Si w konnen ou pa fran Ginen
pa rèt nan kalfou
kalfou twa—kalfou danjere
kalfou kat—kalfou règleman
kalfou senk—kalfou pèd pawol
Si w konnen ou pa fran Ginen
pa rèt nan kalfou
—Boukman Eksperyans, “Kalfou Danjere”
If you know you are not an honest believer
don’t stop at this crossroad
Third crossroad—dangerous crossroad
Fourth crossroad—crossroad where accounts are settled
Fifth crossroad—crossroad of speechlessness
If you know you are not an honest believer
don’t stop at this crossroad
In 1793 the colony of Saint Domingue, once France’s most valuable overseas possession, was French in little more than name. Since 1791 a revolt of the colony’s African slaves had shredded it from one end to the other. The wars of the Revolutionary French Republic against the royalist nations of Europe were also playing themselves out on the ground of Saint Domingue, and on this battlefield France looked very much like losing.
The French population of Saint Domingue was at war with itself. The large proprietors, slaveowners of royalist predilections, had invited an English protectorate, which would protect their property, including their slaves. The English had invaded from Jamaica, and in an alliance with both the royalist French and a faction of mulattoes who also owned slaves, had taken control of three important ports: Port-au-Prince, Saint Marc, and Môle Saint Nicolas, along with surrounding territory on the coastal plains. The French Republicans defended themselves against the invasion as best they could, with few European troops to support their cause. The mountainous, virtually inaccessible interior of the colony was in a state of anarchy, traveled by bands of armed blacks in revolt against slavery. Some, but not all, of those blacks were nominally in the service of Spain, also at war with the French Republic at this time, and they reported through various black leaders to the Spanish military across the border in Spanish Santo Domingo. Other blacks served no one but themselves.
Léger Félicité Sonthonax, the official representative of the French Republic in Saint Domingue, had proclaimed the abolition of slavery, but very few of the blacks in revolt had rallied to that banner. Cap Français, the principal town on the north coast, commonly known as Le Cap,remained technically under French Republican control, but its commanding officer, General Etienne Laveaux, was besieged farther west, at Port-de-Paix, caught between the English on one side and the Spanish on the other. Sonthonax, meanwhile, after losing a battle with the English at Port-au-Prince, had taken the remnants of his force still farther south.
On the same day that Sonthonax proclaimed the abolition of slavery, one of the black leaders in the interior issued his own statement, from a small fort in the mountains called Camp Turel, to the effect that he intended to lead his people to liberty. This leader was nominally in Spanish service,and nominally the subordinate of the black generals Jean-François and Biassou, but in the past couple of years he had been developing a separate reputation as a skilled and dangerous military commander. In the Proclamation of Camp Turel he used, for the first time in any written document,the name of Toussaint Louverture.
Midday, and the sun thrummed from the height of its arc, so that the lizard seemed to cast no shadow. Rather the shadow lay directly beneath it, squarely between its four crooked legs. The lizard was a speckled brown across its back, but the new tail it was growing from the stump of the old was darker, steely blue. It moved at a right angle and turned its head to the left and froze, the movement itself as quick and undetectable as a water spider’s translation of place. A loose fold of skin at its throat inflated and relaxed. It turned to the left and skittered a few inches forward and came to that same frozen stop. When it turned its head away to the right, the man’s left hand shot out like a whiplash and seized the lizard fully around the body. With almost the same movement he was stroking the lizard’s underbelly down the length of the long broad-bladed cutlass he held in his other hand.
The knife was eighteen inches long, blue-black, with a flat spoon-shaped turning at the tip; its filed edge was brighter, steely, but stained now with lizard blood. The man hooked out the entrails with his thumb and sucked moisture from the lizard’s body cavity. He cracked the ribs apart from the spine to open it further and splayed the lizard on a rock to dry. Then he cautiously licked the edge of his knife and sat back and laid the blade across his folded knees.
At his back was the trunk of a small twisted tree, which bore instead of leaves large club-shaped cactile forms bristling with spines. The man contracted himself within the meager ellipse of shade the tree threw on the dry ground. Sweat ran down his cheeks and pooled in his collarbones and overflowed onto his chest, and his shrunken belly lifted slightly with his breathing and from time to time he blinked an eye, but he was more still than the lizard had been; he had proved that. After a time he looped his left hand around the lizard’s dead legs and picked up the knife in his other hand and began to walk again.
The man was barefoot and wore no clothes except for a strip of grubby cloth bound around his loins; he had no hat and carried nothing but the cane knife and the lizard. His hair was close-cut and shaved in diamond patterns with a razor and his skin was a deep sweat-glossy black, except for the scar lines, which were stony pale. There were straight parallel slash marks on his right shoulder and the right side of his neck and his right jawbone and cheek, and the lobe of his right ear had been cut clean away. On his right forearm and the back of his hand was a series of similar parallel scars that would have matched those on his neck and shoulder if, perhaps, he had raised his hand to wipe sweat from his face, but he did not raise his hand. Along his rib cage and penetrating the muscle of his back, the scars were ragged and anarchic. These wounds had healed in grayish lumps of flesh that interrupted the flow of his musculature like snags in the current of a stream.
He was walking north. The knife, swinging lightly with his step, reached a little past the joint of his knee. The country was in low rolling mounds like billows of the sea, dry earth studded with jagged chunks of stone. There were spiny trees like the one where he’d sheltered at midday, but nothing else grew here. He walked along a road of sorts, or track, marked with the ruts of wagon wheels molded in dry mud, sometimes the fossilized prints of mules or oxen. Sometimes the road was scored across by shallow gulleys, from flooding during the time of the rains. West of the road the land became more flat, a long, dry savannah reaching toward a dull haze over the distant sea. In the late afternoon the mountains to the east turned blue with rain, but they were very far away and it would not rain here where the man was walking.
At evening he came to the bank of a small river whose water was brown with mud. He stood and looked at the flow of water, his throat pulsing. After a certain time he crept cautiously down the bank and lowered his lips to the water to drink. At the height of the bank above the river he sat down and began eating the lizard from the inside out, breaking the frail bones with his teeth and spitting pieces on the ground. He gnawed the half-desiccated flesh from the skin, then chewed the skin itself for its last nutriment. What remained in the end was a compact masticated pellet no larger than his thumb; he spat this over the bank into the river.
Dark had come down quickly while he ate. There was no moon but the sky was clear, stars needle-bright. He scooped out a hollow for his shoulder with the knife point and then another for his hip and lay down on his side and quickly slept. In dream, long voracious shadows lunged and thrust into his side, turning and striking him again. He woke with his fingers scrabbling frantically in the dirt, but the land was dry and presently he slept once more. Another time he dreamed that someone came and was standing over him, some weapon concealed behind his back. He stirred and his lips sucked in and out, but he could not fully wake at first; when he did wake he shut his hand around the wooden handle of the knife and held it close for comfort. There was no one near, no one at all, but he lay with his eyes open and never knew he’d slept again until he woke, near dawn.
As daylight gathered he fidgeted along the riverbank, walking a hundred yards east of the road, then west, trying the water with a foot and then retreating. There was no bridge and he was ignorant of the ford, but the road began again across the river, beyond the flow of broad brown water. At last he began his crossing there, holding both arms high, the knife well clear of the stream, crooked above his head. His chest tightened as the water rose across his belly; when it reached his clavicle the current took him off his feet and he floundered, gasping, to the other bank. He could swim, a little, but it was awkward with the knife to carry in one hand. When he reached shore he climbed high on the bank and rested and then went down cautiously to scoop up water in his hands to drink. Then he continued on the road.
By midday he could see from the road some buildings of the town of Saint Marc though it was still miles ahead, and he saw ships riding their moorings in the harbor. He would not come nearer the town because of the white men there, the English. He left the road and went a long skirting way into the plain, looping toward the eastward mountains, over the same low mounds and trees as yesterday. The edge of his knife had dimmed from its wetting, and he found a lump of smoothish stone and honed it till it shone again. Far from the road he saw some goats and one starveling long-horned cow, but he knew it was hopeless to catch them so he did not try. There was no water in this place.
When he thought he must have passed Saint Marc, he bent his way toward the coast again. Presently he regained the road by walking along a mud dike through some rice paddies. People had returned to the old indigo works in this country and were planting rice in small carrés; some squares were ripe for harvest and some were green with fresh new shoots and some were being burned for a fresh planting. When he reached the road itself, there were women spreading rice to dry and winnowing it on that hard surface. It was evening now and the women were cooking. One of them brought him water in a gourd and another offered him to eat; he stayed to sup on rice cooked in a stew with small brown peas, with the women and children and the men coming in from the paddies. Some naked children were splashing in a shallow ditch beside the road, and beyond was the rice paddy bitasyon,1 mud-wattled cabins raised an inch or two above the damp on mud foundations.
He might have stayed the night with them, but he disliked those windowless mud houses, whose closeness reminded him of barracoons. Also, white men were not so far away. The French had said that slavery was finished, but the man had come to distrust all sayings of white people. He saw no whites or slavemasters now among these people of the rice paddies, but all the same he thanked them and took leave and went on walking into the twilight.
He was as always alone on the road as it grew dark. The stars appeared again and the road shone whitely before him to help light his way. Soon he came away from the rice country and now on either side of the road the land was hoed into small squares for planting peas, but no one worked those fields at night, and he saw no houses near, nor any man-made light.
In these lowlands the dark did little to abate the heat, and he kept sweating as he walked; the velvet darkness closed around him viscous as seawater, and the stars lowered around his head to glimmer like the phosphorescence he had seen when he was drowning in the sea. He seemed to feel his side was rent by multiple rows of bright white teeth, and he began running down the road, shouting hoarsely and flailing his knife. Also he was afraid of loup-garous or zombis or other wicked spirits which bokors might have loosed into the night.
In the morning he woke by the roadside with no memory of ever having stopped. The sun had beat down on him for half the morning and his tongue was swollen in his head. There was no water. He raised himself and began to walk again.
Now it was bad country either side of him, true desert full of lunatic cacti growing higher than his head. The mountain range away to the east was no nearer than it ever had been. He passed a little donkey standing by the road, whose hairy head was all a tangle of nopal burrs it must have been trying to eat. He would have helped the donkey if he could, but when he approached, it found the strength to shy away from him, braying sadly as it cantered away from the road. The man walked on. Soon he saw standing water in the flats among the cacti, but when he stooped to taste it, the water was too salty to drink. Presently he began to pass the skulls of cows and other donkeys that had died in this desert place. Somehow he kept on walking. Now there were new mountains ahead of him on the road, but for a long time they seemed to come no nearer.
Toward the end of the afternoon he reached a crossroads and stopped there, not knowing how to turn. One fork of the road seemed to bend toward the coast and the other went ahead into the mountains. Attibon Legba, he said in his mind, vini moin . . . But for some time the crossroads god did not appear and the man kept standing on the kalfou, fearing to sit lest his strength fail him to rise again.
After a time there was dust on the desert trail behind him and then a donkey coming at a trot. When it came near, he saw it bore a woman, old but still slender and lithe. She rode sideways on the wooden saddle, her forward knee hooked around the wooden triangle in front. The burro was so small her other heel almost dragged the ground, as did the long slack straw macoutes that were hung to either side of the saddle. She wore a brown calico dress and a hat woven of palm fronds, all brim and no crown, like a huge flat tray reversed over her head.
She stopped her donkey when she reached the kalfou. The man asked her a question and she pointed with the foot-long stick she held in her right hand and told him that the left fork of the road led to the town of Gonaives. She aimed the stick along the right-hand fork and said that in the mountains that way there were soldiers—black soldiers, she told him then, without his having asked the question.
She was toothless and her mouth had shrunken over the gums, but still he understood her well enough. Her eyes combed over the scars on his neck and shoulder with a look of comprehension, but at the old wounds on his side her look arrested and she pointed with the stick.
Requin, the man said. Shark.
Requin? the woman repeated, and then she laughed. B’en ouais, requin . . . She laughed some more and waved her stick at the dry expanses all around them. The man smiled back at her, saying nothing. She flicked the donkey’s withers with her stick and they went trotting on the road to Gonaives.
Too late he thought of asking her for water, but then those straw panniers had looked slack and empty. Still he continued walking with fresh heart. These were dry hills he was now entering, mostly treeless, with shelves of bare rock jutting through the meager earth. The road narrowed, reducing to a trail winding ever higher among the pleats of the dry mountains. At evening clouds converged from two directions and there was a thunderous cloudburst. The man found a place beneath a stone escarpment and filled his mouth and belly with clean run-off from the ledges and let the fresh rainwater wash him down entirely.
The rain continued for less than an hour and when it was finished the man walked on. Above and below the trail the earth on the slopes was torn by the rain as if by claws. By nightfall he had reached the height of the dry mountains and could look across to greener hills in the next range. In the valley between, a river went winding and on its shore was a little village—prosperous, for land was fertile by the riverside. After the darkness was complete he could see fires down by the village and presently he heard drums and voices too, but the trail was too uncertain for him to make his way there in the dark, if he had wished to. It was cool at last, high in those hills, and he had drunk sufficiently. He scooped holes for his hip and shoulder as before and lay above the trail and slept.
Next morning there was cockcrow all up and down the mountains and he got up and walked with his mouth watering. The stream he’d seen the night before proved no worse than waist-deep over the wide gravel shoal where he chose to cross. Upstream some women of the village were washing clothes among the reeds. When he had crossed the stream, he turned back and stooped and drank from it deeply and then began climbing the green hills with the water gurgling in his stomach.
In a little time zigzag plantings of corn appeared in rough-cut terraces rising toward the greener peaks. He broke from the trail and picked two ears of corn and went on his way pulling off the shucks and gnawing the half-ripened kernels, sucking their pale milk. After he had thrown away the cobs his stomach began to cramp. He hunched over slightly and kept on walking, pushing up and through the pain till it had ceased. Now there was real jungle above and below the trail, and plantings of banana trees, and mango trees with fruit not ripe enough to eat.
When he had crossed the backbone of this range, he began to see regular rows of coffee trees, the bean pods reddening for harvest. And not much farther on were many women gathered by the trail’s side, with goods arrayed for a sort of market: ripe mangoes and bananas and soursops and green oranges and grapefruit. A woman held a stack of folded flat cassava bread, and another was roasting ears of corn over a small brazier. Also a few men were there, and some in soldiers’ uniforms of the Spanish army, though all of them were black.
The man crouched over his heels and waited, the knife on the ground near his right hand. The soldiers made their trades and left—it was only they who seemed to deal in money. Among the others all was barter, but the man had nothing to exchange except his knife and that he would not give up. Still a woman came and gave him a ripe banana whose brownflecked skin was plump to bursting, and another gave him a cassava bread without asking anything in return. Squatting over his heels, he ate the whole banana and perhaps a quarter of the bread, eating slowly so that his stomach might not cramp. When he had rested he stood up and followed the way the soldiers had taken, carrying his knife in one hand and the remains of the bread in the other.
The opening of the trail the soldiers used was hidden by an overhang of leaves, but past this it widened and showed signs of constant use. The man crossed over a ridge of the mountain and looked down on terraces planted with more coffee trees. In the valley below was a sizable plantation with carrés of sugarcane and the grand’case standing at the center as it would have done in the days of slavery not long since, but all round the big house and the cane fields was encamped an army of black soldiers.
He was not halfway down the hill before he tumbled over sentries posted there. They trained their guns on him at once and took away his knife and the remainder of his bread. They asked his business but did not give him time to answer. They made him put his hands up on his head and chivied him down the terraces of coffee, prodding him with the points of their bayonets.
In the midst of the encampment some of the black soldiers glanced up to notice his arrival, but most went on about their business as if unaware. The sentries urged him into the yard below the gallery of the grand’case. A white man in the uniform of a Spanish officer was passing and the sentries hailed him and saluted. The white man stopped and asked the other why he had come there. Despite the uniform his face was not of the Spanish cast and his accent was that of a Frenchman.
Where is Toussaint? the man said. Toussaint Louverture.
The white officer stared a moment and then turned and sharply saluted a black man, also in Spanish uniform, who was then approaching. The black officer turned and asked the man the same question once more and the man drew himself up and began to recite:
Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture. My name is perhaps not unknown to you—
The black officer cut him off with a slashing movement of his hand and the man stared back at him, wondering if this could be the person he had sought (as the white officer had seemed to respect him so). But then a silence fell over the camp, like the quiet when birdsong ceases. A large white stallion walked into the yard and a black man in general’s uniform pulled the horse up and dismounted. His face was no higher than the horse’s shoulder when he stood on the ground, and his uniform was thoroughly coated with dust from wherever he’d been traveling.
The two junior officers saluted again and the black one drew near and spoke softly into the ear of the general. The general nodded and beckoned to the man who had walked into the camp from the mountains, and then the general turned and started toward the grand’case. His legs were short and a little bowed, perhaps from constant riding. As he began to mount the grand’case steps, he reached across his hip and hitched up the hilt of his long sword so that the scabbard would not knock against the steps as he was climbing. A sentry nudged the man with a bayonet and he moved forward and went after the black general.
On the open gallery the black general took a seat in a fan-backed rattan armchair and motioned the man to a stool nearby. When the man had sat down, the general said for him to say again those words he had begun before. The man swallowed once and began it.
Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture. My name is perhaps not unknown to you. I have undertaken to avenge you. I want liberty and equality to reign throughout Saint Domingue. I am working toward that end. Come and join me, brothers, and fight by our side for the same cause.
The general took off his high-plumed hat and placed it on the floor. Beneath it he wore a yellow madras cloth over his head, tied in the back above his short gray pigtail. The cloth was a little sweat-stained at his brows. His lower jaw was long and underslung, with crooked teeth, his forehead was high and smooth, and his eyes calm and attentive.
So, he told the man, so you can read.
No, the man replied. It was read to me.
You learned it, then.
Nan kè moin. By heart. He placed his hand above the organ he had named.
Toussaint covered his mouth with his hand, as if he hid a smile, a laugh. After a moment he took the hand away.
It was yourself who made those words, the man said, hint of a question in his voice. Those are the words you made at Camp Turel.
It is so, Toussaint told him, solemnly, with no smile this time, nor any gesture of concealment.
That is good, the man said, lowering his eyes.
Tell me your name, Toussaint said, and your own story.
The white men called me Tarquin, but the slaves called me Guiaou.
Guiaou, then. Why did you come here?
To fight for freedom. With black soldiers. And for vengeance. I came to fight.
You have fought before?
Yes, Guiaou said. In the west. At Croix des Bouquets and in other places.
Tell me, Toussaint said.
Guiaou told that when news came of the slave rising on the northern plain, he had run away from his plantation in the Western Department of the colony and gone looking for a way to join in the fighting. Other slaves were leaving their plantations in that country, but not so many yet at that time. Then les gens de couleur were all gathering at Croix des Bouquets to make an army against the white men. And the grand blancs came and made a compact with les gens de couleur because they were at war with the petit blancs at Port au Prince.
Hanus de Jumécourt, Toussaint said.
Yes, said Guiaou. It was that grand blanc.
There were three hundred of us then, Guiaou told, three hundred slaves escaped from surrounding plantations that les gens de couleur made into a separate division of their army at Croix des Bouquets. They called them the Swiss, Guiaou said.
The Swiss? Toussaint hid his mouth behind his hand.
It was from the King in France, Guiaou said. They told us, that was the name of the King’s own guard.
And your leader? Toussaint said.
A mulatto. Antoine Rigaud.
Toussaint called over his shoulder into the house and a short, bald white man with a pointed beard came out, carrying a pen and some paper. The white man sat down in a chair beside them.
Tell me, Toussaint said.
All that you know of him.
A mulatto, Guiaou told, Rigaud was the son of a white planter and a pure black woman of Guinée. He was a handsome man of middle height, and proud with the pride of a white man. He always wore a wig of smooth white man’s hair, because his own hair was crinkly, from his mother’s blood. It was said that he had been in France, where he had joined the French army; it was said that he had fought in the American Revolutionary War, among the French. Rigaud was fond of pleasure and he had the short and sudden temper of a white man, but he was good at planning fights and often won them.
The balding white man scratched across the paper with his pen, while Toussaint stroked his fingers down the length of his jaw and watched Guiaou.
And the fighting? Toussaint said.
There was one fight, Guiaou told him. The petit blancs attacked us at Croix des Bouquets, and fighting with les gens de couleur and the grand blancs, we whipped them there. After this fight the two kinds of white men made a peace with each other and with les gens de couleur and they signed the peace on a paper they wrote. Also there were prayers to white men’s gods.
And the black people, Toussaint said. The Swiss?
They would not send the Swiss back to their plantations, Guiaou told. The grand blancs and mulattoes feared the Swiss had learned too much of fighting, that they would make a rising among the other slaves. It was told that the Swiss would be taken out of the country and sent to live in Mexico or Honduras or some other place they had never known. After one day’s sailing they were put off onto an empty beach, but when men came there they were English white men.
This was Jamaica, where the Swiss were left. The English of Jamaica were unhappy to see them there, so the Swiss were taken to a prison. Then they were loaded onto another ship to be returned to Saint Domingue. On this second ship they were put in chains and closed up in the hold like slaves again. When the ship reached the French harbor they were not taken off.
Guiaou told how his chains were not well set. During the night he worked free of them, tearing his heels and palms, and then lay quietly, letting no one know that he had freed himself. In the night white men came down through the hatches and began killing the chained men in the hold with knives.
Guiaou covered his neck with his right hand to show how the old scars mated there. After several blows, he told, he had twisted the knife from the hand of the white man who was cutting him and stabbed him once in the belly and then he had run for the ladders, feet slipping in blood that covered the floor of the hold like the floor of a slaughterhouse. But when he came on deck the white men began shooting at him so he could only go over the side—
Guiaou stopped speaking. His Adam’s apple pumped and he began to sweat.
It’s enough, Toussaint said, looking at the tangled scars around Guiaou’s rib cage. I understand you.
Guiaou swallowed then, and went on speaking. In the dark water, he said then, the dead or half-dead men were all sinking in their chains, and sharks fed on them while they sank. The sharks attacked Guiaou as well but he still had the cane knife he had snatched, and though badly mauled he fended off the sharks and clambered out of that whirlpool of fins and blood and teeth, onto one of the little boats the killers had used to come to the ship. He cut the mooring and let the boat go drifting, lying on the floor of the boat and feeling his blood run out to mix with the pools of brine in the bilges. When the boat drifted to shore, he climbed into the jungle and hid there until his wounds were healed.
How long since then? Toussaint said.
I didn’t count the time, said Guiaou. I was walking all up and down the country until I came to you.
Toussaint looked at the bearded white man, who had some time since stopped writing, and then he called down into the yard. A barefoot black soldier came trotting up the steps onto the gallery.
Take care of him. Toussaint looked at Guiaou.
Coutelas moin, Guiaou said.
And give him back his knife. Toussaint hid his mouth behind his hand.
Guiaou followed the black soldier to a tent on the edge of the cane fields. Here he was given a pair of worn military trousers mended with a waxy thread, and a cartridge box and belt. Another black soldier came and gave him back the cane knife and also returned him his piece of cassava, which had not been touched.
Guiaou put on the trousers and rolled the cuffs above his ankles. He put on the belt and box and thrust the blade of his cane knife through the belt to sling it there. The first black soldier handed him a musket from the tent. The gun was old but had been well cared for. There was no trace of rust on the bayonet or the barrel. Guiaou touched the bayonet’s edge and point with his thumb. He raised the musket to his shoulder and looked along the barrel and then lowered it and checked the firing pan. He pulled back the hammer to see the spring was tight and lowered it gently with his thumb so that it made no sound.
The other two black soldiers were almost expressionless, yet they seemed to have relaxed a little, seeing Guiaou so familiar with his weapon. Guiaou lowered the musket butt to the ground and looped his fingers loosely around the barrel. He stood not precisely at attention, but in a state of readiness.
The black soldiers were mostly camped in the woods on the rocky slopes above the compound of the grand’case and the cane mill, above the flat carrés of cane and the ascending terraces of coffee trees. Some of the men were housed in tents but these, someone had told Guiaou, were officers. He was free to make his own ajoupa, as the other men had done, and thus he spent part of the afternoon plaiting together long strips of herbe à panache, to make a roof he could erect on sticks against a face of rock. All around the place that he had chosen were other such shelters receding in all directions through the trees across and up the mountainside, much farther than he could see. There were more black soldiers here than he could count, many, many hundreds of them.
When he had completed the ajoupa, Guiaou sat down in the shade of the plaited roof. He placed his bread and cutlass and the cartridge box on a banana leaf beside him, and held the musket he’d been given across his knees. The air was so very still and hot that even the small movements of weaving his roof had put a gloss of sweat on his bare upper body. He sat motionless, cooling. The view of the fields and the buildings below was clear. After a passage of time Guiaou spoke to his neighbor, one of the soldiers who had outfitted him, whose name was Quamba.
“They are still working the cane in this place,” Guiaou said.
“Yes,” said the other. “They are working the cane.”
“But they are not slaves who work the cane.”
“Not slaves,” Quamba said. “Soldiers. In return the habitant gives land for growing yams and corn. He gives his sheep and goats and pigs.”
“It’s that,” Guiaou said.
“Yes, it’s that,” Quamba said, who sat beneath a roof improvised in the same manner as Guiaou’s and backed into the same shelf of rock. He was looking in the same direction too, down into the compound; neither man had looked directly at the other when they spoke. The general Toussaint Louverture came down from the gallery, hitching up his scabbard to clear the steps and swinging on his plumed hat. He crossed the yard briskly and went into the cane mill.
“Sé bon blanc, habitant-la,” Quamba said after a moment. A good white man.
They did not say anything more. The air was growing heavier moment to moment, thick and damp, and everything was darkening, as though the whole of the mountain valley had been plunged underwater. With the subaqueous shading of the light a cold spot appeared in Guiaou’s belly and began spreading toward his hands and feet, although his skin was still slick from the heat and his small efforts earlier. His damp palms tightened on the grips of the musket. Below, a white woman with straw-colored hair came hurrying across the compound, leading a little white girl by the hand; with her was a beautiful mulattress who carried a smaller child in her arms. The two women hastened into the grand’case, leaving nothing in the yard but a red and gold cock which zizagged aimlessly in different directions, scratching up dust and clucking, then finally darted under the steps to the grand’case gallery.
The rain came down all at once as if it had been dumped from a basin on high. No thunder and no turbulence, only a wall of water which closed off Guiaou’s view; he could not see the compound of the grand’-case anymore, nor any of the neighboring ajoupas. His own roof held up well enough, with a little water beading around the tight plaits of his weaving. As he’d hoped, the run-off downhill from the rain channeled itself around the rock at his back, so that the area where he was sitting remained quite dry. There was room enough that he might have lain down, even, but he remained sitting with his back against the cool stone. His fingers loosened on the musket, his eyes closed, and he seemed to sleep, although the slightest shift in the pulse of the rain would have been sufficient to arouse him.
Doctor Antoine Hébert lay listening to the rain rush over the roof of the grand’case. In the next room, the main public room of the house though it could hardly be called a salon, he could hear the whispering and bustling of the women: his mistress, the femme de couleur Nanon, and his sister Elise had just come in with the children. The doctor had been listening for their return for half an hour, and he was relieved that they had beaten the rain to shelter, especially for the sake of the children, for a soaking in this climate might lead to serious illness.
Now he could relax more fully, and he was bonelessly fatigued, for he had been working very hard through the earlier part of the day, furthering a project he had conceived to divert the course of a mountain spring, both for irrigation and for pleasures he had imagined. He had put his own hands to this work not only for the shortage of main d’oeuvre but because it was easier for him so. He had not been in Saint Domingue long enough to accustom himself to slavery (which was now officially at an end in the colony, at least in those areas still controlled by the Republican French) and so he found it simpler to demonstrate his intentions rather than merely ordering that they be accomplished. He had worked most of the day with little respite before the approach of the rain and then had returned to the grand’case, where he’d washed himself and undressed to his shirt before stretching out on the bed.
The murmuring of the women faded in the other room and Doctor Hébert lay quietly, listening to the rain. Presently he heard Nanon come in and opened one eye to see her silhouette briefly framed in the doorway to the gallery. The rush of the rain water sounded louder for a moment until she closed the door.
“You’re sleeping?” Nanon said in a low voice.
The doctor did not answer her. Because of the rain and the closed jalousies there was not light enough in the room for them to see one another very plainly at all. He closed his eyes as she approached the bed, and soon he felt one of her hands, cool and slim-fingered, smoothing over his brow and the sunburned baldness of his head. She paused, then with her other hand turned up his shirt tails and found him there.
“Voilà que ce monsieur reste en réveil, au moins,” she said in a sly whisper. Both her hands withdrew as she straightened from the bed. The doctor could not see her face, only the shadows of her arms unloosing the long scarf that bound her hair. The moist rain-swollen air was cool on the bare exposed fork of him. Her dress dropped in a whispering pool around her feet. When she came to the bed, he raised up onto his elbows and caught the corner of her mouth with a dry kiss.
“And Paul?” he said.
“Zabeth has taken him,” Nanon whispered. The warm weight of her breasts pressed into his shirt front, and he dropped backward onto the sheets.
In the small brick-walled office of the cane mill, Toussaint Louverture sat reading drafts of letters by the light of an oil lamp. The rain made a steady roaring sound on the roof, and he had left the outside door open so that he could, at times, glance over and see the rain beyond the sill and eaves, a flowing wall of water. The letters were, in principle, his own, and all addressed to the same person, General Etienne Laveaux, who commanded the Republican French army in the Northern Department. Indeed there was only one letter, in principle, but Toussaint had not yet selected its final version. He had ordered different drafts from several of his sometime secretaries: Doctor Hébert, a mulatto youth who was called Moustique and who was the son of a renegade French priest, and Captain Maillart, a Frenchman who was now one of Toussaint’s officers but had formerly served under Laveaux and so had the advantage of knowing him personally.
Toussaint arranged and rearranged the three sheets of paper in the soft-edged, yellow circle of lamplight, smoothing them with his large hands. None was yet perfect, no version complete. Another Frenchman had turned up in camp that day, claiming to have recently deserted from Laveaux. Toussaint did not much believe his story, for the Frenchman, who called himself Bruno Pinchon, had more the air of a soldier of fortune than that of a regular army officer. Nevertheless, he now thought of exploring the newcomer’s epistolary style, on the following day, if not later that evening. He had sent Pinchon to dine with the white people who stayed in the grand’case.
Now he folded the letters away and turned his chair slightly to face the door and the rain flooding down beyond it. His eyes half-closed, he pictured places and the people in them as if on charts—as he commissioned letter-writing, so he commissioned the drawing of maps, and one way or another these maps were always drawing themselves before his eyes.
Here was Habitation Thibodet, in the canton of Ennery, and not far from the coast town of Gonaives; here his army was established, the men he had been gathering and training since the first insurrection broke out on the northern plain in 1791. The army of Toussaint Louverture was now almost four thousand strong. Gonaives itself was under Toussaint’s control, and he maintained a quartier général there, with a light garrison, but for the moment he preferred to keep the main body of his force withdrawn at Ennery, under cover of mountains and jungle instead of exposed on the coast. The English occupied Saint Marc, the next important town south on the coastline. The English had invaded from Jamaica and joined forces with the grand blanc royalist French and the slave- and property-holding mulattoes—they had restored slavery in whatever territories they could win for the English crown. In the Southern Department the English had made significant gains, Toussaint had heard. In the Western Department, they had most likely taken Port-au-Prince as well as Saint Marc. But news came uncertainly from those areas, which were divided from Toussaint’s position by considerable distances ornamented with near-impassable mountains.
To the north lay Cap Français, the Jewel of the Antilles; this port was technically at least under French Republican control, though presently under command of a mulatto officer, Villatte. Toussaint knew that area well, having spent a good period of his life at Habitation Bréda, in the area of Haut du Cap. West of Le Cap, along the northern coast, Laveaux was hemmed in at Port-de-Paix—it was from here that Bruno Pinchon claimed to have defected. At the tip of the northwest peninsula, the English were found again, occupying the naval station of Môle Saint Nicolas.
In between these areas, which Toussaint could flag on his mental maps, all was confusion and uncertainty. He did not know the present position of the French Commissioner Sonthonax, Laveaux’s civil superior and the man who had declared the emancipation of all the slaves in the colony. Sonthonax and his co-commissioner Polverel had last been heard of defending Port-au-Prince from the English; rumors of their defeated exodus had begun to reach Toussaint, but he had not yet confirmed them to his own satisfaction.
Eastward in his own rear were mountains and still more mountains, receding to the high range that marked the border with Spanish Santo Domingo, and encamped in these mountains were other black leaders who, like Toussaint himself, were for the moment in the service of royalist Spain and so at war with Republican France. At Marmelade, perhaps, was Biassou, and at Dondon Jean-François. Both were generals of the Spanish army; Toussaint had served beside them both, but now there was discontent between the two. There was discontent between both of them and Toussaint. Biassou and Jean-François commanded more men than he, but less securely; their men were less well trained and perhaps less loyal to their leaders. There was the question of who, ultimately, would be master, if there were to be just one.
Unlike the other black leaders now in the Spanish camp, Toussaint was served by various informants as far away as Europe—a place which he could only construct from their reports, since he had never left the island of his birth. Even as their enemy, he maintained certain contacts among the French Republican whites; it was no accident that his proclamation at Camp Turel had been issued on the same day that Commissioner Sonthonax had announced the abolition of slavery in all Saint Domingue. Yet Sonthonax had made his statement from a position of great weakness, as events now seemed to prove.
As for Toussaint himself, his name was not yet known to many—as he had, up to now, preferred. With the proclamation from Camp Turel he had committed himself to step out of the shadows which had hidden and comforted him throughout the first years of the slave rebellion. In which direction ought he to go from here? The English invaders certainly meant to uphold and restore slavery, along with the interests of the white and colored landowners who were their allies in the west. And for all their support of the black rebels, the Spanish also maintained slavery in their own territory, though with considerably less fervor—yet there was no thought of abolition there. The beleaguered French Republicans in the colony were currently declared for general liberty, for the little their actual force was worth, but whether that declaration would be confirmed in Europe was unknown. Toussaint understood the colony to be tossed among the European powers like a precious bauble, a stake or a pawn in their games of war. As yet he did not know enough to reason his way to an outcome. The bits of information he possessed lay quietly in his mind, like seeds.
He narrowed his vision now as he closed his eyes almost completely, his mental map contracting toward its center: his own men camped in concentric rings around the grand’case and the cane mill of Habitation Thibodet. Somewhere among them would be the new man who had come today, bearing the useful story about André Rigaud, the mulatto general who was fighting the English in the south. Guiaou. The scars made him memorable, the story more so. He would be resting now, after that long wandering. This thought itself was restful to Toussaint, who spread his hands on his knees and slept, still sitting upright in the chair, until the rain had altogether stopped.
Sometime after full dark the rain broke off with a shock of sudden silence, soon filled with rising voices of insects in the trees. The shift in sound was sufficient to rouse Doctor Hébert from the heavy sleep into which he had fallen. Nanon had gone out, leaving him a lit candle. He washed himself quickly, dressed, and went onto the gallery, where he found his sister Elise and her husband Xavier Tocquet already gathered with the Frenchman who had somewhat mysteriously turned up that morning. Tocquet was drinking a glass of rum and rolling an unlit Spanish cigar in his fingers. He had not troubled to put on shoes, and for that the doctor rather envied him.
“Ah,” said Bruno Pinchon, turning to greet the doctor. “Voilà le propriétaire!”
“What?” the doctor said, bemused. In point of fact, Habitation Thibodet had passed to Elise on the death of her first husband, and so the plantation now technically belonged to Xavier Tocquet if it could be said to belong to anyone in the current state of affairs. But Pinchon carried on, excitedly, before the doctor could correct him.
“But it’s marvelous here!” the guest declared. He was a smallish man, about the doctor’s height but thinner, with disheveled wings of black hair and small, dark, moist eyes. He had also been drinking rum, perhaps to excess, the doctor thought.
“The men at work, the fields in good order—practically everything is well in hand,” Pinchon enthused. “It’s a miracle, you would not believe the disorders I’ve seen.”
“Indeed,” said the doctor, who had himself been borne along by several different torrents of fire and blood since the slaves of Saint Domingue had first revolted against their masters almost three years previously. He looked for relief toward the others at the table, but Tocquet had leaned back out of the circle of light, his eyes shadowed in their deep sockets; he nibbled the end of his cigar as if in a trance. As for Elise, she had arranged herself in an almost iconic pose of flirtation, eyes bright and lips just parted, but the doctor knew she might be thinking of almost anything else and that it was unlikely she was listening to anything Pinchon had said.
“Now this little popinjay of a nigger general . . .” Pinchon lowered his voice and become confidential. “That one must be easy enough to lead, no?” He made an obscure movement with his hands, fingers crooked, as if shaping clay. “As he has fallen in with the schemes of the Spanish, he might just as well be directed . . .” Pinchon winked, and waited.
Again the doctor was at a loss for a sensible reply. But at that moment boots came thumping up the steps and captains Maillart and Vaublanc joined the party, moving into the circle of light. Pinchon was distracted by introductions, and immediately following, the black housemaid Zabeth appeared from the kitchen, and with the help of Elise and Nanon began to serve the table.
Dinner was soupe à giraumon, followed by barbecued goat with hot peppers, brown peas and rice and chunks of yam. No wine, but a carafe of cool spring water and a bottle of rum stood on the table, along with a pitcher of lemonade. Between serving the courses Elise and Nanon sat and ate with the men; Zabeth had withdrawn to the kitchen. The two children had eaten beforehand and were playing on the gallery. Sophie, nearly four years old, came frequently to pluck at Elise’s skirt and prattle. A plate of sliced mangoes was served for dessert and the little girl took bits of it, birdlike, from her mother’s fork. Paul, the younger child, had just learned to pull himself to his feet; he crab-walked from one baluster of the gallery rail to the next. Whenever he reached the stairs by this route Nanon must jump up to restrain him from tumbling away into the dark.
Conversation was often thus interrupted, and was desultory in any case. The doctor noticed that Pinchon’s garrulity was curbed by his appetite; he ate like one who’s been on short rations for some time. When dinner was done, Elise and Nanon went into the house with the children. Zabeth cleared the plates, and when she had finished, Captain Vaublanc produced a greasy pack of cards from his coat pocket.
“Join us,” he said to the table at large, as he began to shuffle.
Tocquet twisted his long hair back over his left shoulder, leaning into the candle to light his cigar. “Not at such stakes,” he said as he settled back, exhaling.
Vaublanc grunted, unsurprised. His glance passed over the doctor and stopped on Pinchon.
“Eh, I find myself a little out of pocket,” Pinchon said. “If the gentlemen would accept my note . . .”
“But of course,” said Vaublanc, nodding toward some smudged sheets of accounting which Captain Maillart had just then spread across the table. “Our own notes are . . . most detailed.”
Pinchon squinted at the papers, blanched, and retreated. “Bien, c’est trop cher pour moi,” he said. Too rich for my blood.
“As you wish,” said Maillart with glum resignation. “Though it’s tedious with only two.”
For a moment it was silent except for the cards snapping on the table. The three nonparticipants watched the play. Tocquet poured himself a half-measure of rum and sipped it slowly while he smoked. Vaublanc and Maillart were gambling for scraps of paper, each inscribed with the name of a slave. The game had been going on in this way for some weeks. Doctor Hébert had no idea how Captain Maillart had first staked himself to it, for he had few assets other than the army commission he had thrown over (as Vaublanc had his own) when news came from France of the King’s execution. But Maillart was either the more skillful or more fortunate player, and by this time he had to his credit almost half of the six hundred slaves which Vaublanc, nephew of a wealthy planter of Acul, could claim as his eventual inheritance. Of course the Acul plantation had been burned to the ground in the first insurrection of 1791 (like everything else on the northern plain), its buildings razed, and its slaves scattered who knew where? The officers might as well have been playing for beans or buttons; the doctor thought that Maillart understood this principle well enough, though he could not have said as much for Vaublanc, with whom he was less intimate. It was probable that at least some of the slaves of that Acul plantation were now serving as foot soldiers right here in Toussaint’s army.
Tocquet emptied the last swallow from his glass and rose. Without taking leave, he walked barefoot down from the gallery into the yard. Starlight silvered his loose white shirt, and his cigar head glowed and shrank in the darkness.
Pinchon pulled at the doctor’s elbow and steered him away from the table. “Un homme un peu farouche, celui-là,” he said, looking toward the diminishing glow of Tocquet’s cigar. A wild man, that one.
“If he gambles he prefers to choose games he can win,” the doctor said.
“I don’t mean that,” Pinchon said, drawing the doctor along toward the farthest end of the gallery. “All very well to acknowledge one’s half-breed bastard—if one must—but to seat one’s mulatto whore at table? and with white ladies . . . Well, and the man didn’t even have on shoes.”
“You’re saying that—” the doctor broke off with his mouth still open. He was beginning to grasp the nature of Pinchon’s confusions: if the newcomer assumed that he were married to Elise, that would explain he’d been taken for the proprietor of the plantation. A casual observer might well be inclined to pair Nanon with Tocquet, who was certainly the more obviously unconventional of the two white men presently occupying the grand’case.
“Nothing serious,” Pinchon was going on. He had turned to face the card players again, but spoke to the doctor in a half-whisper, partially shielding his mouth with his hand. “Such conduct might gratify the egalitarianism of our so-called Commissioner Sonthonax, but I tell you that an English protectorate will soon put an end to all such fantasies. I myself, sir, am just come from Saint Marc, with an offer from General Whitelocke for the submission of this rabble here. Of course your Toussaint Whatever-he-calls-himself and the other principal niggers can be paid off . . . but to bring the matter forward I must know who really is in charge of them.”
Pinchon closed his mouth and looked at the doctor cannily. The doctor watched the card players, halfway down the gallery, enclosed in a moist nimbus of light. A large green moth swirled toward their candle. Maillart flipped it away with his fingers but it soon returned. Vaublanc cursed the moth and batted it away with his hat.
“Your discretion is admirable,” Pinchon said. “Perhaps it’s better so. In any case the old buffoon has engaged me to write his letters for him”—he winked—“which should make the affair much easier to conclude.”
Still the doctor said nothing. Retracing his way through Pinchon’s first remarks, he struck against the phrases half-breed bastard and mulatto whore. He had been on the verge of explaining to Pinchon the extent of his misapprehensions, but now he decided he had just as well let the man work it out for himself.
At first light Guiaou’s eyes opened to greet a small striped lizard poised on the matting of damp leaves just beyond the shelter he had erected. The lizard’s tail had been broken off and it was just beginning to sprout a new one from the stump. He made no attempt to catch it; he was not half so hungry as before.
Also he still had his cassava bread, which he took with him when Quamba rose and beckoned him to follow. They followed a well-beaten trail to a clearing where many men were seated in a circle. An old woman was grinding coffee in the hollowed stump of a tree, using a staff as tall as herself for a pestle, and another was roasting corn over a charcoal fire. The men held out gourds or handmade clay vessels or oddments of European crockery to receive their coffee ration. Quamba was served by a pretty young woman with glossy black skin, her hair swept up in a red and gold-spangled mouchwa têt.
“Merbillay,” Quamba said, watching Guiaou’s eyes track her as she passed. Quamba shared his cup with Guiaou, who had none of his own, and Guiaou passed him half of the remaining cassava bread. Someone gave each of them a steaming ear of corn.
They assembled for drill behind the cane mill on the flat ground where the bagasse was stacked. Guiaou’s group was commanded by the same Frenchman in Spanish uniform he’d seen the day before, who was called Captain Maillart. A black officer was with him, the Captain Moyse. Under the orders of these two, the men formed in a square, marched, reversed, shouldered arms, presented them, knelt and aimed but did not fire. The movements were well-schooled, automatic—Guiaou was accustomed to them from his service with the Swiss, though perhaps the drill was a little crisper here. His arms and legs remembered to respond without thinking. No thought was in him, only his limbs answering the voices of the officers and a cool vacant space behind his eyes.
Maillart’s voice cracked and the men formed a double column and quick-marched off the improvised drill field. Guiaou’s neck and shoulders began to itch. He had been marched in and out of cane fields in columns like this one, encouraged by a whip, and made to sing. He had been marched on and off slave ships with an iron collar riveted around his neck. Now they were marching through the small carrés of cane, and other men were working there, but the soldiers did not stop. In silence the double column began to climb the terraces of coffee trees, Captain Moyse at the head and Captain Maillart in the rear. The hillside was steep but Moyse urged them, his voice lower and broader than the white man’s, so that they did not slacken speed.
Where the coffee ended a trail began, rising through clumps of bamboo and twisted flamboyants clinging to the cliff side—a red slash in the rocky earth. The men went up in single file, swinging into double time at Maillart’s order, stooping low and sometimes scrabbling with the free hand to keep going. When the ground leveled off at the ridge top, Maillart’s voice snapped again and the black soldiers dispersed from the trail like a flock of stone-scattered birds, rolling into cover of the brush and taking up firing positions, which they held just long enough for Guiaou to breathe more easily. The air was thick. It was very hot. Below, a long way below, were the buildings and small cane pieces of Habitation Thibodet, tucked into pockets among the sudden hills.
Captain Maillart appeared on the trail, his sword drawn, expression focused—a hundred yards farther, Moyse also showed himself. At the word of Moyse the column re-formed and the men went over the crest of the ridge at a loping dog trot and scrambled down the opposite slope and then climbed the next morne at the same fast pace as before. Here there was no trail at all and the ground was wet and slick—a chunk of earth ripped away under Quamba’s feet and he began to fall backward, but Guiaou steadied him from behind and urged him on so that they did not lose much speed. At the height of the next hill they scattered from the trail again to find firing positions under cover. Guiaou used the little time to check his cartridges and the mechanism of his musket, and then to breathe. When Captain Maillart showed himself again, he was sweating very much, much more than the black men sweated. Of course he wore a full uniform, and had kept up the pace in the tall, heavy boots he had on his feet, while most of the black soldiers were barefoot and wore little but their trousers and their weapons.
They marched down the hill at an easier pace and traversed the squares of cane at a different angle. By the time they reached the area behind the cane mill, the sun had climbed almost to its height. There they were given a ration of water and then dismissed.
Doctor Hébert was standing knee-deep in water in the swampy area behind and above the grand’case, when Captain Maillart, sweat-soaked and breathless, climbed the little colline to find him there. When he saw the captain approaching, the doctor straightened from his work and pulled off the broad-brimmed straw hat he wore to protect his balding head from the sun. He dipped the hat in the water and then replaced it on his head. The hat had been soaked so often it had lost all shape and the brim hung down the back of his neck like a wet rag.
“Je m’excuse,” the captain said. He took off his uniform coat and spread it delicately over a thornbush, then removed his shirt and began to wring sweat out of it. The doctor surveyed him with a medical eye. Maillart had lost much weight since his days with the regular French army, so that his ribs showed plainly through the skin and his uniform trousers bagged around his hips, but if he was thin he looked healthy enough.
“News,” Captain Maillart said, turning to lay his damp shirt beside the coat. “I am dispatched to General Laveaux—at Le Cap or Port-de-Paix or wherever I may find him.”
“When?” The doctor stooped to rinse his grimy hands and then climbed out onto the bank, which was now partly reinforced by a dam of mud and stones.
“We leave tomorrow.”
“Ah,” the doctor said. “But it’s dangerous for you—or not?” He knew that Maillart was at least technically a deserter, having decamped from Laveaux’s revolutionary command along with a good many other officers of similarly royalist inclinations.
The captain’s thin shoulders hitched in the air. “Who harms the messenger who brings good tidings?” He grinned.
“Indeed?” the doctor said, in some surprise.
“Well, we must wait upon events,” the captain said. “I am authorized to express . . . receptivity, one might say.”
“Ah.” The doctor took off his hat and squinted at the sun. He smoothed his damp hands back over his bald spot. “It’s an odd moment to choose to join forces with the French,” he said. “Their fortunes have hardly been at lower ebb since the first insurrection.”
“They?” the captain said. “The French?”
The doctor laughed uneasily. Both he and Maillart were French themselves, but the colony had been fragmented in so many different directions that questions of allegiance had become rather difficult to contemplate.
“That point may press you more closely than it does me.”
“True,” the captain said, his face briefly clouding.
“This Monsieur Pinchon claims to have an overture from the English at Saint Marc.”
“I didn’t know,” the captain said. He stared down at the pool of water, where three black men were continuing work on the dam. “It’s plausible. In general these English prefer to bribe than fight—but they’ve restored slavery in whatever territory they’ve taken, so I can’t think Toussaint would receive such a proposal. Still . . .”
“Difficult to know his mind, isn’t it?”
“Truly,” the captain said. “There’s his advantage.”
The doctor called to Bazau, who led the work gang: “Break off, shall we? Get out of the heat. We will begin again at three.” Bazau nodded and all three men came climbing out over the reinforced bank. They smiled at the two white men and started down the hill.
“I meant to ask if you’d go with me,” the captain said.
“Tomorrow?” said the doctor. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to leave this work half done.”
Both men turned to survey the water project. “A pool just here,” the doctor said, “for the children. All this area will be drained.” He waved his hand. “We might plant flowers, on the border of the pool.” He turned and pointed downhill toward the grand’case and the outbuildings. “Then a channel to bring the overflow down past the kitchen . . .”
“Most elegant,” the captain said. “Fanciful too, for time of war.”
“There’s not been much fighting in our area,” the doctor said, “as you certainly will have noticed. In any case it’s a matter of necessity. All this seepage has already begun to rot out the floors of the grand’case.”
“But you’ll become too bucolic in your habits,” the captain said, with a smile that sought to evoke past dissipations—if not debaucheries. “How long has it been since you’ve seen Le Cap?”
“I believe I’ve seen it more recently than you,” the doctor said, “at which time it was well on its way to burning to the ground. You must ask Xavier—he’s more restless than I.”
“One might have need of your famous marksmanship along the way,” the captain said.
The doctor smiled. “I think you’ll find Xavier quite capable,” he said, “in case of any such need.”
Guiaou and Quamba were working in the stable, brushing mares and geldings and combing out their tails. It was Quamba’s regular duty—when a slave, he had been a groom. Guiaou was inexperienced with horses, had never mounted anything larger than a donkey. But with Quamba’s directions he began to relax to the work.
In the last stall on the row the big white stallion hung his head over the half-door, whickered and turned restively, and pressed against the door again. Quamba reached up casually and caught hold of his halter.
“The horse of Toussaint,” he said in a respectfully low tone. “Bel Argent.” He unlatched the door and slipped inside. Guiaou followed, ill at ease. As he entered the stall the stallion jerked his head and danced sideways. Guiaou plastered his back to the wall.
“Be still,” Quamba said. It was unclear if he was addressing the horse or Guiaou, who was certainly transfixed to his place and barely breathing. Quamba stroked the stallion’s long nose with his free hand, then turned to Guiaou.
“Brush him, as I showed you,” he said. “He’s wanted soon.”
Guiaou did not move from the wall. Quamba sighed. “Hold him, then.” And when Guiaou still remained motionless, Quamba took hold of his wrist and brought his hand to the halter. He picked up a brush and began to work down the stallion’s right side.
Guiaou looked into the stallion’s huge alien face. The stallion’s nostrils flared red, his eyes rolled, and he began to rear, lifting Guiaou to his toes.
“Don’t look at him like that,” Quamba hissed. “You frighten him. Here, don’t face him. Turn this way and hold him gently. Be a post.”
Now Guiaou and the stallion were shoulder to shoulder, both looking out over the half-door down the hallway of the stable. Guiaou could feel the horse’s warm breath flowing over the back of his hand. He took a sidelong glance, then reached and delicately touched the horse above the nostrils. The skin was warm and velvety, astonishingly soft. Both he and the horse now seemed to be growing calmer.
Doctor Hébert walked downhill with the captain and parted from him at the edge of the main compound. Toussaint must be intending to ride out again, he thought, for Quamba and Guiaou had just brought his horse into the yard, saddled and bridled and awaiting its rider. The stallion was stepping high and nervously, hooves slicing in the dust. Muscles twitched under his glossily brushed hide. The doctor turned and slowly began to climb the gallery steps, fatigued and a little giddy from the heat.
“If you please—”
Toussaint’s voice. The doctor turned left along the gallery and saw them sitting at the table where they’d dined the night before: Bruno Pinchon and the colored youth called Moustique. He saw the general’s uniform, stiffly formal and correct, the general’s hat with its white plumes laid on the table. It was odd, he thought again, how one noticed Toussaint’s uniform first—the man inside it reserved into a sort of invisible stillness, until he moved or spoke. Now Toussaint reached across the table to take the sheet of paper Pinchon had been writing on. He sat back, holding the letter close to his face.
The doctor stopped at the table’s edge and remained standing. He was a familiar of such scenes. Most likely it was the same letter he had drafted himself the day before. Toussaint liked his various secretaries to compose in ignorance of each other’s efforts—he himself would decide upon a final synthesis.
Now Toussaint frowned at the paper. His free hand unconsciously adjusted the knot that secured his yellow headcloth, then dropped below the table, to his waist. Pinchon leaned back, elbow on the gallery rail, a smirk on his face—he seemed to wish to catch the doctor’s eye. Toussaint stood up and away from the table with a silent cat-like movement, crumpling the letter with his left hand while with his right he flourished out a flintlock cavalry pistol as long as his own forearm and leveled it at Bruno Pinchon’s forehead. He held the pistol rock-steady for just long enough for the Frenchman to register what was happening and then he pulled the trigger.
The firing mechanism snapped. The doctor was acutely aware of a crow calling, then gliding to light on the eave of the cane mill. Pinchon’s Adam’s apple worked convulsively in an eerie silence. The pistol had not fired. The doctor looked into Toussaint’s face, rigid as some inscrutable wood carving. In the yard, Bel Argent kicked and half-reared. Guiaou cried out and broke away while Quamba followed the horse, dragging at the reins.
Toussaint thrust the pistol into its holster, put on his hat and walked quickly down the steps, hitching up the scabbard of his sword. He said something low, indistinguishable, and Bel Argent calmed instantly. Toussaint put the reins over the stallion’s head and turned back to the gallery.
“Moustique! Find a donkey.”
The boy jumped up and ran for the stables. By the time he returned, astride a small donkey, Toussaint had checked the girth buckles and mounted. He wheeled the stallion and rode out of the yard. Moustique followed on the donkey, at a jouncing trot.
Pinchon had propped his elbows on the table and covered his face with palsied hands. The doctor sat down in the chair Toussaint had occupied. He unfurled the wadded letter, read a line or two and tossed it away with a snort.
“So you didn’t write what he dictated.”
Pinchon peered at him through the cage of his trembling fingers. “I hardly supposed the man could read.”
“Your suppositions are most inexact,” the doctor said. “You’ve insulted his intelligence.” He looked down; a large red ant was just surfacing through one of the wider cracks between the boards of the gallery floor. The pistol might have misfired by chance, but the doctor did not much associate that sort of accident with Toussaint Louverture. If he had intentionally spilled the powder from the firing pan before aiming the pistol, he might also have wiped it into a crack with the edge of his boot.
Pinchon took his hands from his face and forced them to steady by bracing them hard against the tabletop. “What must I do?” he said.
“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “You can’t stay here.”
Moustique’s legs were longer than the donkey’s; astride, he could hardly keep his bare feet from dragging on the ground. He leaned forward, throwing his own slight weight up the steepening grade, stroking the donkey’s mane to encourage it. They were mounting through the coffee trees, Moustique following Toussaint, who rode the white charger. At the edge of the cultivation, high on the hill, Toussaint turned his horse into the forest, onto a still steeper slope. Moustique followed, urging the donkey with a squeeze around his legs, which scissored around the animal’s belly so far that his feet could almost touch. Under the trees, a damp, green cool was lingering, welcome now at the day’s fullest heat.
Underfoot it was also damp, the earth tearing under the animals’ hooves. Moustique watched the white charger, Bel Argent, sleek packets of muscle moving in his hindquarters. Toussaint, with a light pressure of his heels on the horse’s flanks and a few clucks of his tongue, negotiated his way around a shelf of raw rock overhung with vines. When he had reached the height of this himself, Moustique looked back once, but there was nothing to see but jungle; Habitation Thibodet had disappeared.
He had never been so high, on this particular mountain. The slope grew still more arduous, so that Moustique believed that Toussaint must surely dismount, but he seemed knitted to the saddle. Bel Argent yawed sideways, scattered wet dirt with his hooves, and finally seemed to scramble up onto some sort of level ground. In a moment Moustique had maneuvered his burro over the same lip; he found that they were standing on a narrow stone road, just wide enough for one mounted man to pass, or possibly two men walking abreast. Toussaint glanced at him dispassionately, wheeled his horse and started westward at a trot. Moustique followed. There was a hoof clack from Toussaint’s mount as they went on, as if they were crossing a cobblestone street. Moustique looked down and studied the road’s surface; thousands of smallish flints set close against each other and mortared in place by mud. He wondered who possibly could have made it.
“Les caciques,” Toussaint said, with a half-turn of his head, as if Moustique had asked the question aloud. The Indians. They were dead now, all of them, their line extinguished. Nearly so. Once, before the insurrection, a band of maroon blacks had passed the little church on the Massacre River, and Moustique’s father had pointed out among them a mestizo: the glossy black hair completely straight, the flat, coppery patina of his face. His father had kept a box of small stone objects made by those extinguished Indians, ax heads, laughing and groaning faces, phalluses and animal figures all in a jumble. He was dead now too, Moustique’s father.
To the north side of the road, the jungle opened into a sudden, long declivity, which gave view to a fertile valley far below. Beyond were more mountains, chains of them receding from green to distant blue, to the warped misty line of the horizon. Moustique imagined he could see the ocean, or smoke rising faintly over Cap Français, where his father had been executed on the public square, bound and broken on a wheel. The jungle closed over the road again, shut off the view, but Moustique saw in his mind’s mirror the executioner’s hammer falling to break a shin or elbow, and his father’s voice shouting in reply: Domine, non sum dignus! He would not weep, and his mother was equally iron-faced, standing beside him in the crowd, only she had bitten through her lips until the blood ran out the corners of her mouth, as if she’d just been killing something with her teeth. Both before and afterward Moustique had been stoned by other boys of his own age and often of his color too; they mocked him for being the son of a priest. That day he felt nothing from the stoning, though afterward he wondered at the wild rainbows of color the bruises raised on his gold skin.
He stopped thinking, let the memory drop. He had learned this, since those terrible days in Le Cap, this emptying, like the passage from dream to sleep, though his eyes were open, all his senses present; he could remark land crabs clinging to the narrow boles of trees, a green parrot gliding silently across the roadcut up ahead, was half aware of the mutual sweat that glued his knees to the donkey’s sides, and grateful for the woven straw saddle, round and soft like a coil of bread. A wooden saddle would have broken his hips in the course of the afternoon, he imagined. They rode briskly, with only two brief halts, once to water the animals and drink themselves from a small spring, a second time for Toussaint to dismount and gather herbs.
In the late afternoon, with the air suddenly, ominously cooling, they broke from the road and went down a trail-less jungled slash in the mountainside, so steep that Moustique thought the white horse must surely fall or break a leg, but Bel Argent managed nimbly as a mule, Toussaint remaining mounted all the while. They climbed the other side of the gorge and struck a well-worn trail on the opposite height, a red wound in the dirt deep as the knees of Moustique’s donkey. Some passages seemed impossibly steep, but the white war horse went up them like a man mounting stairs. The wind stepped up, sudden and sharp; the trees swayed back away from it, and Toussaint looked over his shoulder to grin briefly at Moustique, the white plumes dancing on his hat, then squeezed and leaned and urged his horse a little faster up the slope.
The wind whistled, carrying a couple of crows over their heads like string-cut kites, and a black pig broke from the undergrowth and stared at them and ran the other way. Not a wild pig, Moustique took note; it was round and complacent, domesticated. A first raindrop came horizontal, like a bullet, and exploded on his cheekbone. Then they had gained a saddle of the ridge and were surrounded by the barking of two tiny savage dogs that snapped from behind a patchy fence of cactus, guarding a small mud-walled case planted on a flat area of bare packed earth. Toussaint slipped down from his horse at once. Moustique hesitated—he was afraid of the dogs, but an old woman appeared and cursed the dogs in Creole so that they stopped barking and slunk behind the house.
Toussaint had already stripped saddle and bridle from his horse. He improvised a halter with an end of rope and tied Bel Argent to a sapling’s trunk. All around them, the trees were tossing in a whirlpool turbulence; higher on the ridge Moustique saw the crown of a mapou tree thrashing among the others. A younger woman snatched up an iron cauldron from an outside fire and carried it into the shelter of the house. Toussaint grinned and gestured, and Moustique pulled the saddle from his donkey. The bridle was rope, which rain would not harm; he used the reins to fasten the donkey to another tree.
The young woman met them in the doorway, kissing Toussaint at the corner of his mouth for greeting. “Bon soir,” she said, and offered Moustique the same formal kiss. The straw saddle kept their bodies separate as lips brushed cheek. She was younger than he’d thought, perhaps even younger than he. Inside the case it was quite dark and full of a rich, warm smell from the stewpot. No sooner had they crossed the threshold than the rain dropped down outside like a waterfall.
“N’ap manje,” the old woman said out of the darkness. We’ll eat.
She passed them halves of hollow gourd and they ate without speaking, sitting crosslegged with the gourds on their knees: a stew of goat meat and brown beans well spiced with small, piquant yellow peppers, and chunks of cassava bread to sop round the edges of the bowl. The girl sat near enough the door that she was covered by the gray rain-streaked daylight, more visible than the others. For every mouthful she swallowed herself she carefully chewed a bite of goat meat and laid it on a piece of bread for the old woman beside her to take in her gums.
When they had finished eating, the old woman stared at the wall of water beyond the doorway for some minutes and then remarked that it was raining. Toussaint agreed that this was true. The old woman waited a few minutes more and then said that they must stay and rest during the rain; Toussaint agreed with this proposal also.
One of the small spotted dogs had crept out of the corner and made itself as agreeable to Moustique as it might, licking the stew scent off his fingers. He lay down on his side, head pillowed on the straw saddle. Through the open door he could see the rain coming down in rivers, and Bel Argent moving a little restively on his tether. The donkey stood still, head lowered mutely under the flow of rain. Its whole near side was covered by an enormous R cut long ago with a hot coutelas, the mark of a onetime owner. The little dog curled against Moustique’s stomach, and he covered it with his hand, feeling the hot quick pulse of its heart under his fingers, but he was thinking about the girl, watching her breasts rise and recede under the faded blue fabric of her shift as she breathed. The torrent of rain on the thatched roof was no more than a hush.
He did not know that he had slept until Toussaint shook his shoulder to rouse him. The rain had stopped long since and the yard round the case was bathed in the light of a moon just short of full. Bel Argent had provided a heap of manure, and Toussaint took a chip of wood and shoveled the droppings into the bush, away from the house.
Moustique saddled the donkey, climbed aboard and followed Toussaint away from the clearing. As they went, he heard from behind him a tap of drums, hollow and uncertain, in the area of the mapou tree. They rode, sometimes startling animals—pigs or goats or perhaps large lizards which made huge noises scattering from their path. So Moustique tried to tell himself, though he was fearful, remembering tales of loup-garou, or evil bokors who wore the skins of animals to travel in the night. They went on, speechless in the silver night, barred by shadows of the trees. By some trick of acoustics the drumming followed them a long way through the involutions of the mountainside, disappearing and then coming clear again, joined by the sound of singing voices. Moustique wondered if the girl were there among the hounsis, if she were dressed in white.
In the moonlight the plumes of Toussaint’s hat rode tranquilly as a sail before an easy wind. Even after moonset he kept on at the same urgent pace, through the total darkness. Moustique could see nothing, nothing at all, but his donkey still seemed able to follow. He was numb, sleepy, still a little apprehensive; he wanted to speak but was afraid of being heard. At last a pallor began to dilute the general darkness, and cocks were crowing up and down the mountainside. Then the daylight appeared suddenly from all directions and they were riding into the village of Dondon.
The women of the little town had risen and begun the business of the day, and a few men also went to and fro in the dirt street—all of them black or colored, for the French colons had fled the place, those who had not been killed in the insurrection. Some of the men were dressed in oddly assorted rags and tags of European military uniforms. Toussaint halted one of these he seemed to know.
“L’allé...” The foot soldier’s reply bespoke an eternity of absence, who-knew-where.
Toussaint rode directly to the church, a modest wooden building on a stone foundation. He hitched his horse and entered, sweeping off his hat at the threshold. Moustique tied the burro and followed him, blinking at the change of light. In place of candles they were burning torches of bois chandel; the pitchy smoke playing the part of incense. A few black women were scattered on the benches, and a pair of mulattresses dressed in penitential white. Two blancs in the uniforms of Spanish officers loitered just inside the door. At the altar stood l’Abbé Delahaye, his arms upraised to consecrate the host.
Toussaint dropped his hat on a backless bench and knelt before the altar, pulling off the yellow mouchwa têt he always wore and crumpling it in his left hand. Moustique looked curiously down on his grizzled hair, the bald spot toward the back. Never before had he seen Toussaint bareheaded. Then he remembered to kneel himself, but he still watched Toussaint sidelong, under his lashes, wondering at the docile, lamb-like manner with which he took communion. Next the priest moved toward him with the chalice and the bread, and Moustique closed his eyes completely and received.
After the service, l’Abbé Delahaye entertained his parishioner in the front room of the small house he occupied behind the church. A young black woman came into the room to serve them coffee—she had remained in Delahaye’s service of her own volition, though she was no longer a slave. There were no longer any slaves in Saint Domingue. Delahaye smiled privately at the thought, groped in the sack of herbs Toussaint had presented to him, and began to spread the contents on the table: sonnette, giraumon, tabac à Jacquot, then something that he didn’t recognize. He raised the leaves in his hand and turned to Toussaint.
“C’est quoi, ça?”
“C’est thym à manger.”
“Et ça sert à quoi?”
Toussaint was spooning sugar into his coffee, a great deal of sugar. “It is used,” he said, “by women who wish that their children would not be born alive.”
Delahaye straightened, stiffened, adjusted his stole.
“Monpè,” said Toussaint, “it must be said that oftentimes it is desirable to know of things which one does not intend to use.”
Delahaye raised his eyebrows, then nodded, somewhat reluctantly. He opened a notebook, picked up a stick of charcoal, and quickly sketched the herb and its flower on the first blank page. When he had finished, he closed the notebook over the leaves and laid his hand on the cover to flatten it.
“My son,” he said to Toussaint, “I see by your uniform that you are still given to the service of kings.”
Toussaint didn’t answer. His long-jawed black face was almost leadenly impassive. Delahaye had the impression that his sentence had overshot the mark and gone flying out the open door behind his guest, into the yard where the colored youth Toussaint had brought crouched on his heels, chatting idly with the black maidservant. That same mute impassivity was frequent among all those who had been slaves, whether African or Creole, but in this case it could not be assigned to stupidity or incomprehension. In the face of Toussaint’s stillness, Delahaye felt utterly at sea. With some difficulty he kept his own silence.
Presently Toussaint loosened a button on his uniform coat and inserted his hand, as if to produce something from an inside pocket. But when he drew forth the hand, it was empty. From outside the door came the faint twittering cry of a swift darting over the case.
Delahaye sighed. “I have seen, for example, a letter which you addressed to the republican commander Chanlatte some months ago, wherein you denounce the commissioners, and the republican forces generally, for various cruelties in the field which you allege, but most especially for the cruelty of having executed King Louis XVI in France. In conclusion you say that it is not possible for you and your followers to recognize the commissioners until they have enthroned another king.”
“As you know, monpè,” Toussaint said, “I am merely the junior officer of my generals Biassou and Jean-François—”
“Yes, my son,” Delahaye broke in, “I know this even too well, for it was I who spoke to your generals on behalf of the commissioners of the Republic, to which they replied that they had never done anything since the world was made except to carry out the will of kings, and thus they too could not recognize the commissioners until France had enthroned another king.”
“It was not I who composed those phrases,” Toussaint said.
“Perhaps it was not,” said Delahaye. He sighed again and scratched his stiff graying hair, cut carelessly short in the manner of a Roman soldier. “And yet their similarity to those you did compose is remarkable.”
“Not so remarkable as the power of your memory, monpè.”
Delahaye grimaced at the compliment, thin lips tightening against his teeth. “It is true that I study your correspondence with interest whenever it comes my way. In your letter to Chanlatte, for example, you claim that your own party—that is to say, the party of the Spanish and their king—is the only one to truly serve Divine Justice and the rights of man. And yet, if you pride yourself (as your letter also suggests) on the fidelity of your news from Europe, you must also know, or at least suspect, that enthusiasm for the rights of man has overthrown kings, rather than upholding them.”
Toussaint had turned his head slightly, so as to look through the open door. Delahaye studied his profile, the durable set of his underslung jaw.
“It is difficult for me to understand you as a warrior for the ancien régime,” he said. “No doubt you have considered the role played on the coast by the English—good royalists all, and they serve slavery even as they serve their king. As do your Spanish masters, who have not set free their slaves.”
Toussaint faced him. His hand rose and covered his mouth, as if to block an impulse to reply. Still he did not speak, but Delahaye felt the quickening of his attention.
“Meanwhile,” he continued, “the black leaders of the early rebellion have found shelter in the mountains. I think, for example, of Macaya, and of his reply to the commissioners. I am the subject of three kings: the King of the Congo, Lord of all the Blacks; the King of France, who represents his father; the King of Spain, who represents his mother. The three kings are the descendants of those who, led by a star, went to adore the Man-God. Therefore I cannot serve the Republic, as I do not wish to be drawn into conflict with my brothers, who are the subjects of these three kings.”
“Yes,” Toussaint inclined his head. “I have heard that he spoke in that way.”
“Indeed,” said Delahaye. “I will not call Macaya a savage—I should say, he is a man certainly, yet not a man of your gifts, nor of your attainments. I had thought that you were better instructed than to enter into the simplicity of his thought. Yet you find yourself in agreement with him.”
“I have not said that my purpose is the same as his.”
“Nor have you said that it is not.” Delahaye permitted himself a smile, which Toussaint seemed vaguely to return. “But perhaps your purposes are not the same as those of Biassou and Jean-François either, nor those of the Spanish throne—which, I may observe, is allied with the English against France.”
