Of Nuns and the Demimonde
S. Ramos O'Briant

Geraldo and I arrived in New Orleans June 14, 1845, and went to the Angélique convent in search of Monique. There we met with the Mother Superior, an ancient nun who delivered the astonishing news of Monique’s disappearance with all the aplomb of someone announcing the cancellation of an afternoon tea.

“Such a pity you had to travel all this way,” she said. The Mother Superior’s craggy face was riven with deep lines, like a dried and cracked arroyo, and was just as hard to read. Short, with a noticeable hunch in one of her shoulders, she peered up at us. Tiny black eyes, sharp and gleaming like a crow’s, examined us beneath crepey folds of eyelid.

She stood to dismiss us.

“She had a friend, a novice named Mary Catherine?” I asked.

Something shifted in her eyes, so momentary as to have almost been imagined. “Mary Catherine has died,” she said. She remained standing, revealing nothing except her desire for us to leave.

“Sit down, Mother.” Geraldo’s voice had a deep edge which brooked no compromise.

She cocked her head, appraising him from this new angle.

“Please...” He stood and bowed, waving his left hand toward her chair. “S’il vous plaît, we have many more questions, and we intend to remain until they are answered. Mademoiselle Jacquard is a childhood friend of my wife’s. Naturally, we want to do everything we can to find her.” He laid a protective hand on my shoulder, and smiled coldly at the Mother Superior. I looked from him to her and back again—they were clearly facing off.

“I assure you, Mother, my acquaintance with New Orleans extends to the governor, and my family has ties with the Church, traversing Spain and France, leading straight to Rome. I will not let this rest. Please...” He nodded his head toward her chair once more.

She sat, steepling her hands. “Well?” she said, inclining one eyebrow upward, deepening the crevasse above it.

“How did Mary Catherine die?” Geraldo asked.

“She fell...broke her neck. We grieve for her.” The Mother Superior crossed herself.

“Did you bury her, or did her family? I understand she was from here.”

Again the shift of the eyes, impossible to tell if it were a tightening of the muscles holding her wrinkled lids in abeyance, or a tightening of the pupil itself, receding, drawing in on itself so that only shiny rapier-points of black shot out at us. “We offered to bury her amongst our nuns. Although a novice, she showed great promise and it would have been an honor, but her family buried her in their own crypt.”

“And Sister Isabelle? May we speak with her?” I asked.

The Mother Superior’s hooded eyes flew open, the lines in her fractured skin twitching as she turned to me. “What do you know of Sister Isabelle?”

Before I could answer, a quiet knocking on the door was followed by the entrance of a nun who contrasted with the Mother Superior in every conceivable way. Smooth-faced and portly, she smiled at us as she passed a note to the Mother. It was a relief to look at her, like turning your back on a parched, unyielding plain to let your eyes rest on a moist and prodigious green meadow. When I focused once again on the Mother, she’d regained her composure.

She took up pen and paper and made a short note which she handed to Geraldo. “This is the address of the Malone family. Mary Catherine’s family. Sister Luke will show you out.” She stood once again. Sister Luke’s smile never wavered as she headed for the door.

Geraldo remained seated. “We would like to speak to Sister Isabelle.”

“I’m afraid that is impossible. She was quite ill...and...and she has returned to France to our motherhouse there. She left before Mary Catherine’s death and Monique’s disappearance.”

“One last question, Mother.” Geraldo finally stood. “How soon after Mary Catherine’s death did Monique depart?”

“She and a few of the Sisters attended the funeral. Monique did not return with them.”

Sister Luke waited at the open door for us, but her smile had been replaced by a worried crease between her brows. She made a brief bow, crossing herself before following us out the door. She remained solemn as we walked down the long, dark hall, lit only from several four-paned windows set high in the stone wall above us. The glass was held by thick wood, so that as the sun started its long afternoon descent, it cast oblique crosses high on the opposite wall, lending an Inquisitorial air to the bleak decor of the convent.

I stared up at the crosses, and imagined the vertical lengthening of the shadow-crosses as the sun made its downward journey, the crossbeams foreshortened, until finally they would look more like daggers. I thought of Monique in this place and shivered.

We reached a small, round foyer with similar dark hallways leading off from it. The cloistered hush of the convent reached us, not completely silent, but compressed, like sound reined in. A sibilant and feminine monotone swirled and eddied around us, but revealed...nothing.

I took one last look around. A large, heavily carved table sat before one wall, bare of any decoration. Above it hung a portrait in oil of the heralded abbess who’d founded this order. L’ange de Deauville, Angélique Gravier, read the plaque attached to the ornate, gilded frame. She smiled down at us, her eyes lowered demurely. Huge rays of gold sprang outward from her head, like a living crown charged with a palpable essence. My eyes traveled down to the golden tray she held—almost presenting it to us. Upon it lay two round objects and an oblong pink one. I stepped closer to look, squinting in the semi-darkness.

“Her eyes and her tongue,” said Sister Luke.

I jumped at the sound of her voice. She stood beside me, smiling at the portrait, her former good humor restored. “Do you know the story of our patron saint?”

