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When the Princess of Lamballe's lace was ready, Grand-mère decided that I
should deliver it. Not because I was responsible -- I was not, as she often
reminded me. Not because she trusted me -- she did not, as I well knew. It was
because I was worthless, because Grand-mère had been more than usually
unhappy about the lace I'd made the previous day, and because one of the very
minor nobles had ordered ten yards of lace -- a vast amount -- that was to be
picked up today, and it wasn't finished. "Stop for George. He'll point you to
Her Majesty's rooms," Grand-mère said, stuffing me roughly into my one
real dress. "He'll see you don't dawdle, or lose the lace."
George was my older brother. He worked in the stables at the palace of
Versailles, caring for the Marquis de Lafayette's carriage horses. Our father
had also been a servant of the Marquis. Papa was dead; I never knew him.
"Heaven forbid, lose the lace," murmured Maman, sitting up in her bed in the
corner of the room, and crossing herself. Grand-mère was large and fat and
mean; Maman was small and crippled and sad. "Take care, Isabelle, will you?"
She glanced at Grand-mère. "Perhaps -- "
"I don't have a moment to spare, not one moment, not with us so behind,"
Grand-mère said. She looked at Maman. She did not say it was Maman's fault
we were behind with our lacemaking, but she thought it, and Maman and I both
knew she was thinking it. Some days Maman's knees and hands hurt so bad that
she had to drink laudanum before she could sleep. The medicine made her groggy
all the next day, and it made her hands shake, too, which was not good in a
Grand-mère thought that Maman only pretended to be in pain, despite the
evidence of her swollen fingers and knees. Grand-mère never believed in any
pain she didn't feel herself.
Grand-mère was an evil old goat. She made our house a misery.
Now she poked me with Maman's cane. "Don't you think for a moment that you're
off the hook. If it weren't for your shoddy work yesterday, we wouldn't be in
such a rush."
This was a lie. The lace I'd ruined yesterday -- and I had made a mess of it,
the pattern was complicated and I'd gotten confused -- was not the lace that was
supposed to be ready today. I wasn't trusted to make important lace. But I knew
better than to contradict Grand-mère.
"It won't take her long," Maman said. "You, Isabelle, remember you have work
waiting when you get home."
I jumped, trying to see myself in the tiny mirror that hung high above the
bureau. "Come here," Maman said. She pulled my hair back and powdered it with
the hare's foot and powder from the table beside her bed.
"George will be working," I said. He slept at the stables. He was rarely home.
"He can take a moment to help you," Maman said.
Grand-mère grabbed my shoulder and hauled me back to the center of the
room. "Hold still." She gathered a handful of lace around the neckline of my
dress and quickly sewed it into place. Her needle flashed near my throat. I held
still. The lace was not ornate, but all lace was precious. If I moved and
Grand-mère stabbed me and I bled on the lace, it would be my fault.
"Some at her wrists, too," suggested Maman.
"She'll ruin it," Grand-mère said. "Foolish girl. She'll fall in a mud
puddle or slip on the stairs."
I held my breath. I loved to dress up, and I almost never got to wear the lace
"She'll be careful," said Maman. "Consider that it's the palace, after all.
Someone might notice her."
Grand-mère considered. She looked at me the way a hawk might look at a
mouse. "Hold up your arms," she commanded at last.
I held them up. "What shall I do?" I said, while Grand-mère whipstitched
lace around my sleeves. I tried not to sound excited, in case they changed their
minds. "What do I say to the princess?"
I never got to deliver lace, not even when it was only a bourgeoise who'd
ordered it, someone who lived and worked right in town. I never got to go to the
Château, either, the great palace of Versailles, nor was I allowed to play
in the parkland that surrounded it, nor go to the stables and bother my brother,
even though he said he didn't mind.
