A Garden Tryst, Versailles
“I do not understand why we cannot meet her?” Cagliostro said, setting the argument going round the houses, once more.
Jeanne was getting ready to join the Cardinal on a trip to Versailles that evening, to meet, none other, than the Queen. Certainly, that was what he, had been led to believe. The Italian had been fretting over the identity of the woman, he wanted to meet, check her commitment to the scheme and, her ability to pull it off.
“He knows the Queen, Jeanne. He has known her since she was very young. This will not be easy.”
“I know. Do you not think I have thought of this? It is why, it must be a lady of the court. It must be, someone who knows the Queen, very well, and can pretend to be her.”
“If she is prepared to do that, then why can we not meet her?” He pressed. Françoise watched the tennis, back and forth, as she helped Jeanne get ready. Having been told already, she knew nothing, when she spoke in support of Jeanne, she was in a bit of a sulk.
“Because, as I have said, this lady is, a lady. She would not, for anything, associate with people like, ‘us’, and she certainly would not involve herself in a scheme, like this. If she so much as sees you, or my dear husband, she will be gone, and we will be locked up.”
“How can she take such a risk then?”
“Because, she thinks this a joke on the Cardinal, and she doesn’t believe she will be in any trouble, if the Queen finds out.”
“But she will find out, in the end.”
“In the end.”
Françoise stopped what she was doing, and took a moment to be very shocked, before saying,
“But, will she get in trouble then?”
Now Jeanne stopped, and thought, “Maybe, I doubt it. No one knows of this, but the Cardinal and I, and he thinks it’s the Queen.” She shrugged. Françoise had noticed the change in Jeanne over the last few weeks. She had become distant, and more brusque, less conspiratorial with her. Cagliostro was finding her new strength, difficult to deal with.
“So we just have to trust, that, this ‘lady’, is both willing, and able, to see it through to the end?” He asked.
“Yes. Look, I have more to lose than anyone. If it stops before the final play, I will be left alone, carrying the can. Will you jump forward, and tell the authorities how this was not my fault, that it was your idea, that I am a dupe, and should be let go?” He looked at her, struggling to formulate an answer.
“No. I didn’t think so. I am trusting my life, to this woman. If I say she will carry it through, she will. That should be, that will be, enough.”
She straightened in front of the mirror and gave a tug to the top of her dress.
“Why will it not sit straight?”
“Because, Jeanne, you keep pulling it.” Françoise said, and she straightened it. “There.”
Jeanne looked and sighed, she closed her eyes for a second, and looked at Françoise and then smiled.
“You are my rock.”
Françoise curtsied. “Madame.” And Jeanne laughed, clearing the air. She turned to face a still anxious Cagliostro.
“Monsieur, trust me. This lady, really can pass herself off as the Queen. I have seen her do it countless times, and she is faultless, even the Queen agrees. The Cardinal will be, well, I think he will be more frustrated than ever, frankly. But that, is all to the good.”
The little Italian shrugged, “Alright madame, I do trust you, you know that. This is a dangerous game we are playing, and everything will come down to timing, and details.”
“I know. I am ready.”
“So it will be in the English garden?”
“Yes Eminence, near the grotto.”
“I don’t know, the grotto.”
“You know the Trianon?”
“Of course. I have been there many times.”
“The Belvedere pavilion, and the English gardens are nearby.”
“I think I know the Belvedere, though, I have never been.”
“It is very much the Queen’s domain, Eminence. The grotto, is a short walk from the pavilion . I will bring you.”
“But then, you will leave us alone, Jeanne?”
“Of course, Eminence. I would not dare to intrude, upon a conversation between two elevated people, such as yourselves.”
“How long will I have with her?”
“A few minutes only, she will steal the time from a game of hide and seek.”
“Oh, such a brief moment, how will I be able to say what I wish, what my heart needs to say, Jeanne.”
“Eminence, you will find a way. I suggest, you begin by listening.”
“Of course, of course, that is the very essence of great conversation, I am told. My mother used to say it, but then, so did that fool… never mind. ‘Listen’. I shall take your advice.”
He fretted all of the the way to Versailles, which is a long journey at the best of times, but Jeanne thought it interminable, that evening. Several times, her mind drifted back to the simplicity of a knife through the chest, or a hairpin through the throat. She’d heard about that, from a friend of her father’s, years ago. But those thoughts were foolish, and would not achieve what she now needed, hungered for. Finally, Versailles came into sight, the sun westering behind it. She had a brief panic, it would be too dark for their plan, and then she remembered, the moon was nearing full, and the sky was clear.
“Jeanne, one thing does worry me still?”
“This business of the mask. Are you sure it is, really necessary?”
“The Queen insisted upon it. I believe it is, in any event, part of the game they will be playing. She said, if you do not know her, in the mask she will be wearing, then none of the sentiments, you so ardently expressed in your letters, could be true.”
“Ah, it is a test?”
“I believe it is, Eminence. Of course, the Queen did not say so, explicitly.”
“No, she would not Jeanne, ladies of her background are subtle and inscrutable, it is the refinement of blood, and the anointing of God, Jeanne.
“Where is this? I have not been here before.” Still fretting.
“I am surprised Eminence. This is the Orangery, I understand it to have been here for many years.”
They passed to the rear of the the orangery. In the distance, they could hear the shrieks of women. The Cardinal frowned at each shriek and finally asked,
“Are you sure these are shrieks of pleasure, they are most alarming.”
“They are playing a game, Eminence. I understand it is the ladies of her majesty’s entourage only, they are a little freer in such circumstance, perhaps the younger ones a little less dignified than you are used to.”
“Ah, when the cat’s away…”
“Not, I think, the way the Queen would put it.”
They turned past the front of the building, and followed one of the paths under the trees. The light from the moon being cut off, left the path darkened, and the Cardinal reached out for Jeanne’s arm.
“I am unfamiliar with this part of the palace grounds, Jeanne. I would not like to trip. The Queen can afford to be undignified, I can not.”
“You are alright, Eminence, but the paths here are very smooth.”
The shouts grew louder as they turned a corner and the trees cleared a little, offering more light.
“It is a wonderful night, isn’t it Jeanne?”
“It is Eminence. Can you see the turn, just ahead?”
“The grotto is to the right of that turn.”
“Yes, I see.”
“I will leave you here.” And she stopped. “You should go down to the grotto alone, and wait at the path which comes down from the upper part of the structure. You will see it.”
“I am, Eminence. The Queen will not appear until you are there.”
“But how can she know?”
“She will know, Eminence.”
“How long will she be?”
“I’m not sure. She will come when she can, and leave when she must.”
Jeanne pointed to the path, and indicated he should walk along it. The Cardinal was not so certain.
“And it is the Queen, Jeanne?”
“Do not keep her waiting.”
“No” He walked away then stopped and turned a little.
“Thank you Jeanne.”
He walked away, and Jeanne drew back into the shadows. As he walked, he began to practice what he would say. He berated himself, that the last meeting, and the several before, had been such disasters. But, that was in the past. This, was the reward he was going to receive for the generous favour he had done Jeanne. She had her marriage, and he had this chance at redemption. He arrived at the end of the path, and could see the grotto, caught in the moonlight, the pale light catching its stonework. He practiced.
“Your Majesty, is as beautiful as when I saw her first, in Vienna… no, I thought the flowers beautiful, until your majesty’s presence… No, adolescent. Your Majesty, no words…”
Hearing a noise behind him he turned. Standing in front of him, about ten metres away, a gold and white dress, hair back, though masked, every inch, the Queen. He fell to his knees, as though stricken, head bowed, eyes lowered. His voice gone, none of the lines he had practiced available. The Queen laughed.
“Why Cardinal, you are more silent than at any time since I have met you. Have the years robbed you of your voice?”
“Majesty, I am struck dumb by your presence alone.”
“Well met, sir. Rise. Let us take a few moments around this pretty place, or have you become so devout that you prefer your knees?”
“I would walk with your majesty forever, if you were only to ask.”
“I had thought a turn around the grotto, Eminence, I hope that will suffice.”
“Even so short a walk will be as an eternity to me.”
“I am that dull?”
“No,” he panicked , “I meant only to my heart, the smallest favour…” and he faded to silence, sure it was now a disaster. After a short pause.
“You write well, monsieur.”
“They are a poor expression of my sentiments, madame.”
“Your sentiments differ from those expressed in your letters?”
“In intensity, madame. I should perhaps try verse, I understand, the poets say it concentrates the words of the heart.”
“Oh, eminence, we might go to far.”
He brightened at this, seeming to think it a suggestion, “You think so?”
“I think, monsieur, that your letters have moved me. If I can bring his majesty round, then we might see you in your proper place.”
“In the course of our correspondence, I confess to have realised how deep are my feelings for you, madame.”
“Since reading your letters, I too have tested the depth of my feeling for you, and been surprised at their depth.”
The shrieking, ever present in the background, rose and fell, but was getting nearer. The Queen turned to listen. The Cardinal, on hearing the Queen’s words, dropped to one knee, touching the hem of her dress.
“Madame.” She looked down at him, his head bowed.
“Indeed Monsieur, were we not constrained by chains of propriety, and the law, who knows what I would not do.”
From his sleeve he drew a rose and held it out to her, looking up all eyes and hope.
“Could her majesty find it in her heart, to accept the humblest of gifts?”
“Why Eminence, I shall place it, where I would one day wish you to be at court.”
She took the rose and turned, walking up the path toward the grotto. As he lifted his head, it was to see her disappear round the corner in the grotto itself. He rose and looked around. On the point of following her, he heard a sound from behind. Jeanne stood there.
“We should go, Eminence.”
“She is gone Eminence.”
“Do you think it went well?”
“Who knows the heart of a woman?”
They walked away. And the darkness under the trees enveloped them.
A short while later, in one of the palace’s many small rooms, a cover was lifted and a rose dropped inside.