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Authors: Vickie Britton

Tags: #Historical Romantic Suspense/Gothic

The Seven Sapphires of Mardi Gras

BOOK: The Seven Sapphires of Mardi Gras
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THE SEVEN SAPPHIRES OF MARDI GRAS

 

Vickie Britton

 

Chapter One

 

November 1, 1880

The steamer I had boarded in St. Louis was ending its two-day course in New Orleans. Tense with excitement, I leaned against the railing, watching the glistening crescent of land slowly take form. The churning spray from the huge paddlewheel stirred yellow water to the color of warm molasses as the S.S.
Josephine
prepared to dock.

The wharf was teeming with life. Everywhere were flat-bedded carts pulling loads of cotton. Sugar hogsheads, sacks of coffee, cotton bales, and white-powdered bags of flour were piled high on the levee, awaiting transport. Far in the distance, I could see heavy-muscled Negro men unloading crates of bananas from a cargo-laden ship.

The din of brassy music came to me from above the low-throated ship’s whistle. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the sight of acrobats and jugglers, a monkey dancing merrily at the end of his chain. “Why, look! A street carnival!” My voice betrayed my enthusiasm as I turned to the spry, elderly lady in a huge flowered hat who had befriended me during the last leg of my voyage.

“It’s All Saint’s Day,” Mrs. Harrington replied, undaunted by the lively music and bright displays of winter flowers at the far end of the wharf. “A time when proper religious folk remember their dead.” She clucked her lips in slight disapproval. “But there are always those among us who find any occasion an excuse to make merry.”

A time to remember the dead. I felt a slight tug at my heart as I glanced down at the square-cut amethyst brooch glimmering at my breast. My mother’s pin. I had thought it fitting that I should wear it on my arrival to the land of her birth. But every time my eyes caught the soft purple shimmer of light against my dark serge travel dress, my heart was filled with a heavy, oppressive sadness that threatened to bring tears to my eyes.

The ship was unloading, I followed Mrs. Harrington’s hat, tall above the steady stream of passengers anxious to reach the shore. Upon the crowded wharf, men embraced young women, children hugged aunts, sisters, and cousins. Everyone, it seemed, was meeting someone. Everyone except me.

Almost the moment I stepped onto the wharf, I noticed the brown-haired man. He was standing a little aside from the others who impatiently crowded about the mouth of the steamer. Though people still trickled from the boat, I saw upon his face a growing anxiousness, as if he were afraid he had missed the person he had come to meet. The idea crossed my mind that it was a woman he was expecting, either a wife or sweetheart, for he kept adjusting the lapel of his finely cut suit coat. Beneath the jacket, I noticed, was a cravat of violet-colored silk.

A rogue! That was what Mrs. Harrington, my self-appointed guardian, would instantly label him. One of the “silver-tongued gamblers” who she swore haunted the ports of the big cities, preying upon young women. Still, I could not deny that he was an attractive man with his deep-brown hair and chiseled features. His nose was perhaps a shade too long, and he sported the slightest hint of a mustache.

I lagged a few paces behind Mrs. Harrington and her well-intentioned warnings. As I passed by the man, I saw something flicker in his tawny-gold eyes. A sudden awareness, almost a spark of recognition, seemed to pass between us.

Our gaze met and I felt a slow flush spread across my cheekbones as a smile flickered softly across his lips. He nodded slightly to me, his look becoming all at once too familiar, almost intimate. Averting my eyes, I hurried quickly past.

Mrs. Harrington, now reunited with her husband, was waiting for me on the wharf, her small eyes darting about like an old hen searching for a lost chick. Like it or not, once again, I was being swept under her protective wing.

“Aren’t you being met?” she demanded, her keen blue eyes expressing concern.

“I’m not staying in New Orleans,” I explained. “I’m to take the
Swamp Prince
on to Iberville in two hours. My mother’s brother, Edward, will meet me there.”

“Great Heavens Above, not the
Swamp Prince!”
Again, she made the clucking sound I had grown familiar with over the long stretch of river miles. “Have you seen that rotting hulk? Why, it’s little more than an engine floating on a raft.”

She took my arm firmly, her balding little husband trailing amiably behind, to the place where the
Swamp Prince
was docked. I must admit my heart fell at the sight of the ugly duckling of a boat, which looked as if it might at any moment spring a leak and sink straight into the muddy water.

But my first fear was not for my life but my earthly possessions. “I’ve arranged for the transport of my luggage. Do you think it will be safe?”

Mrs. Harrington nodded reassuringly. The captain of the
Swamp Prince
has many vices, including drink, which is why his vessel looks so poorly, but theft is fortunately not one of them. Your things will be as safe in his cargo hold as if they were in a bank.” She eyed me with heartfelt concern. “It’s you, my dear, who I’m worried about. The waterfront is no place for a young lady alone. Ernest and I will wait with you until it is time for you to board.”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t impose!” I cast a hopeful glance at Mr. Harrington, but he offered no protest. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, I had spent the better part of the voyage dreaming about how I would spend these two precious hours alone in New Orleans.

“Michael and Eva
are
expecting us at two, dear,” Mrs. Harrington’s husband gently reminded, and I wondered if I only imagined the twinkle in his eye as he smiled at me.

“Well, you do seem a sensible girl” Mrs. Harrington allowed reluctantly. “Just promise me that you’ll board the boat early, and not be tempted to wander about.” She inclined one huge blue flower toward the carnival at the wharfs end. “A dreadful hodgepodge like this is bound to be thick with thieves and pickpockets.”

“I’ll be careful. And thank you. You’ve been so kind.” Impulsively, I gave her a hug of farewell. With a sense of combined reluctance and relief, I watched her take Ernest’s arm and disappear into the crowd.

Totally alone, I felt a sudden sense of exhilaration, as if adventure were tugging at my very sleeve. Perhaps it was because, in all my eighteen years, I had never been so unguarded, so blissfully unchaperoned. My eyes caught sight of the carnival—the sunburst of bright winter flowers, the acrobats, the darling monkey chattering at the end of his leash. And suddenly I was drawn toward the gaiety, the lively music, the Gypsy sense of abandon which had for so long been missing from my life.

Once again, my mother’s brooch caught the light, and once more I felt that terrible, uncompromising sadness begin to take hold of me. I struggled firmly against a haunting sense of guilt for feeling so alive, almost carefree. If only Mother were here with me—Quickly, I blinked back tears. It had been a mistake to wear the pin. Mother would not want me to see the city she had loved so much through eyes blurred with tears.

I slowed to unfasten the delicate pin from my shirtwaist, then slipped it into the tiny beaded clasp bag upon my arm. Someday the brooch would be a source of joy to me, I was sure, a sentimental keepsake. But now the pain of my loss was still too keen to bear. I felt much better once the pin was out of sight.

I joined the steady stream of people upon the walk, pausing to sniff freshly cut bouquets of lilies and roses. Though the air was crisp rather than cool, women displayed winter ensembles of heavy silks and fine velvets. The men also wore fashionable frock coats and boots of soft leather.

I slowed to admire a huge bouquet of pink and white winter roses. “Lovely, aren’t they?” I turned, surprised at the sound of a voice at my very elbow. I first noticed the finely cut jacket, the purple cravat. Tawny-gold eyes met mine and the beginnings of a smile flickered beneath the thin mustache. It was the man who had been waiting by the steamer.

“Yes. It’s hard to imagine a place where flowers grow all year long,” I replied, slightly flustered by his attention.

“You’re from St. Louis?” asked the stranger, with just a hint of a French accent. “I saw you come off the steamer.” He chose a pale-pink flower from the fragrant bouquet. “Every newcomer to our city should be welcomed with a rose,” he insisted, handing it to me with a flourish. “Especially a newcomer as pretty as you. Please, do tell me your name.”

I hesitated a moment. Surely, the stranger was being too bold. “Louise. Louise Moreland.”

“Then welcome to New Orleans, Miss Moreland.”

I lowered my eyes so that he would not see that I was blushing. “Why, thank you “ I replied.

He began to move away. “Keep the rose with you,” he said in parting. “It will bring you good fortune!”

I watched beneath my lashes until the stranger disappeared into the crowd. Rose in hand, I began to wander about the edge of the carnival, watching the acrobats juggle apples, oranges, even bananas in the bright fall air. I paused for a moment to watch the monkey who capered enchantingly to the tinkle of the organgrinder’s music.

My mind still part way upon the stranger, I wandered deeper into the milling throng. At the heart of the carnival, a Negro band was playing “Dixie.” The spirited tune made me think momentarily about the war. I had heard so much about Reconstruction that I half expected to find the city still in shambles. Gazing at the festivity about me, I saw that this was not so. For all the scars it had left upon New Orleans, I thought to myself, the war between the North and South might never have been.

The odd sensation that I was being observed made the hair upon the back of my neck prickle. I turned slightly, expecting, almost hoping, to see once more the man who had given me the flower. But no familiar face was in sight. Only a crowd full of strangers.

The closer I came to the band, the denser the mass of bodies became. With a startled glance, I saw that I had left the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen who strolled the walkway far behind. A much rougher crowd—sailors and burly deckhands—pressed and strained tightly to get closer to the wooden platform where the musicians played. These were the working people of New Orleans, and the poor—the very poor.

Ragged black children pushed though the crowd, begging or selling small trinkets. A war veteran with a missing leg kept time to the music with his crutch. Colored women, their tired faces lined and worn beneath bright
tignons,
maneuvered baskets through the crowd, crying
“calas,
hot
calas”,
and
“pralines,
fresh and good. Everywhere I could sense loss and severe poverty. I realized sadly that I had been mistaken. The war
had
taken its toll. Even now, fifteen years later, it was apparent in the haunted eyes of the poor.

I found it difficult to move or even breathe without bumping into another tightly wedged body. I felt a slight jolt at my right elbow as I struggled to move away from the platform.
“Pardon!”
an
anonymous voice cried out. A tall, gray-eyed man with a badly scarred face quickly put a hand on my arm to steady me.

“Thank you” The sight of those wicked scars inspired pity. A vision of the gray-eyed man’s ruined face continued to haunt me as I worked my way through the crowd.

The strange feeling that I was being watched came to me again with such intensity that I glanced over my shoulder from time to time. The compelling, well-dressed man who had given me the rose came immediately to mind. I thought I caught a vague glimpse of him, a flash of mustache and violet cravat, just behind me in the crowd.

The stranger whom I had inadvertently labeled “the gambler” was following me! I couldn’t help but be slightly flattered by his interest. Though my first impression of him had been questionable, in this sea of nameless faces, I now welcomed the sight of him as if he were an old friend.

Hopefully, I turned back to where the stranger had last been, lifting my eyes, expecting to see his pleasant, interested smile. Instead, a hostile face, the likes of which I had never seen before, glared at me through a gap in the crowd.

In place of the stranger stood a tall Negro man with gaunt features and hypnotic black eyes. The flowing African robes of purple and white wrapped about his bony frame made him look strange and sinister, like some malevolent voodoo priest. When I moved away, those deep, burning eyes moved with me.

My legs felt weak and shaky as I continued to make my way through the maze of hands, faces, and voices. I felt uneasy rather than adventurous now, half sorry that I hadn’t heeded Mrs. Harrington’s advice and stayed near the boats. Even the dancing monkey now seemed ominous, like a wizened old man in his faded yellow suit. He seemed to be baring his little teeth and chattering some dire warning at me. I stepped back, bumping into still another body. Startled, I felt a tug at my sleeve. A bold-eyed beggar held his hand out for a coin.

I pushed my way to the edge of the crowd, and began to hurry in the direction of the boats. Once I had room to breathe again, the panic started to subside. I glanced back fearfully, but the voodoo man, or whoever he had been, was gone. Perhaps I had only imagined his frightening stare. Feeling much safer now that the
Swamp Prince
was in sight, I started for it, intending to board.

BOOK: The Seven Sapphires of Mardi Gras
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