Paris, 1798. Hortense de Beauharnais is engrossed in her studies at a boarding school for aristocratic girls, most of whom have suffered tragic losses during the tumultuous days of the French Revolution. She loves to play and compose music, read and paint, and daydream about Christophe, her brother's dashing fellow officer. But Hortense is not an ordinary girl. Her beautiful, charming mother, Josephine, has married Napoleon Bonaparte, soon to become the most powerful man in France, but viewed by Hortense at the outset as a coarse, unworthy successor to her elegant father, who was guillotined during the Terror.
Where will Hortense's future lie? it may not be in her power to decide.
Inspired by Hortense's real-life autobiography with charming glimpses of life long ago, this is the story of a girl destined by fate to play a role she didn't choose.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Sandra Gulland
I saw a man approaching. Cloaked and hooded, he moved with grace in the flickering candlelight.
My heart soared. Father!
He put out one hand, gloved in white leather. Hope was aglow all around him.
But then—as always—his hood fell back, and there was only a bloody stump where his head should have been.
I screamed, gasping for air, my heart pounding.
Mouse and Ém tried to calm me, but I only wept all the harder.
What did my father want? Why was he haunting me?
Maîtresse rushed into our room in rumpled nightclothes, a shawl thrown haphazardly over her shoulders. “Such screaming, angel! You’ll terrify the Little Geniuses,” she said, putting down her candle. The shadows made her face look like that of a ghoul.
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed, slipping the miniature enamel portrait of my father from under my pillow. Father: so handsome, so elegant, to have died like that, the crowd cheering as his head fell into a basket of wood shavings.
“It’s that same night-fright she always has,” Mouse told her aunt, her voice tremulous.
“That scary dream of her father,” my cousin Ém said.
I looked into Maîtresse’s eyes. She was mistress of our boarding school, quite strict and demanding, yet we all loved her. “With his—” I winced, making a slashing motion across my neck.
“Come here, my sweets,” Maîtresse said, opening her arms.
Dragging their blankets, Ém and Mouse huddled in close. I could feel Mouse trembling. We called ourselves the Fearsome Threesome, but in the dead of night, Fearful Threesome might have been more apt. “Repeat after me,” Maîtresse said, pulling the blankets snugly around us. She smelled deliciously of vanilla. “We are safe now.” “We are safe now,” we whispered in unison.
Safe now, safe now, safe now.
But were we? It had been four years since the tyrant Robespierre had been executed, bringing an end to the Terror—but what if it were to happen again? Practically every girl in our school was of the nobility. What was to keep us from being hunted down, having our heads cut off?
I bit my lip, recalling the stench of the dead, heaped like garbage in the square.
Maîtresse clasped my shoulder. The strength of her grip brought me back. “You grew up in a violent time,” she said, her voice soft. “You witnessed things no child should ever have to see. But memories are like words on a wax tablet: they can be erased. You are smart, and creative, and talented. You can become whatever you wish, but first, you must learn to direct your thoughts—even your dreams.” She tucked a stray strand of my hair back up under my nightcap. “Remember: you are safe now.”
I woke before dawn, my thoughts in disarray, my heart aching.
Father, must you frighten me so?
Was I the cause of your death?
I whispered my morning devotions curled up under my blankets, praying that I would never have that dream again.
Praying for the safety of my big brother Eugène, who was a soldier now, fighting with our stepfather’s army in far-away Egypt.
Praying that my stepfather, General Bonaparte, would somehow disappear from my life, lost to the sands of that barbaric country.
Praying that I would become a better person and not have such evil thoughts.
Praying that my mother would stop trying to find a husband for me.
Praying for a horse of my own.
Praying for one of Maîtresse’s delicious chocolate madeleines.
And then, especially heartfelt, praying—sinfully, I know—for the safety of A Certain Someone who was also with the General’s army in Egypt.
Dawn breaking, I slipped shivering out of bed and wrapped myself in a shawl. Quietly, so as not to wake Ém and Mouse, I put kindling and a few sticks of wood on the embers in the fireplace, blowing until they caught fire. I heard a rooster crow and tiptoed to the window to unlatch the shutters. It was cold for early fall—there was a shimmer of frost on the courtyard cobbles.
My thick notebooks were stacked to one side on the study table I shared with Ém and Mouse. I’d been away for three months, tending my injured mother. I had missed the Institute so much! I had been enrolled at only twelve, shortly after my father was executed and Maman released from prison. Now I was fifteen, Maman was married to General Bonaparte, and my brother was on the General’s staff in Egypt.
Time passed so quickly. And death came quickly, too.
I heard a maid walking the halls, clanging her iron triangle with a metal beater, a grating, high-pitched ringing sound. Six o’clock: time for everyone to wake.
