Joe pulled at the starched collar of his white shirt as he stepped up on the porch and then straightened his tie before ringing the doorbell. He wiped perspiration from the side of his face before nervously patting the right pocket of his gray suit coat, feeling the box inside.
The door opened and Arianne’s Aunt Lucy gave him a look of surprise, followed by a quick smile. “I thought you were Armand,” she admitted shyly and opened the door wider for him.
Armand? Armand’s back?
Joe tried to keep his face from revealing the stab of fear gripping his heart. Aunt Lucy stepped back to allow him in, a forced smile on her face.
No! Not today, of all days.
Joe followed Aunt Lucy’s full figure into the living room, where she waved at the sofas and told him to make himself at home. She smiled and said something about a pot on the stove and left him there, standing in the empty room with the three dark blue sofas and Persian rugs, Audubon prints on the walls, sunlight streaming through the Venetian blinds.
Joe closed his eyes. Today, a date he’d etched into his mind, was to be unforgettable — June 9, 1901. The day he’d ask Arianne to marry him. He patted the ring box again and noticed his hand shaking. So he sat on the nearest sofa and looked up at the lone ceiling fan as it vainly pushed the warm air around in the stuffy room.
Joe, 24, stood 5 foot 6, skinny with dark brown hair parted down the center and dark brown eyes. He wore his best suit today, navy blue with new black shoes. He’d stopped for a shoe-shine boy as he left his apartment on Camp Street, just down from newspaper row where he worked at The Eagle. Making sure his shoes remained dust free, he’d climbed aboard the uptown streetcar, passing the finer New Orleans estates along St. Charles Avenue before getting off at Felicity Street and walking the three blocks to the newly built Queen Anne house where Arianne lived with her aunt and uncle.
He felt his stomach twisting into a giant knot and leaned back on the sofa, closing his eyes, trying his best to calm himself. He couldn’t stop the word fate from stinging him, like an angry bee. He believed it was fate that drew him and Arianne together for that first meeting at the library when they nearly collided, she in search of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, him in search of Jack London’s The Son of the Wolf. Both embarrassed at their clumsiness, their eyes talking far more intently than their whispered apologies. Arianne’s green eyes seemed to shine that afternoon with emerald brilliance, and her red lips looked ripe and luscious, a vision he’d never forget. Fate again, that very night as he saw her across the room at the Overton soirée. She smiled so warmly when she saw him approaching. Fate revisited two days later, when he canvassed her neighborhood, trying to gather information on the early-morning burglar the police had finally caught. When Arianne answered her door and her eyes widened, she let out a little laugh, put a hand on her hip and asked if he’d like a cup of coffee.
Fate. Today was the day he’d ask for her hand. Armand picked today to step back into her life, and there was nothing Joe could do about it. He let out a long breath and felt himself … calming. There was nothing he could do about it.
He jumped at the sound of the doorbell and stood quickly, then he sat back down before Aunt Lucy saw him. He crossed his legs and tried to act unconcerned as Aunt Lucy shuffled to the door and let out a little squeal.
And then Armand was there beneath the archway leading into the living room. He stood erect and tall, wearing a light gray, almost silver, linen suit with a crimson cravat, a bouquet of red roses in his right hand. Aunt Lucy was speaking in her sing-song voice, how gorgeous were the roses, how nice Armand looked, how tanned and fit.
When Aunt Lucy shuffled out of the room, Armand noticed he wasn’t alone. The smallish young man sitting on the sofa looked familiar, but Armand couldn’t place the face. The man stood and extended his hand. Armand switched the roses to his left hand and stepped toward him.
“You probably don’t remember me,” the man said, “but I was three grades behind you at St. Vincent’s. Joe Gort.”
The handshake was firm but not overly. It didn’t take a genius to figure why Joe was there, and Armand felt his heartbeat rising. Of course Arianne would attract other men. He just didn’t figure one would be here, now.
“I think I remember you,” Armand said, stepping back. “What are you doing these days?”
Joe wasn’t a bad-looking fella and was probably wearing his best. Just like me, thought Armand.
“I’m a reporter,” Joe said. “I work the police beat at The Eagle.”
A working-class man. A somewhat honorable profession. Armand did not want to brag, but as the minutes ticked by, keeping time with the ceiling fan, second after nervous second, Armand found himself telling his story, egged on by the curious reporter inside Joe.
“It’s been a year, almost exactly, since I left,” Armand said.
“Where in South America?” Joe was sitting now, Armand still standing and holding the roses.
“Bolivia. I helped build two bridges.” Armand the engineer was genuinely proud of his work in Bolivia. Financed by the tin mines, his group of Americans had bridged the Beni River and a narrow, deep gorge alongside Mount Illampu. He had left New Orleans, a new Tulane graduate with no prospects here, not wealthy enough yet to ask the girl he loved to marry him, and had returned a successful engineer with offers for continued advances in Chile and Argentina and an offer from Egypt cabled to him on the boat.
Armand Sebastian — 27, blond hair bleached even lighter by the strong South American sun, skin bronzed, had grown a light moustache he’d carefully combed with a small moustache comb.
The light sounds of footsteps brought Joe back to his feet and turned Armand around as Arianne stepped into the archway. She stood with her arms by her side, her bright green eyes moving from man to man.
Armand’s vision suddenly blurred. His memory of her beauty paled in comparison to her real beauty. In a simple white dress, lightweight cotton, commonly worn by so many New Orleans women during stifling summers, Arianne seemed to glow. Maybe it was the sunlight streaming from behind her.
Arianne’s figure stood outlined through the dress, still hidden by the fabric but showing her natural curves, down the length of her long legs. Her reddish-brown hair lay in long curls past her shoulders, as if recently windblown by a breeze that would have been sorely welcomed by the men. Arianne, two weeks from her 20th birthday, stood 5 feet 2 inches and would enter her junior year at Sophie Newcomb College next semester.
Joe was certain the others could hear the thundering of his heart. It struck him deeply when he saw Arianne’s lower lip quiver for a moment. She was nervous, and he felt he’d already lost as her gaze moved from him back to Armand and lingered.
Armand and Arianne. How many times he’d heard of this pairing from … just about everyone? It was always spoken in the past tense by Arianne’s friends, with a hint of regret. He’d met Arianne on the rebound, his buddies at the paper constantly reminded him, calling him the luckiest bastard around.
And as Arianne moved slowly toward Armand, who’d extended the roses to her, he remembered running the names through his mind. Why on Earth would Arianne marry a Joe Gort to become Arianne Gort, when she could have Armand Sebastian, becoming Arianne Sebastian. Gort, what a silly name. Joe’s father used to try to dress it up: “It is actually the name of a lovely Irish village near Galway Bay.”
Joe felt his throat tighten, thinking about his old man, who would have absolutely adored Arianne if he was still around. Looking at his feet, Joe felt that old, familiar feeling of a street urchin watching fine ladies and their gentlemen walking along the street.
Black Irish. The Gorts were Black Irish, his mother used to tell him. “Shanty Irish that mated with the Spaniards from the Great Armada. The ones that escaped the Bloody British and crashed their ships along the Irish coast, to be taken in by fellow Catholics.” It was just teasing from his red-headed Irish mother. She loved his father’s dark good looks, but Joe was born with darker skin than his father, nearly olive, and the kids along Constance Street called him dago.
Armand Sebastian, in his tall, silver-linen whiteness was no dago, even with bronze skin. Joe watched them standing next to one another, Armand looking down at Arianne’s face as she turned and looked at Joe and suddenly it was there, the lovelight in her eyes as she stared at him. It wasn’t a flicker. It hadn’t gone away. But was it for Armand?
Arianne took the roses and moved to a vase and put them inside, carefully arranging them, and Joe heard Armand speaking, something about Paris.
“ … engineers from all over the globe are going. The World Exposition is the greatest light show ever created, after the sun of course. Millions of electric lights. Magnificent effects. The Hall of Illusions is the wonder of the new century.”
Armand turned momentarily to Joe and said, “It must be all over your paper since April.” And Joe could see perspiration on his face now. The nerves were contagious.
Joe felt himself nod, but it was another article that came to mind, Stephen Crane dying of tuberculosis in Germany on the fifth of June. It wasn’t Crane’s American masterpiece The Red Badge of Courage that had touched Joe. It was his Maggie: A Girl of the Streets with its realistic view of slum life that had moved Joe. Why Crane came to mind puzzled him for a moment as he remembered how the great writer was shipwrecked in ’96 and spent four days adrift, impairing his health for the rest of his life. Crane died at 28. Maybe that was it. Life was too short and the woman he loved was standing with her old love. A greater man than he.
When Arianne turned back from the roses she saw the blue velvet ring box in Armand’s hand. She gasped and wished she hadn’t. He slowly opened it to reveal a dazzling diamond so large it did not appear real.
“Come to Paris with me,” Armand said, his voice almost breaking. “I’ll never love any woman as I’ve loved you. Marry me and I’ll never leave you again. I’ll give you the world.”
She did not look at his face. She stared at the chiseled diamond and remembered the love they’d shared, the long nights talking, long walks holding hands, the gentle kisses, the warm hugging, the sound of her heart beating in her ears. And then she remembered the pain when he’d left, all flustered, when life wasn’t going his way and there was no prospect for work here and no way to support her if they married. He’d stormed away to seek his fortune. But he’d written no letters. He’d left her alone. He’d just gone away until the telegram this morning and now this. She’d dreamt of him returning to her, what she would feel when she saw his face again. But the sudden emotion in her breast wasn’t the same feeling, wasn’t the love he’d abandoned.
Arianne looked into Armand’s eyes, the window to a man’s soul, and stared into them as their hearts continued their frantic beating, as the ceiling fan kept spinning above and people milled outside along the street, and the streetcar continued its clacking up and down St. Charles Avenue and Joe Gort sitting not 10 feet away. She knew the answer wasn’t in Armand’s eyes. It didn’t matter how much he loved her. What mattered beat in her heart.
Joe sank back on the sofa and closed his eyes. He had to get away, away from the sweet, sickly smell of the roses, which always reminded him of funerals. His funeral this time. He tried to catch his breath and took a long minute to struggle through his natural inferiority to steel himself. Fight for her! I love her. I love her. And I won’t sulk away. He stood up and opened his eyes and nearly ran into Arianne.
She stood before him, and their eyes did the talking, as they had that first time in the library and for so many days and nights since. Her lovely face seemed to glow, her eyes glimmering, a smile slowly rising on those sculptured, red lips.
He realized he had his ring box in his hand and tried to put it back into his coat pocket, but Arianne’s hand was suddenly on his and gently pulling his hand up. She opened the box and looked at the ring.
It wasn’t even a full carat, and Joe had 20 more payments to make on it, but the gold was as 24-karat as the gold of Armand’s ring.
But Arianne didn’t see it, didn’t care about carat size. She could barely see the ring through her tears. She wiped her eyes with her free hand and looked into Joe’s brown velvet eyes.
“You will marry me?” It was Arianne’s voice, thick with emotion.
Joe could only nod. The words were caught in his throat.
Arianne took in a deep breath and said in a quivering voice, “I’m going to marry Mister Joseph Devin Gort.” She reached up and brushed a strand of Joe’s dark hair. “My little Irishman.” A broad, quivering smile on her face now.
Armand felt a stab in his heart. Once again he was amazed at her beauty’s power of inflicting pain. He’d lost her.
Arianne and Joe sat on the sofa, facing each other, and Joe slipped the ring on her finger and told her, “I love you so much. I adore you. I’ll always …”
Arianne put her fingers on his lips to stop his talking, then pulled her hand away, tilted her face to the side and leaned forward, pursing her lips. They closed their eyes as their lips touched and for a breath-taking moment, the world melted away.
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