Isabel Cigny was beyond delicate, she was bone-thin, as frail as a consumptive, though she lacked the consumptive's inwardly gnawed appearance, and her bright animation did not seem feverish to Doctor Hébert's eye. If she stood in the center of her drawing room, twirled to spin out her skirts from the waist in a spiral of silk taffeta, she looked lissome, willowy, though really she had no height. It seemed that one could lift her with one hand, and no doubt there were those who would have liked to try it, for Isabel was a pretty thing, with a weight of dark hair that looked too heavy for her slender neck, and skin whose icy pallor colored quickly whenever she was stirred.She appeared very young, and certainly she must be younger than her husband. The doctor had waited upon Madame Cigny four times running and failed to find her at home, and at last had called upon M. Cigny at his place of business. Cigny was a burly man in his fifties, beginning to run to fat, who wore a bushy untrimmed beard like an apron over his chest. He received the doctor courteously enough, but the mention of Thibodet brought only a black look, and he could tell nothing of Elise beyond acknowledging the acquaintance. Doctor Hébert drew the impression that M. Cigny and his wife moved in fairly separate social circles. At any rate, he had been able to learn at what hours he would most probably find the lady of the house at home.
Two gentlemen were already seated in her parlor when the doctor was admitted. He paid his compliments, which she accepted rather casually, and took a seat at the edge of the room, near a window. A youth dressed in the uniform of the regiment du Cap sat near Madame Cigny, on an ottoman, fixing upon her a doglike concentrated look. He seemed inordinately fascinated by her white stockinged foot, from which she dangled a satin shoe with a blue bow. Each time it looked about to drop, he started forward to retrieve it, but always at the last moment she twitched it back against her sole, so that he sat back crestfallen, under her teasing sidelong glance. Meanwhile she gave more of her attention to the second young man, who sat beside her on the sofa, dressed in the costume of a Paris dandy, cream-colored gilet and striped silk redingote. She was reading, or pretending to read, a book whose latter pages were uncut, and whenever she turned over a packet of sealed leaves she presented it to this gentleman, who with a wriggle and a simper used a paper knife to slit it.
The doctor sat somewhat uncomfortably, both feet flat on the floor, on a chair which was rather too small from him. All the furniture in the room looked as if it had come from France, probably packed in hogsheads of straw, given its fragility. A servant in ornate livery came in and served him coffee. Desultorily he sipped, his glance wandering around the room. The cup he'd been given was eggshell-thin, banded with gold around the rim. He thought that Madame Cigny had forgotten he was there, but presently she tossed aside her book and crossed the room to where he sat. So small she was that he was almost eye to eye with her when she stopped before him. Her eyes were large and luminous, quite dark, and certainly she was very pretty when she smiled.
"Give me your news of Elise," she said brightly.
The doctor cast about for somewhere to lay down his cup and saucer, but there was no table near. "My news," he said. "Well, I had rather hoped to hear something from you."
"Oh, she is naughty," said Isabel Cigny, and tapped him teasingly on the wrist. "She does not write to her brother."
The cup and saucer rattled in the doctor's hand. Madame Cigny signaled the slave to come and remove the utensils.
"I--" The doctor swallowed, looking over at the young officer and the dandy, who were eyeing each other across the abandoned book as if they might dispute its possession. The topic was awkward enough without an audience. Isabel Cigny turned, gaily fanning out her skirt. One of her hands rested on her waist; one of his own might have encircled it.
"Henri, Pascal, do leave us, please," she said.
The dandy hopped to his feet, with an expression that suggested protest, but Madame Cigny raised her voice slightly before he could speak.
"Oh, don't be tiresome," she said, a shade of acerbity in her twitter. "It is not discreet."
The two gentlement made their departure then, and as they passed through the door, the servant returned to serve fresh coffee, then withdrew to stand against the wall, his arms folded across his frogged coat. Madame Cigny took a seat beside the doctor and helped him to some sugar.
"I do not take them seriously, you understand," she said, nodding toward the door. "Only it can be tedious here sometimes. The days are long, and hot of course, as you will surely have noticed."
"It is a beautiful country," said the Doctor, touching a film of sweat from his upper lip with his handkerchief.
