Midnight’s Magic – Jane Erickson

“Hello. What’s your position here?” After a moment’s silence, Emmeline Martineau realized the woman was addressing her. The woman’s porcelain skin and flame-red hair seemed to glow even in the darkened hallway and Emmeline had been so entranced she hadn’t even noticed when the woman had made her way down the line of servants to finally speak to Emmeline herself. “Your position, dear?” the woman repeated but this time in halting French and Emmeline flushed in embarrassment, not only because the woman had to repeat herself but because she had no idea how to answer the question. Her position had always been understood before. All the servants seemed to understand her quandary because their postures stiffened even as their eyes sank to stare at the polished plank floors. “Emmeline resides here as a member of the family.” Monsieur Peche smoothly stepped forward and took his new bride by the arm. “Come, mon coeur, let me show you the rest of your new home.” Despite Monsieur Peche’s persistent tugging, the woman did not move and her previously dazzling smile dimmed. Her large silvery eyes touched upon Emmeline’s wildly curling, uncovered dark hair, hair that resisted being tamed by a ribbon or even contained beneath a bonnet, before settling upon the caramel-colored skin of Emmeline’s face. Her now narrowing silver eyes assessed the fine silk gown that, while faded and two years behind the fashion, boasted far more lace and ribbons than the woman’s own. Emmeline bit her lip and glanced uncertainly at the two figures standing directly behind Monsieur Peche. One, a brunette likely a bit older than she, was short and round with a wide, unremarkable face more suited to a laborer than a refined lady. The other, a blonde, was likely the same age as Emmeline, with a permanent smile and a vacant expression plastered to her pretty china doll face.

The brunette shifted uncomfortably and avoided making eye contact while the blonde was too entranced with her new domicile to be aware of the tension smothering the rest of the house’s occupants. “I see,” the woman eventually murmured stiffly before imperiously calling behind her, “Come long, Dorothy. Harriet.” The younger women’s pale cotton skirts whispered past her, the blonde beaming at everyone as she drifted by. She reached out an ivory hand to touch the fabric of Emmeline’s gown. “Oh, I love your dress. Perhaps you can help me make one too. I’m a terrible seamstress,” she whispered with a giggle before dutifully following her mother. As soon as they were turned the corner into the next room, the servants scurried back to their work, shooting Emmeline sympathetic glances when she remained awkwardly standing in the foyer, uncertain what to do with herself next. It certainly wasn’t the way she had imagined meeting her new stepmother and stepsisters.

∞∞∞ That evening, to Emmeline’s astonishment, the maid, Luisa, informed her that the bride and groom wished to dine privately, and Emmeline would take supper in her room. Often Monsieur Peche would be away for the evening to dine with friends or attend a ball and Emmeline would eat by herself but always in the dining room. Never in her bedroom as if she were something to be hidden or ignored. It had been a shock to hear that Monsieur Peche had married earlier that week without a word to her. But after she had accepted the situation, Emmeline had been excited at the prospect of other people in the house, especially when she heard that the new mistress had two daughters roughly her own age. After her mother had died five years ago, Emmeline had rarely left the house except for church masses or to visit the market. The servants and cook were as close as family, but all were far older than she. She had hoped for someone who could be a confidante, a friend…or even converse on something beyond the stifling walls of the house. Picking at her supper, Emmeline tried to ignore the murmurs of conversation that snaked their way up the stairs from the dining room and under her bedroom door. It was rude to eavesdrop, especially on Monsieur Peche.

They only said to dine in my room. Not that I had to remain here the entire evening. This is my home too and I’ll go where I please. In a rare show of defiance, perhaps the only one she had ever made in eighteen years, she slipped silently from the room and knelt beside the staircase. “You didn’t think it would matter? You didn’t even mention her existence!” The new Madame Peche’s voice was shrill with none of the charm and poise she had displayed when she first arrived. There was accent that Emmeline couldn’t place but then Emmeline rarely heard English in the streets. Most Americans rarely ventured into the Vieux Carré but now an American would now be the mistress of one of the finest homes in New Orleans. Monsieur Peche murmured something in reply which seemed to only incite her further. “Oh, I believe most would agree that disclosing your her presence was something that should have been done before you asked me to marry you.” A door creaked open and Emmeline glanced over to see Dorothy and Harriet emerge from the bedroom they now shared and glide silently down the hallway in their stockinged feet.

They both sank down beside Emmeline and Harriet’s vapid blue eyes stared at her in something that could almost be interest. The blonde reached out a hand to tug lightly on one of Emmeline’s dark curls and watched in fascination as it sprang back to defy gravity once Harriet let go. “I wish mine would curl so wonderfully. Though not all around my head like yours. The back of my hair is always pinned up. I have to use irons every morning and even the hint of rain makes the curls go limp,” Harriet rattled on in a whisper. “So why do you live here, Emmeline?” Her older sister smacked Harriet’s arm with a force that made the younger girl gasp in pain and Dorothy interrupted, “I’ll tell you later, Harriet. Be quiet now so we can hear.” It seemed that Harriet’s voice had not reached her mother’s ears because Ruth Peche continued in what she clearly hoped was a practical and reasonable tone. “I believe the best solution is to send her to France.

You have relatives there.” The two American girls shared a shocked look before cringing sympathetically at Emmeline. They obviously believed Madame Peche was now omnipotent in the house and Emmeline would be on the next ship out of port. “I can honestly say it is a shock. You’ve been quite dishonest with me from the beginning.” Emmeline reared back in horror at Ruth Peche’s insult. Monsieur Peche was one of the most respected men in New Orleans. For years, Emmeline would watch in pride from the balcony when he walked down the street and everyone would slow their pace, just hoping that he might deign to acknowledge them. Young women blushed when he spoke directly to them and older women tittered at his flattery. His presence was requested at every party and political gathering.

It seemed Monsieur Peche too felt the sting of Madame Peche’s words keenly. “You would have married me no matter what I did or did not choose to disclose,” he sneered. “You married into one of the finest families in New Orleans. You, an aged widow from Ohio or whatever god-forsaken wilderness you hail from? You, desperate to marry off your plain and foolish daughters? You should be thanking God for this miracle he sent you.” It was Emmeline’s turn to cringe in embarrassment for the girls kneeling next to her but she couldn’t bear to turn her head and see if they were affected by his humiliating words. No good comes from eavesdropping. It was a warning that the old cook, Franchonette, had often told the maids but Emmeline now heard the advice pealing in her own ears. “And Emmeline will remain here. New Orleans is her home and where she belongs.” Chair legs scraped backwards, a signal that someone was leaving the table and would likely be coming up the stairs in a moment, so the three girls scrambled to their feet and rushed back to their respective rooms.

Her heart thumping madly, Emmeline leaned against her closed bedroom door. Her mind buzzed with what little she had heard but even those few snatches of conversation would keep her from sleeping that night. It seemed battle lines had been drawn between the newly wedded couple and Emmeline’s future rested solely with the victor. ∞∞∞ “I am glad you all enjoyed yourselves at the de Marigny ball,” Emmeline said lightly in hopes that she could introduce her true topic of conversation without causing another quarrel in the dining room. The merging of the households had not gone easily though breakfast could usually be concluded with everyone remaining cordial. “I’m exhausted.” Harriet yawned indelicately. “And my ears are so weary of French. I get a headache after only an hour of it. Every word ends in an ‘a’ sound.

Francais. Parlé. Sil vous plâit. Enchanté. Ugh.” Emmeline tried to smile sympathetically even as she gritted her teeth in annoyance. For three months, she had watched the family traipse out nearly every evening to various events – Monsieur Peche resplendent in his evening attire though his wife and step-daughters clearly needed new wardrobes. Their gowns may have been acceptable in Iowa or Kentucky or other frontier territories but seemed dowdy in New Orleans. “You will soon be fluent in French, I am certain.” Emmeline managed to give Harriet an encouraging grin before turning to her real objective.

“Monsieur, I heard that the Union is holding a dance later this week. Perhaps you could accompany me? You did say once I am eighteen, I could attend.” Monsieur Peche had ordered Emmeline a ball gown four months ago for her eighteenth birthday. The modiste had tears of pride in her eyes at the final fitting and told Emmeline she would be the belle of the city. It had been delivered and fitted the week he was away being married and, in the excitement, it seemed her birthday and his promises had slipped his mind. She hoped her tone was pleasant and cheerful. Monsieur Peche didn’t care for wheedling. “The Union? The dance hall on Ursuline Street?” Ruth Peche broke in, her steel-gray eyes narrowing suspiciously before she shook her head sharply. “No.” Taking a deep breath and managing to keep her smile from slipping, Emmeline turned hopefully towards Monsieur Peche.

Ruth could control her daughters and even the household but Monsieur Peche had promised, he had bought the gold gown, and he could not refuse her now. “We shall speak of it later, Emmeline,” he murmured before dabbing his mouth with a napkin. He spoke lightly but his blue eyes danced as he had every intention of his ignoring his wife on this matter. “Is there any honey?” Harriet asked, desperate to change the subject when her mother’s eyes blazed in annoyance. Emile Peche raised an eyebrow in mock disbelief. “Honey? We are in New Orleans and sugar has made our city rich. We certainly don’t need honey when a much superior food is in such abundance.” Emmeline passed the sugar bowl towards Harriet who took received it reluctantly. She picked up a lump with the sugar tongs and wrinkled her nose as she placed the sweet rock on top of a halved biscuit. “And I thought you were working on your French, Harriet? You have lived here three months and I have not seen any improvement,” Emile continued as he speared a slice of peach and transferred it to his plate.

“I don’t see why we must learn French,” Ruth Peche interjected. “Louisiana is a state now and Americans are flooding the city every day. Soon English will be spoken as much as French, maybe even more so.” Emile Peche light blue eyes narrowed before he set down his fork carefully. “Because you are now living in the Vieux Carré. Because you are now part of one of the finest French families. Because everyone from the mayor to the lowliest sugar slave speaks French. And because, no matter what the rest of Louisiana calls itself, New Orleans will always be French!” He had started off reasonably but had ended with a roar and Emmeline closed her eyes against the strain of another meal ending horribly. “Except when it was controlled by the Spanish and English,” Dorothy murmured as she liberally buttered her own biscuit. Four pairs of disbelieving eyes turned towards her, a plain dumpling of girl baiting a lion.

“What?” “Except when New Orleans was owned by the Spanish and the United States. The French haven’t controlled New Orleans for over fifty years except for those unexceptional three years under Napoleon.” And Dorothy took an ungainly bite of her biscuit and chewed with great satisfaction at the resulting fury on her step-father’s face. “Allez!” he ordered with a finger pointing at the door and Ruth, Dorothy, and Harriet all rose in one dignified show of solidarity and exited, their ringlets bouncing perfectly, their noses all tilted towards the ceiling, and their half-eaten breakfast left on the table again. Over the past months, Emmeline had found it remarkable how different Dorothy and Harriet were to any female she had ever met. Most women nodded agreeably around Monsieur Peche but they, especially Dorothy, seemed determined to defy him at every turn. Perhaps it was that first terrible night when he had declared them plain and foolish, but Emmeline had heard others complain that Americans, especially the women, were too brash. The Americans had none of the genteel sensibility that the Creole women so prided themselves on. It seemed even more amazing considering that pretty, dimpled Harriet could have been Emile Peche’s own daughter. They shared the same thick, blond hair and pale blue eyes that looked so striking walking down the streets of a city where half the population had African ancestors.

Dorothy would always be plain and a bit too clever for her own good, but she too could have easily made a match within Creole society. There were three times the number of white men than white women in the city and any unmarried and relatively wealthy white woman should find a husband within a week. But it appeared that both girls had little urge to impress their step-father’s friends and actually preferred the crass Americans who came down to sell their wares on flatboats and carouse before returning up the Mississippi. Blood will out, Emmeline had heard her father sneer more than once his new wife had left the room. She was never sure how he wanted her to take that statement. Emmeline remained seated and stared at the untouched croissant on her plate, knowing that Emile was not including her in his dismissal. She glanced up when she saw movement reflected in the mirror directly across from her and was surprised to see Emile standing behind her. His reflection seemed older and grayer in the mirror than she remembered. Perhaps the reflection distorted his image…or maybe the mirror couldn’t be distracted by the vibrancy of his personality or his famous charm. He had certainly lost some of his joi de vivre in the past couple of months, but his introspection had even begun before his disastrous marriage had taken place.

“Emmeline, did I ever tell you that your mother was the most beautiful creature in the world?” He said softly, his hand settling on the top of her head, so pale against her curling dark hair. “I knew once I saw her that there would no other for me. She was so lovely and even-tempered. She filled my days with light. She was the cool breeze when the oppressive heat of summer was so unbearable.” Emmeline nodded slightly, the weight of his hand being too heavy for any real movement. “We can bear this Ruth. Her daughters will be married and gone soon. And a woman like that around makes some aspects of our lives a great deal more pleasant. You will see.

” He kissed the top of her head before striding towards the door but then paused. He turned to toss her the carefree grin that stopped hearts through New Orleans for three decades. “And you will go to the dances and wear that gown from Madame Sainet’s. Though I know wish we had gone with a green to match your eyes. They are your best feature.” He gave a gallic shrug and walked confidently to the door, all of the morning’s argument seemingly forgotten. “I must go to Natchez but when I return in two weeks, I will escort you just as I promised.” Two weeks later, Madame Peche received notice that her husband was returning from Natchez on the next flatboat just as he promised. His body was put to rest in the Peche family crypt in Saint Louis Cemetery and all thoughts of balls and gowns and any hopes for the future were forgotten.

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