Port Bayou St. Jean, Louisiana
May 24, 1704
“You bastard! How dare you even think of abandoning me in this uncivilized place? I rue the day I married you.”
The coffeepot barely missed the Marquis Delafée’s dark head as it crashed against the door. Splintered bits of china embedded themselves in the mahogany as streams of dark liquid trickled down the polished surface to soak into the carpet’s thick nap.
“As do I, Madame,” was his rigid reply. Mon Dieu, if I don’t get out of here, I may kill the bitch! “If there’s anything I regret more, it’s the fact that your father wasn’t prevented from dipping his quill in your mother’s inkpot and creating you in the first place! I swear the world would be a better place if that had never happened, and I a much happier man.”
“That’s right, revile me,” she spat at him. “Now that you’ve spent my dowry on your mulâtre sluts and your debauches, I’m no use to you, so you plan to leave me here, go on your merry way, and just forget me.”
“I assure you, my dear wife, sailing across an ocean has nothing merry about it,” he informed her. “As for my pleasures…they may be sluts but anyone would be welcome after spending a night plumbing your ice-filled cunt.” He was just as vicious in his reply, though frighteningly controlled, the words bitten off with precision. “But you needn’t worry about your dowry. It’s unspent, and I shall leave it for you. You’ll need it for the upkeep of the plantation as well your own welfare. After all, I wouldn’t want anyone saying I left you to starve.”
That stopped her verbal assault. For a moment, a very long moment in which the two long-term combatants stood staring at each other.
Étienne-Phillipe Armand David Vaurien and his wife had been wed for seven years, and as far as His Lordship was concerned, that was seven years too many. They’d been amiable for approximately the two hours of the wedding ritual and the length of time it took them to arrive at their wedding chamber, but from the moment that door shut until now, they had been in mortal combat, mostly verbal, sometimes physical, as the smashed coffeepot proved. And now, at last, Étienne had had enough.
The letter he’d gotten three weeks before had set him free.
He was sailing on the morning tide back to France, having decided to quit both his wife and the hardly-civilized country in which he’d been forced to live since his father exiled him to Port Bayou St. Jean, just as he also forced him to marry this harridan who’d made his life a living hell since the age of nineteen. The Marquis’ excuse was that he needed someone to oversee his sugar cane plantation and no one but his son and heir would do. His real reason was that Vicomte Mauvais’ excesses, in attempts to escape his unhappy homelife, were beginning to reach the Regent’s ears. While the monarchy might not truly have any right to cast stones, it nevertheless did so with impunity, and if its target were a son, the father could suffer also. Étienne had become an embarrassment so he had to be put out of sight, which meant he and his bride were placed on the next ship leaving for the New World and the plantation called Nouvel Espoir, “New Hope.” Étienne, who’d never thought of his father as having a sense of humor wondered if he saw the irony of that name to his son.
He bore his exile with mild stoicism, admitting freely if it hadn’t been for the taverns, the cockfights, and the brothels, he might’ve gone stark, raving mad. But now the old man was dead and he was Marquis and he was getting out of here and back to civilization.
He was the first to break the silence. Crunching bits of broken china under his heels, he stamped into the foyer, pulled his tricorne from the elaborately carved and brass-decorated coattree near the door, and swept it in a graceful, but sarcastic bow. “And now, since I think all’s said that needs to be, I bid you farewell, My Lady…and good riddance!” He turned, then stopped as if remembering something, and looked back, “I’d tell you to go to Hell but I wouldn’t wish your presence even on le Diable.”
With that, he clapped the tricorne on his well-groomed, and tightly-clubbed head, symbolically brushed the dust of Port Bayou St. Jean from his sleeve, and stalked toward the front door, jerking it open with controlled violence.
“Wait!” she called after him. “You’re leaving now?”
“Of course.” He threw the answer over his shoulder. “I don’t intend to spend my last hours in this god-forsaken place exchanging verbals insults with you into the early hours. I’m keeping company with someone much more sympathethique and definitely more loving. Even if I do pay for it!”
He went through the door, slamming it shut and causing the windows to rattle and the house itself to shudder. A coffee cup, sitting on a side table where the new Marquis had placed it when it was obvious which way his wife’s latest attack was heading, toppled onto its side, rolled to the floor and shattered, mingling its fragments with those of the matching pot.
In shocked silence, Célestine Vaurien stared at the shut door, grateful the butler had made himself scarce and so not witnessed more of her humiliation. She’d been no happier than her husband to be banished to this wild place, though she thought it cruel of her father-in-law to include his son’s new wife in Étienne’s sentence. To be in a foreign country was bad enough. To be in a foreign country and married to someone whom she’d hated from that first intimate touch was sheer torture.
She’d forced herself to tolerate her husband because he was the only person she knew in Port Bayou St. Jean. Even after seven years, she’d not allowed herself to become acquainted with any of their neighbors, considering all beneath her station and therefore not worthy of her association. There were few females, other than slaves, tavern wenches and whores. The men were mostly traders, trappers, and mountain men, with a rare noble appearing here and there among the buckskins and coonskin caps, and even those had mostly gone indigène. She had comforted herself that at least Étienne clung to more civilized styles of clothing, though he did resort to wearing buckskins and homespun when he went hunting. True gentility was few and far between and though those few tried to stick together, Célestine wanted nothing to do with any of them, for this new and untamed land seemed to bring out an uncivilized streak in every one. Now it appeared she would be forced to do so, or spend the rest of her days in this house served by people as much enslaved as she.
How ironic that she’d once been so eager to marry Étienne and become Vicountess Vaurien. His good looks and his pale green eyes, the reason for his sobriquet, Le Peridot, had dazzled her. That enchantment died the moment he touched her in lust. If only they were back in France, she wouldn’t fight their separation at all.
I’ll show you. I’ll survive without you. I’ll make friends here. I’ll take a lover. As if he’d care. Even now, he was probably laughing over her plight and guzzling wine, or licking it off the tits of some dusky harlot at that place he frequented. She was certain that was where he’d been heading. L’Hirondelle Blanche, The White Swallow, the most popular brothel in Port Bayou St. Jean.
Bah. Let him. She had a plan. I’ll have my revenge. To do that, she’d better hurry. Étienne’s ship was to leave at dawn and, because of their argument, that was now not very many hours away.
This has to work, she thought as she hurried up the stairs. If not… Well, she wouldn’t think about that. Wouldn’t even consider failure. Please, God, don’t let that old woman have been lying. Give me my revenge. I deserve it.
Étienne’s sexual preferences, and their accompanying excesses were the cause of his banishment. He gave out the excuse that his Ice Queen of a wife had driven him to the forbidden sampling of male delights but, in truth, he’d dabbled in the stream before he was wed, though it had been a bare dip of his curious tool into those dark waters. Marrying Célestine merely gave him free rein to fling himself bodily into the ocean of sin, only to find himself, once he surfaced, sailing as far from France as possible.
The future marquis had soon found his own particular niche in the little tavern serving as a congregating place for most of the men in the area, whether of noble birth or otherwise. Unlike his wife, he found them agréable and sympathique, in spite of their rough demeanors. Many were in the same position as he, exiles from their homelands. The traders and trappers coming through stopped there, as well as some adventurous Americans from the English colonies further east and north. It was generally the place everyone frequented before moving on to l’Hirondelle Blanche, the town’s first, and some considered best, brothel.
Both establishments were little more than shanties. At the tavern, travelers might sleep, at the whorehouse one could get a lay or something quicker with a modicum of privacy. L’Hirondelle Blanche was run by Madame Geneviéve, who was white, though most of her girls and boys were mulatto or quadroon, products of slave-owner misalliances whom she’d purchased specifically to fill her aspiring bordello.
Since he’d never bedded anyone of color, the vicomte had been hesitant to go there but then asked himself, what choice do I have? He was well aware touching one of his slaves would precipitate an ugly scene with his wife and he wished as little to do with her as possible, even if it were merely a verbal confrontation. Out of necessity, and because the idea suddenly had very much appeal, he discovered that the feel of cream-colored or deep chocolate flesh drove all thought of paler skin from his mind, until he met Geneviéve herself, that is.
Now, while he might sample others from time-to-time, he remained remarkably faithful to the madame.
Having made the best of a very bad situation, Étienne come to tolerate this wild country much better than he did his wife but now, he was soon to be rid of both, or so he thought. He had no idea of the revenge his wife was even then plotting, indeed, had been since she learned of the letter informing him of his father’s death and his inheritance.
After seven years, Étienne Vaurien and his wife were still childless, and that was part of the enmity between them. Célestine told herself if she’d had even one child, life with Étienne would’ve been bearable. She could’ve lost herself in the loving and raising of her offspring to the exclusion of her husband. Of course, she would hope for a daughter. She had no desire for Étienne to reproduce himself, and didn’t even care that the title might go to some other family member or the bloodline would be considered dead if there were no son to inherit. A female child could be molded and shaped to become an ally in her war against her husband.
As Fate would have it, however, there was no child, either male or female, so the couple’s hatred for each other continued to fester. It came to an exploding head on the eve of their third wedding anniversary. With the announcement, “I’ll not subject my yard to another night of frostbite by plunging it into your frigid depths! If I got a brat on you, it’d probably be born frozen solid!” Étienne abandoned all hopes of an heir. Rising from his marriage-bed, he dressed, and stormed from the house, first to the tavern where he drank himself into the initial stages of drunkenness, then to l’Hirondelle Blanche, ordering Geneviéve to bring him first a pretty girl, then a pretty boy, to celebrate his formal freedom from his marital slavery.
Célestine accepted that with barely hidden joy. No longer did she have to dread that knock upon her bedchamber door, the sight of her husband’s naked body, or the assaults upon her own. She considered herself just as free as he, even if nowhere as liberated sexually. She took no lovers though she doubted if her husband would’ve raised an eyebrow if she had. Indeed, among the men she considered acceptable there wasn’t one she would’ve allowed into her bed because the idea of intimacy sickened her. She was shed of Étienne’s duty-required attention, and she was happy.
And then, two months before, she’d had a sudden idea, one might almost call it a brain-storm. She wanted a child. Having reached the age of twenty-four, she supposed she had mellowed a little. Étienne had also matured, from a callow but well-appointed youth into a startlingly handsome twenty-six-year-old, and Célestine looked at him as if she’d never seen him before. When had he become this beautiful creature?
Abruptly, and desperately, she wished to reconcile with her husband… and give him, give both of them, the life they deserved. If the old Marquis learned he had a grandson, surely he’d believe his son had mended his errant ways, and welcome him back.
She would give her husband a son, Célestine decided, cement their bond once and for all, and ensure their passage back to civilization. But how to make certain the child, when it was conceived, would indeed be the desired heir?
She thought she had the answer.
She knew the slaves had their own religion and Étienne allowed them its practice because it kept them happy and less apt to try to run away. Now, she delved further into what had been, until that moment, something unknown and a little frightening. Célestine learned what her husband had no care to know, of the obeah-woman called Maman Lusa, and what she could do.
Unlike the other people of color in Nouvelle-Orléans and its surrounds, Maman Lusa was no one’s property, though none dared demand to see her freedom papers. The slaves went to her for spiritual guidance, though they gave lip-service to the God their masters forced them to worship. They looked to her to heal their illnesses, and make them potions and conjure up protections, and their owners ignored it because they’d seen enough examples of the old woman’s power not to want to cross her.
So, one night, while Étienne was carousing with his friends at the crossroads tavern, his wife took herself into the bayou.
Accompanied by her maid with one of the houseservants poling the pirogue, she braved the swamp’s gator-infested waters to reach the hut where the old obeah-woman lived. It was deep in the bayou’s interior, where trees huddled together on the water-logged banks, stretching their moss-laden branches over the water. Mosquitos swarmed the river’s surface in seething clouds, warning of their malaria-ridden bites with loud hums. Angelique, Célestine’s maid, hadn’t wanted to go and neither had Daniel, the houseservant she’d chosen to guide the way. She’d heard Daniel was knowledgeable of le voudou, but it had taken threats to get him to agree. Apparently, he feared Maman Lusa more than he did the whip.
Nevertheless, he was now at the stern of the boat, stabbing the pole into the mist-enshrouded water and pushing the pirogue forward. The lantern, fastened to a pothook at the stem, cast a feeble, wavering glow over the opaque surface, reflecting back as if from black glass.
“Theah…” Daniel pointed.
Something appeared in the gloom. A whitish oval. As they glided closer, Célestine saw it was a skull, spiked to an overhanging branch. The pirogue approached the bank, passing directly under the tree. The lantern’s light flickered and reflected, making shadows within the empty eye-sockets, so the skull seemed to watch her as they floated past.
The pirogue’s prow struck the bank. With the rough impact, Célestine clutched at the seat, nearly losing her balance. Daniel clambered out, stepping onto the shore. There was a soft, sucking sound as his feet sank into the water-soaked soil. He wrapped a rope around the tree’s trunk, making it secure, then turned to offer his hand to Celestine who was standing and wavering slightly as the current caused the boat to shift. “M’Lady?”
Gathering her shawl more tightly around her, which was awkward because of the bag she carried, she was grateful that for once, she’d accepted Angelique’s suggestion and brought the covering as protection against the mosquitos. She reached out and grasped the slave’s hand. As she stepped from boat to land, however, a loud boom! rent the air, seeming to come from the farther shore.
“W-what was that?” Célestine gasped. Daniel’s other hand under her elbow steadied her.
“’Tis only a bull ’gator, ma’am,” Angelique reassured. “They won’ bothuh us. Them crittuhs don’ dare swim t’ Maman Lusa’s side o’ th’ river.”
Not answering, Célestine allowed herself to be pulled to safety, then waited while Daniel helped Angelique and took the lantern from the hook, and lead the way. She could barely see where they were going, wondered how he could be so certain of where to walk in this place where she’d been told a misstep could land one in a pool of quicksand or a morass of swamp grasses or, even worse, a bed of half-submerged logs suddenly revealing themselves to be sleeping alligators.
At that thought, she nearly changed her mind. She was preparing to tell Daniel she wanted to go back, when the image of herself holding a child, black-haired and green-eyed like its father, swept into her mind. Pressing her lips together, she followed the slave, her tread abruptly determined.
When he stopped, she looked around, demanding, “What is it?”
“This fah as ah go, m’Lady. You go on by yo’se’f.” He held out the lantern. In its dim light, she could tell by his expression that nothing she said, no threat, would make him budge past this point. Behind her, Angelique crept to his side.
“Very well. Just be sure you’re here when I get back.” It sounded like a bluster and she was certain both knew it. What could she do if they decided to bolt, either running away or returning to the plantation? She wouldn’t be able to find her way out alone. They could say they had no idea where she was and Étienne certainly wouldn’t care. Indeed, he’d probably be happy if she disappeared.
She had to accept that as his promise to remain, so Célestine took the lantern, grimacing slightly as the iron ring of its handle grated against her hand. It was heavy. She had difficulty holding it aloft.
Angelique had told her Maman Lusa’s cabin was only a few yards from the riverbank. She hoped that was true. Already the marshy soil was ruining her slippers, mud smearing the thin leather soles, bits of grass clinging to the delicate morocco-leather uppers. She’d have to get rid of them after this. They’d undoubtedly be ruined beyond repair.
Ahead, a shape loomed. Célestine raised the lantern higher and saw a small log hut. Smoke wisped from the chimney. A little open square cut into the rough-planked wall served as a paneless window, light glowing through the blanket hanging over it. Taking a deep breath, she tightened her grip on her shawl and stepped up to the door.
Her tap was timid.
“Who’s dat?” It was a quavery, elderly voice, but one still speaking with authority.
“I-It’s Célestine Vaurien.” For a moment her voice wavered, then she remembered what Angelique had said. Speak t’ her wit’ respec’, ma’am, but don’ sho’ no fear. “May I come in?”
“Doah ain’ locked. Enter, chile.”
It had been a long time since anyone had called her child, especially in a tone bordering on gentleness. That shook her slightly.
“Leave yo’ lantern outside an’ come in.”
Obediently, Célestine set the lantern by the door. The iron ring left rusty flakes on her palm. Brushing her hands together, she seized the loop of rope hanging through the hole in the door and jerked it upward.
The door swung open, and she went inside.
The cabin was small, surely not more than eight feet square. A fire burned in the brick chimney built into the back wall. There was a pothook driven into the hearth floor, an open kettle hanging from it. Something was cooking inside. She could hear it bubbling, saw spatters leaping into the flames, making it spark and sizzle. She also saw a table with a group of objects set upon it, and a cot covered with a couple of quilts. In front of the cot was a small rocking chair, and in the chair sat Maman Lusa.
She was nothing like Célestine expected. She’d thought to see some majestic giantess, but the old woman was small, almost wizened, and dressed in the same style of clothing as the houseservants, though the garments she wore were worn and faded and had been patched many times. Her head was swathed in a multi-colored turban hiding her hair but not the huge golden hoops adorning her ears. Maman Lusa wasn’t as dark as most of the slaves on the plantation and her high cheekbones and the coppery tinge of her skin made Célestine realize she truly must not have come from the same place as the others, wherever that might be. It never occurred to her to wonder where any of the people her husband owned originated, nor did she really care. All she worried about was how obedient they were and how they tended to her wants and needs.
“Come in, Madame Vaurien.” Eyes black and beady as a bird’s regarded her from a wrinkled face. They weren’t servile eyes, however, and that also made Célestine realize this woman was different from her slaves. “Ah been expectin’ yo’.”
“H-how could you know I was coming here?” She didn’t stop to think that Daniel or Angelique had probably warned the old woman.
“Ah knows thin’ lak thet.” Her eyes twinkled. She reached down and picked up a small earthen pot sitting by the chair, spat a brown stream of snuff into it and set it down again. Célestine forced herself not to gag. “Ah also knows yo’ had a grievance ’gainst yo’ husban’ but lat’ly yo’ changed yo’ min’.”
“If you know that much, then you know what I wish to do,” Célestine emboldened herself to say. She wondered if that would be taken as not showing respect.
Maman Lusa nodded but didn’t answer. A silence fell. When she still didn’t speak, Célestine said, “Well?”
“Tell me ’zactly whut yo’ want, m’Lady,” the old woman said. “Ah knows,” she added quickly as Célestine started to say just that. “But Ah needs t’ hear it plain so they ain’t no mistake in yo’ intent.”
“Very well.” Célestine shifted her weight, suddenly feeling as she had when caught in a lie by her mother. Abruptly, she wanted to run through the door and back into the dark, to the riverbank where she hoped Daniel and Angelique still waited to take her back to the plantation. “I wish…” Suddenly, she couldn’t speak. Why was saying it aloud so difficult? She’d thought it, now she must say it. “I understand you can give me a potion ensuring I’ll be got with child. Can you do it?”
“Ah kin,” came the answer. “Ah needs certain thin’s, though.”
“I’ve everything here.” Célestine released her hold on the shawl to indicate the reticule hanging from her wrist, and the sack clutched in her hand, the sack containing the things Daniel had told her to bring.
Daniel also told her she had to give Maman Lusa gifts. Obeah-women couldn’t accept money for their work and, living in the swamp, what would she do with it, anyway?
She offered the small, coarsely-woven sack, only to have it snatched out of her hand. The contents were removed and laid upon the table…a tin of snuff, a silver knife, fork, and spoon, their handles inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a woolen shawl, three small, fresh peaches.
The snuff was placed on the table, the shawl tossed onto the bed. Maman Lusa took out the peaches, holding one to her nose and sniffing loudly at the rich, sweet smell before laying each beside the snuff tin. The eating utensils were thrown back into the sack and returned to her. “Cain’t use them. Whut I need silver fuh? ’Cept t’ be ’cused o’ stealin’ it?”
“I-I’m sorry,” Célestine said. “I-I didn’t think…”
“No nevuh mind. Othuh thin’s all right. ’preciate all ’em.” With that statement, the unborn child’s fate was decided. A gnarled, dark hand shot out, palm up. “Now, give me whut I asked fuh.”
Pulling the loop of her reticule from her wrist, Célestine placed the little purse on the old woman’s palm. Maman Lusa dropped it into her lap and again reached for the spit-jar. Another splash of snuff landed inside. “Got some questions. You answer true.” She pulled open the purse, taking out the items.
“What do you wish to know?”
“Yo’ courses. When you have th’ last’un?”
“Nearly a month ago.” She felt the heat of a blush sweep through her. That was something she’d never discussed with anyone, except the first time it happened. She’d informed her mother, who gave her the abbreviated explanation that now she was truly a woman and could suffer the Curse of Eve as well as the pain of childbirth along with the rest of womankind. She told herself the old woman needed to know that, of course, but it still embarrassed her to speak it.
“You reg’lar? No skippin’ heah an’ theah?” she persisted.
Célestine shook her head. “As clockwork.” That was one thing she’d always been able to count on, and had come to welcome because during those times, Étienne avoided not only her bed but also her company.
The items were spread in Maman Lusa’s lap now and Célestine wondered again why she needed such things.
There was a lock of her hair, as well as one of Étienne’s, gleaming coal-black in contrast to her own blonde. It had taken an effort to get that single curl. She didn’t dare trust Etienne’s valet, since he’d been her husband’s domestique longer than she’d been his wife. Flaubert was more of a cohort than a servant, anyway. So, she instructed the slave who swept the floor after the valet trimmed his master’s hair, to filch one perfect dark curl and bring it to her.
There was also a swatch of fabric cut from her last menstrual cloth. Unwashed, the stain was a dark brown, almost black, like a banner screaming her childlessness. There were two other pieces of fabric, a small napkin which, following Angelique’s instructions, she’d rubbed into the neglected crevice between her thighs, and the cut-away crotch from a pair of Étienne’s smallclothes, befouled with a smear from his cock.
Maman Lusa’s hand hovered over the items before selecting the napkin. “Git me thet li’l
blue jug.” She gestured toward a rough-hewn shelf nailed to the wall.
Célestine retrieved the jug and brought it back. The old woman uncorked it, stuck a forefinger inside and brought it out with a minute touch of white powder resting on its tip. Holding up the napkin, she rubbed the powder into the stain with her forefinger.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, slowly, the spot on the cloth began to change color, turning a bright blood-red.
“Huh.” That was all Maman Lusa said. She set the cloth down, picking up the swatch from Étienne’s underdrawers. She repeated the procedure with the same result. The smear of the Marquis’ spill also turned a red just as fresh-looking.
“What does that prove?” Célestine was unable to keep quiet any longer. “What does it mean?”
“It mean both yo’ an’ you’ husban’ got nothing t’ stop yo’ from havin’ a chile togethuh,” came the answer. “Now, p’tite, yo’ fetch me thet black jug offen th’ shelf an’ I make it happen.”
So Célestine got the other jug and watched as Maman Lusa cut a swatch from the blood-
stained cloth, placed it and the two locks of hair, plus the two red spots from the pieces of fabric into a small iron pot.
“You want a son?”
Célestine nodded, realizing she’d forgotten to say that. Oh, yes, she wanted a son. An heir was very necessary for her plan.
From the jug, Maman Lusa took something flat and dried and broke it into fragments.
“Dried fig. Guarontee t’ make boy-chile.”
Then, she took some of the things from the table, added them, struck flint to steel and made a spark incinerating everything in the pot. She extinguished the fire with a hearty splash of a dark liquid.
“This bullace wine,” she explained as she stirred the liquid into the ashes with her forefinger. “Made myse’f.” There was a small pottery bottle on the little table. She gestured at it and Célestine handed it to her, holding her breath as the old woman tilted the pot. Pouring the ash-filled wine into the jug, she pushed a cork into the mouth with a slap of her palm. “There!”
She held out the jug to Célestine who took it as gingerly as if she were accepting a small coiled snake.
“Evuh day fuh th’ nex’ month, yo’ drink two ’spoonsful o’ this elixir in a goblet o’ wine. Then wait ’til th’ nite yo’ want to make thet baby, an’ drink the res’.” The toothless mouth twisted into what might be a smile. “I guarontee you git th’ chile you want.”
“Merci, Maman Lusa.” Clutching the jug and the sack to her breast, Célestine turned toward the open door. Now that she had what she’d come for, she wanted to leave as fast as she could. It was all she could do to keep from breaking into a run.
“One thin’, p’tite,” the quavering voice stopped her escape.
She looked back.
“A warnin’…this ain’t gon’ turn out lak yo’ want, an’ nuthin’ lak you expec’. Doin’ som’thin’s fuh th’ wrong reason nevuh come out right. Whut yo’ plan t’ do caint help but be tragedy fuh ever-one.”
“Let me worry about that.” Célestine gave her a tremulous smile. Then she picked up the lantern and disappeared into the dark.
“Revenge a two-headed snake, p’tite.” Maman Lusa muttered as she hobbled to the door and pulled it shut. It might bite the one deserving it but it also sank its fangs into anyone else close by, harming the innocent as well as the guilty.
Célestine faithfully following Maman Lusa’s instructions, drinking the potion every night just before she went to bed. The first time, she’d done it hesitantly. However, she suffered no ill effects. Indeed, if anything, she felt remarkably invigorated afterward.
Her only problem was getting Étienne into bed, for he now avoided her with the skill of long practice and was generally out of the house before she rose in the morning and didn’t return until she’d fallen asleep at night. Even on those evenings when she fought to stay awake and wait for him, rehearsing what she was going to say and do to convince him to come to her chamber, he still managed to stay away until she fell into an exhausted sleep.
Nevertheless, fortified by the potion, and her determination, she was confident she would eventually succeed…until three weeks before.
Then the Nymphe de Danse dropped anchor in the bay and the captain sought out Étienne. A message of some import, he said, from his father’s administrateur. She wasn’t told what was in the letter, but suddenly Étienne was even more absent than usual, and it was only by chance that she learned he’d booked passage on the Nymphe de Danse for its return voyage. Passage for one, plus his valet.
He planned to return to France and leave her behind, and she had no recourse to stop him.
He’s abandoning me to face this terrible place. Alone.
It came to her then that she should’ve gone to the old woman sooner, before Étienne’s father died, before he abandoned their marriage-bed. Then perhaps he’d be making arrangements to take her back with him. Perhaps things might’ve been different between them. If she’d given him a son. But she hadn’t and it wasn’t, and that was neither here nor there since it was past and couldn’t be undone.
Now, Étienne was leaving and she still hadn’t been bedded.
And so Célestine plotted her revenge…
She just hoped she had enough time to put it into effect.
This had better work, she said to herself as, aided by the footman’s hand, she climbed into the
coach. If it didn’t…she’d go back to Maman Lusa and kill the old crone. I didn’t dose myself with that foul-tasting concoction for all that time for it to fail.
It was a plan born out of desperation and the fact that this was her last chance. Within a few hours, the tide would turn and she’d be stranded here. Perhaps that thought snapped the last strand of her sanity, for truly what she was planning could only be described as the scheme of a madwoman.
Nevertheless, she was determined to carry it through, if possible, and it would be, if she could get the madame to help her. She was dressed and ready. The driver was white and an employed servant, and he’d argued when she gave him her destination, but he knew better than to protest too much. After a threat of dismissal without character, he gathered the reins, snapped the whip over the horses’ backs and headed the team for the back entrance to l’Hirondelle Blanche.
Initially, Madame Genevieve was aghast, then contemptuous of her plan. “You wish to take one of my girls’ place and be bedded by your husband? Here? Why?”
“It’s none of your business why,” Célestine retorted. “I’m offering you money for the privilege. He’ll give you money, also. You’ll profit twice from the deal.”
“Nevertheless, I know how he feels about you, Madame. He’s made no secret of it, and I know you feel the same way about him, so why do you wish to…”
“Why are you arguing?” Célestine interrupted. “He’s deserting you just as much as he is me. Why should you protect him?”
“What do you mean, protect him?” Genevieve asked, frowning. She’d been Etienne’s lover since the night he abandoned his wife’s bed and she didn’t want to be reminded he was leaving. “Protect him from what?”
“From his just desserts,” Célestine replied. “Don’t you want revenge, also? Surely you aren’t such a fool you’re going to continue to love him while he frolics in la belle France with who knows how many other harlots?” She laughed. “Think what an exact punishment this will be. Think how he’ll feel when he learns.”
“Are you so confident he’ll find out?”
“He’ll find out, all right,” came the answer with cold certainty. “I’ll make sure of that.”
Genevieve faced the truth, admitting it was a very good plan. She ushered Madame Vaurien into one of the curtained-off stalls to help her prepare for her husband’s arrival.
When Étienne arrived from the tavern, more than a little drunk from his companions’ envious farewell, and calling for Madame’s presence, he was told Genevieve was indisposed. He’d expected that. She’d been pouting since he told her he was leaving. He was also informed that all the others poules and boy-whores were busy, but there was a new girl and he would be the privileged bon homme to be her first customer.
Célestine, in the meantime, had fortified herself with much wine, for she was now having second thoughts. She was certain Étienne would see through her disguise and humiliate her even more by exposing her then and there and letting everyone in the place know her identity.
She needn’t have worried. The ale he’d consumed, the black wig hiding her blonde hair, as well as the dim light, prevented him from recognizing his own wife. She greeted him at the little cell’s door wearing only a black domino and a welcoming smile. His response to that little bit of theatricality was an expression of desire such as she’d never before seen on her husband’s handsome face. For just a moment, her anger blazed white-hot as she realized he was giving it to one he thought a whore.
Sweeping her into his arms, he carried her to the bare mattress resting on the dirt floor, left her long enough to shed his own garments and then lay down beside her. Remembering their usual comings-together, Célestine tensed, expecting the nearly non-existent foreplay and then the violent, painful thrusts. Étienne surprised her with his gentleness and sensual, prolonged lovemaking.
As he enthusiastically suckled her nipples, biting them gently so they peaked into desire-filled points, a whimper of sheer pleasure escaped her lips. Aided by the inhibition-dulling alcohol and the last of Maman Lusa’s potion, she felt flames exploding inside her, encircling her core, filling her entire body with a glorious arousing heat. She cradled his dark head against her breast, caressing the thick locks with frantic fingers. As he nibbled a trail of kisses down her belly she found herself responding as she never had before, though she told herself it was because she was now playing a role. Tonight, I’m not his wife, I’m his whore. When he entered her, instead of her wishing he’d spend himself and finish quickly, his deep thrusts and slow withdrawals swept her into a stream of ecstasy she’d never before experienced. With small cries and sobs, she begged him for more.
It was only as he groaned aloud his petit-mort and collapsed against her that she realized he had, for the only time during their marriage, brought her to climax. She’d actually enjoyed their entire coming-together, and briefly, she clung to him, not wanting him to leave. In a scant hour her husband had melted her ice-encrusted heart. The Ice Queen was no more, and abruptly, the thought came, Why couldn’t it always have been like this?
Too late now, of course.
Once more dressed and preparing to depart, Étienne kissed her hands and pressed a gold Louis into her palm. “Cherie, je tiens, que je n’avais pas de vous laisser. Vous me plu comme aucune autre.”
My dear, I wish I didn’t have to leave you. You’ve pleased me as no other. Words she’d always wanted to hear him say, and now he said them to one he thought a quarteronne poule.
She allowed herself a moment’s regret. Quelling the desire to confess, she let him go.
In the morning, the Nymph de Danse sailed for France with le Marquis Delafée aboard.
Four weeks later, la Marquise Delafée was informed by her private physician that she was, indeed, en ciente.
Nine months after that, la Marquise was delivered of a healthy, squalling son. She took one look at him and laughed and the sound wasn’t a pretty one, holding grim satisfaction, rather than joy.
That same evening, a wicker basket was left on the doorstep of the back entrance of l’Hirondelle Blanche. It contained a sleeping male child, a letter, and a medallion on a gold chain. Accompanying it was a sheet of paper, saying simply, “As we agreed…”