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The story is a dramatic episode of the revolt of the blacks of St. Domingo in 1791. Bug-Jargal, the hero, is a negro, a slave in the household of a planter. He is secretly in love with his master's daughter, a poetic child, betrothed to her cousin, Leopold d'Auverney. The latter saves the life of Bug-Jargal, who is condemned to death for an act of rebellion. When the great revolt breaks out, and the whole island is in flames, Bug-Jargal protects the young girl, and saves the life of her lover. He even conducts D'Auverney to her he loves, and then, in the fullness of sublime abnegation, he surrenders himself to the whites, who shoot him dead.
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Bug-Jargal, V. Hugo
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
English translation by Sir Gilbert Campbell (1838 – 1899)
Cover Design: based on an artwork by Ablakok - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41579854
When it came to the turn of Captain Leopold d’Auverney, he gazed around him with surprise, and hurriedly assured his comrades that he did not remember any incident in his life that was worthy of repetition.
“But, Captain d’Auverney,” objected Lieutenant Henri, “you have—at least report says so—travelled much, and seen a good deal of the world; have you not been to the Antilles, to Africa, and to Italy? and above all, you have been in Spain——But see, here is your lame dog come back again!”
D’Auverney started, let fall the cigar that he was smoking, and turned quickly to the tent door, at which an enormous dog appeared, limping towards him.
In another instant the dog was licking his feet, wagging his tail, whining, and gamboling as well as he was able; and by every means testifying his delight at finding his master. And at last, as if he felt that he had done all that could be required of a dog, he curled himself up peaceably before his master’s seat.
Captain d’Auverney was much moved, but he strove to conceal his feelings, and mechanically caressed the dog with one hand, whilst with the other he played with the chin-strap of his shako, murmuring from time to time, “So here you are once again, Rask, here you are.” Then, as if suddenly recollecting himself, he exclaimed aloud, “But who has brought him back?”
“By your leave, captain——”
For the last few seconds Sergeant Thaddeus had been standing at the door of the tent, the curtain of which he was holding back with his left hand, whilst his right was thrust into the bosom of his great-coat. Tears were in his eyes as he contemplated the meeting of the dog and his master, and at last, unable to keep silence any longer, he risked the words—
“By your leave, captain——”
D’Auverney raised his eyes.
“Why, it is you, Thaddeus; and how the deuce have you been able—eh? Poor dog, poor Rask, I thought that you were in the English camp. Where did you find him, sergeant?”
“Thanks be to heaven, captain, you see me as happy as your little nephew used to be when you let him off his Latin lesson.”
“But tell me, where did you find him?”
“I did not find him, captain; I went to look for him.”
Captain d’Auverney rose, and offered his hand to the sergeant, but the latter still kept his in the bosom of his coat.
“Well, you see, it was—at least, captain, since poor Rask was lost, I noticed that you were like a man beside himself; so when I saw that he did not come to me in the evening, according to his custom, for his share of my ration bread—which made old Thaddeus weep like a child, I, who before that had only wept twice in my life, the first time when—yes, the day when——” and the sergeant cast a sad look upon his captain. “Well, the second was when that scamp Balthazar, the corporal of the 7th half brigade, persuaded me to peel a bunch of onions.”
“It seems to me, Thaddeus,” cried Henri, with a laugh, “that you avoid telling us what was the first occasion upon which you shed tears.”
“It was doubtless, old comrade,” said the captain kindly, as he patted Rask’s head, “when you answered the roll-call as Tour d’Auvergne, the first grenadier of France.”
“No, no, captain; if Sergeant Thaddeus wept, it was when he gave the order to fire on Bug-Jargal, otherwise called Pierrot.”
A cloud gathered on the countenance of D’Auverney, then he again endeavoured to clasp the sergeant’s hand; but in spite of the honour that was attempted to be conferred on him, the old man still kept his hand hidden under his coat.
“Yes, captain,” continued Thaddeus, drawing back a step or two, whilst D’Auverney fixed his eyes upon him with a strange and sorrowful expression. “Yes, I wept for him that day, and he well deserved it. He was black, it is true, but gunpowder is black also, and—and——”
The good sergeant would fain have followed out his strange comparison, for there was evidently something in the idea that pleased him; but he utterly failed to put his thoughts into words, and after having attacked his idea on every side, as a general would a fortified place, and failed, he raised the siege, and without noticing the smiles of his officers, he continued:
“Tell me, captain, do you recollect how that poor negro arrived all out of breath, at the moment that his ten comrades were waiting on the spot?—we had had to tie them though. It was I who commanded the party; and when with his own hands he untied them, and took their place, although they did all that they could to dissuade him; but he was inflexible. Ah, what a man he was; you might as well have tried to move Gibraltar! And then, captain, he drew himself up as if he were going to enter a ballroom, and this dog, who knew well enough what was coming, flew at my throat——”
“Generally, Thaddeus, at this point of your story, you pat Rask,” interrupted the captain; “see how he looks at you.”
“You are right, sir,” replied Thaddeus, with an air of embarrassment; “he does look at me, poor fellow—but the old woman Malajuda told me it was unlucky to pat a dog with the left hand, and——”
“And why not with your right, pray?” asked D’Auverney, for the first time noticing the sergeant’s pallor, and the hand reposing in his bosom.
The sergeant’s discomfort appeared to increase.
“By your leave, captain, it is because—well, you have got a lame dog, and now there is a chance of your having a one-handed sergeant.”
“A one-handed sergeant! What do you mean? Let me see your arm. One hand! Great heavens!”
D’Auverney trembled, as the sergeant slowly withdrew his hand from his bosom, and showed it enveloped in a blood-stained handkerchief.
“This is terrible,” exclaimed D’Auverney, carefully undoing the bandage. “But tell me, old comrade, how this happened.”
“As for that, the thing is simple enough. I told you how I had noticed your grief since those confounded English had taken away your dog, poor Rask, Bug’s dog. I made up my mind to-day to bring him back, even if it cost me my life, so that you might eat a good supper. After having told Mathelet, your bât man, to get out and brush your full-dress uniform, as we are to go into action to-morrow, I crept quietly out of camp, armed only with my sabre, and crouched under the hedges until I neared the English camp. I had not passed the first trench, when I saw a whole crowd of red soldiers. I crept on quietly to see what they were doing, and in the midst of them I perceived Rask tied to a tree; whilst two of the milords, stripped to here, were knocking each other about with their fists, until their bones sounded like the big drum of the regiment. They were fighting for your dog. But when Rask caught sight of me, he gave such a bound, that the rope broke, and in the twinkling of an eye the rogue was after me. I did not stop to explain, but off I ran, with all the English at my heels. A regular hail of balls whistled past my ears. Rask barked, but they could not hear him for their shouts of ‘French dog! French dog!’ just as if Rask was not of the pure St. Domingo breed. In spite of all I crushed through the thicket, and had almost got clean away, when two red coats confronted me. My sabre accounted for one, and would have rid me of the other, had his pistol not unluckily had a bullet in it. My right arm suffered; but ‘French dog’ leapt at his throat, as if he were an old acquaintance. Down fell the Englishman, for the embrace was so tight that he was strangled in a moment—and here we both are. My only regret is that I did not get my wound in to-morrow’s battle.”
“Thaddeus, Thaddeus!” exclaimed the captain in tones of reproach; “were you mad enough to expose your life thus for a dog?”
“It was not for a dog, it was for Rask.”
D’Auverney’s face softened as Thaddeus added—“For Rask, for Bug’s dog.”
“Enough, enough, old comrade!” cried the captain, dashing his hand across his eyes; “come, lean on me, and I will lead you to the hospital.”
Thaddeus essayed to decline the honour, but in vain; and as they left the tent the dog got up and followed them.
This little drama had excited the curiosity of the spectators to the highest degree. Captain Leopold d’Auverney was one of those men who, in whatever position the chances of nature and society may place them, always inspire a mingled feeling of interest and respect. At the first glimpse there was nothing striking in him—his manner was reserved, and his look cold. The tropical sun, though it had browned his cheek, had not imparted to him that vivacity of speech and gesture which amongst the Creoles is united to an easy carelessness of demeanour, in itself full of charm.
D’Auverney spoke little, listened less, but showed himself ready to act at any moment. Always the first in the saddle, and the last to return to camp, he seemed to seek a refuge from his thoughts in bodily fatigue. These thoughts, which had marked his brow with many a premature wrinkle, were not of the kind that you can get rid of by confiding them to a friend; nor could they be discussed in idle conversation. Leopold d’Auverney, whose body the hardships of war could not subdue, seemed to experience a sense of insurmountable fatigue in what is termed the conflict of the feelings. He avoided argument as much as he sought warfare. If at any time he allowed himself to be drawn into a discussion, he would utter a few words full of common sense and reason, and then at the moment of triumph over his antagonist he would stop short, and muttering “What good is it?” would saunter off to the commanding officer to glean what information he could regarding the enemy’s movements.
His comrades forgave his cold, reserved, and silent habits, because upon every occasion they had found him kind, gentle, and benevolent. He had saved many a life at the risk of his own, and they well knew that though his mouth was rarely opened, yet his purse was never closed when a comrade had need of his assistance.
He was young; many would have guessed him at thirty years of age, but they would have been wrong, for he was some years under it. Although he had for a long period fought in the ranks of the Republican army, yet all were in ignorance of his former life. The only one to whom he seemed ever to open his heart was Sergeant Thaddeus, who had joined the regiment with him, and would at times speak vaguely of sad events in his early life. It was known that D’Auverney had undergone great misfortunes in America, that he had been married in St. Domingo, and that his wife and all his family had perished in those terrible massacres which had marked the Republican invasion of that magnificent colony. At the time of which we write, misfortunes of this kind were so general, that any one could sympathize with, and feel pity for, such sufferers.
D’Auverney, therefore, was pitied less for his misfortunes than for the manner in which they had been brought about.
Beneath his icy mask of indifference the traces of the incurably wounded spirit could be at times perceived.
When he went into action his calmness returned, and in the fight he behaved as if he sought for the rank of general; whilst after victory he was as gentle and unassuming as if the position of a private soldier would have satisfied his ambition. His comrades, seeing him thus despise honour and promotion, could not understand what it was that lighted up his countenance with a ray of hope when the action commenced, and they did not for a moment divine that the prize D’Auverney was striving to gain was simply—Death.
The Representatives of the People, in one of their missions to the army, had appointed him a Chief of Brigade on the field of battle; but he had declined the honour upon learning that it would remove him from his old comrade Sergeant Thaddeus.
Some days afterwards, having returned from a dangerous expedition safe and sound, contrary to the general expectation and his own hopes, he was heard to regret the rank that he had refused.
“For,” said he, “since the enemy’s guns always spare me, perhaps the guillotine, which ever strikes down those it has raised, would in time have claimed me.”
Such was the character of the man upon whom the conversation turned as soon as he had left the tent.
“I would wager,” cried Lieutenant Henri, wiping a splash of mud off his boot which the dog had left as he passed him, “I would wager that the captain would not exchange the broken paw of his dog for the ten baskets of Madeira that we caught a glimpse of in the general’s waggon.”
“Bah!” cried Paschal, the aide-de-camp, “that would be a bad bargain: the baskets are empty by now, and thirty empty bottles would be a poor price for a dog’s paw—why, you might make a good bell-handle out of it.”
They all laughed at the grave manner in which Paschal pronounced these words, with the exception of a young officer of Hussars named Alfred, who remarked—
“I do not see any subject for chaff in this matter, gentlemen. This sergeant and dog, who are always at D’Auverney’s heels ever since I have known him, seem to me more the objects of sympathy than raillery, and interest me greatly.”
Paschal, annoyed that his wit had missed fire, interrupted him. “It certainly is a most sentimental scene—a lost dog found, and a broken arm——”
“Captain Paschal,” said Henri, throwing an empty bottle outside the tent, “you are wrong; this Bug, otherwise called Pierrot, excites my curiosity greatly.”
At this moment D’Auverney returned, and sat down without uttering a word. His manner was still sad, but his face was more calm; he seemed not to have heard what was said. Rask, who had followed him, lay down at his feet, but kept a watchful eye on his master’s comrades.
“Pass your glass, Captain d’Auverney, and taste this.”
“Oh, thank you,” replied the captain, evidently imagining that he was answering a question, “the wound is not dangerous—there is no bone broken.”
The respect which all felt for D’Auverney prevented a burst of laughter at this reply.
“Since your mind is at rest regarding Thaddeus’ wound,” said Henri, “and, as you may remember, we entered into an agreement to pass away the hours of bivouac by relating to each other our adventures, will you carry out your promise by telling us the history of your lame dog, and of Bug—otherwise called Pierrot, that regular Gibraltar of a man?”
To this request, which was put in a semi-jocular tone, D’Auverney at last yielded.
“I will do what you ask, gentlemen,” said he; “but you must only expect a very simple tale, in which I play an extremely second rate part. If the affection that exists between Thaddeus, Rask, and myself leads you to expect anything very wonderful, I fear that you will be greatly disappointed. However, I will begin.”
For a moment D’Auverney relapsed into thought, as though he wished to recall past events which had long since been replaced in his memory by the acts of his later years; but at last, in a low voice and with frequent pauses, he began his tale.
“I was born in France, but at an early age I was sent to St. Domingo, to the care of an uncle to whose daughter it had been arranged between our parents that I was to be married. My uncle was one of the wealthiest colonists, and possessed a magnificent house and extensive plantations in the Plains of Acul, near Fort Galifet.
“The position of the estate, which no doubt you wonder at my describing so minutely, was one of the causes of all our disasters, and the eventual total ruin of our whole family.
“Eight hundred negro slaves cultivated the enormous domains of my uncle. Sad as the position of a slave is, my uncle’s hardness of heart added much to the unhappiness of those who had the misfortune to be his property.
“My uncle was one of the happily small number of planters from whom despotic power had taken away the gentler feelings of humanity. He was accustomed to see his most trifling command unhesitatingly obeyed, and the slightest delay on the part of his slaves in carrying it out was punished with the harshest severity; whilst the intercession either of my cousin or of myself too often merely led to an increase of the punishment, and we were only too often obliged to rest satisfied by secretly assuaging the injuries which we were powerless to prevent.
“Amongst the multitude of his slaves, one only had found favour in my uncle’s sight; this was a half-caste Spanish dwarf, who had been given him by Lord Effingham, the Governor of Jamaica.
“My uncle, who had for many years resided in Brazil, and had adopted the luxurious habits of the Portuguese, loved to surround himself with an establishment that was in keeping with his wealth. In order that nothing should be wanting, he had made the slave presented to him by Lord Effingham his fool, in imitation of the feudal lords who had jesters attached to their households. I must say that the slave amply fulfilled all the required conditions. Habibrah, for that was the half-caste’s name, was one of those strangely-formed, or, rather, deformed beings, who would be looked upon as monsters if their very hideousness did not cause a laugh. This ill-featured dwarf was short and fat, and moved with wondrous activity upon a pair of slender limbs, which, when he sat down, bent under him like the legs of a spider. His enormous head, covered with a mass of red curly wool, was stuck between his shoulders, whilst his ears were so large that Habibrah’s comrades were in the habit of saying that he used them to wipe his eyes when he wept. On his face there was always a grin, which was continually changing its character, and which caused his ugliness to be of an ever-varying description. My uncle was fond of him, because of his extreme hideousness and his inextinguishable gaiety. Habibrah was his only favourite, and led a life of ease, whilst the other slaves were overwhelmed with work. The sole duties of the jester were to carry a large fan, made of the feathers of the bird of paradise, to keep away the sandflies and the mosquitoes from his master. At meal-times he sat upon a reed mat at his master’s feet, who fed him with tit-bits from his own plate. Habibrah appeared to appreciate all these acts of kindness, and at the slightest sign from my uncle he would run to him with the agility of a monkey and the docility of a dog.
“I had imbibed a prejudice against my uncle’s favourite slave. There was something crawling in his servility, and though outdoor slavery does not dishonour, domestic service too often debases. I felt a sentiment of pity for those slaves who toiled in the scorching sun, with scarcely a vestige of clothing to hide their chains; but I despised this idle serf, with his garments ornamented with gold lace and adorned with bells. Besides, the dwarf never made use of his influence with his master to ameliorate the condition of his fellow-sufferers; on the contrary, I heard him once, when he thought that he and his master were alone, urge him to increase his severity towards his ill-fated comrades.
“The other slaves, however, did not appear to look upon him with any feelings of anger or rancour, but treated him with a timid kind of respect; and when, dressed in all the splendour of laced garments, and a tall pointed cap ornamented with bells and quaint symbols traced upon it in red ink, he walked past their huts, I have heard them murmur in accents of awe, “He is an obi” (sorcerer).
“These details, to which I now draw your attention, occupied my mind but little then. I had given myself up entirely to the emotion of a pure love in which nothing else could mingle; a love which was returned me with passion by the girl to whom I was betrothed, and I gave little heed to anything that was not Marie!
“Accustomed from youth to look upon her as the future companion of my life, there was a curious mixture of the love of a brother for a sister, mingled with the passionate adoration of a betrothed lover.
“Few men have spent their earlier years more happily than I have done, or have felt their souls expand into life in the midst of a delicious climate and all the luxuries which wealth could procure, with perfect happiness in the present and the brightest hopes for the future. No man, as I said before, could have spent their earlier years more happily——”
D’Auverney paused for a moment, as if these thoughts of bygone happiness had stilled his voice, and then added—
“And no one could have passed his later ones in more profound misery and affliction.”
In the midst of these blind illusions and hopes, my twentieth birthday approached. It was now the month of August, 1791, and my uncle had decided that this should be the date of my marriage with Marie. You can well understand that the thoughts of happiness, now so near, absorbed all my faculties, and how little notice I took of the political crisis which was then felt throughout the colony. I will not, therefore, speak of the Count de Pernier, or of M. de Blanchelande, nor of the tragical death of the unfortunate Colonel de Marchiste; nor will I attempt to describe the jealousies of the Provincial House of Assembly of the North, and the Colonial Assembly, which afterwards called itself the General Assembly, declaring that the word “Colonial” had a ring of slavery in it.
For my own part, I sided with neither; and if I did espouse any cause, it was in favour of Cap, near which town my home was situate, in opposition to Port au Prince.
Only once did I mix myself up in the question of the day. It was on the occasion of the disastrous decree of the 15th of May, 1791, by which the National Assembly of France admitted free men of colour to enjoy the same political privileges as the whites.
At a ball given by the Governor of Cap, many of the younger colonists spoke in impassioned terms of this law, which levelled so cruel a blow at the instincts of supremacy assumed by the whites, with perhaps too little foundation. I had, as yet, taken no part in the conversation, when I saw approaching the group a wealthy planter, whose doubtful descent caused him to be received merely upon sufferance by the white society. I stepped in front of him, and in a haughty voice I exclaimed, “Pass on, sir! pass on! or you may hear words which would certainly be disagreeable to those with mixed blood in their veins.”
He was so enraged at this insinuation, that he challenged me. We fought, and each was slightly wounded. I confess that I was in the wrong to have thus provoked him, and it is probable that I should not have done so on a mere question of colour, but I had for some time past noticed that he had had the audacity to pay certain attentions to my cousin, and had danced with her the very night upon which I had insulted him.
However, as time went on, and the date so ardently desired approached, I was a perfect stranger to the state of political ferment in which those around me lived; and I never perceived the frightful cloud which already almost obscured the horizon, and which promised a storm that would sweep all before it.
No one at that time thought seriously of a revolt amongst the slaves—a class too much despised to be feared; but between the whites and the free mulattos there was sufficient hatred to cause an outbreak at any moment, which might entail the most disastrous consequences.
During the first days of August a strange incident occurred, which threw a slight shade of uneasiness over the sunshine of my happiness.
On the banks of a little river, which flowed through my uncle’s estate, was a small rustic pavilion in the midst of a clump of trees.
Marie was in the habit of coming here every day to enjoy the sea breeze, which blows regularly in St. Domingo, even during the hottest months of the year, from sunrise until evening.
Each morning it was my pleasant task to adorn this charming retreat with the sweetest flowers that I could gather.
One morning Marie came running to me in a great state of alarm: upon entering her leafy retreat she had perceived, with surprise and terror, all the flowers which I had arranged in the morning thrown upon the ground and trampled underfoot, and a bunch of wild marigolds, freshly gathered, placed upon her accustomed seat. She had hardly recovered from her terror when, in the adjoining coppice, she heard the sound of a guitar, and a voice, which was not mine, commenced singing a Spanish song; but in her excitement she had been unable to catch the meaning of the words, though she could hear her own name frequently repeated. Then she had taken to flight, and had come to me full of this strange and surprising event.
This recital filled me with jealousy and indignation. My first suspicions pointed to the mulatto with whom I had fought; but, even in the midst of my perplexity, I resolved to do nothing rashly. I soothed Marie’s fears as best I could, and promised to watch over her without ceasing until the marriage tie would give me the right of never leaving her.
Believing that the intruder whose insolence had so alarmed Marie would not content himself with what he had already done, I concealed myself that very evening near the portion of the house in which my betrothed’s chamber was situated.
Hidden amongst the tall stalks of the sugar-cane, and armed with a dagger, I waited; and I did not wait in vain. Towards the middle of the night my attention was suddenly attracted by the notes of a guitar under the very window of the room in which Marie reposed. Furious with rage, with my dagger clutched firmly in my hand, I rushed in the direction of the sound, crushing beneath my feet the brittle stalks of the sugar-canes. All of a sudden I felt myself seized and thrown upon my back with what appeared to be superhuman force, my dagger was wrenched from my grasp, and I saw its point shining above me; at the same moment I could perceive a pair of eyes and a double row of white teeth gleaming through the darkness, whilst a voice, in accents of concentrated rage, muttered, “Te tengo, te tengo” (I have you, I have you).
More astonished than frightened, I struggled vainly with my formidable antagonist, and already the point of the dagger had pierced my clothes, when Marie, whom the sound of the guitar and the noise of the struggle had aroused, appeared suddenly at her window. She recognized my voice, saw the gleam of the knife, and uttered a cry of terror and affright. This cry seemed to paralyze the hand of my opponent. He stopped as if petrified; but still, as though undecided, he kept the point of the dagger pressed upon my chest; then he suddenly exclaimed in French, “No, I cannot; she would weep too much,” and, casting away the weapon, rose to his feet, and in an instant disappeared in the canes; and before I could rise, bruised and shaken from the struggle, no sound and no sign remained of the presence or the flight of my adversary.
It was some time before I could recover my scattered faculties. I was more furious than ever with my unknown rival, and was overcome with a feeling of shame at being indebted to him for my life.
“After all, however,” I thought, “it is to Marie that I owe it; for it was the sound of her voice that caused him to drop his dagger.”
And yet I could not hide from myself that there was something noble in the sentiment which had caused my unknown rival to spare me. But who could he be? One supposition after another rose in my mind, all to be discarded in turn. It could not be the mulatto planter to whom my suspicions had first been directed. He was not endowed with such muscular power; nor was it his voice. The man with whom I had struggled was naked to the waist. Slaves alone went about half-clothed in this manner. But this could not be a slave. The feeling which had caused him to throw away the dagger would not have been found in the bosom of a slave; and besides, my whole soul revolted at the idea of having a slave for a rival. What was to be done? I determined to wait and watch.
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