* * * * *
Some hours later, in the misty, diffuse light of the Louisiana morning, Lenore was roused again by her neighbors returning to their apartment on the corner opposite the Russian violinist’s. Lenore knew both girls well, liked them, and found them inherently trustworthy despite their unsavory profession. The fact their names were prominent in Tom Anderson’s blue books was a point of contention with Archie every time he caught Coira near the window chatting to the girls on the balcony as they hung out their laundry. Archie had only ever flown into a rage the one time he discovered Lenore had been leaving Coira with Geneviève on days Lenore was minding the Pontelliers’ children while he was on deployment. The look he gave her answered the question she’d never dared ask, about where his thoughts were when his eyes were distant, and Lenore was sure that as tender as Archibald Etive was in his kindest moments, Private Etive had murderous memories of Wounded Knee, a fact which made it easier for Lenore to excuse his drinking in his harshest moments.
The quiet murmur of the girls’ laughter through the walls roused Coira, who rolled over, stretched, and wished her mother a good morning. Lenore kissed Coira’s forehead and stepped out of bed.
“We’ll need to be off shortly, love,” Lenore said, stepping toward the cramped water-closet.
“The Creole boys, mama?”
“Shush now and get yourself dressed, child.”
Coira rolled out of bed, removing her nightgown and beginning to dress herself. By the time Lenore had re-emerged from the water-closet, the girl, hardly more than a toddler, had nearly buttoned her buttons straight and was seated at the footstool beside the bed awaiting her mother’s hands. Lenore began to brush Coira’s light-brown hair in long, steady strokes, bracing her little head against the few tangles, which hung just below the girl’s shoulders. As she began to braid, Lenore could feel Coira sigh and inhale.
“Mademoiselle Tulette will have something for you to eat, Coira. I just need you to behave for her this morning. I’ll be back in the afternoon.”
“The Creole boys?”
“Are still in the country.”
“Are they coming back soon?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out, love. Hold still.”
“I can behave, mama.”
“That you can,” Lenore said, pulling the hair on the girl’s right side into three tight strands.
“Madame has scones and jam. And tea.”
“And tea. Aye, she does.”
Lenore tied off Coira’s braid and sent the child off to the water-closet. She dressed herself and brushed her own hair back, donning a white bonnet once it was properly tied down. When she was presentable, she stepped through the open window onto the balcony and rapped on the girls’ window, half expecting to get no answer. After a few moments, Clara opened. She was drunk, but not nearly so drunk as Alexandr.
“Good morning, Clara. Can I leave Coira with you this afternoon, if need be?”
“We’d be happy to take the little dear, Lenore. Any time. Did you—”
The bell from the morning’s first passing streetcar interrupted, startling them both.
“Christ,” Clara said, shaking her head in the direction of Liberty street.
“I haven’t found anything, no.”
“Anything from Archie?”
“Two whole dollars. Would you believe it? I don’t know.”
“Geneviève and I will feed your little bird, love. Just remember.”
“I know, Clara.”
“It’s only drinks, Lenore. Miss Arlington’s respectful, especially to married women.”
“And his two dollars.”
“I need to be off, Clara. Till later. Sleep tight.”
“You too, love,” she said, closing the window.
Lenore gathered Coira and ushered the girl downstairs onto Liberty Street. Lenore took little Coira’s hand as she grew tired near Canal Street and hurried all the way to the southwest corner of the French Quarter, where the Lafayette Tea Room’s large glass windows faced out onto Dauphine Street. Lenore led Coira around the back of the painted brick building, knocking on the rear entrance. After a few moments, the door was opened by a large mulatto cook wearing a dirty white apron with a clean white shirt underneath.
“Lucille’s petit helper,” the man said, smiling down at Coira. “Bienvenue, petit mademoiselle.”
“Good morning, Victor,” Lenore said, as Coira played shy.
He turned and left the door open for Lenore and Coira, who entered the back hallway, stepping through the back corner of the kitchen to the annex where Madame Tulette was washing cups in a wooden tub.
She only half-turned toward Lenore, stating, “Le midi, Lenore.”
“Not a second later, Lucille. I promise.”
“Pro-meese. Pro-meese. Si seulement le petit pouvait manger une promesse.”
“That reminds me—”
“Oui, oui, Lenore. I will feed the girl.”
“I’ll be back at noon, Lucille. Merci. Merci.”
Lenore could see the older woman wiping her hands dry and turning toward Coira as Lenore started out the back toward Canal Street again.
Under any other circumstances, she wouldn’t have considered spending a cent of Archie’s two dollars on the streetcar in lieu of a twenty-minute walk, but she had to catch Pontellier before he left for work. She knew him to be an early riser by habit but knew nothing of the household goings-on since the tragedy. As Lenore walked, she rehearsed what she would say. She hadn’t seen him when she stopped by to offer her condolences, leaving the only flowers she could afford with Celestine, who was back at the main house. She wondered if there was anything she could say to lessen the humiliation she’d felt at Iberville. She began to doubt he’d even see her. The streetcar bell seemed to count down the time she had to gather her thoughts, her words. When she stepped off she reminded herself that he was a good man. She thought he was a good man, or else seemed it.
Lenore approached through the metal gate at the front, noting that she’d not entered through the front before. It was Ellen who’d brought her around the back three years earlier. Was it too forward to come this way now? She stepped diffidently toward the dark-green front door, onto the veranda guarded by four magnificent, white-fluted columns. She straightened her frock and rapped the knocker against the metal fitting on the door. It resounded. Lenore thought she must have been too forceful. Such a knock would sound rude.
The door opened. It was Celestine.
“Oui,” She said. “Lenore, are you—”
She didn’t give the older woman a chance to say “mad.”
“I’d like to see Monsieur Pontellier, Celestine. It’s important.”
“Is he still in?”
“He is,” she said. She bore a dumbfounded look on her face. “I don’t know if he’ll see you. He’s just gotten out of bed.”
“Indeed, you will,” Celestine said, stepping back far enough to allow Lenore to enter. When she shut the door she seemed uncertain, hesitating at the base of the stairs, “It seems a bit obscene to seat you in the drawing room like a guest. What guest would call at this hour?”
Just then Mr. Pontellier emerged at the top of the stairs. He was buttoning the top button of his shirt and paused to look down at the two women. He appeared to examine Lenore for a moment, furrowing his brow before asserting to Celestine, “She may sit; I’ll be down momentarily,” and walking back into the obscurity of the upstairs hallway.
Celestine led the way to the sofa in the sitting room, casting her eyes askance at Lenore’s feet as she stepped onto the Persian rug. Lenore’s plain gray frock was visibly dingy about her ankles, and she looked away to escape Celestine’s gaze before being seated at the edge of the sofa beside an end table adorned with a lace cloth and a bronze figurine of a soldier in the process of being unmounted in a furious battle, or so it seemed at first glance to Lenore. She’d never noticed the figure before and was surprised by the emotion the horse’s wide bronze eyes and flaring nostrils evoked in her. She stared for a few moments before noticing that she’d hardly had the chance to observe the room before. The curtains were floating inward beside her. It had been unseasonably warm, and the floor-length windows were wide open behind the ghostly-white muslin curtains. It was the only sign of life in the room, and the odd silence lasted an unnaturally long period. It occurred to Lenore that she’d rarely been in the home absent the presence of the two rambunctious little Pontellier boys, who were ever causing some kind of ruckus she’d been charged with tamping down. She stared at the painting above the empty fireplace. She stared at the fireplace. She turned her eyes back to the bronze horse, its face frozen in an eternal moment of abject terror. How had she never seen it before?
Pontellier appeared at the sitting room’s entrance by the foot of the stairs. He was wearing a coat and tie now. She met his eyes, which seemed curious but visibly sad to her.
“Miss Lenore,” he said, bowing slightly to her. “I shouldn’t have expected to see you for some time.”
“I came to offer my condolences, Monseiur,” she said, pausing, at a loss for a way to explain her true intentions.
“At such an hour?” He paused as well, looking puzzled. “Why are you not with the children in Iberville?”
“You hadn’t heard?”
He looked even more puzzled, and now disturbed. Pontellier stepped further into the room and sat. He was rubbing his forehead.
“Madame Pontellier—that is, your mother, Monsieur—she dismissed me.”
He shook his head. “When was this?”
“Three weeks ago, Monsieur. I was only with them for two days after…”
“Have you any idea why she did such a thing, Miss Lenore?”
“I can’t be sure, Monsieur, but on the evening of the second day in Iberville I asked her about the terms of my employment and whether I might bring my daughter. The following morning, she had one of the negro hands drop me at the railway depot with hardly enough money for the fare back to New Orleans.”
“I haven’t come—that is—”
He looked at her face now, studying Lenore’s eyes. She was frozen by the probing glare it seemed.
“You should have come earlier.”
“I didn’t want to trouble you, Monsieur. Given the circumstances.”
“What can I do for you today, Lenore?”
“I was wondering, sir, if you can tell me how Raoul and Etienne are, and whether they might be returning soon.”
“I see,” he said. “I suppose you’d be in need of work. Is that what this visit is about?”
She nodded. “Only as it needs to be, sir.”
Lenore’s eyes gazed down at the gray of her frock, which seemed conspicuously plain against the fine amber felt of the sofa and the elaborate patterns in the red Persian rug. Lenore fixated on the floor beyond her knees.
“I’m afraid it will be some time yet,” Pontellier said. “My mother is a stubborn woman, and even when she hears about this from me, which she will, it won’t make a bit of difference, you can be sure. So I suspect you’ll be needing to seek employment elsewhere, Miss Lenore. I do apologize. I wish I had known.”
He leaned forward to get up.
“Monsieur,” she said, turning back to toward him. “I truly hate to have to bother you.”
“I must be at work, Lenore. I’m afraid there’s little I can offer you.”
“A letter, Monseiur,” Lenore said, “if it pleases you. That I might use you as a reference. That’s all I ask.”
Pontellier paused as he stood. He nodded.
“Certainly, Miss Lenore. It hadn’t occurred to me, but you were very good to the boys. Indeed. If you’ll wait, I’d be happy to draw it up directly.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Pontellier nodded again and then walked back upstairs toward his writing desk.
Lenore waited as the silence of the room grew around her. She noticed now that all the activity in the home had stopped. Not only were the boys gone, and Madame Pontellier, but, excluding Celestine, the servants were nowhere to be seen. The construction in the back room had halted—Lenore could only guess unfinished. There was no more hammering and no chatter of workmen. The only interruption in the minutes she waited were the few passing birds in the garden and the distant bell of the streetcar. As Lenore looked around, she noticed the only glaring absence from such a finely-furnished sitting room was a clock. Celestine entered once, passing by and paying Lenore so little attention as to make her brief appearance seem contemptuous. It had to have been ten minutes before Pontellier appeared again holding an envelope. Lenore rose.
“It occurred to me,” he said, “that an acquaintance of mine has just had his second child and may be in need of a nurse while his wife is convalescing. I’ve written a brief letter of introduction to the Dorniers and a longer generic letter documenting your good service. I’ve also written a cheque that I hope will serve as compensation for my parents’ ill treatment.”
“I’m speechless, Monsieur.”
“I can see,” he said. “I’ve made the cheque to Madame Lenore Etieve. Your husband is Creole?”
“I beg your pardon, Monsieur Pontellier, but it’s Etive. It’s a Scottish surname.”
“Ah. He’s a Scotsman, your husband?”
Lenore nodded and looked down at the envelope.
“My bank is on Canal Street, and they should cash the cheque,” Pontellier said, nodding. “The Dorniers’ address is on the back of the first letter. I’ve addressed it to Madame Dornier, and I suggest you call on her this morning if you can.”
Lenore nodded, “Certainly, I will.”
Pontellier approached and set the envelope in Lenore’s trembling hand. She curtseyed and bowed slightly, and it struck her as a clumsy gesture a gentleman like Pontellier would find comical and poorly executed by an imposter at the exact wrong time. He didn’t laugh as she’d expected when she raised her eyes again. He nodded.
“I’m late,” he said, turning toward the front door.
Lenore remained standing as he stepped out of the room, unsure whether she should follow, deciding that it would be less awkward to remain where she was.
“Oh,” he said, turning back toward Lenore. “I almost forgot. I have an item that more rightly belongs to you than me.”
“Yes, it would seem so. Can you call again tomorrow evening to pick it up, Miss Lenore?”
“I look forward to hearing how things are with the Dorniers,” he said.
Pontellier turned and exited the front door unceremoniously, leaving Lenore standing as puzzled as Monsieur had been when he saw her seated in his sitting room minutes earlier.
Celestine appeared behind her. Evidently, she’d been listening.
“When you arrive tomorrow evening, Lenore,” she said, “be sure to come in the back.”