Following on from Chapter 1 (click here), the protagonist has company in the medieval cloisters on the Île de la Cité in Paris, and finds the King pleased with her carpentry work.
At last the King has arrived. And it’s King Louis XIV with all his retinue, may I say. They made a terrible clatter over the cobbles when they came sweeping in. They’ve tethered the horses down by the well. I hope the Comtesse or the Comte moved those dead geraniums or the horses will eat them.
I’m pleased to announce that the King and all his ministers are seated at my banquet table here, in their wigs and frills. And at last the sheets have been taken off all my furniture. I managed to polish the table quite well, so well that you can see their reflections on the surface and they do all look very splendid indeed. I feel quite proud of my work, especially as the King is sitting in my favourite chair, the tall chair with the row of shiny brass studs along the back where I fixed in the braiding. You can see the studs right behind his shoulders, there, behind his white curly wig. But I must admit his face is far too powdery, and his lips look ridiculously bright. Perhaps they’ve put lipstick on him: that’s what they do with Kings. But he’s so young! He doesn’t need all that. And then his neck is covered with white frilly lace, like a child’s bib. There are frills round his wrists, too, where he’s holding some papers which he’s putting down on the table: my table, may I add. His hand is stroking the smooth surface and that makes me feel all warm inside because he obviously likes the feel of it, just as I do: the King and I have things in common.
But perhaps I’m wrong? Because, watching him closely, I realise that he’s not noticed all the good work I’ve done at all because he’s too busy with his ministers. Look, he’s whispering to that old man on his left with the paintbrush moustache. Who is that? He looks very familiar with that bright red hat. And that very long nose. Ah, yes: that’s Mazarin. Mazarin, the King’s Cardinal: His Grand Eminence. Perhaps those are his diamonds I saw in the Comtesse’s silk shoes because after all, Cardinal Mazarin has lots of diamonds, doesn’t he? Although he gave them to the King, not to her. What does he gain by giving them to her?
Mazarin is whispering something through the King’s ringlets. Now what’s he seen? Something has caught his attention; the King’s too. They’re both looking up. In fact everyone is looking up because that oak panel door is slowly opening.
‘They’re coming,’ a voice announces from somewhere.
Who said that? A cast of shadowy people lean back from my table, long, drawn faces, very solemn, waiting for the entrance. Only the King sits very still and upright, clutching his documents over my table. He watches intently. So who is coming? I do believe it’s my landlady, the Comtesse. She’s hobbling. Yes, I thought that satin shoe looked a bit small for her. She’ll never be able to dance in them, if she could dance at all now because she’s far too ancient – if she’s alive at all. She’s clad in that long white sheet of hers, like a ghost in a wedding gown, leaning on someone’s arm. Is that the Comte, her nephew? It can’t be. The Comte isn’t as stocky as that; and he doesn’t walk like that either. Yes, I know how the Comte walks. I’ve watched him cross the courtyard to collect my rent and well yes, even if that was yesterday and not now, 300 years back, I can tell you he doesn’t walk like that. He glides. And then he’s more handsome.
Anyhow, whoever this is he is helping my landlady in, and steadying her as she totters up to the table.
A small draft brushes past me; a shadow sweeps towards them. I don’t know who or what it is but it’s pulling out my two chairs with the heart-shaped backs and inviting my landlady and her chaperone to sit down at the end of the table, facing the King and Mazarin this end. She twitches a lot under that sheet of hers and tries to get herself seated in my chair, pushing away the Comte who wants to help – if it is the Comte. Now she is seated he is spreading her sheet-dress very importantly and reverently over the chair legs, over the shiny black and white tiles at her feet which I’ve so carefully polished.
She’s facing the King. But she is very low down in that chair. The table comes up to her chin almost. Either I cut those chair legs too short or she’s shrunk. But that will suit the King because it means he’s much higher up in his chair this end. He likes being high up above all the others, especially since he is such a short little young man.
The Comtesse’s chaperone isn’t happy. I call him the chaperone because I’m almost convinced this isn’t the Comte, in fact never more convinced than now because he’s yelling, really yelling, like the Parisian mob: ‘I want my chair. I want my chair.’
My chair? The cheek of it. It’s not his, it’s mine. I made it. After all, I am Dame Carpenter. And now why are all the shadows turning round to me? They want me to find a chair for him?
‘Carry him away,’ I hear myself call. ‘Take him away in that sedan.’ But no-one seems to hear me.
‘My chair,’ he’s insisting. I really don’t know who this creep is but he’s making me extremely angry. It’s very difficult feeling anger when you don’t know who exactly to direct it towards because now I’m beginning to doubt that this chaperone of hers exists. Do any of these people exist?
At last someone is telling him to shut up. It’s the old Cardinal Mazarin calling from the King’s side. Things are much clearer this end. Mazarin leans forward; his red cloak slips over his arm. ‘La séance est ouverte! Assoiyez-vous.’
The Comtesse’ chaperone is shuddering. Not shaking: shuddering. A stocky body like that doesn’t shake: it shudders. He sits down – obeying – sits down in my chair with the heart-shaped back, next to the Comtesse, both of them a long polished surface away from the King and the Cardinal.
The King makes the sign of the cross and his lace sleeves rustle. He turns to the other man on his right who I only just notice now – a man with a wig or perhaps it’s all hair which falls in ringlets, just like the King’s. Except this wig – or hair – is black. He has a long black cloak over his shoulders. I’ve seen him before somewhere. Perhaps it was in one of my books back home in the flat? Yes: this is Colbert, the King’s Prime Minister.
‘First of all,’ Colbert murmurs in King Louis’s ear. ‘First of all, has the Comtesse paid her taxes?’
‘Ha, taxes,’ the King repeats outloud for everyone to hear and they both turn to Mazarin for an answer.
Mazarin shakes his head solemnly.
Oh dear… This is their weapon: taxes. The word alone falls like a cannon ball in everyone’s ears. The King and his retinue know how to spread terror just by that one word: taxes. The word makes everyone sit up, stand to attention, or run away, lie, cheat. The Comtesse’s papery face has suddenly straightened out with fear. She of course never pays her taxes. That is why I have to pay the rent in cash. Her wizened old hand clutches her chair. She knows the King has pinned her down. No, of course she hasn’t paid her taxes. She’s never paid them, never declared any of her wealth. She hides her wealth away, hides all her treasures under those sheets, tricks them all.
The King frowns, turns to the Cardinal. ‘What do you mean? She doesn’t pay her taxes? I tell you Mazarin, Colbert, This just won’t do. We’ll have to put taxes up again. And she,’ pointing to the Comtesse, ‘will pay double. How are we going to pay for, for, well, for all my art treasures here, for a start. I tell you Colbert, we’ll raise those taxes and she’ll see we are serious,’ and he swings his wiggy curls behind his shoulder in sudden irritation, knocking the lackey behind him who does a little dance backwards, avoiding his elbow.
But it’s not a lackey. It’s the jester with all those bells, which don’t seem to be ringing any more. The jester leaps onto the table in his blue costume shaped like a star.
‘The problem is, Your Majesty,’ the jester leans in at the King, ‘you’re all in on it. A little sous here, and a little sous there, all hidden away, it all adds up to a nice big fat sum,’ and he scuttles over the King’s papers. ‘A little sous, just a little bit of tax money from your subjects always helps, doesn’t it? And, Your Majesty, this is how we preserve your treasures; this is how we keep you in power. Taxes. Taxes, Taxes.’ He winks at Mazarin then turns and bows to my rich landlady the Comtesse at the other end of the table. She does not look happy. She’s all wrapped in that sheet of hers, unable to move. She’s trapped in her chair and her face is still locked in papery terror because how many years has she not been paying her taxes? Three hundred?
The King isn’t pleased. He’s holding his nose quite high up. His mouth is shrinking. He turns to Mazarin on his right.
‘Mazarin, explain, please. You too, Colbert.’
‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ the Prime Minister bows his solemn face which now looks as black as his cloak. ‘You see, Your Majesty,’ Colbert continues, ‘you see… taxes for some and not for others… Now … this building has been carefully constructed and has lasted for centuries, and could last for centuries more, and then all this beautiful furniture inside…’ Colbert is being very careful with his words, avoiding issues which could get very sticky.
But the jester jumps in, confusing us all. ‘Surely, Your Majesty, this isn’t the issue.’
I see Cardinal Mazarin’s red hat come close to the King. He’s whispering something in the King’s ear, his whiskers getting lost in the King’s wig. The King listens closely, then says ‘Add it all up, Colbert! Figures, figures, money, money! How much does she owe us – hein? Vite, Vite!’ and he slams his rather small fist on the table.
The Prime Minister scratches out endless numbers, his skinny fingers working his quill and the scratching gets louder and louder across the vellum.
‘This isn’t the issue, this isn’t the issue!’ The jester jumps up and down again, ‘we just have to keep this place – the statues, the époque furniture – keep it all intact.’
The King’s mouth shrinks; his nose twitches. He’s angry; he’s thinking hard. So is Colbert, who winds his finger round his ringlets. Then a loud booming stops everything. It’s yet another voice, unlike all the others, interrupting everything, and it resounds round the room.
‘Dame Carpenter, I say! Dame Carpenter is the issue, Votre Majesté. I vote Dame Carpenter be allowed to stay. Because it seems the Comtesse wants her out, but we need her to keep this place intact. And she pays her taxes…’
I can suddenly feel all my vertebrae straighten and I’m sitting up stiff as a ramrod. That voice came from right next to me. I turn. Here is the bishop from downstairs, in his pointed hat. He too is all stiff and solid but he’s come to my rescue. I wonder why – although I haven’t time to wonder – yet all the same he sympathises with my position which is curious. Perhaps, yes, perhaps he too was once like I was, living here and then for some reason they got rid of him and he then turned to … stone.
Is this what’s going to happen to me? I already don’t feel very ‘alive’ in the usual sense of the word. I feel very stiff – yes, almost petrified. What’s going on?
They’re calling for me to stay, despite the Comtesse wanting me out. It seems they’ve all been discussing me. I hadn’t understood that the landlady Comtesse wanted me out of this place so badly because after all, I did pay her in cash. I know I irritated her once by asking to pay by cheque, but I had no idea it was as serious as this. And what with the King, the Cardinal all furious… I think she’s in dire trouble. But it’s of her own making.
‘I’m keeping the furniture whether it’s hers or not!’ The Comtesse’s voice comes squealing down the table. Her chin is almost on my table again as she protests. How can such a noise come from such a frail frame?
It now looks as though the King has had enough: he’s bringing his grey velveteen arm out onto the table, brushing aside his papers rather brusquely which are already in an untimely mess thanks to the jester trampling on them.
‘I like the furniture too, Madame la Comtesse!’ the King says. ‘And I am the King, Madame la Comtesse. Dame Carpenter works for the King. The furniture belongs to the King. The King only. And I note you don’t pay your taxes. So yes, all this is mine.” He sweeps his arm round the room, over my table, pointing towards my chairs, to the chests by the walls, to the cane stool where the jester is balanced, listening. I feel a certain amount of pride swell in me. But then he explodes.
‘How dare you,’ he brings his little fist down on the table again and his papers go flying. ‘How dare you claim Dame Carpenter’s work when you don’t even pay your taxes? Non, non, et non! How dare you claim to be so frail when you’re as hard as stone trying to pull the wool over our eyes? Tell me: by what right have you to stay here?’ Then he points back to my chairs. ‘All these belong to the King.’
Well, there go my chairs: no longer mine.
The old Cardinal gives a long sigh. He strokes his thin moustache and suddenly looks very tired. After a pause he whispers into the King’s ear. The jester leaps off the stool onto my table and once again jumps around as if to start his little dance. It’s odd I can’t hear his bells. He skips down towards the landlady and stares in at her. Then he snatches her veil.
‘The table’s not yours. The chairs aren’t yours. Nothing is yours. Give it all up. Pay up, or you’ll be out.’
‘No.’ the Comtesse squeaks. ‘It’s all her fault!’ She lifts her thin arm to point at me but she’s having a devil of a time of it because her arm’s all caught up in that sheet. Her squeals suddenly turn into a croak; she shrinks even further down in my chair, as if cancelling herself out. I turn to the King.
King Louis XIV has finished consulting with Colbert; he’s ignored this last cry from the Comtesse; he doesn’t hear her anymore because she’s no longer relevant to him. Instead he’s getting angry with his jester.
‘You stay away. You’d better be careful,’ waving his wrist with all those frills. Perhaps that’s why he has frills: they look very busy and important, They are quite distracting when he gets excited. ‘We need no more of your entertainment, my boy. Save it for Versailles.’
I hear a crack to my right. It’s the bishop, He’s trying to move. A lump of sandstone falls off him onto the tiles, chips my polish on the black square, there. That’s more work for later. Now he’s straightening up again, despite his decrepitude, even if the creases in his robe aren’t moving. He tries to say something but there’s no mouth: it wore off years ago and I still haven’t got round to restoring him. That’s my job too.
‘Everything here belongs to the King: the bishop here too. And Dame Carpenter,’ the King repeats himself.
Did I hear right? The King is claiming me? Oh no! The King wants me to be part of his retinue? Never! I’m staying here. This is where I belong. Here, with… the Comte. Yes, the Comte.
Where is my Comte? He’s stayed out of this so far. There’s something about the Comte which intrigues me.
The King is standing up, scraping his chair behind him across my tiles. He should be more careful. He’s very short, you know, shorter than the back of my chair which is quite tall but his chest seems to be swelling like a cock’s, his grey jacket stretching out, pulling at the buttons. He’s taking a very deep breath, as if he’s going to crow if you don’t pay your taxes… But this time he says, ‘As bad as the Protestants, disobeying, not paying taxes. Have to get rid of them, get rid of them all. Those who don’t pay their taxes, and the Protestants – all of them, off to the scaffold – à l’échafaud, je dis. He shakes his head and turns to the Cardinal. ‘Have to get rid of them.’
Mazarin doesn’t seem shocked. Mazarin is getting old. He just shakes his head. He doesn’t have the same fervour as this young King, thank goodness. Louis hasn’t finished: ‘Those Huguenots, I say. Chase them all out. Il faut les dénicher.’
This is a bit severe, surely, even if he is Louis XIV. I know his dream is to revoke the Edict of Nantes and all that… But I’m not a Catholic so I’d better keep quiet.
Nor am I a Protestant: I’m agnostic. So where does that leave me? The King won’t understand that, will he, I’m three hundred years – no, three hundred and fifty years ‘in advance’.
And I pay my taxes.
Now: where is my Comte? He’s keeping so quiet. Oh, here’s someone right behind me. I do believe it’s him. How long has he been there? He’s got his hand on my chair, on the bit which curves down – it fits his hand perfectly as if it was made it for him – as if I made it for him. He has taken the same pose as in the painting.
He speaks up. ‘We thank you, Your Worship, for coming to this Privy Council; we thank you, Your Majesty. Let me draw your attention to the heart of the matter. Please allow Dame Carpenter to stay.’
The Comte, the Bishop: they’re all canvassing for me to stay! And now there’s something wriggling in my hands. What is it? A cloth. And there’s than tiny voice again. ‘Polish, polish.’
But I need a rest. When will I get it? ‘Look, Look.’ So I look and see the King stroking the table again. He’s found a fault in the mahogany surface. Help, I need a chisel and plane, not just a cloth. And now, from the other end of the table the sheet is slipping off the Comtesse’s shoulders and comes towards me. Here comes Colbert’s cloak, too and the King’s wig for polishing, the Cardinal’s moustache for dusting between the tiny cracks: my work is laid out for me what with planing it down, scraping the polish off, treating the wood, applying the varnish, polishing, polishing. One has to earn one’s place here, I see. And now the Comte has gone.
I look up, out to the hall. He’s up there, on the wall: my Comte. And the Comtesse has vanished.
If you check the King’s dates, Colbert’s and Mazarin’s, you’ll see that all that must have been three hundred and fifty years ago. And do you know? Ever since then I’ve been with the Comte. Yes. You’d guessed? I suppose it was obvious to you. But I could hardly believe my luck. You see, he drew me into his hold after that episode with the King and the Comtesse. Whenever I finished by work of polishing and carving each evening he’d pick me up and encourage me to sit and rest in the chair, there with him, both of us together framed in silence on the third floor wall, admiring my work on the shiny wooden staircase railings, the sparkle on the chequered floor, and we’d tease the jester who became a kind of pet.
But then things started to play tricks on us.
You see, since then, things have changed. It’s difficult to pinpoint the problem. When the King first let us live together in the painting we were very happy in our own, quiet, way. I loved feeling his hand on my shoulder as I sat in my chair. But came a time when I could no longer feel it. Perhaps it was my fault. The human part of me still had a hold on me and I just hadn’t learnt how to let it go.
Let me tell you what happened.
Chapter 3 will be posted end August.