La Belle Christiane
By Lyn Cote
All rights reserved
Chapter One, Scene 3 (If you haven’t read them, scroll down to read Chapter One Scenes 1 and 2, posted previously)
In the morning, she leaned back against the cramped wooden tub, luxuriating in the warm water. She sniffed again the bar of lavender-scented soap she caressed in her hand. The captain had sent breakfast, a bath, and clothing. On her bed were her new clothes, the common dress for a peasant girl–a white blouse, gathered at the neckline, a white apron over a dark brown skirt and matching bodice that laced up the front.
Her grandmother would have been appalled at the outfit. However, after losing everything but the tattered clothes on her back, Christiane was thrilled with it. But the most wonderful part of all were the undergarments. Two full cotton petticoats, edged with white eyelet, a shift and a camisole. Where had the English captain gotten them?
Rising at last from the tepid water, she slowly blotted her body dry. Laying the damp towel around her shoulders, she rummaged through her small leather pouch. Then she began absently stroking her thick hair with a bone comb. Her earlier fears had been dulled by a nourishing breakfast and all the gifts that had come to her. But now her mind turned to the fact that this night she would have…a husband.
She’d fled Paris hoping to become a married woman. But never could she have envisioned such circumstances as the ones which were now hers. She looked down at her naked self. She hoped wryly that her husband, in contrast to Parisian tastes, preferred thin women, with arms and hands darkened by the sun.
To prolong the enjoyment of her new clothing, she began slowly to draw on each piece, feeling it glide over her skin, enjoying the sensation of being washed clean and fragrant with lavender. Her mind kept returning to the Englishman. What had brought him to this outpost? Did he long to return to civilization, too? Did he feel as trapped as she did? But then men were rarely trapped. They made the decisions, not women.
Near the appointed hour of noon, Captain Eastham called at the door, “Mademoiselle, may I enter?”
“Oui.” She stood up, dressed in her new finery with her hair neatly pulled back into a chaste braid.
He strode into the room and then stopped. “Very nice,” he commented.
She blushed at his approval. For some reason, she had become breathless again. “Who should I thank for these lovely clothes, sir?”
Her eyes flew open wide. “I have one already?”
“No, no, forgive my attempt at humor. What I meant was that your new clothes are part of your bride price. You will pardon me, but this idea of paying the bride’s father for his daughter is quite strange, don’t you agree?”
“No doubt a dowry would seem absurd to Shaw-nee-awk-kee,” she countered lightly, though her stomach quivered in a dangerous way. “Your French is very good,” she said, trying momentarily to turn his focus from herself.
“Merci, I had an excellent French tutor as a child,” he said with a small grin.
She wondered what he would say if she responded in English that she had had an excellent English tutor as well as an English-speaking father.
“To the matter at hand,” he said, looking defensive, “I did manage to sober the Indian up sufficiently to set a price for you.” He became more serious. “Would you like to hear how your husband will be selected?”
She clasped her hands together, her palms moist. Unable to meet his eyes, she stared down at the well-packed dirt floor. “Oui,” she whispered.
“I encouraged your guardian to set your price high enough to narrow the competition, but not high enough to end it. The price is your new clothing, two wool blankets, a musket, ten rounds of powder and ball, a jug of corn liquor and one pound silver.”
“That much?” she breathed in genuine surprise.
“You are an extremely valuable young maiden. Most traders make do with squaws. The man who gets you is getting a treasure, a white woman who can survive on the frontier.”
Was it true? Would she survive in this wilderness? When she’d left Paris, she’d had no idea of the hedge of protection, of privileged comfort she’d surrendered. She shook her head, willing away these doubts.
He went on more briskly, “Shortly I will announce the price. Then any unmarried man who proves he can pay it will be allowed to take part in the drawing.”
She looked up then, asking “Why a drawing?” with her eyes.
“I thought it would be the most equitable and quickest way to choose from among the qualifiers. If this does not suit, we may choose another way.”
She considered this before answering. “It is more than I hoped for. You have been so kind. Merci.” She curtseyed low in the noble style she’d been taught. But recalling who she was now and where she was, she lowered her eyes again.
Unexpectedly, he stepped closer and lifted her chin, looking into her eyes. “Your way has been difficult, hasn’t it?”
His deep tones brushed against her taut nerves. His touch launched a frisson of awareness through her. She returned his attention, suddenly not afraid of his eyes. She yearned for some part of whom she truly was to come through to him. I couldn’t even give you my right name.
An inner voice urged her, “Tell him who you are. Tell him and your life, your career, your everything can be the way it was meant to be. Tell him.” Christiane held her breath, searching his face. Should she? What difference would it make? Then she recognized the urgent voice, it was grandmere’s.
No. Who she had been wasn’t important. Maybe this wasn’t the way matters were supposed to be, but they were the ways things were. His hand moved against her cheek. A gentle, respectful touch.
This officer had applauded her bravery, so she must give him a courageous reply. She pressed her hand over his. “This new world demands much, but I survive.”
