Excerpt of Dead Water by Barbara Hambly
(Page 4 of 4)
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January nodded. The information wasn't new to him. White men would come to
the Blue Ribbon balls--the quadroon balls--to dance with their free colored
mistresses, their placees, and to gamble and chat with their friends away from
their wives. Fathers would bring sons there to meet the young ladies of the free
colored demimonde, quadroons or octoroons sometimes as fair-skinned as white
girls themselves, carefully educated in fashionable accomplishments but, unlike
the white girls, educated also in the techniques of pleasing men.
The men sought mistresses, not whores, quasi-wives who would live in their
shadow for years, sometimes decades. A woman like Cosette's mother--or
January's, for that matter--could parlay the house and housekeeping money that
were part of the arrangement into serious investments and a good living even
after the protector was long gone.
Most placees taught their daughters to follow in their footsteps, a necessary
education when the alternative was a life of sewing other people's clothes or
doing other people's laundry to put food on the table. It was sheer Quixoticism
for January's wife, Rose, to open a school for girls of color that taught
science, mathematics, Latin, and literature, as well as music, drawing, and just
enough poetry to be able to converse with men, and Cosette Gardinier had wolfed
down this heftier intellectual fare with the hasty guilt of one who knows she'll
be forced into a more acceptable feminine mold on the morrow.
He said, "Fantine is how old?"
January pressed his sister's shoulder. "Thanks."
There was no sign now of Queen Regine's bright red bodice and red-striped
tignon in the groups beneath the trees. The gate on the upstream side of the
square opened into a muddy lane that ran past the basin and on beside a high
brick wall whose top was a fringed jungle of resurrection fern. The smell of the
basin was bad, with the privies of its plank-built saloons draining into it, but
the stench from beyond the wall was infinitely worse.
January saw the flicker of Queen Regine's striped tignon as she turned a
corner of an even muddier lane--the municipal gutters didn't extend farther
inland than Rue des Ramparts, and it had rained that afternoon, as it did nearly
every afternoon in summer. He followed cautiously, boots slurping in the ooze.
The iron-barred gate that led into the cemetery stood ajar.
Once inside the cemetery, visibility dropped to two feet. Though light
lingered in the sky, January knew it would fade fast. The ground was even wetter
here, and sent up, with each step, a ghastly reek of mortality. Around him tombs
rose like little brick houses in some silent, horrible city. Because the
ground-water in south Louisiana lay so close to the surface, even a shallow hole
would fill, and corpses buried in New Orleans earth had a way of working to the
surface in the winter. After the first flood or two brought coffins bobbing down
the streets--giving a new meaning to the phrase "Grandma's coming to
visit"--tombs began to be built above the ground.
Excerpted from Dead Water by Barbara Hambly Copyright©
2004 by Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or
reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.