Happy Twelfth Night! I’m very fond of 6 January. It lends it’s name to a favorite Shakespeare play (I got to work on Viola when I was studying acting; she’s one of the Shakespeare characters I’d have loved to play in a full production–I still go over the “willow cabin” speech sometimes when I’m doing vocal warm-ups for a talk). And a number of Sherlockians consider it the birthday of Sherlock Holmes (a tradition Laurie King follows in her Mary Russell series).
6 January is also the day on which The Mask of Night begins. For the last of the excerpts from the book I’ve been posting over the holiday season, here is the prologue, which offers a glimpse of a young Mélanie and her first meeting with the Empress Josephine, whose ghost hangs over the novel in many ways, and of her daughter Hortense, who is an important character in the novel. I’ll be back to regular blogging next week, but I’ll continue to post excerpts from The Mask of Night every now and then. Suggestions of scenes you’d like to see (and thoughts on the ones you have seen) are very welcome.
This week’s Fraser Correspondence offers a glimpse of the Frasers’ New Year celebrations 31 December 1819-1 January 1820, as described by Lady Frances in a letter to Billy Hopkins.
Happy New Year!
Rue St. Jacques, Paris
Mélanie Lescaut slid out from the weight of the sleeping man’s arm. The air sliced into her bare flesh, but she sat stock still while she counted out three minutes. The fire in the grate had burned down to acrid embers. The sheets—fine linen from Provence, soft as a silk chemise—lay tangled about her legs, damp with sweat and the other raw remnants of the acts she and the man in the bed had engaged in.
A half-full glass of cognac stood on the night-table. A single candle (he’d insisted on leaving one lit) guttered in its chased silver candlestick. The clean beeswax light flickered over the man’s wide cheekbones, his sleep-slackened lips, the puckered scar on his collarbone. He’d blackened his lashes to match his dyed hair. Traces of the blacking had smeared in the purple-shadowed creases round his eyes.
Three minutes and the even rise and fall of his chest hadn’t altered. She pushed herself up so she had a better view of the room. The sheet slid over her skin, bringing the memory of trailing fingers. Inconvenient. She shifted her gaze round the room. Where to start? The calfskin binding of the books on the low shelf against the wall? The frame of the oil (Fragonard or a good imitation) that hung over the writing desk? A secret drawer in the desk itself? Or somewhere at once more obvious and less obtrusive…
She looked backed at the bed. The fluted walnut bedposts, still looped round with crimson silk cords. The thick goose feather mattress (not that please, how the devil would she manage to slit it open without waking him?). Below the bed, a Turkey rug in indigo and blood red covered the floorboards. Surely a secret compartment beneath the floorboards was too unimaginative. And yet he had taken care to cover the floor with their tangle of discarded clothes. The second glass of cognac lay tipped on its side amid the garments. The candlelight made hills and valleys of light and shadow out of the peacock blue silk of her gown, the white linen of his shirt and her chemise, the gleaming black cassimere of his coat and the silk of his pantaloons. Her satin-ribboned slippers had somehow landed halfway across the carpet, but his silver-buckled shoes stood neatly beside the bed, along with his walking stick. Her gaze moved on to the crumpled velvet of her opera cloak, littered with a jumble of jeweled hairpins, then went back to the walking stick. It had an elaborate handle of carved ivory. She’d assumed it was a swordstick. But–
She reached down and grasped the cool wood of the stick, then twisted the ivory handle. It moved with the ease of frequent use. She gave another twist. If it was this easy–
Fingers closed on her arm. She spun round, still gripping the walking stick, and felt the press of cold steel at her throat. A glass-sharp blue gaze pinned her where she sat.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he said in a voice that would have turned raw spirits to ice.
Later the same night
Mélanie followed the powdered head and liveried back of the footman down the labyrinth of passageways. The candle the footman carried made an island of golden warmth. Occasionally the light would flash against the gilt of a table leg or a sofa arm, the gleaming white of a piece of statuary, the glistening oils of a painting. Fragments of painted images shot past her gaze. Classical robes, Neptune’s trident, lovers in a flowery bower. She could not see enough to put a name to any of the painters but the richness of color took her back to visits she had made with her father to the Louvre and the Prado. The old days when her world had been safe. Not so very long ago if measured by the calendar, yet the gulf between then and now was so wide that she could scarcely remember the girl she had been.
The footman stopped before a pair of doors topped by two carved bees picked out in gilt. He rapped and flung the doors open. The room beyond was lit only by tapers on the mantle and two enamel lamps. She had a brief impression of jewel-toned carpets, a snowy-white mantel, a dark-haired woman seated on a deep-cushioned sofa of gold velvet.
Mélanie stepped into the room, fear and shame coiled tight within her. The doors closed with a discreet click and the footman’s steps retreated down the corridor.
The woman got to her feet. She wore a white gown and a heavy shawl of purple cashmere. Her face was half in shadow, but even so it was instantly recognizable. The softly rounded features, the chestnut hair clustered in curls over the high forehead, the wide deep blue eyes fringed by dark lashes made darker with blacking. The face Mélanie had studied in prints and drawings throughout her girlhood. The face immortalized in the David painting of the ceremony in Notre Dame. Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie. The Vicomtesse de Beauharnais. Josephine Bonaparte. The Empress of France.
Mélanie reminded herself that this was a role like any other and sank into a curtsy. “Your—” The title stuck in her throat. She forced it out. “Your majesty.”
The Empress’s mouth curved. “A republican like your employer, I see.”
Mélanie straightened her shoulders. “M. O’Roarke has served the Empire well.”
“Raoul O’Roarke is a pragmatist. Better an Emperor with some belief in the rights of man than a return of the monarchy.” Josephine surveyed her for a moment. “I know Raoul is unorthodox in his choice of agents, but I hadn’t expected you to be quite so young. You can’t be a day over seventeen.”
She was in fact a number of months shy of seventeen, but it seemed best not to enlighten the Empress. “M. O’Roarke said he needed someone who could get under Julien St. Juste’s guard.”
“No easy task. What is your name?”
“Lescaut. Mélanie Lescaut.”
“Mlle. Lescaut.” The Empress had a warm, lilting voice. Mélanie, trained to recognize accents, could hear an echo of Josephine’s native Martinique. But beneath the languor was an undertone of fear. Josephine fingered the border of her shawl. Then, as if half-afraid of the answer, she said, “I believe you have something for me, mademoiselle?”
The urge to run back to Raoul O’Roarke rather than keep this meeting with the Empress had been almost overmastering. But she had not let herself give way to it, and she would not run now. She looked straight into the Empress’s eyes. “I have failed, madame.”
She was prepared for anger. She was prepared to be struck or ordered from the room or hauled off by armed men. She was not prepared for the way all the blood suddenly drained from the Empress’s face. Josephine swayed on her feet and would have fallen had Mélanie not caught her arm. She steered the Empress to the sofa and cast a quick glance about the room. A demi-lune table held a Venetian glass decanter and a set of glasses. She poured a glass of wine and pressed it into the Empress’s hand. When it nearly tumbled from the woman’s nerveless fingers, she put her hand over Josephine’s own and guided the glass to her lips. Josephine gulped down a swallow. A little color returned to her cheeks beneath the bright splotches of rouge.
“I failed in my mission,” Mélanie said. “But it may not be as bad as you fear.”
Josephine’s blue eyes fastened on her face, wracked by ghosts Mélanie could not begin to guess at. “You can’t know, child. Holy Mother—”
“No. I can’t know.” Mélanie sank back on her heels on the soft pile of the Aubusson carpet. “You’ll have to judge for yourself.”
“Nothing could possibly—” Josephine raked Mélanie’s face with a fever-bright gaze. “Tell me.”
