Excerpts for Waiting for the Queen : A Novel of Early America
Novembre / November
A cold wind gusts through these American mountains, ruffling the churning river and further impeding the progress of our boats. On a map Papa showed us in Philadelphia, the river bears the Indian name Susquehanna as it meanders down through eastern Pennsylvania like gathered blue stitching on green fabric. The looping is most definitely accurate. But today the river is not blue; rather, nearly black. And the mountains are not green, but in their sheery drapery of fog and mist, a dismal gray. Often a cask slides by, carried swiftly by the current. Or there might be great tree limbs with a few tufts of leaves that seem torn bits of flag. Our flag, I imagine in my fatigue. The flag of our belovedLa France.
Cold penetrates wool and velvet and settles upon my shoulders like stones. Ah, the marquis's perfidy! Talon promised fine dwellings, but where are they? We have been traveling, now, for a week upon this wilderness river. He promised a French town, but where is it? I lean to my trembling pet and wrap my cloak more securely about her. ?Courage, Sylvette. Soon we shall learn if the marquis is a man of honor or not."
Sylvette curls herself tightly against me, shivering in spasms. I try to comfort her, but a settlement appears along a bank that causes me to tremble as well?forest scraped clear for a few meters, and six rude log dwellings there, earthen colored. Smoke rises from chimneys, mingling with low cloud. Someone on a landing gestures toward our boats.
Mon Dieu! Can this be our promised town?
I close my eyes and hold onto Sylvette. When I open my eyes again, the settlement is behind us.
Merci, my Lady.
Fear eases its hold. I scratch behind Sylvette's ears, feel the warmth of her. She hides under her paw and dozes. By now it must be midafternoon. Early this morning we embarked from the usual sort of camp we've been seeing along this river, merely a few board houses surrounded by a cluster of squat log huts more like caves. Last evening and again early this morning, several ill-clothed women and children emerged from these dark dwellings to stare at us. Maman ignores the uncouth gaping Americans. I do as well. But when a child ran up to Papa, wanting to touch his fur-trimmed cloak, Papa leaned down and lifted the boy high into the air and swung him down again. The child ran off, but not far. ?Au revior!" Papa called. The urchin smiled and threw himself at Papa again, and again Papa swung him upward. This time the child reached for the feathers on Papa's high-crowned hat, but Papa set him down before he could tear them off. Then Papa took a coin from his waistcoat and gave it to him. Maman pretended to see nothing of this.
How these people bring to mind our peasants, the way they watch us. The boy's mother finally pulled him away as if we were evil.
For such reasons and many others, the journey north from the port of Philadelphia has been distressing?the first hundred or so miles in a bumping coach to the river town of Harrisburg, and now these low boats and rainswollen river. And along the way, poor inns, poor food, and poor sleep, I tossing about on thin mattresses stuffed with crackling straw, tormented by dreams that always leave me exhausted. And then the dreams' poisonous residue taints my days as well.
But the dipping boats lull, and it is difficult to keep my eyes open. I give in to temptation and am, at once, back at our château in the Rhône-et-Loire. The fields an orange sea, flames rising upon it like waves. I run down stone steps into a cellar.Maman! I call. Papa! But no sound issues from my throat. The cellar becomes a charred field, and I see a farm cart surrounded by peasants on the road bordering the field. In the cart, my beloved maid and companion, Annette. Then smoke rises from the cart. Spikes of flame. Peasants move back. The air around the cart brightens with fire.
I force my eyes open and the scene shrivels as if it, too, has burned.
?Ah, Sylvette." Her white fur warms my cheek, catches my tears.
Why, Papa, I remember asking, did they do that to my Annette?
Because of her royal blood.
Do they hate us so, then?
But what have we done to them, Papa?
Perhaps it may not be what we have done, so much, but what we have failed to do.
And that is, Papa?
Treat them as we treat one another.