The Cardinal's Sin - chapter 22 - The Masque

The Masque

Though he attended the first masque of the season in Strasbourg, the Cardinal left early. His disappointment, at the absence of the lady, surprised him. It also whetted his appetite. Enquiry revealed that the Comte and Comtesse had returned to Paris. Their planned stay had been cut short, a rumoured difference in perspective between the couple. Interesting. He sent his man to make further enquiry into this couple, and the story became, even more interesting. It was revealed, she was freshly married. After that happy event, the couple had discovered certain differences, the whisper was, they sprang from the marital bed. He licked his lips as his man told him this, no wonder the woman already looked abroad, if her husband was an oaf in bed. He ordered his household to prepare to return to Paris, where he thought he might try snare this beauty.

Back in Paris, Jeanne and la Motte were having supper. They had taken the most direct route to the capitol, to be sure they would not be overtaken, and the trip was exhausting. Neither liked long distances in coaches, few did. It had turned cold and wet on their way, and the roads were the worse for it. La Motte insisted on boring her, with questions about how you could move armies on such roads, as though she cared. Supper was welcome, but Jeanne’s stomach would still need a while to settle down. The broth helped. In spite of the dull conversation, they had developed a civil working relationship on the journey, and, she felt, they would be able to pull this off, if everything else went as they hoped. But he was disturbingly volatile.

In gaps between diatribes about armies, they discussed the events in Strasbourg. They both agreed the Cardinal was tickled by the bait. La Motte was much more sure of this than Jeanne, but in any event this fish would need careful play.

Jeanne was worried about his experience. Françoise, had found out much, but not everything, and instruct her as she might, there was nothing like being in the saddle, to understand how to control the mount. La Motte, had been oddly reticent about getting involved in this. Jeanne was disappointed, she had been counting on him to find out what worked, and what was a waste of time. He said, tastes were too individual for him to be able to express an opinion, and stormed off. His moods varied, between enthusiastic help, and sullen indifference. Jeanne, asked the ever helpful Françoise about it, but she was at a loss.

Deciding to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, she indicated to Françoise that they should be left alone. Françoise duly made her excuses, and left. Silence as far as conversation was concerned. Sounds of spoon scraping and broth drinking, indicated someone was in the room, but not much else. Jeanne cleared her throat, but la Motte didn’t look up. She stopped eating and just waited. Finally, that seemed to work and he looked up, and then straight down. She sighed, and tapped the end of her spoon on the table, trying to think of how to open the conversation. It was that, that got to him, he frowned and eyed, first the spoon, and then Jeanne. They examined each other, she frustrated, he disconsolate.

“We cannot go on like this Monsieur.”

“Like…”

“Don’t say, ‘like what’, I do not think you are so lacking in sensibility, that you do not know what you’ve been like.”

He bent down and lifted his spoon, and she thought he was going to start eating again, but he stopped and faced her.

“What else is there?”

“We are supposed to be conspirators, in what is after all, a pretty desperate enterprise.”

“We are. I am doing everything I can to ensure you get your chance to be close to the Cardinal. To bed him, to draw him to his own destruction.”

“I need more help, you know that.”

“Ask.”

She threw her eyes to heaven, and then back at him. He shook his head, then surprised her.

“Give it up.”

“What? I don’t understand.”

“Stop it, walk away. We can just leave. You don’t need to do it, it won’t do any good anyway. It’s like these stupid duels the ‘gentlemen’ fight, for their supposed honour. All theatre and front, at best they have a scar and a story about their bravery, at worst someone is dead and another exiled. Honour? Never worth it. It’s a myth men talk about when they’ve done nothing worth doing in their lives. And the price is never theirs to pay, always some innocent. Walk away. We can take your sister with us, see the Americas, make a fortune. Europe’s finished anyway.”

She was struck dumb for a moment, and struggled to find the words she never thought she would ever need to say to la Motte, of all people.

“Honour is all they give women, that and children I suppose. If you are defenceless, poor, pious, they have told you again and again, that your entire value to the world, is contained in that word. When it’s gone you’re nothing. Your honour, as a woman is further bound to virginity outside of marriage, and fidelity inside it. Lose that, and you have to be very rich and well positioned, or very poor with no position at all, to avoid destruction. If you’re a woman, and you have no honour, you’re fair game to any man who fancies his chances. You have to be tough, like Françoise, to survive and she has her father and the inn behind her. Marie-Ann, had nothing, and with what she has been taught, year after year, by the sisters, de Rohan took away even her connection with God.”

“But, will this change that or leave her on her own?”

“It will show her that even a Cardinal, cannot escape retribution, when he steps over the line. I’m not doing this to restore honour, the way I could if I were a man. What’s done is done, she is ruined, at least in her own eyes. I am doing this to take from the Cardinal, his honour.”

“And us?”

“Us? You walked away when you thought your honour besmirched by a woman with a pistol. Had I been the lad you supposed, you would have thought me a rascal, and gotten drunk with me.”

“I’m sorry, I was caught unaware.”

“You can make it up to me by helping me do this.”

“I cannot stop you?”

Slowly she shook her head. He looked at his cold soup and pushed the bowl away unhappily. He nodded.

“Alright, I’ll do it, but don’t expect me to be happy.”

“Oh come sir, we can have a little fun surely, and your lessons so far have not been unhappy.”

He smiled. “They have not.” She stood and he followed and…

Two days later. It is the afternoon of the Masque they have chosen, to make their entrance. At this time, Paris, is a round of Masques and spectacles. The extravagance of these entertainments, set against a background of increasing poverty and some desperation in the City of Paris itself, was part of the sickness, that in a short time will explode in revolution. For now, beginning in mid november, but really taking off after Christmas, celebration and carnival ruled. Some were private, but others, given three times a week by the Opera, were more accessible, and as a result more crowded. Having been assured of the Cardinal’s presence, it was one of the Saturday evening events they had picked, to continue their hunt. Appropriately enough, it was as Artemis, Jeanne had chosen to dress that evening, but because it was a new moon, her whole costume was black.

“Will you wear make up, Jeanne?” Françoise asked as she finished her hair.

Jeanne looked at her through the mirror, her worry changing to sudden panic.

“I didn’t think to ask, I’ve never worn it, never had the money. Do you think everyone will be made up? They will be, of course they will. Oh God, it’s a disaster, I’m going to look ridiculous.”

La Motte came through the door just as she finished her sentence. “What?”

He was met with two worried faces, as they women turned.

“Make up, should she be made up? Will everyone else be made up?” Françoise asked.

La Motte walked over and stared down. “Look, most of the other women will be made up, because most of them have to be. If you’re going to be Artemis, then the younger you look the better. Goddesses don’t need make up.”

The women turned looking for support in the face of the other but found uncertainty. Jeanne shook her head.

“What would you know.”

He took a step back and smiled, “I know you will be wearing a mask. I know that it will be very warm. I know that most of the competition will be old hands…” he shrugged and smiled, “so to speak. And I know, that the Cardinal likes ‘em young.”

Françoise smiled and nodded, “He’s right.”

Jeanne thought about it, and then agreed, “Alright, you get the points for that one. No make up, and we’ll show the old hags how to do it.”

The route to the Opera was more frightening than Jeanne had anticipated, and she was very glad, both for the carriage and la Motte’s reassuring size. The streets were, while not being clogged, that would happen later in the season, yet they were full of people enjoying the beginning of carnival. The vulgar ‘chienlits’ and the ordinary drunks, mingled and fought, sang and caroused in a manner to shock the pious, and frighten the uninitiated. For all of her adventuring around nighttime Paris, this was new to Jeanne. As they reached their destination, things calmed down a little. The entry price, at four livres a ticket, was high enough to keep the rabble out. This made the masque safer, but, as the decade wore on, a target for the poor, the starving and the angry.

They entered a maelstrom of activity. Each evening was themed and the entertainment provided by the Opera was lavish, as well as masterful. Singers wandered about creating the appearance of a flash mob, as they would coagulate and sing, and then wander away until the next song. The orchestra and dancing was as refined, as the behaviour of the party-goers was crude. It did not take long for la Motte to spot the Cardinal, his arm around one woman and his hand invisible in the costume of a second. Jeanne was led to intersect his Eminence’ path and he recognised her instantly. His companions were rudely dropped, and he stepped in front of her.

“Madame.” He bowed. In his case, a slight bend at where one might suppose his waist should be. “Dance?”

“Eminence.” She curtsied and they began.

“Even masked you stand out from everyone here, madame, even as you did in Strasbourg.”

“In Strasbourg Eminence? I am surprised and flattered, to be remembered.”

“It is the flattery with which you must be accustomed, madame, I cannot imagine it otherwise. Who accompanies you this evening?” he asked.

“My husband.” And she pointed at la Motte who was dancing with a larger, older, ball attendee.

“Ah madame, is he the Comte de la Motte.”

“And I the Comtesse, Eminence.” He nodded.

“I have heard… things madame.”

“Things, Eminence?”

“Of your marriage, madame.”

“Only good I hope.”

“Some poetic, some mundane.”

Jeanne covered her face with her mask and the conversation stopped for the the moment. The dance continued, she could feel him waiting, he had plotted this conversation many times she thought. Eventually,

“I have some experience, madame, in marital difficulties.” And, at her look of surprise, “The solving of them, I mean.”

Again, Jeanne raised the mask to her face. The Cardinal frowned. They continued in silence. He took the risk.

“Madame, we could go somewhere more amenable to conversation, I have apartments nearby.”

She looked up at him, a little shocked, and looked away, the picture of demure youth, it was all he could do, not to reach out and take her. She felt his hunger. She turned and saw la Motte looking across at her.

“Eminence, my husband calls me.”

“Another time, madame.”

She curtsied and turned away immediately. He gave another of his slight bows to her retreating figure, his eyes following, devouring, needing her. Until they reached the watching la Motte, who smiled and held out his arm to his wife, and swept her away into the crowd. The Cardinal did not see her again, that evening.


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