Another preview from THE PLAINS OF CHALMETTE
CRESCENT CITY is my Austen-inspired take on the history of America’s most unique city, New Orleans, and the people who dare to live there. I propose to relate the history of the Crescent City though the eyes of members of the Darcy and Fitzwilliam families who have left England to immigrate to the New World.
The cornerstone of the project is my three-volume novel about the events leading up to, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Some of you may have read this story when it was posted on several Jane Austen fan fiction boards. Completely updated and revised, CRESCENT CITY is now three books:
• BOURBON STREET NIGHTS (Volume 1)
• ELYSIAN DREAMS (Volume2)
• RUIN & RENEWAL (Volume 3)
These books will be published over the summer of 2015, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Katrina.
But to start things off, and to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, I am writing a prequel entitled THE PLAINS OF CHALMETTE.
It is 1814, and America’s second war against Great Britain is going badly. Now the enemy is ready for its knock-out punch. They seek to take New Orleans, and by doing so, control the Mississippi River and North America forever.
Major Matthew Darcy of Baltimore is dispatched to help defend the beleaguered city, and discovers an alien place that does not trust its new countrymen. He also finds forbidden love with a lovely Cajun-Creole lady.
Now, with a devastating invader at the city’s door, Darcy joins General Andrew Jackson’s rag-tag army of backwoodsmen, Creoles, and buccaneers in the face of overwhelming odds.
To whet your appetite, I’ve posted an excerpt introducing two newcomers to New Orleans—Majors Matthew Darcy and Jacob Harville, aides to General Andrew Jackson. They have just arrived in the Crescent City and have reported to their superiors. Later, Matthew has a memorable encounter.
August, 1814 – New Orleans
“So what did you think of Governor Claiborne, Matt?” asked Major Jacob Harville as the pair left the governor’s house, walking up Rue de Quay towards the Place d’Armes.
Major Matthew Darcy shrugged. “About what I expected. He puts on a good show, but as for actually getting anything done? We’ll see.”
William Charles Cole Claiborne of Virginia had been the territorial governor, tasked with bringing Louisiana into the Union. Knowing no French, he taught himself the language and made friends with the Creole elite. When statehood was granted, Claiborne was elected governor to everyone’s surprise except Claiborne’s. He was hard working and ambitious.
He was also obsessed with his personal popularity and jealously guarded his preeminence. Yet, he was not a leader. He was not willing to upset any of the various factions in the legislature, so very little was done. He was well known for pouring his frustrations in letter after letter to Washington; so much so, that the governor of Louisiana was regarded as a weak-willed, vainglorious fool.
Jacob nodded. “Yeah, I agree. So where do we eat?”
They were just passing a public house and Matthew gestured with his head. “How about in here?” A delicious aroma floated out the door.
“Smells good. You got some money? Oh, that’s right, you’re rich. I keep forgetting.”
Matthew laughed. “I wouldn’t say rich, but I can pay for you and me.”
“I’ll make good next pay day,” Jacob promised as they walked in. The small space was relatively clean. Only two of the six tables were occupied. Three men sat at one, sharing a low, earnest conversation, while a single gentleman sat at the other, eating soup. The two officers took a table next to the single man and waited for the proprietor.
It was not long before a fat man in a dirty apron appeared. “What I do for you gentlemen?” he asked in broken English.
Matthew replied in French, “Food and something to drink, s’il vous plait. What do you have?”
The proprietor smiled, showing his missing teeth. “I have gumbo, monsieur—most excellent. For drink, I have ale and wine.”
Matthew had no idea what gumbo was. His indecision must have shown, because their neighbor said in English, “Try the gumbo, American, but stay away from the wine.”
“What is this?” protested the innkeeper. “Why you say this, M. Henri? What is wrong with my wine?”
The stranger patted his lips with a napkin. “Nothing, my good sir, if you stopped watering it,” he returned in French. “Get the ale, American.”
The two officers were taken aback at the argument. For all the innkeeper’s blustering, it seemed to be more of a good-natured ribbing than anything else.
“Very well,” Matthew said carefully, “a glass of ale, s’il vous plait, and gumbo. Jacob?”
Jacob shrugged. “Guess I’ll have the same.”
The proprietor smiled and nodded, made some sort of rude gesture to the stranger, and disappeared through a doorway.
The gentleman leaned over and whispered, “Do not worry, sir. Thibodeaux is a friend, and I eat here often. But the wine is truly awful.”
The man was about Matthew’s age, well-dressed, of medium height, a little heavy, with brown sideburns covering his cheeks. His face was open and friendly, and his French-accented English identified him as a local.
“Thank you. What is gumbo?”
The man indicated his own dish. “It is a thick soup, almost a stew.” Matthew noted the bowl was almost empty. “By the way, my name is Henri Herbert.”
“Major Matthew Darcy.” The two shook hands. “This is Major Jacob Harville.”
He gestured at Matthew. “Your French is very good, but it is clear you are not from Louisiana! Your accent is wrong.”
Matthew shrugged. “As long as people understand me, I am content. I’m from Baltimore. Jacob is from Tennessee.”
Just then mugs of ale and steaming bowls of gumbo were placed before them. “Bon appétit, messieurs!” said the innkeeper as he left. Matthew dug in and found that the gumbo was spicy and hearty, different from any soup he had ever had.
“This is some good stuff,” remarked Jacob.
“Thibodeaux’s gumbo is certainly acceptable, mes amis,” Herbert shrugged, “but there is better to be found.”
Matthew rather doubted their new acquaintance’s claims—better than this?—but he ate instead of arguing.
“And what brings you two to New Orleans?” Herbert asked after a few minutes.
Matthew took a sip of the ale. “Our assignment is to help Governor Claiborne build up the militia.”
“Indeed? Do you really think that the English will attack us?”
“It’s possible. In Europe, Napoleon is almost finished—he lost his entire army in Russia, you know. Once he’s done, surely the British will turn their attention to us.”
Herbert shook his head. “There are many that will be upset over the emperor’s fall. Napoleon is popular among the Creoles, even though he did sell us to the Americans.”
“You are now an American, M. Herbert,” Jacob pointed out, “just like everyone in Louisiana.”
Herbert laughed. “I do not feel American, mon ami! I am the same as I ever was. But it makes no difference, after all. C’est la vie!” He sobered a bit. “But others are not so sanguine, no. They resent you Americans. They will not join your militia.”
“They will not fight for their homes?”
He shrugged. “Is anyone threatening us? I do not think so. If the English were at the gates, I would fight, but I cannot speak for everyone.” Herbert got up to leave. “Perhaps I am wrong. I wish you bonne chance, mes amis.”
Matthew and Jacob were pleased with their accommodations. The walls were solid, the floors were dry, and the cots free of lice. For men who had slept in tents for the last two years, it was a relative paradise.
Jacob sat down to write a letter to his intended back home, while Matthew, having no one to write to in Maryland, decided to take in some air. Promising his comrade he would return soon, he left his quarters.
The heat of the day still hung in the heavy air. There was no sea breeze to refresh the soul, as there had been in Mobile. Matthew wandered up and down the streets of the Vieux Carré. The cobblestone streets were wide enough for carriages to pass each other. The buildings were very different than those in Baltimore. These were tall—two and three stories—with galleries on the second floor. They had was no front stoop to speak of; the houses were virtually on the street, set back only for the sidewalk. Oil lanterns lit the entrances. Matthew had heard that most had courtyards in the middle of the buildings, so that the people could enjoy the air in privacy.
He glanced at a street sign. A strange name—Rue du Bourbon. Bourbon Street, he mentally translated. He then thought he heard something, looked up, and saw an angel.
Anne-Marie Dansereau stood on the second-floor gallery of her Uncle Melanćon’s house overlooking Rue du Bourbon as evening fell over the city, feeling very lonely.
She was not a classic beauty. Petite and curvy, her eyes were too large and her mouth too wide. At twenty-two, Anne-Marie was considered an old maid. However, when she smiled, it seemed her entire being glowed. Her black eyes sparkled and her full lips parted to show a lovely full set of teeth. She was elegant and unassuming. These charms were lost on most young men, for they wished to court her for one reason alone—she was rich.
Anne-Marie’s father, Emile, immigrated with his family to Louisiana during le Grand Dérangement, the expulsion of the French Acadians from Canada by the British during the French and Indian War. Unlike the others, M. Dansereau smuggled a good bit of gold with him, and once in New Orleans, was able to buy the land. That land was now the prosperous Dansereau Plantation in St. Charles Parish, just upriver from the city.
Wealth did not bring immediate acceptance of the Dansereau family from the Creoles in New Orleans. The newcomers were Acadiens, country people, unworthy of associating with sophisticated society. When it was time for Emile to find a bride, most doors were closed to him. Only Marie Girard, daughter of a poor trader, would marry him. While happy in his marriage, Emile was not one to forget and forgive insults.
By the time the United States took position of Louisiana, Emile Dansereau had achieved enough wealth in his business dealings to be accepted, especially since his only child and heir was a daughter. However, Marie’s death of yellow fever in 1805 intensified his bitterness and resentment. Scions of prestigious Creole families flocked to their door to court Mlle. Dansereau, all in vain. Emile had vowed his girl would never marry a Creole.
Unfortunately, Emile’s list of the people he hated was long. The English, of course, led the list. They had stolen the Acadians’ homes and shipped them far away, many to their deaths. In addition, they were heathen Protestants. He considered most Americans to be really English and, therefore, worthy of his dislike. The Spaniards were devious. And for all his pride in his Acadian heritage, a poor farm boy was inconceivable for his belle Anne-Marie.
Anne-Marie spent a great deal of her time with her relations in New Orleans. Her father knew she needed female companionship, and as he had no interest in remarrying, his late wife’s sister became her example of womanly virtues. This was agreeable to Anne-Marie, for she loved the Melanćons with all her heart. Still, she was lonely for the company of people of her own age.
So Anne-Marie, as was her wont, sat quietly in the shadows on the gallery outside her bedroom, thinking of nothing and everything. A noise from the street interrupted her musings, and she looked out to see a tall officer in a blue uniform. An American, she thought. He had broad shoulders and dark hair and moved with an easy grace down the sidewalk. But most striking was his stature. He is almost as tall as Samson, I think. She shamelessly drank in his features.
Suddenly, the officer stopped dead in his tracks. To her embarrassment, Anne-Marie realized he had caught sight of her. The young man stood there, on the opposite sidewalk, staring up at her. Anne-Marie knew she should turn away, but she could not. His full face was visible in the glow from the oil lamps, and it was a handsome one. Moreover, his blue eyes captured hers, even from such a distance.
Anne-Marie forgot to breathe. For a time, the two simply stared at one another.
“Mademoiselle?” came a soft voice from behind.
Startled, Anne-Marie turned to her maid, a young slave named Clementine. “What is it?”
“It is late, mademoiselle. Do you not wish to retire?” Clementine’s eyes darted to the figure below. She looked up with a smile. “He is handsome, oui?”
Many others would severely reprimand a slave who showed such impertinence, but the Dansereaus were not like other people. They treated their servants and field workers like human beings, to the resentment of their neighbors. Perhaps that was why Dansereau slaves were more loyal than most. Anne-Marie only blushed and nodded. She looked over her shoulder to the street one last time.
The soldier was gone.
She sighed. “Oui—very handsome, indeed.”
In the months to come, I’ll have more excepts from this and the other CRESCENT CITY novels for your reading enjoyment. THE PLAINS OF CHALMETTE – a story of CRESCENT CITY is scheduled for release through White Soup Press in January of 2015.
Until next time, this has been the Cajun Cheesehead Chronicles.