The King’s White Hound
I work like a dog.
Trust me. I am not just any old dog. I know stuff.
When the Duchess was dying in agony, they brought me in to test her chicory water. I knew perfectly well the “remedy” had been poisoned with wolfsbane. So although they thought I lapped it, drank it, I did not. Being a dog, I get around and I saw two fellows earlier, in one of the kitchens at Versailles, tipping drops of poison into the bowl of chicory.
My breed is extinct now and in any case this tale is coming to you from the cloud of history. I don’t speak up often. But there has been so much talk across the centuries about whether the Duchess was poisoned that I have decided to set the record straight. Was the dear lady, in her silken cerulean gown, with the silver lace glinting in candlelight, actually poisoned? She was.
I realise that in the 21st century there are miraculous medical methods of settling the matter of poisoning, one way or the other. My modus is different, simple. I was there. I saw it all.
The Sun King had special companion hounds. You may just call me the King’s White Hound. I was one of 500 in the Great Kennel at Versailles. So I was dispensable, anyway. Little did they know I was probably the one witness to the deed. When they were looking for a dog with an impeccable sense of taste, they picked the one hound that simply knew the facts.
I was brought up from the stables in a great rush early in the evening of the 29th of June in 1670, and swiftly transported to the chateau at Saint-Cloud. Was it the same carriage that had taken the poisoned chicory out there, the day before? It’s possible. Clacketty-woosh, how that carriage could travel! As we clattered across the bridge to the chateau, I thought my head was going to smash to pieces against the carriage door. When we stopped, I felt a warm breeze whispering strangely across the terraces, the fountains and the great orangery of the lovely old chateau.
Our destiny and our destination that evening was the apartment of the Duchess Henriette-Anne, sister-in-law of the King himself. The rooms were in the left wing, decorated with images of the ancient goddesses. Flora floated in the clouds, encircled by a shining ribbon of coral silk, surrounded by five little cupids with their rotund pink bottoms. Henriette-Anne herself was sweet and pretty and 26, and life and wit shone out of her eyes.
Gossip being what it is, I happened to know that Henriette-Anne had recently met up again with the Duke of Monmouth, with whom she had once had what I will call a flirtation. Did her husband wish to do away with her? I believe he did. For one thing, he was more interested in men than in women, and Henriette-Anne was something of a nuisance. You might imagine that he would approve of her dalliances, but that was not the case. He was famously jealous and foul-tempered. Ugly too, I always thought.
Since arriving at Saint-Cloud, Henriette-Anne had begun to feel unwell. Doctors came to bleed her and to administer popular remedies for severe abdominal pain, and these naturally included chicory. Ah yes, the chicory. For nine hours the patient was tortured with pain and with remedies for pain. It seems the chicory, sent first of all from Versailles, was prepared and delivered by the most trusted of ladies. But of course, it’s often hard to know whom to trust.
By the time I arrived in the carriage, supposedly to taste the chicory and die, the arms and legs of the Duchess had turned to ice and her eyes were wild and glazed. They bled her yet again from the feet. Convulsions. I wonder she had any blood remaining in her veins.
“The chicory water!” She kept screaming. “The chicory water was poisoned!” Poison was extremely fashionable at court at that time. The poisoners trembled for fear of being exposed. Someone decided to call for a reliable dog on which they could test the mixture. And fate, as I have explained, sent me. I didn’t even have to sniff the stuff, let alone taste it, because I knew. But I went through a nice little charade of tasting. You should have seen the vigorous lapping of my tongue. I am quite the mime, when I put my mind to it.
“The dog knows!” they murmured.
“The dog lives!” they exclaimed.
Some were pleased, some were not. The poisoners had been invited along and they were thoroughly bewildered. We poisoned the chicory, didn’t we? Why is the dog not dead? They began to doubt their own actions. Had somebody switched the bad chicory for some good chicory? Well, you just never know whom to trust.
Peritonitis? Peptic ulcer? Strangulated hernia? Expert opinions.
Priests came, doctors came, ambassadors came. The place was pretty crowded, one way and another. And at two in the morning on the 30th of June, the earthly life of Henriette-Anne, who was only 26 years old, was extinguished. Twenty-six! Her husband wept and embraced her lifeless body. I thought he was very convincing. What to make of that? Her blood – the blood that once ran from her tortured little feet – runs to this day in the veins of her distant descendants all over Europe. All over the world, I daresay. Mine doesn’t, of course, because all the King’s White Hounds are extinct. Sad.
That bewilderment about the chicory has remained, until now, a matter of perplexity and mystery. Some scholars say poison and some say dog. But between you and me, I’d listen to the King’s White Hound. Don’t you think?
Trust me. I may be extinct, but I am no ordinary dog.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "The King’s White Hound".
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