They came for me while I was still asleep. I always knew that one day my luck would run out, but I had hoped that it would be while I was wide awake, fully dressed and the very picture of innocence in my prettiest white silk gown and armed with a rehearsed spiel of clever little lies and excuses which would fall artlessly from my petal pink rouged lips. Instead I was dressed only in a thin cotton chemise and was momentarily bewildered when the men burst into my bedroom in the middle of the night and roughly shouted at me to wake up and get out of bed, my eyes blinking blindly in the fierce amber light of the glass lanterns that they held aloft above me.
I knew of course. I knew straight away what they had come for and who had sent them. I rolled from the lily scented warmth of my bed and stood before them all, trembling with fear and clutching the embroidered pink silk counterpane to my breasts. They knew why they were there too and I flinched as their lustful eyes roamed freely over my slender body. Usually these men would glance at me from the corners of their eyes and then quickly look away, terrified of reprimand or a horsewhipping if I chanced to notice, but now they no longer cared and there was a contempt mixed in with the lust that made me take a step back away from them.
‘You are to come with us, Madame,’ said a tall pockmarked man that I had never seen before who stood a little apart from the others, his dirty, straggling hair hanging down the back of a threadbare purple velvet coat that had clearly seen better days. Like the other men, he stank of sweat, grease and smoke, all odours that were entirely alien to my lovely pink and white bedroom, which was usually deliciously fragranced by the lavender that the maids placed in between the folds of my clothes, the freshly cut roses that I insisted be arranged in a blue and white Sèvres vase by my bed every night, the violet scented powder that was used to dust my hair and the delicate jasmine and lily scent that I had worn every day since my father first presented me with a glass flagon on my fourteenth birthday. Sometimes I wondered if I even liked it any more but I continued to wear it every day anyway, in memory of him, the kindest man that I had ever met.
I hid my disgust and forced myself to smile at the pockmarked man, who judging by his confident, legs apart stance was clearly the leader. ‘Can I not at least get dressed first?’ I asked, allowing the counterpane to drop a little. Now that I had woken up a little, my mind was racing. If I could only be alone, just for a few minutes then I could slip out through the secret little wainscoted door next to my bed, which led to my private sitting room and then it was just a question of running down the narrow back stairs that my maids used and out on to the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and freedom. I did not know where I would go, but I was sure that someone would take me in.
The pockmarked man’s eyes did not leave my face. ‘That is up to you, Madame,’ he replied roughly, interrupting my disordered thoughts. ‘You are at liberty to get dressed but as Monsieur le Comte has ordered that you are not to be left alone, not even for one second you must do so with my men in the room.’
I stared at him and sharply pulled the counterpane back up again. ‘Then I will remain as I am,’ I replied, trying to sound light hearted. ‘And pray that I do not catch a cold.’ Damn.
‘As you wish, Madame,’ he replied, utterly indifferent. ‘You must come with us now.’ He went to my door and held it open with an ironic bow, his filthy fingers staining the white painted wood. ‘Your carriage awaits, Madame.’
‘Wait,’ my voice broke a little as I struggled not to panic or show any fear in front of this slovenly mob, ‘can I not at least say goodbye to my children?’ I thought of them all as I had last seen them: tousle haired Lucien asleep in his little bed in the airy lavender scented, yellow painted nursery upstairs, his favourite cloth doll, his Nou-Nou clutched close to his warm, sleep flushed cheek, his long dark eyelashes fluttering lightly as he breathed. Then there was the already beautiful auburn haired twins, Cassandre and Lucrèce, who started the night in separate beds but somehow always ended up in each other’s arms and little Adélaïde, only nine months old, gently snoring in her green muslin hung crib on the other side of the room with the chubby, dimpled hands that I loved to kiss over and over again curled up like pink petals on either side of her head. ‘Will you not even allow me this?’
The pockmarked man shook his ugly head. ‘Monsieur le Comte has expressly ordered that you are not to see his children before you go.’ He lingered over the word ‘his’ and I felt my heart collapse within me. This was how it was to be from now on. I had ruined everything and now I must pay the price. No wonder the men in my room all stared at me with mingled lust and hatred. I was worse than nothing in their eyes now: a faithless wife and a failed mother. A whore.
To my shame I began to cry and I angrily wiped away my tears with the back of my hand, determined to show no sign of weakness. ‘I could scream,’ I reminded him as I wrapped the counterpane around myself, slipped my feet into the silver embroidered slippers that lay discarded beside my bed and walked, my head held high to the door. ‘I could smash the window and scream down into the street.’
‘Do as you wish, Madame.’ He shrugged. ‘This is Paris and you could scream the house down without anyone giving it the slightest consideration.’
He was right of course. I heard screams on the street all the time and did not so much as bother to look up from my cards or ask what had happened the next morning when I went out to my carriage and gathered up my silk and taffeta skirts to step lightly in my red high heeled shoes over the bloodstains on the pavement. When I was a young bride, just fifteen years old and newly come to Paris from my father’s pink stone château in Normandy I would have been shocked and terrified by screams in the night and blood on the pavement but that was six years ago and I was a very different person now.
I allowed myself a final look back at the room that had been mine throughout all of those years. I had lost my virginity in the pink and gold lit à la polonaise that stood so snugly its carved alcove, had conceived my children there in the velvet darkness of night and once, just once, in the heady, shimmering, wisteria scented heat of a beautiful Summer’s day and then given birth to them, my agonised screams floating out through the open windows and soaring up into the grey Parisian sky.
We made our way down the wide, marble staircase, its steps worn away in the middle by years of use that led down to the candlelit entrance hall and for a brief moment I paused in front of the portrait that Greuze had painted of me in happier days, when I was just sixteen, had recently given birth to Lucien and was still flushed and ecstatic with the joy of new motherhood. My husband had wanted me to be depicted as Hebe or Diana, draped in red, pink and blue silks and brocades like all the other ladies of the court but clever Monsieur Greuze had ignored him and painted me as a simple girl, resplendent with youth and beauty, dressed in shimmering white silk with my thick corn coloured hair hanging loosely about my shoulders and my wide grey eyes turned lovingly upon my infant son, who dozed plumply and rosily in my arms. I couldn’t help but imagine what Greuze would have made of me now, tear stained and frantic as I was turned out of my home in the middle of the night dressed only in a light chemise and a pair of slippers. I needed only a broken plate or a dead canary and I could have passed for any of his paintings of fallen young girls.
‘Take your last look,’ my husband’s sardonic voice called up from the hall below, ‘like you, it will be gone by morning.’
I took a deep breath and turned to face him, noting how pale he looked in the flickering candlelight. He was twenty years my senior and already old but usually he hid it well so that you would have to look closely to notice the small wrinkles around his eyes and the white strands in the fox red hair that he was so ridiculously proud about. ‘And what will you hang in my place?’ I asked in a light, conversational tone as I walked down the remaining steps towards him, determined to show no fear whatsoever. ‘One of your whores maybe? Only, who is it this time? Mademoiselle Rosalie from the Opéra, Mademoiselle Minette from the Comédie Française or some other unfortunate young girl too dim or venal to see you for what you really are?’ I was facing him now and pleased to see that he looked a little discomforted, while the men behind me shifted a little, no longer sure who was the villain of the tragedy unfolding in front of them.
‘That is none of your concern.’ He sneered at me and my cheeks flamed as I recoiled from the disgust in his face. ‘I rather thought that I might hang a portrait of my mother there so that the children could always have before them an example of how a lady should behave.’
I recovered myself. ‘How nice.’ His mother of course being an infamous, over rouged old bitch who treats both her son and grandchildren with contempt and can’t visit for more than ten minutes without reducing Lucien and the twins to tears with her ceaseless pinches of their plump, sweet arms and nasty little barbed comments. ‘Your dear mother must be so thrilled by all of this.’
He smiled then. ‘She is beside herself.’ I could well believe it. Athénaïs, the old Comtesse had never troubled to hide her envious dislike of me, despite coveting the huge fortune that I had brought to her family upon my marriage. I remembered her now, pursing her lips in disapproval as her tiny blue eyes flicked over the exquisite pink taffeta gown that I had worn at my wedding then turning away and remarking to one of her cronies that ‘she is not one of our sort and would never have done for my boy in the old days but oh la la, the terrible debts, mon cher so what can one do?’
‘She has never liked me,’ I agreed cheerfully, rather pleased that I would never have to see her again or suffer her mean spirited remarks. Even the darkest cloud has the potential for a silver lining and this was mine. ‘Please do try and keep her greedy fingers out of my jewellery though as I would like my girls to have it one day.’ It was hard to remain calm as I thought of my beautiful, adorable girls growing up without me. One day they too would be brides and mothers, would fall in love and be disappointed, would suffer losses and joys and all without me there to support them. Lucien needed me too, of course but in only a few more years he would be sent to Versailles to be a page just as his father, grand father and great grandfather had done before him and from then on he would enter a world of men and would have little need for a mother’s caresses. My girls though would always need me.
The Comte and I had never been lovers, had never shared any bond other than marriage and the children that I had borne to him but on occasion he showed an uncanny ability to read my thoughts and he nodded now. ‘The girls will be well cared for,’ he said curtly. ‘You need have no concerns about them.’
I heard my baby wail in her crib at the top of the house and the sharp clip clop of her nurse’s shoes against the floorboards as she went to tend to her. ‘Adélaïde…’ I began, before tears overwhelmed me and I had to stop, not trusting myself to speak without sobbing.
‘She will be treated in the same way as her sisters,’ he replied coldly. ‘No one who bears my name will ever suffer unjustly.’
I reached out and grasped his wrist, clinging on as he twisted his arm and tried to shake me off. ‘Please let me take her with me. She is only a baby.’ I didn’t bother trying to hide my distress now. I had no pride left when it came to my children. ‘Please. I will go quietly if you only allow me to take my baby with me.’ I felt desperate and slightly unhinged. If there had been a knife in my hand, I would have stabbed him without a moment’s hesitation and without a shred of remorse if it meant that I could take my children with me.
The Comte, my husband looked me for a long moment. ‘You ask too much, Madame,’ he replied at last. ‘The children have nothing to fear and will remain here with me. Only think what damage it would do to your… our daughters if they were to remain with you.’ He pulled his arm away and rubbed absent mindedly at his blue velvet sleeve, where it had been crushed by my fingers. ‘They would be forever tainted by your infamy. It would be impossible to marry them well, to get them positions at court. Is that what you want for them?’
‘I can change,’ I whispered. ‘If you let me stay with them, I would be anything that you wanted me to be.’ I meant every single word. ‘I know that I have been a disappointment to you but that can change. I can change.’ He was turning away and again I gripped his sleeve, desperate to be heard. ‘Just tell me what you want me to do, Claude. Please.’ I fell to my knees, almost pulling him on top of me. ‘Please, I am begging you. Let me stay.’ I pulled him closer and closer. ‘Don’t send me away from my babies, Claude. Please, please don’t send me away.’ I was sobbing now, my tears splashing on the chill black and white marble floor. ‘I can change, I promise. I won’t see him again.’
My husband pulled away then and straightened up. I had gone too far. ‘Do not mention him in this house.’ He looked down at me as I remained kneeling, crumpled on the cold floor at his feet, my chemise falling down over my shoulders and my hair tumbling loosely down my back. ‘You are a disgrace, Madame.’ He fastidiously wiped at his sleeve with a white handkerchief and stepped away, distancing himself from me and the mess that was my life. ‘Get up.’
I struggled to my feet. ‘Please don’t do this. Please.’ I thought of all the long months of pregnancy, protecting the new life that blossomed and bloomed within. I thought of all the terrible hours of agony as I gave birth to my children and then the simple, wholehearted joy that I had felt afterwards as I gazed down with relief into their perfect faces and allowed their tiny fingers to curl around my own. I couldn’t let him take all of that away from me. What point was there to anything if I could give birth and then be cast aside as if I meant nothing at all? ‘Please.’
He sighed and turned away. ‘This conversation is at an end, Madame. You are overwrought and should compose yourself.’ He crooked a finger at the men, who lurked in readiness on the staircase and they moved forward. ‘It is time that you left.’
‘No!’ I ran forward, my arm upraised. ‘You can’t do this, Claude! You can’t!’ The men grabbed hold of me and dragged me back before I could strike him and I sobbed and struggled then went limp in their grip.
My husband turned then and looked at me for a moment, his face inscrutable before he briskly jerked his chin towards the door. ‘Take her away.’
I screamed and tried to fall to my knees so that they couldn’t move me, but they were all too strong and despite my best efforts to resist I found myself being half carried, half dragged to the door, while all the time my husband stood with his back to us all, calmly perusing his reflection in the large mirror that hung over the marble fireplace and adjusting his fine linen cravat. If my screams and pleas for mercy moved him to pity at all then he gave no sign whatsoever.
‘Maman!’ I heard Lucien call for me as the great door swung shut behind me for the last time and for a second I managed to break free and claw at the green painted wood with my fingernails, hammering with my fists and screaming until I was hoarse until they had me in their clutches again and began dragging me across the cobbled courtyard to the carriage that waited in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois beyond.
A small crowd of curious onlookers had gathered on the street, their faces shocked and concerned as they peered through the darkness. ‘Please help me!’ I implored them as I struggled and kicked. ‘Please! They are taking me away from my babies! You have to help me!’ They looked at each other and a couple of the women stepped forward as though about to intervene. ‘Please!’
The pockmarked man took charge then and without a word he slapped me across the face then picked me up in his arms and flung me inside the coach. ‘Be silent,’ he spat as he slammed the door shut. ‘No one cares.’
No one cares. I wrapped my arms around myself and curled up into a ball on the floor as the carriage shuddered to life then slowly began to rumble down the street.