Celestine went to hitch the buggy, a job she could do… but hated. It could get messy, and dirt was always coming from somewhere to find a home on her skirts. She stepped through the courtyard into the carriageway and Josef was waiting with her Phaeton and her beautiful bay; an early birthday gift from Maurice, and the bay was prancing and ready to go.
“Josef, thank you. You don’t have to wait on me. I can fend for myself.” She didn’t even know how to treat these people who had only known bondage. She was glad he was there though. Josef helped her into the rear seat of the little sports buggy.
“Josef, I don’t think I can manage the reins from back here.”
“No, Mme. Dubois, I’ll drive. Captain says I’ll drive.” He would never understand why Papa Maurice chose this silly woman.
Celestine had to do something soon. She was in ignorance here. She would allow him to drive her this one time. Maybe she could hire them as servants; after all if they were to be les gen de couleur Libres, they would need work, and she would be needing servants. She liked not having to deal with anything in the stables, and her cooking was lacking in many areas. Colette was the cook, Celestine was the seamstress.
She told Josef where she was going and he headed toward River Road. Miles later they reached the new house sitting back from the river, and were amazed at how beautiful it was. She felt like she was coming home. Josef drove up to the stairs of the big gallery and Pierre came down to greet them.
“Josef, so glad you found us, little brother.” He grabbed Josef and gave him a big bear hug. He helped Celestine from the carriage and pointed Josef around to the back and the stables. Celestine waited for the Phaeton to go around the house before she turned to Pierre.
“You knew about him and Marguerite?” She was finding out a lot about this man and his Captain.
“Of course, didn’t Maurice tell you about his two favorite “slaves”? He laughed.
Celestine was incredulous. She ran up the stairs calling for Colette before Pierre could stop her.
“What’s going on down here?” Colette was gliding down the grand staircase, the perfect lady of the manner holding Letty in her arms.
“Did you know Maurice owned slaves? Children, Colette? He bought children in Haiti and now they are in New Orleans, and I am to deal with them and… God only knows how many others he may own.”
Pierre ran up the stairs trying to stop her from running away with her crazy ideas.
“Calm down, darling. It’s not as it seems. He bought them from the hangman’s noose and brought them here to save their lives.”
“What?” She was more confused, “If he saved their lives, why’re they still slaves, ten years gone?”
“Pierre, explain to our dear, Celestine. She’s worried that she’s now a slave owner. They aren’t slaves, dear.”
Pierre was not comfortable with this. Maurice should have told her before he left. He didn’t like getting between a man and his wife with intimate details of their lives. To tell his Colette was one thing, a man often confided things in his wife, but to tell another man’s wife about her husband’s past was just not done.
“It’s not for me to tell, Colette. Just suffice it to say, Celestine, they are not now nor will they ever be slaves.”
“But, I’ve seen the bill of sale. I gave it to our lawyer.”
“WHAT… YOU DID WHAT? Woman, when are you going to learn to trust your husband and not go off on your own before you know the facts?”
Pierre was running around the back calling for Jake to saddle his horse. He yelled to Josef to hide until he came back and not to show himself to anyone. He told the women not to betray Josef no matter who asked for him. Celestine and Colette were left holding on to each other, and wondering what the hell she had done this time that was so wrong. They watched as Pierre pushed his horse to its limits down the drive and onto River Road.
Maurice was back into his memories again as the storm raged outside. He was remembering the second time he saw Anna. He had not wanted to go back to her, but once he was in port again, he could not stay away. He had mellowed toward her over his last few months at sea, and thought of her often. He was still afraid to touch any of the women or wharf whores his friends found so amusing. He knew himself, and he knew he would hurt them ,or not be aroused by them, and be labeled a woman in man’s breeches. He walked into the market in the big square and she was there, sitting under a Pomegranate tree as if waiting for him. She smiled with her arms open when she saw him, and held him tightly, not letting him go until he finally put his arms around her.
Anna could feel how glad part of him was to see her. She walked with him back to her little house, and he was surprised to see, the house was waiting for him with something cooking on the little fire in the back. It made the lonely and homeless Maurice feel welcomed for the first time since leaving his mother when he was a boy. She gave him a drink of her fine rum, and he sat in the big chair as she took his boots off. She pulled his shirt over his head and sat in front of him massaging his feet and cooing her happiness at his return. He was happy for a few seconds, and then the old anger crept in and he looked down at this woman who knew nothing about him or his disgusting soul. How horrible and dirty she must be to find him loveable.
Anna looked at his angry face. He was frightening her with his hatred. Maybe she had mistaken this young man for a savable soul. She had been wrong before. But this young man was different from the unsavable ones, he had such sweet eyes, and she had seen good things in his palm. She would weather the storm and see where it went. She took his hands in hers and brought them up to her lips and kissed his palms.
“Oh darling, you’ve been hurt in your life. Let me love you.”
“How much?” He was staring at her; his jaw muscles about to break his teeth. He wanted to leave, needed to leave, or he would hurt her; but he wanted her to finish what she had started.
“I told you, I’m not for sale. I just want to hold you.”
“You want to hold me? I don’t want to be held, by you or anyone else. What kind of game is this? Where’s your daughter? Huh? She with your mama while you’re… ‘working’? Tell me, Anna, why shouldn’t I pay you? I paid you last time. You took the money, right? You took the money?” He was getting to the point of no return when the evil takes over and he has no choice but to follow; he had felt it before, and like the dope fiends in the brothels, he would do anything to have his ‘fix’ and release the anger. She walked over to the mantle and pulled the coins out of the little box where he left them. She opened her palm and let them fall to his feet. How dare she, that is disrespectful, she’s asking for it. He picked her up by her shoulders and threw her onto the bed. She was a dirty whore and he would have her as a dirty whore, and if she had any self-respect, she would fight him off and throw him out. He had gone too far, he knew he was about to rape this woman and hurt her… but he couldn’t stop. The knowledge of what he was doing made him angrier still, and hate himself to the core; but still he could not stop. She raked his face with her nails, and he backhanded her onto the bed grabbing her blouse, ripping it open. He had a knee between her legs, opening them in spite of her, and he hit her again. He felt his fist in the flesh of her face, and hit her again as he struggled with his breeches... then he felt the blade in his side and felt the warm blood collecting in his clothes. She had stabbed him. He fell back onto the floor holding his side and watching the blood seep through his fingers. He saw his breeches were down and his flaccid penis was lying across his groin. He had reached hell and crossed a line into pure evil, and turned into the very man who had raped him years before. He hoped and prayed to die.
Maurice awakened in a filthy jail in Port-au-Prince. His side hurt and there was dried blood on a dirty bandage wrapped around his waist. If this was death, he was in hell where he belonged. He groggily realized he had become his own most hated enemy. The man he hated for so long had taken his soul. A kind Priest was standing next to his bed with a bowl of warm soapy water.
“Lie quietly, my son. This will hurt, but we have to clean your wound, again.”
“I don’t deserve to be cleaned, Father.” He began to cry like the broken child he was.
“We all deserve to be clean, my son. Anna has come to take you home. Will you go with her and behave, or should she keep the knife by her side?” Maurice had to take this in. She was coming to take him ‘home’. Surely the Priest would not let him go back to the place where he tried to rape a woman… to her very house? She deserved to kill him.
“No, Father I’ll go to my ship.” Yes, the safety of the sea, he thought. The mistress who could kill without pain, just a few strong intakes of her salty elixir and you could rest in her arms for eternity, peaceful, with no anger or fear.
“Your ship has sailed, my son. You’ve been here for three days. You need to heal… you almost died. You still need to be tended.”
He had to go back to her as he had no other place to go. His money was with his things on the sailing ship, and his clothes were full of dried blood. Besides, he deserved her knife for what he had done.
Anna was holding the door when Father Jerome walked him in and helped him into bed. Her little girl peeked around the corner of the little kitchen to see the man her mama stabbed. The neighbor children told Anna Marie about the night the constable had come and taken the young man to prison.
Maurice had so much he wanted to say to Anna. He wanted to beg her forgiveness, and tell her about his past and how he hated himself for what he had become. He just didn’t know where to start. When a boy is raped as Maurice had been, it could either destroy him slowly, or it could make a dangerous warrior to be feared, yet honored, as with his little friend Andy Jackson from the prison ship. He realized he would never be a great soldier, and it was up to God to keep him from destroying himself, and others.
Anna walked over to the bed and began to undress him and take his dirty clothes. She brought a bowl of hot water with good smelling sandalwood soap, and began to bathe his tired bruised body. Her face had a huge bruise where his fist caught her under the eye, and another one on her beautiful cheek. He wanted to die from shame. There were bruises under her arms and around her neck, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to bear the disgust he was feeling for himself.
“Why don’t you throw me to the gutter, Anna? You and I both know that’s where I should live.” He was not looking for sympathy. He had never been more honest, or serious, in his life.
She put the wet, bloody cloth back in the bowl, and picked up his hand. She opened his palm and followed the lines with her fingers.
“This tells me who you are. You’re not the man who hurt you… you’re only a product of that hurt. You’re good and you want to be kind, you just don’t know how. You think he touched you because you weren’t worth anything. The kindness you showed to your friends in killing the man and helping them escape will come back to you in the future and will change history.
“Yes, little Andy and John and the other boys you saved. You have a happy life ahead of you, mon ami.” She looked deep into his eyes. How did she know his past, maybe she could read his damned hand after all? How did she know about Andy and John? No one could have told her these things about him. As far as living a happy life, she was clearly mistaken.
“That man is now dead in you… I killed him with my knife, just as you did.” She reached over and kissed him sweetly on the lips, and he wanted to hold her, but his side hurt, and he could not stand being that close to the bruises he caused on her face. She took his face in her hands and stared into his eyes, and his soul, and whispered.
“It wasn’t your fault what that man did to you.” She waited for his reaction. But he had none to give; no one ever said that to him, he had not even said the words to himself… and certainly never felt them.
“It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.” Her whispers were a balm to his soul. “It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault.”
Maurice began to feel his muscles relax, and his soul moving and stirring... and relief, began to flood over him. He could see the sun coming in through the window, and a breeze catching the little curtain, he had not even realized it was day.
“It wasn’t your fault...” She was still whispering the mantra in his ear and around his head and into his heart.
“Say it, my darling.”
“It wasn’t my fault… it wasn’t my fault… it wasn’t my fault.” Tears were coming out of his eyes wetting his cheeks… and his nose was beginning to run. The muscles in his legs were relaxing and his mind was uncoiling. He saw smoky black anger rising from his being as from an evil fire. Some ugliness burst in his head, and the poison was being drained from the terrible infection in his memory. He was breathing deeper than he had in years and he was seeing the bruises on her face as talismans for her martyrdom… she had given herself for the safety of all women, from this boy who had been broken by a horrible man. She was his savior, and he would cherish her and protect her for the rest of his life. He knew it, down where he was too young to know, he knew it.
He gently touched her bruised face.
“These are my fault though, Anna and I’m so sorry.” She kissed his hand and continued his bath. She had gotten through to him, and she could relax. No woman would ever need a knife around him again. He let her finish his bath, and then he cried himself to sleep. Maurice was learning to live with the newly found freedom from the fear and anger that had been his jailors. It would take time and the anger would reappear, but it was well on its way to leaving him to God. He was up and about within a few days and his love for Anna was sweet and grateful. He would miss her on the long nights at sea, but he would be back, Anna was becoming… home. He hired on with a merchant ship leaving port going back to New Orleans and was very glad to be at sea again. He wanted to breathe the salt air, and feel the wind; taking it into his clean soul… and sail into his new life.
Maurice was awakened from his memory by a jolt from a bad wave, said a prayer of thanks for Anna, and continued his love letter to Celestine. Pierre went straight to the lawyer’s office.
“I’m sorry M. David, it had to be done. The girl is wanted for a brutal murder. I couldn’t leave her to roam the streets of New Orleans and murder another innocent man, now could I? Capt. Dubois will understand when he knows what they did in Haiti. Her brother will be picked up soon.”
