Never make a politician Grant you a favor They will always want to Control you forever . . . So with a fire make it burn, and with blood, make it run . . .
—Bob Marley, “Revolution”
In July of 1795, the European war between the French Republic and Spain was ended by the signing of a treaty in the city of Basel. By the terms of this treaty, the conflict between French Saint Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo was also concluded, and the heretofore Spanish portion of Hispaniola was formally ceded to France. However, the French Republican Army (with its mostly black or colored troops) was still preoccupied with the English invasion and had no men to spare to occupy the ceded territory, though Spanish-sponsored warfare along the border ceased for the most part. Jean-François and Biassou, the two black generals still in Spanish service, departed from the island, leaving many of their men to be absorbed into the force of Toussaint Louverture.
Named Lieutenant-Governor by Laveaux, Toussaint had risen higher in the colonial hierarchy than any nonwhite person had ever done before. Although his official military rank, général de division, was not the highest in the land, he was effectively the commander-in-chief of the French army in the Northern and Western Departments of Saint Domingue. He continued to prosecute the war against the British in the Western Department. The colored general André Rigaud was fighting the British in the Southern Department on behalf of the French Republic, but with much less frequent communication with Laveaux than Toussaint (who wrote dozens of letters to his superior during this period, reporting all his operations in detail). The British invasion had faltered, unable to establish itself securely beyond the coastal towns, where huge numbers of soldiers fell prey to fever, but it had not yet failed, and the British were still rotating new commanders.
In France, meanwhile, Léger Félicité Sonthonax confronted accusations leveled against him by the land- and slave-owning colonists of Saint Domingue who had brought their case to Paris. Skilled in debate and in the law, Sonthonax now faced a much more conservative French government than the one under which he had proclaimed the abolition of slavery in 1793. His accusers sought to blame him for many offenses, including the surrender of Port-au-Prince to the British invasion and the burning of Cap Français in 1793. In October 1795, Sonthonax was completely vindicated. In the spring of 1796, he was placed at the head of a new Commission, including two other white men, Leblanc and Giraud, and one mulatto, Julien Raimond—and thus began his second tour of duty in war-torn Saint Domingue.
In the mornings the mountain air was almost cool enough to sting, and cool, blue breezes shivered the leaves on the trees that surrounded the house. Since Paul had gone, Nanon had begun to wake near dawn; though such early rising was far from her habit, she could sleep again in the child’s absence. She did not fret, but rose, brushed her hair and caught it up in a madras cloth, belted a cotton robe over one of the diaphanous fancies Choufleur had given her to wear to their bed, and went to take coffee on the gallery, with perhaps a little fruit, like the great lady of some lonely manor.
There were few people about the place, since Choufleur had gone to Le Cap with Paul: only the cook and a couple of house servants, and four armed men for her protection, led by a sacatra named Salomon. It was true, perhaps, that there was still some danger, for the whole canton of Vallière was a wild and remote place, and near the Spanish border too. When she was a girl, the area had been the resort of maroons, and the maréchaussée came through constantly in pursuit of them. Also there were sometimes incursions of Spanish from across the border, for the boundary line was in constant dispute. The difficult slopes of these mountains were no great temptation as farmland to the slothful Spaniards, but there was supposed to be gold around the headwaters of Grande Rivière, so sometimes the Spanish crossed and burned the French plantations. More recently it had been black men in Spanish pay—Jean-François and the troops he commanded, who had fallen back into these mountains after the winter battles in the valley of Grande Rivière. These bands were ill-disciplined, nothing like Toussaint’s troops which Nanon had grown used to seeing camped round Habitation Thibodet, but as Choufleur seemed to have a special understanding with Jean-François, his establishment was never molested. But the war between the Spanish and French was officially ended, and Jean-François had sailed to another country, leaving his men scattered in small roving bands, living as maroons once more. Sometimes they raided the provision grounds here, but there had been no threat to the main compound. In any case Choufleur had assured her that four well-armed and determined men would be more than sufficient to defend the house successfully.
Nanon was not fearful, only freighted with ennui. She sipped her coffee and nibbled uninterestedly at a small sweet banane-figue, watching the garden below the gallery, which had gone half wild, the jungle encroaching at the edges of the circular clearing. The breeze came up and the leaves lifted and swirled together, then flowed toward her. At the bottom of the garden she saw Salomon pass between the brick gateposts, and look up at her coolly for a moment before he disappeared. The garden was empty except for the little finches sitting in the trees.
The housemaid came out on the gallery and shook out a tablecloth over the railing. “Ba’m jis chadek,” Nanon called, imperiously. The maid lowered her head and went to do her bidding, returning a moment later with the grapefruit juice she had requested. Nanon tasted it, but the juice was bitter following the coffee; after all, she did not want it. The commanding airs of a mistress had diverted her for a time, but as there was little to order to be done, the novelty had soon faded.
And yet her first weeks here had been deep delight. Here was her home, her own true country; she had not known how much she cared for it till her return. She had never thought to return to Vallière, but now she was here—and free. Then too, there were the pleasures of love. The release of Choufleur’s long-bottled passions excited her; he had convinced her with his body that they had truly been waiting all their lives to be joined. He was a fiercer lover than the doctor, and if he sometimes frightened her a little, the fear was no more than the shivering edge of the thrill. The doctor had been tentative at first, seemed inexperienced; she had had to teach him a great many things, though she had enjoyed the project. He was a willing student too, and in the end he had learned to please her very well. It was also true that his was the first man’s touch that she had come to enjoy. She did not think of the doctor when she was with Choufleur, but Choufleur had been away for some weeks now, and so sometimes she remembered the doctor’s gentleness with her, though she did not miss him as much as she did her son.
She watched the little birds flickering from tree to tree among the heavy leaves, and thought of Paul, pressing her fingers against the hollow of her throat. In their first days here she had taken the boy to the places where she had played herself as a little girl; it gave her joy to teach him her childhood games. And Paul was happy, happy enough, though at first he cried for Zabeth and Sophie, and he asked many questions about the doctor, whom he had called Papi. Nanon twisted her head restively, pressing the join of her collarbones. She pictured the doctor holding Paul by both hands and joggling him on his raised instep, both of them grinning and laughing wildly at each other. But Paul was so young; he could forget.
There was nothing in this image, nor in any image she had of the doctor, which agreed with the story Elise had told of him. Nanon had returned to this inconsistency many times since she had come to Vallière, and all the more in Choufleur’s absence, which left her too much to her thoughts. Particularly, the doctor’s first ineptitude as a lover did not fit with Elise’s proposition that he was a careless and callous seducer. Well, perhaps a man might falsely play the ingenue the same as a girl (though in her considerable experience Nanon had never encountered such a thing). But the doctor’s affection for Paul had seemed so genuine! Yes, but with a child so young, she told herself, there was no difficulty. Love of the bastard infant diminished as the child grew taller and began to occupy a larger space in the world. Nanon had seen it many times. Her own father was a white man, and she had a few bright, furry memories of him dandling and petting her when she was very small, giving her special chocolates from Europe whose remembered scent and taste still made her salivate. But after she was three or four years old, she did not see him anymore.
A tiny spider climbed the juice glass, no more than a moving crimson dot. She watched it cross over the rim and fall into the liquid it contained. The spider was too light to sink. Nanon imagined its struggles, which she could not see because the spider’s legs were too small for her to discern. She went indoors and dressed and walked barefoot down from the gallery through the garden to the gateposts. Hinges had been set in the masonry, but the metal gates had never been delivered or hung. All such enterprises had been suspended when the Sieur de Maltrot had disappeared into the mountains of Grande Rivière five years before.
Nanon worked her toes in the fine dust which lay between the posts. Choufleur did not like her to go barefoot—it made her feet hard and horny, and he claimed that it would also make them splay out like the flat, ugly feet of some market woman. But he was not here to prevent her, and she liked to feel the earth and the plants with her feet. To walk barefoot made her feel independent, free, though she knew this notion was ridiculous.
To the left of the gateposts, deteriorating terraces of coffee trees ran down a partially cleared slope. Infrequently tended, the trees were in a poor state, tangled with parasitic vines, taken over by the strangler fig. Still they did produce some beans. Beyond, the mountains rose to pierce the swagging wet bellies of the clouds that always overhung the highest peaks.
To the right was the deep green slash of Trou Vilain, and the trail running down the near side of that gorge toward Fort Dauphin and the coast. Nanon shaded her eyes, for she thought she’d seen some movement on the trail. But nothing. She looked to her left and saw the sacatra Salomon passing between the coffee trees, a fowling piece balanced in one hand. The trail was still empty when she looked again. The knowledge had risen in her mind, however, that Choufleur would come back this day, and that all would not be well when he returned.
One of the little hawks called malfini came gliding over the deep slash of Trou Vilain and turned and folded its wings to stoop. It rushed down toward the earth like a bullet and disappeared behind the foliage and then in a moment labored up into the air again with a large, long-tailed something wriggling in its talons. Rat. Trou Vilain was full of rats. They had come from ships in the harbors below and now lived in their own marronage on the jungle floor.
Nanon turned through the gateposts and walked clockwise around the hedges that enclosed the house, glancing up at the fret-sawed boards that ornamented the upper stories. She put the house between herself and Salomon, who might still be watching her from down in the coffee. At the rear was a gap in the hedge where the house servants came and went, and from it a trail ran around the brow of the hill behind the house and off among the trees. She walked, swinging her hands and humming, but the sense of foreboding clung to her. She had been astonished, even dismayed, when Choufleur announced that he intended to take Paul with him to Le Cap—and without her, for it was some tricky political errand that took him there. At once she had controlled herself and tried to think better of the plan, for Choufleur, as if he had expected her consternation, explained gently that he wanted time alone with the boy, that they could come to know each other better, as was desirable if (but here Choufleur, who had been dressing for his journey, turned from her and spoke into a corner of the bedroom walls)—if Paul were to be as his own son. And besides, he went on, adjusting his cuffs as he turned toward her again, the boy ought to see his birthplace, and learn something of the town.
Nanon gave her consent, for what it was worth. Had she withheld it, there would have been a great quarrel and the outcome would most likely have been the same. She brought herself to hope that what Choufleur said of the shared journey might prove true, but at the same time his manner with the boy up to that time gave her little encouragement. From the beginning Choufleur had treated Paul with the sort of studied calm one uses with an untrustworthy animal, a dog known to bite. He made no sudden movements, he was not unkind. As for Paul, he kept well away from Choufleur whenever Nanon did not urge him to approach. The situation never promised intimacy, but perhaps the two of them had attained some closeness on their excursion to Le Cap.
As she climbed the trail, it grew cooler, damp. She was ascending into a cloud. The black trunks of the trees around her were slick with condensed water. In a cut she sat on a felled tree and listened to water rushing in an invisible stream nearby. She had plucked a green orange as she came up, and now she peeled it with her nails and ate it, spitting the seeds accurately at the center of an elephant’s ear leaf a few feet from her. She felt that Salomon was somewhere near, though she did not see him. When her mind had emptied, she got up and went on.
These days she often went on long rambling walks which sometimes lasted all the day. There was little to do in the house or around the compound—supervise the cook, or the laundress . . . With more attentive management, something more might have been made of the coffee, but Choufleur did not like her to interfere in such matters, and she had little disposition to do so anyway. When she had first arrived on the arm of Choufleur, she had played the great lady before the house servants to such an extent that she could not now descend to a more ordinary level of companionship with them. She now regretted this a little; it left her walking, solitary. She had lost weight, as she ate less than usual and exercised more, and so regained the girlish slenderness which she had lost after childbirth. Choufleur was pleased at this result. Nanon did not particularly enjoy the walks herself, but they did calm her.
Now she circled to the right, climbing a steep path cut in the stone, her bare toes working on the wet rock surface. The trail leveled and curved outward and began to descend. A spur ran further up the hill toward palm-leaf panels enclosing a hûnfor. There were no drums at this hour, no sign that anyone was present; still Nanon took care not to look in that direction as she passed. In the cleft of a tree she found a wild orchid and picked a bloom, carrying it in her right hand as she went down through scattered banana trees into a clearing gilded by the sun. It was past noon, and the warmth was agreeable after the chill of the rainforest. She took a ripe banana from a stalk, and walked toward the tombs at the far side of the clearing. The larger one was a great rectangular stone covered on all four sides with hieroglyphs, thought to be the grave of a great Indian cacique. A smaller stone, less ornamented, more completely covered with vines, was supposed to cover the grave of a child.
She sat on a stump with the tombs at her back. The clearing spilled downward, banana leaves tilting crazily around the borders, and gave her a long, clear view across the next gorge to the cloud-covered peaks beyond. She ate the banana. As she tossed away the peel, she saw Salomon passing, half hidden by the trees at the edge where the jungle resumed. He still carried the fowling piece and, if challenged, would claim to have been hunting, though he would return to the house without game, and though Nanon knew he had not fired his gun even once, for she had not heard it. Salomon followed her on her ramblings. He was never far from her, just barely out of sight. He was acting on Choufleur’s orders, or on his own interpretation of what Choufleur’s wishes would be. All for her safety, but Nanon did not like it. Salomon had motives all his own mixed in, she thought, suspecting that he looked at her lasciviously. She did not like to be spied on, although for the time being she had nothing to hide.
She sat for a while longer, trying the pale blue orchid against her wrist, or tucked into her bodice. She lifted it to her nose, but there was no scent. Presently she got up and went on, still carrying the flower.
It was not yet sundown when she returned to the coffee terraces below the house, but the quality of the light was tempered, changed. She looked at the empty trail, then up into the sky, where the malfini circled again, its claws empty. Or perhaps it was another hawk. When she looked again, Choufleur was riding slowly up the difficult trail, leading a second, riderless horse behind him by the reins.
Paul was nowhere to be seen. Nanon looked for him, twice and again. At first she felt a numbness from her skull to her heels, then nausea, then she controlled herself more tightly. Digging her nails into her palms, she slipped off through the coffee trees. Choufleur must not see her yet. She hurried through the garden and into the house, calling orders: The master has returned! Heat water for the bath, and so on. By the time Choufleur had stabled his horses and climbed the gallery steps, Nanon had put on shoes and a finer dress. With the orchid pinned in her hair, she sat behind a tray of cool limeade, wearing a tremulous, insincere smile of welcome.
She had never seen him look so haggard, his expression so very dark. The black glare in his eyes struck her first, and then she began to take in the details. A coating of dust from the road covered his hair like powder on a wig, and was caked all over his face too, which was streaked with sweat. He was out of uniform, and his light riding trousers were dirty and covered with horsehair and sweat-stained at the crotch. No evidence of his usual fastidiousness. For several days he had not shaved, and the effect was unfortunate, for his beard was sparse and came in patchily among the freckles. He stopped with his hand on a chair back and looked past her.
Nanon poured a glass of the limeade and offered it. “What news from Le Cap?” she asked. The question seemed neutral enough to be safe.
Choufleur accepted the drink, sipped and grimaced. He turned toward the door of the house and, though no servant was in evidence, shouted loudly, “Bay nou rhum!” He dragged the chair back and dropped heavily into it, passing his hands across his face. When he uncovered his eyes, they looked more weary than enraged.
“The news is bad enough,” he said. “Villatte has bungled it all. Or he was misled by Pinchinat—the weasel! Or—what does it matter? Toussaint and his black rabble are too many. And now Laveaux embraces him, calls him the Black Spartacus—Faugh!” He turned and spat over the railing.
The housemaid brought the bottle of rum. Choufleur slung away his lime concoction in the same direction he had spat, poured three fingers of rum in the glass and drank it down. He coughed and cleared his throat.
“Laveaux,” he said. “A weak man, I tell you. For all his honor and his airs. It is weakness that makes him set those Africans above us. Well, Villatte said, as I left him, that he would like to see Laveaux’s throat slit by those very Negroes he embraces. And I confess, I feel the same.”
“Where is Villatte?” Nanon said, having grasped the essentials of the situation.
“At Habitation Martellière. ‘Camp Villatte,’ as he has christened it. His little empire—there is the height of his ambition now. He will give himself up soon enough—or be killed. But I know him, he will surrender.”
“And for yourself?” Nanon reached her hand partway toward his, then stopped.
Choufleur’s eyes grazed over her face. “I’ll bide my time.” He poured a mixture of limeade and rum and sipped it more conservatively. “Word is that Laveaux has claimed there will be no reprisals, but we shall see. Villatte will certainly be arrested, but I tried not to show myself too close to him in all this affair . . .”
“That is well,” Nanon told him. “My dear, I have ordered you a bath.”
Choufleur nodded absently, as if he had not grasped the sense of what she said, but he rose and followed her into the house. As they passed through the bedroom, he caught her shoulder and whirled her around, then seized and crushed her to him. Nanon had a confused impression of bristles and dirt and horse and human odors intermingled. The rum was a veneer on the sourness of his breath.
“Stop!” she said. “Wash yourself first—oh . . .” She changed her tone. “Oh, stop it,” she snapped. Irritation was what had most discouraged the Sieur Maltrot. Any note of pain or fear excited him. She had not thought Choufleur to be the same, but his grip loosened and she twisted away.
Choufleur stood with his hands quivering at his sides. Under the dust his face had paled; the freckles stood out sharp and dark, while his lip trembled. As often before, Nanon was moved by the helplessness of his need.
“Only be gentle,” she said. “Don’t rush me so.” Forcing a smile, she loosened her hair, and with the same movement tossed the orchid onto the bed. Choufleur relaxed; his eyes tracked the arc of the falling flower. Nanon began to put off her clothes to accommodate him.
Afterward, she lay abed in a daze, while Choufleur went to his bath and soaked. Her fingers toyed with the crushed and tattered petals of the orchid. In spite of it all, he had carried her with him, however roughly; for a time she was all body. But with her thought, the question of Paul returned. She rose and gave herself a cat bath, standing before the bedroom washstand, then went to meet Choufleur as he rose from the tub.
She took the towel from his hands and began to dry him. It was an act of worship. His body was as strong and supple as the body of an animal that hunts its food. As she knelt to massage the towel around his calves and ankles, she was reminded of the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her hair.
Choufleur furled the towel around his hips and arranged himself in a straight-backed chair. Nanon stood behind him, her left hand lightly massaging the cords of his neck, a long straight razor in her right. With smooth assured strokes she began to shave him. This too they had adopted as a ritual.
“Where is Paul?” she said.
“At school in Le Cap. I thought it better.”
“You did not tell me.”
Choufleur turned his head to the right, though not quite far enough to look at her. The razor indented the skin of his cheek. “You would not have agreed. But it is best, because—”
“The Filles Sainte Marie.”
Nanon probed her left thumb into the recess at the base of his skull, feeling for the lie if one were hidden in his head.
“Ah . . .” Choufleur sighed gratefully, rolling his head back against the pressure.
“I will go to Le Cap to visit him and see that he is well.”
“No,” Choufleur said quickly. Then, in a reasoning tone. “This political trouble, you see. It would be unwise for you—for us. After a month, perhaps six weeks . . .”
The razor stroked backward along his jawbone. Nanon stopped it, rinsed the blade. She shaved upward along the side of his neck, stopping the razor at the same point, under the jawbone, beneath the ear. The blade pulsed lightly, with his heartbeat. She held it there. After a moment, Choufleur’s hand lifted stealthily and closed about her wrist. When the grip was secure, he tightened it. His hand was cold, hard as a manacle, but somehow she did not feel the pressure. With a thrust Choufleur moved the razor from his throat, and turned in his seat to look up at her with eyes as vacant as the moon.
During the night they made love once more, and again it was an eruption of anger from Choufleur. He had invested too much of himself in Villatte’s attempted coup d’état, and now the rush of his disappointment broke on her like surf. It exhausted her, and when he rolled away she fell into a dense and heavy sleep. The dream which came to her was so lucidly clear and vivid that it remained in her memory for a long time afterward as if it had been a real experience.
Choufleur rode down the streets of Le Cap carrying the boy before him in the saddle, holding him with the delicacy one would devote to a breakable object like a wine glass or a china cup, a care devoid of tenderness. At the gate of a great house he stopped and dismounted and lifted Paul down. Some little négrillons were playing in the enclosure and Choufleur nudged Paul in their direction. He tied up his horse and knocked on the house door and after a moment was admitted.
Through the crystal lens of the dream, Nanon watched Paul playing with the black children, two little boys, brothers perhaps, one with his loins swaddled in a scrap of cloth, the other entirely naked. They were unclean, and flies gathered at the corners of their eyes. But their teeth were good and their smiles were bright, and they were friendly. They had between them a pair of wheels on a stick for a toy and they were quite willing to share it with Paul, who pushed it around and around in the dirt, the three of them laughing and crowing together.
“What will you give me for the boy?”
Choufleur stood in the shadows of the house door, speaking to a burly white man dressed in a striped vest over a white shirt, loose canvas pantaloons. A cloth was knotted over his head; he wore a single earring.
“Give?” the white man said. “But slavery is finished in this country, my friend. You cannot sell. I cannot buy.”
At this Choufleur shifted his weight and murmured, “Well, but there is slavery in Jamaica, and over the mountains in Santo Domingo . . . other places too.”
The white man turned to look at Paul more closely. “The boy looks white.”
“The father was a white man,” Choufleur said. “The mother, a métive.”
“He is too young,” the white man said. “What can he do?”
“Whatever anyone wishes him to do,” Choufleur said.
The white man looked at the boy again, stroking his thumb beneath his lower lip. “And you will not return for him?”
“Never,” said Choufleur. “No one will return.”
The white man turned on him eyes a startling bright blue. “All right then. You may leave him.”
“But give me something.” Choufleur’s voice turned wheedling, obsequious—a note Nanon had never heard from him.
The white man took a leather drawstring bag from his trouser pocket and probed in it with a stubby finger, his lips puckered. He selected one gold portugaise and placed it on Choufleur’s extended palm. Choufleur shrugged and closed his fingers. The white man clapped him on the back.
Choufleur swing into the saddle and rode out the gate without looking back. Nor did Paul take any note of his departure. But the eye of the dream followed Choufleur instead of remaining with the boy. The gold piece was still closed in his hand, but as he turned into the Rue Espagnole, he flung the coin away without looking to see where it landed.
Nanon came up from the dream gasping and choking like someone barely saved from drowning. She covered her mouth with both hands to suppress the urge to vomit. For some minutes the dream still seemed to her a fact—more real to her than her actual surroundings. Slowly the world replaced the dream. Striped by moonlight slanting through the slats of the jalousies, Choufleur lay against her hip, sleeping silently, motionless. Even his breathing was completely inaudible. He always slept so, as if in ambush. Nanon took her hands away from her mouth. The story he had told her about the school might well have been true, in whole or in part. At the same time the dream was not only a dream. All she knew for certain was that Paul was not dead, for had he been she would have known it in her bones.
In the days that followed, Choufleur busied himself about the plantation with a fervor she had not seen in him before. Apparently he had a pressing need for money, and there was coffee on the trees, and much work to be done very rapidly in order to convert it into cash. Choufleur was gone each morning when she woke, and usually did not come back to the house until it was fully dark. In his absence Nanon busied herself by ordering elaborate meals to tempt his palate. She sent Salomon on a long excursion after wild mushrooms to be sautéed with game birds. She herself went into the woods to gather wild flowers to decorate the house. In bed she deployed her most subtle wiles to please him.
All the while, Paul lay between them, the bulging presence of the subject neither of them raised again in words. Each night Nanon opened her legs and felt Choufleur rush against her, through her and beyond. He had held her image in his head for the many years of their separation, and now he thrust himself through her, toward that image, which was elsewhere. She saw it would come to no good end. But she would not leave, for it was not yet finished.
One morning she woke to a startling bright, warm light. Choufleur had rolled the jalousies, which usually stayed down throughout the day. The sunlight played over her honey-colored skin—she had slept nude, and he must have pulled the sheet from her. She stretched and lifted her face toward him, but he was looking at her coldly.
“Where is the snuffbox?”
A chill crawled over her bare skin. She looked at Choufleur’s narrowed eyes. The freckles swam across his face. The snuffbox had not been mentioned between them since he had brought her to Vallière. We will wipe out everything which has been before, Choufleur had told her.
“Why do you ask?”
The box with what it contained had been left in the snarl of bedclothes when they had eloped from Habitation Thibodet. At the time Nanon had thought no more of the matter than that she did not wish to touch it again. And yet she’d retained that grisly souvenir all the way from the fire at Le Cap to Ennery, as if it were precious to her. As if her relations with the doctor were insufficient to wash her clean and free of it. After she had come to Vallière, she began to realize that the doctor must have found the snuffbox, if not his sister (but she felt sure the doctor had it), and taken it as a clue to her abrupt disappearance with the child.
Choufleur had turned from her toward the window. The light was so bright it seemed to burn the features from his face. He looked back at her with his eyes full of sunspots.
“See?” he said, pointing a finger. “See how he marked you?”
Nanon glanced at herself. The streaming sun had picked out the faint white scars here and there on her skin—they were scarcely noticeable in dimmer light. Sometimes the Sieur Maltrot had burned her with the coal of his cheroot, all the while appraising her for a response. Sometimes he would make a shallow cut on her belly or buttock or on the soft skin inside her upper arm or thigh, then press his thin lips to the wound and batten on her blood. We will wipe out everything that has been before —she aimed the thought at Choufleur, but did not speak it. She had not remembered those pale scars since coming here, nor had he seemed to notice them.
“Jean-Michel,” she said, calmly as she could manage. “You are not yourself.”
Choufleur looked down at her with the frosty detachment she knew from his father. At this moment all his features belonged to the Sieur Maltrot. Only his eyes and the freckles were his own.
“Am I not?” he said.
Nanon reached for the hem of the sheet and drew it up to cover herself, but her movement seemed to release him from his stasis. He pounced, snatching the sheet from her hand, catching one wrist and pinning it down in the bedding. Not this. She fought him, flailing and clawing with the free hand and kicking her legs out in all directions, but he trapped the other hand soon enough, so that she could not help herself. Her heels were drumming on his back, her struggles merged with his excitement. In the lull that followed, it was her own response that angered her as much as his mistreatment. She pushed him away sharply.
“You want your snuffbox, do you?” she shrilled. “What have you done with my son? You have not killed him—you would not dare to kill him! And as he lives, so will I go to find him—”
Choufleur, his face swollen, was tearing a strip from the sheet. Alarmed, Nanon caught her robe from the bedpost and darted for the door, but he was too quick and strong for her to escape him. He gagged her with one piece of the sheet and tied her hands behind her with another. He threw her face down on the bed, stood panting, and jerked on his clothes.
Outside the room she heard him berating the house servants who were offering him coffee, an omelette—Get out! Why are you loitering here! Leave us our peace and our privacy! Then silence. Nanon lay numb. She did not stir from the position where he’d left her. Her hands throbbed in the binding. The sheet was damp and frothy in her mouth.
After a time Choufleur came into the room again, kicking the door shut behind him. There was a clatter of metal falling on the floor. Something in that sound made Nanon turn over and wriggle up against the headboard. Choufleur was coming toward her with an iron collar open in his hands; the chain attached to it rattled over the floor. Nanon shook her head wildly, and squirmed away into the corner, but there was nowhere to go. He shut the collar around her neck, and pounded a fat rivet into the rings to close it, the two metals melding together. The blows of the hammer bruised her shoulders. She closed her eyes and bit into her lip. There was more rattling, as Choufleur locked the free end of the chain around a bedpost.
She opened her eyes. He stood at a little distance, studying her with apparent satisfaction. His left hand lazily unbuttoned his trousers and let them fall. He did not touch himself or move toward her, but Nanon watched him rising, like a bird fascinated by a snake. Then he strode to the bed and caught her hair above the collar and twisted it until she gasped. He made her kneel, and forced her face down to the mattress, and used her as brutally as his father ever had.
For three days it was the same. When Choufleur had finished, he went out, leaving her water and a slop bucket. On the gallery she heard him telling the servants that Madame was still ill and not to be disturbed; they were not even to enter the house, much less the bedroom. He had removed the rags of sheet so that she could drink and care for herself. When he returned he sometimes tied her hands again, or sometimes left them free. Always he came in the heat of the day, and both of them would be swimming in sweat when he battered her body with his. At evening he brought her a meal. Sometimes he left the plate for her to feed herself or, if her hands were bound, he spooned the food into her mouth. He slept elsewhere, but returned to use her at different hours in the night, and always in the morning.
What was most humiliating, frightening, was her own response. Nothing in her had risen to meet the cruelties of the Sieur Maltrot, ingenious as they often were. She had made her body a piece of wet rope for him, held her essential self remote and untouched. But with Choufleur there was love braided into the torment. That was different, much more powerful, much worse.
The chain was exactly long enough for her to reach the bedroom door, not long enough for her to cross the sill. As the bed was a massive affair of solid mahogany, no effort of hers could have budged it so much as an inch. If the grating of the chain across the floor ennerved her, she might carry it in her arms to stop the sound. There was a full-length mirror near the bed, and sometimes she wept herself dry before it, then stood there looking curiously at the ugly spectacle created by her swollen nose and reddened eyes. Sometimes she stood naked before the mirror, posing and draping herself in the chain. Sometimes she dressed herself and covered the iron collar with an arrangement of scarves. Then Choufleur would have to strip away all this fabric before he raped her senseless.
He did not wound her with fire or steel, only twisted her limbs this way and that, and forced himself in wherever it pleased him. He had the Sieur de Maltrot’s gold-headed sword-stick, and sometimes he threatened her with this, but never cut or struck her. On the morning of the fourth day he pounded the rivet out of the collar with the hammer and a spike, and left her free.
Nanon said nothing. She sat on the bed’s edge, touching the band round her neck where the collar had been, looking down at the floor without a thought.
“If you had left me,” Choufleur said in a low voice, “I would surely die.”
She did not answer, but raised her eyes when she heard his feet moving on the floor. With a practiced twist of the wrist, Choufleur unlatched the sword-stick and pulled free the blade. He braced the pommel against the door jamb and set the point under his left nipple. Nanon had leaped across the room before she knew she meant to move, knocking his weight away from the blade, which flexed and sprang free, then clattered off the wall. The point had raked a shallow red line across his ribs, and somehow there was a deeper bloodier cut in the butt of his palm, but both of them ignored it. Choufleur was crying uncontrollably. Babbling how he loved her, hated himself, he washed the chafe marks of the collar with his tears. Nanon whispered the soothing nothings suitable to an hysterical child. Soon she was weeping with him. They clung to each other like two drowning people, and in the end, they slept.
Afterward everything returned to normal, or as nearly as it could after what had passed before. The collar lay on its chain underneath the bed, hidden by the fringes of the coverlet. The servants returned to the house to cook and clean and wait upon them. Choufleur went out to work in the coffee every day, and Nanon directed the servants in his absence. But she did not go walking in the woods anymore. In those vacant hours of the day she sat motionless on the gallery, her mind a blank. She did not, could not, think of Paul, or anyone, or anything.
When he riveted the collar around her neck again, Nanon did not try to run or resist. She sat demurely on the edge of the bed with her head lowered and her hands folded in her lap. Choufleur did not assault her afterward. He seemed abashed, ashamed. He stood up without looking at her directly and said that he must take the coffee down to Fort Dauphin and that he did not know for certain when he could return.
When he had left the room, Nanon lowered herself down to lie curled on her side. Distantly she heard the sounds of the donkey train receding down the trail on the brink of Trou Vilain. Then nothing, only the chittering of insects, the short harsh cry of the malfini. The jalousies were shut and the lines of light climbed around the walls with the passing of the hours of the day. Her mouth was dry and her tongue swollen, but though she could see the pitcher of water he had left on the armoire, she did not have the will to get up and fetch it.
When the knocking began on the bedroom door, she ignored it. It stopped, began again, stopped again. A voice called, then left off calling. Silence. Then the door swung open.
Salomon. The sacatra was tall and gangly, with a long, bony jaw and great hollow eye sockets that stood out like spectacles. He carried his head at a strange stiff angle, as if his neck were frozen. Nanon had always thought him exquisitely ugly. She was dressed, but he could see that she was chained to the bed. Like any man, he would be drawn to molest and abuse the helpless thing. She did not think she would be much affected.
His whole face worked with some strange emotion. She saw his jaw muscles knot and slacken, as if he were chewing something he could not swallow. He came to the bed as she had expected, but he did not touch her, except to take her two hands in his own.
“Ma chère,” he began, then stopped, coughed, and shook his awkward head. “My dear, slavery is finished in this country.”
Nanon did not reply to this, though she recognized that his words came from her dream.
“Wait here,” Salomon said.
Where would I go? Nanon thought when he had gone out. The idea came near to amusing her.
Salomon came back with the hammer and spike. Cursing steadily in a low voice, he knocked the rivet out of its joints. Then he opened the collar and lifted it away.
Nanon stood up and walked toward the open doorway, arresting herself where the chain’s limit had taught her to stop. Her fingers trailed around the chafings of the collar on her throat.
“No,” she said. “It is not finished.”
Then she turned from the door and came back to the bed. She took up the collar and held it for a moment, then closed it around her neck and signaled Salomon with her eyes that he must fasten it back as it had been before.
There were three little black boys close to Paul’s own age at the house where Choufleur had left him, and two older colored girls of twelve or thirteen. All six of them slept in a little shed in the enclosure opposite the house, in the same room, in the same pile, like puppies. Paul whimpered a little, in the dark. His first night camping on the road with Choufleur, he had cried outright for his mother, for he’d never slept apart from her, but Choufleur pinched him till he stopped. Each night afterward he swallowed the tears when he felt them coming, as quietly as ever he could. But tonight he must have snuffled audibly, for Angelique, the twelve-year-old griffone, arched an arm across the heap of sleeping children and ran her fingers lightly up and down his back until he relaxed and slept with the rest.
In the daytime the two girls worked in the house, but the little boys were mostly left to themselves. Sometimes they might be assigned a chore, but no one seemed to monitor how dutifully they performed it. They were not meant to leave the enclosure of the house, but sometimes they did. The little black boys were familiar with such escapes, and they led Paul a few blocks down the street to the open marshy ground of La Fossette, where the dead people were buried, and tried to frighten him with tales of the cemetery and its gloomy president, the grim and skeletal Baron de la Croix. When they came back, they were whipped about the legs with a green switch by one of the older colored girls who stayed in the great house at night. The black boys squinched up their eyes and opened their mouths to howl full bore, but Paul could see they were mocking their punishment. He tried to take his own whipping in the same spirit, though the switch stung his legs terribly. At home with Mami and Papi he had never been punished so.
He did not understand what had happened to him, or why he was made to go with Choufleur (Mami had been sad and yet she told him he must go). That Choufleur had left him here and gone away did not worry him. He was relieved to be quit of Choufleur, but he wanted his mother. His longing passed over the whole situation at Vallière and returned to Ennery, where Mami and Papi had been together. But no one at this great house was unkind to him. In this house there was no wife or mother, only the burly white man with the earring, and a lot of colored girls a few years older than the pair who slept with the little boys in the shed; they were pretty, and wore scent and bright-colored clothes. The sweet smell of the girl who had thrashed him made the whipping all the more painful, for she was pretty and he would have liked to be near her if she were not beating him.
At night men came and there were parties until late, with singing and shouting and the tinkling laughter of the girls. Sometimes men’s voices rose in anger, and sometimes bottles flew out the windows to shatter in the courtyard near the shed where the smaller children slept. Angelique and the other young colored girls were obliged to go into the house each morning to clean it after the parties late at night.
One morning when Paul came out from the shed, setting his bare feet down carefully between the chunks of bottle glass from last night’s celebration, he felt that he was being watched, felt himself shrink up inside. From Choufleur he had learned not to seek the attention he had craved from Mami and Papi and Zabeth and Sophie and Tante Elise and really almost anyone at Habitation Thibodet . . . but it was better not to be noticed by Choufleur. The man in the earring stood in the doorway of the great house, muttering with a tall bearded Spaniard who wore a big hat. They were talking about him; Paul felt this. When Choufleur and Mami had spoken about him, when he had had to go away from her, it had felt the same, though he had not heard what they were saying any more than he heard it now.
Angélique came out from the shed and unconsciously pulled off her shift and began washing herself beneath the pump. Paul felt the men’s attention move to her, and found himself looking at her in a different way, at the buds of her breasts and her hips’ swell, with an excitement which was strange to him, uncomfortable too, but magnetic. Angélique felt it, and pushed the pump handle down. Turning her back, she returned to the shed, leaving the men grinning at each other with their yellow teeth in the shadows of the doorway.
“You must not hesitate,” said the man with the earring. “For the pair of them, or even only for the girl—it must be soon, because of the commissioners . . .” He lowered his voice. Paul moved a little closer, though he looked elsewhere, at the flies which had begun to hum over the sticky bottle shards now that the morning sun had grown warmer.
“Yes, you are right,” the Spaniard said, thumbing his short beard. He glanced at Paul, then raised his hand to shield his mouth as he went on talking. Dressed for the day, Angélique brought a crook-neck broom from the shed and began sweeping the enclosure, her face sullenly downturned. The men still watched her, whispering, as the flies collected over the heap of her glass sweepings.
In the middle of the night Paul awoke with Angélique shaking his leg. The other girl was listening at the door of the shed. The three little boys who had been his companions lay still—too still and breathing too quietly for them to be truly asleep. Paul did not try to speak to them, but followed the two girls outside. The big house was dark and silent above them, which meant that it must be very late.
Using the other girl’s joined hands as a stirrup, Angélique hoisted herself up the wall beside the gate. She slung a saddle blanket over the spikes of bottle glass cemented into the top of the wall, and then dropped down out of sight. The other girl drew back the blanket and folded it under her arm. Angélique hissed to Paul from without the gate, and the other girl pushed him toward her. The gate was chained shut as always at night, but Paul had already learned from the other boys that he was small enough to slip through the bars.
Angélique took his hand; in her other she carried a small rag bundle. They trotted down the street through the cool, moist air of the predawn. At the edge of the town, Angélique stopped, looking out over the mists that hung low over the marsh, blanketing the cemetery wall. She pressed her fingers over her mouth. With a prickle, Paul remembered the ghoul tales he’d been told. Perhaps Angélique was also frightened at the thought of Baron, for she turned back and led him scurrying through the streets of the town.
Dawn discovered them hastening along the quay, dodging the porters who were already setting out their ropes and slings and barrels. Paul was beginning to tire. He wanted to find out where Angélique was going, but he did not ask, because he did not want to learn that she did not know.
Three ships with high masts and white sails were coming in at the mouth of the harbor, crossing over the steel-colored peaks of the steady waves. Down by the Customs House a crowd was gathering. Paul and Angélique were drawn down into it. The sun was bright now, warm on their backs. Someone nearby was eating fresh, warm bread, and Paul’s mouth stung with a run of saliva. The first ship had docked and they were letting down the gangplank onto the quay. At the top of the gangway, a little white man appeared, and all of the crowd sucked in its breath and cheered.
Sonthonax! Sonthonax! Papa Libeté nou!
All the crowd was black men and women, next to no whites and few mulattoes. The men threw their straw hats in the air, and the women stretched out trembling hands as if they were receiving holy spirits.
Sonthonax! Sonthonax! Father of our liberty!
A corridor opened in the crowd, and Paul and Angélique were pushed back. Angélique arched onto the balls of her feet, craning her neck to see, but Paul had only to let go her hand and he could worm forward through the legs of the adults as easily as he’d slipped through the bars of the gate. He saw the little white man come down the gangway, turning his raised hands to either side to salute the crowd. He was plump and not very tall. He wore a sash and a shining medal and had long reddish-brown hair that hung over his coat collar. There were other white men coming behind him, wearing the same sashes and medals, but the crowd did not pay much attention to them.
Sonthonax! Sonthonax! Papa Libeté nou!
On the far side of the corridor that had opened for the arriving Frenchmen, Paul suddenly noticed a group of men on horses, wearing bright, silvery helmets with plumes. In their midst, looking down with an air of calm solemnity, was the General Toussaint Louverture. Toussaint meant Ennery and Mami and Papi—Paul broke toward him, into the open space, and was at once knocked down. Laughter. The commissioner had stooped to set him on his feet again. His eyes were glistening, and he seemed transported. He gave Paul a pat on the head and then a thump on the back to send him along. As he stood straight, the cheering grew even more furious than before.
The crowd closed behind the commissioners as they made their way toward Government House, and began to press along after them. Caught in a back eddy, Paul could still see the plumed helmets bobbing ahead of him, but he could come no nearer. The crowd carried him to the gate before Government House. Paul clambered up on a cistern for a better view. Sonthonax took a musket from a grenadier of his escort and whirled it high above his head.
“Gadé,” he cried in a breaking voice. “Gadé sa—sa sé libeté-ou!”
He handed the musket to the nearest man in the crowd and turned to walk within the gate. Paul caught a glimpse of the disarmed grenadier’s perplexed expression before the crowd closed over him. The last plumed helmet passed the gateway, and then the gate was swinging shut. That musket was still passing from hand to hand, exalted in the air above the crowd, with the commissioner’s words repeated: “Look! Look! This—this is your liberty!”
When Paul realized that he had no idea what had become of Angélique, he began to feel afraid. From the height of the cistern he looked all around but caught no sign of her. He jumped down and tried to make his way to the gate where Toussaint had entered with the commissioners, but the crowd carried him in the opposite direction as it dispersed.
Someone trampled on his toes, and as Paul flinched away, he remembered his shoes, and the change of clothes Mami had sent with him—these articles had been left behind at the house they’d left that morning. He had not thought of them, not even the shoes, when Angélique woke him in the night. Now he kept a more careful eye on whatever booted feet came near him as he trotted along with the scattering crowd. It also occurred to him that he could not have found the house he’d fled with Angélique even if he had wanted to.
The current of foot traffic carried him as far as the marché des nègres at the Place Clugny. He swirled around the square among the marketers, letting them jostle him along. It was very crowded. There were fruit and vegetables and coffee from the mountains, fish and butter and cheese and dressed meat and live animals all for sale. A good number of small black children were begging: Ba’m manjé. Give me food. Paul was more parched than hungry but all the comestibles on sale around him awakened his appetite. Standing near one of the begging black boys, he lifted his own hands for charity, but the other, jealous of his place, wheeled on him and shoved him away with both hands and knocked him down into the dirt.
As he scrambled to his feet, he heard a cry he recognized. Angélique appeared above the crowd, her face bruised and tear-stained. The Spaniard of the morning was dragging her up into a wagon bed. She opened her mouth to shriek another protest, but the Spaniard slapped it shut. A few people glanced up briefly at the scene, and as quickly turned their eyes away. The Spaniard pushed her down against the side rails, and as the wagon wheels began to turn, they disappeared from Paul’s view.
He ran. His throat was swollen, so that he breathed with difficulty. He was running downhill from the market square, full tilt and blind till a stitch in his side halted him and he doubled over, sucking wind. He staggered another block and a half and emerged onto the waterfront. A porter narrowly missed his head with a swinging hook and cursed him as he passed. Paul ducked under the belly of a passing oxcart, dodged the rear wheel, and came up on the breakwater. A broken hogshead was wedged among the stones and he crawled into it to hide himself. Although his throat was choking with tears, he was too tired to cry; instead he slept.
Red light was bleeding through the broken barrel staves when he awoke. He limped the length of the quay and came at last to the fountain beyond the Customs House. There he drank, and washed his face and wet his hair. For a little time he felt calm, and empty. Then a knot of hunger struck his stomach like a rope’s end. He walked into the town through the gathering dark, drawn forward by the smell of roasting corn. In the darkness beside a lighted doorway a woman was turning ears over a small brazier.
“Ou gringou?” The woman looked up at him curiously. “Eh, ti blan, ou gringou, oui?” Are you hungry? Paul’s eyes must have answered for him, because the woman lifted an ear from the grate and handed to him. Hot. Sweet milk from the kernels burst into his mouth when he bit down—he scorched his lips and fingers but did not care. The woman was calling into the house, and presently a man appeared in the doorway, looking at him while the woman muttered. Ti blan, she had called him, little white. Paul saw his pale fingers wrapped around the corn. A hazard—his light skin made him noticeable. The man beckoned him toward the doorway, but instead Paul began to run. The woman called after him, but there was no pursuit.
He finished the corn in the barrel where he had lain throughout the day. During the night he was roused by rats scrabbling over the cob, but when he threw it out, the rats went after it and did not come back. He adjusted himself against the barrel’s curve and let the waves rushing against the rocks carry him off to sleep again.
For the next several days he lurked in the barrel through most of the daylight hours. It gave him only partial shelter against the evening rains, and soon he caught cold from the constant damp. His grimy shirt sleeves stiffened with snot and his nose was red and raw from rubbing. His cough echoed within the barrel. Sometimes he returned to the Place Clugny to try his hand at begging, and now and then was rewarded with a piece of fruit, or coins enough to buy a roll from a stall. But when the black beggar boys noticed him, they drove him away. Also his light skin attracted a peculiar attention from adults, and he was wary.
At night he scavenged the garbage piles among the stray dogs of the town. From the dogs he learned to crack discarded bones for their marrow. He could also gnaw the rinds and seeds of fruit, which did not interest the dogs. Sometimes he was sick from spoiled food, or because an unexpectedly large find obliged him to overeat. Because of the rats he could not keep any sort of food in the barrel.
Then one morning as he cautiously crept into the Place Clugny, he heard his name called and cowered away by reflex.
“Paul!” A colored girl, perhaps fourteen, dressed in a plain brown smock. Her face was honey-colored, her brown eyes kind. Her calloused fingers against his face, turning it up to the light. “Do you remember me? It is Paulette! But no . . . you were too small.”
She looked over her shoulder, continuing to speak, “I knew him, cared for him, in the camps of Grande Rivière.” Behind her stood a mammoth black woman, solid as a mountain.
“I too,” the black woman said. “Yes, I know him.” She lowered herself by degrees until she balanced in a hunker. Her huge hand cradled the back of his head. Paul felt a strange calm spreading through him from the soft center of her palm.
“Zoray li,” the black woman said. “His ears—such ears! they were the same when he was born.”
Paulette took his hand and he walked from the square beside her, the black woman at his other side. Paul did not exactly remember Paulette, but it seemed natural for her to have charge of him. From her opposite arm hung a basket full of greens and yams and manioc from the mountains. The black woman walked with her hands swinging free, a great basket of charcoal balanced on her head.
They reached the northern limit of the town, where the last houses were tucked among the claws of the mountain where they were fixed into the earth. Above was a little white church on a round hillock, but Paul lost sight of it as they stepped into a courtyard. Several pails of water were waiting by a stairway. Paulette let go of his hand to pick up one of them and indicated that he should do the same. To balance himself Paul took a pail in each hand, though they were very heavy. Following her, he struggled up the steps that twisted among the plastered houses and then became a dirt path corkscrewing still farther up. The black woman came behind them with her charcoal.
At last they emerged onto an area of packed earth surrounded by ajoupas of straw and sticks and wattle. Paulette set down her burdens and Paul did the same, a little water splashing on his feet. She panted, smiling at him. He returned the smile. A bright breeze coming in from the harbor cooled and dried the sweat of their effort. If he looked in that direction, he saw the ships in the harbor and the red tile roofs of the town, even Government House and the open spaces of the Place d’Armes and the Place Clugny. They were a little below the level of the rear of the white church. When he looked in the other direction, Paul saw more ajoupas scattered up the slope, and higher, where the cliff was nearly sheer, black children his own age were gamboling among the goats.
Sophie did not ask after Paul any longer. She had given up asking for her father as well. Tocquet had abandoned them, perhaps permanently—Elise had no way of knowing. He did send money, from time to time. Every six weeks or so either Gros-jean or Bazau appeared to give her a little bag of coins, gold and silver, struck by several different nations like a pirate treasure.
After the first weeks of Tocquet’s desertion, Elise had pulled herself up from her initial collapse. She walked through her days, although with a bitter, shriveling heart. As for Sophie, once the first flood of her sorrow had passed, she seemed the same as before, yet Elise knew that her losses were too great to have had no effect on her at all.
What was the man waiting for? She knew that Bazau and Gros-jean would be bringing him reports. Perhaps Tocquet was waiting to hear that she had given up and gone to France, in which case he might swoop down to reclaim Sophie and the plantation which was hers through her first marriage, and now his. But maybe he cared only for the land, for she would take Sophie with her if she did go to France. Did he not know it? If she were to go . . . Once her pride had returned, it prevented her from cross-examining Gros-jean or Bazau as to Tocquet’s whereabouts or his activities. But the men gossiped enough around the military camp that the news came back to her eventually, through Zabeth or Guiaou or Riau, sometimes even from one of the French officers, Maillart or Vaublanc. She knew that Tocquet was based in his cattle corral on the central plateau, that he was selling beef to the French Jacobin army, and trading tobacco along the smuggler’s run from Dajabón to Ouanaminthe to Fort Liberté.
