Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 20: Deveaux Grove

Elise: -June 1878 -

“So many lovely ladies in one space!” Peter said, smiling wildly. All three women glanced at one another. Elise was situated in a wheelchair, still unable to walk properly, and Camille and Renée were ragged and sweaty from moving.

“Uncle Peter I think you must be going blind,” Renée said, reaching her hand to his eyes. His laugh bellowed throughout the house and it made the women laugh too. He’d trimmed his beard and shaved his once thinning hair. Responding to Renée’s joke, he pulled his glasses out and examined them again.

“Oh, no Miss Renée, you three are certainly stunning!”

Camille walked to Peter and wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a loving, intimate gesture. “How wonderful it is for us to be together again.” Elise rolled to them.

“How will I ever thank you for your kindness?” she asked. “First you saved my life and offered me a home in New York, then in New Orleans, and you gave me yet another home. You two are my guardian angels.”

As Camille bent down to hug her, Elise thought of Caroline. She grieved for Abraham and their children. She wished more than anything that she could’ve been there for Caroline’s untimely funeral, and celebrate her joyous life. But, like her husband René, her life began anew that macabre day in the New York harbor.

“Uncle Peter?”

“Yes, dear?”

“I want to know all about the house. Can you tell me?” Renée twirled the edges of her dress like a child as she spoke. Peter’s face softened at her sweet voice.

“Of course. Would you all like a tour of the place?” All three women nodded.

“Oliver, darling come downstairs please!” Camille hollered. Their first child, a thin, lanky, twelve-year-old ran down the stairs in response to his mother. Breathless, he asked what she needed.

“We are walking through the property. Papa is going to show us around. Care to join us?” He sulked at the question.

“Mama, it’s terribly hot. Can I stay inside please?” She waved her hand for him to leave them in response. He ran back upstairs and disappeared from view.

“If I hadn’t been there for his birth I would swear that child doesn’t exist,” Elise said, smirking.

Camille laughed at her comment. “I hope all of this reading and drawing he does turns him into an architect or something useful because right now he is the most useless child on the planet.” Her words were harsh but hinted at love and admiration for the intelligent and creative child.

“Let’s go,” Peter said, leading them from the house. They were in the parlor, surrounded by a dark green wallpaper with ornate plaster molding in the corners of the ceiling. The staircase greeted the doorway, and the door beside the staircase led them to the kitchen. The room was empty and dusty, and Elise was eager to see it transformed into their home. The stairs, though beautifully lined with a thick, crimson carpet, were intimidating as she listened to the squeaks of her wheelchair. She’d nearly forgotten that the injuries were temporary and that she’d walk again eventually.

Peter took them outside. “The house was built by my great uncle, nearly eighty years ago,” he trailed along, taking Renée through the yard and house. Camille motioned to Peter and rolled Elise to a large live oak tree on the edge of the property. The colossal tree spidered out in every direction and the limbs dropped to the ground, creating several natural seats. The base of the tree had large protruding roots and masses of Spanish moss dangling from its branches. At the peak of June, the tree was drinking in the humid air and sunlight and Camille admired its beauty. She pushed Elise to the base of the tree, avoiding the roots that rose from the dirt.

“Isn’t this the most beautiful tree you’ve ever seen?” Camille asked. Elise marveled at the massive natural structure in front of her. Growing up in New Orleans, she’d seen large trees but never of this size. It was prodigious, old, and strong. For a moment she wanted to ask it for advice.

“Any idea how old it is?” Elise asked. Camille touched the trunk.

“It was here when the house was built, we have records of it in his great uncle’s diaries and the property maps. But as you can see, it is much older than eighty years.”

Elise wished the tree could speak. She would ask so many questions. Camille sat in the roots’ natural seat. The two friends talked and laughed and cried about their lives until they lost track of time. For the first time in a long time, Elise felt pure bliss, sitting outside in the heat with her dearest friend. The woman who had saved her life many times over.

“I will never be able to thank you and Peter enough for the shop in New Orleans. It allowed me to create my own independent life and raise my daughter,” Elise said, as Camille pushed by her back toward the house.

“What did you do with it?”

“Peter has agreed to keep the property in his name so that I can pass it down to Renée someday. If she doesn’t want it, she can sell it. Your husband is a jewel.”

Camille laughed. “He is, isn’t he?”

They moved back to the house in silence until reaching the large, encircling veranda. The house had aged well, and it was bright and newly repainted. Elise could not wait for it to become their new home. They reached the top of the steps before Camille spoke again.

“Have you heard from him?” Camille asked in a shy tone. Elise sighed before answering. She knew Camille was asking about René.

Elise looked at her with heavy eyes. “No. But it was him, Camille. I know you’ve had your doubts but it was him. But no, he has never contacted us and I do not know where he is. I have told you everything I know.” Camille dropped it and took her back into the house.

“When your legs heal, you’re going to have a lot of helping to make up for,” she laughed. They stayed together in the parlor, discussing their future in the new house.

***


Elise pulled the covers over her head to block out the sunlight that was shining through her window. Though they’d been in the house for four months, she’d neglected to put drapes on the window and she regretted it every morning. Though her room was spacious, she missed her small cozy shop on Royal Street, and even missed Charlotte’s biting personality. Most of all, she grieved for her daughter, who had been separated from one of her best friends in the world, Elijah. Elise was surprised by the number of letters that Charlotte sent every week, usually of futile information and gossip, but it made her feel like she was close to the place that she’d called home for so many years. Renée was not faring as well. Being so far from the city and her friends, she’d grown reclusive and non-respondent to everybody, including Peter and Camille, despite their kindness.

Elise rose from the bed and stretched her legs before pressing her feet on the cold, hardwood floor. She took the cane from the bedside table and walked with it to the armoire. She grabbed her leg brace and attached it before dressing for the day. The brace covered her leg from the ankle to her thigh, and she’d grown so used to wearing it that she no longer noticed how much of a nuisance it was. Her accident had permanently damaged her legs, and though she could walk, she’d need a cane and the brace for the rest of her life. She felt old and frail, though she had not even reached the age of forty. She was quickly approaching thirty-nine, and she saw it in her face, and in the course strands of silver that protruded through the red. She ran her fingers through her hair and couldn’t help but feel René’s hands instead of her own. She desperately tried to keep him from her mind, but she couldn’t. She saw him in everything, particularly their daughter. Renée’s facial expressions mimicked his in every possible way and though they’d never been together before, she spoke and moved like him. Her wit and charm were remnants of him. But the charming young woman she’d raised was disappearing, and Elise saw less of René each day. Elise dressed for the day, dropping a large petticoat over her waist and wrapping a corset around her slim frame. Just as she was buttoning her top, she heard a knock.

Renée peeked through the door and gave her mom a look of confusion.

“Why are you dressed so nicely?”

“Peter’s sister is coming to visit. Don’t you remember? They inherited the other half of the property.” Elise looked her up and down. “You might want to improve your appearance. Why is your bun so tight? You look like an old woman,” Elise chided, reaching for her daughter’s hair. Her hair was pulled into a dense bun without a single hair out of place. Renée pretended to slap her mother’s hand away.

“I don’t like it in my face. I don’t understand how you can leave your hair down all the time. It’s long and in the way. I can’t stand it. I wish I could cut mine short,” Renée complained, playfully tugging at her mother’s hair. Elise’s stomach tingled at her daughter’s playfulness.

“Please don’t,” Elise suggested. “It isn’t how women wear their hair,” she warned, actually slapping Renée’s hand away. She finished primping herself as Renée left the room. Elise limped to the large bay window in her bedroom and took a seat before marveling at the Autumn trees. Louisiana never had defined seasons like New York, but she was able to enjoy the true peace and solitude of the country at her new home, something she’d not done in New Orleans or New York.

“Annabelle is here,” Camille said from the doorway. Elise jolted from her seat and followed Camille downstairs, greeted by Pete and Renée, who was elegantly dressed for the evening. They welcomed their guests at the front of the house, and Peter took their horses to the barn. It was obvious to Elise that they were a close-knit family, and Annabelle clutched to Peter with such affection that he nearly toppled. Elise didn’t blame her, in some ways she felt like Peter was her older brother too. Annabelle greeted Camille with the love and devotion of any true sister-in-law and curtsied gracefully to Elise and Renée before tackling Oliver in a hug. Awkward and silent, Elise and Renée watched as the family embraced each other. Annabelle was Peter’s twin sister, the house bubbled with contentment with the two of them in the same place. Annabelle displayed the same smile and bright eyes as her brother.

“Ah, James!” Peter exclaimed, taking his brother-in-law in a large, burly hug.

“Goodness, Peter, no need to be so affectionate!” James joked. “Ladies, what an honor it is to meet you. This is my son, William,” he said to Elise and Renee, indicating the young man beside him. William was so quiet that Elise had not even noticed him. He was tall and slender, with a cleanly shaven face and short, slicked-back hair. It wasn’t until she glanced at her daughter that she realized how much Renée had noticed him. Renée looked at him with a bright sparkle in her eyes and didn’t leave his gaze as she knelt in a curtsy. William blushed at her intense stare and it took every bit of self-control for Elise to keep from giggling at their interaction. William, a handsome young man no older than nineteen was awestruck at the beautiful young woman in front of him. Elise and Camille shared a humorous glance before they all moved to the sitting room. The conversation was engaging until Peter and James ignored everybody else for talk of the property and money. James spoke a little too loudly to the room, and bits of his food flew from his mouth. “But Peter, you know Annabelle inherited the land only half a mile down the path. We are considering building.”

Peter’s eyebrows rose at his comment. “Are you serious? Why did you not mention this sooner?”

As if offended by the question, James also raised his eyebrows but Annabelle responded in his place. “I didn’t realize that I needed your permission to build on our inherited land, Peter. It will be quite a large house. We’ve already drawn up the blueprints,” she said, unscrolling the paper on the coffee table. The house in the blueprints was large with several columns lining the front but Peter could tell little else. Colorless, the house seemed a marvel even on paper.

Peter rolled his eyes. “That is quite the undertaking. When were you planning to build? I didn’t know you had any desire to move from Iberia Parish.”

James flicked a match to light the tip of his cigar when Annabelle slapped his hand in protest.

“Get that out of here!” she scolded. James gave his wife a quick glare but respected her demand and stood to walk to the porch. Peter followed, and the women remained together, completely uninterested in the men’s boring chatter.

“I despise his disgusting habits. As if I wouldn’t notice a smelly cigar polluting the room,” Annabelle said, though she spoke to no one in particular. The conversation grew bored, and Oliver disappeared upstairs, leaving Renée to fend for herself. She was too young to enjoy the ladies’ conversation but too old to socialize with Oliver. She found herself searching her trunk for a book before retiring to the music room. Much to her surprise, William was sitting alone, reading.

He looked up at her, horrified. “Pardon me, I didn’t mean to intrude.” He began to close his book when Renée held out her hand in front of him.

“No need to apologize.”

***


Elise crept through the house looking for Renée when she heard giggling from the music room. Annabelle, having had too much wine, was steadily falling asleep on the sofa while Camille cleaned the dishes from their meal. The men were still sitting outside, surrounded by a large puff of smoke. She heard their bellowed laughter through the windows and smiled at the cheerfulness. It was nice to be surrounded by others again. To be surrounded by happiness again. As she turned the corner to the music room she stopped and listened. She heard Renee laughing, something she hadn’t heard in years. How did such a shy, quiet young man bring out laughter from her cold, stern daughter? Elise spied on them and nearly exposed her sneaking when Camille snuck up behind her.

“What’s happening?” Camille asked.

“Look, Renée is laughing,” Elise said, pointing.

Camille put a hand over her mouth and opened her eyes widely in a dramatic gesture of disbelief.

“They are moving only half a mile down the road, you know. According to Peter, though I am not sure how much to trust him, he has had quite a bit of brandy,” Camille whispered with a giggle. Elise examined her daughter’s behavior, and though the young man was timid and looked mildly horrified he was already smitten with Renée, sending her smiles and laughs of his own.

“I suppose we will have to see what happens,” she said, turning to face Camille.

Elise scoffed. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But Renée’s been lonely here.”

“As long as it wasn’t your idea,” Camille said, stressing the words. She was right. If Renée thought her mother was trying to pair her with someone, she would rebel instantly, regardless of how much she liked the young man. Elise took Camille’s hand and led her outside to the back porch and glanced at the dark sky.

“I love you and Peter both,” Elise said, breaking the silence. “I don’t know where I would be without you. Thank you.” Camille merely sighed at Elise’s kind words and took her in a long, affectionate embrace that left them both in tears by the end of it.

“I have cherished you and our friendship from the day we met,” Camille said, wiping tears from Elise’s cheeks. “If it weren’t for you, I never would have met Peter, or had Oliver. I just wish life would have improved for you, Elise. I pray every day that René returns to you. I am sorry that he has not.” Her voice was filled with regret and sadness. She’d been there from the beginning.

“If anything good has come out of this, it is that I met you and Peter. And life did improve for me. I have no complaints about our cozy shop in New Orleans,” Elise responded.

They took a seat on the porch swing and enjoyed the warm June breeze as they swung back and forth, hand in hand, taking in each other’s company.

***


-Clara: -January 1907-

September 14, 1886

Today I lost the two best friends that saved my life. Without them, my life is hardly worth living anymore.

Elise

It was the last thing my grandmother ever wrote. I re-read the words several times when it occurred to me that I had never even heard of Camille and Peter until I found the trunk in my grandmother’s home. It was as if their existence had been forgotten. Why had my mother never spoken of them? Or my father? Sadly, I was learning that I knew very little about my family at all. I felt a tug in my chest and felt like I had lost two friends too. I closed my grandmother’s diary and tightened a shawl around my shoulders before sitting at my vanity. My hair was matted and dirty, and my face was pale. I saw the perse hues blending through the frail skin below my eyes. I don’t know how long I had been awake, but the sun had nearly risen and I had already spent a couple of hours reading and writing in my diary with only the light of my lantern to guide my hand on the pages. The misty morning air was covering the horizon, but as I stood from the vanity and walked to my window I saw my father walking to the fields, ready to begin his daily work. His life was a schedule, and he followed the same routine every day. He woke up with the sun, dressed for the day, and walked straight out the door without breakfast or coffee to wake him up. Perhaps I was similar to my father in that regard. I never struggled to awaken even from the deepest sleep. Though lately, I slept very little, and I awoke before the sun’s rays peaked through the sky. I took the diary from my desk, stepped out of my bedroom door, crept down the stairs through the still, quiet house. I walked through the wet grass, fresh with morning dew and moist air. My father noticed me, and instead of contentment, his face fell into a look of confusion.

“Clara? Why are you awake?” he asked. His tone wasn’t one of disappointment, it was surprise. I shrugged in response. He was in the barn gathering hay for the horses when I took a seat on one of the hay bales. I didn’t understand how I’d woken up early my entire life, yet he was still surprised to see me.

“I read something in grandmother’s letters.”

“Mhm,” he responded without looking at me. I moved uncomfortably and felt like I was bothering him.

“Can you tell me about Camille and Peter DuBois? I found this diary entry,” I said, showing him the book. My dad stopped in his tracks and looked at me. His hair fell in his face, obscuring his eyes. But I knew they were looking at me.

“They died before you were born,” he said, moving again and continuing his chores. I already knew that, based on my grandmother’s very short diary entry in 1886.

“How?” I expected him to dismiss me as he usually did, but he stopped working and sat beside me. I handed him the book and he read the short entry quietly to himself. Before handing it back to me he sighed.

He looked at me and said simply, “They died of Typhoid.” My heart shrank at the notion. My hands clung to my stomach as I imagined the pain they endured and the heartache that Elise felt when her two best friends were gone.

“That’s horrible,” I said. Tears welled up behind my eyes for my grandmother’s pain.

“What’s horrible?” I heard from the door of the barn. It was my mother, fully dressed and ready to start the day. The sun was peeking slightly through the windows of the barn, and I was surprised to see her awake so early. My father ignored her question, and walked out of the barn, leaving us alone together. Annoyed with his departure, she redirected her question to me once more.

I looked at her with sad eyes, already knowing that she’d dismiss my curiosity, “I wanted to know how Camille and Peter died. Daddy told me it was from Typhoid.” I nearly jumped when my mother sat next to me and put a hand on mine.

“It was a difficult time for us,” she said, grasping my palms with her fingertips. For the first time in months, I allowed myself to acknowledge that she was sad too. “I know you’ve been curious, Clara. Talking about my mother is,” she paused to think of the right word to use, “not easy for me anymore.”

“Why?”

She looked at me with blank, emotionless eyes. “Though Camille and Peter were not related to me by blood, I knew them as Uncle Peter and Aunt Camille. When my mother had her accident and broke her legs, her business suffered and they were generous enough to let us live in their house with them, just down the street.” Her eyes softened when she spoke of them. She was fond of them, and I didn’t understand how she could shut them out of her memory so easily. “Did you know she broke her legs?” she asked me.

I nodded. “I know a lot of things, mama.”

My mother let out a weak chuckle. “You found her trunk. I am not surprised. Mama wrote everything down. I never was good at keeping a diary,” she confided. It was the most we’d spoken in months. I’d missed her. I missed her scent, and her voice, and how it felt when she hugged me.

“What happened, exactly?”

She sighed. “The three of them went to New Orleans for business. The journey took several days by train and they spent a few of those days exploring the city. Oliver had moved back to New York by then and I was married. Newly pregnant with you,” she smiled as she remembered. “They came home and about three days later they were both complaining of headaches and coughing. We thought they merely had head colds. Eventually, they were too fatigued to move from their bed, and their fever rose so high that we called a doctor, who tried to treat them but the fever had set in so much that they were suffering from bouts of delirium. Aunt Camille had large red splotches on her chest and Uncle Peter suffered from severe chest pain. The doctor tried, he really did. But within three weeks they were both gone. I saw them only once because it was too dangerous for me to be with them in my delicate state. But my mother remained at their side the entire time. She caught it too but survived. The doctor provided them with morphine, and mama thinks that they died peacefully but we don’t actually know. Their fever broke for a short time, and we thought they might recover but they passed away together. Oliver owned the property for a long time after that and let mama live in it at no cost. When he died without children a few years later, it belonged to her.” She looked away from me. “Mama wasn’t the same after that. She grew extremely unhappy and I tried to console her but she shut herself in that house and never fully recovered. She was overjoyed when you and the twins were born though,” she smiled. “I dearly hope that you have good, happy memories with her before she started to forget. I tried so hard to take care of her,” she said with a sob. I tried to console her, but my stomach twisted as I thought of my grandmother, alone in that large house, watching her best friends die before her eyes. She didn’t deserve the horrors that befell her.

“Perhaps God took her memories from her for a reason. To save her from so much heartache,” my mother cried. Before I could say another word, the twins and Benjamin rushed into the barn at the sound of my mother’s crying.

“Mama, what’s wrong?” Ben asked, sitting next to her. She answered only with quick, depressive sobs.

Ben’s eyes narrowed on me. “Clara, what did you do this time?”

The question burned into me. He didn’t give me time to answer.

“Last time we found her like this, it was because of you.” Emma looked at me sympathetically, but Harvey chuckled at my brother’s words. When my mother said nothing in my defense, I stood from my seat and walked from the barn, hoping that none of them would follow me. They didn’t. I ran past my dad, to the main road, my shoes lifting the dry dirt, causing a thick cloud of dust to follow me. The cold January air stuck to my skin, and I was desperate for a coat but I couldn’t return to that house. I felt betrayed by my brothers, but I also understood why they jumped to the wrong conclusion. The last time my mother cried had been my fault. My pace slowed to a saunter, and I looked above the trees and focused on the way they arched forward, creating a natural roof over my head. I stopped and closed my eyes, letting the morning breeze stick to my skin.

“Clara,” I heard. When I turned Ezra was standing, breathing heavily, and walking toward me. He always appeared when I needed him most. He took me in his arms, letting his warm body surround mine and I shivered as his lips kissed my forehead. His hair was frazzled, and his suspenders were wrinkled and ruffled.

I took his hand in mine. “Please, walk with me. I wanted to be alone until I saw you.”

He hesitated.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your father has noticed that I...disappear sometimes and confronted me about it. I don’t think I can step away from my duties this time.” I didn’t like it but I understood. My actions spoke otherwise as I yanked my hand from his childishly.

“I know you need the money. Don’t risk your job on my account,” I hissed. I was being unfair.

“What’s the matter, Clara?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, refusing to look at him. “I finally had a good moment with my mother and my brothers ruined it,” Ezra tried to say something in my defense but I stopped him.

“No, they were right. I deserved it.”

He stared at me, his eyes filled with pain I didn’t understand. Why did he care for me so much?

“Will you walk with me this way? At least until we return to your property?” he asked, motioning toward my house. “Perhaps it will distract you.” I felt my stomach tighten as I thought of facing my family again, but I obliged and we walked to my house together.

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