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The Witch of Barbados

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Sailing south to Barbados was just as wondrous as Nat had promised.

Though over the summer, the Dolphin and the Witch had often been becalmed, November’s winds after the October gales sent them scudding sweetly southward, the sailors scarcely having to touch brace or sail.

Late November brought them just after dawn in sight of Barbados’s single low mountain, and joy filled Kit as she sat at the masthead peering through the shimmering rays of a balmy day.

Laughing in delight, she swung expertly down to the deck, and pattered—barefoot again, after more than a year of sober garb and sturdy shoes—abaft the wheel, where stood her husband.

Her husband! She paused to study Nat, so tall and proud in his blue captain’s coat with its shiny buttons. It was now her job to keep those buttons polished, a chore in which she took fierce pleasure.

Sun-streaked blond hair ruffled in the wind, then he turned away from his conference with Harry the first mate, and both men smiled, Harry murmuring, “Good morning, Mistress Eaton,” as if she stood gowned in silk from head to toe, instead of bare of head and foot—and between those wearing a plain shirt and voluminous breeches that she had made herself.

“We’ll be riding in on the tide,” Nat said, grinning. “I believe we beat Father, and every day till he lands we gain a shilling, ha ha! My Witch does love the wind on her beam.”

Kit opened her mouth to say that she gloried in this fragrant breeze as well, but she saw by the twinkle in Nat’s blue gaze that he’d insinuated two meanings.

She blushed all over, not trusting herself to answer—not spoken aloud, though she would give it him later, with all the enthusiasm he could desire. And he saw it in her saucy glance, she knew, for he flushed delightfully to the ears, there on the deck for all to see.

Marriage was still very new. She had worked all the summer through on what she had come to think of as her social dowry and her secret one. After her wedding at harvest time in late October, as Wetherfield celebrated in one of the few happy occasions it permitted its somber citizens,  Nat had kissed his bride and said, “Well, where are those seven trunks, Mistress Eaton? The cabin aboard the Witch awaits them.”

And Kit had said blithely, “There are but four now.” Two of those full of her new linens, and the fine quilt her cousins had put up for her wedding.

As she expected, Nat did not ask after the missing trunks any more than he inquired into the contents of those carried to the landing to be put aboard her new home.

For Kit had worked her plan out in her head as her fingers had worked in domestic chores all through the summer.

She would not disclose that plan to Nat, for reasons yet hazy in her mind, but which felt right. It was to be a surprise—her thoughts lingered longest on her expectation of the pride and delight he would feel when she succeeded.

Impatiently she contained herself as Mt. Hillaby’s hazy contours sharpened into gentle green folds, and the graceful curves of the coast resolved into the familiar lineaments of the bay.

She knew she must bide quietly, for she had learned much about sailing over the past two weeks: the beautiful coral that decorated so many houses ringed the island below the surface, and was deadly to ships. Navigation must be done with care, absorbing the attention of every sailor aboard, from captain to the fifteen year old new hire.

Nat came to stand beside her, and she took his hand. Not every day of her first two weeks of marriage had been easy. She had learned a great deal about the different expectations people had of one another since her journey northward on the Dolphin the spring previous: legal expectations, social, religious, and those private ones between persons that sometimes were so difficult to characterize.

She knew she must not interfere with Nat’s command of the ship, nor give orders herself, though she was the captain’s bride. But it had been difficult to learn when to stay out of the way, and when she was free to clamber aloft—having disclosed to Nat the easiest of her secret projects, those breeches.

She had waited until they had safely sunk New England before bringing them out and showing him in their cabin, saying, “I should like very much to go aloft when I can. You know I am a very good climber, but managing skirts in the rigging is impossible.”

Nat’s eyes had flashed wide. “No skirts in the rigging,” he had agreed with a fervency that she began to understand after the first night or two of marriage.

That part was agreeable indeed, and if she could have, she would have stayed with Nat in the cabin all during the journey. But her husband had his own duties, and she had to learn how to share him.

Learning respect for others’ perceive duty, even when she did not agree, had been one of her most difficult lessons, for her entire life in Barbados had been a long series of sunny days surrounded by people who must respect her every wish.

