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African drums in darkness sullen as tar.
Rossini's "Di tanti palpiti" unspooling like golden ribbon from the ballroom's open windows.
Church bells and thunder.
Benjamin January flexed his aching shoulders and thought, Rain coming. Leaning on the corner of Colonel Pritchard's ostentatious house, he could smell the sharp scent in the hot weight of the night, hear the shift in the feverish tempo of the crickets and the frogs. The dim orange glow of an oil lamp fell through the servants' door beside him, tipping the weeds beyond the edge of the yard with fire.
Then the air changed, a cool flash of silkiness on his cheek, and he smelled blood.
The drums knocked and tripped, dancing rhythms. Fairly close to the house, he thought. This far above Canal Street the lots in the American suburb of St. Mary were large, and few had been built on yet. Ten feet from kitchen, yard, and carriage house grew the native oaks and cypresses of the Louisiana swamps, as they had grown for time beyond reckoning. January picked out the voices of the drums, as on summer nights like this one in his childhood he'd used to tell frog from frog. That light knocking would be a hand drum no bigger than a vase, played with fast-tripping fingertips. The heavy fast thudding was the bamboula, the log druma big one, by the sound. The hourglass-shaped tenor spoke around them, patted sharply on both sides.
One of the men on the plantation where January had been born had had one of those. He'd kept it hidden in a black oak, back in the cipriere, the swamp beyond the cane fields. Forty years ago, when the Spanish had ruled the land, for a slave to own a drum was a whipping offense.
"Not meaning to presume, sir." Aeneas, Colonel Pritchard's cook, stepped from the kitchen's gold-lit arch and crossed the small yard to where January stood at the foot of the back gallery stairs. "But I'd be getting back up to the ballroom were I you." A stout man of about January's own forty-one years, the cook executed a diffident little half bow as he spoke. It was a tribute to January's status as a free man, though the cook was far lighter of skin. "Colonel Pritchard's been known to dock a man's pay, be he gone for more than a minute or two. I seen him do it with a fiddle player, only the other week."
January sighed, not surprised. The kitchen's doors and windows stood wide to the sweltering night, and the nervous glances thrown by the cook, the majordomo, and the white-jacketed waiter toward the house every time one of them cracked a joke or consumed a tartlet that should have gone on the yellow-flowered German china told its own story. "Thank you." January drew his gloves from his coat pocket and put them on again, white kid and thirty cents a pair, and even that movement caused bolts of red-hot lightning to shoot through his shoulder blades, muscles, and spine. He'd been a surgeon for six years at the Hotel-Dieu in Paris and knew exactly how heavy a human arm was, but it seemed to him that he'd never quite appreciated that weight as he did now, after an hour and a half of playing quick-fire waltzes and polkas on the piano with an injury that hadn't healed.
A shift of the night air brought the smell of smoke again, the knocking of the drums, and the hot brief stink of blood. His eyes met the cook's. The cook looked away.
Not my business, thought January, and mounted the stairs. He guessed what was going on.
The air in the ballroom seemed waxy and thick as ambergris: one could have cut it in slices with a wire. Pomade and wool, spilled wine and the gas lamps overhead, andbecause at least two-thirds of the guests were Americansthe acrid sweet sourness of spit tobacco. January edged through the servants' door and, behind the screen of potted palmettos and wilting vines that sheltered the musicians, sought to resume his seat at the piano as inconspicuously as it was possible for a man six feet, three inches tall; built like a bull; and black as a raw captive new-dragged down the gangplank of a slave ship from the Guinea coast, and never mind the neat black coat, the linen shirt and white gloves, the spotless cravat.
Hannibal Sefton, who'd been distracting the guests from the fact that there hadn't been a dance for nearly ten minutes, glanced at him inquiringly and segued from "Di tanti" into a Schubert lied; January nodded his thanks. The fiddler was sheet white in the gaslight and perspiration ran down the shivering muscles of his clenched jaw, but the music flowed gracefully, like angels dancing. January didn't know how he did it. Since an injury in April, January had been unable to play at any of the parties that made up his livelihood in Americahe should not, he knew, be playing now; but finances were desperate, and it would be a long summer. He, at least, he thought, had the comfort of knowing that he would heal.
Voices around them, rough and nasal in the harsh English tongue January hated:
"Oh, hell, it's just a matter of time before the Texians have enough of Santa Anna. Just t'other day I heard there's been talk of them breakin' from Mexico. . . ."
"Paid seven hundred and thirty dollars for her at the downtown Exchange, and turns out not only was she not a cook, but she has scrofula into the bargain!"
Colonel Pritchard was an American, and a fair percentage of New Orleans's American business community had turned out to sample Aeneas's cold sugared ham and cream tarts. But here and there in the corners of the room could be heard the softer purr of Creole French.
"Any imbecile can tell you the currency must be made stable, but why this imbecile Jackson believes he can do so by handing the country's money to a parcel of criminals. . . ."
And, ominously, "My bank, sir, was one of those to receive the redistributed monies from the Bank of the United States. . . ."
"You all right?" Uncle Bichet leaned around his violoncello to whisper, and January nodded. A lie. He felt as if knives were being run into his back with every flourish of the piano keys. In the pause that followed the lied, while January, Hannibal, Uncle Bichet, and nephew Jacques changed their music to the "Lancers Quadrille," the drums could be clearly heard, knocking and tapping not so very far from the house.
You forget us? they asked, and behind them thunder grumbled over the lake. You play Michie Mozart's little tunes, and forget all about us out here drumming in the cipriere?
All those years in Paris, Michie Couleur Libre in your black wool coat, you forget about us?
About how it felt to know everything could be taken away? Father-mother-sisters all gone? Nobody to know or care if you cried? You forget what it was, to be a slave?
If you think a man has to be a slave to lose everything he loves at a whim, January said to the drums, pray let me introduce you to Monsieur le Cholera and to her who in her life was my wife. And with a flirt and a leap, the music sprang forward, like a team of bright-hooved horses, swirling the drums' dark beat away. Walls of shining gold, protecting within them the still center that the world's caprices could not touch.
In the strange white gaslight, alien and angular and so different from the candle glow in which most of the French Creoles still lived, January picked out half a dozen women present in the magpie prettiness of second mourning, calling cards left by Monsieur le Cholera and his local cousin Bronze John, as the yellow fever was called. Technically, Suzanne Marcillac Pritchard's birthday ball was a private party, not a public occasion, suitable even for widows in first mourning to attendnot that there weren't boxes at the Theatre d'Orleans closed in with latticework so that the recently bereaved could respectably enjoy the opera.