Liberté, égalité, fraternité OU LA MORT!
Happy Bastille Day to all my readers! In honour of this special day, here is a snippet of a book called The City of Light I wrote many many moons ago, that has, probably mercifully, hitherto failed to see the light of day…
‘Corisande threw her cards down on to the table and laughed. ‘I think that my lucky streak has finally come to an end and so I must depart before I get desperate and stake my favourite diamonds!’ She blew a kiss across the table to her brother, Lucien and stood up with a swish of lavender scented pink silk and lace. ‘Chainier is already in despair about my gambling debts and I do not think I can bear another one of his infernal lectures on the subject.’ She rolled her expressive eyes and grinned. ‘It is bad enough when Mademoiselle Bertin sends her accounts in. I have no idea how I manage to spend so much on dresses! I am sure that fairies must spirit them away in the night for I do not believe that I can own half of the things that she charges me for!’
‘Have there been painful scenes of a marital nature, chérie?’ Lucien enquired with a wink as he swiftly dealt out another hand, slapping the cards down hard upon the green baize covered table. ‘When I get married I intend to lecture my wife on a daily basis about her expensive habits, frivolous manner of dress, inelegant reading material and unsuitable friends.’ He pulled a comical face at Madame de Fleury. ‘It will no doubt be the only pleasure left to me if my esteemed mother has her way and she succeeds in shackling me to one of the dreadful convent bred frights that she insists on parading in front of me.’
‘I wonder what your precious Mademoiselle de Saint-Valéry would say to that if she were here?’ Corisande said with an arch smile. She had taken up a pose beside the table and was thoughtfully examining a fine Sèvres snuff box that her husband had left there the previous evening.
Lucien looked up from his cards and grinned at his sister. ‘As usual, she would agree with every single word that I utter as unlike you, my dear one, she treats my edicts like the pearls that they are and very rarely laughs at me.’ He leaned back perilously in his chair. ‘I do wish that you would invite her here more often, Corisande. I am running out of excuses to present myself at the Hôtel de Saliex and I think she is beginning to suspect something.’ He looked across at pretty blonde Madame de Fleury. ‘If she begins to suspect then I will lose the all important element of surprise.’
Corisande hid a yawn behind her exquisitely painted fan. ‘With you obsessing about Adélaïde de Saint-Valéry and everyone else ranting on and on about the tedious National Assembly I can see that this is going to be a simply fascinating summer.’ She walked to a table and idly turned over the pages of a book. ‘Perhaps I should have another party.’ She looked at the Comte d’Echevalier and smiled. ‘Would you like it if I threw a ball, mon cher?’
‘And incur the censure of the third estate deputies?’ her brother interposed with a nervous laugh. ‘Surely you do not wish to provoke yet another tirade about the frivolities and extravagances of the idle aristocracy?’ After his sister’s last ball, an anonymous and hastily suppressed pamphlet entitled ‘The Luxurious Orgy of Madame de C’ had been sold at the Palais Royal and on the staircases of Versailles itself, denouncing her extravagance and obscene morals.
Corisande shrugged. ‘Their dismal opinions do not interest me.’ She turned and walked restlessly to the window, where she stood for a while gazing into the gardens, which were full of carefully arranged flower beds and heady with the scents of summer. Lucien surreptitiously watched her from behind his cards and wondered why she looked so sad. It was not like his usually cheerful sister to look so downcast and he could not help but speculate if the Comte d’Echevalier was in any way responsible. Like everyone else he detested his sister’s lover and heartily wished that she would see sense and get rid of him before he dragged her into one of his inevitable and sordid scandals.
He looked at Monsieur le Comte and saw that he too was watching Corisande but the expression in his hard grey eyes was cruelly amused as opposed to concerned and Lucien felt a momentary pang of fear for his sister.
Aimée de Fleury broke the suddenly tense silence. ‘How beautiful you look standing there, my dearest Corisande!’ She threw down her hand of cards and took a sip of wine. ‘You should have been painted thus by Madame Vigée-Lebrun! Do you not agree, Monsieur le Comte?’ She smiled wickedly at Echevalier.
Philippe shrugged. ‘Every one of Madame Vigée-Lebrun’s simpering portraits looks very much like another. I find it hard to tell them apart.’ He flicked a dismissive finger at Corisande’s portrait, only recently completed, which hung on the wall of the salon. She was depicted seated in front of her harp, looking quite adorable with the trademark Vigée-Lebrun limpid, wide eyed stare and coy smile and dressed in frothy white muslin with a gold fringed scarf wound through her tousled, unpowdered red hair. ‘It could be a portrait of anyone.’
Aimée frowned. ‘Now, I totally disagree with that, Monsieur!’ She smiled at Corisande, who had turned back towards them and was listening in silence to their banter. ‘I do not think that this could be a painting of anyone but our dear Comtesse!’
