'They will allow it over my dead body!'
The ferocity of Beau LaConte's angry declaration, accompanied by flailing of arms that set the carriage to wobbling, made me take fright. The LaContes had been our Mississippi delta neighbors for more than a century, but I should have known better than accept his offer for transport to the Hallow's Eve masked ball at the Cabildo. It wasn't just that I couldn't fully trust myself around Beau. It also was because the LaContes were sadly inbred and had not taken to the recent shame at all well. In fact, all legitimate LaContes but Beau had promptly died from embarrassment upon hearing of General Lee's surrender. And Beau showed no signs of adjusting to the new realities either.
'Careful, neighbor,' I said, laying a soothing hand on his arm. 'You'll split that rich brocade of your French Court costume and be the talk of the town.' Indeed, that might very well be true. In his vanity, Beau, must have literally been sewn into that costume of his. I could discern every curve and crevice of his finely sculpted body. I would be suspicious that he had invited me to share his carriage simply to make me pine for him - if I had any notion that he was aware of anyone but himself to the extent of realizing that I did, indeed, pine for him and had done so since we were lads.
'Anyway, it's inevitable, Beau. We lost, and they are in control now. They have the government in their hands; there is no denying them entry to our masked balls. By the Christmas Ball they will be in control of the governing committee for that as well.'
'Over my dead body,' Beau cried out again, setting the coach to rocking again. In response to this, he took his silver-headed cane and pounded on the roof of the carriage. 'More care up there, I say. A smoother ride or you won't be driving me ever again.'
I had a twinge of regret for poor little Dexter at the reins atop the carriage. He'd been out there in the elements for the two-hour cold and clammy ride along the banks of the lower Mississippi to New Orleans. And I had seen how poorly clad he was from the beginning. He'd catch his death of cold, surely. But Beau wouldn't care. He didn't recognize the word 'emancipation,' let alone accept that it had actually been put into force. And his people had no place else to go other than the plantation. It wasn't as if they could suddenly learn new trades and how to meet life as free men. But here we were on Chartres St. and entering the Faubourg Marigny district. Within minutes we'd be pulling past St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square and arriving at the ball, one of the last vestiges of gaiety left in this city mourning the stripping away of its once-grand way of life.
I made one last stab. 'We will not be alone at the ball, Beau. You must try not to make a scene. We must adjust. It's only right.'
'Only right?' Beau blustered as the carriage drew up to the torchlit entry of the government building-turned ballroom for the evening. 'I'll never adjust to this. I'll have nothing to do with them. Ever. My family has existed completely apart from them for a hundred and fifty years and will continue to do so.'
Apart from them, I thought bitterly. Everything your family has was built on their backs. And then, as the carriage door opened, Dexter was there, folding the steps down and standing close by, hands at ready to help Beau out of the carriage. But he was brushed aside without a look from Beau, and I saw a grimace flash across Dexter's face. Beau had stepped on his foot - without realizing or caring that he had done so.
I couldn't help myself. I laughed. A laugh deep in my throat, more in bitterness than in mirth. But it wasn't because Beau had stepped on Dexter's foot. It was something entirely different.
'What's so funny?' Beau grumbled, pressing out the few creases in his tight, silken breeches that had the audacity to mar the perfection of his persona.
'Oh, nothing. It's nothing, Beau,' I said, as I took his arm and mounted the stairs toward the flaming chandeliers and orchestra music beyond the thick stuccoed walls of the Cabildo. But it wasn't 'nothing.' It was sheer irony. Anyone seeing Beau and Dexter standing side by side at the carriage door could see it in an instant. But Beau would never see it, because he would never look straight at Dexter. Different colors and the heavily muscled Beau hulked over the slight, willowy Dexter. But anyone with eyes to see could see the close family resemblance - they were cousins if not brothers.
In the light of the main ballroom, Beau stood out in his magnificence. I stayed beside him as best I could. Trying not to be obvious, but aching for him. Now more than ever before; I could not tear my eyes away from the splendor of his body in that tight silken costume. But he was blind to my worship - which was just as well. I knew I never would have him.
As I gazed intently at him, I saw his eyes flash and his nostrils flare up. Following his line of sight, I saw her - and I drew in my breath. She had appeared at the top of the staircase and stood there, knowing that all eyes were slowly being drawn to her and the cacophony of boisterous conversation throughout the room was bubbling down to gossipy whispers behind gloved hands and fans. The whiteness of her flowing, low-cut gown contrasted sharply with the milk-chocolate of her lustrous skin. She was so slight and willowy that she must not have been much over eighteen, but she held herself like a queen, and she obviously knew exactly what effect she was having on the room - both effects. The tone of her skin revealed that she was a mulatto, first generation of a mixed white and black coupling, and never before had a mulatto appeared at the Hallow's Eve Ball. Octorons, those with scant one-eighth black blood, yes, of course; the premier courtesans of the city were Octorons. But never a mulatto. But what also was having this breathtaking effect on all in attendance was her beauty and her carriage. She wasn't just attending the ball; she was reigning over the ball. She was making a statement - no doubt on purpose - that a new era had arrived.
Surely I knew who she was; even now the quickly evolving social center of the city wasn't that large that she should be a total cipher to me. But this was a masked ball, and she was wearing an elaborate white feathered mask that hid all features of her face except for those ruby-red lips and those incongruous hazel eyes.
I turned to see that another set of hazel eyes were flashing; Beau was about to explode. My concern for him, which was lodged in my aching love for him, screamed from within me, and I did all I could to pull his attention away from the apparition on the stairs, as she slowly descended, all eyes still enthralled by the beauty of her movement, and moved toward the French doors out into the rear garden. As she passed, a path opened for her through the still-awed and twittering social elite of the city, nonplused still by both her majesty and her bold audacity.
I couldn't hold Beau back, though. As she disappeared into the murky light of the rear garden and the path she had traversed closed again with a great sigh from the crowd that, clutching at the last vestiges of tradition, renewed the gaiety and high decibel rate it had produced before the chocolate beauty had made her entrance, Beau slipped out of my concerned embrace and threaded his way toward those French doors.
I was jostled and delayed by the forming of a dance by invitation of the renewed musical efforts of the orchestra, and neither Beau nor the beauty could be seen when I reached the French doors. I feared for them both. I feared that Beau would make a spectacle of himself that would bring the focus of the authorities on him. He had walked a thin line these short months since the shaming at Appomatox. The new order had its clutching eyes on all of the plantation owners up and down the river, and Beau could lose his entire heritage at a flash of his temper that the new rulers decided convenient not to ignore. But at the same time, I feared for the young woman. She looked so vulnerable and delicate as she floated down the staircase and across the ballroom floor. I felt certain that her appearance was a mere statement of what was to come and that forces beyond her were behind this bold move. I couldn't let harm come to her if I could help it - especially from Beau. And in that, it was myself I was thinking of - of my passion for him despite his blindness, or perhaps because of his blindness, to my feelings.
I searched for several minutes before I found them. I heard them first, talking in low whispers, and thus I stealthily came closer to them, moving to where I could spy them through the foliage of a flame tree but that they couldn't see me.
I huddled there, in shock. I had expected to come upon a scene of rage, but instead it was a scene of seduction. But who was seducing who? I had completely misjudged Beau's reaction to the woman when she first appeared in the ballroom. What I had taken for anger and disgust was interest and lust. Beau spoke of one reaction to her kind, but he was proving to be as vulnerable to the beauty of the mulatto as any of his kin ever had been.
They were sitting, or rather, nearly reclining on a stone bench. Beau had an arm around the beauty and was leaning into her, pressing his chest against her side. I arrived in time to see him make a move to unmask her, but she denied him that privilege, murmuring her demure to him and holding the mask to her face with a delicate white-gloved hand. She did not deny him her lips, however. I saw them kiss, tentatively at first, and then I saw Beau hungrily posses her lips when he discovered that they would not be denied him. The hand of the arm he was encircling her with went to her breast and cupped it through the white silk of her low-cut bodice. I could see her pert orb heave slightly as her breathing became more rapid at his touch. His other hand was gripping her thigh just above the knee and would have worked its way higher if she hadn't laid a gloved hand on it.
He pulled his face from hers and locked his eyes on hers. He was whispering to her in hurried, tense words. He obviously was asking her for permission to accelerate his attentions to her. She was smiling and whispering back, obviously not fully giving in to him but not pushing him away either. He took one of her hands and placed it on the tightness of the crotch of his silk breeches, making her feel the urgency that was all too obviously evident there. And she did not take her hand away from there.
My heart leapt as I realized she was toying with him. I could see it in her eyes behind that mask and I could see it in the curve of her lips. Why couldn't he see what I could see? She wasn't for him. I could be for him; I could give myself completely to him. But she couldn't; she had no intention to. I could see it in her eyes and in her smile. But Beau was blind in his passion for her. He would never see it; and he would not listen to me if I warned him.
I looked back and they were conversing intently now in low, hushed tones. It was as if they were negotiating. And that's exactly what they were doing; they were negotiating. The little vixen had her eye on Beau's ring. The family signet ring; the ring that passed from oldest son to oldest son. The symbol of the House of LaConte.
Surely Beau wasn't that blind in his passion. But then my heart took a lurch again as I realized that surely he was. The ring was coming off his finger and going onto her thumb.
And then her bodice was coming down and Beau's face was buried between her nubile, barely developed breasts and he was feasting on her nipples. His hand was pulling up the hem of her gown and was on her naked knee, above the top of a white stocking.
I couldn't help myself. I was overwhelmed with the loss. The too-easy loss to the House of LaConte; the too-easy loss of principles Beau claimed to possess, no matter how outdated they were; and the loss of all chances I might have ever had with him - all for a furtive tryst in the garden of the Hallow's Eve Ball - all at the design of a little vixen with debasing of a family and way of life on her mind. It would have been one thing if I'd thought she had any regard for Beau at all, but not this.
I cried out and stumbled into the clearing, no plan in mind whatsoever other than to break into this blind passion, this scene that was just so wrong in so many ways.
I, of course, completely unhinged both Beau and the mulatto beauty and, while both Beau and I froze there in shock, he in sudden recognition of my hopes and fears and I in utter misery of this recognition, the mulatto beauty gathered her gown about her and disappeared into the shadows of the garden.
Beau became stiff and formal, outwardly showing no sign of anything amiss, but he shrank from me as we slowly walked back toward the light and convivial noise of the ballroom. We walked with leaden, shuffling stride, him trying to regain his composure and me melting into abject despair, neither of us wanting to gain the light, not wanting the light to shine on our new knowledge and on what now could not be regained for either of us. He was fingering the empty place on his ring finger, but I had no idea what he regretted the most - the loss of the symbol of his birthright or of his conquest of the mulatto beauty.
By unspoken agreement, we turned away from the French doors that would take us back into the ballroom among all of 'our kind,' who we both knew would be able to discern at a glance the strain between us and the unrecoverable change in both of us. We pressed on toward the carriage court. While Beau was calling in irritated tones for Dexter to bring up his carriage, I was suggesting in hushed tones that perhaps I would stay on at the ball for a short while longer and find transport home with someone else. And Beau rendered the last crushing blow to my spirit when he readily accepted my suggestion.
Dexter was standing there, smiling broadly at the carriage door. Ready to render help for Beau in entering the carriage - but of course Beau didn't even give him a look - and ready to close the door behind his privileged lookalike.
The first thing I noticed then was in the carriage itself as Dexter held the door open. There, just a slight fold of fabric peeking out below the bench lid, a fabric that caught the light of the carriage court torches - white silk. And then, wham, wham, wham, the other images assaulted my eyes. The smirk on Dexter's lips, a slight smear of ruby-red gloss at the corner of his lower lip, and the gleam of light reflecting off the gold signet ring he proudly held forth on the hand holding the door open for Beau.
But Beau saw none of this. Beau was blind. Beau was completely out of time and place. Blind to everything but fleeting passion.