“You don’t understand, M. Dubonnet. It was all a misunderstanding. The children are not murderers. Besides, they belong to your client, why would you turn them in?”
“They belong to Mme. Dubois. She has asked for their freedom and I’ve honored that request. You must take it up with her, Capt. David.”
“Where is Marguerite right now?”
“To my knowledge she is resting more comfortably than she deserves in the belly of the Cabildo. Good day, Capt. David.”
Pierre turned back to the lawyer.
“I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, M. Dubonnet when Capt. Dubois knows what you’ve done with his children.”
“What are you saying? These are Capt. Dubois own children? But they are murderers, cut throats?”
“No, M. Dubonnet; they are wrongly accused children of Capt. Dubois and I wouldn’t give a piss of Gulf water for your life once he knows what you’ve wrought.”
“Sit down, Capt. David and tell me everything, and we’ll see if I can reverse this action.
The lawyer knew of men who kept their own bi-racial offspring in bondage; he didn’t understand it, but these were strange times.
Pierre told the lawyer about Maurice and Anna and their long ‘friendship’. He would not mention Maurice’s past, that was for no man to know. He told of Anna and how she had healed a knife wound from an ‘assailant’ on the young Maurice, and saved his life. He told of her little girl, Anna Marie dying in a yellow fever epidemic when she was very small, and how Maurice tried to console her for years until she found, and married, a wonderful man, M. Moreau, who gave her two children; Josef and Marguerite. He told of the tragic death of this fine man, and Maurice taking over the financial responsibility of the two children and their mother.
Once Pierre had M. Dubonnet’s full attention, he told of how Anna was attacked by a young English Sea Captain and the young children, five and seven killed the man to protect their mother. The man’s friends pressed horrible charges against the children, and they were in prison waiting for the hangman’s noose. Captain Maurice Dubois sailed into port and ‘bought’ them from the jailor and hid them aboard his ship, and sailed out the same day. They were raised on board his ship, until they were of an age to stay in port alone. Capt. Dubois carried their forged papers for their own protection against the law. Pierre had seen the wanted posters himself in the ports –of-call around the Atlantic seaports. Maurice was hoping they would be forgotten eventually, but as yet, they were not. For the last five years there had still been sightings of the murderous children, and their black evil hearts… strangely never growing any older in the rumors. Once they became of age, both children had pledged themselves to their ‘step father’ and were his trusted companions and if you will, ‘servants’.
M. Dubonnet was astonished at this horrible news and what his actions may have caused. He had never heard such a story, and he had no idea how to rectify what he and Mme. Dubois had done. He and Pierre went to the magistrate’s office and attempted to get Marguerite released as a case of mistaken identity, but the coup of capturing, and jailing, this young girl was too good for the magistrate to allow her freedom. He fully intended to get her brother and hang them both in the Place d’Armes ,so no other little black bastards would ever think of killing a white man over a whore.
Celestine could not calm down. What had she done that was so terrible? Why was she always in trouble for trying to do the right thing? She sent for Josef, but was told he was nowhere to be found. That was ridiculous, why was he hiding from her? She sent word to the barn that he would not be in trouble if he would just come and speak to her. Petal found him and coaxed him back to talk to Mme. Dubois. Celestine was sitting on a little settee in the main drawing room of the beautiful new home, when Josef entered the room looking around to make sure it was safe.
“Josef, please take a seat.” The young man took a seat nearest a window in case he needed to make a quick exit. He was holding a wrinkled piece of paper. He held it out to her. She took it and continued.
“I’m a kind woman. I don’t believe in slavery. I didn’t know my husband had the inclination to own other human beings, or he and I would’ve come to an understanding before he left. Please be so kind as to tell me why you reject my offer of freedom. If you feel strongly about working for Captain Dubois, I can pay wages, and you and Marguerite can stay on as free people of color.”
“My sister and I aren’t slaves, Mme. Dubois.” Celestine was surprised to hear he spoke as well as any gentleman in any parlor. He must have seen her surprise.
“I found this in my basket, it was under my books.” He pointed to the paper she was holding.
Celestine opened the crumpled letter:
My Wife, or should I say, Tanti ‘Tine,
May I present my wards, or in my heart, my children? The lovely Marguerite, and the handsome Josef. They are as fine as I have told you and are looking forward to meeting you. Please let them help you in any way. They are more than happy to care for you while I’m away. They must not venture far from rue du Maine. Pierre will explain. I’ll not write here, but will allow Pierre to embellish. I hope you will love them as I do. Their mother has been a great friend to me and I owe her my life.
Your loving and devoted husband, M.
“He didn’t tell me. He told me nothing. Tell me now Josef, what was Pierre to tell me?”
“Papa Maurice is a friend of our mother’s and he rescued us from being hanged in Port-au-Prince for a crime, not of our planning, when we were still children. The slave papers are a ruse for our protection from unjust laws.” He was staring at her to see how his news was being received.
“Capt. David has gone to save Marguerite from the same fate if he isn’t too late. We’re still wanted criminals on the Atlantic Sea Coast, Mme. Dubois.”
“Josef, why didn’t you tell me? Why did you wait until now?”
“We’ve never told anyone. Our lives have depended on our secret for years. I thought Papa Maurice would’ve told you about us. His letter says he did.” Josef was afraid he was saying too much.
Celestine was horrified at what she may have done to Maurice’s child. Why had he not warned her? He must have meant to or he would not have put it in the letter. She would have loved to know she had people to care for while he was away. People he loved and trusted who were a part of him and his past; young people of color who called him, “Papa Maurice”.
“I must make this right, Josef. Please saddle a horse for me. I’ll not take the Phaeton and you’d better stay out here.” She found Colette, told her as much as she knew, and asked for a pair of Pierre’s breeches and a shirt. She could not ride properly in a dress and corset. She was not cut out for the lady’s riding habits, and the sidesaddle was just silly and a man’s invention. She was taught how to ride bareback as a wharf orphan, but she preferred a saddle. She had not forgotten how and she enjoyed the feel of the big horse between her legs, and the power it gave her.
On the way down the front stairs she turned to Colette.
“Give me the knife, Sister.” Colette shook her head, Pierre would be mad as hell at what Celestine was doing, if she gave her the knife, he would never forgive his wife.
“Give me ‘MY’ knife, Sister. Don’t challenge me on this, Colette. I have a wrong to right, and if I’m too late it’ll come down bad on my husband, and I won’t have that. Give me my knife.” Colette ran back into the house and came back with the knife.
“Please be careful, my darling. God go with you.” Colette always knew Celestine was much braver than she.
Colette didn’t know this Celestine, however. Her eyes were dark, her voice was lower, and she seemed much older than her years. Colette realized she was talking to the streetwise, wharf rat who bettered her life and soul, but not her self-preservation and fighting spirit. She felt sorry for anyone trying to stop her friend at this point.
Celestine rode down the river road not knowing what she would find but feeling she needed to get Marguerite back up to Colette’s or to the convent, and keep her out of trouble. She had to get things straightened out with M. Dubonnet. She turned onto rue du Maine and saw the constable standing in her carriageway. She rode calmly and quietly into the little stable.
“Bonjour, Monsieur may I help you?” She would not speak until she knew what the hell was going on… maybe she was finally learning to think before acting.
“Bonjour, Mme. Dubois. We’re looking for a slave named Josef. We believe you may know of him?”
“No, I don’t. I gave him his freedom. If that offends you, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe one of God’s children should own another.” She was so calm she made herself nervous.
“If you’ll excuse me, I’ve been riding and I need to freshen and start dinner. Salut, Monsieur.” She walked her horse into the little stable and left him saddled, and walked calmly into her house.
The constable left. She seemed to be telling the truth. He did not understand people who could afford slaves, but not having any. He thought it was the greatest system in the world. He would love to have a couple.
Pierre was sitting calmly in the kitchen waiting for her when she came out of the stable.
“Marguerite is in jail in the Cabildo. I have to get her out.” He said in his best male, authoritarian manner. “You have to help me by staying here and keeping the facade of innocent wife waiting for husband to come sailing in. This is important, Celestine.”
“I know it is, Pierre. I’ll not be blamed for this, damn it. If you or my husband cannot share with me the most important things in his life, how am I to know? Answer me, Pierre? How the bloody hell am I to know.” She pulled her knife out of her waist, glared at a spot directly over his head and threw it so fast he ducked. He heard the rat scream before he turned to see its blood dripping down the old kitchen wall. Pierre’s head reeled. He had never met street wise Celestine. He wondered if Maurice had seen this side of his sweet little dove. Pierre was suddenly glad she was on his side. She walked over and grabbed the knife, and the rat, and threw the rat out to the cat, wiped the knife with the shirtsleeve she was wearing of Pierre’s, and put it back in her waistband.
“I’m going to see Mother Superior. You’ll stay here and play the calm guest waiting for me to return from the market. For once in your manly life, sweet Pierre, do as you’re told, even if it is by a woman.”
He was still gulping air from the knife coming so close to his skull. She didn’t mean to speak so angrily to Pierre, it was meant for her dunce of a husband, but he wasn’t here to take her anger. She went back onto the streets and walked to the convent. She went in through the back and ran to Mother Superior’s office. What was she to say? She had been brave up until now, but this was different. This was a place of gentle living, prayer and refuge; she was once more out of her league, and approaching a woman who knew more about life than she ever would. She was thirteen again and the clean floors, and gentle movements of the long black skirts were soothing, but still scaring the crap out of her. She could not imagine how frightened Marguerite must be at this moment. She knew she had come to the right place. She knew it. She bent down and kissed Reverend Mother’s hem and looked up at the kind eyes.
“I’ve done a terrible thing, Reverend Mother. I’ve put my husband’s ward in terrible jeopardy, and she’ll surely go to the gallows if I don’t save her.”
Mother Superior had already heard of the young girl’s plight. The city was still a small village full of gossips. The knowledge of his two wards had come up while checking out Captain Dubois and his past, but not that they were wanted for murder, just that they traveled with him. She should have told this young wife, but she had no idea he would not have told her himself. She would have to help Celestine. She would not let an innocent child die, knowing she could have helped.
Mother Superior and Ste. Agnes went to the prison to visit the young girl. They were taking her a basket of bread and cheese with some oranges. Mother Superior raised her veil to speak to the jailor. She knew him as a good man who would not give them trouble. They were ushered in as clergy and the child was so frightened she clung to Ste. Agnes for support. They were only with her a short time before they left as they had entered and walked quietly back to the convent.
The jailor was puzzled at the weird veils the nuns wore, but he had seen the Reverend Mother himself. Still, something was not quite right. He went back in to see for himself. Mother Superior was sitting in the cell eating an orange and offered him some bread and cheese.
“Reverend Mother!! Do you know what you’ve done?” He was incredulous.
“Yes, my son, I’ve offered you a piece of my good cheese. Tell me, Gerrard, where is the young girl that was in this cell a moment ago?”
“You helped her escape.” He started to run to call for help.
“I wouldn’t do that, Gerrard. You’re going against God’s law, my son. The young girl in your jail was a novice of mine, and was put here by mistake.” God would forgive her this lie, and she would confess the sin of it this very night.
“How did you get her out of the cell and… how did you get in?”
“The lord works in mysterious ways, my son, nez pa”
He was going to be in such trouble.
“Now if you’d be so kind, as to unlock this cell, I’ll help you out of your jam.” He unlocked the cell door.
“HELP, HELP, SHE PUSHED ME DOWN AND RAN AWAY, HELP, HELP.” Her screams could be heard all over town. The Reverend Mother winked at Gerrard and got carefully down on hands and knees, then rolled gently onto her side; a helpless victim in yards of black wool with muddy boots… prostrate on the floor of the old jail.
“Now quickly, run and tell your superior I was ambushed and the young girl escaped. Quickly, there could be rats down here.”
After answering questions from the main jailor, she walked slowly and calmly back to the convent. She enjoyed this wicked adventure, maybe too much. She would have much penance for her enjoyment alone, not to mention the act itself.