"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell


Continued ...

      "Colonel," Maillart said, "so far as you are concerned, yourself, we all of us would follow wherever you might lead."
      Around the room there ran a murmur of assent, but someone spoke more bitterly.
      "After all, are you not le comte de Laveaux?"
      "It's true that I originate from the noblesse de l'epée," Laveaux said. "Exactly as you have it. But my first loyalty is to the nation." He looked at Maillart. "If you truly mean what you just said, then I believe that all of you will find your duty clear."
      With that, Laveaux stood up and left the room. When he had gone, one of the junior officers cleared his throat as if to speak but found no words. Maillart remained in his seat, staring out the window, while the others scraped back their chairs and gradually dissipated from the room. His head hummed with unconcluded arguments, and he had small doubt that the others were in much the same condition.

      Next morning, the morning of December 2nd, the command came down the line for the Regiment Le Cap to assemble on the Champ de Mars. At first no one misdoubted the order. The men fell out, carryng their weapons but all unloaded, -- it was only a dress parade. Captain Maillart was startled first by the numbers of civilians who lined their way as they marched out the barrack gate and onto the big parade ground. He'd seen many of the same faces screaming abuse at him and his fellows when the riots broke out in September, but now the men who wore the pompon rouge were presenting themselves as allies of a kind.... not that he much trusted them.
      The morning was grey, misty and cool, though the rain had stopped. A mist gathered on the captain's forehead, and he felt the cold sweat start from under his arms as he moved through the cool humid air. Tramping into the Champ de Mars, they found the mulattos of the Sixth already waiting for them, standing at attention, muskets dressed crossways across the breast. Maillart was relieved to see that these men too had fallen out without their ammunition boxes. And yet a little thrill coursed up his spine.
      "Curse his arrogance," someone said behind him, in a voice loud enough to carry across the field. "He has no right to wear that uniform."
      Captain Maillart looked over and saw Choufleur, a little apart from the lines of the Sixth, still arrayed in the uniform of the Regiment Le Cap. Sonthonax, his commissioner's medallion shining over his navel, stood near to him, along with Laveaux. From the crowd of civilians that lined all four sides of the field, a high thin voice called out, "Massacre!"
      The captain could not make out who had raised the call.
      The Regiment Le Cap halted, faced right, and dressed its ranks, facing the Sixth at some fifty yards distance. The men stood down, musket butts resting lightly on the packed earth of the field, a hand curled around each barrel. Laveaux was crying out in a loud voice that the Sixth Regiment was without ammunition also, and that a peaceful assembly was all that anyone intended. Then Sonthonax took a step forward and began to speak. His hands described strange arabesques in the air, and he was all atremble like an excited hunting dog. Captain Maillart could not at first understand what he was saying, distracted and disturbed as he was by his groundless premonition that something much more serious than talk was likely to occur.
      A deeper voice called from the mass of pompons rouges. "The truth, Sonthonax. You mean to abolish slavery! Set the niggers to rule over us all-- and all of us know what's in your black heart!"
      Sonthonax, his face reddening in his agitation, screamed that the maintainance of the institution of slavery in this colony was his most sacred principle-- one he'd die, if need be, to defend. The question of the day was not slavery at all but the rights of les citoyens du quatre Avril.... Captain Maillart's attention drifted once again. His eye rose from Sonthonax's gesticulating figure to to the mass of blue-veined cloud that swirled above Morne du Cap. The cloud parted, and a shaft or two of sunlight chiselled through.
      "Massacre!" the same high voice cried. "Fly -- fight! Sauve qui peut-- Look there, they are bringing cartridges to the Sixth!"
      "It's bread, you idiots," Laveaux shouted. "It's only bread."
      Maillart turned to the center of the confusion. An aged mulatto was making away through the civilian crowd toward the lines of the Sixth, bent double under the weight of a man-sized duffel sack. If this were bread, Maillart was thinking, it must be the heaviest bread ever baked.
      But some of the pompons rouges had overpowered the old man and jerked the pack away from him, ignoring Sonthonax's hoarse admonitions. Men of the mulatto Sixth stepped up to protect him. The men around Maillart broke ranks and rushed up into the center of the confusion. The captain could not think how to restrain them or if they ought to be restrained. He let himself be carried forward by the movement, and when the rotten canvas of the duffel ripped from the many hands tugging at it, he saw that there were loaves, indeed, on top, but underneath were many ammunition boxes.
      Men of all parties were fumbling over the torn sack and scrabbling for the spilled and scattered ammunition on the ground. By instinct the captain dove for a cartridge box himself and caught it by its strap. The troops of the Regiment Le Cap had spontaneously charged the Sixth and were fighting them with gun butts and fists before they could load, if they had meant to load. Captain Maillart could not tell who had got control of the contraband ammunition. When the first shots began snapping he did not know who had fired. Unconsciously he was passing out cartridges from the small supply he'd recovered to the men nearest him. Then he saw Choufleur, who'd somehow got astride a horse. The freckled mulatto rode low on his horse like a Cossack and he had got the half-full ammunition sack slung across its withers and he was distributing cartridges to the rear ranks of the Sixth, who would have more leisure to employ them. Choufleur straightend in his saddle and called out an order to the front lines to draw back, passing through the ranks of those who stood behind. Captain Maillart saw what would happen and he could not but admit that Laveaux had not overestimated the competence of this one colored officer at least.
      He snatched the man nearest him by the back of his collar and threw him headlong on the ground, calling out an order for all to follow suit as he plunged into the dirt himself. The first volley from the Sixth passed clean over their heads and behind them the captain heard a wounded man cry out in outrage and somewhere a horse was screaming. He raised himself on his elbows and saw the first rank of the Sixth kneeling to reload while powder flared from the barrels of the men who stood behind; an instant later came the noise of the volley like a cloth raggedly tearing. Maillart kissed the earth with his teeth. When he heard an answering volley from behind him he could have wept for joy. They must after all have brought up some ammunition from the arsenal at the barracks.
      A charge of the Regiment Le Cap passed over him; when it had gone by he got up and reformed his own unit and supervised the distribution of cartridges from an ammunition cart that had been wheeled up. The mulattos of the Sixth had held off the charge; they were still keeping up a disciplined fire, standing to shoot and kneeling to reload. Still the captain thought that they could not hold long. They would not have much ammunition, and they were now cut off from resupply.
      He thought. Some of the petit blancs were contributing fire from small arms or hunting guns to the melee, but apart from their participation it was a well-drawn, clearcut battle, so utterly different from those anarchic encounters in the jungle with the blacks. In this respect, the captain was much reassured. He massed his men and moved them up, stepping over bodies of the fallen. They came to a halt to fire, moved up again. This time it was corpses of the Sixth they walked among. The mulattos counterattacked, charging the front line of the Regiment le Cap-- a brave ploy, but probably a desperate one; with ammunition low they must elect hand-to-hand fighting if they could.
      The Regiment le Cap stood off the charge. The mulattos were in retreat again, but keeping good order. Gradually they were being driven from the Champ de Mars and into the broken ground beyond the field.
      At the edge of La Fossette, the hûngan Bonneau came out of his hut and shade his eyes to watch the progress of the fight as it went past him, under the blaze of the sun that had now burned through the clouds entirely. The mulattos were withdrawing across the cemetery proper, the marshy ground of La Fossette. Bonneau picked up one of his cats and stroked it absently while he watched. A white man fired a musket at him, but he was not in range.
      The low ground of the cemetery was virtually a swamp at this time of year, and the men slipped and slithered and fell as they tried to charge across it. Captain Maillart was staggering over the bones of those many comrades of his who'd died of fever in this place.... Every movement brought clouds of stinging mosquitos out of the stagnant pools to persecute them. Surely they ought to have annihilated the mulattos by now, the captain thought, and would have too, had it not been for the calm and courage of their officers, for the colored men were now outnumbered and outgunned. But the momentum of the white troops had bogged down in the cemetery swamp. The mulalttos had gained higher ground on the other side, and were holding it well. Captain Maillart saw Choufleur, still horseback, directing fire, and thought how useful it would be to bring him down. He recharged his big dragoon's pistol and carefully sighted on the freckled face, but when he fired there was no effect. He reloaded and took aim again, holding the heavy gun with two hands, but held his fire.
      The range was possibly now too great. And Choufleur himself was pulling back, suddenly. With about half the remaining men of the Sixth as well. The pistol swung down in Captain Maillart's numbing hands, bounced off his thigh and bruised it. A trapdoor slammed in the back of his throat; for a second he thought he'd actually vomit. There was nothing he or anyone could do but watch, while Choufleur's part swept over the thinly manned earthworks that defended the town from landward attack.
      Now the men of the Regiment Le Cap had fought their way off the marshy ground and were breaking the skirmish line of the Sixth that had been left to hold them off-- but it was too late. The mulattos controlled the earthworks now-- and there'd be ammunition aplenty there. The Regiment Le Cap was charging once again but now it was mere folly. The mulattos were cutting them down from cover of the breastworks, and Maillart could still see Choufleur's uniform moving, distinct among the yellow uniforms of the Sixth-- he was ordering the cannon to be turned around to bear on the town and its defenders.
      One man made it up the earthwork almost to the top, but someone shot him full in the face and he tumbled over backwards. Cannon fire cut three separate swaths through the advance of the Regiment Le Cap, halting the charge. As the men were wavering, Laveaux came riding across the front lines, calling them to fall back, withdraw out of range. Now, at last, they heard him and obeyed.

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