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Friday, May 25, 2012

Soul Survivors Festival on Saturday

Big festival in Ferriday, LA tomorrow.  It's the culmination of a $1-million grant and a lot of hard work.  You can read about all the particulars here on the Natchez Democrat website.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Paragon of Prostitutes

Rolla by Henri Gervex (1852 - 1929)
From Natchez Under-the-Hill by Edith Wyatt Moore
Southern Historical Publications, Inc.
Natchez, Mississippi

(The following nonfiction story took place in 1789)

No spot on the American continent ever more a viler name than Natchez-under-the Hill.  Early travelers described it variously as a gambler's paradise, a sink-hole of iniquity and a resort of the damned.  In spite of its black reputation, this early river town was probably no more evil than any other raw frontier. ~ Edith Wyatt Moore

As newcomers arrived [to Natchez] by nearly every boat, it soon became good judgment to ask no questions.  An inquisitive remark or ill-considered jest might bring sudden death.

Eyebrows may have lifted but you may be sure no audible comments were made when the self-styled Madam Aivoges set herself up in a manner so splendid that she might well have been a lady.  Her floors were carpeted with fine rugs and her windows curtained with satin brocades.  Furthermore, she had a spinet.  It came on a Lisbon packet and was delivered to her house by husky slaves.

Olympia by Edouard Manet 1863
The Madam's red curls and grey-green eyes set her apart from the sloe-eyed, raven-haired Latins and kinky-haired octoroons who dwelt nearby, and as if this weren't enough, it was whispered she could read and write.  Some went so far as to say she spoke several languages.

In time her hauteur and the evident scorn she felt for her vulgar, low-browed neighbors aroused their burning curiosity and the sultry passionate hatred of many denizens of the lower town.

Everyone admitted that Madam Aivoges' establishment was the most elegant place ever to exist in Natchez-under-the-Hill.  Built in the Creole manner, it was part brick and part timber with narrow iron-trimmed balconies extending across its facade.  in fact, it looked more like a quiet hotel than a place dedicated to vice.

All of Madam's entertainers were bewitching blondes who behaved in public with such decorum that they were often mistaken for the pampered daughters of rich planters.  As for the Madam, herself, she was always discreet.  Her voice was never raised.  It was low, sweet and well-bred.  And, in spite of their envy and malice, her neighbors admired her extravagantly.

The Spinet by Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851 - 1938) 
At night, when blood-curdling shrieks and raucous music issued from the nearby catalinas, gambling dens and cheap dance halls, the only sounds heard at the Madam's were soft laughter and the tinkling music of the spinet.

When callers came, as they frequently did, all were secretly inspected through a small aperture in the front door.  If this test proved satisfactory, the portal was thrown open by a liveried attendant.  Some hinted that it opened to his Excellency, the Governor, more often than not.  This place offered the one quiet rendezvous where a lonely man could seek relaxation and sensuous amusement.

River rowdies were never knowingly admitted, but if a ruffian got in by mistake, he was summarily ejected by Carlos, a powerful, hairy-chested, blue-bearded hulk of a man, who acted swiftly and silently.  It was whispered that Carlos guarded the Madam like a bulldog and in spite of his huge frame and somber visage, it was obvious that he served her as a pliant and adoring tool.  Carlos spoke a strange tongue where foreign languages were the rule, not an exception.  When he spoke, no one comprehended and few cared.  Only the Madam understood.

Rumor said Carlos was a deserter from the Bohemian Army and an ex-convict.  Hints, innuendoes and sly gossip kept the old port in a stir, but no one dared speak openly.  Many believed that but for Carlos and the fear he engendered, the Madam's establishment might have been burned by her enemies.

Regardless of local resentment, Madam Aivoges' name eventually became a synonym for elegance.  She was discussed throughout the length and breadth of the Mississippi Valley, yet the veil of secrecy was never entirely stripped from her life.  Her name appears in old Spanish tax lists, but to this good day, no one knows her true origin.  She was the most mysterious character ever linked with Natchez-under-the-Hill.

It has been said that she left Natchez twice a year, always going south by boat.  She wore subdued apparel, was heavily veiled and was usually attended by a colored maid.  Carlos carried her luggage on board but always remained behind to care for the business.  At the end of some four or five weeks, the Madam had a way of returning as quietly as she had departed but no explanations were ever made.

Some even noted that Carlos often rode into the Indian country carrying letters and packages which neighbors suspected were being sent overland by Indian traders.  It was expensive business, but the Madam was literally coining money and no one seemed to care.  Then one warm night in the spring of 1789, the story broke.
The Lafitte Brothers in Dominique's Bar - Artist Unknown

Several hours previously three handsome young blades had stepped from a galley, which ran regularly between New Orleans and Natchez.  Two of the visitors were well known as the twin sons of an aristocratic planter in the Second Creek section.  They had been attending an exclusive school in a seaboard city of the United States.  The third, a stalwart, auburn -haired stranger, was shy and diffident in spite of his rich apparel.

It was established that the three had been classmates and fast friends.  When their school closed unexpectedly due to an epidemic, the DuForest brothers insisted that Juan De Lovis accompany them to far-off Natchez.  The invitation was avidly accepted because Juan had a burning desire to see this rich Spanish capital.  In the first place, he dreaded the loneliness of being left behind.  And, secondly, his lovely mother lived on a plantation somewhere near Natchez.  She never failed to captivate all of his friends when she visited him at school.  Now, it was his turn to meet her friends.  Once in Natchez he'd seek her out and give her the surprise of a lifetime.

As the voyage began, Juan's mind was filled with happy anticipation.  He would lose no time in locating his mother, and what fun it would be to arrive unannounced.  As the hours slipped by, troubled thoughts began to intrude; vague memories haunted him and he suddenly realized that he'd been at sea before.  Then came crowding questions that he'd dared not ask till now.  Who was he and what did he really know of himself?  Why had he never seen his father or been permitted to visit his home like the other boys?

The lavish provision made for his support and education suggested a family of ample means.  Perhaps he was the lost heir to some disputed title, or the son of an important political exile.  Better still, he might even be the banished pretender of a puppet throne.  If not, why all this mystery and deep secrecy?

His mother always laughed and put him off by promising to explain everything at a proper time.  to his way of thinking, now was the time.  He was growing acutely sensitive.  This ignorance was gradually building a wall between himself and others and was fast setting him apart as an eccentric nobody.  Half-forgotten scenes tormented him.  He was constantly trying to remember something and he was filled with apprehensive doubts, fears and speculations.

Port of New Orleans
Detail of lithograph by D.W. Moody
In New Orleans they were lucky enough to board a Government galley which speeded their arrival in Natchez.  Strolling up the street to the Kentucky Tavern, then the most respectable stopping place in the port city, they deposited their luggage with the proprietor.  From there they hurried to the Government House to make the customary report of their presence in the province.  here they chatted with the affable Governor who offered to send a messenger out to the DuForest plantation, notifying them of their arrival. It would require at least two days for all of this to happen, but whoever heard of the word hurry during the Spanish era?  In the meantime, Nick argued, why not have a fling in Natchez-under-the-Hill?  After all, this would be their only chance.  once home they'd be caught up in a round of gaiety.

On return to the hotel, they told their plans to the proprietor, who seemed anxious.  "No man in this town ventures out after dark without proper arms," he told them.  "This place is infested with robbers and cutthroats and there are houses along the brink of the river where people disappear forever.  Young men are lured inside and murdered.  Their bodies are stripped and dropped in the water.  That's usually the end of them."

At his insistence, the young men armed themselves with pistols and dirks, then set out of a notorious beer garden beneath the upper bluffs.  For a time they were enchanted.  Flambeaux flickered in a huge vine-covered pavilion and dancing strumpets kept time to tinkling tambourines.  Men from all climes were there.  Several wore turbans and others had 'kerchiefs tied on their heads in pirate fashion.  Shrieking parrots roosted on low rafters and another exotic touch was added by gay cockatoos that fanned their wings and frequently lit on the shoulders of customers.  It was so weird and unnatural, that the young men grew tired of the blatant music and odorous fumes.  "Let's go to Madam Aivoges'," Nathaniel suggested.  "I've heard her wines are excellent and her entertainers beautiful."

"Yes," Nick urged, "its the most elegant place on the river and Juan mustn't miss it."

Following inspection they were ushered in with formal politeness.

"Be seated, gentlemen," the servant said, "and I'll announce you to the Madam."

The room was dimly lighted but they noted that it was richly furnished.  Then they became conscious of several other visitors lounging on comfortable chairs.  Suddenly a tall, dark-eyed fellow recognized the Du Forest brothers.

"Jehoshaphat!" he exclaimed.  "This is a surprise.  I didn't know you were in this part of the world."

After handshakes and proper introductions, he went on to say, "Don't tell me you've never met Madam Aivoges?  By Jove, you've missed a lot.  She's the toast of the river.  For two thousand miles up and down our waterways she's known as the most fascinating and mysterious woman of the underworld.  Her past is sealed but some say she's a countess from Hungary.  Others believe she's the illegitimate daughter of a Belgian prince.  I wouldn't be surprised at anything told of her.  She's incredible!"

"Yes," one of the others agreed.  "Some say she has a respectable family whom she visits annually."

At that moment light footsteps were heard and all eyes turned toward the door.  Then each man rose to his feet as if to greet some grand dame.  The curtains parted and in walked this paragon of prostitutes.  her copper-colored curls were piled high and she wore a shimmering, Nile green satin with billowy panniers.  A frothy lace 'kerchief was pinned over her bare shoulders to form a bertha and her tapering fingers glittered with diamonds.

Hers was a fragile beauty that all men love and Juan and his friends gave an audible gasp as she turned her face toward them.  For an instant her eyes met Juan's. The young man's blood ran cold.  He couldn't believe it.  Surely he was drunk or having hallucinations.  This couldn't be his mother.  his mother in a brothel!  he must be stark raving mad!

She started to speak, but the words died on her lips and a deep flush spread to the roots of her red-gold hair.  Then her grey-green eyes turned dark with wordless shame.  As the awful truth dawned on Juan he gave a heartbroken cry.  "My God, Mother, I'd rather see you dead!"

Then he suddenly saw red.  Shaking with rage he made a swift move and before others could forestall him, leveled a pistol at her breast and fired.  She crumpled at his feet, her hands held up in supplication.  Then she gave a deep sigh and between quivering lips whispered, "My son, please believe it was for you."

The onlookers were stunned.  Then someone shouted, "We've got to get out of here!  Get Juan out!"

But at that moment they heard heavy lunging footsteps and a bellowing sound as though a raging bull were charging them.  Again the curtains parted and Carlos stood there, half clad and grimly fierce.

As he looked at his dead mistress, a swift stream of unintelligible words came from his loose lips and anger flashed from beneath his beetling brows.  When his lips moved again, the sound was a hiss.  Juan knew him instantly.

This was the dreadful man linked with his early childhood.  For an eternity they stood in tense silence as Carlos' burning eyes slowly traveled from face to face.  Then his eyes met Juan's and a swift light of recognition instantly turned to one of hate.

The next moment he gave a roar, raised a murderous knife and lunged at Juan.  Seeming not to care, Juan stood his ground but Nick acted in his defense.  Firing point blank the ball passed through Carlos' thick neck.  They saw the big man reel, stumble and fall backward as a torrent of blood spurted from his jugular vein.  It gushed over the floor and soaked the satin clad figure at their feet.  They could even hear it gurgle as he struggled for breath.  It was a sickening spectacle.

"Why didn't you let him kill me?" Juan shouted in an anguished tone.  "I want to die.  It's the only solution."

"I'm your friend," Nick whispered.  Then seizing the unhappy youth by the arm he attempted to guide him from the room.  "Come," the others urged, "we must hurry."

By that time all Natchez-under-the-Hill was seething with excitement.  For the first time shots had been heard in Madam Avioges' house.  Crowds commenced milling around and a moment later the military police arrived.

"I did it," Juan shrieked hysterically.  "I alone am guilty."

"He lies," Nathaniel spoke with studied calm.  "He has had too much whiskey and doesn't know what he is saying.  It was really an act of self-defense."

"Yes," the others agreed.  "It was plainly a case of self-defense."

"Save your breath," one of the guards ordered.  "You ain't on trial yet."

"Please take us to his excellency," Nicholas pleaded.  "He'll listen to us because he knows us.  He'll never believe we are guilty of a willful crime."

The guard laughed.  "You may be find gentlemen," one said, "but you'll get the same works all others get.  We are taking you to the guardhouse where all offenders go."  Then he snarled, "Who ever heard of rousing the Governor at this late hour?"

They clopped up the hill in double-quick time, and on reaching the portcullis of the fort, were amazed to find his Excellency there.  He was mounting his horse and looked weary.  "What's all this damnable racket?" he shouted in exasperation.  Then, as the cavalcade drew nearer, he recognized his young callers of the afternoon and a shade of deep anxiety crossed his face.  Wheeling his horse about, he dismounted and ordered the prisoners taken to the orderly room.  As the frightened, wild-eyed group stepped inside, they found torches still burning and a tired disheveled aid-major humped over a ponderous desk.

The governor spoke brusquely, "Be seated!"  Then, turning to his aid-major, he said, "It won't be necessary to record this hearing."

The major rose, clicked his heels and quietly left the room.  Then facing his prisoners, the Governor asked, "Now, what's all this mess and excitement about?"

Stephen Minor, Spanish Governor of Natchez in 1792.  Not the governor in this story, but close enough for me.

Haltingly and brokenly Juan told his story.  At intervals his voice broke and he sought to control the sob-like gasps that cut his breath short.

Perhaps the youths were too deeply engrossed with their own misery to note the pallor of His Excellency's face.  Listening intently as Juan talked, his fine eyes grew somber and his mouth grim.  It was all too evident that the lad was desperate.  His faith had been betrayed and his hopes shattered.  Furthermore, he was filled with deep remorse at his own impulsive action.  "I'll plead guilty your Honor, and take the consequences," he whispered with trembling lips.  "I have nothing to live for," he added, "so the sooner I am executed the better."

Bending a look of deep compassion on the lad, the Governor gave his shoulder a reassuring pat and said, "You did exactly what I might have done in your place."

Getting to his feet, the worried Governor paced the room, his spurs rattling at every step.  For what seemed an eternity, the watchers sat with bated breath.  Their fate rested in this man's hands, and they'd always heard a Spanish Governor was unpredictable.

At length His Excellency stopped in front of Juan.  "For the sake of all concerned," he said, "this matter must be hushed up.  you shall escape to some far country and begin life all over again."

Juan gave a quivering sigh as he ran nervous fingers through his hair.  The Governor's face was sympathetic, but he spoke sternly, "In my opinion you have suffered enough, but if I take this responsibility, you must agree to obey my orders implicitly."  Juan winced, then finally nodded assent.  The Governor went on.  "Since you are unknown, there is little danger of detection, but to make sure, I shall obtain a disguise and arrange for your passage.  Then, after you have reached a safe distance, I shall properly denounce you and offer a reward for your capture."  The boys thanked him humbly.

Perhaps His Excellency was merely touched by the stark tragedy of the stranger's story.  On the other hand, many have hinted that he had a deeper and more personal interest in Juan's heartbreak than would bear close scrutiny.

The next morning at the first grey streak of dawn, the Governor's own galley drew up at the landing.  A moment later a group of men came down the hill.  After brief farewells and handshakes, one lone passenger went on board.  He wore Spanish regimentals, carried military orders and was armed with a passport to Habana de Cuba.

In his pocket was an order for cash on demand.  It was signed by the Civil and Military Governor of the Post and District of Natchez.  The galley hastily pulled out before denizens Under-the-Hill were aware that something unusual was happening.  Only one or two knew that Juan was gone, never to return again.

For 150 years (220 years now) Madam Aivoges' bizarre story has been whispered as a choice tidbit, but her origin still remains a mystery, and as though a partner in the intrigue, the Mississippi has greedily made way with the site of her establishment.  Perhaps it is better so.

Henry Lewis - Mississippi River