"All Souls Rising," The Writer's Cut

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1992

First published in Elvis In Oz
Edited by George Garrett and Mary Flinn, (University Press of Virginia, 1992)


June 7, 1802, Le Cap
      And now after so many frustrations and delays it appears reasonably certain that I shall succeed in quitting this country-- I will not call it godless, for there are too many gods here, notwithstanding the efforts of the atheistic Jacobins. I shall be more than happy to see the whole island with all contains receding behind me; let the ocean roll over it entire and I would not miss it one whit.
      I count my berth on L'Héros secure, as it ought to be when I have squandered so much of the small substance which remains to me in bribes, but it remains unsure when the ship will set sail, and I have determined to remain for the moment in the town, although it is unhealthy here, with so many soldiers in barracks at the onset of the fever season. General Leclerc would have done better to put more of his men in the interior, where the air is not so noisome, and fever less prevalent among our people. With the submission of so many of the brigand chiefs the fighting has sufficiently subsided that he might have done so with small danger. Though, to be sure, he is not to be bidden by me, nor is he likely to inquire after my opinion.
      The climate shipboard is equally fetid and dangerous so long as the ships remain in port, therefore I have concluded to pass these days, I hope they will be few, here in Le Cap. Given my particular weakness I have no desire to board the ship any sooner than I absolutely must. In the meanwhile I will seek such opportunity as may present to furnish myself with some small provisions for the voyage.

June 10, 1802, Le Cap.
      I who so dearly had believed myself to have passed the peak of my misfortunes now discover it is not so. Having drained my resources almost to the very last to secure a cabin to myself I now find that I have been robbed of this costly purchase. No complaint to Captain Savary has been availing. He will say only that it has become necessary to embark a number of new passengers, and this for some obscure (and undoubtedly fabricated) reason of state. He was of course unmoved by any reference to the sum already paid, as I of course was the greater fool to have proffered the whole amount in advance. I depended too much upon French venality, by which I should have known better than trust a Frenchman to stay bribed.
      What hope Savary may have of obtaining still another favor by this ruse must be vain-- I have no means left to tempt him, though I shall not let him know it. At the same time, I dare not protest too loudly, lest by striking some false note I should betray myself. During my weary and fruitless time in the interior I have become sufficiently familiar with the barbarous argot of this place to pass myself for a creole, and have thought it best to do so. Never mind the peace, at such a distance from Europe. And in this place one cannot certainly distinguish friend from foe, or know by what reason any stranger might prove to be one or the other. It was on this same account that I wished so fervently for a cabin apart, since it is a great fatigue to me to maintain my pretense day and night without cease.
      Come what may I shall board the ship this even. It may be as well to do it, as there have been a number of small disturbances in the town. I keep clear of all French officers, but the town's mob, whether black or white or particolored, is rife with rumors of the arrest or assasination of one of the more important brigand leaders, Christopher or Toussaint or Dessalines it has been variously noised about. Given the late submission of all these three to Leclerc's authority, I find these tales to be most improbable, but that will not matter if they are believed. With so large a part of the French garrison undone by fever, the town hangs in a more delicate balance than one would willingly acknowledge, and a rising might easily throw it over.
      Moreover, once aboard L'Héros, I may manage to improve my situation there, or at least defend it from further decay. I carry with me 2 pounds of chocolate, 4 of coffee, and a box of lemons, these latter to relieve the monotony of the constant salt provisions. Also a bottle of French brandy, purchased at a completely ruinous price, and 2 of local rum. No wine is to be had here for any amount of money.

June 12, 1802, Aboard L'Héros.
      It is most still in the harbor, and yet I am constantly uneasy, in the expectation of a movement which continues not to come. Whenever I look to the shoreline I expect to see it go careering away from me....
      There are a good many sharks in the harbor. Though all is nominally quiet and peaceful in the fleet and in the town, they are somehow being fed.
      My sleep this morn broken by a clatter and banging, in the next cabin but one to my own, so it proved. Investigation discovered the ship's carpenter engaged in building what looked to be some sort of fortification there, for what purpose I could hardly say. The carpenter replied to enquiry with only a grunt, and I left him to the oppressive importance of his secrecy. The cabin is quite considerably larger than the one which I occupy.
      Likewise this morn I had the pleasure if it is so to be termed of making the acquaintance of my berthmate, the ship's third officer I believe, who pressed himself upon me under the title of le Citoyen Chabron. I believe that not so many years ago he would likely have styled himself Chevalier, or something of that kind. Well then, we are both pretenders. But at whatever time, in whatever guise, I think he would remain this self- same spangled popinjay, as light of mind as he is in years.
      By the time of his arrival I had to be sure already taken the wooden bunk to myself and stowed my small provender and smaller baggage beneath it. There is no question of my surrendering it under any circumstance whatever. In this wise I am able to remain in character, profitting by the creole's natural assumption of the absolute priority of his own wish, be it ever so trivial. Let le Citoyen Chabron string his hammock where best he may.

June 15, 1802, Shipboard.
Awakened in the small hours this morn by some commotion in the passage without, sound of voices, shuffling of feet &c. Arising with the dawn I found the ship already entering the channel. The secrecy of the embarkation of these final passengers, together with the sudden haste of our departure, would suggest a greater veracity in Captain Savary's claims that I had heretofore suspected. Also there is a sentinel posted outside the door of the cabin where I had previously found the carpenter at work. On deck I asked no questions, but observed a state of grim tension among the ship's officers, as though they could not be at ease before we were well away.
      Which sentiment, at the least, I can most heartily share. The town of Le Cap has twice been burnt to the ground these last ten years, but even at the height of its ostentation it could not, when seen at such a distance, have seemed any more than a most precarious foothold on this savage shore. Rounding the cape, I see that city give way to rocky escarpments plunging vertically into the waves, and above these the incomprehensible blankness of the forests, or, where the trees are cut, the peaks standing out as bare and sharp as needles' points. It is such reckless timbering that brought about the terrible floods I witnessed in the Artibonite, but shall I call that undertaking more foolhardy and destructive than another? Here no enterprise has managed to achieve a good result-- the hand of civilized man has done no more than make of a wilderness a desert. Perhaps before Columbus landed, it was some sort of savage Eden here. I believe it would have been better for all if he had never come.

June 16, 1802, Shipboard
      Today the inevitable. It came upon me when I was at meat, sharing the table with the ship's petty officers. The vessel had been rolling heavily for most of the day with considerable swells, but somewhat to my own surprise I had so far withstood the customary effect of the movements. It came upon me of a sudden, as I watched a steward effecting a difficult advance upon the table with some dish or other, first straining against an upward slope, then lurching forward as the floor assumed a precipitous downward pitch. I was then obliged to hasten away, so as not to shame myself before the company, stumbling and staggering and clinging to the walls.
      Still the nausea will not abate, though I am empty as a shell. M. Chabron has lately put his nose into the cabin. I do not take his enquiry after my health to be at all well- intentioned. With a supercilious smile he informed me that after all this sea was not an especially heavy one-- as though that were a comfort. Having a bit of a lemon peel clamped in my jaws, I was unable to reply, but showed him my teeth.

July 18, 1802, Shipboard.
      Difficult to credit it was nigh upon fourteen years ago when I took ship for the outward portion of this unlucky expedition. I can remember as clearly as if it were yesterday that horse I saw loaded aboard the ship at Southampton. A big bay gelding, which the sailors secured about the middle with a canvas swing, then hoisted by a wooden crane from dock to deck. Midair, the horse thrashed all his legs helplessly upon nothing, and tossed his head wildly to and fro and let out desperate windy whinnies which sounded almost like human cries. And still at any hour I can see him swinging toward me, so near I see the whites of his rolling eyes and the wet red flaring of his nostrils, and feel the touch of his panicked breath upon my face....
      The image is so definite and so lively I cannot always say if it is memory or dream. I pass the day in short uneasy snatches of sleep, my usual state an unsatisfactory compromise between slumber and waking. The nights the same, with twinges of delirium. I worry that I may be talking in my sleep, for if M. Chabron were to rouse himself to hear it my disguise would be undone.

June 22, 1802, Shipboard.
Better today. I was able to go on deck for the first time in many days, and could think of taking nourishment. The weather was fair, and I am given to understand that we have fallen in with the trade winds, which will speed our journey.
      Several porpoises observed midday at a small distance from the ship. They jump with such vigor as to bring their bodies out of the water entire, or they may surface only partially, to disclose the top fin and a part of the back... very graceful, a sort of curveting.

June 24, 1802, Shipboard.
      On deck today I encountered a curious party of blacks and mulattoes, four women and four men-- they appeared to be passengers of some description, rather than any sort of effectives on the ship. Indeed, from their rather unsteady comportment I should surmise they are no better sailors than myself.
      Finding M. Chabron draped upon a taffrail or some other such nautical fixture, I asked about the group and was given to know it is nothing else than the entourage of Toussaint Louverture! For although I had until lately been far too ill to give any thought to the matter, it is none other than Toussaint himself who has been kept so closely guarded in the cabin which, but for his presence, I might have occupied myself.
      Standing at a slight remove, Chabron pointed out the members of the party one by one. The eldest (and by far the blackest) of the women is Suzanne, the wife of Toussaint. She is said to be older than he, and showed her years, appearing confused at moments, appearing not to know just where she found herself or how she came there. But for the richness of her dress (which was, however, modest) she might have easily been taken for any ordinary household servant in the colony. The three young mulatresses in her train (a niece, a daughter-in-law and a companion as I gathered) struck me as rather more soignée, wrapped in that thin layer of hastily acquired sophistication with which I have often met in women of their type.
      The lightest of the men is Toussaint's eldest son Placide, though as Chabron reminded me there are some doubts as to his parentage, suspicion that he may be an illegitimate child of Suzanne's prior to the marriage (though Toussaint acknowledges and indeed is said to favor him). His light color may have occasioned this speculation, though often the Aradas, from which tribe Toussaint is extracted, are similarly light, or of a reddish hue.
      As for the two younger sons, Isaac and Jean, it is plain at a glance that they are fullblood negroes. The former wears a most extravagant uniform, every inch of it bedizened with gold braid and rosettes, complete with an enormous sword, the tip of it dragging the boards of the deck, whose bearer appears to have no notion of its use. The hilted weapon seems only to encumber the natural movement of his hands along his sides. With all its meaningless pomp this uniform shows marked signs of wear, hard wear at that, and Isaac seems to sulk inside it-- a bedraggled peacock, caught in a rainstorm.

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