Read Calico Captive Online

Authors: Elizabeth George Speare

Tags: #Ages 10 and up

Calico Captive (8 page)

"It will take a strong force to capture it," commented James, studying the distant walls with a soldier's eye.

"Why must we try to capture this place, so far from home?" Miriam asked, voicing a question that had long puzzled her. "Why shouldn't there be room on this huge continent for both the French and the English to live peaceably?"

James scowled. "King Louis of France is determined to be master of this entire continent," he said sternly. "All this country belongs by first claim to King George, yet the French are rapidly surrounding us to the west and even to the south. What right have they to hem us in to the few miles between here and the coast? They would soon push us into the ocean. Already they have taken control of the great waterways to the west and the rich fur trade. Would you have us sit idle while they send the Indians to sack and burn our houses, and even offer money for our scalps?"

It had been disloyal even to question, Miriam realized, gazing fearfully back at the dark stone towers. As the canoe drew nearer she could see stretched on either side along the banks of the river rows of little houses, low and peak-roofed, gleaming white in the afternoon sun. These tidy peaceful houses were somehow reassuring.

Little Polly and Sue lay crumpled in the bottom of the canoe, not knowing or caring that the end of the journey was in sight. After that last glimpse of their mother on the bank of the river at St. Francis they had cried themselves into an exhausted slumber. James, wrapped in bitter silence, had seemed not even to notice their sobs, or the tears that Miriam could not hold back. Leaving Susanna had robbed them all of their courage. More than ever they realized how her spirit had upheld them through all the days of their captivity.

It was almost dark and bitterly cold when the canoe scraped the landing beach at Montreal. The little girls were shaken out of their slumber and half dragged out of the canoe to stand huddled close together, shivering in the sharp gusts of wind that whistled through their deerskin jackets. One Indian vanished in the dusk and presently returned with three soldiers, who marshaled the group of prisoners along the beach, through a heavy gate, into a dimly lighted shed. There they waited. Outside they heard a medley of French and Indian as their captors carried on a stubborn transaction. Then there was silence for a long time, until the stamp of heavy boots on the stone pavement told them that the soldiers were returning. Apparently the Indians had concluded their bargain, for they were nowhere to be seen. There was a new French soldier, in impressive white uniform, who must be of higher rank.

Accustomed to their aloof and uncommunicative Indian captors, Miriam found these French white men terrifying, with their dark beards, their loud voices, their intrusive black eyes. One young soldier stared boldly at her in a way that was even more disturbing than Mehkoa's inscrutable glance. This boy took in every detail of her bedraggled clothing, and then tossed over his shoulder some remark that provoked a loud burst of laughter. The officer scowled at him and then spoke courteously to James.

Miriam and James exchanged a look of dismay as they understood the officer's meaning. They were all to be separated; each one of them had been privately purchased. After a quick fire of directions, one of the soldiers hoisted a terrified Polly to his shoulder, and another abruptly held out his hand to Sue. Sue hid both hands behind her, and shrank against her father, the ready tears welling up in her eyes. James laid a hand on his daughter's head.

"Where is she going?" he asked, loudly and distinctly.

"
A les bonnes Soeurs de la Congrégation de Notre-Dame,
" the officer replied, with considerate slowness.

"
Les bonnes soeurs,
" repeated James, knitting his forehead. "I think they are taking you to a convent, Susanna. In that case you need not be afraid at all. Those good women will be kind to you. Go with him, my dear, and be a good, obedient girl. Trust in God, all of you, and I am sure that we shall all be together in a short time."

"But when?" Miriam demanded in panic. "How will you know where to find us in this great city, James?"

"I shall find you, never fear," James promised. "We can do nothing tonight. Tomorrow I shall find someone who speaks English. I am sure that these are reasonable people and that there will be no trouble at all. Have faith, Miriam."

Gathering what courage she could from James's assurance, Miriam followed the beckoning soldier out the door into the dark roadway. Sue and Polly were already out of sight. Stumbling to keep up with him on the uneven pavestones, she could see nothing on either side but close dark walls that seemed to tower to the sky. They turned into a wider street that climbed with a sharp rise. She was out of breath when the soldier stopped and rapped with the butt of his musket on a shadowy doorway. As the door swung open, he pushed Miriam ahead of him over the threshold.

Miriam stood blinking at a scene so beautiful that it had to be a dream. There was warmth and light, and the long-remembered fragrance of new bread. There was a roaring fire in a wide stone hearth hung about with copper and pewter. There were scrubbed floors and a red and blue braided rug. Could this be an enemy country, where every object was so dear and familiar?

But the voices were not at all familiar. With a rapid, high-pitched jabbering that made her ears ring, a half-dozen women crowded around her, all talking at once and flashing their dark eyes and white teeth. The soldier, with a grin and a wave of his hand, closed the door and left her alone with them.

She stood with her back against the door and let them stare. They were as inquisitive as the Indian women, but they showed no signs of wanting to tear her to pieces, or even to step closer. Their laughter died away. One young woman stepped back, holding her pretty uptilted nose with dainty fingers, and the others tittered. Miserably, Miriam saw herself through their eyes. The leather skirt was caked with mud from the last portage. Her hair was matted and uncombed, her face streaked with tears, her bare feet calloused and dirty. And the stench of the deerskin jacket in this hot room was shameful.

There's more than one way of running a gantlet, she thought. At least the Indians give you a chance to run.

How long she could stand there meekly enduring their inspection, she was beginning to wonder, when a door opened and a step caused the women to jump back with instant respect. Into the cricle advanced a woman, such a figure as Miriam had never encountered in all her life.

She had a beautiful shell-white face and a tall haughty carriage. Her clothes were incredible, swaying billows of gleaming green with frothy white ruffles and a flash of gold and jewels at throat and wrist. Her hair was utterly astonishing, snow-white, topped by a brilliant bird's feather. Most unbelievable of all, she spoke in English stressing the syllables oddly.

"Your name, girl?" Her voice was sharp.

"Miriam Willard, ma'am," the girl answered, and then, as the woman looked puzzled, "Captain James Johnson is my brother-in-law, and he will come for me tomorrow."

The woman lifted one eyebrow. Her chill blue eyes flicked over Miriam from matted hair to grimy toe.

"
Incroyable!
" she murmured. "You must take those clothes off at once. And I suppose you are hungry?"

"Not especially," Miriam lied, her pride stiffening.

The woman shrugged. "Why you English prisoners are any concern of ours I fail to understand. But Monsieur Du Quesne, my husband, has most generously agreed to allow you to stay here till your ransom can be arranged."

"That is very kind of him, ma'am," responded Miriam, seeing that gratitude was expected, however little she might feel. "I am sure I shall not have to trouble you for long."

"That we shall see. In the meantime, I expect you to make yourself useful."

"Indeed I shall try, ma'am."

The woman turned to the others, who, Miriam now realized, must be servants, and issued a series of orders in rapid French. When their mistress's voluminous skirts had swished through the doorway, the women fell to work. Into the center of the kitchen they dragged a large wooden tub and filled it with steaming water from the kettle. Then they stepped back, pointing from Miriam to the tub, as though she were a dim-witted creature who might not understand what it was all about.

They can think I'm stupid if they like, thought Miriam stubbornly. If they expect me to undress while they all stand and watch me and laugh at me, they can wait all night. Even the Indians had more shame.

All at once, a young girl stepped out from the circle. "
Sortez-vous!
" she ordered, shooing the others away like chickens. Seizing a red blanket from a chest near the hearth, she held it wide between her outstretched arms, making a screen between Miriam and the rest of the room. "
Allons!
" she smiled.

The other women laughed good-naturedly and moved away. Miriam's defiance suddenly melted in surprise and gratitude. The face that twinkled back at her over the red blanket was frank and friendly, without a hint of malice. The girl had round rosy cheeks and wiry black hair that crinkled crisply all over her head. The small pointed teeth that stuck crookedly out in front and her eyes, shiny as black buttons, made Miriam think of a little chipmunk, and all the girl's motions seemed to be as merry and quick. A lump rose treacherously in Miriam's throat, and she began hurriedly to untie the deerhide thongs. Slipping off her clothes as fast as possible, she leaped for the tub, and gasped as she crouched down into the scalding water.

Even the sidelong glances of amusement that still needled her could not entirely spoil the bliss of hot water and good yellow soap. Miriam rubbed the heavy suds into her matted hair, relishing the sharp sting on her eyelids and the bitter taste in her mouth. She scrubbed until her skin smarted and her pores had given up the last trace of Indian. The thick towel that the French girl warmed at the hearth wrapped all the way round her. Then there were clean, fresh-smelling clothes, a sturdy petticoat, a short blue homespun skirt, and a white cloth bodice, thick white stockings, and real leather boots. The girl brought her a comb for her hair, and a soft ribbon to tie it back. When it was all done, she stood back and stared at Miriam with flattering delight.

"
Mais—vous êtes belle!
" she cried, so generously that Miriam's heart went out to her. She was far from whatever
belle
meant, she knew, even in these good clothes. There was no hiding her bony arms and her brown roughened skin. But the word did her good, nonetheless.

"Thank you," she said shyly, the first word she had dared to speak.

"Meeriam?" the girl questioned, giving the word an odd twist. "
Je m'appelle Hortense.
"

"Hortense," Miriam attempted. "Thank you, Hortense."

At one corner of the long wooden table they set for her a plate piled high with roasted potatoes and cabbage and some white baked fish. There were thick slices of crusty bread and a pewter mug of yellow milk. No wonder all these women looked so plump and pink-cheeked! Miriam dared not eat half of it. She had learned painfully in the wilderness how unwise it could be to feast on an empty stomach.

As she ate, the kitchen became a bustle of activity. Evidently the evening meal was about to be served in some other room of the house, and the women had no more time to waste on the newcomer. Left alone at the corner of the table, Miriam watched their quick darting figures, so different from the deliberate motions of the Indian squaws or the sober efficiency of the women at Charlestown. These women seemed to have energy to spare. They got in each others way, and laughed and twitched their skirts and rolled their eyes and kept up a constant chatter. The noise and the high laughter made Miriam feel giddy. The kitchen wavered before her eyes, and she gripped the table edge hard with both hands. Suddenly Hortense noticed.

"Tch, tch!" she clucked, and slipping a hand under Miriam's elbow, she drew her up from the bench and led her to a sort of ladder in the corner of the room, seizing a candle from the shelf as she passed.

The loft to which they climbed was far more spacious and well furnished than the one in which Miriam had slept at Number Four. There was a row of plump mattresses on the floor, and to one of these Hortense led her.

"
C'est à moi
" she explained, and then, on impulse, she bent forward and touched the mattress. "
Le lit,
" she said carefully. "
C'est le lit.
"

"Lee," repeated Miriam. Then she too bent forward and touched the mat. "In English, it is bed," she told Hortense. "A bed."

"Baid," repeated Hortense. Her round face wrinkled up with pleasure. Miriam took the stuff of the blue homespun skirt in her hands. "Dress," she said. "Dress."

"
C'est la robe,
" the French girl answered. "
La robe
— dr-r-ess."

They grinned at each other with mutual pride. "I'm too sleepy to learn any more tonight. But thank you— oh Hortense, thank you so much!" Hortense nodded. There was no doubt about the meaning of that heartfelt word. Then she put the candle on the floor near the mat and popped down the loft entrance, leaving Miriam alone.

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