Silence. There is time, the household is still asleep. Pulling a tunic over her nightdress, sixteen-year-old Emilie Lefroy tiptoes barefoot out of her chamber, her tussled hair giving her the appearance of a dishevelled peasant. The morning is still cool, but not for long. Soon the harsh heat of the hot summer’s day will beat down relentlessly. The sun has not quite risen, but the morning sky has become a canvas of softly smudged, pink and purple hues.
Her morning escapade draws her to the rambling physic garden behind her parent’s private mansion in La Marais. Herbs self-propagate at will, finding their way between every bare patch of earth. Admiring the vibrant orange and yellow nasturtiums trailing messily over the stone wall, Emilie smiles to herself. My parents wish I were conformed and as neat as a formal garden, but my spirit feels as wild and unkempt as this unruly patch.
Her morning jaunt is quickly interrupted by her beloved maid, Marie. ‘Emilie, how could you leave your chamber in this state?’ Frown lines criss-cross over Marie’s worried face. ‘We must hurry, you need to be dressed and your hair done before your mother is up. At this rate you will be late for lessons with Professor Guerin.’
‘Sounds like a good excuse to stay here for the day.’ Marie’s imploring eyes have little effect on Emilie’s light mood. ‘Marie, you fret too much. Allow me a few moments to savour the delights of the garden. Soon I will be enduring the monotonous monologues of Professor Guerin.’
‘You know what your mother is like. She will dismiss me if she sees you like this.’
Emilie squeezes her maid’s hand. ‘I will never let that happen.’
As they leave, Emilie catches the eye of Thomas, the gardener. She waves. Thomas acknowledges her presence with a courteous nod before averting his eyes. Feeling unsettled by the friendliness of a lady of class, Thomas engrosses himself in his day’s work. Emilie stares back at him enviously. ‘Oh Marie, he is so privileged to work outside all day, tending the gardens. I would do anything to swap my day with his.’
Back in her chamber, Emilie grabs a compote of pears and hungrily starts devouring it before being admonished by her maid. ‘Emilie, please let me help you dress. Once your hair is braided, you can enjoy breakfast.’ Marie places her hand gently on the small of Emilie’s back and guides her towards the bed where her dress for the day has been neatly laid out.
‘You are lucky we are such good friends, or you’d be reprimanded for being too bossy.’ Marie flushes. After all these years together, she still feels embarrassed at Emilie’s familiarity. ‘Today is going to be such a drag Marie, I have to put up with the pompous professor this morning, and then listen to Mother harp on this afternoon about managing a household and how to be a virtuous wife. Ow! Don’t pull that bodice too tight, you’ll suffocate me.’
‘Dominus regit me, et nihil mihi deerit.’ Emilie’s dark eyes flash angrily at her brother, Pierre, who grins contemptuously at her recitation of Psalm 23 in perfect Latin. A globe sits in the centre of a magnificently carved walnut bureau. Pierre leans over it curiously, mocking his sister with his studious pose. He relishes in his own derisiveness, aware that his sister is jealous of the classical education that she is banned from studying. Over exaggerating his interest in the globe, Pierre knows Emilie is inwardly fuming and will react true to form. Emilie’s drop-dead looks carry across the drawing room. Pierre knows his sister has taken the bait and animatedly engages the professor in a discussion on Roman war heroes. It is too much for Emilie. ‘Professor Guerin, sorry to interrupt you, but I am finding my Latin lessons are becoming tedious. Surely you could allow me to read something more inspiring than just the scriptures. Maybe I can read and discuss some of the Latin texts you have given Pierre, or better still, a Latin herbal text.’
Pierre’s grin broadens, and the professor’s reaction is as priceless as he anticipated. The old man stares speechlessly at Emilie, his face becoming ruddier by the second. His mouth opens to speak but closes like a fish gasping for air. Emilie transfixes her dark eyes on him, imploring a response.
Clearing his throat, the professor eyes Emilie disdainfully. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself. This is not how a woman of God should behave. You are incredibly privileged to not only learn Latin, but to be able to read the scriptures. Many Catholic women would love to read the Lord’s word for themselves, and many a poorer woman would just love to read.’
‘But surely Professor Guerin, I can extend my knowledge beyond the Bible. In God’s eyes, am I not equal to my brother? Why can he learn about science, politics, geography, and the arts? The subjects that nourish the hungry mind and help us understand the world beyond the confines of Christianity.’
‘You are foolish to challenge the requests of your parents and more foolish to question God’s role for you on this Earth. I suggest you channel your energy in beseeching God’s grace and forgiveness. The role of a noble woman is well defined in our Protestant faith. I suggest you learn to become a humbler vessel in preparation for becoming a godly wife as your parents see fit. If you continue with such impertinence, I fear for what will befall you. You are dismissed for the day and I hope to find a more contrite student next week.’
A satisfied smug spreads across Pierre’s face. His day has been made. Emilie glowers at him as she walks huffily out of the room.
Sitting down on a stone wall bordering the physic garden, Emilie rubs her temples encouraging the pulsating throb in her head to dissipate. I should not let Pierre get to me like that. Giant sunflowers loom above Emilie, their beaming yellow smiles gently soothing her pounding head. I had every right to ask the professor for a book on something I am interested in. I wanted to stand my ground so much more, it was just Pierre’s smug grin that got to me. Pierre does not even care about books and learning; he just wants to fight wars and earn a military title like Father. At least Father has a sharp, intelligent mind. Poor soldiers who will one day be forced to serve under my dumb-witted brother.
Emilie’s head throbs with pain and frustration. Feeling nauseous, she paces around the herb garden. ‘Surely one of these herbs will help me.’ Instinctively, Emilie plucks a handful of mint leaves, crushing them in the palm of her hand. Lifting her hand to her nostrils, she draws in the heady herbaceous smell. The smell encourages her to nibble gently at the leaves. How do they know what herbs to use to treat different ailments?
Simple folk who cannot read Latin know more than me on how to help themselves and others. What is wrong with wanting to learn about something that heals people. Surely God cannot frown on learning about something he created. Mother goes on about dabbling in the dark arts, but I think she is misled.
The heat of the midday sun increases Emilie’s queasiness, and she quickly makes her way under the shade of a walnut tree, lying down on the soft grass. Staring at the endless sky, Emilie carries herself back in time. Why is it that whenever I get upset with Pierre, I always end up with such excruciating pain in my head?
She recognises her own childhood image—a small girl cornered by a group of Catholic boys. Huguenot swine! It is the first time she ever heard those words. They were foreign to her but the vehemence and hate in the boys’ voices hurt more than the stones pelted at her. She remembers falling and recalls the idiotic grin of her brother hiding behind a wall, relishing the bullying of his little sister.
Still jaded by her morning’s migraine, Emilie wanders despondently into the drawing room. The carefree girl roaming the garden this morning is gone. In her place, is a churlish adolescent. The stuffiness and warmth of the room adds to her contrary mood as the statuesque figure of her mother, Marguerite, confronts her daughter. ‘Where have you been? You have missed lunch.’
‘I wasn’t hungry. I had one of my bad headaches Mother.’
‘Of course you did. What do you expect with such impertinent behaviour towards Professor Guerin today?’
‘Who told you about this morning, the professor or Pierre?’
‘That is irrelevant. The problem with you Emilie is that you have no sense of how inappropriate your actions are. You allow your maid to address you on a first name basis and then behave deplorably in lessons. Your vulgarness will become the talk of the community.’
Forgetting her listlessness, Emilie retaliates vehemently. ‘Why do you always care about what others think?’
Marguerite is in no mood for her spirited daughter and cuts her off quickly. ‘Your father is President of the Parliament, the enormity of his position and influence is crucial to the ongoing peace between Huguenots and Catholics. Your behaviour should be exemplary, as is our family name.’
Emilie rolls her eyes. Her mother continues, ‘You can take that look off your face, it is high time you were married off and managed a household, then there would be no time for your fanciful views.’
‘I don’t want to marry anyone,’ Emilie retorts emphatically.
‘What nonsense, I was married at your age. Look at Louise de Teligny—daughter of our great leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. She married last year at sixteen and is admirably managing the household of her husband. Charles de Teligny is a busy and dedicated diplomat like your father.’
‘He is nearly as old as Father,’ rebuts Emilie in disgust.
Marguerite ignores her daughter. ‘The royal wedding is only weeks away. Every notable Huguenot suitor will flock to Paris. However, there are highly eligible prospective husbands in our own congregation. Your father and I are most impressed with Pierre’s friend, Marcus Daval. He is a handsome, aspiring young man and will become a notable figure in the government. I do not know who his benefactor is, but he has received excellent training in letters and arms. You could try and be more affable around him. Every Sunday I watch all the young ladies at the tabernacle vying for his attention, and you strike out at his affections like a viper.’
‘He is arrogant and full of love for himself. I find him abhorrent. Marcus is not even Pierre’s friend. Pierre just hangs off him like a sycophant. I have no intention to grovel for his affection. He can have the other girls fawning over him.’ The image of being married to Marcus appals Emilie. ‘I want to marry someone for love.’
Marguerite eyes her daughter off coolly. ‘Falling in love is never a good reason for marriage. The Lord will teach you how to love your husband.’