Posts Tagged Antebellum Louisiana
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!”