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Notes and disclaimer: see chapter one.
"Allegory of painting" by Elisabeth Louis Vigée le Brun.
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Béatrice, La Reine de Mon Coeur
I can't sleep haunted by their faces
and sadness in their eyes.
It hurts so much to see them helpless,
It makes me want to cry.
But still there is so much left unanswered
for so many innocent lives.
They close the doors and letting nobody in,
Only the strong will survive.
Though I may seem helpless,
I will do all that I can do.
(Shelter, Sarah McLachlan)
Louis, agitated, shouts at me.
"What were you thinking? You have been away for almost two weeks. Don't you care? Don't you care about me? "
I stand in the middle of the huge room, -"la salle des nymphes,"- just one of the empty rooms in this cold palace in Versailles. It was mainly the residence of his grandfather, le Roi Soleil, but I dislike the building. It is gigantesque, and very difficult to heat. I only like the gardens, which are beautiful, especially in the summer.
I returned from Chambord this day and Louis seems not very pleased.
Stubbornly I defy his words.
"I don't care. The other woman replaced me just fine."
The other woman.
Louis and I, we feel only disdain and contempt for this woman. We are unable to relate to her in terms other than "the other woman".
Louis smiles with a grin.
"Maybe she has your looks, but she certainly cannot replace you!"
"Why not?" I try to tease him, to lighten his mood a bit.
"Ah chérie..." and he wipes away a nonexistent crumb from the corner of his mouth with a silken handkerchief. "I have no words left for her vulgarity. She lacks your raffinement, the finesse and delicacy only royal females possess."
"Is that so, mon cher?" I reply in a mocking tone. "Like the princess who slept on a multitude of layers and still could feel the pearl underneath? I cannot believe you think it is true."
"Perhaps, but you possess certain virtues she definitely lacks."
I tease him a bit more and a sparkle returns to his eyes. He is a good man, my Louis, not a very handsome man, but he has a kind heart, and he loves the modest pleasures of life. If he were not a king he could be a craftsman, a gold and silver smith perhaps, or a carpenter.
"If you insist," he smiles happily.
He approaches me, and I can see his intentions in his eyes. Will I allow it? I do not dislike him, but I do not feel any attraction to him either. I grew accustomed to his face, to his body, a little overweight.
I grew accustomed to his clumsiness, the way he walks at my side when we have to perform in public, the way he looks at me proudly, because I am the queen.
I grew accustomed to his lovemaking.
I grew accustomed to his love.
And now that I carried le dauphin, the prince who will become king, I do not have the obligation to share my flesh with his anymore.
So I continue to tease him.
"She may be lacking in some of my virtues, but she is certainly not lacking in a very special area, if I presume that the hearsay is true."
He stops in his tracks, and the look on his face has changed into a sad one. Louis, although he is a king, never indulged in adultery.
Unlike his father, who loved Madame du Barry.
Unlike his grandfather who loved Madame de Pompadour.
Louis never loved anyone but me.
Maybe because he is a deeply religious man and Dieu forbids him to look elsewhere.
Or maybe because he really loves me.
I think both reasons are acceptable. And I never harm him intentionally. Because I shall never forget the tenderness he showed in his face when I gave birth to our first infant, a girl.
"Oh, they are true," he replies with much chagrin in his voice. "She has a voracious appetite."
I raise my voice.
"How do you know?"
He blushes. Naturally he did not take advantage of her body. But the thought occurred to him, and he feels he is guilty.
And because of that he will not touch me.
He stands four meters away from me.
His attitude becomes like a sovereign, and he says with much aplomb, with arrogance in his voice, "I am the king."
By now protocol demands that I bow. But I will not.
I look him severely in the eyes, and a long moment passes by. Nobody moves. He waits and I let him wait.
Finally I say, with the same arrogance, "and I am the queen."
"This little incident can take you to the scaffold. On my order," he whispers.
"But you won't," I state.
"I won't," he agrees. His voice is very soft, and devoid of any strength. "Because I love you".
I must admit, he still moves me. No, it is not love, and it never was. I feel compassion and much tenderness. So I close the distance between us, and take him in my arms. He rests his face on my shoulder.
