Of the many thousands who had died in the murderous blood tides of Revolutionary times, there had been a young poet and his innocent wife. Their names and lives may be found elsewhere, he a dark and clamorous man, she pale as a swan, following her husband to the scaffold in the white dress of a bride. They left behind a child, then only two years old. This offspring was brought up by a surviving sister of the mother's— although in those days, it was not unusual, when one member of the family was confiscated for the gallows, for the rest soon enough to be dragged in tow.
The woman, who shall be called Andromede, raised the little boy in the best fashion she could, and at the proper age saw to it that he was educated to the highest and nicest degree she could afford. Along with the nourishment of his body, clothing of his person, and tutoring of his mind, she also saw to it that her sister's son was fed, garbed, and schooled in most incredible amounts of pure bitterness. It may have been that she herself was once in love with Jean de St. Jean's father, the poet, or that she had loved her sister excessively. Or it may have been simply the fact of the terrible shock she had undergone when all her familial world was swept away in the space of two or three horrible months: Something made of Andromede a powerful and insidious instructor in the lessons of enduring hate.
How she did it can only be guessed. One half imagines that instead of grace before a meal, some other words were spoken, rather in the way of the antique toast «Death to my enemies.» Or that over the beds were hung samplers that read «You shall seek out the wicked and destroy them.» And «An eye for an eye.»
Probably, when she knelt down like gray marble in the church at the end of the street, and the child asked what she prayed, Andromede may well have replied; «For justice! » And probably also she indoctrinated the little Jean with anecdotes of his parents, their vivid talents and virtues, their fairy-tale love, and their death.
For eighteen years, until the age of twenty, Jean de St. Jean grew to manhood in that shadowy City of aftermath, the wreckage of a revolution, going about between a grim stony school with turrets and cobbled yards, reeking stoves, mealy books, and a maze of crooked, crowded, dirty streets that led up into an apartment with windows that peered across a joiners' court at a high wall, three rooms that were thick with dust in summer and wet with cold in winter, and whose stove smoldered and reeked worse, and if there was generally sufficient to eat, it came at the cost of something, some gnawing, obscure pride to do with a state pension, a recompense for the unspeakable that could never be enough. And as he grew up, then, forcing his way toward the light like a plant in flinty ground, Jean de St. Jean, the poet's son, breathed up, with the damp and dust and the church bells from the street's end and the invisible samplers of hatred, an exquisite yearning for he knew not what. But it was not ambition or carnality or fame or happiness. And one day, one morning, by accident, he discovered its being and what it was. It was revenge. And like a luscious berry, God had put it in his hand.
He rushed home to the mean apartment of his aunt, along the knotted streets, his heart in his mouth, bounded up the stairs, and flung wide the door.
«Anny!» he exclaimed, which was his pet name for Andromede the hateress. «Anny, you won't credit—«
Andromede came through from her bedroom, where she had been pinning up her hair tightly. For the first time in eighteen years she felt the full spasm of fear. She stared into her nephew's face and saw him for what he was, as if, until this moment, he had been partly hidden from her. He was a man, with the hair of her sister in a sun-caught cloud around his face, and his eyes dark and clamoring.
«Whatever—« she began.
He held up his hand to silence her.
«I have seen,» said Jean, in a wild cold voice awful to hear, «a thing , a monster , walking in the garden of the Martyr Church.»
«I don't understand you, Jean,» said Andromede. She did. She shook from head to foot and her bowels had turned to water, exactly as had happened eighteen years ago on the night the Citizen Police hammered at the door.
«It was Dargue,» said Jean. «Dargue ,» he repeated.
Then he fell silent and stood looking at her. It would have been difficult to say which of them had gone the whiter.
Dargue was the man who had been directly responsible for the execution of the poet and his wife. It was he who denounced them, and later, by adding his signature to the warrant, he that ensured there would be no escape. He had supposedly been drinking wine as he wrote his name, and a spot of the drink fell beside it like a drop of thin blood. The document had since been displayed, with others of its kind, and perhaps Jean had even seen it. Of course he knew the six letters that composed the monster D.A.R.G.U.E. And, too, he knew the man by inner sight, having had his appearance and mannerisms described uncountable times over. That Dargue had, as Jean, aged eighteen years, did not prove a deterrent. He had been away all this while, like a fiend in Hell, reveling in the illicit riches the Revolution had given over to him when, in the last days of its madness, he fled.
