In the wake of Nicolas’s departure, Caroline arrived. Caroline was an elderly tutor, who, I would later learn, had educated Nicolas and his sister, Delphine, when they were children. Nicolas had summoned her to acquaint me with the mannerisms of French court. Upon first hearing of Caroline’s acquisition I was thrilled, knowing the moments of quiet failure would at last come to an end.
I quickly changed my mind. Caroline was extremely harsh, criticizing my poor reading and penmanship and even my French, saying that Delphine had achieved more by the time she was six. While her taunts stung, I tried to remember how out of place I felt not understanding what was expected of me now. Under Caroline’s abrasive tutelage I studied needlework, geography, music, dancing, reading, writing, history, etiquette, the running of a household, and even a little medicine.
Lessons quickly swallowed the two months Nicolas was gone. My fingers ached from stitching and pulling out stitches when they invariably failed to please my taskmistress. I had to practice perfect posture and take tiny steps and hold my head just so. Meals were agonizing. Caroline hovered over me, refusing to allow me a single bite unless everything was just right. I must use the correct fork. The fork must remain in the left hand, tines pointed down, to bring the bite to my lips. I mustn’t lean too much, and I must remember to tilt my bowl in the correct direction, and I mustn’t rest my hands on the table. By the time I finished eating breakfast it was nearly dinner time.
At Caroline’s urging, Nicolas had a harpsichord sent over and set up in the drawing room. It was a bright blue, covered all over with gold fleur-de-lis and scrollwork. When the lid was propped up, the underside showed a beautiful painting of two cherubs. The gift was beautiful, and I took to it well, but upon the discovery of my talent for music Caroline pushed me all the harder, insisting that I must be ready to perform when I met His Majesty. I had to stand before the Harpsichord in my dreadful little heels for hours playing dreadful little songs.
Sundays allowed me to escape to mass for a few hours. Caroline accompanied me to the church but she couldn’t correct me in public, and I don’t think she would have dared to disturb mass, even to whisper. She sat bolt upright, totally transfixed, sparing me not a glance until we were on our way home. Sometimes I’d slump or fidget to try to tempt her, but she didn’t seem to notice, and slumping in my stays was dreadfully uncomfortable, so I gave it up.
My weekly escapes were of great comfort to my tired fingers and feet, but the sermons weighed heavily on my burdened soul. I went into confession to relieve myself of Anne’s sins, the petty little blunders of spite against Caroline or gluttony when she finally allowed me a meal on my own. But I didn’t dare confess to the crimes I’d committed before Anne Savard. Before Fos-sur-Mer and before Bordeaux. Once, a Bishop from far away visited our parish, and I nearly had the courage to unburden myself, but in the end it was the same familiar priest in the confessional, and I spoke instead of taking the Lord’s name in vain when I stepped on a pin. Six days a week, my life before Bordeaux seemed a distant dream, another life. Sometimes I felt like I was born to be a fine lady, and the other life was simply a fever-dream like Nicolas said. But Sunday would come round and I would remember my guilt.
Nicolas came home just as the cold set in. I met him in the front hall, and he walked in as bleak as the wilted garden. He brought the sad news that his father had taken ill, and he’d need to leave again very soon to tend to him in Fos-sur-Mer. While he was home, I was spared Caroline’s mealtime scrutiny, although I felt her ghost over my shoulder anyway, and was very careful to be every bit the proper lady. I got no disapproving glances from Nicolas, but I couldn’t be sure whether it was because I was doing better or because he was distracted by his father’s condition.
Distracted or no, Nicolas was indulgent, asking about my studies and commending my progress. In contrast to Caroline’s badgering, I basked in his generous praise. Sharing a tutor gave us something to talk about, though it was usually matters of little import. I played harpsichord for him and sang some of the songs Caroline taught which were more civil than the songs I’d learned at home or aboard the Lionfish. Nicolas listened and clapped devotedly after every song.