“The Generals Jean-François and Biassou enjoy a higher rank than my own in the army of his Spanish Majesty,” Toussaint said, “but I do not answer to their orders. My force is separate from either of theirs.”
“That is well,” Delahaye said. “You may know—I believe that you must know—that those two generals of yours continue the traffic of slaves. That men and women and children have been taken even on the borders of this town, and brought down to the coast in chains, then loaded like cattle—onto Spanish ships.”
“I have heard report of this, but my own eyes have not seen it.”
“Yet you support such an abomination?” Delahaye searched the dark face for a sign of reaction.
Toussaint looked at him mutely, waiting. The priest folded his hands and closed his eyes for a moment, breathing slowly.
“My son,” he said, “I am convinced that you will find the rights of man of which you have written better served by the French Republic than by any of these nations still ruled by kings. And as you set such store by the quality of your information, I think it would very much interest you to know that the proclamation of Commissioner Sonthonax has been confirmed by the French National Assembly: Slavery has been abolished, once and for all, throughout all our French colonies.”
“Is it true?” Toussaint said eventually.
“It’s I who tell you.”
“Monpè, I give you my most perfect confidence.”
“Come home to France, my son,” breathed Delahaye. “The arms of the Republic are open to receive you.”
“Doucement,” said Toussaint. “Doucement allé loin.”
“Oui, toujours,” said Delahaye.
Toussaint set down his coffee cup with a deliberate clatter. “But today I have come on another errand,” he said. “The boy—his name is Jean-Raphael, though everyone knows him as Moustique. He is the son of the Père Bonne-chance who was executed at Le Cap for having assisted in the tortures committed by Jeannot against the blancs and for having procured white women to be raped by—in any case it must be said that in truth Père Bonne-chance did none of these things, that he was a good and godly man and that his identity was mistaken by the blancs who judged him.”
“I am familiar with that terrible story,” said Delahaye.
“As the boy is the son of a priest, it may be that he is destined for the priesthood,” Toussaint said solemnly.
Delahaye turned his face to the wall to hide his smile.
“He is intelligent, and can read and write,” Toussaint continued. “I would wish that you take him under your instruction for a time. Perhaps in that way he may find his place in the world at last.”
“It is done,” said Delahaye.
“I thank you,” said Toussaint.
“You’ll stay tonight?”
“No.” Toussaint shifted in his seat. “I return immediately toward Ennery, today.”
“In that case you will have missed Jean-François.”
Toussaint displayed his empty palms. “Yes, so it would seem.” He leaned forward, reaching for the priest’s stole as if he’d touch it, but instead let his hands settle on his knees as he bowed his head, his whole upper body.
“Bless me, monpè, for I have sinned; it has been long since my last confession. I have too much mistrusted my fellowmen, I have even shed the blood of my brothers, I have spoken words not entirely true, I have even thought of serving other gods than Holy Jesus . . .”
Delahaye composed himself to listen. He knew from past experience that Toussaint could go on in this vein for a considerable time. And he was amazed, now and for a long time afterward, how the man could use so many words in his confession yet still, in the end, reveal nothing.
In a cool, mist-swirling dawn Guiaou woke for no reason that he knew and saw the fetlocks of the white stallion stepping daintily through the encampment on the slopes; Bel Argent was moving almost as quietly as a cat. Toussaint sat the horse as upright and correct as if he were on parade. He looked neither right nor left, and his face was dark and unmoving as if it were molded in lava. Guiaou sat up. Quamba was just then stepping out from the shelter of the next ajoupa, and Guiaou rose also and followed him down toward the stables, in the path of Toussaint. As he passed he saw that others were rousing, tracking the horse and rider with their eyes. No voice was heard, except for roosters crowing from their perches in the coffee trees all up and down the mountain. Guiaou knew from the drifting aroma that women had risen and begun to grind and brew the coffee for the morning.
The mist had already lifted from the flat of the stableyard, and the light was coming up quick and clear. Toussaint dismounted and passed the reins to Quamba, while Guiaou stood a few paces back, watching. From this distance he could see that Toussaint’s uniform was not quite so immaculate as it had appeared from farther away: his linen was grubby at the throat and his breeches were sweat-stained and shiny from long friction against the saddle. Toussaint nodded briefly at Quamba and looked for a moment at Guiaou out of his yellow-rimmed eyes, as if he were considering something, but he turned away without saying anything and walked toward the grand’case, reflexively hitching up his sword hilt as he approached the steps. The beautiful mulattress was drinking coffee on the gallery, and she raised her cup to the black general as he came nearer.
Quamba and Guiaou led Bel Argent to a stall, where they combed and brushed him. Guiaou held his head while Quamba picked out his hooves; he felt calmer with the horse now than he had felt before. Afterward they rubbed his coat all over till it gleamed, then fed him and left him in the stall. By midafternoon Toussaint had ridden out again, with the white doctor and Captain Moyse and twelve other horsemen. One hundred and fifty foot soldiers made up the party, and among them were Quamba and Guiaou.
They went by a different way than the one Guiaou had taken when he’d come to join this army, though roughly in the same direction. On the backbone of the morne above Habitation Thibodet they struck a narrow stone road whose like Guiaou had never before seen, and followed it westward through its twists along the ridges, the horsemen riding single file while the foot soldiers marched two by two at a pace just short of a trot. Guiaou went by the side of Quamba, their shoulders sometimes brushing when the jungle edged them closer together. They had marched for perhaps two hours when the rain began, but despite its force they did not stop. At the head of the column, the white plumes of Toussaint’s hat drooped and sagged under the rushing weight of water. Guiaou kept pace with the other men, rainwater streaming through his hair and down his bare chest—he sucked in water at the corners of his mouth. At first it was not unpleasant, cooling. He marched, grasping the stones of the road with his toes, covering the lock of his musket with one hand. No one spoke; there was no sound but water pouring over the broad leaves of the jungle trees around the column.
When the rain had stopped, it was fully dark and the men halted for twenty minutes, long enough to dry themselves and eat cold provisions: cassava bread and baked yams that they carried. A rag went round the immediate group of Quamba and Guiaou, and when it came to him, Guiaou used it to dry the mechanism of his musket. His heavy leather cartridge box had been well oiled, and when he looked he found that it had kept his powder dry. While they were eating, there was a little desultory talk.
For some two hours after the meal they continued through the moist night, moonlight silvering the dampness of the leaves around them, until at length they left the road and slip-slid down the slopes of the morne to cross a river valley. Here the main body camped for what remained of the night, though Toussaint and six of the mounted men kept going, leaving Moyse in charge of those who stayed.
Next morning they lingered where they had camped for long enough to brew coffee and warm their rations. Toussaint and his party of outriders returned as they were finishing the meal, but they did not dismount even for a moment. Toussaint drank a gulp of coffee in the saddle, and then they all set out once more. All through the morning they threaded their way along the chain of mornes that divided the interior from the coastal plain. On the heights, Guiaou now overlooked the cactus desert he had crossed before, in the opposite direction, on his way to reach Toussaint. In the heat of the day they halted for an hour around a small freshwater spring, drinking and dozing a little until the order came to march again. By the hour of the rain, they had come out of the mountains and were marching in low country—they kept going through the rain as before, slowed by the mud that sucked at their legs. When the rain stopped, there were fires ahead on the horizon and they pressed on to reach a rice-growers’ village where they were fed and spent the night.
In the morning they went on again through the same terrain. The white masters had fled this territory, and the indigo works were all abandoned or destroyed, unless they had been converted to rice-growing by those of the former slaves who stayed here. All day they marched, skirting the edge of the low marshy plain, never far from the chain of mountains which would shelter any retreat they might suddenly be obliged to make. They saw no trace of any enemy, though now they were coming nearer to the areas thought to be occupied by the English.
In the late afternoon someone at the head of the column called a halt for something he saw in the distance ahead, and when Guiaou shaded his eyes and looked westward, it seemed that he did see a large party of red-coated soldiers advancing across the rice paddies, yet these, when inspected by Toussaint and his officers through a glass, turned out to be nothing but flamingos. Some laughter passed among the horsemen at the recognition of the birds, then the column moved on, quick-marching through another downpour, and that night reached the village of Petite Rivière.
With daylight they entered the town in good order, marching between tile-roofed houses strongly built of stone. Moyse gave permission for the men to take an hour of liberty in the marché des nègres behind the church, while the officers attended mass. In the market the people had come from the plantations all around, or from the mountains, and they were selling hats or saddles woven of straw, bags of peas, or sacks of salt collected from the salt pans on the coastal plain. Some had come as far as from Saint Marc with glass beads and iron knives and ax heads, while others offered poultry or meal ground from cassava or simply root provisions with the dirt still clinging to the tubers. A line of small burros stood roped together; one nibbled covertly at a stack of the straw hats. All those vendors there were blacks who had been slaves, except those maroons who had come out of the mountains. The only whites found in Petite Rivière now were a few shabby Spanish soldiers. Guiaou stood for some time admiring and handling long colorful scarves such as a woman might use for a mouchwa têt, but he had nothing to barter except his weapons and shot and these he would not trade.
As the bells of the church began to ring, the officers and the white doctor emerged and formed up the line. They marched out of the village, following the Artibonite River valley. Before midday they had changed their direction and crossed a chain of mornes into the gorge of the Rivière des Guêpes. From the hilltops they could now see the town of Saint Marc considerably in the distance, with the British flag flying from the ships in the harbor.
A man named Mazarin, walking just ahead of Guiaou, seemed to be distracted by the view and lost his footing on the rocky slope. He fell sideways with his left foot caught in a crevice of the rock, and back down the column they could hear the small bones popping in his ankle like wet sticks crackling in a fire. Mazarin began to cry out but caught himself short by biting his lips. He lay on his back, clutching at the injured leg, while the ripe black gloss of his face faded to a dismal gray.
The column halted and the white doctor dismounted to climb back up to the place where Mazarin lay. Toussaint also came back up the steep defile, but he remained on horseback. Guiaou studied the delicate care with which the big white stallion set his feet. The white doctor stooped over Mazarin and felt around his ankle and questioned him softly. Then the doctor took off his straw hat and turned to smile at Guiaou and Quamba, who were standing nearest to him.
“Hold him, if you please.”
Guiaou and Quamba knelt and held Mazarin with his shoulders pressed hard into the turf and shale. The white doctor took hold of his foot and pulled backward as if he meant to detach it from the ankle. Mazarin surged against the hands that held him.
“Mezi mezami,” he said instead of screaming. Thank you, friends. The ankle popped again, and Mazarin subsided, releasing his lower lip with blood-stained teeth.
The doctor, who had sent someone else for water, made a poultice of herbs he produced from a bag tucked into his inner coat pocket, and strapped up Mazarin’s joint tightly with strips of clean pale cloth. His rust-colored ears waggled unconsciously as he worked; a ring of sweat droplets had started up among the sparse hairs of his balding crown. When he had finished, Mazarin could rise, supported by one other man, and with support could hobble on one leg. With one man helping him, he was dispatched back in the direction of Petite Rivière.
The column resumed its way down the gorge, at a somewhat slower pace than before. In less than an hour they halted on slopes that had recently known cultivation—coffee bushes sprung untended in the jungle, and there were rows of cotton now overtaken by weeds and strangler vine. Moyse circled the group and selected ten men, Quamba and Guiaou among them.
They crept forward, crouching in the overgrown cotton planting, until they reached fresh furrows of the hoe—someone had begun a reclamation of this abandoned place. Across the waves of newly tilled ground they could see the house and mill. In the barnyard were some thirty horses tethered. The black men milling in the compound were armed as soldiers, though some carried hoes too. Also there were some colored men dressed in militia uniforms and white Englishmen wearing the red coats of the British army. Moyse pulled down his lower lip with his forefinger, calculating. Then the whole scouting party returned to the main column.
Toussaint sat his horse, digesting Moyse’s report: fifty black soldiers—armed slaves rather, as the English had restored slavery in the area of Saint Marc—with twenty-five or thirty colored militiamen and twenty of the British regular army.
“Bien,” said Toussaint, laying his fingertips lightly on Moyse’s left epaulette. “You will know how to manage it.” His smile had a strange sweetness to it, for what he said. “Et bon courage.” He reached into his saddlebag and handed Moyse the brass-bound spyglass they had shared before. Then he touched up his horse and rode away up the river gorge in the direction from which they’d come that morning. Six horsemen, including the white doctor, broke from the line to accompany Toussaint, as if it had all been prearranged.
For most of the next hour, Moyse studied the English through the spyglass, occasionally passing the instrument to a white officer in his company, Captain Vaublanc. They spoke in low tones, discussing the movements of the men in the compound below. At last Moyse chose ten more men to add to the scouting party he had first selected. Vaublanc led the main force farther up the gorge.
Led by Moyse, the smaller group crept down through the cotton planting, crouching for concealment as before, though this effort seemed wasted now, since they were leading two horses whose empty saddles could plainly be seen from the compound. In fact, Guiaou saw the first of the armed slaves take note of the horses; the man straightened from what had been his task, stiffened with attention, then turned to call to one of his fellows. Moyse took a conch shell from his pocket and sounded it; the sound washed over Guiaou in a red wave and he was running across the open ground toward the buildings; all twenty of them were screaming as they charged. Moyse and Quamba vaulted into the saddles and swept ahead of the foot soldiers, Moyse controlling his horse with one hand and still blasting on the lambi shell with the other. Quamba was brandishing a burning torch. Guiaou watched him set fire to the barn.
It was all confusion in the compound—the armed slaves milling, crashing into each other, while Quamba and Moyse rode among them, striking in all directions with saber and coutelas. The horses tied to the barn rail were bucking and screaming from the smoke. Some of the red-coated English appeared, trying to form a line, a square, but the armed slaves were too frantic to obey them. Guiaou saw two mulatto militiamen dash for the barn; one began cutting the tethers of the horses while the other stove in a wall with an ax to release the animals within. He knelt, as he had been trained to do when he fought with the Swiss, and sighted carefully on one of the red coats before he fired, but the red coat did not fall. He reloaded painstakingly, not too fast, and this time other shots sounded with his own and two of the red coats fell, but from whose shot he didn’t know.
Moyse and Quamba were riding back, Moyse shouting for retreat. The horses passed and Guiaou turned and followed them, his musket empty now. As they fled into the cotton planting he tripped and fell headlong, but instead of getting up to run again he turned, knelt, and reloaded. A military drum rattled in the compound. A dozen of the mulatto militiamen and a couple of English officers had managed to mount for pursuit and were coming quickly across the cleared ground while in their rear the other English had formed up the armed slaves in a line now advancing on the double. They were many, and Guiaou choked in the back of his throat, but he swallowed and set his sights on the head mulatto among the horsemen. The man was a honey-colored sang-mêlé—the same shade as those men who had betrayed the Swiss and finally sent them to the sharks—and Guiaou waited till the mulatto rider filled his eyes. He wanted to taste the man’s death completely, but as he squeezed the trigger someone knocked down the barrel of his gun.
The horse shied and bucked from the shot and the mulatto fell, but rose immediately, cursing but unhurt. Guiaou tore out his coutelas, but was undecided whether to attack the enemy before him or the man beside him who’d spoiled his shot and now seemed to be whispering in his ear.
“Leave this one—then we will kill them all.”
Guiaou was running again, following the other across the cotton—they were the last ones now in the retreat. A pistol ball hummed past him, not too near. Guiaou turned and did a mocking stiff-legged dance, waving his arms and sneering. Another of the mounted mulattoes was coming to ride him down, but at the last possible moment Guiaou broke to the side, slashing his blade at the rider’s calf above his boot top. He was running again, stumbling on the stones of the river gorge, with that other man just a pace or two ahead of him, breathless but also seeming to laugh, and he could feel the presence of the other men hidden in ambush all around him, though he could not see them.
He kept scrambling up the gorge, bending forward as the terrain grew steeper. The mulatto militiamen were excellent horsemen (experienced from the maréchaussée, no doubt) and managed to remain in the saddle, though their pace was slowed, while the English had all been obliged to dismount and proceed more slowly still. Guiaou dodged behind a boulder at the stream’s edge and reloaded his musket, then aimed again and shot the first mulatto out of the saddle. When the man had fallen, Guiaou jumped on top of the boulder, took down his trousers and bent over to waggle his bare buttocks at the enemy. Shots flattened on the rock below his heels and the pursuers howled with outrage. Guiaou did up his trousers and made ready to run again, but when he glanced back he saw that the trap had closed: the larger party under Vaublanc was firing from both rims of the gorge and men were already jumping down to dispatch the fallen with their knives.
Guiaou charged back down the path of his retreat, dragged forward by the rounded point of his coutelas, which slipped sweetly between the chest ribs of a colored militiaman, then twisted harshly to shatter the bones. And so with the next, and the next, and the next. At the bottom of the gorge where the ambush had cut off all retreat was an abattoir—the English had mostly already been killed, and the slaves were throwing down their weapons and crying for mercy. Guiaou reached a pair of English soldiers who were fighting back to back, quite skillfully, with their bayonets. His opponent was out of range of the coutelas but Guiaou paused a moment to judge the timing of the bayonet thrust, then swept his musket butt in an uppercut that stunned the Englishman. He pounced cat-like on the fallen soldier and opened his throat with the coutelas as one might let blood from a hog, then immediately turned the corpse face down and tore off the red coat before the blood could spoil it.
He stood up, panting, holding the coat by the shoulders. Everyone near him was dead or surrendered or of his own party. The stranger who had knocked down his gun barrel stood by watching him curiously.
“It looks that you don’t like the colored men,” he said.
“Sa,” Guiaou said. “I don’t like them.” He looked at the other, a small, wiry man with springy clumps of muscle bunched under his velvety skin. “What is your name?”
“I am called Couachy—and you?”
Guiaou folded the coat under one arm and reached out to embrace Couachy—they were each a little sticky from the blood of their enemies, so their skins separated with a slight tacky feel.
“M rélé Guiaou,” he said.
Before the end of that day they had reached Petite Rivière again, but they passed on without going into the village, marched an hour after darkness, and camped in the hills. Forty of the slaves who’d been armed by the English marched in the midst of their body, prisoners now. In the night some few of these slipped away and no one interfered with their escape, but on the next morning Moyse spoke to the ones who remained and said that if they would join the army of Toussaint they would be soldiers and free. A man named Jacquot, who seemed to be a leader among them, asked for what white nation or white general they would be fighting for then, and Moyse answered, for none; they would be fighting for their freedom and the freedom of other black people. Jacquot asked if their guns would be given back to them, and Moyse said that they would be given weapons after they had come to the main encampment in the north.
They went on. Guiaou began the day’s march wearing the red coat he had taken from the English soldier, but Moyse rode back down the line and ordered all the men wearing such plundered coats to take them off, so they should not be shot from a distance by others who might think that they were English invaders. Guiaou was not discontent—it was hot to wear such a coat and he had more weight to carry than before: the Englishman’s boots and his musket and the pistol he had worn in his belt.
All during their return they kept to the mornes, avoiding any passage across the open country of the plain. They kept away from any villages or other encampments that they passed, bivouacking in the bush and eating food they carried or could forage. The distance and difficulty of this route added a day’s time to their journey, but they went in great good cheer, and during the last afternoon before they came to Ennery, hunters went out and killed wild pigs and goats. That day they reached Habitation Thibodet in time to shelter from the rain beneath their own ajoupas, and when the rain had stopped, many fires were built and the air was soon full of the smell of roasting meat.
Moyse and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who remained in command during the absence of Toussaint, ordered an extra ration of tafia for the men who had been in the fighting. Guiaou sat with Quamba and Couachy and the new man, Jacquot, drinking his share of rum and eating goat meat hot from the boucan. He wondered where Toussaint had gone, since he had not returned to this encampment, but the thought did not really trouble him and after he had drunk more rum he forgot about it. For the first time he looked into the pockets of the red coat, where he found a thin gold ring which would just fit over the first joint of his smallest finger, and some folded papers with writing on them which he threw onto the boucan fire, and a gold case on a chain which looked like a watch but which when he opened it held a picture of a white woman instead. The Englishman’s musket seemed better to him than the one he had been given when he joined Toussaint, partly because of the bayonet attached to it, so he gave the other to Jacquot, who had no weapon otherwise.
As they finished eating they began to hear drumming higher up the hill and voices of women singing in the hûnfor. The talk among them stopped and for a time they listened, heads lowered and their faces turned away from one another. At last there was a general movement among them, with no word. Guiaou put the chain of the picture case around his neck, and he donned the red coat and walked with the three other men up a twisting path toward the sound of drums and voices. Within the torch-lit clearing the hûngan named Joaquim was now calling, Attibon Legba . . . vini nou . . . and the hounsis, swaying in a line before the drums, sang in response. Attibon Legba, come to us.
The hûngan Joaquim stood near a sword driven into the ground, shaking the asson to the beat of the deepest drum. With each snap of his wrist the bead chains rattled on the gourd, and Guiaou felt a shadow pass him, swooping, stooping like the small hawks of the mountains. The scream, wild and desperately inhuman, thrilled him with fear and anticipation. A pace away from Guiaou, Couachy had been struck by the god. Loa of the crossroads, Legba, had come, to open the way from the world of spirits and dead souls to the world of living people.
Legba kanpe nan baryè, the hounsis sang. Legba is standing in the gate . . .
With others, Guiaou moved to support Couachy, who had been staggered by the shock of the descent. His eyes rolled back; when they reopened, the irises were ringed clear round with white—the fixed and alien glare of the possessed. He took a limping step toward the rattling asson, turning around the vertex of its sound. He limped because his joints were wracked and twisted; Legba had made of the body of Couachy the figure of a stooping, grizzled old man, weighed down by a long straw sack that dragged from his shoulder almost to the ground. The singing voices surrounded him.
Ouvri baryè pou nou
Kité nou pasé . . .
Guiaou’s hands hummed from his contact with the loa, and he felt that the front parts of his mind were darkening. But it was Jacquot, who had also moved to support Couachy, who was taken now, he who shuddered and was transformed.
Open the gate for us
Let us pass through . . .
The gate was open. Maît’ Kalfou had risen from beneath the waters to stand in the body of Jacquot: Master of the Crossroads. Between Legba and Kalfou the crossroads stood open now, and now Guiaou could feel that opened pathway rushing up his spine—passage from the Island Below Sea inhabited by les Morts et les Mystères. His hips melted into the movement of the drums, and the tails of the red coat swirled around his legs like feathers of a bird. With the other dancers he closed the small, tight circle around Legba and Kalfou, who faced each other as in a mirror: the shining surface of the waters, which divides the living from the dead. Kalfou’s bare muscled arms had raised in the form of the cross, and his head was lowered like a bull’s before a charge. He danced as though he swung suspended from ropes fastened to the dark night sky. The drums quickened and the hounsis sang.
Kalfou sé Kalfou ou yé
Kalfou ouvri rout la
pou moin pasé . . .
Guiaou circulated among the dancers, losing his companions, until he stood before the dancing line of hounsis, watching the woman he had watched before, Merbillay, who had served him coffee. He could feel the nearness of his own spirit, the loa who was the master of his head. The front of his mind grew more and more dark, and a heavy wing seemed to pass before his eyes with a strong beating movement. With one beat he might find himself looking at some tableau from his past (such as that moment when he stood fixed at the desert crossroads, before he found Toussaint, not knowing which road he must take to pass it), and with the next he would again see what was actually before him.
Kalfou, you are Kalfou indeed
Kalfou, open the road
that I may pass . . .
Behind the hounsis were the petite and seconde Rada drums and between them the big-bellied maman tambour, whose player struck it with small mallets, his face fixed and sweat-gleaming. Guiaou saw the flashing of the mallets, a pulse behind his eyes, and the drumming was a pulse in two places where his skull was joined to his neck: Marassa, the divine twins dividing in him, tearing the personal self who was Guiaou from the other that belonged to his maît’têt, the loa Agwé. The tearing sensation was both painful and pleasant, as a snake might feel ripping out of its skin, but at the same time he wanted to remain in his own senses and to look at Merbillay.
Guiaou was fixed on the crossroads once more, looking down one road and the other, setting his foot forward upon neither. He felt Merbillay’s awareness, though she did not look at him. The circle of dancers around Legba and Kalfou blew toward the line of hounsis like a hurricane blowing in on a coast. Away from the other women, Merbillay was drawn into its eye, her left arm lifting by the wrist toward Kalfou’s outstretched arms. The left hand hung like a chicken claw, slack and will-less, and a flash of alarm passed though Guiaou’s whirling head: it was hazardous to give oneself over to Maît’ Kalfou, whose intentions were twisted and unknowable. As Kalfou took the proffered wrist, a movement swelled up from the drums through the tightening circle of dancers, through Legba and Kalfou to stop upon Merbillay as if she were the tip of a whip cracking. The whiplash flung her against the ring of dancers; her eyes rolled back suddenly white in her head as she fell backward, legs kicking and arms jerking like the body of a decapitated chicken. The other hounsis caught her before she hit the ground, sustained her in a hammock of their arms, and Joaquim came to her and whispered in her ear and rubbed her head with a stiff urgent hand. When she stood again, her eyes were hard and glassy because she had become Ghede.
Ghede stood stiff and erect in the body of Merbillay, upright and rigid as a French grand blanc, rigorous even as a corpse (for he was Lord of the Dead, Ghede). Joaquim shook his gourd rattle asson behind the ear of Ghede, while one of the hounsis tore open a murderously hot pepper and placed a seed from it in the corner of Ghede’s eye. Ghede accepted the burn without flinching, without even a blink, though any mortal being would have screamed and collapsed from the pain and fire of it, and so it really was Ghede, Baron Samedi, who called now for his special clairin, which was so hotly spiced with pepper too that an ordinary person could not swallow it. But Ghede drank deeply of this rum, then shook off his supporters and looked about himself.
Around the loa there was quiet, with here and there an uneasy smile, though farther back the drums were still traveling and the hounsis swayed in their line, but in silence. Ghede walked with a high, rubbery goose-stepping gait, looking at one person, then another. His stone-shiny eye was caught by the glitter of the picture case around the neck of Guiaou—he snapped it open and peered at the image of the white woman, then laughed and thrust out his tongue and turned away. Stamping his feet, Ghede turned in a circle, approaching others that hesitated in his area, while Guiaou circulated in an opposite direction, the picture case still dangling open on his bare chest, until Ghede faced him once again. The loa reached out to try the fabric of his coat lapel between thumb and forefinger, tugged a little, and fixed Guiaou with his stone eye.
“This blanc has gone to be with the dead today,” Ghede said. “His coat belongs to me.”
The proposition was inarguable—Guiaou surrendered the coat and Ghede slipped into it and puffed up further, springly erect as a man-part aroused, then bowed his legs and began to dance without moving his feet, rolling his hips and grinning ferociously. A three-foot staff appeared between his legs, tipped with a phallus carved in mahogany, whose smooth tip thrust with Ghede’s hip roll toward the two oval halves and the hinge of the picture that rested on Guiaou’s breastbone. Around them others began to laugh at Ghede’s game, and Guiaou felt his own smile spreading over lips still glossy with goat fat, and he answered Ghede’s dance with his own crouch and grind, until Ghede lost interest and swung away, the prick-tip of his staff seeking other partners, and then, sated with the sex dance, Ghede fell to eating, sitting splay-legged in a corner of the hûnfor with the red coattails fanned out behind him and hurling goat and pork and yams and cassava into the bottomless pit which was the hunger of Ghede.
By that time other loa had mounted their servants, Ogûn Badagris and Damballah and Erzulie, and there were more songs and still more potent drumming, until Guiaou was lost to himself and gave up his head to Agwé, so that he knew no more, himself, about anything that happened in the ceremonies. In a later quieter passage of the night he woke in his own ajoupa without knowing how he had come there. A dream was moving in him when he opened his eyes, nothing of Agwé but the own dream of Guiaou. All the encampment was quiet but for the sound of people breathing in their sleep.
The dream rose then, and using Guiaou’s limbs it stepped outside of the ajoupa onto the hillside swimming in moonlight. Then the dream began to walk, carrying Guiaou’s body by a way he hadn’t known he knew, until it stopped before the shelter where Merbillay slept on her side with her cheek curled in one hand. Behind her a child was sleeping too, wrapped in the red coat which Ghede had claimed.
Guiaou stood still, feet planted on the ground like tree roots, while his body swayed lightly like a tall palm in the breeze and the cool night air prickled on the bare skin of his chest. His dream called in its silent voice to the woman till she woke. She sat up and saw him waiting there; her face was silvered in the moonlight and her eyes were black and swimming. She looked at him for a long time, it seemed, then looked at the child, that he would not wake. As she lay down again, her wrist arched up gracefully and her fingers curved back toward the wrist in a movement that seemed to shape a bridge. Guiaou stooped under the shelter’s dry fringe of leaves, lowering his head as he went in to her.
A turning of the road from Limbé brought their party between the river of Haut du Cap and the cemetery of La Fossette. Captain Maillart rode beside Xavier Tocquet, flanked by six black soldiers of Toussaint’s army who had been sent with them as an escort . . . or guard perhaps, Maillart thought, somewhat uneasily. To his left, Tocquet sat his chocolate gelding, seamlessly joined to the saddle. He had pulled the wide brim of his straw hat down to hide his eyes, and he rocked as easily with the horse’s motion as if he were perhaps sleeping, as the blacks sometimes seemed to sleep aboard their burros.
The color was going out of the sky; soon it would be dark. Maillart could see the low roofs of the city of Le Cap, ahead where the river broadened into the bay and anchorage. He was relieved to be reaching the town before nightfall, and yet the passage oppressed him, just in this place. The swampy ground of La Fossette was fetid and unhealthy, putrid with shallowly buried corpses, and the blacks believed it to be frequented by the demons they worshipped—perhaps they were right, the captain thought. He had his own unpleasant associations with the place. He rolled his shoulders and looked toward the river, where a large painted pirogue with a stepped mast and furled sail moved in the brown current toward the town. Two black fishermen in the boat looked at the riders on the road as indifferently as if they were transparent. Ghosts. The fishermen were shirtless, glistening; the one in the stern held a long steering oar motionless in the stream behind him. They would not have looked so, Maillart thought, if they were still in slavery.
The huge sharp rise of Morne du Cap loomed over the road, the town, blocking out a large area of the fading sky. Maillart looked at the faces of the men who rode on either side of him, equally impassive as the fishermen in the boat, and yet he knew them: Ti-jean, Alsé, Pinonbrun. He had himself shared in their training, with a success proven earlier that same day, when brigands had attacked them outside Limbé. Inwardly Maillart smiled at the term—in some quarters they themselves might be called “brigands,” by the English for example. The men who had attempted the ambush were perhaps stragglers from the bands of Pierrot or Macaya, who occupied these territories, after a fashion. The area outside Le Cap was contested between the French Republican Army (whatever remained of it) and the black leaders in service of the Spanish, though not too hotly at the moment, it appeared. But the marauders who’d attacked them seemed to be acting on their own agenda. There had been more than twenty of them, though poorly armed and easily dispersed. Maillart felt a warmth of pride in his little squad: they had not wavered. He even felt some small sense of security.
They entered the town by the Rue Espagnole. It was suddenly, deeply dark. Men passed on foot carrying lit torches; some candles were illuminated in the low buildings on either side. Most seemed to have been hastily and partially reconstructed from the fire that had razed the town the year before, when the bands of Pierrot and Macaya had overrun it. In the poor light, Maillart could make out little of the changes. He had not been in the town at the time of the attack, though his friend Antoine Hébert had described it for him in considerable detail.
Tocquet pulled up his horse in front of a hostelry Maillart remembered rather well from his former days in Le Cap, but the captain shook his head at the implied suggestion.
“Let us go directly to the casernes,” he said, “to find Laveaux.”
Tocquet looked at him without comment, then squeezed his horse’s flanks and moved on. Maillart rode abreast of him, uneasy. His companion was a strange man, taciturn; they did not know each other well, and Maillart could seldom guess what Tocquet might be thinking. They turned and rode toward the barracks, into the shadow of the mountain at the edge of town. At the torch-lit gate of the casernes, Maillart addressed himself to the sentinel, saying that he had come with dispatches for General Laveaux. Without waiting for an answer, he led his little party through the open gate into the yard.
The sentry, a mulatto in French uniform, called to another colored soldier crossing the yard, who responded by bending his way toward the commanding officer’s quarters, though without any special haste. Maillart waited, still astride his horse. After a moment he hoisted his canteen and sipped from the last inches of stale water. Now he rather wished that they had stopped at the inn Tocquet had indicated, for a stronger libation if not for a meal. He was saddle-sore, weary, and his heart misgave him rather. He had been billeted in the place for many months, but now he saw no one that he knew.
Presently the black soldiers dismounted one by one; they sat on a curbstone holding their horses loosely by the reins and talking quietly together in Creole. Tocquet got down too, handed over his horse to one of the others, and walked in an aimless circle around the yard, fanning himself with his hat though the air had cooled considerably. A sickle moon hung over Morne du Cap, cradling a star. Maillart kept waiting, to no result. Finally he climbed down from his horse and stalked across to the building where he’d been accustomed to report to his former superiors. When he entered the corridor he could see through the open doorway to his left a mulatto in the uniform of a French colonel, seated at a desk and writing by candlelight. As Maillart crossed the threshold, a black soldier jumped up and barred his passage with a musket held crossways like a stave.
“You must wait!” the soldier said, as he backpedaled Maillart out into the hall. Across the musket stock, Maillart caught the eye of the officer at the desk, who had once styled himself the “Sieur de Maltrot” after the French nobleman who was his father, but was more commonly known as Choufleur.
Then the door closed in his face. Maillart turned and found Tocquet, looking at him coolly, an unlit black cheroot pinched at the corner of his mouth. If not for the other’s presence, Maillart might have stamped his feet and shouted; as it was he struggled to contain himself. Tocquet turned away from him without saying anything and went back out into the yard. The man had followed him soundlessly—even wearing riding boots, he walked as quietly as a cat.
Where was Laveaux? Maillart stared at the boards of the door. It occurred to him that he had not seen any white officer or enlisted man since arriving at the casernes. Since serving under Toussaint he had grown accustomed to a darker color scheme in the ranks, but here it might well be a trouble sign. After a moment he heard Choufleur’s voice in the other room.
“Bring him in.”
The door opened. Choufleur did not rise to greet Maillart, or offer him a seat. He continued writing for a moment, the pen’s plume wavering between the two candles either side of the paper, before he looked up. His features were African but his eyes were bright green and his skin very pale, except for the spattering of chocolate-brown freckles all over his face—as if the white and Negro blood in him had somehow remained separate in the mix. Maillart had last seen him across the groove of his pistol barrel—had in fact been trying to kill Choufleur, during the mutiny of the mulatto Sixth Regiment.
“I have come with messages for General Laveaux,” Maillart said stiffly.
“Yes . . .” Choufleur said, lazily, and as if he were responding to some completely different idea. “Yes, I do remember you—though not your name.”
Maillart opened his mouth to supply this information, then stopped himself.
“Of no importance.” Choufleur leaned back in his chair and waved his hand airily—a long-fingered, graceful hand, freckled like his face. “You were certainly one of those royalist officers, I recall.” He rested his elbows on the desk top and squinted more closely at Maillart, who began to wonder just how well Choufleur might remember their previous encounters.
“I have it now,” Choufleur said, snapping his long fingers. “Were you not the friend of that queer little doctor—Hébert? Who had taken up with the femme de couleur, Nanon . . . is that alliance still in effect? Where are they now?”
“At Habitation Thibodet, near Ennery.” Maillart was surprised into this reponse. He wondered why Choufleur would ask so pointed a question, and on such an irrelevant matter.
“I have come to see General Laveaux,” he repeated.
“There was a child, as I recall,” Choufleur said musingly. “Of course, one does not know if it were his, in fact—does he acknowledge the child, your friend? Or did it live?”
Maillart felt his neck swelling in the collar of his shirt. “My dispatches are of some urgency,” he said.
“As you like,” Choufleur said airily, shifting his seat to glance at the dark window. “Laveaux is at Port-de-Paix. In his absence, Villatte commands, but as he is not here at present, you may give your messages to me.”
Maillart tightened, aware of a compression of breath and blood in his throat, as though he were being throttled. He drew himself up and touched his waistband. Under the cotton weave of his loose white shirt he could feel the handle of a dirk and the butt of his pistol. He had come on this journey in civilian clothes, dressed in the same fashion as Tocquet, and concealing his weapons as a pirate would. Both a French and a Spanish military uniform were packed in his saddlebags, but it would not have done to come here wearing either.
“J’écoute,” Choufleur said.
Maillart willed himself to relax, exhaling consciously, letting his stiff shoulders fall. He thought of Toussaint, not knowing why the image of the black man came to him. Next to the door behind him was a chair and Maillart drew it toward the center of the room, sat down, and crossed his legs.
Choufleur leaned over the desk top toward him. “I remember you, Maillart,” he said. “You were one of those who refused to receive me in the Regiment Le Cap—for this.” He touched the skin on the back of his left hand, below the braid of his uniform cuff. “But I receive you more generously. I remember too that you are a deserter, Maillart. You might be hanged for a royalist—we conduct such executions here.”
Maillart said nothing. The candle flames wavered. Choufleur’s shadow distorted itself across the rear corner of the room.
“Your dispatches,” Choufleur said.
Maillart kept silence. He felt oddly relaxed now, drained of ill temper, of injured pride. The fatigue of his journey was perhaps responsible. He studied Choufleur in the yellow light: he was rather a handsome man. His close-cut reddish hair showed to advantage the elegant African shape of his head. Maillart’s way of observing such details had changed during the time he’d spent in the interior. But the swirl of freckles across Choufleur’s face remained constantly perplexing. Maillart said nothing. There was power in silence. If you held your own stillness, your interlocutor might lose his balance, tumble forward into the hollow space you set before him, and fill it with more words. Maillart had sometimes found himself in such a spot with his black general, blurting out sentences he’d never meant to say.
“Je vous attends,” Choufleur said, but nothing more. Perhaps he was not to be drawn in such way.
“I mean no offense,” Maillart told him. “But my commander’s instructions are very explicit. My messages are for the ears of General Laveaux only. I regret to be unable to oblige you.”
“Your commander.” Choufleur’s eyebrows arched. The freckles swam with the movement of his skin.
“I have come directly from Toussaint Louverture.”
Choufleur laughed—a startling, silvery sound. The laugh was not bitter or mocking but had a tone of amused astonishment. It struck a note of sincerity for which Maillart was completely unprepared. He was moved to smile himself, but suppressed that response.
“The world is a very strange place,” Choufleur said. “Do you not find it so?”
Maillart rose from the chair he’d taken. “Undoubtedly.”
“How the world has changed since last we met! That you should serve under an ignorant slave who was, not long ago, the Comte de Noé’s barefoot coachman. And who does he serve, your Toussaint ‘Louverture’?” Choufleur released the surname with an opprobrious twist. “Who is that old man’s master now?”
Maillart remained silent, wondering if Choufleur really believed that Toussaint still had a master. He let himself be the first to break their stare. Choufleur turned to the soldier who’d remained standing at the door throughout their conversation, and barked out orders that he should lead Maillart and his companions to a billet where they could pass the night.
“But we will take lodgings in the town,” Maillart protested.
“The gate is closed here for the night.” Choufleur’s voice was peremptory as before. He was no longer looking at Maillart; he had taken up the plume of his pen. But as Maillart crossed the threshold, Choufleur did look up, as if to halt him with a glance.
“That plantation, what was it called? Near Ennery, you say?”
“What?” Maillart turned in the doorway, mildly confused.
“Hébert, your doctor, and his woman.” Choufleur was impatient.
His first flash of anger at this prying felt distant from Maillart, heat lightning on the horizon. He looked at Choufleur for a moment without reply. Then: “The matter seems to interest you.”
Choufleur swallowed. “Not particularly.”
Maillart went out. The soldier led him and the others to a single room on the opposite side of the barracks. He unlocked a door and gestured at the dim interior, then went away and left them there. Inside were a single low bedframe strung with rope, and hooks for hammocks on the walls, but there were no hammocks or any other bedding.
“We’re prisoners, then?” Tocquet’s eyes bored into Maillart’s face.
“For the night, possibly.”
Tocquet struck a light to his cheroot, exhaled; a bloom of smoke spread in the room, before he stepped outside again. Maillart was abashed. His impatience to discover Laveaux—certainly they’d have done better to stop the night at some tavern and present themselves here in the morning instead. He wondered a little about Villatte . . . another mulatto officer. His stomach whispered discontentedly. There’d been no mention of any kind of rations.
Outside, the new moon hung like a silver knife blade, above the casernes courtyard and the black hulk of Morne du Cap. The outline of the mountain was traced by stars appearing in the sky beyond it. Two of their party were just then returning from stabling their horses. Tocquet spoke.
“Gros-jean, Alsé—anou alé, chaché manjé.” He made a drinking motion with his hand as well. They departed, Tocquet walking in between the other two. Gros-jean and Bazau had been owned by Tocquet before the insurrections, Maillart knew. Though the two blacks were now enrolled in Toussaint’s forces, that had not apparently changed their relation with their former master—which often seemed to be a partnership in mischief. They answered to Toussaint or Tocquet with equal alacrity, and no one had so far found any inconsistency in this arrangment.
Maillart sat down on the single step that raised the door sill from the cobblestones of the barracks yard. A knot of men on the far side of the court seemed to be speaking in ordinary French. Perhaps they were remnants of the republican brigades that had come out with the second commissioners. Maillart did not expect to know them. His own regiment had been deported en masse by Sonthonax, sometime after the excecution of the King in France, after his own consequent defection to the Spanish party. The Dillon regiment, where he’d had friends, was transferred to Le Môle on the western peninsula, past Port-de-Paix. He had lost many of his friends before that time, to disease and accident and actions against the Negroes in revolt on the plain outside Le Cap. On the marshy burial ground of La Fossette his regiment had fought an all-out battle with the rebellious mulatto Sixth. Maillart had seen a close friend killed in that engagement, not two paces from where he stood himself. He had fired his pistol at Choufleur but failed to hit him. Now this leader of that mutiny was an officer in apparent good standing with the French military while Maillart himself could not safely choose a uniform to wear. The world had indeed become strange to him.
Tocquet and the others returned across the courtyard, supplied with ship’s biscuit and smoke-dried goat meat they had managed to requisition somewhere. There was a gourd of fresh water and, miraculously, another of the new cane rum called tafia. Alsé carried a bundle of hammocks under one arm as well. There were no plates or forks or cups. They sat crosslegged in a circle to eat, passing the gourds among them. Maillart was softened by the effects of the rum. He chewed the stone-hard victuals slowly.
When they had eaten, Tocquet produced a pair of dice and they gambled for the sleeping places. Tocquet himself won the second of the four hammocks that had been obtained. Maillart won the rope-strung bed, if that were victory. The last three men stretched out on the bare floor beside him, underneath the heavy sway of the hammocks above. Above and below, their shoulders all touched; the room was close as a ship’s cabin.
Ti-jean slapped at a mosquito. “Sweet blood,” Tocquet mocked from his hammock. “Ou gegne sang doux.” Ti-jean cursed.
Maillart believed he would not sleep at all, then woke near dawn with a rope burn on his cheek. By good daylight they saddled their horses and bluffed their way past the light guard at the gate of the casernes. They provisioned themselves at an inn in the town and set out on the road to Port-de-Paix.
Laveaux’s force was quartered at the Grand Fort on the Point des Pères—a promontory overlooking Port-de-Paix harbor. In size the structure no longer lived up to its name; it had been sacked and dismantled by enemies and a smaller enclosure erected within the original boundaries. Maillart left Tocquet and the black soldiers to wait for him, sitting on the rubble of the hundred-year-old walls. He climbed to the gate of the newer barrier alone.
In the event he was rather uncomfortable in meeting his former commander. The clothes he wore seemed the badge of his dishonor. He expected Laveaux’s glance to rake him collar to cuff, but in fact the general looked him only in the eyes, while taking his hand and greeting him cordially.
Maillart faltered through congratulations on the other’s promotion—Laveaux had still been a colonel when last they had met. Laveaux’s responding smile was thin, ironical. Deep lines were graven around his mouth and eyes, despite his youth. He had lost flesh from both his face and limbs. He beckoned Maillart into a low stone room of the fort.
“Would that I had wine to offer you,” he said. “But we are in a bad case here, officers and men alike. Myself, I take six ounces of bread a day, and drink nothing but water.”
“But in Le Cap they seem well enough provisioned,” Maillart said. “The . . . colored officers.”
“Ah,” said Laveaux, with the same thin smile. His chair creaked, or perhaps it was his bones, as he craned his head to look up at the low ceiling beams. “Those gentlemen dispose of private means. Whereas my own have long since been exhausted.” He fluttered a stack of correspondence with his left hand. Peering across the table, Maillart recognized, upside down, the florid signature of General Whitelocke, who commanded the English invaders in the Western Department.
“The English offered to repair my fortunes with a bribe of cinquante mille écus,” Laveaux said. “A modest price for the surrender of my command . . .”
“You’re joking.” Maillart was genuinely shocked.
“Not at all.” Laveaux restacked his papers. “I have the letter somewhere—well, never mind it. The colored commanders have been offered more, I’m told. Rigaud, for instance, in the south. I might perhaps have negotiated a higher price . . .” Laveaux’s eyes narrowed and turned inward. “Also they assured me I could keep my property—which is reduced to this.” He pinched the threadbare cloth of his coat sleeve. “With my trousers and boots—not that they would bear a very close inspection. And of course my arms.” He looked at Maillart. “I must confess I miss tobacco most of all. One does not know what to do with one’s hands. It’s cheerless to sit here. Let us go out.”
Maillart ducked under the low lintel and followed Laveaux into the open air. “But how did you respond to Whitelocke?” he inquired.
“I informed him that, enemy or not, he had no right to offer me such a personal insult,” Laveaux said. “I demanded satisfaction—in short, I challenged him to a duel. The choice of weapon to be left to him.”
Laveaux laughed, attracting the attention of a soldier who stood watch behind the brick-and-mortar wall. “Why, to be sure a single combat would have been much more to my advantage than his—speaking strictly from the military point of view. Therefore he had small reason to accommodate me. He has shifted his ground, and now sends me appeals to my ‘nobility’ as he likes to put it, meaning my former title as a count.”
Maillart flushed and looked away across the battlements. At the edge of the little town, dark surf strummed on a gravelly beach before a single row of trees. Beyond the breakers, within rowing distance as it looked, the island of Tortuga was gloomy under its cover of jungle.
“It is well for us that the English prefer to purchase their victories,” Laveaux said. “Otherwise we might be overwhelmed in half a day here. Look at that one—” He lowered his voice. “Not too directly.”
Maillart glanced sidelong at the sentinel, whose tunic and trousers hung in rags. He was barefoot, starveling, a mad glint in his eye.
“He’s representative, you see,” Laveaux said. “I must send them to post barefoot, like slaves.”
“Have you much illness?”
“Fortunately no,” Laveaux replied. “The men are well acclimated now—those who survive. The problem is rather starvation. We are dangerously low on both powder and shot. Nothing comes from France, not so much as a word. I write to plead my case, protest my loyalty . . . I would do as well to throw the letters on the fire and hope the smoke might be seen in Paris.”
“And the commissioners?” Maillart said. “Sonthonax can procure you no supplies?”
“Both he and Polverel are recalled to France,” Laveaux said. “The change in government, you know—they must answer for their excesses.” He snorted and spread his arms wide. “I am the highest French authority in all this land!”
The sentinel turned and looked at him strangely, tattered mustachios fluttering in the strong northwest wind from the sea. Laveaux sobered and dropped his arms. He studied a small lizard walking a crevice of mortar in the wall, as if perhaps he’d make a snatch for it.
“Truth,” he said. “I will not surrender. I will retreat from hill to hill still fighting. Albeit soon with muskets used as clubs.”
“Listen.” Maillart’s throat worked; he swallowed a portion of his shame. Below the rampart he saw Alsé holding his own horse: French uniform in the left saddlebag, Spanish in the right. Himself in mufti, uncommitted. The horse itself was a stunted specimen, raised on short commons and hard work. Maillart had turned his coat for the death of a king. It seemed foolish now, unconvincing. His connections to the aristocracy of the ancien régime were far more tenuous than those of Laveaux, who looked at him now, attentively.
“When I—when I . . . left Le Cap,” Maillart swallowed again with some difficulty.
“Yes, man, go on.”
“I entered Spanish service.” It was said. The words came more readily now. “Since then I have been under orders of one of the black chiefs, he who is known generally as Toussaint Louverture—perhaps you may have heard of him.”
Laveaux looked peculiarly interested. “Not only that, but I have tried to send him various messages—through l’Abbé Delahaye. Tell me, do you bring an answer?”
“No—I don’t know—not exactly,” Maillart stuttered. “I don’t know anything about that . . . but it would be like him to open communication on several lines at once. I am to tell you that he would be . . . receptive.”
“Receptive.” Laveaux’s regard was fixed.
“He now commands four thousand troops, or a little more—not the largest force in the interior, yet others might join him were he to change sides. His men are well trained and well disciplined. I myself—”
“Of course, of course,” Laveaux said. “What does he ask?”
Maillart looked over the rampart. Tocquet stood smoking, beside the horse, a tendril of smoke curling up from his straw hat. How painful the sight, the odor, must be to Laveaux in his deprivation. Maillart was grateful that he himself had never really taken to the habit.
“I can only convey him your proposals,” Maillart said. “But . . .”
“In your opinion?”
“He would wish to retain his rank.”
“In the Spanish service, maréchal du camp.”
“But certainly, or no, a promotion even,” Laveaux said. “Beyond that? You understand there is no money to be offered . . .”
“I believe that none would be asked. Only liberty—general liberty, for all the former slaves.”
“My friend—” Laveaux seized Maillart’s hand in both his own. “C’est assuré.”
Suddenly the two men were hugging and thumping each other on the back. Maillart’s throat constricted, his eyes pricked, he felt himself relieved of his guilt, pardoned for the news he’d brought. He had always liked Laveaux, in spite of politics. But for a moment he broke the embrace and leaned over the wall, frightening the lizard, to call down to Tocquet.
“Xavier, come up quickly, and if you please, bring your cigars.”
Tocquet and Laveaux struck an amiable acquaintance, which rather surprised Maillart, who had known his traveling companion to be altogether wary of regular army officers. Perhaps it was the cigars, the almost humble gratitude of Laveaux’s acceptance, that eased their meeting. But Laveaux was generally without any pretension which might have been associated either with his former title of nobility or his present military rank. A Jacobin? Perhaps at the least he was a truly convinced republican. Maillart mused on the thought, listening to the others talk. Tocquet had become unusually voluble, for him.
“My ancestral home,” he announced, gesturing with the tip of his cheroot at Tortuga off beyond the breakers.
“Then you must be a flibustier,” Laveaux said.
Tocquet shucked up his shirt sleeve and pumped his arm to raise a vein. “The blood of pirates, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Indians . . .” He traced the blue line on his inner forearm. “Possibly Africans. Certainly whores.” He laughed and dropped his arm, looking toward the jungled island. “My grandfathers came out of there, it’s true. Buccaneers to the bone, I can testify.”
“Then it was they who won this colony for France,” Laveaux said with a thoughtful air.
Tocquet’s face shadowed. “As you prefer.” He tipped ash over the parapet, frowning, reached for a drink that wasn’t there. For the moment, no one spoke. A dark cloud hovered over Morne des Pères, behind and above the fort, and in the opposite direction the sea purpled with the approach of night. Someone shouted from below the wall. Tocquet leaned over, called an answer, then turned to Laveaux with his crocodile smile.
“Order them up,” he said. “They’ve been requisitioning.”
Presently Bazau and Gros-jean appeared, carrying a stalk of plantains, green-skinned oranges, a rough-surfaced ceramic jug of tafia, and two live chickens.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Laveaux confessed. He sent one of his barefoot soldiers to find cups.
Tocquet took one of the speckled hens and whipped off its head with a practiced twirl, then handed it to Gros-jean to pluck.
“I’ll cook for you,” he said. “Façon boucanière.”
They ate together, the six black soldiers and the three white men, seated on chunks of masonry from the old fallen walls. Tocquet had built his fire in the lee of some few stones still mortared together. He cooked the chickens spitted on a green stick, roasted the plantains in their skins. As they ate, Laveaux quizzed the black soldiers about details of their service with Toussaint. Afterward, they drank rum flavored with chunks of the oranges. The wind had shifted, bringing a swamp smell and clouds of mosquitoes from l’étang du Coq. Maillart accepted one of Tocquet’s cigars, hoping the smoke would discourage the insects.
Slapping mosquitoes and staring at the fire, they discussed the dispositions of the enemy. The English were well established at Môle Saint Nicolas, though the port was mostly garrisoned by formerly French troops—the Dillon regiment, much distrusted (and justly, it now seemed) by Commissioner Sonthonax. Laveaux had intelligence that Major O’Farrel, Dillon’s commander, had turned over the post without a shot.
“I know him,” Maillart said.
“Ah,” said Laveaux. “A convicted royalist?”
“Merely a bloody Irishman, I should say,” Maillart said. “What if I rode that way, tomorrow?”
Laveaux looked at him narrowly across the flames. “What indeed?”
Maillart nodded thoughtfully. Perhaps one success would breed another. If one has turned his coat the first time, why not again? Though this was a thought he kept to himself.
Let Tocquet, then, carry the news to Toussaint at Ennery, Laveaux proposed.
Tocquet looked down into the fire. “Yes,” he said, but his pause was noticeable.
“You hesitate,” Laveaux observed.
“Hardly.” Tocquet roped his long hair between thumb and forefinger and flipped it over his left shoulder. “I had thought to travel east along the coast . . . to Fort Dauphin, perhaps. But your mission is of more importance.” He smiled crookedly, tilting his face to the coals. “For the good of France.”
“Assuredly,” Laveaux said. “You have known Toussaint for a long time.”
It was not a question, though Maillart did not understand Laveaux’s confidence in presenting it as a fact. Unless perhaps Tocquet’s activities as a border smuggler had been reported to the French general. Tocquet looked up, his eyes narrowing as they would do when he had been piqued.
“Horsemen have sought to know him, since his days at Bréda,” Tocquet said. “He knows all there is to know of how to school a horse and treat its ailments.”
“I see,” said Laveaux. “And do you know his mind?”
Tocquet lowered his eyes to the dwindling fire. “No,” he said, and then, in a softer murmur, “I don’t suppose there’s anyone who knows his mind.”
The subject fell away in silence. The flames had settled into coals. With his boot toe, Tocquet pushed an ember farther toward the center.
Maillart wondered a little that Laveaux had not pursued his question further. Of course, he was in no position to refuse Toussaint’s proffer by reason of mistrust, and perhaps that explanation ought to be sufficient. But he wondered enough to remain wakeful after he and Tocquet had retired to the fort and stretched out on their bedding.
“Why would you go toward Fort Dauphin?” Maillart finally asked the darkness. “You would be at risk from the Spanish along that road.”
“I don’t expect any difficulty from the Spanish,” Tocquet said. “In fact, I meant to cross the border as far as Dajabón, or farther, though I didn’t like to tell your general that. You see the shortage of tobacco here—there’s money to be made.”
Another question balanced on Maillart’s tongue, but he did not ask it, for Tocquet had begun to feign a snore.
In the morning they brewed coffee requistioned and ground by Bazau. Maillart’s head was heavy from the rum he’d drunk the night before, but as the coffee clarified him, the elation of his success began to return, along with hopes of what he might accomplish when he reached Le Môle.
With Tocquet and four of Toussaint’s men he rode to the principal crossroads at the edge of town. There they drew up their horses before parting. Maillart’s horse was restive, shying at a red rag bundle tied in a tree near the intersection—the mark of superstition, someone’s ouanga.
“There’s something I wonder,” Maillart said.
“Oh?” Tocquet looked down the road he meant to take.
“Why should Toussaint choose this moment to join the French Republic? When their forces are at their very weakest. When their chance to win seems nil. And I was struck that Laveaux did not inquire further into the matter.”
“Perhaps your general has sense enough not to ask questions without an answer,” Tocquet said, and then, quickly, “Sorry! I don’t mean to offend.”
But Maillart was only struggling with his horse, which had again begun dancing; he sawed on its mouth and turned its head out of view of the red cloth bundle trembling in the tree.
“I’ll give you a thought on the subject,” Tocquet said. “I don’t say it’s my own opinion.”
Maillart had brought his mount under control. He raised his eyes to meet Tocquet’s.
“Suppose that Toussaint has already concluded that he himself is going to win,” Tocquet said, with his crocodile smile. “Then he would have only to choose which of the other parties will win with him.”
With that, Tocquet tugged down the brim of his hat and quirted his horse down the road toward Ennery, his retainers bringing up his rear. Maillart swung in the opposite direction. For the moment it seemed to him better to ride than think. But he had gone only a few dozen yards when his horse spooked again at another rag in the branches, and turned white-eyed and rearing in a half-circle.
Tocquet had disappeared with no trace of his going. A single tall young woman, balancing a basket of charcoal on her head, traversed the crossroads. She walked slowly, gracefully erect, and sang a song Maillart could not understand. When she had passed, she left the crossroads empty. His horse calm now, Maillart rode for Le Môle.
Doctor Hébert woke a little before dawn. He did not know when he had learned this—to assign the moment of his waking before he slept at night—but now the procedure never failed, and he no longer needed anyone to rouse him. Cocks were crowing up and down the mountain gorges surrounding Habitation Thibodet, and he could hear the chink of harness and the snuffling of horses being assembled in the yard outside the grand’case.
Nanon slept half turned toward him, her leg hitched up across his hip. The movement of her breath on the bare skin of his shoulder felt very sweet to him. He disengaged carefully, not wanting to wake her. He had laid out what he needed the night before so that now he could find it all by touch and dress quickly and quietly in the dark.
Someone lit a lamp at the table on the gallery beyond their bedroom, and a little light leaked through the slits of the jalousies. The doctor padded across the room and looked at Paul, in the cradle positioned near the window. The little boy slept on his back, lips parted and snoring delicately. He had long black eyelashes, like his mother’s. A mosquito whined and lit on the back of the boy’s plump hand; Doctor Hébert reached down and extinguished it with a pinch.
Nanon murmured and turned in the bed; her arm flung out heavily across the pillow where the doctor’s head had lain. He felt himself quicken and rise, involuntarily. Perhaps she was only feigning sleep, but it was better so; they had no skill for partings. He holstered his two pistols, picked up his rifle and his boots, and went softly out onto the gallery.
The air was cool, misty; there was the green smell of morning and the odor of fresh coffee. Toussaint’s hat lay on the table by the lamp and coffee pot; the black general’s face was withdrawn in shadow. Hébert’s sister, Elise, sat across from him, a shawl wrapped around her shoulder over the cotton shift she wore, both hands curled around the steaming cup she sipped from. The doctor sat down beside her and pulled on his boots. Elise poured him coffee and generously stirred in sugar. Toussaint inclined his head, as if listening, but no one spoke.
The doctor drained the small coffee cup in three rapid gulps. Daylight was beginning to come up now, paling the glow of the lamp. Now they could see each other’s faces. Still no one spoke. Elise’s face was puffy, comfortable from sleep. The doctor wondered where Tocquet was at this moment, and if she might be thinking the same thing, and where he might be himself in two weeks’ time. Toussaint rose, put on his hat. The doctor laid his palm briefly over the warm back of his sister’s hand, then followed the black general down the steps. His absence ought to be a brief one, but in fact it was impossible to calculate or predict. He felt a fluttering in his own stomach as he tightened the girth on the brown gelding he would ride. Who knew indeed when he might return, or if . . .
The feeling dissipated once he was mounted and riding with the others up through the coffee plantings toward the backbone of the ridge above. Now and then a thought of Nanon or the child would flick toward him, but he would simply let it pass; such thoughts were painful if allowed to linger. The morning mist was lifting from the trees and the more the light brightened and turned yellow, the louder and more often the little cocks crowed in the jungle on every side. Their party was a strong one: one hundred crack cavalrymen all well-mounted, and the doctor the only blanc among them—Toussaint had brought none of his white officers this time. Instead the black officers he most esteemed were present: Moyse, Maurepas, Dessalines. In the middle of the file of riders were several little donkeys loaded with packs and one blue mule whose only burden was an empty saddle.
Coffee and sugar prickled in the doctor’s blood, yet at the same time he grew drowsy as the sun grew warmer. The column kept an easy pace, winding over the stone road into the mountains. He scarcely needed to mind his mount; the brown gelding merely followed the horse ahead. The doctor swayed easily in the saddle as if on a wave, the stock of his rifle, sheathed in a woven scabbard, stroking against his knee.
At the height of Morne Pilboreau the doctor twisted in the saddle and looked back in the direction they had come. A twinge touched him as he thought of Nanon and the child. Habitation Thibodet and all the canton of Ennery were hidden by the involutions of the mountains, though beyond the view was clear to the blue haze above the ocean and the coastal town of Gonaives. By now it was very warm and the doctor envied the shirtless soldiers who surrounded him. Immediately ahead of him, riding double behind Quamba, was that new man named Guiaou, his torso bare but for the cross-strap of his cartridge case and the tissue of scars which covered him like a garment. The doctor recalled bits of the man’s story, which he had scrawled down at Toussaint’s behest, and tried to match them with the scars: there the deep wounds from coutelas blows across the forearm, shoulder, and neck, and lower on the rib cage and across the lower spine a crazily mangled area bordered by what suggested the print of a shark’s jaw. Still Guiaou carried himself straight and limber, unheedful of the healed tatters of his flesh, as if he were not made of meat at all, but something stronger.
Three men farther up the line, Jean-Jacques Dessalines announced in Creole that it was very hot indeed, then took off his uniform coat and shirt and folded them neatly across his saddle’s pommel. The whole of his broad back was a web of cicatrix, thick scars of old whippings crisscrossed, standing raised and pale against the black of his skin, white and wormy as the bellies of fat snakes. The doctor stared with a dull fascination, but when Dessalines sensed his regard and began to turn, he let his gaze go drifting over the jungle. Just at the edge of the narrow path began a long, steep defile which turned stony at the bottom, where a stream belled gently over the rocks. The doctor would have liked to remove his own shirt, but he knew if he did, his weak skin would be broiled raw by the sun.
The trail twisted, corkscrewed upward; on the mountain above them the belly of a blue-white cloud had lowered. Now they were riding up into the sky itself, it seemed; the foliage turned a darker, damper green; a thick, cold fog blanketed the trail. Those who had divested themselves of their coats now put them on again. For periods the fog was so heavy the doctor could see no farther than the tail of Quamba’s horse ahead of him. The cries of invisible birds surrounded them, and the purling of streams they could not see. When they stopped to drink and water the horses, the water the doctor scooped into his palms was warmer than he would have expected, and had a slightly sulfurous taste.
They rode on, now down a declining grade, out of the cloud and the rain forest, emerging into the light of the westering sun. Once again it was very hot, so that the doctor felt sweat start immediately, under the layer of cold dampness he’d accrued on the mountain’s height. Fleetingly he thought of fever, then abandoned the thought as useless. He checked the priming of his rifle and pistols to be sure that the fog had not dampened the powder. They were riding down the wrinkles of the mountain into a lush green valley below. A cloud detached itself from the mountain behind and darkened and spread over them till all the sky had turned slate gray, but before the evening rain flooded down they had reached the valley floor and taken shelter in the town of Marmelade.
Two thousand of Toussaint’s men were quartered here, approximately half his whole command—Marmelade he had also established as a quartier général. In the small wooden church, Toussaint took counsel with his officers, while the rainstorm beat the roof above their heads. The doctor sat on a backless pew and noted down their reports on a paper spread across his knee, writing in the smallest characters he could manage, for paper was scarce. When the rain had ended, the men cooked their evening meal out of doors, but after supper Toussaint returned to the church, where he prayed for a long time, kneeling before the altar, and then reconvened his council.
The doctor again served him as secretary, noting what he thought important or whatever Toussaint signaled him to record. He was numb with fatigue, from the long day in the saddle followed by a substantial meal, but Toussaint, who ate little enough at any time, also seemed to need little sleep: three hours possibly, not more than four . . .
They were in the saddle again at dawn, riding down the river valley in a generally southerly direction. As the sun approached its height they began climbing another range of mountains. The doctor, half-drowsing, was startled by the sudden yapping of a gang of snaggle-toothed, vicious-looking little dogs; then around a bend of the trail appeared a little boy two or three years old and stark naked save for a plaited cord around his waist. He stared at them round-eyed, then his teeth flashed and he leapt in the air crying, “Solda’ nèg! Solda’ nèg!” Some other children appeared, running and capering alongside the horses and carrying the same cry forward, “Black soldiers! Black soldiers!” The brown gelding shied at the twirling of a little girl’s skirt, and the doctor leaned down to stroke the horse’s trembling shoulder. Adult voices called the children harshly away from the trail, and the children disappeared at once, but the barking of the dogs continued, and the doctor was aware of the movement of considerable numbers of people on either side of the trail, though they were obscured by the jungle. There seemed to be a maze of trails running up the western slope, and through gaps in the undergrowth the doctor caught glimpses of zigzag corn plantings and the roofs of ajoupas, also sections of wooden palisades and even trenches fortified by angled sharpened stakes.
“Where did these people come from?” he said, not realizing he’d spoken aloud until Guiaou turned back to answer him.
“Sé marron yo yé.”
They were maroons then, runaway slaves . . . though the children were likely born in freedom here. Maybe also some of the adults. The doctor knew that large bands of maroons had held out in these hills for several generations. He had himself known such a one, a man named Riau who could read and write and for a time had served Toussaint both as scribe and officer, until finally he had deserted or simply disappeared. He would be with the maroons again now, the doctor thought, if he still lived. The whooping and barking and sounds of running feet on the hidden trails diminished as they rode on. Then there was silence, followed by the singing of the birds.
At a broad and shallow spring-fed pool they stopped to drink and water the animals. Stooping over the ruffled water, the doctor was startled to meet his own visage, blurry and pale among the ripples. His pallor shocked and almost repelled him—he had forgotten that he was blanc, had come near to forgetting himself entirely. Now he pictured the little maroon boy they’d surprised on the trail, and felt a twinge of guilt, for it had been more than twenty hours since he’d remembered Nanon or the child.
The flash of pain was brief, and left him entirely once they’d all remounted. As he rode, the doctor quietly took from his pocket a shard of broken mirror which he always carried. The fragment was trapezoidal and fit the creases of his palm; it was too small to return him his whole face, but by turning it this way and that he could glimpse an eye, an ear, a bit of whiskered lip, like pieces of a puzzle that no longer fit together. Riau had called the mirror piece his ouanga, but if it really were a charm for magic, the doctor felt that he was ignorant of its use. It was long since he had seen Riau, who had evaporated from Toussaint’s forces months ago, most likely to return to marronage; yet as the mirror shard returned to him a wheeling vision of the sky, he felt in the same spirit with him. In the same spirit was the phrase that Riau would have used.
He fixed his eyes on the plumes of Toussaint’s general’s hat, tossing at the head of the column. So high in the mountains, so deep in the jungle, direction could no longer be determined, logic failed, it was useless to think; therefore the doctor’s mind became vacant. The white plumes floating ahead of him were no longer connected to military rank or political faction or to a man or even to a hat. They were simply there, drifting through the twistings of the trail.
In the afternoon they came out of a cleft of rock onto a wide savannah that stretched almost as far as the eye could see. At the limit of the horizon, the turquoise verdure of the Cibao mountain range was covered by the smoky blue of clouds. The broad plateau rolled gently and smoothly toward the mountains, covered everywhere with tall brindled grasses. Very infrequently there appeared a small contorted tree. Great herds of long-horned cattle roamed the plateau, sometimes tended by one or two herdsmen wearing Spanish flat-brimmed hats, sometimes tended by no one at all.
After an hour or more of riding over the plateau, the doctor’s eye was caught by something in the neighborhood of a flamboyant tree, there in the middle distance, near the mouth of a shallow, grassy gulch. But there was nothing, only half a dozen cattle grazing toward the meager shade. Perhaps it was only the tossing of the tree’s orange blossoms that had captured his attention, but he kept looking until, when the cattle had drifted nearer, a near-naked black man sprang up from below the tree, made a short determined run and thrust a spear between the ribs of the nearest cow. As the other cows bolted, the one which had been speared let out a moaning bellow and slumped down over its buckling forelegs. Several other men appeared from the tall grass, whirling coutelas. One cut the cow’s throat immediately while the others whooped and cackled. The sound carried plainly across the quarter-mile distance; a couple of men in Toussaint’s column cheered in reply. Guiaou turned toward the doctor again.
“Those are still maroons, those people.”
The doctor nodded and said nothing. There was no need of a reply. The plain continued; they rode on.
That evening there was no rain, only a rising of the wind with ragged clouds passing swiftly overhead, and then clear sky, with the stars beginning to emerge. Just before darkness had fallen completely, they rode into the town of San Miguel.
Severe Spanish women, sheathed in thick black dresses, regarded them impassively from the doorways as they went by. The town was small and thinly peopled. There were few slaves, few blacks at all in evidence. Some mestizos walked the street, and more of the hard-bitten herdsmen they’d seen on the plateau. The military garrison was light, no more than a handful of Spanish soldiers. Toussaint parlayed with them briefly, then rode to the house where his family was quartered.
By hearsay the doctor knew that Toussaint had a wife and three sons, but he had never met them. Sometime during the first insurrections of 1791, Toussaint had sent them to this place of safety, over the border and across the mountains from the fighting and the burning. The doctor was curious, but could see little through the arched doorway of the house. Toussaint dismounted and went in with Moyse and Dessalines. The doctor heard a child’s astonished cry, and thought he also heard the soft tones of a woman’s voice. Moyse and Dessalines came out and the door closed behind them. Dessalines detached five men to stand sentry around the house, then led the column to the edge of town.
They bivouacked on the savannah north of San Miguel, just below the crest of a gently rolling rise. The Spanish officer commanding the town issued them two beefs and a barrel of rum, then left them entirely to themselves. The butchers worked efficiently; soon meat was roasting over several fires. Foragers came in with bunches of brightly colored, wrinkly hot peppers and sheafs of lemon-scented leaves. The beef was fat from the rich grazing of the plateau. They’d made their journey so lightly provisioned that they’d eaten very little in two days, and now the doctor feasted with the others, greasing his chops with tallow. Afterward the meat he’d eaten in unaccustomed quantity lay a little heavily on his stomach. He rested on his elbows in the grass, nursing a clay ramekin of rum and listening to the men tell stories around the fire. Now and then one jumped up to illustrate some action of the narrative. Across the fire, Dessalines also watched the storytellers, his smile glossy with grease from the meat. The night was clear and warm enough so they needed no tents or any shelter; they slept in the open on the folded, sweet-smelling grass.
In the morning word came that the Marquis d’Hermonas had arrived with a somewhat larger Spanish force, intending to shower Toussaint with various honors on the part of the Spanish King, whom he now served. But first there must be morning mass. The church of San Miguel was too small to accommodate all the soldiers, but the doctor went in, among the black officers. Toussaint was seated near the altar rail, and beside him his wife, Suzanne, neatly dressed and modestly kerchiefed, her round, brown face respectfully lowered. There too were the sons, Placide, Isaac, and the youngest, Saint-Jean, who looked no more than four or five. Again the doctor felt the mild twinge of absence or regret, and let it pass. Toussaint’s sons were well scrubbed and neatly dressed for the church service.
They were singing the Te Deum. Afterward Toussaint confessed, copiously or at least for a long time, then knelt at the altar rail and chanted prayers of penitence in a loud and fervent whisper. The rasp of his devoted voice carried as far as the church door, where the doctor stood near the Marquis d’Hermonas and several of his subalterns. The marquis’s eyes were glistening as he regarded Toussaint, and his voice seemed to catch when he spoke: “If God Himself came down to earth, he could inhabit no purer soul than that of Toussaint Louverture.”
After communion the mass was completed and all came out blinking into noonday sunlight. Toussaint was presented with an ornamental sword, and informed of an advancement of his rank. He was also given another gift: a small closed carriage in an antique style, crusted with fresh layers of black paint and with Spanish arms in gilt upon the door. The present seemed somewhat impractical—the doctor could not imagine how the coach might be transported over the mountains to the French colony . . . where most roads were impassable for such a vehicle, in any case. But Toussaint beamed with pleasure at the coach. Suzanne got into it, smiling shyly and holding the seat with her hands while all three boys bounced to try the springs.
In the afternoon all the town turned out for a bullfight given in Toussaint’s honor. The doctor had heard of such excercises but never seen one himself. He divided his attention between the bullfight itself and the audience that had assembled. The young and unmarried women here made their first appearance—normally they must have remained shut up in their houses (only a few had appeared even at church). Against the yardage of stiff fabrics that encased them, their faces looked small and doll-like, but their little red mouths stretched wide to cry Olé! The Spanish men were equally enthusiastic, but most of Toussaint’s soldiers seemed bemused or indifferent—surely there were simpler ways to kill a beef.
The bull was one of those longhorns they’d seen on the savannah. Each time the horn points passed the matador, the doctor felt a short, brutal thrill, amplified by the shouts of the Spaniards surrounding him. At the same time he remembered the cow they’d seen speared yesterday by the maroons on the plateau.
Toussaint’s elbow brushed his ribs discreetly; the black general spoke from the side of his mouth. “Votre avis?”
“A tragedy,” the doctor said, his attention on the field. The matador was using a smaller cape now, and had taken out a sword.
“A waste, rather,” Toussaint sniffed.
The doctor glanced at his crooked half-smile, then looked back toward the field. The matador leaned in over the bull’s horns, probing with his sword, but he missed the mark and was tossed in the air. For a moment he lay breathless on his back in the silty dust, but before the bull could turn and find him with its horns, he was up and scrambling for his hat and sword.
“The man offers himself to death for no purpose.” Toussaint spoke behind the hand which covered his smile. On the field, the matador faced the bull again, lowering the furled cape and sighting the sword over the bull’s head toward the spot between the humped shoulders.
“And the bull?” the doctor asked.
“The bull does not choose, because he is not free.” Toussaint removed his hand from his mouth, which was no longer smiling.
The doctor felt his interest in the spectacle suddenly collapse, though the Spaniards were again shouting all around him. Again he remembered how the maroons had killed their beef on the plateau, and he thought that perhaps their action was not only more useful but even more beautiful than what he was seeing now.
The days that followed began to drag. Toussaint was often in counsel with the Spanish officers, but the doctor was not invited to serve him as amanuensis on these occasions. No reason was given for his exclusion, but he did come to feel he’d been deliberately shut out. Apart from d’Hermonas himself, whose manner was open and frank with everyone, the Spaniards seemed to distrust him a little, perhaps only because he was French.
Most mornings the doctor visited Toussaint’s house for coffee, and one evening he was invited there to dine with several Spanish officers and one of Toussaint’s black captains, Charles Belair. It struck him again that the Spaniards were uneasy in his presence—possibly it was his imagination but they all seemed to be looking somewhere over his shoulder when they spoke. He fell silent, watching Suzanne, who sat fluidly erect in her place, or sometimes rose and went to supervise the preparation of the next course in the kitchen. She spoke a competent Spanish, the doctor noticed, or anyway it was better than his own. She had the thickness of age, without being heavy; she still seemed light and graceful when she moved. Her kerchief, bound to her brows neat and tightly as a knife’s edge, concealed her hair completely, so the doctor could not know if it were gray. Her face was round, pleasant, only a little wrinkled at the corners of the eyes and mouth. She kept her eyes lowered for the most part, and offered little to the conversation of the men.
As the doctor felt alienated from the men’s talk himself, he tried Suzanne with various conversational sallies, but her replies gave him little purchase to continue. Finally, at Toussaint’s signal, the older boys, Isaac and Placide, came forward to show him samples of their penmanship. The writing was neat, correct, and with a more orthodox spelling than their father commanded. Both boys were well spoken and their French was very proper. The doctor praised them for these qualities and saw their mother smile.
The afternoons were hot and dry and dusty. Sometimes small parties of Toussaint’s troop would ride out over the savannah to exercise their horses. It was less dusty there, at least, than in the town. The doctor would have liked to botanize, but as he spoke only a few words of Spanish he could find no one in San Miguel who was knowledgeable about the herbs of the plateau.
Meanwhile, the quality of their rations diminished noticeably, till they were eating nothing but the dried beef which was so plentifully produced here in the Spanish colony—but apparently to the exclusion of almost everything else. There was no corn or rice or beans to be had at all, only a little moldy flour and shriveled dried peas, both imported from Europe at absurdly high prices. Friction developed when it was noticed that d’Hermonas’s men, about equal in number to Toussaint’s, seemed to have fresh meat to eat. Doctor Hébert discussed the problem with Moyse and Dessalines, and finally agreed to go hunting on the plateau with them and a few others. They rode out several miles from the town to a waterhole where the doctor knocked over a couple of apparently wild cattle with his long rifle.
The others whistled at his markmanship, for the range had been quite considerable. While other men were butchering the meat and loading the pack burros they had brought, the doctor demonstrated the workings of the rifle to Moyse and Dessalines. The gun was something of a rarity here, having been imported from the North American Republic.
That night there was feasting and celebration, but the next day one of those dour and taciturn Spanish herdsmen came forward with a complaint about his lost animals. There ensued a very unpleasant hour during which it appeared that fighting might break out between the Spanish and black soldiers, for the latter were not at all inclined to suffer any punishment or reprimand from whites. In the end the affair was smoothed over for a promise of money, and everyone (the doctor especially) breathed easily again.
Three more days of heat, dust, tedium and dried beef. On the fourth morning, when the doctor visited Toussaint’s house for his usual coffee, he found that the former guard had been replaced by a somewhat larger number of Spaniards. No one was allowed to enter; Toussaint was, inexplicably, under house arrest. When the doctor protested and tried to ask an explanation, he was escorted to the end of the block at the point of a bayonet.
He went immediately to d’Hermonas’s quarters, where he learned that the marquis had been replaced in his post and indeed had already left the town, by all accounts somewhat unwillingly. In his stead appeared one Don Cabrera, who received Doctor Hébert calmly, no more than a little coolly. Cabrera could not say why Toussaint had been confined, nor why d’Hermonas had been ordered elsewhere. For such information it would be necessary to apply to Captain-General Don Joaquín García y Moreno, who had given the orders. The Spanish general’s whereabouts were not precisely known, though most probably he was now en route to San Miguel from Santo Domingo City.
“Can you doubt Toussaint’s fidelity to the Spanish throne and cause?” The doctor put the question bluntly, though conscious that his phrasing hardly committed him to a definite belief on that subject.
“Perhaps I have been less impressed with the fervency of his devotions than was the Marquis d’Hermonas,” Cabrera said. He smiled thinly and rearranged some papers on his table. Upside down, at the foot of a letter, the doctor thought he could make out the name of Biassou.
“There are some who contend,” Cabrera said, “that if Toussaint prays so long and loud, it is only the better to deceive those who observe him.”
The doctor opened his mouth, but nothing emerged. Cabrera looked at him expectantly.
“I have known this man since the first insurrection in the north of Saint Domingue,” the doctor said carefully. “I would put my life in his hands with no hesitation. Indeed I can attest that he has already saved it more than once.”
Cabrera nodded, but said nothing. He reached for his pen and glanced at the door. The interview was at an end.
Doctor Hébert found the junior black officers arguing in their encampment at the edge of town. Dessalines was for sacking San Miguel immediately, or at least for forcing entry to the house so as to liberate Toussaint and his family from this unjustified detention. Moyse seemed half persuaded to this course, while Belair and Maurepas were counseling restraint.
“Doucement,” the doctor said. “Let us go softly, gentlemen, and bide our time a little.”
Dessalines looked at him directly, which was rare; the doctor felt the pressure of his eyes like two palms shoving him smoothly backward. He forced himself to hold the gaze.
“In such a case, I ask myself,” the doctor said, “what would Toussaint himself do?”
“Nothing,” Dessalines said, snorting as he broke the stare. He shifted his weight and looked down at the blanket where he sat.
“Nothing,” the doctor repeated. His eyes ran round the faces of the others. He was not in the confidence of these men, and he felt an uncomfortable thrill at the nakedness of the idea between them.
“Watch,” Moyse said, “and wait.”
Thus it was agreed among the four black officers to await developments, and the arrival of Don García, at least for one more day. The doctor found himself returning toward the town center, in the company of Maurepas—a more comfortable companion, certainly, than Dessalines or even than Moyse. His own question whined in his ears: What would Toussaint himself do? What did Toussaint mean to do? It struck him that since they’d left Ennery he had not been much in Toussaint’s confidence either.
“No one knows for certain,” Maurepas said, quite as if he’d asked out loud, “and so it is with Biassou, and Jean-François as well. They fear Toussaint because he is becoming stronger, and because he has blanc officers among us, and other blancs like you, and because his understanding with white people was very close before the rising. You have seen men come from Biassou and Jean-François to join with us instead.” Maurepas smiled thoughtfully. “Because things are better ordered with Toussaint—one’s life may be harder but it is more sure. I think that Biassou has sent a pwen upon Don García and Don Cabrera, to poison their minds against Toussaint.”
The doctor stopped in his tracks. “I did not know you were enrolled in such superstition,” he said.
“It is Biassou who works in that way,” Maurepas said, “and my opinion does not matter. Besides, a pwen may be sent as a letter or a message, nothing more—and something has worked on the head of Don Cabrera, at least, for this is what we see.”
The doctor fell into silence, stroking his short beard to a point as they continued strolling in the general direction of the town’s central square. When they turned the next corner, he was fairly astonished to encounter Suzanne, walking toward the market with a basket on her arm and holding the hand of her youngest, Saint-Jean. In his surprise he glanced at Maurepas, but the black officer was no longer there.
Suzanne was flanked by two Spanish soldiers, but they did not prevent the doctor from approaching her, although they did stand near enough to overhear their conversation. On the assumption that they understood both French and Creole, it was out of the question to speak freely. While exchanging banalities with Suzanne, the doctor felt a small hand tugging his trouser leg. He stooped and lifted Saint-Jean into his arms and kissed his cheeks. The boy’s fingers brushed his palm, and the doctor closed his hand over a sort of paper bullet, which he put discreetly into his trouser pocket.
As soon as he had turned the next corner, he unballed the paper. Toussaint’s crooked writing and phonetic spellings were instantly recognizable—as was his subtlety of mind. A shadow fell on the paper as he examined it; Maurepas had reappeared, or perhaps simply cast off the cloak of invisibility he had somehow assumed. He and the doctor exchanged a furtive smile and began walking briskly back toward the black encampment.
The letter, addressed to Don García, was part protest, part apology, part self-justification, and part assault on potential enemies. An apparently general thrust went straight to the heart of Biassou, for instance. But all the while Toussaint sustained a tone of humble, bemused, yet honorable simplicity.
At camp, the doctor found his own writing instruments and made a fair copy of the letter, correcting the spelling but leaving the style and argument intact. As a flourish, he managed a passable forgery of Toussaint’s signature, complete with the customary three dots closed within the extravagant curlicue of the last letter. He was just wondering where to send the missive when word came that Don García had in fact arrived at San Miguel.
All through the following day, the Spanish general took no apparent action, either on Toussaint’s letter or on any other arguments which might have been addressed to him. Toussaint’s men fretted, while their leader remained incommunicado, and the tension grew. The next afternoon, Don García rendered himself to the house where Toussaint was detained and stayed there for nearly four hours. That evening the Spanish guard was lifted and Toussaint’s officers went in to him, the doctor among them. In a clipped and neutral tone, Toussaint let them know that the following day they would return to the campaign in the French colony, on Don García’s order—immediately following morning mass.
Only Maurepas and Charles Belair accompanied Toussaint to services next day. Suzanne and the children were nowhere in sight. When Toussaint uncovered as he entered the church, the doctor was slightly surprised to see that a blood-red mouchwa têt replaced the yellow madras headcloth he ordinarily always wore. Toussaint prayed more efficiently than usual, and in a lower, harsher tone, his thumb snapping the beads of his rosary as if he were filing protests before God.
As soon as he had taken communion, he beckoned to the others and stalked out of the church. Dessalines was waiting in the square, at the head of perhaps seventy of the original hundred horsemen. Guiaou tossed the reins of the brown gelding to the doctor, who hurried to mount, seeing that Toussaint was already in the saddle, wheeling his horse. A few Spanish foot soldiers came on the run, calling in unintelligibly accented French. One snatched at the bridle of Dessalines’s horse, but Dessalines knocked the arm down with the flat of his sword. Then they were leaving the town at full gallop.
All through the morning they rode hard, as fast as they could go without overheating the horses. There was no pursuit, or reason for any—Toussaint was following Don García’s order, however brusque his departure had been. The reason for their haste became more apparent when they overtook the rest of the cavalry at the opening of the first mountain pass on the plateau’s edge. Suzanne and the boys were among that group, just climbing out of the Spanish gift carriage.
While the older boys were mounting on burros, several of Toussaint’s men quickly unpinned the wheels of the coach and laid them in the closed interior. Suzanne rode the blue mule sidesaddle like a market woman, her forward knee hitched high; she smiled and flicked up the mule on the withers with a foot-long stick she held in her right hand. Saint-Jean rode pillion with Toussaint. Eight of the men dismounted and lifted the carriage by its axles and singletree, and carried it into the mountains at a trot that equaled the pace of the horses.
From Port-de-Paix toward the end of the western peninsula, the road wound high on the rim of scrubby hills above the ocean. Dark water foamed and sucked at the rocks below, and there was a steady, salty wind from the north, which had trained all the trees to grow leaning backward, twisting and stooping over the slopes. Still in mufti, Captain Maillart rode westward, leading his small party at a brisk trot. In time his hair grew sticky, clumped by the salt wind. He was second in the short column, following a black soldier named Charlot whom Laveaux had sent out with them as a guide.
The road was a dry, hard surface of bedrock overlain with pale dust and pea gravel. Presently Maillart’s horse picked up a stone in his hoof and went slightly lame. The captain dismounted and picked the pebble loose from the tender frog, while one of the black soldiers held the horse and another supported the injured hoof. He walked the animal for twenty minutes, then mounted and rode on as before.
By now the island of Tortuga had dropped out of sight behind the gentle curve of the coast. In the late afternoon a drift of cloud blowing in from the ocean began to grow thicker and darker till it covered the sky, and the seawater itself changed from royal blue to an oily black. The wind twisted and whipped, raising the salt-stiffened locks of the captain’s hair and teasing at the mane of his horse. But before the actual downpour began, they had reached the village of Jean Rabel.
The town was tiny, consisting of a mere two streets converging on a square parade ground before a small wooden church. The French tricolor flew from a pole at the center of the square, and as Maillart’s party rode in, two black men dressed in tattered French uniform trousers had begun striking the flag against the coming rain. The captain was pleased to see the colors; they were now very near to the English bastion at Môle Saint Nicolas, and he hadn’t been completely certain that the sphere of French influence still extended this far. Meanwhile, the wind was lifting coils of dust from the ground and the air grew more heavy and damp at every moment. Charlot parlayed with the two men as they detached the flag from the lanyards and began respectfully folding it. The captain, half stunned from the day’s ride, paid small attention to their conversation, though he noticed that Charlot’s gestures became broader and more expressive when the rain began in earnest. Maillart was caked with sweat and salt and dust from the road and was almost grateful to be bathed in rain, though he knew a drenching was dangerous, in his state, and could very well lead to fever. But before he was quite soaked to the skin, Charlot concluded an arrangement and one of the flag bearers quickly led them to a warehouse on the edge of town where they might shelter.
The warehouse was a sizable barnlike structure, at the border of the town proper with the land of Habitation Foache. In former times it had been used to store the indigo for which the region of Jean Rabel was noted, but now there was nothing here but a few dozen baskets of coffee beans, still in their red hulls. The men and horses came in together; there was plenty of room for both. Rain swept over the thatched roof with a regular hissing, sizzling sound. In one corner the thatch had rotted through, admitting a silver stream of rainwater and a shaft of rain-streaked daylight. After a moment of hesitation, Maillart stripped off his wet shirt and went over and washed his face and torso under the waterfall, then cupped his hands to take a drink. The black men laughed quietly among themselves, then followed his example.
Maillart tethered his horse to a hook in the wall, unsaddled the animal and dried the leather with a blanket he kept in his saddlebag. He wrapped himself in the blanket and lay down, resting his head on the saddle, half dozing as he listened to the rain and the drone of Creole conversation among the other men. Without knowing it, he must have gone to sleep entirely, for suddenly he woke, shivering a little, aware that the rain had stopped and night had fallen.
The warehouse was empty now except for the horses, but he heard the voices of the men beyond the door, and there was also a cooking smell. Maillart hung up his civilian clothes on the square nails and hooks that studded the walls, to dry as best they might. He put on his French uniform and stepped outside.
His party had grouped around an open fire, covered by an iron stewpot which an old black woman was stirring with a wooden spoon two feet long. They had been joined by a black man who wore the ragged tunic of a French lieutenant, a bandolier but no trousers—apparently a true sans-culotte. At the sight of Maillart, he drew himself up and saluted.
This was the officer who commanded on behalf of the French Republicans in the region of Jean Rabel. In the course of the conversation, Captain Maillart was able to learn that this tattered lieutenant had at his theoretical disposal as many as two hundred men, but that the great majority of these were lately liberated slaves of the region who came and went very much as they pleased, who had no regular military training and whose performance (and attendance) at battles was far from reliable. Meanwhile the English were very well established at Môle Saint Nicolas. The lieutenant had word that they had lately been reinforced from the sea, and that they had mounted an expedition whose result he did not know against Bombarde, another small French post on the south side of the peninsula. Were the English to march on Jean Rabel, the lieutenant could not predict an outcome; he had no more than forty well-trained and reliable men to count on, although, if God so willed, he might compose a force of two hundred fighters of some description.
The captain mused silently on this situation: the French position in the northwest was still more precarious than he’d known for certain . . . and perhaps collapsing, if Bombarde had been lost. The Spanish line came down to the coast at Borgne, which cut off Laveaux, at Port-de-Paix, from the land route east to Le Cap . . . though given what the captain had seen at Le Cap, it seemed unlikely that Laveaux could expect much support from that direction anyway. But the Spanish held Borgne thanks to Toussaint and his men, so if the black general did switch his allegiance, the military map would be quite significantly altered. Maillart carried this thought with him to the woven mat on which he passed that night.
From Jean Rabel they rode along the cliff edge high above the crashing water: the Côte de Fer, where the sea was always high and rough and the rocks lethal to shipping—no vessel could attempt a landing here. But on the shoal of Port d’Écu, a long, sheer drop below, there was a natural salt pan whose crystals shone like diamonds in the rising sun as they passed. Because of the sea wind and the early hour of their leaving, it was cool for the first hours, but by the time they had come down to the Bay Moustique onto the flat, arid plain that ran to the peninsula’s furthest tip, the sun was high and scorching and the steady wind off the ocean only seemed to parch them, as it parched the land. All around the country was dry and barren but for desert scrub: prickly pear, raquette trees and nopal cactus.
A mile or two outside the town of Le Môle they fell in with a train of donkeys led by blacks bringing water in from farther up the river. Maillart negotiated a drink for himself and his company, and when they had all quenched their thirst, he dumped the remains of the gourd over his sweat-streaked hair and face, and went on considerably refreshed. In another few minutes they had an overview of the large, deep harbor of Le Môle, where several warships rode at anchor, flying the Union Jack.
They followed the water sellers to the square of the town. The principal street was divided by a small, shallow canal of fresh-looking water running down its middle—indeed each side street was similarly irrigated, so that Maillart wondered at the need for hauling in more water. Perhaps what flowed in those rivulets was not fit to drink, but the sound and sight of the rippling made the town seem cooler and gave the streets a certain charm. There were plenty of people abroad in the streets, blacks and mulattoes and more than a few whites going about their business as usual, and no one seemed especially astonished at the arrival of Maillart and his party.
They rode to the central square, which was bordered on three sides by wild fig trees, in plantings that ran to the steps of the church. Maillart asked a loitering British redcoat where he might find the quarters of the Dillon regiment. The soldier directed him to the barracks at the upper end of the town.
The original French casernes were at a slight elevation above the civilian residences. Recently some wooden buildings had been put up, and these now housed recently arrived British troops. When Maillart inquired for the Dillon regiment, he got only a look of bewilderment, but when he asked for Major O’Farrel, someone volunteered to let that officer know that he was wanted.
Maillart waited, alone with his horse in the dense cool shade of another wild fig; he had left his men to scare up lodgings lower in the town. The casernes were well situated, he thought—there was a pleasant view and the elevation would be advantageous for the health of the troops billeted here. Presently O’Farrel appeared in the gateway, looking this way and that. Maillart did not instantly recognize him in his British scarlet, for he had known him in French colors, at Le Cap two years before. Moreover, O’Farrel’s hairline seemed higher on his head than previously, his sandy mustache rather more speckled with gray. His eyes crossed Maillart with no hint of recognition and went on searching, elsewhere, until Maillart called out his name and stepped toward him, hesitantly holding out his hand.
“I didn’t know you,” the major said, twisting one end of his mustache, over a smile that might have been a little too ironic for politeness. His cool eye rapidly scanned Maillart’s civilian attire.
“Some say it’s the uniform makes the man,” Maillart replied, and watched to see if O’Farrel would flush in his red coat. But the other returned his gaze, his pale eyes level, and unreadable. At Le Cap they had once come near to quarreling, over a woman, but one or the other or both of them had found enough forbearance that they had not come to blows. The memory of that woman softened Maillart now, and O’Farrel relaxed and smiled and invited him in.
The major’s apartment was a good one—in general the officer’s quarters at Le Môle were good. However, to Maillart’s surprise, it was not O’Farrel who commanded the post.
“But I thought—” the captain said. “I had heard it was you who surrendered Le Môle to the British, at the head of the Dillon regiment.”
“As to that you have been misinformed,” O’Farrel told him. “The capitulation was arranged by Colonel Deneux, your own superior, might I say?” Again the smile seemed supercilious; Maillart steeled himself not to take offense.
“The ranking British officer here is Major Grant,” O’Farrel said. “And for the moment I am serving mostly as his aide-de-camp, for the Dillon regiment is effectively no more.”
“Ah.” O’Farrel glanced out the window to the yard, where a British sergeant had faced off with a balky mule. “I regret to say that some seventy of my men deserted, once the British flag was raised here. The remnant has just lately been sent down to Saint Marc . . .”
O’Farrel scratched the back of his head. “Presumably to the Jacobins, you know.”
“But I have just come from General Laveaux at Port-de-Paix,” the captain said. “There was no one of the Dillon regiment there—not the hair of a single Irishman.”
O’Farrel failed to smile at this quip. His eyes narrowed. “From Laveaux, you say?”
“I’ll tell the tale, if you’ve time for it.” Maillart composed himself as the major tilted back his chair against the wall. “When news came that the King was guillotined in France, I left Le Cap. To put it plainly, I deserted—well, I had been greatly disillusioned—”
O’Farrel nodded. “Of course. Go on.”
“I offered my sword to the Spanish crown and was accepted by the Spanish army at Santo Domingo—I am hardly the sole French officer in such a case, you understand. But in this way I came under the command of General Toussaint Louverture.”
“I’ve heard that name, or something like it,” O’Farrel said. “Tusan? Wasn’t it he who spoiled the capitulation to the British at Gonaives? One of those jumped-up niggers in Spanish uniform . . .”
Maillart looked at the ceiling briefly. “Toussaint commands not only at Gonaives but all the way back along the Cordon de l’Ouest through the mountains as far as the Spanish frontier. Perhaps farther. He has four thousand men at his command and he seems to have the intention of putting them all at the disposal of Governor-General Laveaux.”
“You mean . . .”
“I mean to tell you that the wind blows in that quarter now. General Laveaux has accepted my return to the fold. It’s not improbable that he might do the same for—”
O’Farrel’s front chair legs clacked down on the floor. He stiffened and raised a rigid palm. “Please, no more. There is no question. You understand, even if I wished it—I am not in command here, nor in particularly good odor, regarding the desertion of so many of my troops . . . wherever they may have got to. Major Grant would certainly hear nothing of it—I tell you, you only endanger yourself by speaking so. And Colonel Deneux is a royalist, convinced to the core—”
Maillart looked out the window. In the yard, the sergeant was still shouting at the mule, which squatted on its hindquarters. The sergeant began beating it about the muzzle with a short, slim cane of green bamboo.
“No,” said O’Farrel, more reflectively, “I’ll leave my lot where I’ve cast it. No nigger general however talented can stand against British troops in the field—or French troops either, I speak without prejudice! But you surprise me, Maillart—by your own account you’re a royalist yourself.”
“I—well, to begin, I always had a respect for Laveaux, and a liking to boot.”
“And I also, to the small extent I knew him.”
“And at bottom I suppose I am a Frenchman first, before . . .” Maillart grunted. The picture of himself emerging from the warehouse with a shovel of horse manure entered his mind. “Au diable. I don’t suppose I know what I am anymore. I find this country damnably confusing.”
There was a louder shout from the yard, and a thump of solid impact. Both men stood and moved nearer the window. Outside the sergeant was doubled over with his hands clasping his midsection, while the mule wheeled free, trailing its lead rope, rolling its eyes malevolently.
“After all, you look like you’ve been through the wars.” O’Farrel looked at Maillart with a certain sympathy.
“At least I recognize myself as a soldier still,” Maillart said. “I am expected to go through wars.”
O’Farrel laughed and clapped him on the back. “But you must come to dinner, at least.” He gave the captain the address of a house in the town.
A little after seven in the evening, as the light shaded orange over the sea and the windward passage, Maillart stood with Major O’Farrel in the garden of a small stone house on the Grande Rue. Earlier in the afternoon he had gone to bathe in the river, and afterward changed into his last clean shirt, carefully conserved for such an occasion: a loose blouse of natural-colored, nubby cotton, the sort of thing worn by planters up the country, or by Xavier Tocquet. Maillart wondered passingly where Tocquet might have got to by this time. When he glanced down at his own sleeve, he realized that he was growing accustomed to seeing himself without the cloth or insignia of anyone else’s army. Perhaps in the end he would be content to become the soldier of his own fortune . . .
A black servant appeared, to offer them glasses of rum from a tray, and when they had accepted told them that their host expected to join them shortly. Maillart sipped and turned to admire the garden, lush with hibiscus and bougainvillea and peculiar orchids he had never seen before. Water had been brought into the enclosure from the canal in the street and branched to irrigate all the plantings and to fill both a small pool covered with water lilies and a larger basin with steps leading into it, large enough to fit two men.
“Monsieur Monot is an Acadian, did you know?” O’Farrel asked. “There were a great many who came here thirty years ago, after the English had expelled them from Acadia. But as you see the land is next to worthless here, never mind the merits of the harbor, and the climate did not much agree with them after the cold of North America. Most have gone to Louisiana now, even Monot’s own sons, but he has stayed and, as you see, not done so badly for himself. But here he is.”
A little man came out of the house, bald, stooped but spry, dressed in an antique manner. He took Maillart’s hand and greeted him, smiling. His eyes were pale blue, under bushy shelf-like eyebrows, with long hairs dangling at the corners like the ends of a mustache. When the servant offered the tray, Monot declined the rum in favor of a glass of grapefruit juice.
Maillart complimented him on the garden and the cunning fashion of its irrigation.
“Yes,” said Monot, with enthusiasm. “And you see, the water runs from this basin here”—he indicated the bathing pool—“and out the back, but come and I’ll show you.”
They followed the rivulet of water through a gate to the kitchen garden at the rear of the house. Here Monot or his minions produced potatoes, peas, herbs, “even haricots verts,” as the host declared with some pride.
“Tout pousse,” Monot said, a glitter in his eye. “Everything grows, and marvelously, once one brings water to it.” The artichokes of the locality, he went on, were perfectly delectable . . .
They returned through the arched gateway to the flower garden. A couple was just coming out of the house: a small dark-haired woman on the arm of a stocky man.
“Ma belle.” M. Monot straightened perceptibly and spread his arms wide for an embrace. He moved forward, obscuring Maillart’s view, so that he could not see the woman’s face until she had accepted Monot’s kisses and detached herself. His heart tumbled. She was clothed more modestly than he had known her, in a striped silk dress with a cloud of muslin covering her bosom. Tiny, bright and active as a hummingbird, she was Isabelle Cigny.
The captain bowed, profoundly and extensively, holding his abased posture while the blood rushed to his head. When he straightened, he felt he had at least partially recovered himself.
“Mais quelle surprise!” Isabelle said cheerily. She stepped toward him and clasped both his hands. A tension in her elbows discouraged him from coming closer. Maillart remembered the surprising wiriness of her body, which he had in former times traveled inch by inch.
“The surprise is entirely mine,” he said, and glanced at O’Farrel, who grinned and quickly turned to look out over the garden wall. It was truly bizarre that he should discover both of them here in this remote corner of the colony after so long, so strange he was moved to wonder if it could be a coincidence. It was Isabelle who had inspired his difference with O’Farrel at Le Cap. Maillart felt a thrust of the old jealousy as he let go of her hands and turned to greet her husband.
“Mon grand plaisir.” Cigny spoke with no obvious irony in his tone. His manner of dealing with his wife’s suspected lovers had always been opaque. Maillart studied him, sidelong; in former times Cigny had sported a heavy black beard, but now he was clean-shaven, an operation which left his broad face jowly.
“But what happenstance has brought you here?” Maillart said.
“Blown off course,” Cigny replied tersely.
Isabelle smiled and dimpled. “We spent a wretched time in the North American Republic, you know, for we had sailed with the fleet of Governor-General Galbaud, when Le Cap was burned and looted by the brigands . . .”
“So I had heard,” the captain said.
“We stayed for some little time in Baltimore, then Philadelphia . . .” Isabelle made a pretty flutter of her hands. “But when we got word of l’appel aux Anglais, we decided to return here and seek to repair our fortunes—under the standard of our British allies.”
“God save the King,” Cigny said glumly. “In fact we had meant to land at Saint Marc, but the captain of our ship seems to have exaggerated his abilities.”
“Ship, he says!” Isaballe feigned outrage. “It was rather a fisherman’s coracle. Fourteen days in an open boat—I expected I should be black as an African by the time we arrived.”
Maillart looked at her face more closely. It did seem that a freckle or two had appeared on her nose. He felt a slight pulse of vertigo.
“But by great luck we have fallen among friends.” Isabelle took Major O’Farrel’s arm, drawing him into the conversation. The major twisted the end of his mustache and smiled in a fashion that slitted his eyes. Maillart’s feeling of vertigo worsened.
“And your children?” he forced himself to inquire.
Isabelle’s face shadowed momentarily; she let go the major’s arm. “I would not bring them into such a situation as we have here now,” she said. “They are at school, in Philadelphia.”
Monot, meanwhile, had been speaking softly to a servant. “Messieurs, Madame,” he announced. “Our table is served.”
At dinner they were joined by another young woman, whose name was Agathe, tall and striking, with dark eyes, a slightly aquiline nose, and long, waving black hair parted from the center of her high forehead. An admirable woman. Her lips were very full and red, but she spoke little, except in low tones to Monot himself, at whose right hand she sat, and lowered her head demurely when anyone else addressed her. Sometimes she rose and ambled with a graceful languor to consult with the kitchen between courses, but she had little to contribute to the general conversation.
They began with a plate of artichokes, which quite lived up to Monot’s description, and went on to small, deliciously sweet local lobsters. Next came a sort of bourgignon whose delicacy was crushed by the British salt beef that had apparently been used as the primary ingredient. The dish was helped by fresh peas, carrots and onions from the kitchen garden . . . but in any case Maillart had already eaten more than he’d lately been accustomed to. He could not finish all his beef, and only picked at the fruit which followed it.
The food was praised, over Monot’s demurrals, and the problems of servants were discussed. Le Môle had never been heavily populated with slaves (for the surrounding land would not support large plantations). A party of some three hundred slaves had been brought in to construct the houses of the whites, and many of these had afterward lived in a river gorge beyond the boundary of the town proper. These persons had been liberated, in principle, by the emancipation proclamation of Commissioner Sonthonax, then subsequently reenslaved, in principle, following the arrival of the British here. The extent to which they were influenced by either principle was not precisely known. Some of them still reported for work, while others had certainly disappeared during all the troubles.
Thus the conversations turned to the troubles themselves, to the military situation and to the hopes and interests of the Cignys in particular. Maillart fell silent, but pricked up his ears. By virtue of his marriage to Isabelle, Cigny had become master of two prosperous sugar plantations, one on the great northern plain east of Le Cap and the other in the region of the Artibonite, farther south. For the nonce, the Plaine du Nord was thought to be completely out of the question—for all the company appeared to believe that that area was firmly under republican control from Jean Rabel east to the Spanish border—and perhaps it would be, Maillart thought privately, if Toussaint did change sides. Present company believed that Laveaux’s position at Port-de-Paix was much stronger than was in fact the case. At this juncture, the captain’s private knowledge began to make him uneasy, for he saw that O’Farrel was looking at him narrowly from the opposite chair at the table; Maillart shifted position slightly, so that a candlestick blocked the view.
Meanwhile (the discussion proceeded) the British were firmly in position at Saint Marc, and in the southerly direction they were soon expected to take Port-au-Prince if they had not already done so—but north of Saint Marc, where Cigny’s Artibonite holdings lay, their advance was impeded by the Spanish at Gonaives—under command of “Tusan,” as he was called here. It occurred to Maillart that Cigny, given these accidents of military disposition, might have thrown in with the wrong foreign power so far as his personal ends were concerned, and perhaps Cigny himself was of the same opinion, for he became increasingly plaintive (the more he drank), demanding that O’Farrel explain why more British troops had not been fielded. “Thirty thousand men would wipe this rebellion out in two weeks,” he proclaimed.
“Thirty thousand men is far from a trifle,” O’Farrel said.
But Isabelle broke off a low-voiced conversation with Agathe, and went to work soothing her husband and smoothing O’Farrel. Cigny, she suggested, had suffered an episode of heat prostration during the day (exacerbated by drinking, the captain thought, if it had existed at all). On this pretext, Isabelle and her husband retired, for they were staying at the Monot house. It was soon determined that Maillart would do the same. His host would by no means permit him to bunk with his Negroes that night, or any other night that he was at Le Môle . . .
As the servants cleared the table, Maillart found himself sharing a final glass of rum with O’Farrel in the garden; Monot had also excused himself, advising his guests to make themselves free. A crescent moon hung over the wall, and the smell of the flowers was sweet.
“And the girl?” Maillart asked, breaking a brief silence. “I couldn’t make her out. A daughter? A wife of his old age?”
O’Farrel chuckled in the darkness. The dim moonlight left his face in shadow. “No, she is rather his ‘housekeeper’—as they put it here. She manages the servants and the kitchen—I think you’ll give her credit for being an excellent cook. In point of view of her bloodlines, she is a mamélouque, but no child of Monot, I shouldn’t think.”
“I had taken her for white,” Maillart said.
“For that you might be forgiven. Though if you think more carefully—have you ever seen a white woman move like that?” O’Farrel seemed to sigh in the darkness. “As for her other talents and duties—well, I believe the good Monsieur Monot is incapable, owing to his years.”
Maillart could not see the wink, but felt the major must be winking as he went on, “If you have the luck to taste her sweetness, I can only wish you joy.”
The captain’s room was pleasantly appointed, his bed comfortable enough, the air fresh once he opened the French doors letting on to an iron balcony common to all the bedrooms on the front of the second floor of the house. Along with the cool night air, the braying of the water sellers’ donkeys entered the room—it was said the blacks of the town claimed that the donkeys knew the time and reported on the hours.
Maybe it was the intermittent braying that kept the captain awake, or maybe it was the cascade of images of Isabelle, himself with Isabelle: the spiciness of sexual memory stinging like salt on abraded skin. A quick parting of their clothing here and there, flashes of pale thigh or breast, her deeper, rosier openings. He had known her in her own house in Le Cap, where they had carried on in heat and haste, improvising against the chance of discovery by her husband or the servants or even her other swains. He had never seen her wholly naked—no opportunity for such luxury. But though he was astonished by her boldness, they had never been caught outright. It was perhaps her boldness that protected them—she seemed to have no more conscience than a stoat, and could, five minutes following an act of illicit passion, be coolly pouring coffee for her husband in the parlor . . .
He felt certain she must come to him tonight. He tumbled restlessly in the bed; the donkeys brayed and the hours passed, but she did not come. Nor could he sleep. At last he went out on the balcony, his bare toes curling on the cold iron, but all the other French doors were shut and latched and bolted, except the last pair, slightly ajar. When Maillart delicately coaxed the near door open with a finger, it uttered a hideous rusty squeal, and inside Agathe sat bolt upright in bed, sheet clasped to her breast with one hand that rose and fell dramatically. She stared at him, her full lips parted, but made no sound or sign. With that bone trimming of the moon behind him, Maillart knew he was only a shadow to her, she could not see his face. For a long moment he hesitated on the threshold, but at last he returned to his own room, where he slept fitfully, and woke late in the morning with a heavy head.
Maillart took coffee in the garden (alone, for it seemed that Monsieur Monot had gone out on some errand) and ate an omelet slowly, hoping for a glimpse of Isabelle, who did not appear. In spite of the still, arid heat, he called for his horse and rode to the barracks on the hill, thinking to renew his approach to O’Farrel. He had not yet made it clear to the major just what Toussaint’s presence on the scene might signify—and had their positions been reversed, Maillart knew that he would have had difficulty grasping this point himself.
He sent in his name at the gate of the casernes, and waited under the same wild fig tree as before. The shade was not adequate now against the noonday heat. Beyond the town and the peninsula’s tip, the sea was a flat, turquoise pancake, motionless; there was no wind. After half an hour, when no one had come, Maillart got up and walked in through the gate, fanning himself with his hat. No one challenged him. The British soldiers in the barracks yard seemed disoriented, stunned by the heat. They were not acclimated and many, no doubt, were beginning to fall ill . . . Sweating in their red woollen coats, they stank like wet sheep.
Maillart climbed to O’Farrel’s apartment, knocked and waited, but there was no answer. Perhaps the major was at table. Maillart went back down and crossed the yard diagonally toward a building that looked promising, opposite the main gate. A British corporal shouted to him that a horse needed shoeing on the other side of the square. Maillart started, bristled a bit, then went on with an inward smile. Another effect of his civilian garb.
In the stone hallway the heat seemed somewhat less crushing. Maillart put his head in one door and another, looking for an officers’ mess. What he found instead was perhaps the commander’s council room; at any rate a map of the colony was spread out on a table. Maillart strolled over and glanced down at the map, then leaned closer, bracing his knuckles on the table’s edge. The disposition of forces was marked out with colored pins: red for the English, blue for the French, green for the Spanish . . . On the northwestern peninsula, Le Môle was a prick of red in a forest of blue. The British were isolated here, except by sea, commanding nothing but the town and its harbor.
Maillart shot upright and turned to face a redcoat major in the doorway; balding, mustachioed, and florid either from the heat or irritation.
“Your pardon—I was looking for Major O’Farrel.”
“You will not find him here today—he has gone out to Fort Villarie. You are?”
Maillart bowed and stated his name.
“Your business with Major O’Farrel?”
“I—we were acquainted sometime ago. When the major served at Le Cap.” Maillart felt his whole face breaking out in pustules of sweat; trickles ran down from his armpits over his ribs.
“Served the Carmagnoles, you mean, your revolutionary rabble?”
“No! Far from it, uh . . .” Maillart closed his fingers loosely against sweaty palms. “No, he took the other part . . .”
The British major stared, then closed his eyes and covered them with his hands for a moment, as if his head pained him terribly. Then he snatched his head upright and shouted, “Winston!”
A sweating guard snapped to attention in the hallway.
“Show this gentleman to the gate.”
“Yes, Major Grant!”
The major pointed a forefinger at Maillart. “You, sir, have yourself properly announced if you come here again.”
“Of course,” Maillart said. “I’ll remember that.”
“See that you do.” Major Grant stamped down the hall.
When he returned to the Monot house, Maillart was sweat-soaked and dizzy from the heat and his own self-disgust. In his bedroom he took off his drenched shirt and sniffed it. True, the sweat of fear had a worse stench than the ordinary. It was the falsity of his position—but this reasoning did little to repair his self-respect.
As best he could determine, the house was still empty except for a couple of servants padding barefoot in the halls. Maillart went down into the garden, hesitated a moment, then shucked off his trousers and lowered himself into the bathing pool. The water was just cooler than tepid and felt very pleasant to his skin. He inhaled and slid completely under, on his back, holding his breath and looking up through the water at the wavery blue of the sky, green smudges of leaves on an orange tree over the pool, fallen leaves and their shadows floating on the surface. His head began to pound, his lungs to burn, and finally he sat up, spouting and shaking his head, then leaned back and rested his elbows on the tiles that flanked the pool. The dizziness passed and he felt much better.
The house door opened just as he had begun to think of calling for a drink but, instead of a servant, Agathe appeared, clothed in a loose white shift belted at the waist, that hung to her bare feet. She looked at him indifferently, as if he were a plant, as she passed toward a table between the lily pool and the garden gate. Maillart noticed that several of her toes were adorned with fine gold rings. O’Farrel had been correct, he thought, as his eyes tracked the flow of her hips underneath the thin cotton. Agathe sat at the table and opened a book and a Chinese fan, spreading her hand over the pages and fanning herself slowly, in profile to him, looking at the flowering vines that hung down over the garden wall. Maillart wondered if she had recognized him after all, last night on the balcony, and what she had thought, and what she might think, tonight, if . . . He felt himself begin to stir, beneath the water.
The house door clacked again, and Maillart lazily turned his head. Isabelle was crossing the garden, more casually dressed than yesterday, in a red-and-blue cotton dress of faux peasant fashion, with a straight skirt and tightly laced bodice. She called out something to Agathe, who responded with a smile and a torpid nod, then noticed Maillart with an exaggerated reaction of surprise.
“So . . . you seem to have found your relief from the heat.” She kicked off her shoes and settled herself on the tiles by the pool, drawing her bare feet up behind her.
“For a moment, yes,” Maillart said. “But at the sight of you I am all at once in a fever again.”
Isabelle stretched out opposite him, propping herself on an elbow. “Such gallantry.” She inclined her head to look into the water, so shallow, Maillart now realized, that it afforded him little privacy.
“Almost rampant gallantry, one might say . . .”
Maillart colored. He would have liked to say something extremely witty, but a swelling in his throat hindered him, and besides no suitable bon mot came to his mind. Isabelle lowered her hand into the water, just to her wrist, and made a whirling motion with her fingers—she had not actually touched him, but Maillart felt his natural part swirl into the current she created. He closed his eyes, then opened them as a droplet of water broke on his forehead. Isabelle hovered over him with her wet hand drooping in the gesture of a sorceress.
“I baptise you, in the name of . . . what name shall it be?”
She flicked more water into his face. Maillart shouted, shifted his position and made as if to splash her with his palm. Isabelle scrambled to her feet and took a step backward from the pool.
“I should like to ride out to le môle, itself, the breakwater.” She pouted. “But I don’t like to go alone.”
“At your service.” Maillart began to stand up from the pool, then caught himself. Coyly, Isabelle turned her back and allowed him to retrieve his trousers.
The wind had come up by the time they left, so that it was considerably cooler. Isabelle rode gracefully, sidesaddle on a small gray mare, her skill somewhat surprising Maillart, who had never been riding with her before. They talked of negligible matters as they crossed the town, sometimes interrupted by pedestrians who greeted Isabelle, but once they rode out onto the peninsula they were alone. Le môle itself was a natural breakwater, a narrow spit of stone which sheltered the north side of the bay from the open ocean. Now they rode in silence, except for horseshoes clanging on the stone—the whole surface was black volcanic bedrock, where only a few lichens grew. To their left, the sun lowered on the bay, whose calm surface became a burning plate of gold. On the opposite northern side, tall dark waves rushed against a ten-foot cliff. Out here the wind was stiff indeed, and Maillart pulled his hat low over his eyes so as not to lose it. Isabelle also wore a large floppybrimmed hat, secured under her chin with a scarf.
At the peninsula’s western extremity, Maillart helped Isabelle down from her horse, then slipped the reins under the stirrups. They clambered over the bayside rocks, Maillart lending a hand as necessary, finally swinging her down to the meager beach. Down here, the rocks behind them partially broke the wind. Isabelle let go his hands and took a pace away from him, shading her eyes with hand and hatbrim as she gazed westward into the reddening sunset. Maillart looked in the opposite direction, toward the town, miniaturized by distance and very pretty in the tempered evening light.
Isabelle removed her hat and held it high so that it caught the wind and fluttered, with a whipping sound. She smiled teasingly at Maillart, then let the hat go. He lunged for it hopelessly, and fell to his knees on the sand, as the hat blew out and landed on the bay, floating with the scarf unwinding in the water. He scrambled to his feet, turning to Isabelle, who laughed and threw back her head, her hair blowing loose all around her face. A thin gold chain gleamed on her collarbone. Maillart wrapped his hands around her tiny waist and kissed the white curve of her neck, then her mouth, and felt her quick tongue darting. When his hand rose to her breast she knocked it away.
“No, I don’t want it.”
Maillart pulled her to him, hand at the small of her back, and thrust once, to make her gasp—the gasp was quite well known to him, encouraging. He kissed her more deeply, inhaling her breath, as his free hand worked loose the bodice laces with a desperate ingenuity. His fingertips brushed something unexpectedly hard and cold, then burrowed toward the more familiar softness. He was trying to pull her down to the sand. Isabelle bit through his lower lip, then, as he recoiled, hit him hard on the cheekbone with her closed hand.
Maillart backed off and spat blood in the sand, touched his finger to his lip, staring at her in astonishment.
“Tu me fais mal.” Isabelle tucked her small breast back into her bodice in a businesslike manner, and fastened the laces back up to the neck. “And you’ve also broken my necklace.”
Maillart glanced down at his right hand; the ends of the gold chain unspooled from his fingers. On his palm lay a dark cylindrical object—a carved stone penis, life-sized or near.
“But what is that?!”
“Un objèt d’art, évidemment,” Isabelle snapped, “A souvenir from the time of the caciques.”
Maillart’s eyes bulged at the stone phallus. He had seen arrowheads and thunderstones and a few carved fetishes of the long-vanished Arawaks, but nothing remotely resembling this. “They worshipped these?” he asked.
“No more than you worship your own. Bah, you have destroyed the chain.”
Maillart’s back stiffened. “Allow me to have it repaired for you.”
“No, give it to me.” Isabelle took the chain, squinted, and closed the broken link with a pinch of her nails. She reached behind her neck to refasten the clasp, then thrust the pendant back into her bosom. Maillart glared as she shook out her hair.
“Ça va?” he said with an ironic lift of his eyebrows. He wiped a little blood off his chin.
Isabelle turned toward the west, where the sun was a red disk dissolving in the molten water. “You misunderstand me,” she said. “When I come here at this hour, I think of my children.”
The captain considered this for a moment. “Accept my apologies,” he said.
“But it was I who provoked you,” Isabelle said. “After all, you are only a man.”
“True,” the captain said, with an unaccustomed sense of humility. “I admit that.”
His heat had by now completely subsided, and he felt his anger fading too, leaving confusion, then a kind of calm. They stood at arm’s length from each other, until the sun had cut entirely through the surface of the water and dropped under like a coin in a slot. Behind was a wake of color streaked across ragged scraps of cloud. Seagulls crossed the red-rippled sky, crying as if the sun was something they had lost.
“We had better go in,” the captain said practically. “A horse might break a leg on these rocks in the dark.”
Isabelle nodded, speechless. The captain assisted her back to the horses. When she had mounted, she retained his hand a little longer.
“I have still a need for friendship,” she said.
“I offer whatever you will accept.”
They rode back to the town in the same silence in which they had come. The captain glanced back once to look for Isabelle’s hat, but it had either foundered or floated out of sight.
Dinner chez Monot was convivial enough—Isabelle seemed rather more animated than usual, and Maillart managed, at last, to rise to the occasion. If Monsieur Cigny suspected anything, he gave no sign of it . . . and after all, this time there was little to suspect. Maillart retired to his room, resolved to stay there, renouncing any adventures on the balcony . . . Beyond the enclosure of the house, the donkeys brayed as usual. He lay down expecting a restless night and was amazed to awaken, what seemed seconds later, to the full light of day.
Major O’Farrel was waiting for him downstairs, fingers drumming on the table. “At last,” he said, as Maillart strolled in. “Your horses are fed and watered and saddled and your men are waiting at the gate. As I believe your business here is very much concluded—”
“Doucement,” Maillart said. “I have not yet breakfasted.”
“I would not linger over the meal,” O’Farrel said, “unless you want to be hanged for a spy. Major Grant has taken very much against you—he has been making inquiries, since your visit. Were he ever so slightly less muddled, you would have been in the guardhouse since yesterday noon. You understand, I can do nothing—I have already done more than I should.”
Maillart sat down and called for coffee. The major jumped up, twitching.
“If you mean to dally after that devil of a woman,” he said, “consider if it’s worth your life. You waste your time, in any case—she has forsworn her amours to devote herself to that swinish husband, for what reason I do not comprehend. Or perhaps she is moved by some other fancy.”
Maillart burst out laughing and leaned back in his chair.
“I am delighted to have so amused you,” O’Farrel said frostily.
Maillart caught his breath. “I mean no offense,” he said. “Indeed I’m grateful for the warning.” He touched a cautious finger to the swelling on his cheekbone. “But go—before you’re compromised by being seen here. I’ll not be ten minutes behind you.”
At the edge of town Maillart took counsel with a convoy of water sellers headed for the river, and was directed to a trail barely passable by horsemen, which in theory led directly across the peninsula down to the town of Gonaives. In an hour they had reached the height of the dry mountains. Maillart pulled his horse up sharply and turned back toward Le Môle. He dismounted and, while the black men watched him gravely, took off his civilian shirt, ripped it down the middle and tried to throw it off the cliff. The wind caught the shirt and blew it loosely back so that Maillart’s horse shied and bucked. The captain choked up on the reins and calmed his animal, then turned toward the distant sea and began to shout, cursing women and politics equally, mostly in French but with some excursions into English, Spanish and Creole. When he was breathless, the black men laughed and applauded him. Maillart took his French uniform from a saddlebag and put it on, adjusted the epaulettes and pulled the seams straight. Once content with the fit of his coat, he swung back into the saddle and rode on, much relieved.
Doctor Hébert had elaborated the water project for Habitation Thibodet many times, both in imagination and in fact, but now it was finally finished in both departments. On the slope above the grand’case, a pool had drained the swamp and now fed two channels which divided around the house and then rejoined in a second pool, directly in front of the gallery where the doctor sat now, drinking his morning coffee and nibbling at a sugared piece of flat cassava bread.
The lower pool was edged with stones, laid in a ring without mortar. At its far rim, another channel took the water out, down toward the kitchen garden. The doctor thought the irrigation might reclaim the yard before the house, which had degenerated into a bare expanse of baked clay or mud, depending on the season, trampled by the feet of men and horses. He had already planted a few flowering shrubs around the pool, and four coconut palms which might one day grow tall. He closed his eyes, pictured a fountain, but that was absurd.
“It’s lovely . . .” The voice was melodic, soft, but a little teasing too. The doctor opened his eyes to greet his sister, who had just settled into the chair next to his own.
“Lovely . . .” she said again, smiling sleepily at him. “But now how will you fill your days?”
“Haven’t I enough to do?” The doctor heard the note of pique in his own voice and realized Elise was right: he would miss his pet project. “There’s the coffee and the cane,” he said more mildly. “And the infirmary, as always.”
“I rather meant some avocation,” Elise said, turning languidly to accept a cup of coffee from the maid, Zabeth. “To occupy your imagination. Something apart from ordinary work.”
“Yes,” the doctor said. “There’s a great deal of botanizing I had meant to do. . . .”
His own words echoed back at him from the damp, mist-laden air. It was strange to search for an activity to pass the time, in such a situation, when all of the colony was immersed in war of one kind or another. But ever since Toussaint’s party had returned from the Spanish side of the mountains, Habitation Thibodet had been strangely becalmed. Not for the first time, the doctor reflected that this state of affairs was unnatural and perhaps portended ill.
Between Toussaint and Biassou, the situation seemed to be worsening, and the doctor was inclined to suspect the growth of a breach between Toussaint and the Spanish high command. There had been no word from either Maillart or Tocquet on their mission to Laveaux, and though Tocquet’s mysterious vanishings were routine, the doctor thought Maillart was overdue.
“Or of course you might devote yourself to further perfection of the arts of love,” Elise seemed to be saying.
The doctor renewed his attention to her; she returned his gaze calmly, not to say brazenly, her small rose-petal lips slightly parted, her blue eyes amused. Such a conversation between them would have been unthinkable in France. For that matter, in their father’s house Elise would never have thought to appear outside her bed chamber in the extremely diaphanous garment she now wore . . . but in Saint Domingue it was all attributed to the heat. In truth, Elise had thrived here, the doctor had to admit, where many Frenchwomen died or withered or went mad. In most respects, by contrast, his sister seemed to have become a Creole.
He was the first to break their gaze, turning to look back toward the pool. “I should have liked to brick that rim,” he said. “But for the moment there’s no possibility.”
“I think the stones look well enough.” Elise’s sugar spoon clinked against her coffee cup. She cocked her head toward a child’s voice—a peal of laughter, then an indistinguishable word. “Is she—” Elise said. “No, she’s going to wake Paul.”
“But it does lack something,” the doctor said, still staring at the pool.
“A fountain,” Elise said, following his glance.
“I thought of that,” the doctor said. “But there are no means.”
“No.” Elise laughed and shook back the blond waves of her hair. “Goldfish, then.”
The doctor snorted. “Why not swans?”
“Or water lilies,” Elise said.
“Why yes!” the doctor began, but just then the two children came tumbling out onto the gallery, Paul and Sophie. The little boy toppled over, catching himself on his palms and looking up, puzzled. Sophie, who was not quite two years his senior, stooped soberly to help him up. Zabeth put her head out the doorway, saw that the children were attended to and withdrew. Paul marched over to the doctor, who lifted him to his knee and kissed his solemn, ivory-colored face.
“Bonjour, mon cher.”
Paul straddled his father’s knee. The doctor jogged him idly, speaking again to his sister.
“Well, there is a place with water lilies . . . of a kind,” he said. “A pretty little pond, up in the mountains.”
“Is it far?” Elise toyed with her daughter’s long black curls, drawing the dark-eyed girl against her hip.
“I’d say an hour’s ride,” the doctor said. Paul began to twist up in his lap; the doctor tore off a bit of the sugared bread to give him.
Elise became animated. “Oh, do let’s go together,” she said. “I’m bored with rusticating here—Xavier’s been so long away. We might make an outing for the children.”
The doctor considered. “Well, if we wait for Nanon to get up . . .”
“But no,” Elise said. “She’ll sleep till noon—you know her ways. And by then it will be much too hot. No, it’s better we should go at once.” She stood up and began calling orders to the kitchen.
Within the hour they had left the compound, the doctor carrying Paul before him on the saddle of his horse, and Sophie riding with Zabeth, sidesaddle on a donkey. The children giggled and called to one another, their voices waking voices of the birds. Elise, who had dressed in one of Xavier’s piratical blouses and a pair of trousers cut so full that each leg appeared to have a skirt of its own, rode astride a white mule. An unlooked-for talent, the doctor remarked, and certainly an unlooked-for posture. Elise shook her hair back carelessly and let him know that she had ridden mule-back all the way over the mountains from Spanish Santo Domingo, during which journey she had often found herself in postures more unexpected than this one.
The doctor fell silent, listening to the liquid trilling of the birds moving in the trees overhead. They had ridden to the height of the coffee plantation and now were circling the rim above the steep valley of Habitation Thibodet. Through the foliage, they caught glimpses of the buildings below, and the tents and ajoupas of Toussaint’s military encampment, with smoke beginning to rise from fires where the men were preparing the morning meal. Then they had crossed over the ridge and were descending a snake-like trail that wound the crevices of the far side of the morne, twisting through tall, saw-bladed grasses and clumps and clusters of bamboo. The doctor carried a coutelas which he used to slash overgrowth from the trail, restraining Paul with his left hand cupped over the child’s round, firm belly.
In something over an hour they had arrived at their destination, before it had grown truly hot, though the damp, still air had raised a sweat on them and on their animals. The pool was sheltered on three sides by bearded fig trees and a green calabash, and on the fourth it backed into a face of rock some thirty feet high, overgrown with slender hanging vines that sprouted small, pale flowers. Water seeped from springs in the rock, and the surface of the pool itself was covered with the violet flowers called bwa dlo, along with floating, flowering plants that much resembled European water lilies.
Elise dismounted and breathed deeply, hands on her hips as she arched her back to look up at the rock face and the vines. “C’est très joli, ça,” she said. “A waterfall of flowers.”
She twisted her hair up at the back of her head and, with Zabeth, began spreading a checkered cloth over an area of grass a couple of yards above the edge of the pool. Together the women laid out the food that had been prepared for the excursion: green oranges, small fig bananas, cassava bread, a bit of cold chicken . . . The doctor took a bottle of white wine (Tocquet’s extraordinary foraging skills had furnished them a supply) and sank it at the pool’s edge where it would cool. He pulled off his boots and stockings, rolled his trousers and waded calf-deep in the water, which was cold enough that he felt the first shock in his teeth. The bottom was covered with fine, shaley gravel. He turned and looked up into the trees surrounding it. Zabeth was staring at the calabash tree and the doctor looked in the same direction; since he’d last come here someone had tied up several of the green gourds to shape them for future use as vessels. Also there were several red rags tied to branches, for no material purpose. The doctor experienced a moment of doubt. The pool was on the trail toward Camp Barade, on the outskirts of Toussaint’s direct influence. Stragglers from the camps of Biassou or Jean-François were likely to be much less well disciplined than Toussaint’s men . . . still, it was calm here now, and they would not stay too long.
He climbed out of the pool and went to join his sister, who had curled catlike on the cloth, her legs tucked under her, chewing an end of her own hair at the corner of her mouth. The food was still covered with napkins on the plates and woven trays. Paul followed him, suddenly petulant.
“Pa oué Maman?” he complained. “Where’s Mama?”
“There now,” the doctor said, kissing his forehead absently. “You’ll see your mother soon enough. Now go with the Sophie and Zabeth.” He turned the boy about and gave a push which sent him trundling back down toward the pool. When he looked up, Elise was frowning.
“You are too indulgent with him,” she said.
“One might say the same of you, with Sophie . . .” The doctor’s tone was mild enough. It was traditional, after all, for Creole children to be hideously spoiled.
“It is not at all the same.”
The doctor looked away. Zabeth had tied up her skirt behind, to wade into the water with the two children. Paul was well distracted now, scooping up flashing bits of mica from the bottom and letting them fall in the sparkling water. It was idyllic here, and yet the doctor sensed a whole hidden agenda in his sister’s words. There’d been perhaps a particular reason she’d wished to make this excursion without Nanon.
“You mean the difference of a son from a daughter?” the doctor said, with a certain sense of heaviness. “After all, they are both little children.”
“Childhood is sweet,” Elise said. “But as adults, those two can never live as cousins. Neither here, nor in France.”
The doctor looked at his sister. Her hair was loose around her face, her breasts fell unrestrained against the coarse cloth of her husband’s shirt . . . She was wearing trousers, for God’s sake; she rode astride a mule. It was very strange to hear her instructing him in the proprieties of this country. Elise was no more farouche than many other Creole women, or not much more, and yet whenever he looked at her, he thought of their manner of life in their father’s house in France. It now occurred to him, for the first time, that she might be measuring him against a similar standard. His sense of heaviness increased.
“You sound very much like your friend Isabelle Cigny,” he said.
“That’s reasonable,” said Elise. “It was she who first educated me in all the ways of this place.”
The doctor looked down at the two children splashing in the pool. Sophie floundered deeper into the water and suddenly sat down, perhaps unintentionally, her skirt spreading on the water around her. She looked distressed at first, but then began laughing. Zabeth laughed with her, a bright smile splitting her dark face, and scooped some water in a mock threat to put it on Sophie’s hair. Paul spun aimlessly beside the two of them, his palms stroking the lily pads like fan blades.
“It’s well enough for now,” Elise said. “But the system here will divide them as they grow. You must see this.”
The doctor looked down at the pool again. There was little to choose between the skin tone of the two; Sophie was even slightly the darker, for she had taken her father’s coloring—this assuming that her father was in fact Xavier Tocquet, and not Elise’s former husband, the late proprietor of Habitation Thibodet.
“What I see is the ‘system’ here lying in ruins,” the doctor said. “With revolution here and in France . . . it is a great uprooting.”
Elise sighed. “Some things can never be revolutionized.”
The doctor said nothing. Elise sat up straight, crossing her legs like an Indian.
“What of the future?” she said. “There are some who live in such liaisons, and even openly; it is not unheard-of, though—” She looked at him pointedly. “One must never take such a woman to wife. But the children of these unions create difficulties in time.”
The doctor felt his first flash of real irritation. “There are irregularities in your own career, madame ma sœur, which I have forborne to reproach you with.”
Elise failed to blush as expected; she returned his glance calmly, her blue eyes clear.
“To summarize . . .” The doctor tugged at the point of his beard. “I arrive in this country to find you absconded from your husband, absolutely disappeared—yes, I admit he was a brute, but we now speak of law and propriety. You abandon him, you dash off who knows where, to Santo Domingo as I am eventually to learn—I don’t know if there were other stops on your itinerary—with a man apparently your lover, this Xavier Tocquet, whose own reputation seems very extraordinary. Let me say that for my part I much prefer your second choice to your first, but still, Madame, your manner of arranging yourself provokes notice, does it not? As for the child of the first marriage, whom you have stolen away in your elopement, I discover—from your bosom friend Isabelle Cigny, no less—that her legitimacy is somewhat in question. Well, the matter is finally settled decently enough, for across the Spanish border you are married to our Monsieur Tocquet. But I have taken care not to ask the date of this marriage, lest it be discovered bigamous, for I do know very well the date of your first husband’s demise, since it was I who attended his final illness, during your very conspicuous absence from your place at his side.”
Elise, who had caught her lower lip in her top teeth at the mention of the marriage, now released it thoughtfully.
“Are you quite finished?”
“Is it not sufficient?” the doctor said. “I don’t mean to quarrel with you, but think of our father’s house—our mother, ten years in her grave. Imagine how such an affair would be viewed in Lyons.”
“In Lyons, we would make a pretty pair, the two of us.” Elise laughed, and after a moment the doctor joined her with a reluctant chuckle.
Sophie came up to the grassy slope, holding out her dripping skirt in a giggling display. Elise made a movement of mock retreat. “Keep your distance, child,” she said. “Yes, yes, you may take it off.”
Sophie undid her skirt and frolicked, naked, back into the pool. The doctor noted that Paul had already disrobed. Zabeth was spreading their wet clothing to dry in the sunshine that poured over the slope.
“The truth of it is,” Elise said, “the society here will forgive almost any faiblesse d’amour, and much more easily than in Europe—so long as it does not cross the color line. I don’t say there’s justice in it, but things are as they are. You acknowledge the boy—perhaps it’s right that you should. But what of his education? His future, what will it be? And if there should be other children?”
“I have lost the habit of pondering the future here,” the doctor said, and realized as he spoke that his words were true. This place seemed to be without a sense of time. There was the moment as you lived it; all others were illusory. Nanon had helped to teach him this, in her somewhat specialized fashion. Then again, there had been many occasions in Saint Domingue when his mere survival to the end of the day, or to the next dawn, had seemed future enough—as much as he could contemplate.
Now Elise had summoned up the future; it appeared before him as a cloudy menace which he had no ability to plan for or control. He stood up, nodding and blinking, and dusted off the back of his trousers.
“Where are you going?” Elise said.
“A little botanizing,” the doctor muttered vaguely.
He made a wavering motion with his left hand and turned from her, walking around the borders of the pool and then behind the bearded figs. It was peaceful here, and through the streams of the trees’ hanging roots, he caught glimpses of the children, their pale skins flashing in the water, heard them laughing as they splashed each other. But his mind continued to track forward on the path Elise had laid out for it.
What, after all, would become of the boy? In the larger scheme of things the doctor knew that his sister was right: such children did bring difficulties, being neither black nor white. In principle they constituted a third race, and their weight in the politics and warfare of this country was considerable. But the doctor had not applied such reasoning to the case of his son Paul, who had, unmistakably, the ears of his own grandfather, who had appeared to him in the guise of a small and amiable human animal. Now the word son seemed to thunder in his ears, and also he felt that his conversation with Elise was somehow a betrayal of Nanon (though he himself had said nothing to betray her—had he?). Such thoughts were misery; he must put an end to them somehow.
Meanwhile Toussaint had been some days away from the camp at Ennery, at Marmelade perhaps, or at one of the other strong places that ran from Gonaives back to the Spanish frontier. He explained his comings and goings to no one, arrived and departed with small warning.
At dawn of the day following the family picnic by the lily pond, he appeared on the gallery, and took coffee in silence, failing to rise to any conversational bait that either the doctor or Elise trolled past him. Breakfast done, he retreated to the cane mill.
Doctor Hébert spent the balance of the morning on hospital rounds, changing dressings and attending to some scattered cases of fever or dysentery. There were two infirmaries now: the one he had established for the slaves of Habitation Thibodet, and another in the tented encampment of Toussaint’s soldiers. Most of the injuries were accidental at the moment, for there had not been much fighting of late, though some of the black soldiers nursed old wounds, slow to heal. The doctor was attended on his tour by the woman Merbillay, who had a growing skill with herbal brews, and by the newcomer Guiaou, who seemed fascinated with any medical proceeding, his interest perhaps inspired, the doctor thought, by the scars of the terrible wounds from which he had himself recovered.
At the noon hour he lunched with Nanon and Elise on the gallery of the grand’case. The meal passed pleasantly enough, but with little conversation. The air was heavy and still and it seemed almost too hot and oppressive to talk at all. The encounter came to a silent conclusion; Tocquet struck fire to his cigar and smoked. The other white people retired for the customary afternoon siesta, retreating from the most intense heat of the afternoon. The doctor lay abed with Nanon, comfortable in her affection, although he was too uneasy in his mind to rise to her caresses. At length he took her hands and folded them together and held them with one of his own; Nanon smiled at him, unoffended, and rolled her back to him. He lay with one hand cupping her belly, breathing the sweet scent of her hair and the nape of her neck and listening to her sleeping respiration, but he himself could not sleep. Or perhaps he dozed, for the light had changed when he finally disengaged himself and rose from the bed. In the crib on the opposite side of the room Paul lay on his back, snoring delicately, his lips slackly apart. The doctor watched him for a moment, then dressed quietly and went out onto the gallery, carrying his boots.
Toussaint sat alone at the round table abstractly looking out over the rail, one hand on the knee of his uniform trousers and the other curled near a tall, clear glass of water. Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead, in the creases below his yellow headcloth. He made no movement to wipe them away, nor did he turn to greet the doctor, who hesitated at the table’s edge, but with a motion of his hand invited him to sit. Seated, the doctor looked over the pool he had engineered with a certain satisfaction. There was no sound except for the purling of the water and the cackling of a crow on the eaves of the grand’case. Toussaint turned to him with a faint smile and was apparently about to speak, but just then his younger brother Jean-Pierre came dashing up the steps, calling out that Moyse and Charles Belair had been arrested on the order of Jean-François and that they and perhaps some other junior officers were being held under guard at Camp Barade.
Toussaint was on his feet immediately, his fingers brushing his sword hilt and then the grip of his pistol. He called for his coach, which came so quickly that the doctor thought that the horses must already have been harnessed and waiting. Toussaint did not often travel in the coach presented to him by the Spaniards, but on occasions when his progress and arrival required a degree of pomp and circumstance, he did sometimes use it.
Now he beckoned to the doctor to get into the coach with him. There was room enough for four but there were only the two of them, so they sat diagonally opposite each other, their knees knocked together with the jolts of the rough road. Jean-Pierre sat with the driver on the box. Flanked by five outriders, they rolled out from Habitation Thibodet.
Saint Domingue was a wretched country to travel by carriage. Before the insurrection, most colonists unfit for horseback riding had used sedan chairs borne by slaves, rather than risking their bones in wheeled vehicles. The doctor himself much preferred to ride and so, he knew, did Toussaint Louverture. But Toussaint had himself been a coachman, in former times when he was a slave, and so he knew which ways were passable, and how to traverse bad patches of the trails that would have been impassable to others.
The roads were rough and their pace was brisk; the bumps made the structure of the coach creak and groan and sent both passengers flying from their seats. It was almost comical, but the doctor was not moved to laugh, for Toussaint was showing more obvious anger than he had ever known him to do . . . his whole face looked contorted with it. The doctor clung to the edge of the window to hold himself back from lurching into the black general. The coach kept heeling over on one wheel or another, and sometimes it seemed sure to capsize, but in fact they bogged down only once, in the muddy slough of a stream crossing. The outriders dismounted to heave them free, and Toussaint got down to supervise them tersely; in a matter of minutes, the coach was under way again.
Soon after they had climbed back into the coach, the leaves began to rise and lash together in the wind which was bringing the rain in over the mountains. The afternoon was darkening, but there was still sunlight, streaking down through the treetops; a bar of light lay across the lower half of Toussaint’s face. The coach yawed and rocked, and Toussaint’s expression contorted; he took off his general’s bicorne and dug his fingers into his scalp, under the headcloth, molding and massaging as if to assuage some terrible pain, or (the doctor had this peculiar thought) as if to root some alien presence out of his own head. The doctor had never seen him so. Toussaint’s eyes squeezed shut from the pressure of whatever he was undergoing. He rocked his head blindly against the sickening lurches of the coach. “M’pa kab pasé kalfou sa-a,” he muttered, in a voice much unlike his own. I cannot pass that crossroad . . .
Inexplicably, Toussaint pulled off both his boots. He kicked open the door with his bare heel and was gone. The doctor had barely time to register this departure before the coach heeled over in the other direction and the door slapped shut of its own accord.
Toussaint’s plumed hat swayed on a hook above the leather cushion where his head had lately rested. His empty boots bounced against each other on the floor. If not for these traces, the doctor might have doubted he had ever been there. M’pa kab pasé kalfou sa-a . . . The doctor closed his eyes and pressed the lids with his fingertips. The thousands of crossroads all over this land seemed to spread against his darkened eyes like glowing nodes of a golden net. At what kalfou was he standing now? and at which kalfou was Toussaint? and at which stood his friend, Captain Maillart? or Nanon and Paul, or his sister Elise? or the many men whose wounds and illnesses he had treated without knowing their names, or the other men who had in some fashion become his enemies . . . He knew that the net of kalfous connected him somehow to all of these, but he could not read the meaning of the connections. There was a muted thump of thunder, and the doctor opened his eyes and shook his head, dizzily, then peered out the window of the coach. Just here, the trail to Camp Barade crossed a somewhat wider road that ran from Marmelade in the interior down to Gonaives on the coast. The coach passed, one of the outriders clucked to his horse, and again they went under the deep shadows of the trees. The coach went into a tight turn and the doctor felt a cold clutch in his belly. He ran one hand along his belt and realized he was unarmed.
“Zombi!” Jean-Pierre’s voice, from the box, chilled with fear. The doctor leaned forward, peering out. There was a man on the trail ahead of him, skeletally thin, his breechclout stiff with dirt. He walked in a rigid, unhuman way, arms glued against his ribs, his hips unyielding to his movement. His eyes were ringed clear around with white, and there was something in his face the doctor seemed to recognize. It seemed the horses would strike him down, for he walked toward them as if blind, but at the last possible moment he lurched from the trail and vanished in the brush.
The curve of the road grew tighter still, throwing the doctor up against the door of the coach—he dove out, it seemed to him later, almost before he had heard the first shot, cleared the trail edge and slid down a ravine face down, plowing up grasses and vines and loosening clumps of soft, wet earth. The side of his head butted into a boulder and he caught hold of the edge of it with one hand; the momentum of his fall twisted him onto his back. The spread-eagled form of one of Toussaint’s outriders appeared against the sky above him—shot from the saddle. The man landed in a huddle a yard away and the doctor crawled to him, but he was well beyond medical assistance. The doctor appropriated the dead man’s musket, which had not been fired, and weaseled his way back to the boulder, which offered cover as well as a prop for the barrel of the gun. Sighting up the ravine, he could see the overturned coach with one wheel still spinning, and some dozen black riders dressed in rags of Spanish uniform, circling, firing pistols into the coach or leaning down from their saddles to slash victims on the ground with their long knives. The doctor closed his left eye and shot one of them in the hollow between his bare shoulder blades—the man stretched out his arms and pitched down from his horse without making a sound, but the next man to him cried out in alarm and stared down the ravine across the mane of his rearing horse.
The doctor hunched further down behind the stone, tasting dirt at the corner of his mouth. Too late he thought of the cartridge box still attached to the dead outrider’s belt—he’d have to expose himself to reach it now. But none of the ambushers seemed disposed to return his fire. He heard someone call out an order, and voices shouting in confused reply, then hooves galloping, as it seemed, back down the trail to Camp Barade.
He remained motionless, mashed into the dirt, for a time he could not measure. His ear was swollen where it had struck on the stone, and his head pounded on the same side. Thunder clapped again, but still the rain did not begin. Blood from the body of the man lying near him puddled and trickled across the leaves, and a white butterfly landed there; the doctor was near enough to observe the butterfly’s proboscis dip to draw a taste of that thick red nectar. When the birds began to speak again, he raised his head enough to brush the dirt from his cheek. He rubbed grit from his teeth with a finger, spat, then crawled over to retrieve the cartridge box. There was no evidence he had been observed by anyone. He rose to one knee to reload the musket, then stood and scrambled, with the help of his free hand, back up to the trail.
No survivors. Just around the curve from the crossroads the trail had been blocked with heavy tree trunks, but for double assurance the ambushers had shot one of the coach horses in the traces. The other horse was tossing its head and trying to rise from under the splintered singletree. The men were dead. The Spanish coat of arms on the door of the coach was mostly obliterated by a perforation of bullet holes. Across the knees of the dead driver lay the body of Toussaint’s brother, Jean-Pierre, riddled with bullet wounds and mutilated by slashes of a coutelas. The free coach wheel still ticked on its axle like a cog of a broken watch.
Then the same stiff figure broke from the vines onto the roadway. The doctor covered it quickly with the musket. Zombi—a fantasy of the Africans at which he’d scoffed. The doctor had scoffed. The body of a slave laid low by sorcery, then raised from the grave and made to walk, and work, again. Beyond his realm of possibility. The creature advanced toward him blindly, as it had approached the horses. Though fixed in a frozen rictus, the features were those of Chacha Godard, who’d been one of the doctor’s captors in the first phase of the insurrection—but Chacha Godard, he knew, was dead. That being the case, he wondered if a shot would be effective.
At a yard’s distance from his musket barrel, the creature spun away and plunged into the jungle. The doctor pointed the musket in one direction, then another, but it seemed there was now no enemy near. He climbed the barricade of tree trunks, to the height of nearly eight feet. The trail toward Camp Barade was empty. In the other direction, he could see back to the crossroads which Toussaint had not been willing to pass. The light had turned almost completely green, as though filtered through thick green glass, and all the air seemed pregnant with rain which had not yet begun, but a reddish bar of sunlight still lay across the crossroads. Just at that vertex appeared the figure of a stooping, grizzled old man, barefoot and bareheaded, weighed down by a long straw sack that dragged from his shoulder almost to the ground. A singing voice seemed to surround him rather than to come from within him, dark and profound as deep blue water.
Ouvri baryè pou nou . . .
Kité-nou pasé . . .
The doctor covered the old man with the musket for a moment, but the other did not seem to threaten him with any physical harm, indeed he seemed quite unaware of the doctor’s presence at the top of the barricade. The doctor lowered the musket. All the same, the hair rose on his arms and the back of his neck, as if he were confronting a ghost or a spirit or someone else’s god.
The stooped old man stepped forward from the light of the crossroads into the shadows of the trees and continued to come nearer through the weird green light. He paused to examine the wreckage of the coach, and again to look at the horse struggling under the broken singletree. When he reached the cadaver of Jean-Pierre, he let out a long wolf-like wail and dropped onto his knees; the straw macoute went slack on his shoulder. He covered his face with his hands and shuddered. Grief flowed out of him in a black wave which also poured over the doctor, who climbed down from the barricade and left the musket leaning against it. Softly, empty-handed, he approached the old man, who now stopped his wailing and took from the macoute a yellow square of cloth and dredged it in the blood that pooled between the knees of Jean-Pierre, then wrung it out and spread it by the corners. From this drenching the cloth had turned a rusty red. The old man bowed and bound the cloth around his head, knotting it firmly at the back. That well-known gesture . . . when the old man raised his head again, he was familiar, but at the same time deeply strange, as he had always been. The doctor went down on one knee himself and stared into the ancient red-rimmed eyes of Toussaint Louverture. A silent flash of lightning lit the space between them starkly white, and then, all at once, the rain came down.
Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.
For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and perish as the green herb.
Captain Maillart shifted position; his buttocks had already grown numb on the backless bench of the Marmelade church. The mulatto youth at the lectern went on intoning the words of the Thirty-seventh Psalm. His voice was thin, reedy and yet possessed of a peculiar urgency which made it difficult to ignore. Thus Maillart could not doze or drift, as he ordinarily did during his rare appearances in church. Vaublanc, who sat to Maillart’s right, seemed more at peace; he breathed with a rasp close to a snore, and his head wobbled on his neck.
Irritably, Maillart studied the colored boy, who was gangly and lean, his acolyte’s robe inches too short for him. His kinky hair was close-cropped, his eyes large and almost feminine, floating in the deep hollows of his skull. At last the captain managed to organize his vague sense of familiarity: this was Moustique, who had been a hanger-on at Toussaint’s camp at Ennery.
Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.
For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.
Maillart nudged Doctor Hébert, who sat to the left of him on the pew, and muttered, “That priest’s brat from Ennery, is it not?”
The doctor nodded slightly, without turning his head. He sat erect, almost prim, his hands folded on his lap, with the air at least of rapt attention. Maillart moaned inwardly. He looked at the lectern itself; the most elaborate furnishing in all the church. Spread wings of an eagle, carved in mahogany, supported the Holy Writ, but where the eagle’s head should have been was some monstrous chimera from an African woodworker’s nightmare. A fat globule of sweat purled from Maillart’s temple. In a torture of boredom, he let his eyes go unfocused. The voice of the acolyte whined on.
The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation.
Their sword shall enter into their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.
Maillart lowered his moist forehead into his hands, then raised it, looking about himself. The little church was filled past its capacity, with many of Toussaint’s junior officers lining the walls, their black faces sweat-shiny and impassive. There was a general stench of too many men perspiring in their woollen uniforms. A hard-shelled flying beetle buzzed over the heads of the congregation and tumbled down the back of Maillart’s coat collar. He grunted and clawed at his neck. Toussaint glanced back from between two Spanish officers on the bench ahead. Maillart felt himself flushing. His hand seemed full of splintered beetle legs and wings. Beside him, Doctor Hébert suppressed a laugh.
Toussaint sat uncovered in a posture of devotion, his bicorne hat balanced on his knees. Maillart stared at the glossy black bald spot in the center of his commander’s head. He had no clue to Toussaint’s thinking. He had delivered Laveaux’s invitation—after Tocquet had done the same, after the delegation Laveaux had sent directly from Port-de-Paix had also presented itself at Ennery. And following Maillart’s return from Môle Saint Nicolas, Toussaint had held numerous late-night councils with Moyse and Dessalines, Clervaux and Charles Belair. He had sent couriers to all his outposts from Dondon to Gonaives. In the wake of this activity, l’Abbé Delahaye had removed himself and his acolyte from Dondon to the more secure location of Marmelade.
But in the end, if such was the end, Toussaint had done no more than to renew his oath of fealty to the Spanish crown, as represented by the person of the Marquis d’Hermonas. This renewal of vows had taken place yesterday, here at Marmelade, after which Hermonas had ridden back to Saint Raphael, leaving the town with a light Spanish garrison under the command of a Major Verano, who now sat next to Toussaint on the bench. Verano was slight, with a yellowish cast to his skin; he stooped and there was something supercilious in his manner. A straggly beard hung from his chin, and as he listened to the service, or pretended to listen, he would alternately chew on the end of it or roll the dampened hairs between his fingers.
As for Toussaint’s intention in all this affair, there was no fathoming it. Maillart dropped bits of crushed beetle on the floor, then scratched again underneath his collar, where he still seemed to feel the scrabble of insect legs—if it were not the Spanish cloth that chafed him.
... and as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water, and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?
And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.
And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.
Moustique had progressed, finally, to the New Testament reading . . . would this service never, ever be concluded? As Maillart released that irritable thought, Moustique closed the heavy book and carried it to the altar. L’Abbé Delahaye, who had been kneeling with his back to the people, rose and turned with a light alacrity, approached the lectern and began to preach.
The white priest’s voice was deeper, more sonorous, than the voice of his colored acolyte. Maillart felt himself drifting almost comfortably, back toward his dream of the night before, which he had until this moment forgotten. In dream he had been swimming by moonlight, or rather diving, down through current after current of dark water with ripples lightly silvered by the moon. He was diving in pursuit of something that had slipped from his hand as he swam. He struck the silty bottom with a light rebound and groped in the swirl and murk until his fingers curled through the hilt of a silver sword. Above him, he saw leaves and lily pads and flower petals floating on the moonlit surface of the water. There was a beauty that snatched at his breath, and somewhere behind it the thought of Isabelle Cigny . . . He rose, carrying the heavy sword, and broke a surface of leaves and lilies, but there was no air; he was still covered by the water, and above him plane after plane of petal-sprinkled surfaces; each time he broke through he was somehow still submerged, and at last his limbs went slack and loose, and he was towed back to the bottom by the weight of the silver sword. When he struck against the bottom again, he understood that he should have let the sword go long ago, and now he let it fold into the layers of silt, and rose again more buoyantly, through many planes of leaf and moonlight, but it was too late; his lungs had opened, and he was already breathing in the silver water . . .
The captain popped awake with a jolt. He had slumped over onto Doctor Hébert’s shoulder; the doctor shrugged him off with a sardonic smile. But finally the sermon was at an end, and the captain rose and joined the line of people shuffling toward the altar rail. He knelt, and accepted a morsel of bread from the hand of Delahaye. Then Moustique was coming with the wine, murmuring, the blood of Jesus Christ, the cup of your salvation . . .
Maillart swallowed, returned to his seat. Dream-fog still covered him, like a spiderweb. He covered the worst of his yawn with his hand. The occupants of the front pews began to file out of the church, following the cross. Maillart rose and marched in line behind Toussaint and the Spanish officers with Doctor Hébert walking immediately behind.
Outside the little building was a flurry of activity. The black captains, Dessalines and Clervaux and Belair, had all hurried to mount their horses, while the priest Delahaye, together with his acolyte and cross-bearer, had vanished as if the earth had swallowed them. A ripple of restlessness ran through the black troops surrounding the church; Toussaint had come to Marmelade in unusual force this time, bringing nearly three thousand of his men. But the black commander himself seemed calm and unhurried. He handed Maillart his bicorne hat to hold, and withdrew from his breast pocket a kerchief unevenly stained a brownish red.
Major Verano watched Toussaint with his slightly slanted, olive-colored eyes, as the black commander pinched the kerchief at diagonal corners, pulling its square into a triangle. Verano put the end of his beard in the corner of his mouth and drew on it as if it were a fine cigar. Maillart, who found this habit revolting, looked away, drumming his fingers absently on the brim of Toussaint’s hat. Guiaou and Quamba were leading over Toussaint’s horse, the sleek white charger Bel Argent.
“Such a fine devotion,” Verano said, pulling his beard out from his lips and molding the damp tip with his dirt-creased fingers. His speech had the Castilian lisp. Maillart was unsure whether his tone of light sarcasm was addressed to himself and the doctor, who stood at his right shoulder, or directly to Toussaint. Verano tasted his beard tip once more, and then withdrew it and squinted at the end. “He fights with the lion’s ferocity,” he said half mockingly, “but communes with the meekness of the lamb.”
Toussaint, flipping the tails of the red kerchief over his head, seemed oblivious to the remark at first. His eyes went white for an instant, as if they were looking through the back of his skull at his fingers tying the cloth. When the knot was accomplished, his eyes came clear; he took his hat back from Maillart and settled it carefully over the red headcloth.
“Blessed are the meek,” Toussaint pronounced, “for they shall inherit the earth.”
As he spoke, he drew his huge cavalry pistol and shot Major Verano through the center of his chest. At the explosion, Bel Argent jerked his head back against the reins; Quamba and Guiaou restrained him. Verano had snapped over backward like a broken cornstalk; his body sagged into the arms of one of his Spanish subordinates.
“Vive la France!” Toussaint cried out, glancing at Maillart as he swung into the saddle, his long, bright sword whirling high around his head. All over the town square the black cavalrymen were riding down the scattering Spanish troops. One of Verano’s fellows rounded on Maillart with a shriek of outrage and astonishment. Maillart stood too near to bring a weapon effectively into play. He struck the Spaniard with his fist, then stepped back, hand on his pistol grip, but Guiaou had already skewered the man from behind; the spoon-shaped blade of Guiaou’s coutelas thrust out for a moment from between the Spaniard’s coat buttons, then retracted as the dying man fell.
“Vive la France!” Maillart shouted; his voice came back to him with a small, tinny sound, as if someone else had shouted the phrase from a far distance.
He looked for Antoine Hébert, but the doctor had already run to his own mount and was unshipping his long rifle from the scabbard lashed to the saddle. Vaublanc had made it into the saddle and was riding down a side street, his face blank with confusion and his saber pointing at the sky. Maillart scrambled onto his own horse. The snout of his drawn pistol quested this way and that.
“What did you know of this?” he called to the doctor. Hébert, who had remained afoot, bracing his rifle barrel across the saddle of his horse, shook his head. Toussaint had not taken the blancs into his confidence . . . Both men held their fire now; there was no target. The black cavalry had swept the Spaniards from the square and were picking off the stragglers in the side streets. A pair of men had already struck the Spanish colors, and begun to run the French tricolor up the flagpole.
“Vive la France,” Maillart said again, wonderingly, looking again at the doctor. L’Abbé Delahaye appeared for a moment in the door of the small house behind the church. He made the sign of the cross and then withdrew, pulling Moustique after him as he shut the door. The doctor pulled his rifle down, put it back in the scabbard. Ten minutes and it was already over, the last man of the Spanish garrison wiped out; the French were, in theory at least, masters of Marmelade. Someone tied the Spanish flag to the tail of a donkey and drove the braying animal through the dusty streets, to much laughter and flinging of stones. But fifteen minutes later Toussaint had organized his force and was riding from the town at the head of his cavalry, leading two thousand-odd men on foot at a fast pace toward the north. Maillart rode in the vanguard, following the doctor; they still exchanged bewildered glances, but the euphoria of victory washing over all of Toussaint’s troops had caught them up as well.
Biassou, installed at Habitation La Rivière, had not attended church that day. Toussaint’s advance guard reached the outskirts of his camp before noon. Biassou had no real pickets posted; Toussaint’s men overran a few wanderers gathering wood or wild mushrooms, and silenced them by slitting their throats. The surprise was perfect, for Biassou’s camp was still asleep. Only a few breakfast fires had been lit, and most of the men still snored in their shelters. The trampled ground before Biassou’s tent, surrounding a pole striped with the serpentine images of Damballah and Ayida Wedo, suggested that the ceremony had gone late the night before. Nearby, a lone old woman pounded coffee in a hollowed stump, her withered breasts flapping as she worked the long stave she used as a pestle. Her mouth popped open when she saw the riders, but no sound came out; she dropped the stave and ran in silence toward the ragged edge of the trees.
Biassou’s tent was festooned with snake bones, cat skulls and other ouangas strung to the exterior ropes and corners of the canvas. The flaps were down and the tent was quiet, except for a series of little brass bells which gave a ghostly ringing in the breeze. Toussaint pressed Bel Argent into a canter. Not for the first time, Maillart took note of what a superb horseman he was, as he drew his sword and rode down on the tent, handling the weapon with a remarkable dexterity, considering it was more than half the length of his own entire person. Circling on the horse, Toussaint cut all the support ropes, then leaned low from the saddle to strike down the center pole with the flat side of the blade. The tent collapsed on itself like a net drawn tight.
Toussaint’s infantry had swept into the camp by this time, moving at a trot with bayonets at the ready. Biassou’s men scattered in all directions, still groggy from sleep and perhaps believing themselves caught in some communal nightmare. A couple of Toussaint’s men fired into the fallen tent where it flopped with its catch, but Toussaint held up a hand to stop them. He pulled up his horse and waited, straight in the saddle, his sword erect. A neat slit appeared in the canvas and Biassou popped out, holding a short knife in his right hand. He wore his dress uniform coat, bedizened with Spanish ribbons and medals, over his burly torso, but his short legs and his feet were bare. With a glance he assessed his situation and bolted for the trees.
Toussaint rode after him, alone. Biassou’s pink heels kicked up under the long tails of his coat. Toussaint’s teeth flashed white in his head: Ou pa blié Jean-Pierre. His voice was not really a shout, but a speaking tone which carried. You will not forget my brother.
As Biassou reached the edge of the clearing, Toussaint stretched toward him, one hand holding the reins and the horse’s mane together while the other struck out with the sword, cleaving Biassou’s coat from collar to tail, and opening a red line on his back, such as might have been made by a whip lash. Biassou tumbled over the edge of a shallow ravine and struggled out of sight in the bush. Toussaint reined up and let him go.
A handsome colored woman erupted from the slit Biassou had cut in the tent. Shrieking prettily, she dashed in the same direction as her ravisher, running awkwardly with one hand covering her pudenda. The soldiers began to laugh and applaud, and several of them set off in pursuit of this delicate prize, but Charles Belair called them to halt, and they obeyed him. A commotion had begun at the western fringe of the clearing, and five or six Spaniards in civilian clothes came stumbling toward the center, chivied by black soldiers who pricked them with bayonets. One wore a turban, Arab fashion, the others broad straw hats which now hung down their backs by strings.
“Yo vann moun,” said Jean-Jacques Dessalines. They’re selling people.
He looked at Toussaint and gestured toward the fringe of woods, where more soldiers were bringing a group of some thirty men and women bound together in a coffle either by iron chains or by split poles carried on their shoulders and lashed with twine to form collars round their necks. Slave traders, Maillart recognized; so the rumors had been true. The turban-wearing Spaniard opened his mouth to speak, but before he could draw breath, Dessalines cracked him across the mouth with the flat of his musket stock, splintering his front teeth and knocking him backward to the ground. At some stage of the attack on Biassou’s camp, Dessalines had removed his shirt, as he was wont to do before a fight, and now when he moved with his quick muscular grace the white ropy whip scars on his back crawled as if with a life of their own. He glanced across at Toussaint, who nodded.
“Ou mèt touyé yo,” Toussaint said. You may kill them.
Dessalines simply set his boot across the throat of the turbaned man who lay on the ground, rolled his weight forward and held it there until the Spaniard had stopped kicking. Bayonets slammed into the bellies of the others. Maillart tightened the muscle across his own cut, and felt the skin shrinking on his face. An odd moment of indiscipline for Toussaint’s command, he thought as he looked quickly away. Other black soldiers were breaking rivets on the chains of the people in the slave coffle, and cutting the lashing on the wooden poles that connected them together in their files. The freed men rubbed their necks and wrists absently; some of the women had begun to cry, and others knelt before Dessalines or the horse of Toussaint Louverture.
By this time, considerable numbers of Biassou’s fighting men had regrouped and were filing back down into the clearing, holding their empty hands high to show they were unarmed and submissive. Papa Toussaint! many of them were crying, and one who seemed to be their leader went skidding to his knees beside the charger. Papa Toussaint, nou rinmin ou, he moaned, and wrapped his hands over the booted foot in the stirrup Papa Toussaint, we love you. Toussaint smiled and placed a palm upon his forehead.
One of the slave traders’ severed heads had been hoisted on a pike, and someone had unrolled the turban and ran in circles through the clearing with the purple cloth flagging behind him like a kite tail. Quamba and Guiaou and some other foot soldiers had torn open Biassou’s tent and were rooting through the contents, kicking over human skulls and glass bottles and clay govi, tumbling the ceremonial drums. Quamba straightened, calling for Toussaint’s attention, with a gold watch and chain swinging from one hand and a heavily jeweled snuffbox in the other.
Toussaint drew up to his most rigid martial posture, the saddle creaking as he shifted his weight. “Return those articles to their owner,” he declared. “Undoubtedly he will not stop running till he has reached Saint Raphael—return them to him, with my compliments. We are not thieves or pirates—we are soldiers of the Republic of France.”
Captain Maillart looked at the doctor and found his own astonishment reflected on the other’s face. “Vive la France!” the captain shouted. After all, what did he care for slave traders? The words seemed a better fit in his mouth than they had done before.
By nightfall they had swept all the way to Dondon, in the mountain pass above Le Cap and the northern plain. Toussaint raised French colors at every camp along the way; it was the work of moments to eliminate the scatterings of actual Spanish soldiers who opposed them. At every camp from Petite Rivière to Dondon, Toussaint’s lieutenants had been prepared in advance for the coup, so that sometimes the Spanish had already been gutted or strung up to the trees by the time Toussaint’s own party rode in.
That night in Dondon was a subdued celebration, with a double issue of clairin, but no more. Between bites of roast chicken folded in cassava bread, Toussaint instructed Moyse, who commanded at Dondon, to do everything necessary to hold back Jean-François, should the latter attack from his camp, now thought to be at Grande Rivière. If any Spanish had survived the day of massacre, they would probably have fled to join him.
After the meal some of the black infantrymen began drumming around the central campfire, and there was song, a long sonorous chanting in Creole, but the doctor and Maillart and Vaublanc retreated to their bedrolls, where they shared out the second ration of rum, passing a single cup among them in the dark.
“It was neatly done,” the doctor said, glancing up at the stars above the treetops and the mountains.
“True enough,” Captain Maillart said, twitching a little as he swallowed his share of the raw clairin. “We might ourselves be done in as neatly.”
“What an extremely unpleasant thought,” the doctor said, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Surely you don’t mean to suggest that we should mistrust our commander.”
Maillart looked at him narrowly in the starlight, to see to what extent he was joking. “One might say that we ourselves have been mistrusted,” he said, “unless you were given more prior notice of this turnabout than I.”
“Not in the least,” the doctor said, “but one may also argue that the efficacy of a surprise attack depends on secrecy.”
Vaublanc drummed his fingers on an unraveling patch of his blanket. “Secrecy is something he has certainly achieved,” he said. “I’d give a good deal to know his aims more plainly.”
“The French Republic has declared for the general abolition of slavery.” The doctor tilted his cup to examine the finger’s worth of clairin he had conserved there. “Perhaps that is explanation enough.”
“And perhaps it isn’t,” Vaublanc said. “Sonthonax announced abolition nine months ago, and Toussaint did no more than to stake his own competing claim to the fight for general liberty.”
The doctor shrugged and sniffed his rum. “Maybe it has taken him until now to remark the inconsistency of his proclamation at Camp Turel with the actual situation . . . with Biassou and perhaps Jean-François still collaborating with the Spanish in the slave trade, as we saw today.”
“Do you really think he could have failed to notice that?” Vaublanc retorted.
“Well.” The doctor wet his tongue in his ration of rum. “You know I was with him when his coach was ambushed on the road to Camp Barade. Biassou was at the bottom of that attempt, I am certain. And behind his detention at Saint Raphael before that.”
“He jumped from the coach before the ambuscade and left you to take the fire meant for him,” Vaublanc said, “if I remember your reports of that episode correctly.”
“But there was no warning,” the doctor said. “I don’t think he meant to do what he did then, not in the ordinary sense of intention. It—” He broke off, lost in the strangeness of that hour on the road. “It was as if something had come over him, had taken him over, I mean,” he mumbled, shaking his head. Whatever he meant, he could not phrase.
“I see,” said Vaublanc. “Then perhaps he neglected to advise anyone of his plan for today because he had not himself formulated it—he was seized with the sudden inspiration as he walked out the door of the church.”
“Come,” said Maillart. “Are his reasons really so inscrutable? The matter of emancipation must have some weight, and from what Antoine has told us, Biassou and Jean-François have been a long time intriguing against him with the Spanish high command.”
“Not to mention trying to murder him,” Vaublanc said. “Still and all, it seems a strange moment to join forces with the Jacobins, when they scarcely have a foothold left anywhere on this miserable island.”
“May I point out that we are Jacobins ourselves, at least since we left church this morning?” Maillart paused. “You know, Tocquet told me something to that effect before we parted at Port-de-Paix.”
“Oh?” said the doctor. With a feeling of resignation he swallowed the remains of his rum and laid his cup aside as the last threads of warmth spread through him.
“He put it that Toussaint didn’t need to choose the winning side. That he’d already determined that he would win, regardless, so his only chore was to pick his partners in the victory.”
Vaublanc laughed softly. “If that’s the case,” he said, “then we are fortunate indeed that he has chosen us, my friends.” He stretched out on his back and pillowed his head on his crossed palms, then added with a tinge of irony, “Vive la France.”
It seemed they had slept for only a matter of minutes when Clervaux woke them with a shake on the shoulder, although the stars proved to have shifted in the sky. The drums were silent now, and the fires had all been smothered with dirt, but all down the line came the jingle of rings on bits and the squeak of leather as horsemen tightened their girths.
Covering a yawn with his hand, the doctor shrugged at Vaublanc and Maillart, rolled and shouldered his blanket and carried it down the hill to where the horses were tethered at the tree line. His horse turned and whickered at him gently. The doctor fed it a bit of sugar loaf between its lips. It was chilly, and rather damp, so that he shivered and hunched his shoulders up. He changed the priming of his rifle and both pistols before mounting. Maillart and Vaublanc, grumbling under their breath, fell into line behind him.
Two hundred and fifty horses rode westward from Dondon at a quick trot that soon broke into a canter. Doctor Hébert had come to believe that both Toussaint and his white charger must have the night vision of a pair of bats. At times the trails wound clear of cover and their way was lit by wheeling constellations, Bear and Eagle, the Northern Cross, but mostly their way lay under the tight-knit ceiling of tree branches and was dark and tortured and treacherous as the slick bloody twistings of a dragon’s entrails. For all that, Toussaint never set a pace slower than a brisk trot, and often enough they seemed to be riding a full gallop through the pitch black of the night.
Twenty minutes were sufficient to secure Gros Morne for the French Republic. It was still full night even when they reached Limbé, did away with a couple of Spaniards hustled from their cots to meet their fate, and informed the black garrison that they had just become French. Toussaint sent a detachment of twenty-five riders to carry the news up the mountain to Port Margot, then on to Borgne, on the north coast, while his main force rode south again, climbing the mountains on trails so steep the doctor had to lie full length across his horse’s back to help the balance. At Plaisance, Toussaint left Paparel in charge of the newly republican post, and they rode on with hardly a pause. The stars were just fading when they had reached the height of Morne Pilboreau.
Toussaint called a halt, mysteriously, for there was no settlement, only a goat path running down the precipice, then forking toward Marmelade in one direction and Ennery in the other. Perhaps the kalfou had some meaning for him here. At any rate Toussaint got down from Bel Argent and walked backward down the line, murmuring a word or two to different riders, laying a hand of the flank of a horse to be sure it had not overheated. The scabbard of his sword snicked over stones in the path as he walked.
Several of the men had begun taking out bread and cold meat from their saddlebags. The doctor saw he would have time to dismount. His legs were rubbery after such a long time in the saddle, and the inseams of his trousers chafed him painfully as he walked. He stood at the trail-head and looked down the dark gulf. It seemed impossible that they should have come so far—full circle or nearly—in the space of a single night. No one could succeed in such a ride; surely he must be dreaming it all. Indeed he did feel half asleep. But somewhere down there in the darkness were Nanon and Paul and Elise and Sophie, as safe as they could be in such a country, he supposed, now that Toussaint had redrawn the lines to surround them. The peaks of the eastern mountains were just discernible against the sky as it gradually lightened into a blue—this was the Cordon de l’Ouest, French now, suddenly, all the way back to the Spanish frontier. All the passways and crossroads along the distance they had come were now charged with the power of Toussaint Louverture.
The doctor walked on his unsteady legs toward the head of the column. After his long riding, the ground seemed to rock up at him in waves. The dragging edge of his boot knocked a stone over the rim and it fell down the dark gorge with no sound of a landing. The doctor came to a halt beside Bel Argent and cocked his head in the starlight. Toussaint stood on the lee side of his horse’s shoulder; he was so short that only the white feathers of his hat showed over Bel Argent’s mane, but the doctor could hear him muttering, and he heard the click of beads. After a puzzled moment he realized that Toussaint was saying the rosary, murmuring scraps of Latin in a throttled whisper: Pater Noster, Ave Maria. A repetition as each wooden bead clicked down the string. The doctor withdrew and walked back to his own horse. Maillart, who had already mounted, looked at him curiously, but the doctor only shook his head and stood staring out over the well of darkness that was the gorge.
Let God save all whom I love from harm, he thought. It was the only prayer he could bring to his mind, and it did not seem to have much authority.
They rode down from Morne Pilboreau through the switchbacks of the dry scrub-covered mountains, silent but for the slap of stirrup leathers and the occasional farting of a horse. The coastal plain was a white-dust-covered desert dotted with small shaley white collines, and at the height of one of these had been raised three spindly wooden crosses outside a rectangular frame of poles, whether for a church or hûnfor was uncertain. A woman in a white dress stood at the crest of the hill, looking no bigger than a toothpick doll; she turned her black face to track their descent, her white skirt whipping in the steady wind that came from the sea.
The morning mist had just fully lifted when they rode into Gonaives. A plume of white dust lay over half a mile’s worth of their back trail, and a trio of buzzards hung above the column as well, but the Spanish of the garrison were sluggish and off their guard, and in any case knew of nothing to fear from Toussaint Louverture, who found them entertaining a handful of French émigrés over a late breakfast of jerked beef and coffee. He and a number of his officers strode into the mess hall, their spurs jingling. the doctor and Maillart bringing up the rear.
There were six or seven of the French, costumed much in the manner of fugitive-slave hunters from the old maréchaussée, except for one who wore a black clerk’s coat and appeared vaguely familiar to the doctor. The recognition was mutual, for the man winked at him; when his eyes shifted uneasily to Toussaint, the doctor recognized Bruno Pinchon.
Peremptorily for him, Toussaint instructed Belair and Clervaux to escort the French émigrés from the room. Six of them rose with studiedly empty expressions; only Pinchon’s face betrayed obvious fear. He caught the doctor’s sleeve as he passed and drew him out of the room with the group.
In the sunlight outside the barracks, a squad of black soldiers fell in beside the French; the latter had not been disarmed, and now walked with their hands cocked over their pistol grips, except for Pinchon, who appeared to be unarmed, and who whispered urgently in the doctor’s ear.
“The pistol will be charged this time—will it not? But I know it.”
“What are you talking about?” the doctor said, distracted. The salt smell became stronger as they walked down toward the port, and the light was so bright and hot that he was forced to squint.
“It will be murder, man . . .” Pinchon clawed at the doctor’s forearm with both hands. “Help me, do something, can’t you? I haven’t even a pen knife.”
They had just come against the breakwater. There were no real ships at the moorings, only a few small coastal sloops. Charles Belair turned, cleared his throat, and addressed the doctor politely.
