by Dorothea Hubble Bonneau
To save time, Jean Philip Martin slept in his clothes. He fancied it was his psychic power that awakened him at first light. In truth, it was the bitter cold that had roused him. In a single night, summer had fled and winter had arrived.
It’s late October, too early to be this cold, he mused as he swung his scrawny feet from the comfort of the bed to the shock of the freezing floor. He pulled his only wool blanket around his boney shoulders. So much for the promise of the perpetually warm climate that had lured him from France to South Carolina on October 30, 1796, ten years ago to this day.
“Steamy in the summer and damp chill in the winter is more like it. Here I am, twenty-nine years old and still unmarried. May as well have stayed in Bordeaux,” he muttered to himself.
To avoid sinking into his familiar vortex of self-pity, he reminded himself that he was a third son. Had he remained in France, he would have had no choice but to become a soldier, or a priest, if he’d been lucky. He fancied that teaching violin to beautiful young women was a much better use of his time and talent.
He supposed it was the anniversary of his arrival in Charleston that had opened the floodgates of memory. In truth, he was attempting to supplant last night’s dream. But, like forbidden fruit, the more he tried to block out the erotic images, the more compelling they became.
No time to indulge fantasies, he told himself as he turned up the wick on his lamp and opened the journal his grandmother had given him the day he sailed from France.
“I will be quick and to the point,” he announced to the orange tabby who lounged on the bed, watching him with her one good eye.
He uncorked his bottle of scarlet ink, reserved for those rare visions he believed to be communications from a world beyond the veil. His hand danced across the page as he recorded his memory of the dream.
October 30, 1806.
I saw myself standing at the bedside of my student, the exquisite Alexandra de Gambia. As I raised my baton, she arose from her couch. When she stood before me, the dark hue of her ebony skin metamorphosed into a translucent opalescence whose myriad colors: fire red; ocean blue; flaxen gold; shimmered in the light of early morning sun. Despite the extraordinary feast of shifting colors, my attention was drawn to her splendid features: to her smooth skin; to the noble set of her chin; to her superb young breasts.
When she looked at me with her obsidian eyes, Truth surged into my mind in a flash of light and a rush of sound. In an instant, I understood both John’s Gospel, with which I have wrestled for the past ten years, and my earthly purpose: The Word of God is Music, and I have been put on Earth to call forth Divine melody from those chosen by the Lord to bring us heaven’s harmony. I shall begin this very day by expressing my intention to Alexandra whose violin transports me to celestial realms. The way the dream clarified itself into noble purpose confirmed his belief that it had been ordained by the Divine.
“Dare I show this entry to her?” he asked the cat.
He was nearly certain the way Alexandra had smiled at him at the end of her last lesson had been a sign that she meant to encourage his affection. Still…
“No, I shall write something more delicate, as she is, without doubt, a virtuous young woman.”
The cat had fallen back asleep.
Monsieur’s hand shook with excitement as he penned his affection. For his opening passage, copied from Rousseau’s Julie, he chose black ink:
“You know that I entered your house only at the invitation of your worthy Mother. Knowing that I had cultivated some agreeable talents, she believed that they would not be without usefulness, in a locale wanting in masters, toward the education of a daughter she adores…
“I hope I shall never so forget myself as to say to you things that are not suitable for you to hear, and fail in the respect I owe even more to your morals than to your station and your charms…
“I have no desire for a happiness that will diminish yours…”
His own sentiments were written in scarlet:
Dearest Mademoiselle de Gambia,
Monsieur Rousseau mirrors my greatest hope, but Julie is not the object of my affection. Your music, the window to your soul, has opened my heart. If there is the scantest chance that I might meet with you in private, at a place of your choosing, please return the enclosed ribbon to me at our next rehearsal with the excuse that it must have fallen into your open case as I was tying up my scrolls.
Although I long to speak to you unsupervised, I assure you, my intentions are above reproach.
I will understand if you decline.
