The Paris of this XVIth Century day is not wearing its usual face. It is a Paris draped in white and scattered with flowers. A sunny, joyful Paris, with all its church bells ringing.
It is the 18 August 1572, and Charles IX’s capital is celebrating. This morning, in Notre-Dame, the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medicis, has married her daughter Marguerite, the future Queen Margot, to Henri de Navarre, the future King Henri IV, and the little people, always ready to participate in the joys of the greats of this world, are celebrating the event by devouring blood sausage, emptying jugs of white wine, and dancing the gig at all the crossroads. From the Saint-Antoine Gate to the Saint-Honore Gate, musicians, perched on upturned barrels, play flat out the slightly risque tunes that please the girls and make them laugh for no particular reason.
But there is not only dancing at the crossroads. There is also dancing at the Louvre. To more complicated music, it is true. The rooms of the palace, usually so lugubrious, are filled this evening with all the young people dressed in starched ruffs and cloth of gold, leaping gracefully to the sound of lutes, violas and oboes.
There are King Charles IX, who is twenty-two, Queen Elizabeth, eighteen, the Duke of Anjou and future Henri III, twenty-one, his brother Francois, Duke of Alencon, eighteen, the young newly-weds who are both nineteen, and a quantity of princes, princesses, dukes and duchesses who are under twenty.
Among these guests are Henri de Conde and his wife, Marie de Cleves. They have been married a month. He is ugly, bilious, jealous. She is ravishing. There is also a very pretty blonde with saucy eyes called Renee de Rieux. She is one of Catherine de Medicis’ ladies-in-waiting and the mistress of the Duke of Anjou and future Henri III. Their liaison is known to the whole Court, and from the beginning of the ball, they have been dancing continuously with each other. They are beautiful, elegant, and very much in love.
Marguerite, who has just married, by order of her mother, that Bearnais who stinks of garlic, and to whom she has decided to refuse herself this evening, in spite of a temperament for which she will later become famous, looks at them rather enviously. The Duke of Anjou has just signalled to the musicians. They have understood: after the “low dances” executed in a calm, deliberate manner, they are going to pass to the “high dances” which contain leaps and bounds. The orchestra attacks a volte. All the couples then start to bound everywhere in a burlesque fashion. At the centre, the Duke of Anjou and Renee de Rieux, tightly enlaced, dance, their eyes locked together, alone in the world. The Duke declares his love once again, and assures her that he will never love another woman. Then he demands a farandole from the musicians.
They immediately attack a popular tune and all the dancers, taking each other’s hands, dance through the salons. But it is so hot that everyone’s face is soon bright red and shiny.
Marie de Cleves is the first to detach herself from the farandole. She excuses herself to her husband, telling him that she must change because she is dripping with perspiration…
And she goes to a nearby chamber where she undresses and wipes her whole body. One of Catherine de Medicis’ ladies-in-waiting then says to her:
“Your undershirt is drenched, Madame. Leave it here, I will give you another one.”
Marie de Cleves puts on the new undershirt, re-dresses and goes back to the ball. The Duke of Anjou comes in turn to the chamber to re-do his hair and wipe his face. Thinking that he is taking a towel, he then picks up the undershirt that Marie has just taken off, and wipes it over his face. Immediately, something unusual takes place: he is invaded by intense emotion, while a burning force lights up his body; his senses are troubled and he suddenly conceives an unlimited love for the owner of this still-warm lingerie that he holds in his hand.
Staggering, as if under the empire of a drug, he re-enters the ballroom and, although no-one has told him that the undershirt belongs to Marie, his eyes immediately find her. And this woman, whom he has known for six months without giving her more than polite interest, plunges him into an emotion that he has never before felt. Fascinated by Marie de Cleves, who suddenly seems to him to be the most gracious, the most charming and the most desirable being in the world, he sees no-one else, and even forgets Renee de Rieux, with whom, an instant before, he had been totally in love.
The very next day, he sends a passionate letter to the young woman, and Marie, overwhelmed to learn that she has seduced the most beautiful prince in France, falls in love too. Faithful, however, to her ugly husband, she decides never to return to the Louvre for fear of meeting Henri… Then, Henri writes to the Duchess of Nevers, Marie’s sister, begging her help “with tears in my eyes and my hands joined”.
And Madame de Nevers pleads the cause of the suitor so well that Marie agrees to allow the Duke to wear a little portrait of herself around his neck. Then she accepts a rendez-vous, and they both “think that they are in Paradise”, a chronicler tells us…
From then on, they meet regularly thanks to the complicity of the Duchess of Nevers, and their chaste liaison illuminates their lives. A separation will shatter them. In September 1573, Catherine de Medicis having had Henri elected King of Poland, he has to leave for Cracovia. He sets off in tears, leaving Marie inconsolable…
To be continued.