“I have seen one such cave,” he added reflectively. “Abandawe, the Maroons call it. They consider it a most sinister and sacred spot, though I do not know why.”
Encouraged by my close attention, he took another gulp of sangria and continued his natural history lecture.
“Now that small island”—he nodded at the floating island visible in the sea beyond—“that is the Ile de la Tortue—Tortuga. That one is in fact a coral atoll, its lagoon long since filled in by the actions of the coral animalculae. Did you know it was once the haunt of pirates?” he asked, apparently feeling that he ought to infuse his lecture with something of more general interest than karstic formations and crystalline schists.
“Real pirates? Buccaneers, you mean?” I viewed the little island with more interest. “That’s rather romantic.”
Stern laughed, and I glanced at him in surprise.
“I am not laughing at you, Mrs. Fraser,” he assured me. A smile lingered on his lips as he gestured at the Ile de la Tortue. “It is merely that I had occasion once to talk with an elderly resident of Kingston, regarding the habits of the buccaneers who had at one point made their headquarters in the nearby village of Port Royal.”
He pursed his lips, decided to speak, decided otherwise, then, with a sideways glance at me, decided to risk it. “You will pardon the indelicacy, Mrs. Fraser, but as you are a married woman, and as I understand, have some familiarity with the practice of medicine—” He paused, and might have stopped there, but he had drunk nearly two-thirds of the pitcher; the broad, pleasant face was deeply flushed.
“You have perhaps heard of the abominable practices of sodomy?” he asked, looking at me sideways.
“I have,” I said. “Do you mean—”
“I assure you,” he said, with a magisterial nod. “My informant was most discursive upon the habits of the buccaneers. Sodomites to a man,” he said, shaking his head.
“It was a matter of public knowledge,” he said. “My informant told me that when Port Royal fell into the sea some sixty years ago, it was widely assumed to be an act of divine vengeance upon these wicked persons in retribution for their vile and unnatural usages.”
“Gracious,” I said. I wondered what the voluptuous Tessa of The Impetuous Pirate would have thought about this.
He nodded, solemn as an owl.
“They say you can hear the bells of the drowned churches of Port Royal when a storm is coming, ringing for the souls of the damned pirates.”
I thought of inquiring further into the precise nature of the vile and unnatural usages, but at this point in the proceedings, Mamacita stumped out onto the veranda, said curtly, “Food,” and disappeared again.
“I wonder which cave Father Fogden found her in,” I said, shoving back my chair.
Stern glanced at me in surprise. “Found her? But I forgot,” he said, face clearing, “you don’t know.” He peered at the open door where the old woman had vanished, but the interior of the house was quiet and dark as a cave.
“He found her in Habana,” he said, and told me the rest of the story.
Father Fogden had been a priest for ten years, a missionary of the order of St. Anselm, when he had come to Cuba fifteen years before. Devoted to the needs of the poor, he had worked among the slums and stews of Habana for several years, thinking of nothing more than the relief of suffering and the love of God—until the day he met Ermenegilda Ruiz Alcantara y Meroz in the marketplace.
“I don’t suppose he knows, even now, how it happened,” Stern said. He wiped away a drop of wine that ran down the side of his cup, and drank again. “Perhaps she didn’t know, either, or perhaps she planned it from the moment she saw him.”
In any case, six months later the city of Habana was agog at the news that the young wife of Don Armando Alcantara had run away—with a priest.
“And her mother,” I said, under my breath, but he heard me, and smiled slightly.
“Ermenegilda would never leave Mamacita behind,” he said. “Nor her dog Ludo.”
They would never have succeeded in escaping—for the reach of Don Armando was long and powerful—save for the fact that the English conveniently chose the day of their elopement to invade the island of Cuba, and Don Armando had many things more important to worry him than the whereabouts of his runaway young wife.
The fugitives rode to Bayamo—much hampered by Ermenegilda’s dresses, with which she would not part—and there hired a fishing boat, which carried them to safety on Hispaniola.
“She died two years later,” Stern said abruptly. He set down his cup, and refilled it from the sweating pitcher. “He buried her himself, under the bougainvillaea.”
“And here they’ve stayed since,” I said. “The priest, and Ludo and Mamacita.”
“Oh, yes.” Stern closed his eyes, his profile dark against the setting sun. “Ermenegilda would not leave Mamacita, and Mamacita will never leave Ermenegilda.”
He tossed back the rest of his cup of sangria.
“No one comes here,” he said. “The villagers won’t set foot on the hill. They’re afraid of Ermenegilda’s ghost. A damned sinner, buried by a reprobate priest in unhallowed ground—of course she will not lie quiet.”
The sea breeze was cool on the back of my neck. Behind us, even the chickens in the patio had grown quiet with falling twilight. The Hacienda de la Fuente lay still.
“You come,” I said, and he smiled. The scent of oranges rose up from the empty cup in my hands, sweet as bridal flowers.
“Ah, well,” he said. “I am a scientist. I don’t believe in ghosts.” He extended a hand to me, somewhat unsteadily. “Shall we dine, Mrs. Fraser?”
After breakfast the next morning, Stern was ready to set off for St. Luis. Before leaving, though, I had a question or two about the ship the priest had mentioned; if it were the Porpoise, I wanted to steer clear of it.
“What sort of ship was it?” I asked, pouring a cup of goat’s milk to go with the breakfast of fried plantain.
Father Fogden, apparently little the worse for his excesses of the day before, was stroking his coconut, humming dreamily to himself.
“Ah?” he said, startled out of his reverie by Stern’s poking him in the ribs. I patiently repeated my query.
“Oh.” He squinted in deep thought, then his face relaxed. “A wooden one.”
Lawrence bent his broad face over his plate, hiding a smile. I took a breath and tried again.
“The sailors who killed Arabella—did you see them?”
His narrow brows rose.
“Well, of course I saw them. How else would I know they had done it?”
I seized on this evidence of logical thought.
“Naturally. And did you see what they were wearing? I mean”—I saw him opening his mouth to say “clothes,” and hastily forestalled him—“did they seem to be wearing any sort of uniform?” The crew of the Porpoise commonly wore “slops” when not performing any ceremonial duty, but even these rough clothes bore the semblance of a uniform, being mostly all of a dirty white and similar in cut.
Father Fogden laid down his cup, leaving a milky mustache across his upper lip. He brushed at this with the back of his hand, frowning and shaking his head.
“No, I think not. All I recall of them, though, is that the leader wore a hook—missing a hand, I mean.” He waggled his own long fingers at me in illustration.
I dropped my cup, which exploded on the tabletop. Stern sprang up with an exclamation, but the priest sat still, watching in surprise as a thin white stream ran across the table and into his lap.
“Whatever did you do that for?” he said reproachfully.
“I’m sorry,” I said. My hands were trembling so that I couldn’t even manage to pick up the shards of the shattered cup. I was afraid to ask the next question. “Father—has the ship sailed away?”
“Why no,” he said, looking up in surprise from his damp robe. “How could it? It’s on the beach.”
Father Fogden led the way, his skinny shanks a gleaming white as he kirtled his cassock about his thighs. I was obliged to do the same, for the hillside above the house was thick with grass and thorny shrubs that caught at the coarse wool skirts of my borrowed robe.
The hill was crisscrossed with sheep paths, but these were narrow and faint, losing themselves under the trees and disappearing abruptly in thick grass. The priest seemed confident about his destination, though, and scampered briskly through the vegetation, never looking back.
I was breathing hard by the time we reached the crest of the hill, even though Lawrence Stern had gallantly assisted me, pushing branches out of my way, and taking my arm to haul me up the steeper slopes.
“Do you think there really is a ship?” I said to him, low-voiced, as we approached the top of the hill. Given our host’s behavior so far, I wasn’t so sure he might not have imagined it, just to be sociable.
Stern shrugged, wiping a trickle of sweat that ran down his bronzed cheek.
“I suppose there will be something there,” he replied. “After all, there is a dead sheep.”
A qualm ran over me in memory of the late departed Arabella. Someone had killed the sheep, and I walked as quietly as I could, as we approached the top of the hill. It couldn’t be the Porpoise; none of her officers or men wore a hook. I tried to tell myself that it likely wasn’t the Artemis, either, but my heart beat still faster as we came to a stand of giant agave on the crest of the hill.
I could see the Caribbean glowing blue through the succulent’s branches, and a narrow strip of white beach. Father Fogden had come to a halt, beckoning us to his side.
“There they are, the wicked creatures,” he muttered. His blue eyes glittered bright with fury, and his scanty hair fairly bristled, like a moth-eaten porcupine. “Butchers!” he said, hushed but vehement, as though talking to himself. “Cannibals!”
I gave him a startled look, but then Lawrence Stern grasped my arm, drawing me to a wider opening between two trees.
“Oy! There is a ship,” he said.
There was. It was lying tilted on its side, drawn up on the beach, its masts unstepped, untidy piles of cargo, sails, rigging, and water casks scattered all about it. Men crawled over the beached carcass like ants. Shouts and hammer blows rang out like gunshots, and the smell of hot pitch was thick on the air. The unloaded cargo gleamed dully in the sun; copper and tin, slightly tarnished by the sea air. Tanned hides had been laid flat on the sand, brown stiff blotches drying in the sun.
“It is them! It’s the Artemis!” The matter was settled by the appearance near the hull of a squat, one-legged figure, head shaded from the sun by a gaudy kerchief of yellow silk.
“Murphy!” I shouted. “Fergus! Jamie!” I broke from Stern’s grasp and ran down the far side of the hill, his cry of caution disregarded in the excitement of seeing the Artemis.
Murphy whirled at my shout, but was unable to get out of my way. Carried by momentum and moving like a runaway freight, I crashed straight into him, knocking him flat.