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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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