Authors: Anne Rice
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.
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.
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.