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Authors: Susanne Dunlap

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Emilie's Voice

BOOK: Emilie's Voice
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Émilie’s Voice
Susanne Dunlap

 

 

TOUCHSTONE
Rockefeller Center
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2005 by Susanne Dunlap
All rights reserved,
including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.

T
OUCHSTONE
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dunlap, Susanne Emily.
Emilie’s voice : a novel/Susanne Dunlap.
p. cm.
1. Women singers—Fiction. 2. France—History—Louis XIV, 1643-1715—Fiction. 3. Charpentier, Marc-Antoine, 1643-1704—Fiction. 4. Composers—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3604.U5525E45 2005
813′.6—dc22 2004063694

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-8854-2
ISBN-10: 1-4165-8854-X

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For Cassandra and Chloe,
who learned to sing with their feet

Émilie’s Voice

One

What seems like generosity is often no more than disguised ambition, that disdains little interests to achieve greater ones.

François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Maxim 246

One day in April 1676, the sound of laughter drew Madame de Maintenon to the window in her apartment at the château of Versailles. Below her, half a dozen ladies wearing bright-colored gowns clustered around one who was dressed all in white, a velvet blindfold covering her eyes, her blond hair brassy in the spring sunlight. The ladies turned their blindfolded companion around and around, singing a rhyme as they did, until she looked like a yellow-crowned stamen in the center of an enormous silk blossom. Madame de Maintenon—known as the widow Scarron to her enemies—uttered a
tsk
of disapproval and was about to turn back into her room when she noticed a gentleman behind a yew hedge, peeking at the game through the branches. When the rhyme ended, all the ladies scattered like petals, leaving the one with the blindfold staggering and laughing, alone against the emerald grass. The gentleman stepped out from his hiding place. He moved gracefully, and with a regal air. The blond-haired lady, dizzy from her game and unaware of his presence, stumbled into him as if he were nothing more than a shrub, or a servant who wandered into her path. The gentleman removed her blindfold with a gallant flourish and, in front of the other ladies, kissed her. All of them stopped in their tracks and curtsied deeply.

The widow Scarron closed the shutters abruptly. But the sunlight crept in anyway between the louvers and painted bright streaks across her austere parlor, which was furnished only with a few wooden chairs, a bookshelf, and a gilded prie-dieu. She knelt there and started to pray, beating her forehead rhythmically with the heel of her hand as her lips formed the familiar Latin phrases in a low, constant mutter. After a quarter of an hour, the sound of fingernails scratching on her door interrupted her. Emerging slowly from her deep concentration, she stood and said, “Come.”

A middle-aged footman entered and bowed. “Monsieur de St. Paul is here, Madame.”

“Show him in, François.”

St. Paul walked past the servant, not waiting to be summoned. He flared his nostrils at the simplicity of the room, then set his features in a practiced smile. “Madame de Maintenon. To what do I owe the honor of being asked to attend you?”

“Monsieur de St. Paul, I understand that you are in debt.”

The smile left the count’s lips. He reached into his waistcoat, took out a gold snuffbox, and helped himself to a generous pinch.

The widow Scarron did not wait for him to answer. “There’s no point denying it. And I would not have asked you here if you weren’t. I would like to offer you a way to change your situation in life greatly for the better.”

St. Paul sneezed loudly and dabbed his nose with a lace-edged handkerchief. “I am all attention, Madame.”

“Are you aware, Monsieur de St. Paul, that the king’s confessor has threatened to deny His Majesty communion?”

St. Paul shrugged his shoulders almost imperceptibly.

“This is a serious matter, Monsieur. His Majesty is God’s chosen representative to lead the people of France, and he must not be diminished in their eyes. I think we both know who is responsible for his unfortunate weakness in these matters.” Madame de Maintenon turned her head toward the window. The sound of laughter still filtered up from the garden.

“It will not be so easy, Madame, to turn the king from
that
path.”

“Nonetheless,” Madame de Maintenon said, looking St. Paul directly in the eyes, “we must try.”

 

Late that same afternoon, in a humble workshop on the Bridge of Commerce—one of the bridges laden with buildings connecting the Île de la Cité with the quays on the right bank of the Seine—Émilie Jolicoeur sat on the floor and leaned against the leg of a large worktable, building fairy castles out of the curled shavings of maple and spruce that were scattered around her. Her father, Marcel, focused all his attention on wielding a small, sharp knife to make the final adjustments to the bridge of a violin. It was a commission, for the composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. This was an important job: Monsieur Charpentier was a fine musician and a member of the household of Mademoiselle de Guise. In the few years since he returned from Italy, he had already made a stir in the capital. If he liked the violin, many people would hear of it, and more work would surely follow.

“Émilie!”

Émilie’s mother yelled down the three flights of stairs that separated their apartment from her husband’s workshop at street level. Émilie did not answer her.

“Didn’t you hear your maman?” asked Marcel. He stood from his task and stretched. The setting sun radiated from around his body, which blocked some of the light from the window that looked out over the river toward the Pont Neuf. He was about to try out the violin to see if it sounded as good as he hoped it would.

“Please, Papa, just let me stay to hear you play.” Émilie used the tone of voice that she knew would get her what she wanted.

Marcel met his daughter’s eager gaze and could barely suppress a smile. “For a minute, but on one condition. You must sing while I play.”

In her haste to get up from the floor, Émilie banged her head on the edge of the worktable.

“You are too grown up now to sit on the floor like a child,” said Marcel. “If your maman has her way, soon we will have to find you a husband!”

Émilie pursed her lips in a mock pout. “I don’t want to leave you, Papa, unless I marry someone who can make violins just like you.”

“So, you want to be poor and have to work hard all the time like your mother?” Without waiting for his daughter to reply, Marcel took up a bow and slowly stroked it across the A string of the violin, making a round note that vibrated and swelled until it filled the crowded space.

When Émilie was an infant, she had slept in a cot in the workshop while her mother ran errands. She began to use her voice to match the pitches she heard in the cradle even before she could talk. When she was a toddler, Marcel would play little tunes for her to mimic. Émilie’s ear was acute, and her ability to reproduce a sound almost uncanny. This private exchange between father and daughter had been nothing more than a game at first. But as she grew older, Émilie’s voice grew too. Marcel had come to think it very pretty and would find excuses to have her sing to him. She sang nursery rhymes and folk songs in a clear, sweet tone. Nothing pleased him more than to hear her quiet tunes while he worked. He loved to have her sing along while he plucked at or drew a bow across the strings of a newly completed lute or pochette or viol or violin.

 

Of all the different instruments her father made, Émilie liked violins the best. She loved the warm, sad sound they made, and tried her hardest to make her voice sound just the same. But it was too young and light, too childish to match the subtle richness of gut strings and carefully aged and varnished woods. At least, it had been every time before.

But something extraordinary happened that day.

Émilie closed her eyes and opened her mouth, and the sound she produced was every bit as strong, every bit as rich, as the note Marcel played on the violin he had just finished making. At first Émilie did not hear herself. She only felt the way the sound resonated in her entire body. It was so wonderful, so freeing, to let the music stream out of her, as if she had bottled it up her whole life and was just waiting for it to escape, that she did not notice that her father had stopped his playing, and that the rich tone that washed over the other instruments and set their strings quivering in sympathy came from between her own lips.

“Émilie!”

She stopped singing and opened her eyes. The ghost of the sound she had just been making still reverberated around her. Her father had a strange look on his face.

“I didn’t know you could—can you do that again?” Marcel laid the violin down gently on the workbench.

Émilie sang the pitch she had heard before, opening her voice as far as it would go and putting her whole heart into that one, beautiful note. Then, when she could do no more with it, she moved to other pitches and fashioned a little tune with them. When she sang higher, the sound of her voice became sweeter, more intense. Lower, it opened out like a flower. The feeling was entirely new to her. It was not like the singing she had done before. It came from somewhere else. Something, she was not quite certain what, had happened. Perhaps it was because of the beautiful violin, a copy of an Italian instrument that Monsieur Charpentier had brought back with him. Or perhaps not. Whatever it was, it had changed her voice forever.

Marcel tried to say something, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out.

“Shall we go upstairs to dinner?” Émilie asked.

Marcel nodded, put his tools away, and followed his daughter up the three flights of stairs to their apartment on the top floor.

 

“What kept you! The soup will be spoiled,” Madeleine Jolicoeur said, standing like a narrow stone pillar in front of the table that occupied the very middle of their apartment.

“Don’t be cross,” said Marcel. “I kept her. She was singing for me.”

“Well, she can just sing for her supper then!”

Madeleine turned to stir the pot on the fire. Émilie fetched the wooden bowls from the small cupboard near the chimney and stood and held each one as her mother dished out the potage with a huge wooden ladle. Then from the same cupboard she brought a cutting board, a knife, and a round loaf of bread to the table.

“Her place is here, learning how to make the dinner, learning how to keep a house. You let her stay down there, and why? She is not a son, she cannot take over your business and make violins. She is fourteen. Old enough to marry, and what does she know?”

Marcel did not answer but sat down to his meal. Émilie sat as well, but she barely noticed what she did. Her mind was busy with wonder about the voice that had burst out of her just minutes before. Still, she lifted her bowl to her lips repeatedly and drank the soup until it was gone, hardly tasting it on the way. All the time she did so, she gazed out through the small window under the eaves that faced west. From where she sat, all she could see was the pale blue sky, but she knew that, if she were right at the window, she would be able to see the Louvre, the great palace that belonged to the king, in the distance.

“What are you gawking at?” Madeleine had caught Émilie staring at nothing.

“Mama, why doesn’t the king live at the Louvre?”

“I don’t know. They say it’s not finished. Maybe it’s drafty.”

“Where does he live then?”

“St. Germain mostly. And Versailles, more and more, so they say.”

Mother and daughter cleared up after dinner while Marcel sat in the only armchair and smoked his pipe. Then when the fire died down, they all went to bed, Marcel and Madeleine to their curtained enclosure on one side of the room, and Émilie to her narrow cot on the other.

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