From Chapter One: Our Lady of Victories
In which my new life begins
March 10, 1796 Paris, early morning, grey skies.
I am writing this in my jasmine-scented dressing room, where I might not be discovered by Bonaparte, my husband of one day.
Husband. The word feels foreign on my tongue, as foreign as the maps spread over the dining room table, the sword propped in the corner of my drawing room. As foreign as the man himself.
My face in the glass looks harsh, etched by shadow, reflecting the dark thoughts in my heart.
How unlike me to be melancholy. I'm tempted to black out the words I've just written, tempted to write, instead: I've married, I am happy, all is well. But I've promised myself one thing-to be honest on these pages. However much I am required to dissemble, to flatter and cajole, here I may speak my heart truly. And my heart, in truth, is troubled. I fear I've made a mistake.
Josephine Rose Beauharnais Bonaparte
Josephine Rose Bonaparte
Josephine Tascher Beauharnais Bonaparte
Josephine Beauharnais Bonaparte
Citoyenne Josephine Bonaparte
Madame Josephine Bonaparte
We've just returned from Saint-Germain. Bonaparte is in a meeting in the study, and I'm back in my dressing room, seeking solace. It seems that everything is going wrong. Where to begin?
This morning, as I was dusting my face with rice powder, preparing to leave, I saw Bonaparte standing in the door. "The coach is ready." He had a riding crop in his hands and was twisting it, bending it. He was anxious, I knew, about going out to Saint-Germain to see my children at their schools. Certainly, I was uneasy myself. I wasn't sure how Hortense was going to take the news.
"You're not wearing your new jacket?" I asked, putting on a pair of dangling sapphire earrings. I'd changed into a long-sleeved violet gown over a dotted gauze skirt. It was a new ensemble and I was pleased with the effect, but I couldn't decide which shoes to wear my lace-up boots or my silk slippers, which went so nicely. It had stopped raining but was damp out. The boots would be more practical. "The boots," I told my scullery maid, who pushed one roughly onto my foot. I made a mental note to begin looking for a lady's maid as soon as Bonaparte left for the south.
As soon as Bonaparte left for the south, and life returned to normal.
Today, tonight and then tomorrow, I thought twenty-eight hours. Twenty-eight hours of frenetic activity, soldiers coming and going, couriers cantering into the courtyard. Twenty-eight hours of chaos. Every surface of my little house is covered with maps, journals, reports, scraps of paper with lists on them of provisions, names, numbers, schedules. Books are stacked on the dining room table, on the escritoire, by my bed. Twenty-eight more hours of his fumbling caresses and embraces. Bonaparte works and reads with intense concentration oblivious to me, to the servants and then falls upon me with a ravenous need. Twenty-eight more hours of dazed bewilderment. Who is this man I have married? Will life ever be "normal" again?
"What's wrong with this jacket?" he demanded.
"It needs mending," I said, smoothing the shoulder. The worn grey wool was pulling at the seams and the edges of the cuffs were frayed. I would have it mended, if I could ever get him out of it. If I could ever get him out of it, I might burn it, I thought, kissing his smooth cheek. "And you look so handsome in the new one." The knee-length tails helped detract from his thin legs and gave the impression of height.
He kissed me and grinned. "I'm not changing," he said, tweaking my ear.
It was a slow journey to Saint-Germain the rain had made the roads muddy so it was early afternoon by the time our carriage pulled into the courtyard of Hortense's school. I spotted her on the playing field and waved. As soon as she saw us, she dropped the ball and spun on her heels, covering her face with her hands. Was she crying? I touched Bonaparte's arm to distract him, but it was too late he'd already seen my daughter's reaction. He gazed across the playing field with a sad expression in his grey eyes.
"Something's wrong," I said. I feared what the problem might be.
"I'll wait for you inside." Bonaparte pulled down on the rim of his new general's hat. The felt was rigid yet and it sat high on his big head.
I squeezed his hand, as lovers do. "I won't be long," I promised.
The ground was soft under my feet. I could feel the damp soaking into my thin-soled boots. A spring breeze carried the scent of ploughed fields. I picked my way around the wet spots, reminding myself that Hortense was young. Reminding myself that it was normal for a girl of twelve (almost thirteen) to have a delicate sensibility, especially considering...
Especially considering what she's had to endure. It has been almost two years since the Terror, yet even now my daughter sometimes wakes screaming in the night. Even now she cannot pass the place where her father died without bursting into tears.
My niece Émilie ran to embrace me. "Is Hortense hurt?" I asked. "What's wrong?" My daughter looked so alone, hunched over by the goal post, her back to us.
"She's crying, Auntie," Émilie said, shivering, her hands pushed into the pockets of her plain woollen smock. "It's the hysterics!"
Hysterics? I'd been warned that girls of fourteen were subject to frightful convulsions, but Hortense was not yet of that age. I lifted the hem of my gown and headed toward my weeping daughter.
"Hortense?" I called out, approaching. I could see her shoulders shaking. "Darling " I reached out and touched her shoulder. Even through my gloves I could feel her bones the bones of a girl still, not yet the bones of a woman. I considered turning her, but I knew her stubborn strength. Instead, I walked around to face her.
I was startled by the haunted look in her eyes. Pink blotches covered her freckled cheeks, making her eyes seem abnormally blue her father's eyes. Her father's critical eyes, following me still. I took her cold, bare hand and pressed it to my heart. "What is it, darling?" Thinking how she'd grown in the last year, thinking that she was tall for her age, and that soon she would be as tall as I am, taller perhaps.
"I'm in afraid, Maman." A sob welled up in her.
A gust of wind rustled the leaves. My straw hat flew off my head and dangled down my back by a ribbon. It was not the answer I'd expected. "Of what?"
"That you'll marry him!"
Him: Bonaparte. I tried to speak, but could not. The words stuck in my throat. How could I tell her that the deed had been done, the vows spoken, the contract signed: Bonaparte and I were man and wife. How could I tell her that this man was now her father for better or for worse, for ever and ever. "Hortense, General Bonaparte is a kind man," I said, reprimanding her gently. "He cares for you sincerely."
"I don't care! I don't care for him." Then she hung her head, seeing the stricken look in my eyes. "I'm sorry, Maman!" She took a big breath and exhaled, blowing her cheeks out like a balloon.
I folded her in my arms. "I have to go back. Are you going to be all right?" I felt her nod against my chest. I stroked her soft golden curls. She would need time. We all would. "I'd like you and Eugène to come to Fontainebleau with me next weekend, to see Aunt Désirée and the Marquis," I said, swaying like a mother with an infant in her arms again, lulling her baby to sleep. I felt a thickening in my throat as I recalled the feel of her at birth, her tiny skull, her piercing cry. It is going to be all right, I wanted to tell her. (I want to believe it myself.) "Can you come next weekend?" Bonaparte would be gone by then.
The weathered door to the school creaked on its hinges, startling a maid who was perched on a stepladder washing the crystal candelabra. I heard Bonaparte's voice, his lecturing tone. I knocked on the door to the headmistress's study.
Madame Campan was seated behind her enormous pedestal desk covered with books and stacks of paper. The small room was furnished in the style of the Ancien Régime, ornate, musty and dark. A vase of silk lilies had been placed under the portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette. Two years ago Madame Campan would have lost her life for showing sympathy for the Queen.
The prim headmistress motioned me in without taking her eyes off her guest. Bonaparte was perched on the edge of a puce Louis XV armchair, holding a teacup and expounding on the uselessness of girls learning Latin. His saucer was swamped with coffee, I guessed, to judge by the aroma.
When he paused to take a breath, Madame Campan stood to greet me, smoothing the skirt of her gown. Dressed in black, she could have been taken for a maid but for the intricate beaded trim of the head scarf she wore, as if in perpetual mourning. "Forgive me for interrupting," I said, taking the chair beside Bonaparte. He searched my eyes for a clue. This was an awkward situation for him, I knew, a difficult situation for us both. Things were not going according to plan.
"General Bonaparte and I have been discussing education in a Republican society," Madame Campan said, pulling her head scarf forward. "It isn't often one meets a man who has given this matter thought."
I removed my gloves, tugging on each fingertip. My new gold betrothal ring caught the light. I put my hand over it and said, "General Bonaparte is a philosopher at heart, Madame Campan. He gives all matters thought." I offered Bonaparte a conciliatory little smile.
Bonaparte emptied his teacup and put the cup and saucer on the side table between us. I reached out to keep the table from tipping. "It's late," he told me, pulling out his pocket-watch. "Aren't you going to tell her?"
"Yes," I said, flushing, seeing him through a stranger's eyes: a short, thin man with a sallow complexion, lank hair, shabby attire. A coarse-spoken man with poor manners. An intense, humourless man with fiery eyes a Corsican, a Revolutionary, an opportunist. My husband. "We have an announcement to make," I told Madame Campan.
Only my closest friends knew that we'd married. I wasn't looking forward to informing my family nor my acquaintances, for that matter, many of whom would be condescending, I feared, in spite of Bonaparte's recent promotion to General-in-Chief of the Army of Italy. The genteel world would silently judge that I had married beneath me. It would be said that as a widow with two children to educate and place in the world, as an aristocrat without fortune, and indeed, as a woman over the age of thirty, I was desperate. "I that is, General Bonaparte and I have married." I took my husband's hand; it was as damp as my own.
Madame Campan sat back abruptly, as if pushed. "Why...that's marvellous," she said, with the appearance of sincerity. "What a surprise. But that's marvellous," she repeated. "When?"
"Twenty after ten last night," Bonaparte said, drumming his nails on the arm of his chair. "Twenty-two minutes after, to be exact."
"Well." Madame Campan made a small, dry cough into her fist. "Your children have been very good at keeping this secret, Madame...Bonaparte, is it now?" I nodded, grieved to hear my new name spoken, grieved to be giving up the lovely and distinguished name of Beauharnais. "No doubt Hortense and Eugène are...?" She held out her hands, palms up.
I felt my cheeks becoming heated. "That seems to be the problem. General Bonaparte and I came out to Saint-Germain today with the intention of telling my children, but..." I tried to swallow.
Madame Campan leaned forward over her desk, her hands tightly clasped. "Hortense does not know?"
"We were going to tell her just now, but she was upset, so I didn't think it wise."
"She was crying," Bonaparte said, shifting his weight.
"How curious," Madame Campan said. "She was so cheerful this morning at breakfast. Do you know why?"
How could I explain without offending Bonaparte? "Perhaps she didn't like seeing me on a man's arm," I said, stretching the truth only a little. "She's so attached to the memory of her father, as you know."
"Oh dear, yes, I see. Your daughter is...sensitive." She spoke the word with deliberate care, pressing her hands to her chin in an attitude of prayer. "She feels everything so strongly! Which is why she is gifted in the theatrical arts, I believe, and in the arts in general. She is, as I have often told you, my favourite student." She paused. "May I make a suggestion?"
"Please do! I confess I'm at a loss."
"Perhaps if I told her? Sometimes it's better that way. I could talk to both Hortense and Eugène together."
I glanced at Bonaparte. It was a coward's solution, I knew, but a solution nonetheless. "Good," Bonaparte said, standing.
After, Bonaparte and I stood silently on the bottom stone step of the school, waiting for my coach. "I guess, under the circumstances, we should consider whether or not to visit Eugène now," I said finally, looking out over the fields to Eugène's school next door. On the one hand, I hated not to see him; on the other, I owed four months' tuition. "He's not expecting us," I said, as my carriage creaked to a stop in front of us.
"Back to Paris," Bonaparte told my coachman, opening the carriage door himself. "I approve of Campan's approach," he said, climbing in after me. "She's educated, but she's not a bluestocking. And she's not proud either. I thought she was lady-in-waiting to the Queen."
The carriage pulled through the school gates. I nodded apologetically to the beggarwoman sitting in the dirt with her infant at her breast; usually I had something for her. "She was," I said, tightening my hat strings. Madame Campan had practically been raised at court. "She was in the Tuileries Palace with the royal family when it was ransacked. A man from Marseille grabbed her and was going to kill her, but someone yelled that they didn't kill women and that saved her."
"She was lucky. I approve that the girls learn to make soup and have to tidy their rooms themselves. I'll enrol my younger sisters."
Bonaparte has four brothers and three sisters my family now. "Your sisters who are living in Marseille with your mother?" In town now, we were passing the castle, a ruin, like so many.
"I'm going to move them all to Paris."
"That would be lovely," I said, smiling in spite of a pain in my side,
"How much does Campan charge?"
"For the year? Three thousand francs."
"That's ridiculous," he said, opening a book he'd been reading on the way down, the life of Alexandre the Great.
"Eugène's school is even more." And I was paying for my niece Òmilie's tuition as well or trying to. It had been a long time since I'd had any income from home. My coachman cracked his whip. I let my head fall back against the tufted upholstered seat and closed my eyes, the memory of Hortense's tears coming back to me.
"Not feeling well?"
"I'm fine," I lied.
Copyright © 1998 by Sandra Gulland