It took them some little while to pass, and the white men waited a half hour more when they had gone, before they led their horses cautiously down to the trail. While they were waiting, the captain watched the doctor sighting down his rifle barrel and felt strangely reassured by his proximity. When they proceeded, he was riding next in line to the doctor and on impulse he called ahead to him.
"Antoine? How did you ever make that shot?"
"Your hat?" the doctor peered briefly back over his shoulder, his smile unsure. "I couldn't tell you. Only, I look, I see where it is, and then...." His voice died.
Within the hour they had come to the place where the vultures were turning but down the defile there was only the carcass of a long-horned cow who must have strayed there, already mostly devoured or decayed, the bones whitely showing through the rotten hide.
They passed. Next day they crossed a corner of the plain as speedily as they were able, disliking the exposure when their strength was so slight, and swiftly began ascending the pass that led to Ennery. They were some two miles short of the height when they saw a pack train coming down toward them. Twenty-odd mules snaking their way along the twists of the trail with a half a dozen slaves to guide them. When they had joined, the doctor realized he knew one of the slaves, a big docile Ibo from Habitation Thibodet, though the name for the moment escaped him. The Ibo recognized him too, and greeted him with fawning obeisances.
"Azor," The name dropped automatically from the doctor's tongue, after all. "Where are you bound and what is your cargo?" While Azor explained that it was Mister Browne who'd dispatched the mule train toward Le Cap, Arnaud was turning up the covers on the packs.
"Sugar, good sugar," he exclaimed, and winked at the doctor. "Of course it is only the brûn, but still, with my own crop in ashes, I would not quarrel with your fortunes."
The doctor drew a pace away from the Ibo muleteer, frowning as he fingered Crozac's letter, which he'd half forgotten, through the fabric of his shirt.
"What's the trouble?" the captain said.
"Nothing," said the doctor. "Well, it might be that something is awry."
"We can always turn them back," the captain said. "Perhaps it's best, the way is dangerous."
"No," the doctor said decidedly. "Let them go on." He chuckled to himself. "If they do make their way, M. Bourgois will be much amazed to see us meeting our deliveries...." He led his horse up off the trail and the other white men followed suit, to let the mules go by.
Toward sundown of that day they came down out of the jungle through the terraces of coffee trees that were the outlying cultivation of Habitation Thibodet. They crossed the irrigation trenches and rode alongside the bristly green carrés of cane. As they filed through the quarters, the gérant Delsart came out the door of a cabin, buttoning up his pants. When he looked up and saw the doctor at the head of the troop he staggered back as though it were a ghost, just catching himself on the cabin's wattled wall.
They rode down to the stables and there the doctor dismounted and scared up a couple of grooms to see to their horses. It did seem after all that many of the Thibodet slaves had remained on the plantation.... While they were so occupied, Philip Browne appeared on the gallery of the grand'case and stood staring across at them.
"Would you say he looked a trifle ill at ease?" the doctor whispered to the captain.
"Vraiment," the captain said. "I'd expect him to look so if it were a band of marauders just arriving." As he spoke, Browne turned and went hurriedly into the house.
The doctor swung his saddlebags up over his shoulder and went after him. The porch bowed and groaned under his feet... long in need of a shoring up. He stepped into the dusky outer room, blinking. The musty interior space was all striped by bars of reddish sunset light admitted through the palmiste strips of the jalousies. The doctor blinked and turned about. The calico cat startled him by appearing out of the shadows to curve and purr against his shins. Atop a tall chest, a fancy clock ticked mutedly, the disc of its pendulum sweeping between four twisted brass columns that supported the works, like a balduccino covering a cathedral altar.
Through the rear door there came a scurrying sound. The cat pulled away from the doctor's boots and loped after it. The doctor proceeded in the same direction, his footfalls dampened by a runner of carpet. Thibodet's house was scarcely a mansion but its appointments had a greater air of permanence than those of many creole residences. Elise had brought some of the carpets and furniture out from France with her trousseau; the carpet which the doctor stalked along had once lined a hallway of their house in Lyons.
He stood within the doorframe of the master's chamber. The great carved bed where Thibodet had died was all in disarray and at its foot Philip Browne was stooped over, hastily stuffing clothes into a bag.
"Ah, Mister Browne," the doctor said. "I thought you had not recognized me?"
"Forgive me," Browne said. "This untidiness...." He swept his hand around the room, spreading his lips in a weak sickly smile. "With the disorders, you understand, we are no longer well-served here...."
"Think nothing of it," the doctor said. "I shall make use of some other room, at all event, against the return of this one's rightful occupant."
He swung out of the doorway, then turned back.
"Oh yes, I have a letter for you." He removed Crozac's letter from his pocket, flexing its folds so that the paper formed a tube, and peered through it one-eyed like a man looking through a spyglass. In the frame of the paper circle, he saw Browne flinch. He let the letter snap back to its original flatness, handed it over, and walked down the narrow passage to the smaller room beyond the next partition.
It was not so different from his room at Arnaud's, or a spare room at any other grand'case in the colony. As the single window was quite small and faced away from the sunset glow, it was rather dark inside. The bed was a low wooden frame strung with rope to support the mattress. The doctor dropped his saddlebags in a corner, divested himself of all but one of his pistols, and turned to hang his duster on the accustomed peg. Here he'd lain night after night, pondering the disappearance of his sister and listening to Thibodet's delirious ravings as they floated over the top of the partition, wondering if he'd desire to cure this man of his disease, supposing it had lain in his power to do so.
He went back out onto the gallery. Browne was just ahead of him, hastening down the steps with his sack of clothing slung over his back. Crozac's letter protruded from a blackbound ledger he held clamped under one arm. Maillart, Vaublanc, Arnaud and Grandmont had seated themselves in chairs on the gallery and were watching Browne's departure speculatively.
"That rascally little Englishman looks shiftier than a rat," Maillart pronounced.
Before the doctor could reply, Delsart came up hurriedly and swept off his hat to make a low bow. As he straightened, the doctor observed that his handsome, rather swarthy features were marred by several venereal sores.
"There will be eight to dine and pass the night," the doctor said. "Have we hands enough to manage that?"
"Without a doubt," Delsart said. "I shall give the orders now." He struck out briskly for the outbuilding housing the kitchen, only staggering slightly from his visible drunkenness.
"Come," the doctor said, turning to Maillart. "Let us investigate the rat-hole."
Browne had lit a lamp in his small brick room in back of the cane mill, and when the doctor and Captain Maillart came in he was just unlocking the chest that held the other record books. As the two men opened the door, Browne hastily moved to fold up Crozac's letter, which lay open near the lamp, and slip it back between the leaves of the black ledger.
"You seem to shun us, Mister Browne," said the doctor. "Yet we are curious to know the circumstances of your journey here-- after our last parting, we had believed you dead."
"Perhaps I thought the same of you," Browne said hesitantly.
"That seems more than likely," said the doctor. "Tell me, were you greatly grieved?"
Browne did not answer. The doctor moved around the small square table, toward the stack of ledgers.
"I believe I should take this opportunity to examine the books," he said. When Browne reached for the ledger with the letter in it, Doctor H‚bert shifted it out of his reach.
"Don't trouble yourself," he said, removing the key to the chest from Browne's limp fingers. "In fact, you may leave us. I'm sure I will find everything... self-explanatory."
When Browne had reluctantly gone out, the doctor took the seat that he had occupied and read Crozac's letter once through quickly. He'd been surprised to find the farrier was as half-literate as this, although perhaps he might have hired some scribe.
BRON I HOPE YOU GO PROSPRUS AT TIBODEY. SUGAR ARE COFEE YOU MUST SEND NOW. WHAT THERE IS WITHOUT WAIT FOR MORE TO PRIPAR. A SHIP WILL ARRANGE NOW BUT SOON IS WAR AND THE BLOCAD. SO DONNOT WAST TIME. I AM SICK NOW AND HAVING NEED OF MONNEE.
The document was signed with a dragging crossmark, so perhaps Crozac had hired it written, after all. The doctor passed the paper silently to the captain, who bent down toward the lamp to read.
"But this is simple thievery," Maillart said after a moment. "Your Mister Browne ought simply to be shot."
"I suppose I might regret his company however-- such as it is," the doctor said. "I shall be solitary here, when you have gone."
"You are quite determined to remain here all alone?"
"Oh, I shall be well enough, with Browne and Delsart for companionship," the doctor smiled ironically. "Besides, it is quite remarkable that they have managed to produce anything at all of late, for whomever's benefit. It may need some little time to arrive at the bottom of the whole affair. Meanwhile, you will easily overtake that pack train on your way back to Le Cap-- if the rebels have not broken it up already. If only you assure that the goods are steered away from Crozac and into the house of M. Bourgois, there will have been no damage done at all."
"Depend upon it," the captain said.
"I will not," said Doctor Hébert. "If there is trouble on the road, look to yourself and the others with you-- I would not have you risk your life for a few sacks of sugar."
The moon was fat and sleek that night, only one day short of the full. It rose early, large and yellow, and whitened and shrank as it climbed the sky. During the moonrise the white men dined inside the house, drank a decent amount of brandy, and went early to bed, as all were fatigued from their days of hard riding.
Propped up on his low bed with his back against the wall, Doctor Hébert flipped through Browne's ledgers by the light of his candle. Somewhat to his surprise, the book in which Crozac's letter had been stuck turned out to be not a financial record but some sort of personal diary. Browne's writing was spidery but well formed, his black ink watery on the yellowing pages. The doctor turned back, looking for references to Crozac, then forward to the entry for the day. It seemed that Browne was faithful to his journal on a daily basis, though there were gaps where interruptions must have prevented him.
This day the mules set out for Le Cap, loaded with the fruit of all the labor I can muster-- how many hazards must they pass before they come to port? I dare not pin much hope upon it, nor spend much trust upon our factors in the town, and yet I hope, unreasoning.
The doctor smiled a little at Browne's pretensions. It was fine language for a petty thief, embezzler. Perhaps the perfect stylization of his sentiments masked his intentions as well as any set of crooked figures could. Or was it that Browne believed himself to be the character this book suggested?
Last night I dreamed of my son Robert, but he was a child no longer, he had come to man's estate and was disembarking on the quai here, at Le Cap. It seemed to me that he was captain of a slaver come from Ouidah and this was strange to me for even in my dream I had not known it. There was the usual smell of ordure and disease. Down the gangway my son was leading my dear wife behind the hand, but she was some years younger, looking much as she looked the day that we were wed, and even dressed, as I believe, in some of her bridal finery. Nothing unhappy in these images, but I woke with a chill upon my heart, and though it was far too early to arise, I could not sleep again in all the hours intervening until dawn. Now what might such a dream portend? --I cannot fathom it....
The doctor let the book fall shut, and closed his eyes, but his mind was still too busy for repose. After a little time he got up and carried the candle into the master's room. A maid had cleared away all signs of Browne's usurpment; the floor was swept and the bed freshly changed. The doctor pulled open the big mahogany wardrobe and fanned his hands across Elise's dresses which hung there. Many of them were expensive, but they had not been aired for a long time and the damp had somewhat damaged them; a few were stained with mildew. Some he recognized from France, but most were new. Unlike Elise to abandon it all here. The wardrobe door drifted from his hand; he clicked it shut.
In the main room, some brandy still remained in the bottle. Delsart, and perhaps Browne as well, had run very heavily into Thibodet's stock, but the supply had been large to begin with, so there was still a reasonable amount in store. The doctor took the bottle by the neck, then changed his mind. The moon shone so brightly at the windows that the light of his candle was inconsequential. He snuffed it out and went onto the gallery.
The chairs stood empty along the board floor. It was quite pleasantly cool, and there were no mosquitos just at the moment. Under the brilliant moonlight, the doctor walked down through the quarters and beyond. The wind drifted caressingly through the cane, the long leaves whispering together. This rustle receded as the doctor began to climb the terraces of coffee trees.
The stiffness of the ride was loosening from him; he felt cheerful and alert. It must have been Browne's diary that had disturbed him earlier, so dissonant with his image of the man. But now it seemed of little moment.
Where the coffee trees ended and the jungle climbed uninterrupted over the mountain, he stopped also. Habitation Thibodet was spread before him like a pale shawl in the moonlight, which silvered the irrigation ditches that marked out the carrees of green cane. No human light shone from any building, but in the quarters a woman's low voice rose to sing a mournful tune in some African tongue. The doctor wondered passingly if it was some infant she was soothing, or if she sang to please herself, for her own comfort. At his back the jungle insects had composed a wall of sound. If he had chosen, the doctor thought, he might have gone further into that warm wet darkness, with small fear. So much at his ease he was, he had not even troubled to bring along a pistol-- though it was strange, for this wild place had seemed pregnant with menace when he'd first come here months before, and certainly it was no safer now.