Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The sloop was rocking very slightly on a slow, lazy swell. Jack’s damp chest rose and fell with each breath under Tory’s cheek, and she no longer knew if she were waking or dreaming, rocking in Jack’s strong arms or lying still. Jack had stretched out on his back to fill the little bunk, one knee bent up and his other foot hanging over the edge. She was sprawled half over him, cradled in his arms. When she opened her eyes, she could see tiny stars glittering on and off in the dark out through the stern cabin window as the sloop rocked slowly this way and that.
There was still some sporadic singing and laughing from the men above. The candle had guttered in the lantern, but not before Tory had seen Jack’s face in the moment that he gave himself to her forever. She closed her eyes and shivered at the memory. Jack drew his arms more snugly around her and lowered a kiss into her hair. The lines were moaning softly in the breeze in the rigging overhead. The damp wood creaked like a sigh whenever the sloop rolled to starboard.
"Does it strike you as odd," Tory murmured, "that we have never loved each other on a ship, before?"
"Odd? Mmm," Jack considered. "Between chasing down prizes, dodging grapeshot and running for our lives, no, not especially odd."
"I used dream about how romantic it would be." Tory sighed.
"Well, you ought to have stayed aboard the Providence when you had the chance. Tried your luck with some more likely fellow."
"I didn’t want any other fellow. When Matty asked me to stay—"
"Matty asked you to stay?" Jack interrupted her. "Aboard the Providence?"
"Begged me. Made a damned nuisance of himself, yapping on about how you were sure to die, and I should stay on with him, until I was nearly frantic—"
"And you refused?"
"I believe I told him I’d rather share your grave for eternity than spend another hour in his bed." Tory smiled, relishing the memory.
"Hellfire, that foolish puppy must have cared for you after all," Jack exclaimed. "Handsome as a god and rich, besides! And you—" There was half a beat of silence. "What do you mean another hour?"
Tory swallowed an oath, but it was too late now. "Aye, that’s one less crime in your accounting, hombre. You never...deflowered me."
"And Matty did?"
"Oh, I went willingly enough. Fool that I was." Even now, she could not bear to admit that her maidenhood had been the subject of an idle wager, nothing more. "It meant nothing to him. Less than nothing. Or to me."
"Why did you never tell me?" Jack asked very softly.
"Do you think I wanted to trumpet my humiliation all round the ship?" Tory sighed again. "I cared what you thought about me. You were always so sensible. I couldn’t bear for you to know how stupid I'd been."
"But I might have been some…comfort to you."
"Oh, hombre, you have no idea!" Tory's smile bloomed again. "Every trick you ever taught me, every laugh we ever shared, hellfire, even when we quarreled, Matty grew smaller and smaller in my memory. He’d have vanished long ago, if you wouldn’t keep bringing him up."
"Still," Jack reasoned, "have you never thought...he must have cared something for you, Rusty, to plead with you as he did."
"He cared for his own hide," Tory said tartly. "It was that damned Spanish ring he was after. It connected him to a crime, and he must have recalled throwing it at me. Didn’t want me getting away from him with such a dangerous piece of evidence in my possession."
"There’s a curse on that bloody ring, I know it," Jack muttered. "Look at all the trouble it’s caused. Everyone who touches it comes to some sort of grief—" His words drained away, but his mouth stretched slowly into a smile.
"What?" Tory demanded.
"I was just thinking of the last time I saw that ring," sad Jack.
"Where?" she quizzed him. "On Nevis?"
"In Basseterre. In the possession of Chief Constable Raleigh."
Jack sprang up at first light to help make sail for Antigua. The men were a groggy, irritable bunch this morning, with little taste for high spirits, so Jack kept his under wraps while doing all he could to speed their journey along. But Downie, the young Cornish fellow, was pleased enough with Jack’s company, as they hauled on the throat halyard.
"You’ve put in and out of Basseterre a few times, have you not, Hugh?" Jack struck up a conversation as the line was sheeted home.
"In St. Kitts, ye mean? Aye, and like to again when Mr. Dykstra takes command."
"Have you never heard of the Devil’s Ring, then? No? And you in the smuggling trade?"
"What be it, then?"