When I shook my head no, Sister Luke smiled patiently. “She was pursued by a wealthy married man who admired her beautiful eyes and heavenly voice. To maintain her chastity, Angélique gouged out her eyes and severed her tongue. She placed the bloody orbs and fleshy muscle on a platter and presented them to her pursuer. He renewed his faith on the spot and begged her forgiveness!” Sister Luke gazed with fierce pride at her saint, and then turned to us with a determined lift of her dimpled chin.

“So you see, we have a proud tradition of sacrifice in our order. In New Orleans, we work not only with children, many of whom are of mixed race, but also with the sailors, prostitutes and others who inhabit this diseased swamp. We bring faith and education.” Her voice rose, challenging us. “We do much good here—one rotten apple will not be allowed to spoil the whole barrel!”

“A rotten apple will not spoil all the others if it is removed soon enough,” Geraldo said, quietly...gently. “Some harm may come to those nearest it, however. That is nature’s way—God’s way. The good Mother is forever vigilant. She must protect the unblemished.”

“The unblemished,” Sister Luke repeated.

“Are you both saying that Monique did something bad?” I asked the two of them, anger causing heat to rise up my collar.

“Not Monique,” she said, unsmiling once again. She pulled the heavy oaken door open. The muggy New Orleans afternoon, with its smell of chicory and spice and decay, washed over us.

“Thank you, Sister.” I remembered my training, and bowed to kiss her ring. “Is there nothing you can tell us of Monique?”

With the door open only wide enough for her round face to appear, she whispered quickly, “See Priscilla on Dauphine Street.” She shut the door in my face.

* * *

I leaned against Geraldo, who led me along the banquette, the wooden sidewalk leading away from the convent. “How are we going to find Monique now?” I asked.

“Let us stroll in the direction of Dauphine Street. It is near here and this Priscilla must be well known.”

He held my hand in the crook of his arm and we headed into an area of the city populated with women and men of many hues going about their usual business. I heard a patois that was certainly French, but sprinkled with words that might have been English. Spanish grandees conducted their business along the way, their pronunciation different from that of New Mexico. An occasional Missouri twang reminded me of the traders back home. Intermingled with them were the Africans and the gens de couleur libre, the French-speaking free blacks from Saint-Domingue. They never ceased to fascinate me since we have so few blacks in Santa Fe. The port city of New Orleans was alive with the hubbub from its global sojourners.

We stopped abruptly as a handsome woman, colorfully dressed in a close-fitting skirt, came out of a shop carrying a bundle on her head. The bundle sat atop a red turban which covered her hair. She stopped to adjust her load with a slender but well-muscled arm. Her skin was pale, but not white, and tinged with yellow, which added yet one more tint to her exotic look. She lowered her arm to cup my chin. “Très jolie,” she said, smiling at me.

“Pardon, mademoiselle?” Geraldo knew some French, but he was not fluent. She turned, still smiling, but with her eyebrows raised. “We are looking for someone...Priscilla. Do you know Priscilla? Où est Priscilla?”

She stiffened, intensifying her queenly demeanor. She looked down her nose at us and asked coldly: “What business you have with Prey-see-lah?” That’s how she said it, her accent a singsong calypso of the Caribbean. She frowned, not waiting for an answer, but jerked her head for us to follow her.

Her bare feet did not affect her stride, which was long and lithe with a roll of the hips, a feminine swagger much appreciated by the men who nodded at her as she passed them. We followed her for several long blocks and then she stopped, not looking back, but waiting for us to catch up. When we came abreast of her she signaled with her chin to a line of identical houses straight ahead of us.

“Her house the third one and Prey-see-lah waits within.” She turned a glum face to us. “Caution, monsieur, she a tricky one!” Geraldo started to speak, but at that moment we heard a husky laugh and turned to see a mature woman standing in the front door of the third house.

“Adrienne, how you charmin’ husband?” Her laughter erupted again, this time louder. Our helpful companion hurried away, one hand on the bundle atop her head, her once languorous hips now stilled with the fury of her retreat.

“Come, come in, my lovely ones!” She waved us over, her deep-throated chuckles enticing us forward. Standing with her hands on wide hips, her green eyes swept over us. Her fair skin was wrinkled, and, except for thick patches of white streaming away from both temples, her hair was jet black and wavy, worn piled high on her head. It was as if lightening bolts framed her face.

“Smell that?” She signaled with her head toward the open door of her home. A spicy odor wafted out to us, a smell that overlay the entire neighborhood, and made my mouth water. “I been cooking the gumbo all morning. Priscilla know ‘bout cooking the gumbo.” She laughed again. “Come in, come in.”

We followed her into a room that was a combination living and cooking area. It was clean and neat and furnished simply, with crocheted and knitted dolls everywhere. Priscilla motioned for us to take two empty chairs across from a rocking chair. She took up a basket with the materials she used to make the dolls.

We watched her as she rocked in her chair and wound a ball of yarn. She glanced at Geraldo, then turned her attention to me. “Well, I see you two not need Priscilla’s love magic. What you seek?”

“We just came from the Angélique Convent. Sister Luke thought you might be able to help us find Monique Jacquard.” I said, almost begging. “She’s my friend.”

“I see. I see,” she murmured, quiet again, concentrating on the yarn.

“Do you know where Monique is? Is she in any danger?” I asked again.

She stopped rocking and set her basket down. “If Monique want to be found, she will be found. Danger? I say to you—all women live with danger. That girl no different, she face it head-on.”

Priscilla leaned forward and took my right hand in hers, turning it palm upward. She drew her finger along several lines there, then rolled the fingers closed and held my fist between her hands. She closed her eyes, her breath audible.

“You are lucky, my girl,” she said, finally opening her eyes. “You have much love in life, and waste no thought for sin.” She smiled suggestively at Geraldo. “And with that virtue in a wife, you are most lucky man!” She lapsed into her throaty laugh. “You like your palm read, monsieur?”

“No, madame. I am already an old man—I know what the future holds for me. How do you know Monique?”

Priscilla leaned back in her chair, rocking slowly. “She tried to save my daughter, my beautiful daughter.” She stared off into space. “I, too, am not young, monsieur. Eight children in the ground—all look white. Celeste, she the whitest, go to Angélique school. The man see her. He want her. He take her to the Quadroon Ball to show her off, but he marry a rich, white Creole like himself. He keep my girl till he tire of her, then cast her out.” She flicked her wrist as if she were tossing something away. “Celeste walk the streets—give herself to all. Monique try to save her, but Celeste save Monique. She go work a house.” Priscilla held her palm up and spread her fingers for us to see. “Her line is short. She be in the ground soon—my beautiful, almost white Celeste.”

“A house? You mean as a servant? Why would Monique need to be saved?” I asked, but Geraldo touched my arm, signaling for me to be quiet.

“Where is the house?” he asked.

“On Carondelet. La Maison Carondelet. Only the most beautiful mulatto work there. Tell her I make gumbo—her favorite. She come eat with her old mama.” She began winding the yarn again.

Geraldo stood and extended his hand to me, but I remained seated. “Why was that lady who brought us to you so upset?” I asked.

She smiled down at her work. “Adrienne? That high-yella gal she got a young husband, strong like an ox—’bout as smart. He got no staying power. He on her and off her like a flash. Adrienne want a charm to fix him. I tell her send him on over.” She looked slyly up at us. “Priscilla ain’t no voodoo queen. The charms is harmless. People believe strong enough, they make they own changes.”

Her throaty laugh began once again. “I see him. He look good to me, just need some teaching. I teach him good. He go home, practice on Adrienne what he learned. She real happy, wear a big smile on her pretty face. He keep coming back for more lessons. Adrienne find out what my charm is! That the story of Miss Ungrateful!” This time we laughed with her.We returned to our hotel to rest before supper. Once in my room, I laid out the dolls we had bought from Priscilla. Each doll had a different color of yarn-hair—red, yellow, black, brown—and wore a beautiful crocheted dress.

“All the dolls are white,” I said.

“What is that you said, Pilar?” Geraldo was in his dressing room, which separated his bedroom from mine. He felt that married people should have privacy. Our caresses had grown more intimate, but we still hadn’t fully consummated the marriage.

I tried to imagine what it would be like when he finally entered me. The only picture that came to mind was of the stallion’s mighty cock thrusting into the mare’s dripping slit. Not a fair comparison, but one I’d studied a great deal. Of course, I’d pored over the anatomy books in the library. My sisters, Oratoria and Alma, had shown me some diaries of ancient Sandoval women waxing either poetic or suicidal over their own various deflowerings. I couldn’t help imagining Alma and her new husband together. Geraldo seemed content, but I was growing restless.

“Pilar?” my husband stood in the doorway drying his face with a towel.

“I said, there are so many colors of people here in New Orleans, but all of these dolls are white.” He wore a black silk smoking jacket, which revealed a thick mat of curling gray hairs on his chest. The same hairs I found sticking to my breasts when I arose in the morning. Looking at them caused a quickening in my groin. Geraldo produced a daily delight in me, and my body yearned for his in ways I hadn’t quite explained to myself yet.

“All in good time,” was his constant refrain.

He smiled as if he could read my thoughts. “Would you like a bath before supper? I could arrange for our meal to be taken here in your room?” Geraldo liked to watch me bathe. On our way back to the hotel we’d stopped at a parfumerie for bath salts with the scent of gardenia.

“What about La Maison Carondelet? Aren’t we going there tonight?”

He shook his head, laughing as if I were a child. “I will go late this evening to make some inquiries. I’m afraid it’s not the kind of a place proper young ladies should be seen in.” He continued to laugh at his own private joke as he rolled a cigarillo.

“I am Señora Quintana, and I go where I please! And what do you mean? Monique may be there.”

“It is a house for whores, querida. Prostitutes.”

I stood with my mouth open. I knew that good girls stayed far away from such people and places. But I was now a married woman, and being a good girl had never been high on my list. If the Carondelet was good enough for Monique, it was good enough for me.

“I’ll dress as a boy. I’ll go as your son.” I lifted my chin, even though I wasn’t that sure of myself. The look of surprise was now on Geraldo’s face and that gave me courage.

But, then he collapsed in a chair and roared with laughter. “As my son? Yes, yes, I can see it now. We tuck your hair up in a cap. In trousers and waistcoat, you could pass for twelve or thirteen.” He looked me over, his face gleeful. “I could say it was our way—the way my family introduces their sons to manhood. It’s not unheard of, you know. The darlings of the Carondelet would love to get their hands on a young boy, an impressionable youth for them to put their stamp on. But the surprise would be theirs, would it not?”

I tried to smile, to go along with the joke. “It wouldn’t have to go that far, would it? I mean, couldn’t we just say, I was looking—only there to look?”

“They would never believe it. Shyness is their speciality. It is impossible.” He pulled me down on his lap, still enjoying the joke. “You can dress as a boy for me anytime it pleases you.” He ran his hand along my thigh.

I reached inside his jacket and tweaked his nipple, nibbled on his ear and whispered back, “Then, you will have to take me as myself—your wife! What will they do then?”

Although still amused, I could see a new stratagem slice through his thoughts. “Then they will await instruction from me, to know my wishes with regard to you.” He was quiet for a time. “You may be able to get more information regarding Monique’s whereabouts than I. Such women hate being questioned.” His eyes swept over me, appraising. “It is unlikely that they will touch you without invitation, but it could happen. If it does, you simply have to say that your husband does not desire it.”

“Touch me? Touch me, how?”

“Ah, querida, the same way a man touches a woman. Such women seek a tender touch, but it is not for you. Not now.” He stroked me gently on the cheek. “Come, let us dress for dinner and the notorious demoiselles of the Carondelet!”

* * *

Geraldo arranged for us to arrive at the Carondelet at midnight. We rode in a magnificent carriage cushioned in silk on the inside. We dressed sumptuously, and I felt like a queen going to a ball.

“If we are going to shock the good citizens of New Orleans, let us do it in grand fashion,” he said, and selected a gown of red Chinois silk for me. I wore my hair parted in the middle and drawn back into a twist at the nape of my neck. It made me look older, I thought.

La Maison Carondelet was an old and elegant mansion on a street of old and decaying mansions, many of which were said to be haunted. The former owner had been a notorious torturer of her slaves, and many of them had died “accidently” while under her care. After her death, groans and screams of pain were heard from the building, even though no one had lived in it for over fifty years. An enterprising Parisian madame had bought and refurbished it in the best tradition of fashionable Paris, and the moans of anguish were replaced with cries of pleasure.

A stony-faced Negro butler opened the door, and we were shown into a luxurious parlor. Mirrors hung high along the walls reflected the candlelight, and a convivial scene. A number of single women lounged there, and also couples, seated together in small groups, engaged in lively conversation or playing cards. They glanced at us, and a few nodded or smiled. I could hear the sound of music in the distance, but didn’t see a piano. The air was heavy with perfume and cigars. A portrait of a naked woman reclining on red pillows hung over the mantelpiece. She looked out at us, her head tilted back, inviting.

“I like this picture much better than the one at the Angelique,” I said.

“Two women, both offering— ”

“Pardon, monsieur, would you like an apéritif?” Another black butler, younger, but with the same unequivocal expression, held a tray with several glasses of champagne. “Compliments of Monsieur Delmaire who admires your taste in women. He has invited you and the mademoiselle to join his party. He is seated by the doors to the balcony.”

We looked toward the doors where a grizzled, ruddy-faced old man sat hunched over a cane with a silver knob atop it. Two young women sat on either side of him. One had her hand on his thigh and the other passed him a glass of brandy, which he raised in our direction with a slight nod.

Geraldo offered a glass to me and took one for himself, returning the salute to the trio by the doors. “Thank Monsieur Delmaire. My wife and I would be pleased to join him for a drink later. ” Geraldo placed a gold coin on the tray. “Is Mademoiselle Celeste in this evening?”

The butler delicately palmed the coin, putting it in his pocket without changing his expression. “I will see if the lady is in, Monsieur.” He bowed slightly, heading in the direction of Monsieur Delmaire who whispered to one of his consorts. The other one had moved her hand higher on his thigh. She smiled lopsidedly at her fellow companions.

A burst of music and laughter drew our attention to an anteroom whose doors were flung open by a plump woman dressed completely in white. Although her hair was gray, her skin was smooth. Before the doors shut behind her, I could see that the other room was filled with smoking men and women seated around several gambling tables.

“Ah, this must be the chatelaine of the Carondelet,” Geraldo muttered. “I must arrange things with her first.” We watched her walk around the room, stopping to chat with various groups, always leaving them laughing. The young butler whispered in her ear. She nodded, and approached us, her smile vivid, but with no warmth in her eyes.

“Welcome to my home, friends! I am Madame de Valery.”

Geraldo bowed, and took a step away to speak with her. I noticed that there were now more couples. Some of them left the room, while still others returned. The returning couples parted soon after, with the men adjourning to the gambling room. The women, girls really, appeared not much older than me despite their rouge. They looked bored amongst the other lone women until a man approached, whereupon they became lively and flirtatious.

“Celeste is in the room at the end of the hall upstairs,” Geraldo said, when he rejoined me.

“The door is unlocked,” a soft voice said from within. A thin young woman wearing a cream-colored velvet gown, cut quite low in the front, sat by the fire reading. As we entered, she marked her place in the book with an envelope and set it aside. Celeste stood slowly as if to steady herself, but came forward at a deliberate pace with hand extended to shake in the American style. “Welcome. The champagne has arrived. I’ve already started, I hope you don’t mind. May I offer you a glass, monsieur...madame?” She spoke in slow, lengthened tones, and inclined her head first to Geraldo, then to me. Her eyebrows arched delicately above the same green eyes as her mother. Black hair fell to her shoulders, held back by a satin ribbon. Her only other adornments were long filigree earrings holding green gemstones, which accentuated the rich verdure of her eyes.

“I see you admire my baubles.” She flicked her hair back, causing the earrings to sway and catch the firelight. “Emeralds from an appreciative lover. I gave to him the golden honey of my love, and he gave to me the heirlooms meant for a future wife.” Her laugh was a light, bitter tinkling as she poured our champagne. Handing a glass first to me and then Geraldo, she returned her provocative gaze to me. “We shall become fast friends, you and I. Have you heard the motto of our house? It shall be our little secret.”

Celeste tilted her beautiful head back to drink. She drained the glass, then delicately licked her lips. “You haven’t touched your champagne, naughty children!” She shook her forefinger at us.

“I’m afraid we’ve been a bit deceptive with Madame,” Geraldo said. “I’d like to come right to the point. Of course, we will pay you for your time.”

The curve of her brows rose slightly above sly cat’s eyes, but she merely refilled her glass and gestured for us to be seated. “By all means, come right to point. All the men I entertain come right to the point—why should you be any different?”

“First, I think introductions are in order. I am don Geraldo Quintana. This is my wife, Pilar Sandoval.”

“Pilar? From Santa Fe?” Her former lethargy gone, she jumped up to embrace me, but was so unsteady she practically fell onto my lap. “Monique said you would come for her.” Celeste stood back and examined me. “You’re exactly as she described you, lean and with skin kissed by the sun.” She retrieved the envelope from inside the book we’d seen earlier. “She left this for you.”

I held the letter, trying to focus on the words written on the outside of the envelope. Ma chérie, it said. Clearly meant for me, written in a hand I knew well, but all I could do was stare at it.

“Open it, querida,” Geraldo gently commanded.

You have traveled far to find me but you must now return home to Santa Fe. I am no longer afraid. Celeste will tell you what she knows. The rest will have to wait until we meet again. I must hurry now—they are waiting for me.

I love you. Monique Jacquard

“She’s gone,” I told the quiet around me. “Why?” I asked Celeste.

“Monique is traveling the capitals of Europe with the best little chicken-man a girl could have...” She looked suggestively at Geraldo and laughed. “Unless you already have him.”

I stood, upsetting the champagne. “Are you saying that Monique is a prostitute?”

Celeste slumped in the chair, letting her tiredness show. “What choices did she have? Marriage, the nunnery, or this.” She waved her hand around the room. “Captive. We are all captives—the good sisters and the good whores. You can give your heart to God or give your heart to a man, but it’s all slavery—at His will. Give your body and keep your soul, that’s what I say. But I wasn’t the first to say it, you know?” Here she lapsed into her mirthless laughter. “Sister Isabelle, that whore of Christ, the demon-bride, said it first!” She laughed, then just as suddenly, wept into her hands. “I need more wine,” she said.

Geraldo gave her his handkerchief. I refilled her glass and kissed her on the cheek. “Please tell us about Monique. About Sister Isabelle.”

She drank. Composing herself, she began to speak, quietly, and without emotion.

“Sister Isabelle held great sway with the Mother Superior. But Sister Isabelle had...secrets. Monique told me about it, how Isabelle would rip the most confused, the most wounded and vulnerable out of their beds at night and accuse them of vile acts. Something was working inside of her, working its way out of her.”

She stood, walked over to stand in front of the fire, staring into it as if her story played out in the flames. “I’d quit the school, and was kept by my lover, but I stayed in touch with Monique and Mary Catherine. Monique was coming under Sister Isabelle’s spell, for her heart could not sort out the good from the evil in this world. Mary Catherine pulled in the other direction, advising Monique to pray and to fast, denying the malignancy of Isabelle’s influence, until...it destroyed her.”

The play of firelight cast dark circles under Celeste’s eyes, and hollowed her cheekbones. “My lover abandoned me and I took to the meanest streets, seeking additional proof of my unworthiness. I met my soul mate there one hopeless night—I met Isabelle there, in the alleyways near the sailor’s pubs, not servicing their souls, but sprawled out on a wool mattress, the sailors jostling one another for a look. And she, alternately beseeching and blaspheming God, begging for release and pleading for more, as they took turns with her. One of the orphan girls from the school, one who’d been sold into prostitution at the age of eight, stood nearby holding Isabelle’s habit. She had no expression on her face, none whatsoever.”

She paused and gulped down another mouthful of champagne. “The next day I heard from Mary Catherine that Isabelle had been up most of the night punishing herself, but the alms box at the Church had been enriched. Apparently, a large donation appeared anonymously once a month.”

“No one suspected?” Geraldo asked.

“No one wanted to know for sure, even if they did suspect. Mary Catherine prayed and fasted, denied her wasting body, offered herself as a sacrifice to God to save Isabelle’s tormented soul.” Celeste wrung her hands.

“Go on, Celeste. You are very brave,” Geraldo said.

“One night, Monique was awakened by one of Isabelle’s minions, the same little girl I’d seen with her that night in the alley. She told Monique to meet Sister Isabelle in the Church. They were going to go into the city to seek redemption and to prostrate themselves before God and man. Before leaving to join them, Monique went to Mary Catherine and asked for her prayers. Mary Catherine was instantly alarmed and followed them.”

Celeste looked away, back again, forcing herself to go on. “Mary Catherine came upon them: Isabelle on her knees before a pock-marked beggar, her hands and mouth full of him, the child holding her habit, and Monique trying to escape the gropings of a drunken sailor. Mary Catherine flew at him, kicking and tearing at his hair. He flung her aside...” Celeste faltered.

“Go on, my dear,” Geraldo urged her again.

“Her head struck the...the wall of the tavern. Monique said she lay there like a discarded rag doll, her limbs askew, her eyes blank, a pool of blood around her head like a halo.”

“And Monique?” I asked.

“Things had to be kept quiet, for Mary Catherine’s family is quite prominent. The Mother Superior wanted to silence Monique by locking her up. I hid her here, where she became acquainted with our own estimable mother superior.”

Celeste smiled wanly. “Monique said that Sister Isabelle had the wrong vocation, and without the artifice of sin she might have been an even more successful whore than Madame. We laughed a great deal together. I worked the house, but Monique was allowed to just be herself. Madame never forces anyone. She says: ‘This work demands a high-caliber lady. You are either a natural, or you are born to be a great actress. I prefer the great actresses, for the naturals fall in love too frequently.’ Sadly, I am a natural, but Monique is a gifted actress.”

Again, the weary smile as she bent to put another log on the fire. Geraldo jumped up and did it for her. “Monique remained hidden, but we knew what was happening at the convent. They have Isabelle there now, locked up, covered with the scrofulous sores from her sexual ritual, shouting obscenities, demanding an encore to her moonlit debasement. Monique tried to tell the Malones, but whom would you rather believe: the good sisters of Angélique who claimed Mary Catherine had slipped on a wet floor, or Monique’s version of defilement in the name of God?”

“I see,” Geraldo murmured. “Monique would continue to be a problem as long as she remained in the city.”

Celeste sat in the chair in front of the fire. “They prefer to think of Monique as hysterical, momentarily unstable, and that she has returned to Santa Fe.”

“But, Monique is with...this chicken-man?” I asked, hesitant.

She leaned her head back against the chair, answering in her slow, weary drawl. “I can see you have no idea what the term refers to.” Celeste took a deep breath and explained. “A man who likes young girls is a chicken-man. I guess all men qualify for that title.” She smiled at Geraldo.

“Where can we find them?” Geraldo asked.

“They sailed on the Prytania for Paris last week. You’ll want to know his name—Louis Hector, Belgian, a harmless, pudgy old man, who will indulge her every whim as long she does the same with him. Just wants to touch.” Celeste yawned, covering her mouth. “So sorry, I’m exhausted. Where was I? Oh, yes—Hector. He’s well-known in our little circle of sisters here. He used to watch the novices and students from Angélique—had already seen Monique. Once he knew she was here, he pursued her with great vigor.”

She tried to rise from her chair. “Oh my, I feel as if there are lead weights holding me down. Would you be so kind, my dear, and fill this with water from the pitcher over there?” She held up her champagne glass.

I took it from her, happy to turn my back and hide my face from both of them, as she continued her chatter. “He thinks she’s a virgin. He will want to keep her that way, playing only children’s games of touch and look and perhaps, taste. Monique will be safe, but he’ll tire of her once she grows up a bit more. They drew up a contract. It was Madame’s idea. Hector is tremendously wealthy.”

To my horror, I wondered if Geraldo was indeed a chicken-man! I doubted that he’d discard me so easily once I matured a bit more. After all, we were married. That in itself was a big difference between Hector and Geraldo.

“Paris is so far away.” I handed the water to Celeste but spoke to my husband. “Will they marry?”

“Ha, ha!” Her laugh was a dry challenge. “It’s possible, but right now, she’s traveling as his niece. He bought her all these pretty little school-girl outfits. He won’t want her to look too womanly. A wife falls into that category.” She took a big gulp of her water. “I do declare, even water tastes better out of a champagne glass! What was I saying? Oh, yes, that Monique is an actress. She’s grateful to play the part of spoiled child for the time being. Don’t we all, given the chance?” She stared at me. “Madame gave her sound guidance on how to come out ahead of the game. I think she will be fine. Trust her.”

We said goodbye to Celeste. Geraldo left a great deal of money on the dresser, advising her to give only a portion of it to Madame. We turned to leave just as one of the butlers came down the hall carrying a silver tray covered with a towel. He stopped before a door and knocked.

One of the young women who’d been sitting with Monsieur Delmaire opened the door. She smiled at us as she took the tray. The door opened a bit wider so that we could see the gentleman himself. Hunched over in a chair as he had been previously, still holding his silver-knobbed cane—but now completely naked. His feet were in a bowl of steaming water, and the other young woman sat on the floor bathing them. She was completely naked as well.

“Ah, the hot water bottle,” he said in his old man’s gravelly voice to the woman holding the tray. “Excellent!” He saw us, raised his cane in salute, and the door closed.

Geraldo and I looked at each other and laughed. Every time we caught the other’s eye, our giggling began once again. We arrived at our hotel and Geraldo helped me down from the carriage. As I placed my gloved hand into his, I whispered, “I’d like a bath tonight.”

“Of course, my dear, I will arrange it. Would you like a cup of tea while it is being prepared?”

I sat in the dining room waiting for my husband while he spoke with the concierge. I replayed the night’s events, parsing them for every bit of information that could be had, sure that even as the night rolled on the revels at La Maison Carondelet would continue. I couldn’t help but wonder what went on behind the other closed doors.

“I’ve prepared a little surprise.” Geraldo kissed the inside of my wrist. “Now, tell me what is on your mind.”

“I don’t want you to be my chicken-man, and I won’t be your hen or chick or whatever, either!” I spit it out, my fury surprising even me. Geraldo laughed again. I took my hand back from him, adjusting the folds of my dress in an effort to maintain my composure. He tried to stop laughing, covering his mouth with his hand as he leaned his elbow on the table.

“Pilar, we are like Monique and her uncle only in terms of age. I love you with all my heart and soul.”

And I’d grown to love him in return. I laughed with him, he old and I young, my husband the chicken-man, and I, his chick-wife.

* * *

In my room, we were immediately confronted with Geraldo’s surprise. In front of the roaring fire was the largest bathtub I’d ever seen! Actually, it was two bathtubs joined in the middle. “His and Hers: The Honeymooner’s Delight,” Geraldo explained, thrilled with this new extravagance. “I’ve seen one of these in a catalogue. When the hotel said they had one, I couldn’t resist.”

“Let’s add the bath salts.” I tried on a suggestive smile in imitation of the girls at the Carondelet—a half-smile, a lowering of the eyelashes and a subtle rolling of one shoulder. Geraldo didn’t seem to notice.

He poured small amounts into the steaming water on each side, and the scent of gardenias filled the room. “I’ll undress next door while you get into the tub.”

“Please stay.” I tried the seductive gesture again.

“If you like, my dear. Is there something wrong with your shoulder?” He was genuinely concerned, unfailingly polite and...a bit controlling. Tonight is the night, I thought, determined to make it happen.

“Nothing that a hot bath with my husband won’t cure. Sit down, Geraldo. Relax. Have a smoke.”

He sat in a chair and rolled a cigarillo as I undressed. With each confining piece that fell away, I felt more free and unfettered, more the real me, the genuine Pilar who might fail as coquette but who rode stallions bareback, knew the entire Greek and Roman pantheon, and who swam naked in the river. When the last piece of clothing was off, I walked over and stood before him, loosening my hair and then pinning it higher on my head. He wasn’t smoking. His hands were frozen in the act of rolling the cigarette.

“Pilar, you are beautiful.”

Standing above him, I felt quite powerful, and large in a mythic way. “Now you” —a silky command which brought him to his feet. “I’ll help you.”

I unbuttoned his shirt, burying my fingers in that tangle of silver on his chest. My hands slid up to his shoulders, leaning into him slightly to take hold of the shirt, and slip it down his still-muscular arms. My nipples grazed the surface of his skin. The shirt dropped to the floor. I stood naked before my husband, kissing him as he’d taught me. He drew me closer. I stepped back. His hands dropped to his sides. I kissed him again, this time unbuttoning his pants. He poked out through his underwear.

“I’ve never really had a good look at one of these,” I said.

“Querida, tonight you will get more than an eyeful.”

* * *

We entered the tubs from opposite ends, a sloping back on each side so that we could semi-recline and see each other. It was really quite ingenious.

“Too bad this isn’t just one big tub instead of two tubs joined together.” We couldn’t really touch, unless we leaned forward and held hands.

“A very good idea. I will look into it when we get home, but metal is so difficult to come by in New Mexico. Perhaps we could have one made in St. Louis, and shipped to Santa Fe.”

We talked like that, relaxed and playful, not wanting to focus on serious subjects, until the water cooled. Geraldo got out first, drying himself briskly. I started to rise as well. “Wait. I will warm a towel for you,” he said.

He held a large towel before the fire and then brought it over to me. I stepped out of the tub and he wrapped it around me, from front to back, so that my arms were pinned at my sides. His kisses found their way down my neck and back to my mouth again. “I adore you,” he whispered.

“I love you, Geraldo. I want to be everything to you.”

He loosened the towel and dried my back and arms with it, bending to kiss the inside of my elbow and crossing to my chest, circling each nipple with his tongue. Kneeling down, he rubbed my legs with the towel, rising to kiss my belly. “Open your legs a little,” he said.

I watched him through half-closed eyes as he drew the towel between my legs, kissing my thighs and then the bristling hair on those other lips, those needy lips, his fingers stroking, finding their way inside, making a path that his tongue followed. My knees buckled, unable to bear that piercing pleasure. He carried me to the bed.

I lay limp except for the occasional delicious shudders that ran through my body, watching Geraldo, on his knees between my legs, tying a membranous sheath onto himself. Before I had a chance to wonder about the feeling I was finally about to experience, he’d glided inside of me, my warm slope made ready, open. Soon, our bodies were sticky with the dew of the New Orleans night air, and the sweat of our joy. I didn’t swoon with ecstasy, but it felt like I was heading in the right direction.

I was going to be good at this!

“Did it hurt very much, querida?”

“It didn’t hurt at all, Geraldo. Maybe I wasn’t born a virgin, after all. We can try again, and maybe then it will start to hurt.”

He laughed weakly. “I don’t want it to hurt. Nothing should hurt you, my love. Look at the windows. It is getting light outside. Let us rest a bit and then I will let you ride me like your stallion!”

* * *

We stayed another month in New Orleans, shopping and eating and making love. We had a tintype portrait made, the only one I own of me in a dress. In it, I look young and uncomfortable in all my finery, but Geraldo is smiling, his fine dimples and sparkling eyes staring right at the camera box.

I turned all the energy I might have expended in Monique’s direction toward my husband. Her long absence from my life froze her in time for me, and when I thought of her she was still a skinny girl finally triumphant on the rope swing, or laughing as we shared secrets on our long walks home from school. Her rare appearance in my dreams was quite the opposite, for she appeared full-blown and womanly, her hair a tangle of blond curls, as we raced horses in the moonlight.

These dreams were tantalizing, and not the least bit distressing. My study of mythology had long ago taught me to trust my dreams, as I trusted myself. I felt her presence in them, and seeing her as a woman comforted me. I knew that she was safe.

We saw Priscilla many times, dining with her, and occasionally Celeste. I arranged for more of Priscilla’s dolls to be sent to Santa Fe in the new trade pipeline which Geraldo had established. She also helped me locate a source for sea sponges, a time-honored birth control device which Oratoria had never seen, but had read about. These would be of interest to Alma, too, when she finally came home.

After the initial fascination with New Orleans, I grew tired of the heavy air pressing in on me and longed for the comforting ring of mountains encircling Santa Fe like a vow. I wanted the play of light and shadow, and the subtleties of color which only a high-mountain desert could produce. Instead of the thick and sluggish drip of New Orleans rain, which never seemed to wash the city clean, I needed the drama of black starry night, and the passion-play of electrical storms as a backdrop to our lovemaking, charging even the air we breathed with its energy.

I missed Oratoria. I missed my horses. I was eager for my new life in Santa Fe.

“ ‘Of Nuns and the Demimonde’ is a chapter from my novel, The Secret of Old Blood, which tells the story of the Sandoval Sisters, heiresses to a vast fortune in land, money, and ancient knowledge in old Santa Fe. Pilar and Alma fall in love with men and get married, and witness the hostilities of the Mexican-American war from two important fronts—New Mexico and Texas—while the eldest sister, Oratoria, reads and translates the diaries, anecdotal histories, and cosseted secrets of generations of Sandovals.

“The issues confronted by the main characters are contemporary: racism, sexual and religious intolerance, the power of superstition, incest, reproductive freedom. Finally, it is a story of what constitutes a family, and the myths associated with the blood and bounds of loyalty. Oh, and along the way there are depraved nuns and wealthy prostitutes, gay cowboys and poetic Indians, magic and wantonness, murder, and the enduring love of the Sandovals for their own. “Speaking of depraved nuns, yes, I did go to a Catholic girl’s school and not one of the nuns was a reprobate. They were all saintly and giving and we all wanted to become nuns and be good. But I always had doubts about myself, and I guess this story effectively demonstrates what poor nun material I’d make. I had so much fun writing not only about a wicked nun and a crooked Mother Superior, but also creating the Geraldo character, who is twenty-five years senior to Pilar. Every woman who has read my novel falls in love with Geraldo; he is patient, indulgent, kinky, and wise, and loves and accepts Pilar without qualification.

“His patience is not always a virtue. Having lost three previous wives to complications of childbirth, he has vowed that a similar fate will not take Pilar from him: he has been content to wait, to postpone the consummation of their marriage. ‘I loved my wives, but I was a young man, selfish . . . and uninformed. Penetration, the young man’s dream, is not all there is to lovemaking.’ Their courtship has been a steamy round of continuous foreplay, and Pilar is ready for the next step. ‘Of Nuns and the Demimonde’ is the result of that long seduction.”

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