Read Bride of New France Online

Authors: Suzanne Desrochers

Bride of New France (8 page)

B
ack in the Sainte-Claire dormitory, Laure is sitting on Mireille’s bed. They have already found another girl to occupy her spot. Madame Gage introduced her in the dormitory after the funeral. Her name is Jeanne, and she is tall with a large, homely face and hair already turning grey although she isn’t even old. She is considered a
Bijou
because she can read and knows how to embroider. For the time being, while the other girls are at work, Laure is alone in the room with Madeleine, who carries in her arms Mireille’s yellow gown. After the funeral, Madame du Clos brought the dress up from the workshop and handed it to Madeleine. The needlework instructor is holding onto the locket of Frédéric until she can give it to a suitable girl bound for Canada to return it to the officer. She also said that the royal gift of the trunk filled with the essentials for Mireille’s new life in Canada had been reclaimed by the hospital.

“We shouldn’t sit on this bed. It belongs to Jeanne now.” Madeleine is standing, her torso hidden behind the bulky dress in her arms.

“I thought you were Mireille’s friend,” Laure says. “You
sound like the Superior who brings in a new girl before the old one has even been put to rest.”

“Are you going to come for the midday meal today?” Madeleine asks, sitting down beside her. Laure doesn’t answer, and Madeleine lays the dress down between them. Laure’s eyes are drawn to the skirt. The bodice is even more impressive. It is reinforced by strips of whalebone and has short sleeves, and ends in a point over the abdomen area.

“Come on, Laure, you can’t keep guarding this bed like a dog. Mireille doesn’t care who uses it now.” Madeleine takes the skirt onto her lap. “I think this dress would suit you well. I really have no use for it.” She lifts the bodice up to Laure’s chest.

Laure touches the dress and then pushes it away. “When will I ever need to wear this? Besides, I’m too thin now to look good in a gown.” Laure can feel the bones of her shoulders if she brings them up to her ears. It doesn’t help that she hasn’t even been eating the usual meagre portions for the past two days. She slumps forward and rests her head on her palms.

“In the sewing shop. You’ll need it when you get hired. Just like you always talk about.”

Laure feels like it was years ago that she dreamed of finding employment and eventually a rich suitor through the Halles garment industry. The image of Mireille reaching for her with bleeding fingers and the smell of the Hôtel-Dieu and the chapel have shut out her thoughts of being a seamstress.

“What about you? Madame du Clos gave the dress to you.” Laure knows that Madeleine is the favourite of Madame du Clos. She is everyone’s favourite.

“That’s only because it fits me.” Laure raises her eyebrows, as they both know that isn’t true. Madeleine shrugs. “If I need
a dress someday, I’m sure it will be there for me. This one’s for you. When you get your apprenticeship, you’ll be able to start earning money right away. You won’t have to pay off the debt for your dress.” Laure knows that dresses such as the one in Madeleine’s hands, a requisite to a seamstress position, often take years to pay off. But she cannot bring herself to feel enthusiastic at Madeleine’s generous offer.

“They want us to pretend that we’re different from the prostitutes just because we are called
Bijoux
. Do you think the people standing out there cheering like it was a public execution know that somewhere in a corner of this place a handful of girls know how to make
point de France
as well as they do in Venice or Alençon?”

“It doesn’t matter what they think.” Madeleine smiles and reaches for Laure.

Feeling Madeleine’s hand on her shoulder, Laure shakes it off. “Don’t you understand? We have been removed from
out there
. Those people gather outside our window for their monthly entertainment. To women like the Superior who come from their fine chambers, we provide a chance to be charitable.” For once Laure actually believes her own words.

“Yes, Laure, there is no doubt that some women and men involved in charitable work are not motivated by their hearts, but what is the use of dwelling on that? Think of Madame du Clos and Madame Gage and how much they try to help the girls under their care. We are fortunate, Laure, to be here in this dormitory. With the working girls, learning skills.”

“But when will we use these skills? When we’re dead? When they’ve killed us with their watery broth and morsels of bread?”

“We’ll get less if we complain. Come on. Let’s put your dress away. I actually don’t eat much, Laure. In fact, I find
the portions to be too large at times. You can have my butter tomorrow and my beans on Friday. Then you’ll fit this dress.”

Laure watches as Madeleine, who has the body of a child, carefully folds the bulky dress. She notices that Madeleine’s hands are shaking. She has frightened her by saying that they are no different than prostitutes. Laure wishes she could say something to reassure her. Something about being a seamstress next year, about meeting a Duke in the shop and being happy as his wife with children and fine clothes and a carriage. But now Laure doesn’t believe these things are possible. Not with Mireille Langlois dead. What hope could there possibly be for a naive and pious child, and herself the daughter of a street singer?

Laure agrees to return to the sewing workshop under the condition that Madame du Clos helps her to compose a letter to the King. Laure has decided that frightening Madeleine with her bitter thoughts on their situation is of no use. She has to do something more. Madame du Clos tells Laure that she doubts the King will read the letter. He has many things to worry about in the kingdom, such as expanding his rule into the Spanish Netherlands, destroying the churches of Protestants, and building new ships. Nonetheless, Madame du Clos agrees to let Laure write the letter.

