Read Calico Captive Online

Authors: Elizabeth George Speare

Tags: #Ages 10 and up

Calico Captive (21 page)

So began another change in that year of bewildering changes. Every morning Miriam left the tailor shop, hastened to the Château, and settled herself for a day's work in the airy room where the sunshine poured in upon gleaming folds of satin. Never before had she had such beautiful goods to work with. The heavy, glossy weight sliding through her fingers was delicious. When she raised her eyes, she could watch the sails of the little boats on the St. Lawrence.

In the middle of the morning the Marquise would send for her. Beside the chaise longue would be set a silver tray with a little pot of fragrant chocolate, a china cup thin as an eggshell, and a plate of soft white rolls. "Drink a little more," the Marquise would urge. "Then they will tell my husband that the tray went back empty. It pleases him to think I am eating."

With her thoughtfulness the gentle Marquise met a much deeper need than the girl's ravenous young appetite. Her light, petal-like touch brushed away the hard shell that protected Miriam's bruised spirit. Gradually Miriam began to sense that the defiant pride, which had shielded her through so many battles this past year, was not needed in this place. Wary at first, too ready for the biting word that never came, she slowly began to feel for this woman an admiration close to reverence. To win the Marquise's quiet smile of approval, Miriam worked as she had never known she could, grateful now even for the sharp eye of Madame Du Quesne which had trained her fingers to exactness.

In spite of the work, her strained nerves relaxed in the serenity and order of the Château. Her eager mind, which had led her to acquire in the Du Quesne household a smattering of fashion and fine living, began to absorb from this place a different kind of knowledge. Watching the exquisite Marquise, she became aware of the sharp corners of her own inexperience. For the first time her blunt New England speech seemed less a matter for pride. To speak with both sincerity and grace was not, she saw now, impossible. Also, she was learning to curb her impatience.

From the first day here Miriam had hoped that this unexpected entry into the Governor's household would provide an opportunity to speak for Susanna and James. Yet so far the opening had not come. Charming as the Marquise was to her, the distance between them was great. Moreover, it seemed unthinkable to intrude upon that flowerlike sweetness any hint of ugliness or suffering. She had yet to discover the strength beneath that delicate surface.

She was in the sitting room, fitting the nearly finished dress, when the door opened and a gentleman entered. Miriam scrambled to her feet for a curtsy. The fine stiff brocaded coat, the deep lace ruffles, and the impressive white wig could grace only the Governor himself. He turned toward her briefly, a face with clean-cut, rather too sharp features, a long thin nose, and finely modeled mouth and chin.

"I thought you would be resting, my dear Charlotte," he addressed his wife reproachfully.

"I have been resting all the morning," she assured him. "But my dress must be fitted. Do you like it, François? I meant it to surprise you."

"It is very becoming. But then, you always look charming to me. Do not keep her standing too long, girl," he added, glancing at Miriam.

His wife reached up to touch his cheek lightly. "I am not tired at all," she said fondly. "You must not coddle me so!"

All at once there came before Miriam a memory of her brother James, stooping in the forest to hoist the wicker basket that held Susanna. Why should this elegant pair call to mind those ragged figures? There had been something, a wordless sharing, a fleeting thing of the spirit, that flashed between them. It lingered in the air after the Marquis had gone, as palpable as a fragrance.

"We can stop now and try the dress again later, if you like," Miriam suggested.

"Yes, the standing tires me, though I did not wish my husband to know. He is overanxious about me. You see, I caught the fever while we were in New Orleans."

"New Orleans!" exclaimed Miriam. "Isn't that a very great distance from here?"

"An unthinkable distance," sighed the Marquise. "And so hot in the summer. And the snakes! I could never learn to hide my fear of them. But the flowers were beautiful. My husband was governor of Louisiana for three years."

The words were spoken so lightly, almost indifferently, yet Susanna was close to Miriam again. "You speak like my sister," she said impulsively.

"You have a sister?"

"She went with her husband too. I know she loved Massachusetts, where they lived before. But she went with him to the farthest settlement in New Hampshire, where she knew well enough what might happen."

"Did something happen?"

It was the opening she had not dared to hope would come so soon. Under that compassionate gaze, Miriam plunged in, forgetting the careful speech she had prepared for when her chance might come. She had only intended to speak about the jail. But the thought of Susanna possessed her. She wanted this woman to understand her sister, who had endured that dreadful morning at Charlestown, who had given birth in the wilderness, and stayed behind alone in the village of St. Francis. The Marquise sat listening, her eyes dwelling gently on the girl's ardent face.

"You are very fond of your sister, aren't you?" she commented. "It is a pity that you should be separated."

"The jail is such a dreadful place," Miriam went on. "There are rats and dirt, and the dampness and smell are horrible. Oh my lady, would you be willing? Could you speak for my sister? I would do anything, anything I could in return."

The Marquise was thoughtful. "I do not understand the matter of prisoners," she said at last. "My husband does not wish me to concern myself with public affairs at all. But I shall see what I can do."

Miriam could not answer, yet the tears that flooded her eyes spoke her thanks eloquently. The Marquise leaned forward and touched the girl's hand.

"Let us look at the bolts of cloth again," she suggested. "I have not decided what we shall make next."

Miriam understood that the distressing subject was closed. The Marquise fingered the goods thoughtfully.

"This flowered pattern is cool and pretty," she said, picking up a fine sprigged muslin. "But too young for me, I think. It was surely meant for a girl. Take it and make something for yourself."

"That lovely piece! It is far too grand for me," Miriam gasped.

"It is quite a simple thing," smiled the Marquise. "Take it, please. It is just suited to you."

For the rest of the day, while her fingers worked on one dress, Miriam's mind was fashioning another. The joy of having a new piece of goods, all of her own, to plan and cut just as she chose! At last, hugging the material close to her, she hastened home along the street at such a pace that she almost bumped into Hortense before she recognized her.

"I'm so thankful," beamed Hortense, when she had learned of the new work. "I have tried at the tailor shop twice, and I was worried about you. Yes, everyone speaks well of the Governor's wife. They say she is better than he deserves, in fact. What a lucky thing to have happened! But I was coming to remind you of the wedding. You promised, you know. It is only three days away."

"Please, Miriam," she begged as Miriam hesitated. "I want my friends to be there. You see, we must have a specially happy wedding. Jules has been called into the regiment. Any day now he will have to march out with them, and who knows how long he will be gone?"

Miriam promised. She would work every spare moment of daylight and have the new dress to wear. And when Pierre came again, how astonished he would be!

The material spread across her bed like a field of flowers, Miriam set to work. But the rapture she had anticipated suddenly deserted her. Instead, a nagging memory tormented her. Such a small thing. If she had not run into Hortense she would never in the world have thought of it again. But now, wherever she looked, there was Hortense, touching a yellow satin gown with a timid finger, and in her ears was a wistful voice, "I wish that just once in my life, for my wedding, I could have a beautiful dress to wear."

Oh, why did I have to think of it! She struggled inwardly with herself. Why did I have to meet her today, before I had it cut out and started?

The girl of last winter would not have hesitated. But in these last months the old defenses had worn thin. They were not proof against the memories that plagued her. She could see a pair of merry black eyes twinkling over a red blanket held up to shield her. She could see an anxious figure hurrying along the snowy street to find two banished women and take them home. Always Hortense had given. Now, unexpectedly, here in her hands was something to give, a perfect wedding present.

"She is just about my height, but much stockier," she told herself, firmly stamping down her own anguished protests. "I had better do it fast, before I change my mind."

Every persistent doubt was silenced three days later when she stood in the parish church and watched Hortense take her marriage vows. The memory of Hortense's astonishment and joy was like a precious jewel held concealed in her hand. Holding such wealth, it did not matter how she looked to the others. Even more, in a way she had not foreseen, the gift had brought her inside the circle. Never, when she had lived in their house, had she felt one with the family as she did today. A warm current of affection linked her with her friend's mother, radiant with pride in her eldest daughter, with the little girls, whose adoration shone in their scrubbed faces, even with Jules, whose eyes dwelt on his bride with unconcealed worship.

Hortense's round face was touched with beauty as she spoke the solemn words. It was the first wedding Miriam had ever attended. She had come into this alien church reluctantly, almost fearfully. But with the happy new warmth melting her strangeness, she was moved beyond any expectation by the chanting voices. Though she could not understand it, the ritual of the mass held her enthralled. Never again would she shudder with distrust as she passed the churches of Montreal, knowing now that they contained only this reverence and beauty.

Chapter 21

T
WO DAYS
after Hortense's wedding the militia was alerted. Word spread that English troops were marching on Fort Duquesne, a western outpost which the French had no intention of abandoning. Hearing the news, walking through streets astir with soldiers, Miriam's first thought was of Hortense, who must see her bridegroom march away so soon.

It was suppertime when she returned to the tailor's shop and saw to her astonishment die familiar Du Quesne carriage almost filling the narrow street in front of her door. The footman climbed down as he saw her coming and judging by his ill-humor, he must have been waiting for some time.

"I was told by Madame Du Quesne to bring you at once. Get in quickly. There will be trouble enough for this delay."

At the Du Quesne residence a state of emergency was apparent. The muslin dress that had fitted Felicité so perfectly on May Day could not be persuaded to fasten tonight. Within the next two hours a troublesome alteration must be completed. No one inquired whether or not Miriam had had supper. She was set to work at once in the well-remembered white and blue room.

Felicité hurried back from her own dinner too impatient to stay far from Miriam's side. She was much too excited to remember the old grudge that lay between them. She had to talk to someone, and her silvery chatter was as breathless as ever.

"The most divine man, truly, Miriam, the most handsome man you ever saw! Think of it, so young, and captain of that great ship! Can't you pull the waist just a tiny bit tighter? Oh dear, if only I hadn't eaten that whole box of meringues! But all the men keep bringing me these boxes, straight from France, and I just can't leave them alone!"

The moment Madame Du Quesne entered, all illusion of the old days vanished. Felicité knew enough to keep silent. Miriam might have been invisible for all the notice they took of her. Madame was out of sorts.

"I'm not sure you are being wise, Felicité," she said once, without even as much caution as she would have observed before the kitchen maid. "We know nothing at all about this young captain."

"Oh, Maman!" Felicité protested. "I'm not going to marry him! His ship sails back in a week or so and I'll never see him again. Besides, I'll be settled and dull soon enough."

"Certain people," Madame reminded her meaningfully, "cannot be provoked too far. I hope you know what you are doing."

Felicités curls tossed. "Certain people have been much too independent lately," she answered. "You leave that to me, Maman. I know exactly what I am doing."

When Felicité had finally tripped out of the room in the newly fitted dress to join her handsome captain, Miriam gathered together her thread and scissors and went on her way home. Madame was nowhere to be seen, and it was futile to wait for any payment tonight. The street was dark as she hurried nervously along, and she shrank against the wall as a noisy group of soldiers and girls crowded her off the pavement. They were well past her when one of the group glanced back, stared for a moment, and abruptly left the others. As he came closer, she recognized Pierre, his uniform pulled carelessly open at the throat, his black tricorne teetering on the back of his rumpled head.

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