Simone’s head raged. Her, a delivery girl for this pompous planter! The mere thought of it forced her heart into overdrive; the desire to smash the painting over his egotistic head was near overwhelming.
True, he’d seen her art, and appreciated it for what it was. Yet he still had the gall to ask HER to deliver it! It was all she could do to keep from telling him to shove the painting up his, well, shapely derriere and take it himself!
She noticed its tight, carved form when he bent over to lift her box, the way the trousers curved in just the right places. Normally she stowed the paints in the music store across the pathway, but when she felt his eyes undressing her while she was in a compromising position, she couldn’t resist the all-to-good temptation.
Plus, she did some undressing of her own. He wasn’t too bad to look at, now she had spent part of the day checking him out. The trip to the market had been planned, hoping she might run into him again while shopping for lunch.
His appearance in the Square was a surprise, made more so with his purchase. Normally, she would have charged ten dollars for a painting, but for some reason, she wanted to test him – see if he was cheap, like most of the other men of his type.
He passed the first test, but failed the other. Instead of being a gentleman and looking away when she bent over, he took advantage. He was a pig. Just like all of the other men of his type. Perhaps a refined pig, one with good taste in art and women, but still pure grade swine.
He would pay.
“Rue St. Peters?” she said, after following him in silence for two blocks toward his home. They were at the intersection of Rue Chartes and Rue St. Ann, just up the road from all of the flop houses that lined Rue Bourbon. “Isn’t that a bit low for one such as yourself?”
He cocked his head. “What do you mean?” he said. “The neighborhood’s quite charming.”
She nodded. “I’m sure you see it that way, Monsieur,” she said. “Most of your type would. Perhaps living among the lower class makes you feel more powerful.”
He stopped and placed the box on the ground. “Now see here, Mademoiselle,” he said.
“Simone,” she replied, cutting him off.
“Simone,” he said, waving a dismissive hand. “Whatever. I’ve resided in that house for over ten years. I’m as much a part of the neighborhood as any other person living here.”
He tapped his silver-capped cane on the ground, creating a rapping noise that echoed along the brick streets, turning the heads of a couple standing beneath a porch awning.
“And what is it to you where I live?” he said. “I can live any damned place I choose!”
She smiled, not the face lighting one she used when truly happy, but one saying she had him on the ropes. Feeling his anger build, she thought it best to tone it down a notch. Inside, she laughed. It was like playing with a child.
“Of course you can, Monsieur,” she said. “Forgive my insult.” She opened her arms, still holding the painting in one of her hands. “I was merely suggesting you appeared to be living beneath your means.”
“Humph,” he said. “As if you knew my means. Didn’t I just buy one of your paintings?” He shook his head and grunted.
“I’d think you’d be more appreciative.” He stopped, awareness suddenly filling his face.
“Wait a minute,” he said, his eyes narrowing. He pointed his cane at her. “You’re trying to get me angry, aren’t you? You’re mad because I asked you to deliver the painting yourself.”
Uh oh, she thought. Maybe not a baby after all. Perhaps he was a BIT smarter than she imagined. He’d figured out her game rather easily, and now it was time to create a new one or she’d be in trouble.
“Yes!” he exclaimed. “That’s it.”
He leaned against the plastered wall of a row house and crossed his arms. Her eyes went to the box. “Well,” he said, shaking his head. “The game’s up. I’m not going any further with that shipping crate of yours until you fess up.”
Simone thought for a moment, taking time to quietly inspect his features. He appeared angry, yet at the same time playful. Was this part of a game as well? Who should she be in this charade they played: coy, innocent Simone, or worldly all-knowing Simone?
“You caught me, Monsieur,” she said, thrusting her hands into the air, but not before gently setting the artwork on the sidewalk, and leaning the painting against her leg. “Red handed, in the act; guilty as charged.” He rolled his eyes.
“What?” she said, frowning and lowering her arms. “You don’t believe me?”
“No,” he said. “I DO believe you. That’s the problem.” He laughed. “Here I was, trying to find a way to talk longer and in the process, insult you.” He shook his head. “What a world.”
Talk to me longer? She thought. It hadn’t occurred to her he might want to do such a thing. Something felt off with his statement, so she played it out further.
“You were being lazy,” she said, pointing her finger at his chest. “I thought you were a gentleman. Asking a woman to carry your painting for you?” she shook her head, allowing feigned anger to rise. “It’s sad to learn chivalry is dead.”
“What?” he said, confusion wrinkling his brow. “You asked if I wanted it delivered. I simply thought if you, uh, were the one who delivered it…” He paused, letting the sentence slip away as he looked into her eyes.
She shook her head slowly, tapping her foot. “You thought wrong, Monsieur,” she said. “Had you used your head for something other than a hat rack, you’d have realized asking a woman to do your grunt work was the wrong decision.”
There, she thought. That should put him in his place. He could have at least asked her to accompany him to see it hung, or to accompany the delivery boy to insure its safety.
Men never think, she said to herself. Not with the proper brain, anyway.
He ran his hand through his hair beneath his hat and frowned. “But,” he said. “I, uh, meant for… well, you see.” He stopped when she held up her hand.
“You’ve said enough,” she said. “Shall we make our way to your house? I’d like to eat dinner before sunrise.”
He nodded, bent down and lifted the crate, then motioned down the street. “Three more blocks and we’ll be there,” he muttered. “Allow me to carry your bag.”
She nodded, handing over the satchel in silence. “Once we get there,” he said. “I won’t trouble you any longer.”
She sighed. What an idiot. Now he’s pushing me away. Men had such an interesting way of playing games. Just because she was insulted, didn’t mean she wanted to stop playing. How had he built a business being so meek?
“Monsieur,” she said. “What do you do for a living when not insulting talented, beautiful artists?”
They turned down Rue Royal, passing by mixtures of commercial shops, houses and large residences. Here, wrought-iron, gated passageways led into courtyards and gardens hidden behind colorful, two storied walls.
“I deliver things,” he stated without looking back. She smiled, hearing the sarcasm in his words. He owned a shipping company, so of course he delivered things. Moving her hair back over her ear, she picked up the pace until she was walking beside him.
“Like paintings?” she said, giving him a sideways glance. He stopped, smirked, then laughed.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been known to ship a few of those, especially when a customer was moving their estate overseas.”
“Really?” she said, pretending as if she didn’t know who he was or what he did. “All by yourself?”
“I have a little help,” he said. A carriage rumbled past, horse hooves echoing off of the houses with every clip clop. The driver tipped his hat at the pair, which Tomas matched in return.
“That seems like a mighty chore,” she said. “With just a little help.”
She cocked her head, allowing the excitement in her stomach to grow. The rage in her head was gone, replaced by a buzzing just behind her eyes. “Are you a sea captain?”
He shook his head and turned. “No,” he said slowly. “But I do know how to pilot a vessel. My position dictates I stay behind, though I do love the sea.”
Huh, she thought. I’d never have guessed that. She glanced at his hands, once again noting the rough, yet delicate, thick length.
He cocked his head and leaned against a green stucco wall. “Why so interested?” he said. “A moment ago, you were tearing my head off, and now you’re curious about what I do.”
“Small talk,” she piped in. “I like to know my customers. Just in case they choose to become patrons.” She held up her hand. “I’m still upset at delivering your painting, though.”
“I see,” he said. “But not as angry as before.” He looked her up and down, then nodded. “I’m glad.”
“Oh really?” she said, not minding his eyes on her this time. “You should be. My anger knows no bounds.”
He pushed himself away from the stucco wall, then motioned toward the direction they had been walking. “Shall we?” She nodded.
“So if not a ship captain, then what?” she said, walking beside him again. She felt his warm presence radiating in an inviting way. “Warehouse manager, or shipping clerk, perhaps?”
“Why’s it important?” he said, pausing at the intersection of Rue Orleans to insure a carriage didn’t run them down as they crossed.
“Isn’t it enough knowing I find your work fascinating?”
She smiled, allowing the compliment to fill her being. He meant more, just didn’t say it. How hard should she push? “It’s not ‘that’ important,” she said, grasping for words. They were on the seven hundred block of Rue Royal, so her time was running short.
“I’m just curious.” She shrugged, spotting movement on a second floor balcony across the street. A gray-haired man sat in a rocking chair reading a book, smoke curling from a pipe clenched in his teeth.
“You seem to be well off,” she continued. “Perhaps even a planter by the clothes you wear.” She eyed him up and down to emphasize her point. “And your fiancé certainly seems like a belle.”
He sighed, gave her a sideways glance, then motioned her forward to cross the street. “My fiancé,” he stated. “I’m still shocked you knew about that.”
“I know many things,” she said. “It’s how a lovely woman like myself survives life as a street artist.” She caught his glance and noted he said nothing, only lifting his eyebrows as if impressed.
“Then you probably know I own and operate a shipping company,” he said, tossing the idea out casually. “And I now also own a plantation.”
She shrugged and smiled, yet said nothing. They turned up St. Peters then stopped about halfway up the block. Across from them rose a burnt-orange colored, two story house with green shutters hiding the windows.
Being a mix of French and Spanish influence, it was uniquely New Orleans. Gas lamps lined the wall between the windows, flickering in the fading light of late afternoon. Abutted next to the sidewalk, the house, like all others on the street, grew from the edge toward the sky.
“It’s a recent acquisition,” he said, pausing on the last word. His pointing finger led her gaze to the house across the street.
“We’re here,” he said. Looking both ways, he led her to a closed, black wrought-iron gate. An arched brick tunnel led through the building toward a garden peeking from beyond the gate.
“Lovely,” Simone said. “You’ve lived here for ten years?” She met his eyes, but only for a moment – just enough to feel the truth of his words.
“I have,” he said, his voice tinged with a hint of sadness. He turned his gaze upon his house. “I was born at the Willows, but this is home for me.”
“I see,” she said, scrambling for words. He appeared hesitant to walk beyond the passageway’s black gate, choosing instead to stare through the iron bars as if lost in memory. “It fits you.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her. “How do you mean?”
“It’s the way you gaze upon it,” she said. “Like seeing a dear friend you’ve always known.”
Like the way he looked at her.
He bobbed his head. “That makes sense, I suppose,” he said, then removed a key from his pocket, and inserted it into the inset lock. With a clicking twist, the latch opened and the gate swung inward, it’s iron screech of protest ringing off the bricks.
The dim, tunnel-like passageway gave way to a warm, open air garden. Expanding from the adjacent vine-covered, three story brick wall to her left, the oasis swept outward. Large, square paving stones sat within a carpet of green, forming a path from the tunnel to a small pond in the center. A willow tree draped over the water, offering a canopy of rustling green leaves as shade for a carved, wooden bench.
She turned, smiling at his almost sad face. The sun had settled behind New Orleans, yet still provided evening light into the rectangular courtyard. Its splashes of brilliance illuminated the red, yellows and purples of the garden’s flowers, while shimmering silver sparkles on the pond and casting long shadows into the lush, green corners.
She breathed in the fresh fantasy of honeysuckle and jasmine, their yellow and white blossoms intertwined among the leafy vines – striving for the freedom of a clear, blue sky. Using white, wooden lattices, they clambered the heights beside her, creating a living wall of wall of flowering green, – filling the air with aromatic dreaminess.
Nestled against red brick columns of the arched, open porch to her right, heart-red roses sang for attention, each planted in such a manner, as to demand attention. Matching the design of the entry tunnel, these arches formed two sides of the garden – balancing the mass of yellows and whites, with the individualism of the elegant roses.