«He has been living in the Colonies,» said Jean, referring to far-flung possessions of the City as to another planet. «An island… Black Ha"issa. He has a house there. They jokingly say he has three wives. Negr'e women.»
»I don't want to hear! » screamed Andromede abruptly, clasping her hands over her ears.
«You must, you must,» pleaded Jean. And going to her, he put his arms around her and held on to her just as he had when a child. For her various reasons, Andromede had never been a caressive or physical woman. Her returns to an embrace, especially an importunate one, were awkward and labored. Now she did nothing at all, but stood there in her gray marble mode, waiting perhaps for all this to end. «Anny,» said Jean, «listen carefully. I'm not a boy now. You know, I'm well educated thanks to you, but have no prospects in this rotten, corrupt City. I've had it said to me already, my best chance… would be to try my luck—in the Colonies.» He paused, and when she did not respond, hurried on with «There are fortunes to be made in the islands.»
«Yes,» she said stupidly, sounding almost asleep. Her hands had fallen back to rest on his arms as he held her.
«There's the money you put by for me. Let me have it, Anny.»
«So you can take yourself to the Colonies?»
She stole a glance at him. Her eyes were stunned rather than bleak. Was he going to leave her?»
«Yes, so I can go there. Don't you see. Where he is.»
«Why?» said Andromede.
It was astonishing, after all her work upon him. After eighteen years of a single lesson perfectly repeated and learned by heart. Now, when he replied, solving the mathematical formula in its preordained and only way, now she could not make head or tail of it.
«To kill him,» said Jean de St. Jean. «What else?»
Andromede had the correctness of soul at least to bow her head and not to protest again.
«He's to return to the Island shortly. Out there,» said Jean, «in that lawlessness , it will be easy.»
«Yes, it's easy to kill.»
«Anny, it's what we wanted in our dreams, and here's my chance.»
«You'll let me have the money, then?»
«Very well. I saved it for you, Jean.»
«For us . For them —my father. Her»
«You mustn't grieve. In a year I could be home. We might be rich. You'll have a carriage, and beautiful clothes—velvet for church.»
«Silly,» she said, brokenly.
She tried to smile. Maybe she even tried to take on again her serpent's craning, the foremovement of its venomous strike, the attitude of her insatiable hunger for justice, retribution, the getting of eyes for eyes. If so, she failed in that too. The smile was meaningless and unconvincing, but she pressed it on her face from that morning to the dawn, ten days later, when Jean caught the boat from the old Quay of the Angel, and was borne out limblessly toward the jaws of the sea.
Andromede, standing on the quayside, amid the plumes of hats and tears of others come to wave someone away, was dry and upright, like a thin blasted tree. It was her pride not to weep until she was at home, alone there amid the dust and cold and shadows, listening helplessly for the sound of his footsteps on the stair, for the snatch of a song he might now and then sing, the dropped book, the rustle of his coat, his Anny, here I am , his Goodnight, God bless you, Anny . She told herself she would never see him again, and in this she was quite right.
The journey was a lifetime. It passed across seasons, geographical barriers, climates, and spatial zones. Months were consumed by it. You could not embark on such a journey, and complete it, unaltered. And yet, with all its doings and happenings, its events of seasickness, storm, calm, boredom, the visitations that were foreign ports (and progressively more and more foreign as one advanced, moving tableaux that swam up from the depths of the ocean and slid away again behind like the white wake of the moon by night), the fishes that leapt, the stars that revolved, and the whole reasonless, rocking environ of the sea itself—such things eventually classified themselves into mere living, ordinary existence. For Jean experienced them and survived them all, and to some extent they were lost on him in any case, for he was already in pursuit. His hunt had begun at the Angel Quay indeed, when he learned which boat, and which ship, were to carry Dargue a week before him.
It was, however, as though the entire passage comprised and was framed within an afterimage: that of sailing through a sort of bottle of pale skies and water holding rain, and coming gradually out of the bottleneck into a violent sunset burning in heaven like stained glass.
Although the conflagration died as quickly as it blew up, going down beneath a curious cloud.
