Read Bride of New France Online

Authors: Suzanne Desrochers

Bride of New France (4 page)

Laure is awakened that night by Mireille’s voice. Her first instinct is to be annoyed. It is the same disdain she normally feels when Mireille starts to chatter with Madeleine in that quiet, careful tone of hers. But this time the sound coming
from her throat isn’t quiet or careful. Laure opens her eyes and turns to see that Mireille is sitting up in her cot, wide awake.

“Father, don’t be angry … I can’t marry you.”

Laure looks around the room. Nobody else stirs. Laure hears only the deep breathing of the rows of girls all around them. Did Mireille mean to wake her? The girl really is going too far to get out of working.

“Papa, I’m afraid. There’s so much water everywhere.” Mireille raises her hands and waves them in front of her, as if the air in the room is choking her. Surely she expects an audience. But none of the other residents seem to hear her. “I don’t want to drown before I get married. It hurts so much.” Mireille drops her hands and starts to cry. Laure’s chest fills with sick warmth. The sound is pathetic, weak as the crying of the hungry and orphaned babies of the
crèche
. Laure walks by the
crèche
as quickly as she can on her way to the workshop each day. She wonders if Mireille’s fingers were really bleeding earlier that night. Maybe she has lost another tooth. The stupid girl with all her self-pity has probably hurt herself.

Laure remembers when Mireille Langlois first stepped into the basement sewing workshop, accompanied by Madame du Clos, their instructor. The new girl had entered the room like a cat lowering its paw into the river. Mireille wore white gloves that reached her elbows and clutched against her chest a round purse adorned in metal. Her dress was a pale yellow, trimmed in what looked like real Venetian lace, banned for import to France. Laure presumed that Mireille was the daughter or a widow of some rich benefactor on a tour of the institution.
The girls saw a number of these women each week, though they weren’t usually so young and generally wore the same black cape as the Superior, to symbolize their piousness. Also, Mireille didn’t smile at the sight of the dark room’s crowded tables piled with completed work orders the way the visitors always did. Laure forced herself to look away from the rich girl and resumed cutting the lace pattern she was working on.

Looking right at Laure, Madame du Clos had said with some sternness: “This is Mireille. She will be moving into the Sainte-Claire dormitory.”

Laure’s eyes widened in surprise, but she remained quiet.

“And Mireille will be starting today on making lace.” Madame du Clos asked Laure to make space for Mireille to sit between her and Madeleine on the workbench. The new girl nodded her head in gratitude, smiled at Laure, and placed her hands on her lap. Laure moved aside a few inches and Madeleine squeezed herself into the corner far enough so Mireille could sit down. Shortly afterwards, Madame du Clos came to collect Mireille’s fashionable little purse and to present her with her own spool of silk and needles. She asked Laure to give Mireille a pattern to produce.

Madeleine smiled. “You know how to make lace?” There was no rancour in her question.

“Yes, my mother taught me. I made this myself.” Mireille lifted her arms to show the cuffs of her sleeves. Laure looked from the corner of her eye to see if the stitch was as good as her own. It was on that first day that Laure decided she would never speak to the new girl who already knew how to make lace.

When they finished for the day and were lining up to leave the workshop, Laure asked Madeleine why she had decided to be so friendly to a girl who would only steal the little chance
they had of finding a suitor, or being hired on in a seamstress or tailor’s shop in the city. Madeleine responded that she felt no such threat and that Mireille was just a sad girl in need of friendship.

On her first night in the dormitory, Laure was pleased to see the well-born newcomer stripped down to the simple flax nightdress, although she was allowed to keep her head of thick golden curls. The officer, who ignored distinctions of birth and privilege, placed Mireille in a bed with two girls recently arrived by bull cart from Picardie with letters from their local priests. Their skin was grey and they were crawling with bugs. Laure listened with pleasure to the sounds of Mireille crying while her bedmates snored beside her. The girls from Picardie were sent out of Sainte-Claire by the governess the following morning, but Mireille was there to stay.

In the morning, Mireille had looked pale, but she didn’t complain and did as she was told all through the long day of work and prayers. She already knew her Ave, Pater, and Credo by heart in Latin and in French and how to read from prayer books. There wasn’t much to teach this new
Bijou
as she was better educated than most of the officers. It was only a matter of time before something better came along to remove Mireille from the Salpêtrière. Laure doesn’t understand why she can’t just finish off her last few weeks in the workshop before she leaves for her officer husband and forget about putting on this sick act for attention.

In the darkness of the dormitory, Mireille’s cries turn into whimpers and she starts to pray. Laure searches for the sounds
of Mireille’s usual careful Latin beneath the theatrics. But the voice she hears from the other bed belongs to someone else entirely, to a drowning animal. The words that come out are a mix of French and Latin, a confused jumble of prayers.
Sancta Maria mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae
… Laure’s ears start ringing. Why doesn’t anyone else hear this? She wants to say something to Mireille to make her stop. But she sticks to her resolve not to talk to her. Not to waste her voice on a girl lucky enough to have a rich father who left her a pension but who still has the nerve to complain. Laure wouldn’t know what to say to Mireille. She can’t even think of something harsh to make her shut up. Laure considers waking Madeleine, who is lying next to her, but she cannot take her eyes from Mireille.

“Hold my hand.” She is looking right at Laure now, stretching out fingers that look bloated. “Do something. You’re the only one who can.” Laure blinks, trying to see through the darkness around her. A prayer wells up in her, asking God to make this stop. She pushes the prayer away and closes her eyes.

When there is finally silence in the bed next to her, Laure cannot get back to sleep. She watches Mireille, a pale shadow slumped back down in sleep, and waits for morning to come. Surely Laure just imagined the desperation of Mireille’s pleas, or maybe the girl is more cunning than she thought and put on the despondent show to stir her up. Either way, she will know better in the morning. Daylight will bring some clarity.

    3    

T
he massive stone hospital is behind Laure. But what good is it to be free of a prison when it is even more dangerous outside? Especially for a girl walking alone in a work dress grown thin from wear. Madeleine asked Laure this morning why she was risking so much for Mireille, whom she disliked. Laure had assured Madeleine that she wouldn’t get caught so long as Madame du Clos in the sewing workshop believed that she was ill in the dormitory. Besides, Laure was tired of listening to the whispered rumours of the other girls in Sainte-Claire and wanted to see for herself that Mireille was well and just looking for a way to get out of the hospital. Laure couldn’t let Mireille get away from her work duties that easily. There was also the possibility that Laure was going to the Hôtel-Dieu to quell that other feeling that rose up in her last night. The fear she felt when it occurred to her that maybe Madeleine was right and Mireille was indeed sick.

Disease is not new to the Salpêtrière. Many, especially children, come in with
gale
, ringworm, pustules, and other skin sores. There are women who arrive pregnant and end up dying in childbirth, leaving behind their weak infants. The voices of
these babies fill the hallway with ghostly pleas for milk. There was even a small outbreak of the
peste
at the hospital last year. The doctor had come in then wearing a mask with a long nose filled with spices to ward off the contagion. The residents of Sainte-Claire had all been moved to other dorms for two nights. Despite all of this, Laure hadn’t expected Mireille to fall ill. After all, she hadn’t come in starved from the crop shortages of the countryside, or afflicted with diseases or pregnancy.

The rising sun is spreading pale light along the river path. If she follows this road along the river, she will end up at the Hôtel-Dieu. Up ahead, Laure sees men unloading barrels from boats. They shout to each other about the best way to get the load onto the land. The last of night is being broken by their voices. Laure worries that the men might recognize her grey hospital dress despite her efforts to cover it with the dark shawl. Even if the boatmen don’t notice the dress, they might see the direction she is coming from. Unlike the country women who carry in fruit and bread to sell in the city, Laure’s arms are empty. They will know that she has escaped from the Salpêtrière. At least she doesn’t see anyone from the Police des Pauvres among them. These men have been hired to search the streets for destitute people and take them to the General Hospital.

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