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The hired carriage clattered over the rutted streets of the Vieux Carré, enveloped in the misty night air. A girl sat inside the carriage next to the window, her face illuminated by the glow of the side lamps. Her visage formed a memorable profile with an imperious loveliness on the high cheekbones and well-defined brows. There was a willful tilt to the pointed chin and only the smallest hint of vulnerability about the finely shaped mouth.
A well-dressed, rakish man sat next to her. "Well, Catherine?" he asked, his voice full of lazy confidence.
"Well, what Marcus Fitzgerald?" the girl cried, swinging around, her amber-brown eyes full of contempt "What gave you the idea that I would agree to such a suggestion?"
Marcus touched one of the studs in his pleated shirtfront in an uneasy gesture. "You needn't sound so outraged."
"Outraged?!" Catherine Mayfield hissed. "If I were a man I would call you out."
A warm, indignant voice came from a darkened corner of the carriage. "Mais oui, just so. I have never liked this one, this Fitzgerald. I have warned you, and your maman too. He deserves to have his manners mended on the dueling ground!"
Catherine sent her chaperone, and nursemaid since childhood, a quelling glance. The middle-aged Negro woman shut her mouth with a snap in a kind of arrogant servility, drawing her ample bulk further into the corner. She had been Catherine's nurse, but she had been the friend and confidant of her mother, Yvonne Mayfield, née Villère, since birth when she was given as a child of three to the newborn as a gift. She had never accepted reprimands from her younger charge with goodgrace, never given her anything like the allegiance and adoration she gave Catherine's mother.
There was nothing unusual in the presence of the nurse. She was an acceptable duenna. Many women brought their female attendants with them to the balls to tuck up a curl or mend a flounce. It was customary for refreshments to be provided for the maids, coachmen, and valets, making it a social occasion with much dancing and flirtation in the servants' quarters also.
Marcus chose to take her censure of her chaperone as a favorable sign. He reached out to place his hand over Catherine's where it lay on the worn leather seat. "Come," he said coaxingly. "Would it be so different from the games you played at the convent or the swimming you did with your two male cousins?"
Catherine jerked her hand away. "Childish pranks, no more than that. That was the summer my father died. I was twelve and a little wild with the pain of loss. My mother was absorbed with her suffering, which is why I was allowed so much freedom. My cousins, those terrible twins, were brats only a little older than myself. They thought it a great lark to half drown me in the river -- but I learned to swim instead." And, she added to herself, to run and swing on the grapevines that grew on the plantation where her mother had gone to hide away in her grief.
"I seem to remember," he went on reflectively, "that you danced barefoot at your first ball -- "
"My slippers pinched."
"And then there was the red slippers and ribbons, the coulour de diable, which you wore to Holy Communion a year or so ago. That caused quite a few hands to be upraised in horror."
Catherine lifted a white shoulder in a shrug, though a frown drew her brows together. "I was bored." She had been kept in her room for a month over the incident. It had improved neither her conduct nor the relationship between her and her mother.
"All very understandable," Marcus agreed soothingly. "But what explanation have you for enticing your friend Sophia Marie's fiance out into the courtyard at the soiree announcing their betrothal? He looked bemused and somewhat silly when he returned to the salon with your fan in his waistcoat pocket."
The girl beside him was silent for so long it seemed she did not intend to answer. At last she said, "It was a stupid wager, one I was extremely sorry I won. It cost me a dear friend."
"Ha!" Marcus pounced on the admission. "A wager! A stupid wager, but one you won. Surely, then, you can understand my feelings?"
"You are asking me to jeopardize everything, name, social standing, and future prospects, while you risk nothing. Why should I do it? What could be more ruinous to a girl's good character than to be seen at a quadroon ball? It would brand her as lost to all honor, besides starting terrible rumors of a touch of café au lait in the family. I had as well enter a nunnery, if one would have me, or kill myself, if discovered."
"You exaggerate, but there would be no danger. It's a masquerade ball. And you need stay no more than a moment I have only to be seen with a white woman on my arm. No one will ever learn her identity. I have here beside me the half-mask for your face, a turban affair for your hair, and this shawl to cover your gown. Only a moment of your time and it is done. What could be the danger?"
Barely glancing at the brilliant garments he indicated, Catherine said, "You must have felt certain I would agree."
He gave her his most attractive smile as he shook his head. "I only hoped."
Catherine felt her lips curving in an unwilling response. Marcus could be attractive when he wanted. He was a well set man of medium height with a distinguished set to his shoulders. He had crisp chestnut hair, audacious hazel eyes, and a countenance saved from being too handsome only by a short Irish nose. He had been one of Catherine's admirers and most persistent suitors since her first appearance in society two years before at the Conde Street ballroom. He had proposed marriage a number of times, but Catherine had just as often refused. Eventually, she would accept him or someone like him. But her mother, whose duty it was to find a suitable husband, was in no hurry to see her wed and producing the children who would make her a grandmother. As a result Catherine had much more freedom in the choosing than many considered either becoming or good for her. Catherine, intent on pleasure, was in no hurry to exchange her present way of life for the dubious advantages of an alliance ring.
Though his surname was Fitzgerald, Marcus came from an old Louisiana family. His grandfather had been an Irish adventurer who came to the country with little more than his sword and his name. But he put both to good use and was rewarded with a grant of land by the Spanish Crown. Following his marriage to a lovely French-Creole woman, he had built on his land a beautiful home of Spanish design which he called Alhambra. His son, Marcus's father, had been more of a gentleman of leisure than an adventurer or empire builder. Marcus's father made big inroads into the estate before his death in a riding accident. Marcus completed the ruin, finally losing the house and unencumbered acreage on the gaming table.
But despite the financial disaster Marcus retained his personal charms. Personable, a good conversationalist and polished dancer, related on his mother's side to most of the best Creole families, he was a favorite with the hostesses of the city. Family background was more important than money. There was many a Creole father who would have been happy to make a place for such a one at his table for the sake of the alliance -- and many a daughter who would have been delighted to accept a meagerly filled bridal basket if it was given by such a parti. If Catherine suspected that Marcus himself would not be content in any such arrangement, she had nothing positive to base her suspicions upon. He had expensive tastes, he dressed well and kept lodgings in a fashionable street; and, though he did not keep his own carriage, he was creditably mounted when he rode out for an evening along the levee. All this was managed without an obvious income, so far as Catherine could see, though Marcus often spoke with irony of his phenomenal luck at the gaming halls and cockpits since the loss of his ancestral home.
But perhaps fortune was frowning on him once again. He was being extraordinarily insistent tonight. The wager he spoke of must be a large one, with greater than average importance to his purse. In that case the events of this evening must have seemed arranged by le bon Dieu. First, Catherine's mother, complaining of a headache, had decided at the last moment to stay home with cologne on her brow, allowing him to escort Catherine and her duenna alone to the theatre and the small subscription ball given afterward for the relief of the orphans of Santo Domingo. Then, there had been her convenient accident. Catherine, with unaccustomed clumsiness, had spilled wine punch down the front of her gown of celestial blue muslin before places were called for the first quadrille. But had it been just a clumsy accident? In the press of the crowd hadn't she felt a slight nudge at her shoulder as she lifted the glass to her lips? The impression, lost in the dismay of the moment, came back with undeniable strength as Catherine surveyed the man beside her through narrowed eyes.
Marcus chose that moment to give a warm chuckle. "Let's not quarrel about it," he said. "If you feel you can't, then you can't. Don't let it trouble you any longer. It's just that I have an ingrained dislike for defaulting on a wager. A matter of pride. Do you understand?"
The devil of it was, Catherine did understand. That same distaste for being bested ran in her veins also. She at once felt more in charity with him, and genuinely regretful that she could not oblige him. A smile forced its way to her lips before she turned back to the window.
Though only March, the night air was warm. As they crossed one of the more noisy, brightly lighted streets, the smells of cooking seafood, brewing coffee, and orange blossoms from the levee came through the open window, mixed with the inevitable smell of offal from the open gutters that lined the street. A pair of seamen, identifiable by their close fitting caps, tarred pigtails, and the sunburned darkness of their skin, stumbled drunkenly down the street singing a lewd ditty at the top of their lungs. Inside of one of the dimly lit barrooms a fight was in progress marked by the sounds of crashing glass and the thud of falling bodies. The "Kaintocks," the Mississippi River boatmen, were at it again. They seemed to thrive on violence and pain, preferring an uproar to peace at any time. Then through the open doorway she saw a woman leaning against the wall with her hands behind her. Her head was thrown back in laughter, exposing her bare throat and the white skin of her breasts above a low-cut gown.
With a light gesture of her hand, she drew Marcus's attention to the woman. "Perhaps a woman like her," she suggested helpfully.
Marcus shook his head. "A demi-mondaine? No, she must be a lady."
"With the proper training -- " Catherine said, ignoring Dédé's scandalized gasp and compelling gaze.
"The masquerade ball of the quadroons is tonight -- didn't you notice the scarcity of gentlemen at our charity dance? It was stupid of the orphans committee to choose this Thursday. There will not be another quadroon ball for two weeks, and even then there is no guarantee that it will be a fancy dress affair. It is this evening, or not at all." He paused, then went on. "But never mind that. Would you ladies care for a rice cake, since you missed the supper table?"
A vendeuse, a mulatto woman in her white tignon and apron, was crying her wares along the banquet. She carried the calas, tout chaud in a covered tray on her head, and stopped with a smile and a curtsy to surrender a packet of them to Marcus as the carriage drew in beside her.
It was an effective dismissal of the subject, and Marcus seemed cheerfully resigned to her refusal as he passed on to other topics for the remainder of the drive.
At last the carriage halted before a narrow building with a wrought iron balcony overhanging the street. The house was a strange mixture of English Georgian and Spanish styles. Unlike most of the Creole dwellings that surrounded it, the lower floor of the two story building was in use, and its main doorway, beneath the Adams fanlight in a cobweb design, opened from it out onto the street, rather than on an interior courtyard. This lower portion was of red brick, while the upper half, behind the balcony, was plastered in white. Not an attractive house, it was in essence a symbol of the marriage between Catherine's father, a New England banker who had come to New Orleans in the last decade of the 18th century to start one of the first banking ventures in the city, and her pleasure-loving Creole mother. Since the death of Edward Mayfield Catherine and her mother had lived in the house alone, against the earnest advice of their Creole relatives and friends who felt they should have a male relative to lend them protection. Yvonne Mayfield had only laughed, asserting that a half-dozen menservants and four or five maids surely constituted guard enough for anyone. But Catherine had often wondered at the wisdom of the arrangement. Large families with numerous aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-aunts, in addition to brothers and sisters, living under one roof were normal in New Orleans. There would have been much laughter and gaiety, less loneliness for a young girl in such an establishment. There might have been less friction between her mother and herself, less time for her maman to brood upon the passing of the years and the fine lines gathering at the corners of her eyes.
Pitch pine flambeaux burned brightly in their holders at each side of the front door. Their orange light slid over the shining, honey-gold curls piles à la Grecque on her head as she accepted the hand Marcus offered to help her alight. She stood to one side while he assisted Dédé, staring up at the unlighted windows of the upstairs bedrooms. Had her mother retired already? It was not like her to seek her bed so early. Standing before the quiet house with its blind, vapid windows, Catherine acknowledged a moment of uneasiness.
Marcus stepped to the carriage perch to speak to the coachman. With Dédé crowding behind her, Catherine moved toward the door, but it remained obstinately closed instead of swinging open as she expected. All doors in the Vieux Carré were locked at night against the marauding bands of drunken "Kaintocks." Their greatest pleasure seemed to be the destruction of property. But there should have been a servant on duty to admit her, regardless of the hour. Casting a puzzled frown at the nurse, she lifted her hand to knock.
"Wait, wait, Mam'zelle Catherine. You might wake your maman. She will not be pleased, especially if she is ill. Let me go to the back. I will let you in."
"What is it? Why is no one about, Dédé?" Catherine asked. The nurse only shook her head, a grim look on her dour face as she turned to walk away.
"Is something wrong?" Marcus asked, strolling up behind her.
"I'm not sure. There are no lights, and the servants have been dismissed -- or so it appears."
"Probably a whim of your mother's," Marcus said easily, "but I'll come in with you all the same."
"I'm sure that won't be necessary -- " Catherine trailed off. Only a few weeks before Monsieur and Madame Duralde had returned from a soiree to find their home being ransacked by the river ruffians. Having his sword-cane at his side. Monsieur Duralde had attacked the invaders and had been severely beaten for his bravery. He would be lucky if he ever used his right arm again. Furniture and windows had been smashed and priceless heirlooms taken before the constables of the Garde de Ville had reached the scene and brought the fury of the "Kaintocks" down on themselves. There were other hazards than the "Kaintocks," other criminals, other dangers. New Orleans had not become known as the most wicked city in the New World for nothing.
The trend of Catherine's thoughts was broken by sounds from within the house indicating the door was being unbarred. As the panel swung open she pushed into the house with Marcus behind her, forcing the nurse to step back.
"My mother -- is she all right?"
"Do not disturb yourself, Mam'zelle. I am certain all is well," Dédé said soothingly, shielding the candle in her hand from the draft as Marcus closed the door behind him.
Stripping off her lace dancing mitts and dropping them on a small, mirror-topped table in the entrance hall, Catherine turned to Marcus. "I think I will look in on her, if you will excuse me. You will find a drinkable claret in the salon if you don't mind pouring out for yourself."
These last words were thrown over her shoulder as she moved toward the broad stairs that rose against one wall.
"I'll wait," Marcus agreed, and twirling his beaver hat in his hand, lounged toward the salon.
"No, Mam'zelle Catherine. Allow me," Dédé said, lifting her skirts in one hand, hurriedly mounting the stairs after Catherine, the candle held high.
"You? Why, Dédé?"
"I -- I must -- "
"You are keeping something from me. I can feel it," Catherine said, halting to stare at the set expression on her nurse's face. Seeing the perspiration gleaming on her upper lip, a prickle of fear ran down Catherine's spine. She would never forgive herself for leaving her mother alone if anything had happened to her. The two of them disagreed with monotonous regularity on everything from religious observance to fashion, but they were still mother and daughter with the strong blood ties of the Creoles between them.
As she took a deep breath Catherine was aware of Marcus, an interested spectator, standing with his glass in hand in the doorway of the salon below. A part of her mind resented his presence, still she lifted her chin. "Tell me," she demanded.
But Dédé was silent too long. A soft moan laced with a keening edge of desperation came drifting down from the upper hallway.
Catching up her skirts, Catherine raced up the stairs and along the hall.
"No!" Dédé cried, but it was too late. Catherine had thrust open the door of her mother's bedchamber to stand panting in the opening.
It was a moment before the two people struggling among the rumpled bedclothes on the canopied bed were aware of the intrusion. They turned ludicrously empty faces toward the growing light as Dédé drew nearer the doorway with her candle.
A musky perfume hung in the air, overlaid with the smell of warm, perspiring bodies and the sour reek of flat champagne coming from the supper tray left standing at the foot of the bed.
Suddenly Marcus gave a smothered shout of laughter from behind Catherine. The sound seemed to release the two figures locked together on the bed. With an inarticulate cry of rage, Yvonne pushed aside her gaping partner. She rolled off the bed, nearly tearing the willow leaf color mosquito baire from its hangings in her haste, snatching up a dressing saque of emerald satin which she clutched to her nakedness as she rose.
"Get out!" she screamed. "You spying, sly little -- " Her wild gaze fell on a china carafe standing on the table beside the bed. She picked it up and hurled it at the door, her voice rising in a crescendo of shrill invective, mingling with the shattering sound of glass as the water carafe struck the door, followed by a combing box, a candlestick, and a prayer book.
For an instant Catherine met the wild eyes of the young man cowering in the bed, his aristocratic face stiff with horror and distaste.
"I'm -- sorry," she whispered. Swinging around, she ran, blundering with tears rising in her eyes past Marcus, tripping, nearly falling, on her way down the stairs. The scene she had witnessed, with its aura of mindless striving and feverish passion seemed printed on her mind. The excuse, the dismissed servants and darkened house were abruptly explained. It was not that she was unaware of the fundamental needs of men and women or the duties of the connubial couch. She had spent too many years acting as housekeeper under her mother's tutelage, caring for their servants in their quarters across the courtyard at the back of the house, treating them in sickbed and childbed, to pretend to ignorance. Still she had never associated such needs and actions with her widowed mother. It seemed a betrayal of her father's memory, an unnatural adultery. Moreover, the man beside her had been at least twenty years younger than her mother, scarcely older than Catherine herself, and a penniless ne'er-do-well of doubtful breeding, against whom Yvonne Mayfield had warned her daughter several times --
Behind her as she ran Catherine could hear Dédé talking, mouthing soothing phrases as she moved into the bedroom. Let the old nurse calm her mistress, take the brunt of her anger, smooth her outraged sensibilities. It was doubtful anyone else could. Her daughter was not sure she could face her, now -- or ever.
The front door yielded easily to her touch. She left it open, swaying in the draft of her passing and the breath of the rising wind.
The freshening breeze was cool on her face as she paused on the sidewalk. She had no idea where to go, knowing only that she could not stay. At a touch on her elbow, she flinched, then turned to face Marcus.
"The carriage is here," he murmured.
Catherine hesitated no more than an instant before she allowed herself to be handed in. Marcus called an order she did not quite catch to the driver, then the carriage shifted as he climbed in and slammed the door behind him. He sank down beside her, the carriage started with a jerk, and they rolled away down the street.
"How could she?" Catherine whispered, and then as her shock moved into an angry disgust she demanded, "How could she?"
"Why not?" Marcus asked in a conversational tone.
"Why not? Because -- Because -- " "Because she is your mother? She is a normal woman, attractive in a mature fashion, and not so mature at that. She can hardly be more than forty-one or forty-two, I would imagine, with all the normal appetites to which she is entitled."
"Yes, but with that man."
He shrugged. "Not a prepossessing individual, I'll agree, but so long as both are willing I see no harm. Their only crime is that they were caught, speaking in a social sense, of course."
"You have a strange idea of what is permissible," she said in a cool tone.
"Do I? The most effective weapon society has to keep people in order is ridicule. It stands to reason then that the thing to be avoided at all cost is putting oneself in a -- ridiculous -- position."
"According to your reasoning, she is still guilty," Catherine said.
"Unfortunately, yes," he agreed. "And her anger and embarrassment were natural reactions."
"But of course. How could it be otherwise. People are seldom at their most gracious while standing naked before a clothed audience."
"You speak from experience, no doubt," she murmured in a dry tone, a sally she would not have dared at any other time. But somehow this conversation, and the scene that had preceded it, were outside of reality. When he replied to her accusation with a shake of his head and a smile she could not prevent the faint curving of her mouth in response.
"There, that's better," he said quietly.
"You are making excuses for my mother," she said, turning away to stare at the opposite side of the hired vehicle where the cheap brown felt lining was hanging loose above the seat.
His voice held still that timbre of amused tolerance as he agreed. "Reprehensible of me, perhaps, but I rather thought a word of defense was in order."
Was it? Remembering her mother with her plump, white body gleaming in the candlelight and the damp strands of her black hair clinging to her arms and back, it seemed supremely unnecessary. And yet, hadn't there been a hint of shame behind the frustrated anger?
Catherine did not want to think about it. Still, Marcus's calm good sense, though immoral by the standards she had been taught to revere, was having its effect. The incident no longer had the stature of a tragedy.
"I never knew you were so graceless," she told him.
"How can you accuse me, Mademoiselle Catherine, when you have come away without the benefit of a chaperone?"
With a start she looked around the carriage. It was true. For the first time in her life she was completely alone with a man. Turning her head, she gave Marcus a level stare. "Will it make any difference?"
He replied deliberately. "Not to me, but will it to you?"
There was a questioning in his eyes, such a serious overtone that Catherine stopped to wonder if his question held more than its surface meaning. Her presence in the carriage was the direct result of her mother's conduct, but would that affect her own? With unseeing eyes she stared out the carriage window at the closed fronts of shops and their hanging signs, creaking back and forth in the wind. The dusty streets seemed more deserted now, the night darker. The lingering pain of disillusionment moved in Catherine's chest. "It might," she answered her companion recklessly, her earlier suspicions of this man forgotten. "It very well might."
Marcus Fitzgerald was an intelligent man. Leaning forward, he took up the bright garments of turquoise, gold and bronze tissue silk lying on the opposite seat and offered the disguise to Catherine with a quizzical smile.
"Well, then?" he asked.
Such delicacy was disarming in itself. Catherine laughed, a strained sound in the quiet. "By all means. It should be -- diverting."
Copyright © 1977 by Patricia Maxwell