The following is a preview of my latest novel “Mon Amie Celeste” to be released Spring 2020 wherever books are sold. For more information follow my author website.
Streams of blue dawn highlighted by a newly full moon criss crossed the bed chamber barely illuminating it as a hand gently shook me awake, causing me to startle and let out a yelp of surprise.
“Shhhh, it’s Maman,” my mother whispered gently into my ear, “It’s time to go visit the Alisi.”
I sat up in bed as she placed a cloak around my shoulders; covering my light muslin nightgown, and placed a pair of leather slippers at my feet. Though it was nearly October, the South Carolina autumn had barely begun, and the burgeoning morning was a sultry one. Maman and I would have to see the Alisi and return before the sun was fully in the sky and the rest of the household awakened. Papa would not be pleased if he knew Maman was still in contact with her Cherokee relatives, and he would be absolutely furious if he found out I was there, too.
Papa is Charles, Duc d’Aix en Provence, grandson of the legitimized son of The Sun King Louis XIV, and his mistress Madame Louise de la Valliere; considered a Prince of the Blood. Though my great-grandfather was legitimized, he was not treated as an equal to his royal born brothers and sisters. His small duchy in the south of France paid a tidy income when my father inherited it, but instead of going to Court as a royal duke, Papa was sent off to be an officer in the military. My father’s great uncle, the famous Phillipe the Duc d’Orleans, inspired my father’s illustrious career in the army, where he made a name for himself outside his scandalous royal lineage.
Papa came to America during their Revolution against the King of England, and that’s when he fell in love with my mother, Renata Deschanez. My mother is Metis, or a naturalized French citizen two generations removed from the Cherokee. When my father met my mother, he was betrothed to Fortunee Balsamine, Marquise d’Anforme. However, that engagement was broken, and he was married without the consent of the king. A high offense for a Bourbon Prince. The king must give permissions for marriage to all relations of a certain rank.
However, King Louis XV was old and soft of heart when he heard the news, and stipulated that my parents’ marriage would be recognized under the agreement that any children they had would have to come to Court upon turning thirteen-years-old to finish their education and marry. My mother railed against this idea, as she did not want to give up her children at such a tender age, but defying King Louis XV a second time would have meant my father’s forfeiture of his title and lands, and while he loved my mother, he would not sever his bond with France. He was fiercely proud of being a Bourbon, and wanted the house of Aix to be a storied and valuable member of the dynasty.
After the American War, my father bought a tobacco plantation in the formerly French, now Spanish territory of Louisiana. Another time when being Bourbon had its perks because he was also considered a cousin of the Spanish Bourbons, and having a land owning cousin in their territory was valuable to them.
Papa’s foray into plantations became wildly successful, and since he was now beloved by America for his effort in their independence, he was offered lands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Viriginia for more plantations. He moved my mother and I, now two years old, to South Carolina after the main home was built, a sprawling estate modeled after Versailles, and this is where I awoke for my journey this morning.
On this autumn morning in September of 1788, I was embarking on a quick journey with my mother to her people to see the Alisi, or grandmother. She wasn’t my grandmother; Alisi was also a term for a wise woman who could see into a person’s destiny. Heresy of course, but my mother, though she was forced to renounce her Cherokee heritage in favor of her French, managed to secretly keep to some of the old beliefs and traditions of her grandmother’s people. This secret mission was to prepare my mother for my journey to France in just two days. She wanted to have the peace of mind of knowing what would happen to her only child half a world away. I had four other siblings who had died before the age of five, so I was the only one left, and she worried endlessly about what would befall me, an American Bourbon Princess, across the Atlantic.
“Vite, vite, mon cherie,” my mother hurried me in hushed tones as I followed her down the back servants’ staircase out into the now brightening dawn. The Cherokee were just off our lands near the river. The red dirt was soft under my slippers as we trotted through the fields of fragrant tobacco into the woods. I followed my mother, also only clad in her chemise and a cape, her hair in a simple deep auburn braid swinging in the middle of her back. She was taller than most women, with broad shoulders and long limbs that moved gracefully with a quiet strength. While I sometimes resented inheriting these features from her because I towered over everyone, as I watched her deftly move through the forest to our destination like a warrior goddess with the grace of a dancer, I wanted to be her.
We arrived at our destination, and my mother knew exactly where to go. She motioned for me to sit on one of a series of logs fashioned into low benches around a dimming fire. I did as I was told, pulling my cloak around my shoulders as my uneasiness sent a shiver through my body. I was aware of how risky this expedition was. Cherokee were mostly kind to French settlers, but they were also unpredictable.
I was startled by the sound of my mother’s voice, “Celeste, this is the Alisi, she will sit next to you and see into your destiny.”
Again, I shivered at this heresy that could get us both sent to a convent for the rest of our lives. My mother and the woman: tiny, ancient, with thinning white hair about her shoulders in two braids, conversed in a language I did not understand.
The old woman sat next to me. I noticed her woven garments wraped around her with intricate beadwork that had to have taken years. She reached into a pouch studded with brass nailheads and scooped a handful of powder, and threw it onto the fire causing it to give a little explosion and roar again as if it had been stoked with fresh firewood.
Noticing my suprise and the little jump I gave, the Alisi took my hands into hers. I felt her warm skin and the knots on her knuckles. She looked deep into my eyes, and I could also see into hers. They were almost black with the dark blue half moons of age around the irises.
“Not to worry, not to worry,” she said softly in English. Everyone in South Carolina spoke English, even the Cherokee.
“You have green eyes,” she remarked.
“Yes,” I answered. My large green eyes framed with long thick black eyelashes were the first thing people usually noticed about me.
“Green eyes, ah, you are born of the sky and rooted to the earth. You can never touch the sun or get stuck in the mud. You are in the middle where life exists. You bloom, you fade, and you bloom again. You do not die.”
I could feel my mother’s presence behind me. She laid a hand on my shoulder.
“Because of this, you will survive many wars and rule three Kings, but you will not be a Queen. You will refuse the title because you will be the defender of life,” she pressed a pendant with a carved Blue Jay on its face into my hand, “Your totem, little one. For you are the Blue Jay. Speaker of all languages, survivor of all challenges, both fighter and defender.”
I wrapped my fingers around the pendant in my palm. The Alisi patted me on the knee and gave me a toothless grin, then smiling up at my mother and exchanging a few words with her I didn’t understand. I felt my mother give my shoulder a gentle squeeze as they spoke.
“Let’s return,” my mother said as she ended her conversation and the Alisi left us, “We must finish preparing you for your journey.”
“Grandmere! I’m here!” Amelia Kingston called out as the screen door shut with a springloaded whap behind her. She was dusty and tired from the drive down to the family plantation from Atlanta, and made her way to the cooler to grab the pitcher of lemonade her grandmother always kept at the ready. Amelia took a glass from the cupboard, filled it with the sweet drink, and quenched her thirst with large loud gulps. If there was one thing she wouldn’t miss when she got to Paris, it would be the searing heat of the South beginning in early March.
“Amelia! You come in here hog calling and swilling lemonade like a common hillbilly!” Amelia’s grandmother shouted upon seeing her only granddaughter drinking lemonade with the refrigerator door still open, “Sit down like a lady and wait to be served. My goodness it’s like Atlanta has turned you into a heathen!”
The octogenarian lady of the manor rang a little service bell kept on a hook in the entrance of the kitchen. Using her cane, she motioned Amelia to move into the parlor and wait for proper lemonade service from the household staff.
“I’m sorry, Grandmere, we just do things differently in the city, and well… I find it to be somewhat gauche to have someone serve me lemonade when I can get it for myself,” Amelia explained.
“Gauche?” Celeste Kingston nee LaConte questioned loudly, furrowing her brow, “Well, Madamoiselle about town, I find it gauche that my granddaughter, a well bred young lady barrels into my kitchen and helps herself to the lemonade like some sort of ruffian!”
Amelia pushed her cat-eye glasses up the bridge of her nose and met her grandmother’s stern glance holding it for a few minutes before they both dissolved into giggles.
“Oh honey! The look on your face! You were scared!” The elder Kingston laughed.
“You’re such a good actress!” Amelia giggled. The two quieted their laughing as Celeste’s butler, Kenneth, laid down a tray with a carafe of lemonade, two crystal goblets, and an array of fresh sweets on the table between the two wing chairs where they sat. Kenneth had been the butler at Maison Bleu for Amelia’s entire life, and she regarded him as an honorary uncle.
“Ah! I thought I heard you Miss Amelia!”
Amelia stood and hugged Kenneth,”Yes! I am leaving for Paris at the end of the week, and I wanted to see Grandmere before I left. I’m so happy I get to see you, too!”
