The baby had cried for hours, a thin wail that grated on the nerves. He wished the crying would stop, but it would not let him rest when all he wanted to do was float untethered to the earth. Eventually, he gave up and came fully awake to who and where he was: Lieutenant John Chase of the Royal Navy in the hospital at Port Royal. New-come buckra, / He get sick, / He tak fever, / He be die; / He be die. When Chase’s ship had entered the harbor, the singing and the clapping of the boatwomen selling fruits had seemed meant to give him merry welcome—that is, until he’d caught the words that floated over the water. He be die. It was one of the ugly realities of the disease that the patient sometimes rallied only to succumb to the dread black vomiting— the coffee grounds, they called it—followed by the appearance of the ghastly yellow complexion, delirium, and death. Thousands and thousands of Chase’s countrymen defending the British Empire in the West Indies had been lost to this fate. He’d been lucky. In his illness a host of spirits—nurses and servants—had attended him. He’d heard them chattering or glimpsed them drifting by his door as they crossed the piazza. Now the voices had stopped, and he seemed alone in the world, except for a flapping sound and its gentle breeze. Well, he thought wryly, if the fever declined to release him, he hoped the kindly hands would place his pistol within reach and leave him to put an end to the wretched work himself.
Mostly he thought about the woman called Joanna, even smil- ing to himself at the similarity in their Christian names. Even at the height of his fever, Chase had sensed her there, directing events. She came to poke and prod, oversee the changing of linens, or force him to swallow one of her foul concoctions. He awaited these visits, desperately, as if only Joanna had the power to stitch his sweating, puking body back to his soul. Once he had awakened to find the doctor, who reeked of brandy, standing over the bed, shaking his head to pronounce a sentence of doom. From what Chase had heard of the conventional treatments for “yellow Jack”—the bleeding and purging and the calomel, which made the saliva run like a river down the victim’s face—he was not entirely sorry when the doctor went away again.
As the rank odor of his own body assaulted his nostrils, Chase grimaced, shifting his head on the pillow, and opened his eyes. Pain lanced through his skull so that he had to hold himself very still and wait, teeth gritted. But at least one question was resolved. The breeze was a gift from a boy who sat in a chair by the bed. Ten or twelve years old, he wore an oversized, striped cotton shirt rolled up loosely at the elbows and trousers of some coarse material. He had hung his broad-brimmed straw hat over the chair post and hiked up one bare foot to the wicker seat as he leaned forward, his forearm sweeping in a graceful arc to wield his fan.
Gingerly, Chase took stock. The candlelight playing over the child’s curly head told him the hour was late. His fever had abated. The torment of the retching that emptied his guts had ceased, and the ache in his head, though excruciating, had receded. He felt cooler and appallingly thirsty. He tried to ask for a drink, but all that emerged from his throat was a feeble croak. Fortunately, that was enough to bring the boy to his feet. “Drink, suh?”
He nodded. With surprising strength, the boy pushed aside the mosquito net, slipped an arm under Chase’s shoulders and held a glass to his lips. Watered Madeira slid over his tongue and down his parched throat. He felt a deep gratitude that brought tears to his eyes, though he wondered what the boy would make of a lieutenant of the Royal Navy crying like the infant who’d been haunting his dreams.
His gaze traveled over the nightstand, the small linen press, and the cane chair across which his dress uniform coat was draped, his black boots standing sentinel on the wooden floorboards nearby. He checked that his cutlass still leaned against the wall under the jalousies, the slatted blinds that allowed air to circulate in this hot climate. Over them, transparent curtains stirred softly.
With an effort, he summoned the memory of a dinner at the home of a local planter to celebrate the end of the recent rebellion of the free Negroes known as the Maroons. When was this party—two days ago? Three? The guests had watched him with concern as his fingers fumbled at his fork and polite conversation withered on his tongue. All that food he hadn’t been able to eat: turtle soup; duck and broiled salmon; roasted plantains; cassava cakes; platters of pineapple, oranges, mango, and pomegranate; a profusion of pastry. After dinner they’d tossed the white cloth in the air to remove the crumbs, not minding when a dish left in place crashed against the wall to shatter amid gusts of laughter. By then Chase had felt far too ill to join in the fun.
They had brought him here to this house near the harbor, where Joanna had guided him to bed, her touch like balm on his burning skin. When he was lying on his back, she’d cupped her hands over his cheeks and kissed his forehead, lingering over him as she tucked the coverings around him. Then she gave commands in her musical voice.
Joanna came in again now. A supple and stately young woman of medium height, she wore a stern aspect and balanced a clay pot between her hands. It was a clever face, lacking neither sensitivity nor kindness but speaking somehow of mystery, of hidden danger. The face interested Chase. It was as if she drew the energy in the room to herself, even the candle flame bending toward her in the slight disturbance of air. Approaching the bed, she said, “Awake, suh? That be good news.”
“What’s that?” Gesturing at the pot, Chase got out the words with difficulty.
“Boiled thistle seeds to stop the purgin’. Lemongrass for fever.
Something more, best not to know.”
“You mean to poison me, Joanna?” A feeble joke. But Chase saw in dismay that the boy had leapt back, terror in every line of his body, his chair toppling to the ground. “Joanna. John Crow,” the boy hissed. His eyes flashed a desperate defiance. In an instant, he was out of the room and the door banged behind him. Grimness hardened Joanna’s expression. Deliberately, she picked up the chair.
Chase’s brain felt too thick to understand. John Crow, he thought. The Jamaican turkey buzzard—harbinger of death. He saw himself riding down a blinding white road, gazing at the summits of mountains, their sides profuse with bamboo and prickly yellow and sweetly aromatic logwood. A guide rode at his side, pointing up at the buzzards with their bald red heads and black feathers. The buzzards circled in the sky, perched at the tops of the cotton trees, or feasted on the putrefying flesh of horses and cows. Chase shook off this memory impatiently. “What was wrong with that boy?” he asked Joanna.
“Nothing, suh. He no trust a woman with medicines, that’s all. You take what I gib you now and go back to sleep.” She lifted one of Chase’s hands from the bedclothes, folded it tightly around the pot, and kept her own grip in place so that it wouldn’t spill. Chase began to drink, trying not to choke. The mixture was thick and bitter with an underlying sweetness that cloyed, but he drank it all down obediently.
When he finished, he said, “I’ve been hearing a baby cry.” “No, suh. No baby here. You dreaming.” But recognition had flickered across her face, and her attention on him seemed to sharpen. She was looking deep into his eyes as if trying to see to the bottom of a well.
Stubbornly, Chase persisted. “I heard it. A child wanting its mother.”
A smile tugged at the corner of her lips. “You got some good ears on you, suh. Only baby I care for is miles away from here, and she got no reason to cry, far as I know.”
“Your baby, Joanna?”
“Don’t you worry. Sleep now.”
She was already lowering him to the bed, but curiosity nagged him. “Why are you not with her?”
“Why, she goin’ to be a fine English lady, suh. Mebbe someday you be dancing with her at a fancy party.”
“It would be an honor, Joanna,” he said and closed his eyes, too tired for more.
She straightened the covers and lifted her pot. “Go to sleep.
You soon wake and be better.”
“You mean if I wake up?” Again, it was a pathetic attempt at a joke.
“Nah, suh. Do what I tell you. You is goin’ to live.”
Joanna had been right about that. But soon after his illness Chase had left Jamaica. He’d fought at Cape St. Vincent and Aboukir, where he’d been struck by the piece of metal that had ended both his dancing and his naval career. Like the hero of the fleet Horatio Nelson, he’d recuperated in Naples and, as Nelson frolicked with his mistress, Chase had enjoyed a similar relationship with Abigail, daughter of an American merchant. Abigail became his nurse and lover, got pregnant, and refused his offer of marriage. Back in her hometown of Boston, she’d borne Chase a child called Jonathan, having invented a suitably respectable dead husband. Chase had returned to London. A magistrate with a son in the navy had offered him a job working for Bow Street, charged with sticking a plug here and there in the crime that flowed through the city, as inevitable as the tides of the Thames.
But at stray moments, especially when he was tired or the filthiness of human beings weighed him down like a stone, Joanna would rise again in his memory. Chase had left the hospital without a backward look. He’d done nothing to thank a woman to whom he owed a great debt. He hadn’t realized— then—that she, or rather the baby he’d heard crying in the night, would come into his life, many years later, in a different world, in England.