"I was educated in France," said Madame Cigny. "After my marriage, we might have remained there for all of me-- you know my husband is not a creole-- but he thought it better to come here so as to look after my interests." She smiled. "And his own, naturally."
The doctor was a little startled by this candor, but perhaps she had noticed his unease, and meant to make him an invitation to confidence. He might as well assume so, it occurred to him.
"I will be frank, madame." With some concentration he avoided looking at the slave who posed against the wall, having learned that the the creole sense of discretion did not extend to blacks. "I have no news of my sister whatsoever, I have not even seen her since I came out from France, I have only lately learned that she has borne a child-- if it is true."
"Oh, the dear little Sophie, yes, she is quite genuine," Madame Cigny said. "I believe they quarreled over that, Elise and that regrettable husband of hers."
"Pardon?" said the doctor. "Did Thibodet wish so badly for a son?"
"Oh, it was not that at all!" Madame Cigny flicked him again on the wrist, got up and strolled away from him, along the row of windows. "No, it was... il lui semblait qu'elle avait une touche de la brosse, la petite-- comme on dirait ici. Since she was so dark when she was born, and both the parents fair."
The doctor watched her back. She turned abruptly and a stream of sunlight flooded her eyes; he saw that they were not black as he had thought, but the deepest blue. She beckoned to the servant, who came over and partially lowered the blinds.
"Of course there was nothing in that," Madame Cigny. "Only that Thibodet was an idiot-- they had other differences, before. I'm sure the child takes after some grandparent. Besides, her hair is good." She seated herself and once more tapped him on the wrist. "Of course one hears the most extraordinary stories. In Paris I knew the wife of a Polish officer who gave birth to a perfect little negro-- she put it down to being startled by a black coachman while she was enceinte." She sparkled at him, then turned to peer through the slats of the blind. "That explanation wouldn't wear well here," she said. "It would become rather too universal, do you not agree? And all our children would be black. But stay, you must meet mine."
She sent the servant out, and presently in came a black nurse, carrying an infant in her arms and leading a little boy along by the hand.
Madame Cigny rushed to take the baby. "Héloise," she said, holding her so that the doctor might see, "et mon petit Robert." She cradled the baby into her bodice and laid her hand on the boy's head. The infant Héloise waved her small pink hands in her mother's face, and Madame Cigny began to croon to her. The doctor stood.
"Why, how handsome they are." He stooped and offered his hand to Robert, who clutched a pleat of his mother's skirt and drew it in front of himself. The doctor peeked at the face of Héloise and realized she could scarcely be three months old.
"They're close in age, your niece and H‚loise," Madame Cigny said, as if she had read his thought. No doubt that she was stronger than she seemed, the doctor mused, and maybe deeper too; she looked as if childbirth would kill her. She gave the infant a series of quick pecking kisses and passed her back to the nurse. Immediately H‚loise began to cry, but the nurse took her to a seat in a corner and hushed her with the breast.
Madame Cigny detached Robert's hand from her skirt and curled herself on the sofa, shifting the book to the table. The doctor lowered himself into a chair adjacent, and she turned to him with a serious look.
"Your sister was a model of fidelity," she said. "Unlike some, and not that her husband much deserved it."
"I dare say he did not."
"I wonder if you know what a creole husband can be," Madame Cigny said thoughtfully. Robert picked up a china figurine from a table and snapped the head off of it. Madame Cigny clucked her tongue at him, but made no further remonstrance. The nurse, who had soothed the baby into a doze, took him by the hand and led him out. "I hardly know what to tell you," Madame Cigny said.
"I thought perhaps she had been here," the doctor said. "That she might have spoken to you."
"Yes, she has been here, but she didn't speak-- I mean, nothing of moment." Madame Cigny touched a finger to her lips. "That would have been a couple of months ago. Yes, and I wondered that she would be traveling with the baby so small...." She colored, charmingly. "Of course Héloise was very new-- I fear I was distracted."
"C'est tout à fait naturel," the doctor said.
"We have been great friends, your sister and I," said Madame Cigny. "But she might have chosen to tell me nothing, if she did have intentions. Then I would have nothing to tell Thibodet if he came inquiring. But I believed she was returning to him when she left here."
"Anything that you could tell me would be useful," the doctor said. "I know so little of her pastimes, her acquaintance."
"She does have one particular friend, or did," said Madame Cigny. "Xavier... oh, I don't know him well myself. Xavier Tocquet, yes, I believe. I'm told he has a little coffee plantation somewhere, and he imports cattle from the Spanish side. It may be that he owns property in Santo Domingo."
"Indeed," said the doctor.
"Après tout, she is a widow now," said Madame Cigny. "If she knew that her husband were dead she might well return. Of course you must take care to insert a notice in the Spanish papers, and in the Windward Isles too. I'm certain that it all can be retrieved with little damage. A reputation is less easily destroyed here than in Europe."
The doctor inhaled, then sighed out rather forcefully. "You reassure me," he said. "I will certainly follow your suggestions." He uttered a few pleasantries about the Cigny children, and stood up.
"You'll give Elise my love when you see her," Madame Cigny said, rising in her turn. "Let her know that she is welcome here, as always." The doctor bowed over her hand and went out.
Outdoors he was disoriented by the light and heat, and in any case he had no plan. He had forgotten to ask for Tocquet's address, and he didn't like to go back for it so soon. Perhaps Bourgois would know the man. He recalled having heard somewhere that the creole model of fidelity was to limit oneself to a single lover at a time. Mulling this over, he found himself carried along in a thickening stream of people, blacks and mulattoes mostly, washing along toward the Place de Clugny and into the midst of le marché des nègres.
He had not imagined such a crowd, the largest assembly of any people, black or white, he'd yet seen in the colony. There must literally have been thousands of them packed into the square, mostly dressed for festival, and all chattering frantically in creole. The doctor was learning to make out some words of the patois, but here the voices merged in a single roar. Still, if he let his attention lapse, the choir was close to musical, and certainly it prevented him from concentrating on his worries. He let the shiftings of the crowd carry him around at random. Soon he was shuffled up against the butcher's booths. The meat was wrapped in netting to keep off flies, but nevertheless the smell was strong, and the doctor fought his way a little further, along the west side of the square, amongst the vendors of live poultry. Here a speckled cock and a red one were managing to fight, despite the string that tied their legs together. Some women had formed a half-circle around them and were pointing and shouting encouragement; it seemed to the doctor that they might be betting on the result.
At other stands were fruit and vegetables of every description, some transplanted here from Europe and others the doctor had never seen before and could not have identified. Those who sold goat meat were quartered among the vegetable stalls, separate from the other butchers so that they could not fraudulently substitute their meat for mutton; the skinned goats still wore their hairy tails, as a further indicator. The doctor watched exchanges. Many were barter, the city blacks exchanging their goods for produce brought in by the negroes of the plain. He stopped before a fish stand, admiring the bloated spiny puffer fish that hung from strings. Further on he paused to finger a shelf of carved gourds, elaborately worked and colored with fire-blackening and vegetable dye. Most were intended as containers of one kind or another, but some smaller ones had been left whole with their dry seeds inside, as rattles. The doctor thought of buying one, but of course he had no use for it.
The crowd swelled up against his back, and he moved on, to another booth were two men were selling songbirds in small basketwork cages. One of them, busy in a rapid negotation with a tall mulatto woman who balanced a basket of fruit on her head, quite resembled Crozac's groom; yes, it was Tullius, the doctor saw when he looked more closely. The woman he was dickering with was more than striking, though simply dressed in a single wrap of flower-printed cotton that dropped sheer from its binding to her calves, leaving her handsome shoulders bare. She wore a necklace of gold links and a dozen or so thin gold bracelets on one arm, jingling them as she gestured and swung her hips. The doctor could not understand how the basket failed to fall from her head, when she was almost dancing as she spoke. He was staring. She caught his eye and kissed her heavy lips to him, and he realized that he knew her too, one of the women from the theater; she was Claire.
He took a step back and trod on a bare foot. There was a yelp, but when he turned he couldn't make out whom he had affronted. One hand on the rough plank that served as a counter, he made his way around the corner of the booth, while the other vendor handed out birdcages over his head and caught coins in return. When he reached Claire she laid one narrow hand on his shoulder lightly, leaned toward him and pointed into the dim recess of the booth.