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The Marshal's Lover

Lately I've heard from several people who are fans of Napoleonic General Jean-Baptiste Corbineau. I had no idea that Corbineau had fans! I certainly adore him, and I've enjoyed writing him in The General's Mistress, The Emperor's Companion, and The Marshal's Lover, my third book in the Wars of Revolution series. And so, for the people who wanted more Corbineau, this is the very first scene in the third book. It also introduces one of my favorite people in the whole saga, Maria Walewska!

So step right in to a fateful Imperial ball in January, 1807. (No, you don't have to have read anything first.) In which various currents in the Numinous World come full circle.

Trivia for those who are interested: this was the first scene written in the Elza books, in 1992.

"Colonel Corbineau and Madame St. Elme!" the major domo announced, and we proceeded through the door, my hand on his arm, to greet our host.

The ballroom was lit with a thousand candles, one of the finest houses of Warsaw thrown open for two nations to welcome the Emperor to Poland and to begin the season of Carnival. Chandeliers shone while beneath them on the elaborate parquet floor a hundred people swirled to the strains of music provided by a chamber orchestra. Gorgeous uniforms glittering with gold braid and brilliant color contrasted with white dresses worn by young women, with the rich velvets of the Polish nobility, with brocade frock coats and frothing lace. It was a magnificent sight.

No less magnificent was my escort, Jean-Baptiste Corbineau, now a full Colonel, whose splendor put mine to shame. He was with Klein's Dragoons now, rather than chasseurs, and had traded blue coat for forest green with scarlet facings. He also had rather a lot of gold braid on everything, though the crowning glory was his tall brass neo-Grecian helmet with a scarlet plume and a swatch of faux leopardskin.

I, on the other hand, wore my only presentable dress, the silver gray satin, but it was a color that suited me well and was the latest style from Paris, having been made as a knock-off of Leroy only the previous summer. The ladies of Warsaw were either madly making over court clothes of years gone by or driving their seamstresses to copy Parisian styles as quickly as possible. Many of them were quite lovely, but I preferred the ones who either adopted simplicity, as one cannot go wrong with white silk, or who unapologetically wore the splendors of the bygone era in all its charm, wide lace collars and velvets like something out of the Thirty Years War. There was something distinctly appealing about pale skin rising out of a square black velvet neckline…

At the base of the staircase our host waited. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the Foreign Minister did not look the least put out by my presence, uninvited though I was, but rather amused. Dressed in an impeccable coat of dark red velvet that suited him well, he bent over my hand politely as I curtsied. "Madame," he said, his mouth twitching with what might have been a suppressed smile, "I am most pleased by your hair this evening."

"Thank you, Your Excellency," I said, with an answering smile. "But I fear it is nothing to what my hairdresser in Paris may accomplish!"

At that he did laugh. "Colonel Corbineau, you are a fortunate man."

"I am aware of that," Jean-Baptiste said gallantly, though he must have been utterly confused by the exchange. And so we passed within, as there was a press of guests behind us.

The ball was already in full swing, the Emperor present and chatting with Prince Borghese, his brother in law who was wed to his sister Pauline, and another man I did not recognize but that I guessed to be a Polish nobleman.

"What was all that about?" Jean-Baptiste asked me under his breath.

"A very long story," I said. Jean-Baptiste's brother Claude was over by the windows. "Dance with me and let us lay your brother's mind at ease."

"Claude won't be happy thinking I've an expensive mistress who takes all my pay," Jean-Baptiste said philosophically. "But I suppose it's better than the alternative. Hold on. I need to take my spurs off so that I don't catch your dress on the turns."

I waited while he sidled up to the wall and unfastened them. "Why are you wearing them anyway? It's not as though you need a horse at a ball."

"They lend a certain something," he said, standing on one foot and hopping about a bit.

I refrained from observing that what they lent was a certain aura of the ridiculous. That award should go to Marshal Murat, who appeared to have a leopard skin flung over his shoulders. It went well with his long pomaded curls.

"There." Jean-Baptiste dropped his spurs into the bucket of his hat, which he carefully arranged on a chair by the wall so that the plume would not be crushed. "Now we can dance."

"I do appreciate your care for my skirts," I said.

"At your service, dear sister!" he said, presenting his arm with a flourish and leading me onto the floor. "After all, you are here tonight to do me a service."

"Two services," I said. "Providing an escort your brother will find acceptable, and having a look at this woman you are so worried about."

"But I'm also doing you a service," he pointed as we made our way onto the dance floor. "After all, it's something to attend a royal ball in Warsaw, isn't it? Especially when you weren't invited and I was?"

