The live oaks formed a canopy that led down an alley to the house and a mist lay over the land. Seraphine shivered but said nothing until Marie looked at her.
‘It’s a bad place, Madame.’
‘What have you heard of it?’ Marie inquired, thinking that she had to stay in control and calm the girl.
‘I have not heard, but I can feel something in the air.’
‘The master and the overseer are rigid men, but the master loves card games, and we will not be here long. Keep your eyes open and your lips sealed and you will be fine, I assure you.’
‘Of course, Madame.’
The house was sturdy and well designed but inside there were few comforts and no luxuries. The master of the house, a taciturn and dessicated man, laid low at first by fevers then by his obdurate nature, waited for Marie with an impatience bordering on the unforbearing.
‘Finally, you’ve arrived,’ he said not bothering to conceal his irritation.
‘Calm yourself, Pierre. I’m here at last and I’ll make you wish to see the last of me,’ she replied.
Pierre’s mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile. ‘You have no idea how dull life is here and how slowly time passes.’
Pierre was a hard, uncompromising man, Marie thought, but at least she did not have to make conversation with him or pretend to be anything other than she was. He had no interest in her other than her ability to play cards. His only other passion apart from his cane fields were his fine horses.
The afternoon promised to be sunny and cool and Pierre wanted to go riding, and so Marie changed into her costume and joined him at the stables. A gray was brought out to her by a white man who looked at her sharply and then, uninterested, through her. He handed her the reigns and propped up her foot while she mounted.
Pierre spurred his mount, and only when they had gone some distance did he slow down, and she rode up beside him wondering if she should ask where Anatole was.
‘I sold him, he was nothing but trouble,’ Pierre answered, and Marie said nothing because Anatole had been a man with horses in his blood.
‘And the new man?’
‘A queer sort, an Englishman. Keeps to himself but he knows horses.’
So, he fits this place, she thought and rather than continuing the conversation, she urged her horse forward, and Pierre, galloping, gave chase over the flats.
Marie napped before dinner and when Seraphine came to dress her, she asked if the girl had heard anything about the horse master. Seraphine seemed unusually quiet and then she said, ‘The slaves fear him, Madame.’
‘Is he a cruel man?’ she asked.
‘I couldn’t say, exactly.’
‘Does he beat them?’
Seraphine shook her head.
‘The master says he is good with the horses.’
‘Yes, he is good with the horses.’
‘Is it the girls?’
‘No, they say he has no eye for the girls.’
‘What is it then?’
Seraphine looked down at the floor, she was silent for a minute but knew her mistress expected an answer. ‘They say he is the devil, Madame.’
‘Oh, no less than the devil, himself. On what grounds, Seraphine, can they claim that?’
But Seraphine did not know how to explain it herself, it was just a feeling that overcame you when you saw the dark man with his grim countenance, that there was something about him that was wild and infernal.
‘Has there been any unrest? Is that why you sold Anatole?’ Marie asked Pierre that evening as they sat down in his sparsely furnished salon to play cards.
‘You never know what these black devils are thinking. The way they look at me sometimes…’
She wanted to ask questions but knew from his closed expression that he was ready to play and that there would be no more conversation between them. Halfway through the evening, Pierre drained his wine and went to the window for air since he was losing badly and needed to refresh himself. But when he opened it, they heard the sound of distant drums. The air smelled of swamp, and though cool, was humid.
‘Those are Congo drums,’ Marie said quietly.
‘It’s nothing, a fete, don’t get nervous.’
‘What sort of fete? There are no holidays now.’
‘The birth of a son and heir on the neighboring plantation. They’ll be celebrating into the night.’
‘I see,’ Marie said, resuming her place. It was her deal. They played a simplified form of poquet, without a board, throwing their chips into the center of the table and alternating deals.
‘When will you be leaving?’ he asked.
‘Early. I have to be at Bel Aire by evening and L’Esperance in a few days.’
‘You’ll stop on your way home.’
‘Yes. I always do.’
Pierre played grimly and she could see him heating up when he lost. He had a terrible temper, she knew, so she loosened her control over the cards and let him win before beating him again.
Her purse was heavy, but she was unquiet, the drums mingling with her sleep, alternately lulling her and making her afraid. The sound mixed with her dream and she was back in the house only it was night and the drums were closer and her heart began thundering.
‘Madame, madame,’ Seraphine was shaking her awake. ‘You were screaming in your sleep.’
‘It was nothing, a nightmare. The drums brought it on.’
‘It’s silent now,’ Seraphine moved toward the window and opened it. The moon was hidden behind a heavy cloud cover and lightening flashed in the distance. For an instant she could see across the flat expanse of land but there was nothing out there. No signs of life. ‘Shango will be throwing stones from the sky soon,’ she said, before thunder shook the house.
‘Seraphine! You can’t speak of the Orisha in front of whites.’
‘But I can with you.’
‘Don’t forget yourself.’
The girl shook her head and pointed toward the door. Marie turned to the wall as she left.
In the morning, Pierre had already ridden out and Marie and Seraphine boarded a boat north.