Mass on Saint Stephen’s day, the cathedral, Strasbourg. The Cardinal is concelebrating mass, for the great and supposed good, in the tallest building in the world. The choir is in full voice, the space, one of the largest outside of Paris, is packed, but for the more comfortable area, occupied by the creme de la creme. Among whom, of course, the Comte and Comtesse de la Motte.
That wonderful lubricant, money, had managed to place the couple, not in the front rank of worshipers, but in a prominent position in the second row. Jeanne, dressed in red, her hair, her own and not piled high, is covered with a black mantilla with a white, virtually transparent, collar covering her shoulders. She would be among those receiving communion from the Cardinal’s own hands.
They had made the three day journey to Strasbourg in stages, stopping for a short while in Reims and then Nancy, before spending the last few days in Strasbourg itself. They had attended Midnight mass on Christmas eve, and then mass again at eleven on Christmas day. In both of these instances they were discreet, from the point of view of society and the Cardinal, virtually invisible. Not so on the 26th. As the feast of the first martyr, Jeanne had thought it appropriate to begin their project on this particular day. She also thought this shade of red, liturgically correct for the day, suited her. She did not think many other ladies would dare it. She was right.
The row in front of her emptied as the gentlemen and ladies of Strasbourg, went up for communion. The Cardinal stood in the centre of the chancel, with the line of the high folk passing smoothly in front of him, while he fed them the body of Christ. Front row done, the second row followed. It was not unusual for the Cardinal to serve two or even three rows of worshipers, but it was not normal either. Today, a martyr’s day but not Christmas or Easter, Pentecost or the Ascension, it had been assumed he would stop shortly after the first row, allowing his concelebrants to finish, even as they were serving on either side of him, the larger part of the congregation. While trying not to make it too obvious, he might just have been awaiting that lady in the red dress.
Jeanne, arrived in front of him and knelt, leaning forward, hands joined in supplication to the Lord, and perhaps to God. The Cardinal, leaned toward her, he had to as she was lower than most, and he drank in her perfume. As he reached out with the host she looked up and her eyes met his, the impact on him almost a blow. He tripped over his words, words he had said numerous times every day of his life, since he was fourteen.
And she was gone. Then there was some fellow in front of him, waiting, as the Cardinal’s eyes followed Jeanne to her seat. She knelt, the picture of devotional piety. The man coughed, and his Eminence glared, but remembered himself, and served once more. He served half a row after that, as much to watch this woman, as to cover the fact of his watching. Walking back to his throne at the alter, he bent to the alter boy at his side and said something. The alter boy turned away, and headed for the vestry. The choir continued their exquisite singing, the Cardinal folded his hands inside his sleeves and sat, brooding over how he might get this woman to one of the many masked balls that would be held in Strasbourg or Paris, over the coming weeks. He turned round in his seat looking for the boy. Impatient for an answer, he had sent him to find out her name, and from where she had sprung. By the time the boy was back his mood was anxious and, well, less than that of the temperate Christian. But, there was an answer. His Eminence, sat back in his throne and smiled, and the wheels turned, and he thought he might find a way.
Worship over, the congregation poured out onto the square in front of the the cathedral. There, hundreds of horses waited, all groomed to the highest standard available to their owners, for the blessing given each year on this day. The crowd thinned, but still many stayed to watch. The parade in front of the Cardinal would be fine. Individual horses and teams pulling carriages. Farm horses and city dray horses, all looking their best and, as luck would have it the sun was out. Children ran around the square, freed from the harsh confines of churchly behaviour, adults spoke in groups comparing their christmas days and sharing hopes for the new year. Whispering still, about the loss of two weeks of their lives, just a few years earlier when the country moved to the new calendar, and its consequent effect on weather and daylight norms.
A hush descended as the Cardinal appeared. Dressed now in his most formal outdoor vestments, his red hat accompanying the red chasuble, he held an aspergillum ready to sprinkle the horses as he blessed them with holy water. The parade began. Horses passed, as had the congregation at mass, in preordained sequence. The most important citizens and religious orders, then the guilds, in order of precedence, and finally, Jacques citizen with his own horse. Some are ridden, teams driven, and some led if they become skittish. In the sun even the most humble of polished bridles, shine, and make for a fine spectacle.
The Cardinal paid unusual attention this year, though in truth this was one of the jobs he quite enjoyed, if the sun shone. But he was looking out for the carriage which would carry, that woman. The boy had told him she would pass with her husband, a guest of one of the guilds, the man’s arms would be on the vehicle, and that would tell him much.
He spotted the carriage, and was a little distracted as he waited, but continued to bless the passing herd. Then, it was in front of him, and she was sitting forward. He fancied their eyes met, he thought a small connection. He was sufficiently experienced, to know he might easily deceive himself about a thing like that, but was romantic enough to want it to be true. So caught up in the brief exchange was he, that he forgot to look at the arms on the door of the coach. Had he noticed, it might have been a little new? But then, he told himself, every thing looked new on a day like this.