In 1835, the cold February streets glitter with masked revelers in Carnival costumes. An even more brilliant display is promised at the American Theater, where impresario Lorenzo Belaggio has brought the first Italian opera to town. But it's pitch-black in the muddy alley outside the stage door when Benjamin January, coming from rehearsal with the orchestra, hears a slurred whisper, sees the flash of a knife, and is himself wounded as he rescues Belaggio from a vicious attack.
The bombastic impresario first accuses two of his tenors, then suspects his rival, the manager of New Orleans' other opera company. Could competition for audiences really provoke such violent skulduggery? Or has Belaggio taken too many chances in the catfight between two sopranos, one superseded by the other as his mistress and his prima donna?
But burning in January's mind and heart is a darker possibility. The opera Belaggio plans to present — a magnificent version of Othello — strikes a shocking chord in this culture. Is the murderous tragedy of the noble Moor and his lady, the spectacle of a black man's passion for a white beauty, one that some Creole citizen — or American parvenu — would do anything to keep off the stage?
Bloody threats and voodoo signs, poison and brutal murder seem to implicate many strange bedfellows. And Benjamin must discover who — in rage, retribution, or an insidious new commerce in this beautiful cutthroat city — will kill and kill ... and who will Die Upon a Kiss.
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"...Nigger," muttered a man's voice, hoarse in the dark of the alley but very clear.
Benjamin January froze in his tracks. Would this, he wondered, be the occasion on which he'd be hauled into court and hanged -- or, more informally, beaten to death on the public street -- for the crime of defending himself against a white man's assault?
The gas-jet above the American Theater's stage door was out. A misty glimmer beyond the alley's narrow mouth showed him that the gambling-parlor at the City Hotel on the other side of Camp Street was still in operation, and above the wet plop of hooves, the creak of harness, a man's voice sang jerkily in English about Ireland's em'rald hills. It was past three and bitterly cold. Even in Carnival season, New Orleans had to sleep sometime.
January considered turning immediately back to the stage door and retreating through the theater and out to the street by one of the side-doors that admitted patrons to its galleries or pit. He was a big man -- six feet three -- and built on what the slave-dealers at the baracoons along Baronne Street liked to call "Herculean" lines; he could have taken most assailants without trouble. But he was also forty-two years old and had learned not to take on anybody in a pitch-dark alley less than five feet wide, especially when he didn't know if they were a) armed b) white or c) alone. Words had been uttered: that implied one auditor at least.
But Marguerite Scie, ballet mistress of the Theater's new Opera company, had locked the alley door behind him. By this time, she'd have ascended from the prop-room on the ground floor to the backstage regions immediately above. She and January had been catching up on seven years' worth of old times since rehearsal had ended at eleven, and January wasn't sure there was anyone else in the building to hear him pound the door and shout.
And he'd learned that when white men got drunk enough to go around looking for black ones to beat up, flight was effective only if you were damn sure you'd get away. It was like escaping from a pack of wild dogs. If you acted like prey, you'd become it.
For a time he stood listening in the darkness.
Anger smoldered in him that he'd even contemplate flight. In Paris, where he'd lived for sixteen years, he'd been assaulted once or twice, coming home late from night surgery at the Hotel Dieu. Later, after his marriage, he'd played piano until the small hours at society balls, at the Opera or the ballet -- jobs that paid more than a junior surgeon ever earned -- and had walked through darker streets than this. But even in the Halles district, or the St. Antoine, few of the local orgues were dim-witted enough to take on someone who bore that close a resemblance to an oak tree.
In New Orleans a white man would do it -- and expect to get away with it -- if his victim was black.
Music gusted over the alley's rear gate. That led to the stable yard of the Promenade Hotel, and would be locked, too, at this hour, though the gaming-rooms were still running full-cock. Even in the slack days of summer, when yellow fever stalked the town's fetid streets, the gambling-rooms were open, and it was Carnival season now -- January couldn't imagine what it would take to close them down.
Another carriage rattled by up Camp Street, its occupants blowing horns and banging tin pans. The hell with this. January pulled off his gloves, shifted his music-satchel to his left hand, and balled his right into a fist the size of a cannonball. I can always tell the judge I couldn't tell if they were white or black, in the dark. He took off his hat, and that annoyed him, too: if it came to fighting, he'd probably lose it, and it was new. The old one had been demolished by a gang of drunk upriver Kentucky ruffians who'd cornered him one night last October on his way back from playing at a ball. Hat and satchel in his left hand, right hand freed and ready, heart hammering in his breast, January put his right shoulder to the theater wall and moved forward again.
He'd seen no forms silhouetted against the street's dim glow. Only one niche broke the hundred feet of brick theater wall between him and the alley mouth -- the door from which stairs ascended to the slaves' section of the gallery, and the half-tier of boxes reserved for the free colored. He cursed himself: Why couldn't he remember if there were two or three doorways in the wall of Chaney's cotton yard on the other side, or where they were, after all the times he'd been up and down this alley?
Cursed himself, too, for coming back to New Orleans at all -- to a town where he could be beaten up by white men with impunity.
Wondered, for the thousandth time since coming back thirty months ago, why he hadn't stayed in Paris. Going insane from grief couldn't be that unpleasant, could it?
The creak of boot-leather, in touching-distance of his own long arm. Stale sweat, stale liquor, dribbled tobacco-spit, and long-abiding dirt...
Beside him in the dark.
Behind him in the dark.
To turn and look, much less to break into a run, would invite attack. His breath sounded like a bellows in his own ears and his heart like a bamboula drum.
The dim radiance from the street strengthened before him. Still no squish of striding boots in the horse-shit-smelling black stillness at his back. Not even a spit-warm wad of tobacco juice on the back of his neck. He slid out into the flame-dotted murk of Camp Street and turned immediately right, taking shelter behind one of the marble piers that flanked the American Theater's front stairs.
At that point, he reflected later, he should simply have crossed the street and made his way back to his lodgings in the old French town on the other side of Canal Street like a good, uninquiring nigger should. Then he would have been able to say, with perfect truth, I know nothing of murder, I know nothing of blood, I know nothing of why anyone would crush skulls or burn buildings or try to kill me and my friends in the dark....
But the circumstance of not being attacked -- not even spit on -- by at least two drunk river-rats at three in the morning in a back alley was so unusual that January set his hat and music-satchel safely out of the way on the marble steps, settled himself farther back into the pier's inky shadow, and waited to see who they were after.
And in doing so, almost certainly saved Lorenzo Belaggio's life.
The eight gas-lamps that so brilliantly illuminated the theater's facade earlier in the night -- its owner, James Caldwell, was also part owner of the new municipal gas-works -- were quenched. Now and then a carriage rattled by, driven full-speed by improbably costumed Mohicans or Musketeers on their way to one last drink, one last round of faro or vingt-et-un after whatever party or ball had occupied their evening, but no one gave him a glance. A blue-uniformed representative of the City Guards, January supposed, would be along shortly to demand an account of his business so long after curfew and a look at the papers that proved him a free man.
But before that could happen, he heard a man shout "Dio mio!" and then, "Merdones! Assassini!" and recognized the Milanese voice of the impresario who'd spent the evening taking orchestra and company through the first rehearsal of his new opera, Othello. January lunged to his feet, down the alley, hearing rather than seeing the flopping, wrenching suggestion of struggle, the thud of bodies on the brick walls, and the grunt of impact.
Then he smelled blood.
He grabbed the nearest form -- coarse wool and greasy hair slithered under his fingers -- heaved the man off his feet, and flung him toward Camp Street. Indistinct forms writhed in the murk; a man shrieked in pain. He grabbed again, slipped in the muck of horse-shit and rainwater. Edged metal bit his arm. He seized the attacker's hand and twisted it; a moment later, arms hooked around his body from behind.
He dropped his weight, turned, grabbed the front of a rough shirt, hauled his assailant into a punch like the driving-rod of a steamboat's engine. More blood-smell and the crash of a body against the wall. Someone opened the gate at the end of the alley, said, "Holy Jesus!" and slammed it again, and voices hollered confusedly on the other side of the wall. The same instant light speared from the stage door and Madame Scie called, "Who's there?" Almost under January's feet, Lorenzo Belaggio screamed, "Murder!" again.
Someone blundered into January, throwing him against the wall. Footsteps pounded and he saw two forms -- he thought there were two -- stagger against the smudgy glow of the street. A startled horse whinnied; a man cursed in English, cracked a whip.
"I'm killed!" howled Belaggio. "Dio mio, I am dying!"
January knelt in the filth at his side.
"Hideputa!" In the jerking flare of two whale-oil lamps the darkest-voiced of the Opera company's three sopranos, Consuela Montero, strode up the alley a step behind Madame Scie, velvet skirts hitched high above plump knees.
"Is he all right?"
"Oh, I am dying!"
"Scarf," said January tersely. "Ruffle, kerchief, anything you've got."
Madame Scie thrust the lamp at her companion, flipped up her schoolgirlish gauze dancer's skirt to get at a petticoat-ruffle. Yellow light glistened on blood. Most of it seemed, in fact, to be coming from Belaggio's left arm rather than his torso, but January jerked the black long-tailed coat back from the impresario's bulky shoulders, searching for telltale spreading red on the white of his shirt, the azure-stitched gold of his waistcoat. Before the ballet mistress could rip free her ruffle, a male voice said, "Here," and a mauve silk handkerchief was passed down over January's shoulder by a man's hand in a mauve kidskin glove: "Did you see who did it?"
January glanced around and dimly recognized one of the gentlemen who'd come to watch the rehearsal. Handsome as Apollo, French Creole by his speech, wealthy by the cut of the mauve velvet coat. Even the buttons on its sleeve, and on the glove, were amethyst, flashing in the lantern-light as he stretched a hand down to Belaggio. "Are you well, Monsieur?"
"Lorenzo!" shrieked Drusilla d'Isola, the prima donna, and fainted in the Creole gentleman's arms.
"Get him inside." January's own arm ached damnably from the knife-slash he'd taken and he still couldn't find any wound on Belaggio other than the cut on his arm, which he bound up with petticoat-ruffle and purple silk. He got a glimpse of a bloody skinning-knife lying in the mud, but lost sight of it as Madame Scie stepped back to make way for first violinist Hannibal Sefton -- hired, like January, for the Italian opera's first season at the American Theater -- and Silvio Cavallo, tenor.
The sight of young Cavallo seemed to miraculously revive the swooning impresario. "Assassin!" Belaggio cried, jabbing his forefinger at the tenor, then sagging dramatically back against January's injured arm like a dying steer. "Murderer! Conspirator! Carbonaro!"
Cavallo, who'd stepped forward to help support him -- Belaggio was nearly January's height and anything but slender -- fell back, dark eyes flashing, and Hannibal said reasonably, "Not conspirator, surely? Conspire with whom?"
As if to answer the question, Cavallo's friend from the chorus, a dark, squat Hercules named Bruno Ponte, appeared panting from the darkness.
"They have conspired to murder me...!"
Belaggio was definitely not wounded anywhere but in the arm. "Begging your pardon, Signor," January pointed out as they lugged the impresario in through the stage door to the vault where the props were kept, "Signor Cavallo's clothing is unmuddied. I believe that you knocked down one of your attackers in the fray." With a Creole gentleman present -- tenderly depositing the unconscious d'Isola on a Roman dining-couch while young Ponte and Hannibal dragged a gilded daybed out of the jumble of flats, carts, lampstands, chairs, statues of Aphrodite, and stuffed or carven livestock that crammed this low brick vault beneath the theater itself -- he wasn't about to admit to having laid a finger on white men.
"Argue it later," commanded Madame Scie. "We need more light."
"Go upstairs and get candles," ordered Cavallo, giving Ponte a shove toward the stairs. "Get bandages, too, and brandy from the wardrobe room. I'll fetch the City Guards."
"If you can find any sober at this hour," Madame Scie retorted as the tenor bolted through the outer door. Madame Montero located a box of fat yellow candles among the props for the castle hall scene in the upcoming La Muette de Portici. "Good. Thank you." The Creole gentleman still sat on the edge of the banqueting-couch, gently chafing d'Isola's fragile hand. "Are you hurt, Benjamin?" Madame was the only one, apparently, who had noticed.
"Just a scratch."
"Dear Virgin Mary, help me!" Belaggio sagged back onto the striped cushions, clutching his arm again. "Brandy!"
The Creole gentleman withdrew a flask from his pocket -- mauve Morocco leather with an amethyst on its silver cap -- and held it out. Hannibal took a hearty swig before passing it on to January, who put it to Belaggio's lips.
"Lorenzo, Lorenzo!" Drusilla d'Isola sat up and pressed lace-mitted hands to her bosom. "Ah, God, they have killed him! Without him I shall die!" And fainted again. Gracefully, wrist to brow, into the mauve Creole's powerful arms.
"Hannibal, fetch cloaks from the wardrobe." Marguerite Scie was fifty-seven years old and had seen, from a garret window, her father and two of her brothers go to the guillotine. Histrionics did not impress her. "You, Benjamin, sit down and get your coat off. M'sieu Marsan--" This to the Creole gentleman bent tenderly over La d'Isola, the lamplight new-minted gold on his shining curls. "Where might we find M'sieu Caldwell at this hour?" In any city but New Orleans, at any time but Carnival, the answer to such a question at this hour would be, self-evidently, Home in bed. But there was no telling. Considering Caldwell's former profession as an actor, and his current involvement in a dozen other money-making schemes in the American community of New Orleans, the theater owner could be anywhere.
"Check the Fatted Calf Tavern," advised M'sieu Marsan, raising his head. The Creole's voice was both light and melodious, with the soft slur to his speech. His eyelashes were dark, making his sky-blue eyes all the brighter. "I believe he was going there with M'sieu Trulove to confer about the Opera Society, but they may have gone on."