offered her a hand down at the corner of Rampart Street. She walked up one block, then crossed quickly over Basin Street, and went up the steps to the gallery.
She rang the merry bell and Miss Antonia herself appeared to whisk her inside. They spent an idle hour gossiping in the madam's private sitting room. Justine had been away from the District for a long time and there was much to discuss. She did not mention Valentin and Miss Antonia did not ask after him, even though they both knew that at that very moment he was working just down the street. The madam served glasses of champagne and Justine got a little tipsy. It was like old times, when it was slow because of the weather or just a quiet night, and the girls would sit around talking and drinking until they got sleepy. There were no men demanding their attentions or favors. They were simply young again, and for a little while the drink washed away their heartbroken histories.
Miss Antonia excused herself and when she returned she brought a gentleman, a slender, well-dressed Frenchman whom she introduced as Paul Baudel. Mr. Baudel bowed politely, his Gallic eye sweeping Justine's face and body with a modest though clearly appraising glance. They chatted about nothing of importance for a few moments. Then the madam escorted him back into the front parlor, where his friends were waiting.
Miss Antonia returned and poured more champagne. She mentioned in passing that Baudel was a gentleman of considerable means, having married into one of New Orleans' most prominent old French families, the Sartains, their fortune coming from thousands of acres of rice plantations on the Delta to the north. Sadly, she said, the family had this generation produced three daughters and one drunken fool of a son, and so Paul, the arranged groom of their eldest daughter, was picked to replace the ailing father and manage the company. He made a success, enriching the family's coffers, and was much respected in the business community and in New Orleans social circles, known to give to the Opera House on the one hand and the Colored Waif's Home on the other. He had a sterling reputation and was a devout member of St. Michael's Church.
Though all this information was delivered in a casual way, as if it was just more idle chatter, Justine understood perfectly that she was being courted. There was nothing more said about it, and when the clock on the mantel chimed ten, she took her leave. That's when it happened.
Miss Antonia called for a carriage to carry her home, then stood on the gallery, waving a good-bye. Justine lifted her skirt and went down the steps and across the banquette. The driver offered her a hand up. She had just stepped on the running board when she sensed something and turned her head to see Beansoup standing there, staring at her, his face twisted up in bafflement, as if he couldn't quite grasp the picture before him. She realized that she had forgotten to lower the veil.
She stopped with one foot up as their gazes locked. His mouth opened and he raised a hand to greet her. She could tell that he still wasn't sure if it was her. He had seen her in the morning in her nightshirt and kimono with her hair all undone. He had seen her in one of her simple cotton shifts. He had never beheld her in the kind of finery that was intended to catch a man's eye.
He had to be wondering what she was doing there. For an instant, she felt like calling to him, asking what
was doing out at that late hour. Hadn't Valentin given instructions that he was to be off the streets after dark?
She caught herself and stepped the rest of the way into the surrey. The driver jumped up into the front seat and snapped the reins. As they pulled into the street, she peeked over her shoulder to see Beansoup standing there, his hand still raised and mouth still half open, watching the carriage roll away. She felt her stomach sink like it was full of lead. It was bad luck, terrible luck. Within a matter of
Rachel Van Dyken, Kristin Vayden, Nadine Millard