From The Stone That the Builder Refused


First published in Conjunctions 41, Fall 2003 under the title "Two Kingdoms"

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell (c) 2004  all print rights reserved






Chapter 2

La Sirène



At evening the clouds were scraped in thin mare's tails around the setting sun, and the sea, flowing smoothly from the west beneath the hulls of the French ships, was burnished copper. Placide Louverture stood in the bow of La Sirène, rocking with the easy swells, watching the red sky in the west toward which they sailed, watching for birds. There were no birds. They were three weeks out from Brest, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Sixty ships of the great fleet strung out as far as the eye could see, as far as the curved knife-edge of the horizon.

Placide's hands just grazed the railing; knees slightly flexed, he held himself balanced on the smoothly shifting deck. Now and then he tasted a burst of spray as the ship plowed forward. The Army captain, Cyprien, stood a few yards back of him, propped against a mast; Placide was aware of his presence but paid it no heed. Presently his younger brother Isaac came out to join him, walking a little unsteadily and clutching the rail as he went. On their first voyage, from Saint Domingue to France, they both had suffered considerably from sea-sickness. That had been six years ago. Since then, Placide had made another voyage, intended to go all the way to Egypt, but Isaac had not accompanied him then.

The nausea scarcely troubled Placide this time out, not after the first day. Isaac was making a slower adjustment, though he looked a little better now than the day before, favoring Placide with a weak smile as he stopped beside him.

"Ki jan ou yé?" Placide asked him, "W byen?"

"Pa pi mal." Isaac drew himself a little straighter. "M'ap kenbe." He rocked back on his heels catching his weight against his handgrip on the rail. No worse; I'm hanging on.... During their years in France they'd spoken Creole seldom, even among themselves. The patois was frowned upon at the Collège de la Marche, though many of the other students had it as their mother tongue.

A flying fish came out of a billow, whirred toward them, then drilled into another wave. Isaac's breath caught, and Placide turned to smile at him again. Ill below decks for so many days, Isaac had till now missed most of the wonders the sea had to display.

The first fish was followed by another, and another, then dozens all at once were in the air, glittering, wet and iridescent red in the light of the setting sun. Placide wondered what the appearance of the fish might augur. This thought too had the taste of home, where every natural manifestation had its meaning if one could know it. He and Isaac had been children when they left Saint Domingue. Now they had the age of men. When he'd summoned them to that audience before their departure, the First Consul had presented them each a splendid uniform, brace of pistols and a sword. But they had little knowledge of the use of these arms.

Nor did they know what awaited them in Saint Domingue. Placide's memories of that land were fractured; his brother's still less clear. Placide had been tantalized with the prospect once before, for when that other fleet had sailed to Egypt, Saint Domingue had been the declared destination-- his own presence meant only to lend credence to that deception. When the real mission was revealed to him (at the same time as to most of the rest of the passengers) Placide had soothed his disappointment with the thought that he might look upon the Pyramids, and especially the Great Sphinx, which he had seen in pictures. But the English Navy, undeceived by the ruse, had intercepted them and turned them back to a French port.

Monsieur Coisnon, their tutor, now appeared beside Isaac, the skirt of his dark cassock snapping in the wind. The flying fish were still exploding from the waves, and Coisnon began to speak of them in terms of natural history. Placide's mind drifted. He recalled that, on his return from that aborted voyage to Egypt, M. Coisnon had told him how in reality the Great Sphinx was somewhat diminished from what he'd seen in the engravings, the vast sad features of her face blown to flinders by Bonaparte's artillerymen, practicing their aim. Coisnon had meant that tale for consolation, Placide thought, but he had not been much consoled.

Amidships, a brass bell clanged.

"Mess call," Coisnon said. Isaac and Placide looked at each other grimly. Coisnon shaded his eyes to peer up at the sky.

"You will remember," he said, "that when Columbus first undertook this voyage, his men thought to mutiny when he would not turn back, sick as they were of salt meat spoiled in the cask, and fearful they'd sail off the edge of the world altogether. It was the birds flying out from the islands that saved him then, restoring the confidence of the crew. As the dove saved Noah from the failing faith of his companions, returning with the olive branch."

Placide followed his tutor's expansive gesture. For a moment it seemed to him he caught the scent of flowers. He looked again; there were no birds.

"Come," said M. Coisnon. "Let us to table."

Isaac gulped. They did not eat as poorly as Columbus' men in the last days of that first voyage, and there was plenty of fresh water for them still. But after these few weeks at sea the last of any fresh food had been exhausted. Each meal was labor more than pleasure, and the tot of rum served out beforehand seemed meant to give one courage to face it.

Placide, then Isaac, clumped down to the officers' mess, M. Coisnon bringing up their rear. They found their places at the table. Certainly there was no one aboard enjoying better victuals. They ate not at the first table, with the ship's captain and his mates, but at the second, in the company of four young Army officers and a lone naval ensign whom everyone seemed to ignore. The Army captains were Cyprien, Paltre, Daspir and Guizot. No one seemed to be able to recall the ensign's name, not even M. Coisnon, who was armed with tricks for memorizing his everchanging pupils.

"Thanks be to God," Coisnon muttered, and inhaled a blast of rum from his cup. Placide and Isaac bowed their heads momentarily; the Army captains avoided each other's eyes. Tonight it was salt cod, as opposed to salt beef.

"One might try a hand at fishing," Captain Guizot proposed.

"If one had line and a hook," said Paltre.

Daspir lifted his plank of salt cod and held it dangling. He squinted at it comically. It was an unappealing ochre shade, with a rank smell that struck at a considerable distance. The shifting light of the swinging lantern made its surface seem to crawl.

Placide looked away. He chewed mechanically, ignoring the sour flavor. There was a mess of boiled beans and meal to complement the fish. Isaac nibbled at the corner of the chunk of hardtack he'd tried to soften in his rum. Placide nudged him to encourage him to eat; the younger boy dutifully poked a spoonful of the bean mash into his mouth and struggled to swallow it down.

"Now, what shall we find delectable in Saint Domingue?" Daspir inquired.

Both Placide and Isaac looked up. Conversation at these meals was restricted to this sort of innocuous question. Or else there might be disquisitions from Coisnon on topics which had suggested themselves to him during the day. The Army men were hard put to conceal their boredom with his lectures, yet their talk among themselves was constrained by the presence of the boys and their tutor. Placide remembered something of the same sort from his Eqyptian voyage, the same hesitancy, same sense of withholding.

"Maïs moulin," he said. It was the bean mash that prompted him. Maïs moulin stood in the relation of pure Platonic form to the sludge they were trying to eat now.

"C'est quoi ça," Daspir said. What's that? He was a plump young man, with round cheeks and shining olive skin; he loved good food and felt privation more keenly than the others. Placide described: stewed cornmeal mixed with highly seasoned beans, with onions, peppers, perhaps a dash of syrup whose sweetness worked against the spice.

"What else?" Daspir's eyes were shining. "What for meat?"

Placide shrugged. "Goat. Fresh pork. Roasted on the boucan it is very good. There are many kinds of fish."

"Lambi," Isaac put in. "Lambi with green cashew sauce." With a rapture rising to Daspir's own, he told how the meat of the conch was tenderized with papaya juice, served with a sauce of tomatoes and fresh cashews, the soft consistency of mushrooms. Then to follow there might be fruit: oranges certainly, guava, mango, soursop, several different kinds of banana-- banane figue, banane loupgarou, and Isaac's own favorite, the tiny sweet banane Ti Malice.

Inspired by these recollections, Isaac managed to empty most of his plate, as Placide noticed with some relief; his brother had not succeeded in taking much nourishment since he had been laid low by mal de mer. And thus another dinner hour had passed more agreeably than some. With Coisnon, the two boys climbed up to take their evening constitutional on the deck. There was no moon, and the night was marvelously clear, starlight blazing down on them from a black velvet sky. The swell seemed just a little stronger than before.

Raising his arm to the constellations, Coisnon began to recount the myths of Cepheus and Cassiopea. But he had to interrupt himself when Isaac, without warning, doubled over the rail and spewed his recent meal into the sea. Placide balanced his head while he retched and coughed; Coisnon anchored him with a hand's grip in his waistband.

"Excuse me," Isaac said, when he'd regained that much control. "I am very sorry."

"It's nothing, dear boy," Coisnon told him. "I'll take you down to your berth. No, no," he said, as Placide moved to assist. "You should stay here, and profit from the air."

Placide remained, turning again to face the ocean. At the Collège de la Marche he'd had the reputation of a solitary, especially when compared to the much more gregarious Isaac, and he was glad of a taste of solitude now. Even a partial taste. From the corner of his eye could see the faces of Cyprien and Guizot by the hatchway, lit by the intermittent red glow of their cheroots. Somehow or other at least one of these officers was always nearby. Placide understood that the four of them were assigned to him and his brother as guardians, if not guards, though he had not discussed it with Isaac.

He raised his head to find the Northern Cross, and near it, picked out in dimmer stars, the compact form of the Dolphin. The stars went dark where the water met the sky, but the running lights of the French ships came stringing back to where he stood in the bow of La Sirène. One of those other vessels (Placide was not sure which) carried a flock of his father's most significant surviving enemies, notably the mulatto rebels: Villatte, Pétion, Rigaud. The thought made him uncomfortable. He felt eyes burning at his back, and turned to face them. Cyprien and Guizot looked away from him, stepped out of his path as he entered the hatchway and went below to find his berth.


Since their embarkation, the four officers detailed to the sons of Toussaint Louverture had run a nightly game of vingt-et-un, and when Cyprien and Guizot had finished their smoke they went below to join this night's session. They'd set up a packing case for a card table in the officer's quarters, in the bow a deck below the captain's cabin. A thin partition divided the card parlor from the four berths in the narrowest part of the bow, which were occupied by Placide, Isaac, their tutor, and the young ensign whose name no one could recall.

Daspir, who was rich, served as the bank. Night after night, the bank was irritatingly prosperous. Cyprien and Paltre, who were marginally more seasoned soldiers than the other two, had at first assumed they'd fleece him easily. But Daspir played with a quiet acuity belied by his fatuous manner. Or less, as Cyprien sometimes bitterly put to himself or to Paltre, he was just damned lucky.

Daspir was shuffling now, smiling at the other three. Above the packing case an oil lamp swung on its chain with the steady movement of the waves. Daspir's smile evaporated as he dealt the cards. His own hand showed a ten face-up. Cyprien glanced at his hole card and folded. Paltre did the same, but Guizot drew to a six, then groaned.

Expressionless now, Daspir raked in the money and dealt again. Nine up. Cyprien checked his hole card and tossed in his hand. Daspir covered bets from Paltre and Guizot and then took both their money.

When he had won a few more hands, Daspir squared the deck and rose from his seat, leaving the cards on the table, then crossed to his bunk and stooped to drag his chest from beneath it. After shifting the contents around for a minute or two, he produced a bottle of very decent brandy. It was not the first he had discovered during the voyage, though now he squinted at the level through the glass, as if to suggest that his supply was not completely inexhaustible.

"Permettez-moi," he said, smiling again as he came back to the packing case. Allow me. Despite the roll of the ship his step was steady and his hand too as he poured-- he smiled with his mouth but his eyes remained cool. Again, Cyprien thought that the man was not the idle voluptuary he might seem. He pushed his cup forward for the splash of brandy, grunted his thanks.

Daspir sat down and dealt the cards. Cyprien and Paltre folded three times in succession, while Guizot bet heavily and lost. Guizot said nothing, but Cyprien could sense his rising anger; he had a weak head for liquor as well as for cards. Perhaps Daspir was aware of the strained mood also, for he squared the deck again and poured another dose of brandy all around.

"Your health, gentlemen," he said, and when they'd drunk, "How long do you suppose we'll be about this business?"

"Judging by tonight's progress," Paltre said, "you'll have parted us from the remains of our substance in another week's time."

"In Saint Domingue, I mean," said Daspir, with one of his fey giggles.

"Oh," Paltre said, raising eyebrows in mock surprise, "In Saint Domingue."

"How long can it possibly take to put down a nigger insurrection?" Guizot burst out. But Daspir kept looking quietly at Cyprien, who picked up his cup of brandy and drank. Guizot was already drunk, that was plain, and angry over his losses at the table.

"One rag-headed monkey at the head of a band of brigands," Guizot grumbled. "Why, the four of us might go out and arrest him and put an end to the whole affair in a week."

"Quiet," Cyprien snapped, glancing pointedly at the partition in the bow. "You know that we have no such orders."

"Nonsense." Guizot belched. "They are sleeping. And if they heard, what would they understand...."

Daspir had begun to shuffle the cards again. His soft olive hands, with the neatly trimmed fingernails, moved smoothly over the deck. Cyprien exchanged a glance with Paltre. This nigger insurrection had been going on for ten years, though the two of them had thought no more of it on their first trip out than Guizot did now. During that earlier mission there had been some idle chatter of the same sort: a mere handful of men might arrest Toussaint, and never mind all Hédouville's tedious temporizing. A couple of those chatterers, young officers with whom Cyprien and Paltre had struck up a short-term friendship, had been found dead on the road outside Gonaives, victims of an ambush which had never been explained nor punished.

"Ours is a peaceful mission," Cyprien said, reciting the official line. "As Toussaint Louverture professes loyalty to France, he must certainly bow to the authority of the Captain-General Leclerc."

"Oh, to be sure," Guizot snorted. "And for that one requires twenty-five thousand troops of the line. No, you speak of Hédouville and his style of diplomacy-- and Hédouville ran home with his tail between his legs."

Cyprien flattened his hands on the splintery surface of the packing case. For a long moment there was no sound audible above the ocean's rhythm except the fluttering of the cards. A ship's rat ran along the groove of the wall and deck and squeezed through a crack in the bow partition.

"I am sure you do not mean to insult me," Cyprien said.

"Certainly not." Daspir had spoken; he put down the cards. "Nor you nor Captain Paltre, I am sure." Daspir looked at Guizot, his eyes grown chill.

"Not in the least, my friends." Guizot, who was seated between Paltre and Cyprien, looked quickly from one to the other. "No, you are both men of courage and honor." He hiccuped. "Enough word-mincing, is all I mean to say. Are we to be outfaced by some gilt nigger in a general's suit? Are we not soldiers?"

Guizot reached for Cyprien's and Paltre's hands. Cyprien let his own be taken. At once he felt a surge of confused emotion, as if Guizot had communicated it with his touch. Daspir joined hands with them to close the circle.

"Come, shall we make a pact?" Guizot said. This time it was he who gave a meaning look at the bow partition. "We may be placed to have some special opportunity-- and there'd be glory in it. Let it be the four of us who bring the rebel in."

Cyprien thought of his comrades dead by the roadside, of Hédouville's abrupt departure, which did have the taste of ignominy. For a second he caught Paltre's eye. Shadows stroked across their faces with the swinging of the lamp. After all, there was something here to be avenged.

"So be it, then," he said. "I'll drink to that."

There was a squeeze of all their hands, and all at once they cheered. Then Daspir broke the circled handclasp, reaching one more time for his brandy bottle.


Placide woke with such a start he knocked his head against the wall. It was a minute or two before the movement of the sea reminded him where he was. There was that, and Coisnon's snoring, and the muttering of that young ensign, who often talked unhappily in his sleep. A ship's rat scuttled in the bilges beneath his plank berth. Through the partition he could the muffled, unintelligible voices of the four Army officers at their cards and liquor.

What had he dreamed? Billows, above which were billows, rolling one into the next like ocean waves, but these were waves of sand. A searing light over golden dunes, and then rising from the sand the august scarred face of the Sphinx, looming over him with her wounds, the weight of all that stone-- it was then that he'd begun to be afraid (his heart still thumping even now) under the weight, fear of the Sphinx and her terrible stoney voice, but then it was night, the sand was sea, and there in the place of the Sphinx (but still enormous) was the mermaid spirit Lasirène, glowing blue-green like phosphorescence or like stars, the dark pull of her gravity bearing Placide down beneath the waters.

He put his hand against the curving boards, feeling the pulse of the ocean. The rush of the water outside helped to calm him. He listened to the breathing of the other three in his compartment, to the persistent scrabbling of the rat. What was it they were sailing toward this time?

He needed to relieve himself, but he did not want to walk out to the jakes above-decks; he didn't care for the way the four captains looked at him, so late, when they'd been drinking,-- nor the way they avoided looking at him, sometimes. He found a bottle he'd laid by for such situations, unstopped it and directed his stream so that it ran soundlessly against the glass wall. When he was done he corked the bottle and wedged it back in the same place. Isaac coughed and shifted in his sleep, and Placide stepped across the narrow space and leaned over him, listening, till his younger brother's breath grew regular. Then he lay down again on the hard boards of his bunk.

Drowsiness carried him back toward the fearful immanence of the great loa. Lasirène, Erzulie of the waters! Placide had been a long time out of his own country; he had remembered the beauty of this mystery, but not her weight. Coisnon had taught them of Odysseus, how he stopped his crewmen's ears and ordered himself bound to the mast, that he might hear the siren song without being carried down by it to his own drowning. But that was only an old Greek story.

Placide worked his shoulders against the plank bed. This berth was a privilege of a sort, and yet he would have slept more easily in a hammock such as the ordinary sailors used. But in his discomfort he had pulled away from the dream vortex and the fish-tailed goddess waiting at the bottom. He was thinking with his mind. Surely it must be no accident that this ship itself was called La Sirène. No accident either that she had not yet sailed ahead of the main fleet.

"Your father," the First Consul had told them when he summoned them to his cabinet at the Tuileries, "is a great man; he has rendered eminent services to France. You will tell him that I, the first magistrate of the French people, I promise him protection, glory and honor. Do not suppose that France has any intention to bring war to Saint-Domingue: the army which she sends there is not intended to fight the troops of the country but to augment their force. Here is General Leclerc, my brother in law, whom I have named Captain-General, and who will command this army. Orders are given such that you will be fifteen days ahead in Saint-Domingue, to announce to your father the coming of the expedition."

Following this reassuring address, Placide and Isaac had been guests of honor at a grand dinner, attended by the Captain General Leclerc himself, with his seductive wife Pauline, sister of the First Consul. Also the Vice-Admiral Bougainville was there, with state counselors and many other persons of distinction, even Vincent, the Colonel of engineers, whom Placide knew to be a close and trusted friend of his father. Yet Vincent had seemed unusually silent and withdrawn that evening, though he was always friendly to the boys. The two of them appeared in the gorgeous dress uniforms they had just been given, and Pauline Leclerc, world-famous for her coquettry as much as for her beauty, made much of Isaac's fine appearance, while her husband (himself only twenty-nine years of age) pretended to growl at the flirtation.

In the event, however, their ship had remained moored for a very long time at Brest, while soldiers and supplies were assembled and embarked. La Sirène had put out in the midst of the entire fleet. For many days, Placide and Isaac believed that somewhere in the mid-Atlantic their ship would simply put on more sail and speed out ahead of the others, bearing the two of them, and the First Consul's letter, to their father. Isaac, at least, had believed wholeheartedly that such a thing must happen, while Placide, experienced in voyages of disguised destination and in being used himself as a decoy, had privately been a little doubtful from the start. And now they must be less than fifteen days from their landfall in Saint Domingue. What if a different ship had sailed ahead-- the one that carried Rigaud and his cohorts, or some other?

It might be for that that Lasirène seemed angry: she had been deceived, ill served. Mais ce n'est pas de ma faute! Placide cried mentally, I couldn't help it! A spirit might pardon your failure if it was plain you could not have prevented it. Placide thought he remembered that much, though Toussaint had been very firm in directing his sons away from the hounfors and into the Catholic Church. Still, with his father's long campaigns and frequent absences, there were times when both he and Isaac had followed the drums. Placide had seen the gods come down, seen the people who bore them totter with the shock of their descent.

This was the mystery into which he sailed, and he was helpless to change his course. Let it be, then. Let it come to him, to them all. He closed his eyes and made his breathing slow and even, though he no longer had the least desire to sleep.