Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 18: The Man in the Alley

*Trigger Warning*

This chapter discusses topics of sexual assault. Please read with caution and stop reading if this topic is uncomfortable or triggering for you. Thank you.

***


Clara: -December 1906-

My dearest Clara,

I write this in haste, and I must return to my chores quickly. I have missed you and patiently await your return home. Nothing here has changed, apart from the incredible amount of work that your father has given me. I do not know if he suspects our feelings, but I fear that we must continue our close friendship quietly. I would be lying if I said that I can wait to once again embrace you in my arms and hear your voice. I am not a liar, so please take that statement as it is intended. I apologize for this fleeting letter, but I must go. You are ever in my thoughts.

Your loving and devoted friend,

Ezra

I read the letter several times and blushed as I folded it and placed it neatly in my diary. In only two months we’d exchanged so many letters that my diary was overflowing with them. I didn’t care. I’d become accustomed to his handwriting, and the feel of his letters in my hand. He was the first man that I had ever been intimate with, and no one had ever spoken to me the way he often did, not only when we were together but also within his words. New Orleans felt more like home than Deveaux Grove, and I was torn between my eagerness to see Ezra again and my recently discovered love for The Crescent City. Despite my feelings, I knew I was going home soon. It was nearly Christmas. The city was decorated with fresh holly and poinsettias, creating colorful arrays of green and red. I glanced out of the window, almost expecting to see the streets covered in a glittering white blanket of snow, but all I saw was dark, gloomy rain flooding the streets of the city. Even in winter, the cold air stuck to my skin, and I was grateful to be inside the house, surrounded by warmth and the scent of a burning fire. I removed the pen from my bag and took a blank sheet of parchment from my stationary intent on responding to Ezra’s letter when Adeleine called to me. I reluctantly walked to her and found her cooking in the kitchen. Alex was helping by kneading a large amount of dough on the table.

“I think that might take a while with her tiny hands,” I whispered to Adeline.

She smiled. “Precisely.”

I let out a sigh of amusement and watched the small child focus intently on the dough, struggling to knead it properly. Though it was a wicked trick to play, it kept her quiet and occupied. I heard a small coo from Adeline’s chest and saw their son cradled in a large blanket wrapped around her body. She placed her finger to her mouth as she eyed me, content that her newborn was sleeping.

“What did you need me for?” I asked softly. She reached over me for a bowl, exaggerating quietude. She began cracking eggs and kept me waiting for an answer for what felt like several minutes. I awkwardly stood beside her, watching as she prepared their dinner.

Finally, in a whisper, she responded. “It is nearly Christmas and almost time for your return home. I am grateful that my baby boy was delivered safely and that we are all in good health, however, it is too soon for me to travel in such a delicate condition. William was going to stay with me and was not going to travel to St. Martinville this Christmas so that I was not left alone. But now, we have been forced to make other plans,” she said, shuffling around the kitchen. I nodded in response.

The baby, they’d named Charles, was still sleeping quietly, unaware of the movements around him. Adeline had a talent of being shy and reserved around my family, but my visit to their home had revealed her true personality to me, and while she showed me great kindness at times, she was often rude and quick to judge. Her speech did nothing but fill me with guilt and the inconvenience of my visit, despite the help I had offered them in the past weeks. I let my arrogance cloud my judgment of her. William’s inheritance suffered when he announced their engagement, and my parents had frowned upon their eldest son marrying a woman from a lower class. I scowled at myself for thinking such things about her as my mind drifted to Ezra. I feared my parents’ disapproval when they found out about us. They had not completely disinherited William, who had produced no previous fault in their eyes, but I did not have the same faith in their feelings toward me. I was well aware of the possibility that they might disown me completely if I’d chosen to marry a man below my class. I was surprised at my indifference to that fact, and part of me wanted to disassociate myself from them and sacrifice it all for him anyway, but I knew I was being swept away with romantic notions and not being logical. I also knew that I was falling in love with him.

“Clara, are you listening?” Adeline asked, distracting me from my thoughts.

“I’m sorry I was not.” There was no use in lying, she knew if I was.

She wrinkled her nose in annoyance. “I said,” she stressed the words, “When William returns tomorrow he will go with you so you’re not alone. He will spend Christmas with your family. I understand that this is short notice, but he was unsure if he was able to get the time off of work. You two will leave on the afternoon train tomorrow. I’ve already written to your mother,” she said, petting Charles’s bald head. I was taken aback by her unforeseen generosity.

“That is very kind of you, Adeline.” She nodded as a small grin formed across her face.

“Now please, make yourself useful and help me,” she said, handing me a basket of eggs. We did so in silence, and my thoughts once again felt suffocated as I anticipated my return home, and the eventual wrath of my parents when they discovered that I’d fallen in love with the stable hand and that he had, somehow, fallen in love with me.

***


It was dark when I finally arrived home. I clutched my shawl to my body as the cold pierced through my clothes and the chilled air sunk into my skin. The journey to New Orleans had taken hours upon hours as I impatiently shifted in my seat and peaked out of the window for any sign of the big city. The journey home, however, seemed to pass in an instant, though the cold weather made our time in the open carriage unbearable.

Though it was dark, the long picket fence surrounding the property shone white in the moonlight, and the shadow of the large house towered over the pathway, covering us in a dark blanket. The house was decorated with greens and my father had already placed the large wreath in the center of the house. The balcony was decorated with pine needles and several of them were painted a dark crimson, a Deveaux family tradition. At least, I thought it was crimson in the dim moonlight. My feet had barely touched the ground when Emma ran to me, smiling. I noticed that her hair had grown, and instead of sporting tight ringlets, it had transformed into long, luscious curls that I envied immediately. Though my hair had grown as well, my curls were not as attractive. She was beautiful. Without a word, she took me in her arms and hugged me, and her warmth comforted me, not only physically but somewhere deep within. I straightened myself after her hug, patting my dress down and kicking the mud off of my shoes. Her injuries seemed a lifetime ago. I knew she wanted to talk to me, but before words escaped her, my parents and brothers walked outside to greet us as well. My entire family was dressed in their nightclothes, and I was touched by their effort to stay awake for our arrival. They hugged me, one at a time, but instead of addressing me, both of my parents drew their attention to William.

“Clara, you must tell me about your adventure!” Emma said, taking my arm. I resisted, eager to take my trunk from the carriage, but she insisted, waving her hands wildly toward my luggage.

“The boys will take your trunk to your room.” I glanced at it, remembering my grandmother’s secrets within. Despite my bitter feelings toward my brothers, I knew they would not harm my belongings, or look at things that were not theirs. Talking with Elijah about my mother and grandmother had only piqued my curiosity more, and I felt like my grandmother’s secrets were to be protected. Now more than ever, I considered Elise, the woman whose memory remained only on paper, to be my friend.

“Clara, darling, we’ve already eaten dinner but I saved some for you and William. If you are hungry, please eat,” my mother offered, motioning to the kitchen. My brothers and father were already finished unloading our trunks, and my father was leading the horse and carriage to the barn.

“Thank you, mama,” William said, kissing her on the cheek. “That is very gracious of you. We had snacks on the way, but nothing beats your cooking.” He grimaced immediately afterward. “Please do not tell that to my wife.” He looked at me and sneered again. I smirked at his remark, aware of the wrath that Adeline would send upon him if her cooking was insulted. My mother melted at his kiss and looked after him adoringly. I wondered if she ever looked at me in that way. My mind was distracted when her gaze turned to me and her eyes narrowed.

“Clara, eat,” she demanded, waving her arm to the dining room. She turned on her heel and walked into the parlor as if my silence had slighted her. The tables were embellished with breads and salted meats, but my favorites were the vegetables. I picked at them, eating the sticky okra and peeled carrots.

William stuffed jerky into his mouth. “Clara, you eat like a rabbit.” I politely wiped the corners of my mouth with a napkin.

“I’m still full from our snacks,” I admitted.

I watched with disgust as he licked the salty juices off of each finger. I was content with my bland vegetables. The remainder of our meal was spent in silence, apart from the occasional smack of William’s lips on his fingers. I took his plate for him and set them in the washbowl before joining the rest of my family in the sitting room. They sat in silence and paid no attention when I entered. I remained on the sofa, awkwardly listening to the silence when I decided to retire for the night. Much to my surprise, my mother inquired after Elijah. I was curious about their friendship, and how she could forsake a man whom she clearly adored, but I did not pry. I neglected to mention the details of my grandmother’s life and the discoveries I’d made about The Painted Ribbon during my conversations with Elijah. I’d asked him not to mention it to her, and as far as I knew, he’d kept his word. Once William reentered the room, their attention was drawn to him and my role in the conversation ended. I excused myself and crawled up the stairs and to my bedroom. After changing into my nightclothes, I ignored the tower of trunks and thought only of my grandmother’s letters. I opened the trunk with the photographs and searched relentlessly for images of The Painted Ribbon, but was disappointed to find that none existed.

***


Elise: -July 1872-

“Mama, wake up,” Renée urged, tugging at Elise’s blankets. Elise squinted her eyes as the sun flooded into their bedroom. It was early morning just as the sun peeked brightest through the drapes. Elise glared at Renée for waking her up on a Saturday but Renée ignored her and set Elise’s clothes on the bed, rushing her to move.

“Did you forget?” Renée scoffed. “My train leaves today.”

Elise’s eyes shot open as she remembered.

“Oh, darling I’m sorry.” She vigorously pushed the blankets off of her in a panic, though it did little good, they were already going to be late. Her long hair swung to her sides and she frantically ran about the room, but as she attempted to brush her hair and pick out a dress Renée’s laughter caught her attention. Renée turned toward the door quickly, sending her long braid swinging behind her back. Elise wished that she would let her luscious hair free from its braid, but Renée had already decided that loose hair was a “nuisance,” something that Elise would never understand, as her hair was constantly falling to her waist as it always had.

“Mama please, don’t worry. I’ve woken you up plenty early,” she smirked. Elise shot a nasty look at her lively ten-year-old. It wasn’t the first time her child had played such a trick on her. She wrapped her shawl around her body and pouted like a child. Renée responded with a giggle and ran downstairs, pulling her trunks to the bottom as Elise dressed for the day. She looked at herself in the mirror. I’m getting old, she thought. At thirty-one she was beginning to notice the slight creases around her cheeks and eyes, and the few strands of gray she used to see had multiplied. She took a few strands in her fingers and caressed the ends. She frowned when her eyes met her reflection again. Renée, loud as ever downstairs, moved her trunks around obnoxiously, clumsily tripping over them every few minutes. For a moment Elise chuckled at her daughter’s clumsiness but the smile quickly faded at the reality of the day. For the first time in ten years, she would be truly alone, as her only child prepared to leave their cozy space in New Orleans for an all-girls boarding school in Grand Coteau. She glanced at the Sacred Heart Academy pamphlet and frowned. Elise sank in her chair as she dwelled on it. She didn’t want to be alone. Elise had not noticed how long she’d been wallowing when the scent of breakfast finally crept upstairs.

When she arrived at the kitchen, Renée was bouncing around, clearly overjoyed to begin her school year at the boarding school. Elise set her melancholy aside if only to appreciate Renée’s joy. They had a relaxing breakfast together, avoiding any uncomfortable or tearful subjects and Elise had nearly forgotten that Renée was leaving until the carriage arrived.

“Guess it’s time then,” Elise said, desperately trying to hide her desolation from Renée. The last thing she wanted to do was to make her child feel guilty, especially since she was so excited to attend school.

“Let’s get the trunks on,” Renée replied, clearly trying to hide her anxiety. They loaded Renée’s trunks into the carriage and sat next to each other in the covered vehicle. It was the hottest month of the year, and within minutes, the small covered carriage became an imprisoned sauna.

“I will write every day, I promise,” Renée said, her eyes bright. The carriage jerked beneath them, the wheels rolling along, taking Elise further into solitude. It had not rained in weeks and the horse hooves pattered loudly against the dry, hot cobblestone. Though she had hardly a familiar face from her childhood, New Orleans had nearly returned to normal. Her shop had thrived, and she’d created a comfortable life for herself and Renée. Though none of that mattered as each passing minute ticked closer to their separation. I’m pathetic, Elise convinced herself, annoyed for being so upset. It was selfish of her to keep Renée locked up in the small shop like she was. The journey to the train station was accompanied by awkward silence, broken by the porter who eventually secured Renée’s luggage into the bowels of the train. They hugged each other tightly and before Elise knew it, the train was leaving and she was in tears. She wept as the train and her daughter disappeared in a puff of steam until she was left alone on the platform with nothing but the sound of chatter and the screech of the other trains filling her senses. She cleaned her face and avoided the sympathetic looks of the porters as she dismissed their hired carriage. Content with walking back home, she released her umbrella as the hot July sun crept behind the clouds, creating a gloomy overcast sky. Appropriate, she thought to herself. She walked slowly, breathing in the smell of anticipated rain, but was startled by the whistle of a steam train as she walked through Jackson Square. Her gaze landed on the docks, and the knot that had been twisting in her stomach all day tightened. Her memory flashed to René, and the image of him shrinking in the distance. She’d driven herself insane over the anticipation of receiving a letter from him or seeing him again. For months she went to the docks and waited, eager to see his ship return and for him to run into her open arms. She longed to hear his voice, to look into his eyes, anything. To feel his hands on her skin. She’d fallen in love with no one else, and her heart still belonged to her husband, who she’d long believed to be deceased. But her waiting was in vain and he never returned. She’d forced herself to believe that the man was not him, and she’d told no one of their encounter at the docks. Overcome with familiar disappointment, she avoided looking at the docks, pulling herself out of the crippling desolation that had dominated her life for so many months. She ran delicately, desperate to get out of earshot of the steamboats and force the docks out of view. She breathed in the New Orleans air and felt the mist on her skin as the rain began to fall. Charlotte, cleaning the windows of her shop, called politely, waving her rag in the air to get Elise’s attention. Elise was so distracted, she had not even noticed.

“My dear friend,” Charlotte said loudly as Elise approached, “this letter came to my door today, but it is for you,” she said, pulling the letter from her bosom. Elise winced at the idea of her personal letter being inside Charlotte’s bosom but took the letter regardless. She glanced at Elijah to ensure that he had not seen his mother’s vulgarity, and thankfully he was distracted.

“Elijah, were you able to say goodbye to Renée?” Elise asked. “She left today.”

He turned to her and wiped his hands on his apron. “I sure did ma’am,” he said with a smile. It disappeared quickly. Elise wasn’t the only one saddened by Renée’s departure, and she had to remember that. Avoiding the topic anymore, Elijah turned away and continued with his duties. Elise nodded and smiled, tucking the letter in her bag.

“Elise, please do follow me. Not only did the wretched postman deliver that letter to me, but you also received a package. How shocking that it came to me,” she said, sarcasm filling the room. Half of the time she received her mail from her neighbor’s hands. Charlotte’s store was larger and more elegant than Elise’s, but everybody knew that Elise was more talented with a needle and thread than anyone else on the street. Still, Elise enjoyed being in the shop, and she inhaled the fresh herbs and scents. Elise was the superior seamstress, but Charlotte surpassed her as a businesswoman. Her shop sold much more than fabrics.

“I have no idea why people insist on sending your mail to my shop, but here it is. Honestly.” Elise picked up the package and saw no return address. René? She asked herself. She pushed the notion away.

“Thank you, Charlotte. But I am dreadfully tired. I think I will retire for the night.”

They exchanged a hug, though it was merely a light tap of the shoulders, and Elise left. She unlocked the door to The Painted Ribbon and locked it immediately, eager to open the package and her letter. As she sat at the table, mail in hand, and she hesitated. She set the letter down and tore the string from the package. Her heart raced with anticipation, though it was in vain. The package contained a small pair of ornate gloves. Without looking at them closely, she took the note within the package.

My friend Elise, June 28, 1872

I write to you with a heavy heart and soul. I am aware that you have not heard from Caroline or myself for quite some time and for that I most humbly apologize. I am writing now to share with you some news of a most dreadful nature. My beloved wife, and your dearest friend, perished last Thursday after complications with the birth of our fourth child, who has also joined her and our heavenly father. My heart aches for her and our child, but I still see the light in the eyes of our living children and pray to God that he allows me more time with them. I apologize for not writing to you sooner. She was restricted to her bed for many weeks, and I was unable to send any letters. As a last request and wish, she asked me to send you the gloves that you graciously made for her so many years ago. Please, take them as a reminder of your dearest companion and her unyielding gratitude for your friendship. I am keeping you and Renée in my thoughts as we mourn this loss.

Your friend,

Abraham Poitevin

Elise stared at the letter for several moments before unveiling the gloves. The pristine white leather was embroidered with a large “C” in light blue thread. She ran her fingers along the material and remembered the moment she finished them, and the pride she felt in giving her best friend such an elegant gift. Her breath caught in her throat, and her face collapsed into her arms and she finally allowed herself to cry. Though she had not seen Caroline in ten years, the weight and sorrow she felt from her best friend’s death were immeasurable. She immediately responded to Abraham, desperate to keep her tears from smudging the ink. Perhaps the grief wouldn’t be as heavy, had her daughter not left only hours before. Distracted from the heartache she almost forgot to open the second letter she’d received. Her sorrow was momentarily sated when she opened a joyful letter from Camille. She clutched the paper, desperate to hold someone or be held. Her thoughts drifted back to René as they always did, and the tears she’d finally held back broke through. She thought about the many memories she had with Caroline and drifted into a deep state of woe. She set the gloves aside and covered them, unable to look at them anymore.

Tormented, she stood from the chair and walked outside of the shop alone, locking the door behind her. With no destination in mind, she roamed the streets, conscious of the increasingly darkening sky. It was not proper for a woman to walk the streets alone, particularly at night, but she didn’t care anymore. She needed to feel the cool rain on her skin, and the fresh air in her lungs. The sudden and unexpected rain had driven everyone into their homes and Elise embraced her isolation until she was startled by a small noise in the alley. Visions of her face on the pavement, the alley walls in the harbor closing in on her clouded her sight and for a moment she forgot that it wasn’t happening again. Alert, she crept silently to the edge of the alley to hide, when she saw a young girl pinned to the stone walls by a rather large man. She watched as the drunken man ran his fat, filthy hands along the unwilling girl. Elise listened as the girl pleaded with him to stop, but he refused, pushing his hands into the bosom of her dress.

When the girl tried to scream, the dirty man forcefully covered her mouth, reducing the potential screams to mere muffles. As the man continued, Elise thought of Renée, and overwhelming maternal instincts wiped out every rational thought she had. Elise had to do something to protect the girl. She crept down the alley, avoiding the man’s gaze, circling him. When the terrified girl’s eyes met hers, she set her finger to her lips. She didn’t know what she could or would do, but she could not stand by while this was happening. The man kept his hand on the girl’s mouth, kissing her neck and pressing her palms into the brick behind her. Unsure what to do, Elise found a loose stone on the ground near the edge of the wall and, thinking quickly, picked it up and rammed it against the man’s face, sending him to the ground in a stupor. As he fell, the ground cracked when his revolver struck the pavement. With tears falling down her cheeks, the girl ran to Elise. She clutched Elise’s dress and sobbed into the fabric. Elise patted her hair as consolation and felt like crying herself. Elise couldn’t help but see Renée’s face instead of the girl’s. When the reality of that fact sank in, she felt overwhelmed with an indescribable rage. When she noticed the man’s tattoo, the rage transformed to fury. The tattoo was ingrained in her memories, and the moment her eyes landed on it, she separated herself from the young girl and picked up the revolver, and clutched it to her chest, heaving with the quick rush of adrenaline. It was impossible that it was the same man. Wasn’t it?

The girl beside her wiped the tears from her face and walked to the man with belligerence in her eyes. While he was disoriented, she kicked him hard in the groin and smiled when he hollered in pain. He was already weakened by the blow to the head, and Elise seized him by the mouth to prevent him from hollering. Too drunk to fight back, he vomited in her arms. His repugnant stench melted into Elise’s skin and clothing, and her nostrils flared and burned as she smelled and tasted bile and vomit. The disgust was overpowered by incomparable wrath. In a wild rage, she let go of his mouth and stood, desperate to ignore the drunken vomit on her arms and dress. She loosened the ribbon at the waist of her dress and bound the man’s hands together tightly, hoping it would keep him from touching either of them. He tried to grab her hands, but they were stuck behind his back. The young woman’s bravado had escaped her and she gaped at Elise in fear. Elise could only imagine what he’d done to her before she entered the alley.

“This is the bastard who captured my husband,” Elise said coldly, her profanity shocking her. “I’m almost certain that he is dead because of this man.”

With a lust for revenge, she spat at the man, who was falling in and out of consciousness from the blow to his head and the alcohol. She didn’t know what she was doing, and her bold and courageous acts were severely out of character. But as she stared down the repulsive, drunk, drooling man in front of her she thought only of René, beaten and bound, struggling as he was dragged down the alleyway and out of sight. Ten long years because of you, she thought as she continued to glare at him. Though bound, he was too disoriented to sit upright, and he fell face-first into the dark, damp New Orleans alleyway. Determined for answers about René, she picked him up and sat him upright against the damp wall. Much to her surprise, the small, nameless girl assisted her. The man vomited again, further saturating his clothes. Scoffing at him, she turned to the girl.

“What is your name?” she asked her fingers on the revolver. She’d never touched a gun in her life.

“Julia, ma’am.”

Elise gave the innocent girl a cold stare. “I think you should turn around.” She cocked the gun back, unsure if it was even loaded. The man could hardly fight back but she needed something to appear threatening. As he noticed his restraints again he struggled to no avail.

“Don’t,” Elise whispered. Julia hid out of sight, but Elise felt her watching. She felt guilty for acting so brutal in front of Julia, a mere girl, but she couldn’t help it. What was she going to do? Kill him? He relaxed when he noticed that she was a woman. She heard a muffled laugh.

“Who might you be?” he slurred. “Tying me up in an alley? I always liked an adventurous woman but there are more private places for this, ma’am,” he said, arching his back so that his body rubbed against hers. She nearly hurled from the action.

“What is your name?” she repeated.

When he let out a snarl she pressed the tip of the gun into his neck until he choked. She felt like she was standing outside of her body, watching an enraged stranger intent on torturing the man. She was too full of anger and grief to care. Fear surfaced in his eyes when she didn’t stop.

“Who are you? I ain’t done nothing. Little piece of ass was alone, fresh for the taking,” he said, indicating Julia who was nowhere to be seen. “You her mom or something? Get off of me, whore,” he said, spitting in her direction. He was so intoxicated that he missed her completely despite her closeness.

“What is your name?” she asked again.

“You stupid bitch, if I wasn’t drunk I’d have you on the ground,” he began to spew vulgarities at her but his threat was empty. He couldn’t move, let alone stand.

Your name,” she demanded again. She tried to keep eye contact but the smell from the vomit and alcohol nearly made her hurl.

“What is it to you, bitch?” he spat. She pushed her hair from her face, revealing it to him in its entirety.

“Remember me?” she asked, revealing the small scar on the side of her cheek. It was barely visible now, but she still felt the weight of his hand on her face and the way it stung when he’d struck her so many years before. He let out a small growl, followed by a grin. He had a mouth of rotten teeth lined with silver.

“Yes, I remember you, sweetheart.” He paused to smile at her. “You’re René’s wife.” Her breath caught in her throat as René’s name left his mouth. She pushed the tip of the gun deeper into his neck until he coughed.

“Where is he? Did you kill him?” she interrogated. Her bravado was wearing thin, and she was desperate for answers. The man no longer displayed fear and when he flashed another nasty smile at her, the panic resurfaced.

“Last I saw my boy René he was drunk off of his ass in a bar up north, covered in cigar smoke, fondling a lovely brunette!” he said with a laugh. “He’s long gone, woman. You’re never getting him back. We made sure of that.” Her heartbeat quickened and she felt her hand on the trigger as the revolver thrust against his throat. He swallowed hard.

“You lying son of a bitch! Where is he?” She asked through stinging tears.

In a slurred speech he answered, “I told you, woman, he’s gone. You are never getting him back. We bled every last ounce of who he was out of him. I don’t even think he goes by that name anymore. He’s much more likable now.” He let his eyes wander up and down her body before continuing. “He is a bit like me.”

Distracted by his words and the rhythm of her pulse in her ears, Elise’s hand shook against the trigger. In a fierce rage, she pulled the gun from his neck and pulled the trigger, sending a loud, reverberating ring throughout the alleyway.

“Who is down here?”

The police, she thought. She tied the ribbon back to her dress and cried for help. The men ran to her instantly. Julia told them what he’d done to her. The man who ruined her life would finally be locked behind bars. But she couldn’t forget the smirk he managed, even as he was dragged into the carriage.

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