Mississippi jack, p.3
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       Mississippi Jack, p.3

           L. A. Meyer
 

  "Miss, you must get back from the window. Here, let me undo your wrists." My hands were still bound but I didn't notice, as I am so often bound and confined.

  "Oh, yes, very well played by all," chortles Mr. Bean, formerly Lieutenant Talbot, who sits on my right, "but I must especially compliment you, Mr. Fennel, on your portrayal of Officer Jameson—you were the very picture of a British junior officer—just the right amount of officiousness, bluster, and complete asininity."

  Both Mr. Fennel and Mr. Bean begin hurrying out of their uniforms, showing that particular lack of modesty common to the theatrical world. It is not an easy thing, as the carriage is rocking wildly back and forth. I noticed when I boarded that the driver was Ed Strout, the same member of the acting troupe who worked in the daytime as a hack driver and had been the one to help me haul poor Jim Tanner off for repair after he had been badly beaten by those rotters Beadle and Strunk those long months ago.

  The carriage careens around a corner, and our escort squad disappears—I know they will have slipped into the side entrance of the theater to doff their costumes and slip back into anonymity. Thanks, mates.

  "Thank you, Mr. Bean, and I must say I found your performance to be equally above reproach." Mr. Fennel struggles out of his striped regimental trousers and reaches into a bag concealed under the seat and pulls out a pair of workman's overalls. He tosses a similar pair to Mr. Bean. "But I do think the highest accolades belong to our Mr. Higgins."

  "Oh, without a doubt, Sir!" exults Mr. Bean, as he worms himself into his overalls. "Such carriage, such easy elegance, such a fine turn of leg!"

  "Yes, surely you must return someday to our stage!" says Mr. Fennel. "What a Caesar you would make with that fine brow and that noble nose! Or Marc Antony! Can you see it, Mr. Bean?"

  "Oh, yes, Mr. Fennel. Hamlet, even."

  Higgins, for his part, merely smiles and doffs his helmet and red coat, then puts on his fawn and white suit coat, pulling his white trousers out of his boot tops so that the cuffs fall about his ankles. Higgins pulls off the beauty mark from his cheek and flings it away and then takes out a handkerchief and wipes the powder from his face. A matching fawn top hat, and he is once again the civilized civilian that he so very much is.

  "You flatter me, gentlemen, and I do look forward to returning to your stage. However, we do have our young charge to consider." Higgins adjusts his cravat. "And was not her performance something for the ages?"

  It is all too much for their young charge—coming into port in high triumph at our victory over the Bloodhound, seeing Jaimy, and then being taken and losing Jaimy once more, and then my sudden deliverance from a certain death sentence to where I now sit. The tears spill out of my eyes and over my cheeks.

  "Her selfless denial of her young lover to save him from durance vile, the self-sacrifice, oh, the dramatic possibilities. Can you not see it as a play? Why, there would not be a dry eye in the house."

  "I shall get out pen and paper immediately upon our return to the theater. I can see the program notes: The story of a young maiden forced to renounce her own true love for the sake of his own dear safety. We shall call it She Gave All for Love, or, Love's Favor Lost ... Why, my dear, what ever is the matter?"

  I wrap an arm around each of the actors' shoulders and plant a wet, tear-mingled kiss on their cheeks. "That you should risk all—your freedom, your reputations, your very lives—to save me in my moment of peril, I cannot tell you—"

  "Tut-tut, my dear. Do you think we would leave our own Puck, our own Ophelia, our own Portia, to languish in the cruel clutches of a heartless enemy? Nay, never! Excelsior. What? Into the fray, that's the ticket!" says Mr. Fennel.

  "All that and more, but now we must Exeunt Stage Right, Miss," says Mr. Bean, his hand on the door latch. "Come back to us soon. You must finally consent to play Cordelia! You must!"

  They each don a workman's cap, stick a foul pipe into their mouths, and, as the carriage pulls to a prearranged stop, they are out the door and onto the street, just two doughty yeomen heading home after a day's honest labor.

  "We will be debarking soon, so you must make yourself ready," says Higgins. "Your Jim Tanner will be at the bridge to Cambridge with horses to take us into the interior until we can decide what to do."

