Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune Chapter 2

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.

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Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune Chapter 1

Chapter One

The boat meandered down the slow river, leaving a sliver of moonlight in its wake. The night was still and close. The woman had left her stifling cabin to catch a breath of air, but the dampness on deck oppressed her even more.

She fanned herself and looked out toward the dark copse of trees on the far shore. Plantations edged the water. Sans Souci, Belle Reve: Without a Care, Beautiful Dream. Lies built on human misery. No need to be anxious, she told herself and took a few deep breaths. Her dress, heavy and sodden, clung to her breasts and back.

Turning, she kicked the train of her dress outward almost losing her footing. She would not have seen the man lying on a heap of rope if she had not looked around with a self-conscious of gesture of discomfort.

He stared at her, expressionless, a glassy eye catching the light. As she drew near him, she saw that he was hurt, his body contorted, his other eye swollen shut, mottled and bruised. She reached a hand out toward him and he cringed.

‘You’re hurt,’ she said, getting on her knees to take a closer look at him. The man turned his head away. ‘Come with me,’ she said, helping him up.

The first mate looked at them as they passed in the darkness, but she ignored him, although she had been careful not to attract attention to herself the entire length of the journey. She took the man to her cabin and sat him down in a chair at the table in the sitting room.

‘Wait a minute,’ she said and went to get a cloth and a basin of water. She cleaned his wounds and gave him a drink and took one for herself from a bottle that she kept hidden in the cabinet.

‘What happened to you?’ she asked standing back, appraising her handiwork, and then the man. He was young, she estimated, about twenty years old and darkly handsome. She wondered for a minute who he reminded her of and then remembered, though she did not want to. The man said nothing, only stared at his glass. She poured him another drink, and he tossed it back.

‘Where are you from?’ she asked.

‘From across the great sea,’ he said quietly. It was difficult for him to talk because his mouth was swollen where he had been hit. He suddenly seemed more sullen than ever and withdrew into himself. She knew the look, it was one that beaten dogs wore. He would not be answering any more of her questions. It was just as well, she was exhausted.

‘Another?’ she asked, but he shook his head. ‘Well, then Mister… I think we have finished here.’

The man stood and shuffled to the door. She felt a pang of conscience since she knew that he had nowhere to go. She wondered how he had gotten on the boat. Well, that was his problem. As he was about to leave he shot her a look that went straight through her and she had a presentiment that horrified her. It was as if he had been looking at the dead, she thought.

She locked the door behind him and took another drink before putting the bottle away. Don’t think, she said to herself. You are Marie Gilbert, and tomorrow you will be in New Orleans. Her dress buttoned down the front, and she undid it herself since she did not have a maid, and had not had one for some time, though she said when asked that her Suzette had recently run off to who knows where. She laid the dress out to dry on the back of the chair and let her hair down. She stood in front of the looking glass taking full measure of herself. Thick wavy hair, hazel eyes, a full mouth, a slim yet voluptuous figure. She turned to the side and appraised herself critically. That man had olive skin, just as she did, yet he was English. How odd, she thought.

She put her nightdress on and listened to voices in the corridor whispering, always whispering. She heard those muted tones and wondered if they were talking about her. It made her afraid, just like before, but her limbs were so heavy, and she couldn’t move. She tumbled down a long flight of stairs; her body jerked before falling into a deep asleep.

There were lianas growing over the house, choking it. She walked up the cracked steps, across the veranda that was covered with dead leaves. Entering the front door, she walked through the hall and called out, her voice ringing through the empty rooms. She seemed to recognize the place, but it was eerily abandoned, the furniture gone, the walls cracked. A cross wind swept through the house. She hurried upstairs, to hidden rooms that she had never seen, filled with ivory and strange sculptures. She wondered where they had come from.

Her brother was standing to one side, but he could not see her. She passed her hand in front of his eyes. He was blind, asleep, though he was standing there with his eyes open. She spoke to him but he faded away. ‘Help me get away,’ she cried and ran through the house down the back stair and out across the lawn, but the vines were holding her back and she woke up, entangled in the bedsheets, soaking wet. She slipped out of her gown and pulled out the deck of cards that she kept next to her bed and laid them out, but she could not clearly see what they were saying. She was afraid, and she knew she had to arrest her thoughts before they overwhelmed her. It would be better when daylight came, the bad would stop and she would be busy enough not to have to think or remember a thing.

She imagined what it would be like to have serious money, and she pictured herself being safe, so safe and sheltered from the world. She imagined the house she would buy and imagined how she would furnish it, and presently she was asleep and her breathing was light.

She slept into late morning, and when she went on deck, she looked for the man from the night before, but he was nowhere to be seen, and she thought, it’s just as well, it’s just as well. I’m alone now and that is the way I would like it to remain.

Mr. Heathcliff’s Fortune

For fans of my blog, I have to confide that unless I begin writing portrayals of my friends which they may regard as character assassinations, I’ve run out of funny true life stories for the time being. The posts you have enjoyed up till now will be found in my new collection of short stories, Throw Granny off the Balcony. Now, I’m thinking of trying something new and I want to see how you will react to it.

When I was a girl, I would always riff on the books I enjoyed, enhancing the story or imagining sequels or prequels in my mind. Once upon a time ago, I asked myself where Heathcliff was for the three years he went missing from Wuthering Heights and how did he manage to make his fortune? And though not all questions need to be answered, or all characters from beloved classics deconstructed, I nevertheless couldn’t let this story rest. Though, personally, I never saw the dark, tormented anti-hero as a particularly appealing subject of desire, a whole genre of romance fiction spins stories, all much the same in my opinion, around the type.

We know that Heathcliff had obscure beginnings, a miserable childhood and an obdurate nature. As an adult, finding his source, Cathy, removed to a different life which he could not share, he became bitter and twisted in his quest for revenge. The story is there. The question remains, where did his fortune come from? Bronte suggests his bearing indicated a stint in the military, but fortunes aren’t made so rapidly by foot soldiers. So where did he go between 1780 and 1783, when he reappeared at Wuthering Heights?

I decided to set the story in New Orleans and the vicinity which had and to this day has, an amazing melting pot of cultures. At that time the Louisiana Territory, which extended all the way to Canada, had traded hands from the French to the Spanish. Settlers included French planters, Spanish administrators, Black slaves, free Blacks, Native Americans and people of mixed racial background. Immigrant German merchants and Anglo colonials from the east had started moving into the territory as well. All of these nationalities brought their cultural ideals and prejudices into the mix.

Coincidentally, it was a time of the rise of great ideas of the Enlightenment, which swept through the new world as well as the old, inflaming creoles in Latin America and their counterparts in North America in their quest for freedom from tyranny. In Louisiana, Revolutionary War fighting touched the area before turning back south and east.

At the same time, the Mississippi River was beginning to be exploited, the steam boat was yet to be developed, as well as the great card game of poker which grew out of the gaming cultures which consumed Europe at the time and moved westward eventually taking over the saloons of the Wild West.

As you all know, unless I’m poking fun at myself and my family, I tend to concentrate on serious topics, and I neither expect this to be a romance in the colonial or Georgian mode, nor a historical novel. Instead it will be a small story of human motivation and error set within a time as turbulent as our own.

I’m going to serialize it in short readable chapters each week since I realize we all have busy lives. I won’t have much time for embellishment or correction and I don’t really know what meandering paths the story might take, though I’m certain of the end. I hope you’ll tune in to my new adventure: uncovering the secret behind Mr. Heathcliff’s Fortune.