The Swing, by Astrid Sutton

Florence was sitting at the harpsichord practicing a study by Couperin. She was finding it hard to concentrate, she was thinking about Henri and the evening they met at the ball. They danced a minuet and he looked at her in a way that made her feel disquieted and caused her to feel a crackle of excitement; new feelings that she couldn’t describe. For Henri’s part, he had observed a slight breathlessness and flush to her face that reminded him of other, pleasurable things that were more earthy than the minuet, although that would have to suffice for the time being.

Madam la Comtesse was asleep upstairs, and Monsieur le Duc was out conducting important business. Adeline returned her attention to her music. But with that, a crunching sound on the driveway to the château announced the arrival of a carriage. The bell pull rattled and the bell sounded loudly and urgently outside the main door. A harassed looking servant emerged, with an envelope in his hand. She saw Adeline take the letter and heard her tread on the stone stairs as she brought it upstairs.

Adeline knocked on the door of the drawing room “It’s for you, Mlle Florence.” The letter bore the royal seal on the envelope. “The servant is awaiting a reply.”

“Thank you, Adeline, you may go.” Florence tried not to tear at the envelope.

My dear Mlle Florence

It would be a great honour if you would you would permit me to visit you, if your distinguished parents would bestow their agreement. I was struck by your charm and beauty, I long to see you again.”

Your most honourable and devoted servant

Henri le Tourneur D’Ison.

Florence sat at her escritoire and wrote:

“Honourable Monsieur le Tourneur d’Ison

Subject to the agreement of Papa, I would be happy to receive you at the Chateau next Wednesday September 15th.

I remain, Monsieur, respectfully

Florence Duchêne.”

The visit duly took place. Florence wore an ornate blue satin dress with cream panniers at the side. She had asked Adeline to pull her corsets tight to show off her tiny waist. The Duc Duchêne was not present and Maman la Duchesse kept a polite distance while remaining in the room during Henri’s visit. The talk was stilted: the study of music, and the more banal aspects of life at the court of Louis XV where Henri was a courtier. But the tension between them was jumping with passion.

Two long weeks passed. Florence was sitting at the harpsichord practicing a new piece by Vivaldi. Again she heard the crunching of gravel, and the neighing of a horse as the carriage approached the Château. The same servant emerged, and shook the bell pull impatiently

Adeline brought the letter up as before, knocking at the drawing room door. “Pardon, Mademoiselle Florence. The servant is in a hurry, he wants you to reply to this letter.”

The letter from Henri had a decidedly bolder tone than before.

“My Dear Florence

You are a flower; you are so dear, so beautiful. Please let me see you again soon, I yearn to see your blush pink cheeks, your rosebud lips, and to gaze upon your velvet complexion.”

I crave the permission of Madame la Comtesse in commissioning Maitre Fragonard to paint you!   You would look enchanting in a cascade of silk on the swing that you love, beside the walled garden. I know Maitre Fragonard well, he is a frequent visitor at the Palace.”

Your affectionate servant,

Henri

“My Dear Henri

I would be honoured. But of course Maman will have to agree. Please write to her as soon as you may.”

Affectionately your

Florence

And so it was that the meetings were set up. The Duchesse agreed readily, she was more than happy to think that Maitre Fragonard might capture an image of her daughter. The fee would be trifling to Monsieur le Comte.

But soon the letters from Henri started to get more daring….

“My dearest Florence

You are a precious jewel!

I wish to appreciate your beauty more, it would mean so much to look at your ankles, your dainty little ankles….”

They would meet at the swing, and Maitre Fragonard would paint. Maman was not worried as the painter’s presence provided a distinguished chaperone. The painter, however, was bohemian by nature.

Weeks passed. Florence was practicing a piece by Clementi. The carriage from the royal courts arrived and the servant got out, and rattled the bell pull. He was carrying a wooden box.

Adeline knocked at the door. “This is for you, Mlle Florence. The servant has already left.”

“Thank you Adeline, that is all.” Florence dismissed her and took the box to her bedchamber. She opened it to reveal an exquisite piece of china, wrapped in the finest red silk and placed on a bed of straw. She gasped as she looked at it. The Sevres ecritoire was fashioned in shades of grass green, decorated with gold and painted with designs of the utmost refinement, with cherubs and delicate gilded tracery.

“My dearest

You are my love; you are the treasure of my heart. Please accept this gift, as a token of my love .It is the highest tribute I can make to your beauty. Please look after it, protect it to the utmost, but tell no one.

It will be the first of the gifts I will give you, and I ask only one thing in return.

Meet me at the swing and before you come there, loosen your stays that I might gaze upon your beauty…. “

Every letter was accompanied by a gift. The china would be wrapped in swathes of silk fabric and laid in straw or woodshavings, in a wooden box. Florence would be cautioned to tell no one about the gifts, whose boxes were stacked in the large armoires in her bedchamber. Adeline was becoming deeply suspicious as she brought yet another box up the stairs. The routine was always the same. The servant from the Palace arrived at the time when Madame la Comtesse was sleeping soundly in another wing of the Chateau, and when Monsieur le Comte Duchene was absent, conducting his business. It would be indiscreet to reveal the details of all of Henri’s letters. But with each one his desires became more pressing and more dangerous.

“My darling, my love. Come to the swing and show me the blush below your stays. Leave your engageants in your bedchamber. I desire you intensely…”

“My passion, my angel, my darling, come to the swing and let me stand behind you and stay very close…”

“My angel, please accept this gift of Sevres. It is as scintillating and perfect as you are: its lustre the same as the bloom on your skin. Let me kiss you and touch you, on the swing, it would mean so much….

“I love you. Soon, my Florence, my petal, my angel, I will write to the Comte and ask him for the honour of your hand in marriage. …Please accept this gift today, which I hope, god willing, will be an early wedding present. But do not tell anyone. I have the utmost respect for your father and the honour of your family and will be praying for the day when we can be together…..”

This last box contained a vase of the costliest bleu celeste together with a scintillating collection of scented porcelain garden flowers.

Maitre Fragonard, meanwhile, continued to create the painting of Florence, impervious to the scenes that were unfolding in front of his very eyes. He decided to add Florence’s uncle in the background – the Bishop of Orleans, to illustrate that they were not alone. Or, perhaps, it was his acknowledgement of the known predilections of the cleric….

Months passed. If the Duc had received any letter from Henri le Tourneur D’Ison, he did not tell anyone about it.

As autumn approached, Madam la Duchesse invited a small gathering to her salon, for a musical soirée. Florence was preparing to play a piece by JS Bach, when she overheard the Duchesse de Blois say to her mother “Yes! Can you imagine…they say that 10 pieces of priceless Sevres were stolen from the King’s chambers! And, that official gifts may have been intercepted. They say that one of the most trusted aides has disappeared.  He was a close confidante of the King. Rumour has it that he may have eloped with Duplessis the designer’s daughter. What disgrace!”

Florence kept her composure. She smiled at the audience, and played through the work with the utmost control and brilliance of touch. She then excused herself on the grounds of tiredness and feeling somewhat faint . She dismissed Adeline.

“But Mademoiselle, let me prepare you for rest, and help you with your chemise.”

“It will not be necessary, replied Florence.”

Passing the elaborate Chinese ginger jar on the mantle, she hastened to her chamber and took out the first box, taking a final look at the glimmering ecritoire, a precious jewel of porcelain, just as she herself had once been described. She picked up the folds of her satin dress, and tucked the box under her arm. Walking up to the far drawing room, she took out the ecritoire and opened the window, looking downwards as the piece shattered in a thousand pieces on the stones below.

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About claire collison

Writer, photographer, creative facilitator, and breast cancer survivor, I am currently Artist in Residence at the Women's Art Library (WAL) My first novel was a finalist in the Dundee Book Prize, and my short stories and poetry have appeared in print and online. In 2015 I was awarded second place in the inaugural Resurgence Prize, the world's first eco poetry competition, judged by Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. This blog began as a space for words generated on my walking/writing workshops at the Mary Ward centre in Bloomsbury - Writing the City (WTC). WTC has since grown to include many other venues, including the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Barbican, the River Rom, Southwark Woods, Aylesbury Estate, and most recently, as part of Walking Women festival, An Intimate Tour of Breasts. I have worked with Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, as the recipient of the first Max Reinhardt Literacy Award, designing teaching resources; and for The Photographers' Gallery, helping school children develop visual literacy as part of 'Seeing More Things'. If you would like me to design a workshop or walk for you, please be in touch!
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