“Tomas!” Phillipe said, offering his hand after Tomas climbed the curving steps to the veranda where the master of Emerald Oaks waited.
“It’s so good to see you, my friend.” Tomas shook hands. He offered his coat and hat to a servant waiting behind Phillipe. Before Tomas could thank the man, he’d turned – his eyes glued to the floor as he departed.
“And you as well, Phillipe,” Tomas said, allowing the man to lead him through a towering pair of white, double doors. Green and gold light sprayed across the foyer’s floor, pouring in from stained glass transom windows over the entry. He glanced up, noticing the same light playing in the dangling crystals of a massive, three-layer chandelier.
Everywhere Tomas looked, opulence, wealth and power stared back, challenging him to do better if he dared. In fact, it seemed as if two Willows might easily fit inside this one house.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here,” Tomas said, glancing upwards. Clusters of emerald green and brown acorns were cast into the plaster crown molding. They ran the length and breadth of the entry foyer, laid as if real leafy branches had been used.
“We’ve made a few changes,” Phillipe said, following Tomas’s eyes. “Like the crown molding. Celeste demanded we honor the name of our lovely place.” Tomas nodded.
“We hired an Italian sculptor to create the casts,” Phillipe continued, pointing a thick finger toward a cast shield bearing a script letter, ‘B’. “Then had one of our best niggers install them.”
“I’ve never seen its equal,” Tomas said, shaking his head. “The work is exquisite.”
“Yes,” Phillipe said. “We think so as well.” He motioned toward the open room to their left. “Come into the library. I’ll have drinks and food brought.”
He snapped his finger and two slaves scurried forward, eyes cast downward as their bare feet flapped over the wooden floors. Young, Tomas thought. Sixteen, maybe?
Checkered red wraps wound around their heads, like the Creoles wore in the city, though not nearly as fine. The pattern matched the faded gray print of their simple, cotton dresses. Tomas figured they must be sisters.
“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” one of the girls said, the tallest of the pair.
“Brandy and shrimp in the library,” Phillipe said, his tone quiet and hard. He looked at Tomas. “Fruit?”
Tomas looked at the two girls, then nodded. “Pineapple would be nice,” he said. “Perhaps some melon, if you have it.”
“You heard Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said. “Bring it with the brandy and shrimp.” They bobbed their heads. “Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” the smaller one said, her voice quiet, with a hint of mouse-like squeak. “We get it now.”
“This way,” Phillipe said, leading Tomas through a carved pair of white double doors, and into a luxurious library. Opposite the doors and in the corner sat a black, baby grand piano. It accentuated floor to ceiling bookshelves towering twenty feet to a coffered ceiling.
A fireplace graced the long wall to Tomas’s right, brick with a marble mantle surround. It was so deep, he could crouch inside without bumping his head. Tufted and over stuffed wing backed chairs surrounded a round table, while a dark mahogany wood desk sat in front of a pair wall-sized windows. These were framed by emerald green drapes.
Before they could sit, the two serving girls returned. One carried a polished, silver salver covered in shrimp and melon, while the smaller girl carried a silver tray with brandy and two crystal glasses.
“Where’s the pineapple?” Phillipe said as they placed the platters on the table.
“Theys ain’t none left, Marse Bourgeois,” the younger girl said, wringing her hands while keeping her eyes down. Tomas saw the other sister step backwards. Phillipe’s sudden slap to the young girl’s face explained why.
Staggered, the girl grasped her face, crying out in pain. “I said, where’s the pineapple?!” Phillipe exclaimed, his face reddening as his raised hand prepared another blow.
“They’s ain’t none-“
His backhand cracked against her face, spinning and slamming her to the floor with a meaty thud of flesh against wood. Whimpering, she curled into a ball near the fireplace.
“Phillipe!” Tomas said, stepping forward. “That’s not needed.”
He rounded on Tomas, eyes bulging white in stark contrast to the puffed redness of his face.
“I’ll treat my niggers how I want, Laiche,” he bellowed, pointing a fat, thick finger at Tomas.
“This is my house, not yours.” Tomas nodded once, but didn’t back away, instead grimacing toward the quivering girl.
“Get her off that floor,” Phillipe said to the other girl, who quickly followed his order. She knelt beside her sister and lifted her by the arm. “Now, I want you to find Monsieur Laiche some pineapple, do you hear me?”
The older girl bobbed her head while clasping her sister underneath the shoulder. Blood smeared the young girls face, trickling down from a wicked gash on her cheek – opened by a green-stoned ring on Phillipe’s right hand.
“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” she said, backing out of the room while supporting her sister. “I gets it for ya.”
“Phillipe,” Tomas said. “I-“
He was halted by Phillipe’s raised hand.
“We will HAVE pineapple, Tomas,” Phillipe said. “We have it. I know we have it. They’re always hiding things from me, but they won’t this time.”
The large man took a deep breath. He rolled his shoulders as if tossing off a blanket, and turned toward Tomas – his face now calm and serene.
“They simply must learn who’s master,” Phillipe said. Lifting the ring to his mouth, he sucked it dry of the girl’s lingering blood.
“If I want something, I’ll have it.”
“Of course,” Tomas said, slowly releasing his breath. He’d heard Phillipe was brutal, but never witnessed it. If this was any hint, then life at Emerald Oaks must be a horrid experience.
“So,” Phillipe said, motioning to the chairs where the food and drink was placed. He filled the two cut crystal glasses with brandy from the decanter. “What brings you all the way out here?” He handed the glass to Tomas.
“Surely not the brandy?”
When I want something, I’ll have it. The words ran through Tomas’s head as he lifted the glass to toast his host. It’s as if nothing happened.
“No,” Tomas said, sipping the deep, dark drink. He caught his breath, gaining control of his breathing after the horrific excitement. “A more important issue, in fact.”
“Really?” Phillipe said. “Have a seat and tell me all about it.”
Tomas sat, his mind still focused on the scene he’d just witnessed, as well as the ominous words. Had they meant more? Or were they just the ravings of a brutal man?
“Well, Monsieur,” he said, placing his glass on the table. “I’m here to ask for Marguerite’s hand in marriage.”
Phillipe leaned back in his chair, grinning over the top of his brandy glass. He swirled the liquid while he watched, remaining quiet for a long moment.
“Go on,” Phillipe whispered, finally taking a sip. Not the gulps he’d had at the Willows, Tomas noticed. This brandy he savored.
“I think we’ll make a good match,” Tomas said. “I’m of the means to take care of her, offer her the life she deserves.”
“And where will this life be?”
Tomas nodded, expecting this part of the conversation. He knew exactly what Phillipe wanted. What he didn’t know, was whether Marguerite had talked to him yet.
“We discussed this during your visit,” Tomas said. “We’ll live at the Willows, and I’ll turn over operations of the Two Oceans to my manager, Riley Mac.”
“Indeed?” Phillipe said, leaning forward. “And what makes you think you can run a sugar plantation?” He twirled his hand in the air.
“It’ll just come to you?” He chuckled. “A huge mistake, and you know it.”
Tomas shrugged. “Marguerite suggested it,” Tomas said, inspecting his brandy. “She assured me she’d discuss it with you.”
“She did nothing of the sort,” Phillipe said. “The last thing I heard, you were selling the Willows to me, so your mother could remain in her home while you ran your company in New Orleans.”
Tomas nodded, leaning back in his chair. It creaked as if complaining. “True,” he said, speaking slowly. “I did mention those things when we last talked.” He took a drink.
“However,” Tomas said, continuing. “Marguerite and I think we can run the Willows ourselves.” He lifted a finger. “She has experience in the places I don’t.”
Phillipe rubbed his nose with a fat forefinger, then leaned back, matching Tomas’s posture. His chair moaned in agony from the man’s weight.
“Last season was the worst year on record for the Willows,” Phillipe said. “And now, you’ve had severe flooding and might just lose an entire crop.”
He has a point, Tomas thought to himself as he reached forward to pour himself another brandy. Instead, Phillipe snatched the decanter and smiled, offering to pour. Tomas nodded and allowed his glass to be filled.
Three bad crops in a row would put them under the bank, and the Company was already leveraged as far as possible. If this season failed, he might lose both ventures to bankruptcy.
Thanks, father, he said to himself as he leaned back in the chair and eyed Phillipe.
“Might,” Tomas replied. “It’s not certain.” Phillipe shrugged.
“Is it worth betting everything on?”
Is it? Tomas thought. What would happen if we failed?
“I’ll tell you what,” Phillipe said. “Here’s what I can offer.” He took a sip of his brandy, then settled back in his chair.
“You agree to sell me the Willows, and I’ll assume all of the debts.” He smiled. “AND, your mother can stay on at the house.”
A smile grew as he continued. “In fact, Madame Laiche will never need to know.” He opened his arms. “We’ll do the deal once you marry Marguerite, and you can live in New Orleans.”
“How do you mean?” Tomas asked, cocking his head.
“It’s simple, really,” Phillipe said. “I put a manager in place, someone like Brody for instance, and call him a wedding gift.” He twirled his wrist, keeping his drink steady in the other while he did so.
“We’ll say I’m doing it so you both can live in New Orleans, and run the company.” He drank.
“Your mother won’t have to know,” he said, continuing after the sip. He licked his lips dry of the brandy. “Neither will Marguerite. It’ll just be between you and I.”
“Are you serious?” Tomas said, staring at Phillipe as if he were deranged. “Of course they’d find out!” He shook his head. “Besides, you’d have complete control over the Willows, leaving my family with none.”
Phillipe shrugged and sipped his brandy while Tomas continued. “Sure, maybe now you say mother can stay, but what about after Marguerite and I are married?”
“I can’t do this,” Tomas said.
“You’ll lose everything if you don’t,” Phillipe said. “There’s nothing you can do to save the Willows if the crops fail again.” He sipped his drink, nodding.
“And since you don’t know a thing about growing cane, nor manufacturing sugar, you’re all out of options.”
“Only I can save your family’s legacy,” Phillipe said. “And the way it happens is by marrying Marguerite, and accepting my terms.”
Tomas felt drowned, as if the room was filled with water through which he couldn’t see, nor breath. He’d come here to ask for Marguerite’s hand, finally accepting that it was a good thing to do. Now, he was being FORCED to sell the Willows.
Rubbing his forehead, he stood, turning to look out the window. He needed time to consider the possibilities. How could things have gone into the swamps so quickly? He shook his head.
“If my father could do it, so can I,” Tomas said, watching a pair of squirrels run across the lawn, then scamper up one of the large oak trees.
“Your father did it at a time when sugar was just beginning,” Phillipe said. “Now?” He shrugged. “Competition is too fierce, and the banks too stingy. You saw what happened to the Boudreaux’s.”
The Boudreaux family once owned one of the older plantations along the river. When they experienced a bad season, the bank foreclosed, kicked them from the property and promptly sold it to Phillipe Bourgeois.
Antille Bourgeois, Phillipe’s youngest son ran it now, while the Boudreaux family moved into the swamps with the Acadians. Is that where we’re headed, Tomas thought. The swamps?
Tomas took a drink, watching the squirrels spiral around a thick, draping limb of the live oak. Must be nice being a squirrel, he thought. Total freedom to do as they wanted.
“Tell you what, Tomas,” Phillipe said. “What if I draw up a contract stating your mother has complete control of the house?”
Tomas smirked, glancing to the side as he heard Phillipe walk his way. That might work, he thought. If it’s in writing, he can’t break it.
“Once she passes,” Phillipe continued. “God willing it’s a long time coming, then the entire property moves into my control.”
“We both get what we want from this deal, Tomas,” Phillipe said when Tomas remained quiet. “You get to stay in New Orleans, your mother gets to stay at the Willows and the plantation remains productively debt free.”
And you finally get your hands on the Willows.
“I need time,” Tomas said, turning to glare at Phillipe, who now joined him at the window. “This is too much to consider in one sitting.”
“Of course, Tomas. Of course,” Phillipe said. “Take all the time you need.” He patted Tomas on the back and led him toward the foyer. “So long as you only need a week.” He shrugged and smirked.
“Marguerite’s impatient. She might find another suiter by then.”
Highly doubtful, Tomas said to himself, wondering if she had any clue what was happening.
Tomas nodded. “A week.”
“Fair well, lad,” Phillipe called out as Tomas walked through the front doors onto the veranda. His horse was tied to a post at the base of the stairs, as if in anticipation of his departure.
“The Belle won’t be back around for a few hours,” Phillipe said. “Might I suggest you ride back to the Willows? Clear your mind while enjoying the lovely countryside.”
Tomas nodded, said nothing and descended the stairs – saving one last, painful look for the footman holding his horse. “Thank you,” he whispered. The man nodded, but said nothing.
Instead, the look was lifeless, matching the feeling inside Tomas’s chest. Tight. Cold. Dead.