Sample text for Sold down the river / Barbara Hambly.


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Counter When someone ties you naked to a tree in the yard and beats you unconscious with a broom handle, you don't soon forget it, or him.

"Ben, you remember Monsieur Fourchet," said his mother.

Standing in the doorway of her parlor, Benjamin January felt the hair lift on his nape at the sight of the man beside the window.

In the nightmares, he was taller.

Fourchet turned from the long French door that looked out onto Rue Burgundy, and January saw that he was, in fact, just slightly under six feet tall: more than three inches shorter than his own towering height. That he was wide through the chest and shoulders, but without January's massive strength. In the nightmares his hair was black, not streaky gray and thin, and his face, although creased with a lifetime's rage and cruelty, didn't have the broken network of lines that gouged the sunken cheeks, bracketed the harsh mouth, accentuated the sag beneath the chin.

The eyes were the same. Arrogant, dark, and cold.

But the man had grown old.

"I remember," he told his mother.

"You've grown." Fourchet took a seat in one of the straw-colored chintz chairs of which January's mother was so proud.

Between seven and forty-one I'd belong in a raree-show if I hadn't. January couldn't resist saying, "Monsieur Janvier fed me very well. Sir."

Fourchet hadn't. The slaves on Fourchet's Bellefleur Plantation, where January had been born, had what were called provision lands, small plots where they could grow corn and yams. On most plantations these augmented whatever rations of cornmeal and salt pork the planter saw fit to distribute. On Bellefleur, Fourchet had skimped the women and the children; even out of harvest time, he had demanded extra work after the conch shell was blown at sunset, so that the provision grounds were neglected and choked with weeds. January remembered his aunts and uncles were always being whipped for stealing food.

Fourchet sniffed. "Educated you, too, so your mother tells me."

By the way the man said the words January knew that Fourchet had had his mother, probably many times in the years before he'd sold her to St.-Denis Janvier. Anger rose in him like vomit, and like vomit he swallowed it down. He glanced at Livia Levesque, slender and beautiful still at sixty-four, neat in her fashionable frock of yellow mull-muslin, on her head the tignon that New Orleans statute required all women of color to wear, striped yellow and white to match, and trimmed with lace. Her slim strong hands in crocheted house-mitts rested easy around the cup of pink-and-green German porcelain that held her coffee, and her dark wide beautiful eyes moved from man to man with an alert calculation that held not the smallest whisper of embarrassment, self-consciousness, or anger in the presence of her former master.

The situation simply didn't bother her at all.

"Monsieur Fourchet has come to ask our help, Ben," said his mother. Outside, in the Rue Burgundy, a brewer's dray rattled past, driven far too fast by a young man standing to the reins like a Roman charioteer; two women walking along the brick banquette squealed and sprang aside from the water thrown by the wheels. Even so far back from the levee the hoots of the steamboats could be heard, and the dim stirring of stevedores' shouts and vendors' cries. After summer's gluey horror, the autumn air was crisp. The city was resuming its wintertime bustle and prosperity. "Your name was given him by that dirty American policeman you take up with, but perhaps it's all to the best."

That dirty American policeman was Abishag Shaw, lieutenant of the New Orleans City Guard. Though as a rule--like most of the citizens of the French town, white and colored alike--January mistrusted Americans profoundly, particularly those in positions of power, he liked Shaw and respected him. Still, his mother spoke no more than the truth.

January folded his powerful arms and waited. He had not, he noticed, been invited to sit in the presence of a white man and his former master. Nor had his mother said, Get yourself some coffee, Ben.

It was one thing for a white man to share coffee with a velvet-brown mulatto woman. White men did it all the time, in these small cottages at the rear of the French town. The custom of the country. For generations French and Spanish Creoles had taken free women of color as their mistresses, as St.-Denis Janvier had thirty-three years ago freed and then taken her. It was another thing--January could see this in her eyes, hear it in her artfully artless silence--to ask a white gentleman to sit in the same room drinking coffee with the coal-black son of a mulatto and a slave.

In the eighteen months since his return from sixteen years in Paris--years in which he had practiced both surgery and music--January had never been permitted to forget that this house was his mother's, not his.

If Simon Fourchet was conscious of any of this, he didn't show it. Maybe he accepted it as natural that a grown man wouldn't be permitted to drink coffee in the house where he lived, should a white man be seated there.

"There's a secret campaign of deliberate destruction going on at Mon Triomphe," the planter said, glancing up at January from under the grizzled overhang of his brows. "Spoliation, arson, wrecking, ruin--and murder. And maybe open revolt."

Mon Triomphe, January recalled, was Fourchet's other plantation. When Fourchet had sold Bellefleur--years after January, his mother, and his younger sister had been sold and freed--the planter had gone there permanently. It lay upriver in Ascension Parish, some twenty miles southeast of Baton Rouge. Twenty miles, that is, if you wanted to hack your way through cypress swamps and untamed woodland, instead of journeying twice the distance in half the time via steamboat on the river.

Forty-two years ago--in 1793, the year of January's birth--Fourchet had managed Mon Triomphe himself and left Bellefleur in the care of his brother-in-law Gervase Duhamel, only returning there after the grueling hell of the roulaison--the sugar-grinding--was done. Bellefleur had lain close to the small, walled city of New Orleans, to which Fourchet brought his Spanish wife and their two children every year for the Carnival season. They lived in the big house at Bellefleur for the weeks between Twelfth Night and Easter; entertained guests there, something impossible in the isolated fastnesses of Ascension Parish. St.-Denis Janvier, who had eventually bought January's mother, had been one of those guests.

In 1798, when January was five, there'd been a slave revolt on Mon Triomphe. It may have been fueled by rumor, hope, and the example of Christophe's rebellion in the island of Saint-Domingue, though the aunts and uncles and cousins whose cabins January had played in said that it started when a drunken Fourchet beat a young girl to death. Fourchet's wife and daughter died under the machetes of the infuriated slaves. The revolt was crushed, of course, but after that Fourchet sent his sister and her husband to Mon Triomphe, and ran Bellefleur himself.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: January, Benjamin (Fictitious character) Fiction, African American men Fiction, Free African Americans Fiction, New Orleans (La, ) Fiction