Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  “I believe he does, Madame,” Aurélie said. “Did he not kiss you and admire you before everybody tonight?”

  “Yes.” Josephine’s smile vanished. “But they say it’s because he is dallying with yet a new actress. I can scarcely blame these women, he is so fascinating. Georgina is vastly younger even than you, a pretty girl, so full of life.”

  She sat up restlessly. “Aurélie, what he wants is an heir. My womb was injured beyond the repair of the best physicians. It happened when a balcony fell at Plombières that summer, in the Year Six. Did Hortense tell you what her girl said about miraculous cures?”

  “I have not spoken to Madame Hortense but a handful of words this month,” Aurélie said.

  “You know it is due to the grippe,” Josephine said. “It has been exceptionally virulent this winter, and she is so afraid for the child. She scarcely wants to poke her head out their door. And then she is positively surrounded by spies. Her own husband, it is said, the worst of them. Louis is so glum and so strange! But it is useless to repine. She reminded me that you speak regularly to a spirit. Please, Aurélie. Will you consult this ghost for me? We are alone. Not even Agatha is here. Dear Agatha, who is a good Catholic, does not like the consultation of spirits. I will be a good anything, as long as they can help me.”

  Aurélie said to the air, “Duppy Kim, will you help Madame?”

  The safest thing was to keep silent, partly because I knew what was coming, and because my own name had not come down through history as one of Josephine’s many seers. I wanted to give her something to hang onto because I didn’t want to see her suffer, but I did not dare be too specific. “Tell her…” I began.

  Aurélie started across the room to the framed mirror.

  Josephine got up and followed. “Is she here?” She looked around wildly.

  Aurélie laid her hand to the mirror. “There,” she said, pointing at me with her free hand. “But so far, it seems only I can see her.”

  “Kim, a very odd name,” Josephine said. “Was she a slave? I recollect they had some very odd names.”

  “I do not know.”

  “Give her this message,” I said, avoiding the question about my identity. “Tell her that I know this to be truth: that whatever happens, Napoleon Bonaparte will always love her, to the end of his life. Tell her that when he dies, it is her name that will be on his lips. Tell her it is true—tell her it is written. But that is all I will say.”

  No need to add that it was written in my history books.

  Aurélie related my words exactly as spoken. Josephine let out a long sigh, then said, “Will he divorce me, Kim Duppy?”

  I remained silent. Let her have a few years of relative happiness before the Austrian princess is brought to Paris to replace her.

  “I do not hear her,” Aurélie admitted.

  Josephine sighed. “Aren’t they always like that? They speak, then they disappear most inconveniently. But Bonaparte loves me. He will always love me. That gives me hope. I can endure anything, if I have hope.”

  She peered into the mirror, touched the soft lines at her chin, then turned away. “I know what he wants more than anything is a son. Hortense told me that her maid Marie-Alexandrine told her of a cousin who lives in a small convent in Vienna, who in secret practices magic. Marie-Alexandrine promised they care nothing for political divisions. Aurélie, will you go to them and ask? I will give them anything, anything, if they can tell me how to conceive a child. I am not yet too old—not if we act at once.”

  Aurélie drew in a breath, and said, “I will.”

  “Bless you! I knew you were as loyal as you are discreet. Oh, I hear Agatha. Say nothing! In the inner chamber, there, you will find a rouleau of the old louis d’or. Everyone accepts gold! That ought to get you there and back. But before you leave, you must request of Bonaparte the necessary papers to get you through the frontier.”

  “But if he is not to know the reason for my journey? What am I to tell him?”

  “That you have family, that you must see to the estate of your betrothed. Everyone witnessed your receiving a letter.” Her smile flickered, rueful and sweet, and she made a shooing motion with her hands. “Go!”

  Aurélie darted into the inner chamber, picked up a little purse full of coins, then kept on going through the farther chambers.

  Aurélie passed through Hortense’s bedchamber, which was dark and empty, and lifted her hand to the hall door, when the door was pushed open from the other side by an impatient hand.

  Aurélie fell back and stared up at Napoleon.

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  HE WAS CARRYING A TAPER. At his side walked a man unsettlingly like Jaska, except for the dark wings curving at his shoulders, the quiet step.

  Neither Napoleon nor Aurélie saw him.

  Napoleon and Aurélie stared at each other for a second—Bonaparte and a pretty girl—and I had a feeling of what would come next as he said, “Mademoiselle, an unexpected encounter.”

  The winged figure whispered, He is here for diversion. There is no danger. I was the only one who heard.

  “Madame sent me—sends me—on an errand,” Aurélie began disjointedly. “I had a question to put to you, sir.”

  She can have anything she wants, the shadow wing said conversationally, hands open.

  Napoleon gave Aurélie a top to toe scan, and smiled. “What can I offer you, Mademoiselle? Or do I mistake, and it is you who has something to offer to me?”

  His tone was playful and insinuating both. She stared, aghast, her eyes enormous.

  “I do not know what to say,” Aurélie said breathlessly, her pulse ticking in her throat.

  Encourage her. What can be easier than shared passion?

  I tried to shut out the soft whisper. This could go bad so easily. The most powerful man in France, maybe the world, was in reality a total geek. Napoleon knew what to do on the battlefield because he knew every inch of the terrain, and he’d work out in his head every possible combination of actions and reactions. Socially, unless everyone was on cue, he was hopeless.

  “What is this reticence?” Napoleon asked. “Do you have a price?” His tone was still playful, because after all, price was no object to him, and he took a lot of pleasure in knowing it.

  What is her ambition?

  “Sir, you mistake. I am not that kind.”

  Napoleon laughed, and I remembered reading that he liked a little show of reluctance. “Every woman has her price.”

  “Not I.”

  What is yours?

  Go away, I yelled in my mind at Winged Jaska. I did not want distraction.

  So be it. I do not understand your objection to love, but I honor it. We will speak again.

  This is not love, I began to say, but the candle flickered and streamed. Winged Jaska was gone. “Oh, so high. What is your ambition?” Napoleon asked. “A crown? I could give you a crown. Two!”

  “What should I say?” Aurélie asked, her voice high with stress.

  He thought she was talking to him, but I knew she addressed me.

  Anything but Yes was going to be wrong. I had to give her something that would save face for them both. “Remind him that crowns fall off as easily as they are put on. But be polite, because he will not like being turned down.”

  Aurélie turned her wide gaze to Napoleon. “Crowns,” she said earnestly, “I have learned in my short life are dangerous things. I do not want one. I want nothing, sir, only to get by, if I may.”

  His smile hardened, and he backed up a step. “A good answer,” he replied, tone belying the smile. Talleyrand might have been able to coach him in what to say, but he was caught in a potentially ridiculous situation and didn’t know his cue.

  Aurélie gave him a deep curtsey. “I must go.”

  “Your question, mademoiselle?”

  “Question?” she repeated.

  He took a step into the room, as outside, the heavy tread of a guard on duty passed by. “You said you had a question for me?” He was
on the edge of irritation now, his lips thinning.

  Aurélie made a hasty curtsey and said, “I—I will ask Monsieur Constant, or one of the secretaries, in the morning. I should not trouble you so late, sir.” She fled.

  When she reached her room she shut the door and stood with her back to it, shivering with reaction. “I can’t ask him for travel papers,” she said. “Not now, not after that. Everyone says he turns very angry if someone says no.”

  That was certainly true to everything I’d read. Napoleon held grudges for years, and even as emperor he enjoyed petty revenge.

  “I dare not even approach Monsieur Constant,” she added, naming Napoleon’s chief valet. “I’m afraid he’ll ask why Madame Bonaparte sends me, and I promised to secrecy to Madame.” She began to pace. “Vienna! I have the money, but a woman alone…How can I…” She paused, staring down into the fire. “I know whom to go to.”

  She glanced at the window, which showed the blue of darkness. Without pausing to light a candle, she eased out of her room and flitted down the hall to the state stairway, ghostly gray, the friezes a blur of mythological shapes on the wall. Lights bobbed here and there, small circles of gold as servants picked up stray glasses, bottles, other detritus, and cleaned the parquet.

  Aurélie dodged around them and picked up a lamp someone had left on one of the porphyry sideboards set between pilasters. She halted when she reached the small storage chamber off the cold, empty theater, where the costumes and extra musical instruments were kept.

  She rummaged through those, careful not to disturb the neat piles, and pulled out a shirt, trousers, waistcoat, coat.

  “It is René who must ride with the subaltern carrying the Daily Orders,” she said to me as she dressed with feverish speed.

  It took a couple of tries, but from among the costumes she found a number of clothes that fit and took them all. Then a man’s scarf, gloves, a chapeau-bras—Napoleon required the old courtly headgear now, and someone had unearthed hats from Louis XVI’s day. Last, a greatcoat.

  Back upstairs, she changed swiftly, then flung the rest of the male clothes, her music case, her old pistol, and the sewing kit into her satchel. The purse went into her waistcoat. She pulled the hat low on her head and crept outside, looking everywhere at once until she reached the sweep between the stable and the road, where she stood shivering and hopping up and down to keep warm.

  The officer carrying the Orders of the Day was already gone, but she was not the only one waiting. Servants and soldiers alike were constantly sent into Paris on various errands, and she just had to wait for whoever was driving a wagon, or if she were lucky, a cabriolet.

  Two officers came out of Napoleon’s wing. A cabriolet was standing with a groom at the harnesses. One of the grooms gestured an invitation, and the two young ensigns and Aurélie hopped onto the back to ride as they could fit themselves. Aurélie perched on the sword case.

  The ground was iron hard, so even though the road was still being worked on, they zipped along, and the eastern horizon was just beginning to shade from light blue to peach when they emerged from the frost-tipped wooded area of the Bois de Boulogne, and there were the smoky chimneys of Paris, Montmartre rising in the distance, where the day’s bread was daily ground.

  Finally they reached the snarl of narrow streets and high, narrow houses of the inner arrondissiments. The last of the up-all-night stragglers were dispersing in their rumpled finery as, elsewhere, servants and market folk and storekeepers began to stir.

  When the cabriolet drew up before the garrison at the Hôtel de Longueville, Aurélie hopped down. She chose a guard she did not recognize, and with her scarf well pulled up and her hat low, approached him. “I’ve a message for Baron von Lagerbielke, the Swedish Ambassador.”

  The guard gave her directions. She walked until she was out of his sight, looked around the Place du Carrousel, then said, “Duppy Kim, you know what I want to do. If it is wrong, tell me now.”

  “I think it’s a very good idea,” I said, hiding my frantic enthusiasm. Yes! Find Jaska! “But hurry. He might already be gone.”

  “He could not depart on a moonless night,” she said, but she began to walk fast, careful where the grunge in the streets had frozen into oily ice. She crossed the Jardin des Plantes, where already the old women were out, their rolled pastries of flour and honey still steaming hot as they cried, “Plaisir! Plaisir!”

  Aurélie paused long enough to dig into her waistcoat. She gave an especially ragged old woman a golden louis. The woman blinked closely at it, then sighed. “Oh, for the old days. We did not know how good we had it.” She kissed the coin before making change in livres, half of which Aurélie thrust back at the surprised woman. Then she took her pastry and devoured it as she ran.

  The sun had begun slicing milky-thin shafts between houses when she arrived at the impressive house that had probably once belonged to an aristocrat. The pediment showed signs of repair, and the Swedish flag flew.

  Aurélie glanced up the stairs at the doorway, her breath clouding. Soberly dressed civilians and gaudy attachés and subalterns, punctuated here and there by a peacocky hussar, were already coming and going, early as it was.

  “Message for Monsieur Dsaret,” she said over and over, as she elbowed her way into the busy ground floor apartments. Here, young officers in Swedish, Polish, and even Russian uniforms came and went. Most ignored her until someone pointed up the stairs. She stared in dismay at the crowded stairwell, then elbowed her way up, until she stumbled into an antechamber.

  Jaska, still in his Polish cavalry uniform, stood talking to a couple of epauletted officers in Swedish blue. They looked at Aurélie, took in her sober civilian garb, and turned away. Then Jaska did a double-take, his eyes wide.

  Aurélie said, “I carry a message.”

  Jaska beckoned curtly, drew her down a narrow hall past a fellow with lots of gold braid chatting with a horse chasseur in green, and into a vast chamber done up in white and gold. The morning light picked up the colors in a mural high on the wall, depicting the martial Greek gods.

  “Where are we?” Aurélie asked apprehensively.

  “This is the ambassador’s office. He is at breakfast. Mademoiselle—”

  “I am once again René,” she said, with a sad attempt at a smile.

  Jaska was clearly as exhausted as she. “Why are you here?” he asked quietly.

  “Will you take me with you?” she asked.

  He stilled, his expression difficult to interpret. Not quite angry but almost. “How did you know I was going anywhere?”

  “You said you had to deliver those messages to Poland, and I thought, is not Vienna on the way? We traveled so well before. It was safe,” she finished wistfully.

  He looked away, then back. “Why do you go to Vienna?”

  “Madame Josephine sends me to the Sisters of the Piarists in that city. It is a personal mission,” Aurélie said hastily when he brought a hand up.

  Jaska’s lips parted when he heard the word “Piarists.” He took a turn about the room, frowned down at the empty fireplace, then turned back. “First, if you are sent on a mission by Madame Bonaparte, where is your escort? Your passport?”

  “It is a secret mission, a personal one for Madame. It is not military.”

  Jaska’s eyebrows shot upward. Then he took another turn around the room.

  She regarded him worriedly. “You brought my mother’s letter in so friendly a manner. And we traveled so well last year…” She faltered. It was clear she was puzzled why she had to defend herself, to explain the obvious, when they’d had such a good understanding the spring before.

  But it was just as clear that nothing was obvious to him. He said rather painstakingly, “The Baron sent me to deliver certain ones to Saint-Cloud, including the one for you, which arrived in the same diplomatic pouch.” He took another turn, gazing sightlessly at the marble fireplace, the tall windows, the Neoclassical frieze above the door, the brass sconces sculpted like laurel wreat
hs, but I would have bet anything he didn’t see any of it. “In short,” he said, “I am not certain of my duty at this moment.”

  “The ambassador has given you other orders, then?” Aurélie asked.

  “I am not under his command,” Jaska admitted. “I am here as a courtesy. An aide, in certain matters I am not at liberty to discuss.”

  Aurélie said, “We determined that you were some kind of spy, you and Monsieur Mord.” Their formal clothing seemed to require them to return to formal titles as well as the formal vous.

  “A spy? You took me for a spy?” He laughed, not a fun laugh. More bitter. Reluctant. Then: “‘We’?”

  “Yes. Duppy Kim?”

  “Tell him,” I said, touching her hand.

  She brought her chin down. “The easiest explanation is to say that Duppy Kim is the ghost whom Monsieur Mord saw. Well, she is there, only she is not, strictly speaking, a ghost, but a duppy.”

  “A what?”

  “A duppy. In the Creole, there are many terms that do not easily translate into French.”

  Jaska said, “I thought you followed the Gallican heresy? I feel certain you mentioned the Gallican Bible once, when we talked Latin translation.”

  “Heresy?” Aurélie repeated. “My grandmother was so very—”

  “Strictly speaking, Gallicanism was declared a heresy, though in most regards their practice is the same as other Catholics. But they differ in—” He shook his head, stared at her, then shut his eyes. “Forgive me. My thoughts are disordered by too many questions and too little sleep. No sleep, events not permitting that luxury. Back to your ghost. It speaks to you?”

  “She. Speaks to me.”

  He sighed. “I used to think Mord’s ghosts were a result of his drinking. He never talked about such things before Praga, but we were merely acquaintances, then. Surviving the battle made us brethren. I don’t suppose it is possible you could cause this ghost to materialize?”

  “Nobody except my Nanny and me has been able to truly see her,” Aurélie said, walking to a sideboard where a heavy silver tray sat.

 
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