"You should not have left," Louis whispers, his eyes closed, enjoying the warmth of my embrace.
"Everyone by now thinks that you are a nymphomaniac, that you sleep with men and women at random, and that your taste is extremely expensive. They even call you Madame Deficit. Don't you care?"
I stroke his back in a soothing manner. The other woman must have given him a hard time. He seems very fatigued.
"My cher Louis," I try to sound reassuring, "of course I care, but as you know my influence is highly limited. It is your task to make this stop. You are the king, are you not?"
He lifts his head to look at me, and I press him firmly against my chest.
"Yes," he says, "but you have more courage than I do. Did you leave because you wanted to be among them again?"
"Yes," I admit. "You should try it, just once. It will be a shocking but gratifying experience. It is my belief that you will become a better monarch after that."
I smile as I continue to hold him against my bosom.
"Perhaps I will," he hesitates.
"If you do, you will have my respect."
"Then I shall," he says with more strength in his voice. "On one condition, that you will be at my side again, when we are in public."
I lower my head and kiss him on the forehead.
I take my hands off him and walk to the other side of the room to have a look outside. Carriages are arriving and departing. The square is crowded with people. After all these years, I am still afraid when I have to perform my role as a queen. Incognito I have the freedom to be who I am, a woman of blood and flesh. As a queen, I have to be bigger than life. That is the main reason why I leave now and then, to take a look at myself, and to become human again.
Louis is talking while I gaze outside.
"The next Grand Couvert is in a week, and after that I plan a bal masqué, to demonstrate that we are in unison, that our marriage is not flawed."
"Understood," I reply, "but if you truly want me to help, then you should discuss country matters with me and listen to the advice I give you."
"I am the king," he states again, but this time his voice is almost merciful.
I turn around, and smile.
"And I, your queen."
After that, I make a reverence and leave Louis to his own thoughts.
As I sit still, very still, Madame Vigée-le Brun's pencils and brushes move over the canvas. I take the time to let my thoughts wander. Now that Louis will discuss country matters with me, I need someone to help me, a confidant. Someone who is not connected to the court or the nobility in Versailles. Someone who is a stranger to the intrigues of the palace and whom I find I can trust completely, sans réserve.
A face appears in my mind and the memory of a skin soft like silk, so unusual for a man. This bold and proud little man with his fine features, who said, " No harm will come to you and I will be always present when you are most in need."
And after that the sweet taste of his lips, his hand forced upon my lanky body, a little provocative maybe.
"Madame Vigée le Brun, enough for today."
"If that is your wish, votre Majesté," she replies obediently, "although if you would allow me..."
"No," I interrupt, "there are other matters that demand my attention."
I have a quick look at the unfinished portrait. Louise Elisabeth Vigée le Brun is very gifted. She has portrayed me a dozen times, as the other members of the royalty. Her paintings seem very lively, and the people who posed very at ease, as if they posed merely for an instant and not hours or days.
"Nice hands," I comment, "but do I look like this, my eyes endowed with such melancholy?"
She is a bit frightened, and offers, "I will change it, Majesty. You are not satisfied?"
"No, on the contrary," I reassure the artist. "If you see me this way, who am I to object."
She gives me a smile.
"Votre Majesté is most generous."
"Now please, I want you to write down a message for me. Take a pencil and a piece of the paper you use to make sketches."
"Bien sûr, ma Reine. Of course, my Queen."
"Cher Count," I start. "Your presence is much needed au Théâtre du Châtelet, for there will take place Le Grand Couvert in a week. Your entrance will not be denied, because any citizen is allowed to watch the spectacle of the dinner of the royal family. Wear civilian clothes, and not the ring. Make sure I can recognize you."
Madame Vigée le Brun is writing the message down.
When she is finished I tell her to leave. I seal the paper and hand it over to a courier. I tell him to use as many horses as he thinks necessary to be able to deliver the message in two days.
I return my gaze to the unfinished portrait. Is it melancholy? Perhaps I was mistaken, for I can see in my own eyes le regard, the look of a woman who is longing for love.