I was a lacemaker, the daughter of a lacemaker, and the granddaughter of one. I
had had a needle put into my hands when I was less than five years old. I made
lace every day. Also I went to market for our bread and beer, and for the thread
and linen that we used. I bought our dinners from the tavern downstairs. I swept
out the fires in the mornings, and brought up wood, and emptied chamber pots. I
swept our two rooms, and kept them clean. I took our clothes to the laundress
down the street. Once we had employed a scullery maid, but that was before
Maman's hands got so bad. Now, between the doctor's visits and the laudanum, we
needed more money than we had.
I was eleven. Sometimes I still got lost trying to follow a lace pattern, but
my stitches were even and my turns were careful and neat. Maman said that
sometimes she couldn't tell the difference between my lace and hers. I knew this
wasn't true, but I also knew that my lace was not the disgrace Grand-mère
said it was. "We Bonnards have to work for our living," Grand-mère had
shouted that morning, waving the piece I had ruined beneath my nose. "No one
supports us. No one cares to. You, girl, how will you eat if you can't work?"
She had flicked a glance at Maman in the bed, and I hated her for it.
Now Grand-mère was shouting again. "You won't speak to the princess! What
insolence! As though the governess of the Children of France would bother to
speak to such as you! All you are good for is wasting expensive thread," she
went on bitterly. "When you get back from the palace, you'll sit on your stool
and ply that needle of yours until I'm satisfied."
Grand-mère was never satisfied.
I noticed that she hadn't answered my question, not really, but I didn't want to
ask again. She'd start hitting me with the cane if I wasn't careful. Once, she
hit me so hard that my shoulder didn't work right for a week.
George would help me. George was my salvation.
Maman produced a ribbon to tie around my neck. Grand-mère shook her head.
"Better to have her noticed," Maman said.
Grand-mère scoffed. "Who would notice such a sniveling child?"
"Lacemakers who can't afford fripperies, what kind of message does that send?"
Maman murmured. I stole a glance at her, and she smiled. "You look very neat,"
she told me.
For once Maman won an argument; I left our rooms with a bright silk ribbon
around my neck. I clattered down the stairs to the street, and raced down the
dusty streets in my little satin shoes, holding tight to the paper-wrapped
package of lace. It was a beautiful summer day, all gold sun and blue sky, and
I was happy to be set free, if only for a short time. It seemed an age since
I'd ventured farther from our apartment than the butcher shop or the chandler.
Versailles's stables, the big stable where the carriage horses lived, and the
little stable for riding horses, were immense, but George always cared for the
same three teams of horses, and I knew where their stalls were. I found George
forking old straw out of one of the stalls into a wheelbarrow. "Maman says you
must take me to the palace," I said. "I have lace to deliver." I puffed out my
chest a little, pleased with my importance.
"You look beautiful, Bella," George said. He straightened and smiled warmly.
"Powdered hair and all."
I twirled around so that he could admire me from all sides, then said, "I must
take this to the Princess of Lamballe."
He nodded. "I can walk you to the palace now." He washed his hands in a bucket,
then climbed the ladder to the loft where the stable boys slept. When he
returned, he was wearing a fresh jacket and his hair had been retied into a
queue. He carried his hat under one arm.
"I wish you could powder your hair," I said.
He smiled, but shook his head. "Powder is for postillions," he said. "I'm
nothing but a common groom." He put his hat on his head, and took me by the
hand. George was fourteen, a head taller than me, and thin as a rail. At first
he walked so fast that I had to skip to keep up with him, but then he looked
down at me and slowed. "No hurry," he said, and smiled.
"I'll get to meet Her Majesty," I said.
"You won't," he said. "She doesn't speak with lacemakers. Besides, you said it
was for the Princess of Lamballe."
"Grand-mère said I should take it to Her Majesty's rooms. Isn't that where
the princess lives?"
George laughed at me. "Her Majesty is the queen," he said. "The Princess
of Lamballe is the queen's great friend. That's why she was named the Dauphin's
governess." He paused. "The princess isn't royal. I don't know why they call her
princess. She's not a near relation to the king and queen. But she's still very
important. She has large rooms all her own."
I knew about the Dauphin, the heir to the throne. The Children of France were
the sons and daughter of the king and queen. The oldest of them was Marie
The;rèse, nine years old and a disappointment to the nation because
she was not a boy. Next came the hope of France, the Dauphin, Louis Joseph, and
then the three-year-old Duke of Normandy, Louis Charles. There had been another,
a baby named Sophie, but she had died.
The Dauphin's governess would be a very important person, whether she was really
a princess or not. "I know Grand-mère said 'Her Majesty's rooms,'" I
insisted. I gave a little skip. "To think that someone so important bought our
George looked down again. "As much lace as the court wears, you'd think they'd
keep every lacemaker in France fully occupied." After a pause he added. "Still,
you're right. It's a great thing for us if we please her."
If we became fashionable, we would have as many orders for lace as we could
fill. We could charge more too. Maman could have all the medicine she needed,
and someone besides me could empty the chamber pots. The thought of that was
nearly enough for me to love making lace.
The stables fronted the enormous palace. Already we were past the gates of the
palisade, fighting our way through the crowd. The courtyard was like a
marketplace, full of peasants and merchants and beggars. One fashionable man
rushed by on very high heels, the skirts of his long yellow coat flapping. He
held his wig to his head with one hand. I stared. The coat was silk, I was
sure. I'd felt a piece of silk once, so smooth under the fingers, and light,
"Listen," said George. He stopped and lifted my chin. "You see why this is
important, don't you?" I nodded, but he continued to look straight into my eyes.
"This is the first time an important person ever ordered Maman's lace. You won't
see the princess, but be sure you act respectful to everybody you do meet."
"Grand-mère made the lace," I said. "Not Maman."
"That's not my point," George said.
I frowned. "I know how to behave."
He patted my chin. "I know you do, ma belle. Just be sure that you
actually behave as well as you know how."
"Ma belle" meant "my beautiful one." It was a play on my name, Isabelle.
Only George ever called me beautiful.
I saw the enormous palace of Versailles from the town every day. It was like a
mountain, part of the scenery; I hardly noticed it. But now, as we made our way
closer, it seemed to grow bigger and bigger, more and more ornate. "This is
nothing," George replied, when I said so. "You should see the back side, and the
We stopped at a booth near a door to the inside, where a man had a collection
of small swords. George handed the man a few coins; he bowed, and handed George
a sword. George buckled it around his waist.
"I'm renting it," he explained. "Men must wear a hat and a sword to enter
"You aren't a man," I said.
George frowned. "I am too. The Marquis de Lafayette was hardly older than me
when he joined the army."
"You're not a marquis."
He pushed me through the door. "Up that stairway over there. That's the Queen's
Stairway." He pushed harder. "Move, Isabelle."
I was too busy staring. The palace was as grand as I'd always imagined. The
stairs were marble, and so were the banisters, and the rail. The floors were
marble tiles and the ceilings were hung with carvings painted gold. Every corner
held a statue; every open spot a piece of furniture so beautifully carved and
painted I wondered that anyone dared sit upon it.
Yet there was a beggar sitting on a tapestry-covered bench -- a one-eyed beggar
wearing a hat and sword. "Look!" I whispered.
"Hush!" said George.
The smell was awful; it grew worse as we picked our way up the stairs. It
smelled like the latrine in the back of our courtyard at home, only stronger. I
lifted my sleeve and buried my nose in my lace cuff.
A beautiful woman swept down the stairs in wide panniered skirts and a tall,
tall wig. The crowd made way for her, pressing George and me close against the
rail. The woman looked neither right nor left; she expected everyone to give her
room. Her Majesty, I thought. I elbowed George. "Is that -- "
"It's a nobody," he said. "Some country courtier begging a favor. Come on."
"How do you know?"
"I know. When you see them often enough, you can tell the difference, the ones
who are important and the ones who aren't."
At the top of the stairs was an enormous guardroom, black and red marble, the
ceiling painted with pictures of cherubs and people wearing sheets. A huge fire
blazed on golden andirons, and over it three guards in uniform were cooking
sausages. One of them looked barely older than George. More guards played cards
at a small table near the door, and a little black dog lay at their feet.
The crowd had thinned near the doorway of the room. George put the lace parcel
into my hands and gave me another push, so that I fell a few steps across the
threshold. "Go ahead," he whispered. "When you're done, go out just the way you
"Wait," I said, "what do I -- " It was no use. He had already turned and ducked
back into the crowd.
I shouldered my way past the last few people and took one step into the
cavernous room. The walls towered over me. One of the card-playing guards stood
and came toward me. He was not one of the young ones; he was broad-shouldered,
bearded, and tall. "Your purpose, little miss?"
I curtsied. "Please, sir, I come to bring lace ordered by the Princess of
The first guard spoke to another, who went out a small door in the back of the
room. He came back with a girl not much older than myself. She was dressed in a
black gown, possibly silk, I thought, but without panniers or lace; even I
could see she was a servant of some sort.
"Give it to Jeannette, here," said the first guard. "She'll see the princess
I didn't think Maman would like me handing our lace to a servant named
Jeannette. Plus I still hoped to catch a glimpse of someone important. "But
sir," I said, clutching the package more tightly. "That's not the princess. And
the payment -- " I didn't know, actually, if I was supposed to collect any
money. Grand-mère hadn't said. I didn't know how much she wanted for the
Jeannette marched forward. "You'll have to send a bill, then, won't you?" she
said. She snatched the parcel out of my hands. "The nerve of these
tradespeople!" She laughed, and the guards joined in.
"But how will I know the princess -- "
The big guard cut me off. He shepherded me out of the room. "Don't worry,
little bourgeoise," he said. "Jeannette will see that the lace comes to no
He was mocking me, laughing at my concern. My face flamed with anger. I wanted
to kick him, hard, and run after that Jeannette. I wanted to tell him how Maman
and Grand-mère had worked over that lace, how many hours it had taken them
to make it, how many hours I myself worked every day. I opened my mouth to say
something. The guard covered my mouth with his hand. He picked me up and carried
me to the door. My skirts hampered my kicking, but I still landed several good
blows. "OUT," he roared, setting me down in the hallway and shoving me toward
Perhaps I had not been respectful, as George had said, but no one in the hallway
seemed to notice. I stood in the midst of a dozen people, maybe more. I didn't
see any beggars now; everyone was richly dressed, gorgeously dressed, dazzling
embroidery and more lace than I'd ever imagined. They were all hurrying one
direction or another as fast as they could. The instant my guard got rid of me,
a man stepped in front of him, and began talking very fast. He said he had
business with Her Majesty.
"Her Majesty is not in," the guard informed him. The man slunk away.
The red marble walls looked like giant slabs of beef with white veins of fat
running through them. The odor of the guards' sausages filled the air, masking
the smells of the puddles fermenting on the staircase. I didn't see George
Rotten boy, gone back to the stables already, I thought. And was that
all I was supposed to have done with the lace? It didn't seem worth the trouble
of dressing up. Perhaps I should have demanded payment. Perhaps I had failed.
Maman would say so, and sigh. Grand-mère would make me sit on my chair for
hours. I'd be plying my needle by candlelight today.
My stomach rumbled. What I wouldn't give for a sausage!
A finely dressed lady bumped into me. She gave off an odor of perfume almost as
offensive as the general stench. "Watch what you're about, little girl!" she
said. I curtsied and apologized, but she didn't notice. She'd already hurried
by. I was not important enough to pay attention to.
I've been abandoned, I thought. Abandoned and ignored, inside the
Palace of Versailles. My heart gave a skip. What a wonderful place to be
ignored! I thought one last time of Grand-mère and her stool. Then,
instead of heading down the queen's staircase toward home, I turned right and
started down a long, long hall. I may have failed in my errand, but no one
would know it until I went home.
Copyright © 2007 by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley