Princess Long Legs - Jane Anderson
Chapter One – France 1719
I was woken by the sound of crying. Had my grief now invaded my dreams? Then I realised the noise came from downstairs. I raised myself up on my elbows and strained to hear. I hovered there keeping perfectly still, ignoring the straw jabbing into my skin, trying to turn the low rumble of a male voice into words. The sobs certainly came from my mistress, and although I couldn’t hear what was said, somehow I felt sure that her husband, Captain Misset, was trying to comfort her. I’d been in Mistress Misset’s service for only a year, but she was the only woman in the whole world who had ever been kind to me. I’d walk over hot coals to protect her and to hear her reduced to tears, had me itching to slap someone.
I slept only fitfully. Eventually I got up at dawn and went downstairs to clean the kitchen. My master’s heavy step on the bedroom floor, alerted me to lay his breakfast place. I’d just been outside for coal, when I heard the front door bang. I watched John Misset stride up the street from the kitchen window. Where was he off to before seven in the morning without his breakfast? I’d grown up in a home full of crying and slamming doors, and now I’d come to love the steady rhythm of this happy household, a place normally free from tears in the night. What in the hell was going on?
I shifted the coal scuttle to my left hand and tapped softly on Eleanor Misset’s bedroom door, my heart hammered with apprehension over what I might find inside. Madame Misset bade me enter, and I was sure I could still hear tears in her voice. The bedroom was gloomy, but suddenly the drapes were pulled back and I saw Eleanor Misset’s figure in her nightgown, silhouetted against the light. The unmistakeable curve in her belly had me cursing inside. Jeanneton Durand, you bloody stupid, selfish creature. How could you not have noticed?
‘Mistress Misset, it’s freezing. Please get back in bed until I see to the fire.’
I bit my bottom lip, aware that I’m sometimes too outspoken, but I believe Mistress Misset knows it springs from my devotion to her. I knelt to attend to the grate, rattling the cinders into the box below.
So, Eleanor Misset was pregnant. It explained why she’d been attending to her intimate ablutions alone of late. I’d assumed her wearied of my mourning for my father. Six weeks of my long face would try the patience of a saint. Time to shake myself and do my duty.
The neat stack of sticks beneath the shining coals flickered into fire. I tipped the cinders into the empty pail and swept away all the dust. The brass of the brush and shovel was dull, I’d definitely allowed things to slip. I’d make sure to get round all the house brass today. ‘There,’ I said, sitting back on my heels. The flames licked through the construction of coal with a satisfying crackle. My own family never had money for coal and I do love the smell of it burning. Finally, I swung the kettle over to warm some water.
I wiped my hands on my apron and rearranged the heavy drapes to allow in light but keep out the draught. Annoying puddles of water had seeped from the ice melting on the inside of the marbled glass. I used my sooty apron to mop up, then flung it near the door to pick up on my way out. Turning to my mistress, the stripe of light from the window fell on the bed, illuminating her stricken face. I hoped I hid my rising panic, there was a sensation in my breast like my heart was shrinking.
‘Mistress, whatever’s wrong. Do you not feel well?’ I wrapped a woollen shawl from around Eleanor Misset’s shoulders. ‘You should have rung for me.’
I surreptitiously looked for signs of blood while straightening out the sheets and searched my mistress’s face for fever symptoms. Nothing, thank God. I subdued the urge to reach out and touch her forehead; I didn’t wish to frighten her. Madame Misset hunched her shoulders and pulled the shawl tight.
‘Thank you, Jeanneton. I’m just tired and cold, I didn’t sleep well.’
‘Did something upset you, mistress?’ I tried to keep my tone light and fussed with the counterpane with my eyes averted. My mistress is such a fragile creature and I often struggled with the instinct to sweep her up and protect her from the world. Her quiet sigh left the question unanswered.
‘Let me draw the drapes again, mistress. You should sleep some more today,’
‘Today I cannot,’ Madame Misset replied. ‘Please instruct Cook that dinner should stretch to four. Captain Misset will bring Captain Wogan and his uncle Major Gaydon to dine.’
I put my hand on the bedcover to pause her there. ‘But mistress, surely in your condition you shouldn’t be over-exerting yourself?’
She looked up at me, her shy smile kindled the spark of joy in my heart. The first happiness I’d felt in months.
Eleanor Misset moved her hand to her stomach. ‘I thought to keep my pregnancy secret a little longer. I hardly dare to hope for it yet.’ Her eyes shone and there was a new roundness to her cheeks that I certainly should have noticed before.
‘Congratulations, Mistress. It’s the best possible news. Does Captain Misset know?’
‘He does. I’m beyond four months now and the physical changes are very obvious. I believe he is even more confused by joy and fear than I.’
A relief that her crying wasn’t related to her pregnancy, but what then?
Eleanor Misset flung off the covers. ‘Help me try to repair my appearance please, Jeanneton. I’ll take the rose silk dress today, I may borrow some colour from it.’
I put my mistress’s shift and stockings over the fireguard to warm, just far enough away that they wouldn’t scorch. Then I poured warm water into the china basin. I managed to undress and redress her with great speed, exposing her to the cold for the least amount of time. I tied the pretty rose-coloured ribbons at the elbows of her chemise, then straightened her white, lace-edged muslin cap. Lastly, I helped her into the pink dress with the elaborate heavy pleats down the back. The Irish ladies called this style of dress une robe francaise, although since most of the Frenchwomen in this area of town were servants, it bore no resemblance to our practical dark coloured dresses.
I tucked Mistress Misset under a blanket in a fireside chair. ‘Come in nice and close, the fire’s heat will give you some more colour. I’ve chores to see to but call if you need anything.’
I closed the door behind me and allowed myself a smile. A baby to look after. Bon. Just what I needed to heal the rift in my heart.
I heard the cook let herself in through the kitchen door. The sound of her phlegmy cough shook me out of my thoughts and turned my stomach. That woman was unsavoury in every possible way. A familiar whistle took me to the window. The butcher’s boy was making his way down the street, his basket left a trail of blood spots behind him in the snow. I stood out of sight while Cook answered his knock.
‘There you go, Madame Lefevre, scrag end of lamb and two beef kidneys just like you ordered, that’ll be five denier on your account, cheapest on my whole round today. Your master spent all his wages in the wine shop then?’ The boy laughed.
Cook’s reply came out like a growl. ‘Less lip, you cheeky little shit, or I’ll have words with the butcher.’
I walked into the kitchen when Cook closed the door. ‘Morning, Mistress Lefevre. Five denier is a most reasonable butcher’s bill. I’m sure Madame Misset will be surprised to see a reduction in her housekeeping accounts this week. She’s feeling a little tired, so I’ll be helping her with the reconciliation.’
Cook glared at me and opened her mouth to reply. I narrowed my eyes and stretched my spine to its full length. I didn’t want an argument, but I couldn’t ignore her cheating anymore. I’d no clue what was distressing my mistress, but the very least I could do was sort out this dishonest cook. The worthless woman skimmed money off the housekeeping budget. Well that could stop right now. Making sure Mistress Misset was properly fed was now my priority.
‘Mistress Misset requests that dinner should feed four, Captain Misset will bring guests. What shall I tell her you have planned? Your ingredients don’t sound promising.’
‘This cut makes the most flavoursome lamb stew, but of course I’m going to fetch some smoked sausage from the charcutier to add.’
I nodded. The thought of Cook hauling her fat haunches through the snow to visit the charcutier made me want to laugh. That would teach her to make a proper meat order in the first place.
Mistress Misset calls me her lady’s maid, though we both know the household has not the money for such a luxury, so most of the housemaid duties fall to me too. Through the morning I made sure to pass through the kitchen often enough to check the dinner preparations were being addressed properly.
Captain Misset returned at two, and a few minutes later there was the sound of men stamping their boots to be rid of the snow. I opened the front door before Captain Wogan and Major Gaydon had time to lift the door knocker.
The Irish regiment is important in the town of Sélestat, and Wogan was a popular figure. The story of his daring escape from an English jail had elevated his status amongst the officers, and his generous, laughing nature made him a favourite with the battalion servants. He adopted a serious face in the presence of his uncle, a man in his forties and a senior officer. Only when I took Wogan’s hat, did he risk a wink.
I served dinner, making many more journeys to the table than were really necessary, hoping to catch some word of their subject. All three men had their eyes on Eleanor Misset, and Wogan leaned in to talk to her with his hands clasped on the table. He spoke English too quickly and quietly for me to catch what was said. Finally, he stopped talking and glanced at me, perhaps sensing that I was trying to eavesdrop. They were definitely up to something and surely this was the source of my mistress’s distress?
‘Leave the cheese, Jeanneton, we’ll serve ourselves,’ Mistress Misset said.
I bobbed a curtsey and closed the door behind me. I made a lot of noise walking away, before slipping off my shoes and creeping back. The Missets had assumed I had no English when I got this job. I never set them right because I didn’t want to explain my unusual education, and anyway I sensed they preferred it that way. I’m not one for listening at keyholes in general, but today I had to know what was going on.
I held my breath and put my ear to the gap at the door hinge. Richard Gaydon was speaking. ‘Don’t distress yourself any further, Eleanor. Wogan will find someone else for the expedition. We wanted a lady of education and good breeding, so of course he thought of you. But we had no idea of your condition. You are quite right, such a journey is out of the question.’
‘No, Richard. I’ve thought on it all night and I’m determined that I will come with you. I confess I’m afraid, but I will gladly venture all for the sake of my dear husband and to serve my rightful sovereign.’
A journey in her condition? And how would that serve a sovereign? What scheme of Captain Wogan’s could possibly require the help of my mistress? The rumours were that he had attracted royal attention and that his frequent absences over the last year were linked to the man they called the Chevalier, James, the Stuart Pretender to the British throne.
The noise of a chair being scraped back alerted me before the door opened. I scooped up my slippers and ran to the kitchen.
I heard John Misset say goodbye to Major Gaydon, then he shouted: ‘Jeanneton, have you Captain Wogan’s hat?’
Even in the low light of the hallway, I could see the usual glint had returned to Wogan’s eyes. He liked to tease me but I always felt his laughter was kind.
‘Thank you, lovely Jenny,’ he said.
‘And well you know my name is Jeanneton, Captain.’
‘That I do, but Jenny is an honest name for an honest girl, for I fear your countrymen played a trick in your naming.’
‘I’m content with my given name, Captain.’
I sensed my master’s discomfort in his shifting feet, so curtsied and went to hold open the door. Wogan’s insinuation about my name was the kind of bawdy talk that shy Captain Misset couldn’t tolerate. Of course I knew that the name Jeanneton gave people another reason to laugh at me. It can be applied to any poor woman whose morals are considered dubious, regardless of her actual name. My mother must have known better, so it’s surely more evidence of her lack of affection. But, I was named after my father, so for that reason I liked it fine.
Placing his hand on Captain Misset’s shoulder, Wogan’s face became serious and he switched back to speaking English. ‘I hope Eleanor will stick to her resolve, John. The success of the whole plan depends on it.’
‘You can rely on my wife to do her duty,’ Captain Misset replied.
I had always been sure of Misset’s devotion to his wife, so why have her travel in her delicate condition? In any case, my mind was made up, I wouldn’t let Madame Misset go without me. A sinking feeling reminded me, there was one journey I had to make first.
I noticed Madame Misset glance curiously as I put on my new shoes. I savoured the pleasurable weight of the shoe in my hand, and felt the leather quality as I eased it onto my foot, even the smell of the calfskin was luxurious. The shoemaker had never been asked for such a design before, but they’d turned out even better than I’d hoped. The elegantly curved heel was a full five inches high, and the leather shone like the coat of Captain Misset’s bay horse. I spent every sou my Papa left me on these shoes. Jean Durand was a brave soldier and famous drinker, I planned to curse in his honour and walk tall.
Standing caused me to waver slightly. It would take time to walk with confidence, but I’d master it before I reached Ribeauville.
‘Goodness,’ Mistress Misset said, staring up at me.
I smiled back at her. I knew I cut an impressive figure and fully intended that the villagers would remember me. Those ignorant fools used to laugh at me for being different. Now they’d see me dressed in a style that mocked their country mediocrity.
‘I shan’t tarry in Ribeauville, mistress,’ I said. ‘You can expect me back tomorrow latest.’
‘I’m most sorry, Jeanneton. It’s a terrible thing to lose your father, I cannot imagine how I should face it.’
Eleanor Misset is a kind woman, and she’d given me space to grieve. Now, it was time I roused myself.
The coach was cramped and I was squeezed in beside a fat townswoman. The soldier opposite me snored with his mouth open the whole way. His pungent smell engulfed my senses in that confined space. A combination of stale sweat, garlic and the particular sour stink that revealed the lazy sod’s habitual failure to wash. It almost made me cast up my breakfast.
Seven small children and a scruffy dog were idling beside the Ribeauville staging post. I didn’t recognise any individuals, but I knew their malicious expressions. Village youngsters always meet the coach, looking for any money making opportunity or at least a diversion from another dull day. I stretched out my neck and took a deep breath, before setting off towards the inn. The familiar surroundings brought back memories of my father. How many times had I walked with him to the coach when he set out to join a new campaign? He was the soldier who always came back when others lost their lives, I had to believe he’d return as usual. Would I have said my last goodbye in a different way if I’d known I’d not see him again? The thought gave an extra twist to the knot of sadness I’d carried in my guts for weeks. An ankle wobble snapped back my concentration. A fall here in the middle of the village would be a disaster.
I strode on, ignoring the taunts of the chanting children running behind me, I’d heard it all before from their older siblings:
‘Jeanneton, Jeanneton, this girl so tall must be a man.’
I turned a benevolent smile on them. My father had taught me well.
‘Never let them see your pain, ma princesse, be proud and hold your head high.’
My father was unusually tall and my mother was beside herself when I towered above her by the age of twelve. She complained loudly that I’d never find a husband. In truth, I sensed my late mother’s disappointment from an early age. I believe she never loved me. I’m told my elder sister was petite and pretty, but she died from the measles in the year of my birth. I always understood I was a poor replacement.