St Pierre, Martinique, Western Antilles
I was tethering the cows out by the pond when a boy came into our pasture saying that Father Cléophas himself want to see me tout suite in the morgue. Never having set eyes upon this child before I simply looked at him askance. He must have been somewheres about my own age; a mulatto, like myself, perhaps a shade darker than me, a hair smaller. His jaw hung loose and he had froth at the corners of his mouth from which signs I deem him to be of no startling intelligence. I spat on the muddy ground that lay between us to show my scant regard for him. Then I told him something he could do if he had a mind to.
The boy he scowled and thrust out his hand. There upon his palm lay a silver-mounted rabbit foot. This grisly talisman belong to Cléophas who found it on the Sugar Landing in St Pierre and kept it to remind himself of home, though it were a superstitious charm and most likely inapt to his faith. I had seen that pitiful scrap of fur and claw manys a time hence knew the Father must indeed have sent this chuckle-head, now telling me he would tend to my beasts once I had gone. And since I knew no different then, I thought he meant whiles I went to the morgue.
‘Hé! Poté mannèv! ’ said the boy, in our kréyòl tongue. ‘Ou kouyon, wi! ’
Though it would be unwise to make Cléophas wait, I refuse to be hurried by this poor fool, and I daresay I took my time strolling over to Victorine to gather in her rope. My chief employment was to tend livestock for the friars and since I would rather do that than toil on their plantation, you can bet I slung to my chores like a Hercules. Those animals so spoil they fancy themselve kings and queen. Victorine she leaned against me, entirely companiable, whiles I moored her up to the stake. She had the fluffiest most velvety ears of any cow you ever did see and her milk always came plentiful and sweet. I had no fancy to abandon her and her sisters to the care of this stranger; some might say a half-wit at that.
Meanwhile, the boy puffed up his cheeks and paced about, inspecting the little herd. The way he strutted and squinted and stroke his chin you would have took him for some Béké colonial cattle-merchant.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked him.
‘Descartes,’ says he.
Now, I might have been a young tom-fool back in those days but whenever the friars discuss the world beyond the islands I kept my ears open and I had heard tell of many great men, René Descartes among them. Seem to me some former master must have name this boy in cruel jest, for I have known game-fowl with more savvy.
I watched him strut about a-whiles then asked him:
‘They name you after the philosopher?’
‘Filo-kwa?’ says the boy.
‘The scholar: Descartes. They gave you his name?’
Boy shook his head, emphatic, then dealt an imaginary hand of Piquet.
‘Mé non,’ says he. ‘Dé KARTES, tu vwa? You damn silly. Playing cards.’
Poor boy had more teeth than brains. I could only hope none of my cattle would suffer whiles in his care.
‘Well, Descartes, you best not harm these ladies,’ I told him.
‘Or else.’ And I showed him my fist, mostly in jest. Then I snatch the rabbit foot from him and took off running like a redshank to the hospital.
The Fathers had constructed the morgue a short distance from the main building in the shade of abundant trees; a stone house in miniature, small enough for to make you laugh had you not known its gruesome purpose. High jalousie windows and walls three feet thick kept the temperature inside cool. I hesitated at the doorway, turning my straw hat in my hands. Not that I felt afraid; I had been in that morgue before. Just the dim light of the interior did blind me awhile. When my eyes adjusted, there stood Father Cléophas and, on the table before him, a naked field hand, dead as a dead herring. Since August they had been perishing at the rate of about one a week, struck down by a raging distemper no amount of prophylactic or purges would cure. For now, the poor dead fellow lay there all of a piece but only a matter of time before Cléophas finish washing him and then he would slice the belly open and haul out the inners. It was a known fact that our surgeon Fathers like to hack up a cadaver, poke around inside. They put our livers and lights in pickle jars and called it Learning. The very thought of it – and the ripe smell of the morgue – would have made a person of delicate disposition queasy. The field hand lips had all shrunk back; his teeth expose; eyes open. There be a fly stood on one of his eyeball but the poor dumb clod would never blink again; he had gone kickeraboo, most certainly.
That corpse had me so hypnotise, it took me a moment to notice my brother Emile stood nearby in the shadows. Blow me tight. The sight of him there made me jump in my linen. I took him for dead too, just propped against the wall – until he opened his eyes. Mary and Joseph! I laughed out loud and was the gladdest kind of boy alive until, slapdash, it occur to me to wonder exactly why he might be return to the hospital. Emile gave me a dismal look as much to say: ‘Well, here we are,’ just as Cléophas beckon me in with a ‘Bonjour’ and bid me put his rabbit foot on the bench. I set the hairy toes beside some medicine jars. Meanwhile, the old man turn to drop his cloth into a bowl and whiles his gaze averted I whisper to my brother:
‘Sa ou fé? ’
But before Emile could tell me how he was or explain his presence, Cléophas had stepped around the table toward us, one finger raised as though to reprimand me. He had been with us several month by that time and the sun had tawned his skin such that it now shone like beeswax in the gloom.
‘Prattle all you like in that gibberish,’ says he, in his same-old fussy-fussy French. ‘But I’m reliably informed, Lucien, that you speak another language.’
At first I thought he must mean his own tongue. Our friars hailed from Paris, Fwance and wanted us slave to speak as they did but we converse mostly like our mothers, in a hodge-podge of their own languages and French and – though we knew more of la langue française than our elders – we were prone to vex the friars with bombast kréyòl.
‘English,’ says Cléophas. ‘I’m told you speak it like a native.’
Perhaps this knack of mine might be a misdeed for which he would scold me inasmuch as, though the war had ended, we still considered England to be the enemy. I cut a glance at my brother. He seem calm enough but I could spot that his breath came fast and shallow. For what purpose he had been summon now I knew no more than a moth. But life had taught us to expect the worst; we were both full of dread and would have twittered in our shoes, had we worn any.
‘No need to look worried, my son,’ the old man said. ‘I speak a little English myself. I gather you learned it in Grenada from that man-nurse, Calder.’
‘Pray let me hear you,’ said Cléophas. He picked up the rabbit foot and slipped it into the folds of his cassock. ‘Say something in English.’
I thought for a moment and presently did as bid, allowing old phrases to come to my lips just as I remembered them; though I took care to leave out the abundant foul curses I knew and use to spout with relish.
‘Good day, Father. How do you do? My name is Lucien. I am thirteen or fourteen years old or thereabouts. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Where is the ipecac? Good boy. Give this man a medal. Bring me a jug. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. The fever has broken. The fever has return. They all have a fever. Fetch bandages and hot water. This leg must come off. She is dead. He is dead. They are all—’
Cléophas raise his hand.
‘Enough,’ said he. ‘I believe you.’
For true, I had not sought his belief but it would have been rash to point this out; and since I had deference ingrained in my very bones, I bessy-down and made him an obeisance.
‘Now then,’ says he. ‘There’s something I want you boys to do for me.’
And in this manner here the whole entire enterprise did commence, exactly so.
Some masters are swift to get to the point when they give instructions; you might say they go directly through the main door, cross the threshold, no hesitation. Father Cléophas was not one of these. He would walk around the property first, try the windows, then wander off into the garden to gaze at the roof before eventually he retrace his step to the front of the dwelling and give a tentative knock and – whiles he went on this bumbling circumbendibus – you oblige to go with him, wondering what abominable toil or trouble might be in store for you whenever he finally came around and stat- ed his requirement. With this rigmarole and in other ways, Cléophas like to cultivate the impression of being an absent-minded, kindly fellow and he would beguile you with that bilge awhile until you became better acquainted and began to cognise just how sly he could be, for true. My brother and I had encountered all manner of individual among the friars: a spectrum of humanity, from gentle coves who scarce could bear to swat a musquito to the most heartless bully. Whiles Cléophas might not be the worst kind of tyrant, for true, he was surely as slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel.
As for my brother, they said he had enough brains for to run a parliament. He was more than twice my age but I considered myself to be just as much a man, though in those days I lacked his talent with the pigeon peas and mummy apple. Beforetimes, he had slave for our friars, planted their growing grounds, first in Grenada then Martinique, until they sold him to some Dominican monks on the far side of the island, a long-day hike away. He had lost weight since last I saw him, about a year previous, when his masters had sent him back to the hospital with a gift of wine for the Fathers. Beneath his clothes, his body look to be naught but pure muscle and bone; a sculptor could have used him as a model for a fine-figured deity. His skin peau-chapotille, like mine – the pale bronze of ripe sapotillier fruit – but on that day his face had a chalky tinge and I fell to wonder about his health. Whiles listening to the Father, he appear to be the embodiment of patient attention but he had a gleam behind his gaze – a gleam such as only I, his brother, could detect – and it struck me that he must be taking the measure of this friar and would soon reach a verdict akin my own.
Meanwhile, Cléophas had finally crept up behind his point. Well, he required us to deliver some few medicinal plant to a colleague on Grenada. My brother and I were no strangers to that island, a former French territory now in English hands. We both had served les Frères at the hospital in the main town of Fort Royal and I was born there by all account. What Cléophas describe was a task of some magnitude, a voyage by sea to the place we had once called home. Listening to the old bolus drivel on, I grew thrill to the very marrow. An expedition with Emile to La Grenade struck me as naught but an adventure. Thus, when I turn to my brother, I felt all a-mort to see his shoulders droop. He look twice as miserable as before.
Cléophas must have observe this too, for he said:
‘You surprise me, Emile. I was led to believe you might like to see Grenada again.’ He awaited a reply but my brother simply composed his features, drew himself upright, so. ‘There was a girl, I’m told,’ Cléophas continued. ‘Her name – perhaps you can remind me . . . Estelle?’
My brother pursed his lips so tight you would have thought he wish them seal for the course of ages but the Father continue to stare at him such that Emile had no choice but to respond.
‘Céleste,’ said he, his voice hoarse.
‘Well,’ says Cléophas. ‘I expect you’ll be glad to fetch her back with you when you return to Martinique.’
Perhaps the old buffer had took leave of his senses for this could scarce be a serious proposition. Céleste – along with our former confreres at the Fort Royal hospital – was now in the hands of the English. What the friar said next did little to dispel our bewilderment.
‘You can bring her as well as the others.’
A moment pass, then my brother said:
‘Beg pardon, Father – what others?’
Cléophas spread his hands as much to say the matter self-explained.
‘Our other Negroes in Grenada. You may as well bring them too.’
‘. . . The hospital slaves?’ says Emile.
‘Indeed, those at the hospital.’ The Father gave a careless pout in the French manner. ‘And also the field hands from the plantation.’
Emile threw me a startle glance.
‘But that would be – please you, Father – many slave.’
‘Forty-two, at the last count,’ says Cléophas. ‘A number of them have perished recently. And some might be too old or sick but the fact is, the healthy ones should be here with us. No need to tell you what brutes those English are; they treat their Negroes so badly. We must get our own slaves back into our possession. We’ve lost so many this year to fever; we must replenish. There’s the rest of our land to clear and plant, not to mention our plans for the new distillery. With so few of us Fathers left, it’s too much. Also, we could use those hospital Negroes, the trained nurses, particularly Céleste; I understand she is very skilled. There is free passage to Grenada now and the treaty with England seems to have endured – the time is right to bring these Negroes here to us, to where they rightfully belong. It is the will of God.’
For true, I knew that Cléophas had been buttering the authority in Grenada and had even sail to Fort Royal for parleys with the English, angling to recover those slave. Emile may have heard the same rumour but he still look puzzled entirely.
‘Forgive me, Father,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I misunderstand. You want us to round up the hospital slaves and all the plantation hand and bring them back here with us?’
‘Certainly, those that are capable of labour, those that can make the journey. And, of course . . .’ Cléophas waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the medicine jars, ‘. . . deliver these dried roots and leaves to Monsieur Maillard, the physician.’
But I saw now that those herb were naught but a cloud of mundungus sent up as distraction before the old sawbones reveal his true purpose.
‘If you please, Father, you will not come with us?’ enquired Emile. ‘Or any of the other friar? We would need your authority, surely?’
Cléophas gave him a smile.
‘There’s a skipper has agreed to take you, a Spaniard. I’ll join you in a few days, of course, but for now you boys must go ahead.’ He indicated the body cooling on the table. ‘As you can see, I’m too busy here.’
‘Please you, Father, but do we have permission – from the English, from their Governor? I expect we would need that – to take the slaves.’
‘Indeed.’ Cléophas reached into the folds of his cassock and extracted a document. ‘This is a Power of Attorney from our Order, drawn up by the notary, Monsieur Emerigon, in the presence of our Governor, the Comte d’Ennery, and signed both by him and by our very own Reverend Superior, Père Lefébure, and this permission includes, of course, the approval of the English Governor of Grenada.’
He handed the parchment to Emile, who held it up to the light. A pang seize my heart as I watched him squint at that page. My brother was no kind of fool – no indeed, not one pound of him. But that paper might as well have been bum-fodder for all the sense he would make of it since he was unable to sign his own name. Emile would have cut off his own thumb for a chance to learn his ABC, whereas I could spell out a few simple word, though – for all practical purpose – I was illiterate and only educated myself, little by little, in later years.
The manuscript looked hard to read, close-writ in a backward-sloping scrawl, and before I could cipher a single word Cléophas had retrieve the thing.
‘I’ll return this to you when you leave,’ said he, as the document vanish within the folds of his linen. That was some magical robe he had on him: a Power of Attorney in there now and a rabbit foot – and what else besides his jiggumbobs – a bag of many eggs? A silken handkerchief? A turtle dove?
‘You should be aware,’ he continued. ‘The new physician at the hospital in Grenada – Mr Bryant, an Englishman – contests our ownership of the Negroes and hopes to retain them for himself. Both he and the new overseer at the plantation are of the same mind. They would keep the Negroes if they could – our Negroes, Negroes that were either bought or raised by us, les Frères de la Charité. It matters not to them what may be right, or what the English Governor may think, or the Comte d’Ennery. This is the one slight impediment we face in this matter.’
Emile turn his head a fraction. His gaze met mine then he resume looking at the floor. The room lay mortal still, so quiet I could hear a flame gutter in one of the lamp. Cléophas scrutinised us with his little grey eyes, first me, then my brother. He appear to weigh something in his mind before he continue.
‘Nevertheless, there is nothing that cannot be overcome now that we have this Power of Attorney. Be very careful with it.’
My brother breathed out hard through his nose: not quite a sigh, but similar. Cléophas studied him and presently spoke again, his voice stern.
‘We chose you, Emile, because you and Lucien are best suited to succeed in an enterprise of this sort. You’re familiar with Grenada and the town and since you know the hospital Negroes they ought to trust you. You’ve been hired back from the Dominican Fathers until such time as you return with the slaves.’ Here, he fixed his eye on me. ‘I imagine a trip to Fort Royal will please you, my son.’
No doubt in my mind that our old confreres would be glad to quit Grenada. Our French masters treated us bad enough but we all had heard stories about the English and what fiends they could be: they would hang you out to dry soon as look at you or squeeze you, bones and all, through a cane press. Most certainly, the hospital slaves would greet us as saviours and I had a mighty fancy to the notion of myself in such a role. Last time our Fort Royal compeers had seen me I was but a sprat of six or seven. Whereas now – in my triumphant return – I considered myself well nigh a man and though I might not part the waves and lead them toward the land of Canaan, I could see myself chaperone them to La Matinik, safe and easy, like eating pastry. In sum, I was noways cast down about the prospect of our allotted task, and would have said as much except the ‘Talking Machine’ had already turn back to my brother, palavering on again.
‘Who knows? It is not impossible, Emile, that Père Lefébure might see fit to grant you your freedom, if you succeed. At the very least – with the increase in sugar money once these Negroes are brought to us – we may, in time, be able to buy you back from the Dominicans. You could set up quarters with Céleste here and resume tending our vegetables – as I’m told you did before you became so morose and impudent. Your talent in the garden is missed, you know. None of your successors has shown much aptitude. Father Damascene still goes into raptures over your avocato pears. I daresay you and Céleste might even grow old here together. To my mind, this venture will be a blessing for all of us. So, there you have it.’
All through this soft sawder my brother stood with head bent, his lips down-turned. It would have been unwise to pay much heed to these allusions to freedom. Howsomever, Emile did not even seem cheered at the prospect of a reunion with Céleste. Once upon a time, back in Grenada, he had been a hearty soul with a smile for everyone and such a natural ability for growing plants he could coax cassava from a rock. Originally, we thought he had been sent to Martinique for just a few week but when those week turn to month I’m told he began to lose interest in the earth and all that grew there. By the time I arrived in St Pierre a year later he was a change character, stubborn and sulky. The Martiniquan friars suffered him somewhile longer until they tired of his insolence and sold him on to the Dominican monks, just prior to the English invasion. I half surmise that parting from Céleste was what had caused him to languish in the first place.
Cléophas folded his arms. Oh, he was a weary-o!
‘Now then, Emile,’ said he. ‘You cannot refuse to carry out your duty.’
My brother said nothing. His fists clench, unclench and clench again. In silence, I willed him to use them on the friar – for that would be a sight to see – then told myself not to be a fool, and prayed he would do no such thing.
‘Well, my son,’ the old man persisted. ‘What do you have to tell me, hmm?’
Poor Emile look sick as a poison dog. When he spoke, his voice sounded tight and dull.
‘Father, I must do what you ask.’
‘Excellent,’ said Cléophas. ‘The matter is settled.’
My brother looked up and stare the old man in the eye.
‘Except one thing,’ said he. ‘Please you, Father, I’ll go alone. No use for this boy here. He will only dilly and dally and cause trouble.’ His choice of words – ‘this boy’ – stung me to the core but I should have expected as much. Trying to get me left behind, no doubt; always treating me like a baby. For fear that I would miss my chance to act the big don for our Fort Royal compeers, I open my mouth to object but Cléophas had already clicked his tongue in disapproval.
‘Stuff and nonsense. You’ll need him.’
‘Beg your pardon, Father,’ Emile said. ‘But this is a child. What is he – ten years old? He’ll ruin everything. He is too young and silly.’
My cheeks grew so hot they burned.
‘Cho! Father, I’m not ten years old, I’m—’
Cléophas lifted one hand to silence me.
‘Be sensible,’ he told Emile. ‘We thought you would welcome this opportunity to spend time with your brother.’
Emile scowled at me. We sucked our teeth, same-time, me thinking: ‘Ten years old. I’ll give you ten years old.’
Meanwhile, Cléophas regarded us with a kind of detach amusement like he might survey the twitching of two sand-flea on the shore. I had no desire to give him the pleasure of observing us quarrel and Emile must have thought the same for he fell silent, though his eyes were all a-blaze. He look taut as a yellow viper all set to strike; you would not wish to encounter him in the forest.
Cléophas drew him aside for a quiet word.
‘Listen, my son. Whatever language you boys jabber on in is incomprehensible, even to most Frenchmen. What would happen if you were stopped by an Englishman or one of their redcoats, and questioned? You would have difficulty being understood. But Lucien here can talk to them. None of them has any command of French, believe you me, and an interpreter is never to hand, as I learned when I was there, in August.’
Here, he step back and raised his voice to include me.
‘By the by, if such an eventuality did occur – say, if, upon arrival, you’re stopped by soldiers and questioned – perhaps it would be better to avoid mention of your purpose in Grenada, if possible. The less said, the better. Christmas is almost upon us. I shall give you each a ticket, stating in writing that you are in Grenada to run various errands for me. If I were you – just in case they question you more closely – I might dream up some other story to explain your presence on the island. For instance, Lucien can tell them that you’re delivering medicinal plants to Monsieur Maillard and that you must prolong your stay on the island for a few days in order to . . . to . . .’
Since an idea had already formed in my mind, I spoke up:
‘Please you, sir, I’ll say that, since it’s Christmas, our masters let us return to the island to visit the grave of our own dead papa.’
‘You see?’ said Cléophas to Emile. ‘Not silly.’
My brother simply gave me a look of disgust.
Cléophas turn back to me.
‘Your father was some . . . settler, no doubt – now deceased.’
‘He is gone kickeraboo,’ said I. ‘Quite so, he is, mon père, most certainly.’
‘At any rate, it will probably take more than one of you to manage all that must be done over there. You will have to speak to the field hands and to the hospital Negroes, first of all, and one or two of the nurses have been hired out – at least they were a few months ago – so you’ll have to track them down and instruct them on how to get from wherever they are to the point of embarkation. Believe me, I have been thinking long and hard about this venture, and how it might be achieved.’
Then he proceeded to jaw on so long I reckoned we might be there until the crack of doom. Most of his remarks he address to my brother, who kept feeding him judicious questions. A fine pair they made, old Socrates and Plato; paid me as much heed as they might a lizard, and I leave you to fancy if I soon grew tired of that or not. The old man droned on and on. I won’t record his orations here; besides, I was only half listening, caught up in imagining my triumphant return to Grenada. The long and short of it, a skipper and vessel had already been hired and my brother and I were to set sail on the morrow.
By the time we quitted the morgue, dusk had crept up the foothills of Mont Pelée, though her summit glowed bright jade in the sun. I had presume that Emile might walk with me back to the pasture to talk but he began to head toward the main gate so fast I was oblige to call out to him before he vanished.
He turn to look at me, all the while backing off beneath the trees.
‘What is it, little britches?’
A few question came to mind but none seemed worth asking in that instant. Besides, it pained me, the sight of him all hotfoot in retreat, as if I were some kind of leper. Scarce the blink of an eye together and already our great reunion gone sour.
Perhaps Emile read my mind for he came to a stop, saying:
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing. Just – a person might – well, it might be good to talk with you is all.’
Somesuch nonsense came out of my mouth and I could have kick myself all around the hospital for sounding like a fliperous coquette.
‘Child, I would like nothing more,’ said he. ‘But we have no time for chit-chat.’
Contrary as a hog. Of course, from birth, we had been at the beck and call of others – my brother slaving first for les Frères and then, after they sold him, for those Dominicans; but also, for that matter, any Béké white colonial in the islands. Back in those days, since Emile could not be master of his destiny I suppute he like to hold sway over the few paltry element that lay within his control. Thus, he tended to avoid any other slave dictating his affairs, even in a matter so slight as when he might be engage in conversation. If ever you ask to speak to him he would imply – though he would gladly talk with you – he had far too many demands on his time; he a busy-busy man, a regular Bashaw: such would be the implication. Well, I could have cuffed him right where he stood for he was nothing but a stubborn, miserable slave, same as me. However, I knew better than to provoke him and so came at it sideway like a crab.
‘Will you sleep here tonight in the cells?’
‘Mm-hmm,’ he said, clearly thinking about something else. Then he asked: ‘Tell me, do you remember your birdcall signal?’
‘Let me hear them. You might be out of practice. Not too loud now.’
I cup my hands to my mouth, then press my fingers to my nose and gave three short descending hoots, one upon the other. The untrained ear might mistake those sounds for a dove but we knew otherwise. Compare to a real bird, the calls were a fraction short and came too express, one upon the other. This was one of the signal we used on the hospital estates to attract attention in secret, though some slave were disincline to whistle or hoot after dark for fear of rousing spirits. Emile himself had taught me the calls when I was but a sprout.
‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘Now the pigeon.’
Whereas a dove hoot meant simply ‘Here I am’ or ‘All clear’ or ‘I’m coming’, the pigeon call constituted a warning, especially at night when most of those bird would be tucked up in their nest. A pigeon was more difficult to mimic than a dove.
I put my tongue to the roof of my mouth and gave a few tentative coo. My brother frowned.
‘Again,’ he said. ‘Not so loud.’
I tried once more. He shook his head.
‘You need practice. Go on now, back to pasture. Try and get it better out there where there’s nobody around.’
‘Perhaps we can talk later then,’ I said, as he turn to leave. ‘See you at the cells?’
He spread his hands, full of regret, as though even this would be impossible; I may as well have ask for an audience with the Pope in Rome.
‘I have some errand to run in town,’ he said. ‘I may be late. But we have abundant time for talking tomorrow, on board.’
‘Oh,’ says I, and gave a sniff. ‘You need a ship to get to Grenada, do you?’
Quick-sharp, I toss back at him: ‘And here am I, expecting you to walk there upon the water.’
My intention, to take him down a peg, but he only gave me a familiar look of fond despair.
‘Listen, Lucien. is is no adventure, nor a child game. Sometimes, I wonder if you still have the sense you came born with.’ And so saying he sped off toward the gates. Just as well for him, since I was blazing with such a wrath I could have punch the head off a hammer.
On the following day, the tiny whistling-frog (or ’ti gounouys) cease their overnight song and the sudden silence woke me as usual, just before first bell. Emile had return so late the previous night I had not seen him, hide nor whisker. I doubt he had a girl in town; no woman interested him save Céleste. First, I check the row of cells in search of him then ran to the main building. Young Father Boniface was in one of the empty sick room, sitting up and darning bandages, despite his belly complaint. Once, he had been a swarthy fellow but for weeks now his skin had taken a greyish pallor. When he saw me at the threshold, he pointed to a bowl of vomit at his bedside and said:
‘No blood this time, Lucien. We shall gain the whip-hand yet.’
But he shook his head when I asked if he had seen my brother.
I found our superior, Père Lefébure, in the refectory, his cheeks already florid and sweating, his gooseberry-coloured eyes somewise bloodshot. He glanced up from his plans of the new distillery to inform me that my brother and Cléophas had already left for town. No doubt they had some business of Olympian importance to attend to down there. As a mere mortal, I was under instruction to join them at the Sugar Landing once I had shown the new boy, Descartes, how to keep the livestock from perishing in my absence.
Lefébure peered into his ink well.
‘Before you go, take a breakfast to Damascene,’ he said. ‘There’s a good boy.’
Old Father Damascene lay in bed, awake, his face fish-white. The room smell like a new-fill chamber pot. As I cross the threshold to prop open the jalousie, he fail to recognise me and call me ‘Maman’. Then he look shame-faced and murmured:
‘Bonjour, mon fils.’
‘Bonjour, mon père. Il fait beau aujourd’hui, non?
I found it no hardship to speak a little of la langue française with the Good Father, just the two of us. He had shown me naught but kindness and had save my skin by bringing me to Martinique. I helped him to his chair, checking his nightshirt en route but – thanks be to great Jehosaphat – he had not soiled himself.
The only food left to eat that morning was some corossol fruit. I passed him a slice and set his coffee in front of him.
‘Pah!’ he said, with one glance at the pale liquid in the bowl.
But before he could make a whole simmy-dimmy about water-down coffee, I distracted him.
‘Now then, Father. Me and Emile are to – you remember Emile, Father?’
‘Ah, what a gardener. He was a good boy – before.’
‘Father, he still is, mostly. Do you know where we are to go, me and him?’
His eyes grew wide.
