The city could not stand up to a British invasion force. If Andrew Jackson did not come soon it would be too late; they must get their women and children out of the city. Andrew Jackson was only three miles away; Andrew Jackson had gone back to Tennessee. The only way to survive was to surrender immediately. No, the British had their eye on Mobile, and there would be time to flee once that city fell, and really, what difference did it make? New Orleans had been passed back and forth between Spain and France and the United States so many times, they could handle the British, if it came to that.
A young boy the color of living coal stood on the cusp of the levee and played dance tunes on an ancient violin. He played to the great gray-green river, which paid him no attention. Hannah dropped a penny in his cup and went on her way thinking of home.
Finally she turned from the levee and walked into the city itself, glad now of the shade in the narrow lanes so closely built that the sun was kept permanently at bay. The lanes were hard-packed dirt, the sewer lines of wood, and open to the air. A raised brick sidewalk ran down one side of the street, but Hannah knew better than to set foot on it.
She lowered her head and walked quickly: nothing more than another servant on an errand, taking note out of the corner of her eye of small, low-slung cottages, fine two-story buildings with fancy ironwork on the balconies, sheds and stables and smithies, shops small and large. All of the buildings, the simplest and the most elaborate, had
casement windows shuttered by jalousies that had been tilted to let in breezes but keep the light out, and all were built up off the ground on an arrangement of wooden props. Water butts stood sentinel on every flat roof, whether for fear of fire or drought, Hannah could not tell.
New Orleans was a city of blinding white sun on plastered walls painted in pink and blue and green, the air as dense as seaweed. She was glad of her straw hat, especially now that she was away from the breeze that came off the Mississippi. She passed taverns and coffeehouses, every one of them doing brisk business. At a coffeehouse called Maspero’s, a notice for a ball was tacked to the wall:
A ball will be given at Saturday next and commence at seven o’clock. Supper to be served at twelve o’clock. Nobody is permitted to dance in boots. The price of a subscription is twelve dollars.
And below that, a broadsheet:
The firing of guns and pistols in the streets is prohibited by a corporation law, under the penalty of a heavy fine—heretofore this law has not been rigidly enforced; in future it certainly will be and the citizens are cautioned against violation of it. The beating of a drum or drums and playing of fife or fifes through the streets after night is unmilitary, and it collects crowds of idle boys, servants, slaves, etc etc to the great annoyance of the citizens. The officers are
requested to prevent a repetition of this disorderly inconsiderate practice, as they regard the peace, good order, and safety of the city. Signed: a Candidate for Alderman
The city was nothing like Albany, and exactly the same: grocers and dry-goods shops, blacksmiths and chandlers, ladies’ fashions and men’s haberdashers, booksellers, tea importers, a print shop papered with broadsheets. She could not help but stop and read for a moment, and then wished she had not, as every other notice seemed to deal with the slaves: getting them by auction, selling them, leasing them out, and pursuing the ones who ran away. It was no different from any of the islands they had visited in the last six months, but Hannah had not got used to it yet, and never would.
She turned down the rue Royale, where the buildings were larger and finer and, it seemed, deserted: The poor must stay in the city through the summer to twitch in the heat, but the rich had second homes on lakes and bayous. For the first time she let herself wonder what she would do if the man she was looking for was away.
She turned onto the rue des Ursulines. She passed a building as large and imposing as a palace but without ornamentation. A half dozen nuns working in the gardens announced that this was a convent, as did a simple sign that hung on the open gates. Hannah had been baptized by a Catholic priest as a very young child but she had never practiced the religion or even claimed it as her own. Now
she would have been glad to sit in the shade by a small fountain for even a half hour, just enough time to catch her breath and quiet the pounding of her head.
She turned again, this time onto the rue de Bourbon. Beyond the houses she could see the startling green of the ciprière, by which she understood that she had come to the outer edge of the city.
The house on the corner was relatively new, so that the paint on the sign suspended from the scrollwork arch was still clean and fresh: Fitch & Jerome, Textile Exchange. The business took up the ground floor of a substantial and well-maintained building. Elaborate ironwork balustrades fronted the balconies lined with French doors, all shuttered against the sun.
The American army hadn’t arrived yet, but American merchants had begun their invasion as soon as the ink was dry on the papers that transferred the Louisiana territory into American hands. They had made substantial inroads into the business of the city, if not into its heart. She wondered if all the newly arrived American merchants chose to build, or were forced to by a less than enthusiastic reception from the more established families.
She shook off her curiosity—a luxury she could ill afford at this juncture—and prepared herself for an interview with Mr. Fitch, a stranger to her.
Hannah opened the door into the business office and stepped in, and saw right away that the woman behind the
counter had been watching her. A white woman whose dress proclaimed her the mistress, and whose expression said very clearly what was going to happen next.
“Micah.” She raised her voice only slightly. Two people came through the open doorway from another office, both of them black.
“Micah, call the constables. This—creature has intruded, no doubt bent on thievery.” By her accent the woman was originally from Boston or somewhere near there. This was the first American woman Hannah had seen in almost a year.
Micah never stopped to look at Hannah; he just turned and disappeared back into the dark, and from there, Hannah supposed, through some other door out into the city.
She said, “Mrs. Fitch, I am no thief. I bring a letter for Mr. Fitch.” And when the woman’s posture and expression changed not at all: “From M. Lacoeur of Port-au-Prince.”
The elderly slave woman who stood behind Mrs. Fitch rocked forward. In heavily accented English she said, “Madame, shall I get the letter from her?”
Hannah said, “No need,” and put the letter on the counter. Then she took five steps backward until she felt the door behind her. She was not annoyed or even angry but only weary. It was not the first time she had come across a white woman with a deep and unshakable hatred of Indians, and it would not be the last.
“You go,” said Mrs. Fitch. She wouldn’t even look at the
letter. “Squaw go, now.”
“The letter requires a reply,” Hannah said. “I was told to wait.”
Hannah knew that her French was not perfect, but her English was without flaw. She could, when she wished, sound exactly like her stepmother, who was a well-bred English lady of the first rank; she could also sound like her father, who was a backwoods hunter and trapper, or a dozen other white men and women of different backgrounds, philosophies, and educations.
Out of pique she had used the most formal, the most educated English at her disposal, and saw now that she had chosen badly. This rich merchant’s wife was offended. Hannah might launch into a perfectly composed discourse on Plato or the current political situation in Europe and the woman would not hear her, did not wish to hear her, not so long as Hannah stood here in homespun and moccasins with a dirty face and red skin.
“You go!” said the woman, her voice rising shrilly. “No squaw here!”
Hannah said, “I will wait in the garden of the chapel at the corner.” She met the eyes of the black woman, and saw that she, at least, understood what Hannah meant to say, no matter how deaf her mistress chose to be. That must be enough. Hannah left.
In an alleyway behind a locksmith she found a black man—she thought he must be a free black man, to be
roaming the city selling goods from a pack on his back—willing to exchange a bruised orange for one of her coins. Then she went to sit in the chapel garden and she ate while she waited. One part of her mind wondered if Mr. Fitch would find her before the constables, or if maybe the priest would come out to chase her away before either of those things could happen.
It was a vague worry, easily put aside because there were other things, more puzzling things, to consider. The foremost of them was the fact that Hannah believed she must be running a fever. She felt a heat that had nothing to do with the sun, one that seemed to come from inside herself, pushing outward. Her head throbbed so that she had the odd idea she could feel the shape of her own eyes, pressing in their sockets.
She was cataloguing her own symptoms—headache, light-headedness, fever, a twinge of nausea—when she looked up and saw a man walking toward her.
There were a few more people in the lanes now, mostly soldiers and servants and slaves; Fitch stood out in his fine clothes and polished boots, as he was meant to. He saw her and turned in her direction, his expression shifting from preoccupied to resolute.
“I apologize for the confusion. My wife—”
“No need for explanations,” Hannah interrupted him. His mouth tightened with displeasure.