Johan Heliot
Flibustière !
Commander

Alexia Dumas, Buccaneer!

At the very end of the 18th century a French lawyer, Aristide Dumas, left La Rochelle with his wife and daughter to sail to Saint-Domingue on board Destiny, a three-masted vessel, whose cargo of powder and arms has to be delivered to Toussaint Louverture. Just before they arrive, his wife dies giving birth to a baby boy, and they are attacked by an English ship. The destiny of Alexia is sealed not only through her distress after her mother's death but also through her fascination for Logan the pirate.

Aristide Dumas, the abolitionist, throws himself into the defence of the pirates and ends up going to prison. Alexia joins forces with the Lafitte brothers' gang in the Barataria Archipelago to ensure both her and her brother's survival. Her trump card: she knows where Toussaint Louverture's treasure lies. But Jean Lafitte, who nevertheless will remain her mentor, makes her go through terrible ordeals, robbing her of the treasure and attempting to get her to betray her father.

By way of treachery and combat, Alexia ends up as a pirate herself on board her own ship, the Eléonore, and takes part in the anti-slavery struggles of the early 19th Century.
Didier Graffet
Illustrator

Translation Sample

Alexia Dumas, Buccaneer! by Johan Heliot

L’Atalante, 2012

Volume One

 

The story told in this novel is entirely a work of fiction, but it is woven from the fabric of our History (History that merits a capital “H,” that is) and most of its characters, places and events are entirely authentic…except, of course, those I’ve invented!

Chapter One

A Caribbean Pirate

 

“I can see the black flag!“ announced the lookout in the crow’s nest near the top of the mainmast.

This immediately provoked a fury of movement on the ‘tween deck of Destiny, a three-masted bark hailing from La Rochelle. At the sound of the ship’s bell and shouts of the bosun, sailors and cabin boys, carpenters and caulkers tumbled from their hammocks, still half-asleep but ready to fight.

The men on watch grouped together at the stern of the main deck to receive the captain’s orders. Meanwhile, the officers had already set about distributing weapons. Muskets, pistols and hand grenades passed from hand to hand. Those not served would make do with their knives or an improvised club.

Lieutenant Chassagne burst into the cabin reserved for passengers without taking pains to knock, which served to show how nervous he was.

“There’s going to be a confrontation with the pirates. The captain has sent me to look after you.”

“That’s very kind of him,” said Aristide Dumas while tearing strips of clean sheets and tossing them onto a pile of other pieces of cloth next to a basin of fresh water. “But have you ever assisted at a childbirth?”

The young man’s cheeks turned red. Like most junior officers fresh from passing lieutenant’s grade exams, he had just left adolescence, and had little experience of life. Noting his embarrassment, Aristide Dumas became more conciliatory.

“You can still be useful to me. Take care of Alexia so I can remain with my wife while she goes through these painful hours of labor…”

A cry from the back of the cabin interrupted him. Aristide had set up a bed there, sheltered from the view of others by a moveable wooden panel. Before they had embarked, he had not expected to bring his second child into the world aboard a ship. But the vagaries of the crossing had decided otherwise. Fitful, light winds, opposing currents, and other mishaps had considerably lengthened the duration of the voyage. And now, here were pirates entering upon the scene to further complicate an already-critical situation!

“Very good, sir,” said Lieutenant Chassagne, eyeing the child perched upon a stool in a corner of the miniscule cabin.

Alexia Dumas, barely eight years old, looked up at him with her little freckled face. Her emerald eyes shone as she demanded, “Pirates, real pirates?”

“Buccaneers, to be exact, Miss,” corrected the lieutenant. “That’s what we call Caribbean pirates.”

Another scream erupted from the other side of the panel, followed by a whisper in a thin, panting voice.

“Aristide, I think he’s coming…”

Dumas turned pale and beads of perspiration appeared on his forehead. He pushed up his sleeves, gathered the strips of cloth and muttering a prayer, went to join his wife.

“I would love to see them,” Alexia said.

“See who?” demanded Chassagne, disoriented.

“The buccaneers of course!” And before the lieutenant could react, the girl had jumped off the stool and slipped through the half-open door, quicker than a will-o'-the-wisp.

Chassagne took off after her, fear clutching his bowels. If anything happened to Master Dumas’s daughter of, the captain would make him regret it, bitterly! The celebrated lawyer was en route to Saint Domingue to aid in the struggles of Toussaint Louverture, a recently named general of the new French Republic. By warring against France’s long-time enemy, the British Empire, Toussaint was defending their interests in the colonies. Any reinforcement from the mother country was precious. Indeed, that was the purpose of their voyage, and Destiny’s holds were filled with powder and guns, lead and shot, gifts of the Directory governing France for the brilliant black strategist Louverture.

“Miss! Please, do be reasonable!”

But when Alexia wanted something, there was no stopping her -- it was like trying to convince the wind not to blow. Agile and slender, she was already leaping up the companionway, four steps at a time. It led her onto the upper deck near the stern of the ship. The lieutenant tumbled out behind her just as a warning shot thundered out from the pursuing vessel, a schooner built for speed. It had been following them since the previous evening.

In the general agitation, no one took notice of the new arrival. Alexia ran over to the ship’s rail. She stretched as far as she could, raising herself up on tiptoe in order to get a glimpse over the railing.

The spectacle was well worth her efforts!

A fine vessel, all her sails spread and filled out with the breeze, rode upon the surface of an exquisitely blue sea, a blue that perfectly matched the colour of the sky. A pack of half-naked pirates perched high up in the rigging, exhibiting their muscles and brandishing swords that flashed in the sun’s rays. Upon seeing them like that, openly defying death, Alexia felt a shiver from the soles of her feet to the top of her scalp.

So this was what those famous, terrible buccaneers looked like!

People, including her own father, had so filled her head with tales of their sinister exploits that the girl had expected to see grimacing, devilish faces. Instead of which, she saw bright smiles on tanned faces, most of whom seemed hardly much older than Lieutenant Chassagne.

Speaking of the devil…”You mustn’t remain up here, Miss!”

The young officer grabbed Alexia by the waist and lifted her up. Then he dragged her toward the hatch, ignoring her invective.

“Churl! Yob! You lout, you boor!” she shouted in vain at the top of her voice, drawing from a vocabulary nourished by her reading.

“Those are not words meant to come from the mouth of a young lady of good breeding,” retorted Chassagne. “If your father could hear you, I’m certain that he would blush with shame.”

But Alexia would not give in.

“Put me down! I want to see them boarding!”

“Out of the question. Have you lost your mind? It’s extremely dangerous…”

Alexi cut in, saying, “I’m not afraid!”

That was not the case with Lieutenant Chassagne, even though he would never, under any pretext, have admitted it. If the captain had not designated him to ensure the protection of their illustrious passengers, this imminent battle would have been his baptism of fire. A hurdle he had dreaded since the day he had first taken ship.

“Well then, you are unaware of the danger, Miss. Believe me, blood is going to flow and it will not be a pretty sight. Our surgeon will be busily employed once the battle ends.”

He kept himself from adding that this would be the most favorable outcome, for in case of victory for the brigands, the crew of the Destiny risked feeding the fishes by the end of the day!

Before reaching the 'tween-deck, Chassagne cast a last look over his shoulder. The schooner and the bark were now running edge to edge. The buccaneers were twirling grapnels through the overheated air, making ready to hook them to the shrouds of the French vessel.

The captain gave the order to fire the cannons. Unfortunately there were only a few aboard the Destiny, for they had cleared out as much space as possible in the holds to pack in goods and merchandise. What was more, except for the two cannon at the head of the foc’s’le, all were immobile. The others were fixed to the deck on the main bridge; four to port and four to starboard. The sailors designated as gun-crew had to make the first round count.

For an instant, the thunder of the cannonade covered the shouts of the corsairs. Pieces of shrapnel ripped into the adversary’s sails, bursting the canvas and sawing away lines. Several buccaneers suffered the same fate. They plunged into the water and disappeared between the hulls of the two ships, which were about to bang together.

Now it was the turn of rifles and grenades to take up the battle. The scene was soon reduced to detonations, explosions, the odor of powder and clouds of smoke. Chassagne had seen enough to fill the following nights with nightmares. Tightening his grip on Alexia’s waist, he tumbled down the companionway into Destiny’s hold. The girl no longer struggled in his arms. The lieutenant was filled with apprehension. Had she been hit by a ricocheting bullet?

He sighed with relief when she spoke.

“Are they dead?”

“If you’re talking about the bandits who fell into the water, yes, I’m afraid so, Miss.”

“Oh. Now I understand why you were warning me earlier.”

Was that really so? Chassagne couldn’t remember if he’d been aware of what it meant to die when he was eight years old.

“But those are the risks of the job, right?” Alexia added, with such candor that she disconcerted her guardian.

“I suppose so, yes,” he admitted, astonished by her acuity. A budding philosopher, he thought.

A sudden commotion interrupted the course of his thoughts. Up above, the engagement on deck had begun. They were now fighting hand to hand, and all tactics were permitted. Each man pursued but one goal: to stay alive. It was down to a matter of determination now, not just numbers. And for sheer grit, the pirates had unquestionably earned their reputation. Most of them had nothing to lose. They knew that if captured, they would be summarily judged and executed, and that only increased their rage in combat. A handful of buccaneers would often overcome a crew ten or twenty times their number. Ordinary seamen worked for such meager pay that they lacked the heart to defend their ship to the death. Chassagne understood their plight all too well.

He had just reached Master Dumas’s cabin door when it flew open. The lawyer stood on the sill, his hair disheveled and his face white and pearled with sweat. A bundle wrapped in reddish cloth wriggled against his chest, whimpering.

“Alexia, here is Jonas, your brother,” he said. With an authoritative gesture, he put the struggling baby in the girl’s arms. “Take care of him. I have to stay with your mother a while longer…”

Then he slammed the door shut. They heard the clicking sound of a key in its lock.

Great gods, thought Lieutenant Chassagne, as if one kid wasn’t enough!

As for Alexia, she was in heaven, indifferent to all the ruckus of the boarding. She cradled the wrinkly-faced newborn wrapped in the bloody sheet. Miraculously, he relaxed and even closed his tiny eyes.

“This boy will make a fine sailor one day,” Chassagne prophesied. “But let’s not stay here…”

They headed toward the officer’s quarters, a small compartment between the captain’s cabin and Bonnafé’s. Every evening, the junior officers gathered around a meal concocted in the galley and served turn by turn by aspirants who hadn’t yet managed to earn their lieutenant’s papers. Just a few months earlier, Chassagne had also played the domestic, dreaming of being able to sit at this always perfectly-set table.

Now that he had received his orders as junior officer, his ardor seemed over-exaggerated. The food did vary from the ordinary diet of the crew − biscuit, dry bread and dried beef − but in quantity, it was just barely enough to satisfy the appetite of a young man who was still growing.

Alexia searched the quarters rapidly until she found what she’d been looking for. “Ah,” she exclaimed. “This will do perfectly. If you’ll allow me, Lieutenant.”

As her father had done with her a few minutes earlier, she confided Jonas to poor Chassagne while she dumped out a basket of nuts, which, accompanied with a glass of cognac, formed the gentlemen’s after-dinner treat.

Then she took her baby brother back and gently tucked him into the makeshift cradle.

Suddenly a commotion erupted in the passage outside the cabin. The lieutenant glued his ear to the thin wooden partition, making signs for Alexia to be quiet.

Men were fighting in the passage, and judging from the gasping and curses the lieutenant could hear, with all their might. He recognized the voice of Mister Bonnafé, the second-in-command, and that of Master Dumas, who was screaming like a savage beast. Through it all could be heard the clanging of swords crossing swords.

Chassagne, dismayed, did not know how to react. Duty suggested he draw his sword and take part in the combat, but the captain had expressly commanded him to protect the passengers. He sensed that the lives of Alexia and her newborn brother weighed more in the balance than that of their father, but…

Circumstances decided for him. The door to their compartment was suddenly ripped from its hinges, and a buccaneer’s face peered through the gaping hole. He smiled at discovering the young man, and even more at perceiving the bottles of French wine lined up on parade under the open window in the stern castle of the ship. But his joy was short-lived. The point of Bonnafé’s sword pierced his throat the instant he was about to enter the cabin.

“Quickly!” cried the second-in-command. “Help us barricade the passage, Mister Chassagne!” The lieutenant rushed to lend support to Bonnafé and the lawyer. The haggard appearance of Dumas’s face struck him, but he accounted it to fear. He probably didn’t look any better himself!

The three men managed to shove the heavy table and block the doorframe. As an added measure, they piled chairs and dishes onto their furniture rampart. Mister Bonnafé shot a pistol over the top of it to discourage any pirates from getting too bold.

“I have more of the same for anyone who tries to show his ugly mug!” he threatened.

Turning toward the lieutenant, he added in a deep and lugubrious voice, “The vessel is lost. The captain was killed and most of the men surrendered. But I will not abandon Destiny! It would be better to die!”

“And the children, sir?” Chassagne said. “We cannot leave them to the mercy of these dogs.”

Actually, his own future was just as important to him, but he didn’t want to look like a cry-baby in the eyes of the second-in-command. A true Navy officer wasn’t supposed to fear death. At least, he must never admit it!

“We will protect them right to the end,” the second-in-command replied. “God will then take them into His merciful arms.”

That was not exactly what Chassagne wanted to hear, but he did not dare to protest.

Master Dumas flew to the lieutenant’s aid at that point.

“Let me speak to these men,” he said. “Perhaps I can convince them to negotiate our surrender.”

The lawyer’s figure still looked devastated, but how could you blame him, shown the situation?

“I would rather parley with the devil himself!” Bonnafé growled. “You have no idea of what they are capable of. Any trace of humanity has long disappeared in the souls of these hoodlums!”

“Well then, they’re hardly different from prosecutors I’ve battled in court for so many years,” assured the lawyer. “What do we have to lose to try to reason with them?”

Without waiting for a reply, he immediately addressed their assailants.

“Hey, you men! Can anyone understand me? I would like to speak with the person in command. I have a proposition to make him…”

They heard some murmuring in the companionway. Apparently, the buccaneers were apt to be conciliatory. After a few minutes, someone spoke, in their language but with a Creole accent. “Go ahead! I’m listening. If what you say interests me, I will pass it along to Captain Logan. If not, prepare to meet your Maker!”

Laughter followed these last words.

“You’ve taken the vessel and its cargo,” said Aristide. “But do you know who it was supposed to be delivered to?”

“To someone who will surely regret it!” replied his interlocutor, provoking a veritable salvo of hilarity.

 “You don’t know how right you are. Not only will General Louverture regret it, but moreover he will arrange to know the name of the man who’s robbed him. If I were Captain Logan, I would start to worry. The General is not a man who easily forgives. And he has an army of more than fifty thousand now, all loyal and ready to sacrifice their lives for him. So no, truly, I would not want to be in Captain Logan’s shoes!”

An eloquent silence followed Master Dumas’s appeal. Then, the corsair spoke up again.

“Have you any proof of what you say? How can we know you aren’t trying to trick us?”

Already there was less assurance in his voice. Mention of the celebrated Black General, in all probability the future leader of Saint Domingo, had shaken the man.

“I have documents in my possession that prove it, signed by the Directors of France themselves. I am officially charged with the job of bringing the merchandise to the General.”

“Papers? Luckily Logan has learned to read! You can show them to him. But if you are lying, he will take pleasure in cutting open your bowels and nailing them to the mainmast!”

“I speak the truth. The letters are in my cabin.”

“Tell me where they are hidden…”

“No!” said the lawyer sharply. “I’ll get them myself. Have Captain Logan come meet me there. I would speak with him face to face. Take it or leave it.”

Mister Bonnafé and Lieutenant Chassagne looked at each other with astonishment. What? In the dubious situation they were in, this damned lawyer dared to make demands? Was he going crazy? What was going on in his head?

The buccaneers whispered among themselves a while before making their decision.

“Understood. You can crawl out of your hole, we will do you no harm. Logan has been notified. He won’t be long about it.”

Aristide went to kneel by Alexia and little Jonas sleeping in his basket.

“Listen to me carefully, my girl,” he said, his hands grasping her shoulders. “You remain here with Mister Chassagne, in whom I have complete confidence, while I meet with the captain of these pirates.”

“Buccaneers, papa,” she corrected him. “It’s the lieutenant who told me.”

A smile of infinite tenderness briefly illumined the lawyer’s face.

“I see that you have confidence in him too. You have to promise me to obey him for as long as I am away. As if he were me. And if I should not come back, I want you to be very courageous, no matter what happens.”

“Why would you not come back? What would stop you? You were honest with the buccaneers. So Captain Logan will be honest with you.”

Alexia seemed to consider this logic so commonplace that her father didn’t try to enlighten her. She would learn soon enough that duplicity rotted the hearts of most people…

“Yes, you’re right, my dear.”

Aristide kissed both her cheeks, then stood up. Alexia caught him by the sleeve before he could start to climb over the upturned table.

“Give mama a kiss for me! And one for Jonas too!”

Chassagne saw the lawyer’s eyes shine as if they were filled with tears.

“I promise, my girl,” he said, turning away his head so she would not see him crying.

This led the lieutenant to guess that an unhappy event had struck Master Dumas, one that had nothing to do with the taking of Destiny.

 

*

 

The man waiting outside Dumas’s cabin differed from the adventurers who had swarmed aboard the three-masted bark earlier. A bit older than Lieutenant Chassagne, he still had the plump face and the slenderness of the adolescent who had shot up too quickly. Nevertheless, his keen regard belied his childish appearance, and Dumas discerned in those eyes an implacable will, at the ready whenever circumstances required it. He also noticed Logan was neither sunburned nor tan. On the contrary, he exhibited the cultivated pallor of the higher latitudes, far from the blistering sun of the tropics.

“Captain Logan, I presume,” said Master Dumas, in perfect English. “You are a British citizen, no? Your surname should have led me to guess it. However your vessel flies the black flag. Is this but a ruse of war?”

“It would be highly unworthy of the servants of His Gracious Majesty!” Logan said ironically. “No, my smooth talking sir, I do not conceal what I’ve become, in the course of unfavorable events. I chose to be free to navigate the seas on my own account.”

“A deserter of the Royal Navy, in other words,” the lawyer said. “You are not the only one, far from it. The French navy has no complaint about that, of course.”

“Whether under the command of French or an English captain, a sailor’s life is worth next to nothing. And your revolution hasn’t improved the lot of your sailors.”

“I agree with you, sir. I have been able to witness it since we left the port of La Rochelle.”

Logan made a gesture with his hand, as if chasing away a fly, to signify that he was not interested in the subject.

“Shall we go to the facts, monsieur…?”

“Aristide Dumas.”

“Very well, Monsieur Dumas. You claim to be commissioned by the representatives of your government.”

“Exact. The Directors have decided to bring their aid to General Toussaint Louverture in his struggle against your compatriots, who still occupy the north and west sections of Saint Domingue.”

“I no longer consider myself a subject of His Majesty,” corrected Logan. “I now belong to the confederacy of free men, worthy inheritors of the Brotherhood of the Coast. The war between the English and the rebels of Saint Domingue is not mine.”

“But it will become yours if you confiscate the arms promised to the General. His victory is no more than a question of time. A few weeks from now, a few months at most, he will control the island and its prosperous economy. Already, alliances with the young United States of America are in the making, and soon, the maritime routes of the Caribbean will be under his influence. He’ll have the means to track you down wherever you hide. No port will dare to welcome you. He will want your head, and believe me, he will obtain it.”

“The devil he will! What assurance!” mocked Logan. “But I must admit your reasoning holds water. I haven’t the means to take on a ruthless enemy like the Black General. So, what do you wish to propose?”

“First, I want to show you something. Let’s go into my cabin.”

Aristide pushed open the door. Disorder reigned in the miniscule compartment -- not the result of looting by the pirates but of Dumas’s rage and chagrin. With heavy steps, his shoulders hunched, the lawyer pushed aside the partition that had sheltered his spouse’s bed. Captain Logan remained motionless, as if petrified, contemplating with his steely eyes the still figure on the blood-soaked quilt.   

“I offer you my condolences, Monsieur Dumas,” he said finally.

“Thank you, sir.”

The lawyer’s voice nearly broke. But with a great effort, he regained control of himself before speaking.

“Eléonore died bringing my son into the world. My children are all that remains to me of her, and of course my memories of happier days. I wish for her to be buried in the earth of Saint Domingue. If you let me disembark with my family, I promise to intercede for you with the General. He will agree to leave you in peace, on condition that you render him his due. I’ll organize a meeting for you. Of course, I don’t think any one will balk if you subtract a part of the cargo en route to satisfy your men. And that, Mister Logan, is the best proposal I am in a position to make to you.”

The buccaneer reflected a moment before replying.

“My crew certainly did not lie -- you are surely the most silver-tongued speaker I’ve ever come across! I bet you could convince Satan himself to renounce the throne of Hell…”

His remark made Dumas think of Destiny’s second-in-command, whose remarks also frequently referred to the devil. A significant entity to seamen, obviously.

“I await your decision, sir,” the lawyer said. “To help you make the right decision, here are the documents endorsed by the Directors.”

He gave Logan the packet of sealed papers that he’d carried at the bottom of his trunk.

After a brief examination, Logan concluded, “They seem to be authentic, as far as I can determine. I read a bit of French, you see, through having frequented deserters of your navy.

“Certain of whom seemed highly-respectable officers,” he added. He smiled briefly, but resumed his cold, fixed air to conclude. “Go join your children, Monsieur. You have my word that nothing bad will happen to them. At present I must consult the council of my equals. My authority is limited to the boarding, you see. I was elected by the council to direct the attack by virtue of my knowledge of the matter, acquired when I served His Majesty. But I can’t speak in the name of the crew. Each member gives his opinion and then we proceed to a vote, which a simple majority determines. I will let you know our decision.” 

 

*

 

“A vote?“ Bonnafé said indignantly. “A council of pirates? What next?”

Master Dumas thought with bitterness that these words would have caused repercussions if spoken in the Paris of the young French Republic. But he thought better of reproaching the second-in-command, to avoid exacerbating the situation.

 “Captain Logan seemed a reasonable man,” he said.

“A British, pouah!” spit out Bonnafé. “Teamed up with the slime of the Caribbean Sea! Where is your head, sir?”

“I’m attempting to save our lives, sir,” he retorted, designating the other occupants of the cabin, huddled in a corner.

Upon her father’s return, Alexia had jumped up happily. After a tempest of kisses and hugs, she had sat down between her brother and Lieutenant Chassagne.

“Everything is fine,” she had whispered down into Jonas’s basket. “Papa has made a bargain with the buccaneers. Soon, we’ll go back to Mama and finish our journey.”

At these words, Chassagne had felt a lump in his throat. Poor little girl, he had thought, so soon to experience a cruel deception…

“I am resolved to confront those bandits, without fear,” boasted the second-in-command. “I still have enough bullets and powder to send a few to perdition before I die.”

That was more than Aristide Dumas could take. He suddenly bellowed, “Are you aware you’d be condemning us all to death if you act like that, you stupid buffoon?”

The officer’s obstinacy jangled his nerves and tested his patience to the breaking point. Only a military man could be so pig-headed!

“On any other occasion, I would demand satisfaction for that insult,” Bonnafé said icily. “I do not make it a habit to allow anyone to speak to me in that manner. But I will take your use of such language as the result of your anxiety, and remind you that I represent the highest authority on this vessel since the death of our captain. The command of Destiny falls to me by law.”

“In that case, allow me to remind you that you command only these quarters. The rest of the ship is in the hands of pirates. Perhaps that has escaped you, Captain?”

Bonnafé’s forehead and cheeks turned purple. The lawyer’s sarcasm had humiliated him like a slap in the face.

Lieutenant Chassagne judged this a good time to intervene.

“Sirs, I beg of you… We must face our captors with a unified front.”

“This kind of defeatism borders on treason, Lieutenant!” Bonnafé barked out. “We are not vanquished! Have you ever seen a prisoner holding a sword and brandishing a pistol?”

The question hung suspended an instant. Then the answer came, but not from the mouth of the unfortunate Chassagne.

“It would be a pleasure, sir, to see you freed of those cumbersome accessories…”

Captain Logan aimed his stony regard at Bonnafé above the upturned table, a derisory obstacle to his men. He hadn’t come alone. Two long guns appeared at his sides, their quivering barrels pointed at the officer.

“I could deal with you right away,” Logan declared. “But I wouldn’t want to deprive my crew of a bit of entertainment.”

 

*

 

“The council did not meet in vain,” explained Captain Logan. “They decided to concede to Mister Dumas’s request. But that’s not all. They also listened to the complaints of Destiny’s sailors, those who’ve chosen to join our crew.”

“The traitors!” Bonnafé spit out. “Low deserters! Pouah!”

Logan’s smile grew into a grin up to his cheekbones. He took visible pleasure in announcing the following:

“You have been found guilty of ill treatment of your men, Second-in-Command, sir. It seems you use the whip on them, for no reason at all.”

“That’s the best way to get the shirkers to work!”

“No, it’s the best way to instill rancor in the heart of a man. I know what I’m talking about…”

The buccaneer pulled off his stained shirt and turned around to exhibit his back. It was marbled with scars and raised welts.

“Look at it!” he shouted. “I was barely seventeen when a brute of an officer, one of your sort, wanted to teach me a lesson. He lacerated my flesh down to the bones, then had me chained to the mast for three days, between life and death. It took the mercy of a quartermaster and the talents of a surgeon to bring me back after a long convalescence. I swore to myself then that I would never leave such a crime unpunished. That’s why I joined the ranks of the sea rovers, as soon as the occasion presented itself. Their rules are extremely strict, sir, but they are just. They don’t torture a sailor, even if he is lazy. Instead, they hold back his share of the spoils, or they exclude him from the crew, but they don’t rip away his dignity with the skin of his back!”

Enthusiastic shouts and whistles followed the captain’s impassioned speech. Pirates and prisoners were then assembled on Destiny’s ‘tweendeck, where the council had held court a few minutes earlier. Meanwhile, some men got to work cleaning the upper bridge, that is to say, throwing overboard the cadavers that encumbered it. This task fell to the sailors who had decided to desert the French navy. These new members of the pirate community symbolically marked the abandonment of their old ship by sending to the deeps the bodies of a detested captain, an officer who had overworked them, etc.

“I will die with my head held high,” Bonnafé declared disdainfully. “Like all Frenchmen know how to do, Englishman.”

“Oh, don’t be mistaken,” said Logan, amused. “We aren’t going to execute you. Who do you take us for, someone like you? No, we just want to enjoy ourselves a bit. Do you like music, Mister Second-in-command? I believe the French are great music-lovers, no?”

Chuckles rippled through the crowd. On a sign from Logan, a violinist moved up, scratching the cords of his squeaky instrument. The man displayed impressive sideburns and his mass of tangled hair had certainly not seen a brush for many years past. While he tuned his fiddle, his comrades placed two dozen or so candles around the foot of the mainmast. Once they were all lit, Logan invited Bonnafé to enter the circle thus delineated.

“The rule of the game is simple,” he said. “Old Chester here is going to play a jig that only he knows the secret of. And you will circle around the mast, in rhythm with the tune, if you please, for as long as the music can be heard on the ‘tweendeck. After which, you will be free to go with Mister Dumas and his entourage. You have my word.”

“You only want to see me dance?” he said, astonished.

“As I told you, we want a bit of fun… Oh, I forgot one little detail.”

“Which is…?” asked Bonnafé, suspicious now.

“You have to keep to the rhythm of the jig. If you should slow down, my men set about giving you a little help.”

“In what fashion?”

Bonnafé blanched as he asked the question, suspecting some duplicity on the part of his interlocutor.

“See for yourself,” Logan replied.

In one general movement, the corsairs pulled out here a knife, there the tip of a sword or the point of a compass needle, and some of them even brandished forks!

“Chester, we’re all ears!” exclaimed the captain.

The fiddler attacked the first notes of a rousing sailor’s jig. With a kick to the rear, Logan propelled Bonnafé into motion.

“Go to it, Mister Frenchman! Leg it! Dance!”

As the Second-in-command was rather slow about getting started, several sharpened points tickled his posterior.

“Ouch!” he complained, leaping back. He accelerated his pace, skipping from one foot to another in a grotesque way, in order to continue his round about the mast. The buccaneer’s laughter almost drowned out the screeching of the violin.

Chester played faster and faster. His fingers seemed to fly above the strings. The bow slid up and down so fast the eye could no longer follow it. The jig became hellish, bedeviling the officer and obliging him to run and hop ever more quickly to avoid getting his rear end lacerated.

Bonnafé was perspiring abundantly. He gasped like a forge and his face had taken on the color of ruby-red wine. 

Logan clapped his hands. The joyful seamen, elbows locked, danced the minuet like monkeys, and spun around yelling with exhilaration. The ambiance was that of a party, but a savage party, that seemed at the point of degenerating into violence at any instant.

His trousers and underclothing in shreds, his backside red with his own blood, Bonnafé looked like he was about to collapse. He was seized with dizziness from turning around and around. But if he slowed down, a nasty poke in the skin brought him to order.

The musical torture seemed to go on and on, but after about ten minutes, Logan finally gave the agreed-upon signal to Chester, and the fiddler executed a final flourish and bowed to the public.

From all around, applause erupted for the musician. Bonnafé crumpled to the deck, out of breath. All his arrogance had evaporated. He curled up like a hunting dog, letting escape little groans of pain, humiliation and exhaustion.

 “I hope this lesson bears fruit,” said Logan.

He addressed himself to Master Dumas as well as to Lieutenant Chassagne, who had witnessed the scene wordlessly, torn between horror and stupor.

But their response came from Alexia. “Did that soothe your wounds?” she asked in all innocence.

Her father started to tell her to be quiet, but the pirate captain stopped him.

“Permit me, sir. This child expresses a legitimate curiosity. I would be angry with myself if I did not satisfy it.”

Logan leaned over to rivet his inflexible gaze into that of the little girl. She forced herself to hold it without blinking, almost managing.

“You are curious and brave,” Logan said. “Two qualities that you should be proud of, and your father should be too. But you don’t yet understand certain things. The wounds they inflicted on me are healed in appearance only. They continue to bleed here…”

With the tip of his index finger, he touched his forehead.

“And here.”

This time his finger moved down to his chest, at the level of his heart. 

“When a man has endured such a chastisement, that he didn’t deserve, no balm is strong enough to soothe it. Remember these words. You will understand their sense one day, I’m certain.”

 

*

 

Chassagne took it upon himself to assist Bonnafé reach the upper bridge, and then descend the gangway into the boat provided for the survivors of the attack. Aside from Chassagne, Bonnafé, Master Dumas and his children, there were a handful of sailors who had valiantly resisted but refused to desert. They had earned Logan’s clemency according to the pirate code, but some of the others hadn’t been so lucky. The less courageous had been tossed overboard with the dead, and too bad if they didn’t know how to swim!

“Where’s Mama? Why isn’t she coming with us?” Alexia asked as she stepped into the dinghy.

Aristide had dreaded this moment ever since the sorrowful episode had occurred. He had never trembled as he confronted prosecutors or magistrates before the courts, and he had not fled Paris during the bloody events of the Terror a few years back, but he suddenly found himself at a complete loss before his daughter. He would have preferred to face a horde of pirates than Alexia’s inquiring glance. Nevertheless, he turned toward her and said, “She is here, with us, for always.”

And he made the same gesture that Logan had made, pointing his index at his heart, then at her heart.

 “Well of course,” Alexia said. “But why isn’t she coming with us?”

From his basket, at young Chassagne’s feet, Jonas started crying.

“The baby’s hungry,” Alexia insisted. “He’s crying for Mama to feed him!”

“We’ll find him a good nurse as soon as we reach shore,” Aristide promised.

The little girl’s forehead wrinkled up as if she were considering the implications of this decision. When she understood what her father really meant, sorrow gripped her. She started to gulp hard, then to sob, suddenly incapable of mastering the convulsions of her slim form.

“You must be brave,” Aristide whispered to her, like an echo of Logan’s words. “For yourself and for Jonas, who will need all your care in the future. That’s what your mama would have wished. She will help you fulfill your role of a loving, devoted big sister, from where she is now. Each time you need her, you just have to think very hard about her.”

Alexia acquiesced, sniffling. Eléonore Dumas’s remains were wrapped her in a shroud made of clean cloth and a large piece of silk from the cabin of Destiny’s captain. With the aid of a hoist, the freebooters carefully maneuvered her body and she was soon laid out in the bottom of the skiff, gently and with dignity, as Logan had ordered them to do. He was there leaning over the ship’s railing, surveying the embarkation with his inflexible regard.

As the sailors pulled out oars from beneath benches, he formed his hands into a tube and shouted to Master Dumas, “Don’t forget your promise, sir! I’m eager to meet the famous black general, who’s making the colonists of Saint Domingo tremble!”

Aristide replied with a nod of his head. Then he sat down next to his children and the officers, and the rowers put their arms into getting away from the scene of their capture.

Thus it was that, six hours later, early in the year 1797, Alexia Dumas saw for the first time the mountainous island that would become her second home, never guessing that this mournful day would also mark the debut of great adventures.

At the moment of landing, the young girl had too many issues to ponder over to be dreaming of an improbable future. She had met with a hard lesson of life, dealt not by fate alone, but also by the Caribbean pirate captain she had encountered. And that was just the first in a long series of lessons… 

 

Chapter Two - The Island of the Black General

 

Toussaint Louverture was a short man, and rather ugly. This had earned him the not very friendly sobriquet of Fatras Baton (‘crooked stick’ in Creole). In other words, “deformed one.” But his charisma made up for the defects of his anatomy. The first time Alexia saw the General she felt impressed, and all the stories her father told about him came to memory.

Aristide knew his life history like he knew the back of his hand. ‘Toussaint of Bréda’ (for he was born on a plantation named Bréda) was the son of a slave and a slave himself until he was freed by his owner at the age of thirty-three, in 1775. Intelligent and erudite, Toussaint was soon managing his own coffee farm. Then the first slave revolts broke out, echoing revolutionary events in France.

At first, Toussaint fought on the side of the Spanish against the French, earning his nickname Louverture by gaining several victories in succession. “This man is making openings – ouvertures – everywhere!” a Commissioner of the French Republic had exclaimed after learning of the exploits of this slight but ferociously determined man.

But Toussaint remained in the shade of several other revolutionary leaders until August 29 of the year 1793, when he gave a famous speech that gave him leadership of the black revolt of Saint Domingo:                                                  “Brotherhood and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture, and perhaps my name is known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality to reign in Saint Domingue. I work to bring them into existence. Unite with us, Brotherhood, and fight with us for the same cause.”

“Your very humble and very obedient servant,

“Toussaint Louverture, General of the Armies of the King, for the public’s welfare.”

Aristide Dumas had communicated these words many times to his daughter, and they resonated in her mind now, four years later.

What splendid words, Alexia had thought in all the simplicity of her eight years. But they hadn’t sufficed to protect Toussaint from treason on the part of his superiors, and indifference to the abolitionist cause on the part of his Spanish allies.

That’s why he had ended up on the side of the French. The young French Republic’s representative on Saint Domingue emancipated the slaves so that they could join the revolutionary army. A short time later, the 16th of Pluviose, Year II (February 4, 1794), the Convention abolished slavery in French colonies.

In less than a year, Toussaint had vanquished the Spanish, and relegated them to one part of the island, to be called “Santo Domingo,” and earned his grade as General of the French Republic.

But ever since, the British had opposed him with more resistance than expected. Ensconced at the northwest tip of the island, they had repulsed every attack of the Black General’s troops. The arms delivered by Destiny were supposed to have equipped thousands of soldiers in a grand offensive he was planning. But Logan and his freebooters had decided otherwise.

Toussaint listened without interruption to Master Dumas’s tale of the pirates capturing the three-masted bark, and the conditions of the pact negotiated with Logan. The meeting took place in Louverture’s headquarters, established at La Marmelade, at the limits of the northwest tip of the island, close to the English troops. The short black man wore a uniform that vied with any of those worn by the highest level officers of the Republic. Alexi found him somewhat pompous, but perhaps that was the case with all great military chiefs. How could she judge?

She had had begged to accompany her father, as much from curiosity as from fear. Curiosity to meet the man whose name was in the mouths of everyone in Saint Domingue, and fear that some evil would befall Aristide during his absence, as had been the case with her mother. Alexia regretted not having been at her mother’s bedside when she took her last breath, almost a week ago.

Eléonore Dumas rested in the cemetery at Le Cap, the capital of the North of the island, where the diverse representatives of the administration tried more or less successfully to apply the laws of the Republic. There had been no special ceremony. Only four people had been present at the funeral: Aristide, Alexia, Jonas and his nurse, a mulatto named Celestine. The priest had officiated in a simple manner. Since the revolts and subsequent offensives, counter-offensives and various battles between the different armies, the priest had become a busy man.

Saint Domingue felt like a pot ready to boil over. Toussaint Louverture’s actions had helped to unite the people, but their individual political leanings were far from clear and the objectives they pursued often contradictory. Alliances were created and then broken, as one or another’s interests were served. Alexia understood none of it. But when she asked her father why Europe deployed so much effort to maintaining its influence on this tiny, far-away island, he explained that Saint Domingue furnished almost all the sugar and coffee of France. The riches produced by its plantations, riches founded on slavery, were beyond comprehension. So, she concluded, it was all about a stupid question of money, like most wars that adults carried on…

But Toussaint did not seem to be motivated by such base interests. He struggled to liberate his people, give them back the freedom that the colonists, and before them, the slave traders, had stripped away. Can you imagine anything more noble than that? Not in the mind of an eight-year-old girl, in any case!

“It’s inadmissible, Master Dumas, simply inadmissible,” Toussaint concluded after ripe reflection. “And if this bandit decides to bring my guns over to his fellow British?”

 “Logan will do nothing of the sort. He hates the English. In fact, I believe he accepted my arrangement for the pleasure of seeing you inflict a rude defeat upon them.”

Toussaint gave a deep sigh.

“I already have too much to handle, with the ambitions of French officers, intrigues of the Republic’s Commissaries, not to mention our local chiefs… And now this, negotiating with a pirate! I thought the pirate problem had been resolved at the beginning of the century, when the last Brotherhood of the Coast abandoned Tortuga Island and disappeared.”

 “It appears that men in the Royal Navy have been mistreated to the point that a new generation of sailors have taken up piracy again.”

“That’s just my luck, Mister Dumas! But I really have no choice do I? I’ll have to fold.”

Aristide did not hide his relief. To receive precise instructions, he accompanied the general into his office for a few minutes, during which Alexia let her imagination wander.

Brotherhood of the Coast, Tortuga Island…

Just thinking of these names brought a thousand and one adventure stories surging up from the depths of her mind, tales that Homer would not have been ashamed of!

Since her meeting with Logan’s band of thieves, the girl had become fascinated with the world of the sea rovers. At first Aristide had worried about this, but in the end decided it would take her mind off the grief she was suffering during this period of mourning for her mother.

So, as soon as they were settled at Le Cap, he’d taken pains to put his hands on a copy of Captain Charles Johnson’s book, General History of the Most Famous Pirates, the last word on the subject since it had first appeared in Great Britain in 1724. The precious volume never left Alexia’s side, day and night. She had been especially impressed by the chapters consecrated to “The Life and Adventures of Two Female Pirates: Marie Read and Anne Bonny.”

Women pirates! Never had Alexia dreamed it was possible. However, Captain Johnson testified to the existence, and gave many details to prove it. The History of Marie Read and The Life of Anne Bonny quickly became her favorite chapters, read and reread with the same delectation. She even read them aloud to Jonas so he could enjoy it too, even if he didn’t yet understand. Just hearing his sister read these stories to him satisfied his simple needs.

When Aristide came back, he found his daughter lost in reverie, the subject of which he had no doubts.

He gave her a big smile. “It’s all set up, so we can go. I’m going to be very busy the next few days.”

“Are you going to see Captain Logan again?” Alexia asked.

“The general has entrusted me to arrange the delivery of the cargo.”

 “We’ve determined the best place for it. I think you’ll approve of our choice, since it involves the Île à Vache, one of those ’Thirteen Paradises of the Brotherhood of the Coast!’”

 

*

 

They returned to Le Cap, where her father had rented a little house by the port. The owner, a merchant taking refuge in the Americas, had left many books, and Alexia headed straight to them. She quickly gathered all kinds of information.

In the past, she learned, pirates and freebooters had chosen to settle all around the Caribbean Sea, and they had founded thirteen commercial centers – or equivalents thereof – suited to their activities. They could provision their ships in tranquility there, exchange booty, relax and breathe a bit between lucrative expeditions.

Groups of hunters also settled the Thirteen Paradises. They furnished the crews with meat, smoke-dried on crude grills called boucan in the language of the indigenous people. The hunters came to be called “boucaniers.” Originally, the term designated the woodsmen of Saint Domingue, who tracked wild cattle on the island before the Spanish eliminated the herds. After which the boucaniers turned to doing business with the pirates.

But more than a century later, the Thirteen Paradises had lived out their time. Port Royal, in neighboring Jamaica, had been destroyed by an earthquake and most of the others islands, with their magical names – Roatan, Providence, San Blas, Curaçao, Saint-Thomas, Anguilla, Tortuga – had been if not pacified at least pointed toward legal activities.

Still, there remained Île à Vache, just off the southern coast of Saint Domingue, near the tip of the peninsula that stretched out westward into the Caribbean Sea. Modest in terms of surface area, it had been emptied of its inhabitants after having served as a hideout to Englishman Henry Morgan, one of the most famous pirates of the XVII° century, and Captain Logan’s veritable ancestor in thievery! Practically flat, Île à Vache consisted mainly of marshes and mangroves, inhospitable regions where the forest and the sea joined to form an outlandish environment.

So that’s what the place chosen for the restitution of the black general’s arms looked like. Alexia burned to attend the event and see with her own eyes where the celebrated Henry Morgan had once lived, that cruel pirate, a bandit without scruples who had ended up governor of Jamaica and even gotten ennobled by the King of England!

Of course, it was useless to ask Aristide permission to come along on the adventure. The lawyer would never allow his cherished daughter to go with them. But then he wasn’t obligated to know, was he?

A plan worthy of Marie Read or Anne Bonny soon germinated in the little girl’s mind.

When the day set for the meeting arrived, she was all set. She had followed the secret preparations with the greatest attention, always managing to be in the vicinity when one of Toussaint’s or Logan’s emissaries visited the lawyer. No one suspected any cunning on the part of the charming little girl with the fiery red hair and emerald eyes.

Evening was beginning to settle. Jonas was sleeping in his cradle, watched over by Celestine. Aristide approached and kissed the baby on the forehead, then went to say good-night to his daughter, innocently playing in her room.

Parution
May 23, 2012
Collection
Pages
208
Type
Grand format
Price
12,23 €
Isbn13
9782841725939
Size
14,5 x 20 cm

Digital reading copy