Set in the early 19th century amid the ships and seamen of a nascent United States Navy, Lieutenant Matty Graves is recovering from his ordeal during the slave rebellion in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Dómingue when he is ordered to Washington to answer questions about the death of his former captain. On home soil he must deal with the mystery and shame surrounding his birth as well as the attractions of his best friend's sister. But when he is offered a command of his own, he seizes the opportunity to seek his fortune and make a name for himself, even if it means destroying those closest to him.
About the Author
Broos Campbell is the author of No Quarter and War of Knives and has served as a crew member of the Lady Washington, a restored tall ship. He lives in Los Angeles.
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A Matty Graves Novel
By Broos Campbell
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Broos Campbell
All rights reserved.
Grenadiers, à l'asso!
Se ki mouri zaffaire à yo.
Ki a pwon papa,
Ki a pwon maman.
Grenadiers, à l'asso!
Se ki mouri zaffaire à yo!
I turned out of my hammock to watch a couple of Toussaint's battalions march up the road that morning. The heavy companies sang the song of the grenadiers as they stepped along, the one about how they have no papa and mama, and them that dies, that's their own affair, with the fusiliers joining in on the chorus. It sounds fiercer than lions in French, and doubly so when it's roared out by sixteen hundred ex-slaves stomping past in new boots and the drums all rattling like sixty. The men were decked out in smart blue coats with white facings and red piping, and snug white britches and black gaiters instead of the usual loose brown trousers, but they'd pulled down the brims of their bicorns and made them comfortable and shady, like old campaigners always do. The war between Toussaint's blacks and Rigaud's mulattoes was pretty much over. The troops were on their way to do the Spanish a mischief over on their side of the mountains in Santo Domingo, which we called it that to distinguish it from the French side, which we called San Domingo.
That's where I was, in San Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. I kept telling myself that. Sometimes I forgot.
The dust still hung in the air, drifting in the pillars of light among the paw-paw trees.
Mr. Quilty's patient was taking God's own time in dying. I distracted myself with a few turns up and down the road in the shade of a paw-paw tree, tallying up all I'd accomplished in our quasi-war with France. I'd gotten Cousin Billy shot dead in a duel, and then I'd sunk the Rattle-Snake schooner out from under Peter Wickett during a brawl with L'Heureuse Rencontre and the Faucon, a privateer corvette and an old frigate with two hundred infantrymen aboard. We'd stopped them from raising an empire in the Spanish lands across the Mississippi, but things had gotten tarnal damp for a while. Between times I'd let a man be hanged as a pirate, slit some throats on Toussaint's behalf, and fed a traitor to the sharks. And I'd packed it all into five months, which I guessed must be some kind of a record for a seventeen-year-old. It weren't my fault entire, but the memories followed me around like a turnip-fart. You know the kind I mean: you dasn't fan it for fear of calling attention to who done it, but if you don't fan it, you're like to go blind from the smoke.
I valued four things and kept them with me always. The first was a miniature of my dead mother in a heartshaped pewter locket, dented on one side and grimy all over, which I wore on a chain around my neck. The second was an old epaulet that Peter Wickett give me when I made acting lieutenant; the embroidery was tattered and the brass shone through the gilt, but I wouldn't have traded it for one of solid gold. The third was a beat-up old hat, flat-crowned with a flaring brim and a red and white plume, that'd belonged to my friend Juge; I wore it low on my brow the way he had and hoped it made me look a little like him. The fourth was a steel-hilted sword that I had picked up during the siege of Jacmel, down on the south coast of the island, where Toussaint had broke the mulatto rebels at last. I didn't wear it because I liked it; I wore it because its superb blade was made of tiger-striped Damascus steel and I couldn't afford another of its quality. It was a tool of my trade, like a mechanic's saw. It had once belonged to a man who killed Negroes for a living, and was decorated with a death's-head on the pommel and arcane mottoes engraved along either side of the blood-gutter.
It had recently come to my attention that I was a bastard and a Negro. One minute the world was my oyster and the navy was my pearl; the next I was the keeper of a pair of secrets that oughtn't to be secrets at all. It poisons a man to deny that he is what God made him.
I walked up and down the road, breathing dust and feeling the sun and shade pressing on my shoulders. The paw-paw is an indifferent tree for shade, I thought, looking up. The tropical variety, what your Spaniard calls a papaya, grows taller and straighter than ours, and not so bushy. It's got leaves like wide-stretched hands at the ends of skinny arms, and they wave around in any kind of a breeze. They let the daylight through, which ain't what you want for keeping cool in the Fever Islands.
Quilty had set up the sailcloth shelters and grass lean-tos that made up his hospital at the edge of a wide grove of paw-paws; the tree that Toussaint had give him for his own use, the one I now stopped next to, consisted of a straight shaft about ten feet high, heavily scarred along its stem where previous growths of leaves had sprouted and fallen away. The fruits that clustered at the base of its wide leafy crown had mellowed in the past few weeks from dark green to canary yellow. I could smell the gooey orange flesh ripening inside them.
