I woke with a start, clawing at the damp bed sheets and twisting my head from side to side, just as I always did when I had The Dream.
‘Adélaïde?’ Hortense hissed from the next bed. I turned my head to look at her, unable to see much more than her pale, round face, prim white cotton night dress and long blonde plaits in the gloom. ‘Did you have the dream again? The one about your mother?’ Her soft, still faintly provincial voice was concerned. We had slept in neighbouring beds for seven years, ever since she had first arrived at our school and she had been woken by The Dream at least twice a week during that time. I was amazed and grateful that she still cared enough to ask and didn’t just kick me hard and leave me to it as so many other girls would have done.
‘She was running through the woods,’ I whispered, sitting up in the bed and hugging my knees, rubbing my hot cheeks against the scratchy cotton of my night dress. ‘She was running so fast that I couldn’t catch her.’ I waved my hands in front of me just as I had done in the dream, flexing my fingers as I desperately tried to catch hold of her. ‘And then, just like that, she was gone.’
I felt rather than saw Hortense nodding beside me. ‘How do you know that it is your mother, Adélaïde?’ she asked reaching across the gap between our beds and taking my hand. ‘It could be anyone.’
She had a point. My mother had left before I could even remember her and I had never even seen a portrait as either none had ever existed or Papa had removed them all. I strongly suspected the latter. Lucrèce had once told me that she was tall and slim and fair with pretty eyes and soft hands but in my mind she looked exactly like the sad faced plaster Virgin who stood to the side of the altar in the school chapel and so it was she that I desperately chased night after night, her blue cloak floating and whirling in the wind, her sandalled feet making no noise as she ran ahead of me through the crisp, golden leaves.
‘Maybe she will come back one day,’ Hortense whispered now, just as she always did.
I nodded. ‘Maybe.’ Neither of us really believed it. She had been away for so long and I didn’t even know if she was alive or dead. No one had ever told me and I was too afraid to ask. All I knew was that she had gone and that she had not taken me with her.
‘Do you want me to get in with you?’ Hortense asked shyly.
I hesitated for a moment, thinking that one day I would have to cope with this on my own but as usual I nodded, giving in helplessly to the need to not be alone. ‘Yes, please.’ I shifted across the narrow bed in order to make some room for her and shivered as my toes stretched out into the cold patch at the end of the mattress. Every evening the convent maids ran about busily shoving hot bricks that had been warmed in the fires and kitchen range into the beds, heating them up in readiness for bedtime. It was bliss at first to climb into a lovely warm bed but it didn’t take long for the heat to vanish and the ever present fingers of icy cold to pry beneath the covers.
Hortense giggled softly as she hopped into my bed and put her warm arms around me. ‘It is too cold to sleep alone anyway,’ she whispered, her breath smelling sweetly of the cinnamon pastilles that she was addicted to and hid in a little pink enamel tin underneath her pillow. ‘I heard Soeur Agnès say that they found another beggar sitting dead against the convent gates this morning. He was only a young boy apparently and was frozen stiff.’ She shuddered a little with either cold or horror, it was impossible to tell which. ‘Everyone says that it is the worst winter since the old King’s time. Imagine being so poor that you have to live on the streets in this weather.’
I sighed, breathing in her clean scent of soap, clean linen and the tiny bit of lavender scent that she had stolen from one of the older girls. ‘I don’t think either of us can imagine what it is like, Hortense. How can we?’ I thought about the time my sister Lucrèce and I had seen a frozen beggar woman lying dead in the ornately carved doorway of our house on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois. The swarm of maids and footmen that surrounded us at all times had not been quite quick enough to shield us from the terrible sight and I still remembered the way that the dead woman’s dark eyes had stared sightlessly into the distance while her blue lips were slightly parted as though she had been trying to speak. ‘It is terrible that such poverty exists in a city like Paris. It is almost the nineteenth century and we should be moving forward not allowing some of our fellow men dwell in misery as though it is still the dark ages.’ I thought about the dead woman and how the servants had behaved as though it was a terrible inconvenience rather than a tragedy and had impatiently chivvied my crying sister and I away. I had looked back over my shoulder as they closed the door and caught a glimpse of the chief footman as he fastidiously dropped a napkin over the woman’s grey face, hiding her horrible staring eyes from view.
Hortense sighed. ‘My father says that it is their own fault and that if they only worked harder then they wouldn’t be so poor.’ I loved Hortense dearly but she was a little too fond of beginning statements with ‘My father says’ for my liking, especially as her dear Papa was a self centred, ignorant, over stuffed idiot, completely devoid of all empathy and tolerance. Some would say that he was very much one of the ‘old’ nobility, who had hovered for over a hundred years at the silken elbow of the King at Versailles and remained in ignorance of what life was like in the real world. I would be inclined to agree with this, after all my own father was of the same breed.
‘Hortense, your father is wrong,’ I said very gently. ‘People are poor because they have no choice and the odds are stacked against them. Men like your father and mine should be helping them not telling them to work harder.’ I thought of the ragged, pinched faced peasants who lived on Papa’s estate near to Fontainebleau and the way that they downed their tools in the fields and stared at us as we drove past in our fine painted and gilded carriage, while my father affected to look the other way, making it clear that they were not worthy of his either his attention or his time.
There was a long silence and I looked down to see that Hortense had fallen asleep, which was a blessing really as I truly didn’t want to argue with her and we had fallen out before about ‘My father says’.
I lay for a long time, listening to Hortense breathe and watching the first grey slivers of sunlight appear from beneath the long blue curtains that hung at our one solitary window. I had lived in this room for seven years ever since I had first arrived at Penthémont at the age of nine along with my older sisters, the twins Lucrèce and Cassandre. Up until that time we had lived on our father’s country estate under the care of one of his unmarried sisters, Mademoiselle Aglaé until she had died and it had been decided that we should be sent to school. I could barely remember my aunt now; she had been a colourless, middle aged woman with a soft, wispy voice and a predilection for violet scented snuff, which left a patina of beige dust over all of the fine, old fashioned furniture. Unmarried and unloved, she had been content to remain in the family château, accept a small allowance from her brother and take such a desultory interest in our development and education that we all arrived at Penthémont barely able to read or write.
Upon arrival, my elder sisters had been whisked away immediately to the rooms reserved for older girls while a young nun, clad in the white habit of the Cistercians who introduced herself as Soeur Jeanne took my hand and escorted me briskly through long white painted corridors that smelt of boiled cabbage and soap to the tiny blue painted room that I would share with two other girls. ‘A maid will look after your needs,’ she explained as we hurried along. You will share her with the other girls in your room and she will help you to do your hair and dress in the morning then undress in the evening before you go to bed.’ She looked at me out of the corner of her eye, taking in my pale, set little face and trembling hands and cleared her throat. ‘It must all seem very strange but all the girls get used to it eventually. No one will be angry if you cry a little at first.’
I shook my head so that my long dark plaits tied at the ends with pretty red silk ribbons, rattled around my ears. ‘I never cry.’
Soeur Jeanne came to a standstill and turned to look at me. ‘Never?’ She put her long fingers beneath my chin and tilted my head upwards so that she could look down into my eyes. ‘Not even once?’
I wriggled away from her. ‘No, never.’ I stared at the wooden rosary that hung, swinging backwards and forwards from her waist. ‘I don’t like crying.’ I didn’t want to add that I left that sort of thing to my sister Lucrèce, who could often be found sobbing over what seemed to me to be the most trivial things.
‘What about when that aunt of yours died?’ she persisted. ‘Did you cry then?’
I thought of Tante Aglaé and her snuff and silly little voice and her lengthy naps after breakfast and the way she couldn’t walk more than a couple of paces without having to sink down, wheezing dramatically on the nearest chair and the fact that she had infinitely preferred the company of her spoilt little Pug, Pom-Pom to we children. ‘No, I didn’t cry for her.’
Soeur Jeanne laughed then, as if she had read my thoughts. ‘I think I can imagine how it was. I have some maiden aunts of my own to contend with and I do not believe that I would shed a single tear for any of them either.’ We smiled at each other then like fellow conspirators and suddenly, for the first time since my arrival in Paris I felt like maybe I had nothing to fear and that perhaps I may find the kindred spirits that had been lacking throughout my life so far.
I was still thinking about Soeur Jeanne and those long ago days when the chapel bell started to peal in the distance, calling us to Mass and shortly afterwards our maid, Lucie bustled cheerfully into the room, clattering her enamelled water jugs together and ripping open the curtains. ‘Another cold day, mesdemoiselles!’ she announced with a grin that revealed several gaps in her teeth. ‘Wrap up warmly before you go down to the chapel!’
Hortense opened her eyes and struggled up onto her elbows. ‘Oh, Lucie, why are you always so happy when it is cold?’ she asked with a loud yawn. ‘I do not know how you bear it!’
Lucie grinned and shrugged her plump shoulders. ‘I am happy whatever the weather, Mademoiselle! Surely you must have realised that by now?’ She winked at me. ‘And how are you this morning, Mademoiselle de Saint-Valèry?’ Lucie knew all about The Dream. ‘Today is art day isn’t it?’
I nodded with a smile, my heart beginning to lift at the thought of my art lessons, which were definitely the high point of my week. It was more usual for the young ladies of Penthemont to be taught the rudiments of drawing and painting by the effete, prancing little drawing master who came in every day and seemed to spend more time flirting with his pupils than actually teaching them anything but I had insisted that I wanted to be taught by a real artist and after much tedious wrangling and bargaining with Papa and Madame Abbesse, I was granted my wish and it was arranged that I should go once a week to be taught by the great Monsieur David himself. Having given way about the lessons, Papa would have preferred that I be taught by someone fashionable and refined like Madame Vigée-Lebrun or Madame Vallayer-Coster, both of whom were favourites of the Queen but I was adamant that only Monsieur David would do.
‘When I go to the Royal Academy salon it is David’s paintings that inspire and inflame me,’ I told my father, almost shouting in my excitement and desire to make him share my enthusiasm as he sat behind his desk silently observing me. I was on one of my rare visits from Penthémont to the house on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and had begged to see him privately in his study in order to plead my case. Upon Cassandre’s advice I was wearing my prettiest white muslin gown tied with a pale blue silk sash for the occasion, in the hopes that it would soften his heart. It had seemed odd going to Cassandre for advice about how to approach our father but she had always been his adored favourite whereas I often felt like I didn’t really know him at all.
When he came every couple of months to Penthémont to visit us, he would usually ask for Lucrèce and Cassandre first and I would see them skip off hand in hand down the white washed corridor then, an hour or so later one of the nuns would come for me and I would be taken down to the pretty blue and white toile de jouy decorated parlour where they were all waiting for me: Papa looking a little awkward and ill at ease as usual, his elderly mother sitting at his side dressed in a gown of her favourite shimmering black taffeta, her thin rouged lips pursed as she acknowledged my curtsey with the tiniest and frostiest of nods and my sisters, both sitting on the sofa by the window, their bright heads close together as they whispered and giggled with each other.
My father would clear his throat. ‘You are becoming tall, mademoiselle.’ He always said exactly the same thing whenever I saw him and always with the same faintly surprised tone. ‘Madame Abbesse tells me that you show great aptitude in all of your subjects.’ I always waited for him to say how pleased or proud he was but it never happened.
‘Men don’t want tall wives,’ Grandmère was fond of chiming in, her tiny blue eyes flicking over me dismissively. ‘Nor do they want clever ones.’
I pushed all of this out of mind now as I strove to make him understand my enthusiasm for David’s paintings. ‘Did you not admire his painting of the death of Socrates?’ I could have remained for hours in front of the huge canvas, ignoring the society portraits that surrounded it and allowing the hum and buzz of muted conversation that filled the huge exhibition room to fade away to nothing as my eyes feasted upon the vibrant colours.
‘I do not admire paintings,’ my father replied with a look of distaste, ‘and I have never pretended to understand art.’ His tone implied that understanding art was not at all a desirable attribute and one, furthermore that he associated with what I had heard him refer to with real loathing as the ‘degeneracy of the artistic classes’. ‘You may have your lessons with Monsieur David, but please do not imagine that it will ever be anything more than a pastime.’ He began to fiddle awkwardly with a huge gold ink pot that stood on his desk. ‘A Saint-Valèry cannot be a professional artist. Such a thing is unheard of.’
I stared at him as the exquisite porcelain clock on his marble mantelpiece chimed the hour. ‘I don’t understand.’
My father pressed his fingers together and frowned as though something pained him. ‘As my daughter, as a Saint-Valèry you have certain obligations,’ he said. ‘Like your sisters, you will marry well and then take up a position at court, just as the women of my family have always done. If you harbour dreams of doing anything else with your life then I would advise you to save yourself almost certain pain and abandon them now.’
I felt utterly deflated. ‘I don’t want to get married,’ I replied, lifting up my chin defiantly but hiding my shaking hands behind my back, ‘and I don’t want to live at court. I don’t know if I want to be an artist either, I just know that I want to be something and I want to have an existence that isn’t entirely tied up with getting married or being decorative or having children.’
My father looked at me then as though he had never seen me before. ‘When you speak like that you remind me of someone else,’ he remarked, standing up abruptly and walking to the window, which looked out over the busy, thriving street where street vendors wandered to and fro loudly proclaiming their wares and shouting rude comments at the passersby. I couldn’t see his face but could tell by the set of his shoulders beneath his russet velvet coat that he was frowning.
‘Sidonie,’ I replied, my heart thumping in my breast as I said her name, horribly conscious of the way that the words fell between us, of the fact that I had never dared to mention her to my father before. Her name felt odd on my lips, unnatural even and I repeated it again under my breath, enjoying the sinuous sound that it made. Sidonie.
He inclined his head to the side. ‘You have her eyes,’ he said in a toneless voice. ‘Grey. She was very proud of them.’
Now was the moment. I had so many questions to ask. I wanted to know why she had left, why she had not taken me with her, where she was, if she was ever going to come back. Now, ask him now. ‘Is there a portrait?’ It was all that I could think of to start with. Surely there could be no harm in wanting to see what she looked like?
‘No.’ My father turned away from the window, his face closed and expressionless. ‘As I said, I do not like painting.’
I knew that he was lying. I was sure of it. There was nothing I could do though but thank him gratefully for agreeing to the lessons and then leave. He acknowledged my thanks with a curt nod and had returned to his books before the door had even whispered shut behind me. I paused for a moment and leaned back against the painted and gilded wood, wiping my sweaty palms against the soft embroidered muslin of my skirt. My sisters always said that I was the ‘clever’ one of the family, Mademoiselle Prunes and Prisms who always knew an answer to everything and was more likely to be found at a boring science lecture than a ball. How come then, if I was so very clever, did I find it so hard to talk to my father, to twist him around my fingers the way that Lucrèce, Cassandre and even Lucien did?
Lucien. He would have understood, he always did but he was far away at Versailles, dancing attendance on the royal family and avoiding our grandmother’s attempts to match him up with a suitable bride. Out of all of our mismatched family, he was the one that I felt closest to and I knew that he was fond of me too. My earliest memories all involved playing with him in the gardens of the family château, Bellechasse and when Grandmère tried to leave me out of dinners, picnics and parties on the grounds that I was too young, it was he who came to the nursery, took my hand and led me downstairs saying sweetly that ‘Little Adélaïde must never be left out of our pleasures, Grandmère. She may be the baby of the family but she is wise beyond her years.’
I thought about Lucien as we drove from Penthémont on the Rue de Grenelle to Monsieur David’s studio in the Louvre. As usual we had left immediately after Mass and our frugal breakfast, eaten in silence of bread, cheese and jam. Madame Abbesse had insisted that I be accompanied at all times when outside the school and so I was joined in the black school carriage by a young nun, fresh from the provinces, called Soeur Clotilde who looked forward to our weekly trip with as much relish as I did. She sat beside me now, almost bouncing in her seat with excitement and gazing joyously out of the windows, chattering non stop about everything that she saw, while I smiled and nodded along, my thoughts at Versailles with my brother, wondering how he was, what he was doing and who with.
Paris should have been beautiful that day, there was a sharp nip of frost in the air and snow had fallen all night long but the pristine whiteness had long since vanished and now the streets were filled with grey, ugly slush that churned beneath the wheels of our carriage and splattered against the already grimy windows. As Soeur Clotilde chattered on beside me, I gazed out on to the streets which, despite the freezing cold, teemed with life as usual. It seemed as though it would take more than a terrible chill to make Parisians want to stay indoors and I saw fashionably dressed ladies carrying enormous fur muffs rub shoulders with plump market women and pinched faced beggars as our carriage rumbled over the Pont Royale, over the frozen Seine where skaters, both male and female ventured out on to the ice and twirled in intricate patterns, grinning and hugging themselves against the cold.
We went around the vast, gold stoned edifice of the Louvre then pulled up in one of the huge courtyards. The palace had been abandoned when the royal family moved to Versailles in the last century and was now filled with ramshackle apartments, mostly inhabited by artists and their families while the once great galleries were used as studios for their work. I looked up at the tall, stately windows as I jumped down from the carriage holding my folder, smiling to see gaily coloured curtains hanging in them and jugs of milk and terracotta flowerpots, now empty but filled with blooming red and pink geraniums in the Summer, on all of the sills. When the weather was warm, laundry was hung from the windows to dry, giving the courtyard a festive appearance. The smell was the same though with the rich, delicious scent of meat stews and soups cutting through the frosty air.
‘You wouldn’t think would you, that this was once the home of royalty,’ I remarked to Soeur Clotilde as we carefully crossed the icy courtyard to the entrance to David’s studio on the ground floor. It was quiet that day with only a few pupils sitting on the steps and bravely enduring the cold as they smoked their pipes and put the world to rights. I glanced at them enviously as I went past, wishing that I could be like them and live free from my family and all the social constraints that they imposed upon me. I wondered what their lives were like and imagined myself in their place, living in an apartment in the streets around the Palais Royale, going out every morning for my own bread and staying up late over a bottle of wine discussing art and politics and everything and anything.
They stared at us too as we walked to the door, their eyes curious and a little mocking as they obviously wondered what a nun and a little Penthémont girl were doing here. Soeur Clotilde’s white habit and my prim red woollen uniform marking us out as conspicuous and obviously different amongst the art students, both sombrely black clad and bohemian and brightly coloured.
‘Who is that girl?’ I heard one of them ask, not troubling to lower his voice. ‘Not one of the models surely?’ They all laughed and I blushed crimson.
‘Ssh, it is the youngest daughter of the Comte de Saint-Valèry,’ someone else replied, a handsome boy with keen blue eyes and a mop of blond hair that fell about his shoulders. ‘You know…’
My ears strained to catch the rest but the big door swung shut behind us and muffled his voice. I noticed Soeur Clotilde giving me a curious look and realised that I was frowning and biting my lower lip, beset by the familiar feeling that there was something else happening, that there was some big secret that people weren’t telling me. I wasn’t an idiot. I had seen the looks and the way that people broke off conversations when I approached. I had heard the whispers. I guessed that it was something to do with my mother, with Sidonie but what? What did everyone else know?
I forced myself to smile as we stepped into the vast, white painted gallery that served as David’s studio. The air was filled with the sharp, acrid odour of oil paints and turpentine and all of the walls were covered with canvasses; some finished and others waiting for their final touches. Leaning against the wall by the door, in pride of place was his recently completed portrait of the great Chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his young wife, Marie-Anne who worked as his assistant. As usual I paused for a second to admire the masterly way that David had painted the soft folds of her muslin dress and to gaze up at her pretty face, filled with envy for this other girl who had had the good fortune to marry a great man and then be treated by him as an equal. It was exactly what I wanted for myself but had no hope of achieving.
‘Mademoiselle de Saint-Valèry,’ David himself greeted me from the front of the class, where that day’s model, a young blonde girl draped with sheets in a classical fashion was sitting on a chair, her eyes rolled up dramatically towards the ceiling in a pose that I was sure was very difficult to hold. ‘I am glad that you were able to get here.’
I smiled and nodded. ‘It would take more than snow to keep me away, Monsieur.’ I handed my cloak to Soeur Clotilde who went to sit by the door, tongue tied and nervous as she always was in the presence of the famous artist. A few of the other pupils had looked up curiously as we walked in but most now bent their heads to their work again with only one or two continuing to stare at me. I was not the only girl in the class, but I was the only one in a school uniform. I smiled at them apologetically as I sat down behind an easel and brought out my little tin of charcoals. David had offered to come to Penthémont to teach me in privacy, but I had refused, wanting instead to go to his studio, to be amongst his paintings and to mingle with the other students. Wanting instead to live and to daydream.
I looked at the model for a moment then set to work, outlining her figure on the paper then softly adding some shading to round out her contours. David came and stood behind me. ‘Very good, very good indeed, Mademoiselle but…’ He leaned forward. ‘May I?’ He took my charcoal and then went over my careful lines with bolder, darker strokes that made the drawing somehow come to life. ‘It is always the same, Mademoiselle, you start off so carefully, so precisely and we have to tease the art out of you all over again.’
I smiled up at him. ‘I wish that I could devote more time to drawing,’ I said with regret. ‘I always feel so rusty when I come here.’ I tried to draw as much as possible but there were few opportunities to be alone at Penthémont. ‘Perhaps I should ask Madame Abbesse to let me have some time to spend on my art?’
He smiled. ‘Perhaps.’ There was a pause and I stifled a giggle, knowing what was coming as he cleared his throat. ‘Is Madame la Marquise in Paris this Winter?’ He meant my sister, Cassandre who had married the Marquis de Vautière two years earlier amidst great fuss and pomp. Monsieur David had the most terrible crush on her and never failed to drop her into our conversations. He was desperate to paint her and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my sister had only two requirements from portrait painters – that they be fashionable and that they be flattering and poor Monsieur David was not sufficiently fashionable or flattering to please her.
‘He is far too insightful,’ she had said with a laugh when I had last broached the subject with her. ‘If I allow him to paint me then everyone will know just how awful I really am and I won’t have any friends left.’
‘Alas no,’ I said now, gently. ‘My sister is at Versailles at the moment and I do not know when she is coming back to Paris.’ Not that I would necessarily know any way as Cassandre and I were hardly bosom friends. We had all grown up together but there had always been marked divisions between Lucien the heir, ‘The Twins’ Lucrèce and Cassandre and then me, the youngest, least important and least loved of all the children, with nothing notable to distinguish me from the others, other than my own lack of distinction.
The lesson went quickly, just as they always did and at the end the other students went together to the Palais Royale, while I gathered my things together and went with Soeur Clotilde to our carriage. I watched enviously as the other students filed out, slapping each other on the back and laughing. I longed to go with them to the Palais Royale, a place that I had never visited but which sounded like a hotbed of excitement and novelty but they had never once invited me along with them and who could blame them?
‘One day,’ I promised myself, as I pulled up the hood of my grey woollen cloak. One day I too would walk around the famous arcades of the Palais and linger for hours over a coffee in one of the dozens of cafés there. It seemed so strange that life was buzzing so close to my convent walls and yet, except for my art lessons, I was excluded from all of it.
As we left the studio, Soeur Clotilde clattering in her wooden heeled shoes at my side, we walked into a great fuss and hubbub in the outer vestibule, where a tall, very handsome middle aged man in a splendid purple silk coat, embroidered all over with gold flowers had just arrived, surrounded by a large coterie of admiring minions and highly rouged ladies dressed in brightly coloured silks and carrying huge fur muffs. The tall man looked about himself majestically as he brushed snow from his wide shoulders, his dark eyes scanning the adoring, upturned faces that surrounded him with disinterest and contempt.
‘Monsieur Bertrand!’ David bustled past me, his paint and charcoal stained hands held out in welcome.
Ah, of course. The great Bertrand, one of the most famous actors in Paris, in all of France even. I smiled to myself, imagining the envious reaction of the other girls at school when I told them about this. At that moment his eyes fell on me and suddenly, as though someone had slapped him all of the disinterest had drained away and in its place was confusion and something akin to fear. He took a step forward then checked himself, his eyes still boring into mine as I stood rooted to the spot in shock.
‘Come now,’ Soeur Clotilde had hold of my elbow and hurried me past. ‘I do not like the way that he is staring at you. These actors are all the same. Come away please, Adélaïde!’ She looked like she was going to cry and tripped over her long white woollen habit in her haste to get us both away.
‘Who is that girl?’ I heard Bertrand ask David, his voice rich and deep. An actor’s voice designed to recite Shakespeare, Racine and Moliere. I could have closed my eyes and listened him speak forever, letting the beautiful tones of his voice roll over me.
‘The school girl?’ David replied. He sounded nervous. ‘That is Mademoiselle Adélaïde de Saint-Valèry. The youngest daughter of the Comte.’
‘Saint-Valèry!’ I turned my head, astonished by the raw anguish in his mellow voice and for a moment our eyes met over the crowd before the door swung shut behind me, hiding him from view.