Read Calico Captive Online

Authors: Elizabeth George Speare

Tags: #Ages 10 and up

Calico Captive (14 page)

"I forgot something, Felicité," she said airily. "You look a little plain in that dress. I think you may wear the necklace tonight."

"Maman! Grandmére's necklace?" With a torrent of endearments Felicité threw herself at her mother in an ecstatic embrace that threatened to undo all the labor of the Parisian maid. Madame gave her an impatient push. The necklace was brought, lifted reverently from its blue velvet box, and fastened about the girl's plump white throat. Felicité, who had looked anything but plain before, was now positively dazzling. Miriam gasped. Conscious of her own bare throat and arms, she glanced at Susanna. Her sister's lips twitched ever so slightly, and in Susanna's dark eyes Miriam surprised a gleam of something that was certainly not envy.

From the moment they left the carriage and stepped out of the snowy street into the brilliantly lighted ballroom of the Governor's mansion, Miriam drifted in a dream world, apart from any reality she had ever known. Under crystal chandeliers ablaze with candles, across a shining floor boarded by velvet hangings, dream figures wheeled to the heart-catching music of violins. Women in flower-like satins and frothy lace rested their hands delicately on gold-braided shoulders. The very air she breathed was perfumed and intoxicating.

Nothing that happened in this dream world was improbable. It was not unbelievable that Monsieur Du Quesne, who had barely nodded good morning for weeks, should bow low to kiss Susanna's hand and then her own, nor that strange young men should click their heels and offer their arms for one dance after another. It seemed altogether natural that her feet should move of their own volition in the steps that Felicité had coached.

That she herself, so intriguingly different from the others, so blazingly alive and radiant, was a phenomenon in this place, she did not stop to reason. The admiration made her lightheaded, as though she had tasted the wine Susanna had forbidden her to touch. She forgot Felicité and Madame Du Quesne, forgot that these people were enemies and that she was a prisoner. She even forgot Susanna, who, refusing to dance, was still surrounded in spite of herself by a small court of admirers.

She could not even be surprised when she tilted back her head as an especially tall young man was presented, and looked straight into the bold black eyes she had never forgotten.

He cannot possibly recognize me now, she thought, preening herself as his arm encircled her waist and they moved across the floor. But Pierre Laroche's first words were shattering.

"I see the girl who can rim like an Indian can dance as well," he said, and laughed to see the blood rush into her cheeks.

"I can't fancy what you can be talking about," Miriam attempted, in Madame's best manner.

"Oh yes you can," he chuckled. "You were not so high and mighty when you tore into that soldier like a little wildcat."

"'Tis unfair of you to remember that," Miriam protested. "I am not in the least that sort of person actually."

"No? They are changing you fast, I can see that. What a pity about your hair. A crime to put out those lovely flames with a mess of powder." His fingers rested lightly against the white curls.

Miriam did not know how to deal with such conversation. "How do you come to be here?" she asked hurriedly. "They said you were a
coureur de bois.
"

"So you inquired about me?"

"I—I remember that someone spoke of it. I thought that all the
coureurs
were gone in the winter."

"Take a good look at me. Do I look like a
coureur?
You have failed to notice my new uniform."

Indeed, now that she ventured to look straight at him, she recognized the white coat with its brilliant facings and the gold insignia of an officer.

"I have joined the forces of His Majesty. For one year only. I am no soldier, you understand. King Louis is welcome to settle his wars without me. But when the English interfere with my business, that is another matter."

He ignored the stiffening of the yellow-satin back against his hand.

"My mother, bless her soul, thinks I am prepared to settle down at last and be a gentleman, but she is mistaken. No honest
coureur
can stay harnessed for long. One year I have promised her, till we get rid of the English who are moving in on our good beaver land."

"What makes you so sure you can accomplish that in one year?" Miriam could not resist scoffing.

"Ha! Less than that perhaps! Do you think any French soldier is not a match for at least three Englishmen? And when the
coureurs de bois
lend a hand—poof! The war is as good as over!"

"You take a great deal for granted. You may get a surprise," said Miriam, her temper rising.

"But who is to surprise us? A handful of yokels who don't even have uniforms to wear? It will be like going out to flush an army of woodchucks."

"How dare you!" Miriam flashed, her pride finally stung out of hiding. "Let me go at once! I will not listen to such talk!"

Pierre threw back his head and laughed so boisterously that other dancers turned their heads to stare.

"
Tiens!
" he conceded. "No doubt the English are heroes to a man. I merely wanted to see behind that disguise of yours. There is plenty of wildcat still left. Now that I'm sure of it you need not have your eye on any more partners. Now you will have supper with me. Uniform or not, I am still a
coureur,
and I enjoy eating with savages."

Chapter 13

T
HE HOUSE
was very quiet next morning when Miriam made her way to Felicité's room. It was almost noon. Even allowing for the scandalous hour they had come in, Felicité could not possibly still be asleep. The silence of the hall, however, encouraged the uneasy doubts that had been nibbling at the edge of her pleasure. It reminded her of the utter silence in which the four women had ridden home last night, a silence which at the time she had been far too enraptured to heed. She knocked on Felicité's door, and then, as always, opened it and peeked inside.

"Go away!" ordered Felicité. "I have a headache. I don't want to see anyone."

Miriam shut the door. Across the hallway Hortense, with an untouched breakfast tray, was just emerging from Madame's chamber, and from the twinkle in her eye Miriam saw that she had overheard.

"Mademoiselle is out of sorts this morning?" whispered Hortense. "Are you surprised?"

Miriam did not answer. She wanted to stay wrapped in her rosy dream. But even more she wanted to talk to someone, so she tiptoed down the stairs after Hortense, through the quiet rooms, into the familiar kitchen.

"Why shouldn't I be surprised?" she demanded, when it was safe to speak out loud.

"Oh, stop pretending, Miriam. Sometimes lately you sound just like Felicité. Did you think we would not all know how Madame is very angry?"

"She did act queerly last night," Miriam admitted. "I guess I wasn't paying much attention."

"Maybe you should pay attention. Lucille, she helped Madame undress last night, and she told us the whole thing. Such a to-do! Madame, she was raging at everyone. She even slapped Lucille for breaking a drawstring. She swore she'd send you and your sister back to the Indians this morning. Felicité was crying her pretty eyes out. Monsieur, he finally got them quieted down. But Lucille said Madame would surely like to scratch your eyes out!"

"But why, Hortense? Madame invited us. She gave us the dresses. Was it wrong that I had a good time? Did she expect that no one would dance with me?"

"She never expected what happened, that's certain. According to her, you made eyes at every man there. And those old gowns you fixed up so they looked better than their brand-new ones. Madame says you did it on purpose, to humiliate her."

"The idea! I did no such thing!"

"No? Don't glare at me. I am just telling you what I heard. Madame said you put on airs like the Queen of France. Miriam, you know what is really the matter. You think we have not heard that too? You think we don't know about that handsome Pierre Laroche?"

"Maybe you know more than I do," Miriam answered crossly. "Go ahead, what did they say?"

"Felicité said he danced with you seven times. And when he was dancing with the others he looked at you and didn't hear what anyone said. You think Felicité would like that?"

"But Felicité has so many beaux! What difference would just one make? Do you think she is in love with him, Hortense?"

"Oh—love!" Hortense shrugged her shoulders. "What would Felicité know about love? It is Madame. Pierre Laroche—so rich, so handsome! All the mamans have an eye on Pierre for a long time. You think they would enjoy it that an English girl walks off with him right under their noses?"

"I didn't walk off with him! He just kept coming back. He—oh Hortense, everything happened so fast. It was so exciting. I never stopped to think. Oh dear! If I spoiled the party for Felicité, I'm sorry."

"Very sorry?" prodded Hortense, with such a shrewd twinkle that Miriam had to laugh. Suddenly, looking at each other, both girls were overtaken by helpless giggles, just as in the early days together. They clung to each other, weak with laughter.

"All the same, I'm scared now," said Miriam finally, wiping her eyes. "What do you think I ought to do? Apologize to Madame?"

"I think you should stay well out of Madame's way for a day or two."

"May I stay down here with you?"

Hortense clapped a hand over her mouth. "
Peste!
I forgot Madame wanted an ice pack for her forehead. Come back later, Miriam. If you like, we can walk to the baker's together."

Miriam was still suppressing a giggle as she climbed the stairs to her own chamber. Though her conscience did prick her, the joke was too delicious not to relish. She hurried to pour out every detail to a sober Susanna, who found nothing amusing in the recital.

"'Tis very unfortunate," Susanna shook her head. "I should never have consented to our going. This is a shameful way to have repaid Madame's kindness."

"Don't preach, Susanna. Madame hasn't a drop of kindness in her, and you know it. She treats us as though we were Indians. All that generosity is only a pose before her friends. If it weren't for James's agreement with Monsieur you'd have been put to work in the kitchen the way I was."

"'Twould have been more fitting than all this foolishness."

"You needn't sound so righteous. You enjoyed it as much as I did. Every time I looked at you last night you were having the time of your life."

Susanna flushed. "I admit, I did enjoy it," she confessed. "I'm shamed to think of it now. I'm not blaming you, Miriam. You're young and it was all new to you. But that I should have forgotten myself, and with James gone so long!" Susanna buried her face in her hands.

"You can't blame yourself either. You didn't even dance. All you did was forget to act solemn for once. Besides, no one would have minded, if it hadn't been for Pierre."

Susanna raised her head. "That young
coureur,
Miriam—you wouldn't—I mean—a trader like that. He's not a proper person at all."

Miriam laughed. "You don't need to worry. Madame will make sure I never lay eyes on him again. But you must admit, it was exciting."

Susanna shook her head. "'Twas not worth it. Besides, there is more to this than just what happened last night. I've been expecting trouble for weeks. James has been gone too long."

"We knew he could not make it in two months. They could not expect it. I'm sure he's all right, Susanna."

"I pray so. I make myself believe that he is. But will these French people be patient? I suppose we can only go on waiting."

Waiting was a task poorly suited to Miriam's nature. For the next three days Felicité sulked in her room, tripped haughtily past on the way to the door, and refused to meet Miriam's eye at the dinner table. Madame also behaved as though the two English women were invisible. When the hours dragged in the quiet bedchamber, Miriam went in search of Hortense.

Early the fourth afternoon a servant knocked at the door with word that Madame Johnson was to come to the drawing room at once.

"Shall I go with you?" Miriam asked. "'Tis not fair for you to have to face Madame all alone."

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