Travels in Africa

Fred and Donanne Hunter

LENOIR

He was already a legend when I went out there and that was long before he disappeared. “History’s a meatgrinder,” he once told me. “One turn the Belgians make mince of the Congolese. Next turn they make mince of us.” When he said it, he had no idea how true it would prove to be. Neither did I. What did he know?
He was a scruffy Walloon peasant. A quarrelsome fellow. He couldn’t get along with anyone. He was– I wonder how old. Not old, not young. He had thick black hair he never combed and a heavy beard that he sometimes shaved, sometimes didn’t. He had a short, thick-set body that moved awkwardly, and heavy shoulders and large, clumsy hands with stubby fingers. He owned a plantation near Boende on the north bank of the Tshuapa. It was the kind of place that never made him ten francs profit no matter how hard he worked it.
“Lenoir n’aime pas les noirs; les noirs n’aiment pas Lenoir.” They always said that in Boende. “Lenoir doesn’t like blacks; blacks don’t like Lenoir.” And no wonder! He must have been impossible to work for. The grumpiness and complaints, the bad temper, they were the first things you noticed about him.
But the legend? I think that came from the mystery. No one knew anything about him: where he’d come from or why, how long he’d been there, how he’d gotten the way he was. No one had visited his plantation, not even the administrators – although everyone knew he was in debt. No one knew how he lived or with whom or even how he managed to keep the place going.
None of this was really surprising. He didn’t go to Boende often and when he was there he talked a great deal, as lonely men do. But it was mainly complaints: about the blacks or the administration or the metropole. Usually about the blacks. His grumbling made him the butt of jokes. People mocked themselves by mocking him. His mystery enhanced the jokes and the jokes enhanced the legend.
Still, people accepted him when he came into town. He was white, after all, and before independence that was enough credential. He stayed at Tslentis the Greek’s place where they all played cards and draughts in the evenings.
I first saw him there my third or fourth visit to Boende. After sweating and slapping mosquitoes all day I’d come into Tslentis’ place to have a beer before dinner. I joined the men there and while we drank, we heard a deep, angry-sounding voice from behind the faded curtain Tslentis used to separate the bar from the dining room. The voice was complaining about Belgium, about its small-mindedness, its commercial ethic, the stifling Catholicism, the pettiness and suspicion of the villages: in short, the things we all disliked about our homeland.
Then one of the men I was with, a young patriot-administrator out on his first tour, yelled: “Enough, Lenoir! Shut your yap!” He winked at the rest of us and settled back, watching the fan in the ceiling, waiting for the response.
“Is that Lenoir?” I asked the man beside me.
“That’s him,” he said. “The famous Lenoir.”
Lenoir kept on talking as if he hadn’t heard. The young man shouted again, “Put on the feedbag, Lenoir, and give us some peace!” The complaints continued. Finally the young man cried: “Enough, Lenoir. Tell your wives and piccanins! Don’t tell us.”
A chair scraped in the dining room. The curtain fluttered. Then Lenoir pulled it aside and stood, short but strong, his big hands clenched into fists. “Who says so?” he demanded.
Finally the young administrator answered, “I say so.” His voice sounded less confident now that Lenoir was before him, giving off that strange, magnetic quality of impulsive passion being reined in.
“Say it again,” Lenoir invited. The young man said nothing. “Say it again,” Lenoir repeated. The young man would not look at him. Lenoir came and stood directly before him. “Children are to be seen, not heard,” he said. Then he belched
and laughed, and all of us laughed to dissolve the tension.
“Why do you denounce the most beautiful country in Europe?” the young administrator asked, petulant now.
“It’s a foul place!” was the answer.
“You’re homesick, Lenoir,” the man beside me told him.
“Homesick!” Lenoir roared with mock laughter.
“You’re like a man who shows his love for a woman by insulting her reputation,” the man beside me said. “If you didn’t love Belgium, you wouldn’t talk about it all the time. You’re homesick for your village.”
“For little Suronne?” Lenoir asked, laughing too loudly again. “With its eight detestable stores and its post office. I hate the place and it hates me.” It seemed likely there was some truth in this, although it was difficult to guess just what.
“Take some leave and go home,” the man beside me advised. “Visit your village so we can stop hearing how bad it is. Go and see what it’s really like.”
Lenoir looked oddly abashed. “I’ll never go back,” he answered gruffly. He returned to his dinner and complaining.
Later that evening when the card games ended, the same man drew him aside. “Take some advice, my friend. Leave here for three months and visit your home.”
“The plantation’s my home,” Lenoir said.
“You want to go home,” the other insisted. “You wear the longing like a skin.” Then he said quietly, “You’d be happier when you came back.”
“I don’t want to go,” Lenoir repeated. The man merely smiled. Finally Lenoir said, “I can’t go. And why not is my business.” He blustered through the screen door and walked out into the night.
“What is it?” I asked my companion. “Some woman trouble in the past?”
“I doubt it,” he said. “What woman would love him?”
I shrugged. Men like that appealed to some women.
“Look at his hands,” my companion said. “They break everything they touch.” He shook his head. “It’s no great secret why he can’t go back. He’d have to sell out to pay the passage. It’s as simple as that,” the man said. He seemed certain that this explanation covered everything.
I didn’t see Lenoir again for three or four years. I knew he was still working the plantation because I heard jokes about him whenever I went to Boende.
Then I saw him again– When would that have been: ’57? Britain had just granted independence to the Gold Coast. Lenoir sat in the corner of Tslentis’ bar, reading old copies of La Libre Belgique, swearing and muttering. “Within five years Brussels will do this to us!” he grumbled. Of course, we all laughed at him. The idea was absurd. We laughed so hard we could not properly bid our cards.
“You’re a fool, Lenoir!” someone called. “The blacks can’t govern themselves They don’t even want to. Everyone knows that!”
“The Brits don’t know it!” he shouted back.
“Merde aux anglais!!”declared the patriot-administrator who was still in Boende then. “They care about power. We Belgians care about people.”
“Merde a toi!” Lenoir retorted, his finger tracing the words as he read. We all laughed at him. “Brussels will abandon us to a government of messengers and postal clerks and waiters!” This made us laugh very hard.
“Look, wise man,” the young administrator called at him. “The Belgians have a mission to civilize these people. Does it look finished to you?”
“You’re a glorious fool,” Lenoir said. “And you can afford to be. But what happens to people who’ve tried to build something in this miserable jungle? What becomes of us, eh, when Brussels abandons the Congo and the blacks chase us out?”
“Talk sense or shut up,” someone said, tired of his complaints. “The blacks don’t want us to leave. They’ll beg us to stay.”
At that time I too thought they would. Then I saw one of Tslentis’ waiters, standing against the wall as silent and unmovable as furniture. He was following what we said with a look of unexpected intelligence. I remember thinking: what do we really know of them? What would become of us if independence came?
Then within two years we saw what Lenoir had predicted about to befall us. Brussels capitulated at the Round Table Conference, and we were all worried. Riots in the capital in ‘59 showed the potential for violence. Still, I was working harder than ever. Buildings were being finished, both in Coquilhatville and Boende, and I had crews in both places, laying the wiring, installing fixtures, selling equipment. I was making three or four trips to Boende every month. I had never been so busy.
On top of everything my father fell ill. I was afraid he would die before I could get home to see him.
On my last trip to Boende before going home I had trouble with the pick-up. Nothing serious. The hose from the gas tank worked loose and jerked free bumping over a rut. In less than a minute I lost all the gasoline in the tank. I made the repair and put in my reserve, hoping it would get me to Boende. But it didn’t. Shortly after I ran out, thinking I was in the middle of nowhere, an African came along the road, an old tata, and said there was a plantation nearby. It turned out to be Lenoir’s.
I walked with the tata for almost an hour. Finally we came upon something that looked more like an African village than plantation buildings. There was a cleared area. Grass had once sprouted there, but now it was untended. Huts stood at the edge of this, mud-walled and thatched with palm fronds. Outside one of these a bare-breasted woman was pounding manioc tubers in a mortar, singing to herself and wearing a light-skinned baby tied to her back. She did not hear us approach.
Other African women were sleeping on mats in the shade with their children nearby. Some were as dark as black coffee; others had the color of cafe au lait. When the woman at the mortar saw me, she screamed with fright, threw down her pestle and ran off into the bush. The other women woke terrified and ran after her. It seemed unlikely that white men visited Lenoir very often.
The tata showed me a sturdy structure, built with home-made bricks and covered with a corrugated iron roof. Lenoir apparently used it as a storehouse. Across from it stood a second building, properly roofed but less well constructed: Lenoir’s house. There were no windows, nor even a door. Most of the furniture stood under the roof, but in the open air. There was one lounge chair, a plain table with a stool beneath it, a rude armoire he’d obviously made himself, a kerosene lamp and a large, heavy footlocker with a combination lock. Inside a brick-walled cubicle he had a hard-looking bed with patched mosquito netting over it. The place had only one embellishment: an old photograph, framed and set on the footlocker.
The tata went off after the women, hollering at them not to be afraid and come fetch me some tea. I sat in the lounge chair, waiting a long time, and my eyes kept returning to the photograph. It showed a young woman, rather pretty, but sedate and shy. You could tell little about her except that she had probably doubled her age since the photograph was taken. I kept wondering who she was: a sister, a dead fiancée, someone else’s wife? Who meant so much to Lenoir that after all his years in the Congo he still displayed her photograph?
After a while a very clean-looking child came walking with great seriousness across the cleared area. He was a mulatto boy of six or seven. “Bonjour, Monsieur,” he said. He extended his hand, as if he greeted visitors every day, and announced, “I will bring you some tea.” Very soon he returned and served the tea gravely, saying, “S’il vous plait, Monsieur,” as he extended the tray toward me. It shook a little from heaviness.
After he left, I wondered not only about the woman in the photograph, but also about the boy. How, I asked myself, had Lenoir trained him to be the opposite of himself? And why had he bothered?
Finally Lenoir appeared. He parked his battered truck beside the storehouse and strode brusquely toward the house. He seemed intent on showing himself ready for confrontation if that was what so unusual a visit portended. “Oh, it’s you,” he said when he recognized me. “They said someone was here. The boy got you tea?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Want some more?” he asked.
“All right. Will you have some?”
He shouted for more tea, but made no attempt to be sociable. He took a clay pot of water from the floor, stripped as I suppose he did every afternoon when he came in, bathed, rinsed himself and dried off with a dirty cloth. He slapped the dust out of the clothes he had been wearing and put them back on. Then he went to the footlocker. With unexpected gentleness he took the photograph and set it on the table.
“I couldn’t help noticing that,” I said, although he hadn’t spoken the entire time. “Who is she?”
“A woman I once knew,” he answered, busy with the lock. He took a shortwave radio from the footlocker and set it on the table. The child brought tea with the same grace and gravity as before. Watching Lenoir I could see that he adored the boy.
“He’s beautifully trained,” I said.
“You think so?” Lenoir replied, giving the boy no praise beyond the slightest twinkle of his eye.
“A lovely child,” I said.
Lenoir only grunted. He turned on the news and we listened in silence. It was a broadcast from the capital, and when news of the imminent independence came, he began to mutter. “We’ve got five or six months left in this foul place,” he said, as much to the sky and trees as to me. “And then it’s flee or–” He made a sharp noise and drew his hand across his neck. “We’ve been betrayed as I always said we would be.” I did not answer. He said: “Haven’t we?”
“By history, perhaps,” I said. “Or by our own expectations. A country like Belgium can’t change history.”
“History, that great meatgrinder,” he said and finished his tea. “We’re here at the wrong turn of the handle. Admirable explanation. Only what becomes of us?”
“Will you go back to Belgium?” I asked.
He gave one of his extravagant, rhetorical laughs and shook his head. Then he asked: “Well, what do you want? You didn’t come for tea.”
In the end he came to Boende with me. He could sell me some gasoline, he said, but his stocks were low and needed to be replenished. But this was only an excuse. He wanted company. He wanted to know what independence would mean, wanted to talk to people about it. Naturally that was all anyone talked about in Boende those days.
Lenoir received no more respect there than before, even though he had predicted the course of events. Respect still flowed to the doctor, the administrator, the lawyer. In a hushed voice in Tslentis’ bar the lawyer assured us it would be only a paper independence; the Belgians would still control things. Our interests would remain safe, he said. The administrator nodded ever so slightly in agreement.
Lenoir challenged them. “You have a saying here,” he shouted. “Lenoir doesn’t like the blacks. But I know them, and you do not. I know this: the blacks are not fools. They know us better than we know them. They will take what you claim is a paper independence. Then they will force us to honor it. They will risk chaos for this. The Belgian government will run from chaos!”
Of course, they laughed at him and shouted him down. A fight almost broke out. I was embarrassed that we had come to Boende together, embarrassed that, because Tslentis’ place was full, we had to sleep in the same room.
I woke in the night having dreamed that my father died. When I lit a cigarette, I saw Lenoir sitting in the corner of the room, watching me. “You aren’t asleep,” I said.
He only grunted, sitting in his undershorts, his chest black with hair.
I asked if he wanted a cigarette. He muttered an assent and I tossed him the pack and matches. When he brought the match to his mouth, I saw that his face was the color of ashes. “Are you ill?” I asked. He shook his head. “What’s the matter then?”
“Worried,” he said.
“We’re all worried,” I replied and lay down again.
“But you can sleep,” he said.
“You want a pill?” I asked. I had some with me.
“Trapped men don’t sleep,” was all he said.
“Aren’t we all trapped?” I asked.
“You’ll escape,” he said. “I can only hide.” Finally he added, “I’m watching my life go by, my hated, wasted life.”
I didn’t want to talk, but the tone of despair awakened my compassion. “How did you happen to come here?” I asked.
He ignored the question. At long last he said: “It all turns to gall. You come to the earth’s most God-forsaken corner. You spend twenty years on a wretched plantation, thinking: Here at least I’m safe. But it turns to gall in your mouth.”
I drifted off to sleep, but it couldn’t have been much later when I woke again. I sensed Lenoir awake still in the corner. I struck a match. He appeared not to have moved. I offered him another cigarette and he took it. After a while I asked: “What are you thinking about?”
“Suronne,” he said.
“Your village?”
“Yes. A place that hurt me so much I wish it had killed me. I’d like to burn it to the ground.” Then he added: “But there isn’t a day in the twenty-three years I’ve been in this cursed Congo that I haven’t thought of it.”
“Maybe it’s changed,” I offered.
“I’ll never know,” he said. “I’ll never go back.” He said nothing for a long time. I could hear him breathing hard, working himself up to something. At last he said: “I killed a man there.”
Suddenly I felt very awake. I listened closely, aware of his bulky form in the chair across the room. I said nothing.
Finally he asked, “Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” I said. Even though I was curious, I did not want the responsibility of his revelation. He was still breathing hard.
“He was a doctor,” he said at last. “He was a young fellow, tall and handsome. From Brussels. He was getting the experience of practice in a village. He had been to university. He was the kind of man who had never lived in our village or in any village that we knew of. Because of him all our yearning bourgeois saw themselves as burghers. He could do no wrong.
“Before long half our women were in love with him. They took him eggs and soups and pastries. They imagined pains and went to see him.” Suddenly Lenoir cursed. “We had a pack of filthy bitches in Suronne!” he said. “They all swooned over his delicate hands that had never known a blister – not like the rough peasant hands we had. They would cut themselves or twist their ankles or dream up tumors in their breasts just so the doctor would touch them with his slender, healing hands.
“The young doctor was no fool. He knew a good thing when it came chasing him. So he serviced half the women that ran after him. I didn’t blame him for that. But he bothered women who did not chase him, too,” Lenoir said, old anger echoing in his voice. “He came after my wife to seduce her.”
The sober, shyly pretty face in the photograph appeared immediately in my mind. It had worn no trace of flirtation and, frankly, it did not seem the sort to attract a seducer.
“She wasn’t the kind to chase him, eh?” I said.
“No,” he declared firmly. “She was pure, a virgin to her wedding day. She had not even let her suitors touch her much. In fact, it took us three weeks after we were married to manage things.” Lenoir said nothing for a long time as if stopped by memory. Then he said: “We had been married only four months when the doctor came after her.”
“There were no medical reasons?” I asked. “Sometimes–”
“There were no medical reasons,” he answered flatly.
“She wasn’t pregnant?”
“No.”
“But why should the doctor take an interest in her?” I asked. “Especially if other women were chasing him?”
“She was beautiful and indifferent,” said Lenoir. “This was a city man who had never seen real modesty. My wife’s modesty, her purity, they attracted him. I had seen him watch her at dances. But my wife had frivolous friends. They saw the doctor’s interest. They considered me crude and rough, stupid, a primitive peasant. They advised her not to miss her chance.”
“Women!” I sighed – just to let him know I was listening.
“She took sick – or so she said – sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, but always when I was gone. The doctor came to see her at the house.”
“She wasn’t pregnant?” I asked again.
“No!” Lenoir insisted. “I told you that.” Then: “I wanted her to be. I’d have gone crazy with joy over a child. It’s the first thing she would have told me.”
He fell silent. I said nothing more. I lay in bed thinking. These did not seem to me reason to kill someone. But, on the other hand, it was his wife and his village and a doctor he knew. Probably the wife had been unfaithful to him – and not without her reasons. He was rough and awkward and may have hurt her without knowing it. Maybe after four months of marriage she wanted something different, something tender.
Still, I had the feeling that part of it was the young Lenoir’s astonishment at being happy. Perhaps he had not realized that such things were for all men, doctors and peasants alike. I wondered if, instead of thanking whoever he prayed to for it, he hadn’t simply convinced himself that his happiness was counterfeit and had to be destroyed.
“So I killed him,” he said after a while. “I followed him one morning after he left our house. I hid in some woods near the house where he made his next call. When he came out, I shot him twice with my hunting rifle. He fell dead.”
Having finally told the story, he panted with relief and fatigue. “I hadn’t planned what to do afterwards,” he said. “I expected to give myself up. But instead I ran. Finally I came here, to this ghastly stretch of jungle.
“I’ve never seen my wife again,” he said. “I’ve never written. I’ve wanted to send her money, but I’ve never had any to spare. She probably doesn’t think of me anymore. But I think of her every hour.”
After a while I asked, “Why have the police never found you here?”
“I changed my name,” he said. “Le Noir was a nickname of mine in Suronne. Because of my hair. My real name is Masure.” Then he said very tiredly, “Perhaps the police know I’m here. My plantation is a worse prison than anything they have in Belgium.”
With great suddenness he fell asleep. His last cigarette was still burning. I had to get out of bed and take it from his hand. He was still asleep in that chair when I came back from breakfast. When I returned for lunch, he was gone.
During the rest of my stay in Boende I wrestled with feelings of guilt. Should I tell the police what I knew? In the end I did nothing. I was unwilling to betray Lenoir.
When I returned to Coq, there was a cable saying that I should fly to Belgium immediately. My father died three or four hours after I arrived. That experience shattered me. To comfort my mother I stayed a week. But I knew hardly anyone in the town anymore and I was restless and lonely. I spent several afternoons driving around the countryside by myself.
Toward the middle of one cold, gray afternoon I passed a sign to a place called Suronne. I must have driven five kilometers before realizing that Suronne was Lenoir’s village. Without really knowing what I intended to do, I turned back and drove into its little square.
It was a tiny place, no different from hundreds of other Walloon villages, and I walked from one end to the other. That took about ten minutes. I felt certain that people were watching me from behind their curtained windows. I still had no exact idea of why I had come, but it seemed pointless not to inquire.
I went to see the postmaster. He was at his desk, a newspaper spread before him, and he was leaning over it squinting to read in the half-light. He tilted his head up toward me when I entered, but neither sat up nor made any welcoming gesture. In fact, his manner reminded me a bit of Lenoir. I wondered if everyone in Suronne shared the same lack of sociability. I asked if there was a Madame Masure in the village.
“Who wants to know?” the postmaster asked, looking back at his newspaper.
“I have a message for her from the Congo,” I told him.
“Where?” he asked with a frown. I told him again. “The Belgian Congo?” he asked as if it were Mars. He inspected me with the small-minded suspiciousness that Lenoir reviled and said no more.
“I wonder if you could tell me where Mme Masure lives,” I asked very calmly, very politely.
“She doesn’t know anyone in the Congo,” he said.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“There hasn’t been a letter from the Congo through this post office in twenty-five years,” he said.
“I would still like to say hello,” I explained.
He merely shrugged and looked back at the paper. I went over to his window and looked out at the village. Some children were crossing the square, all huddled against the cold.
“It’s a nice village you have,” I said. The postmaster grunted. “Anything ever happen here?”
“Nothing extraordinary,” he replied without looking up.
“You must have a murder now and then,” I suggested, half teasing him.
“A murder!” He looked up and laughed. “A murder in Suronne!” He fell over his paper in genuine amusement. I could see he would have a good time telling this one over dice games at the village bar.
“But there was a doctor killed here twenty or twenty-five years ago,” I said.
“No one’s ever been killed in Suronne,” he retorted.
“This was a young doctor from Brussels. He started a practice here just out of medical school. A tall man, handsome. With delicate hands.”
“You mean Dr. Anciaux?” he asked. “He did have a practice here once. He teaches medicine now in Liege.”
“No doctor here has ever been killed?” I asked.
“No.” He went back to his newspaper. Then after a moment he said, “Wait now.” He looked at me curiously. “Anciaux was once shot at, I believe. I think that’s right. He hadn’t been here long. I was a young man at the time, in and out of the village. I hardly remember the incident.” He scratched his head as if to stimulate his memory. “A hunting accident, I think.”
“Was the doctor badly wounded?” I asked.
The postmaster frowned. “Perhaps,” he said. “But I don’t remember that he was wounded at all. Seems to me he heard a couple of shots. He fell to the ground as any sensible man would and that was that.” He shrugged. “A hunting accident.
Such things happen.”
He looked at me for a long moment, then said, “You don’t get too much sun down there in Africa, do you?” We laughed at this village witticism and talked about the Congo for a while. I don’t think he had ever met anyone who had been there. Finally he declared: “You want to see Mme Masure, eh?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’d like to deliver these greetings.”
“Congratulations, I suppose, on the daughter’s wedding,” he said.
“Yes, that’s it,” I told him after a pause. “Exactly when was she married?”
“Four-five months ago,” he said, giving the date. “She married a university graduate. Suronne is very proud of her for that!”
“How old was she?” I asked.
“Twenty-two,” he said. “A lovely girl, beautifully trained. Mme Masure deserves a lot of credit. It has not been easy for her.”
At last he gave me her address. I had no business visiting her, of course, but I did not want to return yet to the house where my father had died. I found the address and knocked at the door. Finally she came, the woman in Lenoir’s photograph two decades older.
She seemed a gentle person, still serious, still pretty, though more from good nature than from intelligence. She had an attractive figure and handsome carriage; they helped explain Lenoir’s jealousy. It seemed surprising that in the intervening years she had not found another man. Village life had pinched her mind closed, though. When I mentioned the Congo, she seemed unable to comprehend that other Belgians, people she might know, actually lived there.
Standing on the stone steps before her door, I told her that a Congo friend of her husband, a man named Henri Lenoir who had a plantation near Boende in the Equateur Province, had heard about her daughter’s marriage. He had asked me to convey his greetings if I was ever near Suronne. She frowned. She asked me to repeat his name. She said she was sure she hadn’t known any Lenoir, but that she hadn’t known all her husband’s friends as they had not been married long.
I could see that she was a good Belgian and would not invite me into her house. So I shivered exaggeratedly, explaining that we of the Congo lost our tolerance for Belgian weather. At last she invited me inside.
Once I sat down, I said that this Lenoir was a man of some mystery, but had known her husband well. We were none of us certain just why Lenoir had come to the Congo, I told her, but rumors said that he had killed a young Brussels doctor who had made advances to his wife.
She shook her head at this. “Jean-Luc Masure had many friends,” she said. “But he was careful about which ones he presented to me. I’m sure I never met this one.”
“Do you remember the murder?” I asked. “I understand it occurred right outside Suronne. A young Brussels doctor.”
“That could only be the good Dr. Anciaux,” she said. “He who delivered my baby all these years ago. He’s a famous professor of medicine now in Liege.”
“Lenoir doesn’t understand what happened to your husband,” I told her. “I’m sorry to inquire, but he asked if I would.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “It used to hurt me to think of it, but it doesn’t anymore. He was killed in a dreadful train accident not far from Namur. He had gone there looking for a better job. That was not unlike him. Scores of people were killed. Jean-Luc was one of them. They made an identification from clothes and shoes which satisfied the courts. For years I wouldn’t believe it. I prayed every night for his safety, wherever he was. Finally I realized that I must accept the truth if only for the child’s sake.
“He wanted a child so much,” she said. “I should have told him that I might be expecting. The good Dr. Anciaux was making tests and I was afraid of disappointing him. Dr. Anciaux confirmed the pregnancy the very day of the train accident. Jean-Luc never knew.”
She blinked, looking down at her hands. “I blamed myself for a long time,” she said. “I kept thinking that if I had told him about the tests, then he might have waited that day for the news.”
She said nothing for a time, then went to get a photograph. “Here we are together,” she said, handing it to me. There was a younger Lenoir smiling at the woman in the photograph he kept on his footlocker.
“You look very happy,” I remarked.
“We were very different,” she said. “He was a little on the rough side, a bit frightened of the gentleness inside him. I was the only person he ever revealed that side of himself to. Perhaps that’s why I married him. That gentleness surprised him; he didn’t know what to make of it. We could have been very happy.”
“And you’ve been alone all these years?” I asked.
“No, no. There was our daughter. She’s gone now.”
At last she smiled secretively, with a surprising girlishness. “I am marrying again a week from Saturday,” she confided. “To the postmaster. He lost his wife two years ago.”
“Ah ha!” I said. “He was very suspicious when I inquired for you.”
She laughed. “He telephoned to warn me. You see he takes very good care of me already!” I realized that she was very fond of him. “I have been lonely, yes,” she admitted. “But it has all come right in the end.”
By the time I visited Boende again Lenoir had told his story to others. Perhaps he enjoyed the notoriety and supposed that with independence the administration would not bother him. His story came up for discussion the first night I was there. Tslentis’ bar was jammed with people. There were more diners than the cook could feed. When I sat down for a beer, the habitués started to tell Lenoir’s tale. The bar grew hushed as everyone waited to see how I would react.
I don’t know why I didn’t keep my mouth shut. Perhaps it was that they were all so pleased that they knew something I didn’t. I had to show them they were wrong. When they came to the climax of the story, I said: “He never killed anyone.”
A hush fell across the bar.
“He never killed anyone,” I repeated.
“What!” A voice shouted from the dining room, behind the curtain. Silence fell across the room and I wished I had not spoken. Then a large hand ripped the curtain aside. There stood Lenoir. A chicken leg dangled from his fingers.
“What?” he shouted again.
I said nothing. He walked to where I was sitting and stood right before my chair. “You’ve been to Suronne?”
Finally I nodded. He glared at me. At last I asked, “Was the doctor’s name Anciaux?”
“Yes,” he said in a hush, almost afraid.
“Anciaux teaches medicine at Liege now,” I said. “It seems you may not have even wounded him.”
“No!” he shouted. “No!”
I could not look at him. But he wanted more. He crouched down before my chair and took my wrist. “What else?” he asked. I said nothing, but his pressure on my wrist was so great I thought he would stop the blood. He repeated, “What else?”
“He went to your house that day to tell your wife she was pregnant. She was afraid to tell you until she was sure. The baby was a girl.”
He held my wrist ever more tightly. “And? And!” he demanded.
“She was married five months ago.”
Lenoir closed his eyes. He covered his face with a massive hand, slowly shaking his head.
“The villagers have finally convinced your wife that you died in a train crash,” I said. “She wouldn’t believe them for years.”
“How is she?” he whispered.
I could not look.
“Tell me,” he insisted.
I said, “She married the postmaster three weeks ago.”
He gave a cry. It grew into low, wretched sobs. People turned away. He stood and passed through the bar, groaning like an animal. He went outside. We could hear him moving up the street, his sobs tearing the night.
When I went out to find him, he had gone. I looked for him again the next morning, but I could not find him.
When I drove back home several days later, I stopped at his plantation. The buildings had been burned to the ground. His women were wailing and raking through the ashes with palm fronds. As I watched them, the old tata appeared. He said that Lenoir had taken the boy and the truck and had gone. He vanished from the Equateur as completely as he did from Suronne. I left that country years ago, but I suppose somewhere, hidden in its vastness, Lenoir and his son are still there.

1 Comment

  1. Lenoir is a great story – and that seems to be the middle of nowhere on the google maps view. nice looking town but seems isolated. thanks Fred!

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