‘I thank you, chérie,’ Corisande said, stepping as always back into the fray. ‘Monsieur le Comte is quite right though. It really does not bear much resemblance to me.’ She shrugged. ‘The portrait that Madame Labille-Guiard did last year of myself and my sister, Séraphine is far superior. Perhaps I should have it brought from the Hôtel de Vautière now that my parents have gone away or maybe…’
She was interrupted by the sound of shouting, explosions and gunfire close at hand and Lucien immediately crossed the room and flung the window open so that they could all hear what was going on. ‘I wonder what is happening out there,’ he said, with a frown between his dark eyes. ‘The mob have been running wild for far too long.’ Rioting had broken out in the city a few days earlier after the King had dismissed their friend, Germaine de Staël’s father, Necker, the popular minister for finance. Disturbances on the streets were always commonplace of course but this time seemed to be different and when a rumour had spread through the faubourgs that royal troops were preparing to march at any moment a huge crowd gathered at the Invalides and seized as much weaponry and even cannons as they could lay their hands on before marching on the royal prison of the Bastille in search of gunpowder and ammunition.
Corisande shrugged and sighed. ‘It is just the mob. I doubt very much that they can do any serious harm.’ She firmly closed the window. ‘I imagine that they have been up to their usual tricks of looting bakeries and setting fire to straw effigies of the King and Queen.’ She laughed and turned away. ‘Surely you know, mon cher, that one has not lived until one has been symbolically set fire to by the Parisian rabble?’
They all joined in the laughter and sat back down at the table to resume play while doing their best to ignore the cannon fire that continued sporadically all afternoon, and rather too closely for absolute comfort. At Lucien’s insistence Corisande eventually sent out one of her footmen to discover what was happening in the streets but he did not return. They could only suppose him dead or deserted and a toast was gaily drunk to his passing, honourable or otherwise.
It was almost dark when their game broke up and Corisande laughed gleefully as she pulled her winnings towards her. ‘Thank you very much for restoring my faith in gambling, my dear ones!’
‘I am sure you will think of us fondly when you lose it all at the faro tables of Versailles tonight,’ Lucien said with a grin as he stood up and prepared to leave. ‘Please do remember me to dear Séraphine and our venerable parents.’ He pulled open the door and went out into the marble floored vestibule, followed by Aimée and Philippe d’Echevalier, who did not even pretend that he was leaving but instead made it clear that he was very much at home, much to Lucien’s well bred disgust. He almost wished that he could stay but instead he bowed his head and escorted Madame de Fleury out to her carriage, which was waiting for her in the shady, wisteria filled courtyard. She was doing her very best to flirt with him but to her pique he barely noticed.
‘And finally we are alone,’ Corisande whispered as the front door closed. She walked to Philippe and smiled up into his face. ‘I thought that they would never leave.’
‘Your best friend and your brother? How disloyal you are,’ he said with a smile, lifting one long red ringlet off her shoulder and twisting it around his fingers. Corisande closed her eyes and sighed, waiting for the inevitable kiss. She had already decided to brave the servants and their intolerable gossiping and take him upstairs to her boudoir for an hour before she had to leave for Versailles.
There was a discreet cough behind her and she unwillingly opened her eyes and turned around. ‘Well?’ It was one of her footmen, looking hugely embarrassed at having caught his mistress en flagrante and quite unable to meet her eye. ‘Spit it out, man.’
‘Madame la Comtesse, I thought you should know…’ He paused, uncertain as to how to proceed. ‘Madame, the Bastille has been captured by the mob.’
Corisande stared at him. ‘What on earth do you mean?’ She thought of the Bastille – black and looming over the nearby Rue de Saint Antoine and apparently impenetrable. ‘Surely such a thing is impossible?’ She looked at Philippe, who was calmly taking snuff from his wrist and seemed quite unconcerned by the terrible news. ‘Mon cher, what does this mean?’
Her lover looked back at her and shrugged. ‘I imagine it means that the mob have had a small victory, Madame,’ he said. ‘I should not be too alarmed – the King has enough troops at his disposal to disperse the rioters and he has ample justification now for such an action. It is about time he seized control of his own capital.’
‘The King?’ Corisande almost laughed. ‘That feeble minded idiot? He will let it slip through his fingers and send us all to our deaths while he does so!’ She had forgotten the presence of the footman and was pacing backwards and forwards. ‘I must go to Versailles immediately and find out for myself what is happening.’
Before Philippe could reply the front door was thrust open and to their horror Corisande’s husband, the Comte de Choiseul-Chainier hurried alone into the vestibule. He was dishevelled and red faced and had clearly come on foot through the streets. Corisande could not help but note with a fastidious shudder that his normally white stockings were coated with a thick veneer of mud and dust.
‘Corisande!’ Louis-Charles advanced towards her, his face full of concern. ‘My God, I came as soon as I heard!’ Something about her embarrassed demeanour checked him and he slowly turned to see that they were not alone. ‘Monsieur le Comte.’ He bowed and his expression became closed and stony. ‘Forgive me for intruding.’
‘For God’s sake, Louis! This is your house!’ Corisande burst out, irritated by his insistence upon regarding the proprieties even when their whole world appeared to be in crisis.
Philippe spoke then. ‘You are quite correct,’ he drawled before bowing to Corisande. ‘I am decidedly de trop at this delightfully cosy little reunion and should leave.’ With a brief nod to Louis-Charles who completely ignored him, he strolled nonchalantly from the house leaving the Chainier couple together and looking for all the world as though he was on his way to a delightful party instead of about to brave the dangerous streets of the Marais.
Corisande watched him leave with some regret but then turned to her husband, avid for news. ‘What is happening? How could such a thing happen?’ She dismissed the still watching footman and they walked together into the salon where she poured Louis-Charles a glass of wine from a crystal carafe on the table.
‘It is utter chaos,’ he said with a despairing shrug. ‘The people have gone quite mad. They have been whipped up into a veritable fury by all the lies and rumours.’ He threw himself down on to the blue silk sofa next to Corisande and covered his eyes with his hand. ‘It all started quite harmlessly with some rioting about the dismissal of Monsieur Necker but over the past few days they have been told, by the creatures of the Duc d’Orléans no doubt, that the King intends to march his troops on Paris and slaughter them all in the streets. They have been told that there will be a second Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre.’
Corisande went pale. ‘If they believe that then no wonder they are mad with fear,’ she said in a quiet voice. ‘It is not true though is it?’
Louis-Charles shook his head. ‘No, not at all. There are troops in Paris, yes of course, but the King is loath to employ them.’
‘Then he must seize the moment!’ Corisande cried. ‘Before they kill us all.’ She stood up and went to the window, where she stood for a moment looking out into the dusk and trying to imagine what was happening beyond the security and peace of her garden. ‘Has there been much violence done today?’ She turned to her husband, who could not meet her eyes.
‘They say that hundreds have been killed in the streets and during the assault on the Bastille,’ he said with a sigh. ‘However, I think that this is an exaggeration.’
‘My God,’ Corisande breathed.
Louis-Charles continued to speak. ‘The governor of the Bastille, de Launey, surrendered and was brutally murdered by the mob. They cut off his head with a pocket knife and that of one of his companions and then paraded them around the streets on the ends of pikes.’ His words fell brutally into the elegant white and gold room. ‘They cheered, danced and sang songs beneath the severed heads.’
Corisande stared at him and found that she could not speak. Could this really be happening only a few streets away from her house? She felt suddenly sick and covered her mouth with her hand. Louis-Charles immediately stood up and took her into his arms.
‘My darling, I should not have told you about this,’ he said, cursing himself. ‘It will all be over soon enough.’ He kissed her forehead.
Corisande pulled back and stared up at him. ‘Do you really believe that? It needed only this, Louis. It needed only one small spark.’ She gently pulled away from him. ‘I must leave for Versailles immediately. I shall not rest until I have seen my sister.’
‘It would be madness to attempt to leave now,’ her husband remonstrated. ‘Please do not even think of doing such a thing, Corisande!’
‘It would be madness to stay,’ she countered, her eyes flashing with sudden fury. ‘I must go with or without your leave, Monsieur.’ She went to the door and shouted for her carriage to be brought round from the mews. ‘There is not a second to be lost.’
Louis-Charles sighed. ‘Then I must go with you.’ He could not help but think how magnificent she looked with angry colour high and flaming in her cheeks and with her lovely hair tumbled and disordered down her back. She looked like something from a painting – if one swapped her extremely fashionable black and white vertical striped silk robe à l’anglaise and lace edged muslin fichu for something simple and Grecian then she could easily have posed for an avenging fury or a high priestess at that moment.
Corisande nodded. ‘If you must.’ She allowed herself a smile. ‘I must confess that it would be a relief not to be alone at such a time.’
The streets of Paris were predictably in a state of panic and chaos and it took a long time for Corisande’s carriage to make any progress down the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois. Angry, distorted faces made all the more grotesque and hellish by flickering torch light continually appeared at the windows and stared in at her in the most threatening manner and there were several occasions when she was really frightened that they would be made to stop and butchered in the street like poor de Launey but clearly the mob’s lust for blood was sated and so they were allowed to go on their way. Without saying a word Louis-Charles reached across the seat and took her hand in his and did not relinquish it until they had gained the barrier and were out of Paris and on their way to Versailles…‘
Also in honour of Bastille Day, my novel The Secret Diary of a Princess, about the childhood of Marie Antoinette, is available from Amazon US for 99c and Amazon UK for 86p until next Monday so if you’ve always fancied giving it a whirl, now is the time!