The needlework instructor isn’t authorized to teach reading and writing, as she is neither a
maîtresse
nor an officer at the hospital. She cannot even read very well. She says it is because her eyes hurt too much at the end of the day, but Laure doubts that she could ever read. In fact, when Madame du Clos
discovered that Laure knew how to read and write, she asked her to help out with her account books.

Laure looks forward to this task at the end of every Wednesday. The other girls are jealous that Laure gets to leave her needlework thirty minutes before the end of the day to retreat into the back room of the workshop. The small room is even darker than the main work area, and the air inside smells of ink and paper. The account books are on a shelf at the back of the room. Laure has to stand on a stool and use both hands to pull the heavy books down from the shelf. They contain the records of the workshop since 1663. Each book details the production of that year: the sewing, knitting, embroidering, and lacemaking of the girls in the workshop. How many tablecloths and napkins, handkerchiefs, socks, and sheets are produced and embroidered by the handful of girls who work there.

Letters written by hospital administrators about the workshop are kept in a separate book. Laure knows she isn’t supposed to read these letters. But on the days that she finishes up early with the accounts, she hurries to take them down. Laure has a hard time deciphering the handwriting and can’t understand all the words the writers use. Most of them are about the prices of supplies for the workshop. But there was one letter written by a man named Jean-Baptiste Colbert, one of the King’s ministers, that complained to the Superior about the quality of the girls’ needlework.

Laure was angry when she first read the words of this man. But now she will use his very complaints to address her concerns to the King. Laure will explain why the embroidery and lace of the hospital basement cannot compete with the work of other women in the kingdom. Madame du Clos has told Laure that there are thousands of women living in the Salpêtrière,
and more entering each day. Maybe the King doesn’t realize how thinly the food and water rations are stretched across the population. Laure knows there is no use complaining to the Superior. She will only talk about the girls’ moral character and say that they should pray more.

Laure works on the letter to the King for two weeks. When the bells signalling the end of the workday ring throughout the hospital, she hurries to the back room of the workshop and writes one or two careful sentences that she has been rehearsing in her head all day. Then she makes her way back alone through the dark basement hallway, feeling the cold wall as she goes and listening for the sound of the other girls up ahead. She hurries up the two long flights of stairs, past the babies of the
crèche
, to the Sainte-Claire dormitory in time to catch up with the others for the evening meal.

When the letter is finished, Madame du Clos promises to seal it with her red wax and stamp. But Laure first wants to read what she has written to Madeleine. Laure hasn’t told Madeleine about the letter. She wants to surprise her now that it is finished. Madeleine is kneeling at her cot when Laure rushes into the dormitory with the completed letter tucked under her sleeve. Since Mireille’s death, Madeleine has been receiving special privileges of her own from Madame Gage. The governess has granted her permission to pray in the quiet of the dormitory while the other girls wait in the adjoining room for the arrival of the dinner cauldron.

“I’ve written a letter. To the King,” Laure whispers. “I’ll read it to you.”

Madeleine turns to Laure, her eyes glazed. “To the King?”

“I think once he reads it, once he realizes our state, we will start eating food like the dinners I saw at Madame d’Aulnay’s place. Pheasants and partridges, candied fruits, wine.” Laure can still smell these dishes three years later as if she had just taken them heavy from the oven.

Madeleine crosses herself and kisses her fingers. She gets up from her knees and turns to sit on the floor beside Laure with her back against the cot. She listens as Laure reads the letter in a whisper, after first showing her the look of the black lines on the thick paper of Madame du Clos’ account book.

March 1669, from the Salpêtrière, the Women’s

Division of the Hôpital Général de Paris

Mes salutations le Grand Roi
,

This humble letter comes to Your Majesty from a girl enclosed in the Salpêtrière, the women’s division of the General Hospital. I am living here, with all sorts of cripples, sick, and madwomen, some of whom are violent and disorderly as well. I thought it was my duty to inform you of the true conditions of the hospital. I hope you will accept what I have to say despite my lowly birth and humble stature
.

I should first tell you how, at seventeen years old, I still find myself here. I lived for several years with Madame d’Aulnay of rue de la Chapelle. There I was taught to prepare lavish dinners, to sew, and to read. My former mistress was a widow and childless and very kind. In her home, I was treated almost like a daughter. This was after first having spent several
years in the Petit Enfant-Jésus dormitory of the Salpêtrière. But Madame d’Aulnay, who was an old woman, died three years ago. As I was her daughter in appearances only, I did not reap any benefits from her passing. I was brought back to the Salpêtrière where I now find myself among the Bijoux of the Sainte-Claire dormitory. As the months pass, I ask myself: Will I be so lucky as to find another benefactor? I am only seventeen, but already I have learned that the older a woman gets, the fewer choices she has
.

Still, I try to remain hopeful. I have received at the hospital, along with a number of other young girls, lessons in needlepoint. I excel at this skill and stand to be apprenticed to one of the city’s seamstresses. If I work hard enough, and also use my skills at reading and writing, I might one day have my own workshop
.

However, I must bring something to your attention. I understand that Your Majesty is very busy with wars to fight and other concerns. But I know that tending to this matter that affects the many girls and women residing at the Salpêtrière will be of utmost concern to you. Our food rations here are insufficient. For an entire day, we are given only a pint of broth and five quarterons of bread. Several times each week, peas and salted butter are added to the broth. How can we fulfill our respective duties on so little?

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