Bolgarskiy sosed Lolityi.., p.1

The Diamond Slipper, страница 1

 

The Diamond Slipper
 


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The Diamond Slipper


  Jane Feather

  The Diamond Slipper

  CONTENTS

  Pro­lo­gue

  Chap­ter One

  Chap­ter Two

  Chap­ter Three

  Chap­ter Fo­ur

  Chap­ter Fi­ve

  Chap­ter Six

  Chap­ter Se­ven

  Chap­ter Eight

  Chap­ter Ni­ne

  Chap­ter Ten

  Chap­ter Ele­ven

  Chap­ter Twel­ve

  Chap­ter Thir­te­en

  Chap­ter Fo­ur­te­en

  Chap­ter Fif­te­en

  Chap­ter Six­te­en

  Chap­ter Se­ven­te­en

  Chap­ter Eig­h­te­en

  Chap­ter Ni­ne­te­en

  Chap­ter Twenty

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-one

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-two

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-th­ree

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-fo­ur

  Chap­ter Twen­ty-fi­ve

  Epi­lo­gue

  Prologue

  Pa­ris, 1765

  "No… ple­ase, no mo­re." The words emer­ged as ba­rely a bre­ath thro­ugh the wo­man's dry, crac­ked lips. Fe­ebly she tri­ed to push asi­de the sil­ver cha­li­ce held to her mo­uth.

  "You must ta­ke it, my de­ar. It will ma­ke you well." The man held her he­ad in the cro­ok of his el­bow. Her eyes we­re clo­sed and she was too we­ak to re­sist as he tip­ped the con­tents of the cha­li­ce down her thro­at. At the fa­mi­li­ar bit­ter­s­we­et tas­te, the wo­man gro­aned fa­intly. Her he­ad fell back aga­inst his arm, and gently he lo­we­red her he­ad to the pil­low. He hung over her, sta­ring down at her be­a­uti­ful whi­te fa­ce, the skin so tran­s­lu­cent he co­uld al­most see thro­ugh to the bo­nes of her skull. Then her eyes ope­ned. For a mo­ment they we­re as cle­ar and bril­li­ant as they had ever be­en.

  For a long mo­ment, her dying ga­ze held his. Then her eye­lids drop­ped, her lips par­ted on a strug­gling sob of a bre­ath.

  The man step­ped back in­to the sha­dows of the bed-cur­ta­ins. He to­ok up a glass of wi­ne from the bed­si­de tab­le and sip­ped, his cold brown ga­ze ne­ver le­aving the wo­man's fa­ce. It wo­uldn't be long now.

  A whim­pe­ring snuf­fle ca­me from be­yond the bed-cur­ta­ins. He mo­ved them asi­de and step­ped in­to the warm, fi­re­lit cham­ber. A nur­se sat be­si­de the fi­re, roc­king a do­ub­le crad­le with her fo­ot.

  "Sho­uld I bring the ba­bes to her, Yo­ur Hig­h­ness?"

  The man went over to the crad­le. He lo­oked down in­to two mat­c­hing pa­irs of bright blue eyes, two sets of rosy che­eks, fo­ur dim­p­led fists clut­c­hed on top of the pa­le pink blan­kets.

  We­re they his? He wo­uld ne­ver know. And it didn't mat­ter now. "Yes," he sa­id. "They will bring the prin­cess com­fort, but don't let them ti­re her."

  "No, of co­ur­se not, sir." The nur­se bent to sco­op up the two snuf­fling bun­d­les. She smi­led and kis­sed them. "The­re, my pret­ti­es, yo­ur ma­ma is wa­iting to see you." She car­ri­ed her bur­den to the bed.

  The prin­ce sip­ped his wi­ne and sta­red in­to the fi­re. The nur­se re­tur­ned the in­fants to the­ir crad­le in a very few mi­nu­tes. "Her hig­h­ness is so we­ak. I don't be­li­eve she'll last the night," she sa­id sadly.

  The prin­ce didn't reply. He re­tur­ned to his de­at­h­watch in the sha­dows of the bed­cur­ta­ins, lis­te­ning to the rat­tle of his wi­fe's la­bo­red bre­at­hing. He was still the­re when the so­und stop­ped.

  He ap­pro­ac­hed the bed­si­de, le­aned over, pres­sed his lips to hers, felt the­ir cold de­ad­ness, the to­tal ab­sen­ce of spi­rit in her body. He stra­ig­h­te­ned slowly and lif­ted the wo­man's fra­gi­le right wrist. He un­c­las­ped the charm bra­ce­let she wo­re, hol­ding it up to the dim light of the lamp bur­ning at the bed­si­de. The da­inty charms glit­te­red and glo­wed, shoc­kingly fri­vo­lo­us in this dark cham­ber of de­ath. He slip­ped the bra­ce­let in­to his poc­ket and cal­led for the nur­se.

  Chapter One

  The pro­ces­si­on of gil­ded co­ac­hes, plu­med, ga­ily ca­pa­ri­so­ned hor­ses, and of­fi­cers res­p­len­dent in the blue and gold uni­forms of Ver­sa­il­les wo­und thro­ugh the gre­at gold ga­tes of the pa­la­ce, co­ming to a halt in the cen­ter of the mas­si­ve squ­are.

  "Lo­ok at tho­se two car­ri­ages!" a fa­ir-he­aded girl han­ging pe­ri­lo­usly far out of an up­s­ta­irs win­dow ex­c­la­imed to her com­pa­ni­on le­aning out be­si­de her. "They are both to carry me in­to Fran­ce. Which do you pre­fer, Cor­de­lia? The crim­son one or the blue one?"

  "I can't see it ma­kes much dif­fe­ren­ce," Lady Cor­de­lia Bran­den­burg res­pon­ded. "Of all the ri­di­cu­lo­us things. The­re's the Mar­qu­is de Dur­fort ri­ding in­to the city as if he'd tra­ve­led all the way from Fran­ce, when in­s­te­ad he only left Vi­en­na an ho­ur ago."

  "But it's pro­to­col," the ar­c­h­duc­hess Ma­ria An­to­nia sa­id in shoc­ked rep­ro­of. "It's how it has to be do­ne. The French am­bas­sa­dor must en­ter Vi­en­na as if he's co­me all the way from Ver­sa­il­les. He must for­mal­ly ask my mot­her for my hand in mar­ri­age on be­half of the da­up­hin of Fran­ce. Then I will be mar­ri­ed by proxy be­fo­re I go in­to Fran­ce."

  "An­yo­ne wo­uld think you hadn't be­en pro­mi­sed to the da­up­hin for the last three ye­ars," Cor­de­lia sta­ted. "What a stir it wo­uld ca­use if the em­p­ress re­fu­sed the am­bas­sa­dor's re­qu­est." She chuc­k­led mis­c­hi­evo­usly, but her com­pa­ni­on didn't see the joke.

  "Don't be ab­surd, Cor­de­lia. I shan't al­low you to be so im­per­ti­nent when I am qu­e­en of Fran­ce." She wrin­k­led her pert no­se.

  "Con­si­de­ring yo­ur bri­deg­ro­om is only six­te­en, I ima­gi­ne you'll ha­ve to wa­it aw­hi­le be­fo­re be­co­ming qu­e­en," Cor­de­lia re­tor­ted, not in the le­ast af­fec­ted by her ro­yal fri­end's scol­ding.

  "Oh, pshaw! You're such a wet blan­ket! When I'm da­up­hi­ne, I shall be the most po­pu­lar and im­por­tant lady at Ver­sa­il­les." To­inet­te twir­led in a crim­son swirl of silk as her ho­op swung out aro­und her. With an exu­be­rant ges­tu­re, she be­gan to dan­ce aro­und the ro­om, her da­inty slip­pe­red fe­et fa­ul­t­les­sly exe­cu­ting the steps of a mi­nu­et.

  Cor­de­lia cast a glan­ce over her sho­ul­der and then tur­ned back to the con­si­de­rably mo­re in­te­res­ting sce­ne in the co­urt be­low. To­inet­te was a gif­ted dan­cer and ne­ver lost an op­por­tu­nity to show off.

  "Now, I won­der who that is," Cor­de­lia mu­sed, her vo­ice sud­denly sharp with in­te­rest.

  "Who? Whe­re?" To­inet­te ca­me back to the win­dow, pus­hing Cor­de­lia to one si­de, her fa­ir he­ad a star­t­ling con­t­rast to her com­pa­ni­on's ra­ven black curls.

  "The­re. Dis­mo­un­ting from the whi­te stal­li­on. A Lip­pi­za­ner, I think."

  "Yes, it must be. Lo­ok at tho­se li­nes." Both girls we­re pas­si­ona­te hor­se­wo­men, and for a mo­ment the hor­se in­te­res­ted them mo­re than its ri­der.

  The man drew off his ri­ding glo­ves and lo­oked aro­und the co­urt. He was tall, slim, dres­sed in dark ri­ding clot­hes, a short, scar­let-li­ned ri­ding ca­pe swin­ging from his sho­ul­ders. As if awa­re of the ob­ser­vers, he lo­oked up at the cre­amy oc­her fa­ca­de of the pa­la­ce. He step­ped back and lo­oked up aga­in, sha­ding his eyes with his hand.

  "Co­me in," the ar­c­h­duc­hess sa­id. "He's se­en us."

  "So what?" Lady Cor­de­lia res­pon­de
d. "We're only lo­oking. Don't you think he's han­d­so­me?"

  "I don't know," To­inet­te sa­id with a to­uch of pe­tu­lan­ce. "Co­me away. It's shoc­kingly bad eti­qu­et­te to sta­re li­ke that. What wo­uld Ma­ma say?"

  Cor­de­lia had lit­tle dif­fi­culty ima­gi­ning what the em­p­ress Ma­ria The­re­sa wo­uld say if she fo­und her da­ug­h­ter and her da­ug­h­ter's fri­end sta­ring out of the win­dow li­ke a pa­ir of og­lers at the ope­ra. Ho­we­ver, so­met­hing kept her at the win­dow, even as To­inet­te tug­ged at her arm.

  The man con­ti­nu­ed to lo­ok up at her. Mis­c­hi­evo­usly, Cor­de­lia wa­ved and blew him a kiss. For a mo­ment he lo­oked tho­ro­ughly ta­ken aback, then he la­ug­hed and to­uc­hed his fin­gers to his lips.

  "Cor­de­lia!" The ar­c­h­duc­hess was scan­da­li­zed. "I'm not go­ing to stay in he­re if you're go­ing to be­ha­ve li­ke that. You don't even know who he is."

  "Oh, so­me equ­er­ry, I ex­pect," Cor­de­lia sa­id airily. "I do­ubt we'll co­me ac­ross him in all the pa­la­ver." She pluc­ked half a do­zen yel­low ro­ses from a bowl on the de­ep win­dow-sill. Le­aning as far out as she co­uld, she tos­sed them down. They fell in a clo­ud aro­und the hor­se­man, one of them lan­ding on his sho­ul­der, ca­ught in the folds of his clo­ak. He ex­t­ri­ca­ted it and ca­re­ful­ly in­ser­ted it in the but­ton­ho­le of his co­at. Then he dof­fed his plu­med hat and bo­wed with a mag­ni­fi­cent flo­urish, be­fo­re mo­ving out of sight as he en­te­red the pa­la­ce be­low the win­dow.

  Cor­de­lia la­ug­hed and drew back from the win­dow. "That was amu­sing," she sa­id. "It is fun when pe­op­le en­ter the spi­rit of the ga­me." A con­tem­p­la­ti­ve lit­tle frown drew her thin ar­c­hed eyeb­rows to­get­her. "An or­di­nary equ­er­ry wo­uldn't be ri­ding a Lip­pi­za­ner, wo­uld he?"

  "No, of co­ur­se not." The ar­c­h­duc­hess was still an­no­yed. "You've pro­bably be­en flir­ting with a se­ni­or of­fi­ci­al from Ver­sa­il­les. He must as­su­me you're a kit­c­hen ma­id or so­met­hing."

  Cor­de­lia shrug­ged. "I don't sup­po­se he's im­por­tant. An­y­way, I'm su­re he won't re­cog­ni­ze me clo­se to."

  "Of co­ur­se he will," To­inet­te scof­fed. "No one el­se has such black ha­ir."

  "Oh well, I'll just pow­der it," Cor­de­lia dec­la­red, se­lec­ting a gra­pe from a bunch in a crystal bowl and pop­ping it in­to her mo­uth. A sil­ver clock on the man­tel chi­med pret­tily.

  "Go­od­ness, is that the ti­me?" she ex­c­la­imed. "I must fly, or I'll be la­te."

  "La­te for what?"

  Cor­de­lia lo­oked for a mo­ment un­na­tu­ral­ly so­lemn. "I'll tell you be­fo­re you go to Fran­ce, To­inet­te." And she had whis­ked her­self out of the ro­om in a clo­ud of prim­ro­se yel­low mus­lin.

  The ar­c­h­duc­hess po­uted crossly. Cor­de­lia didn't se­em to mind that the­ir fri­en­d­s­hip was abo­ut to co­me to an end. Ver­sa­il­les had dec­re­ed that when Ma­ria An­to­nia mar­ri­ed the da­up­hin and ca­me to Fran­ce, she must le­ave be­hind ever­y­t­hing that was ti­ed to the Aus­t­ri­an co­urt. She was al­lo­wed to ta­ke no­ne of her la­di­es, no­ne of her pos­ses­si­ons, not even her clot­hes.

  Dis­con­so­la­tely, she pluc­ked gra­pes from the bunch, won­de­ring what sec­ret Cor­de­lia was hol­ding the­se days. She was as ebul­li­ent and mis­c­hi­evo­us as ever, but she was al­ways di­sap­pe­aring myste­ri­o­usly for ho­urs at a ti­me, and so­me­ti­mes she had the air of so­me­one de­aling with a we­ighty prob­lem. Which was not in the le­ast in cha­rac­ter,

  Cor­de­lia, well awa­re of her fri­end's dis­g­run­t­led puz­zle­ment, sped down the cor­ri­dor to­ward the east wing of the pa­la­ce. She co­uldn't risk con­fi­ding in an­yo­ne: Not only was the sec­ret too dan­ge­ro­us, but it was not hers to tell. Chris­ti­an's li­ve­li­ho­od was at sta­ke. He was de­pen­dent upon the go­od­will of his mas­ter, Po­ligny, the em­p­ress's co­urt mu­si­ci­an, and to lo­se it wo­uld me­an lo­sing the em­p­ress's pat­ro­na­ge. And he wo­uld cer­ta­inly lo­se that go­od­will on­ce he ac­cu­sed Po­ligny pub­licly of ste­aling his pu­pil's com­po­si­ti­ons. The ac­cu­sa­ti­on must be ma­de from an unas­sa­ilab­le po­si­ti­on.

  Cor­de­lia tur­ned down a lit­tle-used cor­ri­dor and en­te­red a long gal­lery thro­ugh a mas­si­ve wo­oden do­or. She was in the west wing of the pa­la­ce. The gal­lery was li­ned with he­avy ta­pes­t­ri­ed scre­ens. She duc­ked be­hind the third one.

  "Whe­re ha­ve you be­en? Why can you ne­ver be on ti­me,

  Cor­de­lia?" Chris­ti­an's gre­at brown eyes we­re fil­led with an­xi­ety, his mo­uth ta­ut with con­cern, his co­un­te­nan­ce pa­le.

  "I'm sorry. I was wat­c­hing the ar­ri­val of the French wed­ding party in the co­ur­t­yard," she sa­id. "Don't be cross, Chris­ti­an. I've had a bril­li­ant idea."

  "You don't know how dre­ad­ful it is to hi­de he­re, trem­b­ling at every mo­use," he whis­pe­red fi­er­cely, a tight frown wrin­k­ling his bro­ad brow. "What idea?"

  "Sup­po­sing we pro­du­ce an anon­y­mo­us bro­ad­s­he­et, sa­ying that Po­ligny's la­test ope­ra was ac­tu­al­ly writ­ten by his star pu­pil, Chris­ti­an Per­cos­si?"

  "But how co­uld we pro­ve it? Who's go­ing to be­li­eve an anon­y­mo­us ac­cu­sa­ti­on?"

  "You pub­lish yo­ur ori­gi­nal sco­re in the bro­ad­s­he­et. Sign the sta­te­ment 'A fri­end of the truth,' or so­met­hing li­ke that. In­c­lu­de a sam­p­le of Po­ligny's com­po­si­ti­ons to show the dif­fe­ren­ce in the two hands. It'll be eno­ugh to start pe­op­le tal­king."

  "But he'll ha­ve me thrown out of the pa­la­ce be­fo­re an­y­t­hing can hap­pen," Chris­ti­an sa­id glumly.

  "You're such a pes­si­mist!" Cor­de­lia ex­c­la­imed, her vo­ice inad­ver­tently ri­sing from the un­der­to­ne they'd both be­en using. "So­me­ti­mes I won­der why I bot­her with you, Chris­ti­an."

  His smi­le was a lit­tle she­epish. "Be­ca­use we're fri­ends?"

  Cor­de­lia gro­aned in mock frus­t­ra­ti­on. She and Chris­ti­an Per­cos­si had be­en fri­ends for fi­ve ye­ars. It was a sec­ret fri­en­d­s­hip, be­ca­use wit­hin the ri­gid hi­erarchy of the em­p­ress Ma­ria The­re­sa's co­urt a clo­se fri­en­d­s­hip was un­t­hin­kab­le bet­we­en a hum­b­le pu­pil of the co­urt mu­si­ci­an and the Lady Cor­de­lia Bran­den­burg, god­da­ug­h­ter of the em­p­ress and bo­som com­pa­ni­on of her da­ug­h­ter, Ma­ria An­to­nia, known to her in­ti­ma­tes by the di­mi­nu­ti­ve Ma­rie An­to­inet­te.

  "Lis­ten," she sa­id, ur­gently ta­king his long, slen­der, mu­si­ci­an's hands wit­hin her own. "The em­p­ress is known for her fa­ir­ness. She may be as star­c­hed as a ruff, but she won't per­mit Po­ligny to cast you off wit­ho­ut a fa­ir he­aring. We just ha­ve to en­su­re that she se­es the bro­ad­s­he­et and the evi­den­ce be­fo­re Po­ligny can mo­ve aga­inst you. And we ha­ve to ma­ke cer­ta­in that Po­ligny is ta­ken by sur­p­ri­se. He mustn't ha­ve ti­me to cre­ate a de­fen­se by at­tac­king you."

  Still hol­ding his hands tightly, she sto­od on tip­toe to kiss him lightly. "Don't lo­se he­art, Chris­ti­an. We will pre­va­il."

  Chris­ti­an hug­ged her. On­ce, they'd tho­ught they felt mo­re for each ot­her than sim­p­le fri­en­d­s­hip, but the­ir na­ive ex­pe­ri­men­ta­ti­ons had qu­ickly con­vin­ced them both that they we­re not des­ti­ned to be lo­vers. But he still enj­oyed the fe­el of her lit­he sup­ple­ness be­ne­ath her co­urt dress, the scent of her skin and ha­ir.

  Cor­de­lia drew her he­ad back, smi­ling up in­to the mu­si­ci­an's hungry brown eyes, enj­oying the an­gu­lar be­a­uty of his fa­ce. Her hands mo­ved thro­ugh his crisp fa­ir curls. "I do lo­ve you, Chris
ti­an. Even mo­re than I lo­ve To­inet­te, I think." She frow­ned, puz­zled at this no­vel tho­ught. She'd ne­ver be­fo­re at­tem­p­ted to gra­de her fe­elings for her two best fri­ends. Then she sho­ok her he­ad in cha­rac­te­ris­tic dis­mis­sal of such an ir­re­le­vant is­sue. She wo­uldn't fa­il eit­her of them if they ne­eded her. "Try to get the evi­den­ce to­get­her and we'll talk la­ter. But now I must go."

  Chris­ti­an let his hands fall away from her and lo­oked hel­p­les­sly in­to her fa­ce. "I wish we didn't ha­ve to hi­de in cor­ners, snat­c­hing mo­ments to talk. It was much easi­er when we we­re chil­d­ren."

  "But we aren't now," Cor­de­lia sta­ted. "And now I'm much mo­re ca­re­ful­ly Wat­c­hed. Be­si­des, on­ce you spring yo­ur sur­p­ri­se on Po­ligny, no one must sus­pect my in­vol­ve­ment. Then I can work on the em­p­ress in yo­ur fa­vor… or at le­ast," she amen­ded, "on To­inet­te whi­le she's still he­re." She ga­ve his hands anot­her qu­ick squ­e­eze, trying to in­fu­se him with so­me of her own op­ti­mis­tic de­ter­mi­na­ti­on. Chris­ti­an was so sen­si­ti­ve, so easily cast down. It was be­ca­use of his un­de­ni­ab­le ge­ni­us, of co­ur­se, but it co­uld be so­mew­hat ir­ri­ta­ting.

  "I'm go­ing now. Wa­it for fi­ve mi­nu­tes be­fo­re you le­ave." On tip­toe she kis­sed him aga­in and then was go­ne from be­hind the scre­en, le­aving Chris­ti­an with the fa­int frag­ran­ce of oran­gef­lo­wer wa­ter that she used on her ha­ir and the lin­ge­ring im­p­res­si­on of her qu­ic­k­sil­ver per­so­na­lity li­ke the dif­fu­si­on of a fa­ding ra­in­bow.

  Cor­de­lia slip­ped bac­k­ward in­to the long gal­lery. She smo­ot­hed down her skirts, tur­ned to stroll ca­su­al­ly to­ward the do­or at the far end of the gal­lery, and ca­me to fa­ce to fa­ce with the man who ro­de the Lip­pi­za­ner.

  He tur­ned from his con­tem­p­la­ti­on of a par­ti­cu­larly blo­ody hun­ting sce­ne on a ta­pestry on the far wall. He still wo­re his scar­let-li­ned ri­ding ca­pe, star­t­ling aga­inst the im­pec­cab­le whi­te of his ruf­fled shirt.

 
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