Marguerite Laurent, a Parisian needlewoman, is summoned to the Imperial Court of Empress Elizabeth to work as the Empress' personal embroiderer. She travels as part of a retinue of talented foreigners, several of whom worked in the same atelier as Marguerite. Each of the women has her own reasons for wishing to flee France, and they embark upon their adventure in a spirit of excitement mixed with trepidation, for the Empress' reputation is fearsome.
Their journey is long, uncomfortable, and dangerous, but Marguerite makes friendships that will sustain her during the difficult months when she first arrives in Russia – most particularly with a handsome Englishman, Tom Harwell, a landscape gardener whose task is to create beautiful gardens for the Empress, and with an art dealer, Simon de Villiers…
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
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To Dream of Snow
By Rosalind Laker
Severn House Publishers LtdCopyright © 2004 Rosalind Laker
All rights reserved.
Her screeches of temper echoed back into the crowded ballroom like those of a trapped eagle. Neither hastily closed doors nor the playing of the orchestra within could drown the ear-splitting sounds until she had gone some distance away. Candlelight in wall sconces threw her shadow everywhere as she stormed through the enfilade of gilded portals that took her from one vast and glitteringly ornate room into another.
'Never again!' she shrieked, shaking her fists in the air.
Terrified servants prostrated themselves as she charged past while those younger and nimbler dived behind the open doors or pressed themselves against the walls of alcoves to keep out of her way. In her present mood she would be quick to strike out at any one of them and had once beaten a maidservant almost to death.
As Empress Elisabeth, Tsarina of all the Russias, approached her own private apartment the guards flung wide its double doors and she swept through. Snatching up a crystal decanter by its neck and a glass from a side table, she paced the magnificent room with its mural-covered walls. Pouring glass after glass of wine, she gulped it down, still engulfed by her rage. Now and again the wine slopped down the front of her bodice, but it was of no consequence since she never wore the same gown twice.
Richly framed mirrors reflected her image as she passed to and fro, catching the sparkle of diamonds in her dyed-black hair. Sometimes she wore it powdered in the new fashion, but tonight she had chosen otherwise. She was a sturdily built, beautiful and full-breasted woman in her forties with a high forehead to her round face and magnificent dark-blue, almost violet eyes under arched brows. Those meeting her for the first time, when she was her most charming and gracious self, found it hard to believe that she could ever be as viciously spiteful and petty or even as enormously vain, avaricious and ruthlessly cruel as they had heard. But they were not long at court before they learned that all of it was true.
When Elisabeth replaced the emptied decanter and set the glass heavily beside it her hands were unsteady, but her thoughts were clear. Never again should the wife of that French diplomat draw eyes away from her! Tonight had been the final straw! The Frenchwoman's gown with its embroidered sprigs of lilac had seemed to shimmer as if the blossoms were moving in a light breeze. She, who always gowned herself magnificently, had never possessed a garment like it. If the Comtesse d'Oinville had been one of her own ladies she would have grabbed a courtier's dress sword and slashed the gown over and over again from waist to hem until it was in ribbons! – just as she had once slashed off the topknot of one of her ladies at court who had dared to wear a delicate arrangement of ribbons far prettier than anything that had ever been created for her.
Sitting down, Elisabeth drummed her fingers on the end of the sofa as she thought out a course of action. Now that it was spring and the snows had gone the Comtesse would be leaving for Paris very shortly. Naturally the woman would replenish her wardrobe while visiting family, but there was a simple way to prevent her from being the focus of all eyes in such a gown again!
Elisabeth smiled vindictively. Nothing should be rushed. She would bide her time until the moment was right. That Frenchwoman must have no advance knowledge of her plan. The Comte d'Oinville and the French Ambassador were both as anxious as each other not to upset her since she made no secret of distrusting French politics. The Ambassador, eager for a new trade agreement with his country, would be only too pleased to see that her wish was carried out. For the same reason, the Comte d'Oinville would endorse it no matter how much his wife might protest.
Her mood had changed. She rang a little silver bell and her maids-in-waiting came scurrying to undress her and prepare her for bed. Then she sent one of them to summon her current lover, a young officer new to one of her regiments, who had caught her lustful eye. Alone, she slipped off her silken robe and spread herself sensuously on the wide bed, her naked body creamy in the candle-glow. Through her seductively lowered lashes she watched the door for the young man's arrival.
In the upper room of a Paris atelier a young woman sat at her work. Her needle flashed with the speed of her stitching. In and out. Silk thread whispering and swirling. On the table at which she sat the glossy satin with its embroidered embellishment lay spread before her like a golden harvest.
Marguerite Laurent was alone at her task. As head embroiderer she was allowed plenty of space when working on a voluminous skirt or a cloak. Even when embroidering gentlemen's silk coats and waistcoats she had the luxury of this upper room to herself.
The late summer sunshine was pouring through the small-paned window, giving her a brilliant light, but like every other window in Madame Fromont's establishment it was kept bolted against dust and dirt floating in from the Paris streets to soil delicate work. It was for the same reason that her cap and apron had to be spotless and her mass of luxuriant copper-brown hair tucked completely out of sight.
These days she worked in silence, concentrating on her task. Yet before she had been plunged into an abyss of grief a few days before her marriage she had often sung happily to herself as she worked – an old remembered song from childhood or something she and Jacques had heard from a street performer. Her late sister, Anne-Marie, who had been twelve years older, had once told her that she had inherited their late mother's gift of a good voice and it made a link for her with the woman she could not remember.
A final stitch, a snip with the scissors and her task was done. As she stood to gather the mass of material together she heard the familiar sound of slow and heavy footsteps mounting the stairs. Then Madame Fromont, short and rotund with a permanently high purple colour in her cheeks, heaved herself into the room. She paused breathlessly on the threshold with a shake of her head, pressing a hand against her chest.
'I declare those stairs get steeper every day!' she sighed despairingly, more to herself than to the young woman, who had promptly pushed a chair forward for her. She lowered herself on to it. 'You've finished the skirt, Marguerite? Good. I have just had an urgent message from the Comtesse d'Oinville. She wants to see you now.'
Marguerite was surprised. 'But her latest order was delivered three weeks ago in good time for her journey back to Russia, and she was satisfied with everything.'
Madame Fromont shrugged her shoulders. 'I've no idea what she wants. Perhaps she needs yet another new gown to take with her. Let us decide which of your latest designs you should show her.' Then she nodded towards some small, elegantly gowned dolls lined up on a shelf. 'You can also take two of those fashion mannequin dolls dressed in the new styles you created the other day.'
A selection of designs, including some of embroidery, was made and put into a presentation folder, which was laid in a silk-lined, flat-bottomed basket. A swatch of Lyon silks was added and finally Marguerite placed the two fashion dolls carefully on top before drawing a cover over them.
As Madame Fromont went downstairs again Marguerite removed her cap and apron. Taking her flat-crowned straw hat from its peg, she put it on. It had been trimmed with scarlet ribbons until her bereavement, but she had replaced them with black ones and, more recently, with blue in her constant struggle to adjust to her loss. It was these that she tied back under her luxuriant hair, which she wore simply, drawn away from her face in one of the current modes into a clusters of short curls at the nape of her neck, a few tendrils wafting. Picking up the basket, she slipped it on to her arm and went swiftly downstairs and out into the sun.
There was a slight breeze that fanned her face as she set off along the street. The sights and sounds of the ancient city with its grand as well as its humble buildings and narrow alleyways, were intensely familiar to her, for they were all she had known in the nineteen years of her life. Various aromas, some pleasant, others nauseating, assailed her as she passed by wine shops and saddlers, flower sellers, butchers' stalls and coffee houses. At the corner of the cobbled street the smoky stench from the burnt-out shell of what had been a goldsmiths' workshop still seemed to assail her, even though she knew it was only the heart-wrenching memory of that terrible day that caused her mind to play tricks. Yet it was a daily torture to her that she could not escape, for there was no other route by which she could get to work.
Tall and slender, her step was brisk as she walked along, for the nobility did not like to be kept waiting. The brim of her hat shaded eyes that were more amber than brown in an oval face that was not conventionally beautiful but alert in expression with well-shaped cheekbones and a firm curve to the chin. There was also a vibrancy about her in spite of her grief that had lain so heavily on her heart for almost a year now. Previously her exuberance for life had shown itself in her love of dancing and laughter and good company, but losing her beloved Jacques had sobered her in a way that seriously concerned her friends.
After twenty minutes she reached a long avenue lined with fine mansions and her heels tapped across a paved courtyard to the servants' entrance of the Comte d'Oinville's city residence. He was a diplomat, presently in Moscow, where his wife was shortly to rejoin him. Marguerite had been to their house many times before, for fine embroidery on garments had never been more fashionable and the Comtesse liked always to have long discussions about the designs and colours before making a choice. At first Madame Fromont, although an amiable woman, had resented being bypassed, but the Comtesse was too important a patron to upset in any way.
As usual on these visits Marguerite was shown into a pink and gold boudoir. Normally she was greeted with a nod and an austere little smile, but today she found the Comtesse d'Oinville, an elegant, small-waisted woman with porcelain features, sitting grim-faced on a sofa, the fashionable side panniers of her gown extending her olive-green skirt over the width of it. Her beringed fingers were sparkling restlessly in her lap.
'You may sit down,' she said with unusual sharpness.
Uneasily Marguerite took a chair facing her. 'Is something wrong, Madame la Comtesse?' she inquired anxiously.
'Not with your work, but I have a matter of importance that I'm reluctant to put to you. You will remember the ivory-silk gown that you embroidered with the Persian motif in all those beautiful colours for my visit to Russia?' As Marguerite nodded, the woman continued. 'I wore it to my first ball there, but the Empress Elisabeth showed such hostility towards me that I was bewildered to know why! Earlier that day she had been most gracious and welcoming to both the Comte and myself on his appointment to the Russian Court. Then our ambassador explained to me afterwards that the Empress's colossal vanity makes it impossible for her to tolerate the presence of any woman gowned more magnificently than herself!'
'Oh, Madame!' Marguerite breathed in dismay. It was a compliment that the powerful Tsarina of Russia should have admired her work, however unpleasant the consequences, but did it mean that the Comtesse had decided now at the last minute to abandon the equally embellished gowns made for her second visit to Russia? She knew that no payment had been received yet, for the nobility resented any request for money as if it were a privilege to work for them and a year usually elapsed before anything was forthcoming.
'The wretched woman was even worse towards me on another occasion when I wore the azure silk worked in silver thread! At the best of times we French are not exactly in favour at the Russian Court and after that second dreadful display of her vile temper our ambassador asked me to wear simpler gowns! He said that the Empress was so unpredictable that she could create an international incident out of an imagined slight.'
'How difficult it must have been for you, Madame!'
'It was indeed. I had to keep my best gowns for events when I knew she would not be there.' She sighed with exasperation. 'Just as I shall have to do this time.'
Marguerite breathed a silent sigh of relief. At least Madame Fromont was not going to find those garments back on her hands.
'I deeply resented the rule that had been imposed upon me,' the Comtesse continued. 'Then on the eve of my coming home at a Kremlin Palace ball in Moscow I decided to do as I wished and look my very best for my husband and everybody else. So I wore the lilac gown with the lappets that look like floating blossoms. I ignored the Empress's glowering expression, but when she stalked up to me in the middle of the dancing she was shaking with fury from head to toe. She even raised a fist as if she would strike me before she turned on her heel and stamped out of the ballroom!' Impatiently the Comtesse snatched up a letter from a side table. 'I would never have spoken of the matter if this letter had not come today by special messenger from our ambassador!'
Marguerite listened incredulously as it was read out to her. The Empress had demanded that the Comtesse d'Oinville's embroiderer should travel to Russia immediately. There she would be in charge of a spacious atelier and create exclusively for the Empress and, on a more moderate scale, for the Grand Duchess Catherine, wife of the heir to the throne. She was to bring with her four or five equally gifted embroiderers and they were to travel at the Tsarina's expense with the Comtesse's entourage. Comfortable living quarters would be provided, the head embroiderer's salary would be generous and her assistants well paid, and local seamstresses of her choosing would make up her work force.
'But there must be many skilled embroiderers all over Russia!' Marguerite exclaimed in bewilderment.
The Comtesse had lowered the letter to her lap. 'Of course there are, but the Empress thinks nothing of summoning foreigners to her court from all over Europe if they can be of some particular highly skilled service to her. She has an English head gardener, a Danish doctor and an Italian hairdresser to name but a few. But with Frenchwomen such as Madame de Pompadour and myself leading the world in fashion,' she added smugly, linking herself with the most fashionable woman at Versailles, 'it is no wonder that the Empress has turned her greedy eyes towards Paris, no matter how much she dislikes us as a nation!' The woman's lips whitened beneath their paint as she compressed them, making a beauty spot by her upper lip quiver angrily. 'She is also making sure that I do not eclipse her again! I had to let you know the contents of this letter, but you need not concern yourself about it. I leave for Russia at the end of the week and it will give me great satisfaction upon arrival to let the Ambassador inform her that you declined her offer.'
Marguerite had turned pale. She was being given the opportunity to begin life again. In new surroundings the still raw anguish within her could give way to a healing. She would be able to remember all the happy times with Jacques without the horror of seeing him trapped at the upper window of that flame-engulfed building, which presently blocked out all else for her. Promotion with her own atelier and needlewomen of her choice, once her most cherished dream, was more than secondary now. All she could contemplate was this gateway to finding again in joyous memories the man she had loved so deeply.
'But I will accept the appointment, Madame la Comtesse!' she exclaimed swiftly.
The Comtesse was staring at her in disbelief. 'You would seriously consider obeying this demand for your presence?'
'Are you aware just how far away Russia is?'
'Yes, indeed! I know that journeys there take many weeks.'
'But you still do not seem to realize what you would be accepting. The Empress is insatiable when it comes to clothes. Your hours would be long. On a whim of the Empress you might have to work twenty-four hours a day to finish something for her.'
Marguerite thought to herself that this aristocrat and others born to riches like her had no idea how often grisettes like herself slaved through many midnight hours until dawn to finish some garments ordered imperiously at short notice before continuing the normal day's tasks.
Excerpted from To Dream of Snow by Rosalind Laker. Copyright © 2004 Rosalind Laker. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd.
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