Wednesday, July 7, 2010
All the next day Tory grew more miserable, keeping below as the Fortune cruised to her anchorage off Sint Maarten. During the night, they had passed Saba, where the Providence was waiting, had seen the distant cone of the island off the port quarter most of the day. The crew was eager for the end of their cruise, and the distribution of their spoils. But Tory could not be roused by their excitement.
Jack had stowed his hammock and gone above at first light, lending a hand, making himself useful. Keeping out of her way. Tory had been so keen to return to the pirate's life, yet here she was idling below, unfit to join her fellows. She had tried to work herself up to a fine, righteous outrage over Jack’s betrayal, but in the unforgiving light of day, she could not quite shake off the bleak suspicion that he was right. He had made obligations and now he must honor them. Other people’s feelings were at stake, people she cared about. Perhaps Marcus’ entire future. Jack could not betray them for his own selfish pleasures. Or hers. What sort of a man would he be if he could? Not the sort of man she could ever love, as she loved Jack.
But how could she bear to lose him? How could he leave her? He had always been the most damnably stubborn, honorable man. How much simpler, how much more entertaining it would be to love a rogue, a high-spirited bastard who did as he pleased and would sweep her along for the ride, a short-lived arrangement, perhaps, but sure to be a merry one. But of course, she had loved a rogue, once, or thought she did. Matty had swept her along for a time, and she had reaped nothing but mockery and humiliation for her pains. But that was back before she knew what love was. Before Jack.
At last, Tory made herself go above to help take in sail as the little sloop glided into her anchorage. When she was done hauling in the brails, she turned to see Captain Hart up into the bows speaking to Nada. They stood together on the foredeck, Nada pointing out some aspect of the coastline before them, as a swell rolled the deck slowly under their feet. The captain’s steadying hand touched Nada’s broad back, as light and fleeting as a caress of the wind. A gesture so familiar, they didn’t even notice it. But Tory noticed. How little they cared that they were aboard a borrowed ship in a crew of strangers. So long as they were together, they were always where they belonged.
She turned again to see Jack coming toward her along the port rail. Her heart quickened; perhaps he had changed his mind. She tried to read his face, unsure how to greet him after last night. But his resigned expression said he was done with pleading.
"I have something for you, Rusty. I meant to give it to you sooner, but in all the confusion—" He gave an apologetic shrug and handed her a worn, folded paper.
She opened it up, unsure what to expect. It was a certificate of manumission, like Alphonse’s, dated five years earlier. It bore the signatures of two men she had never heard of, and was branded with the official seal from the Registrar’s Office at Basseterre, island of St. Christopher. Everything was in order but the line for the bearer’s name, which had not been filled in.
"I left it blank," Jack explained. "I wasn’t sure what name you’d want to use."
"This is...for me?" she whispered.
"Real enough. Printed from official plates on official paper. Those are real magistrates’ names. Only the date is not strictly true."
"Where did you get this?" She could scarcely speak.
"Our friend, Mr. Greaves. The printer." Jack’s voice had dropped as low as hers. "He was most obliging. All it wants is your signature and it ought to stand up in any court in the islands. It’s only a paper, I know, but freedoms have been claimed on far less evidence. I hope it will be useful to you, Rusty. Wherever you go."
Tory scanned through the paper again and glanced up at Jack. What must he have endured, slinking into Basseterre at the risk of his own safety, convincing that upstanding gentleman to commit a forgery? All for her. She wanted to cry, to rail at the gods, to throw herself into his arms, and never, ever let him go. At the same time, she felt a desperate emptiness.
"You are giving me my freedom?" she asked.
"That has never been mine to give," he told her gently. "But it’s yours to take." And he walked away before she could reply.
She had to flee below, before the others saw her sobbing like an infant. The Fortune crew tolerated her, out of respect for their new captain, but she dare not press her luck with them. It would be different aboard the Providence; she would have nothing to prove to her old compañeros. She longed to be there now, this minute. But first, she would have to leave Jack somehow. Nearly two months apart and they had scarcely touched, scarcely spoken without quarreling. She would hate herself forever if they parted like this.
She sat up in the shadows and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her borrowed shirt. Her "masculine usurp’d attire," Jack had once called it. Symbol of the male freedom she had claimed for herself that had always been her dream, her salvation, her destiny. It had always been enough before. But now? Listen to your heart, that's what Cybele had told her. But what if her heart were torn in two? Which half should she heed? Then a shadow crossed the light coming in through the skylight.
"Captain!" Tory scrambled to her feet. "I’m sorry—"
"At your ease, Mistress, there’s nothing astir." He gazed at her, shrewdly, and Tory was ashamed of herself. Her foolish femaleness. "Jack has asked me to put him off in his boat off Antigua, tomorrow afternoon. Before we raise Saba."
Tory nodded miserably.
"This is our last port of call on this voyage. After the boat comes in tonight, I expect the men to be making rather merry. We’ll have the devil’s own time keeping 'em all in line, and the ship afloat, Nada and me. Like to be up all night with 'em. Ye might oblige me by staying in my cabin tonight. Most of these fellows have never sailed with a female before. Who knows what sort of mischief they might get up to in their cups? I’d be grateful for one less temptation to throw before 'em."
"I...understand." She might play at male freedom all she liked, but she would never truly be one of them.
"Take Jack with ye, for company, if ye like."
"Thank you, Captain."
The sleek black boat was coming back from its rendezvous ashore, and the mood of the men was jubilant, when Jack looked up from scraping the bottom of his rowboat to see Tory watching him.
"We’ve scarcely talked," she murmured, eyes on his little boat.
"I know." He straightened up. "I’m sorry."
"I don’t want it to end like this, hombre. Will you come back to the cabin with me? To say goodbye?"
Jack sighed and nodded. He owed her at least that much. He owed her everything. When he'd stowed his tools away, he followed her into the stern, and down the hatch into the cabin. The men above were at the rail now, hailing the boat, making ready the davits to haul her inboard. They would have much to occupy them for awhile. In the cabin below, a heavy-bottomed bottle of red French wine stood open on the sturdy little table next to the bunk built into the bulwark. A single candle burned in a lantern hung up on a peg.
Jack raised one eyebrow. "Is this a seduction?"
"It’s a goodbye," Tory replied, climbing onto the foot of the bunk. "I don’t want us to part on unfriendly terms."
Jack stood where he was. If this was his last chance to ever love her, he would be a fool to pass it up. He kicked off his shoes, walked up to the bunk, but his heart wasn’t in it. Not even if this was the last chance of his life. Not this way. He leaned his elbows on the edge of the bunk and gazed up at her, not knowing what to say.
"Or we can talk," she murmured.
Jack half-smiled, and took her two hands in both of his.
"Tell me you’ll be all right," he said to her.
She nodded back.
"All the time we were searching for you," Jack went on slowly, "Alphonse and I, when we found out what the chief constable had done to you, when we went up to that place where they sold you, when we heard how you’d run off and been recaptured...all I wanted to do was find you again, hold you, comfort you somehow. If it was not too late. Is it too late, Rusty? Is there anything I can still do for you?"
"Hold me, compañero," she whispered. "Please."
He climbed up onto the bunk beside her and drew her into his arms. She clung to him, trembling a little, but not crying. Even she must realize it was too late for tears. If there were only some solution, Jack thought, desperately. But he had only to think of Alphonse’s crippling guilt, and Marcus’ tear-streaked face, both of them blaming themselves, and he knew he must go back to them. And Tory’s life was here, on the sea. Even if he could discharge his obligation to the others eventually, what good would it do to plan to rendezvous later at some safe port? She would be a pirate, living by her wits and the whims of Fate, not by calendars and schedules; Jack knew that life very well. When she sailed off with the Fortune, that would be the last he would ever see of her. But at least he would know she was living the life she chose. Free. And he pulled her closer.
"I’m so sorry for the way things have turned out," Tory whispered. Her fingers crept up his shirtfront to rest on the exposed skin beneath his throat.
"Me too," he sighed, feeling himself tense. Some part of him didn’t want to feel her touch, knowing it would be the last time. "I ought to have taken you back to sea long ago. I was such a fool."
"It’s not your fault," she told him. "You tried your damnedest to make a life for us ashore. You couldn’t help it that I was no good at it."
Jack sighed again. "When I think of all you had to suffer to finally get here—"
She shrugged a little in his arms. "It wasn’t so much. Missing you was the worst part."
"They never...beat you?" Jack made himself ask her. "The chief constable, he never...I’ve a score to settle with him if any harm has come to you."
Tory sat up with a sarcastic laugh. "He would never sully himself with me, never you fear, even to prove how powerful he was. Not like—"
"Birney?" Jack frowned.
"His nephew. It was only a threat, but—" She sank back, peering up into Jack’s face. "I didn’t know you would come after me. I didn’t even think you knew where I was—"
"I know, I know," he muttered. "I’m always too late."
"Not always," Tory half-smiled. "You came along just in time for Marcus. I’m glad you want to return to him, and to Alphonse. You’ve committed yourself to them in a way you never could to me—"
"You know that’s not true, Rusty," Jack protested.
"No? Not a day has gone by since we left the Providence that I didn’t wonder if I would wake up and find you gone," Tory went on. "I can’t...endure that any more, not knowing."
Jack tilted his head back against the bulwark and closed his eyes. He felt Tory rest her head lightly on his shoulder, but his heart was turning to ice. He had always known this moment would come when they would part, had done everything he could to hasten it, get it over with, too foolish to appreciate what he had. And now he couldn't bear to lose her. Now that it was too late. Again.
"Promise me one thing," Tory murmured, in his arms. "Before I come back, you must promise you will never run away from me."
Jack’s eyes snapped open. The dim shadows were dancing in the cabin; the men were roistering above. He was not dreaming.
"But...what do you mean, come back?" he stammered. "All you’ve ever wanted is here, on the sea—"
"Can you promise, or not?" she demanded.
He stared at her. "If you give up the sea on my account, you’ll hate me for the rest of your life."
"I’ll hate myself more for losing you," Tory declared. "Why do you think I was in such a hurry to get off that mountain, to get out of Basseterre? To take the damned sea air? It was to find you again. All I could think of was getting back to you, I didn’t care how or what it cost. As long as I could feel how much I still loved you, it helped me know that I was still...human. Not a thing. Not a slave. It was all I had."
Jack could not imagine what he must look like, with all the emotions rioting inside him, but Tory sat up a little straighter and tried again.
"I know I'm not much of a bargain. I've the temper of a fishwife and a tongue to match. I don’t know my own mind from one moment to the next. But at least I have the wit to love you, Jack, I know that much. You’re the best part of my life. You’re the only thing in all the world I’m sure of. I’d be a stranger to myself if I lost you."
"But you can’t give up your freedom—"
"I’m free now to make a choice. I choose you. Hellfire, any idiot can call himself free in the middle of an ocean, but if I run off to the Providence again, I’ll never know what I might have been in the world. I’ll be a runaway all my life. If you can carve out a life worth living on dry land, b’God, I can too. As long as I have you, Jack. That’s why I need your promise."
Jack drew a long, slow breath, battling to master himself. They were facing each other now, and he reached for both her hands. "You can find another destiny, you know," he told her. "With another lay of the cards."
"I don’t want another one. I want you."
"Contra todo el mundo," Jack murmured. Against the world. "If you’re foolhardy enough to come back to me, Rusty, I promise I’ll cling to you like a barnacle for as long as you’ll have me."
"Forever?" Tory prompted.
"For the rest of my sorry life, or until you get thoroughly sick of me, whichever comes first. I caution you to think very seriously about what you’re in for before you accept."
"I’ve had a great deal of time to think about it, every minute that I was away from you. I love you, Jack. I can’t lose you. Swear it."
Jack sat forward to gaze into her face, her bright, clear brown eyes, her sun-kissed coppery complexion under her fire-lit hair, her frank and tender mouth.
"I belong to you, mi vida. Nowhere else," he told her, leaning in to kiss her forehead, then the high bridge of her nose. "I swear it. On my life. On yours. On the memory of my parents. I swear by all the gods I will never, ever leave you. I love you, Rusty. I promise." He kissed her mouth, very softly. "I promise," he whispered again, and he kissed her again.
"Y yo, hombre." She was smiling, but Jack felt her fingers trembling where she touched him. Then her entire body began to shiver so convulsively, Jack had to throw both his arms around her .
"Rusty...sshhh, Rusty, what is it?" he murmured, gathering her to him. "What’s wrong?"
"I'm sorry. I’m all right..." She was trying to laugh at herself, but her teeth were nearly chattering. Jack fought down his panic and held her closer. "It’s only—" she drew a breath, "—I was so afraid you'd say no. After all I said to you yesterday—"
"Hellfire, Rusty, how big a fool do you think I am?" He rocked her closer now, calming her, warming her. "Ssshh, mi vida, mi alma, te quiero tanto," he whispered, kissing her wherever he could, as he felt her arms, shaking less now, slide up his back. "I love you so much, mi bruja."
He could feel her regaining command of herself, even as she gave herself up to him. He was ready for her now, in a way he had not been, before. Now every kiss, every shudder of her body, carried with it the weight of his promise. And hers. They would seal their promise, now, and then there would be no going back. He gently tilted up her face, searching her eyes.
"Si, hombre," she answered him, with her slow, sure smile, and he was a lost man. Lost and found.
(Top: Sea Fancy Unidentified period woodcut, as seen on joyfulmolly.wordpress.com/2007/10/)