Read Bride of New France Online

Authors: Suzanne Desrochers

Bride of New France (6 page)

When Laure stands up, a younger nurse enters the room. The stinking air fills with her words.

“We were sure that girl was going to live. She was talking to us so clearly. She told us that her father, a soldier, would be around to see her in the afternoon.”

“Her father is dead,” Laure says, wishing this new girl would go away. She should have gotten out of bed last night and listened to Mireille at least. Maybe if she had comforted her, things would have turned out differently. What would she tell Madeleine?

“Then the poor soul became convinced that we had her on water. That she was out at sea! We tried to tell her there was no boat. She must have been thinking about being taken down the Seine from the Salpêtrière.”

“She was going to Canada to get married.” Laure wonders if the locket is still under Mireille’s pillow in the dormitory.
How useless that little piece of jewellery now seems. What will happen to the soldier waiting for her there?

“Canada? Well, it’s just as well she died, then.” The young nurse looks down at Mireille’s body. “Terrible. Just because we don’t know what to do with them here doesn’t mean they deserve to be sent over there to freeze in the forest.” She pulls the cloth back over Mireille’s face and says to Laure, “It’s best to keep them covered.”

Laure hurries past the sick people in their beds and down the long hallway of the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris before reaching the street. The guard at the door calls after her but she doesn’t turn around. She can think only of air, that she must breathe in something other than the smell of death. Outside, the business of living goes on. Some people, though poor, even dance in front of the cathedral. It is only a beggar, with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, who reflects what Laure is feeling. She stares at the old man. Judging by his startled reaction, Laure imagines that nobody has looked at him in days, let alone dropped a coin into his tin cup. He flinches as she comes closer. “What are you waiting for?” she wants to ask him. “Protection? Someone to save you? Things to get better?” He recoils from her angry eyes, shrinking into the dirt. Laure shakes her head and moves on.

The church is old but not as old as the hospital. The carved creatures of centuries past feed on the bodies of the dead. Growing strong on extinguished spirits.
It is ghosts that raised you, ghosts that tend to you. You are nothing but a thief
. Laure’s thoughts are filled with rage as she stares at the indifferent
magnificence of Notre-Dame. How can the old beggar and the crowd around the cathedral fail to see how terrible it all is in the end? They probably don’t know that behind the heavy walls of the building they dance beside there is that awful silent room. That the church they love so much is just an extension of the tired nurse and her rows of sickbeds and offers no consolation at all. Laure is numb to the activity on the
parvis
. She moves quickly past the shouts and market exchanges. The fine wheels of coloured glass high on the cathedral walls absorb the sun, but they reflect back nothing but hard stone.

Laure heads along the Seine, back to the Salpêtrière. She has nowhere else to go. Her clogs and feet and even her legs are covered in the mud from the road. She stops to drink from the river like a horse. The water reaches the bottom of her stomach and makes it ache. Laure isn’t afraid of the Superior’s wrath, isn’t even afraid of being sent to the Maison de la Force. All Laure cares about is her failure to speak to the dying Mireille. Now it is too late. The God of the Salpêtrière, of Notre-Dame, and the Hôtel-Dieu has robbed her of the chance.

    4    

I
t is a different guard at the door when Laure returns to the Salpêtrière. Laure doesn’t really expect to be shown any mercy. She has underestimated so much: the distance of the walk to the hospital and back on an empty stomach, the mud on the road that has reached even her cheeks and turned her into a bedraggled beggar in the eyes of passersby. Any strength she might have found for pleading her case to Luc Aubin or some other guard dissipated at the sight of the dead
Bijou
.

The guard takes one look at Laure’s dirty hospital dress and asks what dormitory she belongs to. When she refuses to answer, he escorts her down a grand hallway of the hospital, high ceilinged and lined with portraits of hospital officials, to the Superior’s office. The room is spacious, with bright windows that look out onto an expansive garden. Birds chirp and the air is fresh. The Superior is seated at a high-backed chair, a shrewd princess clad in black robes. The expression on her face is merciless. Laure cannot imagine a thing to say that could possibly soften those eyes. The Superior scans Laure’s face and her dishevelled dress as if she is thinking up the best possible punishment for her misdemeanour.

Laure turns as Madame Gage, the dormitory governess, enters the office with her shuffling footsteps. Her big face is filled with compassion, and Laure knows that she will do her best to plead on Laure’s behalf. The Superior arches her eyebrows in anticipation of a story she has heard many times before, some pathetic reason why she should bend the hospital’s rules to help a poor girl. Madame Gage’s eyes remain downcast as she mutters that the
Bijoux
aren’t accustomed as the others are to disease. The girl had been out of her mind with grief over Mireille’s illness. If only this were true, Laure thinks. The Superior reminds Madame Gage that the Sainte-Claire dormitory is no place for girls who have lost their minds. There are other dormitories for such girls. What sort of skill does this
Bijou
possess besides the ability to charm her way past our guards and out into the streets? Laure feels the anger rise in her chest at the mocking way the Superior calls her a
Bijou
, as if she is in fact a girl of loose morals all because she escaped for one day beyond the walls of this prison for the poor.

When the Superior discovers that Laure belongs to the sewing workshop, she orders Madame Gage to call in Madame du Clos. While they wait for the needlework instructor, the Superior moves to her desk and begins filling in documents without uttering a word to Laure, who remains standing beside the chair Madame Gage vacated. A servant carries in a tray of cakes, which the Superior leaves untouched beside her while she works. Finally Madame du Clos arrives in the office from the basement. The Superior extends a hand to the chair, and Madame du Clos takes a seat although she cannot sit still. Her nervous hands flutter, fixing her bonnet, straightening her skirt, twisting her fingers in her lap as if she is tying knots.

Laure can’t imagine how Madame du Clos, whose cheeks are
flushed red, can possibly help her out. She has brought with her a sample of Laure’s
point de France
. It is the finest piece Laure has so far made and is destined to adorn the collar of a noble garment. It is more time consuming than the coarser bobbin lace the less skilled girls work to make, but will not unravel if one of the bars is broken. Only a girl with a fine imagination and the hands of an angel can attempt to create such an elaborate item using only a needle, scissors, and thread. Madame du Clos’ voice trembles as she raises the piece to the light. Laure knows that this strip of lace she has been working on since last fall is one of the finest ever produced in Madame du Clos’ workshop, but she doesn’t understand how it could possibly be useful to show this to the Superior. Using both hands, Madame du Clos passes the lace to the Superior. “It is not good to bring the lace from the basement,” Madame du Clos says. “The colour might spoil. I will need to return it soon.”

The Superior holds the material up over her head to examine it. She studies the stitches, the swirls of foliage and tiny silk bars linking one flower to another. Her fingers trace over the pattern, as if counting the many parts. Laure watches the Superior’s face and detects a flicker of emotion in her eyes as her fingers move across the pattern. She turns to Laure. “Do you know how much this is worth?”

Laure shakes her head.

“It is better for the poor souls that they not know. Better for the craft,” Madame du Clos says.

“Well, of course the value of a piece depends on the hands that make it. Also on that woman’s reputation.” The Superior turns to look out the window at her garden. “Last month nine coaches on the road to Versailles were attacked by criminals. Did you hear about that? Do you know what the thieves were
taking the time to steal? An elaborate plot to make away with fifteen headdresses made of lace much like this.”

Laure nods. The story of the stolen headdresses had travelled through a church service. The girls had found it funny picturing the men on horseback coming up behind the ladies bound for Paris and plucking their hats from their heads. Laure had laughed at the thought of these foolish women. How could a girl who spends her day in a basement workshop wearing grey flax be expected to feel sympathy for women dressed in fineries riding in coaches?

“Did you know that some of the women who lost those headdresses are now paupers?” The Superior runs her fingers over the months of Laure’s work. “If you are a smart girl, with the right reputation, someday someone might give their entire life’s fortune, just as those women did, to buy this piece.” She hands back the long strip of lace to Madame du Clos and turns to her garden. “I expect that both yourself and Madame Gage of Sainte-Claire will keep a special eye on this girl. It is always the way that those who cause the most trouble also have the greatest talents. We never know how such girls will turn out.”

The Superior informs Madame Gage that Laure is not to be given any food tonight. “If I so much as hear that a crumb of bread or a sip of water has passed through her lips, then this runaway will end up in a worse state than when she first came here.”

The Superior then addresses Laure. “Women are now advised to turn their backs to the horses when they travel by carriage. So they can see the thieves coming from behind.”

It was the
point de France
that spared Laure from being transferred to another dormitory or, even worse, to a basement cell or onto the street to fend for herself. Laure feels a tremble starting in her legs. She isn’t sure if it is caused by the Superior’s frightening voice or by the hunger that is making her whole body buzz. Or it could be that underlying it all is the horror she feels knowing that Mireille Langlois is really dead. Laure walks back through the hallways to the dormitory on the arm of Madame Gage, who has returned for her, who tells her that it could have been worse. The Superior is not known to be a merciful woman. She is the one after all who condemns girls to the damp dungeon cells. But Laure cannot imagine feeling worse than she does. She can still smell the Hôtel-Dieu on her skin and is relieved that she doesn’t have to eat dinner.

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