Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chapter One: Jean Charles and Lela Chevalier

Chapter 1
Jean Charles and Lela Chevalier

June, 1875

“Cindy, why?” Jean Charles cried as he broke down in tears again. It seemed as if his life had been a series of tragedies. First his mother’s mysterious passing, then the ‘accidental’ death of his sister Lily. Now this. “Cindy, did they mean more to you than your own daughter?” he whispered to her as he gazed into the morning sky. “My God, she is just a little girl! Did you not even think of her?”

A small hand tugged on his leg. “Papa, Maman could not stay.” Little Lily said with tears in her eyes. “Please do not be mad at Maman.”

Jean Charles beheld his heart standing before him. Opening his arms, she leapt into them, father and daughter mourning the loss of their love together. Only Lily’s love could erase from his mind the image of Cindy lying dead in the middle of the foyer.

He could not understand why she would kill herself. Sure, the loss of her brothers and her father in the war had upset her. However, he did not believe that their deaths devastated her to the point of suicide. It had been nearly ten years. In fact, she seemed to have moved on. The more that he thought about the manner, it just did not make sense.

Besides, Cindy adored Lily. There was no way that she would leave her. A smile slipped across his face. When Lily was born, Cindy did not trust anyone with the child, including himself and Lela. However, as time went on, she began to trust them more. She was the joy of her life, taking the child everywhere with her. Cindy loved life!

Lily drifted off to sleep in his arms, although mid-morning. “Ma chere,” he lamented as he kissed her on her forehead. He knew that Cindy’s death had devastated her, although the child worked to be strong. “You are no longer Papa’s little girl. Soon you will be 7 years old!”

He looked out the window, remembering the evening that she died. “Bedtime Mademoiselle!”


“No, Lela!” she tickled her. As they walked down the hall Lela stopped, spotting her lying in the foyer, eerily still. “Mademoiselle, let us go up the rear stairs,” she bent over and whispered to her, smiling. “We can get some cookies and milk from the kitchen as well!” The child squealed with delight as they raced down the hall.

Once she had placed Lily in her room, occupying her attention with milk and cookies, she ran down the stairs to the library. “Monsieur!” she yelled her face tear streaked. Jean Charles immediately bolted up and followed her, to find his wife dead in the center of foyer. He shook his head to expel the memory from his mind. He had to focus on the future, on Lily.

His father Augustus only served to intensify his grief. “Those Fairmounts have always been crazy. Something was wrong with her Maman as well. It was only a matter of time.”

“Papa, please!” Sometimes he hated his father.

“Don’t you talk back to me Jean Charles! I’m going to forget it, since you’re grieving.” He puffed on his cigar. “That gal was of loose moral character anyway. You are better off without her.”

Jean Charles lunged for him, but Augustus slugged him, hemming his arm behind his back. “You are truly mad, aren’t you?” he laughed at him. “You think that you can take me, boy?”

“Stop slandering my wife!”

Augustus let him go. “I’m leaving. I will leave you alone to mourn your whore.”

Once he heard his father’s carriage pull away, Jean Charles broke down and sobbed. Why would God curse him a father such as him? He had built this house in the Garden District to escape him… so that they all could, Lela too. Poor Lela…

As he wept, he understood. “Oh God, he would not…” He could not even conceptualize that his Father would do such a thing, as his thoughts drifted back to La Rose.

“Why waste your time with Jean Charles when you can have me?” he slurred drunk, pinning Cindy down on the sofa. The memory of what he tried to do to her, God her screams… He retrieved the poker from the fireplace, hitting him over the head with it, knocking him out. He prayed that he had killed him.

Grabbing Cindy, he took her upstairs. “We are leaving here, this very instant darling.” He ordered Lela to pack their things, as well as her own. “The house will be completed in three months. We will stay at the hotel until it is finished.” Cindy cried and cried.

Jean Charles knew without a doubt. His fucking father… He bolted from the floor and rushed to the door. “Lela!”

“Oui Monsieur, what is it?”

He closed the door behind her. “Lela… Do you think that Cindy would kill herself?”

She did not wish to become involved in any family manners. She had had enough. “Monsieur, it is not for me to say.”

“Lela, please! For once, just say what you think!”

“It is not my position…”


“No,” she whispered.

He bit his lip. “Lela, was Father here the day that Cindy died?”

Fear sprung into her eyes. “Monsieur, I do not know!” she exclaimed, trying to remember. “I was busy with Mademoiselle and other things around the house that day. I do not recall seeing him.”

He collapsed into his chair, defeated. Once again, his father had ruined his life and he could not prove it. “That will be all, Lela. Merci.”


“Oh Lela, school was wonderful today!” Lily exclaimed as she burst into the kitchen.

“Come! Sit and tell me all about it.” She loved hearing about her adventures at school. Lela had been fortunate enough to attend school for only a short time.

“Marlena invited me to her birthday party this Saturday!”

“She did? Oh, how wonderful!” Marlena was one of the most popular girls in her class. “Oh darling, I am so happy for you…” she said as she kissed her on the forehead. “My, you are warm! Are you not feeling well?”

“Yes Lela, I am!” she shouted running down the hall and then up the stairs. She stared at the child and shook her head, returning to her work.

As the week wore on, her fever intensified. At first, they believed it to be a little cold, nothing serious. However, the fever began to creep higher and higher, accompanied by lethargy and body aches. “Lily darling, I think that you should stay home today.”

“But Papa, I cannot miss the party! Everyone will be there!” she pleaded with tears in her eyes. “Please Papa, just this once.”

He kissed his little girl, fussing with an errant curl. “Oui, ma chere. You may go.”

She returned home floating high above the clouds from all of the fun that she had at the party. Lela entered the parlor as Lily told her father about all of the games they played and everyone who attended. Noticing her red face, Lela raced over to the child and felt her forehead.

“Mon Dieu! Monsieur, she is burning up!”

Jean Charles placed his lips on her forehead. “Oh my God!” They raced up the stairs and put her to bed.

“Papa, I feel fine!” she scolded them, still riding high from her afternoon with her friends. Lela rushed from the room, instructing the servants to tote cold water upstairs to fill the bath tub, while Jean Charles sent his servant to get the doctor.

By the time the doctor arrived, the fever had taken control of her, ravishing her little body. After an extensive examination, the doctor confirmed their worst fears. “Yellow Fever,” he whispered. Jean Charles collapsed into the chair beside his heart’s bed.

Soon, everyone in New Orleans began to realize that their children and their elderly people suffered from the same symptoms. High fevers ran rampant throughout the city. “It has been a week, Doctor!” he ranted as he applied cold compresses to her head. She had been unconscious for two days. “No! Mon Dieu, please!” he wailed. The doctor said nothing as Lela wept near the window.

“Maybe we she put her back in the bath…” she whispered, knowing that it would do no good.

“Monsieur, her fever is 105 degrees.” The doctor knew, but refused to give up hope. “Let us place her in the bath again.” Jean Charles lifted his Heart from her wet bed, easing her into the tub of ice water. She did not flinch, lying lifelessly in the water for several hours, her eyes rolled back in her head.

Lela watched her. “Monsieur, look!” she cried, encouraged. She opened her eyes, focusing for a few moments on a figure, a target in the distance, which no one could see but her. Lily smiled a little.

“No!” he screamed frantically as he watched her slip away. He scooped his life out of the water, wailing.

“Monsieur, she is gone,” the doctor whispered. Jean Charles clutched her, rocking her, all but dead as well.


He went through the motions of the day without emotion, a puppet. “Monsieur?” He looked at her, without responding. “Master Augustus is here.”

“No… Send him away.”

“She cannot send me anywhere, Jean Charles.” Augustus snarled as he entered the library. “Gal, go and get me a bourbon.” She scurried away.

“You have succeeded in killing me, Jean Charles. You were so busy mourning your whore, that you could not see that my granddaughter was ill?” He sat lifelessly before his father as Lela looked on in disbelief. She could not understand why his lack of compassion for his son surprised her.

“Now, I truly have no name and no heirs!” He snarled at his devastated son. “It was bad enough you had a daughter and no sons. I learned to live with that. But then you let her die! You are truly a fuck up! Always has been. But then I blame myself for that, your Maman being who she was…”

“Master! That is enough!” Lela snapped. “He just buried his only child today, not even six months after his wife!”

He punched her in her mouth. “You little nigger bitch…” he trembled with rage. Another regret. “Jean Charles, you have left me with no children and no heirs. I have no other but you. You have killed me this day.”

His cruelty could no longer hurt her. She lay on the floor, shaking with fury. Jean Charles sat on the sofa, a shell. Studying him, she realized at that very instant that he had entered the grave with his only child. Augustus stormed from the mansion.


After burying the last vestige of his life, Jean Charles Chevalier began to drink heavily. Day after day, he sat in his library, drinking into the wee hours of the morning.

Over the course of the next several months, he continued his steady decline, allowing the house accounts by which they purchased food, coal, flowers, and other services, to default. Chevalier’s creditors began to call on their sad home, seeking payment. Lela, the only person left to address them, would tell them that Monsieur Chevalier was not well, and that as soon as his health improved, he would pay the debts.

Finally, Lela accepted that he would not recover. Searching his desk once he passed out, she located the check book and wrote checks to pay all of the creditors. Early the next morning, prior to Jean Charles commencing his daily drunk, she presented them to him for signature.

“What the fuck is this?”

“Monsieur, we do not have any coal. This is a check to pay the coalman. He said that once we settled the account, he would deliver more. However, we must now pay in advance since we have been in arrears for so long.”

“That bastard!” he screamed, pouring himself a drink. “My family has done business with him for years. I will find a new vendor, one who respects the Chevalier name.”

She knew that he would not stay sober long enough to do so. “Well, in the meantime Monsieur, we should settle our debt with him.”

He snatched the check from her and signed it, muttering under his breath. “What the hell are these for?” He yelled at her, fanning about the additional checks. “Are you trying to steal from me?”

She gave him a piercing stare, but maintained her calm. “Those are for the general store, the butcher, the fish man and our other vendors and merchants, Monsieur. You have not paid anyone since… well before…”

“Shut your fucking mouth, Lela! Do not mention her name… Just don’t…” he cried, overcome with pain and grief. He forbade anyone to speak her name, wishing to forget her, although he could only think of her.

He gulped down his drink and signed the checks. “Leave me, Lela,” he muttered as he went to the buffet, full of empty crystal decanters, pouring whatever remained into his hi-ball glass. He returned to his desk and turned his chair toward the window, away from her piercing glare, surrendering to his own private hell.

Several days passed before they spoke again. Although tired and worn out by the Chevalier family, she could not bring herself to leave. She loved Jean Charles, believing him to be a good and caring man, overcome with the circumstances of his life.

She reconsidered if should share with him the news that she had just received from La Rose. “Perhaps it will help,” she whispered, opening the door. “Monsieur?”

“Yes?” he asked, hung over.

“Monsieur, how are you this morning?

He stared at her.

“Monsieur, I have received some news from St. Helena’s this morning.”

“What is it Lela?” he prodded, irritated by her hesitation.

“Master hung himself from the second floor balcony the night before last.”

He peered through her as if she was not there.

“Monsieur, your father is dead.”

He did not respond. Finally after a few moments, Lela left the room.