"Will I teach you to turn your coat?" Isabel Cigny's voice was low, light, a little husky; her small white teeth were near enough the captain's ear to bite. He felt her breath against the lobe. It was not the first time she had brought him to the secret room, but it was still a novelty; his throat was yet so swollen with excitement that he could not answer her.
On a small table in the corner, an oil lamp glowed like a ruby within its red glass shade. In the swimming red light she shucked him out of his uniform tunic as easily as peeling a banana, and slid his trousers down the lean poles of his legs. Her deft fingers worked in the crisp black hair of his belly. In a moment she had laid him stiff and bare on a soft mound of carpets in the middle of the floor. Her skirts swung up and over him like a bell and then she settled, nestling, almost like a hen. He smiled at the thought. Then they were joined.
Her long skirts shrouded their point of union; her bare heels locked under his knees and drew them up. Waist-up, she was tidily arranged as for reception in her parlor, only for the mottled flush spreading across her deepdécolletage and rising on her throat. Her eyes were half-lidded, there was a hint of hurry in her breathing. Captain Maillart felt a deep desire to work some change in her composure. With certain more assertive movements he was able to move her face into a pinch, a sort of frown, shadowed by the clouds of troubling thoughts, as it appeared. Her mouth twisted; her hand clawed through the fringes of a shawl spread where they lay, long nails driving back into her palm. The captain thought he was shouting at her, perhaps, he could not well hear. Waves of red light from the lamp washed over them like blood. She rode him to a gentler, rocking stroke, and her face gentled, mouth softening as her lips were parted in a sighing ring.
At the end, she slumped over him, holding herself up by her elbows. A strand of pinkish coral beads swung down toward his nose. He raised his head to kiss the cleft between her breasts, but smilingly she turned his chin away. From some distant recess of the house came the muted sound of a small child crying. Abruptly she swung her leg clear of him and sat upon a divan, pinning up a loose tendril at the back of her hair. Her skirts had fallen into perfect order around her when she stood. The captain sat up, a little dizzied by his movement. He was sticky and hollow as an empty unwashed bowl. On either side of him lay one of a pair of beaded white satin slippers, improbably delicate and frail. He picked them up and, naked still, knelt down to slip them onto her feet. She smiled at him absently then. Without, the street door opened and closed.
"You must hurry," she said carelessly, and left him in the secret room.
It was the first word to pass her lips, after their congress. The door closed softly on her back. Maillart picked up his uniform coat-- true enough it was of a different design, since he'd accepted the commission Laveaux had arranged for him. He dressed, and extinguished the lamp before leaving.
Doctor Hébert had not been long waiting in the parlor when Madame Cigny came in, carrying Heloise on her hip, with Robert at her heels, trailed by his black nurse. She offered him her free hand and he bowed and murmured over it. Robert picked up a gilt- stamped leather book from the sofa and flung it on the floor. With a crafty look around the room he picked it up and made to throw it further. The nurse, his slave, looked pained, but would not interfere with him before his mother. Pascal, slouching in an armchair, had preceded the doctor on this call, and had evidently been waiting for some time; he regarded the scene with a faintly ironic air of detachment.
"Well, stop him, someone." Isabel set down the smaller child. "Must I do everything myself?" she trilled, flashing her inconsequent smile. With a pretty movement, a flirt of her hem, she bent to pry the book from her son's chubby fingers. Heloise, meanwhile, pulled herself by the edge of a low table, oversetting a glass of wine which splashed purply all over the front of her white dress.
"Well, take them out then," Madame Cigny cooed at the nurse. "Change that dress- - and see that it's cleaned immediately." Her face impassive, the black woman led the children out. As they left the room, Captain Maillart came in.
"Well, you are going then," said Madame Cigny to the doctor. "Again you are going." She looked at the captain. "So I am told."
"O, I shall not be long from your side." Maillart regarded her with something close to open astonishment. How could she have come to this room ahead of him? Fresh as she seemed, she must still be fragrant from their late encounter.... He glanced at her slim hand-- yes, the palm was still indented with faint nail marks. The captain noticed that Pascal had fixed on him a hostile stare. He grinned at him pleasantly, twirled his mustache, and sat down on the sofa.
"One may venture to hope that this sally will be more successful than your last," said Isabel, balancing herself winningly on the edge of a chair.
"After all," the captain said serenely, "we did return to tell the tale."
"But of course," cried Madame Cigny. "A pity that the girl you were protecting could not share in that good fortune."
The captain colored and emitted a cough.
"Eh bien, she was too good for this world, your Celeste," said Madame Cigny. "Or perhaps she was simply too stupid." She turned smilingly upon the doctor. "And your mission will be the same as before?"
The doctor laughed. "To learn if on a third essay I may at last discover Ennery. I have hopes that my sister may have returned to Habitation Thibodet."
"Your hopes are grounded?"
"Cher Madame, they are without a clear foundation," said the doctor. "Like so many human hopes."
They left the town in an early morning, eight men well mounted and heavily armed: the doctor, Maillart, a lieutenant named Vaublanc who'd also survived the purge of the Regiment Le Cap, Arnaud, Grandmont, and three other creole militiamen. The creoles, since they were white, whiled away the first hours of the journey with bitter and sarcastic commentary on the rise to power of Choufleur and Villatte in the town, and the general ascendancy that les gens de couleur seemed to have obtained over Sonthonax and the commission. The captain held himself aloof from this discussion, and the doctor too kept silence.
On the far slopes of Morne du Cap they dismounted to take their noon repast. They sat crosslegged on stones or stumps, under the cover of the jungle leaves, chewing on chicken legs and cold sweet potatoes, drinking a little red wine from the skins they carried with them. All during the morning it had been fitfully raining, but it was clearing now, though a few drops still pattered on the leaf canopy. A fringe of cottony gray cloud trailed away over the peaks of the southwestern range of mountains, and as the cloud mass parted some shafts of sun leaked through to gild the green of the trees.
Doctor Hébert wored the long duster in which he almost always rode; he'd also acquired a broad-brimmed hat, against the constant rain. Together the two outsized garments seemed to dwarf him. Meticulously he checked the priming of the two pistols he carried in his belt and of the rifled long gun which was fitted into a scabbard on his saddle skirt, while the others were preparing to remount. Captain Maillart chuckled audibly to see his concentration. The doctor looked up, alert and inquisitive.
"What is it?"
"Nothing. Only-- you seem so piratical, in that garb, with all your weaponry."
The doctor shrugged, and looked at his shoes. "It's only practical."
"Hah," said the captain. "What could you hit with it?"
"Whatever you like," Arnaud said, from the far side of his horse, whose girth he'd been tightening. He spoke before the doctor could respond. "And that I'll wager."
"Oh, let it pass," said Captain Maillart, a little irritably.
"But I am serious," Arnaud said, coming around his horse's head. "Throw up your hat."
"My hat?" Captain Maillart said. "Throw up your own."
"I will if you will fire at it," Arnaud said. "I should be safe enough." He grinned, and held up a gold piece between his thumb and forefinger. "This says our man of science will be the better marksman."
Maillart reddened and dug into his pocket.
"Excellent," said Arnaud. "I knew you for a sportsman. Grandmont will hold the stakes." He passed the coins to Grandmont, who rattled them in his loosely curled fingers, showing his brown snaggle teeth in a sort of smile. Two of the other militiamen came up to him to negotiate a side bet. Arnaud took off his hat and turned the brim through his thumb and forefinger.
"How, with a pistol?" the captain said irritably. "But it is absurd."
"Mais bien sûr," Arnaud said. "Hold your pistol down, just so. When I have thrown it, take your aim and shoot." Arnaud stepped out of cover onto the trail, swinging his hat at knee level. Rain had begun lowering again, fine as mist, stippling the captain's cheeks as he followed Arnaud into the open, holding his dragoon's pistol barrel-down across his hip.
"Vous êtes prête?" Arnaud said.
The captain nodded. Arnaud flung his hat straight up above him and took a quick step back. The hat rotated smoothly, etched black against the dull overhanging mass of cloud. The captain tracked it, like a fowl, right hand braced over his left wrist. It did not fall so quickly as all that, and yet he knew that he would miss before he pulled the trigger.
Arnaud stepped briskly down the trail and retrieved the hat unharmed. "And now for the good doctor," he said, returning.
Doctor Hébert stepped onto the trail, fidgeting with the flashpan of his pistol, his lips pursed. Sighing, the captain took of his cap and fingered the bill. He was facing the doctor, twenty paces up the slope of the trail, as if they were preparing for a duel. "All right, Antoine?" the captain said.
The doctor stood with his pistol hanging down; the overlong sleeve of his dustcoat covered his fingers on the grip. He looked up anxiously.
The captain flung his cap aloft. It turned unevenly, because of the bill, with a sort of fluttering movement. But Maillart's eye was on the doctor. He saw the other's thickish wrist thrust out of the dustcoat sleeve, hand rocksteady on the pistol grip. The clouds parted overhead and a sudden flood of sunshine made the captain blink. He had just time to draw a breath while the powder burned in the flashpan, before the ball discharged. A gasp came from the men around him, then a shout of approbation. The captain's hat dropped in a stunned curve through the mist-glittering sunshine and caught on a bush twenty-five yards down the gorge from the trail, above a twittering run-off stream.
The captain tapped his boot toe restively. "All this useless shooting may well attract the brigands."
"Come, don't be churlish," Arnaud said, collecting his winning from Grandmont. "It was a fair contest, was it not?"
"Of course," the captain said. "Well shot." He approached the doctor and shook his hand, squinting disbelievingly into his face as he tightened his grip. Then he stepped to the edge of the trail and stared glumly down to where his hat hung on the bush.
"I'll get it for you," the doctor said, embarrassed.
"No, no...." Maillart scrambled down. The damp foliage wet him to the hip as he waded through it. The hat had been shot clean through front to back. The char-rimmed hole at the front would just accommodate his forefinger; at the back, the felt had been blown out in a tripartite tear. The captain put his hat on and adjusted it. On the trail the other men were laughing at him, but in spite of this he grinned as he looked up. The doctor had not joined in the laughter, but stood recharging his pistol with an uncertain fastidiousness as if he'd seldom done that task before.
They mounted and rode on until dark and passed that night in an old provision ground a hundred yards above the trail. The planting was untended and had all been dug over by looters so they found no provender there excepting a half-rotted stalk of bananas sprung up from a runner shoot. They ate some dried meat they carried with them with bananas roasted in their skins and afterward slept propped up on their saddles, always keeping two men on watch. In the morning they saddled their horses and went on.
The day was luminously clear, the sun bright and warm upon their backs once the mist had parted, so that they sweated in their raingear. Ahead of them the involutions of the mountains, carpeted smoothly over with green jungle, went on and on like folds of a crumpled fabric. In the forenoon, as they passed in single file along an exposed and rocky outward bend of the trail, they came in view of an enormous throng of brigand blacks on the plain below-- the rebels noticed them soon enough, and set up a great shout and stir, seeing their numbers were so few. A shiver ran over the doctor then, though the blacks were more than a mile distant down the mountain, and could not possibly overtake them on that difficult terrain.
In the afternoon they came upon flocks of birds and shot a great many and strung them up on their saddle bows. The fresh fowl assured them a warm welcome at the fort of the cordon de l'ouest which they attained before dark. That night they passed around the garrison's fire, talking to the soldiers. The latest news from Ennery was that all continued peacefully there, though the news was not so recent. In the morning they rose and went on at first light.
In the midafternoon of that day Grandmont spotted carrion birds circling over a rocky defile of the mountains about a mile ahead. He pulled his horse abreast of the captain's and requested a halt. Maillart resisted at first-- vultures were no uncommon sight in these parts, these days-- but something about Grandmont's odd conviction finally swayed him.
They drew their horses up above the trail and took positions behind a ragged line of boulders overgrown with fern. There they waited, fifteen minutes, twenty. The captain's watch ticked in his pocket. There was no talk, but the exchange of fretful glances. The doctor had laid his rifle across a stone, and crouched behind it, aiming at leaves on the trail. The blacks, being barefoot, made no sound when they came up, but seemed to have materialized from nothing beyond the forward bead of his gunsight. There were four of them, dressed in breechclouts or ragged field trousers and all with muskets of the same make. Their leader was a big Congolese with broad flat nostrils, and pockmarks all over his face that doctor thought must have come from a bout with la petite verole. He stopped the others and sniffed slowly, a luxurious inhalation, turning his head in a slow contemplative curve, eyelids lowered so that only the whites showed. Feeling the force of his attention, the white men all held their breath.
Arnaud wanted to gun them down at once, but Grandmont and the captain held him back; it was well that they did so, because ten minutes after the advance scouts had passed along the trail, the main body came up. The leader, who was also marked with smallpox scars, rode horseback, and from his saddle horn hung by their hair a number of bloody desiccated severed human heads, flies buzzing eagerly around them. The doctor wondered how the horse would tolerate the stench of rot. The men who marched in a regular column behind their mounted chieftain all carried muskets and their bare chests were crossed with bandoliers and there looked to be more than a hundred of them.