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A sweeping historical debut about the Creole socialite who transformed herself into an empress
Readers are fascinated with the wives of famous men. In Becoming Josephine, debut novelist Heather Webb follows Rose Tascher as she sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris, eager to enjoy an elegant life at the royal court. Once there, however, Rose’s aristocratic soldier-husband dashes her dreams by abandoning her amid the tumult of the French Revolution. After narrowly escaping death, Rose reinvents herself as Josephine, a beautiful socialite wooed by an awkward suitor—Napoleon Bonaparte.
“A debut as bewitching as its protagonist.” —Erika Robuck, author of Hemingway’s Girl and Call Me Zelda
“Vivid and passionate.” —Susan Spann, author of The Shinobi Mysteries
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2013 by Heather WebbMalmaisonParis, 1814
The missive arrived in the night. I paced from bed to bureau and back again, finally pausing to open the velvet drapes. The moon cast a ghostly glow on the dogwood blooms and barren rose gardens. My gardens of paradise. Others had intended it to be my prison, but I found it a hard-earned refuge. A place of safety after a lifetime of flight, a heavy crown, and the deaths of so many I held dear.
I covered my face with my hands. My benefactor, my greatest love, had been arrested. What would become of him?
At one time, I could have summoned answers, but those days and the Rose I was were long since buried, consumed by the powerful woman I’d created. Still, I thought, perhaps I yet possessed my Creole heart.
I dashed to the vanity and found the dusty white pouch with my cards. One by one, I placed black candles in a ring on the floor. Match to wick, and their flames sparked to life in the stillness.
What would the future hold?
I drew the tarot from its pouch and lay a spread. My eyes blurred at the message. The ancient drawings danced. First the Empress, a nurturer of her people. Six of Cups—nostalgia for long ago. And finally the Judgment card, an angel calling lost souls home.
My pulse quickened as a draft blew through the room. To understand my future, I must revisit my past.
The candles went out.Leaving HomeMartinique, 1779
We wandered along a darkened trail, farther from the house than Papa ever allowed. “This way.” I pushed through a web of tangled vines. “We’re almost home.”
My younger sister peered up at the sky. “We’ll get lashings if we don’t hurry.” Silvery twilight filtered through the thick canopy of jungle trees and the trill of a lone bird warned us to proceed with caution.
“I wouldn’t have made you come if I didn’t have to. And it was worth it.” I put my fingertips to my lips. Guillaume had kissed me after losing three straight hands of brelan. Payment, he had said. I always outplayed him at cards.
“Papa will be furious if he finds out.”
“You’re not going to tell him?” I asked.
She looked at me with an innocent expression. “That depends.”
“You can use my new drawing pencils.”
“I don’t know. . . .”
“You can wear my earrings to town next week.” I looked at her for confirmation.
“Done.” A thorned vine attached to the skirt of Catherine’s gown and she tugged it away. “Why do you insist on meeting the blacksmith’s boy anyway?”
“Why not? He’s handsome and he makes me laugh.”
“You’ll spoil yourself, you know. If you’re not careful. Who will marry you then?” she asked.
“I don’t wish for marriage at all if it is like our parents’.” I had no intention of leading a life like Maman’s. I would escape to France, to the adventure of Paris and the grand court life of Papa’s tales. The elegant gowns and intrigue, the handsome men. And love without bounds.
“I may not wed, even if I wish to.” I swatted at a winged insect hovering about my face. “Papa invites suitors to the house for you, not me.” A twinge of envy darkened my mood. “He favors you.”
“He doesn’t favor me, Rose.”
I threw her a doubtful look. “You know it’s true. He said to me yesterday that I’ll never capture a man’s affection.”
A flash of lightning illuminated the thicket; a rumbling followed.
“Time to go.” I grabbed Catherine by the hand.
The sky split open. Rain soaked the verdant landscape, turning the forest floor to a soup of mud and rotted vegetation. We leapt over holes filled with water and waxen leaves and darted through the underbrush. When at last the sugar mill—our home since the Great Hurricane—came into view, Mimi threw open the door.
“Best get inside,” she scolded. “Your maman’s right upset.” My maid bundled us in dry blankets. “Catherine, you’re pale as death.”
My sister coughed and shivered as Maman stormed into the room.
“Rose!” She clutched my arm and dragged me toward my bedroom. “Your sister doesn’t disobey without your prodding. I swear you’ll be the death of you both! Learn to follow the rules of this house or you’ll spend a week in the cellar! Do you understand?”
She pushed me into the room and slammed the door.*
As it happened, I was only the death of one of us.
Catherine contracted a fever and by morning she could not get out of bed. Within the fortnight, she was gone.
The afternoon of her funeral, we trudged silently back to the house through the rain. Rain like the day I had led my sister to her death.
Banana trees bowed beneath the weight of water driving from the swollen sky. Palm fronds waved in the wind like arms desperate for attention. Maman and my youngest sister, Manette, linked their arms with mine. I stared ahead, ignoring my soaked skirts and the desperate grip of Maman’s hand. Regret throbbed in my chest.
I remembered Catherine limp in bed with blood trickling from her pasty lips. My stomach turned. I stopped by the edge of the path and retched.
“If you hadn’t been up to mischief, she wouldn’t be ill,” Papa had said when Catherine’s condition worsened. He blamed me.
We had played in the rain so often. It was always raining on the island. How could I have known that day would be different?
The throbbing grew—hammered at my head, my insides, my heart. My sister was gone, as if she had never been. And it was my fault. I choked back a sob. Maman patted my shoulder with a light hand.
We entered our humble salon and handed our dripping cloaks to Mimi. I moved to the window, numbly avoiding conversation.
The rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Sun blazed around the edges of the clouds.
“I’ll fetch some tea,” Mimi said, her brown eyes sad. She had loved our Catherine, too. “And, monsieur, there’s a letter come in the post from your sister.”
“Read it for me?” Papa handed the missive to Maman and blotted his sodden wig with a cloth.
She read the letter aloud.
As you know, dear brother, I aim to secure my position with the Marquis. Despite our constant love, his wife refuses to sever ties with him.
Maman paused. “The Marquis hasn’t divorced his wife yet?” She didn’t hide her disdain.
Papa made an exasperated sound. “You know very well a divorce would scandalize the Beauharnais name. The Marquis would sooner wait for his wife to die and marry Désirée after.”
“I love your sister, but cannot abide her living with another woman’s husband.” Maman’s thin lips stretched into a line. Her nostrils flared. “It’s immoral.”
I knew Papa disagreed. He bedded every willing lady in Fort-Royal and all the prettiest slaves on our plantation, willing or not, a sickening situation and a never-ending embarrassment for Maman. I eyed Mimi while she tended to the mud tracked across the rug. She was the result of one of his affairs with a slave.
Papa threw his hands in the air. “Don’t question Désirée’s morals. Marriage is not about love.”
I cringed at his words. I would not, could not endure a marriage like theirs. My future husband would cherish me. If I had one at all.
“I married you for love, you con,” Maman seethed. “But your philandering and drinking ruined everything! And don’t get me started on your gambling! If I didn’t manage this plantation, we’d live in huts with the slaves. As it is, we live in tatters and you do nothing!”
Manette cowered on the faded divan. I moved to comfort her. We both detested their arguments.
“Don’t take that tone with me! You forget your place, wife!”
A long silence followed.
At last Maman smoothed the crinkled letter and began again.
I would also like to ensure the financial assistance you desire. Please send your daughter Catherine to Paris at once. I will arrange her marriage to the Marquis’s son, Alexandre. Their union will join our families, and Alexandre’s inheritance may save your plantation from ruin. Make haste. We are all anxious to enact this plan.
“Catherine would have made a perfect bride,” Maman said, voice thick with sorrow. “Enchanting to Désirée and Alexandre alike.”
I gritted my teeth in jealousy. Catherine had been no better than I and yet my parents always compared my flaws to her perfections. A sudden pang of guilt left me ashamed. My darling sister, ill and now stone cold in the ground, how could I be jealous of you?
“Manette is too young.” Papa’s expression darkened. “And Rose is too old and would offer little to Alexandre.”
His words hit me like a blow. I recovered quickly and stood. “Parfait, Papa. As I have no wish to marry any man you choose for me.” I raised my chin. “I will marry for love or not at all!”
Papa gripped my shoulders. “You will marry when I say!”
I wrenched free and bolted through the front door to the garden, beneath the frangipani trees and into the dense foliage. Tears streamed down my face. I possessed no control, even over my own life. I ran to outpace my thoughts, to push the hurt from my limbs. Oh, Catherine! How could you leave me?
I climbed the longest path, the one Papa forbade even on the best of days. The path that led to the most feared woman on the island, the voodoo priestess. The slaves bartered for her potions despite their fear, as would I to learn my fate. Catherine had sworn she would visit her with me, but spooked when we started on the path. This time I would not turn back.
There had to be more for me, more than this life.
I sucked in the steamy air, heart thundering in my ears. A screech sounded from the shadows. The familiar shapes of the wood grew grotesque in the fading light. I ran faster. Serpents slid from their holes when the heat of the day faded, seeking victims for their poison. I had witnessed bitten men convulse with frothing lips and blue-black swelling beneath their skin. I shook my head to dispel the images. I couldn’t think of that now.
I had to know.
I pushed deeper into the forest until a clearing came into view— and her house, a small thatched hut and fire pit.
I wiped my face with the back of my hand and moved beyond the cover of the jungle.
“I’ve been waiting for you.” A woman stepped through the doorway into the clearing. Silver hair sprang from her head in unruly waves. Layers of wooden beads encircled her neck and a fetish of an Ibo god dangled between her drooping breasts.
“I don’t have coins,” I began, “but—”
“Sit.” She motioned toward a ring of uneven stumps near the fire.
I chose the seat farthest from her and sat down, uncomfortable in my black mourning gown now slick with sweat.
The old woman chanted, lips moving in rhythm as she rocked. She tossed dried herbs and entrails into the fire. My throat tightened at the stench.
As suddenly as she had begun chanting, the priestess stopped. She fixed her probing eyes on mine. My breath halted in my lungs.
“You will travel a great distance and be married.” Her eyes rolled back in their sockets.
My heart quickened. To France? I longed for adventure and love.
Let there be true love. I said a silent prayer.
“Beware, child.” The priestess paused. “This union will come to a violent end. A dark stranger without fortune will become your husband.” The priestess leaned forward, her eyes reflecting the flashing light of the fire. “And you will become more than queen.”
I frowned. “No woman is greater than a queen.”
The priestess’s eyes fluttered. Her throat gurgled. She fell to the ground in a seizing fit, limbs flailing.
I gasped and knelt over her.
“Go!” She shoved me away.
I leapt to my feet and flew through the jungle, thrashing against the dark undergrowth. My lungs burned and my shoes grew heavy with mud. I dared not look back.
Evening shadows reached home before I did. I burst through the side door, tripped on the threshold, and fell to the floor.
At Papa’s feet.
“You’re filthy.” He glared down at me. “Change at once and meet me in the salon. I have news for you.”ÉtrangèreBrest, France, 1779
The priestess’s voice vibrated in my soul, her black magic as real as flesh. I could not make sense of her words and dreamt of her most nights at sea, or those I managed to sleep. Papa sent me in Catherine’s stead. A marriage in a distant land, as the old woman had promised.
I rubbed my chilled arms. The journey had ended, merci au bon Dieu.
My feet touched solid ground. Not the salty gray sands I had expected of the Brittany coast, but rather an enormous port crammed with all manner of vessels. Boats bobbed in a gentle procession over the wake, creaking as the water slapped their sides. Sailors and soldiers, boat hands and passengers scurried in every direction as bells announced the incoming fog. Brest was grander than Fort-Royal in every way but color. Slate blue, charcoal, and lifeless gray dominated the sky, the land, and everything between.
I would miss my vibrant home. But at least there would be no more blasted ship, no more hurtling through the sea. I gathered my filthy skirts and stumbled up the walk on wobbly legs. My pink shoes stood out like pearls against the jet of the dock and the black water below.
A familiar nausea rolled in my belly and crept up my throat. I clutched my midsection.
“You ill?” Mimi called as she dragged our trunks behind her. Clumps of her crimped hair stuck out from beneath the colorful scarf tied over her head.
“Still a bit seasick. A proper bed will be heaven. Mon Dieu, Mimi, I thought we’d never make it.” I descended the dock stair and stepped onto the dirt path. It led to several boathouses and a tavern with fogged windowpanes. The next row of buildings faced the harbor, lit doorways open, inviting. Women in vermillion corsets and netted stockings lounged within, beckoning with their painted nails and heavily rouged smiles.
A memory of Papa surfaced, his face lost in the bosom of a half-dressed mulatto woman. I had sneaked from school with Guillaume one night to hide behind the empty crates near the brothel door—a silly dare. And there Papa stood, pawing at a woman who was not my mother.
I turned away from the whores. Time to look forward, not back.
I scanned the line of fiacres and hackney coaches in eager anticipation. Here at last!
“A gentleman hired transportation and rooms for us. Would you see to it? The captain said I am to wait here for a courier.” I stroked the creased letter. Aunt Désirée and Alexandre expected to hear from me right away.
“I’ll get to finding him.” Mimi mopped her face with a handkerchief.
I nodded and turned back to the frigate, my home and prison these past months. The familiar faces of its passengers had dispersed in a hundred directions. A lump of apprehension lodged in my throat. I would make friends straightaway, without doubt. But Alexandre. I sighed. I hoped he would be a man I could love.
The courier arrived, toting his sack of letters. I delivered my own and paid him as I felt a hand at my elbow.
“Our coach is waiting round the bend.” Mimi pointed to a road that snaked around the corner of a gray boathouse.*
We traveled to an inn on the outskirts of Brest. Knobby pastures dotted with grazing sheep and fattened dairy cows stretched as far as the horizon. Gone were the throngs of travelers and the slate blue sea, though the vacant arc of pallid sky followed us from the shore. The grayness soaked into my skin and filled the hollow in my chest.
Papa couldn’t have loved a place as lackluster as this. Certainly Paris would be more appealing. I imagined the King’s court of handsome men in pressed coats, swirling courtiers across a perfectly polished floor, their jewels glinting in the light. I smiled. I would visit the court one day soon with Alexandre.*
I paced the dilapidated inn for three days awaiting news from Désirée. How long would it take her to respond? Mimi and I strolled through the wilted garden to pass the time. One afternoon as we made our way up the front walk, an elegant carriage pulled into the drive. My palms grew clammy inside my only gloves.
“It must be them.” I laughed a shrill sound and clutched Mimi’s arm. “I didn’t expect to be so nervy.”
“Don’t worry your pretty head, girl. He’ll be taken with you.” She kissed my cheek to comfort me.
When the coach stopped, an elegant blond woman alighted. Aunt Désirée glided toward me. Her pale blue dress hung in perfect folds, its embroidery of silver flowers shimmering in the watery sunlight. Her vast skirts swelled around her hips as if pillows were hidden beneath the fabric, accentuating her tiny waist. A ribbed corset wound around her middle to boost her lace-trimmed bosom. Teardrop baubles swung from her earlobes and a ribbon-embellished hat perched fashionably atop her head.
I smoothed my own water-stained shift and flushed with embarrassment.
“Hello, Rose.” Désirée embraced me lightly. A feigned gesture— was she displeased with me?
“Hello, Aunt Désirée,” I said, kissing her cheeks.
“You were a child the last time I saw you.” She had left Martinique a decade ago and she still looked as beautiful as I remembered.
Désirée stepped back to assess my appearance. We stood in awkward silence.
At last she said, “Chérie, your lips are blue!” She took my hands in hers. “I have some warm things for you. I haven’t forgotten my first weeks in France. It’s difficult to bear the cool weather in the beginning.”
“Thank you. I have shivered ever since we arrived.”
She patted my shoulder. “You will adjust.”
I turned. “This is my maid, Mimi.”
Désirée nodded. “Your voyage—how did you fare?”
“I’ve never been so sick. My stomach still rocks.” I glanced at the carriage. “Where is Alexandre? Has he come?”
“Of course, dear. He has fallen asleep in the coach.” She cupped her mouth with a gloved hand and called, “Alexandre? Alexandre!”
“I’ll wake him, madame,” the coachman said.
Désirée glanced at the shabby inn. The sign near the door hung crookedly from a single rusty hinge. My aunt’s lips pinched as if she tasted something sour.
“Goodness, child. You stayed here? We’ll find a more suitable place.” She looked at Mimi. “Why don’t you see to Rose’s things?”
“Madame.” Mimi curtsied and rushed off in the direction of the inn.
“Aunt Désirée, I—”
She waved her hand dismissively. “I will pay, of course.”
I fidgeted for several long moments.
A door screeched, in need of oil. My breath caught as my future husband staggered from the coach. He stretched, and looked around with a bored expression.
Our eyes met.
Alexandre raised one dark eyebrow in a perfect arc.
I caught my breath. He possessed such fine features—a straight nose and high cheekbones, full lips and light eyes. He held himself like a prince in his white officer’s uniform, embellished with silver buttons, ornate lapels, and blue culottes. His powdered hair appeared coiffed to perfection. Even his boots gleamed.
I sneaked a glance at my own scuffed shoes and musty dress. My reflection in the glass this morning had shown sun spots and bleached hair from my time on deck. I looked like a commoner, as the wiser women on board had warned me I would.
I straightened my shoulders. I was attractive and I possessed rare charm. Maman always said so.
Alexandre stared, but made no move in my direction. I smiled in greeting. A fleeting emotion shone in his eyes, though I could not identify it from a distance. Surely not disdain?
I flinched and turned to Désirée. She looked away.