Will he come? Perhaps he does not care, perhaps he wants to be alone, hidden in his castle, away from the palace of Versailles and all the intrigues, and frankly I will not blame him.
But, Mon Dieu, how I long to feel his eyes lingering with an appreciative smile on the most curvaceous parts of my body again...
After I played with my most beloved children for several hours, I went to see Madame de Lamballe in the garden of the palace.
I was looking forward to our promenade, our walk, because I find great comfort in just admiring her beautiful face. And, I need her to make me laugh, mostly at the expense of myself, something most people don't dare to do.
Once, a long time ago, I felt affection for this woman that grew rapidly into love. We did share our bodies once, and then without any explanation, my love became less and ceased to be.
Instead I have developed a profound friendship with Thérèse, for which several members of the nobility mostly envy her, because they think I give her precious presents, and that she is ma favourite.
Of course she is my favorite friend, but not in the way they think, like a king with his maitresse, sa favourite.
This favoritism is perhaps not very queenlike. I have to give my attention to everyone who is of royalty, regardless of his qualities as a person.
And I cannot. I know whom I like and whom I dislike.
I will never be able to be close to the Duc of Orléans, a cousin of Louis, who because of my disliking him, avoids me by remaining in Le Palais Royal, in the center of Paris, and never attends the festivities and ceremonies in Versailles.
And I want to continue to share my inner thoughts with Thérèse.
This little woman with her childlike laughter can read me like nobody else can, not even Louis. So, after a while I am not surprised that she asks, "something is bothering you. Didn't you enjoy your voyage, Antoinette?"
"It is a little miracle you even see me alive," I blurt out, instantly regretting my words, for Thérèse's face turns into an ashen color and she grips my arm trying to keep her balance.
She can hardly speak but says nevertheless, "I told you so, but you don't listen to me. You think you are invisible when you wear those rags, but your demeanor betrays you. And what about the Cardinal, didn't the Cardinal protect you?"
"He was not a man to be trusted," I say gravely. "And he paid for it," I add.
I walk rapidly to the bench near the little canal, hidden behind trees and bushes. Thérèse follows me, overwhelmed by my words.
She looks quite pretty in her yellow dress, with tiny little pearls sewed on to the fabric.
She sits down next to me, and takes my hand. She is such a wonderful friend. Why should I become acquainted with other aristocratic ladies, when all I need is this friendship between us?
"The Cardinal, together with other men unknown to me, tried to hold me in prison, and wanted to steal my necklace. Not only that, but he nearly succeeded in violating my body as well. When I was taken hostage in the carriage, my hands tied with a rope, and my mouth covered, I overheard him. I believe he has a dangerous liaison, someone who is a threat to the throne."
Thérèse is vividly shaken by my recall of the horrible events.
"Who?" she asks in a conspirative tone.
"Chérie, I have to be sure. And I didn't inform the king yet. He has enough on his mind already."
She looks with her big eyes to me, in wonder.
"Who can we trust these days," she sighs with anguish.
I smile reassuringly and caress her little hand in a soothing way.
"I can trust you?"
She kisses softly the palm of my hand.
"Yes you can, but I can't fight. My husband has passed away, and my influences are limited."
"Yes," I reply, "but you know, a lot of people only take an interest in you because you are my friend. So I suggest you spread the word, 'The Queen of France is limiting her expenses, and when the next Grand Couvert takes place, she will invite her loyal citizens as well.'"
"Excellent. I will," she nods, "although I am not quite sure this is a reasonable course of action"
"Reasonable? Perhaps not, but I have to take some measures to change my bad reputation, although as you know I am not at fault."
"She is," Thérèse de Lamballe whispers.
We both know whom we are thinking of.
We sit quietly for a moment, then her face lights up as if she thought of something she forgot.
"But I am curious. How did you escape?"
With a silly grin on my face, and a sparkle in my eyes I reply, "I was saved by a stranger."
When I think of him, my cheeks are glowing and my breath is deepens.
She questions my face, but she knows me very well.
