Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chapter 22: WHITEHALL

"Planters spend very little time patrolling their borders," Alphonse explained. He and Jack had left the Birney estate and taken refuge from the heat in a dense, shady grove off the road. "The wealthy ones with men and dogs to spare are vigilant enough. But so many estates change hands or fall into disrepair. Many watchman’s huts stand empty and forgotten.

"I grew up in watch houses, it was the only labor I was thought fit for. I learned where they were likely to be situated and how to recognize the abandoned ones in the underbrush. When I began to make my own way in the world, I used to travel through the cane country and sleep in them. I was scarcely ever disturbed. As I traveled to market towns on many islands, I made myself remember where the best houses were. The safe houses. It was not until later I began to think my discovery might have a more practical use."

"For runaway slaves," suggested Jack.

"Yes," said Alphonse. "It is a very poor solution, to run off, and a desperate one. But some are put to such hard labor or treated so badly, or sold off from their loved ones. And some simply cannot bear to be owned."

Jack gave a grim nod.

"And they might waste a lifetime waiting for their rights to be granted from London," Alphonse added bitterly. "Many runaways are captured and punished, it is true. But if I have information that might aid one or two on their journey to freedom, how can I not share it? If you had an opportunity to achieve a tiny good in this wretched world, would you not seize it?"

"My life has afforded me few opportunities to do good," Jack muttered.

"I too have much to answer for," Alphonse agreed quietly. "And there is so very little I can do for them. I try to see that the houses are maintained, but that alone is an enormous task."

Jack nodded again. It was beginning to make sense, Alphonse’s many disappearances during their travels together, long after Jack knew he was no longer meeting with the freemen.

"But if they do escape, the ones who avoid capture, where do they go?" he asked. "Surely you must have planned some destination for them, someplace where Tory might have gone?"

But Alphonse only sighed and shook his head. "I wish that were true, with all my heart. But I am only one man. I have nothing to offer but advice. I tell them to follow the rivers to the towns. Many have free relatives they might stay with. Or I direct them to the nearest populations of free people of color, where they might blend in. If a person lives free for two years, and there is no claim against him, he can petition for his free papers. If there is no other recourse, they must make their way to a port and try the sea. A certain class of seamen never troubles to ask where their hands come from. As you know."

"That’s where she’s gone, then," Jack declared. "I know Tory. She’ll make straight for the sea."

"It is not so easy for a woman."

"She’ll manage it, somehow." Jack almost smiled. Stubborn hope was seeping back into his heart. "She’ll find a ship, she’s done it before."

"And go where?"

Jack paused, frowned. Where would she go? Back to Nevis? If the season had ended and Cybele had departed, would Tory know to follow them to English Harbour? There were scores of islands. Then a darker possibility crept into his thoughts. If Tory had at last achieved her dream of returning to the sea, would she bother to come back at all?

"There are a great many things that might have befallen her between here and the harbor," Alphonse said, very carefully. "We must investigate every possibility."

"How?" Jack murmured, as misery overcame him again. "Where?"

"The nearest town is Basseterre. That is where this river leads."

"Hellfire, Alphonse, could you not have made a better plan for your runaways?"

"Do you think I printed up a pamphlet and distributed it to all the estates? This way to freedom, the carriage departs in half an hour?" Alphonse fumed. "Nothing is more dangerous than the transmission of information to slaves; the planters fear it more than hurricanes and the blast. That is why slaves are forbidden to read, forbidden to gather together, forbidden to speak to freemen of color."

"Then how do they know of your safe houses? How do you tell them what you know?"

"I don’t, it is too dangerous," Alphonse murmured. "But you do. You and Victoria."

Jack stared at him.

"In the marketplace," Alphonse continued. "Every Sunday."

"Those damned drums!" Jack cried. "Cully said the drums talk, but only Africans understand them."

Alphonse shook his head. "There are war drums that call the people to arms without their masters ever knowing. Such things have been used in risings. But our drums are only a tool to gain attention. They tell the people to be alert, to look up, to watch. And when they watch, what do they see?"

"A story about a blackface clown and a woman of color who escape from a foolish white master," Jack concluded. He was struck by the elegance of the thing, in spite of himself.

"It is only a story," said Alphonse. "A play. The English pay it no mind. But for people forbidden to read or write, who are accustomed to watching and keeping secrets, people who hunger for information..." He shrugged. "And the Sunday market is full of slaves far from their masters."

"But how do you advise them? We play nothing about safe houses or going to sea," Jack pointed out.

"No. I must speak to people on occasion, anyone emboldened enough by our playing to inquire. But I need only speak to one or two in a day and it would astonish you how quickly the information travels, and how far. Everyone has relations to visit on other estates. And many have tickets of leave to travel through the countryside, carters or wainmen or rangers, who carry messages to their masters' neighbors."

"But you take a terrible risk, Alphonse, speaking to slaves in a public place," Jack protested. "It’s a crime to assist a runaway."

"It is a crime not to. Besides,” Alphonse added in a self-mocking tone as his eyes shifted briefly away, "I was so clever in arranging it. No one pays any mind to a black dwarf after the performance. If there are any white men about, they are far more eager to gather round the pretty girl with the bare ankles."

"Tory was your decoy."

"You both were. A white Englishman and his charming mulatta companion. Who would suspect you of aiding runaways? I was quite invisible in your company."

Jack sighed. "Could you not have told us? Especially when you knew what we’d been. Did you think we would run to the constable and turn you in?"

Alphonse shook his head. "I told myself the less you knew, the better off you would be. But in truth, it was so much easier to dupe you. You see, I am not so unlike the free gentlemen of color when it comes to achieving my goals. But I truly thought no harm would befall you. Until Basseterre. What happened to you in Basseterre was my fault, Jack. The chief constable would never have assaulted you had you not been sporting in public with a black man, had we not been performing the Harlequinade for an audience of delighted slaves."

"The chief constable is a rabid dog, Alphonse. You can’t—"

"And everything that has happened to Tory, now, is the result of that day," Alphonse continued. "It is because of me that she has been abducted and sold into slavery, me and my fine, grand design. I am prepared to suffer anything for my work, anything at all. It has never been my intention to make others suffer in my stead. And yet, that is how it always plays out. Always."

Jack had never seen so much emotion in Alphonse’s face. His eyes burned with shame and something much deeper. It was as if once he had begun his confession, he could not stop. Jack knew that feeling well, that bottomless misery. He remembered a night he had spent sobbing in Tory’s arms, the night he told her how the foster parents he had loved and abandoned had died alone when he was far away.

"Suffering is highly overrated in my experience," Jack told Alphonse. "You’re far too sensible to want to be a martyr."

"Oh, yes, far too sensible to risk myself. But I have created a great many martyrs out of others." He gazed down at his small folded hands for a long moment, while Jack waited. "At Whitehall, on Barbados," Alphonse spoke at last. "I was a servant there, as a very young man. The Englishman who owned the place thought of himself as a little king. I was employed as his fool."

"That’s where you picked up your speech and manners," Jack nodded. "Tory told me."

"Oh, I thought myself very fine indeed, in my fancy waistcoats on such a grand estate. Earning a wage. Better than the slaves. It was easy to forget I had ever been like them, easy to forget even my black skin. The English must be good at heart, to treat me so well. I learned to look the other way when the slaves were whipped raw for such petty crimes as stealing a cup of milk. Or when a sixteen-year-old boy lost his hand in the mill, out of negligence. Or when the prettiest mulatta girls on the place were offered up to the master’s houseguests for the night. It had nothing to do with me.

"But there was one of them I took an interest in, a young woman. Betsy. She lived in her mother’s house in the slave quarters, but she worked in the cook-house every day. And she was never too proud or too busy to speak to a little black dwarf in fine clothing, no matter how ridiculous he might appear.

"In spite of her youth, Betsy had a child. Not my child, of course, no woman would be foolish enough to have a child with me. A handsome little boy, he was, just learning to walk, and into all sorts of mischief. When I wasn’t occupied with the master and his guests, I would go to the cook-house and amuse the boy, while Betsy worked. She sometimes brought us scraps from the master’s fine dinners, and we would feast, the three of us. Like a family."

Alphonse’s eyes had softened as he spoke of Betsy, but a harder edge was beginning to creep into his voice.

"One day, Betsy told me the news in the cabins. The head driver had heard it from the servants attending one of the master’s visitors, a rumor the English king had granted the slaves their freedom, but the white masters in the islands were refusing to act upon the order, out of spite. I laughed and told her it could not be true, or I would have overheard; the master and his guests would have talked of nothing else. But nothing I said was of any value, you see, I was only the master’s puppet.

"A day or two later, when there was no move to free them, the slaves were becoming angry and restless. Betsy confided to me that she was afraid; the people had decided to gather together at midnight the next evening and march on the great house to demand their freedom. This was during crop-time, when the mills and boiling houses ran all night. Any interruption of work, let alone a march, could only be seen by the master as a rising. Betsy was frightened of the mood in the cabins, frightened for her little boy. She asked if there was not something I could do to help."

Alphonse fell silent for a long moment.

"Could you help them?" Jack prompted, at last.

"I helped many of them to their grave," Alphonse replied, almost without expression, now. "There is no cause, however righteous, that is ever aided by a large, angry mob. I considered what little there was I could do. And then I made my choice. I told my employer what the people were planning."

"You warned him," Jack reasoned. "To prevent trouble."

"I betrayed them," Alphonse corrected him. The sadness had drained out of his face. His eyes were empty. "The master was not interested in the reasons I gave. He only heard the words 'march' and 'demand.' He imagined his fine colonial palace, his lovely gardens, his artwork and family plate, his cane crops and stables, all of them going up in flames. He saw the dreaded spectre of poverty, so boring, so common, staring him in the face. He was an important man in the community. He called in the island militia. A captain from the regiment. A troop of horse. They surprised the marchers just coming over a hill the next night, on their way to the great house."

Alphonse paused and shook his head, as if to clear it of a vision he could see all too vividly.

"The two groups stopped and faced each other. The people were carrying torches, a few pikes and sticks. The militia were armed. The horses were very nervous. No one knew what to do. Then, suddenly, a tiny figure ran out between the two groups. A little boy, startled by God-knows-what. A slave woman ran out after him, straight for the militia. A very young woman, thinking of nothing but her boy."

"Betsy," Jack murmured.

Alphonse nodded slowly. "A horse reared up. A shot was fired, perhaps more. Betsy fell." He closed his mouth tight for a moment, and looked again at Jack. "I killed her. I made her son an orphan."

Jack knew that feeling very well. He knew how useless it would be to tell Alphonse it was not his fault.

"A torch was dropped and one of the cane-pieces began to burn. That is the signal for a rising, did you know? First the cane is burned, then the slaves are supposed to attack the great house, kill all the white men, and rape their women. It is what every planter fears above all things. When the militia saw the first cane stalk in flames, it was the signal they had been waiting for. Some of the people were able to flee with their lives, I understand. Not many. I was safe, of course, far away from the mob, watching from a cart in the road. When I learned what the master was planning to do, I tried to get back to the people, to warn them. But I was too late."

"And the boy?" Jack asked.

"I believe he lived, although I am not certain. The survivors were herded back to their cabins in chaos after the shooting finally stopped, pleading for mercy. His body was not found in the road with...the others. I tried to find out what had become of him, but none of the people would speak to me."

Alphonse turned his gaze out to the road beyond the trees and breathed a slow, deep sigh that must have been building in him for years.

"But for the expense of buying new slaves, my employer was very pleased with the way things turned out. All of what he termed the 'ringleaders' killed, and the rest cowed back about their business. He lost only the one cane-piece to the flames, into the bargain. Made quite a romance of the whole affair to amuse his supper guests. He proposed an increase in my wages, out of gratitude. That is when I left Whitehall. I have earned my own way ever since."

"And established your safe houses." Jack noted.

"Not at first, the idea came to me only gradually. There is not much that I can actually do for these people, after all. But every one who succeeds, who escapes and survives, is one more life in the balance against all of those lost. Because of me."

"Alphonse, you can’t blame yourself..."

"I am not interested in your pity," Alphonse said sharply.

"Good, because you’re not going to get it. But you are saddled with my friendship and as a friend, I will tell you this. The past can eat you alive, but you can’t change it. All that matters is how you go forward. And it seems to me you have done a great deal of useful work in the meantime, work you should be proud of."

Alphonse held his gaze for a long moment, considering whether he deserved Jack’s comfort.

"The Harlequinade was my best plan by far," Alphonse murmured. "At first, I thought it would be enough to display myself as an example of a free black man to those still enslaved. Then, when I met the freemen leaders, and offered to carry their messages, I thought that would be my great contribution." He made a wry face. "You have no idea how many people saw us and were affected by our little play. How much we might have accomplished." He shook his head again. "But the blight of slavery is so deeply rooted, and the remedy so long in coming."

"And what will happen to these people when it does?" Jack wondered.

"The enterprising will do well," Alphonse shrugged. "The weak, ungifted or lazy will struggle to survive. Like all people everywhere. But they will be responsible for their own success or failure. Their lives, their fate, will belong to them, alone. If one has never been a slave, it may not be possible to understand how important that is."

"There are all kinds of slavery. Tory ran away to sea for much the same reason. Although she had never been—"

He had to look away so suddenly that Alphonse leaned forward and grasped his hand.

"We will find her, Jack. There are a great many people in Basseterre who owe me favors; one of them will know something. We will get Victoria back. I swear it."

(Top: A Fugitive Slave, Surinam, 1839. Image Reference BEN1, as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)