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The Grand Army's Widow

chiliarch asked about future Elza books -- if I were going to cover her entire life. Most of it! I'm envisioning six books. The first one is out and two and three are on their way. I've also written parts of four and sketched some scenes in five and six. But since chiliarch asks, I thought I'd share one of those sketches from the last book, tentatively titled The Grand Army's Widow.

He heard the voices in the hall before the door to the salon opened, preceded of course by a polite knock. He was, after all, a guest, not a prisoner. A man's voice, young but deep, protesting something in French, a woman's voice whose words he did not quite catch, but were unmistakably in Polish. And then there was the polite knock.

"Come in," Alexandre-Florian said. He stood up from the chair beside the fire, trying to look as calm as one ought to be. It's easy to look scared when you're young, and difficult to seem cool, for all he'd been practicing all his life.

The Governor was followed by two guards, each with a prisoner before them, muskets at port-arms but with bayonets fixed, two of the regular sentries from below. "I hesitate to disturb you, Count," the Governor said, his polite words hiding steel, "but I must ask if you know this woman." A little push, and she stepped forward into the light, her eyes meeting his.

Fifty or so, with graying hair pulled back in a bun, a dowdy dress of dark blue wool, a scar over one eye. She looked at him, and though she did not speak her eyes spoke volumes in that moment. He had not laid eyes on her in ten years, and that under very different circumstances, but he knew her.

"Oh yes," he said, breaking into a wide smile with all the infectious enthusiasm of youth. "It is my old nurse, Anna! My God! To think that I should see you again!" He turned his smile on the Governor. "When I was a very small boy, before my mother died, Anna was my nurse in Paris! What an amazing thing it is to see her!" He took a few steps forward. "Anna, what in the world might bring you here?"

The Governor didn't smile. "And do you know this man?"

The trouble was that he did not. A young man, dark skinned, tall and handsome, green eyes in bright contrast with his brown face. He had never seen him before in his life. And yet he'd best have an innocuous story, and quickly. "I think," Alexandre-Florian began uncertainly. "In those days in Paris my mother had a little blackamoor page. Someone had given him to her. His name was Ganymede. I think… This may be he?"

"I don't go by Ganymede anymore," the man said with a sardonic bow. "I go by my given name these days, Alexandre Dupont."

"So you see," Anna said quickly in Polish, not the French the Governor had spoken, "He too is Alexandre."

And in that moment it was all clear, clear as the high note of a bell, impossible and hoped for as it was. It sang through him, sudden bright hope.

The Governor assuredly understood Polish. "A popular name, Count. But what might your mother's little page be doing in Konigsburg?"

"I can answer that," the old woman said volubly. "After his dear sainted mother died, I took her little page in. But you cannot know how it is to live so far away from home! It was not the same to me, sir. Not at all. And so when I had saved a little money for traveling, I returned to Poland and brought the little lad with me. He had no one else in the world, sir! And I am not as young as I used to be. The arthritis, you understand. But when I heard that Alexandre-Florian was here…." She gave him a beaming, beatific smile. "I had to see him. He was such a sweet little boy! And aren't you simply the image of your mother!"

Which he certainly was not. His mother had been tall and blonde, and Alexandre-Florian was slight and dark haired, brown eyed rather than blue eyed, lightly built and only coming into a man's height at seventeen. No one on earth who had ever seen his mother would say such a thing, and this woman had known his mother well, though she had served his father, not his mother, and not precisely as a nursemaid.

"And we thought maybe he needed servants," the other Alexandre said. He stepped forward, his stance too much gentleman and too little page boy. "I hoped to offer my services as a coachman, sir."

"Alas, I have no coach," Alexandre-Florian said. "I do not often go abroad." Which was certainly one way of describing his unwilling "residence" in Konigsburg. He was not officially a prisoner, just simply not allowed to leave. In Warsaw he would be too much trouble, and in the world beyond that he was a hazard above all mentioning.

"Surely you can find some little thing for us to do," Anna said. "I cook beautifully! And I will be more than happy to clean up after you, to keep your shirts nice and your room tidy."

"The Count is too old for a nursemaid," the Governor said sharply. "So you will be on your way."

Alexandre-Florian drew himself up to his not very considerable height. "It is night, Governor. And surely as the guest of the Czar I may entertain some old domestics for a few hours and give my old nurse a bed to sleep in? Surely the Czar is not so parsimonious that I may not extend his hospitality for a few hours to the woman who nurtured me as a boy, and to my childhood playfellow?" He looked down his nose at the Governor. "Assuredly you do not think this old woman is an assassin?"

The Governor had the decency to blush. "Of course not." And if she were an assassin, who more likely to pay her than the Czar? Would he be told if such a plot were afoot? The Czar's secret service did not necessarily place their trust in the Governor of Konigsburg. It was that which decided him, and Alexandre-Florian saw it cross his face. Perhaps the Czar had decided to rid the world of this untidy loose end, and in all honor had arranged it so the Governor's hands were clean. All he had to do was let it happen. It was possible, if not likely. And if that were not the case, what harm in it? He might place guards at the door, and there was no other way out of these rooms.

"Go on, then," Alexandre-Florian said. "I shall take no harm from Madame Anna."

The Governor glanced at her companion, a strong young man in his prime. That was the assassin, and the old nurse merely the bait, someone Alexandre-Florian would trust. It was all too plausible. And Alexandre-Florian walked into it like a lamb to the slaughter.

A frisson ran down his back. He was betting his life. Unarmed, he would not best two, and one a man ten years his senior and both larger and stronger. He was gambling with the last thing he had. And yet if he did not, sooner or later he would die in Konigsburg. A fever, an accident…. The boy had always been fragile. Things happen. The powers of the world would celebrate the finish of one loose end to an era they should like to forget, the death of a rallying cry for subjugated Poland.

Was this what it felt like to be his father, Alexandre-Florian wondered in that moment, to bet men's lives on the turn of a coin?

He looked at her and saw the will in her eyes. It was not a lame bet after all.

"I will be quite well with my old nurse," he said to the Governor tranquilly. "I assure you."

"If you wish to visit, of course your guests are welcome," the Governor said, and bowed himself out, the two guards with muskets following.

The door closed behind him, and the other Alexandre crept up to it, bending his ear. He looked about, holding up two fingers. Yes, the two guards waited just outside.

Alexandre-Florian drew the woman as far from the door as possible, over by the fire, while the man kept watch. He pitched his voice low and spoke in Polish. "What has happened? Why are you here and who do you serve? I know you used to serve my father."

"And serve him still," she said, "though he lies in his grave. I promised your father that there should be no more Caesarions. We've come to rescue you." Her voice choked a little.

Alexandre-Florian looked about mirthlessly. "How? We are in a fortress, Madame. In a town held by the Czar, far from all aid and comfort. Yes, there are ships, but the port is heavily patrolled and no one may take ship without papers and permissions, even if we could reach the port. And I do not know how we could so much as leave this room. Surely they searched you when you came in?"

"Of course they did," she said. "We bear no weapons, and certainly we can't walk in carrying a hundred feet of rope. But then, we have no need to."

The other Alexandre looked up from the door as she crossed the room to the far window, opening the dormers that held it shut against the cold night. She leaned out, reaching to the left extremely, then ducking back inside, the center of a hanging rope in her hand. "Voila! Your rope, Alexandre!"

Alexandre-Florian blinked. "You hung a rope already?" They had been climbing about on the exterior of the fortress in the dark?

"It's quite secure," the other Alexandre said quietly. "It remains only to descend it."

"And then the sea?" Alexandre-Florian asked. He did not see how it could be done, but…

She shook her head. "No. The third member of our party has a wagon waiting at the town gates. We will take the road in the opposite direction, to Torun, and then take a barge down the Vistula to Gdansk."

"Isn't that a difficult road?"

"Of course it is!" She gave him a brilliant smile. "Everyone will expect you to try to take a ship for England from the port, Count Alexandre-Florian Colonna Walewski. No one will expect you to be traveling by wagon to Torun, of all places, dressed as a carnival player!"

He couldn't help but laugh. "A what?"

"A carnival player. How is your command of a script? You shall be our fool." Her smile was infectious.

"You're mad," Alexandre-Florian said. But what else was life if not mad?

"So your father always said," she said. "But no, not mad. Just grown very, very good in his service. It was he who saw what I might be and gave me the will to make it so."

"Torun," he said. "And then Gdansk. What then? The ship for England?"

"Paris," she said. "Where else?"

The other Alexandre looked up from the door, though he did not speak. Time was passing, and the soonest done the best.

"I will descend first," the lady said, "And then you after, Alexandre. M. Dumas will take the rear, as he is best able to hold off the guards if needed."

"The sacrifice," Alexandre-Florian said. He could see how that might be. The guards bursting into the room, one man holding them back from the window until the others might finish getting down the rope, knowing his chance was gone. "I will not permit other men to risk their lives for me."

The other Alexandre straightened up beside the door, tall and lean as the engraving of a King's Musketeer. "That is what princes do."

She swung the rope close, and he could see that loops had been tied in it at intervals to put one's hands or feet in and make climbing easier. "Quickly, Alexandre!"

"I'm not a prince," he said. But he pushed up onto the sill anyway. It was three stories to the pavement below, but not so bad a climb despite the cold. A leap into the unknown with virtual strangers, trusting his life to a whim and fortune. No, he thought, trusting his father, scarcely remembered. His father had set these plans in motion, and it remained to be seen what would come of it. Certainly his father would never know whether he had wrought well or foolishly. But much in his life had been genius, and hopefully this was also fortune kissed. He had little enough from his father, lost when he was only five, but he would accept this last gift -- a chance if Alexandre-Florian was strong enough and clever enough to seize it. And with that, he swung out on the rope, out into space among the stars.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 12th, 2013 10:05 pm (UTC)

Oh, I LOVE this!
Feb. 13th, 2013 05:39 pm (UTC)
*enormous grin*

Madame is quick on her feet! And so, fortunately is Alexandre-Florian.
Feb. 12th, 2013 10:05 pm (UTC)
So, this is young Alexandre Dumas, the son of General Dumas? Yum!
Feb. 13th, 2013 05:41 pm (UTC)
Yes, this is young Alexandre Dumas! You see, once there was a bold young man who went to Paris to seek his fortune and there called upon his father's old friends, and before he knew it he was tangled in a conspiracy with three old soldiers and a lady in a plot to rescue an imprisoned prince.... One could write a novel about something like that, were it suitably set in the 17th century! :D

And wasn't he handsome as a young man? I don't know why the young picture is almost never used on bios -- he looks like Prince!
Feb. 13th, 2013 11:30 pm (UTC)
Wasn't he YUMMY!
Feb. 14th, 2013 02:00 pm (UTC)
Very much so! This is the picture I mean, the one where he looks like Prince: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alexandre_Dumas_8.jpg
Feb. 14th, 2013 12:38 pm (UTC)
Oh my!!! So many goodies in so short a time. And an Alexander quote into the bargain. I am really, really looking forward to the coming novels. What a treat.

Un pour tous.........my favourite historical novel, I have loved it since I was a child and read it for the first time.

Thank you so much for posting this.
Feb. 14th, 2013 02:07 pm (UTC)
It's the Alexander quote that decides him, a seemingly ordinary turn of phrase that's as loaded as a code word! And Dumas needs his chance to play D'Artagnan and rescue a prince, doesn't he? So what do you think of Elza at fifty?
Feb. 18th, 2013 12:55 pm (UTC)
She's still my Elza! Sharp as ever and totally unafraid. How I long to read this book!
Feb. 18th, 2013 04:00 pm (UTC)
She is! She's been playing this game for thirty years. And she's completely confident that they can pull it of, Elza and Dumas and the third member waiting with the wagon, Corbineau.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )