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The Courtier of Versailles

The Courtier of Versailles

Book excerpt

Chapter One

“Are you ready, mon cher?” Uncle Jules asked, voice obscured by his protective headgear.

Jeanne nodded; her own helmet—nothing more than a tin plate with peepholes—wobbling precariously.

Jules raised his sword before his face, aiming it straight up like a finger pointing to the heavens, and bowed slightly but respectfully to his niece, the graceful move revealing a glimpse of the swordsman's prowess.

Jeanne mirrored her uncle's salute and waited, willing her lungs to do their job, to breathe deeply in and out, storing air for what was to come.

En garde!” Jules barked.

Jeanne dropped into a crouch, half-extending her sword arm, protecting the waist with the elbow and the chest with the wrist. Her left arm hung high in the air behind her head, the forearm gracefully bent and the wrist curled, a counter-weight.

Quadricep muscles twitching with strain as they bore the brunt of her weight, biceps and triceps burning with rage at the repetition of the position for the tenth time that morning.

Her own breathing echoed back to her as it bounced against the crudely constructed helmet; the scent of the peach she'd eaten that morning still clinging to each vapor.

Jules moved. Left foot over right. Jeanne mirrored his pattern.

“Come at me, girl. Come and get me,” Jules bellowed at her, teasing her with the tip of his fine rapier.

Jeanne moved, a sequence of aggressive footwork.

Bon, bon, good, good,” her uncle encouraged. “Now…advance!”

Lifting the toes of her front foot, she curled it up to slip both feet forward.

“Advance!”

Same move again.

“Advance, advance!”

Again. Twice. First step, a quick one.

Bon. Now…get ready.”

Sweat dripped down her forehead, burned as it rolled into her eyes. She dare not spare a second to wipe it away. More trickled down her spine, annoying her blood-engorged skin. She dare not take a moment to blot it.

Her forearm burned red hot, muscles controlling her grip on the pommel refusing to give way.

Another parry, another thrust. She moved two steps closer.

The clangs of sword meeting sword echoed as the thin rapiers came together time and time again, reverberating in the hollow, stone chamber. Jeanne panted now.

The old empty chamber in the basement of the grand chateau of Versailles became a void in time and place, their bodies and grunts of exertion all that existed.

Jeanne listened, as vital to swordsmanship as their grip on the pommel. She listened and waited, parrying to keep her uncle moving. There it came. Just the right sshing that spoke a good slash…a grunt from her uncle. She had him on the defense. If he grunted more than she it was a good day; today could be such a day.

A feint, a parry…she pressed him almost to the wall.

Today, she thought. Maybe today shall be the day of my victory…for I am a Musketeer.

The smallest grin tickled the corner of her mouth. Parry, thrust, lun—

The chapel bells gonged; their vibration rose through the soles of their thin, flexible shoes.

The combatants froze.

“Is that—,” Jeanne began.

“The chapel calls!” her uncle cried, pulling off his headgear, his white mantle of hair falling upon his shoulders.

“I am lost!” Jeanne threw off her helmet, chocolate brown hair spilling out as gear hit stone with a thud.

Jeanne tossed her sword to Jules who caught it deftly by its grip.

“Our secret, mon uncle?”

Her uncle tossed his niece a tart glance. “You need ask?”

With a small grin and a slight shake of the head, Jeanne bolted for the door.

“Tomorrow, dear man, oui?”

“Of course, ma petite.” Jules shooed her with a wave and a fond smile at her quickly retreating back.

Down the hall and around two corners, up one flight of stairs and down three hallways, to the closest latrine Jeanne ran. From the basement of the main building—the small one that had been Louis XIII's hunting lodge—to the back side of the south wing—just one of the many expansions made by his son—she flew. She loosened the small ribbons and strings holding her costume together as she ran, impelled by long strides of well-trained legs.

Jeanne Yvette Mas du Bois thanked the good Lord she'd spent much of her childhood in the labyrinth of a castle; she knew every winding inch of it. Yet she cursed it as she ran. It was 1682, for goodness sake. Two decades of improvements and still very few privies and most on one side of the massive palace.

In the abandoned corridor, she reached the water closet, her water closet. She slammed the door behind her and instantly felt trapped; no more than a box in the wall containing a wooden bench with a crudely covered hole from which emanated the foulest of odors, her chest heaved as she gasped for breath depleted by the long and convoluted trek. She breathed only through her mouth.

Dropping to her knees, she pulled up two boards from the crude wood flooring, retrieving the bundle of clothing sequestered beneath. Sloughing off the old knickers, shirt, and bucket-top boots that once belonged to her brother, she bundled and tied them, stashing them where the other clothes had been, the appropriate if rumpled morning gown.

“Millions of louis he spends on Aubusson and Gobelin tapestries,” Jeanne mumbled as she began to dress herself, “but hardly enough privies for half the people living here. A glorious sink hole, indeed.”

Uncounted were the drunken nobles or lost visiting diplomats urinating, defecating, or vomiting in any private corner of the mazelike corridors, staircases, or window embrasures, their struggle to reach a privy or chaise percée in time proving fruitless.

The drunks were the worst, their inebriated state dissipating any inhibitions for public elimination. They behaved quite raucously about the whole endeavor. Their obnoxious laughter disgusted Jeanne as did their hygiene habits.

Yet, somehow, the chateau remained clean; accidents disappeared quickly at the hands of the thousands of servants indentured for just such service. Louis XIV insisted Versailles, now La Maison du Roi as well as the seat of France's government, be kept immaculate. An adult response to the squalor he had lived in as a child in the Louvre.

Almost dressed, the feminine and frilly stockings and undergarments of a wealthy young noblewoman soaked up the sweat still flowing from her pores, stuck to her skin. There was naught to be done; to not appear, as she must every morning, at the King's Chapel Royale, would be to provoke certain misfortune, and there remained but a minute since the first gong of the bell.

Still lacing up the front of her bodice, Jeanne kicked open the door, banging it with a crash against the hallway wall. In the empty corridor, she ran; the hard heels of her bow-festooned shoes clanked against the hardwood floor, the lacy fontange on her head bounced with each step.

Up two flights of turning stairs, she emerged next to the Hall of Battles on the ground floor and burst through the door leading out into the crowded courtyard. She blundered about, instantly blinded by the blazing light of the hot August sun reflecting off the white marble outer walls of the chateau.

It would be unseemly to run; her feet fluttered in the fastest walk possible. Upon her face a practiced smile firmly in place as she returned greetings to the multitude whose faces were but a blur. Colors and shimmers, but not a one did she see.

Back into the building, the north wing now, through the small corridor filled with courtiers and commoners—there for a glimpse of their sovereign—quickly to the door of the chapel.

Mon Dieu! The words a scream in her head.

The King led the precisely contrived procession up the aisle; the ducs, marquises, and comtes already across the threshold, the barons poised to enter.

She had missed her place! She—the daughter of the Comte de Moreuil, Gaston du Bois—must enter before the barons. To break this code of conduct, one imposed by the King himself, could bring the harshest of punishments.

She must do what she must. Wringing her hands, Jeanne bit her bottom lip, lowered large chocolate brown eyes, dipped her head, and pushed past the barons and their wives, tight-lipped women scowling at her.

If she had not already been, Jeanne would now be the juiciest tidbit on the tip of every wagging tongue today; gossip the second most preferred pastime of the courtiers, a short step behind currying favor.

She slipped into the pew where her mother and father sat; grateful the Comtesse de Cordierer and her daughter separated them.

The King, now firmly ensconced in his tribune, took no notice of her late arrival; the same could not be said for her father. She dared not turn or glance in his direction for the ire in his eye would surely burn her to the bone. The heated waves of his wrath found her.

Mademoiselle le Thibault, the comtesse's daughter stared rudely at them, wide eyes bouncing between Jeanne and her father, a spectator at a highly entertaining game.

Jeanne berated herself for giving one such as this fodder for her lurid mill. She did her best to still her twitching hands and shuddering foot. Taking deep breaths of incense-laden air, Jeanne calmed.

Father Herbert, the parish priest of Versailles, took his place at the balustrade font, vestments of mulberry tenting over his vast paunch, tall miter giving the false impression of height. Raising his arms wide as if to embrace the entire congregation, he launched into his sermon with a booming voice.

“The people of the noble land of France must thank God and the King for the greatness in which we reside. It is by their power and by their hand that we grow and prosper with such exuberance.”

He made no reference to the pope or to Rome; no priest serving the crown had any desire to spend the rest of his days in the Bastille. This sermon would serve no more purpose than to praise the King. Louis championed Gallicanism, the purely French movement whose intent meant to diminish papal authority and increase the power of the state, specifically the power of the Sun King.

“Look around you, I pray, for in these very walls is built the power of our great sovereign.”

The chapel was a paradigm of Louis' affluent dominance: the gilded scrollwork, the beautiful caryatids and atlantes sculptures, and, most especially, the altar painting. Almost as long as the wall upon which it hung, Meal at the House of Simon the Pharisee had come as a gift from the Republic of Venice in 1664, a testament to how far reaching Louis' fingers of power stretched.

Louis XIV sat tall in his velvet seat, large dark eyes raised innocently to the heavens, lids fluttering prettily now and then as the priest spoke so eloquently of him, the shy smile upon his face that of a child being praised. He craved such praise like a starving child, like the many starving who lived in his realm, craving food, any food. No matter the truth of them, words of homage thrilled him.

The expounding priest banged his fisted hand on the pulpit before him, voice rising to the heights of a screech.

“We must do whatever our King and our Lord ask, for to serve them is our only purpose in this mortal life!” The flush on Father Herbert's face spread and darkened like the culmination of his oration.

Louis slumped in his high-backed armchair, shoulders slumping, clearly disappointed the sycophantic sermon ended. He lowered his face, the self-deprecating grin slipping off the corners of his mouth.

Jeanne's hands, poised peacefully upon her lap during the sermon, began to wring once more like a washerwoman wrings a drenched cloth. Silently she cursed the brevity of the thirty-minute service. With a sidelong glance down the pew, she dared a glimpse of her father's countenance.

Like the priest's, his face burned crimson as if all the blood in his body congealed beneath is thin, white carapace. From brow to the hairline of his white wig, a dark vein pulsed with each rapid beat of his heart.

A growl rose from Jeanne's stomach, the painful knot of foreboding twisting within her. She knew what lay in store, knew with assurance it would be terrible, for she had suffered her father's wrath many times, too many. She couldn't avoid the coming storm, but she could try to outrun it.

Jeanne gathered her wide, long skirts in her fists, rushing from the pew, and jostling the Duchess standing in the aisle, standing in her way. The prim, powdered woman squeaked in protest. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed Jeanne's father pushing passed her mother, the Comtesse, and her daughter, meaningless obstacles between him and his prey.

Jeanne hurried ever faster, attempting a decorous if frantic escape, but her father would not be so deprived. He came upon her with wheeling strides of his short legs and grabbed her roughly by the arm. He spoke not a word as he flew down the aisle, teeth bared in an angry snarl disguised as a smile, his daughter in tow. Jeanne curled her spine, slumping, eliminating the inch she rose above her father, an inch forever infuriating him. He yanked her along like a recalcitrant two-year-old, her humiliation mounting as they careened through hundreds of shocked courtiers.

Since May, and the court's official move to Versailles, the population had grown exponentially; close to ten thousand people now lived within the resplendent walls. The vast but crowded hallways forever crammed with courtiers, commoners, and peasants, some hoping for a chance to petition the King, others merely hoping for a glimpse of him. Past all these speculative, scrutinizing eyes, Gaston pulled Jeanne like a dog on a leach.

Through one gilded and jeweled salon after another, Gaston marched swiftly along, feet pounding on the marble and dark wood floors below his feet as if, with each step, he crushed them or his daughter. The long curls of his high wig flew out like a banner proclaiming his importance. Jeanne ran to keep up, her heavy skirts and the many layers of taffeta and silk beneath making it difficult to take long strides.

Gaston's grip on his daughter's arm tightened as they strode through the palace. The clutch of his hand squeezed her muscles, flattening them to a thin layer of flesh. The pressure of each finger like a dagger threatening to puncture.

Her father panted, unused to such physical strain. Her own lungs burned. Encased in the tightly tied bodice, she could take only short, shallow gulps of air; she longed for the unrestraint of her dueling clothes.

With but a few more steps they rushed through the Buffet Room and onto the staircase leading to the uppermost floor. At the top, the trapped August heat smacked them. Père yanked her down the long corridor to the entrance of their suite. Wrenching the door open to the dark, low-ceilinged hallway, Gaston launched his wretched daughter from him. Jeanne landed on the small foyer's floor on her knees.

Jeanne turned a fearful glance up to her father, loosened, disheveled hair falling across her face. She rubbed her arm where the pressing of his gouging fingers still panged.

“To your room,” Gaston growled the rumble of a wild animal.

Oui, mon Père,” Jeanne whispered, scrambling to her feet.

Her legs tangled in the folds of her skirts. She tumbled once more to her knees, the pain of breaking blood vessels stabbed her. Afraid to look at her father, she tried again, this time making it to her feet. With three quick steps, she made it to her bedroom, entered the room, and closed the door. With backward steps, she reached the bed she shared with her sister and fell upon it, gaze glued to the door, expecting her father to crash through it at any moment.

Her hands would not—could not—be stilled; she watched them shake as if they belonged to someone else. Jeanne pulled her legs up, wrapped her arms around them, and curled her body into a ball as if to stave off the assault she knew would come. Slowly rocking on her curved buttocks, she waited and prayed.

* * *

He paced back and forth in the small room that served the Du Bois family as salon, study, and dining room, crossing the carpet of maroon and gold, arms flaiying the air about his head. Adelaide Lomenie Mas du Bois sat as still as possible on the small upholstered chair, silently suffering her husband's outburst. Adelaide kept her mouth shut, lips paling with the tight clasp. To open them would be to beg to suffer much worse than a verbal lashing.

“Is it not enough that she should return here in shame, but that she should flaunt her misbehavior in front of the entire court? It is an outrage!” Gaston's face flowed purple, almost black under the white, powdered wig; spittle flew from his mouth with each venomous word. “I should have begged Mère-révérend Robiquet to keep her at the convent, or begged the King for the money to keep her there.”

Jeanne heard every word, every growl, her father uttered; the almost paper-thin walls did nothing to contain the verbal onslaught. She grimaced, the chagrin and terror of returning to Versailles still fresh, still caused sleepless nights and the urge to run somewhere, anywhere. It was but a few days ago since she had been turned out of the convent where she had spent seven years—seven years of living in hell. The salivating tongues of the courtiers dripped with delight at the scandal of the dreadful behavior that had prompted her removal, humiliating her father even more.

“She is a disgrace to my family, to me, to the King. The whole world knows my daughter has the tongue of the devil speaking to the nuns as if she were their equal, or worse, their better. Now they know she has the soul of the devil as well. They see for themselves that her behavior is no better than the filthy peasants who beg at the gates.”

“She is but young, Gaston,” Adelaide murmured, a timid whisper, golden-eyed gaze holding fast upon the tight knot that was her hands in her lap.

Gaston whirled on his wife, piercing her with his steely, black-eyed gaze.

Gilded Summers

Gilded Summers

God's Hammer

God's Hammer