Let righteousness cover the earth like the water cover the sea . . .
—Bob Marley, “Revolution”
In the spring of 1794, the military map of Saint Domingue was signifi-cantly redrawn by Toussaint Louverture’s abrupt shift of allegiance from the Spanish monarchy to the French Republic. While in Spanish service, Toussaint had taken pains to reinforce the line of military posts known as the Cordon de l’Ouest, which ran from the seaport of Gonaives through the mountains to the border of Spanish Saint Domingue in the interior. The Cordon de l’Ouest effectively cut off the Northern Department of Saint Domingue, with its important town of Cap Français, from the rest of the colony, whose coast from Saint Marc (the port immediately south of Gonaives) to Port-au-Prince was now occupied by the English invaders or their allies. To control this line improved the French Republican position immeasurably.
Governor-General Etienne Laveaux had technically become the highest French authority in Saint Domingue upon the departure of Sonthonax. The scope of his authority was greatly enlarged by Toussaint’s volte-face, which made it possible for Laveaux to return from his hemmed-in position at Port-de-Paix to the seat of government at Cap Français, the northern capital. During Laveaux’s protracted absence, Le Cap had become a mulatto stronghold, under the command of the colored officer Villatte, and members of the colored land- and slave-owning class had substantially rebuilt the town, from which most whites had fled when it was sacked and burned in June of 1793.
The arrival of Toussaint Louverture in their camp was not necessarily welcomed by this mulatto class. Toussaint did have colored officers in his own force, and he cooperated with Villatte and other colored officers of the Le Cap region, under the command of Laveaux. Nevertheless, the mulattofaction of the north regarded Toussaint’s sudden ascendancy, and Laveaux’s rapidly increasing dependence on him and his men, with suspicion and even a degree of alarm. This anxiety was shared with the Republican colored party in the south, led by André Rigaud, a general of considerableability who was fighting the English invaders with some success on the southern peninsula, also known as the Grande Anse. Pinchinat, an elderly colored gentleman respected as a rhetorician and feared as a propagandist, carried messages back and forth between Rigaud in the south and Villatte’s party in the northern region.
Toussaint, meanwhile, was busy fighting a war on two fronts. Along the interior border, significant Spanish forces (mostly composed of black auxiliaries) remained to be dealt with. These troops, under the command of Toussaint’s erstwhile superiors Jean-François and Biassou, were less wellorganized and well trained than Toussaint’s own men, who were usually successful against them. At the same time, Toussaint’s army made repeated but unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the British from Saint Marc and fought numerous engagements in the region of the Artibonite River, the next significant natural boundary south of the mountains of the Cordon de l’Ouest. These areas remained in dispute, but from Dondon in the interior across the mountains to Gonaives, Toussaint—and thus the French Republic—was impregnable.
Papa Legba, we were singing, Attibon Legba, ouvri baryè pou nou . . . We sang, and Bouquart, the big Congo maroon with the cross-shaped marks of his people in Guinée paired on his stomach, struck the Asoto tambou, there at the center of the batterie of three drums. He touched the Asoto drum with his left hand and a small stick crooked like a hammer in his right. Papa Legba, open the gate for us . . . It was Bahoruco Mountain where we danced, on a height above the mouth of one of the great caves, and when the drums played, the cave spoke too in a drum’s voice. The drums called Legba to open the crossroads, let the loa come up from the Island Below Sea into our heads, and I, Riau, was singing too for Legba, not hearing my own voice any more than I felt the salt water gathering on my face. We call for blessed Legba to come, but sometimes it is Maît’ Kalfou who brings himself to the crossroads, the trickster, betrayer sometimes, magouyé.
Singing still, I watched Bouquart, his face sweat-shining, with a motionless grin gleaming as he drummed. The fleur-de-lys was branded on his left cheek, to punish him for running away, and for another such punishment his right ear had been lopped off, and for the same reason he wore on each leg a nabot the size and weight of a cannonball, welded around his ankles, and yet he had still run as far and fast as Bahoruco. If there had been a forge, I, Riau, might have struck the nabots off his feet, using the powers of fire and iron (for that Riau who was a slave had learned blacksmithing from Toussaint), and equally the power of my maît’ têt, Ogûn-Feraille, but there was no forge at Bahoruco, only the voices, the drums, the low droning out of the caves, then silence with hands fluttering on the drum skins light and soundless as the wings of birds, their gray and white feathers shivering, and the scream that came from Riau’s body, stripped the body from the mind, as the god came up from beneath the waters, through heels and spine to flower in his head.
It was not Ogûn who came, they told me after, not the proper master of my head, but Maît’ Kalfou who took my body for his horse, though never before had that one mounted Riau. Jean-Pic told me it was so, when Riau came to himself again at dawn, the cool mist rising round him at the edge of the sacred pool. It was quiet then, the birds speaking softly, hidden in the leaves, and only a drum’s echo beating slowly somewhere behind my head. Maît’ Kalfou, Jean-Pic told me, had walked among the dancers, his arms raised in the shape of the cross and his muscles trembling from their own strength, and had spoken in his wet, croaking voice, but Kalfou’s words belonged to the proclamation of Toussaint from Camp Turel.
My name is perhaps not unknown to you. But Maît’ Kalfou must have already been recognized by the serviteurs there . . . I have undertaken to avenge you. I want liberty and equality to reign throughout Saint Domingue. I am working toward that end. How such words must have sounded in the harsh, damp mouth of Kalfou . . . on the morning after my throat ached from his shouting them. Come and join me, brothers, and fight by our side for the same cause . . .
Those words were heard before in Bahoruco. Maît’ Kalfou had not been the first to bring them here. The words of Toussaint’s letter had come from both sides of the border, from the whitemen of France and the whitemen of Spain, and on the same day that the French Commissioner Sonthonax declared that all the slaves were free. Toussaint had signed his letter Toussaint Louverture, a name that he had never used before that time, when everyone had called him Toussaint Bréda, from the name of the habitation where he had been a slave.
I had not thought much of Toussaint’s words when they first came to us, though I saw that he was trying still to use words to sway men at long distances (as Riau had helped him to do, before Bahoruco), sending the words that walked on paper as his messengers, teaching them to speak with the voices of others. But the name . . . he had invented it, so much was sure, unless it was given to him by his mystère, but Toussaint always claimed that he served only Jesus, not the loa, and no one had ever seen a spirit mount his head. After Kalfou had let Riau’s flesh drop in the wind-fallen leaves beside the sacred pool, the understanding came to me, that in calling himself Toussaint of the Opening he meant to say it was Legba working through his hands.
But sometimes it is Maît’ Kalfou who comes . . .
“Go to the cacique,” Jean-Pic said, when I had spoken part of the thought to him. And I got up from the leaves and drank water from a spring nearby, and touched cold water to my face and the back of my head. Jean-Pic and I shared a mango he had picked. We went down toward the cave mouth where the cacique was, but the way there was not straight. Below where we walked the bitasyon spread among the folds of mountain in and out of sight, the square cays built of mud and stick and sometimes fenced with cactus thorn, the corn plantings twisting to follow veins of good earth among rock ledges on the slopes. The path twisted the same way between the corn and the yards of the mud-walled houses. All down the mountain the cocks were crowing and people waking to the day, stepping out upon their packed-earth yards. Farther down the gorges were the palisades of sharpened poles and the mantraps dug and hidden for attackers to fall into, or for anyone. Riau, I myself, might have been so taken, only that I came here with Jean-Pic who knew where the mantraps were dug. Under Santiago the maroons of Bahoruco had promised with the French whitemen to return escaping slaves for a reward of gold, but now Santiago was dead and by the words of Sonthonax there were no more slaves in the land, but still the maroons of Bahoruco mistrusted the coming of any stranger from outside.
The little crook-jawed pin-tooth dogs scampered and turned behind their cactus fences as we passed, but they did not bark or growl because they knew our smell. It was those dogs that gave the warning when the whitemen came, or anyone outside the bitasyon. Outside one cay a young woman looked up from where she was pounding dried corn into meal to smile at us both as we went by, but there were few women here, and the men were not so many as the whitemen believed they were. They told, when Santiago went to make the peace paper with the French whitemen, he brought one hundred thirty-seven grains of corn to show the number of the people, but that was trickery, there were more. Though not the thousands the whitemen believed, there were some hundreds there.
We walked the twistings of the path, worn deep in rocky earth by people walking, with a stream twisting beside it, lower down, until we turned the point of the ledge and came to the cave opening where the cacique was. Bahoruco was a cave of many mouths, and when too many of the whitemen soldiers come, our people knew to run into one mouth and come out at another, far away. The caves were full of the Indian mysteries carved in stone, so that the whitemen did not like to go in, or maybe they were only afraid of the darkness. In times before, enough blanc soldiers came to drive our people from Bahoruco back to Nisao, and they burned the corn and wrecked the houses, but afterward the people returned here, and the bitasyon had all been rebuilt and had been standing for some years.
The cacique had already come out to sit on the ledge before his cave mouth. He was old, with white hair hanging in flat strings, and the gold-colored skin of his face bunched in fine wrinkles. His belly skin was slack and loose and because of an illness he had to carry his balls in a basket when he walked. Now he sat, the basket folded in between his legs, and took the sun on his high cheekbones and his closed eyelids. They called him cacique not because he was truly a chief among the Indians but because he was the last Indian in that place. There was still blood mixture to be seen in the maroons of Bahoruco, in the angle of cheekbone, smoothness of the hair or slant of the eye, but it was sinking to the invisible, washed away in the blood of Guinée. Only the cacique remained with his Indian blood pure.
We had still the Indian-woven fish traps, the bows with their arrows almost as long as a man was tall, and some said even the gourd and bead asson which our hûngan shook in time with the drums as the spirits came down, that the asson had first been given by an Indian mystère. They said the cacique knew those mysteries, who had made him wise. Sometimes he could speak in Creole, but today he spoke only his own language, high and quavering as it floated out from his mouth over the green gorges, and the sound of it gave me sadness for my language of Guinée, my mother tongue, which Riau had forgotten.
A basket of loa stones, pierres tonnerres, lay by the cacique’s knee, and I sat down and lifted one, holding it in both my hands. It was black, cone-shaped, and heavier than any ordinary stone, from the weight of the loa who stayed inside. I did not know the language the cacique was singing over the hills, but understanding came to me. It seemed to come through the palms of my hands, which were both curved to the shape of the pierre tonnerre. I saw that Toussaint, when he chose his name at Camp Turel, would have known already what Sonthonax meant to say. He knew many whitemen and was known by them, so that he would have had this knowledge from their councils, before Sonthonax had spoken. He made his message then, choosing the same day, to show it was Toussaint, not Sonthonax, who would open the barrier to freedom.
I went away from the cacique’s ledge then, to the cay I shared with Jean-Pic and Bouquart and one other. There was no woman in the house, not one among the four of us. Jean-Pic had gone up into the corn plantings, and the others were gone too, so the house was empty. I took from a hole in the clay wall my two pistols and the watch plundered from the body of a whiteman officer long ago, also a box of writing paper and two packets of letters, one tied up with string and the other with blue ribbon—these last things Riau had taken when Halaou ran over a habitation in Cul de Sac, and also two long candles of white wax.
I lit one candle and wound the watch, then opened its face so I could see the thin black fingers counting away the bits of time like crumbs falling from a round cassava bread. With all these objects placed before me, alone in a house, I became perfectly like a whiteman, except there was no chair and everything lay on the floor.
Sometimes I would use pieces of sharpened charcoal to copy words and sentences from the letters, so that my skill in writing, which Toussaint had first taught me, would grow larger. By this copying I learned to compose each word with letters that properly belonged to it. Bouquart had interested himself in this art, and sometimes I would try to teach him, but he learned little. I was not such a teacher as my parrain Toussaint, who could train a horse and could train a man to train that same horse in place of himself, and who had given me an itch for words on paper which would not leave me, not when Riau first ran from Bréda to join the maroons of the north, not when he ran from Toussaint’s army to come to Bahoruco. When I copied the letters to the paper, I was altogether I—myself here, the words and paper there, and the whiteman language filled up all the space inside my head, but I knew it was an act of power. When I practiced this writing, I gained more power than my parrain, for Toussaint himself did not know how to put the same letters into his words each time he wrote them.
Both packages of letters had been sent to the gérant, a whiteman sent out of France to manage the plantation. Those tied with string were from the owners of that habitation, who lived in France but wrote mostly complaining to their gérant, that too much of money was spent, too small of harvests returned, that the slaves cost too much in money and would not work long or hard enough, that they cost too much in food, and too many ran away to the mountains. The last of those letters, written after the slaves had risen in the north, complained more bitterly of the disasters. But the letters tied with ribbon were sweeter to the taste of eye and mind—they came from two whitewomen of France, the gérant’s mother and another who sent words of love to him although she did not have his child. BonDyé had not joined these two together before Jesus, but it seemed they wished it, though now the ocean was between them. Those letters spoke words of love to the gérant, and went on whispering his name whenever I opened them, though the gérant had been dead since that night we had all come to that Cul de Sac plantation with Halaou, and when I copied the words they spoke again. Sometimes I thought of writing such a letter of Merbillay, who had my child—make the love words speak to her from paper. I could write my son to Caco, how the letters of the gérant’s mother always began—my dear son. But I did not know if Merbillay was still with Toussaint’s camp wherever it had moved to, or if she had gone somewhere else, but wherever she was, she could not read and had never thought of learning.
This day I wrote nothing, copied no word, but sat with my arms wrapped around my knees, looking across the candle flame at the glitter of the watch and the metal pieces on the pistols. In learning to use such tools as these, Riau might enter the mind of a whiteman. Of Toussaint and Sonthonax, which was the greater magouyé?
With Toussaint’s army Riau was an officer of the rank of captain, wearing boots and a sash and cartridge box, with power to order lesser soldiers how to fight, but when he felt too much like a horse in harness, he stripped off those officer clothes and ran with Jean-Pic to Bahoruco. There we heard that Halaou, who was both warrior and hûngan, as Boukman had been in the first rising in the north, was killing whitemen on the plain of Cul de Sac. Then I, Riau, I went to see this Halaou with my own eyes—ten thousands of men followed him then, all slaves risen from the habitations, so one more was not noticed. Halaou kept his camps across the Spanish border, some way north of Bahoruco, but would come out from his camps to kill whitemen on the plain, or fight against the grand blanc Frenchmen who had joined the English of Jamaica to make us slaves again. Halaou was a big man, and he went to the fighting like a possédé, and at the ceremonies strong spirits stormed around his head, but at other times he went quietly, so that he was not much noticed, and he always carried in his arms a white cock, tenderly as one carries a baby. In the cluckings of the white cock he heard the voices of his spirits.
Halaou ran to every fight shouting out that the cannon was bamboo, the gunpowder no more than dust. I, Riau, had heard such words before, from the mouth of Boukman (which was lipless now, for Boukman’s head was rotting on a stake on the dirt walls outside of Le Cap) and had seen men die because of them. This was not Toussaint’s way of fighting. Toussaint was stingy with the lives of his men as a whiteman with his coins. But when Riau followed Halaou to the fighting, there was Ogûn in his head, and the joy of war and battle belonged to Ogûn, and no harm came to the flesh of Riau, though others died and went beneath the waters.
Then Sonthonax came south to Port-au-Prince with his party of the French who were called Republicans, who stood against the grand blanc French, the old slave masters, who were with the English at Saint Marc. The grand blancs and the English wanted to take Port-au-Prince, where the Republican army was mostly colored men, and no one was certain how those colored men would fight, because many of them, too, owned land and slaves before the risings. Sonthonax did not have many whiteman soldiers fighting for his cause. But Halaou had heard that the slaves who were made free now called Sonthonax BonDyé, a god for their freedom, and the white cock clucked that Halaou must go to see this Sonthonax inside of his own eyes.
With ten thousands of his men Halaou went to Port-au-Prince, men beating drums and blowing conch shells and cow horns and trumpets made of metal, swirling bulls’ tails around their heads and shouting the name of Halaou. Many were mounted by the loa on that journey, but I, Riau, walked with myself alone and saw. The Commissioner Sonthonax came out to the ditches around Port-au-Prince, wrapped in the colored ribbons of France, and kissed Halaou on both his cheeks. He brought Halaou for feasting in the Palais National, and Halaou sat at the table among whitemen and colored officers in their uniforms, himself bare-chested but for the ouangas that hung from his neck, and holding the white cock always on his left knee or in the crook of his left arm. Halaou’s people had filled up the town, enchanted and shouting to see Halaou feeding the white cock from the commissioner’s table, but I, Riau, was silent in myself—I saw how we were many, but that the colored soldiers were better organized and armed in their small number. I understood such things from serving with Toussaint, and I saw how the colored soldiers looked at Halaou’s men, fingering the locks of their muskets.
After the feasting was done, Sonthonax sent Halaou to make agreement with the colored General Beauvais, who commended the Légion de l’Ouest at Croix des Bouquets. Riau went there also, to Croix des Bouquets, and stood with Dieudonné in the council room. Dieudonné had grown strong with Halaou, and the white cock trusted him, so that Halaou liked to keep Dieudonné at his back. As for Dieudonné, he had come to trust Riau. We stood with our backs to the wall, on either side of the window, while Halaou sat at the table with Beauvais and two of his officers. Halaou held the white cock on the table, stroking its feathers with his left hand and preening under its neck with his right finger. He and Bauvais were speaking in voices too low for us to understand their words. Afterward some people claimed that secretly Sonthonax had told Halaou to surprise Beauvais and kill him, and others said that the colored men had all along intended to murder Halaou. I did not know anything about it, though I felt that something bad would come from our going to that place. Why did the white cock not warn Halaou away? Two sergeants of the Légion de l’Ouest broke in through Beauvais’s office door already shooting, and they shot Halaou many times before he could rise out of his chair, but the white cock crowed and flew between us, out the window. Dieudonné and I turned over the table and went out the window, after the cock.
Then the colored soldiers began to kill the men of Halaou. We were many and they were few, but they had the better guns, and discipline, and Halaou’s men were in terror because Halaou was killed and they had seen the white cock fly away, deserting them. They dropped their bulls’ tails, which would no longer fan away the bullets, and threw down their lambi shells and ran—many were killed there and thrown in the ditches of Croix des Bouquets, and the rest scattered.
After this had happened, Hyacinthe came out of prison, released by Sonthonax. Like Halaou, he was both warrior and hûngan, and many of Halaou’s men had been with Hyacinthe before, and went back to him now he had returned, but the colored men teased Hyacinthe to a meeting and killed him, as Halaou was killed. Bébé Coustard attacked Croix des Bouquets with men that had been with Hyacinthe and Halaou, and all the colored men were trapped in the church, but one of them came out alone to parlay and killed Bébé Coustard with his musket, and seeing him dead the men were afraid and threw down their weapons and scattered.
I, Riau, went with Dieudonné, who gathered some of those men who had run together again at Habitation Nerrettes. Then the English and the grand blanc French came both in ships and overland to attack Port-au-Prince, and Sonthonax had no soldiers left to fight for him except colored soldiers who wanted to go over to the English anyway, so Sonthonax ran away to the colored General Rigaud in the south. When he stopped at Nerrettes plantation, Sonthonax gave his ribbons and the big commissioner’s coin to Dieudonné, and said with this gift went all his powers that he had brought out of France, and he warned Dieudonné against the colored men, saying, Do not forget, so long as you see colored men among your own, you will not be free. But later on we learned that when Sonthonax came to Rigaud, he gave Rigaud the command of the colony as he had given it to Dieudonné (though only Dieudonné had the medal and the ribbons).
A boat had come from France, bringing a paper of French government that said the slaves of Saint Domingue were free, but Sonthonax climbed into the boat and sailed away. If he was the BonDyé for our freedom, he was gone now, like Halaou’s white cock.
Fok nou oué nan jé nou—we must see with our own eyes. Yet I thought it had cost Halaou very much to look at the face of Sonthonax, so I left Dieudonné then and went back to Bahoruco, where I sat inside the clay walls of the cay which shut out the sunlight, and looked at the whiteman things by the candle flame. Sonthonax had gone away. In the west wherever the English came they brought back the grand blanc French who had been slave masters, and whatever the paper said, there would be slavery under them. Rigaud might say he fought for the Republican French who wrote the freedom paper, yet he and the colored men with him had all been slave masters before the risings. Whatever black leader put his head above the rest was cut down and killed like Halaou. Perhaps after all there was only Toussaint.
The whiteman must know a reason for each thing which he does, but with the people of Guinée, it is not so. I had a spirit walking with me, whether Kalfou or Ogûn-Feraille, and had only to go where the spirit would lead me, as Halaou followed the white cock. I stopped the candle and put the whiteman things back into the hole in the wall and covered them, and then went out of the cay. The sunlight was a shock to my eyes, so that I stood blinking. I had not eaten since I woke, but I was not yet hungry. I went up into the provision ground behind the cay. Butterflies floated over the flowers on the plants of pwa rouj. The beans were not yet ready to pick, but the corn tassels were turning brown. I picked some ears and piled them, and then dug yams with a pointed stick hardened in the fire, until I met Jean-Pic coming the other way along the planting. He looked at all the vivres I had gathered and then into my face.
“I am going north,” I said. “Will you come?”
Jean-Pic looked all around, at the green trees hanging to the sides of the mountain, the red-earth cliff across the gorge, with terraces to hold up cays. He scratched the back of his head, and said, “Was it the cacique who told you to do that?”
I lifted my shoulders and let them fall. The cacique had not spoken any language that we understood, which Jean-Pic knew as well as Riau, but maybe it was after all because of the cacique, or because of Maît’ Kalfou.
“Men . . .” Jean-Pic scratched his head again, looking all around the bitasyon. It was still early-morning light, with the mist still lifting off the slopes around us. “Sé bon isit-mêm,” he said. It’s good right here.
“Sé vré,” I answered, and it was true, and yet I would go anyway. I lifted the vivres I had gathered and began walking down toward the cay. I had known Jean-Pic for a long time, since we were with Achille’s band in the north, but Achille was killed in the first risings, and since then Jean-Pic and I traveled sometimes together, sometimes apart.
Bouquart came after me, out of the corn. He moved in a fast, rolling lope in spite of the two nabots fixed to his feet, and caught me with no great trouble.
“You are going,” he said. “Why do you go?”
I lifted my shoulders. A whiteman might have answered it was because I hoped to find Merbillay and Caco again, or because of the thoughts in my head about Toussaint, or only because there were few women at Bahoruco. But Riau had no such thought. At other times I had left Dieudonné, and I had left Toussaint’s army. I had left Habitation Bréda when I ran away to the maroons and before that I left Guinée to be a slave in Saint Domingue. Now I was leaving Bahoruco. Bouquart stood with a cane knife hanging from his hand, the flat of the blade against his knee, sweat shining over his scarred chest where his breath moved, and his smile uncertain.
“I will go too,” he said, and lost the smile when he closed his mouth, watching Riau.
I looked at the two nabots on his feet, and at the muscles that swelled up from his ankles to his hips. Bouquart had told the story, how he had limped through his days in the cane field, after the whitemen gave him his nabots, but by night he had practiced walking, then running, in the secret dark by the river. Now he could run as fast with his weighted legs as any other man without. If ever the nabots were removed from his legs, Bouquart would run faster than a horse.
“Dako,” I said, agreed, and Bouquart smiled more fully.
Together we made ready to leave, putting the corn and the yams in a straw sack. I carried the watch and pistols and the candle ends in a smaller straw macoute with a strap for my shoulder, and I put the empty writing papers in there too, but the bundles of letters I left in the wall, in case the whiteman words should twist in my sack to betray me.
We left Bahoruco before midday and traveled until dark came, then walked through the next day also, but after that we slept through the days, hiding in the bush, and walked by night, because we did not want to meet any whiteman soldiers. Because the English were at Port-au-Prince we passed on the other side of the salt lake at the end of the Cul de Sac plain, over the Spanish border, and then climbed into the mountains toward Mirebalais. Neither Bouquart nor Riau knew who was holding the town that time, so we went around it on the heights until we came to the south shore of the Artibonite. The river was too deep for Bouquart—his nabots would have drowned him, and also there were caymans in the water, or might have been. We passed one day in cutting wood to build a raft, and when we put it in the water we learned that neither Riau nor Bouquart had good skill to guide it, so we drifted a long way downriver before we could reach the other side, almost as far as Petite Rivière. On the north shore people told us that the English had come out from Saint Marc to build a fort at La Crête à Pierrot, above the town, so we went around Petite Rivière to the west, leaving the river, and kept following the mountains north toward Gonaives.
The Savane Désolée was there when we came out of the mountains, all cactus, dust and salt pans, with water too salt to drink. The road was flat and open but Riau was uneasy walking it—we could be seen from a long distance in that open country. While we were walking, a dust cloud rose ahead, toward Gonaives, so we left the road and hid among the cactus and raquette trees. The army was a long time passing, with many horsemen, and even more foot soldiers, and mules dragging cannons behind. When it had gone by, and the dust settled, we went back to the road. Some camp followers were still coming along in the rear, women or old men leading donkeys packed with provisions. I called to a woman in a spotted mouchwa têt riding sidewise on a little bourik with a wood saddle.
“Ki moun ki pasé la?” I said. Who are the people passing there?
“Sé l’armée Toussaint Louvti yo yé.” She threw her head back, grinning, and whipped the air with the little stick she used to drive her donkey. “Yo pralé batt l’anglais!” She rode on.
The army of Toussaint Louverture, going to beat the English. Bouquart wanted to follow them, but Riau wanted to go north, out of the desert to the green of the mountains. We rested through the high heat of the day in the thin, dry shade of the raquettes, and I gathered salt from the flats and put it in a cloth bag I carried in my small macoute. When the sun turned red and began to fall, we walked on along the road, and in the darkness we turned from Gonaives on the trail toward Ennery. We rested and traveled through that night and at dawn had come to the coffee trees on the heights of Habitation Thibodet.
Most of Toussaint’s army had left that place, it was plain, gone to the fighting at Saint Marc. There were some few black soldiers left to guard the habitation and the camp, and sick or wounded men in the hospital, where Riau had helped the whiteman doctor Hébert before I ran from Toussaint’s army. Many of the women had stayed behind the army, with their children, and now they were coming out of their ajoupas, lighting cook fires and beginning to grind meal.
I left Bouquart to rest in hiding in the bush beyond the coffee trees, and I went down softly through the ajoupas. That ajoupa I had raised was still standing where it had been, but the roof was larger now and someone had woven palmiste panels to make walls. The banza I had made for playing soft music hung still from the ridgepole where it had hung, and Caco, my son Pierre Toussaint, lay sleeping on a straw mat, curled like a kitten. Merbillay was standing just outside, working a long pestle up and down in a stump mortar. Her arms were smooth and strong and she wore a blue dress and a red headcloth with gold threads on the edges. I plucked a note on the banza and she turned and peered into the shadows of the ajoupa, first looking to see that Caco slept safely, then finding Riau’s face.
“M’ap tounen, oui,” I said, no louder than a whisper. Yes, I have come back. Her face went blank as the surface of the sacred pool at Bahoruco. A moment passed, and then she smiled and came underneath the roof with me.
Riau slept afterward for a time, tired from the long night of traveling. I thought Bouquart must be sleeping too where he was hidden above the coffee trees. When I woke, Merbillay was still by me, lying on her back with her eyes open to the cracks of light in the woven walls. I spread my hand across her belly and felt the hard curled shape of a new child.
Merbillay sat up sharply then, and so did I, turning my shoulder from her. Caco had waked and looked at Riau with his bright, curious eyes.
“Vini moin,” I said. “Sé papa-ou m’yé.” Caco hesitated, till Merbillay clicked her tongue, and then he came to me quickly. He had grown very much—his legs hung below my waist when I lifted him to my chest. I carried him outside the ajoupa, kissing the short hair on top of his head. When he began to squirm, I let him down and he ran away toward the voices of other children.
Merbillay came out from the ajoupa, with all her clothes adjusted. Our eyes looked every way but at each other. At last I kissed my fingers to her and began climbing the hill to look for Bouquart. Anger was rising up my throat, but if my thought went outside of Riau, it said that Riau had left with no word or warning and had been gone more than one year. Why would Merbillay not take another man? But the anger with its bitter taste was hard to swallow back.
Doctor Hébert had gone to the fighting at Saint Marc, I learned, and in the grand’case was his colored woman Nanon with her son and also the doctor’s sister with her man, the gunrunner Tocquet, and the child who they had made together. When I studied the grand’case from the hill, I saw that the rotten places had all been repaired and much work done to channel the water to a pool in front. Grass began to grow there now, and flowers, where packed earth had been before. But I stayed away from the yard below the gallery of the house, for Tocquet was a man to know one nèg from another.
At night I came to Merbillay, bringing Bouquart with me under cover of the dark. She cooked for both of us, and we ate without much talk. That night I lay again beside her, awake for a long time listening to her breath in sleep, until the moon was high, and I went out, down behind the stables, where the forge was dark and untended. A brown horse hung his head over a stall door and whickered to me, and I saw it was Ti Bonhomme. This horse had belonged to Bréda before, and Riau had ridden him with Toussaint’s army too. I went to him and gave him salt from the bag I had gathered in the desert, and felt his soft nose breathing on my palm.
During the next day, I carved a wheel for Caco and pinned it to a long stick for him to push and play with. In the night I lay again with Merbillay, but at moonrise I went out quietly and found Bouquart and led him down behind the stables. We fired the forge, Bouquart helping with the bellows, as I showed him. When the forge grew bright, some few people came from the ajoupas on the hill and watched from the shadows outside the firelight, but no one challenged Riau, I don’t know why. When the forge was well heated I made the tools ready and cut the nabots from Bouquart’s feet, first the right and then the left. They fell in their hinged halves, like heavy melons, and when each one opened there was a sigh, from the people watching out of the darkness, like a breath of wind.
Bouquart looked up at me, his eyes shining in the firelight. He wet a finger in his mouth and touched it to a spot where the hot metal had blistered his skin. Above his ankles where the nabots had been, his leg hair was all rubbed away and the skin was polished and shiny, with black marks on the tendon from chafe wounds that had healed. Bouquart stood up. When he took his first step, his knee shot up so high it nearly hit him in the face. He walked farther, then ran and leapt, so high he touched the barn roof with the flat of his open hand. Ti Bonhomme the horse whinnied from surprise and pulled his head back from the stall door. Bouquart landed in a squat, then stood up, smiling from one ear to the other. In the shadows the people laughed and clapped, and some began to come forward toward the light, the women’s hips moving as though they would dance.
We stayed for many days at Habitation Thibodet, I did not count how many. It was calm there all the time. In the daytime the women worked in the coffee or in the provision ground, while the few men who remained did soldier tasks and cared for the horses. All day I kept inside the ajoupa, sometimes playing the banza softly, with the heel of my palm damping the skin head so that the sound would not carry. Or I would go into the jungle with Caco. I had seen no man there I knew by name (except the blancs in the grand’case). Those Riau had known in Toussaint’s army had all gone to the fighting at Saint Marc, and the whiteman doctor went there also, Merbillay had told me, or perhaps some had been killed, or run away as Riau had done before. But still there might be some man in the camp who would know Riau by sight.
I spent my days in the ajoupa or in the trees with Caco far from the camp, and by night I lay with Merbillay. We had not spoken of the new child coming, yet it lay between us whenever our bellies came together.
The news came that Toussaint’s army was returning. The English were not chasing them, but still they had come back to Gonaives. It was told that Toussaint had come into the town one time, but the English had sent ships with cannons so that he and his men were driven out again. It was told that a cannonball struck Toussaint in the face, but his ouanga was so strong the cannonball did not kill him, though it knocked out one of his front teeth. Toussaint, it was told, had captured Fort Belair and begun to put cannons on Morne Diamant to fire into Saint Marc from above, but during the work a cannon fell on his hand and crushed it, and for this he had come back to Gonaives to wait for healing.
By afternoon more soldiers had come into the camp at Habitation Thibodet, though not Toussaint himself, and not all of his army. From the ajoupa I heard the voice of the whiteman Captain Maillart and the voice of Moyse calling out orders, they who had been brother captains with Riau before. All day I stayed in the ajoupa, silent, though Caco called me from outside, and I was glad of the woven walls which hid me.
After darkness came and the camp was quiet, I lay beside Merbillay again, but this night we did not touch. It seemed a long time before she slept. Then I got up quietly and took the small macoute, which I had made ready before. The moon had not yet risen so it was very dark, but before I had gone many steps from the ajoupa, Bouquart rose out of his sleeping place, whispering.
“You are going.”
“Yes,” I said, “but you can stay.” I told him he had only to go to Moyse or the blanc Maillart to be made one of Toussaint’s soldiers. I had seen his eyes admiring the soldiers in the camp.
“But you.” Even in the dark I saw Bouquart’s eyes turn to the ajoupa.
“Gegne problèm,” I said. There was a problem, more than one. Merbillay’s new man would be coming back, if he was not killed in the fighting. Riau knew this, though she had not said it. Perhaps I would not have left only for that, but there was another thing I knew. Toussaint would kill a man for running from his army, desertion as it was called by whitemen and Toussaint. Riau had felt his pistol barrel against my head one time before, and that was only petit marronage, two or three days of hunting in the hills. A year in Bahoruco was grand marronage.
I followed Bouquart’s eyes toward the ajoupa. “Say I will come back,” I told him.
Bouquart’s head moved toward me through the darkness. “When?”
“M’ap tounen pi ta,” I said. I will come back later.
The brown horse Ti Bonhomme had been turned out into a paddock. He came to the fence when I clicked my tongue, and I gave him salt from the bag I had gathered, and made a bridle of a long piece of rope. Holding his mane with my left hand, I swung up onto his bare back. I did not steal a saddle or a leather bridle, though I knew where they were kept, and I would not have taken the horse either except that I needed him to carry me quickly far away.
When the moon did rise, it filled the forest with the light of bones. By moonlight it was easy to ride faster. My spirit led me to a tree where hung the skull and bones of a long-horned goat and the cross of Baron Samedi. Here I reined up my horse, and looked at the ground, the fallen leaves piled under moonlight. The grave had long ago filled in or washed away, but still I felt a hollow. In this place Riau had helped Biassou to take the flesh of Chacha Godard from the ground and make it breathe and walk again, a zombi.
I felt fear in my horse’s heart, between my knees. I let the reins out and rode quickly on. The night was warm, but a cold straight line was down my back, like death. I took a lump of the desert salt from the sack and held it on my tongue, my jaws shut tight.
Cool, and the calm was ruffled only by the wind, shivering the heavy blades of the tall old palms. Above the bunches of their tops, the stars of morning faded, as the cocks took up their cry. A last mosquito, his namesake, whined round his ear, then stung. Moustique, whose hands were both engaged in balancing the priest’s slop jar, could not slap it. He let it feed, then fly, and felt his way forward through the warm wet darkness, his ivory toes splaying in the dirt.
L’Abbé Delahaye had assigned him the slop jar to teach him humility, he said. Moustique was meant to share the vessel, during the night, and likewise to share the priest’s bedchamber, but he preferred to sleep in the outer room, on a pallet, under the shadows of the chalice and censer on the table, the iron crucifix nailed to the wall—he went outside to relieve his flesh, if he must. The priest snored ferociously, and the bedroom, windowless, was too close and too completely dark.
Delahaye himself had done such tasks, which some might think degrading, during his novitiate in France. He mocked Moustique for rising before first light in hope of hiding his progress with the ordures. One who has attained humility, the priest was wont to say, cannot be humiliated. Furthermore, the boy should count himself lucky that the weather was always dulcet here. As a novice, Delahaye had performed his morning devoir walking barefoot across freezing flagstones of his monastery, while outside the roofs and the ground would be covered with snow, that frozen rain that fell lightly as feathers . . . like cotton, the priest explained, but Moustique had not seen cotton either, though once it had been grown in Saint Domingue.
Moustique listened, often without comprehension, and woke each morning well before dawn, to lie listening to the wind bowing the tall palms, the clatter of leaves distant beyond the roar of the priest’s snoring through the thin partition. Then he pushed himself up and collected the slop jar and went out into the dark.
It had rained in the night, and the earth beyond the borders of the village was damp beneath his feet. He moved to the edge of the path to avoid a party of charcoal burners he could hear coming down from the mountain with their loaded bouriks. They passed him, clucking softly to their animals, the little donkeys snorting at his scent. To his left he could hear the river running over the rocks, and he cut a new path through the reeds and emptied the jar among them, then went on in a long curve to strike the river bank at a lower point. The stars were gone, and daylight was coming up quickly now, framing the mountains and the treetops against a purple sky, new light creating the world all at once out of darkness, as Moustique came out of the reeds onto a gravel shoal.
He stepped shin-deep into the water and crouched down to wash the jar. The morning mist was lifting from the river, and he saw a party of girls upstream, kneeling to dip water for their houses, Marie-Noelle among them. Their laughter belled out when they saw him, ringing with innocent delight that a creature so absurd as himself should have appeared for their amusement. Ducking his head above the cold stream, he felt his face break out with inflamed patches that ran down his throat past the loose collar of his shirt and spread across his collarbone. Delahaye addressed him always as Jean-Raphael, but in a reckless moment he had disclosed his nickname to Marie-Noelle, and this information had become the centerpiece for many pleasantries.
“Ti-moun prêt, sé moustik li yé!” they called after him, and tightened their lips to make the insect whine. The baby priest is a mosquito . . . His gangly limbs were like the legs of a mosquito, his long nose of a blanc might give a mosquito’s sting. Moustique refused to look back at them, but even if he could not hear their jokes and laughter, he would have been as acutely aware of them, sauntering a few yards behind him, hands and hips lazily swinging, the water jars effortlessly balanced on their heads. He understood that Marie-Noelle tormented him partly from annoyance that he had deprived her of much of her work for the priest—Delahaye had reassigned the most menial tasks to him, although the girl still came to his house to cook, for the priest would not tolerate Moustique’s cooking. There was a limit, he declared, to the mortification of the flesh.
He set the washed jar down on the priest’s doorsill, then untied the priest’s two donkeys, the jack and the sweet jenny each marked with a crude cross on the flank, and led them out to forage. When he returned, the priest was at matins. Not many of the faithful had assembled, it being a weekday (and in any case all the white planters had been killed or driven into refuge on the coast). Some few black men and women had come down from the hills, hoping for a Jesus ouanga, a taste of power from the mighty god of blancs. Moustique’s own father had been free enough in dispensing such charms, but Delahaye was stricter—he would not baptise anyone more than once, provided that he recognized the convert on a later application. Part of Moustique’s duty, indeed, was to identify new Christians who came again to repeat the treatment.
He served at the altar as he had been taught. After the service, Delahaye heard his recitation. Moustique spoke with some difficulty, his mouth full of saliva; he could smell the maize cakes Marie-Noelle was frying over the cook fire behind the house.
“‘For if the first fruit be holy,” Moustique carefully pronounced, “‘the lump is also holy, and if the root be holy, so are the branches.
“‘And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive branch, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root at fatness of the olive tree;
“‘Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.’ ”
Delahaye nodded pensively, signaling with his forefinger for Moustique to continue. The priest assigned him a chapter to memorize each day, first in Latin, which was mere noise to the boy, then in a French version—good French, for if Moustique should lapse into Creole, Delahaye would rap him across the knuckles with the back of a wooden spoon. And yet at other times the priest would drift, captured more by the sense of the passage than the phrasing.
“‘Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.
“‘Well, because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith, be not high-minded, but fear:
“‘For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.’ ”
“Yes . . .” Delahaye said, presenting the flat of his palm to stop the recital. “Yes, that will do.” His eyes cleared and focused on Moustique. “Let us break our fast then,” he said, and touched the boy’s hand in a kindly manner, as he sometimes would. “My wild olive branch.”
Moustique followed him, his puzzlement mute, from the church to the house. As soon as they were seated, Marie-Noelle served them quickly and then withdrew. They ate the maize cakes flavored with dark cane syrup, washed down by cold water from the river. Delahaye discoursed on Latin grammar, comparing certain passages of the morning’s text to the French translation. Moustique nodded, miming comprehension, whereas in truth the only thing that he had grasped was that while French was for white men, and Creole for black, Latin was the language spoken by God.
“You may go to the washing,” Delahaye told him as they picked at the last crumbs, “after the dishes, of course.”
Moustique’s heart lowered. Wash day was in some ways his worst experience of an ordinary week. He looked out the open door in the direction Marie-Noelle had gone. A wisp of smoke from the dying cook fire drifted across the open front of the ajoupa where the girl had slept, before his own arrival. The little lean-to stood empty now, though Moustique would have gladly slept there himself, farther from the snoring, if Delahaye had allowed it.
“Above all you must beware of concupiscence,” Delahaye suddenly announced, drawing the boy’s attention back from the world beyond the door. “Lasciviousness, lust of the flesh. Through this sin was your father lost to God.”
Moustique flinched, swallowed, and got up to clear the table.
The young girls washed downriver from the older women, and Moustique washed downriver from the girls. On other occasions he had gone upstream from all of them, half-hiding himself in a patch of reeds, but the women frowned and the girls complained loudly that they caught his dirt drifting down the currents. Today he crossed the gravel shoal in full view of their party, swinging his bundle of cloth down on the sand at the water’s edge. The sun was hot across his back, but the water was so cold that when he first put a foot in, it shocked him clear to his back teeth. He sighed, unfolded a cassock on the surface of the water, then plunged it under and began to scrub it with a long bar of handmade soap.
This was, absolutely, women’s work: another station on his pathway to humility. His father, the French Jesuit Père Bonne-chance, had been a humble man; Moustique had felt this for himself, before his father’s execution, and his feeling was confirmed by Delahaye, who had known him reasonably well. There was much virtue in your father, Delahaye would lecture him, even a vocation for martyrdom, as was proved, and yet he shut himself out of the community of saints, because . . . Because, Moustique reminded himself wearily, he had fallen into the snare of love for women, notably Moustique’s mother Fontelle, and had used his male member to plant the seed of children in her belly, the germ of Moustique and his sisters.
He spread a sheet across a boulder and began to scour it with a rounded stone. His palms were wrinkling now from soaking in the water. For some time the girls had been chaffing him in their loud, laughing voices, but Moustique, wrapped up in other thoughts, had scarcely been aware of them. Was this the beginning of humility? The divorce of his mind from his surroundings was certainly something new. And the girls, seeing he did not react to their teasing, had lost interest and begun to splash each other. Moustique understood the source of their resentment—he did not belong here at this hour of the day, no more than any man, and if not for his presence the girls would have been free to strip off the dresses they were wearing and scrub them clean and then swim naked while their clothes dried on the rocks. As it was, the splashing game had soaked the whole pack of them to their necks, so that the wet fabric clung transparently to the rich chocolate flesh, breast and buttocks and belly and the shadowy cleft between the thighs . . . Moustique’s mind skittered sideways, crossing over fragmentary passages half-remembered from a very curious French novel his father had kept hidden (so he thought) and which Moustique and his sisters had partially puzzled out in secret sessions, blushing and giggling in embarrassed titillation.
Now his skin was all afire again, and his wicked thoughts were concentrating in the arrow shaft of sin, which sprung forward and strained against the cotton of his breeches. Moustique sank down to his knees, waist-deep in the water, but it was useless now. The girls had begun to grin and gesture—they knew they had him back on the skewer—and the water was not cold enough to quench his heat. But his mind slipped free of his body again, as it had done a few minutes before, and though he felt the physical symptoms of his shame, the blush and bulge, these no longer mattered to him. Was this humility? He stood up out of the water, his empty hands loose at his sides, and looked at the girls frankly, making no effort to conceal himself. The fattest and most impudent of the group cocked her forefinger at his crotch.
“Moustik sa-a, li kab piqué dè fois!” And she erupted into a laugh so powerful she fell over backward into the shallows with a tremendous splash. It was a fine witticism and the others quickly took it up, shrieking and pointing as they cried, “This mosquito can sting two times!” Moustique stood still, almost relaxed, and gazed at them with something like indifference. Marie-Noelle, he noticed in a distant way, had not joined in the laughter of the others.
On Saturday a party of mulattoes came, coffee planters from the hills roundabout, to dine with the priest before mass on Sunday morning. Moustique had encountered most of them a time or two before, but had not learned their names, no more than they had inquired after his . . . although he saw that he was noticed by appraising, not entirely friendly eyes. If Delahaye had explained his presence to the guests, he’d done so out of Moustique’s earshot. They were griffes or marabou mostly, from the point of view of color, so Moustique was lighter-skinned himself than any of them.
Marie-Noelle had prepared griot of pork with rice and beans and a few stewed greens, but she remained outdoors beside her fire, while Moustique served the table. He was not invited to sit down, but caught snatches of the conversation as he passed the plates and refreshed the rum and water the company drank in place of wine. Most of the talk concerned the war. Toussaint had been battering Saint Marc since midsummer, and without success, but he had defeated the English almost everywhere else he had met them, at Marchand and Pont l’Ester and Verrettes. From this last position he had quickly turned to drive the Spanish from Petite Rivière. The sheer speed of his maneuvering was remarkable, all agreed.
Toussaint was certainly a man of cunning, said the oldest man at the table, fondling his peppery beard as he spoke. Perhaps even a man of genuine talent—but no one could prevail indefinitely against European soldiers. A marabou youth across the table hotly rejoined that no campaign of the British General Brisbane had managed to dislodge Toussaint from the Cordon de l’Ouest.
“So for the moment he remains our master,” said the bearded man, “for better or for worse,” and someone noted that every plantation and settlement in the mountains was much calmer since Toussaint had established his chain of posts from Gonaives to the heights above Mirebalais, and someone else complained that his cultivators (he just stopped short of saying slaves) grew restless in the proximity of so many black soldiers, and many ran away to join Toussaint’s army . . .
At the head of the table, Delahaye listened, silently attentive, his fingertips unconsciously worrying a whorl in his close-cropped gray hair, until he noticed Moustique lingering, and gestured at the empty pork platter.
Moustique went outside to the fire. The sky was darkening, slate-blue, the wind shivered the high palms, and crows flew crying among them. In the nearest bitasyon above the town, there was a quick, sharp rattle of drums, trailing off, then beginning again. Marie-Noelle refilled the pork platter from the iron kettle, her eyes lowered, almost demure. She was usually quiet, Moustique remembered, when apart from the pack of other girls; still something in her manner seemed to have changed.
When he went back with the dish of pork, the young marabou was loudly declaring that Toussaint had a better hope than anyone of driving all the white people from the island once for all. One of the older men pointed out that such a result would hardly be in their own interests—practically all of them had relatives who were collaborating with the British at Port-au-Prince and points farther south.
“Yes,” the bearded man agreed, “and equally you must not forget that Toussaint has sold himself to the French, to Laveaux—”
“Laveaux is a good man,” Delahaye put in.
“Laveaux is the tool of Sonthonax,” the bearded man said, “who would set the most ignorant, savage Africans above us—”
“Sonthonax has left the country,” the young marabou snapped.
“So he has,” the bearded man said, leaning forward as he lowered his voice, “and on the eve of his departure he gave his commissioner’s medallion, along with its powers and prerogatives as I have heard, to Dieudonné, who is no more and no less than a wild maroon from the mountains. And he told him—as you may not know—Sonthonax told Dieudonné, So long as you see mulattoes in your ranks you will never be free.
A considerable silence followed, during which Delahaye noticed Moustique again and sent him out for more rum and a plate of cut fruit. When he returned, the young marabou was in the midst of a hot reply to some resumed thread of the conversation: “—and what of Rigaud, who is of our race, and of the French Republican party? What of Beauvais, who is one of us too, and undoubtedly a man of honor?”
“I do not see that either of those men has thrown in his lot with Toussaint.” The bearded griffe leaned forward, raising his voice slightly as he balanced his weight toward the younger man. “And perhaps they err in casting their lot with the French Republic. If we gain by being made equal with the blancs, we lose as much by having those hordes of wild Africans set equal to us.”
“But—” the young marabou began.
“I salute your youth—” the bearded man quelled him with an upraised palm. “But it is no time to be hot-headed, not even for young men. Admire Toussaint if you will—he is admirable both in his courage and his cunning. But he has placed himself at the head of the new-freed slaves, and if he seems to carry them wherever he will, it may just as well be that it is they who are driving him from pillar to post. His shift of allegiance to Laveaux was very sudden, was it not—and are you so completely confident that he will not turn again to some other party, or that he serves any ends but his own? You may very well admire his gifts and his accomplishments, but both before and after, you should fear him.”
An assenting murmur ran round the table, as the bearded man braced his palms against the table and sat back. Moustique searched Delahaye’s face for a reaction, but the priest remained as inexpressive as Toussaint himself would have in such a case. Since the execution of his father, Moustique had grown to depend upon Toussaint’s protection, and so this discussion confused him as much as it evidently had the young marabou—so much so that his head began to ache. He left the room without waiting for Delahaye to dismiss him.
It was darker now, the stars appearing, and for the moment the drums had stopped. Marie-Noelle was walking in a spiral pattern between the fire and the trunks of the tall palms, seeming to take pleasure in the light grace of her steps. She was dressed in white, as if for church, and her skirt belled out around her slim legs as she turned. Moustique felt a heart-stirring as he watched her, and wondered if she meant for him to feel it, but her eyes were downcast always, as if unaware of him. She turned and stepped and turned again, the white skirt catching starlight, firelight, starlight.
He lay sleepless in the priest’s front room, the sound of Delahaye’s snore throbbing at him through the wall, textured by the more distant drumming which the snoring only partly masked. Sleep was like a surface of salt water, so buoyant that it would not let him sink. His mind scuttled spider-like across it, shrinking from the most dreadful images in its store. The scene of his father’s execution sometimes still appeared to him in dreams or waking nightmares such as this. They chained his father to a wheel and broke his bones with hammers till he perished. At first, he blessed his executioners but soon enough his prayers turned into screams. And all this was for nothing, for no cause: Père Bonne-chance had merely been confused with some other renegade priest who had assisted in tortures and the rape of white women during the first insurrection of ’91. Even Delahaye admitted that in this case his father was purely without blame. Then God has no justice, Moustique had said. Delahaye smashed his knuckles with the spoon and set him to memorizing long extracts from the book of Job.
Moustique got up cautiously from his pallet, light-headed, at the edge of nausea. He padded barefoot over the floor, lifted the latch and went outside. Just beyond the threshold he paused, listening: the racket of the priest’s snoring still shook the walls of the house, uninterrupted. Silvery light spilled over his cheek and his arm. The moon was a crescent, sheltering three stars. When he stepped away from the wall of the house, the jenny raised her head in the corral and came to the palings, whickering softly. Moustique stroked her nose and let her warm breath play over his fingers. In the invisible cleft of the dark hill above, the drumming became more insistent.
He walked through pools of moonlight from the church and square to the edge of the town, and with scarcely a beat of hesitation began climbing the corkscrew path that curved over an extended claw of the mountain’s foot. Darkness enveloped him, the moon cut off by the trees. His mind worked, but with no influence over his legs. Delahaye would be furious, if he should find out. Moustique’s own father would have disapproved, perhaps more mildly. Moustique did not know one drum from another, so he did not know if he was bound for a secular celebration—bamboche or calenda—or a service for the pagan gods of Africa. In Jeannot’s camp, where Père Bonne-chance had carried his mission in the first months of the rebellion, drums and ceremonies had been a prelude to the slow, elaborate, fatal torture of blanc captives. But all this information and the business of thinking about it became more and more distant, miniaturized, the higher Moustique climbed on the trail, while much more fully present were the drums and his own response: his limbs coming into tune with his heartbeat and the strengthening pulse at the base of his skull. From the darkness above, an unearthly cry broke out, an otherworldly entity that voiced itself on a human tongue. Moustique’s arms flowered into gooseflesh, but he could not make out if the sensation was pleasure or fear.
He kept following the twistings of the path, scarcely aware of the embedded stones that gouged into the arches of his bare feet. Someone, maybe more than one, was coming down from the hûnfor, and Moustique stepped out of the trail, clinging to a sapling. Scus’m, a man’s voice muttered. Two figures he could not make out completely, though he caught flashes of a white sleeve, white headcloth. When they had passed, he swung down into the groove of the trail and continued. The drumbeat quickened, drawing him up like a jerk on a leash tied around his neck. The trail made a sudden twist to the left and steepened sharply. Moustique helped himself up the rise with one hand furrowing the crumbling earth, then straightened in a clearing of packed clay. The brightness of the stars and moon amazed him as he came out of the tree cover. In the center a thick pole was wound around with a carved snake, and spiraled with a painted rainbow. There was a fire that cast no light, and the hounsis, swaying and singing, were turned blue-silver by the moon and stars—white shirts and headcloths glowing.
M’ap rélé kulèv-o
Damballah-papa, ou sé kulèv
Kulèv pa sa palé . . .
you are a serpent
Serpent, o serpent
I’m calling the serpent
Father Damballah, you are the serpent
The serpent does not speak . . .
The part of Moustique’s mind that registered these images was shrinking, blinking as it fell away like a revolving coin. His body moved in perfect unison with the steady uprush of the drums, as he broke the line of hounsis and moved toward the poteau mitan. That otherworldly cry came from his own thick throat—he hardly knew it. His head threw back, the stars spun round and up and up like flecks of butter in a churn. The drumming sucked the stars into whirlpool, then everything went bright.
“Li konnen prié BonDyé?” A man’s voice, with the rough-silk feel of a cat’s tongue.
“Li kab chanté Latin, mêm.” A girl, her voice bright with pride.
Moustique turned onto his shoulder and opened one eye upon the hard-packed dirt.
He knows how to pray to the white man’s God?
He can even sing in Latin . . .
But now the voices had stopped. Moustique felt attention turn to him—he saw the man and the girl indistinctly through his half-closed gummy eyes. The flutter of their white garments sent his mind off-balance again. Nothing was clear, not where he was or how he had come there. Above the clearing, the sky was paling into dawn. Moustique heard cocks crowing down the gorges, and listened for the morning reveille of Toussaint’s army at Habitation Thibodet, but then he remembered Marmelade, and Delahaye, and he sat up sharply, flinging out an arm.
“Dousman.” Marie-Noelle supported his elbow, held his hand in hers, without the slightest pressure. Gently. His eyes yawed crazily around the clearing. He was still in the hûnfor, but the hûngan, with his cat’stongue voice, had disappeared. He got to his feet; the movement dizzied him.
“Dousman . . .” Marie-Noelle was still supporting him, balancing him by his right arm. He looked at her, confused.
“Té gegne youn espri nan têt-ou,” she said, quietly. Come with me.
She led him toward the trail head, guiding him with the pressureless contact of her hands. He felt the fragile clarity of someone waking from a fever. Everything was lucid, but nothing in his consciousness resolved into the elements of self.
There was a spirit in your head . . .
The dawn was damp, and agreeably cool. Moustique’s knees were a little wobbly, but he felt his strength returning, along with his presence of mind, the farther they went down the trail. Marie-Noelle’s light touch was pleasant, cool fingers just feathering his palm, and her demeanor was pleasant too—as if they’d always stood in this relation, whatever it might be.
Sunrise was baffled by the cover of the trees, but when they came out into the border of the town, the full light struck them and the church bell began to ring. Moustique, returning further to himself, felt a personal jab of panic.
“Oui,” said Marie-Noelle, and thrust the priest’s slop jar, emptied and rinsed, into his hands. “Yes—hurry.”
A fold of her skirt brushed his leg as she turned away. Moustique scurried toward the church, pausing to set the jar down on the threshold of the priest’s house. The congregation had already begun to assemble when he went in, but Delahaye paid him no mind—distracted perhaps by the party of gens de couleur who had already taken their positions in the front benches.
The priest stood before the altar, tall, lean, almost spectral in his best vestments, the ends of his purple stole twitching from a slight rotation of his hips. He spread his large hands over the people below him.
“Dominus vobiscum . . .”
As customary, Moustique led the mumbling response. “Et vobiscum te . . .” He took a darting glance over his shoulder. Marie-Noelle sat on one the rear benches, not far from the hûngan, a small, elderly man with a crown of white hair over a dark face wrinkled like a nut meat. The other back seats were filling with men and women dressed in white, many among them who last night had served the loa.
L’Abbé Delahaye collected herbs and flowers and kept large books in which he sketched the plants, pressed their leaves, and noted down their uses if there were any. A couple of afternoons each week he sent Moustique out to gather plants for him, and encouraged him to talk to people about their value. On this pretext Moustique returned to the bitasyon where the hûnfor was, seeking out the hûngan who, as was usual, doubled as a leaf doctor, doktè-fey.
Moustique had some rudiments of herbal medicine from observation of Toussaint; also his own father had taken some interest in the subject, though less systematically than Delahaye. From the hûngan he learned more, though little enough that was new to the priest. To be sure, Moustique did not report to Delahaye that the hûngan had also begun to teach him the names and natures of the loa, particularly Damballah, the spirit which had chosen to possess him. But in two weeks’ time, Moustique was assisting in the ceremonies at the hûnfor, wearing the white clothes and mouchwa têt of a hounsi, chanting an Ave Maria or a Pater Noster and perhaps some other fragments of memorized Latin scripture, before the African spirits were invoked.
The world of the church and its saints mirrored the world of the hûnfor and the African mysteries, just as (the hûngan explained) the surface world of living people was mirrored by the Island Below Sea, inhabited by souls who had left their bodies: les Morts et les Mystères. Flushed with this new understanding, Moustique felt as if he were empowered to walk on water. His life had come into a delicate balance, unlike anything he had ever known before. He was at peace within himself. Even Delahaye appeared satisfied with Moustique’s newfound calm. If he returned belated, with the slop jar, blinking in the full light of day, the priest did not reprove him for his tardiness, but was pleased that the boy seemed to have finally got beyond his sense of shame. Of course, Delahaye had no idea where Moustique went at night.
Moustique began to understand that Marie-Noelle was, like himself, a doubled entity. Her daylight self—the priest’s dutiful cook—was modestly, piously Christian. Her moonlit self was something other, engaged with the mysteries of the hûnfor. But with each encounter of those days and nights, Moustique felt her other image attached to her like a shadow. He felt the two images floating closer and closer until at last they would be one, and so it seemed inevitable to him when one night he woke in the small hours with that sense of being called, though this time there was no drumming. The priest’s snores ran on as usual. The moonlight, shattered by the jalousies, spread in long, flat rays over the objects in the room. Moustique rose carefully, slipped through the door. His feet fell silently on puffs of powdery dust. No drumming but the beat of his own blood. The silence seemed perfect everywhere, and no one was about, but he felt that sense of expectation, almost choking in his throat, still leading him. He went counterclockwise around the corners of the priest’s house. In a pool of moonlight near the cold ashes of the cook fire, Marie-Noelle stood still and calm. When he appeared, her balance broke, and she took a few steps away from him toward the shadows, her movement lilting, then paused, poised on the balls of her bare feet, looking back over her shoulder.
He overtook her just within the shade of the ajoupa where she had stayed before. Her right hand lay against his collarbone lightly, slightly cool, the barest touch. Their left hands were joined together, as if they were going to waltz. Dousman. Moustique did not know if one of them had said the word aloud. Gently, sweetly . . . dousman. Her taste was the sweetest experience that had ever graced his senses.
Then his days passed easily, as if in dream, for everything in the scripture and liturgy he was set to learn found its reflection in the knowledge of the hûnfor, while each time he entered the ajoupa with Marie-Noelle his dreams became actual: voluptuary visions embodied in real flesh. The moon kept waxing night by night, inflating its lopsided edges until it was a perfect circle, whitely blazing in the velvet sky.
Then one night there was no moon. When Moustique, having parted lingeringly from Marie-Noelle, reentered the house to collect the slop jar, there was no sound of the priest’s snoring, though Delahaye lay in his usual position abed, his sharp nose jutting up like the fin of a shark. Moustique’s senses registered the change, but his mind took no account of it. He walked to the river in the wandering starlight, cleaned the jar and then returned. When he turned the corner of the church, yawning lazily, turning the damp jar in his hands, he found the priest smashing theajoupa to flinders with an ax.
Inevitable. Moustique could see that now. Why had he not seen it always? The empty jar had fallen from his numb hands, but had not broken. The relief he felt in this scrap of good fortune was meaningless now, he recognized. Delahaye lowered the ax and braced his hands on the haft, trembling slightly across his shoulders. On occasion Moustique had seen him preach dreadful, fiery sermons, but this was worse, much worse. The priest’s thin lips were white from pressure, red spots flared in the hollow of his cheeks where the skin stretched taut over the the bone.
“The Devil,” Delahaye said slowly, “will be driven from you, boy.”
Moustique stayed rooted, as if fascinated by a snake. The priest caught his wrist, spun him around, and pushed him against the trunk of a tree. Automatically Moustique’s arms rose to embrace the wood. His cheek was flattened against rough bark. The priest tore his shirt from collar to tail, ripped down his trousers to the ankles. A pause, a breath, then the first lash fell.
The instrument was a four-foot length of green liana, cut in advance for the purpose, as Moustique saw from his one squinted eye. The vine sizzled in the air before each strike, but it did not land as heavily as a leather whip, nor cut as a knotted cord would have done. Not that Moustique had ever been whipped before. He had felt the flat of his father’s hand, but whipping was for slaves, for blacks, and not for him.
Delahaye had evidently some experience of the work to be done. He laid on neat horizontal stripes, accurately spaced and placed, across the back over the buttocks and the thighs. He paced himself, as for long endurance, and in the intervals of breath, before he struck again, he spoke.
“You have . . .” snap! “. . . sinned with the woman . . .” snap! “. . . but have you also . . .” snap! “. . . bowed to the Devil?” snap! “Have you invited . . .” snap! “. . . the great black Satan . . .” snap! “. . . into your heart?”
Each blow was painful, but superficially so, a sting and a welt rising from the skin. Soon enough Moustique understood that Delahaye did not mean to do him serious bodily damage, not of the sort that would cripple, maim and scar. Still the sting of the liana brought tears to his eyes, and an expulsion of breath he would not let become a cry.
“Christ our Lord . . .” snap! “. . . drove out the devils . . .” snap! “He sent those devils . . .” snap! “. . . into swine!” snap! “Casting out . . .” snap! “I cast out . . .” snap! “. . . beat the blood of black sin . . .” snap! “. . . out of your veins...”
Moustique’s mind dislocated and began to travel. He had seen whippings aplenty, for under slavery they were common enough. And in the camps of the first rebellion, the black chiefs had whipped their men for various infractions, but not Toussaint. Toussaint had never ordered a man whipped, though if an offense were too grave for verbal rebuke, he might well command the offender to be shot. It was told that Toussaint had never been whipped himself, but many in his company had been, as well as ear-lopped, amputated, branded with hot iron . . . the scars were evident everywhere. Toussaint’s fearsome subaltern, Dessalines, would sometimes remove his coat and shirt and shift his shoulders in a subtle manner which caused the bands of cicatrix all over his back to writhe like fat white worms.
Moustique’s own father had once broken up a whipping. The slave had been pegged face down on the ground, blood from his stripes soaking into the dirt. Père Bonne-chance had hopped down from his donkey and traversed the field with his brown cassock flapping. The whip-handling overseer, he said later, was white canaille from a French prison, bandy-legged, troll-like, but with a long, muscular arm. Père Bonne-chance put his own body under the lash, letting the leather wrap around his stubby forearm. With a jerk he brought the overseer stumbling toward him and hit him with his free hand a short blow that stunned him and knocked out several of his teeth. He untied the thongs that bound the wrists and ankles of the injured slave and brought him to his own house to be treated and healed. The master of the plantation had been angry when he heard of the episode but had taken no action; the embarrassment of brawling with a priest would not do.
Now Moustique thought of the agony his father had suffered on the wheel before his death, and his own wish to whimper shamed him further. Nothing bound him to the tree, his whipping post, but he was fixed there, without the will to move. To close off the cry building in his throat, he bit down on his lip till his mouth filled with blood.
The beating stopped.
“Go into the house,” Delahaye said.
After a moment, Moustique pushed himself up from the tree trunk and looked glazedly at the priest. A swirl of golden dots ran before his eyes.
“Go,” Delahaye said, half breathless. He stood straight, though his voice was strained, and a beading of sweat stood on his forehead. Moustique went limping toward the house, holding his torn trousers up with one hand.
Delahaye came in a moment after him and got a fresh shirt and pair of cotton pantaloons from his own store.
“Put these on,” he said. “Go on, dress yourself.” He turned his back and looked out the window.
Moustique, delicately, put on the new clothing. He could not see the marks of the whipping on his back, but exploration with a fingertip let him know that the skin was welted but not broken. His worst injury was the bitten lip.
Delahaye turned to face him. “You may sit down.”
Moustique swallowed a mouthful of blood and remained on his feet.
“Another preceptor might have beaten you more severely,” Delahaye pointed out. “And afterward, rubbed salt and hot pepper seed into your wounds.”
“I know it,” Moustique said, thickly because of his swollen lip.
“Very well.” Delahaye draped his stole over his shoulders and sat down at the table, looking up at Moustique with his clear gray eyes.
“Understand,” the priest said. “It is not your African blood that I rebuke, but the sin which runs in the blood of all men, no matter what their color. The sin of your father, visited on you.” He paused, eyes drifting, then returning to Moustique’s face. “Saint Paul said, ‘It is better to marry than to burn,’ but a priest must not, may not marry, and fornication is a grievous sin.”
Delahaye put his hand on the cover of the heavy Bible which lay on the table, but did not open it.
“‘Now if I do that I would not,’ ” he intoned. “‘it is not I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God, after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me to captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.’ ”
Delahaye paused to clear his throat.
“‘O wretched man that I am!’ ” he went on. “‘Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ ”
Delahaye looked hard at Moustique, who swallowed more blood and kept his silence.
“The words of Saint Paul,” the priest said. “But it is Christ only, who delivers. Kneel down, my son, and make a true confession. Repent and your sins will be washed away, even if you have bent your head before the Devil.”
Moustique licked at his cut lip and knelt down carefully. The movement hurt him less than he had expected. He rocked back on his heels and looked up at the priest.
“Saint Paul said also,” Moustique pronounced slowly, “‘If you live in the Spirit, you are not under the law.’ ”
It seemed to him that Delahaye quailed.
“My God,” the priest said. “What have I done?” He covered his face briefly with his large hands. When he took them away, his eyes went wandering, over the window and the furnishings of the room.
“From what tree were you grafted, after all?” he said at last. “Well, boy, I have no will to beat you any more today . . .” He got up heavily, went into the bedroom and shut the door.
Moustique stretched out gingerly on his pallet. The bleeding of his lip had slowed, so he didn’t have to swallow as often as before. In less than two minutes he was unconscious. His double life had robbed him of sleep for many days. Now he slept dreamless through the heat of the day until evening.
The priest had gone out when Moustique awoke, leaving the bedroom door ajar. Moustique went to the river and washed, then returned slowly, greeting no one that he passed. His mind was a near-perfect blank. There was no sign anywhere of Marie-Noelle. He knew that most likely she would have fled to her home bitasyon in the mountains.
Behind the priest’s house, the embers of the cook fire were dark. Shattered wood from the smashed ajoupa had been heaped across it. Moustique wondered if someone else would be engaged to cook. As for himself, he was only slightly hungry and could think of nothing to eat that would not aggravate his torn lip. Delahaye had not yet returned. Moustique went indoors, lay down and slept again.
When next he woke, the lightless room reverberated with the snoring of the priest. The bleeding of his lip had stopped completely though it was raw and very swollen. His appetite had not yet returned. His mind was clearer than it had been before. He understood that he might regain the priest’s esteem, which was of value, but that to do so he must renounce both woman and the hûnfor. There must be other ways to God.
He got up cautiously, the weals stinging his legs and back. He listened to the rhythm of the snores. The straw macoute he used to gather herbs hung on the wall. Moustique put into it half a loaf of bread, the silver chalice, and the priest’s stole. His shoulder was too sore for the strap, so he slipped from the house with the mouth of the straw bag clutched in one hand.
Dark of the moon. Moustique felt his way to the corral. The little jenny came to him of her own accord, whiskering over his palm. Moustique improvised a rope hackamore, then dropped the top rail and led her out. Wincing slightly, he swung onto her bare back, and rode from the town into the mountains, not knowing where he meant to go.
South from Le Cap across the mountains, past Plaisance toward Gonaives, the road was more theoretical than actual, and Jean-Michel, known since childhood by the stable name of Choufleur but now officially addressed as le colonel Maltrot, had known as much before he decided to travel with the carriage from his white father’s plantation in the Plaine du Nord. The ridiculous difficulties of crossing the mountains with such a vehicle were no surprise to him, and yet he cursed roundly and loudly whenever it was necessary to dismount and order the wheels unshipped from the carriage so that it could be carried piecemeal by the twelve men of his escort, over rockslides and mud-slides, or across sections of crumbling ledge too narrow for the wheel span. Sometimes he cursed the men directly to their black African faces. Most of them had been slaves on his white father’s plantation, though now they were French Republican soldiers (in theory, as the road was theoretically a road and not a near-impassable goat track); at any rate they were accustomed to obeying him, whether because of his military rank or his proprietorship, Choufleur did not know, or care.
At last they came down from Morne Pilboreau, descending the whip-snake turns on the dry mountain faces above Gonaives. They did not continue toward the coastal town, but turned westward, through another notch in the mountains which led into the canton of Ennery. Four men carried a wheel apiece, and six men hefted the carriage itself by its axles and tongue, while the remaining two went unburdened except for their weapons, and were prepared to respond in case of attack, though none seemed likely. The passage was quiet, sunny and humid. Choufleur rode bareback on one of the matched pair of gray carriage horses, his seat so assured that the lack of a saddle did not detract at all from the dignity of his bearing. Little clusters of wattled huts had sprung up on either side of the road. When Choufleur sent a man to inquire the way to Habitation Thibodet, he learned they were already almost upon it.
Here where they’d paused to ask directions, the road was muddy and rutted but wide and level enough now. Choufleur ordered his men to pin the the carriage wheels back on the axles. While they worked, he paced, fastidiously lifting his polished boots clear of the muck. A little brown goat by the roadside bleated at him and ran to the opposite end of its fraying rope tether. When the horses were hitched, Choufleur climbed into the carriage, which went jouncing forward amid the foot soldiers, who smiled covertly at each other now they’d been relieved of their extra loads. The road surface varied from sucking mudholes to patches of raw rock that pounded Choufleur’s tailbone painfully. He would have been far more comfortable astride the bare back of either gray, but the impression to be made by his arrival mattered more.
The entrance to Habitation Thibodet was marked by two delicate brickwork columns, fixed with hinges, though there was no gate. A sentry emerged from the shadow of each column and the two men barred the way, symbolically, by crossing the bayonets fixed to their muskets. Choufleur leaned out the carriage window, displaying his uniform coat and the left epaulette.
“I am looking for General Toussaint Louverture.”
“He isn’t here,” one of the sentries replied, and exchanged a glance with the the other. Both men were barefoot and shirtless, and wore identical cartridge boxes strapped across the shoulder. The one who had spoken had the letter V branded on the smooth, flat muscle above his left nipple.
“You may pass anyway,” he said. The two men lowered their bayonets and the carriage rolled unevenly past them.
The drive to the grand’case was wet without being boggy; looking down from the carriage window Choufleur saw that it had been seeded with many small stones to keep it from turning into a swamp. On either side the fields were cultivated, mostly in beans, and the plantings all looked in good order. There were only a few carrés of cane, but Choufleur grudgingly admitted to himself that the pwa rouj were more practical just now—efficient provision for the troops.
The carriage wheeled in front of the grand’case and halted by the cane mill. Choufleur beckoned one of his men to open the door for him, then climbed out and straightened his back gingerly. He adjusted his coat and shot his cuffs. The artificial pool in front of the house made a nice effect, with its stone borders planted with flowers and its surface afloat with water lilies. The house itself was nothing extraordinary, a single story of whitewashed wood, but the carpentry was skilled, and the building was well set off by tall coconut palms above and behind it, and by channels of sparkling water that rippled down on either side to join, gurgling, in the central pool. The railings of the gallery were trained over with purple-flowering bougainvillea. A black house servant in a plain cotton shift stood with her fingers grazing the rail, regarding the arrival with some of the astonishment Choufleur had hoped for.
He nodded to her and cleared his throat. “You may announce the Sieur Maltrot.”
The girl hesitated, exhaling through her parted lips, then turned abruptly and ran barefoot into the house.
Elise had been dozing under her mosquito net in the bedroom when she heard Zabeth’s voice calling, “Le Sieur Maltrot, li fek rivé!” She was some few minutes organizing herself to greet the guest, all the more unexpected for the fact that the Sieur Maltrot had disappeared during the first months of the insurrection and was generally assumed to be dead. The French nobleman had been a peripheral member of the circle of her friend Isabelle Cigny, as well as an acquaintance of her first husband, Thibodet, but his famous cruelty showed plainly enough through his rather antique manners, and Elise had not liked him, had not in the least regretted his loss, and was not overjoyed now to hear that he had returned from the grave. Therefore she sighed as Zabeth helped her pin up her hair and slip into a less revealing robe. She dallied over Sophie’s cot—the child was napping away the day’s most suffocating heat, murmuring almost inaudibly in sleep, her face bright with a sheen of perspiration. Elise brushed an insect from the netting, and then, with a quick glance at the mirror, went tripping toward the front door.
Nanon had preceded her onto the gallery, where she stood with her long nails pressed to her wide lower lip—an attitude of perplexity, perhaps even dismay. Elise, standing in the doorway, looked past her and saw that that the new arrival was not the Sieur Maltrot at all, but one of his bastard mulatto sons, the eldest she thought, who had been educated in France and returned with the airs of a white man—she took in also that something had already passed between him and Nanon, though it did not seem to have been speech. As Elise walked toward the gallery rail, Nanon turned abruptly and swept past her, eyes large and dark and her lip bitten red against the unusual paleness of her skin, into the shadows of the house.
“Ah, of course, Madame Thibodet,” Choufleur said breezily, as he smirked and extended his limp hand toward her. He had already mounted to her level, with no encouragement from her.
“In fact it is Madame Tocquet,” Elise corrected him, and smiled in a way that showed her top teeth only.
She felt a mixture of reaction which included outrage at his effrontery (presenting himself here under the name of his white father!), the desire to order him driven from the property by dogs, with cudgels; while at the same time she scrutinized the good cloth of his uniform coat, the brocade and the buttons with the look of real gold, and in the middle distance the fancy carriage and the black soldiers of his escort, all of which inspired her with a vague uncertainty—and then there was that flash of uninterpretable something that had passed between him and her brother’s concubine.
Choufleur was going on, assuming this and that with the same airy confidence, still limply holding the hand she had reluctantly offered him, while he pronounced the usual platitudes about the length of the road and the lateness of the hour (though in truth it was not very far past midday and the sun was broiling directly overhead). It was bewildering to look at those swirls of freckles on his face, as if two sets of different features were present there, but neither completely resolved. Elise found, however, that she had made up her mind.
“But of course,” she said in her sweetest simper, and turned toward Zabeth, who waited a pace behind her, to her left. “Go and change the linen in the west room.”
Well satisfied by the success of his entry to Habitation Thibodet, Choufleur passed the afternoon in a self-guided tour of the plantation and the encampment surrounding it. There was no more than a skeleton garrison in the military camp, for almost every ablebodied man had been drawn off to the fighting in the Artibonite Valley, but women and the half-grown children and a handful of old men were keeping up the cultivation creditably: the coffee trees on the upper slopes looked as prosperous as the red and brown beans in the low ground, and there would even be a small harvest of cane, to be processed into brown sugar at the mill. Choufleur was impressed, if grudgingly, and somewhat more disagreeably aware that things looked better managed here than on his own lands in the north.
The men of his escort had fanned out through the encampment to scrape up new acquaintances or in a couple of cases to renew old ones from the north, recovered here and now by hazard. Sifting their gossip, Choufleur learned that Toussaint had not been seen here for two weeks or more, though he might reappear at any time, and that the French doctor Hébert had been absent for as long, serving as medical aide in Toussaint’s forces. The only white man on the place was Tocquet, the smuggler, husband of the French madame, and he came and went most unpredictably.
All this looked very satisfactory to Choufleur. He returned to the grand’case as the afternoon rain blew up, and rested in the room which had been prepared for him, letting rain sounds soothe him till Zabeth knocked lightly on the doorframe to summon him to dine.
The meal was served on the gallery to a small round table of four. “We have sometimes a more various company,” Elise trilled, “but at present all our officers are absent, with their troops.” She joked that they still made up the number for a card party.
Choufleur had been seated opposite Nanon; she was composed, but more than demurely silent, keeping her eyes downcast over her plate, and speaking only when spoken to. Choufleur did not address her directly, but let the conversation unfold as it would.
Elise rebuked Tocquet for cleaning his nails at table with the foot-long blade of his knife, but the gunrunner only smiled at her lazily and finished his manicure before hiding the knife away somewhere under the billow of his untucked white shirt. Choufleur had dealt with him, years earlier, during the first months of the insurrection when Tocquet had regularly brought guns from the Spanish over the border to the rebel slaves—he might well still be engaged in such traffic, for he was not one to be inhibited by shifts of political allegiance. The very notion of his marriage to the Frenchwoman seemed astonishing (Choufleur wondered if perhaps it were no more than a figure of speech), although the woman was certainly delectable. Choufleur had seen her a few years before, from a distance at Le Cap, and marked her as one of those European roses who would quickly droop and wither, in this climate. On the contrary, she had bloomed and flourished. Her blond hair was fuller and thicker than he remembered, her eyes a brighter blue, her cheeks plump and tasty-looking, like the skin of a well-ripened peach.
Frenchwomen did not truly interest Choufleur, however. He could appreciate his ambivalent hostess as he might a painting or a well-performed passage of music, but she did not stir his blood. He turned to Tocquet and began to quiz him on recent military movements in the area.
“One might compare Toussaint to a chess player,” Tocquet said, after some hesitation. “A strategist—he has the long view.” He forked up a bit of his grilled fish and considered while he chewed. “This accident when his hand was hurt on the heights above Saint Marc cost him a tempo, as in chess. For that, the Spanish and the English could combine to recover Verrettes. But when Toussaint was back in the field, he surprised them in the interior and took Hinche.”
“An exchange of equal value, you would say?” Choufleur stroked his chin.
He knew much of this intelligence from dispatches, but was more interested in Tocquet’s reading of the raw information. Tocquet was like a crow flying over a battlefield, all-seeing, but with no particular stake in the fortunes of any one army. Also, since Toussaint reported directly to Laveaux, information did not flow in Choufleur’s direction as freely as it might, owing to a mood of tension which seemed to be growing between the French commander and the mulatto military administration at Le Cap.
Tocquet shrugged. “If we remain with the notion of chess, position can matter more than material.”
“But do you imagine he can really out-general European officers?” Choufleur said, testing. “An old Negro, uneducated . . . he has seen nothing beyond the shores of this island.”
He was aware that Elise had stiffened, just perceptibly at his choice of words.
Nanon, her head still tilted over her plate, rearranged her grated vivres and her riz ak pwa; it was not clear whether she were attending to the men’s conversation or not.
Tocquet smiled out of one corner of his long, thin-lipped mouth. “Oh,” he said, “to have lived to Toussaint’s age in this country is proof of sagacity, is it not? How many ‘old Negroes’ have you seen here? Concerning his generalship, I myself do not believe he can be outmaneuvered in the interior. He knows the country too well, and can move his men very much more quickly than European troops will ever travel over such terrain, in such a climate. As for your European officers, not one of them has offered him any serious difficulty until Brisbane, and that in the Artibonite, where it is open country.”
“Some say his sagacity may amount to deviousness,” Choufleur said. “Do you suppose this allegiance he’s sworn to the French is genuine?”
Tocquet looked at him, scanning his uniform coat from the brocaded cuff to the epaulettes, long and lingeringly enough for Choufleur to feel a beading sensation behind his eyes, like water just before the kettle boils. But Tocquet removed his gaze in time to break the tension, looking out over the gallery rail, where a little rainwater still dripped on the bougainvillea vines, and on into the dark.
“I have heard,” he said, “and it may be true, that Toussaint invited Brisbane to parlay at Gonaives. To discuss, so to speak, a realignment of the forces he commands . . .”
Choufleur, who had known nothing of this, felt a prickle down his spine.
“It appears that Brisbane himself may be an exception to the rule, but by and large, as I’m sure you know, our British invaders prefer to purchase their enemies rather than to fight them.”
“You interest me greatly,” Choufleur admitted. “And what next?”
“Well, it seems in the end that Brisbane thought better of attending this meeting in person,” Tocquet said. “He sent subordinates with his proffers and proposals. Whereupon Toussaint was outraged and arrested the lot of them—for attempting to suborn and corrupt the virtuous General Toussaint Louverture.”
Tocquet slapped a palm on the table, hard enough to jingle the glasses, and broke into a sudden harsh laugh. Elise added her tinkling tone to his mirth. After a moment Choufleur forced himself to join their laughter, but Tocquet had already cut himself off. He pushed back his chair and bit the end from a black cheroot.
“You may call it deviousness, low cunning,” he said. “Be damned to all soldiering, I say—honorable or not. But Toussaint is making war, not a chivalric tournament.”
Choufleur nodded. Tocquet raised an eyebrow, then leaned forward to light his cheroot from the nearest candle.
“Brisbane had wit enough to avoid that one trap . . .” Tocquet settled his back in his chair and exhaled a wave of smoke toward the gallery ceiling. “And Toussaint, as you will mark by these tales, has recognized him as a serious opponent. If Brisbane takes him for a foolish old Negro, I believe he is likely to lose the game.”
Toward the end of the dinner the children came scrambling out onto the gallery, Sophie begging for a sweet, Paul tugging at Nanon’s skirt, asking to be let go to play at the borders of the pool. Elise watched Choufleur watching Nanon with Paul, until Nanon rose, murmuring, apparently glad of the excuse, and went with her son down the gallery steps into the fresh, damp night.
“Maman, kite’m alé,” Sophie whispered urgently, hauling on Elise’s arm with all her strength.
“Dis, ‘laissez-moi aller,’ ” Elise said absently, correcting the child’s Creole into French, but Tocquet had already left the table to finish his cheroot while wandering in the darkness, as his habit was, and Choufleur had risen from his seat, was bowing to her, offering flowery thanks for the repast.
She released Sophie, sending Zabeth after her to make sure the child did not drench herself in the pool. Having completed his sequence of compliments, Choufleur also went down into the yard, but Elise lingered by the gallery rail.
The moon was waning from the full, the pale disk flattened on one side as if a thumb had pressed against it. Sophie and Paul crouched frog-like, splashing and giggling at the pool’s edge. Sophie would certainly need to be dried and changed before bed. Elise felt a flash of irritation, for after all Zabeth had done nothing to restrain her charge, and Nanon meanwhile stood several paces back from the children, her arms folded as if to wrap her beauty closer to herself, her high cheekbones tilted toward the moon. Choufleur faced her across the pool and, despite the considerable amount of moonlight, Elise could not make out his features now, but he looked well in his uniform—he would have been, as she thought idly, a fine figure of a man.
Near the dark wall of the cane mill, the coal of Tocquet’s cheroot flared and faded, flared again, rising and falling with the motion of his invisible hand. Choufleur strolled in that direction. That limberness, the fluidity of his movement, Elise thought, set him apart from a white man even in the dark. Nanon too had that same liquid grace, though now she was still as a caryatid in the moonlight. By the cane mill, a flash of light illuminated Tocquet’s and Choufleur’s faces leaning together, and then there were two cheroot coals, glowing and fading in the shadows.
Even through the fumes of strong tobacco, Choufleur caught a whiff of fresh-pressed syrup where he stood by the mill wall. He sniffed audibly, meaning Tocquet to hear.
“The mill has been working,” he said. “Is there sugar here?”
“Some small quantity of the brown,” Tocquet said carelessly. “But mostly it is crude molasses, sent away for the making of rum.” In the moonlight he seemed to register Choufleur’s expression of interest. “Well, you may look it over if you like.”
Tocquet unlocked the mill door and groped through the dark opening for a stub of candle. Lighting it, he stepped inside. In the candle flame, the screws and cogwork of the mill threw long, imposing shadows. Choufleur followed the sap gutter to the series of kettles and troughs—all empty. The fires were cold and the ladles hung in horizontal racks on the wall. Choufleur ran a fingertip over a sticky edge and tasted it.
“You do not work the mill by night.”
“Why, there are scarcely hands enough to run it by day.” Tocquet shrugged. “With the war . . .”
“And yet, you are the proprietor, are you not?”
In the shadows, Tocquet raised an eyebrow.
“I mean,” Choufleur said, “the question hardly seems to interest you.”
“I am proprietor here by grace of my marriage,” Tocquet said. “Come, I am no planter. No more than yourself. I don’t believe we are pretending it’s the first time we have met. My wife occupies herself with such affairs.”
“Not to be underestimated.” Tocquet produced his keyring from his loose trousers and unlocked another door. “Besides, she has capable advisers, including, sometimes, no less than Toussaint.” He smiled absently as he entered the smaller room. “Toussaint’s interests do extend to the production of sugar.”
“Toussaint stops here?” Choufleur had followed Tocquet into the mill office.
“From time to time,” Tocquet said, lighting a second candle in a bracket on the wall. “He is not the only guest.”
Choufleur scanned the spartan furnishing—four straight chairs, a cot, a simple desk. Bundles of herbs hung on strings from the ceiling and on the wall were pinned some botanical sketches and a map of the colony with some obscure penciled markings.
“Why, it has quite the air of a military headquarters.”
Tocquet sniffed. “Toussaint’s headquarters is wherever he happens to dismount from his horse.” He stooped and collected a bottle that had been unobtrusively placed between the writing desk and the wall.
“And is the rum Toussaint’s?”
“You are inquisitive,” Tocquet said. He uncorked the bottle, drank and extended it. “Santé,” he said, as Choufleur took the bottle. He sat down on one of the rough-cobbled chairs and Choufleur followed suit.
“I have a question of my own,” said Tocquet, stretching out his legs and pulling on his cheroot. “If you doubt Toussaint’s capacities in the field, where will you find a better officer?”
“Among the Republicans? In the south it would certainly be Rigaud,” Choufleur said promptly. “Beauvais also. There is quite a capable officer corps both at Jacmel and at Les Cayes. At Le Cap there is Villatte, with whom I serve.”
“All very excellent gentlemen of color,” Tocquet said. He looked about for a place to tip his cheroot, and finally resorted to the cup of his palm. “Do you suppose they can rival Toussaint in the confidence of the new-freed slaves?”
Choufleur tilted the rum bottle to the light. “We have all of us our experience in the management of such people.”
“As slaves, you mean. It is nothing to me—and I don’t make predictions. But slavery is done with in this country, of that much I am sure.”
“And Toussaint poses as the great liberator!” Choufleur burst out. “Can no one see it is all a fraud? He rides the wave, but he did not make it. And there are men more capable than he—as soldiers and as leaders.”
“Do I hear the voice of your colleague Villatte?” Tocquet smiled, but his eyes had narrowed. “One hears that his ambitions are frustrated, in Le Cap. Or perhaps it is Rigaud who speaks with your tongue—he who has realized his ambition somewhat more completely, so far from Laveaux’s command as he finds himself, on the Grande Anse—far from any French authority.”
Choufleur felt a flush rising on his cheekbones. Aware that he had overspoken, he endeavored to grow colder. There was always an iciness inside him he could call on when he must.
“You and I have crossed paths in many places,” Tocquet said, relaxing and crossing his legs. “From here to the north coast and to the Spanish border, in spots where many different flags were hoisted and different men or factions claimed command. I went unmolested everywhere, and by my observation, so did you. I am a friend of the world, you see!—that’s what these times require.” Toquet tapped his boot on the floor. “If French authority reaches the place where we sit, it does so by way of Toussaint Louverture . . . no other. If you would travel from Gonaives to Dondon all along the Cordon de l’Ouest, you must do so by his leave. Say what you will of his abilities, it is no mean achievement to have mastered that line. And if Toussaint should wish to close it, Rigaud would have to send his messengers to Villatte by sea.”
Choufleur retained his composure despite this barb. “I am surprised to find you such a partisan,” he said.
“You misunderstand me,” Tocquet said. He stirred the ashes in his palm, and held his smudged forefinger to the candlelight. “My home is where I hitch my horse. Thus far I am in the same spirit with Toussaint.”
“And no further?”
“For the moment, Toussaint guarantees our security here,” Tocquet said. “For my own part, I have never been ambitious to possess anything which could be burned or murdered, but—”
“—there are domestic arrangements to consider,” Choufleur said, with a deliberately unctuous smile. “The woman with her child—your brother-in-law and his woman—”
A shadow fell on him as Tocquet stood up, but Tocquet only turned to snuff the candle in the bracket above the desk. Automatically Choufleur got to his own feet. Holding the other candle nub, Tocquet approached, stopping just out of arm’s reach. Choufleur felt his scrutiny exploring his face like the fingers of a blind man. He let his right hand drift toward the pocket pistol he kept tucked into the back of his waistband, under the flap of his coat. Many white men had examined him in such an assaying manner, studying the swirls of freckles and the degree of pigment in the skin beneath them, and there was always, along with the other elements, a tinge of contempt in their eyes. He felt none of that in Tocquet’s regard, but instead a strange sort of sympathy, though it did not relax his wariness.
Tocquet blew out the candle and stepped past him. In the sudden dark, Choufleur touched his pistol grip, but Tocquet was moving through the doorway, muttering something about the lateness of the hour. In the main area of the mill a shaft of moonlight marked the patch to the outer door. Choufleur followed Tocquet outside. He dropped the stub of his cheroot on the floor and trod on it.
Tocquet raised his palm to his lips and blew the heap of accumulated ash away on the night breeze.
“You did not come here for no reason,” he said, glancing quickly at Choufleur and then away. “I wish you an uneventful night.”
Tocquet prepared for bed in five rapid motions: he shifted his knife from his waistband to underneath his pillow, then stripped off shirt and breeches and hung them on the two pegs above the bed which no effort of Elise’s could persuade him to relinquish. He was asleep in thirty seconds if he wished, breathing with a light rasp just short of a snore, but tonight he did not wish it, though Elise dallied for a long time, washing her face and patting it dry and brushing out her hair before her mirror. A vague excitement covered her all over, like perspiration not quite breaking on her skin, but she did not want to be distracted by the man.
At last she snuffed her candle, raised the edge of the moustiquaire and slipped between the sheets. She was scarcely settled when Tocquet’s hand spread over the soft skin around her navel, a light, inquisitive pressure. She murmured discouragingly and the hand lifted away from her, sliding beneath his pillow to curl, she knew, around the knife hilt.
In less than a minute, Tocquet breathed in sleep. Elise lay on her back, quite still, eyes open. The moonlight leaking into the room was striped by the jalousies, checked by the mosquito netting. At times the moonlight squares were set atremble by the movement of the breeze outside, and the palm leaves shivered above the rooftop. Wakeful, Elise focused her attention, beyond the leaf sound and the breathing of the man beside her. After her brother had diverted the water that threatened to rot out the whole floor of the house, many boards had been replaced, and since then the new planks grated against the old ones under shifts of weight, each with its own particular note.
It was a long time before she heard what she was listening for, and when it came it was very faint; he must be walking barefoot, and with the poised stealth of a cat. But the progress of the creaks was there, yes, quite unmistakable. From the west room to Nanon’s he must pass her own, and when she thought by the sound that he must have arrived, she rose softly and opened her door the barest crack, to look out onto the corridor.
A spearhead of moonlight lay across the floorboards, and at its point, the opposite end of the hallway, was the door to Nanon’s room. But he had not yet entered. Elise saw him against the door, part of him, rather: the back of his cocked head and one small ear, the swell of his milk-colored muscles from wrist to shoulder. He was shirtless as well as barefoot, and if his whole skin was freckled like his face and hands, these markings did not show under the moon.
He moved, the door yielding inward before him, and the jalousies of Nanon’s window laid tiger stripes across his torso. Then darkness, as the door was shut. She heard a rustle, gasp, a muted hiss of complaint: tu me fais mal. Then silence. Elise cracked her door a little wider, listened harder. The gasps returned, more regular, rising to a different tone. With a secret smile she withdrew into her room and shut the door. She returned to her bed and covered the man with her hands and warm breath until he woke and rose to feed the appetite she felt so suddenly awakened.
Nanon had not been taken by surprise, not exactly; from the moment she had seen Choufleur standing between the mill and the newly engineered pool, she had grasped the nature of his errand well enough. Though they hardly spoke, the force of his intention bore down on her all through the evening, and increased when she retired to the room she normally shared with the doctor and Paul. There was no latch or interior fastener. She might have wedged a chair against the door, or balanced a cabinet that would topple when the door swung inward and perhaps make noise enough to wake the house. More than once in the recent past she had found herself barricaded in a room or a house with the doctor, who would use his pistols and rifle to defend the walls surrounding them. But the doctor was absent, and his weapons gone with him. Blocking the door would alarm Paul, who was tugging on her finger now, and pleading for a story. Nanon yielded to his desire, let him lie in her bed with her, and in the moonlight-spangled darkness she began the story of Tim Zwezo, crooning the songs in a low voice.
