"De donde viene?" one of the blacks said. Browne, who'd been stalking the lizard on his hands and knees, jumped to his feet and overbalanced, falling backward down the slope and slamming his bruised head into a tree trunk. His eyes went swimming.
"Donde va?" the other black said. They had not moved or offered any threat. Browne's eyes came clear and he saw the white man making his way toward him down the grade, peering at him from under the broad brim of his hat. He flinched when Tocquet reached to help him up.
"Du calme, du calme," Tocquet murmured. "We don't intend any harm to you." His touch was gentle, reassuring. Inexplicably, Browne began to weep. He dropped his head onto Tocquet's shoulder, submissively as a woman or a child.
The two wild pigs swung by their hind legs, lashed to a hastily erected crossbar. Browne emerged from his revery to watch Moto, inserting the point of a cutlass into the first pig's belly and dragging it down deeply into the chest cavity. A mound of guts dumped out and steamed on the trampled grass below the pig's stiff forelegs. Bluebottle flies whined toward the acrid-smelling mass. Moto, his arms bloodstreaked to the elbow, reached into the cavity for the liver and the lungs....
The hunting party had gathered near the hanging meat, chattering gaily with some of the card players. Browne stood a little apart from them, dull eyes contemplating the butchery. He seemed to be losing the ability to discriminate one massacre from another. When Moto passed with his knife toward the second pig, he noticed him and flashed a thin smile that seemed to recognize Browne's discomfort without mocking it. He was, after all, a kindhearted lad.
So they made un bon boucan de cochon, in the old-fashioned manner. The gutted pigs were wedged open with stakes, the cavities filled with lemon halves and hot peppers and salt. Moto supervised the weaving of a hammock of green vines that would serve as a grill. On this, the pigs were stretched over the firepit. The meat cooked slowly; they'd gone two hours into darkness before it was ready to eat. By then, Browne's nausea had evaporated and he was glad as anyone to take his share, which he ate with a peeled and pointed stick, the same way that the others did.
As the feast wound down, Cambefort's cousin ordered the dispensation of an extra ration of rum. A squat and bearded militiaman wielded the dipper while Cambefort's cousin stood by, his cheeks shining with hog fat, contemplatively sucking the splintered end of a rib. Browne walked up and presented his cup to be filled. Cambefort's cousin addressed him with a sidelong glance.
"An expedition tomorrow will pass by Habitation Thibodet. If all is well there, as I trust, we'll have the honor of restoring you to your... employment." He grinned, sarcastically it seemed, though Browne felt sure he could know nothing of his frauds. His throat contracted and he spluttered on the burning rum, meaning to decline, defer the journey. But there was a sudden outcry on the far side of the fire, and Cambefort's cousin must hasten to intervene.
A fight had broken out among the gamblers, one's knife drawn against another's fists. Before it could be broken up, the unarmed man was slashed across the back of his hand, a wide and ugly wound, though shallow. Cambefort's cousin subdued the attacker by knocking him down with a musket butt and pressing the bayonet against his throat until he calmed. The wounded man was led away and Moto roughly dressed his wound for there was no better doctor in the camp. By the next morning, the man who'd been cut had use enough of his hand to ride, side by side in the column with the one who'd cut him, as if they were the best of friends.
Browne rode next in line behind them, Moto at his left. Most times the boy was talkative, even to excess, but today he was very quiet, and his silence seemed to reflect Browne's own apprehension. Browne's eye wandered, to the roped skeletons that dangled from limbs either side of the trail. Some still wore rags, or scraps of skin dried like parchment to the bone. From the eye socket of one, the horns of a huge stag beetle protruded.
They passed. Behind them, the dim smell of corruption faded. Cambefort's cousin, at the head of the party, kept fidgeting with the butt of the heavy pistol holstered on his waist. Their strength was light, about a third of the garrison. Any tear in the tissue of jungle chitter and whistling caused them all to exchange glances of alarm.
The distance was not great, but it was slow progress down the difficult trails. They did not reach level ground before midday. An hour later they had come to the citrus hedge that bound the outermost of the Thibodet cane fields. Here they stopped to water the horses at an irrigation trench, and most of the men dismounted to stretch their legs. Browne was grateful enough to slip down from his horse. Moto went to the hedge and began wordlessly gathering lemons into a straw basket he always carried for his foraging.
Cambefort's cousin crouched to dip his cupped hands in the stream. He sipped from his joined palms and slicked his wet fingers back through his hair. Browne watched him idly; in the afternoon heat he'd grown a little sleepy. He looked past Moto, over the low hedge. Half a mile off, he saw a row of slave cabins, still intact. In the field before them, there was even a line of men at work. Browne thought he saw their hoe blades flashing in the sun. He was wondering if this might be some sort of mirage when he noticed that Cambefort's cousin had remounted and was holding the reins of the horse he had been riding.
"And so, Mister Browne, we take our leave of you."
His accent deformed the honorific-- meester. Browne swayed dizzily out from his set feet. He had certainly expected an escort to the doorstep, if any door remained on the place, but he could not articulate this thought. His tongue was thick. "My horse," he said, after a moment.
"But it isn't your horse," Cambefort said reasonably. "You know we have no mounts to spare."
Browne looked at Moto, but he was fumbling with the lemons in the basket, and would not meet his glance.
"Give me a gun, at least," he said. "They'll kill me here."
"Who's to kill you?" Cambefort's cousin said. "Don't you see, the blacks are all at their work. Everything is as it should be. It's peaceful here."
