The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time – Abraham Lincoln.
Most of us worry about the future. And why not? After all, we’re brought up to believe that what we do as children and young adults can affect what happens to us—and others—in that nebulous place not yet seen. Sometimes we even capitalize it. The Future…and add whatever applies: space travel, education, technology, medicine, the world as we know it. The future lies in being tech-savvy, moving to the right job at the right time…and then leaving that job when a “future offer” seems more enticing. Sometimes, the Future is an edict…as in “your future. Son (or daughter) is in the family business. Why do you think we paid for that education?” Daunting, right? Do we have a choice? Are we driven to make choices based on what might happen?
The truth is…as President Lincoln said so well…that our futures do come one day at a time. Each day is a step forward if we want it to be, or we can make no move at all. The interesting thing is that we can also use that future day to repair or enhance the events of the prior day…or days. We have the opportunity to make ourselves better or worse, to take a minor detour to enjoy some unexpected delight that may never happen again, to decide to put on blinders to hide what happens around us, to create, to destroy, to laugh…even cry. It’s in our power to make our day the best one it can be. Whether we choose to use that power is up to us.
One thing I’ve learned is that focusing too much on what ‘may be’ rather than on ‘what is’ steals our time on this planet. Yes, it’s prudent to take steps to prevent those catastrophes we can and make the good things even better, but it is just as important to recognize what we can and can’t control…or even predict. We too often say “Well, I can’t do anything about that” when in fact we can. One little step forward, one kind act. It doesn’t take much. And we feel better for it.
Mae McEwan never studied Mr. Lincoln…or if she did it was only in passing as the Scots taught History in school. She does however subscribe to his belief that we take things one day at a time. Take the opportunities life gives, deal with the disappointments, do what good can be done. Go to sleep each night thankful for the day and know that the next one will be a clean slate on which to write.
The sun was up by the time my old alarm clock buzzed to life. One thing I was never sure of in this city was which way was east and which was west, but there was enough light filtering through the stained and dusty window blinds to let me know I needed to be on the move. Sylvain had mentioned taking Drummond to Our Lady to finish doing the yard work, so my mind was easy on that score. Left to himself me brother is a magnet for everything New Orleans flaunts, but work was the one thing that gave him some sense of who he used to be back before the whisky. I bent over to give him a kiss on the brow before I tidied myself up and assumed the identity of Mae McFarland once again.
It took less time to make my trip to the mansion…the Rodrigue mansion if I remembered the name right. Sylvain knew it, that was sure. And if he didn’t like his sister being in the middle of it, well neither did I. I let myself in the back door to find Lila bustling about like a fox in the hunt.
“Mornin’, Miss Mae,” she breathed as she swept by me to put some chopped vegetables in a huge copper pot. “Busy time today. The Missus gave me a menu this morning for the soiree she and the Mister are hosting tonight.”
“Tonight? Isn’t that a wee bit late notice?” I dropped my bag in the coat cupboard and found a clean apron. I would have asked what a ‘swaree’ was but figured I should know that having been in service for the de Villiers.
“The Missus apologized after she told me. Evidently there’s to be an important meeting with some business associates this week. She hasn’t been able to entertain since they moved here, not really. The Mister told her this would be the perfect way to welcome everyone. Some of them…”
“Gossip doesn’t do anything more than waste time and air, Cook.” Neither of us had heard Marie-Therese enter the room. “We have only a few hours to make this place shine.” She looked at me and I knew she blamed me for Lila’s lapse of concentration. “Miss Mae, we will indeed be having guests and some of them will be staying with us for a time. Please make sure that every room sparkles. The tapestries are being freshened this afternoon, so you might tend to the other rooms on this floor first and then do the bedrooms upstairs. All of them. I am sure Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigue will appreciate the extra effort on your part.” That Marie-Therese expected extra effort every day was a given, so I nodded.
“Will I be needin’ additional supplies for the third floor as well so I can tend to those guest rooms?” That would be one way to get up there and see what I could discover.
“No. The rooms on the second floor are adequate for the number of guests, Miss Mae. I had the houseboys carry the area rugs out to the back to hang. They’ll beat them and then let the warm air work her magic to freshen them. If you would be so kind as to buff the wood floor with that soft mop, they can replace them before the dinner guests arrive.” She peered at the watch she kept on a long chain around her neck. “My driver should be waiting. I find I will be gone most of the day so I must trust you and Lila will honor the schedule. Lila, I have your list and will have the grocer deliver what you need in more than enough time for preparation. If you find you find you need something more, please call me. I will see the item is added to the order. In the meantime, you may assist Miss Mae if she needs you.” Having said her piece, Marie-Therese turned and walked out of the kitchen towards the portiere where ‘her’ driver was probably wishing for anything but her company.
I told Lila I’d let her know if I needed help and to do the same with me and then grabbed my tray of supplies and started with the dining room, the absence of those tapestries making the room appear much brighter and larger. I put my skills on autopilot and tried to figure out how I could use Madame Marie’s prolonged time away from the house to my advantage. By the time I had polished and vacuumed and dusted and plumped the rooms on the first floor I had the glimmering of a plan to scout out the forbidden third floor. I needed to do that quickly, so I hustled myself and my tools up the stairs and placed them in the first room to be cleaned. Taking extra care so my heels would not click on the wood flooring, I made my way to the stairs leading to what I hoped would be the answer to Sylvain’s problem; Celine in one of those rooms more than ready to be rescued. And maybe enough evidence to get my temporary employer and his men out of circulation.
I’d learned as a child that old steps tend to squeak. Got meself caught a time or two trying to sneak out to do some mischief and found that staying close to the railings made for more quiet progress up and down. Served me well through the teenage times and when I snuck out the final time to follow me brother. Keeping that in mind, I took the staircase one step at a time and was rewarded by total silence. And a gate of sorts stretched across the posts at the top. No problem. Since the staircase sat at the midpoint of the house, there was a hall on either side, with a railing that stretched from the end of the stairs to the front of the upper level. Doorways, six on either side, beckoned me. Most were open, with the light shining through swirls of dust and…dust. I looked at the floor before me. Aside from a tattered runner stretching toward the rear of the building, there were no rugs. And enough dust on the unpolished flooring to track anyone who stepped off that piece of carpet. Shite. My eyes studied the area and found one room off to the left with a closed door. Close to the rear of the house, my guess was that it sat right above the kitchen-mud room area, far enough away from any activity that sounds would be muffled, or not heard at all. That’s where I’d keep someone I didn’t want free, I decided. Now how to get there.
“Off limits,” a voice growled behind me. Shite again. “Didn’t I tell you not to snoop?” The hand on my shoulder was not as forceful as yesterday.
“Benard,” I whispered.
“The same.” He used his hand to turn me toward him. “And just what are you up to? This wasn’t part of the plan.”
“Opportunity knocked,” I said. “Plus I’d like to find Celine before something happens to her. You said she looked ill. The sooner I’m out of here, the faster you can get back to your own business.”
“You won’t find her if they catch you where you’re not supposed to be, Mae. Let me do what I said I would. I’ll ask Mr. Cameron. He’s a part of this, but he married her because…well, love happens even with the bad guys. I was looking for you when I saw you climbing the stairs. Neat trick that, staying to the sides. I’m supposed to go with him to the airport to pick up some of the associates. You get your work done before that dragon lady comes back and be helping Lila in the kitchen. Poor woman is ready to poison the gumbo.”
What could I do? The third floor was dusty and as quiet as a tomb. If Celine was up here, she wasn’t moving or moaning, and I couldn’t risk being discovered either. That Benard had managed to catch me unawares rattled me. He was right. At least I’d satisfied my curiosity about the place.
“I see your point, Benard. I don’t like it, but for now I’ll back off. I’m no good to Sylvain if I’m fired. This is between us, though. No one else needs to know.”
“Of course.” He stepped back to let me past him. “Just don’t push the envelope. But if you see anything that might help me in my job, I’d appreciate it. I’d like to stop shaving my head every day.” He chuckled. So did I. Just then a door banged open somewhere on the first floor and we both scrambled down the third floor stairs.
“Benard! Kote ou ye? We’re going to be late!”
“Mr. Cameron,” Benard whispered. “On my way, sir!” He patted my shoulder. “Watch for me later.”
“Hurry, man!” Cameron was almost at the stairs.
“Coming!” Benard clattered down the stairs just as his boss stepped on the first one. Crisis averted. “I was having a word with the new housekeeper. About tonight.” Advantage Benard.
I listened until I heard the door close behind them and considered the work that lay ahead. I’d done the guest rooms yesterday, so I concentrated on those in use by the family and then used the remaining time to freshen the air and plump the pillows everywhere else. I soft-buffed the floor, surveyed my work, and caught sight of the footprints Benard and I had left on the stairs to the third floor. I swept them away, figuring a clean staircase was less noticeable than a dusty one with shoe marks. That done, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed down to find Lila.
To say Lila was at her wit’s end would be charitable. Four boxes of groceries had landed courtesy of the neighborhood gourmet grocery and she was trying to sort through them with one hand and stir something pasty looking with the other.
“Miss Mae! You are the angel from God. Might I ask you to stir the roux while I find the filets for tonight’s main course?” She offered me the wooden spoon in her right hand. “It must be done over a very low flame and stirred until quite dark. Please. It will only be for a moment while I marinate the beef and let it rest in the cooler.” The gratitude in her smile seemed more suitable for a knight in shining armor than for my whisking a mixture in a pot, but I took the utensil from her and gently stirred the thickening liquid. I knew what a roux was. We had made them at home, although never to this shade of brown. Lila found the filets and placed them into a shallow glass dish already half full of a burgundy mixture of spices and…wine I think. After turning them several times, she placed them in the huge refrigerator and rescued her roux from my inexperienced hands.
“What else can I do to help you, Lila?”
“Pray for me, Miss Mae.” She softened that request with another smile. “If you would unpack the groceries for me that would be a great help. I tried to ask Madame Marie for an extra hand. It is so short a time to expect so much to be done. And the beef must be prepared just as they finish their first course or it will be dry.”
“No worries, Lila.” I looked inside the boxes. The packer had organized them so that all the cold food was in one while the others held the non-perishables. “It won’t take me but a minute to sort through these things and get them put away. How many are you cooking for?”
“The Missus told me to make enough for twelve. She will be there of course, and the Mister. Mr. Cameron and his wife if she’s well enough. That is four. Benard is to be there. The others are coming in this afternoon. Why?”
“Just me being nosy,” I joked. “Still, that is a lot of work for you. Not that I’ve been asked but I expect Madame Marie will want me to stay and help serve.” That explained the starched apron and cap I’d seen hanging in the cupboard. “But,” and here I paused. My next question was a dangerous one. Oh what was the worst that could happen. Lila could tell Madame Marie but nosiness was no crime.
“But?” Lila prodded me.
“You mentioned that Mrs. Cameron might not be well enough. Is she very ill?”
“I do not really know other than I have had to make her broth and plain custards ever since they’ve arrived. She stays upstairs mostly. When she has come down it is only for a short time. Surely you’ve seen her as you clean?”
“No, but then I don’t know the schedule of everyone in the house so perhaps she is out with Mr. Cameron or the Missus when I tend to their room.” Lilia didn’t need to know there was no indication that Celine ever spent any time in the bedroom she supposedly shared with Cameron.
“She rarely goes out, but that is possible. Perhaps to the doctor?”
“That must be it. I’m sure I’ll see her at some point. Now,” I turned the subject back to the tasks at hand. “Is there something I can chop or shred or dice for you? “ It wouldn’t help to have Marie-Therese walk in to discover ‘her’ kitchen in disarray and me chattering away.
Entertaining in New Orleans is an art. Temporary staff is hired, the liquor cabinet restocked, the linens not only pressed but mildly starched, and the tables in the parlor are filled with unusual delicacies. The Rodrigue soiree was no exception in all but one area. Not a temporary bartender, server, or butler to be found. By the time I had finished my prep work with Lila, Marie-Therese had sent me to lay the table, set small trays in the parlor for the appetizers, make sure there was ice for the drinks, and plump the pillows on the sofa one last time. Then she had directed me to the cupboard to get the apron and cap I’d seen earlier.
“I’m sure you’ve done this in your service with the de Villiers,” she said. “This is a small party, so you should have no trouble. Just do as you did the other evening. Keep the platters filled, offer to refresh their drinks. Benard will be our bartender this evening. You may want to discuss the details with him. He’s also greeting guests, so do not worry yourself about the door.”
I hadn’t seen Benard since our meeting on the stairs. He’d told me to find him, and Madame Marie had just given me the perfect excuse to talk to him throughout the evening. No time like the present, I decided.
“Then if you’ll excuse me,” I said in my best servant voice, “I’ll find Benard and let him know I’ll be staying. And ask him if he needs anything special for the bar.”
“The guests should be arriving shortly, Miss Mae. Please do not dawdle over the details. I’m sure Benard will let you know as he needs things.” She waved me away and turned her attentions to Lila’s creations. I left the room, anxious for the evening to begin. Maybe I would finally see Sylvain’s Celine. The chimes from the front door announced the arrival of the first guest. Benard’s voice echoed in the foyer as he welcomed someone in. A moment later I saw him striding toward me.
“What the hell are you still doing here?” He looked at my new apron. “You’re kidding of course.”
“No. Madame Marie has pressed me into maid service. This must be some dinner.”
“You don’t want to know,” Benard muttered. “By the way, Mr. Cameron assured me his wife is fine, thank you, and she will be with him tonight, at least for dinner. Good news, no?”
“Not when Lila’s been making her broth and custards for the past week. Something’s not right.”
“Just don’t meddle. Once the after dinner cigars and brandy come out, get your butt out of here. I already have enough to worry about.” His voice turned bossy. “And make sure my ice buckets are kept filled. Now go and find the cocktail shakers.”
“Ah, Benard there you are.” The Missus, exquisitely dressed in a floor length sheath of violet and blue, put her hand on Benard’s arm and squeezed it. “Would you assist me for just a moment? In the parlor?”
“Of course, ma’am.” The look he gave me told me that his undercover work was not the only ‘thing’ he had to deal with. Oh how I wanted to be a meddling mouse on the wall. But, I sighed, first things first.
Making my way around the front parlor was like running through the brush. Other than the Missus, who was holding court by the screened fireplace, everyone was male. And big. I’ve never seen so many men who looked like they could lift a bull in each hand. Still, I managed to avoid being crushed. Sadly I could not avoid being pinched. I did step on a few designer shoes in retaliation, always excusing myself in my best Dundee accent. Then above the baseline of male voices, I heard Benard from the hallway.
“Mr. Cameron. Mrs. Cameron. The others are in the parlor.”
Moments later, Cameron Rodrigue and his wife entered through the open doorway. He was clad in black formal attire much like the rest of the party. His hand rested over that of the petite, dark haired woman who clung to his arm, her face as pale as the new moon. Around her neck hung an antique locket. I had found Celine.