The year is 1745 and King Louis XV’s bed is once again empty. Enter Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a beautiful girl from the middle classes. As a child, a fortune teller had told young Jeanne’s destiny: she would become the lover of a king and the most powerful woman in the land. Eventually connections, luck, and a little scheming pave her way to Versailles and into the King’s arms.
All too soon, conniving politicians and hopeful beauties seek to replace the bourgeois interloper with a more suitable mistress. As Jeanne, now the Marquise de Pompadour, takes on her many rivals—including a lustful lady-in-waiting, a precocious fourteen-year-old prostitute, and even a cousin of the notorious Nesle sisters—she helps the king give himself over to a life of luxury and depravity. Around them, war rages, discontent grows, and France inches ever closer to the Revolution.
Told in Christie's celebrated witty and modern style, The Rivals of Versailles will delight and entrance fans as it brings to life the court of Louis XV in all its pride, pestilence, and glory.
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The Rivals of Versailles
The gypsy’s hair is as red as blood, I think in astonishment. She catches me staring and starts, rabbitlike, as though she recognizes me. But she does not, and I certainly don’t know anyone quite so dirty.
“I pray you not to touch me,” I say as she comes toward me, but still there is something familiar about her. My mother bustles over, carrying a pastry in the shape of a pig, and pulls me back from the filthy woman.
“Just look at those perfect eyes,” says the woman. She takes my hand, a coarse brown mitt over my own, and I smell a mix of smoke and sweat. “And that heart-shaped face. She is as pretty as a miracle, though no wonder with such a handsome mother. I’ll tell you her fortune.”
“We have no need of counsel from the likes of you,” says my mother harshly and pulls me away into the crowd, almost colliding with a pair of shepherds reeling in a drunken dance. The fair is in full swing, a riot of festivity and noise billowing around us:
“Fresh lemons and fresh lemonade, sugared or not! Fresh lemons, straight from Provence.”
“A pair of dancing ducks! A pair of dancing ducks!”
“Come see the white bear, only fifteen sous!”
“No, no,” wheedles the gypsy woman, appearing once again at our side. “I will tell her future. I know it already.” She catches Mama’s curiosity and deftly pockets it. “But I have no need to tell you how special she is. A princess with a queen for a mother.”
Mama inclines her head, softened by the compliment.
“Come to my tent and I will tell you of the wondrous future that lies ahead for little . . .” She leers keenly at me, sees the engraved J on the porcelain pendant, tied with a ribbon around my neck. “Little Julie . . . Jo— Jeanne?”
“Oh! But Jeanne is my name!” I exclaim. How did she know?
My mother wavers. “No more than fifty sous, mind you.”
“Eighty is my price, but none has ever been dissatisfied.”
The two women stare at each other and I stomp my foot, impatient to be away and see the dancing ducks. I have no need for my future to be told, for what nine-year-old ever doubted their happiness? They reach an understanding and reluctantly I follow the red-haired woman into the gloaming of her tent. Something slithers in the dirty rushes at my feet and the foul odor of uncured leather swamps the air. Smoothly she pockets the coins my mother gives her and her hands, as coarse as bark, fold over mine again.
“No cards?” asks my mother imperiously.
“No need,” says the woman. The outside world fades and the gypsy seems to grow in stature and dignity. Brown fingers steal over my palms, and up and around my wrists.
“Your daughter is a pearl.” She speaks as though in a trance. “So rare—open hundreds of oysters, but you’ll find only one pearl.” Soon we are lulled by the soft stream of her voice: “Your future extends even beyond the ambitions of your mother. You will be loved by a king, and be the most powerful woman in the land. Your future glitters like the stars. A little queen: I see it as though it passes in front of me.”
She snaps out of her trance and smiles ingratiatingly at my mother. “And there, madame, the fortune of your daughter.”
“How do I know it is true?” asks my mother, and her voice comes from far away; she is as spellbound as I.
The gypsy snorts and spits neatly into the rushes. “Because I can see what is to come. This little girl is special. She will be the lover of a king.”
My mother flinches. I know vaguely what a lover is: a nice man who brings gifts and compliments, like my Uncle Norman.
“The way is not all clear,” the gypsy continues, stroking my palm lightly. “I see several great sorrows, three men on dark horses riding across the plain.”
“None of that,” says Mama sharply. “She is much too young.”
“Three is a number far less than most will know,” retorts the gypsy.
We emerge back into the crisp sunshine of the October day, the world bright and noisy after the confines of the dirty tent.
“Mama,” I ask timidly, uncertain of asking for a trifle after such momentous news, “can we go and see the ducks now? The dancing ducks?”
My mother looks down at me and for a second it is as though she knows me not. Then she blinks and squeezes my hand.
“Of course, darling. Of course. My Reinette,” she adds. “My little queen. What wonderful news! Come, let us go and see these ducks you have been pestering me about all morning. Anything for my little queen.”
That night Mama’s lover Norman comes to visit. Papa is away in Germany, disgraced for some business no one will explain to me, and it is Norman who takes care of us. Uncle Norman, as I call him, often spends the night. I’m not sure why, for his house is far grander than ours. We don’t keep a single manservant, only Nurse, and Sylvie in the kitchens. Perhaps he is lonely—he is not married—or his sheets are being laundered. Mama is very beautiful and Sylvie once said that we only live comfortably because of Mama’s friends. It is good she has so many.
Mama and Uncle Norman closet themselves in the salon and I eat alone with Nurse and my little brother, Abel, who fusses and spits out his milk. I think of the fortune-teller and her hands, like dried old leather—how did they get so rough?
“Marie, do you think our king is handsome?”
“Of course he is, duck. The most handsome man in France, as is fitting.” We have a portrait of the king in the salon: a small boy, stiff in a magnificent red coat, with large eyes and thick brown hair. I think he looks sad, and quite lonely. He was only five when he became king. That must have been difficult, with still so much to learn, and who would play with a king?
Of course, the king is older now—he turned twenty this year, more than double my age—and is married to a Polish princess. Sylvie says the queen looks like a cow and I imagine her to be very beautiful, with large, soft eyes and a peaceful expression. How lucky she is to be married to the king!
Later that evening my mother comes to say good night. She pushes a strand of hair back into my nightcap and strokes my cheek. I love my mother with all my heart; the nuns at school say the heart in my chest is no bigger than a chestnut, but how can something so small hold so much love?
“Dearest, your Uncle Norman and I have come to a decision.”
“Oui, Maman.” I am fighting to keep my eyes open but what Mama says next opens them wide.
“Jeanne, darling, we have decided you will not return to the convent.”
Oh! “But why, Mama?” I sit up and duck her caressing hands. “I love the convent! And the nuns! And my friend Claudine, and what about Chester?”
“Who is Chester?”
“Our pet crow!”
“Darling, these things are for the best. You must trust Uncle Norman and me.”
“But why?” I ask, tears pricking my eyes. I love the convent and had secretly been counting the days until my return. Only twelve, but now that number has become forever.
“Darling, you heard the gypsy woman. You have a great future ahead. My little Reinette.”
“Why do you care what that smelly old woman said? It’s not fair!”
“Reinette! Never speak like that about other people. No matter how dirty they may be. Now, listen, dearest. Uncle Norman has agreed to take care of your education. This is a wonderful opportunity and you will learn far more than the nuns could teach you.” My mother imparts her desires through her tightening grip on my hands. “He promises you will learn with the finest musicians in the land. We’ll buy a clavichord! And take lessons in painting, and drawing, and singing. Anything you desire.”
“Geography?” I ask.
“Certainly, that too, darling. We shall order a globe from Germaine’s. And elocution as well, I think. Though your voice is very pretty by nature.”
Mama leaves and I snuggle down to sleep, happy, dreaming of my very own clavichord. I will write to Claudine very often and we will always remain friends, and they will take care of Chester and all will be well. As I drift down to sleep, I realize I forgot to ask why Uncle Norman is suddenly taking such a strong and expensive interest in my education.