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The Countess of M-

This much was plain: Madeleine would not marry a man who didn't know her worth.

Lina Chesak

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Fiction by Georgia Shreve

In T—, an important town in southern France, Count M— was blessed over six years with three healthy daughters in a row and finally with a son. All the girls were brought up to sing beautifully, play the piano, and read poetry aloud, but it was clear from early on that Isabelle, the eldest, was beautiful, Lilliane, the middle one, was pretty, and Madeleine, the youngest, was extremely plain. Isabelle and Lilliane had their mother’s graceful features, but Madeleine looked more like her father. Where her sisters’ noses were thin, Madeleine’s was thick; while their lips were full, hers were thin.

There never seemed to be any rivalry among the girls, but the Count and his wife worried sometimes about what would happen when they reached marriageable age.

When Isabelle was 17, her parents gave a ball in her honor, as was the custom in the day, and by the end of the evening she was betrothed. Lilliane’s ball, equally splendid, followed two years later and over the course of the next year she had many suitors. Fortunately, she and her parents agreed on the most suitable candidate, and her marriage was arranged. When it came her turn, Madeleine told her parents that she preferred not to have a ball. But they thought (though they did not tell her) that in her case it was especially important. With the help of her sisters, they finally convinced Madeleine to go ahead with the ball.

For months Madeleine’s mother fussed over every aspect of the ball as if it were a wedding—some said she was pretending it was a wedding. She called in the greatest dressmaker from Paris, and after five tiresome fittings, the dress finally arrived. It was made in the new Empire style that had just become fashionable, so that the blue watered-silk skirt fell from below the bust rather than from the waist. It looked magnificent as it was lifted out of its wrappings, but when Madeleine put it on, everyone agreed that she looked more upholstered than dressed. It was quickly decided that she would wear one of her simpler dresses. In honor of the evening, her mother had given Madeleine one of her most beautiful necklaces. She clasped the delicate ring of diamond flowers around her daughter’s throat. But, hanging above Madeleine’s plain gown, it only made her face and neck look plainer and heavier. Without saying a word, her mother quickly substituted her heaviest string of pearls.

That evening Madeleine could often be found chatting on the sidelines with her many lady friends but was not often seen on the dance floor. Her mother worked herself into a social frenzy, cultivating the mother of this young man and that, until she managed to drum up a steady flow of dance partners, but no proposal emerged.

In the following year, Madeleine’s parents gave a number of large dinners, taking care to invite eligible men from the nearby area. They even invited attractive young men from Paris. They hoped that her agreeable personality would draw a husband. But, the year came to an end, and none had stepped forth.

When spring came, Madeleine’s parents called her into the library. When she had seated herself on the settee, they suggested to her that a marriage be arranged.

“As you know,” said the Count, “it is common practice, and with your title and dowry, you could have your choice of many fine young men.”

“I am grateful for your kindness,” said Madeleine, “but I do not want to spend my life with a man who has not chosen me.”

Her father, who was known for his charm and diplomacy, and who deeply loved her, said, “But I know I could find a wonderful young man for you. Just name him, and I will see to it that he is yours.”

But Madeleine said, “He doesn’t have to be wonderful. All I care about is that he loves me for myself.”

The Count looked at his wife as if to say that this streak of stubbornness came from her, but, for once, he admitted to himself that, alas, Madeleine took after him in every way, and the same persistence that had enabled him to win military campaigns had been passed down to her.

As Isabelle and Lilliane each bore beautiful daughters, Madeleine grew older, plumper and plainer. She patiently taught her nieces embroidery and needlepoint and devotedly supervised their practice at the piano. Her mother devised opportunities to invite men over to observe Madeleine’s loving attention to the children, but her considerable maternal gifts failed to inspire any of them to a proposal.

One day the Count summoned his wife to his study. He proposed that they secretly lure a man to woo Madeleine. He had in mind the Marquis B—, whose family had recently suffered severe reversals of fortune.

“I am told he is handsome,” said the Count, “and he has recently been decorated for bravery in the field.”

His wife resisted the idea at first, though she knew the Marquis’s family and thought it would be a fitting match. She hated the idea of deceiving her daughter. But one day as she watched Madeleine walking somberly through the garden, stopping to gently attend to ailing plants, she decided that she must take steps to make sure her daughter was not left alone.

The Count went to Paris and returned with the exact document he had hoped to obtain. As his wife read it, tears fell down her face. She was happy for her daughter, but sad at the same time that she was forced to hide this arrangement, which would have such a great impact on her daughter’s life.

The impoverished young Marquis was invited to stay at the chateau for a few weeks. When he arrived, they could tell by the look on Madeleine’s face that she, too, thought him handsome. His deep black hair looked splendid against the red and gold of his regimental jacket. The Count and his wife watched him strolling with Madeleine in her beloved garden and hoped that nature would cooperate with their good intentions. The jasmines were in bloom and added a romantic aura to the entire household. Under the attention of the Marquis, Madeleine seemed to flourish, and her always-agreeable personality became almost saintly. Her selflessness and care for others became more visible than ever before, and it was clear that the Marquis appreciated these qualities. He gave her a beautifully bound copy of R—’s poetry, and Madeleine was touched that he had guessed her favorite poet.

After that, the Marquis became a frequent guest at the house. Madeleine’s sisters joined in this effort; each in turn took him aside and spoke to him, as subtly as she could, of Madeleine’s wonderful qualities. The day came when he made his proposal public to her and her father. She seemed shocked and delighted at the same time.

The next morning, Madeleine interrupted her father at an early breakfast and asked to speak to him in private. When they were seated alone in his study, she told him that she thought there was something in the Marquis that was not entirely sincere. Her father tried to convince her that she was wrong. She asked for some time to come to a decision.

However, as Madeleine spent more time with the Marquis, she seemed to grow more distant. Finally one day, she sent him away, declaring that he was merely a dowry-seeker. Her mother wondered how she had figured this out and whether Madeleine could ever believe that a man could love her for herself. The family of the Marquis was angry and insulted, and the Count was forced to pay a substantial settlement to dissolve the agreement.

At first, Madeleine was despondent, but after a few months, with the return of spring and renewed attention to her gardens, she seemed to slowly recover. One day she met with her father in his study and asked if he could sign over to her some of her income.

“But, my dear, what could you possibly want with so much money? Are your needs not amply met in my household?”

“Yes, Father, of course they are. You are very generous to me, but I want to have my portrait painted.”

“But, surely I can find you someone who is not so expensive.”

“No. I want to have my portrait painted by F—, the great portrait artist.”

“I have to admit I’m surprised at this. You have never seemed the least bit vain to me.”

“Father, you know me well and, indeed, I have nothing to be vain about. I want F— to paint my portrait so it will hang in one of the great museums of Paris.”

“Again, I have to admit to being shocked. I never would have thought you would seek that kind of fame.”

“I don’t seek fame at all, but I’m convinced that someone will see it hanging there and decide to seek me out.”

“Someone? But who? Any stranger who happens to pass? And to think of having our name displayed on a plaque in public—”

“It won’t be our name; it will only be my first name.”

The Count still hesitated, but finally gave his approval, unable to find it in his heart to stifle her hopes, but rang for his wife, as he did whenever he didn’t know how to express something to one of the children or servants. After he had explained the situation, he looked helplessly at his wife.

“Madeleine,” she said, sitting down next to her daughter and taking her hand. “It is hard for me to say this, but some women are born with faces that all want to look upon, that add to the beauty of a room, but some are born with faces
that don’t necessarily mirror their inner qualities.”

“Mother, dear, if you are trying to tell me that I am hopelessly plain, I would be the first to agree with you,” said Madeleine without a touch of bitterness.

“Have your sisters said something cruel to you?”

“No, my sisters did not need to tell me. I have known since I was a child. I needed only to consult the looking glass to realize that I did not have my mother’s glowing eyes or Isabelle’s lustrous hair or Lilliane’s radiant skin.”

“But, my dear, this portrait—”

“But I have known that while Lilliane could be impatient and Isabelle arrogant, and even you, dear Mother, could be vain, I was never troubled by any of these qualities. I believe that if a gifted artist like F— paints my portrait, someone will see inside me and be drawn to know me.”

So Monsieur F— was commissioned at great cost and came to stay with the family for six months while he worked on the painting. He arrived with several trunks full of supplies. He was short and, though not much over 30, had shaggy graying hair. Every day Madeleine sat for him in the drawing room for several hours. He was dedicated, despite the pleading of Madeleine’s parents, to creating the most accurate likeness he could. Her father argued that this was fine for Napoleon, whom F— had recently painted, though not necessarily for his daughter, but the artist insisted that it was his job as a portrait artist to represent the subject perfectly. This made the Count, who was paying a fortune for the painting, very angry. But he was grateful that at least Monsieur F— could provide a companion for his daughter, for by now all of her female friends were married, and many had moved to Paris.

Meanwhile, Napoleon began his campaigns and most of the able-bodied young men in the district were conscripted for war, many never to return. As the Count and his wife watched one young man after another disappear from the area, they despaired of finding a husband for their daughter.

When the portrait was finally finished—it ended up taking almost a year—everyone found it startlingly accurate. Even the Count and his wife were astounded by the likeness and Madeleine was deeply pleased. A few months later, the portrait was hung in the S— Museum in Paris as part of a major exhibition. Many months passed, and they heard nothing. Then finally a letter arrived, via the artist, from a young man. He said he’d been touched by the sweet nature displayed in Madeleine’s portrait and wanted to meet her. They had never heard of his family but decided that, under the circumstances, they must overlook this. Yet when the young man arrived, the Count and his wife figured out quite quickly that he was only after her money and title—somehow he had found out who she was. At first, Madeleine refused to believe them, but finally, after a few weeks, the suitor was sent away. Soon afterward the family received another letter. The second candidate came to meet Madeleine, but, after only a few meetings with her, seemed to lose interest.

Finally Madeleine, without consulting her parents, placed an ad in the newspaper. “Good-natured woman who is very plain seeking husband with good manners and character.” The Count and his wife were deeply shocked. Her parents were humiliated and terrified of what disreputable characters might respond. They appointed a secretary to receive the responses. But before they could sort through all these replies, another letter was delivered by way of the artist. It had a very different tone. The writer seemed to have intuited Madeleine’s best qualities just from looking at the painting, as she had predicted would happen. It went on to describe them in great detail, and it finished with a proposal of marriage. Madeleine was deeply touched by the letter and asked for her parents’ permission to accept the proposal. They were frightened, not knowing what kind of person to expect, but they agreed on the condition that they could meet him first.

The whole household was in an uproar as preparations were made for the unknown guest. Madeleine, who normally paid little attention to her appearance, agonized over whether to wear the dress she had worn in the portrait. Finally, she decided on one with similar lines. The Count and his wife sat in the library practically shivering with anxiety. They heard the slow progress of the carriage on the cobblestones, but were afraid to look out. They heard the sweep of Madeleine’s skirt as she rushed down the staircase. Slowly they crept out of the library toward the stairs. They were shocked to see, at the foot of the stairs, Madeleine with a man’s arms tightly wrapped around her. The Count rushed down the stairs, nearly tripping on his stiff old knees. He pulled the stranger away from Madeleine. He was amazed to realize that the man he held clutched in his hands was a pink-cheeked, gray-haired Monsieur F—.

The following judges' comments did not appear in the print edition of Stanford.

Bo Caldwell: What first caught my attention about “The Countess of M—“ was the story’s voice, a mix of the kind of voice you’d find in a piece of historical fiction and the once-upon-a-time, lulling voice of a fairy tale. I felt that I was in the hands of a pro as the writer led me through the story with wonderful, fresh descriptions (“everyone agreed that she looked more upholstered than dressed”) and quick but astute characterizations (“The Colonel looked at his wife as if to say that this streak of stubbornness came from her, but, for once, he admitted to himself that, alas, Madeleine took after him in every way, and the same persistence that had enabled him to win military campaigns had been passed down to her”). And while I enjoyed many of the story’s elements—its plot, characterizations, descriptions—what I enjoyed most was the writing itself. Its surefootedness truly allowed me to leave this world behind and sink into the fictional dream of Countess M—.

Ron Hansen: “The Countess of M—“ perfectly combines the sly peasant comedy and surprisingly apt marriages of the old-fashioned fable with the subversive romanticism of Heinrich von Kleist, whose “Marquise of O—“ and other ironic stories “The Countess of M—“ seems indebted to. The suspense is well managed, the characterizations are deftly according to formula, and the outcome is as fitting and wry as anything in the Italian folk tales of Italo Calvino.

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