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Authors: Jennifer Blake

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Chapter Three

I
n due time, Monsieur Cassard returned to collect Christien from the gallery, suggesting a stroll to survey the property. It was an unexpected concession to his role as new owner and Christien was duly grateful. He had a thousand questions, but it seemed crass to plunge into them at once. Instead, he made a comment about local politics, which segued into a discussion of the war in Mexico.

“I’m surprised a young man like you isn’t with the army,” Cassard said as he strolled with the full skirt of his frock coat pushed behind him and his hands clasped under it. “I would be if I were younger.”

“It’s not my quarrel,” Christien answered.

“Such an adventure doesn’t come around in every generation.”

“True enough.” He had considered signing on with the Louisiana Legion that was now fighting below the border. He’d been to the big rallies at Hewlett’s Exchange, where many of his friends and fellow
maîtres d’armes
had signed on for the fight, had listened to the speeches and felt his heart pound to the beat of the
drums. It seemed a noble thing, to join the struggle of the young United States against old ideas, old forces. To build a country that stretched from sea to sea was a seductive dream. Regardless, he had other plans. Yes, and dreams of his own.

“You think old Scott is the man to finish the job down there?” Cassard asked, referring to General Winfield Scott, commander of the army’s eastern division in Mexico.

“He’s a seasoned soldier, so he should know what he’s about,” Christien answered briefly. “He had little enough trouble at Buena Vista.”

“Oh, he’s ruthless enough, heaven knows. Appalling, the way he took Veracruz. Six thousand shells lobbed into the city, so they say, and such a death toll that the town fathers surrendered so people might save their dead from the vultures. I don’t care for this making war on women and children. Truly, it sickens the soul.”

It did indeed, Christien thought. To picture a lovely body like that of Reine Cassard torn by exploding shells was more than he could stomach. Her skin was so soft, her curves so sweetly fashioned for a man’s hand, and her mouth…

Recovering his wits with an effort, he picked up the thread of the conversation. “President Polk must have known how it would be. Scott, you may recall, commanded the cavalry troop that carried out the forced march of the Southeast Indian tribes to the Indian Territory a decade ago. The deaths of a few hundred more women, children and old people mean nothing to him.”

What Christien did not say was that the prospect of fighting under the general was a major reason he was not with the army. Scott’s name was spoken with a curse by those of his lineage.

“No doubt you’ve made a pretty penny out of all the recruits marching off to face Mexican steel.”

Christien tamped down a spurt of anger at the suggestion that he was benefiting from the conflict. To take offense would not help his cause. “Business has been good on the Passage these past few years, agreed. But I like to think I may have saved a life or two by teaching men to defend themselves against an enemy with a sword as part of his kit.”

Cassard pursed his lips. “Regardless, Scott may find Mexico City a more difficult proposition.”

“Santa Ana’s forces will defend it with their last breath, and who can blame them?” Christien said in agreement.

“They say he cannot hold out for long.”

“They say a lot of things.”

“Indeed,” the older man with a snort. “Now that express riders bring dispatches from the border ports several times a week, every man who spends a picayune for a news sheet thinks himself a military strategist. To hear them, you would swear they had personally ordered the army of the west to New Mexico and California, the center to the northern territories of Mexico, and the eastern division to Veracruz for the drive on Mexico City. As for the navy blockade—”

“They curse it for depriving them of goods from that part of the world,” Christien supplied with a wry
smile. “Most seem to be predicting the fall of Mexico City before the summer is done, or hoping for it.”

“Pray God they are right,” Cassard said. “I grow weary of the whole business.”

It seemed a good time to change the subject. Accordingly, Christien inquired about the state of the plantation’s ditches, the repairs to the river levee that were required of landowners, the numbers and health of the mule herd, the repair of the sugar mill set some distance away from the main house and the rate of use of the plantation nursery, infirmary and chapel. While deep in discussion of these and other matters, he and his host visited the stable, barns and various other outbuildings. The last of these, the chapel, was a small wooden building with attached steeple whose bell not only called the hands for services, but also rang them in from the fields and warned of fire, flood and other calamities.

Christien was glad enough to inspect it. It was here, in this simple, whitewashed structure with its plain altar and one window of stained glass, that he and Reine would be married. That was, of course, if she agreed.

Leaving the chapel, they walked slowly down the track that fronted the row of neat, whitewashed cabins that housed the slaves on River’s Edge. An enormously tall, broad-shouldered hand, so dark his skin had a purple cast to it, was wielding a hoe along a row of vegetables outside the end cabin. Cassard paused to introduce the man as Samson, second in command under the overseer and the driver responsible for seeing work was carried out in the fields. Knowing the prosperity
of the place rested as much on this man’s shoulders as any other, Christien took a moment to talk to him, sizing him up. He liked what he saw, and said so as he and Cassard walked on again.

“He’s a good man, is Samson. He takes pride in his position.”

“He was working a garden patch. You allow one for every cabin?” Christien looked up ahead, noting the patches of beans, squash and okra that flanked the structures, many of them brightened with morning glories and yellow daisies.

Monsieur Cassard gave a considered nod. “And a pig or two, as well. It adds to their larder and keeps them healthier and more content, or so my father always claimed. I’m happy to follow his lead, even if…”

“Yes?”

“Well. My…that is, our overseer, feels the practice uses effort that could be put to better use. He may attempt to persuade you to his view. I hope you will leave things as they are.”

“I see no reason to change,” Christien said readily enough.

“You relieve my mind. I lean toward the French manner of plantation management, not unnaturally, which allows for elasticity in the use of time. The overseer is
Américain
so less tolerant, as was his father, who held the position before him. The attitude was gained from my father-in-law, I regret to say, as he once owned the property. River’s Edge was a wedding gift, part of my wife’s dowry.”

“A handsome one.”

“It was,” Cassard agreed. “Not that he missed it. He had two or three other places along the river in his possession, was forever buying and selling.”

“An enterprising gentleman.”

“To a fault, yes. Everything must be made to pay. Maximum effort must always be expended, and he saw that it was so, being a strict taskmaster who preferred to control all in his purview, from the least of his children to the oldest of his slaves. Bonhomie was not his style, you comprehend, nor social grace. He never quite adapted to French Creole ways, though he came from Virginia decades ago, just after Louisiana was turned over to
les Américains.”

The comments seemed noticeably grim, given Cassard’s easygoing temperament. Christien wondered what lay behind it. Inquiring too deeply didn’t seem politic at this juncture.

The heritage of the plantation’s original owner no doubt accounted for the design of River’s Edge, he thought, glancing back at the white bulk of the house rising through the trees. It was Georgian in style, with rooms that opened on either side of a long hallway on the lower floor, as he’d noticed earlier, and likely the same upstairs. The basic plan had been altered to suit the climate, however, with French doors rather than windows to admit every chance current of air and wide galleries, or verandas, to protect the walls from semitropical downpours. That the galleries functioned in the French mode, as convenient outside hallways for moving from room to room, was incidental.

“I was not aware your wife was American,” Christien went on after a moment.

Maurice Cassard’s smile was tender. “My Nora has spoken French in our family circle for such a long time she’s almost forgotten it was not her first language.”

“Your daughter must be modeled upon her.”

“What makes you say that?” Cassard gave him a keen look.

“She seems a forthright lady, if I may say so, with little use for coquettish airs.”

“Quite right, though it’s her grandmother, my wife’s mother, you must look to for that pattern card. That lady was Irish and formidable in her strength of character. My Nora, I fear, is made of more fragile clay.”

Christien gave him a quick look, but Reine’s father was staring out over the cane fields ahead of them with such an unhappy expression on his face it was plain the description gave him no pleasure. “Was? The grandmother is deceased?” he inquired.

“She died in childbirth, a change-of-life baby that perished with her.”

Condolences were necessary, though Christien allowed only the smallest of pauses before he went on. “And Madame Pingre’s grandfather, this
Américain?
He lives nearby?”

“At one time he did, only a few miles down the river road. He, too, is gone.”

“A pity,” Christien replied with perfunctory courtesy.

“These things happen,” Cassard said with a shrug.

“You may wonder that my wife and I are so dependent on your good will, given her father’s extensive holdings. She came of a large family, you understand, with ten brothers and sisters who lived to adulthood. By the time everything was portioned out among them, there was scarce enough in any one allotment to matter.”

Christien suspected a certain amount of Madame Cassard’s portion had vanished over the gaming tables. That was none of his business, though he also thought the fact that Cassard had done nothing to earn the honey fall made wagering it on the turn of a card easier. The same applied to River’s Edge, of course. Not that he faulted Reine’s father for the way he lived. For one thing, idleness and reckless plunging at cards was the way of the aristocratic French Creoles, and Cassard would be condemned for acting otherwise. Then, he himself was hardly in a position to feel superior given the way he had gained the place.

“You will forgive me for bringing up another death,” Christien said as they strolled on a few more steps, “but I have a certain curiosity over the passing of your daughter’s late husband. He was killed, I believe.”

“So it’s supposed. I prefer to think it a tragic accident.” “Your daughter is credited with aiding his passing.” Cassard made a sound of disgust. “Nonsense, utter nonsense.”

“Why should anyone think otherwise?” Reine’s father shot him a quick glance from under lowered brows. “You know what people are, always looking for scandal in anything the least unusual.”

“True, though I gather the affair was something of a three-day wonder.” Persistence, Christien had noted, sometimes had its rewards.

“Oh, it was a damnable business. Theodore—her husband, that is, Theodore Pingre—simply disappeared from the house one night. All that was left to indicate what happened to him was a welter of blood and gore on his bed linens and a poker stuck with bits of flesh and hair on the carpet beside it. Nothing was heard from him for several days. A body was pulled from the river then, and identified only by the alliance ring on his finger. Turtles and catfish had got at him, you understand.”

Christien was unmoved by the image. He’d seen his share of bodies that floated up from the river’s bottom, the occurrence being all too common along the New Orleans waterfront. Bloated, waterlogged, the victims were often so changed it was difficult for their own mothers to identify them. “When you speak of the house, I take you to mean from their home?”

“No, no, they were here at River’s Edge.”

“Indeed.” He allowed idle curiosity to layer his tone.

Cassard frowned a little but answered readily enough. “Young Marguerite was ill with a stomach complaint. Her life was feared for as these sicknesses take so many little ones. Reine and Theodore were living at Bonne Espèrance, her husband’s family place that borders with River’s Edge. It was the usual ménage, including Monsieur and Madame Pingre, a widowed sister of
madame,
a bedridden uncle and his
daughters who looked after him. All that was lacking were brothers and sisters to Theodore, this because he was the only child to live to maturity. No great tragedy, that, as Madame Pingre is a woman who should, perhaps, never have been a mother. Monsieur Pingre, before he died, lavished a fortune on the boy to make up for it.”

Christien nodded his understanding as Cassard paused. The last circumstance might provide some explanation for how Pingre had become a man who cared nothing for the young females he despoiled. “Madame Pingre, his mother, is still in residence there?”

“By no means. She embarked for Paris not long after her son died. The house has been closed up these two years and more.”

“I don’t suppose she has any idea of selling?” It seemed possible one of his friends from the Passage de la Bourse might have an interest. It was always a good thing to choose one’s neighbors.

“If so, I’ve heard nothing of it,” Cassard said.

He would keep it in mind, nevertheless, Christien thought. At least Cassard had the same opinion of the lady that he had acquired. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your story,” Christien said with a slight bow of apology. “You were saying?”

“Where was I? Oh, yes, Theodore. He was never one to abide illness, so took himself off to town. His uncle, already ill with a wasting sickness, came down with Marguerite’s childish complaint and was carried off by it in a matter of hours. Reine, being apologetic
over the death and feeling the funereal atmosphere was unlikely to aid her little one’s recovery, bundled her up and brought her here where she might have the aid and support of her family.”

BOOK: Triumph in Arms
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