Authors: Anne Rice
It seemed sour now, painful. A cloud hung over Richard that made the very streets dreary, like soot on the bricks.
But he looked up suddenly and was mortified. Juliet not a yard away was staring at them both. He felt his cheek flame. And Marcel was moving suddenly toward her! Richard turned, darting through the stagnant stream of mules and wagons until he was rushing fast along the Place d’Armes, headed back to school the way he’d come.
But it pounded in his head with every step: this is my fault, this is all my fault. I should have kept it till the right time. This is my fault.
streets were a quagmire that Richard detested, and the fact that he had to pass through them to return to an infuriated
schoolmaster weighed on him like the noonday sun. Already distraught, he stopped in the middle of one of these squalid alleys, hung with laundry and echoing with the harsh German and Irish voices, and considered for the first time in his life going into a public house and getting totally drunk.
That he could get away with it, he had no doubt. He had long ago outgrown his father, and his grandfather, a wizened man who had been taller in his youth. But on the wall of the parlor at home was a portrait of his great-grandfather Jean Baptiste, a mulatto slave freed in the days before the Spanish took the colony of Louisiana from the French in 1769, and on his free papers, tucked in a mahogany
with other treasured records, Jean Baptiste was described as “a mulatto, servant to Lermontant, known also as ‘the titan’ on account of his uncommon height being full seven feet.”
His portrait showed broad African features, more drawn than painted, the stilted landscape behind him darkening and cracking with age so that soon the few distinct traces of river and cloud would disappear and only Jean Baptiste’s brown face would remain, with the same gently slanting eyes that marked Richard’s face and a flaking white ruff at his throat.
It was a precious thing to everyone, his industry having founded the family, his legend dominating its long climb. But Richard never looked at him of late without dreading that one morning, he would stand before the beveled mirror of his armoire at last unable to see his own face reflected there because he had gained the final inches to match Jean Baptiste’s height. Jean Baptiste’s mother, the African woman, Zanzi, had been a towering figure also. And after all, though Richard had not inherited Jean Baptiste’s broad nose or African mouth, he alone had his great-grandfather’s slanting eyes.
And being one of those big velvet-voiced creatures who can quiet a screaming infant with a bare touch to the belly and a rumbling song, or reassemble silently the scattered works of a pocket watch and hand it back to you ticking, a faint smile on his lips, Richard dreaded becoming the local giant.
But he could use his height well enough to get into the most dismal of waterfront drinking places where the free Negroes drank along with everyone else. And a wild anger drove him to it now, a passionate fear for Marcel, a dread of Monsieur De Latte, and
, a tangle of thoughts and pain which he could not fully examine.
He turned around in the street and went toward the levee. Monsieur De Latte was surely well into the day’s lessons. Certainly he wasn’t waiting for Richard. And if there was any one who was never suspected of anything, it was Richard. Everyone knew his father the
formidable Monsieur Rudolphe Lermontant, had long ago measured the route from his home to the school with his pocket watch and that he allowed his son no more than five minutes variance coming and going for rainy weather. But the thought of this trust was hardly a comfort. Richard was a boy at heart, and never questioned authority, though he was often looking down on its embodiment, and deceit for its own sake had no savor.
The mere thought of his father, looming suddenly amid these vague considerations made his head ache. Richard knew well what Rudolphe would say when Marcel’s latest disgrace was discovered. And the whole dreadful mess was too much suddenly, as he turned along the market (though much below where he had left Marcel), and spied a nice dark filthy place in which to commit mortal sin.
He had a pint in no time and seated himself at a wooden table that threatened to collapse, the chair dark with grease, and poured himself a glass. Irishmen were raging at the bar, and the black laborers kept apart. But he had trouble understanding what the Irish raged against, and no trouble whatsoever shutting them out. He tried to understand what had happened to Marcel, and more than that, this confusing tangle of thought which was causing him pain.
It had begun with occasional absences, Marcel’s daydreaming in class. And then Richard could hear in the too carefully constructed explanations that Marcel was merely implying his mother had kept him home, and soon Monsieur De Latte realized this as well. Marcel refused to tell a lie. Very soon he refused to do almost anything, his vague and fragmented murmurings only calculated to bring down the teacher’s wrath.
And then there was the death of old Jean Jacques, the carpenter, when Marcel stole wine from his mother’s cabinet and got drunk so they found him sick in the morning at the cistern. Marcel’s mother was in tears; Richard held his hand while he retched. And then slumping against the steps, Marcel merely murmured, “I am a criminal, give up on me,” which thereafter became a slogan. That all this had to do with Jean Jacques seemed clear, but even this was a mystery. A fine cabinetmaker he had been, an old mulatto from Saint-Domingue who’d kept a shop ever since they could remember, but hardly a man to incur the devotion of an educated boy like Marcel.
Even Anna Bella Monroe, the dearest of Marcel’s childhood friends, could not account for the changes in him. He had always come to her in the past, but she shook her head now, with a desperate click of the tongue, to hear of his vagrant wanderings. And these things did not stop with the passing of grief, but went on.
But Marcel at home could easily read the works he neglected in school, translate verses which confounded others, and whenever he
and Richard exchanged their poems, Richard knew without pain that Marcel’s were incomparably the best. They had a sharp vitality within the honored forms that made Richard’s flat and stilted by comparison. It seemed at times that Marcel, once so perfect and now so wildly bound to destroy himself, was cursed with the ability to succeed at whatever he chose.
Richard leaned his head against the wall of this dingy place feeling delightfully anonymous in his misery, eyes lowered against the smoke that hovered in the motionless air, and felt the whiskey burn his chest.
His way had always been one way, and that was aiming for excellence through constant striving. He knew nothing else. It had been bred into him not only by Rudolphe, but by his grandpère, Jean Baptiste’s only son, whose example was the prevailing spirit of the home now, the warm flame that illuminated the ancient portrait on the parlor wall.
Richard had seen Grandpère’s guns crossed beneath that picture all his life, proud symbol of the War of 1812 when Grandpère had fought with the Light Colored Battalion under Andy Jackson to save New Orleans from the British. And men of color had proved themselves loyal citizens of the new American state. He’d been decorated, and had come home to buy with Jean Baptiste’s savings a failing undertaker’s shop from a white man, shutting down the old tavern in the Tchoupitoulas Road in which Jean Baptiste had made his fortune. And nursing the old man in his dotage, Grandpère had made a name in this business from which he had only retired in recent years when arthritis so crippled his hands that he no longer cared to keep the books himself, or tend to the dead. Yet even now he read the papers daily, in French and English, and spent the afternoons, hands warmed even in summer over the coal stove, writing painstaking letters to the Congress on the subject of the colored veterans, their pensions, their land grants, their rights. He remembered birthdays, visited widows and chatted from time to time with other old men in the parlor.
And on long winter evenings, when the family lingered at table, the children given brandy in crystal glasses, he would leave the lovely warmth at the stroke of nine always, wrapping his cravat around his neck, and begin his long walk to say his rosary. Beads clutched in his right pocket, he wound slowly through familiar streets, never failing to nod at this neighbor at her window, or that man passing, collar up against the wind, though his lips moved only with his prayers. He ran the family investments, told the little ones history before they were old enough to go to school. And up before everyone at dawn, it was he who lit the fires and woke the slaves.
His only son, Rudolphe, Richard’s father, a booming man who slammed doors if the soup was cold, had greatly expanded the business,
buying a tombstone yard and fostering his young colored sculptors. He had long ago delegated the actual tending of the dead to his nephews Antoine and Pierre. And spent his time in the parlors with the mourners, seeing they had the best black to wear and nothing to worry them of future or finance till the dead were laid to rest. A bear with his family, he was gentle with the bereaved, thought them worthy of the only real patience he could muster. And over the door of the prosperous establishment in the Rue Royale hung the name of the white man who had freed the long dead Jean Baptiste: Lermontant.
Richard raised his eyebrows listlessly over his whiskey glass, his vision pleasantly blurred, and noticed with a slight twist to his generous mouth that the glass was dirty. It had the fingerprints of others, and, if he was wont to speculate, the stench of others’ spit. Beyond the open door, the blue sky exploded over the market, and squinting, he bowed his head. He wondered for the first time in his life if Hell were not a filthy place, unpurified by fire, and quickly drank the whiskey down.
The sweet aroma of damnation was enough. And then came the tension as before, the fear for Marcel which was compelling him to do this to himself. And that
, that morbid tangle of neglected thought, a needle suddenly in his brain. He wasn’t meant for this kind of felonious activity. That the Irishmen at the bar were all staggering drunk before noon amused him vaguely.
He thought of how his father would shake him by the collar if he knew he had gone to this place. And that vaguely amused him too. His last spurt of height had apparently conferred on him an immunity from being beaten senseless. He was too big and too heavy to shove around. He smiled to himself and drank another glass.
But he knew that he could not endure this long. He did not have Marcel’s capacity for it. Even if the entire Lermontant heritage had been swept away in one blast, Richard would always be the same. He was formed and obedient and possessed of a constant and incurable anxiety that made it impossible for him to remain in a room that was not straight, or to begin a job without finishing it, or to put down a book that he did not fully understand.
But one thing saved him every day of his life, as he sprang from bed before the light, and only lay down when his clothes had been smoothed on their hooks in his armoire, and his lessons laid out flawless on the dining-room table. He knew somewhere in his heart of hearts that nothing could ever really be perfect, and that this tension which was his daily companion was never actually meant to end. Does that sound simple?
He thought sometimes his father did not know it, or that his mother, Suzette, bustling back and forth from kitchen to supper table, her sleeves pinned back, her brow moist, really thought the day would
come when she might rest. But Richard understood in some wordless way it was the manner in which life was to be constantly lived, and so often he seemed possessed of a maddening calm when others were furious, and he performed his duties in a manner that was resigned and sometimes mechanical. He didn’t know yet this would become harder as time passed.
His head split. Yet the whiskey gave none of the sweet pleasure of sherry or port.
But only the vague awareness that some figure, that of a white man, detached from the bar, was watching him caused him to push the glass away.
Christophe really coming back here! Christophe really opening a school! Richard’s dreams had never reached that height. In fact, they had always been rather modest dreams in which a pilgrimage to Paris had not even played a part.
Fixed on the backdrop of his imagination, rigidly and perfectly drawn, was a picture of Grandpère by the fire, pushing the Paris review of Christophe’s
Nuits de Charlotte
away from him. Antoine had taken it silently.
the old man spat into the grate.
“No, Grandpère!” Richard urged softly. “He has never…it’s always mentioned he’s a man of color…” But then he saw Antoine shake his head.
“Ten years…” the old man whispered. And from somewhere in the shadows, Richard’s father, pacing, laughed. Coming to hover over Richard’s chair, Rudolphe whispered dryly, “What do you think Paris is, some paradise where you grow angel’s wings? Where your skin turns to milk?” Richard was stunned and silent. Everyone spoke of going to Paris. Why, his brothers had gone…
It was then that the words, “Ten years…” came to him and he looked at Grandpère’s face. No one ever spoke about them anymore, those brothers. Richard could not even remember when this silence had commenced.
the grandfather whispered in disgust.
Richard stared mutely at the grate. It was something he had always known, something terribly wrong that hung in the air. Something that hovered very near his mother when she dusted their pictures by the stair. Richard had never seen these brothers, never seen a letter from them, never really thought…
“They live in Bordeaux, now, I think,” Antoine said later when they had gone upstairs. “A while back, a man came into the shop. He said they were there, wanted news of us. They’re married to white women, of course…”
He lay in bed that night thinking of them for the first time, André
and Michel. Married to white women. And when at last he pinched the candle out, he knew he would never go to Paris, that he would never leave this house as they had done, breaking Grandpère’s heart, and though he never thought of his father as possessing a heart at all, there was something there equally strong which bound them together. But Grandpère he adored. This year Richard had learned the books at the shop from him with ease and had gone occasionally to attend the mourners, always amazed when they seemed glad to see him, and pulling him down near them on chairs beside the coffin, patted frantically his hand.