“Haha!” Kenneth laughed and gave a wink, “Well, where else would I be? Maison Bleu is in my blood for four generations like your Grandmere. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d be. I’ll leave you two to catch up. I’ll let Miss Penny know we have one more for dinner tonight.”
“Thank you, Kenneth,” Celeste said as Kenneth left the room. She noticed Amelia’s grimace.
“I know what you’re thinking, Amelia. Your great-great grandmere made all of the household staff and field workers freemen when she returned from France in 1804, sixty years before the war. They stayed here because the Duchess was fair and kind to them. Her son, my Grandfather, even helped those who were considered fugitives find freedom. I understand the climate of today is very contentious when it comes to equal rights for coloreds, but here at Maison Bleu, they are equal to any white man. They are paid a fair wage and treated with respect.”
Amelia set her goblet of lemonade on the tray, “I know, Grandmere, but our family is in the minority as far as that attitude here in the South. It’s very volatile in Atlanta right now, and while you are kind and fair, most are not. Even when it comes to children.”
“Ah, my sweet girl, you will see how that came to be when you go to Paris. The French have a different idea of what liberty is compared to Americans. Our family began as a legitimized son of The Sun King. Born of the King’s favorite mistress, he was legitimized and given a dukedom. Scandalous for the time! His son was sent to America, married a Metis woman, and their daughter became the most powerful woman in the world. Imagine if that had happened in America! The granddaughter of a royal bastard, a Cherokee only thrice removed… why it would be scandalous even by today’s standards! She lived through three revolutions, but what she accomplished was one in and of itself!”
Amelia pointed to the coat of arms of Aix en Provence that had hung above the fireplace since Maison Bleu had been built after the American Revolution, “I hope that while I’m in Paris, I learn more about the family and Celeste. I have only been able to manage a footnote or two about her with regard to the Louisiana Purchase, and a little here and there about her father the Duke fighting in the war for Independence. How do we know it’s just not family legend? I mean, the surname became LeConte, which translates to ‘legend.’”
Celeste sat there with a bemused look on her face. She could understand how a well read young woman like Amelia would chalk these stories up to family legends told as bedtime stories passed down from generation to generation. How fantastical it must seem to have a real princess and heroine in the family! Amelia was also studious and skeptical of everything. This was no typical Southern Belle from old money. This was a woman eager to make her own way in the world. She didn’t see the parallels to the characteristics of the woman in those stories and how they appeared in her own character. The lady who was the namesake of this incredible woman knew it was time to let Amelia in on the family secret.
Slowly rising from her seat, Celeste LeConte Kingston gave her granddaughter a wry smile, excited for what she was about to share, “Don’t forget, the history books are written by the men who won. The men. Not the women. Maybe you’ll be the one to change that at the Sorbonne. Follow me, I have some things to show you that might start to answer a few questions.”
Amelia followed her grandmother down the long hallway into the main sitting room just off the east wing of the estate. This room was meticulously preserved for the hundred years since the Duchess’s death. The room was tastefully decorated in the style of the second empire with orient inspired tapestries and colors. Amelia always felt like she was entering a completely different space and time when she was in this room. She looked down at her dusty and worn oxfords, feeling immediately underdressed for her surroundings.
Celeste motioned for Amelia to sit on one of the settees; a chaise in rich china-blue damask with hand carved ebony feet in the shape of lion’s paws. The elder Kingston lowered herself into a cream colored silk Louis XIV chair across from her granddaughter.
“Do you see that painting over there?” Celeste motioned to the painting that was positioned on a gold beveled easel in the far corner of the room.
“Madame Pasteur? That’s a very well known painting. It’s in the Louvre.”
“Ah yes, a beautiful and popular painting indeed. Yet, no one seems to know who that young lady is. Don’t you find that to be a bit peculiar, my little student of history? Next to David, Antoine Jean Gros was one of the most prolific painters after the revolution and the First Empire. This was 1796, hardly the dark ages, yet the painting has a very aristocratic looking girl with a very common shopkeeper’s name.”
Amelia chuckled incredulously, “Grandmere, are you suggesting that Madame Pasteur is really the Duchess? That is nearly impossible to prove — ”
“I’m not suggesting anyting,”Celeste interrupted. She pointed to three locked steamer trunks near the entrance of the sitting room in front of the large picture windows that looked out into the garden.
“Marie Celeste de Bourbon, the Duchesse d’ Aix en Provence, and mistress of this household kept very detailed journals. Whenever she finished a journal, she sent it here for safekeeping. They were purposefully written in English should they fall into the wrong hands, a process her father taught her before she made her maiden voyage to Paris. She also goes into great detail about her relationship with Monsieur Gros and the painting. Those trunks contain nearly seventy years of her life. When she returned to America and left France behind once and for all after the death of the former Queen of Sweden, Hortense Bonaparte, she told her son, my grandfather, to keep her belongings to be passed down to the eldest daughter in the family. There were no daughters until I was born, and named for her, and you are the next.”
Amelia’s eyes grew wide as her grandmother went on, “Celeste was referred to as “Mon Amie Celeste” because she was an expert diplomat. When the Reign of Terror happened, she was only sixteen years old, and was smart enough to play her American cards right to survive. With the help of the future Empress, she made the right friends, and kept her surviving Bourbon family safely and comfortably exiled. The English and the Austrians would never accept a common born soldier like Napoleon as a Monarch for they believed they were ordained by God, and they declared war on the Empire constantly, yet history was written in such a way to paint Bonaparte as a diminuitive meglomaniacal despot, hungry for war, when he was, in fact, the opposite.”
“But the English won, and therefore got to write the books, which is why we hear about Betsy Balcombe, but barely anything about the Bonaparte women; even the Empresses and two Queens.” Amelia replied.
“Yes. Celeste knew this, but she could not predict what the future would bring to her family. She lived to be my age, but there was still much unrest in the world. The Bourbons and the Bonapartes would exchange the throne some more, and she needed to leave a map. There was a possibility at one point in time her son could have been on the throne of France and had a daughter.”
Amelia scoffed, “Grandmere, it would have taken a catastrophe to make that possible after getting through the Provences and the Orleans. Aix en Provence is a sixth tributary of that line. A barely legitimate one at that.”
Again, a bemused look swept over Celeste’s face, “Who said anything about the Bourbons? Christophe LeConte had a father, you know.”
Amelia couldn’t hide the puzzlement on her face. Her grandmother giggled at her sweet blonde and bookish only granddaughter sitting there in this home that held so many secrets.
“Celeste de Bourbon knew there was no way for her to leave her legacy to a man. Men love their mothers, but they do not listen to them. She wanted a map for the future matriarchs of this family. Now, it’s been over a hundred years since her death, and times have changed. We don’t need such guidance in the modern day, but there are still mysteries to uncover, and I think God puts everything right where it needs to be, and he knew another Bourbon daughter would be just the woman to solve these mysteries and build an entirely new legacy.”
“Me?” Amelia’s voice was shaky and she gulped, “I’m just a girl from Atlanta studying history abroad for a year. I hardly think I can solve any great mysteries.”
Celeste stood and made her way over to a credenza with a locked drawer. She removed a key from a small pocket on her blouse, and opened the drawer removing a tiny velvet pouch. Slowly, she returned to the settee where Amelia sat and opened the pouch. She then pulled out a long gold chain with a small bee wearing a crown made of topaz, gold, and diamonds. Amelia knew the family had a vault of valuables, they were very wealthy, but she immediately recognized the significance of this pendant.
“The Imperial bee,” Amelia whispered. It was the signet of the Bonaparte family adopted when Napoleon became Emporer. He commissioned only five of these pendants. Two for each empress, one for his mother Letizia, one for Hortense de Beauharnais, the other recipient of the pendant was never named, but widely assumed to be his mistress, Marie Walewska. Why would Celeste de Bourbon have one of these pendants?
Celeste placed the necklace in her granddaughter’s hand, and closed her fingers around it.
“When I read in the journal where she talks about the Emporer giving her this necklace, I asked my father if I could wear it. He didn’t ask me why, or how I knew it existed. I’m sure he thought I was just a silly girl reading about the French court in those journals, and wanted a bauble of my own,” Celeste sighed, “I stopped wearing it when I married your grandfather because while I admired the great-grandmother I had gotten to know through her journals, I knew I wasn’t going to be like her. I wanted to be here as a wife and a mother It was then I decided that the bee should pass with the journals, for they go together. I have a feeling you will be the daughter these books were meant to guide.”
“Oh Grandmere, I don’t know what to say.”
“Le mot impossible n’est pas Francais,” Celeste said in perfect French bathed in her Southern drawl.
The word impossible is not French.
October 23, 1788
I am sure you were notified of my arrival in Versailles, however I wanted to write to you myself at the earliest opportunity because I know how you and Maman worry. While it was a long and tiresome journey, Nathalie and I weathered it well and are now in our rooms at the palace.
What a peculiar place this is! It is very grand, but also very dirty. For all of the rules and protocol, several times this day I have seen noblemen and women relieve themselves in corners! Right out in the open! The smell here is horrid, but once you are past it, the visual beauty is astounding both in architecture and fashion. You were correct to say that France has the most beautiful people in the world. I feel plain and like one of Maisey’s doughy dumplings in comparison.
I have met Sr. Lemuel as you instructed, and he is an interesting fellow. I shall dine with him this evening and get more information about life here in Versailles and what is in store for me. I am rather anonymous here. No one has inquired as to who I am and what my business here entails. At most, I have been given an simple nod and a brief polite greeting in passing. I am housed in the foreign guest apartments, so I am sure my rank will be known soon enough. I must say it is rather odd to hear nothing but French spoken all around us, and I worry if I am proficient enough to keep up and not sound as primitive as I must look. I did have to stifle laughter when one of the household stewards referred to me as, ‘Your Serene Highness’ with a quick bow, and all of the servants lower their eyes and curtsy to me. I want to tell them to stop and remind them that I am just Celeste Bourbon from America, but as you reminded me before I left, I am a princess of the blood first. I suppose there will not be anymore nights in the kitchen with Maisey, Cleo, and Daggy. Please tell them Nathalie and I miss them so! Nathalie is having some difficulty understanding what is going on because she has never been outside South Carolina before and does not speak French, but I will help her acclimate. I am glad she is with me.
Sr. Lemuel agrees that I will be placed in Monsieur’s household tomorrow as we are cadet kin to the House of Provence. I have not seen the Royal family as of yet. The courtiers that surround them are rows and rows deep, and we are too tired to make our way through them today. Tomorrow is my audience with the King and Queen. I am nervous to meet them after the things I read about them on the ship and the gossip I heard! I know Maman would admonish me for engaging in such mindless entertainment, but the tales of Court can’t all be false? I do hope they are kind, and there are at least one friendly face or two. I hope to do as you say and meet an American and an Italian at Court tomorrow. It will be nice to hear American English again!
A thousand embraces for you and Maman. I will make the House of Aix proud.
“Celeste! Celeste! It is time to wake up! You have slept too long! It is time for your audience with the King and Queen!” Nathalie said hurriedly as she shook me awake, “No time a waistin’, lady!”
I sat up in bed rubbing my eyes. I had slept like the dead after retiring early after dinner in our rooms last night. After eating our meager provisions of bread, cheese, and salted pork at sea, the decadent and rich cuisine of our dinner at Versailles acted like a sleep tonic. The sun was streaming through the shutters, casting beams on the ornate brocades and carpets of my bedchamber. The palace was so unlike our plantations. While our plantations were some of the most elegant in America, they were more rustic than a hunting cottage in comparison to Versaille.
I yawned and stretched one more time before throwing off the bedcovers, swinging my long legs over the edge of the bed, and placing my bare feet on the marble floor. Papa had been right when he told me I would already be as tall as most of the men in France. At the age of thirteen I already came to the bridge of his nose, and he was more robust than the other Bourbon men. He said it was because his mother, my grandmother I would never meet, was Danish.
I continued to look around my bed chamber, becoming more familiar with my surroundings, while Nathalie whirrled around the room in a panic.
“I do not know what they did with our trunks, Miss Celeste. We need to get you dressed!”
Poor Nathalie, my nursemaid since I was an infant, was even more out of her element than I was in this new country. I, at least, had been educated about etiquette and knew the language. Nathalie was a mulatto slave who had never left our plantation, Belle Sur. I loved her like an aunt, and now a surrogate mother. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking right now as she frantically searched my quarters.
“Nathalie, you have to ring the bell. You don’t dress me anymore. I have ladies who do my toilette three times a day. You simply observe, and give direction where needed.”
“What do you mean observe?” Nathalie asked.
“You stand there and watch them,” I answered.
“That’s it? I don’t work? I just stand and watch them work?”
Nathalie let out a low whistle of disbelief then walked over to the table and rang the small silver service bell. Within minutes, my room was full of young maids holding the gowns that were made for me and packed for my voyage while my person was freshened up with orange water and other perfumes. I could see Nathalie standing in the corner wrinkling her nose, and I had to let a little giggle escape.
“Is something wrong, Your Serene Highness?” the maid helping with my laces asked.
“Non, non,” I replied making eye contact with Nathalie and giving her a wink, “C’est bon.”
Three gowns were shown to me while my hair was brushed and arranged about my shoulders.
“Your Serene Highness has the loveliest hair,” a maid with a missing eye tooth complimented as she tied a white ribbon around the end of a plait at the crown of my head, “I have never seen such a magnificent color! It is brown, but with a halo of gold atop!”
“Merci beaucoup,” I replied. My hair was one of my best features. My mother referred to it as cornsilk and would rinse it with vinegar to bring out the gold tones and luster. Did they have vinegar in France? I had no idea.
After some thought, I selected the pink gown to wear for my audience with the King and Queen. It would enhance my olive skin, green eyes, and golden haloed hair. After seeing the opulence at Court yesterday, I was mostly afraid of looking plain and out of place.
As my dress was placed on my body and all of the fastening of the closures done by the deft fingers of the maids, I felt a sudden lurch of nerves in my stomach. I had always known that I was a Bourbon Princess, but that title didn’t matter in America. Everyone called me CeCe and treated me like any other well-born child of the Southern gentry. No one curtsied or made any fuss. I played in the forest with the other children, attended lessons with tutors, and spent the afternoons doing needlework with Maman. Now here I was, thirteen years old, never traveling outside of America, at the Palace of Versailles. Cece Bourbon was about to be introduced as a Princess of the Blood to the King and Queen of France. And from what I had read about them, they were monsters.
Once my toilette was complete and my hair set, I was led to a looking glass to admire what an American girl looks like her first morning at Court.
I heard Nathalie gasp as I looked at my reflection. I didn’t look the same. I wasn’t the gangly girl who had gotten on the ship three weeks prior in a plain muslin dress. The girl who arrived here yesterday was now a young woman. Royalty. My bosom lifted and pert from my new corset, my hair done in a maiden’s style. The butterflies in my stomach intensified knowing this was the first day of my adult life. CeCe stayed on the ship.
Marie Celeste de Bourbon, The Princess Aix en Provence had landed in France.
My reverie was broken by a tap on my shoulder from the same maid who had complimented my hair.
“Your Serene Highness,” she began opening a pot of cherry red pomade, “It is customary for rouge to be worn at Court. Would you like me to apply some?”
I heard Nathalie gasp. I too raised my eyebrows. In America rouge wasn’t something well born girls and ladies wore. Rouge was reserved for Creoles and other… other… ladies.
“Um…” I stammered trying to find the right words in French, my father hadn’t told me about rouge. I started to realize there was probably a lot my father may not have known enough about to teach me, “Well, it is not something we wear in America. You say it is worn by everyone at Court? Even the Queen?” I asked.
“Oui,” she replied earnestly.
“Well then, just a little,” I acquiesed. Nathalie looked to be in physical pain watching the maid paint my face. When she was finished, she gave me a hand glass to look at my reflection, and I winced. I looked flushed with fever!
“France is so peculiar!” I said in English to Nathalie. This made her smile, and brought me a little ease.
As the maids excused themselves, there was a knock at the door. Sr. Lemuel entered making long strides to meet me in the center of the room. He was a very handsome older gentleman that took command of every room he entered as if he were the King himself.
Sr. Lemuel was a Spanish dignitary sent by my distant cousins, the Spanish Bourbons, to America many years ago to oversee the settlements before the American War. He and my father became good friends, and continued to correspond with one another after Lemuel was sent back to Spain. Due to his prosperous dealings in America, he was a very wealthy man now, and a newly made Count. He was in France as a Spanish courtier hoping to broker a match between the Dauphin and a Spanish princess. He would be one of the friends my father had instructed me to make. I was to make a Spanish friend, for they would fight for me even though I was never to trust them. I was to have an Italian friend, because the Vatican is the most powerful kingdom on earth, and the Italians keep their promises. Another friend would have to be American to keep me abreast of what was happening in my home country, and if possible, I should befriend someone from England, because you always want a friendly face on the enemy’s side.
“Prussians, Russians, and the Nordic will desperately try to make your acquaintance,” my father told me, “All well and good, but useless. Do not worry about Austrians. You’ll probably marry one.”
A lot to rest on the shoulders of a thirteen year old, but not uneasy for me to accept since I knew this was my destiny from the time I was a little girl. I always knew I would be at Versailles.
“Ah, Your Serene Highness,” Sr. Lemuel greeted me taking my hand to kiss it and give a bow, “I always considered your mother the greatest American beauty. It is a good thing you are half French!” he laughed offering me his arm, “Come! Let us meet the King and Queen!”
The walk from my rooms to the Apollo room was long and the more we traveled the more nervous I became. Sr. Lemuel was rattling off the lists of what to expect in the receiving line and the typical demeanor of their Majesties, but I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the pounding of my heart in my chest, the now racing butterflies in my stomach, and the pulse beating in my ears. What if I forgot my French? What if I was a disappointment and I was sent to a convent?
I created every scenario imaginable as I waited for my turn for the audience. As is the custom, the room was a crush of courtiers all trying to gain favor with the monarchs. The smell of all of the perfumes and other bodily emissions was so overwhelming I brought a kerchief to my nose several times.
Finally, after what felt like twelve lifetimes, it was my turn to have an audience, and heard myself announced.
“Her Serene Highness, Marie Celeste de Bourbon, the Princess Aix en Provence!”
The room became eerily silent as everyone gawked at the new princess no one had seen or heard of before. I stepped forward leaving Sr. Lemuel’s arm and gave a deep curtsey to the King and Queen. When I rose, I was shocked to find them nothing like they were depicted in the scandalous pamphlets I had read at sea.
While King Louis XVI was rather portly, he had kind eyes and the look of a man with great empathy and concern. Queen Marie Antoinette was not the wanton gargoyle with the comically protruding Hapsburg lip. Before me was a woman my mother’s age dressed for a regular autumn day in the country. She wore a simple gown of muslin with a baby blue shawl and a wide brimmed straw hat adorned with several late season mums in earthy colors. The garish opulence I had heard so much about was not present today. Before me were a King in his riding clothes, and a Queen who looked like she was about to go pruning flowers. I wondered for a moment if I was back in South Carolina.
King Louis greeted me with a warm smile, “Ah if it isn’t our little American cousin! Though I don’t think we can call you little anymore! You are quite tall! How old are you?”
“Thirteen, your majesty,” I heard a little titter go through the crowd when I spoke. I knew immediately it was my accent that amused them.
The Queen smiled warmly down on me from her seat on the dais, “Not much younger than me when I traveled to a strange country with a strange accent,” she cast a scolding glance out into the crowd, “I know how difficult a new world can be. Courage mon brave. You are amongst family here.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” I said giving another curtsey.
King Louis slapped his knee, “Well, I suppose the business of which household you will join is at hand. I think it would make the most sense to have you join Monsieur and the Duchesse, non?”
“Ack! The daughter of a bastard and a savage?” a woman’s accented French voice (Italian, maybe? I couldn’t be certain, but it was not French.) called out from the seats for the members of the royal family to the left of the thrones. A small, round woman with a stern face and hawkish nose peered at me with the utmost hatred. Had the King and Queen not been there, she probably would have spat at my feet.
“Marie Celeste, this is the Duchesse de Provence,” the King began, the flush of embarrassment at his sister in law’s antics creeping up his neck, “Duchesse, this is the Princess Aix, a Princess of the Blood cadet to your own house. If she were a bastard or a savage, she would not be received at court as she is now.”
My own color began to rise as I felt the room grow smaller as the crowd gawked at me.
“Non,” the Queen spoke up, “Non, I do not think the Princess should join the House de Provence. Non. Madame Royale and the Princess Elisabeth could use another young lady around. The Princess will stay in the Royal apartments under the tutiliege of Madame Campan until a suitable match has been made for her. If it pleases the King, of course.”
An audible gasp was heard throughout the room as Marie Antoinette gave her order.
The King nodded earnestly, “Yes! She can tell us of America! Such interesting people we have met from there, especially the… well… the interesting Monsieur Franklin! Does this please you, Princess?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” I replied feeling the fixed gaze of the Duchesse de Provence still upon me, relieved that I wasn’t sent into her custody. I probably would not have survived the night.
“Good!” the King exclaimed, “It’s settled. Welcome to the family, Princess.”