Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
De Montigny, Suzanne, 1960-, author
Fields of gold beneath prairie skies / by Suzanne de Montigny.
(Canadian historical brides ; book 6)
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-77362-531-7 (softcover).--ISBN 978-1-77362-530-0 (PDF).
--ISBN 978-1-77362-528-7 (EPUB).--ISBN 978-1-77362-529-4 (Kindle)
I. Title. II. Series: Canadian historical brides; bk. 6
PS8607.E2356F54 2017 C813'.6 C2017-905281-0
Books We Love dedicates the Canadian Historical Brides series to the immigrants, male and female, who left their homes and families, crossed oceans, and endured unimaginable hardships in order to settle the Canadian wilderness and build new lives in a rough and untamed country.
A huge thank you to the following people: To my father, Pol de Montigny for writing his memoirs from which much of my story was taken. To Tim Novak of the Regina archives for aiding me in locating the old homestead near Masefield, Saskatchewan. To Sheila Corneillie and Debbie Simpson for their help in finding my baby aunts’ grave. To Yolande Chambers, Georgette Evans, Denis de Montigny, Lilian Ring, George de Montigny, and Lucille Leray for sharing their stories of growing up on the prairies during the Great Depression. To Louise Lupien and Guy Ferland for the information on Dr. Onil Lupien and for their help in finding my great grandfather’s home in Ponteix via Face Time. Also to Suzanne Lupien, Onil’s daughter for sharing photos with me on a spontaneous visit to her retirement home while in Ponteix. To my writer’s group for their endless patience, catching all those little mistakes—Kathleen Schmitt, Rod Baker, Edye Hanen, Douglas Aitken, and Ceil De Young. And to my Beta readers—Stuart West, Madeleine McLaughlin, Joan Donaldson-Yarmey, Darlene Foster, and Louise de Montigny. And finally, to my editor—Kathy Fischer-Brown—for her numerous suggestions that helped me make the book the best it could be.
Part I – The Journey
The shrill whistle blasted, startling Lea. She threw an anxious glance at the train she would board in a few moments, the train that would take her to Canada, thousands of miles from the painful memories that haunted her of the Great War. How could she remain in Belgium after all that had happened, after what she’d seen—so much death and destruction. She wanted a new life, far, far away.
She faced her family for the last time. Tears streamed from Maman’s eyes.
“I’ll never see you again.” Maman’s words were barely audible through her sobs.
Lea forced down the lump in her throat. “I promise I’ll come back to Belgium. It’s not the last time.”
“But you’ll be so far away across an entire ocean. And what if there are still Germans waiting in their U-boats? Your ship could be sunk.” She burst into a fresh round of tears.
“Non, Maman. The armistice has been signed. It’s safe now. Besides, I have to go. Napoleon’s waiting for me.”
“But you haven’t known him very long, and you’re only eighteen.”
Uncertainty at her mother’s words threatened her resolve. It was true, the courtship had been short, but hadn’t there been many furlough brides, their faces glowing with bliss as they devoted their lives to men they’d only known for a few weeks? At least she’d given him time to make his decision.
Lea’s sisters clutched handkerchiefs in their hands while her brothers stared at the ground. Mathilde blew her nose and wiped wet, teary eyes. “Do you really have to go?” she sobbed as they hugged.
Lea nodded. “You know I do. But I promise I’ll write.”
“As will I.”
“And you’ll let me know when you find a beau, won’t you?” asked Lea.
“If there are any left after the Great War.” Mathilde let out a sad laugh.
Lea reached a hand to one of her brothers and kissed both his cheeks. “Good-bye, François.”
“Take care,” he said, his voice rasping as he attempted to squeeze her fingers with his hand permanently damaged in the war.
“And Camille.” She turned to her other brother.
Camille’s eyes blinked rapidly. “Keep safe.”
Then Lea turned to Palma whose eyes blazed with conviction.
“Be strong,” Palma whispered in her ear. “I’d come too if I could. I so envy you.”
Lea flinched with surprise at her sister’s spirit. “Then perhaps you could join us in the new country someday.”
Palma’s eyes grew distant as though she imagined the possibilities. “You never know. I just may.”
The whistle gave its final warning.
Lea lifted the leather suitcase and the bagged lunch Maman had packed and hurried to the locomotive that would take her away from all she’d ever known.
“Au revoir,” she cried, waving one last time before gripping the railing and climbing the stairs.
The train chugged a slow, rhythmic pulse, steam hissing into the air. The huffing grew faster, the stench of burning coal stinging her nostrils.
Lea stepped into the crowded car, slipping past the other passengers as she dragged her bag to an empty seat.
A man stood up and smiled. “May I help you with that?”
Before she could answer, he hoisted her suitcase up into the rack overhead.