  "Higgins." I sniffle. "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for my rescue, but still I worry about Jaimy. What will they do to him?" I wring my hands in despair. Poor Jaimy, to have to stand there and watch the rescue attempt and not say anything. He would have recognized Higgins right off but was condemned to stand there and let everything play out, for fear of messing things up. I am so very hard on my friends.

  "I think you can put your mind to rest on that, Miss," says Higgins. "No harm will come to your Mr. Fletcher, trust me. As you so plainly said for all to hear, he did sink your ship which resulted in your capture, and besides, he has done nothing to aid you in your supposed crimes against the Crown. He did not assist you or hide you or do anything in that regard."

  "I suppose," I say, chewing worriedly on a knuckle. "Still, I am not at ease."

  "You denied him so utterly, and so convincingly, I might add—a nice touch, that. Very quick thinking, under the circumstances. You do continue to amaze me."

  "It was not an easy role to play, believe me. Poor Jaimy."

  "I fear that for the moment, at least, the pangs of young love must yield to the cold scrutiny of painful reality. It is you they mean to hang, not Mr. Fletcher. Keep that in mind."

  We rattle on some more, and I look out at my beloved Boston, a place I had so looked forward to seeing again, a place I know I must now leave.

  "Where did you get the money, Higgins?" I ask. "Three hundred pounds is a lot of money. I know Faber Shipping, Worldwide did not have anywhere near that sum in its coffers."

  "Oh, yes, a lot of money, indeed," says Higgins, smiling. "I'm sure Captain Rutherford is in the highest of spirits right now. However, I wonder just how high his spirits will be when his superiors find out he let the notorious Jacky Faber slip through his fingers, and confront him with that distressing fact."

  "The money, Higgins?"

  "Oh, yes. Well, you'll be cheered to know it was collected from your sisters of the Lawson Peabody. The coffers of Faber Shipping are indeed light, but what there is, I safely tucked here in my breast pocket." He peeks out the side curtain. "We are approaching our rendezvous."

  "Those girls? They're upper-class, they never handle money. How could they come up with that amount?"

  "Well, it came mostly from Mademoiselle de Lise and Miss Clarissa Howe. They were the two who had ready money on hand."

  Clarissa Worthington Howe bailing Jacky Faber's tail out of jail. Now, if that ain't the world turned upside down, I don't know what is.

  My eyes, which have been none too dry this entire ride, moisten up yet again. I shake my head in wonder at it all. Such good friends to come to me in my hour of need.

  "We'll be there in five minutes, I believe," says Higgins, with another look out the window, and that brings me out of my reverie. I certainly can't ride in this school dress.

  "Unbutton me, Higgins," I say, turning so he can get at the row of buttons on the back of my school dress. "I've got to get into my serving-girl rig."

  He does it, and as I'm slipping off the dress and the petticoats and the chemise that go with it, Higgins goes into my seabag and comes up with the proper garb. Off with my white stockings and on with the black, then on with the blousy white shirt, the black skirt, and finally the black lace-up vest. I put my riding boots on my feet, my shiv in my vest, and my cloak about my shoulders, with its hood upon my head. I am ready to ride.

  Higgins expertly folds my clothes as I take them off, and he neatly tucks them into my seabag.

  "Where are we going?" I ask, when I am done messing with my clothes. It is good to get back into this tight-fitting rig.

  "Out to the West for a bit till we can figure out our next move. We need some breathing room."
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  "Aye on that, Higgins, but could we not merely have gone to Dovecote and hid out there till things calm down?"

  "Ahem. I'm afraid not," says Higgins. "During our time on the Emerald, Miss Amy Trevelyne finished and published her second book concerning your travels and exploits, titled, I believe, The Curse of the Blue Tattoo. It has received wide circulation locally and is about to be published in London. So everyone will know of your connection to the Dovecote estate. It is the first place that pursuers would look."

  Damn! Thanks, Amy, once again.

  "Never trust someone with a pen in their hands," I say ruefully.

  "True, but then again, Miss Amy, at the time, figured your adventuring days were over," says Higgins in a soothing voice, "and besides, all proceeds from the sale of the books go to your Home for Little Wanderers in London."

  Well, there's that, I suppose. Fair trade. "But won't they think me safely captured, at least for a little while? Doesn't that give us some time?"

