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On a winter morning, Solange saw the mist of her breath. She blew on the windows, making a cloudy canvas for her finger.
The maid had come just after dawn to stoke the fire and bring hot chocolate. She had swished open the silk drapes, letting in muted light.
Solange's mother, Henriette, disliked mornings and was attended by a number of maids, who helped her through the early hours. Solange slept in a small anteroom next to her mother's, their rooms at the rear of the château, reached by a narrow, twisting staircase. After the maid had opened the drapes, Solange would rush to her mother's dressing table, eager to be included in Henriette's morning routine. For her mother would spend hours in a gilded chair — her hair coaxed into ringlets, powdered and pinned, her cheeks rouged, her lips painted.
Solange stood at the window and stared out at the private courtyard, enclosed by tall hedges and visible only to her and her mother. Gardeners kept the hedges trimmed but left the potted plants to wither, their leaves shrivelling over their terracotta surrounds in search of water. Frost sparkled on the hedges in the weak sun. Solange wondered if Tomas might chase her through the hedge maze as he had the day before, or if they might skate together on the frozen canals. She rubbed her arms against the chill as she sidled closer to her mother's skirts.
'Go and play. This can't possibly interest you,' Henriette urged with a smile, reaching over to tuck a stray lock of her daughter's hair behind her ear.
'But it does interest me, Maman. I want to learn how it's done.'
'I'm sure if you go and find Tomas, he'll play with you. Your eyes are boring into the back of my head.'
Henriette raised her eyebrows as she turned to examine her daughter. Solange's dress had been chosen for its comfortable fit and plain blue linen. Her hair, barely contained by a white ribbon, was tangled and unruly.
'I'll have to speak to your maid. You're not dressed appropriately. Again.'
'It's my fault, Maman. I insisted on this dress. Lots of playing to do today,' she said with an impish smile.
'Let me kiss you.' Henriette leaned over and kissed Solange's forehead. 'Now you may go. Try not to get so dirty.'
Solange let herself out and climbed the staircase to a vast hallway. Creeping along, she placed her feet with care in the middle of the parquetry flowers on the floor. She had been reprimanded by the duc's valet for galloping, causing the glassware in the hall cabinet to tinkle.
The silk sash of Solange's dress trailed behind her, having escaped her mother's attention. Above was a curved ceiling, where cherubs cavorted, their delicate wings as light as clouds. Solange imagined they watched her as she twirled on each blossoming flower and stood on tiptoe on each leaf. There was no need to hurry.
Solange knew where to find Tomas. He was currently preoccupied with fountains and could be found either throwing coins into their depths or, on warmer days, immersed completely, coming up to open his mouth and spurt jets of water.
The main fountain depicted Zeus and Hera, their arms entwined. Zeus's profile was formidable — the sculptor had meticulously carved each hair of his beard. Hera's sinuous form was swathed in a clinging robe, her refined features a mask of tranquillity, save for a determined stare. No less than fifty jets of water gushed from the statuary into the pool below. Tomas had been locked in his mother's rooms for days after climbing onto Zeus's shoulders. Once released, he had discovered the less spectacular fountain of Apollo, near the orange grove, visible only to servants. Here the children could play in privacy.
Once outside, Solange followed the gravel path to the grounds bordering the orchard. The stones crunched beneath her feet and a citrus-scented breeze caressed her face. Tomas sat on the edge of the marble fountain.
'Hello, Tomas. Too cold for a swim?'
Tomas swivelled around and smiled, his blue eyes glinting in the early morning sun. He had removed his stockings and undone his shirt ties. The wind had tousled his brown hair, which curled to his shoulders.
'Maman was crying this morning,' Tomas announced. 'It's been a week since the duc called for her. There's a new mistress, have you seen her?'
'No. Is she younger than our mothers?'
'Yes, she looks barely five years older than us. From the north. Calais, I think.'
Solange seated herself next to Tomas, her sash trailing in the water. 'The duc wishes for a son. I heard the duchesse tell Maman so.'
Tomas frowned. 'But an illegitimate son, it's not the same.'
'A bastard son is still a son.'
Solange pulled her ribbon from the green-tinged water and flicked it at Tomas's face.
'Don't! I'll throw you in!' he lunged at her.
Solange ducked out of the way, jumped to her feet, and ran. Their laughter echoed through the grounds as he gave chase.
* * *
Solange's footsteps reverberated as she dashed through the hallways. She could hear Tomas counting in the distance as she searched for a hiding place.
Duchesse Charlotte's rooms were full of pretty objects and she slipped inside. The low desk in the corner held a display of mother-of-pearl snuff boxes and hand-painted fans depicting lovers. Solange picked up a fan, giggling under her breath at the watercolour of a bewigged man kissing a lady's neck. Hearing footsteps, she ducked behind a screen. She held her breath, her heart thudding in her chest.
Two voices spoke softly, one Solange recognized as the duchesse. Peering through a tiny gap between the screen partitions, she saw the duchesse's companion, Madame Céline de Poitiers. Both women were dressed for dinner, their hair twisted into braids and ringlets, the skirts of their silk dresses billowing beneath bow-trimmed bodices. The duchesse's indigo dress was elaborate, the bodice embroidered with multi-coloured flowers and the sleeves embellished with lace.
'We must work this out,' Céline said urgently, the words escaping from lips that barely moved. 'My husband cannot support me. I would be an outcast, a sullied woman. I have gone against the tenets of my faith to be his mistress. I can no longer take the sacraments without feeling a hypocrite.'
'Céline, I understand your distress, but what can we do? I cannot control the feelings of my husband, and believe me, I have tried every argument possible.'
'It's simple. The new girl is young and naïve, ignorant of court ways — how we speak to one another, the courtesies, the conversations. We must befriend her, show her how to navigate her way. She will be grateful and confide in us. In this way, we shall learn her weaknesses and undermine her. Show her up or trip her up, whichever comes first.'
The duchesse was silent, examining her hands. She did not lift her head for a long moment. 'It is a vague plan, Céline,' she said at last, 'and I'm not sure where it will lead us. But it's something we may begin at least. Who knows what we may discover. I cannot befriend her, however, my husband would be suspicious. You must do it, and tell me what you find out.'
'Yes, of course.'
Solange held her breath as she listened, gripping the handle of the fan. She committed the words to memory and waited for the right moment to escape.
* * *
Madame Céline de Poitiers was the second eldest mistress. Her husband permitted the arrangement and lived in the nearby town of Blois, content to drink vin sec all day and play faro with the income provided by his wife.
The words of his last letter were fresh in her mind as she stood outside the gilt-edged doors of the duc's rooms. Her husband had reminded her of his mounting debts, requesting that she visit. Céline tried to banish all thoughts of him as she prepared herself to meet with the duc. She had dressed with care in her most expensive white dress and dabbed perfume behind her ears. The duc had been distant for weeks — she would remind him of her worth. She pinched her cheeks and undid the ribbon at the top of her bodice. Poised to knock, she froze, hearing the low rumble of the duc's laughter from within, followed by a high-pitched squeal. A thud and she imagined both of them tumbling to the Persian carpet beneath the canopied bed. He had often done the same with her. Céline stepped backwards with a faltering step and pressed her palm against the wall. Her limbs felt weak, as if they might not hold her upright.
The man's presence beside her did not register until, with a ragged intake of breath, she inhaled a woody scent and her eyes fell on a pair of highly polished shoes with gleaming silver buckles. Her gaze travelled up the man's slight but muscular form, clad in grey breeches, an embroidered waistcoat and navy coat. He adjusted the sleeves of his coat and smirked, enjoying her attention.
Céline frowned as she studied his features. Wide-set flint-blue eyes and full lips, his jaw more oval than square, and brown hair lightly powdered and pulled back. A Roman nose prevented his face from being overly feminine.
'Good morning, madame, are you feeling well? Or would you like me to find you some smelling salts?'
'Blessed Virgin, who in the world are you? And what are you doing sneaking around the hallway?'
'Forgive me, madame, for startling you. My name is Romain de Villiers and I'm an old friend of the duchesse. She has kindly invited me to stay at the château. May I ask your name?'
'Madame Céline de Poitiers. What is the purpose of your stay, monsieur?'
'I am a master of the tarot and will be giving readings to whoever would like them. The duchesse would like the château to be blessed with divine guidance.'
'Divine?' Céline snorted. 'That would be the prerogative of God or the king himself. Do you place yourself on that level, monsieur?'
Romain's face remained a mask of calm. 'Perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, madame. Earthly guidance maybe, or just guidance. What would you suggest? You have intelligent eyes but sensuous lips. I imagine these two aspects of your character are often in turmoil. Piety, the desires of the heart, and the urges of the body. All equally pressing, I imagine.'
Céline's eyes widened and she flushed. Romain's gaze did not waver as he stepped back. Her pale brown hair had not yet been dressed and was pinned loosely. An unremarkable face was made pleasing by astute dark eyes. She was proud of her slender white arms and hands, her fingers long and elegant. She knew she lacked beauty, yet compensated with wit, her show of devotion to God, and her powers of seduction. She was accustomed to achieving her objectives, carnal and otherwise.
'You have surely been sent by the devil, monsieur. I look forward to your readings. Now, I must go.' Céline suppressed a smile and turned, feeling his eyes on her back as she glided away.CHAPTER 2
From the window of Duchesse Charlotte's private drawing room Henriette could see the wide avenue, lined with plane trees, that led to the château. Geometric plantings of peonies and neat squares of lawn were dissected with precise hedging. The perfection was comforting. The gardeners knew where to cut and did not deviate. Only the colours changed and the blooms, which appeared in summer, withered in winter.
The duchesse sipped hot chocolate, her Bichon dogs nestled around her voluminous silk skirts. One lay spreadeagled on its back, waiting patiently to be scratched. Charlotte's cheeks were flushed pink and she tapped her foot in a rapid beat.
'Well, have you met her?'
Turning from the window, Henriette feigned ignorance. 'Have I met whom?'
Charlotte sighed. 'Letitia. My husband's child concubine. I know your rooms are tucked away, Henriette, but you're the most senior mistress. Are you truly unaware of what's going on?'
'There may have been whispers, among the maids. It's just another young mistress; what is it about her that disturbs you so?'
Charlotte pulled a lace handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. 'She is ravishing and virginal,' the duchesse said. 'Her voice is sweet and she possesses an uncommon wit for a girl of eighteen. But these virtues are the least of my concerns. My husbandhe appears'— her voice quavered —'to be in love with her.'
Henriette drew in her breath and lowered herself onto a chair, giving Charlotte her full attention. 'And how do you know this? Love, are you certain? I did not believe him capable of it.'
The duchesse was silent, head bent to her hands, white-clenched in her lap. Tears fell on her fingers, rolled off, and soaked the rose-coloured silk of her dress.
'He is capable of it. Despite you, Céline and the others, it has always been me he loved,' Charlotte insisted. 'I have prayed to the Virgin every day for the past three years that I may bless him with a son, but she has been deaf to my pleas. Now this child will deliver a bastard, who will be made legitimate. He has been courting her for six months and I did not know of it. You will see.' Her startling blue eyes were red-rimmed, glistening with tears.
Henriette reached out and took the duchesse's hand in her own. 'He is close to Estelle. You will not lose your status, as that would hurt his daughter.'
The duchesse composed her face and tucked her handkerchief beneath her sleeve. She pressed her lips together. 'You're quite right. He is very fond of the girl. You are a dear friend, Henriette — you must promise to keep our conversation to yourself.'
Henriette patted her hand. 'It will not go beyond this room.'
* * *
Romain de Villiers waited in the drawing room near the entrance hall, shifting on a brocade armchair. A clock whirred on the mantel and faint peals of laughter could be heard from upstairs. The room was dim, save for a shaft of golden light streaming through the window and pooling on the polished parquetry. The scent of lilies hung in the air.
Pressing his fingers to his temples, Romain tried to forget a memory from the day before. The thickset man, with bulging bloodshot eyes and snarling lips, had pummelled Romain as he cowered against the wall of the tavern. 'Give me the money, I know you have it, you dog!' the man wheezed between punches, spittle showering Romain's face. An entire container of powder had been required to disguise the livid bruises decorating Romain's cheekbones and the puffiness swelling one eye.
The swish of skirts sounded Duchesse d'Amboise's arrival, and Romain rose stiffly to his feet, brushing down his velvet coat and sucking in his cheeks.
'Monsieur de Villiers, it is a pleasure to see you again. It has been a long time.' The duchesse held out a tapered white hand and motioned for him to sit down.
Romain bowed and sat, keeping his eyes fixed on the duchesse's face, as she sank with a rustle of silk into the chair opposite him. 'I am also honoured to see you, Your Grace.'
'There is no need for such formality, monsieur. You may start with 'madame,' and we will see how things progress. I have heard you show great accuracy with the cards.'
'I do not wish to be immodest, madame, but I am yet to be wrong in my predictions.'
Perched on the edge of her gilt chair, the duchesse leaned forward, her pinned-up blonde hair backlit like a halo, her features as delicate as a porcelain doll. Her lips curved in a smile. 'I'm pleased to hear that. I have some questions and lack the patience to wait for answers.'
* * *
The drawing room glowed as the fire leapt in the hearth. The orange-gold flames mirrored the fading light outside as the sun dipped behind the hills surrounding Blois. An imposing portrait of a younger duc dominated one wall. Hugo stood in hunting clothes, the carcass of a fox draped over one shoulder. He was flanked by a group of salivating hounds, the forest a forbidding smudge of green behind.
Henriette stood at a slight distance from the other women, who huddled around an ebony-topped table, their skirts rustling. Some had arrived from the court at Versailles, others were members of the local aristocracy. They had come to hear the great tarot reader reveal their fortunes. Romain de Villiers bent over the cards, resplendent in a scarlet cloak and a silver turban with a peacock feather. A curlicue of smoke wove from a brass incense burner and two blue and white ceramic dragons stood guard at each corner of the table. A guttering candle illuminated a glittering display of coloured crystals and two golden pentacles wrought from brass. Céline sat opposite Romain, studying his expression as he gently caressed the vivid illustrations that decorated the tarot cards. His eyes were half-closed and his lips moved but he did not speak.
Tomas and Solange had been instructed to keep their distance, but inched ever closer. They craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the tarot reader between the silk-clad shoulders of the court ladies and their elaborate hairpieces that glittered with gold and feather. Their mothers had been unable to speak of anything else for days, the lure of readings surpassing any talk of the new mistress. The women murmured and leaned forward to catch Monsieur de Villier's low tones as he delivered his verdict to Céline.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Orange Grove"
Copyright © 2019 Kate Murdoch.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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