1636: The Cardinal Virtues – Snippet 13
“Now that is a view.”
Philippe de la Mothe-Houdancourt, Governor of Bellegarde, leaned on the rampart of Florentine limestone that comprised the sea-facing wall of Notre-Dame de la Garde, basilica and fortress of Marseilles, and took a deep draught of sea air. From up here, a few hundred feet above the sprawl and stink of the city, the air was clear and the sky was deep blue. The sun sparkled on the Mediterranean Sea . . . and somewhere beyond to the west, over the horizon, was Spain.
“It is beautiful. When I think of my city, Philippe, I think of it this way.” Cosme de Valbelle, Seigneur de Brunelles, came up to stand by his young friend. “I’m surprised you’ve never been up here.”
“There are a great many places I have never been. This is quite a remarkable place: a fortress that is also a church.”
“The monks of Saint Victor didn’t want to give it up, but it’s a perfect place to build a fort. Our lord François thought so a century ago, and it’s been defending the city against all comers ever since — outsiders and insiders.”
“There have been plenty of intrigues in Marseilles over the years.”
“But none since it has become the firm possession of la Famille Valbelle, or so I understand.”
Valbelle smiled. “That’s more my great-uncle and father’s doing. Nowadays I merely offer good government and fair trade.” He made an adjustment to the lace on one cuff. “Everyone wins, even the Church.”
“I’m sure His Eminence is pleased.”
“You know very well that Cardinal Richelieu is a great friend to my family, and I am loyal to him and to King Louis. I have made certain that he knows that, and that our family is properly represented at court. But . . . you’re not here to question that, are you, Philippe?”
“No. Of course not. I am here on behalf of my lord Tour d’Auvergne, Marshal Turenne. Some of your vaunted commerce –” he waved a hand toward the port below — “provisions and equips our forces.”
“So you think there’ll be war?”
“My dear Cosme,” de la Mothe answered. “There is always war. In the best instance it is possible for men to bring it about on terms of their own choosing.”
“If it were up to me, the terms I would choose would be accommodation. War is bad for business, and we here in Marseilles gain nothing by fighting with Spain or Savoy or Naples or, honestly, anywhere else.” He sighed. “But if the cardinal wills it, then we must needs obey.”
De la Mothe looked back out across the city. Valbelle was a politician: a former conseil of the city, now merely a private citizen. But no one achieved any office in Marseilles without his help or consent. So it had been for decades. Cosme de Valbelle, the second of the name, had been elected for the first time in 1618 when he was in his early forties, and for a second, shorter term a few years ago. Now the first consulship was in the hands of the Sieur d’Aiglun, a bland nonentity. But no one — not de la Mothe, not Turenne, and certainly not the cardinal himself — had any illusions about who really ran the city.
Valbelle loved to perform the stately pavane, the game of bons mots, rather than get to the point. De la Mothe, for his part, had spent too much time in military service — fifteen years, man and boy — to be anything less than direct; but he knew that to achieve anything with Valbelle meant to play the game.
“Your note said that you had someone you wanted me to meet.”
“Yes. It’s part of the reason I invited you to la Garde. She’s up here receiving some sort of medical treatment from the priory’s hospitaller; she didn’t trust the quacks and frauds down in the city.”
“Yes, she. The lady is an up-timer, Philippe. And a very fierce example of that unusual race. I’m sure you’ll find her interesting.”
Interesting was hardly enough to describe how Philippe de la Mothe-Houdancourt found Sherrilyn Maddox when he first met her that soft early-autumn day in the fortress-priory above Marseilles. She truly was fierce.
When Valbelle led him into the priory, passing beneath the escutcheon of François I and the lamb of the Apostle John bearing the Christian banner, the first thing he heard was the sound of feet on stone. He was on his guard at once, and nearly drew his blade when someone came running along the vaulted gallery. The person was in loose-fitting clothing with a queue of hair neatly tied behind, and came to a halt a few paces away, bent over slightly with hands on thighs, panting as if the exercise had been difficult.
He removed his hand from the hilt of his sword and looked at Valbelle, perplexed.
“Give it a moment,” the older man said quietly.
De la Mothe said nothing and waited. At last the other person stood up straight. Though dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and some sort of pantaloons, he could see at once that it was a woman. Not unattractive, but she had clearly made no particular effort to enhance her appearance. Without saying a word — or asking leave of either Valbelle or himself — she walked somewhat gingerly to a stone bench that ran along the gallery and dropped to a seat.
“Sorry,” she managed. “Still trying to get back in shape.”
De la Mothe understood the words, but wasn’t sure of the meaning. “Allow me to present myself,” he said at last. “I am Philippe, Comte de la Mothe-Houdancourt, Governor of Bellegarde, General of France.” He made a leg.
“Sherrilyn Maddox,” she said. “Thuringian Rifles. Glad to meet you.” She extended her hand, and when he took it with the intent of offering his lips she grabbed his palm and shook it.
When this unusual introduction was over, she let her hand fall to her sides and looked him up and down. De la Mothe was dressed in proper attire that befit a count. He had left off his breastplate and other armor, retaining only his blade — and not the one he used when fighting with the cavalry. He had donned his best wig, and bore a decoration of the chevau-légers that he had earned at Saint Martin-de-Ré a decade before.
“I hope I’ve not offended you, Comte. Monsieur. I’m not sure what title I should use.”
“Do not trouble yourself, Madame — Mademoiselle –”
“Just call me Sherrilyn. My students at Grantville High had to call me ‘Ms. Maddox’, but most people just stick to my first name.”
“Then you may call me Philippe.”
“Suits me fine,” she answered. “Would you sit down, Philippe? Monsieur Valbelle said you had something you wanted to talk to me about. I was just running a few laps — this knee” she slapped one of her legs — “has been giving me problems, and I’m not a damn bit of good to anyone if I don’t get back to form. No less than Harry Lefferts took me off the first team.”