A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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"I should say it is quite impossible that any extensive plot could be hatched without its being known in a very short time to everyone," Nat agreed; "and in any case, although those who live far in the interior of the island might have reason to fear, should the negroes break out, I can hardly think that, within little more than an hour's drive from the city, you need feel any uneasiness whatever."
"No, I feel that there ought to be no trouble here, at any rate unless there is a successful insurrection in other parts of the island; no doubt that would be infectious elsewhere. But the negroes near the town would be the last to join in such a movement, for they might be sure that the whites there would take speedy vengeance on all within their reach. However, let us think no more of it at present; my wife and Myra will be wondering what we can find to talk about so long."
Nat lay awake for some time that night thinking of what Monsieur Duchesne had said. He had heard vaguely, while he was there before, of the manner in which the revolution in France had affected the island, but it was a subject that was little discussed at the planter's. Having all the feelings and prejudices of the old noblesse of France, he had from the first been opposed to the popular movement in Paris, and had held himself altogether aloof from the demonstration on the island. The subject was painful to him, and he had seldom alluded to it in his family circle. It seemed to Nat inconceivable that any general movement could be planned among the blacks without warning being received by the planters. When he went out next day he looked with more attention than before at the slaves working on the plantations. It seemed to him that their demeanour was quieter than usual; the mulatto overseers seemed to pay less attention to them, and he was surprised to come upon three of them talking earnestly together, whereas, hitherto, he had always seen them on different parts of the estate.
On the following morning, the 23rd of August, Monsieur Duchesne started as usual soon after seven o'clock, for the heat was now intense, and it was dangerous to be out after the sun had obtained its full power. An hour later Nat was sitting in the verandah behind the house with Madame Duchesne and Myra, when an old negress ran out; her eyes were wide open with terror and excitement, and her face was almost pale.
"Madame and mam'selle must fly and hide themselves!" she exclaimed. "Nigger come in half an hour ago wid news dat slabes rise last night in many places all ober de country and kill all de whites. Dinah hear dat all people expect dat, only not for anober two days. Oberseers de leaders now. Dey come here quick wid all de field hands. Not a moment to be lost. Fly for your libes!"
"Impossible!" Madame Duchesne exclaimed, as she and Myra sprang to their feet alarmed, but incredulous.
"It may be true, madame," Nat exclaimed. "For God's sake run with Myra in among the shrubbery there; I will join you in a moment.If it is a false alarm all the better; but it may be true, and there is not a moment to lose. Do you hear those shouts?"
A burst of yells and shouts rose in the air a short distance away.
"Run! run!" Nat exclaimed as he dashed into the house, rushed to the closet in the hall, seized two brace of pistols, a sword, and half a dozen packets of cartridges for the pistols, and then ran out into the verandah just in time to see the white dresses of the ladies disappear into the shrubbery close to the entrance of the verandah. Some wraps which they sometimes put on to keep off the evening dew when they were sitting out of doors were hung up close by him. Hastily snatching these off their hooks, he dashed off at full speed, for the tumult was now approaching the front of the house. The ladies had stopped just within the cover of the bushes. "Run!" he cried; "there is not a moment to lose. They will be searching for us as soon as they find that we are not in the house."
The belt of foliage extended all round the garden, and, keeping inside, they ran to the other end. Fortunately, adjoining the garden was a plantation of sugar-cane which had not yet been cut, for although the greater portion of the cane is cut in April, freshly made plantations planted at that time are not fit to cut until the autumn of the following year. The canes were ten feet high, and as the rows were three feet apart, there was plenty of room to run between them. Scarcely a word was spoken as they hurried along. The plantation was some four hundred yards across; beyond it stretched another of equal size, extending to the edge of the forest. The canes here, which had been cut four months before, were three feet high; at other times many negroes would have been at work hoeing the ground round the roots, but when Nat looked out cautiously from the edge of the higher canes not a soul was to be seen.
"I think it is perfectly safe," he said; "but you had better put on the dark wraps, your light dresses would be seen a long distance away. We had better move a short distance farther to the right before we attempt to go straight on. If you will walk one after the other, treading in each other's steps, I will take off my shoes and follow you; that will destroy your traces, and the marks of my bare feet might be taken for those of a negro. Please do not lose a moment," he said, as he saw that Madame Duchesne was about to speak; "there will be time to talk when we get into the forest and settle what we had best do."
