Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Peeping out from behind the curtain, Tory watched the clearing fill up with small open carriages. Ladies lounged inside, faces and bosoms veiled in gauze against the night dew. Gentlemen on foot or on horseback, some in uniform, roved between the carriages, paying compliments to the ladies, and saluting each other. Slaves, servants, drifters and children sat in the dust where they could. The sun had just set, the air was cool and there were no mosquitoes at this hour, only the low buzz of curious, if skeptical human anticipation.
"Screw your courage to the sticking-place," Jack murmured behind her. When she turned around, he caught both of her hands and kissed them, as if to infuse her with his own confidence. Then he held her hands apart and admired her dress, a dark green muslin with a rich-looking bodice worked in gold thread by Calypso. "That frock suits you. Try not to trip over it and keep your hair away from the torches and you’ll do fine."
"I’ll do better without so much encouragment," she fretted.
A moment later, Jack was in the scrub at the back of the clearing, quietly retching in the dark under the din of the crowd. So he was nervous, too. Was that why he’d been so agitated all day?
When Marcus marched out, juggling hoops, no one in the gossiping audience troubled to lower their voices merely because the performance had begun. Alphonse followed, as Punch, then they both gave way to the Bruces’ lively English country tunes, which Captain Billy sang or piped while his wife danced. Punch returned to dazzle the crowd with his flying torches, one of which he used to light two larger torches on either side of the makeshift stage. He then spoke the brief stanzas Jack had written to set the scene, describing the witches’ prophecy and Macbeth’s plan to murder the old king.
As Punch melted into the shadows, Jack strode into the center of the rippling torchlight, paused—and said nothing. For one hideous moment, Tory feared he had lost his nerve and forgotten his lines. But he looked relaxed enough, his eyes sweeping across the faces before him—or seeming to, for he'd cautioned Tory never to look directly at the audience, but at some point in the air above their heads. The effect now was that the last of the twittering and whispering completely died out. They were all watching in expectant silence, perhaps to see what sort of hash this tall, ragged-looking fellow would make of their precious Bard.
Only then, with a sudden, brisk resolution, did Jack declare,
"If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly..."
And on he went, pacing the little stage; as Macbeth pondered his upcoming deed, weighing the consequences, Jack’s voice gained weight and gravity, filling the clearing, sweeping up the onlookers in its persuasive spell. When he suddenly cried, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?," a gasp rose up as the audience saw it, too—Jack had produced it from under his cloak and tossed it up unseen, so that he now seemed to pluck the phantom thing out of thin air. He kept it arcing over his head, musing over the verse until he spoke the line, "...as palpable as that which now I draw." Whereupon he drew a second dagger from his belt, juggling both as he conjured up stark, spectral images of night, witchcraft and pale Hecate.
Tory entered to the cries that followed Jack’s exit, holding aloft a wine goblet to announce, "That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold." The verse came out easily enough; Jack’s coaching had her speaking her lines in her sleep. But it was not until Jack returned that everyone, including Tory relaxed. She had only to feed him a few syllables to cue up Macbeth’s post-murder frenzy.
By the time she cried, "Why did you bring the daggers from the place?," Tory was almost enjoying herself, or at least she was too busy to notice her terror. There was no verse now, as they menaced and cajoled each other entirely in movement, two daggers and the pewter goblet flashing between them in the flickering torchlight.
Tory took herself off with both daggers to cries of horrified delight from the spectators. They quieted for Jack’s next speech, and she came back to play out the rest of the scene in unadorned verse, for there was only so much physical activity Jack was fit for. After her last exit, he returned to centerstage to give the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow " speech from much later in the play. Which was greeted with an eruption of applause, bravos and not a little good-natured laughter at the audacity of the thing.
Jack hauled her back out onstage to take her bows, but the giddiest hoorahs were for him. Those who had come to flirt and preen were distracted. Those who had come to jeer were disarmed. The last thing anyone expected to see at this roadside entertainment in this tropical backwater was an actor.
"You’re sure I won’t hurt you?" Tory was already sprawled astride him, but she was afraid to draw her knee too close along the yellowing flesh of Jack's sore right side.
"You should have thought of that before you assaulted me," Jack replied. "Now it’s far too late."
Cybele had insisted they take their turn in the wagon tonight, to celebrate their triumph. Even so, out of consideration for Jack’s ribs, Tory had offered a night of chaste and healing rest, but Jack had wrestled her into the bunk without ceremony, laughing, "Sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more!"
"I assaulted you?" she echoed, now, bracing herself above him. "I am completely innocent."
"You have never been innocent, mi bruja," Jack murmured. "Next time we’ll put you in for Hecate, queen of the witches … Ahh!"
It was sharp, like a syllable of pain, and Tory froze. Then Jack groaned again, pulling her down to him, and Tory forgot about his sore ribs.
"Do you never wish for a more...normal life?" Jack asked softly, much later, as they lay together in the dark.
"Normal?" Tory echoed. "That’s what I left Boston to escape."
"But you’d tell me if there were ever...things you wanted."
Tory frowned. "What things?"
"I don’t know," Jack murmured, "things women want."
"Well … I suppose some women do need normal things, a home and a family," Tory mused. "They want to sleep in the same bed every night, with the same man. My mother was like that. But some women crave adventure and independence. Like your Widow Harvey."
"And which kind are you?" he prompted.
"I love adventure and new places, you know that. But I also want to go to bed with the same man every night."
"You don’t find the sameness boring?" Jack fenced.
"Well...it doesn’t always have to be the same bed."
When Jack closed his eyes, the image of the gold Spanish ring drifted slowly across the horizon of his mind, and he pulled Tory closer. He felt her fingertips trace a sleepy pattern across his chest.
"I’m not a disappointment to you, am I, Rusty?" he whispered.
"Oh, my sweet heart, why would you say that? If I loved you any more, I’d go up in flames." She leaned up on one elbow so she could see his face. "What’s the matter, hombre?"
"I just wonder sometimes if you’d rather be back with...the men. On the Providence. If you’d had a choice."
She regarded him in silence.
"I won’t lie to you, Jack," she said at last, and he felt his heart clench. "Not a day passes that I don’t wish we were back aboard the Providence. But I did have a choice. Nobody put me off that ship when you were ill. I begged Captain Hart to let me stay with you. Well, no, I didn’t beg, I just told him I was getting off with you and he didn’t stop me. Not that he thought much of the idea; they were all so sure you were going to die, and they thought my decision was suicide. The captain didn’t want to lose us both, he did try to talk me out of it. But I was damned if I’d let them maroon you to die all alone."
Jack was staring up at her. "But…why would you take that risk?"
"Because you were more important to me than anything else on that ship," she explained patiently. "Why do you think?"
"But suppose I'd died?"
"I wouldn’t let you, remember?"
Jack was holding himself so still, he'd forgotten to breathe. "Why did you never tell me before?"
She peered down at him, weighing her answer. "You’re a hard man to read, sometimes. I thought you might be angry."
"You’re right, I’d have been furious." He shifted up on one arm to face her. "Still, I wish you’d told me."
"There are things you don’t tell me," Tory said very quietly. "Times when you shut me out. When something troubles you, I feel it, too. But I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong."
Jack didn’t know what to say. Despite her disclaimer, she seemed to read him all too well.
"I...I've been thinking of Matty," he confessed.
"Matty?" She stared at him. "Matty?"
"Muscular lad, fair-haired, blue-eyed. Rather good-looking, if you go in for the Apollo type..."
"Yes, thank you, I know who he is. But why do you waste your thoughts on him? I never do."
Some renegade part of Jack’s brain was disappointed that she would not mention the ring, even now. But he wanted so much to believe her that he let the matter drop.
With Christmas so near, spirits ran high at the Sunday slave market in Charlestown. Slave vendors brought their plumpest fowls to market for the upcoming holiday feasts. Enterprising traders sold second-hand clothing and drink and tobacco for the Negro revels, and hucksters were doing a brisk trade in ribbons, beads, silk and paper flowers, and gilt ornaments for holiday finery.
So it astonished Tory when Alphonse declared they must quit the Sunday market as a venue. He said the slaves were too distracted to pay them any mind until after the New Year and they must devote themselves to their profitable stage entertainments. These were so successful, they had added bits of other plays to their repertoire, including the mock duel from Twelfth Night between Jack’s foppish Aguecheek and Viola in male disguise, for which Tory wore her old pirate trousers.
A tavern-keeper’s wife wished to offer her patrons fortune-readings for the new year, and offered to board Cybele and the children in town over the holidays. Tory went into town to visit her at her stall at the next Sunday market. Afterwards, they returned to the tavern, where she helped Cybele chop up greens for dinner in the cook-house in the tavern yard.
"How Jack be feeling today?" asked Cybele, selecting a stalk of thyme for the chopping board.
"Restless." Tory sighed; he was so damned edgy about something, of late. The only place he seemed relaxed was onstage.
"His ribs slow to heal," Cybele suggested. Tory only nodded as Cybele slid aside half of the herb, saying a hothouse nurse from one of the estates was in need of a soothant for coughing.
"Why do so many of them come to you? Is there not an obeah man or woman on every estate?"
"My mother say in Africa, a stranger’s magic always more powerful than your own. And I have medicines the obeahs forbidden to use." She glanced up at Tory. "As you know."
Tory knew there were laws against providing slave women with the means to prevent pregnancy, robbing the master of a potential piece of property.
"That’s a dangerous trade," she observed.
Cybele shrugged and glanced across the yard to where Calypso was minding the boys. She took up her knife and set to the rest of the thyme with quick, precise strokes. "I find my Calypso one night in a dirty little alley off a market square," she muttered, her gaze fixed on her work. "Bruised and swollen and torn with the blood running down her legs, too frightened to speak nor even cry. A little slave child not thirteen years old. It was the overseer use her this way, bring her down on market day and leave her there after, so she never tell. Nobody miss a little colored girl of no use in the field. Her blood mama was a field hand this same overseer use the same way. That is how my Calypso come to be born."
Tory stared at her. "Her own father?"
Cybele nodded. "I find a safe place to clean her up and then I take her off that island," she went on, as if she were describing a thing as easy as strolling across a dusty road. "But soon I find she be carrying that white man’s seed."
Tory's insides were churning. "What happened?"
Cybele pinched up some chopped thyme and let it drift slowly through her plump fingers into the cook-pot. "By the mercy of the Great Mother, she miscarry that devil spawn but a few days later."
"The child died?"
"The child lived," Cybele whispered fiercely. "My child. My Calypso. The danger, the shame, would be to do nothing when the remedy so near to hand, eh?" She nodded out to where the girl was settling some dispute between the boys. "She is sixteen, now, but it be safer if she taken for much younger. She has much healing yet to do."
Tory was so disturbed by Cybele’s tale she lost her appetite for dinner and stopped in at the tavern instead. The publican’s wife knew her and brought her a discreet brandy, which Tory hoped would warm her against her cold dread of the evil in these islands. It had lashed out at them in Basseterre; when would it strike again? She felt as if they'd been sleepwalking for too long on land, ignoring their peril. If only she could get Jack away, back to the sea, she knew they would be safe. She was sure she could make him happy again ...
"Forgive my interruptin’ ye, Miss."
Tory looked up to see Mrs. Sykes, the hostess, bringing her a second brandy.
"Here’s a gentleman as wishes to buy you another of the same, with your permission, and hopes to make your acquaintance." So saying, the landlady presented a rugged-looking fellow of about forty with a hopeful expression and a ruddy, weathered complexion. A seafaring man.
"Miss Lightfoot, Captain Lewis," beamed Mrs. Sykes.
"Your servant, Miss." He offered a tentative smile. "Our hostess tells me you’re an American, too."
He wasn’t dressed in the uniform of a naval commander, but Tory’s every nerve was on guard.
"Has the navy come to Charlestown for the season?" she smiled.
"Oh no, Miss, I’m only a poor merchant trader out of the Carolinas. Would you mind very much if I joined you?"
A merchant captain with his own ship. Lonely and far from home. Was this a gift from Fortune? Tory’s smile warmed up.
"Please do, Captain."
(Top: Theater Naïve, James Aschbacher © 2010)