Prologue: Petite Fille
12 Août 1777
Diane’s wedding is everything she ever imagined it to be, with pastel gowns, virtuoso violinists, and iris bouquets displayed all around in blue and white. It might be what one could describe as magical, but I am not under its spell.
This union will not make my older sister happy, even though she will be known as Comtesse de Simiane 1 from now on. The title — and all that goes with it — will not ensure her merriment, for the Marquis does not love her, and nor will he ever. I am convinced of this, for I had once caught him in the gardens with a servant boy.
As I stand apart from the rest of the guests — who either danced in the centre of the room, stuffed their faces with baba* by the tables or sipped away at champagne glasses, offered by the servants — I observe my sister as she holds her new husband’s arm.
How does she do it? I wonder. How can she smile and laugh like that? How can she hold herself together, knowing that she did not marry for love? Perhaps one day I will understand, as Diane has assured me, mais je ne le pense pas.2
“May I have this dance, petite fille?”3.
Startled, I look up and see a gentleman beside me, offering his hand to me. I blink several times, as though to make sure he is real. With such refined looks, how can he possibly be? Il est si beau,4 with dark and wavy hair, angled and defined jawline, and brilliant blue eyes. They are surreal, bright as the sky. I cannot take my gaze off them.
“Non,” I refuse.
The gentleman is surprised by the rejection and asks, “May I inquire as to why you have refused me?”
“I… do not… know you, Monsieur,” I try to explain, but I am struggling with my English. Why am I not speaking a courtly language, in the first place? “Parlez-vous français?”5
“Ah, bien sûr!” He gives a slight bow. “Pardonnez-moi. Je suis Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais.”6
I curtsy in response, but do not give my name, as we are still strangers. Only the Grand Maître des Cérémonies 7 can make a formal introduction. I cannot make an exception, even to someone such as the Baron, for it is protocol.
“Monsieur,” I say cautiously. “Nous n’avons pas été présentés...”8
The Baron sighs, frustrated. He tries to take my hand, but I quickly pull it out of his grasp. His touch is cold and uncanny, as though Death is trying to snatch me!
Staggering away, I shake my head at him. I am terrified to be touched by him again. I do not wish to dance now. If his intentions were only to make my acquaintance, then he would not have tried to grab me as such!
“Comment osez-vous!” I cry in outrage, moving farther away from him as he tries to come closer. “Ne vous approchez pas de moi!”9
I do not wait for his reply. I just turn and run away, trying to lose sight of him. When I reach the other side of the room, I sigh in relief and lean against the wall, glad to be rid of him. I then decide that it is best to leave the party and avoid any more unpleasantries…
~ ~ ~
For the rest of the night, I hide in the gardens by the water fountain, throwing pebbles into it. I watch as the rocks sink to the bottom, causing the water to shimmer in the moonlight. I like spending time here, lost in the thicket of shrubberies. I do not feel alone, while the marble sculptures stand guard by the entrances.
Mazes confuse people, which is why I am always last to be found while playing cligne-musette 10 with my other siblings. It would take hours to figure out where I am; unless, of course, the Governess is looking for me.
Coming up from behind, the Governess lifts me to my feet and starts to pat down my dress. She is displeased that it has dirt all over it.
I look down, ashamed.
The Governess sighs wearily, lifting my chin up to meet her gaze, and smiles warmly. She cannot be angry with me for too long.
Nodding, I take her hand and walk alongside her toward the exit. When I notice a silhouette blocking our way, my steps cease abruptly, startling the Governess. My eyes strain to see what lurks in the shadows, as the moonlight begins to fade behind the clouds.
The dark figure emerges, and I gasp in shock. It is the Baron! What is he doing here? What does he want?
“So, this is where you have been hiding,” the Baron speculates with approval. “I was beginning to doubt I could find you again... petite fille.”
I gulp and watch as he stalks towards us. The Governess is too frightened to move, too scared to think. Like those stone statues in the gardens, she is petrified!
Breaking free from her grasp, I desert the Governess in her helpless-state and run in the opposite direction. I have no choice. She will not move!
I flee to the other entrance of the maze, kicking off my clogs for better footing and zigzagging from one end to the other.
As I throw one foot forward after the next, I try to carry on as best I can, but my efforts are in vain. With each breath I take, my lungs become more constricted — desperate for air — as the corset tightens around my ribcage; and all for the sake of being fashionable!
Gasping for air as I twist and turn through the maze, I begin to regret leaving the party. I should have stayed inside, instead of running off! I should not have gone off on my own, where there are no other witnesses! A child should not be alone, especially late at night!
Taking a sharp left, I expect the house to be within sight; but instead, I reach a dead end. There is no time to turn back now, so I climb through the wall of leaves; but as I do, my garment suddenly snags onto one of the branches! I try to pull on it, but it will not yield! I am desperate to be free, and so I tear off my gown and carry on in my chemise and corset.
I glance up and see candlelight glistening behind the transparent windows of the mansion above. Home, at last! Je suis presque là!12The only obstacle left in my way is the shrubbery ahead, but as soon as I squeeze through there, I will be safe. Yes, if I make it to the other side, the Baron cannot get me!
As I step through the bush, I slip and fall forward, staining my undergarments in the mud; however, when I lift my head up, I am wrong to assume that it is dirt on me.
A metallic smell seeps into my shift, soaking it in fresh crimson blood. The Governess’ head lies on the ground, without the body attached to it, only a few feet away from me.
“Shh!” someone hushes, placing a finger over my lips and picking me up. “I do not intend to kill you, petite fille. At least, not yet...”
Shutting my eyes, I pray that God will save me, but nothing happens. Slowly, I look up at the Baron, his eyes revealing all:
God is not here, only the Devil…
~ ❖ ~
(1) Countess Simiane (*) A small yeast cake saturated in syrup made with hard liquor, usually rum, and sometimes filled with whipped cream, or pastry cream. (2) but I do not think so. (3) Little girl (4) He is so beautiful, (5) Do you speak French? (6) Ah, of course! Pardon me. I am Gilles Montmorency-Laval, Baron of Rais. (7) Grand Master of Ceremonies (8) We have not been properly introduced... (9) How dare you! Do not come near me! (10) hide-and-seek (11) Let us return, shall we? (12) I am almost there!