He grimaced, his face solemn. “I am still learning that lesson myself.” There was another pause. Again, grandmere’s voice urged her to reveal herself to this man. Christiane ignored it. I can’t tell him. I don’t want him to know I’m not some peasant’s daughter, that I’ve been reared to appear before royalty. It would crush me.
Then he slipped his hand from her face and his mouth twisted into a wry smile. “I still say that any woman who would welcome this arrangement is unique. Are you certain?”
She still felt his phantom touch upon her cheek. “Capitaine, this is not a situation I would have sought. But you look at it as a man would. If I were still in France, any marriage would have been arranged, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose you are right.” He pinned her with his gaze. “Sometimes life, even for a man, leaves no way out.” He looked as though he wanted to say more that was personal, but this breach of decorum passed. He looked away. “Pere Paul Albert will perform the wedding immediately after the drawing. Shall we go?”
Offering her his arm, he escorted her formally to the green in the midst of the small fort. Shaw-nee-awk-kee and his son waited for her by a camp table in the center. Shaw-nee-awk-kee looked gratified at the air of suppressed excitement around the common. He gave Christiane a courteous nod.
She nodded in return.
All around men lounged, trying to appear nonchalant. From under her eyelashes, she noticed, however, all appeared freshly groomed. Again, she found herself the object of intense scrutiny. Today, though she felt it to be complimentary and her confidence rose. She was offered the only chair beside the camp table and she sat primly on display, her heart fluttering like a wounded moth.
The captain cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, I will begin the proceeding by naming the bride price. In order to qualify for a chance to marry this fair young lady.” He paused to motion toward Christiane. “You must pay today. No haggling permitted.” The Englishman sounded most official. “So here is the price.” The audience became alert. He recited it and paused as if giving them time to make mental computations and decisions. Then he spoke again, “All those men who feel they qualify, please come forward.”
After a momentary pause, one-by-one eight men separated from the crowd and came forward. Instinctively, Christiane looked up, but then she forced her eyes down. It would be better not to make any preferment since she knew God, not she would decide. At length, the captain and the storekeeper were satisfied that all eight men met the financial requirement.
“Now each of the qualifiers will have his name written on a piece of paper. The papers will be placed in a hat and the lady will draw out the name of her husband,” the captain continued.
Suddenly, Christiane wished to participate, not merely observe this important event in her life. Also though she had refused to let the Englishman know just how far she’d fallen, she wanted to offer the captain just a glimpse of her true station. She broke her silence, “If you wish, sir, I will write the names.”
There was a rustle of surprise among the observers. Captain Eastham smiled and bowed in her direction. “Mademoiselle, if we had known that you could read and write we would have set the price far higher.” He motioned the sergeant to give her the paper and quill.
Each man then stepped forward in turn and loudly gave his full name. Each tried to catch her eye, but in vain. Christiane kept her eyes on the quill and paper alone. She heard the excitement in the voices of each man. Her own tension grew with each name she wrote. The die that would predict the course of the rest of her life would be cast today, this hour. She whispered a prayer the nuns had taught her.
Finally all the names were written, the paper torn and the pieces placed into the captain’s tri-corn hat which he held above her head. Trembling, she stood up. There was absolute silence as she reached up, stirred the names once and selected one. Without looking at it, she handed it to the captain.
He opened the slip and announced formally, “The lucky bridegroom is Jean Claude Belmond.” Only then did Christiane allow herself to look up.
A broad-shouldered man, wearing a fringed buckskin jacket, stepped up and faced her. A huge smile creased his face. “C’est moi, Mademoiselle.” He was a head taller than she and had dark curly hair and warm brown eyes. She smiled timidly. Shaw-nee-awk-kee nodded to the Frenchman and then walked from the fort.
Pere Paul Albert came forward immediately. “Daughter,” he asked in a grave tone, “do you consent to this match arranged in such an unusual way?”
“I do,” she answered firmly though her stomach jigged in an uneven rhythm.
“My children,” the priest said augustly, “join hands.” When the priest lifted his crucifix above the couple, the surrounding men doffed their caps and folded their hands. The ceremony proceeded quickly. She answered and repeated as the priest directed, all the while listening to and observing this stranger who was becoming hers till death. Then the priest was instructing Belmond to kiss his bride.
She turned shyly toward him, lifting her face. He smiled down and slipped strong arms around her. Rising slightly on her toes, she answered his warm kiss, her very first. The sudden sound of the whole fort cheering its approval made her shudder sharply in her bridegroom’s arms.
Over her husband’s shoulder, she glimpsed the English captain. His mournful expression snared her. Was he staring at her or was he looking inside himself? Had she made the right decision by choosing to keep her secrets?
So Christiane has found a husband, but did she make the right choice? Tomorrow I’ll post Chapter Two, Scene One. If you’re enjoying this, please tell your friends. I’ve always thought that Christiane, my very first heroine, deserved to have her story told.–Lyn