Ém groaned, pulling her covers up over her head.
“Did you sleep, Hortense?” Mouse asked, her voice groggy.
“A bit,” I said, yawning. It had taken me time to get back to sleep after the fright of my dream.
Ém chuckled from under her covers. “You kept me awake the rest of the night,” she said, poking her head out. “Talking lovey.”
“No!” I said—yet flushing. I shared everything with Ém and Mouse, everything except one secret, which I’d not had the courage to reveal, knowing how foolish they would find me. Me, fifteen, not pretty, not rich, moonsick for the most handsome of the General’s aides. A man I’d only seen a few times and who was now far away in Egypt. A man who hardly knew my name.
“You have a beau?” Mouse asked with that funny little squeak her voice sometimes got.
“I’d tell you if I did,” I said, pulling my clothes out of my travel trunk, yet to be unpacked. It wasn’t a lie, not really. I didn’t have a beau. I only wished I did. One beau in particular.
The triangle sounded a second time, in warning: Get up! “Your turn to go first, Ém,” Mouse said, not wanting to leave the warmth of her bed. Soon we would be on our winter schedule and not have to rise until seven.
Ém, sighing in protest, slipped from under her covers, grabbed her chamber pot and disappeared behind the screen. “Ah me,” she said, “the reds.”
“Do you have what you need?” I asked. “There are cloths here,” Ém said.
There was a rap at our door. “Citoyenne Hortense, you’re back,” maid Flor said, surprised to see me.
“She arrived last night,” Mouse said from under her covers. “In the dark.”
“How is your lovely mother?” Flor asked, filling each of our porcelain wash basins with steaming water.
“Improved.” Grâce à Dieu. “She can stand up now.”
As soon as Flor left, the triangle clanged a third time: Get dressed!
Mouse sat up, groping for her spectacles on the table beside her bed.
“It’s a bit chilly,” I said, slipping on my flannel chemise and a wool school gown over it. The long white dress was starting to feel small for me around the chest. (Yes.)
I was arranging my multicolored sash—the sash worn by those of us who had completed all the levels (the Multis, we were called)—when another servant appeared, the country girl who worked in the laundry room. “A frosty morning, girls. Émilie, you will want your lovely shawl. I stitched on your initials and number.” She closed the door behind her.
“It’s new, Ém?” I asked, passing the shawl over to her. A delicate shade of rose, the thick, luxurious cashmere was well beyond our means.
“It was a gift from her husband,” Mouse said with a giggle.
Her husband. That sounded so strange to me. Ém had been introduced to Captain Antoine Lavalette only sixteen days before marrying him, all arranged by the General and my mother. A few days later, Lavalette had left for Egypt, and shortly after that, I had gone south, and I’d not seen my cousin since.
“It’s beautiful,” I said with envy.
Ém looked stricken, her doe eyes glistening. “I prefer my old one,” she said, pulling her moth-eaten, itchy wool shawl out of her trunk.
I caught Mouse’s eye. She raised her eyebrows as if to say, I don’t understand either.
“Don’t look like that,” Ém said with a flare of surprising emotion. She was usually placid (unlike Mouse and me). “I hate how everyone goes on about me being a married woman.”
“But Ém, you are a—”
“I’m not,” she said, cutting me off. “Not really.”
How could she say that? I had been present at the ceremony in our grandparents’ house here in Montagne-du-Bon-Air.
“What do you mean, Ém?” Mouse asked, pushing up her heavy glasses.
“It’s just that I’m still . . .” Ém flushed.
“Chaste?” I whispered.
Ém answered with a slight nod.
I was surprised. It was common for girls who married young to wait until puberty before consummating their union, but Ém was seventeen, and womanly besides.
When the seven o’clock triangle sounded, Mouse, Ém and I rushed down the stone stairs to the rooms where the Little Geniuses slept, some of them only four years old. One of our duties as Multis was to help a youngster get washed, dressed and to the dining hall each morning. I hadn’t seen my charge, Nelly, since early summer, and I missed her.
Ém and Mouse headed for the first room, and I carried on to the second, a warm south-facing chamber with a good-sized fireplace. The six little beds were lined up along one wall, basins for washing at each foot. On a platform at the end of the room was the tidy bed of the night monitor, Citoyenne Florentine—who was nowhere to be seen. I waved a greeting to the other Multis, busy with their charges.
“Hortense!” Nelly hugged my legs.
“You’re so big now!” She looked irresistibly sweet in her long- sleeved nightdress and cap.
“I’m going to be five,” she boasted, holding up one hand, fingers splayed.
Her friend Fru-fru was sitting on the bed next to Nelly’s, looking forlorn.
