CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Et In Acadiana Ego
Part 1 of 2
HEAR THE AUTHOR READ FROM THIS STORY
In memory of Lyle Saxon, 1891–1946
When Father Desmond excommunicated Mathilde Benoit, denying her the benefit of the sacraments, he wrote an account of his complaint against her. He described her as haughty, headstrong, well known for her quick temper and her indifference to decorum. Was she beautiful? He didn’t say. But she was young, she was an heiress and she was an impressive horsewoman who kept a stable of horses as high strung and temperamental as their mistress. She lived on a rice plantation near Hauteville, a small bayou town west of New Orleans. Hauteville was five miles long, one house deep on both sides of the water, laced together by a fantastical web of crossings: flat boats pulled across by ropes, wooden footbridges, bridges wide enough for carts, bridges made of bamboo, iron bridges with decorative trim, but not one stone bridge, because there is no natural deposit of stone in a hundred miles.
One of the finest bridges, of iron decorated with a filigree of fleur-de-lys, stretched across the water from the road that served the cane farmers to the door of the bank owned by Mathilde’s father, Pascal Benoit. If you kept your money in the bank, you crossed the bridge for free; otherwise, you paid a toll.
When Mathilde was six, her mother, Marie Beauclair Benoit, died trying to bring a son into the world. The son died too. An aunt was brought in to supervise the girl’s education, but she passed away in a fever epidemic the following year. Pascal did what he could to care for his daughter, which was largely a matter of giving in to her whimsical decrees: that she should have a pony, that she should wear white gowns and diadems woven from clover, that she should be allowed onto the levee at dawn to collect crayfish on their daily march from one side of the footpath to the other. At ten she was sent to the Ursuline nuns in the city to prepare for her debut into society. She was an apt student and she loved music. She learned to play the piano, to sing charming ballads, and, of course, she learned to dance. As a child she had stomped with the locals to the wild Acadian bands, but now she waltzed, her back straight, her feet barely touching the floor, whirling in the arms of her partner, a girl her own age in a room full of girls, all moving gracefully in interlocking circles, while the nuns sat on straight back chairs along the walls, tapping out the time with their high-laced boots. Twice a month her father came to visit her. He took her to the two entertainments for which she lived and breathed: the opera and the racetrack. In the summers when all who could afford to escape the heat of the city did, she returned to her bayou town. She spent her days on her pony and her nights by candlelight, turning the pages of fantastic tales, imagining herself a princess on a mountain of glass, or dancing in an undersea ballroom with sea horses peering in the windows.
When she was sixteen, her father died. She returned to the nuns for a year and then came home to another imported aunt who lived not long, and then, because the Napoleonic code allowed it, her money was her own.
There were suitors, there were rumors, there was resistance to the very idea of a young woman of means doing as she pleased, but not even the priest could force Mathilde to marry, so she did not. She set up a charity school for orphans and turned over the management of the bank to her father’s partner, thereby satisfying the nuns who had educated her and the investors who relied upon her. She occupied herself with her horses in the country and with music in the city. She was free.
One broiling summer afternoon in her eighteenth year, as the sun was dissolving redly into the bayou, Mathilde was riding home on her favorite filly, Choux-fleur, along the gentle curve of the levee. In Acadiana, nature runs riot and even a split rail fence becomes an impenetrable wall of green. Along such a wall Mathilde was passing, drowsy from the clop-clop of her horse’s hooves against the damp earth, when she observed, approaching from the opposite direction on the other side of the greenery, a fellow rider, so screened that his head and chest seemed to float disembodied towards her.
He was dark, handsome, his hair flowed from his temples like waves drawn by the moon from the shore and his eyes were as limpid as the shallow pools at the water’s edge. He was dressed in a loose linen shirt, such as the farmers in the area wore, but he had none of the red-boned rudeness of the local swains. His smile was sudden as a lightning bolt, the light springing disturbingly from his sizable white teeth. Mathilde found herself smiling back, which was not her habit upon encountering strangers. His attention was not arrested by her smile, he was admiring her horse, and his first words were, disappointingly, “What a powerful filly.”
“She is, she is,” Mathilde agreed. “She’s the fastest in the parish. She has twice the spirit of the best stallion and three times the sense.”
“Why three times the sense?” he asked.
Mathilde laughed. “Why do you think?” she said.
“My name is Nikos,” he said. “I’m new to these parts.”
“I am Mathilde,” she said, flashing her whip at the hand he extended over the wall. She touched her boot to Choux-fleur’s right side and left him there. He brought the rejected hand to his temple, smoothing back his hair, his eyes wide with admiration. What a rider she was! And what a rump on that filly!
There were sightings: a groom reported finding a stranger peering through the window of Choux-fleur’s stall, a farm worker spied a man plucking quinces in the bushes near the meadow; a rider was seen galloping through the rice field, destroying a swath of new shoots just topping the water. A bag of oats went missing from the storeroom. A horse blanket disappeared, and then, two days later was discovered neatly folded on the wrong shelf in the tack room.
Mathilde was more curious than angry. She was certain it was the man she had met over the fence and she persuaded herself that he was teasing her with these mysterious doings because she had been so impulsively rude to him. She revisited the green fence on her evening rides, but she didn’t see Nikos there again.
A Moonlight Night
Mathilde had a clear conscience and she slept soundly, but one hot and humid night in September she woke with the conviction that something was amiss in her house. She lay still, listening in the darkness to the myriad creaks, buzzes, and squawks of the night, picking out the ghostly whoo-whoo of an owl, the rustle of mice in the woodpile near the veranda. No, there was no sound she couldn’t identify. She turned onto her side and hugged her pillow close. She’d had a miserable ride in the afternoon. Choux-fleur was agitated and downright hostile, refusing the bit, dancing away to avoid the saddle, and when Mathilde turned away to lead her out of the barn, the horse nipped at her owner’s well-padded backside. Mathilde chose a familiar path but the filly stamped and started as if she’d been thrust into a dangerous and alien territory. On the return she bolted, reined in only with utmost difficulty by her perplexed and exasperated rider. The groom opined that the horse was doubtless coming into her season, and Mathilde agreed that this must be the case.
Now, in her dark bedroom, Mathilde felt as restless as her horse. She twisted and turned beneath the sheet, unable to find a comfortable position. At length she sat up and lit the lamp on her bedside table. She was thirsty and hot, too hot even for the cotton chemise she was wearing, but the nuns had instilled in her the importance of sleeping with clothes on. “If you can’t stand the heat,” Sister Marie de la Croix had told her, “do what I do and pour the water pitcher over your gown.”
Mathilde didn’t avail herself of this radical solution, but she did pour a glass of lukewarm water from the pitcher and drank it, standing at the window and fanning herself with her painted silk fan. The moon was full, casting a milky sheen upon the open lawn and the worn track that led to the barn. The air was dazzlingly still, curiously quiet. Too quiet, she thought. A grating sound she recognized rifled the air—the barn door sliding on its iron track. Without hesitation, Mathilde dropped the fan and ran through the house to the veranda. Lamp light flickered in the windows of the barn. “He’s in the tack room,” she whispered.
Out into the night she flew, her bare feet scarcely touching the grass, through the wisteria arbor, along the path to the barn door which was, as she had known it would be, open just wide enough for a man on a horse to pass through. She glanced over her shoulder at her house gleaming like a white marble temple, then stepped from the yard into pandemonium.
A clatter of hooves, a clamor of snorts, a chorus of outraged neighing. She moved from stall to stall, dispensing calming solicitude, but the disturbance was universal, and even Baron, a normally placid gelding, startled her with a double-barreled kick at the wall of his stall. Choux-fleur was just ahead. As Mathilde approached, the filly thrust her dark head over the gate, her neck fully extended, nostrils flaring, teeth bared, eyes bulging with fury. “Choux-choux,” Mathilde cried out. The filly responded with a high-pitched squeal that set her barn mates on a new round of stamping and snorting.
The moon was neatly framed in the window over the stall, shedding a pure white light upon the chaotic scene inside. Mathilde could see another horse, and that man, that Nikos, in the narrow space. The alien horse’s rear legs were jammed into the corner, his forelegs raised, his hooves curled over Choux-fleur’s trembling shoulders. Mathilde was an experienced horsewoman; she knew what she was seeing, but what vexed her eyes was the position of the man. Nikos had somehow gotten between the struggling animals. He clung to the filly’s neck, his eyes wide and his lips curled back, grunting and wheezing like a pig stuck in the throat. Was he sitting on Choux-fleur’s back?
“What are you doing?” Mathilde exclaimed, hastening to unlatch the gate.
“Get back,” Nikos shouted. “Don’t open that gate.” But Mathilde ignored him, and as the wooden dowel slipped free, the door drifted open on its hinges, giving her a full view of the impossible coupling which came apart as she staggered backward. Choux-fleur bolted madly past her, down the aisle and out the open door.
Nikos stepped into the aisle gazing longingly after the departing filly and Mathilde took him in, from his disheveled hair, his flushed face, his bare chest wet with sweat, his long torso ending in a v where the tan flesh gave way to a chestnut hide, down to his long forelegs, his knobby knees, his fringed fetlocks and dusty black hooves. As her legs buckled and a fog closed over her consciousness, he turned his light eyes upon her and she heard him say ruefully, “Now look what you’ve done.”
When she opened her eyes she was resting on a pile of blankets on the tack room floor, the lamp was lit, and Nikos was bending over her, his brow furrowed with concern. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“So it’s not a dream,” she said.
He straightened to his full height, shifting his weight to his hind legs. His right front hoof rolled slightly under in an attitude Mathilde would come to recognize as thoughtful. “It’s possible,” he observed, “that everything is a dream.”
Mathilde sat up, smoothing the front of her chemise, which was wet and streaked with dirt. “I’ve read about creatures like you,” she said. “But I thought they were fantastical.”
“Meaning?” he said.
“Made up. Long ago.”
“It’s true there aren’t many of my kind left,” he said. “I was trying to do something about that when you opened the gate.”
“Choux-fleur,” Mathilde said.
“She’s outside,” he said. “She won’t come in while I’m here. She’s not very bright.”
Mathilde got to her feet. “Where did you come from?” she demanded. “How did you get here?”
He flattened the hoof, laid his exceedingly long fingers against his cheek. “It’s a long story,” he said. “But the short answer is from an island, on a boat.”
Mathilde pictured him trying to keep his balance on a pitching shrimp boat. He’d go over the side at the first squall. “Don’t tell me you can sail,” she said.
“It was a big boat. I was in the hold. In the dark. A long time.”
“You were a stowaway?”
He frowned. “You ask too many questions,” he said.
A whinny at the window announced the impatience of Choux-fleur to be back in her stall. “You stay here,” Mathilde said. “I’ll close the door and bring her in.”
Nikos went to the window, looking out cautiously. “She’s a beauty,” he said. “And you were right, she’s spirited. She tried to bite me.”
“How could you do such a thing?” Mathilde scolded him. “You should be arrested.”
He snorted, lifting his head as if to elude a bridle. Mathilde stood her ground, glowering at him. The top of her head came midway up his muscular breast. He rolled his eyes down at her. “I’m bad,” he said seriously, and then he grinned.
It was an infectious grin. Mathilde lowered her eyes, nodding her head, hiding her smile.
His eyes softened. He took a step closer, reached out and touched her cheek with his fingertips. “You’re a beauty,” he said.
“You said that about my horse.”
“She is too, in her way; you in yours.”
“And which do you prefer?”
His brow furrowed again and the front hoof rolled out slightly. “Which do I prefer?” he repeated.
Mathilde blew air between compressed lips. “Well, if it’s a difficult question … ”
Nikos turned to the window, then back to Mathilde. “What can I say?” he replied. “I’m divided.”
For a moment neither spoke. Mathilde gazed up at him; his tail swished lightly at a horsefly hovering over his flank.
“You’re divided,” she agreed, and they both smiled.
At the Opera
Though it was not in his nature, to preserve his life Nikos became a nocturnal creature. In the daylight hours Mathilde provided various refuges where he sheltered from the eyes of men: the cool shadows of a pine forest, posted round with placards warning trespassers they would be shot; a lean-to at the edge of a rice field; and a run-down barn used for grain storage which served him both for rest and for food. In the evenings he made his way carefully along the lanes and across the lawn that ended in the French doors of Mathilde’s drawing room.
Nikos was wild and defiant, but like many unruly children, he was tamed by an exciting story. Mathilde had these in good supply, tales of romance, revenge, and treachery from the operas she adored. When a new score arrived from Paris or Milan, she read the libretto to him first, then sat down at the piano and played the various arias, singing along in her clear, high voice. During these concerts Nikos positioned himself near the soundboard, his head bowed, his eyes closed, like a man communing with divinity.
He was enchanted by the idea of the opera, a story set to music and acted out before an audience. Mathilde described the instruments of the orchestra, the costumes, the elaborate sets, the transformation on the stage of day into night, forest into castle, sunlight into thunderous storm, threatening a group of hunters gathered around a fire or startling a beautiful woman as she rushed along a moonlit shore to the arms of her waiting lover.
The opera that most particularly affected Nikos was Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Often he asked Mathilde to play the music from the great sextet in the second act, when Lucia is tricked into marriage and her lover Edgardo returns to find himself betrayed. Nikos’s voice was untrained, but he taught himself to sing Edgardo’s stunned accusations, as Mathilde, taking Lucia’s part, melodiously protested the cruelty of her fate.
One evening in the fall, Mathilde greeted her companion with the news that a company traveling from Milan would offer four performances of Donizetti’s sublime music at the French Opera House in New Orleans. Nikos declared that he would risk all to see this spectacle. Mathilde considered the problem. “I can hide you in my box before the audience comes in,” she said. “No one need be the wiser. You’ll have to wear an evening coat. And a cloak.”
They laid their plans in Mathilde’s drawing room, where they met with the curtains drawn, the door bolted, and the servants forbidden to knock on the door. She stood on a chair and measured her friend’s chest, arms, and neck; she would use her father’s measurements for the unnecessary pants. “I can’t very well order half a suit,” she explained. “We’ll need a long cloak, enormously long. I’ll order two and sew them together.”
They agreed to travel separately to the city; Nikos was to go by night on the river road. He knew the route, as it was on this road that he had escaped the terrors of the town, the bustling wharves and the drunken sailors who swore as he rushed past that he was the apparition of the drink they had just had or the one they needed. Mathilde would take her carriage and one trusted servant and meet him at her townhouse, where she would let him in at the courtyard gate. There he would dress for his first public appearance. Then he would follow her at a little distance so that she could make sure the way was clear. Her generous financial support of the opera house gave her access to keys, back staircases, and the largest box, draped inside and out with velvet curtains which could be opened and closed at the discretion of the box holder. In the past Mathilde had appeared in the company of a suitor or a relative; there would be talk about the tall stranger who stood in the shadows behind her gilt-edged chair, but gossip about Mathilde Benoit was nothing new. When the opera was over, Nikos and Mathilde would stay in the box until the crowd was gone, and then disappear into the night.
Their careful preparations were successful, and at the appointed hour Mathilde took her seat at the front of her box, where she was observed in conversation with an elegant stranger who stood in the shadows behind her. Was it her cousin Gaston? The several pairs of opera glasses trained and focused upon the heiress never satisfactorily answered that question. The orchestra struck up the overture, the bustle in the audience subsided, the lights dimmed and the golden curtains opened upon a misty Scottish moor. Mathilde heard Nikos draw in his breath. A squadron of men dressed in cloaks, embroidered doublets, puffy velvet breeches, and tall boots invaded the scene, responding raucously to their leader who adjured them to search the ruins near the tower. Mathilde gave in at once, absorbed by the familiar story, though acutely conscious of her companion, who stood utterly still in the darkness behind her. He was silent through the lover’s tryst and the brother’s vow, but towards the end of the sextet he muttered ingrata along with the tenor. When the act was over and the lights flared up amid the applause of the audience, Mathilde turned to Nikos. He was blotting his streaming eyes with his handkerchief, his lips trembling with suppressed emotion.
“So you like it?” Mathilde said.
“Like it?” he exclaimed. “It’s magnificent. This is the most sublime experience of my life.”
Mathilde laughed. The audience had begun to move about. She drew the curtain half across and motioned Nikos to back in behind it.
During the intermission Mathilde did not leave her box. She opened the door to the hall and ordered a bottle of champagne and two glasses from the boy stationed there. When the wine was handed in, she poured out a glass for Nikos, who quaffed it in one gulp. “Are you miserable in this close space?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said. “The air is very bad, but I don’t mind.” He held out his glass. “I could drink a bucket of this.”
“I’m afraid it only comes in bottles,” she said, refilling his glass. The gas lights flickered, dimming one by one, and the audience filtered in below them, the women fanning themselves, exchanging pleasantries with their neighbors. Mathilde looked down upon the crowd; she had no wish to be among them and sent a grateful thought to her father whose industry and financial acumen had set her apart, above the reach of wagging tongues and petty gossip. The orchestra tuned up plaintively; it was dark in the house.
“You can come out now,” Mathilde said, and Nikos, appearing from behind the drape took his place as before. Mathilde leaned back to speak to him, but as she did so there was a searing flash of light and a clap of thunder, followed by gasps and nervous laughter in the audience. Nikos was so startled he backed into the door, threw up his hands and cried, “Oh, gods.” The stage curtain parted upon a lavishly furnished tower room, a fierce storm lashed the windows with rain, lightning flashed, and thunder cracked. “Wonderful,” Nikos murmured, and Mathilde turned back to the stage, where Edgardo was proclaiming that the weather was no more fearful than his destiny.
After Lucia’s mad scene, after Edgardo’s dramatic suicide, after the applause and the several curtain calls, the curtain closed and the lights came up. Mathilde sat quietly in the box waiting for the audience to exit. Their timing must be precise: they would make their escape between the moment when the house was empty and the arrival of the ushers who would come in to pick up the glasses, the wadded programs, the forgotten scarf or jeweled reticule. Nikos was ecstatic, his pale eyes still moist from emotion. “It was just as you promised,” he whispered. “But I hadn’t pictured how it would feel. I thought it would be very pretty, very charming, though the story is sad, but I didn’t expect it to be so overpowering.”
While he chattered on, Mathilde arranged the cape over his back. “The singing was very fine,” she observed.
“The singing,” he said, “yes, and the acting!”
“Pull the hood up,” Mathilde instructed, and Nikos complied, drawing the heavy velvet cowl low over his forehead. Mathilde stepped back to take in the effect. “You look like a man pulling a piano on hooves,” she said.
All she could see of his face was his toothy smile. “Very funny,” he said.
Mathilde opened the door a crack and peered into the hall. Then she slipped out and made a quick foray to the staircase and back again. She pulled the door open wide and motioned to Nikos, who held the hood up over his eyes with both hands, nervous now and frowning. “Follow me,” Mathilde said.
“Don’t go too fast,” he said. “That staircase will be worse going down than it was coming up.” In truth it was a difficult descent. The wide marble stairs curved perilously, the rail was low. He had to feel his way, step by step, his upper body bent over his knees. Mathilde stood at the landing, watching his awkward progress. “You’re almost there,” she assured him. He swished his tail and, pushing off with his back legs, took the last few steps in a hop. Mathilde dashed out in front of him, leading him to the stage door. This was a heavy cypress plank that rolled on casters. Cautiously she pulled it aside and peered out into the dark alley. Two men stood beneath the street lamp on the corner, their voices raised in animated conversation.
“What’s going on?” Nikos asked, pressing close behind her. Mathilde glanced in the opposite direction; no one was in sight.
A shout of laughter issued from the stair landing, followed by the rap of leather soles on marble; the ushers were descending.
“We’ll have to leave the door open and make a run for it,” Mathilde said. She approached her companion, pulling the cloak back from his flank.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Bend down,” she said. “I’ll get on your back and guide you. Once we’re outside, go left, to the cross-street, and go quickly.”
“I don’t know,” Nikos said. “I don’t think this is a good idea.” Mathilde slid the door along the track. The two men beneath the lamp were still talking volubly, interrupting each other, their voices rising with an edge of hysteria.
“Trust me,” Mathilde said. “Bend down.” Nikos obeyed and in a moment she was on his back, arranging her skirt and pulling the cape over her shoulders, wrapping her fingers in his mane. “Go,” she said, unconsciously digging her evening slipper into his side. Nikos surged into the alley, startling a shout from the arguing men, but before they could even be sure what it was they saw—a man surely, riding a horse covered in a long cape—Nikos reached the corner and, at Mathilde’s cry, “Go right,” he was out of sight. This street was mercifully empty but lined with tall, deep-balconied houses, lit by gas lamps. “Straight on,” Mathilde ordered, bringing her lips close to her mount’s shoulder, “two blocks, then left into the alley.”
“Hold on,” Nikos said, breaking into a gallop. The clatter of hooves against paving bricks startled a night watchman, who rushed out from a side street shouting a warning, for racing in the Carré was strictly forbidden. Nikos veered away, his cape streaming out from his shoulders like a flapping black wing, leaving his pursuer rubbing his eyes in wonder, uncertain exactly what he had seen. Nikos swerved into the narrow alley, which was dark and quiet, both sides lined with stucco walls covered in vines. “Slow down,” Mathilde said. “No one will see us here.” He slowed to a trot, looking back anxiously over his shoulder. “Is he following us?” he asked.
“No,” Mathilde said. “Walk now so you don’t make so much noise.” He slowed, bringing each hoof down carefully. His breath was labored and harsh and beneath her knees Mathilde could feel the nervous quivering of his muscles. “We can go four blocks here, then we’ll have to cross Rue Royale, and then it’s just one more block to my house.”
“I’d rather run,” Nikos said.
“We’ll be there soon,” Mathilde assured him. She patted his back and found the evening coat soaked through with sweat. “Calm down,” she said.
They had one more fright at the end of the alley, a lamplighter on a ladder replacing a globe, but he was so absorbed in his task that Nikos slipped by unseen on the opposite sidewalk. At Mathilde’s house, she alighted from his back and opened the gate. Nikos, glancing about as if he expected to be apprehended any moment, bolted to safety. He had his tie and coat off before Mathilde had closed the bar. “What a night,” he murmured, “what a night.” He followed her, shedding his sodden shirt, across the courtyard and in at the wide French doors. A servant had left a fire and a chilled bottle of champagne for the mistress’s return, then gone off to bed.
Nikos made straight for the refreshment, skillfully popping the cork and filling two glasses. Mathilde was occupied with drawing the drapes. They didn’t speak for several moments, during which snatches of romantic melodies and dramatic encounters lingered in Mathilde’s imagination. When she turned to her companion, who held out a glass to her, his eyes golden in the lamplight, she had the sensation that she was on a stage; that an audience, poised between engagement and disbelief, hung upon her words. “An enchanting evening,” she said.
“Nothing like it in my memory,” Nikos agreed. “So many new sensations.” He set his glass down on the tray. “I’m trembling from the excitement and the strangeness of it all.” Tears stood in his eyes, he sniffed, lifting his chin and running his palm across his cheek, down his throat. “No one has ever been on my back before,” he said. He took up a napkin, dabbed at his nose, then shuddered and burst into sobs. “It was so unexpected,” he moaned. “So wonderful and strange. I felt we were one.”
Mathilde sipped her wine, at a loss for words. It hadn’t occurred to her that no one would ever have ridden Nikos; he was, after all … Now he drew in his breath, swabbing his eyes with the napkin, as he maneuvered between a chaise and a plant stand on which an enormous fern trembled in the humid air. “Mathilde,” he said, holding his hand out to her. She took a step back. “These feelings are new to me,” he explained. Then, clumsily, bending over his front legs as he folded them beneath him on the carpet, he came down upon his knees. “Mathilde,” he said again. “May the gods forgive me. I am completely yours.”
CONTINUE TO PART II
Valerie Martin is the author of three collections of short fiction, a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, and nine novels, including Mary Reilly (winner of the 1990 Kafka prize and the basis for the Stephen Frears film of the same title), Property (2003 winner of Great Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize), and most recently The Confessions of Edward Day. This is her first online publication.