"Some stranger that has to be," she grins.
"You can say that my darling." I sigh and I stand up reluctantly. "Come, let's mingle. We have to show the crowd that Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, is alive and well. And," I try to tease my friend, "do not dare to leave my side, because I need you to make conversation".
After dinner I listened to a string quartet who played a musique de chambre by Handel. Louis and other family members, like Elisabeth, his sister, and several of his aunts, listened as well.
I appreciate Handel but I adore the von Glück. Soon this season, I will be able to attend "Iphigénie en Aulide," an opera I can never see enough because the music and the story are so wonderful and touch my heart, though I am uncertain why. Such is the power of art. It is as love, it strikes the core of the human being, but we are unable to tell why that is exactly.
Das ist Magie, as von Glück says. "It is magic."
Because after the concert I was in a good mood, I did not try to be uncooperative for the sleeping ritual. I even allowed the presence of all the members of the family and their servants. Every one of them took away a piece of cloth, and after that, I was dressed in my clothes for the night.
It is a ritual I dislike because it reveals how I am a public person. And, because in reality I am very shy and private, I will never get used to it.
As they took away one by one the layers of my extensive dresses, I longed for the silence of the night.
I longed for those dreams, which will awake my senses, my body becoming restless, my mind confused, my yearning growing and building, going deep, unable to stop.
Louis loves me with respect, but he rarely visits me.
Unlike his father who had a maîtresse, Madame du Barry, he is faithful to me. And even if he wasn't, I wouldn't really disagree.
I only would object fiercely if he should sleep with this woman, this revolting creature who resembles me so much in appearance.
But only in appearance.
And because I performed my duty, that is, I carried three children, among which was the Dauphin, the crownprince, I am free to love.
As I lay in bed and close my eyes, I hear a carriage arriving, another depart. It is cold. The wind blows, and the fire is down. The guards outside the doors talk, and I can hear their voices, sometimes merely a whisper, sometimes louder.
Will they defend me when they come to get me? Will they pay with their lives? Or will they turn their backs on me, and leave me at the mercy of the ones who seek revenge, in a slaughter nobody really wants?
And shall I be able to stop la terreur, the terror that will spread over the country and leave the French in horror?
And then there will be a new despot, as it always is, a new emperor, a new king who cuts heads off.
I do not know if I can carry this burden.
I am just Béatrice.
How at this moment I would like to feel the protective body of the Count pressing against mine, his burning lips covering my skin in passion.
How I would like to hold him in my arms, his muscular but petit frame against my bosom, his heart against mine, our blood in fever.
And maybe our blood will be shed for each other in love and only love.
I became so charmed by this man and I don't know why. It was as if I recognized him, as if I had known him already.
I know instinctively that he speaks the truth.
He will protect me.
So I put my life in his hands.
Maybe I am dreaming. Maybe I want him so much, my dream is blinding me from the reality.
But at this moment I do not care. My hand is his hand and performs whatever I want in my dream. His hand lingers on the most sensitive areas of my flesh, and is taking me to the land of chimera.
I see a deep greyblue ocean, peaking mountains in the sky...and then I fall... asleep.
And he did it again. I am furious! Why does he continue this useless frivolity! Hunting in the forest of Meudon, when he is so clumsy that he sometimes accidentally wounds a citizen.
Riding in a coach behind the king I order the driver to stop. The old man who was shot by a bullet from one of Louis's pistols is bleeding.
My dear Thérèse who is accompanying me, is as revolted as I am. The man, who is getting weaker every second that passes by, is frightened when I touch him.
"I will take you to the palace and my doctor will examine you," I speak, trying the best I can to
comfort the man, who is very lean. "Don't be afraid."
I manage to strip a band of my dress and I use it as a provisory bandage, to stop the bleeding.
"Hold him still, Thérèse!"
The driver carries the wounded man into the coach and we drive quickly to the palace. When we arrive I order a page to get the doctor at once. The man is breathing with difficulty and is in great pain.
"Take him to the nearest bed, but be careful!"
I take his hand in mine and smile.
"My doctor will see you soon. Try to focus on me. You are in good hands now."
The doctor, monsieur Perpignan, arrives. I turn to him.
"You have to help the poor man. The king shot him by accident. And act fast, he lost much of his blood already."
Monsieur Perpignan wants to make a reverence, but I refuse to give him the hand he wants to kiss.
With anger I say, "Take the bullet out of his shoulder, now!"
He watches me intently. Then he says softly, "this is no spectacle for your Majesty, the Queen of France."
He wants me to leave, but I won't.
"Please, my Queen", he adds.
I stretch my back and I take a large intake of breath, so I can tower above him, my eyes cold and distant, my head slightly tilted to one side. This is my most queenlike behavior and I always succeed in making an impression on the people around me, enemy ou ami.
"Proceed," I order him coldly.
And he does. He manages to take the bullet out of the shoulder of the man, and I don't step back, although I have to swallow from time to time.
After that, I order to bring the unconscious man to one of the rooms where royal guests normally have their quarters, and I tell monsieur Perpignan to take care of him during the night.
"Will he survive?" I ask him.
"Because of you, he will probably live," the doctor replies. He hesitates.
"But he will stay infirm?" I try.
He lowers his gaze. "Even if he survives, he won't live long" he finally whispers.
He lifts his head and then he defies me with his eyes.
"Because he is an old man and ill fed, so he will die of starvation," he speaks aloud.
"We will see," I reply evenly. And I nod.
"Thank you, my Queen."
He makes a reverence, but I can see the disrespect in his attitude, and I can hardly conceal my anger. He doesn't respect me. He thinks I am a queen of little virtue, someone whose opinions don't matter.
Just a woman.
The wife of the king.
The mother of the dauphin.
But I will show him and others that my opinions count. Until my last breath, I will struggle and show them they are all wrong.
Starvation. So that is what this country is suffering from. No food. Not enough flour to bake bread.
I'll have to talk to Louis immediately. But not before I have changed my clothes, which are soaked with the man's blood.
And the end of the day when finally the ritual is over and I am resting in my private room in bed, I collect my thoughts. I'll have to go to Louis right now. He is probably exhausted from the hunting and soon he will be too sleepy.
I slip out of the bed and cover my nightgown with a robe à dentelles. There is a small door behind the bed, especially made for the king if he wants to visit his wife discreetly, but I make use of it as well.
A very small corridor, not lighted at all, leads to his bedroom.
I was right. Louis is almost asleep.
I touch his face.
"Louis, wake up!"
He opens his eyes and looks at me in surprise. I do not visit him very often, and he is very pleased to see me. I know I must be looking beautiful in the dim light of the candles, my alabaster skin glowing, my face surrounded by blond curls, almost angelic. I have my ways...
I smile smoothly. "Louis," I whisper softly while I hold his hand. "You almost killed someone today."
"You are angry," he states. "Please forgive me. Can you?"
He starts to caress my hand.
"Do you know," not paying attention to his caress, "that your citizens are dying of starvation?"
"They are?," he asks innocently.
"You know as well as I, Louis, that there is not enough food, and that people have to pay too many taxes." I sigh. "These wars have cost too much money, and the treasury is almost empty."
Louis looks at me intently.
"Chérie," he speaks with a voice endowed with tenderness, "do we have to talk about this maintenant. I am tired. It has been a long day and at this moment, I have other things on my mind."
"I am sure you do," I reply with a smile. I take his hand and kiss his fingers. "I will stay only if you make me a promesse, a promise. Tomorrow, if you go to the Assemblée, you will tell the deputés you will cut the taxes and that the noblesse and the clergy will have to pay them as well."
I add firmly, looking Louis in the eye, "it is the only way."
Louis doesn't respond immediately.
Then he says, "Marie-Antoinette, do you know what you are asking?"
I leave his bed, and watch him with a very cold stare. And I tell him exactly what I think of him.
"You are a coward, and I am disappointed. I will find another way. As it seems, it is only your own happiness that concerns you, not the country, not the people."
He looks bewildered and impressed by my stern words. He objects. "That is not true."
"So do as I say."
"You are their king."
He doesn't speak.
"It is the only way," I repeat. "Do you want to be the king of the people, or the king of the nobility?"
"The people," he says softly. "They are everything to me."
"They will never know if you hide in the palace," I continue to speak firmly, still standing next to the bed. "And, if you kill them, even if it is by accident, they will never know you care about them. If they continue to pay so much tax, they have not enough money to buy food. They will never know, and they will hate you. And they will hate me as well," I add in a whisper.
"We will have more enemies," he objects.
"Every day there will be more enemies if we do nothing," I reply with passion. "There is a risk involved, which I am willing to take. But are you? Every day we are threatened by death, so what shall we lose? We shall lose our heads for sure if we refuse to listen to the people."
"Louis, " I try to speak with much more tenderness in my voice, while I sit down on the bed, close to him. "They will revolt against you, against us. They will blame us for their misery. Don't you see?"
"Now is the time to change the course of history." I touch his face, his forehead, wipe away a strand of hair. "If we don't, Dieu sait, God knows, if we will survive. But our lives are of no importance if we can save the lives of many others."
He smiles. "You should be king," he teases me. Then, after a moment of reflection, he decides. "I will do as you say."
Grateful I lower my head and kiss him on the lips. He welcomes my kiss with much greed. I don't object. It doesn't matter. For the sake of history. For the sake of France.
But as he wraps his arms around me and tries to undo my bodice, I try to imagine that these arms belong to the count, that these kisses are his, that these gentle caresses along my spine and hips are the caresses of Jean-Charles de La Janvier, my hero.
Louis touches the scar underneath my right breast with the tips of his fingers. It still hurts a bit and I am unable to repress a scream.
"What is it, my beloved one," Louis whispers in the dark.. "You were wounded. Why did I know nothing about it?"
"I will tell you in the morning," I reassure him.
He kisses the scar with much tenderness and I close my eyes, thinking of the one I hold closely to my heart.
My God, please. Let him come. Let the letter arrive on time. Keep him safe when he travels. Please, because I am not sure I have the strength to continue this voyage alone, to follow the path of my life without someone with whom I can share my soul. And so I say my prayers in silence, while Louis takes care of his needs, using my body to do so.
Even before the ritual of the morning is over, for my hair was not done yet, Thérèse enters my royal bedroom where a dozen persons are present. Quickly she bows, then says, "Majesté, forgive me for taking this liberty, but I thought you would want to see the wounded man. He is awake."
She kisses my hand and I reply, "You have done well, Madame de Lamballe."
I nod to everyone present. "Wait for me, for I will return shortly."
Then I leave the room and follow Thérèse, leaving behind the members of the court in astonishment. The man is awake but he is very pale and he is breathing with much difficulty. I take his hand in mine without hesitation and sit down beside his bed.
"Majesté...", he murmurs, with much difficulty.
"What is your name," I ask him.
"Vincent le Gouillac."
"Monsieur le Gouillac, the doctor managed to take the bullet out of your shoulder. You will not leave the palace until you have completely recovered."
I do not understand.
"A priest? But, you will recover, Monsieur. You are feeling weak, but you will become stronger every day."
He starts to cough, and he throws up blood.
Afraid, I turn to Thérèse. "A priest, hurry."
The man looks at me, his voice merely a whisper. He manages to say, "Take care of my daughter. Her mother died."
"What is her name?"
"Do you live in the village?"
The dying man nods.
"I have a daughter as well," I tell him. "Perhaps you know. Madame Royale, she is called. I will do everything I can to make sure your daughter is fine".
"I promise, in God's name, and my duty as your queen."
He closes his eyes. Then he sighs deeply and I can feel that he passes away, his soul taken in the hands of the creator. Like a bird that flies away to the mysterious universe of death, his spirit continues to live on the other side of the mirror.
I look at him. At least I could give him a certain piece of mind. His face is peaceful and shows no sign of anger or unhappiness.
Slowly I stand up and turn around. Thérèse looks at me. "You are crying," she says.
Only then do I feel the tears glistening on my face.
End of chapter 3