Chapter 7: The Honeymoon
Elise: -April 1861-
March 1, 1861
My dearest Elise,
I am so pleased to have received your last letter, and can truly say I am not at all surprised by the news of your engagement. I cannot send you enough congratulations, and mere words do not suffice to express my excitement for this joyous occasion. It will take me roughly two weeks to complete my journey back home, as I switch between the trains from Chicago and take a steamboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. I regret to inform you that Abraham will be unable to attend, as work has kept him ever busy. I dearly miss your company. I am eagerly awaiting my departure so that I can once again be embraced by the arms of my best friend. I will arrive in the morning on the day before your nuptial celebration on the 10 o’clock train. Please, send my best regards to your family and René.
Your ever-loving and devoted friend,
Elise held Caroline’s letter tightly against her chest as she fell back onto her pillows. She felt like a child whose dreams were all coming true at once. The day had finally arrived. It was early morning, and the sun crept through the large windows in her bedroom, and rays of the bright sunshine sunk into her skin. She gathered her hair and arranged half of it in a neat braid, not caring that the rest of it fell to her waist. She placed a clip near the braid, which transformed the simple style into an elegant one. Joyously, she floated downstairs. When she entered the dining room the faint aroma of étouffée crept into the house from the outside kitchen. She squinted her eyes as the sunlight shone in through the large bay window, surprised to see the curtains open. The crystal chandelier above the dining room table reflected the light and sent rainbow speckles across the walls, illuminating the plaster molding along the edges of the ceiling. The aspidistra near the windowsill were a vibrant green, and the thick leaves drank in the sunlight they seldom received. She paused when she entered the room, and despite the blinding light shining onto every spec of paint and crevice, her parents were peacefully eating breakfast. She froze, enjoying a quiet moment between them. Her mother was the first to notice her.
“Oh, good morning Elise,” her mother said with a small smile. Her father’s gaze left the paper and landed on her. She sat, awkwardly awaiting their conversation.
“My beautiful daughter.” He replaced the newspaper on the table, folding it neatly. Elise blushed at the compliment.
“You two are quite cheery this morning.” Her parents didn’t respond. Elise took a sip of the black coffee, and let the warmth encapsulate her. The house was cool, and the April air crept through any crack it could find.
“Will you see René today?” her mother asked. Elise replaced the cup on the table. The question, laced with a smile, expressed a sense of admiration.
“Yes. He is accompanying me to greet Caroline at the train station,” Elise beamed. Finally, she would see her best friend. Her parents glanced at each other with bright, smiling eyes. As Elise ate her breakfast, the room fell silent as her father continued reading the newspaper, and her mother quietly sipped her morning coffee.
“Rachel, look at this,” her father said, handing the paper to his wife. After reading a few paragraphs, her mother turned to her. “My word. Elise, are you sure you want to travel so far north for your honeymoon? Why not stay here?” her mother asked, handing Elise the newspaper. The paper was flooded with news of political turmoil between the states, and the news frightened her mother.
“Here?” Elise glowered. “We’re going to New York City!” Elise said, sighing at the notion, and ignoring the news in front of her. “We’ve already paid for the hotel, and we’ve got the entire trip planned. We are not going to cancel the entire thing solely on speculation and political drama.”
“I don’t like it, Elise. All this talk of war,” her mother said, curling her lips. Elise expected her father to say something resembling “there won’t be a war” but he never did. Instead, he remained silent as she handed him back the newspaper. To distract them from the brewing conversation, Elise changed the subject.
“They’ve been talking about a war for years. René doesn’t see an issue either. All of this talk about politics. We’re the United States, it will be fine.”
Her mother continued to drink her coffee with a pained expression.
“You’re acting quite spoilt, Elise.”
She ignored her father’s comment and continued, “If anything happens, it won’t be before I return home. We will be gone only two weeks,” she said, trying to be convincing. Though she saw the legitimate fear in her mother’s eyes, she didn’t bother to read the newspaper and had no understanding of what was happening in the country surrounding her.
The clock was quickly approaching 9 o’clock in the morning, and it was time to go. It was a bustling Saturday morning, and she reveled in the city’s noises, avoiding the various puddles of water that accumulated in the New Orleans streets. While she considered her home to be the jewel of the South, she could also admit that it smelled disgusting most days, and many people left during the summers to avoid catching one disease or another. It wasn’t the best city in the world to everybody, but to her, it was home. What made it feel even more like home was the sight of René, standing near the wharf at the river. She approached him quietly, and gently stroked the back of his hand. He turned to her, startled at her touch but smiled. He lifted his hand to her cheek and kissed her deeply.
“Hello,” she said, as their lips parted.
He looked at her and took a step back, holding up his hands. “Oh, miss, you might want to get out of sight. If my fiancée saw you kissing me like that…” he said with a serious face.
“I suppose,” she said, squeezing his hand, “I won’t be your fiance for much longer.”
He squeezed her hand back. “What is it? One more day? Have we already been engaged for four months?” he asked, stressing the words. She reached in his pocket and pulled out his pocket watch to check the time. After glancing at the face on the clock, she looked back at him, smiling proudly.
“Four months? Is it the first of April already?” She feigned surprise.
They arrived at the station and waited near the loading dock for Caroline’s train, anxiously watching the people arrive and depart. Eager and bursting with anticipation, Elise heard the blow of the whistle only minutes after ten o’clock, and saw the steam rising from the train as it stopped. She squeezed René’s hand before letting go and ran to the trains when Caroline presented herself on the loading docks. Stumbling and struggling to carry her trunks, Caroline bounced from the train onto the platform. Her full figure was accentuated by her busty cerulean dress. Topped with a draping hat of the same color, Caroline’s ebony hair fell to her shoulders in large spiral curls. They’d flatten in no time. Their embrace lasted for what felt like several minutes.
“Oh, Caroline, I feel like I might cry!” Elise said, holding back real tears. Caroline cupped Elise’s face with her hands, covered with her custom-made leather gloves.
“It’s so good to see you. I’m finally home.” She picked up her trunks and noticed René.
“René it’s so good to see you as well. Congratulations.”
“We’ve got a driver. What do you think about leaving your bags in the carriage with him, and accompanying us in the French Market at the café?” Elise offered, as René took Caroline’s belongings. They walked to the carriage that was waiting for them outside the station.
“That sounds wonderful. Oh, I never imagined I’d miss the smell of New Orleans,” she said, taking a deep breath.
“But I did not miss this humidity.” She adjusted loose strands of her hair that were sticking to her face. The curls were indeed short-lived. “It’s dreadfully hot and it’s only April.”
“It must be incredibly cold in Chicago,” Elise replied. “I’ve been enjoying the breezes.”
Overjoyed, they walked to the café and drank coffee and ate pastries until they floated with contentment. Hours passed before they walked back to the carriage. As Caroline pulled herself up, René tugged at Elise’s dress and took both of her hands.
“Our last goodbye before marriage.”
Elise had been thinking of that all day, but when he said it, it became real. It felt like she was living another woman’s life, a parallel experience of perfect bliss. But it was her life, and she could hardly believe it.
“René I’m so happy and my heart is filled with joy.”
They rode in silence until Elise’s house came into view. Benedict’s figure grew larger as they approached and he helped to remove Caroline’s bags from the carriage. Within twenty minutes they were settled. They conversed for what felt like even more hours, and Caroline told them about her life in Chicago. Distracted and joyful, it was only when the sun began setting did it sink in, that it was her last day as an unmarried woman.
The entire day was a blur, but one thing was for certain: she was a married woman now.
“Rachel please, leave them alone,” Benedict pleaded, calling after his wife. Rachel ignored him and ran to the newlywed couple, interrupting their moment alone. Elise and René gave her their full attention.
“Ben and your father have already loaded the carriage René. Don’t forget, your ticket to New York leaves this evening on the five o’clock train. Your journey will be enjoyable, I hope. Here are your tickets,” she said with an excited snicker before handing them over. As they spoke, the room emptied as their reception dismantled. Rather than feel sadness, Elise was relieved. Caroline, heavy with alcohol, approached Elise and hugged her tightly.
“When are you coming back?” she asked, slurring the words. Her bun was loose, and strands of dark hair were falling into her face. Elise reached over and tucked them securely behind her ears. She immediately saw the sadness in Caroline’s eyes and felt a pang of guilt.
“It will take six days until we’re even there. We are spending a week in the city, then coming back on the train. We will be gone for almost a month. Most of our honeymoon will be spent alone on the train.” Elise pressed herself to René as she spoke. Caroline didn’t hide her discontentment.
“I’ll be gone by then. Back to the cold, lonely, city of Chicago.” She took another sip of her wine before straightening up and looking Elise in the eyes. “I’m so happy for you my dear best friend.” She reached for a tight hug and Elise felt Caroline’s deep breaths as she tried not to cry. As they separated, René’s father approached. His toupee swayed and threatened to fall off at any moment.
René stretched his arm downward for a handshake because he towered over his father.
His father beamed. “My dear son, I’m so happy for you. I do wish your mother could have been here,” he said with a hint of melancholy. He turned to Elise and continued. “And you, my dear, so beautiful. Just lovely.”
“Oh, Marshall aren’t they glowing?” Rachel intercepted, grinning at the newlyweds. René and Elise both blushed. Benedict shook Marshall’s hand and they immediately began discussing money and numbers. “This is why I never let them in the same room together if possible,” René joked, taking Elise’s hand.
They boarded the carriage, which was generously loaded with their belongings. As it began to move, Elise took another look back at her parents and Caroline and sent everybody warm smiles as they waved. They snuggled closely together when a haunting thought crept over Elise.
“My dear, do you think we will be in any danger going so far north?” she asked, though it was too late to ask such a question.
René gave her a concerned look. “I don’t think so. But, if anything happens, if we get separated, let’s promise to meet back here. It will take days, or even weeks, but promise me that you will come back here. God forbid anything radical should happen while we are there,” he responded. His answer did not completely convince her, but she was too overjoyed to put any more thought into it. When they arrived at the station, Elise was astounded to discover that their parents had paid for a private sleeping car for the entire journey to New York and their return trip.
“Goodness, that must have cost them a fortune!” she exclaimed to René, as she watched the men load their trunks into the car.
“I think they like us,” René jokingly responded. She followed him into their private car and marveled at the furnishings and the exquisite aesthetic of the room.
“I feel as if I’ve landed in a hotel,” she gaped. René removed his outer coat, loosened up his tie, and unbuttoned the top of his shirt. Elise was still admiring the room when he crept behind her and held her in his arms.
“René, will you help me?” she asked, motioning him to the outer layers of her dress. The white dress was large and stretched out far from her thin body. Her slender figure was hidden by the thickness, and the corset pressed her features in. He helped her lift the large hoop skirt and layers of fabric from her body. She loosened several strings of the corset but did not remove it completely. She released a breath.
“Oh, that’s much better. Thank you.” She placed the materials on the bed.
“I don’t understand how you managed to stay in that for so long.”
“I’m a woman, René. We can do anything.”
“If that’s true, then why did you request my help, I wonder?” he countered, returning the playful expression.
“Maybe I just wanted you near me,” she suggested, as her hands ran through her hair.
“All you had to do was ask,” he said cooly. Elise was nearly as tall as him and made no effort to match her face to his when she kissed him.
“We will depart soon. Would you like to unpack with me? Let’s get settled in.”
René kissed her cheek, and she walked to their trunks and unpacked a week’s worth of clothes and belongings. She set her diary on the bedside and a small box with René’s letters. She saw him eyeing the diary.
“I want to write down everything,” she said, sending him a smile. He returned it.
Though the sleeping car was adequately sized for sleeping, the bed, vanity, and tables were packed tightly together, and regardless of where they stood in the room, they remained close together. The excitement of the sleeping car was distracting, and it was only after she’d unpacked and organized all of her things that she realized she was still in the inner layers of her wedding dress. Her corset was loose, but still pressing on her stomach. It was the most uncomfortable piece of clothing she’d ever worn.
“René, can you help me again?”
He was behind her within seconds, pulling the strings out of the corset. She inhaled deeply, and it wasn’t until the corset was removed that she noticed how tight it was. She was so distracted by her newfound comfort that she didn’t notice René’s hands wandering down her arms. She smiled as she savored his touch lingering on her skin. It would be a blatant lie to herself to claim she’d never wondered what his touch felt like. She turned to face him and welcomed his lips on hers. It wasn’t until they heard a loud whistle, and jerk of the train that she remembered that they had not even departed yet. His shirt was completely unbuttoned when they heard a knock at their door. They separated and giggled before René opened it. The attendant smiled and handed René a silver tray of food with layers of fruits, meat, and cheese with a large carafe of wine and a jar of water. She’d never been anywhere so luxurious, and for a moment it was easy to forget that they were on a train. René set the tray and the bottles down before inviting Elise to join him at the small table. The table had only two ornate, mahogany chairs and Elise enjoyed the cozy nature of the room. She felt like she could live in the small space with him forever. At that moment, she wished she could. The dark color of the wood blended with the deep red hues of the walls. It was mesmerizing. Elise took a seat next to him and admired what she saw.
René glanced down at his exposed chest and raised an eyebrow. “My dear wife Elise, are you...looking at me?”
Elise blushed. “Maybe,” she said, forming it into a question. They ate from the tray, discussing their hopes and dreams, the desire for menial tasks of cooking dinner together, waking up beside one another, having children, and naming their firstborn son after his father. Empty glasses, stained with wine, littered the table as their conversation grew. They agreed on their preference for a house, and the names of their future children. After months of courting, they’d never been able to be as intimate and open as they were at that moment, and she loved the freedom to touch him and talk to him as her husband. All the while, the sunset that was eagerly creeping through the windows began to fade, leaving a dark room illuminated only by candlelight. René lit several more candles in the room before retiring to the bed. He sat on the edge and invited Elise to sit with him. Before she did, he removed his shirt and his trousers.
She walked toward him. “Isn’t this perfect?”
His revealed body did not make her nervous. She was eager to feel him. Neither one of them had been so intimate with anyone else, and she was more impatient than she expected. She was ready. He brushed her hair from her face.
He positioned himself on the bed and relaxed his head on one of the pillows. When she released the clip from her hair, it fell down her body, and she ran her fingers through it before resting her head on his chest. They remained quiet for several minutes and listened to the train. Her hand traced his chest, and she was surprised at how comfortable she was around his exposed body. She looked up at him, and he gazed at her, placing one hand on the back of her head. She moved her body slightly and faced him, enjoying their lips together. The kiss he returned was unlike any they’d shared before. It was aflame with unhinged passion. It wasn’t awkward or slow or strange. It was right. Though passionate, they explored each other’s bodies gently, and it didn’t take long for her body to react to his touch. She’d never experienced anything like it, and the feeling of his hands on her body, his lips, and tongue on her mouth, only encouraged her desire. He cloaked her in his arms and their legs entwined until she no longer knew where her body ended and his began. They spoke without words, their bodies speaking to each other until he knew exactly what to do. He didn’t just make love to her, they made love to each other. Each movement, every breath resonated in her memory, and she got lost within him.
They spent four days in New York City, visiting the landmarks and exploring the new Central Park before taking a day to rest in the hotel. It was luxurious, and they spent their nights making love to one another and falling deeper in love with each passing minute. They’d both grown up in New Orleans, and the northern city was vastly different. For the first time, she’d seen things she had only read about in books.
She was busy writing in her diary near the window and watched the people below. The streets were filled, and she wondered what occasion prompted so many people to bustle about. It was then, as she pressed the pen to the paper once more that René pushed open the door in a panic, startling her and causing the pen to scratch catastrophically on the page, running a long line through her words. She shot René a look of displeasure, but before any words came out of her mouth he rushed to her, his body uneasy and his brow damp with sweat.
He reached up and touched her face. “Elise, we must pack. Please, put that away. We need to go home,” he said, unnerved.
“But why? What’s the matter? What happened?”
She continued to ask him an infinite amount of questions as he scrambled around the room. Without responding, he handed her the rolled-up newspaper he’d been clasping since entering the room. He continued to pack their clothes, knocking down their wine glasses and water jugs. Though she was frustrated with his clumsiness, she quickly opened the newspaper. The front was filled, and the words “War! War!” were spread across the page. “Fort Sumter on Fire!” The paper exclaimed in large, bold letters. “Concentration of troops at Charleston!” She read. She set down the paper and looked at René, who was still panic-struck.
She grabbed his arm. “Why are you alarmed? We are nowhere near Charleston!”
He had strong sincerity and worry in his eyes. “But you don’t understand. We need to get home now. If this gets worse, we might not be able to later.”
Without pause, she responded. “I’ll help you pack.”
Though she was disappointed, she did not argue. They gathered their belongings quickly, and easily checked out of the hotel. As they walked with their trunks, Elise noticed they were not walking to the train station.
“Where are we going?” she asked, breathless from treading at such a fast pace.
His eyes darted quickly as he scanned the people around them, who were also in a panic.
“To the harbor. It will take six days to take the train home.”
“And a ship will take less time?” she was frustrated with him, and it felt like she was getting no answers.
“The problem with the train is that it will be traveling between the states. A ship will take the same amount of time but will be on the water and away from the fighting.”
That makes sense, she thought to herself. They reached the harbor quickly and were faced with a large crowd of people, all rushing to evacuate the city. As René showed the attendant their identification, Elise spotted three men watching them.
“René,” she said, nudging him.
He turned to her and smiled. “It’s alright darling we’ll be on our way home soon. Safe from all of this.”
She returned the smile but before she told him about the men his back was already to her.
“No, René, those men are staring at us,” she said, nudging him once more. She’d noticed one of them had moved closer, and her eyes fixed on him. René finished talking with the attendant and their trunks disappeared in a mass of others. The only one of Elise’s belongings she had kept was a bag draped around her shoulders. Something about the city and its people, as if overnight had chanced from interesting and exciting, to frightening and panicked. The ships in the harbor were creaking and moaning as the waves crashed against them, and the large sails were whipping in the wind, creating a loud cracking noise around them. She’d never been on a ship before, and the only thing preventing her from losing her nerve amid the chaos was her husband.
As she watched the ship a loud grunt echoed from behind, and she turned to see what caused it. She looked up and saw the three men she’d seen watching them grabbing René and covering his mouth to muffle his screams. She ran to him as they dragged him to a secluded area of the harbor. She hollered his name, but he was unresponsive. She saw his eyes darting, hopeful that she’d not been caught by anyone. The commotion of the harbor muffled the sound of her calling his name, and no one around her noticed René’s newfound captivity. They’d pulled him into an alley in a matter of seconds, invisible to distracted eyes. She tried to get the attention of passersby but they were so preoccupied with the ensuing mayhem that no one stopped to pay her any mind. Unsure of what else to do, Elise followed the men, hiding from view. Did they not notice me with him? She asked herself. She wanted to find help, but she did not want to let René out of her sight. Conflicted, she stayed hidden and watched the events unfold.
“He fits the description!” one of the men said to the other. They were large and held René down without effort. They tied a handkerchief around his mouth, muffling any sounds that came from it. René’s expression was terrified, as he contemplated the fate of his wife, and himself. The three men continued to talk amongst each other, leaving René unable to move or make a sound. He still had not noticed Elise.
“This is him. Look at his name,” the shortest man said after pulling René’s wallet out of his pocket. The men studied his passport and were noticeably struggling to read it.
“René,” the shortest man said, pointing to his name on the passport. “Look.”
“You’re daddy’s gotten you in a lot of trouble boy,” the largest of them told him, viciously grabbing one of René’s cheeks. The look on his face implied that he was entirely oblivious to what these men were talking about.
“You sure that’s him?” the third man asked, wary of René’s expression.
“He fits the description. He’s got the same name. He’s that politician’s son. Let’s go. I’m tired of arguing,” the large man answered. His lower right arm was tattooed with a woman’s face. Her hair was adorned with a bandana, and her shoulder was left bare. Instead of revealing the rest of her body, the tattoo stopped at her neck, lined with roses. Elise memorized it. This man was undeniably the leader of the group, giving the orders. They’d kidnapped a grown man in plain sight. His voice indicated pure confidence that they’d found the right man, but Elise knew that René’s father was a banker and a small quiet man at that. René muffled protests were unintelligible, but the noise was loud enough to risk the attention of the guards. In response, one of the men punched him in the face, causing blood to spurt from his nose onto the pavement. Elise squealed, desperate to run and get help by notifying someone in the crowd or a guard, but was too afraid to let René out of her sight. If she called for the guards, they’d notice her and run before the guards arrived but if she ran to get the guards she feared that they’d take him.
“Get this piece of scum out of here. Once we’ve got him, his father will follow. You watch,” the leader said, grabbing René’s hair and pulling his head back to look at him. René winced at the man’s rough grasp, and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He was scared. They’d captured the wrong man. The tattooed man looked at René, his face inches away. Elise could barely hear what he said, but she caught one distinct sentence.
“...and you’re going to pay for what your father did.”
The man pulled a knife from his belt and carved a long slit through René’s face, passing through his lips and chin, creating the probability of a deep, disfiguring scar. Blood poured from it as the blade split his skin, and his desperate screams were still muffled, and his movements to break free were restrained. Blood dripped from his face, trickling into the handkerchief and down his chin and neck, saturating his shirt. He began to falter from the loss of blood. Elise’s fear transformed into rage. They picked René up from the ground and pulled him further along the alley. Elise stood, finally bringing attention to herself. She didn’t know what else to do. René’s eyes struggled to open wide at her presence, and swathed sounds escaped him. The men noticed this and were immediately drawn to her.
“Well, who’s this?” the leader asked, his eyes wide with curiosity. The other two men continued to hold René down as the leader approached her, his eyes glowing with hot fury. Why were these men doing this? René’s father was a short, plump, jolly man who was incapable of harming a fly. Thoughts cascaded through her head as she tried to figure out why these men were blaming René’s father for atrocities that she knew nothing about. There was no reason for these men to take her husband, and though she was no fighter she did the only thing she could do, which was to use her voice. Though she was scared, she stood her ground.
“You’ve got the wrong man. That’s my husband.” Her voice did not falter, and she was certain that René was innocent.
“Do you think I give a damn if he’s your husband after what his father did to my family?” he asked, slowly approaching her. She saw René struggling, and one of the two men holding him down punched him again, harder this time, sending his bloodied face into the dirt. Why hadn’t anyone noticed them? They were in an alley, away from the crowd’s eyes but someone had to see them eventually. She did all she could do and attempted to stall.
“Please, stop!” she yelled, taking a few steps closer to him. “You’ve got the wrong man!” she pleaded. “His father is not-”
The leader slapped her clear across the face before she got the words out. She felt a hard sting on her cheek, and her hand shot up to cover the small slit that his sharp ring had inflicted.
“I know a piece of shit when I see one. Especially the son of that piece of shit congressman!” he said with a raised voice. She hoped that someone would hear him, but in the commotion near the harbor, she knew that no one was coming to help them. In that instant, she wished that she could go back and call for help, but it was too late. They were on their own. Elise felt warm blood dripping down her cheeks as she stumbled from her stirred senses.
“You would know,” she said with a growl, confidence drowning out any aspect of fear. René’s eyes widened in worry at her words. He feared for her. She was already cut and bruised, and he wanted nothing more than for her to stay behind. If they were to take anyone he pleaded for it to be him and only him but his pleads were silent. With that reply, the leader struck her hard again, knocking her to the ground. She fell and heard René’s muffled screams. Her vision blurred and could do nothing as they drug her husband’s body out of view. Though they moved farther from her, the last words she heard sent a chill through her motionless body.
“I hope you like fighting in wars, boy.”