Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 3: Elise Carpentier

Elise: -June 1860-

Elise stood from her desk and opened the window, only to feel the hot, muggy Louisiana air pour into her bedroom. Her first instinct was to close it back, but the faint scent of fresh bread kept it open. She sat back down, picked up her pen, and tapped it on the table several times before dipping it in the ink.

I can smell the bread from the bakery, she wrote. And it was delicious.

“Elise!” She heard from downstairs. She quickly finished her entry, closed her diary, and placed it safely between two books on her willfully crowded bookshelf. Sunlight shone brightly through the windows and illuminated her cozy bedroom. She inhaled the scent of the bread one more time before making her way downstairs. Before she reached the kitchen, the shrill sound of breaking glass echoed in the hallway and she stopped at the bottom of the steps. Her parents were fighting again.

“You don’t need to cook, Rachel. We have a servant for that,” her father scolded, picking pieces of loose glass from the floor.

Her mother aggressively responded, “She’s sick, Benedict. What am I to do? Starve? I know you won’t cook for anything.”

Their argument continued for several minutes before Elise couldn’t stand to listen anymore. Her mother undoubtedly forgot why she called her to come downstairs in the first place and to avoid being seen, Elise quickly hurried to the front door and exited the house. The bustling city sounds filled her senses. Horse hooves rattled against the brick pavement, and bells resonated near the ship dock. She lived in the jewel of the South, and she held that fact with pride and regarded it with admiration, despite Louisiana’s blistering heat and drowning humidity. As she followed the road, she couldn’t deny the scent that took her to the baker’s shop.

Eugene, the baker in question, gave Elise a bright smile as she walked in.

“I suspected I would be seeing you today,” he said, reaching under the counter. Elise pushed a red lock of hair behind her ears before walking forward. The shop was busy with people.

“I just can’t help it, Eugene. I can smell the bread the moment I open my windows. Take my frequent visits as the utmost compliment to your skills as a baker.” They were on a first-name basis. She went to his shop that often.

He handed her a loaf of bread and his wife walked in, covered in flour with strands of hair falling out of her bun.

“Well, Miss Elise you are looking lovely today,” she complimented. “I think your hair gets more vibrant with each passing day.” Elise grabbed several strands of it and smiled as a thank you. It was not often that people complimented her hair, and more often they derided her for it.

“Thank you, Sarah.” She took a bite of bread and sighed with delight upon tasting it. “Perfect as usual Eugene. Thank you very much. How much do I owe you?” she asked with a mouth full of bread.

“Actually,” he said, waiting for his wife to disappear. Elise eyed him curiously. “I want a new set of ribbons for the missus. Can you assist me as repayment? I’ll even add in a few more loaves for the help,” he pleaded, wiping his hands on a cloth. “Or any sweet you’re interested in,” he added with a smirk.

Elise smiled at his request, flattered. “That’s no problem at all Eugene. Just please, let me know the measurements. I already have plenty of material. Does the lady have a color preference?” she asked, taking another bite of the bread. It melted in her mouth.

“You know she prefers red over anything. I think it’s why she envies your hair so much!”

Elise blushed. “Let me know the details, please! I’m happy to do it.”

She could tell that Eugene was busy, and after releasing him from the conversation she walked out, striking the shop’s bell with the door as it pushed open. She continued walking further from her house when someone called her name. She quickly turned toward the familiar voice and saw her best friend Caroline. They linked arms and discussed the weather and other trivial matters until they reached Jackson Square and sat beneath the trees. Though the air was hot, the shade and a gentle breeze helped make it bearable.

“So tell me, how are you? Something’s bothering you,” Caroline noted, letting the breeze hit her skin. Her black curls blew gently in the wind, fully revealing her round face. While Caroline was not a plump girl, she appeared so in comparison to Elise’s slender figure. Her skin was pale and her cheeks were flushed with pink as the heat enclosed around them. Her bosom poured out from her dress, and she shyly draped her hair over her exposed skin. Fanning herself dramatically, she sighed in disgust at the humidity.

Elise was not surprised by Caroline’s observation and explained the small glimpse of the fight she witnessed between her parents. After explaining for several minutes, Caroline said with a sigh, “Yes but this happens all the time. You know nothing will come of it.” Her tone was always assured, and she seemed unperturbed by Elise’s story. She was right, of course. Elise recalled the many arguments that her parents had over nothing, and in turn, nothing ever came of it.

“It’s more annoying than anything,” Elise confessed. “But you’re right, as usual. Nothing ever comes of it.” Elise was slightly annoyed at Caroline’s disposition to her problems, but she pushed it aside to enjoy the time she had with her best friend. Unfortunately, their visit ended abruptly when Caroline heard the church clock chime at ten o’clock.

“Oh, I’ve got to go, I have an engagement,” she stated, hurriedly pushing herself up from the grass. She reached out her arm to Elise.

“Must you leave already?” Elise whined. They hugged tightly, and Caroline gave her a sympathetic look.

She kissed Elise’s cheek before responding with a simple, “You will be fine, I promise,” before leaving. Elise walked to one of the many benches and sat quietly for a little while before noticing the heat again. It wasn’t necessarily the warmth that was uncomfortable, but the moisture in the air and the many layers of clothes. Her hands were sticky, and the air lingered on her skin. Eventually, she surrendered and removed herself from the bench intending to walk home when she caught a glance of René Pellerin looking in her direction. She quickly turned to leave when, much to her horror, he began strolling toward her. She politely waited as he approached. He was nicely dressed, with neatly sculpted hair which added several years to his appearance. It looked like his Sunday best. Was it Sunday? She couldn’t remember anymore. Though she’d known of René for several years, they’d hardly exchanged a word. They attended different boarding schools, and they’d shared mere glances at each other for the entirety of their acquaintance. She didn’t know why he was approaching her at all.

“Lovely afternoon...Miss, um, Carpentier?” he asked, hopeful. He gestured toward the bench she was just sitting at, and she reluctantly sat back down.

He doesn’t even know my name? Why is he talking to me? she silently wondered.

She knew her facial expression was giving away her thoughts, but she couldn’t help it. Uncontrollably, her response was slathered in sarcasm.“That is indeed my name, sir.”

She shifted uncomfortably on the hot bench.

He felt her uneasiness and attempted to relieve it. “I apologize if I have made you uncomfortable. I know that we are not very well acquainted but Flora Wildes is just over there and I had to get away from her.” He pointed to a small girl in the crowd. Her short blonde ringlets bounced as she over excitedly searched for him among the many people. She looked no more than sixteen years old and was pining for him.

When Elise didn’t respond, he continued. “She won’t leave me alone,” he whispered.

“Fine,” she whispered back, looking at him, an unusual amount of confidence-building. “But if I end up murdered in my sleep for sitting next to you, I’ll make sure my family knows who is to blame.” He smiled at that response and quickly stood up, turning his back to the crowd. He gestured for her to follow him as he crept behind the trees. For a reason she could not explain, she followed, and they were hidden from the congregation. It wasn’t like her to act so rashly.

“This way,” he said, leaving the cover. She strolled behind him as they walked toward the wharf, near the river. “My family won’t be missing me,” he promised.

Sneering, she responded, “I suspect Flora will.”

Without responding to her snarky remark, he reached both of his hands above his head in a stretch as they reached the docks. They crept down to the shore and sat by the two large trees near the water.

He let out a sigh of relief. “I think I am completely out of sight for now. Thank you for that! I don’t want to break the poor girl’s heart but she does not leave me alone and frankly, it’s annoying.”

“I was obviously busy. So much sitting to do today.”

Why am I flirting with him? She scolded herself.

She still didn’t understand why he approached her. Couldn’t he have run away alone?

“Right, let me offer you my sincerest apology.” He took her hand and pressed his lips against it and she winced in response to his brazen action.

I shouldn’t even be alone with him, she reluctantly convinced herself. But her words betrayed her.

“Mr. Pellerin, I wasn’t expecting our relationship to progress so quickly. Your lips on my hand,” she said, pulling it back into her lap. “Are we to be married?” Her long locks blew wildly in the breeze, heavy now, being so close to the water.

He chuckled at her remark. “Ah yes, well you see, I’ve got no ring,” he admitted jokingly, holding out empty hands.

She shook her head in disapproval.

He laughed, clearly amused by her sense of humor. It was unusual for her to be so confident. Most people, particularly men, were not impressed by her wit and she kept quiet most of the time. René, however, seemed to enjoy it.

“Will you be attending the festival this week?”

The immediate change of his tone took her smile away.

“I’m almost certain my mother will make me go,” she answered.

He moved closer to her, as they glanced out to the river. “Make you go?”

He peeked over the hill, back at the crowd to make sure they didn’t notice his absence.

Elise shrugged. “Not that I don’t want to,” she sighed, “I just know my mother will hassle me about it until I agree to attend.”

René eyed her inquisitively. “Well I’ll be there...” he said, expectant.

She glanced at him. “I did think so, as you’re the one who took it upon yourself to bring it to my attention.”

He heard someone call his name from the crowd and quickly turned his head. “Well, Miss Elise,” he paused, “I suppose I’ll have to present you with a ring at the festival,” he said with a laugh. He presented her with a low bow and a charming smirk before cruising away. He was welcomed into the crowd by Flora’s smile and bouncing curls. It was then that Elise noticed her pounding heartbeat. At that moment, she could think of nothing except what to wear, and how to look at the festival. She caught herself staring when he looked at her again and waved. She had always found René attractive, but he was always surrounded by a crowd of people and she never imagined that he would give her the slightest amount of attention. Nor did she ever want it from him. He was a playful, popular person among everybody and while she admired him, she’d never given him a second thought. Until today.

She’d made it halfway to her house when the rain started falling, striking the pavement in hard strides. Before she reached the first step of the staircase she heard her mother Rachel’s heavy footsteps.

“And where have you been?”

“I went to the baker’s.”

“And that took two hours?” Rachel scolded. “Honestly, what is wrong with you? You walked around the city like that?”

“It only just started raining. I walked to the park. I was enjoying the day!” Elise responded, already frustrated. “I had a lovely visit with Caroline.”

“And did you decide to take the slowest steps in the history of mankind whilst walking home?” Rachel stormed back into the kitchen. “Honestly.”

Her mother’s unexpected temper shattered her good mood and when she reached her bedroom, she slammed the door in a fit and undressed. She braided her endless amount of hair, removed her diary from the bookshelf, and wrote.

***


“Rachel, please,” Benedict scowled, taking a bite of his breakfast. In response to Benedict’s crude tone, Rachel let out a groan of defeat and continued eating as if their sour exchange had not just happened. Elise didn’t know what they were arguing about this time and was not interested in finding out. She distracted herself with other thoughts, namely René Pellerin. She’d given him a lot of thought since their encounter a week prior.

“Elise, isn’t it time to get dressed?” Rachel asked. It was finally time. Elise stood from the table and bolted up the stairs like a child before undressing and pulling the ivory dress from the armoire.

“Mother, can you help me with this, please?” she called. Elise desperately wanted to avoid her mother poking into her life but she could not manage to tie the ridiculous corset around her waist by herself. She grabbed the corset from the bed and handed it to her mother when she walked through the door.

Rachel took a bunch of Elise’s hair in her hands. “Braid this. I don’t want it getting stuck in the strings,” she demanded. Elise grabbed her hair and quickly did as her mother asked.

“I am happy to be attending,” Elise assured her mother, “and I adore the dress.”

Rachel wrapped the corset around Elise’s waist and pulled the strings, tightening her chest with each tug. Though incredibly slender, Elise wore the dress beautifully, and her mother adorned her with sapphire earrings, marveling at her daughter’s appearance shortly after.

“One last thing,” Rachel said as she released the braid. She ruffled her daughter’s long hair and arranged it in a low braided bun. She inserted an elegant clip into the center. “There. Now you look like a proper lady, instead of letting your hair run wild like a barbarian.”

Though her mother’s words were shadowed with a compliment, Elise couldn’t help but scowl at the insult. When they walked together down the stairs, her father welcomed them at the front door. “My beautiful women. How fortunate am I to call you mine?” He cupped Elise’s face in his one hand and kissed her forehead, reaching the other to grab his wife’s.

“I will gladly walk you,” he said, pulling his hand away from Rachel and linking his arm with his daughter’s. The walk to Jackson Square was short and took only minutes, and she grew increasingly nervous with each moment. It was ridiculous. It was just a festival….

Elise and her father said very little, but she enjoyed the time spent with him. His ruffled red beard and hair made her feel less alone.

“Daddy, do you see Caroline anywhere?”

He glanced at the crowd and answered with a stern, “No, I’m sorry my dear.”

He was obviously in a hurry to avoid the crowd. He despised large groups of people, but her nerves were eating away at her and she didn’t want him to leave.

“You will find her.” He squeezed her hand and kissed her cheek before walking home, leaving her to fend for herself. When Caroline was nowhere to be found, Elise stopped to enjoy the cool breeze, a rarity in Louisiana’s summertime. It was then that she heard snickering from behind her.

“Can you believe her hair?” the girls laughed. “She is trying too hard,” another responded. It was not the first time that other girls had ridiculed her untamed, radiant hair. She pretended not to hear them and hurried below the docks, climbing down to the edge of the water despite the delicate nature of her dress, desperate to avoid them. She placed herself against the trunk of a large live oak and put her face in her hands. Where was Caroline?

Ruffling in the grass behind distracted her tears for a moment. She turned around and saw René, tripping over several times before reaching her. He took a seat beside her, breathing heavily, gasping for air after his venture down to the riverbank. She looked away from him, desperate to hide her brimming tears. She didn’t want him to see that. He immediately felt unwelcome.

“My apologies, miss. I can leave.”

When she didn’t answer, he stood up. She turned to him, and pleaded, “No, it’s-”

She didn’t finish her sentence. He sat back down and looked at her when he noticed the flush in her cheeks, and tears in her eyes.

His tone grew serious. “What’s the matter?

He kept his distance, but she could tell he wanted to scoot closer.

“I don’t understand why girls feel the need to tease is all. I’m fine,” she lied.

He shook his head. “Nobody enjoys sour gossips, and those girls are nothing but exactly that.”

She looked at him before responding. “What makes you think I am any different? You hardly know me.”

She was genuinely curious. They’d had one significant conversation in the entirety of their acquaintance. Before he could answer, she added, “Their words don’t hurt. My hair is bright and untamed, and long. It’s that they even felt the need to say anything at all. I don’t understand. What is there to gain from ridiculing someone else?”

The first tear fell, and she quickly cleared it from her face.

“Those girls have always given you trouble. Why don’t you say anything in your defense?” She examined him but instead of listening to his words, she wondered how on Earth he knew that.

Her eyes fixated on his. “I didn’t realize you paid such close attention.”

“We’ve been acquainted for quite some time. Though we’ve not spoken much, it isn’t difficult to notice you.”

She scoffed. “You had to guess at my name.”

He shrugged. “Well, I was right wasn’t I?”

She tried to hide her smile. Instead, she held out her hand.

He looked confused. She eyed him disapprovingly.

“Well, I was expecting a ring and you did not deliver.”

His laughter warmed her and she felt chills when he took her hand and kissed it as he’d done before. He was so confident, so happy, and almost wild that she, for a moment, wished she could be more like him. Their closeness was indecent, but she undeniably enjoyed it.

“I’ve disappointed the lady,” he apologetically said. She blushed. They were both giggling when Elise heard her name. Caroline was staring down at her, grinning mischievously. She looked at both of them for what felt like minutes until she said, “The food is being served.”

Elise and René looked at each other and it was then that she noticed that he was blushing too. To her knowledge, she had never made anyone blush before. Particularly not a handsome, charming man like René Pellerin. She was too thin without enough womanly features to deem her attractive, and most men found her wit annoying. Her nose was too long for everyone’s tastes, and her hair was always a subject of ridicule. Her chin was nicely formed but her face was blemished by a collection of freckles that were darkened by the Louisiana sunlight. She had no idea why he was showing her such attention. For a moment she considered that it was a cruel joke.

They both stood and climbed back to the top. René struggled, and Elise reached a hand to him. He grabbed it but didn’t let go and she gave him a reluctant look of disapproval. Though she enjoyed it, she knew it was wrong for them to hold hands publicly without approval or supervision. To make matters worse, she hardly knew him. Perhaps she merely enjoyed the attention, and the thought made her cringe at her vulnerability.

Before they reached the top she leaned closer to him. “We can’t appear in public...like this...together.”

He let out a sigh of disappointment. “I’d like to see you again.”

She thought of a solution. “Sit with me.”

Their hands disconnected and they walked together to the table. Elise sat beside Caroline as the food was presented, with René across from them both.

Where were you?” Elise asked Caroline, as the scent of the food overwhelmed her senses. Caroline shifted uncomfortably in her seat before removing her gloves.

“I am more interested in where you were,” Caroline countered.

Before Elise could speak of it, they took their seats, and the food was served immediately.

They ate quietly, but Elise felt René’s eyes on her. Caroline nudged Elise and glanced at René, implying a question. Elise smiled, ignoring her gesture, and continued eating.

“Caroline, where is Abe today?” Elise asked, desperately trying to distract Caroline’s curiosity.

Caroline sulked. “He is traveling,” She looked at Elise. “For work, of course.” She appeared uneasy, to say the least. Instead of explaining further, she gulped her wine.

It was then that René spoke. “There, see,” he said, gesturing to Caroline’s hand. “What a lovely ring you’re wearing Mrs. Poitevin. Where did your husband find a jewel such as that?” he asked, glancing at Elise.

Caroline beamed at the ring. “It was his grandmother’s! Her most unfortunate passing was the catalyst to his proposing with this ring. His mother wanted to keep it in their family,” she told them, admiring the jewel on her hand. The remainder of the picnic was relatively quiet, as Elise trailed behind Caroline, periodically glancing around the crowd for René. It pleased her to find him watching her, or searching for her too. It was only near the end that she encountered him again. He gently approached her and asked her to follow him. Though nervous about being seen alone with him, she agreed, avoiding Caroline’s gaze. They walked slowly among the crowd.

“I want to see you again.”

She blushed. But why?

“I’d like that as well,” she agreed. He smiled as he took her hand and kissed it again. His lips were soft as they brushed against her skin, creating an unfamiliar sensation for her and sending chills down her arm. He released her hand and walked away, periodically looking back. She floated to Caroline, who had not noticed her absence. Coincidentally, just as Elise neared her, Caroline looked at the cathedral’s clock.

“Elise will you accompany me home?” she asked, reaching out her arm. Elise took it and they walked together after saying their goodbyes. They sauntered in silence for a short time before Caroline inevitably broached the subject.

“René Pellerin, hmmm? I was not aware that you knew him.”

Elise winced. “Come now, we’ve known him for years,” she responded with a groan.

“We’ve spoken two words to him since we were children. When did this change? I thought you’d have told me.”

Elise looked guilty. “We spoke last week in the park after you left. It was all very bizarre. He came to me to avoid Flora Wildes.” Caroline eyed her. “Nothing has come of it, just a few shared words.”

“Well, my dearest friend, don’t allow me to spoil it. I am merely warning you to take caution. Sneaking around is improper, you know,” she paused. “I am glad I was the one that found you two lurking by the shore.”

“We were not lurking,” Elise defensively responded, “I was upset and he consoled me. It may as well have been in front of the crowd’s eyes.”

“Well, it wasn’t. Just be careful.”

They reached Caroline’s house, empty of her husband. “Won’t you please come in?”

Caroline quickly led Elise to the kitchen where she put a pot of tea over the fire. They sat in silence for some time until the tea was ready and served. Caroline approached Elise and handed her a cup with a forced smile but it faded almost instantly as she took a seat.

“Elise,” she said, her tone serious. “I need to talk to you and it’s quite important.”

“What’s on your mind?”

Caroline placed her cup on the table and set her eyes on Elise. “I told you that Abe was traveling, which is true…” she paused. Elise nodded and listened intently.

“He’s traveling for business. I received this from him today,” she said, handing Elise a mysterious telegram.

My dearest wife Caroline,

I’ve received yours of the fourth and I am pleased to hear that you are well and in good health. I am also delighted to inform you that this time apart was not for waste, as Mr. Chausey has deemed me worthy of joining their company, Chausey & Bros. I will begin my work in due course within the next two months. Please, make haste and inform our friends and family, as we will not have much time with them once I return.

Your loving and devoted husband, Abraham

Elise looked up from the telegram at Caroline, who was quietly sipping her tea. Elise let out a deep sigh. “You’re moving,” she said blankly, not hiding the disappointment in her voice. She dropped the paper into her lap. “Where?”

“Chicago,” Caroline hesitantly admitted. Elise’s eyes widened. To her, Chicago was a thousand miles away; unattainable. Caroline quickly placed her cup on the table and grabbed Elise’s hands.

“I’m sorry. We weren’t positive, and I was too afraid to share the news with anyone before anything was certain, please understand,” she pleaded. Elise squeezed her hands, but tears fell onto her cheeks. It was then that she noticed the trunks surrounding them, open and empty, ready to be packed.

“Of course I understand. Your husband has an excellent opportunity. I’m just desperately trying not to think about the fact that I may never see you again,” Elise confessed. Caroline reached her hand over to Elise’s cheeks and wiped away the tears.

“It’s a long journey but the steamboats are getting faster each year. Before you know it, it will only take a couple of days to ride the Mississippi north. Or South for that matter. My parents are still here, I will return on occasion.”

Elise pondered this. “Perhaps,” she said, despondently. They discussed the news together until Caroline saw a man lighting the lanterns on the street.

“Oh heavens, it’s already dark. You should be home. I’ve taken up plenty of your time.” Elise had not noticed the time, and it was then that she realized they had been talking for more than two hours. They stood up in unison and Caroline walked her to the door. Before exiting the house, Elise reluctantly offered her congratulations to Caroline and asked her to congratulate Abe as well. After dragging her feet home, Elise walked into her house and heard humming resonating from the dining room. She followed the sound and saw Lydia polishing the dishware.

“Lydia! Happy to see you’re feeling better,” Elise stated, cheerfully. Lydia looked up from her polishing to reveal tired brown eyes. Her frazzled hair was held back by a handkerchief. She was older than Elise by several years, and her hands showed years of labor in the way they moved.

“Miss Elise,” she said with a smile, “I am feeling much better thank you. Happy to be back in this house, I tell you.” Elise thought of Lydia’s small living quarters and sympathized. Though, with her father as the head of the household, there was little she could do or say to improve Lydia’s situation. Elise took a seat next to her and watched.

Lydia shot her a look. “Miss Elise unless you’re here to polish this silver I might suggest you not linger. You know your father doesn’t like you talking to me too much. Distracts me from my work, he said,” Lydia sternly suggested. She was right. Her father never let her talk with Lydia for too long. Despite her feelings, she had no opinion. At least, none that anyone else would listen to.

“You’re right Liddy,” she sadly stated. “I’m sorry, I will let you return to your work.” Elise stood from her chair.

“Good night Miss Elise.”

She walked toward the stairs and saw both her parents in the parlor, quietly and peacefully occupied with their tasks before retiring to her bedroom. Without the sunlight, her cozy room was dark and ominous. She walked to the desk and quickly lit every candle as well as the lantern near the bed. She reached for the diary on the bookshelf and, dipping her pen into the ink, she wrote her thoughts until she fell asleep.

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