The Queen and the Courtesan Online - Freda Lightfoot

Part One

HENRIETTE

1599

Henriette stamped her small foot, face scarlet with temper. ‘How dare they dismiss me from court! Did you not see how the King gazed into my eyes, entranced; how he complimented me on my dancing? The courtiers are calling me “une femme toute charmante”. He danced with me twice, so how dare anyone send me packing as if I were of no account. It’s the fault of that strumpet Gabrielle. She was furious because of the attention Henry was paying me.’

‘Hush, my sweet. Take care what you say. Palace walls have ears.’ Her mother glanced anxiously around, as if the Swiss guards might appear at any moment to physically evict them. ‘The Duchesse de Beaufort is the King’s favourite, carrying his child and about to become his queen at last. You must make allowances for her condition. This pregnancy is proving more difficult than the others so she is naturally tense.’

‘Bah, more likely she fears she can no longer hold the King’s love. They say she’s calling me “une baggage”!’ Henriette stormed, ripping the silver combs from her coiffure and flinging them across the room. She’d been excited to receive the invitation to attend the wedding celebrations of the King’s sister, had revelled in the admiration she’d attracted; now it was all spoiled, and she was beside herself with fury.

Pushing Henriette gently down on to a dressing stool Madame d’Entragues began to brush the bright auburn hair, soothing her tempestuous daughter with soft words as well as with strokes of the brush. The former Marie Touchet, one time mistress of Charles IX, had never been one to make a fuss, her gentle manner often providing a calming influence on the excitable young king.

Her daughter was another creature altogether. Quite unlike her younger sister, dear little Marie-Charlotte, who was a fragile, beguiling child, always eager to please. She was even now patiently sorting the ribbons and jewels that her more volatile sister had scattered in her temper. Far too much like me, her mother ruefully admitted.

Sadly, Henriette had inherited her father’s scheming, crafty nature. François de Balzac, Baron de Marcoussis and Lord of Entragues and Malesherbes, was utterly tenacious when it came to getting his own way. As governor of the city of Orleans he’d once offered to sell the town to Henry of Navarre, the plan only thwarted when the citizens fiercely objected.

This daughter was equally ruthless.

And if Henriette did not quite possess the beauty of Henry’s long-established favourite Gabrielle d’Estrées, the Duchesse de Beaufort, at twenty years of age she had about her that indefinable quality that sent men wild with desire. She was dark and slim with a comely figure and handspan waist. The heavy-lidded, glittering green eyes were shrewd and sensuous, if somewhat provoking; the small, Cupid’s bow mouth inclined to curl upwards at each corner in a knowing little smile. Straight nose, finely arched brows and a heart-shaped face with a softly rounded chin, the girl possessed a feline grace. And, like a cat, she could purr with pleasure or just as easily put out her claws and scratch. One moment she would be all sunshine and smiles, the next spitting with fury if something should displease her. While she lacked neither wit nor charm, even her own mother took care not to cross her.

Henriette was expressing that displeasure now. Shrugging off her mother’s ministrations, she began to storm about the room, the maids running about in a desperate bid to catch the vases and marble figurines she picked up at random to hurl in the wake of the silver combs. And as she raged, Henriette complained bitterly about the imperfections of the quarters allotted to them and how glad she would be to leave it, while at the same time describing Gabrielle as a bloated fishwife, saying how much more attentive she would be to the King were she allowed to stay.

‘Take care what you wish for,’ Marie softly warned, gathering up shards of broken china. ‘Loving a king can be fraught with danger, child. I was fortunate in that Charles’s queen, Elizabeth of Austria, was an undemanding girl who made no protest about his keeping a mistress. She and I became firm friends, each loving the King in our own way, and supporting each other.’

Henriette looked at her mother with scathing contempt, not at all understanding such generosity of spirit. ‘That is because you are happy to have people walk all over you, like silly Marie-Charlotte here. I am not so stupid.’

If Marie Touchet