Authors: Delia Sherman
The Porcelain Dove
Copyright © 2014, Delia Sherman
In memory of my mother, Opal Woodley Sherman,
who loved history, France, and telling stories
In Which I Speak of Beauxprés and the Wondrous Magic by Which It Is Sustained
Once upon a time in the mountainous east of France, there was a duchy called Malvoeux. To be sure, it was only a small duchy, nothing beside the broad lands of Aquitaine or Burgundy, but very beautiful nonetheless, and richly supplied with fat cows and vines yielding cheeses and wines famous from Switzerland to Brittany. Equally famous was the ancestral seat of the ducs de Malvoeux, the noble château Beauxprés.
The duchy is gone now, its meadows and vineyards long since lost to debt and revolution, and its château alone survives to bear witness to its former glory.
As to how and where that château finds itself? Well. According to M. Voltaire, somewhere across the western ocean lies a fabulous land called El Dorado, where want and injustice are inconceivable and the beggar children play with emeralds and rubies. The château Beauxprés is very like El Dorado, only French, and far beyond the reach of even the most intrepid traveler. Furthermore, what jewels we have are set, and not to be played with; but then we have no beggar-children to play with them.
What we do have is a fine palace in the baroque style filled to its rafters with a most sumptuous profusion of glass cases, mirrors, tables, beds, tapestries, paintings, books, and objets d'art. It sits upon a hill that is as round and flat-crowned as a Circassian bonnet and sufficiently
broad to accommodate formal, kitchen, and enchanted gardens, as well as a small orchard, an aviary, an ornamental water, and a cow-house. The far prospect is of fertile meadows and tree-covered mountains; nearer at hand, the hill slopes are thick with fir and wild blackberries. Hares run unafraid in those woods, and no wolf howls.
'Tis a pretty picture, is it not? Like a fairy kingdom in a conte des fées?
Ah, and there's more. No starving peasant rebukes us with hunger-hollowed eyes. No malcontent lackey endangers his skin by theft. No servingmaid courts damnation by conceiving a child in sin. Our every need is served by creatures of magic, most of them hands without bodies, or at least without bodies that one can see. Our few completely visible servants are golden-haired, deep-bosomed, and porcelain-faced as fairy-tale princesses. They speak good French in human, if uncommonly melodic, voices and have cloven hooves growing from their dainty ankles. Their tears are dry as sand. Demons, every one of them, and quite unreal.
Our cows and horses and hens are real enough—at least I've seen them born in the usual way, and they bleed red blood when the invisible butcher cuts their throats. Our weather, on the other hand, is not real. Each day is warm and green and fresh and redolent of new-mown hay and lavender, and although Beauxprés lies—or rather lay—high in the third plateau of the Jura mountains, it never snows here. Indeed, it seldom rains, and that only during the soft, fragrant nights. In the course of my life, I have lived in Paris, visited Nice and Marseilles and Geneva and Lausanne, and in none of these places does weather behave as it does in Beauxprés, year in and year out without varying.
In short, the breeding, bleeding animals are entirely out of character, both for an enchanted kingdom and for Mlle Linotte de Malvoeux, the sorcerer maid whose spells enclosed it. They are too natural to have caught her imagination, too peasant-practical. Mlle Linotte would never have thought to magic up cows and chickens for our paradise, and yet here they are. They give me hope, those animals.
And who am I, to hope or to despair? I am one of the seven human souls inhabiting this earthly paradise: Berthe Duvet, who was once femme de chambre to Mme la duchesse de Malvoeux. My former mistress is here as well; also her sons the vicomte de Montplaisir and M. Justin de Malvoeux, in addition to my good friend Jean Coquelet, who was once the duc's groom, and a peasant girl named Colette
Favre. I suppose M. le duc is also in Beauxprés. As he never ventures out of his aviary, I cannot be entirely sure.
Two hundred years in an aviary! I cannot imagine it, me. But then I have never completely understood my former master's boundless fascination with feathered things, nor am I much given to imagining. It is my nature to make what I may from what I see before me: enchantment or revolution, ease or hardship. Oh, I've known hardship, never think I have not, for in the latter days of my servitude, being maid to the duchesse de Malvoeux was a position of some danger. Each night I went to my bed with an empty belly, and each morning I rose expecting to be slaughtered by the peasants from the village at the foot of the hill or eaten by the gray wolves from the forest. Each day I made what shift I could to feed us. Each evening I prayed that we might be saved.
Well, my prayer was answered and more than answered the day Mlle Linotte returned to Beauxprés bringing with her not only the Porcelain Dove, but also her two long-lost brothers. She rode a great horse the restless hue of a thunder-cloud, I remember, and around her shoulders she wore a rusty black cloak pinned with a round brooch.
The brooch was woven of rushes, and that such a piece of trumpery could pierce and hold all those heavy yards of fustian was enough in itself to make me believe that the brooch, and not the cloak, was enchanted. When Jean relates this scene, the girl Colette is accustomed to argue that she has read a thousand fairy tales or more in which she has found hundreds of enchanted cloaks and never an enchanted brooch of rushes. But I, who with my own eyes watched Mlle Linotte call up our cloud-cuckoo land, I know the cloak was no more magic than my second-best petticoat.
'Twas dawn, I remember; a cold dawn, for Mlle Linotte shivered as she walked into the enchanted garden, stood by the bone-white fountain, and held the brooch high over her head. Though there'd been no breath of air before, a wind blew through the ring and blossomed out above her like the canopy of the aerostatic balloon I once saw ascend in Versailles. The sky rippled and swayed in the wake of that wind; the distant mountains drew yet further off. After a space, when the air had quieted, Mlle Linotte threw the brooch into the bone-white fountain. And she took the cloak with her when she departed Beauxprés. All of which seems to me ample evidence that the brooch
of rushes is not only magical, but the sole stay and anchor of our fairyland. Were we to lose it, the ballooning magic would doubtless collapse, and we'd all fall to earth again with a prodigious thump.
Ah, bah! Here am I, putting the cart before the horse, which Jean says is as useless an endeavor as setting out on a quest with no idea where you're going, or acting plays to an invisible audience. Bien sûr, Jean is a peasant and scorns any endeavor that does not lead to a full belly or a game of trou-madame. A true history of Beauxprés—that leads to neither, nor to any useful or practical end that even I can foresee. Yet a true history of Beauxprés is what Colette has asked of me, and what I intend to give her, if only I can decide how best to go about it.
A stubborn little witch, Colette. Ever since she began to grow older—oh, a hundred years ago now—she's been asking and asking the same questions. Why? Who? Wherefore? When? Justin, Adèle, and Jean have answered her at length and at large, Justin with sermons, Adèle with ancient gossip, Jean with tales as fair and finely-shaped as his demon mistresses. Me, I have held my peace. I am a dresser of hair and a maker of gowns. My art is in my fingers, not my tongue. And so I've always answered Colette, until this very morning.
That we were in the library goes without saying: we are in the library every morning. Colette was, as always, writing. She's been scribbling ever since I taught her to make her letters: plays and essays in an historical vein. We act the plays—or at least Adèle, Jean, and Colette act them; I am the audience, in which role I am supported by the demonesses and the invisible hands. I cannot know how much the hands in particular understand of our entertainments. But they always attend with every sign of enjoyment and applaud enthusiastically at the end.
I was speaking of Colette.
There she was, sitting at the great table between the windows, papers and books broadcast around her, scratching busily with her quill while I read
Jacques le fataliste et son maître
. There's a scene with the innkeeper's wife, where she tries and tries to tell the story of the marquis des Arcis and Mme de la Pommeraye while her maid interrupts her with inquiries about the key to the oatbin and other irrelevancies until Jacques, his master, and the reader all three are ready to expire with impatience. I laughed aloud. The scratching paused.
"This is prodigious droll, Colette," I said. "Shall I read it to you?"
"You never speak of the past," she said.
I frowned. "What need," I said impatiently, "when there are so many voices to speak of it for me? As I've told you before, you may go to the chronicles for history, to Adèle for gossip, to Justin for theology, and to Jean for romance. Any one of them remembers more of the past than I, and can tell it better."
"Better, Berthe? How better?"
"Well, more beautifully. They take the plain truth and trim it as I would a plain gown so 'tis fit for the finest company. I was a femme de chambre, remember. My past has taught me the value of ornament.''
Colette stroked her quill down her jaw. "On a gown, perhaps," she said. "Not on a tale. Consider, Berthe, that ornament, however pleasing in itself, obscures a form that, pleasing or not, is at least itself and not some other thing."
She swept a tumble of paper from one corner of the table, uncovering a leg encrusted with gilded bronze leaves and a mosaic of precious woods, uneven and chipped with use. "This table is a lovely thing, to be sure, but 'twould serve my purpose as well or better if 'twere plainer made. So the history of Beauxprés, which Jean and maman Adèle have between them so carved, inlaid, garlanded, and gilded that its original shape has all but disappeared."
"Very witty, Mlle Précieuse. And just what is it makes you think that I recall these same events in their original and unornamented state?"
"I have seen how you cast up your eyes when Jean recounts how M. le duc de Malvoeux slaughtered the doves and how you smile to yourself when maman Adèle tells me of her so-dear friend Stéphanie-Germaine. I have seen how you watch and listen to everything we say and do, and I am confident that you remember all."
"A good servant is discreet," I said.
"You are no longer a servant," she said.
And that was true enough to silence me for a space, after which I said, "You would need to be patient. 'Twould take time—years, perhaps—for me to recall and write so much."