"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell


Continued ...

      The retreat went staggering over tangled bodies, white and colored laced together. A drummer boy was beating a loud tattoo, which Captain Maillart seemed to hear now for the first time, and all at once the firing had stopped. Not far from him, Laveaux pulled up his horse and faced the earthworks. He had lost his hat in the confusion, and his chest heaved with his breathing; above, his fine features looked completely stricken. The drumming stopped, and from the hills they heard the calls of crows. It seemed to the captain they had been fighting only a few minutes, but it must have been nearer to four hours, for the sun was plumb vertical overhead, a pale disc searing through the haze. Out of range of the cannon, the men of the Regiment Le Cap stood down.

      By nightfall the sky had cleared completely and now the stars and a hangnail's worth of moon appeared to mark the slopes of Morne du Cap on the horizon. When the darkness was complete the movement of many torches could be seen on the dark face of the mountain. Sonthonax and Laveaux were advancing cautiously toward the earthworks, under the cover of a few guards. As a sort of mental fidget, Sonthonax tried to count the lights by multiplying their rows, but they kept shifting, kept increasing, and soon he saw he could not number them.
      "Would it be more gens de couleur coming in from the countryside?" he muttered to Laveaux.
      "The blacks moving up from the plain, more like."
      "Eh, mon Dieu...."
      "Justement," Laveaux said grimly. "On verra...."
      There were torches aplenty among their own party, as they had no wish at all to come upon the mulatto position unobserved. They were thirty yards out from the earthworks when someone fired a warning shot and a voice called out to know their business. Laveaux drew his breath deep into his belly and shouted back his name and that of Sonthonax and said that they were come to remedy the misunderstanding that had taken place that afternoon (Sonthonax having prompted him to this phrasing). After a couple of minutes a different voice hailed them from the earthworks and gave permission for them to approach.
      Sonthonax and Laveaux clambered over the dirt ramparts, leaving their attendants to hold their horses. The damp curve of the wall was overgrown with vine and grasses, going back to jungle. Sonthonax slipped on the wet growth and fell to one knee; Laveaux reached a hand back to pull him up.
      There were three soldiers of the Sixth who escorted them along the twisting declivity between the earth walls to a place where a small fire was burning. Choufleur and another colored officer named Villatte were just within the aureole of its light, seated on carriages of the cannons that had been turned to cover the town. With them were two black men whom Sonthonax and Laveaux had never seen before, one dressed in a mismatched assemblage of military clothing, the other bare-chested and breech-clouted and ornamented like some chief fresh out of Africa.
      "Please be seated," Choufleur said, "Bienvenu...." Laveaux and Sonthonax took places on gun carriages of their own. Beside the fire an orderly was brewing coffee in a fired- clay pot. Choufleur snapped his fingers at him and he offered Sonthonax and Laveaux each a cup.
      "There has been reckless impetuosity on both sides--" Sonthonax began.
      "You mean," said Choufleur, "that through this so-called impetuosity the royalist troops betrayed that conspiracy they had long been hatching to exterminate all les citoyens du quatre Avril."
      Sonthonax sniffed his coffee and turned to set it down, untasted, near the touchhole of the cannon he was sitting on. All his intelligencing during that evening had failed to discover just whose conspiracy was whose, nor could he even learn just who had sent that pack of ammunition into the ranks of the Sixth, or why.
      "Perhaps there are some few officers of the ancien regime who have difficulty in accepting the changes with which the times present them," Sonthonax said. "But I assure you that these matters will be expeditiously resolved and that you and your fellow officers will be accepted with no further difficulty."
      "Oh, that is without importance now," Choufleur said. "I and my fellow officers, as you put it, have no longer the slightest interest in serving with the Regiment Le Cap. Au contraire, I believe that all of our men would absolutely decline to serve in any force into which the Regiment Le Cap was incorporated."
      Sonthonax swallowed drily and looked toward Laveaux, who seemed to be enjoying his coffee; he frowned and shook his head just slightly, but Laveaux did not notice him. Sonthonax's head had been filled with stories of poisoning since he arrived; he rather delectated on these tales, but though a Republican he feared poison as much as any king.
      "I see," said Sonthonax. "You know of course that our Commission's most important duty here is to maintain le loi du quatre avril and so to protect the rights of all new citizens."
      "I have heard much lip service paid to that notion," said Choufleur. "It strikes me that if it were sincere, then any factions who continue to resist the law would have been disposed of with less delay."
      "Don't presume that you can dictate terms," Sonthonax said. "You must remember that the Commission is the highest authority in this land."
      "Forgive my discourtesy," Choufleur said. "I've failed to introduce my two compatriots. Pierrot," -- he indicated the black man in the uniform, who was staring broodily into the coals of the fire without apparently following the conversation-- "and Macaya. No doubt you will have heard their names."
      Pierrot did not acknowledge the introduction at all, but Macaya, when he heard his name, raised his head and grinned fixedly at the two Frenchmen. He was of a coppery color, compared to Pierrot's glossy black, and had high cheekbones that seemed to pinch his eyes in slits. His hair had grown very long during the time of the rebellion, and it was propped up with little bones and stiffened with clay in the shape that resembled a peacock's fan. "Yes," Sonthonax said. "I know these reputations." Immediately he covered his mouth with his hand, out of fear his chin might tremble. He knew that Pierrot and Macaya were the chieftains of the mob of rebel slaves who swarmed in the nearest vicinity to Le Cap; these were far less organized than the men collected under Jean-François and Biassou, but their sheer numbers presented an almost overwhelming threat.
      Villatte raised his head and also smiled, but neither he nor Choufleur seemed disposed to make any further remark. Sonthonax studied the neutral faces of Pierrot and Macaya for a moment more and decided to risk the assumption that they understood only creole, not proper French.
      "I had not known," he said to Choufleur, "that men such as these were precisely your compatriots."
      "Ah, but we live in a time of rapidly shifting alliances," Choufleur said. "Do we not? You will have observed this truth since you arrived here on our island...."
      "Vraiment." Sonthonax stood up. "Allow me a moment with my colonel." He plucked at Laveaux's sleeve and drew him away into the dark.
      On the hill above them the lines of torches continued to snake and circle down. A drumming had begun just at the edge of earshot, thin and parched like a rustle in dry leaves or the first irritating tickle of a cough. Sonthonax turned in the direction of the town and rested his elbows on the breast-high barricade. The lights of Le Cap were interrupted by the mute curve of the barrel of a sixteen-pound cannon.
      "How many are they, do you suppose?"
      "Fifty thousand? A hundred thousand?" said Laveaux. "No one has had the opportunity to count."
      "And Pierrot and Macaya control them all."
      "Control is perhaps not the most exact term," Laveaux said. "I expect that they can deliver them."
      "What is your estimation, then?"
      "Bon," said Laveaux. "They are already inside our defenses-- assuming the mulattoes act in concert with them. With disciplined troops of the Sixth to stiffen the spine of this African horde, I have no doubt they could sweep us all into the sea in a matter of hours. Thus an end of French rule in the north and possibly in all of the colony."
      "Ah," said Sonthonax. "It is fortunate, then, that les gens de couleur have no good cause to side with these insurgent blacks."
      Laveaux took of his hat and scratched the back of his head unconsciously. The tone of his civilian superior suggested that he was practicing his words for some other audience.
      "No," Sonthonax continued. "It is well that the fortunes of les gens de couleur are so closely allied with our own. For we, after all, have been pledged from the beginning to defend their rights as citizens; we recognize only two classes of men in Saint Domingue: the free and the slaves. Equality is irresistible! whoever stands against it must be swept away."
      "Let us hope that they will yield to such persuasions," said Laveaux.
      "But it is not at all a matter of persuasion." Sonthonax began leading Laveaux back toward the fire; he noticed now that that the two rebel chieftains had withdrawn, or been dismissed, from the circle of light."
      "Courage," Sonthonax said. "We have only to recall for them the mutuality of our interests."

      On the morning of December 3rd, Sonthonax returned to Le Cap with the regiment of mulattoes at his back. The rebel blacks from the northern plain had fallen away beyond Morne du Cap, and no one spoke of the threat they had presented, but there was no further resistance to the integration of les gens de couleur into the French troops. Or if resistance did appear, it was sharply and suddenly put down.
      Within days, Sonthonax had deported the Regiment Le Cap en masse. He set up a tribunal to purge "aristocrates de la peau" from the civilian townspeople as well, and these also soon began to fill the holds of ships in the harbor bound for France. "It is hard for Frenchmen to rule by terror," Sonthonax wrote to his new Minister of Marine, Mongé, "but one must so rule here at Sainte Domingue, where there are neither morals nor patriotism, neither love of France nor respect for her laws; where the ruling passions are egoism and pride; where the chain of despotism has weighed for a century on all classes of men from Governor to slave. I have chastised; I have struck down: all the factious are in fear before me. And I shall continue to punish with the same severity whosoever shall trouble the public peace, whosoever shall dare deny the national will,-- especially the holy law of equality!"
      During these same days, Laveaux was scurrying among the various military departments, taking such steps as he might to retain those officers whose services he was loathe to lose. It was not long before he came to Captain Maillart, who sulked in his quarters in a fog of gloom, expecting his own deportation hourly.
      "Now hear me out before you answer--" Laveaux took a bundle of paper from his coat and strummed it against his opposite palm. "I have here a commission transferring you to a regiment under Rochambeau....."
      Maillart sat up in his chair with a start. He saw it once that this could be the salvaging of his career, for he did not doubt that in France all the officers of the Regiment Le Cap were likely to be ignominiously dismissed from service.
      "Will I serve under colored officers?" Maillart said.
      "Eventually, perhaps...." Laveaux said, then changed his mind. "Yes, undoubtedly you will. And you will do it honorably."
      Maillart lowered his eyes and chewed on a fingernail.
      "Should you accept this new commission," Laveaux said. "I have also papers for a six week furlough-- long overdue in your case. It will allow you time for reflection. Now I can scarce give you more than a day. You know the situation. But I trust you, Maillart. Never once have I doubted your loyalty. You are a good officer and I refuse to let all my good officers be swallowed up by these political disturbances. Tomorrow I must return for your decision."
      He turned and made to leave the room. Maillart stood up.
      "I accept," he blurted. "I accept the commission."
      Laveaux back and nodded. "Good," he said. "I hoped you would."
      "With thanks," Maillart said.
      Laveaux smiled slightly, his hand upon the doorknob. He opened the door and put a foot through it.
      "Colonel," Maillart said. Laveaux turned back, raising an eyebrow.
      "Have you not trusted me too easily?" Maillart said. "Is not your confidence too great?"
      "I can't say," Laveaux said. "I don't think so. I do not believe so. I think you will be moved to justify whatever confidence is reposed in you." And he went out into the stony barracks yard before Maillart could think of another word to hold him back.

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