“Where’s your helper?” I asked, nodding to three Multis who were already leaving for the dining hall with their charges.
Fru-fru scowled. “I don’t know.”
“What’s her name?”
Who was Caroline? I didn’t know one.
“I can dress myself,” Nelly boasted, trying to heft open her trunk. I propped the lid so that it wouldn’t crash down on her hands. “Citoyenne Florentine told us to wear our wool smock,” she said. “Because it’s so cold.”
The fire had died down, and I didn’t see any wood. “Where is she?” Usually, the monitor was hovering.
“She went to find Caroline,” Fru-fru said.
“Petticoat,” Nelly demanded, making a shivering motion. “Petticoat, please,” I said, checking the contents of Nelly’s trunk, making sure that everything was properly labeled: NC (for Nelly Castille) 276 (her student number).
“Petticoat, please,” Nelly said, pulling off her night stockings. I slipped a flannel petticoat on over her head. “Somebody saw the ghost last night,” she said excitedly.
The ghost? “There is no such thing.” Maîtresse warned us against superstitions born of ignorance. My mother believed in ghosts, but she was unschooled.
“There is! It has a beard. A girl upstairs saw it.”
“We heard her screaming,” Fru-fru said, hugging her pillow. “That was me,” I told them with a laugh.
“You saw the ghost with a beard?” Nelly’s eyes were round as wagon wheels.
“It wasn’t a ghost,” I said, fastening Nelly’s green school sash. “It was a dream I had that frightened me.”
“I want a purple sash,” Nelly said.
“You’ll get to go up to the Purple level when you know the difference between an M and an N.”
“But M and N look the same.”
“You’ll learn. In three months everyone in the school will take an exam to see who is ready to move up a level. If you don’t pass, you can try again three months later. Can you say your letters for me?” I asked, to distract her while I combed out her fine hair, in need of a trim.
She had almost got to L (with help) when Citoyenne Florentine appeared. “Still no sign of Caroline?” she asked Fru-fru.
“Who is Caroline?” I asked. The room was almost empty now. Florentine snorted with amusement. “General Bonaparte’s sister.”
“Annunziata? But her name’s not Caroline.”
“She changed it,” Florentine said with an exasperated roll of her eyes.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Bonapartes, who were from Corsica, seemed to like changing their names. Buonaparte had been changed to Bonaparte and Napoleone to Napoleon. One of the brothers, Luciano, had changed his name twice, first to Brutus and then to Lucien. The General had even made Maman change her name from Rose to Josephine! And now Annunziata had changed to Caroline? How they all kept track was beyond me.
“And this is the fifth time she’s been late.” Citoyenne Florentine took a notebook and wooden pencil out of her hemp bag and made a notation.
Uh-oh. A demerit? “I can help dress Fru-fru.” I wondered how many demerits Annunziata-now-Caroline had. Twelve in a month and she would have to eat alone at the Repentance Table. One good mark erased two bad ones, though, so maybe she was in the clear. “Nelly is almost ready.”
“Good, I have to get wood for the fire,” Florentine said, heading back out.
“I’m ready now.” Nelly turned, beaming.
“Not quite.” She had put her smock on backward.
As the triangle for breakfast sounded, Annunziata-now-Caroline appeared.
“Where were you?” Fru-fru demanded, pulling on her woolen socks.
“Mind your own business,” she said, without an apology for being so late.
“Good morning,” I said, forcing a smile. She was, after all, a member of my family now, like it or not. “I’m told you changed your name to Caroline.”
“So?” She had a negligent air that seemed almost wanton, in spite of her cherubic appearance, her fat cheeks and rosy complexion.
“It’s a pretty name.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“There you are,” Citoyenne Florentine said, a load of firewood in her arms. “Hortense, go ahead to the dining hall with Fru-fru and Nelly,” she said, setting the wood down on the hearth. “I need to have a word with Caroline.”
The dining hall was a large, cavernous room big enough to seat all the students—over two hundred and seventy of us, at last count. The tables were covered with bright cloths that matched the color of the different levels: green, purple, orange, blue, red, white and multi-colored. An enormous fire was roaring. Scents of freshly baked bread and fried pork filled the air. I’d missed the delicious food at the Institute. Ém and Mouse were with the Multis by the door to the cellar kitchens. I gave them our silly Fearsome Threesome greeting, wiggling my fingers at my forehead. They wiggled their fingers back, which always made me laugh.
Nelly and Fru-fru made their way to the long, low table covered with a green cloth and stood at their places. “Good girls.” I kissed them both and headed for the corner where the Multis stood, ready to serve.
“Hortense, welcome back,” the dining hall monitor said, stopping me. “I’d like you to read this morning.” She handed me a note with the inspirational reading Maîtresse had chosen for the day.
“Happily,” I said, turning toward the lectern at the front of the hall. The monitor rang a brass bell and all the girls sat down, their chairs making a racket in the cavernous room. Another shake of the bell and everyone bowed their heads.
The Inspiration, as usual, was one Maîtresse had written. This one was about finding the confidence to dream big dreams, and having the courage to fail.
A quiet descended over the room as I read, everyone rapt— until Annunziata-now-Caroline came in, noisily bumping into tables and chairs. Everyone turned to gawk, then titter, as she crashed her way to the small table directly in front of the lectern: the Repentance Table.
Oh no! I thought.
But Caroline didn’t seem to care one way or another. With an expression of indifference, she plopped herself into the chair, placing the framed notice of her crimes in front of her, as if she’d won a prize.
I finished the reading, rushing through it. “Life, liberty and equality,” everyone responded in a murmur at the end.
“Amen!” Caroline snorted, chewing on a thumbnail.
Flustered, I stepped down from the lectern and joined the Multis. Like clockwork we fanned out, some carrying bowls heaped with warm rolls, others with platters of cheese or cold meats, and some, like me, with pitchers. But for the sound of cutlery and plates, footsteps, whispers and the occasional ill-suppressed giggle, everyone ate in silence.
After serving the girls in White, I headed to the Repentance Table with a pitcher of coffee in one hand and hot milk in the other. Café au lait? I gestured silently, holding up the jugs.
“I prefer cognac,” Caroline said with a fake innocent smile. “But eau de vie might do—as you and any other drunk would know.” This in a voice loud enough to carry.
A pox on your perfect teeth! I thought, walking quickly away, resisting a temptation to upend both pitchers over her head.
As soon as everyone had finished eating (everyone but us servers), the monitor rang her bell. In unison, the girls stood, pushed in their chairs and filed out, beginning with the youngest.
I smiled to see Nelly turn at the door and curtsy. Well done, I nodded, and her cheeks blotched pink.
Table by table, in order by level, the girls followed, passing by the Repentance Table, some pausing to read the note listing Caroline’s offenses. In the end, she stood and followed them out. At the door, she pulled up her gown and stuck out her naked backside at us.
“Did you see that?” Mouse said, sitting down next to me. Kitchen maids were setting full bowls, platters and pitchers along the length of the two long Multi tables.
“Kind of hard to miss,” I said under my breath. We were supposed to eat in silence as well, but the rule was laxer when it was only the Multi servers. “You didn’t tell me she changed her name.”
“You didn’t know?” Mouse said, slathering butter and peach preserves on a roll.
“Is it true she demanded cognac?” Ém asked, helping herself to ham and cheese.
I was near faint with hunger. “And she called me a drunkard. What’s this about a ghost at school? Both Nelly and Fru-fru were on about it.”
Mouse leaned in close. “Someone in Red—” Ém made a sign of caution: quiet!
I glanced up to see the dining hall monitor headed toward us. “Hortense, Maîtresse Campan would like to see you.”
“Now?” I’d yet to eat a bite.
Maîtresse Campan’s study was my idea of heaven on earth. It even had a smell I loved, leather with a hint of almonds. Book-filled shelves lined the walls and there were stacks of books on every surface: on the windowsills, on the big table she used as a desk and even on the floor. It was different from my mother’s house in Paris, where there was hardly a book to be found.
“Welcome back.” Maîtresse’s housemaid, Claire, hugged me. She was not much taller than a ten-year-old, but round as a hoop. “Maîtresse will be right with you. Would you like a coffee?”
I needed something to perk me up.
A warm cup in hand, I examined Maîtresse’s books. Many of the titles were familiar, on subjects I had studied: histories of France, Spain and some other countries, including England (a country we were forever at war with). There was also a new book on Egypt, I noticed. And then there were the texts on meditations, harmonies and fables—I loved those subjects. Geography, Greek literature and mythology. Etiquette and the art of conversation. There was a dense tome, as well, on grammar and logic, and a few religious texts, which surprised me. Maîtresse insisted on our religious education—I had even been confirmed—but she took care not to do so openly. She had had problems with government authorities in the early years of the school and had to close down the chapel (or, rather, disguise it as a storage shed).
I heard the creaking of a hinge and turned to see Maîtresse closing the door behind her. She was dressed simply in black mourning for her husband, who had died the year before. Her face was lined, plain and unpowdered, her eyes radiant.
“Good morning, my angel,” she said.
I loved that she called me her angel. She had endearing names for all of us girls, but I was her only angel. It made me feel special.
She enfolded me in her vanilla-scented embrace. “How are you this morning?”
