Mississippi jack, p.43
Mississippi Jack, p.43L. A. Meyer
"Oh, Mam'selle, I'm in so much trouble!" I wail, letting the tears come and falling into her embrace. "I'm all alone and I ain't got a dime! Can I stay with you for a few days till my friends catch up with me? I'd be ever so grateful!"
"Everybody in this house pays their way," says Mrs. Babineau, in warning.
"Oh, she will," says Mam'selle, brightly, "she will. But first we've got to get this poor little thing into a bath."
"There now, Precious, you shed your darlin' little Indian-girl outfit—I declare you arrive in our midst at the forefront of fashion—and slip into that tub. That's it. Now, isn't that some fine?"
Ahhhhhhhh ... oh, yes, it is.
"I must say your choice of hairstyle had me quite astounded when first I gazed upon it," she says, running her hand over my fuzzy head, "but now I must say I find it ... curiously charming. Perhaps, someday, you'll tell me how you came by it?"
"A long story, Mam'selle, involvin' some crazy men and a whole lot of tar and feathers."
"Ah yes, I see some black smudges, here and there. Have you been a bad girl, again? I certainly hope so," she says, giving me a broad wink. "But don't worry, Precious, I've got an emollient right here that'll take that tar right on off. Here, lean forward. Let me work it in. That's it."
"You shall sleep next to me tonight, Precious, safe and protected, so shut your lovely eyes and relax, free of all cares and woe."
I crack open one of those lovely eyes and say, "I gotta tell you, Mam'selle, that I am promised to another person, body and soul ... and that person is a young man."
"That's all right, Precious, and that is how it should be. I just want to feel the warmth of your dear body close to mine as we lie in sweet slumber. That's all," Mam'selle says.
She picks up a towel from a hook on the bathhouse wall and spreads it open. "Stand up, dear, and let's dry you off. Then we'll see about some proper clothing for you. That's it, step over here."
I stand and climb out of the tub.
"Oh, Precious, you are just the most exquisite little thing."
"Yes, Precious, the Lafitte brothers do, indeed, frequent this establishment, mostly for the gambling. They were here not two days ago. Why do you ask?"
"Because, Mam'selle, if they get their hands on me, they'll kill me. Jean Lafitte bears me a special grudge 'cause we stopped one of his ships last summer, and when we found it was full of slaves, we liberated the poor wretches on the coast of South America and gave them all the ship's stores of food, tools, and weapons, to get them started in their new life. I marooned the slavers' crew on an island after several days' sailing and then burned their ship to the waterline right before their eyes. Told 'em to give Jean Lafitte the regards of Jacky Faber, La Belle Jeune Fille sans Merci."
"That was very gallant of you, chérie. Here, turn around, we must adjust the sash. There."
A dress, a red one with a very low-cut bodice, has been found for me and I am being put in it, on this, the morning after my arrival in the city. I spent last night in Mam'selle's yellow room, in one of her flimsier yellow nightgowns, she having taken the night off in order to tend to me. She had dinner brought up to us—it was hot, spicy, and good. Tonight, however, we know we must work—she at her trade, me at mine.
"Stupid of me, really. The taunting—not the liberation—I mean. The slavers were picked up by a passing ship and they got back to Lafitte and reported what had happened, and he, of course, was furious and swore eternal vengeance. I saw him once after that, when our ships passed close going in opposite directions in the harbor at San Juan. He stood on his quarterdeck and shook his fist at me and cursed great French oaths, but we had the wind behind us and he did not, so he could not make good on his threats. I thought of bending over and giving him a look at my backside, but instead I merely gave him a deep curtsy and laughed. Prolly shouldn't have laughed at him, male pride and all that, but I did, long and loud. One of these days I will learn when to keep my mouth shut."
"You were not afraid he might chase you?"
"Chase and catch my Emerald? It never happened. Well, except for the last time, that is," I say wistfully. "She was one fine, fast ship."
"And she is now...?"
"At the bottom of the sea, off the coast of France."
"Ah, I am sorry ... But you know, don't you, Precious, that he's a respected citizen of New Orleans?"
Which tells you something of the nature of this town, I'm thinking.
"Lots of people think Jean Lafitte is a bold pirate, Mam'selle, but really, he's just a dealer in stolen goods and a slaver. He buys things off of real pirates and then sells them in this town. That's why people here like him. They like the price of those stolen goods."
"Eh bien, chérie. But since he has many friends here, we must put you in disguise. This will help. Mam'selle Colette was kind enough to lend it to you till your own lovely locks grow back out." Mam'selle takes this huge wig from its stand and puts it on my head. "My! Look at you now, child!"
I stand in front of Mam'selle's full-length mirror and I am amazed at what I see. Long, thick black ringlets hang by my face and tumble off my shoulders and back. My chest swells out of the lace that lines the bodice of the dress, which goes in tight at the waist and then flares out the back, over my rump, and down to my ankles. There are gossamer white, puffy sleeves, for coolness, and white cotton gloves for my hands. I am speechless with wonder.
Mam'selle is not, however. "Precious, you are the very picture of a Marie Antoinette of Color! Why, with that tan, you look every bit a very pretty high-yellow gal, just like me. I declare you could pass for mulatto, or at least quadroon."
She pats things in place and takes a powder puff and dusts my upper chest and then my nose.
"You're lucky, child, that you have those big brown eyes—were they blue, we might have trouble, but they aren't, are they? They're just the loveliest shade of deep amber. Now, let's get some color on that cunning little white eyebrow and a little rouge on your cheeks, uh-huh ... and a little red on your lips. Pucker up now, darlin', that's it. Oh, that's so cute, I can't resist. A little kiss, Precious? Just a peck? Oh, thank you, dear, and be still, my heart! And now a little beauty mark right ... there. Done! Even your dear old mother wouldn't know you!"
She sure wouldn't, I think to myself, and if she did, she'd be aghast. Painted up like a three-dollar—
"We shall have to choose another name for you, Precious, for purposes of concealin' your identity and keepin' you from further harm. How about ... Jasmine?"
I consider this and continue to regard myself in the mirror and a wicked smile comes over the lips of the person reflected. Oh, if only I could appear to Miss Amy Trevelyne like this, why I declare she'd just faint dead away, yes, she would...
"That's very nice, Mam'selle, but I've always been partial to Tondalayo. I could be your sister, Mam'selle Tondalayo day Bourbon, of the New Orleans Bourbons, and none that Baton Rouge trash," I say, recalling Mam'selle's first introduction of herself to me in Constable Wiggins's jail in Boston.
She clasps her hands together and exults, "Oh, that's just perfect! My own dear little sister Tonda lay o, come in from our country estate to visit with her big sister Claudelle! Oh, we will have such fun together! Here, let's put this hat on you, and off we go into the town, to see the sights and search for your lost friends! Take your parasol, now, for you must keep the sun off your face."
Shortly, we are off in the town, heading in the direction of the levee, Mam'selle pointing out things of interest as we go.
"...And we are now crossing Bourbon Street, which, as you must know, was named after my family, and over there's the graveyard—see how all of 'em's aboveground like that? That's 'cause the water level is about a foot under the surface, so they can't put 'em below. They've got to put 'em up..."
I nod, noting with fondness that Mam'selle's speech sometimes lapses back into that which she learned as a girl, just like mine does sometimes.
"...there's the Convent and the Church and there's..."
We meet many people, some of whom know Mam'selle and bow politely, and she introduces me as her sister and some ask me if I am a new resident of the House of the Rising Sun and I answer that yes, I am. I'll be performing musical numbers tonight as well as dealing faro, three-card monte, and blackjack, and would they please be so good as to drop by? It is in my nature to always drum up business for whatever establishment I happen to be playing in.
Finally, we come down to the docks, where I had arrived only yesterday.
I look anxiously around for the Belle, but find nothing. Was I too optimistic to think that they had got through the tornado all right? Oh, I hope not...
I see that my raft Deliverance is still there, tied alongside the dock. It's got a little bit of paper tacked to the shack, probably a demand for dockage. I ignore it and move on.
"Your pardon, Sir," I ask of a man who looks like he's in charge of things on the dock, "but have you seen this boy—this man—recently? His name is James Emerson Fletcher, and I'd be ever so grateful if you'd search your memory for any sign of him. He probably tried to gain a berth on an outbound ship as either mate or seaman. He is an experienced sailor. He was dressed in buckskins, last I saw him..."
The man shakes his head, looking at the drawing I had done of Jaimy only this morning. It was, of course, from memory, and memory is fading.
"Nay. Could be any of a hundred men I've seen today. And ships come in here and go, they don't sign in with no harbormaster, no, and don't post no manifests, neither. Three left just this mornin'—one to gather sugarcane in the Caribbean, one to Boston with a load o' molasses, and the other to the South Seas. Bor-nee-o, and all that."
"Well, thank you for your time, Sir, and if you hear of anything..."
"Say, sweetie, where're you berthin' right now?" asks the man, lookin' me up and down. "Yer a right good-lookin' little Colored gal."
"At the House of the Rising Sun, Sir," I simper.
"Wal, I'll sure be there later tonight," says the man, with a big grin.
"That's fine, Sir. All true gentlemen are welcome at our maison."
"Come, Precious, let us take a table at the Café Dauphin, right over there. We shall take refreshment and you'll be able to keep an eye on the levee," says Mam'selle, as she drags me over to a table on an open patio over which canopies have been spread.
"Ah, that's much better," says she, sitting and folding her parasol. I do the same. "Garçon, two dry sherries, please. And a plate of crawdads, too."
"Is this the only place the big ships dock?" I ask, still scanning the harbor area.
"Oh, no, sugah. They dock all the way down the river from here. All the way to Lafitte's slave pens on Grand Terre Island, out on Barataria Bay. Then the Gulf opens up and it's all salt water from there on."
Hmmm ... when the Belle gets here, we'll have to search even farther on down. If the Belle gets here...
I lift the glass of amber-colored wine to my lips and take a mouthful and swirl it around on my tongue and then swallow. Ahhhhh... There is always something to be said for the riches of a seaport town.
"Slave pens. Slavery everywhere you turn in this world, it seems," I say, disgusted.
"So it seems, Tonda-lay-o. Will you not try a crayfish? They are very good here."
"Thank you, Sister," says I, taking the tiny red lobster like thing from her. "How do I eat it?"
"Why, you bite off the tail and chew it with your dear little teeth and then you suck out the head and then you swallow."
It sounds disgusting, but then I've eaten some pretty strange things in my life and so I do it and find it quite delicious.
"Um, that's very good," I say, reaching for another. "But tell me, Mam'selle, how did you manage to remain free in this world of slavery?"
"Free?" Mam'selle asks, incredulous. Then she begins to laugh. "Free? Why, child, Missus Babineau owns my high-yellow ass from the top of my yellow hair down to my yellow-painted toenails! Didn't you know that?"
Shocked, I shake my head.
"Oh, yes, she bought me when I was a little girl and raised me up right there in the Rising Sun, and when I was old enough and ready to enter the Sportin' Life, I did it."
Aghast, I say, "But when you were up at Missus Bodeen's in Boston, you could have run away..."
"And done what, Precious? Scrubbed floors, washed clothes? No, not for Mam'selle Claudelle day Bour-bon. Come right down to it, I wanted the Life. I wanted the clothes, the music, the money, the fine wines, the high times, the well-dressed gentlemen, and the pretty, pretty girls. After all, I met you, didn't I, chérie? Non, je ne regrette rien. Non."
But, dear Sister, the Life leads only to disease, disgrace, and death! I think that, but I don't say it, for I know it will do absolutely no good.
We sit the whole afternoon, sipping at the wine, snacking at food, and talking, but nothing comes in sight to bring me cheer. No Belle of the Golden West, no Jaimy. In late afternoon we rise and go back to the Rising Sun to prepare for the evening.
I had begun the evening's set by doing "The Willow Garden," followed by "Scarborough Fair," and then I turned to "The Young Girl's Lament," a sad song I recently learned from Solomon Freeman. It seemed appropriate, seeing the kind of place I was in.
When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure,
When I was a young girl, I used to drink ale,
Out of the alehouse, and down to the jailhouse,
Right out of a barroom, and down to my grave.
Mrs. Babineau had me placed in a chair, a guitar on lap, on a small stage off the main entrance and between two arched doorways, where I can be seen and heard but not be in the way.
If he had but told me, before he shamed me,
If he had but told me about it in time,
I could have had potions, and salts of white mercury,
But now I'm a young girl, cut down in her prime.
The doorway to my left is where the girls meet with their customers, and the one on the right leads to the gaming rooms. I am to play softly, just loud enough to lend some atmosphere to the place, some class. Mam'selle has fitted me with a filmy black veil that sits on the bridge of my nose and covers my lower face, should Jean Lafitte enter and recognize me. After my musical set, I am to go into the gaming room and deal blackjack. I will thus pay for my keep and make some money for myself in the form of tips, half of which I get to keep. Seems fair, considering.
When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure,
When I was a young girl, used to drink ale,
Out of the alehouse and down to the cathouse,
My body is ru-ined ... they left me to ... die.
I wind up the "Lament," not singing the lyrics very loud nor very plain, so as not to upset anybody, and figure I'll go next to some French tunes, and start up on "Plaisir d'amour..."
Ne dure qu'un moment.
Dure toute la vie.
I'm well into it when I notice this gent standing off to the side, looking intently at me. He nods, smiling, then he chuckles at some secret joke.
I look away from him, and when I finish the song, he comes up to me and says, "Very nice, Mademoiselle. Très charmante." He bows. He is middle-aged, well-dressed, bearded, and strangely familiar. Who is he? Think, girl! Imagine him without the beard. No, perhaps I was mistaken...
"Merci, Monsieur," I softly say, looking into his deep, penetrating gaze. He reaches into a pocket and pulls out two silver coins and places them on my tip tray. "Merci, encore."
"Il ne fait rien," he says. "It is nothing, as they are nothing but coins, when they should be diamonds for one who has eyes as beautiful as yours, chérie. But, alas, they are all that I can afford at the moment. Au revoir, Mademoiselle."
He bows again and then turns and goes into the gaming room.
What a strange thing to say...
The place is beginni
"Bonsoir, mesdames et messieurs," I say. "Please place your bets."
I learned a lot last night about the House of the Rising Sun, as I dealt out hand after hand of the game of twenty-one, sometimes called blackjack. You are showing a four, Monsieur, do you wish a hit? Ah, a mighty king ... are you still in the game? Busted, ah, what a pity, Sir. Madame, what is your pleasure? Hit you? But, of course. A five and a six showing ... if you have a face card under, you will beat me. Too bad, you do not, but I do. I'm sure your luck will change. Place your bets, mesdames et messieurs, the cards are being dealt ... Ohhh, double down on aces, Sir. Formidable!
When I first arrived, I was made to show my skill with guitar, voice, and cards to Mrs. Babineau, so she could see what I might do to pay for my shelter. While she was pleased with my musical ability, she was most taken with my skill with the deck of fifty-two. I want the house to win, she had said, looking at me hard, not too much and not too obvious, but win all the same. Do you understand, Tondalayo?
I do. The players I liked, those who were kind and courteous, they walked away winners. Those I didn't like walked away considerably lighter in the purse than when they had first sat down. But, by and large, the house always came out ahead at my table. Cheating? Hey, cast the first stone, you. Those men shouldn't have been in a place like this, anyway, is what I say.
I learned that while the blackjack and faro and three-card monte tables were popular, it was at the poker table where the serious money was being wagered, bet by hard-eyed men with stacks of coins and bills in front of them. I further learned there was seldom trouble with sore losers because guns are checked at the front door by Mrs. Babineau, herself, and anyone who is found to have violated that hard-and-fast rule by sneaking in a handgun is forever banned from the Rising Sun. As it is the finest establishment of its kind in the city, that is severe punishment indeed. Herbert, the doorman, is expert at spotting suspicious bulges under gentlemen's coats and is not at all shy in giving a customer a quick frisk. Anyone found with a weapon of any kind is thrown over the wrought-iron railing to the hard cobbles below, no matter what his status or standing in the town.
Mississippi Jack by L. A. Meyer / Young Adult / Actions & Adventure have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes