Monday, February 16, 2009

Blood is Thicker than Water: Scandalous Ball

“I have not seen you socially in New Orleans,” he said at one point in our conversation. “Why?”

“My niece and I have only been in New Orleans for a short time.”

“Is your niece as beautiful as you?”

I laughed nervously. “Much more beautiful. I can assure you of that.”

“No. I can not believe that, Polly.”

This was the first time since William that a gentleman of any sort had indicated interest in me, and I allowed it to affect me. I began to imagine myself how he treated me. The Pauline Raintree he talked to was not an old maid, but an interesting, intellectual young woman. To him, I was like Abby. My nose and chin were sharper, and my hair and eyes were darker, but I was like Abigail—someone men appreciated and wished to be seen with. My intelligence was wit to Marcus, not a spear that poked suitors away. I was a belle with Marcus, and, even though I felt well at ease, I felt giddy and elated at the same time.

The afternoon was a revel after lunch, somewhat like a dream, and I remember enjoying it. Marcus took me shopping for clothes. This seemed perfectly natural to me. He brought me gorgeous garments, and I became the proud mistress of a beautiful wardrobe that became me as no other I'd ever owned. He sent them home, which also seemed quite natural to me, because I knew I'd be going to live with him.

I walked arm in arm with Marcus on Rue Royale, exchanging kind words with lovely society ladies who treated me as though my family had been in New Orleans forever. Marcus took me on a boat ride among the dripping cypress trees of the bayou. He hummed a lilting melody and smiled kindly. “You'll love them, Polly,” he said, “and I'm sure they'll love you.”

“I'm sure they'll love me,” I parrotted gaily.

Then there was a beautiful party. I wore a ball gown, a slight red touch to its silk. At my throat were diamonds that glistened like rain. Dalia was there, dressed in blue, her aspect a finely chiseled porcelain doll as she flirted with men. Marcus introduced us, and she kissed me, saying she'd love me like a sister. Shalimar was more removed when I was presented to her.

“You enjoy Marcus?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Then he is yours, Pauline. We are all yours. How do you feel about that?”

Here I began to sense there was something unnatural in my Cinderella evening. But I didn't sense enough to run. “I'm not sure.”

Shalimar placed a long hand on my shoulder and led me away from the dancing, happy group of the party. Marcus looked at us from across the room, as perfect as any Greek statue. Shalimar smiled kindly at me. “We understand you, Pauline. Your life has not been easy. We want to give you what you've been denied for so long.”

The room, my perfume, even the punch I'd drunk were making me drowsy. Shalimar's eyes, commanding, were meant for nothing else but orders which had to be obeyed. “We want to give you your freedom,” she spoke, “and admiration. Acceptance. Do you want that?”

I was enrapt at her voice, and captivated by her eyes. “Yes,” I said fervently. “I want that.”

“Good.” Shalimar's eyes darkened. “Stay with us, Pauline. You will know what we are. We know what you are. This is your party. Tonight you are the bride. Go to Marcus. Go to your lover.”

Blood pounded in my veins and roared in my ears. The tiny part of Pauline Raintree I had been that morning fled to the back of my mind in fear. I wanted to be one of them, and I knew what they were. I wanted to live forever. Shalimar spread the news of my decision throughout the ball, and they congratulated me. I danced wildly and laughed hysterically in my release. To me this seemed like liberation, true freedom for the first time in my life. I would seek knowledge over an eternity. I would be privy to all their dark secrets. I would belong.

Dalia took me away from her brother in the last hour of the ball. She bathed me in water where lilies floated, and as she dried me, she told me how lucky I was to be welcomed by her brother. When I arose, I would be special, just like her. At the time, I didn't know what that meant. I only felt special to be chosen by Marcus, and I told her so. She told me how wonderful life was for them.

“Imagine,” she said, “never growing old, or feeling pain, or dying. We are godlike. Soon, you'll be godlike.”

Although the thought frightened me, at that point, I seemed to welcome the prospect.

Dalia dressed me in a gown of white, and combed my graying hair out to its full length. She placed diamonds around my neck, frozen drops that trickled down my neck and onto my chest. Dalia placed a veil over my head and I could see her smile in satisfaction from behind its gauzy film. “Marcus will think you a beautiful bride.”

Everything that had been a concern to me that morning was washed away. I had no niece, no family, no responsibility. This was my new family. Marcus was my new lord, Shalimar my queen, and all the rest my brothers and sisters. I was an empty chalice, ready to be filled by their love.

Dalia led me into the ballroom. Twilight tinted the sky outside with a vivid purple. The rest of my brothers and sisters had risen from their day sleep to join the chosen court in my welcome. They parted as I walked among them, whispers of bride and chosen filling the air. As I walked to the front of the room, I walked toward hundreds of candles that gave the room an intimate glow. Shalimar waited for me at the front, wearing a red robe like my own white one, her black hair spreading out over he like a black mantle of night. By her side stood Marcus, resplendent in the evening dress he'd worn to the ball.

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