The reflection of candlelight shone off mirrors, and slaves dressed in livery with powdered wigs held candelabra to light the way down garden paths into the great house. Upstairs, Marie Gilbert put the final touches on her hair and gown, as guests filed in, alighting from carriages drawn by fine horses.
Marie could hear the tinkle of a harpsichord being played somewhere a long way off, it seemed. A young black girl knocked on the door to see if she needed anything, and Marie sat down while the girl fastened a necklace of blue cabochon stones around her neck. Her dress was of a lighter blue, the color of a tropical sea and the stones were that of its depths. Marie could see the admiration in the girl’s eyes. She was beautiful too, Marie thought, and pulled out a silk ribbon in a golden peach color out of a box on the dresser and gave it to the girl.
‘Pour Moi? Oh Madame!’ the girl’s eyes glowed.
‘They won’t think you stole it, will they?’
‘No’ the girl shrugged. ‘Madame Gres is good to us.’
‘Well, it will look lovely on you…’
‘Seraphine, is my name,’ the girl gave a small curtsy. Marie laughed a light laugh. The girl was such a child, she thought.
‘All right, Seraphine, I won’t need you any more,’ She stood and arranged her train.
‘You are very beautiful, Madam.’
‘Thank you, Seraphine.’
Marie waited for a time, until she knew that all the guests would be assembled. She put the coins she would need in her embroidered silk purse. Marie was conscious of the admiring glances of men, but of course, she knew it wouldn’t do to encourage them. It was one thing to be attractive but to be too beautiful was a curse, and she knew that she was dependent on the good will of their wives and so she rarely let her true light shine.
The women were assembling at the tables for quadrilles, but it was known up and down the river at the great plantation houses that though she played piquet and faro occasionally, Marie’s game was poquet which she played with a lighthearted nonchalance that concealed her true skills. Sometimes there were other players who could match her but most often she could read her opponents character by the way they played their cards, and even in the silence of early morning when she was pitted against those few remaining at the tables, she could feel something in the air shifting despite their blank expressions and she would know how to play her hand. Sometimes, as everyone knew, it was necessary to play wildly and extravagantly to lose in order to win a bigger pot later.
There were times when she was down, and then she would tell the force which directed the moon and the stars to send the cards her way, and invariably it worked because she believed it would. She could not afford to win too much at once, it would give it all away, and she needed to keep the invitations coming. She cultivated her friends, and her charm, her humor and her conversation produced a most agreeable sensation in others. They were happy to have her and vied to invite her. She collected her money at the end of the evening when the gaming was done, for at Madame Gres’ it ended at a certain hour, and went from table to table to chat with the ladies, always self deprecating, always complimentary.
The girl, Seraphine, was asleep on the divan in her room but stood to attention and apologized when Marie returned.
‘I came to help you undress,’ she said.
‘It’s alright, Seraphine. I know it’s late,’ and she turned her back that Seraphine could unbutton her dress and uncorset her. Seraphine held Marie’s lace nightgown in her hands reverently, and Marie asked her if she liked fine things.
‘I’ve never seen anything like this before,’ Seraphine said, handing it to Marie. ‘Every one says you play cards like a man, Madame, with a cool head.’
‘Who says that?’ Marie sat at the dressing table.
‘The masters.’ Seraphine let Marie’s hair down and began to brush it. Marie relaxed under her touch. ‘When I was straightening your room, I saw a deck of cards next to your bed.’
‘Did you look at them? It’s alright if you did.’
‘I’m sorry, Madame,’ Seraphine did not look sorry, but curious, and Marie knew she wanted to ask questions. She is intelligent, Marie thought.
‘It’s not a playing deck. It’s called tarot and with it I can tell the future.’
Seraphine’s eyes shone, and though she was contained, Marie knew that she would want a reading, and so they sat at the table, and Marie laid out the cards, and in them she saw what she already knew, that the fate of the young girl was intertwined with her own.
A week later, when portly, gray haired Madame Gres lost badly at cards, she was able to recoup by selling the girl to Marie, and the two of them boarded a river boat and sailed to their next destination, to the next party.