Henriette, October 1573
I have to hand it to Claude Catherine; she’s managed to pull off quite a gathering tonight. Anyone who is anyone in Paris is packed into her salon, making it much warmer than the crisp October air outside. I slipped outside to take a break a few minutes earlier, and by the time I returned, the festivities were in full swing. On this particular night, Claude invited painters, poets, sculptors, writers, everyone in Paris with an artistic bent, and in the midst of everything Margot, Queen of Navarre holds court.
“Madame de Nevers,” an undistinguishable woman whose name I cannot place nods at me, a trail of perfume following behind her. This may not be my party, but even the outliers of the court know that I am a force to be reckoned with. They say that I am the richest woman in France, and I would not deny that fact. My wealth was not simply handed to me, I worked hard for every crown and every sou that I possess. Unlike most people at court, if I lost my entire fortune in an instant, I could build it back up with my own efforts. That is what they fear most about me. I rely on no one, not even the King himself.
I stand behind one of the elegant chairs Claude’s servants pushed in from the ballroom and glance at the actor standing in front of the crowd. As the Duchess de Retz, she has the money and taste to afford the furnishings that make her Hotel the envy of Paris. I pause for a moment to admire her décor, something that she constantly threatens to tear down and replace with something new. Within a few seconds, I look in Margot’s direction. She’s bored, but does her best to give the impression that the man has not bored her sleep. Few people would suspect that she is anything less than enraptured with his performance.
“God, he’s terrible.” A male voice slices into my ear, and I turn to stare at him. I agree with him, but I don’t appreciate the intrusion on my thoughts or my personal space.
Turning I get a good look at him and lift one expertly plucked eyebrow. The motion never fails to intimidate a man foolhardy enough try to go head to head with me. I enjoy a the challenge of a good conversation, and I want to know if the interloper is up to the task.
“You’re an expert on actors, then?”
“Madame, I’m an expert on men, and this one can’t muster up an authentic emotion to save his life.” This was proving to be promising. He could keep up with me so far. I pressed further.
“Then I suppose you’re available to instruct someone on the finer points of acting?”
He gave me an elegant nod, “Madame, I am prepared to give you instruction, any time you wish. He wiggles his eyebrows suggestively. It would seem, however, that the man standing in front of us needs my help more than you do.” A good save, flirtatious, the invitation open. He was a bold one. I was about to respond when the performance blessedly ended, and a round of polite applause erupted.
“Henriette, sit with me. We’re about to have a song!” Margot could barely speak through her giggles. A second later and she had collapsed into them. “Excuse me, Monsieur,” I rushed past him to see what had Margot all atwitter. I was disappointed that I could not spar with him any further, but given his performance so far, I was sure that I’d see him again soon.
“Aloysius, you must give us one of your poems tonight!” Margot pulled me next to her, and threw her feathered fan to hide her face. “Help me, that actor was terrible! We have to do something or the night is in jeopardy.”
She pulled her fan down, her mask of gaiety back. Margot knew better than any thespian in France the benefit of showing an external face. She could teach acting, I thought to myself. The thought of Margot Valois, Queen of Navarre starting an acting troupe made me laugh almost as loudly as she had done a few moments earlier. A second thought followed, the realization that knowing Margot, starting a troupe of actors was exactly the kind of outrageous thing she would do. That particular thought had me in hysterics, and I could not stop myself. Margot turned to me, and pulled a face.
“What on earth is wrong with you? It wasn’t that funny!”
I turned towards Margot and covered my mouth with my hand. “I’ll tell you later. Aloysius, get up here now!” I gave him my most imperious look, and he bounded to his feet in seconds. Some men were so easy to intimidate.
I spent the rest of the evening at Margot’s side, both of us determined to keep the actor from ruining the evening by returning to the makeshift stage in front of Claude’s massive fireplace. Since her marriage, Margot was determined to enjoy every moment of Parisian society she had left until she was packed off to the countryside to rule Navarre with her husband. I could barely blame her, given what I had heard about Navarre from my own sister Marie. Apparently, the entire county thrived on misery and boredom. Navarre had converted to Protestantism, a strict flavor of heresy that encouraged a lifetime of dour behavior and sour faces. With their stark black clothing and stripped down worship services, these men and women took everything enjoyable out of a religious service. Not only were their services dull they were downright depressing. I shuddered at the thought of having to sit through one of them.
Thank God Marie was safe in Paris and away from the influence of the Protestants. Our Aunt Jeanne would have dragged us all into damnation with her heresy if given the chance. Margot had her work cut out for her presiding over those humorless followers of John Calvin and his teachings. Most people would be intimidated by the idea of presiding over a court that did not want them, but Margot was not the kind of woman to be intimidated by the simple fact that she was not wanted.
I found Margot the following afternoon in her privy chamber, lying on a divan and reading. She moved her lower legs to allow me to sit next to her. “Were you distracted last night at Claude’s salon? Because I felt like you were distracted.”
That was Margot, blunt when she wanted to be, and always perceptive. Many people saw her beauty and her glamorous facade and assumed that she would be stupid, but they were quickly disappointed to find out that she was quite the opposite. Margot never failed to notice anything.
“I was having a conversation before I sat down with you, and I was still thinking about it.” I hoped that this small lie was close enough to the truth to satisfy her curiosity.
“About what?” She snapped the book closed.
“About starting an acting troupe here in Paris.”
She snorted, “As if I had time for something like that. You had an entire conversation about an acting troupe? That sounds suspicious.”
Margot then fell silent. She could wait me out until I confessed. She had managed to do just that to me so many times before that I knew it was useless to try and outsmart her. She might be a decade younger than I but she could outmaneuver anyone.
“It wasn’t the topic, it was the tone of the conversation.” I sighed, giving unto her insatiable curiosity.
“The tone of the person speaking?” She was splitting hairs, trying to get at the truth.
I threw my hands in the air, “Were you watching me?” She bit her lip like a naughty girl. I had thought that she was engrossed in her own conversation, but apparently she never missed anything.
“I saw you talking with a man, and it looked animated. So,” she tapped her fingers on the book lightly, drawing me in, “who was he?”
“You don’t even know? There are men at the court that you do not know?”
She shook her head, enjoying my discomfort. “No, wait—maybe I do. He’s someone in my brother’s household. Now what was his name?” The tapping continued as she played with me like a cat and a mouse. “He’s from Gascony, and he has some tropical sounding name.”
“Coconnas.” I was getting tired of her teasing.
Sensing that I was tired of the game, she changed her tone. “Sorry, but as long as I’ve known you, you have never bothered to take a lover. That’s,” she waved her hands in the air dramatically, “a little odd for someone in your place. Were I as rich as you, I’d have a line of lovers waiting outside my door.”
“Are you saying that I’m boring?” I looked at her with mock horror, which sent her into a fit of giggles. Margot was always up for a bit of fun.
“Yes, whoever heard of a woman who loved and was faithful to her husband?” She shuddered with mock horror.
“I’ve been quite pleased with Louis, thank you. He’s never caused me a moment of trouble and I don’t have any plans to cause him a moment of trouble, either.”
“But you did find Coconnas attractive?’
“Margot, I’m married, not a corpse.” I gave her a thin smile, conceding her point.
I returned home to the Hotel de Nevers, our Paris home, late that evening. Louis met me at the top of the stairs to our bedchamber. “He’s not much better,” the corners of his eyes creased and I saw dark bags under his eyes.
I let out a long sigh. “Did the physician say anything about why he’s losing so much weight?’
My husband shook his head, “He thinks that it is a malignant tumor, or perhaps something in his blood. Without healthy blood, there can be no vigor.”
A better mother would have rushed to her child’s bedside to soothe my son. A better mother would know what to say to the boy who wasted away in front of our eyes. A better mother would not spend hours away from her own home because she could not stand the feelings of guilt and helplessness that came with caring for an ailing child. Since my son only had me for a mother, I hid at the Louvre for hours on end to keep from facing the apprehension that cast a dark cloud over our home.
“He’s asleep; I would let him rest until tomorrow morning.” Louis gently touched my shoulder, and I placed my hand on his. None of my money or his favor with the king could help us in this situation. We were simply two grieving parents who stood by and begged God to show us mercy. So far, God had decided not to do so, but we still held out hope that one day he would change his mind. Louis headed back to his study and I drifted to my bedchamber like a wraith.
Frederick was our only son, and he had not even made it to his first birthday. When he came into the world, this past spring, he was pink and gave a lusty cry. Getting a child past the dangers of childbirth was dangerous enough, and when we both survived the ordeal, I had thought that he had survived the worst. At four months, when his older sisters began to put on pounds and become fat cheeked cherubs, our son instead became thin and gaunt. We tried every remedy we could think of and consulted the midwives and wet nurses of Paris, but nothing worked. Soon the doctors began to arrive, including the most well respected surgeons from Italy. Even they could not tell us for certain what was wrong with our son or whether he would survive.
We had two consolations that kept us from falling into total despair, our daughters Catherine, an opinionated girl of five and her sister, Marie who was all of two years old. Unlike her sister, Marie barely gave us any trouble as she was an obedient and quiet girl much like her father. While our daughters were proving to be quite healthy, we could not say the same for our only son.
Margot loves to tease me about my methodical nature, a quality that thankfully my husband shares. We both thought that once we noticed a problem with our child if we attacked it hard enough we would eventually find a solution for it. Our inability to find any relief for his suffering has tried our faith in our own intellect.
Before, we could find solace in our shared ability to use reason, something that sustained our marriage for the past eight years. Louis and I have been very pleased with one another, and along with our daughters we formed quite a team. These days, however, my husband and I pass one another like specters. Faith and reason have deserted us, an I think that we have forgotten how to manage the simplest communications with one another.