Then why are you so eager to be gone? Browne thought. An unsuspected reservoir of pride kept him from saying it. He saw that the other men all hated him because he was English and they were French, or simply because they were many and he was one. It hardly mattered. He was oppressed with his usual sense of futility. With a limp hand he waved them all away.
"Au revoir, then, Browne," Moto said suddenly. No one else spoke. Browne watched them retreating, hooves muddying the water as they crossed the trench. The horse he'd ridden was dallied behind Cambefort's cousin's mount, empty saddle bobbing. No one looked back at Browne at all. Cambefort's cousin coughed out a short command and the horses picked up their pace to a trot.
Browne stooped to the irrigation trench, scooped water to wet his temples, then stood and walked until he came to a break in the hedge where he could enter the cane-piece. The cane had scarcely been tended, from the look of things; it was spindly and overgrown with creeper vines. Browne continued, stumbling occasionally on the hummocks of tall grass between the rows. Ahead of him, he could hear singing now.
When he cleared the cane he saw that it was not a mirage or a hallucination. The slaves were indeed at their work, just as Cambefort's cousin had claimed. They were singing short breathless lines, endstopping each with the downswing of the hoes, all in good unison. They were chopping out a trench to plant new cane.
Browne walked along the line of them. They were ten or twelve, a small detail. He even recognized a couple: Calas, Monplaisir. None appeared to take any notice of him, however. At the end of the line of workmen stood the foreman Delsart, all dressed in white and wearing the yellow straw hat he always wore.
"Ah, Browne," Delsart said warmly, pushing up his hat brim with one finger. "Bonjour." The greeting friendly enough, but casual as if Browne had been absent no more than overnight.
Browne stared at Delsart, particularly at the bloody coinsized carbuncle on his chin-- a symptom of his venereal pox, undoubtedly. The French pox, as the English called it; among the French the term was reversed. Delsart's eye had a trace of delirious glitter. Perhaps he was not altogether in his senses.
"Bonjour," Browne repeated vacantly. He went his way. Behind him, the hoes kept clanking against the stones embedded in the earth. He walked along the row of slave cabins and into the main compound.
Both the grand'case and the cane mill were apparently undamaged. A calico cat lay on the grand'case gallery, stretched full length to sun itself. As Browne observed it, the cat rolled over on its back and tucked its legs up toward its belly. He made a quarter turn and went up a pair of steps into the cane mill.
The dim interior was musty, a smell of disuse, stale air. Browne felt his way along the wall, the brick and mortar warm to his touch. The office, which had doubled as his bedchamber, was at the rear of the mill, next to Delsart's quarters. He unbolted the heavy shutters and pushed them open to admit the light.
A film of dust lay on the desk and on the lid of the chest that held the books and correspondence, frequently painted with camphor to discourage insects. Under his low bed a chocolate-patterned snake was coiled. Browne was oddly unaffected by the sight of it. He chivvied it out with a stick; it slipped through a crack in the board floor and disappeared.
The key to the chest was on his stolen watch chain, but when he tried the lid he found it was unlocked. He would have been happy enough to discover a feast of beetles inside, but the papers did not even seem to have molded. He lifted a ledger from the top of the stack and spread it open on the desktop. The watery ink had dried translucent on the pages, spidery columns of false accounting that sought to conceal the embezzlement Crozac had induced him to undertake.
He perched on his stool, withdrew his journal from his coat, and reached for a pen. Of course, the ink had petrified in the well. He returned to the chest and found a bottle that was still liquid when he broke its seal.
The window was generously large in its arched brick embrasure, almost the size of a regular door. A low breeze passed through it, fluttering Browne's hair and cooling his brow. He shut the book. After all he was not disposed to write with himself as sole audience. Was it his thoughts would not bear such a scrutiny? Better that he should address himself to another. He smiled slightly and inscribed on the page the name of his wife.
My dearest Margaret,He paused. When he had last written her, from the Le Cap, the very sight of her name on the paper had tumbled him into a whirl of nervous emotion which was not sentiment so much as disease. Now he felt, calm, only slightly wistful. Of a sudden, he understood the change. His fever had passed, for the time being. For the first time in many weeks, he rather felt himself.
I hope that you have suffered no great anxiety on my account, in the time which it has taken me to write. Know that I am alive and for the moment in good health. I cannot tell when or how I will manage to send this letter, but my thoughts are with you and with Robert, please kiss the boy for me....He closed his eyes and sucked the pen tip tasting the sour ink (recklessly, he was using it undiluted), but he could not see the woman or his son. He saw a hill of cool Devon green, a caramel-colored cow browsing on the village common, with a brass bell tolling from its neck at every step.
I have today, following some alarms and diversions which I need not detail, regained the property of my late employer. I find the place in a better state than I certainly had inspected. The plantation has evidently been spared the depredations of the brigands. Apparently some of our slaves remain loyal here as well.He sketched a circle in the dust on the desktop. Nothing could recall for him the physical presence of his wife. She was a notion, but that still meant something.
I am cautious, but optimistic in the main. There may yet be some opportunity for me in this place. Although I do confess that even before the dreadful catastrophes which have been visited upon all of us, this country had disappointed many of my hopes.
In the end, I am most confident, this trouble must pass. Soon the brigands will be permanently subdued and order and prosperity restored all over the northern plain. In the meantime, all is quiet where I now find myself. Do not be alarmed by the news you may hear, for I am determined to live and be well.Browne laid the pen momentarily aside and watched his words dry on the sheet. He fanned the pages backward to the columns of lying numbers, then forward again. The fresh sentences looked well-framed to him, the words persuasive. If he kept on, he might convince himself.