Work Header

The Missing Letter

Work Text:

A Letter recently found among the effects of one of the Hanoverian descendants.

Your Grace will be receiving my official letters about my arrival in Paris, and the beginning of my marriage. I can at least be sure of this messenger, as I am using the opportunity provided by my Gertrud being homesick among all these French. I am sending her back to her mother, with all the rest of my German coins, and she will bear this letter.

Therefore I have the luxury now of writing out my mind about my adventures after we left Metz. I may as well call them adventures, if being frightened, jolted, shamed, and angered by turns is how we define adventures. In the fairytales, they are much more comfortable, because the princess is certain to be well rewarded, if she preserves her virtue!

That puts me in mind of another dilemma which I would only express to you. Is it ‘virtue’ when you are married? And are you preserving your virtue if no one actually wants to take it?

I am getting ahead of myself. If you received my last, you will know everything that the officials want the world to believe about that absurd conversion. I hasten to say “absurd” only because so much of it was carried out in that oo—eee—aa Latin, and because the priests may as well have been talking to a sheep, for all the attention paid to my answers. I said no several times, but they heard, or wrote down, or pretended to write down yes, and so it was I walked into the church a good Protestant, but walked out a bad Catholic. I assure Your Grace I will never let these mumbling priests get between me and God Almighty, who smiles on all His children. (But I cannot help thinking if that baa-ing Latin ever does reach all the way to heaven, maybe sometimes He laughs.)

So we bowled our way to Paris, which I did not find nearly as clean or as well-built as Schwetzingen or even Strasbourg. However, lest you think your merry little leaf-rustler has grown too big a head, the Princess Palatine made it very clear that I was the worst-dressed princess in Europe, and she sent an express ahead just to order a suitable wardrobe to be waiting lest my French servants laugh me all the way back to Heidelberg.

Paris was older, narrower, and uglier than I expected. It also smelled terrible. We arrived very late, as the sun was descending, so all I saw of inner city on the way to the famed Tuileries were the glowing windows, sometimes with a glimpse of French people beyond. Strange, they look much like Germans, until they open their mouths: all I heard in the streets was French all around me. This is my new home, I kept saying over and over, but it never seemed to be real.

However the palace was beautiful inside, and once we exited the carriages, I was conducted straight to my new chambers, where I was given a cold bed. The chief maid said something about the King and Court being at play, and a message would be sent of my arrival. It was difficult to understand, so I agreed to everything, in hopes of being permitted to go to bed. No husband there, for which I offered my thanks to heaven. I mean to be a good wife, but I did not want to be that good wife yet.

The next morning brought that disagreeable sense of waking in a place unfamiliar. The ceilings are high, and beautifully painted, mostly with Roman or Greek figures. I will pass along the comedy of errors as the new servants (bobbing and bowing every time I turned around) pushed and prodded me into my white wedding dress. There was scarcely time for a bite of bread and a sip of chocolate (delicious!) before the Princess Palatine appeared, with a lot of people whose names I had no hope of learning, and we all walked along marble floors to Mass.

Since I couldn’t understand a word of it, I assumed this was yet another marriage ceremonial, this one meant to make it stick. My husband was there, kneeling beside me; I kept peeking sideways to determine what he looked like. He was not at all like the portrait, but then who is? I did not recognize myself in the portrait I later saw, the one someone made while the negotiations were going on. For one thing, I would never stand around with one boobie sticking out—Your Grace would have had something to say about that!

He did not look back at me. I could not determine if that was piety, or lack of interest, or what. Beyond him was His Majesty, and there, I can assure you, the portraits do not do justice. He is tall, and handsome, and what you expect in a king—it is impossible to believe he is mere flesh and blood like the rest of us.

Monsieur looks much like his brother, though stouter, and less imposing. How is that? Perhaps it is the way they dress, or perhaps “imposing” is in the behavior of others? I always thought my Papa, His Grace the Elector, to be the living example of noble and imposing. Perhaps that’s as a daughter should. Especially when the daughter is a very small leaf-rustler, and so everybody looks imposing.

After Mass the King took our hands and presented us to the Court, who bowed like reeds blowing in the wind. After that, there were a great many people as we assembled for a meal. The best part of the day, which I still was not certain was my wedding day or not, was the ball the King gave for us later. After so much standing about my feet were hurting, but there is nothing like dancing to get rid of that.

Since the Princess Palatine had taken great care to instruct me in the court dances when we stopped each night, I was able to take my part, though you can imagine my trembling when my first partner was the King himself. But he set me at ease immediately, in the most gracious manner, asking a great many questions about my journey, and how I found France. You will understand my feeling it necessary to lie a little when I told him that I found everything perfect. But my reward came when he asked if I hunted, and there we had a real conversation, so much so that I was surprised when the dance ended!

Next it was time to dance with my new husband, with whom I’d scarcely exchanged ten words since our first meeting, and most of those had been “Pass the salt cellar” and such.

Out tumbled all the same questions that his brother had asked, and from me, tumbled forth all the same answers. When it came to hunting, Monsieur said, “The King my brother has declared that tomorrow the court will travel to Versailles. The hunting is superb there.”

“Good,” I said.

“You will find it comfortable, though the building is still going on. We have the south apartments, which means we get the sun,” he said. So far so good, you are saying, and then he followed that with, “Minette, the first Madame, chose the decorations, in consultation with His Majesty. They are said to exhibit exquisite taste, but you may do with them whatever you like.”

However is one to answer that?

I was to find that we were not at all done with Minette. I was thinking about her as the King led us back to our apartments for what I soon discovered was le coucher, that is, the King himself put us to bed. Though this was a tremendous honor, do not imagine that there was the least comfort!

On our way, there were more things pointed out that had been commissioned or given my predecessor, whose perfections of grace and taste were extolled as frequently as they were sincerely. It was very plain that she was much mourned still. I found myself hoping that I might meet with half such tenderness, except my practical nature causes me to hope only after a very long time.

If good Gertrud was not going to take this letter, I would not be telling you the absolute truth. The Princess warned me time and again that no seal is sacred. Unless I was certain of my delivery, I must write for more eyes than the intended recipient.

Here then is the truth. Before all the ladies appeared, there was a bustle and a rustle and much fumbling about to find my night dress that Frau von Harling had embroidered herself, and which I had promised to wear on my wedding night. Everything had been unpacked, and my belongings mingled with those that had awaited me, but they had laid out the French night dress, which I could as well wear the rest of my days. Tonight I wanted to choose my own, but my people and the French maids did not know one another, and could not make themselves understood by the other to find things.

We had all the candelabra in the wardrobe as we tried to sort things out, well aware of the court ladies assembling in the outer chamber, when a new woman slipped in. She was very elegant, all in white and gold with crimson embroidery, her headdress and neck and wrists glittering with garnets. The women whispered and backed away, bowing, and so I was to know that this woman was important, whoever she was.

“We met before the dancing, but I must assume that Your Gracious Highness was given too many names and too little time to learn them. I am one Madame de Grancey. It was I who arranged the disposition of your things, Madame,” she said, sweeping a very low curtsey. So low I suspected some mockery there. “May I show you where things have been put? You have only to speak to change them.”

And so, while the court ladies were gathering in the far room (I could hear the buzz of their voices) this de Grancey took me through this and some adjacent rooms, all full of trunks, cupboards, and shelves. So much finery stuffed there! Why must I examine it all at night, I thought, as I followed her about, peering like a mole in the wavering light. Why can’t it wait for morning?

Pretty soon I got an idea when I heard ‘Minette’ for the sixth or seventh time. These were Minette’s gowns for the appartement, when she waited formally on the King. There was the cloth-of-gold gown she wore at Fontainebleau when first entertaining the King, who called on Madame and Monsieur on their honeymoon; that room beyond was the storage for her second best portraits, the finest ones having been pointed out to me, she felt sure, earlier.

Last, and I believe it was deliberate, we came to yet another room, full of the most elaborate gowns of all. These were embroidered with gold, silver, encrusted with gems, ribbons of silk, and the very best lace. But already I could see that they were much too large for Minette, who, judging from the waists of the gowns I’d already seen, was smaller than I’d been when I first came to live with Your Grace as a child.

“Whose gowns are these?” I asked, for they could not belong to the Queen, who was even smaller.

This de Grancey gave me a smile and said, “Why, to Monsieur.”

I could have popped out of my skin! Not from surprise at finding evidence of Twelfth Night customs here (for someone once told me that such customs are widely celebrated all over Europe, where men can dress as women and women as men). It was her manner that vexed me, the knowing smile, the hungry way she looked at me, with the candle flames reflecting in her eyes. I said, “Very well! Then this will be the place for me to keep my mannish riding habits. The clothing shall keep one another company.”

She bowed. Was she disappointed or disgusted? Hard to say, and since I am confessing the truth, I am obliged to add that I do not care. It was evident from the first that she is no more my friend than a smiling fox bowing himself all around the hen coop. This de Grancey said very little else as she led me straight to the trunk where I found my night dress, which by the bye, was twice as splendid as the one lying out awaiting me.

And so I went on with the business of the evening, this coucher. What a custom! First of all, the rooms were ice cold. Even standing directly next to the fire was little good, for I burnt whatever side faced it, and the other came out in goose flesh. I tried to learn the names of the women handing me this and that, but I was so tired, and they all looked exactly alike.

Once I was finally in my night dress we went into yet another icy room, this one stuffy from all the people crowded in. There we met Monsieur, conducted at the hand of the King himself, who brought him to the other side of the great canopied bed.

At least the servants had thought to put warming pans between the covers, but the nice warmth soon escaped as we must sit bolt upright side by side as the King bade us good night, then the courtiers one by one paid their adieus.

The servants took out all the candles but one, leaving us alone.

“They did not say you were fat,” was the first thing Monsieur said to me.

“They did not say that you were, either,” I answered as cheerfully as I could.

“Me! I am not fat.” He put his hands on his chest. He was wearing a great many rings.

“You are plumper than His Majesty,” I pointed out.

He stroked his mustache with a finger, not quite scowling, then said in a sneering sort of way, “I suppose you do not find my person to your liking?”

“I do not see what liking has to do with our business,” I said.

He laughed, and the sneer went away. “Our business!” he repeated.

“May I ask a question, in my turn?”

He waved a hand to and fro. “Ask.”

“Are we to expect this coucher every night, then?”

He laughed. “No. It is an honor my royal brother bestowed. My retiring is done with only my own people. And so with the lever. Only the King holds the small lever, and the Grand Levee.” He and looked me up and down. “You are not visited by Mistress Catherine?”

Gott im Himmel! The Princess had warned me that the ladies speak mighty freely here of such things, but I did not expect to be hearing of Mistress Catherine from a gentleman, much less a prince. But this must be regular speech between married people, thought I.  “No,” I said. “It ended two weeks ago.”

He looked down, running his hands back and forth over the sable bed cover, then one of the four doors opened, and a very handsome man sauntered in, still in his ball dress. In the light of the single candle he looked half a ghost, the light picking out the gold in his embroidered cuffs and the gem stones in his brocaded coat and on his shoe buckles.

Monsieur said, “Here is the Chevalier de Lorraine.” They exchanged the sort of smiles that a bride and groom are expected to, at least in the stories. “We share the same baptismal name, he and I,” Monsieur said to me.

Without asking permission, this Chevalier came forward and sat elegantly on the edge of the bed near Monsieur, and very clear it was that this, too, was welcome. I began to understand the many hints that the Princess Palatine dropped about this favorite: here was the person with whom Monsieur was in love, if he was in love with anyone.

The Chevalier turned his bridegroom smile on Monsieur. “Have you put your question to Her Royal Highness?” the Chevalier asked very softly.

Monsieur said to me, “Are you virgin, Madame?”

This astonishing conversation nearly made me burst out of my skin. But I remembered the manners Your Grace had taught me, as well as my dear Frau von Harling, not to mention my noble Papa the Elector, and I also remembered the hints people had seen fit to drop that Minette, Monsieur’s first wife, besides being very beautiful, had died of poison. And every single rumor said it that her tainted chicory water was prepared by finely shaped hand of this very Chevalier.

So I said with what dignity I could, “I am yet as I was born.”

“Minette wasn’t a virgin, you know,” Monsieur said, as if observing that the clouds might bring rain today.

“Minette,” the Chevalier said as his fingers stroked the inside of Monsieur’s wrist, “was born experienced.”

My back was aching from sitting upright so long, but I did not wish to lie down until Monsieur did, especially with this chevalier in the bedchamber. I did not want to become cranky on this, my wedding night, and so I cudgeled my head to think of something to say, but Monsieur pushed away the chevalier’s hand, and looked my way with the sort of grin that my brother once gave me before he set a basket of mice into his tutor’s room.

Then Monsieur shifted a little and gave a great loud fart.

The two gentlemen, one in full ball dress, one in night dress, in both of whose veins is mingled the blood of many kings and great leaders, were looking at me as if they expected me to faint. Perhaps Minette had fainted, for everywhere I had heard how fairy-like she was.

I am not fairy like, and I will not pretend to be fairy like. So I let out the one that I’d been saving politely inside of me ever since the goose pate, and it was even louder than his.

Monsieur gave a great gasp and burst out laughing. The Chevalier looked from him to me, his brows up, then he laughed, too. But it was not the genuine whoops that Monsieur gave.

The Chevalier de Lorrain bowed elegantly. “I believe I shall retire to compose an ode to majestic airs. Good night, Monsieur. Good night, Madame.” He waved with the grace and impudence of a devil and walked out.

“I think we will get along,” Monsieur said to me, for the first time in a friendly voice.

The business was exactly as ridiculous, and as uncomfortable, as I’d expected. So much for dangers to my virtue! But I am just as happy not to have to defend it. Monsieur might well settle to his brother’s habit, which is to visit the queen twice a month. That would be all right with me. At least it was over soon, and then I could sleep. When I woke he was gone.

The morning brought light in all the tall windows. I could see how beautiful my rooms were.

It is a day later. The new maids told me that Saint-Cloud, which would be my own home, is even more beautiful, and that I should like Marly, where many court rules are relaxed, and Versailles, which is being finished, and which, so goes the talk, is to be grander.

The exigencies of the world can be so very cruel to princesses, who have done nothing but be born, and who, like any person of whatever rank, ask only a little happiness. The Queen, who is grave, and kind, promises me a dear little dog; my medals are bravely laid out for me to see each day; I will soon be riding at the side of the king on the hunt, at which time he will discover that German princesses can match any French rider in the field.

There are things to vex me, but there is more to interest me and to laugh at, and so I believe, in closing, Your Grace, that life is very, very good.