Madame Deficit and
By Orchid Vines
"History is fiction." – Maximillien Robespierre
I waited until Louis' breathing slowed down to a steady pace, twisting his brow in a frown as he always did in his sleep, and silently slipped out of the marital bed.
Louis had always been a sound sleeper, but I still took extra care not to wake him as I tip-toed across the creaky oak floorboards that furnished our master bedroom. Locked inside the Parisian palace the angry harpies had dragged us to, nostalgia filled every vessel of my brain whenever I looked around our pitifully degrading quarters.
I missed Versailles greatly, with its baroque mirrors, lively gaiety, and ridiculously fashionable traditions. It all seemed like a dream, a distant world belonging to a far-away life, never to be returned to us again.
It broke my heart, and my throat closed up until I almost suffocated. After such encounters with the past – which was reality barely a month ago – my heart filled with dread as I pondered on my family's instability.
We were all on edge, jumping at shadows, tossing in our dreams, dragging ourselves from day to day. It was all we could do to wait. Wait to die or wait to live. Each of us was in search for a personal absolution, something that would finally free us from this horrifying nightmare and return us to the sunny, carefree days of the antebellum.
I worried constantly, about Louis, about the children, about myself. It was at times like these when I longed most for my late mother's guidance. What would she say if she saw her precious angel fallen so low?
I'm sorry, Mamá, I have failed you.
In some ways, I deserved this horror. I gambled shamelessly, I decorated myself with diamonds and rubies, buying several Parisian dresses a week while children in the streets all over France died of starvation. Some days I would be so overcome with this heinous guilt that tore at my heart I felt like I would drown in it. Admittedly, some accounts were true, but many were lies as well.
The French, particularly the provocative sans-culottes, cut and reshaped every bit of gossip that escaped Versailles' insecure walls until it turned into something hideous and evil. They called me a bewitching Austrian harpy, a slave to power and money, a monster who ate children between bites of pastel-colored petite-cakes.
But if anyone had bothered to listen to my story, to my account of this financial turmoil, perhaps they would see that the deficit was not entirely my fault; that just maybe the wars across the seas in America were sucking our tax dollars dry, that millions were sent to the military, protecting our borders against the threatening Austria.
But no, they had no time to listen to the pleading voice of their former queen, they would much rather be led by the nose by that rat Robespierre than give my cry a second thought.
In truth, I hated him with every fiber of my being. He argued for Louis' death, turned our loyal countrymen against us, stripped me of my title, and spread lies about me and my children that made me no better than a common woman in a common brothel. He said – she said, 'let them eat cake!' Honestly, the man grew more desperate and impossible by the hour!
I ground my teeth to keep from screaming.
Whenever that vile man assaulted my thoughts, rage poured into my soul and bathed the world in a murderous red light. I wanted to choke him by his cravat, to smear his face across the walls of his own bedroom.
But images of revenge would not get the job done, so instead I crept towards a rosewood wardrobe, with its robin's egg paint peeling and one of the doors hanging off of its hinge. I reached into it without looking; I couldn't see in this darkness anyway, the public National Assembly deemed us unworthy of even one candle per night.
I fumbled blindly through the scratchy wool, a far fall from the slippery silks I've grown accustomed to, but did not have time to dwell uselessly on my discomfort especially when my fingers brushed against the subject I was looking for.
I pulled out the long, dark brown coat, mentally exclaiming in triumphant eureka. Throwing the ugly, heavy thing on my emaciated shoulders, I pulled the hood over my head. I had to be very careful of what I was about to do, to be caught meant certain death.
But I was doing this for my children, and for me, it was more than worth the risk.
I was not a simpleton, as the entire country seemed to believe, and I knew that the chances of Louis and I surviving another year were no better than zero. His trial was on Wednesday, and with a wretch like Robespierre arguing against him, he would be sent to the guillotine without a doubt. I knew I would follow, but how long after they take Louis? Loosing Louis, my husband and lifetime companion, I was sure to lose my head figuratively if not yet literally. He was my lifeline to sanity, my beacon in this torturous darkness, though I hated to be so dependent on the poor, fat man whom I to this day did not feel a shred of romantic attachment. I simply knew that in the deadly times ahead I would never be able to think as clearly, which was why I had to do this now.
