Queen of Swords, p.5Sara Donati
I think of you hourly and with great love, my one true husband. Your devoted wife,
When Titine came to report on her first meeting with Hannah, Jennet had been so light-headed with relief that at first she had simply failed to comprehend the bad news: Hannah had arrived safely in New Orleans, but she was sick with swamp fever. How sick, Titine had refused to speculate; instead she had consulted with her aunt Amazilie, filled her apron pockets with herbs and medicines, and gone straight back to the city. And never returned.
By the second day it was clear to them all that Titine had been abducted, or was dead at the hands of common thieves. It was then that Jennet allowed herself to contemplate the full weight of the facts: Titine was gone for good, and Jennet was responsible for this. Add to that, news just as bad: Titine had disappeared before she had thought to tell anyone where Hannah was hidden in the city. Hannah was stranded someplace, ill unto death, without money or papers. In the pack that Titine had brought back to Maison Verde for safekeeping was the letter Jennet had written for Luke, in code.
Luke was missing, too, and there was no word of him. In short, all their plans had gone wrong.
Despite all this, Jennet had no choice but to present a calm and benign expression to the world in general, and to Mme. Poiterin in particular. Her daily routine did not change with Titine’s disappearance, except that Amazilie was now required to accompany her to Mass and confession every morning, followed by Mme. Poiterin’s men.
And so Jennet concentrated on her son. When Jacinthe brought him, Jennet could put everything else away for that short time. She set herself the goal of making him remember, if only by touch and voice, who his mother was.
It was Jacinthe who suggested, shyly, almost apologetically, that Jennet put her son to the breast.
“Let him suckle,” Jacinthe had told her. “Let him pull hard, the milk will come back.”
“But…” Jennet, afraid to take Jacinthe at her word, had hesitated and asked the more crucial question. “Surely Madame will object?”
Jacinthe blinked at her and put a long hand on her own high rounded belly. “Madame got another great-grandchild coming,” she said. “This one will need to suckle, too.”
Jennet had the idea that Mme. Poiterin was not likely to acknowledge Jacinthe’s child as her own blood, but she did not say so. Instead she put her son back to the breast and let him draw. The pain, at first, was exquisite, but it was not long before her milk came back, and in such abundance that she was swollen with it when Jacinthe brought the boy later than usual.
The joy of having her son back in this particular way was enough to offset the unpleasant nature of her afternoon duties, when she was expected to arrive at Larivière at three every day to take coffee. Or rather, she had been summoned to read aloud while the old lady took coffee and ate a multitude of sugary little confections called pralines. Jennet might have taken some satisfaction from the simple act of reading well, if Madame had not interrupted constantly to correct her French pronunciation or to lecture.
The old lady used the newspaper reports as a way to launch into her daily catechism, which began with a biting critique of everything having to do with Americans. She found them to be vulgar, brazen, uncouth, greedy; she deplored the garish houses they were building in the sprawling new suburbs that clung to the city like leeches, and most of all, she resented their insufferable interference in Creole business and society. Beyond all that, she disdained their inability or stubborn refusal to learn French, the only language that Mme. Poiterin cared to hear spoken around her. New Orleans would always be French, could be nothing less than Creole.
The reports of Commander Patterson’s raids on Barataria and his routing of the Lafitte brothers made the old lady so angry that her plump hands shook. The Lafittes had offered their services to the Americans—why they should do such a thing she could not imagine—but instead of showing their gratitude that men of courage and wide experience were willing to assist them, the American navy had destroyed the village at Grand Terre, taken dozens of prisoners, and confiscated half a million dollars in property.
She had no doubt, Madame said darkly, that the milled soap and Belgian lace and embroidered fabrics she had ordered from France were now in the possession of an American woman with a loud voice and no sense of style. The only comfort was the fact that the Lafittes had eluded Patterson, and would soon be back in business.
“What would be best,” she pronounced finally, “is if the British and Americans killed each other off entirely, and let us return to our own ways. What do you say to that, miss?”
Jennet sometimes wondered if her face might crack from the effort of hiding her feelings, and thought that Mme. Poiterin would actually like to see that happen. It seemed to be her goal.
The oddest thing of all, Jennet had decided quite soon, was that Madame seemed unable to take the threatened English invasion seriously. It mystified Jennet that a woman who prided herself on her political acuity and good business sense would refuse to entertain the idea that anyone might try to impose their will on her, or to take something she called her own. Jennet, who had been raised on a steady diet of Scottish history, could have told Madame something of the way the British treated the people they defeated, but she also understood that this was not a discussion, but a lesson. If she wanted to be accepted as a Poiterin she must take on the opinions and positions that were presented to her, and make them her own.
Jennet wondered if Honoré might be able to convince the old lady that she needed to make plans in case the worst should happen and the city was overrun, but she had seen Honoré very rarely since she came to Louisiana, and he was never present when she paid her long afternoon calls at Larivière. It was a surprise, and an unsettling one, to find him in the parlor a week after Titine’s disappearance, his legs stretched out before him and a coffee cup balanced on the silk brocade vest over the flat plane of his stomach. He pretended surprise when she came in, and then played the concerned and loving husband, bringing her pillows she did not want and coffee she would not drink.
Madame was not taken in, either, and she pursed her small pale mouth in displeasure. Jennet could not tell if Honoré’s purpose was to anger her, or if he simply didn’t care about her mood. Another possibility presented itself, far more frightening: Honoré was here because of Titine’s disappearance. Maybe he had learned something and was just waiting for the opportunity to give her bad news; perhaps he knew exactly what had happened to Titine, because he had made it happen. She thought of Piero Bardi’s head sitting on top of her trunk in an abandoned shack, and she shuddered.
“Are you cold?” he asked her. “Can I get you a rug for your lap?”
His grandmother tsked at such a bold question, but Honoré ignored her. He wanted to know how Jennet fared, if she was comfortable in her new home, whether she required anything from town that he could get for her.
“Have you had word from your family?” he asked, and a shower of gooseflesh rushed up Jennet’s back at the expression on his face.
“Of course she has not,” his grandmother said sharply. “You know there has been no post from Europe. It is most inconvenient, this embargo.”
“I fear you must miss your brother and mother, my dear.” Honoré persisted in speaking to Jennet directly, and his grandmother in answering for her.
Titine was dead, and Honoré had killed her; of that Jennet was suddenly quite sure. What she could not know was how much information had been forced from her before she died. Jennet pinched the flesh between her thumb and first finger until her vision cleared and she could control her breathing.
“Why should she?” Mme. Poiterin was saying. “She has her son. She has you, or will have you, if it turns out her good behavior is not a ruse. It is the way of civilized society: A young lady forsakes her mother for her husband’s family.” She sniffed delicately, as if remembering her own mother.
“Grand-mère,” he said. “H
Jennet dropped her head in fear that her expression would give away too much, but Mme. Poiterin, who was just as surprised, turned all her attention in Honoré’s direction. Her round cheeks flushed with color and her eyes narrowed.
“You talk of this matter as though it were nothing more than a dinner engagement,” she said. “Shame on you, Honoré. If you had gone about this marriage properly to start with none of this would be necessary. As it is, you will wait until I am entirely satisfied that Lady Jennet will be a suitable wife and mother to your son.”
Mme. Poiterin had started calling her Lady Jennet in a dismissive tone. Jennet might have objected, but she found her title much preferable to being called Honoré’s wife.
The old lady was saying, “I will admit she has proved to be biddable, if perhaps a bit simpleminded. Père Petit reports that she is repentant, though sometimes I believe I still see a hint of rebellion in her expression. However, if things go on as they have, we will be able to have the banns read starting next month, and celebrate the wedding Mass early in the new year.”
Honoré didn’t try to hide his irritation. “You forget, Grand-mère, we are already married.”
“So you say,” said his grandmother. “But I have yet to see your marriage lines.” She looked at Jennet when she said this, and Jennet returned her gaze evenly. It was an odd circumstance that Honoré had constructed for himself. He could not produce the marriage lines, because no such document had ever existed. She had wondered for some time why he didn’t simply forge something to show his grandmother—it seemed like something he would do without hesitation—and then realized that he hadn’t yet decided where the greater advantage might be, in a real marriage or a false one. No doubt it had to do with his claim on her family’s money, and his grandmother’s, both of which he would keep, if he could manage it. Her son was nothing more than a chip in this game of chance.
What he didn’t know, what she would not tell him, was that she did have a set of marriage lines, these absolutely legal and binding in the eyes of both the Catholic Church and the law. She began every day by sewing that piece of paper into the hem of whatever gown she was to wear, but she wondered sometimes what would be worse: to lose it, or to have it be discovered by Mme. Poiterin. To declare herself the legal wife of another man would be to hand over her son to these people.
“It’s all very silly,” Honoré said. “But if you insist.”
“I do,” said the old lady. “And there is another matter I will insist upon.”
Jennet was surprised to learn that Honoré had joined a militia troop, from which it followed that he needed money for the elaborate uniform and for new weapons; it was expected of him as a son of one of the first families. His grandmother, always sensitive to such claims on her reputation, got a wily look in her eye and commanded Honoré to write a letter asking to be excused.
“With the cane harvest coming so soon you’re needed at the plantations,” she said. “Especially now. I worry that the slaves at Grand Trianon will be seduced by the lies of the English, and as far as Amboise is concerned, I have lost faith in Cheveau. Others have extracted themselves this way. You can, too.”
“You would have me branded a coward?”
She rapped her knuckles on the carved wooden arm of her chair, as large as a throne. “I would have you alive.”
“You think there is going to be a real battle?” Honoré smiled. “The British have the Americans outnumbered and outgunned by a factor of ten. They will make short work of the navy on the Gulf and then march into the city without firing a shot. The legislature will strew rose petals before them if that means sparing the city, and their properties. They are already huddling together in corners, wondering about the best way to surrender.”
“Then why bother?” said Madame. “Stay home out of the cold and rain.”
“Because if New Orleans must fall to the British, our officers will be required to negotiate with their officers. The men who make up that party should be—”
“Creole,” said his grandmother. “And of the first rank. It would put you in a good position—”
“To see that our interests are protected, once the fighting is done. And,” he added with a smile, “who else could do the uniform justice?”
Jennet had begun to wonder how much more critical the situation might get when the heavens took some pity on her and struck Père Petit dead with an apoplexy. It happened while he sat at his supper table, and thus at Mass the next morning she had something to be thankful for. She was so busy with her own thoughts that it wasn’t until Communion that it occurred to her that the new priest—a younger man of average looks and bearing—would be the one to hear her confession.
She hoped he would not be as invasive and curious as Père Petit had been. She hoped he would let her recite a list of small transgressions and be on her way. From the look of him at the altar she could tell nothing of his personality.
After Mass she went into the confessional to wait for him, closing the door so that the small space—it always made her think of a coffin set on its end—was almost completely dark. It smelled of cypress and tallow and incense and sweat, with a hundred other scents lingering just below the surface. Fear, regret, submission.
The door to the priest’s cubicle opened and closed, and then the grillwork on the window that joined Jennet’s space to his slid to one side. She could see nothing of the priest through the curtain; she was not meant to see him. She waited for the familiar prayers to begin and then, after a moment, raised her head.
“I am no priest.” The voice was hoarse and very low, one she had never heard before.
Jennet’s throat closed in fear and hope. She had to swallow hard before she could force words out of it.
“Do you bring me a message?”
He said, “I bring you news of your cousin Hannah.”
Jennet closed her eyes. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jean-Benoît.” And then: “She is at Dr. Savard’s free clinic on the rue Dauphine. She has malaria and is not well enough yet to leave her bed. You must come to her so that together you can make plans.”
“But I can’t,” Jennet whispered, her voice cracking under the strain. “I cannot risk my son’s well-being. Do you have any idea what Mme. Poiterin would do if she found out?”
With utter calm he said, “If you cannot bring yourself to trust me, I cannot help you, your son, or your cousin.”
Jennet pressed her handkerchief to her eyes. She wanted to believe the voice behind the screen, but she was terrified.
“I think Honoré is suspicious,” she said.
“Then you have less time to act, not more.”
At that moment it occurred to her that whatever information Honoré had forced from Titine, he could not know of Hannah’s presence in New Orleans, or Hannah would be dead.
She said, “Tell me something about Hannah.”
There was a small silence, and she had the sense that he was choosing his words carefully. “She is tall for a woman, taller than you. She is half Indian and half white and has the best features of both races. She speaks English like a schoolteacher and French with a British accent. She is a trained physician who studied for a time in Manhattan. Her worry for you and your son and for her brother is keeping her from a full recovery.”
Jennet couldn’t help herself; she sobbed out loud. “Yes,” she said. “I believe you now. Do you have word of my husband?”
“Not yet,” said Jean-Benoît.
Those two words filled Jennet with hope for the first time since Titine’s disappearance. She forced her voice to steady.
“I will come to Hannah, if you can arrange it without arousing Mme. Poiterin’s suspicions.”
“When you go to read to her this afternoon she will suggest the trip herself,” he said. “Be ready.”
“Wait,” she said. “What doe
“Not all priests are like Petit. Tomaso Delgado is a good man, and my friend. Does that satisfy you?”
It did not; it could not. She said, “I am struck by the coincidence that Père Petit should die just now, so suddenly. So conveniently for my cause.”
After a moment Ben said, “Do you want my help?”
“Of course,” said Jennet. “Of course I do.”
“I think I could learn almost everything there is to know about this city just listening at the window,” Jennet said to Hannah later that day. “Listen, here comes Mr. Occhiogrosso.”
Hannah stood to look out the window. A small man was walking along the street, as laden as a donkey. There was a wooden frame on his back filled with panes of glass in all sizes that rattled with every step. He carried a long wooden ruler that he used as a sort of walking stick, clicking it against the cobblestones. He looked up at Hannah in the window and flashed a smile around the stem of his pipe, his teeth the color of tobacco.
“How do you know his name?”
“Henry has made a study of all the vendors and workers who come by. He’s especially fond of the Italians because they stop to talk to him. Won’t Jean-Benoît be waiting for you?”
“I wish you could come with me,” Hannah said. “It’s not good for you to be cooped up here constantly.”
Jennet threw her a suspicious look. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of Ben Savard. Not Hannah Bonner, who faced down the likes of Mac Stoker and Baldy O’Brien.”
Queen of Swords by Sara Donati / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes