ON THE NINETEENTH DAY of April in the year of our Lord 1704, the Pélican, a recently captured Dutch vessel of some six hundred tons, weighed anchor and headed for the open sea. Elisabeth stood on the main deck with several of the other girls, her hand raised to shade her eyes as the spires and towers of La Rochelle dwindled against the horizon. It was a fine day, unseasonably warm, the storms of the past weeks washed clean from the sky. Above her the men hauled on ropes or hung like spiders from the rigging, shouting to one another above the sharp slap and crack of the sails, but for once none of the girls spoke, though Marie-Françoise de Boisrenaud reached out and took the hand of little Renée Gilbert, who swayed a little, lettuce pale. Though exorbitantly overloaded, the heavy-hipped ship slid smoothly through the unruffled water, her company of twelve attending gun boats fanned out behind her, the creamy wake unfolding from her stern like a wedding veil.
It should have been over by now, her fate decided. With October barely a week old and a ship readied in Rochefort, the bishop had declared it probable that most of the girls would be settled by the new year. On the day that her godfather was to take her to Paris to meet the coach, she had stood in her attic bedroom, her hand on the iron latch of the window, gazing out through the rain-speckled glass at the crumpled clutter of roofs and chimneys heaped up against the smoke-grimed sky, and she had thought, When the leaves return I shall be married. Beyond the barricades of the weaving mills and the dyehouses, the bare trees ran through the sky like cracks in ice. The window frame was old and warped, the paint peeling in scabs. She ran her finger along the cold loop of the latch as the wind rattled the loose panes, and the draft made her shiver.
From the shop her aunt called her name, her voice wilting on the last syllable. Elisabeth turned away from the window, holding her arms tight across her chest for warmth, but she did not answer. It seemed to her that though she was not yet gone, the room had accustomed itself already to her absence. The bed in the corner of the room had been stripped of its sheets and rugs, its drapes knotted up so that the mattress might be aired. The door to the press hung open, its shelves and compartments empty but for a few yellowed sheets of the paper her aunt insisted upon to prevent the stained wood from spoiling the linens. The ewer and basin with their pattern of faded forget-me-nots had been rinsed and wrapped and put away in the kitchen, and there was no fire laid in the small grate. Even the old writing desk was bare, its curved legs buckling as though they might give way without the steadying disorder of books and pamphlets and catalogs and papers that habitually crowded its surface. Elisabeth stroked its scarred top, tracing the grain of the wood with her finger. Though elaborately carved at the feet, the desk was the work of an unskilled woodsmith, its table insufficiently deep for its breadth, its fragile legs ill-suited to so sturdy a piece. Beside them the squat legs of the ladder-backed kitchen chair straddled the floor with the stolidity of a taverner on market day.
Again Elisabeth heard her aunt calling for her and again she did not answer. Instead she pulled out the chair and sat down. The frayed rush seat had always been too high and it comforted her to feel the familiar press of the desk’s underside against her thighs. Sometimes, on those too few occasions when she contrived to sit here all day, she had undressed at night to find the shape of it printed in secret lines on her skin. The desk was shabby, ink-stained and scabbed with candle wax, its single splintery drawer split with age and clumsily nailed together, but she was filled with a sudden longing to take it. It was impossible, of course. Even if her aunt had agreed to such a notion, each of the twenty-three girls was permitted only a single trunk.
Elisabeth had packed the books herself, taking out some of the heavier linens her aunt had selected from the shop. She did not tell her aunt. Her aunt thought like most women and considered a tablecloth or a set of handkerchiefs of considerably greater value than the words of La Rochefoucauld or Racine. If it had not been for her godfather, she would never have managed to accumulate even her own modest library. A respected merchant, Plomier Deseluse was no bibliophile, considering books a pitiable proxy for the pleasures of company and of cards, but he was both prosperous and goodhearted. When Elisabeth’s uncle had died, he had settled upon her a small allowance from which she might purchase what he referred to as the necessary niceties. It would, he said, serve her until she was of an age to be wed.
Elisabeth set her palms flat on the desk. There was an ink stain on the longest finger of her right hand, a pattern of freckles on the back of her left like the five on a die. Her hands at least she might take with her. She closed her eyes. Then she lowered her head and set her cheek upon the desk, inhaling its faint smells of old varnish and ink powder. The King would buy her books from henceforth. The arrangements had been brokered by the bishop, whose diocese of Quebec had recently been extended to contain the new settlement in Louisiana. In addition to her trousseau, each girl would receive a small stipend from His Majesty’s Ministry of the Marine to support her until she was married, for a period not to exceed one year. Deseluse considered the bargain to be more than reasonable. There were perhaps one hundred unmarried men in Louisiana, many in a position to support a wife. The girls would have their pick of them.
Downstairs a door slammed.
“For the love of peace, niece, must I shout myself hoarse?”
Without opening her eyes, Elisabeth raised her head a little. Her nose brushed the desk as, very lightly, she pressed her lips against its waxy surface. Then, unsettled by her own foolishness, she rose and walked quickly across the room. She did not turn around as she closed the door behind her and descended the stairs toward her aunt.
Deseluse had been late. As her aunt hastened to greet him, her hands smoothing invisible creases from her skirts, Elisabeth watched the dark shape of his carriage beyond the swirled glass of the windows, heard the impatient jangle and slap of a horse shifting in its traces, the raised voice of a man objecting angrily to the obstruction. The afternoon had darkened, though it was hardly three o’clock, and the lamps were already lit, bright as coins in their buttery brass sconces. In their glow the long polished counter gleamed like a thoroughbred. Elisabeth leaned against the brass measure that ran the length of the counter, feeling its sharp edge press against her belly.
She had loved this shop when first she had come to live here. Accustomed to the frugal plainness of her father’s home, she had thought herself awoken in a jewel box. She had gazed in wonder as her aunt took down the heavy bolts of silk and velvet and gossamer mousseline, billowing them out so that her customers might appreciate their fineness, the grace of their fall. Along one wall of the shop were tiny drawers containing buttons of every shape and hue, buttons of shell and bone and polished metal and every shade of colored glass that flashed like firecrackers when you held them in the light. She had not known there were so many colors in the world. Sometimes, when she was supposed to be working on her sewing, she had crept into the shop and hidden beneath the counter, aching to dip her hands into the rattling drawers of buttons and throw them into the air, to pull ...