James Howarth, captain of the Merry Bell, rolled sideways to the edge of his hospital cot and heaved black bile into the gourd coui which Zabeth held trembling beneath his wide-strained jaws. Doctor Hébert leaned forward to steady her, a hand on her spine. When Captain Howarth had done vomiting and collapsed onto the cot, the doctor took the stinking gourd from his unsteady hands.
“Give him the tea,” he told her, leaning to wipe a thread of the bloody vomit from the patient’s chin. Zabeth rose, her head lowered, and walked out into the hospital courtyard, where the infusion simmered over a charcoal brazier. The doctor watched her with a mild dissatisfaction. Her legs moved jerkily, stiff from fear. Zabeth was an excellent nurse for almost any illness, but not for mal de Siam, the yellow fever.
He carried the gourd out of the hospital enclosure and emptied it into the ravine behind the wall. Used for the dumping of various ordures, the ravine was slightly fetid, especially in this season, when rainfall was thin. Bad air. It was a fault in the location of the hospital, though otherwise the place was good, high on a generally windswept slope at the upper edge of the town of Cap Français. In this still weather, though, the ravine bred mosquitoes. Irritably the doctor pinched one from the hollow of his throat, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together till the blood splotch came away in brownish crumbs.
When he returned to the hospital gate, he saw with relief that Guiaou was just coming in, accompanied by the three women he’d brought to help him through the night. Guiaou had lately been promoted corporal in the honor guard of Governor-General Toussaint Louverture, but he was willing to spend many of his off-duty hours tending the hospital in order to earn something extra for his family. Doctor Hébert had trained him as an assistant on various battlefields of the recent wars and had a perfect confidence in him. There was no disease that gave him pause; Guiaou feared nothing except water.
The doctor glanced once more into the dormitory. Captain Howarth lay quiescent, flanked by three of his crewmen and the second officer of the Merry Bell. They’d all fallen ill the day after the trading packet moored in the Le Cap harbor, following a zigzag voyage up the Windward Islands from the South American continent and the Orinoco River. Two of the crew were barely breathing; the doctor doubted they would last the night.
He beckoned to Zabeth and led her from the hospital. Guiaou appeared to bolt the gate behind them. The doctor reached through the bars and touched the back of Guiaou’s hand; the two of them exchanged a glance and a nod. It was not the first death watch he’d shared with Guiaou, but somehow he was particularly grateful to be relieved of this one.
He walked down the sloping street from the hospital, stealing the odd glance at Zabeth, who came a pace or two behind. Don’t be afraid, he wanted to tell her. He had already told her that. About ten years earlier, when still in her teens, Zabeth had survived a bout of yellow fever, the same that had killed among others the doctor’s brother-in-law Martin Thibodet. Zabeth had nearly died herself—as had the doctor when his turn to take the fever came a couple of years later. But those few who lived would not fall prey to the same disease again; it was not like malaria, which revisited its sufferers often enough. The doctor was sure of that and that alone. It was almost all he understood of la fièvre jaune, but his own experience proved it well enough. He had announced the point to Zabeth several times and explained that her survival and immunity was the exact reason he had chosen her to nurse these men.
The explanation had not reassured her. However, the further they got from the hospital, the more her hips and back and shoulders relaxed, until she had resumed that smoothly flowing, floating gait, so beautiful in the black and colored women of the colony. Glancing back at her, the doctor thought with a slight pang of his own wife. But he had sent her with the children over the mountains to Ennery, the moment he’d recognized these sailors’ fever for what it was.
“M’ap rantré,” Zabeth said. I’m going in. She paused on the corner of the street which led in the direction of the house the doctor was currently sharing with his sister, Elise.
“Tell my sister I will be there within the hour,” Doctor Hébert said. Picking up his pace, he went on down the hill, turning his face into the breeze that blew back from the harbor. He emerged on the waterfront near the customs house, which was just shutting its doors for the night. Beyond the shelter of the buildings the wind was stiff indeed; he took off his hat and held it fluttering in his hand as he walked into the wind down toward the battery of the Carénage. The wind whipped his few remaining strands of hair around his bare sun-freckled crown, and stuffed wisps of his beard, which wanted trimming, into the corners of his mouth. He continued until he came to the fountain at the end of the esplanade, then stopped and turned to face the wide oblong of the harbor.
Black mouths of cannon poked from the embrasures of the Carénage battery, aimed fanwise across the water. The Merry Bell was moored far out, beyond the reef, the colors of the North American Republic just discernible to the naked eye. She had already exchanged her cargo, but would not put to sea without her captain. Doctor Hébert had ordered the ship quarantined as soon as he’d remarked the yellow fever. His close relationship to Toussaint Louverture gave him the power to enforce such measures, though he had no official function in the port.
By irony, the Merry Bell had brought him out of South America a substantial shipment of cinchona bark. At first the doctor had taken it for Providence, when the men from the ship began to fall ill, and had so informed James Howarth. The bitter brew of cinchona bark was almost magically effective against malaria in the early stage. He’d begun the treatment straight away, but a day or so later, when his patients suddenly turned yellow, he’d known it to be useless. Therefore he had substituted herbe à pique, an herb he’d learned long ago from Toussaint to be effective in many fevers. It too was useless against la fièvre jaune but could be harvested locally, unlike the precious cinchona. It was necessary to give the sick men something to shield them from despair.
Then the black vomiting had begun. Such was always the course of the yellow fever. A man would reduce his bulk by half before he died, in three days or two or sometimes one. Or if he lived. The difference lay in the will to live and the grace of God.
Above Fort Picolet, a great frigate bird was wheeling against the rapidly paling sky. The doctor’s spirits lifted when he saw it. It was rare to see one of these huge birds so close to land, and somehow it felt to him like a good omen. Then a huge wave slapped against the pilings, showering him with spray, and he let the dousing chase his frustration with the fever from his mind. Turning his back to the wind, he walked back in the direction he had come, whitecaps hurrying behind him over the water.
When he reached the townhouse he shared with his sister, he found her in the company of her bosom friend, Isabelle Cigny. No surprise, for her own house was just around the corner. Till recently, both he and Elise had used the Cigny residence as their base when in Le Cap. But two months ago, Elise, who enjoyed a considerable inheritance from her late husband Thibodet, had purchased the present house at a very advantageous price; it had been left vacant by the demise of one of the colored gentlemen who had for a season ruled the town, but had then been so unwise as to mount a rebellion against Toussaint Louverture and his overwhelming black armies.
Isabelle turned her bright black eyes on the doctor the moment he walked in. “What news?” she cried, flirting her skirts around her hips as she rose and resettled herself. The doctor smiled on her; he and Isabelle had been friends for most of a decade, but her coquettry was automatic.
“The men from the Merry Bell are like to die, I think, by morning,” he advised her, dropping his weight into a wooden chair in a corner of the half-furnished room. “Except the captain—he may live. I hope so, for I rather liked him.”
“I share your wish, of course,” said Isabelle, and tapped her slippered foot in token of impatience. “But what interests me more is news of the port.”
“Ah,” said the doctor, turning toward Zabeth, who had just entered the room with a tray bearing a concoction of rum, lime juice, and sugar, and a letter from his son Paul at Ennery. He took the drink and smoothed the letter on his knee.
“No news,” he said. “You must not worry.”
“It has been weeks!” Isabelle protested.
“Yes,” Elise put in. “But you know Xavier. His routes are ever indirect.” It was the sort of thing she would normally say with fondness, but tonight there seemed a bitter flavor to it. Isabelle had noticed it too, the doctor thought, for at once she dropped her own subject and began to chatter of fabric for curtains and the possibility of imported paper for the walls.
It was the new prosperity—new security really—that had moved Isabelle to send for her children, who had these last few years been sheltered from the turbulence of Saint Domingue in a boarding school at Philadelphia. But Isabelle’s husband was not free to fetch them, and for some reason she had not elected to make the voyage herself. Xavier Tocquet, who was Elise’s current husband, had volunteered to escort the children. It appeared that he had some business with certain Philadelphia factors, whose nature was not yet precisely known.
The doctor took a long pull at his rum, then broke the seal of his letter and unfolded it. His eldest, Paul, was eight years old. His formal education had been scattershot thus far. Sessions with the village priest at Ennery. There was a regular school here in Le Cap, but his attendance was sporadic since he was often absent in the country. The doctor supervised him intermittently, as he had time. His mother, Nanon, could read reasonably well but her writing ability was negligible. However, it had been her idea that Paul must write and send a weekly letter to his father whenever they were parted.
The boy’s penmanship was passable, his spelling insecure. He conveyed the news in a sufficiently engaging manner. Their trip over the mountains had passed easily. They’d arrived at Ennery with a great supply of cassava and fruit collected along the way. Paul had reconnected with his great friend Caco, a black boy a couple of years older who lived on the plantation at Ennery. But Caco, because of the new work codes lately issued by Toussaint, was obliged to devote part of his time to either the cane fields or the coffee. Paul had followed him for a day or so. He found both occupations disagreeable, the coffee somewhat less so. There was to be a bamboche on Saturday, with pigs killed for the boucan. Paul’s younger twin siblings were well. Likewise his mother and his cousin Sophie, Elise’s child. Paul sent his kisses to his honorable father . . .
“A good report of the twins,” the doctor said, passing the letter to Isabelle, “if not especially detailed.”
Isabelle snapped the letter open on her crossed knee and scanned it rapidly for the mention of François and Gabriel, relaxing percep- tibly when she had found their names. Elise cocked an eyebrow at her, but she did not seem to notice. The doctor sipped his rum. When Isabelle had read the whole letter through, she leaned to give it back to him.
“He writes appealingly, your boy.”
The doctor nodded as he swallowed. “And never mind the spelling.”
Zabeth came in, bearing Elise’s year-old baby, asleep on her full bosom. She passed the infant Mireille to her mother, who accepted the bundle absently. Zabeth turned toward the doctor’s empty glass.
“I’ll just come with you,” he said, standing up to follow her from the room.
Zabeth’s own infant slept in a basket in the pantry at the rear of the house. While Zabeth prepared his second drink, the doctor stooped to peer at him. The child was vigorously healthy, substantially bigger and more robust than his nursing partner. The father was dead, executed by Toussaint the previous fall for some military infraction. Because the two babies were roughly of an age, Elise had turned her own over to Zabeth to wet-nurse. By virtue of Zabeth’s excursions to the hospital, the babies were beginning to be weaned.
“What time is supper?” he inquired, rising to accept the freshened glass.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Zabeth said, mildly flustered. “Madame said she will go out, and perhaps you with her? But I will speak to the cook, what will you take? There is either fish or chicken.”
“Chicken,” the doctor said. When he returned to the parlor, Isabelle was standing to make her farewells. She teased the baby’s chin with a fingernail, exchanged a maternal glance with Elise, kissed the doctor on both cheeks, and then went out.
“Now then,” Elise said, giving him a measuring glance. “Your beard is a bit bedraggled, sir.”
The doctor took a great gulp of his drink. “It’s hardly worth troubling a barber with the few hairs which remain on my head,” he said.
“Perhaps you’re right,” his sister returned. “But just you come with me.”
In her boudoir, Elise laid the baby on the bed and hemmed her in with cushions. Mireille mewed and smacked her lips, but did not wake. Elise motioned the doctor to a chair by the french doors onto the balcony—there was still enough light in the sky to see clearly there.
“Now then.” She extracted a small pair of scissors from an enameled necessary box. “Be still.” For a moment she clipped in silence. Then—“I wish you would excuse Zabeth from the hospital.”
“Well, if you—”
“Don’t talk—I’ll nick you if you wag your jaw.” She flashed the scissors. “Mireille is restless in the daytime when Zabeth is gone. And Zabeth is so fearful of the fever, no matter what you say. You know it upset her terribly when Toussaint ordered Bouquart to shoot himself. Here, turn your head this way. This way . . . Perhaps they ought to go to Ennery with the other children.”
“Oh indeed, if you think it best . . .” the doctor began. This had been his own original suggestion, when the yellow fever first appeared among the crew of the Merry Bell, but Elise had not wanted to be parted from Mireille. “And would you go with them, then?”
Elise drew back to study him, scissors poised. “You are presentable,” she declared. She put the scissors away in the box, and went to her dressing table to light the two candles either side of the mirror, for the room was rapidly growing dim.
“No, I don’t think I will go to Ennery just now,” she said. “Not when I expect my husband hourly into port.” The wry expression accompanying those last words brought out faint wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, which the doctor could see in the reflection. Elise must have noticed them too. She brushed at them with powder.
“You’re going out, I gather.” The doctor touched a fingertip to the shortened hairs of his beard.
“The soirée at Government House,” Elise said, catching his eye in the mirror. “Will you come?”
“No, I think not, not tonight. It has been a weary day at the hospital. They are already stewing me a chicken here.”
Elise had stopped listening. She adjusted her décolletage in the mirror, then returned her attention to her face. Though the flush of her youth was gone, she was certainly still a handsome woman, her natural graces now requiring just the slightest, most subtle assistance of art. The doctor was reluctant to disrupt her concentration. Much as he tried not to think about it, he knew very well she had recently taken a lover.
“Madame ma sœur,” he said hesitantly. “It strikes me that you have chosen a very dangerous divertissement . . . and for so many reasons.”
“Reasons for the danger, you mean?” Elise made another minute adjustment to her bosom before rotating on her stool to face him. It was to preserve that asset that she’d elected not to nurse her second child herself. “Or the reasons for my choice of diversion?”
The doctor, who felt he had already overspoken, said nothing more.
“Well then,” Elise said, snuffing the candles decisively as she rose to leave the room, “don’t let us dwell on it.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Stone that the Builder Refused by Madison Smartt Bell. Copyright © 2004 by Madison Smartt Bell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.