The boat meandered down the slow river, leaving a sliver of moonlight in its wake. The night was still and close. The woman had left her stifling cabin to catch a breath of air, but the dampness on deck oppressed her even more.
She fanned herself and looked out toward the dark copse of trees on the far shore. Plantations edged the water. Sans Souci, Belle Reve: Without a Care, Beautiful Dream. Lies built on human misery. No need to be anxious, she told herself and took a few deep breaths. Her dress, heavy and sodden, clung to her breasts and back.
Turning, she kicked the train of her dress outward almost losing her footing. She would not have seen the man lying on a heap of rope if she had not looked around with a self-conscious of gesture of discomfort.
He stared at her, expressionless, a glassy eye catching the light. As she drew near him, she saw that he was hurt, his body contorted, his other eye swollen shut, mottled and bruised. She reached a hand out toward him and he cringed.
‘You’re hurt,’ she said, getting on her knees to take a closer look at him. The man turned his head away. ‘Come with me,’ she said, helping him up.
The first mate looked at them as they passed in the darkness, but she ignored him, although she had been careful not to attract attention to herself the entire length of the journey. She took the man to her cabin and sat him down in a chair at the table in the sitting room.
‘Wait a minute,’ she said and went to get a cloth and a basin of water. She cleaned his wounds and gave him a drink and took one for herself from a bottle that she kept hidden in the cabinet.
‘What happened to you?’ she asked standing back, appraising her handiwork, and then the man. He was young, she estimated, about twenty years old and darkly handsome. She wondered for a minute who he reminded her of and then remembered, though she did not want to. The man said nothing, only stared at his glass. She poured him another drink, and he tossed it back.
‘Where are you from?’ she asked.
‘From across the great sea,’ he said quietly. It was difficult for him to talk because his mouth was swollen where he had been hit. He suddenly seemed more sullen than ever and withdrew into himself. She knew the look, it was one that beaten dogs wore. He would not be answering any more of her questions. It was just as well, she was exhausted.
‘Another?’ she asked, but he shook his head. ‘Well, then Mister… I think we have finished here.’
The man stood and shuffled to the door. She felt a pang of conscience since she knew that he had nowhere to go. She wondered how he had gotten on the boat. Well, that was his problem. As he was about to leave he shot her a look that went straight through her and she had a presentiment that horrified her. It was as if he had been looking at the dead, she thought.
She locked the door behind him and took another drink before putting the bottle away. Don’t think, she said to herself. You are Marie Gilbert, and tomorrow you will be in New Orleans. Her dress buttoned down the front, and she undid it herself since she did not have a maid, and had not had one for some time, though she said when asked that her Suzette had recently run off to who knows where. She laid the dress out to dry on the back of the chair and let her hair down. She stood in front of the looking glass taking full measure of herself. Thick wavy hair, hazel eyes, a full mouth, a slim yet voluptuous figure. She turned to the side and appraised herself critically. That man had olive skin, just as she did, yet he was English. How odd, she thought.
She put her nightdress on and listened to voices in the corridor whispering, always whispering. She heard those muted tones and wondered if they were talking about her. It made her afraid, just like before, but her limbs were so heavy, and she couldn’t move. She tumbled down a long flight of stairs; her body jerked before falling into a deep asleep.
There were lianas growing over the house, choking it. She walked up the cracked steps, across the veranda that was covered with dead leaves. Entering the front door, she walked through the hall and called out, her voice ringing through the empty rooms. She seemed to recognize the place, but it was eerily abandoned, the furniture gone, the walls cracked. A cross wind swept through the house. She hurried upstairs, to hidden rooms that she had never seen, filled with ivory and strange sculptures. She wondered where they had come from.
Her brother was standing to one side, but he could not see her. She passed her hand in front of his eyes. He was blind, asleep, though he was standing there with his eyes open. She spoke to him but he faded away. ‘Help me get away,’ she cried and ran through the house down the back stair and out across the lawn, but the vines were holding her back and she woke up, entangled in the bedsheets, soaking wet. She slipped out of her gown and pulled out the deck of cards that she kept next to her bed and laid them out, but she could not clearly see what they were saying. She was afraid, and she knew she had to arrest her thoughts before they overwhelmed her. It would be better when daylight came, the bad would stop and she would be busy enough not to have to think or remember a thing.
She imagined what it would be like to have serious money, and she pictured herself being safe, so safe and sheltered from the world. She imagined the house she would buy and imagined how she would furnish it, and presently she was asleep and her breathing was light.
She slept into late morning, and when she went on deck, she looked for the man from the night before, but he was nowhere to be seen, and she thought, it’s just as well, it’s just as well. I’m alone now and that is the way I would like it to remain.