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Faces of the dead, p.1
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       Faces of the Dead, p.1

           Suzanne Weyn
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Faces of the Dead










































  Child of France! That is the title I am born to. It’s a most fitting label.

  Though at seventeen I hardly qualify as a child anymore. Still, I am my country’s creation as much — perhaps even more so — as I am the offspring of my mother, Queen Marie-Antoinette, and my father, King Louis the Sixteenth. My parents created me from flesh and blood, but so has France and its Revolution molded, shaped, and twisted me into my current form. They’ve taken the softness that was inside and fired it into a hard shell. They have warped my once-trusting mind so that I see plots and traitors at every turn. France, I am most truly the cynical, angry, anxious child you’ve made me.

  But it wasn’t always so. There was a time when I was very different.

  Here is my first memory. I am five and Mama’s smooth hand enfolds mine. She stands beside Papa, while our governess holds my little brother, Louis-Joseph. Our breath clouds up before us, but we’re not cold because we are wrapped in ermine-lined cloaks. I love the softness against my cheek.

  My family and I stand in front of the palace at Versailles in the minister’s courtyard, encircled by the Swiss guard, our private security force. We are among people — not on some high-up balcony — and this has never happened to me before.

  I love the smell and sounds of the crowd. All kinds of people are here. Some are very well dressed. Others are ragged and without coats or cloaks on this frigid day. But all are happy. Excited.

  This mass of people is what interests me the most. The crowd is enormous. Huge! It spills out from the rings of courtyards as far as I can see. I wouldn’t have ever imagined that so many people even existed.

  “People have come all the way from Paris just to witness this,” my father remarks to my mother.

  “Such numbers,” she murmurs, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully as she takes in the crowd, her royal subjects. Worry flickers across her face. Why fret on such a festive occasion? It puzzles me.

  “Shall we invite them all back for a feast afterward?” I suggest, thinking that she might be concerned with the matter of how they will eat. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

  “Do you think the palace is big enough to hold them all?” Mama asks with a soft smile.

  “Of course it is,” I say. “It’s the biggest place on earth! Isn’t it?”

  “It must surely be one of the largest,” she agrees, nodding, “but, even so, not large enough for such a multitude as this. At least I don’t think so.”

  “Please, Mama,” I beg, “these people are our subjects, aren’t they? Isn’t it our duty to feed them?”

  Mama hugs me to her, rubbing my back. “My Mousseline Serieuse.” That’s her nickname for me. It means “serious muslin.” She explained to me once that muslin is a fabric that appears quite dainty and delicate but is actually very strong and sturdy. She says I’m like that.

  Suddenly with one voice, a single awestruck breath, the crowd gasps, then coos in awe. Ah!

  Mama squeezes my hand, and I follow her gaze into the vastness of the cornflower-blue sky. An enormous azure-blue hot air balloon floats across the billowing clouds. It’s decorated with a golden fleur-de-lis, the royal symbol of my family, the Bourbons. Below the balloon hangs an open vessel that reminds me of a wooden bathtub. I can barely make out the figures of the two men standing in it. They are so high that they look like dolls in an open case.

  Around me, everyone murmurs. How wonderful! How beautiful! What heroes!

  “They’ve floated here all the way from the Tuileries Gardens,” Mama tells me. “This has never been done before.”

  I gaze up into her lovely blue eyes and can see the light of excitement in them. Her mounds of blonde curls are done up even higher than usual in honor of the event. A miniature version of the hot air balloon sits at the top of her coif. It seems playful and modest compared to the tiny, many-masted ship she wore in her hair last week in homage to France’s most recent naval victory at sea.

  “How will they get down?” I ask.

  Papa hears me. Turning, he smiles. “Watch, Marie-Thérèse,” he says. “You’ll see. We are entering a remarkable new era of science.”

  Around me, the onlookers are ecstatic or terrified. Many appear to be a little of both. A woman faints. A grown man shields his eyes as though afraid he will be blinded by the beauty of the balloon.

  The hot air balloon is fascinating, but it is not what I am watching. Instead, I observe the crowd as they observe the balloon. I have an urge to break from my mama’s grip and disappear into the field of people, become one with them. I wouldn’t dare, of course. But still, I long for the warmth of the French people. My people.

  I observe the children laughing and playing, picnicking with their families on the lawn. How I envy them — their freedom.

  What would it be like? I wonder.

  I am fifteen and this is my passion: to dance! The stiff minuets and cotillions danced at court functions are interesting to watch, but they’re not what I love. When there is a lively gavotte and the men spin the women, I would die to join in. I’m too young, of course. But someday soon …

  At Mama’s country house that lies far out on the Versailles property, I can dance as I like. At her rustic refuge I can jig and jump and spin until I am dizzy and spent. Sometimes Mama’s royal friends join me; other times they play cards and gamble, recite poetry so dramatic that Mama sometimes weeps, and perform comical plays that make her roll with laughter.

  When Mama is at her country house, she’s not at all queenly. I am happiest there with her because she is happiest there: smiling and humming country songs from her girlhood home in Austria. She says it was lovely and relaxed there, not at all like the stiff formality here at Versailles. She’s sad that she had to leave it all behind when she came to France to marry my father. Mama was thirteen when she left Austria!

  At the Petit Trianon, which is the name of the country estate, I can relax, too, and just be a girl — not a princess. At the Trianon I am only my mother and father’s child — not the Child of France. There are goats to milk and fields to run in. Mama and I pretend that we are shepherdesses watching our flock.

  I have a lovely music box Mama gave to me. In it are a mother and her daughter dressed as shepherdesses with straw bonnets and white gowns, and each of them carries a crook. A little lamb frolics beside them. When I wind the box, a sweet folk song plays and the mother and daughter turn.

  At the country house, I also dance with Ernestine, my very dearest friend from the palace. We are only six months apart in age. Though her mother is a chambermaid, M
ama took a liking to Ernestine when we were both very little and has had her come every day since then to be my companion.

  When Ernestine and I are not jigging or pretending to dance in a ballet, leaping in a field, we practice court dances at the country house’s party room. We twirl and curtsy, laughing and imagining all the handsome courtiers we’ll someday dance with. We give up on ever mastering the longways dances, in which men and women face each other in a line, then change places and dance with different partners. The steps are monstrously confusing.

  Madame Bertin, the royal wardrobe mistress, makes Ernestine and me dresses of soft white ruffled muslin similar to the one Mama likes to wear. They have wide blue sashes at the waist and matching ribbons just below the elbows. The frocks are called gaulles and are deliciously airy — so unlike the formal dresses that we must wear at court, with their itchy ruffled collars, tight-fitting bodices, and wide pannier hoops underneath the full skirts.

  That summer Mama wears her light frock with a wide-brimmed straw bonnet adorned with fluffy blue plumed feathers. We don’t wear bonnets but simply bundle our blonde curls in a blue ribbon. Our hair color is nearly the same light yellow. Only the three of us realize that Ernestine’s face is framed with a more golden shade of blonde; for everyone else it’s too small a detail.

  How beautiful we feel as we stand side by side admiring ourselves in an oval mirror. “We’re princesses disguised as country maidens,” I proclaim.

  “But I’m not really a princess,” Ernestine says after a while.

  “It doesn’t matter,” I reply.

  By sixteen, we’ve been playing the game of switching identities for years. The first time it happened, Ernestine was twelve and I was eleven and a half.

  “You’ve been bad!” Ernestine scolded playfully on that day as she entered my bedroom.

  I turned from the romance novel I’d been reading as I sprawled across my bed. “I have?”

  “Yes! You were supposed to be at the queen’s side when she presented twenty pounds of flour to the Ladies Orphanage Society this afternoon.”

  My hands flew to my cheeks as they reddened. “I completely forgot! Why didn’t someone come to get me?”

  “One of your mother’s ladies did come, but she thought I was you. I didn’t know where you were, so I went, instead.”

  “She couldn’t tell it wasn’t me?” I asked, surprised. I knew that everyone remarked how much Ernestine and I look alike, but that was the first time she’d been mistaken for me.

  Ernestine shook her head.

  “Mama couldn’t even tell?”

  “I think maybe she could.”

  “Why do you think that?”

  Ernestine smiled. “She winked at me as I left.”

  “Thank you for standing in for me,” I said.

  “It was fun. I liked it.”

  That’s when the idea was born. How many other royal duties could I escape with a twin who enjoyed taking my place? How much freedom could I enjoy by pretending to be her?

  That’s how it all begins. Ernestine sits in for me at royal events, such as stuffy dinners with visiting royalty, boring operas performed in the ballrooms, and endless speeches about enhancing the French roadways that Papa expects our whole family to attend. Ernestine claims to love it all. “Some of it is dull,” she admits, “but it’s such fun to be a princess if only for a few hours.”

  For my part, it’s a chance to have some real fun. Mama provides Ernestine with lovely dresses, but they’re not as grand as the ones I’m expected to wear. It’s such a relief to slip into one of Ernestine’s gowns and roam the palace.

  On one of my roams, I persuaded a maid to teach me a jig. On another, one of the bakers taught me to make dough and shape it into a pie crust. On one beautiful day I played a game of tag with the children of the servants. It’s such fun to lift my skirts and run as I could never do as a princess.

  * * *

  We are playing our switch game when something interesting happens. Ernestine’s acting as me and attending a lecture on French horticultural advances with the rest of my family. I am running through one of the palace’s many secret passageways in her dress and flat velvet shoes until I come to a door that I know well. It leads to a closet in the servants’ quarters.

  Pushing it forward carefully, I step into a space filled with buckets, mops, and brooms. They clatter and I hold my breath in alarm, but no one comes to investigate the noise.

  Cracking open the outer door leading into the hallway, I wait for a moment to be certain that the hall is empty, and then I step out. I breathe a short sigh of relief and start to wander down the hall and around the first corner. “Good evening, Ernestine,” I am greeted by a servant, a young man.

  “Good evening!” I chirp back brightly, pleased that he did not bow formally to me but greeted me with friendliness. He simply assumes I belong here.

  Oh, what freedom! How I love it!

  “My, how those curls bounce!” says a fat maid. I smile at her and keep moving dancingly along.

  Wonderful smells pull me toward the kitchen. A burly baker, the same one who taught me to make pie dough, withdraws a paddle laden with tart crusts from the stone oven. My mouth waters even though I have already dined on roasted pheasant and potatoes and feasted on strawberry custard tarts for dessert. Several maids and two footmen sit at a long plank table eating what looks like some kind of bird. Maybe it is what is left of the pheasant.

  The baker smiles when he notices me. “Ernestine!” he cries happily. “So good to see you again. I have been waiting for you to escape Madame Royale and come back here where you belong. Sit! I am making a second batch of tarts. One of them will be just for you.”

  “Thank you. But I have already had one with Marie-Thérèse,” I say. This is true.

  “Have another,” the baker offers with a laugh as he ladles chopped strawberries from a bowl into the tart crust. “You are too skinny.”

  Thanking him, I take a place at the plank table. Only after I am seated do I realize that I am across from a woman who comes to the palace to give art lessons to my aunt, Madame Élisabeth, Papa’s sister.

  In the art room, they fashion figures of famous people out of warm wax. Aunt Élisabeth’s work is lumpy and misshapen. But the art teacher’s sculptures are amazing. In the corner of the art room stands a life-size sculpture of the famous American Thomas Jefferson, whom we French admire so much. The afternoon when I peeked into the door to watch them work, I thought that the great Jefferson was really there in person until I realized he was too still to be alive. I jumped away from the door when the art teacher turned abruptly and locked me in her steely gaze.

  Later, I asked Aunt Élisabeth about her and discovered that the art teacher is named Anna Marie Grosholtz. “She’s Alsatian,” my aunt told me. “They are more German than French over there, even though it’s French territory.”

  Now I am sitting across the table from Mademoiselle Grosholtz. Something about her unsettles me. Perhaps it is her unsmiling face or her dark, bird-quick alertness.

  She is plain, though not ugly, with brown curls tucked into a ruffled lace cap. At her neck she wears a pinned scarf over a brown gown. The rest of her is hidden under an artist’s smock that is smeared with grayish wax.

  As she sits with the dishes from her meal still in front of her, Mademoiselle Grosholtz works on something that she holds just beneath the table. Knitting? Needlework? I don’t have the nerve to look down to see. From time to time she gazes up from her work, stares at me, and then returns to it.

  Does she live here at the palace? So very many people live here in one or another of the numerous wings and buildings. It’s almost impossible to know who belongs and who doesn’t.

  Mademoiselle Grosholtz stands, and as she does, she tosses a small beige pebble at me. Reflexively, my hand shoots up to snap it from the air. Surprised at its smooth softness, I unfold my fingers.

  It is no pebble.

  I hold in my hand what resembles t
he head of a small doll. But it is soft, still malleable. And it has been pressed with her fingers and sculpted with her fingernails.

  It is an exact image of me.

  How did she do it so quickly and with such accuracy? It’s spooky and I don’t like it. I don’t like her, I decide. She scares me.

  My hand curls into a fist and with a quick thump I smash the wax visage flat onto the table. Instantly, heat jumps into my face, my cheeks burning.

  Mademoiselle Grosholtz laughs at me, but only with her eyes, and then walks off. She is yards away before I hear her actually chuckle.

  Gazing down at the smashed wax, I regret my impulsivity. Why did it make me so uneasy that I had to destroy it?

  The first time I decide that I might leave the palace dressed as Ernestine, we are sixteen.

  “You’re not serious?” Ernestine asks me, shocked. “You can’t do that!”

  We’re standing in the sparkling Hall of Mirrors. The entire corridor shimmers with light as the afternoon rays come from the long outside windows and bounce off the mirrors on the other side. Crystal chandeliers throw rainbows everywhere.

  “Look at us,” I say, drawing her beside me, to gaze into a mirror. “Each day we look more and more alike.”

  “You have a better nose,” Ernestine says.

  “I do not,” I say. “We could be twins!”

  I lower my voice as two noblemen pass us, heads together, deep in murmured conversation. “I want to leave the palace dressed as you,” I whisper again when they’ve gone by. “Please say you’ll switch with me.”

  “But why?” Ernestine asks in exasperation. “You have everything here at the palace. No one in all of France has a more elegant, serene life than you do.”

  “You don’t understand. They call me the Child of France, but I don’t know anything about it. I want to see the real France.”

  “The real France is starving and wretched. You don’t want to see it.”

  “No. If things are as bad as that, Papa would do something about it. He loves the people of France,” I insist.

  “That doesn’t feed anyone,” Ernestine mumbles.

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