  "Hmmm, I don't know. Our little ruse might yet be discovered—there are communications twixt Boston and New York. It was really the money that effected your release, not the artfulness of our performance."

  I take in this information and I begin to think. And to plan. We cannot go to New York, or Philadelphia, or to any of the Yankee towns. We cannot take passage from any port, for I may be recognized. I cannot go north to Canada, nor east to England. Very well, west it must be. I think back to what Katy Deere told me of the West when we talked those long hours on the Bloodhound ...how the rivers out there joined together, how the Allegheny flowed together with the Monongahela to form the Ohio, and how the Ohio flowed on to the—

  "We are here, Miss. Let us debark."

  The carriage rattles to a stop and I jump out of the coach. There at the foot of the bridge over to Cambridge stands my good coxswain Jim, holding three horses by their reins.

  "Jim Tanner! Oh, well met, Jim!" And I rush over and wrap my arms around the boy. He returns my embrace ardently. Hmmm. Very ardently. It seems the boy has grown some since last we parted.

  "It is good to see you, too, Missy. We feared you lost for so long a time." I swear I see a mist in his eye, too.

  "Well," I say, wiping a tear from my own eye, "you can see that I have a way of popping back up, against all odds."

  "Yes, Miss, and for that I am very glad. Up with you, now. Mr. Higgins, the toll has been paid and we are free to cross."

  He holds the stirrup steady, and I put my foot in it and swing myself up. Oh ... oh, it is so good to feel a stout horse between my legs again. He passes me the reins and throws my seabag up behind me and straps it down.

  "Three horses, young Jim?" I ask, as Higgins mounts his own, much larger horse. I know he suppresses a groan, for I also know that my stalwart Higgins is not overly fond of riding.

  "Yes, Missy, I am going with you."

  "But what of the Star? Our traps? Faber Shipping, Worldwide?"

  "The Star has been hauled out at Dovecote for safekeeping. Faber Shipping shall have to watch out for its own self for a while as Constable Wiggins has a warrant out for me, since I winged a rock at his fat head during the fight on Long Wharf when you were taken. So I must hide out, too."

  "Hmmm. Very well, Jim. Your company will be welcome. Are we ready? Then, let us go." I dig my heels into my mount's flanks and he leaps forward across the bridge.

  And with a whoop, I call out, "Steer westward, on a course of 290 degrees, march!"

  And westward we do thunder. We ride down Cambridge Street, past the college where only a few months ago my fellow students and I serenaded the Harvard boys, and onto the Boston Post Road, heading west, ever west, away from the dangers of the coast. It is not like me to shy away from the sea, but there is water where I am headed, and I am told there is lots of it, so it will be all right.

  We make a good twenty miles on what is left of this day and pull up for the night at Howe's Tavern in Sudbury for the night. How many Howes are there in this world, I ask myself, thinking of Clarissa Worthington Howe, my sometime enemy, my sometime Sister-in-arms.

  Tomorrow we push on to Worcester, the route that Ezra Pickering planned out for the conspirators to escape west. But that is the extent of Ezra's knowledge of the frontier, and we will be on our own after that. Just head west is my thought—I've got my compass—and ask directions as we go. Shouldn't be that hard to find the Allegheny River, should it?

  Howe's Tavern—a house of entertainment, it calls itself—turns out to be quite a lively place. I wish I could take out my sweet Lady Gay, my fine fiddle—Thanks, Higgins, for remembering to bring her along—and add to the merriment in the room, but alas, I cannot, for safety's sake. Maybe when we get farther inland I can start doing some sets again. After all, we are going to need money.

  We take a room, Higgins and I, me being presented as his daughter, and Jim will sleep in the barn, to watch over the horses. We must conserve our coin, and even in the span of this day's ride, the countryside has grown decidedly wilder. At least to this city girl's eyes.

  We take our dinner together in the Great Room of the tavern, and I find the dinner tastes wondrous good to me after all that awful burgoo on the Bloodhound, the standard ship's rations on the Juno, and then back to burgoo when I was confined. I'm afraid I disappointed Higgins with the licking of my chops as well as my greasy fingers. Don't care. It's been a long time. I'll be a lady tomorrow.

  We go to our room, and a bath is ordered up and a tub is brought to our room and filled with steaming hot water. I disrobe and crawl in and give a great sigh of pure sinful delight as I sink up to my neck in the suds.

  "Oh, Higgins, you cannot know, it has been so long since I have had a true bath, ohhhhhh..." I sigh and close my eyes as I lean my shoulders against the high back of the tub. Higgins takes up a small pail and dips it twixt my knees to fill it with water, and that water he pours over my head, and it courses down over my face. I feel a bar of soap put into my hand and I take it and wash my face and neck and shoulders and armpits and then lean back down, to feel Higgins's expert fingers begin to work the soap into my hair.

  "I suspect that it feels quite good, Miss, considering what you have recently been through. Although Sylvie was quite expressive in her description of the horrid conditions on the Bloodhound, still, I cannot imagine it. And what are you smiling at, if I may ask?"

  I smile to think on Sylvia Rossio, my good and dear but generally quite shy and quiet friend and fellow captive, as well as fellow serving girl at one time, joyously meeting up with her own true love Henry Hoffman there in New York Harbor and then riding with him up to Boston to bring the glad tidings of the deliverance from slavery of the girls of the Lawson Peabody to the once bereft and grief-stricken parents and friends. Just how was your journey from New York to Boston, Sylvie, hmmm? I think, wickedly.

  "Oh, nothing," I say. "Just my sinful pleasure at this bath, and in your own sweet company. I'm sure Annie and Betsey would say I'd just bought myself a lot more time in purgatory because of it, but I don't care. I shall offer up some sacrifice on my part in the future to make up for it."

  "You have a curious theology, Miss. Here, please lean forward so that I might rinse."

  When I lean back again, my hair lank about my face, I ask, "How much money do we have, Higgins?"

  "Not a large amount, I'm afraid. Most of the money available from your friends in Boston went to fund your reward. Faber Shipping had twenty-four dollars in its coffers due to Jim Tanner's exertions with the Morning Star's traps. I have one hundred and fifty-five dollars left from the money I got from the sale of the jewel you slipped into my hand when you were confined on board the Wolverine. You will recall that I tendered the bulk of the sale of that jewel to your London Home for Little Wanderers for their continued maintenance, retaining only enough to maintain myself until such time as you were back on your moneymaking feet again, as it were. And Ezra Pickering pressed another hundred dollars on me, begging me to tell you that Miss
Amy Trevelyne considered it a small advance on her second book, the one detailing your early adventures in the New World."

  This gets another sigh from me, this one not of pure pleasure. "Am I not famous enough, Higgins?"

  "Ahem. I believe she has even started on the third."

  Oh, Lord! Is there not a single part of me that will remain unexamined? Will none of my depredations against good manners and good order and propriety in all their unseemly tawdriness be kept from the world's curious eye?

  I sink under the water in despair.

  "A false suicide attempt will avail you nothing," I hear Higgins say. He reaches down and pulls my head from the water, and piles my hair on top of that same head. "Besides, you and your Home need the money, and Miss Amy is most discreet in her revelations, as far as I can discern."

  "She wasn't all that discreet in the first one, as I recall. Can you imagine being mercilessly teased by your fellow midshipmen over something written about you and a boy being snugged up for weeks in a hammock on a British warship, a penny-dreadful book that—"

  There is a knock on the door and Higgins says, "Who?" and Jim Tanner from outside the door says, "The pallet you ordered, Mr. Higgins."

  "Come in, Jim," says Higgins, casting me a glance. Although my back is to the door, I cross my arms before my chest and sink further down into the now soap-clouded water.

  Jim comes in, bearing the narrow straw-filled mattress. I had told Higgins that he should sleep with me in the big bed, that I wanted him to sleep with me, as it would give me comfort, but he would have none of it—he felt it wasn't proper, considering.

  Considering what? I'm thinking, but I let it go. I turn my head to look at Jim, and he stands there looking over at me, astounded. I imagine the warmth and steam of the room has something to do with that look—the smell of the soaps, the smell of the shampoo, and, possibly, the smell of well-toasted female.

  "Here, Jim, let me help you with that," says Higgins, leaving the side of my tub.

  While the two of them are setting up the pallet, I splash about a bit and then call over to Jim, "I have just heard that your efforts with the Star in my absence have put a fine twenty-four dollars into our coffers. I am most proud and gratified that my early trust in you has proved most true."

 
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