“It would be best for you to return to the casernes.”
At that, Pinchon ducked behind the doctor, seized his collar and with surprising strength began to drag him backward. “Au secours!” he kept screaming. “Sauvez-moi!”
The doctor was too startled to resist; the other Frenchmen had already fallen—not one had had time to get off a shot or even draw his weapon. He let himself be dragged along the harbor front, his muscles slack, stumbling in his backward steps. Several firearms were aimed their way, but Pinchon had shielded himself too well behind the doctor’s body. Belair clucked his tongue regretfully, and tapped his finger on his sword hilt. A couple of the black soldiers took his meaning, drew their knives and began to advance.
Pinchon suddenly released the doctor, pushing him sharply forward. With a frog-like leap, Pinchon cleared the breakwater; a crackle of gunfire from the sloops came almost simultaneously with the splash. The doctor fell on his hands and knees, skinning the butts of his palms as he pitched down. The others of Belair’s squad had also taken cover behind the knee-high wall. The doctor peeped over and saw two sloops putting out on the still water, manned by more Frenchmen, some of whom were firing muskets at the shore, while others reached out to haul the water-logged Pinchon aboard their vessels. There were a few moments of cursing and wild rounds whining, but soon enough the little sailboats were out of range and the shooting stopped.
Somewhat belatedly, the doctor followed Belair’s advice and walked back up to the casernes. Maillart was sitting alone in the mess hall, sipping the dregs of a cup of coffee with a sour expression on his face.
“What’s become of the Spaniards?” the doctor inquired.
“It appears that Toussaint has ordered them shot,” Maillart said.
The doctor sat down heavily and began rubbing his scalp, where a sunburn was peeling.
“It appears that our compatriots had come up from Saint Marc as emissaries of the English,” Maillart said, “who are expected in force here sometime before noon. The English mean to take over Gonaives in order to control the Upper Artibonite valley more effectively—this with the consent of the Spanish, I might add. There was some compact concluded at Santo Domingo City. Toussaint finds himself in a very bad humor about all these developments—his Spanish commanders, if you can imagine it, did not take him into their complete confidence.”
“Ah,” the doctor said glumly.
“This coffee is cold—ill brewed as well.” Maillart drew back the cup as if he meant to dash it against the wall, then changed his mind and set it on the table. He stood up. “No use to brood,” he said. “We are good republicans now, after all.” He dropped his hand on the doctor’s shoulder as he moved toward the door. “Bon courage—aux armes—vive la France.”
Outside, men were clearing away the bodies of the Spaniards, who had been shot against the side wall of the casernes. Toussaint had ordered the cannon of the fort dragged out and brought to bear on the road from the south.
The English arrived in the forenoon, also followed by a flight of vultures. “Trahison,” Toussaint hissed between his teeth, when he saw the redcoats coming into focus through the dust, apparently still resentful that his Spanish superiors had not let him into their new compact with the English. All in all, there had been betrayal enough to go round everywhere, the doctor thought, but was prudent enough to keep this notion to himself. Besides, his own glands were humming, and he doubted he could speak without a tremble in his voice.
He sat his horse between Maillart and Vaublanc, who both held their hands grimly on their saber hilts. The smell of horse sweat was sharp and acrid, and the light and the color seemed brighter than was usual. The English kept coming, so near the doctor could see their faces. He had no plan. When he looked over his shoulder he saw the Spanish colors still flying over Toussaint’s line. At that moment Toussaint dropped his arm and a volley of grapeshot raked the front line of the English.
“Vive la France!” Many voices took up the cry when Toussaint uttered it, as the cavalry charge swept out from behind the cannon. The doctor’s horse moved out with the others, which he had somehow not foreseen. He had no saber, though his pistols were primed—but he did not mean to harm anyone, unless he came under direct attack. Both his hands were knotted in his horse’s mane. He watched Maillart, a half-length ahead, chop down a British grenadier who’d raised a bayonet to him. The British were in great disarray, but they were also very numerous. Toussaint called a retreat, and again the doctor’s horse followed the general movement with small direction from the rider. As the cavalry swept back behind the cannon, another round of grapeshot lashed the British line. The redcoats scrambled back out of range, then slowly began to regroup.
The doctor hitched his horse to a gun carriage and began to attend to such of the wounded who were unable to keep their feet. Toussaint was pacing and grinding his jaws, in a very high state of excitement; the doctor had never seen him so agitated. A runner came out from the town and whispered something in his ear. Toussaint grinned as he took off his hat and adjusted the knot of his scarlet headcloth. “Thanks be to God,” he said. “They have sent no warships.”
But Gonaives had been lightly garrisoned—Toussaint had found few men there to add to his two hundred-odd riders, so the British had them seriously outnumbered. Now they remounted a couple of longer cannons they had been towing backslung behind mules. Presently shells began to fall on Toussaint’s force, and the vultures who had settled on the dead between the lines rose and flapped away, troubled by the racket. Meanwhile, the British began a flanking maneuver across the flat open country on the coastal side.
Throughout the next disagreeable hour, the doctor crawled on hands and knees behind the gun carriages, his face pouring sweat, stanching wounds as best he could or sawing off limbs too mangled to be saved. Guiaou helped drag the injured to him, and afterward hauled them farther to the rear. Everything stank of blood and gun powder, and quite often a British cannonball sailed over their heads and plopped down on the dry cracked earth behind them. At one point Maillart came to borrow the doctor’s horse, crying that his own had been shot out from under him; the doctor didn’t know what became of him after that. Toussaint kept leading sorties to break up the British infantry squares moving in on his right, but the main British line could not be broken.
The cannon balls mostly missed the mark, but the shells exploded after they had fallen and did considerable damage. Wounded men began to drop faster than Guiaou could ferry them. The doctor was half deafened from the explosions, but he did hear a great general shout when it came, and then, farther off, the skirling of conchs and the eerie drone of an African war cry springing at once from a great many throats. He stood up recklessly and shaded his eyes. Two thousand men were coming down from the dry northern hills at a dog trot, led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines. They must have held the same gait for half the night, coming the straightest possible way from Dondon to Gonaives.
The British were even more dismayed than Toussaint’s men were heartened. They broke ranks and bolted down the road toward Saint Marc. Dessalines swept over their line, capturing both their cannon. All at once the British were in full flight, tumbling pell-mell across the salt flats and through the cactus of the Savane Désolée, harried by Toussaint’s cavalry and pursued at a greater distance by the infantry Dessalines had brought, the horde of men loping along like a pack of dark wolves after the redcoats.
Doctor Hébert tied off a final bandage on the stump of a severed leg; the patient whimpered a little, his eyes glazed with shock, as Guiaou and another man gathered him up and carried him to the rear. The doctor stood up and shaded his eyes to watch the dust of the receding battle. Now the vultures felt enough at ease to settle again on the nearby corpses. Guiaou came up again, leading a big speckled gray pony by a rope bridle.
Guiaou pointed at the dust cloud. No saddle on the pony, the doctor noted. He checked his pistols and looked for his rifle, then remembered that it had gone with Maillart and his own horse. Winding his fingers in the pony’s mane, he swung himself astride. Guiaou, with considerably less confidence, scrambled up behind him. The pony tried a buck but the weight was too great, so that he only skittered sideways, cramping his haunches. Guaiou caught the doctor around the waist with one arm and the throat with the other, threatening to strangle him. The doctor broke the choke hold and rejoined Guiaou’s hand to the other at his waist. It had been fifteen years since he had ridden bareback, but he gripped with his knees as best he could, and they set off southward at an queasy jog trot.
Even doubled on such a mount, they had soon outdistanced the black foot soldiers. As for the British, their heels had been very much lightened by fear, but after the first couple of miles many began to drop in the white alkaline dust, prostrate from heat and dehydration. Vultures hunched on the ground nearby, waiting for the black infantry to come up and dispatch these victims with thrusts of bayonet or coutelas—they were not worth a cartridge. The rout was perfect all the way to Pont d’Ester, but there the British had left a reserve force, which was able to draw up cannon on the south side of the river to cover the crossing of the fleeing redcoats.
Toussaint rode up and down the river bank, in as near to a rage as the doctor had ever seen him. From across the river, the British began firing grape. The doctor was glad enough to slip down from the pony; he covered himself behind the shoulder of his overtaxed mount. Bel Argent reared, and a moment later the doctor saw that Toussaint had been hit, though he himself seemed unaware of it; he gave part of his attention to controlling his horse and the rest to the unfolding of the battle. But red gashes ran backward across his hip as if he’d been raked by the claws of a beast. The doctor ducked under the pony’s neck and ran to grab at Toussaint’s boot heel.
“Sir! you are wounded!”
Toussaint looked at him without recognition and kicked himself free. Bel Argent wheeled, and the doctor got a mouthful of horse tail for his pains. His palm had come away blood-slick from the boot leather. For a moment he tried to imagine the situation without Toussaint Louverture in command of it. A sour bubble burst in the back of his mouth and spread an evil taste across his tongue.
Maillart and Clervaux came riding up on the other side of Bel Argent. “For the love of—” Maillart began, while Clervaux talked through him, “Attention, parrain, au blessé . . .” From a further distance, the mulatto officer called Blanc Cassenave watched with a hooded expression. Another volley of grapeshot flared out, and all the horses laid back their ears and scrambled. The doctor fell in the white alkali dust, finding himself eye to eye with Guiaou for an instant, then rolled to avoid lashing hooves and came up onto his feet. Maillart had drawn his rifle from the scabbard and was thrusting it toward him, at the same time jerking his jaw across the river. The doctor took the weapon and while Guiaou calmed his horse he steadied the octagon barrel across the animal’s back and drew his aim on one of the British cannoniers. Blowback from the priming pan stung his cheek when he squeezed the trigger, and kept him from seeing if he had hit his mark, but the British cannon did go silent for a moment, and in the window of quiet the doctor called out to Toussaint.
“You must allow me to treat your wound.”
Toussaint shook his head, showing the tips of his teeth. If he felt any pain, he did not show it. The doctor wondered about his loss of blood. Maillart shouted, half in anger, “Do you think you can win the whole war in one day?”
“Mais oui, mon cher—si Dyé vlé, n’ap fé sa.” Toussaint smiled as easily as if he were sitting on the gallery of the house at Habitation Thibodet. We may do that, if God so wills.
He reached down to stroke the quivering neck of his horse, then rode down the line to attend to the deployment of the captured cannon which had just been dragged across the desert from the north.
For two hours more, and well past sunset, Toussaint kept in the saddle at the head of his men. He was only persuaded to attend to his wound when darkness had completely stopped the fighting. Even then it took the doctor much persuasion to get Toussaint to return to Gonaives, where he had left his herbs and poultices, and where there would perhaps be a proper bed.
Leaving Blanc Cassenave in command at Pont d’Ester, they rode back in the darkness, a small party, across the Savane Désolée. The sky above them was perfectly clear and in the starlight the cacti cast shadows across the weird white glow of the salt flats. Packs of wild dogs had come out of the desert to growl and quarrel over the carcasses of the slain Britishers, their backs humped up and their jaws thrusting. Whenever the breeze from the west died down, the blood smell was heavy and rank all around them. Toussaint, who had brushed away every offer of assistance, rode fluidly upright in the saddle. Doctor Hébert had noticed some time earlier that his bleeding had stopped or slowed to an imperceptible rate. Perhaps the man had authority to command his own circulation.
Dismounting in the courtyard of the Gonaives casernes, Toussaint showed his first sign of weakness; the injured leg would not take his weight. He buckled sideways and was caught by Quamba, who had come up to hold the horse. The doctor took him under the other arm and they made their way across a doorsill to a cot. When Toussaint was once seated, the doctor tried to swing his feet up to the horizontal, but Toussaint brushed his hands away and demanded that his portable writing desk be fetched instead.
“My report,” he said. “You will write for me.”
“Are you mad?” the doctor asked him.
“Not in the least,” Toussaint snapped. “The report must come first, and after . . . as you wish.” He stroked a fingertip across the shredded fabric partly covering his wound.
The doctor dragged the fingers of both hands backward over his head, raking up the ring of hair surrounding his bald dome. He went to the door and called for Maillart, who wrote a reasonably legible hand.
“Dictate to him,” he said to Toussaint, “but let me examine you at least—I will copy the letter over, afterward, if need be.”
Someone brought wine but Toussaint refused it—rare commodity that it was—and took only a few sips of water. After drinking he let himself be eased back on a horsehair cushion. Guiaou was lighting several small string-wicked lamps made from lard congealed in clay jars.
“Write what I say,” Toussaint said. “Toussaint Louverture, général de l’armée de l’Ouest, à Etienne Laveaux, général par interim . . .”
Maillart’s pen began to scratch. The woman Merbillay came into the room carrying a pot of boiled water and some strips of clean rag. Guiaou pulled off Toussaint’s boot and went to the door to empty the blood onto the ground outside. The doctor took up a short knife and slit Toussaint’s trouser leg to the knee. He cleaned the knife with the hot water, then began using the point to pick shreds of cloth from the edges of the wound. Toussaint’s left hand clenched on the canvas of the cot, but his voice went on without faltering.
“It is true, general, that I have been led into error by the enemies of the Republic, but what man can boast to have avoided every trap set by the wicked? In truth, I did fall into their webs, but not for absolutely no reason. You should very well remember that, before the disasters at Le Cap, and by the steps I had taken in your direction, my only goal was to unite our forces to combat the enemies of France.”
The steady rhythm of the voice inspired the doctor with a feeling of great calm, so accustomed was he to taking Toussaint’s dictation himself. Maillart’s pen scraped against the paper, hesitated, scraped again. The whole room seemed mesmerically peaceful. The doctor took a wet cloth from Merbillay and pressed it to the wound to dissolve the crust of dried blood. Toussaint’s breath whistled, but he did not flinch. He went on speaking without a break—it was a royal revision of history he had begun, the doctor thought, or perhaps his intentions had always been as he now described them, for no one in his camp had ever plumbed the full depth of his thinking.
“Unfortunately for all concerned, the paths toward reconciliation which I proposed—the recognition of the liberty of the blacks and a general amnesty—were rejected. My heart bled, and I poured out tears for the unhappy fate of my country, foreseeing the misfortunes which would follow. I was not deceived in that regard: fateful experience has proved the reality of my predictions. Meanwhile, the Spaniards offered me their protection, and to support all those who would fight for the cause of kings, and, having always fought for that liberty, I clung to their offers, seeing myself abandoned by the French, my brothers.”
The doctor clicked his tongue, withdrawing the rag from the wound. The smoothness of this discourse was truly astonishing. He touched with a fingernail a bit of shrapnel embedded in the wound. Toussaint seemed to raise his voice slightly.
“But a somewhat belated experience opened my eyes to these perfidious protectors and, having taken note of their scoundrel’s deceitfulness, I clearly perceived that their intention was to make us slit each other’s throats so that our numbers would be reduced, and to load our remnant with chains and tumble us back into our former slavery. No, they will never arrive at their infamous goal, and we will in our turn avenge ourselves on these beings, who are contemptible in every respect. Let us unite forever, and, forgetting the past, concern ourselves only, from now on, with avenging ourselves in detail upon our perfidious neighbors.”
Well, this passage was plausible enough, despite the inflated language; it was certainly true that the Spanish commitment to liberating the slaves of Saint Domingue was insincere, and (even without the discoveries at Biassou’s camp) no one could have failed to notice that the Spanish part of the island had remained a slave state . . . The doctor flexed his left thumb and forefinger like a set of pincers. At his nod, Guiaou shifted two of the lamps a little nearer. Having lost his forceps in some accident of war, the doctor had grown out and filed the nails of those two digits to replace them. With this homemade instrument and the knife blade he began to dig out bits of the scrap metal from the British grape.
“It is absolutely certain that the national flag flies at Gonaives as well as all the surrounding area, and that I have chased the Spanish and the émigrés from the area of Gonaives, but my heart is shipwrecked by the event which overtook some unfortunate whites who were victims in thataffair. I am not like so many others who can watch scenes of horror in cold blood; I have always had humanity to share, and I groan whenever I cannot prevent evil.”
Again the statement was more accurate in principle than in precise point of fact, the doctor reflected as he probed the wound—to be sure, Toussaint had himself ordered the execution of at least some of those “unfortunate whites” who had perished during the taking of Gonaives . . . but it was equally true that he disliked useless bloodshed and would not brook cruelty for its own sake from anyone in his command . . . otherwise the doctor himself might have been dead long ago.
Merbillay held up a battered tin pan. The doctor dislodged, slowly, a bullet fragment, what seemed to be a lady’s hairpin, the tongue of an iron belt buckle, and finally, with greater difficulty and greater care, a twisted, square cut iron nail. Guiaou’s concerned face leaned near Merbillay’s in the lard-colored lamplight. The metal shards dropped from the doctor’s fingernails and rang on the pan’s tin bottom. Toussaint interrupted himself.
“Kite’m oué sa,” he said. Let me see.
Merbillay raised the pan under his chin. Toussaint hitched himself up with a grunt. He stirred the bits of metal with a blunt fingertip. Shaking his head, he picked up the hairpin, chuckled at it softly, then let it fall back into the pan and went on with his dictation.
At last the wound was clean. The doctor held a fresh rag over it to stanch the renewed bleeding, while Merbillay soaked herbs in hot water, then composed a compress. The doctor took the damp packet from her hands and bound it loosely to the wound with strips of cloth.
“Salut en patrie,” Toussaint concluded. “I will sign it later.”
He turned partly on his side, facing toward the stone wall, and fell silent. Though he lay quite still and his breathing suggested sleep, his eyes were open, glittering darkly in the lamplight. Often enough the doctor had seen him rest in this reptilian fashion. Toussaint seemed to need no more than two or three hours of actual sleep each night, and the doctor knew that the letter would be recopied and perhaps redrafted before dawn.
At his rough-carpentered table in the fort at Port-de-Paix, Governor-General Laveaux pulled the edges of the paper tight, and bent his head close to the carefully inked lettering. From time to time he turned the paper over as if to reassure himself that it was a real dimensional object whose meaning was what it seemed to be.
Gonaives, Gros Morne, the cantons of Ennery, Plaisance, Marmelade, Dondon, Acul and all the surrounding area, including Limbé, are under my orders, and I have four thousand armed men disposed over all these places, not counting the citizens of Gros Morne, who number six hundred.
A miracle. Such a reversal of fortune could only be that. For the first time in many months, Laveaux had the power to march out of Port-de-Paix where he had been cornered for so long, the Spanish and English closing in on him like paired loops of a garrote—could ride freely across the quarter of Borgne, until lately under Spanish control, to rejoin Villatte at Le Cap. Toussaint, meanwhile, had made another lightning strike across the mountains of the Cordon de l’Ouest to scatter the forces of Jean-François (who had temporarily pushed Moyse back from Dondon) and driven them back across the Spanish frontier.
Laveaux rode across the northern plain, catching no glimpse of the maroons or bands of brigands who had so lately been burning and marauding all over that whole area. No one ventured to attack his short column and there was no sign of any disorder; on the contrary the women were working peaceably in their gardens, and on some of the sequestered plantations work gangs were beginning to set out new cane. Laveaux rode into Dondon to see the miracle worker, for the first time, with his own eyes.
Toussaint Louverture was waiting for him in the public square before the church. On horseback he made an imposing figure, but when he dismounted to approach Laveaux on foot, he seemed considerably diminished. His legs were a little bowed from riding and so short that the scabbard of his immense sword cut a furrow in the dirt behind him as he walked. A small, knotty man, with the build of a jockey, a long underslung jaw, and strange deep eyes under the yellow headcloth revealed when he swept off his hat. Laveaux swung down from his own horse to meet him.
“My general,” Toussaint said in a clear voice, not particularly loud. “I place the Army of the West under your orders.” He made a half-turn and gestured with his hat in a semicircle behind him. The troops were drawn up for review, mounted officers waiting before them, and the foot soldiers ranked in row upon neat row, then in orderly columns running back along the side streets, then in wider ranks again on the slope above the town, black men mostly barefoot and bare-chested, relaxed and holding their arms at the ready.
Laveaux felt the short hairs prickling at the back of his neck and on his forearms under the sleeves of his uniform coat. He returned Toussaint’s salute, and stood facing the black officer, a full head shorter than himself, eyes shining up from under the yellow headscarf. Laveaux felt an urge to embrace him, but held himself back. He shook Toussaint’s hand. Something more was called for. He took the tallest red plume from his own hat and set it in the center of the white feathers which ornamented Toussaint’s bicorne. Toussaint smiled, nodded, adjusted the bicorne carefully on his head. He turned to face his troops, drawing himself up. The red feather bobbed high above the white ones in his hat. There was the silence before thunder, and then four thousand men began to cheer.
Fort de Joux, France August 1802
Daylight in the vaulted cell always seemed the light of dawn: gray, misty, cold and damp. Toussaint had been accustomed to get up before first light, to be well about his business before the sun had fully risen. He needed little sleep; two or three hours sufficed him ordinarily, so that he could spend half the night composing letters by lamplight, or ride cross-country by the light of the moon. Here in the Fort de Joux, the light of day did not progress; it gathered neither warmth nor energy, and Toussaint was tempted, because of the cold, to remain longer abed, his knees drawn up slightly under the brown woollen blanket, but when his watch advised him that, somewhere outside the thick stone walls that blocked his vision, the sun must have crested the cold mountain peaks, he rose and dressed himself rapidly, holding back a shiver from the chill, then went across the room to tend the fire.
Grâce à Dieu, a few coals had held beneath the gray-black layers of ash. Toussaint knelt carefully, propped himself on his knuckles, and lowered his head to blow the coals to life. When the small flame rose, he sat back on his heels and fed it little splinters of wood, then a couple of larger chunks. A small billow of warmth and orange light swelled out a little way from the hearth—it would not carry across the cell, and was never sufficient to surround him altogether. His supply of wood was insufficient . . . Toussaint warmed his palms against the small balloon of heat for a moment more, before he stood.
The worst of rising was that his cough began, a tickle at the back of his throat that grew to an itch he could not suppress, though he swallowed and swallowed to keep it down, walking barefoot across the cold flagstones of the floor. Ten paces from the grated window opening to the iron-bound door. Five paces from the fireplace to the opposite wall—a raw slab of stone from the mountain’s heart—the fire could not throw its heat far enough to absorb the moisture that collected there. The cold shot spearlike up his legs and spine to his back teeth, waking him more effectively than coffee. When the cough began, it echoed from the walls, and Toussaint pressed his forearm across his aching ribs, gathering in the pain of it. In the clammy cold his knees and shoulders pained him in a way he’d never known, and his old wounds reawakened, especially the hip with its bullet wound and the hand that had once been crushed by a cannon.
He spat the proceeds of his cough into his night jar, then quickly recovered the vessel. At the fireside he prepared coffee and, while it brewed, he held his yellow madras headcloth loose before the fire till it heated through, and then retied it over his head—the warm band at his temples seemed to soothe the headache that had lately begun to plague him. As he drank the coffee, thickened with sugar, his cough subsided and became controllable. Yet his ration of sugar was insufficient . . . He softened a piece of hardtack in warm sweetened water and ate it slowly with the coffee; he was not hungry but it was necessary to eat, not only to sustain his strength but to measure regular intervals of the day, though in these confines he was so inactive that he never had real appetite.
The fort’s bell gonged eight times slowly as he drained off the syrupy dregs from his coffee cup. He drew on his stockings, then his boots, and walked to the door, then to the window grating with its small, gritty diamonds of pale light. The door, the window . . . This meager exercise was also necessary. It scarcely warmed him, but as he walked his mind loosened and began to work more easily. He had, after all, his report to compose—there was his trial to prepare for, when the tribunal would judge between him and Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Captain-General Leclerc. The report must contain just enough truth to be credited and yet reveal nothing that might jeopardize his cause. Grâce à Dieu, Toussaint thought, refining phrases as he paced and turned, the truth itself was malleable, ready to change both form and substance as you molded it with your mind and tongue and pen.
Whatever he finally dictated he would himself believe.
The trial . . . Toussaint paused before the window grating, head angled up toward the gritty, colorless light. He turned and paced again toward the door, the diamond shadows of the grate checking his back. The rowels of his spurs rattled with his steps. Baille had not so far sought to confiscate the spurs. By and large this jailer seemed of a decent heart; he had accorded Toussaint the respect due a fellow-soldier, perhaps even a concitoyen. His hesitation in providing writing materials was worrisome, however, and in truth Toussaint had even greater need of a secretary, or more than one. In Saint Domingue, through the watches of his nights, he had ridden one scribe after another to exhaustion, then compared the different versions they produced, selecting the most advantageous phrasing from each. Now it mattered more than ever, what the words he chose would make him out to be.
Somehow the admirable opposite of his adversary, Captain-General Leclerc, who was . . . who was what? Impetuous, yes, there was a word. Blame Leclerc with the weakness of an unskilled rider, incapable of controlling the spirited mount he had been given. The forces under his command had escaped his capacity to direct them, he had thoughtlessly let those forces run recklessly abroad. Then too, Leclerc was famously a cuckold, his wife Pauline constantly and ostentatiously unfaithful. Such a man could not but see betrayal in every shadow. It was the disorder of his own mind that had made Leclerc suspect Toussaint of treason.
But he must not blame Leclerc directly—let all that emerge as an effect of contrast. For his own part, against this hotheaded, ill-disciplined, mentally unbalanced commander, Toussaint Louverture, general in chief of the French army of Saint Domingue, opposed his qualities of fidelity and watchfulness. The fierce dog at the gate of France’s most prized overseas possession. Endowed with the blind devotion to duty of (why not?) a former slave. When once he had recognized his sacred obligation, he clung to it with the tenacity of an English bulldog. Was that a fault? Perhaps, under certain circumstances, one might find blamable a simple old soldier’s blind attachment to what he sincerely believed to be the interest of his nation, France . . .
There. Toussaint stopped by the door, half smiling, his head cocked toward the keyhole, for the sentry on the other side had sneezed or shifted his feet. He listened, but there was no further sound. The adjoining cell was empty now, since his personal servant, Mars Plaisir, had been shipped out to some other, unknown destination. Before the valet’s departure, they had been in one another’s company for a little more than an hour each day. Mars Plaisir had seen to Toussaint’s needs and comfort as best he might under such conditions. He had brewed the coffee, sugared the wine, warmed the food—small ceremonies which Toussaint would not now permit himself to regret. Also the companionship. Even when they were apart, each could listen for and sometimes hear the movements of the other in the neighboring cell, though of course they were forbidden to call out.
Toussaint stood listening, but there was nothing more to hear, except the echo of the distant drip and splash in the third corridor, whose floor was always inches deep in water . . . His mental exertion had made him forget the chill, which now cut through to him again. He paced toward the window. Now that the image was complete in his mind, he must search the words to bring that image into being . . .
It is necessary that I account for . . . he began, but no. The phrasing implied too much in the way of external constraint. The impulse to tell the perfect truth must rather come from within the character he was creating. Unconscious of his action, Toussaint sat down in the chair by the fire. He gripped the wooden arms with both hands and focused his concentration.
It is my duty to render an exact account of my conduct to the French government. Yes. I will report the facts with all the frankness and naïveté of an old soldier. Yes, that was the tone, the attitude. The flow of his own words began to warm him. He sat with his eyes half-closed, his lips sometimes moving slightly, as he chose the words, reviewed and refined them, and set them down firmly in his memory.
Shortly after the fort’s bell had rung twelve times, he heard boots splashing in the third corridor, the sentry’s challenge, and then Baille’s reply. The huge iron key cried in the lock, but when the door opened it did so almost silently, floating into shadows by the wall. Baille came in with another, smaller Frenchman. The door shut behind them; the key screeched again and the lock snapped shut.
Toussaint did not rise from his chair, but lifted his head ever so slightly to acknowledge the visitors.
“You are well, I trust?” Baille’s smile was ever uneasy; his gray hands worked over each other. In one hand he held a white cloth bag.
“I am well enough.” Toussaint sniffed, then throttled the cough that tried to rise from the back of his throat. “Apart from the cold.”
“You understand, the requisition . . . be it for firewood or . . .” Baille’s weak smile guttered as he trailed off, then slowly regained its pale strength. “In the meantime, I have brought you sugar from my own personal supply.”
“You do me honor.” Toussaint glanced at the small square table.
As if released, Baille walked across and placed the supplementary sugar among the other provisions there. From the corner of his eye, Toussaint measured the package—perhaps two cupfuls.
“As for your other request,” Baille nodded to his companion. “I present my personal secretary, Monsieur Jeannin.”
Toussaint looked into the fire. The movement concealed his face from the others and so concealed his feeling—a quick rush of relief he much preferred not to reveal. He would certainly have been capable of phrasing the necessary document without the services of a secretary, but he knew that both his spelling and his penmanship were poor.
“C’est bien,” he said finally, raising his head.
Baille looked into the corners of the room, then clucked his tongue and rubbed his hands together. “No chair for Monsieur Jeannin to sit,” he said. “I will order one to be brought.”
Toussaint rose from his own seat, abruptly, as if to dismiss the commandant. “No matter,” he said. “Let the chair be brought tomorrow. Today I will dictate standing.”
“I will be outside the door,” Baille said, taking a step backward. “In case of need.” He looked pointedly at Jeannin. His nod to Toussaint was just short of a bow.
The key whined in the lock once more, and the silent shadow of the door floated across the room. Toussaint looked at Jeannin more closely. The secretary wore civilian clothes, a dark blue suit freely sprinkled with lint. He was small and slight, with a ring of stiff, dark curly hair surrounding a scaly bald spot, like a tonsure. His head thrust high from his grubby collar. Under his left arm he carried a wooden lap desk.
“To begin.” Toussaint indicated the chair he’d vacated with an unfolding of his right hand. Jeannin hitched the chair to the table, sat down and opened the lap desk. He took out a pen, an inkwell, and several sheets of paper, then looked up and cleared his throat.
“You are ready? Good,” Toussaint said. “Write what I say: It is my duty to render an exact account of my conduct to the French government; I will report the facts with all the frankness and naïveté of an old soldier, adding such reflections as may naturally present themselves . . .
Jeannin’s mouth opened. He dampened the pen point against his tongue, then dipped it in the ink well and began to write.
“You have it? Good.” The spiral of Toussaint’s steady pacing brought him near enough behind the table and chair that he could see the secretary’s hand was fair, and his transcription faithful. He nodded, pursing his lips as he moved toward the window.
“In the end, I will tell the truth,” he continued, “even if it be against myself.” He waited, listening to the scratching of the pen. A chunk of wood collapsed in the fireplace, scattering coals on the hearthstone.
“A new paragraph,” Toussaint said, when Jeannin’s pen had stopped. “But first, if you please, attend to the fire.”
Jeannin scratched around the edges of his tonsure and looked at him, eyes startled and glittering like a bird’s. After a moment, he shrugged, dropped the pen in the inkwell and did as he was bidden, adding a couple of sticks to the fire and, for the want of a proper tool, scraping the coals together with the side of his shoe. Toussaint waited for him to regain his seat.
“To the next paragraph. The colony of Saint Domingue, which I commanded, enjoyed the greatest tranquillity; both agriculture and commerce were flourishing there. . . .” Toussaint paused, listening to the pen. Jeannin slumped gradually forward across the table as he wrote, supporting himself on his left elbow, his head turned to one side. When he had finished he pushed himself upright.
“You have all that? Excellent,” Toussaint said. “All that, I am bold to say was my own work.”
In a matter of two weeks the memoir was drafted, recopied and ready for its reader. Toussaint might have finished it in half the time, but he had the services of only a single secretary and that for no more than a couple of hours each day. Yet his consciousness of time fell from him, and when Jeannin was absent he composed and memorized constantly, except for the moments when he ate and the hours when he slept. In a state somewhere between waking and dream (he had taken a slight fever) his mind’s eye filled with images of Saint Domingue, where Captain-General Leclerc now found himself more and more severely pressed on every side, as his European soldiers, already decimated by the battles of the spring, died out from yellow fever at a terrifying rate, while his black generals observed the weakening of his situation with what seemed an increasingly ill-concealed satisfaction, for the sly and diabolical policy of Toussaint continued to exercise itself through his former subalterns even in his absence, so that it was worth almost nothing to be rid of him. Everywhere there were risings in the hills, which the black generals never managed, and perhaps never really tried, to suppress completely. Leclerc’s program to disarm the population was revealed a wretched failure, and in fact he had no idea how many guns Toussaint might have poured into the countryside, though there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply, as if the weapons grew, like soursops and mangoes and bananas, on the jungle trees. The black generals could neither be trusted nor arrested (for only they controlled the black troops nominally under French command), and more and more it seemed impossible that the captain-general could ever satisfy Napoleon’s imperious demand—“Rid us of these gilded Africans, and we shall have nothing left to wish for . . .” Sonthonax had been right, Moyse had been right, Toussaint himself would be right in the end. Dismisally, Leclerc wrote home to France, “It’s not everything to have removed Toussaint, there are still two thousand chiefs here to be removed.”
As Toussaint emerged from the composition of his memoir, time began to weigh on him more heavily once more; the first day that Jeannin did not return passed very slowly. Not that the secretary had furnished conversation—indeed he had never spoken at all, except when, infrequently, he echoed one of Toussaint’s own phrases by way of confirmation. After the first hour Toussaint had understood that Jeannin’s silence must have been ordered by Baille or else by someone who stood above the commandant. This hardly mattered. But Toussaint had been warmed and distracted by the act of composition and by the sight of the stack of papers steadily growing under Jeannin’s trained hand.
Too little space was here, and too much time. In Saint Domingue, in (why not admit it, to himself?) his own kingdom, he would have been at some active work—campaigns or battles or oversight of cultivations—whenever he finished his travail du cabinet. But here he was caged in his own thoughts. As one chess player imagines the mind of another opposing him, he pictured Napoleon Bonaparte: a man of slight stature (like himself), a fine horseman and cavalry commander (like himself) who had come to political power not only through his military prowess but through a native political sagacity.
How would he, himself, respond, supposing their situation to be reversed? In Saint Domingue, certain men had died, ignored, in prison, such as Blanc Cassenave and Dieudonné—but he, Toussaint, had not killed these men! Such reproaches were inaccurate, and injust. Dieudonné, for example, had died as the captive of General Rigaud, at Les Cayes, while Toussaint was at the opposite end of the country, in the Department of the North. It was said that Dieudonné had been loaded with so many chains that at last he suffocated under their weight . . .
Now in his cell at the Fort de Joux, Toussaint felt the cold cut through to him again, and he was sweating, but his sweat was cold, and there seemed insufficient air in the cell for him to breathe. When Baille presented himself with the day’s rations, Toussaint declared that after all there was something more. Something different. After all, he would not send the document he had composed, or would not send it now. In its place, he would send a letter to Napoleon, no more than a line or two—five minutes of Monsieur Jeannin’s time. Toward nightfall, as the diamonds of weak daylight died on the cell floor, he dictated to the secretary the briefest of notes, which merely said that after all certain matters had been too delicate for commitment to a written memoir—matters it would be best to communicate in person.
When Jeannin had left with this last letter, Toussaint’s agitation drained from him. He sat for a while longer in the waning light of the fire, suffused with a sense of renewed calm, a patience too deep even to be aware of itself. The gongs of the fort’s bell no longer impressed him. He lay down on his cot and slept, free of dreams.