He must dislike the lodging, I told myself, to repudiate my doubts. I shifted from one foot to the other. Alexandre lingered for an eternity, eyes roving over the scenery and weighing its worth. I winced. This was not an auspicious place to meet your future wife.
He moved toward me. I stiffened until he stopped before me and bent in a slight bow.
“Mademoiselle Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Finally,” I breathed. How long I had anticipated this moment.
Surprise filled his eyes. Confused, I glanced at Désirée.
“If you will excuse me,” she said, “I will see about another inn.”
“Allow me,” Alexandre offered.
“Thank you, dear, but I can manage. I’ll leave you to become acquainted.” She gave me a tight smile before leaving.
I played with the sad bow hanging from my sleeve. Alexandre cleared his throat and looked around.
Finally, I asked, “How is the Marquis?”
“Father is in bed most days,” he answered in a disinterested tone.
“He is ill? I’m sorry . . . I didn’t realize—”
“It’s been a slow degradation. He’s still sharp of mind. It is only his body that fails him. Even so, I suspect he has many years left.”
“Well that’s a relief.”
Disbelief crossed his features once more.
I frowned. What had I said?
He crossed his arms over his chest.
“And your brother, François?” I tried again.
“Well, thank you. I trust your voyage wasn’t too grueling?” He looked over my head at a pair of women leaving the inn.
“It was dreadful. Storms nearly drowned us. And I couldn’t eat or drink—the rocking made me so ill. I—” Alexandre’s incredulous expression stopped me.
“Do you always speak so plainly?” he asked.
Heat crept up my neck to my cheeks. “Monsieur? You asked about my trip.”
“Never mind. We have other, more pressing changes to make than your speech . . . your accent, and . . .” He looked down his nose at my dress.
“Excuse me?” Pricks of anger barbed under my skin. How dare he be so rude!
Mimi emerged from the inn, hauling the trunks.
Désirée reappeared behind her, a list in hand. “I have found another inn not far from here.”
Alexandre nodded, a grim expression reflected on his features. My cheeks flamed with embarrassment. His first impression of me had not been a favorable one.
Désirée clapped her hands and pretended not to notice. “Merveilleux! ”
We began our journey to Paris the following day, traversing pastures and hills that rose in waves of green carpet, forked by streams and covered in brush. Most days clouds blanketed the sky and drizzle filtered through golden and peach-colored leaves. The smell of cool air and wet ground pervaded—so unlike my island’s smoky sweetness of burning sugarcane and wildflower perfume. Despite Désirée’s wool cloak, the raw weather soaked into my bones.
We rode much of the way in silence. I amused myself by studying the landscape of trees and the few autumn flowers.
“How vivid Martinique must be,” Alexandre said. “I hardly remember it from childhood.” He had left the island with Désirée to seek a more refined life in Paris.
“I had never given it a second thought until now,” I said. “There is a realness. . . . Trois-Îlets has a heartbeat. It is so alive. But it is lovely here, too,” I added in haste, not wishing to insult.
Alexandre chuckled, blue eyes twinkling. “Paris may be more alive than you can manage, farm girl.” He took my hand and caressed it as if stroking a kitten. “I’m sure you will adore it.”
His fingertips left a trail of flames on my skin. I blushed, timid at my reaction to his affection. He did like me. We just needed to get to know one other.
“I’m certain I will.” I smiled.
We stopped at an inn after the long day of travel.
“I have a present for you.” Alexandre had joined Désirée and me in the common room for an aperitif.
I perked up at once.
“De l’Esprit des Lois.” He handed me a worn book and settled into a chair with a brandy glass. “Montesquieu. A great philosophe. His works were not always praised in France, but it is a new era. You’ll enjoy his inspired theories of human injustice.” Passion lit his eyes.
“Wonderful.” I smiled in spite of my doubt. Lessons on music, art, or gardens, perhaps, I would enjoy far more. No matter. His enthusiasm delighted me. “I’ll begin reading tonight.”*
In the morning, I settled into my carriage seat, happy to be spending more time in close proximity with him.
Alexandre smiled. “And how did you find the book? The Americans have taken to his ideals of separation of powers.”
I shifted in my seat. I had hardly read the first ten pages before drifting to sleep. “Your views are surely more informed than mine. Would you care to share them?”
“I find his thoughts on personal freedoms . . .”
My attention drifted as he explained theory after theory. His lips, the excitement in his eyes, the way his brow furrowed on his perfect face proved an interesting study. When he paused from time to time, I could not hide how much he impressed me. Nor could I resist attempting to charm him.
“Fascinating, Alexandre.” I placed my hand on his arm. “You are so knowledgeable.”
He beamed at my obvious admiration. I smiled back at him. Perhaps this marriage would turn out better than I had hoped.*
The final morning of our journey we embarked early, eager to reach our destination by nightfall. The ride passed in a blur of sunshine and trees, and by dusk, Paris emerged. As we entered the city gates, the setting sun glowed in a dreamy swirl of pink and orange, resembling the inside of a papaya. Along the horizon arose the largest number of buildings I had ever seen.
I gaped. “It’s . . . it’s . . .”
Alexandre flashed a brilliant smile and laughed. “Paris is the most remarkable city in the world.”
“Incredible!” I clapped in delight.
The sheer number of people rendered me speechless. Hordes shuffled along the roadside carrying packages, toting their children, or walking arm in arm with friends. Odors assailed my senses; rich coffee wafted from cafés, sweaty horses and fetid piles of animal waste assaulted, flowery perfumes and warm bread tempted. Street vendors, juggling performers, and the incessant clopping of hooves whirled together in an orchestra of sounds.
“Mon Dieu, look at all the coaches!”
Gilded carriages and speeding fiacres dodged pedestrians and splattered mud in every direction. I gaped at the opulent homes of stone and imposing state buildings guarded by the King’s army. The city hummed like a swarm of bees on a cluster of begonias.
Alexandre enjoyed my awe, pointing out the Palais-Royal and Luxembourg, explaining their histories. I tried to listen, but the throngs captured my attention.
After a long ride through the city, Alexandre enveloped my hand in his. “Here we are. Noisy-le-Grand, your new neighborhood.”
A pungent stink burned my nostrils. “Alexandre, what is that smell?” I wrinkled my nose in disgust.
“Excrement and mud. You won’t notice it for long. I don’t smell it at all.”
I looked at him in surprise. Of course I would notice it. I covered my nose with my handkerchief to block the horrid odor.
Our coach stopped in front of a two-story house composed mostly of stone.
“Welcome home,” Alexandre said.
Désirée kissed my cheek. “Welcome.”
“Thank you.” I suppressed another delighted squeal—I shouldn’t appear too childish.
I stepped down from the coach and surveyed the neighboring houses. Rickety dwellings cramped the spaces between the grander homes, a curious scene. The wealthy separated into their own quartiers in Fort-Royal, but not in Paris, it seemed. Still, the neighborhood possessed a sense of faded glory, though I had envisioned more elegance from a vicomte.
A servant opened the front door and ushered us into a vestibule with towering ceilings.
“Bonjour, mademoiselle,” another servant said, curtseying. Her voice echoed in the hall. “May I bring you anything?”
“Non, merci.” I walked toward the staircase dominating the hall and ran my hand along the worn banister.
“Rose, the Marquis awaits our arrival,” Désirée said.
“Of course.” I followed her, studying the rooms and their furnishings as we went.
Despite the golden glow from oil lamps and candles, the house was cold and dark, like the stone of which it was made. Its depressive ambience lacked the luxury I had expected—so unlike the airy, wooden mansions of the Grands Blancs in Fort-Royal, decked with palms and wildflowers. Heavy drapes replaced the gauzy curtains that billowed on sea breezes I remembered from home. Cool air leaked under doorways and crept over icy marble floors, mingling with the stale air inside.
Unimpressive furniture filled the rooms, save for one stunning table veneered with layers of priceless wood. Its gilded-bronze finish glinted in the firelight. I ran my fingers over the smooth veneer, warm from the heat of the fire. A perfect spot to play cards or read my tarot deck.
“Have a seat, my dear. They’ll join us in a moment.”
I settled into a blue silk chair facing Désirée. Where had Alexandre gone? He would greet his father, I assumed. I tried not to fidget.
A servant assisted the Marquis into the room. Another gentleman followed, likely Alexandre’s brother, François. All three men resembled one another; proud chins and wide blue eyes distinguished them as family. I stood quickly.
“You must be Rose.” The Marquis approached and took my hand in his. “Welcome. We’re happy you have arrived.” His smile was kind and his eyes crinkled at the corners.
“Thank you, monsieur. I am thrilled to be here.” I returned his smile.
“And this”—he motioned to François—“is my other son, François, your soon-to-be brother.”
François bowed, creasing his stiff suit coat sewn with gold thread. “Enchanté, mademoiselle. Please forgive me, but I’m afraid I must go. I am late for an engagement.” He inclined his head toward me. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“Of course.” I nodded and he hurried from the room.
“Please make yourself at home, Rose,” the Marquis said. “We are family, after all.”
“You’re very kind.” Relief washed over me. Désirée and the Marquis were lovely.
When shown to my room to dress for supper, I cheered inwardly. Rest at last. I snatched the blanket at the foot of my bed and snuggled in by the fire. I relished the heat like an iguana scorching in a treetop under the tropical sun. The vision of midday warmed my blood.
It seemed odd Alexandre should allow Désirée to play hostess. I supposed he admired her a great deal, despite her being only a sort of stepmother.
After an hour of rest, I returned to the hall. A dining table had been set with an ivory cloth and fine dishes. I slid into an empty chair.
“Shall we dine?” Désirée lowered her graceful form into a chair across from the Marquis. She had changed from her riding dress to a blue silk gown and twisted her hair into a perfect chignon decorated with pearls. She rang a porcelain bell, bringing a flurry of servants. One filled our wineglasses as others brought parsnip soup. Braised venison and beet salad would follow.
Alexandre joined us at the last moment. “Pardon my tardiness.”
Désirée gave him a reproachful look.
He helped himself to a piece of bread and soaked the crust in his soup. After a large bite, he blotted his mouth with his napkin and turned to me. “I do hope you feel at home.”
“I don’t feel at home quite yet.” When his expression turned grim, I amended my comment. “But I’m sure I will very soon.” Best not to be too direct, it seemed.
His face relaxed. “Very good, then.”
I stared as he shoveled food into his mouth. Not rude, exactly, but hurried.
“Alexandre, the venison will not wander from your plate,” Désirée said.
I smiled behind my goblet.
He laid down his fork and knife. “I’m afraid I’m in a rush. I am meeting a friend this evening.”
“Oh? May I accompany you?” A pulse of excitement tingled in my stomach. My first night in Paris with Alexandre!
He finished chewing, then replied, “I’m afraid not. I have important business to attend to. I won’t have time to introduce you to everyone.” He waved his hand in my direction. “You have nothing suitable to wear, at any rate.”
“Very well.” I tried to control the disappointment in my voice. “Not tonight. But another?”
“Of course.” He stood abruptly. “Excuse me, Father, Désirée. I will see you tomorrow morning for breakfast, Rose.”
“We will expect you,” Désirée said, as if implying a threat.
We finished our meal in relative silence. After a digestif by the fire, we retired to our rooms. I tossed in bed for hours. A few new gowns, music lessons, perhaps some history, and Alexandre would be proud to call me his. I could not wait to see him in the morning, to tell him I wanted to meet with a tutor immediately.
But Alexandre did not join me for breakfast. I did not see him again for two days.*
My third day in Paris, I sat impatiently at the breakfast table while Désirée finished eating. I could hardly wait to explore the city.
“Your tutor will arrive at ten sharp. At two, you will have music or dance on alternating days.” She paused to chew a bite of her bread. “We take tea in the salon at five and supper at nine. Please be prompt. You have had several days to adjust to your surroundings.”
“Yes, Désirée.” I shifted in my chair for the tenth time. When would she finish?
“I’m so glad you’re looking forward to our excursion, dear.”
“I can’t wait to purchase a new gown!” Anything to feel more a Parisian.
She drained the last of the coffee from her cup. “To the rue Saint-Honoré.”
We rode through alleyways and along grand boulevards. The river Seine gushed pewter water in torrents as boats pushed upstream. Lively markets flourished in the squares of most quartiers. Cooks inspected lumpy vegetables, silvery fish on trays of ice, and bins of spices in russet, green, and plum. The scent of ripe cheeses permeated the air. Désirée stared unseeing out the window.
For every fashionable boulevard, a pocket of hovels sprawled. I looked past the women and children moaning for bread. Guilt flooded, intense and unsettling. If only I could help them. But nothing could be done, so I pretended not to see them.
The rue Saint-Honoré did not disappoint. Paris’s finest boutiques displayed a staggering selection of jewelry, shoes, and fabrics. I fingered silk gloves and delicate lace, and held brooches to the light to examine their dazzling facets.
“The hats, Désirée! A thousand would not be too many.” Straw hats à la bergère with ribbons; bonnets; broad-brimmed felt hats with feathers, jewels, or lace netting in every color—I would have happily died to own one.
I gaped at ladies browsing in voluptuous gowns that rustled as they moved, their poufs piled high on their heads and powdered pale blue. I could not remove my faded gown fast enough.
“First your corset and petticoats.” The dressmaker’s assistant jammed me into my undergarments.
“It’s crushing my ribs,” I cried, as she tugged on the last of the stays. I pulled at the fabric.
“Don’t touch it!” she barked. “It should be tight to boost your décolletage and shrink your waist.”
“How on earth am I going to wear this awful thing?”
The woman made a tsk-tsk with her tongue and helped me step into a pannier. My eyes bulged at its inconceivable girth. One would suffocate in Martinique in such a gown.
“We need your measurements.” She moved quickly, scribbling numbers on her paper. “There. Now we’re ready for the gowns.” Madame ushered two women forward who paraded an array of fabrics before me—brocades and velvets, silks and lace, cottons and wool in a dozen colors. I tried the few model dresses available. The finer boutiques would never allow such a thing; we had not bothered to enter them.
I twirled for the second time in a yellow brocade. Who was the elegant stranger in the looking glass? Her cheeks were flushed, her form graceful. I smiled with glee.
“Do you like this one, Désirée?” I asked.
“It’s lovely. We’ll have one made for you. As you can see it doesn’t fit precisely as it should. And what about the green one?”
“It’s quite expensive. I have already asked madame.”
“I am aware of the price. Why don’t you try it on? It looks to be about your size,” Désirée said.
Madame helped me into the rich silk gown and I moved to the mirror.
“Oh.” My hand flew to my lips. “C’est magnifique.” I turned slowly, swishing the glossy skirts. I stroked the black lace cuffs that extended the length of my forearms. If only Maman could see me look a lady.
“I believe that gown was made for you.”
“I’ve never worn anything so beautiful.”
“Nor owned one, I suppose? Well, you do now, dear.” Désirée turned to madame. “We’d like this one as well.”
“Oh, Désirée! Do you mean it?” I rushed to embrace her, bumping a small table in my hurry. A set of porcelain figurines rattled as if coming to life. I steadied them, stifling a laugh.
“Attention.” Désirée gave me a disapproving look. “You must be aware of your person at all times.”
I bowed my head in embarrassment.
“Of course I mean it,” she said, her tone softened. “Now. You’ll need another for tomorrow. We can’t have you wearing your soiled dresses another day. Shall we?”
I squealed and kissed her cheek. “Thank you, thank you!”
By day’s end, I had a start to a proper Parisian wardrobe. I chose a gold-threaded brocade glittering with iridescent beads, three day dresses, and one made of navy wool. Hats, shoes and silk stockings, an evening handbag, and gloves. Never had I owned so many beautiful things.
I wondered at the Beauharnaises’ fortune. Neither the house nor the furniture reflected wealth, and I had witnessed Désirée scowling at the bills. I dismissed the thought. Not my concern. Alexandre’s knees would buckle when he saw me.*
The following morning, I arose early for my toilette. I spent an hour on my hair alone to arrange my curls into a perfect chignon like Désirée’s. I applied my new powders with a careful hand and painted my cheeks with rouge. After a dab of perfume, I called to Mimi to assist me with dressing.
“Stockings first, Yeyette.” She used my childhood nickname.
I pulled the silky film along my calves and over my knees, and secured them in place with frilly garters.
Mimi laced up my corset, thankfully with less force than the dressmaker. “Can you breathe?”
“Barely.” I laughed.
She helped me into my petticoats and pannier, and at last I pulled on a milky white dress dotted with embroidered cherries. It had been the only frock ready for wearing after minor adjustments. The gown happened to be one of my favorites.
I smiled into my hand mirror. A Parisian lady, head to toe—a temptation for any man.
As I swept down the stairs to the hall, Alexandre leaned over the table to select a hunk of bread from the basket.
“How was your evening?” I touched a lose curl on my forehead lightly.
“Quite fine. I’ve only just arrived.” He slathered his bread with apricots and ate it in a few bites, all without sitting.
“I hope I may accompany you one evening soon.” I swished my skirts to and fro as I approached him. “I’ve been to see the dressmaker. Do you like it?”
He eyed me silently for a moment. “It’s nice.”
Nice? I looked down to hide my disappointment.
He closed the short distance between us. “I’d like a closer view.”
My stomach flip-flopped at his silky tone.
He pressed his body closer and tucked his face into my neck. His hot breath reeked of cigars and wine.
“Alexandre,” I said breathlessly.
He kissed the sensitive skin under my ear. “You smell divine. Lavender?”
I nodded as he drew his fingers softly over the roundness of my breast. Warmth spread through my limbs.
“I can’t . . . we can’t . . .” I leaned against the wall for support.