My children's lives were still question marks, and I was determined to bargain with the Incorruptible to seal the fate and safety of my loved ones in the turbulent times ahead. I stiffened at the thought of meeting Robespierre, I was sure that negotiating with him would be like signing away my soul to the devil himself. I stopped my dreadful thoughts in their tracks. If I continued to think this way I would be too overcome with fear to go anywhere.
Brushing away a coming adrenaline rush, I reached into the cloak, shoving my hand within a deep pocket that was sewn on the inside to protect the privacy of secrets. I had several secrets in there, in fact, the fruit of a month's labor of planning. A document I had written over and over by the fading rays of twilight, editing and erasing all possible loopholes that could deny my children the right to Robespierre's own devotions: liberty, equality, fraternity, but most of all – safety and security, and something else which was slightly more lethal.
I fingered the sharp edges of the envelope, the document flawless but lacking Robespierre's official signature, before releasing it and groping my bargaining chip. A .37 caliber handgun, Louis' prize possession and favorite hunting tool for wild game. I traced the intricate silver-and-ivory handle with my fingernails, a design of lace and swirls. I took it with us on the day the Parisians stormed Versailles and dragged us to this mad, godforsaken city of Paris.
But nevertheless, it was a beautiful weapon, and I was sure it would provide just the right amount of leverage and persuasion to convince Robespierre to sign the deed when its barrel was pressed against his pale forehead.
I slipped on a pair of leather boots that I stole from my maid's quarters, the sole scuffed and torn and the body much too large for my feet. Beneath my nightgown, I was wearing one of Louis' old culottes, the satin breeches stopping just below my knees and hanging loosely at my thighs. It felt odd to be wearing a man's clothing, but it would provide me with the speed and comfort that I could never accomplish in a whale-bone skirt-buffer.
I crossed the room silently, my feet falling toe-to-heel, careful not excite the guards that were stationed outside our door. I glanced over my shoulder at my sleeping husband, his thin lips set and his brow furrowed, as if he was solving complicated problems in his sleep. I reached out and touched one of his soft brown curls that framed his thick, chubby face, taking up only a moment before turning away to face my objective – the window.
A tall, exhausted willow tree grew beside my bedroom window of the third floor. Its leafy green branches extended from the sill and over the iron gate, drooping low enough to touch the ground. My escape route was well-planned and open; the problem would be the actual climb.
As a girl, I was never allowed to participate in the childish games of sports, play-ball, leg-races, and tree-climbing. My life was so tightly wrapped around lessons of Latin, French, and elegance I could hardly afford some breathing time. It was the knowledge a would-be queen could not live without, but utterly useless in the world of the real, simple people.
I pushed the glass window open, and it swung out silently, well-oiled from the night before. Cold gusts of crisp January air blew into my face, and I sucked in large gulps of the fresh air, hoping to steady my thundering pulse before I lost my nerve completely.
I looked down from the third story. I had always possessed a great fear of heights, but I did not allow myself to think about it this time. Instead, I threw my leg over the side of the windowsill, followed by the other one. Before I knew it, my entire body was on a thick, sturdy tree branch.
I pushed the window shut behind me, and slowly climbed my way up and over, much easier said than done, and slid the rest of the way down on a sulking, ropy tree branch, relishing in the feel of the ground beneath my feet again.
I collected myself, double-checking my plan. I knew that I had to be back before dawn before Louis woke up and missed me, leaving the guards to accuse him of another escape attempt. I balanced my time. I told myself I would make it and make it I will!
I hurried down the long, wide Parisian street. The cobblestones were uneven and slippery from melted snow, the January breeze rushing through the small holes in my cloak and sending my teeth to chatter wildly. I pulled the hideous thing tightly around my body, and my booted footsteps picked up speed.
It was an astonishing sensation. I wondered if perhaps the peasants had been freer than I ever was. Imagine going out for a stroll whenever one felt like it! My lungs burned and my side ached, but I continuously power-walked faster and faster until I was running again, barely managing not to slip on the crooked stone of the road. I was sure that if I closed my eyes, it would give me the impression of flying.
On the back of my forearm, I had scrawled a certain Duplay family's address with an inky plume earlier this evening, a tidbit of information from my most loyal friend, the ambassador. I was unfamiliar with the Parisian layout, but I was sure that after spending proper time searching I would be able to find the street without a problem. The Duplay home was the residence of my great enemy, and that thought fueled me. After all, in finding them, I would surely Robespierre as well.
It was half past twelve when I found the tall, rectangular, brick townhouse of the Duplays that towered a yard above the rest of the homes on the street. It was elegant with a manicured flowerbed and lawn, no doubt the home of people who respected themselves.
I flung myself at the metal-rod gate, my hands wrapping around the bars as I struggled to level my breathing, the ghosts of my inhalation released in tiny puffs of clouds that swirled away in the winter breeze.
This moment had to be the boldest I've ever been, and I thanked God for not letting any harm come to me so far. Save for a group of drunken men lying in the street, I did not see a single soul on my half-hour trek from the palace to the townhouse.
The bleached silver moon hung low in the black, starless sky, resting on a bed of stormy blue clouds, heavy with unshed snow. With the pale light that bathed the street I was able see with my dilating pupils as I climbed over the short iron fence, just three inches above my slim waist, climbing into the Duplays' front yard.
The windows were dark save for the very frontal one, where a single candle burned in the parlor, as if waiting for someone to return home.
The name of the devil himself could not be more detestable.
I was sure that he was the absent one, delayed at another debating meeting of his fellow Jacobins, or perhaps it was the Committee of Public Safety or whatever they were calling it this week. What a misnomer! Public-Safety-my-pampered-Austrian-behind! Since when did safety and protection require the assistance of Madame Guillotine?
I went around the side of the house, searching for an entrance other than the front door, that would undoubtedly have been a very unwise move on the chaotic chessboard of my life. But my prayers were answered when I spotted the first story window, open just a crack. I pressed my face against it, peeking around the room cautiously.
It looked like a library, complete with an armchair, several candlesticks, and a wooden desk. There was also a fireplace, and in the furthest end of the room, a chest drawer and a dark canopy bed.
It was empty.
Again, I did not allow myself another thought that might possibly stop me, steadfast mental pictures of my children cutting my brain's warnings short.
I had to do this, I'd already gotten this far.
I pushed the window open, wider, diving inside head first. Landing with a soft thump, I froze, not daring to breathe, waiting for someone to barge in and find me. Luckily for the carpet that I met at the bottom, it muffled my noise and no one stormed inside to find me.
I wondered whose room this was, it reeked of citrus orange.
A great deal of papers were scattered randomly across the desk, but I had a feeling that perhaps for the owner, they were a pandemonium of precise organization. To the left of said chaos, two inkwells with much-abused feather plumes limped and bended from overuse, while black and blue scratch marks and ink drops covered the yellow parchment papers. It looked as if someone took pain-staking effort to change their scribbles into a masterpiece collaboration of elegant words and thought-provoking phrases.
I picked myself off the ground and inched cautiously towards the table, as if expecting someone to reach out and grab me, screaming 'don't move' into my face. I didn't touch anything, but I squinted into the moonlit darkness that softly illuminated the desk in a ghostly pale light. A mangled copy of the forbidden Rousseau's Social Contract lay opened to the middle, its leathery cover bent and several notes written in its margins.
Political affairs and biased discussions.
This had to be Robespierre's room. I could think of no one else on God's green earth to be so enraptured in speeches and debate. Moreover, though I've only seen Robespierre once years ago when we visited Louis Le Grande, he was prim and proper when he delivered his Latin soliloquy, but his entire appearance suggested a man that held influential political passion and brilliance.
