From Master of the Crossroads
ByMadison Smartt Bell
Pantheon Books, 2000
Copyright 2000 by Madison Smartt Bell
All Print Rights ReservedOrder Master of the Crossroads Online
Fort de Joux
Citizen Baille, commandant of the Fort de Joux, crossed the courtyard of the mountain fortress, climbed a set of twelve steps, and knocked on the outer door of the guardhouse. When there was no reply he hitched up the basket he carried over his left arm and rapped again more smartly with his right fist. A sentry opened to him, stood aside and held his salute. Baille acknowledged him, then turned and locked the door with his own hand.
"Les clefs," said Baille, and the sentry presented him with a large iron keyring.
"In the future," Baille announced. "I will keep these keys in my own possession. Whoever has need of them must come to me. But there will be no need."
Citizen Baille unlocked the inner door and pulled, throwing a part of his considerable weight against the pull-ring to set the heavy door turning on its hinges. He stooped and picked up a sack of clothing from the floor, and carrying both sack and basket, passed through the doorway and turned and locked it behind himself.
The vaulted corridor was dimly lit through narrow loopholes that penetrated the twelve-foot stone walls. Baille walked the length of it, aware of the echo of his footfalls. At the far end he set down the basket and the sack and unlocked another door, passed through and relocked it after him.
Two steps down brought him to the floor of the second vaulted corridor, which was six inches deep in the water that came imperceptibly, ceasely seeping from the raw face of the wall to the left-- the living stone of the mountain. Baille muttered under his breath as he traversed the vault; his trousers were bloused into his boots, which had been freshly waxed, but still they leaked around the seams of the uppers. Opening the next door was an awkward affair, for Baille must balance the sack and basket as he worked the key; there was no place on the flooded floor to lay them down.
Ordinarily he might have brought a soldier or a junior officer to bear those burdens for him, but the situation was not ordinary, and Baille was afraid-- no (he stopped himself) he was not afraid, but.... He could not rid his mind of Suzannet and Dandigné, the two officers of the Vendée who had lately evaded their captivity here. It was an embarrassment, a scandal, a disgrace, and Baille might well have lost his command, he thought, except that to be relieved of this miserable, frozen, isolate post might almost have been taken as a reward rather than a punishment. He still had little notion how the escape had been possible. There was none among his officers or men whom he distrusted, and yet none could give a satisfactory explanation of what had taken place. The prisoners could not have slipped through the keyholes or melted into the massive stone walls, and the heavy mesh which covered the cell windows (beyond their bars) was not wide enough to pass a grown man's finger.
And Baille's current prisoner was vastly more important than Suzannet or Dandigné could ever dream to be-- although he was a negro, and a slave. From halfway around the world the First Consul's brother-in-law, Captain-General Leclerc, had written that this man had so inflamed the rebel slaves of Saint Domingue that the merest hint of his return there would overthrow all the progress Leclerc and his army had made toward the suppression of the revolt and the restoration of slavery. Perhaps only the whisper of the name of Baille's prisoner on the lips of the blacks of Saint Domingue would be sufficient cause for that Jewel of the Antilles, so recently France's richest possession overseas, to be purged yet another time with fire and blood. So wrote the Captain-General to his brother-in-law, and it seemed that the First Consul himself took the liveliest interest in the situation, reinforcing with his direct order Leclerc's nervous request that the prisoner be kept in the straitest possible security, and as far away as possible from any seaport that might provide a route for his return.
The Fort de Joux, perched high in the Alps near the Swiss border, met this second condition most exactly. Once could hardly go further from the sea while still remaining within French borders. As for security, well, the walls were thick and the doors heavy, the windows almost hermetically sealed. Yet the walls had failed to contain Suzannet and Dandigné-- yes, well, there had most certainly been betrayal. The officers had somehow obtained the files they used to cut their bars, and probably had enjoyed other aid from some unknown person in the fort. For this reason Baille had chosen to wait upon his new prisoner himself and alone, at least for the present, despite the inconvenience it occasioned.
While pursuing this uneasy rumination, he had crossed the third corridor, which was set at a higher level than the one before and therefore was less damp. He opened and relocked the final door and turned to face the openings of two cells. Clearing his throat, he walked to the second door and called out to announce himself. After a moment, a voice returned the call, but it was low and indistinct through the iron-bound door.
Baille turned the key in the lock and went in. The cell, vaulted like the passages leading to it, was illuminated only by coals of the small fire. Baille's heart quivered like a jelly, for it seemed there was no one in the room-- he saw with his frantically darting eyes the low bed, stool, the table.. but no human being. He dropped the sack and clapped a hand over his mouth. But now the man was standing before him after all, not five paces distant, as if he had been dropped from the ceiling-- or spun himself down, like a spider on its silk. Indeed the barrel vault overhead was filled with dismal shadows, so that Baille could not make out the height of its curve. The vault dwarfed the prisoner, a small negro unremarkable at first glance, except that he was slightly bandylegged. Baille swallowed; his tongue was thick.
"Let us light the candle," he said. When there was no response he went to the table and did so himself, then turned to inspect the prisoner in the improved light. This was Toussaint Louverture, who had thought to make the island colony of Saint Domingue independent of France. He had written and proclaimed a constitution; he had, so rumor ran, written to the First Consul with this arrogant address: "To the first of the whites from the first of the blacks." But now, if this arrogance had not been exactly punished, it had certainly been checked by many rings of stone.
Baille faced his guest with a smile, feeling his lips curve on his face like clay. "I have brought your rations," he said.
Toussaint did not even glance at the basket, which Baille had set down on the table when he struck the light. He looked at the commandant with a cool intensity which Baille found rather unnerving, though he did his best to hold... after all, it was not quite a stare. Toussaint's head was disproportionately large for his body, with a long lower jaw and brown irregular teeth. His eyes, however, were clear and intelligent. He wore a madras cloth bound around his head and the uniform of a French general, which was, however, limp and soiled. Apparently he had had no change of his outer garments since he first was made prisoner and deported from Saint Domingue.
"I have brought you fresh clothing," Baille said, and indicated the sack he had dropped on the floor in his first surprise. Toussaint did not shift his gaze to acknowledge it. Presently Baille picked up the sack himself and stooped to lay out the contents on the low bed.
"This uniform is not correct," Toussaint said.
Baille swallowed. "You must accept it." Somehow he could not manage to phrase the sentence with greater force.
Toussaint looked briefly at the coals in the fire.
"Your uniform is soiled and worn, and too light for the weather," Baille said. "It is already cold here, and soon it will be winter, sir--" This sir escaped him involuntarily. He stopped and looked at the woolen clothes he had unfolded on the bed. "Acceptez-les, je vous en prie."
Toussaint at last inclined his head. Baille sighed.
"I must also ask that you surrender any money you may have, or any...." He let the sentence trail. He waited but nothing else happened at all.
"Do you understand me?" This time Baille suppressed the sir.
"Yes, of course," Toussaint said, and he turned his head and shoulder toward the door. Baille had already begun walking in that direction before he recognized that he had been dismissed, that he should not permit himself to be so dismissed, that it was his clear duty to remain and watch the prisoner disrobe and see with his own eyes that he held nothing back. However, he soon found himself against the outside of the door, unreeling in his mind long string of words that stood for curses, although he did not know for certain if it were the prisoner or the assigned procedures he meant to curse.
After a few minutes he called out. The same indistinct mutter returned through the door, and Baille opened it and went back in. Toussaint stood in the fresh clothes that had been given him; his feet, incongruously, were bare. Or rather Baille felt that he himself would have looked absurd and foolish standing barefoot in such a situation, but it detracted in no way from the dignity of the prisoner. Toussaint motioned toward the table with a slight movement of his left hand.
Baille approached. On the table lay some banknotes and coins, a couple of documents of some sort, a watch with a gold chain.
"I will keep my watch," Toussaint said, and already his hand had gathered it up and put it into a pocket, chain and all. There seemed nothing to do but assent; Baille nodded and scooped up the money and papers without looking at them, feeling a stir of shame. Toussaint had stuffed the dirty uniform into the sack in which the other clothes had come. Baille picked up the sack and also collected Toussaint's high-topped military boots-- he had furnished a pair of ordinary shoes, but it was not his concern whether the prisoner chose to put them on.
"I have need of pen and ink and paper," Toussaint said. "I must write letters-- I must make my report to the First Consul."
"I shall look into the matter," Baille said, and thought of notes somehow forwarded through mesh, through keyholes, folded into minute pellets and passed to the confederates of Suzannet and Dandigné. No, he would not furnish the writing supplies on his own authority.
"As quickly as possible." A hint of a smile on Toussaint's face, but only a flicker, and his look was stern, commanding. "My duty is urgent."
Baille undertook no direct reply. "Good evening," he said, and swallowed the sir, as he made his retreat from the cell.
Toussaint stood near the door of the cell, listening to the lock springs snapping, hinges groaning in succession, each sound somewhat fainter than the one before, as Baille receded down the series of passageways. He could hear the commandant's feet splashing in the middle corridor, or thought that he could. Then nothing. He moved from the doorway, his bare feet splaying over the flagstones of the floor. The bell of the castle clock rang with a grating of discontent. Toussaint pulled his watch from the pocket of the coat he had been furnished, and opened the case. It was a quarter past seven. Darkness had come early, or at any rate there was no light at the barred window, but the embrasure had been bricked over two-thirds of the way to the top, and the mesh beyond the bars never strained much daylight through itself, regardless of the hour.
He had learned that now. He replaced the watch and felt the other pockets of the coat from the outside, here and there; he had in fact kept back a few gold coins and a couple of letters from Baille's lackadaisical inspection. The wool coat and trousers fit him loosely, but were warm enough. The uniform of a private soldier, with all insignia cut away. Toussaint coughed thickly, and held his hand over the center of his chest, hoping to suppress another spasm. He had caught a heavy cold on his journey from Brest across France to the Fort de Joux, and the cough was lingering. His whole ribcage felt bruised by it. He did not like what Baille had said of the approach of winter... which seemed to prove this cell would be no temporary waystation. He expected an interview with the First Consul-- the opportunity to speak on his own behalf, explain his conduct-- he expected, at the least, a trial. It must be a military tribunal before which he would appear in the uniform of his rank in the French Army, and therefore he also misliked the clothes had been given, though they were perfectly serviceable otherwise. Their coarse quality, even their previous use, was no great matter to him; he had known worse.
He walked to the table and turned back the wooden lid of the basket. Salt meat (already cut), a pale hard crumbly cheese, a supply of biscuit. Ship's rations, more or less. There was a flagon of red wine and what struck him as a meager sack of sugar. Some ground coffee had been included, along with implements for brewing it and some other utensils with which he might warm the food. There were two spoons, but of course no knife. He touched the meat-- a corner of it crumbled between his thumb and forefinger. Water had been brought to him separately beforehand, in a clay pitcher; he might prepare a sort of stew. Toussaint hesitated. In Saint Domingue, he had been careful of poisoning. Among any company he did not entirely trust (and there was little company he trusted absolutely), he would eat only uncut fruit, a piece of cheese sliced by his own hand from the center of the round, a whole roll or uncut loaf of bread-- and drink plain water, never wine.
He raised a scrap of the salt meat and sniffed it, nostrils flaring, then let it fall back into the basket. Turning his head at an angle, he smiled slightly to himself. In this predicament, he would of course be unable to sustain his former precautions. Unless he elected to starve himself, his jailers might poison him whenever they would. Therefore it was useless for him to concern himself about it. He would eat as his appetite demanded him, and without concern. But for the moment he was not hungry.
He took out the wine jug and poured a measure into the cup, then added a small amount of water and drank-- red wine, slightly sour. He shook in some sugar from the bag, revolved the cup and drained the mixture. The treacly warmth of the wine seemed to coat his throat against the cough. He closed the lid of the basket and then blew out the candle that Baille had lit when he came in. Firelight spread yellowly, pulsing on the stones of the floor. Toussaint went to the fireplace. The hearthstone was warm to his bare feet, and thoroughly dry. He stooped and added a single piece of wood to the glow of coals.
More distant from the fireside, the flagstones were clammy, not quite damp. He sat on the edge of the bed and drew on the woolen stockings which had been given him. Cautiously he raised his legs onto the bed and lay back, holding his breath. The roughness thrust up in the back of his throat but he swallowed it back and managed to exhale without coughing. When he touched the raw stone wall above the bed, his fingers came away moist and slightly chilled. He turned his head away from the wall and looked into the room, lying partly on his side, his legs slightly bent, his palm cupped under the left side of his jaw. An observer might have thought he slept, but he was not sleeping. He watched the fire through slitted eyes and thought of one thing and another: His valet, Mars Plaisir, under lock and key in the neighboring cell; his wife and sons, confined in some other region of France under conditions of which he knew little; the accounting he would make, when pen and paper were brought to him, for the eyes of the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. (And why had Baille been so evasive about this matter? --a flicker of worry touched Toussaint, but he let it pass.) The work of writing would require some skill, some artifice. He tried to think how he would begin, but it was difficult without his secretaries, without pen or paper. The words of which his case must be constructed stood apart from him, as if the pen's nib would delve them from the paper; they were not part of his mind.
The castle clock struck another quarter hour, without Toussaint much remarking it. His concentration was imperfect, and he felt warm and blurry. Perhaps he had a touch of fever, with the cough. The firelight on the hearth narrowed and flattened into a low red horizon... sunrise or sunset. From the red-glowing slit expanded a featureless plain, whether of land or water was unclear. A dot interrupted the red horizon; Toussaint blinked his eyes, but the dot persisted. It sprouted spidery limbs, like an insect or stick figure of a man. The form grew larger by imperceptible degrees, as it came over the bare plain and toward him.
Si w konnen ou pa fran Ginen
pa rèt nan kalfou
Kalfou twa-- kalfou danjere
Kalfou kat -- kalfou règleman
Kalfou senk-- kalfou pèd pawol
Si w konnen ou pa fran Ginen
pa rèt nan kalfou
-- Boukman Eksperyans