Read French Passion Online

Authors: Jacqueline; Briskin

French Passion (4 page)

Below, black and white diamonds of the marble floor shone as if it were high noon. Two footmen wearing powdered wigs and the Créqui livery—crimson satin coats and breeches atwinkle with brass buttons, ruffled white shirts and white silk stockings—faced each other outside the Comte de Créqui's study.

In there, the Comte and I would sup. My mouth was dry with apprehension. It was the first time we would be alone. We were to be married Thursday next; still, Aunt Thérèse, quite properly, never permitted me with him unchaperoned. But Aunt Thérèse was spending the night with an old friend, a widow, and this lady's son was entertaining Jean-Pierre. An hour ago the Comte had arrived. Unexpectedly.

The town of Versailles lies ten miles from Paris, and there a hundred years ago Louis XIV had taken a royal hunting lodge, transforming it, with thirty-six thousand men working night and day, into a palace that dwarfs and fades all other palaces. I've never seen it, but everybody knows of the miles of gardens with bowers and grottoes, the fountains, streams, and lakes, the pleasure pavillions. The vast interior with its endless mirrored galleries, gold-encrusted royal chambers, high-ceilinged apartments for the great nobility. As Minister of Finance, the Comte de Créqui spent most of his time in his Versailles Palace offices, sleeping there, too, in his private rooms.

His return startled me. I was even more surprised when a footman bore up a note:
Give me joy by supping with me at nine, de C
. The Comte was aware that my acceptance would be highly improper. I knew it, too. Yet … he was my guardian—and besides he awed me with his age, not to mention his intimacy with the royal family. I wrote that I would be pleased to share his meal.

The few times I had mentioned to Aunt Thérèse that in my opinion it was unfair to keep the truth of my absent maidenhead from the Comte, her round, wrinkled face had paled and with a plump, trembling hand she had raised her vinaigrette to her nose as if overcome by faintness. Soon I avoided the subject.

Aunt Thérèse's fears seemed unwarranted. The Comte had behaved admirably. Oh, his aristocratic politeness had been so elaborate that I sensed he used it as a form of mockery. Yet he hadn't questioned our story at all. He had insisted on replenishing our wardrobes. In the past two weeks dressmakers, furriers, perfumers, shoemakers, bootmakers, milliners, ribbon sellers, glovemakers, had formed a continual parade to our rooms. Not only had the Comte outfitted me, his future bride; Jean-Pierre, his ward, possessed outfits that would give pride to any young noble, including a gold-handled sword (only the nobility were permitted to wear swords). Aunt Thérèse was intoxicated by the rustling of her new dark taffeta gowns and by her black velvet mantle thick-lined with the softest gray fox.

We kept to our own apartment on the third floor. In the sunlit drawing room, chaperoned by Aunt Thérèse, I had received the Comte three times. He'd spoken to me in his amused courteous manner. Yet … he gazed at me with an odd greed, and it was as if a lizard were crawling across my stomach. How could I feel so? When he'd been so kind? Why, at my request he had employed Old Lucien at the easy job of polishing harness bits. Yet I couldn't stop my aversion.

I dreaded our wedding night, all our other nights.

Off my bedroom was a tiny silk-lined boudoir. Here, I would lie on the blue satin chaise longue, yearning for André. Sometimes I would weep. I kept telling myself this was ridiculous. How could I be in love? What girl of gentle birth could love a highwayman, a revolutionary? He wouldn't even tell me his name, I would think. Yet that brief time of sweet and tender young passion had altered my heart as profoundly as my body.

It was in this boudoir that Monsieur Sancerre, the couturier, fitted my gowns, and when he was there, I forgot my dreads as well as my sadnesses. I gave myself over to the luxury of his silks and satins, the lightness of his merino wools, the lovely colors of his floaty lawns. I thrilled to the beautiful gowns that Monsieur Sancerre designed just for me.

On the bottom landing hung a gilt-framed mirror, and here I paused. By the brilliant light of the chandelier my reflection glowed. I couldn't stop a smile of pleasure. The emerald green shot silk matched my eyes. The skirt, belted in black velvet, set off my tiny waist, and the perfectly fitted bodice showed rounded breasts pushed high by stays. I twisted to see myself from another angle. The sleeves were narrow, and other than the spill of lace at my elbows, the gown was absolutely simple. Monsieur Sancerre said beauty like mine needed no gilding. In my own mind I didn't have the height necessary for elaborate poofs and ruffles.

Monsieur Sancerre, voluble and friendly, detailed what the Queen and Court ladies wore, down to their undergarments and chemises, without a hint of lechery. Was he, I wondered, like those ancient Greeks? Loving only men? This question didn't stop me from being very fond of him. Monsieur Sancerre, a perfectionist, advised me what to wear with each gown. He'd helped me select heeled slippers. One bit of his advice I'd ignored. I refused to powder my hair. The silver-gold mass fell in loose ringlets down my back.

My opals reflected the green silk with deep green fire.

Since that rainy night, the necklace had taken on new significance for me. André's gift of love. Touching the central stone, warm from my body's warmth, I thought how much I would give to have him see me in this gown, how much I wished it were he I'd be with in a minute.

Below, one of the footmen coughed. I descended the bottom flight of stairs.

The footmen, at formal attention, opened the double doors of the Comte's study.

“Mademoiselle Manon d'Epinay,” one announced.

“Thank you,” I said.

The Comte rose, bowing. As usual, he wore black. Black silk shoes with high court heels. Black silk stockings on those incongruously thin legs, black satin breeches with diamonds at the knee buckles. His black satin frock coat and waistcoat glittered with diamond buttons, and on his left shoulder shone a diamond starburst. Only his lacy shirt and high stock were white.

After the doors closed, he gave me a smile. “My dear,” he said, “you're too generous for Paris. Here, we never thank a servant for doing his job.”

His amusement was kind, yet I felt rebuked, and even more a nervous child.

I made my curtsy, looking around. I'd never been in his study. The walls were hung with a shiny gray-patterned silk and gray velvet draperies were drawn. Gilt chairs, settees, and little tables were graciously arranged, and on the mantel a great bowl of golden chrysanthemums gave off their acrid scent. A table, partially hidden by a Chinese screen, was set for two.

What I noticed, though, were the miniatures.

Everywhere stood cabinets, étagères, glass-enclosed display tables crowded with miniatures. Odd, I thought, in so huge a palace to collect miniatures. There were tiny carved animals from the Indies. Exquisite inch-high porcelain Oriental gods. Several cabinets were given over to colorful enamel boxes, each big enough to hold a single jewel. There were dainty Greek-looking figurines. Minute gold demons. Silver furniture fit for a dauphine's dollhouse.

The Comte was watching me. “What are you thinking?” he asked.

And I was able to answer, quite honestly, “You have exquisite taste.”

This caused the teeth to gleam in that clever monkey's face. “Yes, I do,” he said. “I buy the best, and never overpay.”

“What if you find something very, very precious, but the price is too high?”

“My dear, you're young and impulsive,” he said, still smiling. “I, alas, am old enough to wait. The price comes down.”

“If it doesn't?”

“Believe me, it always does,” he said. “Now, let me admire you.” He stretched out his hand, taking my fingertips, walking me formally, as if he were presenting me to the Court at Versailles, toward a tall gilt candelabrum.

He stared at me. I had that uneasy crawling. I could feel myself blush.

“Shall I embarrass you further by cataloguing your many charms, or shall I simply agree with you? I have exquisite taste. And so do you. The gown is perfect.”

“Monsieur Sancerre advised me,” I said. My mouth was dry again.

“I'll warrant, though, he told you to powder your hair.”

“He did,” I admitted.

“You were right,” the Comte said. “Why are you nervous?”

“It's the way you're looking at me,” I replied, truthfully.

“How?”

“As if you're ready to pop me into one of your cabinets.”

He chuckled. “My dear, if I promise not to, will you relax?”

“I'll try.”

A liveried footman, followed by four others, bore in great silver dishes, and the Comte led me to the small table.

Supper lulled my aversion. In fact, I completely enjoyed his conversation. The star at his shoulder, he told me, was a gift from King Louis. “For great and meritorious bravery. That, my dear, means I suggested we lighten the weight of our gold coins.” He told me about the odd figures that came from Egyptian tombs. He was enormously and cynically knowledgeable. He had a sense of humor that tempered his malice. While we talked, we were served a clear soup followed by a cream soup, delicately poached blue trout, pheasant, asparagus wrapped in an incredibly thin layer of pastry (“The asparagus is grown in the greenhouse in back,” he said), beef under strong-tasting truffles.

He ate aristocratically, the heart of each dish, leaving the rest. I had a healthy appetite, but there was no way I could do justice to the huge and magnificent banquet that the Comte's chefs had somehow managed to produce on the spur of the moment. The five footmen bore off far more than we ate. Red wine alternated with white.

The frozen dessert was sweet, creamy, rich yet light, and full as I was, it slid easily down my throat.

“I've never had anything like this,” I said.

“A dish from the Americas,” he explained. “If you can imagine a place called Philadelphia, this is where it originated.”

“The New World! Comte, I've heard it's full of wonders there. Dark princesses, gold cities, endless forests.”

He laughed. “Don't be taken in by this civilized sweet talk, my dear. It's a haven for scum, convicts, and doxies.”

“You mustn't always disillusion me,” I said, spooning up the rest. “Delicious. In fact, the meal was perfect.” I thought of the simple roast spring lamb Aunt Thérèse had cooked for my sixteenth birthday. “You must have thought our food barbarous!”

“If you recall, I paid no attention to what I ate.”

The footmen pulled back our chairs, discreetly removing the table with its dishes, leaving us a decanter of dark liqueur.

When we were alone the Comte went to a marquetry desk, unlocked a drawer, and removed a small enamel box. He handed it to me.

“A gift,” he said.

The enamel unicorn was so fine it must have been done under a magnification glass. With one fingernail I lightly traced the design. “It's lovely. Thank you, Comte.”

He was chuckling.

My brows went up in questioning bewilderment.

“Every other girl in Paris would open a gift box,” he said.

So I pressed my nail to the catch, the lid sprang up, and I gasped. Inside a huge diamond glittered.

“Whatever is decided tonight,” he said, “you'll have this.”

“I don't understand.”

“You will. Now put it on.”

“Is it a betrothal ring?”

“A gift to show devotion,” he said. “See which finger it fits.”

The diamond weighed down my middle finger.

“Now,” he said, sitting in a bowlegged chair near me. “Now let us have our talk.”

The anxiety that had been dormant through supper returned. “Talk?” I asked.

“My dear, I confess to engineering this. I arranged that your aunt and brother be invited out. It's high time, don't you think, for your version of that unfortunate highway robbery?” His face, under the powdered white wig, had drawn into shrewd, hard lines.

My heart began to race.

“Well?”

I determined to show no fear. I said, cool, “We've told you, Comte, about the incident.”

“Nonetheless, I wish to hear it again.”

So I gave him the official story, which went like this. We were stopped by a band of starving ruffians who forced us from the coach at pistol point and left us to find our way afoot to the Hôtel de la Poste. My voice remained level. A miracle. Not only was I terrified, but also somewhere deep inside me I wept for what had happened in the coach. Inwardly I wept for love and loss.

“And that's all?” he asked.

“All,” I said.

He sipped the dark liqueur. “It sounds much like the experience of my friend, the Baron de Maine, on the same stretch of the Paris-Rheims road. Except the Baron de Maine's party were permitted to escape with their lives, no more. And you, my dear, have your opals. Hardly of great value. However, as you said, those animals were starving. Why should they let you keep a necklace they could sell for food?”

“I slipped it from the secret drawer. Aunt Thérèse explained.”

“Yes, she did. She said you were quick-witted. And so you are. Very. Any woman who can open a secret drawer while looking down a pistol barrel is more than quick-witted. She's a genius. Now, my dear. Let's get at the truth. What happened?”

Around me, in the gray room, tiny precious figures were locked into cases. A log fell, the fire crackled, blazing crimson. My stomach knotted around the rich meal.

At last the Comte spoke. “I'm almost fifty,” he said. “Most of my life I've dealt in state finances, which means I've tested mettle with the shrewdest minds in Europe. And you, while lovely, and of course quick-witted, have lived in a tiny, drowsy village for the sixteen years of your life.” He rose, walking to stand over me. His buckled silk shoes were planted apart, as if he intended to stay. “I despise liars,” he said. “I punish them.”

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