Authors: Elizabeth George Speare
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
The weeks sped by. The snow, which had begun in late November, drifted ever deeper in the narrow streets. The frozen stretches of the St. Lawrence became a vast white wasteland. By Christmastide the white blanket reached as high as the windows. Little Susanna, clinging to Tante Anne's hand, came to call, snug in a trim coat and cap and muff of delicate white fur. January came and went, and February. There were days when it was impossible to leave the house, and Felicité and Miriam whiled away the hours with embroidery and cards. Then a path would be cleared once more in the street, and friends would gather again, all the gayer for the brief separation.
Thrilling as all this was to Miriam, it left Susanna untouched. Charming and witty Susanna could be when she chose, and she dutifully roused herself to repay the generosity of these new friends. For the most part she was abstracted, and her eyes were shadowed. It had been hard to part with James again when they had scarcely been reunited, and the journey to New England in winter through Indian territory was hazardous. There was still no word of Sylvanus, the apple of her eye, and her two daughters were estranged from her in their French homes. Only Captive, gaining rapidly on good provincial bread and milk, could coax a real warmth into her eyes.
She barely lifted an eyebrow the morning that Miriam came rushing into the room so enraptured she could scarcely speak.
"We are going to a ball, Susanna! Think of it! The most important ball of the whole season, and Felicité has coaxed her mother into taking us!"
"'Tis very kind of them," murmured Susanna, not raising her head from the page she was writing.
"Susanna! Listen to me!" demanded Miriam, seizing the pen from her sister's hand. "Stop writing those letters all the time. James will be back before you find anyone to carry them for you. Why can't you enjoy life while we are here?"
Susanna studied Miriam's flushed, impatient face. "'Tis very important to you, isn't it?" she asked thoughtfully. "All this dressing up, and the dinners and the ball."
"Why shouldn't it be?"
"I can't feel that 'tis real," Susanna warned. "These people have too much idle time on their hands, and they seize anything to divert themselves. We are just a novelty, a sort of outlandish amusement."
"That's unfair! I know Felicité likes me. Do you have to be stiff and suspicious? Why, we could have lived our whole lives and never even heard of a ball. When we go back we'll never as long as we live have another chance. Please, Susanna, don't be solemn and spoil it all!"
"Very well," agreed Susanna, smiling in spite of herself. "We shall go to this wonderful ball. And what do we wear?"
"They will give us something. Felicité is having a new gown made. She's been describing it for days."
Nothing else was talked about in the blue and white bedroom. Felicité had found the most flattering audience imaginable for her constant prattle. Miriam drank in every detail of the great event to come. She knew what each of their friends would wear, which of the young men would likely pay attention to which girl.
"Of course," said Felicité, "lots of the nicest men have already gone on their silly trading. I can't imagine why they should want to go out in the woods when they could have such fun here. But Pierre will be here. He has promised not to leave."
Promised whom? Felicité herself, Miriam surmised, noting the way the French girl glanced from under her lashes toward the mirror at the mention of his name. Miriam felt a prick of envy. Even more wonderful than looking forward to a ball must be the certainty of knowing that a special young man would be waiting there. Just suppose she could know that Phineas Whitney—? But how ridiculous! Phineas was a million miles away, and he probably would not know how to behave at a grand affair like this. She sprang to her feet and shook off the memory.
"Show me again how to do the minuet," she begged. "I always forget how to do the turn."
Not until two days before the ball did Madame Du Quesne remember to provide her two guests with something to wear. Miriam wondered if she would have remembered then without Felicité's constant prodding. At last, after a lengthy conference behind Felicité's closed door, she came to the guest chamber with two gowns and laid them graciously across the big bed. Miriam pounced before Madame's back was fairly turned, but Susanna touched the folds reluctantly, her forehead perplexed.
"It doesn't seem right," she said. "Such costly gowns as these. James can never bring back enough money to pay for such things."
"Don't be silly, Susanna. Madame won't expect to be paid for these. She and Felicité are all through with them. Besides, she doesn't want us to disgrace her."
"You should not speak like that about Madame," Susanna rebuked her, not for the first time. "She has been very generous to us both."
Miriam refused to be impressed with Madame's generosity. Now that she had had a good look at these dresses she felt miserably disappointed. She was no longer the naive colonist she had been three months before. In their morning calls she and Felicité had often been spirited away by their young friends for a little unrestrained gossip upstairs. They had spent many a delightful hour going through each other's closets and taking surreptitious peeks into their elders' wardrobes as well.
"These dresses aren't so wonderful as you think," Miriam said now, with her recently gained knowledge. "The material is fine, but they are all out of style. The ladies just aren't wearing sleeves like this, and the new dresses all have pleats in the back."
Susanna was amused. "Since when have you been an authority on French dressmaking?"
"I use my eyes," Miriam answered, seeing nothing amusing. "As a matter of fact, I could show these French dressmakers a thing or two. They just copy the one or two styles that come over from Paris. They dress everyone alike—the short fat women and the tall thin ones. Look at this now, it would make you look like a pincushion!"
With a gasp of horror, Susanna saw Miriam's scissors slash ruthlessly through the expensive satin. "Miriam! How dare you! You have ruined it!"
"Wait and see," predicted Miriam. "There! We can cut it away here to show the lace petticoat, and have material enough to make gathers in the back."
All day long and half the night Miriam snipped and stitched, tried on and ripped out and stitched again, until the one candle in the room sputtered out and forced her to shut her smarting eyes.
"I don't know how you do it," her sister worried. "If I took out one of those seams I could never get it together again. How could you know this would look so well?"
"The thing is, I care and you really don't," said Miriam. "I wager you'd have worn your old brown homespun."
"'Twould have seemed more fitting," Susanna agreed, quite unruffled. "This grand lady you've made me into isn't I at all. I doubt James would approve. Tis scandalous low."
"James would just about burst with pride if he could see you, I know he would. Now stand still. This panel has to be shortened. And then you've got to fit my waist in tighter. I can't reach behind my back."
Even Susanna was impressed when Miriam tried on her yellow satin gown. The heavy shining silk molded her slim waist snugly in front, and fell back to reveal a handsome petticoat made from the salvaged portions of a frayed summer dress. In the back the material was gathered in three stylish Watteau pleats, smoothed flat to the waist, and flaring below. Sitting back on her heels, Susanna stared.
"I declare, Miriam, you do have a knack! I don't believe there's a lovelier gown in Boston, or even in Paris!"
To Felicité Miriam had given no inkling of what was going on; but, unable to wait another moment to display her creation, she intercepted Hortense on the way downstairs and drew her into the room, her finger on her lips. She had seen very little of Hortense all these weeks. It was like old
times to share
a secret with her again.
She could not have asked for a more satisfying audience. As she revolved slowly in the new dress, the French girl oh'd and ah'd, her black eyes dancing, her round face wrinkled with pleasure. Hortense, friendly and matter of fact, seemed not in the least overawed by Miriam's new status, or even conscious that she herself had been neglected. But once or twice as they talked, Miriam noticed a fleeting twinkle in her old friend's eye that brought an instant's discomfort. Could Hortense possibly be laughing at her? She checked herself, all at once aware that she had been prattling exactly like Felicité. Well, was that so amusing? If Hortense had any idea how starved she had been all her life for companionship she would not begrudge her a little fun now.
Indeed, Hortense herself said as much. "I'm so glad you are having a good time, Miriam. You do deserve it after all you have been through." Then, revealing that she was only human after all, a small touch of envy crept into Hortense's voice.
"You look so lovely in that dress, Miriam," she said wistfully. "I wish that just once in my life, just for my wedding, I could have a beautiful dress. But isn't that silly? Where would I ever wear it when the wedding was over? To milk the cows?"
the dance Felicité came in search of Miriam. "Come," she ordered. "Lucille is to dress my hair now, and while it is being done one of the other maids can do yours too. Maman says it is not necessary, but she needn't know till it is all done."
"You mean—powdered?" asked Miriam doubtfully.
"Of course. Every lady there will have her hair powdered. And I'll give you some cream and powder for your face, and a tiny beauty spot to put right there." Felicité's silvery laugh broke out at Miriam's uncertainty. "What are you afraid of, silly? We will make you look just beautiful."
"Can Hortense be the one to help me?"
"Hortense? But she is a little simpleton, a habitant! What would she know about doing hair? Maman's maids were trained in Paris. Come—we can watch each other in the mirror."
So Miriam sat for the first time for the elaborate toilette she had often watched Felicité undergo. It was more torture than delight. Seemingly for hours she held her head rigid and followed in the mirror the deft fingers of the maid. The curling iron hissed and steamed, as the heavy red hair was massed high on her head in countless curls and twists. Miriam's back and neck ached long before the intricate creation was finished to Felicités satisfaction. Then the maid brought the quail pipe, and Miriam covered her eyes while the white powder was blown into the red curls. Finally there was perfumed cream for her cheeks, powder, and a touch of rouge, and the little black beauty spot, which Felicité herself insisted on pasting just beneath her left eye.
When Miriam returned to her room Susanna was already dressed, sitting at the desk writing the daily letter that would never reach James as though this were any ordinary evening. The startled eyes she lifted to Miriam were disconcerting.
"Felicité says to come quickly," Miriam hurried to say. "There is still time to fix your hair too."
"Thank you," answered Susanna. "My hair is already done." It lay against her head in two smooth dark wings, and was coiled in a neat bun at the back of her neck.
"You can't leave it like that!" Miriam's exasperation flared. "After I worked so hard! You won't look like the others."
Susanna stood up from the desk slowly. "I am not like the others," she said quietly. "I am an Englishwoman. I have done my hair like this all my life, and I have no intention of doing it any differently."
The rebuke in Susanna's voice was too much for Miriam to bear. Furious tears threatened the powder and rouge. "Oh go ahead then," she stormed "Look like a—a habitant! 'Tis all right for you to throw away your chances. But I'm young, and I know what I want!"
"What do you want?"
"I want to be a part of life, not forever waiting and looking on at other people. I want to wear clothes that I can be proud of. And I want—oh stop hatcheling me! It is almost time to go and I have to get my dress on."
Susanna started to reply and then abruptly changed her mind. She stepped forward and silently eased Miriam's dress off her shoulders so as not to disturb the glistening structure. Miriam, somewhat mollified, accepted the gesture as a peace offering. There was no time now for argument or even for thinking. Susanna held the yellow gown for Miriam to step into, and bent to adjust the intricate fastenings. Then she stepped back to inspect her younger sister.
"Of course, they say the English ladies in Boston powder their hair," she conceded. "You are a picture, Miriam. I declare, you take my breath away."
Miriam felt a rush of gratitude. "Don't mind the things I said, Susanna," she returned generously. "You look beautiful, really, just the way you are." And all at once, looking at her sister in the perfectly fitting red silk, Miriam realized that it was actually true. What was there about Susanna that, standing there so plain and severe, without knowing or caring, she had a beauty not one of them could touch? For an instant a hint of misgiving quivered in Miriam's mind. She whirled anxiously to the mirror and there found the reassurance she needed. Yes, the girl in the mirror was everything she had ever dreamed or longed for. The dreams that had begun that October morning in Felicité's borrowed gown had all come true at last.
"They will be waiting for us," she murmured, embarrassed lest Susanna read her mind. So the two Willard sisters, each unshaken in her own choice but united once more in affection, linked arms and went down the stairs together.
Felicité was standing in the middle of the hall, a pink and white confection. Even more flattering than the mirror was the astonishment that rounded the little red Cupid's bow of her lips.
"Meeriam! Your dress! What did you do to it? Isn't it beautiful, Maman? Would you ever dream it was my last year's second-best?"
Madame did not bother to answer. Ice-blue eyes narrowed, she studied the two English women, taking in every detail, dwelling thoughtfully on the folds that had been gathered so carefully to reveal Miriam's neck and shoulders. Finally she turned to her daughter.