‘Please you, Father, back to Grenada. Remember: where I first saw you, when you came there to the hospital – when Father Prudence decease this world?’
Damascene looked appalled.
‘Prudence is dead?’
‘Oui, mon père. Remember? He died years agone.’
‘Ah yes,’ says he, but he looked wily and I doubt he did recall, for true.
‘We sail this very morning, Father, because we have to—’
‘Who is sending you? Cléophas?’
‘Oui, mon père.’
‘That speck of shit.’ He bang his fist on the table. ‘I told him not to pursue this reckless venture. Confound him.’ He grab my hand. ‘Don’t go, my son. Stay here!’
‘Now Father, you mustn’t upset yourself. What is reckless?’
‘Oh my child. Those Goddams!’
Back then, Goddams was what we sometimes call the English. They had invaded our French Antilles some years prior, causing turmoil, and for small return since a mere nine month later they handed back most of their Caribee spoils, except some few, including Grenada and her sister isles. Now, King George reigned over those territories and the slaves in Grenada toiled for Goddam masters.
‘Father – the war is over, remember? They sign the treaty, three years since.’
‘All the same, those English, one cannot trust them. Why does Cléophas not send someone else?’
Then he said something all gibberish, just a jumble of words, but I was accustom to his ramblings, more frequent these days now he had become diswitted.
‘Father – I’ll be back in one week.’
‘A week!’ Poor old soul; his eyes fill with tears. ‘But if you go, Lucien, who shall bring me my corossol ? My cocoyage? What if you never return?’
‘I will, mon père. And the other Fathers will take care of you until then.’
At least, I hoped they would. Now that most of the friar had died or gone back to Paris or St Domingue, only four remained. Les Frères de la Charité in France were suppose to provide replacements, but months had gone by since the arrival of Cléophas with no sign of anyone else, not even a new nurse-man. Young Father Boniface had been ailing for weeks, and Lefébure had no time for quotidian cares, always up to his neck in alchemy, trying to make his special silver rum and planning his distillery. I had my doubts about whether he would remember to take much care of the Good Father.
Damascene sipped his coffee then scowled into the bowl.
‘My piss is darker than this,’ said he. ‘How many times did you use the grounds?’
‘Now then, Father. Soon there will be strong coffee every morning. With those extra field hand from Grenada, we can grow more cane, sell more sugar and make rum to sell. Besides, I shall bring back some old faces you might remember, Father – Céleste and the others . . .’
He smiled and, for a flash, seem so much like his old self it occur to me he might be on the mend. Lately, he scarce knew where he was, often wandering from one place to another and talking stupidness. To have such lucid conversation with him was a wide stride, for true. Howsomever, by the time he had drunk his coffee and I bid him farewell, he had already forgot about my voyage, for he told me he would see me that night, and I had not the heart to contradict him.
The boy Descartes I found by the chicken pen, laughing at the hens, mocking them with a ‘buck-buck-buck-A!’ Then he bob his head up-down like a pullet pecking seed and by mistake banged his skull off the hen-house. Well, bless my stars. He yell fit to raise the Devil and jumped about the place, cursing all kind of curse.
‘Tambou! Puten bordow do mèd!! Fé shié!’
It pained me to leave my poor Victorine and the rest at his mercy.
The St Pierre Hospital sits behind town at the foot of a vast cliff so abundantly overgrown that the forest seem to surge down the rock face like a green waterfall. Just a few years theretofore, I had witness with my own eyes the blockade of St Pierre, prior the English invasion, when those Goddams had dropped anchor offshore and done their utmost to knock the place to fritters with bombardment, firing great guns without cease, their bursting bombs raining down upon us for days until our batteries were silence. It was a miracle that any structure along the waterfront had been left standing. Parts of town were still under repair since the war and through certain gap between buildings you could glimpse the bay. As I walk down the straight road toward the ocean, I saw nine, ten large vessel moored up – drogher, sloops and merchantmen – all floating there, majestic, as though suspended in blue light.
St Pierre has no true harbour and no pier of any account, just the Mooring, an open roadstead. All the big ship coming in, they toss anchor seaward and fasten to a chain brought from shore and any cargo is ferry to land in smaller craft. Here and there among the larger vessel, a few piddling yawl like little children clinging to the skirts of their mother. No sign of any slaver: that was a mercy at least, and no warship either, save one frigate the French kept there now on watch, lest those English Goddams attempt another invasion. My gaze picked out this or that rig and my veins began to tingle as I wondered which ship might be ours and what would be her name. Something impressive and manly, I hoped, perhaps a Triomphant or Persévérante. In those days my head always and ever full of stories about ships such as the Royal Fortune and the deeds of buccaneer pirate like Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts.
Down at the quayside, people crowded around the market stalls. One bacchanal in the place: invalid soldiers and sailors begging, some blind, some with blacken stumps where once grew an arm or leg; whole dugouts full of fishes for sale, longside fruit of every hue and form piled up in basket; the whisper of naked feet on the stones mostly drowned out by high-pitch cries of vendors calling their wares in a mish-mash of French and kréyòl, their words alone enough to make your mouth fill with water.
‘Çe moune-là, ça qui lè di pain aubè? ’ ‘Ca qui lè bel avocato? ’ ‘Mwen ni bel poissons! ’ Who wants my little loaves this morning? My avocato? My beautiful fish? ‘Oh, qu’ils sont bons, mes patisseries! Oh, qu’ils sont doux! ’ Oh, my pastries are good! Oh, they are sweet!
I spotted Father Cléophas and Emile at the end of the quay among the barrel at the Sugar Landing so I headed toward them through the crowd with a ‘Good day’ and a tip of my hat to those of my acquaintance. ‘Bonjou – Bonjou ché – Bonjou Manzell – Bonjou Missié.’ The friars sent me somewhiles to market and often as not, I had to persuade sellers that they should hand over fish or other goods with promise of payment in sugar ‘tomorrow self’ or ‘next week’. More than anything, I hated to beg, ashame that my masters so poor. Thus, by way of compensation, I always tried to be extra genial, quick with pleasantry and laughter, offering compliments fore and aft and up and down so no one heart would groan if ever they beheld me coming.
My brother now wore a battered straw hat. The face on him hard-hard like stone; his shoulders up; his arms folded. Father Cléophas carried his old burlap bag on one shoulder and, on the other, a satchel made of leather. He was clearly holding forth to Emile in earnest and though I felt disoblige that they had left me behind, I took some comfort at having escaped an ear-load of friarly chatter.
