Read Bride of New France Online

Authors: Suzanne Desrochers

Bride of New France (9 page)

One of the girls in the dormitory, Mireille Langlois, died of scurvy this spring. Her father had been an officer in the war with Spain. I have since been given one of her gowns, though of course it is not as fine as those you are accustomed to seeing at court. The
dress, under better circumstances, that is when I am consuming some meat and a bit of cheese along with my bread and broth, would bring out the onyx brilliance of my eyes and hair. As it stands, my eyes and hair have grown dull and the dress too loose

I am certain that this woeful circumstance is an oversight, preoccupied as His Most Christian Majesty must be with matters of great import throughout the vast Kingdom. Your Royal attention to the matter of our rations can quickly remedy our abject circumstance

Yours in humble service

Laure Beauséjour

Please accept from me a ribbon cut from the gown and a lock of my hair


adame du Clos agrees to help Laure get the letter to the King. The instructor likes to repeat that she would do anything in this world to help her girls. Unlike most of the officers of the Salpêtrière, Madame du Clos has been hired on contract for her knowledge of lacemaking. She has no particular interest in remaining employed for life at the hospital like most of the officers and
, and so cares less about its rigid rules. She lives with her widowed sister in the city and does not rely on her wages for survival.

Madame du Clos has promised that she will bring Laure to the seamstress district of Paris on Friday to deliver the letter. She says she knows just the messenger to give it to. But first she wants Laure to be fitted for Mireille’s dress so she can wear it on the day that they meet this messenger. Madame du Clos says the letter will have a better chance of reaching the King if Laure wears the dress. Laure detests when Madame du Clos calls her a “poor soul” and pats her on the back, but this time she lets the foolish instructor talk this way.

Laure has been excited to put away her lace at the end of each day to work on the dress. Fortunately, she is the same height as Mireille was, so the length of the dress was fine, but the bodice had to be drawn in a little as Mireille had been well fed, therefore a little plump, when she entered the hospital. Madame du Clos also encouraged Laure to make a few changes to the dress to suit current fashions. Now that the alterations are complete, she is less excited about trying it on. She wants nothing more than to put on this gown and to look as elegant as Mireille did when she first entered the workshop wearing it. But Laure is afraid it won’t fit her right even after all the adjustments, that she will look like a foolish pauper playing dress-up in the clothes of a princess. She must also admit that she is a little frightened to put on a garment that is above her social status. She was a child when Madame d’Aulnay would place silk hats on her head, long gloves, fans, all of which were far too big for her. Although the women of Madame’s salon disapproved even then of dressing a poor girl in finery, it had been no more harmful than outfitting a toy doll in the Queen’s fashions.

Laure lifts the box containing the gown from beneath the sewing table and follows Madame du Clos, who has two gold ribbons streaming behind her, into the back room. The needlework instructor holds the dress away from her weak eyes. “Not a bad job considering we only had muslin and fake gems to work with.”

“It looks like a gown for the royal court.” Laure has already slipped off her work dress.

“Not quite, poor soul. Court dresses are made of taffeta and decorated with precious gems. They cost ten times what this dress is worth.”

Laure cannot imagine a dress ten times more exquisite than this one. Madame du Clos has given her a small amount of silver thread to sew into the bodice and some ruby and turquoise beads for the trim. She had also suggested to Laure that the bodice cut be lowered. Not so much that Laure will be mistaken for one of those despicable women that sell themselves for coins on the street, but enough to give a hint of her soft chest. She has also given Laure a leather string for tightening the whalebone corset, and the two ribbons for her hair.

Madame tightens the corset with one swift yank. Laure feels her ribs squeezing against her lungs. She exhales and cannot draw in a new breath. Any fat Laure has on her bones has been squeezed up to her chest. She raises her hands. Panic rises in her throat.

“You can’t breathe?” Madame du Clos laughs. “Breathing is for peasant girls tending their sheep in the countryside. You are choosing another life.” Madame du Clos’ voice renews Laure’s hope in the future. In the dark basement of the hospital that was once an old munitions factory, where madwomen of all ages can be heard wailing upstairs and starvation rations are carefully accounted for at mealtimes, Madame du Clos dishes out kind words. “In elegant circles, women do not breathe. They steal breath from those around them. Now suck in your stomach and lift your chest.”

“Even if I only—” Laure’s breath is cut off again as Madame tightens the corset further. How would she be able to work as a seamstress all day in such a constricted garment?

“Yes, no matter, you will be a charming lady. It isn’t so bad once you get used to it. Besides”—her chubby face breaks into a smile—“you must suffer to be beautiful. Now suck in your stomach and lift your chest.”

When Laure finally emerges from the back room, her cheeks are flushed from the effort of changing into the dress. Madame has lent her a sparkling red necklace to wear for the day. Laure strains her eyes to look past her chin at the jewels resting on her pale chest.

“Look at those ribbons in your hair,” Madame du Clos says, and Laure reaches to touch the silky material. “Many women dressed in far more elaborate and expensive gowns could only hope to look as lovely as you do.” Madame du Clos pushes Laure’s back until she is standing in the workshop in front of the other girls. Laure can tell by their eyes that Madame du Clos wasn’t exaggerating.

While the instructor is describing to the girls the adjustments that were made to Laure’s dress, a man enters the workshop. The girls freeze, and Madame du Clos turns to him and bows. “Bonsoir, Monsieur le Directeur.” It is the director of the entire General Hospital, including the men’s division. He comes by the workshop every few months to check on the progress of their production. Normally, the girls are at their stations and working in total silence when he comes through. This is a surprise visit.

“Bonsoir Madame, mesdemoiselles.” His words are polite, but he doesn’t remove his hat as he surveys the disarray of the workshop and the girls standing around Laure. He belongs to the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement. The Superior said to the girls one day that the members of the Compagnie are good men who are trying to build Jerusalem in the middle of Babylon. Laure asked Madeleine what that meant, since she knows more biblical quotes and references than Laure because she had been
with the Sulpiciens before she ended up at the Salpêtrière, but she just said that it meant the men of the Saint-Sacrement were trying to make the Salpêtrière a better place. Nobody knows very much about the Compagnie, as it is a secret gathering of religious men.

“You have a client with you …?” The director sounds confused. There aren’t normally customers in the Salpêtrière workshops. “It looks like you’re turning this room into a real commercial enterprise. I hope you fit in plenty of prayers for these girls.” His wooden soles reverberate on the floor as he walks by each of the work stations.

Madame du Clos nods her lowered head.

“Some men,” the director continues, “think that commerce is the ultimate purpose of existence. They’ll use any hands they can, even those of the poor, to fuel their greed.” The director has his arms crossed over his chest and is walking past the table filled with the girls’ completed work. “There isn’t much I can do to oppose this kind of thinking.” He then walks up to Laure, examining her dress. His eyes stop on her chest. When he gets beside her, he whispers into her ear: “Cover that breast that I am not to see. By such things are souls injured, and guilty thoughts made to enter the mind.” Then he says to her aloud, “Mademoiselle, what do you think of these young women? They aren’t exactly cultivated, but they do work very hard.”

Laure blushes. She glances quickly at Madame du Clos, whose eyes are wide with fear. Laure does her best to suck in a little air.

“Yes, they work … like angels.” She feels her cheeks burning.

Très bien
, Mademoiselle. The King will be happy that his aims are being realized.” The director doesn’t return Laure’s smile, but turns instead to Madame du Clos.

, but next time you might want to keep Divine values in mind when you fashion your dresses.” He glances again at Laure and turns to go.

After he has gone, Laure breaks into laughter. “Did the hospital director really think that I was a Parisian lady?” she asks.

“Yes, thank God for us all that he did.” Madame du Clos is trembling, but manages a smile as she quickly helps Laure out of the gown and back into her work dress.

In the morning, Madame du Clos gives Madeleine instructions to look after the workshop. She then sets off with Laure and the letter for the seamstress area of the city. Their destination is on rue Saint-Honoré, in the new fashion district near the Place des Victoires. According to Madame du Clos, their only hope of getting Laure’s letter to the King is to bring it to the shop of the Tailleur Brissault.

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