Elise’s humors ran from sorrow and regret to indifference to anger, day by day. If she had not done what she had done! . . . or if, somehow, she could undo it. In one of her irritable moods, she began taking Tocquet’s things out of the wardrobe, with the idea of discarding them or throwing them away. On the floor of the wardrobe, under a pile of folded trousers, was a long wooden box with a sliding cover. Its weight was surprising. Elise heaved it onto the bed and wrestled the lid back. The groove was warped and sticky from the damp. Inside, two long dragoon pistols and a short, broad-bladed sword. There was powder and lead and a bullet mold and a roll of papers in oilskin which seemed to be maps, though she did not look at them closely.
Elise picked up one of the pistols and aimed it wobbling around the room. The thing was monstrously heavy. Only by bracing the barrel across her forearm could she hold it steadily level. She sighted into the mirror, her own eyes hard above the hollow eye of the gun barrel.
From the gallery, she caught sight of Guiaou crossing the yard below the doctor’s lily pool. She hailed him: “Vini moin!”
Guiaou reversed his direction, glancing toward her, and climbed the steps.
“What must I do to shoot this thing?” Elise said, carelessly waving at the pistol on the table. “Show me, if you please.”
Guiaou shook his head, but he was accustomed to obedience, first by slavery and then by military discipline. He showed her how to prime the pistol and patch a ball. Elise lifted the weapon and pointed it at a palm trunk below the gallery. When she pulled the trigger, the barrel flew up with a great red whoosh and all the crows lifted, cawing, from the trees. She reloaded the pistol by herself. Guiaou showed her how to close one eye and sight along the barrel. When she fired this time, a long frond came away from the palm and feathered down slowly to the surface of the pool.
Zabeth stood in the doorway with her mouth a wide round of amazement. Sophie was behind her, clutching her skirts, but she was excited, laughing. Elise passed the two of them with a mysterious smile. In the bedroom she cleaned the pistol with a rag and a stick as Guiaou had recommended, then laid it aside, unloaded. She took off her dress and bound down her breasts with several winds of a long cloth. Then she put on a man’s shirt and a pair of Tocquet’s Spanish breeches, belting them low around her hips. Standing before the mirror, she swept her hair up to the top of her head and fixed it there with one of his broad-brimmed hats.
Not quite. Her face was still too round, too soft, too feminine. She found a blue kerchief and tied it across her mouth and nose—it was not uncommon for riders to mask themselves so against the dust of the road. With the kerchief in place she felt she might pass for a youthful caballero. When she picked up the pistol for confidence, she found that it made her reflected eyes steelier and more resolved, even if she held the pistol below the mirror frame.
Swinging a feather duster, Zabeth walked into the room and caught sight of her costume. “Non, Maîtresse,” she gasped. She seemed to have read all Elise’s intentions. “Non, pa vré. Non.” But Elise only smiled as she pulled off the kerchief.
“It is a masquerade,” she said. “It is nothing.”
Zabeth lowered her eyes and went about her dusting, though Elise could see that she did not believe her. Perhaps it was for the better if she did not.
That evening Elise let Sophie stay up as late as she liked, told her stories and gave her sweets until the child was, in fact, a little ill. Then when she had fallen asleep, Elise lay stretched beside her, listening to the intake of her breath, a long, dark, curly clump of hair tickling her nose and cheek. The great temptation was to take Sophie along on this adventure, but she must not. With luck her errand would not keep her away so very long. And Zabeth, with whatever she had surmised, would be here to care and to comfort.
She slept for a few hours beside her little girl, then woke and rose and went to her own room and put on the man’s garb, belting the short sword to her waist. Carrying her riding boots in one hand and loaded saddlebags in the other, she went out of the house and to the barn, where she saddled her roan mare and led her out. It was Tocquet who had taught her to ride astride like a man—first when they had eloped from Thibodet and later when they had returned here, with Sophie, across the mountains of the interior from the Spanish side of the island.
At sunrise she was on the heights of Pilboreau, and beginning to descend, her good light-footed mare overtaking the market women as they walked down toward Plaisance with their wares balanced in baskets on their heads. The loaded pistols rode in scabbards before her knees, but there was no incident. Small squads of Toussaint’s soldiers seemed to be posted everywhere, and some of them she recognized, though she was relieved that they did not know her. The roads were peaceful all the way. In the late afternoon she rode into Limbé and decided to pass the night at an inn there, as she did not want to risk being caught on the road after dark.
She gave the innkeeper a gold piece from one of the little purses Tocquet had sent. He whistled at the coin, and cut it with a knife before he rang it into his pocket, then gave her an appraising look. Elise’s stomach fluttered, but all he did was offer to find a woman for her pleasure . . . She declined, in the gruffest tone she could conjure. She ate cold chicken alone in her room, and slept as if she had been laid out by a maul. Next morning she was stiff and saddle-sore when she left the bed, and longed for a slow hot bath, though she knew that was impossible. An hour in the saddle limbered her. At midday she entered the gate of Cap Français.
Her brother ought to have been here somewhere, if he was still in the retinue of Toussaint. But she went first to the Cigny town house, for she had learned during Choufleur’s visit that he had established himself there. She gave the door knocker a few noisy, masculine slams, then put her hand on the sword hilt for courage. The person who opened the door was not Choufleur at all, nor any of his retainers either, but her old friend Isabelle Cigny.
Isabelle smiled, swayed and stooped in her half-mocking curtsey—her manner with any strange man. She did not know her, Elise saw, with satisfaction. But in the next instant she saw that Isabelle felt or suspected something. With a flourish she swept off the hat and shook her long blond hair down on her shoulders. Isabelle stood back, gaping, then seized her with both hands and drew her into the house and into a warm embrace.
“We are to thank that half-breed son of the Sieur Maltrot for all this restoration,” Isabelle said, sweeping her hand around her parlor. “The house was burned to its foundation in ninety-three, you know. I cannot complain of the construction, though as for his taste in décor—suffice it to say it is not my own.”
Elise brushed a quantity of dust from her breeches and sat gingerly down on a garishly striped sofa. It was true that the whole room was a gaudy blaze of clashing colors, though the materials were opulent. “Choufleur,” she said. “I had expected to find him installed here . . . though of course I am far happier to find you.”
“My dear,” said Isabelle. “It seems so long ago, that man tried to force his entrée here. He thought to carry on his amours beneath my roof!—and may have done so later on, when the wheel of Destiny raised him up to take possession of this house. But now that wheel has cast him down again.”
“Where has he gone?”
“Of that I know nothing, and care even less. He was supposed to have been here during the mulatto rebellion—up to his neck in it too, I dare say.”
“And with his woman and her child?”
“I could not say. They had all been routed before our return, you understand.”
Elise reached across the coffee table and took hold of Isabelle’s hands. “Listen,” she said, and she began to explain all that she had done and all that she finally hoped to undo. When she had finished, Isabelle disengaged her fingers and sat back.
“But you do not know if Nanon would return,” she said. “And would your brother have her, now?”
“I think he would,” Elise said. “Oh, I don’t know—I understand nothing anymore, except that I have paid too high a price for this propriety. Why did I prize it so? It has cost me my husband’s love, my brother’s good regard, my own child’s happiness. If I could only find that boy—I did not understand the depth of my brother’s attachment to him. I was wrong. To the devil with propriety, I say now—and up with libertinage, if it must be. I don’t know what Nanon would do, or what she ought to do. Only I would unsay the lies I told her, if I could.”
She stopped talking, and both women listened to the tramp of the squad of Toussaint’s soldiers on the street beyond the round-arched, floor-length windows. A voice called an order, and the footsteps passed by and receded.
“Nanon,” Isabelle said softly. “She is far from transparent, I must say.”
“But you speak as if you know her,” Elise said.
“She is not easy for a woman to know,” Isabelle said, “as you might testify yourself, my dear. She has made it her business to suit herself perfectly to the company of men. But she stayed here until the town was burned. Your brother brought her here for shelter. The child you seek was born here, even. Oh my dear, there is so very much you have not been told.”
“Is my brother in the town?”
“I believe so,” Isabelle said. “We have seen little of him. He is closeted with Toussaint and the commissioners. It is still quite uneasy here between the blacks and the mulattoes and, of course, ourselves. With Villatte and his confederates still at large—he has still a great many sympathizers, though they are silent now. One must suppose that every colored man would take his part.”
“Why yes—has the news not reached you yet at Ennery? A new agency has just arrived from France: Sonthonax, Raimond, Leblanc, Giraud and Roume. But of course it is Sonthonax above all.”
As she pronounced the final name, Isabelle’s lips made a sour pucker. Elise recalled that the Cigny family had identified Sonthonax as a dangerous lunatic well before he’d proclaimed the abolition of slavery. “And what is expected of Sonthonax?” she said.
“Who can predict?” Isabelle tossed her head. “The man is volatile. Though we whom he denounced as aristocrats of the skin when he first came here can scarcely hope to find his favor now. They say he is turning even from the mulattoes, wholeheartedly to the blacks.”
That might be understandable, Elise thought, given Villatte’s rebellion, but since she did not wish to cross her friend, she did not speak. During the pause in their conversation they heard the sound of marching feet again, and then a voice called a halt. There was some rustling within the house, the creak of a hinge, and then a housemaid knocked on the parlor door frame to announce Major Joseph Flaville.
“A moment,” Isabelle said. “Ask him to wait.” As the maid went out, she rushed to Elise. “Let us preserve your incognito.”
“Here, let me.” Suppressing her laughter, Isabelle twisted up her friend’s hair and tucked it down the back of her shirt, then tied the kerchief over her head to hide it. Then she cocked her head back for a look.
“It’s as well you hadn’t time to wash your face,” she said. “You look quite the adventurer.” She called to the housemaid. “Send him in!”
Flaville strode into the room, carrying the belt of scabbarded pistols from Elise’s mare. The pistols dragged on the carpet as he bowed.
“With the unrest,” he said, “it is perhaps unwise to leave these arms unattended on the street.”
Remembering her role, Elise scrambled up and returned his bow. She did not speak, but with a twisted smile she accepted the pistols. A prickle of half-hostile wariness passed from Flaville’s hands to hers.
“Major Flaville, I present to you,” Isabelle sang gaily, “the Chevalier . . . Thibodet.”
Flaville looked at her narrowly. Stroking a pistol butt, Elise did her best to harden her eyes. The officer did look well in his uniform, whatever his color. His bearing was absolutely correct. He had a bull’s neck, and his whole body was powerful beneath the cloth. His skin was a shining bluish black, like gun metal; she was tempted to touch it.
“There was a Thibodet at Ennery,” Flaville said. “But . . . an older man?”
Elise’s tongue clove to the roof of her mouth.
“It’s his nephew you see now,” Isabelle said hastily. “But do sit down.”
“I cannot stay,” Major Flaville said. “My duty calls—I only came to restore the pistols to their owner.”
Elise bowed deeply, hiding her face. When at length she straightened, Isabelle was walking Flaville from the room. After two minutes she returned, choking on her giggles.
“Oh, we took him in to perfection,” she said. “He is even jealous.” She flared her nostrils in imitation. “‘Who is that boy? Why do you have him here?’ ” And she collapsed into laughter on the sofa beside Elise.
“Jealous?” Elise said. Her curiosity was piqued by the word, though she herself was bubbly with amusement and relief.
Isabelle stopped laughing for a moment and flicked the subject away with the fingers of both hands. “Oh, it is nothing—all foolishness, a game,” she said gaily. “He has been helpful to us—indeed a real friend in time of need. It makes a difference, for our position is delicate, with Sonthonax, especially, so lusty for the blood of émigrés . . .” She sighed, looking out the tall, narrow window. “One comes almost to prefer Toussaint.”
At last Elise could give herself over to the luxury of a long, hot soak. She emerged with her skin shriveling, and began to put on clothes she’d borrowed from Isabelle. But before she was half dressed she decided to stretch out on the bed, only to rest her eyes for just a moment . . . and did not wake till she was called to supper. There were guests—Michel Arnaud and his wife Claudine, notorious for having hacked off her own ring finger during the horrors of ninety-one. Elise knew the legend well enough, though she had not previously met its subject. Madame Arnaud was still and reserved, contributing little to the table talk, which mostly concerned the maneuvers of Sonthonax since his arrival, and the delicacy of the situation with the mulatto population of the town, suddenly invested by such a large, and largely black, army with Toussaint at its head.
After the meal Elise was glad enough to retire and take off the confining clothes that Isabelle had lent her, for Isabelle was considerably smaller than she. For the same reason she was willing to fall in with Isabelle’s scheme for the following day—that they would go out together with Elise in her man’s disguise. Arnaud and Monsieur Cigny had gone together to a waterfront broker, concerning the sugar Arnaud had brought in from the plain, and Claudine was visiting the Ursuline sisters, so there was no one to observe or interfere with their project. At ten o’clock they left the house, Elise sporting Tocquet’s shirt and trousers, and Isabelle leaning delicately on her arm. Isabelle did the talking, when talk was required, so that Elise’s voice might not betray her.
All that day and the next and the day after that they tried to learn Choufleur’s whereabouts, so as to discover Nanon or Paul. At first, luck seemed to run in their favor, for when they called at the house of the late Sieur Maltrot, the servants there recalled that Choufleur had been there, without any woman companion but with a small boy who could have passed for white; they had stayed one night and gone out together the next morning. Choufleur had returned to the house, but without the boy.
But there the trail grew very cold. Elise and Isabelle quartered the town all day, only returning to the Cigny house to wait out the worst of the midday heat. They spent another period of searching during the late afternoon, taking care to return to the house before the others, so that Elise could resume the clothing prescribed for her sex. Isabelle had left word for a couple of her dresses to be altered during their absence, so that Elise might wear them more comfortably. But even with the better fit, the skirts had begun to feel odd to her.
On the second night Arnaud came back in a state of high excitement—it seemed he’d discovered the mulatto family of a French priest, the Père Bonne-chance, who had been of service to him in the past. Elise was puzzled by his elation. She had not known him before this meeting, but he had had a very hard reputation which preceded him wherever he went; for example, he was thought to have sold his own colored children into slavery. Therefore he seemed the last person on earth to be so transported by the discovery of a priest’s concubine and her pack of colored brats. Though it was just such a colored brat that Elise herself was hoping to find, and if she failed she would not recover her own happiness either.
At the end of the second day of fruitless search, Elise realized that she had not really considered the possibility of failure. The mission itself had given her such new heart that she had not thought of what might happen if it did not succeed. She could scarcely think of Xavier, and how was she to face her brother? For the moment she did not have to face him, for he was out at Haut du Cap, with Toussaint, at Habitation Bréda. Toussaint was holding himself aloof from Sonthonax and the Commission, as if he were an independent potentate whom the French agent must flatter and court. This subject was discussed, with some rancor, by Messieurs Arnaud and Cigny over each evening meal.
On the morning of the third day, Elise and Isabelle happened to be passing the house of the Sieur Maltrot again, though without intending to stop, when one of the servant girls came running after them in the dusty street. A slip of a thing, no more than ten, she whispered to them behind her hand that she thought that Paul might have been taken to a certain house in the town whose very mention made Isabelle turn silent and grave.
They could not investigate in person, Isabelle said, when the girl had scurried back to the house. Pas question. No decent woman could be seen even on the same block as that establishment. But she would make inquiry; there were other ways. Indeed word came to them that night, by way of Major Joseph Flaville, that Paul had been in that house for several days, but that he had run away.
The thrill with which Elise received this news was soon replaced by discouragement. If Paul was alone and adrift on the streets of Le Cap, they ought already to have run across him. And if not, what hope was there? At supper she could scarcely follow the talk, and that night she slept poorly.
Next day she and Isabelle sallied out as before, this time to search the poorer quarters of the town where indigents fetched up. They explored the huts on the marshland near the cemetery ground of La Fossette, and then the marché des nègres at the Place Clugny. Elise sensed Isabelle’s interest flagging. The excursions on the arm of her disguised friend were losing their novelty, as the likelihood of finding Paul declined.
But as they were leaving by one of the byways running out of the Place Clugny, Isabelle snatched at Elise’s sleeve and pulled her back the way they had come. The street was crowded with market stalls and market women, so that Elise could not make out what her friend had seen.
“What?” she said, “What is it?” But Isabelle did not hear her, Elise realized. A handcart loaded with flour inched past, and a string of four mules went by in the opposite direction.
“Maman Maig’,” Isabelle said. “I am sure it is she!”
On the opposite side of the street a gigantic black woman sat on a block of stone, eating fish and rice with her fingers from a halved calabash.
“Who is it?” said Elise.
“The midwife,” Isabelle hissed. “She attended Nanon when the boy was born.”
They stood before the black woman, who did not look up. With an unaccustomed diffidence, Isabelle explained whom they were looking for, mentioning his connection to Maman Maig’. All the while the black woman went on eating. Her fingers were shiny with oil from the food. It was not clear if she were listening or not.
“Pa konnen,” she said, when Isabelle had stopped talking. I don’t know. The denial seemed universal, as if Maman Maig’ knew nothing on any topic at all, or nothing she would tell these questioners. But she did look up, not at Isabelle, but at Elise, who felt a ring of sweat breaking out where the band of Tocquet’s hat compressed her skull. The black woman’s eyes were narrow, squeezed slantwise by rolls of fat. Elise felt that her disguise was penetrated, not only that but all her being. The cloth binding her breasts cut into her ribs, hindering her breath. The energy that had animated her drained away and was replaced by unbounded hopelessness. Then Maman Maig’ was not looking at her anymore, and Isabelle was leading her away, toward the Cigny house for shelter from the sun.
She lay on a low daybed still in the same shirt and trousers (Isabelle had ordered them washed and pressed the night before), having only removed her boots and loosened the shirt at the throat. Above her the attic walls slanted to a peak. At one end of the room a round window like a porthole cast a magnified round of sunlight across her hips and legs. She occupied this little room because Arnaud and his wife were installed in the larger guest room on the floor below. Nanon had stayed here, Isabelle had told her, in the last weeks of her grossesse.
She could not sleep, nor truly rest. The room was too warm, close under the roof, at that hour. Isabelle had urged her to lie down in her own bedchamber, or on a divan in the parlor on a lower floor, but Elise had very much preferred to be alone. She flattened her hands over a point below her navel, pressing against a curious pain where the light had concentrated. The pressure seemed to bring an image, in no way like a dream, of the black woman they had met this afternoon, her face lowered and intent, her hands maneuvering out of sight. A woman cried out terribly; there was a flash of intense white light. She saw the infant Paul, scarcely recognizable, suspended upside down between black hands, like a flayed rabbit, his skin purple, blood-streaked, his head a cone-shaped, clay-like mass. He mewed, and the image faded.
Nothing. The room throbbed. Elise sat up. She was streaming sweat, but did not feel it. With the hat and boots in her hands she crept down through the dozing house to the front hall. A footman watched her curiously as she put on her boots, but he said nothing when she let herself out.
Now she walked very much like a dreamer, and with a dreamer’s clarity of intention, though she herself could not have said what that intention was. It led her toward the Negro market where they had been that morning. Elsewhere, the streets had emptied of pedestrians, due to the midday heat, but the Place Clugny still buzzed and swarmed. Elise grew dizzy. Her intention failed her. Bewildered, she began to retreat. Like a marionette with its strings abandoned, she wanted to fall in a jangling heap. At one of the corners of the market square she sank down onto a block of stone. There was a swelling pain in all her joints as if they were ill fit together. A dreadful weight pressed down on her head, so that all the bones of her spine were crushed against one another and twisted into discord. A black circle rimmed with gold appeared before her eyes, and whether she opened or closed them, it pulsed at the same rate. Sunstroke, she thought, but the word had no import. She saw no way out of the blaze of heat and light.
But then a shadow interposed itself between her and the sun. Elise was washed in a water-cool draft like the shade of an ancient tree.
She opened her eyes and saw Maman Maig’ filling the sky above her, the black face neutral, vatic, like the face of an Egyptian statue.
“Rise,” the woman repeated. She held the palm of her hand several inches above the crown of Elise’s head, then arched her wrist and raised it. Elise felt all the knots in her body unraveling as she came floating to her feet.
With her dream-certainty restored, she followed Maman Maig’ across the town. The black woman never once turned back to look at her, but an invisible filament connected them like a leash. They went diagonally across the Place d’Armes and thence into a northbound street. At its end, on a knoll below the mountain, Elise saw a small white church whose name she did not know. It seemed that the church was their destination. But when they came nearer, Maman Maig’ turned away toward the waterfront, and a wall of housefronts blocked the church from view.
Here the four-square order of the town disintegrated, disrupted by the roots of the mountain clawing into the edge of the grid. The church was hidden, somewhere above. Maman Maig’ went in through a rusty iron gateway, then somehow fit herself through a crack in the opposite wall of the small, square courtyard they had entered. Elise followed devotedly. The path was so narrow she could not understand how Maman Maig’ could maneuver so easily. But they went up and up, a tight spiral twisting between house walls made at first of plaster, then baked mud, finally of sticks and straw, unwattled. There was a dark beat at Elise’s temples; her sense of direction was lost. Finally they came out into a wide open space, like a ballroom Elise thought for some reason, though it was only an area of packed earth surrounded by little huts, with a pole in the center painted in a spiral pattern like the path they had just climbed.
A deliciously refreshing breeze blew on the back of her head and her shoulders, and she turned her face into it. The sweat dried quickly. She took off her hat. The wind was coming off the water, and down below, beyond the red-tiled roofs, she saw the sail-less masts of ships bare and skeletal as winter trees in France. When she turned back, Maman Maig’ was no longer there, but the disappearance did not worry her.
There were other onlookers. Even on the cliff above the village the little black children had stopped their play to gaze down at her. Among the ajoupas, Claudine and Michel Arnaud were mysteriously present—Arnaud raised a hand to the back of his head and stared at her with frank astonishment (she realized that her hair had come unpinned and fallen down her back). But Claudine, who never seemed surprised at anything, seemed no more startled now. Between the white couple stood a tall mulatto woman wearing a high turban, and an even taller, gangly colored youth with a priest’s purple stole incongruously draped over his bare, boney shoulders.
There were others too who watched her from their doorways, but Elise had eyes only for the little boy coming toward her, hand in hand with an older colored girl. Of a sudden it seemed to her that he was the person she had most injured and offended—that it was Paul whom she did not know how to face. But he kept coming toward her as though unaware of any wrong between them, tugging at the colored girl’s hand. When he was near enough, he reached out and caught the seam of Elise’s trousers and folded it in his fingers as he looked up into her face. The wind was still blowing at her back, fluttering her hair forward across her shoulders.
“Matant mwen,” Paul said. My aunt. And Elise was so delighted at the recognition that she did not think to reprove him for speaking Creole instead of French.
“Of course,” Arnaud said, “I did not know the boy was yours—I took him for another of Fontelle’s family, which is numerous. And to be sure,” he added, with a faint smile, “a great many other things, Madame, were not entirely as they seemed.”
Elise felt a slight warmth in her cheeks. She brought her knees more primly together beneath her skirt; she had resumed wearing dresses for all occasions. Tocquet’s shirt and trousers were packed away now in the saddlebags.
“You seem very intimate with this Fontelle,” she said.
Now it was Arnaud’s turn to flush. “In no improper manner,” he said. “She was, after all—”
“—the wife of a priest,” Elise supplied, with a downturn of her eyes which partly masked her irony.
Arnaud flicked his eyes toward his wife, who perched stiffly on the edge of one of Isabelle’s parlor divans, her hands crawling slowly over each other in her lap. “Though he failed in his vows of chastity, he was a priest who saved my life,” he said. “Possibly, in another sense, the life of my wife also.”
Claudine had been staring fixedly through the high arched doorway which gave onto the second-floor balcony above the street. At Arnaud’s words she rose like a marionette lifted by invisible threads and floated to the balcony rail. Arnaud pushed himself up and followed. He set a hand lightly on her shoulder, whispered persuasively in her ear. But Claudine’s body gave a tremor from her heels to her head; both her hands curled around the railing and would not be loosened. With a murmur Arnaud left her there and resumed the chair where he had sat before.
“Although,” he said, in a lower voice, “sometimes I find it better not to mention the Père Bonne-chance in her hearing, for it causes her mind in its vagary to revisit the scene of his execution, for which she was unfortunately present in the flesh.”
Elise followed Arnaud’s gaze to his wife’s rigid back. She did not seem to pay any attention to talk.
“Not far from here,” he muttered, “in the Place Clugny.” He shook his head. “But on that day in ninety-one—it was the Père Bonne-chance who brought me safe away from the rebels at Ouanaminthe, when they were killing the white men one by one with such awful tortures as I will not describe to you. He had been priest among the rebels too and had some credit with them. I came to the house he shared with Fontelle with my feet blistered and bloody from the long road, and she washed my feet and dressed them with oil.” He turned his head toward the current of air that flowed in from the balcony door. “Later when he was prisoner here, he confessed my wife and eased her of her torments to some degree . . . For those things I owe a debt of gratitude which I would repay to his survivors. Though for the moment my means are slight.”
“And what of the girl?” Elise asked. “Paulette.”
“She was acquainted with your brother when he was prisoner of the rebels at the camps of Grande Rivière. Père Bonne-chance had brought all his family there. He did what he could to ease the lot of the white captives and to preserve their lives. But afterward he was taken for a conspirator and jailed here at Le Cap, and in those days your brother and his woman took Paulette in to care for their child.”
“I will take her now, if she is willing,” Elise offered. “She has kind ways with Paul, and I would welcome her at Habitation Thibodet, if her mother should agree.”
“That would be a place well found for her,” Arnaud said. “I think that Fontelle might be brought to agree. I suppose you would certainly improve the girl’s French, and train her in other accomplishments in return for her work. I don’t know how they have bumped along in those hilltop huts, but Fontelle is a woman of some pride.”
“Of the seven sins, pride is the most wicked.” Claudine had turned from her place at the balcony rail and stood looking down on them from the doorway with a hard glitter in her eyes. “Pride is the sow that devours her young.” Her left hand with its missing finger rose stiffly from the shoulder, accusing a vacant space in the room. “See how she comes riding on the scarlet beast! see her seven heads and her ten horns!”
Arnaud stood by her, murmuring again, massaging her stiff arm until the elbow flexed and he was able to lead her to a seat. Claudine sat rocking slightly, her eyes closed, her lips working without sound now. Her long, dark lashes were bright with unshed tears.
“You must pardon her distraction,” Arnaud said, with a forbearance Elise was surprised to find in him. “In any case,” he said, as he sank back into his chair, “I think your idea for Paulette is a very good one.”
In the event, Fontelle was persuaded to Elise’s plan without much difficulty. However, Elise stayed on in Le Cap until Toussaint returned, in the hope of meeting her brother, to give him the news of Paul’s recovery face to face. There was a reasonable chance that Doctor Hébert was still in Toussaint’s entourage, though she did not know for certain.
On the morning that she heard that Toussaint had arrived from Haut du Cap, Elise set out toward Government House, holding Paul by one hand while Paulette held the other. The boy had recently had a haircut and a new suit of clothes, and Paulette was shyly pretty in a new dress Elise had bought for her. Elise herself was more carefully coiffed and groomed than she had recently been, and she felt that the three of them looked very well together.
There was excitement in the streets, and a general flow down toward the harbor. Villatte had been lured in from his armed camp to parlay with the commissioners—then Toussaint and Sonthonax had arrested him. Today, it appeared, he would be taken aboard a ship to be sent to France for trial and judgment. Curious, Elise let the children lead her along with the crowd.
On the quay, Toussaint’s honor guard, a group of tall and handsome-looking black cavalrymen, had pulled their horses into a double cordon, defining a pathway from Government House. Elise craned her neck, but did not see Toussaint himself anywhere. She did catch a glimpse of her brother’s bald head; he sat his horse somewhere beyond the second rank of the honor guard, looking about himself sleepily. Then the helmets of the guardsmen moved together and obscured her view. She could just make out the inscription on the silver plate: Qui pourra en venir à bout?
A buzz ran through the close-packed onlookers, for the deportees were being marched down to the ship. From where she stood Elise could see no more than the tops of their heads as they went by. As they went up the gangplank, though, they were more clearly visible to all the crowd. An armed guard went before and after them, but they had not been charged with chains. Perhaps the tall one who looked back briefly from the deck was Villatte himself. Then they all disappeared below.
The crowd began to scatter and diffuse, and Elise, though she peered for another sight of the doctor, had no luck. Toussaint’s honor guard—some ninety men, after all—was in the way. They formed in ranks of three abreast and went trotting back toward Government House. For the moment they seemed to have answered the question their own helmets raised: Who will be able to come through to the end?
When the sister of the doctor, who was Tocquet’s woman, ran away, the news came to our camp through Bouquart, who had it from Zabeth in the grand’case. Although we might have heard Zabeth’s voice for ourselves, as loud as she cried. No one in the camp cared very much one way or another, but Zabeth was in great trouble because she believed that her mistress would die. The whitewoman had taken pistols and man’s clothes and a horse to ride away to no one knew where. In the camp the men spoke of it carelessly—who knew what such a whitewoman would do, or why. But I, Riau, smiled to myself when I thought of the doctor’s sister going off into marronage that way, and I hoped that all the spirits would go with her and watch for her safety.
Soon afterward the little girl became sick with a fever. Zabeth was still deeper in terror for that, because she loved Sophie as much as she would love the child Bouquart had put into her belly, who was still waiting to come out. Zabeth’s voice brought all the old women down from the hills around Ennery to the grand’case, and she even sent for Riau too, because she knew that Toussaint had taught me some of what a doktè-fey knows, and she believed that I knew whiteman’s medicine from the doctor too, which was not true, except for bonesetting and cutting off ruined arms and legs. When I came to Sophie, I saw at once that she did not have a fever that would take her away from this life. Her spirit was weakened because her father had not come back or sent any word for so long, and then the mother vanished also, even if Sophie cared as much for Zabeth as for those other two. But she would not die. When I came, the old women had already chosen the right leaves to send that fever away from her. And in a few days Sophie had left her bed and was not really sick anymore, though she was pale, and quieter than before.
I did not think so much about Sophie or any troubles of the grand’case because at that time I had a trouble all my own. This was because Guiaou and Riau had come to be at Ennery at the same time. We each must go where orders sent us and they had not sent us to Ennery together, not for a long while. But after all the men of Dieudonné came to join his army, Toussaint was so very pleased that he let Riau and Guiaou choose where they would be sent next. I chose Ennery, and it seemed Guiaou must have said the same, and that was how it happened. There was not so much fighting just then anyway. Even when Villatte tried to make his rising, Toussaint left Riau and Guiaou at Ennery, though he took a lot of men north to take care of that trouble.
That was the first time I saw the new child born to Merbillay. A girl child, and Guiaou had planted the seed of her. Her name was Sans-chagrin, but Merbillay and everyone called her Yoyo.
So many babies and small children were in the camp with us now. It seemed I had not noticed them until I saw Merbillay holding this new baby in her arms. In slavery time we did not see so many children because women did not want to bring them into the world to be slaves, and many women found one way or another to stop the children coming. It was different now, and women were glad when the babies came, and I was glad to see Merbillay and this new girl baby smiling at each other, though I had no voice in her naming.
I saw those smiles from a distance, though. It was Guiaou who stayed in the ajoupa with Merbillay, and Caco, and the new child Sans-chagrin. Since Riau had been there last, Merbillay had coated the stick walls with layers and layers of clay to make thick walls that passed no light, so it was a real case now and not an ajoupa. There was no wooden door, only a pale blue cloth hanging over the doorway, which in the day was tied like a woman’s waist so light and air could come inside, but those clay walls would keep a man out still.
Once, when I knew Guiaou had gone down to the river, I went to that clay case. Merbillay was lying on her mat because it was the hot time of the day, and the baby was asleep beside her. It took some little time for my eyes to see because I was not used to the darkness the clay walls made. At last I could see my banza still hanging from the rooftree like always. Merbillay saw it too, and she got up slowly from the mat—I watched her moving, and her face and arms were shining and slick with sweat, but she was not smiling now. She took down the banza and gave it to me, and even our hands did not touch as I took the banza by the neck. When I went out with the banza in my hand, I thought that I would not be going back to that case any more.
Much higher on the hill I had an ajoupa which was made only of sticks and leaves, not clay, so it was cool and full of wind and sunlight. I hung my banza there, and there I kept my coat of a captain hung on crossed sticks to keep its shape—if I was not wearing it, for every day I went with other officers and the white captains Maillart or Vaublanc to train new men, and keep the old men ready. But in early morning or at evening the officer coat would hang on the crossed sticks, with the watch ticking in the pocket where I could not hear it. I would not wear even a shirt, and the air would run all over my skin, and I would be playing the banza. I played sad tunes that had no words to them, the same few notes repeating. Sometimes Caco came up to my ajoupa by himself as if the tunes had called him—we would listen, or I would hang the banza from the roof and we would go and do some other thing together.
I did not go to look for Caco at that clay case anymore, but only waited for him to come to me. Sometimes for days he would not come. I would walk near the clay case, but it seemed whenever Guiaou was not there then Couachy was somewhere nearby, watching. Guiaou and Couachy had fought against the English together in the Artibonite and after that they walked like brothers together.
And I, Riau, had walked in the same spirit with Guiaou, especially in the fighting around Grande Rivière, when both of us had tried to help the whiteman doctor heal the wounded men. Since then, since Dieudonné was sold, a crack had opened up between us like a crack in the earth opens when it has been too dry. Yet I thought I must not blame Guiaou for Dieudonné when really I was angry about the woman. If I thought more deeply, I knew also that it had been Toussaint’s hidden hand which moved Guiaou in the taking of Dieudonné, but in those weeks at Ennery I did not usually let my thinking go so far in that direction.
Bouquart asked why I did not start with some other woman, and he named women who were ready to come to me. I knew them anyway, there was more than one and some of them were beautiful. One liked me for the captain’s coat, and others for different reasons. I saw their smiles, but my spirit did not draw me to them.
So on an evening I sat alone inside the ajoupa, playing to myself as I would do at that hour, following the voices of the birds outside. I sat on the ground in a corner with my back against a post, but through the space of the doorway I saw the clouds rushing across the sky and all the birds were hurrying too, because of the rain, except the rain would not really come, because the season was past. When I heard footsteps, I thought maybe Caco was coming, but the feet were heavier than his, and I saw through the woven walls of the ajoupa the figure of a woman on the path. Between the cracks and sticks of the wall her face and her form were broken up, though I saw she was wearing a long red cloth wound many times around her head. Maybe it was one of those women Bouquart had spoken of. I began folding away into myself to hide from her. But when she stepped into the doorway, it was Merbillay. Guiaou was not away with the army then. He was somewhere on Habitation Thibodet, but Riau was not thinking of him then, and neither was Merbillay.
A few raindrops spattered into the dust behind us as she came in, and a few more flattened on the palm thatch of the roof. She was a long time unwinding that red spangled cloth from her head. We did not speak of anything at all. With the heaviness of rain, the air between us was like water, so that each of her movements made a swirl that touched my body, though we were not yet near enough to touch.
After, a shaft of sun came through the scattering sounds and made the shape of a flattened circle all in green and gold over a few small carrés of cane field in the valley. Merbillay and I looked down at this together, feeling a calm and a stillness between us. All the time she kept inside the doorway though, and I felt how she did not want to be seen by anyone, and a little seed of anger was somewhere in my head, though not yet opened.
After this day, Merbillay came to me sometimes, without warning and without a word. I would not know when she was coming, and still I could not go to her. Each time she came, the hot, sharp sweetness was stronger than the time before.
In the next days the doctor’s sister returned. She had gone away in the darkness riding in man’s trousers and all alone, but when she came back, she was riding sidesaddle like a regular white lady and escorted by five of Toussaint’s ninety new guardsmen with the tall, shiny helmets, and with her was the boy, Paul. Then there was a lot of happiness in the grand’case, and Zabeth shouted and cried in joy, and soon the story of all that happened came out to us in the camp through Bouquart—how Elise was in harmony with her brother again because she had found the child (though they had not found Nanon at all) and how Choufleur had wanted to sell the boy, to make him disappear.
I, Riau, was glad for the people in the grand’case, because I was in friendship with the doctor since a long time. Also I had watched Sophie with a different eye since Zabeth had called me to her treatment. Even after the fever left her, she had been pale and sad, like a ghost, but now the light returned to her eye, when she saw her mother and Paul again. Pauline, who was the daughter of that marron priest and Fontelle, had come with them too, to help Zabeth with the little children . . . but they were more like three or four small children, laughing and playing together.
But it was not finished yet, because they had not found Nanon anywhere. That doctor did not have the proud ways or the manner of other blancs —he was so much another way that you might fail to see him when he was there, but when he had once set his teeth into something, he would not let go very easily, no more than a big caïman from the river. I knew this, and I pictured him with the mirror ouanga he kept in one pocket and the snuffbox ouanga he kept in another pocket far away as if it would be like gunpowder and fire if he and Choufleur ever met, and I saw that in the end they must come together. Their story was not finished yet, and neither was mine.
I saw before my eyes a newborn baby stuck on a long spear, with arms and legs still wriggling, though it must soon die. By the force of pity you wished for it to die soon to end its suffering and end the suffering you felt when you had to look at it that way. And yet I, Riau, had looked at sights like that with another feeling. In the time of the first risings, Riau had done certain things, or certain things had been done with his body which I did not now remember, either because he was ridden by a lwa or . . .
Choufleur must have wanted to wipe out that boy, Paul. To make it like he had never been born. I felt that this must be the truth. But the blancs had been the first to put babies on spears, before the risings, when they rode against the colored people of the west.
Then I walked down to where the clay case was. I felt a purpose in my head without knowing what it was. Only it was many days since Merbillay had come to my ajoupa on the hill. That whole part of Habitation Thibodet was like a little town now because people had been living there so long. Most of the other ajoupas had been finished with clay walls too and the paths were packed down hard between them. There was a chicken, here was a goat, there was a donkey nuzzling stubble by a housewall. Merbillay sat on the low clay sill of the doorway with the new baby at her breast.
The sun was exactly on top of my head and burned down through my body and legs and on into the ground hot enough to boil the water that pools beneath. Merbillay looked up at me with a still, stone face, and I looked at her without knowing what to say or do.
Couachy came from the corner of another case, walking quickly and speaking in a loud voice. “Ki problèm ou?” The wrong words, too loud. What is your problem? Riau had no quarrel with Couachy, but when he spoke, the seed of anger bloomed in my head and filled it up with its stinging red flower.
For a moment I did not know exactly what was happening, only I heard Merbillay’s voice, high and shrill with anger, but not the words. Only the surge and pull of blood and muscle, jolt of bone. Then I saw that Guiaou had come from somewhere to stand with Couachy, and Bouquart was by me, holding my elbow. Merbillay stood in the doorway with Yoyo held high on her shoulder and beginning to complain for the loss of the breast, and Merbillay was still cutting at all of us with her tongue, but at the same time her eyes darted everywhere to be sure it would not be safer for her to run inside the house with the baby. I saw Caco’s face too, looking around her hip at us.
Bouquart and Guiaou were shouting also, and maybe Riau was saying something too, but Couachy was silent; his tongue came out of his mouth only to touch the blood that seeped where his lip was swollen. Seeing the blood, I thought that fighting might really begin among all of us. But Bouquart pulled me back very hard with his hand on my elbow, and then Quamba came.
Quamba walked to us in that quiet and slow way he would have walked toward horses who were fighting or frightened, rearing or tossing their heads or struggling against a tether or trying to break out of some stall or corral. Every one stopped shouting when Quamba came, even Merbillay. She stood with her mouth still open, but no words came out anymore, and Yoyo stopped and whimpered and turned her head on her shoulder, to look. Quamba came between us all with his soft, gentle step, and he spoke in a voice so calm and soothing that we did not need to hear the words, no more than a horse would have needed to understand them. Quamba had worked upon Guiaou’s fear of horses, and Riau knew him even before that. Also Quamba had taken the asson, at the hûnfor above Ennery, and this too gave him respect with all of us.
My head was still all hot inside so that I could not understand what he was saying. But his words were calming, and his hands moved smoothly on the air between us, as if he were testing whether he might touch Guiaou or Riau without being stung or burned.
“La paix,” said Quamba, to Guiaou and then to me. Bouquart drew on my arm and I let myself go back with him. Then we turned together, Bouquart and I, and were walking away from them all and away from the clay case, and after a few steps I shook my arm free of Bouquart’s hand.
“La paix,” Quamba called in a slightly stronger voice, though not really loud. I looked back and met his eye to show that I had heard him. But there was no peace in me anywhere.
The next day Merbillay came again to the ajoupa on the hill. And afterward she came even more often than before. There was hardly a day when she did not come. I was glad, but part of this gladness was mixed with anger, and I knew there would be some more trouble.
Then, after some days, the blanc captains Maillart and Vaublanc came up the path to my ajoupa. I was so much surprised to see them there, I wondered if maybe they did not have an order to arrest Riau. But they only stood outside the ajoupa, breathing hard as whitemen do when they have had to climb a hill. They spoke about the weather and the fineness of the view. It was true that you could see a long way from that hilltop, all over the deep valley and around the mornes which closed it in. The white captains asked my leave to come inside the ajoupa. There was not a lot for them to look at in there, but Maillart asked that I take down the banza and play a little, and afterwards they took it up and turned it over and passed it between them, comparing it to instruments they knew from France, though it seemed it was not very much like any of those.
Then the two white captains left the ajoupa and made ready to start down the path, only Maillart turned back to me suddenly and placed one hand carefully on my chest and took in a deep, important breath.
“You must not fight Guiaou,” he said. “Riau, I tell you as—as your brother officer.”
So that was what it had been about, from the beginning. I said nothing, though I had the angry thought that Maillart, even if he had been my parrain to teach me the whiteman ways of fighting, Maillart was not my father. The words of the Creole song came in my head. We have no mother. We have no father. We come from Guinée . . . but we did not come out of Guinée because we wanted to.
Maillart would not have understood any of that. I saw that he had come out of friendship, perhaps brotherhood, even if he could not say the word without some difficulty. Another blanc would not have come at all. I had not even known that Maillart bothered himself to know where Riau stayed at night. He was shaking his head now, smiling a little, in the manner he might have had with another white officer.
“Women,” he said. “They are to admire, to serve, to enjoy, perhaps . . . but not to die for.”
“But if you were in my case, you would fight a duel,” I said.
The Captain Maillart turned some of those colors that rise so easily in a whiteman’s skin. He could not very well say that it was not the same for me. I did not know if he thought this either.
Vaublanc, who had been watching us, spoke then. “You are an officer, and Guiaou is not,” he said. “You cannot challenge an enlisted man. No more can you accept his challenge, or even notice it.”
Blanc rules. Maillart was nodding to agree. I thought, yes, if I wore my officer’s coat, I might order Guiaou what to do, and Couachy too (but neither of them was in my company), and yet this would not make the problem of the woman go away. What would Maillart do if his woman went with a man not an officer? I did not ask him this, though, because I could not think of any time when a blanche had done such a thing, so maybe it was not possible.
The white captains must have thought they had said enough, because they made ready to go down the trail again. When Maillart had taken a few steps, he stopped and looked at me again.
“There was a time when I was in your place,” he said. “And I did not fight the other man.” He looked at me to know if I thought that fear had prevented him, but I did not think so, and then he went after Vaublanc, down the trail.
I took leave for one night and one day and went to another higher mountain where there was bwa danno. I cut a danno from the ground, measuring it to be longer by two hand’s lengths than Guiaou’s coutelas. I had thought a lot about that coutelas, because Guiaou was very quick and skillful with it, and he preferred it to a gun.
With my own coutelas I peeled the danno, all the way to one end of it, but on the other end I left enough of the smooth, gray shiny bark to cover the place where my hand would grip. Beneath the bark the wood was pale and slightly supple, like a whipstock, but also very, very hard. I liked it better than the longer heavy clubs which some men fought with, like Bienvenu. Those heavy clubs would strike a killing blow, but they moved slower than a knife.
If Maillart had not come to speak to me, though, I might have chosen something else than a danno. I might have made ready to fight with a pistol or some other weapon more certain to kill. But that thought did not come to my head until later.
I carried the danno to the ajoupa and kept it leaning just inside the door. I did not take it down to the compound or carry it at any time I must wear my officer coat, but shirtless, high on the morne, I worked and worked until the danno spun around my hand like the wing of a hummingbird, so fast you could see only the blur of it, whirling forward and then back with scarcely a hitch between the two directions. I worked the danno with both hands, and changing from one hand to the other, until striking from any direction I could cut a green branch big around as my thumb.
When I first returned from the mountain where bwa danno grew, Merbillay had been there and left one of her mouchwa têt spread over my sleeping mat, not the red cloth but a blue one. I put it across my face and breathed the scent of her. She came soon again, and often. All the time she was in that ajoupa with me, the danno leaned against the woven wall inside the doorway, but if she noticed, she did not say anything about it.
Once in the late morning of a day when there was no drilling of the soldiers down below, Merbillay and I lay naked on the mat side by side, dozing as the sweat dried on us in the breeze that blew through the sticks of the wall. What woke me was the sound of many voices, and when I woke, Merbillay had jumped up with a frightened look on her face and was winding her cloth to cover herself.
I picked up the danno as I stepped through the door. A shout went up from all those people, but when Merbillay came out they cried even louder. Bouquart came to me and when I saw his troubled face, I knew that he had wanted to come to me to warn me when he saw it begin—he wanted to tell me this now, but I stopped him from talking. Already the danno was twitching in my hand like the stiffened tail of an angry cat.
Guiaou stood forth, the baby Yoyo cradled in his left arm, and he was shouting, pointing at Merbillay, then at the baby, then at Merbillay again. The hum inside my head was too loud for me to understand his words. Caco was not anywhere, and I was glad for that. Guiaou’s coutelas was strapped to his right hip, and I saw only his hand passing above it, forward and back as he moved his arm to point. Then Merbillay was holding the baby somehow and the crowd had closed behind us, between us and the ajoupa and Merbillay was sucked away into the crowd. The crowd had made a circle around only Giaou and Riau. Down the hill I heard Maillart’s voice shouting angrily, but the crowd had blocked the trail head and would not let him come up.
Only once did I look into Guiaou’s face with the deep scar tearing it open so near to one of his eyes, and after that I looked only at his hip and shoulder and the space between, which the coutelas would come out of. But my good danno was longer and already it was whirling in my hand. I struck first, high, overhand, drew his parry and reversed the strike almost before the metal touched the wood. With this I hit him on the leg but not as hard as I should have because I was too excited. Still he stumbled and fell back, the crowd opening a pocket to receive him, and I charged, but he laid himself long and low and took the wood across his back while lashing the knife at my forward leg. The danno made a red welt on his skin, but the cut toward my legs drove me backward to the center of the circle.
We stepped around each other, left, left left, feinting. No advantage for either. I rushed him with two underhand cuts flowing one into the other without a break, but he skipped back and the crowd gave way and he found space to escape. I cut backward, up in a curve from his right foot to his left shoulder, and met the blade halfway. If I had thought sooner, I could have ridden the blade down to smash his knuckles so I tried the same stroke again, but the blade was not where I expected it, because he had flipped it under to lie along the outside of his forearm. He struck up with his elbow as the danno went by and the blade hooked out to bite deeply into the underside of my right arm.
The crowd sucked in a moaning sigh. I parried, parried, could not strike. I could do no more than stop his cuts. The blade rolled forward in his hand, quivering, sniffing for Riau. I stepped in, slashing the pattern of an 8, but Guiaou somehow escaped this without parrying and then thecoutelas made three tiny weak flicks forward that cut a circle around my wrist.
That was Riau’s own blood on the ground, sticky between my bare toes as I circled, stepping, left left left . . . The blood was leaving my head to fall into the dirt through the cuts in my arm, and I felt cold in my head and a ring of darkness was all around my eyes.
Espri mwen, I said in my head. Ogûn. Ogûn Feraille vini mwen!
Guiaou must have felt that I had weakened, for he came in hard with the coutelas. I did not know what I did then, only afterward I knew it as if someone else had seen and told me about it all. My hand turned upside down in a reverse parry, and Guiaou flipped the blade toward his left side because he expected the swallow strike to come whipping all the way round Riau’s head to hit him there, but instead I caught the low end of the danno with my left hand and spun it up and around to his collarbone. With my right arm I would have broken the bone altogether, but the left-hand blow was hard enough that his hand with the coutelas dropped back against his knee. Already I had reversed the danno into my right hand, and as the coutelas came up wavering, I caught his wrist with a wheeling underhand strike and the coutelas flew up high, away, flapping like a bat’s wings against the sky.
The crowd made that same moaning of the breath. I looked again into Guiaou’s face and saw he had given himself up to Baron Cimetière. Death was not so much to him anyway—he had already died at least one time before, beneath the waters with the sharks. The danno in my hand began to turn. I could have struck him anywhere, but the danno left my hand and went flying off wherever the coutelas had gone. I don’t know why, but the same spirit that had given me the strokes that took away his knife gave me this action, and the spirit left me standing there, holding my empty hands out to Guiaou.
In the night the drums began at the hûnfor which was on a high, rounded hill behind the valley where the houses were and beyond the slopes of coffee trees. Riau walked to the drumming, alone at first, then with Bouquart, then with some others. I did not carry the danno or any other weapon, though we had found the danno, lying near Guiaou’s coutelas in the stones beside the streambed. My hands swung light and empty beside me, checked by a dull pain from the cut on my right arm, which was bandaged and poulticed with leaves. After the fighting Guiaou and I had dressed each other’s wounds, waving away the old women who came to do it for us.
Now we came up through the circle of torches onto the round, cleared top of the hill, and I turned to the left, circling the poteau mitan. The drums were strong already, and the hounsis swayed and sang, all dressed in white. On the far side of the circle the trees were cut, and I saw a long way out over the valley, under the sharp starlight.
There was Guiaou circling the other way from me, his arm in a cloth sling from the hurt to his collarbone. He wore a new shirt for the ceremony, and the poultice Riau had put over the danno slash on his back stuck here and there to the fresh cloth. Our eyes met for a moment, and we turned away from one another and looped back, moving among the others whose steps were shifting, lightening toward dance, our pathways swooping like the trails of swallows in the sky. As I turned and looked out over the valley, the stars began to run and bleed so that I saw the trails of them. Turning into the circle, I searched for a still point with my eye. Near the poteau mitan Quamba sat very still, cross-legged on the ground with the asson before him between his knees, the bead strings drooping over the gourd. Later, much later, he would call his spirit. His spirit would not be the first to come. On the far side of the clearing a woman in a high red turban stood up swaying behind the drums to lead the singing, and this was Merbillay.
Mèt Agwé, koté ou yé?
Ou pa wé mwen sou lanmè?
Gegne zaviro nan main mwen . . .
M’ pa kab tounen déyé . . .
Guiaou was shocked backward, his legs stuttering—I saw his eyes go white, but the hounsis caught him before he’d fallen to the ground, made a hammock of their arms where he lay with his arms and eyelids twitching.
Master Agwé, where are you?
Don’t you see I’m on the sea?
I have the rudder in my hand. . . .
There is no turning back for me . . .
Then he rose up smoothly from among them, and Agwé was in his head. Agwé rising like a cresting wave, a dolphin breaching out of the crest. Like water Agwé rippled toward Riau and caught his left arm which was not hurt and pulled him into the wave’s curl . . . smooth and glassy, collapsing on itself. The stars whirled and bled together white as milk and Riau was no more, but there was Ogûn.
In the next days, Riau was very calm within himself, and floating like a burned-out log floats as a boat on top of the water. There was the peace Quamba had wished me, though it had not come all at once. Riau was not moved to do anything, only to follow whatever would come. In those days Merbillay did not come at all, but Caco came and we did many things together. I saw there was no trouble in Caco’s head, which made me glad.
One day Guiaou himself came up the trail. He was not wearing the sling anymore. He had his coutelas and his musket on his shoulder, but I knew he had not brought those weapons against me. When he came in front of the ajoupa, he set down the musket against a sapling and told me that some men were moving to Mirebalais and that he would be going with them.
“Yes,” I said, because I had heard that there would be a movement of some troops, only Captain Riau was not going with them now, and would still be posted here at Ennery. I had not known that Guiaou’s company was ordered out, and I wondered why he would come to tell me.
Guiaou stretched his back and breathed deeply and worked his bare feet around in the dirt where the chickens scratched. At last he told me that Merbillay’s blood had stopped, which meant another child was coming.
“Ti-moun sa-a gegne dé pè,” I said. I don’t know why I had not thought till then that there must be another child. The words came from my mouth before I thought of them. That child will have two fathers.
“Sa!” Guiaou said, as if he had been searching all over the world for the words I had said and was very excited to find them. We looked at each other strangely for an instant, then turned and looked all around the hills and the sky in opposite directions. But then it seemed that my left hand was touching his right, palm to palm. The two hands held each other gently for a moment, then released, and Guiaou had shouldered his musket and was going down the hill again.
The same day the soldiers marched out of Ennery, I helped Merbillay move her things to the ajoupa on the hill. There were not so many things, but she made herself a great trouble arranging them in there. She would have made me the same trouble too, but seeing that Yoyo was restless and whimpering, I carried her outside. Caco had gone off in the woods alone somewhere. I thought he was happy to move to the hill for a time, because there were less people than down below who might catch him to do work.
Yoyo could crawl very well by then, and she could stand if someone held her by both hands. I lifted her to her feet that way and coaxed her to take a step or two, but she curled up her legs beneath her until I let her down again. She crawled in the dust, bubbling and humming. When she came to my legs and began playing with my toes, I caught her up into my arms. She smiled at me with her red gums and then she turned and nuzzled her damp mouth against my skin. She had a warm, important weight, like bread. This was the first day that I had held her, and I felt that every other thing I had to carry had been lifted from me.
Though he normally used his cane only to swagger, Arnaud found himself depending on it, leaning into it, on the last twists and turns of the path up the hill. Dark faces peered out curiously from the huts that lined the path. Rare for a blanc to pass this way. He was sweating when he reached the rim of the hill below the church, but a stiff breeze came off the water, which quickly cooled him.
The hill was a dome, smooth as a skull. On the brow, three wooden crosses tilted into the wind; the center cross stood somewhat higher than the others. Arnaud turned in a circle, pivoting on his planted cane. Between the crosses and the church, his wife sat on a low wooden stool with her skirts spread all about her, catechizing a gaggle of black and colored children who sat in the dust at her feet under the shade of a scraggly flamboyant. Thin and reedy, her voice reached him against the wind.
Ki moun ki fé latè?
BonDyé! The children’s chorus swelled in answer.
Ki moun ki fils-li?
Claudine leaned forward to sketch the letters for Bon Dieu and Jésus Christ on a panel of dust one of the older girls had smoothed for her, using a pointed stick for a stylus. There was no paper for such a project—one of many shortages. She gave the stick to one of the colored girls, who crouched to begin copying the words, her tongue pushing out her cheek in her dense concentration. As Claudine straightened up on the stool, she caught Arnaud’s eye and smiled at him and perhaps even colored a little as she lowered her head. There was something in her movement that recalled for him an early meeting, though not their first, in France, when he had first desired her. The feeling confused him, but he continued to approach.
“You may go,” Claudine said, and as the dismissed children scattered she erased the dust slate with the sole of her worn shoe. Arnaud held out his hand to her and she took hold of it to rise.
“Well, my wife,” Arnaud said, with an ease of manner only partly forced. “Are your students attentive?”
“As you see them,” Claudine replied.
As she spoke, her eyes connected with his own. They were not rapt upon some hollow, holding phantoms only she could see—she was present with him now. At such moments he was wont to believe that her mind was healed, though he knew from experience that at some later time her thought would fail again into disorder, her eyes haze over on the void, her speech shatter into chants of Revelation, garbled with her private visions.
“That one has some natural quickness,” Claudine said, pointing to the colored girl who had copied the phrases in the dust and now ran laughing from teasing boys around the church steps.
“As well as a natural lightness of mind,” Arnaud said, watching the child scream and flee.
Claudine frowned to reprove him, and Arnaud repressed any further remark. There was a part of him that responded with frothing indignation to the notion of teaching blacks their letters—it was this sort of practice that led to rebellion, was it not? What could be more obvious? But her stints of teaching, which had been recommended to her by the Père Bonne-chance, seemed to clear and calm Claudine’s mind as nothing else could. Therefore, when Arnaud’s rage rose up at her fancies, he did his best to swallow it. When he was able (no more than half the time), he even sought to imitate her gentle, unassuming way with the blacks who served them still or whom they chanced to meet. The patience required for this effort was not natural to him. In former times he’d had no patience even for his wife, and now there were a great many moments when his patience failed him altogether.
Below, the red tile roofs of the houses spread to fill the pocket of level ground between the mountains and the sea. The sun was setting behind Morne du Cap and the blood-red waves rushed against the pilings of the harbor front. Doctor Hébert was laboring up the same path Arnaud had climbed. With a little resentment, Arnaud noticed that the doctor not only required no cane, but was even able to lend some assistance to the white-haired old gentleman in his company. It was, Arnaud was startled to recognize, Bayon de Libertat.
Reaching the hilltop, the old man stopped and gasped and pressed his clawed arthritic hand against his heart. The wind whipped his long white hair out from his head. Arnaud waited for him to catch his breath before he spoke.
“I am astonished to see you here,” he said, releasing his wife to move toward the newcomer. “Delighted too, of course.”
The two men embraced, then held each other at arm’s length. De Libertat’s crippled hand flopped ineffectually against Arnaud’s coat sleeve. Then the old man turned and bowed to Claudine, who curtsied in reply.
“And when did you return?” Claudine inquired. Her period of lucidity was sustaining itself, Arnaud noted.
“Oh, I have been here for quite some time—but quietly, you know, at Bréda.” De Libertat looked about with his pale blue eyes. “At first it seemed unwise to appear in the town.” His expression clouded slightly. “Perhaps it is still unwise.”
“Would that Commissioner Sonthonax were such a friend to ourselves as he is to the blacks.” What Arnaud really wanted know was whether Bréda was again producing sugar—such rich land, far better than his own—but he hesitated to ask directly. Commending himself to patience, he took his wife’s hand back on his arm.
Doctor Hébert was looking up at the three crosses, hands on his hips and his short beard jutting.
“How came this church here?” Arnaud said, turning to De Libertat.
The old man turned his working hand palm upward. “Abandoned by the Jesuits,” he said.
They looked at the church, a white board rectangle, raised on a stone foundation high enough to require five wooden steps to the door. On the peaked roof was balanced a small square belfry. As they watched, the bell began to ring.
“Vespers,” the doctor said. “Allons-y?”
They strolled together toward the church steps, Arnaud in the rear, Claudine depending on his arm, her head demurely lowered. To their left, the long seed pods of the flame tree shivered in the wind. Together they mounted the steps to the church. Arnaud felt a certain heaviness; regularity of religious observance was not natural to him. He glanced down at the curve of her cheek—pleased to remind himself how the little weight she had recently gained had partly erased the harsh lines that had marked her gaunt face these last years. She looked younger. Confused by his fugitive emotion, Arnaud caressed the back of the hand which lay so lightly on his inner forearm.
The congregation was small: only the children Claudine had been instructing, the woman Fontelle, who was mother to the older colored girls, and a few blacks from the bitasyon on the knoll behind the church. Though the room was half empty, the white party settled on a puncheon bench to the rear. Near the sanctuary, a waist-high drum spoke in a slow, guttural tone. Arnaud started. In his experience, the drums portended unrest, sometimes attack. But this drum’s voice was slow and sonorous as a processional phrase from a pipe organ.
Moustique walked into the sanctuary from a side door, bearing a silver chalice before him like a grail. He wore a long, off-white vestment fashioned roughly from a sheet, but the stole round his neck looked authentic.
“See how she beams,” the doctor whispered, aiming his beard’s point at Fontelle. “The mother of a priest.”
Arnaud nodded, glancing at the turbaned mulattress, who did indeed have a very large smile spread over her long jaw. That twinge of feeling touched him again. He recalled again how, when his feet were torn and bloody from walking the roads barefoot from Ouanaminthe, Fontelle had poulticed and bandaged them, so that they could carry him farther from the mortal danger. He took his wife’s right hand, the whole one, in his left and pressed it.
Moustique set the chalice on a wooden table covered with a bluish cloth. He stepped in front of this makeshift altar to address the congregation.
“Que l’Esprit Saint soit avec vous.”
The children answered him in Creole, and then, following a few notes from the drum, began singing portions of the liturgy. Bayon de Libertat’s white hackles were rising; he stirred restively on the bench.
“But this is no true priest,” he complained.
“C’est un prêtre savane,” the doctor replied, tranquilly. “A bush priest.”
Arnaud made an effort to concentrate his mind on the service. Like most Creole colonists, he had honored his religion mostly in the breach, except during the period of his education in France, which had been supervised by priests. He looked at Claudine somewhat uneasily, for sometimes the church ritual would fling her into one of her transports. But for the moment she seemed calm enough. Arnaud fell to turning his cane, its corkscrew involution passing the curls of his fingers like a screw in well-worn threads. His own character, he mused idly, as Moustique intoned the passages of scripture, was twisted in like manner—his short temper, greedy self-regard, and zest for certain cruelties braided and coiled together with the gentler, more forebearing self which, when he remembered the Père Bonne-chance and the debt of atonement he owed to Claudine, he sometimes tried to be.
What if there were really a Hell, he thought suddenly, as Moustique’s voice hummed on. If so, he was certainly destined for that place. The poisoned, corrupted parts of his soul would surely drag down those other elements of himself with which they were entwined. Images boiled over him—his own hands nailing the hands of a rebellious Negro to a post, severing the leg of a runaway, lopping off nostrils, grinding a branding iron into charred flesh. He had compelled one slave to eat his own amputated ears, had ordered another to be ground to bloody pulp in the cane mill he had tended . . . All these actions seemed those of some other person, as if demons had entered his body to accomplish them, and yet they were his very own. Arnaud began to sweat heavily, as if stricken by a sudden fever. Sweat-slick, his fingers lost Claudine’s hand.
Moustique was reaching the climax of his sermon, to which Arnaud had not much attended, but now he was caught by the flourish with which the boy produced a small stone carving from his long, loose sleeve.
“Just so, the Holy Spirit descends upon us on the earth . . .” Moustique swept his hand, cupping the carving, down toward the chalice. It was a stone relic of the caciques, a bird with wings folded, like a stooping hawk. The stone bird vanished as if into the chalice, but reappeared suddenly in Moustique’s other hand, whirling high above his head. Bayon de Libertat grunted in irritation at this sleight of hand.
“In the First Beginning,” Moustique announced, “the Holy Spirit moved so upon the waters, to create the world.” The bird disappeared into his sleeve. He turned to genuflect before the cross.
Now they were singing the Sanctus in Creole, while Moustique chanted a hodgepodge of Latin phrases (Arnaud would not have known the difference except for Bayon de Libertat’s sniff). Moustique elevated a round of cassava bread, and then was pouring from a gourd into the chalice, not wine, Arnaud could see, but water. His words too were unorthodox, from the marriage at Cana instead of the liturgy, ending with the phrase you have kept back the best wine until now.
Bayon de Libertat was embracing the doctor, giving him God’s Peace. The old man turned and gave Arnaud the same quick hug, muttering la paix into his ear. Then he made his way to the center, crossed himself before the altar, and left the church. Arnaud was facing his wife, then holding her so hard and close he felt her heartbeat. La paix. His eyes spilled over. They released each other. Arnaud was still sweating terribly, the residue of his fear.
Now they were filing toward the altar, the white people following the black. Arnaud did not want to go to the rail, but by a force like gravity he was drawn to follow Claudine. As he knelt beside her, he recalled that if he received the Host in a state of sin, there would be no forgiveness. But it was too late; Moustique had slipped the sweet cassava into his jaws and he had shut his teeth on it. When Moustique made a second pass, he stopped and gave Arnaud a perplexing look and with a finger wet from the chalice sketched the cross upon his forehead. Arnaud’s lips met the silver rim. He nearly choked, for after all it was only water.
Outside the church considerably more people were gathering than had attended the service. Bayon de Libertat was nowhere to be seen.
“I believe he was in a hurry to return to Bréda,” the doctor said to Arnaud’s question. “This issue of the émigrés has become very thorny, even though Bayon enjoys the best of Toussaint’s protection and goodwill.”
“How well I know it,” muttered Arnaud, who would himself be counted as an émigré. The ocean breeze had dried his sweat again, and he felt very much more himself. His former self. “But all this comes from Sonthonax,” he burst out irritably, twitching his cane against his thigh. “One does not encounter such prejudice from Laveaux, nor even from Toussaint.” The familiar fabric of his fears and interests and resentments closed around him like a cloak.
The doctor turned his face toward the water. It was dark, the moon just rising from the waves. Arnaud subsided. He knew that the doctor was privy to the councils of Toussaint with Sonthonax, and also that he served as intermediary between them when they chanced to disagree. It piqued him, sometimes, that his own hopes were strongest with Toussaint, that this former slave tricked out as a general should be in better sympathy with the old plantation owners, whom Sonthonax had damned as aristocrats and émigrés. At other times he saw more plainly that he must accept Toussaint’s favor, and even court it, if he and Claudine were to survive in this land.
But now the drummer was coming down the steps from the church door, with the great drum hoisted on his shoulder, gripped by one of the heavy pegs which tuned the head. A current in the gathering on the hilltop moved Arnaud to follow him around the rear of the building. Claudine was in the van of this procession, walking between Moustique and Fontelle. Also near her was the black major, Joseph Flaville, though, as he was not wearing his uniform, it took Arnaud a moment to recognize him. He followed, but the others had closed the gap between them; he could not reach his wife.
They were walking down over broken ground, stepping over ditches slashed by runoff from the mountain. The ajoupas on either side of their way seemed to be empty now, but there was a hum of voices from an enclosure further ahead: an oval shut off by flat shield-shaped panels woven of palm fronds. Torchlight from the interior pushed up against the bluish light of the moon.
Crossing a ditch, Arnaud slipped on a stone and fell but caught himself on a fist and scrambled up the other side, his stick trailing uselessly. Claudine had already crossed into the peristyle, but when Arnaud reached the opening in the palm panels, two black women crossed a pair of lances, draped with flags, to bar his way.
“W pa kab pasé,” said one, her eyes remote beneath the crease of her red headcloth. “Sé pa pou blanc.”
“But—” Arnaud began. The doctor was plucking at his elbow. He let himself be led away. You cannot pass, the woman had said, it is not for whites. But Claudine had entered there. A path led around the outside of the frail palm-paneled wall, through which the torchlight flickered, and then more roughly to a ledge that ascended to higher ground above the peristyle.
“Here,” the doctor muttered, coming to a halt. “They will not mind us.”
Craning forward, Arnaud nearly toppled into a brushy ravine below the narrow ledge. He braced his stick on the crumbling dirt and pushed himself back. They were looking into that pagan temple as if into a bowl. Arnaud could make small sense of what he saw. A throng of blacks milled about inconsequentially under the light of burning splints of bwa chandel. Disorder in all directions, so far as he could see. The big drum from the church had been placed between two smaller ones that played a rhythm full of dismaying shifts and dislocations, and someone was chanting words he could not understand. Divested of his priestly robe, Moustique capered about like some lord of misrule, circling backward round a central post, a cutlass wheeling, shimmering in his hand. From a distance, Fontelle and Joseph Flaville watched soberly, shifting from foot to foot. Arnaud looked everywhere but could not find Claudine.
The beat of the drumming changed, and a new hub of interest began turning in the crowd, a circle opening round a huge black woman, whose face was a mask of caked white clay. Eyes slitted, she rolled her hips in a billowing motion, her skirts held high and tight against her buttocks and her thighs. Arnaud was riveted to her movement, just as all those who stood encircling her were, but it was something deeper than sex, a still more primal power.
“Maman Maig’,” the doctor breathed, as if confirming something to himself, and at his words Arnaud recognized the midwife in this undulant figure who both was and was not her. The circle stretched into an oval and another dancer was admitted, dressed all in white with a white headcloth. By comparison her movement was pale and ghostly, like the tossing of an empty sheet in the wind. Her skin was white also—Claudine, Arnaud realized, in different clothes . . .
At the very moment of his recognition, she shrieked and tore at her head with both hands. Her cry was that of a damned soul or someone being flayed alive. The thought came to Arnaud that all he saw—the thrust of torch flames and insistent drums and guttural chanting and the grotesquely seductive dance—was part and parcel of the Hell he had imagined in the church and which, in her episodes of madness, he imagined Claudine to inhabit. Hell made immanent. All that these same people had performed in the church was sham, and what it covered up was this. He lunged in Claudine’s direction, but the doctor caught him up and he let himself be detained, mouth agape, watching: Claudine had toppled backward and lay in the crook of Maman Maig’s great fleshy elbow as if floating on a wave of the night sea, while certain congregants stroked her hands (“They will not harm her,” the doctor was saying) and still others whispered in her ears to calm her or inspire her. In Maman Maig’s free hand a gourd wrapped in bead strands rattled—once, twice, again, and Claudine rolled forward on her heels, regained her balance and took a stiff step forward as the people scattered away from her.
“They will not harm her,” the doctor repeated. “You see how they respect her.”
“But what can this be?” Arnaud hissed. He had seen her so before in her fits of madness: stiff angular posture and glittering eye and movements trembling with a terrible rigor. He felt now that the doctor was correct. They had not harmed her. Rather they were helping her, in ways he’d not been able to divine.
“What can it mean?” he said, as his breath sighed out of him.
“I do not know,” the doctor murmured. “Only that, by their belief, Claudine is herself no longer—one of their gods has entered in her place.”
“The Devil!” Arnaud said, cold to the core despite his words’ heat. The echo of her scream still pierced him like a frozen blade. “You mean she is possessed by a demon.” In his confusion he remembered the story of Christ driving demons from the man they rode into a herd of pigs, and at the same moment wondered if he’d damned himself to the same end by taking the sacrament unshriven. Over the cliff with the swine into the pit . . . Hair stood up on his neck and arms, but he felt the doctor touching his forearm and calming. He watched his wife, moving with a step unlike her own, addressing the congregants who swirled about her with a fierce authority.
“I would not say as much as that,” he heard the doctor saying. “It may be that they do not imagine angels and demons in the way that we do. I know that when one of their spirits descends, they don’t imagine it comes for ill.”
Some few days later, riding south to Gonaives, the doctor revisited the scene in his reflections—Moustique had given him some introduction to those African mysteries; had shown him where he might stand to watch without, himself, being observed by the celebrants . . . but he hardly knew what to make of what he saw. Perhaps it was Mesmerism . . . some African strain of Magnetism—how would they have come by it? According to rumor, some European mountebank had introduced a corrupted version of Mesmer’s practice among the colonists of Le Cap, shortly before the insurrection, and so the blacks might have absorbed it from their masters . . . yet the doctor felt it was not so. Unconsciously he touched the shard of mirror in his pocket. After these observances, if not because of them, Claudine was calm and lucid, seemed perfectly sane and even almost contented, as if she had been cured. If that were so, what did it matter if he understood?—though certainly Michel Arnaud would be less easily persuaded. The doctor let the rumination go. They had passed Plaisance and the crossroads for Marmelade and were descending toward the coast and the port town. On either side of him, the helmet plumes of Toussaint’s guardsmen tossed in the dry wind.
At the foot of Pilboreau the road inland to Ennery attracted him, but though he would very much have liked to see Paul and Sophie and his sister again, he could not stop. Perhaps on the return. His mission to Gonaives was too urgent, too delicate. The wax seal of Sonthonax’s letter chafed against the inner lining of his coat.
From the moment of Sonthonax’s return to Saint Domingue, there had been a certain prickliness between him and Toussaint. Nothing overt, no open conflict. On the face of it there was scarcely any difference of opinion between the two. Sonthonax had not quarreled with Laveaux’s appointment of Toussaint as Lieutenant-Governor of all the colony; on the contrary it agreed very well with his own policy to promote black men to posts of high leadership. Early in June, Sonthonax had declared it a crime for anyone even to say aloud that the freedom of the blacks was not irrevocable, or that one man might own another. And yet the doctor sometimes felt that Toussaint was not entirely overjoyed to see the commissioner acclaimed by the freed men as author of their liberty.
He struggled to put these thoughts from him. A short way south of the Ennery crossroads, he called a halt and dismounted to buy a pannier of mangoes from the market women gathered in the shade between the river and the road. He shared out some fruit among the men of his escort, and took a piece to eat himself—the mangoes were too ripe for slicing, so eating them involved one’s whole face. The guardsmen grinned at each other, sucking the pulp of the seeds; the doctor’s beard got sticky from the juice. He washed his hands and face in the river stream before they mounted and rode on. The balance of the mangoes he’d present to Toussaint and his family.
In the midafternoon they came to the caserne at Gonaives, where the doctor found Captain Maillart, attached to the headquarters as an aide-de-camp. Toussaint was away, but was expected before evening.
“What news?” the captain cried, holding the doctor’s horse as he dismounted.
“Dispatches,” the doctor said, “and mangoes.” He opened his coat to show the commissioner’s seal on the letter he carried.
“I’ll leave you that delivery,” the captain said.
“As bad as that?” the doctor said, letting his coat fall shut as he unfastened the pannier of fruit from his saddlebow.
“I don’t say so,” the captain said, looking about uneasily, and lowering his voice, “only the commissioner never got on so well with our general as when they were passing out those muskets to the cultivators.”
“But of course,” the doctor, said, ruminating as they walked toward the building.
He had witnessed a few of those scenes—products of Sonthonax’s first exuberance at returning to the colony. Under Toussaint’s escort, he had convoyed out onto the northern plain or into the mountains round Limbé, with wagonloads of muskets shipped from France. With his own hands Sonthonax had distributed the weapons, sometimes brandishing a firearm before delivering it into eager hands, and constantly repeating the phrase which had become the motto of such occasions: “Whoever would take this weapon from you would take away your freedom!” Wild cheering greeted all such demonstrations, while Toussaint smiled behind his hand, or moved to loosen the canvas from the wagon beds, no doubt calculating all the while that all those guns would sooner return to his own command than to that of the Commission . . . which had sailed into port with thirty thousand muskets, four hundred thousand pounds of powder, but only nine hundred European soldiers.
The doctor had discussed the implications of that situation with the captain before, but now was not the moment to revisit the topic—there were too many of Toussaint’s black subalterns standing about within earshot as they stepped beneath the door lintel to enter the shadows within the building. In the inner courtyard, the doctor drank the glass of rum that Maillart offered him, then pulled off his boots and stretched out on a borrowed cot. For a time the cot seemed to sway with the same motion as his horse. He thought how those muskets had seeded the hills. Thirty thousand former slaves equipped with muskets—did Sonthonax imagine that he ruled them? In case of conflict, those men would much more likely respond to the discipline of Toussaint—if to any rule at all. Toussaint of the opening. Strange numinosity in the phrase he’d chosen for his name. He of the aperture, the gap, the tear in the fabric of the world that had been before. With that the doctor fell unconscious and slept until dark, when someone came to let him know that Toussaint had arrived and was ready to receive him.
In a small private office Toussaint waited for him, alone; he had asked for a service of coffee but sent the orderly away. Now he motioned the doctor to serve himself. It was close and warm in the little room, though outdoors the evening breeze stirred litter on the street. Doctor Hébert produced the letter, and Toussaint set down his coffee cup to accept it. He cut the wax seal with his thumbnail and sat back, crossing his leg and pursing his lips as he held the document high toward the light.
In one of my last letters, dear General, I let you know that your children would be able to leave for France on the battleship Wattigny; as we must order this ship to depart very soon, I beg you to send them to me at once; they will stay with me, and I will offer them every friendly attention up until their departure . . .
The doctor stirred sugar into his coffee and drank. He was still woozy, from having slept in the daylight and awakened after dark, but the strong brew returned him some lucidity. Toussaint held out the letter toward him, indicating he should read.
You can count on all my solicitude, and that of General Laveaux, that your children will be brought up in France in a fashion which corresponds to your views. Rest assured that the Minister of Marine, who is my close friend, will offer them all the protection of the Republic.
Doctor Hébert set the letter on the desktop and reached again for his coffee.
“The Wattigny,” Toussaint said, “is the same ship in which Villatte and his partners in crime were deported.”
“A warship sufficiently well armed to force the British blockade,” the doctor said carefully. “This passage has been arranged to ensure the safety of your sons.”
Tousaint folded the letter so that the edges of the wax seal were rejoined, and spread his fingers out across the paper, leaning forward. The back of his hand was netted with pale spiderweb creases in which the white dust of the roads round Gonaives was permanently engrained. His son would be safe on the Wattigny, the doctor reflected, and also safeguarded, and also under guard.
“The commissioner has established schools at Le Cap,” Toussaint said. “For the sons of the colored men, and equally for the sons of the blacks. He has made it known that in the future no man will be promoted officer who cannot read and write his name.”
“It is so,” the doctor said.
“I have taught my sons to read and write,” Toussaint said. “Their names, and more. They have read Holy Scripture, and something of natural philosophy as well.”
The doctor nodded.
Toussaint lifted his hand from the letter and leaned back in his seat. “You may know,” he said, “that under slavery, only the gens de couleur might send their sons for education in France. Sons of black men, even if free—even if born in freedom—had no such opportunity. For that one had to have a white father, a white grandfather. But now—it is well for my sons to see the French Republic with their own eyes and be instructed in the duty of French citizens.”
But they will be hostages! the doctor thought. Don’t you see that? Of course, he knew that Toussaint had seen that point but had also somehow seen beyond it. It was not easy to plumb his thinking, and in such a project instinct often served one better than reason. When Sonthonax had ordered the arrest of Bayon de Libertat, the doctor’s instincts shouted that it was most impolitic to interfere with Toussaint’s personal loyalties in any such way. Many had so advised Sonthonax, even Pascal who had come out from France as secretary to the New Commission, but Sonthonax, the great abstractionist, saw nothing but the principle. Though soon enough Bayon de Libertat had gone free.
“Perhaps my sons will even learn Latin,” Toussaint was saying.
“No doubt they will,” the doctor said. “Mathematics, too.” It occurred to him that if his sons were to be surrendered as hostages, Toussaint might well hold the entire colony hostage against their safe return.
“You will find them ready to depart,” Toussaint said. “Placide and Isaac. Saint-Jean will not make the voyage at this time. He is too young—his mother is against it.”
“Very well,” the doctor said. His mission was accomplished and with much less trouble than he had expected, so why did he feel consternation where relief ought to have been?
“You will not find them here,” Toussaint continued. “They are with their mother at Ennery—a property I purchased there as a retreat.” He smiled, raising his hand to cover his mouth momentarily. “It is convenient to Habitation Thibodet, should you wish to pay a visit to your sister.”
“Very much so.” The doctor stood, feeling himself dismissed. “But I brought mangoes, for your family—” He recalled that he had left the pannier underneath the cot where he had slept.
“Then take them with you to Ennery,” said Toussaint. “Or no—They need no more mangoes at Ennery. The officers here may enjoy them.”
“Accept a couple for yourself as well.” But the doctor remembered as he bowed out that Toussaint’s front teeth had been loosened by the spent cannonball that had struck him in the face outside Saint Marc, and since then he did not gnaw fruit.
The journey from Gonaives to Ennery was brief, but the doctor made an early start so as to have the greater part of the day with the children. Paul was older now, and bolder. He rambled all over the plantation on his own, and was a frequent visitor to the black encampment, where he had struck up a friendship with Caco who was Riau’s child. The two boys were constantly together, wandering between the ajoupas and the grand’case, but Sophie was still included in their games.
He and Elise supped early, with the children at table, and afterward he put Paul to bed himself. When the boy had fallen asleep, Doctor Hébert rejoined his sister on the gallery. As he sat down, she pinched out the candle with her fingers, leaving them alone in the moonlight and the faint scent of jasmine that grew below the railing.
“You find Paul well, I trust,” Elise said.
“I do,” the doctor said.
“He still asks for his mother sometimes,” Elise said. “Not so very often, but when he wakes at night.”
To this the doctor found nothing to say. He had no word or inkling of Nanon. Vallière was still cut off. The scattered bands of Jean-François had accepted Sonthonax’s guns but had at once turned them against the Republican troops, swarming over the valley of Grande Rivière and harassing Moyse at Dondon. It was rumored they were also being armed and incited by the English.
“I have heard nothing from Xavier,” Elise said. “No personal word, that is, for sometimes he sends money. And gathers intelligence too, I imagine.”
“So far we are in the same case,” the doctor said, though it occurred to him that he had no such way of knowing that Nanon was even still alive.
“Yes,” said Elise, and turned to face him, the moon shining in the dark hollows of her eyes. “One must have faith, and hope. I have done what I can to make things right.” She bowed her head for a moment and then raised it. “So as to be at peace with myself, at least. No matter what may come from another.”
Her hand crept across the table toward him. The doctor took it in his own.
“La paix,” he said, as if in church. He pressed her hand, and went on holding it. Linked thus, they faced the cool light of the moon.
The Desfourneaux plantation, which Toussaint had acquired, abutted upon Habitation Thibodet, just as the black general had said. The doctor arrived there early the next morning to collect the boys, having sent word of his coming in advance. They were ready for him, their small valises packed. Suzanne waited with them on the gallery of the Desfourneaux grand’case, now her own house. Madame Louverture!—consort to the great and terrible black general. But she gave herself no airs at this elevation, dressed in no higher style than a country woman on market day: a clean, pressed cotton dress with an apron, a blue mouchwa têt bound tight to her brow. Her face was wonderfully calm, expressionless, as the doctor bowed over her hand. She embraced the boys quickly, Isaac and Placide, and with a little shove sent each of them from her, toward the gallery steps.
The lads had their own horses—good ones too—and were quick and confident in the saddle, as one would expect of Toussaint’s sons. Both kept their eyes on the road ahead as they rode out. Only the doctor looked back once, to see Suzanne standing mute in the doorway of the house, her hands hidden in her clothing, while Saint-Jean peeped from behind her skirts.
Doctor Hébert had a liking for both boys, especially Placide, whom he took to be the more intelligent. Isaac clowned all the way up the mountain to Plaisance and beyond. He persuaded one of Toussaint’s guardsmen to lend him a plumed helmet, so much too large for him that it kept slipping down over his face. Whenever this happened, the boy’s blind movements would make his horse shy and threaten to buck, and though Isaac could easily bring his mount under control, he would not give up the helmet, so that the same scene kept repeating itself throughout the journey. Placide, meanwhile, asked constant questions, about the ocean voyage, about life in France, about the Collège de la Marche where he and his brother would be enrolled, at such a level of detail that finally the doctor could no longer answer them.
Sonthonax received the boys in his house as he had said he would, treating them with the greatest consideration. Laveaux also, whom they had been taught to regard as a distinguished uncle, called on them, and gave them many hours of his time during the two days prior to their departure. The doctor turned out on the waterfront to see them board the Wattigny, and as they stepped down onto the deck of the ship and disappeared from his view, the notion struck him: What if they do not return? What if I never see them again? But this was one of those wandering, unattached thoughts that sometimes brushed him in the colony—it was not properly his own.
Then, at the height of the fever season, the doctor had all the practice he could desire among the newly shipped soldiers, who were all suffering the usual maladies of acclimatization. Enlisted as messenger and liaison between Sonthonax and Toussaint, he was too often on the road to bother renting a room at Le Cap. At first he slept in the casernes, among his military patients, but when Isabelle Cigny learned of this, she insisted that he come to her. Arnaud and his wife were semi-permanently installed in the Cigny house, if Arnaud were not away tending his cane fields on the plain, and as the house was also frequented by military and civil servants both black and white, it was a good place to capture gossip from all quarters. At night the doctor retired to the small attic room Nanon had once occupied. This floor of the house had been burnt completely in the sack of the town in ninety-three, but Choufleur had restored the room just as it had been, complete with the small round window under the eaves.
Throughout the summer the English kept Toussaint occupied with inconclusive skirmishing along the Artibonite. Rumors from the south, where the mulatto general Rigaud commanded, ran to scandal and catastrophe. Sonthonax had sent three delegates—Kerverseau, Leborgne, and Rey—with instructions to undermine the mulatto oligarchy as they found it possible, to investigate the role the southern gens de couleur might have played in the Villatte rebellion, and particularly to ship the notorious Pinchinat to Le Cap in order that he might explain his conduct to the commissioners. The delegates proved adept at stirring up trouble, but Leborgne outdid the others by seducing Marie Villeneuve, a colored beauty of Les Cayes who happened to be engaged to General Rigaud. To put a razor edge on the insult (Isabelle Cigny found this detail peculiarly delicious), Leborgne invited Rigaud to his rooms “to see the most beautiful woman in town,” then drew back his bed curtain to reveal to the general’s dismayed sight his own debauched and ravished fiancée—Rigaud would have strangled Leborgne on the spot and was well on his way to doing just that, the story ran, when the household servants intervened.
A short while later, Les Cayes erupted in a riot, and a good many whites were slaughtered while Rigaud stood by, wondering aloud, Why are the people in such a rage? This time there was no black army standing by to quash the mulatto rebellion, as Toussaint’s men had done in the case of Villatte. Sonthonax’s delegates escaped the massacre by scurrying to different boats which eventually returned them all to Le Cap. Upon their departure, Pinchinat came out of hiding to reoccupy the house he’d abandoned at Les Cayes, and the whole Southern Department moved into open rebellion against the authority of the Commission. When Sonthonax issued a proclamation outlawing Rigaud, the mulatto officer tied it to a donkey’s tail and had it dragged through the streets of the town.
Whenever the doctor visited him, Toussaint was close-mouthed on that whole subject; he had advised Sonthonax to conciliate Rigaud rather than interrogate him, but once the delegation had achieved its disaster, he said no more about it. His mind was fixed on other matters: the campaign he was organizing against the British at Mirebalais, and the election of deputies to the French legislature. “My General, My Father, My Good Friend—” he wrote to Laveaux in August,
As I foresee (and with chagrin) what unpleasantness is likely to happen to you in this unfortunate country, for whose inhabitants you have sacrificed your life, your wife, and your children, and as I would not like to be witness to such unhappiness, I wish for you to be named deputy, so that you can have the satisfaction to see your own country once again, and be safe from the factions that are gestating in Saint Domingue . . .
Sonthonax himself stood for election to the Council of Five Hundred at the same time as Laveaux. His motive for this move was hotly debated in the Cigny parlor and around the dinner table. Monsieur Cigny posited that Toussaint himself would engineer the election to rid himself of Laveaux and Sonthonax, whose authority was an obstacle to his ambition, while Arnaud maintained that Sonthonax, seeing his support eroding on all sides and having made as great a hash of his second mission as of his first, sought election as proof of his popularity and as cover for his eventual return to France, where it had taken all his lawyerly dexterity to escape the guillotine, when he had been recalled the first time. Then again, Laveaux’s election might have been engineered by Sonthonax and Toussaint in concert, as both had something to gain, potentially, from the Governor-General’s departure. It was Isabelle Cigny (strikingly well informed for a woman, the doctor took note) who argued that since the assemblies in France were taking a markedly conservative turn, it must be in the interests of the abolitionists, both Toussaint and Sonthonax, to have their voices heard in the capital and in the legislature.
Whatever his reasons, Sonthonax ordered Toussaint to march on Mirebalais just before the election—to get him out of the way, some said. At the same time he sent the French General Desfourneaux, with whom his understanding was very poor, to attack the rebels around Vallière. The doctor tried and failed to attach himself to the latter expedition, and so was present at Le Cap during the elections, where he observed that the officers in attendance were among Toussaint’s best-trusted subordinates. But practically no black officer could be found who was not personally loyal to Toussaint (that, Sonthonax had been heard to mutter, was the problem). And so, when Pierre Michel appeared before the electoral assembly, with both his sword and his pistol drawn, and advised everyone that he would destroy the town if Sonthonax and his preferred candidates were not elected, was he acting for Sonthonax, or for Toussaint, or for both of them together?
In the event, both Sonthonax and Laveaux were elected deputies that day. Upon this news, the area around Port de Paix went up in flames, with the field workers burning the plantations and slaughtering the remaining whites, all the while shouting “Vive Sonthonax!”—a curious war cry in such circumstances. When the French General Pageot had failed to subdue this insurrection (for want of reliable troops, as he later excused himself), Sonthonax dispatched Toussaint to the scene. Captain Maillart, who was familiar with the region, remained attached to Toussaint’s staff during this mission to the northwest peninsula and brought back the report that everything had been settled with no fighting. Though Toussaint had appeared in force, he had stayed his hand—his mere presence was sufficiently calming to the rioters. With a few private conversations and one public oration, he had put an end to the trouble.
You have liberty, Maillairt quoted Toussaint, What more do you desire? What do you think the French people will say when they see the use you make of the gift they have so recently given you—drenching your hands in the blood of their children?
How can you believe the lies of those who claim that France would return you to slavery? Do you not know all that France has sacrificed for liberty, happiness, the rights of man?
And remember always, my brothers, that there are many more blacks in the colony than white and colored men combined. So it is for us, the blacks, to maintain order, and by our example to keep the peace.
Thus Maillart recounted the scene from memory, over rum in the barracks, where the doctor had joined him. Toussaint had delivered the speech from the saddle of his warhorse, with his troops drawn up behind him, their arms at rest. Certainly there had been threat behind his persuasions, but the persuasion evidently had sufficed. The cultivators had carried their implements back to the fields; once again all was calm.
“Of course,” Maillart said, pausing to suck smoke from his cheroot, “he had suborned all the leaders beforehand. Or rather, he’d brought them back to the fold of the Republic, for they’d first been suborned by the English at Le Môle.”
“But,” said the doctor, “was it not the election of Sonthonax that set off all this clamor?”
The captain raised his legs onto his cot and leaned back against the plastered wall. Alarmed by this movement, a gecko retreated higher on the wall, farther from the orb of candlelight englobing the two men.
“True, he said very little about Sonthonax,” the captain mused, “but I think he managed to give the impression that the blacks could get along as well without him as with him.”
On October 16, 1796, Governor-General Laveaux boarded a ship for France, where he would take up his legislative duties. With him he bore the strongest testimonials of Toussaint’s filial devotion, and also many messages for Toussaint’s sons in France. His departure left Toussaint without a military superior in the colony, and only one man equal to him in rank: the Frenchman Desfourneaux, who was also a general of division.
By then, Commissioner Giraud had returned to France, while Commissioner Leblanc had died (in circumstances which gave rise to suspicion of poisoning). Raimond, the sole mulatto member of the Third Commission, was keeping his profile discreetly low, while Roume was more or less incommunicado in Spanish Santo Domingo. The French General Rochambeau had failed to take possession of the Spanish half of the island, which a clause of the Treaty of Basel had ceded to France. Subsequently Rochambeau had been deported by Sonthonax, for this failure and an air of insubordination surrounding it. Meanwhile the Spanish continued to violate the treaty in various covert ways, supporting the English invaders as they might, especially on the border around Mirebalais.
Now thoroughly detested by the mulatto factions, and generally mistrusted by most of the whites, Léger Félicité Sonthonax was still very popular among the vast majority of the newly freed blacks, and he remained the highest civil authority in Saint Domingue. Though he’d been elected to the French Assembly at the same time as Laveaux (and though his enemies in that increasingly reactionary body had engineered an order for his recall), he seemed to have no plans to leave the colony.
“Mesdames, messieurs, les jeux sont faits,” Maillart said gaily.
In fact the only lady present was Elise, looking on benignly though she did not play. Across the table from her sat Doctor Hébert, nursing a glass of rum and sugared lime juice; he had not taken a hand in the card game either. Maillart and Vaublanc displayed their cards, and at once Maillart grimaced and sighed and pushed his chair back. With both hands, Captain Vaublanc scooped in the mound of paper scraps from the center of the table.
They’d been at this game for two years or better, and though at first Maillart had been the heavy winner, in the last six months Vaublanc had won back more than half of the highly theoretical property he’d originally staked and lost. Now he arranged the paper slips in ranks, picking up one and then another and squinting at it in the candle light.
“Azor . . . Rosalie . . . Acinte . . . Levieux . . . Lafleur . . . Petit Paul, called by the blacks Bouquart—” Vaublanc halted and brandished the last slip at Maillart. “You’d palm off this one on me, would you?—the beast is worthless, an incorrigible runaway. In ninety-one he was still at large. Give me another.”
“As you like.” Maillart reached into his waistcoat pocket and produced his own store of paper slips, fanning them between thumb and fingers. He selected one and proffered it and then, as Vaublanc reached for it, drew it back.
“Consider,” he said, grinning and twisting a point of his mustache. “This Bouquart is here even now, out there . . .” He gestured beyond the gallery rail into the damp, fragrant darkness, beyond the purling sound of the rivulet feeding the pool before the Thibodet grand’case. “This Bouquart has been serving in Riau’s command, but were he mine, I would not give him up. He is fearless. He stands when the others run away, and inspires them all to turn and fight again. And the strength of him—what a specimen you have there.”
“A Mondongue,” Vaublanc grumbled. “Useless in the fields . . . a bossale who would never bow to the yoke.”
“You do not surprise me,” Maillart said.
The talk stopped, while in the outer darkness the wind rose and rushed through the leaves and then subsided. The doctor tasted his rum and rolled the glass between his palms. He pondered. In France, that other Vaublanc of the National Assembly, who was the captain’s distant kinsman, was demanding that Sonthonax be brought to account for all the losses of property he was supposed to have occasioned in Saint Domingue, and behind him was arrayed the whole faction of dispossessed, exiled colonists, whose influence seemed to be waxing. If by some chance slavery were to be restored, would the card game suddenly turn serious? For Maillart, the doctor thought, it was no more than sport, but Vaublanc had actually once owned those people whose names were written on the slips.
Elise bid them good night and went into the house. Maillart leaned forward to light a cigar stub at the candle flame.
“Where is your famous brother-in-law?” he said. “The tobacco here is nearly exhausted.”
To this the doctor said nothing. Maillart blew smoke toward the overhead fan, stilled for the want of a servant to pull the rope, its blades festooned in spiderweb.
“Simcoe,” Maillart said.
Vaublanc looked up at him cannily. “A fighter, that one. They say he’s landed thirty thousand troops.”
“A fighter indeed,” said Maillart, “and the first the British have fielded—since Brisbane.”
“Exactement.” Vaublanc picked up the cards and shuffled and bridged and let them flutter into a single deck. The pasteboards were sticky from heat and damp and the touch of many sweating hands. “One does not like to be unpatriotic,” he said, “but men like Dessources, or the Vicomte de Bruges—”
“We have already learned their caliber,” Maillart said.
“Quite so,” said Vaublanc. “I think that General Simcoe may provide us with a more interesting experience.”
Doctor Hébert drained his glass and set it on the table; nodding to the officers, he got up and went into the house. Zabeth was just leaving Paul’s room for Sophie’s. When he went in, the doctor found the boy lying quietly under the sheet in the light of a candle, looking up at the shadows of the ceiling. Paul turned his eyes to him gravely, then looked away and up once more. The doctor sat down at the bedside and began telling him a story, interspersed with snatches of song in Creole, though he was no singer. He knew that at this time of night the boy missed his mother most, although, determined in his small stoicism, he did not speak of her. Later in the night there would sometimes be bad dreams.
Pauline came in, dressed in a shift for bed, and stooped to kiss the boy’s forehead. Smiling shyly at the doctor, she left for Sophie’s room where she now slept—still near enough to hear Paul when he cried out with his nightmares. The doctor went on singing softly, the words tumbling and scraping low in his throat, until the boy’s hand relaxed in his and his eyes closed and his breathing slowed in sleep.
He carried Paul’s candle into his own room, and by its light took off his clothes and hung them on pegs on the wall. He pocketed the silver snuffbox and the mirror shard and set those articles on the bedside stand beside the candlestick. Kneeling, he examined the sacks of herbs and salves and rolled bandages which would be packed into his saddlebags next day. Then he sat down naked on the edge of the bed and meticulously cleaned his pistols and checked the firing mechanisms and reloaded and reprimed them. As he handled the pistols, he thought of Choufleur in quick bright flashes which he tried to repel as quickly as they came to him. His long gun had been seen to earlier and hung ready on its nails above the door.
A mosquito whined around the room, and the doctor stalked it carefully, his shadow looming huge and dark in the candlelight. At last he crushed it against the door jamb, then slipped his legs between the sheets and snuffed the candle. By touch he found the snuffbox and thumbed up the lid. Of late he’d been filling it with sweet-smelling leaves, citrus or jasmine or lavender, as if to mask the faint tinge of rot which in truth had long since evaporated . . . to purge even the memory of corruption.
Dark of the moon: no light came through the jalousies, but the breath of air was fresh and cool. The doctor’s bare legs twitched under the sheet. Nanon had shared this bed with him, then briefly with Choufleur (he’d extorted the latter scrap of information from Zabeth). It would not do to think of that. He had been with other women, only once or twice, since Nanon’s disappearance, but it was joyless (though the girls were beautiful), dull and distant even at the moment of release. He’d noticed that Maillart, surprisingly, also seemed to have lost his well-established taste for whoring. The doctor turned on his stomach, then on his back . . . he began to think he would not sleep at all, but next he was awakened by the crowing of the cocks.
The muster had begun before dawn and just as the sunlight began to yellow, they were riding out. Morriset, who commanded the dragoons of Toussaint’s honor guard, led off the column, with Toussaint back by several ranks, riding among his aides and pocketed by the helmeted dragoons. He sat smoothly, easily erect on his huge charger, the white plume waving gaily in his hat. The women and children were lining their way, watching, calling out to certain men and applauding all of them. The children capered about and ran at the heels of the horses. The doctor saw Paul and Sophie come running from the grand’case, pursued by Pauline who was shouting remonstrances, but when she overtook them, she did not make them go back; instead all three joined the other spectators. The doctor pulled his horse out of the line and stood on the bank on the other side of the road, his horse prancing restlessly beneath him. Across the stream of marching men he caught Paul’s eye and smiled and saluted the boy with a touch of his finger on the brim of his straw hat. Paul had found Caco, and the two boys were running up and down the line of the march, taking turns rolling a wooden hoop with a stick. The girls, Pauline and Sophie, stood hand in hand watching more quietly; Zabeth had also come out to join them, though Elise was nowhere to be seen.
Maillart’s troops passed, the captain winking, grinning at the doctor, then Vaublanc, then Riau, who pulled his horse up to stand where the doctor had halted. Sober, expressionless, Riau reviewed his foot soldiers as they passed. Caco jumped and whooped on the far side of the line, but Riau gave him no notice. He was studying the men in their motley: uniform coats over torn canvas trousers or ragged relics of the tricolor, horizontally striped breeches brought into the colony by republican sans-culottes. These breeches were sometimes trimmed down to shorts, sometimes simply shredded to the hip. Many wore straw replicas of European military hats, and some had remnants of the originals in felt, and many wore tricolor cockades pinned to their headgear and were further ornamented by tribal scarification out of Guinée or brands inflicted by their erstwhile masters on breast or cheek or shoulder, along with punitive mutilations: lopped ears and slit nostrils, and some lacking fingers, a hand, an arm, and a few went along one-legged managing a crutch with one hand and a musket with the other, and some had no garment whatsover but a binding round the genitals and a belt bearing a knife and cartridge box, musket in hand and ready. It was this Riau surveyed (the doctor knew): the condition of their weapons.
They passed, and finally Riau raised his head and whirled his hat at Caco, whereupon Paul and Caco both leapt in the air in the ecstasy of this recognition and came down clutching one another. The next squadrons were still marching up, but the doctor fell into the ranks and rode beside Riau.
That day they came to Petite Rivière and camped around the fort: La Crête à Pierrot, raised on a peak above the town, with the slow curl of the Artibonite winding around it. Next day they rode the river valley to Verrettes, where Toussaint had garrisoned another fort, and there they crossed the river and pressed on into the mountains to the south. Before night they came to the crossing of the road that ran from Mirebalais in the interior to Port-au-Prince, where the English were. They camped that night at the fort of Gros Figuier. No cart nor anything on wheels could pass the road to Mirebalais, so during the night the men unshipped the cannon and took the carriages apart. Next day when they marched on, Christophe Mornet remained behind with a small detachment to bar any British coming up that road from the coast. The doctor watched agape as the men, six or eight to each cannon bore, went loping up the mountain ledges as if those loads of ironmongery were no more than bags of feathers.
The valley of Mirebalais and the hills around it were green and fertile, fed by many rivers, large and small; the source of the Artibonite was not far off, across the Spanish border. The pastures were rich, and there were many corrals and herds of livestock roving, also prosperous coffee plantations, most operated by colored men but some also by whites. As Toussaint’s army passed, the field workers laid down their tools and their baskets and came to the bordering hedges to watch, and sometimes the landowners appeared, raising a hand in neutral greeting. When Toussaint had occupied Mirebalais two years before, he’d taken care to put no plantations to the torch; he had kept order, and though afterward the slave-holding planters had invited the British into the region, and though they might fear Sonthonax and the Republicans, they were not hostile to Toussaint (and some of them, indeed, had had secret notice from him of his arrival).
The army did not march directly on the town of Mirebalais, which was strongly fortified and garrisoned by a force of two thousand men under the Vicomte de Bruges. Toussaint contented himself with overrunning the camps on the surrounding heights: Grand Bois, Trou d’Eau and others. The enemy survivors of those skirmishes were driven down into the plain of Cul de Sac, whence they might make their way to Port-au-Prince, perhaps. Toussaint ordered the gun carriages reassembled and began deploying his cannon on the heights above the town. At dusk word came that Christophe Mornet had successfully repelled a sortie from Port-au-Prince: seven hundred men led by the Baron de Montalembert had been driven back. De Bruges would not be reinforced from that quarter.
An hour before dawn of the next day, Riau roused the doctor by waggling his foot, then shushed him with a finger laid on his lips as the doctor jack-knifed from his pallet with a cry of alarm half out of his throat. There would be something interesting, Riau explained, if the doctor wished to accompany him.
They left the camp, a party of ten men on foot, on a path too steep and treacherous for horses, making their way by touch or memory or by the faint light of the setting half-moon. Full daylight found them high in the mountains with the birds just beginning to stir in the leaves, the fruit bats returning to their daytime hiding places, and sunlight spangling out over mountain after jungled mountain: great, green waves of them rolling away in all directions as far as the eye could see. They went on at a brisker pace. Riau had an advance runner who served as a guide. In less than one hour they began to hear dogs barking, and a hairy black hog burst out of the jungle and bolted grunting to the downhill side of the trail.
Riau’s advance man pulled up sharply, pointing at a pile of dry leaves sifted across the trail. Another man stooped, lifted the mat beneath the leaves—below was a deadfall mantrap lined with sharpened stakes. A voice spoke from nowhere.
“Ki moun ou yé?”
“Nou moun Toussaint,” Riau said. We’re Toussaint’s people.
A wild man stepped from the bole of a tree, naked but for a bead string round his waist. He had such a great mass of matted hair, his head looked to be the size of a bull’s.
“Himself!” Riau smiled broadly and spread his empty hands, fanning them around his head like fluttering leaves.
“Then you may pass,” the wild man said, and at that a great number of men like himself stood up from their hiding places above and below the trail, lowering the muskets they had aimed from ambush. The muskets were shiny, new-looking, the doctor noted. A tingle traveled up and down his spine.
The bull-headed wild man led them on a hidden path, his fellows falling in behind him. More dogs were barking and there was poultry clucking, and the doctor began to see corn tassels sticking up among the wild leaves. They came out into a spiral village of stick and mud ajoupas. Here a great number of men were already assembled in the open, each carrying a new musket with its light wood and bright metal, their women and children admiring them shyly from the doorways.
“Who are these people?” the doctor hissed.
“Mamzel and the Docko Maroons,” Riau told him, glancing toward the leader of the band. “But today, they are our Twelth Brigade. Toussaint organized them like that, when he was at Mirebalais before.”
The doctor digested this information thoughtfully. “And their weapons?”
“The gifts of Sonthonax,” Riau said, laughing cheerfully.
To call the Dockos a regular brigade was a stretch of credibility but, under the direction of Mamzel, they moved with a united purpose. They went loping out from their village in a single column, lacing through the mountains with a snake-like movement. Though the heat was mounting rapidly, they held a sharp pace and stopped only rarely for a scant mouthful of water. The doctor poured sweat. His long gun seemed the weight of several cannon—Riau had advised him not to carry it . . .
At last they made a full halt on a peak above a grassy savanna, while Riau undertook a signal with two flags. He scanned the hills beyond the plain with a little spyglass, and he must have seen the answer to his signal, for he told Mamzel they would press on, and quickly. They came down from the mountain and set off at a dead run across the savanna toward the town of Las Cahobas. The doctor jogged with his long gun clasped crossways in front of him, his pistols banging on his hips, his chest about to explode. A herdsman tending cattle on the plain was staring at them, frozen in astonished dismay. A little too late, he caught his horse to ride for the town, but the Dockos ran him down and dragged him from his horse, and one of them swung into the saddle where he had been and rode at the head of their charge. By that time they already heard the ragged sound of gunfire, for Toussaint had struck the town from the other side with his main force, so when the Dockos rushed into the street, the rout of the defenders had already begun, Spanish soldiers and British redcoats scattering in full flight. With a honking of conch shells and high, thready war cries, the Dockos ran after them into the western hills.
Las Cahobas was taken. Riau had rejoined his regular troops and was organizing a house-to-house search for any enemy soldiers who might have gone to earth. Gasping, the doctor limped through the settling dust to the town square, still crading his long gun, which he had not once fired. Below the overhanging roof of a tavern opposite the church, Captains Maillart and Vaublanc sat with a bottle of rum between them; with them was Xavier Tocquet.
Vaublanc half-rose to drag another chair to the table, into which the doctor collapsed with a sigh and a puff of dust from his trousers. He balanced the barrel of his long gun against the table’s edge.
“Hóla,” Tocquet offered.
“Bonsoir,” said the doctor, looking about himself in a daze. Tocquet pushed the rum bottle in his direction.
“Is there water?” the doctor inquired.
In his racing march among the Dockos he had drained the quart canteen he carried, though Riau had counseled him to drink less. The more you drank, the more you sweated, was Riau’s idea of the thing, and that was waste. True enough, the doctor had been able to observe that his maroon companions seemed to perspire a great deal less than he did.
“Look inside,” said Maillart. “The servants seem to have run away.”
The doctor pushed through the slatted door and stood blinking in the dull, dust-swirling light of the tavern’s large common room. Five or six of the Dockos were tossing a sizable cask back and forth—each man who succeeded in catching it without letting it fall rewarded himself with a long draught direct from the bunghole. Their hair and faces and shoulders were streaked and shining with spilled rum. One of Toussaint’s uniformed officers stuck his head in at the back door and called out a crisp order. Reluctantly the maroons quit their game and filed out, leaving the cask on its side, leaking slightly from the ill-fitted bung.
The doctor investigated behind the counter. Spillage was considerable; his blistered feet sucked in a swamp of rum and sour wine, and flies were coming in at every door and window and crack in the wall. Finally he found a waist-high clay vessel which had survived, upright and covered with damp banana leaves and mostly full of water still cool from river or a well. He dipped a cupful and drank, hiccuping in his haste to swallow. Then he filled a smaller jug with the water, and gathering four cups by their handles, he went back outdoors to the table facing the square.
“Dlo,” he announced, passing the cups, and began pouring a tot of rum into his own.
But the mood round the table had gone gelid in his absence.
Across the pack saddles of a string of mules, Jean-Jacques Dessalines was looking their way, immobilizing them in a glowering stare. Tocquet’s man Bazau stood holding the lead animal of the pack train by its rope hackamore. Bazau was impassive, still as a tree, but at thirty yards distance the doctor felt his fear.
Dessalines whistled up a grenadier and unscrewed the bayonet from the man’s musket barrel. With this implement he loosened a square of sailcloth and drew it back from the packsaddle; beneath the cloth were muskets stacked like firewood. Dessalines moved on to the next mule, and the next, his glare at the white men hardening as he unveiled each load. When he came to the lead mule, he reached around Bazau’s shoulders from behind; the movement seemed gentle, almost affectionate, but it pulled Bazau up and back on his heels, with the bayonet point piercing the slack skin under his jaw. Collapsing away from the blade, Bazau gave up his weight to Dessalines. His arms made a trembling movement, but he did not call out. A little blood seeped down the runnel of the bayonet.
The doctor’s eye was caught by another movement: Riau, with a couple of his men, crossing the far corner of the square. Riau stopped and studied the details of the scene, and, with no apparent reaction, walked on, behind the church and out of view. Dessalines began to drag Bazau away in the direction of the caserne, his eyes always on the white men at the table.
“C’est moi le responsable.” Tocquet’s voice carried well as he stood up, though it was neither too loud nor especially strained. “The mules and muskets are mine.”
At once Dessalines unwound his arm from Bazau and let him reel away. He walked toward the white men, unconsciously wiping the bayonet with his thumb, then licking his thumb clean. Tocquet had moved, clearing the corner of the table; his hands were hidden beneath the loose tail of his shirt. Cautiously the doctor glanced at the barrel of his long gun, in easy reach as it leaned against the table. His pistols too were still primed on his belt. He could smell the bitter, stinging sweat that pulsed from Vaublanc and Maillart. Raising a weapon against Dessalines would precipitate unimaginable disaster. And Dessalines was near enough for the doctor to hear his breathing. The bayonet was reversed in his hand, lying against his coat sleeve. With his free hand he absently touched the spot beside his neck, hidden beneath the gold braid on his coat, where the first raised band of scar tissue commenced, etched there by a stray curl of the whiplash. Tocquet stepped, very softly, to the right, and Dessalines’s head tracked him like a beacon.
Dust and hoofbeats in the square. Abruptly Tocquet raised his voice.
In fact Toussaint was just riding into the square, flanked by Morriset and two dragoons of his honor guard. He looked at Tocquet curiously, and more searchingly at Dessalines.
“Mon général, s’il vous pláit . . .” Tocquet performed the deepest of bows, both his hat and his hair sweeping the dust. As he rose up, he gestured at the mule train with his hat. “Accept these weapons as a gift to your soldiers. Victory to the French Republic!”
The cheer collapsed on its own echo. Toussaint said nothing. His mouth covered by his hand, he rode the length of the mule train, studying the loads. He signaled to Bazau, who’d remained standing by the lead mule, to loosen a musket and hand it up. Solid in the saddle, Toussaint aimed the musket toward the church door with both hands, pulled back the hammer and dry-fired the gun, then turned it around to squint into the bore. With half a smile, he gave the weapon back to Bazau.
“With pleasure,” Toussaint said. “May these new guns lend us new strength.”
Tocquet swallowed. “Allow my man to help you with unloading,” he said. “Bazau knows all those pack mules as if they were his kin.”
“But of course,” said Toussaint. He signaled to his guardsman, and they rode out of the square at a slow trot. Dessalines was drawn after them like iron to a magnet. Leading the mule train, Bazau brought up the rear. As they all departed, Tocquet crossed himself, surreptitiously; the doctor was the only one to see.
“Nom du diable,” Maillart said.
The doctor belted the rum he’d poured and served himself another measure.
“Of course you were selling guns to the British, one assumes,” Vaublanc snapped. “And to the émigrés, of course.”
“To the highest bidder,” Tocquet said, without inflection, and resumed his seat behind the table.
“To be sure,” Maillart noted. “I hope you are satisfied with your price today.”
“Oh, absolutely.” Tocquet pulled a square of yellow madras from beneath his shirt, dried his palms and assiduously wiped his forehead and temples. “And aside from that, there remains still hope of a better profit,” he said. “I can furnish a large supply of beef, still on the hoof. Also tobacco—some rather nice Spanish cigars, which I can make available to you gentlemen at very friendly prices.”
Maillart glanced at Vaublanc, one eyebrow cocked.
“Excellent,” Vaublanc said, and Maillart added, with perhaps a whisper of irony, “Victory to the French Republic.”
Next day Toussaint threw his entire force against the surrounded town of Mirebalais, beginning with a brisk cannonade from the heights he had occupied. By noon the town was on fire in four different places, and the Vicomte de Bruges began evacuating his men along the line of retreat that Toussaint had thoughtfully left open, via the fortified camps of Grand Bois and Trou d’Eau. But the British and their émigré allies had no time to regroup, for Toussaint’s men overran those camps as well, and quickly. De Bruges and his command were obliged to retreat, in great disorder, all the way to Croix des Bouquets, leaving Toussaint in control of the interior. In their flight they abandoned several cannon and other munitions which Toussaint was more than happy to appropriate.
On the day of the battle Toussaint had detached enough men to douse the fires in Mirebalais before very much damage was done. That evening he moved his headquarters into the house of the former colonial administrator—the same house he had taken the last time he’d occupied the town—and set about organizing his dispatches and composing his reports.
Casualties had been less than usual in this campaign so far, so the doctor was not medically occupied for more than a couple of days. He found Guiaou among the troops and put him in charge of the field hospital; Riau also took part in its supervision, and several old women with the status and knowledge of doktè-fey had come out of the hills to lend their aid. With those matters well in hand, the doctor was free to attend Toussaint, and to help in the constant review of his correspondence.
Headquarters house was an old building for the colony, mostly of mahogany, under the shade of ancient trees, enclosed by a wall of crumbling, rose-colored brick and surrounded by an elaborate garden which had managed to survive all the wars undamaged. The gallery wrapped around all four sides of the house and was a pleasant place to sit and await one’s appointment within. Maillart and Vaublanc were often to be found there, sunk to a less than military posture in fan-backed, rattan chairs. They had abandoned their card game for the time being, as the black subalterns who were constantly in their company here would certainly not have been amused (and some of them were doubtless numbered among the assets staked in the game). Besides, gambling did not suit the mood of that oasis; it was better to sit quietly, not moving a hair, watching the hummingbirds suspended above the blooms of flowers, or listening to the once-tame parrots chattering in the trees. Those parrots spoke several languages: French, Spanish, Creole, English (mostly curses) and perhaps a smattering of Taino (though no one could verify the latter). It was always shady and cool on the gallery, even at the hottest hour of the day, and almost always calm except at evening, when the rains rolled in and the wind swelled up through the leaves of the garden to inspire everyone with the same delicious agitation.
In theory, Toussaint’s offensive had been the lower half of a pincer movement; to the north, General Desfourneaux was expected to subdue all the rebellious factions in the valley of the Grande Rivière, occupy Vallière and then move south to the town of Banica, joining Toussaint either in that town or at Las Cahobas, which was not much farther south. Desfourneaux was to conduct these operations in concert with Moyse—perhaps an unfortunate arrangement, as the white and black officers had formed a relationship of mutual dislike, mistrust, and contempt. Whatever the cause, when Toussaint’s men reached Banica, they learned that Desfourneaux’s force had not managed to win its way so far. Perhaps the northern advance had been turned back outside Banica, or perhaps it had failed before Grande Rivière; the rumors all conflicted, and no one could say for certain what was true. Having nothing better to do and not much resistance to stop them, Toussaint’s men took over Banica themselves, but the offensive would penetrate no farther.
Still the success was very considerable, so much so that Toussaint took the trouble to write a proud account to Laveaux in France—or perhaps it was his old habit of reporting always to Laveaux, rather than to Sonthonax, who was now his sole superior in the colony—I’m letting you know of the happy success of my last enterprise in the region of Mirebalais, The Mountain of Grand Bois, Las Cahobas, Banica, Saint Jean and Niebel, which are all entirely in our possession . . . And Mirebalais was a rich valley, scarcely damaged by half a decade of riot, war, and revolution. Plantations continued to prosper, mostly under mulatto proprietorship but with some white owners and managers who had hung on, producing mostly coffee, but also some sugar—cash crops for the war effort (though getting the harvests to a port remained a problem, while the British still occupied Port-au-Prince and Saint Marc). Better still, Toussaint had cut the line through which the Spanish had been covertly supplying the English on the coast, or rather he had diverted the supply line to himself. It might have looked odd (as Maillart and Vaublanc were still sometimes heard to mutter to their fellows on the gallery) that Toussaint had chosen to adopt Tocquet as his principal quartermaster rather than ordering him shot—but it was a practical decision, which guaranteed a steady flow of beef and grain and guns and powder and rum and even a little wine from the Spanish half of the island. Moreover, everyone rather liked Tocquet, as well as being a little afraid of him; better yet, Tocquet was supplying all the Republican officers—black, white or colored—with a decent trickle of free cigars. . . .
Toussaint was almost always calm, wherever one found him, no matter the circumstances—the same calm like the eye of a hurricane. But during those days at Mirebalais he seemed to have moved toward a deeper tranquillity. Most nights he dined with his staff officers, and he let them tell stories of past triumphs, even encouraged them ever so slightly (though usually he frowned on such anecdotes as boastful, and reproved them with scriptural pieties). Now he seemed to enjoy hearing some junior officer tell how, two years before at Mirebalais, he had astonished the Marquis d’Espinville by showing him the full courtesies of European warfare, d’Espinville who had intended to fight to the death, trapped in the fort with his last eight hundred men, believing that if he surrendered they would all be slain with barbaric African tortures—another French nobleman humiliated not only by Toussaint’s greater skill on the battlefield but by his magnaminity after he’d won—some of d’Espinville’s men from that campaign were now serving under Toussaint in this one.
Still tastier: the tale of General Brandicourt, whom Toussaint and Moyse had trapped in a ravine in the north. Toussaint had spurred Bel Argent up shaley, near-vertical terrain that would have stopped a Norman knight, crossed the ridge and dropped into Brandicourt’s neatly hemmed position—alone—so as to make the general his prisoner, personally. He compelled Brandicourt, near tears or apoplexy from frustration, to write an order to his second officer commanding him to surrender the balance of his men. With this stratagem, Toussaint had captured a French force twice the size of his own at the time, and by sheer ingenuity of maneuver, without a shot being fired, as if it had all been a chess game. And then, that time at Petite Rivière, when Toussaint had marched his men across a hillside in view of the enemy, then around the back of the hill, and around again, and again until his apparent force was doubled, tripled, quintupled, and the false show of strength won him another improbable victory.
This idyll abruptly came to an end when word came from the west that General Simcoe was marching to Mirebalais with the better part of his thirty thousand fresh British troops. The doctor was present when the dispatch arrived, in council with Toussaint and other aides and scribes in the salon of the headquarters house. There was no ripple in Toussaint’s outward composure, yet the quality of his calm altered instantly, returning to that storm-center concentration. No movement, only a slight flaring of the nostrils. Minutes passed, ticked off by the pendulum clock in the hall, while the parrots swore at one another outside in the garden.
“Gentleman, strike the camp,” Toussaint said, raising his head as he laid his palms on the table in a smooth gliding movement. “We depart Mirebalais in one hour.”
Riau and Vaublanc and the other officers left immediately to execute the order, but Maillart lingered for a moment.
Toussaint, who was gathering his papers and arranging them in his portable writing desk, did not give any sign of having heard.
“Will we not give him any battle?”
“Sir, we will not,” Toussaint said brusquely, and then he did look up, with that weirdly ingratiating smile which uncovered only his bottom teeth. “We will march to the coast and capture Saint Marc.”
Maillart’s eyes widened for just half a second. He snapped a salute and left the house at a run.
Half an hour was more than sufficient for the doctor to roll up his little hospital. Most patients had already taken up their bedding and departed, and the few who remained were fit to travel. There was hardly work enough to be distracting. His mind buzzed annoyingly: would Vallière ever be taken? would he ever see Nanon again? and what did Tocquet mean to do about Elise and Sophie? His saddlebags packed and loaded, his guns in good order, the doctor rode back to headquarters and hitched his horse outside the wall, meaning to spend his last few minutes in Mirebalais overlooking the pleasant garden.
Outside the pale and dusty brick wall came hoofbeats and boot thumps and voices crying orders or complaints. The inside of the house was all abustle too. The doctor sat on the gallery. It was midafternoon and very hot, but if he did not move at all, his sweat would cool him as it dried. Stillness, perfect stillness. He watched faint currents of air stir the leaves, almost imperceptibly, feeling his self move out of his body toward them.
Fey-yo, sauvé lavi mwen . . . That was the herb doctor’s sacred song. Leaves o Leaves Oh save my life. . . .
Xavier Tocquet came out of the house with a distracted look, adjusting something on his belt beneath his shirt tail. When he noticed the doctor, he stopped and clicked his tongue.
“Nice while it lasted, no?” With a sigh he fell into the adjacent fan-backed chair.
The parrots quarreled—Son of a whore! Va t’en faire foutre! The doctor drew out one of his pistols and laid it on the table between himself and Tocquet and withdrew his hand. This action came from the stillness he had attained; he had not consciously intended to perform it.
Tocquet narrowed one eye at the pistol barrel, which was pointed his way. The doctor produced the other pistol and set it symmetrically alongside the first, its grip presented to his companion. He put his hands in his coat pockets. Mirror. Snuffbox.
“You can’t be serious.” Tocquet bugged his eyes at the weapons. “This? From you?”
“I should like to know your intentions,” the doctor heard himself say.
“My—” Tocquet twisted his hair over his shoulder. “My intentions regarding exactly what?”
The doctor gripped the talismans in his pockets and thought, in silence, of his forlorn sister, while Tocquet looked across the garden, massaging his brows with one hand as if he’d taken a headache.
“I don’t suppose I had any intentions,” Tocquet finally said. “Only there was such a stench of propriety round that place of a sudden, one could not breathe. So I got out of it.” He looked at the doctor. “You do understand what she had done?”
The doctor nodded without turning his head, his eyes still on the leaves.
“One might even say I acted on your behalf, my friend,” Tocquet said. “It was your arrangements she destroyed, was it not?”
“One might,” the doctor said. “But that was then, and now . . . I should like to know your intentions.”
Tocquet made a wry face, rocked in his seat. “Things have changed, I know,” he said. “I’ve had word the boy has been brought back to Ennery. One supposes the mother would also be accepted, at this point?”
He looked at the doctor, who said nothing.
“By Christ,” Tocquet said, turning his head toward the garden once more. “All the world thinks me an outlandish fellow, but I’ll swear that you are still stranger than I. They say you can pick up any man’s pistol and hit a skylark on the wing. I don’t doubt it. But you must know, there’s more than one man who has worked for my death, and I am still walking, while some of them are not. You do not care for killing, you. I would wager you disapprove of dueling—as a matter of principle, no?”
“I should simply like to—”
Tocquet threw up the flat of his hand. “Assez—m’emmerde plus.” He twisted in his chair, looked out at the leaves, then back at the doctor. “Tell me, if I were to return, would I be received at Habitation Thibodet?”
“Enthusiastically,” the doctor said. “By both your wife and your daughter.” He paused. “By the entire household, certainly.”
“Ah,” said Tocquet. “In that case, if you should happen to arrive there before I do, please tell them to expect me very soon.”
“That will be my pleasure,” the doctor said.
For some minutes neither of them said anything more. Indoors, the clock chimed the quarter-hour. Riau and Maillart came in at the gate of the enclosure and trotted up the steps into the house.
“You did not think you could force me to return,” Tocquet said, glancing at the doctor. “No, and you did not mean to fight me either.”
“Oh, I don’t quite know what I meant,” the doctor said. “I only wanted to—”
Tocquet stopped him with a hand on his forearm. “Don’t say it, my friend.” He leaned a little closer and kissed the doctor on the cheek.
Flanked by Maillart and Riau, Toussaint came quickly out of the house, his hat in one hand, the writing desk clasped under his elbow, a red mouchwa têt tied over his head. The red cloth gave the doctor a blunt jab of foreboding. On the gallery Toussaint stopped, laid down his burdens for a moment, and fumbled with something else in his hands. Sparks and the smell of smoke. He was holding up three torches, handing one each to Maillart and Riau. The doctor was up and out of his chair, his jaw clicking down. Toussaint turned and with a ceremonious sweep of his arm flung the torch into the foyer.
“But yes,” he said, as he collected the desk and put his hat upon his head. “Burn it.” His voice was suddenly loud enough to be heard beyond the wall and all the way to the town square. “Boulé tout kay yo!” Burn down the town.
Riau moved at once, using his torch to set fire to the house at several promising places. Maillart was not so quick to follow suit, but he did obey. The wood, well seasoned, went up quickly.
“Alors, quoi faire?” Tocquet asked rhetorically. He stood up, struck a light, set fire to the chair he’d been sitting in and hurled it through the nearest window into the house. Standing back, he pointed to the pistols still on the table—the doctor hurried to snatch them up.
The heat was sudden and immense, parching the pores on the doctor’s face. He and Tocquet left the enclosure quickly. Outside, the troops were all drawn up for their departure. The doctor went at once to quiet his horse; alarmed at the fire, the animal was fighting its tether. Tocquet touched the doctor on the shoulder; they embraced. Already the flames were shooting high above the brick wall, and the parrots were circling out of the smoke.
“I won’t go on this adventure to Saint Marc,” Tocquet said. “I still have four hundred head of cattle grazing on the central plateau. It’s finished here, as I needn’t tell you—I’ll drive my beef to Dajabón, and then we’ll see. Give all my love if you’re there before me.”
“That I shall.” The doctor swung his leg over the saddle and caught up the reins. Looking after Tocquet, he waved and touched his hat brim. But Tocquet had not looked back; he was just breaking into a jog as he turned the corner of the wall.
They rode out, Toussaint at the head of his troops, holding high another torch which was by then mostly symbolic, since the town was well ablaze in all its quarters and the inhabitants had evacuated with much cursing and wailing. Toussaint had made reasonably sure that no human life was sacrificed to the flames, but the householders had had little time to salvage their belongings. As they went westward along the Artibonite Valley, the doctor pictured the old garden of the headquarters house, its leaves and blossoms withering in the heat. Finally the mortar must crack in the outer wall, and all the bricks come toppling down. Two hours yet till the evening rain, and by then Mirebalais would be a field of charcoal.
When the rain did come, the river swelled brown with earth washed out from the cultivated fields, but Toussaint’s army marched on, scarcely slackening its pace, the men and horses slip-sliding in the mud. Those with blankets shrouded themselves against the downpour. The doctor was equipped with a long oilcloth duster and the tight weave of his straw hat shed water for the first half hour, but after that everything soaked through and he was as wet as any man among them. When the rain stopped, they halted for two hours, building fires to dry their clothes and blankets, eating light rations, resting as they might, while the rainforest continued to shed water all around them. Then by moonlight or through the dense darkness under the trees, they pressed on in the direction of Saint Marc.
Toussaint had damaged no plantations on the way to Mirebalais—such had never been his policy, and on this occasion his haste was great. But the destruction of the town was sufficient warning to the surrounding planters that it might be better not to become too cozy with the British, with the result that Simcoe found the locals surprisingly aloof when he marched through en route to the pit of sodden ashes which had been Mirebalais, and it took him longer than it otherwise might to gather the intelligence that Toussaint had spiraled around his advance and would soon be threatening Saint Marc, which Simcoe had left mostly exposed, lightly defended by Dessources and his colonial Chasseurs.
By then, Toussaint had already put Dessources to flight any number of times, and probably could have killed or captured him more than once, but it was becoming apparent to some observers (Maillart and the doctor, for example) that Toussaint preferred to leave incompetent enemy commanders in the field, that they might fight and lose again another day. By the time Simcoe managed to reverse his advance and rush back to the defense of Saint Marc, Dessources and the Chasseurs had been cut to pieces one more time, their remnants holed up in the town. Once Simcoe had brought his army back, Toussaint faded his own troops toward Gonaives and the Cordon de l’Ouest; he did not mean to fight a full engagement with such a large force on the Artibonite plain. A chess player’s victory of position: Simcoe would not risk another sally toward the interior, and all his fresh men would remain pinned down on the coast. Let fever take them.
In the wake of his uncertain campaign in the valley of Grande Rivière, General Desfourneaux (who got on with Sonthonax no better than with Moyse) was arrested and relieved of his command. Soon after, Toussaint Louverture was notified of his promotion to General-in-Chief of the French army in Saint Domingue. At Le Cap, Sonthonax arranged an elaborate ceremony for the promotion, at which Toussaint was presented with a pair of beautifully chased pistols and, also a gift from the French Directoire, an ornate saber whose blade was engraved with a statement of thanks for the part he’d played in saving Laveaux from the schemes of Villatte.
Throughout this affair, Toussaint was courteous, humble, and curiously withdrawn. There was none of the exaltation he had displayed when Laveaux proclaimed him Lieutenant-Governor. With his new rank conferred upon him, he addressed the crowd in a low tone, saying only that his elevation did him too much honor, that his sole desire was to drive the remaining enemies from the colony and work for the happiness of its true citizens. At the state dinner which followed, he was taciturn, ate nothing but bread and cheese and part of a piece of fruit, refused the wine in favor of cold water.
That night, on the veranda of the officers’ quarters in the casernes, Toussaint sat late in the company of a few of the black subordinates to whom he was closest: Dessalines, Christophe, Moyse, Maurepas and a few others. The doctor, who’d heard from Maillart that Toussaint seemed indisposed to entertain his white officers that evening, would not have approached, but he was walking with Riau and found that they’d drifted in that direction before he knew it. The chairs were all occupied, so Riau remained standing, while Doctor Hébert sat down on the stone coping at the edge of the veranda with his heels stretched out in the dirt of the yard and his face gazing out into the darkness. If he turned his head, he could see the high, shiny boots of the black officers under the table, shining faintly in refracted candlelight. Though Toussaint still abstained, the rest of them were drinking rum, and when Moyse passed him down a glassful, the doctor accepted it gratefully.
A sputter of conversation in Creole flared up and faded; the doctor paid little mind. He nursed his rum and looked into the dark. Presently a touch on his shoulder roused him; Moyse was showing him Toussaint’s saber and pistols for his admiration. The doctor pulled the saber a few inches from its scabbard and glanced at the inscription, then resheathed it. He had no facility with any blade larger than a scalpel. The pistols were another matter. They were beautifully decorated but far from merely ornamental—Manufacture of Versailles, they would shoot true. The doctor aimed each one of them into the dark, held them both together in each hand and grunted in satisfaction at their balance and their weight.
Some further response was clearly called for. “These are handsome weapons,” the doctor said, standing up to set the pistols on the table.
“They ought to be,” Toussaint said, gathering the sheathed saber against his thigh, “if I have given my sons for them.”
The doctor, who thought it best to construe this comment as addressed to the company at large, resumed his seat on the stone curb, recovering his glass which was now almost empty and withdrawing his face from the light.
“Have I not struggled unceasingly against the Spanish? and the English? against all enemies of the French Republic? I have brought victories, and brought order to the countryside, and I have even given my boys into the care of France. Is it possible, after I have offered so much, that my loyalty should be in doubt?”
This plaint ought to have seemed odd, on such a day, but somehow it did not. For no explicable reason, the doctor found himself thinking of how Toussaint had defeated Simcoe by refusing to engage him, so that the British general was constantly unbalanced because he found no resistance anywhere he threw his weight. He tilted his glass and waited for the last few drops of rum to trickle toward his tongue. Dessalines leaned forward to try his palm against the candle flame for a moment, then sat back. Toussaint’s words still hung in the air without reply.
“Nou pa konnen.” Riau’s voice, speaking from the shadow of the pillar where he stood. We don’t know. Several of the black officers were murmuring softly, as if they found his words to be apt.
August, and the sweltering heat was so overpowering that even the dogs of Le Cap were faint with lassitude, lying under stationary wagons or stretched over baking curbs. Doctor Hébert glanced wearily down at the dogs as he passed them. He and Captain Maillart were climbing the grade from the port; they had tried a promenade along the waterfront, but at this moment no breath of air was stirring even from the sea. Crossing the Place d’Armes at a diagonal, they struggled for a few more sweaty blocks, then paused on the corner of the Rue Saint Louis to let their lather dry before they went on to the Cigny house, where both were invited to dine.
They had come before the appointed hour, but the doctor was still occupying a bedroom in that house, and Maillart seemed sure enough of his reception. As they approached, they saw Isabelle Cigny standing on the second-floor balcony, fluttering a handkerchief in their direction. When they’d reached the portal, she furled the handkerchief around a large brass key and let it drop to the captain’s deft catch. Servants were in short supply, and those she had were busy in the kitchen; they must let themselves in, she explained, and she swung her skirts from the filigreed iron railing, through the double doors and into the house.
Maillart unlocked the door and held it for the doctor. Once they had entered, he laid the key in a slightly tarnished tray on the hall stand, retaining the handkerchief bunched in his left hand like a posy. The parlor was empty; they found Isabelle in the kitchen, bullying the cook. Claudine Arnaud sat at the center table, polishing silver knives and forks, with the help of a couple of négrillons. She smiled at the doctor’s greeting, and went on with her task. One of the little boys went out for water, and on his way he paused to lay his cheek against Claudine’s skirt, wrapping one arm around her waist for a moment before he skipped out.
“Remarkable,” Isabelle said, turning from the stove to whisper to the doctor. “Her way with them?”
“Quite,” the doctor said. He watched Claudine. The boy who had remained was offering a fork for her inspection. She turned it this way and that, peering between the tines, then smiled her approval and set it with the already polished pieces.
“This mania for teaching them to read—who knows where that will end, I wonder . . . but those little ones will do anything for her, do it patiently and well, when no one else can get them to do anything at all. And she is specially invited to their dances, you know, those Negro calenda—” Isabelle looked up at him, her lips parted and her face flushed from heat, which was still more intense in the kitchen. Dances indeed, the doctor thought; Isabelle probably knew or suspected something more than that. He felt probed, but said nothing, knowing she’d not let a silence linger.
“Eccentricity, one might call it,” she said brightly, “but—” All at once she affected to notice, for the first time, the captain standing in the doorway. “My handkerchief, if you please,” she said to him.
Maillart moved toward the middle of the room, flourishing his cloth posy. “Would I relinquish my lady’s favor?” he said teasingly.
“Oh, give it me,” Isabelle said, and reached, but Maillart held the pale drape of cloth just an inch or two above her grasping fingers. She stretched out prettily on tiptoe, but the doctor thought her smile was worn a little thin. He ducked his head, slipped out the door and went up the stairs to his garret.
Half a jug of tepid water was on the washstand. The doctor washed his face and hands and torso, then stood by the round porthole, letting the humid air do what it could to dry him as he peered down at the street. He put on a fresh shirt and went down to the second-floor balcony where Isabelle had been standing. Presently Captain Maillart came out through the double doors to join him.
“Well, who captured the handkerchief in the end?” the doctor said.
Maillart contrived a cough. “That game’s not worth the candle,” he said shortly. The doctor gave him a curious glance, but Maillart was looking the other way down the street.
“Why, here comes our host, I do believe,” said the captain. “This affair must have a certain weight, if he’s attending.”
The doctor leaned out, the iron rail hot against his palms. The burly, bearded figure of Monsieur Cigny was just coming to his door, head lowered and features concealed by his hat brim. Cigny was known for avoiding his wife’s entertainments as, in more halcyon days before the insurrection, he’d turned a blind eye to her amours.
“It is the commissioner, after all,” the doctor said.
“And General Toussaint?”
“I saw him at Bréda, this morning.”
Maillart was looking at him sharply.
“Well,” said the doctor, “I cannot say if he will come.”
Pale dust swirled up at either corner, from the horse and cart and foot traffic of the day’s end. Farther off to the south, the noise of the market at the Place Clugny was a distant, monotonous hum. Now, gratefully, they felt a breeze, swiftly rising till it was truly a gust of wind. The clouds were boiling over from Morne du Cap, and people called urgently to one another as they scurried from the street. Maillart’s hair whipped around his head. The doctor squinted, one eye tearing around a dust particle that had blown up from the street. The sky was bulging over the mountain, slate blue and gray and purple and black, scored here and there with a rake of lightning. Then it opened, and the rain came down.
Indoors, Monsieur Cigny sat by his lamp, intently reading a two-month-old newspaper from France. He grunted a greeting when the other two men came in. The ladies had withdrawn to dress for the evening; an agreeable brown, spicy smell drifted in from the kitchen. The doctor and the captain sat down opposite one another and, with small concentration, began a game of chess. The narrow arched doors had been closed against the rain, which rushed loudly against them. It was close in the room, but the air, though heavy, was growing somewhat cooler.
“Me voilà en bonne républicaine.” Madame Cigny crossed the threshold and dropped into a curtsey, holding the pose for a moment, with a smile fixed on her face as though it were painted on china. Then she stood and turned in a supple circle with her arms stretched out.
“Marvelous,” the doctor said dutifully, while Maillart fluttered his fingers against his palm. The dress was eye-filling: taffeta in French tricolor stripes of red, white and blue, with a full skirt and puffs of white muslin at the sleeves and bosom. Even the buttons had been carefully covered in tricolor fabric, in the manner of wee Republican cockades, to complete the effect of ardent patriotism.
“Ma chère,” said Cigny, glancing up above his reading glasses, “I hope you do not go too far.” He sniffed and lowered his head into the newspaper. Isabelle smirked in his direction and went out.
The rain had stopped. Maillart got up to open the doors; a current of cool moist air entered the room, guttering the lamp flames. The captain frowned over his position for a moment or more, then turned over his king with his thumb and stood up, giving Doctor Hébert a significant look. He left the room, and after a moment the doctor followed him onto the second-floor balcony.
It was full dark, but the moon had risen from the harbor, and poured clear light all over the street. Maillart slipped a hand into his inner coat pocket and produced a flask. The doctor accepted and turned it up.
“Why, it is real cognac!” he said.
Maillart nodded, and drank in his turn. “A stroke of luck,” he said, “at the casernes.”
Below, lamps at the doorway cast a warm yellow apron against the paler shade of moonlight on the street. A coach had pulled up, and from it descended the Commissioner Julien Raimond. He handed his wife down, and the two of them went into the house; the doctor could hear Isabelle’s voice tinkling for a moment before the door closed.
Maillart offered the flask again, and the doctor accepted. Two men were dismounting from their horses before the door: black officers, Moyse and Clervaux. They entered. The doctor returned the flask to Maillart, who drank and dried the neck and corked it, then put it away in his coat. They watched the passersby on the street below: for some few minutes no one stopped. Then a larger carriage, with two soldiers riding at the rear like footmen, pulled up sharply. A soldier moved smoothly to open the door, and out stepped Pascal, secretary to the Commission, then Sonthonax himself, bareheaded. A moment, then the gentlemen helped down from the coach Marie Bleigeat, the colored beauty Sonthonax had married the year before. She carried a bundle in her arms and was followed by a small black woman with a basket.
“We had better go down,” the captain said. Again the doctor followed him, grateful for the cognac. The evening would not be naturally relaxing.
In the parlor was all the company they’d seen arrive, along with Major Joseph Flaville, who seemed to have been there for some time, much at his ease on a small spindly chair which his imposing figure covered so perfectly he seemed almost to be levitating there. Did the captain twitch when he noticed Flaville? But the doctor was distracted at once by the commotion surrounding Madame Sonthonax; all the women were exclaiming over the parcel she cradled: Jules-Pierre-Isidore Sonthonax.
“But sir,” said Monsieur Cigny, bowing to the commissioner. “I am delighted to see, as we all must be, how firmly you have rooted yourself in this country.”
Sonthonax was not a tall man, and the extravagant commissioner’s sash round his midsection emphasized a certain portliness. His brown hair hung straight to his shoulders, unpowdered and unadorned. His head came directly out of his shoulders like a bullet, which gave him a formidable aspect despite his insignificant height. For a moment he said nothing and all the company had to wonder how Cigny’s pleasantry would be taken. Sonthonax had fair skin which colored easily, but soon it appeared that his flush was only a new father’s inarticulate pride.
Isabelle shook her fan at her husband in mock reproach. Marie Sonthonax dimpled, dropping her head, while the white men laughingly congratulated the commissioner; the black officers, meanwhile, retained a greater reserve. The baby was carried to the next room for further admiration among the women, and soon Doctor Hébert was called into service, to verify that Jules-Pierre-Isidore had all his features and fingers and toes and was an enviably perfect specimen of humanity. Bending his ear to the infant’s heart, the doctor was pricked by a strange emotion; his own son Paul had been born in this house, and he had been in attendance. The ripple of feeling lent sincerity to his voice as he praised the qualities of the Sonthonax first-born.
There was a bustle round the door, and Isabelle turned expectantly as Monsieur Cigny opened it. The new guests were the black Colonel Maurepas and his wife. Madame Maurepas appeared quite frightened to find herself there; she stood stiff and mute while introductions were accomplished, but Maurepas himself seemed comfortable enough with the formalities. He bowed to Cigny, still lower to Isabelle, and balanced his hat in his hands.
“General Toussaint Louverture presents his compliments,” he said, “with his regrets; he cannot join your company this evening.”
At once the baby began to wail, as if on cue, though the doctor knew it was only that the women had teased him into a state of irritation. Marie Sonthonax squirmed in an unhappy confusion.
“Oh,” she said. “I ought not to have brought him—”
“But my dear, it was I who insisted.” Isabelle Cigny pressed Marie’s ivory forearm. “Jules-Pierre-Isidore is our most important guest, and our evening certainly could not succeed without him.”
With that, the moment was salvaged. The smallest Sonthonax was given into the hands of the little black woman with the basket—his wet-nurse, it appeared. A door was shut upon them, and soon all was quiet, while in the parlor the evening went on.
At dinner Sonthonax fully recovered his powers of speech (which very rarely deserted him) to shower the kitchen with compliments. He was known to appreciate the pleasures of the table, and Isabelle had put herself out to impress him. There was a proper fish soup, a lovely rich shade of brown and redolent with spices; it had taken the cook (Isabelle explained) four attempts to achieve the right shade of roux without scorching it. The next course was beef, with a garnish of mushrooms gathered from some moist cove near Haut du Cap. The conversation mostly revolved around the food, for each course and dish came trailing its anecdote, and Sonthonax was deft with his compliments and showed an almost professional interest in the procedures of the Cigny kitchen.
And no one was seeking to turn the talk in another direction. The table rather lacked for ladies. Madame Arnaud had dressed (or had been dressed by Isabelle) in a white revolutionary chemise, decorated with frills of tricolor ribbon; almost alarmingly form-fitting, the garment let the doctor see that Claudine had indeed regained some weight since her bouts of madness had abated. She seemed calm, even almost contented, but at table she spoke only when spoken too, and that briefly, leaving her costume to make the point that she was as thoroughly Republican as anyone could wish. Michel Arnaud was absent, supervising their plantation on the plain, which was probably for the better, as he could not have carried off such a masquerade.
Sonthonax’s bride was a woman of some worldliness, at twenty-seven the widow of one Villevaleix, who’d been a very wealthy colored gentleman of the northern region. A beautiful woman, and gorgeously dressed, she observed the mock flirtation between Isabelle and Sonthonax with the mildest interest, now and then contributing a phrase or two in a languid, honeyed tone. Across the table, Madame Maurepas kept her eyes lowered, her head bowed; she was dressed as if for church, and looked as if she wished she were invisible.
Presiding, technically at least, at the table’s head, Monsieur Cigny had lapsed from his scintillating moment at the doorway into the abstraction he usually displayed on such occasions. As for the black officers, they ate slowly and seriously and said next to nothing—their officers’ mess was always a silent proceeding, though there might be garrulity before and after the meal. Raimond and Pascal put in a word as necessary to keep the conversation from faltering, for at any complete silence one could not help but notice the absence of Toussaint.
Isabelle had managed some unusually nice wine to accompany the repast, but once the ladies had withdrawn, rum stood in the place of brandy for the gentlemen. Monsieur Cigny offered round his cigars. Sonthonax, who looked well satisfied, leaned back in his chair, stuck his feet out and slipped a hand between the buttons of his white waistcoat as if to stretch the fabric.
“Gentlemen,” he said, reaching for his glass and raising it. “I give you—an absent friend.” He revolved the glass in his hand, looking at the amber swirl of rum. “He who has united all our forces for the defense of universal liberty, the General-in-Chief, Toussaint Louverture.”
As they drank, Cigny choked and spluttered. Commissioner Raimond turned to him with great solicitude and thumped him rhythmically on the back until his cough subsided. The doctor looked all around the the table, somewhat uncomfortably. The company was not designed for easy after-dinner conversation, no matter how well steeped in smoke and rum.
“I offer this glass to the Governor-General Laveaux,” Maurepas was saying, “who steadfastly defends our liberty against its enemies in France.”
They drank. Monsieur Cigny swallowed this toast more easily, the doctor noticed. But for all the tricolor cockade Isabelle had pinned to his lapel, he was a royalist at heart, more likely to have sided with Vaublanc than Laveaux, and if slavery were to be restored tomorrow, he would not be at all aggrieved. Then again it had probably required some effort for Sonthonax to propose the first toast to Toussaint, who had chosen to remain at Breda in the company of Bayon de Libertat—a branded royalist and aristocrat, slave holder, minor nobleman . . .
“To our good friend among us now,” Moyse declared. “The Commissioner Sonthonax. Let him remain with us always, to defend the Tree of Liberty he was the first to plant in Saint Domingue.”
The doctor drank, swallowed, left his head tilted back against the top rail of his chair. On the ceiling, three geckos were cautiously converging on a single mosquito, its shadow spread ominously large by the light from the candles. So far as the black officers were concerned, Isabelle’s invitations had been quite canny. Moyse, Clervaux and Maurepas were Sonthonax’s staunchest supporters among Toussaint’s cadre, while Moyse and Flaville were close as brothers, and Moyse was Toussaint’s nephew. There would have been a smooth liaison from Sonthonax to Toussaint across these men, who were Toussaint’s own—if only Toussaint had chosen to appear. Oh, the doctor, thought, it was a delicate game she played, and how gracefully she’d absorbed the disappointment, too. The widening rift between Toussaint and Sonthonax was well enough known to all, and if she’d facilitated a rapprochement between them, Isabelle’s position would have been improved with both. She might even have felt secure enough to bring her children back to the colony, which was, as the doctor knew from Maillart, her heart’s desire. He wished her well, but he’d served himself as message-bearer between commissioner and general for too long to be optimistic; he had not been surprised in the least that Toussaint kept away.
“Tomorrow’s festival,” Julien Raimond announced. “May every throne of tyranny be overturned, and all people rise to freedom.”
They drank. Of course it was the Republican holiday that had inspired Isabelle’s choice of dress for herself and Claudine—they’d wear the same costumes next day to salute the Tree of Liberty. But tonight the mood was something less than festive, despite the effort of all those toasts, and once the men had rejoined the ladies, the party was not much prolonged.
The doctor felt a little stuffy, after such an elaborate meal, and also he did not wish to linger for a post-mortem of the evening between Isabelle and her reluctant husband. He excused himself to walk Captain Maillart back to the casernes. The streets were quiet, sometimes a square or wedge of candlelight at windows which they passed, or someone standing silent in a doorway or under an eave. The captain walked with a wide swinging step, rolling his shoulders which had stiffened from too long sitting in a too-small chair. He nipped from his flask and offered it to the doctor, who took a small taste and handed it back.
“I am no great lover of Sonthonax,” Maillart said, “but I wonder, what does Toussaint want in a French agent? No one could have shown himself more friendly to the blacks, and now Sonthonax has made Toussaint military master of this place.”
“Governor-General, one might say,” the doctor murmured, “in all but name. And there’s the difficulty.”
Maillart glanced at him in the moonlight. “I don’t follow.”
“Listen,” said the doctor. “When Sonthonax was recalled to France in ninety-four, General Laveaux was the supreme French authority here—supreme over one starving fort at Port-de-Paix, I know, for it was you who told me that tale. Toussaint appeared and gave better than half the colony into his control again—then Laveaux made him Lieutenant-Governor. Now that Laveaux has gone, who succeeds him?”
“Ah,” said the captain. “But Toussaint is General-in-Chief, not Governor.”
“So Sonthonax would have it, certainly. But what does Toussaint think?”
“That,” said the captain, “no one has ever been able to say.”
“Yes, but you and I have both seen how closely he studies what has gone before. I’ll wager he remembers Galbaud as well we do, even if he was up on the Spanish border when the whole fiasco took place. Galbaud was Governor-General when he went to war with Sonthonax and the Commission. It’s hardly three years since they burned this very town to the paving stones.”
The captain stopped in his tracks. “What do you mean?” They stood on the corner of the Rue Espagnole, with a wind blowing up toward them from the city gate.
“It is the posts themselves, as much as the men who occupy them,” the doctor said. “In the old system, before the insurrection in ninety-one, it was the same. The civil authority set against the military. Intendant against Governor-General. In Paris they designed it so, to inhibit conspiracies for independence and the like. No one wanted to see another American Revolution break out in Saint Domingue.”
“So . . .” the captain let out a whistling breath. “But surely in this case the particulars are different.”
“But suppose they were not. Suppose Toussaint to be no different than any other French brigadier. Perhaps he really does see himself that way—he carries himself in the role. No different from the Generals Rochambeau and Desfourneaux, save for his African complection.”
“Save that Desfourneaux is now in the guardhouse at Port de Paix, and Rochambeau has been shipped back to France to answer charges.”
“Exactly,” the doctor said. The captain offered the flask again, but he declined—the cognac seemed to mix poorly with the rum he had taken earlier. “Because they gainsaid Sonthonax. Perhaps also for lack of success in the field—or in diplomacy.”
“Why, everyone knows he arrested them for protesting his favor of the blacks in the army.”
“In other words, they gainsaid Sonthonax,” the doctor said. “As much as to rebel against the civil authority here, do you see?”
“But with Toussaint? In confidence, of course, Antoine, but I know you carry their dispatches.”
“Well.” The doctor glanced over his shoulder. He nudged the captain; they both began walking again, toward the casernes. “You know most of their differences, great or small. Toussaint is eager to take over the Spanish side of the island, in accord with the Treaty of Basel, while Sonthonax prefers to delay. The whole business of the émigrés and the old landowners has been bitter—if it looks as if it’s all about Bayon de Libertat, you know well enough there are many more like him. Toussaint would have them all come back to manage their properties with free labor.”
“Which is sensible, for that would raise revenue.”
“And that revenue would furnish the army. Yes,” said the doctor, “but Sonthonax, never mind his courtesies this evening, is obliged to regard those returning colons as traitors, enemies of the Republic. Strange as it may seem, our friend Isabelle and her family and her properties would likely fare better according to Toussaint’s idea of things.”
“You are right,” said Maillart. “I have often thought so.”
Their boots clopped on the empty street; the doctor’s pace quickened as his thoughts ran more swiftly. “As for the rest of it, Toussaint has complained that Sonthonax is fomenting dissension in his ranks. I cannot judge that quarrel—there has been some trouble, indeed, and arrests to put it down, but for what cause I don’t know. And the small differences—whether the coffee harvest of Plaisance and Marmelade should be shipped from Gonaives to support the army there, or be sold here at Le Cap for the benefit of the Commission . . .”
“But for an army in the field that question is not small,” the captain said. They had come opposite the casernes, and here they stopped, lowering their voices so as not to be overheard by the sentry across the street.
“No, you are right,” the doctor said. “And also, the whole catastrophe in the south. Toussaint warned the commissioners against it—sending such men, with such instructions. And he was right, for now we have Rigaud in open rebellion against the Commission.”
“But not against Toussaint,” the captain hissed.
The doctor looked at him intently.
“Rigaud sent an envoy directly to Gonaives,” the captain said. He turned and spat into the street. “You were away and I did not tell you afterward—Choufleur was part of the delegation, you understand, so I didn’t like to mention it.”
“Let that pass. What did they say?”
“I was not admitted to their council,” Maillart said, “though apparently it was successful. By the talk, there is a perfect understanding between General Toussaint and General Rigaud.”
The doctor grinned wryly. “And there you have it.”
“When the powers are divided as they are, Rigaud can come to accord with one without the other. For example, he can tie Sonthonax’s proclamation to the tail of his donkey and still have his perfect understanding with Toussaint.”
“But in the end,” said the captain, “the question remains, who shall be master?”
“Oh yes,” said the doctor. “You’re right about that too.”
Maillart nodded and crossed the street; the sentry opened the postern door for him. The captain turned and raised his hand before he ducked inside. Alone, the doctor started back across the Rue Espagnole. There was an ominous feeling in his glands that had nothing directly to do with the conversation with Maillart. It had nothing to do with thought at all, but was more like some aching apprehension of bad weather to come.
A patrol passed, its leader greeting him. The doctor returned the signal. He turned down toward the harbor. There was an alley that would take him directly to the door of the Cigny house, but in the mouth of it a couple of dogs were sniffing over a garbage heap, and when the doctor approached they both raised their heads as if to challenge him. They did not bark or even growl; they were pitiful, half-starved dogs, inconsequential, and yet the doctor felt sure that they would attack him if he tried to pass through the alley. He walked farther down, suddenly, irrationally alarmed—what if his way was blocked so at every turning he wanted to make? But at the next corner there were no dogs. He reached the Cigny house and was admitted by the yawning cook and climbed the stairs to his attic bed.
Next day the national festival took place as anticipated, complete with a grand parade terminating on the Champ de Mars, with cannon salvos from all the forts and answering salutes from battleships in the harbor. The small, red-banded figure of Sonthonax was at the center of the occasion, the quick bright focus of all energy. As Monsieur Cigny muttered in the doctor’s ear, no one could claim that the commissioner did not understand the value of circuses. The people of Le Cap had turned out in force to acclaim Sonthonax as founder of Liberty one more time and to listen to the oration he declaimed across their ranks.
“For five years,” he remarked, near the end of the speech, “the armies of the Republic here have gloriously supported the first effort of an entire nation to break its chains—one would have supposed that they would have made haste to attend this commemoration of such a great day.”
Isabelle, dressed once more in her tricolor taffeta, peered around the bulky figure of her husband to catch the doctor’s eye for just a moment, before she resumed cheering and hurling flowers in the general direction of the podium and encouraging the more apathetic Claudine to do the same. Sonthonax had gone on to his next phrase. But the doctor had not missed that message—clearly a reproach, however light or brief. There were both black and white troops at parade rest on the Champ de Mars, the former commanded by Clervaux and Pierre Michel. But General-in-Chief Toussaint Louverture had not honored the event with his presence.
Much later, when all the panoply was concluded and the debris had been swept out of the streets, the doctor was roused from his midafternoon siesta by the sound of galloping cavalry. He got up, naked, and peered out the porthole, over the red tile roofs. In the next street, Toussaint was riding hard toward Government House, in the midst of twenty-five helmeted cavaliers of his honor guard. Though they’d missed the official parade by hours, a small crowd of children ran shouting in the cloud of swirling dust behind the horses.
The doctor dressed and went softly down through the dozing house and out the door. Guided by a premonition, he walked over to Government House. The thick, damp heat made him feel as if he were floating. In the courtyard the guardsmen had dismounted, taken off their helmets, and led their horses to patches of shade. One of them was walking Toussaint’s charger, Bel Argent, to cool the stallion down. The doctor greeted them as he passed. No one challenged him at the door; he was well enough known in that place.
Julien Raimond and the secretary Pascal were in the anteroom of Sonthonax’s offices. The door to the inner cabinet was shut. Pascal acknowledged the doctor with raised eyebrows and a cock of his head toward the door. Glancing at Raimond, who also said nothing, the doctor sat down in a chair against the wall.
In his haste he had worked up a sweat which now adhered stickily to his every crease. With a handkerchief, he sponged some wet dust from his face. No conversation. They might have been eavesdropping, but nothing could be heard through the inner door. After half an hour, Raimond took a large gold watch from his waistcoat pocket and looked at the dial, then wound the watch with a gold key attached to the other end of the chain. More silence followed, interrupted infrequently by a voice raised outside. A black fly flew in the open window, bumbled around the high corners of the ceiling, and finally found its way back out. Beyond the window the light was just beginning to fade and the air was thickening with rain.
Then Julien Raimond was on his feet, and the doctor registered that Toussaint had come into the room, though he had heard nothing, had not seen the inner door open. The general stood with his large bicorne hat in his hand. There was nothing particular about his expression, and yet he seemed extraordinarily compressed upon himself, like a tightened, swollen fist.
“When a hog has once eaten a chicken,” Toussaint said, “you may put out one of its eyes, you may put out the other eye, but this hog will still try to eat chickens whenever it passes them.”
Julien Raimond opened his mouth, then closed it. Toussaint had uttered this proverb in Creole—parler nèg, he called it. Black talk. His words seemed addressed to no one in particular, but now he focused on Doctor Hébert.
“I shall wait for you at Bréda,” he said. He knocked his hat against his tight trouser leg a couple of times, then settled it on his head and marched out the door.
The atmosphere in the room relaxed slightly when he had gone, but the doctor felt foreboding. What had been the color of Toussaint’s headcloth? He had seen the black general so densely concentrated a few times before, and killing had invariably started soon afterward, though not always or obviously at Toussaint’s instigation. The door of the inner cabinet was slightly ajar. The three of them looked at each other; then Pascal, with a light push of his fingertips, swung it farther open.
Sonthonax was standing, behind his desk, with his hair sticking up in several directions, flexing his left hand on a ball of crumpled paper. He looked up at them all as though wakened from a dream.
“Oh,” he said. “There has been a misunderstanding.” He frowned at the desktop. “But no, perhaps it is nothing.”
The doctor went down to the front steps of the building and stood watching the rain from the shelter of the portico. Toussaint and his men would have passed the city gate by this time, would be riding through sheets and curtains of rain, indifferent to the drenching, the horses splashing out mud and water to either side of the road to Haut du Cap. He stared into the rain, half mesmerized, listened to the rush of it over the roof. Presently Pascal came out to join him.
“Enlighten me,” the doctor said. “What could he have meant by that parable about the pig?”
Pascal cleared his throat and glanced over his shoulder into the hallway of the building. “According to Commissioner Raimond,” he said, dropping his voice, “Sonthonax proposed to Toussaint—and months ago, when he was promoted General-in-Chief—that the two of them should conspire to massacre all the whites here and make the colony independent of France.”
The doctor felt air rushing out of his body through his open mouth. Pascal was married to Julien Raimond’s daughter, but always referred to Raimond with the greatest formality in conversation with third parties. Nevertheless one might assume that there was greater confidence between them than their official positions would require.
“Improbable, you say?” Pascal’s mouth was wry. “Well, General Toussaint rejected this proposal, and he gave his word of honor to mention it to no one—still according to Commissioner Raimond, whom he did tell, so as to safeguard his reputation from being stained with this plot.”
“But today,” the doctor said. “This afternoon, what passed between them?”
“Today,” Pascal said, “the general recommends that the commissioner should return to France to occupy his elected office in the Council of Five Hundred, where his eloquence may continue to serve the sacred cause of Liberty, et cetera, et cetera . . .”
“But the scheme of independence—”
“And massacre—one mustn’t forget the massacre.” Pascal frowned into the rain. “But the pig—yes, one supposes that like the pig who has eaten chickens, Sonthonax cannot help himself from returning to the notion of slaughtering the whites, when he has once conceived it. Or, that was the general’s implication—of course Sonthonax said nothing of the kind either to me or to the Citizen Raimond.”
The doctor looked at him. Pascal took a step nearer and lowered his voice. The doctor smelled stale coffee on his breath.
“Sonthonax is certainly popular among the great majority here,” he said. “I mean of course all the new-freed blacks. Also there are some black officers who seem quite devoted to him. Clervaux, Maurepas, Moyse . . . perhaps Pierre Michel?”
There was more to the question than he had asked aloud. The doctor felt his center of gravity frost over and sink to the level of his heels. “If I understand you correctly,” he said. “That notion is without a prayer.”
“Ah,” said Pascal. His eyes grew distant; he took a step back. “Well, with the changes in Paris—all the colonists gathered at Vaublanc’s back and so on—perhaps it would be better for the commissioner to labor for liberty in France.”
“They’re calling for his head back there,” the doctor said. “At least, that party which you have just mentioned.”
“Perhaps, but as a lawyer, Sonthonax is not to be underestimated—whatever his qualifications as colonial administrator. Remember, he eluded those same charges, last time he was recalled to France.” Pascal shrugged. “He may fall, but he seems to fall on his feet.”
When the rain had stopped, the doctor walked back toward the Cigny house, picking his way round sloughs in the unpaved street. He did not enter at the front door, but instead went round to the square yard in back, and negotiated with one servant to borrow a donkey, and with another to discreetly fetch his writing implements and his pistols from the garret room. He was not disposed to answer any questions from his hosts at the moment. And though he might have gone out to Bréda with a military escort from the casernes, he much preferred to be alone this time. On donkeyback, his white face hidden beneath his hat, he’d likely be taken for a laborer returning from the field. The region was fairly quiet in any case, and at the worst he had his pistols. There was moonlight enough and the donkey seemed to know the way.
What a strange world it was, he thought, as the unshod donkey slipped almost silently through the posts of the city gateway. Puddles reflected moonlight from the road; to his left the cane fields bristled against the moonlit sky. When the Revolution had swept over France, the royalists had thought to make this colony a sanctuary for themselves (some of them were still struggling, feebly, in league with the English, to bring that about). Now that the Revolution looked to be faltering at home, perhaps it did make sense for a Jacobin of Sonthonax’s type to try to make the colony a refuge for wandering revolutionaries. Although Pascal was right, of course: in answering for the excesses and failures of his first sojourn in Saint Domingue, Sonthonax had contrived his transformation into a good Thermidorean. Still, in the current climate, that might not be quite good enough.
The air was fresh and pleasant after the rain, and the road was mostly empty. Occasionally he overtook a file of women walking in the fragrant shadows with baskets on their heads, or was hailed by a donkey-riding peasant in a straw hat much like his own. Deeper in the trees to the right of the road, the flicker of firelight appeared at intervals, with the smell of roasting meat or beans boiling with peppers. The doctor took a lump of hard cheese from his pocket and gnawed it as he rode along. It was late when he came to Bréda, but the grand’case was ablaze with light, and he knew it would be a good deal later before his tasks were done.
Next morning the doctor rode back to Le Cap on an ordinary horse (the borrowed donkey had wound up somewhere in the train of Toussaint’s entourage), swaying in the saddle and half hallucinating from fatigue. The letter which had been ground out all through the previous night, through numerous drafts by many secretaries, was in the form of congratulations, praising the successes of Sonthonax in defeating the enemies of the colony, restoring peace and stability and the prosperity of the plantations—in his dictation, Toussaint kept revisiting the phrasing of those lines, which had apparently been discussed with the commissioner beforehand. But the rest of the document underlined the idea that it was now essential for Sonthonax to return to France, in order to present the truth of events of Saint Domingue to the Directoire, at this time when so many others were trying so energetically to misrepresent the situation here.
The letter was carried by a small detachment of Toussaint’s honor guard, along with the doctor and some other functionaries, but behind them by perhaps a half-mile the army was also moving toward the town, though with less than its usual sharp discipline. Toussaint’s party rode across the Rue Espagnole toward the casernes; midway along that route the doctor doubled back and found the donkey, and leading it by its rope behind his horse, he went down to the Cigny house to return it to its owner. Already he could hear the clamor of the troops massing outside the city gate.
Exhausted as he was, he rode back to the casernes at once; for one thing, there was his horse to return, for this mount too had been borrowed out of Toussaint’s cavalry. With that accomplished, he went into the mess hall of the barracks, where the officers of Toussaint’s Etat Major had been summoned to add their signatures to the letter. Maillart, Vaublanc and Riau stood toward the end of the room, and the doctor joined their company.
“. . . May you always be the defender of the cause which we have embraced . . .” Toussaint, standing at the front of the room, was intoning the last phrases of the final draft. “. . . of which we will be the eternal soldiers. Vive la République! Salut et Respect.” He reversed the paper and laid it on the table, where it might be legible to the officers. His own signature, the characteristic three dots enclosed in the final loop, was already affixed, but plenty of room had been left for the others.
After a moment of silence, a hubbub of discussion and argument broke out. Many of the officers were admirers of Sonthonax, few were prepared for this news of his departure, and some seemed downright unwilling to sign the letter, though also reluctant to say so.
Toussaint sat down beside the table, adjusting the scabbard of his ceremonial sword, and remained there, legs crossed, elbow on table, his jaw supported by his hand. His eyes were somewhat heavy-lidded, but that was his only sign of weariness, though he’d had no more sleep than the rest of them, the doctor thought, as he swayed drowsily from foot to foot. A long time seemed to pass very slowly. Riau was rapt, inexpressive as a statue, and the doctor and Maillart restricted themselves to the exchange of a couple of anxious glances.
Toussaint stood up and raised his hand, palm out. Very quickly the room grew silent, but Toussaint’s head was cocked, listening to a more distant commotion. The noise of the troops swirling outside the gate was just audible, like the rising hum of a hive of bees.
“What is that disorder?” Toussaint rapped out. “Go and settle it at once.” He cocked a finger and aimed it toward the rear of the room. Vaublanc and Riau dashed out on the double. Toussaint relaxed, but only slightly. He remained standing, hitching up his sword belt with one hand. In a low voice he announced that Sonthonax himself had requested this letter of congratulations and that the officers had been gathered not to discuss the letter but to sign it.
Fifteen minutes later, the doctor, Maillart and Adjutant-General Henri Christophe were mounting the steps of Government House. Pascal waited outside the door, beneath the portico.
“What was that disturbance over at the gate?” he said. “One began to imagine a riot.”
“Well, it is calm now,” Maillart said shortly.
“So.” Pascal mopped his forehead with a madras cloth. Christophe produced the letter, unsealed, its corners fluttering slightly, and Pascal took it. After the most cursory scan of the text he began to examine the signatures below Toussaint’s: Moyse, Chevalier, Clervaux, Paparel, Dupuis . . .
“It’s done then,” Pascal said. No one contradicted him. He looked into their faces one after the other and then bowed and carried the letter into the building.
There were certain officers who had not signed the letter, though these, a short while afterward, came again to Toussaint and asked to be allowed to do so. Request denied. Toussaint now told them that no signatures had ever been needed beyond his own and that he was prepared to take sole responsibility for the message the letter bore. In any case it had already been delivered.
For three more days, Sonthonax writhed on the point of his departure. More letters were exchanged between him and Toussaint (who had withdrawn to Petite Anse), wreathed in compliments which smothered their veiled intent. There was no repetition of the disturbance at the gate; the considerable number of those soldiers who had entered the town maintained perfect discipline and a perfect obedience to Toussaint’s orders; and it became increasingly clear that if there were to be any popular uprising, it would not be in favor of the commissioner.
Julien Raimond, Pascal, the young Colonel of Engineers Vincent, all encouraged Sonthonax to . . . accept his election to the Council of Five Hundred. Then, at four o’clock in the morning, the alarm cannon fired once at Petite Anse. Shortly afterward, the French General Agé arrived to bring the message from Toussaint to Raimond: if Sonthonax had not departed by sunrise, the next shot would have a much more definite target.
At eight o’clock, Sonthonax marched down from Government House to the port, where the frigate Indien was waiting to receive him. With him walked his wife, her face completely concealed by the opulent silk shawl wrapped over her head, the infant and the nurse and a few other retainers—also the black officers Mentor and Léveillé, and a couple of others who had missed their opportunity to sign that letter of congratulation. Their way was lined by Toussaint’s troops (though Toussaint had not yet returned to the town) and by great throngs of the townspeople, no matter that it was barely dawn. Today there was no cheering; everyone stood drawn and solemn, like mourners at a wake.
Sonthonax was not to be underestimated, as Pascal had suggested, in any court of law, and by the time he had to answer for his conduct in Saint Domingue before the Directoire, his counterattack was thoroughly prepared. Toussaint was the mere puppet and tool, he maintained, of the royalists and priests and émigrés who surrounded him to this day; it was they who had first inspired him to lead the slaves to revolt, to lay waste to the colony with fire and sword, and murder so many landowners. It was they who had caused all the disasters, they who’d finally manipulated Toussaint to send Sonthonax away. As for Toussaint, his entire political career had been nothing but rebellion against France.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Raimond wrote letters of his own, denouncing Sonthonax for fomenting dissension and trying his best to set the white and black and colored people all at each other’s throats, and Toussaint himself dictated a letter, in the form of a theatrical play (much labored over by the doctor and the other secretaries) which purported to reproduce verbatim those conversations wherein Sonthonax had tried to seduce Toussaint to join the scheme for independence, and Colonel Vincent, more credible than the others because he was white and French and had at first been one of Sonthonax’s partisans, sailed to France to contend that yes, Sonthonax had apparently intended to make the colony an asylum for revolutionary patriots, with himself its master . . .
Against all that, Sonthonax had his eloquence and one stroke of very good luck: by the time he stood to defend himself, his most dangerous enemies—Vaublanc and the colonial party—had been ejected from the legislature and sent into exile. His tongue was quick and agile as ever, and finally he not only eluded censure for his second tour of Saint Domingue, he was even commended for his work. But the master stroke of his speech was this: after denouncing Rigaud as a murderous insubordinate and Toussaint as a scheming rebel, he counseled against any military action against either one of them, recommending instead a general amnesty—Toussaint and Rigaud should be treated (if not courted) as legitimate representatives of France.
Toussaint did not know, till well after the fact, of Vaublanc’s exile from influence. Therefore the doctor and Riau and the other scribes (now including Pascal, who had remained theoretically as Raimond’s secretary but took more and more of his dictation directly from Toussaint) found themselves at work on a letter of reply to some of Vaublanc’s most extreme vituperations before the French Assembly. Toussaint spent even more hours on this epistle than he had on the long dialogue between himself and Sonthonax—there was more of himself in it, Doctor Hébert thought, and perhaps more absolute truth.
He and Riau and Pascal sat at three sides of the same table, their pens scratching busily over fair copies.
I send you with this letter a declaration which will make you familiar with the unity existing among the slave owners of Saint Domingue presently in France, those in the United States, and those serving here under the English flag. You will see that their concern for success has led them to wrap themselves in the cloak of Liberty, but only in order to strike Liberty still more mortal blows. You will see that they definitely expect that I will be swayed to their perfidious opinions by fear for my children. It is not surprising that such men, who would sacrifice their country to their own interests, cannot conceive how many sacrifices a better father than they might bear for love of his nation, given that I found the happiness of my children on that of my nation, which they and they alone wish to destroy. I will never hesitate between the security of Saint Domingue and my personal happiness, but I have nothing to fear. It is to the care of the French government that I have entrusted my children. I would tremble with horror if I had sent them into the hands of the colonialists as hostages. But even if that were the case, let them know that in punishing the good faithof their father, they would do nothing but add to their barbarity, without the least hope of ever making me fail in my duty . . .
. . . but here a driblet of ink fell from the doctor’s pen as he lifted it. It lay on the page, a black pearl shimmering on its surface. His hand halted in the air for a moment, then he replaced the pen in its stand and sat back gingerly. If he tried to blot the ink drop, he would spoil the whole sheet, and he was near the bottom. He turned his head to look out the window—they were in Government House today, for Toussaint now kept his offices there.
For some reason the picture came to him of Claudine Arnaud holding the child of Marie Bleigeat Villevaleix Sonthonax. Complete gentleness in the way that she cradled the infant, and yet her aspect had been somehow remote, shut away behind walls of grief and screaming, so that the image as it now appeared in his mind’s eye was less Madonna with Child, more Pietà. At the same time he was revisiting the moment years ago at the Cigny house when he had lifted Paul for the first time. Isabelle Cigny had appeared at his side and had mentioned among other things how the infant’s color would darken during the first few days of his life (though in fact the shade of his skin had not changed so very much, deepened only to the color of bone). Along with his softness the baby had had a large and important weight, and afterward whenever the doctor lifted Paul, he found him somewhat heavier than he had expected.
Riau and Pascal had also stopped writing and both were looking at him with large, curiously calm eyes. It could not be that they knew the thoughts that he was thinking, but for a moment it seemed that all three of them shared a feeling, as though they drank from the same cup. Then the moment passed, and Riau and Pascal lowered their heads and went back to their work. With his fingernail, Doctor Hébert detached the knob of dried ink from the page and blew the residue away. Then he lifted the pen and went on with his copying.
Do they suppose that men who have ever enjoyed the benefits of freedom would look on calmly as it was snatched away from them? They bore their chains as long as they did not know any condition of life happier than slavery. But today, when they have left it behind, if they had a thousand lives, they would sacrifice them rather than to be reduced to slavery again. But no, the hand which broke our chains will not enslave us all over again. France will not deny her principles . . . But, even if that were to happen in order to reestablish slavery in Saint Domingue, then I declare to you it would be to attempt the impossible; we have known how to face many dangers to win our freedom, and we will know how to face death to keep it.
After the blanc Sonthonax had been sent away on the ship, Toussaint was happy in the way that he had been at Mirebalais for a short time, because we had all won a victory. There was no one over Toussaint any more, since Julien Raimond would not go against him, and the blanc Roume who was the other commissioner was far away in Santo Domingo on the other side of the Cibao Mountains. Toussaint moved into the House of the Governor of the time before the risings, where General Laveaux had stayed before him, because Toussaint was Governor-General now, with no one above him anywhere nearer to us than France.
I, Riau, stayed in the House of the Governor then as well, in rooms in the back along with some other officers of the staff, and the blanc Pascal. In the nights were grand dinners and entertainments, with the officers of Toussaint’s army and the hommes de couleur who were important in the town, with their wives and also many beautiful colored women who did not have any husbands. The old grand blancs who had not been killed came also, and everyone treated Toussaint as if he was their father. He was master of the house then, and of the town and all the north except for Le Môle where the English were. And he gave himself to these parties of pleasure, more freely than he used to do, though it meant only that he might drink two glasses of wine or one of rum while he sat at the table or in the salon, instead of drinking only water as he usually did. Those evenings ended early anyway, and people who wanted to dance or go with the colored women went afterward to some other place, when the lamps and candles had been snuffed out at the Governor’s House, and everything was quiet.
Suzanne Louverture came up from Ennery for a time, to be with Toussaint and keep his house for him, with the youngest son, Saint-Jean. Everyone treated her very nicely, even the grand blancs from before, because she was Toussaint’s wife. But she did not like it very much. She did not know what to say to such people, and she went back to her plantation at Ennery as soon as she was able.
In those days, some said it happened that the old master of Bréda, Bayon de Libertat, came to the House of the Governor and moved to embrace Toussaint, but Toussaint pushed him away and said that he must not act so, for there was a greater distance between them now than before when Toussaint was a slave at Bréda. But I, Riau, I did not see this happen, and I did not really believe it either. I saw Bayon and Toussaint together many times, and they were not like that with one another, so I thought the story was invented by people who were against Toussaint in their secret hearts. Even at Bréda long ago, Bayon had not been so haughty like that when Toussaint was serving him, but instead he and Toussaint were easy with each other then, the same as now, so that it was hard to know even then that one was slave and the other master. But it was true also that Toussaint might have done this thing so that other people would see it and make a story travel which would stop people believing he was sold to the grand blancs, which some did whisper after Sonthonax had gone.
The House of the Governor was in the north end of the town, toward Fort Pinochet, and only a little way from the Customs House and the harbor. On the other side, the roots of the mountains were near. At night when all the noise and talk stopped and the Governor’s House was still and dark, sometimes the drums would begin speaking from the dark round hill above. I, Riau, went to the drums sometimes, though it was not my lakou, but I felt my spirit call me to go. That was a strong place on the round hill, with the church before it where Jesus was killed, and on the other side, against the mountain, a place of the Indian mysteries. In the church that colored son of Père Bonne-chance preached Jesus, but at night he also served as laplace in the hûnfor, and Maman Maig’ was mambo there. Through the eyes and tongue and the large hands of Maman Maig’ the spirit worked to bring to that place on the hill the blanche, Claudine Arnaud.
Sometimes Riau’s own spirit came to ride him at the drumming on that hill, so he could not say afterward what had happened or what the loa had done. Other times though, I stayed near to my head to look through my own eyes and see what happened with that blanche, when the drumming took her and her eyes rolled back and she collapsed into the linked arms of the hounsis. Then Erzulie-gé-Rouge rose up in the place of her body, red eyes afire in the pale drawn face, her hands made claws to tear at her clothes and flesh with anger and sorrow and bitterness for her losses. Or at other times it was Baron who rose, with his one eye bright and greedy on the world of living men, and other eye darkened, to look anba dlo. Many people came to that hûnfor because they had heard about this thing, and there were even a couple of white people who climbed to a spot above where they could see from a distance, since they could not enter the hûnfor, only Claudine.
When Erzulie-gé-Rouge entered the blanche, she asked many very hard services from the people there, and would not be pleased with any given her, but at other times it looked that Erzulie required of the blanche a service of gentleness. For that, Claudine was always kind and strangely humble. She took pains to be good to children and to teach them things, no matter what children they were, or if she knew them or not. With people who were grown she was quiet and spoke little, and held her eyes down—whether the people were black or colored or white like herself, her manner with them was always the same. The serviteurs had begun to say that she had her skin turned inside out, and that she did not have the spirit of a white person at all, even though Arnaud, who was her husband, was very well known for the cruel things he had done to his slaves, and some people claimed to know that the blanche had done still worse than he before slavery was finished, when a bad spirit was with her, but now that seemed to be forgotten (though there were some who would still have killed Arnaud for what he had done in that other time).
All this looked strange to me sometimes, but I did not think about so very much at all; when Riau went to the ceremonies, the drums carried every question away so that at last there was a harmony no matter what had gone into making it. Those were pleasant weeks in the town also and at Governor’s House, and then Toussaint began planning a movement of his army, to secure the inner part of the country around Mirebalais which we had had to burn down when we left it the last time. As before, there would be some men moving inland along the Artibonite and others would go around the northern way up the valley of Grande Rivière and down through Banica. The doctor was ordered by Toussaint to go the southern way, to Gonaives and Pont d’Ester and east on the river—this made him unhappy since he was still hoping to get to Vallière to find what became of his woman, maybe, but Toussaint himself was going the other way and wanted the doctor with him, for his writing and his doctoring and as a check on Pascal, perhaps, who would also be going with Toussaint this time.
While Toussaint stayed at Governor’s House, the doctor had met some of the other colored women who came without men of their own and who had known Nanon well when she used to live among them at Le Cap, but none of them had any news of her—not since she had gone off to Ennery with the doctor himself. And though these women were beautiful themselves, he did not want them. He stayed by himself all the time, thinking about Nanon. Since everyone thought that Choufleur had gone to the south, maybe he had taken Nanon with him down there, so there was not so much reason to think she was at Vallière anymore. But as I, Riau, was to be sent on the northern route myself, I told the doctor I would look for her if I was able. At that time the army had even got some pay in money, so I could buy some things for Caco and Merbillay and send them with the doctor, who would be stopping at Ennery as that wing of the army moved through.
When Toussaint had gone south to Gonaives, other men went to Dondon with Moyse, and Captain Riau with his men among them. Our way went across the northern plain, and many of the plantations there were back at work, and there were a lot of people working in the cane. Some of our men, though, made mock of the cane workers as the army went past them, shouting that they were only men of the hoe, while we were all soldiers, men of the gun. I, Riau, thought it a bad thing to be saying, and I rode back down the line and made them stop. But afterward I felt bad toward myself that I had done this, and for an hour the men were sulky because their captain had ordered them to silence.
By nightfall this feeling had gone away, and we reached Dondon and camped there, and the next day began marching with more of Moyse’s men up the valley of Grande Rivière. There was no fighting, because Moyse had broken the last of Jean-François’s old bands by that time, and the Spanish had left that part of the country. We saw other plantations working as we moved up the river valley, and lines of women with baskets on their heads, bringing coffee down out of the mountains to Le Cap.
But all this country was full of mountains and ravines where many people could hide. I, Riau, knew that very well from the time I had lived in these same hills with the band of Achille. Now we had to make all this place secure before we went to join Toussaint at Mirebalais, so that no attack would spring up out of the ground behind us. It was easy for Captain Riau to volunteer to cover Trou Vilain, since no else wanted that duty very much, but I wanted to go there because I knew the property of Maltrot was near the edge of it.
The little malfini were flying over Trou Vilain, hunting for rats in the vines at the bottom, and the road went up the side of the ravine. At the top, near the sky itself, a wagon moved on the road ahead of us, with a man and woman seated together on the box. The man must be a very good driver to bring a wagon over that path, when even the horse Riau was riding had to be urged to go. I seemed to know already who those people were although it was too far away to see them. The wagon turned off and disappeared, and we still had some time of climbing before we reached the place where it had gone out of sight. The driver had come down from the house and stood between the brick gateposts with his hands in his pockets. He had a beard that went all round his mouth and pointed from his chin, but without climbing his jaws to where his ears were. His skin was the color of mahogany and his eyes were hard, and he was standing up very straight watching us come, with interest but no fear. Although he had kept away from us when the doctor and Riau were at their place near Dondon, I knew that this was Fortier.
I got down from my horse and gave the reins to one of the other men to hold and went up toward the gateway on foot. When I was near to Fortier, I stopped and saluted him, for respect even though he was not dressed as a soldier. He had not moved, but something happened in the house behind him. Madame Fortier came out onto the gallery with a sacatra house servant bowing away from here, trying to explain something. She was a tall woman and we could feel the force of her anger all the way from the house to where we stood at the very bottom of the garden.
“Where is my son?” Her words were burning, and I thought that if I had been the son she asked for, I would have wanted to put myself a long way off. The sacatra was trying to say that Choufleur had not appeared there for many weeks, but Madame Fortier turned and whipped back into the house before he could finish. Fortier and I looked at each other and when he began walking up to the house, I followed a step or two behind.
I did not know it yet but the sacatra servant’s name was Salomon. He went into the house after Madame Fortier, scuttling like a long-legged crab, as Fortier and I were walking up the steps. At the house door Fortier stopped and looked at me for a moment. Inside we could hear the voice of Madame Fortier cracking out like a whip-tongue and then curling back, but we could not make out what she was saying. Fortier nodded and entered the house, and I followed.
In a room at the back of the house was Nanon, and my heart jumped up, because now the doctor would be glad, maybe. Si Dyé vlé. For the first instant I did not know her; she was thinner, and lay on the bed with her hair flung over her face. Her hair was dirty and all stuck together and the whole room smelled as if she had not cleaned herself properly for a long time. A bowl of water was on the floor, and a plate with dried scraps and a broken chicken bone. Nanon rolled onto her back, drawing her knees up under the sheet which covered her to her chin. I knew her then, but her face was all hollow, as if from a fever. As she moved we heard the clink of chain links shifting, and the sheet slipped down. I felt the cold chafing weight on my own neck—this feeling was so strong that both my hands clutched at my throat. Nanon wore an iron collar such as slaves would carry on their necks, coffled together in a line when they were taken off the ship, and I, Riau, had been locked into a collar like this one, when they brought me out of Guinée into this country. In a line of other slaves so chained I was brought from the stinking ship’s hold to the barracoons outside Le Cap, and afterward sold on the auction block, and then Bayon de Libertat took me to Bréda.
“That my son should be cursed for doing what he has done here,” Madame Fortier was saying. “The evil will come back to him with the same weight. And you, child, to let it be done to yourself . . .”
There was more sadness than anger in her voice when she said this last part. But Nanon did not hear her—her eyes were the eyes of a zombi staring up at the spiderwebs in the corners of the ceiling. Madame Fortier lashed herself at Salomon.
“And you? What are you waiting for?—fetch the tools!”
Salomon lifted his arms, stuttering. He already had the hammer and the spike. My hands curved to take them, but Madame Fortier pointed to her man. She wanted him to do this work. I stood in the doorway, watching. Fortier took the tools and braced one knee on the bed, and I watched him set the spike to pound at the rivet, leaning awkwardly to tap with the hammer. He had less skill with the iron than I, but I would not cross Madame Fortier at that moment. She clucked her tongue, then stooped down to hold the edges of the iron ring so the hammer would not slam it so against Nanon’s collarbones. All this time Nanon’s eyes were still and empty like the eyes of a dead person.
Then I heard one of my men calling from outside the house, and I went to see what it was. A white man was coming up the path beside Trou Vilain, he told me. That was not an expected thing, just now in this place, so I went down to the gateway to see what was happening.
Three men were coming on horseback up the trail, leading two donkeys with pack saddles. The blanc in the lead had a broad hat in the Spanish style, so at first I thought he was some Spaniard sneaking across the border, maybe a gold miner. But there was something familiar in his way of riding, and then I recognized the horse, a speckled gray from Thibodet.
Tocquet, the gun runner. The two men with him would be Bazau and Gros-jean, then. I was sure of that, though they were not near enough yet for me to see their faces. When I understood who it was, I smiled inside my head, and I went down from the gateway to meet them.
Since the time he appeared in the camps of Jean-François and Biassou with the guns he brought from Santo Domingo, I liked this blanc Tocquet well enough. For the same reason others did not like him—he was only for himself, and he let you know it. That was simple. Also he treated the people who worked for him well enough, that Bazau had once told me it was no different between them under slavery than it was now.
Tocquet got down from the speckled gray horse and pressed his hands against his hips to stretch his back.
“So, my captain,” he said. “What is your news, and have you got my friend Antoine with you here?”
I told him that the doctor was moving with Toussaint toward Mirebalais, but I had come here, on the army’s way to Banica, because we had heard that this was one of Choufleur’s places. I told them Nanon was staying here, as the doctor would have hoped. But it was hard to say to him, or to anyone, just how it was with her now.
Tocquet took his hat off and slapped it against his thigh, making the dust of the road fly up. The wind pulled at his hair and the ends of his mustache. He squinted at the sky, where the rain was gathering, then tossed the reins of his horse up to Gros-jean and told them to go and make a camp. There were some of my men who knew Bazau and Gros-jean from Habitation Thibodet, so I told them to follow them and make our camp with theirs. Those two were good foragers, as everyone knew.
Tocquet and I went up to the house and waited on the gallery, but no one came out, so we sat down. Salomon peeped out of the doorway, then pulled his head back inside without saying anything. We could hear Madame Fortier’s voice calling directions from the back of the house, and from the kitchen fire they were carrying pans of hot water for a bath.
The rain began. After a while Tocquet stood up and stuck his cupped hands out from under the eave until they had gathered enough water for him to drink. He wiped his wet hands across his face and sat down again.
When the rain stopped, Fortier came out and sat in a chair near us on the gallery. He did not seem to need to say anything at all, as if he had known us both for so long there was no more to be said. But after a little time, Tocquet began speaking. He said some ordinary things, and then he told Fortier that both of us knew Nanon from before and so perhaps we could take her to people who cared for her. Fortier nodded at his words, folding his arms across his chest. It was quiet in the house now, except for sometimes a splash, and the sound of Madame Fortier’s voice, murmuring. Fortier said that we should come back there the next day.
It was dark when we went out through the gateposts, and the stars were coming out above the mountain. The camp was not so very near, but Tocquet seemed to know which way to walk, and soon we had only to follow the good smell of roasted pork. When we came to where the camp was made, they had a good boucan started with a whole pig on the spit, and Gros-jean was stirring Ti-Malice sauce in a small iron kettle. All my men were happy because of this.
Tocquet found a small keg of rum in one of the donkey packs which had been unloaded, and he tapped it and everyone got a drink. A little while later the sacatra Salomon appeared at the edge of the firelight, with one of the women who served in the house; they joined our circle and told us what they knew of what had been happening in that place. Salomon was sore from Madame Fortier’s tongue whipping him all that afternoon. He was glad to be able to tell someone that it was not he who kept Nanon on that chain, but first Choufleur and then Nanon herself. He told us how he would have set her free from that iron collar, but that she ordered him to fasten it around her neck again.
This seemed like a bad thing to me, and all the talk stopped once he had told it. In silence, like the others, I wondered what had come upon to her to make her feel this wish. But then the meat was ready, and the sauce with the hot peppers, and the rum went round again. There were some bananas too, from the trees that grew nearby. And soon after eating, everyone slept.
At first light I, Riau, awakened, as if someone had whispered in my ear, though there was no one, only the faint light moving over the hillside. I got up before anyone else had stirred and walked downhill through the stems of wild bananas. Across the clearing was a hûnfor, I saw now, though the drums had been silent the night before. And not far away, a place of the Indian mysteries—two stones carved all over with their signs. I looked at those signs which I could not read, remembering the language of my people in Guinée which I had forgotten since coming here. The same weight was on my neck as the day before and a sadness was on me, but when I looked up from the burial stones I saw the sadness was not mine but hers. Nanon was standing, on the other side of the stones. Her blood was beating in her throat, under the marks of chafing which the iron collar had left. As soon as our eyes met, she turned and began walking quickly away. As she picked up her bare feet, I saw that they were dirty, and torn in places. I followed her all the way to the grand’case.
The sun shone full yellow on the house and the wild garden by the time we reached it. Nanon went across the gallery and into the house, without turning her head, like a ghost walking. I waited at the bottom of the stairs. Madame Fortier sat at the gallery table with her coffee and a piece of bread. I did not see her man anywhere, but Tocquet came up from the gate to join me, and Madame Fortier gave us a hand wave to come up.
She ordered coffee for us to drink, and as we sat there sipping it, we told her what we knew of Nanon, and how we knew it. First I spoke, and then Tocquet.
“Bien,” Madame Fortier said, when we were both done speaking. “She ought to go back to this blanc doctor, I suppose. Assuming he would still have her back. One does not know just what a blanc might do in such a case.”
Tocquet and I looked at each other. Then Tocquet explained how the trouble had begun with the doctor’s sister, how she had wanted to drive Nanon and her son away. Then I told her what had passed later, when Elise had changed her heart and gone herself to bring the boy back to Thibodet, where he was now, as a child of the house. All the time I was speaking, Madame Fortier drew herself up slightly and became more and more alert, like an animal hunting.
“Well, that is something,” she said when I had finished. “It is the loss of that child that has hurt her as much as anything, I think. When I asked her if she would go back to this blanc doctor, she said that she would not. But if the child is there . . . She must not stay here, that much I know. Jean-Michel can bring her nothing but harm.”
She stopped talking, and looked across the gallery rail. A hummingbird was in the air before a bloom, green feathers shining on his back.
“A thing once ruined cannot be brought back,” Madame Fortier said. “As it is wrong to bring the flesh back from the grave, so the love that was once between this woman and my son has become a twisted thing.”
She looked at me deeply, and I lowered my eyes, from respect for the pain which she was speaking. When I looked up again, Nanon had appeared in the doorway of the house, with her blank zombi eyes aimed down toward the gate.
“Vini moin, machè,” Madame Fortier said, and Nanon did come and take a seat beside her. Madame Fortier laid her hand on Nanon’s bare arm and she shifted, restlessly. Since the day before she was all clean, and her hair was washed and carefully arranged, and the bad smell replaced with a sweet one, but the wildness was still in her.
Madame Fortier began to tell her how Paul had been brought back to Thibodet, that the boy was well, and waiting for her there. As she spoke, Nanon’s face began to twist and wrestle with itself. She seemed to be crying, but without tears or sound. At last she calmed herself and swallowed. The mark of the iron collar moved on her throat.
“I cannot go,” she said. Her voice was empty and sweet. None of what had been in her face was in it. “I cannot go there now.”
Madame Fortier took her hand away. There was a bad silence among us all.
Then Tocquet got up and went away behind the house. The silence remained. The watch ticked in the pocket of my captain’s coat. After a while, Tocquet came back with a basin of warm water and crushed leaves. He got down on the floor in front of Nanon and began very gently to wash her feet. The leaves were herbe charpentier, I knew by their smell, and they had a healing power for the hurts on her skin.
Madame Fortier turned in her chair, breathing in sharply, and I felt something of her feeling pass to me. Tocquet was a proud man in his own way, which was not quite the usual way of a blanc, but I had never thought of him doing such a thing. It made me wonder how it might be between him and the doctor’s sister when they were alone with one another.
Madame Fortier looked at me and we both got up and walked down through the garden and stood in the gateway. That same malfini hung in the air above the gorge, as on the day before. Madame Fortier clucked her tongue.
“I do not know if Jean-Michel will ever come back here anyway,” she said. “He has gone to the south, to Rigaud, because the Commissioner Sonthonax would have sent him to France, a prisoner.”
“But now it’s Sonthonax who has been sent away,” I said.
“What does it matter.” Madame Fortier did not look toward me, and I did not feel that she was speaking to me either. Her voice rose up toward that little hawk. “There will be no peace between Rigaud and this black army of the north. Or if there was, my son would turn his back upon it. It is ten days since I dreamed his death. Not every dream brings the truth of what will be, but I know that Jean-Michel will not rest before he has destroyed either himself or the whole world.”
There was nothing to be said to this, and I did not think she was speaking to me anyway, but into her own sorrows. After a time, Tocquet came to us and said that Nanon had agreed to go with him, not back to Thibodet, but to Le Cap, where she had lived independently, it seemed, before going down to Ennery with the doctor.
Since that was arranged as well as it might be, I took my men away from Trou Vilain. We joined Moyse and his people again to travel down to Banica and then on to Mirebalais. There was no hard fighting on this way, hardly any enemies for us to fight at all, for the English were not to be seen in that part of the country, and the Spanish had gone away across the Cibao Mountains.
