Where Status is a Matter of Life and Death
The Orange Grove
Blois, 1705. The château of Duc Hugo d’Amboise simmers with rivalry and intrigue. Henriette d’Augustin, one of five mistresses of the duc, lives at the chateau with her daughter. When the duc’s wife, Duchesse Charlotte, maliciously undermines a new mistress, Letitia, Henriette is forced to choose between position and morality. She fights to maintain her status whilst targeted by the duchesse who will do anything to harm her enemies. The arrival of charismatic tarot reader, Romain de Villiers, further escalates tensions as rivals in love and domestic politics strive for supremacy.
In a society where status is a matter of life and death, Henriette must stay true to herself, her daughter, and her heart, all the while hiding a painful secret of her own.
‘Good morning, Maman.’ Amalia was dressed in a simple blue serge dress, her dark hair plaited and wrapped around her head. Her face was freshly scrubbed and her blue eyes mischievous. Henriette felt her shoulders relax—Amalia was in a good mood.
‘Amalia, you frightened me,’ Henriette said. ‘I’m glad to see you.’
‘Let’s go outside, Maman.’ Amalia skipped toward the door. ‘We can go for a walk before tea.’
Henriette handed her a package wrapped in brown paper. ‘Open this first.’
Her daughter beamed and ripped the package open. She held out a white silk dress with a lace collar and and examined it before holding the fabric to her cheek. Its pearl buttons were lustrous.
‘Thank you, Maman. It’s lovely.’ Tucking it under her arm, she led Henriette through a hallway to the back doors which opened up to the convent grounds.
The gardens were planted with oak and sycamore trees, which were dotted around winding paths. An elderly man dragged a rake over fallen leaves as they passed.
Henriette stole glances at her daughter’s scarred wrists. The abbess had ordered the dormitory to be searched on several occasions, but Amalia’s knife could not be found. Henriette suspected that Amalia pilfered blades from the kitchen and returned them after use.
‘How is your Bible study? Are you still on the Corinthians?’
‘Yes. When can I come to the château? The abbess says I may visit, that I only have to ask.’
‘It’s not possible, Amalia. I’ve told you that. I can visit you here.’
‘I want to meet my sister. To see your rooms. To meet the duc.’
Henriette sighed and placed a hand on Amalia’s shoulder. ‘The duc does not know about you. If he did, I wouldn’t be able to live at the château. If I didn’t live at the château, you wouldn’t be able to live here. I’ve told you this before.’
Amalia shrugged off her mother’s hand, her eyes distant. ‘I can come next week. I’ll wear my best dress and you won’t be ashamed of me.’
Henriette felt tears prick her eyes and stopped to put her hands on Amalia’s upper arms, turning to face her. ‘I’m not ashamed of you, Amalia. But you need to try and understand. My position, and your survival, depend upon your not coming to the château.’
Amalia pulled away, her lip curling, her eyes sharp points of fury. ‘You’re selfish and mean. I’ll tell them all about you, you whore! You have the devil in you. I’ll tell the curate to exorcise you. Everyone knows you manipulate me.’
‘I’m not manipulating you, Amalia. Please calm down. We could visit another town perhaps. Would you like that?’
Henriette watched the furious rise and fall of her daughter’s chest. Her arms and legs were rigid, and her eye twitched. ‘Maybe. But I want tea now. I want to sit down.’
‘Tea. What a lovely idea. Come now.’ Henriette took Amalia’s hand and led her toward the convent. At that moment, the abbess emerged from the shadows of the colonnade that ran along the side of the building.
‘Good morning, Madame d’Augustin.’ The abbess’s robust form was clad in a long black habit, the only adornment a pearl and onyx crucifix hanging from her neck. Astute grey eyes were deep-set in her round face, unblemished and as pale as the moon. She wore a white headdress of starched linen.
‘Good morning, Abbess de la Fontaine. Amalia and I were just about to ask for some tea. Would you like to join us?’
‘I’ve already asked Béatrice to fetch it. Thank you, I’d like to sit for a while; my hip is troubling me.’
They sat in white cane chairs under the dappled shade of the colonnade. Groups of chattering girls passed, released from their morning prayers. The sun peeked from behind the clouds and Henriette listened to the rhythmic swish of the scythe as the gardener cut the grass.
Amalia sat perched on the edge of her chair, as if ready to dart away. As Béatrice placed the tray of tea on the table before them, Amalia submitted to the abbess’s gentle instruction.
‘Tell your mother about your recitation the other day. You spoke clearly and even made some eye contact with the girls.’
Amalia stared at the abbess, as if recognizing her for the first time.
‘It was from the book of Job. He is like me. I have no one and God punishes me.’
The abbess gave a nervous laugh. ‘Now, child, that is not true. Is this not your mother sitting before you?’
‘She is ashamed of me.’
Henriette clenched her jaw. ‘Amalia, I’m not ashamed of you.’
Her daughter ignored her. ‘Job’s wife says “Curse God and die.” I want to do that. I want to curse him and I want to die. You are kind to me, Abbess, but only because your beliefs command you to be.’
‘We must never curse God, child. He giveth and taketh away. To curse Him is to invite the latter. My kindness to you is that of a mother or an affectionate aunt. I’ve watched you grow from a child into a young woman. I assure you, my care for you is much more than just duty.’
‘Why didn’t you believe me then?’
‘What I told you about Brother Deniel.’
‘You know about her flights of fancy, madame,’ the abbess spoke quietly to Henriette. ‘Amalia’s wild accusations are unceasing. How am I to know what is real and what is the elaborate construction of an unstable mind?’
‘Now, dearest, apologize to the abbess,’ Henriette insisted.
Amalia folded her arms. ‘I will not. The disgusting man still comes here, you know. He has little stumps on his head, like the devil himself, and his feet don’t touch the ground. I’m not the only one who knows this. Ask Françoise, or Isolde.’
Henriette sighed and placed her cup back in its saucer. ‘Amalia, if you cannot show respect to the abbess, then perhaps the word of God might humble you. You may return to your dormitory to read your Bible.’
The girl lingered for several moments, sniffling, her eyes darting from the abbess to her mother, before she slunk back to the convent and disappeared through its doors.
‘Normal discipline, madame, is for normal children.’ The abbess’s voice was just above a whisper, her eyes downcast. ‘The girl will be silent, probably for days.’
‘Perhaps I was a little harsh,’ Henriette sighed. ‘It’s just I come here and each time there is a part of me that expects things to be different, for us to have a conversation that is like a still pool, rather than a pitching ocean. I don’t know how to talk to her.’
The abbess raised her chin, her gaze steady. ‘Why don’t you just let her talk to you?’
‘You’re right, of course. I’m too quick to react.’
The slam of a shutter caused Henriette to look up— a white object tumbled from the window, half engulfed with snaking flames. It landed a few yards from their table, and Henriette ran to it, stamping out the flames with her shoe. All that remained was a charred fragment of white lace and silk, two pearl buttons still attached.
Kate Murdoch exhibited widely as a painter both in Australia and internationally before turning her hand to writing.
Her short-form fiction has been published in various literary journals in Australia, UK, US and Canada.
Stone Circle, a historical fantasy novel set in Renaissance Italy, was released by Fireship Press in December 2017. Stone Circle was a First in Category winner in the Chaucer Awards 2018 for pre-1750’s historical fiction.
Kate was awarded a KSP Fellowship at the KSP Writers’ Centre in 2019 to develop her third novel, The Glasshouse.
Her novel, The Orange Grove, about the passions and intrigues of court mistresses in 18th century France, was published by Regal House Publishing in November 2019. The Orange Grove was a Finalist in the Chaucer Awards 2019 for pre-1750’s Historical Fiction.