"Eights bet fifty."
Tom Stuart studied the dealer's hand. On the table were an eight-jack-eight-deuce. He figured it for two pair, probably jacks and eights. Yet the hole card gave him pause. All afternoon he'd had miserable luck, pulling decent cards only to have them topped by still better cards. He pondered a moment longer.
The other players had dropped out, and the dealer was watching him with a blank expression. Stuart's own hand revealed a four-eight-ace-four. In the hole he had another ace, but it was the eight that impressed him most. With three on the board, the dealer would have to hold the case eight in order to win. The odds, heavily in Stuart's favor, dictated otherwise. Which prompted a smile, and a sudden decision.
"Your fifty--" Stuart pushed a stack of gold coins into the center of the table--"and raise a hundred."
The dealer considered briefly, then shrugged. "Up another hundred."
"Well, now that's grand, indeed it is. Suppose I just take the last one ... a hundred more."
Without hesitation, the dealer matched the raise and nodded. "You're called, Mr. Stuart."
"Aye, and happy to oblige." Stuart grinned, flipped his hole card. "Two pair, aces and fours."
"Sorry, not good enough."
The dealer slowly turned his down card, and Stuart found himself staring at three eights. His grin dissolved into a look of disbelief, then anger, and the dealer tensed, watching him closely. Around the table the other players were silent, all eyes fixed on Stuart. Finally, with his features set in a hard scowl, he glanced up at the dealer.
"You're uncommon lucky, and that's a fact."
"I hope you aren't implying otherwise, Mr. Stuart."
"No, if I were, I'd have called you on it before now."
"Thank you. I appreciate a man of candor."
Stuart pushed back his chair and stood. "I'd gladly trade it for winning cards, but I'm thinkin' today's not the day." He scooped up the few coins left before him and nodded to the other players. "Gentlemen."
The men bobbed their heads, solemn as owls, and he turned away from the table. Walking to the door, he left the card room and passed through a hall that opened into the main salon. Like most steamboats plying the Mississippi, the Southern Belle was a floating palace, built to dazzle and astonish its passengers.
The salon was massive, nearly two hundred feet in length, adorned with intricately carved gingerbread painted a gleaming white and trimmed in gold leaf. Surrounding it were the stateroom doors, each blending with the walls to form colorful chromos of pastoral and river scenes. Overhead, high above glittering chandeliers, the roof was sectioned into diamonds by immense Gothic arches. Between the arches, flooding the entire salon with glazed brilliance, were ornate stained-glass skylights. The overall effect was one of garish opulence, yet even the most sophisticated traveler found it a bit breathtaking. Scores of passengers, fashionable men and women who occupied the staterooms, were seated around the salon. They gathered early for this evening ritual, chatting quietly while they watched the spectacle of sunset streaming through the multihued skylights.
Tom Stuart, preoccupied with his own thoughts, scarcely noticed the passengers. As he crossed the salon, stewards began announcing dinner, but he ignored the call and walked directly to an outside passageway. A moment later he stepped through the door onto a wide promenade which circled the upper deck. Off starboard, the sun was a swollen ball of orange, dipping slowly toward the horizon. He moved to the rail, extracted a cheroot from inside his coat, and lit it with a sulphurhead.
Hands clasped behind his back, cigar jutting from his mouth, he stared into the sun. His gaze was abstracted, thoughts turned inward, and he found little to cheer his dour mood. The trip had been a disaster, the voyage of a fool chasing moonbeams. From the Rio Grande to the mouth of the Ohio, all for nothing. A two-thousand-mile folly, precisely as Jonas Parker had warned him.
Now he had to return to the border and confirm what Jonas had predicted from the outset. The smallest steamboat, one of a paltry fifty tons, was far beyond their means. In Pittsburgh, where the great shipyards of the nation were located, he had been rudely disabused of his witless dreams. The shipbuilders were polite, attentive to his proposal, but openly skeptical of a young riverboat captain with grand ideas and meager resources. Nor were they overly impressed with his plan to establish a steamboat line on the Rio Grande. Perhaps later, they counseled, once the war with Mexico had been won and border trade returned to normal ... .
Stuart had argued persuasively. As a riverboat captain, under contract to the Army Quartermaster, he had personal knowledge of the situation on the Rio Grande. American forces had already penetrated deep into Mexico, and by early fall, certainly no later than the end of 1847, hostilities would cease. Yet, for all his optimism, the shipbuilders still perceived it as a risky venture. Sometimes they took a flyer, accepted a lien and a share of the profits, but not in this case.
It was futile, and in the end Stuart departed Pittsburgh with hopes exhausted. On his way north, armed with a letter from Jonas Parker, he had previously called on their banker in New Orleans. An aristocratic Creole, a man of impeccable manners, the banker had tactfully discouraged any thought of a loan. He considered steamboats a poor investment, vulnerable to boiler explosions and hazardous river conditions, often resulting in total loss. So the shipbuilders themselves had been Stuart's last resort, and having failed, there was no place left to turn.
