelty of it. Once they’ve come, we’ll dazzle 'em with artistry. And Macbeth is one of your favorites, so you already know many of the lines—"
"Lines?" Tory stopped laughing.
"Oh, aye, you can’t do Shakespeare in dumb show, even if it is only an acrobatic routine. We must have a little acting."
"I can’t act!" Tory cried, aghast.
"Hellfire, Rusty, you were passing yourself off as a boy when I first met you!" Jack exclaimed. "You’ve been a player all your life."
"That was different! My life depended upon it."
"And now our livelihood does, which amounts to the same thing. You like playing Columbine, don’t you?"
"It’s a pantomime! She doesn’t speak! Anyway, you can’t even think of juggling again until you’re better healed," Tory insisted. "What if you wrench something vital while the knives are flying?"
"If I find I’m too sore, I’ll let you do most of the business and I’ll do most of the lines," Jack assured her. "Acting needn’t be physical. Some of the most acclaimed tragedians in London never move out of the spotlight at all. I know we could be splendid," he added with his most ingratiating smile.
Tory knew only that she would make an utter fool of herself, but she didn't have the heart to argue with him.
To Tory’s further dismay, Alphonse approved of Jack’s idea. They set out to erect a stage in the clearing from scrap timber bargained from a Charlestown merchant. The older boys and Captain Billy were recruited in the construction of the thing; Jack said they must think of themselves as boothers setting up for a holiday fair. It was little more than an ambitious platform with a frame at the back to support a makeshift curtain of blankets, but Tory might as well have been looking at her own gallows.
By mid-November, the road between Charlestown and the Bath Hotel was clattering with barouches, phaetons and other fancy rigs of the kind Tory had not seen since Boston, not even in Basseterre. She could not bear to think of the aloof English faces inside as a potential audience, yet some perversity kept drawing her out to the road whenever a carriage rattled by. Some came out for the cure, but Jack insisted the briskest trade at the place was in betrothals.
"See how many old dowagers travel with a younger female companion," he pointed out. "Some young relation whose family needs to strike up an alliance with a West Indian sugar income. Sugar fortunes aren’t what they were since the French wars and the end of the slave trade, but the planter class is still a force to be reckoned with in London. This place will be crawling with planters’ sons in their best English manners once the balls begin."
There were raffish young aristocrats out from London, as well. Jack said they were second sons in search of a Creole sugar heiress of suitably blue blood and fair complexion.
"And none of these women object to being brokered away to strangers for social position?" Tory wondered.
"That is what marriage is," replied Jack.
"Cold comfort for a lifetime of genteel boredom," she sniffed. "There can’t be much profit in it."
"And damn little sport," Jack grinned. They had learned in the pirate trade that men rarely acted for any other reason than profit or sport. "But fortunate for us, since the participants in this mating dance shall be in constant need of amusing public entertainments at which to display themselves."
Tory’s heart sank at the mention of entertainments, and her expression must have sunk with it. But Jack grinned, again.
"Just think of the Bath Hotel as an elegant slave auction," he advised her, "only it’s the English up on the block for sale to the highest bidder. Keep that in mind when you see them from the stage and you won’t be in such awe of 'em."
On the morning of the day they would debut their Macbeth, while the others were off at the market, Jack found that he had somehow mislaid one of their knives. Marcus had probably been sporting with it, which he was not allowed to do, even though Jack had blunted the edges for juggling. And now it might be anywhere.
Scanning the open shelves inside the wagon, Jack finally spied the hilt thrust away in a corner. Trying to yank it out in too much of a hurry, he upset an old basket that tumbled to the floor, spilling its contents. Muttering, he crouched down to pick them up and saw they were Tory’s things, her logbook and clothes. And a cloth pouch with something heavy inside. Fumbling at its drawstring in his haste, he peeped inside. And froze.
He knew what it was, of course. He could never forget the day when Matty had murdered their hostage for possession of this gold Spanish ring and soured the luck of the Blessed Providence forever. But how had Tory gotten hold of it? It was Matty’s prize. Ice was forming in Jack’s belly. This was a dangerous piece of evidence to keep about, Tory ought to know that. Unless she could not bear to part with it.
Matty must have given it to her, but why? As a love token? When Jack himself had been ill with the fever? Anything at all might have passed between them then. Matty had changed in those last days, contrite, abashed, cozying up to the captain, making himself agreeable. Had he accosted Tory in this humor, made himself agreeable to her? Tory had wanted him once; how could she not? The fellow was so damned attractive. But it sickened Jack to think of that brash, careless boy worming his way into Tory’s affectionate heart. Did she still care for Matty? Why else would she keep this damned ring?
Jack sat back miserably on his heels, heart pumping. He scarcely had the strength to stand up, but he yanked the drawstring closed, shoved the pouch and the other things into the basket, and plunged it back into the farthest corner of the cluttered shelf. But something else would not be put aside so easily, the dread that escaped like a vapor the minute the pouch was opened and clenched his heart still.
Was he only a convenience to Tory, after all? Had he been a fool to expect more?
(Top: Bath Hotel, ca, 1900. As seen on www.nevisoralhistory.org)