My Last Duchess
l'Automne 1646 –
He stands beside me, watching. His breath glides around my neck like ghostly fingers. Pulling a strand of red hair around my finger, I look up to meet his staring eyes. He blinks, silent, and turns to look out over the gardens of his estate. Beyond the fading cherry orchard, the sun is dropping low on the horizon. It seems to fall - a crystal adornment of a celestial chandelier. I feel a kinship with this dying star, and its descent toward an inevitable fate. As it falls beyond the edge of the world, it shatters into a myriad of orange fragments. Daylight descends into the west and the fire fades, leaving a looming darkness to hover just above a sinking bed of sinking violets. I feel his gaze upon me, but I stare ahead, face flushed, heart beating hard in my chest.
Yet he knows it is not for him.
Le Printemps 1644 –
He has one of his men run to fetch something for me. We stand outside waiting for the servant to return with my surprise. I know that he means well, and that he intends to flatter me with gifts, but somehow I wish he would not. It reminds me all too much that I am now his. He looks at me intently. It occurs to me that he may be expecting me to say something - an expectation to which I reply with what I hope he interprets as demure silence. He takes my hand.
"I know you do not yet feel comfortable here." He pauses. "That is understandable. But you will grow accustomed." He nods to something behind me. "I only wish to help."
I turn around, hearing the crunching of pebbles on the path. From around the corner of the manor his manservant, Jean, appears with a stable boy leading a white palfrey. My heart lifts for the first time in weeks; for the first time since my wedding day. She is beautiful. Jean stops in front of us, giving a slight bow. "Madame."
"For you, ma duchesse." My husband raises the hand he holds and brushes his lips over the knuckles. His breath is warm and moist. Gooseflesh rises on my skin.
He presents me with an apple half, giving me a reason to escape his touch. I take a step forward, holding it out. I keep my hand just a step away from her mouth, apple resting lightly in my upraised palm. She eyes the apple, then looks at me warily. I can see she wants it, but she must trust me to step forward and take it. It is dark red and glossy; inviting. In an instant, the apple is out of my hand. I smile, flushing with delight at my new friend. Blanche.
L'été 1645 –
An envoy from Champagne has arrived. She seems pleased to hear news from her father. Her faces reddens – as it seems to all too easily – as a young man walks forward and introduces himself first to me, then to her.
"Madame la Duchesse." He says, bowing his head over the hand he has taken.
"Luc." She replies, smiling. "It's good to see you." Then her eyes widen and she looks down. My eyes narrow. The young man notices. He looks at me with a passive expression. "Luc Dubois." He says by way of introduction. "Monsieur le Comte," he acknowledges her with a tilt of his head, "was a great friend of my late father's. It should come as no surprise that his son and the Comte's daughter would have been close as children." He gives a wry smile. "His Grace now runs my estates, in addition to his own, until he deems me fit to take command." He inclines his head. I suppose I should be content.
She asks to show him the garden, where I had a grove of cherry trees planted in honor of our marriage one year past. Cherries grow by twos, and it is said that they bring good luck to a wedded couple.
Naturally, one of my men will accompany them.
I draw back the silk drapes of my study window. I see them walking. They are a respectable distance from each other, simply talking. She smiles frequently, laughs occasionally and blooms in the company of this young messenger. They stop their slow journey to stand in the shade of a cherry tree. Their mouths move silently. She smiles and a blush creeps up her neck. He reaches and picks a pair of ripe, red fruits, presenting them to her. I look away.
When she returns, her lips are stained.
L'Hiver 1646 –
I can imagine them.
Alone in the quiet seclusion of the parlor. His palettes and brushes lie before him on the table; an easel and canvas to the side, waiting for the first drop of color. She sits, waiting, conversing with him amiably while he arranges his equipment. He responds, every so often lifting his head to look at her; to appreciate the graceful bend of her neck, the scarlet curls, bound but barely held, framing that pearlescent skin.
She quiets as he begins. Occasionally he will ask her, "Straighten your shoulder," or "Relax your hand." She complies. He rises and walks slowly towards her. "Let it rest upon the table as though you touch your true love's sleeping face, afraid that you might wake him." His words are bold. He looks a long while. He leans forward. "Perhaps..." he pauses, raising a hand to hover above her arm, and gently pulls the sleeve of her gown back to expose a slender forearm. Those tell-tale roses rise in her cheeks and trail down her neck, disappearing into the folds of her gown.
She shyly turns her gaze away. His fingers barely brush her jaw, trailing down her neck to hover above her breastbone, where he adjusts, an imperceptible amount, one crimson curl.
She looks up.
She is beautiful - young, innocent and graceful. The thin veil covers her downturned face. We turn to the priest, and he begins the ceremony. I steal a glance. Underneath the gauzy fabric her skin is pearls and roses. Her hair flows in loose crimson curls down her back, marking her as a maiden. She does not look at me until we exchange our vows, but it is not out of timidity. For when we face each other, she meets my eye with a steady gaze, as if to say, I will not break these vows. Will you?
I know this is against her wishes. But she knows that she is lucky to have been offered such an gift; to be given a name of nine hundred years - a lineage as pure as that of any queen. And she thinks of me kindly, I know, if not with love.
She is young and beautiful, smiling often. And when she does, her entire face brightens, and the air around her is charged with a joyful energy. But today is a serious day, and so her lips remain pressed in a tight line. The priest names us husband and wife before God.
She is young and bright, glowing in her wedding gown as we turn to face our guests. She smiles, but it is taught; forced. We make our way through the crowd of well-wishers. Looking up at me, her face softens, slightly. She does not completely regret her decision. That much I can see.
But the rest may come in time. After all, today's events were merely a ceremony. She may yet grow to love me. If not that, then to trust me. She may even come to thank me, in time to come, for what I have done for her today: this gifting of names.
She pulls the door shut behind her as she enters.
She wears the scarlet silken dress I gifted her this Christmas past. It is the same color as her hair; the same color as the flush that stains her cheeks.
She is calm and approaches me with a half-curtsy. "You summoned me?" She asks in a playful tone. "For some other reason than that you simply enjoy my company?" She raises an eyebrow and grins. Her laughter is soft and light. She walks closer to me and I feel her lips brush lightly against my cheek; like a snowflake, or a feather. The gesture is friendly and kind. She walks to stand behind me, staring out past the large glass doors that lead to the balcony.
I take a breath before continuing. "What does it mean to you to be a duchess?"
She turns to look at me quizzically. "To be the wife of a duke." A smirk plays about her lips. When I do not smile in return, her face falls.
"You do not seem concerned with the proper comportment of someone of your station." I pause, not knowing how to continue. "You show your emotions far too readily." I swallow. "I'd hoped it would dissipate with time, but that no longer seems likely." She smiles playfully. I frown. "The whims of you heart are completely exposed to any half-wit with one eye." I can hear the edge in my voice. "It is not proper for a lady of your standing to be so…unreserved." My brow furrows and I look away. "I wondered if there was a particular reason."
Her eyes soften. "Do I need a reason to be happy?" She lays hand on my shoulder, as if in consolation. My back hunches and the hand drops. It hangs limp by her side. Her smile has faded. "Why did you send for me today?" She asks, suddenly serious.
"You need to conduct yourself as a lady of your rank should: with dignity and maturity. Your lack of control may lead to unsavory remarks." I stop abruptly.
"There is talk that seems to call your…fidelity into question."
"And you believe such talk?" Her words bite.
"I would be a fool to entirely disregard the opinions of my servants. After all, they see and hear things that I do not - things that perhaps I should." I pause, waiting for a response. I receive none. "But to prevent such gossip in future, you will learn to control yourself." Her face shows no signs of submission. My anger roused, I stand. "I will not be cuckolded by an immature little girl!"
She looks back coolly. "I cannot do that." She cuts off my angry response, adding, "I will not let you be made a fool. And I may attempt to somewhat refine my bearing when in the presence of your esteemed comrades." Her words drip with bitterness. "But I will not change."
"And why not, if I have bid you?"
"Because then I would be wholly yours." Her smile is tired; dismissive. She takes my hand for half a moment, then turns.
She pulls the doors shut behind her as she leaves.
She smiles at me. Her entire face brightens with the expression. It is as if a sun has risen behind her eyes. She walks with a grace and lightness that comes only with youthful optimism. It seems her smile is reserved just for me. I begin to smile in return, but her eyes have wandered. She is looking past me. Behind me stands Marie, one of the new maids. She looks up timidly from her curtsy to be greeted by my wife's warm, kindly smile.
She joins me, and we walk through the halls together, speaking of small things. She laughs occasionally, blushing. We hear crunching pebbles on the path. Jean finds me and explains that we have a messenger from le Comte De Champagne.
Luc Dubois has returned with news from her father. She enjoys his company, I can see. She often walks with him in the cherry grove. Of course, Jean accompanies them. I watch from my study. Every time I turn my back I see them in my mind's eye; twisted together like the red fruits above their heads. I can hear her sighs - the soft words spoken close to her ear, against her neck. I turn back, expecting to catch them, only to see them a suitable distance apart, simply talking, if amiably. Occasionally she blushes, smiles. She puts a hand on his arm to stop him. They stand under a bough, simply talking.
But I know their intentions. I'm sure of it. I turn, my back to the window. In my mind's eye I can see them. That tell-tale blush creeps up her neck and into her face. She smiles.
All's well at Champagne. I'm pleased to hear that Marguerite is married and settled, though she is not yet seventeen. She was always old for her years I suppose, and though I am by age the elder sister, she provided balance as only the mature can. And of course, the sole purpose of the immature is to tip the scale. I suppose I haven't lost that, even now.
I open the study door hesitantly. He hasn't summoned me, but I feel that he would appreciate some news from my father. He sits stiffly, eyes hard and staring. My high spirits flee through the closing door.
"Charles?" I hesitate to pry, knowing his temper.
His gaze is far away as he broods on whatever has imprisoned his thoughts. "You were childhood friends with Luc Dubois." It is not a question; he knows the answer. Luc said it himself when he first came to visit. I nod. "So you will have known him long." Another statement, but this time I hear the unspoken question behind his innocuous words.
My anger flares. "If you think –
"Do not interrupt me!" His voice is thunderous. The words remain in the air, staining it with his jealous suspicion.
"I will if you insist on believing your servants' gossip." I reply coolly.
"How can I not, if you leave me no choice but to listen?"
"Have I ever given you cause to doubt me?"
"I see how you look at him!" Specks of spittle land on my face. He is livid. I know I should watch my step.
"I'm sure I don't know –
I feel the burning across my cheek before I realize his hand has moved. His face is a mask of rage, his eyes blazing with the delusional certainty that only the truly envious possess. He lowers his hand, palm red.
"Do not mistake me for a fool, Hélène."
"I never have."
I turn stiffly and walk toward the door. I do not raise a hand to my stinging check - that would be a sign of weakness. And I will show none to this man.
An envoy has arrived. He wears Anjou's colors.
Clearly the Comte has not been made aware of, or has chosen to disregard, the recent tragedy that has befallen my house. Though, I would not have been surprised if the uproar in Champagne had been heard in the west.
He thinks to send me his youngest in a bid for wealth and connections. Apparently, she is the greatest beauty in France, with sunshine golden hair and skin like African ivory.
But I have no desire to be wed again. My last duchess remains with me, and shall stay with me until my dying day.
I draw back the heavy drapery. Her hair is the color of garnets, deep and silken; her skin fair with fading color high on her cheekbones. Her eyes are bright with accusation as she looks at me from her golden frame.
Someone knocks softly on the parlor door. "Monsieur," Jean, my manservant, enters, head bowed. "The emissary from Anjou has arrived."
The emissary in question is a small, nervous man who wrings his hands as he speaks. "Monsieur le Comte has requested that you rethink your refusal and consider the benefits of joining your two families."
I smile wryly, amused by this thin, anxious man who seems more willing to jump out of the window than speak with me. "Tell the Count..." I pause, "Tell him that if he wants me to reconsider his offer, he must visit me himself, where I shall enlighten him as to the circumstances of my refusal."
Jean flinches at the thinly concealed venom in my words. The envoy backs hurriedly out of the room. "Yes, my Lord."
A long, drawn out whine sounds from the door as it slides slowly shut behind them.
Turning back, I notice something in her painted eyes. They look out at me from her gilt cage with...what? Reproach? Pity? But it is only in my mind. In this form she is still and flat and completely without emotion.
I draw the curtain back across her face, shrouding her, concealing her. I smile, for there she will be forever.