“Shh.” He pulled me hard against him and forced my lips open with his tongue. In a swift instant, his hand slid down my frame and lifted the hem of my skirts.
I yielded to his mouth as it became more insistent. He moved expertly, pushing aside my petticoats, groping for bare skin.
“Alexandre.” I tried to pull away. “Alexandre!” I pushed at his chest. Fabric ripped.
“Don’t you want me?” His hand ran the length of my bare thigh. “I’ve seen the way you look at me.”
I inhaled a sharp breath. “I . . . not now—”
“I know you’ve had lovers in Martinique. Creoles are known for their sensuality.” He drew circles on my thigh with his fingertips. Fire blazed over my skin and I flushed. “You’re beautiful in this gown. I can’t resist you.” He planted a trail of kisses along my collarbone and his hand inched higher.
My head dizzied and I wilted in his arms. The sudden plunge of his warm fingers into my sex made me cry out.
Footsteps echoed from the next room.
“Rose? Is that you?” Alexandre’s father called.
The Marquis’s cane clunked across the study floor. His slow pace allowed just enough time to adjust my clothing. Alexandre wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. When his father opened the door, all appeared normal, or so I thought.
“Are you well, Rose?” The Marquis’s eyes widened when he saw me.
I swallowed hard and squared my shoulders. “I am quite well, monsieur. Merci.”
He regarded Alexandre with a weary glance and limped back to his study. Alexandre bounded up the stairs without a word.
I looked into the circular mirror on the opposite wall. My cheeks appeared stained, my eyes feverish, and the torn sash floated from my waist. A single tear slid down my cheek.*
One chilly morning the next week, I gazed at the geraniums nestled in their window boxes, their leaves painted with frosty patterns that glittered in the sun. I remembered Alexandre’s sudden passion. His kiss. His hands. He had treated me like a whore, then never mentioned it again. I didn’t know what to make of his behavior—his kindness and charming nature had returned. I laid my head against the pane. It must have been his drunken state that morning. I hoped that was all.
I sighed. How I missed Maman and Manette, even Papa. And my friends—I longed to make new ones.
“Mademoiselle, you’ll not learn your history by staring out the window,” my tutor scolded.
I could not resist calling him Monsieur Ennui, at least in my head. His lessons bored me to death.
“And your posture is atrocious. Like this.” He wrenched my shoulders back and tilted my chin up.
“Oui, monsieur.” I stared into his cold face. His pale lips were the only spot of color on his over-powdered face. Why couldn’t Désirée have found someone more likable? At least my lessons were nearly done for the day.
An unknown voice echoed from the foyer. Company? I forgot my manners in my eagerness and bounded into the front hall.
Désirée gave me an exasperated look. “Like a lady, Rose.”
Though she meant well, I tired of the constant admonitions. “Yes, Désirée.” I slowed my pace and then stopped suddenly to stare at the colorful woman by her side.
“May I present to you, Madame . . .” a servant began his stiff introductions.
Using her full hips and enormous skirts, the woman pushed him aside. He gave her a pinched look, and I giggled.
“I am Fanny de Beauharnais, wife of François, Alexandre’s brother. But you have probably met my husband by now. Please, call me Fanny.” She beamed and kissed me on both cheeks. “Welcome to Paris. I’ve been dying to meet you.”
Fanny’s style of dress resembled those in fashion, though a bit disheveled and overly vivid in purples and reds. The popular pastels were unsuited for her; her character would not be contained in a pale corset. Heavy curls hung in thickly powdered ringlets adorned with silk feathers, and rouge colored her lips and cheeks to the point of overdone. She resembled a rare bird flitting through the treetops of my jungle home.
A smile spread across my face. “I am very pleased to meet you, Madame—”
“Fanny, love. No one calls me Madame de Beauharnais. I insist.” She regarded my face and dress. “You’re adorable. And how is Alexandre? Has he shown you around town?”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t seen much of him—”
Désirée interrupted me. “He meets with his garrison and stays with the La Rochefoucould family when he can. You know how dedicated he is to his duties and his friends, Fanny.”
“Among other things,” Fanny answered with a pointed look at Désirée.
My heart skipped in my chest. What did that mean?
Before I could ask, Fanny changed the subject. “You must attend my salon one evening. With Alexandre, of course. My soirees are quite famous, you know.” She rattled off many names, none of which I had ever heard, but I was assured of their importance. Her rapid speech left her breathless and I laughed when she paused for air.
“It all sounds so wonderful! I’ve been restless in this cold season,” I said. “Would you care for a drink of chocolate?”
“Chocolat chaud would be divine. Come. Tell me all about yourself.” She took my hand in hers.
“If you will excuse me, Fanny, I must speak with the doctor,” Désirée said. “He is upstairs with the Marquis.”
I hid a smile with my hand. The doctor had not yet arrived; Désirée wanted to escape. She must not enjoy Fanny’s company.
“Of course, Désirée. Give him my love.”
“And will you dismiss my tutor?”
“For today.” Désirée glided through the door.
I found myself at ease in Fanny’s presence. I adored her jovial laugh and frank nature.
“Tell me about your home,” she said. “Your friends and family. And I hear there are strange jungle creatures?”
She fired question after question, and I withheld nothing. But her greatest interest lay in plantation life with the Africans.
“And the slaves? What is their life like on your plantation?”
Fanny didn’t notice the clink of silverware behind her. I glanced back to see Mimi collecting a dropped knife she had been polishing. I met her eyes. She looked down, concentrating on her task as if her life depended on it.
“They live in huts unless they are part of the household. The dearest, most hardworking dine and sleep in the main house.”
Mimi did not look in our direction, but her silence throbbed in the air. She knew she was my dearest—my friend, even.
“Do they work from sunrise to sunset? What do they eat? What’s the punishment for a slave that misbehaves? I’ve heard horrible tales,” Fanny pressed.
I found it curious she should be so consumed with their routine. Slaves were not our equals, after all. What could be so interesting?
“All men and women should have rights, regardless of their position, gender, or upbringing, doucette,” Fanny insisted. “Or the color of their skin.”
Mimi’s eyes widened.
I cleared my throat and said, “Mimi, could you fetch us some cakes if there are any left?” She placed her polishing rag on the bureau and scurried to the kitchen.
What a grandiose idea. I had never given a slave’s freedom any thought, let alone the “rights” of women. I accepted our roles—those of the slaves in their fields and the Grands Blancs running their plantations. Our sugarcane would rot, our plantations crumble without the Africans. Where would we be then? Yet Fanny had given me much to ponder.*
Alexandre and I married in a small church in Noisy-le-Grand. The sanctuary sat shrouded in filtered light. Broken patterns of color streamed from stained glass windows and illuminated patches of cold stone floor. Alexandre’s cousins and friends filled the pews. Fanny, the only familiar face, reassured me with a wink the moment I emerged from the priest’s chamber. I smiled at her, despite the doubt that snaked through my limbs. Did I love Alexandre?
Papa’s words resurfaced. “Marriage is about property. Love in marriage is nothing but a silly girl’s fantasy.”
A blast of organs signaled the commencement of the ceremony. Those in attendance fixed their gaze on me. I gulped and began the procession.
Maman, why couldn’t you be here? I imagined her blue eyes shining with tears, pride swelling at my beauty. She would have curled my hair and Manette would have helped me into my dress. A dull ache pulsed in my chest.
I moved down the aisle toward my future.
Alexandre posed near the altar, handsome as ever in his uniform, his face set in a firm mask, making him impossible to read. Had he regrets?*
We celebrated at home later that evening with an elegant dinner, complete with hired musicians. A smattering of friends and family arrived. When Fanny appeared, a sigh of relief escaped my lips.
“Congratulations.” She wrapped me in her embrace.
“Am I happy to see you!” The first smile of the evening crossed my face.
“After supper we’ll chat.”
“I look forward to it.”
I wound through circles of men and women who stared at me but said little. An outsider in my own home. I held my head high despite my unease. At dinner I sipped my soup in silence, sampled the tarte aux champignons, and indulged in champagne. The bubbles played on my tongue, relaxing me despite my discomfort.
Alexandre sat to my right, enthralling our guests with his discourse. How could I add to their discussions? I knew nothing of theater gossip or the royals’ abuse of privileges. The feel of black earth between my toes, the scent of rain on hibiscus blossoms, and the magic of tarot— this was my well of knowledge. I blithely smiled or nodded when appropriate, certain my eyes were glazed over.
I glanced at my empty flute. When the servant arrived with the tray of champagne, I took two glasses. Before long, giddiness coursed through my limbs and I forgot my isolation.
When the music began, Alexandre took my arm. “Darling wife.” He kissed my forehead. “Shall we dance?”
Wife. I am a wife. I smiled at the warmth in his eyes. “Yes!” How I missed dancing.
Everyone formed two parallel lines for a quadrille, thankfully a dance I knew well. Alexandre stood across from me and nodded. We met in the middle, palm to palm, and twirled to the rhythm of the music.
I held my breath as our eyes locked, our hands touched. The heat of his skin made me blush.
“You’re blushing, Madame de Beauharnais. And it suits you. You’re lovely.”
A thought of our wedding bed flashed behind my eyes. My stomach quivered in excitement and nerves; my neck burned. Perhaps I’d had too much champagne.
I slid to my spot in line and hiccupped. A giggle erupted in my throat and I missed the next step of the dance. I laughed at my idiocy.
Alexandre shot me a grim expression. “Rose,” he whispered in an angry voice as our shoulders met in the middle, “behave like a lady, please. No more champagne.”
“Isn’t that what a wedding is for? Merriment?” I hiccupped again. “I am the bride, after all.”
“You are the fool with your sputtering and stumbling. You’ll sit out the next dance.”
“I don’t need a break,” I slurred.
He stiffened. When the song ended, he led me to an uncomfortable chair.
“I’m not finished . . . d-dancing.” My tongue was too thick to form proper syllables.
He straightened his jacket and stood erect. “Stop this embarrassment. You’re drunk.”
“Oh, silly man.” I waved a hand at him in dismissal. “Don’t be offended. I’m the guest of honor. I’ll do as I please. No one even knows I’m here.” The absurdity of my words did not sink in.
He paced away.
Was he serious? I stared after him in disbelief as he joined a crowd of gentlemen.
A cloud of melancholy enveloped me as the hours ticked by. Alexandre ignored me. He glided across the floor, an exquisite dancer with lithe movements. Every man looked on in envy. Women admired him, adoration and lust on their countenances. My temples pounded and jealousy sickened me. But I was Madame de Beauharnais. No other could claim him.
Still Alexandre did not invite me to dance.
Stupid girl, I berated myself.
When I could no longer bear his disregard, I said my good nights and went to my room. A white nightdress lay on the edge of my bed. I stroked the smooth fabric. I would apologize and he would forgive me, and I would forgive him.
“Mimi?” I called through the door. “I need your help.”
She rushed into the room and helped me undress. I stepped into a circle of fabric. Folds of satin cascaded from a bustier adorned with ribbons and lace. My bosom bulged into fleshy mounds.
“Sweet Lord, Yeyette. You’re going to drive him mad.” She tied the last of the ribbons.
I scooped her hands to my chest. “I am afraid.”
“It’s natural,” she said. “But you’ll be just fine. You may even like it, if he’s gentle.”
I kissed her cheek. Excitement tingled in my belly. I would no longer be a maid. If my darling Guillaume in Fort-Royal had had his way, I would have been spoiled on a balmy evening long ago. In this moment, I was glad I had resisted.
I sat on the edge of the bed to wait. I chewed my nails. Such a horrible habit, Maman said. I sat on my hands, but my feet twitched.
I jumped up and paced. What could be taking him so long?
An hour passed and the champagne enveloped me in a tired haze. I climbed between the burgundy sheets and closed my heavy lids. I would rest while I waited.
He would take me in his arms. All would be well.
Alexandre did not come that night. Nor the next, or the next.
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