Lorraine Genevieve Begnoir-Bueford was a bona fide Creole. Her family had settled in Louisiana when it was scarcely considered habitable. She was a tiny woman, shrunken more by age, neither size nor age did little to demean her standing. If an individual was of any account in Louisiana, they knew of Lorraine Begnoir-Bueford. It was said if her name was not attached to a society, then the organization was not worth joining. There were also abounding rumors of her having more assets than any family in New Orleans.
Deep in the heart of Louisiana, to be of the Begnoir-Bueford line, was the highest caste a person might attain. However, with such status often came unwanted adoration. Lorraine’s name, and all associated with it was whispered of in kitchens, hallways, and parlors. Yet, she thrived under the pressure and socially was a powerful force to parley. Yet, to her grandchildren, she was merely Gran-mère, who lived in the old three-story red brick house on rue de Royal.
Each level of her elegant home contained verandas festively adorned with scrolled cast iron and gas lamps. Each room contained two sets of French doors; one allowing a person to observe Royal Street while the other led them to the house’s inner courtyard. Thirty years ago, Lorraine purchased a notable gardener and gave him free rein; he in turn created a courtyard the envy of families throughout the Vieux Carré. By mid-afternoon the heady aroma rising from her courtyard was so thick, people passing on the street commented how lovely the flowers smelled. Inside the courtyard, a meandering slate path wove through wide-leafed plants passing by, not just one fountain, but three.
It was here in her private oasis that Lorraine felt most at ease. Although she adored her luxurious home, she no longer felt completely happy inside since her husband’s death. The regal house felt too large, too empty and every room, every nook, every cranny, reminded her of him.
As Lafayette and his sisters followed Odette along the deep green cobblestones, past turtlehead flowers and singing birds, they each peered through the jungle-like foliage searching for their first glimpse of their Grandmother. When rounding a bend, they came upon her reclining on a chaise lounge, fast asleep, near a fountain of the Greek goddess Demeter.
It had been years since their last visit and it shocked them to see she was old. None of them remembered her this way, and to their young eyes, she appeared ancient. The four of them bunched together like a scared litter of kittens.
Clearing her throat Odette said, “Maîtresse.”
Lorraine woke. The change was remarkable. For in waking she looked alive, not merely alive; infused with vitality.
“Louez Dieu, Katharine you have arrived.” She said, with a dignified smile, welcoming her granddaughter.
“Oh Gran-mère, it is so wonderful to be here, merci beucoup for allowing us to impose on your hospitality with such a brief forewarning.” Katharine said, kneeling next to her Grandmother. As she did Katharine’s faded widow’s crepe spread around her as plain as any soldier’s blanket.
“Ma Chérie, it is you who do me honor. You are a Begnoir-Bueford. This home is as much yours as mine. Having you here will keep the loneliness at bay,” she said, clasping Katharine’s hand. “Ma Chérie darling, I am très désolé for your great loss. Monsieur Bueford, bless his soul, has been gone these many years, and alas, I still pine for him. I would prefer to tell vous the pain of loss fades. Regrettably, I would be insincere. Always vous will miss the comfort of your mari.” Lorraine said, leaning forward and kissing Katharine’s cheek. “Your brief wire stated vous would arrive soon. Where was it vous sent it from again m’ Chérie... Baton Rouge?”
“Plaquemine, it was Plaquemine. Mes excuses for the briefness of my missive. There was so little time before the ship left port.”
Lorraine’s eyes rose studying the others bunched beyond Katharine. It was hard to say if her eyes watered from unrestrained emotions or from the harsh afternoon light. An odd smile briefly caressed her face before she announced, “Bonjour, welcome home, m’ bébés.” Leaning into Katharine, she whispered, “Your père’s communiqué stated all his little birds, excepting Gabriel were coming to visite. Vous seem a little short by my count.”
“There were some last minute changes.”
“I see, well then, which of your frères deemed to visite moi?”
“It is Lafayette,” Katharine said, motioning with hurried jerks of her free hand for her brother to step closer. She was coming to the conclusion the bleary sheen to Lorraine’s eyes was an indication of failing sight.
Freeing himself of Michaël and Josephine, Lafayette dashed off his hat, kneeling beside Katharine. “Gran-mère, bonjour, it is I, Lafayette Henri Begnoir,” he stated, wishing to introduce himself and not have his elder sister do it as if he were a child. Taking his grandmother’s hand from Katharine, he brushed his lips across its blue-veined back. “It has been far too long Gran-mère. I have very much missed your charmant company.”
Lorraine smiled like a young girl accepting her first invitation to dance. “Ah... oui now I can see vous. Mine eyes are not as sharp as they used to be. My, my, Lafayette Henri, vous have matured into quite the Monsieur. Have vous been told, vous were named for m’ own Père?”
“Oui, I have been told thus. However, it would vastly please me for you to impart more of him on me later.”
“You appear quite the charmeur. They say m’ Père was a charmeur. It is said, he could beguile a spider from its web. Do vous believe vous are quite so bonne m’ fils?”
Releasing a smile that set his dimples and eyes to sparkling, Lafayette replied. “Why Madame, what kind of charmeur would I be if I were to divulge I were one?”
“Oui.” She said, taking her hand from his to cup the side of his face. “I am sure vous are often informed how much vous resemble your père.”
He nodded in assent.
Lovingly, she traced the smooth curve of his high cheekbone. “Mon fils, in truth vous are a good deal more impressive than he ever was. It is a way of your eyes,” she said, kissing him on each cheek. “Mon Chéri, vous are magnifique.” Lorraine announced and then searching side-to-side like a lost child.
Odette stepped forward, “I am here Maîtresse.”
“Vous always are.” Lorraine said with a smile, combing her fingers through Lafayette’s thick, black hair, “He is a handsome diable, is he not?”
“Oui, Maîtresse, he be that and more.” Odette answered, passing Lafayette a knowing nod.
Josephine shifted about where she stood feeling utterly ignored and her jealousy rising up as she listened to the praises ladled on Lafayette, ‘she sounds ridiculous, just like a mealy-mouthed girl at a social.’
What Josephine did not understand, was that back in Missouri ladies were idolized for their rarity. For her, her uncommon beauty made her even more renowned and thusly had also given her a swollen image of herself.
Yet, here in the Deep South, especially in New Orleans, Mothers doted foremost on their boys. A boy was an important asset to a family. As a man, he would hold the power, the money, and the genetics of their line. A girl belonged to a family only until she married and became another man’s property. Not so with a son, it was he who insured a family’s name would survive.
However, even if Josephine understood these cultural divergences, it would have made no difference to her. She did not like being ignored and unable to stand it any longer, she rushed forward, kissing her grandmother’s cheek. “I too have missed you Gran-mère.”
“Josephine how silly of me to fail to notice you, oh my, what a lovely Parisian doll vous have become. Here, let me have a better look at you. Lafe, chéri, s’il vous plaît, shifts aside, so I may better observe your sœur.”
Doing as requested, he did not feel the full significance of the request until he complied. For once he stepped back, he could not help thinking, kneeling before his regal grandmother must be what it felt like to kneel before a Queen.
“Gran-mère, I am thrilled to be in New Orleans.” Josephine gushed, taking a seat on the chaise lounge next to her Grandmother.
“Are you?” Lorraine asked taking both of Josephine’s hands in her own, a wicked gleam coming to her old face. “I hope vous will say the same in a few weeks.” Then the air between them turned as cold as Lorraine’s new expression. “As I said, it was silly to overlook vous, as I have been informed this trip was made entirely because of vous. Your poor Père, wrote me regarding his shameful failure at raising vous appropriately. He detailed your unseemly behavior and the appalling shame vous brought not merely to yourself but also to your famille. It mortifies me exceedingly to think vous are m’ bébé’s fille.”
Feeling the garden, swim up around her, Josephine inhaled deeply, her eyes darted to Katharine. Except, her sister had abandoned her to retrieve Michaël.
“Do not be so fidgety.” Lorraine said, drawing Josephine closer, making her realize her grip was far firmer than she expected. “Vous are familiar with the value of your famille linage?”
“Vous understand, vous are obliged to fulfill the image of the grand Mademoiselles who have come before vous.”
Sliding her eyes to Lafayette, Josephine saw he was grinning to catch the moon and knew he was privately laughing at her.
“Josephine Michelle Antoinette!” Lorraine scolded, jerking on her hands. “Vous shall pay heed to me?”
“In point of fact, each of vous pay heed to me. I want vous to understand, I am delighted; delighted clear through to have vous here. Nevertheless, I want to make this abundantly clear. I will not tolerate your undisciplined frontier manners, or for that matter, loose conduct of any sort while vous are within the State of Louisiane. I will not tolerate shame upon our house. I demand each of vous do honor to your Crowe name and prove to be esteemed tributes to your Begnoir-Bueford blood.” Lorraine said sharply before releasing the sweetest most delicate china doll smile. “I do hope, I am understood.”
Lafayette nodded, impressed by his grandmother’s fire and gaining a new understanding of where some of their own dauntless spirit came from.
“Josephine, we do understand each other. Do we not?”
“Yes, Gran-mère.” Josephine mumbled, bowing her head, wishing for at least the hundredth time she had not turned Lafayette against her.
Loraine’s hands stroked away the tears dampening Josephine’s crimson cheeks. “Do not fret. It will not all be horrible. I am positive we shall become friends and we will have joyous times. Mon chérie Katharine, introduce your fils to me. It is a vast honor to meet him as I never did think I would live to see a great-grandchild.”
After much pleasantries Odette escorted them to their rooms and shutting the door to his, Lafayette stripped to his pants, collapsing on the bed. The cotton comforter felt cool beneath his skin and as he sunk into the thick, goose down mattress he let his guard down, at last.
Earlier in the garden, he had been pleased by their Grandmother’s warm welcome. Her gushing greeting to him, followed by an upbraiding for Josephine had made him feel somewhat vindicated. Then seeing her youthen and weep as she held Michaël in her arms was quite surprising. Yet, even as he had relished these moments, a part of him had been yearning to be alone, to have silence.
“Mister Crowe.” Tap... Tap... “Mister Crowe.”
Shaking his head Lafayette opened his eyes to twilight. His mind felt muddled and far away. He could not even recall falling asleep.
Tap. . . “Mister Crowe”. . . Tap.
Struggling to wakefulness, he answered, “Oui.” Dragging one heavy hand across his face as the door opened. A corner of his mind clamored in alarm and with a grunt, he sat bolt upright. Then recalling they were safe in New Orleans, he released a heartfelt sigh plopping back on the mattress. Lying there, he heard music mixed with street noises. A sound he recalled from his last visit as being the night song of the Veux Carré, as standard here as the katydids and frogs were at Sienna.
“Excuse me, Mister Crowe, Sir?”
Hearing nervous shuffling, it came to him, ‘she is already in my room.’ His throat was dry, making his voice sound rough, even to his own ears, when he said, “come here.”
Not being able to hear her footsteps on the thick rug, he pushed himself up onto an elbow to find her standing at the foot of his bed. ‘Damnation, she sure is a little thing.’ he thought, and swallowing a few times to soften his voice, he said, ”S’il vous plaît, come closer.”
Timid steps drew her ever nearer and in the dim twilight he could see the gleam of her eyes as they darted to him and hastily away. Her corkscrew blonde curls were tied in a kerchief but here-and-there strands had escaped. His dark eyes were drawn to the tantalizingly movement of the curls, then to her rosebud lips and full bust-line. She had drawn so close he could smell her womanly scent, and in this half-awake state, his groin tightened. Although, by the way her hands clenched the waistline of her shirt, he perceived she was, despite her appearance more a child than a woman. Rolling out a warm smile, he asked. “Who are you, Lil’ one?”
His smile grew, ’Appears Gran-mère is following the new observance of hiring Irish servants. Now that he thought about it, other than Odette, whom he did not believe could be run off with a squirrel rifle, he had not as of yet seen another negro.’
“Madam Bueford sent me.”
“Is that so, well, little Maeve, what do you want of me?” He asked, yawning and scratching at his bare belly.
The movement drew her eyes and meeting his gaze; she squeaked turning as many varying shades of red as a summer sunset and looked away.
He laughed, his laughter rich and warm in the open room.
Peeking his way, she said, “I be told to fetch ye to dinner, Monsieur.”
“Merci. Inform the filles, I will be down soon.”
“Will do, sir,” she yipped, scurrying from the room.
Smiling at the hanging ajar door, Lafayette chuckled again through a large yawn. ’So begins my life on rue de Royal, very different from back home where I am hollered for like a field hand. Here a petite, belle charmeur comes to whisper in my ear. This new pattern of livin’ might take a bit gettin’ used to, but I do believe I can handle it.’