Read Calico Captive Online

Authors: Elizabeth George Speare

Tags: #Ages 10 and up

Calico Captive (20 page)

Miriam shuddered. It had not occurred to her that they might not be able to reach Number Four.

"You didn't seem to find Montreal so distasteful last winter," he said. "The trouble is, a girl like you needs excitement. I wager those tailor's dummies haven't been lively enough company for you."

He had succeeded at last in bringing a reluctant smile. "That's better. What you need is to forget your troubles and step out a little. What do you say to a little party this evening? A few friends of mine—"

"In this dress?"

Pierre stared at her, confused. "You mean that is the only one you own?
Parbleu!
I'll buy you a dress!"

She stiffened instantly.

"Good heavens, girl, what's a dress? Five dresses for that matter. I guarantee, if I ask them, I can get one of the shops to open up just for you."

Miriam tightened her lips stubbornly.

"What a stuffy little Puritan you are, anyway," he flung at her. "Here I find you, after all this time, living like a stray cat, and all you do is arch your back and glare at me."

The picture of herself was too apt, and she had to laugh. Truce declared, she came seriously to the point.

"There is something you can do," she said soberly. "If you really want to help me. No one will listen. Can you get me into the jail to visit my sister?"

Pierre stared at her. Then suddenly he threw back his head and laughed so loudly that a passing Frenchman paused in the street and peered in through the doorway.

"What a girl!" he exclaimed. "Offer her a dress, invite her to a party, and what does she want instead—to go to jail."

"I'm serious, Pierre. Can you do it, please?"

"Look here, little one," he said, taking a serious tone himself, "as far as getting your family out of that jail, I can do nothing at all. But if you really want to go in there and visit them, I think I can arrange that. Tomorrow morning."

Contrary to her expectations, he kept his word. Though it was almost midday, and she had given up hope, he came for her and conducted her along the streets to the jail. There he spoke to the sentry, and passed something into the man's hand.

"And mind you," Pierre repeated to the sentry, "she comes back. In a quarter-hour. I shall be waiting here to see that she does." That mocking glance of his could be steely enough when he chose. With a backward glance of gratitude, Miriam stepped through the stone gateway.

In the narrow passageway, her senses shriveled. With every step away from the hot summer street, the chill damp increased, until she was shivering. As they entered the common jail, the stench struck her in the face like a smothering blanket. In the half-dark she could make out huddled forms crowded close together like grotesque shadows. Their terrifying faces turned toward her, grayish white with coal-black greedy eyes. In a cell-like chamber, separated from the rest, Susanna and her husband and children sat on rough wooden benches.

They were more fearful than pleased to see her. "Are you sure you can get back out?" Susanna kept insisting. Miriam reassured her, intensely grateful, all at once, for that confident figure waiting outside.

"I will keep on trying to see everyone I can think of," she told them. "The city seems to be full of soldiers, and everyone is too busy to listen."

"I came back at the worst possible time," said James. "I am sure they are preparing for a major battle. Also, the Governor has been replaced. This new man, Monsieur De Vaudreuil, claims to know nothing whatever about the agreement. The letter of credit is absolutely worthless, so they say. Hard money they would listen to, I think. Miriam, I can pay the jailer to get me paper. I will write a letter to the Governor at Albany. Take it with you, and if you can possibly find a chance to send it—"

While James scratched at his letter in the dim light, Miriam stared about the place. The children sucked hungrily on the lumps of maple sugar she had brought in her pocket. With growing horror, Miriam saw the little stream of water dripping down the moldy wall into a dirty pool on the floor, the mats of straw covered with filthy scraps of blanket, the chipped dishes, the pail greasy with traces of soup. Her muscles quivered as a shadow moved in the corner and disappeared.

"Yes, 'tis a rat," said Susanna calmly. "But it will not come near while we are awake. James and I take turns watching at night. Captive does not know enough to be afraid, but Polly—Oh dear, if I had only let Polly stay with that woman she would have a clean bed and—"

Miriam grasped her sister's hand tightly. "Polly is better off with you, even here. And it won't be long. We will think of something."

"And you, Miriam?" asked Susanna, holding fast to Miriam's hand and looking earnestly into the girl's face. "To think that we had to leave you alone! Can you manage by yourself in that room?"

"Of course I can, Susanna. I have a dress for Madame to work on, and the tailor is so busy he's glad of my help. Truly, you don't need to worry about me. 'Tis you and the children. How can you bear this horrible place?"

Susanna's face, pale and frighteningly thin, was curiously serene. In the murky light of the cell her eyes were luminous.

"'Tis all right, Miriam," she answered quietly. "If only the children do not get sick. For me, it does not matter. I can stand anything now, anything, so long as James is with me again."

Miriam could barely keep from running as the guard led her back through the jail. When the heavy door swung open, she flung herself forward into the clean sunlight and stood gasping as though she had escaped some indescribable horror. Pierre was still there, though for the moment he did not notice her, being engaged in a lively game of dice with the sentry. He looked up, grinned, pocketed the dice, and joined her.

"Was it worth all the fuss?" he inquired. "You look as though you'd seen a ghost."

"They are ghosts—those people in there. Pierre, it is a dreadful place—unclean—oh, horrible!"

Pierre shrugged. "They should be smart enough to stay out of it, then."

"But do they really deserve to be there? Maybe there are others like Susanna and James. And little children! I can't bear to think of it."

"You are a softhearted little thing, in spite of that temper," he commented. "Those people aren't worth your pity. Your sister, of course, that is different. Something should be done about her."

She seized this opening to explain about the letter James had written. Pierre's face darkened.

"See here, my
petite,
" he said finally. "I am not going to get mixed up in this business of English prisoners. And I haven't the influence you seem to think. In fact, I am pretty generally out of favor in the regiment, thanks to their fool regulations."

When they reached the tailor shop, however, he reconsidered. "One thing I can do," he admitted. "I know a good Indian runner who can be persuaded to take your letter to Albany. He owes me his skin. He can be trusted to bring back the money, which is more than you could say for a lot of them. There now, that's more like it," he added as Miriam's face went radiant. "Now will you take the weight of the world off those pretty shoulders? I shall get a carriage, and we will drive out along the river."

And this time she went.

With the letter on its way to Albany, Miriam's heart was somewhat lightened. She finished the dress for Madame Du Quesne, and the tailor, flooded with orders from the French soldiers that swarmed the streets, gave her odd jobs that filled her hours. Except for the thought of Susanna she was not unhappy. Often, remembering her sister, she was ashamed at how all her senses responded to the warm pulse of summertime. Perhaps it was the cups of chocolate and the odd dainties that were urged on her by Pierre. Once he even arrived with a whole roast chicken wrapped in a napkin! Perhaps his very coming had answered a deeper hunger, for in spite of herself she found that she was constantly waiting for his unpredictable visits. His stride on the pavement outside her window, his mocking boastful voice made her breath come faster.

 

He did not mention again meeting his friends. In fact she could not help noticing that he was careful to avoid any place where they might be. They drove together along the river road in the dusk, or lingered at the table under the friendly eye of the tavern owners wife. Miriam's role was very easy: she had only to listen. Pierre never tired of boasting of his exploits in the forest, of his beloved canoe, of the long journeys through winding river courses to the wealth of furs that waited in the mending country to the west. He loved to tell of his grandfather, seventy years old, but still the greatest
coureur
of them all, who could paddle the most dangerous rapids, endure the longest portage, and outsing and outdrink every trader in the West.

Listening, Miriam's imagination was stirred, her pioneer blood beat faster at the thought of the wild unexplored country. She would watch Pierre, totally unaware of her own shining eyes and parted lips. But sometimes he would fall silent, and then she would look away, unable to meet the half-taunting, half-caressing stare that rested on her as perceptibly as a touch. She was never really at ease with him. Always, behind his laughter, she glimpsed the lurking shadow of Mehkoa.

"What a silly goose I am," she would scold herself afterwards, when Pierre had gone, "to let a little flattery go to my head like this." Then in the silence of the room she would get out Phineas Whitney's letter, unfold it carefully, and read the scholarly lines again.

"Phineas Whitney is worth a dozen of him," she would remind herself. "And besides, Pierre may never come again." But even as she said it, something within her was listening and waiting, and the words on the sheet of paper were dim as an echo from a long long distance.

Chapter 20

T
HE WEATHER
was unseasonably hot. Miriam worked steadily through the bright days, for the tailor turned over to her capable fingers more and more of the time-consuming details he disliked. The poorly ventilated room became stifling; the woolen homespun dress was intolerable and no longer respectable. Miriam was compelled to spend a portion of her wages on a length of cheap calico for a dress for herself. There was little pleasure either in the sewing or the wearing. The coarse, flimsy material was scarcely suited to high fashion, so she decided on a copy of the simple sacque she had made for the party at Number Four. She hoped that the color might please Pierre.

With a corner of her mind ever alert for his coming, she was working a buttonhole with painstaking care when the tailor called to her that a gentleman was waiting. To her surprise, it was not Pierre, but an erect, heavily braided footman who stood just inside the door of the shop. He carried a summons, he announced, for Miriam Willard to appear at once at the Governors residence.

Hurrying beside him along the street, Miriam's thoughts zigzagged from hope to fear. Was her appeal to the Governor on behalf of Susanna and James to be granted at last? Or was it her turn now to be thrown into that fearsome jail?

She was familiar with the handsome stone Château De Vaudreuil overlooking the Quai, where the Governor of New France, who officially resided in Quebec, spent a portion of his time each year. The footman led her along a paved garden walk, through a rear doorway, and up a flight of stairs into a sun-filled sitting room.

"It is the English prisoner you sent for, my lady."

It was not the Governor she had come to see, but the Governor's lady. The Marquise De Vaudreuil reclined against a satin pillow on a chaise longue. She was a diminutive woman, with ivory pallor, small finely chiseled features, delicate wrists, and slender, white, blue-veined hands. Her voice was light and cool.

"Come in, my dear. I had not expected to find you so young."

Miriam curtsied and moved a few steps nearer.

"I have sent for you to do some work for me. An acquaintance here in Montreal, Madame Du Quesne, has confided to me, very unwillingly, where she and her daughter obtained their beautiful gowns. I should like to have you make one for me."

Miriam's knees went weak with surprise and relief. "I should be very happy to do so, my lady," she stammered.

"I am curious," the Marquise went on. "How did you come to learn dressmaking? I have never heard that the English colonies were famous for their fashion. You studied in Boston, perhaps?"

"I have never seen the Boston fashions," Miriam admitted. "Nor have I ever studied at all. I like to look at dresses, and I love the feel of the cloth. I think all I really have is patience."

"Imagination too, I should judge," said the Marquise, smiling. "You will need it to make me look presentable. I have grown so thin. Everything suitable that comes from France is far too large for me. Can you begin at once?"

"Oh yes, my lady."

The woman studied the girl's eager face. "How pretty you are," she said lightly. "But so thin, as thin as I am,
n'est-ce pas?
I shall have to try to fatten you, as they are always trying to do to me. Where do you live, my dear?"

"I have a room behind the shop of Monsieur Jacques, the tailor."

"You had best work here during the day. There is a small room at the end of the hall where the light is good. Come, I shall show you. I have had some bolts of cloth sent in for us to choose from."

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