Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 14: New Orleans


Clara: -October 1906-

“Are you ready, Clara?” my brother asked, examining my trunk.

“I’ll check my bedroom once more to be sure,” I answered.

I walked up the stairs to my room, ensuring that my windows were locked. As I did, I glanced down to the field and noticed Ezra filling the trough for the horses but I turned away with a sudden sense of sadness that I was leaving. I glanced around my room once more, certain that I was prepared to leave but as I shut the door I felt a sense of longing followed me down the stairs.

“William, thank you. I think everything is in order. When you are ready to leave, I am ready too,” I said, adjusting my hat. He smiled and took my trunk from the floor and brought it outside to his carriage. My family was smiling and shamefully I wondered if they were secretly delighted that I was leaving. Harvey grinned and hugged me, though I felt no pleasure in it after what he’d said about me. I exchanged hugs with my family, even embracing my mother though she seemed as uncomfortable as me.

“Write to Henry and Maria, please, dear. You do have his address at school don’t you?” my mother asked, releasing me from a loose hug. I nodded in response. Harvey murmured something in my direction but I deliberately ignored him, missing his expression as I turned my back to him. Perhaps I let my pettiness saturate my mood, but my mind kept returning to the things he’d said. I was too sensitive but it was impossible to ignore.

I placed myself next to William in the carriage and as he cracked the whip the horses moved, taking me away from the house with every second. The farther we went, the less heavy the air became. As we ventured from the grove, the trees scattered and the pathway became overgrown and rough. I clutched the handles, feeling an exhilaration with each tremble of the carriage. It had been years since I’d left St. Martinville, and I was eager to see somewhere new.

“William I am thrilled to be with you. I’ve read so much about New Orleans!” I declared, slightly bouncing in place. He glanced at me and then looked forward again.

You have?” he asked, his expression skeptical. I was slightly offended at his immediate doubt in me. My thoughts reverted to my grandmother’s diaries and letters.

“Well, yes, William I do read on occasion,” I said with a hint of snark in my voice. He chuckled, but I was determined to keep my grandmother’s diaries to myself. In a way, I felt protective of them, as if twenty-year-old Elise had told me everything in confidence.

William smiled and pressed his shoulder to mine affectionately. “It’s delightful to travel with you, Clara.” I smiled at his words.

“Sometimes I feel as though I haven’t seen you in ages,” I replied cheerfully. We continued forward, his only response being a long sigh.

“The journey will take several hours. Once we have arrived at the train station, the steam train will take us directly to New Orleans. Have you been on a steam train, Clara?” I shook my head in response and felt myself beaming up at him. I inhaled the fresh October air and savored the breeze as it covered my body. Blissful, I turned my back once more and watched as Deveaux Grove grew smaller and eventually disappeared.

***


The train whistled loudly as the train came to a slow halt. My hands were pressed against the window and I excitedly watched the city encircle me. I instantly felt at home, and my heart sank at the notion of leaving even though I’d just arrived. Though my thoughts crept to Ezra, I missed nothing else about home and was happy to finally be elsewhere.

“Are you ready, Clara? We’re coming to a stop.”

I looked at him, removing my hand from the window and placing it in my lap. I’d nearly forgotten he was there. I nodded and he stood, taking our bags with him as a gentleman would. The other passengers rose from their seats at the same time, instantly creating a queue. As it formed, the noise in the train amplified as it filled with conversation. The sounds overwhelmed my senses and I could hardly hear William speaking to me. He handed my bag to me and held his own as we stood and joined the queue to leave the train.

“William, do you live close to the station?” I asked, following him diligently. I was not accustomed to crowds, and the small group of people struck me with foreign panic. Sensing this, he took my arm and kept me close. It was strange to feel strangers’ arms and bodies brush against me, and they nearly pushed my bag from my grasp.

“We live in Jackson Square, the former Place d’Armes, near the French Quarter and the docks. Just a short walk from Bourbon Street, Royal Street, and the French Market,” he answered proudly. We exited the train, and I beamed in every direction as the city came into full view. William’s coat tail swiveled behind him as his feet stomped along the cobblestone roads, and the pattering horse hooves were so prominent I thought I saw his hips swaying with their rhythm. “Do you enjoy shopping? Royal Street has many shops, particularly for young ladies,” he said grinning. He continued without looking at me. “There is a very nice restaurant on Bourbon Street called Galatoire’s. I’d like to take you while you’re here. I think you will enjoy eating out for dinner. I would not wander too far out of the square alone, though, Clara. Please, if you do venture out take caution. It’s not safe for a young lady to be out alone, particularly at night. But I also don’t want to deprive you of your freedom. You’re twenty years old,” he said, guiding me in the right direction. Grateful, I smiled at his words. I saw above a dark, cloudy sky and anticipated rain. A loud whistle filled the air and startled me. There were too many noises, and I grew unexpectedly anxious. William laughed as I jumped.

“It’s only the steamboats, Clara. Don’t be alarmed. They come to the wharf nearly every day,” he laughed. My eyes lingered on the steamboats and saw the edge of the dock, eager to see it more closely. As I looked toward the wharf, another loud ring startled me. William laughed again. His smiling brown eyes found mine as we continued our trek through the streets.

“St. Louis Cathedral. The oldest church in America! Beautiful isn’t it?” he said, telling me rather than asking me. I looked at the large cathedral and listened to the clock tower ring every second. It was exactly noon, and the square was bustling.

“Do you attend mass there?” I asked.

We continued walking until the church faded from view.

“Of course I do,” he replied pleased with himself. “And you will too while you stay with us. It’s beautiful, Clara. I know Adeleine will want to join us too, and Alex of course.”

“Are we going to carry our bags the entire way?” I asked, wondering why no one had helped us.

“Oh, I don’t pay for those services, I live so close to the station,” he claimed. I was relieved for a moment until he pointed to a small building surrounded by tables and chairs.

“Oh, Café du Monde!” His face lit up like a child’s as he said the words.

“Please, let me treat you to some coffee and beignets.”

I snickered at his words. “William, it’s afternoon! I hardly think beignets are appropriate at this time!” I laughed, sounding exactly like my mother. Ignoring my words, he led me to the café. Despite my argument, I was secretly excited for the unexpected dessert. We waited in line, still holding our bags, and the street musicians, the patter of the horse hooves, and conversations blended, creating a sound that was uniquely New Orleans. The city was alive and for the first time in months, I too felt fully alive. I’d been in the city for twenty minutes and I already understood why my grandmother loved it so much. William led me to a table and we set our bags down, taking our seats at the small, quaint chairs on the porch of the small restaurant. William asked me what I wanted, and he told the waitress for us as I was slowly surrounded by pigeons.

“These birds are beautiful,” I said, eyeing them. I watched as their gray feathers, tinged with green, folded neatly into their bodies as they pecked the ground for scraps. William eyed me disapprovingly. “You won’t think so for long. They’re pests,” he said, eyeing the menu. I looked at the birds again and felt sympathy for them. I wanted to touch one, but as I reached my hand down they scattered. Within minutes our coffee and beignets were in front of us and we shared dessert as William explained his favorite parts of New Orleans and dived into the town’s history. As we picked up our bags to leave, I inhaled the scent of the desserts once more, already craving another plate.

After walking only a few minutes we stopped at the door of a small building and he set his bag down. I copied his actions, eager to see what was going to happen next. He opened the door to the building, revealing only a staircase. I glanced at him.

“Not as luxurious as Deveaux Grove, but it’s home,” he said as he led me upstairs. I reached the top of the stairs and the house opened up into a large room with three gargantuan windows that welcomed the sunlight. The floor was covered in a blue carpet, with a small sofa and two chairs near the windows. The bookshelf was built into the wall and it reminded me of the one in my room. The dining table was in the same room, and the small, cozy space reminded me of Ezra’s home.

“Oh, Clara?” Adeline asked, waddling to me. Before I could say hello, Alex ran to me and I smiled down at her, and though she was able to speak in coherent sentences, she merely gave me a large smile, revealing a mouth full of small baby teeth. After a brief hug, she happily skipped back to the floor, where she was drawing and her brown ringlets bounced with every step.

“I did not have time to write, dear.” I heard William say. “Clara offered to help us during your bed rest, particularly for any complications,” he said, hopeful.

“Right, yes.”

“I thought you would be overjoyed.” A small hint of disappointment laced his voice upon hearing the despondent surprise in hers. She shot him a look and then turned back to me. I stood, anticipating the tension in the room.

“Clara your help is much appreciated,” Adeline said, but I could tell she forced it out.

William smiled and guided me to my room. “It isn’t truly a bedroom,” he informed me. “Alex sleeps here. I’m sorry we do not have more space to offer, but since your visit was unexpected, this is all I have planned at the moment. Alex will sleep with us, that is no problem.” I heard Adeline scoff as he said it, and I was struck with guilt. The room was merely a small closet and contained only the bed and a desk. It was clear that they were already struggling with space.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause an inconvenience,” I said, feeling myself shrinking. Adeline straightened up and her blonde hair shifted behind her back. It was unkempt and it was clear that she’d been inside the house for a long time.

“Clara, please. I will certainly appreciate your help once this baby comes. It will be delightful to have your help with Alex as I should remain in bed. I meant no offense at your arrival, it was unexpected, that’s all,” she said, glancing at William. “I will get dinner started.” William followed her to the kitchen and I stayed behind, eager to avoid their conversation. I left my bag unpacked on the bed and stared out of the large windows in the living room. Their house stared down to another building, and the only interesting view was the street. I watched as the people walked, and felt sympathy for them as the rain began to pour. I watched them scatter as the droplets soaked their dresses, and I don’t know how much time passed before I stood and walked to the bookshelf. I scanned the books but found nothing interesting. Disappointed, I walked back to my bed and removed my stationary. Certain that William would write my parents, my thoughts were drawn to Ezra instead.

“Clara?” I heard my brother’s voice from the tiny space. I stood from the desk, folding the letter and setting it in my stationary. When he saw me his face softened into a smile.

“I will be here for the weekend. Since you will be occupied here for the remainder of your visit, I will suggest that you take this weekend to explore the city. Please, remember what I said about exploring too far. It can be dangerous, especially for a young lady,” he cautioned. He reached into his pocket, revealing his wallet. He pulled out a few bills and handed them to me.

“Our parents have given you a small allowance for indulgences. Use it wisely, there is not much.” I was not expecting to spend any money and my face shifted into a look of surprise as he handed me the bills.

“Thank you.”

He smiled and walked away, joining Adeline and Alex in the kitchen once more. I strolled to the window, bills in hand, and I thought of my grandmother’s letter. The only information I had about The Painted Ribbon was that it was located on Royal Street, only a block from my brother’s house and I was determined to find it.

***


I woke up early the next morning, eager to explore the city. The sun had barely risen when I walked out of the small room, fully dressed.

“You’re awake early!” My brother said, taking a bite of a large roll. The crumbs spilled from his mouth and got stuck in his beard. He was always a disgusting eater and shrugged it off as if it wasn’t even there.

“I always wake up early,” I informed him. “I’m eager to see the city.”

I looked away as he continued to eat the roll, leaving a trail of crumbs all over the floor. He stuffed the rest of it in his mouth and took a large gulp from his cup of coffee.

“There is coffee here if you’d like some before you leave. Adeline is still sleeping and we have a nanny here for Alex so do not trouble yourself about that just yet. We’ve relieved the nanny for the duration of your stay, however, so after this weekend we will need you constantly so please get your desire for adventure out now. Thank you again for helping us. It will save us money.” His tone was grateful.

“William, it is no trouble for me. I am happy to lend my assistance to you in any way you see fit.”

He walked to me and set a gentle hand on my shoulder, patting it a few times and kissing my forehead before walking away. I felt crumbs spill onto my face and probably into my hair.

“My shop is on St. Charles street, but you have to use the tram to get there. Oh, and we will attend mass at seven in the morning tomorrow, so please be ready.” He handed me a small piece of paper with the address of his blacksmith’s shop.

“Seems that we won’t have a problem waking you up. I’ve already told Adeline that you might leave today, so please, enjoy your time in the city.” He was down the stairs in a flash, and I was left alone in the small, cozy apartment. I took a roll from the dining room and drank a full cup of coffee before leaving the house.

I ventured out into the street and inhaled the scent of the city. The stench was stale and disappointing. It wasn’t until I passed Café du Monde that the scent was bearable. The rain from the night before had produced large puddles that flooded the grout along the brick and cobblestone streets, and each horse hoof splattered mud and water in every imaginable direction. The street, saturated with moisture and mud, created a rotten smell, only flushed out during gusts of wind which were few in Louisiana. I walked in circles for a little while, clearly unable to follow directions until I finally found Royal Street. Though it was early and the sun had only begun to shine in the sky, the street was already filling with young ladies in long dresses and feathered hats. Each woman had a partner or a friend on her arm. Corsets were falling out of fashion, but I noticed a few young ladies that had exceptionally thin waists. I examined each shop, entering each one and asking for its history and I didn’t care if it was improper or not. I was determined to discover what had happened to The Painted Ribbon. I was nearly at the end of the street when I saw a small black shop with two large windows facing the road. The building was old and vacant its windows boarded and hidden. I tried to look inside, pressing my face and hands to the glass, desperate for answers. The store next to it was bright and bustling, and I walked in. When I did, the shopping women were mesmerized by the ribbons and fabrics on display. Instantly, I was too.

“Welcome to Charlotte’s Fabrics. Can I help you with something?” a young man asked. He was groomed to perfection, and his white gloves extended to take my arm. I noticed his flawless caramel skin as I slid my arm in his and we walked in no particular direction.

“Yes, actually, thank you. I am looking for the owner.” He stopped and let his eyes meet mine. They were a hazel green, and I immediately felt myself staring into them.

“Are you looking for a position?” he asked, his brow rising. I grimaced at his sudden change in expression and I couldn’t tell if his interest was piqued or if his gaze was judgmental.

“No, thank you. I would just like to speak to the owner.”

He nodded with a slight bow and told me to wait patiently. I did, browsing the fabrics and ribbons. My family was wealthy enough to shop at stores like Charlotte’s Fabrics but for reasons unknown, my mother hated the town. She despised traveling and assumed everyone else in the family did too. Would my mother even enjoy shopping in a place like this? Several minutes passed and I’d feared that the man had not told the owner about me at all until a tall bearded man approached me.

“Hello, ma’am! I was informed that you requested the owner.” He towered over me. “Elijah Walker at your service ma’am,” he said with a grin. He was dressed for an opera or a ball. His sculpted hair released only a few dark brown curls that clung to the sides of his face and neck. I wanted to reach up and touch them if only to feel them when he asked me what I needed. It had been so long since I’d seen people other than my family and neighbors, and I was astounded at the variety of their appearance. They were beautiful, and I felt small.

“Yes, thank you, sir. I wished to inquire about the vacant shop next to you. What can you tell me about it?” I asked, pointing in the direction of the shop. He held out his arm for me smiled, taking me into the sitting area where I was offered tea. I was surprised yet pleased to receive his instant and undivided attention. We settled at the table and he finally looked at me and grinned.

“That building was closed over thirty years ago and it has been vacant ever since,” he answered. I removed my hat, eager to stay and hear more after one mere sentence from him. “It was owned by one of the most renowned seamstresses on all of Royal Street, Elise Pellerin,” he said, his eyes beaming at her name. I sat up in my seat, eager to hear more.

“Yes, Elise was my grandmother,” I said, taking a sip of my tea and trying not to sound overexcited. “She passed away last month.”

“Oh, dear Mrs. Pellerin. How unfortunate to hear of her passing. What a remarkable woman. Please accept my condolences,” he said, stirring sugar into his cup. It was then that I wondered why my grandmother left New Orleans and her shop at all.

The man continued before I got too deep in thought. “She was acquainted with my mother, Charlotte, who owned this store before I did,” he continued, glancing about the room. He eyed me some more and I shifted uncomfortably at his gaze. “And your mother? Renée? How is she?” he asked, stirring the beverage in front of him once more. I thought his cup would overflow with sugar.

“She remains at home, in St. Martinville.” I was unsure how to answer his question. I didn’t know how she was.

“Please, do tell her you’ve seen me. I miss her so, she was such a marvelous friend and I think of her often.”

Sadness crept over his face as he spoke of her. At that moment I saw the small lines on his face, indicating his age. At first, he looked much younger than he was, which I assumed was the same age as my mother.

They were friends? I asked myself. Perhaps it was cruel of me to assume that my mother had no friends, but she never once spoke of any or went anywhere. It was then, for the first time in months that I wanted to talk to her. Suddenly, I felt the need to know more.

“You said it was vacant since she moved?” I asked, curious, and eager to change the subject back to my grandmother.

“Yes. It’s quite an eyesore now, but it was luxurious in its prime. She opened it, I believe, in 1866 when she returned home after the war. It was the highlight of Royal Street for quite some time until her accident. Quite a marvel, really. Two women on the same street who became friends instead of rivals...and quite successful businesswomen at that,” he stated proudly. Accident? I wondered. I wanted to flood him with questions, but he was regrettably summoned to the front of the store.

“I’m sorry, Miss Deveaux but I must respond to my duties. That is all I can tell you about the store I’m afraid. If my mother were still alive I am sure she would enjoy speaking of Elise again, but she has left us to join God. Perhaps they’re sharing stories with one another again.” He gave me a polite bow before walking to the front of the store. I strolled out, eager to see the abandoned building again. I stared at the dark windows, eager to look inside. It was then, as I examined the chipping paint from the walls that I looked above the shop and saw a glimmer of faded red paint highlighting the words, The Painted Ribbon.

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