Tomas draped over the bow railing of the Creole Belle. He stared down into the plowing wake, as wind from the river washed his hair with breeze. Now that he’d accepted his fate to marry Marguerite, he was somewhat excited.
Making the initial decision seemed horrid, yet when he saw her walk up the steps of the Willows, desire drove his decision. No longer the bratty girl from several years past, she’d now grown into a beautiful woman – one he could see himself with forever.
Breathing deep, he allowed her image to fill his mind, feeling the river’s cool, moist air seep into his nose.
What a powerful word. According to the Church, marriage was supposed to be that long, or at least until death did you part. It had been for his parents, so it must be truth. Sure, they’d had their difficulties. Yet somehow, they’d always managed to get beyond them – keeping the common goal of the Willows first and foremost in their minds.
Damn, he thought, looking into the brown, churned waters of the Mississippi. A lifetime of marriage. That’s frightening.
He’d never committed to anything other than his business, with competition being the motivation for his success. That, and building something like his parents had done with the Willows. The rest of his life was about freedom, and living how he chose.
“I suppose marriage is similar,” he said to the river. “Building something together, lasting.” Not the freedom part, though. Marriage tasted like slavery.
He imagined being married to his manager Riley Mac. Chuckling a giggle, he wondered how long that would last. The giant Caribbean WAS almost his spouse, considering how much time they spent together. The manager of the Two Oceans Trading Company was indispensable to Tomas, using his skills as the former captain of a privateer to insure that the Company ran as well as his ship.
Tomas smiled, watching a log float past with a seagull perched atop a broken stump of a branch. He remembered the first time he’d met Riley Mac. Striding down the gangplank of the Lady Thera with a red and yellow macaw atop his shoulder, he’d been grinning from ear to ear – his bald head glistening in the sun. Eight years ago, and their friendship had grown ever since.
Shirtless and covered in gold chains, the man certainly captured attention. The fact he offered his vessel to the Company astounded many along the docks, and the discovery of his managerial capabilities was an added bonus. Within two years of his arrival, Riley was second in command of the Company.
What if marriage was like that? He thought, imagining his commitment to Marguerite turning into a friendship similar to Riley Mac’s. He nodded to the passing seagull, noting its keen ability to weather the wake of the passing riverboat. It’d be perfect, wouldn’t it?
“Listen to me go on,” he said, shaking his head. Just up river, about fifteen minutes out, he could see the dock to Emerald Oaks on his right. “You’d think Riley was going to be my wife.”
He looked around, hoping none heard his comment. Horns blared, echoing off the trees across the river and bouncing through the skies above.
“Em-Ralllllllld Oo-ooooooaks!” the pilot sang from the bridge deck above, his deep baritone voice singing the words like only a Negro could.
Near the dock, a flight of ducks exploded from the marshy grasses of the riverbank, quacking their way into the cloudless, blue sky. Deckhands scrambled to the bow to work the gangplank’s wench, so when the riverboat was sufficiently close, it could be lowered to the dock and the boat secured.
Today, only one other person disembarked along with Tomas, and their horses were brought to the bow – eyes covered with burlap sacks.
“Em-Ralllllllld! Oo-ooooaks!” the pilot sang as the boat churned closer to the dock, its paddlewheel reversing to slow the turn.
The gangplank had a grappling hook that clamped against the dock, so when it dropped, the boat could be locked in place against the strong current of the river. The hands were already lowering the wide ramp, so when the time came, it could drop.
“Em-Ralllllld! Oo-ooooooooaks!” the pilot sang, this time louder and longer and deeper – holding the last word until…
The plank fell, the latch secured against the dock and the riverboat stopped. The massive red wheel at the rear slowed to a churn, holding the boat in place just enough to maintain position.
Remarkable, Tomas said to himself as his horse was brought forward. Deckhands trotted to the dock and tied lines to large, wooden pilings. They pulled them taut, thus anchoring the vessel in place. No matter how often he traveled by riverboat, he loved docking.
“Where are you off to, Monsieur Laiche?” the other man disembarking with Tomas said, gathering his reigns. They led their horses down the gangplank and onto the cypress wood dock.
“Emerald Oaks,” Tomas said. “Yourself?”
“The same,” the man said, known among planters as ‘le vieux Champomier.’ “I need an accounting of Monsieur Bourgeois’s sugar production.”
He lifted a small, leather-bound book from the courier pouch slung over his shoulder.
“Since I have you here, Monsieur Laiche,” he said. “How is production at the Willows?” Tomas cocked his head.
“The floods hit you hard this spring. Will you be able to match last year’s yield?”
“Monsieur,” Tomas said, leading his horse from the ramp to the wooden pier. The Bourgeois family had built it parallel to the levee, thus making docking easier.
“I appreciate your zeal, but surely you know my father passed earlier this year.”
Champomier nodded but said nothing. Instead, he flipped pages in the little book. Licking the tip of his pencil, he made a notation.
“Of course,” he said. “My condolences. He was a good man, always accurate with his tallies.”
He looked up at Tomas, halting on the gravel path leading toward the plantation’s Big House. The river road crossed just in front, a muddy, rugged track that few other than couriers used. Across the rutted road, marched an allee of thick trunked, ancient Live Oaks which gave the plantation its name.
“Will you be staying on at the Willows,” Champomier asked, holding a small stub of a pencil ready. “Or will Madame Laiche step in for the late Francois?”
“That’s yet to be decided,” Tomas said patiently. “I’m on my way now to discuss options with Phillipe.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Tomas knew they were a mistake. Champomier could destroy the Willows with a flick of his pencil, so hinting at possibilities regarding sugar production was not a good idea.
The man’s yearbook on plantation sugar yields, as well as projections based upon previous years was second to none. Everyone, from planters, to bankers and the exchanges used his information as the key reference in setting prices and approving loans.
It also gave other planters the opportunity to see how well, or how poorly their neighbors were doing – especially since every planter was in the book. The man was relentless in his pursuit of information – dedicated to extreme accuracy and never failing in his recommendations. His written word was taken as Gospel, to which the Bishop of the local diocese would agree.
“Is everything well at the Willows, Monsieur Laiche?”
Tomas sighed, giving himself a moment to gain his bearings. Perhaps the truth? He’d find it out anyway, especially if they were both going to visit Phillipe.
“Well, Monsieur,” Tomas said. “I didn’t want to say anything just yet, but I’m planning to ask for Mademoiselle Marguerite’s hand in marriage.”
“Indeed?” Champomier said, smiling suddenly. “Congratulations are in order, then.” Tomas nodded, as did the older man.
“And will the Willows be a part of the exchange?”
Tomas chuckled. “I hope not,” he said. “But I’m certain, if Phillipe accepts me as his son in law, that I can use his expertise to help make a smooth transition into the planting community.”
“Ah,” the old man said, making a notation in his book. Tomas fought the urge to crane his neck to look, pursing his lips and smiling as hard as he could instead.
“Phillipe Bourgeois is one of the more successful producers along the river.”
Tomas nodded. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“His advice could prove advantageous to your success, Monsieur Laiche,” Champomier said. “Should he choose to share it, that is.”
“He’s already said as much,” Tomas said, recalling the conversation in the library. Maybe not completely accurate, but it was good enough from the old man in the moment.
“Well, then,” Champomier said, making another notation. “That will bode well for the Willows.” He smiled wanly.
“As we all know Monsieur, your time in New Orleans hasn’t exactly prepared you for taking over sugar production from your father.”
“Oh,” Tomas said. “I’m acutely aware, monsieur. You may trust me on that point.”
Champomier mounted his grey mare, and instead of trotting across the river road toward Emerald Oaks, he turned south – downriver.
“Since you’re offering proposal Monsieur,” he said. “I shall delay my discussion with monsieur Bourgeois until later this evening.”
“Very kind of you, Monsieur,” Tomas said, tipping his hat before mounting his own horse: a dark brown stallion named Bean. “I’m as nervous as a rabbit next to an alligator.”
“Wise,” Champomier said. “Phillipe Bourgeois isn’t an easy man to get along with.” He tipped his straw hat, clicked his mouth and eased his horse down the road.
“I shall visit the Willows in a few days, Monsieur,” he said. “Perhaps you will know more about your yields then.”
“We’ll have tea and pastry for you, Monsieur,” Tomas said. “Bonsoir.”
“Bonsoir,” Champomier said, then trotted down the road.
Tomas watched the man ride away until the bend in road and river took him out of sight. Heaving a large, heavy sigh, Tomas heeled the horse and trotted up the long allee of trees toward the mansion named Emerald Oaks.