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IT WAS MARDI GRAS IN New Orleans, February 9 of this year, 1864, but the extent to which I partook of the merry fun was not visible to the naked eye. I was there, I was lodged at a good hotel, I had cash in my jeans, but had reason for taking it easy. For one thing there was my leg with a sword-stab in it, my souvenir of Chancellorsville, which had got me a discharge from the Army but compelled me to walk with a stick and discouraged any jinks—high, low, or medium. For another, there was my partner in the business that had brought me to town, and the job he had dumped on my head through a dumb miscalculation. He was a naval lieutenant my own age, which was and is twenty-eight, and had worked with me side by side in my father's construction firm—Joseph Cresap & Co., at Annapolis, Maryland—he running the tug, I the piledriver. When the war broke we both signed on, he in the Navy, I with the Army, and for a time we kind of lost touch. But then, as I lay in Jarvis Hospital, Baltimore, recovering from my wound, I got a letter from him, written from his ship, the Eastport, which was stationed at Helena, Arkansas, all full of a grand idea for a construction firm of our own, based at New Orleans, that would use government stuff as gear, when it went on sale cheap as surplus at the end of the war. That hit me right because—in addition to the points he made—it tied in with a dream I'd had to be part of a big thing that was going to be done at the mouth of the Mississippi, something I'll get to all in due time. I'd been feeling pretty low, but this put new hope in me, so I asked for more details and we exchanged quite a few letters about it.
All my father saw in the scheme, though, was Sandy's habit of seeing things rosy, and he warned me to watch my step or I was going to regret it. But I was fed up with paternal control, and when my mother sided with me I took two thousand dollars that she slipped me, about the same amount of my own, mainly my back Army pay, and hopped a boat for New Orleans, where Sandy had gone on a fifteen-day leave and taken a suite for us both at the St. Charles Hotel. That's when the trouble started. Because, instead of the twenty-five hundred dollars he thought we would need, I soon saw it would take ten times that, regardless of government sales. In construction, there's your bond, your payroll, your materials, and your running expense; that must all be met in cash before you get a dime from your first investment. On top of which, the little money Sandy had he blew on a new uniform to dazzle the wardroom upriver. On top of which, to rejoin his ship at the end of his fifteen days he picked a steamer leaving on Mardi Gras, with an Indiana artillery outfit aboard, bound home for a rest. On top of which, Mardi Gras morning he vanished; I had to pack him, he explaining when he got back that he'd been "detained at Lavadeau's, telling them all goodbye." Lavadeau's was the costume place that had made his uniform for him. On top of which, when I loaded him into a cab and took him to the boat, it was raining. And I had to take a Canal Street horsecar back. On top of which, a big fat Cleopatra beat a bass drum in my ear and a beautiful little fairy popped flour into my face.
So I wasn't exactly singing when I got back to the hotel in midafternoon and a session in the bathroom, sluicing flour out of my nose and still wondering where to get twenty-five thousand dollars, didn't help any. I was in a rage when a knock came on the door and answered just as I was, without even putting on a coat. A girl was in the hall with a man, she shaking drops off an umbrella, he edging away as though anxious to leave. "Mr. Cresap, please," she snapped when she saw me, as though addressing the help.
"I'm Mr. Cresap," I growled.
"Oh," she said, looking surprised—and no doubt a slouchy article in corduroy pants, blue flannel shirt, and no necktie did look more like someone fixing the steam pipes than a guest at a high-toned hotel. But she fixed up her face quick, and said: "Mr. Cresap, how do you do? I'm Mrs. Fournet, from Lavadeau's. I imagine Lieutenant Gregg has mentioned me."
"He never did, but please come in."
The man started jabbering in French, the town's second language, and, though I don't rightly understand it, I thought he was telling her that now he'd brought her here he couldn't wait to take her back. Then he was gone—and so was my sulk, at the smell that puffed in my face of warm perfume mixed with girl as she passed me to enter the sitting room. I followed her in, closed the door, and took her umbrella. I went with it to the bathroom, where I stood it in the tub. Then I ducked into the bedroom to fix myself up. I put on necktie, coat, and cologne, and had a lick at my hair with the brush. Even so, the hombre I saw in the pier glass looked rough, too tall and bony to handle a stick with grace, and colored wrong: brown corduroy, blue flannel, and yellow hair somehow didn't blend. But if I lacked beauty she made up for it plenty. When I went back to the sitting room she had draped her cape on a radiator and was marching around kind of nervous, so I could see what she had. She was medium in size, but so perfectly proportioned she seemed small, and in age she was younger than I was, I thought. It turned out she was twenty-four. Her face was pale, with shadows high on her cheeks as though she'd known trouble. Her hair was dark, her eyes big, black, and shiny. But her figure was what knocked you over, especially in the beat-out black dress she had on. It was limp from too much mending and washing and ironing, and clung to her in a way that brought up her curves. These were soft, round, and exciting, and said Louisiana French, the comeliest breed of woman I had seen in the U.S. so far.
I thought, from the direction my mind was running, I'd better get straightened out, and asked: "Mrs. Fournet—is that what you said? Then that was Mr. Fournet, your husband, out there in the hall?"
"... Oh no!" she said, after looking kind of blank. "That was Mr. Lavadeau—he brought me from the shop. On Mardi Gras, no woman is safe alone.... My husband is dead, Mr. Cresap. He was killed at Fort St. Philip when the Union fleet came upriver."
"As a Reb, you mean?"
"Why, yes. The Rebs held the fort."
"And you're a Reb?"
"Well, I don't know ... I try to obey the law, now the Union's running it. But in a way, I guess I'm a Reb. Yes, of course I'm a Reb. Why?"
"Just asking. Funny Sandy didn't speak of you."
"Oh—maybe he didn't want to. Maybe he thought I inveigled him—it was all so friendly, the night we were introduced, but then when I wouldn't go out with him after he came in the shop and had his uniform made, maybe he felt it was just a trick. And how can I say that it wasn't? In this war, when you've lost everything, and you still have to make a living, you do all kinds of things. Maybe I did lead him on."
"You sell for Lavadeau's, then?"
"On commission. Uniforms, mostly."
"You were why he went over the hill today?"
"We talked along quite some time, yes."
By then she had taken a chair and smoothed herself out very modest, especially the ruffle which ran across her chest with a startling deep dip in the middle. I wanted to smooth it for her, and also to string things out so I could hear her talk. She had a soft, low voice, with some Dixie drag, though not as much as I have. In the Chesapeake Bay country we pour it out so thick you can cut it with a knife, but in Louisiana, at least among well-born people, there's just a slight trace, kind of musical. I could have listened all day, but detected she was under a strain, and suddenly asked: "What do you want of me, Mrs. Fournet?"
"I'm in trouble, Mr. Cresap. I need help—and help from someone that's Union. Someone that's honest and decent and smart, as Sandy said you are."
"What kind of trouble, for instance?"
"My father's been arrested."
"That's it. I don't know."
"Well what do the police say?"
"It was not the police who took him. Soldiers came, this morning after I left, to the flat where he and I live, read a paper at him, and took him away. I knew nothing about it till an hour ago, when the couple we rent from were able to find a boy and sent him over to tell me. I don't even know where my father is held."
"Sounds to me like a job for a lawyer."
"No, Mr. Cresap, it's not."
She came over to where I was camped on the sofa, leaned close, and whispered: "We have a lawyer, of course. But my father's in cotton, and it's a horrible, cutthroat business, here now in the war. Could be our lawyer's the very one who's back of this arrest. Could be other people are, Union friends we have. Mr. Cresap, I'm not just a crazy woman, running around wild. I'm scared, because in New Orleans right now, you don't know who you can trust. That's why I come to you, a total stranger, and tell the truth, where to nobody else in this town do I dare open my mouth."
"What do you want of me?"
"First, find out where my father is held."
"That shouldn't be hard. What else?"
"Find out what he's charged with."
"That should be on the record. What else?"
"Well—if I knew that much, I'd kind of know where I'm at and be able to work things around, especially if I could talk to him, to try and get him out."
"You mean, you want me to get him out?"
"Oh, if you only would!"
By then my arm was around her, and she didn't seem to find it unpleasant. In fact, as I pulled the ribbons under her chin, unknotted them, and lifted off her hat, she cuddled to me just a little, staring up at my face as a cat stares at your face, to see if you're taking her in or putting her out in the cold. I patted her, said I was pretty busy on a job Sandy dumped on me, but that for someone as pretty as she was I might interrupt. She said: "I know what the job is. It's to raise twenty-five thousand dollars to buy machinery with, and put in a whole lot of piles down at the mouth of the river—and if you have to know, it's the reason I came to you. Because Sandy said you would raise that money, that you always finish what you start. And that's what I need now. You're going to start, aren't you? And finish? You're going to get him out?"
"... For you?"
"Because it's right! He hasn't done anything!"
Suddenly a tear was there, and as she wiped it away she said: "I'm sorry, he's all I have—has been, ever since my mother got drowned, in the Flood of Forty-nine." I'd never heard of the Flood of '49, and my face must have showed it, as she added: "I mean, the Red River Flood of Forty-nine. We're from Alexandria."
"I see," I said, then repeated: "For you?"
"Well, of course for me. Yes!"
"What do I get out of it for being so nice?"
She looked kind of frightened, and started mumbling about money, saying she didn't have much, but that her father had some, made in cotton that winter, and "will pay you what's right." But before I could explain I wasn't talking about money, we were locked in each other's arms, and our mouths were mashed together. The kiss said she knew what I meant, but I wanted it on the line. I said: "You have to pay. Do you hear?"
"Well, maybe I wouldn't mind."
She whispered it, kind of shy, kind of flirty, and somehow a little bit holy, and of course it called for another kiss. Then I buried my nose in her dress, and inhaled the same smell I had caught as she entered the room. I asked: "What is this scent you use? It doesn't smell like perfume. It smells—warm."
She held her pocketbook up to my nose. "It's what they call Russian Leather," she said. "They steep it in oil of lavender, which makes it soft and gives it this smell—and then they tool it and stamp it. I have a prayer book to match, and a New Testament." Then, sniffing me: "You smell like corduroy drenched in cologne, but you have china-blue eyes like a dollbaby's, and hair that looks like taffy."
"My hair looks like wet hay."
"No, Willie! I want to lick it!"
"... Where'd you get that name?"
"It's what your mother calls you."
"And you think you're going to?"
"It's sweet—matches your 'lasses-taffy hair."
"What did your mother call you?"
"My name, Mignon. You can, if you want to."
As our eyes met, as breath mingled with breath and smell mingled with smell, something unfolded between us, and then suddenly she jumped up, saying time was going by and we had to line out what we were going to do. On a piece of hotel stationery she wrote her father's name, Adolphe Landry, and said: "I must go back now to Lavadeau's, on account of their being so busy on the biggest day of their year, renting the Mardi Gras costumes. And if you find out anything, you come to me there—as quick as you can, Willie, before evening if it's possible. I must go to the Ball of Erato, and if I could know something before I do, if I could see my lamb just once——!" That's when we had our first quarrel. I said: "That's nice, I must say it is! Here I'm to go traipsing around in the wet, finding your father for you, while you trip the fantastic toe in some damned Mardi Gras ball."
"Willie, that's not how it is!"
"And Erato—who the hell is he?"
"He's a she—she wrote poetry, or something. She's just a name for one of these things we have. But will you listen to me? I have to go to this thing. In the first place, I'm going for Lavadeau, in a costume he's letting me have, to watch the rest of our costumes, and see that they don't get ruined when the people begin to get drunk. But that's not all. Willie, the one that's taking me must know about my father. He knows everything up at headquarters—and he has to know about this! Why hasn't he come to me? I told you, there's no one here in this town that I feel I can trust. I must go to the ball with him to listen to what he says, and, above everything else, keep him from suspicioning that I suspicion him. Now do you understand?"
"All right, now I've got it."
"Get my umbrella for me."
I got it, then got my oilskin and put it on, came out, and helped her into her cape. She already had on her hat. As I opened the door she put her arms around me again, whispered: "I'd much rather stay here with you—and pay." And I knew, as we went down the stairs hand in hand, more was between her and me than had ever been between me and a woman before.CHAPTER 2
HEADQUARTERS WAS AT CARONDELET and Julia, one block up and six blocks over, and I had the luck to get a cab. So after one last kiss I set her down at Lavadeau's, which was on St. Charles near the hotel, and kept right on. On Julia, as soon as we turned the corner, the street was full of orderlies holding horses, so nobody could have missed it. It was a three-story building with iron-lace balconies, and a four-story annex in back that was soldered on wrong so the floors didn't match up. I wanted to hold the cab, not knowing where my search might lead, but the driver wouldn't wait on account of the Mardi Gras business he'd miss. I paid him off, asked my way of the sentry, and went in. It was the same old jumble of raw pine tables, camp chairs, and chests painted circus-wagon blue every headquarters is, with the same old military telegraph clacking somewhere, so I wasted no time gaping but followed the sentry's direction and went up to the second floor. I was looking for a captain I knew, Dan Dorsey, who came from Annapolis too and was now aide to the Commanding General. I'd already renewed acquaintance when I bumped into him one night in Cassidy's Bar, so I could get down to cases at once without singing "Auld Lang Syne."
When I got up to the head of the stairs he was out in the hall, giving orders to a bunch of men I recognized as Northern news correspondents. They'd been kept waiting, apparently, and weren't any too pleased about standing around in a hallway. But Dan is a big beefy man who'd held a courthouse job back home and doesn't take any backtalk, so pretty soon he had order. Then, seeing me, he motioned me into his office, growling as he followed me in: "Actually, I'm on their side. They were told to come, for an announcement the General is making of an election we're going to hold on Washington's Birthday. But it's been one thing after another—especially some damned Indiana outfit that's on their way home but had to serenade the General on their way to the boat. So he had to make them a speech. So that called for asking their officers in and putting out booze for a toast. So it took an hour, and the election's still not announced. But what the hell? Everything's jumpy here, and at the least little thing we blow our pop. What's on your mind, Bill?"
"Man," I said. "Adolphe Landry. Ever hear of him?"
Excerpted from Mignon by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1948 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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