The prolific Kage Baker is best known for her series of time travel novels about the Company, the shadowy organization that turns human employees into immortals so that they may save valuable art, culture, and living things destined to be destroyed. The eight-novel epic has been the greatest part of her work—publication of the series spanned an entire decade—but between the Company novels she has turned her hand to other subjects, including a number of short stories and a 2003 fantasy novel, The Anvil of the World (she returns to that universe in 2008 in a new novel, The House of the Stag). This year has also seen the publication of a lighthearted pirate tale set in 1671 in the West Indies. Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key begins with treasure and an alluring but not-quite-trustworthy woman, adds pirates, cutlasses, sea chases, and mysterious supernatural apparitions, and from these ingredients concocts a lively adventure.
Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key takes as its protagonist a man with the most commonplace and characterless name—John. We are given John's past on the first page: he had been a bricklayer's apprentice in London, had killed a man, and had been transported to the West Indies as a convict; he then was, successively, bond slave, runaway, and pirate, finally serving under privateer Captain Henry Morgan in his campaign against Panama. As the story opens, he has just landed in Port Royal, bade farewell to Morgan, and left privateering for good, with fifty pounds to his name and an intention to set himself up in business as a bricklayer. But first, he pays a visit to the Bluebell Inn on an errand that was given to him by a dying comrade in Panama, to deliver a letter to the dead man's mistress, Mrs. Waverly.
Mrs. Waverly weeps at the news of her lover's death, reads the letter, and quickly proposes a partnership: the letter, she says (she does not show it to John), contains instructions for finding four thousand pounds in gold, which had been entrusted to her lover as ransom for a prince. The mission having failed, with the prince vanished and his ransomer dead, Mrs. Waverly suggests that the two of them retrieve the gold, stashed on the island of Leauchaud, and split it fifty-fifty. John agrees, and they set sail for Leauchaud aboard the Fyrey Pentecost under a Captain Sharp (after John pays Mrs. Waverly's passage as well as her debts at the inn).
When a pirate ship gives chase and boards, the crew is quickly overwhelmed. John and Mrs. Waverly, along with most of the remaining crew and passengers of the captured vessel, given a choice between joining the pirate crew or being set adrift, join the pirates. The most significant of these recruits are Mr. Tudeley, a mild, bespectacled, fiftyish man who had been on his way to Barbados to be a clerk for a pie house ("quite a profitable one," he points out), and Sejanus, a freed slave from the American colonies who had been working as the captain's servant. Much of the fun of Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key comes from the development of Mr. Tudeley and Sejanus. At one point, for example, the four principal characters have just escaped the wreck of their ship in a small boat and are alone on the sea:
"Have we any rum?" said Mr. Tudeley at last.
"No," said Sejanus.
"What about food or water?"
There was a lengthy silence, and at last Mr. Tudeley said, "I have read, in some books, that savages in the tropics will leap from their canoes into the water, when they spy a great fish swimming thereunder, and stab it with their knives and wrestle it back into the canoe. Would you perhaps give that a try, sir?"
"I was born in Massachusetts," said Sejanus wearily. "I can dig for clams. If I have a clam rake." (p. 89)
This Wodehousian exchange is reminiscent of nothing so much as a Jeeves and Wooster predicament, and it achieves a similar humorous effect from the contrast between plain and bookish speech, and a highly unrealistic scheme that first soars hopefully and then comes to the earth with a thump.
The mild and put-upon Mr. Tudeley, who reads Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy in his spare time, and who is the object of Captain Sharp's amused contempt for both his profession and his intolerance to strong drink, undergoes a transformation in the course of his travails. He is overcome with abject terror and weeping at their encounter with pirates, and expresses self-pity to Sejanus for a life of disappointment—"Disappointed at school, in my marriage, in my prospects, all hopes blighted," he complains bitterly (p. 44). When he goes into action as a member of the pirate crew in pursuit of their next prey, a Spanish merchant galleon, Mr. Tudeley clumsily manages to kill his assailant, although he does lose an ear. He laments this, at first—"Maimed; maimed like a common criminal... How shall I show my face in public again?" (p. 57). But his adventures soon begin to have a liberating effect on him—he loses his meekness, and refuses to be slighted anymore, and even becomes bumptious. He begins to relish his freedom from the constraints he has known all his life, and his speech marks this inner change as he suddenly is swearing at every opportunity, making up for a long famine of profanity. He is unrepentant for anything, even when he's responsible for capsizing their longboat—or perhaps almost everything, as he retains one vestige of social civility:
"Damn your eyes, you whoreson dog," said Mr. Tudeley, who had swum up beside him.
"Mr. Tudeley!" said Mrs. Waverly.
"If you please, Winty," said Sejanus, with his white teeth flashing in the darkness, "Remember there is a lady present."
"Oh, sod off," said Mr. Tudeley. "My apologies, ma'am, I'm sure." (p. 91)
And Sejanus has his own personal transformation to undergo. At the beginning of the story, he is sullen as he works as Captain Sharp's servant, and angry as he revisits memories of his father and his former slavemaster. He scorns, in equal measure, his father, who had constantly told him to respect their African loas (guardian spirits), and his former owner, Reverend Walker, who had preached one's duty to love the Lord Almighty:
"I said to myself, these two old men are fools. Great and powerful Damballah couldn't save his people. Great and loving-merciful God carrying on the spiteful way He does makes no sense either. So at last I resolved I wasn't believing in any of them.
"And do you know what happened then, just last year?"
"What?" inquired John, pausing to mop his sweating face.
"We had moved to Virginia," said Sejanus, smiling at the memory. "They passed a law there. The news came the day after I became an atheist. 'All slaves come into the country by ship will remain slaves. All slaves born into the country to be manumitted after thirty years' service.' And I was just thirty." (p. 45-46)
Sejanus is triumphant that he has left all gods behind him, but he has to keep reaffirming his nonbelief when strange and disturbing events occur: no sooner has he told his companions, "those old loas, back in Africa. People imagined them up, see? But this isn't Africa, there's nobody to make them real here. And so they have no power here" (p. 124) than a young goat, representing a much needed meal, immediately and inexplicably runs through their camp, as though to give a sign of the falsity of his words. After dinner, as they drink and tell stories, he reflects on an animal tale that John has told and says, not very apropos of the story, that, "You never want to give them what they ask for ... because, see, then you believe in them. And that's like chains on your reason. Good blacksmith can take shackles off your legs, but nobody can take off the other kind... I am a free man, and I intend to stay that way, you hear?" (p. 133). Then, horribly, at the edge of their firelight appears a drowned sailor, holding out his hand like someone asking for payment (p. 133). The loas want something from Sejanus, and it's not simply belief.
The main story, however, is the treasure—the getting to it, a purpose that John and Mrs. Waverly do not share with their two comrades, and the risk of a double cross. John is a decent enough fellow, and lends a hand when someone needs help; he is quickly ensnared by Mrs. Waverly's charms and is manipulated by her with ease, for he is guileless as a puppy. John soon finds that Mrs. Waverly is a liar and thief, has sexual manipulation down to a fine art, and is completely self-centered. Or, at least, those traits are revealed in such actions as stealing from the pirate crew's personal effects and seducing the pirate captain; what John actually comprehends is uncertain. He sees the evidence of duplicity, but Mrs. Waverly is always a step ahead, showing signs of a great amount of practice at this game.
Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key shows less kinship with the Company novels than it does with The Anvil of the World. Compare John with Anvil's Smith, for example: both characters have names so common they come with no discernible character, and both characters' inner workings are tightly held by the author, revealing thoughts and motivations sparely. The Anvil of the World used Smith, both the name and the character, thematically; regarding Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key, the attentive reader might want to bear in mind the name of the ship on which the characters first embark and look for fire and revelations to follow.
All in all, Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key has much to recommend it: a sprightly adventure, deft touches of humor, and involving characters. Settle yourself in a comfortable chair and transport yourself to the West Indies for an evening or two. You'll have fun, and you won't get a sunburn.
Donna Royston lives and writes in Virginia. Her short story "The First Censor's Statement" is online at The Copperfield Review.
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