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Book Jacket

0785270043
Trade Paperback
272 pages
Sep 2004
WestBow Press

The Alchemy : A Novel (Creoles)

by Gilbert Morris

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter One

The Marquis Armand de Cuvier, Lord Beaufort, leaned forward with a sense of satisfaction as he touched the tip of his quill to the white parchment. Quickly the musical notes seemed to flow from his heart (which the marquis felt was the real producer of music!), and something close to rapture touched the composer. He continued to write as rapidly as possible, for he had discovered that when he composed his scores, when the inspiration flowed, nothing must be allowed to interfere.

The sun threw golden beams through the window to the marquis’ right hand, and the warm breezes of May caressed him, stirring his hair gently. Spring had come to France in the year of 1832 almost in a bound, it seemed, bringing out the greenery and causing the flowers to burst in small explosions of color. Even now, as the marquis continued to cover the parchment with musical notes, he was conscious of a sense of well-being.

The composition had not gone well for some time, and Lord Beaufort had lost sleep over it for weeks. Ordinarily the marquis was a gentle man, soft-spoken, with a ready smile, but when whatever demon it is that clogs up the inspiration in the mind of the composer gripped him, he became short-tempered and hard to live with. His beloved wife, Jeanne, had learned to recognize those times and managed to keep him from the more violent outbursts. The servants also had learned to recognize the marquis’ uncreative periods and walked softly around him during those days.

An ormolu clock beat out a rhythm like soft heartbeats, and once, as the marquis scribbled furiously, from a lower story came the sound of a clock tolling off one—two—three, sprinkling the hours all through the house. The marquis paid no attention to it. When he was composing, he had the gift of closing himself off to almost anything.

A loud, angry voice from outside his window sounded suddenly, the violence of it breaking into the composer’s inspiration. “Cannot I have even a moment’s peace?” he cried aloud.

Anger swept through Lord Beaufort, and with a violent gesture, he flung the quill down and saw a blob of ink obliterate his last few notations. He leaped up, knocking his chair over backwards. It fell with a crash as he moved quickly to the window. At forty-six, Armand de Cuvier was an active man of medium height with wavy brown hair and eyes that were ordinarily warm. Just now, however, they seemed to flash, sending off flecks of light. Leaning over the window and looking down, he saw his gardener, Philippe, a huge man of forty, grasping a stranger by the arm. Philippe was shouting something, and the young man he held was trying to respond.

Suddenly Philippe’s massive arm moved, and his fist caught the visitor high on the forehead. He fell backwards as if poleaxed and lay without moving.

“What in the world is going on down there, Philippe?”

“This fellow insists on seeing you, my lord. He would not take no for an answer.”

“Well, I think you’ve killed the fellow. I’ll be right down.”

The marquis hurried out of the room, stepping lightly down the stairs, through the hallway, and outside. He walked quickly to where Philippe was picking up the young fellow.

“Now, what’s all this about?”

The young man Philippe gripped tightly by the arms was six feet tall but not strongly built like the gardener. His eyes were focused, at least, and the marquis saw that they were of a brilliant, cornflower blue. His hat had been knocked off, revealing thick hair of an auburn tint that caught the sun. He had a wedge-shaped face, a wide mouth, and his eyes were deep-set. When he saw the marquis, he tried to bow, but Philippe held him tightly. “Monsieur, I am Colin Seymour.” Then he tried to speak in French, but it was so pitiful that the marquis could not understand much of it.

The marquis asked, “You are English?”

“Yes, sir,” Seymour said at once. “I’m sorry I don’t speak French.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Armand said. “What do you want here?”

“I’ll tell you what he wants,” Philippe broke in. He shook the young man, saying, “He broke into the barn, and he’s stolen some food.”

“Is that right?”

“I did sleep in the barn, but I didn’t steal any food.”

“He’s a liar!” Philippe said roughly. “He’s a tramp. Look at him.”

Indeed, Colin Seymour was dressed in clothing that would have done dishonor to a tramp. He wore a pair of brown britches that were patched on both knees and in the seat, and the stockings that enclosed his lower legs were more runs and holes than cloth. His shirt had at one time been white but now was filthy, and the light-greenish jacket looked as if it were covered with mold. His hair was untrimmed, and his unshaven face was grimy. He was thin and had a lean and hungry look about him.