Those days were gone forever, moreover she had come to see that she would not get them back if she could.

That was the realization that had germinated her real secret.

They floated into Bridgeport Harbor on the morning tide, and Kit stood aside as Nat saw to a thousand tasks that must be executed altogether: rounding about, flashing sails then spilling wind, then anchoring safely.

But when that was accomplished, and the ramp let down for the offloading of the grain and the rare timber meant for fine furniture that they had brought to trade, Kit said to Nat, “I am going to visit in town.”

Distracted, Nat said, as she had expected he would, “You’ll be back before dark?”

“Yes indeed,” she replied. And with someone special, you’ll see.

As she ran up the wharf, she paused to glance back at the handsome ketch now fully owned by Nat. He had claimed that the Witch was the newest design of fore-and-aft rigged ships, faster than anything else on the water.

This cargo would not net them nearly the money that they would have gained if they had become part of the triangle of sugar, rum, and slaves that had enabled people to build those familiar beautiful houses behind her.

Like her own grandfather’s house, she thought, some of her pleasure dimming as she walked into the city. As a girl she had roamed freely all over the harbor, as safe as a rich landowner’s granddaughter could be, no thought in the world but her own pleasure—and her grandfather’s pride in her.

Now she wore the plainest of her silk gowns, and the hat of a married woman. She was no longer a Tyler, with the expectations of a rich plantation owner’s child. She was a New England shipowner’s wife, with a piece of business to execute.

Concealed in her old sweet bag, which had once contained nothing but scented handkerchiefs, she carried the coins she had earned through the secret sale of her finest gowns.

She used the smallest coins to hire a carriage to take her out to Porter Hall, on the outskirts of St. Michael’s.

When the black steward opened the door to her, she said, “Is Miss Lucy in?”

“Miz Tyler,” the steward said, recognizing her.

“Mistress Eaton now,” Kit declared proudly.

The steward bowed his grizzled head in apology, a gesture she had once taken for granted, but which disturbed her now in its abjection. “Missus Eaton, I beg pardon. But Miz Lucy, she no longer Miz Lucy, but Lady Hatton. She live over to Hatton Manor now.”

“Did she take Molly?” Kit asked, her heartbeat thundering.

The steward’s expression did not change, but she saw a narrowing in his dark gaze, and his soft voice took on a precision that caught at the back of her neck as he said, “Lady Hatton done sold Molly to a house over at Oistins.”

A house?

“Whose house?” she asked.

“Called the Rose.”

Kit’s old habit was to turn away when she had received her information. And though she sensed something wrong, some emotion she could not divine, she forced herself to carry on as she meant to. “Thank you.”

And to the black driver of the carriage, “The Rose at Oistins.”

The driver knuckled his forehead, head, bowed then said, “You certain of that, mistress? It be no place for a lady.”

Kit fought the impulse to snap back that it was none of his concern, and hated the return of old habits. “Take me there. Please,” she added, though she caught a glimpse of a derisive expression before the man turned away again.

Nothing more was said on the long drive. The sun shone bright and beautiful, the air carried the heady fragrances of blossoms just as she remembered. They drove past miles of sugar cane bending gracefully in the breeze, but somehow the triumph and joy in returning that she had imagined all through the summer had dimmed.

It vanished entirely when she arrived at the fishing town. Here buildings sprouted roughly along the shore, calling to mind some of what she had seen along the Connecticut coast, only much noisier here. The smell of liquor lay heavy on the air as she stepped into the low, dark interior of the Rose.

The front room was plain, with no goods in sight. An older woman appeared from a back room, and when she saw Kit, she frowned. But her voice was polite enough as she said, “Mistress?”

“I understand a slave named Molly was sold here. She was once mine. I wish to buy her back.”

The woman’s eyebrows rose. Kit noticed she painted her lips, and the bright patches on her cheeks looked false, too, but the woman was dressed very fine. “Well, then, here’s an ado!”

“I sold her for thirteen pound. I have that here,” Kit said, clutching her sweet purse tight in her fingers as she held it up.

The woman laughed. “I would bargain, I would, but the truth is, she is a mort of trouble, always ailing. And then there’s the brat.”

“Brat?”