Mélanie folded her hands in her lap. She was sitting before the most powerful woman in all France. And she had knowledge—however imperfect that knowledge might be—of something that could destroy the Empress. Especially now when, rumor had it, Bonaparte’s family and half his court were clamoring for him to divorce her. “I contrived to meet Julien St. Juste at the Comédie Francaise. I persuaded him to take me to his rooms.” She slid over what had happened subsequently. There were only so many ways to describe such acts in any case. . “He caught me searching for the paper. . I thought he was asleep.”
“I took every precaution M. O’Roarke taught me. But I misjudged it. St. Juste put a knife to my throat. It was no more than I deserved for my clumsiness.” She could still feel the imprint of steel against her collarbone. For a moment, she’d been sure her first mission would be her last. “But St. Juste asked who sent me. M. O’Roarke had told me to admit the truth if I was caught, so I did so.”
“And St. Juste—”
“He said I hadn’t done badly all things considered. Far more seasoned agents had failed to outwit him.” The words stuck in her throat. The amusement in his gaze still stung. “He said he couldn’t afford to give up the paper, and it wasn’t where I had been searching in any case. But–” Mélanie looked into Josephine’s eyes, repeating the speech word for word as that strange, violent man had repeated it to her. “He said you were one of the few people on this earth he’d never hurt. He said to tell you he would never use the information against you and that should you ever have need of his services you could command him in anything.”
The Empress closed her eyes for a moment. Lines stood out stark against her skin. “I’d be a fool to believe him.”
“Yes. But in that moment I found myself doing so. I can’t speak for the future, but for the present, I don’t believe he will use the paper against you.”
“Do you know what the paper contains?”
Mélanie swallowed, aware that she was picking her way through a field set with mines. “No. M. O’Roarke only told me what I needed to know to recognize it. And that it was in code.”
“Surely you know how to break codes.”
“I had no need to break this one. And I never saw the paper.”
“But you understood how important it was that I recovered it.”
Tension hung in the air, sharp and lethal as the blade of the guillotine. A knife in her ribs in a crowded boulevard, a bungled robbery in a dark alley– Easily enough arranged, surely, and the Empress would have no more need to fear the inconvenient knowledge of a sixteen-year-old ex-whore turned spy. “It would be awkward for you if it fell into the wrong hands.”
“You have a gift for understatement, chérie.” Josephine began to laugh. The high, brittle sound split the candle-scented air and reverberated off the silk-hung walls.
Mélanie reached out to her, but as she did so, the door was flung open. “Maman!” A gold-haired young woman in blue ran into the room and stopped short on the threshold. She cast a quick glance at Mélanie, then ran to the Empress’s side.
“Maman, please, you’ll make yourself ill.” The girl rocked Josephine in her arms.
As abruptly as it had started, the laughter ceased. Josephine pulled away from her daughter. “Enough, chérie.”
“I’m all right,” Josephine said in the tone of a woman used to having her smallest command obeyed.
The young woman darted a quick glance at Mélanie. She must be Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte, Josephine’s daughter from her first marriage and now the wife of Napoleon’s younger brother,
Josephine straightened her back and smoothed her shawl. “This is Mlle. Lescaut. Raoul O’Roarke engaged her to do a service for me.”
Hortense gave an artless, unaffected smile that held none of the hauteur Mélanie would have expected from royalty. “You have my thanks, mademoiselle.” She cast a worried look at her mother. “It’s over then? What’s been worrying you these past days?”
“Over?” The Empress’s hands closed on the folds of her shawl. “Oh, no, chérie. I fear it’s only just beginning.” She caught Mélanie’s wrist in a hard grip. “I must have your word. That you won’t reveal tonight’s events to anyone.”
Mélanie looked into the desperate gaze of the Empress of France and received yet another shock on an evening full of them. For what she felt was not fear or remorse but a wholly unexpected welling of sympathy. “Madame—”
Mélanie stared into Josephine’s fever-bright gaze and made the promise she feared even then she would not be able to keep.
“I swear it.”