Obscurity, The Twenty-Fourth Chapter
In which a young debutante celebrates her engagement.
On the most perfect day, five young women took in a picnic luncheon near the bayou’s edge. They had gone to extraordinary measures to plan such an outing and their cooks had prepared the most insatiable meal. There were oysters freshly shucked, the most delicate mignonette, cheeses wrapped in crisp paper, and freshly baked baguettes.
Mlle. G— brought baskets overflowing with peonies from her garden, the very scent of them herbaceous against such a softly gusting afternoon. Mlle. L— provided chilled champagnes from her cellar, the taste of them sweet as a lilac blossom. Mlle. D— had her cook prepare tiny cakes to accompany them, a small rosette adorning each one. And Mlle. A— brought honeycomb for scraping onto their crusts.
Their attire was most decadent, each of them outfitted as though they were to attend a ball later that evening. One lady wore a gown of pink satin, French lace tied at the sleeves and décolleté and a ribbon about her waist. Another wore tulle, which floated around her in soft clouds of blush. Mlle. D— wore a gown of damask, woven with strands of gold so that it highlighted her fair features. And Mlle. A— wore a gown of aquamarine, the silk clinging to the light as though her gown were the very waves of the ocean, shimmering in the sun.
None wore jewelry save the debutante, whose fine necklace would have been a true rarity at the time of our story, much as it would be today. Four hundred diamonds were set into an elaborate collar that dripped delicately into her fine porcelain breast. Her dress was cut to accentuate it, it’s color the most opalescent shade of pearl. Layered skirts formed plumes of taffeta around her as she sat among her friends, the focus of their affections, yet she all too humble to accept them.
She was not used to such admiration, she told them, her eyelashes lowered demurely, but she was grateful for it all the same. The debutante was newly arrived to la Nouvelle-Orléans, it was told, though her disposition quickly occasioned her to be favored by many. She was as sweet as a sister in the convent, as beautiful as a swan on a most serene lake, and as graceful as a ballerina who had only to courtesy to capture the crowd’s affections.
For all her amiable qualities, she was also the most complimentary toward her friends, treating them as cherished keepsakes, and bringing them small tokens of her fondness whenever they met for tea. She always saw in her friends their most perfect attributes, and they adored her for it, fawning over her like sprites who watched over a babe left amidst a tender wood.
News quickly spread of the young debutante’s arrival. Her father was a naval officer from la Nouvelle France, it was told. He was a most respectable man, an aristocrat of the highest order, and a decorated war hero for the many battles he there fought against the natives to the north. He was appointed by the governor to oversee his more tenuous territory, and his company was soon sought by every eligible aristocrat about town.
But despite his graying temples, his most distinguished facade, and his impeccable wit, his daughter quickly became his most prized asset. She was only one week into her tenure when she was courted by one most persistent in his aims. The philanthropist met with her father shortly after her arrival and made clear his intentions to marry her.
The debutante’s father could hardly be blamed for such an ill-suited match. Though his daughter was less than half the age of her beau, the philanthropist seemed a most admirable suitor. He was wealthy beyond measure and could thus provide a most adequate life for his daughter. And he was most charitable with his alms, giving with bounty to the rebuilding of the church, the hospital, and the cabildo.
A finer specimen could not be found, her father must have thought, and she most easily acquiesced to her father’s wishes. The luncheon had thus assembled to celebrate that young woman, who would soon wed the most eligible man in all of la Nouvelle-Orléans, who would be outfitted in the finest of gowns, put up in the most elegant home, and blessed with a most winsome fortune. Any child of her issue would be the inheritor of great wealth and she would live most luxuriously for the remainder of her days.
If they did not love her so, her companions would have been envious of her great fortune. But she did not lavish the affections put upon her and instead showered them upon her friends, grateful as she was to them for their patronage and for planning such an eloquent party to celebrate her great joy.
The women ate oysters with tiny golden forks and drank champagne that tipped merrily from their coups. Indeed, they whiled the afternoon away with such gaiety that they slowly became drunk from their indulgence. They lay in the lawn, their fingers entwined, ballgowns drifting around them in billowing tufts of opalescence. The water lapped softly at their feet, their stockings long ago discarded by the bayou. They watched the clouds, and laughed at their folly, and dreamed of a day that could not be more perfect than that one.
And while they ate and drank, they made wreaths from the roses, put them in crowns upon their heads, and spoke romantically of the future—of the marriage that was about to take place and the ball that would accompany so beautiful a day. It would be held in the yet unfinished cathedral, the open ceiling draped with so many boughs of laurel it would appear a grand hall—a banquet from some faraway kingdom, a fairytale castle tucked away in the clouds and unspoiled by the misery that dwelt so far beneath it.
Of the marriage bed, however, the young girl was hesitant. She had not yet been with a man and had no mother to explain the intimacies of it. She could only hope he was a most modest gentleman, she told her friends, he looking into her eyes and taking her gently as a peacock flume to the skin. Her ladies assured her it would be so as no finer gentleman could be found. He was generous, they told her, and most caring for the poor. She would be as a babe in his arms they said, and cherished as she was by Divine Providence.
The debutante nodded solemnly, her eyes betraying some hesitation, or perhaps some fear. But then, all women had some fear of the marital bedroom, especially in those days, and her ladies understood all too well the mystery of their future husbands’ sexual proclivities. They looked up at the sky as the clouds drifted by, wondering at their futures as they ate cake with their fingertips, the frosting sticking to their fingers as they laughed happily at their fates.
Come what may, the time would come to return to their homes. To place stockings on wettened toes and sweep sweet crumbs away into baskets, the afternoon spirited away to the place where other such afternoons go, lost and lovely in the corners of our memories. But the debutante would never forget such kindness in her heart, and the happiness that came from having such women about her.
We next read The Twenty-Fifth Chapter, in which the territory faces unrest.