By. Jenean McBrearty
Lord Mathew Chesney ensured he’d be seated next to Mlle. Genevieve d’Eon at tea. Lord Sutherland had whispered her praises during a recital of Handel’s Water Music, and Chesney was determined to verify Sutherland’s assessment. “A delicate flower, yet sturdy. Loveliness and loyalty, Mathew, in a divine combination, worthy of high regard.”
“Yes, yes, but there’s a willingness behind her coquettish countenance, is there not?”
Sutherland led him to the gentleman’s room, and apt stage for answering such an undisguised question. “Gordon Stevens has been engaged to paint her portrait. Visit his studio tomorrow at eleven o’clock and judge for yourself.”
Stevens had ushered him through the foyer, and upstairs to his windowed loft overlooking St. Alban’s Wood Street, gushing, “Welcomes,” and “Honored.”
“I’ve come about commissioning a portrait Lady Marie. Naturally, I want to see where and how you work, but you come highly recommended. And who is this that sits for you today?”
Though not a raving beauty, Mlle. Genevieve was a demur young woman with hair the color of corn silk and eyes of palest blue. A shawl of green velvet fell loosely about her shoulders, low enough to expose an alabaster neck-line.
“Lord Chesney, M’lady,” Stevens said.
“Afternoon greetings to you, Sir,” she said in a low voice that invited a man’s attention.
“How like you our fine city? Not too cold for you?”
“I find it comfortable outside and intriguing within doors,” she said. “Merci.”
Mathew stepped in front of the easel and saw Stevens had sketched her outline. On a side table lay his color pots and brushes. “I’ve interrupted your work,” he said with feigned regret. “Yet, how fortunate for me to have caught you at your chemistry. Send for me when it is done, and I will praise your artistry, if it be to my liking. Certainly, your subject is praiseworthy now. You must both come to tea this afternoon. He handed Stevens his card. “I’ll send my coach.”
“Delighted, Monsieur. Delighted.”
“And you, Madame? Leave your velvet here lest you shame the ladies.”
She cast her eyes to the floor. “You are too kind.”
He kept her display of modesty in his mind’s eye. Genevieve was no child, yet…the tinge of red on her cheeks revealed an innocent soul, arousing in him the manly virtues of respect and protection. “Has anyone tasted her sweetness?”
He asked Sutherland on their way to the smoking room of his London townhouse. His guest produced a pouch of the finest Virginia tobacco to share.
“Sadly, no. Only the sweetness of her company.”
“Then her virtue is authentic,” Mathew said when they settled into their chairs.
“Authenticity in a woman is a tedious piety verging on the anti-social.”
“More’s the pity if she aspires to sainthood, Mathew. Don’t let her Anglo-Saxon complexion fool you. She’s a Catholic. What do you think about this business in the Colonies?”
But Mathew wasn’t ready to change the subject just yet. “I’ve heard Mlle. Genevieve is returning to France. The word negotiation was overheard. Could she be marrying?”
Sutherland gave him wink. “King Louis is not the secular pope of the French church. He may have tasted her sweetness.”
“Perhaps.” The thought was painful. “Do you think it’s possible France is supporting the insurrection in America?” Sutherland had finally snared his attention.
“Ahhhh. War is as trying as stubborn virtue. There’s no good reason for Louie to recall every French subject because he wants to have another go ‘round with George over the American causus belli.”
King Louie was pacing the palace floors. “What good does it do to have spies if they can’t be discreet? I thought you told me d’Eon had agreed to return to France with his cache of documents. Where is he? Getting his portrait painted! We have French painters. David. Delacroix. Who is this Stevens?”
“Your Majesty, please. Chavelier d’Eon couldn’t be expected to be celibate his entire time in England. So, he’s been having a love affair with one of his informants. So, what? There’s been no…shall we say, undercover work? He returned, and to the whole world he is Mlle. d’Eon, why not leave his admirer with a keepsake?”
Beaumarchais, former clean-up man to Louis XV, had now taken over the same duties for young Louis XVI. He’d successfully brokered a deal with Comte de Broglie’s man in London, Charles Genevieve d’Eon, whereby the esteemed Dragoon, Parliamentarian, and a holder of the Order of St. Louis, would return his majesty’s communications, which he hid in a trunk under his floorboards, in return for keeping his identity as a woman until death.
It was hardly a punishment. D’Eon’s first secret service assignment had been as a spy at St. Petersburg, posing as a maid in waiting. Expert marksman though he was, he was also known for his fluid gender. When rebuked for insulting the ambassador, he pleaded that it was his more feminine side that led to the imbroglio, and begged understanding from his well-born, well-placed friends.
“Do we not forgive female spies because of their sex? Should we not be as charitable to one who has chosen to follow his heart as a woman?’ Beaumarchais said in d’Eon’s defense.
Louie stopped pacing and smiled. “Perhaps this portrait makes his identity credible even to the unromantic English.”
At the pier, Lords Chesney and Sutherland bade good-bye to Mlle. Genevieve, who tearfully assured them she would never forget their kindness or Lady Marie’s biscuits. But the man to whom she gave the portrait of her youthful self, a gentleman who loved her from afar, the Prince of Wales, did not come to say good-bye and kiss her black-net gloved hand. Genevieve wasn’t the first Catholic the Prince loved, but she was the only one he never bedded. Rather, he had her portrait hung in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in Southwark and visited the gallery often. Genevieve was listed as spinster and carried the title until she died. Beaumarchais found her fascinating.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over a hundred and seventy-five print and on-line journals.
Peter Cavallo is a composer from Australia.