I. Le Palais Du Sucre
I am not accustomed to the guttural thunder of bullfrogs at night. It vibrates the eardrums as if a washerwoman, zealous in her trade, beats at her mistress’s laundry. And yet the guests and the hosts seem unperturbed by it as they converse indoors. Their chatter is like crickets beneath the ambience of the swamp. I stand on the upper floor’s porch, framed by the colonnade that plunges like an orchard of cypresses, and attempt to breathe freely the evening air after too many hours spent among people with whom I must either compete or endear myself. Looking out across the estate grounds, I see a scene from another world. Moonlight glows among the heavy gossamers of Spanish moss hanging from the gigantic oaks. The contorted limbs seem ready to rouse for midnight reveries. I wish for bed, and smack a mosquito near my ear. Presumptuous pest!
“Oh, but you see that I am the namesake of your dear Louisiana,” says Mr. Louis Beaux from within. “And so I feel as if I have come home at long last.”
The fluff-frilled French dandy laughs like a loon. He has used that tired joke so often since arriving at the Sugar Palace that it repeats in my head whenever the name of this American state is mentioned.
“You may share a name with its benefactor,” Mr. William Lutz says, “but my family has blended its sweat and blood with this swamp for decades, taming it with great industry. Louisiana is as much of my blood as we are of it. Just as the Doucette family is of this great land. We are at home here like no one else.”
“Just so, my dear young man,” Mr. Doucette says in his breathless, rousing manner. His bulky figure resides in a leather chair near the French doors. He has spilled his glass of wine more than once tonight, nodding toward sleep.
“My family has cultivated sugar cane for a century on our island,” Mr. Beaux says in his nasally accent. “What are your mainland plantations to ours? Hm? We thrive in the middle of the barbaric seas, striving where no one dared to strive before. With the wild sea crashing all around us.”
“It is much easier on an island,” Mr. Lutz says, “when you do not have to worry about Indian raids and Abolitionists threatening your way of life.”
“We have pirates to think of, you know!” Mr. Beaux exclaims.
“As do we,” Mr. Lutz says with the self-satisfaction of a checkmate.
“It tests a man’s mettle, such things,” General Davis interjects. “And I have engaged such enemies directly. There is no baptism like the baptism of war. It scalds sweetly, purifying the man of all the weaker elements in his constitution. Vestiges of childhood, and the naive ideals of adolescence, are burned clean until only a man remains. Stern and vigilant and unwavering.”
“Ah, but each of you miss the matter at hand,” Miss Lucille Doucette chimes. “The matter at my hand. That is to say, which of you is worthy of my hand? That is more than a mere question of name and family lineage and manhood. Otherwise why would I have invited so many remarkable gentlemen into Le Palais Du Sucre?”
I cannot help but sigh. I am a stranger in a strange land. Louisiana is a strange place for a man from Derbyshire. The sights and the sounds and the people are a strange witch’s brew of everyday occurrence. Were I taken to Faerie I would not experience such a crucible of cultural delineation. Louisiana is otherworldly, even if its people are familiar.
“One of you could always seek my hand in marriage,” Miss Arabella chimes in enviously.
Miss Lucille, laughs contemptuously. “You are too young for such considerations, and you are not the heiress, little sister. Why would any of these fine, distinguished gentlemen be interested in attaching himself to you? They might as well attach themselves to one of our housemaids, for all it entails.”
I can hear the sharp, angry footsteps of Miss Arabella as she exits the parlour.
“Where did Lord Machen go to?” Miss Lucille says, unperturbed by her sister’s departure. “He is always slipping away elsewhere. I am beginning to believe he has given up the chase.”
“He was never in the running, my dear Lucy,” Mr. Lutz says.
“Indeed,” General Davis concurs. “To marry a foreigner would be to betray your breeding and your country.”
“To the contrary,” Mr. Beaux says, testily. “An attachment to the right foreigner would improve your breeding, as it improved your country during its infancy. Without the French, monsieur, your country would not exist, but would still be chained to the throne.”
Politics. I despise politics. Nor am I beholden to any keen feelings of allegiance to my own country. To press the point, I always refer to England as Albion to distinguish the mythical as more integral to my identity than the reality. Perhaps it is a bit of weakness and cowardice, this disavowal—and especially as it happens that I am of an old line of noblemen—but it is in keeping with my unmoored life and the ache of my wanderlust.
“Do you wish me to make an allowance for one foreigner over another?” General Davis says angrily. “All of you compromise the integrity of our sovereignty with your presence. You should be expelled with all of the other undesirables in our midst.”
“General, do not make war,” Miss Lucille admonishes him. “It is not becoming of you in present circumstances.”
“Everything in its due time,” agrees Mr. Lutz, his voice nearer to Miss Lucille’s than the others. Doubtlessly he is sitting next to her on the sofa. An enviable position of privilege for some. “Love was never won with slings and arrows.”
“Yes, yes, but where is Lord Machen?” Lady Lucille says. “I am of a mind to send Caroline to fetch him.” She paces across the room, calling for Caroline. “Caroline! Caroline, come here at once, girl!”
Caroline is not a girl, but a woman of at least twenty. Being a slave, she comes promptly at her mistress’s command.
“Yes, Miss Doucette,” Caroline says timidly.
“Do you know the whereabouts of Lord Machen?” Miss Lucille says.
“No, Miss Doucette.”
“Then find him,” Miss Lucille says, “and escort him here. He must have gotten himself lost again.”
I hear snickering from the other suitors.
“But what…what if he has retired to bed?” Caroline asks.
“Then let him rest, obviously,” Miss Lucille says impatiently. “And report to me of his condition.”
Poor Caroline exits the parlour, led by the candle in her hand. I follow alongside her from the porch to my room, watching her through the many French windows that line the walls of the Sugar Palace. She is a rather lovely young woman—dusky of face and gloomy of feeling—and entirely unfortunate in her circumstances, much like most Negroes in Louisiana. I slip into the house through a pair of French doors. Though it is not my aim, I startle her as I emerge from a corridor heavily veiled in shadows.
“Lord Machen!” she exclaims, a hand going to her aproned breast.
“I apologize, Miss Caroline,” I say, bowing. “I did not mean to give you a start.”
“The mistress desires your presence,” she says, lowering her hand. “She is concerned about your well-being.”
“You are ever the tactful diplomat,” I say. “And, as such, must tender apologies for my regrettable absence. I am not inclined toward company tonight. I have yet to recover my strength after the long journey here.”
“I see,” she says, lowering her eyes. They are dark pools of glumness in the gloom of the corridor.
“Simply tell Miss Doucette that I have retired to bed,” I say. “No need to complicate the explanation.”
“Of course, sir,” she says. She turns to leave, but pauses. “Do you need anything, Lord Machen?” There is genuine concern in her tone. “For your fatigue?”
“No,” I say. “Yes. Perhaps. What would you suggest to raise the spirits of a man fatigued by life itself?”
“Scripture, sir,” she says with a humble smile. “Or ginger tea.”
“One or the other in its own circumstance, I am sure,” I say. “But the ginger tea is most appealing presently. Do you mind having someone make it for me…or is the hour too late? I would rather not trouble anyone.”
Caroline smiles. “It is no trouble, sir. I will see it done myself.”
“It is not too much bother?”
“No, sir. I enjoy the smell of boiling ginger. And I always brew some for myself before I go to bed.”
“An excellent habit, I am sure,” I say. “Excellent for one’s health.”
“Yes, sir,” she says.
We stand a moment together in the corridor, regarding one another. It is so much easier for me to speak to servants in a household than to conceited lords and ladies. The servants of my father’s household were always more open with me, and I with them, whereas speaking to my parents was as approaching a heathen idol and attempting to beseech empathy in the cold stone of their graven eyes.
“I will bring the tea to your bedchamber, sir,” Caroline says. She disappears down the corridor, haloed by her candle.
Left to myself, I navigate the hallways as best as I may. The Sugar Palace is large and mostly unoccupied at any given time. With some effort I return through the shadows to the room allotted to me by my hosts. It is a rather vast room, imposing with its ornate interior, the florid wallpaper, and the oak wainscoting. The furnishings, like their owners, are overly concerned with being impressive. Their arabesques and lion’s paws and such are things given to the loudest of grandstanding silence. I come from a long line of nobleman, but never have I seen a nobleman given to such puffed-up pretenses. There is a sideboard, a wardrobe, an Ottoman, a sofa, an escritoire—which I make as much use of as possible, though not in correspondence—and there is a four-poster bed. The latter is bedecked with silken curtains and very comfortable blankets. The pillows would satisfy a sultan. There are a total of four windows in the large room, and a pair of French doors, all opening to the first floor porch, or, as it is known in American circles, the second-floor porch. I can see the colonnade, the railings, and the moonlit grounds beyond it, though everything becomes lost in the dark swampland at a distance.
I stand by the window nearest to the bed and lose myself in the faraway moon. It seems closer to me now than Derbyshire. The sentiment inspired by such a notion is ambivalent at best. I do not miss my mother or father, nor the troubles of the Machen estate. Yet, I do long for the Derbyshire hills, the vales, the rivers, and the woodlands. Simultaneously, I am in America, and the whole of America lay before me like a great mystery yet to be explored. On the other hand, I am bound to this place, at least for a time, and must honour the request of my parents, even though I am quite aware of the futility of such a pursuit. Of the men herein gathered, I am least probable to be chosen as Miss Lucille’s betrothed. Nor would I wish to be. It is so much bother and bumbling humbug.
A knock at the door. Or is it a kick?
“Come in,” I say.
“I cannot, sir,” Caroline says patiently. “My hands are both occupied.”
I hasten to the door. Opening it, I find Caroline with her candle in one hand and a tray of tea with biscuits in the other. I take the tray and bring it to the small round table near the sofa. The porcelain cup billows steam with a spicy ginger fragrance.
“This smells lovely,” I say. “Thank you, Caroline.”
“You are welcome, sir,” Caroline says. She remains at the threshold, haloed by her candlelight.
“Is there something else, Caroline?” I ask.
She shifts uncomfortably. “Lord Machen, do you hear the…song of the swamp?”
“Very much so,” I say, lifting the cup of tea and blowing on it. “Especially when I am not at the mercy of certain social circles and their raucous prattle.”
“I have lived here my whole life, Lord Machen,” she says. “And I have never heard it so loud before.”
“You may call me Bram, if you like,” I say. “Insomuch as when the others cannot hear. I do not scorn familiarity, but I would prefer you not be reprimanded. I know all society to be a comedy of manners.”
“Sir,” she says more sharply. There is a long silence, and she sighs. “I speak of the swamp because I have lived here my whole life. Twenty-two years, sir, and that is enough to know something of its song. And its song is louder than I have ever heard it.”
I sip at my tea. It is still too hot and I burn my lip. “What does it mean?”
“My grandmother used to say to fear the swamp when it is loud,” she says. “And fear it more when it is silent. The swamp has been silent at times, and louder than ever at other times. It is strange. The spirits…”
She trails into silence. I do not press her. I stare out the window, the tea’s steam like a ghost before my eyes. The swamp sounds like distant thunder rumbling beyond the horizon.
“Perhaps a storm is blowing in,” I say. “It may be here within days. Or hours. I am no judge of such things. I’ve no experience to inform me.”
“Just be mindful of the swamp’s song,” she says.
The door creaks as Caroline closes it. I can see her figure outlined by the halo of the candlelight, all reflected in the window.
“Good night, Lord Machen,” she says. “I hope you feel better come tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Caroline. And thank you for the tea.”
The door shuts and I stand at the window, sipping my tea. It is hot—the tea and the night—yet I feel a chill in the root of my spine. The “song” of the swamp unsettles me. I am not a local, and my ignorance of Louisiana is vast, but my instincts counsel me with caution. I am a stranger in a strange land, and it grows in strangeness with familiarity; it does not diminish. I baulk to think what intimacy with this place should entail, for it will likely be ever as a groom marrying an otherworldly bride. Is this place the bride I seek? Or is it a fairy hag seeking to ensorcel me? Perhaps she is a Lady Ragnell in disguise as the Loathly Lady. Or the Loathly Lady in disguise of the Lady Ragnell. Which is it? A mixture of both, most likely, if I judge by the lady who invited me here to court her alongside other suitors.
Perhaps I will willfully wander into th swamp by the end of it all, if only to escape the conceit of the Sugar Palace. How it vexes me!
(This is the first chapter in a novel I am currently writing set in Louisiana during the Antebellum period. It is a Southern Gothic Horror story with Lovecraftian elements and a Saki-esque sense of humor paired with what I would aspire to be Austenian elements for the sake of Drama, as well as a historical framework for the sake of authenticity. It is, in other words, a hodge-podge of all the things I enjoy in literature. Since I am often bed-bound throughout the day, after the car wreck, I might as well use my time to cultivate the fruits of my imagination. Whether it yields a bountiful crop remains to be seen. I have had this idea percolating for a while now in my head, but only now have had the time to pursue its realization.)