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The General's Mistress -- The First Consul

I've heard from all the winners in The General's Mistress giveaway contest, and your copies are on their way to you. Congratulations everyone! And thank you, everyone else who entered and didn't win. I wish I had copies for everyone. I thought I would share a little piece from the middle of the book as a preview for those who didn't win.

One of the interesting things about writing the cusp of the nineteenth century is how consciously people looked to Classical models. Stories from mythology and from the history of Greece and Rome were part of the language of everyone who pretended to education, and were rapidly becoming accessible to the masses as well. At this point in the story Elza is traveling with a theater troupe, and she's part of that change. Prior to the Revolution, high culture had been reserved for the wealthy, for aristocrats who attended plays and masques in palaces, and for the bourgeois who lived in cities large enough to support permanent theaters. Most people would never see a play in their lives with the exception of passion plays or comedy shows on makeshift stages at fairs. But with the Revolution there is a proliferation of theaters and traveling troupes, including those that followed the army, putting on plays based on the classics for anyone who wanted to buy a cheap ticket.

Suddenly these are stories everyone knows! Antony and Cleopatra, Alexander in Asia -- privates from rural areas have seen them four times each, because this is the entertainment that there is in camp. Think about modern armies -- if there were three or four movies on the whole base, wouldn't everyone have seen them over and over? Now imagine one of those three or four movies is Oliver Stone's Alexander. How familiar would this story become? How much a part of the frame of reference of the average guy? And so the Classical references that may seem obscure or over-educated to the modern reader don't seem so at the time. Everyone has been basting in these stories!

In this section the theater troupe has arrived in Milan in the summer of 1800, following General Lannes' corp of the Army of Italy. The Battle of Marengo is over and the Austrians are suing for peace, and so the army is going into camp. This time the theater troupe has an actual theater to use, and the director, Isabella Felix, has written a new prologue for Elza to deliver in compliment to the First Consul, a young man named Napoleon Bonaparte, who has just defeated the Austrians soundly. Elza has never met him. (Well, not recently....)

I was to wear a filmy white dress meant to resemble classical drapery, and to represent "the Spirit of Triumph, or Fama Who Rests Her Hands Upon Laurel'd Heads." I was to carry a laurel wreath, which took most of the day to locate. Isabella could not be convinced that such wreaths were not for sale on every street corner in Italy, regardless of ancient Roman triumphs. Fortunately, the Italian I had spoken as a child came back to me, and I managed to find someone to sell me enough leafy branches to make into a circlet. Then I had to learn my lines.

"Fama volat," I began. When I stood at last on stage, in Milan's Opera House, looking up at the tiered boxes in scarlet and gold, a frisson ran through me. I could not make out any faces. The lights in my face were too bright. But here and there I could see the tell tale glitter of braid, of diamonds, of bright decorations. I thought the Consular box must be to the right, so I addressed myself there.

"Fama volat. So slaves spoke to Caesar, reminding him
In his glory that Time itself does not stand still
That the procession of years renders glory itself faded
But still there is that which remains
Virtue and manhood, courage and destiny
Triumphant over the centuries themselves
That men might know and emulate Caesar."

A stillness came over the theater.

"Thus spoke the Sibyl of Cumae
And thus spoke Caesar's slaves
That all glory is fleeting
But virtue and love endure."

The glitter in the dark. Someone had moved, but how I could not see. I looked out into imagined eyes, but all I could see were the lights.

"Fortune's Darling, know
That Time himself cannot tarnish
The wreath that rests upon your brow
Though Fame pass and laurel wither.
As Achilles or Alexander
Your name shall endure."

I sank to my knees gracefully, my dress puddling around me in soft folds.

"Take then this wreath
This tribute of my hands
Caesar, I lay this at your feet."

I extended the wreath I had made and laid it on the stage, and my head bent in submission, sweetly and sensually, as Victor had taught me, holding the pose kneeling in the silence.

One clap began it, then the applause was thunderous. Fame knelt before the First Consul, her blonde hair spread across her shoulders and her hands stretched in surrender, and her eyes were full of tears.

I barely had time to get backstage and change for Sebastien. I had no idea what people were saying. So it was a surprise to come off at the interval to find a solemn aide-de-camp in the dressing room.

Isabella had come in too, and he looked from one of us to the other. "Which of you ladies is Madame St. Elme? The Prologue?"

I exchanged a look with Isabella. I hoped her poetry hadn't been badly received. I stepped forward. "I am Madame St. Elme," I said evenly.

"The First Consul would like to see you after the performance," he said. "He would like you to join him for a private supper."

I heard the hiss of Isabella's indrawn breath.

My voice was entirely steady. "Please tell the First Consul that I would be delighted," I said.

I'd love to hear what you guys think!


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 17th, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC)
I wanted to let you know that I received my book yesterday and as soon as the migraine eases up, I will be diving in. :D

Thank you much!
Jun. 18th, 2012 04:23 pm (UTC)
Wow, that was really fast! I hope you enjoy it!
Jun. 18th, 2012 12:31 am (UTC)
I got mine yesterday as well and am already working on it. ♥
Jun. 18th, 2012 04:23 pm (UTC)
Great! I hope you like it!
Jun. 25th, 2012 02:21 pm (UTC)
Hah! Wonderful!

This can't be the first time that Alexander / Caesar has returned, though. Is it the first time Lydias / Charmian is meeting him, since he was Caesar?
Jun. 25th, 2012 06:13 pm (UTC)
I don't think it's the first time, but I think it's the first time in a long time. I think they met very briefly several hundred years ago, but it's been a thousand years or more since they saw each other more than a few minutes. Let me put it this way -- I think it's been many centuries since she acted as a Companion. And giving this prologue, this way -- she just held up a big sign, didn't she? :)
Jun. 25th, 2012 09:32 pm (UTC)
Huge! In bright shiny letters, with perfume! :-)
Jun. 25th, 2012 09:42 pm (UTC)
Very much so! So of course he wants to meet her, to talk to her. That's got to be the next step. Even if she's not entirely sure why, and everyone else thinks it's because he thinks she's hot!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )