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Authors: Barbara Hambly

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BOOK: Die Upon a Kiss
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“For shame, sir!” Hannibal drew himself up like a demented Irish elf. “A fip on Davis before him.”

“Done, sir!”

“And I,” added Bichet.

“Covered.” January counted out eighteen pennies from his pocket, the rough equivalent in the various currencies available in New Orleans to cover the various bets.

“Gentlemen!” Uncle Bichet finished touching up the tuning-keys of his cello and regarded the other members of the little orchestra with a stern eye. “Didn’t your mamas raise you right? It ain’t polite to lay wagers on white men at their own parties.” He spoke the gombo French, the “mo kiri mo vini” French of the cane-brakes and the slave-quarters—which most of the musicians would have sworn, in white company, that they didn’t rightly understand. Behind his spectacles the old man’s eyes sparkled, disconcerting amid a graceful criss-cross of tribal scars. “ ’Sides, you all ought to know better than to bet on anythin’ a
blankitte
’s gonna do. Now, let’s shake these folks up a little. Ben . . .”

January grinned, and danced his fingers over the first bars of “La Bonne Amazone.” As if by magic the crowd that jammed the room shifted, transforming from a wall of backs into an open aisle of non-dancers crowding aside between the pillars and around the buffet, and dancers forming up three sets—

—as cleanly divided along French and American lines as if on a battlefield. Anne Trulove, a biscuit-blonde in rigidly tasteful gray, took her husband by the arm and firmly steered him into the American set farthest from the one graced by Oona Flaherty and her lumbering cicisbeo. Henri Viellard, after an unsuccessful attempt at concealment behind one of the buffet table’s silver epergnes, gracelessly led his middlemost sister into the French set. Vincent Marsan’s wife, a colorless woman with the face of one who has neither laughed nor wept in years, made a move toward the French set, then flushed as her husband did not respond, and retreated hastily to the wall again.

Nowhere did January see anyone who might have been Incantobelli.

“At least we should have a lively evening,” remarked Hannibal, and the orchestra whirled into the music like a thousand colored ribbons released at once into the wind.

Later that evening, crouched in the darkness with the stink of blood filling his nostrils, January remembered Hannibal’s remark with rage, and bitterness, and despair.

FIVE

Lorenzo Belaggio made his appearance at ten, Mademoiselle d’Isola radiant on his arm.

“Guess Incantobelli didn’t meet him on the gallery,” taunted January as the impresario thrust aside the tawny velvet curtain that swagged the vestibule doors, held it back with a dramatic gesture that halted the dancers mid-pirouette, and drew all eyes to the dazzling figure framed there in her gown of white and emerald. One felt she waited for applause.

“The night’s young.” Hannibal rounded off the truncated waltz with a little flourish of notes, like a satin bow.

“I hope that six cents wasn’t your rent.”

Caldwell and Trulove made haste to bow to the young soprano, Marsan to kiss her hand. La d’Isola preened happily and uncomprehendingly at the compliments that rained about her in English, nodded earnestly to the French ones, and said, in her soft, sweet voice with its Neapolitan lilt,
“Merci . . . merci, Mi-sciou,”
like a child pronouncing her lessons. “Please. You are so kind.” Though she had the air of one who certainly accepted the praise as deserved, she also thanked the giver of each compliment with a sparkling, genuine smile. She seemed more relaxed than she had at the theater—maybe because Consuela Montero wasn’t present.

Few of the singers were. Madame Chiavari had come early with her husband, and had departed early; some of the ladies were distantly polite, but enough of a stigma still clung to a woman of the stage that even the Creole ladies weren’t sure if they should be seen in conversation with her or not. The men, of course, had no interest in a woman so respectably wed. Other than Oona Flaherty, still on the arm of Mr. Knight’s trussed-looking clerk, the only person January had glimpsed so far from the theater was Madame Scie, clothed in a rather old-fashioned gown of apricot gauze and listening politely to young Harry Fry expostulate at the far end of the refreshment table.

“What do the midwives do in this country?” she demanded a few minutes later, coming around the corner of the leafy musicians’ screen. “Crush the bump that governs interest in anything they cannot eat, invest in, or take with them to bed?” She tapped the back of her head as if participating in a demonstration of phrenology.

“He seems to have heard of Napoleon, for which I suppose he is due some credit, but all else is either I have got such-and-such a bargain dealing for cotton, or How much is proper to spend on a gift for the Señorita Felina? What sort of jewels would best advance my suit? Mr. Fry knows, he tells me, where to procure them cheap. Would I take a message to her? Not that the girl can read, even should I permit myself to be used as a letter-box—or a bawd.” Her thin wrist flicked in a gesture eloquent of exasperation and self-mockery. “I wept for your exile before,
mon vieux,
but I see now my tears were ignorant, falling far short of the truth.”