Tim Zwezo . . .
Zwezo nan nich-o . . . Zwezo nan bwa . . .
Tann-moin la . . .
Paul was asleep well before the story finished, and she carried him to his small cot in the corner. Returning to her bed, she glanced at the unlockable door once more, but she would not block it, for the same reason she would not scream or struggle. If he came. She could not have named her reason, but she felt its power. Kon Dyé vlé, she said to herself. As God wills. With the matter disconnected from her own wishes, she slept soundly enough, though as soon as the door ticked open, she came instantly and completely awake.
His belly was barred by moonlight and shadow, his face completely in the dark, and one hand spread against the door, behind him, pressing it shut. Nanon stood up, bare feet on the floor, and moved sideways, thinking suddenly that after all the room was not a cage; if she lured him from the door, she might slip out and evade him—go to Zabeth’s room in the rear? But Paul, she must not leave Paul alone with him . . . while she was distracted by that thought, Choufleur darted across the space between to catch her wrist, startling a gasp from her. She saw the rapacity of his expression when his face crossed the moonlight; the bones which pushed his features through the flesh were those of his father, and that frightened her more than the pain of her wrenched arm. His hand at the nape of her neck was hard and tight, fingertips digging bluntly into the tendons. She hissed a complaint, you’re hurting me, and then went limp, went numb all over, unresisting. She had been forced before, and with some regularity, though not for a long time now, not since the doctor or since she’d borne her child. But she remembered that yielding was the better way; she’d be hurt less, perhaps not hurt at all. Also, it was most important not to wake the child.
Nanon became absent from herself, feeling no more than a muffled discomfort at his weight and his intrusion. She returned to the sticky folds of the bed, her nightgown rucked up above her breasts, Choufleur sprawling half across her. “Enfin,” he murmured in a breaking voice. “At last, at last . . .”
Salt water gathered in the hollows of her collarbones. She realized that Choufleur was weeping. This surprised her very much.
“I knew this time would come at last,” Choufleur was saying. “I knew that we must come together. You have belonged to me, Nanon, from the beginning. Do you remember Vallière, the waterfall?”
Again, Nanon felt pricked with strangeness. She disengaged herself, but gently, sat up and pulled the sweaty wrinkles of the nightgown over her head. The breeze that ruffled the jalousies dried the sweat and tear stains on her bare skin. At Vallière, where they were children, there had been a falls, a small one, with a little grotto hollowed in the rock behind where the children played, and perhaps she did remember what Choufleur was now describing, how she stepped through the falling water from the cave into the light, revealing herself to him in her soaked chemise, her upturned face and waist-length hair sparkling with the water and the sunshine. It was not that I first loved you then, Choufleur was urgently whispering, but then I first knew how I had always loved you . . .
In spite of herself, Nanon was interested. She could indeed remember that green glade, the wet stone smell of the shallow cave behind the falls, the froth of the water falling through bright air. She had been, perhaps, thirteen; it was before the Sieur Maltrot had come to take her, to take her away, though probably not very long before. That younger self seemed to stand across a chasm from her now. Across the room, she saw that Paul slept calmly, undisturbed by anything that had happened so far. Choufleur’s moistened fingertip circled her breast, and she felt the nipple swell and stiffen. The tingle of sensation expanded till its ripples rocked the weird emotion she was feeling too. She relaxed against her pillow and turned toward him and found his root, molding it with her thumb and fingers, or lightly teasing it with the nails, until it became its larger self. Best not to use the full extent of her professional expertise, she thought, for that would offend him . . . but this time there would be pleasure, and she would be present for the act.
“Do you still have it?” Choufleur said as she swung astride. “Give it me.”
Nanon reached the silver snuffbox down from a bibelot shelf above the bed. Choufleur took it into his loose fingers, rocked and arched into her deeply.
“Ah . . .” he groaned. “I knew you’d know . . . I knew you’d keep it near . . .” He tightened his fist around the box, then dug his knuckles into the very small of her back. This was a seasoning of horror, Nanon knew, as a thread of nausea swirled into the vortex of sensation that sucked her deeper down, but it was very piquant, all the same.
Later, drifting in the afterglow, she revisited that other life across the chasm, and saw once more the girl she’d been at Vallière, before she’d been made a fille de joie at Cap Français. There was a trove of memories to match anything Choufleur had stored from those days, though it was a long time since she had opened the coffer where they were kept. She experienced them now almost as dreams: wistful, wishful, and finally distressing enough to keep her from real sleep. As she twisted and tossed for a resting place, her elbow knocked against the snuffbox, which reminded her that Choufleur, along with herself, had turned into something very much other than what they once might have been. He slept grimly beside her now, face down and unmoving, as if he were dead. But the moon had set, and the rising wind brought a damp breath of dawn. Nanon shook him by the shoulder, once, twice, until he grumbled.
“It’s nearly morning,” she hissed at him. “You must go.”
“Hanh?” Choufleur muttered. “Let them discover us . . . What does it matter if they know?” He turned onto his back and flung his arm across his eyes.
“Not now.” Nanon shook him again. “Not yet. Go now.”
Choufleur sat up abruptly, swinging his feet to the floor, giving his head a sharp shake, left and right. He swiveled toward her fluidly, wrapped his hands around the back of her neck and the base of her skull, and drew her half-falling across the bed, into a long, deep kiss. With the release, he spoke, rather curtly. “You’ll come with me. Tomorrow, to the north.”
Nanon said what she had planned to say. “I will not leave my child.”
His hesitation was informative. A moment of silence passed, then he stood up, paced to the door, turned back toward her.
“Then we will take him. Very well.”
Nanon said nothing. A little blue light filtered into the room, so that she made out his silhouette but not his face. She heard Paul breathing in his cot.
“And if you remain here with him, what?” Choufleur’s laugh was dry as ash. “He will live as the bastard son of a blanc.”
Nanon, sitting upright with her hips swathed in a tangle of sheet, put her palms over her breasts and lowered her head. She did not know how much of this posture he could discern in the dim light.
“Believe me,” Choufleur said, now with a pleading note, almost. “Come with me now, and we will wipe away everything that has been before.”
Still she would not look at him. “How am I to know what to believe?”
“Make ready,” Choufleur said, decidedly. “We leave tomorrow, before dawn.” He moved to the door. She felt a change of air as it opened and shut, but he made no sound at all in going out.
Elise arose at her usual hour, dressed, ordered coffee, and awaited developments. When she heard Paul’s voice, she put her head into the corridor and saw Nanon, groggy, her face puffed up with sleep, handing the boy over to Zabeth before falling back into her bedchamber. Une nuit de délices, Elise imagined, feeling herself well satisfied. She breakfasted with Sophie and Paul. Tocquet and Choufleur had already gone out, Choufleur pausing to make her an ornate little speech whose general drift had been that, owing to his carriage’s need of some minor but time-consuming repair, he hoped to lay claim to her magnificent hospitality for one more night.
She passed the morning in the supervision of one household task or another, unable fully to fix her mind on any of these. Nanon did not appear till afternoon, floating dreamily onto the gallery as Tocquet and Elise were finishing a modest lunch of cold chicken and fruit. The day was still and suffocatingly hot, the sun swollen at the height of its arc. Pushing his plate away, Tocquet wiped his forehead and grimaced, then went to lie down till the heat should abate. Elise remained at the table, watching Nanon sip grapefruit juice. The colored woman did not seem to look at her, though perhaps she was spying, through her long black lashes.
“And how did you enjoy our Colonel Maltrot?” Elise said suddenly.
Carefully chosen, her words seemed effective. Nanon looked up involuntarily, her eyes widening for an instant before she regained her composure. Then her eyelids lowered, slowly. She did not speak.
“I find him interesting,” Elise went on. “It’s plain he is an educated man. Of talent, possibly, and certainly of strong will. Does he not look splendid in his uniform? One supposes also that he must be a man of means, judging from his manners, and the buttons on his coat.”
“I did not suspect that you could admire such a man as he,” Nanon said languidly.
Her emphasis was very slight, barely perceptible. That brown-syrup voice, her soft, brown, cow-like eyes . . . In a mad flash Elise wanted to rip the eyeballs from the other woman’s skull . . . and yet she did not dislike Nanon. On the contrary, they had got on very well, more than amiably sometimes, during the months they had lived in this house together. There were moments, even hours at a stretch, when Elise had forgotten herself enough to fall into an easy intimacy with the colored woman. Nanon was intelligent, and well, if erratically, schooled in the arts of love and ways of men; she was naturally suited for the role of cocotte. Had the situation not been so clearly untenable, Elise would have preferred to keep her in the household.
“Ma chère,” she began. Repressing a glance over her shoulder, toward the blinded window of the room where Tocquet had retired, she leaned across the table and trapped Nanon’s hands in her own. “My dear, know that I think only of your welfare—of your future. Even if what I say seems cruel: with my brother you have none.”
Nanon flinched and pulled away, but Elise clung to her hands and followed her, leaning in so near she scented the tang of sweat on the other woman’s skin, and beneath it the faint perfume of sex.
“Of course, I don’t know what he may have told you. He might promise anything, in his heat.” Her voice was rising higher than she intended, and the lies came fully formed from her lips, without having ever entered her mind. “Bon, sé youn cabrit li yé, konprann? The man is a goat, my dear—imagine, such a one as he, a doctor and a brilliant scientist—why should he come out to this fire-blackened colony? Only that he had no choice, having left ruined girls and bastard offspring littered across half of France.”
Nanon’s hands went soft in Elise’s grip. Not the least tension could be felt in her fingers, palms or wrists. All her body looked passively, vacantly relaxed, limp as fresh-killed meat. On other occasions, Elise had noticed this capacity of Nanon’s to disappear within herself, and in an odd way she had envied it.
“As for the outcome of such relations in this country . . .” Elise gave the dead palms a little pressure. “Ma chère. I am sure you can bear witness much better than I.”
Then she let go of Nanon’s hands, and after studying her for a moment longer, adjusted herself against the chair back. Nanon’s knuckles still lay against the surface of the table, her palms cupped together, as if she were trying to hold water. Her body was partly twisted away, so that Elise saw only the fall of her unbound hair, the smooth curve of her cheek, the shield-like corner where her wide lips pressed together. A carpenter bee hummed over the bougainvillea vines, working in and out of the hole it had drilled in the gallery rail. Elise waited a moment more, but as Nanon did not speak or shift or blink, she got up and went on about the business of her day.
That evening the four of them dined together as before, though conversation flowed less easily, since the military and political topics had been exhausted the previous night. Nanon remained subdued and withdrawn (Elise thought she avoided Choufleur’s glances), and Tocquet had gone into one of his darkly silent moods, so he contributed little to the table talk. Choufleur, for his part, was more animated than when he’d first arrived, seeming exceptionally well pleased with himself and his visit to Habitation Thibodet. Elise rose to his repartee with all the vivacity she could muster. The effort left her weary, and on the verge of a headache.
Tocquet did not return from his postprandial cheroot, so Elise lay in their bed alone, skimming the surfaces of uneasy sleep. The man would pull away at times, go roving like a half-wild cat, and Elise had learned to tolerate that without complaint. Instinct told her, as much as experience, that Tocquet would not abide a clinging woman. But tonight his aloofness troubled her, and she was agitated by all the events of her day, and by her expectation.
When sleep did come, she slept leadenly, perspiring in the motionless air, and did not wake until late morning. Sophie’s voice sounded on the gallery, breaking toward tears as she asked for Paul, and Elise heard Tocquet’s voice murmuring some reply. His presence relieved her, at least temporarily, for sometimes the man might disappear for entire days or weeks, returning with gifts, most likely, but without explanation.
She collected herself and went out to the gallery. Tocquet held Sophie on his hip, supporting her back with one hand and brushing back dark curls from her face with the other.
“But when will he come back?” the child insisted.
Tocquet looked at her seriously, straight into her eyes, which resembled his own.
“He will not be coming back,” Tocquet said. “He has gone away with his mother.”
Sophie wailed, and pressed her damp face into the open throat of Tocquet’s shirt. He patted her back, in rough rhythm with her sobs, and when she began to trail off into hiccups, he handed her over to Zabeth, who had been standing by. Frowning, he walked through the doorway into the house, passing Elise as if she were transparent and invisible.
Her heart contracted like a fist, went rigid and refused to relax. She knew instantly that he had heard all she’d said to Nanon, and that he judged her for it. A sick feeling swelled in the back of her throat. She followed him into the bedroom.
“But all I did I meant for the best . . .”
She could not keep that detestable whining tone from her own voice. Tocquet turned toward her, his belt knife naked in his hands. Elise knew well enough he had killed people with it. The knife never strayed more than a foot from his fingers, and sometimes its proximity had given her an illicit thrill. Now she felt only a miserable dullness when she looked at the grayed flat of the blade and the bright edge where it was honed.
Tocquet opened and tilted his hand and the knife poured from it, falling to lodge its point in a floorboard, its haft lightly trembling.
“Don’t curse me,” Elise said weakly.
“You’ll curse yourself.” He turned away from her, toward the mirror.
Elise’s legs failed her. She sat down on the edge of the bed. She could not speak, or form a sentence in her mind. Tocquet squinted into the mirror, concentrating as he tied up his hair at the back with a leather thong. Then he swung round, scooped up the knife from the floor, and sheathed it under his shirt tail as he straightened.
“I will be going to Dajabón,” he said, without looking at her, “to buy tobacco there.”
He went out. Elise sank sideways onto the unmade bed, drawing her knees up toward her chin. Outside she heard his voice calling for Gros-jean and Bazau. A chill pervaded her body and bones, though the day was swelteringly hot. She fingered the hem of the mussed top sheet, without the will to draw it over herself. From outside the house came the cries of birds, and presently the sound of hoofbeats as the three men rode away.
A rutted, muddy track ran toward Fort Dauphin and the Spanish border, across the coastal plain. Tocquet and his two retainers rode eastward. For the first several miles the road was screened by trees and shrubbery, wild bush or citrus hedges gone half wild, but then the undergrowth fell away, leaving a long unobscured view on either side. To the north, a flat, swampy, near-featureless plain stretched to the blue haze of ocean at the horizon line. Southward, the same flat land unrolled to the sudden steep eruption of the mountains of La Chaîne de Vallière.
With such wide, clear fields of view in all directions, they could have seen any sign of a threat long before it could reach them. At the same time, they could as easily be seen themselves, and there was nowhere for them to hide or flee. This point impressed itself on Tocquet without causing him any immediate discomfort, though he ordinarily preferred mountain country—terrain he well understood how to use to his advantage. But for the moment the plain was clear, deserted. All cultivation looked to have been abandoned, and although rumor had it, at Le Cap, that this whole area was roamed by large, fierce bands of insurgent blacks, there was no sign of any human presence, only a few horses and cattle grazing the plain between the road and the sea, the initials of their onetime owners carved in large, straggling characters across their flanks.
They rode without speaking, single file, the horses picking their way over trampled mud, among pools of brackish water on the roadbed. No sound but the creaking of saddle leather, or now and then the far-off calling of a crow. By midday it was very hot and bright and man-sweat mingled fragrantly with the sweat of the horses. From a cleft in the distant mountains came the sound of drumming, mallets rattling dry and sharp along the taut join of skin to wood; then the sound grew deeper, throatier, as the drummer worked toward the softer center of the head. Tocquet felt that Bazau and Gros-jean were lifting their attention to the drums, though he did not turn to look back at them. At such moments he became a creature of instinct, and as his hackles had not risen, he still felt safe enough.
They rode on without altering their pace; the drumming fell back out of earshot. Presently it grew cooler, as the afternoon rain cloud swept in from the sea to blot the sun. Tocquet squeezed his heels to his horse and urged their short column into a trot. Before the rain had begun in earnest, they were riding into the village of Trou de Nord.
The little town claimed but a single street: a few dozen houses built on either side of a curve in the road that continued across the river to Fort Dauphin. No sign of any white presence here, but the village was populous with blacks, and the arrival of Tocquet’s party caused some small commotion. A market seemed to be just breaking up; in any case the moment had come for everyone to seek shelter from the rains; for the first fat drops were already pocking into the dust, and the wind had risen powerfully. Tocquet hailed an old man who had just scrambled up from under the hooves of his horse, and asked if he could purchase shelter for the night. The old man smiled with the two brown teeth left him, and spoke a muddy sentence too unclear to be understood. He took the bridle of Tocquet’s horse and began leading it behind a house on the south side of the road. Bazau and Gros-jean came along on their own horses.
Behind the house was an open shed that served as stable. Toquet and his men tied their horses here and hurried toward the back door of the house. The rain unloosed everywhere in a rush, turning the packed earth of the yard to soup; Tocquet felt it lashing his shoulders, but his broad-brimmed hat kept his head dry.
The interior of the house was dim, musty. Some boards were broken in the raised plank floor. Against one of the walls stood a huge mahogany armoire, too heavy to be easily removed; one drawer was missing and the others were empty. There was a massive dining table of the same wood but no chairs, nor any other furniture. Pallets of straw and heaps of blankets were laid against the walls and in one corner a young woman sat nursing a newborn infant. The old man clucked and shooed at her and Tocquet saw he meant to drive her out into the rain.
“Kite’l resté,” he said. Let her stay. He took out a silver coin and displayed it between thumb and forefinger; the old man looked at it dubiously, as if he did not comprehend what it might mean. It occurred to Tocquet that money might have fallen out of regular use in this region, now that all the blancs had fled. The girl looked at him round-eyed from her corner, covering the baby with the corner of a blanket.
“Can she cook?” Toquet asked.
The old man snatched the coin with a quick, flicking motion. “M’pralé chaché vyé famn pou sa.” He darted out the front door, into the rain, paused and unfolded his hand to look at the coin, then went splashing on down the muddy road with his clenched fist tight against his thigh.
Bazau said something to the girl, who smiled shyly and lowered her eyes without speaking. Tocquet pulled off his muddy boots and walked sock-foot into the next room. There were only two rooms in the house, and this second smaller one held nothing but a bedstead with no slats or mattress. Off the rear was a lean-to kitchen. The roof was sound, at any rate. Tocquet went onto the gallery that fronted the road, where he sat down on a three-legged stool and took a cheroot from his pocket. He passed the cheroot under his nose, then put it in his mouth without lighting it. His supply was low. For the moment, he nibbled gently at the end of the cheroot; a fragrant tingle spread across his tongue. Gros-jean put his head out the door for a moment, and then withdrew into the interior again. Tocquet sat listening to the water streaming under the house, watching the wall of rainfall that dropped sheer from the edge of the gallery roof.
Presently the promised old woman arrived, carrying a loose cloth bag and a speckled hen under one arm. Tocquet showed her to the kitchen lean-to, where she set a fire beneath a huge iron kettle. With a practiced whirl of her wrist she snapped the head off the chicken and aimed the blood jet out into the rain. When the severed neck stopped spurting, she hung the chicken by its feet and went back to her cauldron.
Tocquet cleared his throat. “Ki moun ki resté kouliyé-a nan Fort Dauphin, ou konnen sa?”
“Sé Pagnol ki resté la.” The woman grinned at him over her damp calico shoulder. It’s the Spanish who are there.
Tocquet nodded. “Do they have black soldiers?”
“Yo gegne soldat noir anpil.” The woman turned and faced him straight on, holding a blackened wooden spoon in her left hand. “Also lots of French, they say. Lots of French have just come there in ships. Anpil, anpil Fransé—grand blanc.”
“Yo di kon sa.” The woman smiled. That’s what they say. She turned, unfastened the bag and began pouring dry beans into the kettle.
Tocquet mused, unconsciously stroking the long ends of his mustache. He had heard in Le Cap that the Spanish occupied Fort Dauphin, and it was to be expected that most of their force should be black auxiliaries. Reportly most of Jean-François’s men had fallen back into this area, after the clash with Toussaint. But the arrival of large numbers of Frenchmen in ships was a mystery . . . especially if these Frenchman belonged to the planter class—grand blancs, as the woman had said. Slave masters. He stooped toward the fire coals to light his cheroot, but then decided to restrain himself.
The rain had stopped by the time the food was ready, and it was a thick, velvety dark outside. As there were no chairs, they abandoned the table and sat on the floor with the plates on their knees. Urged by Bazau, the girl shared their food: chicken roasted on a spit and maïs moulin, a cornmeal mush mixed with red beans and seasoned with hot peppers. Tocquet produced a bottle of clairin, which he passed around the circle. The infant slept beside her in the drawer taken from the armoire, which had been lined with straw to serve as a cradle.
After eating, Tocquet went out with Bazau and Gros-jean. The two black men went into the town, while Tocquet strolled along the river bank. At last he made free to light his cheroot. It was clear and cool now, after the rain, and the sickle moon was sufficient to light his way. There were only a few mosquitoes, and the tobacco discouraged them.
By the time he had finished his smoke and returned to the house, the larger room had filled up with people, perhaps a dozen were camping there. In the smaller room, pallets were prepared for Tocquet and his men. He stretched out on the straw and dozed, rousing himself when Bazau and Gros-jean came in, considerably later. Their conversations had confirmed that the Spanish held Fort Dauphin with a large force of black soldiers under Jean-François. Rumors of a French presence in the town were generally persistent.
The old woman arrived to brew coffee for them just before dawn; they drank it standing and by first light were in the saddle. A high, eerie singing caught Tocquet’s attention. He looked toward the mountains and saw a file of women coming down a path out of the morning; each balanced a basket of ripe red coffee beans on her head, and all of them were singing . . . So there was work still going on somewhere in the hills.
Tocquet clucked to his horse and rode toward the river. On the bank, they asked a woman washing clothes in the shallows where they might cross without swimming their horses. The river had gone down since the night before and came no higher than Tocquet’s boot heel at the deepest point. They scrambled up a muddy bank on the eastern side, and rode on toward Fort Dauphin.
Now on either side of the road, spindly second-growth cane was coming back from the ashes of fields that had been burned. Some of it seemed to have been harvested, though in no very systematic manner. They rode on. Midmorning, the horizon ahead broke up and began to swarm. As they drew nearer, the spectacle resolved itself into a mass of men—the black auxiliaries. They had settled around an old fortified camp erected by a colonial governor on this plain. The works were a square of cabins connected by a palisade, but some years before the slave rebellion the camp had been abandoned by the whites and much of the wood had been pilfered for other constructions elsewhere. In any case there were far too many men here to be quartered within the old fortifications—they’d overflowed those boundaries and camped willynilly all around.
A party of black soldiers wandered down to the road to challenge them; from this encounter Tocquet confirmed that the auxiliaries were under the command of Jean-François. Though it was not long since he had traded guns to that black general, he did not choose to tarry now. There was an air of ill-discipline and disorder in all of this encampment—a far cry from Toussaint’s camps around Ennery—and something in the feeling of the place made Tocquet’s hackles prick. As one of the men who’d accosted them was a friend of Gros-jean, they were allowed to pass without hindrance or delay, and by afternoon they rode into the town of Fort Dauphin.
Tocquet left his horse with Gros-jean and Bazau, dispatching them to a tavern they knew. On foot, he entered the Place d’Armes, where a grizzled, string-bearded Spanish officer was directing the movements of a few ratty troops with a broken umbrella. The men were all Spaniards of the Regiment de Contabre—no sign of the black auxiliaries here. On the road Tocquet had heard, from a friend of Gros-jean, that the men commanded by Jean-François were forbidden to enter the city.
He made a leftward circuit of the square, glancing into the church and the Maison du Roi. Although the Spanish seemed to be in possession of all the official buildings, there were also many Frenchmen wandering in the square, dressed in the manner of grand blancs—expensive costumes, which, however, showed signs of harder, longer wear than intended. Some of these Frenchmen were promenading their wives, and others also had children in tow. Tocquet, who kept his hat brim low, saw no one he knew personally.
At last he came to the fountain at the center of the square and sat down on the edge of the basin. He trailed his fingers in the water, then removed his hat and dampened his temples. It was very hot, and his hair was stiff with sweat and the dust of the road; the streets of Fort Dauphin were all unpaved. He soaked a kerchief in the water, rolled it and wrapped it around his neck, before he replaced his hat. When the drilling soldiers next about-faced, he was able to catch the eye of the man he’d hoped to find—a supply sergeant named Guillermo Altamira. As soon as the drill ended and the men were dismissed, the sergeant tugged off his cap and came to join Tocquet at the fountain.
Altamira was a short, stout man, with smooth round cheeks and an olive complexion, his face bordered by glossy curls of hair and beard. Tocquet had always known him to be well informed, well supplied, and cheerfully enterprising. In the first days of the slave insurrection, the sergeant had sold him the guns he ran over the mountains to the black insurgents on the French side. As this project had certainly been sanctioned and encouraged by the Spanish high command, Tocquet felt that Altamira was better connected in the military hierarchy than his modest rank might betray. But for the moment he was only interested in cigars. He put his questions in Spanish, the language he always used with Altamira, though he was confident the sergeant also spoke French. The sergeant told him that none were to be found, but he could furnish a packload of cured leaf tobacco, and no later than the next morning.
“Let’s drink to it, then,” Tocquet said, readjusting his hat as he rose from the basin. The wind was rising and the sky had darkened and everyone was scattering out of the square to avoid the afternoon downpour. Tocquet and the sergeant hastened to a tavern two streets away, where Tocquet had told his men to take a room; however, their names were unknown when he asked at the door, and all the rooms were already full. Nonetheless, they went in and took a table. A black servant brought them rum and water flavored with lemon.
Outside, there was a crash of thunder, and the rain came down in sheets. A party of damp Frenchmen entered; the last of these turned back to shut the door behind him. Tocquet clicked glasses with the sergeant, they drank, leaned back, and sighed.
“Who’re all these French who’ve filled the town?” Tocquet said. “They tell me here there are no rooms to let at all.”
“Royalists,” the sergeant said. “Landowners of the northern plain, so I’ve been told. Come to seize back their property from the godless Jacobins—with the aid of the Spanish crown.”
“How very interesting.” Tocquet laughed shortly. “Who commands here?”
“Why, in principle it is Don García himself,” said Altamira, “but just now, during his absence on campaign, the commander is Don Cassasola.”
Tocquet camouflaged a smile by wiping the back of his hand over his mustache. Don Cassasola was that decrepit specimen who’d been drilling the troops with the umbrella. The door opened and he glanced over. Bazau came in from the rain and Tocquet hailed him. The news was the same, no room to be had anywhere.
“And the horses?”
Bazau cut his hand toward the floor and smiled; from this Tocquet understood that Gros-jean had managed to shelter the horses and saddles somewhere, somehow, for the duration of the rain. He nodded. Bazau strolled to the counter and began talking to one of the serving girls there.
“I myself am quartered at the citadel,” the sergeant said, “where if you wish we might find you something . . .”
Tocquet shook his head, reaching automatically to pinch a mosquito that had just settled on his throat. He was not inclined to pass the night in a Spanish barracks.
“Or some of our officers, those who came here with their ladies, have taken houses in the Rue Bourdon,” the sergeant said. “Perhaps if you find an acquaintance, you might ask for hospitality.”
“Possibly,” Tocquet said. “It’s useful to know. In any case, I’ll manage something.”
The sergeant leaned closer to him. “Don’t stay here long,” he said, his tone carefully low. “Despite your manner of dress, you may be taken for French, and then—”
Tocquet glanced at him sharply, but Altamira had leaned back and was pouring himself a short measure of rum.
“I can have the tobacco loaded for you—tomorrow by the church, before morning mass. The load and the mule to carry as we said, and in time for you to make an early departure.” He drained his glass. His olive face went blank as he stood up.
Tocquet passed him a gold piece: earnest money. “Till tomorrow then, and thanks,” he said. The sergeant winked as he took the coin, but the rest of his face was grave, unsmiling.
As Altamira went out, Gros-jean came in. Through the door’s gap Tocquet saw the rain was heavy as ever. He beckoned Gros-jean to sit at his table, offered him rum, then looked for Bazau, but he was still gossiping with the girl at the counter. Just to the left of them was a door that apparently led to the rented rooms, for sometimes a French lodger came in or out by that passage. In confidence that tomorrow he could restock his supply, Tocquet produced one of his cheroots and lit it straightaway. A mosquito bit the back of his hand as he did so. He crushed it, exhaling smoke and raising his eyebrows at Gros-jean.
From that rear doorway a figure emerged, a gaunt Frenchwoman who moved with a weird stateliness, as if she were crossing the hall of a church instead of a crowded, noisy tavern. Her head was uncovered, her hair tied tightly back, and her deep-set eyes were fixed on something no one else could see. Tocquet felt a twinge of familiarity which he could not quite place. The room grew quieter as she passed, and men scraped and shifted their chairs and attention, not for her beauty, for she was a harsh-looking woman, but for her strange intensity.
She stopped at a table in the center of the room and inclined her head toward a man seated there. A Frenchman, graying at the temples, wearing a redingote which had been at the height of colonial fashion perhaps three years previously. They conferred for a moment, then the woman withdrew, making a ghostly passage back toward the same corridor from which she’d appeared.
Tocquet returned his glance to the man she’d spoken to and felt again on the edge of recognition. A grand blanc of fallen fortunes, evidently. The striped coat was patched at the elbows, the left boot sole pulling loose from its upper . . . A curiously twisted cane leaned against his thigh, and his manner of toying with the pommel also said something to Tocquet. The other must have felt his regard, for he looked directly at Toquet with his dark eyes, a purse of his small, rather feminine mouth.
“Arnaud!” Tocquet got up and met the other man halfway. They clasped each other warmly by the arms, surprisingly, for they had never been close friends. The surprise of unexpected meetings could make for uninttended intimacies. Tocquet joined the other at his table. It was indeed Michel Arnaud, though thinner, and gone a little gray.
“I took you for a Spaniard, Xavier,” Arnaud said. “But then, I took you for a Spaniard when we last met. But—have you dined?”
Tocquet glanced toward the door, which was closed, but he could hear the roar of the rain well enough on the roof; it would certainly rain for at least another hour. “Not yet,” he said, “and I may as well, if you invite me.”
“Of course,” Arnaud said, and called to the servants to bring another plate.
Tocquet experienced a moment of awkwardness. To invite Gros-jean and Bazau to sit at table with such a man would cause more trouble than it was worth. He called across the room to them.
“Mezami!—alé manjé.” The table where he’d sat with Altamira was now empty—he indicated this to the two blacks.
“Those are the same two men you had in the mountains then, no?” Arnaud asked.
“Yes,” said Tocquet, mildly surprised. To a man like Arnaud one nigger would scarcely be distinguishable from another, he’d thought.
“They’re faithful to you, then,” Arnaud remarked. “While all of ours betray us utterly . . .” He waved a hand around the room, then let it fall back limply to the pommel of his cane.
Tocquet drew on his cheroot and unconsciously crushed another mosquito on his cheek, reviewing the many qualities he had disliked in Arnaud. His weakness for luxurious self-indulgence of all kinds, which was spread over him like a coating of butter . . . lubricating an inner frame of cruelty. His arrogance, his brutal cruelty with his slaves, his wanton wastefulness of life whether human or animal. His mistreatment of his wife . . . On the credit side, Arnaud was a fine horseman, he spoke his mind plainly and held to his decisions, and unlike many cruel men, he did not seem to be a coward. Though one might say his taste for danger was like his taste for wine.
“Was that Claudine who spoke to you just now?” Tocquet said.
“Yes.” Arnaud’s face shaded. “She is very much changed, as you see.”
Tocquet said nothing. He had last seen Claudine Arnaud perhaps five years previously, but in that time she appeared to have aged twenty.
The serving girl arrived with a platter of pork slices, rice and beans, sliced peppers and onions. Arnaud served a plate and passed it to Tocquet, then gave himself a somewhat smaller serving.
“You’ve come a long road since we last met,” Tocquet said.
Arnaud seemed to look through him. Truly, his face had changed. Where formerly it had been almost piggishly smooth, it was now carved into hollows in his cheeks, around his eyes. Some callow layer had been burned away; Tocquet wondered what might reveal itself beneath. He had last seen Arnaud in 1791, on the eve of the first slave rebellion in the north—it was quite likely that Arnaud would have blundered into that upheaval, returning across the Spanish border with a pack train of guns Tocquet had delivered to him. That had been Tocquet’s first entry into the business of weapons supply.
“Yes.” Arnaud cut a small bite of pork and tasted it, appearing to swallow with some difficulty. He took some wine and laid down his fork. “When I left you I fell into the hands of Candy, that mulatto general of whom you will have heard; he would certainly have killed me, after tortures such as I saw him visit upon other planters of that province, but I escaped with the help of a prêtre savane.”
Arnaud crossed himself and closed his eyes for a moment. Flabbergasted at this gesture, Tocquet turned his attention to his plate.
“Afterward . . .” Arnaud resumed. “The plain was afire from one end to the other. My habitation was completely destroyed. Everything. And brigands roaming everywhere. I took to hiding in the hills for I don’t know how long, until at last I met with a patrol which brought me to Le Cap.”
“And Madame Arnaud, during your absence?”
“By whatever fortune she was visiting friends at Habitation Flaville, when the slaves attacked—it was one of the first. The men were killed but the women made their way to Le Cap in the end. Claudine was not so very much hurt in body, but in mind . . . for more than a year she seemed to have gone quite mad.” He looked up. “Since we’ve left the colony, she has seemed to do better.”
“How came you here, then?” Tocquet asked.
“Why, the Spanish have been circulating a broadside in Baltimore and Philadelphia and New York. They invited all the fugitive landowners of Saint Domingue to return to fight for the reclamation of their properties, under the Spanish flag.” Arnaud shook his head. “If it means fighting Frenchmen, well, they are bloody regicide Jacobins—nor am I in any position to refuse. You understand, we sailed with the fleet when Le Cap was burned. I waded to a boat with my wife in my arms and nothing else but the clothes I was wearing.” He plucked the frayed fabric of hisredingote. “As you see. I came to Baltimore a pauper. Afterward we tried New York, but I found nothing for myself there either. Claudine was taken up by some holy sisters who instructed her as a nurse. She did so by the recommendation of that same prêtre savane, who had become her confessor in Le Cap and tried to help her in her madness . . .”
“He sounds an interesting fellow, this priest. Where is he now?”
“He was executed at Le Cap, for the crimes of another. I myself was present there, but could do nothing, though I knew him innocent. I pray for him now, Xavier, though I have small skill at prayer. The name he gave was Père Bonne-chance.”
“Why, I knew that priest!—he had a little church near Ouanaminthe, by the Rivière Massacre. And I saw him later in the camps of the blacks . . . yes, it must be the same. He had a woman too, I think.”
Arnaud nodded. “A quarterrone woman and a string of children, sang-mêlés. I would do something for those children now if I could find them—if I had anything to give.”
Tocquet stroked his mustache. Arnaud was known to have sold his own half-breed children off his plantation simply to be rid of the sight of them. But that had been some time ago. Tocquet took a last bite of pork and pushed his plate back. “A decent fellow for a priest, I always thought,” he said. “He had a sense of humor—seemed to. I didn’t know him well.”
“If God has any justice, he has no need of my prayers,” Arnaud said. He crossed himself again, then cleared his throat. “Well, to finish my own story, I have been living in the North American Republic on charity and the labor of my wife—you may imagine. I have no better hope than to try to recover my resources here. And for yourself?”
“Oh, I could not rival such adventures,” Tocquet said. “I’ve scrambled along as best I might—mostly over the border.” In fact he had made handsome sums of money running guns into the camps of the insurgent slaves in the mountains, but Arnaud was unlikely to be pleased to hear this tale, and in any case Tocquet was close-mouthed about his business, as a matter of principle. “But tell me, how does it go since you’ve come here?”
Arnaud shrugged. “We’re rusticating . . . and I’ll confess to some impatience.” He leaned across his mostly untouched plate, lowering his tone. “I would not like to say distrust. But I do not see any sign of an active campaign on the part of these Spaniards. They took care to disarm us when we arrived here—even to our knives!—on the pretext we would be issued regulation muskets later, but nothing of that kind has come about. We sit idly here while our stores dwindle. Don García gives us nothing but evasions. Meanwhile, a mob of our renegade slaves is encamped not a full day’s march from here, I’m told, and all in Spanish uniform.”
“True,” Tocquet said thoughtfully, and crushed another mosquito on his forearm.
“So we wait,” Arnaud said. “We wait, and we wonder.”
Tocquet nodded. The warning he’d had from Altamira seemed too indefinite to pass on. In former days he would not have much troubled himself about what might happen to Arnaud for good or ill, though he’d always felt some sympathy for his wife—a pretty, brittle girl who’d come out from France completely unprepared for what she might find in the colony. Certainly she was no longer that. When she’d crossed the room a few moments before, she’d had the air of moving among a company invisible to all but her. Tocquet shook his hair back briskly, to rid himself of the thought.
They finished the meal in a thoughtful silence. Arnaud ate little, though he finished the clay pitcher of wine. Tocquet ate slowly, chewed thoroughly, and left nothing. When they were done he paid for both of them, over Arnaud’s mild protest.
“Do you stop here for the night?”
“No rooms to be had,” Tocquet said.
Arnaud nodded. “It’s crowded here—there must be a thousand who’ve lately returned from North America, if you count the families with the men. We might find room for you with us, but for your men . . .”
“No matter,” Tocquet said. He slapped another mosquito and grimaced at the splash of blood it left on the loose weave of his shirtsleeve. “Those gentlemen know how to manage—they’ll find something for us all.”
It proved that Bazau had already learned where to go from talking to the servants at the inn. When the rain had stopped, they found the horses and rode out from the eastern limits of the town, more or less in the direction of the Spanish frontier. In half an hour’s time they were mounting a trail that wound up into the foothills. After the rain, the air was fresh, and cooler as they climbed, and the sky was perfectly clear, with a trail of stars hanging from the hook of the moon. A light breeze combing over the hills swept all the mosquitoes away. They passed through an old planting of coffee trees, neglected now and overgrown with vines, and soon a couple of dogs began to bark. They stopped; Gros-jean got down from his horse and waited. Presently someone challenged them from the shadows of the trees, and Gros-jean answered in a soft voice. Tocquet, who had also dismounted and stood mostly concealed by the shoulder of his horse, passed forward a coin from his purse. After a few minutes of negotiation, the dogs were quieted and taken away, and someone led them to a clay-walled case by the side of a still spring-fed pool.
They spread blankets on the dirt floor, and the two black men lay down at once, but Tocquet went out to smoke a cheroot by the wall of the case. Starlight spread on the quiet surface of the pool, and there was light enough for him to see other cabins in the trees beyond it. He knew the region well enough, but this bitasyon was newly sprung up, since the insurrection.
The insects of the forest erected a wall of sound on every side, but still there were no mosquitoes. When he was half done with his cheroot, he noticed a couple of women who had come to watch him quietly from the far side of the water, but they exchanged no word. Once the cigar was done, he went inside, stretched out on the blanket and slept until dawn without dreaming.
At first light the three of them rolled their blankets and rode out on the same path by which they’d entered. As they crossed a clearing, they were hailed by an old woman who was grinding coffee in a hollowed stump, using a wooden pestle taller than herself, but Tocquet did not want to wait for the coffee to be brewed, so they rode on without stopping. The sun was just risen when they came out on the brow of a hill above the town, where the view was clear all the way to the shallow jug-shaped harbor. Along the western road they saw the whole black army of Jean-François, flanked by horsemen, marching into the town.
By the time Tocquet and his men came to the church, Jean-François’s black soldiery had filled the Place d’Armes. A thin line of Spanish troops stood before the church steps where they exchanged salutes with the black auxiliaries. As the men stood at ease, Tocquet rounded the church, and found Altamira waiting on the street behind it, holding a donkey loaded with two small bales of tobacco. The bales were strapped to a triangular wooden pack frame and covered with a blanket. Tocquet reached under the cover to crumble some leaf; he raised his palm to his face and sniffed, then nodded.
Altamira did not want to meet his eyes. He accepted the money they’d agreed on, and pointed farther along the street.
“Go that way,” he said, “and turn to the right—you can reach the main road without crossing the square.” Without waiting for an answer, he disappeared around the corner of the church.
They mounted again and went the way Altamira had indicated, Gros-jean leading the donkey ahead of the other two. At the next corner they turned and were soon crossing another street which led back again to the square. A number of the recently arrived French were walking to morning mass and among them Tocquet saw Arnaud, striding with a hint of his former arrogance and swinging the twisted cane lightly from his left hand. At his side, Claudine went gliding, her hands folded before her and her eyes fixed on some faraway horizon. She wore a white cambric dress with red embroidery like threads of blood; the hem of the dress trailed in the dust of the unpaved street, but she seemed completely unconscious of that. She walked in the same manner as she’d crossed the tavern floor yesterday—as if she were going to her execution amidst a mob of invisible mockers.
Neither of them had noticed Tocquet, and he did not call to greet them. When the Arnauds had passed, he and his two men went on toward the western road, but before they had reached the next corner, Tocquet pulled his horse up sharply.
“No, not this way,” he said to Gros-jean. “Go to the hill where we were this morning and wait there till we come.”
Gros-jean changed course without a word or hint of curiosity about the new direction. Tocquet motioned to Bazau, and the two of them rode back at a trot toward the Place d’Armes.
They did not overtake Arnaud and his wife. Tocquet imagined the couple must have gone into the church, because they were not to be seen among the other newly arrived French who stood around the edges of the square, peering uneasily at the black soldiers assembled in the center. Tocquet dismounted and led his horse to the foot of the church steps, where he handed his reins to Bazau. Before the doors of the church he turned and looked back over the square. No sign of anything untoward: the black men were quiet, and held their muskets carelessly, but there was something in their stillness that made the hair rise on Tocquet’s arms and the back of his neck, and brought the taste of iron into his gullet.
He went into the church and stood in the rear, among a loose group of Spaniards loitering there, both soldiers and civilians. No one took notice of him, except Altamira, who simply shook his head, then turned his back. The service was already ending; a pair of horns sounded the recessional. The group around the doorway parted for the cross to pass, followed by the huge brass-bound Bible, held high by an acolyte. Next came the priest, Vasquez, huffing and wheezing under the bulk of his embroidered vestments, and after him the Spanish Colonel Montalvo, and finally Jean-François, resplendent in a dress uniform whose breast was jumbled with military decorations, ribbons and sacred medals. Once these had passed, the recession became general. Arnaud caught sight of Tocquet and began speaking to him, but Tocquet was too distracted to hear; he took hold of the other’s sleeve and drew him out the doorway of the church. Claudine floated a pace ahead of them.
At the passage of Vasquez, Tocquet’s skin had broken out in gooseflesh, though he did not know why. He knew Father Vasquez was vicar general to the troops of Santo Domingo and he also knew, from the many months he’d run guns to the black camps, that Vasquez had become the personal confessor of Jean-François. The presence of Montalvo also seemed to signal something, for he was a very different stamp of soldier than the enfeebled, indecisive Cassasola.
The cross bearer stopped halfway down the church steps. Jean-François and Vasquez stood beside him—to their right, the acolyte held the Holy Writ high. Montalvo gave an order and the Spanish troops below the steps separated into two wings and regrouped at the corners of the church, making way for Jean-François’s standard bearers to come forward. Wheezily, but loudly enough to be heard in the square, Vasquez gave a full ceremonial blessing to the flags. Then he turned to Jean-François and said in a slightly lower tone, Exterminez ces athées, mon fils, ces régicides, ces hébreux.
Jean-François raised his plumed, argile helmet in both hands and settled it carefully on his head. He jerked his uniform coat straight by the tails, then raised his right palm over his men: the black troops straightened and lifted their guns. Jean-François gave a deep, explosive shout in Creole:
Touyé-yo kon kochon!
As he spoke his hand closed; the fist dropped like an iron hammer.
At first Arnaud could not grasp what had been said: the words entered his ears, but without their intelligence. First Vasquez: Exterminate these atheists, my son, these regicides, these Hebrews. Then Jean-François: Slaughter them like hogs! When the black general’s hand fell, the whole Place d’Armes convulsed, and finally Arnaud understood what had been meant—what he’d feared since the Spanish had disarmed the members of his own party. He jerked involuntarily free of Tocquet’s grip on his arm, then stilled himself and reached behind him for his wife’s elbow, drawing her a step down to stand between him and Tocquet. Her head was high, chin forward, eyes surveying the scene below. If the spectacle impressed her, she did not show it. The black soldiers had exploded in all directions to kill the French who surrounded the square. They worked at first in a ghastly silence, butchering with bayonets and coutelas and musket stocks exactly as Jean-François had ordered (since their victims were unarmed, they could conserve their ammunition), but soon enough the air was torn with screaming, and grew thick with the fragrance of fresh blood.
Where they stood was an island of calm on the steps, directly behind the priest, cross, and Bible. Montalvo was already gone, and the Spanish troops were quietly withdrawing, filing into the alleys at either side of the church. As they retreated, the blacks began swarming up the steps to drag French men and women out of the church, slashing their throats or disemboweling them with bayonets. Just inside the narthex two women were being vigorously raped, their cries muffled by long skirts flung up over their heads.
Tocquet caught Arnaud’s eye and jerked his head. With Claudine between them, they moved cautiously down the steps. At the foot, where the last of the Spanish troops were unwinding into the column of retreat, one of Tocquet’s men stood holding two horses, his face impassive, apparently calm. Tocquet helped Arnaud boost Claudine onto the nearest horse; she sat sidesaddle, fingers of one hand twined loosely in the mane.
“Doucement,” Tocquet said to Arnaud. “Don’t hurry, don’t show fear, and don’t look directly at anything you see.”
Slowly they moved behind the retreating Spanish column, down the alley beside the church. Arnaud walked beside his wife to steady her in the saddle. Bazau led the riderless horse ahead and Tocquet strolled beside him, his Spanish cattleman’s hat pulled low over his eyes.
The Spanish column turned sharply to the left, marching down toward the harbor and its forts. Arnaud’s every instinct summoned him to follow, but Tocquet shook his head. “They’ll leave us locked outside the gate,” he said. “Come on, this way.”
There was gunfire now, sporadically audible from the square behind them, along with war cries of the blacks and screams of the slaughtered. Arnaud could not make out if these sounds were coming nearer. Then a hideous, desperate shriek erupted immediately behind him, as if from the ground over which he’d just passed. He made to look over his shoulder but stopped himself before he’d seen anything. He fastened his gaze on a sweat stain at the back of Tocquet’s shirt. The ululating cry was suddenly cut off by a thunk and crunch, an exhalation. In its aftermath Arnaud thought he heard the sound of someone weeping. Claudine twisted her torso in the saddle and looked back at whatever was there to see, her eyes arid and crystalline, like two chips of salt. Arnaud’s intestines went into a gelid knot. What Tocquet had said now seemed to Arnaud an article of faith—to look in the wrong direction meant certain death. He dug his fingers into his wife’s thigh until she reacted and turned forward again.
They swung into the Rue Bourdon. It was calm here, no sign of any disturbance yet; there was even birdsong from the enclosed arbors around the houses. A man in the uniform of a Spanish lieutenant stood in the arched doorway of an eight-foot-high stone wall, looking in their direction. Tocquet approached him but in no great haste. The lieutenant made to shut the door, but Tocquet said something to him in Spanish. Arnaud made out only the phrase por favor, but spoken without urgency or pleading. Tocquet and the Spaniard conferred in the doorway, their voices low. Arnaud began helping Claudine down from her horse. At the far end of the street a mob of howling blood-stained blacks appeared. Arnaud’s guts twisted again. He would not look at them.
He stared at the back of Tocquet’s shirt, and over his shoulder saw the Spaniard shaking his head no (this word distinctly audible); he started to close the door again, but suddenly his whole manner changed. He laid a friendly hand over Tocquet’s shoulder, and his expression softened, slackened. The door swung inward and Tocquet crossed the threshold, seeming to support the Spaniard, who leaned into him as if overcome with dizziness or heatstroke . . . Arnaud led Claudine through the doorway. He was watching the Spaniard’s face over Tocquet’s shoulder, the mouth open in a round of surprise. A little blood ran out from the corners, then Tocquet disengaged himself and Arnaud saw that his right sleeve was blood-soaked to the elbow, and then he saw the foot-long dirk in his right hand. The Spaniard knelt, then stretched out face down on the flagstones of the paved enclosure.
Around the edges of the wall were planted hibiscus and other flowering shrubs; there was even a fountain whose stream tinkled through a couple of broken red-clay jugs. A cool shaded gallery ran lengthwise toward the corner of the house’s ell, where now a door popped open: another Spanish officer came out, calling hoarsely and moving half at a run. Tocquet had his back turned, closing the door, saying something to Bazau, who still stood outside holding the horses, through a small iron grille through which the black man’s profile could be seen. Arnaud was unable to react at first, though he took in that the Spaniard held a pistol. Claudine confronted him, pulling herself up; her bones protruded whitely from her face and her hands twitched on her dress front, as if she meant to draw some terrible weapon out of herself . . . an instrument of complete annihilation. In the instant that the Spanish officer hesitated before her, Arnaud came unbound from whatever spell held him and swung his cane as hard as he could at the back of the Spaniard’s head. The cane rebounded with a jolt that numbed his palms, and the Spaniard fell forward, unconscious if not dead. His pistol went skittering across the flagstones.
Turning from the door, Tocquet looked at Arnaud and nodded solemnly. A shrill, high scream came from the gallery, and Arnaud looked to see a young woman standing with her fingers mashed tight across her lips, supported by a black-clad duenna standing behind her. Tocquet grimaced at the bloody dirk still in his hand, then tucked it away under his loose shirttail. With a bound he was on the gallery, holding the younger woman by her hair, twisting it hard at the nape of the neck so that her head rolled backward and her mouth opened soundlessly.
“Take the keys.” Tocquet gestured with his chin; Arnaud lifted the key ring from the duenna’s belt. Together they herded the women into the house. It was dim, disorienting at first, but Tocquet moved surely through one room to the next and stopped at a pantry door. Arnaud tried one key after another; it was the fourth that fit. The pantry was deep, stone walls lined with shelves. Tocquet flung the women in and closed the door, then reopened it halfway.
“Take off your dress,” he said.
The duenna spat at him, and in almost the same instant Tocquet had slapped her back against the wall. “I want the dress,” he snapped. “No one means to attack your virtue.” He banged the door shut and locked it with the key.
Two black servants, a man and woman in middle age, knelt in the corridor, their hands raised in attitudes of supplication. Arnaud ignored them, and went back out into the courtyard, where Claudine stood motionless between the two prone bodies, staring at the trickle of the fountain. There was a commotion outside the door, where the black marauders seemed to be interrogating Bazau.
“Were those French who came in here?”
“Non, pa sa,” Bazau said, disinterestedly. “They are Spanish.”
Ice in his blood, Arnaud moved to a position where he could not be seen from the grille in the door. A black hand appeared at the top of the wall, groped, then yanked sharply away. The wall was crowned with broken bottles set in the masonry. Tocquet came hastily out of the house, calling to Bazau in Spanish to stop gossiping and bring the horses around to the back at once. A silence, then they heard the black mob moving onto the next house.
Tocquet opened another door in the rear of the wall, which led into a larger enclosure, with a kitchen garden and two stalls with a horse in each. Beside the stalls was a wider gate and Tocquet opened this to admit Bazau and the horses; as he did so, the two black servants bolted from the house, shot past him and escaped into the alley. Tocquet cursed, then bolted the gate.
“Saddle up,” he said to Bazau, pointing to the horses in the stalls.
In the arbor, Arnaud was startled by a grunt and moan behind him. He turned to see the Spaniard he’d stunned with the cane pushing up to all fours, then sitting back woozily on his heels, gingerly palming the back of his head. Tocquet moved toward him deliberately, lifting his shirttail to draw a small pistol. The Spaniard’s eyes cut to his own weapon, which lay on the flagstones a few feet from him, but Arnaud moved quickly to pick it up.
“Why?” Tocquet said. “I would like to know why . . . all this butchery and betrayal.”
“I don’t know,” the Spaniard said.
Tocquet took a step closer, clicking back the hammer of his pistol.
“Jean-François took alarm at the return of the French slave masters,” the Spaniard said hastily. “He demanded the sack of the town, and Vasquez took his part with Don García, so . . .” He raised his hands palm outward, with a queasy smile. “It’s appalling, of course, but as for myself—”
Arnaud shot him in the right temple; his head jerked to the side and he plumped over backward with his legs still twisted under him. Tocquet looked at Arnaud and then at the body, as if he would measure it, and then at Arnaud again.
“Bien fait,” he said. “Take his uniform.”
Having said this, Tocquet stripped off his shirt, revealing the handle of the dirk and the butts of two pistols in the waistband of his trousers. He used the shirt to wipe blood from the knife blade and his right forearm. Then he stooped over the fountain and washed himself further, rinsed out the shirt and rolled it into a damp bundle. He drank a little water from his cupped palm and then splashed more on his face and hair.
Arnaud watched his ablutions, standing with the discharged pistol hanging at the length of his arm. From a nearby house, or from the street, a man’s hoarse voice cried out twice; the third shout was abruptly cut off. Tocquet went to the man he had stabbed, tumbled him over onto his back, and with some awkwardness dragged off his uniform coat. Then he glanced up at Arnaud.
“Anou alé, monchè,” he said. Let’s go.
Arnaud raised the spent pistol to his face and sniffed the powder smell of the barrel. “I never killed anyone before,” he said.
Tocquet looked at him with pure disbelief, then smiled crookedly and shook his head. He began wiping blood from the Spanish coat with his wet shirt and, when he was satisfied, put it on. The sleeves were rather too short for him, but otherwise it fit well enough. He walked to Claudine, who still stood mute and unmoving between the two bodies, touched her respectfully on the elbow and piloted her into the house, as one might guide a blind person.
Arnaud crouched over the body of the man he had shot, laying the pistol to one side. He unfastened the uniform coat and pushed it down over the man’s dead shoulders. It was a clumsy business getting the sleeves off the arms, for the corpse gave him no help at all; though entirely limp, it was much less cooperative than the body of a sleeper or a drunk would have been. But when at last he succeeded in freeing the coat, he was relieved to find that it was free of bloodstains. He put it on and did the buttons up the front. A chill passed over him, but then he felt steadier. He had never killed a white man—that was what he had meant. What did it mean to do away with a slave? Arnaud’s labor gangs had been so cursed with sloth and rebellion that he had occasionally been forced to make an example (perhaps he could not number those occasions), or to eliminate a bad seed from his atelier. There were times when lesser punishments had inadvertently led to death, and also there were other times, when Arnaud was drunk and with his friends . . . well, but Tocquet had always had queer notions on such subjects.
Arnaud dismissed the thought. He took the Spaniard’s belt and put it on, recharged the pistol and settled it into the holster. When that was done he felt much calmer, though he still did not like to look at the two bodies in their blood pools on the pavement. Bazau came to stand in the doorway to the rear enclosure, and Arnaud, following the direction of the black man’s glance, saw a tiny hummingbird suspended before the trumpet blossom of a hibiscus flower.
Tocquet came out of the house, conducting Claudine, who now wore the duenna’s black dress. Her hair was covered with a black shawl and a black veil concealed her face to the chin, so that Arnaud could only recognize her by the way she walked. She also wore a pair of black gloves, with the empty ring finger pinned back to the left palm, as was her custom.
Claudine’s momentum expended itself and left her standing just under the corner of the overhanging gallery roof. Tocquet kept walking to Arnaud. He took out a flat wooden box and opened it to show.
The box was full of slim black Spanish cigars. Arnaud declined. Tocquet chose a cigar and bit the end off it.
“Steadies the nerves, I find.” He lit his cigar and tucked the box into an inside pocket of the lieutenant’s coat.
“We’d best be off,” he said.
“Have you gone mad?” Arnaud hissed at him. “It’s a slaughterhouse out there.”
“Faute de mieux.” Tocquet exhaled smoke and smiled. “I don’t think much of our chances here. If we aren’t disemboweled by the blacks, we’re quite likely be hanged by the Spanish—we have killed two of the bastards, you’ll recall. And that pair of servants will certainly give us up, wherever they stop running.”
Bazau had found a proper sidesaddle to strap on the Spanish mare—perhaps it belonged to the young woman who was now locked in the pantry of the house. Thus Claudine was more comfortably mounted; Tocquet took care to adjust her stirrups. She was a poor rider, but fortunately the mare seemed gentle and steady, and Arnaud and Tocquet rode close on either side of her, with Bazau bringing up their rear.
Once they had turned off the Rue Bourdon, they passed a block strewn with bodies of men and women and children of all ages. On the next block they overtook a party of black men loading corpses on a cart—a man with epaulettes on his coat was collecting money and watches and rings in a sack. The general slaughter in the streets seemed to be finished, but the blacks were still breaking into the houses to ferret the French survivors from their hiding places. There was no fire. Near the edge of town they passed an impassioned warrior on the point of putting a torch to a roof, but a black cavalryman broke away from a patrol and knocked the torch out of his hands with a gun stock.
Tocquet fumed out smoke as he rode, and sternly returned the looks of whomever they passed. Twice he saluted black patrols on horseback, and each time his salute was dutifully returned. No Spanish soldiery was evident anywhere—they must have all locked themselves into the forts. Arnaud kept his eyes fixed on whatever appeared between his horse’s ears. In fact his horse, the gelding they’d taken from the house on the Rue Bourdon, was skittish, perhaps unnerved by the stench of blood, but the work of managing the animal helped Arnaud keep calm himself. Sometimes he glanced across at his wife, whose veil hung motionless but for the tremble of her respiration. A crust of white dust formed on the cloth below her nostrils. Where was she? Arnaud knew her haunted by phantasma still more awful than his own. Sometimes he was moved to believe that the mind could not produce such things from its interior—that the demons must be external, real.
They rode at a brisk, businesslike trot and stopped for nothing. No one attempted to hinder them, or paid them much attention at all. When they came out of the town they could see Gros-jean holding the laden donkey and waiting for them at the head of the trail on the hill. Once they had come up with him, he fell into their train without a word and they rode on, toward Ouanaminthe and into the hills beyond.
All the north country had grown smaller since I, Riau, had last been there. Toussaint had threaded the mountains with his posts of the Cordon de l’Ouest, which pulled all the land up tight like the drawstring of a bag. At Marmelade and Plaisance and Dondon were soldiers who answered always to Toussaint, and also at other smaller posts in the mountains in between. Not so many soldiers at each post, because Toussaint had taken most of them to fight the English in the Artibonite. But those there were had eyes and ears and memory.
In the mountains I shot a goat with my pistol and cured the meat at the boucan. I rode to the market of Marmelade to trade a part of the smoked meat for a straw saddle. At the market were women who wove straw saddles very well. But before I had this saddle strapped to the back of Ti Bonhomme, there came a soldier of the post to ask who was Riau? What was his business there at Marmelade? Worse, this soldier looked at the horse as if he knew him from another time, and a different rider.
For that, Riau did not pass one night in Marmelade. At Plaisance, it was the same, and at Dondon. Beyond Dondon was Jean-François, still serving the Spanish whitemen with his camps around Grande Rivière, or in the other direction the colored men held Le Cap in the name of the French whitemen Toussaint now served. In the mountains were still bitasyons from the time of marronage, and new villages had sprung up as well, but the people were mistrustful of a stranger, because the whole country was at war.
I rode into the mountains north of Dondon, and when I could not ride any higher, I tied Ti Bonhomme to a tree with the rope reins and went on with my own legs, until I climbed Bonnet d’Evêque. It was a peak we had passed many times before, when Riau had belonged to the maroon band Achille led, who had been killed in the first fighting on the plain down there. They called it so because the mountain was pointed and split at the top, like a bishop’s hat, and to climb it to the highest place I had to use my hands. From the top of it I could see very far in each direction. Behind was Morne La Ferrière, with a new bitasyon sprouting below the cliff, and smoke from charcoal burning. Below, Dondon, and Limonade, and the Plaine du Nord rolling out to the sea, and far to the west was Morne du Cap above the town, and the mountains near Limbé. Some of the plain was still fire-blackened from when we burned the plantations with Boukman, but parts of it were growing green again. Beyond the plain the line where the sea met the sky was curving to become a circle, so that I, Riau, must see and understand that wherever I went anymore I would meet myself coming again, out of all that had been done before. At every kalfou I would meet my own past actions, even if I went back to Bahoruco.
When I had climbed down from the top of the Bishop’s Hat, I took the straw saddle off Ti Bonhomme and fastened it to a tree branch where the leaves would hide it. I untied the bridle I had made so it became a rope again, and with the rope’s end I drove the horse away into the bush. When I could not hear him moving anymore, I took up the macoute with the smoked meat which was left, my pistols and watch and the bundle of letters, and with the rope coil on my other shoulder, I began walking to Dondon, where Moyse commanded for Toussaint.
There was a long climb to make up the twist of the reddish mud road to the notch in the mountains where Dondon was, in the pass to the plateau and the high savannah. Market women were coming down the road with baskets carried on their heads, and children leading goats or cows to forage. When the sun and heat were highest, I rested with my back against a tree, eyes half closed, my ti-bon-ange half out of my body. Then I climbed some more and came into the town near the end of the day. The road leveled off and I walked the curve of it among the houses and then the road rose again, only a little, to an open hump of clear land by the church. On the other side of the cleared bare earth Moyse sat beneath a canvas, with a pen and paper on the table before him.
When Moyse saw me coming toward the table, a smile came out on his face like a flower. Moyse and Riau had crept together into the camps of whitemen in these same mountains, to cut their throats by night along with Dessalines and Charles Belair, and also we had known each other at Bréda when each of us had Toussaint as his parrain. It was long since Riau had seen him, and in that time Moyse had lost one of his eyes in fighting with the blancs. Now Moyse passed his hand between his face and me, and when the hand fell to the table again, the smile was gone.
Moyse wore a uniform coat and tight trousers tucked into high boots like a blanc horse soldier. He looked at the paper on his table, and touched the quill pen with his fingertips.
“Sa ou vlé?” he said, and frowned at the paper like a whiteman. What do you want?
“M’vlé sevi,” I said. I want to serve. He would know how my meaning was twinned because Moyse also served the loa.
“Mmmmmm.” Moyse made a long, low sound he must have imitated from Toussaint. He looked at me all over with his eyes narrowing. “Where are your boots, my Captain? and your coat? your cartridges?”
Well, it was true that I had left all these things behind when first I ran from Toussaint’s army to go to Bahoruco. True also that I had no shoes now and no shirt either, only a straw hat and the macoute strapped on my shoulder and canvas breeches torn in rags almost to the hip. I knew where the thought in Moyse’s head was leading him, toward the crime of deserting and the punishment. I had no thought inside my head, but my hands went into the macoute to hold one pistol by the barrel and the other by the grip. I held the pistols toward Moyse that way.
Moyse pushed back in his chair, and his hands fell below the table. I did not know what he would do, but just then something pushed me softly in the back and when I turned it was the horse Ti Bonhomme, now nosing at the macoute where he knew the bag of salt was hidden.
“Sé chaval-ou?” Moyse said. It’s your horse? But I thought Moyse must know Ti Bonhomme from Bréda anyway.
“Li égaré,” I said. He has strayed.
Moyse began to laugh, his hands rising open into my sight again, and I was laughing with him then.
“Well, keep him,” Moyse said. “Ride him.” This time, when he stopped laughing, the smile stayed.
Then I felt foolish to have left the saddle at Bonnet d’Evêque, if the horse meant to follow me so far anyway. But Jean-François was at Grande Rivière and we at Dondon had many little fights with his people, so in one of these I took a leather saddle, and another horse too. Moyse found a coat for me to wear and I put the watch in a coat pocket where it ticked beneath the cloth, and people began to call me Captain again as they had done before I went away to Bahoruco. Soon Captain Riau had a little troop of men to order in the way the whiteman Maillart had taught him before.
All during this time Toussaint was fighting with most of his men in the Artibonite plain, or back and forth across the river all the way to Mirebalais. He had made a strong camp at the plantation of Marchand where Dessalines was born, in the pass of the Cahos mountains, and from there he attacked Saint Marc many times, but could not take it, or hold it if he did. He did cross the river to take Verrettes, but the Spanish came from the east to help the British take it back again. The British whiteman Brisbane was also a clever general, so for a long time it did not seem that either he or Toussaint could beat the other one completely, there in the Artibonite.
All this we knew from letters which passed from Toussaint to Moyse and back again, because Toussaint’s fighting was far away to the south then. To the north and the east was Jean-François, who had more men than Moyse at Dondon, but not so well ordered or wisely led. Jean-François had money, gold from the Spanish to pay anyone who would come over into his army, and some people from the camps Toussaint had around Dondon did go over to Jean-François, or they would change sides daily, depending. Anyway, the French whitemen with Laveaux, who was Toussaint’s commander and parrain now, had not money to pay anyone, or even enough of powder and bullets, so we had to take those things from our enemies whenever we could take them.
One day, Toussaint rode into Dondon with more than three thousand of his men, and no letter coming before to say that he would be there. That was Toussaint’s way, and Moyse and everyone at Dondon was happy to be surprised by him like that, except Riau was not so happy because when Toussaint saw that I was there, he had six men arrest me and lock me into a room with no windows, in the strongest house of all Dondon. I did not have any time to look for Moyse or anyone else I knew, and no one spoke to me when they were chasing me to the guard house in front of the bayonets, but I heard myself called the deserter Riau, so I thought I would probably be shot the next day.
Every one must die, we know. Riau knew this, and told it to himself, but was frightened still, and did not want to do it. Better to have been killed in the middle of one of the big fights I had been in with Halaou, or Boukman even, long before. The storeroom had been used for coffee, and there was still the smell of coffee there, but it was empty, only bare shelves and hooks with nothing hanging from them, and no one brought any food or water. Rats were gnawing and walking down under the wood floor, and outside the door the guard sometimes coughed or thumped his musket stock on the sill. I wondered about Merbillay’s other man, who had probably come to Dondon with the rest of Toussaint’s soldiers, if he was still alive. It was funny to think that we might pass each other or speak to each other without knowing it. He might even be the man standing guard outside the storeroom, or the man who would be ordered to shoot Riau, whenever Toussaint ordered it.
I felt sad then because I remembered I would not see Merbillay or Caco anymore when I was dead, but there was nothing I could do to change what was going to happen. I heard the watch ticking in the coat pocket and I took it out to look. The metal point moved in little jerks around the circle. It seemed terrible for time to be shut up in the watch, the way Riau was shut into the storeroom. Whitemen appeared to live that way always, jerking with the pointer. Then I knew what it was I must do, to try to keep living after all, so I banged on the door and called out in my Captain’s ordering voice that they must bring me pen and paper.
At first, they did not answer me on the other side, but I kept shouting, with silences in between the shouts. Each time the long point of the watch had traveled a quarter of the circle, I would begin to shout again. At last I heard the voice of Moyse beyond the door, and though I could not see him when the door opened, out of the ring of bayonets and gun barrels, hands appeared to pass me pen and paper and ink, and a stub of candle too, because there was no light for writing in the storeroom.
I took a shelf board down from the wall and sat with it balanced on my knees, to hold the paper. The words had been made already in my head, but I wrote them very slowly in the handwriting I had learned to copy from that dead Frenchman’s letters, careful to think just how each word must be drawn on the sheet of paper.
To General Toussaint Louverture
from his Captain, Riau
My General it is true that for desertion the punishment is Death. Your Captain Riau does not have fear to Die. But a Dead Man cannot serve his People and I have come back of my free will to serve. I pray you let my life and my death also if it be on a field of battle serve my people and their Cause.
I am your servant
When the letter was finished and the ink was dry, I folded it two times and dripped candlewax to hold it shut and wrote Toussaint’s name on the other side. Then I beat on the door until someone grunted on the other side, and I slipped the letter through the crack beneath the door. Outside it was night, or must have been. When I pinched the candle out, there was no light at all and I lay on the floorboards and slept like I had been shot already.
They came for me with muskets and bayonets, and Moyse was not there nor anyone I knew, so I thought I would be shot anyway, maybe. It was just dawn, with the mist rising from the square before the church. I would go beneath the waters maybe without meeting Toussaint again, I thought, but then I saw him sitting beneath the canvas where Moyse had been before.
Toussaint wore his yellow mouchwa têt like always and his general’s hat was on the table beside the letter of Captain Riau. Now he wore the French uniform, and he had a big red plume above the white feathers in his hat, but everything else about him was the same as it had been. Riau’s thumbprint in the wax seal of the letter had been broken all the way across, and when I saw that I felt fear, as if Riau’s head would be taken from his body after all, his feet torn off the earth forever.
“You do credit to your tutors,” Toussaint said at last, with a tick in his voice as if he might laugh, but he did not. He looked up and down from me to the letter, with one of his eyebrows moving. Then he folded the letter and put it away inside his coat.
“Well, my captain,” he said, and his voice made a bark. “Return to your troops!”
Behind me the bayonets came down. I saluted Toussaint and walked away as stiff and straight-backed as I could, though for some little time my legs were weak, as if they were full of water instead of bone.
I had thought Toussaint would put me to writing his letters again, because he always had need of others to write for him, and that was why I had made Captain Riau’s letter in that way which it was. But instead we all went out of Dondon that day, more than four thousand men altogether, to fight the Spanish whitemen in the high plain to the east. I believe that Toussaint might have been thinking that those Spanish would have left their towns unguarded from the north since they had sent their soldiers to help the English at Verrettes. But they had left soldiers enough along the way we went, and they had made ready for a big fight.
Above Saint Michel and Saint Raphael the Spanish whitemen had made a strong place dug into a mountain where the road had a sharp turn, and they had also dug a ditch to bring water across the road to block it, with many cannons aimed over the road from behind this ditch. If they were surprised to see Toussaint coming from that direction, they did not look like it.
If Halaou or Boukman had led that fight, our people would have been killed by thousands, running at the cannons behind that ditch. This time was not like fighting for a hûngan, though. It was to be in an army of ants.
Toussaint divided the men into three. One line of foot soldiers went around the back side of the mountain to wait for the Spanish on the road behind. Another line of foot soldiers climbed up the side of that mountain out of sight of the Spanish so to come down on their fort from above. Toussaint himself stayed on the road in front of the cannons, with some hundreds of horse soldiers.
The horse Riau had taken from the men of Jean-François had been given to another man by Moyse before Toussaint had come, and someone else had taken Ti Bonhomme while Riau was in the guard house waiting to be shot, so I was sent with the foot soldiers who climbed the mountain above the Spanish fort. I was happy enough not to be riding with Toussaint that day anyway, when I saw what was going to happen. For a little time it was quiet, with our men climbing under the sun, and Toussaint with the horsemen waiting below on the road just out of reach of the cannons, and the two lines of foot soldiers going around and over that mountain like ants on a sugar hill. But then as we came out on the heights above the fort where the Spanish could see us, Toussaint’s horsemen stirred, and his long sword flashed, no bigger than a pin as it looked from the mountain. Then they charged.
Toussaint had to do this thing so the Spanish could not turn their cannons to shoot at us as we came down. I, Riau, could understand the need inside my head, but it was very bad to watch it. The cannons were loaded with mitraille instead of the big round balls, and when they fired, these little pieces of metal flew everywhere and hurt a lot of people. Toussaint charged two times and was turned back, and both times many of his men were shot down from their horses. I saw the horses were being torn to pieces also, which almost was worse, and some few of them broke their legs trying to cross the ditch that was filled with water.
When we came down from the mountainside, we found that the Spanish had dug a ditch all the way around their fort, so we could not come in so easily. But Toussaint led another charge, spurring up the stallion Bel Argent, who jumped all the way over the ditch this time, and then the Spanish broke where they were fighting us, so we all came among them together. Since it was too close for shooting, I began to cut them down with my coutelas, but there was no spirit in my head this time. It was more like I was cutting cane in the field at Bréda.
When the Spanish starting running back down the road toward Santo Domingo, the other line of our foot soldiers caught them as they tried to run away. A very great many of them were killed, and left their bodies lying everywhere in the road, so we passed a lot of dead men that way as we went on to the towns beyond. In the fort there were men who would not surrender, and Toussaint ordered them killed with swords. I had seen his mood to be softer when he won a fight, but he was hard and tight today, after losing so many men and horses to mitraille.
Both Saint Raphael and Saint Michel we burned to the ground. Toussaint ordered this because he had not enough men to hold those places, and he did not want our enemies to use them. Here on the high plain the Spanish pastured their mules and their cows, and Toussaint sent these herds across the mountains to the west. We had captured a lot of guns also, and powder which we needed even worse, and the cannons from the forts, and those too he sent back over the mountains. After we burned the towns, and when the ashes cooled enough, we broke up the parts that would not burn until not one stone or brick was still stuck to another. Also we burned whatever herdsman’s huts that we found scattered on the plain.
To see those houses burning brought pleasure to Riau, but it was not the same blind, blood-drunk joy as when we first rose to burn all the plantations of the northern plain. At night were celebrations and dancing and the loa came down to many but not to me. I felt the loosening in my head, but I held to myself and would not let go—it seemed I wanted my own head for thinking but what I wanted to think about I could not say. In the night I dreamed I was a zombi working in a zombi crew, cutting cane like a slave again and loading it onto wagons. When the cane was cut, the stalk ran blood instead of sugar juice, and when I had put cane on the wagon, I saw it become the bodies of dead men. I looked over my left shoulder and saw Chacha who Riau and Biassou had made a zombi, doing the same work with Riau who was a zombi too . . .
Toussaint did not go to the ceremonies either. When the Spanish towns were all destroyed, we went very fast across the high plain and into the mountains above Mirebalais, where Toussaint had the last fort of his line, and then back along the inside bank of the river, toward the sea. All the time we went very fast. At one post or another Toussaint would leave a few men or exchange them. On the other side of the river the British were still in Verrettes, but on the side where we were, above Petite Rivière, Toussaint’s colored officer Blanc Cassenave was finishing that fort which the English had begun. After we had passed that place, Toussaint went on to Gonaives, but Riau was sent with a small party to Ennery and to Habitation Thibodet.
When we had come there, I wanted to go right away to the ajoupa where Merbillay and Caco stayed, but then there came a thought which held me back. Maybe the new man had come to her again, already, either with our party now or at some other time. So I stayed away, helping to fire the forge down by the stable, because many horses had thrown shoes in all that hard fast riding. When night came, I did not go to eat with the others, but took a mango and a soursop away to eat in the dark below the coffee trees. Later on when I came back toward the camp, I watched from outside the fire circles. I saw Merbillay get up from one fire, with her mouchwa têt wrapped high and tight. The new child in her belly showed very much now, and her face was full and round and sleek. The man who put his hand on her far shoulder to walk by her was the one with the scars. They went together toward the ajoupa with Caco skipping behind them as if all this was usual to him.
What Riau had wondered about before was now true, because this new man had been with us all the time at the burning of the Spanish towns. I even knew his name, which was Guiaou. His scars were terrible, all around his trunk and on his head, like a big djab had bitten into him and chewed and spat him out because after all he did not like the taste. Guiaou had been in the fighting with Riau at the Spanish fort too, among Toussaint’s foot soldiers, who climbed part of the mountain to come down from behind. He had fought well, half outside of himself, as if he was in a dream or underwater.
Now he had put the new baby into Merbillay, and he would lie beside her in the ajoupa all night. And my Caco, Pierre Toussaint who I had named, was with them in the ajoupa like he was their child and not Riau’s. Riau felt angry at this, but the sadness which came after was more great. I might slip into the ajoupa and kill the new man while he slept, as I had crept many times into the camps of whitemen in the hills to kill them with my knife. Or I might fight him when he woke, fight with the baton, to the death. That way it would be less sure what would happen, and Toussaint would be angry if he heard of it because he did not want his soldiers to waste themselves in fighting each other with the baton.
All these ideas I saw from a little distance, outside the head of Riau. They were not part of me at all, only things which might or might not happen. I did not know at all what I wanted to do.
I went away to look for Bouquart. When I found him, he was with the housemaid Zabeth, under the hedge of oranges in the dark. Zabeth was shy to see me come, and she pulled away and went back to the grand’-case. Bouquart did not seem to mind this very much. He smiled and took my hand. Bouquart was admired by many women here at Ennery because he was a big, fine man who could run faster and jump higher than other big, fine men, now his nabots had been struck off. I thought, while we were walking, after all it would not be a bad life for Riau, to go about as a blacksmith cutting iron off people. To be free was a great thing, but to free someone was greater.
I was thinking of this when we passed near the fires and Bouquart looked surprised to see my captain’s coat, because he was only an ordinary soldier. Guiaou did not have any captain’s coat either, I thought, or captain’s power to tell men what to do. Guiaou did not even have a shirt, it seemed. But that was a whiteman way of thinking.
Bouquart knew all the talk of the camp, because so many different women liked him, and from Zabeth he knew the talk of the grand’case, too. A quarrel had happened among the white people, he told me, after the colored woman Nanon had gone away with her child. A colored officer had come from Le Cap after Nanon, and the white mistress of the house had made her go away with him, or so Zabeth had told Bouquart. But afterward Tocquet had become very angry with his woman, and had gone away himself, and her own child Sophie was always sad, because she and Nanon’s boy Paul had been like brother and sister. Now the white mistress was sorry for what she had done, and she lay in bed until afternoon some days, Zabeth said, or even until dark, crying and calling her little girl to her. So the happiness had left that house and misery lay on it like a sickness.
That night I stayed in the ajoupa Bouquart had made, and for many nights. Sometimes I was alone there, if Bouquart went with a woman. There was not any fighting near Ennery then, and with Toussaint away there was not very much training or drilling either. The French whiteman officers Riau had known at this camp before had all gone to the fighting it seemed, if they had not been killed.
I stayed with Bouquart at night. By day I would sometimes see Merbillay, but I did not try to speak to her. I knew that she knew that Riau was there in the camp with her and Guiaou—let her think of that whatever she would. One day when she had gone off to the provision grounds, I went to that ajoupa and took down the banza I had made from the ridgepole where it hung. I struck one note softly with my thumb and bent the string to make it cry. Then I saw Caco looking at me shyly from the ajoupa doorway. I curled my fingers to him, and he came to me.
I took the banza to Bouquart’s ajoupa and played it there in the darkness after night came, bending the strings and beating my palm on the skin head. I knew that she and Guiaou could hear it where they lay. In the days Caco would come to me and we did many things together, inside the camp or going outside of it into the bush. I thought that sometimes Guiaou was watching us together too, though I did not see him. There were plenty of other women around that camp, but I did not want any of them.
In front of the grand’case the yard had been made soft with grasses, and flowers floating in a pool, and the ordinary soldiers were kept from walking there, but as an officer Riau came and went as he would, on his soldier business. So it was when the doctor had come back to Habitation Thibodet, I saw him on the gallery of the house. At first I was not sure that it was he, but when he had taken off his hat I knew—there was the bald, rust-colored head with its peeling skin, the small beard coming to a point. He had come from Gonaives, and was still dusty from the road, and he was quarreling with the white mistress of the house who was his sister. I stood below the bougainvillea vines that hung down from the gallery rail and heard the ending of their talk.
“Madame ma sœur,” the doctor said. They must have been arguing a long time for such an anger to come into his tone. “When I first came to this country I searched it from one end to the other, looking for you. Now you move me to wonder if it would not have been better for all of us if I had never found you.”
The face of the whitewoman crunched up like wadded cloth. There were red spots all over the pale skin of her face now, because she did not keep herself clean anymore—Zabeth said, she almost could not live without the man. Inside the house the little girl began to cry. She was often unhappy now, infected with the mother’s misery. The whitewoman turned away from the doctor, pressing one hand across her bare throat, and went limping into the shadows of the house.
Barefoot, I went up the stairs, hesitating at each step. I had my coat of a French soldier but I had not yet got any boots, so my feet did not make any noise as I climbed. Still I had not grown used to entering a big plantation house by the front door. Riau would never have done so, not as a slave at Bréda, and not as a maroon either unless perhaps he came to kill and burn. Captain Riau of the French army could come to the door like a blanc. I stood at last on the gallery floor, but the doctor did not see me.
He had sat down at the table, and over his shoulder I saw him looking into his ouanga, the piece of mirror he cupped in his palm, small so that it only reflected his eye. He gripped the edges of it so hard it cut into the creases of his hand. After a time he put it down and passed his blunt fingers over his face, then took from his pocket a small silver snuffbox and set this on the table near the mirror shard. He looked at both of these things as if he did not know at all what they were.
I thought of everything I knew about the doctor. He was a very strange whiteman. Sometimes Riau had even wondered if he were not a man of Guinée who by witchcraft was poured into the skin of a blanc. Some few other whitemen were a little bit this way, but all of them were priests of Jesus, and this doctor was no priest. Riau had known Doctor Hébert since Toussaint first captured him in raiding the plantations of the north. Toussaint had set him to be my writing master for a time, and had taught him how to be a doktè-fey. And whatever the doctor could see with his eye, he could reach with a bullet from his gun as easily as if he was touching it with his finger, but he did not care anything for this gift, and would rather heal than kill if he had the choice. He seemed smooth inside where whitemen always were jagged, and for that, Riau was glad to see him now, although he was in trouble.
When he saw me, the knots all over his face went calm, and he stood up, smiling as he spoke my name, and put his hands on my shoulders. I touched him gently on the elbows with my hands, and followed him to the chair he drew back for me to sit. But when he looked at the things on the table, the trouble came back into his eyes.
I saw his one eye floating in that piece of mirror, and I thought that it must be watching me too. I thought how shadows and reflections in a mirror may return the movements of the men who walk on the earth. Riau had his own trouble also, and what if Caco had vanished away to an unknown place, like Nanon’s boy, Paul? I did not know what to do about my trouble, but now I thought maybe I could reach across the mirror and work on the other side.
“Kouté, monchè,” I said, and he looked up. “Listen, man, maybe I can help you find this woman.”
The doctor’s face came quick and alert. He heard, and he was interested, but he did not yet know if he ought to believe.
The color of day was just beginning to fade from the sky as Governor-General Laveaux’s party of inspection rode out of the mountains from Marmelade onto the plain called Haut de Trou. As they reached level ground, the men urged their horses into a trot. Captain Maillart rode in the van, between Laveaux and his ordonnateur, Henri Perroud. They were all just sufficiently saddle weary that conversation had stopped among them some time before, but at the same time they were all reasonably content.
Trotting briskly, they soon overtook a file of four black women coming from the Rivière Espagnole, each balancing a jug of water on her head. Maillart reined up to ask them the way to Habitation Cigny. The second woman in the line grinned up at him and said that they were already in the outlying carrés of that plantation. The ox cart up the road she pointed to would lead them to the main compound, the grand’case and the mill.
Maillart spurred and caught up with his companions. The ox cart, which carried a half-dozen men with their hoes, slowed their pace to a walk, but there was no need for haste anymore, as they were assured of reaching shelter before night. Besides, the whole region covered by the Cordon de l’Ouest had been more or less at peace ever since Toussaint had joined forces with the Republican French.
Rolling his head back to loosen his stiff neck, Maillart caught a glimpse of two crows winging across the paling sky to a fringe of trees at the field’s edge. One called out liquidly and the other carried something writhing in its beak. Below the crows’ path of flight the field was sparsely grown up in spindly cane stalks, or cleared in patches for fresh planting. Maillart noticed now that the men in the ox cart were seated on small bundles of fresh-cut cane.
The cart rumbled over the bare ground of the main compound, passing the grand’case to go on toward the small stone cane mill beyond it. The big house hardly lived up to that name, being no more than a single-story plank building, raised a few feet off the ground, with a porch in front of thatched palm leaves. Beneath this shelter two white women and a man in French uniform sat around a table. As Laveaux’s party rode in, one of the women moved out from the roof of the porch and stopped, shading her eyes with one hand to watch their arrival. She was small, dark-haired, dressed in white. Maillart felt his heart rise up to greet her, but he wheeled his horse to the side and dismounted behind Perroud and Laveaux, so that the Governor-General might be the first to greet their hostess. Laveaux bent over her hand, murmuring.
“Madame Cigny, I am absolutely enchanted . . .”
“Mais Monsieur Général, the pleasure is mine . . .”
Then Isabelle swung lightly around to kiss her fingers toward Maillart, her dark eyes gleaming. He smiled and bowed to her from where he stood. The uniformed man had come out from the shade of the thatched porch, and Maillart saw that he was a black officer, a fine specimen too, tall and lithe, with glossy skin as black as oil, and features proudly chiseled.
“Joseph Flaville,” Isabelle pronounced, and beckoned him nearer to her side. Flaville acknowledged Laveaux with a salute, but he did not offer this courtesy to Maillart. The captain drew back, searching Flaville’s face for intentional insolence, but when he looked at the epaulettes he took in that the black man’s rank was higher than his own. He inclined his head in a movement which was not quite a bow, and to cover his confusion led his horse away toward the stables, following a couple of barefoot grooms who had just come out.
The others were already at table when Maillart, after a contrived delay, returned to the grand’case. Isabelle motioned him toward an empty seat opposite Claudine Arnaud, then turned to continue what she had been saying to Laveaux. Maillart registered Claudine’s presence with a start.
“. . . you find us very rustic here of course—this plantation was not meant for a real residence—but as our town house is for the moment unavailable . . .” Isabelle looked pointedly from Laveaux to Perroud and back. “One can do no better.” She threw up her little hands gaily and laughed.
“But I find it perfectly charming here,” Laveaux said. “Of course, a lady of your grace would bring charm to the very worst desolation. But here it is absolutely . . .”
Laveaux looked across the yard, where a trio of brown hens were flying up to roost in the branches of a lone mango tree. Maillart studied his manner, knowing the compliments were formulaic, empty of intention. No romantic adventurer he, though women liked him.
“. . . flourishing,” Laveaux concluded, and turned his smile to meet Isabelle’s.
“Well, you exaggerate in all particulars,” Isabelle said, tapping the back of Laveaux’s hand with her forefinger, “though you are kind.” She grew serious as she looked out over the darkening fields. The hens clucked in the lower branches of the mango tree.
“And yet,” she said thoughtfully, “things do go better here than one would have expected . . . Well, my husband could tell you more of the matter, but regrettably he is absent, au Cap—that business of our town house, you know.”
Again she looked significantly from Laveaux to Perroud. Maillart shifted restively in his chair, wishing she would not press the point so. Of a sudden an electric thrill ran up his leg, for a slippered foot had pressed against his calf. He looked across the table at Madame Arnaud, but no, it was impossible; she was in a reverie so deep and dismal she had no notion of the company surrounding her. Again he felt the subtle pressure. Isabelle was turned from him, concentrating on Laveaux, but that meant nothing. He could remember a dinner at the oft-mentioned Cigny town house when Isabelle had kicked off her little shoe and let her foot walk over his lap and trouser buttons, her toes working dextrously as fingers, and yet all the while she kept up her banter with her husband and his guests . . .
“But truly,” she was saying now. “All credit is due to your General Toussaint and to his officers—such as our most excellent Major Flaville.”
Isabelle looked toward the black officer, who inclined his head without speaking.
“Since the good General Toussaint has covered us with his protection,” she said, “there have been no outrages. Under his authority some cultivators have returned to the fields, and even to the mill. Oh, I know little of these matters, but I can say that my husband was able to take two wagons of brown sugar to Le Cap when he went there.”
Maillart tensed, but she did not mention the town house a third time.
“For the moment we have not the skilled hands to refine the white,” she said. “But we have peace, at least for the moment— grâce à vos officiers. And with peace, prosperity may return.”
“Madame, you gratify my hopes, even as you do me honor,” Laveaux said. He shifted his attention to Claudine. “But tell me, Madame Arnaud, how is it with your properties?”
All this while Madame Arnaud had been looking through and beyond the other parties to the conversation, holding herself peculiarly erect. She turned to Laveaux when he addressed her, her head moving smoothly but with a strange fixity—like an owl’s head revolving, Maillart thought with some discomfiture. Her eyes too suggested some bird of prey.
“God has said that this land must lie fallow,” she said. Her voice was husky, and surprisingly sweet. “This earth has given birth to monsters, yet they must be slain and sacrificed and the earth be watered with their blood, be nourished by the ashes of their bones. So for seven days and seven hours and for four hundred years. Four hundred years! Babylon tonbé . . . This has been written on the sky with fire.”
Laveaux sat arrested, leaning slightly forward with his lips parted and one empty hand hanging in the air. Maillart glanced over at Flaville, who was listening to Claudine’s speech with evident interest but no sign of surprise or dismay. Claudine turned her gloved hands up on the table and looked down at them with her glittering eyes. Everyone else’s gaze was drawn to the left hand with its empty glove finger pinned to the palm.
“One may be maimed in the body and pass on the right side of the throne,” she said intently, as if reciting, or reading from her palms. “They who are maimed in the spirit will be hurled into the pit with the goats—there they will be burned to cinders, but the fire does not consume.”
Isabelle leaned sideways to cover Claudine’s hands with her own. She turned them palm down and stroked their backs lightly with her fingertips. Claudine’s stiff neck and back suddenly collapsed, and her head lolled. A handful of her lank and lusterless hair detached itself from her careless coiffure and hung partway across her face.
“Ma pauvre,” Isabelle murmured, and glanced up at Laveaux. “My poor Claudine insists on carrying water to the fields at midday . . . to serve the men who work the cane.”
“What, herself?” Laveaux relaxed against his chair back.
“Yes, she says that God has ordained it. Or some priest, in her memory. Of course, the sun is quite too much for her at that hour and so at evening her thoughts become disordered for a time.”
A black woman in a cotton smock had appeared behind Claudine’s chair, where she stood impassively waiting.
“Her husband’s plantation is on the Plaine du Nord—” Isabelle said, still stroking Claudine’s hands. She had leaned across Maillart to do so, and he could smell the tang of her perspiration under a trace of perfume.
“Not so very far from here,” Isabelle went on, “but still it was more completely devastated. Not a stick left standing, as I understand. But Monsieur Arnaud is there as we speak, and he may make a restoration—thanks to your protection.” This time she looked meaningfully from Laveaux to Flaville. Then, at Isabelle’s nod, the black woman pulled back Claudine’s chair, and Claudine rose and mutely allowed herself to be led into the house.
“Her suffering has been very great,” Isabelle told Laveaux. “I shall not enter into the particulars—”
“No, of course.” Laveaux waved a hand.
“—but she finds it unbearable to return to her husband’s plantation, at least in its present state, so I have offered her my roof.”
The black woman returned carrying a plate of roasted goat meat ringed with peppers. Another house servant followed with a platter of sweet potatoes.
“Our nourishment may be coarse but at least it is plentiful,” Isabelle said. “Thanks be to God. And this particular goat has not been hurled into the fires of hell but only into the boucan,” she smiled thinly, “or so we may hope. Bon appetit.”
For the remainder of the meal, Isabelle was comparatively subdued, while Laveaux quizzed Flaville on local military dispositions and the state of supply. The black officer’s replies were courteous, with no hint of servility. Maillart was aware of his intelligence, as well as a rather unmartial air of inner calm that had disconcerted him before among the black military colleagues recently thrust upon him. Flaville’s French was adequate, and his manner of speaking lost no dignity when sometimes he lapsed into Creole. Isabelle watched and listened to him with an uncharacteristically quiet attention. No more sallies of her toe beneath the table. . . . Maillart reflected that he had never understood her, and that he never would. He took this thought to bed with him, and found that he slept poorly.
The sound of a door closing somewhere in the house woke him completely. Across the dark room, Perroud snored tranquilly enough. Maillart turned over and pounded the shucks in his mattress tick, but could not settle. Isabelle had not exaggerated the rusticity of the situation, he reflected, so far as these accommodations were concerned. He put on his trousers and shirt and went outside.
Moonlight washed over the compound, and the air was fresh and surprisingly cool. A white-robed figure was moving away from the house and around the corner, toward the cane mill. Whoever it was walked in an oddly stiff way, arms fixed to the sides as if bound there. Curious, Maillart moved to follow. Behind him, another voice spoke.
“So, you too are restless . . .”
He turned to see Isabelle Cigny stepping out from the thatched roof of the porch. She wore a peignoir light enough to catch the moonlight, with a darker shawl about her shoulders, against the mountain chill. A kerchief was bound over her head.
“Walk with me,” she said, and moved nearer to take Maillart’s arm. The captain moved with her automatically, letting himself be led. A tingle moved from his elbow to his spine, a sensation foreign to him, unlike the usual desire. In the jungled hills above the plantation began the hollow tap of a drum. Ahead, the person in the white robe disappeared behind a rise of ground. Maillart and Isabelle followed the same path.
Beyond the cane mill, the rise crested and on the other side gave way to a long, gentle slope. Maillart halted and caught his breath.
“Did you not say this place had never been meant for a residence?”
Isabelle sighed. “But this side of the hill is not Habitation Cigny. Here was Habitation Reynaud, my father’s seat.”
Maillart pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Near the top of the knoll where they stood was the scorched foundation of a magnificent house, overgrown now with vines and wild shrubbery. The white-clad figure of Claudine Arnaud had passed this point, and wandered on to the generous oval drive, in whose center was a dark, oily pool with a toppled fountain. The drive let into a long boulevard, arrow-straight between the stumps of palms. The trees must have been very tall, but they had all been hacked down, and partly consumed by fire.
“My God,” Maillart said. “What losses.”
“Oh,” said Isabelle, “I took it all for granted when I was a girl—while my father lived. And after . . . it was the life of the town I thought I wanted. And of course Cigny is more a man of affairs than a planter. I meant to bring my children here one day, but then . . . it is as you see.”
He felt her shiver. Her hand tightened on the hollow of his elbow, then eased its hold. In the cleft of the hills above, that single wandering drum they had been hearing gathered itself in a more urgent rhythm and was joined by another. The fine hairs prickled on the back of the captain’s neck. He had come to associate night drumming with dawn attacks.
“Major Flaville has them all well in hand,” Isabelle said, as if responding to his thoughts.
“You seem on very close terms with that officer,” Maillart replied, and at once regretted the sullenness he heard in his own tone.
“Some allies are chosen of necessity,” Isabelle said. “A military principle, is it not? For the nonce Flaville is the chief authority in these parts, and without him no one would come to the fields . . . they would only work in their own gardens—if they worked at all.” She shook her head above the ruins below. “We must recover some life for ourselves here, especially so long as the house in town is—”
Maillart turned to face her, inadvertently breaking her light grasp on his elbow. “I meant to tell you, you mustn’t press Laveaux about the house,” he said. “The situation at Le Cap is very difficult just now.”
“Oh,” said Isabelle, “I would not abuse your kindness. If not for you—”
“Never mind that,” Maillart said, and placed his hand palm-out against the moist air between them. It was true that he had spent much of his credit with Laveaux on arranging the Cignys’ safe return to their properties in the northern province. This credit had been considerable, given Laveaux’s astonished gratitude at Toussaint’s shift of allegiance to the French Republicans. Of course, the prize was not a mean one either, for in the ordinary course of things, émigrés and other partisans of the ancien régime were liable to be executed.
“Only listen,” he said now. The drums shifted rhythm and intensified, forcing an urgency into his words he did not fully intend. “It is this very question of the houses at Le Cap which is causing so much unrest among les gens de couleur there. Governor-General Laveaux was so long immured at Port-de-Paix that the mulattoes erected their own little kingdom in Le Cap, under Villatte (who I admit to be a capable officer) and a few others.”
“I have heard of Villatte.” Isabelle nodded. “Joseph is in correspondence with him from time to time.”
Maillart noted this “Joseph” with a certain pique, and remembered that when they’d arrived that afternoon she’d presented Flaville by his first name rather than his rank. Perhaps it was only the Creole dame’s familiarity with her servant. He told himself it was unimportant, and went on.
“Understand that the mulattoes have rebuilt most of those houses at their own cost, when the town was burned in ninety-four. And unfortunately they have since made themselves very much at home. More recently, since Laveaux has shifted the seat of government from Port-de-Paix, Perroud has been taxing them to pay rent on those houses.”
“Indeed,” said Isabelle.
“As for myself, I share your sentiments entirely,” Maillart said. “But from the governmental standpoint these are sequestered properties, and the financial situation is near desperation too. But in any case the mulattoes have been most unwilling to pay. I would not speak of revolt, exactly, but I tell you I was happy enough to leave the town for this tour of the Cordon de l’Ouest . . . so I must urge you, do not press Laveaux . . .”
“Or I might find myself hanged for an émigrée.” Isabelle’s ironic smile flashed, then faded. “I suppose I must congratulate myself that the guillotine was not successful here—owing to the tender sensibilities of our blacks.” She laid her hand across the hollow of her throat.
Maillart looked at the fragile gold chain that crossed her collarbone, and thought involuntarily of the stone member of the carved pendant which must now be concealed beneath her hand and the fabric of her gown.
“Don’t think me ungrateful,” Isabelle said gravely. “I understand very well how much you’ve done for us.” Surprisingly, she reached for his free hand, and held his fingertips lightly in her own.
“But tell me,” she said. “Do you know who occupies our house?”
Maillart hesitated. “That freckled mulatto they call Choufleur,” he said. “The ‘Sieur de Maltrot,’ as he styles himself. Who has lately been promoted to a colonelcy.”
Isabelle’s lips contorted in the moonlight. “I confess I find that news distasteful.”
“Yes,” Maillart said. “I did not like to tell you.” He paused. “I don’t know why he chose your house. For his father, the actual Sieur de Maltrot, had as fine a house in the town, which he might have taken without challenge.”
“I think I may imagine his reasons,” Isabelle said, seeming to smile to herself.
“At the worst, the work of restoration which he ordered has been well completed,” Maillart told her, turning his head toward the scorched and overgrown foundation. “And it began with little more than what you see here now.”
Isabelle swung their joined hands, looking pensively down at the wreck of her father’s house. “Did you know, there used to be peacocks here? Almost a dozen of them. The blacks say they still see one sometimes, in the jungle.”
She shook her head. The drums rolled to a crescendo and then cut off, so abruptly that Maillart had a sensation of falling. Below, the revenant figure of Claudine Arnaud looked frozen. From the cleft of the mountains came an ungodly shriek.
“Ah,” said Isabelle, releasing the sound with a shudder. “It comes.” Again she put her hand to her throat. The drums recommenced, on a different beat.
“Savage as it may be, it draws one,” she said. “Sometimes I feel drawn to go.”
“Please,” said Maillart. “You mustn’t think of it.”
Isabelle shook herself. “Of course, I do not go,” she said, looking down the slope. “Claudine has been.”
“You amaze me,” Maillart said. “She must be quite mad.”
“Oh, the peasants would not harm her,” Isabelle said. “They respect her. Fear her, even. Perhaps in some way they worship her. They believe her enchanted, raised from the dead—a zombi, Joseph told me. Or some believe she is only possessed.”
“‘Only,’ ” Maillart repeated. “Perhaps they are right.”
The wind lifted, and Isabelle seemed to shiver again, so that Maillart was moved to put his arm about her shoulders, but instead he only tightened his grip on her hand. This reaction against his first impulse annoyed him. It was a puzzle, the idea of friendship with a woman, a business he had small competence to conduct. Among the palm stumps, Claudine Arnaud leaned slightly forward into the wind, the sleeves and hem of her pale garment fluttering like sails.
“Is it true what you told Laveaux,” he asked, “about the water?”
“Oh yes,” Isabelle said. “Very much so. She carries buckets on a wooden yoke across her shoulders like a slave woman, and serves the field workers with her own hands. Nothing will restrain her from it—it ought to kill her, in that midday heat, but she is not easily killed. She conceives it as some sort of penance, I believe.”
“Has she not already suffered?”
“Amply,” said Isabelle.
For some minutes there had been silence in the cleft of the hills, but now a guttural grumbling began, a half-human-sounding voice that rose toward a melody, chanting, singing in an unknown tongue, perhaps some African language. The drums began. Maillart became aware of a darker figure, standing still as a tree some thirty yards from Madame Arnaud, farther down the boulevard of stumps.
“It is only Joseph,” Isabelle said. “He follows her sometimes, when she walks at night. To see that she comes to no harm.”
With a sudden impatient movement, Isabelle pulled her kerchief off and held it in her free hand; the cloth went flagging in the wind. She shook her head back so that her dark hair loosened and flowed freely off her shoulders. The gesture seemed almost a signal to the man below, but that was a ludicrous notion, Maillart thought. When she tossed her head, the gold chain came tight against the tendons of her neck, and he thought of the stone phallus nudging the space between her little breasts. The idea was erotic, but abstract.
“He witnessed it,” Isabelle said. “When Claudine chopped off her finger.”
“Who?” Maillart shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Joseph Flaville,” Isabelle said. “That was in the first rising of ninety-one—Claudine was in a wagon with some few survivors of the gérant’s family . . . from Habitation Flaville, you know, where she had been a guest. They were trying to make their way out of the plain to Le Cap, through the bands of renegades roaming the roads and the fields. Joseph was not as you see him now. Oh, he would not tell me so much, but he must have been fresh and hot from murdering his own master, or something of that sort. He was among the band that intercepted their wagon.”
“I’ve heard the tale, at second hand,” Maillart said.
“One of them wanted to take her wedding ring, but it would not come over the knuckle of her finger. So she snatched a knife and hacked it off and gave them the ring as a price of passage. But Joseph said that she spoke to them in a devil’s voice like what we just heard there.” Isabelle tilted her chin toward the cleft in the hills where the drums still rolled. “All those marauders were much impressed, because they had not known a white woman could be taken by a spirit so.”
You seem very much in the confidence of your Joseph, Maillart thought again, but it seemed unfriendly, petulant even, to say as much aloud.
“She escaped by a hair’s breadth, at any rate,” Isabelle said. “And again, more recently, that massacre at Fort Dauphin . . .” She shook her head thoughtfully. “Perhaps there is something about her.”
The drums went silent. Below, the white woman and the black man seemed hung in a balance, under the oblong of the waning moon, with the damp wind sighing all around them.
“What?” Maillart said. “Do you believe it? All this talk of possession or whatever it may be.”
“Possibly it is only a matter of the words one chooses. ‘Something came over her,’ one might say.” She shook her head slowly. “I did not know her before that time, but they say there was no love lost between her and her husband in those days. She saw no one—he kept her shut up in the country while he pursued his . . . profligacies. So perhaps her action was that of an animal which chews itself free of a snare.” Isabelle wadded the kerchief in her hand, fist clenching over it and relaxing.
“Certainly Arnaud’s reputation was of the very worst,” Maillart said. “On every account—except his horsemanship. He was once brought to law, or near it, for torturing his slaves. And it takes something out of the ordinary to become notorious for cruelty in this place.”
“Yes, there was something of that sort,” Isabelle said. “Whatever it may be, that plantation holds a horror for Claudine, so that she is loath to return there.”
“It is good of you to keep her here.”
“Oh,” said Isabelle, “I do not call it goodness. She fascinates me . . . I mean, her power.”
“I don’t understand you,” Maillart said.
“‘If thy right hand offend thee . . .?’ ” Isabelle flashed her coquette’s smile, her fingers pulsed against his palm. “Power to act on such a precept?”
“But surely that was only her derangement.”
“I don’t know.” Isabelle gazed down over the ruins. “At times she is more than lucid enough. Perhaps not in the company of her peers . . . but when she teaches the little children she is as well reasoned as any convent nun.”
“Yes, she has been catechising the little négrillons hereabouts. She lectures them about BonDyé, and she has the fancy of teaching them their letters, which she acquired, apparently, from that rebel priest who was executed at Le Cap.”
“A harmless fancy, I suppose.”
“Harmless?” Isabelle sniffed. She unfolded her kerchief and snapped it toward the ruins of the house and drive and fountain. “Look for yourself at the harm it has done. Blacks reading books—reading the newspapers. Taking on notions of Liberty. Equality.” Her lips twisted over each word. “Fraternity. Your Toussaint, for example—they say now that he has read Raynal, and Epictetus, and so come to picture himself a black Spartacus come to lead his people to their liberation. A black Moses, possibly.” She let go his hand and hugged herself. “There is madness, if you like.” She stared moodily down at Claudine. “Of course, her black brats pay her little mind. They listen so long as they are amused and then they run away . . .”
“Will she stay dreaming there the whole night through?”
“She is free to do so if she wishes. Let her exercise her freedom. But I am cold, and tired. And irritable, I confess it.” This time the smile she sent him seemed apologetic. “Let us go in.”
Maillart offered his arm once more. They returned to the grand’case with the night breeze blowing through the space between them. She bade him good night with a press of her fingers against his forearm, and he let her go with no more than an inward protest. A puzzle, friendship with a woman. He began to think he might master it. But when he lay down on the shuck mattress, his blood ran around in all directions without settling, so that he wanted to get drunk, or spend himself upon a woman, any woman, white or black or yellow, who might be willing or who even might be forced. He lay wakeful, smothered in the filth of his imaginings. There was a moment when he thought he heard the love cries of Isabelle elsewhere in the house, but when he woke to find Perroud pulling him onto the floor by his heels, he knew it must have been a dream.
Dawn swept tendrils of gray mist around the house like ghostly fingers. Maillart’s horse had already been saddled by the grooms. He gulped half a cup of coffee, groggily kissed his fingers to Isabelle as he went out. Laveaux and Perroud and the others were mounted, waiting, having already made their adieux to the ladies. He checked the girth automatically with the ball of his thumb, then swung astride his animal. They rode out of the compound and up through the green gorges, through the brightening sun dapples and among the little roosters who crowed from the cover of the trees. Before the day was done, they had reached Dondon.
At evening Toussaint and his troops swept in from the central plateau, where they had lately overrun the town of Hinche. That night Laveaux and his French officers dined with Toussaint and the pick of his subordinates. Maillart watched, with an astonished sense of the inevitable, as Laveaux rose from his place at the head of the table and took each platter away from the waiter and held it in his own hands so that Toussaint might serve himself. And still Toussaint, as was his habit, ate sparingly, no more than bread and water.
Yet by his conversation and the respectful manner of his address, he showed his sensibility of the extraordinary courtesy Laveaux had offered him, so that the Governor-General did not seem to notice how he stirred his rice and meat around his plate without actually tasting them. Maillart watched how agreeably the white man and black engaged with one another. Around the table, the others seemed to follow suit. Someone had foraged a barrel of more than passable red wine and Maillart, given the sleeplessness and manifold confusions of the previous night, found that it struck him forcefully. By the end of the meal he was awash in euphoria and joined in the toasts—Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité! —with no sense of irony or resentment or reservation.
The wine proved good enough to have no consequences next day, so that Maillart rose fresh and well rested to attend Laveaux’s review of Toussaint’s troops. The black officers were presented one by one—Dessalines, Moyse, Christophe Mornet, Desrouleaux, Dumenil, Clervaux, Maurepas and Bonaventure—to receive their official promotions from the Governor-General. Laveaux took care to compliment each one of them in detail, when such details were known to him. Each of those officers sank onto one knee before him, as if he were being knighted, then rose and walked back to his troops with that proud rolling gait which Maillart, during his service with Toussaint, had come half reluctantly to admire and even somewhat envy. Behind their officers the four thousand men stood holding their odd assortment of weaponry absolutely still, impassive, half starved and more than half naked most of them, but rooted like a forest with each man steadfast as a tree.
“You are moved,” Laveaux said, as column by column the men wheeled and began marching out of the square.
“My general, I have led these men from time to time.” Maillart cleared his throat. “Never have I had better men to lead.”
Laveaux nodded and looked away and then was struck by something he saw in that other direction. “But tell me, who is he?”
Maillart followed his gaze. Toussaint seemed also stricken with amazement, watching the elderly, stooping white man who was making his way toward him with the aid of a black cane. Toussaint swept off his bicorne hat and held it twitching against his knee.
“By God, it is Bayon de Libertat,” Maillart declared. “His former master from Haut du Cap—how did he come here?”
The two men were embracing now, exchanging kisses on each cheek. De Libertat’s cane slipped from his grasp and fell away from him, raising a pale puff of dust when it struck the ground. Toussaint stooped and lifted the cane, and gave it back to him.
Surely today must be a better day—Elise had been telling herself this insistently now, for something more than a week. At waking she repeated it to herself like a prayer, clenching and unclenching her hands and muttering the sentence over till the words lost their sense. The weather was hot and oppressive, even at dawn. Still muttering silently, but moving her lips, she forced herself to lower her feet to the floor and take her light robe down from its peg and go out to the gallery to order her morning coffee. Surely today must be a better day. Her brother had already risen, and sat at the gallery table, holding Sophie’s hands and joggling her vigorously on the instep of his riding boot. The little girl laughed and shouted in high excitement and dropped her head back so low that her long, dark curls swept the boards of the floor.
“Bonjour ma fille, mon frère.”
But both of them quietened, almost apprehensively, at this greeting. “Bonjour Maman,” Sophie said, but with an air of caution. She slipped off the doctor’s foot and went unbidden into the house, so that Zabeth might bathe and change her. In the doorway she turned back with a toss of her ringlets and a smile on her plump red lips for the doctor, then skipped into the shadows of the hallway. How naturally the gestures of flirtation came to her, Elise thought—Ai, in a few short years the child ought to be sent to school in France, but could she bear to part with her? And yet she knew too well the wantonness fostered by a Creole upbringing . . .
Surely today must be a better day. The doctor had turned his injured eyes from her. He set his relics on the table—the shard of mirror and the silver snuffbox—and gazed down at them as moodily as a Negro contemplating his fetish. Elise reached across and tapped the snuffbox with her fingernail.
“What in this article fascinates you so?” she asked him, flinching at the harshness of her tone.
The doctor’s eyes passed over her and away. “It was a souvenir Nanon kept by her,” he said, and looked out beyond the pool to the yard where men were leading out saddled horses. “I suppose it puzzles me that she would go away without it.”
“I found it in her bedclothes,” Elise said, with a studied carelessness. “Of course, she left in haste. . . . I never knew her to take snuff, did you? But whatever was in it I couldn’t make out. A mushroom maybe, but with the smell of corruption. Some witchery, I’d imagine.”
As she spoke, she felt perturbed again by the sharp and sour flavor of her voice. Inside herself she felt hard and dry, desiccated as if by a desert sun. The doctor sighed and pocketed the snuffbox, then, after a moment, the shard of mirror too.
“Today I must take my leave of you,” he said.
“With Toussaint’s troops.”
“Where is he bound?”
“As to that, he has kept his own counsel.” The doctor smiled distantly, and not for her benefit. “But today he is moving large numbers of men—across the whole cordon as far as Dondon, I believe.”
Someone among the uniformed blacks in the yard called out his name. He stood, looking diffidently at the floorboards.
“Well, my horse is ready.”
Elise felt her hardness cracking out into anger. Was she not justified, after all? But she did not want to parch and crack, as Madame Arnaud had done. Of a sudden she felt terrified by his departure.
“My brother,” she said, softly as she could manage. “Believe this much: I never meant to wound you.”
“No,” the doctor said abstractedly. “No, I don’t believe you intended any harm to me.”
Cold comfort. He stooped, taking her hands limply, leaning forward far enough to brush the dry outer scales of his lips across her cheek. Then he straightened, pulled back the skirt of his coat to check his pistols, and walked down the gallery steps toward the horses.
Elise sat stirring the dregs of her coffee. A crow flew ragged-winged across the pool. She looked up at the geckos which clung upside down to the gallery ceiling. Sometime after the horses and men had moved out of earshot, Sophie reappeared, fresh-washed and dressed.
“Ki bo tonton Antoine?”
“Français, Sophie,” Elise said. “‘Where is my Uncle Antoine,’ you should say.”
“M’rinmin li,” Sophie said. I love him.
“Dis, ‘Je l’aime,’ ” Elise said, drawing the child to her. “I am very happy that you love your uncle. But today he has gone off with the soldiers.”
Sophie, petulant, pulled away. “Well? Then when is Papa coming back?”
Elise cracked and began crying into her cupped hands. Surely, surely today must be better. Yet she knew very well that Xavier might never return. Now she must keep crying uncontrollably, frightening the child, until Zabeth came out of the house to pat her shoulder, whispering non, non, madame, maîtresse-moin, non, pa kon sa. . . . Zabeth must lead her faltering back to the bedroom, where she would lie weeping bitterly or staring at the ceiling. She would call Sophie to her bedside, hoping for cheer, and infect the girl with her own sadness, until perhaps they would quarrel and weep to have done so, then, all emotion exhausted, fall into a wretched, uneasy sleep. So it must go on. She thought, as she tried to stuff her sobs back into her mouth with both hands, that perhaps she might go herself with the child to France. That future was open to her still. Just now it would be winter, bitter cold with the taste of snow. There she might live properly, decorously, without love.
In the middle of Toussaint’s cavalry column, the doctor rode to Marmelade that day, and passed many hours of the night in the company of Riau—both of them taking dictation from Toussaint. The import of his message was simple enough: he wished his colleague Villatte to order three of his junior officers—Pénel, Thomas André, and Noël Arthaud—to attack Jean-François from the the area of Limonade and Trou de Nord. But, as always, Toussaint picked over his phrasing and kept them late into the night. When at last the letter was sealed and the scribes were released, the doctor rolled out his blanket beside Riau and fell into a sleep too deep for dreaming. Next morning he dozed in the saddle, all the way from Marmelade to Dondon.
When Riau had offered to help in his search for Nanon and the boy, the doctor had been touched by this gesture of friendship, but without thinking much about what form this assistance might take. Well, perhaps it might be no more than an exercise in superstition. He knew Riau believed that his shard of mirror was a supernatural eye, connected to his gift of marksmanship and to an ability to see at even more improbable distances, and Riau had since told him that the silver snuffbox, somehow special to Nanon, might have a sympathetic power to lead him to her. All this might be called mere African simplicity, or worse, and yet the doctor felt it was not so simple as it seemed. For he too regarded those objects as talismans. The mirror he’d found years before, when the courtesan’s rooms Nanon had kept, or been kept in, near the Place d’Armes at Le Cap had been sacked and vandalized and looted in the rioting there. That was the first time she had disappeared from his life and well before he had been brought to recognize the depth of his feeling for her—nevertheless he picked up the broken mirror and had kept it ever since. As for the snuffbox, he could analyze its contents well enough by scientific method, but its meaning was not to be interpreted so readily.
He carried each of these items in opposite pockets of his coat, so that they seemed to balance him somehow, keeping him centered in the saddle during those moments when he slipped away into dream on the rough, winding track to Dondon. The mirror was fitted to the palm of his right hand, the snuffbox to his left. It was as if they were magnetized.
The village of Dondon was buzzing with preparations for the attack which was planned to begin in two days’ time, in coordination with the movements Toussaint had requested from the northern plain. Riau, Captain Riau, went off to organize ammunition and supplies for the troops in his command. As yet there were no wounded in the camp, so the doctor was left to his own devices. He unrolled his blanket and lay upon the ground. His secretarial exploits of the night before had left him weary, but he could not quite sleep. The absence of the little boy Paul nagged at him like an itch in an amputated limb, and as for Nanon . . . His first instinct would have been to search at Le Cap, since he knew Choufleur was posted to Villatte’s command there, but since Toussaint was marching to Dondon, the doctor had been drawn along with him.
To be drawn in that way, as if by gravity or magnetic attraction, was a relief from the labor of planning one’s own actions. Riau was very much gifted with this ability, and when the doctor was in his company, he found it much easier and more natural to act without forethought. Thus they might both arrive where they meant to go, without developing their intentions. All the same, the doctor was surprised to learn, when Riau returned to him an hour before sundown, that he had been asking questions and obtaining answers, and that he had heard how Choufleur’s mother, a Madame Fortier, lived not very far away on a coffee plantation on the slopes of Morne à Chapelet.
“It is just there,” Riau said, leading him up to the top of a knoll behind the Dondon church, “You see?”
Just there looked an intimidating height, even at long distance, and the doctor knew from his experience that it would unfold further complications when they got nearer to it.
“I’d better find a mule,” he said, shading his eyes to look at the sun-struck mountain.
“Pou ki sa ou besoin mulet? Monchè, I don’t think you need a mule for that.” Riau laughed, then looked uneasy. “We don’t go anyway, until after the fighting.”
“No, let us go at once,” the doctor said. “I mean tomorrow, early.” If there was to be fighting all over these mountains, he very much preferred to overtake the woman and the child, if he were so lucky, before it began.
Riau still looked uncharacteristically fretful. “I can’t run away like that,” he muttered, and looked down at the gorge between them and the mountains of their destination. “Monchè, if I go with you tomorrow I will be shot.”
“Ah,” said the doctor. “I didn’t think—forgive me, but I will ask leave for both of us to go.”
Toussaint, though much occupied, heard out his request—heard it at much greater length than the doctor had intended. By simply holding his silence, rubbing his rather delicate fingers down the edge of his long jaw and looking at him with his slightly red-rimmed eyes, the black general seemed to compel him to keep talking, until the doctor found himself going far more deeply into the circumstances of Nanon’s departure from Habitation Thibodet—and even into the history of his own relations with her and the boy—than he had ever thought of doing. A group of the junior officers, Moyse and Dessalines and Paparel, had stepped out from under the canvas sheet where Toussaint was holding his councils; the doctor did not know whether they were within earshot, or if they’d care to listen to his tale, but by the end of his speech, he felt that he was flushed all over.
“You are free to go on this errand,” Toussaint finally said, reaching one hand to the back of his head to adjust the knot of his yellow headcloth. “For one night only—both must return the next day.”
The doctor bowed his acknowledgment.
“Take note, as you go, of what people may be moving in the region of Morne à Chapelet,” Toussaint said as the doctor began to withdraw, and then, suddenly projecting his voice, “And pay attention to that one.” He pointed to Riau. “Sé grand marron li yé.”
At this the junior officers all grinned and chuckled among themselves and agreed loudly that Riau was an incorrigible runaway. But there seemed to be no menace in all of this, and Riau made a good-humored retort over his shoulder, as the two of them went off to make ready for the journey.
Next morning, the doctor left his saddle horse in camp, having requisitioned a black mule with a blue cross over its shoulders. If the animal’s high, pointed back made for a precarious seat, its surefootedness was well worth the exchange. Their way was difficult and, as the doctor had suspected, sometimes traversed ledges scarcely two palms wide. And as he had also anticipated, the distance expanded as they went, so that they spent hours laboring up the dizzy peaks and sharp defiles without drawing appreciably nearer to their destination. Now and again they passed across plantations fallen into desuetude since the revolt, and often little villages had sprung up among the coffee trees. Riau, whose sense of the Fortiers’ location turned out to be extremely vague, stopped at each of these bitasyons to ask the way, and also to gather the intelligence Toussaint had requested. But they did not meet any men under arms, and by report of those they spoke to it seemed that the troops of Jean-François had not penetrated this area for some time.
By late afternoon the doctor had begun to despair of reaching the Fortier place at all—if it still existed. They must look for a place to camp for the night, then hope to find their way back to Dondon next day in time to comply with Toussaint’s order. He lost himself in this gloomy prospect as they rode around a bend in a stream bed they had been following for a mile or more. As the stream turned sharply uphill, the gorge around it widened into a gently sloping valley, sheltered by cliffs on either side, and terraced with well-tended coffee trees. Here the day’s work was just ending, and a line of black women was filing toward a wooden barn, with baskets of red berries balanced on their heads.
“Nou la,” Riau said. We’re here. He called to one of the women to confirm his intuition; this was indeed Habitation Fortier.
“It is admirably placed,” the doctor said, looking up toward the house, an unassuming structure of weathered gray board, seated at the top of the valley above the coffee trees. The mule went zigzagging up the terraces, Riau’s horse following with only slightly less agility. The doctor found himself saddle-sore in a whole new way when he climbed down and hitched his mount. For a moment he stood admiring the expanse of the green terraces rippling down from the house, listening to the purl of the stream that ran beside them. Then he turned and walked with Riau up a pair of wooden steps to the narrow porch.
Riau knocked on the door frame. Silence, a creak of floor boards, voices muttering low. A sort of curtain hung before the door, made of reeds broken into short lengths and gathered in star-like clusters on knots of closely hanging threads. Behind the reed curtain, the door opened, but no more than an inch. They waited, but there was no further sign.
“This one is looking for him they call Choufleur,” Riau said. “Also the woman Nanon, with her child.”
“They are not here.” A woman’s voice, rusty but melodious beneath the rust. “Go away.”
“But, I beg you,” the doctor said, and the door stopped closing. Riau looked at him solemnly, but the doctor did not know what else to say. He took the snuffbox from his pocket and held it with his two cupped hands containing it like water. Behind them the wind breathed through the trees. The whole house seemed to take a deep inhalation, and the door swung inward. Through the suspended bundles of reed the doctor could discern a tall and slender silhouette.
“Wait where you are,” the voice said, and the figure turned and faded into the interior.
The doctor exchanged a glance with Riau. He put the snuffbox back in his pocket. From deep in the house came a murmuring too low to be understood. Then the silhouette reappeared.
“My husband wishes to know if you will sit at our table, blanc, and call us by our proper names.”
“Of course—it would be my honor.”
“Very well,” the voice said. “Vous êtes le bienvenu. Welcome to Habitation Fortier.”
The doctor hesitated a moment more, then parted the reed curtain with both hands and went inside.
For the long duration of the evening meal the doctor did not in any way allude to Nanon or Choufleur or for his real reason for being there, but instead affected to be paying a social call. The conversation was rigid with politeness, couched in formal, antique French. The doctor was careful to address his hosts as “Monsieur,” or “Madame Fortier,” whenever he spoke to either of them. They talked mostly of nonpolitical news from France: art, the theater, scientific and medical developments—quite as if the colony were not shredded by war all around them. Riau followed the conversation, alert but without saying much himself. He ate diligently, though not too fast. The cooking was unusually good. No wine, but their water glasses were fragile balloons of crystal.
Monsieur Fortier was considerably darker than his wife: a griffe, sacatra, marabou?—the doctor had not perfectly mastered the complex colonial categories for mixed blood. Fortier was also younger than his wife, though prematurely bald. He spoke little, in short, clipped phrases, and ate sparingly, without pleasure. Sometimes his whole face would seem to swell and he would lean forward over his plate as if he would burst into some violent reaction. But instead he would always maintain his silence, the tension draining from his face by slow degrees.
Madame Fortier seemed perfectly at ease, untroubled by her husband’s peculiarly noticeable discomfort. She was a graceful and nimble conversationalist—skilled in that art as any Frenchwoman, though without the slightest tinge of frivolity. Partly because of her great height and her regal posture, she cut a striking figure at the foot of the dark wooden table; also, though she was past the middle fifties, she was still a handsome woman, and must certainly have been a splendid beauty in her youth. In the light of the guttering candles, her complexion was the color of pale honey. Her hair was iron-gray laced with white, like moon-rays pouring out from her face, then swept back and captured by the complex turban which rose from the back of her head.
“Take your chair out onto the porch,” she told the doctor, once the meal had concluded. “Someone will serve you a glass of rum.”
The doctor did as he was bidden. With a brief word of thanks to the Fortiers, Riau went to the room they’d been assigned to share. Outside, the doctor placed his chair against the house wall, and sat looking out over the starlit terraces below. His mule, tethered on a long cord, looked up at him, snuffled and went back to grazing. Behind the reed curtain the doctor seemed to hear the same sort of muttering as he had that afternoon before they’d been admitted to the house.
Presently Madame Fortier came out alone, carrying a tray loaded with two glasses, a calabash bottle, a clay jug, and a cut lemon. From the calabash she poured a measure of rum and passed it to the doctor, then indicated the water jug with a tilt of her head. The doctor declined. He squeezed a few drops from the lemon into his drink while she filled her own glass. They drank.
“Santé,” Madame Fortier said. She sighed, then busied herself filling and lighting a small black pipe.
“Monsieur Fortier has retired?”
“Monsieur Fortier has gone to the ajoupa he keeps on the other side of this hill,” she said. “Sometimes he likes to sleep on a straw mat on the ground and listen to the night song of the siffleur montagne. Perhaps it is romantic, but my bones are too old for it. I hear the night birds very well from my own bedroom. Also, my husband is discontented by your presence here, blanc. He is no lover of white people. He would have had me send you away, but I told him that as you wished to show us courtesy, you deserved our courtesy in return.”
“Merci pour ça,” the doctor said. The hot burst of rum in his throat reassured him.
“De rien,” said Madame Fortier. “Regarding your purpose here, I can also offer you exactly nothing, except my advice that you abandon it.”
“Have they been here?”
Madame Fortier’s lips tightened on her pipe stem. “Yes, but briefly.” She blew out a wreath of smoke. “But they are not here now, and I do not know where they have gone. I tell you, blanc, if the woman has left you, let her go. What does it matter?”
“I think of the boy, if nothing else.”
“What can this boy be to you, this little sang-mêlé? ”
“He is my son,” the doctor said. The sentence rang between his ears. Perhaps he had never made this statement aloud in the presence of another person.
“Give me the snuffbox,” Madame Fortier said.
The doctor complied. Madame Fortier lifted the box near to her face and examined the fleur-de-lys stamped on the lid. She turned it this way and that in the vague starlight, and ran her finger around its scalloped edge.
“I can tell you something of such sons,” she said. “For example, there is my son Jean-Michel, whom you more probably know as Choufleur—this matter of naming is something to be discussed. His father is a blanc like you, the Sieur de Maltrot—perhaps you knew him also.”
“By reputation only,” the doctor said. “Well, by sight. He disappeared during the first months of the insurrection.”
“He is dead,” Madame Fortier said, still turning the snuffbox in her hands. “As you may be also, blanc, if you persist. I have for my son the feeling of any mother. I also recognize that he is vicious as a poisonous snake or a mad dog. He would certainly kill you, blanc, if you put yourself in his way, and perhaps he is even hoping you will do so. I tell you this for your own benefit—it is nothing to me if you live or die. I do not love you. Take more rum whenever you are ready.”
“Thank you,” the doctor said. He reached for the calabash. “Permettez-moi.”
“But you are too kind.” Madame Fortier dropped the snuffbox into the lap of her skirts and held out her glass for him to replenish. “Santé,” she said. They drank.
“You have not the manner of a colon,” she told him. “Perhaps you have not been long in Saint Domingue?”
“I came in the summer of ninety-one,” the doctor said. “About two months before the risings.”
“Ah,” she said. “You chose an interesting moment, no?” She took a moment to refill and light her pipe. “But let us consider this matter of names. Possibly you do not know that before the commissioners brought the new laws from France, we who are of mixed blood were not allowed the use of our own names—not if they derived from the names of white people. But no, it must be le-dit Maltrot, the so-called Fortier . . . Thus you may comprehend the sensitivity of my husband on this point.”
“It is very understandable,” the doctor said.
“For similar reasons, my son has seized the name of his white father and even his title and now calls himself the Sieur de Maltrot. Whereas his stable name Choufleur was first coined by his father, as a mockery of his freckled skin, as if the child were a speckled cauliflower. Maltrot invented it for spite, and still it was taken up by friends and family, and I used it myself with no thought of harm, and yet my son cannot hear this name without humiliation. Still, why must he rush to claim his father’s name? Maltrot was cruel, even for a white man.”
“That was an aspect of his reputation,” the doctor said. Madame Fortier had fallen silent. He heard the whistling of a night bird somewhere above the cliffs that embraced the valley.
“Of course, cruelty is the first quality of any and all blancs,” she said. “Cruelty and greed, no matter how you may hide it. The Church was the first and best disguise. But whatever God created white people must be sharp-beaked as a hawk, or better yet, a vulture. Now we see blancscoming out of France blathering of equality and brotherhood, but underneath it is the same, I tell you—cruelty and greed. I challenge you, find me one Indian on this island—here or on the Spanish side. Three hundred years ago Ayiti held five kingdoms under five caciques —there were half a million of them. One finds their tools and relics everywhere, but not an Indian, not one. All of them destroyed by the whites. And now the blancs are doing the same work in Africa. Will they rest until the last children of Guinée have been stamped out of existence altogether?”
As this question appeared to be rhetorical, the doctor kept his silence, reaching unobtrusively for the calabash of rum.
“Bien,” she said. “You may imagine the difficulty for those of us who have mixed blood. If one has a mind to think or a heart to feel. One is neither one thing nor the other. Well, should I wish myself out of existence? No, instead I wish the white people to the devil, while I myself remain at peace. My husband too has reached his own accommodation. But so we return to the subject of my son.”
Madame Fortier applied fire to the bowl of her little pipe. Discreetly, the doctor trickled rum into his glass. He did not bother with the lemon.
“You will understand that my son Jean-Michel was, according to the laws of blancs, the chattel and property of his father. As was I—for I was born into the atelier of slaves at Maltrot’s plantation on the slopes by Vallière. Now, Maltrot used me with tremendous cruelty, as he did all women whom he carnally knew. His delight was to take the pleasures of love by force and to make the act itself and everything surrounding it as painful and humiliating to his partner as he might. In all such things he was very ingenious. Perhaps by reason of this predilection, he never made a marriage with a blanche and so produced no heirs or descendants other than colored persons like my son Jean-Michel. Although indeed the other children I bore to him did not live long, all instead falling victim in infancy to illnesses such as mal de mâchoire.”
Madame Fortier turned and looked at him penetratingly. “As you are a medical man, perhaps you know something of this sickness.”
“Only a little,” said the doctor. He knew that lockjaw was a very common reason of death among the newborns of slave women, and although there were many theories as to its cause, none had been definitely proven. “I myself have witnessed few cases, for since the insurrections began here, the illness appears to have greatly decreased.”
“Well,” Madame Fortier said, smiling a little. “ Monsieur le médecin, you are not without intelligence. Perhaps, with patience, you may learn something. If, for example, you were to gain the confidence of one of those old African crones who minister to women brought to bed in childbirth, you might discover that, if someone drives a long needle or pin through the soft place at the top of the skull of a newborn child, the wound is next to invisible, or no more than an insect bite—yet the child’s jaws freeze and lock completely so that, unable to take nourishment, it will soon perish.”
The doctor felt a chill which began at the extremity of his fingers and rapidly advanced along his arms toward his vital center. He felt his heart and lungs shrinking on themselves. “You speak of murder,” he said.
“By no means,” said Madame Fortier. “You have misunderstood me altogether. And in any case, supposing you were to gain the confidence of the proper old paysanne, she might very well tell you that it is better for a child born into a world of hellish torments to be released and go straightaway home to Africa, Guinée en bas de l’eau.”
The mountain breeze, which was more than cool, again swept over the valley, shivering the branches of the coffee trees. The doctor gulped at his rum, which failed to warm him.
“But forgive me,” said Madame Fortier, “I wander from my subject. Maltrot took a peculiar interest in his surviving son. Oh, he did not acknowledge his parentage, not openly. But he sent the boy to the priest of Vallière to be taught to write and cipher. And Maltrot himself taught him to play chess and dice and cards, and to drink rum, and wine and brandy when these were to be had—laughing at his inebriation, to be sure. He set the boy to learn the general workings of both a sugar and a coffee plantation, so that in time he gained some competence as an overseer and even as a manager. He saw that my son learned horsemanship and even (this at first surprised me) permitted him to acquire some skill with sword and pistol. Afterward he put him into the maréchaussée to be a catcher of runaway slaves. Choufleur grew most adept at this—so that he soon became the leader of that cavalry. He became an expert hunter of wild men, and he also learned especially to savor—for he has that same strain of cruelty inherited from the father—the whippings and amputations and other tortures visited on the recaptured runaways.
“You may call it kindness, all this education proffered him by his father, if of a strange variety. But it was not. No, there was a more sophisticated cruelty at the bottom of it, long in the planning and slow to bear its poisoned fruit. Choufleur learned the tastes and the prerogatives of blancs only so that he might more keenly feel his privation of them. Feel with the cut and burn of a whiplash how, although he had the desires and capabilities of a blanc, in reality he must always be only the puppet or servant of blancs. That his joys would always come only on sufferance of a master and that he himself had right to nothing, not even to his name.
“Now I must tell you how cunningly the father applied salt to the wounds of the son, once the moment was right. At the time of which I speak, Jean-Michel had lately entered his young manhood, while Nanon, whom you are seeking, was a girl of perhaps fifteen. Now, my son knew something of women already, as Maltrot had introduced him to brothels in the towns on the coast. But he knew nothing of love. Nonetheless, he had some capacity for love, as I saw when he and Nanon began to walk together.” Her voice caught slightly. “I may say that if they had been left to their own devices, you might be hearing a different story now, or more likely you would not be hearing it at all.”
“Permettez-moi,” the doctor said, and raised the calabash. Madame Fortier held out her glass to be refilled.
“Thank you,” she said. “Useless to ponder what might have been. The reality of what occurred is that the Sieur de Maltrot had also observed the awakening of interest and affection between my son and the girl Nanon. Perhaps he had already taken note of her beauty, which was then in its first flower. So when the moment seemed most propitious to his purposes, he exercised his seigneurial right—also of course his right of property—to ravish the girl away from my son and make her his own concubine. He used her after his ordinary custom for some weeks at Vallière, very much in our presence though not absolutely before our eyes. Afterward he took her to Le Cap, where he established her as a fille de joie, and where one imagines that you, sir, must have first made her acquaintance.”
“It is true that we first met one another at Le Cap, Madame,” the doctor said.
Madame Fortier had put her head to one side and was looking at him curiously.
“I would argue that we came to one another freely,” the doctor said. “And that her choice in the encounter was still more powerful than my own. Though perhaps you would not believe me, and it may be that I am mistaken, too. But please continue—your story is more than interesting to me.”
“Ah,” said Madame Fortier, and turned her face to the starlit valley. “Well, having carried out these actions, Maltrot perceived that perhaps he had gone too far for his own security, and that Choufleur might murder him outright without regard for the consequence, which consequence would of course have been very dreadful. Whereupon he freed both me and my son. This step surprised both of us very much. You may know that it was the habit of many libidinous blancs to free their slave mistresses and their bastard progeny, often from the moment of their birth, but Maltrot had never given the least sign of any such intention. However, he did free us both. I went away with Fortier, but Maltrot sent Choufleur to France, there to further his education for two years at the expense of his father.”
Madame Fortier took up the snuffbox from her lap and turned it so that it glittered in the light. “Of all I loathed about that man,” she said, “I most detested his manner of taking snuff. For he always used it as a seasoning for some abomination he had devised, before or after, if not both. But he has taken his last pinch.” She opened her knees in a gesture that seemed almost lewd, letting the box fall back into the hollow of her skirts. “His precautions, canny as they were, were not sufficient.” She closed her thighs to hide the box, and rolled her weight toward the doctor. “Tell me, have you looked inside?” Her eyes shone on him strangely. “Do you know what it contains?”
The doctor swallowed. “The amputated sexual member, evidently mummified, of a human male.”
“Why, you are absolutely correct!” Madame Fortier snapped her knees apart so sharply that the tightening skirt fabric catapulted the box into the air. She reached to catch it in one hand and, laughing gaily as a girl, offered it to the doctor. “Your prize, sir, it is yours to keep—so far as I am concerned. My son, who returned from France a nicely finished article, presented it as a compliment to me. Tangible proof he had severed the organ that planted the seed of him in my womb. Oh, he lured his father into the mountains during the insurrections of ninety-one, and he had a whole roster of details to tell me of the revenge he took when once he’d trapped him there—but I would not hear it, and I would not accept the box. Though I am more than happy to know the man is dead. I might have predicted that my son would next offer the box with its contents as a sentimental keepsake to Nanon . . . though not that it would pass into your hands. I would not have predicted any part of you.”
“Madame, you flatter me.” The doctor felt the negligible weight of the snuffbox dragging his knuckles down to the back of his knee.
“Oh, I do not mean to. A delicate love offering, is it not?” said Madame Fortier. “Do you think my son a savage? You may be correct on that score also. But his is the savagery of a blanc. Oh, he is not yet done with killing his father, for the father lives on in his own blood, and owns him still.”
“I am sorry for your trouble,” the doctor said.
“Save your pity for yourself,” Madame Fortier said. “I have other sons, with Fortier, and I am free, though Choufleur is not.” She rose to her full, astonishing height, her skirts falling to her ankles. “For that young woman I do feel sympathy,” she said absently. “There was sorrow in her eyes when they were here—yes, they have been here, but I do not know where they have gone. To Le Cap or more likely to Vallière.”
“But Vallière is in the hands of the Spanish, or of Jean-François.”
“Oh, I do not think my son will be at risk. He knows Jean-François very well, and it is not so long since he was fighting on that side. You may yourself have difficulty in going to Vallière, but in any case, I advise you not to follow. I do not hate you, blanc—but what can this woman be to you save a piece of your property stolen by another? I fear that my son has come to regard her in much the same way. If you would be sensible, let her go.”
Madame Fortier swung and parted the curtain of reeds with one hand as if she would reenter the house. Then she walked back to stand over the doctor, reaching her right hand down to him. He took the hand, which was square-cut and seemed strong to him, though its fingers applied no pressure to his own.
“Bonne route, blanc,” she said. “I wish you no harm, but I will not see you tomorrow.”
Madame Fortier was true to her word, though next morning a housemaid did appear to present the guests with a tray of coffee and a flat round of sugared cassava bread. The doctor’s head hammered from a surfeit of rum, and coffee seemed only to add the symptom of queasiness. His spirit was unquiet as well. But he and Riau saddled up and rode out before the sun had cleared the ridges of Morne à Chapelet. All day they labored to retrace their path to Dondon, stopping only for the doctor to harvest certain herbs for the composition of wound salves. And once he halted above a gurgling ravine to empty out the snuffbox over the rocks and the rushing water below. He had meant to toss the box itself away after its contents but at the last moment changed his mind and put it back empty into his pocket.
They rode on. By the time they rejoined Toussaint’s force, the doctor had sweated away all the effects of the rum and felt nothing but a dense fatigue, in which no vestige of a thought could form itself.
Next morning Toussaint’s army, divided into five columns, poured out of Dondon. The doctor, riding with Toussaint’s own column, was so situated as to have the long-range view of the other four lines of troops, wrapping themselves into the mountains above Grande Rivière. With the addition of the three columns which Villatte was supposed to have dispatched from the north, the entire attack would whip around the valley of Grande Rivière like the tentacles of an octopus.
But for the next several days the doctor was able only to confront what came immediately into his hands. With Toussaint’s vanguard he rode in the attack on Camp Flamen. The first fort barring their way to this camp was overrun with slight resistance. Toussaint paused long enough to learn that posts on the neighboring heights of the chain had been taken as easily by his other columns and sent an order to Dessalines to join him at Camp Flamen.
But here the defense was more determined, so the doctor was soon submerged in poulticing and bandaging or amputating hopelessly shattered limbs. The hideously scarred Guiaou, whose touch had a strange gentleness, as well as strength enough to hold a man still while the doctor sawed off his arm or leg, assisted him. Once the battle was over, Riau came to help him too, so that all three of them worked together, seamlessly, communicating by gesture more than speech. Camp Flamen fell to them that afternoon and Toussaint began a foray toward Cambion, but dropped back at nightfall because of ambushes.
The surgery went on through the night, and the doctor threw himself down to sleep just as Dessalines and Médor were marching their troops out for predawn attacks on Camp Roque and several other posts. An hour later Riau shook him awake and he clambered into the mule saddle (he had never found time to reclaim his horse) and rode with Toussaint’s column on the fort of Saint Malo. Here Toussaint subdivided his men again so as to attack from two directions, while his other columns reduced and burned a number of smaller surrounding posts: Cormine, Bense, Salenave, Dupuis. . . .
The doctor saw to the priming of his pistols and long gun, but Toussaint had no intention of risking his surgeon near the front line, and the campaign was so very well organized that the doctor had no need of his weapons, and soon forgot he was carrying them. He installed his surgery at Saint Malo and worked through the night again with his assistants, the howling of the wounded under his saw sometimes punctuated by gunfire and shouts from ambushes in the forests all around. Toussaint also stayed up the whole night through, receiving and sending reports and orders from the adjacent columns; occasionally he would fold his arms, inhale deeply and let his eyes roll back in his head for perhaps as long as forty-five seconds. When he exhaled and refocused his eyes, he would seem as lucid and refreshed as if he had slept for several hours.
The doctor stole another hour of sleep and jerked like an automaton back into the mule saddle. That day the columns marched closer together to support one another in case of ambush, but the doctor took the precaution to lash his knees to the saddle so that if he fell asleep, he would not fall off the mule.
They rode on for several days more, with the accompanying reduction of more camps and forts: Cardinau, Pistaud, Tannache, Ducasse. Toussaint was taking a great many prisoners, whom he dispatched along with his own wounded back to the security of Dondon. But the doctor remained near the fighting lines, dazedly carrying on his sawing and bandaging, a blood-soaked zombi carpenter of shredded flesh and bone. He seemed to slip in and out of awareness, a dark-feathered wing passing over his vision.
Sometimes the wing lifted on astonishing spectacles: the troops of Moyse climbing the cruel heights toward Fort Bamby, under constant cannonfire but so disciplined they never fired a shot in reply and never hesitated in their advance till they forced the wall and did in their opponents with fixed bayonets. On the heights all around, the camps of the enemy were burning, and then Riau came through the smoke of the fires to tell the doctor that soon indeed they would advance to Vallière, next day or the day after. At this the doctor’s heart quickened, as for almost the first time since the campaign began, his recollections of Nanon and Paul came fully through to him.
Next day Toussaint took his main force to the attack of Camp Charles-Sec, believing that Noël Arthaud, dispatched by Villatte, had cut the road to Vallière to prevent any reinforcement coming to the enemy. But in the midst of the fighting at Charles-Sec it was discovered that Arthaud had failed in this maneuver—the eighth tentacle had been severed or at least had missed its mark, for Jean-François rushed out from Vallière with twenty-five hundred men to join the battle. At risk of being surrounded himself, Toussaint cut his way out of the trap and withdrew behind the cordon he had now extended as far as Montagne Noire. Then, having secured the outlying posts, he took his exhausted army to Marmelade, where the men could rest and he would compose his report of the campaign to Laveaux.
“All the valley of Grande Rivière is ours,” Toussaint claimed in the letter which Doctor Hébert, among others, helped to copy out fair.
But, in truth, the region had become a no-man’s-land which would be contested for many more weeks. The doctor hurled himself into fifteen solid hours of impenetrable pitch-black sleep, and finally woke to the dull apprehension that for his private purpose the campaign had been a failure—for the time being he had no hope at all of reaching Vallière.
Midmorning, Toussaint left Gonaives and rode, amid a half-dozen of his cavalry, toward the dry-bony mountains north of the town. But before beginning the scaly, lizard-backed ascent, he abruptly dismissed his escort and turned off toward Ennery. The other riders were puzzled, he could see—except for Riau, who straightaway suspected him of marronage. Toussaint smiled at the the thought of Riau’s lightly masked expression, and with a light pressure of his knee urged Bel Argent into a canter. It was flat and easy going here, and the white stallion could stretch his legs with small risk.
These sudden reversals of direction were common enough—a constant rupture of his pattern of movement, so that he always arrived without warning where he was least expected, so that his ways from crossroads to crossroads were unpredictable and unknown. But for months Toussaint had hardly gone anywhere unescorted; he must have a few of his best riders round him, trusted men who were gradually being shaped into a sort of personal guard of honor, as well as his surgeon, his secretaries . . . Well, let them wonder. He smiled again at the thought of Riau—as if he, the general Toussaint Louverture, would desert the army of thousands he had created.
He leaned forward in the saddle, the reins curling upward through his lightly closed hands, which hovered above the white mane of Bel Argent. A pleasant breeze stroked his face and pulled at the corners of his hat. Within the grip of his lean thighs, the muscles of the horse’s back flowed like water, a wave rolling ceaselessly forward without breaking. There was no need for any thought.
Such moments had become rare for him. Soon his mind began to work again. He reined in Bel Argent before the stallion could overheat himself, leaning forward to gently stroke the warm and slightly sweaty neck, and walked him slowly down the road. Already they had reached the gate of Habitation Thibodet, and Toussaint might have been tempted to enter to check on the progress of the cultivation and the status of the garrison there—but he did not. He would press on to Marmelade, which had been his original destination that morning, though he’d arrive there by a different route.
Beyond the gateposts, as the road began to rise, he turned from it and pressed the stallion up the steeper slopes toward the ridge, skirting the outermost coffee trees. He could hear the voices of women singing as they gathered the red berries—that was good—but he kept out of their sight behind a screen of trees, leaning still farther forward now as Bel Argent mounted the difficult grades. Then he felt himself brushed, along his right profile, by someone’s regard, and turned to lock eyes with that scarred one, he who had come out of the Savane Désolée with his tale of what had happened to the “Swiss.” An instant of recognition, and Toussaint was gone behind the trees, leaving the cultivated land altogether now, climbing around a thicket of bamboo. What was his name, that scarred one? Now he would report that he had seen the General Toussaint, passing in ghostly silence on the back of his white horse.
Or perhaps he would not speak of it. The name came to him: Guiaou. Toussaint remembered now that there was some trouble between him and Riau. Something to do with a woman, certainly . . . he did not exactly remember, but whatever it was had moved him to post Riau away from Ennery. Perhaps no more than an inkling . . . But Riau could not be too tightly constrained or he might bolt again altogether, or try to. Riau had several useful skills, and Toussaint did not want to be obliged to order him shot. Besides, he was fond of Riau, whom he’d adopted long ago when the boy was first brought out of Guinée as a bossale to Habitation Bréda. Of course, he had been parrain to many others in those days of slavery. And to be the General Toussaint Louverture was to be father of sorts to four or five or six thousand men.
He took off his general’s hat, as if it were to blame for the direction of his thoughts, and fastened it to his stirrup leather. The hat rode by his left knee, its red and white plumes flexing with the motion of the horse. Bel Argent, shoulders straining slightly, broke out of the bamboo onto the trail at the top of the ridge. The mountain air was distinctly cooler, and Toussaint’s headcloth, sweat-soaked under the hat, began to dry.
He was deep inside his own lines here, and safe as safe could possibly be, in this country at this time. He let the white stallion choose the pace: a brisk, spring-loaded walk. Today for the first time in many days, there was no particular reason for haste. And solitude was most welcome to him. His mind ran empty, clear and light. There was nothing, only a global awareness of the damp smells of the jungle, shifting of shadows and ticking of insects in the leaves.
But here was a new bitasyon sprung up since he had last passed this way. A new clutch of wattled cabins half completed, corn plantings spiraling among boulders up the hillside to his right. And there above him on the trail, a naked boy of three or four stood gaping down at him, slack-jawed, eyes as round and white as hens’ eggs, then plunged into the bush. Toussaint heard his voice calling to the others. He followed the curve of the trail around the clustered houses. A young woman in a blue headcloth stood watching him from a doorway as he went by. His mind began to work again. This too was marronage, this sprouting of villages and gardens all through the hills, as if the liberated people had indeed gone back to Guinée, or invented their own Africa, here and now. At this he felt a twinge, almost of envy. A creole born in Saint Domingue, Toussaint had never seen Guinée.
Again he thought of Riau’s wandering spirit . . . which was far from unique. Then the jungle closed behind the horse’s tail, and the voices of the children died away, and his thought left him. He rode on. No, he would not go to Marmelade today, though the town was easily within his range. He clucked to Bel Argent and turned him down from the road, crossing a narrow rivulet at the bottom of a shallow gorge, then climbing to strike the red groove of another trail beyond.
The cactus fence had grown taller around the small square case, but this time the two little dogs did not bark. One came to the door and sniffed the air, then turned around and lay down with its tail hanging over the sill. The old woman stood in the bare-earth yard, pounding a pestle taller than herself into a mortar hollowed from a stump.
“Bonsoir, grann,” he said to her.
The old woman turned and bared her gums, her whole face wrinkling in pleasure, though she seemed unsurprised.
“Ou pa sezi,” Toussaint remarked.
“It was my spirit who told me you might come.”
Toussaint nodded as he swung down from the saddle and moved to tether Bel Argent to a tree. No doubt the spirit which informed her of his arrival was the same spirit that had moved him to come. He took off the saddlebags and undid the buckles of the girth. The corners of his portable writing desk pressed his ribs through the leather as he carried his load toward the house. Notes for letters yet to be written, copies of letters already sent . . . but tonight he would not write, or dictate.
The dog got up whimpering as Toussaint stooped to lay his load within the sill. The tip of his long sword’s scabbard had dragged a trail in the dust from where his horse was tied. He unbuckled the sword and leaned the hilt against the outside wall.
“I will go and wash,” he said. The old woman nodded as she stooped to turn a golden mound of cornmeal out of the mortar onto a large clay dish.
Unbuttoning his coat, Toussaint walked around the plantings of yams and beans toward the tinkling sound of the spring. He laid his clothing and his pistols on a rock and waded into the spring-fed pool, watching his reflection disappear as it joined with his corporeal self: the slightly bowed legs and wiry arms and tightly knotted torso. The water was cold, clarifying; he could feel it in his back teeth. He went completely underneath the water. When he came up, snapping his head back with a gasp, he saw a gaggle of children assembled on the rocks, gazing at him and whispering.
The General Toussaint Louverture! The horse, the plumed hat, the big sword had conspired to give him away. In the beginning he had been invisible, a little leaf doctor in the service of Jean-François and Biassou, merely an old black man wandering the mountains with a sack of herbs, a simple doktè-fey. Then, the movement of his hand had been invisible, as his hands moved round him now, beneath the mirror surface of the water. He had that still, his secret hands, but now at the same time he must also be the General Toussaint Louverture with his uniform and insignia and big warhorse, at the head of his troops with his long sword flashing in the light. This, too, was necessary.
One of the bigger girls shoved a smaller boy down from a boulder; he yelped and slapped at her calf in protest. The children all scattered as Toussaint came out of the water. As he dried himself he thought of Brisbane—one Englishman who liked a fight, and who had been highly visible at long distances, in his red coat. The square line of his jaw, with the bulge of beef-eating muscle below each ear . . . though in fact Toussaint was imagining those details. If he had been close enough to Brisbane to see him so well, he would have killed him or made him prisoner.
Brisbane was dangerous. The other British commanders much preferred to keep their troops in the coast towns, where they would be safely away from the hazards of combat, though distinctly more vulnerable to dysentery and the various fevers, which Toussaint knew were now making terrible inroads among the garrisons at both Saint Marc and Port-au-Prince. Whitelocke and his other subordinates would rather have the colonial and émigré militias, such as the Chasseurs of Dessources, do their front-line fighting for them—troops which far from causing Toussaint any serious concern, furnished him rather with amusement. Brisbane was very much another matter, more than willing to commit his troops to battle on the open flats of the Artibonite, where Toussaint was somewhat hesitant to commit his own. He had triumphed over his English enemy with a spectacular cavalry charge at Grande Saline, but still the risk of such flourishes was greater than he liked. At the same time, he did not enjoy the thought of British troops establishing themselves in the mountains of the interior for long enough to acclimate themselves. A body of European soldiery which had developed immunity to the tropical illnesses and had also learned something about the terrain would be a more serious threat than he wanted to contend with, and Brisbane seemed more capable than anyone else of taking his men to that level . . . Wary of a full-scale engagement, Toussaint had been tiring Brisbane’s force with constant skirmishing all over the Artibonite plain, relying on swift and swerving movements and on superior knowledge of the countryside. Then Brisbane, conspicuous at the head of the British troops as Toussaint was at the head of his—Brisbane, according to the will of BonDyé (here Toussaint crossed himself, half consciously, as he walked back toward the old woman’s cabin), had been picked off by a sharpshooter, ambushed in fact, not far from the Artibonite dam. Not killed outright, but wounded so gravely that he was carried from the field. Since then, the British campaign in the Artibonite had stalled.
There was a hazard in visibility, Toussaint thought, to have made oneself remarkable . . . he respected Brisbane, though naturally he also hoped that he would die. Regaining the case, he sat down for a moment on the sill, nudging one of the feisty little dogs aside so as to open his saddlebag. He took out a clean yellow square of madras and tied it over his head. The smell from the cook fire was enticing. Of course, the old woman was not really his grandmother, though he addressed her so and trusted her as if she were. He had other such honorary grann scattered over the country in whose huts he would sometimes award himself a short period of seclusion—no one else quite knowing where he was. With the grandmothers he could also eat without stint or suspicion; theirs was the only food he fully trusted, save what came from the hands of his own wife.
He found some fodder for Bel Argent, then walked barefoot over the packed dirt to the rear of the case and stood inhaling the aromas. The old woman was stirring her iron cauldron while the girl chopped up wrinkled green and orange peppers on a chip of wood—she looked up and smiled shyly to greet him and then looked away. The wind rose up to lift the leaves, and it grew cooler as the clouds rolled in, but it did not really rain; only a few fat drops smacked down before the clouds passed over. They ate outside, crosslegged round the cook fire, using fresh, broad banana leaves as plates. Maïs moulin: cornmeal mush with beans and a little meat with its juices, raised to a high piquancy by the peppers.
They ate seriously and talked little. The old woman did ask after Moustique, though when Toussaint told her he had absconded from Delahaye’s care, she seemed to know about it already.
“Oui, li kouri nan tou morne isit,” she said smiling with evident approval. “Li pale ak tou lespri sa yo epi ak BonDyé tou.”
Toussaint set his banana leaf aside and drew up his knees, responding to inner twinges of annoyance. The marronage of Moustique bothered him more than most, mainly because it embarrassed him before l’Abbé Delahaye. The idea of the boy—running all over these mountains, as the old woman had put it, talking with all the spirits of Africa and also with the Catholic God. He’d heard elsewhere that the boy had left the area and gone north in the direction of Le Cap, but who on earth knew where he might really be? Delahaye would be especially piqued to learn that his charge had carried his smattering of Catholic doctrine to the hûnfors.
He emptied his mind by carefully combing out Bel Argent’s mane and tail and brushing the animal’s white coat till it gleamed obscurely in the light of the crescent moon. This had been his work at Bréda, so long ago, and it soothed him still, as it calmed the horse. But now this agreeable task was almost always done by others.
Sleep came the instant he stretched himself out, resting his head on the supple leather of a saddlebag. Dreams whirled over him like filaments of spider web crossing and recrossing: trails and roads and kalfou and his constant movement, reversing itself like a whiplash cracking back along its braided length, or a snake coiling, striking, recoiling. Here yield, here retreat, feint, parry, flank. Here, make a stand, on the height above Petite Rivière, which Blanc Cassenave had fortified. Below, the brown river folded around the cliff, winding and constricting and, off to the southwest, a blue haze hung over the ocean and Saint Marc.
Toussaint woke, immediately lucid, aware of the writing desk’s hard edges through the saddlebag under the back of his head. A second later he knew where he was and how he’d come there. The old woman and the girl breathed softly on their pallets against the opposite wall of the small, square room. One of the feisty dogs got up to look him over, even though he had not moved. Then the dog grunted, turned and lay down. Toussaint could smell horse sweat from his saddle blanket on the floor nearby. And Blanc Cassenave was dead . . . Toussaint had written his epitaph in a letter to Laveaux, drafted by some odd coincidence the same day Brisbane had been shot.
During his detention Blanc Cassenave was struck with apoplexy, which had every appearance of an unbridled rage; he died of suffocation; may he rest in peace. He is out of this world; we must give thanks to God accordingly. The death of Blanc Cassenave abolishes any sort of procedure against him, as his crime had no accomplices.
A copy of this letter, among others, was shut up in the writing desk beneath his head. Now Toussaint had taken all the sleep he needed, though it would be hours yet before dawn. He was ready to compose and dictate, but there was no secretary. He lay still.
REQUIESCAT IN PACE—Blanc Cassenave had died in prison, arrested by Toussaint following what had practically amounted to a rebellion, a mutiny, or so it could be argued; the story might be told in more than one way. Was the man suffocated by his own rage as Toussaint had reported, or was it the weight of the chains laid on him? Toussaint had been elsewhere at the time of his death and did not know the answer for certain. It was no small thing to put a man in chains. He felt that Blanc Cassenave had himself to blame for his demise, though he had been among the most brave and capable of the colored officers to begin with. Indeed, he had made himself remarkable. But there was the matter of the four hundred pounds of gunpowder that he had failed to forward to Toussaint. Blanc Cassenave had shot forty men whom he claimed were traitors but whom Toussaint believed to be simply his personal enemies. Well, and he had openly defied Toussaint’s authority when reproached about the gunpowder, and had fomented dissension all through the posts along the Artibonite River (allowing the English to capitalize on the confusion). He had spread a rumor that putting the plantations back to work was only a masked design on the part of Toussaint, and even Laveaux, to restore slavery. His diversion not only of the gunpowder but also of munitions and other booty captured from the enemy suggested a scheme to set up his own private force—Toussaint understood very well what that signified since he had done the same himself while nominally under command of Jean-François and Biassou. Beyond this individual rebellion, it smelled as if Blanc Cassenave had been conspiring with Villatte, and perhaps there was even some larger conspiracy afoot among the mulattoes, for so many of them seemed to feel themselves racially superior to their black brothers in arms.
But now Blanc Cassenave was dead, and Brisbane, perhaps, would soon die. The Cordon of the Artibonite was in order, and the whole Artibonite plain seemed within Toussaint’s grasp, though he could not close his hand upon it until he had rooted the British out of Saint Marc.
The corner of the writing desk dug into the hollow at the back of his neck; it made his mind a hive of swarming words. Outside, Bel Argent lifted his head from grazing and whickered softly, then, as if the warhorse had anticipated it, the drumming began beneath the mapou tree beyond the next ridge. The idea of Moustique resurfaced in Toussaint’s awareness, and as quickly he wiped it away. Words rose up through the leather of the saddlebag, fuming into his head like smoke.
Some of those drifting phrases gave him pleasure; for instance, his report to Laveaux on the ambush of Dessources’s Chasseurs on the Artibonite, in which Toussaint had captured seven supply wagons, slain sixty of the enemy and scattered the rest. As for Dessources himself, he owed his escape only to the speed of his horse—yes, that had been felicitously put. The prisoners reported that Dessources had also been wounded in the thigh, but Toussaint certainly hoped he would survive and return to the field—he found Dessources an amusing opponent, courageous certainly but weakened by contempt for the enemy and an excess of pride, two qualities which made him easy to draw. His immediate subordinates, whether colored or white, were similarly self-willed and volatile, to the point that they were barely capable of acting in concert. As for the black soldiers that made up their numbers, these were distinctly undercommitted to the proslavery struggle and so collapsed easily under pressure, though many of these same men fought bravely and stubbornly once incorporated into Toussaint’s own troops.
The texture of the drumming changed and intensified, and Toussaint, slipping again partway toward dream, felt his limbs moving lightly on the mat, as if in water, but he did not wish to give way, and then, with the harsh cry of the loa descending, the drumming stopped. He was conscious of his cool detachment, as if he had become a blanc. The boiling of language in his head subsided and the words flattened out again on their papers, inside the desk sheathed by the leather bag. There were others skilled in the art of marshaling words on paper, most dangerously the mulatto Pinchinat, who was involved in some obscure machination which connected Villate on the north coast with Rigaud in the Southern Department (but Toussaint did not want to think about that just now . . .); meanwhile even Jean-François, in his angry letter rejecting an invitation to join the French Republicans, had managed a fine flourish:
Equality, Liberty, &c &c &c . . . I will only believe in that when I see that Monsieur Laveaux and other French gentlemen of his quality giving their daughters in marriage to Negroes. Then I will be able to believe in this pretended equality.
That letter had been written quite some ago, and quite likely someone else had furnished Jean-François with the phrasing, but still this shard of rhetoric was difficult either to bypass or digest, and similar arguments continued to gain sway among the people of the Grande Rivière valley. Even some of Moyse’s men at Dondon had been moved to defect to Jean-François, and though Toussaint imagined they had been more persuaded by proffers of Spanish gold than by any words spoken or written, the problem was serious and must be addressed. He had already countered by accusing Jean-François of slave trading—You ask if a republican is free? It takes a slave to ask such a question. Do you really dare—you, Jean-François, who has sold his brothers to the Spanish, brothers who are actually digging in the mines of that detestable nation, to supply the ostentation of its king. . . . and Jean-François was truly guilty of this charge, as Biassou had been guilty of the same action before him. Toussaint could well have wished that Jean-François had disappeared from the scene instead of Biassou (who according to rumor had gone to Spanish Florida and perhaps been killed there in a brawl), for Biassou was the weaker general, as Dessources was weaker than Brisbane, though not by so great a measure. Jean-François could be defeated, though not without effort and difficulty. There was no one who could not somehow be defeated.
But when Jean-François had been dispatched, the question he had raised might linger and attach itself to another and another after that, for all black men and women in the colony would be most loyal to whoever they believed would protect their freedom. And freedom to do what? There must be work to feed the struggle—Laveaux’s French faction had no gold, nor sufficient supplies nor ammunition, so that Toussaint must take most of what he required from the enemy. This he had so far managed to do, but still there must be money to purchase weapons and supplies for the future, and so there must be work which produced something exchangeable for money—thus, plantation work, but that resembled slavery.
Here was another problem Toussaint did not wish to think about, for he could not immediately solve it. Here the circle closed upon itself. As he had proclaimed to the former cultivators in the area of Verrettes:
Work is necessary, it is a virtue; it serves the general benefit of the State. Any slothful wandering person will be arrested and punished by the law. But labor also takes place under the condition that it is only through compensation, a justly paid salary, that one can encourage it and carry it to the highest level.
It was well enough to speak of working for a proportion of one’s own benefit measured against the common good, and Toussaint himself believed in this principle, but for the great majority, this was not liberty. Freedom was here, in this mountain village with a few animals and gardens on which the people might easily live; freedom was what he himself had come here, for the space of a few hours, to enjoy.
The drumming had begun again, under the mapou tree. Toussaint shut down his mind. Only so much could be gained from thinking, reasoning like a blanc; problems which did not yield to reason might be dissolved in other ways. He calmed himself by silently reciting, against the driving of the drums, a chaplet of the names of camps that surrounded and protected his positions: Grande Saline, Rossignol, Poinci Desdunes, Latapie, Laporte, Théard, Chatelain, Pothenot, Donache, Boudet, Remousin . . . Then it was dawn.
Midmorning, he came riding down the zigzag path out of the mornes above Marmelade. Women swinging empty baskets as they climbed to the provision grounds stepped aside and smiled at him as he passed. Toussaint touched his hat to the prettiest, and also to the oldest among them. Now and then Bel Argent’s hooves dislodged a shower of pebbles which rattled down to startle the quick brown lizards that flicked this way and that across the trail.
Skirting the square with its church and the building he’d adopted for his headquarters, he rode to the house at the edge of town where he had installed his family. Suzanne was just returning from the river as he dismounted—she stopped dead and hugged her bundle of clothes. Behind her, the hugely pregnant Marie-Noelle was startled enough to drop the bundle she was carrying. The girl covered the O of her mouth with one hand and crouched awkwardly, knees splaying around her swollen belly, to collect the spilled garments and brush off the dust.
Suzanne set her bundle inside the door and stretched out her hands to her husband; Toussaint leaned in and pressed his cheek to hers. He was content that he had surprised her even a little, though she did not show a great deal of surprise.
“Where are my sons?” Toussaint said, but Saint-Jean, the youngest, was already running from the house to wrap his arms fiercely around Toussaint’s thigh above the boot top. Toussaint took a step back to regain his balance. Suzanne smiled at them from the doorway, hands on her hips, as Toussaint swung the boy onto his hip and kissed his forehead.
“The others are at their studies with the priest,” Suzanne said.
Toussaint lowered the boy to the ground; Saint-Jean scampered toward the white warhorse, then hesitated and looked back.
“But this one must study and learn also,” Toussaint said. “Eh?”
“Oh, the priest receives him later in the day,” Suzanne said, cocking up one hip. “He takes him alone and the other two together.”
She went into the house and, a moment later, set a chair outside the door. Toussaint removed his hat and coat and handed them to her. He carried the chair to the shade of a mango tree and sat down, pulling off his boots and stockings and working his bare toes in the loose dirt.
Marie-Noelle had sorted out her washing and was carrying part of it away toward the main square. Toussaint raised his arms slightly from his sides, allowing the breeze to run through his shirt sleeves and comb over the madras cloth tied around his head. A speckled hen plopped down in a sunny spot of the yard and began a luxurious dust bath. Saint-Jean came around the back of Toussaint’s chair and threw both arms over his shoulders, pressing his hands on his father’s shirt front and laying his cheek on the back of his neck.
Briefly, Toussaint closed his eyes. When he reopened them, Suzanne had appeared with a calabash full of cool water. He took it from her hands and drank. For some time longer he sat quite still, only his toes flexing a little, his mind deliciously empty and clear. When the shade of the mango tree began to move away from him, he put on his boots with the ghost of a sigh and crossed the yard to knock on the frame of the door.
“Will Saint-Jean go now to the priest?”
“He will go later,” Suzanne called from within. “After the heat.”
Toussaint went down across the square before the church. Indeed, it was very hot already, the sun vertical above the plumes of his hat, and the dust stirring white around his boots. When he came near the house behind the church, he could hear the drone of the boys’ recitation from the priest’s study. Occasionally, there would be the slap of a hand on the table to punctuate a correction l’Abbé Delahaye had made. Then the drone began again. Toussaint stood outside, half smiling as he listened.
When the lesson had ended the boys tumbled out, knocking into each other in the doorway: Placide the taller, scrawnier, serious-looking, with his high forehead. His skin had that coppery Arada tone, while Isaac was darker and more compact—somehow denser, it seemed. From his first years he had weighed as much or more than his brother, as if his bones were made of stone.
Both boys brightened when they saw him waiting. Toussaint hugged them, touching the backs of their heads, and sent them home to their mother.
“If you like, we can sit outdoors,” Delahaye said. “In the house it it is rather close, at this hour.”
He led the way to a little arbor, upwind of the cook fire ring, where three chairs had been arranged around a wicker table. Delahaye motioned for him to sit.
“They are applying themselves to their work?” Toussaint said. “They study with concentration?”
“Oh, they are assiduous enough,” Delahaye said. “They progress, in small steps.” He sat down with a whoosh of his cassock. “And certainly they are more faithful acolytes than some.”
“M’regrette sa,” Toussaint said hastily, for he was already sensitive on the point of Moustique. I’m sorry for that. He looked away. “I have heard the rumor,” he muttered, “that he has been running the hills here-about, but my own men find no sign of him.”
“I’ve seen nothing of him either,” Delahaye said, “nor yet of my stole and chalice, or my donkey.” With a quick, irritable movement he brushed an insect from the back of his neck. “However, he did leave us some remembrance of himself,” he said, “As you may now very plainly see.”
The priest looked significantly toward Marie-Noelle, who was waddling out of the house with a tray of refreshments. On the table between them she laid out cold bread and whole bananas, large glasses of water and small ones of rum. Toussaint kept silent till she had withdrawn.
“Suzanne will come to her, when it is time,” he said.
“Yes,” said Delahaye, “I knew that had been so arranged. And it must be soon, no? She looks ready to burst. But no matter.”
Toussaint picked up a banana and inspected the peel. Satisfied, he slit it open with thumbnail and took a small bite.
“There is news,” Delahaye said, a slightly rising note in his voice. Toussaint lifted his head.
“Brisbane has died, from the effects of his wound,” Delahaye said.
“Ah.” Toussaint set the banana back down on the table and spread his hand out flat beside it. Delahaye looked at him narrowly.
“No Latin phrases?” the priest said.
“Tout grâce à Dieu,” Toussaint murmured. “You are certain?”
“Oh, quite,” said Delahaye. “Infection. He had been shot through the throat apparently, and in this climate . . .”
“Yes,” Toussaint said, rocking almost imperceptibly in the chair. “Yes.”
Delahaye was still looking at him, with an edged curiosity. “You prosper very well in Caesar’s world, my son,” the priest said.
Toussaint, eyes lidded, swayed slightly in his seat but said nothing. He folded both arms across his chest and breathed deeply in.
“Blanc Cassenave is also dead,” said Delahaye. “It seems impossible that anyone can raise himself to oppose you.”
Toussaint let his eyes fall completely shut. Against the closed lids floated up the face of Joseph Flaville and, a little behind him, Moyse. He exhaled, opened his eyes and looked at Delahaye.
“If God is with me,” he pronounced, “then who can stand against me?”
In the green and gilded light of morning, Captain Maillart rode down from La Soufrière, through Bas-Limbé and out onto the great level expanse of the northern plain. He was flanked by two black riders, assigned to him by Toussaint at Marmelade: Quamba and Guiaou. Of these the former was an able horseman and useful groom. Toussaint had told Maillart, with his hint of a smile that never quite flowered, that he believed Guiaou might one day make a horseman also, if he should gain confidence and overcome his fear. And today when they came down from the last slopes of the mountains onto the flat land of the plain, Guiaou, riding on the captain’s left, seemed to be much at his ease. Maillart glanced at him, half covertly, from time to time. Guiaou’s seat was sufficiently solid, and he held the reins above the saddle bow in relaxed hands. A loose chemise of off-white cotton covered the patterns of his dreadful scars, save those on his head and forearm. As he rode, he seemed to look about himself with pleasure.
“Riziè marron,” Quamba remarked, to Maillart’s right. The captain looked over. There was a sizable, irregular rice planting—gone mostly wild, as Quamba had suggested. Bwa dlo with its pale white and violet blossoms sprang up among the rice shoots. White egrets stood spectrally about the shallows, and in a deeper slough was a long-horned cow submerged to her neck, blissful, now and then stretching her head to take another mouthful of green shoots. As they passed, two nearly naked men came out of the surrounding jungle and began to swing broad-bladed hoes at the border of the planting.
They rode on. Another cluster of horsemen seemed to be in sight ahead of them, at that point just below the horizon where mirages were wont to appear. Maillart shaded his eyes for a better view; he could not make out if they were three or five. The figures did not shimmer as mirages do, but presently he did not see them anymore; the road ahead was empty.
By now the heat was rising and the air around their little party ripened with the smell of horse and human sweat. Silence, heavy as the air, was broken by the occasional chink of harness rings, or someone’s voice at a distance, urging cattle or goats out into the pastures. At a crossroads a small crowd of women had gathered with their wares: green oranges and bananas of several kinds, some coconuts and mangos. Maillart reined up and arched an eyebrow at his companions.
“Ki bo Bitasyon Arnaud?” Quamba addressed the question at large. Where is Habitation Arnaud? The oldest woman among the marchandes raised a toothless face as shriveled as a peach pit.
“Ki sa ou vlé?” she said. What do you want?
“Koté blan k’ap fé travay anko—l’ap fé sik.” Maillart said. Where the white man has the work going again—where he is making sugar.
The woman’s eyes whitened. “Blan ki fé sik mêm?”
A white man making sugar again? There was a general buzz among the women. Presently the old woman nodded with a seeming satisfaction and pointed a leathery finger to the road which led inland. Maillart pricked up his horse but, on a second thought, stopped again and purchased a stalk of bananas, which he fastened to his saddle knee with a bit of thong.
Then they went on. With the sun mounting toward the meridian, the heat was wet and smothering. Maillart moved as little as possible, giving his horse its head, only sometimes turning his face, like a sail, to receive the intermittent, feeble hints of breeze. He left the chore of inquiring the way to Quamba, for even the effort of moving his lips made him pour sweat.
They turned southwest and rode along a narrow muddy lane, pitted with deep sloughs which the horses must pick their way around with care; in one was an abandoned wagon, buried to the hubs in sucking mud. There were other tracks, some fresh, and Maillart noticed a pile of warm horse manure that put him in mind of the party of horsemen he thought he’d seen earlier in the morning. But no one was in view. Jungle pressed in on the roadway, the interlocking leaves of trees so tall they blocked the view of any landmark. With the sun at the center of the sky, all sense of direction was lost. But Quamba kept inquiring at the crossroads, and presently they came to a pair of blackened gateposts at the entrance to an allée of palms. The gates had been wrenched down from the masonry, and most of the spearheaded iron bars removed—perhaps for use as lances, Maillart speculated. A palm trunk had been laid across the gateway as a barrier, and Quamba began to dismount to shift it, but Maillart shook his head and jumped his horse over the obstacle. His companions followed suit. Maillart saw that Guiaou leaned forward and knotted his hands in the mane of his horse, with an air of desperation, but at any rate he was not unseated.
Some of the palms bordering the allée had been hacked down, and through the gaps one could see patches of undertended cane. The citrus hedges of the main enclosure had been set afire but incompletely burned, so that now they greened again, pushing through the ash and the charred stems. Maillart leaned sideways, plucked a lime and sucked the juice to freshen the taste of warm, stale water in his canteen.
But for a single small shed near the blackened square that might have been a stable, all the buildings of the main compound had been razed by fire. On the opposite edge of the clearing, rope had been strung from tree to tree to mark off makeshift stalls for horses, and here, Maillart took in at once, a party of black cavalrymen had recently hitched their mounts. The black men wore French uniforms, and as Maillart slipped gratefully down from his own horse, he found himself beneath the cool regard of Major Joseph Flaville.
The captain suffered a conflict of impulses. He might toss the reins of his horse to the other, as if he were a stablehand, then turn his back. They might continue to fence in this manner, trading slights indefinitely, until one of them found a way to betray the other, perhaps even on the field of battle. All that was a great stupidity. Maillart felt so, even through the wave of unreasoning resentment which resembled the blind rages he had formerly felt against O’Farrel of the Dillon regiment—strangely, for Flaville had done nothing to offend him, or even to compete with him. Had he?
Maillart saluted. “Good morning, Major. I had not looked to find you here.”
Flaville returned his salute. “Nor I you, Captain.”
Maillart broke two bunches of bananas from the stalk he had purchased, and held them out to the black officer.
“For yourself and your men, if you like them.”
“With pleasure, and my thanks.” Flaville smiled naturally, accepting the fruit, and whistled for one of his men to come on the double and see to the captain’s horse.
Unaccompanied (for Quamba and Guiaou were conversing with Flaville’s subordinates), Maillart strolled down toward the cane mill, where Flaville had told him he would find the proprietor. On the way he paused by that solitary shed—so odd to find it standing still, where everything else had been destroyed. The door was chained and fastened with a padlock, but there was a knothole. Maillart peeped in, then recoiled. The sun glared down on him more fiercely and the air now seemed too dense to breathe. Someone was watching him from the cane mill, a man in a loosely woven, conical straw hat with fringed brim. Only by the walking stick he held in both hands across his thighs did the captain recognize Michel Arnaud. The stick was unusual, grooved like a corkscrew—reputedly it was not wood at all, but a dried and hardened bull’s pizzle. Maillart wanted to look into the shed again, to verify what he had seen or (much better) discover it an illusion, but would not do so under Arnaud’s observation.
He caught his breath, then went to greet the master of the land.
“Welcome,” Arnaud pronounced, letting his cane swing free as he took the captain’s hand. “Come in and see the work, for what it’s worth.”
Maillart followed him through the doorway, which at present lacked a lintel. The roof was gone too, so the area of the mill was open to the sky. The masonry walls were jaggedly shattered, battered down to ankle height in places, and fire-blackened to the top.
Arnaud was following the captain’s glance. “Yes,” he said. “They were very thorough in their destruction, but had not the patience to smash down all the walls.” He snorted. “I may call that my good fortune. The press itself they were careful to knock down, but the iron—that was less damaged than I feared and, as you see, we have raised it up again.”
Maillart followed the cane tip to the fresh masonry, more sloppily done than the older stonework, which supported the two vertical iron cylinders of the cane press. A system of gears ran through the wall to a spoked wheel outside. Through the gaps in the broken wall, Maillart could see two bullocks and a single mule, turning the central hub which ran the press. A boy urged the animals along with soft speech and light flicks of a green switch.
“Ouais, ça roule encore.” Arnaud fanned himself with his hat, a near-shapeless, hastily crafted object of the sort a slave might have worn. “It works—after a fashion.”
The captain stared at the crushed cane stalks emerging from the interlocked grooves of the press. Below, the syrup flowed into the slant of a dug-out log.
“Come.” Arnaud gestured with his cane.
Maillart followed him to the lower level, where the sap was boiled and reduced to sugar. The roof had disappeared here too, and the posts which had supported it burnt back to foot-high stumps. Two men worked the syrup with long-handled ladles. Flies covered the viscous surface of the tanks.
“We have not the means to refine white sugar now,” Arnaud said. “And I regret to say there are impurities even in the brown. Still, it is something. He raised his voice. “Finished for the morning! Go rest!”
The men at once laid down their tools, and Maillart heard the gears of the mill clank to a halt. He followed Arnaud around the outer edges of the broken walls, and they walked up through the compound. A chill clutched at the captain as they passed the shed, and then the heat returned, like fever.
“It was not so in better days,” Arnaud reported, “this business of the noon hiatus. But now they will not work without it. He slashed at the air before him with his cane. “Free labor.” The cane whistled and sang alarmingly. “I give you that for free labor!” He let the cane drop against his side. “Well, it’s what we’ve got.”
Maillart had seen no sign of a residence, but now they were mounting a twisted trail that passed through the citrus hedge and climbed through a stand of bamboo that covered the lower slopes of the morne behind the plantation. The path gave onto an apron of cleared ground, which opened out before a low rectangular dwelling, backed against the raw face of mountain. Flaville was waiting for them there, seated at a roughly carpentered table on the porch.
“Anou bwé rhum,” Arnaud said, directing the captain toward a stool, as he went into the house. Maillart sat down and looked about. Though the climb had not seemed so very arduous, he now could now see over the compound from a considerable height. To the left was the sound of running water, and he saw that a ditch dug in the clay channeled the runoff around the border of the little yard—away from the house floor, which consisted of splintery puncheon embedded in the earth.
Arnaud returned, carrying two bottles pinched together in one hand, and three cups fashioned from calabash in the other.
“We are not very elegant,” he said, setting down these accouterments. He sat and poured a measure of raw, clear rum into each gourd, and pushed the cups across the table to his guests.
“A l’aise, messieurs,” he said. “The other bottle is water.”
The captain drained his cup of clairin, and refilled the gourd from the water bottle. Flaville, meanwhile, sipped his measure more slowly. Arnaud drank about half his cup, then pushed back his stool to stand again.
“Well, I will look for something for us to eat.”
“Allow me to help you,” Maillart said, having come to the conclusion that there must be no servant on hand.
“If you will.” Arnaud shrugged.
The captain followed him indoors. The house was an alley of four rooms, two on each side of a corridor and open at either end. The roof was palm thatch and the walls were lattice, plaited from sticks. Arnaud turned to the right and Maillart followed, parting a hanging curtain made of strings of red seeds from the bean trees. He found himself in a bedchamber, furnished with a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a heavy bedstead. Without pausing, Arnaud passed through to the room behind, which was empty except for several padlocked chests and a pallet on the floor.
Taking a bunch of keys from his pocket, Arnaud unlocked one of the chests and took out a platter covered with a cloth, and a small clay jug. Atop another chest was a dish with a bunch of bananas, two mangos and some limes. Arnaud nodded at Maillart, who picked it up.
In the bedchamber he hesitated, catching the captain’s eye in the mirror propped on the chest of drawers. It must have been a fine mirror, once, though now the surface was smoke-stained and the gilt wood frame much damaged by fire.
“I have prepared this room for the return of my wife.”
Maillart inclined his head toward Arnaud’s reflection. He noticed that in this room alone the puncheon floor was sanded fine. Arnaud turned his face from the mirror and led the way back onto the porch.
“A woman comes to cook at night,” he said, unveiling a plate of cold corn cakes. “But I don’t trouble myself for the midday meal, we are so . . . short-handed.” He took off his ragged-brimmed hat and ran his hands back through his graying hair. “The work will recommence at three.”
“Ah,” said Flaville, with the air of making a pleasantry. “One might say that the Code Noir is respected here, nowadays. Concerning the treatment of the . . . cultivators.”
Arnaud gazed into space without replying.
Far below, behind the mill, men were loading sacks from a lean-to onto the pack saddles of a train of donkeys. “I see that something is already begun,” Maillart said.
“Yes,” said Arnaud, pouring molasses from the clay jug over his cornbread, “that convoy must leave in good time, to reach Le Cap before darkness.”
Maillart contained a restive movement and said nothing, though he was perturbed. Toussaint had sent him on this exploration to discover not only to what extent the production of sugar had been restored but also where the product was being sent—for Toussaint wished for all such exports to pass through his own hands at Gonaives. As Laveaux, Toussaint’s commanding officer, was in charge at Le Cap, the black general could have no reasonable objection to sugar being shipped in that direction. But Maillart felt uneasy, and the silence round the table weighed upon him. Flaville chewed methodically at the hard corn cake.
“This house,” the captain said, groping for a subject. “You did not choose to rebuild on the old site.”
“No,” Arnaud said. Thumbing the underside of his jaw, he looked down with the captain at the train of donkeys filing out, past the burnt black square of earth where the old grand’case had stood, and past that solitary standing shed.
“Here one takes the air more easily,” Arnaud said. “It is better for the health. Also there are considerations of security. Besides, the old site is accursed.”
Again the silence bore down on the three of them. The last donkey had left the compound, which was empty, motionless, except for that shed, which seemed to waver in the shimmering heat. The captain swallowed and swallowed at his bite of cornbread; only with the greatest difficulty could he get it down. When he had finally succeeded, he reached for the rum bottle served himself and drank.
“Why,” he said. “Why was that one shed left standing?”
“Yes,” said Arnaud. “C’est ça la question. It has stood there since ninety-one—three years, man, since this place was sacked and burned. There is something inside it which I do not know how to remove, and yet it must be taken away before my Claudine can return here.”
Maillart drank rum, then poured himself a water chaser. Arnaud’s eyes were distant, glassy; he seemed unaware of his company. The captain was puzzled as to why he had chosen to speak so openly before Flaville; it did not seem to be unconsciousness.
“How shall I explain myself?” Arnaud pressed his palms on the table as if to rise. “You did not know me in those days, but I tell you, in the last three years I have aged twenty. Before the rising of ninety-one my hair was black as a crow’s wing, friends, and I had no thought but for my pleasure, or sometimes rage against the failure of my enterprises—my barren wife, my plantation foundered in debt and made barren too by the sloth and mortality of my slaves.”
Maillart considered. He had not known Arnaud personally, true, but his reputation—for extraordinary and ingenious cruelty to his slaves—had spread far and wide. Caradeux, Lejeune, Arnaud—those were names of terror. Flaville, the captain noticed, had stopped eating, and now sat upright on his stool with his arms folded across his chest.
“Though my wife is taken with a religous mania,” Arnaud pronounced, “I am myself no great believer.” He looked directly at Maillart. “When you found me, sir, wandering in the bush after the sack of the northern plain, I had ceased to know if I were a man or an ape. But I have been taught to believe in these years that the evil which one does returns. If that is true, so also may the good.
“It must be said that my wife did a very great evil, whose blot still lies across this land,” Arnaud continued. “She did so only following my example.” He drew a breath, looking away from Maillart. “You know what you have seen, down there.”
The captain’s eyes slid shut, against his will. Imprinted on their lids he saw, as through the knothole, the human skull and heap of bones littered on the shed floor, and the pair of skeletal hands still lashed to a hook on the wall above.
“Bref,” said Arnaud. “It was there my wife murdered her lady’s maid, a bossale fresh from Africa, who, as it happened, was carrying my child. You will understand, in my heat I had sowed the whole atelier with half-breed bastards, but this was the first and only time my wife showed how bitterly she was offended. As you have seen, the very bones still hang in bondage, and my wife is bound to them, and so am I.
“As for myself, I have undertaken many like actions. I cannot remember all those horrors, nor even half of them. My poor wife, misled by me, committed such a horror only once; it is that which has unseated her reason, I believe. I would take away the stain from her if I might, even take it upon myself. But I do not know how. There was a priest who might have advised me, but he is dead”—Arnaud’s voice broke into an eerie laugh—“tortured to death, my captain, by our concitoyens at Le Cap.” He made a half-turn to include Flaville in his discourse. “So, gentlemen, as you see, I am without hope or help.”
Maillart massaged his eyelids with his fingertips, then opened them. The clearing and the jungle swam before him for a moment and gradually grew still. Somewhere a cock was crowing. The captain had always thought it odd how the cocks of the colony gave voice at any hour, never restricting themselves to the dawn. Flaville tightened the fold of his arms across his chest and breathed in three times, deeply, with short, sharp exhalations through his nose. Then he relaxed his arms and raised his head.
“Perhaps I can arrange the matter,” he said to Arnaud.
“If you should even attempt it,” Arnaud said, “I am forever in your debt.”
After the meal the three of them retired to rest in the shade through the worst heat of the day. Maillart found he was to share his room with Flaville; two pallets were prepared on the floor in the first room opposite Arnaud’s personal chambers. Flaville stripped off his garments, folded them neatly and lay down without saying anything. At first the captain was uneasy at the quiet presence of the black man across the floor from him. But soon the singing of the insects and the dancing of the sunlight through the chinks in the latticed walls began to lull him. His breathing slowed; he did not wake till twilight.
The room was empty, but someone had brought a basin of a water and a jagged scrap of soap. Maillart washed his face and torso, combed his wet hair back with his fingers and went out onto the porch. There was a pleasant smell of stewing chicken. Arnaud had come in from the fields and changed his clothes; Flaville sat near him, at the table.
Maillart walked down the path to see that Quamba and Guiaou were settled for the night. He claimed two more bunches of the bananas for the master’s table, and leaving the rest to be shared among the men, he climbed back up. During the meal Arnaud replied to Flaville’s occasional questions, or volunteered descriptions of the difficulties, the failures and small successes, of his effort to bring the cane fields back from ruin. It seemed he was not alone in all this; the northern region was spotted all over with French colonists lately returned from exile, although at least as many properties were under the management of black or mulatto tenants now.
