The box presented to her made her eyes light up in wonder.
She let out an audible gasp as she took in the beautifully-decorated minutiae. The box was covered in velvet, damask-embossed fabric, with a large, wine-colored satin bow. Small slivers of crystal were encrusted all around the perimeter of the box. The giver of this gift had clearly paid a lot of care and attention to the details of the decoration, making this gift as special as possible. She could only wonder, as her ruby lips parted slightly, the corner eventually making its way behind her teeth, biting down in anticipation, what lay inside the box.
Fortunately for her, she didn’t have to wait very long to find out. The bow surrendered to her delicate grasp, effortlessly unraveling, and the box lid carefully succumbed to the centrifugal force of her gentle tugging. She gasped again as she lifted the lid of the oblong box. Inside it contained a hat, but not just any hat. The most exquisitely-beautiful hat she’d ever seen. The brim of the hat was swathed in fine Irish lace, and the band festooned with the finest feathers, dyed in the most gorgeous jade greens, robin’s egg yellows, and amethyst purples. Betwixt the luxurious feathers lay a single peacock feather, Vivienne’s favorite kind of plumage. She squealed with delight as she lifted the hat up from its previous home, running over to the polished, silver-framed mirror to try it on. It was a perfect fit, and she was as pretty as a picture in it.
L’ilien, her younger sister, also squealed with delight upon first sight of the new chapeau, and fawned over the object of beauty, which sat atop her sister’s head.
She exclaimed, “Oh Vivienne, you will truly be the belle of the ball tonight with that hat! Which one of your admirers gave you this?!” She smirked knowingly at her sister with that last statement, leaning towards her, one hand gripping the post of her canopy bed, the other resting firmly upon her hip in a sardonic manner.
Vivienne gently laughed and replied; “Why my dear sister, I have NO idea! There is a card, but it simply states thus,
’Mon coeur est à toi pour l’éternité.”
They both emitted a short, sharp giggle at such a flowery profession of love from a random stranger.
“Whoever would have the cheek to take such liberties, ma belle?” L’ilien asked, smiling again, whilst shaking her head in disbelief.
Vivienne shrugged flippantly, smiling as she caught her reflection out of the corner of her eye. She tipped the brim of her hat and bowed, imitating a gentleman caller. “Well, one thing I shall declare— whoever this rather forward gentleman is, he does have exquisite taste! How does he know, I simply adore peacock feathers?!”
Vivienne Gabrielle Du Parnasse Marchand was a tall, elegant woman with natural beauty and effortless panache. Her ‘patchwork-colored’ eyes were her best feature. When the light hit them in a certain way, all heads would turn and look in her direction, especially when dressed in her finery, ready to receive her bevy of courtiers. Admirers would write sonnets about the impossible beauty of those two, round orbs, and the men of New Orleans all tried to speculate as to their actual color. She knew how to use her beauty to her advantage, and had the grace and elegance that accompanied so many women of her heritage, plus the warmth and gentility of good breeding, and family.
Her father Gabriel was descended from a long line of gentry back in the Montparnasse area of Paris, France. Her mother, Marcelle Céleste, also came from a long line of landed gentry, but she had a bit more of a checkered past. As a performer with big dreams, she embarked upon a career in the theater. She too was of exceptional beauty and refinement, and broke with many traditions for girls of her station by having a career of her own, in show business. They met one evening at a ‘salon’, or gathering, in a café in the theater district, and it was love at first sight. They wanted to marry, and Marcelle’s parents were naturally thrilled that a man of such distinction should wish to marry their ‘wayward’ daughter, but Viktor, Gabriel’s father, was dead set against the union. They had a battle of wits for months, and in the end, they reached an agreement. Gabriel was threatened with disowning if he did not make the treacherous journey to America, to secure the Marchand family’s long-term fortunes, with his widowed father.
Monsieur Viktor Marchand, Gabriel’s father, came from an ancient line of successful businessmen and decorated politicians, and he had hoped to secure a respectable position in the new government for his rebellious son, who chose to disobey his direct orders by marrying a ‘performer.’ She was beneath him in social standing, if not in class, and in 19th Century France class and social standing were everything. His fathers and grandfathers before him had worked their way up the line of aristocracy, insofar as to secure a seigneurie (lordship) in Montparnasse, both land and title, and he was not about to allow his son to bring the family name into disgrace.
Therefore, they reached a compromise; in order for Gabriel to retain the Marchand name and fortune and marry Marcelle, he must accompany Viktor to America, to make a new start, in the state of Louisiana. Viktor’s dream was to return to France with his eldest son as decorated heroes, and gilded men, but sadly his time in Louisiana was to be short-lived. The grueling six-week journey across the Atlantic Ocean took its toll on Monsieur Marchand’s health, and he died only a few months after landing in America from yellow fever. He suffered from a bite of an unfamiliar, vampire-like bug; the mosquito. This insect was rampant in the swamp-like climate of Louisiana, which the pampered gentleman was ill-prepared for.
Unlike his father, Gabriel quickly learned how to survive in the New World, instructing his small crew of slaves to knit mosquito nets, and using native herbs, such as goldenseal and pennyroyal, to keep the biting insects at bay. He also took a radical step for his time, and befriended the local Creole residents, learning how to cultivate rice, vegetables, fruits, tobacco, corn, and sugarcane, which he produced in surplus and sold. He was also an entrepreneur, developing sugarcane products for export, including fine liqueurs, various forms of refined sugars, sweets and elixirs, which he traded for a mint by exporting them back to his home country. He soon obtained the means to build a large plantation home, furnishing it with beautiful things, importing cloisonné objets d’Art, and lace curtains from Ireland for his wife. In the end, his inheritance was simply an insurance policy against any unforeseen misfortunes in his thriving export business.
The other light of his life, Vivienne Gabrielle, was born in the miasma of a yellow fever outbreak, in 1830. She was called a ‘miracle baby,’ since her mother, Marcelle, nearly died at the start of her pregnancy, from a bout of the nasty disease.
In her unpublished memoirs, written many years later, Marcelle claimed that “hoodoo” had cured her, and had protected her unborn child. Like many slaves, her midwife, maid (and nanny)Bessie relied on faith healing, medicinal herbs and “mojo”, from her mixed Creole Indian and African upbringing. Bessie’s powers of hoodoo, or ‘white witchery,’ kept her eternally in good stead in the Marchand home, though it was kept hush-hush amongst polite company!
Vivienne was a force to be reckoned with, from day one. Long in limb, short on temper, with a quick wit and questioning mind to match, the only thing which superseded her headstrong ways was a kind heart. Even as a toddler, she could not bear to see animals abused, and her room became a haven for baby chicks, cats, squirrels and other small, furry creatures, both domesticated and wild. Her mother constantly found eggs, feathers and other assorted animal byproducts under her bed. It became necessary for Bessie to sleep in her room at night so the little imp could not stow away with a menagerie from her father’s farm, as the threat of a lashing from his belt clearly wasn’t enough of a deterrent!
That compassion extended to people, also, and she soon started hiding young slaves, in an attempt to protect them from the driver’s whippings or other retributions for being late to the fields, substandard work, or for failing to report any accidents or illnesses amongst their kin. Vivienne risked punishment to protect other young people as she believed in her heart that they were the same. She came to this conclusion one day when playing a running game with her nanny’s little girl, Violet. Poor little Violet tripped and fell, and started bleeding. Vivienne realized that unlike what she was told by her grand-mère, black children had the same kind of blood, too.
She knew instinctively that Violet, and other black children were no different; they were just born ‘the wrong color’ to be treated fairly by most. She never knew why she felt this way; it certainly wasn’t something she was ever taught in her schoolbooks, or even by her parents; she just knew it was wrong to treat human beings of any color as chattel, or property. She preferred the company of Bessie and her children oftentimes to the children of her parents’ society, though she learned how to smile politely, curtsy and perform all other social graces. She was eternally curious about learning, from the names of constellations to the inner workings of the kitchen, and she treated the subject of deportment as one of her least favorite, though necessary subjects. She did what many intelligent children do with a least-favorite subject; she went out of her way to excel in it!
So, by the time a second daughter, L’ilien Marceline, was born to the Marchand family, Vivienne had already started her formal education, to be trained at the hand of the esteemed French colonial “Marquise of etiquette,” Madame Rivier. In addition to the basic subjects, Vivienne learned classical French and Latin, violin and piano, deportment and etiquette. Madame Marchand was determined to see her daughters married off to eligible young men, and Madame Rivier was the best guarantor of success in such endeavors.
Once she approached her coming out age of 16, Vivienne was sent abroad, to Europe, in order to network with the elite, expand her education, and to further polish her skills as a causeur, and high society wife-in-training, at a prestigious finishing school in France. Her beauty, easy smile and quick wit attracted a following amongst the young men and upon her return to Louisiana a trail of gifts and proposals from several ardent European admirers were swiftly delivered to her doorstep.
Vivienne preferred the comforts of home and hearth to far-flung European adventures, and she was exceptionally glad to be with her family, especially her little sister, whom she adored. She’d spend hours combing out L’ilien’s gleaming, waist-length hair, regaling her with stories of her exploits among the London elite, or the Parisian nightlife, where she’d sojourned through the bohemian landscape of the “salons” of Paris, unbeknownst to her parents, who would most certainly have disapproved of their daughter witnessing such debauchery. Vivienne described in vivid detail the plays, especially the opérettes, noting the particulars of the dances, the dialogue, and the costumes that were worn by each performer. L’ilien was mesmerized by her sister’s tales, and would often sit in wide-eyed wonderment as Vivienne brushed her hair and regaled her with a different chapter every night before bed.
They both dreamed of a world free from the restraints of duty and social mores, where gypsy mavens swished their tambourines against the soundtrack of a full orchestra. Where ladies in lace stockings could charm the gentlemen of society with their songs of love and tales of woe from the stage, making their eyes light up each time they lifted their skirts provocatively in rhythmic formation. The very same stage where their own Maman had once stood, wielding her feminine power like a scepter. They knew it was a world they could never inhabit, yet it was enticing all the same, and they fed off of each other’s enthusiasm, building on the story and embellishing details each night.
During her travels, Vivienne had encountered a rather unusual and intriguing young man. He was slight and delicate, ravishing in a most unorthodox way, his beauty almost feminine at first glance. He was from Virginia, but was attending a degree course at University in Oxford, England. He had a dignified manner that was almost regal. His forefathers were said to be descended from the English aristocracy, eventually settling in the grassy knolls of the lands named for the Virgin Queen— the New World. He had hypnotic hazel eyes and a distinctive profile. He donned stylish, often frilly clothing, and wore his golden blonde hair longer than the gents of the Virginia high society usually did, but he modeled himself after the dandies of the London upper class. As an appreciator of la vie Bohême, and dandy gentlemen, Vivienne often singled him out at soirées for the ladies’ choice first dance, and this extra attention did not go unnoticed by this young man. Upon first sight of the bewitching French agent provocateur, he was immediately smitten, although too shy to declare his love for La Belle Vivienne. He chose instead to woo her incognito, sending her gifts and trinkets under mysterious circumstances in order to amuse her, never leaving a signature or even a trace of his identity for her to associate with the memory of him.
While Vivienne certainly did admire, recall, and repeat her stories of dancing with the charming “Benji,” as she came to know him, she didn’t suspect for a minute that he might also fancy her. She mistook his shyness about making advances towards her for aloofness, particularly as he was an otherwise natural conversationalist, who had no trouble mixing amongst the social set, or attracting female attention. His older brother, on the other hand, always did his best to make his presence known to the ladies at soirées. He was an insatiable flirt, almost to the point of being a nuisance, though he could be ever so charming.
It came as some surprise when she crossed paths again with her old friends a few months later, not long after she had returned from Europe.
“Oh, go on, dear brother. Tell me what to write.” Alfred always had a difficult time articulating his thoughts on paper, unlike his younger brother Benjamin. He held his pen halfcocked, pressing the ink-soaked tip indelicately upon the parchment paper as he awaited a response from his diffident sibling.
Benjamin shrugged and said, “We kindly request the honor of your company a fortnight from Tuesday as we celebrate the annual Feast of Mardi Gras. Please welcome all friends and kin on this pleasant gathering for the opening of the Mardi Gras season. Formal attire is kindly requested.”
Benjamin dictated the flowery prose from his perch upon the sunny window seat. He leaned his delicate alabaster face upon the glass panes as he sighed deeply, daydreaming about her again, “will she attend?” He pondered this question and his heart suddenly skipped a beat as he considered their first dance. Would he have the courage finally to ask her to dance this time? His breathing quickened as he envisioned her exquisite form held within his hands, his hand on the small of her waist as his other hand held hers as they swayed gracefully in time to the music.
He must have let out an audible sigh as he suddenly heard Alfred chuckling softly, “at it again, are we? We must find you a hobby, dear boy. Before we know it, you will have wasted away, lovesick and forlorn, for the lady of the flowers.” He gave a good-natured tap on Benjamin’s shoulder as he delivered the words. Benjamin smiled wryly. Alfred knew full well his brother worshipped his friend, and he never took liberties with her. Though he was an admitted playboy and bon vivant, his loyalty to his brother knew no bounds. “Perhaps you could take dance lessons over the next few weeks. You know…just in case you’d like to ask someone special to join you in the first dance?” he winked.
Benjamin rolled his eyes and stuck his tongue out irreverently at his brother, “Why Alfred, I’ve absolutely no idea what you mean! I spent an entire summer under the tutelage of Mrs. Grieves, one of the most renowned dance teachers in England.”
Alfred cocked an eyebrow ironically, and tut-tutted disapprovingly, “Well, perhaps you should go back and take a few more lessons. I’ve seen you dance.”
Benjamin rose from his perch, lifting his arms and straightening his posture in a mock-waltz pose, “No, I’d much rather you show me where I’ve erred, dear brother, as you seem to be such an expert on the subject of dance.”
Alfred suddenly collapsed into a fit of laughter, slapping his knee in merriment. Benjamin continued to perform a waltz, and then stopped and smirked, arms crossed, leaning on one hip, head cocked to the side in a sarcastic move. Alfred replied, “Over my dead body, dear boy! I let you stay at my home. That’s as far as it goes! Dance lessons are not part of room and board!”
Benjamin Hollis had joined his older brother Alfred at his Louisiana domicile upon completion of his degree course at Oxford. While he enjoyed the cosmopolitan pursuits that the urbane life had offered him, he was glad to be home, though he’d already decided before leaving England to join Alfie rather than return home to the Hollis plantation in Virginia. He loathed the genteel country life, which most certainly included an arranged marriage and acquisition of slaves and a parcel of land. Unbeknownst to his parents, he’d joined the abolitionist movement while at University. Joining the movement was both radical and illegal in many places in the South, and could cost considerably more than the Hollis name. Benjamin was always unafraid of being seen as “different,” and he often got into heated debates on controversial topics. By day, he’d manage his brother’s shipping business, and under the cover of night he’d work with the Underground Railroad, helping his friends smuggle slaves across the border, on to Free states further north. Though not a religious man, he’d frequently attend church service lectures by the famous abolitionist leader John Brown, a fellow Virginian, under the guise of visiting the Hollis estate and his parents. Occasionally his sympathetic brother Alfred attended lectures with him, but he preferred to keep his allegiance a secret, unlike his more rebellious younger brother. After all, he had a business to keep afloat.
One thing the brothers both agreed on; they loved a good party, and they started organizing their first annual Mardi Gras soirée months in advance, ordering the finest champagne from France, decorations from the best local artisans, and hiring a French pastry chef. Their cooks started preparing the food days ahead of time, creating elaborate molds out of gelatin and turkey, peacock and ostrich feather centerpieces. Nothing went to waste, and their kitchen staff were not only excellent chefs but talented craftsmen as well. Benjamin had very exacting standards and demanded perfection in every little detail. Alfred had no wife as of yet, so he ran the household, ensuring the servants were well-paid, (he insisted on giving the slaves bequeathed to his brother the choice of leaving the estate or staying on as paid servants. Turning slaves into paid servants was another bold move for that place and time, but he expected loyalty and top-quality work in return. He even befriended many of his brother’s staff, and always remembered each servant by first name. The servants of the Hollis household received Christmas and birthday gifts, and paid time off for personal matters. In exchange, servants retired only after long periods of dedicated service, and even helped the Hollis family protect their estate when the tides of war had reached their land.
One other detail Benjamin left to no one else’s care was picking out a gift for his secret paramour. He hired a local milliner to design and create a hat, based upon his precise specifications. He ordered the feathers from Europe and India, sparing no expense. His brother paid him well for his help in running a successful business, and he saved his money wisely, all except for one expenditure; his lady love. Over the course of a year, he had paid a small fortune for cards, trinkets, and now a fine hat for her amusement. He only hoped that it gave her as much delight as it gave him in choosing the gifts.