The Trouble With Huguenots – Snippet 05
“And, of course, she had to bear him children after she grew up. I am certainly legitimate,” the little duchess said proudly. “That is why Papa is so concerned about my marriage and sent the letter that has irritated Maman so much, you understand. Uncle Soubise has no children at all, so I am the only hope for continuing Rohan. Papa can be sure that I am the legitimate heiress of all that Rohan represents. It is true that Maman is volatile, but she was quite conscientious about her behavior until Papa gave up begetting. She didn’t take lovers until after that.”
Bismarck could not think of a tactful reply. At least, not one that was relevant.
At which point, Benserade and the choreographer beckoned her back onstage.
Bismarck hoped that they would have lunch, or maybe dinner, or at least a snack, pretty soon, but was afraid that they wouldn’t. It was a mystery why the dancers, whether ladies-in-waiting and courtiers or actors and ballerinas, had not been reduced to skeletons.
The next day was more of the same. A ballet in Paris appeared to involve as much in the way of logistics as a minor military campaign. The little duchess and the ladies in waiting, and the men of course, danced in the traditional style, but the ballerinas hired from the theater were doing two pieces in the modern en pointe style that the up-timers had introduced. Since their presentations meant that the other female dancers were offstage quite a bit, though both the courtiers and actors partnered the professionals in their display, Bismarck was subjected to more chatter.
“The night of the ballet, you will be presented to M. de Gondi. Be careful. He is Maman‘s current lover, and prone to take offence at the slightest thing he can interpret to be a discourtesy. Also, he has a retinue of favorites who follow him around and take offense on his behalf. Henri fought some duels when he was younger, before I ever met him, but I do believe that he has outgrown it. It would not be good if either you or he got trapped into one while you are here and it would not be beyond some of the courtiers to entrap you into having to fight one, just to embarrass Papa. Don’t trust anyone. That’s the best. Anyone, even one you think is now your closest friend or most committed ally, may well betray you tomorrow if some advantage is to be obtained from it.”
“Lover?” Bismarck had learned most of his French in a classroom and was not certain of his comprehension at times, particularly when a conversational partner spoke with excessive rapidity. Which all the French seemed to do most of the time. He wanted to be sure that he had heard clearly.
“Yes, her current lover. Everyone says that Maman is quite fastidious. It’s not as if she’s one of those women who claim to be ladies but fuck the footmen for fun. She takes one lover at a time and all of them have been influential members of the highest nobility.” Marguerite sighed. “Even though in the case of the Nogarets, she chose two brothers at different times, the cardinal de La Valette and the comte de Candale.” She wrinkled her nose. “Which is…not fastidious.”
Bismarck’s eyebrows were practically up in his receding three-point hairline.
“So, what was I saying? It’s not as if Maman has a reputation like la Chalais, for whom a man published a poem in praise of her slit.” She punctuated that by nodding her head firmly. “Her husband, the comte de Chalais, killed the comte de Pontguibault in a duel because of that poem. It was a big scandal at the timeâ€“that must have been about a dozen years ago. But Chalais was beheaded later on, because la Chevreuse seduced him into one of her conspiracies against Richelieu. She’s a very distant cousin of Papa’s, from the Rohan-Montbezon line.” She paused. “You will remember what I told you about duels, won’t you? It will cause too many complications if you or Henri fight a duel while you are staying with us.”
Bismarck blinked in the face of this never-ending flood of gossip. It might be true that nobody ever paid attention to her, because when she did have a captive listener, her mouth overflowed with everything she was thinking. Much of which, under the surface frivolity, was world-weary and far more cynical than a girl her age should be, he thought. If anybody asked him, which nobody would.
At least, when the day of the performance arrived, he would be in the audience rather than backstage. He hoped. He hoped, but he knew that sometimes hope was in vain. He had seen the modern English translation of the Bible in the school library when he was studying at Helmstedt. Well, not the modern of the up-timers but the modern of his own day, the one sponsored by King James. The passage Henri had quoted on their ride to Paris had not employed “useless” or “futile.” “Vanity,” the Teacher had written, speaking the Word of God. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” Solomon must have visited Paris at some stage of his career. But, then, he had been presiding over a royal court of his own. With wives in the plural, concubines by the hundreds, and troubles of his own. Monogamy had a lot to be said in its favor.
Marguerite propped her chin on the heel of her hand. “And then there’s TancrÃ¨de.”
The little duchess managed to convey jaded disgust with one short glance. “My half-brother.”
“The duke also has affairs? An affair? His junior officers, at least during my term of service, have not been aware of any.”
“My maternal half-brother. He’s six. Trust me, M. von Bismarck. One has not lived until one has ridden, most of the time in a closed carriage, from Venice to Paris, with a pregnant, motion sick, middle aged woman who is expecting an illegitimate child and knows that it will have to be fostered out because her husband draws the line at accepting a possible male heir whom he has not fathered. After such a wonderful journey, it’s hard for a girl to retain any illusions about the joyous and sacred nature of motherhood, no matter what the preachers say in their sermons.” She paused. “Candale begat the boy. He and Maman slept together in my own father’s house. That’s bad taste, don’t you think?”
Bismarck nodded. Bad taste was the least of it, from the perspective of a devout man.
“But at least she converted him to Calvinism before she slept with him,” Marguerite added more cheerfully. “That annoyed his brother the cardinal, not that the cardinal-archbishop of Toulouse is at all pious: he has never taken Catholic holy orders and has made his career in the army. Richelieu loathes Maman. He calls her une des dames brouillonnes de la cour, one of the mischief-making ladies of the court.”
Even ballet rehearsals come to an end.
“It’s true, what she said when we arrived, isn’t it?” Bismarck asked that evening as he finished taking off his boots and leaned back, wiggling his toes.
“Huh?” Ruvigny was half-asleep already.
“That nobody other than you paid any attention to her when she was in Venice and twelve years old. Nobody pays any attention to her now that she’s in Paris and seventeen years old, as far as I can see, other than dressing her, rehearsing her for that ballet, and parading her around to salons and court appearances. She’s the greatest heiress in all of France and she’s neglected. Nobody listens to her at all. Nobody even tries to provide her with some kind of…moral compass. Not as far as I have seen.”
“Not since her grandmother Rohan died,” Ruvigny answered. “That must be five years ago, now. The duchess’ parents, Sully and his wife, are still alive, but Marguerite doesn’t see much of them. He’s in retirement in the country, which is a nice way to describe house arrest, writing his memoirs and dreaming of his ‘great design’ for a federation of all Christian nations.”