The woman did not vouchsafe an answer, but returned to the inner chamber, leaving Kit standing alone. Nothing so far had gone the way she had expected; there were currents here that she could not navigate, as Nat would say.

A short time later, the woman reappeared, poking ahead of her a thin form with a familiar face—here was the girl named Molly, who had served Kit for twelve years, since they were both small.

“Molly,” Kit said, looking for recognition, relief—surprise—gratitude. “I’ve come to buy you back.”

But there was nothing of relief or gratitude, or even surprise. That same expression she had perceived in the Porters’ steward gazed back at Kit from Molly’s black eyes as she curtseyed submissively, then she said in a low voice, “Not without my babe.”

“Babe?” Kit repeated, aghast.

The woman seemed to find this funny, and roared with laughter. “Now it’s your ado, eh, missie? A good strong male brat will easily go for five pound. Eighteen and you can have the both of them.”

Kit stared from her mirthful countenance, made more pale by rice powder, to Molly’s well-remembered, smooth black face. Only this expression Kit had never seen.

“Molly, I have only the thirteen pounds.” Kit opened her purse, and untied the handkerchief into which she had bound her coins so they would not make noise.

Molly said so softly that Kit could scarcely hear, “I’d not wanted the getting of him, but now he’s here he is mine.”

Softly she spoke, but Kit sensed in the hissed sibilants the ferocity of Molly’s will. Though she knew that Molly would be able to say nothing whatsoever if this strange woman—or whoever owned Molly now—decided to sell the baby.

Kit stared from that silent face to the coins in her palm to the woman’s face. “I’ll have to come back,” she said in defeat.

The woman laughed again, shook her head, and dealt Molly a slap in the direction of the inner door. “These hoighty-toighty girls and their whims,” she said, turning her back on Kit.

The door shut, leaving Kit alone.

“Back to Bridgeport,” Kit said, climbing into the carriage.

Stunned by defeat, she no longer noticed the beautiful countryside she had once loved. Instead of the birdsong, she heard that low whisper again and again, her own emotions circling around and around the little scene until she forced herself to acknowledge what she had seen. Recognized. That expression was nothing new—she’d encountered the twin of it in Goodwife Cruff’s face: hatred. Yes, and contempt.

She had imagined for months Molly’s appreciation when Kit appeared to buy her back, and then she would present Molly to Nat, and he would be so proud of her . . .

Hot tears of shame and defeat dripped down her face all the way to Bridgeport.

o0o

Defeat turned to anger. Well, if Molly so despised her former mistress, why should Kit put herself to all this trouble? It was a stupid idea. Nat would just laugh at her anyway, because really, what was the use of freeing one slave? It wouldn’t make the least bit of difference to the tidal wave of slaves being brought to Barbados. Worse, because she’d have Molly glaring at her all the way back north to Saybrook . . .

She had dried her eyes by the time she paid off the jarvey and made her way back down to the wharf.

Kit greeted her with a kiss, and asked, “So, how was your day? Did you find some of your old acquaintance?”

Kit tossed her head. “Oh, it was fine enough.” And when Nat’s eyes narrowed in that gaze of his that seemed to cut through all the tangled weeds of her soul, she said, “My old friend Lucy Porter seems to have married into the Hattons. My grandfather never liked them, for all their baronetage. It was all political brangles.”

Nat shook his head. “Now, it seems, there’s more of that trouble, according to what I heard.”

“King James again?” Kit asked, glad to get away from the subject of her day.

“I can’t make head nor tails of it, but it’s centered round the King’s prospective heir, or so it seems. No doubt time will tell,” he added. “So, until Father arrives, and we settle up in the counting house, we have time to ourselves. Now, what would you show me first? I was hoping we might take one of the pinnaces around, and see that wondrous cave you once described.”

Kit tossed her head again, and smiled, and laughed, and did her best to become the happy wife Nat had married.

The next day, they hired another carriage, and they spent the morning riding around as she pointed out all her childhood haunts, most of which were unchanged, however much people’s lives had altered.

In the afternoon, they took the pinnace to the cave, which proved to be exactly as beautiful as she remembered. Nat looked around with appreciation, staring at the strange formations, the rainbow colorations, and he—like she had as a girl—tested his voice against the echoes.

She marveled with him, and forced a laugh at every joke he made, but she could not rid herself of Molly’s angry, accusing gaze. Sometimes she veered between wild plans—stealing Molly away from the Rose house, or selling her wedding band, which would not go unnoticed even if it would bring five pounds. She suspected it wouldn’t, but she knew so little about what things were worth, she only knew that she no longer possessed anything worth selling. . .

“Kit.”

She looked up.

Nat ‘s smile had turned wry. “What is amiss? You wanting your old life back, is that it? Living as a sea captain’s wife not what you expected?”

“No, no, no,” she exclaimed, her horror so genuine that he sat back in the pinnace, his relief plain.

She sighed, not certain what to say. Or if she ought to speak at all.

For a short time they floated there on the placid waters, as distant drips played a mournful melody.

“Come, Kit. Part of married life is sharing the gales. We spoke the words together not so long ago. Surely you understood their intent—you meant your vows, did you not?”

Her eyes flew to his. “I do mean my vows. Every syllable. It’s just . . . this was before I met you, and I recollect very vividly what you said about slavery. And I’ve come to see that you are right. I’d never thought about those things.”

“You were not taught to,” he said, taking her hands.

“But, well, it commenced after William hid the charter. Uncle Matthew said, ‘And we will show the world what it means to be free men.’ Freedom was so important to him—though his life could be endangered, still he must cleave to this idea, though one cannot touch it, or eat it, or spend it. And well, I thought, surely those Negros from Africa must had thought the same? Everywhere I asked, all summer, no one pretended that Africans want to be slaves. Aside from those who searched for justification in the Holy Book, it seems that the Africans are here because they are captured by the slavers, or sold by their enemies among other tribes. If that is so, well . . .”

And suddenly out it all came—that sickening conviction that in selling Molly to get her passage money to Connecticut Kit had betrayed her. What had once seemed such a neat solution—engendering no more than a pulse of regret for the lack of Molly’s patient hands in cleaning her gowns and darning and repairing—had come to gnaw at her as the worst of sins.

“And the more I thought about it, the worse it got. I tried to comfort myself with the reasoning that my grandfather was a good slave owner, in that he did not like floggings, and he made certain that Molly and the others could learn to speak well, and not the slave speech that others said was their natural place, and they had a place to live, and their clothing. But when I weeded those onions, and cooked and cleaned, then it was all to be done over again for the next meal, well, I thought about how the slaves worked much harder than that, but they don’t earn a penny for their work. And so I decided when we came here, I would buy Molly back. And take her to Connecticut, and set her free.”

She finished up by telling him how she had planned it all out, selling her gowns, coming last to the thirteen pounds in her handkerchief, left aboard the Witch.

Nat listened without speaking, his strong hands gripping his knees, no expression in the sharp angles of his cheekbones or in his firm mouth. She sensed deep emotions, but again, she could not divine what they were as she stuttered to a stop and gazed at him with troubled countenance.

Nat shook his head. “Kit, I don’t know whether to kiss you or to despair. No, no, don’t look at me that way.” He darted forward to take her hands so quickly that the pinnace rocked dangerously.

And though they both could swim and the water was deliciously cool, somehow the moment was too important for the distraction of laughter.

“Kit.” His grip tightened on her hands, warm and steady. “Those vows meant that we endure the gales together. That’s how I see it, because that’s how I was brought up, and I haven’t seen a better way yet in all my travels. You know how my mother and father are together.”

Kit’s eyes burned with tears. “Oh, yes. Much as I respect dear Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew, when I think of married people I want to be like, it is your parents who come to mind first.”

“That’s because if one sees a lee shore, they beat into the wind side by side. We’ll find the five pounds. We’ll buy Molly and her boy. We’ll do it together.”

She sighed. “But she hates me now. And then I thought, what sort of life would she get in Connecticut? You saw how the Negros there have to sit up in the gallery at Meeting House, behind the servants? How much better will it be for her there?”

“She might not even be granted freedom. Slavery is legal in Massachusetts,” Nat said. “Which is now conjoined with Connecticut.”

“It’s everywhere,” Kit said, throwing her hands wide. “And then I thought, what does it really matter, freeing one slave, when there are so many?”

“It matters to Molly,” he said, pulling Kit close. “It means all the world to Molly. Just as finding you meant all the world to me.”

Kit drew in a shuddering breath and straightened her back. She was done weeping—after all, she had nothing to weep about. “And so we do that,” said, determined that Molly should also get the life she would want. “But there is still the problem of where to set her free.”

“It is a problem, but not insurmountable. You have not yet seen New Orleans. There dwell the free people of color, I believe they are called affranchis, or something like, though I only have a few words of French, relating to trade. At any rate, in that town, I’ve seen Africans, and Indians, too, walking about free as air, dressed as fine as anyone, owning their own businesses and horses and carriages. That might be the place to start.”

“New Orleans,” Kit breathed. “You think she would like it?”

Nat grimaced. “From what little you tell me, she will probably prefer it to her life here. I don’t know if it was your Lucy’s brother or father or the overseer, but it sounds like the Porters were no good to her, and after the inevitable child, sold her to a house of ill repute.”

“I wondered what that place was,” she said.

It was Nat’s turn to blush and look away. “It’s something I know a lot about, sailors being what they are. Here, Kit. The light is slanting low. We’d better start back, and I guess it’s time for yet another lesson in what men do to others.”

Kit did not like enlightenment in this direction any more than she had liked wrestling with her conscience over the past year, but she was no longer afraid of hard work, physical, mental, or spiritual. And so she listened and learned, divining much that had been hidden hitherto, especially about the occasional appearance of slave babies whose skin was often the color of honey, and who might have blue or gray or green eyes.

The next day brought the Dolphin safely to harbor, with another load of fine horses. Kit found Mrs. Eaton, and ran to join her. After exchanging greetings, the two looked at the horses shaking their manes and sniffing the new air of the islands. “They will get better care here than the slaves do after being brought out of the holds of their ships,” Kit observed.

Mrs. Eaton turned inquiring eyes to her. “I thought you were accustomed to the trade.”

“No longer,” Kit said, and related everything that had happened.

It was Nat’s smile, only more tender, that lit Mrs. Eaton’s face when Kit finished. “I am glad you told me,” she said. “We shall see about this.”

Later on, the four of them met together for dinner. After Kit’s story had been retailed a third time, Captain Eaton surprised no one when he said, “We shall furnish those five pounds. Your idea of New Orleans is a good one, son.”

The surprise was from Mrs. Eaton. “I have been talking much with Hannah,” she said.  “The Quakers do not hold with slavery at all. There are some in Pennsylvania who put themselves in the way of danger in an effort to free slaves, to educate people, to disrupt the trade.”

Captain Eaton shook his head. “You hear about Quaker troublemakers everywhere. You have to admire them, standing up to kings and counselors as if they were froward children—no bowing, no titles or honorifics.”

Mrs. Eaton said to her husband and son, “I am not to be telling you your business. But one thing she said has stayed in my mind: if the trade ceases to be profitable, those who think nothing of trafficking in human souls will give it over in favor of something else. I hope that might bring less suffering.”

Nat’s blue gaze lit. “You mean, sail privateering against slavers?”

Kit clasped her hands. Oh, to do something that would cause fewer Mollys to look at the world with the hatred born of such devastating betrayal!

“That’s dangerous,” Captain Eaton said slowly.

“No more dangerous than weathering a hurricane,” Nat retorted, then grinned. “Why, if we intercept the rum going to Africa, and trade it somewhere else for gold, we can even make it pay.”

 “You’re talking about fighting other ships. You know little about that.”

“I know that the Witch is faster than most anything on the water. And I can put her into any inlet with draught enough to permit. The rest, why, if it can be learned I will learn it.”

“And I will help him,” Kit spoke quickly, gripping Nat’s hand below the table. His fingers interlaced with hers.

Mrs. Eaton stretched out her hands to her husband on one side, and Kit’s free hand on the other. “A fast witch, pointing her magic toward breaking an evil trade that never should have been founded. That is a kind of enchantment of which Hannah will heartily approve, don’t you think?”