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Maria Walewska

A reader asks, "When will there be more Elza? I'm perishing!"

I'm hopeful that the third Elza book, The Marshal's Lover, will be out this spring. I'm working on revisions to the ending right now.

Here's a little piece to keep you until then, when Elza meets Maria Walewska. Maria is one of my favorites in the entire Napoleonic saga, and in the Numinous World readers have already met her as Ptolemy in Stealing Fire and Cleopatra in Hand of Isis. Here's her first big scene in the book. I'd love to hear what you think!

Countess Walewska arrived in Paris on the second day of February, a date both portentous and inconvenient. It was the old Feast of the Churching of the Virgin, meaning that it was one of the eight major lodge meetings of the year, and only the third since I had been formally admitted. I should probably have to miss it. I doubted I could possibly leave the Countess in time to be at Lannes' house by nine.

I had been alerted to her impending arrival by messenger from the Emperor, who had been kept abreast of her journey by semaphore since she crossed the border, and therefore I presented myself at the house he had rented for her at Number 2 Rue de la Houssaye, a pretty little townhouse built in the last century in a very respectable part of town. At the moment that I arrived two footmen were unloading the trunks from the traveling coach, and I noted that while they were certainly nice ones there were only three -- an absolute paucity of luggage for a grand lady traveling, especially since one of them must belong to the brother who accompanied her. There were also four or five Polish lancers in splendid uniform loitering about in front along the street, presumably additional security on the Emperor's orders. They were as unobtrusive as a bunch of swans amid a flock of pigeons, and already some passersby stopped to see what was going on. I presented myself to the lieutenant in charge of the detail, who passed me through. Everyone had been quite thoroughly briefed.

The butler was also Parisian, and I wondered for a moment if the Countess had brought any of her own staff. Presumably her maid, at least. He led me into the foyer and announced me in a grand stentorian voice. "Madame St. Elme to see the Countess."

Maria Walewska turned. She was ten years my junior, twenty one instead of thirty one, but not wearing the deliberately virginal white gown in which I had first seen her she no longer looked like a girl just out of the schoolroom. She wore a traveling dress of dark blue broadcloth and low boots topped with gray fur. Her honey colored hair was coiled at the back of her neck. She had broad cheekbones and fresh, clear skin flushed from the cold or perhaps from the excitement of arrival, and her eyes were the same wildflower blue as mine. It struck me forcefully that we looked very alike. My face was sharper than hers, my cheekbones higher and my nose longer, but our coloring was just the same. She stood a few centimeters shorter, perhaps the width of two fingers, but our builds were identical. If I had been introduced as her elder sister no one would have doubted it in the least.

"Countess," I said in Polish, and dipped a shallow courtesy as befitted her rank. "It is a very great pleasure to welcome you to Paris and to place myself at your disposal."

"Madame St. Elme," she replied in the same language, and I saw confusion cross the butler's face. Of course none of the household staff the Emperor had hired spoke Polish! It was not so common a language in France, and certainly not among skilled domestics. She drew herself up and her eyes were not warm. "So you are the one who is to teach me to be a dishonorable woman."

I straightened up from the courtesy like a duelist from a bow. To flinch from her would be a mistake. "I may lack virtue, Countess, but I do not think I lack honor."

At that she colored, her cheeks brightening, not so certain of herself as she had sounded.

"My loyalty to those I love is unimpeachable," I said.

"Marshal Ney," she said, and I saw the butler's eyes flicker. The name at least was close enough to the French for him to take the meaning.

"I have been his friend for nearly eight years," I said. "And it is not a regard I take lightly. I am not a whore, Countess."

She flinched. I had used the rudest word I knew in Polish. "I did not say that you were," she said.

"The Emperor does not mean any insult by sending me to you," I said. "I am the friend of one he esteems greatly, and he hoped that I might provide companionship for you in Paris. But if my presence is displeasing to you, I will take my leave." I once again made a courtesy of just the right depth and turned toward the door.

"You do not need to go," she said, and I stopped. "Perhaps I have misunderstood. We do not do things this way in Poland."

I nodded, letting the steel drop from my voice like dipping the point of a blade. "How is it done, then?"

"Every woman of worth has a husband," she said. The color was still high in her face. "Someone appropriate is found. The last king of Poland had a friend, Madame Grabowska, and she was married to his general even though her children were brought up in the castle. Everyone knew, but she was the general's wife and had a place even if it was a convenient fiction. You have no husband?"

"No," I said. "Nor want one. I can tend to my affairs myself, and some poor third party does not have to be dragged into a marriage of convenience." Well, other than Aglae, I thought, but it was best not to open that discussion.

The footmen were standing about with hatboxes and trunks, and she turned to direct them, telling the butler to take them upstairs and show them where things went, that her maid had already gone up to see to her toilette. Her French was quite good, if accented in a way the Emperor no doubt found charming.

She turned back to me. "I saw you with Ney," she said. "At the Foreign Minister's ball. Countess Potocka pointed you out and said that you were happy. Why should I not be so happy, she asked. Surely dishonor did not bring a life of misery and sorrow when you lit like a flame at his approach?"

I almost felt myself blushing, except that I was much too old. "We had been weeks apart," I said. "And I did not expect him to be there. The Emperor called him in unexpectedly."

And suddenly that made sense. Michel came in from Silesia to make a report in person that he could perfectly well have sent by courier at the Emperor's request. And why did the Emperor suddenly want him at Talleyrand's ball? For this, of course. He did not need me to join the chorus persuading Maria into his bed, but to provide an object lesson in the pleasures of concubinage. He had only to make certain that our reunion was in front of Maria, and Michel and I would carry on embarrassingly enough to make the point that such passions could give great pleasure if indulged! Oh he had used us again! And he had done so in a way that gave us nothing but delight while securing his own agenda!

All of this passed through my mind in a moment while Maria walked over the foot of the staircase, listening to the bangs and noises upstairs as the footmen tried to get things through narrow doorways. "You looked at him as if he were God," she said.

"Not quite God," I said. "Perhaps an angel."

She looked over her shoulder at me swiftly, as if not certain how to take that. "I do not think I can do that," she said.

She was honest, and honesty was best with her, honesty and a swift decision. And what was the use of knowing things if one did not use them? "Have you come to Paris for yourself, or for Poland?"

"For Poland," she said, raising her chin, but her eyes did not meet mine.

"That is a noble purpose," I said. "For we must fight as we can in our women's bodies and use the weapons that nature gave us."

Maria smiled then, shaking her head. "You sound like Countess Potocka. 'Why do you think God made you beautiful?'"

"To entrance a conqueror," I said. "To preserve your nation by making it dear to his heart. Why else would Frenchmen bleed to keep the Russians from Silesia?"

Her eyes were sharp. "And why would our Hussars come to Paris and place themselves under his command wherever he may need them? It is through our mingled blood that peoples are made one."

"Blood may be shed side by side on the battlefield," I said. "But the only place it mingles is the womb."

The color faded from her face. "And from that?" she said.

"A world reborn." I took a step closer. "There is a reason alchemists revered the final product of their interactions as a newborn baby, and a reason why the infant born in the darkness of winter speaks to all hearts. Where is the hope of the world except in the shining face of an infant, who unites all blood and brings peace?"

"Even if it be by his death?" Her eyes did not waver from mine. "The Prince of Peace was born at Christmas to die upon the cross, and his mother wept and rent her hair as he suffered. The hope of the world he might be, but it is still her son that died."

I dropped my eyes as there was no answer to that.

"To give a child to a great man is to give a hostage to fortune," Maria said. "It is to lay one's heart upon an altar and know that it will be destroyed."

"It is true that the Emperor has many enemies," I said. "But he has many friends too, and they are not inconsiderable." I thought it worth it to throw the dice and see. "And he loves you."

She turned, pacing away with her hand on the bottom of the stair rail. "Perhaps for the moment."

"This is the moment you have," I said gently. "Time is always racing away."

"You are very effective at persuading me to his bed," she said.

"If you did not mean to go to his bed you would not have come to Paris," I said.

She turned, and she was smiling, pure pleasure and enjoyment as though this game were something she enjoyed very much.

I shrugged. "Surely there were a thousand reasons to stay in Poland."

"There were."

"And so you are here, but now you must steel yourself for what comes. You wonder if he will be the same as he was last year, if you will be the same. If you will love, or if it will be a sad shadow of what there was and you will both wish that you had never seen each other again."

"Last spring…." Maria drew herself up. "Last spring I joined him at Finkelstein Castle outside Konigsburg. I stayed for two months, though no one knew I was there except his valet and Duroc. It was as though I had entered an enchanted underworld of secret rooms designed for my pleasure, and there was nothing but him."

"But now you must compete with the court," I said. "With thousands of beautiful ladies and with all the demands on his time. This is no enchanted idyll, but real life, messy and complicated and prone to sully the most wonderful memories. And you wonder if there will be anything left once you have left that underworld and walk again beneath the sun."

"Can there be?" she asked.

"I think so," I said honestly. "But then I think that enchantments are wrought. Beautiful moments come because we strive for them and learn to make them, because we cultivate them as a musician cultivates his skill or a writer his words or a Hussar his lethal art. It is the marriage of craft and inspiration that gives us timeless beauty. Whether he will love you forever, or you shall love him, I do not know. But I know that an idyll such as you describe was created. He created it for you. He is very adept at seeing how to give someone pleasure or how to manipulate their feelings into gratitude and delight. In many ways that is his gift, and he has never had any other."

Maria frowned. "How well you know him!"

"I have known many who were devoted to him for a long time," I said, which was no more and no less than the truth. "And I have willingly placed myself at his service." I might as well say that. She would guess it soon enough, and I thought Maria valued honesty.

She nodded slowly. "And you say that he loves me?"

"I think he is just as nervous about seeing you as you are about seeing him," I said. "I think he is afraid that all will be changed and you will not love him now, that he will think he was mistaken about you and that everything between you will have vanished like last year's snow. I do not think this requires fates or God or Poland in it. I think that is what lovers think when they have been apart and fear that their beloved has changed." I smiled at her. "I think you are very ordinary."

"He sent a note when I arrived, but he did not ask me to come to him."

"If you came to the Tuileries it would be nothing but gossip," I said. "It is not like Finkelstein Castle, believe me! Everyone in Paris would know you were there and how long you stayed and what you wore and what you said to one another and what the sheets looked like after."

Maria colored.

"He will come here tomorrow night, when you have had a chance to settle into your house and put your things away and have a good night's sleep that is not in an inn. That is how it is done. To stand on the steps like a schoolboy would embarrass you and also be unkind." I looked about the foyer. "And so the enchantment is yours. This is your stage but only you can make the scene."

"I see," she said seriously, and I thought she did.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 4th, 2014 12:12 am (UTC)
I love this piece.
Dec. 4th, 2014 01:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 8th, 2014 05:52 pm (UTC)
Oh good! That was meant to be like Lydias. Elza is so much the same person in many ways, and in this book she's trending toward Lydias, if that makes sense. To choose to be one's best self.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )