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In dawn's semidarkness, she stood ankle deep and motionless at the river's edge, her tall silhouette blending with the bare white elms which braided through the cloudless winter sky over Beaumont-sur-Sarthe.
The pungent aroma of wood smoke from village chimneys mixed with damp earth and laced the air near the shore as she plunged naked into the icy water. She felt the chill, sharp like needles, as it quickly turned her skin to gooseflesh, but to Diane, discipline was sacred. Defiantly, she moved deeper into the rapid current. She finally came to the surface, water dripping from her hair and face, and her alabaster skin glimmering with the sheen of early morning light on water. A flock of geese flew in precision above her, but made no sound. In this state of meditative peace, she bathed alone until the thoughts returned and her mind began once again, to echo the fear.
It is too late . . . You cannot turn back now . . . You have come too far . . .
Since she always bathed at dawn, Diane reached the inn just as the royal coachmen were loading the first of her brocade-covered trunks back onto the King's coach. Six of His Majesty's best Spanish stallions swayed as two of the guards attached them to a tooled silver harness. At least four of the animals were required to pull the awkward lumbering vehicle. Diane grimaced at the prospect of another long ride in it. The price of the King's hospitality, she reminded herself, and looked away. Before her in the cobblestone courtyard, two mongrel dogs fought over a scrap of meat. They had garnered all of the attention from the velvet-tuniced coachmen so that she could return unnoticed from the river. She said a silent prayer and slipped past them.
Clothed only in a thin cambric dressing gown, she slid through the paneled door. The musty smell of dried wine on scarred oak tables dizzied her, but she crept steadily toward the staircase. In the candlelit shadows she heard laughter, then the faint sound of whispers. A man's voice; then a woman's. She passed quickly, not wanting to hear them. Not today. When she finally reached the welcome privacy of her room, she closed the door and leaned against it to catch her breath. She let the wet dressing gown fall to the floor around muddied feet and ran her hands through the full masses of wet blond hair. As she sank onto the tousled bed covers, she sighed. Is it really too late to turn back?
The King's driver had misjudged the distance and his error had forced them, in the dark of night, to surrender to the only room and the only inn left for miles. In the center of the small room was a large soot-smudged fireplace with a chipped stone hearth. Next to it was a bed hung with tattered blue tapestried bedcurtains. Hewn beams and a spray of cobwebs decorated the walls. From the single latched window came a ribbon of daylight and the shouts of an old woman as she kicked the two dogs in the courtyard below.
The fire sputtered and crackled. It was nearly out. Diane felt the chill again but this time it passed through her as Charlotte padded into the room, carrying a large speckled-blue pitcher full of water. She found her mistress staring hypnotically into the last glowing embers of the fire, her skin nearly blue with the cold.
"Pray God, Madame! You're close to freezing!" she declared in a heavy peasant voice. She slapped the pitcher onto an old oak bureau then, in a brisk maternal sweep, covered Diane with the remaining heap of bedcovers. "Swimming in that river is madness, Madame. If you don't freeze, you're sure to die of the pox!"
There was a long silence between them as Charlotte gathered up the fine Dutch linen undergarments from a trunk at the foot of the bed. Diane watched her, the complex network of wrinkles on Charlotte's full face now highlighted in the gray light from the window. Her kind face was a comfort this morning.
Another servant entered the room in soundless velvet slippers, carrying in one hand a large silver jewelry casket; in the other, a freshly starched headdress. "I have spoken to His Majesty's coachman, Madame," said Helene, in a wispy childlike voice. "He expects we shall reach Court by midday."
Diane nodded but said nothing.
"Have you decided what you shall wear when you are introduced once again to His Majesty?" Charlotte asked. "If I might suggest, the moire silk, or the velvet are both splendid." Confident that her suggestion would be heeded, she did not wait for a reply. She padded with heavy labored steps, back to one of the trunks that lay open, beneath the small latched window. This trunk, like the others already on the coach, was lined with an assortment of silks, furs, petticoats and headdresses.
"It must be perfect. Simple. Solemn. I can afford no mistake in this." She paused a moment, and brushed her slender fingers across her slim white throat. "Prepare the velvet with the white lace collar."
Wrapped in the bedcovers, Diane moved silently to the hearth and a small petit-point hassock. Helene opened the jewelry case and arranged a selection of necklaces and rings. Charlotte laid the chosen gown across the bed near the stockings and underskirt. She smoothed out each article with her short rough hands as Helene moved to the fire to add a few sticks of kindling. A blaze quickly took hold and gold flames licked the walls of the tiny room. The elements of their mistress's costume now in place, Charlotte took up the pearl-handled comb from the table by the bed. With firm, even strokes, she began to untangle the partially drying tendrils of Diane's thick blond hair.
When it was nearly dry, she stood. She could put it off no longer. She must dress. It was an elaborate ritual of camouflage Diane detested. First her breasts were tightly bound. Then her hips were flattened. She was covered next in a long-sleeved blue shift; then a heavy leather corset. A bell-shaped canvas underskirt followed white jersey hose, and finally, her gown. It was simple black velvet with a low square neckline. Across it, Charlotte hung a heavy rope of pearls. The long cuffs, trumpet shaped, were turned back. Their lining was marten fur. She would change into the more formal gown later, after they had been received at Court. His Court.
The dressing of her hair followed. The silky blond waves that fell uncurled down her back were pulled sharply away from her face, pinned and then hidden beneath a black silk bonnet. Slowly, the tall, sensual animal who had come up out of the river was transformed into the picture of nobility. She stood still as the folds in her veil were straightened. Her gown was brushed. Gown, headdress and slippers; they all must be perfect. But no cosmetics . . . never any cosmetics.
When the dressing ritual was complete, Charlotte stepped back and studied Diane as though she were a painting. She held the point of her chin between two fingers, her heavy brows fused in a frown. "If you are not certain about this, Madame, we can just as easily send word to His Majesty that you have fallen ill on your journey. It would be simple enough to tell him that we were required to return home."
The tender concern of the old woman calmed the edges of her own dark fear. She looked at her maid, the hulking body, the skin hanging in aging ruffles from her neck, and her eyes, deep and sincere. Diane smiled.
"It will be all right, Charlotte. Five years is a long time. You shall see. With everything that goes on at Court, people should scarcely remember."
She spoke with conviction, but her words masked a fear greater than she could admit, even to herself. Five years. Who would recall? Five years since the scandal which had rocked the Court and sent her and her husband, Louis, back to Anet to wait out his last days in informal exile. Now Louis was dead and the King had invited her to return.
His Majesty's coach swayed and plunged as the royal guard led the way toward Blois. Inside, Diane and her servants were battered about the dark, stale-smelling cabin. Charlotte, with her red-gray curls beneath a crimson hood, dozed on Helene's shoulder. Diane looked across at them, relieved that she had a few moments to herself. Her head fell back against the red damask cushion as she looked out across the winter landscape of Touraine. The forest was dotted with bare elm trees and patches of melting snow. Across the plowed colorless fields were thatched houses and occasionally a small country church.
Dizzied by the sight and by the fear, she took a small mirror from her velvet handbag and raised it to her face. Gently she rubbed her hand across her cheek. The image that met her was not that of a great beauty. Her nose was too long and her eyes were too deeply set. But her skin was clear and she had a serene elegance, which had always caused people to notice her. Life had been kind. She was certain she did not look anywhere near thirty-one. Her body was still firm and strong and she needed no cosmetics with which to mask herself. She was convinced that daily cold baths held one of the many secrets of youth. In a society where water carried plagues and many were bathed only at birth, after childbirth, and after death, there were few who understood her love of so dangerous a ritual. Yet in spite of the gossip and the stern objections of everyone who knew, Diane continued to bathe every day.
She took a breath and closed her eyes. The sharp clop of hooves on the cobbled road beat to the steady rhythm of her heart. She had made her decision to return to Court. She would face her past . . . she must. So much had changed in these last six months. So much was changing. After a moment, she twirled the wedding ring on her finger. Then, without a thought, she took it from one hand and put it onto the next. It was time to start living again.