Frustrated with his absence and anxious as the time crawled by, I sank down on his canopy bed to wait.
I could feel my mother turning in her grave.
Presenting her Royal Highness Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and fashion alike, stripped of her monarchy, her silks rotted to cotton rags, and her honor worthless, finding herself in the middle of the night in a strange man's private chamber with a cold gun pressed to her thigh.
I reached for the weapon, twirling it on my finger. I tried to imagine how Robespierre would react, or how he even looked now. I wondered if he would recognize me, the demoted queen in a peasant's attire, a common fishwife with ivory skin. It didn't matter what he thought, as long as he gave me his signature, I could die with my mind at ease knowing my children would not have to suffer the same fate.
I waited, feeling every second limp by, fatigue and worry taking its toll on me. I struggled to stay awake, and thankfully, did not have to wait too long. I must have been in the room for twenty minutes before the doorknob turned open, and a man carrying a candelabrum with four burning white candles dripping with melting wax slid mutely into the room. As if routinely, he bent to place the candleholder on his mahogany desk, pushing some of the papers aside with a sweep of his hand.
The room basked in the glow of the small firelights, and I hid in the darkest corner of the canopy bed, gathering and collecting my shreds of courage. Robespierre turned away before I could get a good look at his face, and as the seconds passed, I felt more and more unsure of myself.
Robespierre, completely oblivious to my presence, shuffled around in the fireplace, setting the logs and crinkling old newspapers aflame with his sconce, poking the glowing embers around the hearth with a poker, and soon enough had a fine fire warming the room.
It wasn't until I felt the heat of it bathing my face did I realize how cold I was. But I did not have time to enjoy my newfound comfort, for at that moment, Robespierre turned around, and I raised the handgun to his head.
His liquid emerald eyes hardened and snapped to meet mine, and I could see him struggle to keep the surprise off his face. Realizing I was but a woman, he relaxed considerably, but I was happy to detect the way he fidgeted nervously beneath gunpoint.
For a low-born lawyer, he was immaculately dressed in a sky blue coat, a bunched lace cravat at his throat, his wig perfectly brushed and powdered with a few white curls swept back at the temples. He wore green-tinted spectacles balanced on the tip of his long Roman nose, his eyebrows shapely and slanted, and the slope of his forehead was greatly exaggerated by dramatically pulled-back hair and short wig.
He was a world away from me, his perfection of style and my fallen appearance, it was enough to make me want to pull the trigger and blow a hole in his designer coat. I felt cheapened and misused, wishing for one of my fine pastel evening gown back at Versailles, but I refrained, his death would not make my documents official, besides, the click of the trigger would produce no affect.
He raised a single soft-brown eyebrow, his gold-rimmed spectacles catching the firelight and casting a luxurious shine. His thin lips twisted into a sardonic smile as his tensed body slowly relaxed and he unclenched his fists. The smile seemed forced and unnatural, and I immediately realized it was a smirk.
"Citizen Capet." He nodded at me, using Louis' last name to signify that he knew who I was. I ignored the pointed insult of him refusing the use of my royal title, the one he took away from me. "I must admit I never thought I would have the 'honor' of meeting you upon such…unusual circumstances."
His eyes left the gun barrel and drifted to the window, a trace of realization on his marble face showed that he understood how I broke in.
Physically unimposing, Maximillien Robespierre was a slight, pale figure, designed to go unnoticed, but his voice, metallic and high-pitched coated with a provincial accent and artificial softness was impressive and demanding of attention. It made me reluctantly appreciate how artfully he could keep such a large, boisterous French audience of the National Assembly wrapped tightly around his spidery fingers, clinging to his complicated words whenever he delivered one of his exhaustingly long speeches.
"To what do I owe the pleasure this late evening, Citizen Capet?" He flaunted the belittling title, his eyes taking in my attire, pretending not to notice the weapon in my head, or perhaps disbelieving that I, 'poor little rich girl', would have the gumption to use it.
