Read Bride of New France Online

Authors: Suzanne Desrochers

Bride of New France (7 page)

When she enters the dormitory, the other Sainte-Claire girls, who are combing their hair and straightening their work dresses for the evening meal, grow quiet. Madeleine rushes to Laure’s side and helps her into bed. Before long she is alone in the dormitory, the sound of the girls’ heels growing faint as they make their way down the hallway to eat. Laure’s knees are shaking as she pulls them up to her chin. How could she have been so wrong about Mireille? How could it be that the most beautiful and fortunate among them is now dead? She cannot quiet the tremors for the rest of the night.

Laure is still in bed in the morning when Madame Gage announces to the dormitory the news of Mireille’s death. She does so between the recitation of the
Veni Creator
hymn and the reading of L’Imitation de Jésus-Christ. In a soft voice, Madame
Gage informs the girls that Mireille received all the sacraments including penitence, the final Eucharist, and extreme unction at the Hôtel-Dieu. Some of the girls continue talking, combing their hair, putting on their bonnets, as if she is telling them about work assignments or times for Mass.

A small funeral ceremony will be held in the Salpêtrière chapel after the regular morning Mass. Madame Gage then announces that Madeleine and Laure have been given the morning off from their needlework duties by Madame du Clos to attend the ceremony and to stay afterwards in the dormitory. Laure doubts that the Superior knows about this. An angry murmur rises at the news of this privilege. Madame Gage ignores the dissent and tells the girls to hurry up their
and to form a line for Mass. The governess then walks over to Madeleine and hands her two lilies for the ceremony. The other girls look with greedy eyes at the flowers as if they are candy or cheese.

Although Laure is weak from going without food, she rises from her bed at the sight of the flowers. When she stands, she feels for a moment as if she will fall to the floor. She steadies her feet and makes her way to the shelf where Madeleine placed the black shawl after Laure left it in a heap at the foot of her bed the day before. Laure also gets her comb from the shelf, but doesn’t have the energy to run it through the dark tangles. Instead of tying it under her scarf, she leaves her hair long and loose beneath her bonnet. It is forbidden to do so. The other girls whisper and look at Laure as if she is a country witch, but she doesn’t care. Laure’s long, knotty hair is a deliberate cloak to keep them out.

Madame Gage smiles when she sees Laure standing by her bed. She hands her a goblet of water mixed with a few drops of
wine. Laure takes a sip and gives the cup back to the governess. When Madeleine comes over to help Laure put her hair under the bonnet, she swats her hand away and reaches instead for the flowers she has laid on the bed. Taking one by the stem, she brings it up to her nose. This is not the first funeral that Laure has attended. When Madame d’Aulnay died three years ago, Laure had worn this same cloak over a blue dress that was lent to her by Madame d’Aulnay’s cousin. After the funeral, the cousin sent Laure back to the Salpêtrière, saying she no longer needed a servant in the house. How deluded Laure had been to think of herself as the daughter of a wealthy woman. She would never be such a thing.

For Mireille’s funeral, Laure has no special dress to wear. This time the funeral Laure is attending feels like her own. She still has no appetite. Seeing Mireille Langlois’s dead face at the Hôtel-Dieu has left Laure feeling too light for the world around her.

The little chapel is so crowded each morning that the girls joke they will burst its walls when they all start singing. This makes them sing louder. Soon they will start building the Eglise Saint-Louis, over which Laure saw the men and the architect deliberating on her way to see Mireille. It will be large enough to hold a morning Mass for all the new women entering the Salpêtrière each day. Also, it will have more space for all the residents with a few coins still jangling in their pockets who want to be buried inside the church. These are the same old couples that when alive give business to the stalls in the Cour Saint-Louis of the Salpêtrière. In the meantime, the little chapel
Saint-Denis is crowded each morning and reeks of the rotten bodies of the pensioners who have saved enough money to be buried in it. No amount of flowers or incense can cover the smell of the dead.

Laure usually finds going to morning Mass to be the most frightening part of her day. She is glad it takes place at quarter past six in the morning so she can put it behind her for the rest of the day. The only interesting part about going to church is the chance to hear a good story. If she prays at all in the stuffy little building, it is for the ceremony to end so she can follow the other girls of the Sainte-Claire dormitory into the fresh air and sunlight for the short walk to the dormitory before the start of the workday. But today Laure appreciates being trapped in the chapel. The priest’s Latin murmurings are a perfect echo for the whisperings of her own mind. When she walks up the aisle, she sees the bodies wrapped in shrouds. There are three of them, but Mireille’s is not among them for fear her disease might be contagious, which is ridiculous, Laure thinks, since she died of starvation really. But the hospital administrators are so afraid of the poor residents and their diseases. The day before yesterday there had only been one. Madame Gage stands beside Laure and Madeleine for the Mass.

She knows the story going from ear to ear today is the one of Mireille Langlois’ life.
Her father was a prince
, a washing girl says.
It was her mother who couldn’t stand to see her. So pretty. Couldn’t have her around the house after the father died. She’d never get a second husband. Had to get rid of her
. Usually Laure is glad to hear these exaggerated, invented stories. She would run the rumours around in her head, adding new details, while her fingers repeated hundreds of minuscule stitches in the basement throughout the long workday. But today Laure wants
to scream at all the indifferent girls who are hungry for the usual entertainment. Unaware that one day, maybe sooner than they think, it will be their body lying near the altar, covered and silent. What kind of stories will they want to leave behind? Their lies make her sick.

Mireille is being buried along with two other women and a boy. The priest assures the dozen or so people gathered that one of the stinking mounds had died a quiet death, an old death. The best kind. The other woman had died in childbirth. There was no mention made of the baby. Presumably, it had survived and was fighting it out with the tough little bundles known as the
. If a child of the
lived through its first year, it was because they were able to get the greatest share of the milk of some malnourished mother. For the privilege of having her baby in secret, a nursing woman at the Salpêtrière would be assigned a few orphaned nurselings to feed from her. Some of the milk from the cows kept in the Salpêtrière pasture was also destined for the
, but it was so diluted with water and flour that only the most determined infants could suck any life out of the mixture.

Several women had been brought up in chains from the Maison de la Force for the funeral, and they wailed without restraint when the final blessing was pronounced over the dead mother. Girls from other dormitories would have been punished for filling the church with such unholy lament. Mourning, like everything else, was best done in silence. But these women had nothing to lose. A few extra lashes, maybe a missed meal, but those things were expected, ordinary for them. Screaming at the loss of a friend is worth the extra punishment. Laure wishes she could join them. The last soul being put to rest is that of a small boy who arrived last week with a cough common to street
dwellers. His father stood at the front of the church, his hat in his hand, a country man in shabby clothing. Laure covers her nose with her scarf. If she tries hard enough, she can still smell the lavender of Madame d’Aulnay’s perfume on it.

Several weeks ago, before Mireille had fallen sick, the girls had crowded around the trunk given to her by the hospital. It contained all the things that were meant to turn her into a wife in Canada. Laure had never seen so many luxuries gathered together for one young girl. The trunk contained a taffeta kerchief, shoe ribbon, one hundred needles, a comb, white thread, one pair of stockings, one pair of gloves, one pair of scissors, two knives, a thousand pins, one bonnet, four laces, and two silver livres. These things were all provided by the King. Mireille had also packed some additional belongings into the box. These included the yellow gown she had been wearing when she entered the Salpêtrière and the locket she kept under her pillow from the officer of the Carignan-Salières regiment whom she was going to marry. Mireille told them she would also be given a hundred livres as dowry, and a transit paid to Canada aboard a ship. The new coffer carrying her dowry from the King was being kept by Madame du Clos in the workshop until her departure.

Laure had been most jealous of the image of the young soldier in the locket. All the girls had crowded in to look at the tiny likeness. The boy’s name was Frédéric, and he was commanding an army of men sent to fight the Savages of Canada. Mireille told the girls that these Savages were so fierce that they actually ate human hearts.

Ask her if they also eat women’s hearts. Madeleine repeated Laure’s question to Mireille.

Well, usually only those of men, who they think are brave, Mireille answered, but maybe they eat women’s hearts as well. Actually, tell Laure that they mostly eat the hearts of priests.

Laure had envied the things Mireille had: the elegant fingers, the fancy dress, the soldier’s locket, the refined words and clear singing voice. But Laure would not have wanted to go to Canada. Especially not when she learned about the Savages. Laure knew she had a brave heart. Madame Gage had even said so last night—
fille courageuse
—when she pulled the blanket up to Laure’s neck after she had seen the Superior.

Remembering what Mireille had said about the Savages made Laure want to turn to look over her shoulder. At the altar, the priest is praying to send Mireille’s spirit out of this prison of starvation and filth, up even past the gargoyles of Notre-Dame, to the clouds. Laure wants to turn around and see if the priest looks brave, if the Savages of Canada would choose to eat his heart.

Finally, the priest goes quiet. Madame Gage is pulling at Laure’s sleeve, but her feet remain firm on the chapel floor. The flower in her hand has begun to wilt.

The Salpêtrière’s finest example, a girl with a golden life, fingers that moved with confident grace, and a husband waiting across the sea, will be burned as dirty pestilence, her body not good enough for the overflowing cemetery. Laure doesn’t want to leave. She doesn’t want to know that by now outside the chapel door the sun has risen. She will have more space on her sewing bench. Hers is now the best lace in the workshop.


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