Authors: Elizabeth George Speare
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
Relaxing in a real bed again, Miriam's conscience pricked her. Was there something shameless about her? Here she had been sold into slavery. Was it proper to relish enemy food and snuggle into a soft bed like an animal that cared for nothing but its own comfort? What would Susanna have done? The memory of Susanna sent a real shaft of pain through her content.
Susanna would like Hortense, she assured herself. Hortense cannot possibly be an enemy.
Her mind was hazy with sleep. She could not concentrate on Susanna far away in the wilderness. In spite of herself her natural optimism had bounced back. Now that it was over, her elastic young spirit shed that time of fear and degradation as easily as she had cast aside the deerskin jacket. There was nothing to fear in this place, and for the first time since the night of the party at Number Four her last thought of the morrow was not of foreboding but of anticipation.
woke it was still dark, and the loft was barely visible in the smoky candlelight. The chattering had begun again, but in whispers and subdued giggles. The women were rousing from the row of mattresses and getting dressed. Hortense, sitting on the edge of the mat she had shared with Miriam, was lost in the folds of the petticoat she was pulling over her head. The bobbing black curls and plump round cheeks emerged in a moment, and her black eyes twinkled at Miriam. Miriam dragged herself up, though she could have slept straight through the day, and pulled on her own dress and the leather shoes that were far too big. She followed the others down the loft ladder, took her turn at washing her face in the big basin, and sat down at the table. After a few moments' bustle, breakfast was ready, porridge and thick yellow cream, and a mug of indescribably luscious brew called chocolate, dark and rich and sweet.
This morning the other women had lost their curiosity and quite casually accepted her as one of them. She was tossed a towel and she set to wiping plates and spoons, and then to shining a set of pewter mugs, and for some time she worked in a corner undisturbed. Then Hortense beckoned to her.
The French girl was deftly arranging on a brass tray a delicate white china cup and plate, thin silver spoons, a little pot of chocolate and two crusty rolls. A late breakfast for the lady of the house, Miriam guessed. She followed Hortense with some curiosity. She had discarded her timidity with the disgraceful Indian clothes. Those icy blue eyes would not fluster her so easily this morning. The two girls passed from the kitchen into a sitting room that made Miriam gasp. Such elegance I She glimpsed a fine stuffed sofa, chairs of dark polished wood, hangings of deep red velvet. Beyond this room they mounted a short flight of stairs into a narrow hallway, and Hortense opened a door into a small chamber.
That anyone in the world had such a room merely for sleeping was beyond imagination. It was all white and pale blue. There were thick creamy rugs on a blue-painted floor. The windows and a little dressing table were hung with white draperies ending in a long netted fringe. There was a wide four-poster bed with full white draw curtains and deep scalloped valances. In the center of the bed, under a fringed and embroidered coverlet and propped up against a mass of ruffled pillows, sat not the formidable woman Miriam expected but the prettiest girl she had ever seen. She was pink and white and fragile as a china figurine, her eyes like blue flowers, and her hair a fine powdery gold mist against the pillows. The blue eyes darted past Hortense and the tray, and went wide at the sight of Miriam. For a long moment the two girls stared at each other, each too dumfounded to speak. Then the girl on the bed broke into a flood of French, as rapid as the chatter in the kitchen, but softer, with a hint of a lisp that reminded Miriam of Polly. Hortense laughed, plumped the tray down on the bed, and gave an explanation. The girl turned to Miriam.
"You no speak
" she demanded. Miriam shook her head. The girl laughed, showing a row of perfect small teeth. "It no matter. I speak the English with you. You surprise—
For the first time since she had left James at the landing place Miriam could speak her own tongue freely, and the words rushed out with all the old frankness.
"Everything in Montreal surprises me. It is all so different from what I expected." Especially you, she almost added, but remembered her manners in time.
The girl was delighted. "You like it—no?"
"I haven't seen anything but this house. 'Tis the most beautiful house I have ever seen."
"It is one of best houses in Montreal. We get everything from France—chairs, tables, dishes, everything. Where you come from, you not have house like this?"
"Goodness no! At Number Four the men themselves had to build the houses out of logs."
"Number Four? What is that?" The white forehead wrinkled.
"That is the name they gave our settlement at first. Now it is called Charlestown."
The girl motioned to a footstool near the bed. "You stay here with me while I eat. Tell me about this—this Number Four."
Hortense broke in with a protest, obviously explaining that Miriam was expected to work in the kitchen. The laughter went out of the girl's face, the red lips pouted, and for an instant there was the faintest echo of Madame Du Quesne in her blue eyes and in the quick imperious gesture. Hortense did not argue; she curtsied and was out the door in a flash, leaving Miriam behind.
"Now," said the French girl, nestling back among the pillows, her sunny nature restored. "You tell to me. How you come to be with the Indians? Did they treat you bad?"
Where could she begin? Miriam wondered. What words could possibly give this exquisite creature an inkling of what it was like to march cold and hungry, covered with mud and insect bites, along a forest trail? Instead she decided to tell about the settlement at Charlestown. Even that sounded outlandish enough, here in this dainty room, but her story found an eager audience. Encouraged by those astonished blue eyes and the soft gasps of amazement, the words began to pour out. The joy of having someone her own age to talk to! She had forgotten the circumstances, the fact that she was a prisoner, and she was living again the night of the dance at Number Four, when the door opened, and the mistress of the house stepped into the room.
She surveyed the two girls with displeasure, and broke into a sharp hailstorm of words and gestures that indicated plainly that it was high time to be up and about. The girl on the bed was not in the least cowed by this tirade. She pouted prettily.
"Oh, Maman, she is so droll, this Meeriam."
It was Miriam's turn to feel that icy glance, and she stood uncomfortably waiting for the wrath to descend on her head.
"They have given you some work to do?" queried Madame.
"Yes, ma'am," Miriam answered meekly, trying to gauge whether she could slip between the wide-spread skirts and the doorway. But the girl on the bed had other plans.
"But, Maman, I wish her to stay here with me!"
The older woman considered this for a moment. Then she turned to Miriam. "Can you read and write the English?" she demanded.
"Why of course, ma'am."
"What can you read?" persisted Madame.
"I have read the Bible all the way through twice, and the sermons of Cotton Mather." That was everything she had found to devour in her father's cabin, but the list made slight impression on this woman.
"Perhaps it will do," she said finally. "I should like my daughter to learn to read the English and to speak it correctly. When I was her age there was an English sister at the school who taught us very carefully. She was very particular about how we spoke. But she has died, and the sisters do not bother any longer. Felicité speaks a little, as you see, but she is lazy. I shall get a book of English from the sisters, and you shall teach her to read."
"Oh, I should like to try, ma'am," cried Miriam eagerly. "I always helped the little girls at home."
"Then perhaps we shall get some good out of you after all," concluded Madame. "You will come up here every morning and teach Felicité for two hours."
"Two hours!" squealed Felicité in consternation. "But, Maman—!" Her protest was broken off by a sharp rebuke, and Madame, the business settled, swept out of the room.
Felicité was sulky. "What good is it to read the English? Who I ever speak English to anyway? Everybody speaks
"You might like it," coaxed Miriam.
"Maman, she always say someday we go back to France—Paris—and then we visit London. But I know we stay right here. I marry Pierre, have French babies. What I need the English for?"
Madame's plans were law, however. From that morning Miriam became a teacher and Felicité a reluctant pupil. At first it seemed to Miriam pure enchantment to sit in that pretty room, to watch Felicité, with her appealing birdlike ways, to have a fine leather-bound book to read. But that it was not going to be an easy task to teach this pupil she soon began to suspect. Four-year-old Sue was quicker at her letters. Felicité's bright eyes and attention darted everywhere, but came to rest invariably on herself, on the shadow of a curl against the wall, on a fingernail threatened by a tiny snag, on the ruffles that had to fall just so over her dainty wrist. Over and over Miriam pulled her back to the words on the page—the same words every day, for they seemed to make no progress whatsoever. She must be a very poor teacher, Miriam decided. Surely anyone so delicate and beautiful as Felicité could not be—no, it was disloyal to even think the word. The failure must be her own.
