From All Souls' Rising by Madison Smartt Bell
Pantheon Books, October 1995
Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1995
August, 1791, Sainte Domingue
Her lover had given her a new mirror, a smaller one, half-length with a prettily painted frame. Claire hung it on the wall directly opposite the long pier glass she'd had always. She had illuminated many candles in the room and along the axis of the paired mirrors their flames repeated down an endless corridor of illusion till they blurred to one.
She had bathed as slowly as she liked and dressed herself in comfortable luxury, dotted certain areas of her skin with perfumed oils. She was robed à la chinois, her hair let down already across her back. She was waiting for Antoine Hébert, with a restlessness no more acute than pleasure. At moments she walked up and down the room, her hem and the points of her Chinese sleeves stroking the floor with her movement. In the matched glasses, her image multiplied. A bowl of fruit sat on the table; she cut a piece and touched it with the point of her tongue.
Beside the fruit bowl there were chessmen; the doctor had been trying, with poor success, to teach her this game. From its wicker cage the little monkey surveyed her lost position. Claire took it out and gave it fruit. The monkey sprang to the table and overset most of the chess pieces, while she pressed her fingers to her wide red underlip and tittered. It was tamer now, and came easily enough to her coaxing, to the offer of a bit of banana she held out. It clutched her finger with her hind paws and balanced as a bird would on a perch. She stroked the tufts of whisker on its face and put it in the cage again, then rearranged the chessmen in the manner which best pleased her eye.
She sat in the deepest chair with her arms folded and her eyes three-quarters shut. As a sort of exercise she drowned her mind, letting it sink into her senses as if into a swamp. Beneath her palms, behind her navel, a warm bright light unfolded, stretching its sparkling tendrils to the limits of her body and beyond. She knew this electric energy could draw the man to her from across the town or even from across the sea. When the knock came she rose to answer with her eyes still mostly shut, a magnetism sweeping her to the door with her silks trailing a liquid murmur behind.
"I see you are disappointed," Choufleur said, after a noticeable pause. She blinked, slowly as if her lashes were hung with lead. When Choufleur raised his foot across the threshold she took a lengthy backward step.
"Pas de tout," she said, and turned her back. Choufleur entered the room. He shrugged back his shoulders, switching his coat-tails behind him, and put his thumbs in the waistband of his trousers, near his hips. It was the planter's pose, surveying the terrain, au grand seigneur. She saw his image in one mirror but it was not repeated in the other, so that it seemed to her that he must be a ghost, or zombi, though she knew it was only the angles where they stood.
For a moment more, they hung balanced and entranced, then Choufleur walked to the chessboard, picked up a knight and scrutinized it, staring into the red chips of glass that were its eyes. Replacing it, he saw the nonsensical arrangement of the other pieces and chuckled to himself. His eyes rose toward her with a canny yellow look.
"A new pastime," he said. "Ton petit ami?"
"Oui...." she said, letting the word trail away as she made an enervated turn in his direction. The brown cloud of freckles twisted starrily on his face; beneath, his pallor told his tension. She had known him many years, since they were children, but after his time in Paris, he had changed.
His hand entered the fruit bowl, tested a papaya for ripeness. A knife lay on a plate beside it, and he picked this up and cut a slice and took a bite. He cut a lemon and squeezed a drop of juice onto another slice of payaya and offered it to Claire. She shook her head.
"He amuses you then, the little doctor?" he said. "With his chess and his ideas... and in other ways, doubtless."
"Yes..." she said again, trailing the word. "Comme ci, comme ça...."
Choufleur flicked his fingernail against the slat of the monkey's cage. Within, the monkey hissed and showed its teeth.
"Je vois bien," he said, "Whoever you are expecting is not the guest who has arrived."
She didn't answer him. He dangled the pause for a moment before he went on.
"No matter. It's another of your special friends who interests me more. That gentleman of distinction, the Sieur Maltrot."
"It's been some time," she said, then with less languor. "I don't like him any more. If I ever liked him....."
"Of course that makes no difference." His lip curled in a smile quite like that of the Sieur Maltrot. "So long as he likes you." His smile vanished. "He'll come," he said. "I know him." He took a clear glass vial from his waistcoat pocket.