“It’s wonderful to be back.” I had missed the Institute, and her especially, but of course I was too shy to say so.
“A health spa for the infirm is not a place for a young and lively spirit,” she said with a loving smile. “Were you able to get back to sleep last night, after that dream? You don’t seem”—she made sparkle- fingers—“your usual effervescent self.”
It was impossible to hide my feelings from Maîtresse. She always somehow knew. “It’s not that.” At least not entirely. “Annunziata got punished this morning. Caroline, I mean. She had to eat at the Repentance Table.”
Maîtresse let out an exasperated sigh. “I know.”
“But she was a bit—well, she acted horribly toward me, and then she did something offensive to the Multis.” I told her what had happened. “That girl,” she said. “She’s like a wild creature, feral almost. If only I knew what she wanted. Do you know? Does she ever say?”
“We don’t exactly have conversations.” To say the least.
“I appreciate that you try.” She gestured to the divan by the crackling fire. “I sent for you because I think it time we talked about this dream you keep having,” she said, arranging the down pillows to make us comfortable. She sat down, patting the place beside her.
I settled in—a little apprehensively, in truth. I had had many a talk with Maîtresse on that blue damask divan, most rather tearful.
It was there she’d informed me that my mother had married General Bonaparte, a man so stern and humorless he frightened me to death. Not long after, Maîtresse had broken the news to me that Maman had gone to Italy to be with the General, and that I wouldn’t see her for a very long time. If ever.
“You woke some of the young ones last night,” Maîtresse said, refilling my cup with coffee. “Sugar?” She put in two heaping spoonfuls. “They thought you saw a ghost,” she added with a smile.
“Nelly and Fru-fru told me.” Although they had talked of “the” ghost—not “a” ghost.
“Foolishness, of course,” Maîtresse said.
“Of course,” I echoed, although seeing my father in that dream had been rather like seeing a ghost—or so I imagined it might be, having never actually seen one. Not that ghosts existed.
I was about to ask if anything curious had happened at the Institute while I was away, something that might have prompted the girls to imagine a ghost, when Maîtresse asked, “Have I ever told you I once met your father?”
“I was thinking of it this morning, because of these.” She propped her feet up on the tapestry footstool, displaying red silk slippers, exquisitely embroidered with gold thread.
So rare. So elegant.
“They were a gift to me from the Queen.”
I glanced up at the portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette on the wall. She had been one of the first to be beheaded. Maîtresse had been her trusted attendant up until the end. It was a miracle she had survived the slaughter.
“That painting does not do Her Majesty justice,” Maîtresse observed. “It fails to capture her wit, her vivacious spirit. Actually, you remind me of her,” she said, giving me a playful nudge. “I’m writing a memoir about my years at Court, and wearing these slippers brings it all back. This morning I recalled seeing your father dance at a magnificent ball. This was long before the Revolution, before you were born. Your father had the honor of dancing with the Queen.”
Why did I not know about this? “They opened the ball with a minuet.”
Ah, the minuet! I would have loved to have seen that. The minuet was my favorite because it was so elegant, every move precise. It was rare to see it danced well anymore, or even danced at all. It took years of schooling to perform properly.
“And this was a traditional minuet, which could last for over an hour. The rare times we see a minuet danced today, it’s far shorter. Your father was the best dancer in Paris. That’s why you dance so exquisitely, no doubt.”
The awful dream image suddenly came back to me, my father’s white-gloved hand, his hood falling back. I put my cup down with a clatter.
“Calm,” Maîtresse said, her hand on my back.
I took three deep breaths, as she had taught me. “I’m fine,” I said, swallowing.
“Did you have this dream while you were away?”
“Twice,” I replied, then paused. Someone had begun to play the pianoforte.
“And it’s always the same?” Maîtresse asked.
“It might help to write down memories of your father.”
“Maman says I shouldn’t think about him because it disturbs me so much.” Yet the dream persisted.
“How is she doing?”
“She’s recovering well. At first, I had to feed her like a baby. She couldn’t hold a spoon.”
“But she’s walking now?”
“Yes, although . . .” Whoever was playing the pianoforte was playing it exquisitely, passionately, yet with a light touch. If only I could play like that, I thought. “Although with difficulty.”
“News of the General’s victories must have cheered her—the capturing of Malta, the landing at Alexandria, the triumphant Battle of the Pyramids.”
“Yes. And yet the celebrations were a strain on her.” And me. So boring.
“Any news of your charming brother?”
I grimaced. “Eugène is a negligent letter-writer.” It didn’t sound quite like the pianoforte, but what else could it be?
“You must worry.”
