LaBelle Christiane, preview, part two
“What is going on here?” a cool English voice sliced through the room. The clamor evaporated.
All eyes, including hers turned to the red-and-white uniformed captain. He was tall, slender, yet solidly built. His straight brown hair was pulled into a neat club at the back of his neck. Clear blue eyes shone against his tanned face. Christiane guessed that he was in his thirties about double her age. His regular features were set sternly toward the company. He didn’t appear to be a man she’d like to cross.
From her Irish father, Christiane had learned much about English rule in Canada. Although the European population of Canada was still mostly French, the government had been British since the French and Indian War, a decade earlier. She surmised that here the British monitored the flow of furs down the river and watched Indian activity.
This man was the authority here and the men acknowledged it. At the captain’s arrival, the tension in the room seeped away. The men around her parted, giving way to the officer. Would this work in her favor or no?
“Mademoiselle, Captain John Eastham of His Majesty’s Army, at your service,” he said in precise French and removed his tri-corn hat and performed a formal bow.
Stunned by this sudden forgotten courtesy, Christiane managed to incline her head in his direction. She studied this stranger more. Why do you treat me like a lady, sir? Is it mockery? Yet his concerned expression showed no obvious scorn.
With all the aplomb she could muster, she replied to his courtesy with a deep curtsey with her hand gracefully holding her worn-out skirt. “I am Christiane . . . Marchon,” she improvised in French, the language the captain had used. She was no Marchon.
The barman stepped forward, answering the captain in careful French, “This Indian has brought his daughter to find a husband for her, mon capitaine.”
The Englishman studied her and then the gray-haired Indian, his aloof expression hiding all thought. “Mademoiselle Marchon, how do you come to have an Indian for a father?”
The simplicity and the incisiveness of the question gave Christiane pause. How much to tell? Straightening, she sensed that the captain’s question had struck all the Frenchmen in the room similarly by their sudden intense concentration on her. Yes, why did a white girl belong to an Algonquin–the disgruntled faces of the men appeared to demand now.
Tension still choking her, she cleared her throat. “He found me alone in the forest and took me in.” That is all you need to know. And what would you think if I answered you in English, sir?
“Why were you alone in the wilderness?” the captain continued.
“I was with my father, but he. . .died,” she replied, omitting all the incriminating details about her treasonous father’s flight from the British crown and his murder in Canada. The captain after all was English, not likely to view an Irishman with favor.
“Then this Indian did not kill your father?” The captain rested his hand on the sword hilt on his belt, a silent sign of his authority, a silent gesture of his readiness to defend…her?
The room stiffened with alert attention again. Christiane wondered why he’d asked this question. Then she realized that he was establishing her foster-father’s right to seek a husband for her. “No, sir.”
“I see,” the Englishman said. “And he has provided for you as his daughter?”
She nodded and the men around her relaxed. That much had been done for her. And since she didn’t speak any Algonquin, she had no clear idea of why he’d decided she must come here and be married to a white man.
The captain studied her further. “Mademoiselle, do you agree to this then? Do you wish to find a husband here?”
At this, the crowd’s tension spiked again. How odd that she could feel their emotions swirling around her as if they were natural forces. It has been a long time, Captain, since I’ve been asked for my opinion about even the meanest matter.
Christiane repressed an instinctive denial. Of course, she did not want to marry a stranger. But did she have a choice? Could she face the wilderness alone with Canadian winter coming in mere months? Shaw-nee-awk-kee’s declaration of her virginity had established her as a decent woman, but she would need a husband to keep this distinction. Otherwise, she’d be easy prey for any unprincipled man.
Christiane sighed. “I have no other choice. Shaw-nee-awk-kee no longer will take responsibility for me and I have no family to turn to. Yes, sir, I need to find a husband here.” At her calm acceptance, the men relaxed their tense positions.
The captain scanned the men. “A show of hands please. Which of you, as yet unmarried, would be seriously interested and able to marry this young woman?” There was a slight hesitation and then a forest of hands sprang up. “That is what I feared. The question is how to decide fairly who will pay the bride price that I assume this Indian will require.”
“We could bid for her,” someone offered.
“I find that a distasteful solution,” the Englishman replied crisply. “She is not an African slave.” Again, he looked over the intense, but silent men. “Very well then,” he spoke to her, “This will take thought. Mademoiselle, tonight you will sleep in the guardhouse under the King’s protection. Tomorrow at noon I will make the announcement of how this interesting dilemma will be handled. All men interested, be in front of my door then. Mademoiselle, if you please, come with me.” He offered her his arm.
Again, his formal courtesy prompted manners from her past. Christiane rested her hand but lightly on his sleeve, feeling the strength of his arm under her palm. As if at a garden party, she strolled beside the captain out of the dim and crowded room into the cooling night breeze. She let out her breath bit by bit. She’d won a reprieve, just a night long, but still a reprieve.
Walking beside him over the rough turf, she looked sideways at him. The tail of his dark hair swung back and forth over his broad shoulders. His back was ramrod straight and his eyes never glanced her way, the picture of the rigid, correct Englishman. But for once she was glad to have an Englishman in charge, especially one so efficient. Her nerves jittered as they reached the one-room guardhouse. Had it all been a ruse? Would the captain leave her here alone?
After exchanging salutes with the guard who stepped a few paces away, the captain paused in front of her. “I wish I had better accommodations for you.”
The breeze brought his scent to her, some clean soap. She drew it in, savoring the remembered fragrance of spring flowers and heavy perfume. Being so close to this man, the first gentleman she’d encountered in a very long time made her hold herself tightly together. “Merci.”
She kept her chin level. She had no cause to bow her head to this man. But he had been kind. “You have been more than gracious.” She waited for his next move.
He bowed and turned to leave. She stepped inside and closed the door behind her, alone and uncertain. Was she relieved or disappointed?
This is the end of the first half of Chapter One. I hope you’ll drop by Thursday, January 6, 2011 for the rest of the chapter! Remember to let your friends know!