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The General's Mistress -- Meaning

A piece from The General's Mistress which seems topical to me today. Elza is twenty one, the mistress of the powerful General Victor Moreau. She has fashion and beauty and a lovely house and moves in the best society. She even has a lover who adores her and gives her anything she wants.

And yet.

She has no words for the thing she can't find.




Victor did not get a command. For three days he paced around both our houses, alternating between silence and ranting. “The Directors are imbeciles,” he said.

“Yes, Victor, I know.”

“It’s all about flash these days. They have no stomach for the kind of hard work we had to do a few years ago.”

“Yes, Victor,” I said. I refrained from saying that a few years earlier they’d beheaded generals who displeased them, rather than simply not assigning them any troops.

Victor paced all the way down to the long windows that overlooked my flowering garden. “Since that puffed-up Bonaparte signed the Treaty of Campo Formio with the Austrians, there isn’t anything to do this year. Half the army is in reserve in barracks.”

“Surely peace is a good thing,” I said, coming to the window. Ney was in camp at Lille. He had command of several cavalry divisions. I had seen all the posting lists that friends had sent Victor.

“Bah.” Victor scowled out at the gardens. “The Austrians aren’t serious. We’ll be at war again soon. And the English aren’t about to abandon the war with us, not when their navy has ours going and coming.”

I shrugged. “Perhaps a breather is good for us. Time to reform and time to train and replace. You always tell me how important it is.”

Victor leaned his forehead against the glass and said nothing.

“If it’s true that the peace won’t last, then you know that when war comes they will need more experienced generals. You simply need to wait and make sure the Directors remember you.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “You can be patient, Victor. You’re clever and you never give up. And in the meantime, so many people will have a chance to heal. Think of all the thousands of children who are glad to have their fathers home!”

Victor smirked. “You are turning into a sentimentalist, my dear. How very sweet.”

I looked at him. “Victor, I wish—” I broke off.

“What, my dear?”

“I wish you were someone who cared.”

He turned and looked at me, his brow furrowed. “I do care, my dear. I care about you, and about my friends.”

“But not about people.” I put my hands against the glass, pressing against the rain-streaked panes. “You don’t really care if thousands of children are orphaned, or if people starve, or whatever happens. It just doesn’t matter to you. I can’t explain. I’m not saying this right.”

“I am a pragmatist, my dear. I don’t believe in God and piety and charity. It was entirely corrupt, if you remember, a scam for priests to live well while doing nothing.”

“Is this all there is, then?” I looked out at the rain soaking my gorgeous tulips. “Nothing matters and there is no reason for anything?”

He put his hands on my shoulders gently. “My dear, you are softhearted. If it will make you feel better to involve yourself with some respectable charity, then by all means do it. The Fund for the Orphans of the Army of the Republic is well thought of. You may make a donation of any size you see fit. Or even engage yourself in the production of their receptions or endless bazaars. There is no reason you can't if it will make you happy.”

“It’s not about my happiness,” I said. It was hard even to find words for the thing I sought. I leaned back against his shoulder. “Surely there is more to the world than my happiness.”

Victor slid his arm around my waist. “There’s mine,” he said.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
azarias
Aug. 15th, 2012 04:27 pm (UTC)
What a charming fellow.
jo_graham
Aug. 15th, 2012 09:31 pm (UTC)
She doesn't even have words for what bothers her. After all, everyone only cares about themselves and the people they know, right? There are lots of pious platitudes, but nobody actually behaves altruistically in real life.
cadenzamuse
Aug. 16th, 2012 07:42 pm (UTC)
Ugh, what a sleezebucket. As a religious person, this also rings true to me beyond the "helping other people" to the "surely there's more to the universe"/"surely there's more than just us and now," which I imagine is another aspect that Elza will discover (uncomfortably, coming from an atheist society) coming into her own as a Companion/Oracle.
jo_graham
Aug. 16th, 2012 08:56 pm (UTC)
She really doesn't have any words for what she means beyond surely there is something more important than her own happiness? She knows in her heart there must be, but she's never actually known anyone who was sincerely altruistic. She's never known the service of anything bigger, not even sincere charity. Everyone is out for number one, or at least for those they love. Her father was dear, and she adored him, but for him the world was his family. His entire life was dedicated to supporting and protecting his wife and children, and he was, at this point in her life, the best person she's ever known. But that was where his world stopped. He was selfless in that sense -- his kids came before his own desires, and his family was his dedication. But that was the biggest thing he imagined, the biggest thing he believed in. That's not enough for Elza, even at twenty one.

You are going to love Michel, OMG.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )