Bewildered as the clock strikes ten to find an invitation to the following day’s masked ball lodged under her bedroom door, is Serenity correct in assuming its anonymous sender is the beautiful but tragic Duchesse de Valzac?
The alabaster luminosity of the sunlit stairwell unbearable, eyes narrowed to slits, Serenity reached out for the final section of warm iron handrail.
“What was I thinking of spending that long so close to the orchestra?” she hissed, the pain in her head at a crescendo as she staggered across the polished tiles of the landing towards the door to her rooms. Giddy as she pushed it open, she made for the nearest window – aware in her disorientation upon reaching the alcove of a pert click of footsteps and jangle of metal, as, unable to steady herself, she stumbled sideways against the yellow chintz wall.
“Mademoiselle?” a woman’s voice enquired, “Are you unwell?”
The blood pounding in her head, Serenity pushed herself away from the wall. Lurching forwards, she caught sight of the small bunch of silver keys and gem-encrusted scissors that dangled from the woman’s pale pink, flower-embroidered bodice as she tried to balance herself, her gaze plummeting to the beige-ribboned, fawn leather shoes that protruded from below the dark brown silken hem of her full skirt.
“My dear!” protested the woman, reaching out and taking a firm grip of Serenity’s upper arms through the white cheesecloth of her blouse. “Mademoiselle must rest!” she insisted, her tone crisp although not lacking compassion as her lovely hazel eyes met Serenity’s. At once recognisable as the woman she’d observed earlier across the lawn, the Duchesse de Valzac, mouth dry, Serenity attempted a response.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, “but I think I spent too long in the garden.”
“There’s really no need to apologise,” replied the Duchesse, a hint of a smile softening the ends of her wide lips as she guided Serenity towards and into a yellow velvet chair positioned close to the large granite fireplace in the left wall – a faint scratching detectable from the far side of the door.
“Yes?” enquired the woman, spine straight as, unhurriedly, she turned her face towards the peculiar noise.
“The dresses, Madame,” came the curt reply as the sullen redhead made her entrance, her fleshy white arms stacked some two feet high with an assortment of fabrics – some bright in colour, others plain – two hairbrushes balanced on top of the pile, their dark bristles facing upwards away from the small bundle of diaphanous fabric on which they nestled.
“Thank you, Véronique. Would you kindly arrange them in the closet?”
“As you wish, Madame,” replied the maid with a curtsey. Chin jutting out, she continued on her way towards the door to the bedroom.
The svelte brunette following the direction of the surly woman through the long dark lashes of her clear almond-shaped eyes, it struck Serenity as cruel how nature – or rather disease – had chosen her as its victim, a casualty on which to inflict its ravages, for all around the delicate bone structure of her arched left eyebrow, down the apple of her cheek and across to the middle of her smooth, rounded chin, the smallpox had caused indelible devastation on her otherwise flawless porcelain beauty – although rather oddly but mercifully, it had seen fit to end its sadistic journey before crossing the contour of her jaw-line.
“I have arranged Mademoiselle for several of the Comtesse de Lemoncy’s dresses to be prepared for you” continued this most unfortunate yet elegant of women as she turned back to Serenity. “It was her direct wish you receive them.”
“Oh, Suzette?” exclaimed Serenity, eyes darting in the direction of the open door to the bedroom beyond.
“Indeed,” replied the Duchesse, calmly, “I believe you are acquainted with one another.”
“Yes, we met this morning.”
“That is good. You are indeed of a similar age and I believe her company will certainly be of benefit to you.” Voice sober as she ran her manicured fingertips up and down the blunt outer blade of the gem encrusted silver scissors, unsmiling the brunette continued – her gaze focussed on the muslin of Serenity’s skirt. “I also arranged, Mademoiselle, for the repair of your clothes.”
“Oh!” remarked Serenity, the surprise evident in her voice.
“There was a significant tear of several inches,” added the Duchesse, unemotionally, “near the hem of your skirt. I hope the stitching meets with your satisfaction.”
Lips pursed, slowly she lifted her eyes to the white blouson tunic overhanging the skirt. “Dr Pavier is due to call on you again this evening at 5 o’clock. Please may I ask that you avail yourself at that hour.” The sound of footsteps approaching, the Duchesse’s eyes strayed to the honey floorboards. “Véronique, you will not forget the books.”
“No, Madame,” replied the maid with a bob, pinching small sections of the ecru fabric of her loose skirt between her finger and thumb.
“Very well” responded the Duchesse, her gaze returning to the tunic as the redhead exited the room. “Now, I really must return to my duties” she declared, her fingertips shifting to the bunch of keys, “for there is much to be done and so little time remains.” With a slight nod, she retreated several steps, her twinkling hazel eyes lifting for an instant to meet Serenity’s.
“Goodbye, my dear,” she added softly without pausing to acknowledge Serenity’s response, as, pinching the silk of her own skirt she turned on the spot, footsteps crisp as she made for the open door.
The ten distant chimes announcing the hour, Serenity placed the black lacquered hairbrush down onto the polished red wood of the dressing table.
Toying with the loose golden ringlet that tumbled over the creamy skin of her exposed shoulder, she ran one finger over the firm bristles of the brush. Yes, she was grateful for having met the young Comtesse, indebted to her for her generosity. Gaze straying from the central oval mirror to its left and smaller counterpart, she raised one hand to the bruised mound on her temple – the swelling less noticeable in the dim light. Her attention now drifting back to the larger mirror, she studied the diaphanous nightgown she wore, its ivory satin hanging loose, caressing her young body.
“You’re such a sweetie, Suzette,” she sighed, catching sight in the mirror of several of the girl’s burgundy leather-bound novels scattered over the surface of the bed, the dull mustard hue of the four high walls heavy with the sleepy flicker of candlelight.
Aware of a scratching from the neighbouring room, Serenity arose from the padded velvet stool.
“Is someone there?” she enquired, as she passed through the half-closed door into the silent darkness of the sitting room beyond – her eyes at once drawn to the narrow chink of light beneath the closed door to the landing. “That must be what I heard!” she exclaimed, spotting something lodged in the aperture.
“But why push it under the door? Why not just knock?”
Hurrying towards the light, she stooped low, the rigid paper scraping against the wooden floor as Serenity pulled it clear of the gap.
“A letter?” she muttered, as something warm and hard on the reverse caught between her fingers. Who could it be from?
In the gloom fumbling for the doorknob, with a sharp turn of her wrist, the door creaked open – just in time to detect a faint click from the direction of the small landing at the foot of the initial flight of steps. The gilded walls of the vast stairwell alive with the undulating dance of candlelight, Serenity stepped out onto its cool marble tiles. A delicate bouquet of orange blossom lingering in the warm night air, she peered along the deserted corridor that led off to the right. The only sound that of the loud tick-tock from the Oriental clock, she glanced down at the folded sheet of parchment in her hand. Noticing the small, dark red wax seal which had caught in her fingers, turning it over, she mouthed the two words written there, the handwriting exquisite.
“Mademoiselle Serenity … how mysterious,” she whispered as the citrus scent in the air permeated her senses.
At a loss as to the whereabouts of the messenger, Serenity retraced her footsteps back through the darkened room towards the candlelit bedroom, whereupon perching herself on the edge of the bed, once more she examined the crispness of the florid hand. The vibrant scent still noticeable, lifting the envelope to her face she took a deep breath – the orange blossom itself impregnated into the parchment. Prising open the seal, she began to unfold the stiff paper, the elegant writing continuing within.
“You are cordially invited to the forthcoming festivities to be held on Saturday, 4 September 1751 in the gardens at Choisy and thereafter to attend the Reception and Grand Venetian Masked Ball at the château. We do most sincerely hope you will feel quite well enough to join us on this most splendid of occasions, a costume having been prepared for you.”
“Suzette?” gasped Serenity, flipping the parchment over.
“But it was violet perfume she was wearing! Well, if it wasn’t her,” she uttered, startled at the invitation, “then it must have been her sister”, she concluded, dazed as she began to gather from the bed the Comtesse’s books, setting them together with the invitation on the small bedside table.
Her mind a jumble of the radiant blonde’s words from their conversation that morning, Serenity made her way over to the corner desk near the alcove, where in a single puff she extinguished the stubby white candle set thereon.
“But didn’t she say the King was going to be there?”
Heart skipping a beat, she stood bolt upright, squeezing closed her eyes as a shooting pain pierced the side of her head.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she complained, giddy as she reeled her way back across the creaking floorboards, cupping her hand around the solitary candle still alight on the bedside table.
“I can’t remember anything!” she protested, as she blew out the flame.
The room plunged into silent darkness, pulling back the bed sheets, Serenity slumped onto the firm mattress – a groan no sooner escaping her as she realised she’d forgotten to close the drapes. The wooden floor illuminated with the light from the full moon, too exhausted to get up, she instead buried her face in the soft pillow, remotely aware of the distant clock striking the quarter hour. The ache in her temple now subsiding, she snuggled down beneath the heavy linen – the last image which ran through her fatigued mind as she slipped from consciousness, that of a gilded carriage journeying through a vast forest, its enormous wooden wheels grinding over the dry summer earth as the unknown stranger inside drew ever nearer by the mile.