About the Author
Barbara Hambly (1951) is an American author and screenwriter who works in a variety of genres including fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and historical fiction. She is most well known for her Benjamin January historical mystery series, about a free person of color in antebellum New Orleans. From 1994 to 1996 she served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American and won the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel for her 1989 novel Those Who Hunt the Night.
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Dead and Buried
A Benjamin January Mystery
By Barbara Hambly
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2010 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
The rule was, you played them into the cemetery with sadness, but you left grief at the side of the grave.
You'd remember them – brother or son, or just a man whose flute could follow a chaine anglaise ... But the pain would go into the tomb with the coffin, dead and buried. When the funeral procession emerged from the gates of the St Louis Cemetery and crossed Rue des Ramparts to make its way back to the dead man's home, the music would be the strut of joy and pride, a gesture of happy defiance waved under Death's pinched nose.
You might have snatched our friend from out of our midst, but all you got was dirt and bones. God's got his soul, and we have the memory of his laugh.
Benjamin January had not been an intimate friend of Rameses Ramilles, but he had known the man, literally, all of Ramilles's life. Rameses's mother lived next door to the house that St-Denis Janvier had bought for Benjamin's mother when he had purchased her – a beautiful mulatto house-slave of twenty-five – from a sugar-planter with whom he did business. One of January's earliest memories in that pink-washed cottage had been his mother going to help Nannette Ramilles with the birth of her first child. She'd taken along January's younger sister Olympe to help out, though the girl was only six, and when he himself had visited – remembering to go in by way of the back yard, and thence through the French door into Albert Ramilles's bedroom, as his mother said was proper for gens du couleur libre now they lived in New Orleans – he hadn't been allowed to hold the squirmy bundle that was his family's newest neighbor. 'You'll just drop him,' Olympe had said smugly, and Benjamin, delivering her the sharp kick in the shin that would have been perfectly acceptable a few months before when they were both just members of the hogmeat gang on Bellefleur Plantation, had been sent home with a slap.
Now, thirty-four years later, that tiny baby was dead.
The summer of 1836 had been a hard one. Though it was now the seventh of October, heat still lay heavy over New Orleans, and as the hearse with its four black horses drew up outside the gates of the old cemetery, the stench of the tombs made Rameses's wife Liselle gag. Yesterday's rains – they sailed in from the Gulf every afternoon with clockwork regularity – had left puddles among the whitewashed brick tombs, and where this morning's shortening shadows lay, mosquitoes whined like ash whirled up in smoke.
'It's all very well for M'sieu Quennell to provide gloves and rings and armbands,' murmured Hannibal Sefton, as Rameses's professional colleagues held their instruments aside to let the pall-bearers pass. 'Not to speak of plumes on the coffin as well as on the horses, which I'm sure is a great comfort to poor Liselle ...'
'To her mother, it is.' January's voice was dry as he adjusted the tuning of his Spanish guitar. He had never liked Rameses's mother-in-law.
'Maybe someone could suggest something extra for the musicians – Medico della Pesta masks, perhaps? Those long-nosed Venetian things? One can stuff an astonishing amount of vinegar-soaked cotton in the probosci —'
'Would you really want to see what Liselle's mother would come up with, trying to out-do Rameses's mother in that department?'
Hannibal shuddered. 'A palpable hit, amicus meus,' he conceded. 'The competition for Most Lugubrious Veil is already pretty frightening.' He nodded in the direction of Nannette Ramilles and her lifetime rival Denise Glasson, each swathed in enough black tulle to suffocate an army. 'Two bits says Madame Glasson faints first.'
'And take her eyes off her son?' January nodded back toward the hearse, where Felix Glasson was loudly objecting to the insistence of Beauvais Quennell, the undertaker, that he bear the center of the coffin rather than one of its forward corners. 'Never.'
'M' bes' frien', damn you!' the five-foot-two Glasson was crying, in an agony of inebriated grief. 'Bes' frien' in th' world! You jus' want to hide me – put me where nobody can see me —!'
'Would that we might.' January glanced in the direction of Madame Glasson, who chose that moment to burst into ostentatious sobs on the shoulder of her latest husband.
Beauvais Quennell, who prided himself on the elegance of his funerals, looked about to do the same from sheer vexation. All the other pall-bearers were six-foot tall.
January played a gentle riff, huge hands that could span an octave on the piano fashioning the guitar's softer voice into a wordless commentary of regret. Hannibal's violin joined its music to the guitar's, and they moved into the cemetery, the rest of the musicians taking up the sadness of Vivaldi's concerto for the lute. The music was hardly perfect, but perfection was not the object at a funeral – unless, of course, you were Beauvais Quennell. Rather, that every man who had played with Rameses at countless Carnival balls, opera performances, subscription dances and private entertainments black and white – on fiddle, cornet, clarionette and guitar – should play one more time, their music bidding farewell to the light notes of his flute.
The Free Colored Militia and Burial Society of the Faubourg Tremé – the 'back of town' where the gens du couleur libres lived – gathered to see off its own.
As they paced along the cemetery wall toward the rear section where the tombs of the free colored were relegated, January glanced back along the line of mourners. They filed among the close-crowded tombs like a sable river: the Faubourg Tremé Free Colored Militia and Burial Society was one of the largest of the free colored burial societies in New Orleans. Its balls and parties were among the best attended by the town's sang mêlées: though Rameses and his young wife had lived in a single rented room behind LaForge's Grocery, everyone in the back of the French Town had known him. The lovely placées, whose cottages lined Rue des Ramparts and the streets nearby, had danced to his music a thousand times, first as girls in dancing classes and then at the Blue Ribbon Balls with their wealthy white protectors. The clerks and artisans, many of whom were the offspring of such left-handed matches a generation or two before, had grown up with him, either shaking their heads at his decision to disobey his tailor father and become a musician, or secretly wishing they shared his courage. Even those libres who, like January's mother, had invested in property or slaves and grown wealthy, had had a smile for the young musician when they'd encountered him in the French Town's narrow streets, and had grieved to hear of the fever that had struck him down.
This same community – as close-knit and snobbish as their white cousins and half-siblings among the pure-blooded Creole French – had welcomed January, when he had returned after sixteen years in Paris, though when he'd been an overgrown boy they'd mocked his African blackness and the fact that his father had been a slave. But he was a part of them, as Rameses had been a part.
Pere Eugenius waited for them beside the handsome brick FTFCMBS tomb: the only white face, other than Hannibal's, to be seen. Family tombs crowded on all sides. In his years in France January had never quite gotten used to the sight of village churchyards, where the dead were let down into the earth itself. In New Orleans, three spade-strokes would hit water. It didn't take much to wash a body out of a grave. Some of his eeriest childhood memories were of crouching on the gallery of the kitchen building behind his mother's house during the Mississippi's floods, watching long-decayed corpses bob past in the yellow water that flowed through the streets.
Madame Ramilles and Madame Glasson had practically run a race to be the first to stand next to the priest when the coffin arrived at the tomb. January was hard put not to grin when he saw how their knee-length black veils puffed in and out with their panting. Even in grief, people remained what they were ... Maybe especially in grief. Felix Glasson, he observed, had had his way and carried the right front corner of the coffin, which was lurching like a dinghy in a gale with the mismatched heights and the rum that the young man had imbibed.
January picked out his wife from among the wives and sisters who clustered around the widow: his beautiful, bespectacled Rose. His sisters were there, too – the exquisite Dominique, daughter of his mother's protector, St-Denis Janvier, and Olympe, his full sister by that African cane-hand of whom his mother never spoke. Their mother was further back in the procession among her own particular cronies of the free colored demi-monde, clothed in the elaborate mourning she'd worn for Janvier and for her subsequent husband, the briefly-tenured Christophe Levesque. As she came into view, Hannibal whispered, 'Think she'll manage to never be in the same room as Olympe at the wake? The place will be crammed.'
'My mother is a mistress of the art of avoiding people she doesn't wish to see.'
'Two cents says she can't.'
'I wouldn't embarrass you by making you borrow it from Rose.'
Hannibal seldom had a dime. Even his recent efforts to give up drinking and to reduce his intake of opium hadn't improved his poverty much. The fiddler was currently playing for tips at the dockside taverns and the barrel-houses of the Swamp, the district around the turning-basin where American flatboatmen caroused. Many of the musicians who made up the funeral band weren't even getting that much work.
Rose and January had more than once offered their friend a room in the attic of the old house they'd bought on Rue Esplanade, but Hannibal always refused. He tutored Latin and Greek at the school Rose had opened for free colored girls, but he recognized the school wouldn't survive the rumor that he was living under its roof. The whites in town regarded Hannibal as slightly degenerate for playing as he did among the free colored musicians; though the free colored accepted him, he knew himself to be, at the end of the day, an outsider, a blankitte.
Today he did not, January reflected, look well. Always cadaverously thin, when they stopped playing and stood aside to let the coffin pass, his long, thin hands shook a little, and there was a faint wheeziness in the draw of his breath. For nearly a year, Hannibal had been free of the symptoms of the consumption that had stalked him like the shadow of death. But sixteen years as a surgeon in Paris had taught January that 'cures' of that disease were never reliable. At best it slept. Today was the first time January had seen his friend completely sober at the funeral of a fellow musician, but the graveyard stink, the muffled weeping, the black veils, and the nodding plumes on coffin and hearse could not have been comforting.
'Non intres in judicio cum servo tuo, Dominie.' Pere Eugenius's voice rang clear and hard against the walls of the surrounding tombs.
'Libera me, Dominie, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda, quando caeli movendi sunt et terra ...' From the cracks of a tomb nearby, a crawfish nearly as big as January's hand crept out and dropped into a puddle; in the dense shadows at the rear of the open slot in the FTFCMBS tomb, he could see furtive movement among the scraped tangle of a previous occupant's hair and bones.
'He was m' only frien'!' Felix Glasson's voice raised in a self-pitying wail. 'Only one who cared 'bout me!'
'Remind me to give up liquor entirely,' Hannibal whispered.
'Lord have mercy on us ... Christ have mercy on us ... From the gate of hell, deliver his soul ...'
Deliver Rameses's soul, thought January, who had always had more imagination than was good for a man. After having his body pass through the obscene indignities of death by fever, his soul deserves deliverance. Nannette Ramilles buried her face in her hands and gave herself up to sobs; after a quick glance at her, Denise Glasson wailed, 'Help me! I am faint!' and sagged into Quennell the undertaker's arms. On the other side of the coffin, Liselle pressed her hands to her veiled lips and turned to cling to her friends. Their sons were seven and two. After the death of Albert Ramilles, six years ago, Rameses's mother, Nannette, had sold the cottage on Rue Burgundy and gone to live with her mother's family down on Bayou LaFourche. Rather than put herself under obligation to her own mother, Liselle had chosen to have her husband's body laid out for viewing in the back parlor of Beauvais Quennell's coffin-shop on Rue Douane, where strangers and sojourners spent their final night.
'Requiem aeternam dona eis, Dominie, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Amen.'
The pall-bearers bent, lifted the coffin to slide it into the tomb, and Felix – who had spent the interval alternately sobbing and reviving his spirits from a silver flask – staggered in the slicked mud, failed to catch his balance, and – to everyone's horror – fell headlong, still clinging stubbornly to his corner of the coffin.
It struck the wall of the Delacroix family tomb with the force of a battering-ram. The polished cherrywood split from end to end and precipitated to the muddy ground not the body of Rameses Ramilles, but the corpse of a white man with close-cropped graying red curls, a ruffled white shirt, and a bright-green silk vest that was covered with dark, dried blood.
Liselle and several others – not all of them ladies – screamed. Madame Glasson, evidently forgetting that she'd been fainting with grief moments before, seized the undertaker by the arm, jabbed a finger at the corpse, and yelled at the top of her lungs, 'Who the hell is that?'
Into the momentary silence that followed Hannibal said, quite quietly, 'It's Patrick Derryhick.' He stood looking down at the face of the man in the mud and weeds at his feet, his own face chalk-white as if he were a corpse himself. 'He was up at Oxford with me.'CHAPTER 2
'Well!' declared Madame Glasson, 'I trust the Society isn't going to pay for any of this, considering poor Rameses wasn't even in that coffin!'
M'sieu Quennell – who was on the Board of Directors of the Faubourg Tremé Free Colored Militia and Burial Society – bowed. 'The matter will be discussed at the next meeting, Madame. Now perhaps Madame would care to see to her son? He does not seem to be well.' Felix Glasson, after a bout of drunken hysteria, had retreated behind the Metoyer family tomb to be sick.
January, meanwhile, helped Hannibal lift the stranger's body on to the flat top of a nearby bench-tomb, then turned to intercept Nannette Ramilles – who looked ready to yank her long-time rival Glasson's lavishly-feathered black turban off and pull her hair. M'sieu Glasson and Granpere Ramilles were arguing in the strained low voices of men who have disagreed all their lives and are about to start shouting at the top of their lungs. 'The Watch should be here any minute,' said January quietly. He'd sent his nephew Gabriel dashing for the Cabildo within minutes of Derryhick's body hitting the mud. 'We can't all wait here. It shows no respect —'
'Respect?' hissed Nannette Ramilles. 'It is she –' her gesture at Denise Glasson was like hurling garbage – 'who hasn't the slightest respect for my son, for all her crocodile tears —'
'How can you?' Madame Glasson sagged into the arms of the nearest member of the Board of Directors as if she had been shot. 'How can you, after all I have been through —?'
'All you have been through?'
'Mesdames, please ...' January's wife Rose stepped between them, something January wasn't sure he'd have had the courage to do. 'Before all else, we need to consider Liselle.' She took the young widow's hand, put an arm around her shoulders. Tall, slim, and with a curious air of awkward gracefulness to her movements, Rose had begun to acquire a position of her own in the libre community when she'd opened her school. Though many of the wives of the free colored artisans – and many of the quadroon and octoroon demi-monde – regarded her determination to teach free girls of color the same curriculum available to boys as quixotic ('There's a recipe for a life of poverty,' January's mother had sneered), her good sense and dedication had won respect.
She went on, 'As the wake was to be at my house – and all the food is there already – I'm sure poor Liselle would be much more comfortable out of this sun. If you, Madame –' she nodded to Nannette Ramilles – 'and you, Madame –' to La Glasson – 'would let it be known that is where you're going, you know everyone will follow.'
She gave Liselle a gentle hug and said in a quieter voice – but not so quiet that the two mothers couldn't hear, 'You must be suffocating under that veil, darling. And there's nothing you or I can accomplish here ...'
Liselle whispered, 'Rameses,' but allowed herself to be led away among the tombs. They were joined by Olympe, whose husband had been left behind at the January residence to look after the children and greet returning guests. For a moment it was touch and go whether anyone would follow. Everybody present seemed determined to present their version of events to the Watch and to be in on the drama first-hand.
Excerpted from Dead and Buried by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 2010 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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