“I do,” I burst out. Eugène was two years older than me, yet I had somehow always felt older, coaching him on lessons and helping him prepare for exams. And now he was far away, fighting savages in a land of plague. I got weak with fear thinking about it. “Who is that playing?” I asked, changing the subject. The music had a fragile elusiveness.
“That’s our new music instructor, Citoyen Hyacinthe Jadin. He’s young, only twenty-two.”
“I don’t recognize the piece.”
“It’s one of his newer compositions.”
“He’s a composer?” I couldn’t imagine anything more amazing than creating a piece of music.
“And a genius, in my opinion,” Maîtresse said. “I don’t use that word lightly, believe me. He teaches girls at the Conservatory in Paris, but I persuaded him to come out here now and again to give private lessons. He’s penniless, so he agreed. I told him he could have use of our piano, which was another incentive.”
“The pianoforte, you mean?”
“Ah! But of course—you weren’t here. Our generous benefactor, Citoyen Rudé, donated a piano to the school. So very kind of him.”
“It’s similar to a pianoforte, but with a broader range. It can reach to seven octaves.” She paused, a finger raised. “Hear that?”
I did. Also, the tone was more fluid.
“It has eighty-eight keys, twenty-two more than a pianoforte. I’m told that both Haydn and Beethoven have begun to compose on one.”
The music stopped and started, stopped and started, as if he was repeating a measure, trying to perfect it.
“I’ve been reserving a place in his teaching schedule for you,” she said.
“Maîtresse Campan, I’m afraid that—I can’t, at least right now.” Private lessons cost extra. “My mother is short of funds, because of all her medical expenses.” The truth was that my stepfather had arranged for his brother Joseph to give Maman an allowance while he was away, but Joseph refused to cover her medical expenses, claiming that her treatments were not the family’s responsibility. So mean.
“Your mother and I will sort it out when she gets back to Paris. It’s only that . . .” Maîtresse put her hand on my shoulder. “Music is one of your talents, angel, and Jadin is the best teacher in the country. I’ll introduce you to him once you’re settled.”
The pendulum clock chimed the hour and the music stopped. “Goodness! I neglected to offer you something to eat. You must be starved.”
She rang the service bell and Claire appeared holding a serving platter.
Chocolate madeleines? My prayer had been answered.
I was finishing my fifth chocolate madeleine when there was a rap on the door. I brushed the crumbs off my bodice. It was the woman who looked after the office on the ground floor. Citoyenne Hawk, we students called her, for she patrolled who came and went.
“Three government inspectors are here,” she told Maîtresse, her voice timorous.
Aïe. A jolt of fear went through me. Anything to do with government officials brought back unpleasant memories.
“They showed up unexpectedly,” Hawk said, adjusting her wooden false teeth, which tended to slip.
“As they are wont to do,” Maîtresse said, ringing her service bell. “Bring me my garden smock,” she told Claire when she reappeared. “And leather boots,” she added, glancing down at her aristocratic slippers.
She stood and turned the portrait of the Queen to the wall. On the backside was a copy of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. I smiled at her clever ruse. “What about—?” I pointed to the books on religion.
“And there’s a new student, Maîtresse Campan,” Hawk went on, throwing up her hands. “I’ve put her in the accounts office. Her name is Eliza Monroe.”
“Ah, the daughter of the American ambassador,” Maîtresse said, scooping up the religious texts. “I was expecting her and her mother this afternoon.” She slid back a wall panel to reveal a hidden compartment.
“The mother sent her regrets.”
Maîtresse slid the panel closed. One would never have guessed that it wasn’t part of the wall. “Hortense, angel? Would you mind showing the new girl around while I see to the inspectors?”
I curtsied and took my leave, remembering not to bound down the stairs two at a time. I would be sixteen in the spring: I needed to learn to act like a lady.
HENRY AND ELIZA
The accounts office was a musty closet on the ground floor, crammed with papers and ledgers. The door had to be forcefully opened, its rusty hinges creaking.
“I am Mademoiselle Eliza Monroe,” the new girl said in stilted French, closing a ledger and jumping up to make a perfunctory curtsy. Her hair was russet and her pinched face was covered with freckles. She had a missing front tooth. “And this is Henry,” she said, clutching a ratty stuffed animal.
Henry looked like a cat. Maybe.
I glanced back toward the foyer. No sign of the inspectors. “Welcome to the Institute. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“I am the equivalent.” Eliza frowned. “Enraptured? Beguiled?” Her French vocabulary was somewhat archaic.
“I am Citoyenne Hortense Beauharnais,” I said. “I’m to show you around and explain the rules.”
“I am seven and three-quarters and two days of age,” Eliza prattled on, sucking the tip of one of her long braids. “I am from America. The New World.”
“You should know that we don’t say mademoiselle here anymore,” I said, refraining from taking the braid out of her mouth. Her hair would have to be cut short. We weren’t allowed to grow our hair long until we were twelve years of age. That way the roots remained strong and our hair wouldn’t fall out with an attack of fever. “We say citoyenne.” As a Multi, my role was to instruct younger ones on proper etiquette.
“What if I declare in an erroneous manner?”
“We chop off your head.” And then I felt simply terrible. She was a child, after all. What had come over me? “I’m sorry! That was a jest.” Although it wasn’t funny, not funny at all.
We began with the privies (of which Eliza expressed an urgent need, due to the rather long carriage ride out from Paris), followed by the eleven classrooms. They were all in use, so we didn’t go in.
“This edifice is analogous to a citadel,” Eliza said with a shiver.
The stone halls were cold, in summer.
“It’s a château that used to be owned by a wealthy family.” I wondered where Maîtresse and the inspectors were. “We even have a ballroom and a theater.” And a chapel, disguised as a storeroom. I hoped the inspectors wouldn’t discover it. They could shut down a school for the slightest of reasons. “It’s hundreds of years old.” And in a state of disrepair, like everything.
“In America, all is new,” Eliza said, noting a shattered window that had been boarded over.
The door to the Blue class swung open and students filed out, chattering but orderly, walking two by two.
“Hortense,” several girls called out.
“Is it true you saw the ghost?” one asked.
Eliza clutched her stuffed cat. “In America, we do not have ghosts. We have witches.”
“It wasn’t a ghost,” I assured her. “And we don’t have ghosts or witches here. Everyone, this is Citoyenne Eliza Monroe. She’s from America.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Miss Eliza,” a girl said slowly, in English.
“Salutations,” Eliza responded. “But I am Citoyenne.”
“Eliza’s French is quite good,” I said. Sort of. In an odd way. “Hortense!”
Mouse and Ém were coming down the hall. I introduced them both to Eliza, explaining who she was.
“And this is Henry,” Eliza said.
“To meet you pleased,” Ém said in rather poor English.
“You will love it here,” Mouse said, pushing up her glasses, which tended to slip down to the tip of her nose.
“Indubitably,” Eliza said, swinging Henry by his tail.
“Everyone does,” Ém assured her. (Everyone except Caroline, I thought with chagrin.) “Hortense, there’s a letter from Maîtresse to the Multis on the notice board.”
“We have to decide on a virtue,” Mouse said. “And a fault,” Ém said, rolling her big eyes.
“Multis?” Eliza rolled her eyes up, as if searching her brain. “We’re Multis,” I explained. “See how our sashes are multicolored?” A triangle sounded. “Speaking of virtues, we must not be late for Latin,” Mouse said, and she and Ém rushed off.
“Rodent is a singular name,” Eliza observed in the silence that followed.
“Her real name is Adèle Auguié,” I said, heading toward the north wing. “She’s Maîtresse Campan’s niece.” And my dearest friend.
“You mean Mrs. Campan, the boss of this school?” Eliza asked in English.
It took me a moment to recall that the English word “boss” likely meant “master.” “Maîtresse Campan,” I corrected her, “and yes, this is her school.” Maîtresse was much more than a “boss,” as I understood the word to mean. The Institute was entirely her creation. “And Mouse is her niece. The other girl, Émilie—”
“The beauteous one?”
“She’s my cousin.” Ém had always been known as “the beautiful one,” especially when compared to me. “She’s seventeen, and married—”
Eliza screwed up her nose in such horror I had to laugh.
“Her husband is with the army in Egypt,” I explained. “She lives at school because she doesn’t have a family.”
“Well—no mother and father, to live with, anyway.” It was hard to explain. “Her father fled France during the Revolution.” Fled for his life. Poor Ém didn’t know if he was alive. “And her mother is . . . away.” That was a tactful way of saying that Ém’s mother had lost her wits in prison, and that she and her new husband (her former prison guard) wanted little to do with her.
“We correspondingly had a revolution in America,” Eliza said, taking care not to step on the lines between the floor tiles.
“Yes, but ours turned violent during a phase called the Terror, and a lot of people were executed.” I heard children singing.
“Is that a joke also?”
“It’s not,” I said, my throat tight. It sounded like the Red class. “So, consequently, girls who don’t have a family live at the Institute all year, even during the holidays.”
The Chosen we called them. Ém was part-Chosen because she sometimes stayed with Maman and me, and sometimes with our grandparents here in Montagne-du-Bon-Air. I was sort of part-Chosen too, because my father was dead and Maman was usually somewhere far away with the General. In two and a half years, she’d only been back home for four months, which was why the Institute was really my home (and why Maîtresse was kind of a mother to me). The Reds began to sing “La Marseillaise,” the patriotic Revolutionary song. Ah—to impress the inspectors, no doubt. “This is the dining hall,” I said, crossing to the doors that led to the cellars. “And this is the way down to the kitchens.” Government officials made me uneasy. I couldn’t help but remember the night they had taken Maman to jail.
“You need to see them because we’re taught how to cook.”
Eliza stopped on the landing, holding Henry by the neck (strangling him). “Slaves do not perform that function?”
“We have a cook, but Maîtresse Campan believes it’s important that we learn to look after ourselves. We make our own beds and tidy our rooms, sew our own smocks and sashes, cook—”
“In America, slaves perform all that,” Eliza informed me with a somewhat snobbish tone. As if we in France weren’t as advanced.
“Slavery is against the law here,” I said.
Her eyes went wide. “No slaves?”
“Not since the Revolution. We believe in equality.”
“In America, likewise!”
“Equality for all,” I said, swinging open the heavy door.
“Well, look who’s here,” Berthe, the head cook, called out, turning from the cooking range set into the massive fireplace. Mounds of dough had been set to rise on a table beside her, ready for baking once the big ovens were stoked. The scent of roast chicken made me hungry again, in spite of the five chocolate madeleines I’d just eaten. “Citoyenne Hortense?” The scullery girl was holding a heavy enameled kettle in one hand and a laden baking tray in the other.
“We heard you were back.”
A lanky boy looked up from scrubbing down roasting pans, his hands black. He turned from his task to grin.
“We were talking about you yesterday,” the scullery girl said. “We’ve decided we’re going to vote for you to get the next Rose of Virtue,” Berthe said.
“Again,” said the scullery maid, grinning gap-toothed.
“You’re all too kind.” Although of course I was delighted. “But the vote won’t be for three months. That gives me plenty of time to disappoint you,” I said, and they laughed.
Eliza was standing beside me, staring.
“I’d like to introduce you all to the newest addition to the Institute. This is Citoyenne Eliza Monroe.” I leaned down to whisper in Eliza’s ear, “Curtsy.”
“But she is a Negro,” she said, indicating Berthe.
“Do as I say!” I murmured, one hand forcefully on her thin shoulder.
She made a little dip. The kitchen staff returned the courtesy with welcoming smiles, unaware of our exchange.
“We must be moving on,” I said, mortified. I gathered that in America civilities weren’t granted to someone like Berthe.
“What is the Flower of Righteousness?” Eliza demanded, stomping up the stairs.
“The Rose of Virtue?” I paused before explaining, listening. All was quiet. “It’s a silk rose, a prize for—well, for just being a worthy person. It’s awarded every three months to a student in each level. Everyone votes—all the students, the teachers, and the staff.” There was no sign of the inspectors, grâce à Dieu.
“Have you acquired it yet? This flower?”
“Twice.” If I won the prize again, I would get a beautiful porcelain vase embossed with my name and the date.
“I aspire to attain it,” Eliza declared, pressing Henry to her heart. “That’s good, Eliza.” I spotted Maîtresse’s letter to the Multis in the upper right corner of the notice board. “But you will have to be respectful to everyone—even the servants,” I said, taking her hand and setting off. Maîtresse’s letter was long. I would come back later.
“Especially the cook,” I said, then stopped so abruptly that Eliza bumped into me.
Aïe. Standing by the fountain in the foyer were Maîtresse and the three inspectors.
“Ah, Hortense,” Maîtresse called out before I could turn around. She looked charming in her garden smock and work boots. “Citoyens,” she said, addressing the men, “I’d like you to meet one of my best students, General Bonaparte’s stepdaughter, Citoyenne Hortense Beauharnais.”
“The illustrious General Bonaparte!” the portly one of the three exclaimed.
“And this is Miss Eliza Monroe, daughter of the American ambassador James Monroe,” Maîtresse said.
“Ah,” the men said, in unison, for America, the land of revolutionary freedom and equality, was much admired.
“My father is going to be President of the United States,” Eliza boasted. (An absurd declaration!) “And I am Citoyenne, not Miss,” she added. “If you say Miss they will chop off your head.”
“A jest, Citoyens!” I said, tugging on Eliza’s hand. “We must be going. I hope you continue to enjoy your visit.”
“Your father is the boundless general?” Eliza demanded as I dragged her away.
“Stepfather,” I said, opening the door to Hawk’s office, and closing it behind us.
Table of Contents
A Historical Note xiii
i Refuge 1
ii Life Force 47
iii Deceit 83
iv Transformation 131
v Happy Times 163
vi Change 209
vii New Possibilities 257
viii Romantic Fantasies 301
The Revolutionary Calendar 353
Cast of Characters 354
The Game of Hope 366