«There,» said Jean de St. Jean to one of the less disreputable of the crew, «what is that?»
«Ha"isa,» the man replied. He added that they had anchored eight miles out, and would not be going in until sunrise.
Jean was left to observe the cloud darken in a sheet of drained fire, and then to darken and harden on, blacker than the star-sprayed sky.
There were mountains on Ha"issa. Ha"issa was, in fact, it seemed, made of mountains. There was something in the Island he had not expected, the young man intent upon his quest and his vengeance. The Island itself had importance. It possessed some kind of sentience, dimly discernible across the rhinestone rollers, the reefs, and the night.
As he stood at the ship's rail, Jean became aware of another being on the deck.
It is almost impossible to describe the way in which the awareness stole over him, especially in view of what will follow. The sensation grew rather in the manner in which a man may come to feel he has some illness, amorphous at first, the faintest disinclination, ebb of the spirits. Yet presently depression is reinforced by a score of other slight intrusive signals. At last he must acknowledge the onset of the fever that will lay him low.
Jean bore the feeling, which was not exactly of being watched, more of being waited upon, for a count of five or six minutes. They would have seemed interminable, except that all the while he was trying to argue himself from his certainty. Frankly, he did not for a moment think anything human or explicable was with him on the deck. He knew, from the evening's previous sounds, and a by now general familiarity with the noises of the vessel, crew, and passengers, the position of all men and objects. Even the ship's dog had become detectable to him during the voyage, as it lightly padded its rounds. This presence was of one who had not, until that hour, inhabited the ship.
Finally, Jean turned, and scanned the area about him. The moon was rising, the heavy lush moon of these regions, which on its nights of waxing seems full of sweet juice. The deck glowed and was laid bare, the masts and bundled sails, the cabins and hatches, the station of the great wheel. No one was there in all that stretched instant of moonlight. The vessel was like a floating coffin on the ocean. Only Jean remained at the rail. And nearby, somewhere, invisible and untenable and nonexistent—the other.
Jean crossed himself. It was an involuntary action, a reflex of boyhood. But when he did it, he thought he heard a soft, long, low laugh go pulsing around the deck. This laugh, if it even occurred, was suddenly in all places at once, and gone as suddenly and utterly. Jean had grown very cold, but he was not afraid. He said, under his breath, «I know you. What have you come to tell me?» But that too was only his instinct, for he did not know, either what was there with him, or what he had said to it.
Nevertheless, there came a swift flash, like a star falling or a light quenched somewhere between himself and the next item of solid material, which happened to be one of the masts. What it was he did not see, although it seemed afterward that it might have been the reflection of a face, glimpsed as if in a mirror. It was a peculiar face, too, more a mask, that was at one and the same time black and white, but whether the black was laid over the white or the white on the black, Jean could not make out.
And then he found he could move, the air had soaked back to its usual tepid warmth, and he started to hear real sounds from the ship, and to behold some sailors over by one of the hatches smoking their pipes, and the watch motionless aloft. The other thing was gone.
The young man went down to the saloon to take his supper, trying to put off a vague sense of shame, which apparently naturally replaced the supernatural sensation that preceded it. Below, he drank more than he was used to with his meal, and went to bed amused at himself and engorged by notions of his arrival at the Island in the morning, where his search would commence at once for Dargue.
The ship entered port an hour after dawn. For whatever other reason, it was likely Ha"issa had earned the epithet «Black» in one way from her looks. Behind the harbor the Town straddled a vast swooping slope that expended itself abruptly, miles off, against enormous uplands cumbered in jungles or forests that showed jet black against the vibrancy of the sky. Beyond these nearer heights yet more gigantic cliffs scaled up, thick with vegetation and trees, until distance reduced the panorama to transparency. In two or three spots a solitary waterfall shone like a straight white smoke. The Town itself was by contrast pastel and tawdry, the ripe smell of it drifting out across the harbor with the stink of fish and fruit. Parrots, in cages on peeling balconies that overhung the water, screamed. Although he had seen black men as he neared the Island, Jean had never gazed on such a quantity. Their species was so different he could not fit them into any comfortable niche. It was easier to detail them as some form of higher and less tractable animal. The brilliance of their teeth shocked him, and their women, walking barefoot on the sharp stones and broken shards above the shipping, with metal necklets and colored scarves circling their waists and brows. The women of Jean's landscape had figures made of laced bone and hair like raveled silk. These had pelt or fleece upon their heads. Their breasts swayed with the rhythm of their steps as they walked like cats.
Had he not been embued by his purpose, the young man, alone and mostly penniless in this alien world, might have given way to preliminary panic. But he was armored, was Jean. And in his armor he went ashore, and carrying his bag himself, went up the first curving street from the port, between the balconies and bird cages, across a square of big-limbed trees pendulous with gourds, under the stucco and the palms and over the steps, clung with orchids, that led to the upper Town of Black Ha"issa.
And the cat-women passed him in their skins of velure, and higher up he saw the ones who were half cat and half human, swarthy near-white, driving in their carriages with fans of feathers in their carved, ringed hands. And he saw the gentlemen too, lounging by the barbers and the hotels, in striped waistcoats, and some of these were black and some not quite black. But the whites had gone to the very surface-top of the Town like froth to the top of coffee, and there were to be noticed, like pieces of mosaic among the plantains and palm trees, their froth-white mansions with faded names, and colossal gardens gone to seed, passionflowers and flowers that ate flies, snakes in the dry fountains, and giant spiders hung among vines, weaving with their legs.
But the visor of his armor was down across the eyes of Jean de St. Jean the poet's son. He knew the word «Dargue.» That was what he had come for. He climbed up because that was the way the streets and steps led him, and the hanging parks of Ha"issa Town. Dargue was a man of substance in this place, and should be simple to find.
And Jean knew an aching urge to see him again. It was nearly poignant. As if, in looking at this man, he could perceive, lifted miraculously out of time and decay, his two parents, whose faces he knew only from some little paintings kept in Andromede's apartment.
Jean had of course conceived a plan, partly conceived it in his home City in the days after sighting Dargue. Aboard ship, during the ocean months, he shaped the plan or was shaped by it, perhaps. The fuss that some of his fellow passengers made of him—as a young hopeful setting forth to try his fortune (naturally the true purpose was not revealed to them)—and the general talk of the way of getting on in the islands, molded the plan further. It became outrageous and possible. It appealed to Jean by its audacity, its very terribleness. For what he eventually proposed to do was to approach Dargue directly, rendering him the false identity which he, Jean, had already adopted for the voyage out—it was one of the few provisions the poet's son had taken to protect himself. And having so engaged his enemy, Jean would stand before him and beg for an occupation, flaunting the good City education, making of himself a charming and valuable prospect. That Dargue should take him on, employ him, as a secretary or assistant of some sort, was so balefully ironic, Jean did not believe it could not come to be.
Installed in Dargue's very household, privy to his secrets, which rumor suggested were often dark, debauched, dangerous, Jean foresaw a hundred opportunities both to ruin and, ultimately, to commit murder.
How the murder was to be accomplished—this he did not know, and had never truly visualized. It was a shadow act performed in dream. That valid . He trusted that the hour and the means would be given him.
Jean made his inquiries at Ha"issa Town after Dargue in the manner of the young hopeful off the ship, a fellow citizen, speaking a common tongue, clever, and prepared to be industrious. Quite quickly he had his directions to a mansion out along Oleander Road. It was a two-hour ride, which to Jean, on foot and with his bag in hand, would furnish an afternoon's walk.
Oleander Road was not a road in any sense of a city street. It was a broad avenue of earth that rambled out of the edges of the Town and curled itself away for miles through the hills. It was barricaded by banana trees, and continually encroached upon by the forest, a swollen, lubricious wall of leaves and trunks that bulged inward with incredible potency, alight with sun, with bird noises, and the quiver of insects. The air was warm, it seemed to run down in rivulets, so that everything to be seen wavered. Along Oleander Road, at considerable distances from one another, the old houses lay off the track, behind spilled paths, rough-haired lawns, and plantings of cocoa and tobacco. In one place there was even a milestone, but it indicated the leagues back to Ha"issa Town.
Shade was thrown all over the road, and shots of sun. The shambling route went always higher and higher, and began at length to show, through windowpane openings, sky and sea below.
Drenched in sweat, Jean walked the road. His bag came to weigh like the weight of the sins of the one he sought.
There was nothing else he could do. It was out of the question to turn back, and he never debated that he should. He went on, sometimes turning his head to catch the weird bird cries of the forest, or slapping at some bloodsucking thing that had bitten him. It was a type of hell, this walk. He had not foretold the punishment, but neither did he resist its infliction.
The shade pool on the road deepened, and spread, and a breeze started that shook the huge hammered-iron leaves of the plantains. It was evening, and abruptly, on his left hand, Jean saw the notice that indicated the estate of Monsieur Dargue.
He felt a start of the pulses, as though he had encountered a lover unexpectedly.
The garden of Dargue's house was positively enormous and dense with the coming of darkness. The overhanging shrubs and trees seemed hung with heavy coils of snakes. A scent began of strange pale-colored flowers. The stars were piercing the sky like drops of silver sweat or blood bursting out upon a thin black skin.
Jean wandered through this tangle of night, and behind the little fires of flowers the house had suddenly appeared, two stories of masonry in a cage of verandas, lighted by oil lamps that hung on it like ripe fruit.
A dog commenced to bark and howl drearily. Jean stood beside a fountain and saw the mansion of his enemy before him, and everything became for a moment unreal. It was as if he did not even know who he himself was, or his own name. As if he had forgotten the name of his father, and why he had come here. And the word «Dargue» was meaningless.
The moment was frightful to Jean. It actually frightened him, but more than that, it caused him to struggle with some faceless adversary, and to win.
After that the house was Dargue's house, and he must get to it at once.
Perhaps he became aware as he drew nearer that there was a hush on the building. The dog had left off its dirge and the crickets were very loud. One lighted window burned in the second story, nothing else. The lanterns around the veranda seemed to grin. Beyond the house stretched the fields of the estate, but no lamp moved there—it might have been a primeval swamp.
Jean rang the bell, which was quite ordinary. He had to wait some while, and was reaching out again for the bellpull when he heard a kind of dragging step coming toward him through the house.
Jean was conscious then that something had gone wrong.
The door opened. An elderly black man was craning out, peering up at him. He had the face of a beautiful marmoset, which themselves resemble the princes of another world. But he was so old and bent, and maybe had had to bend his inner self also; he looked at Jean with a timorous indifference, saying nothing.
«Dargue. I am here—to see Monsieur Dargue,» said Jean stridently, his voice too noisy, like something that escaped him.
The old man continued peering up at him.
«I've come a long way,» said Jean, and suddenly realized that he had. He trembled.
«Monsieur Dargue,» said the black man, softly.
«Yes. Tell him—«
«No, monsieur,» said the black man, «I can't tell him. Monsieur Dargue is dead.»
The whole night caved in upon Jean, shadows, trees, darkness, stars, all came rushing down, pouring in through the top of his skull. He dropped his bag somewhere in the maelstrom. Then found himself leaning against the wall.
The servant man still watched him, still indifferent, but saying now in a craven way, «He take ill on the day he come back. He take to his bed. Then the doctor come. Then the priest come. Then Monsieur Dargue, he dies. He dies last night.»
In the silence that followed the servant's recital, Jean heard himself say, equally softly, «But I've come such a long way. I came to find him.»
«He dead, monsieur.»
Jean said, «Yes.»
And then the servant seemed to try to reward him for his compliance.
«He is lying out on the bed. You want come in, monsieur, have look at him?»
A rush of nausea. «No,» Jean said. «In God's name—«
When he recovered a little, the servant had closed the door, and was audibly making his dragging progress off again through the house.
For a few seconds Jean leaned on the wall and wept. It was the ghastly disappointment of the passionate child, whose desired gift has been snatched away at the last instant, literally out of his hand.
Worst of all, he did not know in the least what to do next. He had been almost four months tending to this, more, his entire life had in some sort latched on it. But the dream act was already performed. Even as he had stood on the ship's deck, scenting the odor of Ha"issa across the night, even then. Death himself had preempted the frail revenge of Jean de St. Jean. Face to face with his own mortal inconsequence, the young man turned from the house of his enemy, a shell as meaningless as if gutted by fire. He trudged away, not quite knowing what he did, through the serpentine garden.