A False Dawn

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Montreal, 1740. As the French and the English battle for control of North America, Louise Demarillac struggles for independence from a husband and a father whose demands for her proper behavior are squeezing the joy from her life. When British forces invade Montreal, both men - with Louise's five year old son - must flee for their lives. As Louise searches for her family in the American wilderness, she fashions a new life that gives her the freedom she craves - but threatens to tear her family apart.

Part One: Montreal, Colony of New France, 1740

It would be just like Louise to make trouble so close to her wedding day.

“Louise, what on earth would you have me do about it now?”

“Anything but what you’re planning to do.”

“Even if I wanted to change things…”

“Which you don’t.”

“The wedding is in three days. It’s too late. Besides, it makes all the sense in the world that our guests toast the health of you and your new husband with beer. The finest beer I can provide.”

“You knew how I would feel about this. So instead of wine—”

“Which would have to be imported from France, at God knows what expense.”

“But beer, Father. At my wedding. Beer!”

“Not just any beer. A new batch. A recipe I’ve been waiting for just the right moment to introduce.”

“I knew it. That’s what this is about. The business.”

“Our business. Yours as well as mine.”

“Always the business.”

“Don’t you want all of our friends, everyone we’ve invited, to—”

“Everyone you invited. Your friends. Oh, Father, you know I don’t mind having them. Even the friends of yours I hardly know. Any friends you want to invite. But to serve them beer!”

“It’s what makes the world go round. Our world, at least. So go ahead. Breathe fire at me, oh dragon of daughters!”

“Father!”

“Scald me with the hot breath of your scorn! I’ve felt it before, many times, and somehow I have survived. As we shall all survive this wedding of yours. Much as I love you, darling daughter, I shall not be entirely sorry when you become another man’s problem.” 

                                                        ***

Her mind soon turned to other matters. If Louise wanted one more ribbon, one more combing out, one more adjustment to her gown, her servants would cheerfully throw her out the window. Finally, the servants had to push her out of the bedroom and wedge themselves against the door, to raucous laughter.

Still Louise would not descend the stairway. Through the heavy door they could hear her appeal, one more time, “But do I look perfect?” And one more time, they laughed and gathered themselves to proclaim what they had already announced ten times in the past ten minutes.

Finally, Maria, the oldest servant in the household, shushed the girls, opened the door and, in the calmest voice she could muster, said to Louise, “There is no such thing as perfect, dear. But you look perfectly lovely. And that should be enough for any man. Now go.” As if on cue, harness bells sounded through the front window.

Floating down the stairway, Louise passed her father. Their eyes met, but she stared right through him, already beyond his reach.

Leaving a proud papa should be easy for my daughter, Demarillac thought. But how will she leave Maria and the others, all of whom Louise had found and gathered into her arms like so many stray cats?

My daughter could never pass a bedraggled girl begging in an alley if she looked lively enough and needed work. Louise would take a girl in hand and teach her letters and numbers and manners. Groom her, train her for service. Then one by one, Louise would pass each girl along to friends in the other grand houses of Montreal if they offered better opportunities.

This glimmer of generosity, this hint of good-heartedness, from a daughter who would not give a crust of bread to a grown man starving in the street. Who has lived all her days for parties and dancing. Who basks in blissful ignorance of the danger that lies beyond the walls of our village.

But no matter. Look at everything that surrounds my only daughter today. Our own Young Lady Bountiful.

                                                         ***

When she heard the harness bells, she could not help but surrender to the sensations that had become so familiar: a catch in her breath, a dryness in her palms, and an aching dampness between her legs.

She had never been alone with the man she had chosen to marry, not once since the day they met. All that would change today, if her father allowed it.

Antoine LeGras strode casually through the gates of the Demarillac mansion, as if he was making another of his formal calls on her father. He stood in the courtyard, staring at an empty doorway, and he waited. From every window of the palatial home, the servants watched and held their breath.

He looked so sure of himself, Louise thought, as his broad shoulders tugged at the corners of his parade uniform. His long, black hair was tousled but not combed, just the way Louise liked it. How did he always know what she liked? she thought.

He took a small step forward, and she sprang from the doorway and wrapped her arms around his neck. As he stroked her hair and gathered it in his fist, she arched her long neck backward and closed her eyes, ready for his kiss. Antoine glanced past her and saw a houseful of windows, filled with faces, staring down at him. Standing in the doorway, Louise’s father smiled, so quietly confident, as if he knew exactly what would happen today, tomorrow, and every day for the rest of Antoine’s life.

There would be plenty of time later for kisses, and more, he thought. He stepped away from Louise, took her hand, and tried to avoid seeing the glare of disappointment in her eyes.

But when Louise turned to face the family and all the servants who had doted on her for so many years, she presented them with a smile that could make a bishop’s knees quake and babies stop their crying. Antoine saw it and was moved. She will be a fine partner to a husband who understands that if passion is the spark of marriage, you still need wood—plenty of wood—to feed the flames.

                                                           ***

It was here, at her mother’s grave, that Louise thought her father seemed to step outside himself. Though he rarely brought her with him, Louise counted herself lucky because Demarillac never invited her younger brothers—certainly not Peter, he of the sour puss, who was forever clashing with Father. Not even John, gentle and diligent, whom they all turned to as peacemaker in the family.

No, when Georges Demarillac visited the grave of his wife, he drew into himself. A man who enjoyed noisy crowds more than quiet conversation, content to rub shoulders with anyone in a pub, happy to join with the city fathers of Montreal to finance a new waterworks or fortify the inner-city walls, a man comfortable with loud talk and strong opinions (preferably his own), Georges Demarillac came to his wife’s grave a quieter man.

He only brought Louise because she insisted. It was another way for her to be close to him. Since the death of Catherine Demarillac three years earlier, Louise had labored to replace her mother as the lady of the house. At their graveside visits, Louise was content to stand as quietly as Father did and honor her mother’s memory.

Antoine seemed to echo her father today, watching silently as she laid wildflowers on her mother’s grave. Absorbed in preparations for the wedding, now only a day away, Father had allowed Antoine to go in his place.

“She would have liked you, Antoine. I know she would.”

“I’m sorry I never knew her.”

Louise sank to her knees before the grave. Removing a pair of doe-skin gloves, she swept the stone clear of leaves and twigs.

“Father always says I look so much like her.”

“Then she must have been a beautiful woman.”

He always seemed to know the right thing to say.

“Yes, she was. Always so beautifully dressed. And so ladylike! Nothing ruffled her feathers for long.”

She turned to face Antoine. “Honestly, I’m nothing like her. And I never have been. Not in the least.”

She kissed the palm of her hand and laid it lightly on the top of her mother’s headstone. “I don’t think I will ever know what my father sees when he looks at me.”

My friends began to marry at age 16, Louise thought to herself. And thereafter, to bear children as rapidly as possible. Now they watch me from the corners of their eyes, when they think I’m not looking, as if I’ve done something terribly wrong.

They all think so little of me, both my friends and my father. That even at the advanced age of 20, I will never learn to sacrifice today’s pleasure for tomorrow’s gain. That I lack what they call character. Perhaps they are right. If I prefer to do exactly as I please, it’s because I have never been given any good reason to do otherwise.

But what small lives my friends are making for themselves. In a small town, surrounded by enemies outside our walls. And surrounded, inside our walls, by all these small-minded rules. Dress this way. Look that way. Believe this. Do that.

Will my life be any grander or better than the lives of my friends? I will not be leaving them. I could never live anywhere but Montreal. Who would that leave Father to argue with? I cannot abandon him to my brothers. Peter is so foul, and John so fragile.

Until this moment, I have never been alone with the man who stands ready to promise he will love me for the rest of my life. What do I really know about Antoine LeGras? Little more than this: that he despises the ordinary and the routine. That he craves adventure. Everything about the man screams that when it comes to his life, he will create his own opportunities and make his own rules.

Just as my father has always done.

If there is adventure to be had in marriage, Antoine LeGras will find it. We will find it, my husband and I. Here in Montreal. Together.

                                                             ***

Demarillac had every reason to be pleased. Louise’s future husband was just as ambitious as he seemed. That was good for everyone, especially Louise.

In the calm of Demarillac’s tiny office, with the sound of beer sloshing through overhead pipes and barrels being dragged across the brewery floor, he and Antoine had settled matters quickly. Once Antoine resigned his commission in the army—and only then—he would join the family business, sharing the responsibilities and the rewards equally with Demarillac and his sons. The demands of a thriving beer business allowed for no absentee owners.

Then, in “the fullness of time,” as Demarillac phrased it, Louise would inherit her third of the business. “I believe we have an agreement among gentlemen,” he announced to Antoine, who nodded gravely. Demarillac avoided any mention of negotiating a marriage contract for his daughter, although it was a common practice in New France. He saw no need to provoke suspicion from Louise’s husband-to-be. Especially when everything was going so well.

Louise’s younger brother, Peter, watched Antoine as he strolled out of the brewery, clasping hands with workers as he marched by them. This new member of the family was a captain in the army of New France, a man used to giving orders and having them obeyed. Good luck to him with his new bride.

This man will not pamper my darling sister as we all have, Peter thought. Perhaps, when she displays her willfulness, as she most certainly shall, her new husband will tie her to a tree and jab her with spears, the way the Indians love to torture our captured soldiers. Or would that be too much for a loving brother to hope for?

                                                             ***

For Louise, it was as if the day had never ended. True, the September sun had already risen and departed, but it had been replaced by the even greater brightness of flaring torches and glowing candelabras. They all cast a hard-edged brilliance over Louise when she appeared on the arm of Demarillac in the long white gown her mother had worn on her own wedding day.

As father and daughter crossed the courtyard of the family mansion, a chorus of tongues clicked in approval, and a hundred heads bobbed up and down like ducks on a wind-driven pond. The guests cleared a path between Louise and the handsome soldier who, in one fluid motion, raised an arm, turned his palm toward the evening stars, and reached out to accept the prize he had won.

“Make me proud,” Demarillac whispered in his daughter’s ear, as he had been telling her for days. “Make us all proud.”

After the vows were spoken and the new couple applauded, Antoine LeGras guided Louise through their first dance together as man and wife. Family and friends waited as long as politeness demanded, while Louise was spun skillfully over the cobblestones. When everyone joined in, the courtyard pulsated with swaying bodies. As their wedding ceremony had been, so too did the evening promise to be all that Louise wanted, the one day in her life when everything would be absolutely perfect.

True to form, brother John, at sixteen the baby of the family, was forgoing his own pleasure to direct the servants, who were taking coats and handing out flagons of Demarillac’s finest and frothiest beer. It was all Louise could do to put her lips to the foul stuff, but she had to admit that their guests seemed to be enjoying it.

And just as true to form, Peter was behaving disagreeably, standing in a corner and scowling—about what, Louise neither knew nor cared. He was the only one who saw the stranger as she entered the courtyard.

Peter’s hawkish eye spied a woman with hair in a tangle and a cloak that bristled with filth and frayed edges. Without glancing at anyone, the woman hurried to a table where the family’s ceremonial cups were displayed. With these cups, only an hour earlier, Louise and Antoine had toasted each other and pledged eternal love.

Only when the stranger stood directly over the silver cups did she glance around her. And when she opened her ragged cloak, it was all Peter could do to choke back his rage. This wretched piece of street trash had dared to sneak into their courtyard and steal from their table!

But it was John who saw what the woman was really doing. She didn’t appear to be lifting anything off the table. Instead, she opened her cloak and pulled something out of it just as Peter’s fist closed around hers and he squeezed with all his strength. The woman cried out, and what she was holding fell to the cobblestones with the clang of metal.

John ran to the spot and grabbed what the woman had dropped.

“Give me that,” she hissed.

“I’ll give you something,” Peter snarled, as he twisted her arm behind her back. The woman’s scream ripped through the courtyard, and the music and dancing stopped. In an instant, silence shrouded the night.

John examined what the stranger had carried. When Demarillac approached, John held it out for his father to see. Demarillac took the cup from John’s hands. He could not miss the huge D on the stem, D for Demarillac, encircled by the family crest.

“Right from under our noses, she tried to steal it,” Peter exclaimed.

“That’s a lie. And you know it,” she answered, not to Peter but to Demarillac.

“I don’t know any such thing.”

“I brought it here. As a gift…”

Peter gasped at the woman’s nerve. John was just as dumbfounded, though he knew what he had seen. Were any of our ceremonial cups missing? Why would this street beggar have one? And if his eyes had told him true, why on earth would she want to return to us something that was clearly more valuable than anything she could ever hope to own?

“As a gift.” As Louise approached, the woman added, “For you, Madame. For you.”

Louise had no idea what was happening. All she knew was that this wretched woman was spoiling her perfect day.

“A gift from…from a friend.”

“I’m sure I don’t know any friends of yours.” Louise had nothing but ice in her voice.

“Young woman, you don’t know how fortunate you are that this is my daughter’s wedding night. On any other night, you would be thrown into the arms of our constables and taught a few hard lessons about thieving.”

And then the woman did the one thing no one would have expected. She smiled.

Demarillac scowled back. “If it’s food you came for, take what you need and go.”

“I don’t need your charity.”

“Then take this and go.” Demarillac shoved the cup back into her hands.

“Father…” Peter gasped.

“Take this worthless bauble back wherever it came from.”

“Father,” said John. “You don’t understand. That’s one of our best—”

“Stop it, stop it both of you!” Louise turned from her brothers and stared daggers at the woman. “You’re ruining everything. Will you please, please go away?”

            The woman said nothing more. She folded the cup in her arms, turned, and walked to the gates, her footsteps echoing through the still-silent courtyard. Only when she was cloaked in darkness did the wedding music begin again.

Jeff Heller is a screenwriter and marketing writer who have just released his first novel, A False Dawn. Jeff is now working on Sunrising, the second volume in this series of historical page-turners.

5.5"x 8.5"
Black text on 60# white paper
263 pages
Softcover, matte finish