Read an Excerpt
Secret Place of Thunder
By Lynn Morris
Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLCCopyright © 1996 Lynn Morris and Gilbert Morris
All rights reserved.
La Maison des Chattes Bleues on Bayou du Chêne
Cheney Duvall whispered the word. Behind her Shiloh Irons was stretched out on the deck of the flatboat, his back up against one of Cheney's great trunks, his long legs crossed, and his wide-brimmed gray hat pulled down over his face. He stirred slightly but did not look up.
In a low, tense voice Cheney called, "Octave, haltez le bateau! Attention!"
Though she had spoken in French, Shiloh stirred and looked up. Cheney was a stark figure outlined in the harsh circle of light cast by the kerosene lamps hung at the corners of the prow. She stood at the side, grasping the rope rail tightly, her back stiff. Shiloh could see nothing beyond the white glare of the lamps. Octave, the boatman, steadily poled the flatboat, ignoring Cheney's command to stop. With a muttered exclamation Cheney hurried to the prow and turned out both of the lanterns, then turned back to look off the starboard side.
Shiloh got to his feet and hurried to her, blinking quickly, his eyes struggling to adjust to the sudden muddy darkness.
Wordlessly she pointed.
Looming up close beside the boat was a burned-out hulk of a great sternwheeler. In the bayou blackness the riverboat was a sad but eerie sight. Listing slightly, forever moored on a sandbar, the skeleton retained a semblance of its former grandeur but with the air of a sepulcher, its grave clothes long, ghostly tatters of Spanish moss. It looked like a huge, shambling tomb, and its gray outlines resembled a hundred black eyes and rotting teeth.
"What is it, Shiloh?" Cheney asked even more quietly than before. He barely heard her.
"It's nothing to be afraid of, Doc," he whispered back, and he touched her arm reassuringly. "It's just a wreck—"
"No," she interrupted in a hiss. "That!" Her long white finger jabbed toward the hulk again.
Shiloh obediently looked up and saw it—or them.
Flickering, phosphorescent green lights, two of them high on an upper deck, one below, almost on the level of the bayou mud, danced up and down. Through the square blackness of a porthole he saw a tatter of white fluttering, then it disappeared; then it appeared about forty feet down in another porthole and disappeared. The foul green lights went out all at once. Then one appeared up top, brightened for a brief moment, then slowly began to fade. Again white flutters showed through the portholes.
Cheney swallowed hard and murmured, "What in the world is it?"
Shiloh shrugged. "Ghosts."
Cheney almost made a heated retort, but she was mesmerized by the frightening sight and remained silent. Shiloh kept searching the hulk through narrowed eyes, his tense stance belying his careless tone.
"Some t'ings worse dan ghosts, mam'selle."
Cheney and Shiloh had completely forgotten about Octave. Now they turned to the boatman, who was poling them up Bayou du Chêne as fast as he could, his eyes searching resolutely ahead. He was small, but wiry and strong. The tendons in his arms stood out in thick cords as he pushed the square flatboat along the bayou.
"Wh-what? What did you say, Octave?" Cheney asked in a rather high voice. Then she smiled weakly. "What could be worse than ghosts in a burned-out hulk deep in the bayou in the middle of the night?"
Octave poled the boat, his jaw set, and made no answer.
Cheney turned back to stare at the riverboat. They were passing the bow, and soon a turn in the bayou would hide the haglike sight from them. As they passed, both she and Shiloh unconsciously turned their bodies to watch it, until they were both facing backward. Neither of them felt comfortable with the immense skeleton, with its ghosts and phantom lights, behind them.
Octave shifted his frozen gaze first to Cheney's face, then to Shiloh's, and finally answered Cheney's question.
* * *
Two hours up the Mississippi River from New Orleans was Bayou du Chêne—"bayou of the oak"—and two hours more down Bayou du Chêne was La Maison des Chattes Bleues. Along the great river were rolling farmlands, thick woods of cypress, magnolia, and cottonwood, and dozens of tributaries, large and small, lazily winding into and out of the wide muddy expanse.
But Bayou du Chêne drifted south through a wild and alien country. Junglelike swamps often melted into the bayou, where the earth seemed unable to make up her mind whether to be land or water, and finally melted into a combination that was both and neither. Great cypresses crowded around the flatboat, their mourning shawls of lacy gray Spanish moss sometimes brushing down to the still surface of the secret streams. Cheney wondered how Octave knew where the course of the bayou actually lay. She glanced at him and saw that his pole still measured about four feet into the brackish water when he pushed. But when he lifted it up, fully two feet of the end was dribbling black ooze. Cypress knees formed ramparts of the huge trees, some as tall as three feet, some small and dangerously pointed. The knees rose everywhere around them, and again Cheney wondered how Octave managed to miss them.
Suddenly the land rose again, and the sides of the boat almost touched either bank. Willow trees grew lopsidedly, their soft sad fingers brushing Cheney's face, and nervously she swatted them away. Shiloh still stood beside her, and he tried to reach up and hold the green curtains aside as the boat made its way slowly. Farther along, the width of the bayou increased somewhat, but the great trees on either side almost formed a tunnel. Owls hooted eerie warnings, immense bullfrogs bellowed, small scrabblings sounded in the branches of the trees close overhead. Furtive splashings were the only water sounds the "sleeping water" of the bayou made. Once they heard a loud splash, and once Cheney thought she saw a log with eyes. The log suddenly glided past the boat, causing Cheney to start and take a deep breath. She knew, of course, that the Louisiana bayous were teeming with alligators, but she hadn't been prepared for her first casual meeting.
At last the bayou forked into two branches, the mouth of these tiny tributaries forming a small lagoon. On the rising bank on the left Cheney and Shiloh could see occasional soft points of light far off. Les Chattes Bleues was still awake, and the thought of the warm glow of candles in windows made them both feel relieved.
Expertly Octave poled the boat straight to a good-sized cypress dock with a gazebo behind it. The land rose up to a gentle slope, heavily wooded, but Shiloh's night-eyes could pick up a wide avenue between great trees, and the occasional candle-glimmer far off at the end of the way.
Cheney and Octave spoke together in low voices, Octave in short, curt sentences, and Cheney in hesitant French phrases. Octave was an Acadian, a descendant of those sturdy Frenchmen who had fled France in the 1500s because of religious persecution and had finally settled in Nova Scotia. In the bewildering twists and turns of the Seven Years' War, England had expelled the Acadians from Canada in 1755, and the Spanish government in Louisiana had offered them a home. By 1763 they had begun to found settlements deep in the swamps to the south and west of New Orleans. The Acadians were a proud, passionate people, and they had stubbornly formed their own closed society, adhering to their culture, traditions, and language. Although Octave spoke French, it was almost a different language from Cheney's classical Parisian French; she learned later that the Acadians still spoke a version of sixteenth-century provincial French.
"Octave said we can go on up to the house," Cheney said at Shiloh's elbow. "He'll secure the boat and bring the luggage."
Shiloh jumped onto the dock, which was blessedly fixed, and held out his arms for Cheney. He grasped her firmly around the waist, conscious that his hands could almost span it, and set her down as lightly as a butterfly. Her face was averted, her hat shadowing her features, and he wondered if she was blushing. She always did when he touched her, no matter how casually.
"Are you sure that's what he said, Doc?" he teased as he took one of the kerosene lanterns in one hand and offered the other arm to Cheney. "Sounded to me like you two weren't exactly meeting in the middle, if you get my meaning."
She clasped his arm close. "No, I'm not completely certain what he said. Either he is bringing the luggage, which is le bagage, or he is going to take a bath, which is se baigner. I chose to believe he was saying he'd bring up my trunks," she finished primly.
Shiloh laughed. "I choose to believe it, too. 'Specially since that means I don't have to haul 'em like I already have all over creation." Cheney's trunks—by quantity, girth, and heft—were legendary.
Cheney pinched his arm but said nothing. They walked through the open gazebo and started up the rise. Soon they were in a wide bower, with great live oak trees towering above their heads like the eaves of a great cathedral. No breeze stirred them in the heavy Louisiana night. Though it was February, the air was warm, and Cheney and Shiloh could feel its moistness. Their footsteps crunched along the broad way, and Shiloh lowered the lamp so he could see the surface. Bleached white shells formed the pathway.
It was a long way to the house, perhaps half a mile. Though two rows of windows on the first and second floors flickered with candlelight, the outlines of the house were indistinct until Cheney and Shiloh were quite close. When Shiloh could see the house clearly, he was a little surprised; he had vaguely been expecting turrets and battlements and gray stone walls, something Gothic, something a lord would have built in eighteenth-century France on a high hill overlooking the sea.
But by the time Cheney's great-grandfather, Augustin-Caron-Philippe de Cheyne, fourth son of the sixth Vicomte de Cheyne, had turned thirty in the year 1801, he had not been tempted by castles and lords. He had built a sturdy, serviceable, practical Creole house on his 3,500-acre indigo plantation. It was a big house, but not grand.
Built entirely of cypress, La Maison des Chattes Bleues was constructed in the eminently sensible West Indies plantation style, with wide galleries all around the first and second floors, a high peaked roof, asymmetrical chimneys, and triple dormers. The added Creole flair was integrated by the use of interior chimneys, large columns on the lower story, and colonnettes on the upper floor. The house was, of course, raised so that the erratic water table and flood waters of the delta country could not invade.
Shiloh studied the house and decided it looked inviting and warm, even in the night. "Now tell me the name of this place again," he prodded Cheney.
"La Maison des Chattes Bleues," Cheney answered.
"And that means 'the house of the blue cats.' "
Shiloh was silent for a few moments, and Cheney watched him defiantly. Finally he drawled, "Well, I can see why y'all always say it in French. I guess I don't need to call your great-aunts' place a blue cat house."
"Well, didn't you just say that's what it is?" he said innocently.
"No! I mean, yes! I mean—that's what the—but it's ... it's ..." Cheney knew she was sputtering. "It's not named after—because of—my aunts! It's—"
"Your great-aunts," Shiloh said helpfully.
"It's because of the dogs!" Cheney almost shouted.
"Oh, I see," Shiloh said with exaggerated patience. "Yes, Doc. It's named 'The Blue Cat House' because of the dogs. I was going to guess that. Really."
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Cheney said, and then she laughed. "You'll see when you meet the dogs, and in the meantime learn to say it in French, Mr. Irons! And you really are the most infuriating man I've ever met!"
"I know, you told me 'bout a million times. But you like me, anyway."
She looked up at him. In spite of his teasing tone, his face was grave, and he was staring hard at her. "Yes," she said softly, "I do."
He seemed satisfied, and they walked to the house in companionable silence. Their footsteps echoed hollowly on the steps and across the wide gallery, and the knocker on the door clicked brassily in the quiet. Though the night sounded with a thousand crickets and cicadas, and bullfrogs called continuously near and far, still the darkness seemed to envelop them in a heavy veil of quiet.
The air is heavier, and it mutes the sounds, Cheney thought, breathing deeply. Southern Louisiana nights always smelled of rich wet earth and growing things. I'd forgotten ... It had been twelve years since she'd visited her great-aunts.
The door opened on silent hinges. A tall, slender Negro man stood holding a candelabra, the twelve candles flickering weirdly in the air stirred by the open door. He stepped aside and bowed. "Mademoiselle Duvall, please come in," he intoned in a deep, rich voice, the formality of his address matching his black suit, white shirt, and black tie.
"Bonsoir, Monroe," Cheney said, matching his formal tone. "May I present my friend and medical assistant, Mr. Shiloh Irons. Shiloh, this is Monroe."
"Pleased to meet you, Monroe."
"Monsieur, it is my pleasure. I will take you to your greataunts, Mademoiselle Duvall, they are expecting you. And your luggage?"
"The boatman said he'll bring it up," Cheney replied, "but I'd appreciate it if you'd see to it, Monroe."
"Very well, mademoiselle. They are upstairs in the parlor."
Shiloh was looking around the room with interest. The first floor seemed to be a series of open parlors on the left-hand side, and the right-hand side of the house was a single great formal dining room. A massive table and chairs were centered on what was actually the right half of the house, with six white pillars in a row serving in place of a wall. At Monroe's words, Shiloh looked for stairs but saw none, and to his surprise the butler and Cheney turned to go back out the front door.
"Sir?" Monroe said politely, holding the door open.
Shiloh followed obediently and saw that outside staircases on each end of the house, shielded by louvered screens, went up to the second floor. Monroe led them upstairs and to one of many doors lining the gallery. Shiloh reflected that each room must have an outside entrance and wondered if there even was an inside staircase.
"Mademoiselle Cheney and Monsieur Irons," Monroe said to the room, then stepped aside for Cheney and Shiloh to enter.
Cheney stopped abruptly and Shiloh bumped into her. "Mother! Father! You're already here!"
She ran into the room.
Richard Duvall jumped out of his chair, his arms wide, and Cheney threw herself into them. He lifted her up in a bear hug. "Cheney, dear! I've missed you terribly!"
"I've missed you too, Father," she whispered against his neck.
Shiloh shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. Richard Duvall hurried forward, one arm around Cheney's waist and the other extended to Shiloh. Shiloh noted that Richard barely limped, though a silver-headed malacca cane was propped against his armchair. Richard was tall, although not quite as tall as Shiloh's six-foot-four, with thick silver hair and steady gray eyes.
"Shiloh, so good to see you. Thank you for taking care of Cheney and bringing her to us safely."
"My pleasure, as always, sir."
Excerpted from Secret Place of Thunder by Lynn Morris. Copyright © 1996 Lynn Morris and Gilbert Morris. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.