“Merci, monsieur,” she mumbled, avoiding unnecessary eye contact as she sat down.
The man nodded, then made himself comfortable on the seat opposite her.
Lea ignored him. It wouldn’t be right to engage in conversation with a strange man when she’d soon be married.
Her lips curved up in a private smile as she remembered how she met Napoleon.
It had been a miserable week. The rain had inundated them every day, a ceaseless downpour of cold drops that drenched the streets. Lea had ventured into town a few blocks away, picking her way around large puddles to buy baguettes from the boulangerie. By the time she arrived in the shop fragrant with pastries and fresh bread, her wet feet squeaked inside her shoes
“Terrible weather, isn’t it?” asked the boulanger.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it rain so much.” Lea pulled the hood off her head, irritated the raindrops had spattered her glasses. She removed them, wiping the lenses with a corner of her dress.
“What’ll it be today? The usual?”
“Oui, s’il vous plaît.”
The boulanger reached over and handed her the two baguettes that would feed her family that night.
Lea gave him the Belgian francs and then hurried home. But by the time she got to the front door, the tips of both baguettes that poked from the collar of her coat were soggy and her shoes covered in mud. She was careful to slip them off since Maman would surely have a fit if even the tiniest bit of muck was trailed in. Ironically, the floor was already sullied. But by whom? Lea heard a familiar voice and groaned. Madame Gagnon, the town gossip had dropped by.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Madame Gagnon. “Madame Lambert spent a whole half hour talking to Monsieur Duprés. It was outrageous! If his wife knew, she’d surely divorce him.”
Maman let out a helpless breath. “It could be they were discussing business, or maybe even—”
“But what would you expect from such a family?” Madame Gagnon continued as though Maman hadn’t spoken. “After all, their daughter ran off with a soldier that she’d only known for a week.”
“But there have been many furlough brides. And what harm is there in giving a man something to hope for or to dream of? We have to—”
“But so quickly after breaking it off with her old beau? I tell you, the women in that family are nothing but tramps.”
Maman flashed Lea a desperate look.
“I have a mind to tell her husband about their meeting.”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t do that if I were you—” Maman said.
“After all, that’s what I’d expect if my Jean-Pierre were so unfaithful to me.”
Maman’s eyes pleaded with Lea. “But they weren’t being unfaithful. They were just talk—”
“Well, of course they were being unfaithful,” insisted Madame Gagnon.
Lea stood up. “Well, would you look at that!” she said, her voice loud. “It’s stopped raining. Perhaps Madame Gagnon would like to take advantage of the change in weather and head home now before it starts again.”
Madame Gagnon gave her a disparaging look as though she’d been truly insulted, then huffed. “Well, I suppose it’s time to prepare supper for my husband.”
Maman jumped up from her chair and showed her to the door. “And I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. You have a good evening, all right?”
As soon as the door closed, Maman heaved a sigh of relief. “That woman! She never stops talking. And look at the mud she’s brought in. As though I have time to be washing the floor every time she comes to toss her gossip at us. Lea, be a dear and clean it up for me while I start supper.”
Lea gave a reluctant nod and fetched the bucket from the back room, filling it with warm water and soap. Grabbing a rag, she knelt on the floor and began wiping away the grime. She had nearly completed the task when a knock sounded at the door. Lea glanced up, pushing aside a lock of thick, dark hair from her face.
“Who could that be now?” said Maman, her brows knitted with irritation. “I do hope it’s not Madame Duprés again. Mathilde, stir the onions while I answer the door.”
“Oui, Maman,” Mathilde said as she took the wooden spoon from her mother.
When Maman flung the door open, two young men stood in the doorway wearing khaki uniforms with knickers that trailed down to high knee socks. They held their helmets in hand, a show of respect.
“Good evening,” said one of the men in a strong Québecois accent. “My name is Private Tremblay. I’m a Canadian soldier with the forty-sixth battalion.”
“My goodness, you’re completely drenched,” said Maman. “Please come in.”
The men stepped over the sill of the door, looking relieved.
“Thank you,” Private Tremblay replied. “We apologize for the intrusion, but our camp is flooded, and our superiors have sent us to find other lodgings. Would it be possible to spare some beds for wet soldiers tonight?”
Lea cast curious glances at the men. The larger of the two had black wet hair slicked back from his forehead—a handsome fellow, really. But it was the other who caught her fancy. A slight man, not much taller than her five feet two, he had dark hair and a little half-mustache—the kind that many men sported nowadays—and the kindest, brown eyes she’d ever seen. The mark of a good soul.
As though he felt her gaze on him, he turned and stared at her. Lea blushed. She’d seen that look enough times though she was only seventeen—admiration. Shyness made her turn away.
“Well,” Maman replied. “Perhaps my girls could give up their beds tonight for the men who are risking their lives to save Europe from the Germans.”
“Oui,” Mathilde said, “we can certainly do our share to help the Allies. Lea?” She glanced down at her younger sister. “What do you think?”
Lea regarded the man with the gentle eyes whose gaze was still fixed on her. “Yes, I think we can. We can sleep on the floor of Palma’s room.”
“Then it’s done,” said Maman.
The two men nodded, smiling. “Thank you, Mesdemoiselles. We’ll come back later after we’ve found places for the other members of our battalion.”
“I wish you luck,” said Maman, “and if you get here soon enough, there’ll be a hot supper for you both.”
“Thank you,” they each said in turn before trudging off into the streets.
When they returned several hours later, Maman had saved a portion of the stew and biscuits for each soldier to warm his insides. They devoured the meal as though they’d been starved, then settled into comfortable chairs by the hearth where they recounted stories of their home.
Lea listened with fascination as they spoke of their homeland—Canada, the land of promise, a country untouched by the Great War, a nation far from the threat of the Germans.
“I’m from Quebec City,” said Jacques, the taller of the two men. “That’s where General Wolf beat Montcalm on the Plaines d’Abraham. But you’d never know there’d been a war between France and England because everyone there speaks French. It’s said the English may have won the battle, but they sure didn’t defeat the heart of our people.” He leaned back in his chair, his eyes dreamy. “It’s such a beautiful place, much like Bretagne, only wilder. I’m so looking forward to going back.”
“And me,” said Napoleon. “I’m originally from Trois Rivières, a town farther up the St-Laurent but my father and I, and my two brothers moved out to the new province, Saskatchewan, to get a homestead.”
“A homestead?” asked Lea, not recognizing the foreign word. “What’s that?”
“It’s a plot of land the government gives away for nearly free—a hundred and sixty acres. All you have to do is pay ten dollars and apply. Then, if you clear it, cultivate it, and build a house and barn, it’s yours.”
“Seems like a good deal to me,” said Lea’s father, smoking his pipe as he listened, relaxing after a day in the coalmine.
“Mon père,” Napoleon explained, “already has his homestead and my brothers too, near a town called Wide View. I helped Papa clear most of the land, and it’s just a matter of time before I apply for mine after this war is over.”
Lea found it charming the way Napoleon crowded his words together in the old style of French from the time of Louis XIV.
“It’s a beautiful place, Saskatchewan,” continued Napoleon. “Miles and miles of flat land as far as the eye can see, and golden fields of wheat. And the skies are like scenes from Heaven—castles, cathedrals, angels, even animals. I’ve never seen skies like that except in the prairies.”
Engrossed by his words, Lea imagined the images in her mind—like postcards she’d seen of France—gentle, rolling hills of pale yellow…or at least that’s how it was before the Great War.
“The only thing you’ll need now,” said Lea’s father with a slight smirk, “is a wife.”
Napoleon’s eyes darted to Lea.
“Papa, really,” said Lea.
“Well, it’s true. Every good farmer needs one.”
Maman rose. “It’s getting late. I think it’s time we retired for the night.”
Lea led the men up the stairs to her room. A small thrill filled her when Napoleon’s eyes met hers again.
“Thank you for offering us your room,” he said, his admiring gaze unwavering.
Lea felt her face warm. “Ce n’est pas de quoi.”
“I do hope we’ll have time to speak some more in the morning.”
Lea’s heart leapt. Offering a reticent smile and a nod, she hurried away, her stomach fluttering.
The Unwelcome Visitors
Lea had dozed off despite the jolting movement of the train. When she awoke, they were nearing the port town of Ostende where she’d board the boat to Dover, one step closer to her fiancé and her new life. She sat up straight, blinking through sleepy eyes, her brain still in a daze.
The Flemish town had survived attacks by the Germans, with much of the Flemish architecture still standing. She eyed the structures with curiosity—tall thin buildings with false façades, a hook jutting out near the top, undoubtedly used for hoisting furniture from the streets below. So Dutch in flavour. But it wasn’t the architecture that fascinated her so much as the damage done to the port by the German bombing. Wreckages of ships still lay in the grey harbour of what had once been a beautiful resort town. How different from the postcards of the stunning beach and hotels her aunt had sent years before. Lea had dreamed of spending a holiday bathing in Ostend’s warm waters as waves lapped along the shore; yet here the town lay, grey and abysmal, a reminder of what the Germans had done. She looked away, only too glad to be leaving.
When the train pulled into the station, the man who sat across from her stood up and lowered Lea’s suitcase for her, his smile a bit too friendly.
“Merci,” she replied, then grabbed the handle and hoisted it up before he could offer her more assistance.
“I can carry it for you if it’s too heavy,” he said, trailing behind her.
Lea glanced back over her shoulder. “It’s okay, monsieur. I thank you for your kindness, but it’s not that heavy.”
She descended the stairs of the train and gazed about at the destruction—the crumpled buildings, the broken roads—until she spied what appeared to be a semblance of normalcy, a dock still intact, a ferry that seemed operational. She walked toward it, uncertain. When she got closer, confusion gripped her, and she swung about. Was this the right place? She’d never been too far from home before except to help fallen soldiers on the field after a battle. She shook away the memories of injured men with opened wounds and bloodied heads. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. It was the man from the train.
“Madame, let me help you, please. You look lost, and I speak the language here.”
Lea gave another look about, then gave in. “All right.”
“Where is it you want to go?”
“I need to catch the ferry to Dover.”
“It’s over there.” He pointed to another dock.
They walked in silence for a spell.
“What are you going to do in Dover?” he finally asked.
“I’m going to Canada…to get married,” she said, her words intended to keep the man in his place.
“Ah, another furlough bride then?”
“Well, not exactly. Perhaps more of a post-war bride.”
“And a beautiful bride you’ll make.” He gave her arm a flirtatious squeeze.
Lea feigned ignorance of the gesture.
Together they walked to the station where he ordered her ticket in Flemish. She handed the money to the agent behind the counter, then turned, and thanked the man.
He accompanied her to the gangplank, then tipped his hat, wishing her luck in her new life before stepping away.
“Thank you,” Lea called out, half-relieved, yet slightly disappointed he was leaving. It’d been fun to have a gentleman pay attention to her once she realized he had no ill intentions.
For a moment she questioned her decision to leave Belgium. After all, there were still other men left that one could marry. Hadn’t this gentleman just proven that? And how well did she know her little Napoleon? She shook her head. No, she’d made her promise, and the money had been sent for her. She had to go through with it. If only Mathilde had been there. Perhaps this man would have been a match for her.
By the time she boarded the ferry to Dover, Lea’s stomach rumbled. She’d run out of the bread and cheese Maman had packed for her. Carrying her suitcase, she made her way to the small cafeteria on the ferry and ordered tomato soup—small fare for the hunger that consumed her, but with the few bills she possessed, her money had to last all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and to the city named Regina where she’d meet her husband-to-be.
“Regina,” she whispered, recalling it had been named after Queen Victoria. A new city, a new province. Far from all the madness.
She sipped on the salty soup, and chewed the hard, crusty bread that accompanied it. Thinking of the man who’d helped her, her mind drifted back to the days that followed the soldiers’ stay.
“I’ve never been so itchy in my whole life!” Mathilde had cried, scratching her armpits.
“Did you eat mussels again?” asked Palma.
“No, this is different,” said Mathilde. “These are more like bug bites. And besides, Lea has it too.”
“You do?” asked Palma.
“Yes, and it’s driving me crazy!” Lea clawed at herself.
“Let’s see,” said Palma. She undid the
buttons of Lea’s dress and searched.
“What do you see?” asked Lea.
Palma let out a scream. “Ugh! You’ve got body lice.”
“Body lice?” exclaimed Lea.
The three girls shrieked.
“What do we do?” asked Lea, jumping about as she ripped off her clothes. “It’s so repulsive!”
Lea heard Maman’s feet hurrying up the stairs to where the girls danced about in a frenzy.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her eyes wide.
“They have body lice!” said Palma. “It must have been those soldiers.”
“Body lice? But didn’t you wash the sheets after they left?”
Lea and Mathilde shared a guilty look. “No,” they both said at once.
“Then no wonder you have lice.” Maman shook her head and tsked. “Those poor men. The conditions they have to live under.”
“What’ll we do?” asked Lea. “I can’t stand this a moment longer.”
“It’s easy,” said Maman. “We’ll have to remove all the bedding and find the clothes you’ve worn since they stayed. Then we have to wash them all with boiling water, and iron them.”
“But that’s so much work,” protested Mathilde.
“Well, you do want to be rid of them, don’t you?”
The girls nodded.
“Then get started right away.”
They worked all day, washing the sheets, blankets, and all their garments by hand, then hanging them outside. It was near nightfall when they deemed the laundry dry enough to take in. They heated the iron on the wood stove and passed it over the clothes and sheets, small pops and crackles sounding as any surviving louse died an unmerciful death. By midnight they were done.
Lea and Mathilde flopped into their bed, exhausted. Mathilde’s breathing became regular as she fell asleep, but Lea remained awake, her mind drifting back to the small soldier with the kind brown eyes. She smiled. He’d had such a gentleness about him, a charming sense of humour; yet such pride. She hoped she’d see him again.
A few days later, they heard a timid knock.
It was Palma who answered, swinging the door open with an imperious swoop.
The two soldiers wore sheepish grins as though they’d been caught doing something wrong.
“So, you’re back,” Palma said, a decisive tone in her voice.
The soldiers shared an uncertain look.
Napoleon stepped forward. “We wanted to come and thank you for your hospitality last week. It was very appreciated.”
“Appreciated! Well, we didn’t appreciate—”
“Palma, where are your manners?” She yanked her sister’s arm. “Let these men in. They’re probably dying of thirst.”
“No buts. We must do all we can.”
As the men entered, Lea’s heart flip-flopped. Napoleon was more handsome than she remembered. “May I prepare you a cup of tea and some pastries?”
Napoleon’s face shone with gratitude. “Yes, that would be nice.” His eyes roved up and down her form, seemingly pleased with what he saw.
Lea hurried to the kitchen and put the kettle on. It seemed to take forever for the water to boil. When she came back with the tea and galettes, Maman stood in the center of the room, her arms crossed, a frown on her face, obviously in the middle of a serious conversation.
“How dreadful! To have to live with lice like that,” she said.
“Yes, well what else can we do?” asked Jacques. “They’re everywhere.”
“Let us help you. If you can strip down, we can at least iron your uniforms to kill what’s there.”
“Here.” Palma reached into the closet and pulled out two thick blankets. “You can put these on while we kill the little monsters.”
The two men were ushered into the back room. When they came out a few minutes later, they were wrapped in the covers, their uniforms in their hands. Lea and Palma took each piece of clothing and thoroughly ironed it, the lice sizzling as they worked.
When the men were once again dressed and fed, Napoleon eyed Lea, then addressed Papa. “Sir, if I could have a word with you.”
Papa broke into a small, knowing smile and followed him to the door.
Lea and Mathilde listened as closely as they could, catching a word here and there.
“I think he’s asking for permission to court you,” said Mathilde, her voice a high whisper.
“I hope so.” Lea, moved closer to hear more. When she saw Papa reach out a hand and pat Napoleon on the shoulder, she knew they had reached an agreement.
Papa returned wearing a wide grin. “Seems you’ve picked yourself up a beau, Lea.”
Lea’s heart leapt. All the itching and scratching had been well worth it.
After Lea swallowed the last sip of her soup, she settled herself on the main deck, finding a seat as near to the window as possible. Tucking her suitcase under her legs, she glanced about to see how crowded the ferry was. If there weren’t too many people, she might have the entire row of seats to herself, a safeguard from lonely men looking for company. She relaxed when an old woman made herself comfortable beside her.
As they sailed away, the land behind them diminished, the greens fading to misty pale blues that disappeared into the haze. She watched the faint line grow thinner until water surrounded the vessel, lapping against the hull, only gray sky visible beyond. Lea’s pulse quickened as she remembered her mother’s worries. Could there still be U-boats left that haven’t heard the Armistice has been signed? No! Nap said it’s official—the war’s over, and if he says so, then I believe him. To convince herself of his words, she pulled out the stack of letters from her bag that he’d sent over the past year and filed through them until she found the one she was looking for.
My dearest Lea,
I’m sorry I haven’t been by to see you for some time. You see, I wasn’t given leave, though we’ve been stationed close to Chatlineau a few times. We’ve been transporting POWs back to Germany from France and Belgium now that the armistice has been signed. You’d think it’d be easy work, but it’s not. It’s quite sad, really. These men are so thin and broken, and I worry, even though they’re the enemy, that they may not survive. My comrades say I shouldn’t concern myself after all the atrocities the Germans have committed, but aren’t all men equal? Weren’t they serving their country the same as we were? Don’t they have mothers and fathers who love them too?
Yesterday, I spoke to a German who told me, in broken French, that he had a wife and a four-year-old daughter waiting for him back home. I wonder if they’ll find him changed, the way his hands tremble and the way he starts at the slightest sound. He’s a haunted man. We weren’t the only ones hurt. It’s a terrible thing war, where decent men are forced to kill each other because of decisions made by political leaders.
One of our boys told me a touching story the other day. He said that one Christmas, the Allies near Vimy Ridge heard the Germans singing ‘Silent Night’. They were so moved, they joined in. Can you imagine? Germans and Allies singing together, each in their own language? Then a magical thing happened. Slowly, they all came out of the trenches, shook hands, showed pictures of their girls. Some even cried together. Others shared what small portions of food they’d received from back home. Then someone pulled out a ball, and they began playing soccer. Can you imagine? Soccer! But it all ended when they heard gunshot in the distance. Their brief Christmas was over. It was business as usual. They shook hands and then lowered themselves back down into the muck of the trenches and resumed shooting. My eyes fill with tears at the thought. What a terrible thing to befriend and kill your enemy on the same day.
But there is one good thing that has come from this war, my beautiful Lea, and that’s you. As I sat in the mud-filled, rat-infested trenches before the armistice, it was you who kept me going. I could survive the cold and damp, the trench foot, and the lack of food just by filling my mind with thoughts of you, your beautiful blue eyes, your dark hair, your charming accent. It gave me something to hope for—a future.
As always, I love you,
Lea let out a sigh. Her little Napoleon! She never grew tired of reading his letters! At first his correspondence had related the latest news, but as they got to know one another—be it live or through mail—he began leaving small hints, choice words that indicated they might have a life together! The day came when Lea received a short note saying he’d drop by that night, that he had something important on his mind to discuss with her.
“I think this is it,” Lea had said to Mathilde in an excited whisper.
“What?” asked Mathilde, folding dried bed sheets, still checking for the telltale signs of lice—a slight blood stain—though many months had passed since the soldiers had spent the night.
“Napoleon is coming—tonight!”
“Yes, and I think he may ask me to marry him!”
Her sister’s mouth dropped. “Marry him! You can’t be serious. You barely know him! He’s only been here a few times to see you.”
“Yes, but we’ve been writing back and forth. I know him well enough. He’s the kindest man I’ve ever met. He’s funny, he’s sweet, and besides, I would like to see these golden fields and blue skies he talks about.”
“But you don’t know what’ll happen between now and then. You could be a widow with a baby.”
Lea mulled her words over. It was true. She’d known three of the town’s girls who’d been furlough brides only to lose their husbands a few months later on the front.
“You can’t rush into these things,” said Mathilde. “And what if you marry him and then don’t fit into his world. Remember, you’re Belgian. And he’s asking you to move to Canada, an untamed country.”
Lea weighed the consequences of her decision, then replied. “Yes, but I love him.”
“But Lea…” Mathilde dug her hands into her hips and gave her a condescending look.
A timid knock at the front door brought an abrupt end to the conversation.
“It can’t be him already!” whispered Lea. She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips.
Her sister did a quick fold of the sheets and shoved them into the cupboard while Lea smoothed out her dress. Papa opened the door.
Napoleon stood on the steps in full uniform, his chest pushed out. He reached up, took off his hat and smiled. “Good day, Monsieur Decorte.”
Papa turned and shot Lea an amused hint of smile. “Lea. Are you in the mood for Mr. de Montigny’s company? Or are you too tired today?” Without waiting for an answer, he said, “I think she’s too tired.” He made as if to close the door.
Lea rushed forward before her beau had time to flee from Papa’s wry sense of humour. “Of course I have time for Napoleon. Come in, come in.” She grabbed his arm and dragged him to the sofa where they sat side by side holding hands.
Napoleon looked uncertain.
No wonder! After what Papa just put him through.
They made small talk until dinner was served. When they sat down to eat, he barely touched the fish and potatoes Maman had prepared, wiping his forehead over and over again with his napkin and taking sips of water as though his mouth were dry.
When the dishes were washed and placed in the cupboard, Lea led him to the sofa again while everyone conveniently disappeared except Papa who made an occasional entrance to cast a wary eye on the couple.
“So the war is over now and as soon as we’re done transporting the POWs, I’ll likely be discharged,” Napoleon said after the older man left the room for the second time.
“Oh?” said Lea.
Nap cleared his throat. “Yes, and then I’ll be going home to Canada. I’ll join my father and brothers in Saskatchewan.”
Lea moved closer, hoping for an arm to encircle her. “I’ll miss you.”
“As I will you.” He slid his hand over her shoulder only to remove it again when Maman wandered in and began polishing the silverware.
Lea flashed her an impatient glare, but Maman ignored it and continued rubbing the cutlery until every individual piece shone before leaving.
“Tell me more about Saskatchewan. Have you applied to the government for your homestead yet?” She loved pronouncing the English word. It seemed so worldly.
“No, not yet. I’ll do that when I get home.” Napoleon’s face paled. “But I…I…I was wondering if…”
Papa sauntered in and began sweeping the floor.
Napoleon let out a frustrated sigh and then changed the subject. “We’ve been lucky with the weather, haven’t we?”
“Yes, indeed,” replied Lea, throwing an angry look at her father.
Papa pushed crumbs into the dustpan and poured it into the trashcan, oblivious.
“It’d be nice to go for a picnic,” suggested Lea.
“Ah, yes, it would. We could pick up a baguette from the boulangerie, then take it to the park.”
“That would be lovely.”
The grandfather clock that stood in the corner of the room chimed. Ten o’clock.
“And we could get some fromage bleu too,” she added. It was getting late. If Maman and Papa didn’t leave them alone, Nap would never propose.
Papa cleared his throat and eyed Lea.
Lea hurled him a desperate glare, the effect obviously not working because he dragged a chair to the grandfather clock and began winding it.
On seeing his actions, Napoleon took in a sharp breath and stood up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it was so late. I should be going.”
Lea’s heart fell. Her lips pressed together in a tight line as she walked Napoleon to the door.
He squeezed her shoulders, and cast a glance toward Papa, before saying, “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Maybe in a couple of weeks.” He kissed her cheek, then retreated into the night.
Lea spied the pale escarpment in the distance and nearly bolted from her seat. The Cliffs of Dover! It was true. They really were white, just as Napoleon had described! She grabbed her suitcase and hurried to the deck. A strong wind tossed her hair about and whipped her clothing. The smell of the sea filled her nostrils. If only she had a camera so she could take photos to send home.
The precipice loomed high above the horizon as they approached. Lea watched in awe, rehearsing the English words she’d practiced for when they landed. She was actually in Dover. Dover! No one in her family had ever been here.
As the ferry docked, the sailors lowered the gangplank while a crowd of people waited to disembark. When the walkway landed on the wharf, Lea took a deep breath and followed them on the wobbly footbridge until she reached solid ground. With excitement in her step, she looked for the signs that led to immigration.
“Passport, please?” said a man in uniform, his hand outstretched when she arrived.
Lea noted the similarity between the French and English words and handed him the document Napoleon had sent her.
“Leopoldine Sylvie Decorte?”
“How long are you planning on staying in England?” he asked, scrutinizing her face and comparing it to the photo in the document.
“I go to Liverpool and then to Halifax. I marry Joseph Napoleon de Montigny.”
The man closed the passport, the corners of his mouth drawn up in amusement. “My own sister did the same—married a soldier she met during the war.”
His words rushed past her, foreign gibberish. Lea opened her mouth to say, “I’m sorry. No speak English,” but before she had the chance, he tipped his head toward the gate and allowed her through.
Leaving the terminal, she took tentative steps forward, and then paused. Where do I catch the train? She glanced about, searching for someone to help her who wasn’t male.
A woman walked past her, gripping a child’s hand.
“Excusez-moi, Madame. The train to Liverpool, please.”
The woman’s eyes were kind. “Yes, it’s over there,” she said, pointing. “Come, I’ll show you.”
Lea picked up her bag and followed her to another building.
“This is it.” The woman pulled the door open. “See that sign that says Liverpool? Line up there.”
“Thank you,” said Lea.
It was a slow queue. Her stomach rumbling, Lea checked her watch. When was the last time she had eaten? If only she had the lunch Maman had packed for her, she might nibble on it. The line seemed barely to crawl. Her stomach growled continuously. After twenty minutes, she reached the ticket agent. Taking out her money, she handed it to the man.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said, pushing it away. “We don’t take Belgian francs here. You need pounds.”
Lea’s mouth dropped. Her eyes scanned the room for a place to exchange money. Seeing none, panic rose within her. Could her trip be over already?
“But I…need go Liverpool.” Her voice quivered.
“I’m sorry ma’am. You need to get some money changed. This is England.”
“Is there a problem here?” asked a loud, boisterous voice.
It was the woman with the child.
“She’s trying to pay with Belgian francs and we don’t take ’em,” said the man.
“Well, how much is the ticket?” The woman asked, indignation creasing her forehead.
He named his price.
“Then I’ll pay for her. Here.” She shoved the English pounds forward. “Imagine that, giving immigrants such a difficult time. Have you no heart?”
The man mumbled something incoherent, then produced the necessary ticket.
“I pay you back,” Lea said, her voice filled with gratitude.
“Not a problem,” said the woman. “Are you hungry?”
Lea gave her a blank stare.
“Hungry.” The woman raised her hand to her mouth, pretending to eat.
“Well then, let’s have lunch, and then I can take you to the bank.”
Finding a bench, the woman settled her child first, then sat down. “Here,” she said, pulling small pasties from a paper bag and breaking one of them in half. “You can share this with me.”
Lea sunk her teeth into the tender crust of the beef pie, desperate to fill her empty stomach.
“My name is Elizabeth,” said the woman, pointing to herself. “And this is my son, Henry.”
“I am Leopoldine.”
“Leopoldine. That’s a very Belgian name. It’s the feminine of Leopold, right?”
Lea stared at the woman, her lips slightly apart, confused.
“Leopoldine—for woman.” Her hands traced a female form in the air. “Leopold—for man?”
Lea gave an enthusiastic nod.
They ate their fare, using gestures to communicate, giggling at mistakes, and mutually admiring the boy. After they finished lunch, the woman led Lea to a bank where they exchanged a portion of her francs to pounds.
“Here you go,” said Elizabeth. “That should get you to Canada.”
“Thank you,” said Lea. “You good person.”
“Oh, I’m not much different than anyone else, really. War just brings out the kindness in folk. We have to help each other out.” She paused, her eyes meeting Lea’s. “So where are you going after Liverpool?”
Lea nodded at the familiar word where. “Canada. My fiancé…soldier. We live on homestead.”
“A homestead?” said Elizabeth. “You’re so lucky.” Her eyes grew wistful. “My husband died in the war.” Her finger pointed at her chest to indicate a soldier being shot.
“I am sorry,” Lea replied.
“It’s okay. I still have my Henry.” She drew the child close and rested a gentle arm around his shoulder. “At least I have something to show for it. Now,” Elizabeth said, gathering up her things and motioning Lea to follow. “Let me walk you to the train.”
Lea was glad to have female company. Elizabeth reminded her of Palma, the same self-assured personality. When they arrived at the appropriate platform, the woman waved good-bye. For a moment, Lea felt a twinge of fear at being alone again, but hardened her resolve. After all, in ten days, she’d be with her beloved once again.
Her thoughts drifted to the day when he made an unexpected appearance at the door, his chin thrust forward with determination.
When Papa had answered the door, there was fire in Napoleon’s eyes. “Monsieur Decorte,” he announced, “I wish to take your daughter for a walk.” Before Papa could give his usual smirk and teasing comment, Napoleon added, “To the boulangerie…ah…to buy a cake.”
“A cake?” Making a slow turn, he nodded to his daughter. “Napoleon wants to buy a cake. Do you like cake?”
Lea’s heart pounded. Could this be it? Time was running out. Napoleon would be headed home soon.
“Oui!” Lea responded, her voice eager.
She pulled her coat off the hook, slipped on her shoes, and stepped outside, taking Napoleon’s arm. “What’s the occasion?” she asked as they hurried along the brick road toward the bakery.
“Er, I thought we’d have that picnic we’d talked about.”
“But a cake—that’s expensive, isn’t it? And it’s not anyone’s birthday.”
Their footsteps echoed off the narrow façades of Chatlineau’s tidy brick houses as they sauntered past.
“You what?” asked Lea, her voice encouraging.
“I…ah…” He twisted his body to face her, his eyes filled with passion. Then he caught his foot on a paving stone and hurtled backward, landing on his behind.
“Napoleon!” she cried, stifling a laugh. “Are you okay?”
His face clouded with frustration and burned a deep red. “No!” he snapped. “I’m not okay.” He pushed himself up to kneeling position. “And I won’t be until you agree to be my wife!”
“Your wife?” Lea pretended to be surprised.
“Yes. I want us to be married before I leave. We could see the priest—tonight!”
Lea reeled. “Married tonight? Are you sure?”
Napoleon rose to his feet, rubbed the dust off his hands, and then took her into his arms. “I couldn’t be more sure of anything in my life.”
“But tonight?” She led him to a bench and they sat down.
“Yes. I leave in a week’s time. It’s the only chance we’ll get.”
Lea gazed at her suitor, remembering Mathilde’s words. “Napoleon, I love you with all my heart. But I don’t want to be a furlough bride.”
The fire in his eyes gave way to desperation. “But…the homestead…we could be...”
Lea took his hand in hers. “My dear Napoleon, I will marry you, but not tonight. Go home to Canada and think on it. You may feel very differently in your own country. You may even forget me.”
He gave his head a fervent shake. “I could never forget you,” he said, his eyes pleading.
“But you don’t know. Go home, and if you still love me after six months, send for me…and then I’ll come.”
The wind taken out of his sails, Napoleon lowered his head for a moment. Then his eyes met hers, his determination renewed. “So then, can we consider ourselves engaged?”
A small squeak escaped Lea’s lips as she threw herself into his arms. “Yes, oh yes!”
Napoleon held her close and kissed her. The kiss was long and passionate and Lea wished they could spend the afternoon in each other’s arms—but not until they were properly wed.
“Shall we go back home and tell everyone the news?” asked Napoleon when the kiss had ended.
“Yes, but what about the cake?”
They shared a laugh.
“Oh, that cake,” said Napoleon.
They rose from the bench and walked the final block to the boulangerie. As they entered, Napoleon seemed to grow a few inches taller, a proud man to contend with. “We’d like your fanciest cake, please, to celebrate…our engagement!”
The boulanger’s face lit up. “Engagement! Congratulations! When’s the big day?”
“Not for a time,” replied Lea. “He’s going to return to Canada first to make preparations.”
“That’s wonderful news,” said the boulanger, sauntering over to a line of patisseries. “Now, let’s see, our fanciest cake. Aha! This one is fit for such an occasion.” He pulled it from the shelf and laid it on the counter before them.
Lea eyed the cake. It was two layers thick decorated with white frosting and pink marzipan roses.
“It has strawberry jam in the middle,” said the boulanger.
“What do you think?” Napoleon asked Lea.
“It’s perfect! How much?”