Meanwhile, down below in the kitchen, another kind of education was in progress. The kitchen was still the place where Miriam properly belonged, and once the two hours with Felicité were over she returned there and took up her share of the work. Here she became both teacher and pupil, for Hortense was quick to follow up that first lesson in the loft. Now as they washed the dishes, and peeled potatoes, and polished the brass and copper, side by side, the tongues of the two girls wagged merrily. These lessons were pure fun. Where Felicité puckered her pretty forehead over one phrase, Hortense picked up dozens of words in a day, and generously tossed back to Miriam dozens of French words in return. She marveled at Hortense. This kitchen maid who admitted she could neither read nor write and had no reason in the world for wanting to speak a foreign tongue grasped the words and stored them away like the quick little squirrel she resembled, just for the fun of it. The hours passed quickly as they jabbered in a ridiculous mixture of languages, and often Hortense doubled up in merriment over Miriam's mistakes. But Miriam worked in earnest. Every day there was less English and more French in the mixture. Gradually both Hortense and Felicité lapsed into their native tongue, and Miriam rapidly learned to follow.
As one day after another went by, however, and the novelty of the household no longer distracted all her thoughts, a deep uneasiness began to increase in Miriam's mind. Still no word from James. Surely something had gone wrong with his plans. And where were the little girls? They might not have been so lucky as she. For she had been lucky beyond anything she could have dreamed. It was hard to remember that she was a prisoner, and that Montreal was a dreaded and evil city. Surely it was treacherous of her, but she had to admit that she found every feature of this new experience exciting. If only she could know about the others. Not knowing was the one shadow that dimmed this adventure.
"You are not happy," Hortense accused her, as they sat one afternoon filling the great preserving crocks with crisp green cucumber slices. "We are not being good to you?"
Miriam looked into the anxious black eyes of her new friend. "Oh, Hortense, you are being good to me! I like it here, truly I do. But I am worried about the others. I told you my sister had to stay behind with the Indians, but we thought it would not be for long. And if I could only know what they have done with the little girls!"
"But of course. I would feel the same. Madame does not tell you anything?"
"I hardly ever see Madame, and then she is always giving orders. I don't dare ask her. She is so—so—"
Hortense laughed. "I know. We find out for ourselves. I ask Jules when he comes tonight."
Hortense's eyes danced. "Jules is my—" She hesitated, and a rosy blush supplied the word she could not find. "He is a habitant," she went on hurriedly. "He owns one hundred arpents of land, and he already has two horses and five cows. He is very smart man, my Jules."
Miriam stared at her in surprise. Felicité of course had any number of admirers. They drove up to the great front door in carriages, and the servants peeked through the drawing-room curtains and commented on this one and that one. It was hard to make Felicité stop chattering about her drives and her parties long enough to concentrate on an English sentence. But it had never occurred to Miriam that Hortense might have a life of her own beyond this kitchen. She felt a quick prick of envy.
The envy stirred again when Jules arrived after supper. There was quite a flurry in the kitchen as he stepped in out of the chilly night. The women greeted him familiarly, and made way for Hortense with good-natured, outspoken jibes that made her cheeks flame. Miriam stared curiously. Yes, Jules was unmistakably a farmer, and quite as certainly successful and self-confident. His shoulders strained the rough homespun coat, his waist was stocky under the red woolen sash. Black hair curled tightly under the red cap, and his white teeth flashed in his broad swarthy face. He was totally unlike the young man she remembered so well; yet, watching Jules and Hortense standing together just inside the kitchen door, Miriam knew exactly how they felt. She herself stood all at once inside another door, and Phineas Whitney's face came before her memory so clearly that her heart gave a leap. Would she ever know again the magic that wove such a spell about a man and a girl that they could stand completely alone in a room full of people?