Sang bleu: Of high aristocratic descent. The words are French, and mean blue blood, but the notion is Spanish. The old families of Spain who trace their pedigree beyond the time of the Moorish conquest say that their venous blood is blue, but that of common people is black.
The Reverend Ebenezer Cobham Brewer
Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870)
13 July 1788
‘Mais non! C’est impossible!’ Madame de Ravoisier threw up her pudgy hands. ‘All these riots. It is far too dangerous.’
‘But, madame, I do not wish to go anywhere near the riots.’ Viviane gazed at her great-aunt pleadingly. ‘I only wish to take part in the festival for Saint Anne, here in Paimpont. We shall all carry lighted candles in a procession to the abbey . . .’
‘No, no! Your father would never permit it.’
‘But he is not here, madame. He is in Versailles where they feast and dance every night. We have so few festivities here, and you know it is Saint Anne’s holy day . . . I wished to light a candle for my mother . . .’ To her dismay, Viviane’s voice quivered. Her puppy Luna whined, and laid her front paw on Viviane’s lap. Gratefully Viviane caressed her soft red ears.
‘Your mother died the day you were born, Viviane. Do me the courtesy of not pretending to an affection for a woman you never knew.’
‘It is possible to miss what you do not have,’ Viviane answered.
‘Well, if you must fall prey to such foolish sentimentality, you may do so here, in our own chapel.’
‘But then I would be all alone, like always. The parade will be so pretty, and there’ll be music and dancing afterwards . . .’
‘You shall not dance with peasants! You forget who you are. Must I write to your father and inform him that you have not lost your taste for low company?’
‘No, madame.’ Viviane looked down at her clenched hands.
‘Very well. We shall speak no more of it. You must see that it is quite impossible for the daughter of the Marquis de Valaine to be seen cavorting with the canaille.’
Viviane did not answer.
It was all she ever heard. It seemed to Viviane that her life was bounded by impossibilities. She could not pick up her skirts and run, or gallop a horse, or dance with whomever she pleased, or even dare to dream of love.
Her eyes smarted with angry tears.
‘It is more important than ever that we of the nobility maintain certain standards.’ Madame de Ravoisier unfurled her chicken-skin fan angrily. ‘All this disrespectful clamouring for rights and freedoms. I wonder that the king has not clapped them all in irons! Why, I heard just yesterday that the Comte de Molleville was forced to flee Rennes. They say the musketeers refused to fire on the crowds and he barely escaped with his life.’
‘Well, what did he expect?’ Viviane cried. ‘The comte is the king’s intendant here. He came with a dozen lettres de cachet, left blank on purpose, ready to throw into prison anyone who opposed the king’s will.’
‘It is ridiculous. No-one should oppose the king’s will.’
Viviane began to protest, and her great-aunt held up one hand imperiously. ‘I do not wish to hear it, Viviane. You spend too much time with your head in a book instead of practising your curtsey and sewing your trousseau. It is not fitting for a girl of your noble birth to spout such preposterous notions.’
‘But, madame . . .’
‘Not another word, I said.’
Viviane picked up her sewing, her brain seething with all the words she wanted to say. It was all so unfair. A searing-hot summer meant the fields and orchards were parched. If there was not rain soon, the harvest would fail yet again. The peasants were hungry, and there was much muttering against the king and queen ensconced in the gilded palace of Versailles.
Viviane could understand why. She had been overwhelmed by the opulence of the court during her brief stay there in the spring. It seemed so wrong that the king and his nobles should powder their wigs with the whitest of flour, while the tax-burdened poor struggled to earn enough to buy a loaf of bread.
But Viviane could not speak her thoughts. It was another thing forbidden to her.
Gradually her great-aunt’s head nodded forward, till her chins rested on her bosom. She began to snore. One silken slipper hung from her pudgy foot. Luna sniffed at it, then seized the slipper in her mouth and raced away. Viviane kicked off her own shoes so that she could chase after the puppy. Luna eluded her, shaking the slipper from side to side as violently as if it had been a rat.
‘Come here, mon chouchou,’ Viviane whispered, one hand reaching for the amber collar bound about Luna’s neck.
The puppy swerved, and banged against a fragile side-table. A priceless vase rocked. Viviane caught and steadied it, as Luna leapt over the back of the couch, sending a cushion flying.
Madame de Ravoisier harrumphed and shifted her weight. Her wig slipped forward over one eye. Viviane stood tense and motionless, one hand held out entreatingly to the puppy. Luna stood, head tilted, brow wrinkled in enquiry, the slipper dangling from her jaws.
The snores rose once more.
‘Good girl,’ Viviane whispered. She swung her own shoes by their blue satin ribbons. ‘Here you go, play with these.’
Luna watched the shoes swing back and forth, then dropped Madame de Ravoisier’s slipper and pounced, trying to reach Viviane’s.
Viviane picked her up and dashed out of the drawing-room.
‘You are nothing but trouble,’ she told Luna sternly, then kissed her smooth white head.
The puppy was too large to be carried far, so Viviane dropped her to the ground. As she hurried down the corridor, carrying her shoes, Luna bounded beside her, not at all troubled by having only three legs.
Viviane had found the puppy two months earlier, caught in one of the mole-catcher’s traps. The foreleg had been too badly mangled to save, and the kennel-keeper had reluctantly decided she must be drowned, Monsieur le Marquis not wanting to feed a useless dog. Viviane had castigated the keeper for his cruelty, then helped him to amputate the injured paw. The pup had survived, and had been named Luna for the whiteness of her coat and the huge patch on her side, as round and red as a harvest moon. Ever since, Luna had been Viviane’s constant companion, following her about all day and snuggled at the end of her bed each night. Viviane would have been very lonely without her.
She slipped through a double set of doors into the ballroom, shadowed by shutters and swathed in dust cloths. Viviane began to slide along the parquet floor in her white stockings. Luna pranced beside her.
‘Why, monsieur, I thank you,’ Viviane said, curtseying to an imaginary gentleman. ‘I would love to dance.’ She executed a few neat dance steps, her skirts billowing. She twirled and stepped and curtsied, and Luna played about her, springing and bowing as if she too moved to imaginary music.
At last Viviane came to a standstill, her arms still raised, one toe pointed. ‘I do think it is too bad of Monsieur le Marquis to forbid my dancing lessons,’ she said to Luna. ‘The days are so long with nothing to do but sew and be scolded by Madame.’
Luna wagged her tail, then trotted to the door, turning to look back at Viviane.
‘You are quite right, mon chouchou! Why sit and sew on such a glorious day? Let us go out, by all means. I am sure Madame will not miss us.’
Viviane began to glide down the polished floor in long, swooping steps, pretending she was ice-skating like the queen and her ladies. She executed a graceful spin, before slipping out the doors. A long corridor lined with gloomy paintings led to a round tower room. Books filled the shelves from floor to ceiling.
Viviane crossed to the corner of the room and pressed one of the carved roses on the panelling. A faint click, then she pushed the panel back, opening a low hidden door. She and Luna slipped inside, and shut the door behind them.
Beyond was a narrow spiral staircase that wound down into shadows. Luna ran ahead, her body jerking as she managed the steep steps with only one foreleg. Viviane followed, the stone cool under her stockinged feet. Three turns, and she reached the ground floor, unlatching another secret door that led into the stillroom. Viviane could hear the chatter of voices and the banging of pots and pans from the scullery. She tiptoed towards the kitchen, keeping her hand on Luna’s collar.
Viviane peered around the doorway. Briaca Cazotte, the château’s cook, was plucking a guinea fowl. She was a thin woman with deep-set eyes and an anxious look. All her hair was hidden under a severe linen cap. At the other end of the table, her son Pierrick sat playing solitaire. He wore a pale-blue waistcoat embroidered with flowers and a white-powdered wig. Pierrick was the château’s head-footman, and so served the ladies of Belisima-sur-le-lac at supper, and ran errands and took messages as required. He was also meant to accompany the ladies of the château on any visits they undertook, but since Madame de Ravoisier and Viviane never went anywhere, he spent most of his days lounging round, paring his nails and playing piquet with the under-footman.
Briaca had once been Viviane’s wet-nurse, and so Pierrick – only four days older than Viviane – was her milk-brother. As babies they had nursed together, and taken their first steps pushing a wheeled chair around the uneven flagstones. Once they turned seven, however, Viviane was banished from the kitchen. They had spent the dozen years since with Pierrick standing ramrod-straight against the wall while she sewed a fine seam, or walking three paces behind her while she strolled with her governess, or serving her soup while she pretended not to know him. Their stiff formality was only abandoned when they were alone, and their old friendship could show itself in natural, unaffected banter and laughter. But Viviane and Pierrick were rarely alone, and so they had – over time – developed a silent language of grimaces and gestures that served them well for quick and covert communication.
Now Viviane called his name softly. Luna whined, straining against her hand, wanting to bound forward joyfully, as Pierrick looked up and smiled in greeting.
‘Mamzelle!’ his mother cried and cast a quick look around. ‘You must not be here. You know it is not permitted . . .’
‘Hush, Briaca, I am just passing through.’
‘If Madame was to find out you came down to the kitchen . . . mamzelle, it is not fair, you must not risk my position.’
‘I’m sorry. I just wanted to borrow some sabots. My shoes are not made for walking in the forest.’
Pierrick grinned at her. ‘I’ll mind them for you till you get back, cherie.’ He kicked off his own silver-buckled shoes so he could jam his feet inside hers, which were made of silk brocade with red spindly heels and extravagant blue ribbons.
‘Pierrick! Do not be so familiar with Mamzelle. Take off her shoes at once!’
In answer, Pierrick jumped up and began to mince across the kitchen, one hand on his hip, the other swishing an imaginary train. ‘Ça alors, I do believe Mamzelle’s shoes look far better on me! Perhaps I will not give them back.’
‘You are welcome to them,’ Viviane said, slipping her feet into some sabots. ‘I swear cobblers make shoes to hobble us poor women. I’d much prefer a sturdy pair of boots so I could go walking or riding as I please. But no! It is not permitted.’ She mimicked her great-aunt’s shrill aristocratic tones.
Pierrick lifted one foot admiringly. ‘I do like the ribbons. I think I chose well.’
‘You always do,’ she replied, laughing. ‘You must read all the latest fashion gazettes before you bring them for Madame.’
‘But of course!’
‘Pierrick, that is enough. What would Madame think if she saw you wearing Mamzelle’s shoes? Or Monsieur Corentin? He would write to Monsieur le Marquis and we would be thrown out and end up begging in the streets. Mamzelle, please, you must go before you are seen.’ Briaca looked nervously towards the scullery.
Viviane and Pierrick exchanged rueful glances. Born in the same week, fed at the same breast, raised in the same château, and yet they were supposed to never acknowledge each other’s existence. It seemed most unjust.
‘I am sorry, Briaca. I’ll leave now. Don’t tell anyone where I’m going.’ Viviane clomped out the back door, Luna at her heels, as Pierrick picked up her shoes and hid them in the pantry.
Beyond was the kitchen garden. Straw-woven bee boles sat within embrasures along the high walls. Rows of cabbages, artichokes and scarlet runner beans wilted in the blazing heat. Sunflowers drooped their blackened faces, like a pilgrimage of penitent sinners.
Through another archway was the orchard. Luna raced around happily, chasing butterflies. The old mill was overshadowed by an immense oak tree, its branches bowed with age. One heavy limb rested upon the outer wall, which had broken under the weight. The pigeonnière nestled near the gate, the air full of the doves’ soft cooing.
Viviane went through the gatehouse and across the bridge. Below her the mill-race foamed through the arches of the bridge and turned the creaky old mill-wheel. Beyond, the golden flax fields rippled under a catspaw of wind, seedpods rattling. Scarlet poppies danced. The sun burned through the silk of her dress, and she was glad to reach the shade of the forest.
If only it would rain, she thought. I could not bear it if the harvest failed again. We cannot feed them all.
She remembered the beggars who had camped beyond the château gate last summer, too weak to even raise their cupped hands. Briaca had cooked great cauldrons of cabbage soup to feed them, but there had been too many. Eventually the steward had driven them away, set the dogs on them. Viviane had begged him to be merciful, but he said Monsieur le Marquis, her father, had given his orders.
Monsieur le Marquis must always be obeyed without question.
Viviane’s father did not care for the people of the estate, or indeed for her. For most of her nineteen years he had scarcely acknowledged she existed. She wished he had never remembered and taken her to Versailles. Then she would not have disgraced herself. Her father would not have ordered her great-aunt to come and live at Belisima, watching everything Viviane did and reporting back to him. He would not have forbidden her from going down to the kitchen in the evenings, listening to Briaca’s old tales, of magic and saints and miracles, of perilous quests and cruel enchantments, while she helped the cook make dumplings for the pot-au-feu.
One of Viviane’s favourite tales was that of her famous ancestor, the Lady of the Lake. The enchanter Merlin had first met her, and fallen in love with her, at a magical spring of water deep in the Paimpont forest. Briaca said that water flung from the Fountain of the Fairy upon the Stone of Merlin had the power to summon a storm.
Remembering that old story, Viviane’s step quickened.
It’s only a story, I know, she thought as she took the path towards the old spring. But there is often truth in old tales . . .
Viviane loved Belisima with all her heart. She had inherited the estate from her mother the day she was born and had lived here all her life. Its soil was her soul. As she hurried through the green shadows of the beech trees, Luna prancing at her heels, she imagined rain soaking into the scorched land, a rich and bountiful harvest, the gratitude of the hungry serfs, the approval of her father as his pockets filled once more. It was an entrancing vision.
She came at last to the Fountain of the Fairy. It was a long gash of dark water, enclosed within steep stone walls and overshadowed by trees. A huge boulder lay nearby, laced with golden lichen. The Stone of Merlin.
Kneeling, Viviane reached down with her sabot and scooped up some water and threw it upon the boulder. Twice more she flung the water, silently praying all the while for rain.
Then she hurried for home.
She would be in trouble, she knew. Gone so long. Wandering alone in the forest. Madame would be angry. She broke into a run, till a stitch stabbed her ribs, then walked, then ran again, Luna loping ahead.
The shadows grew long. The abbey’s bells rang the Angelus. The wind was rising, shaking the canopy of leaves overhead. It blew the puppy’s ears inside-out.
Suddenly an old man slouched out of the forest. He was dressed in a moleskin waistcoat over a tattered shirt and soiled leather breeches. His long grey hair and beard were matted with leaves and twigs, and grime was deeply engrained in the furrows of his face. Over one shoulder he carried a pole hung with the limp bodies of dead moles, their pale paws dangling.
His name was Maugan. He had haunted Viviane’s nightmares since she was a little girl. It was in one of his mole-traps that Luna had lost her foot, and it was clear the puppy remembered for she growled at him.
‘Out of my way!’ Viviane cried.
‘Damned aristo!’ Maugan spat at Viviane’s feet. ‘You think you rule the world, but a storm is coming, a storm like the world has never seen before, and then heads shall roll.’
The mole-catcher had a reputation for strange mad prophecies, and indeed his eyes were fixed and crazed. Viviane remembered that her father had once had Maugan flogged for daring to predict the Marquis’s young wife would die without bearing him the much-desired son. Well, he had been right. Viviane had been born, a mere girl, and her mother had died in the bearing of her and the Marquis left with no-one to pass down his name.
Viviane pushed past the filthy old man and ran headlong down the path towards home. Clouds loomed behind the château like a giant’s anvil. The lake scudded with white waves. Lightning fractured the sky.
Viviane hurried forward through the flail and hiss of hail.