Out in the shallows, I could see the usual flotilla: a few large canoe or pirogues, but mostly about a dozen flat-bottom ’ti canot or tub made of tea-chest and the like. In these preposterous craft, little boys sat entirely naked, paddling about the bay hoping to be hire to take passengers, messages or small cargo to and from the ships at anchor. From my previous trips to town, I knew some of these wharf boy – the ’ti canotié. ey were younger than me, by and large, so I mostly ignored them but I had an inkling they would be impress by the great adventure I was set to embark upon. The Father had warned us to be discreet once we reach La Grenade but he had said nothing about here in La Matinik. I thought it could do no harm to drop some hint to those boys, just enough so they might wonder about the important mysterious business I had been chosen to conduct. With this in mind, I waved and call to them as I approach the water.
‘Hé! Zenfants-la. Kouté.’
But right then old Cléophas descended on me with a cry.
‘There you are.’
And before I could say a word to the boys, he sent me off on some blasted errand, to get a scoop of fried Jackfish and some Kill-Devil, alias RUM.
‘Tell the vendors I’ll pay them next week, in sugar,’ says he. ‘And be sure to get the cheapest tafia, just a small jug – a sealed one. Then come and find us. We’ll be down there on the sand.’
Seem to me the old man just wanted rid of me. I curse my lot, having to beg yet again – and on this of all days. Old Blackbeard, before he set sail for some ruffian escapade, you can bet nobody sent him to market upon the spunge for Jackfish.
My brother let himself be led away, walking stiff and stilted as a heron. By the time I persuaded two vendor to give me rum and fish for a promise of sugar, he and Cléophas had reach the sand. Emile watch me approach, the look in his eye telling me something – but what I did not know.
‘Viens, Lucien. Vite,’ says Cléophas when he notice me. ‘Ah! My Jacks.’
He grab the parcel from me since those fishes a delicacy and his favourite. The rum he refuse to take.
‘No, no,’ says he. ‘That’s for Captain Bianco. Give it to him when you go aboard. Just be aware, my son, as I’ve been telling Emile, your skipper is a Spaniard but he’s also a deaf mute. He cannot hear what you say but makes himself understood with signs and he’s an experienced sailor. You’re in safe hands with Bianco, yes, quite so, pas de problème.’
Behind his back, I could see my brother. He raised an eyebrow, poked his tongue in his cheek: his sceptic face. No doubt, so far as he saw it, the friars being poor and scrimp of means, Cléophas would have found the most cheap and nasty vessel that could be hired in the whole Caribees.
Meanwhile, a canoe had come skimming to shore and out jump Descartes. That boy was everywhere. Only a short while before, I had left him back at the hospital. My brother must have recognise the boy, for he knew his name.
‘Bonjou, Descartes,’ he said. ‘Peace be with you. How is your mother? And how’s my friend your brother? And your cousin, Baptiste – is he well?’
Here I saw a vestige of the old Emile. Our mother was of the Mandingo people and she had taught him to greet acquaintances in ritual manner by enquiring about the health of every family member, every sister, brother, father, mother, every cousin, uncle, aunt. Emile like to observe the custom and would have continue to question Descartes about more distant relatives had Cléophas not grown impatient.
‘Enough,’ he said and then he made us all kneel down on the sand whiles he offered up devotions. I must confess, a few line into the prayer, I open my eyes and took a peek at my brother. Back in Grenada when I was small, he use to carry on all kind of macaque during prayer. He might pretend to smoke an imaginary pipe or knock back invisible drams of rum, then yawn and stroke his chin as though bristles had sprouted there, or find suppositious insects in his hair, or a lizard or a crab – all to try and make me laugh. But those days were gone. Now, he contemplated me with an expression most grave before bestowing upon me the strangest smile, full of melancholy. Then with a sigh, he closed his eyes.
Descartes had hunched over, his face hid from view. Cléophas, meanwhile, was lost in hocus-pocus, head tilted back, smiling up at his compeer, the Divine Being. No other friar did pray quite like Cléophas. He always talk directly to God, smiling or chuckling now and again over some badinage that only he and the Supreme Being could hear. The way he spoke with the Lord you might suppose they were the best of friends; that Cléophas knew more about his Creator than anyone; perhaps he knew better about the Almighty than even God knew himself. Sometimes the old goat palavered on so long his orisons were like a monologue in six act but mercifully, on that day, he made short work of it. In his final remarks, he knew the Lord would watch over our journey; he knew the Lord would assure our safe return to Martinique; he knew the Lord would want to provide us with fair winds and untrouble seas; old Cléophas he knew the Lord back and front and upside down – yes he did, for true.
After we said our Amen, the Father bestowed his blessing upon us and handed over our tickets – written passes to show to anyone who might accost us, each in a small burlap bag with string to hang around our neck. He gave Emile the leather satchel then thrust us toward the ’ti canot.
‘Go now, my sons, vite, vite.’
Descartes held the canoe steady whiles my brother and I climbed aboard, fore and aft; Emile so careful with the satchel you might suppute it full of holy relic.
‘What’s in there?’ I asked. ‘A pique-nique?’
Naught but a slice of corossol had pass my lips that morning and my belly was biting me. My brother open the bag. Inside, muslin-wrapped, the jars of herb from the morgue; also the Power of Attorney and a flask of water. Nothing else. Emile gave me a consoling wink.
‘Never fret, little one. I’ll make sure you eat.’
‘You’re the one fretting,’ said I. ‘Nothing amiss with me.’
Descartes shove the boat out and sprang inside, between us, perfectly balanced and fit as a flea in a hound-dog ear. The canoe sat low in the water but it did not seem to bother the boy. As we pulled away from shore, Cléophas called out:
‘Emile, I have every faith in you.’ And then: ‘Be sure to tell Lucien your slight change of approach.’
I looked at my brother.
‘What change of approach?’ I asked.
But he just shook his head, with a glance at the boy. Then he lean forward and spoke to him.
‘Give me that paddle.’
‘Non mèsi,’ Descartes said. ‘We change places now, we tip over. Besides, I’m use to paddling.’
‘Who is your master now?’
‘Monsieur Siboulet. He’s half kill me six times. But I’m hired out for a few week to the Father. If I can show them I work hard then they might buy me.’
‘Oh well,’ said Emile. ‘In that case, keep paddling.’
Instead of heading for any of the big ship out at anchor it seem to me that we were bound only a spit and stride offshore toward a dilapidated craft no bigger than the smallest kind of fishing yawl. She had a tattered mainsail fit for a twopenny pirate, a dirty, flapping mizen and her hull needed a coat of pitch. A leanish colonial type stood amidships, arms a-kimbo, observing our approach. Emile grinned at me as much to say ‘I told you so’, his pessimistic prediction come true.
‘Gloat all you like,’ says I. ‘But we won’t fit forty-some slave in that calabash.’
‘Ksst! Do you never listen? is is just to get us there, you and me.’
Back onshore, the Father all smile-smile and waving. He called out a few word but the breeze snatch them away.
‘What’s he say?’ I asked.
My brother stitched up his lip like he might spit but made no reply.
‘I di, bon chans, mes fils,’ said Descartes.
Since Cléophas had wished us luck, I yell back thanks to him across the water.
‘Mèsi, mon pè a mwen. Ô rèvoi. Mèsi.’
And then Emile did spit: noisily, over the side, into the blue-green ocean. All at once I consider myself insulted for it seem to me this constituted some kind of a slight against me for calling out pleasantry and thanks to the Father. I glared at my brother, all fired up.
‘What do you mean by that? You want to say something then say it.’
Emile gazed at me, perfectly serene.
‘Easy now,’ said he. ‘We should try and keep our temper.’
Well, of all his habit this infuriated me the most: when he took on superior airs of condescension. I might have jumped on him – there and then, at least for a tussle – except I feared that the ’ti canot might flip and neither of us could swim a stroke even though we had resided by the ocean all our days. And so, instead, I spat over the side myself; a great big crache that landed near his. We watch the pair of foamy oysters float off on the unruffle surface of the sea. I hoped my sputation would overtake his or that the two would drift apart; whereas, in fact, the water stirred up by the paddle carried mine forward, such that the two spit join together and became a single entity.
Thus far the day had presented me with but one vexation after the other.
I turn to take a closer look at the yawl. Some letters had been etched on her hull in paint now flaked and barely legible. Two short word and I could spell them both: THE DAISY. An English-sounding appellation, for true, but – at the time – that did not strike me as strange. All I could think was that we would make our voyage in a vessel named after a pretty little flower and how that fairly put the cherry on the cake.
Captain Bianco was a pale-eye Béké: small and wiry; russet- skinned; his beard trim neat with a scissor. He wore tight britches and, in his belt, a keen-blade cutlass that glinted in the sun. As we came alongside, Descartes grab the yawl to steady the canoe whiles Bianco lean down and helped us climb aboard. Then he indicated where he would have us sit: me amidships and Emile in the prow.
I gave Bianco the Kill-Devil and – not forgetting his affliction – made a big pantaloonery of obeisance, pointing toward the shore where Cléophas still stood. The skipper eyed the jug with some amusement as though he had surmise it contain the worst kind of gut-rot. By the look on his face, this hombre knew the Father of old. In jest, he pretended to jettison the rum but he only made-believe to pitch it overboard: fact of the matter is, I saw him stash it in a coil of rope. Then he face the island and – putting thumb and finger to his lips – let forth a piercing blast of a whistle, his other arm raised. In response, Cléophas gave a last wave then picked up his bag and began to walk back toward Place Bertin. I watched him go: a lonely figure now, diminish by distance.
Meanwhile, Emile had stowed his precious leather satchel and slump down glumly in the prow. Something had vex him, no question. I would have given my left liver to know what Cléophas meant by a ‘change of approach’ but if Emile thought I would sweat him for answers he was sore mistaken; I cared the devil of a Hindu dam for his condescending ways. When I turn back, the captain produced a silver denier from thin air and flipped it so it fell, twirling and glittering, toward the ’ti canot. Quick as a skink, Descartes caught the coin and stowed it in his mouth for safekeeping. Then with a muffle squeak: ‘Ô rèvoi,’ and a wave, he took up his paddle and set off for the shore.
After that we had a lot of dumb show as Bianco pointed to his ears and shook his head; and pointed to his lips and shook his head; then pointed to his brain-pan and NODDED wide-eyed just to let us know he was nobody fool. Then more pantomime as he warned us not to bang our skulls on the boom or fall overboard or get underfoot whiles he went about his boat business. Next, he chopped open a few green coconut and gave us the sweet water to drink and, presently, when he lean down to rummage in a basket, I heard my brother, behind me, speak in an undertone:
‘Take this knife and kill him.’
Convince I had misheard, I turn my head. Emile sat there, arms folded.
‘What?’ said I, bewildered.
He said it again, louder this time:
‘Take this knife and kill him.’ Then, keeping his eyes fix on Bianco, he yelled it: ‘Kill him with this knife quick!’
All throughout, Bianco continue to rummage in his basket, oblivious.
My brother thrust out his bottom lip, then flex his knuckles, evidently satisfied.
‘I bon,’ said he. ‘Looks like he’s deaf, for true.’ Then he murmured: ‘Hé, Lucien – watch out for him with that cutlass.’
‘Why bother to whisper?’ said I. ‘You just proved he cannot hear you.’
‘Just watch the cutlass, is all.’
‘Cutlass,’ I scoffed. ‘He had six cutlass I could still put him over the side with one hand.’ en I call Bianco a name, not a pretty one, I will admit the fact.
‘Cho! ’ said Emile. ‘No need for that. Poor man’s only a dummie.’
Just then, the skipper span around with a madcap grin, holding up a handful of small cod-cake, like they were a trophy. He tossed us two a-piece.
‘Thank you, master, sir,’ I heard my brother say. ‘Thank you very much.’
Well, of all the hypocrisies. First he disapproves of me for thanking Cléophas, next he bessys-down to this Spaniard. There and then, I vow to cease all dialogue with Emile and – since I was ignoring him – my next remark I address to my cod-cake.
‘Can this old lobster hear you thank him?’ I asked it. ‘No, he is deaf as a bat.’
Emile just shook his head.
Whiles we ate, Bianco began some intricate business with ropes, hauling on them and tying them off. The Daisy was bleach with age and her sails much mended but on closer inspection she seem sound enough. Despite my phantasies regarding pirates and the like I knew precious little about the sea in those days and thus watch the skipper in fascination. At one point I stood up to offer a hand but he shove me back down, fair and square; and quite right too for a novice can wreck a vessel quick as hell can scorch a feather. With nothing else to do, I sat back and listen to the creak and tick of the hull, the air currents out there in the bay like cool caresses on my skin.
From this place, out on the ocean, the whole Martinique was a mass of verdant green. A wreath of cloud sat about the crown of Mont Pelée with St Pierre like a pile of red rubble that had slided down the mountainside and come to rest by the shore. Despite the English bombardment, she was still a fine, handsome settlement. Just behind town, the hospital estate stretched out below the cliffs. I strain to see my cows but the trees grew too high all around and I could only glimpse the roof of the hospital building among the lush vegetation.
Meanwhile, Bianco continued his preparations. I could scarce help but cast curious glances at him, not least at the almighty bulge that strain the front of his britches. Deaf mute he might be, but he seem well equip in other respects. Either that or he stowed all his worldly goods in his pockets. It did cross my mind that his pink segar might be upstanding for some reason. I wondered if Emile had notice the same thing but he was staring at the horizon in silence. A dummie Spaniard and a brother in the doleful dumps, such would be my company on our great voyage. I gave thanks that I had not brag to the wharf boys about my illustrious venture, only to be witness sailing off in such a miserable tub.
Just then, Emile gave a sigh, no doubt lost in memory of Céleste – or perhaps just gazing across the ocean, yearning for the land of our Mandingo ancestors. I took up my second cod-cake and spoke to it in scolding fashion:
‘Some people might believe Africa is over in that direction,’ I told it. ‘But they be silly. They are looking west not east. Only land over there is St Domingue.’
Well, I thought that might get a rise out of my brother, but he just yawned. Then the light in his eyes darken as they fixed on something behind me.
‘Company coming,’ he said.
I followed his gaze. Heading straight for us and within pistol-shot, here came a pinnace with about a dozen French military aboard, four soldiers of the marine rowing, the rest of them Royal Grenadier, staring at us in hostile fashion. Despite their faded and tattered uniforms, they look to be a stalworth crew, all a-bristle with weaponry. I counted six musket with fix bayonets, eight pistol, four cutlass and two boarding axe. A well-knit officer with the build of a swordsman sat in the prow and as they came up to our stern he called out:
The marines lifted their oars such that the vessel slowed to a near standstill close aboard of us. Bianco notice me craning my neck for a better view and turn to see what had caught my attention. He and the officer came so close they could have reached out for an embrace but naught so tender came to pass. Bianco simply glared at the man who, in return, made no gesture save to lean forward and inspect our yawl, glancing along her deck then taking a good study at each of us, and all the bluejackets in the pinnace also stared at us with menaces. I held my breath, wondering what might happen.
Then the officer smiled at Emile.
‘Is that you, Mandingo?’
My brother snatched off his hat and stood up.
‘Yes, sir, Lieutenant Fournier, sir. Good day to you.’
The officer glanced at Bianco then back at Emile.
‘Is this man treating you well?’
‘Oh quite so, sir,’ said my brother. ‘He can’t hear you though, sir, he’s a dummie.’
‘A dummie, is it?’
The lieutenant look Bianco up and down with frank curiosity.
‘Well, we shall detain you no longer,’ he said, loud and slow, to the Spaniard. ‘Strange boat, you see. Need to check you aren’t up to no good.’
Then – blow me sideways – he gave my brother a wink. Thereafter, he turn to our skipper and spoke in his face, slowly, whiles pointing at Emile.
‘You must be careful with this man here. He saved my life at Morne Grenier.’
‘Sir,’ said Emile. ‘If you please, sir, you exaggerate.’
All this, I found most intriguing. For true, the French had conscripted some slave to help fight off the Goddam invaders and my brother had been among their number but he had told me that since the east of the island was mostly unaffected by the conflict, he had seen no combat; the English had more interest in the towns on the west coast. Morne Grenier, a lofty well-defended hill with many guns and batteries, was in the south-west. So far as I knew, Emile had never been there.
A few of the Grenadier stared oddly at Emile, their eyes shining. Meanwhile, he appear to be avoiding my gaze. Lieutenant Fournier grinned at him again.
‘What are you now, Mandingo, a fisherman?’
‘No, sir,’ said Emile, with a glance at the Spaniard – who had loop his arm through a hanging rope and was swinging from it by his elbow, quite composed, as he watch the proceedings, following the conversation by studying their lips. ‘This is not my master, sir. I’m hired out, sir. We’re – we’re bound for Grenada, sir, on behalf of les Frères de la Charité. Delivering medicinal plant to a physician there.’
The officer looked surprise.
‘La Grenade, eh? Well, be careful. We cannot have those Goddams steal you away from us. Can’t have you spying for the enemy.’
My brother gave a short laugh, somewhat hollow.
‘No, sir.’ He frowned. ‘But – please you, sir, if you would be so kind.’ Here, he gestured toward me. ‘Take this boy ashore with you. Turns out we have no need of him.’
I stared at Emile, aghast, as Fournier pointed at me and asked Bianco:
‘You need this boy?’
Much gesticulation ensued, the gist of which being that the skipper required both me and Emile, most definitely. The lieutenant gave my brother a quizzical look.
‘Well, Mandingo. I know not what tricks you’re up to but it looks as though the boy goes with you.’
‘Please, sir,’ said Emile. ‘ is is my brother. He’ll be safer here in Martinique.’
But the officer was already calling out over his shoulder, keen to be off.
‘Nothing to concern us here, men. Allons-y. À la frégate.’ He turn back to Emile. ‘He’ll be fine, Mandingo. We’re not at war any more, you know. You can sail right into the harbour at Fort Royal, nobody will bother you.’
The marines dip their oars and began to row. In parting, the lieutenant bid our skipper farewell and, for reply, Bianco gave a kind of salute. Slow-slow, the pinnace got underway and Fournier called out to Emile:
‘Good to see you again, Mandingo. You have my thanks, as ever – et bon voyage.’
He raised his hand in farewell but my brother did not respond in kind. The pinnace ploughed a wide arc in the water then surged away toward the frigate, north of the bay. A few Grenadier wave their hats and grinned, calling out as they went:
‘Goodbye, Mandingo. Farewell.’
I was not altogether convince they knew Emile in person but they were evidently well dispose to the notion of him. Meanwhile, their commander seem lost in thought, gazing back at my brother as though reliving some memory. Emile resumed his seat. Forgetting my vow to disregard him, I asked:
‘Who was that?’
‘Nobody you should worry about.’
‘When were you at Morne Grenier?’
But he just clicked his tongue and gave me a brief smile, which I returned, only mine were entirely sardonic, a grin so forced and wide that it hurt my face. Confound him and his mysteries. He replaced his hat on his head, then spent a moment adjusting his sleeves: His Excellency, Prince Mandingo.
By this time, the pinnace was just a shimmering spot of colour in the distance. Bianco gave an exaggerated shiver and, with that, began to hoist his sails. The breeze must have been favourable because no sooner did he haul up his mud-hook than the yawl began to move, feeling herself free. Along the hull, came a crisp sound of water hissing and then with a snap the mainsail caught the wind and we were away, slapping through the waves.
Since I had already broken my vow to ignore Emile – and we could scarce spend the entire journey in silence – I decided to strike up an innocent conversation with him from which origin I might coax some revelation. For true, I was intrigue to hear the story of the lieutenant and how Emile had saved his life but I also wanted to know what Cléophas meant by a ‘change of approach’.
Howsomever, when I glanced around, I saw that Emile had curled up beside the little skiff in the prow, his hat over his face and his head in the shade of a thwart, by all appearance, already asleep. I turn back to shore for a last glimpse of our plantation but we had almost rounded the point at Morne aux Boeufs; the red roof of the hospital no longer visible and even the town of St Pierre herself had faded from view.
All at once, I became aware that – from his place at the tiller – Bianco was watching me close-close. A kind of uneasiness settled across my heart, for I dislike the way his pale eyes seem to stare into my soul. Jésis-Maïa! In haste, I turn to face the prow. That way I could keep lookout for sharks and make sure that Emile slept safe. I had no fear of the Béké, not one iota, but if he could not get sight of my countenance then that was an added bait and bonus.