Read Bride of New France Online

Authors: Suzanne Desrochers

Bride of New France (5 page)

It was easy enough for Laure to sneak past the servant girls sweeping in the long hallway outside the dormitory this morning. She slipped down the stairs to the central entrance and outside into the Cour Mazarine. Although the sun was just beginning to rise, already a group of men in bright white stockings and velvet coats had gathered around an old man in the courtyard. The men had looked high ranking, and Laure worried they would report her to someone and send her back.

“Good one, Monsieur le Vau,” she heard one of them say as she passed. “The windows for the new church are to be nice and high. That should keep them aware of how far they are from the Divine light.”

All the men laughed except for the old man. He was looking at Laure. “Yes, how to bring the light of God into a prison.”

“And what are you doing later today?” one of the men asked him. “Do you have a little time for a drink? Another great monument to the King is well on its way. You should at least celebrate.”

Laure wondered if the old man, upon seeing her, was about to yell for an archer. But he was silent as he continued to stare at her.

Laure was glad that it had only been Luc Aubin guarding the hospital gate. He was one year younger than she, and she had known him when they were both little children in the Enfant-Jésus dormitory. He tried to stop her from leaving that morning. But she had been able to quiet him just as her singing voice had once carried over his boyhood murmurs in the Enfant-Jésus. In the end, he let her through the gates without a permission slip. He accepted Laure’s story that girls who knew
point de France
were working for the King and his ministers and so could come and go as they pleased. Laure could see that he hadn’t exactly believed her but he was still a few years too young to do anything about his suspicions.

When Laure reaches the place along the river where the men are unloading the boats, someone calls out to her. She can’t make out everything he says, only that it is something about her being too young to be covered in black. One of the other men joins in, beckoning her over to them. Laure lowers her head and quickens her pace until they grow quiet behind her.

As she walks along, the sun gets stronger. Her skin stings as the rays touch her cheeks. The unaccustomed brightness makes her eyes water. The river to Laure’s right laps the bank, and her heavy hospital clogs slide in the mud as she tries to speed up. She is thinking of the bread she ate for breakfast. How quickly it disappeared from her stomach once she went outside, like dew evaporating under the sun’s rays. She won’t make it back to the Salpêtrière in time for lunch, and dinner is still twelve hours away. When Laure is in the workshop, she is careful not to move her limbs more than necessary, letting only her fingers guide the needle in and out through the tiny patterns. That way she grows hungry less quickly.

Farther along, an old man watches over two grazing sheep. He nods at Laure as she passes, and goes back to tending his animals. There are guards outside the Jardin du Roi, so Laure falls in next to a family pulling a cart of wood. The crowd has grown thicker here. There are a few men on horseback, and even a black carriage being pulled by two horses. But mostly the road is filled with the slow movement of people carrying goods from the nearby fields to sell in the city. The odour of the animals intermingles with the sweat of their owners and the apples from a young girl’s basket.

Laure knows that one day her letter-writing and needlework skills will raise her above these street merchants. She won’t have to walk among them, listening to their voices hoarse from calling out the prices of their goods. But for the moment, her spindly legs carry her alongside them. Laure is thinner and shabbier looking than the wives of the more prosperous country merchants, who wear white aprons over their dresses. The coarse material of Laure’s grey dress is the same as that used to bury the dead at the hospital. It is a practical consideration
to dress the residents of the Salpêtrière in this way considering that last month, eighty women at the hospital died.

Still, Laure sees people walking into the city who look worse than she does. She passes a man bent over crutches holding up his footless leg. A few beggars take their chances with the mangy dogs; they lower themselves to the passersby, hoping to receive a piece of bread. Or to be picked up by the archers and taken to one of the hospitals.

Laure finally reaches the cathedral next to the Hôtel-Dieu after half an hour of watching it grow nearer. On the
parvis
of the Notre-Dame church, the crowd is thicker and includes a procession of priests. Laure looks up at the towers of Notre-Dame. She wonders if there really are spirits so hungry for human life that frightening creatures had to be carved into the church’s stone to fend them off. Notre-Dame rises from the dirt like an ancient amulet for the city, guarding against what evil Laure isn’t sure. The
parvis
is exposed to the sun, and dust circles around the people gathered on it. There is desperation in the way they stand, arms extending in jerky movements, as if they are bargaining for goods at a market or awaiting the arrival of a doctor. Some pray standing together in small groups, waiting for their turn to enter the safe haven of the church.

Once past Notre-Dame, Laure realizes that the height and breadth of the Hôtel-Dieu makes the church look like a small appendage. There is nothing particularly notable about the construction of the hospital other than its tremendous size. How will she find Mireille inside? She circles the building, looking at each entrance for a guard with a gentle or lascivious
eye, one who is handsome enough to be a little kind, to overlook her shabby dress and to let her inside. Finally she spots a boy not much older than Luc Aubin standing beside one of the doors. He is engrossed in the approach of the white-clad Soeurs hospitalières coming back from washing sheets at the river.

Until last night, Laure had been fully convinced that Mireille Langlois was just playing sick for attention. It was just the sort of thing she would do. Laure spoke to Mireille only through Madeleine and even then as little as possible. In Laure’s opinion, Mireille had been fortunate and so didn’t need the kind attentions of Madeleine’s friendship. Mireille’s father had been a distinguished soldier in the King’s army, not some street performer reviled by the authorities. Mireille had been lucky enough to enter the
Bijoux
dormitory on her very first day at the Salpêtrière without first having to spend weeks or months in one of the less salubrious rooms.

It had taken Laure years of good behaviour, of memorizing her Latin prayers, of singing hymns in a clear voice, to earn her spot among the handful of the most privileged of the thousands of women of the Salpêtrière. Mireille Langlois had entered Sainte-Claire on her first day simply because she had been taught needlework and prayers in her father’s home. How dare she cry herself to sleep as if she’d just been thrown into the worst basement cell of the Maison de la Force? Last year, a girl who did receive such a fate was bitten to death by rats.

Laure slips into the Hôtel-Dieu behind the Hospitalières without a word from the guard. She hopes Luc Aubin will be the one guarding the gate when she returns in the afternoon. Laure has decided she will speak to Mireille today. There is certainly a fair share of things Laure has wanted to say to her
since they first met. She hopes that Mireille has actually been a little ill in this frightening place, or that the moaning and fetid odour of the sick will at least have had some effect on the spoiled girl. After all, Madeleine is right: Laure is risking a lot by escaping from the hospital to come here. If she gets caught, she could be put into the Force.

Once in the courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu, Laure asks one of the young nuns where she might find the patients newly admitted from the General Hospital. She is sent down the hall to a room that is larger than the Sainte-Claire dormitory. In the sickroom, there are three rows of wooden beds covered in white canopies and two aisles to walk between them. Many of the curtains around the beds are closed. Behind the open curtains, Laure sees sick men and women, several to a bed. The air in the room is more putrid than at the Salpêtrière. Along with the general smell of poverty and bodies crowded together, there is the odour of illness—the excretions of sick bodies—and an underlying odour of the astringent medicines used to comfort them. The foul smell of decaying flesh and bodily excrements is clearly prevailing over the attempts of herbs and doctors’ concoctions to rid the room of disease. A young novice sweeps the floor near where Laure stands. Nuns dressed in clean habits tend to people crowded into the thirty or so beds. Several carry basins back to the patients. One of the older nuns notices Laure and asks what she is doing.

“I’m here to see Mireille Langlois. She arrived this morning from the Salpêtrière with a fever.” Laure lowers her eyes. “I am her sister.”

The woman easily recognizes the grey tunic. Her eyes widen a little. “I am not the one who authorizes visitors. You’ll have to—”

“I just want to know where she is.” If Laure hasn’t been able to fool this woman, she’ll certainly be sent back, or worse, by her Superior. She looks around the room, trying to spot Mireille. “I can’t leave without seeing her first.”

“I’m not supposed to do this. I could get in trouble too. What was the name?”

“Mireille Langlois. She is the daughter of an officer. Of course, his fortune has since—”

“I have heard every story you can possibly tell me about fortunes drying up and wounds becoming wet again.” The nurse is a thin woman with drawn lips. A deep line runs between her eyebrows. But Laure thinks she spots a hint of tenderness there. She is used to looking in the eyes of older women for traces of sympathy. “My legs are so tired of walking between these beds. I’ve heard the entire sad story of the kingdom in this room. The solution is always to build another hospital. One for the children, one for the soldiers, another for the old women. Who will be left on the streets when all these new hospitals are full? That’s what I want to know.” She pushes past Laure and starts walking to a table at the far end of the room. One side of the nurse’s hip looks higher than the other. The uneven weight makes her limp as she walks down the aisle. When Laure doesn’t follow, the nurse turns back. “Well come on. Who is it you’re looking for?”

Laure hurries down the aisle. She gives her Mireille’s name again.

The nurse checks in a black registry that covers the top of a desk in the corner of the room. After finding Mireille’s name, the nurse walks over to a bed in the second row and pulls back the curtain. An old man pokes his head out at them, surprised by the interruption. The nurse glances back at Laure and closes
the curtain, standing still for a moment. When she turns back to Laure she is frowning.

Laure looks around the room. How can they keep track of so many sick people, coming in and out all the time? Mireille has probably been moved to one of the other beds. She must be somewhere else in the hospital sitting up, taking some broth. But Laure’s eyes follow the nurse as she heads into the adjoining room marked with a sign that reads
Salle des morts
.

Laure puts a fistful of her scarf over her nose as they enter. The smell, even through the scarf, makes her stomach rise to her throat. On the floor of the windowless room, Laure makes out the shape of several wooden stretchers. They are covered in dark cloth embroidered with white crosses.

Laure hears a scream in her head, her ears are ringing from the sound, but she cannot open her mouth to let it out. No sound she makes will be strong enough. She is powerless to shatter windows and crumble stone. She wants to scream loud enough to reach beyond the Hôtel-Dieu and the towers of the neighbouring cathedral, along the river to the Salpêtrière and up into the deaf heavens. Instead Laure stands quietly and watches the nurse lift the grey cloth to reveal Mireille’s pale face.

“Is this the girl you came to see?” The nurse stands up, straightening her white habit.

Laure’s throat constricts. She nods. Laure remembers Mireille reaching for her in the dormitory last night. She hadn’t been able to speak to her. If she had known Mireille was going to die, she would have said something. She would have wakened Madeleine at least to offer her the comfort she was pleading for. Mireille would have liked to hear Madeleine’s prayers. Laure’s mind is racing. How could she not have seen what Madeleine knew all along, that Mireille was truly sick.

“She was your friend?” the nurse asks.

“My sister.” Laure doesn’t know why she bothers to keep up the lie, what difference it makes what she tells this old nurse who has seen decades of orphans and widows and soldiers all end up the same way, in this room. Laure crouches down next to the body. Where the cloth had been pulled back, she sees the collar of Mireille’s dress. It is the same as the one Laure is wearing. Maybe they are sisters of a sort. How wrong she had been to think that Mireille was the lucky one. The softness and light that Laure had envied is gone. In the dark dampness of the workshop, Mireille’s graceful fingers had looked golden, always just a little quicker, a bit more precise than her own. Now, Mireille’s yellow hair falls back from her face like dark rope, pulling her down into the stone floor. Her cheeks look like bone.

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