Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  “I understand.” She flashed her crooked smile. “And it is not as if you could tell anyone my secret thoughts.”

  Someone had taken Marivaux’s unfinished novel Le Paysan Parvenu, The Unfortunate Peasant, and turned it into a play. Marivaux had been popular in Louis XV’s time for his romantic comedies. Hortense was composing music to embellish this play, but when she heard Aurélie’s songs, she demanded her aid. Aurélie threw herself happily into rehearsals.

  When they weren’t working, the ladies had free time. Josephine had yet to be constrained to follow the elaborate imperial court ritual that Napoleon would love so much.

  Aurélie used her free time to wander through Malmaison. At first she was drawn back to the enormous gallery full of the paintings that Napoleon had shipped back from his various wars, especially from the Italian masters. I noticed she avoided the grand rooms designed to look like royal war camp tents. Napoleon hadn’t spent all that much time there, but his presence seemed to be stamped all over. No one went there except to clean and dust.

  Aurélie did venture into those rooms once. She tiptoed in as if Napoleon could hear her all the way from Paris or Saint-Cloud and have her arrested. She pored intently over the enormous map lying on a table then murmured, “I do not see Praga.”

  I touched her hand from long habit, though there was no mirror around. “It might be the name of a village.”

  She jerked upright, eyes wide. “I heard you.”

  She ran to her room and shut the door. After a quick experiment we discovered that she still couldn’t see me without a mirror, but she could now hear me if I touched her and spoke.

  I suspect that, somehow, I’d learned to focus my mind better, but Aurélie now regarded me as gaining in abilities. Though it made me feel like a fraud, I didn’t deny it, because we still had to get to Dobrenica. And save it. Though I had no more idea why or how than I had at the outset, I felt certain I should use what little advantage I had.

  Time blurred by again.

  One morning Aurélie woke to find the household rushing around frenetically cleaning, dusting, and twitching things just so. She went to Josephine’s rooms, expecting the usual leisurely, pleasant breakfast over which the women conversed informally about all manner of subjects. But Josephine was not there, and instead of the usual carefully planned and beautifully presented meal, there was only a tray of last night’s bread, some fruit, and slices of meat.

  Aurélie grabbed a peach and a piece of bread and went out in search of news. When she found Josephine’s most trusted maid carrying a great pot of fresh flowers, she said, “Is something amiss?”

  “He is due.” Agatha peered over the blue and pink stalks that had been fitted among pure white roses. “Get dressed. Silk!” Then she flitted away, leaving Aurélie standing there apprehensively.

  Josephine wore her soft muslins by preference, but when the enormous military cavalcade clattered and swept into the courtyard before the house, Josephine, her daughter, and all the ladies wore silk gowns, Josephine’s with a velvet train that had to be gathered up in one arm when she walked.

  A short but sharp thunderstorm must have halted or slowed Napoleon on the road, because it was late when the outriders finally arrived. Word zapped through the mansion, Le voilà—he’s here.

  The women gathered in the entry hall, still and nervous. Even Josephine betrayed nerves in the restless way she smoothed her skirt and tucked back a tendril of curly dark hair from her brow.

  A rumble of boots, and in clattered a group of officers, gold braid swinging, swords jingling in their sabretache harnesses, the spurs on their boots ringing on the marble floor like discordant chimes. With them was a file of the Consular Guard, tall, immaculate, martial-looking, though I knew they were a few years from developing into Napoleon’s formidably elite Guard Impériale.

  At first I wondered if the sentient chill I sensed was caused by Napoleon, because alone of all the people there, I knew what he was. I knew what he was going to do. The energy blowback from Napoleon’s entrance was so strong it was nearly physical in my non-physical existence. But it was not the terrifying, brooding lour I’d detected on our way to the Tuileries.

  The women curtseyed, their manner slightly self-conscious, underscoring how new this behavior was, like using the formal vous again.

  Napoleon was skinny in those days, his hair a flapping tangle on his shoulders. It was so strange to see the much-caricatured face, instantly recognizable, as he flushed like a boy and marched up to Josephine to kiss her soundly.

  He was dressed in the blue and white of the chasseurs of the guard. He turned, holding Josephine against him so that she lost hold of her train, and greeted Hortense with a forced-sounding laugh. Or maybe he was used to shouting to be heard. “How’s the belly, Hortense? Nothing visible yet, but you are still healthy? Sick of a morning?” and when she assented, “That is a very good sign. Larrey tells me that it means you will carry it through.”

  He turned to his wife. “Ah. Josephine, when will you carry ours?” He did not wait for an answer but gestured toward the hall. “What have you got for us? That ride is more damnable every time we come out here. Saint-Cloud will be finished in summer, and it needs you to put your finishing touches on it. There will be no place finer in the world. Our grandchildren will be proud of it.”

  She responded with the words he wanted to hear, and as the clock chimed six, she led him and the officers to the splendid meal awaiting, as Aurélie and the troupe moved to the new theatre for one last rehearsal.

  The sharp voices and nerves reminded me of my own days on stage during high school and college, dancing in the ballet chorus. Only I had never danced before a collection of generals who would leave mayhem across an entire continent as they followed their soon-to-be emperor.

  The play went off without a hitch, but the quick glances out at the audience made it clear how aware they were of Napoleon talking almost non-stop. Occasionally he beat time on his knee to the bouncier tunes, and he laughed aloud at a couple of the jokes with double-meanings.

  At the end, he said, “Very well done! Very! This is what we need in Paris, and what we shall get.”

  When Josephine said something too low to be heard, he exclaimed, “Bah! Of course I am busy, but these things must be done! Legitimacy.” He began to pace back and forth, while the players and the audience remained standing, according to his new rules of etiquette. “That is what Talleyrand told me when I returned from Italy, and he is right. A government rests on its legitimacy. I do not have the tombs of St. Denis and Versailles to give me legitimacy, as your friends at the Faubourg St. Germain are the first to point out.”

  Josephine raised her hands as if to protest, but he went on. “No! The Revolution cleared all that away, bad as well as good. We will keep only the good. French theater restores legitimacy when people go home smiling. No more historical plays that stir the blood to trouble. No more tragedy, no more destructive ideas. That leads directly to suffusions of blood and the guillotine, did we not see? That means we must exert ourselves. We must oversee the plays. Especially now, eh, Junot?”

  A bow from the young general whose curly hair did not completely hide hideous scars on his scalp. I looked away, remembering what head trauma would do to him after another ten years of bloody war for Napoleon—madness and suicide.

  “I must oversee everything,” Napoleon stated. “Everything! I am giving my faithful Junot a Municipal Guard, half in red with green facings, half the other way. They will not be recruited from every loiterer on the street, they must be veterans of campaigns! Men of good standing! They must read and write! Josephine, you will never again have to fear infernal machines blowing up your horses on your way to the theater, eh? Eh?”

  “Thank you, Bonaparte,” she said softly.

  If that was a hint to lower his voice, he didn’t hear it. “Legitimacy! Theater. Monuments to peace and prosperity, and my name on every one. And a new civil code, and my poor army, oh, where can I get enoug
h horses to mount my cavalry? But that is not your concern. Women know nothing of the army. They should know nothing of the army. Josephine, you shall lead the fashion, and everyone will follow. As for those despicable newspapers, if they care not for the legitimacy and security and order of our government, then they may serve France as sentries at the frontier, for I shall shut them all down. But you must do your part. I can do nothing about these damned English newspapers and their calumnies about you and our women, but if these English flocking here now see your elegance, and grace, they will go home and talk of nothing else, and we shall see the last of that. Legitimacy! This is how it begins.”

  The players were stiff with exhaustion, some subtly shifting from foot to foot, as they’d been on their feet all day rehearsing.

  He seemed to become aware of them. “Well done! I am pleased with your troupe, Madame. Hortense, did you arrange the music? Of course you did.”

  “It was partly me, sir,” she said. “And partly by Mademoiselle de Mascarenhas, who has lately joined our household. She is a connection through the Taschers.” Hortense indicated Aurélie, who curtseyed.

  Napoleon stepped up to her. “This little thing? How old are you, ten, twelve? And you write music?” He took hold of Aurélie’s chin. “You are a pretty little thing and talented, but you are very dusky. Did one of your noble ancestors tumble with a slave? One of my best generals came out of a nobleman and a slave, a fine officer, but a fool to criticize me. No lack of courage, though, I will say this for Dumas. Heh! When you get a year or two older, we’ll find you a good husband among my generals. They could use a good dose of noble blood, even if it’s got a dusky tang.” He gave a laugh and let go her chin at last, and though tears had gathered along her eyelids, she did not let them fall as he passed on by to compliment and lecture the rest of the company by turns.

  TWENTY-THREE

  LATER IN HER ROOM, Aurélie said, “I did not expect to find him so handsome. James told us the London papers described him as small and ugly, like a toad.” She touched her chin, which still showed a dull red mark. “He is very loud, and he pinches.”

  Napoleon stayed one more day, holding military court in his wing of Malmaison, with officers clanking and rattling around like gaudily dressed worker bees. But promptly at six the officers were sent off, and he dined with the family and a few of the women. Afterward, he, the family, and the ladies-in-waiting played a lot of games like tric-trac and reversis.

  He left the following morning, bearing Josephine back to Paris. The place seemed empty without them and their personal attendants. Aurélie and the theater company were left behind to rehearse for a formal reception to be held the next week in the Tuileries. Hortense selected the music and then she, too, departed for Paris.

  The day arrived. Madame Bonaparte’s important ladies were to attend the opera, which included the prettiest of the theater troupe, Aurélie among them. They were transported back to Paris in comfortable carriages, guarded by uniformed outriders. They chattered with anticipation, for the troupe were to make music at the gala reception after the opera. Everyone who was important in Paris would be there.

  When they reached the Tuileries, Aurélie dressed in the gown that Josephine had personally picked out for her: white of the finest muslin with golden embroidery down the front in scrolled laurel leaves, tied high with embroidered gold ribbon. Her hair was bound up with gold ribbon in the French version of Grecian style. The outfit looked fantastic against her warm brown skin.

  She stood in her little room, smiling at the mirror. “I think of myself as Aurélie de Mascarenhas,” she said to me. “I don’t even know for certain my real last name, for I do not think of myself as a Kittredge, but I do not believe my father wanted to be called after the one who regarded him as a mere slave, this Beauveau.”

  I nodded in sympathy, inwardly thinking, I hope before long—somehow—your new last name will be Dsaret.

  “And in dreams—some dreams, when Mordechai plays his violin—I’m René.” She touched her collarbones. “My question is this. Do you think it is safe to bring out my necklace, just once? It’s beautiful, and it’s a necklace, it ought to be seen! In my dreams, many times, the women wear it, and I’d love to wear it to the opera. To do so somehow brings Maman, Tante Mimba, and Nanny Hiasinte closer to me.”

  “Everybody will be wearing jewels, and you’ll be surrounded by the Consular guard,” I said. “You should be safe.”

  As soon as I said the words, I thought about those fae, but they, too, were far from here. And though I’d seen plenty of ghosts, I didn’t think revenants would have any interest in jewels, magical or not.

  Aurélie beamed with pleasure as she clasped the necklace around her neck and turned this way and that to admire it.

  Seen in the bright candle light, it was undoubtedly ancient. The gold was smooth from countless generations of women wearing it then handing it down, so the carvings had become faint and difficult to make out. Set against the classical lines of the gown, it was the perfect touch. She fingered it, whispering, “I wish you could see me now, Nanny,” but broke off when a footman out in the hall shouted for everyone to get to the coaches.

  Only Josephine’s and Hortense’s carriages were pulled by six horses, although the carriages with the lesser ladies were just as fast, and the distance was not much more than a stone’s throw. They reached the Théâtre des Arts, an enormous building lit up as well as they could be in those days.

  The vast space was packed.

  The Bonapartes sat in the Consular box, which was royal in everything but name. All eyes turned up that way almost as often as they took in the stage below.

  Napoleon was the center of attention, of course, Josephine at his side, dressed in white velvet with a green overskirt, trimmed with golden embroidery set with emeralds. A headdress very like a princess’s coronet threaded through her soft dark curls.

  A military accolade brought everyone to their feet, and Napoleon smiled broadly left and right, his eyes wide, his whole being radiating pleasure at the volume of nearly three thousand people cheering.

  As soon as he sat down, the opera began, and the audience’s attention shifted to the stage. The ladies-in-waiting sat elbow to elbow in little gilt chairs behind the Bonapartes—Napoleon; his thin, intense brother Lucien (who I knew would be in exile within two years, disgusted with his brother’s imperial ambitions); Hortense; and Josephine on one side of Napoleon, while on his other side, obvious in their dislike of Josephine, two of Napoleon’s sisters. They whispered incessantly, the younger one leaning out with her fan up to make absolutely sure that Josephine saw that she was excluded.

  Behind the ladies in waiting stood a number of Napoleon’s officers, and guards surrounded them all. Napoleon wasn’t watching the stage as much as he was the box seats. From time to time he beckoned to his aide-de-camp, who would bring one or another officer forward to converse with him.

  I was distracted by a figure who strolled in, solitary and grave. At first I took it to be a woman, but that perfect face could also have been male. He—she—ignored the aide-de-camp, who did not appear to see anything amiss. The being had deep-set eyes, fine-boned pale features, and long black hair worn loose so that it blended into the filmy black cape draped over the shoulders. The clothing was like vapor, the same ivory shade as the being’s skin. I thought, this has to be a woman.

  She reached Napoleon’s side and glanced down at him with a faint smile, but he was busy whispering to a tall, severe-looking man who bent to listen, then withdrew without looking at anyone else.

  The woman turned her head. Eyes the color of topaz reflected the light from the crystal chandelier. She smiled dreamily my way. Her eyes reflected a brief, startling crimson glow, the way cats’ or dogs’ eyes will sometimes do if the light is right. Then with deliberate steps, she somehow mounted the low balcony without bending.

  The black cape lifted into wings, vaporous and shadowy, creating a multiplicity effect, as if she had not two wings
, but six.

  For a heartbeat she stood there, black hair flying in no wind that I could feel, her gown shimmering, framed by the astounding tower of black wings. Then the wings came down all at once, lifting her upward toward the chandelier…the hundred tongues of flame glowed through her, then she shot skyward and vanished into the shadows obscuring the ceiling.

  In ones and twos, other winged beings shot upward from all around us, but no one seemed to see them.

  I looked at Aurélie to see if she, at least, had noticed, to discover her bent a little forward, gazing at the boxes on the other side of the theatre.

  He was instantly recognizable: tall and blond, his cleft chin shorn of whiskers, Jaska was dressed in a fine brown velvet coat cut high and tailored sharply back, his cravat almost up to his chin.

  And he was staring across the sea of faces into the Consular box, not at the mysterious winged beings, or the soon-to-be emperor, his beautiful wife, his generals or their ladies, but at one petite young lady dressed all in white and gold.

  TWENTY-FOUR

  WHEN THE OPERA WAS OVER, Aurélie and the lesser ladies were whisked to the Tuileries to ready themselves for the gala, while Napoleon and his entourage made their stately way to a waiting carriage—royal in every way except for coats of arms on the doors, though the drivers and footmen all wore the new green and gold livery.

  As soon as they reached the Tuileries, the servants zoomed around putting the finishing touches on things. The homely lanterns were removed when all the chandeliers were lighted at the last possible moment, so the candles would be tall. Someone went around on a last check of the flowers to make sure none were wilted, a little girl following with a flat basket full of blossoms to replace the rejects. Food and drink were brought out, fresh and ready.

 
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