The Enemies of Versailles
In which little Jeanne Bécu is exposed to life
I slip away from the warmth of the kitchen and out into the deserted hall. Behind me, my mother is elbow-deep in a giant bowl of flour and spices, gossiping to a neighbor, while four chickens roast over the fire. Out here, life is colder and grander. I creep up the marble staircase that rises before me like a giant ladder to Heaven, the banister smooth under my hand. I reach the landing and crouch in silence, but I heard Frederica leave earlier. She left behind a trace of her scent when she wafted down the elegant staircase, her special blend of roses and grace.
I creep along the passageway and peek into Frederica’s boudoir. If she were here, I might get a kiss and a bonbon, or a slap depending on her mood, but now the room is deserted. I enter and the plush carpet softens my steps. A painting of Monsieur Dumonceaux, who owns the house and Frederica and everything in it, looks down on me. Monsieur Dumonceaux is an old lover of my mother’s, and he brought us to Paris and gave us our lodgings. He’s not a lover anymore—Frederica is now his lover—but he is always kind to us, and Ma says he is a good man.
His portrait watches over Frederica, but when she has a new guest, she asks the footman to cover it. The rest of her room is cozy and sumptuous: a fire still licking lazily in the hearth; a wardrobe so big I once slept in there, hidden for hours; crimson curtains hanging over the tall, airy windows; a marble table set with a decanter of a wonderful-smelling potion called brandy, which always makes me think of men and candy. I sniff at the little array
of perfume bottles on her table then head to my destination: her bed with its layers of green silk sheets and heavy white furs, lace and velvet trimming the pillows. A mattress as soft as a dream welcomes me down in its embrace, so different from my pallet in the kitchen. I burrow under the heavy blankets and nestle in. Ma always says I am lazy, but I’m not lazy, I think as I drift off to sleep, just . . . happy.
“And what have we here?” says Frederica in her bright, charmed voice, the one she uses with Monsieur Dumonceaux and her other gentlemen. Frederica has dark, curling hair, and laughing blue eyes that can turn as cold and hard as gems. The man with her this evening is not Monsieur Dumonceaux but an older gentleman with watery eyes, wearing an orange coat that reminds me of the skin of a cat.
I am sleepy and dreaming under the pile of furs. I smile up at Frederica, then at the man as well; Frederica’s moods are always changing, but men are generally pleasant.
“Little scamp,” says Frederica fondly, and tousles my hair. “Now go on back to your mother, and tell her that Monsieur de Braque here will want a juicy chicken later.”
“Such a charming child!” declares the man, who must be the Monsieur de Braque who wants a juicy chicken. “And what harm would there be, were she to stay?” he asks, raising his brows at Frederica, as though making a joke, though I know he isn’t.
“Oh, quiet, Jérôme,” says Frederica, laughing and picking me up roughly. I avert my eyes from the man’s gaze and struggle to pull down my dress that is now tangled around my waist. “She’s only a child.”
“Ten?” asks the man eagerly. “How lovely she is!”
Seven, I want to protest, but I don’t say anything, for suddenly I want to get out of the room and away from the man’s watered green eyes. The color of scum on a pond, I think with a shudder, and squirm against Frederica to let me down. I hear the soft tinkle of her laughter, raindrops on smooth glass, and she pushes me out. “Get back to the kitchens,” she hisses before closing the
door. “Now, la, monsieur, to be so interrupted . . .” I hear her say as she turns back to her evening entertainment.
I lean against the door but the thick oak muffles the scene behind. I imagine what they will be doing, dogs rutting in the street that stay together, joined and panting, even after slops are thrown on them.
Joined and panting, I think, traipsing languidly down the corridor now that Frederica is safe with her guest. I stand at the top of the staircase and imagine, for one moment, that the house is mine, and that Frederica is my mother and instead of sleeping in the kitchen that reeks of raw chicken and mold, I have a room next to Frederica’s, and my own bed is as soft and glorious as hers.
A few days later, another push, but this time out onto the streets. We hear Frederica shouting at Dumonceaux that I am a little tramp, tempting her clients, and claiming she has no more use for us. Ma loses her position as cook and now we have to leave the comfortable house and all her clients in the neighborhood who buy her chickens.
“Snozzle-faced bitch,” complains my mother. We gather our belongings off the street and prepare for the long walk to my stepfather’s house. My feet are bare, though it is cold out; I can’t ruin my only pair of shoes in this mud.
“What sort of a woman is threatened by a seven-year-old child?” Ma continues, spitting and glaring up at the impassive windows of the little house.
A porter from next door watches us without curiosity. “An angel in the making,” he says, gesturing to me. “She’ll be trouble all her life.”
“Come on, dears, let’s get going.” Ma’s lover, the monk Guimard, stands beside us in our distress. He leans over and hoists a sheet filled with heavy iron pots, my mother’s treasure and trade. “I never liked her, but at least Dumonceaux still does right by us.”
“But how does he do right by us if we cannot live in his house anymore?” I ask, but no one answers. I am dragging a basket filled
with our clothes, vainly trying to avoid puddles and the deep mud as we start our journey. It will take us two hours at least to cross the city and already the October night is cold and the streets grim.
“Well, aren’t we a raggedy bunch!” says the monk Guimard in his jolly way, always ready with a kind word or funny story. I wish he were my father, but whenever I say that my mother tells me to be quiet, or he will be arrested for indecency. “Joseph and Mary without an inn,” he continues, “and with a little babe in arms. That’s you, Jeanne. But time will be our friend; chickens are always in demand and your skills are beyond compare,” he adds kindly to my mother, wobbling slightly under his burden as he steps over a dead dog.
“Rançon will take us in,” says Ma, carrying her enormous copper kettle and a heavy gridiron, referring to her husband and the man she says I must call father. “And at least we don’t have to worry about Jeanne.”
“Why don’t you have to worry about me?” I ask, jumping quickly out of the way as a magnificent six-horsed carriage roars by.
“Monsieur Dumonceaux has agreed to take on your education,” my mother says.
I stop. “What do you mean, Ma?” I ask, thinking, I don’t know why, of the man’s green watery eyes and the hungry way they devoured me.
“He has agreed to send you to a convent, where you’ll be educated and even learn your letters. Imagine that!”
“A convent! Oh no!” I cry, thinking of the convent on the corner of our street and the grim black-clad nuns that circle in the courtyard. Nothing goes in or out: What do they even eat?
“Ah, now don’t cry,” says the monk Guimard kindly. “Nuns can be dear ladies, I remember one particularly fine young novice when I was young—”
“Shhh,” hisses Ma. “You talk too much. It’ll be the Bastille for you, one of these days. Careful—I know that pig—took a chunk of Madame Fargé’s ankle last week.” She pulls me away from a snortling boar that has started following us.
I trundle on, crying now, because I don’t want to disappear into a convent and leave Ma and the monk Guimard. And I may never see Frederica’s room again, never burrow in her soft sheets, never be treated to butter bonbons and little drops of her scent. My fate has been decided, I think, sobbing openly now as we walk wearily through the dark streets. I am to go to a convent, and I’m quite sure they won’t have any satin sheets for me there.