When we came to Mirebalais again, Moyse began his attack from Las Cahobas. Christophe Mornet was at Grand Bois, and Dessalines in the plain just outside the town, so there was no way for the English to get away. After many days they tried to break out toward Arcahaye, and we killed a lot of them as they were running—more than half their people, it was reckoned later on. When we came into the town, we found plenty of powder and shot and some cannons, too, that the English had left behind when they ran.
Toussaint began at once to rebuild everything in Mirebalais that he had ordered to be burned down some while before. This was the first time our part of the army joined his, because he had come up from the other side. I was eager to bring my news to the doctor, but the doctor had gone back to the coast, with messages for the new British general whose name was Maitland. No one knew for certain what it was all about, but the whisper was that the English were going to give up all their posts to us, and without any more fighting.
Doctor Hébert, who had been walking uphill from the gate of the Port au Prince casernes, barely registered the signal. He had thought himself alone. A little while previously, General Maitland had called a hiatus in the conversation between himself and Huin, the French officer who was Toussaint’s chief representative, and the doctor had decided to trace the course of the waterway that fed the casernes’ fountain. A shallow channel ran diagonally across the provision grounds facing the row of square clay houses of the blacks formerly belonging to the King of France. The doctor had followed it a considerable way, studying how the water was used to irrigate the field he was traversing.
He turned. The boxy black coat, speckled liberally with pale dust that adhered and caked on the sweat patches, was the first thing that seemed familiar, and then the pinched urgency of the features . . . Bruno Pinchon, looking nervously all about. Why he felt a need for stealth was not apparent. They were well away from the wall of the casernes and no other buildings were nearby. A couple of black men were slowly swinging hoes in their patches of beans and yams, but they were at least a hundred yards away.
“Ah,” said the doctor, with small enthusiasm, as Pinchon scurried up to him. “I see no one has murdered you yet.”
“Yes, that’s all very well, but . . .” Bent on unnecessary confidentiality, Pinchon leaned in so close that the doctor must inhale the sour flavor of his breath.
“Oh yes, I knew you,” Pinchon said. “I saw you go in this morning.” He looked over his shoulder again. “But let us get on.”
“What troubles you so?” the doctor said. “There is no danger.”
He turned from Pinchon and continued walking beside the narrow waterway. Some distance ahead it crossed, still at the diagonal, the double row of trees planted to line the approach to Government House. Pinchon hovered at his elbow as he went on.
“You may say so,” he said. “Oh yes, you may say so—but Maitland means to abandon us. Yes. He will leave us to the savages. It’s true—I see it in your face.”
The doctor trudged on, dark mud caking on the soles of his boots, weighting down his tread. It was late afternoon, still very hot. The others at the casernes had retired for a siesta, and now he rather wished he had done the same, instead of pursuing his curiosity about the water-works. But when they reached the alley of trees, the shade brought some relief.
“Why won’t you answer me?” Pinchon said petulantly, half-dancing in his muddy shoes.
“You haven’t put a question,” the doctor said wearily.
He took off his straw hat and untied the headcloth he’d taken to wearing underneath it. He crouched down on his heels and rocked forward to rinse the sweat-sodden cloth in the stream of water, then used it to wipe down his face and the bald dome of his head. The water was somewhat cooler than he expected, which was pleasant. He wet the cloth a second time, rolled it and draped it around his neck. The coolness at the base of his head brought a measure of clarity with it.
“Your fears are unfounded,” he said, looking at his own indistinct reflection, rippling in the water. “These are no savages as you fear, but as well-disciplined an army as I have ever seen. As you might know.”
“They would have killed me at Gonaives!”
“In war, men kill their enemies,” the doctor said. He squinted up. “Why ever did you come to this country, I wonder.”
Pinchon looked away, sucking his thin lips in. “My wife has a property in the plain of Cul de Sac.”
“Your wife is a Creole?” The doctor straightened up and shook out his cramped legs.
“No,” said Pinchon. “The daughter of a négociant of Nantes, who took the land in payment of a debt—the miser! Neither he nor she had ever laid eyes on the property, but I was sent out to make it profitable.”
“Oh, it was all a field of ashes by the time I found it.”
“Have you children?”
“One, a daughter.” Pinchon continued to look thoughtful. “I have not seen her—she was born after I embarked.”
The doctor was moved to a certain sympathy. He said nothing, and turned slightly, facing into a very faint breeze which barely lifted the leaves of the trees around them. At the end of the boulevard was Government House, a fairly handsome pile of stone, and the most significant building in Port-au-Prince.
“Don’t give up hope,” the doctor said, as the breeze faded.
He was thinking that Pinchon might really have a better chance of restoring his plantation under Toussaint’s administration rather than that of the English. But before he could voice this idea, he was distracted by someone signaling him from the steps of Government House at the lower end of the boulevard.
The siesta had been interrupted—brusquely, though no one announced the reason why. With Maitland, Huin, and few others, the doctor was hurried to the port and into a longboat which rowed them out to a British warship in the harbor. Following Huin, he climbed the rope ladder to the deck of the warship. Maitland, however, remained in the boat and was conveyed to a smaller coastal vessel which was anchored nearby.
“What do you suppose?” the doctor began.
Huin turned up his empty palms. “They told me nothing.”
“Well,” said the doctor, “So long as we are not to have our throats slit, and be fed to the sharks . . .”
Huin let out a dry grating laugh. “Fortunately,” he said, “we are dealing with English gentlemen . . . rather than our own colonial countrymen.”
He reached under his coat and produced a small brass spyglass. After scanning the horizon for a few minutes, he offered it to the doctor. Resting his elbows on the rail, the doctor looked at the small adjacent island, with its half-moon battery protecting the harbor, or at the clouds gathering above the great mountain behind the town . . .
Huin plucked his elbow and reached for the glass, and when the doctor had given it over, trained it on the deck of the coaster where Maitland had gone. The doctor looked in the same direction—Maitland was recognizable to his naked eye, among several others he could not make out.
“That is Lapointe,” Huin mused aloud. “But . . . now who is that by him? I have seen the face.”
He passed the glass to the doctor. In the circle of the lens the tall figure of a mulatto in British uniform came clear. This must be Lapointe, who commanded for the invaders at Arcahaye, though the doctor did not know him by sight.
“The black, beside him.” Huin gaved the doctor a nudge.
“Why, it is Capdebosque,” said the doctor, having refocused the glass. “Of Toussaint’s troop, and you do know him—he was sent out to Arcahaye before we came here.”
“Now what does that suggest to you?” Huin said.
If the doctor was meant to know the answer, he did not. But Maitland had descended to the longboat and was being rowed to the warship. Soon enough he had climbed the ladder and swung his long legs onto the deck.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “There is another of your party on that ship”—he gestured with his chin—“who says there are twenty-six thousand brigands—uh, revolutionary troops—prepared to fall upon Arcahaye. Of your own knowledge, can this be true?”
“It is the very truth,” said Huin, without a beat of hesitation.
The doctor looked toward the bulk of the mountain above Port-au-Prince, thinking. The number was exaggerated by perhaps ten thousand. Still, if the British wished to believe themselves outnumbered, such was in fact the case. Also, the attack planned on Arcahaye was commanded by Dessalines and would likely turn into a massacre.
“This messenger’s name is Capdebosque,” said Maitland. “A Negro, but intelligent, and well spoken, I admit. If you know him, can you vouch for his fidelity?”
“Absolutely,” said the doctor, sensing his role.
“This Capdebosque tells me there is a like number of bri—revolutionary troops, massing on the Cul de Sac plain to attack Port-au-Prince.”
“Port Républicain,” Huin corrected him smoothly. “Of a certainty, it is true.”
Maitland looked from Huin to the doctor, then back at Huin. “Furthermore, this Capdebosque maintains that the population of the town is secretly in league with the republicans and will turn out as soon as the attack begins.”
Huin nodded, with an air of sadness (for such a conspiracy would not be entirely creditable to his side), and made a slight gesture toward a bow. Maitland turned his face to the doctor. His forehead was high, with an upswept crest of graying hair. The complementary curve of his beard swept down toward the dimple of his chin. Slowly, solemnly, the doctor nodded his confirmation (though he knew nothing of any such conspiracy and was reasonably confident that it did not exist). Maitland’s features seemed to take on extra weight.
Again they descended into the longboat and were rowed back to the town, the men laying on hard at the oars, for the clouds above the mountain were already forked with lightning. As they reached the shelter of the casernes, the rain began, and Maitland summoned a council of war to the neighboring government house. From this, the doctor and Huin were excluded. But by the time the rain had stopped and the moon showed its horns above the yard of the casernes, one of Maitland’s staff came to tell them that next day they would sail to Toussaint at Gonaives, escorting a British emissary with the power to offer an immediate cease-fire and to arrange terms for the British evacuation of Arcahaye, Saint Marc, and Port-au-Prince.
They enjoyed a smooth sail up the coast to Gonaives and docked in the late afternoon, when the town was just beginning to stir from the midday retreat from the fire of the sun. Doctor Hébert fell to the rear of the party that landed, trudging up to headquarters in the center of the town. As he entered the shadowy foyer of the building, Captain Maillart got up from a stool near the door and drew him away from the rest of the group. Huin, after a brief conference with the sentry, took the British officer Nightingal directly in to meet Toussaint.
“Our general has taken an ill humor,” Maillart said.
“Oh?” said the doctor. “I think we may have brought him better cheer. But what is the matter?”
“Another agent of the Directoire has landed, in Santo Domingo,” Maillart told him. “But let that wait.” He grinned. “There is someone else with news for you.”
The doctor followed him through the building out into the bright, white-dusted square of the barracks behind. Maillart stopped and let out a short whistle. From an open doorway across the yard, Riau emerged, checking the buttons of his uniform coat; when he saw the doctor, his face split into a brilliant smile and his step doubled.
“She is found,” Riau said as he joined them. “After all she was at Vallière just as we thought.”
“Yes, of course Nanon, monchè!” Riau slammed the doctor on the back.
“She is . . . where is she now?” the doctor said. “At Ennery?”
“No,” said Riau. “But she is with your brother. With Tocquet—she went with him from Vallière to Le Cap.”
“She is not with Choufleur any longer, then?”
Riau’s expression grew elusive. “No, she is at Le Cap now.”
“But where did she mean to go in Le Cap?”
Riau frowned—it did not seem that he had thought to ascertain this information. Then he brightened. “But Tocquet will know.”
Someone called his name from the doorway he’d come out of across the yard. Riau slapped the doctor on the shoulder once more and trotted away. The doctor stared after him, half stupefied.
“You had better sit down,” said the captain.
“I had thought of going on to Ennery,” the doctor muttered.
“You’ll never get there before the rain. Don’t be a fool, but come with me.”
Maillart led the way into the cubicle he occupied. The doctor sat down on the edge of his cot. Maillart passed him a clay vase of water, and he sipped, set the vase on the floor and pulled off one of his boots. His mind was floundering . . . Nanon was found! yet not within his reach. Tocquet would know where she had gone. But Tocquet was as unfindable as Nanon. And she might be anywhere in Le Cap. It had been almost impossible to discover where Paul had got to. But Nanon would be easier to find than Paul, because he knew her ways, and knew a lot of her acquaintances.
He stretched out his leg and flexed his liberated toes. Maillart pretended to flinch from the odor. He poured some rum into a cracked cup and passed it to the doctor, who took a grateful draught, feeling the warmth explode within him. He took off his other boot and rubbed the arch of his foot. There was no use talking to Maillart about Nanon, for the captain did not really understand the extent of his attachment to someone he saw as only a colored harlot.
“Well, and the new agent,” he said.
“It is General Hédouville,” Maillart told him. “Pacifier of the Vendée, as he is now known.”
“So they describe him.” Maillart rocked his head against the rough plaster wall. “But let us go outside, it will be cooler.”
He stood and picked up his stool and gestured to the doctor to bring the other. Just outside the door they arranged their seats beneath the shade of the overhanging roof. A breeze was beginning to stir, and several other officers had come out from rooms down the way to take the air. The doctor returned their waves of greeting. His bare feet spread pleasantly on the flagstone floor. He sat down and leaned back against a post. The captain, who had thoughtfully brought out the rum bottle, splashed another measure into his cup.
“He has brought fresh troops, this Hédouville?”
Maillart turned his head to spit into the yard. “His honor guard, no more than that,” he said with a flicker of disgust.
“What can they be thinking in Paris?”
“Apparently,” said the captain, “they are thinking that Hédouville turned all the factions of the Vendée against each other, so that they defeated themselves.”
“And thus Toussaint’s displeasure, I suppose,” the doctor said.
Maillart did not respond immediately. The doctor chewed over the thought in silence. For the time being, Rigaud and Toussaint were acting in concert, if not in perfect harmony, against the British. It was not exactly a relationship of trust. Outlawed by Sonthonax, Rigaud had been in open rebellion against the French agent, if not France itself, at the time of Sonthonax’s departure, while Toussaint continued to profess his loyalty to the French government.
Maillart shifted and scratched his head. “But now it is the whole stupid dispute of the grand blancs and émigrés all over again. Hédouville has proclaimed—from Santo Domingo, of course—that they are not to be tolerated.”
“Oh, I see,” said the doctor. “While Maitland will certainly insist that they be amnestied.”
“Maitland?” The captain sat up straight.
“Yes, he has sent this Nightingal to set terms for the British withdrawal—from all of the Western Department, my friend.”
“The devil,” Maillart said. “Why must we treat with them? Now, when we are finally in position to defeat them in battle, drive the lot of them into the sea.”
“That might be an expensive pleasure,” the doctor said. “The British are finished here, I agree. And Maitland is certainly commissioned to get them out with as little loss as possible. But he has still a few teeth in his jaw. If they fight, we will have losses on our side, and the British can leave every place they now occupy in ruins.”
“Still they are in no position to dictate terms to us.”
The wind quickened, skirling up dust all over the yard. The doctor looked across and saw the first fat raindrops beginning to pat down.
“Leave that to Toussaint,” he said.
“Well, yes.” Maillart leaned forward and reached down to collect the rum bottle from between his feet. “He is a wicked old fox, Toussaint, and no one knows for certain what is in his mind.”
Next day, the doctor asked leave to travel to Le Cap, but when he was refused, he did not press the point. He did not give his personal reason, for Toussaint was in a humor to preach of duty, and the doctor did not want to hear the sermon. He got permission to go to Ennery for two days, which he passed agreeably enough with Paul and Sophie and Elise. Yet everything hung over them, still. Elise had recovered her morale, but if she had heard anything from Tocquet she did not say so, and for his part the doctor did not mean to upset her with news that the man might be as nearby as Le Cap. Nor did he know what to say to Paul about his mother. In fact the boy no longer asked for her, and yet the doctor felt the question in his look.
While at Ennery he got word that Hédouville was traveling from Santo Domingo to Le Cap, so he returned to Gonaives in the happy expectation that Toussaint would certainly be going north to pay his respects to the French agent. But it was not so. Instead, the doctor and the other available scribes were put to drafting a letter of apology (of sorts): Toussaint regretted that he must deny himself the pleasure of meeting General Hédouville, for the time being, as crucial military matters kept him at his post. Though the letter was infused with unction, the scribes were hard put to disguise the aloofness at the heart of the message. On the other hand, it was quite true that military matters were moving rapidly toward a crisis: Huin had gone south again to Port au Prince, where, aboard the British ship Abergavenny, he signed an accord with Nightingal which defined the terms of British withdrawal from all of the west coast . . . and by that time, as Huin reported back later, the sailors of the British fleet had already begun loading up supplies and ammunition from the town, under Maitland’s orders to prepare for departure.
Generals Maitland and Toussaint Louverture both ratified the treaty, and only then did Toussaint notify Hédouville of what had taken place. In his reply, Hédouville warned Toussaint not to accept the submission of any émigrés, but by then the treaty had already gone into effect. By its terms, a three-month cease-fire would be observed between the British and the forces commanded by Toussaint, and during this period Toussaint engaged not to attack the posts that the British would still hold in the south at Jérémie, and at Môle Saint Nicolas on the northwest peninsula. In particular, he pledged, for the period of the cease-fire, not to support Rigaud, who was energetically besieging Jérémie (though Toussaint had grumbled over that clause, pointing out that no difference ought to be made between himself and Rigaud when both of them were loyal officers of the French Republic). The British would return the coast towns and their fortifications intact, and with the same armament they’d found when they first took possession of them. Toussaint, for his part, would guarantee the lives and the property of those colonists currently under British protection who chose to stay on when the British had left.
Captain Maillart shook his head gloomily over that last proposal, when the doctor had described it to him over another round of rum on the gallery of the house at Habitation Thibodet. “The agent will not like it,” Maillart muttered. “How, indeed, can Hédouville accept it?”
He passed the bottle to the doctor, who served himself and handed it on to Riau, who was sitting with them in the moist dark. Elise and the children had long since gone to bed, but the mood of excitement that ran through the camp prevented the men from sleeping.
“As a fait accompli.” The doctor shrugged. “He gains by it. France gains.”
“What we gain,” said Maillart, “is enemies snuggled to our bosom in the guise of friends. The British will withdraw their officers but leave us all our traitors who fought under their flag—transformed into property holders we are sworn to protect.”
“Well,” said the doctor, “I had not recognized you for such an inveterate Jacobin.”
Maillart choked. “Never mind the politics, but it is too much—all I know is that we have been fighting these people for two or three years, and though we have defeated them—or might have—we are now required to embrace them.” He looked at Riau. “They are slave masters too, these new citizens we are to gain. What will become of the slaves they have held all this while under British rule?”
“They will be freed,” said the doctor, “according to French law.”
Riau rolled his glass from one hand to the other, looking at the inch of amber rum in the bottom of it. He said nothing.
“Embracing one’s enemies is a queer sensation,” the doctor said. “The taste for it may be difficult to acquire.” He drank, and glanced at Maillart’s flushed face. “You yourself have crossed a border more than once, and worn the coat of more than one service—oh, it does you no dishonor. It was the ground itself that shifted beneath your feet.”
“So.” Maillart grunted and leaned back, withdrawing his face from the lamplight. Struggling to recover the thread of his thought, the doctor realized he was considerably more drunk than he’d given himself credit for.
“One loses the principle, I admit,” he said, waving one hand slackly, “in all this, this . . .” The word would not come. “But consider the practice. At Le Cap, Agent Hédouville will certainly have learned that the treasury is quite empty. The army fights without pay for the most part.” He looked at Riau. “The soldiers forage all their food.” He hiccuped into the palm of his hand, then went on. “These enemies we are asked to receive—it’s they who can make the plantations profitable again, and put some money back into the coffers of the government. Surely the agent will see that soon enough.”
“As you like,” Maillart said, “but I think there will be trouble.”
“Oh,” said the doctor. “When was there not?”
As General Maitland completed the withdrawal from Port-au-Prince, the Legion of the West, commanded by Laplume, moved up from Léogane to secure the town for the French Republicans. For some time, Laplume had been making forays over the Cul de Sac plain and attacking the heights above Port-au-Prince. Though Laplume reported to the mulatto General Pétion, and hence to Rigaud, his men were still mostly drawn from the wild bands Dieudonné had formerly led. They were the first to enter Port-au-Prince as the British departed. Toussaint had sent Christophe Mornet as his own representative. There were no outrages.
The last British sails slipped over the horizon, bound for the deep, capacious harbor of Môle Saint Nicolas. At Port-au-Prince, the French collaborators waited uneasily, for their situation could not be certainly known before Toussaint’s arrival.
Though he might have covered the distance in a third of the time, Toussaint made a very slow progression to Port-au-Prince. With the officers of his staff, he made frequent stops on the Cul de Sac plain. Most of the plantations had fallen into ruin after so many years of war and marauding, but here and there a house or a mill was still intact. Toussaint halted, dismounted, crouched down to pick up earth and crumble it between his fingers, or broke off bits of the untended cane to try its quality.
Impatient, Captain Maillart squinted up at the sun, already well past its height in the sky. A cavalry troop and most of the staff sat their horses before a mule-powered cane mill. Bel Argent stood riderless, held by the captain of the honor guard. Toussaint had gone into the mill to check the mechanism for rust and breakage.
“Now why does he stop here?” Maillart muttered irritably to the doctor beside him. He looked over his shoulder at the dust cloud that marked the position of the infantry, marching half a mile behind them on the plain. “We shall pass another night in this wasteland before we reach the town.”
“Because the land must not be wasted,” the doctor said softly, and mostly to himself. “Because the land is more important than the town.”
Maillart snorted, and his horse yawed sideways, as if it had caught his impatient mood. Toussaint came out of the mill, settling his hat down carefully over his yellow headcloth. He swung into the saddle and led them on.
The road across the plain was much deteriorated, but still gave room enough for three horses to go abreast. The doctor rode between Maillart and Riau, who wore for the occasion a tall hussar’s hat he’d captured from the British cavalry, ornamented with a huge revolutionary cockade. Many of the officers and some of the men had tricked themselves out specially for this triumphal procession. But Toussaint wore only his plain uniform, with no decoration beyond the epaulettes. He had even forgone the plumes he usually wore in his hat, which was, today, a somewhat battered tricorne.
The sky was just beginning to redden before them when they finally came in sight of the bay. Sky joined the water on a curving, gilded line, broken by the low roofs of Port-au-Prince. Something lay on the road ahead, between them and the town. Toussaint pulled his horse up abruptly, one hand hovering between his sword hilt and pistol grip, before it froze, midair. For a suspended moment, he was as still as a startled snake.
Maillart stood up in his stirrups, craning his neck to see. “By God,” he hissed to the doctor. “They have raised us a triumphal arch.”
Toussaint relaxed, tucked in his jaw and lowered his head. He urged his horse forward on the road.
A cheer went up from the reception party, and a swirl of dust as they all began to stir about. It was indeed a makeshift arch, the doctor saw as they came nearer, rigged with boards and painted canvas. Half a length ahead of the others, Toussaint walked his horse toward it. Then, without troubling to stop his mount, he dropped to the ground and tossed the reins back over his shoulder; Riau caught them in his left hand. On foot, Toussaint continued to approach the arch, which was flanked by young white women with flowers in their hands, a prelate wearing white vestments and a gold-embroidered stole, a clutch of altar boys who held fuming censers by their chains, and four of the wealthiest planters of the region, each holding a pole which supported one corner of a fringed, royal purple dais.
Toussaint stopped and held up the flat of his right hand. The dais-bearers hesitated, their fat smiles withering.
“I am not God,” Toussaint said in a low, clear voice. He removed his hat, revealing his dome of yellow madras, and held it in both hands as he bowed his head slightly. “It is only for God to be incensed so, and walk beneath a dais.”
He flapped his hat at the dais-bearers, as if hazing cattle, at which they furled the fabric around the poles and stepped reluctantly out of his way. His long jaw set, Toussaint walked forward through a grisly silence and passed beneath the arch. As he emerged on the other side, the band struck up, the girls with their garlands burst into strained song, and everyone seemed to be throwing flowers.
Riau and Maillart and the doctor dismounted too, along with the rest of the staff officers, leaving the honor guard to lead their horses. They marched along behind Toussaint, who walked as if in the deepest trance, oblivious to everything before his eyes. To the doctor’s right, Riau stood very tall, imitating Toussaint’s fixed regard, the hussar’s hat adding nearly a foot to his height. To his left, Maillart stumped along, shaking his head in mock disbelief, till an especially lovely girl managed to graze his cheek with a flung rose. At that the captain stooped to retrieve the flower, kissed the air and blew the kiss across the petals toward the blushing beauty who had thrown it, fixed the rose in his buttonhole and walked on in a much better humor.
The crowd closed around them, pressing nearer as the spectators grew more bold, some merely eager, curious, but also there were many petitioners, already vying for the notice of Toussaint. One young woman was so hugely pregnant that the doctor thought she might give birth there in the road, and yet she kept pace with Toussaint all the way, calling out desperately that her husband must either win or retain a post as inspector of customs, pointing at her great belly for emphasis—the father of my child! she cried over and over, her voice breaking from the effort and the urgency. Nearby Bruno Pinchon was scampering, jumping to raise his head above the others as he called—Habitation Anlouis! Habitation Anlouis!—and some other petitioner had snatched one of the rejected censers and was whirling smoke at Toussaint, despite his remonstrance, and begging for some favor the doctor could not quite hear. Toussaint took no notice of any of them.
In the days that followed, the doctor took the opportunity to finish his study of the irrigation system, broken off during his previous visit to Port-au-Prince. It was an ingenious arrangement in its way. One main canal was dug in an irregular course across the slopes above the town, and several tributary channels used the natural incline to feed water to the old Intendance, the casernes, the royal hospital, and the fountain on Government Square.
The doctor followed this latter channel to its terminus at the fountain in front of Government House. Toussaint’s troops stood in quiet, orderly groups at the corners of the square, barefoot and shirtless for the most part, lean as greyhounds but just as fit. Some of them saluted the doctor as he walked toward the building. These were men who could march all day on one banana or a cupful of corn, sleep on their feet, fight on the morrow—they had been doing so for years. Small children circled them, wide-eyed and curious; a woman approached one of the squads with a covered basketful of bread. After a week of perfect discipline on the part of the black soldiers, and none of the pillaging or disorder that had been anticipated, the townspeople had begun to lose their fear.
Petitioners lined the hallways of Government House, waiting, hoping, to see Toussaint. The doctor felt envious eyes on his back as the sentries acknowledged him and let him pass through. In the anteroom, Bruno Pinchon sat next to a young woman cradling a newborn infant. The wife he had mentioned? the doctor wondered—but no, he’d said she was in France.
Seeing the doctor, Pinchon sprang up, his mouth already open to begin some plea, but just then the door of the inner office opened and the mayor of Port-au-Prince bowed his way out. Toussaint came after him through the doorway, telling him that Christophe Mornet would follow through on whatever business they had just settled. The young woman was instantly on her feet, thrusting the baby forward.
“Habitation Anlouis,” Pinchon interjected, but the woman stepped quickly in front of him, cutting off his approach. She made an accordion movement with her arms, gathering the infant to herself, then proffering it again.
“General,” she said. Her voice was sweet, but a little shrill, and had a nagging familiarity to the doctor’s ear. “General, I beg you—I beseech you! Be godfather to my child. We will name him, perhaps . . . Toussaint.”
And now the doctor recognized her, from their first entrance to the town—she must have delivered this infant only the day, or two days, before. A pretty thing, he judged, with glossy black hair and large dark eyes and an appealing flush that spread across her face and also her bosom, which was very generously revealed by the cut of her gown. Held at arm’s length, the baby did not cry or complain, but worked its little fingers at random, peering myopically from its button eyes.
Toussaint covered his mouth with his hand, and studied the woman and child without speaking. Then he reached to the back of his head, unfastened the knot of his yellow headcloth, and shook it out.
“Cover yourself, Madame, if you please.”
As she absorbed his meaning, the young woman’s color darkened to the shade of new-fired brick. Shifting the child to the crook of one arm, she accepted the square of cloth with her other hand. Pinchon, maybe a little too eager for the service, helped her to arrange it over her décolletage.
Toussaint indicated a chair, and she sat down and lowered her head. A fine high color, the doctor thought; it spread round the back of her neck like wine. Pinchon moved as if to renew his approach, then suddenly fell back into a seat, as if the force of Toussaint’s look had flung him there.
It was a rare thing to see Toussaint completely bareheaded. The head was larger than it looked beneath his hat or headcloth, high and egg-shaped, with gray hair thinning at the dome. He covered his mouth with his hand. His eyes drifted half-shut, so that only the whites of them showed. The doctor knew he was very tired. The enthusiasm of his reception by the residents of Port-au-Prince had not been altogether feigned, but he had not fully anticipated its cause. The great majority of the whites who had remained believed that he would make the colony independent of France, and almost as many confidently expected him to solve the mulatto problem, permanently, by massacring them all.
“Madame,” said Toussaint, “why should you wish me to name your son? Have you considered well what you are asking? I know you are seeking a post for your husband—I also know that all the white colons despise me in their hearts.”
At this the young woman started up from her seat as if to protest, but Toussaint, who had seemed to be talking in his sleep, widened his eyes and stayed her with his hand.
“No, if I wore a skin like yours—but I am black, and I know the deep distaste the colons have for me and all my kind. It is true that Revolution has enlightened the French, so that we are well enough liked for the moment, but no work of man is truly durable. Only the work of God Himself can last forever. It may be that after my death, my brothers will pass into slavery again, and go under the whip of the white colons, who have always been our enemies. Then your son, when he has reached the age of reason, will reproach you for having given him a black to be his godfather.”
Abruptly, Toussaint sat down himself, and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “No, Madame, I cannot accept this honor which you suggest to me. You wish a place for your husband in the Customs—it is his. Tell Commander Christophe Mornet what I have said, and it will be so arranged. You may also tell your husband that, while I cannot see all that he does, nothing is invisible to God. Let him serve honestly.”
The young woman’s blush had subsided considerably by the time Toussaint had done speaking. She stood up and curtsied gracefully. It was circumspect, the doctor thought, for her to say nothing, not even to risk a word of thanks. No fool she. Carrying the child, she went out, with Toussaint’s yellow madras still half tucked into her bodice. They could hear the baby beginning to mew in the hall as she retreated.
“Monsieur Général,” Pinchon began, once more rising to his feet. “You do not remember me, but—”
Toussaint looked up at him, his eyes red-rimmed. “Oh, I remember you very well,” he said. “Better than you would perhaps prefer. Your name is Bruno Pinchon, and through your marriage to Marie-Céleste Latrobe you claim possession of Habitation Anlouis, a sugar plantation of eighty-six carrés, in the plain of Cul de Sac. This land was gambled away at cards by the son of the original Anlouis, now dead of his debaucheries, and so came into the hands of your father-in-law, who is a broker at Nantes. But neither he nor your wife nor you yourself have ever laid eyes on the property. You are no planter, and you know nothing of the work. I remember all these things, and I also recall our first meeting at Ennery, with everything that you said and did on that occasion.”
Pinchon took a long step backward, his Adam’s apple working.
“At Gonaives too, when I claimed it for France, you barely escaped being shot for your involvement with the enemy,” Toussaint said. “Now we meet for the third time.” He exhaled, glancing toward the window, as if the sight of Pinchon pained him. “Well, you may enjoy your dowry. Make of it what you can. See Commander Paul Louverture at Croix des Bouquets and it will be arranged. Your life and property will be respected.”
Pinchon also elected the virtue of silence—wisely, the doctor thought again. He bowed, stumbled, made his way to the door. In the hall outside there was a commotion among the others waiting for their audiences. The doctor stepped across and shoved the door closed on them all.
Toussaint was bowed in his seat, his shoulders shaking. The patchy baldness of his head looked oddly fragile. The doctor had never heard him speak with such a bitter pessimism as he’d used with that young woman—not, at least, of his own cause. But when he straightened and took his hand from his mouth, he revealed that his convulsions had been laughter, all along.
“Very well,” he said, shaking his head and giving the doctor his cayman’s smile as he pointed to the door. “Open! let the next one come in.”
Captain Maillart did his best to swallow his irritation as he bowed his way into the Cigny parlor and found it full of the junior attachés of Agent Hédouville’s suite, who were swift enough to discover the charms of his friend Isabelle. The Cigny house was enjoying a burst of popularity these days, for although the official policy with which Hédouville was invested must regard the family with a certain suspicion, a good many of the juniors seemed quite thoroughly ancien régime in their personal sentiments, and wore the black collars to show it.
He adjusted his frayed cuffs and sat down in the place Isabelle had indicated for him, a long, sturdy sofa, next to Joseph Flaville. The black-collared youths were looking at him, he felt, with slyly concealed amusement. That impudent puppy Paltre (not twenty-five years of age) was whispering with his companion Ciprien Cypré, similarly unlicked. They’d be sneering, Maillart was sure enough, at his worn coat with its stains of tropical campaigning (which they ought to regard as marks of honor) and still more at his subordination to the black officers, former slaves from whom he took his orders, whose rank was exaggerated so far past his own. Ten years in the colony and still a captain—that was due to his many changes of service, and Maillart had not wasted much thought on it either, until Hédouville’s puppy pack had obliged him to. Paltre and Cypré were captains themselves, at the same age Maillart had been when he first came out to Saint Domingue, and perhaps no more feckless either, but he was not in a forgiving mood.
“Sé fransé m’yé,” he said to Flaville, but loudly enough to be heard everywhere in the room. “Men, m’pa rinmin fransé tankou moun sa yo.”
Flaville, who relaxed on the sofa with a serpentine ease, grinned and let a fluid movement flow through his whole long body, while Isabelle clicked her tongue and frowned to reprove them both. The two young captains drew themselves up a little, sensing they had been insulted but without knowing exactly how. I am French, but I don’t like Frenchmen like these people. Maillart had learned that it distressed the new arrivals to hear patois, which sounded exactly like their own language but was incomprehensible to them.
Nanon raised her head from her embroidery hoop and gave him a quick, secret smile, then lowered her face again, indifferent to the blandishments of the two civilian clerks who were trying to engage her interest. Maillart felt distinctly better now. By God, she was a beauty—none of it had tarnished her, whatever she had been through. Say what you would about the wisdom of throwing one’s whole heart at a colored courtesan, the captain could not dispute the doctor’s taste. For himself, he was glad to have found her safe in the Cigny house, and that he would have this news for Antoine Hébert when they next met.
He accepted the coffee that was served him, and devoted about a quarter of his attention to flirting with Isabelle. The pattern of their banter was familiar as a waltz—he could sustain his steps without thinking about them. It meant little; he would not taste her honeyed chalice. So far as he knew, she’d given her full sweetness to no man at all, if not to her husband, since their odd quarrel at Môle Saint Nicolas. Friendship with a woman—ha. But his ease with her would annoy the little captains. It was childish to score off the puppies, Maillart knew, but he enjoyed it all the same.
And these were the officers meant to replace Toussaint’s cadre!—for almost all Hédouville’s suite was like these two: absurdly young, and arrogant in exact proportion to their inexperience. Maillart, who’d become for a time Toussaint’s particular envoy to the new agent, had divined that much: Hédouville meant to assert control of the indigenous army by infiltrating his own officers, these cubs, ha. Hédouville himself was quite a different matter, clearly a capable officer, seasoned in battle and yet equally skillful in winning contests without battles. During his service under Toussaint, Maillart had developed a special appreciation of that latter capacity. And Hédouville would need all the guile at his command, since he’d been sent out with no force at all, to speak of.
The agent’s original instructions were to arrest Rigaud for the flagrant insubordination he’d shown Sonthonax, but Toussaint had absolutely refused to carry out this order when Hédouville sent it on to him. Captain Maillart had had the dubious privilege of delivering Toussaint’s letter of reply, which stated that since Rigaud was clearly a loyal servant of the Republic, as evidenced by the vigorous campaign he was then prosecuting against the British at Jérémie, why, to arrest Rigaud would be as if to arrest himself. Hédouville had received this response with equanimity, even with some appreciation (so it seemed to Maillart) for its pragmatism. Since then, he’d been evolving some quite different strategy, though the captain couldn’t make out what it was. But Maillart rather liked Hédouville, thus far. And if he played his cards very close to his vest, one must also admit that he’d been dealt a difficult hand to play.
Isabelle was tittering at some remark he’d made, though Maillart himself could not remember his own witticism. He drained off the sugary swirl at the bottom of his coffee, set down the cup and stood to take his leave. Through the open doors that gave onto the balcony, he could see the masts of ships at dockside, over the rosy tile roofs of the houses down the slope. Flaville had also risen to go. Maillart stooped to brush Isabelle’s hand with his lips, and went out.
In the stairwell, he paused to wait for Flaville, but it was Cypré and Paltre who appeared instead, and Maillart quickly turned his back on them.
“Four grenadiers,” one of them said. “No more.” Maillart was not sure which. He did not bother distinguishing them. But he’d meant to be overheard; that was clear. Some clique among the puppy officers had declared that they’d want no more than four grenadiers to arrest “that old rag-headed Negro”—by which they meant Toussaint. The boast had become well known throughout Le Cap. Stiff-necked, Maillart walked across the foyer. A house servant was opening the door for him, and the light outside was a white-hot blaze. He spun, rage twirling him, but everything became strangely slow, so that while he watched his red fist floating toward the insolent face of Paltre, who was leading the pair, he was able to consider many things with apparent leisure. For some reason he was thinking of Xavier Tocquet and what he might do in such a situation—but he wouldn’t have been in it at all, would not have let himself be drawn in so far. Flaville, who had been a slave, was coming down the steps behind the young French captains, and what insults he must have had to bear in silence in his time. If he struck Paltre, there must be a duel, and when he’d been their age Maillart would have fought, without thinking, to the death, borne the official reprimand, perhaps demotion, defended himself on the grounds of honor. This instant he could have killed Paltre without compunction, but the waste of it all repelled him. Paltre was flinching, showing his fear, and Maillart stopped his hand short of contact, opened it, let it come to rest on the younger man’s shoulder. He smiled.
“If you speak of my commanding officer, the General-in-Chief Toussaint Louverture, let me advise you that he is a civilized man. But there are many rag-headed old Negroes in this country, and if you are so unfortunate as to meet with one of the less civilized variety, why, you may find your severed head stuffed into your slit belly, your own male member crammed inside your mouth. Now smile, my boy, and show your courage. I will not stop smiling, when I see you so. I have seen things in this country that have not appeared in your worst nightmares.”
He gave Paltre’s shoulder a little shake, released it, and strode out the door without waiting for any answer. But Flaville was in step with him as they turned to go find their horses.
“Ou bay blan-yo pè djab,” Flaville said, as he unhitched his sorrel.
“As I meant to.” Maillart returned his grin as he climbed aboard his mount. They saluted each other, then rode in opposite directions. You scared the devil out of those white people—an odd compliment for Flaville to have made to him, the captain thought as he rode across the Rue Espagnole toward the barracks, and yet its echo was most pleasing to his ear.
Under the lifting tendrils of morning mist, Doctor Hébert rode out from the gateway of Habitation Thibodet, his medicaments stored in his saddlebags and his long gun’s stock thrusting up from a scabbard by his knee. His mount was a new mare Riau had procured for him—there’d been a lot of fresh horses coming over the Spanish border since the retaking of Mirebalais. The mare was a strong and handsome gray, but barely green-broke and skittish as a cat. She kept the doctor alert as he rode through the bourg of Ennery.
Beyond the village the road was flat and went beneath the shade of mango trees, with the warming sun striping down between their branches. By then the mist had burned away, and the doctor overtook a line of market women going to the crossroads, who smiled up at him from beneath the baskets on their heads. Coming in the opposite direction were three horseback men leading a pair of donkeys—and where had the doctor seen that particular broad-brimmed hat before?
But Tocquet recognized him first. When he swept off his outsized hat, the doctor’s mare skated sideways, reared and went down almost all the way to her hindquarters. Rather than be thrown, the doctor slipped down from the saddle, sinking to his right boot top in the rutted slough. He caught the reins tight under the bit and brought the mare back down to earth.
“Saluez,” Tocquet said brightly as he rode up. Gros-jean and Bazau were also smiling as they halted their horses behind him.
“A magnificent animal you have there,” Tocquet said. “She looks as if she could climb trees.”
“She’s willing to try,” the doctor said, stroking the mare’s soft nose, as she went on trying to toss her head. He looked at Tocquet. “You’ve been a long time on the road.”
Tocquet looked off into the treetops. His face was shadowed with beard stubble over his lean jaw and the hollow of his throat. “Did you tell her to expect me?” he finally said.
“I didn’t know when you would come.” The doctor broke a stalk of bamboo from a cluster at the roadside and began pushing some of the swamp-smelling mud from the upper of his boot.
“You should find Nanon at the Cigny house,” Tocquet said, shortening the focus of his eyes.
“My God, yes,” the doctor said in a rush. “Riau told me she had come down to Le Cap with you but—is she well? . . . or not.”
Tocquet looked into the treetops again. “Let us say, somewhere between the two. But you ought to go and see for yourself.”
The doctor shook his head, irritably. “Yes, but Toussaint is most reluctant to spare me for the journey.”
“I’ll give you odds he’ll be making that journey himself very soon, by the look of the messenger from Hédouville who passed me on the road.”
“If you’re bound for Gonaives, you’ll soon know more than I.”
Tocquet squeezed his heels into the flanks of his horse. The mare shuddered as he put the big hat on his head again, but kept all four feet on the ground. The doctor tossed away his bamboo stalk, mounted, and rode on.
He had been shuttling between Gonaives and Ennery for the last few weeks, and knew that Toussaint was preoccupied with negotiations for the British withdrawal from Jérémie and the Grande Anse, which for the moment were going nowhere. Meanwhile, the luster of his triumph at Port-au-Prince had begun to fade, while Hédouville grew testy about concessions Toussaint had made to Maitland, and complained about the ease with which so many grand blancs proprietors had recovered their plantations in the Western Department.
By the time the doctor reached the Gonaives casernes, the message Tocquet mentioned had been delivered. Toussaint was requested, in terms he could not deny short of open insubordination, to present himself to Hédouville at Le Cap. And rumor carried the implication that the French agent was determined to assert control over any further negotiation with the British.
“I do not think he wants to go,” Riau told the doctor with a shrug. “But if he goes, it is good for you, because . . .”
“Yes,” said the doctor. “Yes, that is true.” He felt an inner flutter at the thought of the attic room of the Cigny house, with its round window and low-angled walls, where he had been before Nanon, where she’d be now.
He passed that night in the casernes, his hammock strung next to Riau’s. When he woke, the room was empty but for a small green lizard blowing out its throat contemplatively as it watched him from the windowsill. From the direction of the square he heard the hum of a commotion.
He got up and dressed and went out, already beginning to sweat from his exertions. It was later than he’d expected to wake, the sun already high. At the gate the sentries seemed uneasy, and when he asked them what was happening, they said only, General Rigaud, and pointed toward the headquarters building, where that officer apparently had gone.
Glancing once over his shoulder at the fading brick of the building, the doctor walked south, around the curve of the wide, white-dusty road, till he came to the square before the church. Some forty cavalrymen from the Southern Department stood holding their horses in the center of the square, ringed by many times their number of men from the Fourth Colonial Regiment, commanded by Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
Noticing Riau’s tall hussar’s hat protruding from the crowd, the doctor made his way over to him, excusing himself and apologizing all around as he shouldered his way through.
“What is it?” he said, but Riau was masked, no more expressive than a tree, though he shifted his weight slightly to acknowledge the doctor’s arrival. The doctor looked to the center of the ring of men and felt a contraction of his viscera when he recognized Choufleur.
He wore the French uniform, though cut of a better cloth than that commonly used, with gold buttons to match the gold braid. Insignia of a colonel’s rank. His face was pale, so that the swirl of freckles over it stood out like a dark mist, concealing his features with a veil of points which were almost black. The doctor remembered several of the things that Madame Fortier had said about her son. Choufleur was facing Dessalines.
“Your men are blocking our way,” he said carelessly. “Move them out of the road, at once, if you please.”
Choufleur and Dessalines were of a height, but Choufleur was much the slenderer, though by no means frail. He glanced over his shoulder at the man who was holding his horse.
“I do not take my orders from you.” Dessalines’s reply was uninflected; there was no anger in it but it was immovable, rooted like a tree. The black commander stood rooted, swinging slightly from the hips. When Choufleur turned to face him again, he seemed surprised to find Dessalines still standing there.
A pair of gulls came crying over the square, blown by the warm wind from the sea. The gulls banked into the wind and hovered, the wind pushing them slowly backward, then cried again and flew back toward the port. Choufleur’s hand played over his sword hilt for a moment. Dessalines shifted his weight.
“I would not dirty my weapon on a Congo like you,” Choufleur said. “Sooner a whip.”
Dessalines said, nothing, but began to swell. Standing in place, he grew larger, heavier, darker. The doctor remembered the knot of scars that lay beneath his coat and thought of them moving, crawling like a nest of snakes. A murmur ran through the crowd surrounding the small mulatto troop, and the doctor’s entrails twisted tighter. Riau placed a hand on his back, as if he’d felt his distress and wanted to steady him.
The ring of men opened, just to his left, and Toussaint Louverture stepped through the gap, accompanied by a taller, light-skinned general.
“Let them pass,” Toussaint said.
Dessalines, who had been staring only at Choufleur, turned his head fractionally, just enough to take in the newcomers at the far edge of his view.
“Let the General Rigaud go to make his report to the agent, Hédouville,” Toussaint said, in a reasonable tone, as if debating, though it was an order. “Why should I wish to prevent his going?”
Dessalines deflated. He turned fully toward Toussaint, saluted smartly, then called to his men, Alé! Kité yo pasé.
Toussaint’s companion must be Rigaud, the doctor realized; he had not previously seen the colored general face to face, though he’d heard descriptions. He was taller than Toussaint, and quite a handsome man, with sharp European features. Only his hair looked somewhat unnatural; he was reported to wear a straight-hair wig. Now Rigaud had shaken Toussaint’s hand with all appearance of friendliness and trust. He swung onto his horse, and Choufleur followed his example. At Dessalines’s order, the men of the Fourth opened a corridor onto the road to the north, and Rigaud and his men rode through.
Perhaps two hours later, on the heights above Plaisance, Toussaint returned to the subject as if there had never been any pause in the conversation. “Let General Rigaud attend his meeting with Agent Hédouville. I have no wish to arrest him. I need Rigaud—to fight this war with the English.”
Toussaint rode at the head of his own small party, flanked by Riau and the doctor; they had all left Gonaives about an hour behind the mulatto group, bound for Le Cap. Toussaint was looking straight down the road, sitting the trot of Bel Argent. He had the air of talking to himself, though he spoke loudly enough to be heard by those on either side of him.
“The class of the mulattoes believes itself superior to mine, and if I were to take Monsieur Rigaud away from them, they might find a leader more valuable than he. When he gallops, he lets his horse go. When he strikes, he shows his arm. As for myself, I know how to gallop, but I stop when and wherever I choose, exactly, and when I strike my force is felt, but no one sees my hand . . .”
Toussaint’s face was set, his lower jaw thrusting out with his words. His companions, riding a half-length back, exchanged interested glances over the pumping hindquarters of Bel Argent. Their little column was atop a dizzy height with the Plaisance River valley winding below. Wet, gray clouds blanketed the peaks to the east. The doctor adjusted his hat and pulled his long duster closer about him. Though it was still hot, he knew it would be raining soon and that they would not stop for the rain. This peak, this range of mountains all the way east to the Spanish border, was the bedrock of the power of Toussaint Louverture. Perhaps it was their proximity that had unleashed the general’s tongue, for it was unusual for him to speak so freely, especially of himself.
“Monsieur Rigaud can only make his people rise in blood and massacre,” Toussaint went on. “Then he moans to see the fury of the mob he has excited. If I have put the people into movement, their fury never troubles me, for whenever I appear in person, everything must grow calm.”
He fell silent. It was quiet all down the line, but for the sound of hoofbeats, the rattle of a stone kicked over the rim of the trail, the infrequent cry of hawks above the valley. Already the first drops of rain were slapping the rock and the flanks of the horses. At the damp touches the mare jibbed and began to skate sideways. The doctor reined her in and leaned to pat her withers. He pulled his hat brim down. When they reached Le Cap that night, they found they were in advance of Rigaud’s men; they must have passed him on the way, whether because Toussaint knew a shorter route through the mountains, or that Rigaud was loath to ride through rain and darkness.
Doctor Hébert took the opportunity, while Generals Toussaint and Rigaud were closeted with Agent Hédouville, to visit the Cigny house, for Maillart had been quick to tell him that he would find Nanon there. The scene in Isabelle’s salon was much as the captain had described it—a full complement of the supercilious youths in Hédouville’s suite, paying their court to the ladies, except that Nanon was not present. The doctor forced his way through a few pleasantries and accepted the refreshment urged upon him. When after half an hour she had not appeared, it occurred to him that since he was familiar with the house, nothing prevented him from going directly up to the little room she and he had both occupied, at different times.
With this intention, he slipped out of the parlor, but Isabelle halted him before he had set his foot on the first step.
“I must tell you that your room is engaged by another,” she said.
“Yes,” he muttered, “I have heard so.”
“Doctor Hébert,” she said, as he turned reluctantly from the stairway. “I am sorry to say she will not receive you now.”
His face must have expressed his astonishment. She caught his sleeve and drew him into a small windowless room across the hall and shut the door behind them. The cubicle was furnished with a round table, a lamp, a chair, most prominently a daybed draped with silk shawls. The doctor knew the place to be a theater for her seductions; indeed she’d once handed him a certain humiliation here.
“No,” said Isabelle, as if she’d read his memory. “I only want to explain myself—as if I could.” She fingered the light gold chain around her neck. Something attached to it stirred with the movement, but whatever it was lay hidden beneath the fabric of her dress.
“You must be puzzled,” she went on, “when at first I was something less than enthusiastic to accept this colored courtesan whom you brought to shelter in my house, that I should now respect her wishes—even when they are perverse. And I do find them so. You are that unusual thing of value: a decent man.”
The doctor inclined in her direction.
“I do not mean to flatter,” said Isabelle, “but to give you your due. She would do well to remain with you for as long as you are willing to have her. But her relation with that bastard of the Sieur Maltrot was very powerful, it seems, whatever it has been—oh, she has told me nothing of it, I only suppose. You understand that he is certainly not welcome here, not to take one step across the threshold.”
“Yes,” said the doctor, “but—”
“She is uncertain as to your intentions,” Isabelle said. “Or so I infer. That is not all. But perhaps your intentions are not perfectly clear even to yourself. I’d counsel you not to press your case at once, but leave her time. But do come often.” Isabelle smiled, with a half-curtsey. “It always pleases me to see you.”
Following this interview the doctor got his horse and went out herb-gathering along the roads east of Le Cap, hoping the exercise would settle his mind. He did not return to the city gate until dusk, and went directly to the casernes, where he shared Maillart’s billet for the night. The captain inveighed against Nanon’s peculiarity. What does a woman want? he kept saying, as the doctor rolled in his hammock, searching for sleep. And I don’t say such a woman, but any woman at all . . . But the doctor did not want to talk about it.
The next morning he lingered in his hammock, his mood despondent, pretending to sleep till long after Captain Maillart had gone out. At last he rose and half-heartedly began sorting through the plants he had been collecting, using thread to tie up a few bundles for drying. But this project failed to engage him for long. He pulled on his boots and moped through the streets toward Government House.
There his interest was piqued by the sight of Toussaint emerging from the enclosure, on foot, surrounded by several of Hédouville’s entourage. One might almost say he was being harassed by them, for the black general did not look at all pleased. The doctor came within earshot, as Fabre, captain of the little fleet that had brought Hédouville out from France, was gesturing toward the port.
“General,” he said, “it would be my honor, as well as my pleasure, to convey you to France, and in that same vessel in which I carried General Hédouville hither.”
The young officers at his back exchanged ironic smiles, fingering their black collars. Fabre’s tone was mocking, and the doctor thought he detected hints of threat. Supplantation, deportation . . .
“Your ship is not large enough,” Toussaint said darkly, “for a man like me.”
The doctor hid a smile behind his hand, watching the white men’s sour reaction to this rejoinder. That this African should rate himself higher than the representative of the French government . . . The gesture itself was something he must have absorbed from Toussaint. With that thought, he wiped the smile away and put his hand into his coat pocket, touching the shard of mirror.
“But, mon général,” said one of the young men at the rear of the group. “How can you deny yourself the sight of France, the nation which has conferred such benefits on yourself and your people?”
“One day I do intend to go to France,” Toussaint said. He took off his tricorne hat and revealed the yellow kerchief tightly knotted over his head.
The young Frenchmen standing out of his line of view smirked at each other. Ce vieux magot coiffé de linge—the doctor had heard the phrase, from Maillart and others, often enough. He’d also heard that two of the inexperienced officers who’d circulated the witticism had been killed in an ambush near Saint Marc; according to some whispers, Toussaint was behind their deaths.
Toussaint aimed the third corner of his hat at a sapling on the shady side of the street, no more than a green stick, and barely the diameter of his thumb.
“I will go,” he said, “when that tree has grown large enough to build the ship to carry me.”
To this the humorists found no reply at all. Toussaint stepped away from them, replacing his hat back on his head. He seemed to catch sight of the doctor for the first time.
“Ah—come with me, please,” he said. “I want you.”
At the casernes the doctor was set at once to transcribing, from Toussaint’s dictation, a letter redolent with airs of loyalty and submission, which proffered to the Directoire Toussaint’s resignation from his post as General-in-Chief and from the army altogether. In short, Toussaint requested his own retirement. As the doctor recognized this import, the quill began to dither in his hand.
“But,” he began, dangling a blob of ink from the nib. “Can you really mean—”
He cut himself off, for Toussaint had begun to tremble, from his hands that gripped the table’s edge through the cords of his neck to his temples throbbing beneath the yellow headcloth, where tufts of his iron hair showed under the sweat-stained fold of cloth. His eyes half closed, showing crescents of white. The feeling did not seem part of him but only to pass through him. This turbulence lasted for just a moment, then Toussaint smiled and wiped away the expression with one hand. He clapped and called the two sentries from outside the door: Guiaou and another whose name the doctor did not know. With his forefinger Toussaint indicated the stub of the second man’s left ear (lopped off for some offense like theft or marronage) and the letter R branded on his cheek (which marked him as a rebel).
“Such benefits,” Toussaint said. He lifted the tail of Guiaou’s shirt (for Guiaou now possessed a shirt) and showed the patterns of his horrific scars. Guiaou stood erect, motionless, looking fixedly forward, whether proud or ashamed or indifferent the doctor could not have told.
“These too are graces of the French government,” Toussaint said, his pointing hand vibrating slightly as he spoke, “along with whips and chains for every man and woman stolen out of Guinée, and when the final accounting is made before God, these will be reckoned with the other benefits. Yes, and if the French government had shown me one-half the honor offered by the English—” Toussaint’s arm dropped. “Well, leave off,” he said to the doctor. “I am done with you.”
The doctor quailed, visibly it must have been.
“For the moment,” Toussaint said, more equably. “You are at liberty. Only send in Riau as you go out.”
Sweating, the doctor did as he was bid. Riau was lingering just outside the door and the doctor, having delivered his message, watched as he went in and took his position at the writing desk. As he scanned the draft of the letter, Riau’s face, normally a rich and glossy black, dulled to slatish gray. Then Guiaou and the other sentry pulled the door shut and took up their positions before it.
The doctor wandered blindly down through the gate, toward the blaze of sun and the day-long commotion of the Rue Espagnole, imagining what would follow if Toussaint were to withdraw from the scene. He himself had better throw in his lot with Henri Christophe, or perhaps Maurepas. Ah Christ, it would all shatter and they’d fight among themselves. And who’d emerge the victor? Dessalines, or possibly Moyse. But more than likely, Dessalines—without a Toussaint to restrain him.
He walked across to Government House to find Pascal and ask him what possiby could have happened between Toussaint and Hédouville. “I’ve never seen him show such a humor as today,” the doctor said. “Not in all the time I’ve spent in his company . . . and I’ve seen many things.”
“I don’t doubt that you have.” Pascal tugged at the corner of his thumbnail with his teeth. “Well, I know this much of what has happened in the last few days. The Peacemaker of the Vendée has been most frosty to Commissioner Raimond, and has shown rather more formal courtesy to General Rigaud than to Toussaint.”
“But why—why would he want to offend Toussaint?”
Pascal gnawed at his thumbnail. “It’s more that Rigaud wants placating—he has long resented that Toussaint was promoted to a place above his own.”
“But General Hédouville came out with an order for Rigaud’s arrest.”
“Which Toussaint declined to execute.” Pascal bit into his thumb, then looked absently at the ragged flesh. “You know yourself the commissioners were much at fault in the whole debacle down south. The envoys were ill chosen and they bungled the whole affair—else Rigaud might never have been alienated.”
“All right. But now?”
“Now, Toussaint is the highest military authority in all the colony, in name. Also in fact—except in the Southern Department. Rigaud’s command. Well, let us suppose that our Peacemaker has received Rigaud more warmly than Toussaint, and has also given Rigaud to understand that his policy will be to withdraw the supremacy of power that Toussaint now enjoys . . .”
The doctor experienced an inner recoil. “If Toussaint were to learn of that, it would surely explain his distemper.”
“Indeed, it was let slip to him intentionally.” Pascal’s teeth drew blood from the corner of his tattered thumbnail. “It may be that he was even placed so as to overhear the actual conversation with Rigaud.”
“But why should General Hédouville—”
“Because he has no substantial force of his own,” Pascal said, looking somewhat unhappily at his wounded digit. “He must set the leaders against one another, and hope to insinuate his own officers among the cracks that open.”
“I call that a very dangerous game.”
“Agreed. But he played it to a victory in the Vendée, or so we are constantly told.” Pascal said. “No doubt he hopes to do the same thing here.”
“Give me your hand,” the doctor said, taking it in his own as he spoke. He squinted at the swollen area around the base of Pascal’s thumbnail.
“As for Toussaint,” Pascal told him, “I think we may reassure ourselves that this idea of retirement is a similar ploy. Only observe your own reaction—everyone else will feel the same. Even his enemies, or those who feel that he has simply become too powerful. For the moment, there is no one else who can hold things together here.”
“Let us take what comfort we can from that.” The doctor shook his head, wagging Pascal’s hand in his. “But this nail biting is truly a vicious habit, in a hot country. Look, you have already a bad spot here. You must let me poultice this.”
When he had tended to Pascal’s hand, the doctor parted from him and went on foot to the Cigny house, half dizzied by the heat and glare of the noonday sun. Arriving, he bypassed the front door without quite knowing his reason for doing so, and instead went round to the small crooked courtyard at the back, where a couple of servants whom he knew were resting in the shade. They smiled when they saw him, and at his indirect inquiry let him know that Madame Cigny was absent, having gone to call on a friend elsewhere in the town. When the conversation ended, they made no objection to the doctor’s entering the house by the back door.
He went up the stairs, unpleasantly conscious of the noise of his boots and the creaking of the planks beneath them. But no one was about to notice. From the bedroom on the second floor, the snores of Monsieur Cigny resounded, as the master of the house slept away the worst of the day’s heat. The doctor kept on climbing to the attic.
The door of the little room was slightly ajar; a nudge of his fingertips sufficed to send it floating inward. Nanon sat up on her cot with a gasp, and quickly pulled the sheet up to her collarbone. She’d been napping in the nude, as was her habit.
“Why have you come here?” she said.
“To let you know that our son is well.”
Nanon flinched, turning her face to the wall, as if he’d slapped her. The doctor’s pulse slammed at his temples. He had not considered before he spoke, but why was it the wrong thing to have said? Nanon drew the sheet higher over her shoulders, gripping the fabric from the end, tight as the hands of a corpse upon a shroud. She was thinner than before and there was a line of discoloration across her throat like an ugly necklace. Rust. The loss of weight brought a fragile edge to the beauty he remembered. So long since he had seen her at all, but she agreed very well with his memory. The heat bore down terribly here on the top floor, and the sheet clung humidly to the contours of her body. The doctor was aware of the grime caked on him, of an unpleasant taste in his mouth.
“I mean no harm,” he said, squatting at her bedside, extending his hand. “Quite the opposite.”
“Don’t,” Nanon said. “Don’t, I beg you. Je t’en prie.”
The doctor’s hand had stopped in the air. She would not turn her face to look at him. The atmosphere was so hot and close that he could scarcely breathe.
“But what is it?” he said. “Do you think I have come to bring some punishment, or even a reproach?” The plaintive grating of his voice was unpleasant even to himself. Why was he unable to strike a better note?
“Only come back with me to Ennery,” he said. “Everything will be as it was before you went away. Whatever has passed in your absence will be forgotten, as if it never were.”
Nanon did turn toward him then, chin trembling, her eyes large and gleaming under wells of tears. Her lips were parted, but instead of speaking she drew the sheet completely over her head and hunched down on the cot. As if what he’d last said were the very most wounding thing of all. Under the white shroud he saw her shuddering. Though he wanted to touch, to comfort, he withdrew his hovering hand, with a deliberate effort. He was resolved to do no harm.
“Perhaps I was wrong to have surprised you in this way.” The whine was purged from his voice now; he spoke as gently as he might to a sick or wounded person in his care. “But I will come again tomorrow. Properly. I will call on Madame Cigny in the late afternoon. Do you understand?”
Under the sheet, Nanon made no reply. The doctor looked across the shape of her body, through the porthole window and down into the street below, where a man came laboring under the heavy shafts of a two-wheeled cart piled high with sacks of rice or grain. He strained forward at such a desperate angle that, without the cart to balance him, he would surely have fallen on his face. All the muscles of his bare back and arms stood out like harp strings under the black skin. Then he passed from view and the round glass was empty.
Still Nanon said nothing, but rolled away from him, on her side. The doctor suffered a spasm of dizziness as he stood up, and had to lean on the door jamb for a moment to recover himself before he went out.
At street level a hint of a breeze had begun from the port, just enough to cool the sweat that poured from every inch of his skin. On the Rue Espagnole he crossed paths with an open coach bound in the direction of the city gate. General Hédouville himself was the principal passenger. His graying hair stuck straight up like a brush, and a smile flickered across his smooth round cheeks as he spoke to his companions. On his right sat General Rigaud, listening attentively, and to his left, Choufleur.
The doctor stopped in his tracks, watching. He did not know what Choufleur had done, but felt that he radiated some evil intention. That gold-headed cane he affected lay across his knees—the doctor would have liked to snatch it and snap it over his head. Choufleur looked through him without appearing to see him at all, but as the coach passed his head came around like an owl’s, as if an invisible filament connected his eyes to the doctor’s face. This liaison sustained itself till the coach turned a corner out of sight.
“All women are whores,” Captain Maillart announced in the later watches of that night. “Except of course your mother, and my mother.” He hiccupped, then took another slug of rum and passed the calabash to the doctor. They were sitting just beyond the portico, on stools beneath the stars that shone all above the central courtyard of the casernes.
“Excepting nuns also,” the captain belched, “who must be married to Our Lord Jesus Christ, to restrain them from the whoredom of their nature.” He paused, considering. “I’d best except your sister too. My dear friend, your sister is not a whore.”
“Oh, let her be one if you like.” He was quite as drunk as the captain himself, and felt it every time he looked up at the stars wheeling over his head. “And what of your Isabelle Cigny?”
“A whore who has become a nun!” Maillart said triumphantly. “A Magdalen, I tell you. One may be fri-(urk) -friends with her. No more. Perhaps one might also be friends with a nun.” Tilting dangerously on his stool, he gripped the doctor’s shoulder. Their rum breaths mingled.
“Whores and nuns, my dear friend,” he said. “There you have it. Make your choice between the two—you will have small joy from either in the end. What, then, are we to do? Can you tell me that?”
“No,” said the doctor. He wondered where Riau had got to, and what he might be doing wherever he was. Riau had not appeared at the barracks all evening. For some reason he was thinking of the accommodation Riau had reached with Guiaou, and remembering that moment when Riau had offered him the salt with the prediction that Nanon would not come back to him. What had he meant by that offer of salt?
“We must GO WHORING!” Maillart shouted. From the opposite wing of the casernes, an invisible voice besought him to be quiet. Maillart pushed away from the doctor’s shoulder. The legs of his stool clopped down on the stones.
“Your logic eludes me,” the doctor said thickly.
“Yes, well,” Maillart said. “It’s true.” His voice was glum. “The prettiest whores are all taken by those brats of Hédouville. We should have to fight for them.” He brightened. “I don’t mind that. Only afterward we’d be cashiered for it. Or shot. Or hung.”
“It’s hardly worth it,” the doctor said. “Not for whores.”
“Exactly.” Maillart stood ponderously up and swayed in place. “And so, my very dear friend, to bed. Without any whores.”
“Or nuns,” the doctor said.
Maillart had gone into the room and crashed into something; the doctor heard him curse, scuffle, then gradually subside into silence. A few minutes later he followed the captain inside, but found he was too drunk to climb into his hammock. Drunk enough that the stone floor was not at all uncomfortable, except that if he lay at full length, the whole room went into a sickening whirl, so that he was obliged to sleep sitting up, his back wedged into a corner.
Overindulgence in strong spirits was a poor program for a tropical climate, the doctor had occasion to remind himself many times during the next morning. A long swim in cold water would have been the best prescription, but he had no time for it; Toussaint had let him know that they would be traveling back to Gonaives the day after, so there were preparations to make.
When he had done what was necessary, he went back to the casernes and managed with some difficulty to get into his hammock, where he lay swinging queasily, his tongue thick and swollen, his head a clot, his bowels uneasily astir. But in the end he must have slept, for when he returned to complete consciousness the light had changed in the stone-paved yard outside the room, and the heat had somewhat abated.
He rolled out of the hammock, found his feet, then stopped to pick up the calabash from the corner of the room where it had been abandoned. A little liquid gurgled when he lifted it. He removed the leaf plug and turned it up, grimacing at the bite of the rum in his throat. His stomach heaved, then stabilized, and the pain in his head faded. At the cistern he washed his face and rinsed his mouth with stale water, and with his fingers combed back his few strands of hair over his scaling skull. He found the gray mare in the stable and rode down to the Cigny house.
Isabelle intercepted him at the door. “Your room is free,” she said.
“You are ever hospitable,” said the doctor, “but I cannot accept until my next visit, for I am called to Gonaives tomorrow.”
Isabelle gave him a meaningful look and laid her hand on his forearm. From the direction of the parlor he heard the clink of china and a rattle of male laughter.
“She’s gone?” the doctor said. “Ah—what has happened?”
“She’s gone with him—Choufleur,” Isabelle hissed, her pale face breaking out in angry colors. “She went away with him this morning. My husband was about his affairs and I had gone out also—I daresay he watched for me to leave, the scoundrel! But she went freely, so the servants claim. He did not force her, or not with his hands. I mislike such a freedom.”
“Oh,” said the doctor. “Oh . . .”
“You are welcome to come in, of course,” Isabelle said, smiling almost tremulously. “I did not like to keep you in suspense.”
“No,” said the doctor. “Perhaps I won’t.”
“As you know, he still keeps the house of the late Sieur de Maltrot,” Isabelle told him. “That is, if he has not already taken her from the town altogether. Ah well, you must do what you can. I do not know how to advise you, but no good will come to her, with him.”
He rode the gray mare down through bustling streets, reining her in and stroking her neck to soothe her as necessary; the mare was better used to country life and shied at every passing cart or swatch of fluttering fabric. At the waterfront, he turned and rode in the direction of Fort Picolet. Beyond the fountain and the battery was a little gravelly beach, and here he dismounted and hitched the mare and walked down to the water’s lapping edge. He took a couple of steps into the light surf with his shod feet and crouched to thrust his arms into the ripples. The water was very cold on the pulse of his wrists, and he could feel the cold of it on his ankles through the leather of his boots.
The sun was tilting away over Morne du Cap when he turned from the water and started toward his horse. Great billows of sunset-colored cloud rose up from the ridges of the mountain. On the lower slopes he had a long view of the little church and behind it the lakou where Paul had taken shelter. Unseen, a drum tapped unevenly, rumbled, fell away to silence.
He rode in the opposite direction across town, along the Rue Vaudreuil. The Maltrot house stood at the corner of the Rue du Hasard, one block from the Place Clugny, where he and Nanon had had their first significant encounter years before. The house was shuttered, upstairs and down, unremarkable, pale paint flaking from the boards of the high-arched doors. An iron gate closing off access to the inner court was secured with a loop of rusted chain.
The doctor sat his horse and looked at the house. Far above the brick-colored roof tiles, a darker mass of clouds was gathering, and the wind freshened as it changed direction. Presently a tall colored woman wearing a dark blue dress came from the inner courtyard toward the gate, twirling a parasol of paler blue in both her hands. A servant raced ahead of her to open the gate, and bowed and scraped obsequiously as she came out. The mare shied at the movement of the parasol and the doctor got down and held her, stroking her mane and whispering.
“Monsieur le médecin.” The tall woman was Madame Fortier, but more elaborately dressed than when he had last seen her. Her hair was wound up in a high cone shape, wrapped in silk kerchiefs and surmounted by a small, beribboned straw hat which was pinned at a jaunty angle. The gate hinges squealed as the servant closed the gate behind her, locked the chain and disappeared from view.
“How long did you say you have been in this country?”
“Since ninety-one,” the doctor replied. “I believe it was June when I arrived.”
“Ah,” said Madame Fortier, watching him as he gentled the mare. “That is good.”
“You are kind-hearted,” she told him, “yet not so soft as you might seem, else you would not have survived so long.”
The doctor nodded. “I am surprised to see you here,” he said. “Pleased as well, of course.”
“Well, it is nothing unusual,” she said, lowering the parasol as she moved nearer. “Fortier has come down with the harvest of coffee from Dondon, and we must buy salt, and flour, and cloth.”
“But of course,” said the doctor.
Madame Fortier turned and stood beside him so that both of them were looking at the iron spears of the gate.
“Before, we were at Vallière,” she told him. “There I found that woman you were seeking when we first met. I helped her to get away from that place, for my son had not used her very well, I am sorry to say. She went in the company of a blanc who claimed to be your friend.”
“Yes,” said the doctor. “He told you the truth.”
Madame Fortier slapped the furled parasol against her skirt. The mare snapped her head back in response, eyes rolling. The doctor shortened his grip on the reins and stroked her.
“Now she falls again into the possession of Jean-Michel,” said Madame Fortier. “How is this allowed to happen? This house is an evil place. I had not thought to enter it again for any reason.” The doctor flushed and looked away.
“That I should speak so, of the house where my own son is in residence,” she said. “Well, if there is a Hell as the blanc priests say, then the father of Jean-Michel is there, and roasted to a crackling. But by another belief one might also say that the father’s spirit works through the body of Jean-Michel, and so powerfully that I no longer recognize any quality in my son which belongs to me. Tell me, in all your medical art, is there found a cure for this situation?”
“None that I know,” the doctor said. “Madame, you speak of a very great sorrow.”
“It is so,” Madame Fortier said, still looking at the gate. The wind rose, bearing a few plump drops of rain over the roof tiles and into their faces. A wagon rattled to a halt between them and the house. Fortier sat on the box; he beckoned to his wife.
“As for the woman, I judge that she is not beyond help,” Madame Fortier said, “but I can help her no more.” She nodded to the doctor and stepped toward the wagon, then abruptly turned back.
“Slavery is corruption,” she said. “It rots the one who is owned and also the one who does the owning, like poison in the flesh. If this truth is not found already in your medical art, it remains a science you must master. Such corruption can only be washed out by blood.”
Fortier took her hand and helped her up onto the box. As he clucked to his draft horse, she turned her face to the doctor once more.
“If you enter that house, have a care for your life.”
The doctor saluted her with his hat, and remounted the gray mare. But he did not immediately ride away. As the deluge began he found his duster in a saddlebag and quickly put it on, then adjusted his hat brim to shed the rain. On the second floor of the house a shutter opened partially, and the doctor felt that someone was watching him from the darkness behind. He remained where he was. The mare stood stolidly for once, head lowered, as if the downpour had beaten the nervousness out of her. His pistols were primed and dry beneath the duster. Even if the steadiness of his hand was spoiled by rum, he never went anywhere, nowadays, without making sure of those weapons, though at this moment he had no idea what use they might be to him.
Toussaint invited General Rigaud to travel with him as far as Ennery and to break his journey to the south by dining and staying the night at Descahaux plantation. All during the day’s ride the two generals were most affable with one another, and the mood of friendliness continued into the evening. Rigaud was extravagant in his praise of Suzanne Louverture (though he found her more receptive to compliments to her table than to her person). The youngest son, Saint-Jean, who had not gone with his elder brothers to France, was presented for inspection and admiration.
Otherwise the conversation mostly concerned the campaign against Jérémie, where the English were still quite firmly entrenched, though under heavy pressure from Rigaud’s besieging force. Neither Toussaint nor Rigaud made any allusion at all to Agent Hédouville nor to any instructions that came from him. No doubt, the doctor privately thought, this subject remained a tender one. Captain Maillart was also present for this dinner, with a few other people from Toussaint’s staff, and most of the party that had originally ridden up with Rigaud from the southern peninsula. But some few of this latter group had remained at Le Cap, including Colonel Maltrot: Choufleur.
When it was all over, the doctor rode over to Habitation Thibodet, only a short distance, though the road was lengthened by the skittish mare, jumping at shadows in the moonlight. A sleepy sentry admitted him at the plantation gate, and as he rode up the avenue he could hear chickens and guinea fowl clucking in their perches on the trees at either side. The grand’case was dark, as was the mill (since Toussaint had displaced his local headquarters to Descahaux). The doctor unsaddled the mare and turned her into the moonlit paddock. Saddlebags slung over his shoulder, he trudged up the steps to the house.
Elsie heard him entering and came to the door of her bedroom to give him a quick sleepy hug, her nightgown clinging damply to her, her body warm and heavy from the bed. The doctor thought he heard Tocquet’s voice muttering somewhere in the dark behind her. He groped his way to his own room and dropped his saddlebags on the floor. The moist night breeze stirred the jalousies, and there was just enough moonlight slipping through the slits to help him find a candle stump. Cupping the yellow flame, he looked into Paul’s room and for a moment watched the boy breathe in sleep. Then he snuffed the candle, pulled off his boots, and stretched out fully clothed on top of the covers of his own bed. Down the hall he heard Elise’s voice, rising in the breathy excitement of love. At that he made a wry face in the moon-striped dark, but soon afterward he was asleep.
Next day he went up to the hillside camps to deliver various small articles Guiaou and Riau had separately commissioned him to bring for Merbillay and her children, Caco and the infant Sans-chagrin: white flour, a bag of peppercorns, dried beans, and a bolt of cloth. He satisfied himself that both children were healthy. With that accomplished, he had trouble finding anything to do with himself, and moped around the house for several days. Toussaint had gone down to Gonaives, but did not immediately send for him. He could not settle. Paul was happy enough, it seemed, and spent most of his days frolicking with Caco. Tocquet and Elise were almost ostentatiously blissful, and Sophie was so very glad to have her father home again—the doctor knew it was churlish for him to envy their reunion, but he still did feel rather like a beggar, peering through a pane of icy glass at the rich around their banquet table.
He could not bring himself to speak to his sister about anything that had happened with Nanon, but one night he did give Xavier Tocquet the barest account of the circumstances. Tocquet made no comment, only pulled on the ends of his mustache and looked elsewhere. But a day or so later Elise came to him where he sat at the gallery table, brooding over the snuffbox and his mirror shard.
“Brother,” she said. “May I sit with you?”
He looked up curiously, for she did not usually address him in this formal fashion.
“Of course,” he said. “After all, it is your house.”
Elise took a chair, folded her arms and looked at him closely. “Are you angry with me still?”
“No,” he told her. “You’ve done what you could to put it right.”
“But not enough,” said Elise, “for you have not regained your lover.”
The doctor picked up the bit of mirror and used it to fire a reflected sunbeam out over the bougainvillea that climbed the gallery rail.
“What do those objects mean to you?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” The doctor considered. “Sometimes I think they are like chessmen, and if I only position them just so . . . Or sometimes I feel they are connected to other people in my life.”
“I’ll say that I do not quite understand her conduct,” Elise said. “I would admit that I have wronged her. That I told her an untruth.”
The doctor shrugged. “Perhaps she simply prefers the other man.”
“You might make her an offer of marriage.”
“You astonish me,” he said. “Why, even your friend Isabelle Cigny warned me that if I did such a thing, I’d find myself transformed into a black.”
“Antoine,” said his sister. Her eyes welled up, magnified a larger paler blue. “I confess I’ve wronged you too. Can I not be released from my own error? In France it is one thing, but here another. I will make my own life here—I will not freeze my heart in France.”
The doctor reached across the table to take her hand. “If my forgiveness will make you free, you have it.”
He gave her fingers a gentle pressure and let them go. Elise sat back.
“When you next go to Le Cap, I think you ought to take Paul with you. Isabelle would keep him, I am sure.”
“But why? To lure the mother? Her maternal sentiments don’t seem to have been so very strong.”
“You may not know the whole of it.” Elise swallowed. “Take him—it might make a difference.”
But then Toussaint did call him down to Gonaives. There was a flurry of correspondence with Maitland and the British, now nearly resigned to surrender Jérémie. That town was one of the strongest points in the whole Southern Department, but Rigaud had it tightly under siege; meanwhile Toussaint let Maitland know directly that he himself would blow up Jérémie’s fortifications if it cost him two thousand men to do it . . . but would it not be better to avoid such bloodshed?
At the same time the surrender of Môle Saint Nicolas was also under discussion, but on this point Maitland had chosen to treat with Hédouville rather than with Toussaint. Indeed word came that Maitland had already come to an agreement with the agent on the rendition of Le Môle, and that the British general had posted a proclamation from Hédouville in the streets of the town, warning that all French royalists and émigrés under protection of the British would be expelled once the British had departed. Hédouville’s proclamations were beginning to wear away whatever popularity he had hoped to enjoy, for another recent edict declared that all the cultivators must contract for no less than three years of labor on the plantations where they worked, and this news had started a rumor that the agent secretly meant to restore slavery.
If Toussaint was displeased at that latter development, he did not show it. On the contrary, the doctor thought that he might even be encouraging such whispers. But Toussaint was spending most of his energy, and that of the secretarial team, on letters to Maitland protesting the arrangement with Hédouville on the grounds that he, Toussaint, was the authority responsible for all military dispositions in the colony, and also reminding Maitland that whatever interest the British might retain in Saint Domingue would depend on sustaining the morale of the French colonists whose cause the British had intervened to support. Maitland must have been persuaded, for he declared his agreement with Hédouville to be null and void, had Hédouville’s proclamation publicly ripped to shreds at Le Môle, and reopened negotiations directly with Toussaint.
So much the better, said Captain Maillart, who had seen the port on the Northwest Peninsula (as Doctor Hébert had not). True enough, Toussaint had kept Le Môle tightly surrounded with a cordon of his own land forces since July. But Le Môle was not known as the Gibraltar of the Americas for nothing—it was the best naval harbor on the island, now full of British ships of war, and garrisoned by eight thousand men: the best of those who had survived the fever season. If diplomacy failed, it would be a very difficult post to reduce.
Then, at Jérémie, diplomacy succeeded. Though Hédouville had wind of Toussaint’s dealings with Maitland and sent many messages of reproach, it was nonetheless settled for the British to evacuate the southern town, on the condition that the French colonists remaining there would be protected. Maitland had evidently found it better to settle those terms with Toussaint, for Rigaud had shown himself severe against the former slave masters of the colony, and Hédouville still more so.
On the twenty-third of August, the doctor and Captain Maillart walked down to the harbor front at Gonaives and shaded their eyes to look out over the water. Sometime that day an English fleet would be passing, en route to Le Môle from Jérémie, but they were too far out to sea to be seen from the bay of Gonaives, their sails out of view below the horizon. News came by land, a day or so later, that all had gone according to plan, the British had embarked on schedule, and Rigaud was in possession of Jérémie.
Toussaint retired for a day to Descahaux, to see his family, and while there he directed the doctor and Captain Maillart to go up to Le Cap, bearing a circuitous and somewhat evasive reply to Hédouville’s many letters. When he learned of this mission, Doctor Hebert made a quick decision to follow his sister’s advice and take Paul along with him, though he was not absolutely sure what would be gained, and was a little worried that the child might somehow be hurt. Though Sophie was sorry to lose her playmate, and even Caco seemed a little downcast, Paul himself was all excitement over the trip. The boy had learned to ride a pony for short distances, but the doctor elected to carry him on his own saddle bow. He brought Paulette along as well, thinking he would need her help if he had to stay with Paul in the casernes. But as it turned out Elise was quite right, and Isabelle received them all into the Cigny house with great enthusiasm.
The morning following their arrival, Paul asked to go to the lakou behind the church on the hill, where he’d been given shelter, and Paulette seconded his wish, since she wanted to see her mother. The doctor decided to accompany them. Captain Maillart had already gone to deliver the letter to Government House, so his attendance there was not immediately necessary.
When they had gained the crown of the hill, a gaggle of children surrounded them, asking after Claudine Arnaud, their schoolmistress. For perhaps five minutes they competed to recite the bits of catechism they remembered, then ran off with Paul in tow. Paulette had run to Fontelle’s arms, so the doctor and Moustique were left looking at one another somewhat diffidently. The doctor had always felt a sympathy for the youth, for many reasons, without ever quite knowing what to say to him. As the doctor approached him, Moustique turned his head, and as if by agreement, they walked around the rear of the church and toward the palm-paneled enclosure down the slope behind.
“Antré,” Moustique said, and shifted one of the woven panels. Four little cairns of stones had been placed in a square around the entryway. The doctor felt an odd tingle as he passed between them. He wandered toward the pole in the center of the enclosure. On closer inspection, the spiraling stripes represented a snake and a rainbow twined about one another, in balance, without touching.
“Damballah,” Moustique said, indicating the inverted head of the snake. “Ayida Wédo.”
The doctor said nothing, but let the question appear in his eyes.
“Damballah swims in the river of life,” said Moustique, “and the rainbow of Ayida Wédo makes the sign of water. They join as man and woman do, to make a wholeness, and so they bring life down to earth out of the sky.”
“Curious beliefs, for the son of a priest.”
“A curious thing for a priest to have a son.”
“Though encumbered with certain human weaknesses,” the doctor said, “your father was as true a priest of God as I have ever met.”
“Yes,” said Moustique. “I have not departed from my father’s belief. Above Damballah and Ayida Wédo, above all the spirits there is BonDyé still and always.”
He turned his face up to the sky. The doctor felt a flash of irritation at his certainty.
“Did you know you are yourself a father?” he said. “Yes, you have a child at Marmelade—hardly an infant anymore—and rather to the dismay of your Christian preceptor, the Abbé Delahaye.”
Moustique colored and raked one long hand at the tight curls of his close-cropped hair. Apart from the hair he might easily have been taken for a pure-blood Frenchman. On the nearly sheer hillside above the lakou, Paul appeared among the other children, capering with the goats who were grazing there.
“But I think you have come to discuss your own trouble, rather than mine,” Moustique said silkily.
The doctor studied a number of broken eggshells arranged around the base of the pole.
“Damballah’s food,” said Moustique. Then, with an air of authority. “But for you it is rather to offer to Legba.” He pointed to the low stone cairns. “Attibon Legba is standing in the gate,” he said. “Legba waits at the gate and the crossroads and decides who shall pass, and by which turning. If you would work a change in your situation, you must ask his help.”
“How?” said the doctor, in spite of himself.
“Sacrifice.” Moustique turned his back and looked out over the sea.
The doctor snorted and made to leave the enclosure. All a lot of pagan nonsense. By daylight it was easy to think so. And maybe it was only her madness that had struck down Claudine Arnaud among the celebrants here, that night . . . As he passed among the cairns, he felt that same electric whir run over him. What would Riau have done in such a case? Without thinking he stooped, reaching into his pocket, and laid both the snuffbox and the mirror shard in the dusty center of the square the cairns defined. When he straightened, he saw Moustique looking his way with a faint air of approval. The doctor went out, and as he passed along the outside of the enclosure, he half-consciously made the sign of the cross above his chest.
Leaving the children on the hill for the time being (Fontelle would walk them back to the Cigny house, she’d said), he went down to Government House to take the measure of the situation there. Pascal was strolling in the courtyard when he entered. The doctor reached for his hand at once and declared that the swelling was greatly reduced.
“Oh yes,” Pascal said. “That leaf pulp you insist on has such a vile taste it has quite broken me of nibbling it.”
“And that is for the best,” said the doctor. “But how does the agent find himself today?”
“What, after his missive from the General-in-Chief? He is in the humor one might expect in a man who sees his policy reduced to nothing, or nearly nothing. Toussaint has scarcely made a semblance of respecting his orders, so that Hédouville is brought to believe that Toussaint is the greater rebel than Rigaud was against Sonthonax, though more circumspect, more sly. His coziness with the old proprietors leads Hédouville to believe that the general is merely their dupe and tool—his words set into his mouth by his so-called secretaries . . .”
The doctor laughed. “You could tell him better than that yourself.”
“But would he believe me?” Pascal cleared his throat. “Now the matter of the army—with the Treaty of Basel eliminating any Spanish threat, and the British clearly on their way out of the colony, Hédouville would reduce the indigenous troops to perhaps six thousand, excluding the gendarmerie, but whenever that subject is raised, up flares an outcry that slavery will be restored, and the agent suspects Toussaint has fed those rumors.”
“Not necessarily,” said the doctor. “What are the men to think—when the blanc soldiers seek to replace their guns with hoes, and contract them to the plantation for years at a time? That proverb of Sonthonax’s is still in very recent memory, after all.”
“Who would take this from you,” Pascal quoted, raising a list above his head to brandish an imaginary musket, “would take your liberty.” He opened his hand and let it fall. “A nice bit of theater, I give you that.”
“And not without its kernel of truth.”
“I’ll give you that as well.”
The doctor hopped up onto the heavy stone balustrade and sat there, lightly swinging his legs. “Once they have tasted the salt, they will not go back,” he murmured. He looked across at a goat that had wandered into the yard of Government House and was busily eating the lower leaves of the shrubbery.
Pascal looked at him sharply. “What?”
“It’s only something Riau once told me,” the doctor said. “I don’t entirely know what it means.”
“Sounds like some witchery.” Pascal propped himself on the opposite balustrade and crossed his ankles. “Well, grant that the love of liberty is paramount among the freedmen . . . Hédouville suspects that Toussaint has become the dupe of Maitland and the British.”
“Whose final departure he is now engineering.”
“Yes,” said Pascal, “but if the British should coax him into independence?”
“I’ve seen no sign of it.” The doctor swung his bootheels against the stone behind them. He thought of the time at Marmelade, when Toussaint had turned so abruptly and ruthlessly on the Spanish. He’d seen no sign of that either, before it happened, though perhaps there had been signs he had not recognized.
“Let me tell you something else,” he said to Pascal. “What I know of leaves that heal in this land—all that I had from Toussaint himself in the beginning. If not for his knowledge, this day I should be taking that hand of yours off at the wrist, or possibly the elbow. I should know no better than to saw through the bone and cauterize the stump with a red-hot iron and hope that no corruption would spread into your vitals from the wound.”
Pascal blanched and recovered himself. “Have you a larger point?”
“That Toussaint has worked for peace, in the main, and he has rendered justice wherever he was able. If he cannot heal the body politic, I do not know who can.”
“Oh,” said Pascal. “And so, he needs no one to direct him. Scarcely any liaison at all, really, with the government in France.”
“There is that difficulty.”
Pascal pursed his lips. “So Hédouville is left like an ant in a wine bottle. He can see everything, all around the circle, but he can touch nothing. No wonder that he grows a little agitated.”
For some weeks there was nothing out of the ordinary, and scarcely any apparent tension in the town. Toussaint kept away from Le Cap. Hédouville busied himself with a light restructuring of the officer corps within his reach. Now and then he was able discreetly to replace some black officer with one of the Frenchmen he had brought out with him. If there were ripples of discontent, they ran too deep to mar the tranquil appearance of the surface.
The doctor had little, officially, to do. Of Nanon he could discover nothing more. For a time he haunted the Place Clugny and the Negro market which she’d frequented during their earliest acquaintance, but she did not appear there. It did not seem that she went marketing at all, or that she called on anyone, outside the Maltrot house. Unless Choufleur had spirited her off, as Isabelle had suggested, to one of his rural properties. But Choufleur himself was still in Le Cap. The doctor saw him more than once, coming out of the agent’s suite of offices at Government House, haughtily erect in his gold-buttoned uniform, swinging his cane before him as if to make it known to anyone who might be in his path that he would certainly not give way. Rumor had it that Choufleur brokered messages between Hédouville and Rigaud, and that the agent meant to foment discord between Rigaud and Toussaint, a project perhaps more plausible now that Rigaud no longer had the British in the south to occupy him.
On more than one occasion, the doctor was obliged to step aside from the progress of Colonel Maltrot through the streets, and each time Choufleur strolled through the space he’d occupied as if he’d never seen him there at all. Once, the doctor was sufficiently piqued that he followed Choufleur, across the streets and squares of the town all the way to the gate of his house, where, waiting for the servant to open to him, Choufleur turned back with a supercilious smile. After he had gone in, the doctor remained standing on the far side of the street. The house was shuttered, as usual, though far from quiet. On the contrary it had the reputation of a bawdy place, the resort of gamblers and women of loose morals, some colored, and some in these latter days even white. He recognized a horse or two at the hitchrail. Some of the more debauched young men of Hédouville’s suite were known to come here occasionally.
A pair of shutters opened on the second-floor balcony, and Nanon stepped through the rounded arch, and stood facing the doctor below, though without any indication that she saw him there. Rather she seemed to be looking across the roof tiles. Drunken laughter and the rattle of dice boiled out of the dark space behind her. Then Choufleur emerged. He grinned, over her shoulder, spitefully down into the doctor’s face. With one hand he reached under her arm, cupped a breast and raised it so that the nipple pushed darkly at the fragile fabric of her dress. She gave way limply to his pressure, and Choufleur pulled her back inside.
Doctor Hébert was restrained from rushing the house only by the thought that Choufleur must mean to provoke him to do just that. He dragged himself away, though inwardly fulminating. Surely he could do something, find some way. Bitterly he thought of the “sacrifice” Moustique had put him up to—there’d been no change in his direction, no gate had magically opened for him. He was on the same doomed path as before . . . though in truth he was content to be rid of the snuffbox. Perhaps, by the next day, he would have conceived a better way to get into that house. But next morning he and Captain Maillart were both summoned to Môle Saint Nicolas.
Riding fast and hard with a small cavalry squad including Captains Riau and Maillart, the doctor came to Toussaint’s encampment outside Le Môle, just as the black general was making ready to take formal possession of the town. He’d brought ten thousand men to the siege, which now would not take place—about half his effective troops—and every man of them marched into Le Môle at his back.
The British soldiers, in their finest dress uniforms, lined the hedges of the road into town. Again the local dignitaries brought out a dais, and this time Toussaint consented to walk beneath it, the town’s priest bearing the sacraments ahead of him, while acolytes swung censers and women hurled themselves in his path to beg his blessing. Was it his apotheosis? the doctor thought half ironically, sneezing away sweet incense smoke, remembering how Toussaint had rejected this sort of panoply when they’d come to Port-au-Prince. Maillart looked at him narrowly, as if he’d detected the thought.
But now all the bells of the town began to ring, and cannons fired salutes from the batteries and the ships at anchor, as their procession came into the Place d’Armes, where General Maitland had erected a splendid tent for their reception. Two robust subalterns held back the flaps, but Toussaint stopped and turned and stood to attention, watching his infantrymen as they flooded the square and formed into ranks which pressed back into the surrounding streets for many blocks, so great was their number. When they were all properly drawn up, Toussaint saluted them and ordered them at ease, then stooped to go into the tent, with Maitland following him. For the next two hours the black soldiers stood at parade rest under the sun, looking neither left nor right, and amazing all onlookers with the force of their discipline.
A magnificent repast had been laid inside the tent, and the doctor and the captain fell to with real appetite. Maillart found himself seated next to Major O’Farrel, whom he complimented on surviving the wars.
“Thus far,” O’Farrel said with an Irish twinkle, then rather more drily, “but am I promised tomorrow?”
Though Toussaint appeared to be in great good humor, he ate sparingly as was his custom on such occasions, taking only bread and water and whole fruit, with a few tastes of wine during the concluding toasts. At the end of the meal, Maitland offered Toussaint all the silver dishes from which it had been served, along with two brass cannon. The British troops turned out for his review, and he was taken to inspect the palace, whose furnishings would be turned over to him intact, in further token of the esteem of the Britannic Majesty. At evening, with all the ceremonies complete, Toussaint withdrew to Pointe Bourgeoise, with the greater part of his men (the town being rather too small for so many), leaving a small detachment to supervise the transfer of authority as the British embarked for their final departure from Saint Domingue.
Riau went with his men to the casernes in Le Môle, but the doctor and Captain Maillart, on the advice of Major O’Farrel, sought the hospitality of that old Acadian, Monot. There they took a light supper and exchanged their news. Monot had no other guests, only his lovely colored attendant, Agathe, sitting opposite his place at the table and pouring his water and wine. The old man grumbled over the British, still resentful of his ejection from Acadia thirty years before. “I am glad to see them go,” he grated. “Though they did not misuse us, I shall be glad to see the last of them. Even if wild Africans come in their place.”
“Oh,” said Agathe, a hand pressed at her fluttering throat. “If Toussaint’s soldiers look like savages, their discipline is very strong—supposing today a fair example.”
“For those men,” Maillart assured her, “today is no different from any other.”
O’Farrel smoothed his sandy mustache against his lip. “If that is so,” he said, “it is Toussaint’s greatest triumph, to have made such soldiers of those men.”
After supper they went into the garden, where Monot explained his irrigation system to the doctor, the thin channels of water glittering under the moonlight. O’Farrel drew Maillart a little aside.
“You may know,” he said, “that of the eight thousand men collected here, only two thousand are British by origin, and the rest colonial troops, from the south and the west. They are seasoned men, but Rigaud would not have them.”
“Shot through with royalists, no doubt,” Maillart said. “And proscribed French colons.”
O’Farrel squinted at him in the uneven light. “How long since you were a royalist yourself?” he said. “And in my estimation, you are still a Frenchman.”
“Pardon,” said Maillart, “I was considering the attitudes of Agent Hédouville more than my own.”
“Those six thousand would come over to Toussaint,” O’Farrel said. “They see no future with the British.”
“Oh indeed? And yourself?”
“The same,” O’Farrel told him. “If I would be accepted?”
“By Toussaint? Absolutely.” Maillart reached to clasp his hand. “Well, I have not the authority to say so, but I think I can encourage you to put your mind at rest.”
The events of the day had swept the doctor’s personal troubles from him, but once he lay down on his bed, they all came flooding back. He could not sleep. Also there were mosquitoes. He’d left the door to the balcony ajar, in hope of a breath of sea air. Some noise roused him from his insomniac daze; was it Maillart at the balcony door? It seemed to be his voice, muttering in confusion. But whoever it was passed on and must have found a different reception at another door, for the doctor heard a female titter, a gasp, then panting breaths which gradually sawed into moans of joy.
“Do you not abuse the kindness of our host?” he muttered to the captain over their next morning’s coffee.
“I shall only leave the old man’s housekeeper better content than I found her,” Maillart grinned, and, at the doctor’s sour expression, “Oh come, Antoine, one is only human, and I’ve lived like a monk these last six months. Besides it’s just a bit of unfinished business from my last visit to Le Môle.”
The doctor’s own privation had lasted a good deal longer. He did not desire Agathe himself, exactly, but he still begrudged the captain his conquest. When he identified this feeling, his own perversity displeased him, and he elected to go with O’Farrel and the six thousand colonial troops who would now in all likelihood join Toussaint’s force outside the town.
A few days later, when the British embarcation was complete, General Maitland appeared as if from nowhere, outside Toussaint’s tent at Pointe Bourgeoise, escorted by Maillart and Riau and the merest handful of junior British officers. All the rest of the British troops had boarded their vessels, though the ships were still in the harbor. At Maitland’s arrival the doctor felt a flutter of real uncertainty. If the British general had been expected, he had known nothing of it. What he did know was that Toussaint had just received a letter from Commissioner Roume, who was still residing in Spanish Santo Domingo, urging him to arrest General Maitland at any opportunity presented. Toussaint had rolled this very letter into his hand as he went out to greet his visitor.
“You do me honor, General,” he said. “And here is something which may interest you.”
Maitland leaned toward the paper which Toussaint had unfurled in his direction. “Treachery,” hissed a British subaltern who was peering over his shoulder, but Maitland silenced him with a brush of his hand, then looked up at Toussaint with an expression just short of dismay.
“What should interest you still more is my reply.” Toussaint passed him a second sheet. After a line or two, Maitland began to smile, and pivoted toward his companions to read a portion aloud to them, pausing between segments to translate:
What? Have I not given my word to the English general? How could you suppose that I would cover myself with infamy in violating that promise? The confidence which he has in my good faith engages him to deliver himself to me, and I would be dishonored forever, were I to follow your advice. I am wholly devoted to the cause of the Republic, but I shall never serve it at the expense of my conscience and my honor.
As Maitland concluded wonderingly, Toussaint uncovered his own smile from behind his hand.
“Sir,” Maitland told him. “Your sentiments are more than noble. One might call them . . . royal.”
Toussaint’s expression faded into watchfulness. He drew back the tent flap and beckoned Maitland within—alone. Before he went inside himself, he dismissed the sentry who’d been standing before the tent and called Riau to take his place.
