Madame de Maintenon pushed the contraption forward into the darkened gallery. The vehicle made little squeals and squeaks, but moved easily enough. The captain of the guard came to her side.
“Madam, it may be just a little heavy…”
“No, no. I can manage, I think. Anyway, I must try. Thank you for showing me the workings. His Majesty wants us to be able to have a little exercise together, away from others’ eyes and their constant critiques of his health. We’ll summon you if you are needed. You know the taps of His Majesty’s cane, what each tap means. Just close the doors behind us and leave us be.”
The captain bowed low as the lady pushed the wheelchair further forward. His faint embarrassment may have been at the sight of Madame de Maintenon, all but toothless, part blind and part deaf, pushing the bulky wheelchair and its bulky occupant. Or it may have been the continued uncertainty over whether the royal couple should be addressed as Majesties when the lady, not a princess of the blood, on her own could not be addressed as Majesty. Awkward, these morganatic marriages.
The doors were closed behind them, and royal couple faced down the vast and glimmering Hall of Mirrors, lit by just a few lamps now, its cascades of chandeliers all extinguished.
As if by command, moonlight broke through cloud and sheeted the floor below the soaring windows.
The king spoke.
“We are alone now, madam?”
“Yes, Louis, alone.”
“It’s summer and I still can’t feel warm in this room.”
“It’s a very large room. And with so much glass and so many mirrors, it’s bound to be cold. Fires and braziers would mar its beauty. Those paintings on the ceiling – I really don’t know how such marvels are achieved – the paintings must be preserved for our descendants.”
“You know, I kept rejecting mythical themes for the ceiling’s centrepiece on artistic grounds, or some such piffle, till they finally decided to show my own victories and prowess as the main themes. Why allegorise me when you can just paint me? Extraordinary how one has to prod flatterers into flattery these days…But, Francoise, you need not pretend. I know this is not your favourite place. Even I am happier at Marly, with its more comfortable proportions. I know you would be happier at Saint-Cyr.”
“At Saint-Cyr, or in any convent, I could not be with you, husband. Here at Versailles I can shiver with my Louis.”
“Ah, if I could remake this room so we did not shiver!”
“But it is the most perfect room in France. Men in China and Quebec have heard of its splendours.”
“And yet I wish for more…or for less…I don’t know what. I just wish I might begin again.”
“Begin again? With this room?”
“Yes, what else? Oh, maybe with much else beside. Just to have money again, youth again.”
“Louis, both are gone from us. Youth can never come again. As for money, you know I would never utter a word in the company of others…but your taxes have been cruel. I don’t call you cruel, or say that the taxes were not required – you must decide all that with advisers and confessors – but the taxes have been cruel. I cannot drive from here to Saint-Cyr without mobs of beggars stopping my carriage. I give all I can on the way, but with a hundred vehicles I could not carry or give out enough. Not all these poor are shiftless or sots. Many have been made invalids in our wars, lost supporting family in the terrible winter of seventeen hundred and nine. But even if they are shiftless and drunken…Louis, you must not even think of more exactions, more royal buildings, more wars.”
“I don’t! In fact, my thoughts tend to reconciliation these days, to mildness…and to need over glory. With a bit of Huguenot industry, Huguenot thrift…All those good protestant craftsmen and administrators who are gone from France…So many of them educated…With some of them I might have worked to remake things.”
“Louis, the repressions and limitations, all those measures were necessary for the good of their souls as well as for the safety of the true church!”
“And it would be for the good and safety of France if they had stayed! I can see it now. Anyway, are we two not the descendants of protestants, and the very pick? My grandfather, Henry…his mother, Jeanne…what strength! And few starved where they ruled. I would let no man school me in statecraft – yet I might let those two school me. Protestants!”
“Your grandfather was a great ruler after he was Catholic, and he died in the arms of the true church. As must we.”
“Well, of course we must, of course we must…
“But let me start my little ramble. I did not seriously expect you to wheel me about. There is something I wish to try. If I grasp the rim of each wheel then thrust forward and down, I may be able to propel myself.”
“But, my love…”
“No discussion. When have I discussed any small matter more than once? To do so is to make it a great matter. Stand clear, madam. If I feel I can do this capably, I shall then do it publicly, as I once rode my horse to war at the siege of Mons, or skipped through the old swamps of Versailles when a-hunting with my father. And as I danced! Ah, how I danced! A king may wish to be immobile, but he must avoid any obligation to be so.”
“Louis, can you ever cease, for a moment, just a moment…”
“Cease to be monarch? Madam, you might ask the sun not to rise. Yet it will rise. Etiquette compels me. It is not the person of a prince but the constantly observed etiquette of a prince which makes another sun in this world. And the sun called Louis will rise daily over France till the blackness which is eating my leg has all of me. Etiquette is something I do understand, even better than Henry and Jeanne d’Albret. For etiquette, history and France will forgive me many things, even if God does not. Rightly they will forgive, because etiquette is an enormity. It is made up of a million tiny pieces, but it is an enormity. And etiquette requires that I never be seen as a slouch, not for a moment and not even in the last and most painful moments!”
The king thrust down on each wheel rim with his hands. The wheelchair lumbered forward, with its usual noises.
“There. It can be done with arm strength and a good grip. Of course, I will have to practise nightly for a while…”
“Oh, Louis…at your age…”
“At any age, madam! Now, I don’t need you to follow me. There are shawls over by that chair. Go and wait for me there, while I take my exercise.”
“But if you should tire or fall out…with my hearing and vision so bad…”
“I have taken greater risks in war and hunting, have I not? Besides, I know how to make myself heard. A little place called Europe will vouch for that. Now…I will give myself a good half hour to advance then return. The moonlight is enough for seeing a path. Perhaps if I get as far as mid-way I shall try making a turn around the high chair there…Until later, madam.”
Madame de Maintenon sighed, walked to the side of the gallery and sat.
The king began to make his way painfully along, resting after every few thrusts forward.
For a while the lady could mark his progress and hear the squeaks and squeals from the machine, as well as the king’s cough-like groans each time he thrust down on the wheel rims. Soon he was out of range of her weak hearing and vision. She selected a shawl, laid it about her shoulders and sat back to mutter her prayers in a half-doze.
As the king inched forward, his groans became satisfied grunts; he paused less, and he was even able to thrust down before the machine had stopped moving from the previous thrust. After some twenty metres he stopped for a longer rest, and to admire how the moonlight reflected on the huge mirrored arches opposite each grand window.
Almost with enthusiasm now, the king thrust down once again on the wheel rims. The sudden sound seemed to touch off an echo. Yet the other sound was no echo. To his right, in the murk between two moonlit windows, something or someone was stirring in sleep.
The king’s first urge was to stamp his cane, which was propped between his legs. Instead, he hesitated and peered harder. Below the end of a large gilt table a tiny lamp, placed on the floor, was burning down. In its glimmer, he could just make out the curled and sleeping figure of a workman surrounded by his tools, trays and buckets.
The king was about to advance on the man and prod him when he noticed something which made him jerk back in surprise. Parked further down the wall in a strip of moonlight was a wheelchair, more rustic and flimsy than his own, and with a little tray between the seat and caster wheel where one might place utensils.
He had a very rare moment of indecision. At last he advanced on the sleeper and, drawing his cane from between his legs, gave him a soft prod.
The sleeper stirred, but did not wake.
On an impulse, the king drew off his wig and cast it on to his lap. Now he gave a second, sharper prod. The man woke in brief confusion, but quickly grew alert, in the way of poor men. He was still a youth and, as he straightened his body, the king could just see that one leg was missing a foot, and the other leg was cut off at the knee.
“What?…Oh…they’ve forgotten me here. Please excuse me, sir. I…was working here and fell asleep. Somehow my fellow workmen have forgotten to fetch me away.”
“You have a lamp, young man. Are you then meant to work here at night?”
“Oh, no, sir. I am a gilder and have been doing repairs to the gilding on all these tables and guéridons. The lamp helps me to see in awkward places…But you have a wheelchair! Just like my own! Well, better than mine…”
“Can you not guide yourself along? Just as I have done?”
“That would not be permitted. If any of these glues or powders were to spill in the Hall of Mirrors there would be scandal. So I wait to be brought away each day. It seems someone forgot, and I fell asleep. I have been so tired working through the long summer days. Without legs everything is doubly tiring…as you would know, sir. Sir, are you…the night guardian here?”
“Guardian? I suppose you might call me a guardian.”
“It’s just that you have such a fine chair…and are so splendidly dressed…”
“Indeed. You might call me a guardian over guardians.”
“And…will I be in trouble, for sleeping in the Hall?”
“Hmm. I doubt it…But how does a man with no legs obtain work here?”
“With respect, Monsieur…Forgive me, but your name is not known to me…”
“With respect, Monsieur Le Grand, I am a good gilder, as good as any. And I can compromise, work well with these cheaper products. As you know, there are economies made everywhere in France these days, even in Versailles.”
“No, I did not know that such economies were being made with the upkeep of Versailles! You have enlightened me, young man. But where are you from? Your accent…”
“I am from an old family of the Béarn, sir.”
“The Béarn? I had forbears who came from there.”
“It seems we now have two things in common, sir. But my family, though a very distinguished one, fell on bad times.”
“My great-grandfather – to the peril of his soul, of course – was born protestant when good King Henry of Navarre ruled over the Béarn, and so many were protestant, even the king and his mother before him. My grandfather, like others in the region, remained stubborn in that faith when the new laws came into force and all of France was made Catholic…as was proper, of course. He had much to lose, high office, lands…He forfeited all and went a beggar to Holland.”
“So your grandfather fled France and your family was left destitute? No doubt the Crown seized his property, as it must. Heresy is strong, its roots can go deep. Heresy above family…a familiar story of those times…
“But what became of you all?”
“Sir, my father and brother followed the wars. We are skilled people, and they both had skill as engineers. Being too young for the wars, I stayed with my mother and sister in our shack in the hills. My father perished at Blenheim, my brother at Ramillies. The Duke of Marlborough cost us dearly as a family, Monsieur Le Grand.”
The king winced in the darkness, but kept his tone level:
“I know of…that person you mention. The wars were indeed hard. I…my family had many losses through the wars.”
“We have still more in common, then, Monsieur Le Grand.”
“I…suppose we have certain things in common…as you put it. But your legs? What happened to your legs? You say you were not in the wars.”
“It was the winter of seventeen hundred and nine. Even in the Béarn, with its usually mild climate, we suffered the most terrible times. Even if one had money, and the tax officials had passed one by, there was no food to be had. All was for the wars. The thistles and fern heads we might have survived on were buried under heavy snow. Yes, heavy snow, even in the Béarn. Wolves hunted men, but then men hunted wolves, so strange and awful were the times!
“My mother died of the cold, my sister went missing when she was searching for twigs to burn. I went out in the snow to find her, but never did. By the time I had dragged myself home through a blizzard my feet were numb. Then they turned black and…ah, you will forgive me if I talk no more of that, Monsieur Le Grand. The pain of the amputations comes back to me when I dwell on it even in talk.”
“Indeed. Talk no more of it. Why talk of losses? To avoid loss is to avoid life. Talk no more of losses…”
“Monsieur Le Grand, you are a man of learning and experience. Can you tell me?…Those wars which have left us all skimping, even His Majesty, it is said…I scarcely dare ask but…”
“You wonder what those wars were for? They were for His Majesty. And subjects…we are no more fit to question Majesty than Majesty to question God. The wars…on a political level they were for…Ah, never mind politics! Don’t you want to sleep?”
“I am tired, but for a workman to sleep through the night in the Hall, the greatest room in the world…”
“Sleep, young man. And in the morning food will be brought to you. I have…a connection with the captain of the guard. Sleep on. Our conversation is ended and it is time for you to sleep.”
“You are very kind, Monsieur Le Grand. And I am certainly tired, more from dragging my body than from working with gilt. But if I am found here without explanation…”
“I tell you I am the guardian of this place! I am the guardian beyond this place! You may sleep. And I will stay here till you do. I, your guardian, will sit by you! Now sleep, young man.”
And the young man slept, slept so readily. It seemed to take only seconds.
The king felt his eyes water as he waited by the sleeping tradesman.
It was the cold air, no doubt, which was causing his eyes to water. The room was cold, even on a summer evening. He drew a fine cloak from under his legs and cast it over the youth. Then he buttoned his coat about himself.
Still he felt his eyes blurring. It was the cold.
King Louis, blinking away the moisture, cast his eyes around and up. Cliffs of glass, cliffs of mirror, all reflecting. Nothing to warm, to enclose. So much gaping splendour. So much frigid space.
“Must start over. This room…too large…too cold…”