Beneath the Willows – Chapter 16

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.

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