The fourth side of the courtyard, opposite the tunnel, was solid red brick with three lion’s head fountains set within recessed arches. Matching the height and shape of the porch, the recesses rounded out the design, appearing as if they could one day be opened as well. The fountains spat water from their carved mouths into stone, half-circle basins, happily bubbling like an eager, forest brook. Set like walls, the sides of the basins rose high enough to act as benches, with blue-tiled sides and stone caps.
Above the fountains, three rectangular balconies curved out from the wall, matching the basins in shape, while using wrought iron railings to contain matching bistro sets. Shuttered windows flanked green wooden doors, shut tight to the mysteries that lay behind.
“It’s so beautiful,” she whispered, turning her head this way and that – taking in all of the elements of the oasis.
“Thank you,” he said, suddenly standing beside her. His tone breathed the words, and she shared the breath. They made their way to the pond, where a green, spotted frog hopped from one of the four lily pads – rippling the water with a soft, deep kerplunk.
“I tried to bring what I loved most about the Willows here,” he said. “Recreate it in a small way, so I could enjoy it on evenings such as this.”
“What a blessing, Tomas,” she said, smiling into the water. The darkness of the ponds depth reflected their shimmering image upon its surface, flowing together like one of her paintings. “I could paint this scene every day,” she purred, “and never capture all of its essence.”
“You’re welcome to do so,” he said, moving closer to her. She felt it, more than heard – his warmth splashing her body with energy. “Anytime you wish.”
She nodded. “I’d like that,” she whispered, though why, she wasn’t certain – it just came out.
The light danced in this garden in ways she’d never seen in Jackson Square. She looked skyward, trying to discern from where it came. It had to be bounce light, the manner in which the courtyard was framed by surrounding buildings. Light did funny things when it reflected, and the color of the bricks combined with the greenery of the garden made this light unique.
“This way,” he said, motioning toward the porch. “I’ll introduce you to Joe.”
“Who’s Joe?” she said, slipping from the trance and following Tomas as he walked toward the central archway opposite the lions head fountains. A green door could be seen beyond, flanked by framed windows and as welcoming as the garden.
“My housekeeper,” he said. “Though he manages my home more than keeps it.” Once beneath, he pointed toward a small table against the wall, just beside a pair of whitewashed rocking chairs.
“You can put your things there,” he said. “We’ll take the painting inside.”
Dropping the paint box and bag in the place he pointed, he reached for the doorknob.
“Excuse moi?’ Simone said. “We?”
The feelings of awe were gone, replaced by tension in her stomach and a constriction in her throat. “I said I would deliver your painting, and so I have.”
“It’s time that I bid you adieu, Monsieur Laiche.”
Tomas turned and cocked his head. “You don’t wish to meet Joe?” he said. “If you come to paint, he’ll need to let you in the gate.”
She breathed a breath, feeling a sense of being lured into something she did not wish to happen. However, she had agreed to paint in the garden. She sighed. Might as well see where this goes.
“Very well,” she said. “I’ll meet Joe,” she said, lifting a finger. “But I’ll not stay for dinner.”
Damn! She thought. Why did I say that? The words had come without thought, as if on their own volition.
He chuckled, then turned the door latch. “I don’t recall inviting you,” he said. “Now you mention it, perhaps we can make room.”
He dipped his head inside. “JOE!” he called. “Could you come outside a moment, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Be right dere, Marse Tomas,” a deep, elderly voice called back. “I just put da po boys on for you an Marse Anton.”
Tomas smiled a boyish grin, the charm of it lifting her spirits. “He’s on his way.”
“So I heard,” she stated, trying not to sound interested, even though her heart raced with excitement. Isn’t this what she wanted? She’d followed the man into the Market of all things. Now he’d invited her to dinner. At his house, at HER silly suggestion.
Things were getting out of control, and she gathered her thoughts to make sure they no longer did. “It sounds like you already have plans for the evening, Monsieur,” she said. “Perhaps I’d best be on my way.”
A kinked grey-haired head poked out the door, then the entire man – wiping his hands on a dish towel as he stepped out onto the porch. Offering a bow, and then a grin, he looked to Tomas for the introduction
“Might I present Mademoiselle Simone,” he said, opening an arm wide as if sweeping her forward. “She’s an artist. Simone? This is Joe.”
“My, oh my,” Joe said, shaking his head – not hiding the fact his eyes were taking her all in. “What a pleasah, what a pleasah indeed.” He bobbed his head in a bow. “I’d shake ya hand, but I been choppin shrimp.”
She laughed, feeling the sincerity in his voice. “The pleasure is mine, Monsieur Joe,” she said.
“Jus’ Joe, Miss Simone,” he said. “I ain’t no one special. Joe’ll do just fine.”
She shook her head and smiled. “If you take care of this place, you’re more than special. I’ve never seen a garden like this in the entire city.”
Joe’s face lit up and he met Tomas’s eyes with a ‘where did you find her’ sort of look. The planter nodded in agreement and Joe turned back to Simone.
“Why thankya miss Simone!” he said. “I does my best wits what I got.” He pointed toward the door.
“You joinin us for dinner? Shore be nice ifn ya did.”
“I’m not sure Mademoiselle Bourgeois would approve,” she said, letting her shoulders slump. “Monsieur Laiche bought one of my paintings,” she added, glancing at Tomas as she did. “I helped him bring it here. As a gift.”
Tomas grimaced and frowned, yet Joe remained undaunted. “Don’t you be silly,” Joe said. “This house ain’t hers yet, Miss Simone. Ifn we wants comp-ny, we’ll ‘ave comp-ny.”
If it had been Tomas saying it, she would have said no. While she was intrigued by the man, he was still engaged to be married. However, the way Joe said it made her feel truly welcome as a guest. She looked to Tomas, whose grin looked a bit silly and shy.
“Very well, then,” she said, inspecting the richness deep within Tomas’s eyes. “I guess I’ll have to stay for dinner.”
“Sounds good,” he said. “Let me help ya wit ya things.” He lifted her easel, a rig as Tomas called.
“You say Mistah Tomas gone an bought one a yore paint-ins?” She nodded, lifting the wrapped canvas for him to see.
“Well I’ll be,” Joe said, gathering up the rest of her supplies, then waiting for her to enter the house. “In ya go, Miss Simone. I’ll be right behind.”
“You just tell ole Joe where to put em, then we’ll see about hangin that new paintin’.”
“Au revoir, darling,” Marguerite said, waving from the carriage carrying her and her retinue of servants to the riverboat, Creole Belle. With afternoon settling toward evening, the last trip upriver departed within the hour.
“Dream of me every night,” she said, as the driver cracked the reigns, lurching the carriage into a rumbling motion forward. “Au revoir, my dear,” Tomas said, touching her fingers with his as they moved past. “I’ll see you in a week’s time at the Willows. Travel safe, mon amour!”
“I’ll dream of you, my love!” Marguerite continued, waving a pink silk scarf out the window. “Until we meet again!”
714 Rue St. Peters would be quiet, now that Marguerite and her servants were gone. Almost ghost like, he thought as he walked through the gate, and into the inner courtyard of Laiche House. Built by his father as a retreat from the plantation, Tomas called it home from the moment he took command of the Two Seas, some ten years back.
“Woo-ee!” Tomas’s servant said as he opened the red patio door, welcoming Tomas home. Named only Joe, the negro was one of two free blacks from the Willows who chose to work for Tomas at his New Orleans residence. The formal green garb of a Laiche footman made the elderly man look younger, while his jovial smile and pleasant disposition inspired true southern hospitality.
“Dat woman’s a whirlwind, Marse Tomas,” Joe said, holding the door as Tomas walked through. “She ain’t never settle down the entire time she here.”
Tomas nodded but said nothing – his mind focused on a mysterious artist that swirled around inside his head.
“I think Monsieur Gullette will be dropping by for dinner,” he said after a moment. “Best have some shrimp po boys prepared, maybe etouffee as well. Nothing too grand.”
“I’ll get on it right away, den.” He reached for Tomas’s coat, but Tomas shook his head.
“I’m going out for a bit of a walk,” Tomas said. “Too much excitement for one day. Fresh air will do me good.”
“Yassir,” Joe said. “Miss Marg’rite has a way of making a man crazy, dat for sure. What time you comin’ back?”
“By seven,” Tomas said, plopping his felt hat atop his head and lifting his cane – a silver-capped stick with an ebony wood shaft. “If Gullette arrives before me, please make him feel at home.”
“I’ll whoop him at backgammon by the time you get back,” Joe said, smiling and leading Tomas through the foyer, toward the front door opening onto Rue St. Peter. “He thinks he can beat ole Joe, but he ain’t never come close.”
“Maybe today?” Tomas said, nodding at Joe as he walked through the door.
“Ain’t likely,” Joe called out. “But ya never know!”
The walk from his residence to Jackson Square took close to twenty minutes, as various people he knew from the neighborhood stopped him to inquire into his health. It was a small community, with many of the houses along this street being second residences of the planters. While it was air he claimed he was interested in, what he really wanted was seeing the artist in the square. Her work was impressive, but he wasn’t seeking art. What intrigued him more were those eyes.
Looking into those dark eyes snapped something into place, as if finding a missing piece of a puzzle. He had to discover what the piece was, what it meant and why he was drawn to its fire.
As he walked past the mansard-roofed Presbetyre and looked down St. Ann toward the Market, he could just make out the corner where the artist was still painting. Gulls winged over her head, circling and dancing in and out of a gathered group of children.
Flutters tickled his chest, pulling him up short. What was that? Nerves? He shook his head. How could he be nervous going to see an artist he didn’t know?
There they were again, this time stronger. He WAS nervous. His breath came up short, while his heart raced like a runaway cart. This was crazy! He took a deep breath, then looked around. It felt like he had walked for miles. No, RAN and now just found his breath.
No one noticed, or even saw he was there. At this time of the afternoon, most people would be either heading home for dinner, or coming to the cathedral. Those coming for evening Mass were more interested in their souls than the cowardly owner of a shipping company, too scared to talk to a street artist.
Spinning his cane, he nodded then plodded forward as if walking along the soft, clinging muddy banks of the Mississippi. Why were his legs shaking? There was nothing to fear! She was an artist for Christ’s sake.
He forced them to work, and in year-long seconds, found himself standing with a group of children watching the raven-haired artist finish her painting.
Beautiful. Soft, gull-like forms spun in colorful circles over what appeared to be the Square, represented by fading grays and blues. It was like seeing life through fog-covered glasses, while feeling its energy at the same time. People moved, trees shaded – all represented by softened shapes that ‘almost’ resembled reality.
Sounds faded, and he fell into the picture. As if walking among the gulls, the scene washed through him, over him – filling him with a color-soaked, ‘love of life’ sort of energy which roared through his soul. It was –
“Monsieur?” a soft voice said. “Are you alright?” He blinked, shook his head and looked around. He was dizzy, as if he’d been shaken awake from a vivid dream.
“Excuse moi?” he said, breaking his gaze from the painting – joining the artist’s deep eyes.
“I asked if you were interested in purchasing the painting?” she said, smiling up from her stool. “You seemed lost.”
He nodded. “Yes,” he whispered, feeling the energy return to his head – buzzing and crackling throughout. “Lost. I did feel like I was…” He shook his head again.
“Never mind,” Tomas said. “Oui, Madame, I’m interested in purchasing the painting.”
Three of the children clapped, while another cheered out loud. “Yay for Simone!” the creole girl exclaimed. “Simone sold a painting!” She danced in place, bouncing with her hands held high.
Simone. So that was her name. It sounded… perfect.
“Excellent, Monsieur,” she said, her smile becoming brighter if that were possible. “Merci for your patronage. Shall I wrap it for your fiancé?”
He cocked his head, the dreaminess of the painting rushed from his thoughts with a crash. How did she know he was engaged? Very interesting. “My fiancé?” he said. Simone’s eyes went wide as she caught her words.
“Pardon me, Monsieur,” she said. “I made an assumption and meant no offense. I simply recall the lovely Mademoiselle you were with, and how delighted she might be with this painting for a gift.”
He laughed, throwing his head back as he did. “You clearly remember the scene wrong, Madame,” he said. “If I recall correctly, she compared your work to rats.”
Simone shrugged. “I must not have heard,” she said. “Perhaps it would best if I simply wrapped it, and left the rest for you.” Tomas nodded.
“And its Mademoiselle,” she added, moving splayed strands of black silken hair from her face, draping them over one ear. “Though I prefer Simone.”
Tomas dipped his head in a bow. “Simone,” he said, letting the name linger on his tongue as if tasting its flavor. “Lovely,” he muttered quietly. The way she cocked her head let him know she heard.
“Tomas Laiche,” he said. “Tomas will do.”
“I would not dare be so familiar, Monsieur Laiche,” Simone said. “Especially to a patron with whom I know nothing.”
“You know I appreciate your art, Ma… Simone,” he said. “Isn’t that familiar enough?” She shook her head.
“No, Monsieur,” she said. “It’s not, though I appreciate the fact you enjoy my work.” She took the painting from the easel, then lifted a large piece of brown paper that had been folded away in a satchel.
“The price is twenty dollars, Monsieur,” she said, watching his eyes. Tomas didn’t blink as he met hers. His knees still shook, and he prayed she didn’t notice.
“Bien sûr,” he said, lifting his wallet from within his jacket. “A fair price for such a marvelous piece.” She nodded as he handed over the note.
I wonder how many she sells, he thought, watching her carefully fold the note away into her own wallet. The way she treated it, made him think this was a rare occurrence.
“Shall I have it delivered to your home,” Simone said. “Or would you like to carry it yourself?”
“Delivered, s’il vous plaît,” he said. “Is that extra?” She shook her head.
“Included in the price, Monsieur,” she said, leaning toward one of the children and whispering in her ear. The girl giggled, then skipped off toward a shop in the bottom of the Pontalba building across St. Ann.
Tomas watched, trying to figure out a way to keep the conversation going. He’d been too fast in buying the painting, and now found himself quickly running out of excuses to talk to this amazing woman beyond the moment.
“You don’t deliver it yourself?” he said, saying the first thing that came to mind. ‘That was stupid’ was his next thought.
“Monsieur,” she said. “My delivery person is quite capable of the extreme care needed for a painting such as this.” She tied a brown strong around the wrapped painting. “It’s in good hands, I can assure you.”
Tomas noticed the remaining three children watched carefully, smiling as their wide-eyed glances bounced between the two adults as if watching street performers.
“What if it were to be damaged?” Tomas said, trying to calm his racing heart. It took his entire being to keep the pounding from wavering the tone of his voice.
“If it is,” she said. “Return to me, and I’ll make the necessary repairs.”
“But I don’t want a damaged painting,” he blurted. He smiled, taking a deep breath when he saw her frown.
“Simone,” he said, clearing his voice. “I would be ever so grateful if you were to deliver it in person. Perhaps, even assist in the hanging?”
Simone’s mouth snapped shut, creating a tight line; nothing resembling her smile. Was she shocked? He’d been too forward. Too much, too soon. Damn! The hanging part was even more stupid than the initial request.
“Monsieur Laiche,” Simone said, her voice calm and slow. “I am an artist, not a delivery boy. Certainly one of your slaves can hang the painting just as well as I, if not better.”
“Servants,” Tomas said, shaking his head. “They’re servants in my house.” Simone shrugged, yet her face remained stoic. “They’re not slaves.”
Simone stared at him, her eyes moving between each of his. What’s she thinking, he wondered, hearing his heart pound in his ears. Maybe it’s time to let the delivery boy take the painting.
“Perhaps-“ he said.
“Very well, Monsieur,” Simone stated. “I’ll deliver your painting myself.” She sighed and smirked. “It’s too late in the day to begin anew, anyway.”
Her words rocked him, and if he hadn’t been careful, he would have collapsed from shock.
“You, you will?” he said, then recovered. “Excellent.” He smiled, taking a breath. “It does my mind well knowing it’s being handled with the care it deserves.”
“Oui monsieur,” she said, searching his face. “I’m certain it does.” She bent over to begin packing her supplies, giving him time to breath, as well as a moment to see the rest of her.
As if feeling his eyes, she turned and smiled. “Is there anything else you require, Monsieur?” she said, batting her eyes in a belle-like manner. “Or do you wish to help with my packing?”
“Ah,” Tomas said, trying to come up with a gentlemanly answer to why he was staring her backside. Finding none, he nodded. “Sure, I’ll help. If you don’t mind the assistance?”
She nodded, standing and pointing at the wooden box containing her paints.
“You may take that, monsieur,” she said. “If it’s not too heavy. You don’t look the type for manual labor, so if it’s too much, I can manage myself.”
He frowned, smirked then nodded. “I can carry a box, thank you very much,” he said.
Bending over, he grabbed the handle and lifted, grunting from the weight. What does she have in there? An entire paint factory?
“Très bon,” she said. “I see I was mistaken.” She gathered the rest of her supplies, then placed them inside a worn, leather satchel. The easel folded up into a nice square, and with the straps on the back, turned into backpack – complete with storage for canvas, as well as a peg to hang her stool.
“That’s quite remarkable,” Tomas said, nodding with approval.
“It is,” she said. Turning to the three remaining children, she reached into her pocket and handed them each a piece of brown sugar nugget.
“Merci, Simone,” they said, stuffing the candy into their mouths. “We will see you tomorrow!” She grinned, ruffling one of the girl’s hair.
“I can hardly wait,” Simone said. “You’re my inspirations!”
“Yay!” they said, cheering, twirling and bouncing down the street toward their not so distant homes. Simone watched, laughing at their gaiety.
Tomas observed it all with intense fascination. She was more than beautiful, he noticed, now that he had a chance to see. Long, black hair that fell close to her waist – filled with lighter highlights that glistened in the evening sun. Lithe and delicate, she resembled a dancer more than an artist.
Her smile truly captivated him. Especially the way it lit when filled with joy – such as watching the children. It radiated, instilling him with the pleasure and happiness the children gave her. Just staring raced his heart, and he found himself catching his breath once more.
She sighed, then turned toward him, the smile fading into a more serious look, one sharing neither pleasure nor happiness.
“Shall we go, Monsieur Laiche?” she said. “The sooner I deliver your painting; the sooner I can be away for dinner.”
Tomas nodded toward the Cathedral. “This way,” he said. “714 Rue St. Peters. It’s not too far.”
Cries of gulls rang out over the café where Tomas and Marguerite settled in for their noon-time meal. Angry at being shooed away by the wait-staff, the whitish-grey birds wheeled and howled in dismay.
Scents of roasting meats, baked bread and flavorful spices floated on the breeze, while quiet conversation fluttered between tables where red-stripped umbrella’s provided shade for the lunching patrons.
“Darling,” Marguerite said. “Why did you pretend to duel to Monsieur Gullette?”
“Excuse moi?” Tomas said, pulling himself from thoughts of seagulls, children and the lift of an eyebrow.
“People were watching, Tomas. It was embarrassing and distasteful.”
“Distasteful? Anton and I are old friends. We’ve done that almost every Saturday since I’ve been in New Orleans.”
He casually ignored the part of being with other women, thinking it would be best not to rile her jealousy.
“He sells flowers, darling,” she said. “He’s not our type of people. We should be socializing with the other Planters. Not street vendors and the common bourgeois.”
Tomas almost laughed at the use of the word, which in fact was her family name.
“I have an idea!” she said, clapping her hands. “Why not go to the Planter’s Club? All of daddy’s friends do.” Tomas groaned.
“If I recall,” she continued. “Your father did as well. We could make new friends, meet new people; our sort of people, Tomas. Not vendors.”
The way she said the word, vendor, made it sound like a disease to be eradicated. Like the current round of yellow fever raging through the city, though he doubted burning tar pots would run off Anton and his shop.
Tomas sighed and looked away. In the corner across the courtyard, a couple shared a glass of wine together, leaning close across the table and giggling. He could almost see the energy between the two, as if strands of love flowed from one set of eyes to the other.
“They aren’t my type,” Tomas said, then smiled as the couple kissed across the wine. “All they ever discuss is sugar, cotton, business and…”
He paused, wondering if he should add mistresses to the sentence. That was the typical topic of the club: what woman a man had bedded that night, and how good the conquest.
“I don’t relate well to them.” Marguerite cocked her head in compassionate concern.
“Dear,” she said. “They’d love for you to be there. You have the confidence to hold your own with them. You run a successful company. And now, with the Willows in your name, you have more power than most.”
She nodded, her eyes glittering in the mid-day sun. “You deserve to be in that hall, building your greatness.”
Tomas smiled, nodding at his future wife. “Of course, you are correct, my love,” he said.
“Perhaps I’ll go there tonight once you depart for Emerald Oaks.” He was going to say more, but the waiter arrived to take their food request.
“Monsieur,” he said, offering the menu to Tomas. “Mademoiselle. Welcome to Bon Ami. Might I offer you some wine to begin your lunch?”
“That would be lovely,” Tomas said, handing the menu to Marguerite. “Bourdeaux, si veaux plais.”
“Right away, Monsieur,” the waiter said, dipping his head in a bow and scurrying away toward the back of the restaurant. Set within the courtyard, the café claimed the exterior brick walls of adjoining buildings as its own. Fountains bubbled water in the corners, while trees and ferns provided cooling shade for the umbrellas.
“Darling,” Marguerite said, handing the menu back. “Decide for me. I trust you.”
He never understood why men ordered for women, as if they weren’t intelligent enough to figure out what they wanted to eat. The few women he actually enjoyed being around knew exactly what they wanted, even though society felt they should not.
Except Marguerite. She believed herself incapable of choosing her meal. Or perhaps, that was simply the way she was. Did she enjoy being seen subservient? Perhaps she believed it.
As Tomas lifted the menu to read aloud the choices, a couple entered the café and were escorted toward a table in the corner, opposite from the young lovers Tomas was watching.
“Josephine!” Marguerite said, practically leaping from her chair. She waved her hand as she called out. “Josephine!”
Heads turned in the café at her outburst, as did the woman named Josephine. She clapped her hands, said something to her companion and scurried toward Marguerite.
“Marguerite!” she exclaimed as the two came together in a hug, kissing one another on each cheek as they did so. “It’s so good to see you! It’s been forever since we last met.”
She turned and smiled at Tomas, who stood to welcome the young woman. Her companion joined them once the table had been reached.
“Madame,” Tomas said, bowing in welcome. “It appears that you know one another?”
“We do indeed, darling,” Marguerite said. “We were both in school together. Josephine? Might I present my fiancé, Tomas Laiche.”
Josephine extended her hand for Tomas and curtsied.
“I’m delighted to meet you, Madame,” he said, kissing the back of her hand. “Any friend of Marguerite is a friend of mine.”
“And might I present my husband,” Josephine said, turning and smiling a sincere grin at the tall gentleman. “Frederic LaCour.”
Frederic bowed as he was introduced, which Tomas matched. They shook hands. “Tomas Laiche,” Tomas said, then pivoted toward Marguerite.
“And might I introduce my fiancé, Marguerite Bourgeois.” She performed the greeting with as much grace, if not more, than her friend Josephine – batting her eyes and playing shy as Frederic kissed the back of her hand.
“Would you care to join us?” Tomas said, motioning to their table. “We would be honored if you did so.”
Josephine and Frederic exchanged glances, while Marguerite did everything she could to hold back her excitement.
“The honor would be ours, Monsieur,” Frederic said. Capturing the waiter’s attention with a snap of his fingers, he motioned to let the man know they would be sharing a table.
Once the women were seated, the men took theirs – sitting side by side, so the women could discuss the latest gossip.
“Laiche?” Frederic said once the waiter had brought the wine. “Are you the same Laiche that owns the Two Oceans Trading Company?”
Tomas nodded “The very one,” he said. “I hope my reputation is a good one?”
Frederic nodded, sipping his wine as he leaned back in his chair. He wore a similar coat to Tomas, though not near as bright. One might say reserved, as the colors were muted.
Where Tomas wore a light green coat, Frederic’s was dark brown, bordering on black. They both wore tall, knee-high black leather boots, but Tomas’s pants were light tan to match the willow pattern of his shirt. Frederic’s shirt was white, as were his trousers.
“Indeed is it,” Frederic said. “One might call it sterling, if I might be so bold. I’ve always wondered what the mysterious captain of the largest trading company in the south might look like.”
Tomas took a sip of wine and chuckled. “And now you know,” he said. “Do I pass muster?”
Both men looked at the two women, who were giggling like they were back in school. The conversation was centered around Marguerite, and the sort of day she was having.
“You do, indeed,” Frederic said. “My friends and I occasionally discuss you at the Planter’s Hall.”
“You’re a planter?” Tomas asked, sipping his wine. He heard the words, ‘disgusting artist’ and smiled. Frederic nodded.
“My father is the planter. I’m an attorney here in New Orleans.”
Tomas nodded. “LaCour and Boudreaux?” Tomas said, cocking his head. If so, they were a formidable firm in New Orleans – handling every sort of defensible case they could get their hands on. The rumor was, that they had never lost.
Frederic tipped his glass. “I see that MY reputation proceeds me,” he said. “I hope it, too, is a good one?”
“From what I hear,” Tomas said, taking another sip of wine. His glass was near empty. “In fact, we once considered putting your firm on retainer. We ran into issues with the Port Authority on a trade deal we’d arranged with France.”
LaCour nodded. “I remember that,” he said. “Not needed in the end, if I recall. It worked out favorable for you, then?”
Tomas nodded. “Worked well for both parties. We got our deal, and the Port made enough coin to build a new wharf for the extra cargo.”
LaCour nodded and glanced toward the waiter. Lifting his empty glass, the man came hurrying over with the wine bottle – refilling both LaCour’s and Tomas’s.
“So tell me,” LaCour said after taking a sip of his wine. “How did Mademoiselle Bourgeois capture New Orleans’s most eligible beaux? Surely there is a story behind the pursuit?”
Tomas rubbed his eyes and shook his head, as all three sets of eyes turned toward his. “Oh do tell us, darling,” Marguerite said. “It’s such a delightful story.”
He sighed, then nodded. “Very well,” he said. “If you insist.” At least he would never have to be called most eligible beaux anymore.
“It all started beside a lily pad pond, just beneath the Willows.”
Simone watched the exchange between the planter and the flower vendor with rapt fascination. Situating herself behind the group and somewhat out of sight, she listened while paying close attention to how his hateful fiancé acted during the performance.
Simone, of course, wasn’t fooled one bit about the seriousness of the duel. She’d met Monsieur Gullette before, and knew what a romantic he was. What shocked her, however, was that the man who had seen her art, was none other than the famously single beaux, Tomas Laiche.
Her time in New Orleans provided enough opportunities to have heard the name before. He owned a shipping company that moved vast amounts of the goods between Europe, the Caribbean and New Orleans – especially sugar from the various plantations.
She also figured he was a planter, though more by his style of dress than reputation. The fact that he saw her art had surprised her, while the look they shared filled her thoughts with spinning interest.
When the flower vender drew his imaginary sword, she smiled. When Tomas acquiesced, she was caught. The man had charm, charisma and honor – even in pretend.
It has to be fake, doesn’t it?
“I thought they would fight for certain,” a woman standing beside Simone said, her yellow gown accentuating strawberry blonde hair. Another woman chuckled, tossing her own set of blonde curls in mirth. Her dress was bright orange.
“Monsieur Laiche and Monsieur Gullette fight?” the orange-dressed woman said, shaking her head. “Maybe over who pays for drinks. They’re best friends.”
Best friends? Simone thought, listening to the two women discuss the pair’s friendship. An elite planter friends with a florist. Huh. Who would have thought it?
“You should have seen them last week,” the woman continued, reaching up to absently twirl the white ribbons holding her hair in a twisted bun. “They actually fought with their pretend swords.”
“Indeed?” the yellow-gowned woman replied. Her hair fell straight to her waist, laced with intertwined pink ribbons. “Who won?”
“Monsieur Laiche,” the other woman said. “Though Monsieur Gullette made him work for it. He even tossed a bucket of flowers!” The woman with the yellow dress gasped, covering her mouth.
“No!” she said. “Really?”
Simone couldn’t hold back any longer, as curiosity overwhelmed her silence. “They do this every weekend?” she said. “Pretend to duel?”
The bun-haired woman nodded, turning toward Simone. “Every Saturday, without fail.”
“Well,” she continued, rolling her eyes. “Not EVERY Saturday. Only when Monsieur Laiche has a woman with him.”
“When has he NOT had a woman with him, Anna?” yellow dress said with a wistful sigh. “He’s the most sought after beaux in New Orleans. Women practically throw themselves upon him.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard, Alice,” Anna said, lifting a lock of blonde hair from her eyes. She turned to Simone.
“I’ve heard that he doesn’t like women at all. He’s only seen with them to make his mother happy.” She waved a dismissive hand.
“Marguerite Bourgeois is arranged,” Anna said sadly to Simone.
“Arranged?” Simone said, finding a place to re-renter the conversation. How could that be?
In the flower stall, Gullette was having the flowers wrapped for delivery, while across the way, a vendor hawked potatoes in a loud, screeching voice, as if selling livestock at an auction house.
“Do people do that here?”
Both women inspected Simone, head to toe, suddenly realizing she might not be one of them. “Of course,” Alice said, turning back toward the flower stall. “Especially between the plantations. Something about keeping them in the family and all of that.”
Now that the action had wound down, the crowd broke up – leaving Simone suddenly exposed to the planter’s view. In fact, just as she thought of it, he turned in her direction. She stepped behind a white, plastered brick column.
“He owns a plantation, too?’ Simone whispered to the pair of ladies as if Tomas might hear. “I thought it was a shipping company.”
Anna shook her head. “No,” she said, giving Simone a curious look. “Since his father passed away, the Willows now belongs to him. Like I said, the most eligible beaux in New Orleans.”
“Why are you hiding behind that post?” Alice said. Anna looked around as if trying to discern from whom she was hiding. “Is someone looking for you?”
Simone glanced toward Tomas and noticed the pair were moving away – leaving their backs to Simone and the gossips. “No,” Simone said, smiling and stepping back into the hallway. “Just-“
“Aren’t you that artist from the square?” Anna said, noticing the paint smudges on Simone’s hand. She looked at Alice, who then nodded in agreement.
“She is indeed,” Alice said. She frowned. “Your art is so, so radical. Why do you paint like that?”
Simone smiled. “Why wouldn’t I?” she said. “If everyone painted the same, how would anyone have anything different?” The two gossips considered her words, frowning as they did.
“I suppose,” Anna said, drawing out the words. She smiled. “I do like the seagulls and the children. They always seem so happy in your paintings.”
“You’ve seen my work?” Simone said. Anna nodded, while Alice stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. “I paint the energy I see as I watch them play. Children and seagulls seem to be kindred spirits.” Simone shrugged.
“Maybe the gulls are the souls of children?”
The two women gasped, with Anna covering her mouth while Alice snapped her fan open.
“My word!” Alice said, fanning herself. “If the Archbishop heard you say that, he would douse you with holy water and have you say the Rosary one thousand times!”
Simone laughed, smiling to match her mirth. In the distance, Tomas and his fiancé rounded the corner and disappeared. Did he glance back? It certainly looked that way.
“I don’t attend Mass,” Simone said. “Nor do I attend any Church that believes in sin, or in a God who sends his creation into the fiery abyss of hell for eternity.” Simone waved a dismissive hand.
“It’s all rather ridiculous, if you ask me.”
Anna’s eyes rolled back in her head and she wobbled in place, forcing Alice to wrap her arm around her friend.
“Blasphemy!” Alice said. “Look what you’ve done to poor Anna. She’ll need a week to recover from your wicked words.”
Anna moaned while Alice supported her. A pair of gentlemen, lawyers by their attire, stopped and inquired into Anna’s well-being.
Simone decided it was time to leave, and with a smile, she left the pair of devout believers to their saviors. It was time to return to her painting, and with what she had learned about Tomas Laiche, her desire to know more raged inside her.
“What took you so long?” Marguerite said. “I thought you’d never arrive.” She looked past him, as if expecting to see the reason. He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the back. She smiled, sighed and fluttered her long, dark eyelashes.
“I’ve hired Monsieur La Pointe to bargain our sugar prices at the Exchange,” he said.
“Oh,” Marguerite stated. “How delightful.” She turned, reaching for a bouquet of dark, red roses nestled within a wooden bucket near her feet.
“Do you like these, darling?” she said. She lifted them to her nose and sniffed.
Tomas sighed and nodded. “They’re lovely, dear,” he said. “In fact, why not buy the entire basket, and spread them around the house?”
Wooden buckets overflowed with stems of roses, peonies, daisies and other assorted flowers of the season. Small shelves held potted flowers, ready for planting, while other crates held green, glass vases ready for stems.
“Oh can we?” Marguerite said, clapping her hands. “They’re some of the best I’ve seen.”
“Mademoiselle is too kind,” Gullette said, walking up beside Marguerite. He clasped his hands in prayer and bowed. “It is you who make the roses beautiful, Mademoiselle Bourgeois.” He twirled his finger in the air.
“They would be simple flowers without your grace to make them bloom.”
Marguerite blushed, snapping her silk fan open.
“Monsieur!” she said, hiding her face behind the pink lace. “You’re embarrassing me in front of my betrothed.”
Tomas and Gullette laughed, both smiling and enjoying the French belle’s show. Tomas turned toward the flower vendor.
“Monsieur,” he said. “I’d better purchase the flowers my fiancé wishes, lest you whisk her away on the wings of eloquence.”
“Madame Gullette might object, Monsieur Laiche,” he said, tying five pairs of red rose stems into one bunch. He finished the knot with a bow of red ribbon.
“However,” Gullette said, offering the roses to Marguerite. “If Mademoiselle keeps growing in beauty, I might need to reconsider my position.”
Tomas wrapped his arm around Marguerite’s waist and pulled her tight against his side. Her warmth was noticeable. She giggled, glancing up at Tomas in surprise.
“If that were to occur, Monsieur,” Tomas said, his words suddenly thick with a French accent. “I would be forced to challenge you to a duel.” He sighed.
“I fear that one of our industries might become leaderless.”
Gullette nodded, his face becoming stern and serious. Marguerite gasped, fanning herself as her eyes bounced between the two men. Outside the stall, a group of women stopped. They stared at the scene, with two covering their mouths with their hands, while another soothed a crying baby inside it’s bassinette.
“Very true, Monsieur,” Gullette said. He opened his arms wide and smiled.
“With you lost, there would be no one to cultivate your fabulous sugar, or ship all of New Orleans’s goods.”
Tomas lifted his eyebrow. “Is that so?” Tomas said. Gullette nodded.
“I was considering the loss of New Orleans finest florist,” Tomas said. “What a tragedy that would be for our beloved belles.”
“Ah,” Gullette said, placing a finger against his lips and tapping. He glanced at Marguerite, whose eyes were wide; her mouth open. He winked. “Mademoiselle’s beauty demands that I take the risk.”
Tomas nodded thoughtfully, stroking his whiskerless chin.
“Monsieur Laiche,” Gullette continued. “It seems we are at an impasse.”
“Indeed,” Tomas said. “I see no other recourse.”
“Pistols or swords?” Tomas said, crossing his arms.
The people watching gasped, casting glances at one another with mutterings of the word duel. Two women giggled behind the gathered onlookers.
“Tomas!” Marguerite said, stepping between the two men. Tomas gently moved her aside. Gullette rubbed his mouth as he considered his choices.
“True gentlemen choose the blade,” Monsieur Gullette said. He stepped back, his right hand reaching to his left waist – drawing a pretend sword and spinning it with a flourish. With a salute, he kissed the imaginary hilt.
Tomas sighed, his shoulders slumping and his face looked sad. “Alas, Monsieur Gullette,” Tomas said, reaching to his side and patting his waist. “It appears I have left my blade at the Willows.”
“Therefore,” Tomas continued. “I fear I must surrender the beautiful Marguerite to you, in order to honor the rules of engagement.” Tomas bowed in defeat.
Eyes widened in the crowd, as mutters ran amongst the gathered people. Even the baby stopped crying as the child’s mother held her to her breast.
Marguerite’s eyes flew between Tomas and Monsieur Gullette, darting back and forth as if trying to figure out what was happening. Before she could protest, Tomas pushed her toward the flower vendor’s arms.
“She is yours.”
Gullette sheathed his imaginary rapier and held up his hand to stop the exchange.
“Monsieur Laiche,” he said, matching Tomas’s sad eyes. “No, no, no. I cannot do this. Though honor and romance dictate otherwise, it is quite clear to me that Mademoiselle loves you.”
Marguerite’s face lifted into a smile, as some of the gathered crowd gasped in delight.
“Then what do you propose, Monsieur?” Tomas said, smiling at Marguerite and reaching his hand for hers. “Would five more bunches of roses satisfy your honor?”
“Monsieur!” Gullette exclaimed. “There is not enough roses in this world with which to purchase the beauty of Mademoiselle Bourgeois.”
“Monsieur Gullette,” she said coyly while fanning herself. “You flatter me.”
Gullette lifted a finger so that he might continue, as Marguerite fluttered her eyes and sighed with pleasure.
“However, Monsieur,” Gullette said, acknowledging Marguerite with a bow of his head.
“I will accept your offer under the condition you return to my shop next Sunday, and let me gaze upon the beauty that is the Mademoiselle Bourgeois.”
Tomas extended his hand to shake. “We have an agreement, sir,” Tomas said, shaking hands with the flower vendor. The crowd clapped, and some even cheered. Both men bowed, then applauded one another.
“Garcon!” Monsieur Gullette called out and clapped his hands twice. A small negro boy appeared, wearing an off-white cotton shirt, and brown ankle-length trousers supported by suspenders.
“Please deliver this bunch, as well as five others to the Laiche residence on Rue St. Peters.”
The boy nodded and took the bunch that Gullette had already created. “Yassah,” he said, taking the flowers from the vendor’s hand. “Right way.”
Monsieur Gullette plucked a peach-tone rose stem from a bucket near his counter. He offered it to Marguerite, and bowed.
“For the Mademoiselle,” he said. “For being such a good sport as two old friends played a silly game.”
“Thank you, Monsieur,” she said, smiling brightly as she accepted the rose stem. “You are such a romantic!” She looked up at Tomas. “My fiancé could learn a thing or two from you.”
Gullette laughed. “I think Monsieur Laiche does well enough, Mademoiselle.” He bowed. “But I thank you for your compliment.” He turned toward Tomas, who was watching the crowd disperse. Their little performances always captured attention, especially when the word duel was spoken. It wasn’t unheard of for three to be fought in one day; rarely, if ever at the market, though.
“Tomas,” the flower vendor said. “Shall we meet for dinner tonight, mon ami?” Tomas smiled.
“Of course, Anton,” he said, giving Marguerite a glance as if asking for permission. “Marguerite’s returning to Emerald Oaks later this afternoon, isn’t that correct, darling?”
She was inspecting a group of peonies, sniffing them and giggling with delight. “What was that, dear?” she said, turning to face her fiancé.
“You’re returning to Emerald Oaks tonight, correct?” She nodded.
“Yes, dear,” she said. “You knew that. But only after we have lunch. I’m famished, and if I don’t get something to eat, I fear I’ll dry up and blow away.”
“Of course, darling,” he said, returning his attention to Anton. “Tonight at my house. Will seven o’clock serve you?”
“Oui, Tomas,” Anton Gullette said. “I shall see you then. I have the most exciting gossip!”
Tomas watched the artist just long enough to avoid Marguerite’s awareness. Her jealousy had him smiling on the inside. It was an emotion he knew all too well from his youth. She never allowed another girl close to him; it appeared now wouldn’t be any different.
The feelings he’d experienced when seeing the artist’s eyes, surprised him. Completely unexpected, it was as if he’d know her, seen her somewhere before and were old acquaintances. Like reconnecting with a long, lost friend now returned.
Hadn’t she asked if they’d met?
It wasn’t possible. He’d never seen her before on the Square, and certainly didn’t mingle within the artist culture. In fact, whenever he came to New Orleans, he spent more time on Canal St. and the docks, where his manager maintained the shipping office.
Where have I seen her, he thought, guiding his fiancé between groups of people gathered around the busy stalls. Monsieur Gullette’s flower cart was toward the end of the building.
She certainly seemed to know me.
The building was designed to keep shoppers and vendors dry on rainy days, or cool on hot days like this one. It was basically a long, wide warehouse roof held up by columns. A white cornice supported the green and white striped roof, while the round, plastered pillars were painted ox-blood red. Three interior alleys led market-goers past meats, produce, flowers and other assorted treasures from around the world.
He ignored the vendors trying to gain his attention, their insistent cries of ‘monsieur! Try this!’ washing past him. Instead, he looked beyond through the open walls of the market shed, toward the street corner where the artist worked.
There she is, spotting her from between a teetering stack of leather-bound tomes of a book seller. She was laughing along with a pair of Creole girls as she painted, using her brush to emphasize something the girls found silly.
It was her smile; unforgettable, especially the manner it lifted toward her eyes. It was if her entire face smiled, illuminating her eyes. And the way she lifted her eyebrow! Just thinking of it made his heart race. How could he not know her, yet feel like he had? Perhaps he just didn’t remember. He shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” Marguerite said, tilting her face toward his. She followed his glance toward the book seller.
“I was just wondering if he has books on flowers,” Tomas said, quickly gathering his thoughts – yanking them away from the captivating artist. Did she just look my way?
Marguerite nodded and lifted her finger. “Monsieur?” she said, grabbing the book vendor’s attention. “Do you have books on flowers?”
“Why of course, Mademoiselle,” he said, stepping away from his desk. He rummaged through a well-ordered group of leather books stacked precariously in one corner of his stall. Carefully arranged to allow customers to enter, the books created a three-sided wall – easy to see over, yet thickened by double layers of volumes and tomes.
“Would Mademoiselle prefer one on the growing of flowers,” he said, lifting a cracked leather volume from the stack. He reached for another. “Or perhaps one detailing the types of flowers? Maybe various varieties of roses?”
Marguerite placed a finger on her lower lip. “The one on roses,” she said, accepting the offered book. She glanced at Tomas. “Does that not make sense, darling? We’re buying roses, now we will know what types to buy!” She clapped her hands, then took the book.
“How delightful,” Tomas muttered, trying to hide his inattention with a grin.
“It’s a fine choice, Mademoiselle,” the book seller said, returning the other two volumes to their rightful place in the parapet of books.
Tomas nodded, watching the exchange, trying with all of his mental might not to look toward the artist’s stall across Levee.
“How much is that one, Monsieur?” Tomas asked absently.
“For you and your lovely lady, Monsieur,” he replied. “Ten dollars, and not a picayune more.” Marguerite smiled as Tomas took the book from her. He flipped through the pages, carefully noting the earmarks and tears.
Stepping into his role, it was time to perform the market dance. He loved this part, and thoughts of the captivating artist faded to the back of his mind – smoldering like embers from a bonfire.
“Two dollars, Monsieur,” Tomas said, snapping the cover closed and frowning. “It’s in sorry shape, hardly worth the paper it’s printed on.’ He shook his head. “Where did you find this? In a garbage bin?”
“Monsieur!” the book seller said, his face red with insult. “Two dollars? Why not rummage through a garbage bin yourself, you pompous planter!” Tomas snorted and rolled his eyes.
“That book is EASILY worth eight dollars. And that is a bargain!”
Marguerite sucked in her breath, covering her mouth with her hand. The idea made Tomas laugh inside, knowing Marguerite never bargained. She felt it better to accept the price than join in the battle of wits.
I wonder what the artist would think?
He ALMOST looked toward Jackson Square, but instead waved a dismissive hand and turned his back on the book seller. He liked this man immediately. He had charm, and wasn’t afraid to toss an insult toward a potential customer. Especially one who had money to spend.
“Bah!” Tomas said, turning back, yet not meeting the vendor’s eyes. Not yet. He lifted the book into the man’s face, though far enough away to not be too insulting. “For this piece of washing paper? Four dollars!”
“Six!” the vendor said, crossing his arms and scowling. Tomas opened the book again, glancing at the vendor from atop his eyes. It wasn’t a bad book, actually. Well-kept and in good condition. Six was fair, though he knew he could get the man to settle for five.
What’s her name?
“Done!” Tomas said, snapping the book closed and handing it to Marguerite. The vendor smiled victoriously, Marguerite clapped her hands in joy, and Tomas chuckled. He extended his hand to the vendor, who shook it vigorously.
“You made a good bargain, Monsieur,” the vendor said. “The Mademoiselle will be pleased with her purchase.”
The vendor wrapped the book in brown paper, tying it closed with a red ribbon – making a bow in the center for the pièce de résistance.
“For Mademoiselle,” he said, offering the giftwrapped book. “Monsieur Ardent La Pointe thanks you for your purchase. May it bring you pleasure for years to come!”
Marguerite squealed with delight, taking the book as if it were a golden treasure. “Thank you, Monsieur La Pointe,” she said, then handed the book to Tomas to carry. “And thank you, Tomas, for the lovely gift.”
Tomas nodded and cradled the book under his arm. “Anything for you, my darling,” he said. “Would you mind going ahead to find Monsieur Gullette? I’d like to have a word with Monsieur La Pointe after I settle the bill.”
“Of course,” Marguerite said, hooking her parasol on her arm. “Do not be long, dear. I’m about ready for lunch, and I simply cannot carry all of those flowers by myself.”
“We can hire someone if need be,” Tomas said. “I won’t be long.”
Once his fiancé had left, Tomas paid the vendor and struck up a conversation. He liked the man’s style, the casualness with which he performed the dance. He could use a man like him in the Planter’s Building, haggling the price of sugar and making deals for shipping.
“So how may I be of service, Monsieur…?”
“Laiche. Tomas J. Laiche. I own the Two Oceans Trading Company, as well as a plantation named, The Willows.” La Pointe nodded.
“I wish to inquire into your business, Monsieur La Pointe, and how happy you are dealing in books.”
“I’m quite happy selling books, Monsieur Laiche,” the vendor said, frowning just enough to show he was curious to the question. “Might you add some clarity to your inquiry?”
Tomas adjusted his hat, smoothed his bangs and glanced across Decatur toward the corner where the artist worked. He frowned when he noticed her gone, though her studio was still in place.
I wonder where she went, he thought. Lunch, perhaps? Maybe somewhere in the Market. He started to look down the aisle when the vendor cleared his voice.
“Monsieur Laiche?” he asked. “Why do you ask this question of me?”
“Pardon?” Tomas said, returning to the now and refitting his hat. “Excuse-moi, Monsieur La Pointe. My mind has been wandering this day, it seems.” The vendor smiled, yet said nothing – waiting for Tomas to answer completely.
“I’m interested in hiring a person of your particular skill to negotiate on my behalf within the Planter’s Building.”
“You require a bookseller for this job?” Monsieur La Pointe said, cocking his head in curiosity. “I fail to understand the connection.”
“No, no,” Tomas said. “Your bartering skills, Monsieur. I enjoyed the manner in which you played the game, as well as your disposition in playing.” The man nodded in understanding.
“I would like to hire you, Monsieur La Pointe,” Tomas continued. “If you are interested in selling and buying sugar, as well as negotiating shipping contracts.” Tomas cocked his head.
“Does this interest you, Monsieur?”
La Pointe crossed his arms and frowned. “What would I do with my books, Monsieur Laiche?” he said. “It has been my way of life for so long. I’m not certain I could do something else.”
Tomas rubbed his chin, nodded then got lost in the new dance. La Pointe would work for him. The only question remaining was how much it would cost.
And that was the fun part.
Sea gulls cried for bread scraps, circling and battling one another above a group of children gathered on the street corner where Simone worked. July sun danced among the oaks lining the park, casting shadows of light and dark across the laughing children’s faces – matching the mirth they shared with the eager gulls.
Simone took it all in, radiantly smiling as life on the square melded into the paint on her canvas. Ever since Lucette’s death two months earlier, children, water and sea gulls were ever-present themes – gently appearing in pastel-like mixtures of softly playing color.
She smiled more these days, as if the little creole girl was always beside her, watching with those bright rapt, brown eyes – insuring the work flowed from her heart. Death became life, and with it, Simone’s work flourished.
Maria was right. Art WAS her heart, freely expressed in tinted mixtures of oil and pigments – lovingly stroked onto stretched canvas with the caress of a lover’s touch.
People noticed, admiring her art more and more. While Lucette’s parents hadn’t moved forward with the commission, others purchased her paintings and improved her reputation. Groups often gathered just to observe, much like the couple standing beside her now, watching her paint.
“Bonjour,” Simone said, smiling. She tilted her eyes into a glittering radiance, as if this couple were the most amazing people on earth and she wanted to make sure they knew it through her smile.
“Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” the man said, clasping the hand of his auburn-haired partner and staring at the painting. His eyes never strayed from the canvas as he said hello, instead looking deeper into what Simone was creating.
“Bonjour,” the woman clasping his hand said, watching her lover’s eyes and not really seeing Simone. The greeting was rote, as if required to say it because it was the proper thing to do.
Simone noticed her, but paid more attention to the man. She especially enjoyed the manner in which he leaned into her art, with his broad shoulders almost filling the space.
“What is it you see, Monsieur?” Simone said, sitting taller on her stool. He cocked his head, eyes narrowing as he looked. She followed his gaze.
“There’s an energy surrounding the gulls,” he said, twirling his finger in a spiral – tracing the birds just above the paint. “It spins, especially the way the color fades into the others.” He shook his head, then smiled.
“I can’t really explain it, but it’s so dynamic. And the children. Delightful!”
“Tomas,” the woman said, sounding bored with the entire conversation. She tugged at his arm. “I want to go to the market.”
The man nodded, his reddish blonde hair dancing across his brow. Dressed in greens and florals, he looked like a man of means, though surprisingly young. Maybe thirty, Simone thought? The felt hat was a nice touch. A shame his coat was knee length, as it hid the more interesting parts.
“Of course, Marguerite,” he said, patting her hand. “In a moment.” He still stared at the painting, and Simone’s eyes sparkled with interest as her breathing became heated.
“What is the title, mademoiselle?”
“Market Gulls, Monsieur,” Simone said, allowing her eyes to drift over his body. Not too tall, she thought, thick arms. He worked, that was clear. Soft fingers, strong hands. A writer, perhaps? No.
Nice legs, she thought, wishing he’d turn around. He must be a planter, especially with those bright, tight trousers. She frowned and sighed. It figured.
“Market Gulls,” the man said slowly, allowing the words to linger on his tongue, as if tasting. “Market Gulls. I like that.”
“Tomas,” his partner whined, her eyes focused across Levee street, toward the green-roofed building. “Can we go now?” He sighed and nodded again, still looking into the painting.
“Oui,” he said, turning toward Marguerite. “Let’s be on-“
He met Simone’s eyes.
“…our way,” he said, slowly finishing his sentence with gaze fixed up on Simone’s. Her head spun in a rushing swirl of energy, and her heart skipping a beat with her sucked-in breath.
I know him, she thought, while her spinning head dulled her memory of when that might have been. Not wanting to miss the moment, her mouth blurted what her mind was thinking.
“Have we met, Monsieur?”
That got Marguerite’s attention. The Belle snapped her head around and looked into Tomas’s eyes, then into those of Simone. “Tomas Laiche!” Marguerite said. “We will be going. Now.”
He blinked, the trance broken and met his partner’s glare. “Ah, yes,” he stammered. “The market. Of course, my darling.” He took a deep breath, releasing the energy of the look with Simone.
“Thank you, Mademoiselle,” he said, dipping his head in a bow. “Your art is beautiful.”
Simone smiled, feeling the familiar heat of longing stir deep within her abdomen. Trailing fingers through her hair, she pushed the draping black strands from the front of her face and over her ear.
“My pleasure, Monsieur,” Simone said. “It will be finished by this evening, if you care to purchase it for your darling.”
Marguerite snorted and tugged. “It’s hideous,” she said, dismissing the thought with a wave of her hand. “Who wants a picture of sea gulls? We might as well have paintings of rats on the wall.” She tugged the planter’s hand.
“Let’s go, Tomas.”
Simone smiled, nodding at Marguerite. “Madame is wise,” she said as the pair took steps toward the market. Since Simone’s easel was set up at the corner of the Square and Levee, the market was only across the busy, carriage-filled street.
“What would you prefer for your walls if not gulls?”
“Flowers,” the rude Belle said from over her shoulder. “Painted by a real artist, not some second rate street vendor.”
“Marguerite!” the planter exclaimed, pulling his arm away from the feisty lady and glaring. “How rude.”
“Why would you say such things?”
They were well within earshot, so Simone heard the conversation. A pair of white open carriages rolled toward one another, the mules hooves clip-clopping on the reddish brown bricks of the road. This forced the couple to wait before crossing.
“She’s a tramp, Tomas,” the Belle said, blinking into his eyes as they waited. “She’s just trying to convince you to buy her terrible picture.”
The man shook his head as the woman wrapped her arm around his slender waist. She lay her head against his chest. Simone laughed quietly, watching the exchange unfold.
No matter what the rude woman thought of her art, he wasn’t just a pretty face. He’d seen her art as more than streaks of paint on a canvas. Curiosity tinted the desire racing through her, and in that moment, she had to learn more.
“Buy me some flowers?” the Belle said coyly, looking up and into his eyes. Simone imagined she batted her eyelashes like most of the plantation belles tended to do when coercing their beaux to do their bidding.
“Yellow ones. And red roses, too,” she said, her voice fading into the background noises of the busy docks behind the market.
“They’ll look so delightful on my nightstand in the morning, reminding me of you.” He chuckled and nodded, wrapped his arm around the woman.
“Certainly,” he said. “From monsieur Gullette’s stall. He has the best this time of year.” The woman placed her head against the side of his chest as they crossed the street, but the man named Tomas twisted just enough for Marguerite to not notice the look he gave Simone.
Simone lifted her eyebrow, a practice she’d perfected when attracting attention. Monsieur Gullette, she thought, recalling in her mind’s eye exactly where the man’s stall was within the market. I think I want some flowers.
He winked, recharging the tingling energy she felt when they first met eyes. Her head tingled, buzzing like a flight of hummingbirds gathering nectar – nestled behind her temples. The look was brief, yet powerful as the heat in her stomach swirled.
Simone now understood Sister Maria’s words. The man named Tomas had SEEN her art, igniting desires that she’d kept doused since Paris. She’d kept them hidden, pushed away out of reach. Lucette’s death had reopened her heart. Now a look, a smile and a wink from a dandy-dressed planter had set a spark that threatened to set it ablaze.
The lily pad pond was quiet and still, as a warm, breezeless mid-May afternoon settled atop the Plantation. Not even the willow leaves rustled, so calm was the wind. Tomas draped his arm over the smooth, polished surface of the bench back. Built from a solitary cypress limb, it curved just in the middle, creating a comfortable, natural swale. He’d often wondered if it was a happy accident, or simply cut so the curve was properly centered.
The seat was a solid cross-cut plank of cypress, with its flame-shaped age rings clearly visible beneath the dark polish. His father made it himself when the house was first built, using the remains of various trees to assemble it. The intention had been for the front porch, but his mother refused – seeing its natural beauty better suited for the gardens.
Tomas trailed his fingers down the fan of wooden spokes supporting the back, feeling the smoothed over knots on the wood – places once covered with bark. His mother was correct: it belonged here by the pond, nestled perfectly beneath the willow tree’s leafy curtain of dangling fronds.
Four days had passed since his meeting with Phillipe, and he was no closer to a decision. His mother knew nothing of the situation, thinking instead that the wedding was still on and that the Willows would soon be hosting a ball for the engagement.
He’d hoped that sitting by the pond would bring clarity, that the dark water would give him what he sought. In storybooks, frogs croaked the answers, as if they were the magical voices of reason – filled with infinite knowledge. The greenish-black frog seated atop a lily pad had so far shown no such ability. Perhaps he was as confused as Tomas; or preferred flies instead of wisdom. Regardless, it held no answers.
“Tomas?” a soft voice said, accompanied by the swooshing rustle of willow leaves. He spun, sitting up with wide eyes toward a purple-gowned Marguerite.
“What are you doing here?” he said, hopping to his feet. He glanced past, seeing that Mammy Rose stood outside the grove with her back to the couple.
“Hello to you, too,” Marguerite said, crossing her arms. Sprigs of lavender wound through her chapeaux, rippling with lace down one side of her head – weaving into her shining, auburn hair.
“Forgive me,” he said, rushing forth to grasp her hand and lead her toward the bench. “I was startled.”
She extended her hand, knuckles up so he could kiss. Her eyes fluttered as he did. Scents of lavender, thick, soft and sensually delightful, swirled around her.
“You are forgiven, monsieur,” she said, then giggled. “Mammy May said I might find you here.”
“She would know,” Tomas said, helping her to the bench. He then sat next to her. “That woman’s always been able to find me, no matter where I hide.”
“She said exactly the same thing,” Marguerite said. She twisted on the bench, yet somehow kept her body straight.
“How are you?” she asked, cocking her head and smiling. Tomas matched her, gazing into her soft, bright brown eyes. “Father says you’re conflicted.”
Tomas snorted. “He said that?” She nodded, brushing a wrinkle away from her gown, glancing down to see it done properly.
“I’m not very well,” he said, shaking his head and gazing over the pond. The frog had moved, Tomas noticed. It now perched on a broken limb sticking from the water near the opposite shore. Any answers yet, monsieur frog?
“Your father made a tough choice near impossible.”
She smiled and placed her hand on his thigh, gathering his attention.
“Father can be blunt when making decisions,” she said. “It’s allowed Emerald Oaks to flourish in tough times.” She squeezed twice, and Tomas placed his hand atop hers, her cool skin mixing with his warmth.
“Blunt is a nice way of putting it, Marguerite,” Tomas said. “He informed me I could not, nor should not keep the Willows.” She nodded, twisting one finger to caress one of his.
“He told me the same thing,” she said, then sighed.
“Oh?” he said, narrowing his eyebrows at Marguerite. “I was under the impression this discussion was between him and I.”
She shrugged and shook her head. “Daddy always confides in me, especially when needing an additional opinion.” Tomas watched Marguerite carefully. He sounded damn sure of himself when talking to me. He looked toward the pond again, seeking the frog’s silent advice. It didn’t budge.
“So what did you offer?”
She caressed his thigh, rubbing back and forth beneath his hand. If his future hadn’t been on the line, he might have enjoyed it.
“Well,” she said. “I told him there should only be one requirement from you.”
“And that is?”
“Being named benefactor of your estate,” she stated, meeting his eyes straight on. Tomas pulled his hand away and sat up straight, considering her eyes and words.
Phillipe stated he’d have to sell him the Willows if he was to marry Marguerite. Now, this was all he wanted? Her to be named benefactor? Tomas stood and walked to the edge of the pond, his hands clasped behind his back.
Monsieur frog, he said to himself, seeing that the fat creature had moved to the shoreline. What do you think about that? The frog hopped once, in the direction of a stand of cattails. A heron slammed its beak into the frog, gobbling it up before it ever saw the dark gray, long legged bird.
“So he doesn’t want me to sell the Willows?” Tomas said. The heron took one step into the water and froze in place, continuing its hunt.
“He did,” she said. “But I convinced him otherwise.”
“Really?” he said, turning to face Marguerite. She twirled her bangs with one of her dainty fingers and nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “Surprised?” He frowned.
“No, actually, I’m not.” He bent over to pick a pecan from the soft, mossy soil. “You seem more capable than you put on.” She nodded.
“Indeed I am,” she said. He nodded and turned, tossing the nut at the heron. Sensing the projectile well before it arrived, the hunter launched into the air, crying out as it flew off toward the river. The pecan plopped harmlessly into the dark waters, sending small ripples cascading toward the shore.
He smiled, but having turned away from Marguerite, she didn’t see it. She was feisty, no doubt about it. And the fact she convinced her father otherwise, said something about her ability to manage. Maybe, just maybe this would work out.
Yes, he thought. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, nodding as he did so. It might as well be now.
Turning, he marched up to the seated belle and dropped to his knee – reaching for her hand and grasping it inside both of his.
“Marguerite Bourgeois,” he said, gazing into her shock-widened eyes. “Will you do me the honor of being my wife?”
“Why Tomas,” she said with gasping breath. Nodding quickly, her smile grew into an excited grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“Is that a yes?” he said, lifting his eyebrows. She nodded quickly.
“Yes, Tomas,” she said. “Yes! I’ll marry you!”
She leapt into his arms, almost tumbling him backwards from his knees. Standing, he lifted her from the ground and spun – sending her legs flying around as she squealed with delight.
“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said, bursting through the dangling willow leaves. “Marse Tomas! Whatchoo do ta Mistis Marg’rite?”
Tomas stopped the spin, setting her down with a deep, happy sigh of pleasure and smiled at the negro maid. Leaning up, Marguerite pulled his mouth to hers, kissing him hard against his lips; right in front of Mammy Rose.
“Mistis!” she exclaimed. “You stop dat rite now, y’here?”
“Oh, Mammy!” Marguerite said once she finished her kiss. “Tomas just asked me to marry him!”
“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said again. “You gone be married?”
Marguerite nodded. “I am,” she said, rushing to wrap her arms around the older woman. “And we’re going to live right here at the Willows!”
“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said, holding the girl and rocking her in her arms, closing her eyes as she did.
“My lil girl gone git married!”
Simone slumped atop her stool, lost in the gray, dappled paving stones of her street corner. Alise, having long since returned to her parents, still wailed at the loss of her sister.
Lucette’s parents huddled with the Archbishop beneath the porch of the Lower Pantalba building, just across the street from Simone’s easel. News had quickly reached his ears, and he arrived with a retinue of priests and nuns – all to say prayer over the fallen girl and to console the parents.
With the crowds dispersed, Simone stared into nothingness. She had loved the little girl like her own, teaching her art while she painted in the Square. Lucette’s excitement had inspired her search for the art school’s location. Now that the girl was dead, all she could think of was that she had caused her tragic death.
A police officer dressed in black boots and a helmet-style hat approached, holding his flip pad at the ready.
“Mademoiselle,” he said, readying his pencil. “I understand the little girl was with you when she ran into the path of the carriage?”
Simone looked up, using her knuckle to wipe away tears from the corner of her misty eyes. “Pardon?” she said, blinking.
“You were painting her?” Simone shook her head.
“No, monsieur,” she said. “I was revealing a painting of her.” She pointed toward Lucette the Gull, still sitting on the easel.
“Her parents just purchased the painting, and Lucette was enjoying it.”
She shivered. “She was dancing. Twirling and spinning like she was the gull. The bells rang and then…” She sniffed, rubbing her eyes – now freely flowing with tears.
“The carriage came out of nowhere. Never stopped.” She closed her eyes. “And she was gone.”
The officer wrote notes in his book. “Did you see what caused the mule to bolt?” Simone shook her head.
“No, monsieur,” she said. “Maybe the church bells? They rang about the same time.” He nodded, making a notation.
“Do you paint here regularly?” Simone nodded. “Oui, monsieur,” she said. “Every day.” She pointed toward the metal placard mounted on the fence. A crow took flight, winging away from the oak tree just behind. “I have a permit.”
“I see,” he said, jotting something in his notepad. “And has this mule done this before, mademoiselle? Run when the bells rang?”
Simone blinked and looked toward the corner. Sam always tied his mule to a hitching post while they shared a café au lait. Had he ever bolted? The bells rang all the time, always on the hour – especially the call to Mass. Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening.
“No, monsieur,” she said. “He’s never done that since I’ve been here.”
“And how long is that miss…?”
“Simone,” she said. “Simone Plachette.”
“Ah,” he said, making the notation. “How long have you worked here?”
“Almost a year.”
“I see,” he said. “Might there be anything else that would explain why the mule did what it did? Was its driver negligent?”
“Sam?” she said. “Never. He’s one of the best carriage drivers in the city. That mule is one of the gentlest creatures I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
The officer nodded. “It’s been put down, mademoiselle,” he stated.
“No!” she gasped, covering her mouth. “It was just scared.”
“It destroyed a cart in the market, mademoiselle,” he said. “It was a menace.” He snapped his booklet closed. “Final question. Why do you wear your hair loose? Shouldn’t you be wearing a tignon?” Simone wrinkled her face in confusion.
“Pardon?” she said, trying to understand why this was of importance. “I like my hair down.”
“It’s the law,” the officer said. “That is all for now, mademoiselle Plachette. If I have any additional questions, I will come around again.” He tapped the side of his helmet. “Don’t forget about your tignon, either.”
“Please know,” he continued as she nodded. “You might be called to testify in court. If so, you will receive a summons to appear.” He tore a small piece of paper from his pad and handed it to her.
“That is my name,” he said. “If something else comes to mind, you may contact me at the precinct.” He touched the bill of his helmet.
“Bonsoir, mademoiselle,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to witness such a horrid accident.”
“Merci, monsieur,” she whispered. He turned and walked toward Sam, who was being interviewed by another police officer.
“Witch!” an elderly voice hissed. Simone turned and confronted a hunched, wrinkled woman in a black mourning dress, with lace ruffles up to her chin. She wielded the cross from her rosary like a shield, forcing it toward Simone as it hung from her neck.
“Your devilry killed that little girl!”
Simone stared, tears forming in her eyes once more. It was the same woman Maria had scared off the day before.
“I did no such-“
“Vile Temptress!” the old woman stated, drawing the attention of four other people. “Mary, Mother of God cast this creature back into the depths of hell!”
“That’s enough, mother,” a man said, dressed like he’d just come from Mass. “She’s an artist, not the devil.” Simone smiled at the man, yet he kept his eyes on the old woman.
“Come with me, we’ll get you back to your home.” The woman hissed once more, thrusting the small, silver cross in Simone’s direction.
“Be gone, creature of darkness!” the old woman said, waving her rosary as her son led her away. Others walking by remained silent, yet their looks were those of agreement mixed with apathy; very little sympathy.
“Simone-eh,” Maria’s voice said. Simone lifted her head and turned toward Maria. “Dat no be ya fault.” Simone nodded, then reached for the large priestess – welcoming the woman’s enveloping hug.
“Dere ya be, child,” Maria whispered patting Simone’s back. “Dere ya be.” While it had been less than an hour since the accident, Simone finally let her emotions loose and cried completely for the loss of Lucette.
“You knew, didn’t you,” Simone said, sniffing back tears and daubing her eyes with a linen cloth. “It’s why you wanted me to give her the painting.”
Maria said nothing, instead patted Simone’s back while gazing toward the river.
“I see tings,” Maria whispered. “I be tellin ya dis. My eyes, dey always see troots, especially when dey coom from da ‘eart.”
Simone sighed, leaning her head against Maria’s chest. “Like my art,” she said, earning another nod from the priestess.
“Now what do I do?” Simone said, pulling away and sitting up on her stool. Lucette’s parents were still with the priests, but the archbishop had left.
“Everyone I’ve ever cared about ends up dead.”
“Ya go on,” Maria said. “Dat be parta life, Simon-eh.” She motioned toward the painting, still turned for the reveal. “We all be movin on soom time. No one know when dat time be.”
“You do,” Simone said, glancing around to insure no one heard her words other than Maria. “You knew Lucette was going to die.”
“No,” she said. “I only knew dat ya must be givin da paintin to de lit-lun.” She shook her head, the dark blue, checkered tignon wrapped around Maria’s head rattling its beads. “I no see she be dead.”
“You had an idea, though,” Simone said. “I saw your sadness last night.” Maria shrugged.
“Maybe,” Maria said, pointing at the painting. “Ya saw it in dere, Simon-eh. Dat why ya be paintin what ya do.”
Simone followed Maria’s eyes, seeing the swirl of color that was the girl and gull mixed together as one as if for the first time. Had she seen Lucette’s death? Her stomach knotted, clenching her breath as well.
“What if my paintings are of people dying?”
“Doan be gone dere,” Maria said. “Dat no be da way.”
Simone couldn’t help it, she already had.
Sunday morning in New Orleans was all about worship, especially in Jackson Square. Cathedral bells sang their song of glory, calling all to hear God’s word from the Archbishop himself. Church-goers, dressed in tails and gowns, gathered in the park to socialize before Mass – planning their afternoon luncheons once church was over.
Simone sang her own songs, ones of love, fun and frolic as she set up her easel for painting. She whistled tunes as if trying to outdo the Grackles perched in the overhanging oak trees. Often, her voice was lost, barely audible against the ratchet-like crackling of the black, iridescent birds. This morning however, the birds were silent, giving space for Simone’s voice to shine.
Most mass-goers ignored her, as if she were a statue in the park for pigeons to perch. Everyone knew Sunday was not for working, and even slaves had Sunday free on the plantations. Servants still had duties to perform, such as driving their masters into New Orleans or the local parish church. But for the most part, Sunday was a day for worship and rest.
So when couples passed her by, they refused her smiles and calls of, “Bonjour.” Instead, they commented about heathenism, moving on without so much a glance at the magic revealed on her easel.
Simone didn’t care. She was an artist, and for her, the window to God was through her soul. There wasn’t a higher form of ‘worship’ than creating something beautiful with brush, paint and canvas. That was true religion.
As she took her stool, daubing a long, wooden brush into a blob of greenish-blue paint, a couple approached from from the market across Levee. Dressed in their Sunday best, and holding the hands of two girls dressed in pink, their faces smiled with joyous kindness.
“Bonjour, Simone!” one of the girls cried, breaking free to run and give the artist a hug – pigtails flinging out behind her head. The roosting grackles in the branches above took flight, cackling their cracking calls as they burst from the limbs and flew into the sky.
“Bonjour, Lucette!” Simone said, hugging the girl while keeping the brush well away from her Sunday dress.
“Careful!” her mother said, still clinging to Alise’s hand. “She’s working, dear.” The girls’ father laughed, brushing his furry, black moustache with two fingers.
“It’s okay, Madame,” Simone said, letting the girl free after a few seconds of embrace. “Bonjour, Alise,” she said, smiling at Lucette’s near twin.
“Bonjour, Simone,” Alise replied. “Did you finish Lucette’s painting?”
Simone nodded. “I certainly did,” she said, leaning forward to smile at the family. Along Levee Street, a mule-drawn carriage pulled to the side of the avenue, just around the corner from Simone’s easel. They normally staged there in preparation for the after-Mass rush.
“Would you care to see it?”
“OUI!” Lucette said, clapping her hands together and bouncing in place. Her eyes sought those of her mother. “Ma-Ma, can we see it?”
“Of course, dear,” she said, smiling up at her husband. Simone didn’t know their names, simply recognized them as Lucette and Alise’s parents. French Creole, Simone figured. And the way they carried themselves reminded her of royalty. Certainly from France, maybe even Versailles.
The man nodded and leaned on his black, wooden cane. “By all means, Mademoiselle” he said in a deep voice, thick with accent. He tipped his lavender top hat and smiled. “I’m curious myself.”
Simone nodded, then turned – lifting the paper-wrapped painting from its place against the fence.
“Now,” she said. “Close your eyes, all of you, and I’ll unveil Lucette’s masterpiece.”
“YAY!” both girls said, squeezing their eyes closed. The parents did as well, giving Simone a nod and smile as they followed her instructions.
Carefully removing the paper, Simone replaced her just begun canvas with the painting titled, ‘Lucette the Gull.’
“C’est prêt,” Simone said, turning the easel around so the family could see. As she did, two passing couples paused to watch, observing quietly from behind Lucette’s family. The carriage mule just around the corner snorted, as if waiting to see the work for itself.
“Voila!” Simone said, throwing her hands out to welcome the painting into their family.
Not even the gulls in the sky made noise as the family opened their eyes. Even the river breezes held their breath for the reveal; same with the observing visitors.
All remained still.
“Beautiful,” Lucette’s mother whispered, covering her mouth with her silk-gloved hand. The father nodded slowly, his eyes following the free-flowing form of girl into gull.
Lucette’s eyes filled with tears, as did Alise’s, who clasped her sister’s hand.
“That’s me,” Lucette said with reverence, stepping forward – her fingers outstretched toward the scene. “I’m a seagull!”
“Don’t touch it,” Lucette’s mother said, holding out her hand as if to stop the girl.
“It’s fine, Madame,” Simone said. “She can’t hurt it.”
“Besides, it’s for her.”
“What is the title, Mademoiselle?” her father asked, cocking his head while leaning on the cane. Around the corner, the mule snorted again, louder and with urgency.
“Lucette the Gull,” Simone replied. He nodded, returning his eyes to the painting.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” her mother said. “The way she seems to be gull and girl at the same time.” She met Simone’s eyes.
“Is this how you see our little girl, Mademoiselle?” she whispered.
“I paint from my heart,” Simone said, nodding as Lucette traced her fingers over the figure. “It just comes, and I capture the image I have in my mind.”
“Magnifique,” her mother said. “You are a master, Simone. Nothing I’ve seen in Paris compares to this.” Simone bowed, clasping her hands together as if in prayer.
“Merci, Madame,” she said. “You honor me, though I’m afraid not many would agree with you.”
“They do not know art, mademoiselle,” the father said. “The old ways are stuffy and dark.” He walked forward, placing a hand on Lucette’s shoulder, who was still tracing the painting with her finger.
“You capture light and form in such a mystical manner, mademoiselle,” he said, pointing and twirling his finger. “The way color merges with form to create a wispy image.” He shook his head.
“Magnifique, Simone. Magnifique!”
“How much do we owe you?” the mother said, standing beside her husband. She placed her hand along his back.
Simone considered how much she would charge, knowing they agreed to purchase the painting. Now it was time to sell, she knew the painting was priceless.
“It’s a gift for Lucette,” she said. “I cannot ask a price for this.”
“No, no, no,” the father said, shaking his head. “I cannot accept a gift from a master such as yourself.”
He reached into his jacket pocket, removing his wallet. “Would one hundred suffice?” Simone gasped. She’d never sold a painting for that price before. Ever.
“Monsieur!” she exclaimed. “That’s too much. I cannot accept such a lofty sum.”
“Non-sens,” he said, pushing the note toward her. “I am ashamed to say I cannot offer more at this time.”
She took the note without a word, fearing to do otherwise would insult the man who had now become her best paying customer.
“Merci beaucoup, monsieur,” she said, bowing her head. “I am humbled.”
“It is I that is humbled,” he said. “You have captured the spirit of our daughter in paint.” His wife smiled, nodding.
“No other artist has ever come close to what you have done on this street corner.”
“Simone,” the mother said, glancing up at her husband. “Would you consider painting Alise, as well as each of us?”
Simone stared at the woman a moment, then nodded. “I will,” she said, her words feeling thick and slow in her throat. The woman grinned an elegant smile. Royal blood for certain.
“Merci,” the woman said. “We would want to commission you for four: Alise, Alistar, myself and one with the entire family.”
Simone nodded, internally shaking her head at what was happening. No one had ever commissioned her before. And now, after doing a painting for free, she had gained a patron.
“Of course,” Alistar said. “We would pay you more.” Simone’s eyes widened. One hundred was a king’s sum. How could he want to pay more?
“Would two hundred per piece be fair to retain you on commission?”
Simone nodded. “It would, monsieur,” she said softly. She wanted to say more than enough, but with this amount, she wouldn’t have to sell another painting for at least a year. Metallic clops on stone accompanied another mule snort, briefly drawing her attention away from the family.
“Bien,” he said. “Then you may begin Alise after Mass today.”
“Really?” Alise said. “It’s my turn?”
Simone nodded, her attention returning to the family. “Oui, Mademoiselle. It is your turn.”
Lucette seemed to awaken from her trance, as she turned toward Simone and enveloped her slender waist in a tear-drenched hug.
“I love you,” she whispered, pressing tight into Simone’s stomach. Her eyes closed into the embrace. Warmth flooded Simone’s body and she sighed, pulling the tiny girl close.
“I love you, too,” she whispered. You awoke my soul, little one.
Bells rang, clanging together in the loud, inspiring music of the cathedral. A call to Mass, ringing through Jackson Square and echoing across the river beyond. The mule responded, as did the gulls over head – snorting and crying in cadence to the bell-song.
“I’m a GULL!” Lucette cried, yelling the words while jumping into the air – spinning past her parents. “Look at me! I’m a gull!”
Like a whirlwind, the little girl spun on her toes – hands held high, pigtails twirling. Like the painting, the color of the light seemed to merge with Lucette, mixing into a blur of child-like movement. Simone laughed, thinking she might actually take flight into the sky.
“WATCH OUT!” a deep bass of a voice called from around the corner, as snorts of the mule combined with cries of the gulls, clanging cathedral bells and a twirling, giggling Lucette.
Simone’s smile slowly fell into frown, as she watched the mule and carriage surge forward across St. Ann – right into the path of the laughing little Creole girl.
Slow motion; everyone slowed – Lucette oblivious to the danger. Details popped to life. The carriage driver. Sam was his name, dropping his café au lait as the reigns yanked from his hand.
Alistar and Lucette’s mother, stepping toward their daughter with outstretched hands – reaching for that which they could not grasp. Alise crying out her sister’s name, one syllable at a time.
Seagulls swirling overhead, their eager eyes focused on Lucette as if she were a morsel. The mule, wide-eyed behind leather blinders, crashing into the spinning, pink-dressed girl.
Sails from the masts of docked ships snapping in the river breeze. A grackle calling, and a baby crying. Details.
Time caught up, exploding into speed. Lucette never said a word, not even a painful cry as the mule trampled her to the brick paving, while the iron-shod carriage wheels finished the work.
Sam slid to a stop beside the still, bloodied form of Lucette, while the mule and carriage raced down Levee and out of sight. Screams from church goers witnessing the scene filled the Square, while the sounds of booted feet running toward the little creole girl grew closer.
Simone froze, pulling the wailing Alise tight to her chest, rocking her back and forth – whispering soothing words. Her parents were with Lucette and Sam, crying with one another as the Caribbean carriage driver sobbed his apology.
“I doan know what happen,” Sam said. “He just run off. He never run like dat. Oh, Christ, I be so sorry. He never run like dat!”
“LUCETTE!” her mother wailed. “LUCETTE!”
“Oh my darling girl,” Alistar said, cradling the lifeless form in his arms. Crimson stained his lavender coat, dripping blood onto his white pantaloons. His cane and top hat lay on the ground where he once leaned, a reminder of happier times just a moment ago.
Simone nuzzled Alice’s hair, squeezing the girl and crying. Her warmth of love now replaced with the ice cold horror of death. A crowd gathered as the local police arrived, holding others back as they gathered around Lucette’s broken, lifeless body.
Simone closed her eyes, looking toward the warm sunshine of the morning and searching for an unanswered why.
Lucette the Gull was gone, and the bells of St. Louis Cathedral rang just for her.