Authors: Jennifer Blake
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system — except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews — without the written permission of publisher or author, except where permitted by law.
Copyright © 1978 and 2013 by Patricia Maxwell
First Fawcett Edition: 1978
First E-Reads Edition: 2000
Steel Magnolia Press Digital Edition: 2013
Cover Design by
LFD Designs For Authors
“MAM’ZELLE CAROLINE, will you not tell us, please, of how you shot the privateer?”
The lady thus addressed lifted her head, assuming a severe expression, though a twinkle lingered in her dove-gray eyes. “I’ll do no such thing. You are supposed to be memorizing the poem I gave you, my dear Estelle.”
“Oh, I did that ages ago.” The young lady kneeling on the floor with her skirts spread around her looked up with an engaging grin. Clutching the book in her lap, she rattled off the first canto of
. When she began on the second, her older sister Amélie, seated on a rattan chair on the other side, put her hands over her ears.
“Don’t, please don’t!” she begged.
Estelle came to a halt, one hand flung out in a theatrical gesture. Cocking her head to one side she asked, “Does it upset you, Amélie? I mean all that about the ‘wild sea-mew’ and the ‘billow’s rage’? I know you didn’t precisely enjoy your sea voyage home from France with Mam’zelle Caroline, but it has been over six months. Surely you are not going to have a megrim over such a silly thing as a few lines from a poem?”
Amélie’s gentle face went quite pale. “You don’t understand. We might have been killed, our ship sunk — or worse,” she whispered.
“What could be worse than being dead?” Estelle asked, her forehead wrinkled in a frown of such concentration and undisguised curiosity that her sister flung a look of appeal in the direction of the woman who acted as their governess.
An expression of wry communication passed between Caroline Pembroke and her elder charge before the governess took up the challenge. “It is not unknown for the — the Brethren of the Coast to torture their prisoners.”
“The brethren are pirates,” Estelle pointed out. “The privateers are different, are they not?”
“Quite true,” Caroline admitted. “During war conditions privateers sail under letters of marque, making their pillage of the seas legal, but it doesn’t constrain them to behave like gentlemen in the presence of the ladies unfortunate enough to be aboard the ships they capture.”
“Then the privateer you shot offered to harm you?” Estelle asked.
“No, not exactly.”
“He insulted you then?”
“I — no.”
“Then, why was it necessary to shoot him?” the girl pursued, a relentless look in her sherry-brown eyes.
Caroline surveyed her while a rueful smile tagged at her finely shaped mouth. The girl was just turned seventeen. In a few months, when they returned to New Orleans for the winter season, the
saison des visites
, she would be making her debut at the French Opera House, receiving eligible suitors in the family box. It was no reason to suppose that Estelle, given her dowry of adequate though not generous size, would not be a married woman by this time next year. It was a shame she was not better educated in the ways of men. In truth, a little frankness in the matter of the privateer might not be a bad thing for Estelle, but there was Amélie to consider. It had been quite an ordeal for a gently bred, convent-educated girl. The fright of it had come near to making her ill. The family had made as light of the incident as possible, avoiding discussion which might awaken unpleasant memories. They should have guessed that Estelle with her flair for drama would eventually grow dissatisfied with the meager facts she had been given. Still, it was no part of Caroline’s duties to enlighten her on either head. That Caroline had a melancholy suspicion no one else, particularly Madame Delacroix, could be depended on to do so made no difference.
At last she replied, “We had no guarantee the privateer would not harm us. In any case, he made a near fatal error. He assumed I did not know what to do with the pistol I was holding when he entered our cabin.”
“Were you frightened?” Estelle asked, slipping into a more comfortable position.
“I’ll wager Amélie was perfectly useless from sheer terror.”
“Estelle! That was an unkind thing to say,” Caroline protested.
“Unkind, bat also true,” Amélie said in a suffocating voice. “I have never pretended to be brave.”
“We will not speak of it, I think, since recalling the incident distresses you.” Caroline sent a warning look in Estelle’s direction. The hint was lost on Amélie’s younger sister.
“What did he look like? Was he fierce and bearded and ugly?”
Caroline took a deep breath. “My dear Estelle, I find your intense interest in this matter unladylike, not to say ghoulish. We will find another subject for discussion, if you please.”
“Yes, of course, Mam’zelle, but—was he?”
“I have no intention of opening my lips on this subject again,” Caroline declared, returning her attention to the flounce she was mending on one of her batiste nightgowns.
“Was he, Amélie?” Estelle persisted, swinging to her sister. “Was he horrifying to look at?”
“I — don’t know. I never — I never really saw him.”
Estelle’s expressive face went blank. “Never saw him?”
“I was praying, kneeling in supplication to
le bon Dieu
to save us,” Amélie explained, a tinge of color rising beneath the bisque-china perfection of her skin. Her fingers clenched on the delicate embroidery in her lap until the knuckles gleamed white. “The cannons sounded like the thunder of doom and there was awful clamor and yelling as the ship was boarded. I feared — I feared I know not what. And then the cabin door crashed open. I think I must have fainted, falling senseless across my bunk. When I came to myself, Mam’zelle Caroline and I were alone again and all was quiet.”
Estelle made no comment, but the look she threw her sister told plainly her opinion of such spineless conduct. Biting her lip, Amélie turned her head away.
Estelle turned to her governess, but at the lift of Caroline’s eyebrow and a cool stare from her gray eyes, the girl abandoned the interrogation. Silence reigned on the gallery.
Although it was early in the month of May, the heat of summer warmed the air so that the soft touch of a vagrant breeze from the river was welcome. The scent of magnolias enveloped them like a cloud, wafting from the trees that lined the drive leading from the levee.
The upper gallery, under the deep, shadowed overhang of the roof of the West Indies planter-style home known as Beau Repos, was a perfect place for lessons. High off the ground, perched on brick pillars above the raised basement of the house, the gallery afforded a magnificent view of the surrounding cane fields and the Mississippi River sweeping past on its way down to New Orleans. It was quiet, comfortable, out of the way of the younger children and their nurses, though it would become the center of Creole family life later in the day.
There were ten children in the Delacroix
The eldest was Anatole, a young man a year past his majority. Then came Amélie, two years younger, followed by Estelle, and then Théophile, who was fifteen. The next three children died in infancy, leaving a gap in the regular placement of births. This was made up for by Madame Delacroix who had, in the six years just past, presented her husband with a pledge of her affection punctually every spring. The present accounting was three males and three females still in the nursery, the latest addition a mere five months old.
An indolent woman of uncertain temperament and little energy, Madame Delacroix had discovered that childbearing made an excellent excuse for lying abed. She did little beyond incubating, eating, reading, and issuing orders for the running of the household to be carried out by her distant kinswoman by marriage, Mademoiselle Caroline Pembroke. She was happy to leave the education and training of her eldest daughters to the indispensable Mam’zelle Caroline, while the younger children were consigned to the exclusive company of their nurses. The older sons had long outgrown the need of supervision and certainly outdistanced in intellect the man who served Beau Repos in the capacity of a tutor. That did not prevent their former mentor from being housed with them in the
, that separate building which was the province of young males in the French households of southern Louisiana. Their repeated attempts to remove him seemed to make no impression. M’sieur Philippe belonged, and a polite fiction that he was still necessary would be maintained until the younger boys had need of him. He had had a place at the Delacroix board for twelve years, since he had come to Beau Repos as a young man of good family but little income; he would have one for twelve more years if he so desired. He was a fixture, accepted and forgotten, counted no more of a burden or expense than M’sieur Delacroix’s aging aunt, Tante Zizi, who had come for a visit of but a few days twenty years before and still occupied a corner bedroom. Such was French Creole hospitality.
One of Caroline Pembroke’s greatest fears was that she too was in danger of becoming such a fixture. She had given the Delacroix family four years of her young life, since she was a girl of nineteen. By the accounting of her host and hostess she was an “antique virgin,” a woman who might as well throw her corset on top of the armoire. It was not lack of opportunity that had brought her to this pass. She had been aware more than once that a little encouragement to some particular man might have netted her a home of her own. The prize had not yet seemed worth the effort.
Suddenly Estelle spoke aloud. “There is no reason a privateer might not be a handsome man rather than an ugly one, is there? Perhaps he looked like Byron, dark and mysterious.”
“Not at all,” Caroline corrected as the instinct to instruct rose up within her. “The poet who wrote
has blue eyes and auburn hair. I will admit him to be personable, but neither dark nor particularly mysterious.”