Madeleine Bourbonnais had accepted this new compass bearing in her life, despite her fears of finding a husband and the ocean voyage to New France. Once decisions were made, fate could not escape its guilty charge.
“I see what you’re thinking,” the night watchman barked, hurrying Madeleine across a cobblestoned wharf to a waiting ship. “Quit your thoughts of escape. They’ll naught get you anywhere fast.”
“You ugly and cruel human being!” she shouted, sneering at the beast of a man. “How could you comprehend my turmoil, or the worry hurting my head? Your cruel grip, forcing me against my will to a place I’ve never seen before, and the crossing I must cope with to arrive on a distant shore. Unhand me, Monsieur. I’ll go with you, obeying the orders of a king whose only purpose in this scheme is to rid the Parisian streets of poverty and crime.”
“Ungrateful wench, how dare you criticize our monarch or me for that matter. Shush your ill mouth and let me do my job.”
“Your job is inhumane,” she exclaimed, stopping for a breath and straining against his handgrip. “Capturing orphans from rat-infested streets. Locking up the innocent and those down on their luck with, with the ill at heart? Only a cruel man would confine harmless citizens in such a place.”
“You’re not an innocent, but I’ll admit,” he grunted, pausing in his step to study her face. “Human solutions to poverty cannot right every wrong, but lucky for you, Sister Constance achieved a husbandly scheme to benefit your situation.”
The nun had made the voyage possible, insisting that a kind and loving God never challenged a human soul with more grief than one could manage. In Madeleine’s estimation, the nun was wrong. A woman required skills stronger than her faith to overcome troubles, and she could not see any hope or love in this decision. How could the avowal of a husband, if a man sought her hand, change anything?
“I accepted the offer to free myself of confinement. No choice but to take King Louis’s dowry and travel to New France. I don’t really want to go, two and a half months at sea? What woman would willingly accept such a fate?”
“True enough. Most women would not travel to relieve themselves from difficulty,” Simon Legrand said with a smirk, his grip relaxing. “But men, eh, and travel on the high seas, what an adventure that could be.”
Madeleine’s gatekeeper appeared wistful. She preferred his reserve as he led her forward, ushering her through a throng of people. What could she say? Accept her fate? She had little choice but to tread the port of Dieppe’s grand quay attempting to retain her dignity.
Holding her head high, she was led past other wayfarers. Sailors whistled, catcalled, or winked provocatively. Freshly polished in a new mulberry gown, she cringed, enduring the sexual innuendo having received such requests before. She much preferred the ogling of fishermen who pushed iron-wheeled carts full of gudgeon, grayling, or dace. Coupled with the misted sea air that seemed especially grey this morning, the forthcoming journey was equally dire. Sighing, she swallowed her fears.
“Look around. You should give notice to these men’s desires,” Simon said, squeezing her arm. “Isn’t the king’s optioning a better fate?”
“How will the acceptance of yet another man’s hand change anything? Not that you would care, but ten weeks at sea—how will I tolerate the crossing?”
“I’ve heard sailors share seafaring tales over a pint, conveying that their journeys across the Atlantic are long, arduous, and cold. But a woman like you,” he said with a sneer, “your bed is sure to be warm.”
Madeleine winced, shivering, clutching a carpetbag to her side. She swallowed her anger, choosing silence while reflecting on the practical items she had brought with her: a bonnet, a taffeta handkerchief, stockings, gloves, ribbon, and shoelaces. Items for stitchery including white thread, needles, pins and scissors. All provided through the king’s dowry. Madeleine Bourbonnais, a fille du Roi, a King’s daughter, she must accept this opportunity to find a husband as it came with fringe benefits. But she would not accept the sailors’ catcalls or the nasty intercourse to which this man referred.
“You’re heartless,” Madeleine blurted, pausing on the wharf, shrugging, trying to escape his cincture on her arm.
“Your opinion hardly matters to me. I call it the way I see it. Accept who you are and quit your trouble.”
Indifferent, he yanked her forward, bringing her closer to the galleon, and her destiny, weaving amongst a busy barrage of men and women, children, too. To distract her attention, from fear, from worry, she glanced at the ocean, smelling the salty brine, watching the seagulls stretch their wings in flight, listening to their screech and wondering if escape was possible from this change in her life.
“Vive la France!” she muttered under her breath, shaking her head. “I shall never return to these rat-infested streets. The ship is in sight; you may release me, Monsieur. Yes?”
She pulled away from his grasp, pleading. “You nasty piece of fish bait, I’ll not try to run. Unhand me, Monsieur! Let me go… You’ve taken me far enough, and though I’ve accepted my fate, my passage, I’m not a sheep to be led to the slaughter.”
“Don’t be dramatic. My instructions were to escort you to the ship. You’re not to return to the streets of Paris. Sister Constance gave explicit instructions.”
“As if I’d ever want to return to such filth.” Madeleine winced, reminded of unpleasant experiences on the streets of misfortune. “I’ve not found sympathy or compassion from the people who frequent the streets of Paris. Neither, mind you, have I found much kindness from the pitiful asylum you fetched me from.”
He smiled at her, grinning something obscene.
“I see where your thoughts lie, Monsieur. I know what you’re thinking.”
“Mais oui? You can read my mind?”
“You have an indecent opinion of the women at the Hôpital, at Salpêtrière. They’re not ladies of the night. That nonsense could not be further from the truth.”
“Women down on their luck?” he said, snickering, his brows rising in question. “Please, do not humour me with more lies. I know the look. I see the girls that reside at the hospital. I fetched many of them from the streets myself. You included!”
He winked and licked his lips as if to imply he knew more than she. Idiot. Fiend! She hated men such as him.
“Imbecile. How dare you make such insinuations! Women cannot be judged based on the clothing they wear or the rouge applied to their cheeks.” Madeleine fumed, pausing on the dock, straining against his grasp. “Surely, you don’t believe I’m a woman of a shameful nature? I’m an orphan, Monsieur.”
“An orphan?” he sniggered. She flinched when he pinched her derriere. “Bah! I’d entertain your good graces myself,” he boasted, clucking his tongue, “if not for the disease you’d mark me with!”
“Oh—” Madeleine scoffed, turning up her nose. “That’s an ugly sentiment to express to a lady.”
“Madam, you’re in denial. I don’t understand why Sister Constance has such faith in you. Sending you to the new world to turn an officer’s head with, with the itch? Seems wrong to engage an honest man with a woman who will only bring him sorrow.”
“Sorrow? How dare you, Monsieur.” She was so angry, hot tears blinded her eyesight. She was a fool to think that this man, or any man frankly, would regard her kindly. “I’ll hear no more of your slanderous words.”
“I’d rather not listen to more falsehoods myself, my Lady,” he exaggerated, leading her to the gangplank. “Come, this way…”
“Hmph!” Madeleine huffed, straining against his hold, climbing the gangplank, soon meeting the ship’s captain. She gazed longingly at the cobbled walk below, missing her homeland already, feeling the ship’s sway even though it was moored, seeing it was useless to run. He would only catch her again.
“Simon Legrand, you’ve shepherded another fille du Roi to the ship?”
“I have, Captain.”
Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief when the night watchman released his hold on her arm.
“Ah, yes,” Simon said, motioning to her, “make way for the king’s daughter. One more woman traveling to New France with the benefit of a dowry; fifty livres bestowed on her person from our own country’s treasury. Captain François, allow me to introduce to you, Madeleine Bourbonnais.”
“Enchanté, Mademoiselle,” he articulated, bowing from the neck. “Welcome aboard le Saint-Jean Baptiste, my seaworthy galleon.”
“Merci, Captain,” Madeleine replied, grateful for his show of respect.
“I leave this woman in your care. I must return to Paris. Perhaps, I’ll find more pretty girls to send to the new world.”
“His insinuations are not true, I’m not that type of woman, Captain.”
“I wish you safe passage across the Atlantic, Madeleine Bourbonnais, should that be your real name. For regardless of your true nature, if you survive the long journey, you’ll toil for the rest of your days.”
“Good riddance, you godless swine.”
“Adieu to you, too. I’m not unkind. I do hope you find a suitable husband.”
Madeleine sighed, watching the wretch stomp down the gangplank and disappear into a sea of people.
“The man seems certain of his opinions,” the captain muttered, looking at her with a studious expression. “Pay no mind to men such as him. Having witnessed the darker side of life, he’s forgotten a part of his own humanity.”
“If he was ever in touch with his soul,” she said, turning, gazing at the other women coming on board the ship.
“Pierre?” The captain appealed to a crew member. “Show Mademoiselle Bourbonnais where to stow her bag.” He sought her attention again. “After this day, you begin a new life. Get ready, we soon set sail for La Rochelle and from that port, we depart to New France, where your husband awaits your attention.”
“If any man will accept my hand.”
The captain stepped to her, grasped her chin and gently tipped her face to his inspection. “You’ll be wanted. A beauty such as you will have several men courting your attention. You’ll be wed and giving birth to a tiny blessing of the New World before you know it.”
“Don’t look so frightened. This is the reason you travel to New France. To grow the colony.”
“Yes,” Madeleine replied, staring at the wharf, the blue waters, and contemplating the distance across the ocean. She could not change her past, but maybe some good could be found in her future.
Madeleine considered leaving the ship when le Saint-Jean sailed into the port of La Rochelle. But the captain’s kindness kept her onboard, standing at the railing, her linen skirt wafting in the breeze, watching as more king’s daughters, women bound for the French colony, came onboard the ship.
You’ll be wanted… She hoped so.
A well-dressed woman sauntered toward Madeleine wearing a bright pink gown with a cream woolen shawl draped around her shoulders. A beauty, chocolate wisps of hair escaped her bonnet and nut-brown eyes sparkled with intrigue.
“Bonjour,” she blurted, a beautiful smile on her rouged face.
The inflection in her tone either expressed her happiness or hid her disquiet. Madeleine could not be sure. “Marie, Marie Chauvet,” the woman said, extending a white-gloved hand.
“Madeleine.” She grasped Marie’s fingers momentarily, guarded from the start.
“Lovely to meet you, Madeleine. Are you a king’s daughter?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Me, too,” she giggled, pressing closer. “I suppose all the women onboard the vessel are wards of the king. Madeleine, if you wish it, we could be fast friends. We might need each other’s companionship, friendship and support during the long journey to New France, yes? Perhaps once we make land, too. Especially if love does not flourish?”
“I don’t expect to find love,” Madeleine confessed, staring at the sea. “My needs are simpler and more pressing. I require a husband.”
“Oh, you do? Whatever for?” she asked, staring at Madeleine intently, causing her cheeks to flush with guilt.
“Whatever for?” Madeleine replied, swallowing. “It’s the king’s wish I wed, to assist with advancing the needs of the colony.”
“Of course! But surely you have greater cause to cross the Atlantic than to marry a man.”
“We’ve only just met, Marie.”
“Oh, does my conversation make you uncomfortable? I could speak to someone else if you’d rather be left alone.”
“No, it’s not that, it’s…”
“You’re not ready to share the true reason,” Marie whispered, stepping nearer, “it’s too uncomfortable?”
“Yes,” Madeleine admitted, not meeting her eyes.
“I’ve seen apprehension before. Perhaps—if you don’t mind me saying—there might be another reason?”
Madeleine didn’t say anything. Turning away, she escaped the conversation and walked to the handrail, but the woman named Marie followed. “It’s all right, you don’t have to tell me anything.”
Marie scanned the proximity of other passengers who might overhear their conversation, then grasped Madeleine’s arm and led her to the quarterdeck. “You can trust me, Madeleine. Whatever your truth, your confidence is safe with me. Every woman has her secrets, after all. God only knows, how I’ve kept mine.”