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By D. A. Ratliff
The diary was old. The handbound leather cover worn and cracked and the small brass lock tarnished. Jolene Lamont had found the diary and its tiny key tied to a ribbon in a small old trunk in her grandmother’s attic one day when she was fifteen, rummaging for old clothes for a school play. She rushed to her grandmother with her find.
Her grandmother’s eyes softened as she gazed at the leather tome and motioned for Jolene to sit beside her. In her Cajun lilt, her grandmother explained.
“When I was a little girl, I found this diary and brought it to my mother. The writing is in French, and at the time, I could not read it. The diary records the story of how our family came into existence. Mama said when I learned to read French, I could read it for myself. So, I did and made the same charge to your mother, who was more into science than a silly diary. So, I now charge you to learn French and when you do, the diary is yours.”
Jolene’s fingers traced the faded gold-lettered name painted on the cover. She accepted her grandmother’s challenge and not only took French in high school but also minored in French when she entered Tulane. It was at her college graduation when her grandmother handed her the diary and she had learned the story of Blaise Marceau.
She unlocked the diary, carefully turning the fragile linen paper to her favorite entries.
June 4, 1704
I am Blaise Marceau, and today I begin a new life. A few short months ago, I was an orphan, raised in the convent. When word came from the Lieutenant Governor of the first colony in the Louisiana settlement that he wished for young French women to come to the colony as wives for the soldiers, Sister Marie Josephine insisted that I be one of them. My station in life had been among the aristocracy until my father murdered my mother in a rage of jealousy. Unfounded jealousy but he lost his head regardless, and as an orphan, the convent was my only choice.
I now stand on the dock on Dauphine Island, where I and my fellow travelers await our transport to our new home. My meager belongings are in an old trunk the Sister found for me. Constructed of inexpensive wood with only rope handles to carry it by, the trunk had held a surprise. I found this diary and a note from Sister Marie Josephine inside. Her words stay in my heart. She wished me the happy life I deserved and as I read and write, she asked that I record my experiences so that one day perhaps she would know my fate.
So, for the Sister, I will record my life in this new world.
August 19, 1704
My fellow Casquette Girls, as we became known due to the French word for the small trunks we arrived with, settled in the home of the Lieutenant Governor, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, de Bienville. His housekeeper, Madame Langlois oversees our well-being and she has been teaching us the finer points of being a wife. She is the widowed cousin of Monsieur Le Moyne but a few of the girls think she may be more than a housekeeper. I refuse to speculate on such matters.
She has been teaching us to cook. There are native tribes here that she has learned much from about preparing the native foods. I am finding that I love the exotic food we are learning about here. As I can read, I am helping the girls who cannot learn. Madam Langlois is also teaching us to sew, as well. I had been learning embroidery from my mother before she died, not mending, and I find sewing instructions to be upsetting as I remember my mother’s kindness. However, if I am to marry a French soldier, I will need to know how to mend. The Sister told me I should learn everything that I could, and I will honor her.
September 02, 1704
Music and dance lessons have begun in earnest, for Monsieur Le Moyne is holding a dinner party for some of his officers. His home is near Fort Louis de la Mobile and there are often soldiers visiting. The Monsieur forbids us to meet them, but we often hide on the second-floor balcony to watch them arrive. They are most handsome in their uniforms, but one of the girls, Giselle tells us that most of them are older and the highest bidder will take what he wants. Madam Langlois shushed her and told her that no such thing will occur. That the Monsieur will protect us and not give or sell us to anyone as our needs are also important. Giselle insists she is correct and many of us are now frightened.
October 19, 1704
The night of the dinner party has arrived. I am excited. The Monsieur had gowns made for each of us to wear. Mine is a soft green brocade and I have new slippers. I have not had a new gown for several years.
Monsieur Le Moyne allowed us to have dinner in the dining hall but at a separate table from the guests. As we helped prepare the dinner, we were happy to hear the approval of the soldiers. After dinner, we retired to the grand parlor. We sat in chairs against one wall waiting for a dance request.
As the music began, Monsieur Le Moyne invited his guests to ask his wards to dance. I was shaking, afraid no soldier would choose me but more afraid my dancing would not be acceptable. I was not extremely graceful. It was no surprise that the soldiers chose the lovely Giselle and some of the other girls as soon as the harpsichord and violin began to play. However, I was shocked when one of the younger soldiers walked directly toward me and held out his hand.
His name is Lieutenant Antoine Desper, and by the end of the evening, I was in love.
December 24, 1704
Monsieur Le Moyne was extremely strict on the manner in which the soldiers could court us. They could call twice per week, one on a mid-weeknight and for the Sunday mid-day meal. Since the dinner dance, Lieutenant Desper had not failed to call. Madame Langlois was present for all the visits and she forbade touching, not even holding hands.
As tonight is the eve of Noel, the Monsieur invited the officers to attend the burning of the yule log. We prepared a feast and it was this night that Lieutenant Desper announced he was going to ask Monsieur Le Moyne for my hand in marriage.
January 17, 1705
The morning of my marriage has arrived. I am nervous as I am about to become a wife. Giselle and the others have filled my head with what my wifely responsibilities will involve. I am frightened but prepared. My heart fills with love, and I trust Lieutenant Desper will be kind.
A staff member roused Jolene from her reading. The last stock delivery had arrived and as she waited for the driver to bring in the cases, her thoughts drifted to Blaise. Each time she read the story, the emotion it stirred surprised her. But no more than on this day when she was embarking on a new adventure of her own. Love had found her as well and now, so much of her life was similar to the life Blaise experienced. With a couple of her employees putting the stock away, she returned to the diary.
November 29, 1705
A joyous day for my beloved Antoine and me as our son, Phillipe Jean-Baptiste Desper was born. He is healthy and we are happy. Madam Langlois attended me, and Monsieur Le Moyne promoted my beloved to Captain on that day.
On the day of my son’s birth, I received my first letter from Sister Marie Josephine. I had written many to her, always including copies of my daily diary entries but had not heard from her. The joy in my heart only grew as I read her words of happiness for my safe journey and good life.
Jolene skipped the entries about the growing years of Phillipe and the arrival of his sister, Marie Josephine. They were wonderful years for the Desper family. Antoine continuing to rise in importance within the military and remained in loyal service of Monsieur Le Moyne de Bienville. On this day, she especially wanted to reread the years when the city she loved had come into existence.
May 9, 1718
I have never seen Antoine so excited. Monsieur Le Moyne is once again governor of French Louisiana and has founded a new city on the crescent of a mighty river. It will be a while before we move there, but the Monsieur has told Antoine that he will be among the highest officials of the city’s government.
October 10, 1719
Flooding of the crescent land along the river has slowed the progress of building the new capital city but not the enthusiasm for the change in our life. There has been talk of leaving the capital in Biloxi, but with the shifting sands making the area unstable, the Monsieur will not have that. He vows to build the new capital, which he will call “La Nouvelle-Orléans” in honor of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans. Antoine will be traveling there a great deal to oversee the city’s construction and that of the port. Phillipe begged to travel with his father, and I have reluctantly agreed. Marie Josephine and I will leave our quarters at the Fort and stay with Madam Langlois while they are gone.
November 02, 1721
We arrive in La Nouvelle-Orléans to start our new life. Antoine secured a home for us in the new Vieux Carré. Marie Josephine has grown into a lovely young woman and many suitors have already called. Her papa, however, is not happy at the attention. Phillip is now seventeen and will soon join his father in the military. Giselle’s husband died in an accident on the docks, and we invited her and her two small children to live with us. With Antoine so busy and Phillip about to become a man, I enjoyed having her with Marie and me.
June 30, 1736
Relations with the Chickasaw tribe deteriorated, and Monsieur Le Moyne de Bienville returned from France to become Governor once more. He appointed Antoine as his Lieutenant Governor and we moved to a larger home in the Vieux Carré. Then near tragedy struck when our Phillip suffered a severe injury in a skirmish with the Chickasaw.
Once again, Monsieur Le Moyne was my savior. For this same year, a French sailor and shipbuilder, Jean Louis had left an endowment for the construction of a charity hospital in La Nouvelle-Orléans. The Monsieur had personally overseen the hospital construction and it was there the doctors were able to save his life.
Our family was growing. Antoine, Marie, and I now lived with Giselle and her children and our son and his wife, Victoria, and a granddaughter, Honoré.
December 24, 1742
This is a bittersweet Noel for us. Monsieur Le Moyne is returning to France. I fear this is the last we will see of a man who has meant so much to my family. My only consolation is that Madam Langlois will remain. She has not been well and wishes to stay in the city she has also grown to love.
Marie Josephine is now married to a cotton and wheat broker and has two young children, Etienne, and Ronin. Giselle’s children are also married but will be here tonight for the burning of the Yule log. Monsieur’s departure has caused Antione to consider leaving the military and entering into a business.
I do not know what the new year brings, but I am thankful my family is here.
July 17, 1743
Antoine is excited, more so than I have ever seen him. Today, he and Phillipe are opening a tavern in Vieux Carré for the growing tradesmen. Phillip’s injures left him unable to continue as a soldier and now with his father retiring, they have started a business. Giselle and I will cook for them. Madame Langlois’s cooking lessons of years ago are serving us well.
I received word only a few days ago that Sister Marie Josephine was near death and I feel in my heart that she is no longer with us. Many days have passed since the Casquette Girls left the convent in Paris but most of the girls married well and have had a good life.
As we embark on our new journey in this new world, I think back to the night when the harpsichord was playing, and Antoine asked me to dance. I loved him with all my heart that night and I love him still.
Jolene sat, elbows on the polished wood bar and thought about the night she met Robert. He had asked her to dance and she had been in love from the start. A shudder of warmth passed through her as she remembered the shock, then joy on his face when she proposed they open this place in the Vieux Carré, better known now as the French Quarter.
Today was her day to be joyful. She walked behind the bar and stood before the niche that held Blaise’s casquette. Tucking the diary inside the trunk next to the ribbon-bound letters from Sister Marie Josephine, now aged and faded, she closed the lid.
Robert joined her. “Ready, baby?”
A grin as large as she could muster crossed her face. “Yes, I am.”
Jolene flipped the light switch and downlights cast a glow on the trunk and illuminated the sign above.
The Casquette Tavern was open for business.
This story is a work of fiction and I took some liberties in the telling of this story. However, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville is an actual historical figure and considered the “Father of New Orleans.” He was the first person to find the crescent-shaped bend in the Mississippi River and identify it as an excellent port.
Also, concerned about the fraternization of his soldiers with the local native population, de Bienville called for French girls to immigrate to the Louisiana Territory to serve as brides for the soldiers and settlers. He recruited orphans from convents in France as pure and proper wives. The girls carried their belongings in small trunks called casquettes and they became known as the Casquette Girls. While not proven, the cooking lessons given by Madam Langlois using local foods exotic to France possibly gave rise to Creole cuisine.
Madame Langlois, the Charity Hospital grant from shipbuilder Jean Louis, the Chickasaw War, and the building of Vieux Carré, now known as the French Quarter, are real people, events, and places. A monument stands in New Orleans to recognize de Bienville as the founder of the city.
Please visit D. A. Ratliff at https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/