"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell


      The uniformed footman laid a tray of coffee on the table before Isabel Cigny. Her spoon jingled cheerfully against the edge of a china cup. Doctor Hébert watched the movements of her small white hand. When she beckoned him, he came forward and accepted a cup and saucer and returned to his chair. Captain Maillart, meanwhile, leaned forward from his seat on the sofa to help himself to a plate of cakes. He turned to offer one to the girl Celeste, who sat beside him there.
      Doctor Hébert inhaled steam from his coffee, without yet tasting it. The odor of the sugared brew reminded him oddly of the smell of burning that blew daily from the plain. Isabel Cigny looked up at him teasingly, as if she had read his mind.
      "Our sugar is still of a perfect whiteness here," she said at large. "We do not follow the vicious saying of that English minister."
      "Pardon?" said Celeste. She looked blandly about with her large blue eyes. She had declined the proffered cake, leaving her hands demurely folded on her lap.
      "William Pitt has remarked on our misfortune," Captain Maillart said. "`It seems that the French prefer their coffee au caramel."
      The doctor surprised himself by blurting out a laugh (although he'd heard this bitter jest before). Madame Cigny looked at him rather sadly, three fingers pressed against her small pink lower lip. The doctor's eyes slid away from her, toward Claire, who sat apart from the others at a small sewing table in the corner, a basket by her feet and work on her lap. By her position in the room it was unclear to what degree she might or might not belong to this social group, though of course an untrained eye would probably not have doubted her perfect whiteness. She had not taken coffee. Her dress was vastly simpler than before, merely a pale loose shift a little better than what a household slave might wear. Her eyes were lowered to her sewing. The doctor had had no opportunity for as much as a private word with her, nor was he certain he'd have sought her intimacy, were it more available to him. Though he came here often, twice a week, he had little idea how to comport himself with her in these half-public circumstances. She tossed a lock of hair from her face and bent again to her work; the movement was not quite enough for him to catch her eye.
      "Oui, vraiment," Celeste said almost tonelessly, peering into the sugar bowl. "C'est évident."
      Captain Maillart looked at her, at a loss for a direction to continue. He had been trying to flirt with the girl for the past half hour, but she was most unplayful.
      "And you," Madame Cigny said to the doctor. "You will be leaving us as well, I understand."
      "Yes," the doctor said, and sipped his coffee, meaning to go on.
      "You tear yourself away," Madame Cigny developed her theme with a brittle vivacity, "from our fair city, with its... spectacles. The gallows and gibbets. The execution wheels."
      "Painfully," the doctor said. It was not an ideal choice of word. "Affairs at Habitation Thibodet have been neglected...."
      "During your long absence," Madame Cigny said, helping him along. "And will require your most earnest attention."
      "Yes, as you say."
      "No word from the mistress?"
      The doctor shook his head, understanding her to mean Elise. He smiled at her, in thanks for her tact. It had entered his mind that his sister might have returned to the plantation, especially if news of her husband's death had somehow reached her. But he had had no communication from anyone there and so could not know if the plantation itself was still in existence, for that matter.
      "I do wish you would dissuade this child from undertaking such a foolhardy journey," Isabel Cigny said, looking at Celeste, who was perhaps four years her junior. No one answered her. The doctor set his cup aside, on a small table. Celeste had been offered hospitality at the Paparel plantation, in Marmelade, and she was intending to set out for the place the next morning, escorted by Captain Maillart and a party of militia.
      "You might do very well to stay here," Madame Cigny said directly to Celeste. "I will gladly open my house to you. In any event we seem to have become a hostelry for displaced persons... of various sorts." Coolly she glanced at the doctor, who dropped his eyes toward the toes of his boots.
      "You are kind," Celeste said. "Yet I have always preferred country living to the distractions of a town."
      "It must be admitted," said Madame Cigny, "that for the moment our town is less than an ideal setting for a girl such as yourself-- much as I regret to say it. Still I wonder at your journey. Is it wise?"
      Celeste smiled, sweetly or stupidly, as the disposition of an observer might interpret it, and said nothing at all. Madame Cigny got up and quickly crossed the room to her. Seating herself lightly on the arm of the sofa, she took Celeste's face between her two hands and twisted it up toward her own. It was rather an abrupt movement, and to the doctor it didn't seem entirely friendly. Isabel Cigny was examining her visage much as a horse trader might examine an animal. Captain Maillart stared at the pair of them, open-mouthed.
      Seeing himself unobserved, the doctor thought he might at least exchange a glance with Claire. But when he looked her way she would not meet his eyes, or else she was insensible of his regard. She had stopped her sewing for the moment and sat with her hands folded over the work, which looked to be a garment meant for Madame Cigny's infant Héloise. The looseness of the shift she wore gave no suggestion of her body's shape, so that the doctor, recalling what he'd been told of Isabel Cigny's opposition to finery for colored women, wondered if she were used unkindly here.
      Claire sat with her face half-turned to the wall, so that he saw her profile. Despite her pallor, there was much of Africa in her head's shape at this angle, the slant of the cheekbones, full and heavy meeting of the lips. Her face seemed fuller, rounder than before, or perhaps he was imagining this. Her eyes were open, but she seemed entranced; she might have been asleep or dreaming.
      There was a sort of whisper and the doctor turned to see Celeste's head swinging away from Madame Cigny's hands, slackly, as if its support had been abruptly severed. The girl's plump lips were a little parted, and her breath passed through them with that whispering sound he'd heard. A strand of her honey-blonde hair had come down and with her fingertip she reached absently to adjust it. Madame Cigny was looking down on her with an expression of terrible sorrow.
      Captain Maillart then jumped to his feet, loudly slapping off the thighs of his breeches. "Well then, we must be going," he said. "Off to subdue the brigands." He smiled wryly. "Provided we can find them...."

      At midmorning the next day their party set off from Le Cap, passing through some low earthworks hastily erected since the rising; beforehand, the city had had few landward fortifications. Now, on one of the dirt ramparts, a pike carried the severed head of Boukman, the skin shrinking yellowly to the skull, leathery lips peeling back so that whole head grinned deathly toward the gently smoldering plain. Briefly Doctor H‚bert considered whether Celeste would term this vision one of the "distractions" of town life; for the moment she did not seem to take notice of it at all.
      Their party was some forty strong, a larger group of soldiery than the brigands, as all the the black insurgents on the plain had come to be known, would commonly dare to attack. Saving Captain Maillart and a couple of other officers, these were not regular army troops, but militiamen, and an uneasy combination at that. Twelve were white creoles, young and healthy enough, but too soft from pampering for a campaign in rough country (as Captain Maillart had somewhat bitterly explained). The rest were all mulattos, a little older on the average, and most of them veterans of the maréchaussée. They were ill-trusted, for many still believed that the mulattos were wholly responsible for the rising of the blacks, but indispensable just the same.
      They carried with them two eight-pound cannons, drawn by mules, but no wagons, for the ways they'd take would be impossible for wagons to pass. For the same reason Celeste must go horseback; the doctor was surprised to see her riding astride like a man. Indeed, she sat the pretty gray mare she'd been given most confidently. Riding seemed to bring her out of herself. She went alongside a lieutenant of Maillart's regiment, Gourdin, whom the doctor knew slightly from the theater and other such occasions, and she responded to his conversational sallies with more animation than he'd ever seen in her.
      The doctor himself rode behind this pair, side by side with Philip Browne, who had a little reluctantly been persuaded to accept this opportunity of returning to the Thibodet Plantation. The doctor had not much to say to him, however. They rode in silence, Doctor Hébert half attending to the mild flirtation going on between Celeste and young lieutenant. Captain Maillart, who now rode at the head of the column, had provided him with a huge dragoon's pistol, whose long scabbard scraped at his knee with every movement of his horse. But there was no enemy, no menace within view. The trail (it could not quite be called a road) went winding beside a bank that was tall with tawny lemon grass. Lieutenant Gourdin leaned from his horse to pluck a stalk which he presented to Celeste, and the doctor saw the girl smile at its fresh odor of sweetness.
      They were going through open country, low gentle hills under a clear sky. Sometimes they crossed the now familiar fields of ash, but elsewhere nothing had been burnt and the birds still sang. Once at a great distance they saw a band of the brigands who hooted and whistled at them from half a mile away, then scattered into the bush. Captain Maillart went a little more cautiously after this, despite the strength of his party and the fact that the gangs of brigands were thought to lack the skill and discipline for an organized ambush.
      That night they spent at a fortified camp on the lower slopes of the mountain range. All these mountains were now strung with such camps, a cordon meant to keep the insurrection from breaking through to the Department of the West and sweeping down on Port au Prince. It was true as well, however, that the brigand blacks were also encamped all through the hills. Loath to risk open confrontation with armed whites in force, they skulked and raided as they could.
      The trees around the palisade were ornamented with the rotting bodies of blacks who had been captured and hung. A recent novelty of country life, the doctor thought, passing beneath them to enter the camp. Their stench was almost overwhelming; Philip Browne masked his nose and mouth with a scented handkerchief. But Celeste seemed to take no greater note of these carcasses than she would of crows crucified on a barn door to warn away their fellows.
      They slept uneasily in that rough place, the creole youths complaining mightily of their discomfort; apparently a couple of them had never been anywhere before without a body servant. Soon after first light they were on the road again. Now the way went winding in and out of the gorges that raked the mountainsides, so that they must go three miles of twists and bends for one in a straight line. But in two hours they came down into the lowlands. Coconut trees were growing on a swamp flat and amongst them dozens of land crabs came up from their holes to watch the party passing. One of the mulattoes jumped down from his horse and ran among the trees to snatch the crabs and toss them into a bag, for they were good to eat. The men laughed to see him run, and Celeste tittered, holding her fingers to her lips.
      There were others who had used the trail ahead of them. The roadside was littered with cut coconut husks, and back in the trees were the blackened rings of small cook fires. As they continued they found peculiar cairns of stones and eviscerated birds arranged to signify some meaning. Captain Maillart sent scouts half a mile ahead of his main body, and let a couple of men trail back, pairing a white creole with one of the mulattoes in each case.
      In the midafternoon they overtook the advance riders, who'd halted just below the summit of a round hill. The doctor rode up, after Captain Maillart, half-hearing their muttered conference. There was a sound of drumming from somewhere ahead. They dismounted and led the horses to the hill's crown. A long slope glided down into a grassy bowl where a hundred or more of the brigand blacks were dancing to the drums, many already transported into the queer ecstatic fits that possessed them at these calendas. The women were equal in number to the men, and a mambo seemed to be presiding over the whole affair.
      Some of the more hotblooded of the creole whites wanted to mount a charge immediately, but Captain Maillart dissuaded them from this. There was no possibility of surprising them across this long savannah, and at their backs was jungle where they'd easily disappear. Outnumbered as he found himself, Maillart disliked to risk the scattering of his force. The doctor knew too that he was unwilling to endanger the girl needlessly, though he did not say so.
      Captain Maillart ordered the two cannon to be brought to bear and charged. They fired the first eight-pounder down on the blacks from the hill's brow. The brigand dancers were well out of range-- if the ball reached them it did so by rolling down the incline. A number of the creoles followed up the shot with an equally futile clatter of pistol fire, disregarding for a minute or two Maillart's order to desist. A cannoneer touched off the second charge, the gun bucked in its carriage and recoiled. By this time most of the blacks had already filtered away into the forest.
      On the ground where they'd been the grass was pounded flat and there were leavings of a feast, split yams and the bones of wild hogs and stolen sheep. Also in certain more orderly areas, portions of food and fruit and bowls of milk had been laid out in offering to the pagan gods. Captain Maillart passed frowning through this scene, leading his own party tightly bunched. They pressed on more speedily after that, and by nightfall had reached the Paparel plantation, at the border dividing the canton of Marmelade from that of La Soufrière.