I remain your devoted servant,
Jean Marie Martin
After the ink dried, he committed a sacrilege and tore the pages from his journal. Having folded the description of his dream and slipped it into the back of the journal, he placed the hand-lettered copy from Rousseau’s Julie together with the note to Alexandra in his breast pocket where it would be easy to retrieve should the opportunity present itself.
The rooster crowed a second time. Monsieur couldn’t afford to be late for the violin lesson again. With practiced fingers, he rolled the Corelli parchments and slid them into the oiled shoulder case that had kept his music safe in scorching heat and torrential rains for the past ten years.
“Sorry, Old Girl,” he told the sleeping cat as he scooped her up and set her outside. “Good hunting.”
He stood in the doorway and scanned the room. He hadn’t a horse and cart, not even a mule to bring him home lest he forget something. When he was satisfied that all was in order, he locked the door of his vine covered cottage and set off for Pinnacles Concert Parlor, thankful that it hadn’t rained and turned the path to mud.
As he walked along, he feasted on dewdrop prisms that fractured dawn’s light into a spectacle of brilliant colors. Unwittingly, he composed a melody to celebrate the sparkling orbs. Then a cardinal flew across his path; that flash of red and sent his imagination running off in a different direction. When he turned onto the back road of Pinnacles Plantation, he was horrified to see that the slaves were already at work in the rice fields. As he quickened his pace, his mind raced.
What if Alexandra were to show his letter to her father. Would Monsieur suffer the same fate as Abelard? He was beginning to talk himself out of revealing his affection when the reality of his situation struck him. I am almost thirty years old. I’m through with living in a fantasy of unfulfilled dreams.
As always, the sight of the magnificent concert parlor stole his breath. The late Monsieur Panier had built this replica of the Temple of Athena, exact except for the use of glass, when the idea of a Greek Revival first impressed itself upon the Southern imagination. Now morning sun bathed its pristine marble columns in crimson and pink.
As he entered the plantation gardens, Monsieur saw the overseer coming toward him. At first he thought it was a hapless dog that tugged at the taut strap the wily man gripped with his two hands. But it must have been a very tall dog, judging from the angle of the leash. Then he saw it was not a dog who struggled to free itself from the jeweled collar attached to the other end, but a slave. Her skin was honey-colored; her large hazel eyes were flecked with gold; a mane of red-gold hair fell in waves to her shoulders. Exquisite. When she mumbled in a language he could not understand, he guessed she was from the Sierra Leone coast where natives, celebrated for their alluring beauty, had interbred with Europeans for generations.
Monsieur’s eyes fell to her breasts, made more prominent by the way the sleeves of her muslin shift were caught in the strap that bound her wrists behind her back.
“Please!” her eyes said, “Help me.” Monsieur’s sudden passion turned to guilt when he studied her face.
“Mornin’ Reverend,” crooned the overseer in a deep resonance that overmatched his small stature.
How could this fool mistake him for a man of the cloth after all this time?
“I said, mornin’,” the overseer repeated. The girl yelped when the overseer tugged on the leash attached to her collar.
Monsieur opened his mouth to protest the treatment of the girl and the inexcusable error of his mistaken identity. But the thought of reduced wages, should Mrs. Panier hear he had once again offended her cousin, prompted him to smile more broadly than he had intended and say, “Good morning to you, Sir.”
The girl dropped her eyes and stopped fighting her leash. Then, the muscles of her face went slack, making her seem young and vulnerable and, at the same time, old and tired of this life.
Fear replaced his leaden feeling when Monsieur saw Alexandra standing between the Doric columns on the top step of the Parlor portico. Had she seen his act of cowardice? Perhaps not. Clammy sweat washed over him. She looked like a goddess in that lavender silk empire dress that left little the imagination. Persephone incarnate.
Abandoning protocol, Monsieur bounded up the stairs two at a time. He reached into the pocket and was about to hand her his letter when she said, “I thought you would do something to help that poor girl.” Alexandra turned from him.
He crumpled the carefully wrought pages and stuffed them deeper into his breast pocket and followed Alexandra into the parlor, chilled by the thought that the marble eyes of statue of Athena, who stood sentinel on the portico, followed not only his movements, but the shortcomings of his intentions.