"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell


      Doctor Hébert was in some ancient mountain fort, alone and unattended except for his wife and child. The place was under attack, it seemed, with men wearing chain mail and curious antique helmets charging the gate with a battering ram, the shock sounding a throaty bass note, repeated at a slow interval. The baby was crying, somewhere out of view, and the doctor looked about himself for help or some means of defense. There was only a rusty medieval pike, leaning against the huge roughcut stones of the wall. As he reached for it, he overbalanced and was falling-- then came to himself sprawled over the floor beside the bed, tangled in a snarl of mosquito netting. Insects thirsty for his blood had clustered on the netting and he had evidently crushed a good number of them in falling out of bed; there were a good many small bloody smudges on the pale planks of the floor. The knock at the door repeated itself, but with no more than ordinary force.
      It was still daylight, though dim from rain, and he had dropped asleep without intending to. He sat up on the floor and pried the piece of mirror from his pocket. In the cupped palm of his hand his one eye hung suspended as within a pool. He closed his fingers over it, put it into his pocket again. Sweat was running in the hollow of his throat. The knock, which had ceased, commenced again.
      He cleared the net from his legs, bunched it and tossed it on the bed, then walked to the door and opened a crack. Since the deportation of Desparbés and Cambefort there had been fewer open disturbances in the town, and the petit blancs were again kept mostly in check by the troops the Commissioners had brought, along with two thousand other soldiers under the command of Rochambeau, who'd lately been denied a landing at royalist Martinique. These things being so, the doctor no longer felt compelled to answer the door with a weapon actually in hand.
      A blurry identification of the uniform of the Regiment Le Cap moved him to pull the door open wide. But it was not Maillart who entered. The face above the uniform collar was pale, but swirled with chocolate freckles. The doctor stepped aside to let him pass, remaining near enough to the door that he might easily have reached the rifled long gun down from its pegs above the lintel. He had come to know Choufleur by sight and by his sobriquet, though he had never spoken with him. Choufleur was not a usual caller here, and the doctor thought that Claire seemed ill at ease when speaking of him, that she avoided the topic when she could and even tried to keep the two of them apart.
      But Choufleur was not attending to him now. No more than if the doctor had been Claire's footman at the door. He walked over the rugs in the center of the room, silver spurs jingling at the heels of his military boots, looking superciliously at the pieces scattered over the chessboard, then at some bibelots arranged upon a cabinet shelf. With a suppressed chuckle he picked up a small silver snuffbox and turned toward the doctor.
      "Do you take snuff?"
      The doctor shook his head blearily. "Nor would I recommend its use to anyone," he said. "It fouls the nasal passages and conduces to catarrh."
      Choufleur snorted and set the snuff box down, unopened, on the high shelf beside the pistol case. He resumed his idle circuit of the room, twirling a slender gold-pommeled cane, its tip describing loops an inch or two above the carpets. The doctor hid a yawn behind his hand. In the heat of the day he had broken off his medical rounds and returned here to rest for an hour, but he had not intended to sleep so heavily as he seemed to have done. It was later than he'd thought. He was enough confused to imagine that he might still be dreaming.
      "Was it me you wished to see?" he asked.
      Choufleur turned and glanced at him dismissively. "I came for the lady," he said in an easy tone.
      "I believe she has stepped out," the doctor said. He stooped slightly to peer out the window. Outside, a mass of purple cloud was beginning to be pierced by a few shafts of evening sun. The rain had momentarily stopped, but it was very close and humid in the room, and he was still sweating from his nightmare. Barefoot, he padded to a stand and poured some water from a pitcher into his hand, then dabbed it at his temples. He had mostly undressed when he came back, and now wore only a pair of loose trousers and a blousy white shirt, untucked.
      "You are much at home here," Choufleur observed.
      "You caught me asleep," the doctor said simply.
      Choufleur kept looking at him, but he did not elaborate. The mulatto turned and moved past the pallet where the girl Paulette lay sleeping, toward the cradle. Doctor Hébert took note again of the uniform he wore and wondered what it might portend. Of recent weeks, Sonthonax had been raising more and more mulattos to posts of importance in the military and the civil government. The Commissioner's speeches inveighed more and more heatedly against race prejudice; in turning against the local Jacobins, he had denounced them all as "aristocrates de la peau." The doctor knew from Captain Maillart that these developments, especially the military promotions, were causing a rise of tension in the Regiment du Cap.
      Choufleur shifted the mosquito net from the crib on the point of his cane. The doctor moved up on him quickly and quietly, standing just behind his shoulder. The child was sleeping quietly enough.
      "What pains she takes," Choufleur murmured, his tone half mocking, half wistful.