They had gone but a few yards when Nat's eye caught sight of a hoe lying on the ground a short distance along one of the rows of the young canes. He ran and fetched it, the others stopping while he did so. Then as he went along he carefully obliterated his footsteps, and continued to do so until when, after walking thirty or forty yards farther, he turned into the young plantation. The surface of the ground was almost dust-dry, and between the rows of the growing canes a track had been worn by the feet of the slaves, who every two or three days hoed round the roots; here, therefore, there was no occasion to use the hoe, as the ground was so hard that his feet left no marks upon it. In a few minutes they entered the wood and went in some little distance; then they stopped. They could still hear the yells of the negroes, who, Nat doubted not, were engaged in plundering the house, after which he felt sure that there would be an eager search for the fugitives.
The ground had been rising all the way.
"I see you need a few minutes' rest," he said to Madame Duchesne, who was so much shaken that it was evident she could walk but little farther. "I will go back to the edge of the wood and see if there are any signs of their following us."
Just as he reached the open ground there was a louder outburst than usual of exulting cries; he saw a column of smoke rising from the trees, and knew that the negroes had set the house on fire. He returned at once to the ladies. Madame Duchesne had sunk on the ground. Myra was kneeling beside her.
"We must go on, madame," he said; "the scoundrels have fired the house."
She rose to her feet.
"I am better now," she said with a calmness that greatly pleased Nat. "It seemed a dream at first. What does it all mean, Nat?" for she as well as her daughter had come to address him by that name.
"I fear it is a general rising of the blacks throughout the island," he replied. "Monsieur Duchesne told me last night that he thought such an event might possibly take place, but he made sure that if it occurred we should have ample warning. By what your old nurse said it must have been an arranged thing, to take place on the twenty-fifth, but something must have hurried it. I think, to begin with, we had better go half a mile farther into the forest. We can talk as we go."
"Had we not better make straight for the town?"
"I think not, though of course I will do whatever you believe to be best; but there are a score of plantations between us and the town, and I have no doubt that the slaves will have risen everywhere. Besides, if your own negroes fail to follow our track, they will make sure that we have gone in that direction, and will be on the look-out for us; therefore I think that for the present we had better remain in the forest."
"But how can we live here?" she asked.
"There will be no difficulty about that," he replied; "there are plenty of plantations of yams, and I can go down and dig them up at night. The young canes will quench your thirst if we fail to hit upon a spring, but we know that there are several of these among the hills, for we pass over five or six little streamlets on our way to the town."
"I am sure Nat will look well after us," Myra said confidently; "besides, mamma, I am certain that you could not walk down there. You know you never do walk, and I cannot recollect your walking so far as you have done to-day."
This indeed had been the chief reason why Nat had decided that they had better stay in the forest at present, although he had not mentioned it. Like all Creoles – as whites born in the islands were called in the French West Indies – Madame Duchesne was altogether unaccustomed to exercise, and beyond a stroll in the garden when the heat of the day was over, had not walked since her childhood. The heat, indeed, rendered a journey of any kind next to impossible during the greater part of the day. They had slaves to do their bidding, to wait on them, fetch and carry, and consequently even in the house they had no occasion for the slightest personal exertion. Madame Duchesne, being of a naturally more energetic temperament than are Creoles in general, was less indolent than the majority of the ladies of the island, but was wholly incapable of taking a walk of which English ladies would have thought nothing. She was already greatly exhausted by the excitement and the fatigue of their hasty flight, and to Nat it seemed at once that it was hopeless for her to think of attempting the journey of fifteen miles across a rough country.
The forest grew thicker as they advanced, and after walking for half an hour Madame Duchesne declared that it was impossible for her to go farther. Nat was indeed surprised that she had held on for so long. She had been leaning on his arm, and he felt the weight becoming heavier and heavier every step. She was bathed in perspiration, her breath came in gasps, and he himself proposed a halt, feeling that she was at the end of her strength.