Grand-mère had given me the thick, red-leather bound book on Christmas Day, 1762. I remember fondly Papa’s concern that perhaps I was too young for such a grownup gift, and how Grand-mère had insisted, “Every young lady should have her own diary.” Then smiling sweetly, she had wished me a happy Noel and tenderly kissed both my cheeks. When I removed the red satin ribbon and opened my diary to the first page, I found a message she had written on the inside cover: I hope these pages will someday be overflowing with wonderful memories. I was only twelve years old and couldn’t help but wonder how anyone might fill so many pages in only one lifetime. How could I possibly have known that time would be of no concern to me–for you see, I was fated to live many lifetimes.
I know she was trying to make my mother and I feel better. She had begun bringing the familiar boxes filled with pine cones, scarlet bows, small wooden figurines, and brass candle holders to the parlor. She was Papa’s mother, and we were all she had, but I was saddened nearly to tears by her gesture because our lives had so drastically changed and Christmas would never be the same again—not for those of us who were left. I knew very well there would be no fanciful tree in the grand foyer, but Grand-mère had insisted on at least decorating the mantel in the formal parlor. I don’t think it really made us feel better: It was only one more sad reminder of happier times.
Papa had been a courtier of the royal court at the Palace of Versailles. He was one of Louis XV’s many advisers and had been so pleased to have been given the title of duke. Papa was not required to live at the palace as had once been mandatory for courtiers during Louis XIV’s earlier reign, so he had bought a fine manor house for his family in the country. There had been six of us, including my brother, Lucas, my sister, Claudia, and, of course, Grand-mère.
The last Noel that we were all together was also the year my grand-mère had given me her wonderful gift. Usually my siblings and I received a few small trinkets and some fruit in our festive stockings, so the diary had been a big surprise indeed, and one that I had secretly pledged to treasure and keep with me always.
My family had gone to our candle-lit cathedral Christmas Eve for the traditional Messe de Minuit, and after the service we children, having been given supper earlier, were sent off to bed while our parents and a few of their friends gathered together for a huge feast, le Réveillon.
Christmas morning, the family reunited to enjoy a scrumptious breakfast together prepared by our cook, Adele, which was followed at midday by a feast of golden roasted goose with all the trimmings and Adele’s specialty, corn chowder, followed by my favorite bûche de noël for dessert.
Our guests had begun arriving a few hours before dinner, and my sister had kept everyone entertained with her piano medley of festive carols. Papa had asked me to sing along, but I was still too shy, even though he had assured me countless times of the lovely voice I had. Thinking back, I wish I had made the effort because it was the last time my beloved papa would ever ask me.
The following spring little Lucas had become ill first. He was only five years old when he passed away. My sister, Claudia, was next, followed in time by Papa. They had all died of smallpox. The loss was devastating.
Dear Diary: My heart is filled with sadness. How could God have taken all three? It’s so hard to believe that I will never see Claudia, Lucas, or my beloved papa again. I wonder too why the illness did not take me along with them. Why was I the only child left behind to grieve? I try to remember each one and the joy they brought me, but I can’t. All I can feel is the pain. Sometimes I can’t even recall what they looked like, and it frightens me. How could I ever forget a single thing about any of them? It’s not something I can talk to Mamon or Grand-mère about either because they are just as sad as I am.
My mother was inconsolable. She had grown exceedingly melancholy in her grief and was heartsick with worry at the financial predicament she found herself in. It was evident to me, even at my young age, that when she lost Papa and therefore the means to properly entertain her many friends, they had dwindled away. The only one who remained steadfast was the Marquise de Pompadour. She still came in her fine carriage to visit and to have tea with my mother, and sometimes my grand-mère would join them. On one such visit, I heard my mother sobbing in the parlor where the three of them were gathered, and I quietly tiptoed to the closed door to listen.
“You must get control of yourself, Marchelle,” I heard Madame tell her. “You no longer have the financial means necessary to take care of this household properly. I’m trying to offer you a solution that will provide for all three of you in the style to which you’re accustomed! Do you see, dear?”
“Yes, but you’re asking me to do so at the expense of my only remaining daughter—my only child. How can you knowingly be so cruel?”
“I don’t feel that it is cruel. After all, I made my livelihood in the same manner for many years, and it hasn’t harmed me in the least that I can see. Besides, having the favor of the king is the greatest honor anyone can possibly have.”
“But, Colette is only fourteen.”
“Many young girls have unselfishly given themselves to our sovereign. She would not be the first, or do you think it’s better for her to die from the cold when you can no longer pay for firewood, or starve when you no longer have money for food, and what of Fayette? Should she be forced to suffer in her old age when there is such a perfect solution?”
My mother was crying again. “No, I suppose not, but how do I tell her, Madame?”
“You’ll find a way. I have complete confidence in you, dear friend. Meanwhile, I will speak with the king, and once I have, I’ll be in touch with you to make the final arrangements. Please know, dear, that you’re making the right decision. Under the circumstances it is the only one you could make. This is a gift, Marchelle. I promise you that as long as Colette is in his favor, you’ll be paid handsomely every month without fail, and given her age, that should be for quite some time.”
“But, what happens then?” my mother asked.
“In some cases, if the girl were highly favored, I have known the king generously to continue her allowance. That might very likely be the case with Colette, but we will have to wait and see.”
My poor mother had to show the marquise out herself since our servants had all been dismissed. I stood quietly hiding behind one of the tapestry chairs at the large mahogany table in the dining room waiting for her to return to the parlor so that I could take up my vigil once more, but this time she didn’t close the door all the way. Fortunately, my mother and Grand-mère again engaged in deep conversation as soon as my mother returned to the room.
I tiptoed over to the opening in the door and peered in as my mother spoke between sobs, “I cannot bear what I’m being forced to do to my sweet child, my beautiful daughter.”
“You have no choice, my dear. The world is the world. We do what we must. I’m far too old to withstand any more discomfort, and furthermore, if you don’t carry through with this, we will all be out on the street homeless. The marquise is right. What would become of Colette then?”
“I know! I know!” my mother said, and she began to cry even harder.
“What can I do to make you feel better, Marchelle?”
“Nothing—there is nothing you can do. I’m beyond hope.”
Grand-mère went over and tenderly put her arm around my mother. “If there’s truly nothing, then I shall go to my room and lie down.” She bent over and kissed my mother’s cheek and then told her, “I’m so sorry. I never seem to be able to help you with your depression. All I can tell you is that you must have faith, and in due time this heartache, too, will lessen and eventually pass.”
Dear Diary: I wonder what it is that I could possibly have to do that would make Maman so very unhappy. Whatever it is, why must she suffer more than she already has? Isn’t the death of her beloved husband and two of her children enough for her to endure?
After her conversation with Grand-mère, my mother retired to her quarters, as well, and I didn’t see her for two more days. During that time, poor Grand-mère took care of me and prepared my meals, meager as they were. She would also dutifully carry a tray up to my mother, but I know she hardly touched her food.
The second day after I finished my supper, I had gone to my room to get one of my favorite books and the blanket from my bed to wrap myself in and carried them both back down to the kitchen, the only room that still had a fire blazing in its great hearth. As I slid one of the heavy maple chairs out from the table, I wondered what would happen when the stock of firewood was all used up because on that day the fifth of January1764, there was a bitter chill in the house from the cold weather outside. I suppose I remember that date so clearly because that evening I had a conversation with my mother which was to change my life forever, as well as the way I would eventually come to feel about her.
“Colette, my darling girl, have you missed me?” she said as she came up behind me and put her arms around my shoulders. When I turned my head to the side to answer her, she kissed my cheek.
“Of course, I have. Are you feeling better?”
“Yes, darling. I just had to work out a few things in my mind. You see, I need to speak to you of something extremely important, and I wasn’t sure how. In fact, it’s difficult for me to speak of it at all,” she said, as she pulled out the chair across from me and sat down.
My mother looked old. I had never thought so until that day. She had deep hollows and dark circles around her eyes, and her skin was extremely pale. Faint lines had become evident on her forehead and down the sides of her mouth, and her hair was beginning to gray and hung down long and disheveled over her robe.
“What is it, Maman? You can tell me anything you know.”
“Yes, I know, darling, but I must make you understand first the terrible predicament Papa’s death has left us in. If it were not for that, I would never consider such a future for you.” I wasn’t certain what she was talking about regarding my future, but I was certainly aware that we were changed.
“I know, Maman. I see around me what’s happening.”
“Then I must tell you of Madame de Pompadour’s offer, as it seems the only solution.”
“I had to agree finally to let her take you away from me. She has employment for you that will bring a great deal of money to me and also take care of you very nicely. It’s all that I can do since I’ll not be able to feed the three of us much longer, and I would eventually lose this house, as well. Then where would we be—begging from door to door? Fortunately, you’re a beautiful girl. If it were not so, I can’t think what we would do.”
I started crying and went to her for comfort. I smothered my face in her bosom and wept. I couldn’t bear to leave her—ever.
“My poor child,” she said in a sweetly soothing manner, as she put her arms around me and held me closer. “You must know how much it hurts me to have to give you up, but there is truly nothing I can do. It’s the only way to save us all. Do you understand? It hurts me beyond words, but there is no other way? Please say you understand, darling girl . . . Please, Colette.”
“I do, Maman.”
“Then promise me that you will be a good girl, and do everything that Madame de Pompadour asks of you.”
“You’re my darling daughter,” she said, stroking the back of my head.
“When must I go? I asked her.
“When we hear from Madame. She’ll notify us when she’s ready to come for you.”
Dear Diary: I am so very sad to have to leave Maman and Grand-mère, and I’m also frightened. I don’t understand what’s expected of me, but to have questioned Maman further didn’t seem the right thing to do. I felt certain that had I tried she would have begun to cry, and I couldn’t bear to upset her anymore.
It would be another week of struggling to stay warm and to find enough to eat, before a messenger finally knocked at our door.
“Maman! Maman!” I called out to her as I ran up the stairs.
“What is it, Colette?”
“I have a letter for you. It was just delivered. Where are you?”
“In here. In my study,” she called out.
I came into the room and found her sitting at her small writing desk. I handed the letter to her and sat down while she read it.
“It’s from Madame. She says that she will be here for you this Saturday afternoon. That gives us very little time to pack your things.”
“It will be all right. I can take care of the packing myself.”
“Are you certain? You won’t need any help?”
“No, I can manage.”
“All right then, darling, but if you find it to be more difficult than you expected, come and tell me. After all, I’m here for you if you should need me.”
“I know, Maman.”
“Then I suppose you might as well get started. There are some small trunks in the attic, just at the top of the stairs.”
“I’ll get them now,” I told her, as I bent down to kiss her cheek before leaving the room.
It had never been a pleasure of mine to go to the attic, even with my father there to protect me, but I would have to be brave. It was the only way I could get what I needed without being a bother. I crept up the stairs and was startled nearly senseless when something brushed the top of my head with a swish. I turned up the gas lantern I was carrying and saw the culprit almost immediately, right before it took another deliberate swoop at me. It was a big, black bat and it was not at all happy to be disturbed. I grabbed two trunks as quickly as I could and ran back down the stairs banging and scraping the sidewalls of the narrow stairwell all the way. When I reached the bottom, I slammed the attic door shut behind me. Then, I took a deep breath and walked down to the end of the hall and into my room.
Dear Diary: Ordinarily, Papa would have gone to the attic for the trunks himself, or at least gone with me, but then if he were still here, I wouldn’t be going anywhere, would I? I’m proud of myself for going up there alone, and I know Papa would have been proud of me too.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I should pack. Finally, I decided that I would take only what would fit into the two trunks I had already brought downstairs since I had no intention of going back to the attic a second time.
I picked up the first stuffed animal I ever had owned, a small brown bear made out of material scraps and some pink ribbon that Grand-mère had made for Papa to give me when I was a toddler. I would absolutely have to take him, and of course my favorite bunny in her calico dress. Sadly, I came to realize that the rest of my collection would have to stay behind . . . left but not forgotten. I would not take any of my beautiful painted wooden-faced dolls in their fancy silk dresses either because while I loved them dearly, they were not as sentimental to me. Most importantly, I would take the diary Grand-mère had given me. I picked it up and sat down on my canopy bed and was suddenly so overwhelmed with emotion that I was soon crying.
Dear Diary: This just can’t be happening to me! I have already lost Papa and my siblings. Why should I now be forced to give up everything else, Maman, Grand-mère, the only home I’ve ever known, and even some of my poor toys? I hate this! I’m only a child, after all.
Why couldn’t Maman help me, or Grand-mère, or somebody? I have no idea about the place I’m going to, or if anyone will ever care about me again, and, why should they? I’m not their little girl! That’s all I really want to be—the same little girl I used to be. I really don’t like acting grownup for the sake of Maman. I want to be taken care of just as I always have been.
I must have lain down at some point and cried myself to sleep because I woke the next morning to Grand-mère’s calling my name as she came into my room.
“Yes, what is it?” I groggily asked.
“I want you to come down to the kitchen and have some hot oatmeal. Why on earth did you fall asleep in your frock? You have a clean nightgown. I washed it myself and left it folded in the top drawer of your dresser.”
“I was trying to figure out what I should pack to take with me, and I guess I must have fallen asleep.”
“I see you got the trunks from the attic.”
“Yes, it was scary though. There’s a huge bat up there that tried to attack me.”
“Really, dear? Well, I see he didn’t get the best of you.”
“Will you be sorry when I’ve gone away?”
“Of course, my darling. You should know that. I’ll miss you with all my heart,” she said as she came and put her arms around me and held me close.
“I still don’t understand why I have to go.”
“Poor child, I wish it were not so. If only your dear papa hadn’t been taken from us.”
Now she was crying. All I wanted was a little comfort–instead, I was comforting her.
“We had no choice about that, Grand-mère. It was God’s will. Everything will be all right.”
“I truly do hope so. The future of all three of us rests on your small shoulders now.”
“I know. I promise I’ll do my best.”
“Of course you will, my dear. Now, come down to the kitchen,” she said, as she dried her eyes with her crumpled handkerchief—the one with the purple forget-me-nots. I had given it to her for her birthday a few years earlier, and I had been so proud. Every flower, every stem, every leaf had been painstakingly embroidered by me. My mother had so patiently shown me how.
When Madame de Pompadour arrived to fetch me, she told my mother my wardrobe would not be needed much longer. It seemed I was to have all new garments. She had brought with her my mother’s first payment, and though I never found out the worth, it was evident by my mother’s faint smile that she was pleased.
Grand-mère had said her good-byes to me before I left the house. It was starting to lightly snow and far too cold for her to step outside, but my mother had walked all the way to the carriage with me.
“I will miss you, my darling, Colette. Please be a very good girl.”
“I will, Maman, I promise.”
She kissed me then on both cheeks and hugged me tightly to herself. It was only by Madam’s insistence that we must get started that my mother had finally released her hold of me. I then crawled up into the carriage and sat down with as little commotion as possible in the seat across from a woman I hardly knew. My mother waved and I vigorously waved back until I couldn’t see her any more. Finally, I sat back and had a good look at the grand lady who occupied the carriage with me. She was much older than my mother, but I could tell even with her heavily powdered face that she was still very attractive. She wore a white wig piled high atop her head that was adorned with sapphire encrusted combs, and as I studied her, she took her bejeweled hands from her silver fox muff and untied her matching shoulder cape exposing the bodice of a periwinkle blue satin gown that nearly took my breath away. Her perfume was delightful and filled the air with the delicate scent of lilacs and Jasmin. I smiled at her and she immediately smiled back at me.
“You’re such a beautiful young lady,” she said, and her cherry painted lips turned up in a smile.
“I don’t think so, but thank you.”
She demurely laughed at my answer and then said, “I promise you, young lady, in no time at all your opinion will change. You just need to gain some confidence, and I’ll be the one to help you with that. Furthermore, I can assure you that you’ll be amazed by what a fine wardrobe will do for your self-worth. Now tell me what your mother has said to you regarding your new adventure.”
“Only that I would have to leave her and Grand-mère, as well as my home. Oh, and that the payment I get for my work will take care of them both and me, as well. She also said I should be a good girl.”
“Is that all she told you?”
“Yes, Madam, why?”
“No reason, really. I suppose that’s as proper a way to put it as any. You will be staying with me for a short time, so that I can teach you certain things you’ll need to know while in the company of the king.”
“I’m going to meet the king?”
“Indeed, you are,” she answered and then quickly changed the subject. “I’ve arranged to have a special showing of newly arrived silks, at Madame Roche’s, so that we might get your new wardrobe started. She’s expecting us at one thirty. Oh dear, I do hope we’re not going to be late!”
Dear Diary: As luck would have it, we didn’t arrive at Madame Roche’s in time. However, she was more than gracious about the inconvenience. She was a pleasant woman who made me feel as comfortable as she could under the circumstances. By that I mean, I was required to remove my outer garments and my undergarments. It was explained to me that this was absolutely necessary so that proper measurements could be taken to insure a perfect fit, but it was still very embarrassing. Both Madame Roche and Madame de Pompadour were discussing my naked body right in front of me, as if I were somewhere else. Once the ordeal was finally over, I was allowed to dress before sitting down to look at countless fabrics and lace. If I had only known that I would have a new wardrobe, I could have packed more of my stuffed animals or my dolls.
All of my gowns were to be of the finest silk, and embellished with the most delicate Chantilly lace, and other various trims, including satin ribbon. I was also to have a hunter green velvet coat with a caped shoulder and a matching hat with a white plume. Many undergarments, and sleeping gowns of the sheerest silk, flimsy and flowing, with matching robes . . . one more lovely than the next, would round out my wardrobe.
My two most favorite gowns were to be a deep ruby embossed silk one that I was told looked magnificent with my auburn hair and one that was blue silk, the exact color of my eyes. The interesting thing about the gowns was that each one was designed in pieces. First there was a full-length shell or robe that was sleeveless and tied at the waist called a mantua. Then there was a stomacher, which was interchangeable with the mantua. It was embellished with lace, and, or ribbons and was meant to cover the bosom down to the waist, ending in a point. Third were the three-quarter sleeves that matched the stomacher.
Before we were done, all of the lace and ribbon for each gown was carefully selected and coordinated to be interchangeable with each mantua. That would make my wardrobe appear larger. Madame Roche had given her word to Madame de Pompadour that everything would be completed within three weeks—even if she had to do the sewing herself.
I had inquired of Madame, when we left the seamstress, why she was giving me so many things and if I wasn’t much too young to wear some of them?
“Because, dear, you must be absolutely beautiful when you meet the king, and besides no lady’s too young for him,” she laughed, and then she hugged me tight and said, “Don’t worry, my little Colette, you’ll be fine.”
I was next taken to Madame’s apartment on the second floor, in the Palace of Versailles. She had told me it was directly over the king’s quarters. It was a magnificent, sprawling place of decadent grandeur, just as the palace was. Upon entering her quarters, I was introduced to a girl named Constance, and we were left together to visit while Madame excused herself to go and change. Constance had followed along with me and the footman who carried my luggage to the lovely suite I would be staying in. After he left, the two of us sat down on the edge of the bed to talk. She was a nice girl, but average in appearance. Her hair was light brown, and her eyes were pale blue with a facial complexion that had it not been accented with cheek and lip rouge, might have made her look washed out.
“How long have you been here?” I asked her.
“I just came from having a wardrobe designed for me at Madame Roche’s,” I confided.
“She made my wardrobe, as well.”
“Then, are you here for the same reason as me?”
“I would think so. It seems the king cannot get enough of the company of young girls.”
“What do you mean?” I asked becoming concerned.
“Oh, nothing, really. How old are you?”
“Fourteen,” I told her. “How old are you?”
“Have you met the king, yet?”
“Yes, I met him after I was schooled in court etiquette. He gave me this heart and chain, see,” she said, as she held it away from her neck for me to inspect. It was a little diamond encrusted heart.
“It’s beautiful,” I told her, holding it as delicately as I possibly could.
“Thank you. He gave it to me last night at a small dinner party. I’ve been in his company on two other occasions, as well.”
“What is he like? What does he look like?”
“One question at a time,” she laughed. “He’s not a young man at all, but he is still handsome, I suppose, and he has been very attentive and charming to me.”
“That’s very nice.”
“Yes, far better than an orphanage would have been, I guess. At least, that’s what Madame has told me.”
“Did you lose your papa, too?” I asked.
“I lost both of my parents. They got sick and died.”
“You lost your papa?” she asked.
“Yes, and my mother couldn’t afford to keep our house, or feed me and my grand-mère, unless I came here to work.”
“That’s much the same as me,” she said.
“I’m sorry for the reason you’re here, but I am happy to have you to talk with.”
“Unfortunately, you only have me for tonight. I’ll be leaving in the morning.”
“Why?” I nearly cried.
“Because my wardrobe is ready, and I’ve learned what I needed to learn, and I’ve met the king, and he likes me.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll be lodged at a place where the king can visit me alone when he wants to. That’s all I know.”
“Do you want him to visit you alone?”
“I’m not sure, but it really doesn’t matter what I want.”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” she mysteriously answered.
I wanted to question her further but didn’t have the chance then, and the subject never came up again.
“Constance,” I heard Madame calling.
“Yes?” she replied.
Madame came into the room then.
“Are you packed and ready for tomorrow morning, dear?”
“Yes, I’m ready,” Constance answered.
“Very well then, girls, I’m going out for the evening. Your dinner will be served soon. Don’t stay up too late, both of you have busy schedules tomorrow,” Madame said, and then she left us with a swish of her petticoats and the sweet scent of her perfume.
Dinner arrived as promised. It was brought on two silver trays and left on a huge table in Madam’s dining room. We enjoyed a delicious dish of wild hens and rice with vegetables and then spent the rest of the evening playing a parlor card game. Constance had learned it while staying with Madame. It was called Vingt et un (Twenty-one).
The first morning at Madame de Pompadour’s I awoke to the sound of dishes gently clanking. It seemed I was being served my breakfast in bed, and I was not used to such pampering, except when I was ill.
“Did you sleep well?” the lady asked with a smile, as I leaned forward for her to plump my pillows. Then she set the silver tray on my lap.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Lovely,” she said. She had taken the folded napkin off my tray, opened it, and handed it back to me.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Lenore. I’ll be back after you’ve eaten to help you prepare for your day.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary—I can dress myself?”
“I’m sure you can, miss, but a lady is entitled to such luxury.
“I’m not a lady.”
“Your father was a duke, wasn’t he?”
“Then you are most certainly a lady. What’s your last name?”
“You are the Lady Colette LeClair.”
“I didn’t know. No one ever told me.”
“You’re young. Perhaps, it wasn’t necessary before now. I’ll be back later to help you.”
I was just swallowing the last morsel of toast smeared with orange marmalade when Lenore returned. She prepared a bath for me and then helped me dress. Once I was ready, she brought me to a large and extravagant parlor where Madame was lounging on her purple velvet setae, apparently waiting for me.
“Good morning, my dear. How was your first night’s sleep away from home?” she asked sitting up.
“Fine, Madame—I slept well—thank you.” I smiled, but the truth was, I hadn’t slept well at all.
“I’m pleased to hear that. Are you ready for your first lesson in court etiquette?”
“I suppose so . . . yes.”
“Then come sit by me and we’ll begin. You’re from a fine home, so no doubt you’ve been taught good manners. However, you still have more to learn. For instance, when you’re in the company of a gentleman, and he’s speaking to you, you must let nothing sway your attention from him and what he is saying. You must concentrate on his every word, as if anything he says is of the utmost importance, even if it rarely is.” She laughed gaily at what she had just said and then continued. “Do you understand, dear?”
“Do you have any idea who the most important person you will ever find yourself keeping company with is?”
After thinking about it, I told her, “I don’t know.”
“The king, of course. He is the only one that should ever divert your attention from a gentleman who is interested in spending time with you.”
“Oh, I see.”
“When you meet the king, or any male member of the court for that matter, you must gracefully extend your arm straight from your shoulder with your palm down like this for a gentleman to take it and then give the slightest bow to you. After you have met, whenever you happen to be in his company, you will be expected to extend your hand, only this time as a form of greeting. Do you have any questions?”
“No, Madame, I understand perfectly.”
“Then let me see you repeat the gesture to me.”
As soon as I began, I was quickly scolded.
“No, you pulled your hand back much too quickly. Try it again.”
Once more, I extended my hand to Madam and waited for her to release her hold before I gently pulled away.