"It is something indeed," I said. How many times would I have the opportunity to attend a gathering like this? Even after so many years of scaling and descending fortune's wheel, a royal ball was not a common occurrence in my life.

"Ah, there she is," Jean-Baptiste said more or less at my ear, turning me about in the dance. "The Countess."

She was not beautiful. From what I had heard I expected a breathtaking beauty, the kind of once in a century loveliness that launches a thousand ships. Her hair was dark honey, that shade between blonde and brown that comes when blond children's hair darkens with age, the color of my own when it wasn't bleached with sun or something stronger. She had broad cheekbones and a roundish face, clear fair skin with high color, a blush rising pink in the heat of the ballroom. She was a lovely young girl, but it was not true beauty, only health and youth that would pass far too quickly. At forty-something Josephine was beautiful still, blessed with good bones and features that aged well. At forty the young Countess would be nothing in particular to look at.

And yet. Watching her from across the ballroom, glimpses caught and obscured by passing dancers, there was a firmness to her pretty bow shaped mouth. There was a tilt to her chin, an expression…. She was nothing like Josephine, born to captivate as surely as any favorite of an ancient court. She was twenty, and yet her eyes were old. She watched. She measured. Behind wide blue eyes like cornflowers there was a mind wide awake. She was modest, her white gown simple, dressed like dozens of women there, and yet she shone like a star come to rest in a flower bed. Not a rose. She was not a rose, opulent and sweet. She was some more prosaic and sturdy plant, a morning glory that climbed the house and wreathed all in green leaves long after the blossoms of morning had closed.

"That one," Jean-Baptiste said. "That's Countess Walewska."

"So I see," I said.

"What do you think?"

I shrugged. She sat with the matrons, an embroidery hoop on her lap. Surrounded by old women she almost glittered. As of course she would know she would. Surrounded by maidens, she would be one blossom among many, one more fair haired, pink faced girl of twenty in a white dress. Surrounded by old women clothed in mourning, she illuminated. "She's pretty," I said.

Jean-Baptiste looked at me keenly. "And that's all you've got to say, Elza?"

"What do you want me to say? I think she should do something with her hair. Those ringlets are a bit too young for a married woman."

He snorted. "I got an oracle all the way to Warsaw to tell me that?"

"What do you want me to tell you?" I asked, reaching for a glass of champagne proffered by a passing footman. "I've seen her for five minutes across a crowded ballroom without speaking. You've got to give me a bit more to go on."

I turned so that I could at least see her across the room again, my gray satin skirts flowing with the breeze of passing dancers.

"The Emperor is in love with her."

I took a sip. "This week." Her head bent over her needlework, so serious, so matronly. "He has mistresses. Josephine knows that. They have an understanding -- actresses and singers, pretty and entertaining, and none of them very long. A few weeks, a month or two. He's generous and none of them are the worse for it. And neither is he." I refrained from saying that I should know. That week in Milan was more than six years in the past, and my relations with the Emperor now had little to do with it.

Jean-Baptiste shook his head. "You don't understand. This is serious."

"Because she's married? Because she's Polish?" I shrugged. "I don’t see how."

"She says no."

"Then what will come of it?" I had certainly never known him to force himself upon someone unwilling, and indeed I would find it most unlike him. Besides, why should he? There were a dozen women in this room who would delight in his attention on any terms, and as I said she was no great beauty.

"Would you?" Jean-Baptiste looked at me sharply. "Even given the Marshal?"

"That's immaterial," I said, lifting the champagne glass again. "No one is asking me." In truth, the situation would be very awkward. But I did not think it likely to arise. I was much more valuable to the Emperor in other capacities, and he did not mix war and love.

Jean-Baptiste turned, blocking my view again with his gold laced shoulder. "He's never carried on like this about someone before. Never. He's acting utterly ridiculous, making a fool of himself over her."

"Well, what does she say about it?" I tried to angle around again so that I could at least observe her. Another young woman had come in with a baby, a pretty child a bit less than a year old dressed in white lawn and blue ribbons and was leaning over her, the baby reaching out arms for her. "Is that her child?"

"Apparently," Jean-Baptiste said dryly. "Though her husband's seventy-five if he's a day. Very rich."

"Of course," I said. That went without saying. How else should a man of seventy-five have a wife of twenty? Now she was taking the child from her friend, holding it on her lap facing outward so that it could watch the dancers, raising pudgy hands entranced, her hair falling forward on her shoulders. A chill touched me, the familiar hint of the uncanny. A white gown, a little boy on her lap facing forward, knees squared, hair escaping from high pins and falling across her shoulders….

"She looks quite the Madonna," Jean-Baptiste said cynically. "All that is good and pure compared to all that is lush and corrupt."

It was gone. He had interrupted me before I could follow. "Jean-Baptiste," I said sharply. "Will you be silent for one minute? How do you expect me to see anything if you will chatter?"

"I thought you couldn't see anything."

"I can't when you're talking!" I handed him my empty glass, my voice low. "Bad enough that you expect me to see something in a ballroom full of people! Now give me a moment's peace if you want me to see anything."

"I just want to know if she's bad," he said. "How hard can that be?"

"Bad as in an agent of evil?" I rolled my eyes. "No, Jean-Baptiste. She's not an agent of evil. But what she is and what will happen, good or ill, is far more complicated. There are patterns within patterns." It was irritatingly large and irritatingly out of reach, like looking at a stone and being expected to see the shape of the mountain. What happened here changed the future just as surely as what happened on the battlefield, the shades of what might be drifting through the ballroom like a whiff of powder smoke. Vast chains of consequences centuries long, thousands who might live or die, nations that might be born or conquered….

"He wants you to talk to her."

I closed my eyes. What could he not understand about being quiet for a moment? "About what?"

"About anything. You know none of the ladies of the court speak Polish."

I didn't open my eyes. Jean-Baptiste stood beside me, close enough that his sword brushed against my skirts, as though he were my lover, a real and constant presence. The dancers moved like ghosts, like shadows reflected on the tall windows closed tight against the winter's night. And still I could see her, burning like a brand. "Doesn't the Countess speak French?"

"Of course she does."

"Then he doesn't need a translator."

"I think he's looking for a reference."

My eyes sprung open. "And he thinks I'll provide him one? And that this is any way to impress her?"

Jean-Baptiste shifted from one foot to another. "You and the Marshal are very happy."

"Michel is not paying court to Countess Walewska," I said. "Michel isn't even in Warsaw. He's in Silesia facing off the Russians, which is where I would be if I weren't needed in Warsaw! I don't see what Michel has to do with anything."

"You left your husband to be the mistress of a general and you're very happy."

"Ah." I looked across the room to where she sat, the child on her knee, laughing with her friend, young and unafraid and unblemished. My voice was very even. "And so I am the ideal person to persuade her that throwing away her position and her future to be the lover of a man who will doubtless tire of her in a few months is a truly excellent decision." I turned my eyes to his face. "No."

"Just no?"

"No," I said. "I won't do it."

"He wants you to," Jean-Baptiste said. "And are you not his in all things?"

"Not in this," I said. "I won't be his procurer."

"Elza, you know he'd do her no harm," Jean-Baptiste began.

"I'm sure they'd have a lovely few months," I said. "And then what would become of her?" There was anger in my voice and I was not sure how it got there. "You have absolutely no idea the things I have done to survive. You have seen me happy and beloved, but you did not know me when I was twenty-one or twenty-two. You have no conception of what life is like for a woman who has turned her back on respectability and is left to her own resources."

His eyes ran over me from the gilt pins in my hair to the ruby at my throat, gray satin dress with its absolutely simple neckline, nothing of the harlot about it, sumptuous in its simplicity, champagne glass touched with gold in my hand. "You don't seem to have done too badly."

"I haven't," I said. "But most of my friends are dead. One was beaten to death by a lover. Another overdosed on laudanum. Another killed herself. Another disappeared when she had nowhere to live except under a bridge. Where do you think these women come from, these scraps who live on scraps, who trundle about half mad with disease? They're the ones who lose." I shifted, my skirts rustling like the tail of a cat lashing. "I'm both lucky and strong. But most never last this long."

Across the ballroom I could see the Emperor talking to Marshal Davout, the taller Marshal's head bent to his, profile classically fair. His expression was animated. Whatever Davout had said, it made him smile. He turned his head and his eyes caught mine, smile broadening with recognition.

I sunk into a deep courtesy, acknowledgement of Imperial favor. It might simply have been the desire of an aging courtesan to catch his eye. Of course Jean-Baptiste knew better. My oaths to the Emperor had little to do with our current flesh and much to do with promises I had made more than two thousand years before. Or so I believed.

He nodded, that magical regard encompassing me, and then turned back to Davout.

"Most die," Jean-Baptiste said thoughtfully. "But you dance with kings and princes. Would you say the odds are worse for a harlot or a light cavalry trooper?" He shook his head. "The boys I started with are dead too, Elza. And here I am, thirty years old and a colonel. It's a fine thing to be lucky and strong. You'd have it no easier if you were a man."

"Believe me, I am learning that," I said. I shook my head. The young Countess was talking with her friend, not even glancing in the Emperor's direction. "But is she lucky and strong? Better not to chance it, and I do not say that lightly. It is easy to say, at twenty, that one will be among the winners, but the odds do not favor the gamester. The house almost always wins." She was not beautiful, and yet….

"Do you wish that you'd stayed with your husband?" Jean-Baptiste asked quietly.

"I don't know," I said. Another footman approached with a full tray, and I traded glasses. "My husband was in his thirties. I had no reason to think that he would die young and free me in a few years. If I had known that…." There was no point in speculating on what might have been. "But if, as you say, her husband is seventy-five, is it not likely that in a very short time she will be a widow of independent means? Then she can do as she likes."

"What about love?" Jean-Baptiste asked.

"What about it?"

"Does it not figure in?"

One of Berthier's aides hurried up to the Countess, bending over her hand to introduce himself, and I watched her face suddenly go white, all color draining from it.

The dance ended rather abruptly, but I hardly noticed and doubtless would have tripped had not Jean-Baptiste dragged me off the floor. "Careful," he said, steering me around a lady in scarlet velvet.

The young aide took the Countess' hand and led her onto the floor where a contre dance was forming up. "What…." I began, but then I saw. The Emperor had gotten up and came out, the aide stepping gracefully aside as Berthier, Prince Borghese, and Murat made up the quadrille with an amazingly quickly assembled collection of Polish ladies. The Emperor bent over her hand, and I saw the color rush back to her face, as though this were the thing she had both anticipated and dreaded. He turned her into her place, his other hand behind his back, all of that fatal concentration bent on her, and she looked up, her eyes not leaving his.

"Oh dear," I said quietly to Jean-Baptiste. The Emperor was a horrible dancer and it was all the others could do to prevent collisions in the figures. And yet….

The Countess turned, her arm extended, her fingertips just touching his. She did not smile or speak, and yet it was as though thunder rolled beneath the earth. We watched them move through the figures. Except in the turns when they must, they did not look away from one another though only the tips of their fingers touched. I saw him speak, only a few words, no doubt some commonplace pleasantry.

She replied. I could see her lips form, "Thank you, Sire."

Turn and turn and turn again, light on her feet as a dancer caught in some ancient temple frieze. The music ended. The Emperor stepped back and bowed. She curtsied. An old man stepped out from the sidelines beaming, his white hair caught in an old fashioned queue, white lace falling over his hands, her husband, pleased at how well his young wife had performed.

"Oh Jean-Baptiste," I said.

"You see?"

"I don't know what I see," I began.

I would love, love, love to hear what you guys think!


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 13th, 2012 12:35 pm (UTC)
Oh you tease us! I am dying to read this now, each except is better than the last but knowing this is two books away makes it even more beautiful.

I love Elza, she's leaned so many hard lessons and and gained strength. I love the way in which she is still an oracle at heart.

More please!
May. 14th, 2012 05:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Wow,
I'm so glad you like it! She has learned so much and gained strength -- at a great price. But she doesn't begrudge the price for the journey, which is one of the things about Elza. And yes, still an oracle at heart! Always.
May. 14th, 2012 05:24 pm (UTC)
Very interesting! The sense of time and place is particularly vivid, with threads connecting in interesting ways.

One tiny thing that stood out for me was in the line about Murat and the leopard skin -- I wanted a smidge more contrast with the swatch of faux-leopard mentioned earlier. Whole or real or something.
May. 14th, 2012 05:52 pm (UTC)
Good point! I'll look at that.

I'm glad the sense of time and place works. It's such a photographic scene -- I wish I could see it filmed.

(Oh Peter Wingfield icon. Oh!)
May. 14th, 2012 09:51 pm (UTC)
Mmm, I know you posted a fragment of this before, but I love seeing the longer version--the magical catching of the Emperor's eye, the delicate knife edge of the Emperor and the Countess dancing....
May. 15th, 2012 09:33 am (UTC)
I did post a piece before, but I'm glad you like the longer version. This really is a moment of decision, and Corbineau knows that though he can't put his finger on why. Why he's asking her has a lot to do with the events of the second book!
May. 16th, 2012 11:11 am (UTC)
Hah, interesting. Yes, I can see why the Countess and Napoleon would be riveting to each other. Now I feel like I must rush over to Wikipedia and learn more about the historical role of the Countess in the French Empire.

I like the way Elza brings forward the difficulties facing women who leave the zone of respectability in a patriarchal culture. Not dismissable, particularly then; it`s gotten a little easier now, depending on where one lives.

Your writing is brilliant, as always!
May. 17th, 2012 10:43 am (UTC)
Thank you!

Wiki is a good source of spoilers, but here's fair warning that I have not always done things the way mainstream history says they happened! I've followed quite a few obscure sources that you won't find on wiki, so you can't be sure that you know everyone's fate! :)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )