The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue

inSerial: part seventeen
The Mysteries of Paris

7. The History of David and Cecily

“Mister Willis, a wealthy American farmer from Florida,” said Murph, “had a young slave by the name of David, who worked in the infirmary on the plantation. He found David to be of uncommon intelligence and deeply sympathetic and attentive to the sick, whom he cared for attentively when carrying out the doctors’ orders. He also had a unique aptitude for medicinal botany and, without any formal learning, had compiled and classified a manual of all the plants on the farm and its environs. Willis’s plantation, located by the shore, was fifteen or twenty leagues from the closest city. The local doctors, rather ignorant on the whole, were reluctant to travel because of the great distances and the difficulty of the roads. The colonist, wishing to correct what was a serious inconvenience in a country subject to violent epidemics by always having a qualified practitioner on hand, decided to send David to France to learn surgery and medicine. Delighted by the offer, the young black man left for Paris. The plantation owner paid for his studies and, after eight years of prodigious effort, David, now recognized as a medical doctor of great distinction, returned to America to place his knowledge at the disposal of his master.”

“But David must have considered himself as free and emancipated by law once he set foot in France.”

“David’s sense of loyalty was highly unusual. He had promised Willis he would return and he returned. He also didn’t believe that the instruction that had been paid for with his master’s money was his. But he also hoped to be able to morally and physically mitigate the suffering of the slaves who had been his former companions. He promised himself he would be not only their doctor but their supporter and defender back on the plantation.”

“The man must have been endowed with unusual integrity and have great love for his fellow man to return to a master after a stay of eight years in Paris, surrounded by the most democratic youth in all Europe.”

“By this trait you may judge the man. So there he was back in Florida, where, it must be admitted, he was treated with consideration and decency by Willis, eating at his table, sleeping under his roof. But, this stupid colonist—mean, sensual, and despotic the way some Creoles can be—thought he was being generous in giving David 600 francs in salary. After a few months there was an outbreak of typhoid on the plantation. Willis was affected but was quickly healed through David’s excellent care. Out of 30 seriously ill slaves, only two perished. Willis, delighted with David’s services, raised his salary to 1,200 francs. The doctor was very satisfied and his brothers saw him as their savior, for he had, although with great difficulty it is true, obtained an improvement in their condition. But he hoped for more in the future. Meanwhile, he moralized, he consoled those poor people, entreated them to be resigned. He talked to them about God, who watches over the black man as well as the white, of another world, no longer populated with masters and slaves, but good and bad; of another life, eternal, where some were no longer beasts of burden, the possession of others, but where those who were victims here below were so happy that they prayed in heaven above for their tormentors. What can I say? For those unfortunates who, unlike other men, count the steps with bitter joy that lead them to the grave, for those unfortunates who hope only for death, David brought them the hope of immortal freedom; their chains then seemed lighter, their work less harsh. David was their idol. About a year went by in this manner. One of the most attractive slaves on the plantation was a young métisse by the name of Cecily. She was fifteen. Willis developed a potentate’s fantasy for the young woman. For what may have been the first time in his life he came into contact with refusal, determined resistance. Cecily was in love with David, who had tended to her during the recent epidemic with admirable devotion. Later, love, the most chaste love, paid the debt of gratitude. David was too refined to boast of his happiness before the day when he would marry Cecily; he was waiting for her to turn 16. Willis, unaware of their mutual affection, had proudly tossed his handkerchief to the pretty métisse. Tearfully, she told David about the callous advances she had so narrowly escaped . He reassured her and immediately went to Willis to ask her hand in marriage.”

“Dear Murph, I’m afraid to learn the response from this American potentate. Did he refuse?”

“He refused. He said he had taken a fancy to the young girl, that at no time in his life had he brooked rejection by a slave: he wanted her and he would have her. David could choose another wife or mistress of his liking. There were on the plantation ten métisses as attractive as Cecily. David spoke of his love, which Cecily had shared for a long while, but the planter merely shrugged. David insisted, but his efforts were in vain. The Creole was imprudent enough to tell him that it would set a bad example to see a master give in to a slave and that he was not about to set such an example by giving in to David’s whims. He begged; the master grew impatient. David, ashamed at humiliating himself further, reminded him in a firm tone of voice of the services he had provided and his fairness, for he had been satisfied with the lowest of salaries. Willis, now irritated, told him with contempt that he had been too well treated for a slave. David exploded. For the first time in his life he spoke as a man of the enlightenment, sure of his rights, which he had learned from his eight years in France. Willis, now furious, told him he was a rebellious slave and threatened to put him in chains. David said something bitter and violent. Two hours later, attached to a post, he was whipped, as Cecily was led toward the planter’s seraglio.”

“The planter’s conduct was stupid and offensive. It’s the absurdity of cruelty. He needed the man after all.”

“He needed him so badly that, on that very day, his anger, coupled with the drunkenness to which he succumbed every evening, gave him a very severe inflammatory disease, whose symptoms appeared with the rapidity typical of such affections. The planter took to his bed with a high fever. He sent a messenger to find the doctor, but the doctor wouldn’t be able to get there for 36 hours.”

“A providential event. The man’s illness was well deserved.”

“The sickness took hold with terrifying rapidity. Only David could save the colonist, but Willis, suspicious like all miscreants, was convinced that the doctor would poison him in retaliation for what he had done. Finally, terrified by the progress of the disease, broken by suffering, and believing that, if he were going to die, he could at least appeal to the generosity of his slave. After a period of agonizing hesitation, Willis had David released from his chains.”

“And David saved the plantation owner!”

“For five days and five nights, he watched over him as if he were his father, battling the disease toe to toe with admirable knowledge and skill. In the end he triumphed, to the great surprise of the doctor who had initially been summoned and who didn’t arrive until the following day.”

“And when the colonist was returned to health?”

“Not wishing to be embarrassed in front of the slave who might destroy him at any moment from the heights of his admirable generosity, the colonist, after great sacrifice, decided to employ the doctor who had been sent for initially and threw David back into his cell.”

“Why that’s horrible! But it doesn’t surprise me, David must have felt great remorse for the man.”

“His barbarous conduct was dictated not only out of vengeance and jealousy. Willis’s slaves, because of their gratitude, loved David: he had been their savior, body and soul. They knew how well he had taken care of the owner during his illness. And by some miracle, escaping the deadening apathy into which slavery ordinarily plunges mankind, those unfortunates gave free rein to their indignation—their sorrow, rather—when they saw David torn apart by the whip. Willis thought he detected in this display the seeds of a rebellion due to the influence David had acquired over his slaves. He believed David capable of becoming their leader in order to avenge the master’s ingratitude. This absurd fear was yet another reason for the owner to mistreat David and render him incapable of carrying out the sinister designs he suspected him of harboring.”

“From the point of view of the man’s profound terror, his conduct seems less foolish, but no less cruel.”

“Shortly after these events, we arrived in America. His Highness had chartered a Danish brig in Saint-Thomas. Incognito, we visited various homes as we sailed along the American coast. We were magnificently received by Willis. The evening of the day following our arrival, after several drinks, Willis, as much from the excitation of the wine as by cynical swagger, related, with various tasteless asides, the history of David and Cecily, for I forgot to mention that he had also thrown the unfortunate young woman into a cell to punish her for her initial scorn. Upon hearing this story, his highness thought Willis was simply boasting or was drunk. The man was drunk but he wasn’t boasting. To overcome his incredulity, the colonist rose from the table, ordering a slave to grab a lantern and lead us to David’s cell.”

“And then?”

“I have never seen such a heartrending spectacle in my life. Gaunt, withered, half naked and covered in sores, David and that unfortunate girl, chained around the waist, one at one end of the cell, the other opposite, looked like ghosts. The lantern cast upon the scene a more lugubrious color. David did not say a word when he caught sight of us; his gaze had about it a terrifying fixity. The colonist said to him with cruel irony, ‘Well, doctor, how are you feeling? If you’re so smart, save yourself.’ The slave responded by slowly raising his right hand, his index finger raised upward, and, without looking at the colonist, in a solemn voice said, ‘God!’ And remained silent. ‘God?’ the planter replied, as he broke into a laugh. ‘Tell your God to come and take you off my hands. I defy him.’ Then Willis, maddened by his fury and the wine, raised his fist heavenward and yelled ‘Yes, I defy God to take my slaves before their death! If he fails to do so, I deny his existence.’”

“The stupid fool.”

“The man made us sick to our stomach. His Highness didn’t say a word. We left the cell. The chamber was situated, like the house itself, along the ocean shore. We returned to our brig, which was anchored a short distance away. At one in the morning, when everyone on the plantation was asleep, his highness returned to shore with eight well-armed men, went directly to the cell, forced it open, and took David and Cecily. The two victims were taken to the ship without anyone noticing we had been on shore. His highness and I then returned to the owner’s house.

What a strange phenomenon. Those men torture their slaves yet take no precautions against them. They sleep with their doors and windows open. We reached the owner’s bedroom without difficulty; it was lit by a small lantern. The man sat up in bed, his brain still dulled by the haze of alcohol.

‘This evening did you not dare God to take your two victims from you before their death? He has taken them,’ his Highness said. Then, taking a bag I was holding and which contained 25,000 francs in gold, he threw it on the man’s bed and added, ‘This will compensate for the loss of your two slaves. To your violence of killing I oppose the violence that saves. God shall judge!’ We disappeared, leaving Willis dumbfounded, immobile, believing he was still in a dream. A few minutes later, we were aboard the brig and set sail.”

“It seems, Murph, that his Highness overcompensated that wretch for the loss of his slaves; for, strictly speaking, David was no longer his.”

“We had calculated the expense for his eight years of study, then tripled his value and that of Cecily as ordinary slaves. I realize that our conduct was an infraction of man’s law, but if you had seen the horrible conditions in which we found those unfortunates, both of them nearly on their death bed, if you had heard the man, drunk on wine and cruelty, blasphemously defying God, you would understand that his highness wished to ‘play the role of Providence,’ which he did on this occasion.”

“An action as questionable and unlawful as punishing the Schoolmaster, dear squire. And nothing more was made of this adventure?”

“There was nothing to be done. The brig flew the Danish flag, his Highness’s incognito was carefully protected; we passed ourselves off as wealthy Englishmen. Had he decided to complain, who would Willis have gone to? In fact, he himself told us, and his Highness’s physician made a written statement to the effect, that the two slaves would not have survived another week in that horrid cell. It required the utmost care to deliver Cecily from almost certain death. After a while they returned to health. Since then, David has remained with his highness as his physician and he is extremely devoted to him.”

“I assume David married Cecily when they arrived in Europe.”

“The marriage, a most happy event, took place in the temple of his highness’s palace. But an extraordinary reversal followed this amazing turn of events. Cecily, forgetting everything David had suffered for her and she for him, ashamed, in the new world in which she found herself, of her marriage to a negro, and seduced by a man of terrible depravity, committed her first offense. You could almost say that the unfortunate woman’s natural perversity, which had been dormant until then, required nothing more than this dangerous upheaval to develop with terrifying energy. You know the rest, the scandal caused by her adventures. After two years of marriage, David, whose confidence was as great as his love, learned of her infamy. It was like a bolt of lightning, and it shook him from his deep-seated but blind conviction.”

“I’m told he wanted to kill his wife.”

“Yes, but thanks to his Highness’s efforts, he agreed that she be locked up for life in a fortress. And it is this very prison that his highness recently opened—to your great surprise and my own, Baron.”

“Frankly, his Highness’s resolve is all the more astonishing as the governor of the fortress has informed him upon several occasions that the woman is incorrigible. They were unable to break either her rebelliousness or her propensity to vice. And in spite of this, his Highness insists in sending her here. To what end? For what reason?”

“I am as much in the dark as you, Baron. But it’s getting late. His highness would like your courier to leave for Gerolstein as soon as possible.”

“He will be on his way before two o’clock. I’ll see you this evening, then.”

“This evening?”

“Have you forgotten the ball at the embassy? His Highness will be there.”

“You’re right. Ever since the departure of Colonel Warner and Count d’Harnheim, I keep forgetting that I’m supposed to carry out the duties of a chamberlain and an aide de camp.”

“Concerning the count and the colonel, when are they returning? When will they complete their missions?”

“As you are aware, his highness wants to keep them away for as long as possible; this affords him greater privacy and freedom. As for the mission—one has been sent to Avignon, the other to Strasbourg—I’ll reveal it to you one day when we’re both in a bad mood. For I challenge the most disconsolate hypochondriac not to burst out with laughter when he discovers the true purpose of their mission and reads certain passages from the dispatches of those worthy gentlemen, for they have taken their so-called responsibilities with the utmost seriousness.”

“Frankly, I have never understood why his Highness took the colonel and the count into his service.”

“How’s that? Colonel Warner is the quintessence of military bearing. Is there anyone in the Germanic Confederation who cuts a finer figure? Why, he’s the acme of martial grace. And when he’s been saddled, caparisoned, bridled, and plumed, where could you find a more triumphant, more glorious, a prouder, or handsomer … animal?”

“True. However, that beauty prevents him from appearing excessively spiritual.”

“Well, his Highness says that, thanks to the colonel, he can now tolerate the dullest people in the world. If he’s anticipating a tedious audience, he locks himself up with the colonel for half an hour and when he leaves, he’s confident and high-spirited, ready to confront boredom itself.”

“Like a Roman soldier before a forced march, he wears lead sandals that will lighten his load upon their removal. I am now beginning to see the colonel’s usefulness. But the Count d’Harneim?”

“He too has proven most useful to his Highness. For when he hears that old, hollow rattle, shiny and resonant, braying at his side; when he sees that soap bubble swollen with … nothingness, glittering so magnificently—which represents the theatrical and childish side of sovereign power—his Highness is made even more aware of the vanity of such sterile pomp and, by virtue of contemplating his useless and twinkling chamberlain, often has the most serious, the most fruitful ideas.”

“For that matter, to be fair, in what court could you find a more perfect model of a chamberlain? Who knows better than the excellent d’Harneim, the innumerable rules and traditions of etiquette? Who is more solemn with an enamel cross around his neck or more majestic with a golden key across his back?”

“Yes, Baron, his Highness claims that a chamberlain’s back has a unique physiognomy. He says it wears an expression that is simultaneously pinched and rebellious, painful to see. For it is upon the chamberlain’s back that the symbolic sign of his duties shines. That is why, according to his Highness, the worthy d’Harneim is always inclined to introduce himself backwards, so that one may immediately judge of his importance.”

“The fact is that the incessant subject of the count’s meditations is the discovery of the malignant imagination responsible for placing the chamberlain’s key behind his back. For, as he has so aptly remarked, with a kind of irritable sorrow, ‘Why, you can’t open a door with your back!’”

“Baron! The courier, the courier!” exclaimed Murph pointing to the clock.

“Wretched man, you’ve kept me chattering. It’s your fault! Please give my respects to his Highness,” said de Graün as he ran to get his hat. “I’ll see you tonight, Murph.”

“I’ll see you this evening, Baron. I may be somewhat late, however, for I’m certain his Highness will first want to visit that mysterious house on the Rue du Temple.”

The Mysteries of Paris serial is moving to InTranslation so look out for the next installment to appear there in the July issue.

This work received support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States through their publishing assistance program.


Eugène Sue

French author, Eugène Sue (1804 – 1857) was born near the city of Cannes in southern France and came from a distinguished family of doctors. Like his father, Sue also studied medicine. He began his career as a naval doctor but retired in 1829 to write.

In 1842 he began writing Les Mystères de Paris, a novel in parts published serially in Le Journal des Débats. It was the first time in a novel that readers had been exposed to the social agitation and mixing of classes experienced in the bars and cabarets of Paris’s dense core on Ile de la Cité.

His complete works, depending on the edition, run to 78 volumes.

Robert Bononno

ROBERT BONONNO is credited with the translation of over two dozen full-length works of fiction and nonfiction and numerous shorter pieces. These include René Crevel’s My Body and I—a finalist for the 2005 French-American Foundation Prize—Hervé Guibert’s Ghost Image, and Henri Raczymo’s Swan’s Way. In 2002 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to complete a translation of the non-fiction work of Isabelle Eberhardt and in 2010 he received an NEA grant for the retranslation of Eugène Sue’s classic crime novel, The Mysteries of Paris. Mr. Bononno’s latest translation, Pascal Kramer’s Autopsy of a Father, was recently published by Bellevue Literary Press.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues