“You know there has been no post from Europe. It is most inconvenient, this embargo.”
“I fear you must miss your brother and mother, my dear.” Honoré persisted in speaking to Jennet directly, and his grandmother in answering for her.
Titine was dead, and Honoré had killed her; of that Jennet was suddenly quite sure. What she could not know was how much information had been forced from her before she died. Jennet pinched the flesh between her thumb and first finger until her vision cleared and she could control her breathing.
“Why should she?” Mme. Poiterin was saying. “She has her son. She has you, or will have you, if it turns out her good behavior is not a ruse. It is the way of civilized society: A young lady forsakes her mother for her husband’s family.” She sniffed delicately, as if remembering her own mother.
“Grand-mère,” he said. “Has my dear Jennet not been tested enough? Surely it’s time to acknowledge the marriage.”
Jennet dropped her head in fear that her expression would give away too much, but Mme. Poiterin, who was just as surprised, turned all her attention in Honoré’s direction. Her round cheeks flushed with color and her eyes narrowed.
“You talk of this matter as though it were nothing more than a dinner engagement,” she said. “Shame on you, Honoré. If you had gone about this marriage properly to
start with none of this would be necessary. As it is, you will wait until I am entirely satisfied that Lady Jennet will be a suitable wife and mother to your son.”
Mme. Poiterin had started calling her Lady Jennet in a dismissive tone. Jennet might have objected, but she found her title much preferable to being called Honoré’s wife.
The old lady was saying, “I will admit she has proved to be biddable, if perhaps a bit simpleminded. Père Petit reports that she is repentant, though sometimes I believe I still see a hint of rebellion in her expression. However, if things go on as they have, we will be able to have the banns read starting next month, and celebrate the wedding Mass early in the new year.”
Honoré didn’t try to hide his irritation. “You forget, Grand-mère, we are already married.”
“So you say,” said his grandmother. “But I have yet to see your marriage lines.” She looked at Jennet when she said this, and Jennet returned her gaze evenly. It was an odd circumstance that Honoré had constructed for himself. He could not produce the marriage lines, because no such document had ever existed. She had wondered for some time why he didn’t simply forge something to show his grandmother—it seemed like something he would do without hesitation—and then realized that he hadn’t yet decided where the greater advantage might be, in a real marriage or a false one. No doubt it had to do with his claim on her family’s money, and his grandmother’s, both of which he would keep, if he could manage it. Her son was nothing more than a chip in this game of chance.
What he didn’t know, what she would not tell him, was that she did have a set of marriage lines, these absolutely legal and binding in the eyes of both the Catholic Church and the law. She began every day by sewing that piece of paper into the hem of whatever gown she was to wear, but she wondered sometimes what would be worse: to lose it, or to have it be discovered by Mme. Poiterin. To declare herself the legal wife of another man would be to hand over her son to these people.
“It’s all very silly,” Honoré said. “But if you insist.”
“I do,” said the old lady. “And there is another matter I will insist upon.”
Jennet was surprised to learn that Honoré had joined a militia troop, from which it followed that he needed money for the elaborate uniform and for new weapons; it was expected of him as a son of one of the first families. His grandmother, always sensitive to such claims on her reputation, got a wily look in her eye and commanded Honoré to write a letter asking to be excused.
“With the cane harvest coming so soon you’re needed at the plantations,” she said. “Especially now. I worry that the slaves at Grand Trianon will be seduced by the lies of the English, and as far as Amboise is concerned, I have lost faith in Cheveau. Others have extracted themselves this way. You can, too.”
“You would have me branded a coward?”
She rapped her knuckles on the carved wooden arm of her chair, as large as a throne. “I would have you alive.”
“You think there is going to be a real battle?” Honoré smiled. “The British have the Americans outnumbered and outgunned by a factor of ten. They will make short work of the navy on the Gulf and then march into the city without firing a shot. The legislature will strew rose petals before them if that means sparing the city, and their properties. They are already huddling together in corners, wondering about the best way to surrender.”
“Then why bother?” said Madame. “Stay home out of the cold and rain.”
“Because if New Orleans must fall to the British, our officers will be required to negotiate with their officers. The men who make up that party should be—”
“Creole,” said his grandmother. “And of the first rank. It would put you in a good position—”
“To see that our interests are protected, once the fighting is done. And,” he added with a smile, “who else could do the uniform justice?”
Jennet had begun to wonder how much more critical the situation might get when the heavens took some pity on her and struck Père Petit dead with an apoplexy. It happened while he sat at his supper table, and thus at Mass the next morning she had something to be thankful for. She was so busy with her own thoughts that it wasn’t until Communion that it occurred to her that the new priest—a younger man of average looks and bearing—would be the one to hear her confession.
She hoped he would not be as invasive and curious as Père Petit had been. She hoped he would let her recite a list of small transgressions and be on her way. From the look of him at the altar she could tell nothing of his personality.
After Mass she went into the confessional to wait for him, closing the door so that the small space—it always made her think of a coffin set on its end—was almost completely dark. It smelled of cypress and tallow and incense and sweat, with a hundred other scents lingering just below the surface. Fear, regret, submission.
The door to the priest’s cubicle opened and closed, and then the grillwork on the window that joined Jennet’s space to his slid to one side. She could see nothing of the priest through the curtain; she was not meant to see him. She waited for the familiar prayers to begin and then, after a moment, raised her head.
“I am no priest.” The voice was hoarse and very low, one she had never heard before.
Jennet’s throat closed in fear and hope. She had to swallow hard before she could force words out of it.
“Do you bring me a message?”
He said, “I bring you news of your cousin Hannah.”
Jennet closed her eyes. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jean-Benoît.” And then: “She is at Dr. Savard’s free clinic on the rue Dauphine. She has malaria
and is not well enough yet to leave her bed. You must come to her so that together you can make plans.”
“But I can’t,” Jennet whispered, her voice cracking under the strain. “I cannot risk my son’s well-being. Do you have any idea what Mme. Poiterin would do if she found out?”
With utter calm he said, “If you cannot bring yourself to trust me, I cannot help you, your son, or your cousin.”
Jennet pressed her handkerchief to her eyes. She wanted to believe the voice behind the screen, but she was terrified.
“I think Honoré is suspicious,” she said.
“Then you have less time to act, not more.”
At that moment it occurred to her that whatever information Honoré had forced from Titine, he could not know of Hannah’s presence in New Orleans, or Hannah would be dead.
She said, “Tell me something about Hannah.”
There was a small silence, and she had the sense that he was choosing his words carefully. “She is tall for a woman, taller than you. She is half Indian and half white and has the best features of both races. She speaks English like a schoolteacher and French with a British accent. She is a trained physician who studied for a time in Manhattan. Her worry for you and your son and for her brother is keeping her from a full recovery.”
Jennet couldn’t help herself; she sobbed out loud. “Yes,”
she said. “I believe you now. Do you have word of my husband?”
“Not yet,” said Jean-Benoît.
Those two words filled Jennet with hope for the first time since Titine’s disappearance. She forced her voice to steady.
“I will come to Hannah, if you can arrange it without arousing Mme. Poiterin’s suspicions.”
“When you go to read to her this afternoon she will suggest the trip herself,” he said. “Be ready.”
“Wait,” she said. “What does the new priest know about all this? Have you bribed him to allow you to speak to me?”
“Not all priests are like Petit. Tomaso Delgado is a good man, and my friend. Does that satisfy you?”
It did not; it could not. She said, “I am struck by the coincidence that Père Petit should die just now, so suddenly. So conveniently for my cause.”
After a moment Ben said, “Do you want my help?”
“Of course,” said Jennet. “Of course I do.”