September 1704, Château de Saint Cloud, near Versailles
Madame Marey is looking for me again, calling up and down the draughty corridor, like an impatient rook, ‘Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle must return at once!’ She is stricter than any other governess I’ve had, and seems determined to stay and make me obedient. All the others failed and begged to leave. This afternoon, I am expected to take up my needlework while we wait for the dancing master to arrive from Paris, but I cannot stare at my muddled stitches any longer. I’m hopeless with a needle; the silks tie themselves in knots in front of my eyes. My dancing is no better. The other young ladies laugh when I trip or lose patience with new steps, which is very often. But we do so much dancing at court that I suppose I must try. We all dance, even the creaky old dukes and duchesses. If we refuse we displease the king, and no one wants that.
Ignoring the ‘caw-cawing’ of Madame Marey, I slip into the small side room where Father writes his letters and hides from Mother. My parents argue very often. Just last evening, I heard Father shout and call Mother ‘Madame Lucifer!’ which was unkind, but when she’s in one of her tempers she really is as scary as a devil, or a furious fairy.
I had hoped Father might sit with me for a while and read a fairy tale. Father’s lap is the loveliest, safest place I know, but I find his hiding room empty except for the big, gilded desk and the chair with a worn patch on its red damask seat, where he sits so long at his work. Raised voices float through from the inner chamber. I open the connecting door just wide enough to peep and see Father pacing the floor in front of the glowing fire, his heels smacking the polished wood, while two ministers, sweating and turning their dark hats in pale, ink-stained fingers, give him news.
‘The King has resigned himself to the will of God in the matter, sir,’ the first minister says – the fat one who wears a messy wig that reminds me of a mouse nest I once found under a cushion in Mother’s carriage. Father thumps the table.
‘God had no part in this!’ he rages. ‘It was the work of incompetent generals!’
The fat minister gives a little bow, the thinner one copies. Neither speaks. They wait, their gaze fixed on the floor.
‘You say the generals had misgivings before they set off?’ Father asks.
The thin one – I shall call him Tired Squirrel because his jowls hang empty – is the first to answer. ‘Yes, sir,’ he confirms, ‘but our ally, the Elector of Bavaria, is superior in rank to our own generals. They would have followed his orders.’
Father wags a finger and keeps walking, back and forth between the bright window and the black marble table. ‘And the Elector, if I know him at all, which I do, was so hungry for battle, so puffed up with pride at having three armies under his command that he could not see the wise course of action.’
The ministers both give a short nod to show they agree with Father, but they are not of high enough rank to give opinions. Father, however, can say what he likes about generals, and even about the Elector of Bavaria, because he is the eldest nephew of our king, Louis XIV, which makes him a Grandson of France. I am the king’s eldest granddaughter, so I’m addressed simply as ‘Mademoiselle’, because no other young lady at court ranks higher than me. Mother and Grandmother say this is very important and will decide my future, but the future is a long way away and I don’t want to think about it yet.
Father stops pacing and leans forward, spreading his fingers on the table. His rings catch the rich afternoon sunlight and wink, as if to let me know they have seen me and are keeping my presence a secret.
‘Our enemies had nothing but ravaged land behind and in front of them,’ Father tells the ministers. ‘If the Elector had just sat still, England’s Milord Marlborough would have had no choice but to retreat.’ With that, he pushes himself up from the table, growls softly, and begins pacing again, his fists clenched. ‘We had them,’ he snarls, ‘and we had enough supplies to wait for them to give in.’
Mouse Nest begins hesitantly. ‘It seems, sir, that the Elector’s passion…’ but Father snaps back, silencing him.
‘His arrogance! His blood lust!’
The ministers nod again. Father sighs and taps his knuckles against his lips, just like when he kisses his rosary beads at prayer. He does not speak for several breaths but when he does his voice is quieter.
‘Our generals directed this operation,’ he explains, ‘but it was the Elector who put twenty-six full battalions and five regiments of dragoons inside the walls of one village, with cavalry behind them. A village of no particular importance was filled with almost all of his men.’ He flings a hand to one side, as if brushing away a large fly, then lets the hand fall against his coat, the warm, blue velvet coat that feels so soft when we curl up together. ‘What was the matter with the Elector?’ Father demands. ‘Was he afraid his men might get their feet wet in the marshes?’
Tired Squirrel answers nervously. ‘We think perhaps his eyesight hindered his decision making, sir.’
Father’s fury explodes. ‘What!’ The boom of his voice makes me jump and my shoulder nudges a vase. I watch it wobble, holding my breath, not daring to exhale until it steadies, then roll my eyes to Heaven, giving thanks. Father clearly cannot believe what the minister said.
‘What was a half-blind man doing leading twenty-six battalions!’ he roars. ‘How could he lead them anywhere but certain death! Does he sniff out the enemy like a hound?’
Mouse Nest and Tired Squirrel glance at one another as Father continues. ‘How can such men be sent to lead battalions while I, gentlemen,’ Father taps his heart, ‘am only given the duty of entertaining the Duke of Mantua with Monsieur Couperin’s latest music?’
After a further moment’s silence, in which only the crackle of the fire is heard, Tired Squirrel speaks again. ‘If the same plan had been followed as the last time we fought on that ground, sir, the day would have been ours, the battle won. But it seems that..well..that no one thought of that.’
Father places his palms on the table again, looks down and shakes his head, muttering to himself, before glancing up to ask: ‘Just how many did we lose?’
Mouse Nest swallows. ‘Out of sixty thousand men,’ he says quietly, almost as if he did not want Father to hear, ‘it is believed eighteen thousand were killed, wounded or drowned and thirteen thousand taken prisoner.’
‘And the generals?’
‘Monsieur de Clérambault was inside the village and drowned trying to escape. Monsieur de Tallard is taken prisoner, as is Monsieur de Valsemé. Most of our high-ranking officers are also taken.’
Father lets his head hang, shaking it again and again, so that sunlight dances on the curls of his new chestnut wig.
‘There will not be a family at court that has not lost a son, a father, a cousin. And what losses have our enemies suffered?’
‘Of around fifty thousand men, twelve thousand are dead or wounded, sir.’
‘And all over a few miles of ground and a village,’ says Father, sadly. ‘Remind me what the place is called?’
‘Blindheim, sir. But the English call it Blenheim.’
Father throws back his head and laughs, but not the jolly laugh he gives when we read tales together, or when I tell him the naughty things my sister has done. ‘Damn them!’ he calls to the pretty angels and cherubs painted on the ceiling, then looks to the ministers again. ‘Damn the English and their allies! They cannot even pronounce the name of the place but now they possess it.’ He gazes up to the ceiling once more, as if the angels might help. ‘Well,’ he says at last, lowering his chin and rapping his knuckle on the table top, ‘we have no hope of taking Vienna now. What will His Majesty do? His army is destroyed in one day. Has he indicated his wishes?’
Mouse Nest nods to Tired Squirrel, who speaks.
‘His Majesty will disband certain regiments, and officers who failed in courage will be punished.’ Then he smiles a little; perhaps he hopes to cheer Father up with his next announcement. ‘Meanwhile, the celebrations at the birth of the Duc de Bretagne are to continue.’
Father narrows his eyes and looks confused, as if he had almost forgotten the recent birth of a new heir to the throne. ‘Celebrations? With every family in mourning?’
The smile drops from Tired Squirrel’s face and his jowls droop back to their resting place. ‘Yes, sir. There are to be fireworks at Meudon and over the Seine, by the Louvre.’
As if he cannot find any suitable words, Father dismisses the ministers, waving them out in silence. I keep watching while he pours wine from a jug on the table and drains his glass in one gulp. I am about to tap on the panelling and pretend I’ve just arrived but he suddenly leaves the room by the far door, going at a stamping pace, and I miss my chance. So I shall not get to sit with him today, then, not cuddle up and hear him read fairy tales.
I slip into the room my father has just left and breathe his cologne, which lingers in the air. I make sure the footman is not watching, then pour a little of the dark wine and drink it in one gulp, copying Father. It hits the back of my throat and makes me cough and cough. I feel my cheeks turn red and my forehead burn. The footman glances my way to see if I need help but I flip my hand at him.
‘I don’t need you, thank you,’ I gasp, and he looks away, fixing his eyes on the distance once more.
What I need is something sweet to soften the sting of the wine. I soon spot a plate of honey wafers and orange macarons left on a side table by the fire. It would be sinful to let them go dry, which they certainly will if left so near the heat, so I take the whole plate and eat them all, one by one, as I make my way, very slowly, back through Father’s hiding room and along the corridor. I had better, I suppose, return to Madame Marey, to my messy embroidery, and the certain embarrassment of the dancing class.
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