Read Bride of New France Online

Authors: Suzanne Desrochers

Bride of New France (3 page)

Madeleine, still sitting next to Mireille, calls across the room. “You shouldn’t watch the prostitutes being brought in.”

But Laure doesn’t want to pull herself from the window. Especially not to go and listen to Madeleine fuss over Mireille. Laure has learned that prostitutes live together in the city with other women in a house like the Salpêtrière, only much smaller. While the royal authorities celebrate the Salpêtrière, showing it off to the princes and religious authorities of the kingdom, the houses of prostitutes must remain secret. Inside, there are many small rooms, but unlike the Salpêtrière, men are invited into them. Laure imagines the prostitutes dressed in bright layers of clothing, the quality of the fabric depending on which men they service, the degree of their beauty, which house they belong to. In Laure’s mind, heavy draperies of velvet and silk separate the girls’ rooms one from the other. Their skin smells of perfume, and their hair is curled and worn loose. Just like women at court, they are the queens of their domains.

Laure knows that thinking this way about prostitutes is blasphemous, especially for a
Bijou
.

The crowd below begins to cheer at some sign of the arrival that Laure cannot make out. Two archers appear first in the courtyard, pushing their way through the mass with the tips of their bows. “In the name of His Majesty, make way as we pass.” The crowd parts for the archers, but grows tight again as onlookers from the edges close in for a better view. Short seconds later, Laure hears a high-pitched screech, like that of a wounded animal, followed by loud wailing. The sound carries above the voices of the crowd. One man cheers, but otherwise an excited hush takes over.

“Laure, please get away from the window. You’re frightening Mireille.” Madeleine starts to pray louder in an attempt to drown out the noise.

Laure continues to look down. “What are you praying for? Nothing’s happening. They’re just screaming like that to try to get rid of the crowd.” Laure cannot see the women yet, but it sounds like there are many.

More archers arrive in the square. Like their counterparts, they are clad in bright blue and white with red stockings. The gold buttons of their clean uniforms look impressive in the sunlight. Some of them have been recruited from the best of the male orphans. “Make way, in the name of His Majesty, King Louis XIV, and the director of the Hôpital Général de Paris. Make way at this instant.”

The crowd opens up, leaving a circle at the centre for the archers and their sentenced charges. There are about forty women crushed tightly together on the horse-drawn cart. They are standing on straw and are contained by iron bars. Some cover their faces, while others stare out at the crowd. Laure is disappointed to see that the women look so dishevelled. Only a few of the prostitutes have bright tresses and colourful gowns. Most of them have covered their hair in long, dark capes, and some seem to have cuts and bruises on their faces as if they had been beaten.

“They are nothing like what I expected to see. They look like the old beggar women from Les Saints dormitory.” Laure cannot imagine what sort of men would pay to spend the night with these women.

Despite the shabbiness of the cartload, the gathered observers whoop and holler, grabbing at the women’s dresses through the bars. One of the women spits into the crowd. Before the man she hits can retaliate, two of the archers drag her out of the cart. They restrain her with difficulty as she screams at them.

“You should see this one, Madeleine! Two archers can hardly hold her back.” Laure laughs as the woman below hisses at her captors. “The officers are going to have a good time with her.”

Once they reach the doors of the Maison de la Force, the rest of the women are herded off the cart and led to the entrance of the building. They are then made to stand in a line against the wall. The hospital physician comes over to them. Two officers hold a blanket in front of each woman while a doctor kneels to examine them. The women suspected of disease are separated from the others. Laure wonders what symptoms make the doctor suspicious as he passes down the line of women.

Madeleine calls across the room. “You shouldn’t watch them being brought in. We must be examples for all the women of the hospital.”

There are times when Laure believes, like Madeleine does, that they are somehow set apart from the women in the other dormitories. There might indeed be the possibility of a higher plan for the
Bijoux
. The other residents of the Salpêtrière are aware that the girls of Sainte-Claire are the first to receive the
douceurs
of charitable donors, gifts of seasonal fruit or vegetables. They also get the occasional thimbleful of wine in addition to their water rations. But more than just because they receive these coveted treats, the others envy the
Bijoux
because they are being prepared for a future.

Laure isn’t interested in some of the other options available for residents of the Salpêtrière. Sometimes the hospital will arrange a match between a
Bijou
and a tradesman, a shoemaker or an innkeeper who braves public opinion to get his bride from the same place where men send for punishment the wives who dishonour them. Laure has heard that some of these pairings
end badly. The same man who comes to the hospital with his hat in his hand often takes to drinking and mistreating his wife once he has her to himself. Laure doesn’t want to take her chances on a blind match. If she can get hired by a seamstress, she will have plenty of opportunities to meet men shopping for ribbons for their sisters and mothers. She will have the time to get to know their character before deciding to marry one of them.

Some girls from Sainte-Claire eventually get chosen to become officers at the hospital. They are then put in charge of the morning
toilette
of dormitory residents, of dishing out the food rations, and of reading prayers from
L’Imitation de Jésus-Christ
to the residents. Laure has no interest in becoming an officer at the Salpêtrière. She couldn’t imagine wearing a morose black dress and bonnet like the Sisters of Charity for the rest of her life, whispering at indignant street girls to pray and sing hymns, to straighten their dresses and comb their hair. Besides, officers get to spend only thirty minutes in the parlour with outside guests, and one day a month in the city, and then only if they are chaperoned. Even the letters the officers write must first be read by the Superior. Madeleine, who dreams of joining the Ursulines but has no dowry to pay them, is at least hoping to become an officer of one of the dormitories. She looks forward to teaching the others how to pray.

While the physician’s inspection is going on, another group arrives in the courtyard. Several of the archers approach the newly arrived carriages pulled by dark horses. Laure cannot see who is inside. One of the archers has stuck his head into the first set of curtains and emerges after a few moments with a handful of coins. He brings these to the hospital official overseeing the transfer. Then the brigade of archers assembles
around the carriages. One of them uses a trumpet to quiet the crowd and announces that the transfer is now complete and that the assembly must disperse in accordance with the orders of the hospital director and the King. There are a few groans from the crowd, but they begin nonetheless to make their way out of the courtyard.

Once the onlookers have gone, the door to the first carriage opens and the women inside descend. They are older and better dressed than the prostitutes who came on the cart. But Laure assumes by their tight bodices and curled hair that they work in the same business. They must be the ones in charge of the prostitute houses. One of the women pulls out her purse and hands some more coins to the archers, after which the women are quickly taken inside the building.

“Do you remember the cure for the mal de Naples?” Laure asks as she walks toward the back of the dormitory where Madeleine is sitting on the edge of Mireille’s cot, wiping her forehead with a cloth. “I guess they’ll get a good whipping to start. That seems to be the cure for most things around here.”

“Laure, why are you talking about all of this? Mireille isn’t feeling well. One of her teeth has fallen out.”

Laure is surprised to hear this and to see that there is blood on the cloth Madeleine has been using to wipe Mireille’s forehead. She wonders which tooth it is. Laure has lost two of her own teeth since she returned from Madame d’Aulnay’s.

“If that’s all she’s lost, she shouldn’t be complaining.” Laure is glad to see that Mireille does actually look awful. Maybe she has made herself a little sick with all her pretending and going around with a sour face. After all, if you pretend anything for long enough, it starts to become reality. Mireille looks for sympathy from everyone she can, although it is Madame du
Clos, the needlework instructor, and Madeleine who pity her the most. Just because her father was an officer, she thinks she doesn’t belong here and that everyone should feel sorry for her.

“I think the cure is mercury and rhubarb. I guess she won’t be coming back to the workshop this afternoon. Good timing when we have all that
point de France
work to finish off. I can barely see my own fingers let alone the needle by the end of the day.”

“She would work if she could.” Madeleine folds the cloth into a square, covering up the bloodstain, and places it on Mireille’s forehead.

“What does she care, now that she has a husband waiting for her in Canada? She doesn’t have to worry about finding work in Paris.” Ever since Mireille arrived at the Salpêtrière the previous year, Laure hasn’t spoken directly to her.

“Laure, where is your sympathy? Mireille needs to get better, to be strong for her journey.”

“And what about us?” Laure asks. “Left behind in this place that keeps beggars and diseased women from the street. Why should I feel sorry for
her
, when she is the one getting out?”

Mireille tugs at Madeleine’s sleeve when she stands up to go. But Laure takes Mireille’s arm and shoves it back onto the bed. She is surprised at how easily the light limb relinquishes its hold.

    2    

T
he physician enters the dormitory just after the girls have changed into their nightdresses. Laure recognizes him as the same man who examined the prostitutes earlier in the day. Tonight he is wearing a long gown and gloves, and the Superior trails behind him in her black cloak. The residents’ usual nighttime chatter has been silenced by their arrival. The eyes of the girls follow the impressive figures as they cross the room toward Mireille’s bed. It is the closest Laure has ever been to the Superior of the General Hospital.

This small woman, dressed in thick layers of black cloth, controls each of their destinies. She commands the hundreds of officers, governesses, and servant girls, reminding them that it is their duty to devote themselves entirely to caring for the residents. But more importantly, the Superior is the only woman who can decide when Laure and all the others will be free to leave the Salpêtrière. Each departure must be signed by her hand. Laure has heard that the Superior’s quarters are as grand as those of a lady at the royal court. That she has her own carriage and driver, footmen and servants, a private garden, and a poultry yard.

Laure wonders why the Superior has brought the doctor to the dormitory. She wants to tell them that Mireille’s weakness is just for attention, to get out of her last few weeks of needlework before she leaves the hospital for good. But they’ll find that out soon enough when the physician examines her. It will serve Mireille right, Laure thinks, to get forced back to work, maybe doing laundry or sweeping the dormitory as punishment for her deception. Laure strains her eyes in the fading light to get a closer look at what is going on in the bed next to hers.

The doctor examines Mireille for a moment, then lifts her fingers up with his gloved hand. Mireille moans as her arm is raised. Laure blinks. It almost looks like Mireille’s fingers are bleeding around the nails. The doctor inspects them carefully before placing her hand back on the cover. Removing his glove, he reaches for her mouth and uses his finger to hold up her lip. Whatever the doctor sees there seems to be enough for a diagnosis. Nodding, he turns back to the Superior. His task is complete. The Superior, who looks like a raven in the dimness of the room, passes her swift eyes over Mireille, copying down the bed number. She then gives a quick glance at the rest of the girls, who bow their heads to avoid meeting her gaze. “Next we have to see if anyone needs to be removed from Saint-Jacques.” She turns, and her heavy skirt brushes against the floor. The physician follows her out of the room.

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