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The Last Goodbye

A reader asks, "How far ahead do you write? Do you know the end before you get there?"

Oh yes. Often I know it years and years ahead. I almost always have some kind of ending written before I write most of the book/story.

Here is (almost) the end of Elza's story, the last chapter of the last book, at least as it exists now. And yes, it echoes Hand of Isis, but in a much more positive way! I'll share this preview, and I'd love to hear what you think.



A little snow had fallen, but the night was cold and clear. A thousand stars hung over Paris.

There were guards at the gates, of course, but they had been well briefed. The sergeant looked at my papers and handed them back to me politely. “Madame,” he said. “General Corbineau said to expect you. You may pass. Do you know where you are going or do you need an escort?”

“I am quite familiar with Invalides,” I said. “So I will not need one. Thank you, Sergeant.” He was not young, this sergeant, a man in his forties, old enough to have been a Marie-Louise if he’d been called at sixteen or seventeen. I wondered what he saw when he looked at me, an old woman of sixty four in a mourning bonnet with black veils to my knees, black coat and black dress and black boots, only my face shining in the gas lights like some phantasm.

His eyes lingered curiously. “Do you know what they’re doing? Down in the Chapel of St. Jerome?” There was a hint of worry there.

“It is a prayer service,” I said. “For those who knew him. For close friends. Before the Remains come home.” The Remains, I thought. That is what we all say. As though in all France there were only one set of Remains, as once in Alexandria there was only one Body.

At that his eyes cleared a little. “Were you a close friend?” he asked, and then he flushed a little, considering how that would sound.

“Once,” I said, and put my gloved hand on his arm. That was a liaison I was proud to claim. “In Milan forty years ago. I was very beautiful then.”

“I meant….”

“I know what you meant,” I said, and smiled at him warmly. “And I am not ashamed. Rather I am proud to join these others in prayer before he seeks his final bed.”

“I meant no offense, Madame.”

“And none is taken.” I smiled again as he passed me through the gilded doors.

The corridors were empty, the gas lights turned down low so that one could not see the streaks of soot on the painted ceilings, Olympian gods and goddesses of a different era disporting themselves in pastoral bliss. Perhaps Louis XV had thought them edifying for the aging veterans this hospital and residence had been designed for. They had survived the Revolution intact. It was yet to be seen if they would survive neglect. My boots were soft soled and did not ring on the stone floors.

A phantom, yes. A phantom in dark veils making her way through corridors that were surely haunted, pale powdered face gleaming beneath the veils of the mourning bonnet. I stopped, waiting a moment in the corridor outside where I could just hear voices ahead. Tonight I was the Angel of Death, She Who Stands Before the Veil. Once, we would have called her Isis the Lady of Amenti. Today we called her the Angel of Death, and it was all the same. All the doors were open to me, all the stories I needed at hand if I but asked for them, myself and all those others who had come before me. Imperfectly, of course, as mortal flesh is not meant to house all the accumulated knowledge of the soul, but each trial, each journey into the dark gave me more, brought me closer to being the sum of my experience.

Here, in the corridor outside the Chapel of St. Jerome, not far from the dome of Invalides, I could see how that tomb would look – a great curved cenotaph on a starburst of stone floor, the marble inlay echoing what had once been done in mosaic, the dome above echoing the dome of the Soma. But it was not ready, no more than Alexander’s tomb had been ready for him.

I put a hand on a column to steady myself, seeing again for a moment that funeral procession making its way through Alexandria, the gilded hearse drawn by many horses. We would replicate that as closely as possible, day after tomorrow. I had talked to the artists who designed the hearse at Honoré-Charles Reille’s behest. “After all,” Honoré had said with a quicksilver smile that had once belonged to a Persian horse archer, “If anyone remembers the hearse, it’s you.” Which was true enough. My breath choked for a moment, and I stood in the hall regaining my composure.

There were four or five people visible through the chapel door, none of them the official chief mourners from day after tomorrow’s funeral. There was Gervais Subervie, an enormous unruly toupeé atop his head, squinting at the papers in his hand, always afraid he’d forget his lines. He was stout and sixty four and a Deputy from the Department of Eure-et-Loir as a member of the liberal opposition.

Behind him I could see Honoré arranging the candles on the altar, his glasses perched on the end of his nose. He hated them, though they’d become a necessity. He was tall and gaunt as some ancient eagle, but he still had all his own hair. Being Chief of Staff for the Cavalry suited him.

Beyond him was Corbineau, lean and slight, his uniform splendid with braid. It wasn’t long since he’d been reinstated and made general of the 16th division at Lille, the job Michel had held when I’d first met him. The Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor gleamed at his throat. He was explaining something to two men I didn’t know, probably Masonic brothers. He didn’t see me yet. “Oh Jean-Baptiste,” I whispered. “What a long and strange road we have walked together!”

There was a step behind me, a young man coming down the hall. He started when he saw me, then gathered himself up and came forward more normally. “Madame St. Elme,” he said. “You gave me a turn.”

I inclined my head. “Count Walewski.”

He would be the sem-priest, or what we once would have called the one who was to open the mouth, to speak for the dead king his final words and take onto himself the governance of the realm. We did not call it that today, of course. But it would be Alexandre who spoke the final prayers, convocation and benediction for the nation. He was the Emperor’s son. He was his only surviving child. But with these words there would be no magic, no transferal of the right to rule. This was no coronation, and he would never wear his father’s crown no matter how hard we strived.

“You look pensive,” Alexandre said. “Remembering?” He was not formal with me, but I had known him from the cradle, and we had always understood each other, Alexandre and I.

“Regretting,” I said. “Regretting my failure. I promised your parents….”

“How can you say you have failed when I stand here well and whole?” he asked. “I would be dead twice over if not for you. You promised my father there would be no more Caesarions, and here I am, thirty years old and strong and free!”

“You should be Emperor,” I said, and to my horror my eyes filled with tears.

Alexandre smiled. “Madame, do you not understand what you yourself have wrought? I don’t need to be a king.”

“What?”

He shook his head, Maria’s blue eyes and a face very like his father’s. “The age of kings is over. Parliaments and Prime Ministers, Deputies and Executives, Presidents and Congresses – no one is born a king anymore. And those who are….” He shrugged. “They become frankly irrelevant, and more so with each passing year. I don’t need to be Emperor. I’ll have far more power for far longer as a statesman than I ever would have as a figurehead on a throne. You changed the world, Madame. Accept that it is changed.”

He took my hand, and in that moment I saw it, the true future as it would be, his long life as ambassador and Minister of State through government after government. His children would see in a new century just as I had, another turn of fortune’s wheel. He would rule though he would not reign, and he would do it wisely and well.

I bent my head, and he put his arms around me just as he had when he was small, only it was he who held me to his breast. “My mother would be so happy,” he said. “She told me to trust you when I was four, that you would never fail me, and you never have. She would bless your name for all eternity. And my father…” He paused. “I don’t know what he would say. I never really knew him.”

“I know.”

“Perhaps, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’” Alexandre said.

“He wasn’t much for the Bible,” I said, and sniffled.

“I suppose not,” Alexandre said. He was silent a long time, and his arms around me were solid and real. When he spoke again his voice was quiet as a prayer. “Railroads and gas lights,” he said. “Mills and coal and steamboats. My world, our world – all of us children of the revolution – is a different one from yours. The ancien régime is history. It’s as antique as those cavorting Olympians on the ceiling. We’ll never go back. Don’t you see?”

“I do,” I said. “As surely as Alexander and his Successors changed the world, so did we. I just wish we’d changed it into a better one.”

Alexandre held me at arms’ length and looked at me. “That’s not for you to do. That’s for us. You gave us an end to absolute monarchs. You gave us universal literacy and the contract between state and people. You gave us tinned food and steam engines and ambulances and archaeology. And you gave us industrial poverty and the urban mob and guerilla warfare and now we’ve got to figure out what to do with it. But that’s not on you, Madame. That’s on us. You can’t solve all the problems for future generations. You just have to give us your best and hope we rise to the moment.”

I put my gloved hand against his cheek. “I know you will, Alexandre. I’ve always known it.”

“I will do my best,” he said solemnly. “And that’s all any man can do.” He glanced up, toward the lighted door of the chapel. Inside, Honoré was lighting the tapers on the altar. “But now we should go in. Tonight belongs to the past. Tonight and tomorrow and the next day.”

“Are for saying goodbye,” I said.

And then we would go on. We would leave them the best world we could and step into the darkness with faith that someday they would do the same for us.

Invalides autumn 1991

Invalides, Autumn 1991 photograph by me

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
cypherindigo
Feb. 11th, 2016 07:48 pm (UTC)
Yes. Another round in the dance.

I gave me/is giving me shivers up my spine.
squishydish
Feb. 14th, 2016 09:39 pm (UTC)
Ooh, very nice. Affirmative.
starry_haze
Apr. 21st, 2016 08:38 pm (UTC)
Jo, I hope all is well with you; it's been a while since your last update!
selki
May. 10th, 2016 03:25 pm (UTC)
Beautiful.

Hey did you see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-36219991 ?
"A handwritten journal found buried in an Australian bookshop is believed to be a prominent soldier's diary from the Napoleonic wars, writes Paul Carter.

Royal Engineer John Squire was an officer who fought for the British army in the Napoleonic era, but his interests extended far beyond the battlefield. "
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )