Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 15: The Painted Ribbon

Elise: -January 1866-

“Mama!” Renée yelled. The four-year-old bounced over to her mother and hugged her legs.

Elise placed a hand on Renée’s head. “What is it my dear?” she asked kindly.

Renée merely hummed without acknowledging her mother’s question. Before Elise could ask again, Peter walked into the room, wide-eyed with fabric spilling from his hands. Elise eyed him suspiciously as he scattered the material on the table, disturbing her own work. She huffed at him.

“I know you have orders of your own to do,” he said frantic, ignoring her glare. “But please, this is urgent! Camille is due any day and I have not finished the baby’s baptism gown.”

He slouched in the chair next to her in a state of emotional distress. Elise rolled her eyes. It was his own fault that the gown was not ready. His forehead was covered with beads of sweat, and he ran his fingers through his hair, enervated. Elise giggled at his disposition and he shot her an odious look.

“What, might I ask, is so funny?” he probed, straightening up.

Elise chuckled. “Peter, please relax. You’re taking up every bit of air in the room with all of your heavy breathing,” Elise sarcastically responded, pushing his ribbons off of her own fabric.

He gaped at her and then scoffed. “I simply can’t do this. Why did I wait so long?”

Elise eyed her daughter rolling ribbon on the floor. “Peter, why don’t you use Renée’s baptism gown? She’s nearly five years old, it’s doing us no good and without a husband, I can hardly have another child.” She continued sewing as if her suggestion meant nothing to him. He contemplated her generous offer. His future child’s baptism gown was embarrassingly incomplete even though he’d spend weeks fretting over it. It had to be perfect.

“Elise, you are a remarkable woman! Yes, I think I will accept. This gown is unsuitable,” he said, eyeing the materials and the perfunctory gown in his hands.

“You should’ve asked me for help!” she scolded. “Camille didn’t have to know.”

His face softened. “We both thank you.”

As he said it, Camille plundered into the room, her pregnant stomach protruding everywhere. Elise had hardly registered that it was Camille before Peter was up from his chair and at the door. She eyed her wedding band and tried to ignore the melancholy feeling it brought to her. René had irrefutably departed from their lives, and she’d long accepted the truth of it. Though she admitted to herself that she was free to marry, she didn’t notice other men or the few kind gentlemen who had requested her attention. Her heart was still with René, and she feared that she would never move on. No matter how much she convinced herself that he was gone, a small corner of her heart held on to the possibility of René, alive and waiting for her. Camille and Peter loudly made their way through the shop to the kitchen where Camille took a lusty seat at the table. Peter hurriedly prepared her lunch and she graciously praised him for his kindness. A loud noise came from the door and Renée ran to it, picking up the mail.

“A letter for you, Mama!” the child said, returning to her spot on the floor. Elise asked if she was hungry, but Renée politely declined. Elise smiled at her and looked at her post. Her eyes lit up at the sight of it and she quickly stood from the workbench. Her friend eyed her suspiciously. Elise smiled and held up the letter.

“A letter from Caroline!” she screeched, ripping the envelope open. Elise’s eyes scanned the words and her heart ached for her friend. Three years had passed before she received any letters from Caroline, but once the war ended, they came to her in droves.

“What is it?” Camille asked like she knew Caroline herself. She might as well have, as Elise had shared so much about her to them both.

Peter handed her their lunch and set a plate down for Elise as well. She smiled at him in thanks and he kissed Camille lightly on the cheek, sending shades of pink to her face.

“Caroline is pregnant again. Oh, I pray every day that she will deliver a healthy baby. She’s lost her last two children,” Elise said, closing the letter. Elise felt Camille’s hand rest on her arm as a notion of sympathy, and Elise returned the gesture with a smile. They ate lunch in silence as Elise was reminded of her best friend and the fact that they’d not seen each other in nearly five years. The war had torn the country apart, causing rifts between families and, though the North had won, she was still unhappy to be in the North. The country was no longer the same, and she feared that her home was no longer there. She’d heard rumors of the South’s destruction, and imagined a barren wasteland where her beautiful city had once been. She missed her home and her previous life. She looked up as they finished eating and noticed Camille and Peter exchanging uncomfortable glances. She watched them for several moments before she was compelled to ask.

“What’s going on between the two of you?” she asked, wiping her face with a napkin. They looked at each other again.

“I’ve got a business proposition for you, Elise,” Peter said with a serious tone. She peeked to the workbench and saw Renée, still blissfully playing on the floor. She gave her undivided attention to Peter, curious to know his plans. “A business proposition?”

“We both know you’ve been diligently saving money since you moved in here. We admire you for that. You’re one of the hardest working women I’ve met and a dear friend to us both. And as much as I’ve appreciated your fine work here, I’ve got an opportunity for you that I think you might find quite satisfactory,” Peter said, brushing his beard with his fingertips.

Elise was intrigued. “Yes?”

“I believe I mentioned to you, quite some time ago, that my uncle passed. He left me a heavy inheritance, as he had no children.”

Elise nodded.

The couple sitting next to her had come to inherit a small fortune and had the full opportunity to live off of it without working for the rest of their lives if they chose.

“I’ve inherited two pieces of property in Louisiana. A small shop on Royal Street in New Orleans, and a large plot of land in St. Martinville, a small town about one hundred and forty miles from the city.” Their eyes were set on Elise.

“That’s quite the coincidence.” She was unable to believe everything he’d just told her. What were the chances that his uncle owned property exactly where she wanted to be?

“Perhaps God’s plan isn’t as obvious as we’ve been letting ourselves believe,” Camille said, eyeing Renée. The thought of her husband waiting for her in New Orleans sent a flush of heat to Elise’s face and she imagined her parents welcoming her with open arms, though she feared they were gone forever too. She snuffed the notion from her mind in fear of disappointment.

“I think it would be wise for you to open a shop of your own, Elise. I’ve always considered your work to be the most impressive, and we all know that you’ve dreamed of it. Though please, take this as the offer it is. We would be sad to see you go, and heaven knows we could use your help when the baby comes,” Peter said, affectionately rubbing Camille’s hand.

“Now that the war has ended, perhaps your luck will improve, Elise,” Peter continued. “We want what’s best for you and Renée and we both know you’ve been pining to return to New Orleans since you stepped foot in my shop. I can assist you with the arrangements, should you choose to take this offer.” Elise could not comprehend the unbelievable amount of kindness from her two friends and was immediately disheartened by the thought of leaving them. The South lost the war, and she feared to see what had become of her beloved home.

“I cannot believe your generosity, Peter. Of course, I will accept.” She’d wanted to consider it more, but the words sprang from her mouth without her control.

“I must inform Caroline,” she said, hugging her friends. She stood from the table, kissing Renée before walking up the stairs. She pulled out her stationary, dipped her pen in the ink, and let the words flow. They had a lot of work to do.

***


Elise watched Renée as she slept, dreaming peacefully among the jittery, vibrating train. Her daughter was the most precious gift from God and Elise felt the weight of her worries melt from her when she looked into the eyes of her child. The four-year-old’s dark, black hair was remnant of her father, while vibrant green eyes were the mark of her mother. Renée’s porcelain skin made Elise think of her as the most fragile being on the planet. She caressed the innocent child’s cheeks and smiled as she stirred. The trip to New Orleans lasted six days, and she missed her two dearest friends more with each passing moment. Though she was happy to return home and was hopeful for the possibilities it brought to her, she was overcome with a sense of looming fear and solitude. The lengthy train ride reminded her of René like so many things often did. She recalled their time in the train car and her body tensed as she remembered the feeling of his hands on her skin and her hair. She missed him, and she tried not to let herself believe he was alive and waiting for her in New Orleans, but it was impossible not to let the thoughts creep into her mind. The city came into view and nostalgia but instead of excitement anxiety crept into her stomach. Her hometown, surrounded by a desolate population and abandoned homes. Was it a mistake to move back down South?

“Wake up, darling,” she said, gently covering Renée’s face with kisses. They waited patiently for the train to stop and departed quickly.

“This way.”

They shuffled through the small number of people exiting the train into the Southern city. Though the war had been over for nearly a year, she was unsure what to expect of The Crescent City. As they walked through, Elise was astounded at how unchanged it was, pleased to see her home intact after the brutality of the Civil War. The familiar stench of New Orleans filled her senses, though Renée cringed at the scent. Though the smell was not incredibly different from New York City, it was different, and the humidity in the air accentuated both the good and bad smells. Her gloved hands kept the cold chill from her skin though the humid air was a welcome replacement from the frigid snow of the North. Much to her disappointment, she did not see any of her old friends or acquaintances, though she hadn’t expected to. It was as if her home had been replaced with strangers. She couldn’t stop the feeling of regret creep into her mind, but she took Renée’s hand and led her to the shop on Royal Street. It was a small, cozy building with a traditional New Orleans cast-iron balcony. Four potted ferns hung from it but the cold air and freeze had killed the plants, leaving only a barren pot with soil. The deep brown paint was chipping around the large window in the front and she recoiled at the sight of it. How long has this been vacant? She asked herself. She knew the shop needed work before it opened, and she grinned at the challenge. My shop, she thought with pride. She took the trunk from Renée’s hands and gave her the key to the door.

“Look, mama!” she beamed. She struggled to open the door but with some help from Elise, it swung open. It was similar in size to Peter’s, though she noticed that the kitchen was hidden behind a small wall and the staircase to the top floor was immediately visible upon entering. The room was already furnished, much to her pleasure, though most of it was draped with sheets, themselves being covered in a thick layer of dust. She set their bags down and hugged Renée.

“This is a new start for us, darling.”

She ran her hands through her child’s black hair. Renée resembled her father almost entirely, apart from her irises. Renée looked up at her with glossy green eyes. She promptly rubbed them.

“Let me fix your bed, and then you can take a nap,” Elise said, taking her bags.

“Okay, mama,” Renée responded, following her mother upstairs. Elise entered the room and was happy to see it furnished as well. It had only one large bed. Elise removed the sheet from it, sneezing gently from the dust and Renée curled up, closing her eyes and drifting to a quick sleep with no effort. Elise’s thoughts drifted to her parents and she was eager to search for them, but as Renée slept, she occupied herself with the new shop. She took the sheets from the rest of the furniture and brushed off the dust from each chair, couch and desk before unpacking their bags. After organizing their belongings, her heart warmed at each sigh and movement from her daughter. She spent over an hour cleaning and when Renée woke up, she felt a little less lonely.

“Let’s take a walk.”

Renée took her hand as they locked up their new home and walked to her parents’ house. The cold, humid air reminded her of René, and she was filled with an overwhelming sense of longing again. It was a feeling she could never shake since their separation and being in the city made it much worse than before. Each gust of wind and the sounds of the city took her back to their time together. The city was bustling as usual, and for a moment she felt as if nothing changed, though she was reminded of just how much had changed when her daughter squeezed her hand in delight. She pulled her shawl closer to her body and tightened her grip on Renée, surrounded by strangers, rather than the friendly neighbors she had grown up with. Her parents’ house was vacant. Abandoned. She stared at it, fearful that she would never see them again. Where had they gone? The glimmer of hope she’d traveled with was snuffed out in an instant, and she slowly spiraled into desolate despair. After four years it was easy to assume that they were gone but a small glimmer of hope had always remained lit within her mind. In fact, a small part of her believed that she’d return home and join her family, and their life would fall back into place. A gust of wind struck them both, distracting her thoughts and blowing her long hair past her shoulders. The breeze sent a scrumptious, familiar smell in her direction. She walked toward the corner of the street until she reached the bakers. She was nervous, unsure about what she’d find. Had Eugene left too? Would she know nobody?

Her hands touched the handle, surprised to see how little the bakery had changed as she glanced through the window. The baker was facing the wall, organizing his cookware but when the bell dinged and he turned around.

“Eugene,” she said through a breath of relief as she walked through the door. He stared at her for a long time in disbelief before walking around the corner and engulfing her in a long hug.

“Heavens, Elise. I thought you were dead.”

“I thought the same of you, my friend. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it is to see you again.” Tears welled behind her eyes.

“What happened to you?” he asked, leading her to the back of the shop. Eugene immediately locked the door, setting the open sign to closed.

“Eugene, you don’t have to,” she said, but he cut her off.

“No, please, follow me.”

He had not yet noticed the small child trailing behind her. They sat down in his kitchen, and the scent of fresh bread was a welcome distraction, taking her back to the time before the war.

“Mama where are we?” Renée asked. Elise picked the girl up and set her on the bench beside her.

“Renée, this is my friend Eugene. Say hello,” she said, motioning to Eugene, who was seated across the table. She did, and Elise saw Eugene’s face melt as he addressed her daughter.

“Renée?”

“In honor of her father,” Elise answered.

A horrified expression covered Eugene’s face. “What happened?” Elise’s head lowered and she felt the tears well up again. It was then that she knew for certain that René had not returned to New Orleans. He’s dead, she thought. Her stomach knotted painfully.

“Yes, in his honor. And I don’t know,” she said, cringing as the memories resurfaced. “We were in New York when we saw the announcement in the papers. We immediately sought out to leave, but as we were set to board the ship, he was taken,” she managed to say with a shaky voice. She had not spoken aloud of the incident since she’d told Peter four years prior.

Eugene’s eyes widened. “Taken?

Elise told Eugene the entire story, including the details of the man’s tattoo and what they said to him. Eugene backed away in his seat, frightened.

“Good heavens,” he said, rubbing his temples with his fingertips. He then gave her his condolences, though his mind seemed distracted.

“Have you received word of my parents? Please, Eugene. I wrote them immediately after my separation from René but my letters were all sent back. The only person I’ve been in touch with this entire time was Caroline, who was also unaware of my parents’ whereabouts,” she asked, hopeful.

“I’m sorry, Elise. They disappeared quickly. They took their money from the bank and fled. They were gone within two months. They wrote you, but they received no reply. They were distraught. I know they headed westward, but I don’t know exactly where. I’m so sorry.”

She sighed. “I thought so.” She felt defeated. It was then that she noticed the absence of Eugene’s wife.

“Where is Mrs. Sarah?”

Renée suddenly bounced away, humming silently to herself.

Eugene smiled at the child. “You and René made a beautiful child, Elise. I am so sorry that he is not with you to see her blossom.” Elise smirked at his words and admired her child but she was sorry too. All she wanted was to raise her family with René and it was the one thing that had been ripped from her before they had two weeks of marriage.

He addressed her previous question. “Sarah is at the market. She will be disappointed that she missed you if you leave before she returns.”

“No, if you don’t mind I will stay for a while. I haven’t been around anyone familiar for years. I made several friends in New York, but no one from home.” Elise stayed with Eugene for hours, telling him of her life in New York and every detail of her experiences, and she was even able to greet Sarah through the doors. As they spoke, a memory resurfaced.

“Tell me, Eugene, do you know a politician with the last name of Pellerin? And what of René’s father?” she asked, eager to get answers.

He pondered her question. “There is a state congressman by the name of Warren Pellerin. He was very active before and during the war. To address your question regarding Marshall, I regret to inform you that he died two years ago after an accident with his horse,” he said with a heavy face. Elise shrunk in her chair. While she was grateful for Eugene and his help, she came to the cruel realization that she was alone again. Everybody in her life was gone or dead.

“The men who took René thought he was the son of a Louisiana politician. I need to find him,” she said, suddenly feeling brave.

“Here, this is his office,” he said, taking a small piece of paper and writing down the address. “It isn’t far, but you will need to hire a carriage.”

She took the paper from him, determined to get answers from the man indirectly responsible for her husband’s disappearance.

***


Elise’s cheeks burned as she approached Warren Pellerin’s office, and felt Renée’s impatient hand grasp at her dress. If anyone could help her find René she hoped that it would be the man whose name was responsible for his capture. As they approached the courthouse, her resolve slowly shattered into small pieces, and she wanted to turn back. She didn’t know why, but the thought of talking with him and getting any kind of confirmation of René’s death sent a chill of fear through her body. She almost preferred not knowing. Though the woman at the front desk was kind and obliging when Elise asked for Warren Pellerin, Elise could not help but feel anger rise through her as she recounted the events of René’s capture in her mind. After an eternity, a tall thin man emerged from the doorway and led them to the back of the office, calling her into the small space.

“Yes, hello Mrs. Pellerin, how can I help you?” he asked, taking a seat across from her. His desk overshadowed most of his body, and she became more impatient by the second. I want to know what you did that deserved so much hate, she quietly thought to herself.

“I must ask about your son Mr. Pellerin,” she answered bluntly. By skipping the pleasantries she’d allowed a toxic cloud of tension to cover them both. At the mention of his son, his body tensed and his attitude turned hostile.

“He’s dead, miss. Died in the war two years ago. What business do you have discussing him?” Elise grimaced at this news. Elise scolded Renée as she pulled on her dress.

“My husband, a man by the name of René Pellerin was captured in New York City on April 13 1861 because three men thought he was your son. I have not seen him since, and I fear that he was killed, or forced to fight. We both lived in New Orleans and evidently chose the absolute worst time to take our honeymoon to New York. While we were in the harbor to sail home, the three men beat him, tied him up, and dragged him away after knocking me unconscious. I awoke several days later alone in a hospital and have not seen him again. Since that day I have been living in New York City and gave birth to our daughter. I do not know if he is alive or dead, but they only took him to get back at you, mistaking him for your son. My return to New Orleans was filled with the hope of being reunited with him, but he is not here. Therefore I must ask, was your son’s name René Pellerin?” She found it difficult to believe that a politician’s son had the same name as her beloved husband, but she was desperate to know the truth. The man’s eyes opened wide and he shrunk in his seat, seemingly defeated at what she’d said.

“My son’s name was Raymond Pellerin. Most called him Ray. Ma’am, I humbly apologize for your loss. I did not know. I do not know of these men, but I fear they may have been the victims in the riots against my political policies. I supported the succession in several states, and in turn, it led to uprisings. Innocent people were killed.” He avoided eye contact. He explained to her the extent of the riots and by the end of the conversation, Elise believed every word from his mouth. In the end, she was separated from her husband merely because the men who’d taken him could not properly read. Warren Pellerin’s politics had ruined the lives of many and had inadvertently destroyed her happiness in the process.

“I am so sorry Mrs. Pellerin,” he said, clearly unsure what else to say to her.

“If you’re sorry,” she said, unfairly projecting her anger at him, “Help me find him. Any documents, a trail, anything. If he is dead I will at least have closure. Our daughter will at least have closure,” she said, standing, unable to look the man in the face anymore. She took Renée’s hand as Warren led her out of his office. He pledged his help to her, but tears streamed down her cheeks as she left the building. They fell in small, silent droplets as she walked home, hand in hand with her daughter.

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