“I’d give a good golden louis,” Maillart yawned from his hammock, strung next to the doctor’s, “to know what passed between them.”
“You haven’t got a gold louis,” the doctor said.
“Who’s to say I haven’t?”
“Who in this army has been paid, in recent memory? Even so much as a copper?”
“Oh,” said the captain, “but suppose the gentle Agathe should have given me a present . . .”
“You are intolerably smug.”
“Well, she didn’t,” the captain acknowledged. “At least, not a present of money.”
“Have your information for nothing then,” the doctor said. “Maitland proposed that Toussaint should make the colony independent and that England would recognize and support him as its king.”
Maillart sat up so suddenly that his hammock ejected him onto the dirt floor.
“How did you come by that piece of knowledge?”
“Riau,” said the doctor. “His scavenging, during marronage, has sharpened his hearing very much. He can hear a louse walking on the hair of a wild goat.”
“Listening at tent flaps is an excellent way to get shot.” Maillart got up and dusted off his knees.
The doctor pushed his heels against his hammock to set it gently swaying. “Oh, but perhaps Toussaint wishes the proposal to be known, together with his reply to it.”
“In high dudgeon, one imagines.” Maillart’s shoulders brushed the canvas as he turned in the low space of the tent. “As the faithful servant of France, and so forth.”
“No, it seems to have all been very cordial.” The doctor paused. “You may recall, at Gonaives, Toussaint took a special interest in the news from Egypt—Bonaparte’s landing there, I mean.”
“Which all the power of the British navy could not prevent.” Maillart ran his thumb down a seam of the tent. “I see. The point is well taken.”
“All very cordial, as I say, though Toussaint refused the crown,” said the doctor. “He and Maitland have signed a secret protocol—an addendum to the official accord for the withdrawal.”
“Riau deduced this from the scratching of the pen?”
“The British navy will leave the ports of Saint Domingue open to merchant ships of all nations,” the doctor went on, unperturbed. “England will have the right of trade, but not exclusively, in all ports of the colony controlled by Toussaint Louverture. Toussaint undertakes not to invade Jamaica and not to engage in subversion there. The English make the same undertaking with regard to Saint Domingue. Oh, and the lives and property of those French colonists lately allied with the British are to be fastidiously respected.”
“In all areas of the colony controlled by Toussaint Louverture.” Maillart exhaled, with a hint of a whistle. “Well, strike me dumb. Hédouville won’t like it. Not the part about the trade, and not the part about the landowners. Why, the very existence of such an agreement must offend him.”
“I don’t think he’s meant to know of it.”
“Christ—he’ll see it happening all around him.” Maillart gripped the edge of his hammock with both hands and carefully levered himself into it, settling his weight with a grunt. “There will be trouble.”
“Aye,” said the doctor. “When was there not?”
As of October 10, 1798, there remained not one single foreign soldier on the soil of Saint Domingue—not in theory, at least, since the likes of Major O’Farrel had been integrated into the French forces under Toussaint Louverture. Toussaint sent an order throughout his entire command, that all his officers should call upon their men to pray twice daily, at evening and morn, wherever they might happen to find themselves—beginning with high mass, at which the Te Deum must be chanted in thanks to heaven for having facilitated the expulsion of the enemy without bloodshed, and with particular gratitude to Divine Providence for permitting several thousand persons of all colors to reenter the fold of French citizenship. Though these latter had been led astray, both the Lord and the state would receive them with open arms and without reproach or punishment. The religious rubric under which this formula unfolded would be difficult (the doctor reasoned with the captain) for Hédouville to reject.
Thanks to that same Divine Grace, some twenty thousand men would now be returned to labor in the coffee groves and cane fields. A good number of them would stand down from the army, turning in their muskets for hoes. If ever a new threat to liberty should arise, their weapons would be restored to them. Did Toussaint hope to placate Hédouville with this pronouncement? the doctor and Maillart asked one another. If so, he did not trouble himself to measure the success of his effort, but returned from Le Môle to Gonaives by way of Bombardopolis, with no detour to pay his respects to the French agent.
The doctor rode back to Le Cap with Captain Maillart and the cavalry troop in Riau’s command. Toussaint’s announcement of the labor program had cast a pall over the black soldiers, and Riau was silent and edgy throughout the trip. The doctor’s mood was also dark. Even his reunion with Paul did not lighten it; on the contrary, the child’s insouciance almost annoyed him, as did Isabelle’s brilliant good cheer. Her family fortunes seemed certain to be improved by Toussaint’s program, and she even talked of sending to Philadelphia for her own children, but the doctor was in no mood for other people’s happiness.
In Hédouville’s camp there was little rejoicing over the expulsion of the British. The sentiment seemed rather to be that Toussaint had stolen the credit for that event. Pascal had gone back to his nail-biting, poultice or no. The doctor stopped going to Government House. When he visited the casernes, he felt that Riau was avoiding him; Maillart said that Riau seemed to have gone off the white officers generally.
Then he met Riau as if by chance, behind the white church on the hill, where he had gone to collect Paul from his playmates of that lakou. Riau was out of uniform, barefoot, and seemed much more at his ease. He came to the doctor with his usual friendliness and a light touch on his arm.
“I see you have left your third eye in the hûnfor.”
He said no more, but the doctor felt his approval, and he felt lightened for the first time in three days. That night he dreamed of clouds passing over the mirror where it lay between the cairns of stone, cloud and blue sky flowing infinitely through that bright irregular window in the dust. This eye which remained open even while he slept, able always to learn and to know.
Next afternoon, he went, with a dreamer’s certainty, first to the casernes. He had meant to find Maillart, but when he found that the captain had gone off with O’Farrel, that too seemed inevitable. Riau presented himself, as if by prior appointment. Together they walked across to the Maltrot house in the Rue Vaudreuil.
The doctor took the bars of the gate with both hands and shook it till the locking chain danced up and down. Whether because of his own urgency or Riau’s uniformed presence, the servant scuttled up quickly and scraped the gate back for them to enter. Doctor Hébert walked through, slapping speckles of rust from his hands. The court was littered with broken glass, evidently from bottles flung out the windows, and some chunks of the glass were irregularly cemented along the tops of the surrounding wall.
The entryway was dark, and smelled of blood and vomit. A wizened old woman crouched in a corner, doing something with a bucket in a rag. The doctor pushed open a door to his left, comforted to feel Riau coming in behind him. The shuttered room they entered was a large salon, but dark and smoky and dense, with a few patches of candle or lamplight here and there. A stench of tallow and spilled liquor. Beyond an overturned upholstered loveseat toward the center of the room, a number of people sat gambling around a long, oval mahogany table. Nearer the door was another pool of light, over a low sofa where a woman lay face down with her knees drawn up under her and her dress rucked up to her shoulders. A tall sallow man crouched behind her, thrusting with an energy that fluttered her buttocks and imparted a serpentine movement to her spine. Several onlookers stood around, making low comments, maybe waiting their turns. One held a watch in his palm and there seemed to be a wager, though the doctor could not guess what was in gage. Among the spectators he recognized young Cypré, one of the newcome officers Maillart particularly detested; he seemed to be extremely drunk. The woman’s face scrubbed against the velvet of the sofa, insensible from rapture or indifference it was hard to tell, her eyes showing rings of white and her lips slackly open on a stain of drool. The doctor did not know her.
Cypré drew himself up and said with a hiccup, “No niggers wanted here. This is a private establishment.”
Riau walked past him as if he were invisible, toward the gambling table. The doctor followed.
Here Choufleur himself presided over the entertainment. There was a deck of cards by his left elbow, but these were not in play; instead he rattled a cup of dice above a mound of mismatched stakes: coins of several different mints, a watch, a bracelet, a jeweled stickpin . . . Six or seven men in the game, and one woman who looked white, with wispy blond hair and small pink pimples all over her cheeks—she wore a dull and dazed expression.
Choufleur glanced up at the doctor with no sign of surprise. He tipped the dice cup onto the table. Eight, numbered the black dots drilled into the bones.
“Encore de la merde,” complained the pimple-faced woman. She swayed against the mulatto beside her, nuzzling his uniformed shoulder, then pouting when he shrugged her off.
Choufleur glanced from Riau to the doctor. “I don’t object to you,” he said. “But in this house I don’t like to see any face darker than a good café au lait—unless on a servant, of course.”
The doctor barely registered this remark. His eyes were on Nanon, who sat to Choufleur’s right. Her bodice was loosened and pushed down below her breasts, whose exposed nipples excited a feeling of sorrow in him. Around her neck was a riveted iron collar with a light chain running down her back from its ring. She did not seem aware of the doctor’s presence, though she was looking in his general direction. Her eyes were dead.
“Faites vos jeux,” Choufleur said.
He cupped the dice and handed them to his left, then leaned down and collected the free end of the chain from the floor beside his chair. When he gave the chain a brisk tug, Nanon responded as woodenly as if that collar were locked around a post.
“Shall we cut the cards for her?” Choufleur proposed, widening his eyes at the doctor. He opened the deck with his left hand, turning up the ace of spades. “Ah well—hard luck,” he said. “But never mind. To me, it is all one. You may have the use of her for an hour if you like.”
He offered the doctor, who stood frozen, the chain’s end.
“No?” Choufleur said. “But I can tell you, she is not quite sucked dry. There’s still a drop or two of good juice to be wrung from her.”
The doctor did not answer this either. A step behind him he was aware of the deep flow of Riau’s respiration—this was not audible, exactly, but he seemed to draw inspiration from the other man’s breathing. Choufleur shook the chain once again, then let it all fall to the floor.
“Perhaps another will be tempted,” he said lightly. “ Putain c’est putain. Am I right, my dear?—a whore is forever a whore.” He turned his head toward Nanon, who remained as dull and lifeless as before. Then to the doctor. “Of course, it makes for a short career.”
The doctor swiveled away from him and went to the floor-length window facing the street and wrenched the shutters open. The men at the nearer end of the table flinched from the last light of the day; one of them muttered a complaint. Round the sofa at the far end of the room there was laughter and a few handclaps—apparently that embrace had reached its goal.
Slowly the doctor walked back around the table. At the head, Choufleur sat very upright, his hands palm down before him, facing the fresh light from the arched window. Nanon had begun reeling the chain up from the floor and was gathering it into her lap with both hands. Without breaking his step, the doctor leaned across and slapped Choufleur on the side of his face, thrusting his weight into the heel of his palm to add as much injury to the insult as possible. A gasp from the other gamblers. Choufleur’s head snapped sideways, then slowly revolved toward the doctor again. His freckles seemed to shrink and concentrate, hot and dark on the pale skin like stipples on the dice. His finger found a runnel of blood at the corner of his mouth.
Then he was up, slavering, “I’ll kill you!” but two of his fellows were also on their feet, knocking their chairs backward in their haste to restrain him. The blade was half out of his sword-stick, but their grip on his wrists kept him from drawing it free. He spat, but the doctor turned sideways and the gobbet went past him.
“Excellent,” he said. “I accept your challenge. If the choice of weapon is mine, let it be pistols.”
“As you like,” Choufleur sputtered. “You’ll not get away with a saber cut. I’ll blow your head off and piss in the hole.”
He relaxed, and the men at his sides let him go. With a twist he reseated the slender blade in the sword-stick. The doctor looked at Nanon, who seemed oblivious to the entire episode. She had stood up, cradling the gathered chain below her breasts as if it were an infant. Making a trance-like turn, she moved slowly toward a staircase in the corner of the room.
“I propose we allow three days to settle our affairs,” the doctor said, his eyes tracking Nanon as she began to mount the stairs.
“So long as you do not run away, blanc,” Choufleur said. “I won’t be denied the pleasure of killing you. Of trampling your spilled brains into the dirt. Or maybe I will feed them to my dogs.”
“After three days you may find me on the ground at La Fossette.” The doctor returned his smile. “Bring whatever seconds you like.”
“You may count on me, blanc.” Choufleur turned from him, and picked up the dice.
The doctor leaned forward and plucked a card from the scattered deck and tossed it up toward the ceiling. With the same hand he reached to his opposite hip, drew a pistol from under his coat flap and fired. As it crossed the shaft of fading daylight the card jerked sideways and planed toward the unshuttered window. One of the gamblers scrambled to retrieve it from the floor, and held it high with a bark of astonishment. The nine of clubs, with the numeral shot out of the top corner. Choufleur looked fixedly at the card, expressionless.
“I shall look forward to our meeting very much,” the doctor said. He holstered his pistol as he turned away. Riau followed him out.
He was expected that evening to dine with the Cignys, but first accompanied Riau back to the casernes, with the thought of meeting Captain Maillart, who was also invited. He found Maillart shirtless, washing himself at the well; the captain looked bloodless beneath his sunburn, and sweat kept bursting out on his torso faster than he could rinse it away. The doctor thought at first he had taken fever, but it turned out the captain was simply shaken by what he had seen that day: an insurrection he’d been sent to investigate at Fort Liberté had proved to be much more than a rumor.
“I never saw anything quite so bad,” Maillart said, mopping himself with his crumpled shirt. “Not since ninety-one, at least.”
Riau quit the two white men, impassively, with just a flick of a finger at the brim of his hussar’s hat. In ninety-one, as all three of them knew, he had been burning and looting and painting himself with blood of whites all over the northern plain. Riau was also close to Moyse, from their time in slavery at Bréda onward, and Moyse was certainly near the heart of the present unrest, though to blame him for it might be going too far, in Maillart’s opinion. Moyse was not in any way fond of blancs. He had conspicuously failed to share Toussaint’s pleasure at the return of Bayon de Libertat to Bréda (though De Libertat had not especially mistreated him in former times). He liked to say that he would learn to love whites only when they returned to him the eye he had lost in battle.
It had begun this way: Moyse commanded the Fifth Regiment, garrisoned in Fort Liberté, on the north coast near the Spanish border. He had been given an order to capture and return fugitive slaves from the Spanish territory, which had much displeased him and with which he did not comply. From this friction there evolved a rumor that the Fifth Regiment meant to massacre the whites of the region.
“Now,” said Maillart, as he slipped into a fresh shirt. “Enter the Peacemaker of the Vendée.”
Hédouville, it appeared, had seen in this situation the opportunity to relieve Moyse of his command, replace him with a white officer of his own choice, and perhaps disarm and disband the Fifth Regiment altogether. With the collaboration of the civilian officials of Fort Liberté, who were mostly white, Hédouville’s agents had set about this project while Moyse was absent in Grande Rivière.
They might have succeeded, Maillart told the doctor as they left the gate of the casernes and began walking down through the blue darkness toward the Cigny house, and had in fact got so far as locking the Fifth Regiment out of the arsenal and obtaining a reluctant acquiescence of the junior officers to the change of command. But Moyse’s wife (“a woman to reckon with,” said the captain with a wag of his head) had won the soldiers back over, had inspired her husband’s men to break into the arsenal and rearm themselves: she’d counted out cartridges for them with her own hands.
Moyse, for his part, raised revolt among the cultivators of Grande Rivière. This rising, now pouring down out of the mountains onto the Plaine du Nord, had turned Maillart back from his mission to Fort Liberté, and shaken him to his bootheels—perhaps it wasn’t quite as bad as ninety-one (the sky was not yet blackened out by the smoke of burning cane fields) but some plantations had been sacked, bands of armed blacks drifted over the plain, and the white landowners, who’d returned to their holdings in significant numbers, were rushing to refuge at Le Cap—pursued by waves of armed blacks who shouted that Hédouville intended to restore slavery and constantly cried out for Toussaint.
By then they’d reached the Cigny house, which was in some turmoil due to the sudden and unexpected arrival of Michel and Claudine Arnaud in precipitous retreat from their plantation on the plain.
“But where is Toussaint?” said Isabelle.
“He is at Gonaives,” Maillart said.
O’Farrel, who’d arrived separately, added, “Though the agent has ordered him to put down the disturbance at Fort Liberté immediately.”
There was still another rumor—that Toussaint had already traveled to the north, encountered Moyse, and, having taken the measure of the situation, returned to Gonaives without doing anything to quell the rising. No one could say if this were true or not—Maillart could only testify that he had not seen him.
“Oh,” said Isabelle, glancing at the window. “I wish Joseph would come—he was expected.”
“Joseph?” said Maillart in a low tone, looking at her curiously.
“Flaville,” said Isabelle. “He could certainly tell us more.”
“Ah,” said Maillart, “but to the best of my knowledge he is now with Moyse.”
The doctor watched Claudine Arnaud, who had raised her chin alertly at the mention of Flaville . . . a man who had come a long way, in a short time, to be considered an ally by such whites as these. In ninety-one, as all of them could not help but remember, Flaville had contributed as much as anyone to the terror on the Plaine du Nord.
That night the doctor dreamed of Choufleur’s salon of decadent delights, in such concrete and accurate detail that he might have been living those moments for a second time. But with one difference. In the floating eye of his dream he saw Riau take a loose cloth bag from his coat pocket and pour from it a small mound of salt on the table before the place where Nanon sat, wearing her fetter and chain. Her dead eyes flickered at his movement. Tentatively she reached forward and dipped a finger in the salt and brought it to her lips. As the salt spread on her tongue, she lifted her face and her eyes enlivened, but what she saw the doctor woke too soon to know. He wanted to ask Riau about it, but laughed off the notion—that Riau should be accountable for what he did in someone else’s dream.
For two days the mood was so very tense that Doctor Hébert scarcely thought of his appointment with Choufleur. Refugee planters kept coming into Le Cap, full of wild reports and rumors. The town was too lightly garrisoned at the moment for any sortie to be risked—indeed it was poorly defended against a landward assault from rebel blacks, if one really came. The mood at Government House approached desperation. Pascal had mutilated his thumb to the point that the doctor threatened to tie his arm behind his back. In his effort to undo the disaster wrought by Sonthonax, Hédouville had drifted more and more into alliance with the remains of the mulatto faction in the north, but these were not sufficient to uphold him in the present crisis. And wherever Toussaint might be, he was unresponsive.
Hand in hand with Paul, the doctor walked toward the village on the hill. Paulette held the boy by his other hand, so he was happy, and the doctor, glancing at their joined fingers, felt a bittersweet happiness of his own. Thank God for this girl’s durable feeling for his child, without which he might have been lost forever. She had borne her losses—her martyred father, the Père Bonne-chance. Thank God, also, for Fontelle . . . Paulette had something of her mother’s grace; her step was light, her back sinuously erect as she walked, though she balanced a huge basket of laundry on her head. When they reached the steep, twisting path which ran up the foot of the mountain to the church and beyond, she did not break her stride, and neither did Paul, though the doctor proceeded with much greater difficulty, sometimes obliged to use a hand to balance himself as he slipped on the shale.
Paulette found her mother and the two of them began to lay out the laundry, still slightly damp from the river, to finish drying in the wind and the sun. Paul had joined his friends and headed for the cliffside. The wind sprang up sharply off the harbor; the doctor caught his straw hat as it peeled from his head, and carried it against his thigh as he walked around toward the front of the church. Moustique was sitting on the steps, dressed in his rough white vestment and the purple stole he had taken from the Abbé Delahaye. The doctor went to join him, taking a seat a step below.
The wind raised his remaining wisps of hair to stand straight up on his peeling scalp, and this reminded him to jam his hat back on to protect himself against the sun. The sight of the stole made him think of confession. Of a sudden he had the impulse to be shriven, before presenting his breast to Choufleur’s pistol . . . though he had no doubt that he could do away with Choufleur with his own first shot. Still, perhaps it would be better to settle this question in advance, as he himself had suggested to his opponent. With a feeling of bewilderment, as if out of nowhere, he remembered that he ought also to give thanks for Maman Maig’, who had delivered Paul first into the world and then for a second time into the arms of his relations . . .
“Do you pray?” Moustique looked at him significantly. The doctor realized his lips must have been moving to shape the thoughts in his mind.
“Rarely,” he said.
Moustique nodded. “It is good to pray.”
Irked by his assurance, the doctor said, “But you also bow to heathen gods. Do you not fear hell and damnation?” He jutted his beard toward the bell rope which hung just within the open door of the church.
“No,” said Moustique. “There is no such difficulty.” He leaned toward the doctor and looked at him with strangely clear eyes. “God is above all but He makes Himself manifest in the body of Christ. So too the loa are manifest when they mount the heads of their serviteurs. BonDyé cannot object to this, because He made it so.”
The doctor’s initial annoyance evaporated. He felt the seamless-ness of Moustique’s belief. Where had the boy got this absolute confidence? Certainly he had not possessed it when Toussaint delivered him to the Abbé Delahaye. Moustique had always seemed the opposite of his father, frail and nervous and too quick to emotion and confusion, despite—or perhaps because of—his intelligence. The Père Bonne-chance had been heavy, ursine, low to the ground and solidly settled there. The mosquito versus the agouti . . . But now Moustique had changed; he seemed inspired . . . inspirited. It was also true that the people of this place, whatever gods they venerated, had taken Paul in with unquestioning kindness. They had taken in Claudine Arnaud.
“Yes,” said Moustique. “That is lespri Ginen, which is very much the same as Christian love and charity.”
This time the doctor was quite certain that he had not mumbled the slightest whisper of his thought. The boy must be a mind reader if not a lip reader.
“If you live in the spirit,” Moustique said, “you are not under the law.”
The wind freshened from the bay. The doctor felt a shadow pass over him, though there was none.
“Father,” he said, experimentally. No, it was too ridiculous, to address this stripling so, with his stolen garment and his patchwork of beliefs. Potent enough to get a child on a black maid—well, and what of it? But if it had been the Père Bonne-chance in his place, the doctor knew that he could have continued without hesitation.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Moustique turned toward him, adjusting his stole, twisting his shoulders to block part of the wind. The doctor edged a little closer.
“It has been long since my last confession.” Yes, years. The doctor was not especially devout, not usually, though lately he’d been moved to more frequent public observance by the dictates of Toussaint.
“I have fornicated, innumerable times, but with the same woman always. Almost always. But certainly outside the bond of marriage.” But he did not feel this to be his sin. He closed his yes. “I have killed other men, in acts of war, out of a selfish concern for the preservation of my own life.”
This was not his true sin either, though it saddened him to think about it. He felt the wind on his face and his closed eyelids, felt Moustique attentively waiting.
“I cherished resentment against my sister,” he said, “who had done me wrong, it is true . . . but my forgiveness still was slow, even after she had done all she could to repair the harm.”
Moustique murmured something not quite intelligible. The doctor felt a faint lightening, as if a pebble had been tweezed from the mountain which bore him down. The sun was red on the back of his eyelids. At the center, a whorl of darkness.
“I have been guilty of despair,” he heard himself say. There, that was it. “In despair, I have conceived the intention to slay a man who believes himself my enemy.”
He opened his eyes.
“Ego te absolvo.” Moustique pronounced the formula without tremendous conviction. “But if you would go in peace, you must free yourself of this intention. This, I think, you have not yet done. There is something which prevents you.”
“No,” said the doctor. He stood up, with the weight still upon him. “I mean, you are right.”
But he felt embarrassed admitting this. He turned his shoulder to Moustique and shaded his eyes to look out over the roofs of the town. There was a roil of dust at the distant gate.
“Are they attacking?” The doctor looked briefly at Moustique, who was also squinting at the dust cloud. Nearer to them, a crowd of people was streaming onto the Champ de Mars.
“I’ll go down to see,” the doctor said.
“A moment.” Pulling the white robe over his head, Moustique loped into the church, and emerged a moment later dressed in an ordinary shirt and trousers. Together they scrambled down the path.
Most of the white and colored townsfolk had gathered on the Champ de Mars, though few of the numerous blacks were in evidence. It appeared to be true that the insurgency begun at Fort Liberté had swept all the way to the gates of Le Cap, so that everyone was in deep terror of massacre and another destruction of the town. Ought they to send out their too-few troops to attack the rebels? or send a delegation to appease Toussaint? For it now was generally believed that Toussaint’s own hands were invisibly stirring up this insurrection. But it also appeared that Hédouville would do nothing to conciliate the General-in-Chief, would not negotiate with him at all. Therefore the meeting dissolved without resolution.
The doctor remained in place as the parade ground gradually emptied out. He felt cold, though the sun was still high. He had seen Maillart and O’Farrel standing with their troops on the opposite side of the field, but Riau and the black officers had remained in the barracks with their men, and he suspected the garrison might split on similar lines if the insurgent blacks did penetrate the town. He’d seen it before. He’d seen Le Cap burnt to an ash heap and been lucky to escape with his own life on that occasion. Carrying the infant Paul, he and Nanon had somehow managed to make their way out of that holocaust and down to Habitation Thibodet at Ennery.
Now the field was entirely empty except for the figure of a solitary woman in a long yellow dress, standing down by the lower gate. The doctor felt that she was aware of him, though her face was a hidden by a parasol of the same fabric as her dress. He glanced to his right, but Moustique had vanished with the others. As the woman turned and passed slowly into the town, he followed, crossing the Rue Espagnole and keeping about half a block behind her. She could not have failed to notice him if she looked back, however, for there were far fewer people on the streets than usual for this hour. Everyone had gone in, either to barricade their homes as best they could or to pack their belongings in hope of making an escape on the ships in the harbor.
The woman crossed the Place d’Armes at a diagonal and continued into a side street. The doctor followed. He knew this block, and thought she must know it too, though he’d not yet had a glimpse of her face. He and Nanon had lived here in the first few months of Paul’s life. Therefore he was not surprised when the woman stopped before the pitch apple tree, and after a moment shifted her parasol to the opposite shoulder to free a hand for lifting that leaf which was inscribed with the name Paul Hébert. The doctor waited on the far side of the street, slightly dizzy under the full sun. He saw her in profile as she bowed over the leaf, crumpling rather, as if with a sob, though she was still careful not to break it from the stem.
“But he is well,” the doctor said, his voice ringing through the space between them. He took a tentative step into the dust of the street. Nanon looked up at him with swimming eyes.
“He is even here, at Le Cap, and you may see him.”
She raised the green leaf cupped in her palm, the whole plant trembling with the movement.
“You have put your name with his.”
“It is his name as well,” the doctor said. “He is my son.” He coughed. “I thought I was making his tombstone then. I wanted to write his name on something green, which would live on. As you and I together wrote his being in his body.”
“How you must hate me,” Nanon said.
“No.” He was not quite within reach of her and did not dare come nearer. She did not wear the iron collar, he noticed, nor the chain, though the mark of the collar was visible on her throat, where he’d seen it earlier without knowing what it was.
“You can never understand,” she said.
“But try me.” Now he did take just one step closer. “Has he let you free?”
“Oh,” said Nanon, as if in anger. “You see? You cannot grasp it. He leaves me, now, he leaves me always free. I may remove the chain whenever I like, and walk about the town. And no one cares if I return.”
“Not so,” the doctor said.
“Oh! he told me he’d send him to school—to school!—and I persuaded myself to believe . . . he’d as soon have sent him to the devil, he would. And your sister, she would send us both to the devil, she always hated me and wished me away . . .”
“Not true,” the doctor said. “Not now.”
Nanon released the leaf and shuddered, swaying from her ankles. With a quick step forward he caught her around the shoulders and stopped her fall.
“No matter,” he said. “Only come with me now, to Isabelle’s. Paul will be there and you shall see him, and afterward, we will find a remedy.”
If she heard him, she gave no sign, but her head rolled insensible against his shoulder, the white crescents of her eyes showing under the lush dark lashes. As he took her weight, he found her dangerously hot. Her parasol had fallen beneath the bush, but he did not try to retrieve it. She could walk, a little, with his help, and fortunately it wasn’t far. In twenty minutes he had bundled her over the threshold of the Cigny house. Isabelle was at home, and alone for a wonder, and she grasped the situation immediately, ordering Nanon to be taken at once to her own bed.
Paul was not there in fact, which was for the better, since Nanon was off her head and raving. The doctor prepared every leaf and herb he knew effective against fever, whether as compress or as tea. He was unnerved, underconfident, and wished very much for Toussaint—though Toussaint had little time for doctoring these days. None of his concoctions brought a good response. By dusk they’d changed her sweat-soaked sheets three times, and her fever was still climbing.
Riau appeared in the bedroom doorway. How had he known to come?—or had he?
“Salt,” said the doctor, with sudden fervor.
The dream spilled out of him. Riau listened as if he were making perfect sense, then moved past him to the bed. He took Nanon’s hand for a moment, peeled back her eyelid and stooped to look in. She moaned and flinched away from his touch.
“A supernatural malady,” Riau murmured. “I must go for Maman Maig’.”
“Yes, go,” Isabelle said.
In the foyer Riau turned. “And Paul?”
“Let him stay with Fontelle,” the doctor said, “if she will keep him.” He hesitated a moment to see if the plan was sound, but yes, there was no safer place on earth for the boy that he knew. Riau was already out the door.
Within the hour he returned, floating in the wake of Maman Maig’, who piloted her stately bulk along like a warship under full sail. She lit a candle, uncorked a rum bottle full of weeds, and shooed Isabelle and the doctor from the room. He sat with his back propped against the door jamb, listening. Maman Maig’s voice sang or chanted words to songs he did not know. Her voice blended oddly with the sound of drums and moaning conch shells from the insurgent camps on the slopes around the town . . . as if Nanon had reshaped all the outside world to fit her fever.
He woke with a start, not knowing the time; the house was dark but the door was open to the bedroom where a lamp was burning low. Mamam Maig’ sat cross-legged on the floor, snoring gently. She opened her eyes when he went in, but did not prevent his going to the bedside. Nanon lay still and gently sleeping, her flesh much cooled under the brush of his hand.
“Grâce à Dieu,” he said, and kissed his fingers to Maman Maig’, who simply closed her eyes and resumed snoring. Isabelle appeared in her night dress.
“Rest,” she said. It was an order.
The doctor rolled himself on a sofa, with his feet hanging over the carved wooden arm. He woke a little after daybreak, to the smell of coffee and the sound of a spoon. Maman Maig’ was eating pumpkin soup from a large bowl. He went in to Nanon and took her hand. She roused and looked at him with a weak smile, and her fingers fluttered against his for a moment before they slackened and she slept.
“The fever’s broken,” said Isabelle, handing him a cup of coffee. “Only let her sleep. Go out and get the news of the town.”
“But—” the doctor begain.
Isabelle began straightening his clothes, which he’d slept in. “Leave us an hour—all is well here, but I do want the news. Something is happening.”
“Has the attack begun from the plain?” But there were no drums just now, no lambi blowing.
“No,” said Isabelle. “It’s at the port.”
He walked down to the harbor front. The wind was stiff and the day still cool, with whitecaps running in hard over the water. At the harbor’s mouth, the masts of a sizable fleet broke the horizon, as the pilots led them out to open sea.
“Hédouville,” said Pascal, appearing at the doctor’s elbow near the Customs House. “He’s gone. Also Commissioner Raimond . . . and a couple of thousand others who no longer like their chances here.”
The doctor blinked at him slowly. “If Raimond has left, there is no French authority in all the island.”
“There’s always Roume, in Santo Domingo,” Pascal reminded him. “And then, Rigaud.”
“What do you mean, Rigaud?”
“Oh,” said Pascal, cradling his suppurating thumb. “A parting stroke of diplomacy—Hédouville has placed Rigaud at the head of the colony and directed him to ignore Toussaint’s authority.”
The doctor gaped at him.
“I tell you I copied the letter myself, and saw it signed,” Pascal said. “It is on the way to Riguad even now, to be delivered by the shreds of the mulatto faction here—they’ve all bolted for the south, save those who are on those ships out there.” He sniffed, uneasily. “Your duel may be cancelled, my friend—why yes, I know about it, everyone does. But I doubt even that bastard Maltrot will have lingered. Everyone is waiting for Toussaint to sack the town.”
“But he won’t,” the doctor said. “It’s over.”
“You think so?” Pascal waved his arm toward the south gate, where the hubbub of the angry mob had recommenced.
“Believe me,” the doctor said. “For now, it’s finished.”
He was right. By midmorning reports began trickling in that all along Toussaint’s leisurely progress from Ennery to Plaisance through Limbé, the rebels had laid down their weapons and gone back to work in the cane fields. The crowd at the south gate quieted and dispersed. By the time Toussaint himself rode into town, flanked by his honor guard in their high plumed helmets, both Le Cap and the surrounding countryside were as eerily calm as a hurricane’s eye.
In the course of that same day Nanon woke for long enough to see Paul briefly. The doctor would not let him stay long for fear of fatiguing her (and in fact he went out happily enough with Paulette after half an hour). Nanon slept through the day with brief intervals of waking; she was weak, but the fever did not return, and Maman Maig’ left the house, saying there was nothing more to fear.
The doctor stayed by Nanon all day, sometimes dozing in his chair, because he’d slept poorly the previous night. On occasion Isabelle or Michel Arnaud came in with news of Toussaint’s movements toward the town, to which the doctor barely attended. He watched Nanon, the light swell of her breathing under the sheet, the movement of her closed eyes in dream. In her waking moments she held his hand and looked at him affectionately, but she said very little and he did not try ask her any questions.
Isabelle bullied him to go to bed properly that night, and once he resigned himself to obey he fell into a dense, gluey sleep from which a servant unexpectedly roused him. It was still dark, and he could not understand what was the matter. Frightened for Nanon, he stumbled down the stairs, but the servant led him past her closed chamber to the doorway, where Maillart and Riau were waiting.
“Your engagement,” said the captain, swinging out his watch on its silver chain. The doctor looked at him without comprehension.
“You forgot it?” Maillart looked at Riau. “He forgot about it!” But if Riau was equally astonished, he gave no sign.
The doctor’s mare was saddled, waiting at the rail. He mounted and they rode along the dark street. On the slopes of Morne du Cap, the cocks had just begun to crow. A few kitchen fires had already been lit, and sometimes a woman’s figure came looming out of the dark, leading a burro loaded with charcoal or bearing a basket on her head—bound from some distant mountain to the market at the Place Clugny.
As he came more completely awake, the doctor’s mind began to flutter. The weight which had lain upon him like a boulder had been lifted away—he had felt nothing of it for the past thirty hours, and with it had gone the bitterness which had led him to provoke Choufleur. Ah, why would anyone choose despair over love? It seemed to him a sad thing that he must now be killed, just when he was beginning to comprehend the message which had come to him through Moustique. In a flash he understood that he had lost his capacity to kill Choufleur, but still he must face him and fire his pistol. There was no way out.
As they rode down into the low, swampy ground of La Fossette, the sky began to lighten behind a veil of fog. Mosquitoes whirled to the attack, out of the mist. Maillart cursed, slapping at his wrists and neck. The doctor kept still, bearing the bites so sudden movement would not spook his mare.
“Là,” Riau said, turning his horse toward a patch of flame in the fog.
“They’re here,” Maillart said, as if in resignation. Then there was no sound but the horses’ hooves sucking in the mud.
Choufleur’s seconds, two colored officers whose names the doctor did not know, had built a small fire and were feeding it green citrus leaves to discourage the mosquitoes. The seconds greeted each other cordially enough. Two pack mules were tethered with their horses; it appeared that Choufleur meant to join Rigaud’s force in the Southern Department, supposing he survived the morning’s encounter. When the doctor slid down from his horse, Choufleur pointedly turned his back, and stood facing the area of fog where the seaward horizon would eventually appear.
There was some some discussion about the pistols, in which Maillart participated. The doctor had gone numb. In the town, a church bell tolled the hour. The whole area had a foul, damp smell; he understood why Maillart did not like it. Unhealthy, at any rate. Riau was looking through tendrils of mist at the two low buildings which had once housed slaves off the ships from Guinée. Beyond, the border of the cemetery with its wet and shallow graves.
Maillart walked a distance from the fire with one of the colored officers. They stood back to back, then took five paces away from each other, then turned. Ceremoniously, each man drew his saber and planted it in the earth. Then they turned apart and paced off another ten steps. The doctor felt Riau’s fingers brushed over the back of his hand. Riau leaned as if to whisper something, but instead only blew into his ear. This was strange, but not disagreeable, and it left the doctor with a curious feeling of warmth.
Maillart beckoned him over, handed him a pistol and walked back to the fire.
“The space between the swords constitutes the barrier.” The captain’s voice came out ringing through the fog. “After the first shots, the pistols are to be exchanged. Each man may approach the barrier and fire at will. Doctor Hébert has the first shot, Colonel Maltrot the second, and so following. Neither man may cross the barrier. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Choufleur.
“I yield the first shot to my adversary.” The doctor recognized his own voice.
“Antoine, you can’t do that!” Maillart snatched his hat off and hurled it into the mud. Riau made a smoothing gesture with his palm and moved toward Choufleur’s seconds. After a moment’s whispering it was concluded that as Choufleur had given the formal challenge, the doctor must fire first.
“But I struck him—I struck him in the mouth,” the doctor said. “So the challenge was mine. I intended it so.”
“I don’t accept this reasoning,” Choufleur said. “Let him fire first.”
The doctor looked at the four seconds. Maltrot, who stood disconsolately brushing vegetable matter from his hat, would not return his glance. No appeal. His arm had already begun raising the pistol. The light was still gray, but sufficiently clear. He had never known how it was accomplished, but there was never any difficulty: if his weapon was true, the bullet would go precisely wherever he had focused his eyes. Now he was looking intently at the third button down from Choufleur’s collar, but as his finger compressed the trigger, he jerked the pistol up and let the charge fly off into the sky.
There was a hiss from the cluster by the fire, and the doctor’s mare began rearing against her tether. Riau left the other seconds to calm her.
“I insist that he fire again, with a true aim,” Choufleur said.
“He can’t do that,” said the doctor.
Another consultation: it was agreed that Choufleur must fire. He did not seem particularly disappointed, but only shrugged and walked deliberately all the way to the sword his second had planted. It seemed to the doctor that he took a long time arranging his shot. It was painful for him to keep still and resist flapping at the mosquitoes who fed greedily on his cheeks and ears. Finally the muzzle of Choufleur’s pistol flashed, and a moment later the doctor realized the shot had missed him altogether.
Maillart brought him a freshly charged pistol. “For God’s sake, will you kill the bastard?” he snarled. “He won’t hesitate to kill you.”
The doctor took five steps forward, aimed at the empty space between Choufleur’s epaulette and his right ear, and fired into it. The sigh from the group of seconds was like a moan.
Time passed. The mosquitoes went on feeding. The doctor was very, very tired. When he saw the muzzle of Choufleur’s pistol bloom out flame, he thought it was another clean miss at first, but then he felt the patch of moisture spreading over his left sleeve below his shoulder.
“A hit!” cried one of Choufleur’s seconds.
“It’s of no consequence,” said the doctor. “I will continue.”
He raised the left arm outward, flexing the elbow. The movement was normal. The bullet had certainly gone through without touching the bone, and perhaps it had only grazed him. The complete absence of pain would have worried him, under different circumstances. Maillart was giving him his first pistol, recharged. They did not meet each other’s eyes.
The doctor took another step toward the barrier, and stopped to aim at the space in Choufleur’s open collar, where his throat pulsed. Holding his pistol level, he began to walk forward again. It was much brighter now; the sun had risen and was spreading streaks of yellow over the gray-green vegetation of the marsh. Two steps from the barrier the doctor threw the pistol over his shoulder and heard it discharge as it struck the ground behind him. The mare lunged at her tether. The doctor continued moving very slowly toward the barrier with his open empty hands before him. With a bell-like clarity, he heard the seconds bickering.
“He did not.”
“If the gun went off, in principle he fired. Colonel Maltrot has the right to his shot.”
The doctor stopped beside Maillart’s sword and let his hands drop to his sides. The bore of Choufleur’s pistol seemed enormously large and dark. He was aware of many things at once: Riau, stroking the mare to calm her, a pair of white egrets bright and distant in the marsh beyond Choufleur, the movements of the clouds above, a triad of mosquitoes extracting blood from a soft spot behind his jawbone. With the sun behind him, Choufleur was bordered by a radiance in which the doctor seemed to feel his intelligence, talent, force of will, and frustrated capability for love. He raised his empty hands again and stepped into the space between the swords.
“He can’t do that!” a second called.
Choufleur’s aura darkened as he dropped his pistol and lunged, bowling the doctor over backward in the muck. He meant to strangle him, or simply drown him in the mud—the doctor was slow to recognize this intention, but finally it came clear. He began thrashing his limbs at random and accidentally kneed Choufleur in the groin. The pressure released, and he shouldered the other man off him and sat up with a pounding head, one hand on his bruised trachea. Choufleur was in a three-point crouch, his face green with pain; he seemed to be trying to say something but could not ejaculate the words.
Then the seconds laid hands on them and dragged them farther apart.
“This circus is at an end,” Maillart spluttered. “Honor has been satisfied—after some fashion. They have faced each other’s fire.”
“Give thanks to God that you have survived,” said the colored officer who had done most of the talking.
Then the doctor was somehow back on his own mare and riding toward the town. He had brushed off Maillart’s effort to bandage his wound—let it wait till they got away from the swamp. Choufleur and his group had gone off in the opposite direction, according to their plan. As they came up out the marshland onto the more solid roadbed, the doctor felt a euphoria begin to spread over him. Till then he had not realized how little he’d expected to be alive at this moment.
Maillart looked at him over his shoulder, once, twice. His face was red, and his neck was red when he turned his back, and the cloth of his uniform coat trembled where it stretched between his shoulder blades. Then his laughter broke out of his control and spread to the other two. It seemed that no one of them could look at another without bursting out into fresh laughter.
Riau was the first to regain self-control, looking away toward the bank of the river as they approached the city gate. Following suit, the doctor began to regain his breath. There was some discomfort in his windpipe from Choufleur’s try at throttling him; this troubled him rather more than the bullet wound, which also had begun to sting. The sun was now rising over the plain, and a flash of its warm light fell on his shoulders, on all three of them, spreading to include the single fisherman in his dugout flowing eastward on the calm surface of the river.
Fort de Joux, France September 1802
Toussaint had breakfasted: stone-hard biscuit softened in his heavily sugared coffee, then sucked to mush among his unreliable teeth. The meagerness of the ration did not bother him. He had never had much interest in food, and needed little solid nourishment to get by—though he did wish the coffee were of better quality.
No great matter. His fever had passed, and today he felt rather well. Though surely he would never get accustomed to the cold of this place, so very different from the humid jungle peaks of Saint Domingue—these icy spines on the crown of the white man’s world. But he had dressed warmly and built up his fire. Now he was waiting for his guest, with an almost cheerful anticipation. His interrogator, rather. But Toussaint had come very quickly to enjoy their interviews. He did not think about when they would end, though of course he knew they must end eventually, leaving Caffarelli unsatisfied.
He listened to the key turning in the frozen lock. In the doorway, the jowly, anxious face of Baille floated behind the figure of Napoleon’s agent, muttering something not entirely audible across the cell. Caffarelli hovered on the threshold, his forward tilt not quite a bow. The door closed behind him.
“You are well?” Caffarelli looked at him narrowly.
“Oh,” said Toussaint. “I am well enough. And yourself?”
Unfolding his hand, Toussaint indicated the chair opposite his own. Caffarelli smiled and took his seat. With no apparent purpose, he looked into the corners where the barrel vault met the walls of the cell. Toussaint waited, motionless; not even his breath was perceptible.
“Your dealings with the English,” Caffarelli began.
“I have already told you.”
“But you had secret arrangements with them which you have not admitted.”
“Sir, I did not. I made two treaties with the English, and strictly to arrange terms for their departure from Saint Domingue.”
“The English suggested that you yourself might place the colony under protection of their crown.”
Toussaint inclined his head.
“You entertained those proposals with a certain favor.”
“Oh,” said Toussaint. “There were some agents of the English who tried to place that idea in my head. I amused myself by making fun of them.”
“And at the same time you accepted their gifts.”
Toussaint let out a whispering laugh. “I had no gifts from the English.” He considered. “I had some twenty barrels of powder from General Maitland, but nothing more.”
Both men were silent while the castle clock tolled the hour.
“Yes,” Toussaint said, “and once General Maitland presented me with a saddle and trappings for my horse, which I at first refused. But when pressed to accept it as a token from himself, rather than his government, I did so.”
“Commendable,” Caffarelli said drily, but Toussaint did not react to the prick.
“And your secret treaty, signed with Maitland. What were its terms?”
“I have already told you.”
“You have not told all.”
“I agreed not to attack the English at Jamaica,” Toussaint said with an air of fatigue. “The English were to have the right to enter the ports at Le Cap and Port-au-Prince, but no other. They promised not to molest the ships of the French Republic in the coastal waters of Saint Domingue.”
Caffarelli affected a sigh.
“Not all the English officers kept the bargain,” Toussaint said irritably. “Their corsairs took four of our ships after it was signed. That was done by Admiral Farker and the governor of Jamaica, who complained that Maitland had let himself be deceived by a Negro.”
“As perhaps he had,” said Caffarelli.
Again Toussaint declined to react.
“And the other terms of the secret treaty?”
“I have already told you.”
The castle bells rang two more times while the conversation continued to follow these same circular pathways. In the intervals, the ticking of Toussaint’s watch buried in his clothes was just barely audible. The damp seeped glossily on the inner wall. Caffarelli veered to a new subject.
“And the treasure that you hid in Saint Domingue. Spirited away from the coffers of the French Republic.”
Toussaint clicked his tongue. “The government treasury was reduced by the wars. I had no fortune, not in money. I spent what I had on the same cause, and the rest of my property was in land. There is Habitation d’Héricourt, near Le Cap, and at Ennery three plantations which I bought from the colons and joined together. Also Habitation Rousinière, which is the property of my wife. On the Spanish side of the island I had land where I raised livestock for the army.”
“You sent a ship to the North American Republic, loaded with gold and precious things, and your aide-de-camp who conducted the cargo was shot when he returned.”
Toussaint ran his tongue around the loose teeth at the front of his jaw. “It is true that I ordered the man shot, but that was because he had tried to debauch some young women of my household.” He paused. “All you white men are always dreaming of gold in the mountains of Saint Domingue. There was gold once, but the Spaniards took it all away a very long time ago.”
“Then what of the six men who went out from Le Cap to bury your treasure in the mountains, and who were shot on their return?”
Toussaint’s heels cracked against the concrete floor, and his eyes grew round and white as he surged against the edge of the table. “That is a lie! A calumny, sir, which my enemies invented to dishonor me. They said I had killed men from my own guard on such a mission, but I called out my guard to prove the lie, and all were present. I would not put the shame of such an act upon my spirit.”
“No,” said Caffarelli softly. “No, perhaps you would not.”
Toussaint subsided. Caffarelli produced his own watch and examined its face. The cry of a circling hawk came toward them distantly from the chasm opposite the cell of Berthe de Joux.
“I will leave you, for a time, to rest,” Caffarelli said. “I will return this afternoon.”
In Saint Domingue, Toussaint had never formed the habit of the midday siesta, which all who were able to do so practiced. But his secretaries could not work effectively during those hours; stunned by the heat, they spoiled their pages. Toussaint did not stop, but he slowed down, as a reptile might, his eyes half lidded, his body at rest, his mind in slow motion. Many notions and strategies unfolded in his head, and if something shifted in the terrain before his eye, he was aware of it.
Now, as he lay still, fully clothed under a blanket, with his arms folded across his breastbone, it was more difficult for him to enter this state, because of the cold. He could feel something in Caffarelli’s intention reaching toward him, but he could not make out exactly what it was.
The cry of the mountain hawks around the castle had not given Caffarelli the idea itself so much as the language for it. It was, he thought, probably his best hope, if not his last.
He returned to Toussaint’s cell in the afternoon, and for some two hours allowed the conversation to wander in the same circles as it had before. When he again raised the issue of the murdered men who were supposed to have hidden treasure, Toussaint’s flicker of resentment was slighter than it had been earlier. But it was there, and Caffarelli pressed.
“General, you are not putting the truth of yourself into what you tell me. Does not that dishonor your spirit most of all? You give me the answers a slave would make, but you were no slave in Saint Domingue. Your constitution was a declaration of independence in everything but name. You were a rebel, and a proud one! You were an eagle—why pretend to be a duck? Tell me, tell the First Consul—tell the world how it really was.”
Toussaint rose up. He did so without moving, but the sudden ferocity of his concentration pressed Caffarelli back in his chair. For a moment he forgot that Toussaint was the prisoner and he was not. As he regained his sense of the true situation, he thought with a burst of excitement that he had won, but the moment passed. Toussaint shrank, his whole body slackened. He looked away as he began to speak, returning to that same circle of evasions he had always made before.