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Authors: Barbara Hambly

Tags: #mystery, #new orleans, #historical, #benjamin january

Libre

 

 

 

LIBRE

 

by

Barbara Hambly

 

 

Published by Barbara Hambly at Smashwords

Copyright 2007 Barbara Hambly

Cover art by Eric Baldwin

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Table of Contents

 

Libre

About The Author

The Further Adventures

 

 

 

Libre

by

Barbara Hambly

 

 

“If they fear she has been kidnapped, why not
call the City Guard?” Benjamin January paused on the steps that led
up to the gallery of the garçonnière, looking down at his mother in
the narrow yard. He’d just returned from teaching his first
piano-class of the winter – new students, Americans, in the suburb
of St. Mary up-river – and had been hoping to get a few hours’ nap
before he had to dress up again and play for a subscription ball
over on Rue Orleans. There was a saying among the musicians of New
Orleans,
You can sleep during Lent
– which wasn’t entirely
true because the holy season was dotted with “exceptions,” like
Washington’s Birthday balls – but the week or two after the first
frost were always the worst. He’d played for the opening of the
French Opera House last night, and had gone on to provide
quadrilles and pantaleones at a ball at the town-house of a wealthy
sugar planter. The sellers of fresh milk and crayfish had been
beginning their morning rounds when he’d finally returned to his
room above his mother’s kitchen.

Afternoon coffee with his mother’s friends
was not something he wanted to deal with on three hours of sleep,
particularly not when his mother had that glint in her eye.

“The City Guard.” Livia Levesque sniffed.
“You know what they are, my son. If a slave disappears they’ll
sober up and hunt for the thief because the owner will give them a
reward. If a
libre
disappears—” She used the Spanish term
for their people, the free people of color, though Louisiana hadn’t
been a possession of Spain for thirty years now. “—they have other
things to do. You come downstairs now, Ben. Poor Madame Rochier is
nearly mad with fear and grief.”

That his mother was up to something – that
there was something about the disappearance of eighteen-year-old
Marie-Zulieka Rochier that she wasn’t going to admit in her first
pre-emptory demand that he undertake the search – January guessed
from his mother’s tone, and the way she held her head. He was
forty-one, and had consciously noticed before the age of four –
when she and he and his younger sister Olympe had all still been
slaves on a sugar-plantation upriver – all the signs when she was
doctoring some unpalatable truth.

When he followed her into the dining-room of
the trim little cottage on Rue Burgundy he was sure of it.

Casmalia Rochier was certainly afraid, and
certainly upset. But in her dark eyes and in the set of her perfect
mouth, as she turned her head to reply to a question, was a world
of suspicion and frozen rage.

Like January’s mother – like the other four
women sipping his mother’s cook’s excellent coffee around the
cherrywood table – Casmalia Rochier was a
plaçee
, the free
colored mistress of a wealthy white man. Many years ago, according
to custom, banker Louis Rochier had bought her a house and settled
on her the income to raise their mixed-race children in comfort and
safety. A similar arrangement between January’s mother and St-Denis
Janvier, now long gathered to his ancestors, had paid for both the
music lessons that led to his current profession, and the medical
training in France that had proved to be so completely useless the
moment he returned to the United States... and of course had paid
for this house.

A similar arrangement existed between
January’s youngest sister Dominique – currently passing Casmalia
the sugar – and a young sugar-planter; between his old friend
Catherine Clisson, who smiled a welcome to him as he came into the
room, and another equally wealthy planter. An arrangement like that
had provided the foundation of Bernadette Métoyer’s chocolate-shop
and the investments that paid for the gowns of the four daughters
Agnes Pellicot was trying to “place” in arrangements of their own.
Bernadette and Agnes were both angrily denouncing the New Orleans
City Guards to Casmalia and barely glanced at January, but
Dominique got to her feet and rustled to the sideboard for another
cup of coffee for her older brother:

“You are going to find Zozo for us, aren’t
you, p’tit?”

He was almost twenty years the elder and six
feet, three inches tall, and smiled inwardly at being called
“little one” by this piece of graceful fluff.

“If I can.
Have
you notified the City
Guards?” He looked across at Casmalia Rochier, and her eyes ducked
away from his. “They may display little interest in recovering
artisans’ wives or market-girls when they go missing, but they’re
going to look for the daughter of Louis Rochier, even one born on
the shady side of the street.”

He didn’t add,
And what’s more, you know
it
. But it was in his eyes when she looked back at him.
What
is it you all aren’t telling me
?

“My mother tells me Marie-Zulieka disappeared
this morning. When? How? Surely she wasn’t out by herself?”

“Of course not!” Casmalia’s back went even
more rigid at the suggestion. “She went to the market with her
sister and Marie-Therese Pellicot. But Marie-Therese was taken ill,
and Zozo left little Lucie with Marie-Therese and hurried home to
fetch Tommy, our yardman, to help her get home—”

Seventeen years of living in Paris brought,
Why didn’t she fetch a cab?
to January’s lips, only to be
reminded, with a small stab of too-familiar anger, that it was
against the law for a man or woman of color to ride in a cab.

Except, of course, as the driver or as a
servant perched on the box.

Catherine Clisson finished softly, “She never
made it home.”

“Lucie and Marie-Therese waited for almost an
hour,” added Agnes, her round, rouged face puckered with distress
at the memory of her daughter’s illness and the fear that stalked
every
libre
– the fear of kidnap by slave-traders. Of being
taken out of New Orleans and sold. “Finally Lucie asked one of the
market-women’s children to run see what was keeping Tommy.”

“That was the first I heard.”

“Is Marie-Therese all right?”

Agnes nodded, and her plump shoulders
relaxed. “Just a little indisposition of the stomach, you know. I
tell the girls, never buy snacks and treats from those market-women
unless you know them – who knows what goes into those ices? But of
course girls never listen. She’ll be well for the ball at the Salle
tonight.” There was an edge to Agnes’s voice. Marie-Therese had not
yet found a protector after one season of attending the quadroon
balls at the Salle d’Orleans, and her mother wasn’t going to let
another season go by, however poorly the girl might feel.

January’s glance returned to Casmalia. “Has
your daughter a lover?”

“My daughter has accepted a most flattering
offer from Jules Dutuille.” The woman brought forth the name of the
sugar-broker with a slow flourish, like a card-player spreading
four of a kind beneath the noses of her enemies. But January saw
the look that flashed between Catherine Clisson and his sister, and
remembered hearing something – he couldn’t place what – disparaging
about the man.

And knew the odds were only fifty-fifty that
he’d get a truthful answer to his next question. “Was there anyone
else?”

“No!” Casmalia dabbed – very carefully – at
her painted eyes with a tiny square of lawn and lace, and Clisson
and Dominique again traded a glance. “Benjamin, it is vital –
vital
– not only that my daughter be found swiftly, but that
no word of this – this terrible tragedy – be allowed to reach
M’sieu Dutuille’s ears... or those of M’sieu Rochier. Poor M’sieu
Dutuille would be devastated—”

“I understand.” And he did understand, seeing
how his mother, Bernadette Metoyer and Agnes Pellicot all leaned
forward to catch and sift every word. Gossip was the lifeblood of
the free colored demimonde. The fact that Casmalia Rochier,
devastatingly elegant in her expensive simplicity, was inclined to
boast virtually guaranteed that her misfortune would be trumpeted
abroad.

Her own business, of course, but dispensing
with an audience would greatly increase his chances of getting
anything like truthful truthful answers. “Maman, with Madame
Rochier’s permission I’m going to walk her home. Please all of you,
ladies, finish your coffee. I’ll return in a few minutes. Madame?”
He held out his arm, onto which Casmalia Rochier laid one
exquisitely kid-gloved hand.

“You don’t think it was slave-stealers, do
you?” he asked, very quietly, as he led Casmalia out through the
long French doors of his mother’s cottage, and onto Rue Burgundy.
Even this far from the river – nearly half a mile – the sound of
the levee made a jumbled background to the closer noises of passing
carriages, of servants and women talking in doorways and
breezeways, of dogs barking in yards: the noises of New Orleans in
the winter season, between cotton-harvest and sugar-boiling, when
the planters came into town and opened up their houses and the city
came alive.

Casmalia Rochier glanced right and left, as
if making sure none of her friends had tiptoed after them to
listen, and let out her breath in an angry sigh. “Ben, it is
absolutely imperative....”

He held up a hand, “I know. That M’sieu
Dutuille doesn’t hear of it – or M’sieu Rochier. Who do you think
it was?”

“Nicholas Saverne.” Her eyes, green-gray like
those of so many
libres
, turned steely. “A lawyer from
Mobile, absolutely
no
family, and encroaching as a weed. He
swears he’ll be the wealthiest man in the parish in a year but I
know his kind!”

“Would your daughter have gone with him
willingly?”

“Of course not!” But her glance again fleeted
from his. “Her father went to great lengths to arrange this match
with M’sieu Dutuille, who is absolutely infatuated with her. She
would never do a thing like that to me.”

Not, January was interested to note,
to
him
.

“She is a most dutiful girl – and needless to
say deeply in love with M’sieu Dutuille.”

By the defensive note in her voice it was
clear to January that Marie-Zulieka had been nothing of the kind.
He handed Casmalia across the plank that bridged the gutter of Rue
des Ursulines; they had reached the pale-green cottage, with its
fresh pink trim, that Louis Rochier had twenty years ago purchased
for his plaçee. Because January was a man – and no Creole, black or
white, would walk straight through the French doors of the parlor
like a barbarian – he followed her down the narrow breezeway that
separated her cottage from the next, and through the yard into the
dining-room: any of her woman friends would have been escorted
through her bedroom. This custom allowed him to note the layout of
the house, which was substantially the same as his mother’s and
that of every other plaçee in the French town. The four-room
cottage faced the street, and the building behind housed kitchen,
laundry, slave-quarters, and the garçonnière: the room or rooms for
the growing sons of the house.

A girl who had to be Lucie darted out of the
French doors at the rear of the house as January and Casmalia
approached: “Did you find her?” She raised frightened eyes up to
her mother. “She didn’t really get stolen away by the American
animals, did she?”

January replied reassuringly, “I don’t think
so, p’tit. But if she gets stranded on foot someplace far away, she
might have to sell her earrings to get home. Might I see her
jewel-box, so we can tell how much she’ll have with her to
sell?”

After a quick glance at her mother, Lucie led
the way self-importantly to the door into the bedroom she clearly
shared with her sister. January had already noted the three sets of
bedding that the housemaid was hanging to air on the railings of
the gallery: between Marie-Zulieka and Lucie, who looked to be
eight or nine, Casmalia had evidently borne at least three sons.
They would be out, he guessed, either at school or more probably at
whatever shops or businesses to which they’d been apprenticed. The
daughters of plaçees almost routinely became plaçees themselves;
the sons almost universally artisans or clerks.

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