Read The Porcelain Dove Online

Authors: Delia Sherman

The Porcelain Dove (5 page)

"Bon. You are a thief, Adèle du Fourchet. Thieves are felons, and felons are hung. For the sake of your soul and as a warning to your fellow-students, I sentence you to be hanged. You, Mlle Hortense, may meditate upon the sin of pride in the crypt until I see fit to release you."

And so Mlle Hortense was locked for a day and a night in the crypt (which was whispered to be haunted) without so much as a candle or a crust of bread to comfort her. And my mistress was hanged—not by the neck, I hasten to assure you, and not until she was dead, although le bon Dieu knows the shame and humiliation came near to killing her. She was taken to the refectory at dawn by a guard of novices, who packed her like so much dirty linen into a wicker laundry basket and hoisted her up over a beam where she dangled while the school marched under her, singing
De Profundis
.

I've little memory of the affair, save the drumming of blood in my ears and the gnawing in my chest and belly. I do recall that some of the pensionnaires looked up as they passed under my mistress' creaking gibbet. Stéphanie-Germaine, very pale about the lips, did not. And I recall the smallest girl in the school, barely five years old, calling out curiously, "Are you dead yet?"

There was a pause, and then a tearful voice from the basket. "No," said my mistress hopelessly. "Not dead yet."

Afterwards, my mistress was very ill. She could not eat nor rise from her bed, not though Mme l'infirmaresse bled her daily and dosed her with sulfur and salts. At last the rumor began to run through the school that little Adèle du Fourchet lay on her deathbed in such an odor of sanctity that even Mother Abbess was beginning to believe her innocent.

'Twas a very good rumor, invented by Mlle Hortense to breed fear and shame in the hearts of the guilty. After what had passed at the trial no one would have believed it from her lips, and so she enlisted me to scatter it among the servants, who bore it to their young
mistresses as rats bear poisoned corn to their nests. That very night, while all were at compline, Mlle de Montpelier crept into the infirmary. She started when she saw me at my mistress' bedside, then bade me be gone in a tearful voice quite unlike her usual lordly drawl. I refused; she shrugged, then knelt by the bed, and with many tears and sighs, begged to be forgiven.

"I'll give you my coral necklace, I'll light candles to la sainte Vierge, I'll do anything you say. I'll even confess. Only don't die, Adèle. I didn't mean for you to die."

Slowly my mistress turned her face from the whitewashed wall. For a space she scanned Stéphanie-Germaine's streaked and swollen countenance as if all the pitiful tale of Stéphanie-Germaine's wolfish heart were written clear upon it. And then she smiled and said weakly that all she'd ever wanted was to be friends. Whereupon Stéphanie-Germaine cast herself upon my mistress' neck and vowed to be her champion and protector forever. She kept her vow, too, at first out of guilt and gratitude, then out of habit, and at last, as they both grew older, for affection's sake.

And did the success of our plot—Mlle Hortense's plot—please me? I no longer remember. I suppose I was disappointed that Mlle Adèle hadn't taken some proper revenge for her suffering while she could, or at the least made the little tyrant confess. I know I never learned to like Stéphanie-Germaine, whose saucy speech and manner mademoiselle soon learned to ape so well that even Mme Ursule forgot how like a beaten puppy she'd been. But if I did not like to see my mistress flirting and gossiping and giggling with the other girls, I did like to see her growing plumper and happier and prettier. And every night I'd brush her hair and listen while she recounted the small events of her day, and she'd kiss me before she slept and vow that she would always love me best.

Seven years passed, seven years of lessons and prayers. Mlle Adèle's sisters were betrothed to suitable men, left the convent, and married. The baron made a brilliant match for Mlle Pauline with the dashing comte de Poix. For Mlle Hortense, he managed the marquis de Bonsecours, who was plain and distinctly hunchbacked, but a respectable catch nonetheless, with lands in Normandy and a moderately lucrative office in the royal treasury. We attended their weddings, and mademoiselle learned to drink champagne.

Then mademoiselle's friends began to be married, schoolgirls one
week, wives the next, with no more notion of what marriage meant than babes unborn. I don't pretend I knew much more, for fairy tales all end with the wedding, after all; and while passion is the chief stock-in-trade of messieurs Racine and Corneille, 'tis all poetry with them, and not a hint of action. As for my own experience . . . Well, my breasts were grown, but they'd never known a man's touch, nor would they, so long as I'd any say in the matter. I'd learned the theory of the commerce between man and wife from my friends the actresses, however, and something more from my sister femmes de chambre. And so I felt quite old and wise when, in the spring of 1762, my mistress received a tear-stained letter from the young présidente de Hautebriande, who had only two months since been Mlle Stéphanie-Germaine de Montpelier.

As was her habit, mademoiselle read her letter aloud while I dressed her hair. First came a mournful page or so on the subjects of dreadful loneliness and unbearable pain, and then:
O my Darling Adèle, of my suffering you can have no conception! Night and Morning, he clasps my knees to beg for a Kiss, and the more I shrink, the more he Importunes until at last I must, in wifely Obedience, let him Have His Way
.

"What is 'His Way,' Berthe? Do you know?" my mistress asked, her velvet eyes all wide with curiosity. "What is this 'knowing' of a man and a woman that so alarms poor Stéphanie-Germaine? Is it not inevitable that a man and wife grow well-acquainted once they are wed?"

I could think of nothing to say, me, save that all would no doubt become clear in time, and that the président de Hautebriande was an old man, quite thirty-five, and perhaps his breath stank and that is why the présidente did not like to kiss him.

"Then I shall have monsieur my father inquire particularly after my husband's breath, for I think I should like kissing a man even more than I like kissing you, providing his breath were sweet."

I thought, but did not say, that there was little likelihood that M. du Fourchet would do anything of the sort: it was not my place to turn a daughter against her father. Yet the hoop-backed timeserver the baron had visited upon poor Mlle Hortense was all too present in my mind. Plain as she was, she deserved better than a man whose gaze was fixed unalterably upon her bosom and whose soul was fixed unalterably upon the collection of taxes. At the moment that the new marquise de Bonsecours had turned to leave the church, her face had
reminded me of the refectory at Port Royal, and how she would stand before the school, enraged but unashamed at some unjust punishment.

So, "Is this man halt?" I complained to Olympe. "Is that man blind? Does he stammer and spit? Does he have twelve grand-children? Hmph, says M. du Fourchet, the girl will be sure to dote on him—he has six degrees of nobility, all documented beyond the shadow of a doubt."

"'Tis a great pity, to be sure," said Olympe soothingly. "But what's a father to do, after all? A young, handsome son-in-law is surely more apt to break his daughter's heart with opera-dancers and gaming. And as to degrees of nobility . . . A century of noble blood on both sides of a family can't be a bad thing, can it?"

Well, in the case of Mlle Pauline's husband M. de Poix, a century of noble blood had produced a petit-maître more likely to beget sons upon his mirror than upon his wife. And besides being hunchbacked, M. de Bonsecours was as dull as well-water, and as pleased with the sound of his voice as a trained parrot. Small faults perhaps, when weighed against their names and their fortunes, but proof enough that M. du Fourchet did not think to suit his daughters when choosing their husbands. He'd not notice breath like a tannery, were my mistress' suitor noble enough.

Mme de Hautebriande's letter came in the third week of Lent. At the beginning of Holy Week, we were summoned from the convent to the rue Quincampoix. I scented a husband in the air, and said as much to mademoiselle, who seemed wonderfully indifferent to the prospect. Her mother had breathed no word of such a thing, the visit was not, after all, an extraordinary one, and besides, she'd just been set an essay on the kings of France. Of course we'd return to Port Royal. How could I think otherwise?

Well, I did think otherwise, and with more certainty when I saw a little liver-and-white spaniel awaiting us in Mlle Adèle's bedchamber. Pet animals are not welcome at Port Royal, particularly pet dogs that squeak like rusty doors and make great puddles on the floor when they are excited. My mistress, ignoring the crudity of its welcome, scooped the puppy into her arms, where it wriggled happily, licked her chin, and whined. Delighted, my mistress named the pretty scrap Doucette and carried it down in her pocket to dinner.

Next morning, well before noon, I opened mademoiselle's chamber door to Mme and M. du Fourchet, who, despite the earliness of the hour, were fully dressed. M. le baron marched up to the bed and
frowned at his daughter, who had just taken the first sip of her chocolate. Doucette, curled in a liver-and-white ball on the pillow, was still snoring gently.

"Well, girl, not up yet? Dull work to lie abed alone, eh? You'll soon have something better than chocolate and a fat puppy to keep you there, hmph, hmph. Yes, indeed you will. Yes."

With an exclamation of impatience, madame pushed past her husband, cast herself on the bed, and took possession of her daughter's free hand.

"What your father wishes to say, darling child, is that we have been looking out a husband for you, and have settled upon M. le duc de Malvoeux, who is a
most
estimable gentleman, a creation of Godfrey de Boulogne's, we are told, with no fewer than sixteen degrees of nobility—a true noble immemorial—and such a droll motto: 'Je veux ce que je veux.' His mother being dead, you are to have
all
the family jewels, my pet, the diamonds of a queen, and such emeralds as can only be imagined, if sadly old-fashioned in their setting. I am persuaded you will make a lovely duchesse and be splendidly happy."

Mademoiselle tried to reclaim her hand from her mother's bosom. M. du Fourchet cleared his throat importantly.

"Hmph, yes, my dear, Mme du Fourchet has the right of it, indeed she does. He's only middling rich, mind you, and he came very dear —don't scowl so, Claire, the girl has a right to know how high a price we put on her happiness." For a moment, M. du Fourchet puffed thoughtfully to himself with his hands laced across his little round belly, looking, for all his brown satin and his fine Holland neckcloth, more like a farmer of corn than a Farmer of taxes.

"Hmph, yes, where was I? Oh, the dowry. Five hundred thousand livres, not a sou less, so he was very dear, as I said, but the dukedom of Malvoeux is a very respectable honor—five or six towns of some size, a dozen villages, some forty tenant farms, as well as the seigneuries of Beauxprés and Montplaisir. His landed revenue alone is ten thousand livres, and should he take my advice, well, he could easily grow as rich as de Guise. I hear the château at Beauxprés was rebuilt from the ground in 1690, so you needn't think you'll languish in a draughty donjon when you're from Paris. And as for his hôtel here in the rue des Lions, 'tis very fine, I assure you, very fine indeed."

"Yes," broke in madame impatiently. "And his mother was
very
highly placed, maîtresse en titre to the old king's Master of Wigs until ill-health forced her to retire to Beauxprés, where his father was cul
tivating his gardens, which are, I believe, among the most extensive in all France. He is a famous naturalist, I hear, a great collector of birds, which is
most
acceptable, for 'tis good for a husband to have an interest, ma chère, you must always remember that. I confess I could wish the young man more political: there's both money and position in office, you know, and he'd surely be preferred, an old family like that. Ah, well, husbands are seldom
entirely
satisfactory, and 'tis a small point, to be sure.

"Now, as to his person, he is very distinguished—Hortense will be eaten alive with jealousy. He's freehanded, doesn't game above the ordinary, and furthermore, mignonne, when we showed him your portrait, he seemed quite bouleversé, declared he'd never seen anything so exquisite in his life, and desires me to tell you that he lives only to make you his own."

Here madame fell silent, and both parents looked upon their youngest daughter, who was biting on her under-lip, her chocolate cup still clutched in one trembling hand. Doucette woke, pricked up her ears and began to whine gently. I stood frozen by the dressing-screen, entirely unable even to relieve my mistress of her cup. To be sure, 'twas no more than I'd expected. But to hear my future master thus coldly presented, point by point like an expensive horse—well, 'twas at once not enough and too much to comprehend.

M. du Fourchet, seeing his daughter's blank dismay, hemmed angrily.

"Well, my girl, have you nothing to say? A brilliant marriage proposed and you as dumb as a stone? You don't intend to be difficult, I hope? That would be a fine return for all our care of you, it would indeed!"

"Now, my dear M. du Fourchet, do calm yourself and let Adèle be silent if she wishes. Recollect that we have descended upon her before she is risen from her bed, and that she has had no thought of such a thing as marriage before this very minute."

"Nonsense, my dear! Girl didn't fall to earth in the last rain, after all. Of course she's thought of marriage. Girls think of nothing else—look at her sisters, chattering on about their husbands and their jewels like a pair of magpies. She'd have to be deaf and dumb not to think of marriage. Hmph, yes, indeed."

Madame's face sharpened. "Never mind monsieur your father, mignonne," she said sweetly. "Men never understand these things. You'll thank us in the end, you know. M. de Malvoeux is a duc. You
have my word that he is also handsome, cultivated, and a great favorite at the baron de Holbach's salon. The marriage-contract will be signed tomorrow, and the wedding will take place in four weeks' time. Be a sensible girl now, and give your mother a kiss."

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