"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1995


      The night was thickened by the clouds circling the ring of hills that shelved in Habitation Thibodet, and toward dawn it rained but only a little. Lying in the sag of his roped bed, Doctor Hébert was vaguely aware of the thickening of raindrops on the roof, as he drowsed between consciousness and dream. The light sound lulled him and he slept more deeply. When he woke again it was good daylight and the housemaid Zabeth was setting a tray with coffee on the floor beside the bed, turning her shy smile from him as she did so.
      The doctor dressed, taking sips of coffee from the demitasse. On the gallery, Zabeth served him another cup, some bread and a jam made of mango. The doctor peeled a banana and ate half of it. Presently Delsart joined him and without speaking helped himself to coffee.
      A mass of rain cloud crawled easterly over the hills like a great gray caterpillar, toward the peaks of Cibao mountains, which were sheathed in a pale fog. To the west, the sun had shot the dissipating vapors with white light. The doctor finished his banana and folded the peel on his plate.
      "Comment allez-vous aujour d'hui?" he inquired of Delsart.
      "Pas mal, pas mal...." In fact it did appear that the gérant's health had taken a turn for the better. The sores on his face had healed to pinkish patches of new skin. The doctor had him under a mercury treatment for the pox, and had frightened him away from the quarters by telling him that if he did not altogether abstain from venery, an amputation would certainly be necessary to save his life. He had also contrived to limit Delsart to a pint of tafia a day. If altogether deprived of rum, the gérant began to hallucinate and turned completely useless.
      "You'll go to the coffee again today?"
      "Ouais, bien sûr," Delsart said. He brushed a crumb from his cheek and stood up, reaching for his tattered hat. The doctor got up also. As if their rising had been his signal, Philip Browne materialized from the direction of the cane mill and approached the breakfast table. The doctor passed him with a nod and walked down the path to the infirmary.
      This building he had caused to be erected as soon as Maillart's party had left the plantation, overriding Delsart's complaints about the loss of main d'oeuvre. Delsart had maintained that the institution of a hospital would only lead to more malingering, but in fact, the opposite seemed to hold: after a few days of treatment and recuperation, the ill or injured performed much better than before, and the morale of the whole atelier seemed boosted. Besides, the infirmary was far from luxurious, nothing more than a rectangular shelter built on the model of the slave cabins, but about three times their size. One wall had been left open to the air, with palmiste blinds that could be lowered in case of a blowing rain.
      Today, the blinds were rolled up to the eaves. The doctor had ordered the making of six rope beds similar to the one he used in the grand'case, but only two of them were occupied at present. At least two other women, erstwhile inamorata of Delsart, were sick with the pox, but the doctor could spare no mercury for them. Delsart was too essential; he'd have been helpless in the management of the plantation without the gérant's aid. Unfortunately, Toussaint's repertory as a docteur feuilles had included no specifics for venereal diseases.
      He first approached the bed of Drouet, a twenty-year-old Senegalese with a pair of nasty puncture wounds, one in the forearm and the other in his calf. Drouet had a tale of being knocked over and slashed by a boar in the jungle, but the doctor did not much credit it. He had learned the difference between knife wounds and tusk wounds, and he thought Drouet's injuries more likely came from a fight, though he saw no use in prosecuting the matter.
      He changed Drouet's leg bandage and applied a fresh poultice of herbs. While he was so engaged, Zabeth came from the kitchen shed and served the tisane he had ordered for the other patient, Petit-Catherine, an elderly slave who was sick with the grippe. When the old woman had received her bowl, the doctor beckoned Zabeth over and watched as she redressed Drouet's arm wound, nodding approvingly as he stroked his short beard to its point. He was pleased with Zabeth; the girl was quick and clean and gentle, and she had talent as a nurse.
      A wind was blowing pleasantly from the west and by the time the doctor left the infirmary, the sky had cleared all around the horizon so that the jungled peaks of the eastern mountains were sharply etched against the bluing sky. Already it was beginning to be hot, but the breeze cooled the sweat that sprang on him as he proceeded. He walked through the carrés of cane, untended for the moment, and climbed the terraces of coffee trees toward the edge of the jungle.
      The atelier had started on the highest terrace and the slaves were picking their way down. It was much easier work than cane, so today the singing was spontaneous. Delsart had not even bothered to carry a whip up the hill. The doctor exchanged a word or two with him. He selected a red pod from the basket of the slave Politte, cut the husk with his thumb and peeled it back. The coffee taste was fresh and lively in the opaque jelly stuff surrounding the seed, when he popped the bean into his mouth. There was something he heard though, a beat behind the singing. The doctor made a cutting motion and Delsart called out for the singers to cease.
      In the decline of the gérant's voice, the doctor slowly turned his head from side to side, straining his ears, but there was nothing, only the sigh of the western breeze. Delsart looked at him curiously. The small oval leaves of the coffee trees fanned back, then righted themselves as the wind relaxed them.
      "C'etait rien," the doctor said, blinking his reply to Delsart's shrug. The slaves took up their song again as the doctor walked back down the hill.
      He crossed the main compound and entered the cane mill. Browne was in charge of two slaves who were cleaning and repairing the refinery gear, which had been left in sticky disarray since the last pressing. They were also supposed to go over the equipment necessary for the refinement of white sugar. Doctor Hébert had insisted that Delsart teach him this process, though in truth they were now too short-handed to work both cane and coffee simultaneously. Habitation Thibodet had fared much better than most plantations of the north, but many of the slaves had run away, if not murdered or abducted, so that they now commanded only two thirds of the original work force.
      The poles of the disused moulin á  bêtes swung down from the central turn-peg. A slave, Barthelmy, was scrubbing the interlocked grooves of the cane press cylinders with a stiff brush. Browne was on the far side of the cane press, a funnel of dust motes rising between him and the doctor, who could not make out just what the Englishman was doing.
      "Ça va?" the doctor called.
      Browne evinced his usual guilty start. "Oui, ça va," he said as he recovered himself.
      Doctor Hébert advised him that he would return by midafternoon, without mentioning where he intended to go. He went to the stable, saddled his horse, and rode out on the cattle trail behind the main compound. In a scabbard by his knee he carried a big coutelas which he used to chop the overgrowth from the path-- weekly the jungle tried to take it back. Every so often he stopped to gather useful herbs. Allowing for these pauses, it took him nearly two hours to reach the area where the sheep were foraging.
      Again in despite of Delsart's protest, the doctor had diverted two slaves in their prime, Coffy and Jean-Simon, to serve as shepherds-- that because he was quite distressed over the drastic diminution of the flock over the months that he'd been absent, since Thibodet had died. But today, no more of the sheep had been lost, and three new lambs were safely born.
      Coffy and Jean-Simon seemed very glad to see him. He had brought them food, manioc flour and some dried peas that they could boil. But Coffy, especially, seemed distinctly ill at ease. He asked the doctor if he had brought his pistol. The doctor said that he had not.
      He thought no more of this matter until, partway down the trail, he heard the drumming start again. It was faint and very distant, but unmistakeable-- no longer to be dismissed as an illusion, as he had done among the coffee trees. He thought for a moment, then doubled back on the trail and returned to his pair of herdsmen.
      "Why didn't you tell me?" His tone was sharp. Coffy rested his stave on the ground and looked down at the dirt between his bare toes.
      "How long since it began?"
      "Only since this morning," Jean-Simon muttered.
      The doctor cocked his head again. He did not understand much about the drums, but this sound seemed fuller-throated, deeper, more like the drums of Biassou's followers than the harsh dry rattling beat he had heard coming out of Jeannot's camp once upon a time. Ought that to be a reassurance?
      "We had better bring the sheep back into the corral," he decided.
      Jean-Simon and Coffy both looked visibly relieved. The doctor stayed to see them organize, but Jean-Simon had been training a little dog to drive the sheep, so they didn't seem to require his help. Only each must carry one of the newborn lambs in his arms, because they were too small to make the pace. The doctor took the third lamb over his saddlebow and preceded the others down the trail.
      As he rode, the drumming became less distinct behind him and by the time he reached the main compound he could no longer hear it at all. Going at a faster pace, he had arrived well in advance of the herdsmen and the few remaining sheep. It seemed useless to raise any alarm, but he could not quite think what to do. All was quiet in the compound now, with the work party resting in the quarters, waiting out the midday heat. This term of the old Code Noir was one the doctor scrupulously observed, which was one reason he was infinitely more popular with the atelier than Thibodet had been.
      He stabled his horse, and since he did not know what else to do with the new lamb, he carried it with him into the office behind the cane mill. Browne was there, his quill pen scraping over one of the big ledgers, waiting for him, perhaps. The lamb nudged bluntly into the doctor's armpit, hunting the teat. He set it down on the floor, where it balanced on its bunched legs, heavy head swaying.
      "Accounts?" he said to Browne in a jocular tone. "Or is it your autobiography?"
      Browne glanced up with his pale eyes. His hand jittered, scattering blobs of ink across his page. He lowered his glance and busied himself in blotting the fresh stains. The doctor sighed and opened a ledger of his own. Lately he had begun keeping books himself, to compare with Browne's, one for coffee, one for cane, a third for provisions and the livestock. Now he dipped another pen and recorded the new births, two ewe lambs and the little ram who had now drifted into a corner and stood bleating at the join of the walls.
      Browne glanced sidelong at the lamb, as if his concentration were disrupted. It was very hot in the close brick room, although the large shutter had been thrown completely clear of the window.
      "Have you the book for this past summer?" the doctor said. "The record of les bêtes de cornes?"
      Browne pursed his lips together, as if suppressing pain. He went to the chest and dredged up another book. The doctor flipped it open and turned the pages back. Browne's watery handwriting lay in webs across the sheets, tranlucent from his weak diluted ink. Between this book and the doctor's own was some lacuna into which approximately fifty sheep had disappeared. He raised his head, on the point of asking Browne another question, when a woman's voice broke into a crazy ululation somewhere in the quarters.
      The doctor dropped his pen and rushed into the yard. Coffy and Jean-Simon were just coming in, the little dog yapping at the tails of the hot and dusty sheep. At the doctor's sign, the two slaves hushed the barking. At the same time the woman's wailing stopped and in that crisp passage of silence the doctor heard drumming again in the distant hills. Then the woman's voice again took up the cry, her thread of terrorized notes interrupted now by lower hoarser voices which perhaps were trying to calm her. But all was confusion: looking down the trail the doctor saw the whole atelier swarming out of the cabins.
      Delsart was coming around from the rear of the grandcase, rubbing his eyes wearily. Jean-Simon and Coffy stared at the doctor to see what he might do. Doctor H‚bert waved them on to the corral-- they turned from him and began herding the sheep through the gateposts.
      "They're coming!" Browne's voice cracked. He was standing behind the doctor, framed in the door of the mill.
      "Quiet, then," the doctor said. Delsart had just reached him. "It may be nothing," the doctor said to the gérant. "They may well pass us by."
      Delsart frowned and spat to the side. The petals of a bloodshot flower had unfolded on the white of his left eye. "Whether they come or not we had better do something or our blacks will all bolt."
      "To join them?" the doctor said.
      "Not this crew," said Delsart. "These are afraid...."
      "All right," the doctor said. "Get them together and bring them all up to the yard. Women and children, everyone. Break out the cane knives for the men as well." The doctor started for grand'case, then called back over his shoulder. "Bring bean poles too. Bean poles and twine."
      By the time Delsart had marshalled all the slaves into the compound, the doctor had opened the storeroom and taken out the powder and shot and what firearms there were: five rusting pistols (apart from his own) two old smooth-bore muskets, four bird guns and his own rifled piece. He rowed the weapons out on the gallery floor, while Browne looked on in evident stupefaction. The crowd in the yard shuffled and breathed. The doctor straightened, laid a hand on the gallery rail as he drew breath into his tightening chest.
      "There is nothing to fear," he said loudly. "I don't think we will be attacked. If we are," he picked up a musket, "we will be ready."
      He tossed the musket to Delsart, who caught it onehanded, leaning forward to snatch it before it hit the ground. The doctor picked up the second musket and passed it butt-first to Jean-Simon.
      "Only remember," he said, raising his voice another notch. "There is nowhere to run. Here is the safest place for all of you." He lifted his own rifle and thumped the stock on the gallery floorboards. "If we stand fast, they cannot overwhelm us-- they will not even dare to try."
      He turned aside. The slaves were quiet at first, then came the muttering of whispered conversations. Delsart came creaking up the gallery steps.
      "Do you believe that?"
      "No," the doctor said. "I had to tell them something. You'd better start them making cartridges. Jean-Simon and Coffy, they are quick. Have the other men make pikes from the cane knives and the bean poles."
      "Much use those will be," Delsart said. "All the brigands have guns from the Spanish now."
      "Yes," the doctor said. "But it will calm them to have this occupation."
      "They won't stand to fight, you know," Delsart said. "They'll break and run at the first shot."
      The doctor shrugged. "We have guns and powder enough, we may defend the grand'case with only a few."
      "Until they burn us out," Delsart said.
      "Of course," said the doctor. "Perhaps it will not come to that."
      The clock ticked in the shadowed interior of the blinded front room, pendulum winking as it swung between the stripes of daylight. Going along the dim rear corridor, the doctor collided with Zabeth, who plumply recoiled, gasped and rushed into some other room. In his own small chamber, he loaded both his pistols. Browne came in behind him, breathing hard.

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