Courtesan, p.1Diane Haeger
Book One 1533
Book Two October 1535
Book Three Autumn 1537
Book Four March 1547
Book Five September 1556
A Reader’s Group Guide
Also From Diane Haeger
Also by Diane Haeger
To my mother, Meg
to my husband, Ken
for their unwavering love and support. And for believing from the
first that this was a story I was meant to tell.
IN DAWN’S SEMIDARKNESS, she stood ankle deep and motionless at the river’s edge, her tall silhouette blending with the bare white elms which braided through the cloudless winter sky over Beaumont-sur-Sarthe.
The pungent aroma of wood smoke from village chimneys mixed with damp earth and laced the air near the shore as she plunged naked into the icy water. She felt the chill, sharp like needles, as it quickly turned her skin to gooseflesh, but to Diane, discipline was sacred. Defiantly, she moved deeper into the rapid current. She finally came to the surface, water dripping from her hair and face, and her alabaster skin glimmering with the sheen of early morning light on water. A flock of geese flew in precision above her, but made no sound. In this state of meditative peace, she bathed alone until the thoughts returned and her mind began once again, to echo the fear.
It is too late. . .You cannot turn back now. . .You have come too far. . .
Since she always bathed at dawn, Diane reached the inn just as the royal coachmen were loading the first of her brocade-covered trunks back onto the King’s coach. Six of His Majesty’s best Spanish stallions swayed as two of the guards attached them to a tooled silver harness. At least four of the animals were required to pull the awkward lumbering vehicle. Diane grimaced at the prospect of another long ride in it. The price of the King’s hospitality, she reminded herself, and looked away. Before her in the cobblestone courtyard, two mongrel dogs fought over a scrap of meat. They had garnered all of the attention from the velvet-tuniced coachmen so that she could return unnoticed from the river. She said a silent prayer and slipped past them.
Clothed only in a thin cambric dressing gown, she slid through the paneled door. The musty smell of dried wine on scarred oak tables dizzied her, but she crept steadily toward the staircase. In the candlelit shadows she heard laughter, then the faint sound of whispers. A man’s voice; then a woman’s. She passed quickly, not wanting to hear them. Not today. When she finally reached the welcome privacy of her room, she closed the door and leaned against it to catch her breath. She let the wet dressing gown fall to the floor around muddied feet and ran her hands through the full masses of wet blond hair. As she sank onto the tousled bed covers, she sighed. Is it really too late to turn back?
The King’s driver had misjudged the distance and his error had forced them, in the dark of night, to surrender to the only room and the only inn left for miles. In the center of the small room was a large soot-smudged fireplace with a chipped stone hearth. Next to it was a bed hung with tattered blue tapestried bedcurtains. Hewn beams and a spray of cobwebs decorated the walls. From the single latched window came a ribbon of daylight and the shouts of an old woman as she kicked the two dogs in the courtyard below.
The fire sputtered and crackled. It was nearly out. Diane felt the chill again but this time it passed through her as Charlotte padded into the room, carrying a large speckled-blue pitcher full of water. She found her mistress staring hypnotically into the last glowing embers of the fire, her skin nearly blue with the cold.
“Pray God, Madame! You’re close to freezing!” she declared in a heavy peasant voice. She slapped the pitcher onto an old oak bureau then, in a brisk maternal sweep, covered Diane with the remaining heap of bedcovers. “Swimming in that river is madness, Madame. If you don’t freeze, you’re sure to die of the pox!”
There was a long silence between them as Charlotte gathered up the fine Dutch linen undergarments from a trunk at the foot of the bed. Diane watched her, the complex network of wrinkles on Charlotte’s full face now highlighted in the gray light from the window. Her kind face was a comfort this morning.
Another servant entered the room in soundless velvet slippers, carrying in one hand a large silver jewelry casket; in the other, a freshly starched headdress. “I have spoken to His Majesty’s coachman, Madame,” said Hélène, in a wispy childlike voice. “He expects we shall reach Court by midday.”
Diane nodded but said nothing.
“Have you decided what you shall wear when you are introduced once again to His Majesty?” Charlotte asked. “If I might suggest, the moiré silk, or the velvet are both splendid.” Confident that her suggestion would be heeded, she did not wait for a reply. She padded with heavy labored steps, back to one of the trunks that lay open, beneath the small latched window. This trunk, like the others already on the coach, was lined with an assortment of silks, furs, petticoats and headdresses.
“It must be perfect. Simple. Solemn. I can afford no mistake in this.” She paused a moment, and brushed her slender fingers across her slim white throat. “Prepare the velvet with the white lace collar.”
Wrapped in the bedcovers, Diane moved silently to the hearth and a small petit-point hassock. Hélène opened the jewelry case and arranged a selection of necklaces and rings. Charlotte laid the chosen gown across the bed near the stockings and underskirt. She smoothed out each article with her short rough hands as Hélène moved to the fire to add a few sticks of kindling. A blaze quickly took hold and gold flames licked the walls of the tiny room. The elements of their mistress’s costume now in place, Charlotte took up the pearl-handled comb from the table by the bed. With firm, even strokes, she began to untangle the partially drying tendrils of Diane’s thick blond hair.
When it was nearly dry, she stood. She could put it off no longer. She must dress. It was an elaborate ritual of camouflage Diane detested. First her breasts were tightly bound. Then her hips were flattened. She was covered next in a long-sleeved blue shift; then a heavy leather corset. A bell-shaped canvas underskirt followed white jersey hose, and finally, her gown. It was simple black velvet with a low square neckline. Across it, Charlotte hung a heavy rope of pearls. The long cuffs, trumpet shaped, were turned back. Their lining was marten fur. She would change into the more formal gown later, after they had been received at Court. His Court.
The dressing of her hair followed. The silky blond waves that fell uncurled down her back were pulled sharply away from her face, pinned and then hidden beneath
When the dressing ritual was complete, Charlotte stepped back and studied Diane as though she were a painting. She held the point of her chin between two fingers, her heavy brows fused in a frown. “If you are not certain about this, Madame, we can just as easily send word to His Majesty that you have fallen ill on your journey. It would be simple enough to tell him that we were required to return home.”
The tender concern of the old woman calmed the edges of her own dark fear. She looked at her maid, the hulking body, the skin hanging in aging ruffles from her neck, and her eyes, deep and sincere. Diane smiled.
“It will be all right, Charlotte. Five years is a long time. You shall see. With everything that goes on at Court, people should scarcely remember.”
She spoke with conviction, but her words masked a fear greater than she could admit, even to herself. Five years. Who would recall? Five years since the scandal which had rocked the Court and sent her and her husband, Louis, back to Anet to wait out his last days in informal exile. Now Louis was dead and the King had invited her to return.
HIS MAJESTY’S COACH swayed and plunged as the royal guard led the way toward Blois. Inside, Diane and her servants were battered about the dark, stale-smelling cabin. Charlotte, with her red-gray curls beneath a crimson hood, dozed on Hélène’s shoulder. Diane looked across at them, relieved that she had a few moments to herself. Her head fell back against the red damask cushion as she looked out across the winter landscape of Touraine. The forest was dotted with bare elm trees and patches of melting snow. Across the plowed colorless fields were thatched houses and occasionally a small country church.
Dizzied by the sight and by the fear, she took a small mirror from her velvet handbag and raised it to her face. Gently she rubbed her hand across her cheek. The image that met her was not that of a great beauty. Her nose was too long and her eyes were too deeply set. But her skin was clear and she had a serene elegance, which had always caused people to notice her. Life had been kind. She was certain she did not look anywhere near thirty-one. Her body was still firm and strong and she needed no cosmetics with which to mask herself. She was convinced that daily cold baths held one of the many secrets of youth. In a society where water carried plagues and many were bathed only at birth, after childbirth, and after death, there were few who understood her love of so dangerous a ritual. Yet in spite of the gossip and the stern objections of everyone who knew, Diane continued to bathe every day.
She took a breath and closed her eyes. The sharp clop of hooves on the cobbled road beat to the steady rhythm of her heart. She had made her decision to return to Court. She would face her past. . .she must. So much had changed in these last six months. So much was changing. After a moment, she twirled the wedding ring on her finger. Then, without a thought, she took it from one hand and put it onto the next. It was time to start living again.
THE KING OF FRANCE stood surefooted, preening at the stately reflection which stared back at him from the long amethyst-framed wardrobe mirror. His straight chestnut hair fell smoothly over each ear, framing sleepy amber eyes and a long prominent nose. His thin lips turned upward, satyrlike, above a neatly clipped beard. He lightly touched it. Pleased with himself, he let out a ribald laugh so that a row of straight white teeth showed. Again he looked into the mirror. Behind his own image he could see the collection of courtiers. The categories and titles seemed endless; ambassadors, almoners, doctors, surgeons, apothecaries, barbers, grooms, stewards, pages and valets. All counted themselves among the fortunate who held a place on his payroll. They hovered around him expectantly, in their silks, brocades, their jeweled toques and their fashionable leather doublets. Their skin was perfumed with the exotic scents of ambergris and sandalwood. It blended with the scent from the fireplace and wall sconces, from which fragrant juniper burned.
These ambitious nobles whispered to one another as they strolled casually around the sumptuous apartments whose furnishings were priceless. The floors were inlaid tile of bright blue, orange and gold. They were blanketed in places with hand-tied rugs from ancient Babylon. The rugs were covered with dozing black hunting dogs. The vast limestone walls were warmed by tapestries in pale blue and rose, sewn with gold, depicting the exploits of the gods.
The King’s lever, the official rising ceremony, was a complex affair. It took place in this manner each morning under the scrutiny of a select few who were given the honor of watching him rise and dress. At the first hint of sunrise, the heavily carved bedchamber doors were cast open. A string of ambitious nobles and gentlemen servants filtered in and formed a ring at the base of his bed.
Across the room, a glowing orange fire blazed. The massive stone mantel above was decorated like all of the others in the palace. It bore the King’s crest: the salamander amid the flames with the motto NUTRISCO ET EXTINGUO (I feed on it and extinguish it) wrapped around a golden crown.
Amid this splendor, the King’s courtiers volleyed for the first audience or the closest seat to His Royal Majesty. Each one of them was so taken up by his own cause that they were oblivious to the King. Aware of their preoccupation and bored by it, François proceeded impetuously to urinate into the cavernous hollow of the fireplace. The yellow stream extinguished the flames and sent billows of gray smoke wafting across the room. As he turned to face his audience, he shook his head at their averted eyes. He had hoped this morning to rattle just one of them.
Jean de La Barre, First-Gentleman-of-the-Chamber, cleared his throat and came forward as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. He held two morning costumes. One, fashioned in the Italian style, was made of emerald green velvet and encrusted with jewels. The other, styled by a French designer, was claret satin with fur at the collar and wrists. François waved approval as Barre held each one forward in turn. After a moment of indecision, he looked toward a sharp-faced, silver-haired courtier, who stood near the stone hearth.
“Well, Montmorency, how do you think We shall fair in the green this morning?”
“Excellent, of course, Your Majesty,” the Grand Master judiciously flattered. “You honor the color by the wearing of it.”
“That is to say then. . .” the King began to smile, “that I do no justice to the red?”
“Your Majesty shines gloriously in all colors. Alas, it should prove an insurmountable task to decide which costume should be benefited more by the wearing.”
François’ grin widened and his sleepy eyes twinkled with delight. Perhaps there would be some fun this morning, after all.
He fingered the green doublet and puffed trunk hose that Barre held for him. As he did, the echo of footsteps grew outside his bedchamber. The King looked toward the door and the costume fell to the floor. Like the preceding mound of red satin which the King had discarded, this one was quickly scooped up by a gentleman-of-the-chamber. It was then whisked back to the royal wardrobe in a motion as smooth as a finely orchestrated dance. Then the door opened and a tall, elegantly dressed man burst in. He was Principal Tutor to the royal children.
“Your Majesty!” he panted, struggling to catch his breath. He lowered his plumed toque as he neared the Sovereign. François turned slowly. “I am afraid to report, Sire, that it is Prince Henri again.”
“Will that boy give me no peace?!” he bellowed and flung himself onto an ornately carved settee. Two of the hounds raised their heads, growled, then fell back to sleep.
“Oh, very well, Saint-André. What has he done now?” the King groaned. His eyes were closed and the rest of his long face was pinched.
“I am told that Monsieur La Croix wished the Prince to recite his Latin in the company of his sisters, the Princesses Marguerite and Madeleine. Well, Sire, he quite plainly refused, and when Monsieur
The other courtiers muffled snickers as the King lay his head against the back of the settee. This was not the first time the King’s second son had sought publicly to embarrass his father.
“And the condition of La Croix?”
“If Your Majesty shall pardon my candor, it took four of your best guards to retrieve him. I regret to inform you that he has asked to be relieved of his duty.”
François opened his eyes and picked up a large jeweled wine decanter from a stand near the settee. Tilting his head back, he began to drink at such a pace that the crimson colored liquid dripped down his beard and fell in little drops onto his bare chest. In a sweeping motion, he rubbed the wine with his hand and tossed the heavy silver decanter onto the carpet. “So be it. Bochetel,” he said, leaning over to one of his Secretaries of Finance. “See that Monsier La Croix is compensated for his trouble.”
After the secretary had made note of the King’s command, Saint-André advanced further. “Shall there be a flogging for His Highness, then?” he cautiously asked.
“No! No flogging. The boy has endured enough of that sort of thing in Spain.”
Saint-André’s expression grew more tentative. He lowered his head. “Will there be punishment then for my son, in His Highness’s stead?”
The King studied the tutor. He brought his finger to his chin until the moment of recollection. “Ah yes, your son is that tall fellow always in Henri’s company.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. My son Jacques is companion to the Prince, and as such, it is he who customarily takes His Highness’s punishment.”
“So he is. Well, this time it is not so simple a task. Until We decide on a proper course of action, you are to inform the Prince that he shall be sent ahead to Fontainebleau. A fortnight alone with the Queen should be sufficient penance for any crime.”
“Very well, Your Majesty.”
Courtesan by Diane Haeger / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes