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I opened my bedroom window and inhaled -- deeply, joyfully. That familiar, intoxicating odor: night on St. Helena. The sickly-sweet smell of guava and roses hung in the air like ether, just as I'd remembered it. Who would have thought I'd be so glad to return to the place my father and his navy comrades called "Hell in the South Atlantic"?
It was the autumn of 1815. I had been home again at the Briars just three days, from Hawthorne Boarding School in London. I'd shocked my parents by not misbehaving once since my return to St. Helena. Perhaps they believed the knuckle-rapping, head-thumping headmistress of Hawthorne had finally knocked some sense into their younger daughter. I began to wonder it myself. Blast! Had I lost my sense of adventure? Would I go soft and ladylike and marry some vain, boot-polished officer of the Fifty-fourth Regiment or His Majesty's Navy -- as my sister Jane hoped to do?
Just then two booms of the cannon from the port at Jamestown -- the signal for a ship's arrival -- broke the stillness. And I knew I remained the Betsy Balcombe of yore. Older, yes. Wiser, perhaps. But never, never willing to settle for a life that's "Tedious-as-Hell in the South Atlantic"!
I threw on my bed jacket and grabbed hold of my ladder -- the vine that had, over the years, crept bravely up the red brick walls of the Briars and to the very edge of my windowsill. It was many a night that the vine had been my ladder to adventure. Thank heaven Toby hadn't trimmed it back during my long absence!
I slipped a little as I climbed out the window, and Jane woke with a start. She gave a quiet, girlish scream. I looked over at her, and she was sitting up in her white lacy canopy bed, the covers pulled tight under her chin. I had one leg out the window. My sister glared at me, stern as the headmistress of Hawthorne.
"I'll tell...," Jane threatened coolly.
"Still the little tattler," I said, shaking my head. Jane was sixteen -- two years older than I; old enough to keep secrets.
"You're going into Jamestown, aren't you?"
"Go back to sleep, Jane. If you don't, you'll make your eyes all puffy and you'll turn ugly so none of the young officers will want to marry you."
"Good night, Jane."
It was too late for her to stop me. I was already out the window and halfway down the vine. Jane would never think of spoiling her pretty hands by attempting to climb down after me.
I jumped the last few feet to the ground. Then I peered around the corner of the Briars to see who was about. Most of our slaves had already returned to their cabins for the night. Most of the soldiers had turned in too, though there seemed to be a few more sentries on watch than usual.
I rounded the corner of the Briars and dashed to the moon-shaded side of the Pavilion veranda. Suddenly, I heard footsteps in the dank leaves nearby. I froze, listening, trying to quiet my winded breathing so it wouldn't betray me.
"Is me. Only me, missy."
Toby! I'd forgotten the old man liked to stroll by night in the gardens he tended by day. He liked to drink a bit of the island rum too. Not enough to get drunk, though. I breathed a sigh of relief.
"You go for the walk at night -- like old time, missy, yes?"
"Yes." I still couldn't see him, but I smelled the rum on his breath. I knew he'd be smiling broadly at me with those remarkably white teeth I used to think were a string of pearls from the seas off his native Haiti.
"Miss Jane with you?"
I laughed. "What do you think?"
"Didn't think yes, missy," he said, chuckling softly. "Didn't think yes."
Toby had been with my family for years and had seen Jane and me grow up. But I knew I was his favorite -- even more than the boys.
After a moment he whispered hoarsely: "Ship is here, in Jamestown. Do you know?"
"I heard the signal."
Toby fell silent. Then he sighed and whispered seriously: "All will be very different, St. Helena now. Everything soon change, missy, yes?"
I didn't know what Toby meant. He often said things that sounded mysterious. I knew the island slaves to be very superstitious, so I never took much notice.
"Your papa ask me to cut vines all over," he said with a chuckle. "I leave the one outside missy's window for you coming home."
So Toby knew how I'd escaped from my room at night, and he'd kept my secret! I'd always felt he was one of the few people who understood me.
"Thank you, Toby!"
"Hush!" he whispered. "You wake family all, no Jamestown, no ship to see for missy."
"Good night, Toby," I whispered back, and ran toward Jamestown.
Copyright © 2004 by Staton Rabin