The Natchez Treasure

 

 

The Natchez Treasure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Natchez, in April!

 

From the river plantations, crepe myrtles – the trees my mother loved – with gray twisted trunks come down to the road, to hang their crumpled linens of lavender in the warm breeze.

Creeks rush out of the dark woods, insane with stolen treasure of golden pollen and petals of the mystical dogwood, and shaded by the silent magnolias that fill their blossoms from the sky with fragrance of the world’s most tragic dreams:

(Somewhere, sunlight on a back porch, in the hanging sheets and in her glowing petticoats. Smells of wash, of roses in the yard, and of her neck as she knelt to embrace me. The smile in her eyes, like sunlight – the rest of her face I can’t remember. I’m amazed to remember even that. I can’t have been four when she died.)

In the steaming distance, thunderstorms blossom, blue and white.

Lightning pollinates the horizon, where oaks explode in ecstasy.

In my trembling horse I can feel the power of the river just out of sight over the bluffs as I ride into town…

The oaks! How great they’ve grown! Mansions of the river merchants – weathered. Rose hedges climb the steep bluffs that end suddenly against the sky – were the lawns always so small? I hadn’t remembered it quite like this – like I were looking for my own heart –

(As I search the fading outline of a dream for the yellowed photograph of another young woman standing there, on the bluff, looking down on the river. I wonder if I would recognize her now.)

Then the thunder came.

The massive Mississippi River bluff moved violently in red dust and fell off in the empty sky. My screaming horse climbed the thunder, while my own wild eyes saw, far below, brown godlike arms of water immense as the horizon, which they threatened with erosion.

 

 

Chapter One

 

In Gerald’s store, above the river landing, I announced myself:

“I’ve seen the power of the ocean, taking rocks from under mountains at the edge of the continent. It would never think of taking the whole country like this river wants to!”

Gerald, as though he were used to a little flowery speech by now – or else he had forgotten my style – took no notice. “Spring flood,” was all his answer.

“A piece of the bluff just fell!” I said.

“Yeah?” he replied. “My house isn’t there.”

I had a good laugh at that. He looked at me strangely.

“Used to be a part of town under that bluff,” I said.

Gerald: “Hasn’t been, ten years.”

“What a part of town it was!” I said.

“A den of thieves, in its time,” he said, out of patience. “Help you find something?”

“I need an ointment.”

“Got a prescription?”

“No, it’s just a small wound,” I said. “A bite.”

“A bite!” he said, alarmed. “What kind of animal?”

“A woman,” I said, opening the shirt around my chest.

“James Thompson!” he shouted. “How long have you had that beard?”

“Twenty years,” I said.

“When you left it was nothing,” he said; “a hint of red on your chin.”

“There was a time when we had no beards?”

“James Thompson! Home from California!”

“It’s not such news,” I said.

“How long are you here?” he demanded. “The Natchez paper got a contract to serialize your novel. Now they sell papers in Vicksburg even, and all the way to Jackson.”

“I didn’t know,” I said. “You read it?”

Jean Lafitte!” he said proudly.

“That went out of print twelve years ago!” I said.

“If you don’t give a lecture, you’ll be lynched!” he said. “You think he was that complex of a man, Lafitte? A leader in the revolutions of Europe, or just a pirate?”

“Or maybe it was fiction,” I offered.

“You know how many strange men sail to Natchez,” he said, “to look for the treasure he buried under the bluff? I tell them: the Mississippi River took it – scattered it on the bottom of the Gulf!”

“Do they even consider what was in the coffin?” I laughed. “Bones, or precious stones? Maybe a skeleton, buried in heavy jewels? And they’d die to find out – like he did?”

Gerald whistled. “What a story! Some of the men who come have maps. I’d like to know how much they paid for them! They show which warehouse – where to tear out the floor! And I tell them – yeah, I remember that place! It disappeared in the flood. I never say that I used to know the man who wrote the book – the story that made the world go mad for Lafitte’s lost treasure! That, they’d never believe.

“My boy!” he turned to yell with a sudden sternness.

The boy crawled out of the window, where candies were invitingly piled. His face was smeared to the guiltiest freckle with peppermint.

Gerald was going to shout at him; but I said, with a tenderness that surprised even me: “This is your son?”

Gerald stared at his boy, and said to him: “Go tell them at the news office and the train station – James Thompson!” He grabbed his hat. “I’ll go to the town hall myself…”

“No, wait!” I said to Gerald. “Give me a moment with you.”

“Why?”

“I’ve needed to talk with you,” I answered.

“Are you in trouble?” To the boy, he said, “Go on, go tell them!”

Like a fox released from a trap, the boy was gone in a red blur. Gerald laughed.

Then he looked at me and said, “What?” He looked in my eyes, like he used to.

“It’s been so long,” I said. “I’ve thought… what friends we were.”

“Why should you care about me?” he said. “I’m nothing. I could have disappeared, like the docks down the bluff. Even my wife wouldn’t care, after a month – I’d be like everything else that’s just gone. Like Denise. No one thinks to remember her now.”

I stared at him in disbelief: “Denise…”

“She’s gone,” he said. “You didn’t know?” He reached under the counter for his spectacles and balance sheets.

After a painful silence I managed to say, “You’re angry at me?”

“Life’s hard, that’s all – no paradise like California,” he muttered over his ledgers. “You strike a little gold, live your dream, get rich writing novels. Everyone knows your name. What a life! You really know Mark Twain?”

“As well as anyone, I guess. He’s a stranger, even to himself.”

He stared at me, over his silver-rimmed glasses: “What’s it like to talk with him? You have to be careful what you say, I bet!”

“One afternoon, we were talking of our youth. I told him about you,” I said.

“I don’t believe it!”

“He understood it all – swimming in the summer creek, the girls we wished we had, the thousand things we didn’t know how to say – and how expressive our silence was! He looked off in the distance. ‘And now,’ he said, ‘do you know what you would have spoken, and do you wish you had?’”

“You’re getting philosophical,” said Gerald. “You always did…”

“I’ve dreamed of you,” I interrupted with fervor; “of your store on the Natchez bluff where roads end, where the world trusts its most precious winnings to the river’s tremendous moods; where stories end, change shape, and begin again!”

“Yeah?” he said into his ledgers. “That’s not what you said to me when my father gave me the business. You said it was a hell of a place to stay, when life was for getting out on the river’s current, finding the limits of the known world!”

“I said that?”

“Those were your words. I never talk like that.”

“I must have been jealous,” I answered weakly.

“I can’t believe you don’t even remember what you said.” It was Gerald’s turn to be fervent. “I never forgot one word.”

“I don’t even remember why I left,” I said. “Hundreds were going: the river to the Gulf. We thought it would be easy – not like the wagon trail through unlimited desert and mountains ruthless with relentless winter. But there never was a more dangerous crossing, through the Panama jungle to the gold fields. Men died, having no idea…”

Gerald shook his head, the way he always did while reflecting on things past. “We were pretty surprised, when your writings came back around Cape Horn, to realize you’d made it.”

“You’ve done better than I dreamed,” I said.

“It’s harder than you think. In every difficult success,” he said, “I’ve never escaped the curse of your words when you left.”

“I never considered how something I could say would make you feel! But could you understand? Leaving you and everything of home, I left my heart – is it possible to imagine what that is? I was angry – at someone else, not you! Not angry… hurting.”

“The wound has not healed?” he asked me gently.

“That night… under that high moon… her face, hair, arms a white bloom, planted by the moon herself on the bank; voice of the illumined Mississippi filling the whole dark universe!”

“You shouldn’t have forced yourself on her,” he said.

“Did she say that?” I answered with alarm.

He shrugged, returning his attention to his balance sheets. “What is one to assume, from the evidence of your injury? Her family never talked about what happened. But everyone could see that something terrible had happened.”

“As though it was their business to know!”

“You both were the only child of local preachers, and you never thought about what people might say?”

“Why would I take the time to think about that?” I replied.

“It would have made things much easier for her if you had. But you ran off; she went to Memphis. In a few months she was back to marry the Wilkins boy; but she didn’t go through with it. It was clear she wasn’t happy. One night she ran away, they think.”

“How could I have known,” I groaned, “what a crisis was brewing that night? It began with an embrace – one of which I had dreamed, the one that will haunt me forever! And – she confessed love for me! I could not believe it…”

“Why not?” Gerald interrupted. “You were always a favorite with the girls! They loved to talk about your strange, daring speech; even your clumsiness with them was a source of delight to them. They seemed to sense that they were some great mystery to you, and they fed on it. Then – you would kiss them. You knew how to do that! I saw it often enough. Surprise exploded in their eyes, and they would stare back at you with such wild astonishment! Then, most often, you would never speak to them again. How should it have been different with Denise, except that she took it harder? Why are you staring at me like that?”

“I forgot all that,” I said quietly.

“That’s nothing new, either. You had talent for forgetting such things.”

“Perhaps you’re right. Maybe that’s how it happened… but love has never been so astounded as when she looked at me that night. I didn’t know what to do. I was all desperation and desire. I could not speak; and she became frustrated, I think, at my sudden loss of words. She assailed me, she cooed me; she terrified me, she fought with me.”

“This did not make it clear that she cared?”

“I didn’t understand anything! How could she love me and then become so angry? I’d never seen a woman’s anger before.”

“Well,” said Gerald, “I hope you have gained a little more wisdom since that time.”

“I was convinced I had made a fatal mistake. I was sure that she would never again have anything to do with me! Yet every word she spoke in anger remained in my heart, like bruised flowers, pressed in place. I studied them; many nights of many years, until they became like jewels from a box that I would take out and examine; until I learned to recognize their mysterious language.”

Gerald was staring at me, studying me as though he had never really looked at me before. “Really?” was all he said.

“I never really wanted anyone but her,” I answered in a low voice. It was a prophecy that surprised even me.

“You were a fool not to propose after that night,” Gerald pronounced.

“I don’t know why that never occurred to me,” I confessed.

“Why? Because you were made for misery, inflicting it on the innocent.”

I replied:

 

“Every exalted thought – all philosophy,

            the summit of existence

            when she stood on the bluff

            under the sun, with her umbrella

            and silently gazed on the river…”

 

Gerald sighed and nodded. “Translated from the French – a symbolist poem, quoted by Lafitte? I suspected, when I read that, that you wrote those lines while thinking of Denise!”

I answered further, leaning into a sweeping gesture, “The countryside around Natchez in bloom, is only a memory of that year she grew into womanhood.”

“Yep,” said Gerald,” It’s James Thompson all right! You’re staying for a while?”

“Yes. I’m to be employed as tutor of grammar and philosophy, at the Wells Plantation.”

Gerald stood straight up so suddenly he nearly fell. “You’re going into her service? You’ve got to be joking! I guess it makes sense. They’ll come from Nashville and New Orleans to get a look at you, and test your intelligence. I hope I see you again!”

“Why not?” I said.

“You go into that house,” he said, “it’s like you’re in another universe! The upper class of Natchez society! When we were growing up, we never even knew of their existence – even when we saw their homes, like a closed book of fairy tales. She never even comes into town, except to the larger houses. Only the servants come into the store. She’s built the Episcopal Church at the edge of town; but the membership there is limited to wealth.”

I smiled. “But I’ll be giving lectures at the town hall.”

“If you’re staying with her, you’d better make it clear what you meant in your story of Lafitte,” he said.

“Yes, I will!”

“Like a talk on fiction and imagination,” he insisted: “How the character’s experience and thought are not really those of the author’s. Some people might not know the difference.”

“I’ve written a character you disagree with?”

“Well, yes,” he said, “Lafitte! You made him too likeable. He falls in love with a saloon girl and lets her destroy him.”

“She destroys his past understanding. His heart and conscience are awakened.”

“Yeah,” he said, “you don’t want people around here to think…”

“I’ve got it!” I said; “I’ll give a lecture on the modern courtesan: how rare is the man who resists her inviting embrace, then pays heavily in disease and broken conscience.”

“Then I’m a rare man,” he said with firmness.

“But he can’t pay more heavily than with the understanding of how she was compelled into that profession. The sadness of her story will be revealed, and the heavy debt of guilt will be paid by all of us. That will get some attention in the press!”

“Curious, scandalous,” he admitted, frowning, “and certain to put you into permanent exile from plantation society.”

“Count on it!” I said, inspired. “A lecture! I’ll spell it out in detail: men of good society make them rich; but a reasonable man would be broken, just to see what society has done to these pretty girls.”

“Just like Lafitte was broken!” said Gerald. “Amazing! If you wish to climb the ladder of society yourself, like he did, through the fame of his notoriety, you’d better go back to California.”

“You’re right.” That calmed me down. “But I wish you could understand how much more important than any of that is my return; my desire to begin again, here, where I began…”

“Well,” he said after a moment; “we’re certainly curious what you’ve been doing out there in California. I don’t know that any of us should be expected to understand the way you think!”

“How I wanted to see her!” I stammered: “Denise! Her face, as it might be interpreted by the years… and the thoughts in her eyes she never dared to whisper – into what would they mature?”

Gerald: “I forgot you could really talk like that! When I read your book, it was like you were standing next to me, talking – I don’t know to whom – enraptured in your own strange sayings… I was always fascinated by your thoughts. But they’re your thoughts, not mine.”

If I believed in God,” I went on, “I’d beg him to allow me to look under the curtains of this world, under the hillside of broken gravestones, at the ruined youth of our ancestors, if he could unveil my heart for me!”

“Help you, miss?” Gerald interrupted suddenly, to someone else…

 

I was not expecting the most beautiful woman I would ever see.

The brown fire in her eyes frightened me, if it’s possible to be terrified of beauty.

She held her youth with a noble bearing, a tall and womanly profile that must have made the angels weep with confusion as they rushed to ignite her soaring thoughts, but had to stand a little farther off from the promise of love that filled the satin folds draping her youthful form.

Light-colored, wavy hair fell in an impossible mass in which every hair was perfectly placed, framing soft, thick eyebrows where thoughtfulness ruled over eyes which swam in their own light.

It was not Denise, not by any means – though she could have been about the age Denise was when I first began to notice her. She was not petite and moderately plump; her hair was not black and thick, her eyes were not wide and dark with magnetic dreaminess.

I was not expecting to recognize one who could replace another who had been foremost in my mind so long – indeed, just the moment before! How could it be possible? Outside the door behind her, an apple tree had burst in flame of blossom, its branches weighted with the fragrance of paradise.

Gerald was the first to notice no one spoke. “Do you know who this is? James Thompson, home from California!

An astonished recognition in her eyes caused such an explosion of beauty in them that I was lost in the mystery of who or what she might be.

With her was a woman of age – my age – who was not used to exalted silence, and realized she had plenty to say.

“You don’t say! James Thompson, hidden in that red beard? It’s a fine beard, don’t get me wrong! Don’t tell me I’m that hard to recognize! You haven’t forgotten that summer at the creek, I know!” Here she winked at Gerald, who went red. “And now – a famous author! Why did you write that the treasure was under the bluff?”

“I was just telling him, Sarah,” Gerald replied, “I was just making that point, that people don’t really know what fiction is.”

“Grandpa laughed when he read it”, she went on. “He said that if it ever was there, it wasn’t for long. He mentioned a single gravestone under an old oak. He saw the place once. It still had a piece of the rope hanging down from the branch, with the hangman’s knot in shreds. The rope was covered in wisteria that bloomed all summer. That’s what he said. Well? He should know. The only ones who knew about it were too afraid to dig. He never said what he was afraid of, but the way he said it scared me. But what I want to know is – is this just made up, what you wrote? I mean, I know that’s what everyone always thought – that it was hidden under the bluff – but why did you write it that way? It made a good story – sold a lot of books –”

“It’s just to draw people off the trail,” I said, winking at Gerald, who gave me a strange look; “and to get rumors going about treasure, and find out what people might know…”

“I see,” she replied; “you’re really good with these fictions, aren’t you? Living in your dreams, like you were still young. But do you think you might know where that oak could be? I’ve looked around. Did you ever see Denise? Some of us thought maybe she went to California, looking for you. Will you give a lecture while you’re here? Are you going down to Port Gibson, to visit your father? He’s done well, built a new church with the largest congregation…”

With such a list of questions to respond to, I chose the last: “I would go see my father, if a sermon were what I wanted to hear.”

“And he’d love to listen to his clever son as well; but three thousand miles couldn’t keep such enemies apart,” she said. Even I couldn’t believe she said that. But she went on, “Girl!” to the silent vision of beauty who was with her, “don’t stare like that! When your tutor comes, he’ll have to teach you some manners I guess.”

Gerald, with a grin, said, “This is the tutor, if you can believe what he told me.”

“No, I doubt that,” Sarah laughed. “You don’t want to learn his manners!”

“You are my new student, then!” I said. “How exciting…”

“Is it?” the young lady answered immediately. “You’ve not even begun to appraise my intelligence, and already you’ve given me a passing grade?”

Speechless, I stared at her.

“Are you this lax in your examinations as well,” she went on, “or can you see into the secrets of men? But tell me, sir, what am I to learn?”

“History and philosophy, poetry, and the understanding of the ages: the knowledge of every century.” The words were coming out of me from a trance. “These are the gifts of the Muses, which I’ve been summoned to give to you.”

Her eyes softened. “This must be the answer to my prayers.”

“If I may accompany you to the house,” I said eagerly, “we could discuss…”

“Oh, no,” she said merrily, “I could never be seen walking with a strange man!”

“Indeed!” Sarah replied, “What would your fiancé think of that?”

“He will be attending classes with me, don’t you think?” said the girl to her.

“My dear,” said Sarah, “the details of your education are not discussed with me. If they were, I might mention some things this tutor of yours taught me. Have you read the part of Jean Lafitte that describes his swagger on the streets of New Orleans? And when the women stared at him, how he would grab them, perfect strangers, into the wildest kiss?”

The girl blushed. I may have, as well. She saw this in a glance, and laughed. “Where are your books?”

“They will arrive by steamboat when this passionate river is tamed by the summer winds.”

“Now that was beautifully spoken, wasn’t it, Catherine?” said Sarah. “Let’s make our purchase and go. Someone should warn your aunt that the rogue she’s summoned has arrived. I can’t believe she’s in her right mind, but God himself couldn’t change it, I’m sure.”

I stared out the door some minutes after she’d gone.

“You haven’t lost your touch with the women, have you?” said Gerald.

“She’s a child.”

“She’s the heir.”

“Will you go with me to the tavern?”

“That’s where you wrote your first story.”

“They published it in California. Here, they wouldn’t even look at it.”

“We never saw that one – it’s probably better that way. You go. I have to close the store.”

“I’ll wait.”

“There’ll be a crowd waiting for you! No thanks. I haven’t been in that tavern since you left.”

 

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