If we fall asleep for an instant on the edge of the abyss, we will tremble upon awakening! . . . France will receive a mortal wound, and a multitude of honest citizens will be impoverished and ruined; we will lose everything.
-Vincent OgŽ, Address on the Abolition of Slavery
By the age of eighteen, Sylvie de Rosiers had mastered fractions.
She lounged on the sofa, feet neatly tucked beneath her, maintaining a primness even en repos. Her gown encircled her in a pool of white muslin; the chemise ˆ la reine had come into fashion a few years prior, but its airiness made it ubiquitous among the wealthy women's wardrobes on Saint-Domingue. And the thin fabric showed off her legs to their ultimate advantage.
But the new house slave disrupted the pleasantness of her morning. She knew the girl was a recent addition to the household staff because Sylvie noticed all fractions, and this servant presented a challenge.
On the French colony of Saint-Domingue, fractions were not innocuous numbers separated by a line of dark ink (though she knew those, too). Here, fractions had faces. Mulatto, quadroon, octoroon-these terms divided the blood into halves and quarters and eighths, Black and white and whiter still.
Sylvie regarded the newcomer from under her thick fan of lashes. The girl was pretty enough, as many house slaves were, though clearly inexperienced at household tasks. House slaves, as a rule, needed to be attractive; no wealthy family wanted an ugly girl serving tea.
Most often, Creoles, those who survived on the island long enough to know the language of the colonists, worked in the house. Bossales, African-born slaves, worked fields.
Her father's wife, Madame Catherine de Rosiers, chose maids like she chose rugs: pretty ornaments that served a purpose, but that mustn't distract.
Too thin to be truly beautiful, this girl could not match Sylvie's loveliness.
The servant had dark skin, though not dark like the coffee Sylvie's father grew. Her tignon, or hair wrap, was a plain handkerchief tied close to her head. Sylvie's tignon, like that of other free mulattas, towered high in a mass of bright colors and intricate folds. Her lady's maid, Alice, wrapped the best tignons of any of the house servants, hence why Sylvie valued her most of all of her father's slaves.
A true mulatta? she mused. White fathers normally freed their children according to island custom, but even so, the occasional planter ended up with suspiciously light-skinned slaves generations down the line.
But she is too dark. A third, perhaps? She almost shook her head and thought with no little pride, No, she is not as fair as me. Sylvie's face was prettier, paler, and had a better nose.
White masters and their wandering hands left more than one slave heavy with child. Sylvie's mother had been one of them. So no matter how many house slaves came and went, she saw her own shameful pedigree in every face. But she never saw divisions when she beheld her own reflection each morning; no marks partitioned blackness on her skin, only the smooth expanse of bronze marred by a dusting of freckles across her nose.
Few eligible men on Saint-Domingue had yet to meet Mademoiselle de Rosiers, and fewer still left the introduction without their heads swimming with hazel eyes and twinkling pearls-she was a Venus of Saint-Domingue, Caribbean sea-foam come to life.
But she did not have to see those divisions in order to feel them.
Thus, her understanding of fractions became more than simple arithmetic and rather a lesson in her very identity. Those lines kept Sylvie, and all other affranchis like her, from the fields their mothers worked and died on.
Sylvie decided that the girl was simply a fair-skinned Creole-thus comfortably lesser-and commenced to stir her tea now that the equation had been solved.
Les Affiches amŽricaines, the only newspaper on Saint-Domingue, lay on the silver tray beside a fashion journal. She ran a disinterested eye over the tiny print. The press always wrote articles advocating for the complete independence of the island from France, especially after the United States managed to do it with its leaders' heads still attached. They made freedom look so messy, with two constitutions and a tacky striped flag.
She pushed it aside, favoring the Magasin des modes instead. It took months for new editions to make it to the island, and she absorbed every page for hat trimmings and changing silhouettes.
But the new slave disturbed the morning quiet. Her trembling hands made the cups rattle. The china was not built to endure such rough handling, and Sylvie grimaced at the thought of drinking broken porcelain as well as tea.
"Do go and fetch a fruit platter," she said. Wide-eyed, the servant scurried out of the room to do her bidding.
Finally able to relax, Sylvie settled more deeply into the cushions. She had not even finished with the third page of the journal when Gaspard burst through the breakfast parlor doors, and she spilled tea onto her magazine.
Gaspard, her blond, cherubic brother, plopped onto the chaise in indolent splendor. He shrugged a shoulder at her glare-only one, as both would have required too much energy.
"I've still got a bloody splitting headache from last night," he moaned, brandishing a personalized silver flask. He dressed in bright, showy fabrics and a sloppily tied cravat. He'd probably locked out his valet to ensure a quiet morning. But it never mattered what he wore; he was the prettiest of the three de Rosiers siblings and reveled in his foppishness. "I was as drunk as Davy's sow. And you're the only person in this blasted house who doesn't make it worse with mindless chatter."
"Yes," she crooned with a smirk, dabbing the tea before it smudged the print. "I'm extremely supportive of you becoming a regular brandy-face." He never treated her as less than a full-blooded sister despite their only sharing a father, and she loved him for it.
He wrinkled his nose. "I'm no brandy-face, more like a connoisseur of fine spirits."
"I just wish you'd drink something less"-she glowered at his flask-"plebeian."
He sipped from his favored blend of black tea and rum. Gaspard had discovered the drink, aptly named "gunfire," from a visiting British sea captain the previous year. The only time he had been on a ship was during the crossing from France as a little boy-which he hardly remembered-but he enjoyed the affectations of the foreign sailors.
She was not so reckless as to drink gunfire this early in the day, but she would steal a nip or two before dinner.
He unscrewed his flask and took another drink, smiling broadly. She tried not to laugh while she poured more tea.
"I don't know why you insist on always having tea here," he continued, sneering at the drapes and worn rugs. "The room is in desperate need of a renovation."
The salon hadn't been updated since their papa built the estate twenty-odd years prior. Yet, she preferred this room-not for its dated furnishings or size, but rather the windows. They faced north, protecting her from the afternoon sun that threatened to darken her skin. Vanity did not dictate she live in shadows, but her future did.
Dark-skinned girls worked in fields; light-skinned girls got husbands.
"It's quiet here," she replied. "I don't have to endure Madame's screeching while I pretend to do needlepoint."
Gaspard wiped the drops of gunfire at the corners of his mouth. "And I don't have to endure Edmond's morning sermon."
She snickered. Of all of their father's children, only Edmond showed any real interest in slaving and coffee. Sylvie's interest in either extended only so far as the comforts she could buy with their profits, and Gaspard had no interest at all.
As the eldest and the heir, Edmond felt it his duty to tolerate their father's morning routine of angry muttering, complaining about gout, and reading the newspaper. Gaspard argued his brother simply liked playing the martyr.
"Wherever he is"-she stirred a lump of pristine white sugar into her cup and took a sip-"I'm grateful. I hate watching Papa work himself into a fit. The doctor says he must rest, but he insists on reading the paper or writing to his friends in the Assembly. Much good that does." Despite her earlier judgment, she poured a splash of rum into her own tea. "So what was so urgent that you're out of your chambers before noon?"
Leaning back, he folded his arms behind his head. "I know something you don't."
"I'm surprised"-she glanced at the slave in the corner and at the archway connecting the room to the corridor-"you hear anything with your head so far up your-"
He slapped his thighs and popped up from the chaise. "A shame, and I was so eager to share the secret with you. But now you'll have to wait until Father decides to tell."
She sniffed and resumed her reading. "A terrible shame."
Indulging him only meant he would string her along until he'd confess some absurd rumor that had perhaps a whisper of
"Oh," he said, tapping his chin in mock consideration. "I was going to recommend wearing blue next week-he is an indigo planter after all-but since you're disinterested . . ."
She dropped the magazine like cold ashes into a pan: he was a rather critical pronoun. "What? Who is?"
"No, no." He backed away with his hands raised. "I've overburdened you already."
"Gaspard." She crept toward him. "Gaspard." He grinned, knowing and wicked, before giving in.
"I think you ought to explore Father's study today before he comes back from town."
"Explore? You mean go prying into his affairs?"
"Me? Advise you to burgle our father's study? Come now, I comport myself with dignity."
"Indeed, if dignity charged you by the hour." His blue eyes glistened with memories unfit for repeating. Sylvie rolled her eyes.
"As witty as your remarks are"-he pulled out their grandfather's pocket watch, which had been too "ostentatious" for Edmond's dreary taste-"I declare you only have perhaps a half hour for reconnaissance."
She hurried toward the study with singular focus, the feather in her tignon bobbing with each step. Servants carrying clean linens hugged the wall to avoid a collision. Sylvie was grateful that skirts had narrowed quite a bit, or she would have bent a pannier.
She approached the mahogany double doors of Papa's study-cut and carved on this very island. Fashion plates and cartoons exaggerate the constraints of stays; she couldn't blame her breathlessness on any undergarment.
She slipped inside the familiar room filled with the scent of coffee and paper, past the regularly dusted books lining the walls. Her father and his wife were not particularly well-read, but Sylvie's governess, a similarly situated mulatta like herself but without her extraordinary beauty, had tried in vain to introduce Sylvie to the broader world of reading.
You would enjoy Rousseau, she had said with feeling. His Julie captures your very soul with the struggle between our private hopes and morality. Sylvie preferred the copy of Dangerous Liaisons she hid under her mattress.
She moved toward the desk at the center of the study, which featured a promising dark box.
Curious, and heartily tempted by the gold and mother-of-pearl calling her to the hidden treasure within, she gently opened the small chest.
In a bed of ocean-blue velvet sat a double strand of pearls with a matching pair of fat teardrop pearl earrings. They were well maintained, though clearly in the baroque style, with small sapphires joining the two strands at several points.
Sylvie had her share of pearls. Her father called her "my pearl," and Saint-Domingue had long been called the Pearl of the Antilles for its wealth and beauty. She considered them her signature, like the Medici women of old.
But this set was beyond the delicate elegance littering her vanity-it was the sort of opulence only grand blanc money could buy. Even if they needed to be reset and updated a tad.
She reflexively touched her throat, imagining the pleasant weight of them during a dinner party. Anyone would want her with a face like hers and a necklace worth a dowry dangling between her ample breasts.
Her skin may not be pearl white, but that hardly mattered when you were dripping in them.
She pinched an earring between her fingers, watching the sapphires splash light like the oceans they had crossed to be in her hands.
The glint of blue fell across the array of papers beneath the jewelry box. Some of the documents were simple accounts or valuations of coffee shipments, the usual fare of her father's office. But the most striking pages said Articles of Sale, featuring the purchase of fifteen articles-slaves.
Half of the world's coffee came from Saint-Domingue, and they lived in the interior, more mountainous region of the island-ideal for coffee growing. Most windows in her house faced the coffee fields and the slaves who worked them.
Sylvie knew where their wealth came from-knew where she came from.
And yet, pearl in her fist, she scrolled through the list of numbers and receipts of purchase. Fifteen numbers, twelve men and three women, with their ports of origin and insurance claims.
Some slaves had notes scribbled in the margins in her father's hand: strong legs, nimble, and superstitious. No doubt referring to vodou, the religious practices she heard Edmond grumble about.
The women, however, had different sorts of comments. One said fine figure and another referred to the whiteness of her teeth. But one number, one slave, had an asterisk and comment beside her row in another man's writing saying private use. She only recognized it as not Gaspard's.
Did her mother start her own life here on such a document? What notes did Papa write in the margins? Did she have white teeth or a shapely figure? Was she for private use, promised for the house and not for the field?
She searched through a gallery of dark faces in her mind-the chambermaids and scullery girls and laundresses. Who had written what in their margins?
She threw the pearl back into its chest and closed the lid, eyes trained on that ambiguous asterisk.
"You shouldn't be in here." Edmond stood in the doorway, frowning. Twenty-four-year-old Edmond had less of his father's handsome looks but all of his self-importance. And, like always, he was more fastidious in his dress than Gaspard, his cravat tied in a practical knot. But he did not fill his wardrobe with the colors of the tropics or the shimmer of gilt-just the white iciness of sterile cotton.
She pushed away from the desk. "How long have you been lurking there? I didn't hear you knock."