"If you dislike him you may find relief here." The vial was shaped like an alchemical retort, but with the bulb and neck both flattened so as to better fit a pocket. He unstopped it and shook a little of the liquid onto another papaya slice.
"What is it," she asked him.
"Tincture of arsenic." Choufleur made as if to give the poisoned slice to the monkey, whose hairy arm reached out of the cage to snatch.... Claire stepped near him and slapped his wrist; the bit of fruit flipped onto the floor. Choufleur clutched his wrist and made a little moue as if he had been really injured.
"I didn't know the animal was so dear to you."
"Why?" she said. "Why arsenic."
Choufleur dropped his arm and smiled sidewise at the floor. "A white man's poison for a white man, it seems suitable does it not? Besides it's hard to know if the houngans give you what you really want."
"I won't do it," Claire said.
"It can be given slowly," Choufleur said. "The Italian way. A man takes months or years to die; it looks like illness." He shook his head. "But here they always suspect poison when anyone is sick. You must give it to him all at once. There's not much time."
"I won't," Claire said.
"Do you really believe that you know what you'll do?" He stepped to her, put the vial in her hands and folded her limp fingers around it. When he released her, she still held the vial. He slipped his fingers under her hair to the hollow at her skull's base and pressed the points in, not hard enough for pain but enough so that she felt his strength. By old habit she let her bones dissolve, her head roll back into his hand's support. In her mind's eye she saw him scrambling barefoot over the rocks near Vallière where they'd been children, quick and nimble as a longlegged spider, tenacious and ruthless as the maroons he pursued in the maréchaussée. She noticed that he had been chewing cinnamon stick to sweeten his breath.
He put his other hand at the small of her back, flattening his palm down over her buttocks' first rise under the Chinese silk, and drawing her not quite near enough to touch. She unbalanced, giving her weight up to him as a swimmer gives it up to water. From behind the screen of freckles his green eyes regarded her like animal eyes peering out of a thicket.
"One day there'll be no one left but you and I," he said. "And that soon." He let her go so suddenly she staggered, and without another word walked out the door.
She put her hand over her breast and held it there until her breathing slowed. At the length of her other arm the poison vial still dangled. She went into the bedroom, thought for a moment and hid it in a secret pocket of a dress she'd ceased to wear. All the fruit that he had touched she threw out into the yard behind the houses, except the poisoned slice, which she feared someone might scavenge. Not knowing a better way to dispose of it, she used the side of her foot to push it under the fringe of a drape that covered a small table.
In the mirrors the candle flames trembled, then pricked up like hot little tongues. It troubled her that the doctor was so late, but certainly it was better that he and Choufleur should not intersect. With a small effort she was able to reenter the mood that she'd been in before.
At the close of M. Panon's presentation, le Cercle des Philadelphes rose from the seats and realigned itself in new geometries. Bottles of brandy were handed round, poured into crystal balloons as light as soap bubbles. Doctor Hébert tasted his spirit, then passed the snifter under the nose of Captain Maillart, who had the ability to sleep while sitting upright with eyes convincingly half-open. The captain shook himself, looked cautiously around, and sighed with relief when he saw the lecture had concluded. With a suppressed moan he rose and moved in direction of the nearest unattended bottle.
The doctor orbited the circle of his acquaintance. He greeted M. Arthaud, médecin du Roi. All the legitimate doctors of the town were members of the recently chartered Societé Royale des Sciences et Arts, and some of the surgeons too, though of course not every sawbones or apothecary. Doctor Hébert paid his respects to the captain's cousin, de Maillart, to whom he owed his own inclusion in the group. There were present a couple of traveling priests who were housed in la maison de la préfecture next door, and he exchanged a word or two with them. As the clerics disengaged themselves he was confronted with the smiling, sweating countenance of M. Panon. He hesitated, bowed, and turned away without a word.
By reflection of a pane on one of the specimen cabinets lining the walls, he saw that Panon seemed to take no offense, but immediately engaged the itinerant priests in conversation. Within the cabinet were arranged on shelves several stuffed birds and lizards, also the mummified head of an Indian, one of the Caribs who had once populated the island, before the Spanish completely extinguished their race. It was the project of several members of the Royal Society to extend the classifications of Linnaeus to the flora and fauna of this place.
The doctor had been struck by the ambition of the society, its accomplishments too; at a glance it hardly seemed to be burdened with any colonial backwardness. The experimental laboratory was quite up to date and the group had instituted a botanical garden. With interest and pleasure the doctor had studied M. Arthaud's description médico-topographique du Cap. He had heard a discourse on les Épizooties de la Colonie, and another only slightly more fanciful called "The Crocodile and Natural Law." M. Panon had headed tonight's lecture with a similar splicing of the abstract and the particular: "Le Nègre et la Bienfaisance."
You could not doubt the man's sincerity; he even seemed to be full of good will. In the glass pane, the doctor watched him expatiate to the two priests, who might very well concur with him that the blacks had been specially supplied by God's Providence to serve as laborers in these colonies. The negro was neither ape nor man, but Panon would classify him, according the Linnaean system, somwhere between these two. Much the same as a mule, the negro was providentially designed for the bearing of burdens. Within the best of all possible worlds, la bienfaisance had arranged the constitution of the negro so that he (like the mule again) could best be retained in the path of virtue by beating and whipping. Not to mention, the doctor added privately, by crucifixion, roasting in ovens, crushing in cane mills and the like; these also must be requisite for the negro's fulfillment of the highest potential of his nature.
He had not made any such objection aloud, however. Every proposition of M. Panon had been received by the group with perfect equanimity; no member of le Cercle des Philadelphes had challenged him in any serious way. Well, the doctor thought, from the vantage of current philosophy perhaps the Society was somewhat behind the times. In Europe the whole notion of bienfaisance had seemed drastically outmoded since the Seven Years War.
He drank some brandy and rolled the remainder around the bell-shaped glass. Perhaps the fumes would smoke his most uncomfortable ideas from his mind. He toasted the desiccated Indian's head behind the glass. The eyelids were sewn shut with black cord but the lips shrank away from the ragged row of teeth in a strange knowing smile.... He heard the captain's bootheels muted on the rug behind him.
"I believe the time has come." Captain Maillart said.
"Sans doute." The doctor flipped open the case of his watch, then repocketed it. He was as eager as his companion to be gone; if politeness had allowed it he would have abandoned the captain among les Philadelphes so he could hasten alone to Claire. The next morning he intended to make the trip to Ennery.
The two emerged into the Rue Vaudreuil, from under the Society's coat of arms, a bee-hive with the motto sub sole labor. They walked for a while without speaking, before the captain began to rub his hands together.
"Well now," he said. "There's still life left in the evening."
Inwardly the doctor quailed to see his friend reviving. He particularly wanted to escape the captain before going to Claire's rooms for this last night. But for every meeting of the Society he attended, Maillart wished to convey the doctor to some session of drinking, gambling and whoring among other officers or young blades of the town. The doctor had no head for cards and his taste for women had been for the time being more than adequately gratified. On the other hand, his attraction to the pleasure of drunkenness was so great that he had become chary of indulging it too often. Still, he knew that if Captain Maillart guessed where he was going, he would be difficult to detach.
Their boots thumped a rhythm on the hard-packed earth of the street. It occurred to the doctor that he might bore Captain Maillart into surrendering his project for the night.
"Have you considered," he began, "that all provisions of la bienfaisance must be reciprocal?"
Captain Maillart groaned.
"So that," the doctor continued, "if the negro must needs be beaten, the master must have his equivalent need to beat someone. In a world of ideal arrangements, does it not seem a curious requirement?"
"I had thought," the captain said, "that love itself might cure your obsession with philosophy."
Forgetting that he had only intended to mount a diversion, the doctor stopped short and caught the captain's sleeve. "Listen," he said. "If you think of love, then think of this." He was a head shorter than Maillart, who must look down to meet his eyes. In his head rang a phrase of M. Panon: Je n'assimile le nègre ni au singe, ni à l'homme Européen....
"If a man should copulate with a sheep or a duck," the doctor said, "their union will be barren. So for all creatures-- there is only fertility within their kind."
"Yes, of course," Maillart said, his eyes glazing over.
"Then if a white man and a black woman come together," the doctor said, "what will you call their offspring? Is it something else or is it human?"
Restlessly the captain cleared his throat. "You didn't ask that at the meeting?"
"If I had asked it," the doctor said, dropping his eyes, "I believe the commotion would have awakened even you, my friend."
Maillart nodded. "I see I mustn't keep you," he said. "It's late and tomorrow you will have a long ride. Will I walk you to your lodgings?"
"No," the doctor said. "I won't take you so far out of your way.
The captain took his hand. "Have a care, Antoine," he said. "The road is uncertain, but no more than these streets. You can't be frank with everyone you speak to."
"I understand you," the doctor said. He pressed the captain's hand and let him go. But at the end of the block Maillart turned again and shouted cheerfully, "À la rencontre, Antoine!" At that, the doctor smiled as he went on his way.
In Claire's rooms the candles had burnt low, grown fringes of lacy wax on their leeward sides. She rose a little sleepily to let him in. "They kept you long," she said, in tones of sympathy for his inconvenience. She gave him wine and as he sipped she stood behind his chair, kneading his neck and shoulders with her slim strong fingers. Leaning back, he rested his head against her, feeling the warmth of her skin on his bald spot, through the silk. The robe opened to him and he put his hand inside, then followed with his lips and tongue.
Often she would lead him as an expert dancer leads without appearing to, creating subtle vacancies which suggest a step. So she'd encouraged tastes in him which now seemed to be his own, although before he'd never been aware of them. Tonight the hunger seemed more hers. She sucked his tongue half out of his head, wrapped herself around him like an anaconda. His conscience, consciousness, swirled out of him into the vortex. He passed out. Deep in the night she roused him again with a wild voracity. In the velvet dark he could not see her at all and she was silent as a succubus. The choral voice of the insects gave the music to their movement. Again he dropped out of his mind into a trance-like sleep. Near dawn they woke as if by mutual inspiration and coupled a third time.
Afterward she slept or seemed to, but the doctor could not, though he was drained and hollow as a gnawed out melon rind. Hands behind his head on the pillow, he watched the rapid spread of light through the latticed windows onto the walls. In its cage the monkey turned and grumbled. He got up, staggering with a sudden dizziness, and fed it fruit from the bowl. Having washed himself carefully he took the pitcher to replenish it from the courtyard well, a parting courtesy. He would not wake her before he left. She lay on her back with the rug tight against the bottom of her chin, so perfectly still that an impulse led him to pass a finger under her nostrils to ensure that she still breathed. In this gentle sleep she looked childlike and unknowing. Her skin was ivory, her features fine; without knowing it he would not have suspected that she was anything other than white.
A whisper of an exhalation crossed his knuckle and he withdrew his hand. Already he could feel the suction that attached him to her tearing, as if he were already mounted and riding from the town. After all, it would be a relief in many ways, to be free to inhabit himself completely once again.
Claire slept till afternoon, then rose and bathed and dressed herself most opulently, although she did not intend to go out. A pastime, she had no other plans. A miniature Swiss clock ticked from her curio cabinet across the still room from her seat. Out from under the draped table, a scaly tail protruded, rigidly. Investigating, she discovered a large brown wharf rat, which must have eaten all of the poisoned fruit, as it was nowhere to be seen.
She threw the carcass out the back door, then walked to the well to wash her fingers. The sun was glowering down on the top of her head, and the air was still and humid. She walked gingerly back toward the house, saddlesore (as it were) from riding the doctor so hard all through the night. When she reentered she found the Sieur Maltrot standing on the carpet in the middle of her front room.
"I thought perhaps you were out," he said, twirling his sword-stick between his thumbs. "Though the door was open, as you see."
Claire curtseyed, well across the room from him, trying to recall if he would still have a key to her front door, thinking it likely that he did. "Will you take coffee, sir?" she said as she rose from the obeisance.
"Oh, no need for such formality," said the Sieur Maltrot, arching his brows with a contrived air of surprise. "Even if it has been, well... a longish separation." As he spoke he crossed the room and made to embrace her.
"Monsieur, je vous en prie--" Claire squeaked and twisted away, banging the point of her elbow into his ribs as she did so. Maltrot lost control of his stick and stooped to catch it with a jerk before it hit the floor. She scurried into the bedroom, dug among the flounces of her clothing on the racks. The contour of the arsenic vial felt hot and moist in her palm. She pushed it deep into the bodice of the dress she wore. From without his voice called to her.
"Well, then, coffee-- just as you like. Perhaps a taste of brandy too, un soupçon...."
When she brought in the coffee service he was lounging in the chair the doctor had preferred. "You've got new things," he noted, glancing at the monkey's cage, the newer mirror. "New friends as well, I may infer?"
Claire seated herself in a chair on the opposite end of the room, turned her head aside and looked at him through her lashes. She knew he would have taken care to inform himself of her recent company before he ever came here. Slowly he stirred sugar into his coffee, to such a syrupy thickness that the spoon would almost stand, then topped it off with brandy from the bottle. He sipped, and set the cup aside while he indulged himself with snuff.
"Chess," he said, sneezing and reaching with a languid finger to push over one of the men on the board. "I don't think I approve. It brings out the intellectual faculty too strongly for a woman... not to say a woman of your type."
She glanced at the floor where the rat's tail had appeared. Without knowing when it had eaten the fruit she could not guess the speed of the poison's action, but it seemed that the rat had died on the very spot where it had eaten, with no time to get away. Maltrot was upon her so quickly she could scarcely rise. This time he was prepared for her twist from him, and caught her under the arms so that she couldn't reach him, drawing himself tight against her backside. She dropped her head and he pressed his mouth on the exposed curve of her neck, then bit her painfully.
"Laisse-moi tranquille," she said in a smothered shout. "Je suis enceinte."
"Oh indeed?" Keeping his grip with one, Maltrot gathered her brocade skirt with the other and raised it high, to the bottoms of her breasts. He rotated her toward the mirror, so as to examine her reflected belly, whose curve to the puff of hair at its base seemed no greater than before.
"It doesn't show," he said. "But what fortunate man can claim the honor? Or do you know?" He dropped her skirt and let her go.
She moved off from him, adjusting herself. "You've torn my dress," she sulked.
"Have I now?" The Sieur Maltrot raged into her bedroom, his swordstick suddenly bare in his hand. She followed only as far as the doorway, saw him slashing at her clothesrack with the point of the blade. "I paid for that one," he hissed. "That one too." He gored some gathers of blue fabric; the dress slipped to the floor.
She withdrew to the front room, knowing that if she showed no concern he would stop before he did much damage. In fact it was only a moment before he rejoined her, taking her arm and twisting it experimentally, watching her face attentively as he did it. Her pain was something she could now deny him. The burn and blade scars scattered where they would not show had taught her that. She went numb, her skin chilled even to herself. "Do what you want," she muttered, thinking of him stiff between her legs, and dead, uneven rat teeth pressed into the sheet from the petrified half-open jaw. Maltrot raised her arm and let it drop; the limb fell slack and rubbery against her side.
"You have become too subtle," he said. "You've learned to frustrate better than you please." He walked away from her and she sat down in the nearest chair.
"No, I don't want you," he said, and grinned. "But perhaps your child will be a daughter....that might interest me, in time."
Claire didn't bother to turn her face from him. If he was left with only words to injure her, he would soon go. But not immediately. He hovered by the monkey's cage, then reached to open it. She didn't see exactly how it happened, but in a flash the monkey climbed his arm and as he pulled back it sank its teeth into his thumb. Maltrot cried out, a shrillness of real fear, but the monkey had wrapped its tail so cunningly around his forearm that no amount of flailing would shake it loose. He brought his hands together and there was a muted snapping sound. The monkey dropped to the floor, neck broken.
Maltrot gasped. Blood was bubbling up from his thumb. When she made no move to help him, he wrapped the wound in his snuff-stained handkerchief and cradled it against his waistcoat. He had paled and was visibly trembling; it was fortunate, she realized, that he did not find his own pain especially erotic.
"My apologies," he eventually said. "I'll buy another, if you desire it-- dirty creature." He kicked at the monkey's corpse with the toe of his gold-buckled shoe. Claire said nothing. Maltrot folded his fingers over the hurt thumb and bloody handkerchief, picked up the swordstick with his unhurt hand, and flung out, leaving the door ajar.
Through the crack, she watched him down the street. Had he been found dead in her rooms here, she would more than likely have been burned alive in the Place de Clugny, which thought had deterred her from poisoning his cup. As for the monkey, she did not much regret it. It was half-wild still, and troublesome; another man would not like it. She did not really expect that she would ever see the doctor again.
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