A short story by Josephine Wilkinson
There’s something about a garden in the early autumn, don’t you think? In spring, the plants, the shrubs and trees hold out their promise for the coming season, but the autumn sees them begin to take on their colourful winter foliage or shed it all together. As I surveyed these gardens for the first time, I could see how much taller the plants would grow and how much space they would need once they had awakened from their winter sleep. The gardens of Versailles are well laid out and firmly established. I could see that straight away.
I had arrived here late yesterday evening in the hope of being given a position. Anything will do, any menial job. I’ll weed, mulch, dead-head and cut back ambitious growers. I don’t mind. To be a royal gardener has been my desire for as long as I can remember, and all I need is a foot in the door. Now, as I sit up on the stone bench that has been my bed for the night, I stretch and look about me. The sun has just begun to rise over the château, a real sun to rival the stylised and gilded suns that adorn the rooftops. Cutting through the soft morning air, it casts long shadows onto the ground below, the western façade of the building still stubbornly holding on to the last of the night.
I stand and begin to walk. It’s not really cold despite the early hour, and a gentle dew glistens on the leaves and scatters tiny diamonds on the grass before me. To one side, a fountain lies dormant, the group in the centre seem to watch me as they wait for the silent signal that will give them permission to burst into life and shower the basin with their silver water.
I stroll past them and on, following the pathway that slopes in a soft incline at the edge of the still-lush tapis vert until I come to a broad allée. Then, acting on an impulse rather than any knowledge of the layout, I turn right and walk on until I reach a narrow path. It gently curves to the right, leading me through a shade of tall trees that resist, for a time, the turn of the season. It brings me before a large iron gate. It is locked, but I peer through the bars.
‘I see you’ve discovered La Salle de Bal.’
The voice startles me. I spin round to find myself standing before a well-dressed elderly gentleman and I was, for a moment, annoyed that my peaceful meander through the gardens had been interrupted so quickly.
I look at him silently and he gazes back at me, quite unconcerned that he had disturbed my reverie. If anything, he seems quite pleased with himself. Then it dawned on me that he must resent my being here. I mumble an apology and make to leave.
‘Don’t go,’ he says, his voice firm. It was almost a command. ‘I’m not angry with you. I’m glad you’re here. Let me show it to you.’ With that, he places a hand on the lock of the gate and pushes it gently. It swings open with a token squeak of protest and we go inside. To our left is a waterfall, although the water is still and silent at this time in the morning.
‘It usually dances later in the day,’ he explains, as though he had read my mind. He smiles to himself. Perhaps I didn’t understand the significance of his turn of phrase. ‘Dances,’ he says again, looking at me expectantly. ‘This is the Ballroom!’ He laughs.
Yes, I get it. I smile, too. We walk to the centre and I stand on the beautifully laid-our floor. I look all round me. I could almost hear the soft echo of music, the sounds of laughter; feel the energy of people enjoying themselves.
‘We had many dances here,’ he continues. ‘I danced several times myself, in my younger days, before the gout made it impossible.’
As his words sink in, I am suddenly shrouded by a strange sense of unreality. I steal a glance at his face. He was still smiling, happy, free of all the cares of the world; but this was the king…Louis XIV. I was certain of it – and yet, it couldn’t be. I look at him more closely, as closely as I dare without offending him. I had heard, had been told, that Louis loved his gardens very much and would take every opportunity to show visitors to Versailles his favourite plants and fountains, and placing his guests just at the right vantage point to appreciate the views. Now here I was in his company; it was as natural as if he were an ordinary man and not the king of France.
Would you like to see the Marais?’ he asks, taking no notice of my momentary confusion.
Now it was my turn to smile. Only Louis XIV would have thought of installing a marsh in a formal garden such as that of Versailles.
‘Yes, I would,’ I say.
He saw my grin and returned it. His face lit up and, for a moment, I saw the young man he had once been. Everyone who had seen him in his prime agreed that he had been handsome, and the bloom of youth had not entirely left him, despite his more than seventy years. His blue eyes brightened, lending their colour to the pale early autumn sky as the sun inched ever higher. It had now broken free of the confines of the château roof in its eagerness to bathe the bosquets and fountains and gleaming statues in its warmth.
‘I think, when you start to work here, you should concentrate your efforts on the Marais,’ he tells me. ‘It is beautiful, but it needs work. My gardeners usually neglect it because it’s tucked away, but you should look after it. It’s as much my fault as anyone’s,’ he goes on. ‘I didn’t have too much to say about it in my guide to the gardens. Never mind. You can put it right.’
‘Of course,’ I assure him. Does that mean I have a job here after all? Is this some sort of interview?
Actually, no, it isn’t. Louis is eager to show off his garden, that is all, and I am a willing participant.
We slowly make our way back to the broad allée I had found earlier and follow to the end. A sharp turn right for several steps brings us to the entrance to the Marais.
‘This is it,’ he says, smiling and gesturing towards a small part of the wooded area that lay to the north and west of the château. I could see immediately the signs of neglect. It was somewhat overgrown, in need of a caring hand. Still, I could see its latent beauty.
‘Of course, we didn’t take the correct route,’ he tells me, still referring to the guide he had written to show the best way to view the gardens. ‘In fact, we went in entirely the opposite direction to the one we should have taken.’
Once again, I felt I should apologise, but he seemed not to be concerned.
‘Madame de Montespan designed the original grove,’ Louis explains. ‘There was a tree made entirely of bronze in the centre. Very delicate. Exquisite. Each of its leaves was made of tin, and they spouted water onto reeds below. They were made of tin as well, and they sprayed delicate jets from every side.’ His smile broadens. ‘There were two marble walls here,’ he pointed out where they had been. ‘Four-tiered and silvered by tiny cascades which created the most wonderful effects. My visitors enjoyed them very much.’
He seems lost in the memory for a moment, going back in his mind to those golden days.
‘You would have liked the marble tables,’ he continues. ‘They were round, and each held a basket of fruit and flowers, all made of gilt bronze. Ah, it was all so lovely.’
Those tables were gone now, replaced by three groups taken from the Grotto de Thetis.
‘I loved her very much, you know,’ he says, his voice barely audible, snatched away by a sudden breeze. ‘In spite of everything, I loved her. She was the love of my life.’
In spite of everything? I didn’t want to pry, but I wondered what he had meant: in spite of what?
I knew that Louis had built the Trianon as a secluded retreat, where he and Madame de Montespan could spend time alone together, away from the prying eyes and gossips of the court. I’d heard of the spectacular flower beds there and ask if I could see them.
He seems delighted by my interest. ‘Of course, but it’s quite a distance,’ he warns. ‘I hope your shoes are sturdy.’
I look down at his shoes of soft leather with their high, red heels and wonder if they would be adequate for the walk ahead. I then look at my own shoes – well, I am still wearing my boots. I hadn’t had time to change from my journey and my clothes were still spattered with mud from the road and crumpled from my night sleeping on the bench. I suddenly feel embarrassed at appearing before the king in such inappropriate dress.
When I look up again, he is gone. I am surprised – I hadn’t heard him go. I spin on my heel, looking all round but I could see no sight of him. I think of calling his name, but all I was capable of was only the most feeble ‘Your Majesty…’ One did not yell at the king of France.
Not unnaturally, I receive no reply. For a moment, I feel sad, even bereft, as though I had lost a dear friend, a kindred spirit. I walk about hesitantly, even starting in the general direction of the Trianon, but there was no sign of the king. He had disappeared as suddenly and as silently as he had arrived. I turn and walk towards the château, taking the pathway that took me up some steps before leading me off to the side and out at the front of the château. Eventually I come out into the main courtyard. I am surprised to see it milling with people. I weave my way through them, muttering my apologies as I, and they, wander aimlessly to and fro. I turn to my left and walk towards the Cour de Marbre. I see the people nearest me suddenly point towards the window above the entrance. A candle flickers and is blown out.
‘Le roi est mort,’ came the cry. ‘Le roi est mort,’ and the answering echo: ‘Vive le roi.’
But that can’t be. I’ve just been speaking…
I watch as those nearest to me in the Cour de Marbre begin to kneel. Some pray, most weep. More people join them, gathering on the black and white court as the news filters through the crowd. Louis XIV was dead. He had died in his bed after several weeks of illness, attended by his physicians, surrounded by his courtiers and weeping servants, gradually growing weaker as he clung to life before finally letting go, falling into the silent peace for which he longed.
I stare at the crowd for a few moments, look at their faces, the shocked, tearstained faces of young and old. Beautiful women in their colourful court dresses, proud men wearing swords, old soldiers kneeling on the cold ground, even country-folk, all come to the château to witness the remarkable occasion being played out before them. All united in their grief.
As they direct their gaze towards a new era, the cries of ‘vive le roi’ still ringing in my ears, I slowly turn and retrace my steps. Oddly, I feel no sorrow as I go back into the garden and on towards the Marais. I sit down on the grass, still damp from the dew, and pull a battered sketchbook from my pocket and a crayon and I begin to draw. I want to study this bosquet, to know every feature, to see where its shadows fall and how the light reflects in the shifting sun.
‘My gardeners usually neglect it…’
“Well,” I silently promise him, “not this gardener.”
As I stroke the crayon across the page, I almost feel as though my hand were being guided. I allow myself a smile as a cool breeze softly moves the waters of a nearby basin. . .
Dr Jo Wilkinson has written biographies on Mary Boleyn, Katharine Howard, Louis XIV and her forthcoming biography on The Man in the Iron Mask will be published in the UK by Amberley and by Pegasus in the USA.
Sketch of Louis XIV. 1667. Charles le Brun (1619 – 1690)
Dr Wilkinson’s own photograph from the entry to La Salle de Bal. Other photographs of this part of Versailles from https://andrelenotre.com/bosquet-de-la-salle-de-bal-jardins-de-versailles
The Death of Louis XIV: Thomas Jones Henry Barker, “The Death of Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles” (ca. 1835–40) (Saint-Quentin, musée Antoine Lécuyer © DR