Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Tory awoke in the early morning to find the sun already creeping up, gilding the treetops, casting crisp shadows across the rocky ground. They had taken advantage of a dry spell to give Alphonse a turn alone in the wagon, and Jack was still asleep beside her, curled on his side with his back to her. His arm stretched off the pallet and out from under the edge of the sheer lawn netting that tented them. His head was bent forward on his arm, and a few heroic rays of the sun caught in his hair. Tory stirred the dark layers very gently with her fingertips, saw glimmers of black, cinnamon and silver as the strands sifted through her fingers, glittering like treasure.
"What is it...exactly...you’re doing, Rusty?" Jack murmured.
"Exploring." She pressed closer, still stroking his hair, and began to kiss the back of his neck. He tasted of salt and sleep and he lay still beneath her except to draw one slow, deep breath and then let it out again.
"Giving no thought to the...mmm...consequences?"
"I’m expecting them to be very severe," she smiled.
The night racket had fallen off to a low hum, and the morning was still pristine, sealed in dew, a gift not yet opened. Jack did not disturb it with any complaint as Tory stroked and nuzzled him.
"Are you sure you’re not part Indian?" she teased, nibbling at his ear. "Your hair is darker than mine."
"I suppose if they have Indians in the west of England, it’s..."
His voice trailed off into a sigh as Tory began to play her fingertips with cautious tenderness down his right side. A year after his beating, she knew his ribs sometimes still pained him. She let her hand dip inside his trousers, stroking very gently, and Jack’s next breath came out as a small groan of pleasure, very low, very soft. Tory pressed her cheek into his warm, scarred back and scooted herself closer.
Jack bore it for as long as he could, then rolled onto his back, caught her by the hips, and pulled her over on top of him. She propped herself up on her hands, and felt the soft netting against her back as she bent down to kiss him.
"You do realize I’m asleep," Jack murmured.
"Me too. Perhaps we’re only dreaming."
It felt like a dream, slow and steady and hushed. Tory closed her eyes, and felt as if she were floating in a warm sea, rising and falling with the swells out beyond the breakers. Gradually, the swells began to come faster and stronger beneath her, but she resisted as long as she could, enjoying the pull of the current, the raw hunger of Jack’s body for hers, after so long an abstinence; they had shared the wagon with Alphonse every night since Cybele and her children had moved into town. Now they rode the current together, crested at last, and broke apart, splintering like a million shards of sparkling glass, until she finally began to pool up again, safe and whole in Jack’s strong arms.
She lay there for a while, listening to his pounding heart. She knew she ought to get up and let him breathe; he was panting into her hair, his chest heaving under her. But he was still holding her fast. When she asked if he was all right, he laughed.
"Only don’t get too comfortable," he added, stroking her spine. "As pleasant as it is to wake up this way, it’s damned hard on the bladder. Not that it wasn’t worth it."
Tory rolled off of him, carefully and with great reluctance. Jack tugged up his trousers, clutching the fabric loosely round his waist with one hand, and shifted up into a wobbly crouch. Poking his head outside the netting, he glanced once at the closed door of their wagon—unusual for Alphonse to stay abed this late—and once at the Bruces’ caravan a few yards away. Then he bolted for the cover of the scrubby wood.
He made his way soundlessly between trunks of jasmine-laced evergreens and acacias, picking his way around thorny clumps of aloe as carefully as he could, given the circumstances. For all his eagerness in the heat of things, his side was still tender from his last encounter with Marcus, and his ribs were beginning to send out dull shockwaves of complaint. His limbs were sluggish and heavy with pleasure, difficult to manage in the thick undergrowth, but the need to relieve himself was obliterating every other sensation. The sun was high enough now to penetrate the wood with long, slanting beams of light, forcing him to creep deeper into the shadows.
It wasn’t until Jack had finally, gleefully emptied himself, and was buttoning up his trousers again, that he noticed a peculiar sound on the still morning air, not the usual drone of insects, but the murmur of human voices. Some random inflection, or perhaps the secretiveness of it, caught his attention. He grew still upon the instant, alert and straining to hear, turning his head slowly to catch the direction of the voices. What would anyone be up to at this hour in the middle of a wood? He thought of Tory alone at the edge of the clearing, and peered through the tree trunks until he spotted a human movement—the slow nodding of a dark head, the gesture of a white sleeve. There were two of them, not very far away, their stealthy movements just visible between the trunks and shrubbery; they huddled together in a guilty, furtive posture, speaking very low.
One of them was Alphonse.
The other was a Negro man Jack had never seen before, in the crisp white osnaburg rig and blue cloth cap of a well-kept slave. He whispered urgently to Alphonse, who nodded now and then in apparent sympathy, but without much enthusiasm. Jack couldn’t make out much of what was said and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. But he couldn't help but hear when Alphonse breathed out a weary sigh and said,
"Yes, I will come. I have given my pledge. Tell me where."
Then he and his companion retreated deeper into the wood.
Jack wished he had never left the clearing. He wished he was still tightly cocooned in Tory’s embrace, burrowing inside her, safe. He didn’t want to see this, didn’t want to think about what Alphonse might be up to out here at dawn, making promises to another man’s slave. There might be several explanations, all of them dangerous, most of them capital offenses, and none of them rendering up the slightest shred of comfort. Jack had thought he and Alphonse were on closer terms after their expedition to St. Kitts, but he'd told Jack nothing about this. The Lord of Misrule, Jack had once called Alphonse, turning the complacent, orderly world upside down. What travesty was he plotting out here in secret that was so dire, he would not even mention it to Jack?
Depressed, Jack slunk back the way he had come and found Tory curled up on one half of the pallet, waiting for him, her expression dreamy. He slipped in beside her and pulled her close, despite the dull throbbing of his ribs, taking what comfort he could from the warmth of her body.
"What’s the matter, Jack" she asked him softly.
"Nothing," he lied.
That evening, before they met the Bruces for supper, Alphonse told them he was called away on business that might require some time.
"But this is so unexpected," said Tory. "I hope it’s nothing we’ve done..."
"Oh, no, Victoria, how can you think that?" Alphonse looked genuinely distressed. "But it is the slow season, now. We can accomplish little at this time of year, and you do not need me when you play before the gentry. It is only that I need a...a holiday. To rest before the Bath Hotel."
The idea of Alphonse taking a holiday was so peculiar, even to himself, he could scarcely pronounce the word.
"You could take a holiday here," Tory fenced.
"I have other matters that need looking into."
"But where will you go?"
Alphonse shook his head, once. Tory felt chilled by the finality of it.
"I know I can depend on both of you to look after things here," he added, meeting her eyes again. Then he shifted his earnest glance to Jack, who nodded without a word.
"When will we see you again?" Tory persisted.
"It will not be long." Alphonse made a visible effort to brighten his expression, as much as was possible. "Are we not partners still? I will meet you at the Bath Hotel on the first of November. Not sooner, or the place will still be shuttered up."
"Make it the second Sunday in October at the Charlestown market," said Jack. "We’ll need to have a look at the stage before there are people about. And rehearse."
Alphonse nodded slowly. "I will be there. If for any reason I am delayed, proceed without me. I will send word soon."
He and Jack regarded each other for such a long moment Tory felt there was something they were not telling her.
"But of course, I will be there," Alphonse went on. "I always keep appointments."
"You will...look after yourself." Jack spoke, at last. It was more a command than a question.
"When will you go?" Tory’s voice was desolate. She had a sudden, dreadful feeling that she might never see Alphonse again.
"Tonight. I must stop in town first. I will leave from there."
When he came to squeeze her hand in farewell, Tory leaned over to kiss his furrowed cheek, commanding herself not to cry.
"Bon chance, Alphonse," she whispered.
He stepped back and showed her something like a smile.
"But it is not forever, Victoria. The second Sunday in October in Charlestown, on Nevis. We have a great deal yet to accomplish."
"Tell my fortune, Cybele."
"I thought you no want to know the future."
"I do if it's happy."
Cybele chuckled and Tory sighed. They were sitting on a quilt under Cybele's canvas awning surrounded by her herb baskets, but there was not much custom today, and the herb woman was idly shuffling her cards. It was Sunday, and Tory was visiting Cybele's stall at the market in St. John's while Jack and Marcus got in a little juggling between the showers that were falling again on Antigua. Without Alphonse, they had temporarily disbanded the pantomime, so Jack had Marcus out playing for whatever he could earn on his own account.
But without Columbine's antics to distract her, Tory found herself brooding. Alphone had been gone a fortnight now, and Jack's new enterprise among the gentry had her constantly on edge. When she expected her life ashore to be temporary, it didn't much matter which role she played, reinventing herself to fit the moment. But now that she had committed herself to the life she and Jack would build together, she was consumed with dread that Fortune would somehow retaliate for all the risks they were taking. Now that she had so much to lose.
"Do you think we're wise to tempt fate with our playing?" she asked Cybele.
"Tempt fate to do what?" murmured Cybele.
"To find us out. Have her revenge."
Cybele shook her head, practiced fingers sliding the cards over and under one another. "How can we know what fate intends?" she shrugged. "What we do in life touches other lives for good or ill, in ways we can never know."
Tory nodded emphatically toward the cards.
"You not in the proper humor," grumbled Cybele, still shuffling.
"What has my humor to do with it if it's all in the hands of the Great Mother?"
"You draw the cards, and it take all your strength of spirit to choose those with the most meaning," said Cybele. "Today, I think you only want to hear a pretty story."
"Yes!" Tory laughed. "Can't your cards tell me one?"
"You tell me one, cherie. What happen when you and Jack play for le bon ton?"
"They are scarcely the ton at English Harbour," Tory replied. "Commanders, post-captains, lieutenants—I'm getting an education in military ranking, if nothing else!"
She had been terrified at their first performance unmasked, at a small gathering of naval officers after dinner in the home of the Commissioner of the Dockyard. Jack had delivered Hamlet's "To be or not to be…" soliloquy, and then another scene with Tory as Ophelia in her dark green frock, her hair dressed beautifully by Ada Bruce. Jack’s amiable demeanor found favor among the Commissioner’s guests, and Tory’s nerves were taken for fetching female modesty. Asked how they happened to find themselves way out here in the colonies, Jack said they were touring the provinces until they could can command the experience to face a London audience.
"Indeed," a gallant young post-captain piped up. "And the very best of luck to you both, dear Miss Lightfoot and, ah, do forgive me, sir, but I am hopeless with names..."
"Dance," Jack smiled, accepting the officer’s handshake. "Jack Dance."
And as easily as that, Jack had written himself a new role to play in every parlor on the station.
"He charms them all, of course, when he wants to," Tory told Cybele. "He speaks their language. He says the more accustomed they are to seeing him as a harmless player, the less likely they'll believe any fantastic rumors to the contrary. And perhaps he's right. Everyone seems to take him for an English actor far from home."
"Not so surprising, since that is what he is," noted Cybele.
Tory blinked at her. Funny, she never thought of England, that far-off myth of a place where she had never been, as Jack's home.
"And what they take you for?" Cybele asked.
"Me? Jack's wench, I suppose."
"Jack nevah speak of you so," scolded Cybele.
"No, I'm always, 'my associate, Miss Lightfoot.' And then I must try to be charming, a far chancier proposition altogether." Then Tory dropped some of her cheekiness. "The fact is, they may think what they like of me, so long as Jack is safe. And they leave us in peace."
Since that first evening, Tory had also played Viola's comic duel with Jack's Aguecheek and Lady Macbeth to his Thane, although without the flying knives. Jack said they would bring out the pantomime again at Christmas at the Bath Hotel, and it couldn't come soon enough for Tory.
"Tell me what you see in the cards, Cybele."
The herb woman sighed and fanned open her cards, face-up. "Pick your card, cherie."
Tory selected her favorite, L'Etoile, the Star of hope with its female figure kneeling beside the river of life. She laid it on the quilt between them as Cybele set to shuffling the rest of the pack once more. When she fanned out the cards again, face-down this time, Tory touched one, and Cybele drew it out and laid it over the Star. She shuffled and fanned again, Tory chose another card, and this one Cybele laid across the previous one. Then she put aside the rest of the deck.
"This covers you," said Cybele. She slipped out the card covering the Star and turned it face-up. "Oh, la, la, do not look so, cherie. La Mort is not always so bad. One thing may end, another begin."
Tory tried not to shudder at the image of grinning Death, wielding his bloody scythe.
"The cards have no meaning today," Cybele went on calmly. "You no concentrate. Change in everyone's future."
"Well, what else?" Tory persisted.
"This crosses you," said Cybele, and turned up the card at right angles to the other two. "More change, and sacrifice," she sighed. "Not so surprising in these islands, eh?"
But Tory said nothing, eyes riveted to the image of Le Pendu. The Hanged Man.
(Top: The Lord Of Misrule, vintage woodblock, as seen on www.reason.com)