Authors: Elizabeth George Speare
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
Three weeks went by. Both Miriam and Susanna knew that this interlude of snug peace could not last. Though they had been freely welcomed and made a part of the family, there were unmistakable signs that something was very wrong.
The first sign came the morning when Miriam, crossing the snowy yard, was startled by a stinging blow on the ear. She looked down at the brown trickle that stained her cloak. That had not been a snowball! It was a handful of icy mud from a thawed patch of roadway. Across the street clustered the neighbor's children, their small faces scowling and sullen.
"You must not mind them," Hortense's mother apologized, helping to sponge the mud from the cloak. "The children don't understand that you are not to blame for the war."
On Hortense's next visit, a few days later, Miriam overheard an even more troubling remark. Coming around the corner of the house, she could not avoid hearing the last words of something that Alphonse was earnestly relating to Hortense.
"—and then they said that not one of the men would help with the plowing if they are here—"
Hortense did not like being questioned about it. "It is nothing," she explained reluctantly. "Since my father died, every spring the neighbors have plowed the land and made it ready for Maman to plant."
"And they will not do it now because we are living here?"
"They say they will not help to feed the English. Oh dear, don't worry about it. The land will be plowed. Jules will help."
Susanna had come to the end of the weaving. Every inch of last year's woolen was used up, and till spring shearing there would be no more work for her to do. That was not all.
"You know," she whispered to Miriam that night, "that no matter how busy she is Madame never lets us go into the storeroom? Well, today there was such a caterwauling I ran in there without thinking. Albert, the rascal, had his finger caught under the lid of the eel barrel. I couldn't help seeing. The barrel is almost empty. It's been worrying me how all the food is divided so carefully and not one of the children ever asks for more. Miriam, there's such a pitiful little, flour or vegetables or anything. Nowhere near enough for seven mouths, let alone three extra, and the snow not even off the ground. We can't stay here and watch these good people go hungry. Tomorrow I am going to try to see the Governor himself."
An unexpected visitor, however, discouraged this plan. Peter Labaree appeared at the cottage door, looking thin and aged, the hair under his woolen cap snow-white. He had heard of their whereabouts, he told them, from a young man named Jules, whom he had met in the market.
"There's been a new Governor since we came," he said, "and I shouldn't advise going to see him. An English prisoner at the farm where I am appealed to him because he was too ill to work and was thrown in jail and kept there five weeks before they would even listen to his case. There's a powerful bad feeling against the English these days."
Miriam had an idea. It had been at the edge of her mind for some days, and she had been trying not to face it squarely.
"There is something I think perhaps I could do," she said now. "There is just one thing I need, Peter. Could you manage to get me a bit of paper and some ink?"
Peter reached into his pocket and handed her a small coin. "'Tis a bit I won on a wager," he explained, with a guilty glance toward Susanna. "You're welcome to it, if 'twill help."
gentleness of April was in the warm sunshine as Miriam hurried along the river road next morning. She had managed to get away without giving her astonished sister the slightest hint of what she intended to do. Drawing in deep breaths of the sparkling air, Miriam felt astonished at herself. It was a new thing for her to step out so independently. Somehow, in the past month a tough little root of determination had been growing in her. Whether it was strong enough to support the desperate plan she had undertaken she would soon find out. As she walked, her mind went back over every detail. Not one item must be left to chance.
Inside the city of Montreal she slowed to an inconspicuous pace. She dared not enter the shops alone, but just as she had anticipated, the streets were soon lively with customers. Waiting till a group of women, their tongues wagging, entered one of the shops, she slipped in behind them. Once inside she did her best to remain unnoticed, watching and listening, her eager mind snatching at every scrap of gossip. She even managed to finger with delight the costly materials that tumbled from half-rolled bolts on the shelves. At the first suspicious glance she slipped away, lingering in the street till another group of women gave her a similar opportunity. By the end of the morning she had learned all she needed to know. Finally she exchanged Peter Labaree's coin for a sheet of paper and a small pot of ink.
Carrying her purchases carefully, she went in search of a place to work. At last, hidden behind the half-rotted wall of an abandoned warehouse, she found a spot where she could spread the paper and balance the ink pot on a smooth weather-beaten plank.
In the early afternoon, the precious paper carefully folded in the pocket of her skirt, she set out again. Her fingers were numb with cold and she had had nothing to eat since dawn, but cold and hunger were weaknesses she could not bother with now. This time she left the Rue de St. Paul, climbed the hill past the stone houses, and lifted the great brass knocker of the Du Quesne mansion.
"Once I would have said I'd rather starve!" she muttered, but when the door opened she did not hesitate.
"I should like to speak to Madame Du Quesne," she announced, so firmly that after only a moment's indecision the footman let her in.
Miriam waited, not daring to sit on one of the gilt chairs, whose knobby curlicues her back remembered so well. If Madame refused to see her, the plan failed. But Madame rustled in, white head erect, pale blue eyes as disdainful as on the night she first confronted the hungry prisoner reeking of bear grease in her kitchen.
"I thought it was understood you would not come again to this house."
Miriam's eyes did not waver. If she allowed Madame to ruffle her, even so slightly, her plan was doomed.
"I did not expect to come," she answered pleasantly. "But I have reason to think I can be of service to you."
"You are mistaken. Our charity has already exceeded all reason."
"I am not talking of charity," Miriam answered. Under the folds of her homespun skirt her fingers ached, so tightly were they clenched down on her struggling Willard pride.
"I have heard there is to be a ball when the Governor visits Montreal next fortnight. They say it is to be a very grand affair."
"It can hardly concern you."
"I should like to make gowns for you and Felicité to wear."
Madame's eyebrows raised. "We have a dressmaker," she replied. "She came to New France expressly to sew for my mother, and she has made all our gowns since I was younger than Felicité."
"She is a very fine dressmaker," Miriam acknowledged. "But she has no imagination. Your clothes and Felicité's she makes just alike, and no different from those of all the other ladies who will be there. You should have a dress that shows your height and your fine straight back to advantage. But Felicité is much shorter. Her throat and shoulders are too pretty to spoil with bunchy frills. Let me show you."
Before Madame could interrupt, Miriam drew from her pocket the folded paper with the two sketches she had made. "This is the way I would make a dress for you, with long lines here, and the panniers set just here. This one is for Felicité. There is a fresh bolt of fine muslin, just come from France, with tiny blue flowers."
Madame knit her brows over the drawings. "How do you know you could do this?" she demanded finally. "Where could you possibly have learned such skill in your English colonies?"
"I don't know how I learned," Miriam answered honestly. "But I know I can do it. I promise you that."
Madame's eyes followed the penned lines shrewdly. Miriam could see that her interest was caught. Madame must know as well as Miriam that her mother's dressmaker had long since lost the Paris touch. She needed no reminder that the uncivilized English girl, with a few deft alterations, had made her appear frumpy and unfashionable. Much as she despised Miriam, she wanted these dresses. Behind that coldly expressionless mask, Miriam sensed the conflict. Spitefulness and vanity. Had she been right to gamble on the latter?
Finally Madame spoke. "This might please Felicité," she said. "Yes, I shall allow you to attempt this one dress. Only on trial, you understand. We shall see how it looks."
Miriam took a deep breath. "The dress will cost two louis," she said slowly. "And I must have half of that in advance."
Madame froze. "Two louis! Outrageous! You expect that I am to
you for making this? After all we have done for you?"
Miriam forced her voice to remain pleasant. "Indeed, Madame, I am grateful for all you did for my sister and me. But now we must work for our food. You pay your dressmaker much more than that, I am certain."
"Impossible! Gamble two louis on a girl who never laid eyes on a fashionable gown before she came into my house? Why, you learned here all the fashion you know. Such impertinence!"
Miriam moved toward the door. Her whole body felt stiff. She had one more card to play, and she put her hand on the latch to steady herself.
"I am sorry that you. feel I am ungrateful," she said. "It was only in fairness that I came to you first. But I must make my living with my needle. Madame the Mayor's wife was full of praises for the dresses I made over. I believe she will be glad to have me make one for her."
It was a desperate bluff. If it failed, she would never in the world have the courage to call on the Mayor's wife or anyone else. But somehow she must get away from the house before Madame guessed that. She was almost out the door when the ruse succeeded.
" said Madame. "I will do it. To please Felicité only. But you are to give me your word. Not a soul shall know that you made the dress. I would be the laughingstock of the town."
The sudden victory left Miriam's knees weak. But she must win one more point.
"I shall need one louis in advance," she said, "to buy the goods and the thread, and to pay rent on a small room."
For a moment Madame Du Quesne's indignation flared again. Then she drew a mesh bag from her skirts, took out a coin, and, with deliberate contempt, tossed it on the floor at Miriam's feet. Miriam's face went white. The Willard pride almost escaped her taut grip. Then she stooped and picked up the coin.
Outside, on the street, she could scarcely make her way for the smarting tears that blinded her. The two louis that Madame begrudged were nothing to what this victory had cost her English prisoner!
She had one more stop to make. That morning she had noticed a sign at the door of a dingy tailor's shop,
CHAMBRE A LOUER
. She located the shop now and knocked boldly on the door. Reluctantly the tailor showed her the room. It was small and dismal, furnished with a wooden bedstead, a rickety chair, and a crude bench. There was a window high in the wall, letting in enough light so that she would not need to burn a candle by day. The place was dirty, but a good scrubbing would remedy that. Miriam's businesslike manner and the good hard coin in her hand overcame the tailor's suspicions.
"We shall be here tomorrow morning," she assured him.
She was thankful for the long walk home in spite of her empty stomach. By the time she reached the cottage her heart had stopped pounding, her breath was coming evenly, and she was able to announce to Susanna, quite nonchalantly, "You need not worry about the jail for a while at least. You and I are going to be dressmakers. The most fashionable dressmakers in Montreal."
very well for you," said Susanna, ducking her head to bite the thread. "But if I sew seams for the rest of my life I shall never be a dressmaker. I can't take a stitch without this plaguey thread knotting up."
Imperceptibly, in the fortnight they had spent in this little room, their relationship had changed. It was Miriam, the "little sister," who crossed the room now to inspect the length of goods in Susanna's lap and to speak with unconscious authority.
"If you would only try to like it you wouldn't always have to do the dullest parts. These rosettes are just play, really. Try one, Susanna."
"Not I. I'll stick to the plain seams and the mending the tailor parcels out to us, and leave the fancy trimmings to you."
Miriam expertly twisted the blue satin into another of the tiny flowers that dotted the ruffled skirt. "I hope it will be fair tomorrow," she said. "'Twill be a pity to cover this lovely thing with a woolen cloak. What is May Day about, anyway, Susanna?"
"'Tis a heathen custom," said Susanna. "Though I've heard tell they celebrate it in England too. Scandalous, some of the things that go on. Though I must say, I can't see much harm in a little dancing around a Maypole. If I had my girls now, I'd be minded to let them do that much."