I took a liberal step closer to him, slowly moving forward until the cold barrel was pressed against his smooth, unblemished face. It was only then did I see his Adam's apple bob apprehensively, and his fingers tugged at his cravat which had suddenly grown too tight.
Robespierre was but two years my senior, but worry and sleep-depriving nightmares aged me to look years older than he, stealing my youthful beauty - and I resented him for it. Why does this man not suffer?
"Monsieur L'Incorruptible," I purposefully refused to use his new trend of calling others by 'citizen', using his nickname instead, and I was rewarded with an undignified grimace from his part. He needed to understand that I would never give him an inch. "I'm so glad that I could catch you between your lie-spreading sessions and workshops of hypocrisy." I smiled sweetly at him, keeping my tone level. My goal was to back him into a corner with the purpose of making him feel vulnerable.
"What is it that you want, Madame?" He asked sharply, indignant, and with the use of that title, I could feel him bending to fit my will.
"I have something for you. Papers, negotiations, legal documents to sign," I reached inside my cloak pocket and produced the envelope. "Things you do best."
"I will not sign, Citizen Marie, I am a servant of the people. You're documents mean nothing." I sensed him trying to scare me off with the power of his voice, hoping to force me to believe it.
I smiled at him, coyly, the way my mother taught me. "Oh, Monsieur de Robespierre, I'm sure even someone as incorruptible as yourself could be persuaded with the right amount of leverage."
With that, I cocked Louis' handgun, and the barrel rested against his temple. Still smiling, I handed him the letter.
"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, Madame." Another one of his ardent and verbose phrases poured out of his mouth through the gates of his gritted teeth. "How am I to know if it's even loaded?"
I struggled to control my emotions, hoping he wouldn't see through me. "Would you like me to demonstrate, Monsieur? I'm afraid it may cost you your head."
"What made you so sure you could accomplish such a plan?" He muttered, being so close to him, I could smell the citrus orange scent that clung to his jacket.
"What made you so sure you could control my family?" I snipped his criticism in half with my own pair of scissors.
Irate, he jerked the letter out of my hand. "On what whim of yours am I forced to act upon, Madame? Still used to getting your way, aren't you?" His voice dripped with venomous resentment, and he tore the envelope open with sharp, jerky movements. "No, Citizen Marie, you were queen for far too long."
I stared at him, could he possibly still be cutting his teeth on Louis' and my childish insult to him the day he addressed us when I was fifteen and he was but two years older? I had seen him only once before and yet we spoke as if we had known each other personally for a long time.
Caught in one of his wordy, hypnotic trances, I reacted too slow for his speeding movements. In the blink of an eye, the envelope was cast on his desk, the barrel of the gun knocked away from his head and out of my hand, it flew across the room and landed with a loud thud. He turned me around, and pinned my arms behind my back until I cried out.
"Forgive me, Madame." His apology was gentlemanly and sincere, but I still wanted to tell him exactly where he could stick it. "But you left me no choice."
No! I panicked as he guided me down into an upholstery armchair. How could I have failed? I retained a shred of hope, for I traded my courage for furtive, feminine tactics. I, Queen Marie, was not above weeping and begging when it broke down to the well-being of my children.
Tears welled up in my eyes as if on cue, and I dropped my head into my hands, weeping loudly. I heard a peculiar sigh escape his lips that forced me to look at him in curiosity. I found him with his arm extended, a lace kerchief dangling from his long thin fingers. I looked closer to see his initials embroidered in blue, more willing to die than accept it.
"There is no need to flaunt your tears, fellow citizen." I snapped at the return of that title, and flung his handkerchief in his face. It fell to the floor, and he continued on as if nothing happened. "Such inadequate displays of emotion do not contradict my opinions."
Gentlemen, you underestimate your fellow humans, women. You think us weak and subordinate, you do not know of the wild, savage side that lurks beneath the endless volumes of skirts, modesty, and charm. And sometimes, once in a blue moon when pushed too far, it rears its ugly head, and our femininity is overcome with madness.
