Authors: Barbara Hambly
The Shirt On His Back
first world edition published 2011
Great Britain and the USA by
HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SMI 1DF.
paperback edition first published
Great Britain and the USA 2011 by
HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD.
© 2011 by Barbara Hambly.
Table of Contents
third time that day that Benjamin January walked over to the Bank of Louisiana
and found its doors locked, he had to admit the truth.
wasn't going to reopen.
money was gone.
there hadn't been much money in the account. Early the previous summer he'd
taken most of it and paid off everything he and Rose still owed on the big
ramshackle old house on Rue Esplanade, and
I had the wits to do that
. . .
then, there'd been rumors that the smaller banks, the wildcat banks, the
private banks all over the twenty-six states were closing. Months before the
election last Fall the President's refusal to re-charter the Bank of the United
States had begun to pull down businesses along with the banks, and at meetings
of the Faubourg Treme Free Colored Militia and Burial Society
less formal get-togethers with his friends after playing all night for the
white folks at some Mardi Gras ball - January had frequently asked: what the
hell did the Democrats think was going to happen, when they knocked the
foundations out from under the only source of stable credit in the country?
that it was any of January's business, or that of his friends either. As
descendants of Africans, at one remove or another - though January's mother
loftily avoided the subject not one of them could vote. And in New Orleans, by
virtue of its position as Queen of the Mississippi Valley trade, the illusion
of prosperity had hung on longer than elsewhere.
standing in the sharp spring sunlight of Rue Royale before the shut doors of
that gray granite building, January felt the waves of rage pass over him like
the wind-driven crescents of rain on the green face of a bayou in hurricane
at the outgoing President - a fine warrior when the
had needed a warrior and a hopelessly bigoted old blockhead with a planter's
contempt for such things as banks.
Rage at the
whites who saw only the war hero and not the consequences of letting
land-grabbers and shoestring speculators run the country for their own profit.
Rage at the laws
of the land, that wouldn't let him - or anyone whose father or grandparents or
great-grandparents back to Adam had hailed from Africa - have the slightest
voice in the government of the country in which they'd been born, regardless of
the fact that he, Benjamin January, was a free man and a property owner . . .
Artisans like his brother-in-law Paul Corbier, merchants like Fortune Gerard
who sat on community boards, his fellow musicians and the surgeon who'd taught
him his trade of medicine, and all those others who made up his life, were free
men too, had been
free men and had fought a British invading force in order to stay that way . . .
And rage at
himself - the deepest anger of all as he turned his steps back along Rue Royale
toward home. For not taking every silver dime out of the bank and putting it .
Ay, there's the
reflected January grimly. There were thieves aplenty in New
Orleans, and if you were keeping more than a few dollars cached in your attic
rafters, or under the floorboards of your bedroom, word of it soon got out. And
if you didn't happen to be rich enough that there were servants around your
house at all times, that money was eventually going to turn up gone.
He wasn't the
only man standing in Rue Royale looking at the closed-up doors of the Bank of
Louisiana that spring afternoon. As he turned away, Crowdie Passebon caught his
eye - the well-respected perfumer and the center of the libre community in the
old French Town. Like most of January's friends and neighbors, Passebon was the
descendant of those French and Spanish whites who'd had the decency to free the
children their slave women had borne them. January knew Crowdie had a great
deal more money than he did in the Bank, but nevertheless the perfumer crossed
to him and asked, Are you all right, Ben?'
Many people January knew - including most of his fellow musicians - didn't even
have the slim resources of a house.
Braeden - a German dentist with offices on Rue St Louis - was haranguing a knot
of other white men outside the bank doors, cursing the new President:
hell, the man has only been in office a week, and see what
he done to the country already? We need Old Hickory back . . .
if it wasn't 'Old Hickory' who'd precipitated the whole mess and left it for
his successor to clean up.
walked on, shaking his head and wondering what the hell he and his beautiful
Rose were going to do.
had been a bad winter. Tightening credit and the plunge in the value of banks'
paper money meant that fewer white French Creoles - and far fewer Americans -
had given large entertainments, even at Christmas and Twelfth Night. January,
whose skill on the piano usually guaranteed him work every night of the week
from first frost 'til Easter, had found himself many nights at home. The same
spiral of rising prices and fewer loans had prompted many of the well-off white
gentlemen who had sent their daughters 'from the shady side of the street' to
board and be educated at the school that Rose operated in the big Spanish
house, to write Rose letters deeply regretting that Germaine or Sabine or Alice
would not be returning to the school this winter, and
we wish you all the best of luck . . .
we're surely going to need it
well-off families - both white and
gens de couleur
decided that Mama or Aunt Unmarriageable would be perfectly able to take over
teaching the children the mysteries of the piano, rather than hiring Benjamin
January to do so at fifty cents a lesson. The last of them had broken this news
to January the previous week.
early summer, January had been hiding part of what earnings he did make here
and there about the house - in the rafters, under the floorboards . . . But
summer was the starving- time for musicians, the time when you lived off the
proceeds of last year's Mardi Gras. The little money he'd made from lessons,
January had fallen into the habit of spending on groceries, so as not to touch
the slender reserve in the bank.
the God-damned locked-doors Lucifer-strike-you-all- with-lightning Bank of
Louisiana, thank you very much
was sitting on the front gallery when he climbed the steps. She'd been quiet
since the first time he'd walked to the bank that morning, for the week's
grocery money. Sunday would be Palm Sunday, and once Easter was done, the
planters who came into town for the winter, and the wealthier American
businessmen, would begin leaving New Orleans. Subscription balls ordinarily
continued up until April or May, but John Davis, who owned the Orleans
Ballroom, had told January that this year he was closing down early. With the
Bank of Louisiana out of business, January guessed that the American Opera
House - where he was supposed to play next week - would follow suit.
met his eyes, reading in them what he'd found - yet again that day - on Rue
her quiet, well-bred voice, she said, 'Well, damn,' put her spectacles back on
and held up the letter that had been lying in her lap. 'Would you like the good
news first, or the bad news?'
like this first.' January took the letter from her hand, dropped it to the
rough-made little table at her side, stood her on her feet and kissed her:
slender, gawky, with a sprinkle of freckles over the bridge of her nose and the
gray-hazel eyes so often found among the free colored. Though she stood as tall
as many men, against his six-foot-three bulk she felt delicate, like a sapling
birch. 'You're here sitting on the gallery of our house. No bad news can erase
that; no good news can better it.'
sighed and put her head briefly against his shoulder. He felt her bones relax
into his arms.