Leaning his forearms against the iron railing, Lafayette stifled a yawn while watching the busy creoles two-stories below. The vibrant hum of their voices flowed along the street reminding him of beehives. He had been on the veranda for some time when a breeze ruffled across him. Shoving his long hair back, he turned his face to the breeze that had woven itself through the canyons of the city. “Unreal? It feels like early fall and here it is nearly December.” he mumbled, his expression hardening “It is goin’ to be mighty strange not being home for the holidays.” His dark eyes shifted to the sun-baked slate and red clay roofs surrounding him. Still, try as he might, he was unable to picture them blanketed in snow.
Releasing a loud snort, he went back inside, closing the double-glass doors behind him. For a full minute, he stared through the glass at the opposing building, ‘Would not mind leavin’ these open, let some fresh air into this place, except Grand-mère has been goin’ on about how the cold is makin’ her bones ache. I hope livin’ down here does not cause my blood to thin out like these Louisianans,’ he grumbled, turning to survey his bedroom.
Circling the room, he considered how great it would be to go riding on such a perfect day. When passing his desk for the third-time; he drug a finger along its curved edge and halting, ‘I had only to offhandedly mention I needed a place to study and this behemoth appeared, as if whisked in on angel wings.’ His eyes scrawled across its clutter-strewn surface; newspapers, novels, law books, his own scribblings, and Father’s latest letter. Seeing it laying there, his mouth twisted. Passing by the letter, he chose Kent James, ‘American Law Commentaries’ and with a heavy sigh, he laid the book right back down.
Turning to the four walls, he was all too familiar with Lafayette rubbed at his face, falling back to pacing until catching sight of his reflection in the chifferobe’s full-length mirror. He stumbled mid-stride, halting.
This morning he had not bothered with a shirt, and seeing his ribs in the reflective surface, all of them, he rolled his shoulders, mumbling, “I need to eat more,” all the while knowing he would not, as his appetite had been pathetic since leaving Sienna. Turning, he flexed his arm, his brow furrowed and sweeping his hair from his face, he took a long look at himself. ‘My eyes are dull, almost lifeless.’ He frowned, his dimples becoming deep dark ravines within his unshaven face. ‘Hell, I look like five-miles of bad road.’ Snagging the bourbon decanter, he poured himself three-fingers of the pricey liquor.
Skulking out onto his room’s interior veranda that afforded a view of the garden, this time, he did not bother to shut the doors behind him. Dropping in the woven cane plantation chair, scrunching down in a posture, he knew Mams would not approve of. Thinking of this, he grumbled, “Par Dieu, I would be thrilled to have her fly into me. Leastways, it would mean I was home and not here.”
Retrieving his half-smoked cigar from the night before, Lafayette relit it; blowing languid smoke rings. Below him, the house was silent as a hot summer day, for it was naptime. It never occurred to him filles were required to take afternoon reprieves. Apparently, a respite was yet, another sign of good breeding.
The first time Josephine was informed it was time to retire, the spark of shock that lit up her face had thrown him into a fit of laughter. Yet his mirth disappeared when his Grand-mère turned an eye on him, stating, ‘I cannot fathom what you find humorous, m’ fils. People of good substance value etiquette, and I thoroughly expect my bloodline to follow the codes acknowledged by our tier of society.’
Thinking on her words, Lafayette released a small herd of sluggish smoke rings. Tracking their wobbling ascent to the open sky above, he thought. ‘I wish I, too, could escape my new rank so easily. Never in all my days could I have imagined how hushed, restrained, and well mannered a household could be. What I would not give to chew the fat with a few of the bubs back home, even a good, hot-tempered debate with Gabe sounds marvelous,’ he thought, smiling, letting the cigar smoke snake through his teeth like the Chinese dragon incense burner in the parlor. ‘Even better, I would like a damn wild run with Taddy where we kicked up a ruckus; creating tales the whole county could bluster on about.’ Rolling his cigar back-and-forth, he stared at its glowing tip, “wonder if’n he misses me at all?”
“Maître Lafe, vous must not invite the cold in for m’ Maîtresse, she does not like cold.”
“Doux Jésus, Odette!” Lafayette squawked, vaulting nearly out of his chair and swift as a cat, he snatched the glass of bourbon as it fell. Swiping red-gold droplets from his pants, he snarled, “Why the hell, are you not off sleepin’ like the rest of ’em?”
Odette sucked in her lips, pressing them together, ’I know my place and I surely wish the young Maître would learn his. A monsieur does not raise his voice. A true monsieur most certainly never curses in front of a dame, even if she be a servant.′ Pulling the door closed, she stepped out on to the veranda. She could feel the dull ache behind her eyes from clashing with Josephine most of the morning, increasing. Truth was the girl’s manners were atrocious, and studying her brother, she could see crystal-clear similarities, most notably their temperament and their propensity for taking the Lord’s name in vain. She found the way blasphemy dripped from their tongues inexcusable.
Sipping at his remaining bourbon, Lafayette stifled down his irritation, still the bottom line was he did not care for the way she had startled him. As the silence stretched, he at last grew curious and raising his eyes found Odette considering him so wolfishly, it appeared as if she were trying to decide whether he would make a good meal or not.
Exhaling through his nose, a habit he knew Mams loathed, he swirled the liquor, creating a twister in the center of his glass. ’Suppose m’ cursin’ has yet again upset her. And next she will be tattling of it to Grand-mère, which means I can expect another remorse laden lecture on how, I am industriously paving myself a road to Lucifer’s kingdom.′
He took a sip and spun the liquor, ’always considered Mams held the blue ribbon for ladling out hearty helpings of guilt. I was most sincerely incorrect; she was merely trained by Grand-mère. Hellfire, between feelin’ guilty half-the-time and needin’ to be decorous the other half, I have come to the conclusion being the grandson of Madame Begnoir-Bueford is more trouble than it is worth.′ Snorting once more, Lafayette said, “Par Dieu, just say whatever it is you are thinkin’.”
“Maître Lafe, has not one person ever instructed vous how terribly sinful it is to commit blasphemy?”
“Oh, is that all?” he chuckled. Seeing how serious she was, he swallowed his laughter. “Odette, I have been informed. De facto, Katharine frequently and fervently reprimands me with bible verses. By glory, my Father has even jumped on that bandwagon. Mainly though, it has been poor Mams who tried to culture me. She has railed and railed at me for my blasphemy and twitched my ears, more times than I wish to recollect.”
Odette’s eyes flew wide. ‘He must be fibbin’.’ she told herself. ‘What darkie would dare lay a hand on a white person?’
“Oui, I have been thoroughly educated,” he drawled, taking no notice of her shocked expression.
“Then why do you persist?” she asked, sidling around, placing the small of her back against the ornate cast-iron railing.
“I suppose from habit.” Lafayette said, shrugging his shoulders, taking another draw on his cigar. “It comes rather naturally to me.”
“Naturally?” she tilted her head, her eyes flicking over him. “Maître Lafe, I think not. For vous is a child of God. And thus, it is improper to claim blasphemy natural.” She said, tapping her fingers on the railing. “Besides, it be unlawful to blasphemy.”
“Well, truthfully, it is not. In 1838, the case of Commonwealth vs. Kneeland determined blasphemy was and is not a criminal offense,” Lafayette said, his deep dimples dancing as he rolled the cigar in his mouth. Smiling at her, he thought, ‘Impressive, how I rattled that verdict right out. Hmm, shows all the studyin’ is settling in,’ seeing her frown, he added, “However Odette, I do give you points on the whole child of God part of your supposition.”
Odette’s mouth dropped open and she turned to look at the garden.
Wearing a full Cheshire grin, Lafayette stretched, hooking a bare foot on the railing, looking forward to debating further with Odette.
Instead, she remained silent.
Taking in the tightness in her face, he wondered, ’How much of this conversation was going to reach Grand-mère?′ And, his smile faded. Oddly, though, he found he still did not feel like apologizing. Studying her further, his mind switched gears, ‘Odette must have been a rare beauty in her youth. I ain’t ever seen such fine bone structure or skin so creamy. Wonder what she would say, if’n I up and asked her if she was a quadroon or an octoroon?’ Rocking his chair back on two legs, his grin spread. ‘I ain’t goin’ to though. Despite her lack of faith in mon upbringing, I know it is not respectable to question her lineage. Hellfire, it sure nags at me though.’
With a cough, Odette interrupted his thoughts, “I know vous be a bonne man Maître Lafe, and yet vous make me grieve for your immortal soul. S’il vous plaît, be sure to speak of your blasphemies at confession.” The sincere earnestness of her countenance startled him and before he could respond, she closed her eyes squatting beside him.
Sure, she was praying for him, his skin burned red as he took in the sinful vices of smoke and liquor in his hands and quietly he lowered his chair legs to the ground.
Although Odette was not praying, she was shifting through her memories. She could see Lafayette as a round-cheeked boy, ’He was so clever and proper. A right smart little monsieur, he was; and so much humor, his laughter would fill a room.’ Opening her eyes to this cynical, sinful version, deep puckers appeared around her mouth. ’Makes me wonder how much of that garçon, be even left in him?’ she thought and began to speak, her voice breaking, “I...” She closed her eyes, swallowing then re-opened them, “I did not come in here to chide vous, even though vous seem to bring it out in me. Strange, and yet it were set in my mind vous were the bonne monsieur and it be Maître Taddy who went around breaking every rule; each of them without a second thought. Could be, my memory be slippin’?” She said, placing a hand across her eyes.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with your memory. Mon Mams says, ’anyone standing next to Taddy appears to be an angel.’ See, Taddy is not a bad sort. He does not even really try to be bad. Luck just rolls down hill for m′ petit frère. I tell you, I am thankful for his bonne heart or I do not know what would become of ’em.”
“Perhaps so,” Odette said. “Still, I be lettin’ vous derail me. I came to discover why vous do not leave this house unless accompanying the Mademoiselles.”
Pulling his foot down, he bent, stubbing the cigar out in the ashtray. “Well, Father charged me to be their sentry.” His eyes flicked to his empty glass, wishing for more. “Here I am, complying with his orders,” he said, letting the heavy glass slide from his fingers to thud on the floor next to the ashtray. ’Chiant! If’n he understood what followin’ his orders costs me. I have listened to; elocution lessons, music lessons, posture lessons, dining lessons and even more lessons. I swear I feel fit to explode. If’n a fille has to suffer through all this bullshit to become a respectable mademoiselle, then I am twice as damn glad I am a monsieur.’ he thought, sinking back into his chair. ’Then again, since I am a monsieur, it falls on me to protect ‘em, just as Father commanded.’
“Maître Lafe?” When he did not answer, Odette laid a hand on his leg and he jumped like a horse kept in a stall too long. “Maître Lafe, the dressmaker be visitin’ this day. Mon Maîtresse has determined your sœurs trousseaus are far outdated. Her visit would be an appropriate time for vous to make yourself absent.”
Lafayette chewed on the corner of his lip, “Point taken. I shall ensure I keep out of the way.”
“Maître Lafe. . ..”
The corner of his mouth twitched, causing one dimple to rise and fall as he canted his dark eyes her way. Fr a fleeting moment she could see inside him; see his doubt, anxiousness, irritation, and above all, his desire to be free. Patting his leg, she said, “It is wrong for vous to stay within these here walls all the time. Why do vous not allow yourself to leave these grounds?”
“How can I when I might be required?”
“By whom? For what?”
“Odette, hellfire, I already damn well told you. Mon Father charged me to be their sentry.” He waved his hand out over the garden. “So, here I am at my post.”
At last understanding him, she stood, cupping the side of his face, “Chéri, I recall the first time I laid eyes on vous. Mon Maîtresse was visiting Sienna and your Mère was swollen up with pride over vous. I believe, vous was just over six-months and vous was inchin’ about clutching hold of anything firm enough to allow vous to stand. Anyone picked vous up and vous would squirm to be free. You wanted to walk, to explore, and I considered vous the most independent enfant I ever seen. Chéri, vous look me in the eyes and tell me vous have changed so much.”
Her words struck a note, the binding constraints of duty feeling even more suffocating, and he choked out, “I ain’t.”
“As I thought, vous get yourself out of here. This hour, vous leave this house. Go to the port, to the racetracks, bookstores, cafés, saloons. Cannot believe I suggested that last one, but, m’ chéri vous must leave this house before vous lose your sanity. Think I do not hear vous pacin’ the confines of this here room like an animal?”
Misery showed wet in his eyes. “What of my devoirs? My obligations?”
“They are done. Your Père desired vous to safeguard the mademoiselles to New Orleans, have you not done that?” She stood and placed her hands on her hips, “Maître Lafe, vous rightly know m’ Maîtresse has lived here most of her life, a good deal of it without the Maître. In that time, we have not required a full-time sentinel. What brand of demons vous imagine is goin’ to crawl out of the parlor walls? Finish your dressin’ and leave this here house,” she said, offering him a hand out of the chair.
Running through what she said, his forehead puckered. ’Odette is correct. I have been foolish. Father does not want me to remain locked within this den of females for the rest of mon life.’ Seeing the correctness of her words, he grasped her hand, a giant smile blazing forth, setting off his dimples and as he stood, life rushed back into his eyes.
While he did as she said, Odette went speak with her Mistress and returning she raised her hand to ramp on Lafayette’s door, her pocket felt heavy with the weight of the key and the banknotes she was to deliver.
Coming in, she saw he was at his desk, loading his pockets and smiled. He had shaved, dressed for town, and she felt proud of his aristocratic good looks. Watching him brush dust from his black western hat, she felt a hitch deep inside her. Until this moment, she had not appreciated how comfortable she had become having him about. ‘I will miss havin’ him underfoot, his insistence on lendin’ a hand, and most of all, I will miss his tomfoolery. He does interrupt the tedium of my days. And yet, this is the brightest I have seen his spirit since his arrival.’ Studying the fleur-de-lis designs on the rug, Odette thought, ‘Soon as he walks through the gate, life around here will change yet again. For once he tastes freedom he will spend less time within these brick walls.’ Stepping forward, she extended the large fold of currency, “Maître Lafe.”
He smiled crookedly at her, as if he knew a joke she did not, “Inform mon Grand-mère, I said, merci beaucoup, all the same, I possess m’ own funds.”
“Mon Maîtresse had me understand vous were to have this, along with a weekly stipend. She says it is all a part of your birthright.”
Lafayette shook his head, refusing the money.
Taking hold of his hand, Odette placed the bundle in his palm, “Maître Lafe, vous be findin’ Orleans be far more costly than Harrisonville. Furthermore, m’ Maîtresse says she will not allow blatherskites to hiss a single word about a monsieur of her line ever being short of funds.”
Lafayette nodded, placing the notes in his wallet, recognizing he had lost this dispute before even being given a chance to start.
“This here be Maître Bueford’s key.” Odette said, handing him an intricately carved, brass, skeleton key. “It will open any lock on this property.”
Lafayette took the key, examining it, for not once had he held such an item. The harder he thought, he could not recollect a time the doors of Sienna were locked.
When at last he looked up, Odette laughed at the awe she saw in his eyes. “See, we keep the doors locked here, Maître Lafe. The Mademoiselles have non need of a guard. Take your leave through the garden gate, when vous come sneakin’ back after hours, vous come back that ways too, so as not to wake the Mademoiselles. I will make sure Maeve lights your room, places fresh water in the washstand, and leaves a cold meal for vous each night.”
Lafayette raised his eyebrows; surprised she assumed that night after night he would be out so late.
“Do not be feignin’ shock with me. Vous are not the first monsieur, I have seen too. Once your boots hit those pavin’ stones, I know vous will find far too many enjoyments to be home early. This evenin’ I will make your excuses afore dîner is served.”
Slipping the key onto his watch chain, Lafayette gave Odette a quick peck on the cheek, and raced down the garden stairs.
Standing stock still, she waited until she heard the click on the gate, and sighed, ’It be for the best. A monsieur locked in a house full of mademoiselles will lose his spirit.’ Eyeing his room wistfully, she inhaled; his scent, cigar smoke, and bourbon, ’And this garçon has too much spirit to waste.’
The instant the gate clanged behind him, Lafayette became a citizen of the Vieux Carré. From the slate beneath his feet to the cast-iron crawling along the buildings, every element of the Carré fascinated him. His nights and days swirled together, his own spirit intertwining with the festive spirit of the boisterous, flourishing city. He still missed Missouri. Strangely, though the old square almost felt like home.
The people of the crescent town delighted him. He took time to chat with the merchants and mince playful words with the ladies. He also enjoyed the glib stories of the minstrels performing for coins and the open candor of the men who worked the docks. In short order, he made friends high-and-low, there being no locality within New Orleans, where he did not know anyone by name.
When at home, he was no longer cantankerous, his sharp cynicism gone; his robust laughter filled the house, infecting the others with his mirth. He delighted his family with humorous tales while doling out the latest gossip and showering the household with lagniappes.
Free to be himself, he spent a measure of his time studying law at Tulane University; immensely enjoying the classroom environment. Then per his Grandmother’s request, he began working with her lawyers overseeing the affairs of the Begnoir-Bueford estate. He was awed by the massive land tracts his family owned whose profits were channeled into land development. Educating himself to the ins-and-outs of his family’s business, he was amazed to learn how many owed their existence to his family. Managing the estate became a perfect growth backdrop for him as he thrived on the intricate details. Along with the boardrooms filled with cigar smoking, powerful men, and long tables buried beneath legal documents, it all made his pulse pound with excitement; as did the twisted political games these men played, either over drinks in the St. Louis bar or on the open fairways near the docks.
Yet each day, once free of school and business, he would without fail head straightaway for Exchange Alley. Here in this district, renowned fencing instructors taught classes holding competitions around the clock. With none of their stable for him to train, fencing became his new passion. The sport required an all-together different use of the muscles he had developed as an equestrian. Ever demanding of himself, he would train until sweat rolled from his aching body. The harder he pushed, the more he could feel a change within himself. Competing soon became a rush like none other. He excelled at it; enjoying the agility required of his mind and body to outfox an opponent.
Moreover, his Grandmother approved of the training as it matched his social standing. For Society Circles of Louisiana deemed a young man should attend a fencing academy the same way a young lady should attend finishing classes.
Some days, though, he would rent a horse and ride to a racetrack, most often Metairie, just to walk the stables and be among other horses. Yet, before the afternoon was through, his heart would be aching so for their Crowe race stock, he would head back to town burying himself deeper in the flavor of the Carré; frequenting cafes, open air markets, and taking a daily stroll in the new American Garden district. The homes of the Garden district captured his imagination, their architecture purporting designs scavenged from throughout western civilization.
Of course, there was also the other side of the Vieux Carré, which he took just as much pleasure in, a side that shone twice as bright when the sun sank red into the western horizon. Despite the darkness, gas lanterns kept the streets a glow and audacious activities kept these parts of town fully alive until dawns breaking light. He seemed to never tire of play productions, operas, dancing halls, octoroon balls, saloons, gambling dens, and even what were considered the more unsavory gentleman entertainments. Lafayette adored how at night, a man’s social caste meant little. Gentleman and dock workers alike trimmed up and turned out for the glittery, musical, nocturnal carnival.
Although it did not take him long to determine, the working class establishments far more suited his tastes. Not only did these places feel more like Missouri to him; they were often far more novel, luring him in with toe-tapping Negro music and women attired in shameless fashions designed to flaunt their best features. These women were always stylishly lovely, coming in an assortment of hues from pearly white to darker than the night itself. He felt at ease in these places, alongside men of all ranks; gentlemen of money, sailors, merchants, dockworkers, petty politicians and a varied mixture that trickled on down society’s ladder. Within these gambling halls Lafayette’s reputation for wit, grit, and fair play rapidly preceded him. He was known to not devil the other players and to remain easygoing, no matter how large the pot. All of which made him a popular addition to any game.
The long nights he spent playing poker on the McIntosh riverboat and at the Little Dipper Saloon back home, had taught him to be a skilled player. All the same, it was his natural aptitudes, which that made him a cut above the rest. Firstly, he could read the other player’s tells, which hinted at what they held in their hands. Secondly, as cards flashed across a table top, he was downright proficient at counting them, rarely losing track of the odds nor where cards might lay. Thusly, the poker game itself would become boring. Yet, reading the players and calculating odds held Lafayette’s rapt attention. These nights around the poker tables finished rounding him out, allowing him to be both a Missouri and Louisiana gentleman, all at the same time.
Although the most important lessons he learned concerning metropolitan life were regarding his stature. If a person had either, then others would natter on about them and theirs without end. Duly, the simplest lapse in etiquette could circle the parish before a person even realized they had made a lapse. So almost as if by magic, Lafayette found himself practicing the lessons Simone hounded him with throughout his youth. At last, they all made perfect sense. He knew also when he saw her next; he owed her the hugest kiss of gratitude. Not once would he have ever bet her ceaseless rants would become so valuable.
He also began wondering if he would be able to settle once more into his rural Cass County life. There was no doubt; he continued to feel a deep connection to Sienna and all it stood for. Yet, even the painful loneliness that plagued him had changed. Whereas, he had felt unnatural not having Thaddeus by his side. Now more often than not, he wished his brother were here not for comfort as he had in the beginning, but so he might share this or that new experience with him.
In truth, with each passing day, Lafayette could feel his identity changing. The gaudy, pulsating beat of the city was entering his blood, he was no longer a passing visitor, he had become a native. It was as if a secret part of him had been awakened by the Carré’s voodoo magic, making him speculate, if with the Creole name his Mother had bequeathed to him she might also have gifted him, her love for her Creole home.
Unbeknownst to him, he too was leaving an impression upon the city; his name habitually coming up in conversations, for once, a person met Madame Begnoir-Bueford’s grandson, they never forgot him. His intellect, vibrant character, quick charm, and striking, dark looks made sure of it. Often ladies would question one another if they had spoken with him, and those who had bragged over their encounter. Almost as natural as breathing, he had become infamous about the parish. Once more, wherever matriarchs gathered, they would chatter about what a clever addition, Lafayette Begnoir-Bueford Crowe would make to any family.