Read Island Beneath the Sea Online

Authors: Isabel Allende

Tags: #Latin American Novel And Short Story, #Historical - General, #Caribbean Area, #Sugar plantations, #Women slaves, #Plantation life, #Fiction - General, #Racially mixed women, #Historical, #Haiti, #General, #Allende; Isabel - Prose & Criticism, #Fiction

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The Bride from Cuba

I
n October 1778, the eighth year of his time on the island, Toulouse Valmorain made another of his brief trips to Cuba, where he had commercial affairs he preferred not to divulge. Like all the colonists on Saint-Domingue, he was supposed to do business solely with France, but there were a thousand ingenious ways to dodge the law, and he knew several. It did not seem like a sin to avoid taxes, which, after all was said and done, ended up in the bottomless coffers of the king. The tortuous coast lent itself to discreetly setting sail at night en route to other coves of the Caribbean without anyone's knowing, and the porous border with the Spanish part of the island, less populated and much poorer than the French, permitted a constant antlike traffic behind the backs of the authorities. All manner of contraband, from weapons to miscreants, but most of all sacks of sugar, coffee, and cocoa, passed from the plantations to be shipped to other destinations, avoiding customs. After Valmorain had emerged from beneath his father's debts and begun to accumulate more income than dreamed of, he decided he would keep reserves of money in Cuba, where they would be more secure than in France, and within reach in case of need. He arrived in Havana with the intention of staying just a week to meet with his banker, but the visit was prolonged more than planned because at a ball given by the French consulate he met Eugenia Garcia del Solar. From a corner of the pretentious ballroom he saw in the distance an opulent young girl with translucent skin; her head was crowned with luxuriant chestnut hair and she was dressed in the provincial mode, just the opposite of the elegant Violette Boisier. To his eyes, nevertheless, she was no less beautiful. He had picked her out immediately on the crowded dance floor, and for the first time he felt inadequate. He had acquired what he was wearing several years before in Paris, and it was out of fashion; the sun had tanned his skin to leather, he had the hands of a blacksmith, his wig tickled his head, the lace of his collar was choking him, and his foppish pointy-toed, twisted-heel shoes were too tight, forcing him to walk like a duck. His once refined manners were brusque compared with the ease of the Cubans. The years he had spent on the plantation had hardened him inside and out, and now, when he most needed it, he lacked the courtly arts that had been so natural in his youth. As a crowning blow, the dances in style were a lively tangle of pirouettes, bows, turns, and hops that he was unable to imitate. He found out that the girl was the sister of a Spaniard named Sancho Garcia del Solar, who came from a family of minor nobility that had been impoverished for two generations, no matter the name. The mother had jumped to her death from the bell tower of a church, and the father had died young after throwing the family fortune out the window.

Eugenia had been educated in an icy convent in Madrid, where nuns instilled in her the things necessary to grace the character of a fine lady: modesty, prayers, and embroidery. In the meantime, Sancho had come to Cuba to seek a fortune because in Spain there was no room for an imagination as brazen as his; in contrast, on this Caribbean island where adventurers of every stripe were found, he could lend himself to lucrative, if not always legal, business dealings. He lived the life of a rowdy bachelor, balancing on the tightrope of his debts, which he struggled to pay, always at the last hour, through success at the gaming table and help from his friends. He was handsome, he had a golden tongue for inveigling whoever was near, and he gave himself so many airs that no one suspected how large the hole in his pocket was. Then suddenly, when he least desired it, the nuns sent him his sister, accompanied by a duenna and a brief, straightforward letter explaining that Eugenia did not have the religious calling, and now it was up to him, her only relative and her guardian, to take charge of her. With that virginal young girl under his roof, Sancho's night life came to an end; he was responsible for finding her an adequate husband before she was too old and left to dressing saints for the church--with a vocation or without it. His intention was to marry her to the highest bidder, someone who would lift both of them out of the misery in which their parents' extravagance had left them, but he had not expected as big a fish as Toulouse Valmorain. Sancho knew very well who Valmorain was, and what the Frenchman was worth; he had had in mind proposing some business to him, but he did not introduce him to his sister at the ball because she was at a frank disadvantage compared with the celebrated Cuban beauties. Eugenia was timid; she did not have the proper clothes, and he could not buy them for her, she did not know how to do her hair, although fortunately there was an abundance of it, and she did not have the small figure imposed by current style. He was, then, surprised when the next day Valmorain asked permission to call upon them, with serious intentions, he had said.

"He must be a bandy-legged old man," Eugenia joked when she learned that, tapping her brother with her closed fan.

"He is a true monsieur, cultivated and rich, but even if he were deformed, you would marry him. You will soon be twenty, and you have no dowry."

"But I'm pretty!" she interrupted, laughing.

"Many women in Havana are prettier and slenderer than you."

"You think I'm fat?"

"You cannot play hard to get, especially if it's Valmorain. He is an excellent catch; he has titles and properties in France, but the main part of his fortune is a sugar plantation in Saint-Domingue," Sancho explained.

"Santo Domingo?" she asked, alarmed.

"Saint-Domingue, Eugenia. The French part of the island is very different from the Spanish. I will show you a map so you see that it's very close; you can come visit me any time you want."

"I am not ignorant, Sancho. I know that that colony is a purgatory of fatal illnesses and rebellious Negroes."

"That will only be for a while. The white colonists leave as soon as they can. Within a few years you will be in Paris. Isn't that the dream of all women?"

"I don't speak French."

"You will learn. Starting tomorrow, you will have a tutor," Sancho concluded.

If Eugenia Garcia del Solar was thinking of opposing her brother's designs, she put that idea aside as soon as Toulouse Valmorain came to the house. He was younger and more attractive than she had expected, average height, well built, with broad shoulders, a manly face with harmonious features, skin bronzed by the sun, and gray eyes. His fine lips had a hard expression. Blond hair peeked from beneath his twisted wig, and he seemed uncomfortable in his clothes, which were tight on him. Eugenia liked his way of getting straight to the point and of looking at her as if he was unclothing her, something that provoked a sinful tickling that would have horrified the nuns in the lugubrious convent in Madrid. It was a shame that Valmorain lived in Saint-Domingue, she thought, but if her brother was not deceiving her, it would be for a short time. Sancho invited the suitor to take refreshment in the pergola in the garden, and in less than half an hour the agreement was tacitly concluded. Eugenia was not present for the final details, which were resolved by the men behind a closed door; she was given only the task of a trousseau. That was ordered from France, following the advice of the consul's wife, and her brother financed it with a usurious loan obtained thanks to his irresistible charlatan eloquence. At her morning masses, Eugenia fervently thanked God for the unique good fortune of marrying for money, but to someone she could come to love.

Valmorain stayed in Cuba a couple of months, courting Eugenia with improvised methods because he had lost the custom of dealing with women like her; those he used with Violette Boisier did not serve in this case. He came to his betrothed's house every day from four to six in the afternoon to take refreshment and play cards, always in the presence of a duenna dressed all in black, who kept one eye on her tatting and the other focused on them. Sancho's domicile left much to be desired, and Eugenia had little interest in domestic matters and had done nothing to put things in order. To prevent the grimy furniture from staining the suitor's clothing, Eugenia received him in the garden, where voracious tropical vegetation flourished like a botanical menace. Sometimes they went for a walk, accompanied by Sancho, or glanced at each other in the church, where they could not speak. Valmorain had noted the precarious conditions in which the Garcia del Solars lived, and deduced that if his bride-to-be was comfortable there, she would have greater reason to be so in the Habitation Saint-Lazare. He sent her delicate presents, flowers, and formal notes she kept in a velvet-lined coffer but left unanswered. Until that moment Valmorain had had little exchange with Spaniards--his friends were French--but he soon found that he was comfortable among them. He had no problem communicating, as French was the second language of the cultivated and the upper class in Cuba. He confused the silences of his betrothed with modesty, in his eyes a fine feminine virtue, and it did not occur to him that she scarcely understood him. Eugenia did not have a good ear, and her tutor's efforts were insufficient to instill in her the subtleties of the French language. Eugenia's discretion and her novitiate's ways seemed to Valmorain a guarantee that she would not fall into the debauched conduct of so many women in Saint-Domingue, who used the excuse of the climate to abandon modesty. Once he understood the Spanish character, with its exaggerated sense of honor and absence of irony, he felt comfortable with the girl, and with good nature accepted the idea of being bored with her. That didn't matter. He wanted an honorable wife and dedicated mother who would be an example to her descendants; he had his books and his business to entertain him.

Sancho was the opposite of his sister, and of other Spaniards Valmorain knew: cynical, jovial, immune to melodrama and the alarms of jealousy, a nonbeliever, and skilled in catching on the fly any opportunity floating in the air. Although some aspects of his future brother-in-law shocked Valmorain, he was amused by him and let himself be cheated, prepared to lose money for the pleasure of witty conversation and of laughing a while. As the first step, he made Sancho a partner in smuggling the French wines he intended to bring from Saint-Domingue to Cuba, where they were greatly appreciated. That began a long and solid complicity that would unite them till death.

The Master's House

A
t the end of November, Toulouse Valmorain returned to Saint-Domingue to prepare for the arrival of his future wife. Like all plantations, Saint-Lazare had a "big house," which in this instance was little more than a rectangular wood and brick building lifted off ground level on three-meter pillars to protect it from slave uprisings and floods in the hurricane season. It had a series of dark bedchambers, several of them with rotted floors, and large drawing and dining rooms that featured opposing windows to facilitate circulation of breezes and a system of canvas fans strung from the ceiling and operated by slaves pulling a cord. With the back-and-forth of the ventilators a thin cloud of dust and dried mosquito wings was loosed to settle like dandruff on the diners' clothing. The windows had no panes, only waxed paper, and the furniture was rough, appropriate for a single man's interim dwelling. Bats nested in the ceiling, and at night one tended to encounter insects in the corners and hear the sound of mice in the bedchambers. A gallery, or roofed terrace, with battered wicker furniture enclosed the house on three sides. Around it were worm-eaten fruit trees, an untended vegetable garden, several patios with pecking hens befuddled by the heat, a stable for fine horses, dog kennels, a coach house, and beyond the roaring ocean of cane fields, as a backdrop, violet mountains profiled against a capricious sky. Perhaps once there had been a garden, but not even a memory remained. The sugar mills and the slave cabins could not be seen from the house. Toulouse Valmorain went over everything with a critical eye, noticing for the first time its rickety, vulgar appearance. Compared with the place Sancho lived, it was a palace, but measured against the mansions of the other
grands blancs
on the island, and his small family chateau in France, which he had not visited in eight years, it was embarrassingly ugly. He decided to begin his married life on the right foot and give his wife the surprise of a house worthy of the names Valmorain and Garcia del Solar. He would have to make arrangements.

Violette Boisier received the notice of her client's marriage with philosophical good humor. Loula, who knew everything, told her that Valmorain had a betrothed in Cuba. "He will miss you, my angel, but I assure you he will be back," she said. And he was. Shortly after, Valmorain knocked on the door of Violette's apartment, not in search of her usual services but to ask his old lover to help him receive his wife as she deserved. He did not know where to begin, and he could not think of another person of whom he could ask such a favor.

"Is it true that Spanish women sleep in a nun's nightdress with a hole cut in front for making love?" Violette asked him.

"How should I know that?" The groom-to-be laughed. "I am not married yet, but if that is true, I will rip it apart."

"No! You bring me the gown, and here with Loula we will open another hole in back," she said.

The young cocotte agreed to assist him if he paid her a reasonable commission of 15 percent on monies expended in furnishing the house. For the first time in Violette's dealings with a man no acrobatics in bed were included, and she set about the task with enthusiasm. She and Loula traveled to Saint-Lazare to get an idea of the mission she'd been charged with, and almost as soon as she stepped inside the door, a lizard from the coffered ceiling dropped into her decolletage. Her scream brought in several slaves from the patio, whom she recruited for a top to bottom cleaning. For one week this beautiful courtesan, whom Valmorain had seen only in golden lamplight, bedecked in silk and taffeta, made up and perfumed, directed the squad of barefoot slaves wearing a coarse cloth dressing gown and a rag tied around her head. She seemed in her element, as if she had been doing this rough work all her life. Under her orders the sound floorboards were scrubbed clean and the rotten ones replaced; she changed the mosquito netting and the paper at the windows. She aired the rooms, set out poison for the mice, burned tobacco to drive out insects, sent the broken furniture to the alley of the slaves, and finally the house was clean and bare. Violette had everything painted white inside, and as there was whitewash left over, she used it on the domestic slaves' cabins, which were near the big house, then had purple bougainvillea planted around the gallery. Valmorain promised her that he would keep the house clean. He also set several slaves to laying out a garden inspired by Versailles, though the extreme climate did not lend itself to the geometric art of the landscapes of the French court. Violette returned to Le Cap with a list of purchases. "Don't spend too much, this house is temporary; as soon as I have a manager we will go to France," Valmorain told her, handing her an amount he felt was fair. She ignored his warning, because nothing pleased her as much as shopping.

BOOK: Island Beneath the Sea
10.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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