Catching him off guard, I jerked my shoulder into his chin, ripping one hand out of his strong grasp and jabbing an elbow into his stomach. I pushed him down on the floor, and I was caught up with him. Falling hard, I crawled towards the pistol that was sprawled in one corner of the room. Robespierre was on his feet, but not quickly enough. I grabbed the lethal weapon and pointed it up at him from the ground.
His wig in disarray with a few chestnut curls of his au natural hair peaking from beneath, his cravat wrinkled and mangled with his glasses hanging awkwardly sideways on his face, he raised his hands in surrender.
"Sign it!" I hissed through gritted teeth.
I pushed myself off the ground and stood behind him, watching him with hawk eyes as he calmly drifted into the velvet chair behind his desk, serene and collected as if the last thirty seconds had not happened at all.
He reached for the document. "If you have come to beg for the life of the king, I would rather die than sign for such treason."
"Then die you shall." I spat the words after him, knowing full well that it was useless, but I wasn't here for Louis, but for my son the dauphin.
Maximilien Robespierre ignored me, trading his tinted spectacles for a pair of clear ones, and I realized that the man was utterly blind. He read the document, frowning and nodding in some parts that were of interest to him. When he finished reading, he set the document down gently on the table, took off his glasses and reclined leisurely in his chair.
"That is all?" He asked incredulously, squinting at me as he held his eyeglasses, huffing on them and polishing the lenses with his cravat.
"What did you expect?" I snapped, raising my chin proudly into the air, watching him place the spectacles back on his nose.
He shrugged with one shoulder, immediately straightening his spine and placing his hands on his desk, fingertip to fingertip in the shape of a steeple. "Clemency and guaranteed protection under the law, education, and a government pension, that is what you want?"
"For my children," I replied, my voice dwindling until it was just barely above a harsh whisper.
He watched me with a look of admiration in his glossy eyes, and after a moment, he reached for the feathered plume from an inkwell. I examined his movements, not daring to breathe. But as I watched him sign the bottom of the page with an elaborate, inky flourish, I lowered the weapon just a fraction of an inch, my distrustful death grip on it still not loosening.
He placed the pen back into the well, and waved the drying ink signature in front of me. "Now if you won't mind, do lower the pistol." He twitched a little as he stared into the barrel. "It's making me increasingly nervous."
I shook my head, and he sighed at my refusal but remained unruffled. Instead of arguing further, he reached for a dark red stick of wax and held it over a candle until the tip began to melt. He dripped the hot wax over the envelope in which he had placed the document inside. He put away the wax and reached for a stamp. He pounded it on the paper, and when he peeled away the stamp, his custom seal with his initials 'M.R.' intertwined beneath the phrase 'Committee of Public Safety.'
He extended his arm over his desk in a liquid movement, his lace cuffs flowing delicately out of his sleeve. I reached for it, my gun trained at him as I snatched the envelope from his grasp. Behind me, a beautiful grandfather clock struck two AM. It was high time for me to leave.
"Merci," I had not intended on being civil, but I found myself being genuinely grateful for his sliver of mercy. Perhaps Robespierre was human.
I shoved the envelope into my pocket, and my scowl returned. Robespierre was a tool and I had every intention of using him.
I backed up towards the window, pushing it open with my elbow. Robespierre came around his desk and held the window open for me, offering a hand to help me down. I ignored it, not wanting him to think that this meeting changed anything. To remove all doubt, I looked him squarely in the eye and told him about it.
"This changes nothing." I hissed, my leg hanging out the window. "I hate and despise you, Robespierre, and I shall hate and despise you until I die!"
He smiled ruefully, his watery bottle-green eyes tracking my movements as I landed outside in the grass. "Which is not long, I assure you, Madame, not long at all."
His words sent a cold shiver of fear down my spine, but I snubbed to acknowledge his calmly-threatening phrase, I refused to dignify that statement with an answer. I could feel him watching me climb over the gate, and disappear into the night, wondering if the miraculously not-naïve Robespierre ever realize that my pistol truly did not posses bullets?