La Belle Christiane
By Lyn Cote
All rights reserved.
Chapter Two, Scene 1
Rumsveld Village, Western New York Colony
At dusk, biting wind picked up and gray leaden clouds veiled the sky. This evening at the only inn in Rumsveld, Jakob Kruger watched Christiane, his only reason for coming out on this forbidding night. As she helped Old Sarah Rumsveld clear away what remained of the dried apple corn-bread pudding they’d served in wooden bowls of thick cream for supper, he tried not to stare at the young woman and failed.
The main room of the inn was small and dark, dominated by a large hearth, an oak trestle table, and a settle on one side of the fire. Dried fruit, Indian corn, and spices hung from the rafters under the roof. The heavy scent of apples and cinnamon hung in the air. But the essence of Christiane overpowered everything. Watching her had become his secret temptation.
At his first sight of Christiane, he’d been snared like a trout on a hook. She’d had arrived here at Rumsveld with her newborn son before the first snow last November, telling all that her husband had been killed by a bear farther north. She’d come south, trying to get closer to larger, safer settlements. She’d gotten as far as Rumsveld.
And all winter, Jakob had watched the pretty young widow–in spite of himself. Now, she stood in front of the hearth and lit the wick of a betty lamp, a dried gourd filled with oil. As her neat rounded figure was backlit by the fire, a restlessness rustled through him. He glanced away, feeling guilty, as if peeping in at the window. He had no business being interested in any woman, especially such a young woman. And especially not now.
Ashamed of his lack of control, he motioned to his friend, young Tom Mitchell, to come outside with him. Logs needed to be cut to fit the hearth. They’d paid for supper and ale by promising an armload each of cut wood. Outside, Jakob hefted the ax, which had been sunk into a large old stump, and began chopping wood. Each time the blade bit wood, Jakob puffed out air, whitened by the lingering wintry chill. When he paused to wipe his brow with the back of his hand, he caught Christiane’s voice from inside.
“What a pretty girl she is,” Tom said wistfully.
“Ja, very pretty. Sweet, too. Make you a good wife.” With each stroke of the ax, each word stabbed Jakob.
Tom colored. “I’m not looking for a wife yet.”
“At your age I was already married to my wife and we come to America.” The words tasted sour on his tongue. Jakob didn’t want to feel jealousy. He finished with a log, lifted another into place, handed Tom the ax, and stepped aside. Tom was of the right age to marry the pretty widow.
“Times are too uncertain.” The young man voiced the main reason Jakob should put away any thoughts of courting.
Jakob watched the younger man chopping, feeling older by the minute. But I’m in my prime, only in my thirties. And he had a mission this year. One that would take him far away. “Come,” he said finally. “That is enough wood to pay.”
Tom made one last swing and sank the blade deep into the chopping stump. Jakob piled logs high into his arms as did Tom. Together they headed through the rough-hewn door. They deposited their loads on the earthen floor inside the door. Immediately, his traitorous gaze sought Christiane out. Would the flickering wicks and the fire, giving only enough light to create shadows, hide this telltale sign of his interest in her?
And evidently Tom had the same motive in coming here tonight–to watch Christiane. Jakob repressed the sting of irritation. This wasn’t a competition he should try to win. And how would his decision to leave be greeted here? Would he win her scorn or approval? He stiffened his resolve. He shouldn’t care what she thought. He’d made his decision and it would stand. Pretty widow or no.
As she hurried away from the settle, Jakob caught Christiane blushing. She knows I cannot stop looking at her. I make myself a fool. Jakob stalked to the bench by the long table and sat down by his fifteen-year-old son Jon who had just come in. Tom followed.
In a moment Christiane approached the men with an earthenware jug. She hoped they hadn’t seen her blushing but how was she supposed to react when they kept staring at her? “I’ll pour your ale.” As she poured their pewter mugs full, she was suddenly very conscious of his physical closeness. Heat from Jakob’s exertion radiated from him and he smelled of fresh clean sweat. This new sensitivity startled her.
“Should I leave the jug?” she tried to sound as she always had before this new heightened awareness of Jakob. Both men nodded. She turned and walked away, but she sensed their gazes again following her. But only Jakob’s attention made her skin warm. Why? Why was she acting or reacting this way tonight? Was she finally healing from the loss of Jean Claude?
Her memories of her first husband had faded. They’d only had a little over a year together. He’d been good to her, but if she hadn’t borne him a son, nothing of their time together would remain. She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing away the memory of his last few blood-soaked moments of life.
She opened her eyes to the present. Something had changed in her tonight. Was this awakening due to the end of mourning? Or could she dismiss it as merely the touch of spring that had come on the breeze this morning? Hearing Jean Claude waken, she went to the other room to get him.
Christiane then sat down on the settle by the fire, shielded from view by Old Sarah, an angular woman, tall but stooped. Only the three bachelors, Jakob, his son and Tom, sipped ale and lounged around the table.
“Jakob, what did you hear over at Oriskany?” Sarah asked, starting in on the “Revolution” again.
Christiane wondered why these frontiersmen, especially Jakob, bothered about the distant unrest. What did Washington and his ragtag army in Boston have to do with them?
“Washington still waits outside Boston,” he answered. Jakob lived outside the village with his lanky son Jon, who sat beside him. Jakob’s blonde hair and honest blue eyes were eye-catching. But, more importantly, Christiane had to admit that the discussions he initiated were livelier and more interesting. She settled back, maybe tonight she’d actually listen to the details of this Revolution, try to understand it. Maybe it would override Jakob’s new sway over her.
“I think Washington’ll be waiting there a long time,” Tom put in. Tom was about twenty years old, slender and tall, a local farmer who lived alone. “At least he will if he wants to stay alive.”
Inwardly Christiane agreed with him. These farmers underestimated His Majesty’s Army. What the English took they kept. Her Irish father’s wasted life had proved that to her. But what would Jakob think if she told him that?
“Maybe so,” Jakob said. His English was careful, but held a flavor of Allemand, German. “I read a broadside posted in Oriskany. It says the English bring Hessians to fight for them in Boston.”
“Can’t be true,” Sarah snapped. Deftly she filled the end of her long, clay pipe with Indian tobacco and tapped it down.
Jakob drew himself up. “I–myself–speak to the man who brought the broadside and posted it. He saw Hessians with his own eyes.” He folded his arms.
Christiane wondered why Hessians surprised anyone. Did this Jakob believe what he thought mattered to the world beyond?
“I still can’t believe it,” Tom muttered. “Don’t sound right.”
“Believe it. The English–they can’t even fight their own war,” Jakob said.
Then Christiane realized more than what Jakob was saying. Each phrase from his deep decisive voice was softening her toward him. She stiffened her defenses.
“Take a lot of–” Sarah spoke between pulls at her pipe. “–English gall to hire foreigners . . .to fight their own people.”
“Maybe it will make it easier for General Washington,” Jon offered.
“No,” Jakob insisted. “Men from Hesse are good fighters.”
“They don’t belong here,” Sarah repeated, stretching her large moccasined feet closer to the fire.
A blast of wind rushed in through every crack between the logs. Christiane pulled her shawl closer around herself. Once more she was grateful for these log walls, thankful Old Sarah had taken her in. To keep her unruly gaze from straying to Jakob, she busied herself, laying her sleeping son in a borrowed cradle near the fire.
“Hessians,” Tom complained. “But this Revolution…it ain’t right. King George is our rightful sovereign. Who would be king when they are done with him?”
“No king!” Shouting in competition with another gust of wind, Jakob struck the table with his fist. “And no baron deciding what will and will not be done. When I come to this country, I am free for the first time. No more my hat in my hand. Now the English Parliament–they want to take away our freedom. I say no. No king.”
“They don’t want our freedom as much as they want our taxes,” Sarah slipped in slyly.
Christiane ignored Sarah. “No king? Who would rule then?” Hearing her own voice surprised her. She didn’t want Jakob’s attention, but she couldn’t let him go on unchallenged. No king indeed.
“The people would rule,” Jakob said, spreading his palms. “Our Continental Congress sits in Philadelphia. After the war, we will go on having our own lawmakers in each colony and elect more for the Congress of the whole. All will be written out and no king, no baron can change it to please himself.”
“But how can a country not have a king and lords?” Christiane questioned in exasperation. Everyone knew God had ordained kings to rule common men. What was this Jakob, this farmer suggesting?
“It would be not different from now–except that we would have our own Parliament or Congress here–not one in England telling us what to do.”
She wanted to toss back, “And you think a few farmers with muskets can take on His Majesty’s Army and win?” But she did not wish to engage this man in an argument. To distract him from focusing on her, she asked something else she’d wondered about during these constant discussions. “How did this Revolution start anyway?”
“You don’t know?” Now Jakob looked surprised.
“I’ve been in Canada for the past year.” Everyone glanced at her. Christiane was disgusted with herself. To remind them that she had come from Canada was to remind them that she was not English. Momentarily she had forgotten the colonists, whether English or German, distrust of the French, of what they called, Papists.
When she had arrived here, she had revealed as little as possible about herself. She had told Sarah only the bare truth; she was a widow of a fur trapper. She’d lost forever the world, the life she’d lived before Canada. And if she did speak of it here, would anyone believe her? She pursed her lips. This man had caused her to be indiscreet, unwisely so.
“But you speak so good English, kleines Frau,” Jakob remarked.
“My father was English-speaking. My mother was French.” She fussed with her son’s blanket, hiding her face.
“I will explain the Revolution to you,” Jakob said. “The Parliament makes the laws for England. But the king rules the colonies through governors. And always the colonies elect their own legislatures and tax themselves. Now, Parliament makes taxes and we are not asked.”
This did not sound simple to Christiane, but she nodded. Jean Claude fussed in his sleep and she bent again, again avoiding Jakob’s eye.
Tom spoke up, “Jakob, if you’re so set on this Revolution, why ain’t you wintering with Washington’s troops outside Boston?”
“Tom Mitchell,” Jakob replied. “I have made my decision. I will join the army this spring. First I plow with Jon. Then I enlist.”
His news startled everyone to silence. Christiane sat up straighter. Her jaw hung loose. He was going to war? To Revolution? Was he mad?
Recovering herself, she closed her mouth and modestly arranged her blouse to nurse her son back to sleep. Glancing up, she caught Jakob’s attention on her. She couldn’t trust herself to speak. Talking revolution was one thing. Enlisting another.
“Pa, I want to go with you,” Jon spoke up. “I’m old enough to fight.”
“No. You must stay to tend and harvest. You must hold our land.”
“No. If the war lasts till you turn seventeen, I will let you enlist. Until then, no.”
Jon colored obviously embarrassed at having his youth pointed out.
Christiane worried her lower lip. Evidently Jakob was serious, dead serious.
Sarah cleared her throat. “Enough of this war talk. It’s time for bed. War or no–sun will rise early as always. Come along, Christiane.”
As the women left for their bed in the next room, good nights were exchanged all around as the men let themselves out. Christiane felt Jakob’s eyes following her and fought the unwelcome urge to look at him in return. She fought it because now he’d shown he wasn’t eligible or sensible. No common man could win against the crown. Just like her father, Jakob Kruger was heading straight for disaster.