Feast of All SaintsAnne Rice
Table of Contents
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
This book is dedicated with love to Stan Rice, Carolyn Doty, and my parents, Howard and Katherine O’Brien.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee’, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
ONE MORNING in New Orleans, in that part of the Rue Ste. Anne before it crosses Condé and becomes the lower boundary of the Place d’Armes, a young boy who had been running full tilt down the middle of the street stopped suddenly, his chest heaving, and began to deliberately and obviously follow a tall woman.
This was the street in which he lived, though he was blocks from home, and the woman lived in it also. So a number of people on the way to market—or lounging in the doors of their shops to garner a little breeze—knew the pair of them and thought as they glanced at the boy, that is Marcel Ste. Marie, Cecile’s son, and what is he doing now?
These were the riverfront streets of the 1840s, packed with immigrants, where the worlds met over the back fence, and gallery to gallery; yet despite the throng, and the wilderness of masts above the levee markets, the French Quarter was then as forever a small town. And the woman was famous in it.
But all were used to her occasional meandering, a senselessly disheveled figure with beauty and money enough to make her a public offense. It was Marcel they worried about when they saw them together (the woman didn’t know they were together). And dozens of others stared at him, too, not knowing him, just for the sake of staring because he was a striking figure.
That he was part African, a quadroon most likely, anyone could figure, and the white and the black blood in him had combined in an unusual way that was extremely handsome and clearly undesirable. For though his skin was lighter than honey, indeed lighter than that of many white people who were forever studying him, he had large vivid blue eyes which made it dusky. And his blond hair, tightly kinked and hugging his round head like a cap, was distinctly African. He had ridgeless eyebrows which were high and gave his expression an appealing openness, a delicate nose with small flared nostrils, and a full mouth like a child’s even to the pale rose color. Later it might be sensual, but now, in his fourteenth year, it was a Cupid’s bow without a single hard line to it, and the down on his upper lip was smoky as was the bit of curling hair that made up his sideburns.
In short, his was an appearance of contrasts, but everyone knew darker men could pass for white while Marcel would never, and those bound to believe him deprived of a coveted asset were disturbed at times to find themselves so drawn to looking at him, unable to anatomize him in a glance. And women thought him positively exquisite.
The yellow skin on the backs of his hands appeared silky and translucent, and he tended to grasp things that interested him, suddenly, with long fingers that appeared reverent. And sometimes if he turned to look up at you abruptly from a glass display case under a lamp, the light would make his close-cropped hair a halo around his head, and he stared with the serious radiance of those roundfaced Byzantine saints who are rapt with the Beatific Vision.
In fact, this expression was fast becoming habitual with him. He had it now as he hurried across the Rue Condé after the woman, his hands unconsciously formed into fists, his mouth slack. He saw only what was ahead of him, or his own thoughts, you couldn’t always tell which, but he never seemed to see himself in the eyes of others, to sense the power of the impression he made.
And it was indeed a powerful impression. For though such dreaminess might have been past all patience in a poor man, or some drifting nuisance for whom things had endlessly to be repeated, it was perfectly fine in Marcel because he was by no means poor, as everyone knew, and was invariably well dressed.
For years he’d been the gentleman in miniature in the streets, on errands or carrying his missal to Mass, his frock coats too perfectly fitted as if he weren’t sure to outgrow them in half a year, linen immaculate, waistcoats so smooth over his narrow chest that they hadn’t the slightest bulge or wrinkle. On Sundays, he wore a small jeweled stickpin in his silk tie, and had lately been carrying a gold pocket watch which he sometimes stopped dead in the streets to study, teeth pressed to his lower lip, his blond eyebrows knit in a sharp look of distress that strained the taut skin of his forehead. His boots were always new.
In short, slaves of the same color knew at once he was free, and white men thought him at a glance a “fine boy,” but when all that is put aside, which is only the beginning, his preoccupation seemed the absence of pride, he was no snob, but possessed a genuine and precocious gentility.
You couldn’t imagine him climbing a tree, or playing stick ball, or wetting his hands except to wash them. The books he carried eternally were ancient and tattered, leather covers bound with ribbon or string; but even this was elegant. And he had about him often the subtle scent of a cologne seldom lavished on boys.
Of course Marcel was the son of a white planter, Philippe Ferronaire, Creole gentleman to his fingertips, and in debt on the next crop to the hilt, his white children crowding the family box at the opera every season. And though no one would have thought of calling the man “Marcel’s father,” that is what he was, and the sight of his carriage listing in the narrow Rue Ste. Anne before the Ste. Marie cottage was somewhat regular.
So people thinking Marcel splendid and rich forgave him his slight peculiarity, and merely smiled when he ran smack into them on the banquette, or leaning forward, snapped their fingers, hissing gently “Hey Marcel!” And he would wake to the solid and familiar to go on being unfailingly polite.
He paid his mother’s bills promptly, tipped generously for the slightest service, and on his own brought her flowers from the florist which everyone thought powerfully romantic; and often in the past, though seldom lately, had escorted about his sister, Marie, with an affection and obvious pride in her uncommon in a brother so young. Marie at thirteen was an ivory beauty, ripening beneath a child’s lace and pearl buttons.
But people if they knew Marcel at all, had begun to worry about him. He seemed in the last six months bound to ruin himself, for with his fourteenth birthday in the last fall, he had been transformed from the innocent to the mysterious without apparent explanation.
It was a gradual thing, however, and fourteen is a difficult age.
Besides it wasn’t ordinary mischief. It had a curious flair.
He was seen all around the French Quarter at odd hours, roaming for the sake of roaming, and several times recently he had appeared in the rear pew of the Cathedral, staring at every detail of the statues and paintings as if he were a baffled immigrant off the ship and not a boy who’d been baptized there and made his Communion in the same place only a year before.
He bought tobacco he wasn’t supposed to smoke, read a folded newspaper while walking, watched with fascination the butchers under the eaves of the French Market hacking bloody sides of beef into parcels, and wandered astonished along the levee the day that the H.M.S. Cath
erine docked, her load of starving Irish the scandal of the summer. Wraiths too weak to walk, they were carted to the Charity Hospital and some of them right to the Bayou Cemetery, where Marcel stood watching the burials, and all this when he must have seen it so many times in the past with yellow fever coming on every summer and the stench from the cemeteries so thick in the steaming streets that it became the breath of life. Death was everywhere in New Orleans, what of it? Why go stare at it?
In a cabaret, he was served absinthe before the owner recognized him and sent him home. So he took to worse places, waterfront bistros where in the smoke-filled shadows he would pull out a morocco-bound book in which to write, and sometimes with the same book, wander into the Place d’Armes, fall on a bit of grass under a tree as if he were a derelict and there commence the same scribbling or what might have been the drawing of pictures as he squinted at the birds, the trees, the sky. This was ridiculous.
And yet he didn’t seem to know it.
And worse was the sight of his sister, Marie, on tiptoe at the doors of the dram shops, shuffled in such a crowd, her hair down to her waist, her childish dresses hardly concealing the fullness of her figure, beckoning for him to come out.
Mother and daughter came alone to Sunday Mass where there had always been three.
But who knew much about Cecile Ste. Marie, Marcel’s mother, except that she was a stunning lady, laced so tight beneath her taffeta that her heart seemed forever fighting for breath beneath the frill at her throat. Her black hair parted in the middle and pulled back over the tips of her ears, she would stand proudly with arms folded at the back door, fighting with butcher and fishmonger before pointing their merchandise to the kitchen. Hers was a French face, petite, sharp of feature, with no trace of the African, except of course for her beautifully textured and very dark skin. She seldom went out, occasionally clipped roses in her garden and confided to no one.
The Ste. Marie cottage gleamed with respectability beyond its short fence and dense banana trees, a sprawl of magnolia limbs over its pitched roof. And one could only speculate, was she worried about her son, Marcel? And what did she say to the white man, Monsieur Philippe, Marcel’s father, when he came, if she said anything at all? But neighbors said there was occasional shouting behind the lace curtains and even the slamming of doors.
And what would she think now if she saw her son following this woman, the infamous Juliet Mercier? Should he come too close Juliet might just strike him with her market basket, or scratch his face. She was mad.
And any speculation on her made Marcel at once the paragon. He was, after all, just a boy, and a good one at that. He’d straighten up. He was high in the small private academy of Monsieur De Latte, which cost a fortune, and would undoubtedly come to his senses.
But Juliet was shameful, she had “no excuse,” people shunned her, he ought to shun her, certainly shouldn’t be following her, she had become the object of absolute scorn. How dare she retreat in her listing mansion on the corner of Ste. Anne and Dauphine and nail boards over the windows that fronted the street, vanishing so totally from life that neighbors thought her dead and beat down the gate? And then to come racing toward them with an ax, her hair streaming like an Ophelia, a gaggle of hens in a swirl of feathers screeching at her wake? So let her be shut up with chickens and flies. Let the cats roam the top of her sagging courtyard walls. One and all banged their shutters shut on her as if she hadn’t already bolted her own.
She was not old by any means, had the slender figure of a girl at forty, hair of gleaming black with skin so light she might have passed to the untutored eye, and rings on her fingers when she chose. It was outrageous, this waste of prime and property…but worst of all, worst of all…it was the matter of her son, Christophe.
He was the one whose name was on everyone’s lips these days, a star in this constellation where he had not been for a decade. Because gone to Paris years before, he was now a famous man. For three years his essays and stories had appeared in the Paris press, along with colorful accounts of his Eastern travels, reviews of the theater, art, music. And his novel, Nuits de Charlotte, had taken the city by storm. He was a dandy in dress, veritably lived in the cafes of the Rue Saint Jacques, surrounded eternally by exotic and scribbling friends. Children abroad sent home his articles, his stories in the Revue des Deux Mondes, copies of his novel and the reviews which sang his praises as a “master of the language,” or a “new and unbridled imagination, Shakespearean in power, Byronic in tone.” And even those who understood not a particle of the ravings of his bizarre characters nodded with respect at the mention of him and among many he was no longer Christophe Mercier, but merely Christophe, as if he had become familiar and a friend to all those who admired him.
Even the white planters’ sons carried his novel in their pockets when they got off the boat and told stories of having seen him emerge from a cabriolet before the Porte-Saint-Martin Theatre, a white actress on his sleeve. And slaves overhearing these stories at table brought them to town.
But among the colored community there was more than a special pride. Many could remember the boy he had been when the dreary house in the Rue Dauphine had blazed with lights, and handsome men were forever at the gate to take the hand of his mother. And most concurred he might have buried his past had he chosen, there was light skin enough and money, and the warm embrace of fame. But he did not. Over and over in this or that notice or bit of article, there appeared the fact that he was a native of this city, that he was a man of color, and that he had a mother residing here still.
Of course, he was in Paris. When you die…you go to Paris.
He drank champagne with Victor Hugo, dined with Louis Philippe in the Hall of Mirrors, and danced at the Tuileries. White women were seen occasionally to draw back the curtains from his high windows on the Ile St. Louis and look over the quay toward Notre Dame. He sent home trunks brought in cabs from the customhouse to vanish through his mother’s gate. And she, the wretch, unkempt, distracted, wandered to market with her black cat, in the rich and ragged costume of a beggar at the opera.
Marcel was familiar with these tales. He had been at his front gate the day she swung the ax in the dirt corner where their streets met. And knew the letters for “Christophe” that his friends put through the gate were beaten white of ink on the garden path by the falling rain.
What he really didn’t know was how things had been before. Though one evening at home, Monsieur Philippe in his blue robe, lounging at table the way Marcel would never have thought to do in his own house even if no one were there, said idly through his aura of cigar smoke, “Perhaps that boy, Christophe, was destined for great things.”
“How so?” asked Cecile politely. It was that hour when she sat across from him, her face softened and serene in the light of the candles, enthralled as Philippe unwound his lustrous chatter, and Marcel pretended to read at the open secrétaire.
What had the boy, Christophe, been like?
The picture dazzled.
Of how the little one was forever falling asleep in his mother’s box at the opera when his legs weren’t long enough yet to reach the floor, or at midnight suppers was left to doze on a settee against the folded coat of a gentleman caller, or a visiting ship’s captain who had brought with him a parrot in a cage. Men of all hues and shades took their turns at the late night soirees while restaurants of any reputation sooner or later sent steaming trays up the wooden stairs.
And it was the waiters often enough who, having gathered the stained linen and the silver dollars, put the child to bed, removing his shoes.
They said he drew on the walls, collected the feathers of birds, and played in his mother’s dresses, acting Henry IV on the dining-room table.
What a figure Marcel had let his book close. He shut his eyes, thought of those times when this heroic presence had reigned at the very corner of the block. What friends they might have been! And what was there now in his world but well-behaved children! If only he could have spoke
n directly to Monsieur Philippe, the questions he might have asked.
But the subject made Cecile nervous, it was clear, Marcel could tell. She didn’t remember those times, no, she shook her head, as if the world ended at her front gate.
But the story took its turn. Monsieur Philippe loved the sound of his own voice.
And when Christophe was thirteen, a final guest arrived who stayed, though forever shrouded in mystery, a black veteran of the Haitian wars.
“You remember him, that old man.” Monsieur Philippe bit off the tip of his cigar and spat it in the grate. Marcel knew those subtle sounds by heart. Like the chink of the neck of the bottle hitting the rim of the glass, and that soft breath of satisfaction after each drink. “Of course we were suspicious of him, who needs these rebel slaves from Haiti…Haiti! It was Saint-Domingue when my great-uncle owned the biggest plantation on the Plaine du Nord. Ah, but the point is, the man was abroad so long, money in Paris, New York, Charleston…banks here, uptown. Hardly the one to set fire to every sugar plantation on the coast and lead a band of ragged blacks to cut our throats.”
In the mirror, Marcel saw his mother shudder; she rubbed the backs of her arms, her head to one side, eyes on the lace tablecloth. Ragged army of blacks to cut our throats, the words struck some sudden excitement in Marcel, what was Monsieur Philippe talking about? But it was Christophe that interested him, not that mysterious history of Haiti of which Marcel got bits and pieces at odd moments, never enough to make a picture of anything except rebel slaves and blood.
And he was old besides, this black Haitian, and crippled. And soon sick of seeing Christophe feast on chocolates and white wine, accustomed to sleep in his mother’s bed when he chose, and permitted to lie on the sloped roof at night, three stories above the street to study the stars, he sent the boy abroad.
Christophe was fourteen when he left, and people argued about the rest. It was uncertain, some saying he boarded in England for a while, others that no, he went to Paris, having in loco parentis the white family of a hotelkeeper who kept him in a veritable closet under the stairs, without even a candle let alone heat on winter nights. He was beaten there some insisted, others that, spoiled as always, he had had his own way, lashing out at these poor bourgeoisie any time they tried to restrain him.