The Maison Labille
The penalty for theft was death.
But before she died, she would be tortured naked in the square before the Hotel de Ville for all Paris to see, as was the custom. The girl shuddered and felt sweat break out, for she was very terrified of pain and of mutilation. Sometimes at night she dreamed of being flogged, and woke up with damp sheets sticking to her flesh.
She dared not speak; she could only watch Louise, Marquise de Comagnac, drop a jeweled bauble— some bit of gold and diamonds designed by Galliard—-into the pocket of her street dress where it hung on a wooden peg in the dressing room. Jeanne Becu knew the Marquise hated her because her body had caught the eye of her lover, but she did not think it had gone as far as this.
The hand of the Vicomte de Machalaux stroked her buttock where it was covered with a thin silk shift. A moment later those fingertips caressed her, then pinched, and Jeanne jumped.
"Walk about a little, darling," murmured the youthful nobleman, "I like to see your derriere cheeks shake."
The girl turned slightly, knowing that her heavy young breasts were bared beneath the thin Rheims linen to show the size and texture of her rigid nipples. Another time she might have enjoyed the stares which the men in the millinery salon bent upon them, but at this moment she was too sick with worry to permit herself any vanity.
The Marquise was coming back, her painted face touched with a sly smile. Jeanne felt a nausea churn up into her middle when she realized the implications of that smile. The trap was set to catch the blonde grisette whose body made that of the Marquise look so old, so jaded. Jeanne shivered as a cold premonition touched her heart.
Mme. Labille who owned the salon, joggled her elbow. "Move about," she snapped, rousing her from her stupor.
She turned and walked along the thick rug, past the bewigged noblemen in their satin and velvet waistcoats, pausing to pirouette in front of a countess and then a duchess. Her smile was fixed on her lips by will power alone. Usually she enjoyed the admiring stares of the men and the cold looks from the women, but this day she hated the gossamer sheer chemise that showed so much of her firm breasts and pale hips.
The Maison Labille was the very rage of Paris, in this autumn of the year 1763. Its ornate front faced the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, that avenue which was itself lined with modish shops. Two many-paned windows gave a view out onto that street with its promenaders dressed in the height of fashion, its costly sedan chairs and occasionally, a horse-drawn carriage.
The wide front door held highly polished brass knob and fittings, and was decorated with a single fleur-de-lys as evidence of the fact that it received the royal favor. When one stepped within that door, there was thick carpeting on the floor and white walls touched with watered green silk, fitted with recesses in which models of dresses and sacks could be dis played.
There was an air of opulence about the establishment which Mme. Labille herself, an attractive matron slimly rounded and with a splendid figure on which to set off her own creations—always several months behind the times, to indicate her servility to the noblewomen who came to watch and finger and purchase-added to with a service of ices and cookies and a little wine during the displays. These were served by a Moorish boy in feathered turban and pantaloons, wearing upturned slippers.
The display room was large and oval. Behind it was a draped doorway, opened during the daytime hours, where the mannikins would dress and undress as they modeled the garments, and where the noblewomen themselves might retire to sniff at pomade balls if bothered by the vapors. Behind the dressing room, and extending around the oval display room on both sides, though hidden from it, were the workshops where tailors and cutters produced the gowns and dresses which Mme. Labille designed.
Jeanne Becu was no fool. She understood well enough that the fashionable trade came to this milliner shop along the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs at this hour of the afternoon to watch her walk about in little but her own skin. Few of the girls who served Mme. Labille could pass such an intense scrutiny of their bodies. She was a lucky one.
If she were not so pretty, if her heavy yellow hair did not tumble down so wantonly about her smooth white shoulders, if her hips were not quite so round and did not shake so enticingly to her stride, then the Marquise might not hate her enough to want her in trouble.
She burned to get into the dressing room and re move the jeweled pin which the Marquise had slipped into her pocket. Nom de Dieu! She would have to be showing this sheer chemise with nothing under it! If she were displaying any other garment, the yellow sack dress for instance, with its ruffles and low neck line, or the Caraco gown which displayed the shoulders but little else, they would have waved their hands at her to go and change.
The Marquise said softly, as she seated herself in a caquetoire chair, "Come closer, my child. Let me feel the material."
She stepped before the woman who caught the hem of the shift and lifted it high above her middle. Naked to the slippers on her feet, she stood there while the countess pretended delight in the lacework.
The Vicomte came to stand behind her, as if fascinated by that same lacy fringe. She could feel him closing in on her, roused by her near nudity. The Marquise looked up suddenly, and Jeanne Becu saw the hate and mortification in her eyes before she veiled them under her long lashes.
"I shall order a dozen," Louise de Comagnac said softly. “Edouard, my pet, I must have my purse. Ah, here it is."
She fumbled in the large velvet reticule while Jeanne felt the dampness under her arms and on her forehead. She shivered. Soon now, the Marquise would begin screaming that she had been robbed. Jeanne tried to break away but with her hand on the lace hem, the noblewoman would not let her go. At the same time, to make her situation worse, the Vicomte was moving even closer behind her.
"Ohhh! My Galliard pin—it's gone!"
A hush came over the salon. Heads in whitely powdered wigs began to turn, to ogle the little trio. Here and there a woman in a fashionable blue or green sack lifted a jeweled lorgnette to her eyes. Someone tapped a Vernis Martin snuff box, and sneezed.
Jeanne closed her eyes, wanting to die. Falling down dead here would be an easier death than strapped on the wheel with the wooden mallet breaking her pretty legs. Right now she could feel those legs shaking under her so that she could hardly stand.
Mme. Labille came hurrying over, moving her hands distractedly. "Is anything wrong, Your Grace?" she asked in a quavering voice.
"But yes! A pin of mine has disappeared. I had it in my purse when I entered the shop. It is not there now. I demand an immediate search of the premises." With a glance up at the blonde girl, she added, "And that search should begin, I would assume, in the dressing room used by the mannikins."
It was the milliner herself who found the pin in the pocket of the cheap little dress hanging on the peg. She showed it to the marquise, holding it on her
"The girl must have taken it," she said angrily.
"No," said Jeanne. “I did not. I was showing the shift."
The noblewoman smiled coldly. "Before that, you showed the yellow muslin and the red saracenet. I was not in the room at the time, but my purse was. You slipped it out and hid it in your dress pocket."
The girl shook her head, her violet eyes touching the young vicomte who looked uncomfortable. The faces of the other men, somber under their white wigs, were cold now and disapproving. Alone, any of them would have rushed to her rescue, but together they were like lambs cowed by the sheep dog.
"Please," Jeanne whispered. “I did not take it. I saw the Marquise herself put the—"
A hand caught the side of her face. Mme. Labille was before her, her sensual face dark with fury. "Imbecile! Liar! Pig of a harlot! Don't add falsehood to your other faults. Apologize to her ladyship at once."
Jeanne felt her head begin to swim. It shook back and forth out of control. She was innocent. She did not want to be spread on a wheel to have her flesh torn, to have her arms pulled from their sockets. Ah, God! And then to die with the strangling rope cutting into her soft white throat!
"Please no, I am innocent. I did not do it."
The Marquise was smiling triumphantly. She was an older woman, this Louise de Comagnac, and so long used to having her own way in any matter that she was beginning to believe this blonde grisette with the lovely body and even lovelier face, was actually guilty of the crime.
"It shall be a lesson to your other girls, Madame Labille," she cried, head high and eyes brightly spark ling.
*Indeed it shall, my lady," the milliner hurriedly agreed.
Jeanne felt the tears starting in her eyes. Always sensitive, always impressionable, she felt herself alone in this world which had become too much for her, so suddenly. Quivering, she went down on her knees.
"I beg you, my lady marchioness," she wept, clasping her hands together. "Please, please find it in your heart to forgive me."
It did no good to tell the truth. She must lie. She must pretend, and throw herself on the mercy of Madame la Marquise. Louise de Comagnac drew her self erect, nostrils flaring.
"You do admit your guilt?" she snapped.
"Oui, I admit it."
"You should be punished, you know."
Jeanne choked, then whispered, "Yes, I know. I know!"
The marquise breathed deeply, somewhat mollified. She had no desire to see the wench killed. This was merely a play to see her humiliated, shamed be fore the Vicomte de Machalaux, who seemed so much smitten by her charms.
"Well... then I forgive you."
A voice rasped from the doorway, "Ah, but the law does not forgive, my lady. No, no. If a crime has been committed, then the criminal must be dealt with in the manner prescribed by the laws of France and its king, Louis the fifteenth—all blessings on his name."
A heavyset man in the dark blue breeches and jacket of a foot-patrol sergeant pressed through the men and women thronging the draped doorway into the dressing room. His face was red from too much wine, his eyes were small and hard from natural cruelty. He caught the kneeling girl by the arm and raised her to her feet.
"Ah, now. This one's the thief, eh?"
"But—," said Jeanne.
The official shook her roughly. "Now, now girl. No lies to me. I heard you tell her ladyship you did it. This is proof enough for me. Come along, now."
The Marquise looked dismayed. She had not meant to go so far as actually to lodge a complaint. To appear in court and testify was beneath her, and so she paled beneath her paint and reached for a pomade ball at which to sniff.
Machalaux cleared his throat.
"Perhaps the matter can be settled by the payment of a fine. I shall gladly offer the amount out of my own purse."
Michel Dupret shook his head glumly. “I'm sorry, milord. Law's law. I couldn't take the fine even if I wanted.”
In a polite way, he was telling the Viscount he could not be bribed. Bribes came easily enough to Michel Dupret, but it was rare indeed when he was called upon to arrest a girl as lovely as Jeanne Becu. What were a few liards to a night on a cell cot with this blonde woman? His flesh crawled in anticipation of the event even as his fingers tightened more closely about her wrist.
"I'll handle the matter, Your Ladyship," he told the Marquise as he dragged Jeanne toward the door way. "You'll not need to bother yourself with it any more. With my own ears I heard the confession."
It was Mme. Labille who intervened at this point. "Faith! You'll not drag her onto the streets in that shift! It is a new creation—worth a hundred gold louis! Let her wear her own dress.”
The constable grinned. “All right. Off with the shift, girl. Put on your dress."
Her cheeks flushed, Jeanne lifted off the shift and bent naked to remove the expensive Moroccan leather slippers which were also the property of the Maison Labille. As she straightened up, she looked through her tears into the reddened face of the officer,
And suddenly, she knew more than fear.
This pig would give her to the law—but only after he had satisfied himself with her flesh. She saw the lust in his eyes and the quiver of his loose lips. He wanted more of her than punishment. Break those white legs? Tear that smooth flesh, those standing breasts with their enlarged nipples? Ha Dieux! It was not to be thought of—until after he had had his fill of them.
She did not hurry into her frock. She let them all look as she lifted her plain little dress with its echelle lacings off its wooden peg and brushed at it with a hand. She reached into the pockets to make sure there was nothing in there but the five liards she had brought with her this day to buy a loaf of potato bread and a wedge of cheese against her evening meal. Deliberately she flaunted her gold and white nudity at the constable. If she could excite him enough, he might let her go.
Lazily she lifted the thin dress and slipped her bare arms into its sleeves. Wriggling her hips, making the flesh of her buttocks quiver, she tugged it down past her breasts and hips. The sergeant was in a state, staring at her body. He could scarcely wait for her to slip her bare feet into her cheap fabric slippers before he was yanking on her wrist.
At a trot she went out of the salon and onto the rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs. He began dragging her past the shop fronts as if his heated blood were fueling the strength in his legs. Men and women in silks and satins were turning to stare and whisper back and forth. They knew Jeanne Becu and her beauty, that had made the Salon Labille so famous. Ah, but this was scandal on a grand scale!
"Ciel!" she panted. "Must you hurry so?"
"You are a dangerous prisoner," he scowled.
Jeanne was not afraid of a lone man. Only a noble woman might frighten her peasant wits. She wriggled her wrist and made a grimace. "Pouf! You're hurting me. I shall cry."
Michel Dupret eyed her out of the corners of his eyes. “Will you agree not to run away?"
She hunched her shoulder at him. “Who knows what will happen? But I tell you, I am innocent."
"What else would you say?" he growled; but he re leased her wrist. She had forgotten to do up the tie strings of the bodice during her dressing, it gaped now to reveal the inner slopes of her breasts. Michel Dupret stared.
They had come to a stop on the cobbled walkway leading to the Pont au Change. Slowly, she began doing up the strings, tightening them so that he might still see the shape of her bosom.
"What's your name?" he demanded suddenly.
"Jeanne Becu. Why do you ask?"
"Peste! I must fill out a form. Where are you from?"
"Vaucouleurs, which is a town in Champagne."
"I know that! What's your father's name?"
Her shoulder moved upward, casually.
"Then your mother?"
"Anne Becu. She's a cook."
“How long have you been in Paris?"
"Six years. I came first as a child to the Convent of Saint Anne, to be taught by the good sisters."
"A fine job they did, thief that you are."
She stamped her foot. "I am not a thief."
"We shall see about that. Now come along."
A black lacquered cabriolet, a light carriage built for speed even in the narrow streets of Paris, was drawing up before a building on the corner. From it a young man was stepping, his sun-browned face made darker by the whiteness of his bag-wig, his shoulders wider than was usual, and with an air of competence about him. Jeanne noticed that his blue sateen waistcoat was not in style, it was perhaps two or three years old, and his shoes were not quite in the correct mode of the moment, but he carried a small sword at his side, and he looked strong.
He would be her rescuer!
Jeanne raised her voice until she was screaming. "Pig! Boar! I am a good girl. I do not sell myself for money!"
Michel Dupret gawked at her. "Are you mad?” he cried.
"I shall not come with you for a hundred liards—no, or even for a hundred gold louis d'or. I am virgin! My mistress is most fond of me. Please—someone! Won't someone help me?"
She glanced toward the cabriolet and saw with satisfaction that the young gentleman was turning and staring. Jeanne held out her quivering white hands to him. There were few men, especially men so young, who could resist the opportunity to help a beautiful girl in trouble.
Michel Dupret roared, "You little slut, I'll teach you to play games with me. Now come along. Partons! Partons!"
"My virtue," Jeanne Becu wailed.
The young man lifted his ebony, gold-pommeled walking stick as he ran toward them. There was a litheness about his body, an appearance of muscularity used to action, which told Jeanne she had picked a good advocate. He ran lightly and swiftly on his toes and as he ran he shook the walking stick.
"You there, my man! Let the girl alone."
Michel Dupret was too angry to hear that voice, and so he took the ebony staff across the back of his head. He grunted and swung about, ham-like hands balled into fists. The iron ferrule of the stick poked him sharply in the middle, making him gasp and double up.
"Would you threaten me, canaille?" breathed the man in the blue sateen suit.
The foot officer panted, "The girl's a common thief!"
"A lie," Jeanne wailed. "He makes up the story to force me to his wicked will! He would say anything to get me on his bed—the monster!"
Behind the back of her protector, she stuck out her tongue at the sergeant. An imp of deviltry danced in her eyes. La, these men! They were like little children to be tugged about-well, not by their noses but perhaps by their very manhood. She wanted to laugh, but did not dare.
"Sire, on my word as a law—"
"No more, no more," growled the man in the blue sateen suit, fumbling in a waistcoat pocket and producing a silver coin. “Here, take this ecu—and be on your way. Allez-vous-en! Go! Go!"
Michel Dupret stared down at the coin on his palm, then at the girl. A moment only he hesitated, then shrugged and nodded. The ecu would buy him many things. And after all a girl was a girl, no matter how pretty her face and how firm her lolos.
The man in the blue sateen suit turned to Jeanne, bowing slightly and smiling. “It is an honor, Mademoiselle Jeanne, to be of assistance."
Jeanne stared, her mouth a little open. "You know
"I have been to the Salon Labille. I have seen you there, parading about in next to nothing often enough as not to forget you. I am the Comte du Barry."
Jeanne shook her head. There had been so many men in the audience during the few years she had displayed gowns for Mme. Labille! She could not be expected to remember them all. And yet this Comte du Barry was so handsome, so youthful.
"I am sorry," she murmured.
His laughter was infectious. “Enfer! Why should you remember me? I am only Guillaume du Barry. You are Jeanne Becu."
She smiled faintly. "Am I then so famous?"
"As Venus herself. You are the talk of the fashion able salons, the gaming tables. Name me a nobleman who has not ogled you and I'll show you a Colasa fool."
He extended his arm, she took it, walking saucily with swinging skirt beside his blue sateen elegance. She told him what had happened in the salon, of the appearance of Michel Dupret, and of her innocence.
"I cannot return now to the salon," she said. "I am ruined. That awful woman has finished me."
The count was sympathetic. "It may not be as dreadful as you make it seem. Indeed, I can understand your reluctance to return and endure the stares of those who will never believe your innocence, but you must go on living, assuredly. And so we must take thought, you and I—as to what you are to do."
"What may I do?" she wailed.
His eyes touched her bobbing breasts that moved so freely beneath her laced bodice. Guillaume du Barry had felt the impact of her loveliness in the Salon Labille. At the time he had conjectured on how many louis d'or it might cost to bed her.
He said slowly, "There are certain establishments in Paris where gentlemen go for relaxation. A pretty companion may make herself a fortune if she is wise in the ways of men."
Jeanne sniffed, "A common poule? I could not!"
"You could never be common, Jeanne," he soothed.
It was her turn to eye him, to study his profile, to realize suddenly how very handsome and virile this man was. The thought of giving herself to any man—such a man as Michel Dupret, for instance—was repulsive; yet should such a one as Guillaume du Barry come seeking her flesh in love, she could be very eager to accommodate him.
"You would not despise me?" she asked faintly.
He chuckled. "Where have you been lately, ma cherie? The old king—Louis Quatorze—made mistresses fashionable with de Montespan and La Valliere. The common people always imitate their betters. Mistresses or poules, what is the difference? You would meet only noblemen."
"Nothing like—that foot officer?" she whispered.
"Peste! Should I insult you?"
She jounced along, relieved, guiding her young nobleman toward the little room she kept on the third floor of a pension on the rue Saint-Nicaise. She remembered that her room was in disarray, but it was a pretty disarray, with silken stockings and sheer under garments-discards from the Maison Labille—scattered about. Sight of her pretty undergarments might inspire him to take a personal interest in her attractions; Jeanne admitted honestly she was in the mood for comforting.
She turned in the doorway to the pension as he followed her. Going up the narrow staircase she lifted her skirt to show off the white shapeliness of her calves and ankles. As she expected, his hand came slipping up the inner surface of a calf to her knee.
Jeanne came to a halt. "M'sieu le Comte is most daring," she breathed, wriggling as the palm slipped beyond her knee to her thigh.
"Jeanne, I vow—you're a goddess!" he whispered.
He lifted her skirt in both hands, exposing her legs to her upper thighs. He bent and kissed the backs of her knees, then let his lips slide upward across her thighs.
"You already take me for a cocotte," she accused.
"A grande cocotte, my darling Jeanne. There is a difference."
“Where is the difference?" she asked with Gallic practicality.
"In the nature of your clients."
She felt his breath on her fleshy buttocks, and giggled. If Guillaume du Barry were any indication of his fellow noblemen, being une grande cocotte might not be so unpleasant, after all. His arms banded her legs; she was lifted and carried upward.