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Time to share another piece from The General's Mistress as we grow closer to bound galleys! This piece is from the second chapter. It's 1795. In France the Terror has recently run its course, and in Holland a teenaged bride named Elza hears the sound of distant drums....

This is for selenak, my favorite Bamberger!

The second week in November we were invited to a dinner party at the house of the French minister, a man named Legros who had somehow managed to keep his footing despite all the changes of government in the last two years.

Since the storming of the Bastille in Paris six years ago, France had gone through one tumult after another, government after government rising and falling. There had been the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre and other radical leaders of the Revolution, who had put the king and queen to death before their own fall and execution. Now there was a new government in place, less than two months old, the Directory, in which two houses of representatives elected five men to hold executive power. How that would fare we did not know, but it could scarcely be worse than the Committee of Public Safety had been. Overall, more than thirty thousand people in France had died in the Terror.

Half the world was at war with France since they had done away with monarchy, but in Holland we were France's allies -- their only allies except the United States, but that little republic was too weak and too far away to be of any importance. Our new revolutionary government replaced the autocratic rule of the Prince of Orange and enjoyed wide popular support. Our new leaders were to be elected, and the first written constitution we had ever had was in the works, promising a national assembly that would govern with the consent of the people. My husband hoped to be among its members when it convened in a few months. However, doing so required a great deal of playing politics, because though he spent freely from my dowry, he was not particularly distinguished as a jurist. In fact, he had not gained any notability at all on his own merits.

For the dinner party I wore a dress that my new dressmaker in Lille had sworn was the latest style from France, a white gown with no panniers or frame at all, with nothing beneath it but a soft corset and a chemise. While it certainly covered everything my older clothes had, it was so much lighter that standing in front of the mirror I bobbed and swooped like a little girl. I could move my legs! I was in no danger of falling over! The little flat slippers that went with it were nothing but thin leather drawn together and embroidered. I could have climbed trees or ladders in those shoes. I could run.

My maid put my hair up in the newest style, two gentle knots at the back of my neck, a tendril on each side escaping and curled with an iron to cascade over my shoulder in artful disarrangement à la Lucréce.

I went down and met Jan, who characteristically had nothing to say except on the subject of politics.

“I am going to talk with Citizen Legros,” he said. “Pray be charming and keep others entertained who might have the same idea.”

“I will,” I said, “As much as the seating arrangements will allow. If I’m half the table from you again there won’t be much I can do.”

And of course I was. Jan was up at the top of the table to the left of our hostess, with Legros opposite. I was two thirds of the way down, next to our host’s son and the younger, gayer people who reigned supreme at that end of the table. Our host’s son was much taken with the girl to his left, and spent all of dinner leaning into her plate and giving her pretty compliments in a low voice. The man to my right was a Dutch Reformed minister who did not talk much but applied himself to every course with great enthusiasm. I wondered if my décolletage was incommoding him.

For conversation, this left me the man across and one down, a handsome Franconian officer named Colonel Meynier, who held up his duty admirably. He was dark haired and mustached, with his left arm prominently in a black sling pinned to his coat.

“And how did you acquire your wound, Colonel?” I asked, helping him to the salt during the game course.

“I am much obliged, Madame,” he said. “It was a trifle, and hardly bears repeating. My arm was broken when I was kicked by a horse at Strelnitz. It was not an affair of honor.”

“If it were, I am sure you would acquit yourself admirably,” I said. He, at least, seemed to appreciate my décolletage.

“I should do so for you, Madame,” he said laughing. “But I fear I am but a pale shade of gallantry compared to the French officers with whom I have the pleasure of serving.” He nodded to the young Hussar down the table, who returned the salute in kind. “There are some whose exploits rival the Paladins of Charlemagne.”

“Surely you give the gentlemen too much credit,” I said. “While I am sure they are gallant indeed, your approbation suggests endeavors of an extraordinary kind, such as are never seen in this late and fallen world.”

“Fallen, Madame?” he said, lifting his glass.

“Say, rather, modern,” I said. “The modern world does not lend itself to poetry. We are no longer allowed to be numinous beings, but rather products of reason. Or so I am told.”

“You sound like my friend Ney,” Meynier said. “I have a letter from him here, and he tells of his endeavors firsthand.”

“You have letters?” the minister said to my right. “Why did you not say so before? We are all starved for news.”

“Yes,” agreed the young lady beside our host’s son. “Please, may we prevail upon you to read them aloud?”

“The papers are sporadic in their reporting and boring in the extreme,” our host’s son said.

Meynier fished a packet out of his coat pocket with some little straining and opened it. “Some of it is quite dull, I assure you.”

“Pray go on,” the minister said. “If it is from the front, we want to hear it.”

Meynier shrugged. “Very well then.” He cleared his throat.

“Written at Bamberg, this 26th of August, or as I must style it, 9 Fructidor of the Year III. I can never keep it straight, my dear Meynier. Can anyone?”

There was a general laugh around the table.

Meynier smiled and resumed. “It is, as you know, a pretty town, well situated and not damaged by our latest clashes of arms. A damned good thing too. It’s good to be somewhere peaceful, where there is no stench of blood. Of course now there is the stench of our latrines….” He stopped. “Your pardon, mesdames. I shall skip the part about the latrines.

“…You’ll be glad to know that I did manage to purchase a suitable remount. He’s a fine bay stallion three years old, with a white blaze and white stockings on his forefeet. I have named him Eleazar ben Yair, after that wily rebel of Josephus’ who led the Romans such a chase. He certainly seems clever enough, and like enough to take the arm off any groom who mistreats him. He’s large and heavy, but still light on his feet, which is my preference in a horse. And clever enough that if I lack for partners I shall teach him to play chess.”

There was an appreciative laugh around the table.

“We do not lack provision. Which is one advantage of billeting in unspoiled land. We are purchasing our supplies rather than taking them outright in order that we shall engender respect among the populace, who have no particular love for the Austrians. I am endeavoring to demonstrate that the Devil’s Frenchmen have no horns--at least not on their heads….” Meynier stopped, coloring. “I beg your pardon, Madame. I believe that’s the essence of the letter."

Our host’s son leaned forward. “A wit, but not a hero,” he said. “I do not see this conspicuous gallantry you spoke of.”

“You should have seen him at Mainz a few months ago,” Meynier said. “The French and a few allies, like my humble self, were supposed to take the town. Now as you may know, Mainz is defended by a star of fortifications, and we were mostly composed of cavalry. Which is not a good situation in the least. I was detailed, with the rest of the allied infantry, to make a skirmish at the outer ring of defenses. My friend Colonel Ney and his cavalry were then to cross into the rear of the defenders while they were occupied with us, and come upon them from the rear. A neat and tidy plan.”

“Indeed,” the minister said, taking a long gulp of his wine.

Meynier leaned forward. “Only there was a problem. There was a long ditch that ran behind them, fully five feet deep and as wide. A cavalry trap, they call it. His men ran upon it, and their horses refused the jump. I hear a shout, and here’s Ney, the only one across, his horse prancing right on the edge of the ditch, yelling for them to come on and jump! And so of course the Austrians all wheel about from where I have them engaged, and there he sits all by himself on their side of the ditch. He hadn’t room to get his horse up to speed to jump back, with just a dozen feet between him and them on this side. So he looks at me, gives me half a smile, draws his saber and touches his spurs and wades straight into them. So of course I give a yell and we all charge in, because now we’re in their rear. It was a hot little quarrel, let me tell you! And when he finally gets through to us, and us to him, he’s letting the horse do the steering and he’s got his saber in his left hand because he’s shot through the right arm. It was bleeding dreadfully by the time we got back to lines. Broken clean through the upper arm. Then he had lockjaw and it looked like it was going to have to come off.”

“Did it?” I asked.

Meynier looked at my white face, and I suppose he thought he was shocking me. His face softened. “No, Madame. He came through it. He’s got an iron constitution to go with that red hair of his.”


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 12th, 2012 07:07 pm (UTC)
Aw, thank you! I am most gratifies to hear Michel admired the prettiness of my hometown. And amuses he names his horse after Eleazar, which reminds me of our Masada discussions. :)
Mar. 15th, 2012 12:10 pm (UTC)
He did indeed! (While digging latrines....)

One of the aides gives the horse's name as Al-Azar, but I think the aide misheard. It's Eleazar. I'm entirely sure! (And of course former Agrippa admires the enemy of Rome? Hummm....)
Mar. 15th, 2012 02:33 pm (UTC)
Or Michel could have named his horse after one of the last (last but one, to be precise) Muslim rulers of Al Andalus who fought against Isabella and Ferdinand.:)
Mar. 15th, 2012 07:37 pm (UTC)
True.... Though I expect that's a part he doesn't particularly care to remember!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )