By Hannah Van Essen
Vibrancy was the word of the night: vibrant colors, vibrant music, vibrant women. The Hotel Saint-Pol was a place where reality became smudged, blurring the line between what was acceptable and what was possible. People came to hide, losing themselves in the many antics that embodied the spirit of masquerade balls. Tonight was different, though; tonight the royals were in attendance.
Isabeau surveyed the scene before her, sitting restlessly on a pretentiously tasteless straight-backed chair. Her ladies in waiting having already abandoned her, the queen was alone with her thoughts and a bottomless glass of wine. Charles, dressed as a ghoulish savage, was talking adamantly to a group of his fellow wild men. Isabeau had protested the grotesque costume, thinking it rather insensible for the king of France to be dressed in such a crude get up, but Charles always had the final word. The queen sighed deeply and motioned for the servant boy to refill her glass; rising slowly, Isabeau made her way over to the table at which her sister resided.
“Is Louis going to be in attendance?”
The queen’s sister gazed absently at the surrounding men and women, taking a moment to gather her words. “Oh, you know him, Louis is probably out with Phillipe and spending outlandish quantities of money in the hopes of never having to be sober again.”
She said these last words with a little chuckle and glanced quickly at Isabeau for any sign of sympathy. “We all have our troubles, though.”
Across the room, a group of people stood closely together, whispering things they knew would cost them their heads.
“They say the king’s gone mad. I mean just look at the poor man, he’s practically foaming at the mouth!”
“He’s most certainly not fit to rule! The queen has been compensating but I’m not sure France can afford these sorts of allowances.”
The woman who said this quickly glanced behind her shoulder, eyeing those within earshot, and wrung her hands together while an overwhelming sense of dread washed over her.
Charles was enjoying the night, listening to the witty banter between his knights always amused him. For most of the evening, the men had entertained their fanciful impersonations of the savages from distant lands by surprising guests with their obnoxious, even crass, behavior. Their costumes were perfectly crafted, realistic in some sense, with gold leaf glistening the linens they were clothed in. The king, intoxicated by the women, the music, and the wine provided for him, gathered his entourage and stumbled onto the dance floor. It was time for them to perform. With unannounced fervor, the king and his knights entered into a tribal dance of sorts, in a distasteful imitation of the “wild men.”
At this moment Louis wandered in the back entrance, taking the steps two at a time, leaning heavily on the slick metal railing. Behind him trailed a few servants, each holding a small torch, used previously to light the nighttime path. Louis stood in the back of the crowd until the scene before him caught his attention.
Slurring his words together, he gazed at the dancing nobles. “My, my, look at the king dance.”
Louis smiled and waved his attendants forward, walking straight toward his brother.
Isabeau saw it happen in slow motion: the rhythmic pounding of feet as the dance progressed, the methodical steps of Louis’s strides, and the spark that lit the room on fire. The screams of burning men reverberated off of every wall, horror written across every face. The smell of charring flesh filled the air, people threw themselves violently on the floor to staunch the flames. After, no one could say whether it was an ember wandering from the servant’s torch, or a malicious attempt on the King’s life, but that night at the Hotel Saint-Pol the wild men were a sight to see: moving smoothly to the beat of the drums one moment, engulfed in flames the very next. Queen Isabeau, desperately trying to piece together her crumbling nation, failed fantastically, and instead gave all of the French nobility a front-row seat to her very own ball of burning men.
Photo Credits: Eugene Louis Lami