Read Calico Captive Online

Authors: Elizabeth George Speare

Tags: #Ages 10 and up

Calico Captive (17 page)

"I'm going with Hortense tomorrow," said Miriam hurriedly, to forestall the tears that always sprang so quickly to Susanna's eyes at every thought of her children. "Why don't you come too, Susanna? 'Twould do you good to have a holiday and to get Captive out in the fresh air. We could work a little later tonight, maybe."

Susanna did not answer. It was getting harder every day to think of ways to rouse Susanna from the despair that held her like a net, drawing ever tighter. At first the springtime had brought her a brief hope. The ice cracked and drifted on the great river, and the breezes that found their way through the high window of the room were sweet with promise. But now they knew that Indian canoes crossed the river freely every day. There was no longer any excuse for the long silence.

"Look," Miriam coaxed now, holding the dress up against her. "Isn't it pretty, Susanna? Even prettier than I imagined."

Susanna's eyes held a flicker of surprise, not at the dress but at her sisters eager face.

"You sound as though you enjoy it," she accused. "When I look at it, all I can think of is the six times you ripped out those gathers, and the extra candles we had to burn because you had to have it just so."

"I won't have to another time," said Miriam. "I've learned how it's done now. 'Tis a queer thing, but I do enjoy it, almost. When I started this dress I hated every inch of it because it was for Felicité and I could never wear it myself. But now 'tis done I'm rather fond of it."

"You see," she went on, wanting to share with her sister a thought that was only beginning to be clear in her own mind, "I feel as though I own it, even though I can't ever see it again. I made it up out of nothing. In a way it is mine more than it is Felicité's. I suppose you'll say that's pride."

"Yes," said Susanna, "'tis pride, I suppose. But I don't know but some kinds of pride are good and natural. I used to feel that way when we planted the garden. And when we built the cabin, where there'd been only trees and underbrush before. The best cabin at Number Four, everyone said."

And down went Susanna's head into her hands. Miriam felt at once impatient and ashamed. How could she expect Susanna to take any pleasure in a dress that only meant food enough to eke out this miserable waiting? Nearly six months, and no word from James. Though the fear could never be put into words, Miriam knew that her sister believed her husband dead. Susanna had shared the long hours of work, the bitter cold that stiffened their fingers at daybreak, the smoky candlelight that tortured their eyes at night, but she could never share the unreasonable pride of creation that was Miriam's recompense.

"I'll deliver the dress now," said Miriam, folding it carefully inside a worn length of bedding. "I might as well get it over with. This is the part I hate most. If Madame pays me at all she will manage to make me feel like a worm. Try to sleep a little while I'm gone, Susanna."

Her brief mood of satisfaction evaporated as she climbed the hill. Could she coax another order from Madame today? The gay winter season of parties was over. Ships from France were soon due, and the shops would be replenished with the latest finery. Luck was with her, however. Though Madame refused to see her, she sent a message by way of the footman.

"Madame says you may come on Friday to begin the fittings for her gown," he reported.

Praise be, Madame had remembered to leave the louis d'or.

As she turned away from the door into the street, a chance encounter swept away the last particle of satisfaction. A smart little carriage was drawing up to the doorway. It passed so close that as she flattened herself against the wall the muddy wheels just grazed her skirt, and the three occupants could scarcely help but see her. Madame Du Quesne stared straight ahead with no sign of recognition. Felicité, the ribbon bows of the first straw hat of the season tied under her pretty chin, parted her red lips in an involuntary greeting that suddenly froze in remembrance. She turned deliberately to the man beside her. It was Pierre Laroche, his dark, lively gaze intent on Félicités lifted face. Miriam bent her head. The moment the wheel cleared her path she turned and sped down the hill. Had he recognized her? From the day she had returned to Montreal she had dreaded such a meeting. But with just a moment's warning she could surely have managed better. Bight now he and Felicité must be laughing with merriment at the way she had scuttled down the street. The thought slowed her to a decent gait.

With an effort she forced her mind back to the arithmetic that occupied so much of her thoughts of late. Rent to the tailor, brown bread at twenty sols a loaf, milk for Captive, vegetables that would be scarce and costly till the new crop was grown. How far would one coin stretch? Would there be enough for the shoes Susanna must have, or for calico to make a thin dress for each of them for the hot months ahead? She would stop and look at the bolts of goods, at least, though she dared not purchase any.

Lingering in the shops was her one indulgence, and she had wasted more than an hour when finally she returned to the room. She felt a twinge of remorse at finding Susanna still hard at work. Unwrapping the bread, she stooped to put a hard bun into the baby's hand, and Captive displayed her two new teeth in an enchanting smile. She would put the meeting with Felicité entirely out of her mind, Miriam decided; it was not even worth mentioning to her sister.

Suddenly there were rushing footsteps and agitated voices in the shop, and without a knock their door was flung open. For a moment neither of them could recognize the distracted woman who confronted them. It was the Mayor's wife, her coiffure awry, a cloak clutched at her throat.

"Give me back my child!" she demanded.

The heavy coat Susanna was mending slid to the floor with a thud.

"I know she is here!" the woman cried. "It is no good for you to hide her."

Miriam found her voice. "Polly? Are you talking about Polly?"

"Alphonsine! My coachman saw you going down the street. She must have followed you."

"But I did not see her at all. Are you sure she is gone?"

Susanna had not spoken a word. The woman stared from one to the other. Even in her frantic state she was forced to believe their bewilderment. Suddenly, with a frightened gasp, she sank against the wall.

"Then where can she be? I was sure that if we tracked you down—and now all this time wasted!"

"Polly ran away?" Susanna managed to speak at last.

"She has run away twice before, but we have soon found her. She is so little, and she has never been about in the town. She dashes so fast, I am afraid of the horses. She could be crushed under their feet."

Susanna was pulling on her shoes. "We will find her," she said. "Get a blanket for the baby, Miriam. I daren't leave her alone."

Out on the street a carriage was waiting. "My coachman has gone to every house on the hill," the Mayor's wife explained. "I have sent a servant out along the road to the west. I will take the carriage and drive out the east road." The whip cracked over the horse's head.

For a moment Miriam and Susanna faced each other helplessly. They were more familiar with the streets now. They knew that Montreal was not the vast city it had seemed. But there were a thousand corners where a small child could be hidden.

"I'll go this way," Susanna decided. "Ask everyone you meet."

Miriam hurried along the Rue de St. Paul, stopping to question citizens she would never have dreamed of addressing. Back along the devious route she had come, into the dress shops where she had visited, down the alleyways that led away from the main thoroughfare she searched. The business of the day was drawing to a close. Shopkeepers were pulling the curtains and locking their doors. No, no one had seen a child. Gradually the streets began to clear of people hurrying home to their suppers. Miriam and Susanna met again, and separated once more. She would try the warehouse section this time.

The sun was quite low behind the warehouses when Miriam had the first encouraging sign. "Yes, we saw a child this afternoon," a cluster of children admitted, pointing vaguely in the direction of the river. "She went that way. She had on a white dress."

Hope flaring, Miriam followed the path that led to the landing beach, peering with a shudder into the dark doorways of the storehouses, till she came out on the strip of beach and the shimmering river. The beach was deserted. Some distance away four fishermen were dragging in their boat. Their quick shouts and the rasp of the keel against the pebbles was loud in the evening air. In the opposite direction stretched a line of crude sheds, and toward them Miriam turned, her heart sinking.

Then her glance went back to the beach and held. Drawn up close to the water were two Indian canoes, and in one of them she caught a flash of white. She broke into a run across the hard sand, and stumbled with a cry of thanksgiving against the canoe. Curled up on a soft pile of skins Polly lay sound asleep, her red curls shining against the black fur.

Polly felt very light as Miriam lifted her in her arms, almost as light as the baby Captive. After one startled stiffening of her small body, her arms wrapped suffocatingly about Miriam's neck. It was impossible to persuade her to walk, so the way from the beach was slow. It was growing dark when they neared the tailor shop, and Miriam saw that the carriage had returned. Madame and Susanna stood close together on the pavement, their enmity forgotten. At sight of Miriam both women sprang forward. But Miriam, without the slightest hesitation, unwrapped Polly's clinging arms and gave her into Susanna's yearning grasp. Susanna sank down on the doorstep, unable to make a single sound, rocking back and forth, her dark head bent over the shining curls.

Madame the Mayor's wife stood looking down at them, her face distorted with pain. Then suddenly she turned away.

"I never knew," she choked. "To lose a child—it is unbearable! But I thought she would forget and come to love me instead."

Miriam felt unexpected pity. "Most children would have, I think," she said gently. "I know you have been good to her."

"I will send her clothes tomorrow," the woman said.

Without thinking, Miriam put her hand on the woman's arm. "You mean you are going to let us keep Polly? Oh madame—!"

"Let us not talk about it!" the Mayor's wife flung at her. As she climbed into the carriage, tears were streaming down her cheeks.

That night Susanna bent to hold the candle close to the faces of her sleeping children, as though she could not believe without looking again and again that there were two of them where only Captive had slept before.

"I believe that God has sent her back to me as a reminder," she said humbly. "I am ashamed that I have despaired in my heart. I shall never doubt His goodness again."

Chapter 17

M
AY
D
AY
could not lure Susanna away from the tailor shop. "'Tis all the celebration I want just to look at my two little ones," she insisted. "I have no desire to go traipsing about the streets. Go along, Miriam, and have a good time with Hortense."

For once Miriam could leave her sister with a lighter heart. Even the unholiday drabness of the homespun dress could not dim the expectation with which she set out soon after daybreak.

Hortense, in her Sunday calico skirt, was waiting at the city gates. Her feet sped even more impatiently than Miriam's, and presently the sturdy figure of Jules came hastening along the road to meet them. How fine Jules looked in a tall beaver hat that added both inches and dignity! He greeted them courteously, but his eyes were only on Hortense.

"You are just in time," he warned. "They are about to raise the Maypole."

In front of a substantial whitewashed house, the largest and best in the parish, habitants from cottages along the road were gathered, farmers and their wives, young folk, and countless darting, bright-cheeked children. Two perspiring young men were just flinging the last shovels of dirt from a yawning hole in the ground before the house. A noisy throng of boys and young men and a few hardy girls came dragging a tall fir tree, all its branches stripped away to the top, which still flaunted a tuft of green. It required much heaving and shoving, and much shouting of encouragement and advice, to lift the tree and set it in place and heap the dirt firmly about its base. Then the young men, still puffing, popped their good beaver hats on their heads, collected their muskets, and lined up for a thundering volley of shots in honor of the white-haired seigneur who watched from the doorway. This was the signal for festivities to begin. Shouting and singing, the men abandoned their muskets to swing their partners about the Maypole. Miriam, watching at the fringe, was presently swept into the thick of the dancing, as partners changed so briskly from hand to hand that friends and strangers were caught up. How good it was to dance again! Not the mincing steps of the minuet that Felicité had taught her, but the lively, heel-tapping, hand-clapping measures that had shaken the rafters that night at Number Four. They set her blood racing, the chestnut curls flying out behind her, and the homespun dress twirling as gaily as any holiday dress in the parish.

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