Authors: Jennifer Horsman
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
by Jennifer Horsman
***** PUBLISHED BY
Jennifer Horsman on Smashwords Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Horsman
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White women were so ridiculous! Abe rolled his eyes with a sorry shake of head as his
mistress, Madame Pearl Williams, stepped down from the carriage in front of the inauspicious brick
town house in the fashionable district, Vieux Carre. "Oh, I do hope I look well enough," the plump woman said nervously as she patted her neatly chignoned red hair, the hand staying in front of her face to fan it. Gracious! The sun had set and 'twas still so hot. Her face powder was bound to cake if she perspired. "Abraham, I'll just be an hour. You may wait right here."
"Yes'm," Abe said, but with a contemptuous look. Wait right here, she says, as if he was gonna hightail it away and start chasin' the north star to freedom. Visitin' a voodoo queen! Wastin' hard-made monies on a colored woman's flattery and fortune-tellin'.
White women were so ridiculous....
A pretty serving girl led Madame Williams through the flower-filled sitting room to the back, where Marie Saint greeted her warmly. The tall, exotic woman sat regally upon her throne— an ornately carved wooden bench beneath the opened window of her parlor.
Marie Saint's beauty was exceptional, the kind of loveliness that had made New Orleans's quadroons famous. She had a voluptuous figure, always meticulously outfitted in the finest silks and latest fashions. Today she wore yellow silk, trimmed in creamy lace, the pale colors complimenting her flawless skin. She had the perfect diminutive nose and provocative mouth, a stunning smile that lifted easily and often. Her beauty was given a considerable depth by soft, liquid brown eyes. These eyes were almond shaped and deep-set, emphasized by unusual straight brows, and in her presence, one always felt their benevolent scrutiny.
A servant indicated the cushioned seat opposite, and as Madame Williams settled her voluminous weight and silk skirts into the seat, a beautiful Negro girl approached with a giant peacock feather fan. Slowly, rhythmically, she began fanning the air. Another servant stepped forward with a tall cool glass of spiced tea. Madame Pearl smiled widely, and as soon as pleasantries were dispensed, she launched into an explanation of her most current trouble.
Of course, Marie knew everything about Madame Williams, the wife of Monsieur Sam Williams, a landed American gentleman. Madame Pearl's concerns centered on the constant flux and ebb of her social standing, less frequently her family's health. Tonight the Madame’s question concerned whether or not to attend the soiree at the neighboring Triche plantation. The problem, it seemed, lay in that it had been less than a year since the youngest of the Triches' daughters had scandalized the parish by running off to Kentucky with a young riverboat man.
A riverboat man! Filthy, uncivilized barbarians! Madame Williams still felt tremors every time she thought about it. She could not imagine a worse fate!
Madame's hand went to her heart as she conveyed this dilemma of potentially devastating social consequences, consequences which depended entirely upon who would accept the invitation and who would not. Like many, she was particularly concerned with Madame Lucretia Josset, the wife of Mayor Etienne de Bore.
"You understand if Lucretia doesn't go, well! 'Twould look very bad on all those who
As the clairvoyant listened intently to the many nuances of the Madame's difficulties, she
projected an aura of absolute stillness and calm, much like the glass surface of the sea on a summer's dawn. A surface that concealed a boundless depth. Few could escape the sensation of intense, and yet somehow charitable, attention. Madame Williams found the sensation similar to what she felt in the confession booth, and though she would not want to admit it, she found her monthly visits to Marie Saint's far more beneficial.
Madame Williams was the third woman to consult Marie on this question of the Triche gala. Marie told all of them the same thing: the soiree would be a success; to miss it, an injurious social faux pas, as the entire parish was finally willing to show support for the Triche family and their well-known trials.
The matter had been decided some time ago. Madame Triche, the mother of the riverboat man's wife, had wisely solicited Marie Saint's help before a single invitation had been issued. She had presented the dilemma to the famous seer first, asking if Marie saw the soiree as a success or no—this after mentioning a sizable contribution to the Negroes' charity hospital to one of Marie Saint's most trusted servants. Pleased with Madame Triche's generosity, Marie Saint had assured the Madame her gala would be an enormous success, that she foresaw her neighbors and friends hastening to her side in a demonstration of their love and sympathy.
Once settled, Madame Williams proceeded to solicit a directive on the important question posed by the new tailor in town—Marie's fashion advice always proved as helpful as her health amulets and charms. The beautiful mulatto seemed to direct half of all traffic heading to the tailors, hairdressers, shoemakers and hatters, and always with explicit directions religiously adhered to: "Marie Saint said only Spanish lace would do ..." "Marie Saint swore bodices will be falling and hems will be rising—I want to be the first ..." and so on.
The superficial banality of her patronesses' concerns never elicited a comment from New Orleans's most famous prophet, at least not directly. Such was not Marie Saint's way. Rather, Marie
might remind Madame Williams—and the numerous women owning similar sensibilities—of someone who might benefit from the Madame's well-known kindness. She might mention her knowledge of a cruel overseer, or an aging field hand who needed easier work, or the benefits of Sunday passes for their whole slave population. Last month she mentioned that the young Negress Monsieur Williams meant to sell at the market the next Saturday was meant to be the Madame's favorite house servant, who would: "Yes! Mercy but, Madame, I see her one day saving the life of a cherished grandchild ..."
"Oh, my heavens!" the Madame had declared, and before the sun had set, her husband was listening to a lengthy and barely sensible explanation of why his wife must have the young girl in the house...
Marie knew well that every soul forged its own path home. And hers was a difficult road. Especially at times like now, when she saw the tragedy waiting for the good woman before her. Madame Pearl's second and favorite son, Jared, would die in an outbreak of yellow fever. Marie saw Madame's tear-washed face as the dirt fell over the coffin placed forevermore into earth; she felt the woman's grief and its lesson. Madame Pearl would never again worry over an invitation. Her grief would drive her to serious reflection; it would sharpen her understanding, soften her heart as it led her to the true comfort of the Church.
Presently the more benign dilemma was between Lacroix, the four-year dictator of New Orleans fashions, and Dumas, the newer, more innovative tailor in town. Marie decided the matter with a pleased smile. "Dear Madame Williams, I have been made aware that Monsieur Dumas has just received four new fashion plates from Paris—"
Marie stopped mid-sentence and froze as suddenly the third eye opened to the future. Of all the myriad ways her sight worked—the elaborate network of friends and servants who constantly brought information and news to her attention, or the feeling of the emotional content of an event, the dreams and trances, the numerous spirits who spoke to her—the third eye always proved the most significant, powerful, the rarest. A circle of vision opened on her forehead with a startling clarity.
Alarm changed the handsome features of Marie's face; she looked a hairbreadth from screaming. She saw the famous young lady, Jade Terese, a look of heart-wrenching terror as a hand reached from behind her, a cloth came over her mouth. Who was it? Who was doing this? The
young lady desperately struggled for breath as she frantically sank her nails into the hand and fought with all her strength. Yet Jade was sinking, falling into a blackness.
Flames rose in the blackness and through them Marie saw the gris-gris. Death. The voodoo sorcerer's amulet of death.
Fear had changed Marie's beautiful face and her hands had risen to her cheeks with a silent scream. Then the vision was gone, vanished, and she looked about her familiar surroundings, bewildered. Two servants stepped forward in alarm. Ignoring her patron, Marie whispered: "I must warn Mother Francesca immediately! Jade Terese is in danger!"
At thirty-one years old, and perhaps four lifetimes more of experiences, Victor Nolte had long ago passed the age or temperament where beauty alone might attract him to a woman. Yet, as he sat with his lady and friends in the governor's box at the Theater d'Orleans scanning the tiers below, he spotted the young lady in a semicircle of light that shined from an usher's gold lantern.
She looked beautiful and young, too young, he saw; somewhere between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. A blue ribbon tied her thick, waist-length dark hair in back. She wore a modest and plain gown of white muslin. A pretty blue-flowered silk shawl hung loosely at her elbows. A matching blue ribbon circled beneath the generous lift of her breasts, demurely covered in an unfashionable high neckline. Short puffy sleeves revealed slender arms. She had unusually pale skin and delicate and fair features. A rosy flush spread across her high cheeks. She held the program, a pair of gloves, some kind of rope and a small blue reticule in her hands.
The spring night air still felt hot, if not oppressive and the young lady fanned her face with the program. Her manners seemed slightly exaggerated, though hardly practiced. Rather strikingly innocent, he thought abstractly, smiling slightly as he studied her.
The play had just begun, and already Nolte was bored. His fluency in French was as good as any American's, which was to say the French production of the Opera Comique was largely
incomprehensible. While he could read French fairly well, and despite having taken up residence in the French-speaking city, he rarely spoke the language. So, he studied the young lady below, a fixed point in the neat rows of dark bodies. As he watched her, the peculiarities of her circumstances began to multiply. The gentleman at her side reached over and, laughing with the audience, he squeezed her hand. Victor drew a sharp breath. He knew the gentleman, a wealthy gens de couleur, one of New Orleans's more successful real estate brokers. The man was an articulate spokesperson for his people; he recalled the man's brief speech before the Louisiana legislature on the ill-conceived proposal to withdraw the free Negroes' property rights. What was the man's name?
She and her gentleman sat in the second tier, the portion of theater relegated to the gens de couleur, fibres or free Negroes. Yet the girl's skin appeared as white as the sunlit petals of a daisy. With a slight, disparaging shake of head, Victor sighed and settled back in his seat.
The strictness and rigidity of New Orleans class lines seemed to reach absurd proportions.
The rules were meticulously adhered to among whites, colored and the multitudes of Negroes beneath. Just the Negroes, freed and slave, were classified according to the darkness of their skin, and these distinctions took on the intense scrutiny and study of a science: the griffe looked down at the pure-blooded Negro; the mulatto regarded the griffe with scorn and was in turn spurned by the quadroon; while the octoroon refused to have anything to do with the others. The young lady definitely belonged in the class of passe blanc, those who could pass for white.
He had traveled over a good portion of the world, and of all the world only India herself could claim a more tangled or incomprehensible web of caste and class than New Orleans. Like most all the Americans in this new state, he found it all quite ridiculous, if not downright barbaric. That beautiful young lady sitting in that section had to be a free person of color, but the entire course of her young life—what she could and could not do, whom she could and could not marry— would be determined by an imprecise consensus that had been leveled on the shade of her parents' skin.
He leaned forward again. A quick scan of the aisles on either side of her confirmed that the gentleman had escorted her. She was no doubt his mistress. Probably selected from one of the quadroon balls, the weekly parade of beautiful colored girls and their ever-watchful, careful mothers, whose sole purpose was to establish their daughter as mistress to the highest bidder. This