Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chapter 3: James Roberts

Chapter 3
James Roberts
February, 1877

“Lela, I must go.”

She nodded. Although sad to see him leave, she understood that he had pressing personal matters at home which required his immediate attention. She guessed that he missed his wife and children as well. “Thank you for coming, Monsieur Salley,” she whispered as his coachman took the last of his valises to the carriage.

He patted her hand. “Lela, I am sorry that I cannot stay longer. I hope to return in a few months. However you have my information. Send me a wire if you need me.” He wished to give her a kiss and hug, but he knew that it would be improper.

As they drove away, he looked back and watched as Lela slowly close the door.

Leaving the quiet comfort of the Garden District, he glanced at his pocket watch. 10am.

“Jimmy?”

“Yessah?”

“Take me to Union Station.”

“What fo’, suh?”

“I am taking a little detour home, by way of Atlanta.”

***



“Yessah? May I help ya?”

“Yes Ma’am. Is Monsieur Roberts at home this afternoon?”

“Mis’sur?” She looked at him incredulously, and then she made the connection. “Oh, you must be one of Mista Roberts Lou’sianne friends. What’s yo’ name, Suh?”

“Monsieur… uh… Mr. Michael Salley,” he replied with a smile, utilizing the appropriate vernacular for the region.

“C’mon in, Mista Salley. Mista Roberts is in town right now, but I ‘spects him back shortly.” The coolness of the house refreshed him, for Atlanta was unseasonably warm for winter. “Would you like a cool drank? Maybe some iced tea? I just made it dis mornin’. It should be good and cold by now.”

“Thank you, uh…”

“Sallie. My’se name is Sallie.”

“Salley and Sallie! How clever!” he laughed. Sallie laughed as well. “Alright, Mrs. Sallie. I will take you up on that glass of iced tea.”

“Good! Good! Why doncha have yo’self a seat in da parlor there. I’se can send one of the boys ta town to fetch Mista Roberts.”

“Oh no. That is not necessary. I will just wait for him to return. Is there a newspaper?”

“Yessah. I’ll send it in wit da tea.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Sallie.”

“You’se welcomed Suh,” she said, floating from the room.

Roberts had always been so extravagant, he mused to himself as he looked around the sumptuous parlor. The furnishings in the room must been worth well over $50,000. “My God, how much money does he have?”

“More than I can spend in this lifetime, mon ami!” he said as he carried in a tray with iced tea and a pitcher of mint julep.

“James Roberts! Comment-allez vous, mon ami?”

“Tr├Ęs bien! How have you been, Michael?”

“I have been well. The family is well,” he replied enthusiastically, as he took his seat on the sofa. However, his countenance began to drop.

“What is it, my friend?”

“It is Jean Charles, James.”

“Chevalier?” he replied incredulously. “What could possibly be amiss with him?”

“Have you been totally out of touch, living the bachelor’s life here in Atlanta?” he asked with a sad chuckle.

“Well, the ladies keep me busy here,” he leered, pondering the local delights. “There are quite a few peaches here that are oh, so sweet!” he said with a bawdy laugh. “Look, every since Melissa died, I have tried to live life to the fullest…”

“No need to explain, my friend. I would do the same thing. However, the situation with Jean Charles is very grave.”

“What is the matter, my friend?”

Salley shook his head. “We are going to need something a little stronger than iced tea and Mint Julep for this tale, I am afraid.”

***



“Can I take yo’ bag suh?”

“Yes. Thank you,” he replied as he entered his private railcar, taking a seat in the wing chair. The chef came in and informed him of the lunch menu. “Lamb chops?” he pondered aloud. It had been some time since he had enjoyed such a delectable treat. “Yes, that will do. Thank you.” The chef hurried to the kitchen car to prepare his meal. It would be a long train ride, first heading north, then west, then south to New Orleans.

It had been years since Roberts left Louisiana, swearing never to return. After his father died, he had had enough. He hated his father. Evil incarnate.

But that was many years ago, and he had succeeded in spite of him. In fact, he was one of the few southerners who prospered during the war. He knew that it would be foolish to secede from the Union. The southern lawmakers were insane. Then the new rebel government wished to convert to confederate dollars? Roberts laughed. Not his money!

He moved the family fortune back to France, and then proceeded to invest heavily in Northern manufacturing companies, textiles, whaling ships, but especially in munitions. Oh, he made a killing! Although very wealthy, his wartime investments added at minimum of another $25 million to the family fortune.

In fact, he invested so heavily in the Union that the Secretary of State sent orders to the Union generals to avoid any Roberts’ properties that they may encounter in the South. While Union troops decimated surrounding properties, Roberts’ lands survived untouched. Only their plantations brought in a bountiful harvest for the next three years following the war.

His father Michael hated him for his success, but James did not care. He smiled, thinking of how his success accelerated his demise. He wiped a tear from his eye, happy to have destroyed him, vindicating his mother.

“All Aboard!” A few moments later, James felt the first, strenuous tugs of the locomotive, heaving with all of its might to pull so many tons of steel, passengers and cargo. With each tug, the train gained momentum, finally picking up speed as they pulled from the station. After nearly ½ mile, they traveled with ease.

As he left Atlanta behind, still bearing some of the scars of the war, his thoughts drifted ahead to New Orleans and to his childhood friend, Jean Charles. My God, how did he loose all will to live? He understood better than anyone the pain of losing a wife and child. But as time went on, the pain became less severe, making living bearable again.

Salley explained the matter in some detail, sharing with him the dismal state of their friend. “James, I do not know what to do for or say to Jean Charles anymore. He has given up and has lost all hope.” He hung his head, hiding his emotions from his friend.

Roberts sighed deeply as he puffed on his carved ivory pipe. “How can God expect one man to endure so much heartache? He is only a man!” He silently prayed to God on his throne, on behalf of his friend. Deep down he knew that his pleas were pointless, his boyhood friend lost. Only God could save him, but he would not, because Jean Charles had no desire to live.

“Well, there is only one thing to do. I will leave for New Orleans as soon as Sallie prepares my things.” With that declaration, he summoned her as one would the Calvary. “Salliiee!!!”

“Yessah, Mista Roberts?” she replied, entering the room drying her hands on her apron. Although he did not comment on it, he found it strange. She did not do any manual labor around the house. They had a full staff and she merely managed their activities. He loved her dearly, his mother. She had been with him as long as he could remember and he relied on her for everything. But he did not have time to question her, consumed with saving Jean Charles.

Sallie frowned, seeing that he had adopted a new crusade, and frankly she did not wish to be bothered. “Yessah?”

“Sallie, I realize that it is getting late, but pack my trunks. I am going to New Orleans.”

“New Orleans? What under heaven fo’? You’se swore…” she ranted.

“Jean Charles is dying from grief. Literally. He has totally surrendered to the bottle, and death.”

She put her hands on her hips, looking up to heaven shaking her head. “Lawd have mercy! That boy, that boy!” she exclaimed in anger. “His Daddy ruint him! Fo’ sho he did!!! Just had no fight left in him after Augustus got finished wit him!”

“Sallie…”

“Augustus was an asshole! Lawd forgive me fo’ usin’ dat sort of language, but the Lawd knows dat he was. He spirit’ly tormented an’ killed ev’ryone in dat house. Lawd knows dat I’se hope dat his evil ass burns in hell fo’ da way he treated my Sammie! Poor Sammie… I would just hold her an’ lets her cry in my arms! He punished her ev’ry day of her life! Den he…”

“Sallie, please!”

“You’se knows dat he did it, Jamie!” she snarled. “It’s his fault! He did it to Sammie!” His inability to except the truth about Sammie’s death baffled her. “Lord, I’se just as soon forget do’s times… I don’t sees myself how Lela survived, ‘specially aftah what Augustus did’s tah Sammie…”

He froze. Seeing the look on his face, Sallie laughed and snickered, teasing him. “Some thangs don’t evah change, huh Jamie?”

He scowled at her, and then ignored her comment. “Sallie, how soon can you have my things ready?” Roberts inquired stoically.

Looking at Salley, she remembered herself and returned to a professional role. “Well Mista Roberts, you have a lot of thangs. I can have you packed in two days. How long is yah stayin’?”

“I am not sure.”

Sallie looked deep into his eyes at his future. “I’ll pack ev’rythang. I’ll git da girls started now.”

***



Two weeks on the train was a long time, even if one had their own personal cars. Delay after delay. Goodness gracious, he could not take it! His connection was late, so he sat on the tracks in Ohio for some time. Once it arrived, they connected his dining, sleeping and lounge cars, taking him to Chicago.

He decided to stay in Chicago a few days. Although the citizens still labored to rebuild the city in the wake of the Great Fire, monumental strides had been made. Roberts stayed at the newly completed Palmer House. The hotel offered unheard of luxuries. No expense had been spared with either the construction of the hotel or with the service which provided.

While in Chicago, Roberts visited one of the premier places to shop, Field, Leiter & Co. While there, he ordered 10 new suits, conducive for the Louisiana climate. The manager said that he would ship them as soon as they were completed. And of course, they would include all of the accoutrements, such as ties, shoes, cufflinks, tie pins and watch chains. He even ordered two new dresses for Sallie, being good judge of size. He had to be, since she would never tell him.

James also purchased a locket, solid gold, encircled with little gold beads. He provided the jeweler with the inscription that he desired.

The next morning, he continued on his trek to New Orleans. This part of the journey went by very fast, no more than two days. He could have been there overnight, but he requested that the trainman unhitch him in Memphis. He stayed there overnight, gambling and carousing with the local women. When the train arrived the next day, they re-hitched him, and pulled him into New Orleans.

Atlanta had nothing on the New Orleans’ climate. If February exhibited weather such as this, he could only guess what the summer would bring. The humidity took his breath away, although not hot, maybe in the low 70’s. The primordial earth could not have been much more humid than New Orleans. He would have to telegram Mr. Fields and ask him to hurry with those suits.

“Mis’sur Roberts?”

“Oui.”

“I’se yah drivah, Jimmy.”

“Bonjour, Jimmy.” It had been some time since Roberts had spoken French, but it came right back to him. He had been in Atlanta for a long time, perhaps 15 years, since the end of the war. However, it seemed as if he had never left. Little had changed in New Orleans. Very little.

The driver had been advised by Sallie’s wire of Roberts’ luggage, so he had made arrangements with a gentleman, apparently one of his friends, for a wagon. It took the two men nearly 45 minutes to load his things: 10 trunks, 10 valises, and an assortment of hatboxes, smaller cases and boxes. Roberts knew that he would be there for awhile, as did Sallie, so she sent nearly everything that he owned.

He had considered asking her to come along, but he knew better. When Sallie said that she would never return to Louisiana, she meant it. After all she endured with his father, he understood first hand her dislike for the locale. He was just as big of a motherfucker as Augustus Chevalier.

The carriage lumbered out onto Bienville traveling on a short distance to Calliope Boulevard. Roberts watched intensely as the driver navigated the midday traffic, teaming with pedestrians, wagons, carriages, carts and animals, as he forcibly made a right onto St. Charles. He could not understand why the driver did not take Bolivar, but it was his decision.

The ride became a bit less hectic once on St. Charles. Roberts enjoyed the tranquil homes and the peaceful setting of it all. Startled at first by the bells, he watched as the trolley sauntered down its shady lane. Finally, turning left on Fourth Street, he sighted it looming in the distance, the Chevalier Mansion of New Orleans. He sighed, remembering when Jean Charles built the house to escape Augustus’ undesired overtures towards his new bride.

However, he hardly recognized the house once the carriage eased to a stop before it. The yard had grown into a jungle, strewn with roofing shingles blown away, presumably during the last storm season. He had done little since Madame’s death, and la petite fille’s death had done nothing to improve the situation. Exiting the carriage, Roberts climbed the dusty stairs to the front door. Surveying the porch, he could see that someone had been keeping it tidy. He sighed and ranged the doorbell.

“Who is it?”

He could hear the fear and dread in her voice, while attempting to sound stern and authoritative. Why, this was the voice of an angel, he mused to himself. However, the voice had a slight Negro accent to it.

“Who is it,” she asked again.

“C’est Monsieur Roberts, bon ami de Monsieur Chevalier.” He waited. Out of the corner of his right eye, he perceived a slight motion in the draperies, but when he turned to verify the movement which his eye had detected, all was still.

Then the door cracked ever so slightly. A quiet voice, tender and sweet, mournfully addressed him. “Monsieur Chevalier is neither expecting nor receiving visitors today, Monsieur. I am sorry that you have made an effort to call. Perhaps tomorrow would be a better day.” Slowly, she closed the door. Quickly, he stuck his foot in the door to stop her. The young woman gasped, instinctively throwing the weight of her slight frame against the back of the door to buttress it.

“Pardon, Mademoiselle. Je le suis ancien ami de Monsieur Chevalier, depuis nous etions petit fils. Monsieur est besoin m’aider!” he exclaimed as he tried to block out the pain in his foot. “S’il vous plait, Mademoiselle! Pour l’adore de Notre Dieu!”

After a few more agonizing moments of his foot being crushed in the door (goodness, she is strong), the pressure subside. The heavy cypress door creaked open to reveal the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen in his life.

Surely, this could not be… she could not possibly this youthful, he marveled to himself. That would be impossible, if her. He remembered Jean Charles lamenting that only one of his slaves remained with him after the war. If this was true, the woman who stood before him must have been a child. She appeared to be no older than 18 years, but he knew that this could not be so.

She was breathtaking. Average build, a little thin as if she did not eat regularly. Although her face had become drawn from worry and care, she was still very beautiful. She had large brown almond shaped eyes, a keen nose with very slight negroid influences, thick black eyebrows perfectly arched with matching lush, doe like eyelashes, perfectly proportioned lips and a beautiful chin. Her skin appeared as the color of milk with a drop of caramel swirled in, making her appear as if she had a very light tan.

A long curl escaped her head kerchief, betraying the thick, curly tresses imprisoned beneath. Could she be the one that he had once loved from afar, all of those many years ago?

“I am Monsieur Roberts,” he mumbled. The young lady did not reply to his introduction. “And you are?”

“Je m’appelle Lela, Monsieur Roberts.” She met his gaze momentarily, and then looked away from him quickly. Roberts realized that he may have been piercing her with his stare, unable to believe it. Yes, it is her! His heart leaped within his chest. She opened the door, standing to the side to allow him to enter. As he looked around the interior of the home, it appeared well kept. Had she maintained the home all by herself?

Roberts handed her his hat and gold handled walking cane. “How is Jean Charles today, Lela?” She stared at him, not sure if she could trust him. She did not have any memory of him.

“He is not well, Monsieur,” she replied quietly. Her heart broke for her brother. They were all that each of them had in the world. Most of the Chevaliers had died of disease or under mysterious circumstances.

“I would like to see him, if that is alright with you, Mademoiselle.”

“As you wish, Monsieur,” she said, numb with the pain of her life. “Would you care to freshen up first? Or, some tea and biscuits, perhaps?” There was little food in the house, but their guest was more than welcomed to what they had.

“No, Lela. Merci. Just take me to him.”

“Just one moment, please.” She left, leaving him in the foyer. As he took a better look around the house, he realized that she had kept the enormous house tidy, alone. Before the war ended, Jean Charles had at least 10 slaves to maintain the house alone, in addition to 3 cooks, at least 4 men to maintain the grounds and 3 stable men.

Looking out the window, Roberts surveyed the garden in dismay. However, he noticed… Oh what were they? Oh yes, the peonies… The pink peonies had emerged from their winter slumber, their green and red stems journeying upwards towards the sky. Due to the warm weather, they must have decided to make an early entrance into the world.

Even in the mist of all the chaos, the peonies fought their way through, promising their awaiting audience beauty and magnificence. He also remembered seeing the rose bushes coming to life; but somehow, they did not compare to the peonies, which did not have thorns to protect them. Peonies simply depended on the mercy of God to preserve them.

“Monsieur?” Roberts jumped. She walked too softly for his taste. “I did not mean to startle you.”

Lela truly made him uneasy. A force radiated from her, electric even, that seemed to throw him off kilter. He nervously ran his fingers through his hair, attempting to regain his composure. This is silly! I am a grown man, what is this… he chastised himself. “I am fine,” he replied, remembering that she had addressed him.

She stared at him. Strange behavior. “I will take you to see Monsieur Chevalier. Before you see him, please understand that the deaths of Madame and of Lily have completely destroyed him.”

“I am ready.”

“Follow me, please.”

The gloom and shadows engulfed him as they walked down the hallway to Jean Charles’ library. His sorrow permeated the whole house, slowly draining the life from every living thing within it. Surely a spirit from hell had taken up residence in the home.

Lela stopped before the door of the library, pausing one final time before opening it. Looking from the brass door knob to Roberts, she delved into his eyes straight to his very soul, in search of his fortitude, his sincerity. “Are you ready, Monsieur?” she asked, raising fear in his heart.

In that one moment, Roberts experienced the complete scope of desperation and hopelessness in which they existed. Both awaited death to claim their souls, releasing them from the hell which they could no longer endure, unlocking the door to their freedom.

“Monsieur…”

“Yes, Lela. Open the door.”

Why no one is here, he pondered to himself as he entered. Soon, he feared that he would be ambushed by thieves.

Roberts found the room in total disarray, torn and broken chairs, and the decaying carcass of a mouse in the corner near the walnut plant stand. Once, luscious ferns flaunted their majesty upon the stands, where now only pots of dried, cracked dirt resided.

Broken glass lay everywhere, the souvenirs of Jean Charles’ crystal tumbler pitching contests. Cheap cognac, vodka and bourbon bottles lay scattered throughout the library.

Blood stained the once beautiful Savonnerie rug in several different places. His eyes affixed on the unbelievable. This can not be! Brown piles of unidentifiable matter and yellow stains dotted the floor and the rug. “Do you have pets, Lela?” he asked in utter disbelief.

“Monsieur, Master did this,” her voice quaked, fighting back her tears. Feces and urine. Unbelievable.

Roberts listened as Lela rattled off Jean Charles’ descent into hell. To the right of the desk lay a dead raccoon, which had apparently entered through one of the broken windows, shot to death with several rounds. Where is the gun?

“I have since hidden all of the firearms, Monsieur,” she whispered, as if reading his thoughts. “I fear him. He scared me to death the night he shot that animal. I suspected that I may be next.” She dried her eyes with her handkerchief. “The guns are out in the stable.”

“Where is Monsieur Chevalier, Lela?” he could not find him anywhere in the disheveled room.

“Look under the desk, Monsieur.”

Roberts stared at her in horror, as if he had not heard her correctly. He walked around the desk. There on the floor, lay his friend nearly naked, in his own waste. Cuts and scars covered his body where he had either self-mutilated or injured himself. He examined his wrists, which had been cut several times. He even found slashes on his neck, scarred over. Thank God Lela had removed the firearms from the house.

Jean Charles appeared to be in a worst state than any derelict one might find on the streets of New Orleans. He had the face of a man in his eighties, who had lived a life of hard labor in brutal conditions. His beard was extremely long, tangled and matted. His body emitted an incredible stench. He wondered why he had not smelled the foul odor upon entering the room. He guessed that the sights which accosted his eyes numbed his other four senses.

“Monsieur, I tried to help Jean Charles, I really did! But, he would not allow me to.” Tears streamed down her face. “At first, a few months after Mademoiselle died, he was always drunk and very violent. Monsieur Jacks would bring him liquor, passing it through the window. I refused to buy any for him.

“Once he would pass out, I would bath him, shave him, clean him up, then make a palette on the floor and roll him onto it, so that he could sleep comfortably. He is much too heavy for me to lift him.”

“So I allowed him to lie in his filth for nearly a month. Finally I could take it no longer. Surely God would hate me if I allowed him to continue in such a state! So once he passed out, I tried again. That time, he awoke enraged, grabbing his pistol from seemingly nowhere. He put it to my head. ‘I’ll blow you fucking head off!’ he said. I ran from the study, never entering it again.”

He listened to her tale as he stared at his friend, lying so very still. “Is he… is he…” he stuttered, not wishing to know the truth.

“Dead? No, Monsieur, he is alive, just passed-out.”

“Why do you stay, Lela?”

She sighed, looking out of the window into the overgrown yard. She spied a renegade band of daylilies, thrusting their way up through the sea of weeds which engulfed them. They did not care, the weeds no match for them. “Because I remember who he was before all of this happened. God brought all of this misery upon him. He took away his life. I stay for Madame and for little Lily. They would not wish for me to leave him like this.”

Jean Charles convulsed, expelling a foul, dark red liquid. “My God! How long has he been vomiting blood?”

“I swear Monsieur, this is the first time!” she replied, terrified.

Shaking off the terror, he compelled himself to take action. “Help me get him upstairs, Lela.”

***



It took both Lela and Roberts to get Jean Charles into the bathtub. While Roberts held him up, Lela scrubbed him with a course brush. It took several hours to get the top two layers of filth off of his skin. Once clean, Roberts gave him a shave, removing his matted beard. He began to look like his friend once again.

Neither of them slept for the first two days. “Lela, did you receive any word on when the doctor would arrive?”

“The doctor will not be coming, Monsieur.”

“Why not?”

“Jean Charles murdered his last physician,” she muttered.

“Ah yes. Monsieur Salley told me about it. The doctor did not survive, did he?”

“Non, Monsieur. He did not. They wanted to hang him for murder, but one of his friends presided as judge.”

“Our good friend Montpelier.”

“Yes, and another one of his friends, Monsieur Claire, defended Jean Charles. Attorney Claire portrayed him as a mad man and the judge acquitted him. However, all of the doctors in the area banned together, vowing never to treat him.”

Roberts pitied his friend. Could this truly be his childhood friend, so happy and gay? Who was this monster who lay before him?

He sighed, thinking of what to do. “We have a friend, Hanzel Johannesen, who now lives in Natchez, Mississippi. He grew up with us in St. Helena’s. He is a doctor. Maybe he will come and examine Jean Charles. I will wire him in the morning.” For the first time since walking in the door, Roberts felt a twinge of hope.

“Oui, Monsieur.” She departed for the kitchen to prepare something for them to eat.