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"Mam'zelle Caroline, will you not tell us, please, of how you shot the privateer?"
The lady thus addressed lifted her head, assuming a severe expression, though a twinkle lingered in her dove-gray eyes. "I'll do no such thing. You are supposed to be memorizing the poem I gave you, my dear Estelle."
"Oh, I did that ages ago." The young lady kneeling on the floor with her skirts spread around her looked up with an engaging grin. Clutching the book in her lap, she rattled off the first canto of Childe Harold. When she began on the second, her older sister Amélie, seated on a rattan chair on the other side, put her hands over her ears.
"Don't, please don't!" she begged.
Estelle came to a halt, one hand flung out in a theatrical gesture. Cocking her head to one side she asked, "Does it upset you, Amélie? I mean all that about the 'wild sea-mew' and the 'billow's rage'? I know you didn't precisely enjoy your sea voyage home from France with Mam'zelle Caroline, but it has been over six months. Surely you are not going to have a megrim over such a silly thing as a few lines from a poem?"
Amélie's gentle face went quite pale. "You don't understand. We might have been killed, our ship sunk-- or worse," she whispered.
"What could be worse than being dead?" Estelle asked, her forehead wrinkled in a frown of such concentration and undisguised curiosity that her sister flung a look of appeal in the direction of the woman who acted as their governess.
An expression of wry communication passed between Caroline Pembroke and her elder charge before the governess took up the challenge. "It is not unknown forthe-- the Brethren of the Coast to torture their prisoners."
"The brethren are pirates," Estelle pointed out. "The privateers are different, are they not?"
"Quite true," Caroline admitted. "During war conditions privateers sail under letters of marque, making their pillage of the seas legal, but it doesn't constrain them to behave like gentlemen in the presence of the ladies unfortunate enough to be aboard the ships they capture."
"Then the privateer you shot offered to harm you?" Estelle asked.
"No, not exactly."
"He insulted you then?"
"Then, why was it necessary to shoot him?" the girl pursued, a relentless look in her sherry-brown eyes.
Caroline surveyed her while a rueful smile tagged at her finely shaped mouth. The girl was just turned seventeen. In a few months, when they returned to New Orleans for the winter season, the saison des visites, she would be making her debut at the French Opera House, receiving eligible suitors in the family box. It was no reason to suppose that Estelle, given her dowry of adequate though not generous size, would not be a married woman by this time next year. It was a shame she was not better educated in the ways of men. In truth, a little frankness in the matter of the privateer might not be a bad thing for Estelle, but there was Amélie to consider. It had been quite an ordeal for a gently bred, convent-educated girl. The fright of it had come near to making her ill. The family had made as light of the incident as possible, avoiding discussion which might awaken unpleasant memories. They should have guessed that Estelle with her flair for drama would eventually grow dissatisfied with the meager facts she had been given. Still, it was no part of Caroline's duties to enlighten her on either head. That Caroline had a melancholy suspicion no one else, particularly Madame Delacroix, could be depended on to do so made no difference.
At last she replied, "We had no guarantee the privateer would not harm us. In any case, he made a near fatal error. He assumed I did not know what to do with the pistol I was holding when he entered our cabin."
"Were you frightened?" Estelle asked, slipping into a more comfortable position.
"I'll wager Amélie was perfectly useless from sheer terror."
"Estellel! That was an unkind thing to say," Caroline protested.
"Unkind, bat also true," Amélie said in a suffocating voice. "I have never pretended to be brave."
"We will not speak of it, I think, since recalling the incident distresses you." Caroline sent a warning look in Estelle's direction. The hint was lost on Amélie's younger sister.
"What did he look like? Was he fierce and bearded and ugly?"
Caroline took a deep breath. "My dear Estelle, I find your intense interest in this matter unladylike, not to say ghoulish. We win find another subject for discussion, if you please."
"Yes, of course, Mam'zelle, but-- was he?"
"I have no intention of opening my lips on this subject again," Caroline declared, returning her attention to the flounce she was mending on one of her batiste nightgowns.
"Was he, Amélie?" Estelle persisted, swinging to her sister. "Was he horrifying to look at?"
"I-- don't know. I never-- I never really saw him."
Estelle's expressive face went blank. "Never saw him?"
"I was praying, kneeling in supplication to le bon Dieu to save us," Amélie explained, a tinge of color rising beneath the bisque-china perfection of her skin. Her fingers clenched on the delicate embroidery in her lap until the knuckles gleamed white. "The cannons sounded like the thunder of doom and there was awful clamor and yelling as the ship was boarded. I feared-- I feared I know not what. And then the cabin door crashed open. I think I must have fainted, falling senseless across my bunk. When I came to myself, Mam'zelle Caroline and I were alone again and all was quiet."
Estelle made no comment, but the look she threw her sister told plainly her opinion of such spineless conduct. Biting her lip, Amélie turned her head away.
Estelle turned to her governess, but at the lift of Caroline's eyebrow and a cool stare from her gray eyes, the girl abandoned the interrogation. Silence reigned on the gallery.
Although it was early in the month of May, the heat of summer warmed the air so that the soft touch of a vagrant breeze from the river was welcome. The scent of magnolias enveloped them like a cloud, wafting from the trees that lined the drive leading from the levee.
The upper gallery, under the deep, shadowed overhang of the roof of the West Indies planter-style home known as Beau Repos, was a perfect place for lessons. High off the ground, perched on brick pillars above the raised basement of the house, the gallery afforded a magnificent view of the surrounding cane fields and the Mississippi River sweeping past on its way down to New Orleans. It was quiet, comfortable, out of the way of the younger children and their nurses, though it would become the center of Creole family life later in the day.
There were ten children in the Delacroix ménage. The eldest was Anatole, a young man a year past his majority. Then came Amélie, two years younger, followed by Estelle, and then Théophile, who was fifteen. The next three children died in infancy, leaving a gap in the regular placement of births. This was made up for by Madame Delacroix who had, in the six years just past, presented her husband with a pledge of her affection punctually every spring. The present accounting was three males and three females still in the nursery, the latest addition a mere five months old.
An indolent woman of uncertain temperament and little energy, Madame Delacroix had discovered that childbearing made an excellent excuse for lying abed. She did little beyond incubating, eating, reading, and issuing orders for the running of the household to be carried out by her distant kinswoman by marriage, Mademoiselle Caroline Pembroke. She was happy to leave the education and training of her eldest daughters to the indispensable Mam'zelle Caroline, while the younger children were consigned to the exclusive company of their nurses. The older sons had long outgrown the need of supervision and certainly outdistanced in intellect the man who served Beau Repos in the capacity of a tutor. That did not prevent their former mentor from being housed with them in the garçonniére, that separate building which was the province of young males in the French households of southern Louisiana. Their repeated attempts to remove him seemed to make no impression. M'sieur Philippe belonged, and a polite fiction that he was still necessary would be maintained until the younger boys had need of him. He had had a place at the Delacroix board for twelve years, since he had come to Beau Repos as a young man of good family but little income; he would have one for twelve more years if he so desired. He was a fixture, accepted and forgotten, counted no more of a burden or expense than M'sieur Delacroix's aging aunt, Tante Zizi, who had come for a visit of but a few days twenty years before and still occupied a corner bedroom. Such was French Creole hospitality.
One of Caroline Pembroke's greatest fears was that she too was in danger of becoming such a fixture. She had given the Delacroix family four years of her young life, since she was a girl of nineteen. By the accounting of her host and hostess she was an "antique virgin," a woman who might as well throw her corset on top of the armoire. It was not lack of opportunity that had brought her to this pass. She had been aware more than once that a little encouragement to some particular man might have netted her a home of her own. The prize had not yet seemed worth the effort.
Suddenly Estelle spoke aloud. "There is no reason a privateer might not be a handsome man rather than an ugly one, is there? Perhaps he looked like Byron, dark and mysterious."
"Not at all," Caroline corrected as the instinct to instruct rose up within her. "The poet who wrote Childe Harold has blue eyes and auburn hair. I will admit him to be personable, but neither dark nor particularly mysterious."
"You have seen Byron?" Estelle asked, sitting up straighter as her interest was caught.
"A number of times, when I used to go into London society before my father died. That was before Byron became quite so famous a man of letters, of course."
"You knew him, spoke to him?"
"I can hardly say I knew him, though we did speak on several occasions. I was not just in his style, much too tall, and I'm afraid I must admit, rather gauche. I was only eighteen, no more than a month or two older than you."
"It must have been a long time ago," Estelle sighed.
Turning her head away to hide a smile Caroline agreed. At times it did seem like a very long time ago since she had danced the night away, attended routs and levees and masquerades, and been concerned with nothing more important than the shade of ribbons to go with her next gown or the best way of answering a too-daring compliment. The death of her father in a riding accident, which had brought all that to an end, was no more than a blur in her mind. She thought she could remember her father's sister, a querulous widow with a large household, suggesting that Caroline join her uncle at Natchez in the Mississippi territory in the new world. She could not recall agreeing. Her welcome there, or rather the lack of it, was vivid in her mind, however. She had known from the first that her uncle's Creole wife had not wanted her. What had hurt the most was his blustering attempts to excuse his wife's behavior. Naturally she could not stay after that.
"But," Estelle said, rising to her feet with lithe grace and moving to sit upon the balustrade that enclosed the gallery, "that does not tell me what the privateer looked like."
"It doesn't, does it?" Caroline agreed, paying strict attention to her mending. A mutinous look appeared in the set of the young girl's mouth. "I think you are mean, you and Amélie. You get to travel back and forth across the sea and to have wonderful adventures while I must sit here at home. Then you refuse to tell anyone about it! I think it is too bad of you, and also decidedly odd, almost as if something happened out there of which you are ashamed."
Startled, Caroline looked up. She had not considered the case in that light. There had been nothing of a shaming nature to remember and she did not like the implication that there might be. It would not do at all to have Estelle incorrectly repeating her suspicion. Still, how to reply without going into details was a vexing problem.
It was Amélie who answered her sister. "We did not mean to make a mystery of it," she said in her quiet, musical voice. "I assure you we didn't. It is my fault that Mam'zelle Caroline has not spoken of it more. I expect it is silly of me to be so affected, but I can't seem to help it. If you really wish to know, I will withdraw my objections, that is-- if Mam'zelle does not mind."
"There," Estelle said, turning triumphantly to Caroline.
With the barrier of Amélie removed, Caroline suddenly discovered within her own self a reluctance to speak of the incident. It was not that it distressed her, though it had not been pleasant to shoot a man. There was something more, something she had never been able to tell anyone. Estelle, with her talk of mysteries, was not so far off the mark after all.
She was saved from the necessity of answering by the click of heels on the heart-cypress, floor. A tall, thin form appeared in the open door behind them.
"Ah, the beautiful young ladies-- I include you, naturally, Mam'zelle Caroline. One hoped to find you here."
"Mincing fop," Estelle said in English under her breath, savage at the interruption.
"Voyons," the tutor said. "It is most wise of your honored father to have Mam'zelle Caroline teach you her language, as I've said many times before, but it is discourteous to use it before those who cannot understand the barbarously difficult syllables. In French, if you please, ma petite!"
As Estelle's face set in mulish lines, Amélie filled the silence which began to stretch. "It was nothing, M'sieur Philippe. Were you searching for us for a particular reason? If so, won't you take a chair and recount it to us?"
Mentally blessing the nuns who had taught Amélie her manners, Caroline moved her chair back to allow the tutor to make one of their circle. She could cheerfully have wrung Estelle's neck for putting her to the blush. She would have a word or two with that young lady later. She was getting a trifle out of hand.
The tutor, drawing forth a cane-bottom chair, parted his coattails, swept the seat with the handkerchief he took from his sleeve, then carefully sat down. A man just over thirty, the tutor was not without a certain vanity. He often hinted at a connection with the aristocracy of pro-Revolutionary France and clung with smiling obstinacy to the fashions of that era. His powdered hair was worn long, drawn back with a black ribbon tie. His coat was full-skirted and heavy with embroidery, and with knee breeches he wore much darned white stockings and slippers with red heels.
Now from the pocket of the coat he drew out a fan of painted chicken skin and began to ply it. "A warm day, do you not agree?" he said, touching his upper lip with his handkerchief before pushing it back into his coat sleeve.
Amélie agreed politely while Caroline gave him a vague smile. Estelle scowled.
"Ah, I trust I am not come at an inconvenient time?"
"Not at all," Caroline said quickly before Estelle could open her mouth. "I think you had news, M'sieur?"
M'sieur Philippe did not like to be hurried. He indicated this with a pained grimace of his thin lips, bowing at the same time to show his acquiescence to the wishes of a lady. "You will never guess," he began, continuing in a rush as Estelle exclaimed under her breath. "We-- that is, the family-- are to have neighbors."
"You don't mean--" Caroline began.
"But I do, Mam'zelle. I mean that Felicity, the plantation which marches beside Beau Repos, has been sold."
"Bah," Estelle said. "Rumors! We have been hearing such anytime these past five months, and no one has yet arrived to take down the shutters and sweep out the spiders."
"This time, Mam'zelle, there is something more substantial than a rumor to excite us. This time there is a name to put to the new owner."
"A name?" Amélie inquired as the tutor paused expectantly. "Who?"
"The Marquis de Rochefort"
Their response was all, the tutor could have wished. Amélie dropped her needle. Estelle's mouth fell open, and Caroline lifted her head to stare at him in amazement.
"I thought you would be pleased," M'sieur Philippe murmured, toying with his fan with a small, self-satisfied smile.
"How do you know?" Estelle demanded, recovering first.
The tutor shrugged. "It is common knowledge in New Orleans. I had it from a friend who is employed as a clerk in the Governor's office. The Marquis dined with Governor Claiborne not a week ago, where he made known his intention of settling permanently in this area."
"A real marquis," Amélie breathed, a hint of color stealing into her cheeks.
"He will not use his title, of course," M'sieur Philippe said with a look of regret. "So mundane, this republican form of government. Still--"
"Still, he is a real marquis," Estelle finished. "I wonder how old he is?"
"I believe him to be in the vicinity of thirty, Mam'zelle."
Estelle made a moue of disappointment. "So old?"
"Thirty is not old, far from it," Caroline said in dry remonstrance.
"Nol" M'sieur Philippe made his agreement emphatic.
"I wonder if he has a wife and children? The little ones here would like new playmates," Amélie said.
Caroline glanced at the girl. There was no sign of guile in her soft brown eyes. Her face, with her fine dark hair caught in ringlets on either temple, held nothing but polite interest.
"There was no mention of a family," the tutor answered, "though I understand his cousin, a young man a few years his junior, bears him company."
"Tante Zizi will be happy," Amálie commented. "She can probe into his lineage to her heart's content. It will be a new interest"
Caroline could find it within herself to be sorry for the Marquis. She had been thoroughly quizzed concerning her own ancestors when she had first come to Beau Repos. She often felt that only the discovery of a belted earl on a lateral branch of her family tree had made her at all acceptable as governess to the Delacroix children.
"Clothes," Estelle said abruptly. "We must have new clothes."
"Must we?" Amélie asked.
"But certainly. There are certain to be entertainments given in the honor of the Marquis. He requires to be welcomed, does he not?"
"You go too fast," Caroline said. "First your father must call on the Marquis and discover if he is the kind of gentlemen who would be acceptable company for his family."
"Acceptable? He is a marquis!" Estelle objected.
"That does not necessarily make him a gentleman."
"Mam'zelle!" the tutor protested.
"He was acceptable to Governor Claiborne," Estelle pointed out.
"Even so, it is for M'sieur Delacroix to decide. When that is done will be time enough for you to worry about the entertainments for our new neighbor. You should not expect to be included in everything. You have not yet made your curtsy to the ton."
"I am aware, but in the country and on such a special occasion it might be overlooked, don't you think? I am sure Maman will agree if Papa can be persuaded. Oh, isn't it exciting?"
"What is exciting?"
The new entrant into the conversation was Théophile Delacroix. He sauntered up the steep steps with their curved bannisters in the style known as "welcoming arms." Bareheaded, he displayed a mop of brown hair, sun-bleached already to an auburn hue. His shirt sleeves were rolled to his elbows, and above the tops of his muddy boots his breeches appeared to be stained with river water. In one grimy hand was his white cravat, containing what looked to be a collection of plump purple dewberries.
M'sieur Philippe raised the quizzing glass he wore Mon at his lapel. Leveling it at Theo's breeches on a ribbon at his lapel. Leveling the quizzing glass he wore he drawled, "I apprehend, sir, that you have been wading in the river-- again."
Theo agreed without a sign of repentance. "Anyone care for a dewberry?"
"The most famous thing, Theo," Estelle said, absently taking a berry. "We are to have a marquis for a neighbor."
"I know," Theo said.
"You know?" his sister repeated.
"Heard it a week ago. A real swell. Has a whole ship full of prime stuff, anchored out in the river waiting for all the legal business to be over with. Has a phaeton with a high perch and yellow wheels, and four of the sweetest goers you ever saw to pull it. Bought them in England, they say. Must be rich as a nabob to do that. Won't Anatole be green?"
The tutor looked pained. "Your language is shocking, Theo. One can only surmise you have been associating with riffraff again."
A grave expression descended on Theo's snub-nosed face. "I do crave pardon, M'sieur. 'Twas only Jack, the son of the overseer at Felicity. Did you wish to join me in my rambles instead? Shall I awaken you when I leave the house in the morning? I do not plan to be at the river until just before the sun rises."
"No, no! I would not deprive you of companionship your own age," the tutor said, barely suppressing a shudder. "It would not be-- that is, I would not dream of intruding."
"Jack is a good man to have about. He may not know the river as I do, but he's a great hand with horses."
"Very interesting, I'm sure," M'sieur Philippe said, taking out his handkerchief and waving it languidly at a fly buzzing about, attracted by the sticky, sweet berries. "I believe we can wait to hear about your friend until after you have made yourself more presentable."
"As you wish, M'sieur." Theo inclined his head, completely unperturbed as he turned to do his tutor's bidding.
"Wait!" Estelle cried. "You haven't finished telling us about the Marquis."
"What else is there to tell?" Theo inquired, popping the rest of the dewberries into his mouth and wiping his hands on his shirt. "Anyway, you'll see soon enough. They expect him at Felicity within the week."
As Theo disappeared into the house, Estelle let out her pent-up breath. "Odious boy," she said, then promptly forgot him. "There is so little time. Maman must be persuaded to increase our wardrobes, and you must help me see to it, Amélie. She will do it for you. Next to seeing you take the veil as a nun, she would like to see you take a noble husband to wed."
"You know I have no ambition in that direction," Amélie protested.
"Yes I do, but it can't hurt to pretend, can it?"
"You still have no idea of the man's circumstances," Caroline said, a warning tone in her voice. "For all you know, he may have a wife waiting on board ship with his furnishings."
"It doesn't signify in the least," Estelle replied with an airy wave of her hand. "Married or no, there are sure to be fâtes of every sort given to make him welcome. It can't hurt to be prepared."
"Maman may be resting," Amélie protested as her sister started toward the door.
"Isn't she always?" Estelle asked, and turned into the dim interior.
The tutor got to his feet. "I am desolate to leave you, Mademoiselles, but one must place duty before pleasure, n'est-ce pas? I go to prepare a lesson worthy of young M'sieur Theo. A tout à I'heure."
His bow was a masterpiece of style. Watching him walk away, Caroline reflected that manners and a stylish bow were two things that should not, in this society, be undervalued.
Leaning back in her chair with a sigh, she tucked wisps of soft blonde hair into the chignon coiled on the nape of her neck. At times she wondered if she were accomplishing as much as the tutor. It was not easy to handle the volatile Estelle and still remain on terms of friendship with her. The girl's mother made little attempt to control her, and her father was more likely to laugh and cosset her with bonbons and almond dragées than to establish any kind of discipline. A part of that could be traced to their expectation during the girl's adolescence of losing their eldest daughter to the cloister, but a far greater portion stemmed from Estelle's intelligence and high temper. It was impossible to tell what she would take into her head to do next. Only a few weeks ago she had declared her intention of going upon the stage, and had irritated all their nerves by striking dramatic poses at inopportune moments.
She had the looks for it, classical features, a straight, upright bearing, enormous black eyes, and a cloud of hair so dark it had a blue-black sheen. Such a thing was impossible, however. The theater was the milieu of the demimonde. It was unthinkable that Estelle should join their company.
Caroline had thought that ambition forgotten until a few moments before when Estelle had displayed her unusual talent for committing lines to memory. It was to be hoped that the arrival of the Marquis would push all such foolish ideas to the back of her mind, and come spring, a suitable parti could be found who could oust them completely.
Amélie was a different child altogether, Caroline thought, letting her gaze drift to where Estelle's sister sat diligently plying her needle. The wonder of it was that she had ever found the courage to tell the Mother Superior at the convent where she was a novice that she lacked the vocation to become a nun. It was this momentous decision which had set in motion the Great Adventure, as Estelle liked to term it.
When the letter had come from Amélie asking to be allowed to come home, Madame Delacroix had been within weeks of accouchement. She could neither travel to France to fetch her daughter nor would she allow her husband to leave her side for that purpose. Caroline had been dispatched to chaperone Amélie on the homeward voyage.
In the fall of 1814, the war with Britain had seemed stalemated. Except for skirmishes far away near the Canadian border, there was little fighting and much talk of a peace by negotiation.
Taking ship from New Orleans was not difficult, nor did it seem particularly dangerous. The voyage was smooth and uneventful. They had not so much as a glimpse of the infamous British blockade which had stifled trade in recent years, nor of the privateers set by the United States to combat it.
Two weeks in France sufficed to cut Amélie's ties there. The girl was happy, excited at the prospect of seeing her family again. Her leave-taking from the nunnery in the north of France where she had spent the past three years was amicable, though she could not prevent a few tears from falling as they drove away in their carriage.
The problem arose when it came time to arrange their passage to New Orleans. There was not a ship destined for North America in the harbor at Le Havre, and none was expected for a se'nnight. Caroline was for settling down to wait, but Amélie, after so many years away from her family, was anxious for the reunion. She had set her heart on being with them for Christmas, and, though she did not make a fuss, it was plain that her disappointment would be deep if that proved impossible. Accordingly they removed to the port of Calais. Here, too, they met nothing except delay.
In the end, their best plan appeared to be to cross the channel to England, and from there take a British vessel sailing for Havana via the West Indies. There was a steady stream of traffic plying between that Spanish port and New Orleans. Finding a ship homeward-bound should be no problem.
Doubts about this circuitous route plagued Caroline from the moment the plans were made. Once in England her hesitations were reinforced by the tales of the unofficial blockade of British shipping by America's legal pirates. Not even the Irish Channel, the British Channel, or the Bay of Biscay was safe from them, according to one report. Still, the war was nearing its end. The danger was not so great as in the past. The thought of retracing their route back to France was too wearisome to be borne. Papa and Maman and all the little ones waited in New Orleans. They turned their faces toward home and set sail within a week of landing at Dover.
It was not a pleasant voyage. Gray days of lashing rain and high seas followed one behind the other. Confined to a small airless cabin, tending Amélie who had fallen prey to seasickness, Caroline found it hard to keep her doubts from transforming themselves into a dismal premonition of disaster. Then, eleven days out from England, it ceased to be necessary to try.
They were awakened in a pink-tinged dawn by the boom of a cannon. The British merchantman carried no guns or armaments. She was no match for the sleek ship with the lines of a Baltimore clipper which had put a shot across her bow.
Copyright © 1978 by Patricia Maxwell
Posted November 29, 2014
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