Maillart listened, keeping his silence for the most part. He could not help thinking of that donkey caravan, now unloading sugar at Le Cap if all had gone well with the journey, and of Toussaint’s likely displeasure. But he would play the simple soldier; his only part was to observe and report.
The woman who had cooked cleared away the plates and brought the rum. It was dark by then, but the moon was high above the plain, so that every detail of the compound was plainly etched in silver. As Maillart reached for his gourd of rum, he heard a drum beat slowly, four deep, throbbing beats. Then the hush resumed. From the trees came a procession of men and women, who moved toward the shed with rhythmic, swaying steps. It seemed that Guiaou was among them, or at least the captain recognized his shirt, but Guiaou had a different gait, a different manner, as if he’d been transfigured. When the singing began, that deep-throated voice made of many joined together, the fine hairs stood to attention on Maillart’s forearms and the back of his neck. Drawing near the shed, the procession broke up into those bewildering spiral patterns that had so often terrified the captain in ambush situations, yet now the movement was graceful, delicate and gentle, like ink diffusing into water.
An old man held up a candle flame to each of the cardinal points of the compass, then set it aside and saluted the same four directions with a bottle which must have held strong spirits, for it burned gaily when he poured it on the ground and set it alight. Someone (was that Guiaou?) rushed forward and danced jerkily, barefoot on the bluish flames. Someone stove in the shed door with a maul. Three women entered, then came back out, bearing the bones gently on a litter woven of green branches. Led by a gaunt figure in a tall black hat, the procession snaked away into the trees.
The door of the empty shed hung lopsided from the frame like a broken tongue. Maillart glanced sidelong at Arnaud. Though he made no sound, a flow of tears ran from his eye sockets and branched along the angles of his jaw, and his throat worked steadily, as if he were swallowing blood. Presently he stood up, collected the rum from the table and disappeared onto the descending trail.
The captain glanced at Flaville, who seemed alert, poised as if ready to leap from his chair in any direction, though there was no hostility, no menace about him. Maillart felt something similar himself, as though his body and bones were made of air.
When Arnaud emerged on the ground below, he was carrying a lighted torch. He splashed the rum from the bottle on the walls of the shed on either side of the door, then thrust the torch against the liquid stain and quickly sprang back. There could not have been enough rum to justify the effect, but the whole shed went up all at once like fire from a volcano.
Next day they rode to Haut de Trou, Arnaud accompanied by Maillart and Flaville and the men they’d brought with them: a strong party, for the state of the countryside was uncertain. Bands of unorganized rebels and fugitives still roved about, and the blacks who’d returned to work the fields were restless, chafing under the new labor laws proclaimed by both Laveaux and Toussaint. Maillart had time to reflect on the matter during the day’s journey, for there was little conversation among the leaders of the group.
Toussaint’s edicts had been especially stern. He forbade any independent clearing of new land by the new-free slaves (Toussaint had no desire to see more maroon villages sprouting in the hills), indeed there should be no work of any sort for independent gain or sustenance—all efforts must be combined for plantation work and the restoration of export crops. Reasonable, Maillart knew well, given the troops’ constant need for munitions and other supplies which must be imported, but the strictness of the edict was sufficient to start murmurs of its resemblance to slavery . . . According to Laveaux’s parallel proclamations, this labor was not slavery because it was paid: the cultivators were meant to receive the fourth part of all they produced. Yet Toussaint himself was pleading that this clause of the program was unworkable, for the time being at least, with all the Plaisance Valley laid waste. Under such sharecropping the Cordon de l’Ouest might sustain itself, at best, but could bring in no money for guns or soldiers’ pay. And even on the Plaine du Nord, where the land itself recovered more easily from the devastation, Laveaux’s policy was honored most often in the breach.
“It is a lovely principle,” Isabelle Cigny jingled across her supper table that evening, “but in practice—well, my friends . . .” She spread her hands above the different platters. “For example, our repast. Perhaps I parrot my husband’s views—he will be desolate to have missed you yet again!” She inclined her head to Maillart and Arnaud in turn.
“Likewise,” said Arnaud.
“My regret is sharpened,” said the captain, “by the thought that we dine at the grace of his markmanship.” For the meat was wild dove, shot in the cornfields by Monsieur Cigny. The birds were sweet and tender . . . and worth about two bites apiece; Maillart could happily have eaten twice the number available for his consumption.
“Precisely,” said Isabelle. “One may imagine that wild game is free for the taking, yet as mon bonhomme would put it, game costs something in powder and shot—precious commodities in this difficult time, to be sequestered with difficulty—and with some small risk—from military requisitioning.”
This time she fired her glances at Maillart and Flaville. “Gentlemen, I presume we speak in confidence.”
“But of course,” said Maillart, while Flaville stretched in his chair, smiling with apparent pleasure at her performance.
“Well,” she went on, “as for the corn and the yams and the greens, they too have their price in labor. Labor diverted from the coffee and the cane. How is that ‘fourth share’ to be extracted from such a situation? Why, our cultivators do well to feed themselves twice daily! Am I unjust?” She fluttered her fingers at Arnaud.
“By no means, Madame.”
“And that is not all,” Isabelle said. “The gravity of the predicament is just this—oh, my husband would certainly say the same if he were present.” She smiled around the table, her eyes skimming their faces, all attentive but for Claudine, who maintained her customary air of trance.
“All very well for our . . . cultivators, that they should be free,” she said. “Oh, let me applaud their freedom . . . Vive la liberté!” She raised her arm dramatically, but the toast fell flat, as she had doubtless intended it should. “Yet those people did not come to us free of charge, and the merchants and brokers of the Bord de Mer, whether here or in France, do not forgive our debts for their revolution.”
“Well said,” Arnaud pronounced, then went on to develop the theme in bitter detail, using his own examples.
Maillart went to bed, early, for he did not want to give the fact of Monsieur Cigny’s absence any time to work upon his mind—not that it should make any difference, for Cigny had always been an absentee husband, in all the time Maillart had known his wife. He lay down awaiting insomnia and did not know how deeply he had slept until he woke, all of a start, his ears vibrating with the fierce cry of a woman’s joy.
He knew that voice, oh so well . . . but now it had a more abandoned note than he had ever heard. For Isabelle had always been the mistress of their pleasure, riding him like a pony bridled to her desire. Who would enjoy her favor now?—he and Arnaud were the only white men on the premises, and the captain recalled how gently Arnaud had taken the maimed hand of his poor mad wife between his own two palms, how patiently he’d coaxed her to their chamber. However vigorous his infidelity, it seemed unlikely he would stray tonight, and anyway he had by his own account a taste for darker delicacies.
It was not inconceivable that Isabelle might have adopted the practice of Lesbos, but again there was the lack of a candidate. Surely not Claudine—that was unthinkable. Once Isabelle had recounted to him certain adventures undertaken with a mulattress, companion of her unmarried youth, in colonial slang her cocotte. At the time he’d been both excited and repulsed, and now the strain of his arousal was positively painful, so that he was tempted to relieve it by himself—but he put the thought away from him, and it subsided. Perhaps he had only dreamed that voice, he thought, as he yawned backward into sleep, or again, it might have been Isabelle who dreamed.
Major Flaville, though he left them his men as an escort, did not accompany them on their return to Habitation Arnaud, but rode to inspect camps farther to the east. Maillart regretted this circumstance soon enough, for there were great disturbances in the fields all along the way. On several occasions his company found itself menaced by blacks shouting across the hedgerows, A bas blanc! A bas l’esclavage! Sometimes more particular epithets were directed to Arnaud, whose past reputation seemed to be quite generally known.
The women, Claudine and Isabelle (who had elected to see her friend installed in her husband’s home), rode in sedan chairs supported by poles, each carried by a pair of retainers of the Cigny plantation. This antique mode of transport solved, in rather a bumpy fashion, the problem of roads impassable for carriages, but in the present situation, the captain thought, it might also give the wrong impression. Down with white people! Down with slavery! There were moments when Maillart suspected that the Cigny litter bearers might drop their loads and flee, but when he loosened his pistols in their holsters, the action seemed to calm them. He thought Quamba and Guiaou would hold firm, and at the worst they could abandon the chairs and take the ladies pillion. But the worst did not come to pass, and in the late afternoon they reached Habitation Arnaud in good order, having endured no worse than shouted maledictions.
Work in the fields and in the cane mill had altogether ceased. Arnaud, his face darkening, went to demand an explanation of his commandeur. He left Isabelle to help settle Claudine in the house, while Maillart dropped onto a stool on the porch, washing the dust from his throat with water, beginning to think of a glass of rum.
The buzz of angry voices reached him from the compound below. He saw Arnaud surrounded as if by a swarm of ants, at bay with his back to the mill’s broken wall, a hundred-odd blacks half circling him. Seeing nothing else to be done, Maillart jumped up and dashed down the trail, thumbing his pistol butts as he ran.
He found Quamba and Guiaou lingering by the horses, and was relieved to have their support; both carried good muskets, and Maillart had heard of Guiaou’s wonderful efficiency at close quarters with a coutelas.
“Ki problém yo?” he asked shortly as they strode toward the irritable crowd. What is their problem?
“Yo pa vlé travay.” Quamba shrugged. They don’t want to work.
Arnaud stood with his cane cocked in his right hand, as if he would strike the commandeur, who faced him, just a step or two out of reach. Arnaud’s concentration was so narrow that he seemed unaware of the others’ approach. Maillart could not make out what the black man was saying—there were too many voices grumbling at once—but he saw Arnaud toss the cane deftly from right hand to left and with the same motion draw a double-barreled pistol from beneath his shirttail. In the abrupt silence, his voice rang clear.
“Pull me down if you have the heart for it,” he declared. “You may tear me limb from limb, but first, I tell you, some of you will die.”
The silence held, and after a moment Maillart was moved to shout out, “Kité nou pasé!” Let us pass . . . Several of the blacks at the rear of the throng turned to take note of Quamba and Guiaou, who held their muskets at the present-arms position. A corridor opened in the crowd, and Maillart beckoned to Arnaud, who walked slowly to join them, his cane trailing and his pistol pointed to the sky.
“Doucement,” the captain advised. “We must not look like running.”
“Of course,” Arnaud answered. They were backing up, with maximal dignity, weapons still at the ready. The crowd of blacks was scattering into smaller knots, which moved as if to flank them. When the moment seemed right for them to turn, the captain was astounded to find himself facing Claudine Arnaud, upright and rigid and staring like an angry hawk, with Isabelle a pace behind her, holding onto her elbow.
“What the devil are you doing here?” the captain snapped.
“I could not restrain her,” Isabelle said, with an ill-tempered flush of her own. “I could not let her come alone.”
Maillart sniffed. But he had noticed that those little knots of angry blacks approached no nearer, and perhaps it was the figure of Claudine which held them back.
Unmolested, the little party reached the lower mouth of the trail to the house, and began climbing, with Maillart, Quamba and Guiaou bringing up the rear. Flaville’s men, the captain noticed, had vanished altogether.
“Give me a whip and the right to use it,” Arnaud puffed as they gained the porch. He laid down his pistol and propped his cane against the table edge—both hands gripped emptiness as he spoke. “I would peg out that insolent black bastard and flog him till the bones showed through—I’d put a stop to this rebellion—”
“Sir, you would be dismembered after,” said the captain, with a significant glance at Quamba and Guiaou. “As you yourself so recently described.”
“True enough,” said Arnaud, looking at his own palms with a certain bewilderment. His shoulders sagged. “The times have changed.”
He beckoned the captain into the house. Isabelle had persuaded Claudine to stretch out on the bed; she had taken off the other woman’s shoes and loosened her clothing and was alternately fanning her, or dabbing at her temples and throat with a damp cloth. Oblivious to this activity, Arnaud passed through to the second room, where he knelt, unlocked one of the chests, and began unpacking arms and ammunition.
Maillart felt his spirits lift a little. “You anticipated this,” he said.
“I would have been a fool if I had not,” Arnaud said. “Come.” He hoisted a stand of weapons and motioned for Maillart to the same.
Arnaud led the way behind the house and up another trail that climbed against the cliff face, to a cleft in the rocks, within convenient reach of the spring. There he set down the guns he carried. Obeying his gesture, Maillart looked out from the cover of a chin-high boulder and saw that he commanded not only the house with the clearing and trail head before it, but also, at a greater distance, the whole compound below. He let his breath out with the hint of a whistle.
“So that is why you moved the house site.”
“One reason among several,” Arnaud said. “We have our arms, plenty of powder and shot. There is water as you see, cornmeal and a few other provisions. If your men are reliable, we may maintain a watch both here and below and so hold the house. In case of serious attack we may fall back here to these rocks, where we shall not be easily dislodged.”
“It is well conceived,” the captain said. “If things continue to go amiss with your plantation, you might consider the military.”
Unsurprisingly, Arnaud’s cook did not report for duty. Isabelle busied her pretty hands to cook some cornbread. A few bananas remained of the captain’s stalk, and Arnaud had a little store of tasteless, leathery dried meat. Isabelle chattered throughout the meal, with no more and no less than her usual vivacity. She drank a glass of rum and water, and now and then, when Claudine seemed agitated, reached out to take her hand and soothe her. Maillart, who knew her easy manner was not unconsciousness but courage, admired her speechlessly.
The drums began at moonrise. Maillart was on watch, behind that high boulder, but there was nothing to see. The compound was empty except for pools of moonlight. In the low ground, hidden by the trees, the drums muttered and grumbled, starting and stopping without resolution, then began again more confidently, the interlocked rhythms gathering, swelling. At their peak, when Maillart’s whole nervous system waited for a scream, Claudine came out of the house, pursued by both Isabelle and Arnaud. From his height, the captain watched their dumb show: Claudine darting this way and that in her long white gown, nimbly eluding the hands that would confine her. Quamba and Guiaou had moved to bar her way from the trail head, but Claudine flung herself directly into the bush, where she was lost for a few minutes to Maillart’s view.
Guiaou produced his coutelas and hacked a path in for Arnaud. Claudine must have caught herself in strangler vine and shake-hands briars, for Arnaud soon led her out onto the open ground before the house, a long swath of fabric torn from the hem of her dress and trailing on the ground. Isabelle took her other elbow, and the two of them conveyed her indoors.
Within fifteen minutes, Arnaud had come up to relieve the captain’s watch. Maillart protested that he was before the hour, but Arnaud said that as he could not sleep or rest, it was better for him to take the next watch, and be replaced at midnight. He did not seem to want to talk of what had just passed with his wife, or anything else either, so the captain left him and went down to the house.
It had been arranged that one white man and one black would keep watch at all times. Quamba stood erect, posted at the trail head, while Guiaou lay on a grass mat nearby, his head pillowed on his hands. Maillart could not make out if he was sleeping or gazing at the moon. He went into the house without saying anything to them.
Through the bean-seed curtain he heard Claudine’s voice complaining as in fever, and Isabelle’s, calm and soothing. He parted the curtain with one hand. Claudine twisted on the bed, turning her face to the wall. Her shoulders stiffened, then relaxed. Isabelle watched her, stroking her back, for a few minutes, then raised her head. She stood up and came to meet the captain in the doorway.
“I gave her rum,” she said. “She did not want it, but I made her take it. It will help her to rest.”
“I feel I might benefit from a similar treatment,” the captain said.
Isabelle smiled distantly. “Wait on the porch.”
Maillart went out and took a seat. His hackles rose and fell involuntarily with the rhythm of the drums. Dogs must feel this way, he thought. Then Isabelle came with the rum and the water.
“Ah, merci,” said the captain, drinking deep. Mais, ma belle, he thought, it is your touch that cures, far better than rum. He did not say it. Isabelle took a seat beside him and gazed in the direction of the sentries at the trail head.
“Sometimes I think one ought to let her go.”
“She would never return from such an expedition,” the captain said.
“You don’t know that.”
“I have a strong suspicion.”
Isabelle did not reply. Maillart looked at her moonlit face, a sad expression, or perhaps only wistful—or possibily it was only some trick of the light. He drained off his rum and stood up.
“I must go and sleep if I can, before my next watch.” He bowed to her and went into the house.
What a curiosity, friendship with a woman . . . Maillart lay down expecting the white fog of insomnia to settle over him, detailed by frustrated lust. But he was asleep as soon as his head touched the pallet, and woke to find Arnaud shaking his shoulder. “Your watch, mon cher.”
In the shadows by the trail head, Guiaou had replaced Quamba. Maillart nodded to him, then splashed some water on his face from a pail on the porch floor. Refreshed, he climbed to the post among the rocks and turned his face to the fields below. The drums had stopped; it was two hours until dawn. The thought of the sleeping celebrants made Maillart’s own head heavy. But he stayed sufficiently alert until first light, when Arnaud climbed up to join him.
“Look there, would you? Just over there.”
Maillart shaded his eyes, searching. He saw a smudge of smoke, then began to pick out ant-like forms beneath it. With a skirling of conchs, the image resolved into a mob of men with torches.
“They’re going to the mill.” Arnaud cursed, then dashed down toward the house and passed it without a halt, rushing down the trail toward the compound. Maillart followed more slowly, for fear of falling and breaking a leg. Arnaud was galloping toward the mill; he had not paused at the house even to collect his cane.
Maillart took a moment before he followed, for he must organize Quamba and Guiaou, and check the priming of his own pistols. Isabelle appeared in the doorway of the house, fingers pressed to her lower lip. The captain shook his head at her, then went down with his men.
Arnaud had interposed his body between the mob and his precious mill machinery. He might be a fool, the captain thought ruefully, or he might be a monster of cruelty, but no one could call him a coward. Maillart had been in the country long enough for his instinct to gauge the state of crowds, and this one was very near the point of explosion, though the appearance of himself and his men with their muskets balked them for a moment longer.
Through the silence of that reprieve came the thumping of hoofbeats on hard earth, and all attention turned to the mouth of the allée. Joseph Flaville rode into the compound, in the midst of a party of five other horsemen, their mounts all in a lather. Flaville, his face sweat-stained, his uniform collar rucked up in the back, looked as if he had been in the saddle all night.
His eyes slipped over the two white men without acknowledgment, then fixed on the crowd of blacks. Each man had armed himself in some fashion, with a coutelas or hoe or long pointed stave. Some of them merely carried lumps of stone, but the men in the front rank had a few rickety-looking old muskets among them.
Flaville caught his breath, drew himself up in the saddle, and raised his right palm like a priest giving absolution.
“Pa brulé champs. Pa touyé blan.”
He waited, then his hand began to descend, light as a feather, fingertips combing the humid air. As the hand came down, all tension began to drain from the crowd, and the men began to disperse, mumbling.
Don’t burn the fields. Don’t kill the whites.
Flaville and his men wheeled their horses and galloped out of the compound the same way they had come. Maillart let his breath out with nearly enough force to scatter the dust at his feet. He and Arnaud exchanged a speechless, wide-eyed glance, then began trudging back up to the house.
For the next two nights they kept watch as before, but there was no drumming and nothing to see. On the second day Arnaud and Maillart made a sortie as far as the deserted mill. The spoon heads of the long syrup ladles had been dismounted and lay scattered by the troughs, their staves expropriated for spear shafts. Arnaud fanned his hat despairingly before the troughs. The syrup was covered from end to end with a humming carpet of flies.
When they came out of the mill, they saw Claudine standing and staring down at the scorched square where the shed had been until the week before. She was formally attired in a dress of striped silk, and Maillart thought that at that moment she looked no more deranged than any other colonial dame one might find in such circumstances. Guiaou stood at an angle, watching her.
Arnaud came to her side, and she turned and scrutinized him fiercely, as if her sight had been restored, after blindness. When he offered his arm, she took it lightly and allowed him to escort her back toward the house. Her step was graceful, Maillart noticed as he brought up the rear. When they’d gained the porch, Claudine sat down and adjusted her skirts and folded her hands with an air of composure quite unusual for her. The captain caught Isabelle’s eye. She arched her brow, but did not speak, as though there were some bubble which a word might puncture.
On the morning of the third day, all the men returned to work. At breakfast the whites in the house on the hill could hear the singing in the cane fields. Afterward, when Maillart and Arnaud walked down to the mill, they found the animals harnessed to the spokes of the turning wheel, the spoons refastened to their handles, the commandeur, head lowered and eyes averted, awaiting Arnaud’s direction.
About midday, one hundred of Toussaint’s infantry marched into Habitation Arnaud, led by Captain Riau and accompanied by Doctor Antoine Hébert. The doctor looked exhausted. His long rifle tilted crazily across his saddlebow. His legs were rubber when he slid down from the saddle. His shirt was streaked with sweat and dirt, his odor was high, and his face was stubbled out all over, above and beyond the chin beard he always wore, but Maillart ran to him anyway, and kissed him on both cheeks.
“What news, Antoine?”
“Rebellion,” said the doctor. “I thought you’d know.” Seeing the captain’s face, he added, “Well, it is finished now.”
“Tell me,” Maillart said. He led the doctor to the shade of a tree which arched over the well, and drew up fresh water for him to drink. A few paces distant, Riau was calling orders, disposing the foot soldiers about the compound.
“Flaville,” the doctor said. He drank and dumped water over his head, and combed back his wet hair with his fingers. “He raised his troops against Toussaint—a very poor plan, in my estimation. But he set off rioting among the cultivators, and even turned the troops of Moyse at Bas-Limbé to his part.”
“But surely Moyse has not betrayed Toussaint?”
“No,” said the doctor. “It does not look so—Moyse was at Dondon, where order was kept throughout this whole disturbance. Those troops of his who rebelled were detached from his immediate command . . . but you know the suspicious mind of our general. It appears, however, that Villatte was the engine of this affair.”
“Yes,” said Maillart. He thought of the sugar which had been sent to the north coast. “He would hope to expand his influence from his center at Le Cap.”
“Quite so,” said the doctor. “Though he has been frustrated, this time, I believe. But still at the bottom of it all there is a great discontent with the labor policy. And there I believe that Moyse is no better contented than anyone . . .” He pulled a bandanna from his pocket and mopped off his face.
“I am happy to see you safe,” he said. “It has been an inauspicious time to travel these parts, without the escort of an army in force.”
“It has been quiet enough here,” the captain said. “But the result?”
“Oh, there was a little skirmish at Marmelade. I believe that certain rascals were shot in the fighting, and others hanged immediately after, while Major Flaville has taken shelter at Le Cap, to await the disposition of his case.”
“I should report that he showed us every courtesy here,” Maillart said. “And especially to our ladies. It may be that we even owe him our lives.”
“Well, that is something to know,” said the doctor. “I do not think he will suffer so much. That will be for Laveaux to decide. It is all being handled according to form—a case of insubordination. And last night Toussaint received a letter of submission and apology from Major Flaville. All quite correct.” He smiled thinly. “As you see, I have been riding all day and writing all night . . . You may imagine, such letters. But what in the world is going on here?”
While they were talking, Claudine, still dressed in her striped silk, had begun to approach the well, a wooden yoke across her shoulders, balancing two large wooden pails. Guiaou trailed a little distance behind her.
“Surely you know Claudine Arnaud,” said the captain. He took the doctor’s forearm and drew him to the other side of the tree.
Claudine came to the well, lowered a bucket and began with great effort to draw it up. Guiaou moved to help her, but she thrust him away and went on straining at the winch alone.
“She takes water to the men in the cane fields,” the captain explained. “I have heard of this, but never before seen it. In her derangement, she fancies it a penance.”
The doctor stroked a thumb along his jawline. “I don’t know if I call it so deranged,” he said musingly. “Why should we not help her?”
“But as you see, she will accept no help.”
Indeed, Claudine had rejected Guiaou’s overtures once again. She took up the loaded yoke with no assistance and, the tendons straining from her neck and her face pouring sweat, began to stagger forward.
“Well, but let me try,” the doctor said.
Cat-footed, he slipped to her left side and hooked his fingers round the handle of the bucket, lifting only enough to take half the weight. Claudine corrected her balance, but otherwise seemed to take no notice. The doctor looked over his shoulder at Maillart, who hurried to follow his example on her opposite side. Harnessed together in this way, and still with Guiaou following behind them, they went to offer water to the workers in the fields.
All that time that I, Riau, traveled with the doctor looking for Nanon, I could not stop thinking of Merbillay. The reason was the doctor, himself, and how the thought of the woman who had gone away from him was always large and heavy in his mind. The thought of his lost son came into his head each day to grieve him, too. He did not speak about it, but Riau could feel his thoughts whenever I was near him. And we were always together then, not only in the searching, but in the fighting too.
Sometimes Riau wondered what would happen if we found Nanon and Choufleur together, because the mother of Choufleur was right. Choufleur would have happily killed the doctor as soon as he saw him coming up the road toward the house where they stayed. Or maybe he would wait and kill him more slowly, so that the doctor would be made to know just who was killing him, and why. Choufleur was that kind of man, I knew. Sometimes I wondered how that might be. The doctor himself was as skilled with pistol or long gun as any white man I had ever seen. His skill was like a sorcery sometimes, but his spirit was not attached to killing men.
But if Choufleur was really at Vallière, then he was safe from us, because the doctor and Riau became knotted up in all the fighting before we found any way to go to that place. There in the valley of Grande Rivière was the biggest fighting Riau had ever seen, and for more days. Each day was to rise before dawn and go out climbing the hills and shooting and hacking at enemy men until it was night, like a long day of cutting down cane in the fields of some plantation.
In the first days of that fighting it was Captain Riau leading his men to each fight, mostly the taking of little camps on the peaks or the notches of the mountains above the big river. Some of these camps were easily taken, but as the days went on the fighting was more bitter, and Captain Riau began to see his men shot down to death on either side of him. This gave me another sadness, because I, their captain, could not save them from this death. Baron took them, though they stood at my right hand, and they went down beneath the waters.
Most of us had forgotten what the fighting was about by then. It was not killing whitemen now. These were the men of Jean-François who stood against us, our brothers of Guinée, and some months before we had been fighting on the same side as them. It was true that Jean-François served the Spanish blancs who still kept slaves across the border. Also, Toussaint tried to win the men of Jean-François over with words, and some of them did come, but most did not, and so it was our work to fight and kill them. Toussaint wanted to drive the men of Jean-François all the way back across the Rivière Massacre and into the Spanish country.
But after many days of this fighting all around the banks and the mountains of Grande Rivière, Toussaint took Captain Riau away from his troops and sent him to work with the doctor. Riau was tired of the fighting by then anyway, but even when doctoring I was in man’s blood to my armpits, whether sopping or bandaging or sawing arms and legs. It was the doctor who had called me to this work, because we had done so together before, but he had also called Guiaou, who was the new man of Merbillay.
So we were kept together, Riau and Guiaou; only when the wounded were coming back quickly from the fights there was no time to think. In the mornings before the fighting had well begun, I and the doctor, or I and Guiaou, would go searching for leaves to make poultices that stopped torn flesh from rotting, and kept maggots from feeding on the wounds. But someone must always stay to care for the wounded. Riau saw that Guiaou was natural for this nursing. Although his scars were frightening to see, his voice was gentle and his hands had a gentle touch. Even his eyes were soft and warm if one looked past the scars to see them.
Sometimes when I lay down at night, I thought how Guiaou would bring this gentleness to a woman, and then my head would turn ugly inside. But I could not hate him. Sometimes at night we both awoke together when the wounded cried out in their fever, and we talked across the bodies of the men we nursed in the light of a little dry-wood fire. That way I learned the story of the Swiss, and of the sharks who tried to eat Guiaou. I learned how Guiaou was afraid of water, though his maît’têt was Agwé. I knew that he was afraid of horses too. He did not say so, but I could see him working to master the fear whenever he had to ride a horse or groom one. Giaou knew something of Riau also from those talks at night, but we did not ever talk about the woman.
Then Toussaint came near to losing a battle, and had to take his men away to keep them from being killed. That was at Camp Charles-Sec. Toussaint had expected men to come out from Le Cap, where the mulatto Villatte commanded, to help his side, but the men did not come. For two days afterward the air all around Toussaint was trembling like thunder, because he thought Villatte had held those men back on purpose to betray him.
Guiaou was sent back to Ennery after that. My heart went dark against him, because he was going to Merbillay, while Captain Riau must stay at Marmelade with the doctor and Toussaint. Even then the doctor was always thinking about Nanon and scheming ways to get to Vallière to look for her, but there was not any way for him to go there. Toussaint had taken many towns and camps round Grande Rivière, but he had not taken all that he meant to.
But still there was peace all across the mountains and the valleys, as far as Dondon and beyond, and so work began again on the plantations. In those days Toussaint and Laveaux spoke out new laws, that all must work, and men began tending the cane again, but many of us did not like it. Those men who were soldiers of the gun despised those men who worked with hoes, and so the men of the hoe became unhappy. Then too, Joseph Flaville was mistrustful, and Moyse, but Riau spoke only with Moyse, because we had known each other at Bréda, before the first rising. Moyse did not like it that Bayon de Libertat, who was master of Bréda, had come back to be with Toussaint, or any whites like him either, who were making work on their lands again.
But they were always almost like brothers, I said to Moyse, Bayon and Toussaint. It was not like man and master between them.
No, said Moyse, with bitterness and suspicion. It was more like two masters.
This was a very bad thought, but once it had come into my head, I could not get it to go out again.
In those days too the doctor kept on brooding over the woman he had lost. He did not say so, but when he took out the empty snuffbox and the piece of mirror which was the magic eye his gun saw with, I knew which way his thoughts were going. Then my own bad thoughts would come to me, of Guiaou with Merbillay, and what might be happening for Caco. It seemed a long time I had not seen my boy . . . Maybe if I had not been near the doctor, these thoughts would not have troubled me so. I would not be thinking of Merbillay unless perhaps I saw her. But I was not sure anymore of that either.
Then Joseph Flaville tried to make a rising against Toussaint, with the men of the hoe who were not contented, but he was knocked down double quick. Maybe Flaville had hoped that Moyse would rise up with him, but he did not. It might have been that Moyse was waiting and watching from Dondon to see how things would go, but things did not go well for Flaville, and he had to run off to hide at Le Cap, or else Toussaint would have killed him, surely. But after Flaville had reached Le Cap, General Laveaux the Frenchman settled the thing between them, like they were two sons of his who quarreled without cause.
When that business was getting finished, I met Guiaou, again by chance, at the plantation of the blanc Arnaud on the northern plain. But soon after, Toussaint called us both down to Gonaives, because he wanted to send us on a mission.
At Gonaives the headquarters was a happy place, because they had all found out that the Spanish whitemen had made a new peace with the French ones on the other side of the sea, where their home was. So there would be no more fighting between the Spanish and the French in Saint Domingue, and we would not have to fight the men of Jean-François anymore. The news said that Jean-François had taken his top officers onto a ship at Fort Dauphin to go and live in the country of blancs, away from Saint Domingue. At Gonaives everyone was happy for this news, and only Toussaint was solemn because Toussaint never thought of battles won already but only of those which were still to fight.
Toussaint was thinking of Dieudonné, who was now leading that big band which Halaou had led, in the west. Dieudonné was now in the mountains of Charbonnier, not so far above Léogane, where the colored Generals Rigaud and Beauvais were watching the English, at Port-au-Prince, and sometimes fighting them. Dieudonné had three thousand men, maybe more, but he would not go down to help Rigaud or Beauvais, even though the English were still keeping slaves, and they had old colon French slave masters in their camp as well. But Dieudonné did not trust any mulattoes. So Rigaud had written to Toussaint to complain about this and to ask his help. Rigaud was afraid too that Dieudonné might even take all those men over to fight for the English against him.
Maybe it was all because Sonthonax had warned Dieudonné against the mulattoes, when he gave him the commissioner medal before he went out of the country. Toussaint thought this, but I, Riau, had seen with my own eyes how everything Sonthonax had warned about had happened, and also before the eyes of Dieudonné. Because Dieudonné was there too when Halaou was killed, in the room of Beauvais, while Beauvais watched, and Dieudonné believed Beauvais had planned it all before it was done. Riau could not know if Beauvais had done so or if he had not, but I saw his face when the shooting started, and he did not look frightened or surprised.
After that, Riau would not have taken orders from Beauvais either or put himself in his power in any other way.
Dieudonné had a blanc writing letters for him now, like Toussaint, only I do not think he could read the letters after they were written, as Toussaint could do. One of those letters said that everywhere he looked among the French, he saw mulatto officers, or white, but no black officers, and so he would not join such an army. So Toussaint thought that if Dieudonné knew that he was a general himself along with so many of his own black officers like Dessalines and Maurepas and Charles Belair and even Henri Christophe, who had been promoted by Laveaux before Toussaint came into Laveaux’s camp—then Dieudonné would see that he should join with the French. Riau and Guiaou were to go into the west to tell him so.
I knew why Toussaint would choose Riau to go on this errand. After Riau returned to his duty of captain, Toussaint had picked all the story of Riau and Halaou and Dieudonné out of my head like a whiteman picking the meat out of a nut. Why he would send Guiaou was not so clear. Maybe he wanted to send us together, somewhere. Anywhere. I did not know if Toussaint knew about Riau and Merbillay and Guiaou, but it was possible that he did know, because he always looked into such affairs among his men as if he was their father.
But maybe it was the story of the Swiss that made him think of sending Guiaou. All that story began in the west, so Dieudonné would know of it already. After all that had happened, it meant something for Guiaou to trust anyone again, and Guiaou did trust Toussaint. And Dieudonné had known Riau from past time, so Toussaint hoped there was trust between us already.
He had already written a letter for us to carry and read to Dieudonné, and to his seconds and his men. It was a long letter, and it said what was usual for Toussaint to say in his letters then, that only he and Laveaux were fighting for freedom (or anyone who was on the side of those French whitemen), and that Laveaux could be believed in like a father, that the English were keeping and selling slaves still, as the Spanish were too. All of those things which I had heard before. I did not pay so much attention to the letter for Dieudonné because I could always read it later on. It was Guiaou who must take it into his memory from Toussaint’s mouth, because Guiaou did not know how to read.
We were supposed to persuade Dieudonné to join with Rigaud, because Rigaud was fighting for the French himself. He was even under the command of Laveaux, like Toussaint, although Laveaux was very far away, and I do not think they had ever met each other, except through letters. I saw that Toussaint had something else behind his head, all the time, but I did not see what it was because I was thinking of the journey and of going with Guiaou. The journey would be over water.
Toussaint had got a boat at Gonaives and had put cannons on it. This boat was meant to keep corsairs away from the harbor, and from the salt flats to the south. It would not have been any good against a real English warship, but it could frighten away the little sloops of pirates. The name of this boat was Liberté. Guiaou and Riau were supposed to get on this boat to cross the water of the bay to get to the place below Port-au-Prince where Dieudonné was.
Of course Guiaou did not want to get onto the boat at first. I had seen him hesitate before a horse, then master himself and mount. But before the boat, his fear was stronger. I, Riau, must take his hand and lead him, while his eyes were shut, and he stumbled like a blind man over the plank that went from the dock’s edge over the edge of the boat. Guiaou’s hand was trembling in mine. I thought how gentle this hand could be with the wounded men in Grande Rivière and thought too how the same hand had touched Merbillay in all her soft and secret places, and how the hand must have sometimes even touched Caco, whether in kindness or anger I could not know. Not all these thoughts were bad ones, but I was glad to let go of Guiaou once we were on the boat, and I did not feel sorry for his misery to be going over the water.
La Liberté slipped out across the surface of the sea. I, Riau, had traveled farther in Saint Domingue than we would go this day. To the south as far as Bahoruco, and all along the north coast, and many times over the mountains of the Spanish border—but all that was over land. I had not traveled over water since the whitemen brought me out of Dahomey, with a chain around my neck. That was not such a good thing to be thinking either.
I had not thought to sacrifice to Agwé. One must prepare Agwé’s meal, his meat and drink and his cake, and put it on a little boat and sail it away on the ocean, with no one tending it. When no one is looking, Agwé will take the boat down under the waves and eat his food in his palace beneath the sea. But I had not made this sacrifice, and now I thought, what if Agwé takes La Liberté to be his own boatload of food? On land I did not think so very much about Agwé, unless he came to a ceremony. Now I was sorry I had not paid more attention.
Behind my closed lips and teeth I sang the song of Agwé.
Maît’ Agwé, koté ou yé?
Ou pa wé moin nan récif?
Maît’ Agwé, koté ou yé?
Ou pa wé moin nan lamè?
Master Agwé, where are you?
Don’t you see me on the reef?
Master Agwé, where are you?
Don’t you see me on the sea?
The men sailing the ship and arming the cannons did not hear, but Agwé must have heard, beneath the sea.
M’gagne zaviro nan main moin
Moin pa kab tounen déyé . . .
I have the rudder in my hand
I am not able to turn back . . .
Guiaou, who had been huddled on the floor of the boat, jumped up to his feet and stretched out his arms toward the two horizons. Then his eyes turned white and he fell backward, with his heels kicking the boards of the deck.
I put my body across his till he was quiet. My chest against his chest, holding him down. When he was calm enough to sit up, Agwé was in his head. I let go, but watched him carefully, because sometimes Agwé will jump into the water from a boat, and take the body of the one who carries him.
The sailors and gunners were looking at us out of the sides of their heads. They had despised us a little before because we were not sailors, the way our men with muskets and pistols, who were soldiers, despised the men who only worked in the fields with their hoes. The men behind the cannons were especially proud and haughty when we first got onto the boat, but now none of them wanted to offend Agwé.
Agwé spoke aloud only once, in words no one could understand. The voice was like water running over rocks, or water in a pot just as it boils. His face was grave and beautiful, and a little sad. The whole way, he sat very still in the front of the boat and looked down at the prow dividing the waters. All the way that we had to go the ocean was calm and still.
Along the Côte des Arcadins the water was pale bluish-green above the reef, and so clear that we could see the fish darting over the white sand. Men came out from the shore in dugout canoes to catch the fish on spears. Toward the ocean side was the island, La Gonave, coming up from the water like La Balène, the back-hump of a giant whale. At first we could see the white flashes of sail from the small voiliers of those people who lived there. Then nothing. La Gonave disappeared. The sailors said it was a mist, but Riau could not see any mist. It was like the sky or the sea had eaten the land and everything that had been on it.
We passed near enough to Port-au-Prince to see the low rooflines of buildings on the shore, and the tall masts of English ships, stripped of their sails, at anchor. None of those ships came after us, Grâce à BonDyé. As we went by Port-au-Prince, the sky came clear and the sun was yellow and warm again and the air all around was sparkling.
Dolphin were jumping on both sides of the boat, and Riau remembered seeing that before, at dawn when the ship of slaves from Dahomey sailed into the harbor at Le Cap. It was just sunrise, and the dolphins seemed to be bringing the ship in like pilots, while Riau stood watching, fingering the sore places the iron collar had worn around his neck. Some said the spirits of men were in the dolphins.
Then the ship docked, and they took Riau to the barracoons among the other slaves out of Guinée, and after a few days Bayon de Libertat came from Bréda to look at Riau where he stood on the block. I could not understand anything he said because I had not yet learned any French or Creole. But Bayon showed me how to turn and move by touching me here and there with the tip of his cane. He clucked his tongue over the sores which the irons had left, and he pulled out my lower lip to look at my teeth and gums, and he leaned close to smell my breath. All these things he did with the gentleness one uses with an animal. Then he paid my price in money and took me away to Bréda, where I found Toussaint waiting.
I had not thought of any of those things for a long time.
At the end of the day, La Liberté came to shore south of Port-au-Prince. A little before, Agwé had lain down and closed his eyes, and when Guiaou sat up, he was himself again, except he did not seem to be afraid. Some of Rigaud’s men had come out to meet us, in case the English would try to capture us from Port-au-Prince. They took us up toward the mountains where Dieudonné stayed, but when they had come a little way into the hills, they turned back to Léogane, saying that Dieudonné would not want to see them with us. This did not matter, because Riau already knew the way.
We came into the camp by moonlight. Riau could even calm the dogs, because I knew their names. People came out to greet us in friendship. I saw many that I knew from before, and even the one called Bienvenu, who had run away from the plantation of Arnaud, before the first risings. Guiaou also found certain people that he knew from other times, though he had never traveled this country with Halaou or Dieudonné.
Dieudonné was not there that night, but his second men, Pompey and Laplume, said that he would come next day. I lay in an ajoupa near Bienvenu, and in the darkness we talked of a long-ago time, when Bienvenu had run from Arnaud and had got the horns of the headstall he was forced to wear all tangled in the vines and bush of the jungle, so that he would have been caught by the maréchaussée. But Riau came and cut away the headstall with his coutelas, so that Bienvenu was free to keep running until he reached the maroons in the mountains. I thought of this and I thought of Bouquart and his nabots, and I was pleased to remember what Riau had done. And then I slept.
In the morning Dieudonné was there, smiling and pulling on my biggest toe, shaking my foot and leg to wake me. I got up and we went together to bathe in the cold stream of the mountain, so that our heads would be bright and clear. From my memory, I told him what was in the letter of Toussaint to him, and Dieudonné agreed to call his people together to hear the letter read, as Toussaint had wished.
After we had eaten something, the people all came to where they could listen. Dieudonné explained to them what it was about, and I, Riau, began reading in a big, proud voice, and slowly so that everyone could understand.
Could it be possible, my dear friend, that at the very moment when France has triumphed over all the royalists and has recognized us for her children by her wonderworking decree of 9th Thermidor, when she has granted us all the rights for which we have been fighting, that you would allow yourself to be deceived by our former tyrants, who are only using part of our unfortunate brothers to load the others with chains? The Spanish, for a while, had hypnotized me in the same way, but I was not slow to recognize their rascality; I abandoned them, and beat them well; I returned to my own fatherland, which received me with open arms and was more than willing to reward my services. I advise you, my dear brother, to follow my example . . .
All these words were sent from Toussaint to Dieudonné, but they were meant to be heard by all—Toussaint had said so. Dieudonné pulled himself up very tall and filled up his whole chest with air, out of pride that such words were sent to him from the black general in the north. But his face did not show what he was thinking.
If some special reason should prevent you from trusting the brigadier generals Rigaud and Beauvais, Governor Laveaux, who is a good father to all of us, and with whom our motherland has placed all her confidence, should deserve your own. I also think that you will not withhold that confidence from me, who am a black man like yourself, and who assure you that I want nothing else in the world than to see you happy—you and all our brothers. For myself, I believe that we can only be happy in serving the French Republic; only under her flags are we truly free and equal. That’s the way I see it, my dear friend, and I don’t believe I am fooling myself . . .
Each time I stopped to take my breaths, I looked about. There was Guiaou, standing between Pompey and Laplume. At the other side of the circle was Bienvenu. The faces of the women were quiet and sober beneath their colored headcloths, and even the little children without clothes were still and listening, though they would not understand the meaning of French words.
In spite of everything I have been told about you, I do not doubt that you would be a good republican: and so you must join with Generals Rigaud and Beauvais, who are good republicans, since our fatherland has recognized their services. And even if you have some trivial troubles between you, you ought not to be fighting, because the Republic, who is mother to us all, does not want us to fight our brothers. Furthermore, it is always the unfortunate people who suffer the most in such cases . . .
When it was finished, the circle scattered. I went with Dieudonné, but we did not speak of what the letter had said. I ate a meal together with his woman and his children, and I saw a new girl baby who was born to him during that year.
After we had eaten, we slept through the heat of the day. When we woke, Dieudonné asked me many questions about how it was in the north, under Toussaint. All that he asked I answered truthfully, even when the truth was not pleasing. True that the French of France had made a stronger freedom paper than any other whitemen. True that the governor Laveaux seemed to respect what this paper said. True that Toussaint fought everywhere for black people to be free, and that, although there were some white officers serving him, there were many more black, and the white officers were not set over them. At the same time it was also true that men were made to work in the fields by the word of Toussaint and Laveaux, and that when Joseph Flaville rose up against this, he was beaten down.
I told Dieudonné what I had heard Toussaint say many times, in his close councils when the letters were written—that there must be cane, and sugar to sell for money, for only money would buy guns, and only guns would win and keep our freedom. But saying this was not enough to take the cloud from Dieudonné’s face, or from the mind of Riau, either.
That night was a bamboche, but Dieudonné did not go for long. He was there to show himself, and stayed to dance only one dance, and then he went away. I, Riau, went with him. Dieudonné did not want to speak anymore then. He lay down to sleep, saying that he would look at his dream to learn what he would do.
I lay down also, but it seemed a long time before I slept. I did not think that Dieudonné would find it in his dream to join with Rigaud, or even with Toussaint. He did not want to be under a colored officer, and he did not want to leave his own country to go be with Toussaint in the north, though I did not think he wanted to join with the English either.
But I must have slept at the end, and heavily, because when I woke I was confused and frightened and at first I did not know where I was—shouting was everywhere and muskets firing like the whole camp was under attack, and Dieudonné’s woman was screaming and crying, as if she had already seen what would happen. Before anyone else could think, the men rushed into the ajoupa and fell on Dieudonné. They pointed their guns at him and pricked him with their bayonets, and they tied him up like a chicken for the boucan.
All this while Riau kept still. I tried to make myself invisible so that none of those men would think of me. It was then that I remembered Guiaou. I had not thought of what he had been doing during the day and the night, after Toussaint’s letter was read. Later I learned that Toussaint had spoken to Guiaou alone to tell him that he must speak to Dieudonné’s second men, and persuade them apart from Dieudonné, in case Dieudonné was already sold to the English.
And so Laplume, when he heard this, got the men to rise against Dieudonné to make him prisoner. This was not so hard to do because Toussaint’s letter had already worked on the heads of the men who had listened to it that day. Laplume said he did so because Dieudonné meant all along to go with the English, but I did not think that was true, but that maybe Laplume saw this chance to throw down Dieudonné and take his place.
Laplume gave Dieudonné to Rigaud, but afterward he gave himself and those three thousand men to Toussaint, never to Rigaud or Beauvais. Of course Rigaud was very angry about this, but he had no one to punish except Dieudonné. I did not see it, but I heard that Rigaud loaded Dieudonné with so many chains that the weight of the iron crushed the breath out of him, and so he died. This happened at the prison of Saint Louis.
I, Riau, said nothing when all this began to happen. There was nothing I could say or do to make it different. And when Guiaou and I went back to the north, Toussaint was very pleased when he heard what we had done.
One could not blame Guiaou, because he had only done what Toussaint asked of him, and he believed in Toussaint with his whole heart. One could not even blame Toussaint, even though it had been very tricky, because Toussaint was right that we must all fight together as one to hold our freedom. Also it would have been a bad thing if all those men had gone with the English. But I could never forget the eyes of Dieudonné fastened on me while they were taking him away, even though BonDyé and all the spirits knew that Riau had not meant to betray him.
In the central courtyard of the Governor’s House was a rectangular stone tank which was home to a dozen turtles, one of which had climbed up out of the murky green water onto a stone and balanced there, turning its long, snake-like neck one way and another. When Laveaux’s shadow fell across the tank, the turtle became very still for a moment but did not plunge. Presently it relaxed and began to probe the air again with the soft, fleshy bulb of its head.
Laveaux smiled absently down into the tank, turning a cup of coffee in his hands. He was drowsy and was still wearing slippers, though otherwise he was dressed for the day. Last night he had stayed late in his cabinet, working on correspondence with the Minister of Marine in France—so much to report, so much to request. Hostilities with the Spanish along the interior border had ceased. Indeed, by the terms of a treaty between France and Spain, signed in Europe the previous July, the entire Spanish side of the island was ceded to French rule, though Laveaux did not have men enough even to think of occupying that territory. The British invasion on the coasts remained a serious threat, despite Toussaint’s campaigns in the Artibonite and Rigaud’s efforts in the Southern Department. Laveaux still had next to no European troops to oppose to the British and their renegade French cohorts, and due in part to the power of the British navy, the reinforcements he asked for were unlikely to arrive.
This morning he had risen early to continue his clerical chores, before the heat became too paralyzing, before the outer rooms of his office were crowded with petitioners and plaintiffs. He yawned.
The turtle turned its head, aiming the flat black dots of its near-sighted eyes at him. Its damp shell was drying, patchily, to a lighter shade of gray; the shell was about the size of a dinner plate. Laveaux smiled sleepily, beneficently. When he had first taken up residence in Governor’s House, the turtles had all ducked underwater whenever he leaned over the tank—or whenever his foot fell in the courtyard, for that matter. But now they were not afraid to look at him. Indeed, several other turtles besides the one sunning on the rock had craned their necks out of the water as if to greet him. Their confidence was perhaps misplaced, for in theory all the turtles were destined for soup. On the other hand, Laveaux had become rather fond of observing them, and did not order turtle soup.
He sipped his coffee, then turned from the tank and left the courtyard. There was the splash of the turtle falling from the rock, and he smiled again as he mounted the steps, his slippers shuffling slightly at the heels. In the antechamber were half a dozen colored men apparently waiting for an audience; he nodded to them as he passed through, but no one responded. The feeling of uneasiness passed when he closed the door.
Suppressing a sigh, Laveaux sat down at his writing table, put the dregs of his coffee aside, and began to sort through his various papers. It was close in the small room, and a veil of sweat had already covered his forehead. Where to begin? To request: more men, more money. To report, the spreading tension in the town, which had constituted itself a little mulatto principality (in effect) during the months Laveaux had been sealed up at Port-de-Paix. Since then, he had enjoyed small success in collecting the rents owed on the houses of French colonists now restored and occupied by the more prominent colored families, yet he must press them, for there must be revenue from somewhere. He had not been so gladly received when he had established his administration at Le Cap. Villatte, the highest-ranking officer of the colored contingency, had not been pleased to be superseded in the town, and indeed seemed to disregard Laveaux’s authority, though he stopped short of outright insubordination.
Or perhaps Laveaux might try to tally up the small exportations of brown sugar that had lately been achieved—into what gaping financial cavity should those tiny profits best be dribbled? He dipped a pen. 30 Ventose, he inscribed at the top left corner of his sheet, and paused, tilting his head toward a hubbub coming from the antechamber.
The door of the cabinet flung open, rebounding from the wall, and six or eight colored men crushed into the little room, all in a state of high excitement, all talking at once in loud conflicting voices, so that Laveaux could not make out what any one of them was saying.
“Citizens, what do you want?” Laveaux was on his feet, conscious that without his boots he lacked authoritative height, and that the worn slippers doubtless looked silly and weak.
Someone swung a fist at him by way of reply, but Laveaux reflexively slipped under the blow, caught and twisted his assailant’s arm and threw him back among his fellows. No one had presented a firearm or blade, but Laveaux now took in that all of them carried canes, or else peeled sticks which they brandished like clubs.
“Assassins!” he shouted, hoping to be heard elsewhere in the building (where was the guard?). “I am unarmed.”
He thought he heard the voice of his aide-de-camp, calling in another room, but soon cut off—there were only more mulattoes swarming in at the door and surging toward him. Laveaux kicked over the writing table to tangle their feet, and made for the other door, which gave onto a large salon. In this direction he might reach his sword and pistols. The inkwell toppled with the table, and rolled, spoiling his papers. Let them be ruined, Laveaux thought; it was all futile anyway.
In the salon he encountered a hundred-odd more colored men, enough to fill the room to the walls, moving to encircle him. The smaller group pressed out of the cabinet, cutting off all retreat. Laveaux brushed at his weaponless belt, then raised his hands and cocked them. He turned in the circle like a bear at bay. No one seemed quite prepared to strike across the space dividing him from the crowd.
“In the name of the people,” said the man who had missed his first blow, “we arrest you.”
“But you are not the people,” Laveaux spat, turning and searching among their faces. “I see no black citizens, no white citizens—no, you are assassins.”
There was no one he recognized by sight. Villatte himself was conspicuously (deliberately?) absent at this moment, and no one was in uniform. But he did notice, in the shifting rear, the smirking, freckled face of that colored officer, Maltrot . . . but he was in civilian attire, foppish, swinging a gold-headed cane. Laveaux mistrusted him still more than Villatte, if that were possible. He had no help, but also felt no fear, only an odd relief, as at the lancing of a boil. He turned, silent now, daring all approaches, but from behind someone came down on his shoulder with a stick. The blow itself was nothing, a painless tap, but it released the crowd to rush upon him. Laveaux crouched, parrying sticks and fists, his hands high to protect his face, and his elbows protecting his midsection, at least partially.
It was critical to keep his feet, he thought. But someone caught the back of his hair and snatched him off balance and down to the floor. He felt his slippers falling off as he was dragged over the threshold. Shiny boots kicked at him, though with no great accuracy; the faces swirling above him were nothing but teeth. When they had hauled him out into the dust of the street, the blows began to land more frequently, and harder, and he felt the visceral responses of an animal confronting its own death. But he was not killed, only tossed into a cell of the town prison, the door slammed tight and locked behind him.
He was hurt, but not mortally. His face was bruised, bleeding from the nose and from superficial scrapes. He threw his head back, swallowing blood, inhaling. Real pain, sharp, from his battered rib cage, came with the breath. That much was serious. There was a small square grille in the left wall and Laveaux approached it, meaning to call out in protest, to summon help, a doctor. But the aperture gave onto another cell, in which he recognized the ordonnateur, Perroud, who seemed to have been similarly mistreated and whose face was pale with terror.
Near sunset, Toussaint Louverture and the captains Riau and Maillart were concluding their own secretarial work. Toussaint had sent for sealing wax and, a few minutes later, for rum to offer his subalterns; he himself would take only a glass of water. Maillart softened the wax above a candle flame, then turned his hand to drip it onto the closure of the first letter. There was a scuffling outside the door. Maillart expected the refreshments, but intead Henri Christophe was announced, with an urgent message from Le Cap.
Christophe entered, his hat in his hands. His coat and boots were caked with dust from hard riding, but he was perfectly composed, his movements slow and dignified. (“Manners of a head waiter,” someone had said, to mock him, for Christophe, a free black before the Revolution, had formerly served in such a capacity at a hotel in Le Cap.)
Now Christophe saluted Toussaint, waited permission and then began to speak. Laveaux had been arrested, he said, at the instigation of a cabal of mulattoes. Villatte had effectively proclaimed himself governor . . .
Toussaint listened, stooped forward in his chair, chin tucked in and head inclined so that he seemed to be studying the floor. Christophe’s voice was even, rounded, as if he had planned and memorized his speech during the journey and was now delivering it from a podium in an assembly hall. As he spoke, he looked at Toussaint for some reaction and, finding none, continued.
The mulatto officers had all thrown in with Villatte, he said, but two of the black officers had not been corrupted. One of these had undertaken to rally all the blacks of the plain, with their chiefs, to Laveaux’s support. He had also intercepted a messenger from Villatte who proved to be carrying a list of certain persons at Marmelade, Gros Morne and Gonaives.
“Kite’m oué sa.” Toussaint lifted his head and stretched out his hand. Let me see that. Christophe produced the paper from his breast pocket. Toussaint scanned it for a moment, his free hand covering his mouth, then turned to Riau and gave him the paper.
“Deliver these . . . persons to me.”
Riau snapped to attention, clicking his heels smartly (Maillart had painstakingly taught him this gesture). He took the paper and left the room without a word. A woman carrying the tray of rum and water stepped out of his way, then entered through the open door and set the tray down on the table.
Toussaint gave Christophe a contemplative look and unfolded his long fingers toward the empty chair at his right.
“Well done, mon fils,” he murmured.
Christophe sat down. Toussaint poured some rum into the glass meant for Riau and passed it to Christophe. With a glance he indicated that Maillart might serve himself. The captain did so, but the flush of warmth in his gullet only increased his agitation. He watched Toussaint pour two fingers of rum into a glass and take a conservative sip. This was strange. It was almost unknown for Toussaint to take spirits.
Maillart could not stop his pacing, he could not, at last, stop his own tongue. Toussaint and Christophe sat motionless as figures in a painting. The captain thought his head would burst.
“My general,” he said. “Shall I call for the horses? Make ready the cavalry?”
Toussaint stirred from his reverie and looked up at him interrogatively.
“Will we not ride at once?”
Laboriously, Toussaint drew out his watch and opened the case, took note of the time and put the watch away again.
“It will soon be night,” Toussaint said.
“Yes, but—” Maillart spluttered. Save for his most insouciant enemies, the whole colony knew by now Toussaint’s capacity for moving his forces long distances at great speed by either day or night.
“Control yourself!” Toussaint said, the sharpness of his tone a rebuke. “I know of your affection for the Governor-General. He has not been harmed—he will not be.”
Maillart stood rigid with embarrassed anger. From the corner of his eye he saw, through the window, the reddened sun lowering over the sea. Toussaint pushed his left palm toward the floor.
“Doucement,” he said, nearly a whisper. “Doucement alé loin.”
Toussaint’s favorite proverb. The softest way goes farthest. Maillart had heard it many times. He watched Toussaint’s hovering hand. The fingers flexed, drifting like feathers over the humid air. The captain exhaled and felt part of the pressure drain from him.
“Before we strike with the sword,” Toussaint said, “let us see what the pen may accomplish.” He glanced from Maillart’s face to the writing implements. The captain sat down heavily and picked up a pen.
“We write,” Toussaint pronounced carefully, “to the municipality au Cap.” He tilted back, lacing his fingers behind his cloth-wrapped head, and drew in his breath to begin dictation. But of a sudden he rocked forward and looked at Maillart keenly.
“La patience,” he said. “If you have patience, my captain, you will deliver this letter yourself.”
Reclining on the litter of thatch palm that covered the floor of his cell, Laveaux listened to the rasp and whistle of his breathing. Each inhalation was a shaft of pain. When he had his wind back, he went to the slot in the door and demanded to see his doctor, but no one responded. He had had no contact with anyone except when a single, surly presentation of stale water, cold ham and dried-out cornbread was brought to him.
Through the grille which communicated with the next cell, there was only Perroud, transfixed with fear. Even in his fitful sleep he moaned and pled with phantom executioners. Laveaux, whose own mental clarity was disrupted by pain and the initial symptoms of a fever, began to consider that the other man’s terror might be rationally founded. False charges had been bruited about, that Laveaux, in his favor toward the newly freed blacks of the colony, had turned against all the gens de couleur and perhaps even planned their extermination. All this was untrue, a very tissue of lies, but if he should be brought before a mulatto court . . . To perfect his usurpation of power, Villatte must do away with Laveaux altogether, with anyone who might contradict his version of events. That much was logical.
Laveaux ought perhaps to have seen it all coming. Perhaps in a way he had. He had known Villatte’s ambition, seen his resentment of Toussaint’s advancement. Indeed, Villatte and the rest of the colored officer corps of the Le Cap contingent had borne the supervision by their French superiors with difficulty and distaste. In the days when Laveaux had been pinned down at Port-de-Paix, Le Cap and its environs had been their principality. No one in that mulatto faction had been overjoyed by Laveaux’s return. For that reason, in part, Laveaux had preferred Toussaint. In truth, he liked the black general better, and trusted him more. But where was Toussaint now?
Laveaux’s stomach made a queasy revolution. This was not fear, but impending dysentery. A consequence of tainted food, impure water. Coupled with fever, or even on its own, this illness might bring him death if he remained here for many more days. Such an outcome would be more convenient to his captors than a mock trial followed by an all-too-genuine execution.
Though he had managed to retain his watch throughout the struggles of his capture, the case had been dented, the crystal shattered, the works stopped by a boot or the blow of a baton. He could not divine the hour, for his touch of fever kept him from counting the bells of the church correctly. His cell had no window to the outdoors, but the wedge of daylight on the corridor floor had long since faded, so he knew that it was night.
Noise came to him indistinctly from the streets surrounding the prison, a batter of running feet and a crying out of voices. Force à la loi! Force à la loi! In his confusion Laveaux was not sure that he heard this right. And what law did the voices invoke? The just law of the French Republic, or something trumped up by Villatte’s faction for the occasion? From their timbre the voices seemed to be those of the blacks to whom he had sometimes referred as his own adopted children. At this thought, Laveaux was moved almost to tears.
The bells of the town were tolling eleven when Maillart rode through the gate into the Rue Espagnole, in the midst of his escort of twenty black cavalrymen. Crossing the mountains had molded his agitation into a grim-edged determination. He had been obliged to restrain his mount—it would have been idiotic to kill horses in the desperation of the ride—and also, as Toussaint had counseled him, to rein in his own responses.
It had taken no more than an hour to draft Toussaint’s letter to the municipal authorities and to make a fair copy. During that time Riau had returned with the Gonaives conspirators in his custody—those who were named on Villatte’s intercepted list. Riau was off again immediately to complete the same mission at Marmelade, while the arrested men went into the guard house, from which the captain doubted they would ever emerge. He was very much encouraged by the speed and efficiency of these measures. And Toussaint’s letter put it in absolute terms that if Governor-General Laveaux were not immediately released and restored to his normal functions, the most dire consequences would follow.
The moon hung over the sea like a scythe. Maillart admired it, his jaws tight. The stiff breeze sweeping in from the water dried the sweat his riding across the plain had raised. As he and his escort advanced toward the town center, they heard the sounds of a general disturbance and presently they were surrounded by many blacks who milled about shouting Force à la loi. These demonstrators recognized the men with Maillart as coming from Toussaint, and they were glad. Still chanting, they swirled around the captain’s mounted group all the way to the municipality.
Maillart had thought to roust the municipal authorities from their beds, but he found them already assembled, though it was near midnight when he entered the building, banging his bootheels deliberately on the stone floors. There was more than enough to keep them from sleep, for although Villatte’s faction held the town, they were surrounded by forces loyal to Laveaux—not only Pierre Michel’s trained soldiers but also the larger and less organized bands which still roamed on the plain, and which once unleashed could not easily be restrained again. It was these latter who in ninety-three had burned Le Cap to its foundations. Pierre Michel had promised to repeat such scenes if Laveaux were not swiftly released. Moreover, as the captain had learned when he paused at Haut du Cap to confer with Michel, Pierre Léveillé was not in the custody of Villatte’s conspirators after all, but instead had occupied the town arsenal, from which he defied them. . . .
Maillart flung the letter down on the table, and stood haughtily to watch as one of the group reached to take it up and crack the seal with the nail of a slightly tremorous finger. He watched them crane their heads together to read, and wanted to grin as he saw their faces pale to whey, but he merely pressed his lips to a tighter, straighter line. Out of all that cluster only one man seemed aloof, indifferent; he sat relaxed in a corner, outside the sphere of candlelight, so that the captain had not noticed him at first. It was Choufleur, the Colonel Maltrot, though in civilian dress and dandling a gold-topped cane in his freckled yellow fingers. Pleased that in these circumstances he need not acknowledge Choufleur’s rank, the captain let his eyes slide over the freckled face as if it were another stone in the wall.
“We await your answer,” Maillart said in his most imperious tone, then spun about and left the room, banging the door against the wall with a thrust of his arm as he went out. This episode had played very much to his satisfaction. But as he mounted his horse again, perplexity overtook him. Villatte had been nowhere in evidence, only the civil authorities, but might Choufleur be Villatte’s representative, or his spy? For the first time he remembered Nanon’s desertion, or abduction, or whatever it had been, and Doctor Hébert’s distress. But after all there was nothing he could have done just then; it was not the moment for any such personal inquiry. Still, he must hold the thought for later, if a better opportunity should offer itself.
Motioning his men to follow, he spurred his horse to a brisk trot and rode toward the arsenal. That would be the safest, most advantageous place.
In fact Léveillé’s force, though small, was encouragingly determined, and was supported by the throngs of people milling through the town. According to Léveillé, it was Pierre Michel who had inspired the popular movement—not so difficult to achieve since so many of the newly freed blacks looked upon Laveaux as heir to Sonthonax, and hence the father of their freedom.
Maillart was given coffee and rum with which to lace it. Why not, he suggested after his first swallow, dare a dawn attack to reduce the prison where Laveaux was held? But the others present did not agree, and Toussaint’s orders went explicitly against it. Maillart was to deliver his missive, watch and wait. He knew himself that it would be unsound to risk the counterattack on the arsenal which such a sortie might provoke. No one seemed to know exactly where Villatte was at this moment but presumably he was in the casernes with the troops he had successfully corrupted, and theirs was still the largest force within the town.
Hold your position, watch and wait. The admonition ran looping throughout Maillart’s mind throughout the night, whenever he woke, which was often, and even during his periods of fitful sleep. Tempera-mentally, he was ill-suited for such a role, but he had studied it during his service with Toussaint. If he asked himself what Toussaint would do in any given situation, the answer, most often, was nothing.
The next day passed in a cloud of rumor and indecision. Maillart would have liked to go out and look for signs of Nanon or Choufleur or both of them, but this project was also unfeasible, under the circumstances. Léveillé’s little force kept to its stronghold, awaiting developments; the noisy crowds continued to circulate throughout the town. Sometime after midnight Maillart lay down to another extremely uneasy sleep. At four-thirty he was roused by the news that Villatte had fled the town, taking the now very small number of troops still loyal to him to the refuge of a fortified camp on the plantation Lamartinière. The coup, such as it had been, was over. The colored soldiers still in the casernes were ready to renew their obedience to Laveaux, and even now the civil servants were on their way, among a large crowd of the townspeople, to release Laveaux from his cell.
Maillart jerked on his coat and boots and, with Léveillé and a few others, reached the prison in time to see Laveaux coming out of the gate. He was haggard and filthy from his days in the cell; Perroud, a pace or two behind him, looked even worse. But Laveaux raised his right hand over the people who met him, like a priest giving absolution.
It was dawn, though the sun’s face would be hidden for some time more behind the hulk of Morne du Cap; the light was coming up quickly. The crowd swept Laveaux directly to the main audience room of the municipal building, where he turned to face the men who had imprisoned him. Once more he raised his right hand, which trembled only slightly from his ague. He announced that, for the love of the Good, he would not seek to punish the guilty parties.
Eighth man back in the column, Doctor Hébert rode up the south face of Morne Pilboreau. Riau was ahead of him, Guiaou behind; leading the file was Toussaint Louverture. Still stronger forces, led by Dessalines and Charles Belair, had gone before them to Le Cap. They would not be called upon to fight this time. Nor would the troop with which the doctor rode. Toussaint’s word alone had been sufficient, his finger wagged in warning more than enough. Villatte’s conspiracy was foiled without a shot.
The doctor’s mule picked a delicate way up the switchbacks of the mountain trail. It was the same mule which had carried him to Habitation Fortier and through Toussaint’s campaign around Grande Rivière. He had come to prefer the mule’s surefootedness for mountain rides. With apaysan straw saddle the comparative discomfort of a seat on the mule’s bony back was not worth considering. He had even come to appreciate the mule’s self-interested intelligence, which was far greater than that of a horse, though not always placed at the service of the rider.
A balloon of hope seemed to lift him toward the peak. They would reach Le Cap before night. There he might find traces of Choufleur, if not Nanon herself . . . and Paul. Choufleur had been billeted there before he had come to ravish Nanon away from Habitation Thibodet. His involvement in l’affaire Villatte was to be suspected. And Nanon, if left to her own resources, might have returned there. She knew how to manage in the town; it was where she and the doctor had first met.
Lost in these images, he floated up the trail. His American long rifle tilted across the saddlebow like an outrigger. The weapon was too long to be side-slung in its scabbard; the barrel would have furrowed the ground.
Farther back in the column some hoof or boot or horny bare foot dislodged a stone which fell over the trail’s edge and went skittering down the dry, dusty slopes, gathering smaller pebbles and clods as it went down. Lizards sidestepped away from the miniature avalanche. The doctor twisted in his saddle and looked back. The switchbacks of the descent behind them were giddily steep. Scrub pine and cedar ran down the gorges, to the sparse raquette trees on the dry mud flats. Dry wind had withered a corn planting on a terraced face of the hill opposite. Far below, the chalky plain fanned out toward Gonaives. A blue haze at the horizon marked the coast.
Automatically the doctor touched the mirror shard in his right pocket, then, switching the reins from hand to hand, the empty snuffbox in his left. In this way he recentered himself. In the crushing heat, it dizzied him to screw his head around, but he thought there was no danger of sunstroke. He reached to check the brim of his straw hat. Beneath it he also wore a head cloth, as many of the soldiers did. He had learned that in full sun his bald scalp was apt to blister even through the weave of a hat. The rest of his exposed skin had been fired the color of a chimney brick, and only the bleached hairs on his forearms and in his beard betrayed that his blood was purely European.
As in a mirror, an image appeared to him. Toussaint as he had first seen him years ago, before he had taken the name Louverture, on mule-back and unarmed but for the sack of medicinal herbs he held against the pommel of his saddle. In those days Toussaint’s sole title had been “Médecin du Roi,” which meant in effect that he was camp doctor for Jean-François and Biassou. Dreamily it came to the doctor that he himself had now inherited a similar position.
The men ahead of him were disappearing over the summit of Pilboreau, and in a moment more the doctor’s mule crossed over. He found himself in the midst of the crossroads market. Toussaint had called a halt, to rest the horses from the climb. Those men with means to buy or barter were trading with the marchandes for fruit, while others sipped warmish water from the canteens or gourds they carried with them. Carefully, the horses were given a very little water. Riau untied the neck of his salt bag and let his horse lick granules from his palm.
“Pinchinat has gone back to Les Cayes.”
Toussaint’s voice. The doctor looked up. Toussaint did not seem to be addressing anyone in particular, but a loose circle had formed around him, including the white officer Vaublanc, Riau, Quamba and Guiaou. The doctor could not imagine why he should have chosen this moment to begin discoursing on Pinchinat, though he knew the old colored gentleman was a rhetorician to reckon with, and an active intriguer on the part of the mulatto faction for the last ten years at least.
“Do you know?” Toussaint continued musingly. “Some say the words of Pinchinat are more dangerous than bullets.”
The doctor considered. Toussaint must have been chewing on the subject all during their ascent. He would not raise it now without cause, though the doctor could not divine what his reasons might be. There was an endless fascination in pondering Toussaint’s motives. Why, for example, had he delayed so long in coming to Laveaux’s aid in person? One reason, the doctor had already thought, was that he would not shift from his position of greatest strength until the business at Le Cap had been concluded . . . favorably. Another, as he now reflected, was that Gonaives was a better post from which to gather intelligence from the interior and the south.
“He is old now, Pinchinat,” Toussaint continued, “but still more cunning than a spider. Well, a spider can weave all day and still a man knocks down the web with one stroke of a green switch. So Pinchinat has run back to Rigaud in the south. When we come to Le Cap, we will not find him there . . . but it was he who brought the spirit of disobedience to Villatte, I think. And from where, mes amis? where did that spirit come from?”
Toussaint, who seemed to have been looking out over the treetops in the direction of Marmelade, now focused on Riau.
“One must not forget the Swiss,” he said. “We have heard that it was Pinchinat who sent those soldiers to be murdered on the ship. All that web was of his weaving.”
Riau remained impassive, still as a tree. Only his eyes shifted for a moment to Guiaou, then back to some invisible inner space.
“Yes,” Toussaint said. Now his glance included them all. “As many times as the web is knocked down, the little spider returns to weave again.” He laughed and covered his mouth with his hand for a moment. When he uncovered it, the smile was gone.
“Mount up!” he said, in a loud voice. All down the line the cavalrymen obeyed him. Within ten minutes the column was strung out over the ridge above the Plaisance Valley, the leaders already descending into the verdant jungle shade.
Captain Maillart happened to be standing near the gate of the casernes, chatting with one of the men on post, when Doctor Hébert’s mule turned in from the Rue Espagnole. It was just sundown, and clouds boiled above Morne du Cap; the wind rose and the leaves shivered on the trees, though it would not rain. Captain Maillart offered a hand to help his friend down from the mule saddle. The doctor slipped to the ground and wobbled on his rubbery legs, bracing himself on the captain’s shoulder.
“Well met,” said Maillart. “Has Toussaint come at last?”
“Yes,” said the doctor, turning to unship his long rifle. “Or nearly—he has stopped at Haut du Cap, at the Bréda great house. For council with Pierre Michel and some others. He will enter the town tomorrow morning.”
Maillart nodded. The troops who had marched with Charles Belair and Dessalines had already overflowed the casernes. The colored officers who had so recently returned to obedience navigated warily among their black counterparts; so far a proper courtesy had been observed on all sides. With the men Toussaint had brought, the influx of black troops would approach ten thousand, and this was more, much more, than a show of mere brute force.
The last time such a number of blacks had descended on Le Cap (admitted to enter by Sonthonax in one of his most desperate moments), they had had come to rape, kill, loot and burn, and had left nothing but smoking foundations when they departed. Now Toussaint’s trained men had filled the town, in a state of perfect discipline and good order. The great majority of them were nearly naked but for their arms which they kept so carefully, and lived and marched on next to nothing—a yam or an ear of corn or a piece of fruit twice daily. And yet they carried themselves upright with a fierce pride. They held themselves in: there had been no looting, no foraging, no forced requisitioning, no drunkenness, no insults offered to the women of the town. A boatload of European troops would not have conducted themselves half so well if landed in this situation, as Maillart knew from more than one experience. Toussaint’s men were healthier, cleaner, better disciplined, and as reliable in the field, perhaps more so. The captain had come to feel more pride in them than in any other men he’d led.
“Have you toured the town?” he asked the doctor.
“I came straight here from the gate.” The doctor took down his saddlebags. “And you—what news?”
“Oh, I’ve been everywhere.” The captain turned his face away, looking out onto the street. “She isn’t here, Antoine.”
“You’re sure of that.”
“What knowledge is wholly certain?” the captain said wearily. “I have not turned over every stone, but I’ve looked in all the likely places. I did discover Fleur—do you remember her from the theater, the promenade du gouvernement? Her beauty has suffered, sad to say. Such tropical roses are fast to fade—” Seeing the doctor’s face, he cut himself short.
“Fleur would have known, if anyone,” he resumed in a subdued tone, “had Nanon appeared here. One must suppose that she did not. Choufleur was here, and up to his neck in all this affair, as anyone might have imagined. By my best intelligence he has fled the city with Villatte, to the camp they made ready for such an eventuality.”
The doctor nodded, hefting his baggage; his eyes were lowered to the ground.
“Well, brace up, then,” Maillart said, his heartiness ringing a little false on his own ear. “Courage—that camp can be reduced in fifteen minutes whenever Toussaint chooses—Villatte could hardly muster fifty men to defend it now. We’ll get to the bottom of it all in time. But now let us stable this beast of yours and look to your own nourishment.”
Next day the doctor undertook his own search, with the help of Riau, who had come into town from Habitation Bréda with Toussaint. Maillart had been over much of the same ground, and the doctor found no better answers, even with Riau inquiring at back stairs and in the servants’ quarters. No one had seen her at the Cigny house, which Choufleur had occupied up till his abrupt departure, nor at the late Sieur de Maltrot’s town house, which Choufleur had begun to restore. No trace of Nanon in any of the haunts she had frequented before her liaison with the doctor. Nor was there any sign of Paul.
At last he called at the apartment near the Place d’Armes where he and Nanon had lived for some weeks together before the town was burned. The place was now occupied by a staid mulatto family, whose matriarch was most unwilling to admit them. She feared the black face as much as the white, no doubt, for while a white colon might have come to reclaim the dwelling, a black officer might arrive simply to seize it . . . She answered their questions through a two-inch crack in the door. No, she had not seen such a woman. No, she’d seen no sang-mêlé boy.
When the door had shut, the doctor stood with his head bowed, staring down at the pitch apple tree beside the portal. On one of the fat green leaves Nanon had scratched the child’s name Paul, above the date of his birth. The inscription was there yet, the letters yellowed but still clear. They said pitch apple leaves held up as well as wooden tablets, maybe even stone. After a moment the doctor took out his penknife and added the family name to the leaf. Paul Hébert. He trimmed a corner from another leaf and put it into the snuffbox, but the gesture felt hollow to him even he performed it. And what if the pitch apple tree should be a tombstone? As he put away the knife his hand met the shard of mirror and he gripped it so hard the edges hurt his palm. He’d found it here, after a riot in the town, when Nanon’s rooms had been vandalized, her mirror smashed. So many times it had held her image . . . if only the fragment could function as a magic eye (as Riau believed it did) to show her to him now.
He felt that Riau had been watching him intently all this time, but still was surprised at the sadness—compassion, it was better said—in the other man’s face when he turned to meet it. Riau was also offering something in his right palm, a heap of the coarse salt crystals he’d gathered at the pans near Gonaives.
“Faut goûter sel, mon cher,” he said. “You must taste the salt, and wake—she will not come back to you.”
All the streets were flowing toward the Place d’Armes, and Riau and the doctor let themselves be carried by that stream. In the center of the square, Governor-General Laveaux was revealed on a platform, presenting Toussaint Louverture to the throng of his own soldiers and the multicolored citizens of the town. In all the colony, Laveaux announced, no one was closer to him than Toussaint. No one had served himself, and France, as loyally, as skillfully; there was no one whom he trusted more. Therefore from this day forward Toussaint was proclaimed Lieutenant-Governor of Saint Domingue, and would be not only General-in-Chief but also Laveaux’s second in command in all aspects of government.
“Here is the savior of constitutional authority,” Laveaux announced in his peroration, “a Black Spartacus!—come to avenge all the outrages carried out against his race.”
At that a shout went up from the people, but throughout Laveaux’s speech Toussaint stood with his head humbly lowered. At times it seemed he might even kneel to embrace the Frenchman’s boots. But when Laveaux had concluded and the popular shout had faded to an echo, Toussaint pulled his shoulders back and grasped Laveaux’s hand and raised it high, together with his own, calling out in his most forceful voice, “After God, Laveaux!”
Sometime in the later watches of that night, Maillart woke to the noise of terrible cries. The doctor, with whom he’d shared his room, was suffering some nightmare as if he were under attack. The captain called his name and groped to wake him with his touch. Because the sky was overcast, there was no hint of light in the room, and no breeze, so the space was suffocatingly close. Maillart could see nothing, nothing at all, but the doctor, moaning, flailed an arm at him, then somehow hooked it over his neck. They were wrestling against the edge of the cot, then among the folding legs when it overturned. Maillart clawed at the doctor’s forearm, fighting for breath. He’d known his friend was stronger than he might appear, but this force seemed almost supernatural.
“Antoine,” he choked. “Antoine!”
“Annghh,” said the doctor. His grip relaxed. “What is it?”
The captain pulled free of him and delicately probed his half-crushed windpipe. “How should I know?” he said.
“Annh,” said the doctor. “What?—forgive me.”
“It’s nothing,” said the captain. As he spoke, a fresh wind carried the cloud off the moon, and a tendril of breeze came into the room with the new light. Maillart felt the anxious sweat beginning to dry and cool on his skin. The doctor righted the cot and stretched out on his back. The captain returned to his own bedding.
“Such a dream . . .” the doctor murmured. “I was in the river. You can’t imagine how deep, the water. And the trees on the bank were so huge, so ancient—they must have been there when Adam and Eve were in the garden.”
Gooseflesh broke out all over the captain’s exposed skin. The moonlight held steady and bright in the room. He turned his face to look at the doctor, who lay with his head gathered in his palm, his short beard jutting toward the ceiling.
“I was swimming,” he went on. “But it seemed my strokes did not break the water. There was moonlight everywhere as there is now. It was very cool, and calm, and leaves were floating all around me. Leaves and lilies. Then I went under. I don’t remember if I dived. But I went down, through planes and currents of leaves below, and when I passed through each of these layers, there would be more of them still further below. So very deep . . . the light of the moon followed me all the way down, because the water was wonderfully clear. It was like swimming down through time . . . Eons and eons of it.
“And then, at last, I did reach the bottom. There was a lot of silt, soft and cloudy. It didn’t seem dirty or unpleasant. The moonlight was still there and by feeling in the silt I found something made out of silver. Some instrument, a spade perhaps.” The doctor frowned. “Once I had found it, it seemed I had been looking for it all the time.
“I took it by the handle and began to rise. All that time I had been weightless, as if I were flying—have you ever flown in dreams? But the spade was heavy, and held me down.”
The doctor sat up on the edge of his cot. “For the first time, I knew I needed air,” he said. “I had not seemed to breathe before. So many of those currents of leaves were still above me.”
He held his open hands one above the other, several inches apart, and made some queer, mesmeric passes to show what he was talking about. Maillart saw the shifting currents of leaves as if they’d appeared between his fingers, so clear and sharp in the crystalline water.
“It was so beautiful,” the doctor said. “But with the weight of the spade I could not keep rising. The weight pulled me back down, knee deep in the silt.”
The doctor paused. Maillart could see his bare chest lifting with his breath. A gloss of sweat on his cheekbones. His eyes dark hoods.
“If I let the spade go, then I might float again,” he said. “I understood that, though I regretted it. I let the spade sink into the silt, and I kicked myself free of the bottom. I was coming up easily now, and it was all as beautiful as before . . .” He shook his head, letting his hands drop to his knees. “But too late. I would not have time enough to reach the surface. My lungs must open and I must breathe the water in.”
“But that was my dream,” Maillart blurted.
The doctor swung his legs up onto the cot and lay on his back as before.
“I mean,” the captain said, “I dreamed the same as you.”
“Yes,” said the doctor, with no sign of surprise. He was quiet for a moment, except that the captain could hear his breathing.
“But why did you wake me?” the doctor said. “I was happy.”
“You were screaming,” Maillart said.
“Yes,” said the doctor. “I suppose that’s true.”
He said no more, and presently they slept.
Fort de Joux, France September 1802
A step behind the anxious jailer, Caffarelli picked and splashed his way through the flooded third corridor, lifting his polished boots high before setting them back down in the wet, clicking his tongue with distaste. Boards had been laid to bridge the flood, but they had warped and bowed beneath the water and were useless, already rotting at the edges. It was very cold. Caffarelli held himself tight so as not to shiver, standing in the ankle-deep water while Baille took an interminable time to find the right key on his huge ring.
The door groaned inward. The next corridor, the last one, had a higher floor which was mercifully dry. Two iron-bound doors were set deeply into the wall, toward the far end of the corridor.
“Laquelle?” Caffarelli’s voice rebounded in the narrow vault, louder than he’d intended.
Baille pointed, and swung forward the heavy ring of keys. “Laissez-moi.” Caffarelli closed his hand over the shank of the key Baille had selected.
The jailer, his plump face damp with anxiety, began to splutter a protest. Caffarelli silenced him with a raised forefinger.
“Yes!” he hissed. “I will enter alone, I will remain with him, alone. You will leave us so. My orders.”
Baille subsided, and let the key ring slip. Turning his shoulder to exclude the jailer, Caffarelli fit the key to the lock and with a grinding effort turned it. The sound of the lock disengaging would certainly be audible within the cell, but Caffarelli waited. Suspense. He could practically feel Baille’s noisy, moist breathing on the back of his neck. He adjusted his cuffs and collar, pushed the door open and stepped in.
Side-lit by the red embers of his fire, the old Negro who called himself Louverture sat with his left arm propped on his chair back, looking up toward the door with an imperious expectancy. Caffarelli had studied him at second hand. He had pored over Toussaint’s letters, cross-examined the military officers and civilian officials who had dealt with him in the past . . . those who had survived to report the experience. He knew in advance that Toussaint was physically small, but he was still unprepared for his diminutive stature. This? Why, the man’s legs were so short his heels did not quite touch the floor. At the same time he was disconcerted by something in Toussaint’s expression which made him feel that the old Negro had overheard his muttered colloquy with Baille (although this was hardly likely, given the thickness of the door) . . . that the effect of his entrance was spoiled and the advantage had somehow shifted away from him altogether.
But Caffarelli was already proceeding according to plan, having brought his feet together neatly when he entered and made a movement of his hips and neck which faintly suggested a bow. He had already begun to speak, in his most unctuous tones: “Sir, you can surely imagine the great pleasure I feel to find myself in the presence of a man whose name is so celebrated, who has accomplished such extraordinary things . . .”
All the while these honeyed droplets purled off his tongue, Caffarelli was aware of the tumblers turning in the lock behind him as Baille muscled the key around, and around again, for the double lock. In another part of his mind, Napoleon’s instructions came back to him: . . . you will see Toussaint, who has caused the Minister of War to write to me that he has important things to communicate. In speaking with him, you will make him understand the enormity of the crime of which he has made himself guilty by bearing arms against the Republic, and that we have considered him a rebel from the moment he published his constitution, and that furthermore his treaty with Jamaica and England was made known to us by the court of London; you will strive to gather everything he can tell you of these different subjects, and also about the existence of his treasures, and whatever political news he may have to tell you . . . He observed Toussaint closely for any sign of reaction to the words he continued to utter, without, himself, really listening to them: “. . . and so I would be charmed to be instructed by such a man as I describe, should he be willing to honor me with his conversation . . .”
Toussaint was watching him with what seemed an indulgent smile. A yellow cloth was tied around his head, for what might have been a comic effect, if not for the man’s strange, compelling dignity. The fingers of one hand were splayed along the right side of his long jaw, pressing hard enough to indent the flesh. When Caffarelli had stopped talking, Toussaint turned to the table at his left and lit the single candle. Then he swung back in a leisurely manner toward his visitor, passing a hand across the lower part of his face as if to wipe away anything his expression might reveal.
“Of course,” he said. The voice was low, but resonant, larger than the man. “It is you who do me honor. Please sit down.”
That night Caffarelli sat in the room provided for him, composing his notes by the light of a sputtering oil lamp. At his left hand was a glass of extraordinarily sour red wine. He wished for brandy; there was none. Perhaps sugar. He sipped the wine, grimacing. Baille had told him that Toussaint sugared not only his wine but everything else he put into his mouth; the prisoner’s consumption of sugar was ruinous.
He licked the vinegarish residue from his teeth, and sighed. This mission would detain him here longer than he had anticipated. Toussaint was a maze not easily negotiated. The first interview had taken nearly all the day. Well, Caffarelli had expected the isolated captive to be eager to talk. But not that his discourse would travel in such smooth, impenetrably interlocked circles. In five hours of questioning he had learned practically nothing of use.
The wick of the lamp was of the poorest quality, so that the flame and the light fluttered constantly. Caffarelli scratched with his pen. He must unreel all the secrets from Toussaint’s mind and set them down on the paper. But for the first day, little enough to report. Toussaint had talked all around him (and Caffarelli was proud of his skill as an interrogator). His rich, low voice was pleasant to hear and, after a couple of hours, it had begun to make Caffarelli feel sleepy, in spite of the cold.
What a wretched place it was, this Fort de Joux. Though it was only September, the mountains were already heavy with snow. Probably the snowcaps never melted even in high summer. How long he must remain here only God knew.
The wick fizzled, releasing a great burst of darkness. Caffarelli froze in place, but it was absurd, absurd—he could not be frightened by the dark. A tiara of red sparks crowned the wick’s end, nothing more. Outdoors the wind was whistling.
This misfortunate castle. Set in an exterior wall was another barred cell—no more than a niche, really: three feet by three by four. Here some feudal lord had shut up his wife at the age of seventeen, having discovered her unfaithful when he returned from a Crusade or some such adventure. Baille had dutifully conducted him to this point of interest, when Caffarelli had first arrived. According to the tale, the cell was so placed as to force the girl to look out upon her lover’s corpse, which swung from a cliff on the mountain opposite. Some spikes and grommets could still be discerned with a spyglass, Baille said, but Caffarelli had not had the heart to look.
The sparks swelled and joined, a red rim on the end of the wick. Caffarelli found it difficult not to hold his breath. In that tiny cell, the unlucky wife could never have straightened her legs. The thought of her constantly curled limbs especially disturbed him. Of course people were smaller then—but certainly she could not have stood erect beneath the three-foot ceiling. Berthe de Joux had been her name. He pictured her curled like a fox in a cage, gnawing at crusts, pushing her own ordures out through the bars with her fingers. Watching the bones of her lover drop from the cliffside as gradually the ligaments gave way to rot. She had died an old woman in this confinement, but how long would it have taken for her to grow old?
The red rim yellowed, the flame expanded on the wick. As the light returned, Caffarelli forced the stale air from his lungs and drew in fresh. He concentrated on each exhalation, sweeping the morbidity from his mind. Dipping the pen into the inkwell, he continued his notations on Toussaint. He tells the truth, Caffarelli wrote grudgingly, but he does not tell all.
Next day when he entered the cell, he found Toussaint feverish, scarcely able to speak. He kept massaging the yellow kerchief tightly bound around his head, or alternately pressed another wadded yellow cloth along the line of his jaw. His imperial courtesy, already sufficiently bizarre under such circumstances, was still further distorted by his fever. Toussaint excused himself from conversation, until his illness should abate. Perhaps—no, certainly—tomorrow. Under his left hand was a hefty manuscript of his own composition, which, he declared, would answer any and all questions until he should again be able to speak for himself. Let Caffarelli take this document and read it at his leisure; for the time being, Toussaint begged to be excused.
But Caffarelli lingered. He had the thought that the fever must weaken Toussaint’s reserve. But although the old Negro babbled a few phrases, he let nothing slip. He said nothing of any import at all, other than his repeated proffer of the manuscript. After three-quarters of an hour, Caffarelli felt the touch of shame; he did not regard himself as a torturer. Besides, the manuscript tempted him. He picked it up, wished Toussaint a swift recovery, bowed and took his leave.
Throughout that day and well into the evening, he read and reread, with mounting frustration. One could not call Toussaint’s memorandum a tissue of lies. On the contrary, it was an assemblage of literal truths, artfully arranged to give false impressions. Each fact was just, and each was delicately balanced against the others to create this inverse image: Toussaint had never, not for one instant even in a thought, placed himself in rebellion against France. A good revolutionary citizen, he had never sought to be anything other than a humble and dutiful conservator of the colony for the nation he in his heart regarded as his own. The Captain-General Leclerc had presented himself in the guise of an invader. He had not troubled to properly present his orders from Napoleon to General Toussaint, who was after all in chief command of Saint Domingue at the time of Leclerc’s arrival. It was Leclerc who had forced his landing and commenced hostilities. And so on . . . and on.
As one kept reading, one was required to believe that Toussaint had resisted Leclerc’s arrival with all the forces at his disposal, had burnt towns and plantations, had poisoned wells, had fought desperate battles in which thousands were slain—without ever intending a bit of it! It was all a regrettable misunderstanding.
Preposterous. And yet, it was so seamlessly wrought. The more time Caffarelli spent among the loops and circles of Toussaint’s words, the more he seemed to hear the man’s compelling voice, pouring the concoction into his ears . . . At moments he came so close to believing that he had to leave the room and walk outside to brace himself with the bitter cold, the clear vision of sharp mountain peaks and the rectilinear walls of the castle.
What was most genuine in the memorandum was the outrage. It came in flashes, in response to the undeniable treachery of Toussaint’s arrest and to the rough, humiliating treatment he and his family had endured ever since. In this regard, there were passages which inspired Caffarelli to fellow-feeling. The outrage was perfectly sincere, and yet it was and must be founded on Toussaint’s contention that he had always been the loyal servant of France, for otherwise it would be unjustified. This link, Caffarelli suddenly perceived, was what gave the whole document its improbable credibility.
They sent me to France as naked as a worm, Toussaint had written. My properties and my papers were seized; the most atrocious slanders were broadcast about me, far and wide. Is this not to cut off someone’s legs and then order him to walk? Is it not to cut out someone’s tongue and tell him to speak? Is it not to bury a man alive?
All this was outrage, with no hint of self-pity. There was the point of attack. If moved to outrage, Toussaint might speak freely. More freely than otherwise. There was the opportunity . . . Caffarelli looked up at the wheels of brilliant stars in the frozen sky, then across at the cliff opposite, its dark descent from the pale snow-covered slope above it. It came to him that he was standing directly above the cell of Berthe de Joux. He shrugged the thought away; his course for the morrow was set.
In the morning he found Toussaint recovered from the worst of his fever, though he still pressed the kerchief against his jaw as though it pained him gravely. His eyes were hollow, but clear; the febrile glitter of the day before was gone.
After the opening round of courtesies, Caffarelli began as he’d planned, theatrically. He slammed the manuscript on the table. It is all nonsense, he declaimed, raising his voice to resound in the close space. All deception—and useless too. For the evident truth is that you expelled from Saint Domingue all agents of the French government save those who might furnish you with the external façade of continued obedience. That you raised a great army of soldiers who were all devoutly loyal to yourself alone, and flocks of civil servants who owed their devotion only to you.
All the while he was speaking, Caffarelli looked forcefully into Toussaint’s eyes, meaning to stare him down, but the black man did not quail or recoil or react in any way at all. In a perfectly balanced stillness, Toussaint merely observed. Caffarelli was obliged to shift his gaze to the drizzling stone wall behind him. You put the entire island in a state of defense; you dealt secretly with the English; finally you proclaimed a constitution and put it into effect before you sent it to the French government for approval—a constitution which names you governor for life! And this—he bashed the manuscript with the flat of his hand—has no bearing whatsoever on any of those facts I have just mentioned. But these are the facts which we must discuss. I ask you, what have you to say?
Caffarelli sat down and composed himself to wait. The tick of a watch was just barely audible, somewhere in the other man’s clothes. For a long time, Toussaint did not speak.