      The baby clicked his tongue in sleep, and made a nursing movement with his loose lips. His hair was dark and straight and fine; his skin indistinguishable from white. Of course there were the fingernails, as Madame Cigny had explained. A mosquito lowered whining from the ceiling, toward where the netting gapped above the child's head. The doctor crushed it with a one-handed clench; his fingers made a smacking sound against his damp palm. He stooped to detach the net from Choufleur's cane tip and replaced it over the crib. When he straightened, Choufleur was looking at him with a sardonic twist to his lips.
      "Yes, I think he does resemble you," he said, as though he had been considering the point for some time and only now had come to his conclusion. "What do you say?"
      The doctor stroked his spade-shaped beard. "On the day he was born he most resembled his great-grandfather," he said. "Since then I believe he has come to take after the mother's side a little more." He waited for Choufleur to sort through the implications of this remark.
      "You are a strange man," Choufleur said.
      "People are always telling me so," said the doctor. "I confess that I do not find myself so remarkable."
      "One insults you, but you are not insulted," said Choufleur. "A grand blanc would have called me out, perhaps."
      "A grand blanc would not have lowered himself to duel with a mulatto," the doctor said, raising his chin slightly so that his beard's point seemed to jut, "but would more likely have arranged for you to be hung from some lamp post, I imagine."
      Choufleur's lips tightened for a moment, under the cloud of his freckles. The doctor saw that the colors had not mixed in him, but remained particulate, at odds with each other all across his face. The mouth opened and Choufleur laughed.
      "I will not be insulted either," he said. "I will be equal with you. But it is strange-- that you should keep the company of a man like Michel Arnaud, or officers of the ancien regime like your Captain Maillart, and all the while live openly with a femme de couleur."
      "Donc, je suis l'ami de tout le monde," the doctor said. "I see by your uniform that you and Captain Maillart are become comrades in arms."
      "Oh, but you are mistaken there," Choufleur said. "The Regiment Le Cap refuses to receive me or acknowledge my commission. Their suggestion is that I be posted to the Sixth-- with the other mulattos, you understand." With quick clicking steps, he walked to the door. "But I will have my place there in the end... if the Regiment du Cap continues to exist."
      The doctor looked at him where he stood framed in the open door, rain-grey daylight behind him. "Shall I tell Claire that you called for her?"
      "You needn't trouble," Choufleur said. "No doubt I'll find her at home some other day."
      He went out, slapping the door behind him. The doctor opened his hand, brushed away a mosquito leg. The blood was browning in the creases of his palm-- he wondered what mixture it might be, and smiled to think it hardly mattered.
      He turned back toward the crib. No doubt the baby had not cried at all; that part had been only dream. He yawned. The visit had unsettled him, and yet he would have liked to retain Choufleur, and ask him a few more questions. Claire was always uncomfortable in speaking of their acquaintance, would only say that they had been born on the same plantation, near Acul, and had known each other as children, before she came to Le Cap and he was sent to Europe to commence another sort of education. The doctor knew that women in Claire's position would often keep a lover of their own color-- quite unbeknownst to their grand blanc whoremasters, as a rule. But if there were rivalry, he still might be counted the winner, thus far-- after all, the child was his.

      Captain Maillart was having some difficulty concentrating his mind, for the meeting room of the Regiment du Cap officers' quarters was a welter of confusion, with all the young men talking at once. There was chaos too in the court of Les Casernes. Through the windows he could see enlisted men milling about in a state of excitement. Some members of the suppressed Jacobin club had arrived with a handcart and were distributing copies of what purported to a proclamation of the French National Assembly, making it illegal for colored officers to command white troops in the colonies. Within the room, the arguments carried on unmoderated.
      "Look at that rabble-- and the troops are listening to them! when they ought to be clubbing them down with their musket butts--"
      "But what if the proclamation is true?"
      "Of course it is an arrant fabrication!"
      "Don't be so sure, and if it is not true, it ought to be."
      "Gentleman," said Captain Maillart, "let us have at least some semblance of order."
      But the hubbub did not abate. So many senior officers had been deported with Cambefort and Desparbés that there was no one clearly in authority in this group.
      "Let them listen to it," some one was saying. "Let them believe it. It would be the very thing we need to rid us of the Jacobin dictatorship of this Sonthonax...."
      "And throw in our lot with that petit blanc canaille? It's scarce two months since they were all arming themselved to murder us...."
      "--but if they are the enemies of our enemy, after all--"
      "This Sonthonax is a slippery fish," said Captain Maillart. "Who knows whose enemy he really is? He raised those petit blancs up to be his Jacobin brothers, and now he reviles them as aristocrates de la peau...."
      "Well and it may be that white skin will be our last aristocracy in this place," someone said sarcastically.
      "Can't you see through him then?" said another officer. "I'll tell you what he is at bottom-- a bloody abolitionist."
      There was a brief, surprising silence at that. In the courtyard, disbanded members of the Jacobin club were still crying the "news" of the National Assembly.
      "If Desparbés had not lost his nerve," someone said in a lower tone, "we might might have done it in September. And if we do not lose our nerve, we may yet do it now."
      It continued quiet in the small square room, with the men all looking at each other tensely. There were fifteen or sixteen of them there, and scarce a one over twenty-five.
      "We have again the National Guards to reckon with," said Captain Maillart. "The mulattos of the Sixth...."
      Someone leaned over and spat conspicuously on the floor. Captain Maillart raised his voice just slightly.
      "These petit blancs are not to be relied on, even if our interests have momentarily coincided. Then there are the two thousand troops who arrived with Rochambeau, which I predict will remain loyal to the commission...."
      "What are you saying, Maillart?" someone said. "Whose side are you on?"
      Captain Maillart turned his hands palm out, an unconscious mimicry of Cambefort's signal for calm.
      "Well, and if we'd only denied the Commissioners a landing like they denied Rochambeau at Martinique, we'd be in a better situation now...." someone said.
      "Here's to that," said Captain Maillart. "I am for the king, as I always was."
      Quiet again. "Vive le roi," someone said, but the phrase fell flat in the still room, less like a cheer than a prayer of unbelief.
      Some change transpired in the quality of the disturbances in the court, and Maillart looked out the window to see that Laveaux had dismounted from a horse, tossing his reins to a trooper to hold, and was striding across toward the building where they were gathered. Soon he'd passed within the portal, in a moment he'd be in the room.
      "Oho," someone said. "So they did call him back."
      Laveaux had entered, or almost; he stood handsomely within the doorframe. His air was almost diffident, for although he had been promoted to full colonel following the September riot, he did not like to presume on his rank in any less than formal situation. Once again the room had fallen silent.
      "May I come in?" Laveaux said.
      There was a murmur, and someone pulled out a chair for him. Laveaux sat down. He looked from face to face, but most eyes turned away from him, though he was well- liked by almost all of them, partly because he shared their youth.
      "Let us come quickly to the point then," Laveaux said. "There are rumors of insubordination, mutiny even. I hope to discover them all false."
      No answer.
      "Monsieur Sonthonax has been greatly concerned--"
      "Monsieur Sonthonax has set himself up as a despot here, since Ailhaud ran away to France and Polverel went to Port au Prince-- there is no commission here, it is government by caprice. The faintest whisper of dissent and you are deported to France on the instant. Or even if you do not whisper, it is enough that your name appear on the black list of that infamous Jacobin club to find yourself sailing for the guillotine--"
      "But Sonthonax has suppressed the Jacobin club--" Laveaux said.
      "Oh, be sure that your Sonthonax is a straw to twist in whatever wind blows strongest--"
      "Enough," Laveaux said. "It is not his conduct we are to discuss, but your own. You will not acknowledge the commission of le citoyen Maltrot--"
      "--who not ten weeks gone was calling himself le Sieur Maltrot--"
      "--jumped-up nigger, that Choufleur--"
      "Je vous en prie!" Laveaux said. "Whatever he may have been, he is now a citizen of the French Republic for better or worse-- as are we all. And he is only one man. All the other regiments have accepted a single colored officer--"
      "Will you say it is only a token? that's what they claimed about the law of May 15 - - a mere four hundred votes for the mulattos. Now they are all enfranchised and set over us to boot, Sonthonax takes them into the government, they supersede the Colonial Assembly--"
      "Peace," Laveaux said. "Let us keep to the point. Would you throw everything over for this one man? Can you doubt the capabilities of les gens de couleur? They have proven themselves in the field time and again."
      "They have proven a facility for drawing out eyeball s with corkscrews, you mean-- "
      "--the mulattos are very well in the Sixth. And the Regiment le Cap is very well without them."
      Laveaux sighed and looked at the table top. Maillart studied him-- his face was drawn with weariness, and his laced fingers strained against each other slightly.
      "Consider this," Laveaux said in a low voice. "Our first mission is to suppress the slave insurrection, as I think you'll all agree-- and even with Commissioner Sonthonax, on this one point. Our campaign against the rebels was going famously well! --until I was recalled to deal with disturbances here. The threat of these disturbances means we cannot field the troops we need to put down the insurrection once for all, and this has been true for a long time, as I think you understand. And soon enough we will be at war with Spain, most likely England as well. If these troubles find us quarreling among ourselves, we may very well be destroyed altogether."

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