"Only the handsomest ring ever seen, pure Spanish gold." Jack shrugged a little closer and dropped his voice, making each word more precise. "And the most haunted. There’s a curse on it."
Downie frowned at him. "D’ye believe in such things, Jack? Mr. Dykstra says curses and the like be only superstition."
"Aye, he’s a practical fellow. But you being a Cornishman, I thought you’d know better."
Eager curiosity was kindling in the lad’s blue eyes, despite his expressions of doubt.
"Aye, well, he may be right at that," Jack went on, briskly. "I only thought to tell you what I’ve heard, for your own protection."
"What have ye heard, then?"
Jack’s eyes swept the deck as he leaned in a bit closer. "It’s buried somewhere in secret in Basseterre. No one knows where. Only, now and again it takes a notion to turn up when there are smugglers about, luring 'em, as you might say, to their doom. Anyone who so much as touches the Devil’s Ring is a marked man. You’ll know it by it’s crest, two engraved 'R's, face to face."
"Two 'R's?" repeated Downie.
"Aye. For, ah, ruin and retribution," Jack temporized, with a meaningful nod.
Downie nodded too, in complete accord, now. "Why be it called the Devil’s Ring?"
"An inscription often appears on the inside, always in a foreign tongue. Sometimes in Greek. Sometimes Latin. When I saw it, it was in Spanish."
The lad’s eyes became completely round. "Ye’ve never seen it?"
"I have. And come away with my hide intact, so you’d best heed me."
"What’s it say, then?"
"Uno Dio Sobre Todo," Jack recited.
Downie shook his head.
"One God Above All. Meaning the God of Darkness, the Devil above all others," Jack explained. "The Devil’s Ring. Whoever touches it will be hounded with ill luck. Whoever’s unlucky enough to possess it—"
Jack’s voice trailed off. He gave a slow, sorrowful shake of his head. Hugh Downie paled as if his own doom had been foretold, despite the eager light in his eyes.
"How do you even know Raleigh has that ring?" Tory asked later that afternoon, as she and Jack were making their little boat ready. They had wanted to speak no more about the chief constable last night, but she had been wondering ever since.
"I saw it," Jack replied, securing their provisions beneath the after thwart. "In his rooms."
"You went to his rooms?" Tory gaped. "Why?"
"To have a word with him."
"Hellfire, Jack, he was there? And you paid him a call? He's sworn to kill you! Why would you take such a risk?"
"To prove a point." Jack sat back on his heels and tilted up his straw hat. "To show him I had escaped his clutches and you would too. To prove to him we were in league with Fortune."
"Of all the witless, addle-brained—"
"You might as well save your breath, I’ve already heard it all from Alphonse," Jack grinned, bending back to his work. "But I had a pledge to deliver. Not as enjoyable as the one I made to you last night, but no less earnest. If anything happened to you, I promised to kill him. But now you’re safe, I’m sworn to let the bastard live."
"Well, I’m not!" Tory cried. "The man’s a pox, a blight! He ought to be stamped out!"
Jack glanced up at her from under the brim of his hat.
"Would that make you happy?"
"You were going to murder him yourself!"
"It wouldn’t have been the same. In that event, my life would already be over, I wouldn’t care what happened to me. But now we have ours yet to live."
"It’s not just for my sake," she argued. "He’s a dangerous man, dangerous to others."
"Aye, consumed with hatred and wielding a little bit of power," Jack agreed. "A very dangerous combination. But he’s not the disease, Rusty. He’s only a symptom of a bigger blight that infests all the Indies. You may root him out, but the blight will remain. And in the meantime, he’s won a victory over you; he’s lured you down to his level." He sat up again, swept off his hat and raked back his damp hair. "There is no shortage of vermin crawling around in the slime, Rusty. Count it a victory if you can manage not to become one of 'em."
"It might be gratifying to wallow in the slime now and then," Tory muttered.
"Aye, but once you’re down there, it’s damned hard to ever crawl out again." He clapped on his hat and got to his feet. "I know."
Tory stood too. "Doesn’t it seem a trifle coincidental that ring should appear in his possession? Are you sure it was the same ring?"
