Wednesday, August 11, 2010
September began with a fortnight of drenching rain during which all of Antigua was shut up tighter than a ship’s hatch in a gale. To celebrate the return of dry weather, Mrs. Cora Harvey held a private dinner for a dozen or two of her most intimate friends at her fine townhouse in St. John’s. There were three full captains in attendance, a brace of commanders, and a handsome young flag officer, a local surgeon and his wife and daughter, and some other professional gentlemen and their families. For an after-supper diversion, she sent round her dignified Negro houseman to engage Captain and Mrs. Billy Bruce for musical entertainment, and Mr. Dance and Miss Lightfoot, whose fame had spread all the way to Falmouth, for dramatic recitations.
Directly after the performance, the houseman escorted the entertainers out to the detached cook-house, where they were invited to refresh themselves with two bottles of French champagne, covered in cotton muslin and kept cool in a bucket of saltpetre and water. The Bruces carried one bottle outside, where Captain Billy made a great show of popping the cork, to the terrified delight of the kitchen women. Inside, Jack sat Tory at the large work table, found a dry towel to throw over the neck of the second bottle, and began to gently twist the bottle loose from the cork.
"It was a Papist monk who invented champagne," he told her as he worked, "which is certainly the only good the mother church has ever been to anybody. And this," he grinned, "is the only useful thing I ever learned in my brief adventure in London society." The cork disengaged with an abrupt little sigh, and the bubbles inside foamed up to the top of the bottle neck, but not out of the lip. Jack poured a little of the wine, as pale and delicate as moonlight, into two of the crystal goblets set out beside the bucket, and handed one to Tory.
"The monk said his creation tasted like stars," Jack went on, lifting his glass to hers. "See what you think."
Tory took a cautious taste, but she wasn’t prepared for the explosion inside her mouth. She swallowed too fast, then coughed, then laughed.
"Well, you are supposed to sip it," said Jack, and he demonstrated with his own glass. Before Tory could think of a suitable retort, he rose out of his chair, lifted her face with his free hand, and kissed her; she tasted the memory of the wine, yeasty and sweet on his tongue.
"Now I see how it’s done," she beamed at him. She washed down his kiss with another sip, enjoying the fine, clean taste, and the sparkle inside her mouth. "But ought we not to toast something?"
"Aye, who knows when we’ll ever come across another bottle of champagne," Jack agreed. "We’ll drink to our new venture, then. And pray Fortune stays merry with us."
He stood to pour another splash into each goblet, angling each glass carefully so the fizz never overflowed its rim.
"Bravo, my Harlequin!" cried the vibrant voice of Cora Harvey from the entryway. "I might have known you wouldn't spill a drop. I’m afraid our dear Captain Billy has spent most of his bottle watering my hydrangeas." She sailed into the room, launching a brilliant smile toward Jack’s startled face. "Oh, come, my dear! I’d be a sorry excuse for a woman and an exceedingly poor gossip if I failed to recognize the most attractive man in St. John’s, even without his mask. I always told you I meant to have you to my home. I never imagined I would have to pay for the privilege."
Jack tried out a guarded smile. "You’ve been very generous, Mrs. Harvey." He nodded toward the champagne. "Thank you."
"Ah, you have no idea how generous I might have been. Still, it is I who must thank you for a wonderful performance. Now I see what has had them all abuzz at English Harbour; we have rarely had anything like professional players in residence on this island. My guests are clamoring to make your acquaintance." By now she was close enough to place a discreet hand, very lightly, on Jack’s elbow as she passed. "It’s good to see you again, Jack."
"And you, Cora." Jack’s expression relaxed. "You’re looking impossibly well."
"I ought to, the fortune I spend on upkeep!" she laughed. The Widow Harvey had given up her mourning clothes and was now attired in the merest cloud of soft, gold-colored silk, low on the bosom and dramatically boned at the waist. Her dark hair was arranged on top of her head with several ruthlessly curled tendrils dancing in loose clusters over each ear to set off the wide tilt of her cat-like amber eyes. She did not look youthful, exactly, but her charms had been most carefully preserved.
"But I certainly haven’t come out here to discuss beauty secrets," she went on as she swept past Jack, and seated herself with a crisp whispering of silk in the chair he had just vacated. "I’m here to have a look at my rival."
And then those golden eyes fastened on Tory, who had been watching the scene in a kind of anonymous fascination as she sipped her wine. She had never seen the notorious widow up close, and she was wonderfully curious, despite her usual dismay in the presence of beautiful, confident, fashionable women. It did not occur to her to feel apprehensive, possibly because the cold, tingling champagne was beginning to warm her insides.
"I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, my dear. I’m Cora Harvey." She extended a white gloved hand, whose wrist was armored with a battery of thick bracelets of chased gold, and Tory could not help but think of the manacles she had worn in the Basseterre gaol.
"Victoria Lightfoot," she smiled, touching the extended fingers. "I'm so pleased to meet you, at last." Holding up her goblet, she added, "This was very kind of you."
"Well, perhaps I thought to get my Harlequin drunk," Mrs. Harvey sighed wistfully. "Although now I see I’d be wasting my time," she added, as her keen eyes appraised Tory. "You've more than youth on your side, that's plain enough, and I daresay you’re quite an improvement over the bloodless English belles we’re accustomed to out here. Poor little Miss Fletcher hasn’t a word to say for herself, not that her papa the doctor would allow it. But then, you’re not English, judging from your speech. And I doubt very much you are a native of these islands."
"I was born in America," Tory told her.
"Ah, America," Mrs. Harvey cried, with a wave of her hand. "My second husband had dealings in America. He traveled often to Boston."
"I know Boston." Tory took another sip of her wine and Cora Harvey let out a raucous laugh at the tone of her voice.
"Hah! A little England, was it? So I heard, that’s why I never cared to go there myself. And may I say, my dear, what a pleasure it is to find a woman who appreciates fine spirits. May the saints preserve me from genteel ladies who drink nothing but that hideous beveridge of sugared lime." She took an empty glass from the table as she said this, reached for the open champagne bottle, and poured herself a liberal tot with a skill equal to Jack’s.
"So you had the excellent good sense to leave that place," Mrs. Harvey went on, saluting Tory with her glass. "Fancy you turning up here. I wonder how you account for it?"
Tory felt herself disposed to like the widow's good-natured frankness, but she was not yet drunk enough to be imprudent.
"Fortune, Mrs. Harvey," she smiled.
"Ah, Fortune, that arrant whore!" Mrs. Harvey crowed. She cocked her head slightly, eyes alert, trying to gauge if she could pry out any more information. Abruptly, her eyes swung round to Jack, who was perched on the table’s edge, following their conversation with no little interest. "Oh, do stop lounging there in that rakish pose, Jack, my pulse is racing fast enough with the wine and the heat. You’re enough to make a poor old lady swoon quite away."
"I doubt that," Jack said dryly.
"Be an angel, won’t you? Run out and tell the Bruces my guests are waiting to meet you all."
"Of course, Madam. At your service." Jack rose obediently, casting Tory a wry grin over the head of their hostess as he turned to go. When they were alone, Cora Harvey inched a little closer to Tory.
"He cares a great deal for you," Mrs. Harvey observed. "I am accustomed to inspiring my men to romantic frenzy, or reducing them to stammering idiocy. I am not often treated with such bald indifference."
Tory remembered that long-ago morning on their last visit to St. John’s, when Jack had ravished her in the wagon, and she thought that "indifference" was not quite the correct word. "Your charms did not go unnoticed," Tory smiled again. "But we have been friends for a long time."
"I daresay." Mrs. Harvey reached out and caught hold of Tory’s hand. There was something more earnest in her expression. "Only take care, my dear. I've a thousand years of experience in these things, and you may find the rules that govern such matters far more strict in England. Which is why I choose to live abroad."
Taken aback, Tory felt a little flustered. "Why...then I suppose it’s fortunate we have no plans to go there."
"No immediate plans perhaps. But listen to me," Mrs. Harvey urged. "I have lived a long time and I’ve seen a great many players. Most of ‘em are vagabonds and tramps, but," she nodded in the direction Jack had just gone, "that one has a gift. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to realize it, or there’d be no living with him. But it is clear to me that these poor islands shall not contain him for much longer."
Tory did not know how to respond to this; she couldn’t tell if it was idle flattery, or a curse for the woman Cora Harvey considered her rival. Or a merely a friendly warning. In any case, Tory felt the gentle squeeze of the older woman’s hand, and nodded mutely into those amber eyes. Then Jack reappeared at the door with Ada and Billy Bruce, and Mrs. Harvey swept up to her feet.
"Ah! Here we all are. My guests are in a stupor of awe, and pining to meet you all." She paused to offer an arm to Tory, who rose and took it. "You must especially meet my new friend, Mr. Nash, the importer. Newly arrived and such a teller of tales! Do come along!"
They had performed in the parlor, a large, formal room adjacent to the dining room, in Mrs. Harvey’s very English house. But now their hostess led them to a more comfortable sitting room, fitted out with an impressive array of mahogany furniture covered in flowered chintz. One entire wall was given over to the late Captain Harvey’s library, and after an interlude of civil mingling and polite chat with the widow’s guests, Tory noticed Jack drift over to inspect the books. Miss Fletcher and another young lady were left giggling in his wake, until Dr. Fletcher silenced them with an affronted glare. Ada Bruce was entertaining the entire complement of naval officers, and Captain Billy was getting on like a house afire with Mr. Nash, who was small, muscular, fit and tanned, with fluffy brown hair and an open, ruddy face. His looks confirmed that he had been a seafarer; he and Captain Billy were trading salty stories and saluting each other with Madeira. Tory politely disengaged herself from a pair of cheerfully gossiping matrons to go join Jack.
"Gibbon and Scott," Jack grinned at her, nodding toward the bookshelves. "It’s plain they have a great deal of time on their hands in St. John’s."
Tory’s eyes began to rake across the leather spines with their delicate gilded titles. There was something irresistibly intimate about looking at someone else’s books. What a luxury it must be to own books in quantity to read whenever one wished.
"Seeing you among the books there, Mr. Dance, puts me in mind of a mercantile voyage I once undertook." It was Mr. Nash strolling toward them, beaming, his wine glass upraised, Billy Bruce at his elbow. "One of my last commercial voyages, only a year or two ago. Off the leeward coast of Cuba, it was, when we were taken by pirates. Brutish lot of Spaniards they were, herding all of us into the fo'c'sle whilst they stripped the vessel for bullion or whatever frivolous trinkets these low fellows crave. All but one, whom I spied in the cabin, stealing the captain’s books." Mr. Nash smiled a little, shaking his head with amusement. "And with such very great care, inspecting each one, as if he could actually read. The most extraordinary thing!" Mr. Nash took another meditative sip of wine, smiling at Jack over the rim. "Tall fellow he was, something rather nimble. Looked a bit like you."
Tory’s heart dropped out of her body, but Jack straightened and flashed Mr. Nash his most killing smile.
"A lot of fellows look like me, Mr. Nash. Especially in the Spanish islands, or so I’m told."
"Aye, that’s so," Nash agreed, pleasantly. "It’s seeing you poring through the books there, that called the scene to mind. To this day I can’t think what the brute was about."
Other curious eyes had turned toward them by now, including those of the inquisitive Mrs. Harvey.
"I am astonished they let you live to tell the tale, Mr. Nash, from what I’ve heard of those cut-throat bands," exclaimed their hostess.
"Why, they never harmed a one of us," Nash replied smugly. "They had nerve enough only for thievery, not murder."
"You sound disappointed, sir." It was out before Tory could check herself, although she managed to keep her tone mild.
"Why, what an extraordinary thing to say! What I mean, my dear Miss Lightfoot, was that our lives were spared due to their cowardice, nothing more. There was certainly no issue of conscience involved. After all," and he beamed again at Jack, "it’s not as if pirates were comparable to men."
"Certainly not Englishmen," Jack replied, his smile bland and fixed. The asperity Tory detected in his voice might have curdled cream. But the English never expected to hear anything less than the confirmation of their own opinions, and so were charmed by his patriotism.
"Indeed not!" laughed Mr. Nash, clapping him on the back.
"Hang the lot of ‘em, I say!" chimed in Billy Bruce, raising his wine glass. "Thieving scoundrels! And good riddance!"
All the gentlemen drank to this. Jack paused for an instant, staring into his glass as if something vile were floating in it, then touched it to his lips; only Tory knew what the gesture cost him. And not long afterwards, they found an excuse to beg the pardon of their hostess and take their leave.
Tory awoke when Jack’s elbow thumped into the wall under the window of the wagon. She half-turned to find him gasping for breath in his sleep, batting away the sheet.
"Jack?" She sat up on one elbow. The wagon shook with his restlessness. His legs were moving under the sheet, kicking or climbing. She thought he was dreaming of the slaver.
"Jack..." She put her hand on his arm, and he cried out, rolling onto his side so fast, the back of his shoulder slammed into the wall and his eyes flew open. He stayed pinned there for a moment, panting, staring eyes seeing nothing. Then he blinked and seemed to recognize her, and his terror melted into utter confusion. His mouth could not seem to form words.
"It’s all right, Jack. You were dreaming." Tory tried to keep her own voice calm, but it was difficult when he looked this wild.
"Rusty?" His voice was dry. "...oh, my God, Rusty..."
"Ssshh, hombre, I’m right here..." And she put her arms around him, gathered him close. He was shaking against her, his skin cold and pebbled with gooseflesh.
"I know, I know, hombre," she murmured. "It was the slaver again."
"Aye, but...it wasn’t slaves. It was you...and Alphonse and Calypso... and Cybele, all of you chained together and drowning...oh, Christ..." He closed his eyes but they snapped open again. "All of you drowning, Rusty, sinking below the waves, struggling...and I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t save you..."
"My sweet, sweet heart," Tory whispered, holding him tight. "It was only a dream. Listen to me, Jack. It wasn’t real. We’re safe now, all of us. Everything is all right."
She pressed her cheek into his damp hair, felt him struggling to command himself. "Everything is all right," she chanted softly. "We'll be on Nevis soon, away from here. Alphonse will be there. Nothing is going to happen to us."
If only she could make herself believe it.
(Top: Taking A Bow, by James Aschbacher © 2010.)