Which was making me thirsty, and I commenced to moving again, stepping in and out of the flickering sunlight as I paced. I wasn't above stealing fruit, but I guessed Quilty knew exactly how many paw-paws he had on his paw-paw tree, and it don't do to steal from a man that can take your leg off and get you to thank him for it after.
The sick-list men in the tents and palm-frond lean-tos moaned and thrashed with the black vomit. There was some, too, that looked like they had slipped their hawsers but hadn't been hauled away yet. One of the livelier ones was a French lieutenant of my age, or near enough as makes no difference. For several days he'd puked out stuff that looked like old coffee grounds and stank like the seat of Satan's britches, but today he squatted under a palmetto across the road and watched me walk up and down.
He was looking at my feet. Leastways that's what I hoped he was looking at. He had the dark, deep, liquidy sort of eyes that lady novelists call "brooding," a mass of jet curls that cascaded down his forehead, full moist lips, and a pudgy but sturdy cleft chin. He was dressed in a blue coat, red vest, red pantaloons, and a red sash, all of which he had managed to keep clean somehow. The mademoiselles would swoon over him, though I calculated it might escape his notice.
"Oui, qu'est-ce qu'il y a?" I said, just to let him know I knew he was watching me. "What's the matter?"
"Why don't you shove off, then?"
"I dare not, monsieur. The nègres, they might send me back to France, or they might execute me. There is no telling."
Nègre was French for nigger or Negro, depending. I didn't know him well enough to know which he meant, or even if he knew the difference.
"Without a doubt," I said. "You've given them a hard time of it. Why don't you fellows go home?"
"What, and leave the most valuable colony in the world to you rustics?"
"We don't want the blame thing. We're willing to pay for sugar and coffee."
"Yes, just as you do with harvesting your wheat and Indian corn, and lading your ships, and polishing the silver, and everything else your slaves do for you."
I came abreast of him and made my turn, prepared to ignore him all day if I had to.
As I turned, I saw a man away down the road striding up from Le Cap. He was made small by distance, diminished by the billowing green mountains to the left and dwarfed by the wrinkled expanse of the blue Atlantic to the right, but he wasn't an inconsiderable man all the same; and though his image stretched and jumped in the heat waves that shimmered on the dusty road, I could tell as much about him as I wanted to know. He wore a black cocked hat, a blue frock coat with the tails turned back and a gold epaulet on the right shoulder, and a white vest and britches. That made him a navy lieutenant, same as myself, and there weren't but one lieutenant in the squadron as tall and skinny as that bird.
Shit and perdition! I hadn't even knowed he was back in the islands. I reached out and shook the fly of the tent beside me. "Ahoy! Mr. Quilty, there! Ain't you done yet?"
"No, Mr. Graves, I am not." The surgeon didn't bother to stick his head out, and the canvas wall muffled his voice. "You may wait until I am."
"I think I might need to cut and run, Mr. Quilty."
"You may leave as soon as you like, sir, but if you wish to leave aboard a navy ship you'll wait until I have signed your bill of health."
"But it's important, Mr. Quilty."
He thrust the tent flap aside and looked out at me. He had took off his wig, and pebbles of sweat glistened on his close-cropped head. His eyes sagged in his face, and blood crusted his leather apron.
"Is it," he said again. It was a denial or maybe a challenge, but it weren't a question.
I looked around at the sick men writhing under the awnings and suppressed a surge of anger.
"Not to anyone but myself, I guess, Mr. Quilty."
"Very well, then."
The tent flap fell back into place. A moment later I heard a stream of liquid tinkling in a metal bowl and smelled the iron tang of blood.
The tall lieutenant carried a hoop-handled wicker basket in his right hand. The basket, which he held away from his side as he hooked along, made him look like he was off to take yellow cakes and pink lemonade with a lady on a lawn.
It could've been coincidence that was bringing him to that particular spot on that particular island at that particular hour, as if to occupy the same place at the same time as me, but I doubted it. And it could've been that I was the furthest thing from his mind, but I doubted that, too. I had a notion that if I wasn't the center of his universe, I was one of its more important satellites. A guilty conscience will do that to you.
The clearing in the mangroves where he'd put a pistol ball through Billy's lungs lay just beyond the paw-paw grove, behind a derelict sugar shed with blue paint fading from its weathered boards. I could see it if I turned my head to look. The first fingers of a headache gripped the back of my skull.
He trudged up to where I stood, the basket dangling in his right hand and his hanger cradled under his left arm, hilt astern, and came to a halt. He gave the Frenchman behind me a look I couldn't read, though there seemed a hint of sympathy in it; and then he stared down at me from around a long, down-curved beak that dipped toward the tip of his equally long and up-curved chin. He was near a foot taller than me and about ten years older — no more than thirty, anyway. A lurid pucker on his right cheek showed where a French musket ball had knocked out some of his side teeth back in January. Without a word he held out the basket.
"Hello, Peter," I said. I looked at the basket but didn't touch it. "It's too big for pistols, and you ain't the sort for a picnic."
"Nor I am. Since you will not stir yourself to reach for it —"
He set the basket on the sand and flipped the lid. A long-haired gray cat lay curled up inside on a neatly folded piece of calico. It lay on its back with its paws in the air. Its mouth had closed with half the tongue sticking out.
I looked away. "Is it dead?"
"He is not."
He took off his hat and pressed his kerchief against his face: first his brow, then his upper lip, then beneath either eye. The Africa-shaped port wine stain on his brow stood out dark against the skin, as if it'd drawn all the blood of his face into it. That was usually a bad sign, but he seemed calm enough elsewise.
I looked in the basket again. "Near about the quietest cat I ever see."
"The consequence of a dish of rum and cream." The hat went back on his head, and the kerchief went back up his sleeve. "And Greybar is a he, not an it. He's a living beast. He needs someone to look after him."
Greybar yawned, showing a mouthful of fangs.
"Yes. Well," I said. "I guess you better keep looking, then."
"He's fond of you."
"He was fond of the fish I used to give him."
"You have an obdurate heart, Mr. Graves."
"It's a lie. Ain't nothing wrong with my heart," I said. Not that I knew what obdurate meant; I just didn't like the sound of it.
"Then take your cat."
"I ain't got a cat."
"No, but your cousin did. And now he is dead, and the Rattle-Snake is sank, and there is no one to look after the beast." He said it like he was explaining items on a bill.
"You shot Billy," I said. "You take his cat."
Its tail twitched.
"You like cats," I said. "You take it."
Peter looked at the Frenchman again. He was leaning against the paw-paw tree with his hands in his pockets.
"Greybar is not my responsibility." Peter closed the lid again and slipped the wickerwork latch in place.
I'd clasped my hands behind my back the way he'd taught me. The skeeter bites on my wrists itched like Old Harry.
"I don't guess you come all this way just to give me a cat."
"Nor did I. I came to say good-bye." He shook out his sleeves. "The commodore has ordered the Breeze home to Norfolk, there to be condemned and sold."
I squeezed my wrist, waiting for the burning to fade away, waiting for the ache to ebb from my heart.
"You're coming down in the world, Peter. The Breeze ain't nothing but an 8-gun sloop, and four-pounders at that."
He'd had her for a few weeks once before, with me as mate, and Billy had mocked us for it; it was one of many steps he'd taken on the way to his duel with Peter. I could see her out on the bay, now that I knew to look for her. She was hove up near to the Columbia, looking like a jolly boat beside the big 44-gun frigate. Peter deserved better than that.
I looked at Peter hiding his shame, joy, whatever it was he felt.
"Peter, she's barely big enough for a master's mate's command."
"Nonetheless," he said, "I require a command, and she serves my purpose."
He required a command. Yes, and I required a commodore's star and a thousand dollars a year, but I didn't see them lying around anywhere.
"Where will you go after you get to Norfolk?"
"You assume that I shall leave the service." He looked past my shoulder again, eyeing the Frenchman. A hint of a smile crept across his face and was gone again like it'd never been. "There's always the Africa trade."
"If I thought you'd stoop so low, I'd kill you myself."
"Gold? Ivory? Trading in these is low?"
"You know what I mean, Peter Wickett. I remember you sailed in the Bight of Benin, and was in Whydah. You said it way back when we first took the Breeze."
"Did I? Well, then I shall go where the birds dwell," he said, by which I supposed he would take a ramble in the country till he found where he was going. He tucked his sword up under his arm again, where it would be out of his way while he walked. "You might wish to be more careful in your passions, Mr. Graves. People might make a connection between them and your complexion." He leaned forward. "And another word of advice, if you will allow me: When you fill your cup, as I have no doubt you will, drink deeply of it. Then tell me if it is as sweet as you thought it would be."
I sat on a palm stump and watched him trudge back down to Le Cap. He seemed to sink into the earth a little with each step, until he was no taller than an ordinary man.
The basket shifted at my feet. I lifted the lid and looked in. Greybar's head bobbled as he looked up at me, and I hauled him out by the scruff and set him by the side of the road. He backed and filled his way over to the paw-paw tree and puked against it.
The French lieutenant came up behind me and looked up at the paw-paws. "Ah," he said, "alors c'est ça une papaye." Not the high-toned "Voici donc a quoi ressemble une papaye" — "Here it is, then, what a pawpaw looks like" — that I would've expected from the way he carried himself, but the common "Ah, so that's a paw-paw." It struck a jarring note, like he was pretending to be something less than he was.
Greybar stood with his head down. I scratched him behind the ears, and he took a swipe at me. I snatched my hand away from his claws and looked over my shoulder at the Frenchman.
Excerpted from Peter Wicked by Broos Campbell. Copyright © 2008 Broos Campbell. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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