The ochre stucco cottage on Rue Burgundy was silent when January reached it. It was one of a row of four. He listened for a moment at the closed shutters of each of its two front rooms, then edged his way down the muddy slot between the closely set walls of the houses to the yard, where he had to turn sideways and duck to enter the gate. The shutters there were closed as well. The yard boasted a privy, a brick kitchen, and a garçonnière above it.
When first he had lived there, his sister had occupied the rear bedroom, his mother the front, the two parlors--one behind the other--being used for the entertainment of St.-Denis Janvier. Although he was only nine years old, Benjamin had slept from the first in the garçonnière, waiting until the house lights were put out and then climbing down the rickety twist of the outside stair to run with Olympe and Will Pavegeau and Nic Gignac on their midnight adventures. He smiled, recalling the white glint of Olympe's eyes as she dared them to follow her to the cemetery, or to the slave dances out on Bayou St. John.
His younger sister--his full sister--had been a skinny girl then, like a black spider in a raggedy blue-and-red skirt and a calico blouse a slave woman would have scorned to wear. Having a back room with access to the yard hadmade it easy for her to slip out, though he suspected that if she'd been locked in a dungeon, Olympe would still have managed to get free.
Olympe had been fifteen the year of Dominique's birth. The two girls had shared that rear chamber for only a year. Then Dominique had occupied it alone, a luxury for a little girl growing up. But then, Dominique had always been her mother's princess, her father's pride.
Presumably Dominique had occupied the room until Henri Viellard had come into her life when she was sixteen. By that time St.-Denis Janvier was dead, leaving his mistress comfortably off, and Livia Janvier had married a cabinetmaker, Christophe Levesque, who had died a few years ago. The rear room that had been Olympe's, then Dominique's, had been for a short spell Levesque's workshop. Now it was shut up, though Minou was of the opinion that her mother should take a lover.
January stepped to the long opening and drew back one leaf of the green shutters, listening at the slats of the jalousie for his mother's soft, even breath.
He heard nothing. Quietly, he lifted the latch, pushed the jalousie inward. The room was empty, ghostly with dust. He crossed to the door of his mother's bedroom, which stood half-slid back into its socket. Slatted light leaked through the louvers of the doors to the street. The gaily patterned coverlet was thrown back in a snowstorm of clean white sheets. Two butter-colored cats--Les Mesdames--dozed, paws tucked, on the end of the bed, opening their golden eyes only long enough to give him the sort of gaze high-bred Creole ladies generally reserved for drunken keelboat men sleeping in their own vomit in the gutters of the Rue Bourbon. There was water in the washbowl and a robe of heavy green chintz lay draped over the cane-bottomed chair. The smell of coffee hung in the air, a few hours old.
Euphrasie Dreuze, or one of her friends, he thought. They had come to her for comfort, and Livia Janvier Levesque had gone.
January crossed the yard again, his black leather music satchel under one arm. There was still fire in the kitchen stove, banked but emitting warmth. The big enamel coffeepot at the back contained several cups' worth. He poured himself some and carried it up the twisting steps and drank it as he changed his clothes and ate the beignets and pastry he'd cadged from the ballroom tables in the course of the night. Half his gleanings he'd left at Hannibal's narrow attic, stowed under a tin pot to keep the rats out of it, though he suspected the minute he was gone one or another of the girls who worked cribs in the building would steal it, as they stole Hannibal's medicine, his laudanum, and every cent he ever had in his pockets.
Before eating he knelt on the floor beside his bed and took from his pocket the rosary he'd had from his childhood--cheap blue glass beads, a crucifix of cut steel--and told over the swift decades of prayers for the soul of Angelique Crozat. She had been, by his own experience and that of everyone he'd talked to, a thoroughly detestable woman, but only God could know and judge. Wherever she was, she had died unconfessed and would need the prayers. They were little enough to give.
Excerpted from A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly. . Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.