      At Paparel they grew mostly coffee, the bushy trees ranked in terraces on the slopes, red thumbsized pods bright on their branches. Though there was plenty of water here, the land was too steep and rocky for sugar, and only a few carrés were in cane. Paparel did keep a small cane mill, also an indigo works, and he grew fields of provisions for sale to neighboring plantations and the towns on the coast. But the master himself was no longer present; he'd decamped at the start of the insurrection, leaving his property in charge of the gérant Mouzon, his wife and two grown sons and two daughters.
      It was the Mouzon family who'd tendered the invitation to Celeste, and the daughters quickly bustled the girl away to the rear of the house, to freshen herself and arrange her things. She'd brought them letters from friends at Le Cap. The doctor stayed, with Maillart and the junior officers, to dine with the family. The food was plentiful and well prepared. Maillart had requisitioned a share of the crabs caught that morning, which were served stuffed, and had a pleasant flavor.
      All was in good order at Paparel, they learned. Mouzon remained optimistic about his situation, though many neighboring plantations had been razed. Of Paparel's one hundred and fifty slaves only some thirty had defected, the others remaining loyal to the master and gérant. Mouzon's worst complaint was that the whites from the hill forts were as likely to murder a loyal black as a rebel, indeed they killed whatever blacks they found at large.
      But the plantation had suffered no depredations. There were three white men on the place, besides the family, all well-armed, and Mouzon had also furnished guns to some of the most trusted slaves. Captain Maillart grumbled a little at this, but Mouzon declared that he had more faith in his best blacks than he could summon for the whites in the camps, and Maillart was bound to agree that these latter were a most uneven lot.
      The doctor retired early and slept without dreaming, exhausted from the days of riding. It was pleasantly cool, a healthier climate than Le Cap; in fact the night air was almost chill. Captain Maillart awakened him next morning by kicking the soles of his feet. After a hasty breakfast they were back in the saddle once more. Paired in the column with Philip Browne, the doctor greeted him cheerfully, but got only a sour expression in return. He saw that the Englishman was miffed at having been excluded from the Mouzon family meal, and left him to himself. The young lieutenant also seemed out of sorts, mooning, probably, over Celeste.
      They were bound for another of the hill forts in a crête of the mountains beyond the Perigourdin gorge from Paparel planation. Only half a day's ride distant, this was one of the strongest positions in all the Cordon de L'Ouest. Mouzon had been willing enough to acknowledge that its proximity meant a good deal to their safety at Paparel, however much he might dislike the details of the militamen's conduct. Maillart's party expected to reach the fort shortly before noon.
      They entered the gorge and rode for half an hour along the narrow stream in the bed of it, then began climbing a vestigial trail that rose along one side. Here the doctor's horse picked up a stone and he had to dismount to pick it loose from the hoof. A cool drizzle fell on the back of his neck as he stooped to the task. Threre was a cloud on the mountain raining down on them gently, while from another quarter the sunshine picked out a gilded aureole of mist. The doctor dislodged the stone from the frog and tossed it over the trail's bank. He set the foot down so the horse could try its weight, then straightened, stretching his stiff back. Half the column had halted behind him, because there was no room to pass. From this elevation he had an excellent view back across the fields of Habitation Paparel, even despite the haze. It was not only haze, however, there was smoke. Buildings in the main compound were burning.
      The doctor pointed and uttered a great shout. Captain Maillart heard him immediately, and saw the smoke stain on the misty sky, but he was at the head of the column and it was not a simple matter to reverse direction on the narrow trail. The cannon, travelling a third of the way from the column's end, now became an obstacle. Meanwhile, six of the young creoles who were bringing up the rear now quickly regained the floor of the gorge and began galloping pellmell back to the plantation, with a dozen of the mulattos following at a slightly more cautious canter.
      Shouting orders and curses, Captain Maillart harassed the cannoneers until at last the gun carriage reached the bottom of the gorge. From here the remainder of the column gave chase to those who'd gone before, leaving the guns to follow as they might. The doctor rode half a length behind the captain. He had drawn the heavy pistol and its weight and awkwardness were interfering with his management of the reins.

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