“What do you want here?” the marquis demanded.

“I was just—”

“He wanted to steal something,” Philippe said loudly. “That’s all these tramps want.”

“I expect you’re right. Hang onto him and have Merle go get the sheriff.”

“Please, sir, I really am not a thief!”

“Shut your mouth!” Philippe said, shaking the young man like a rat. “You’re going to jail where you belong.”

At that moment the front door of the house opened, and Jeanne de Cuvier, Lady Beaufort, stepped outside and approached the trio. She was a small woman, well shaped, in her late thirties. Her hair was light with a trace of gold in it, and her eyes were hazel flecked with blue.

“What is this, Armand?”

“Oh, just a petty thief, my dear. Don’t trouble yourself about it. Philippe, take him now, and hold him until Merle gets back with the sheriff.”

“Just a minute, Philippe.” Madam de Cuvier had her eyes fixed on the young man’s features. “He doesn’t look very dangerous to

me.”

“You don’t know these tramps, my lady,” Philippe grunted. “He’d slit your throat in a minute if he had the chance.”

“What is your name, young man?”

“My name is Colin Seymour, Madam.”

“And you are English?”

“I am American.”

“That is even worse,” Philippe snarled, tightening his grip. “Every-one knows the Yankees are nothing but a bunch of killers.”

“Please go inside, my dear,” Armand said with concern. “In your condition, you don’t need this excitement.”

“Just a minute, Armand. Let me talk with him.”

Armand threw up his hands. “That will be the end of it, I suppose. You take in every broken-winged bird until I can’t get in the house, but this fellow is not a crippled animal. He could be dangerous, as Philippe says.”

“How long have you been in France, Colin?”

Young Seymour attempted to smile. “About two weeks. I was picked up by the police and put in jail.”

“You see!” Philippe exclaimed triumphantly. “He’s a criminal!”

“I had done nothing and committed no crime—unless having no money is a crime in France.”

“You’re bleeding,” Jeanne said. Indeed, Philippe’s massive fist had opened a cut over the young man’s left eyebrow. The blood was trickling down, and Jeanne said, “Bring him inside. That must be attended to.”

Philippe began to protest, but Armand interrupted. “Never mind, Philippe. All he can do is run away, and that might solve the problem.”

“He’ll cut our throats. You’ll see!” Philippe said, glaring at Seymour. “Give me the word, and I’ll have Merle go for the sheriff.”

“Come inside, young man,” Jeanne said.

“Go on. Do what she tells you,” Armand commanded.

Colin followed the woman, aware that Philippe was glaring at him as he left. He had no intention of escaping, however. When they reached the kitchen, the housekeeper, Josephine Bettencourt, stared at them. “Who is this?”

“Another one of your mistress’s injured creatures.”

“Sit down there, young man,” Jeanne said. “Josephine, get something that we can clean this blood off with, and perhaps a plaster to put over it.”

“Sit down there,” Armand commanded fiercely, pointing at a stool. He stood back and studied the young man as the two women cleaned the blood off his face. He could not help but smile when he saw the tender expression in his wife’s eyes. I think she would be kind to Judas, he thought. He watched as they carefully put a plaster over the cut, and then he stepped forward. “Now that you’ve saved his life, I have a few questions for him.”

Jeanne went to her husband and took his arm. “He’s only a boy. How old are you, Colin?”

“I’m twenty-one, ma’am.”

“‘Ma’am’? What is ‘ma’am’?”

“That’s what we call ladies in America.”

“Ma’am! What a hideous word! Everything from America is ugly,” Armand said, but kindness had begun to show in his expression. “Why did you come to France?”

“I came all the way here to meet you, sir.”

“To meet me!” Armand exclaimed in surprise. “But I don’t know you.”

“But I know you—at least, I know your music.”

Armand suddenly slapped his forehead with his open palm. “Oh no, don’t tell me! Not another genius who has come to let me expose his talent to the world.”

“Armand, be quiet. Let him talk,” Jeanne said firmly. “Tell us about yourself.”

“I want to sing in the opera,” Colin said simply.

Armand stared at him and shook his head, laughing cynically. “So do about one million other people the world over. It seems half the people I meet want to be in opera. What do you know about music, anyway? Have you studied?”

“Not exactly.”

“Not exactly? What does that mean? You’ve either studied, or you haven’t.”

“I’ve never been to a singing school, but I want to learn.”

Armand was amused. Indeed, he had been besieged for years by budding operatic hopefuls. He could no longer attend a party without someone saying, “I have a nephew who has great talent. If you would only take him in hand, Marquis . . .” Armand had developed a hard shell when such requests were thrown at him. Sometimes he lost his temper. One lady had produced her son with a statement: “I believe my son has a great career inside him.” Armand had replied shortly: “That’s a good place for it, Madam.” His wife, of course, had chastised him for his rudeness.

Armand had a surefire system for eliminating such applicants as young Seymour. “Can you sing right now?” he demanded. Usually this was enough to shut down the request, for most singers required music, an instrument to accompany them, the right setting, and the right mood, and when they were challenged directly, many were simply unable to sing a note.

“Well, you say you want to be a singer. Can you sing?”

“Yes sir.”

Jeanne giggled and put her hand on her stomach that was just beginning to swell with the child she was carrying. “He is a young man with much confidence.”

“Confidence doesn’t fill operatic houses. Voices do that,” Armand said sternly. “Very well,” he said, “sing.”

Instantly Colin Seymour opened his mouth and began to sing. It was an aria from The Barber of Seville, by Gioacchino Rossini, a rather demanding piece for any tenor. The room was filled with the sound of the song, which was a rousing piece of music.

Seymour’s eyes were alight, and despite the ugly, purplish lump that was developing on his forehead, he seemed completely unconscious of anything except the song. It was not a trained voice, as both Armand and Jeanne saw at once, but it had power that most tenors never even dreamed of. At one point it practically rattled the dishes on the shelves, and Josephine Bettencourt’s eyes flew open, and she covered her mouth with her hand.

Finally the song ended, and Seymour said nothing. He simply stood waiting.

“Well,” Armand said slowly, “you certainly are loud.”

“Oh, he’s more than that, Armand!” Jeanne protested. “He has such a sweet sound in his voice.”

“You speak Italian, then?”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“How do you know the words?”

“I memorized them from hearing them onstage. I have some idea what they mean, but even without being sure, I love to sing them.”

Armand hesitated. Jeanne reminded him, “I’ve heard worse voices at the opera house in Paris.”

“You never heard one as ill-trained, though. He has a thousand faults.”

“Oh, I know that, sir! That’s why I’ve come all the way to France. If you’ll just teach me, I’ll work. I’ll do anything. I’ll clean the stables. Just tell me what to do.”

“I don’t have time for that. I’m too busy composing. You’ll have to leave.”

“Are you hungry?”

Seymour looked at the mistress of the house. “I . . . am a little hungry.”

“When did you eat last?” Jeanne asked.

“I think it was two days ago. I found some turnips in a field.”

“Nothing but raw turnips! Josephine, quick. We must feed this young man.”

Josephine laughed. “Yes, Madam, I think we must. He’s skinny as a plucked chicken.”

Armand, despite his harsh verbal judgment, was interested in the young man. As Josephine moved around the kitchen, he pulled Jeanne off to the side and said, “I know you, my dear. Your mind is already spinning webs in which to catch me.”

“He’s such a sweet young man.”

“How do you know that? He may be totally depraved.”

“With those innocent blue eyes? Of course he’s not!”

Armand suddenly laughed. “I understand that some of the most vicious criminals in the world have blue eyes and look innocent as babies.”

“You just made that up. You always make up things when you don’t want me to do something.”

“Well, he does have potential, but I can’t take on a student. I’m right in the middle of this opera, and it’s very difficult. I keep getting interrupted.” He continued to argue fervently.

Finally Jeanne pleaded, “Please, Armand, let’s at least hear his story.”

“All right, I’ll listen, but I’m telling you now I can’t help him.”

They moved over to the table where the young man was eating. He obviously was ravenously hungry, but both noticed that he had at least the rudiments of good manners.

When Josephine had removed his plate, Jeanne said, “Tell us about yourself, Colin.”

“Well, there’s not much to tell. My parents died in an epidemic before I was six. I was raised by a distant cousin of my father, a man named Silas Winters. He was a fisherman who lived outside New Orleans.”

“Was he good to you?”

“Well, ma’am, he was a hard man, and fishing is a hard job.” He put out his hands, and both of them saw that they were scarred and covered with calluses. They looked strong, however, and he said, “He died about a year ago.”

“Did you get any education at all?” Jeanne asked softly.

“Just what little I could pick up. I learned to read and write.”

“What did you do then,” Armand asked, “after your relative died?”

“I got a job cleaning the opera house in New Orleans, and oh sir, I have never heard anything like it! I stayed for all the performances. It didn’t pay much, but I loved the music. I’d never heard anything like it.”

“And so that’s what you did? You memorized the music?”

“Yes, ma’am, I did.” Colin’s eyes were bright, and despite the purplish wound, he looked eager. “I don’t want to beg, but if you could let me stay, and just once in a while tell me a little about singing, I can garden for you or take care of your horses. I can fix most things. I’ll do anything, my lord!”

“I’m sorry. It’s just impossible. I don’t have the time.” He expected the young man to argue, but he saw that the eager light seemed to be extinguished in the young man’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But we have a room overhead in the stable. You can stay there tonight, and I’ll do something about getting you back to America.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The young man was so meek that Armand felt terrible. He turned and walked out of the room, saying, “Come with me.” When the young man followed, they went outside where Philippe was still working on the yard. “Philippe, this young man will be staying in the room over the barn tonight. See that he has a bath, and perhaps you can find some better clothes for him.”

Philippe stared at the American. “He’ll cut our throats, sir.”

“Oh, I don’t think he’s dangerous. Do as I tell you.”

“Yes, sir.” Philippe nodded. “Come along, fellow.”

Armand went at once upstairs and tried to work on his score again. He cleaned up the mess he had made and was not surprised to find that he had lost his train of thought. He struggled with it for over an hour, then finally muttered, “Blast it! Now I’ll have to wait until it comes back.” He heard the door open and turned to see Jeanne enter. She walked over and put her arm around him. “Are you having difficulty with the composition?”

“Don’t I always?”

“You’ll do it, and it’ll be magnificent.”

Armand laughed. “When you’re this nice, I know you want something. It makes me suspicious.”

“I think you might guess what it is.” She put both arms around him, and he stood up and turned to embrace her. He loved the woman with all of his heart and looked forward to the birth of their first child with great expectation. “I think I can guess all right.”

“Please, Armand, let the boy stay. He’ll work hard for his keep, and he’s so hungry to learn.”

“He’s too old to learn everything an opera singer needs to know.”

“No, he’s not. He’s only twenty-one, and he has really a fine voice—just untrained.”

Armand sat down and pulled her onto his lap. She cuddled up against him and put her face on his chest. “Please, Armand.”

“You know I can never refuse you anything.”

“That’s because you’re the most wonderful husband in the world.”

“I suspect you’re right about that, and the handsomest too.”

Jeanne laughed and straightened up. She put her hand behind his neck, pulled his head down, and kissed him. “You’re a good man, the best I know.”

“Before you start buttering me up, listen to my terms. He can stay, and he can help Philippe with the grounds and muck out stables for Perin and do anything else that needs doing. I’ll try him out for a month. If he has the ability to learn, we’ll see. But I have no time for petty talents. If I see he has no potential, he’ll have to go.”

Jeanne patted his cheek and smiled. “You do have wonderful ideas.”

“I haven’t had an idea of my own since I married you. You put them all in my head.”

“It’s going to be wonderful!” Jeanne laughed and threw her arms around him and put her cheek against his. “He’s going to be a great singer, and one day you’ll be proud to say, ‘Colin Seymour was my pupil!’”