This radiant and thrilling debut follows a passionate love affair between two noblewomen who wish to free themselves from their repressive society, whatever the cost.
“Propel[s] us into the epicentre of a 17th century Paris where breaking out of the prison of arranged marriage is only one of the many challenges confronting women.” —Lisa Appignanesi, author of Everyday Madness
In 17th century Paris, everyone has something to hide. The noblemen and women and writers consort with fortune tellers in the confines of their homes, servants practice witchcraft and black magic, and the titled poison family members to obtain inheritance. But for the Baroness Marie Catherine, the only thing she wishes to hide is how unhappy she is in her marriage, and the pleasures she seeks outside of it.
When her husband is present, the Baroness spends her days tending to her children and telling them elaborate fairy tales, but when he’s gone, Marie Catherine indulges in a more liberated existence, one of forward-thinking discussions with female scholars in the salons of grand houses, and at the center of her freedom: Victoire Rose de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Conti, the androgynous, self-assured countess who steals Marie Catherine’s heart and becomes her lover.
Victoire possesses everything Marie Catherine does not—confidence in her love, and a brazen fearlessness in all that she’s willing to do for it. But when a shocking and unexpected murder occurs, Marie Catherine must escape. And what she discovers is the dark underbelly of a city full of people who have secrets they would kill to keep.
The Disenchantment is a stunning debut that conjures an unexpected world of passion, crime, intrigue, and black magic.
Release date: May 16, 2023
Print pages: 368
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
It was the first sitting. The portrait was conventional, and yet Alain Lavoie was nervous as, with his brush and palette, he attempted to turn the chaos of life into ordered forms of light and shadow. Hôtel Cardonnoy was a grand house, and it bristled with servants–a Swiss guard at the main gate, two lackeys in gold braid standing watch outside the door of the room in which Lavoie now worked. When he had arrived he’d half expected the guard to see his shabby rented carriage and turn him back at the gate. Now the baronne’s lady’s maid kept watch on a stool with a copy of Le Mercure galant open on her lap. She mouthed the words as she read, sounding them out silently. Some noblewomen had their girls read aloud while he painted, to make the time pass more quickly. Marie Catherine la Jumelle, Baronne de Cardonnoy, was not one of these. She stood silent and straight as a sword in the centre of the room, looking into the light with an expression of sweet contemplation–the face of a woman, Lavoie thought, who was imagining her own beauty from the outside.
For himself, Lavoie was attempting not to show how the wealth of the room discomforted him. It always happened like that at the beginning of a new sitting–he’d spend an hour worrying over whether his subjects would notice the worn collar on his silk coat, before his work had the opportunity to speak for itself. It was difficult to feel self-assured in a room with so much gilding on the furniture, even though Lavoie had painted the baron himself six months ago.
The baronne’s right hand rested lightly on her young son’s shoulder. Her daughter stood at her left side. The children were perhaps six and nine, and both had reached the point of the sitting where they had begun to fidget. Lavoie disliked painting children. They didn’t know how to stand still, and the children of the rich were often little monsters, raised permissively by servants and then summoned to pose for hours with parents who were unpredictable strangers.
Only the baronne, her children and the fresh beam of light they stood in appeared on the canvas. Behind them he had outlined the shadow of a heavy column, and beyond that, the first strokes of manicured woodland, as if Madame de Cardonnoy and her children stood in a Roman ruin growing back into the gentlest kind of wildness, with no breeze to stir the confection of lace flounces on Madame’s full skirt or mud to dirty the children’s shoes. Lavoie could see the scene in his mind, superimposed on the room, although the canvas showed only a few bare lines over the blue field of imprimatura. The scent of Madame de Cardonnoy’s perfume, which floated through the room and mingled with the sharp smell of his paints, might have been blowing off the imaginary arbour.
He would soften the light around her face and draw it through the expertly arranged fawn-coloured curls on her head, returning to her some of the glow that she would have had as a young girl. Now, in her early thirties, she was still lovely, in a slightly creased, pensive way that Lavoie would have liked to paint. But the baron would be happier if Lavoie made her look like a teenaged shepherdess. She might even appreciate that too, if she was sensible to flattery.
He had blocked in Madame de Cardonnoy’s face, the shell-shape of her hand resting on the boy’s shoulder. The blue imprimatura reflected through the layer of colour like the glimpse of a vein showing through skin. The boy, a blond child with a bit of a rat face, was twisting back and forth, wringing his mouth into stretched-out shapes like wet washing. The girl, older and more able to keep still, shot a look at her brother that was half condescension and half envy. She was dressed like a fashion doll, in imitation of her mother, the green ribbons on her cream skirt clearly chosen to match the grass-coloured silk of her mother’s gown. One of her hands kept digging surreptitiously behind her in her skirt, where something must have itched. She never put the hand back in the same place, once she was done scratching – sometimes she folded her arms neatly in front of her, and sometimes she made a fist in the fabric of her dress. Lavoie decided that he would paint the arm tucked demurely behind her back.
The part of his mind that wasn’t occupied with the canvas was doing sums in his head, comparing the cost of the little girl’s dress to that of his own silk jacket, which he wore only on professional visits and spent his Sundays washing the paint stains out of. Did the Cardonnoy girl have six dresses like the one she was wearing, or had this one been ordered specially for the painting? Surely her mother, who came from a bourgeois family and had married a baron, must have come with an enormous dowry. Beauty didn’t mean much for that kind of marriage. Lavoie had heard that it was her financier father’s money that had purchased this hôtel.
The boy was now rocking from his toes to his heels, bending at the waist as if he was being pulled back and forth on a string.
‘Please, if you could keep him still, Madame,’ Lavoie murmured.
‘Nicolas, hush. Stand straight.’
Lavoie had expected her to pinch the child’s ear to enforce the command. The most unruly and spoilt children, he found, often lived in fear of their mother. A nursemaid would allow them to gallop around the nursery and break their toys, but the lady of the house still expected them to be polite and presentable before her friends. ‘Look how gallant he is,’ they might say of a little boy. ‘Come now, darling, bow and kiss the comtesse’s hand!’ And if the child didn’t behave, he’d be slapped, to teach him manners. It wasn’t that Lavoie had never been slapped during the years of his apprenticeship, but the way these fine ladies lost their polished mannerisms the instant a child disobeyed unsettled him.
So it surprised him when she smiled at her son and patted his hair with her hand. No part of her, except her hand and the wrist attached to it, moved–it was like watching a puppet’s hand, pulled smoothly through the air on a string.
‘If you like,’ she said, ‘I’ll tell you a story to make the time pass faster. But you must stand perfectly still.’
The boy sighed at this, and the girl straightened up and folded her hands neatly in front of her, her face turning eagerly back towards her mother.
‘Can we have the one about the girl under the peapod, Maman?’ she asked, and the corner of Madame de Cardonnoy’s mouth turned up. Her expression had been so poised that Lavoie had not realised that her polished smile did not reach her eyes. Now it did, and he saw the difference.
‘Don’t forget to look at Monsieur Lavoie, Sophie,’ the baronne said. ‘The story I’m going to tell you is one that you haven’t heard before, but my mother told it to me.’
‘Are there ogres in it?’ the boy asked.
‘Of course there are.’ Madame de Cardonnoy raised her eyes to Lavoie and gave him another of those secret smiles. ‘That is, if you don’t mind listening to a children’s story, Monsieur Lavoie.’
‘Of course not,’ he said. He returned the baronne’s smile only belatedly, and with a feeling approaching dread. Occasionally he painted some wrinkled Parisian lady with grandchildren who expected him to entertain her by flirting. The baronne was not in that category. If he offended her, her servants would throw him out onto the street and he’d lose his commission.
‘Good.’ Madame de Cardonnoy’s hand moved, just slightly, caressing her son’s shoulder. The boy held himself quietly. The lady’s maid was fidgeting with the pages of her book. Lavoie dabbed his brush in shadow and began sketching in the features of the son’s expectant face while he was, for the moment, holding still.
‘Once, in a place far from Paris,’ she began, ‘there was a travelling man, who, having wandered far and wide, came to a village that stood in the shadow of a great, dark wood. He had nothing more than the clothes on his back and a bag of tools, and he was tired and hungry.’
She held herself almost supernaturally still as she spoke. At the beginning of the sitting, Lavoie had assumed that her composure was the result of dullness or lethargy, but now she seemed to be animated by some emotion that she kept in check only through great self-control. Even her expression barely changed, and when she paused for emphasis, only her eyes moved, gliding from the point on the far wall where they’d been fixed to Lavoie himself, as if silently appraising him. The effect was of a woman trapped inside a sculpture, only her living eyes betraying that she was about to step down from her pedestal.
‘But when he walked into the town square,’ Madame de Cardonnoy went on, ‘he found that the people drew back from him and barred their doors. There were no young women in the streets and no young men, but only sad and fearful old people, hurrying from doorstep to doorstep as if they feared to let the sun touch them. Finally the travelling man caught an old woman by the arm and asked her what made the village people so unfriendly to a stranger, and she told him that the village was under the rule of an ogre who lived deep in the wood.’
If he had been painting the portrait according to his own designs, and not according to custom, Lavoie would have liked to show the way the boy’s head tilted upwards to watch his mother speak, his mouth hanging slightly open, as if he could look through her face and into the scene that she was describing. Instead, he outlined his face half from memory, looking straight out from the canvas.
‘When the moon was new,’ Marie Catherine continued, ‘the ogre would ride out of the forest on a horse whose hooves struck fire from the earth, and when he came to the village he would demand a young woman for his bride. These wives never lived long, for the ogre’s thirst for blood was such that on his very wedding night he would devour them, and soon after he would ride out again, to take another bride by force. Now there were few girls left in the village, and the remaining villagers kept their daughters under lock and key. The old woman could only advise that the travelling man continue on and seek his fortune somewhere else.’
Nicolas was leaning back against his mother’s legs now. She put her hand on the back of his head and gently turned his face until he was once more watching Lavoie. Her daughter had remained surprisingly still since the story’s beginning. Even the murdered wives didn’t seem to frighten her.
‘But,’ Madame de Cardonnoy said, ‘the travelling man refused to go. “Perhaps I can help more than you know,” he said, and then he asked the woman for a large block of white stone and some water to drink, and when she brought him these things, in some bemusement, he took a chisel from his belt and began to chip away at the stone, humming all the while. For seven days he stood thus the town square, and the townspeople peered at him fearfully from their windows, and some brought him bread and meat to eat when he was famished. And at the end of seven days, what had emerged from the block of stone was a statue of a woman so lifelike that it seemed the breeze was blowing the finest hairs away from her cheek, and her eyes of white stone were overflowing with real tears.’
The earlier impression that Lavoie had had of Madame de Cardonnoy as a speaking statue had been so distinct that for a moment he felt as if she had been looking into his thoughts. He left the boy’s face with his brush and tried to get an impression of her eyes, the way the sun fell over her forehead and pulled a veil of light over her hair.
‘The sculptor – I think we shall call him that, instead of the travelling man – held out his hand, and the stone statue took it and let him help her down off the pedestal. For although she was stone, she lived.’
Lavoie raised an eyebrow at her. It was the first slip in his painstakingly correct manners, and Madame de Cardonnoy had to suppress a laugh. He was still a young man, perhaps not quite thirty, and it was clear that he found the portrait a little boring. She thought it had only just occurred to him that she might have chosen the subject of the tale to flatter him, as well as to entertain the children.
‘“Look,” said the sculptor to the villagers. “I have made you a woman to give to the ogre. Send her to him and he will be satisfied, for she is made of cold stone and cannot be harmed by his appetites.”’
A shiver passed through the children. Nicolas, hungry as he was for stories about ogres and dragons, was easily frightened.
‘The villagers were afraid,’ she said, ‘for none of them had ever seen such magic, but for the first time they felt some hope in the face of their fate, and so they dressed the stone woman in a gown of red silk – the best that any of them had, the best their daughters had left behind – and they combed and plaited her white stone hair, and put slippers on her feet, and then the oldest of the men took her by the hand and led her to the forest’s edge, where he thanked her and left her in the shadow of the trees.’
Now she had reached the part of the story that she hadn’t yet invented. She watched the painter, whose gaze was focused carefully on his canvas, and she went on.
‘The stone woman had been silent as they dressed her, and she was silent still. For a moment she hesitated beneath the trees, but she knew the purpose for which she had been made, and so she gathered her skirts up in one hand and took the first steps into the forest. The woods were dark, although it was bright day outside, and silent, as if even the birds of the wood feared to nest in the shadow of the ogre’s house.’
She paused for a moment to catch her breath and collect her thoughts.
‘But what happened next?’ asked Nicolas.
Sophie shifted restlessly against her other side. Madame de Cardonnoy could feel her own back beginning to ache with the effort of maintaining her posture, but it was no worse than dancing at a ball or attending the court. One of her stays poked into the soft skin under her arm.
‘She walked among the trees,’ Madame de Cardonnoy said, ‘until she came upon a path through the forest that had been carved by some creature’s enormous footsteps, and on the path were the bones and the rusted sword of a man who must also have tried, in his own way, to end the ogre’s reign.’
Nicolas swayed on his feet and sucked in his breath. Sophie, older and more sure that stories, as a rule, ended happily, let out a little sigh that rocked her shoulders up and down. Madame de Cardonnoy found herself glancing conspiratorially at the painter, whose lips were pressed together in concentration. He blushed when he looked up from his work and saw her watching him back, as he’d been watching her. She smiled.
‘Was she afraid then?’ he asked. He’d lost his tone of professional solicitousness.
It was funny how quickly inclination could move her towards someone. Monsieur Lavoie had seemed unremarkable when he arrived, with his easel and paintbox under his arm, but his obvious curiosity for the end of the tale charmed her and made the sharp lines of his face more appealing. There was something birdlike about the way his hands flew and pecked at the canvas.
‘No,’ said Madame de Cardonnoy. ‘She wasn’t afraid. For her heart, too, was made of stone, so that both fear and pity were beyond her.’
‘I think many would call that a dangerous gift for a woman,’ said Lavoie.
‘The stone bride followed the path deep into the woods. She had walked for some time when she came to a gate, on which a gnarled face guarded the keyhole. Beyond the gate was a garden and a great house, but although the leaves of the trees shone silver, and the gate was made of the purest gold, all of this beauty was spoiled, because the fountains and the meandering streams of the garden flowed with red blood instead of water, and the roses bloomed black under its influence and gave shelter to only bats and wasps, where there should have been songbirds and hardworking honeybees.’
Outside, a fast-moving cloud was passing over the sun, or else she had lost track of the time, despite her sore feet and the ache starting in her back. The children were fidgeting again, and Sophie’s shoulders slumped dejectedly. At nine, she was old enough to wear stays, like her mother, but she hadn’t yet learned to ignore her discomfort. Madame de Cardonnoy could hear the fussy huffs of her breath as she leaned against her mother’s side for support.
The room was growing dim. Madame de Cardonnoy took a breath.
‘At that moment the stone woman heard footsteps behind her, so heavy that they shook the earth, and a shadow fell over the gate. Slowly she turned and, dropping into her lowest curtsey, she murmured, “Good evening, husband.” For the ogre had come home for the evening.’
She let go of Nicolas’s shoulder. Stepping forward, out of the tableau, was like crossing an invisible threshold. She noticed for the first time that there was a trickle of cold sweat running down her back, as if she had lived the story and not just told it.
‘And there, I think, we should stop. Monsieur Lavoie, I’m certain you’re losing your light.’
‘A little, Madame,’ he admitted. He was already packing his brushes into their box. The children slouched like dolls where she’d left them. Nicolas whined softly that he wanted to hear what the ogre looked like.
‘Will you finish the story tonight, Maman?’ Sophie asked.
‘Of course, darling.’ Madame de Cardonnoy turned to her lady’s maid. ‘Will you take them up to the nursery, Jeanne?’
The light in the room now was dim and golden, and the smell of the paints seemed to have intensified. Sharp, like freshly mown hay, and even, Madame de Cardonnoy thought for a moment, the rank smell of the sizing in the canvas. Jeanne herded the children away.
‘I hope you weren’t too bored by the story, Monsieur Lavoie. You know one must find some way of keeping the children quiet.’ ‘Of course not, Madame,’ said Lavoie, wiping his hands down with a cloth and turpentine. ‘I was fascinated. You’re lucky to have such an inheritance of stories from your mother.’ Madame de Cardonnoy smiled and gently shook her head. ‘On the contrary, I’m afraid. My mother wasn’t the type to tell stories. I make them up myself.’
‘Is that a secret, Madame? You gave your mother the credit when you began.’ The painter had stored his paints away neatly in his box. The easel he moved near to the wall, where it would stand, to avoid smudging the paint as it dried. The canvas showed a series of blurry forms coming into being – the green shadows of Madame de Cardonnoy’s dress, ribbons and lace just a vague suggestion of shadow. Her face he had worked more completely, and she saw herself younger, pink and pale, as if she was looking into a smudged mirror. He’d painted her with her lips a little parted, as if in the moment before she was about to speak.
‘They’re just children’s stories,’ Madame de Cardonnoy said. ‘Mother Goose tales. There’s nothing to take credit for.’
‘Still, I’d like to hear the end of that one, some day.’
There was a wistful tone in his voice. Madame de Cardonnoy held out her hand.
‘Perhaps at the next sitting,’ she said, and then she called the Swiss guard to see the painter out.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...