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The only time Benjamin January ever actually exchanged words with Hesione LeGros was when they were both hiding behind a piano in a New Orleans hotel hoping they wouldn't be massacred by pirates.
It wasn't a long conversation.
She said, "I'm gonna shoot that fuckin' man of mine for this."
And January--who had just turned nineteen and was hoping to make twenty--replied, "What makes you think any of us will live to see you do that?"
As it happened, someone else shot her man a number of years later in the Yucatan, but at the time January hoped that the dark-eyed little African Venus beside him would have that honor, and fairly soon. The man certainly deserved it.
The whole debacle began, tamely enough, with the arrival in New Orleans of Major-General Jean Robert Marie Humbert, formerly of the Grand Army of Napoleon. Humbert, in that year of 1812, was avoiding Napoleon's various domains because of opinions he'd rashly expressed after the Little Emperor had relieved him of command. Some said this was because Humbert's army had ignominiously failed to re-conquer the island of Saint-Domingue from rebelling slaves. But January's mother--a clearinghouse for gossip concerning both the white and the free colored communities in New Orleans--was of the opinion that Humbert's affair with Napoleon's sister had something to do with it.
"Though I don't see why Napoleon should cut up stiff over Humbert," Livia Janvier had added, pinning an aigrette of diamonds to the confection of rose-colored silk and plumes that covered her hair. She studied the result critically in the mirror. "The woman's slept with his entire general staff, most of his marshals, and is now working her way down through the colonels. I can't imagine how she keeps their names straight when she encounters them at military reviews."
She propped an elbow on the dressing-table and held up her hand preemptorily for her maid, who'd been gently dusting talcum powder into the fingers of a pair of long white kid gloves. Livia Janvier didn't even glance at the maid as the young woman set to work easing and moulding the soft, close-fitting leather over her mistress' knuckles and palm. When January's mother was dressing to meet her protector--the man who had bought her and her two small children from slavery eleven years previously--she displayed a meticulous patience, a concentration like an artist's that January found fascinating to watch. "Don't you stay out late after you get done playing tonight, p'tit," she added. "And make sure that M'sieu Davis pays you. Promises are cheap."
It went without saying that January's mother, slender as a bronze lily at the age of thirty-six, would not give her son so much as a nod when they separately reached the Marine Hotel. January would be present at General Humbert's birthday dinner strictly as a hired musician, a profession he'd worked at since the age of sixteen concurrent with such medical studies as were available to a young free man of color in that time and place. St.-Denis Janvier, his mother's protector, was one of the guests, a select gang of the wealthier businessmen of the town assembled to honor the elderly war-horse. Most of them would be accompanied by their mistresses. It was not the sort of party to which one brought one's wife.
And Livia Janvier--she'd taken her protector's name, as many free colored placees did--wasn't the sort of woman who'd admit to being the mother of one of the musicians. This would have been true even if her son hadn't been all of nineteen years old, six feet three inches tall, and very obviously the offspring of an African rather than a white man. As the guests came into the hotel's dining-room that night, to the bright strains of a Mozart overture, it was St.-Denis Janvier, and not Livia, who caught January's eye and smiled.
January knew most of the other guests by sight. In 1812, New Orleans wasn't that big a town. The women present were mostly friends, or enemies, of his mother. These ladies of the free colored demimonde were by and large placees--placed--with a single protector, though one lady he recognized as a highly-paid courtesan. About half the men were businessmen and planters: he noted the tall, powerful form of Jean Blanque the banker, whose name graced nearly every financial transaction in the town and whose young and beautiful wife (not present) was the daughter of Barthelmy de McCarty, brother of the wealthiest planter in the district. De McCarty came in just behind Blanque, joking with his brother Jean Baptiste. Both of their mistresses, exquisitely-gowned women of color, wore silk tignons--headscarves--that were plumed and jeweled mockeries of the law that forbade women of African ancestry, slave or free, to go about in public with uncovered hair.
Bernard Marigny was there, a lively little French Creole planter notorious for his gambling and his duels. As he came in he was laughing over something with a tall, black-clad gentleman whom January recognized as Jean Lafitte.
If you wanted anything in New Orleans, duty-free or difficult to obtain, you could probably get it through Jean Lafitte. Four years previously, when it became illegal to import slaves into United States Territory, Lafitte had surfaced, lounging around the blacksmith shop he and his brother owned on Rue Bourbon or drinking with businessmen and planters in the Cafe Tremoulet. Somehow, the handsome young Gascon always had a slave or two to sell. Of course these slaves were always warranted born in American territory. Of course the sales were private, between gentlemen, nothing on the open market. Lafitte sold brandies, too, and fine French silks. . . . In fact, anything you might want.
And cheaply, as if United States customs duties did not exist.
Though Lafitte didn't have a mistress with him, he didn't arrive at the birthday dinner alone. In addition to Marigny--who was friends with everyone in town except his own wife--Lafitte entered with his usual coterie of "friends:" a planter named Huette, who had a place on Bayou St. John where boats could be landed that came off the lake; the fair-haired Pierre Lafitte, his newest mistress on his arm; a dark little man named Laporte who kept the books for the Lafitte brothers; and Jean Baptiste Sauvinet, one of the most prominent bankers of the town. Lafitte moved in the highest circles of French Creole society, among the men, at least.
There were others, less respectable, whom January had seen only at a distance in the cafes and the market. The fierce and jovial sea-captain Dominic Youx. Cut-Nose Chighizola, whose face was a mass of scars--at the moment he was explaining in voluminous Italian-accented French to a planter named St. Geme how he'd lost his nose in battle against the Spanish. The dark and sinister Captain Beluche, of the "Bolivian" privateer vessel Spy. Vincente Gambi, another Italian, strode along on the outskirts of the group, glancing at the silverware and the cut-crystal pitchers on the tables as if calculating their worth. He had, January noticed, what looked like a couple of fresh cuts on his face, superficial but adding to his appearance of coarse menace.
The placees of these "friends" drifted behind them, gowned in silks and chattering among themselves. They were less fashionable, more sumptuous, and far more heavily jeweled than their town counterparts. Down on Grand Terre, where Lafitte had his headquarters these days, the free colored ladies lived with their men openly, as wives, instead of keeping separate establishments as the town placees did. January noticed that his mother and her friends kept their distance from them, not in open enmity, but with a cool politeness that spoke volumes for what was going to be said about their dress, speech, and taste in ornamentation over chicory-laced coffee the following morning.
Hesione LeGros was one of these Grand Terre ladies.
January noticed her because she was one of the youngest, probably his own age, and also one of the darkest. Among the free colored community, as among the whites, dark skin and African features were not admired. January had grown up with the knowledge that his own huge size and African blackness were a reminder of the slave father whose name his mother never spoke, and this knowledge was ground in upon him every time any stranger, white or colored, heard the delicate strength of his piano-playing and looked astonished.
From the first time he'd played a recital, he'd been aware that they would not have looked so surprised if he were fair-skinned or white.
Most of the placees were quadroon or octoroon, complexions shaded anywhere from soft matte walnut to the hue of very old ivory. A few, like his mother, were mulatto, of African mothers and white fathers. The wealthiest businessmen of the town favored the lightest-skinned women: fairness itself was a commodity. Hesione--though January didn't learn her name until years later--was richly dark. Unlike most of the others she pointed up undeniably African features by wearing a gold silk gown so vibrant it bordered on rust, a color no white woman would have dared to put on. A necklace of topaz and citrine ringed her throat like a collar of fire, and plumes dyed gold and black blossomed above her tignon. As January played--Mozart rondos and snippets of Rossini, light-handed on the five-octave Erard in the corner of the Marine Hotel's dining-room--he looked out over the jostle of heads and backs and saw that nodding explosion of sable and flame, like the single oak on a little island in a marsh.
The tables were set out in the old-fashioned French manner, sparkling with the hotel's very fine silver and Limoges-ware dishes. Oysters in lemon, gumbo of shrimp, Italian pates and vol-au-vents; artichokes and turkey-poults and turtle roasted en croute. As the hotel servants went around with the wine--which the new owner, Mr. Davis, bought from Lafitte at a substantial discount--the conversation grew louder. The bankers speculated as to what full statehood in the United States was going to mean now to Louisiana and freely slandered the new Governor Claiborne and all his works. The planters cursed what the war between the Allies and France was doing to sugar prices. January heard for the first time about the sinking--by pirates--of the American brig Independence, a subject brought up by a pink-faced British planter named Trulove and hushed at once by Jean Blanque: "The less said of that," the banker murmured with a glance toward the table of Lafitte and his cronies, "the better for all it will be." News had reached New Orleans only that day of the Independence's destruction. Brought by a man named Williams, the sole survivor of the massacre.
"What I want to know, is," persisted Trulove, who like everyone else in the room was fairly drunk, "what was a dashed Massachusetts merchantman carrying from Africa to Cuba in the first place, eh? Dashed Americans complain about Lafitte and his men smuggling slaves in through the Barataria marshes, and what are they buying along the coast of Africa, eh? Bananas? Tell me that!"
"I shall tell you nothing of the kind," replied Blanque gently, laying a restraining hand on the young Englishman's arm. He hadn't anything to worry about, really, for Lafitte and his men were roaring with laughter over Dominic Youx's tale of the Bishop of Carthagena and a shipload of whores from Port-au-Prince. January let his hands float from song to song, alternating popular overtures and opera-tunes with the quadrilles and cotillions that he'd play when hired by the wealthy for balls. Though he was studying medicine with a surgeon named Gomez, he had always loved music, and St.-Denis Janvier had paid for him to be taught by one of the best instructors in town. That instructor, an emigre Austrian named Kovald, was only lately dead. January played the antiquated airs of Pachelbel and Purcell that the grim old musician had loved, sadness in his heart that his teacher had not lived to return to Vienna. Had not lived to see Napoleon defeated and cast out, as he must, January believed, one day be.
With the after-dinner cognac came the cigars, the ribald laughter, the sly jests. In short order there would be trouble. For twenty-two years France had been torn by violence, Europe subjected to bloodletting and fire. There were men in the room whose fathers had been beheaded in the name of the French Republic, whose family fortunes were destroyed by the Revolution and by the Emperor who had climbed to power in the wake of chaos. Any minute now, he thought, someone was going to say regicide or Corsican upstart--or accuse someone of having the manners of an American. . . .
January knew the signs.
"Now that Bolivar's in in the south, the whole Spanish empire's going to crumble," prophesied Joffrey Duquille. He was a big, robust saturnine planter, with the obligatory reputation as a womanizer and a duelist. "A man can get letters of marque in Carthagena, and go after anything flying the Spanish flag. . . ."
"Lafitte should have known better than to go after an American ship, slaver or no slaver. . . ."
The air condensed to a golden roux of wine and food and pomade; the candles in the wallsconces burned low, and the crystal-hung chandeliers dripped wax onto the tablecloths. The great dining-room seemed stuffy and close. A servant opened the long windows that looked down onto Rue Chartres and January slid into "Childgrove," a country-dance tune that could be endlessly embroidered. His mother, at Blanque's table with St.-Denis Janvier, flipped open her sandalwood fan and looked down her nose as Cut-Nose Chighizola's mistress took the scar-faced privateer's pipe from his mouth and blew a cloud of smoke herself. Chighizola gestured extravagantly, and shouted to Hesione LeGros how he'd lost his nose escaping from an Algerian dungeon. . . .
Talk pattered on all sides, like summer rain.
"Shut up, you fool, he'd never have done something that damn-fool stupid! Sink an American ship? He knows what side the bread's buttered on. . . ."
"It's all Spanish prizes of war, after all . . ."
". . . a giant black, six, seven feet tall and as wide as a door, coming down upon me with a battle-ax . . ."
". . . pegged the interest at ten percent, plus an additional two percent the first two years. . . ."
The voices were getting louder. The Italian captain, Gambi, announced into a momentary hush, "Privateer this and privateer that, bah! Like there was any disgrace in being a pirate! Pirate is what I am and I don't care who knows it! Nobody tells me who I'll sink and who I'll spare!"
From the Hardcover edition.