A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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"I did not think of that, Myra; of course it is. Well, then, we must move over this hill and hide up in the next little valley we come to. There is a road that turns off half a mile above your house. I never went far along it, but it seems to go right up into the heart of the hills."
"I never went up it either, Nat, but I have heard my father say there were a good many small clearings up among the hills, some with twenty slaves, some with only two or three."
"Then, when I come back from seeing how things are going on at the house, we had better make for that road, keeping along down at the end of the plantation until we come to it. It will be much better to keep straight along there till we pass some little valley where there is a stream, than to wander about in the wood; and we shall be farther away from those who may be looking after us. If your mother sleeps for two or three hours she will be able to go some little distance to-night."
Myra shook her head doubtingly.
"We must get her on," he added, "even if we have to carry her. It is all very well for us, because I am as hard as nails, and you do a lot of walking for a white girl here, but your mother is not strong. You saw how terribly exhausted she was when she got here, and it is quite likely that she may knock up altogether; therefore it is essential to get her into shelter. We are safe for to-day, but to-morrow we may have the negroes all over the hills, and it will have to be a wonderfully good hiding-place to escape their search."
"But do you feel sure that they have risen on all the other plantations?"
"I have not the least doubt that they have risen on every plantation in this neighbourhood. Your slaves were wonderfully well treated, and would not have joined unless they had known that it was a general rising. You know the old nurse said that it was to have been on the twenty-fifth, which means, of course, that it was a great plot all over the island. Of course in some places they may not have got the news yet, and may not rise for a day or two, but you may be sure that all around here it has been general."
"But why should they want to kill us?"
"Because they are really nothing but savages. Though they have in many cases been slaves for generations, still there are always fresh slaves arriving; and the others know that their fathers, like these, were captured and sold to the whites, that they had terrible times in the slave-ships, and are on some plantations treated like dogs, and are bought and sold just like cattle. I don't wonder at it that, now they have got a chance, as they think, they should take vengeance for all the ills they have suffered. When they are at war with each other in Africa they kill or enslave all who fall into their hands – men, women, or children – and you may be sure that they will show no mercy here. When I was down at the edge of the wood to cut those canes I could see smoke rising from a dozen points lower down.It is possible that some besides ourselves got warning in time, but I am afraid very few can have escaped; for you see, once beyond the line of wood, which does not go more than a mile or two further, there will be no hiding-places for them. There is only one comfort, and that is, the news must have got down to the town in a very short time, and there is no fear of your father driving out and being taken by surprise. My greatest hope lies in that old nurse of yours. She could do more in the way of helping us than we could do ourselves. She could go and get things, and hear what is going on. She is old, but she is a strong woman still, and could help to carry your mother, and attend to her if she is ill."
"Do you think she is going to be ill?" Myra asked anxiously, looking at her mother.
"I sincerely trust not, Myra, but I own that I am afraid of it. She is breathing faster than she did, and she has moved restlessly several times while we have been talking, and has a patch of colour on each cheek, which looks like fever. However, we must hope for the best. Anyhow, I shall bring Dinah up here if possible."
So they talked till the sun went down. Madame Duchesne still slept, but her breathing was perceptibly faster. She occasionally muttered to herself, and scarcely lay still for a moment.
"I will be going now," Nat said at last; "it will be pitch dark by the time I get down to the house; it is dark already here. You have the pistols, Myra, but you may be quite sure that no one will be searching now. I may have some difficulty in finding these bushes when I come back, but I will whistle, and when I do, do you give a call. I hope I shall bring Dinah back with me."
"Oh, I do hope you will. She would be a comfort to us."
Nat heard a quaver in her voice, which showed that she was on the point of breaking down.
"You must not give way, Myra," he said. "You have been very plucky up to now, and for your mother's sake you must keep up a brave heart and hope always for the best. I rely upon you greatly. We may have many dangers to go through, but with God's help we may hope to rejoin your father. But we must be calm and patient. We have been marvellously fortunate so far, and shall, I hope, be so until the end. When I find out what the negroes intend to do we shall be able to decide upon our course. It may be that they will pour down from all the plantations within thirty or forty miles round and attack the town, or it may be that they will march away into the mountains in the interior of the island, in which case the road to the town will be open to us. Now, good-bye; I will be back as soon as I can."
"Do not hurry," she said. "I will try to be brave, and I don't mind waiting, because I shall know that you are trying to get nurse, and of course it may be difficult for you to find her alone."
"Good-bye, then," he said cheerfully, and passing through the bushes he went rapidly down the hill.
On reaching the cane-field he again took off his shoes. He did not hurry now. It was a tremendous responsibility that he had upon his shoulders. He thought nothing of the danger to himself, but of how Madame Duchesne and her daughter were to be sheltered and cared for if, as he feared, the former was on the edge of an attack of fever, which might last for days, and so prostrate her that weeks might elapse before she would be fit to travel.
"I must get Dinah at all costs," he said to himself. "She knows what will be wanted, and will be a companion to Myra when I have to be away."
As he neared the place where the house had stood he heard sounds of shouting and singing coming from a spot near the storehouses, where a broad glow of light showed that a great bonfire was burning. He kept in the shrubbery until near the house, and then stepped out on to the grass. The house was gone, and a pile of still glowing embers alone marked where it had stood. Nat approached this, found a piece of charred timber that had fallen a short distance from it, and proceeded to blacken his face and hands. Then he turned towards the fire. As he had expected, it was not long before he came across the figure of a prostrate man, who was snoring in a drunken sleep. The stars gave sufficient light for him to see as he bent over him that he was a negro. He had attired himself in what when he put them on were a clean nankeen jacket and trousers, a part of the spoil he had taken in the sack of the house. Without ceremony Nat turned him over, and with some trouble removed the garments and put them on over his own. Then he took the red handkerchief that the negro had bound round his head and tied it on, putting his own bandana in his pocket.
"Now," he said to himself, "I shall do, provided I keep away from the light of that fire. The first point is to find where Dinah has gone. I know she has a daughter and some grandchildren down at the slaves' huts. I should think I have most chance of finding her there."
Turning off, he went to the huts, which lay two or three hundred yards away from the house. As he did so he passed near the houses in which the mulatto overseers lived. There were lights here, and he could hear the sound of voices through the open windows.
"I will come back to them later on," he said, "I may hear something of their plans; but Dinah is the most important at present."
He was soon among the slave huts. No one was about, the women being mostly up at the fire with the men. He looked in at the door of each hut he passed. As he was still without shoes his movements were noiseless. In a few of them women were cooking, or putting their children to bed. At the last hut of the first row which he visited an old negro woman was rocking herself in great grief, and two or three children were playing on the floor. Nat knew that he had come to the end of his search, by the blue cotton dress with large white spots that the woman wore. He went in and touched her.
"Dinah," he whispered, "come outside!"
She gave a little start of surprise, and then said to the children:
"Now, you stop here, like good childer, Aunt Dinah is agoing out. If you keep quiet she tell you story when she comes in."
Then she went out with Nat without any appearance of haste. By long connection with the family she spoke French fairly well, whereas the negro patois, although mostly composed of French words, was almost unintelligible to him.
"Tank de Lord dat you hab come back, Marse Glober. Dinah fret terrible all day. Am de ladies well? Whar you hide dem?"
"They are up in the wood, Dinah. I am greatly afraid that Madame Duchesne is going to have fever, and you are sorely wanted there. Myra said she was sure that you would come when you knew where they were."
"For suah me come, massa," she said. "What madame and Mam'selle Myra do widout Dinah? So you black your face?"
"Yes, but I want some juice to make my face yellow like a mulatto. Anyone could see that I was not a negro in the daylight."
"Dat so. Me bring 'tuff wid me. What you want beside?"
"We shall want a bottle or two of wine if you can get them, and a jug of fresh water, and anything you can get in the way of eatables, and I should say a cooking pot. Those are the principal things."
"Dere am plenty ob boxes of wine up near house. Dis black trash like rum better, leave wine for de mulattoes; dey bery bad man dose. Where you go now, Marse Glober? Me take some time to get de tings."
"It would be a good thing, too, if you could get hold of enough cotton cloth to make dresses for them."
The old woman nodded.
"Plenty ob dat, sah. Storehouses all broke open, eberyone take what him like. Dis dreadful day, almost break Dinah's heart."
"It has been a terrible day, Dinah, and I am afraid that the same bad work is going on everywhere."
"So dey say, marse, so dey say. Where you go now, sah?"
"I am going to the overseers' huts to hear what their plans are. Where shall I meet you, Dinah?"
"Me take tings to bush just where you and de ladies ran in. Me make two or tree journeys, but me be as quick as can."
"Do; it is anxious work for Myra there, and I want to get back as soon as I can. Her mother is asleep, and even if she wakes I do not think she will be able to talk much."
"Me hurry, sah, but can't get 'tuff to stain you skin to-night. Find berries up in de wood to-morrow."
"There is one other thing, Dinah. Can you tell me where to find a hand-barrow? I expect we shall have to carry your mistress."
"Me know de sort ob ting dat you want, sah, dey carry tobacco leabes on dem. Dere are a dozen ob dem lying outside de end store."
"All right, Dinah, I will take one as I go past. Now I will go."
So saying, he turned and made his way to the overseers' house. He crept softly along to a lighted window. When in a line with it he stood up for a minute, knowing that those inside would not be able to see him, there being a screen of trees just behind him. The three mulattoes whom he had seen talking together in the field on the previous day were seated round a table. On it were placed two or three wine-glasses. All were smoking.
"To-morrow we must get those drunken black hogs to work," one said, "and have a regular search through the woods. Everything has gone well except the escape of madame and her gal. Someone must have warned them. The house niggers all agree that they were in the verandah behind just before we came up, talking with that English lad. Of course they will be found sooner or later, there is nowhere for them to run to. The thing is, we want to find them ourselves. If anyone else came upon them they would kill them at once."
"Yes, and you will have some trouble if you find them, Monti," one of the other men said. "These blacks have been told that every white must be killed. It is easy enough to work these fellows up into a frenzy, but it is not so easy to calm them down afterwards."
"No, I am quite aware of that, Christophe, and that is why I did not press the search to-day, and why I was not sorry to find that they had got away."
"You see, we have arranged that when the whites are all killed I am to marry madame, that Paul is to take the young one, and that we are to divide the place equally between the three of us."
"If the negroes will let us," the one called Monti said. "I expect they will want to have a say in the business."
"Yes, of course, that is understood. No doubt there will be trouble with them, and there is no saying how things will turn out yet. At any rate we will make sure of the women. I have gone into this more for the sake of getting the girl than for anything else."
"We have made a good beginning everywhere, as far as we have heard, but you must remember that it is only a beginning. Even suppose the whites of the town do nothing, and I fancy we shall hear of them presently, they will send over troops from France."
"They can do nothing against us up in the mountains," Christophe said scornfully.
"That may be," the other said quietly; "but at any rate there are the blacks to deal with. They have risen against the whites, but when they have done with them we need not suppose for a moment that they are going to work for us. Luckily, here it has been the order that no slave is to be flogged without Duchesne's approving of it, and the result is that we are for the present masters of this plantation, but we have heard that at some of the other places the overseers as well as the whites have been killed. The order has gone through the island that all the whites, including women and children, are to be killed, and if we were to come across the women when we have forty or fifty of the blacks with us I don't think there would be a chance of our saving them. These negroes are demons when their blood is up. They know, too, that they have gone too far to be forgiven, and will believe that their safety depends upon carrying out the orders faithfully. It seems to me that we are in a rather awkward fix. If we don't take the blacks out to-morrow we sha'n't find them, if we do take them out they will be killed."
"We ourselves may find them," Paul said.
"Yes; and if you do, they will have that English lad with them."
"We can soon settle him," Christophe growled.
"Well, I don't say we couldn't; but you know how he fought that hound, and there was a report two days ago, from the town, that they have attacked the Red Pirate's stronghold, taken it, and destroyed his four ships. I grant that as we are three to one we shall kill him, but one or two of us may go down before we do so. Now, I tell you frankly that as I have no personal interest in finding those two women, I have no idea of running the risk of getting myself shot in what is your affair altogether. Any reasonable help I am willing to give you, but when it comes to risking my life in the matter I say, 'No, thank you.'"
The others broke into a torrent of savage oaths.
"Well," he went on calmly, "I am by no means certain that the English boy would not be a match for the three of us. We should not know where he was, but he would see us, and he might shoot a couple of us down before we had time to draw our pistols. Then it will be man against man; and I know that girl has practised shooting, so that the odds would be the other way. Now, I ask you calmly, is it worth it?"
"What do you propose, then?" Paul asked sulkily, after a long silence.
"I say that we had better wait till we can get hold of some of these blacks; a little money and a little flattery will go a long way with them. We can tell them that we have private orders that, although most of the whites have to be put to death, a few are to be kept, among them these two. We shall elect a president and generals, and it is right that they should have white women to wait on them, just as the whites have been having blacks. That is just the sort of thing that will take with these ignorant fools. Then with, say, ten men we might search the woods thoroughly, find the women, and hide them up somewhere under your charge; but we must go quietly to work. A few days will make no difference. We know that they can't get away. The men of the plantations lower down have undertaken to see that no whites make their way into the town. But it will not do to hurry the negroes, they are sure to be either sullen or arrogant to-morrow. Some of them, when they get over their drink, will begin to fear the consequences, others will be so triumphant that for a time our influence will be gone."
"That is the best plan," Christophe said. "You have the longest head of us three, Monti. For a time it will be necessary to let the blacks have their own way."
Nat, while this conversation went on, had been fingering his pistol indecisively. His blood was so fired by the events of the day, and the certainty that hundreds of women and children must have been murdered, that he would have had no hesitation in shooting the three mulattoes down. Indeed he had quite intended to do so, in the case at any rate of Paul and Christophe, when he learned their plans; the advice, however, of the other, who was evidently the leading spirit, decided him against this course. It was unlikely that he would be able to shoot the three, for at the first shot they would doubtless knock the candle over; besides, it was better that they should live. Evidently they would in some way persuade the great mass of the negroes not to trouble themselves to search the wood, and some days must elapse before they could get a party together on whom they could rely to spare the women and take them as prisoners.
If they did so, and, as they proposed, put them in some hut in charge of Paul and Christophe, he would have a fair chance of rescuing them, if he succeeded in getting away at the time they were captured. At any rate, if they carried out their plans they would have some days' respite, and he could either take Madame Duchesne and Myra a good deal further into the hills, or might even be able to get them into the town.
The mulattoes now began to talk of other matters – how quickly the insurrection would spread, the towns that were to be attacked, and the steps to be taken – and he therefore quietly made off, and waited for Dinah at the place agreed on. It was not long before she arrived with her first load.
"I am here," he said as she came up. "Now, what can I do? I had better come and help you back with the other things. We can carry them in the hand-barrow."
"Yes, sah. I'se got dem all together, de tings we talked of, and tree or four blankets, and a few tings for de ladies, and I'se taken two ob de best frocks I could find in de huts. I'se got de wine and de food in a big basket."
"All right, Dinah; let us start at once, I am anxious to be back again as soon as possible."
In ten minutes they returned with all the things. The basket of wine and provisions was the heaviest item. The clothes and blankets had been made up into a bundle.
"Me will carry dat on my head," Dinah said, "and de barrow."
"No, I can take that, Dinah, that will balance the basket; besides, you have that great jug of water to take. Now let us be off."
After twenty minutes' walking they approached the spot where the ladies were in hiding, but it was so dark under the trees that Nat could not determine its exact position; he therefore whistled, at first softly and then more loudly. Then he heard a call some little distance away. He went on until he judged that he must be close, and then whistled again. The reply came at once some thirty yards away.
"Here we are, Myra," he said; "nurse is with me."
An exclamation of delight was heard, and a minute later he made his way through the bushes.
"Mamma is awake," the girl said, "but she does not always understand what I say; sometimes I cannot understand her, and her hands are as hot as fire. I am glad Dinah is here."
"You can't be gladder'n me, mam'selle. I hab brought some feber medicine wid me, and a lantern and some candles."
"Would it be safe to light the lantern?" Myra asked.
"Quite safe," Nat said; "there is no chance whatever of anyone coming along here; besides, we can put something round the lantern so as to prevent it from being seen from outside. You have brought steel and tinder, I hope, Dinah?"
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