Some nights Nicolas would come to my room after dinner, but usually he walked me to my door, kissed my cheek, and went to bed in the other bedroom he’d been using. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to turn him away. I’d have been just as happy not to have him, but as he said the first night together, I was living as his wife in all other ways, staying in his home and eating fine foods and wearing noble gowns.
So I’d let him in. He was tender with me, careful not to cause me pain. Afterward we’d lie together in the dark and talk easily. I liked hearing him speak about his childhood here. He spoke of Delphine, and another sister, Nadine, who died when she was seven. Both were older than Nicolas, and Delphine was now married and living in Paris. He clearly loved her very dearly. I told him I hoped I’d meet her someday, and I realized I actually meant it.
In a few short weeks Nicolas was gone again. I wasn’t sure when I’d see him again, but he promised to write. I told him I’d make him something special for when he got back. My stitches had been improving, and I thought maybe I could put together a whole shirt without Caroline making me start all over again.
I had barely noticed Nicolas missing the first trip, but the second time the house felt as big and empty as it had on my first night there. We only met a few times each day, and yet I felt his absence profoundly. I wasn’t struggling as much with Caroline’s demanding instruction by then. When I had some little victory or found something interesting, I would sometimes think to share it with him, but of course he was gone. I’d sit down nearly every night thinking I’d write him a letter, but I’d always abandon it. There was always something that made me give it up. The penmanship wasn’t good enough, or I’d decide that what I’d written wasn’t all that interesting, or most often I couldn’t think of more than a few sentences to write, and I thought it foolish to go to all the trouble to send just a few words.
A few weeks after Nicolas left again I fell ill. I was too weak and tired to continue my lessons, but after a few days of bed rest and what felt strangely like seasickness, I was so bored that I sent for Caroline anyway. For once, she was gentle to me, and she read to me as I sewed. It was she who suggested the perfect Christmas gift for Nicolas.
Nicolas was gone over Christmas, but I got a parcel from him a few days later. Inside were a pair of green silk heels with gold beading on the toes. Inside, and all around in the box were little fruits, nuts, and candies. The accompanying latter was an apology that he was gone for my first Christmas in France. He explained that here, children left their shoes out by the fireplace and Père Noël would fill them with treats. He said he’d tried to send me a fireplace but he couldn’t find a big enough carriage.
Epiphany brought Nicolas home. His father had died of his illness and his body had been sent to the family mausoleum for interment. The mausoleum was in Northern France, so a funeral mass was held in Fos-sur-Mer. Nicolas was overwhelmed with work that had arisen from his father’s passing, and I saw little of him after he returned. I’d frequently go down to dinner to find that a place had been set only for me. In addition to securing his father’s arrangements and making plans for the now-empty house by the sea, Nicolas was also making arrangements for us to travel to Versailles. He’d inherit his father’s title, but due to the close nature of His Majesty and Nicolas’s father, the title would be bestowed personally in court.
In the chaos, it was several days before Nicolas came to my bedroom. When he finally did, I sat him down on one of my fine couches and brought him his Christmas gift, the special something I’d promised to make for him. He held the little garment gingerly, running his fingers over the delicate lace. Caroline had helped with the finer details, and though we practiced making lace, I wasn’t very good at it yet, so I’d bought some for the gown. At first he asked if it was a hope gift, for our eventual firstborn. When I told him I was already two months along, he was ecstatic.
Because of my condition it was decided that Caroline would come with us to Versailles rather than my maid, Marie. While it was more traditional for a lady to have her servant at court, Caroline’s knowledge of household medicine had already been helpful in dealing with my morning sickness, and I wouldn’t part from her for so many weeks.
Arrangements were made for Nicolas’s investiture, and it was decided that in March we’d go to Versailles so Nicolas could be elevated to his father’s lordship. We’d be personal guests of His Majesty, staying in the palace and attending important court functions.
Despite my progress with Caroline, the thought of having to show myself a lady before the Sun King was terrifying. Nicolas reminded me that my condition would garner a lot of forgiveness, even among the toughest courtiers. He even promised to bring in another tailor direct from Paris to ensure that I had fashionable clothes that would fit over my belly. By March I’d be showing.