Stewart knew that he shouldn’t be doing this. Somehow, that just made his meeting with Miss Martin all the more attractive.
Her arm entwined with his, they walked along a flower-scented street in the direction of the old quarter. From time to time her hip brushed against him as the rhythms of their gaits brought them into synchronization. He was grateful that he was at least past the worst of the physical shock engendered by their first hip-to-hip contact. He’d been embarrassingly aware of what her presence was doing to him. At least now he could walk without difficulty.
“I am surprised, Captain Stewart, that you haven’t seen more of this city on your own.” She smiled, looking up at him from beneath her hat. “Surely there are more knowledgeable guides here than I.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “But none I’d rather have show me around. As for seeing the city, we’re kept on a very tight rein here, I’m afraid.”
“I thought that you were to be our friends, if not our partners. That’s surely not a pleasant way to treat friends.”
“Oh, the reins aren’t being held by Lord Byron,” Stewart said. “It’s my own superior who keeps us engaged in treaty business during the day, and locked in our rooms at night.”
“And yet you were able to free yourself to see me.”
“Well, strictly speaking I’m out here on my own. So far as my superiors are concerned, I’m fast asleep in my room.”
“Why, captain. Did you break curfew for me?”
“What gentleman would not?” She laughed, and while Stewart thought he heard some worldly mockery in it, he was also pretty sure pleasure was in there as well.
“In that case, I am doubly honored that you came to see me. And your kind words about my performance are all the more generous because of what you risked to deliver them.” Miss Martin gave his arm a gentle squeeze. Stewart decided he liked the feeling, and wondered at how to persuade her to repeat the gesture.
“Every word was true,” he said. “You really are a much better actress than any of the others in your company.” An idea came to him. “Though if you knew of another young woman from the company who was nearly as talented, and who might be interested, I think that I might be able to persuade a friend of mine to come and watch the show. And perhaps we could go to dinner after.”
“I think that I would like that very much,” Miss Martin said. “I would not want you to risk anything for me, though.”
“I’m a soldier, miss. I’m used to risk.”
She laughed again, more gently this time, and there was a huskiness in her voice that surprised him. Stewart looked down just in time to catch a searching expression on Miss Martin’s face before she quickly looked away.
“Where are we now?” he asked, as much to break the uncomfortable silence as for any real curiosity he might feel. Then he looked around. “Those are odd-looking buildings,” he said. “So small, when you compare them with the ones we were walking past a minute ago.”
“Ah,” Miss Martin said. “The houses of Ramparts Street.” For a moment there was silence again, and Stewart wondered if he’d said or done something wrong.
“I’m trying to think of the right way to explain this to you,” she said when he slowed his pace and looked down at her. “These houses are, most of them, decades old. They’re often handed down from mother to, well, daughter.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Back when the British first claimed the city, after Napoleon died and the French Revolution collapsed, Ramparts Street was where the lakeside wall of the city was. In those days Creole gentlemen” -– there was a hint of a snarl in the way she pronounced that word –- “used to take mistresses from the ranks of slaves, or former slaves and their offspring.” That’s still the custom at home, Stewart thought, however distasteful a lot of us find it. “Mulattos, quadroons –- ‘people of color,’ they were called,” she said. “There are a lot of people of color in New Orleans.”
“And they lived here? In these tiny houses?”
“This was the outskirts of the city then,” Miss Martin said. “A lot of these houses were owned by women who’d been mistresses of planters or businessmen. The word they use here is ‘plaçée’.”
“A French word, I assume.” Stewart looked at the houses. They seemed, in the poor light of the moon, well-enough kept up. “You’re saying these houses were gifts to cast-off mistresses?”
“And then their daughters, fathered by white men, would be in their turn made mistresses to other whites.”
“That sort of behavior would never be tolerated back home,” Stewart said, knowing as he said it that the planter aristocracy back home did, in fact, tolerate much that was very nearly as scandalous. “But then, in our circles we tend to frown on married men having mistresses of any sort.”
“A wise judgment,” Miss Martin said. “And an easy one to espouse, while the man is still single.”
Stewart felt himself blush. Was she trying to tell him that he was wasting his time devoting attention to her? Or simply mocking his moral pretensions, knowing full well what he intended –- or at least hoped for?
“It’s true, Miss Martin,” he said, “that it’s easy for me to pass judgment on others’ morals when I’ve so little experience in that area myself. But I’ve studied my friends and contemporaries, much as I’ve studied battles. And nobody questions my right to pass judgment on another man’s conduct of a battle.”
“A very interesting analogy,” Miss Martin said. She started forward again. “Let’s leave here and walk toward the river. I know of a place we should visit. If you haven’t discovered the New Orleans way with drink, Captain Stewart, you really must.”
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