“The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of
Apollo,”
agreed Hannibal gravely. He and the ballet mistress had taken to each other at sight. “It’s a malady akin to the cholera, I believe, borne upon the insalubrious air. A man can be a very paragon of political theory while he lives in Paris, but within six months of stepping from the gangplank, he hasn’t an idea in his head but what percentage of his next cotton crop can be invested in slaves.”

January leaned an elbow on the edge of Trulove’s grand piano. “White people in this town just don’t have any idea how to have a good time. Especially during Carnival. That’s the one bad thing about being good in this town: the whites pay you more, but if the pay were equal, I’d sooner play for the free colored militia and burial societies. Better food, better talk, better dancing, funnier jokes, and far, far, far better music.”

“Would you care to accompany us to Jacques Bichet’s party after everyone here goes home?” inquired Hannibal, who was by this stage of the evening weaving slightly with exhaustion and brandy. He picked from the dancer’s hair a spray of the fragile straw-flowers that were its only ornament, and tucked them into his buttonhole like a skeletal wisp of smoke. “He did say we should bring whomever we liked,” he added, seeing January’s expression of shock that he should even make such a suggestion to a white woman, and the daughter of a beheaded French marquis at that. “Jacques, your good wife wouldn’t have any objection to Madame Scie coming along to your place afterward and hearing real music, would she?”

The flautist’s eyes widened. Like January, he was far more disconcerted at the average white lady’s reaction to such a suggestion than at any danger that might attach. But Marguerite Scie was not the average white lady. She’d trodden the opera stage for too long to concern herself with scandal, and had long since, January knew, abandoned the convention of seeking a respectable protector who might be shocked at her behavior. The crowfoot lines around her gray eyes deepened with amusement and delight, and old Uncle Bichet, seeing this, leaned around his cello and answered for his flabbergasted nephew, “I think my nephew’s wife would be pleased and honored, if this meets with your approval, Madame.”

“Indeed it does.” The ballet mistress inclined her head, first to the old man, then to Jacques, then Hannibal. “And considering the number of people here who have injured themselves in their haste to speak to a mere dance mistress, and an elderly one at that,” she added dryly, “I shall count the minutes.”

And as James Caldwell and Lorenzo Belaggio between them led La d’Isola toward the musicians, she strolled away, erect and solitary, to the pillar where she had stood before.

“Gentlemen,” said Caldwell, “perhaps you’d be good enough to play for our beautiful nightingale to give our company here a taste of what’s in store at the American Theater this season?”

Drusilla looked around her, startled, and tried to draw back, but Belaggio put a firm hand on the small of her back.

“That pretty song the Countess sings in Act Three of
Marriage,
perhaps?” suggested Trulove, coming up from the other side. His wife was beside him, her cool blue glance touching the soprano—and the way Belaggio held her—with impersonal contempt, flavored by the malice of a woman whose husband has been insulting her for weeks with an Irish opera-dancer.

Blushing, Drusilla shook her head in a nodding forest of green-and-white ostrich-tips. “Oh, no, you must sing, my dear,” purred Mrs. Trulove. “What about that lovely aria in Mr. Bellini’s
Norma
?” And she hummed the first few bars of “Casta diva,” arguably one of the most difficult pieces ever written for a soprano.

“Do not be so modest,
cara mia
!” boomed Belaggio, tightening his grip as the girl showed signs of trying to slip away. “You must show these people what a spectacle awaits them in our opera season! I insist. Gentlemen, you have the music. . . .”

Pale under her rice-powder and rouge, La d’Isola looked around at the faces of the men, and of the women closing in, smiling with curiosity at this woman of whom they’d heard. And January, looking at the girl’s eyes, realized,
She knows.

She knows she’s fit only for chorus work.

Separated from an audience by the footlights, masked in paint and surrounded by other singers, enmeshed in a spectacle of action and beauty, a mediocre singer can get by. Cognoscenti might compare her coloratura to others they’d heard, but in the main, the weak or dull thread is safe in the brilliant tapestry’s web.

A vain woman wouldn’t have noticed her own flaws, or feared exposure as no more than the impresario’s mistress, the woman foisted on the company and the audience.

Tears filled d’Isola’s dark eyes, but she took a deep breath, ready to go down trying.

January was never sure afterward why he reacted as he did. Asked beforehand what a girl deserved who had used her body to edge her way ahead of better singers, he would unhesitatingly have said,
Let her stand up and try to
sing without anything to distract her audience. Let her try to
sing in a small room, in an intimate setting, face-to-face.
That should teach her.

Maybe it was because only a few hours earlier he’d seen the pain in Dominique’s eyes, and how she’d held up her head and smiled.

Maybe because of the woman in the blue dress, at the New Exchange, and the way Belaggio had held on to Drusilla’s arm and said,
I insist.

Maybe it was just that she was young.

He said in Italian, “Perhaps the Signorina would care to sing ‘Si profondo mi amore’ from your own
Othello,
Signor?” And he named Desdemona’s sad little canzone from Act Four, heart-tugging in itself, tragic in its sweet simplicity before Othello’s terrifying entrance . . .

. . . and, he knew, just within the girl’s range and capabilities.

For one instant her eyes met his, filled with gratitude and almost unbelieving relief that she would be spared. She swallowed hard, drew another breath, steadying herself. “Yes,” she said, “yes, thank you, that is . . . that would be perfect.”

“Othello
is a new opera, Signor,” added January encouragingly to Belaggio, who showed signs of holding out for “Casta diva.” “And truly, the finest that I have heard.”

“Well, well . . .” Belaggio puffed up like a mating pigeon. “It
is
a fine piece, is it not? One of my best. What about it,
Popola?”
He brought d’Isola’s hand to his lips. January saw that her fingers were trembling.

Somewhere in the candle-lit golden shadows, a shrill Irish voice demanded, “If she’s going to sing, why can’t I dance?”

And silence fell on the room as La d’Isola took her place before the bower, silence seduced, a moment later, by the sweet, languid whisper of Hannibal’s fiddle.

It is the music that makes up the feeling,
January had said to Shaw.
The words themselves are nothing.
Indeed, he doubted whether five people in the great soft-glowing cavern of the ballroom even knew Italian. But the gentle wistfulness of the air spoke, the slow-building pulse of intensity and sadness; that terrible alternation of yearning and despair that a woman knows, who both loves and fears her man.

So deep my love, that even in his anger
My heart leaps out; his stubbornness and frowns,
These I embrace, the day and night together . . .

When Cavallo spoke of her depth of feeling, of her ability to deliver, not a perfect song, but an emotional performance, January had been tempted to attribute the praise to the friendship between the two. Now he saw that the tenor had spoken the truth.

La d’Isola, though her training had clearly been adequate, might not have been more than a mediocre singer, but as an actress she was unsurpassed.

Or else, thought January—and he glanced sidelong at her lover’s florid countenance, the pride-filled, possessive dark eyes—she sang from her heart.

My mother had a maid called Barbara.
She loved a man, and him she loved was mad;
And he forsook her, leaving her to sing
This song of Willow; singing it she died. . . .

Hannibal’s violin feathered gently in as the girl’s voice soared into a cadenza, freed for the moment of words at all, singing only feeling, like a dove flying into storm. Love that accepts the rage of the beloved as just; the heart too tender to defend itself or the life of its owner. Anne Trulove, who did understand—who like Hannibal had been raised on Shakespeare—glanced aside and down, acknowledging her malice defeated and chastised. Major plunged into minor like the night that stalks in the wings of a hurricane, notes unfurling like luminous pennons against a lowering sky.

Sing willow, willow, sing willow,
Sing willow, willow, sing for me. . . .

During this scene, the libretto instructed, Othello would be visible on the gallery, just outside Desdemona’s door. Weeping as he listened, and turning away, repentant of his jealousy. And at that moment, around the flowering vine of the willow song, would twine Iago’s theme, as Cochon and Uncle threaded it in now, vivid as blood dripped on bridal-silk, as the echo of a cry uttered hundreds of years ago.

Lie with her, on her, what you will. . . . Hot as monkeys,
salt as wolves in pride. . . .
And like night returning, Othello would turn back to that lighted room. To vengeance, and his own doom.

Now, now, very now,
January’s mind whispered the words of the first act, which Belaggio had taken intact into Iago’s opening aria.
That old black ram is tupping your
white ewe.

He had heard and read endless speculation on Iago’s motive in bringing about his commander’s downfall: rage at being passed over to make room for the place-serving Cassio; envy of the greater man’s abilities. The mention in passing that “he hath sometime between my sheets performed my office” was clearly a throwaway, an excuse, brought up only once at the end almost as an afterthought—certainly Iago’s wife, Emilia, never gave the slightest indication of interest in Othello throughout the play. And to January, the motive was clear, starting in that first scene.

Iago could not endure it, that the Moor dared love a white-skinned woman, and was loved by her in return.

And it mattered to him not a whit that it was a woman in whom Iago had no interest himself.

Sing willow, willow, sing willow,
Sing willow, willow, sing for me.

Which of those men, wondered January as the final grace-notes of d’Isola’s simple fioritura climbed into the silence, agreed with Iago? It was all very well for them to have mistresses of color—as Henri Viellard, mammoth and solemn in his gray coat and flowered waistcoat, had Dominique—girls whom they would bull for years without ever considering them good enough to marry.

But a black man bedding a white woman? Marrying her? Loving her so desperately that the thought of her betrayal drove him literally mad?

Unthinkable.

And criminal enough, in the mind of at least one man almost certainly in the room, to justify a little lesson in the alley beside the theater.

BOOK: Die Upon a Kiss
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