"Absolutely," said Jack, as he hoisted a cask of watered rum over the wales to her. "Uno Dio Sobre Todo, I read it. Who knows what ill wind blew it his way? He treats with smugglers, and there’s a great deal of illicit trade between the two islands. The point is, it belongs to the chief constable now, and I can think of no one more deserving."
"It’s solid Spanish gold," Tory pointed out. "What sort of justice is that, after all he's done?"
"Oh, there'll be a just reckoning," Jack assured her. "Leave it to Fortune."
Tory was prepared for jeers when she emerged from the cabin in her female outfit. Mr. Dykstra had procured it from a port on Sint Maarten, in the optimistic hope she would soon be leaving them. The grained and patterned silk looked fine and costly, but Tory had no use for the columns of lace ruffles marching up her throat, the tightly buttoned waist intended to be worn over stays, or the silly puff-pillow sleeves flouncing down to her elbows. How was she going to row a boat in this rig? But she must be a female when she arrived on Antigua, not a counterfeit man. Nor a slave.
But the men held their peace. The lingering effects from their recent revels had them so subdued, old Queen Bess herself might have paraded among them without causing much of a stir. Only Jack raised an eyebrow at her as she hauled her skirts across the deck to the boat where he was waiting, clad simply in muslin shirt, unbuttoned at the throat with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, and a pair of dark broadfall trousers. It irritated Tory how little effort it cost a man to look dressed.
"What?" she challenged him, as he looked her up and down.
"Nothing at all," Jack replied hastily. "Only I never realized until now all you were willing to suffer to keep our promise."
"Aye," she agreed, "let’s be off before I regain my senses."
The boat was in the davits ready to be lowered over the side, and the coast of Antigua was in sight. Mr. Dykstra was heading for an isolated stretch of beach on one of the milder, less reefy sections of the north coast, east of St. John’s, but still on the far side of the island from English Harbour. Captain Hart strolled out to join Jack and Tory by the davits, as their destination hove into view.
" 'Tis a great pity ye’ll not be coming back to the Providence with us," he told them. "I hate to see good seasoning go to waste. Experienced hands are hard to come by these days, between the damned pirate squadrons and the colonial warships."
There was a hard glint in the captain’s black eyes, and his weathered face suddenly looked older and more worn than Tory had remembered.
"Captain," she piped up, "I’ve just remembered. I’ve something that belongs to you. You remember the logbook I kept at your request? The log of the Blessed Providence."
"That cursed book," rumbled Nada, appearing at the captain's side. "Burn it!"
"Ever the sentimentalist," Hart grinned at his mate.
"I wrote it for you, Captain," Tory went on. "I’d be pleased for you to have it. It’s in safekeeping with our friends at English Harbour, but give me a safe address on Saba where I may send—"
But Captain Hart shook his head. "No, Mistress. I could never be more delighted that ye’ve kept the thing all this time. But if I take that book, it dies with me, sooner or later. But you seem to have a gift for keeping alive. Hellfire, you’ve even infected Jack, who was as close to a corpse as ever I saw when we last met. No, you keep the ship’s log. You be the midwife. Ye’ll know when the time comes for the world to know of our deeds. If it ever does."
"That was a generous offer," Jack told her, as they rowed for the shore. "I know what that logbook means to you."
Tory’s eyes drifted over Jack’s shoulder to where the sloop Fortune was slipping away from them, north by west over the swells.
"We’ll never see him again," she murmured.
"No, I don’t suppose we will," Jack agreed gently.
"I wanted him to have something of mine to remember me by. And...I suppose I wanted some part of myself to go off with him."
There was no interruption in the rhythm of his rowing, but Jack tensed. Did she regret her choice already? Would she pine in secret for the life she had lost for the rest of her days?
"The childish part," Tory continued, wistfully. "The foolish part that was content to play the counterfeit boy, before I knew there was anything else I could be." Her eyes shifted back to Jack. Her smile was warm. "All the rest belongs to you, hombre."
Jack returned her smile. She had not forgotten her promise; she’d come back to him for good. But he tried not to think overmuch about what he might be bringing her back to.
(Top: Pirate Nights, by Lisa Jensen © 2010)