Read an Excerpt
With the crimson, emerald, and purple plumes of their hats streaming out behind them, four young men rode at speed into the village of Versailles one May morning in 1664, scattering squawking geese in their path.
"We should have been here hours ago," Augustin Roussier yelled to his companions, making his horse rear as they halted to view the busy scene. "All the best lodgings will have been taken by the look of it!"
The rutted streets were crammed with elegant traffic more at home in Paris, from which most of them had come, than in these countrified surroundings. The sun glinted on gilded coachwork and harness, the warm air hazy with dust thrown up by wheels and hooves. Six hundred of the nobility had been invited to the first grandfete ever to be held at the nearby hunting lodge, which was a small place with only accommodation enough for a few of the king's special guests to stay.
"Is it any use trying the inns to see if there's a room left?" asked one of his companions as they moved their tired horses forward at a more restful pace. "There are three hostelries, I believe."
"I'd say we've lost that chance, Leon. See! Even those miserable hovels have been taken." Augustin flicked his gloved hand toward some old stone houses they were passing. Well-dressed arrivals were stepping fastidiously inside, never having set foot in such humble places before, their servants carrying in their boxes and baggage after them. "Those we left behind us on the road will be lucky to get a stable at this rate."
He was the natural leader of their high-spirited group. They had become friends during their initial year's service with the First Company of the King's Musketeers, a duty expected of every young courtier who wished for promotion at Court. Not yet twenty, born of Huguenot stock and of a father with powerful financial interests, Augustin was tall with a straight bearing and a good physique, his looks dashing and debonair.
Like most youths of his age, he scorned the fashionable full-bottomed periwig and wore his own hair, which was thick, curly, and long enough to rest on his broad shoulders in the modish style. Its luxuriant growth, black shot with blueish lights, framed features hardening into the square jaw and prominent nose of his forebears. Beneath thick brows the narrow eyes were a curiously brilliant green and there was a lusty eagerness in the lines of the wide mouth. As always when he was with these particular friends, Leon Postel, Francois Esconde, and Jacques de Fresnay, any excuse for a prank or horseplay was seized on with relish. They had enlivened the ride from Paris with a number of diversions, such as racing each other dangerously, swerving in front of coach horses, and flirting with pretty women riding together in the lumbering equipages.
"At least let us stop for a swig of wine first." Francois eased a gloved finger around the inside of his lace-trimmed neck band, his freckled face gleaming with beads of sweat.
"Agreed!" Jacques, hawk-faced and fair-haired, made exaggerated gasping sounds. "I'm parched from the dust of the ride. There's a wineshop ahead."
"We can't afford to stop yet." Augustin twisted in his saddle to signal his own servant forward from the retinue of valets who had now caught up in the rear, bringing with them the extra horses with saddle hampers and chests of clothes. "Get a few bottles of the best wine this place can provide," he instructed, "and follow me."
The wine, coarse and rough though it was, proved welcome when the search for accommodation brought no result. While the servants did the knocking on doors, Augustin and his companions tossed it back from their silver traveling cups. Its potency took full effect as the rising heat of noon combined with their deep thirst, Leon's swarthy complexion almost reaching the same hue as the wine itself. All four of them became more boisterous and everything seemed excruciatingly funny to them. There was plenty to amuse as women accidentally set satin-shod feet into cow dung, sometimes causing a loss of balance amid squeals of temper and dismay, and fellow gallants, who were no more used to inconveniences than they were themselves, sprang off their horses to kick and cuff their unfortunate servants for failing to get a room for them in the last of the tolerable property.
The local priest had opened his house for some of the women out of sympathy for their plight, but he ran like a schoolboy, his black robes flapping, to lock the doors of the twelfth-century church before anyone thought to bed down there. He knew as well as anybody that there would inevitably be drunkenness and every other kind of indulgence before the royal fete was at an end. Augustin, laughing, wheeled his black horse about with a sheen of flanks to the church steps and leaned from the saddle to offer him a cup of wine. It was refused with uplifted white palms before the priest went scurrying back to his house.
Gradually the search spread from the center of the village to the outskirts. Versailles, situated as it was on the main road between Normandy and Paris, was better able to house travelers than the neighboring hamlets, but already some people had set off for Clagny and Saint-Cyr and Trianon in the hope of snatching up the best accommodation there, not knowing that they could not expect even a moderation of comfort in those poverty-stricken hamlets.
Augustin's servant, dodging in front of one of these departing coaches as he returned from a row of mean-looking stone cottages, gave his information breathlessly. "All rooms have been claimed, except in the end one where the housewife is in labor and nobody is being accommodated."
Augustin raised an eyebrow incredulously. "Do you mean that space has been found at last and admittance refused?"
"The woman is almost at birthing point--"
"Out of my way!" Augustin swung himself down from the saddle and turned to the other three with a sweep of his arm. "Come along, my friends! If this were a royal birth, it would be our noble right to witness the delivery! A peasant woman has no cause to keep us out!"
He made for the cottage. Whooping and shouting as if going into battle, the trio dismounted and rushed after him. The door was on the latch and he flung it wide as he entered, those in his wake following close behind, the heels of their riding boots ringing on the flagstones. They found themselves in the single whitewashed room that served all purposes. Sparsely furnished with a rough-hewn table, a dresser, and benches, it was stiflingly hot, the windows tightly shut. A midwife swung around from a bed in the far corner, her sleeves rolled up above her elbow, her apron soiled and her sweaty red face a mask of outrage at this intrusion. Deftly she flicked a corner of the sheet over the bare updrawn legs of the groaning woman she was tending before taking up a belligerent stance with feet apart and arms akimbo.
"Messieurs! You must leave this instant! Madame Dremont is unable to wait on anyone and there is no place for you here."
A scream of torment compelled her to turn back to her charge. The woman in labor, regaining her breath, raised her head weakly from the pillow. "Who has come?"
The midwife reached out to pull the ragged bed-curtain across and block the view, but her action came too late. Jeanne Dremont's pain-filled eyes became drenched with horror as she saw the four youths advancing toward her. She began to shriek hysterically, releasing the labor rope strung across the bed to clutch frantically at the midwife's hand.
"Make them go away! Have I not endured enough this day?"
Augustin thrust the curtain far back on its rings and looked down at her. She was about thirty-five but looked much older, her gaunt bones having taken over from the bloom of youth. Her faded hair, with some traces of red, was darkened by sweat and her lips were drawn back grotesquely in her mental and physical agony. Compassion for her moved him.
"Don't be alarmed, madame," he assured her kindly, the wine making his tone jocular. "We don't want your bed. Some clean blankets and fresh lice-free straw will suffice for us."
She drew breath and tried to answer him, seeing he meant her no harm, but a new wave of pain defeated her, cutting her through. It was hard not to believe she was caught up in a terrible, whirling nightmare. Young male grins and laughing eyes were at the side of her bed, cheering her on as though she were a racehorse nearing the winning post. She did not know that the queens of France had to suffer the same public witness. The midwife, no time left for argument, had elbowed her way free to be ready for the moment of birth and was coaxing her toward it amid the uproar. All decency had flown. Even a doctor delivered under a modesty blanket, but whatever had been covering her seemed to have fallen away. She heard her own ear-splitting scream as she thrust against the final ripping apart of her body, her back arching like a bow. With a rush the baby came. As its wail went up there was a burst of applause from the noblemen. The one she heard addressed as Augustin gave her the news before the midwife had a chance.
"It's a girl! You have a fine daughter, madame!"
In exhaustion, she let herself sink deep into the mattress of goose feathers, eyes closed and a smile on her lips. She no longer cared about anything else. The baby's lusty wailing was music to her. After several stillbirths and more miscarriages, she had a living child. "Give her to me," she implored in an exultant whisper.
The midwife had cut the cord and wrapped the infant in a piece of linen. When she would have handed her over to the mother, Augustin snatched the human bundle away and swept the newborn infant high into the air, regarding her fondly.
"You're like a crumpled little flower, mademoiselle," he joked, making swooping circles with her. His friends came to gather around, laughing as they shoved and pushed each other. In the bed Jeanne reached out her arms, gripped by panic at this new turn of drunken horseplay. She was terrified they might start throwing the infant to each other like a ball.
"Let me have her, sir! I beg you!"
He took no notice, continuing to address the baby whose pouched lids blinked at him over an unfocused gaze, her lungs continuing to give forth a newborn cry. "A bloom from the meadows and dung-heaps of Versailles, that's what you are, ma petite. Marguerite is a name that would suit you. Yes, I name you Marguerite." His friends cheered noisily. Jeanne would have struggled from the bed if the midwife had not restrained her. "In seventeen years," he continued laughingly, "Jacques and Francois and Leon and I will be back to court you. Pay no attention to them. I'll be the one for you. In the meantime here's a token of my good faith." He had a louis d'or in his pocket and as he gave the infant into her mother's arms he pressed it into her tiny fingers. "See how she clutches it, madame! She'll be an expensive wife for a man to keep when the time comes."
Jeanne, whose tears had been streaming down her face in her fright, turned her shoulder to him as she settled the infant protectively against her. He bowed to them both and pulled the curtain across to leave them on their own with the midwife.
When Theo Dremont hurried home from work there was little hope in him that his wife's labor, which had started in the early hours before sunrise, would have proved any more productive than on previous occasions. After each one Jeanne had become more difficult and at times quite strange in the head. He had had to take a stick to beat the sense back into her too often for his liking, but his reputation in the village had to be considered and no one respected a man not seen to master domestic upheavals in his own house. After a few months of constant weeping, Jeanne had adjusted once again. If after every disappointment she was a little less stable than before, only he knew it.
His mouth fell agape as he stopped in the doorway of his house and saw its disarray. There was no sign of the neighbor who should have had a cooked dinner ready for him. Instead two dandy menservants in doublets and petticoat breeches with ribbons at the knees, aprons about their waists, were removing from the table the remains of what appeared to have been a grand meal judging by the number of chicken bones and emptied wine bottles.
All the windows stood open and under them were four mounds of clean straw that had been shaped into beds, with a satin-lined cloak on each in lieu of blankets. A row of riding boots, newly polished, stood beside some traveling chests stacked against the wall. From the scaffolding around a barn he was building for a farmer, he had seen throughout the day the nobility descending like a great flock of peacocks on the village and he realized full well that his cottage had been taken over. Yet the question still burst from him.
"What's going on here?"
The two menservants looked condescendingly at him. They had seen their masters rigged out in best clothes and off to the royal lodge before they and their fellows had cooked and enjoyed a good meal themselves out of supplies brought with them. Although of peasant stock, they adopted the rank of their masters in the hierarchy of the servant world and thought themselves well above this thick-shouldered, coarse-featured artisan in his dirty brick-laying clothes. The taller of the two pointed to a leather purse on the windowsill.
"That's your payment and there'll be more when our masters are ready to leave."
Theo snatched up the purse and tipped the contents into his calloused palm. His eyes gleamed. The longer the king's fete lasted the better as far as he was concerned. As he pocketed the purse he remembered what had brought him home with more haste than usual. He looked toward the bed. The curtains were drawn and there was silence. With a depressed sigh he turned to hang up his hat, only to find every peg taken up with riding coats and headgear. He put his own hat on the floor. Crossing to the bed he drew back the curtains, expecting to find Jeanne lying stark-eyed and immobile with disappointment.
From the Trade Paperback edition.