Stuart puffed angrily on the cheroot, silently cursing the ill fortune that had dogged him throughout the trip. Even at poker it appeared he was star-crossed, an ominous sign indeed, for he'd always been blessed with a certain gift at cards. Suddenly he had no wish to face Jonas Parker. Though barely five years separated them in age, their relationship was a curious alloy of prudence and audacity. Parker had signed him on as a deckhand at seventeen; elevated him to river pilot at twenty; and only last summer had been instrumental in the award of his captain's papers. At twenty-four, it was no small distinction, and attributable in great part to the steadying influence of his old friend. Yet he'd badgered Parker into this venture, brashly ignoring all advice, and now ...
A wave of disgust and self-recrimination swept over Stuart. He was unaccustomed to losing, on the river or at the gaming table, and he had no taste for humble pie. All his life he'd joyfully accepted challenges, cocksure that he held the edge, never once hindered by the skein of limitations that seemed to hamper other men. But now, thwarted at every turn, he was forced to admit defeat. Bad enough that he must say it to himself, but within the week--Mother of Christ!--it must be said as well to Jonas Parker.
He cursed and flung his cigar into the river.
Behind him the door opened, signaling an unwelcome intrusion, and he stiffened. He'd come on deck to be alone, but apparently there was no escaping the crowd, even at dinnertime. The door closed and he spun around, glowering, ready to rebuff any attempt at conversation. Abruptly, like the appearance of a magician's dove, his frown gave way to a look of mild wonder. Then his mouth creased in a slow smile.
The girl glanced in his direction, quickly reversed herself, and walked forward along the promenade. His eyes tracked her, looking her up and down, and the smile broadened. She was small, perhaps five feet in height, but her figure was stunning, with youthful breasts, a stemlike waist, and nicely rounded hips. Her features were exquisite, somehow exotic and doll-like, with creamy skin and a lush, coral mouth that accentuated her high cheekbones. She wore a gown of teal-blue silk, with a matching bonnet that revealed locks the color of dark sable, and tilted over her shoulder was a small parasol. If aware of his scrutiny, she gave no indication, but rather continued along the promenade for some distance. There, she paused at the rail and stood watching the sunset.
Stuart was spellbound. He thought her the loveliest creature he'd seen in all his life. For a moment it was as though a vision had materialized out of the sunbeams. Then he collected himself, struck by a sudden thought, and strolled forward humming softly under his breath.
Unlucky in cards ...
As he approached her, Stuart was assailed by a moment's doubt. By the look of her finery, she was obviously a lady of means, and he felt like a moth swooping down on a butterfly. He was attired in a dark broadcloth coat, nankeen trousers and a slouch hat; although it was the best he owned, her vivid ensemble nonetheless made him appear drab and common. Yet the very sight of her dispelled his bleak mood, and with vigor restored, he doffed his hat in an elegant bow.
"You'll excuse me, ma'am." His smile was genuine, devoid of innuendo. "I've no wish to intrude, and I hope you'll not take offense, but there's a matter that has me baffled."
Her face was partially hidden by the parasol, yet he knew at once that she was younger than he'd thought. A girl, perhaps seventeen, certainly no more, but one who had ripened early. At length she turned her head and regarded him with an odd steadfast look.
"Pardon, m'sieur. Were you addressing me?"
She had enormous eyes, with extraordinarily thick lashes, and Stuart merely stared back at her, momentarily speechless. He felt bewitched under the impact of her eyes, lustrous as wild honey, dark brown and flecked with gold. Then he became aware of the scent of her, sensual and intoxicating, yet beneath her sensuality there was an aura of impudence. The combination was irresistible.
"Aye." He swallowed, found his voice. "I was saying there's a matter that has me deviled, and sorely so."
"Deviled? Je ne comprends pas ... deviled."
"Well, don't you see, it's like ... uh ... troublesome ... confused."
"Oh, oui, l'énigme! And how may I help you, m'sieur?"
"Why, allow me a question, if you will." He paused, permitting her to nod, then went on. "How is it I've not seen you before? I'm surely not blind, and if you'll allow me to say so, you're a sight no man's likely to miss."
She looked annoyed. "You presume a great deal, m'sieur. But to answer your question, I boarded in Vicksburg."
"Vicksburg? Isn't that a wonder now? I would've sworn you were from New Orleans--the Vieux Carré."
"How very perceptive. Still, you are ... deviled ... n'est ce pas? Then allow me to satisfy your curiosity, m'sieur, and we will conclude our conversation."
She fixed him with a haughty gaze. "As you surmised, my home is the Vieux Carré. However, I return now from a visit with my aunt and her husband, who have a plantation outside Vicksburg. Voilà! your riddle is solved."
Stuart met her gaze and found something merry lurking there. She was beautifully self-possessed, and like all Creoles he'd met, full of cultivated airs and the thinly disguised contempt of aristocrats. Yet there was something more, an elusive quality. Beneath her feigned indifference he sensed the nymph, a child-woman already adroit in the ways of coquetry. Perhaps she was chaste as the Virgin herself, but then again ...
"A moment, mademoiselle, then I'll not hold you." She said nothing, offered no encouragement, but he had her attention. "I've a few friends in the Vieux Carré myself, and I'm wondering, by any chance would you know Monsieur Jacques Lescaut?"
Her eyebrows rose gently in question. "Certainement, as does everyone in New Orleans. But may I inquire how it is you know Monsieur Lescaut?"
"Wait now, I asked first, and you haven't yet explained."
"You presume again, m'sieur. But if you must know, Jacques Lescaut is a dear friend of my family. So dear, in fact, that he is my godfather."
"By the saints, your godfather! Well then, it's near providential we met, and quite"--he hesitated, spread his hands in a bland gesture--"you'll forgive my manners. I've not introduced myself, and no excuse for it." His hat fanned the deck in a grand bow. "Thomas Stuart, mam'selle, at your service."
She made a small nod of acknowledgment. "Je m'appelle Jovette St. Vrain. And now perhaps you will return my courtesy."
"Oh, Monsieur Lescaut, you mean? A fine old gentleman, none better, and a true friend indeed. You see, he's my banker, has been for a number of years."
"Your banker?" She cocked her head in a bemused smile. "Pardon, m'sieur, but your manner of speech ... you are Americain?"
"Aye, I am indeed," he assured her. "Of course, I wasn't brought over till I was eleven. So you must excuse my queer way with words."
"Brought over?" she asked. "From where, m'sieur?"
"Why, from Ireland, where else? And it's proud I am of it, though prouder still to be an American."
"Yet you bank with a Creole. Do you not find a paradox in that?"
He uttered a bark of laughter. "No indeed, for I don't trust American bankers. They're a crafty lot, slippery as eels. It's a sad thing, mam'selle, but surely true, and you can take my word on it."
Jovette St. Vrain silently underscored that sentiment. Like all Creoles, she had an inbred aversion, not to say a legitimate distrust, of anything American. Yet, almost from the moment he had approached her, she'd felt a curious ambivalence about this peacock of an Irishman. Now, intrigued by his bold manner, her appraisal of him was deliberate. He was uncouth, really quite crude, but he seemed charged with vitality, a certain force of character. He wasn't a handsome man--square jaw and chiseled features--yet there was laughter in his eyes, some indefinable aspect about the copper of his hair and the bronzed, windswept look of his face. She found him altogether fascinating, and dangerous, like an amiable tiger content for the moment to lick her hand. And when the moment passed, when the laughter in his eyes changed to ...
She shuddered inwardly and took a firm grip on herself. "Your confidence is well placed, m'sieur. I have no doubt Jacques Lescaut serves your business interests with great wisdom."
"Business?" he exclaimed. "Oh no, I've given you the wrong impression. I'm no businessman, indeed not. I'm a riverboat captain."
No mere statement, his words were unmistakably a boast. She averted her eyes, altogether astounded by such incredible vanity. Bon Dieu! The man actually thought himself a celebrity, someone of rank and station. She hardly knew how to reply, and a moment elapsed while he stood grinning down at her, apparently awaiting her praise. Quite at a loss, she finally glanced around, forced herself to smile.
"A worthy profession, Captain. Am I familiar with your boat?"
"Not likely, mam'selle. I've been off the Mississippi more than a year now. Of course you're familiar with the war and General Taylor!"
"General Zachary Taylor?"
"Aye, the very one. It's under his flag I sail, and never a grander man took the deck of a ship. Not to brag, you understand, but he's appointed me his personal captain. Won't sail with anyone else, and that's a fact."
"How nice. And are you returning to the war?"
"I am indeed." He hesitated, suddenly sober. "Tell you the truth, that's what prompted me to make your acquaintance."
"Mind you now, I'm not in the habit of approaching genteel young ladies like yourself. But it being my last night, so to speak ... before I return to the fighting ..."
He shrugged, offered her a piteous look. "Well, the last night and all, I thought you might do me the honor of joining me for dinner?"
She almost laughed. His performance was expertly done, really quite touching. She suspected it had worked marvelously well with many girls, all up and down the river. Yet, however amusing, it was no compliment. He obviously had more on his mind than dinner, and while the thought piqued her interest, she had no intention of exploring it further. Nor would she permit his boorish manner to pass unrebuked.
"Non merci, m'sieur. I never dine with men to whom I have not been introduced."
"Not introduced? Why, I introduced myself only a moment ago, and you the same, mam'selle."
"Yes, but not a formal introduction, m'sieur. People of our station must observe the proprieties. N'est-ce pas?"
Jovette St. Vrain smiled, stepping around him, and walked toward the salon door. Utterly confounded, he stared after her, wondering how it had all gone wrong so quickly. Then he called out, still not convinced he'd entirely lost the game.
"Perhaps another time, mam'selle?"
Her voice floated back to him, gaily mocking, then she disappeared into the passageway. Stuart stood for a long while, baffled by her reply. At last, unable to fathom it, he turned to the rail and gazed out across the river. His mouth went hard and again the black mood swept over him.
Damn the luck! All bad, all the way round.
Copyright © 1980 by Matthew Braun.