Chapter One: The Circus and the Sans-culotte
Whenever my father’s eyelids started flickering like a guttering street lamp, it was a sure sign that something was on his mind.
Papa blinked distractedly as he helped me into my seat in the carriage; he wore a forced smile as he stared out the window into the Paris streets; every so often the glow of the lamplight--steady, at the moment--would reveal a troubled twitch in his usually serene face. I tried to pretend it was only the jostling of the carriage wheels on the cobblestones, but I knew better. I’d been watching him ever since my mother died, since I was still toddling around and lisping my first words.
“Is anything wrong, Papa?” I asked. I slid from my seat to the empty spot next to him and put my hand into his large one, cuddling against him as if I were a baby again and not a thirteen-year-old young lady. He blinked a few more times, pulled me into a hug and laughed. I loved his laugh: deep and rich, like melting chocolate. But this evening it was like chocolate that someone had forgotten to sweeten. It rang out thin and a little bitter, lacking the sugar and cream of lightheartedness.
“I’m well as ever, my Juliette,” he said. “Whatever made you think otherwise? Today is a wonderful day, a momentous day! I have more than one surprise for you.”
The first surprise came too soon, when the footman called out “Whoa!” and the clacking of the horses’ hooves came to a stop before a gaudy facade with more elaborately carved marble columns than windows. It was the hotel of Baroness Jeanne Marie Bernard, the city mansion where she and her daughter lived while at court. The carriage lurched, and so did my stomach.
“Why are we here?” I asked. I tried to mask my distaste, rather unsuccessfully.
Papa leaned out the window, watching the footman go to the door. “I thought you’d want to bring your friend Angeline along...for the surprise,” he said.
“And her mother?”
I closed my eyes and leaned against my father. He didn’t even smell like Papa today--some perfume masked his usual clean-linen and ink smell, making him seem flowery and fake.
But it was soon overshadowed by the clouds of cloying scent that entered the carriage with the baroness. “My dear Comte de la Marche!” she exclaimed, as if nothing in the world could have surprised her more than seeing him: a statement firmly contradicted by the perfection of every curl in her coiffure and every ruffle in her gown. She dressed in the wide, gaudy gowns still preferred at court; Angeline, after giving me a nod, was forced to squeeze behind a shimmering, bow-bedecked foot of pink silk in order to fit onto the seat. Luckily she and I wore more modern dresses of high-waisted and gauzy white cotton, else we all would have been suffocated in fabric.
The transformation in Papa was immediate. Perhaps I could still hear the bitter note to his laugh, but to the rest of the world--certainly to Jeanne Marie and Angeline--he was the very soul of wit and gaiety. His foot tapped the velvet floor in anticipation.
“No, I won’t tell you,” he answered Jeanne Marie’s teasing as to our destination. “The devil couldn’t drag it from me.”
Jeanne Marie raised her thin, plucked eyebrows in an expression of shock. “My, my, Michel! And are you on speaking terms with the creature, I must ask?”
“As if the devil would show his ugly horned head when so much beauty surrounds me!” Papa bowed his head to the baroness, then to Angeline and lastly me. My stomach lurched again.
Or perhaps it was merely the carriage, coming once more to a stop. I leaned out the window to see, then popped back inside feeling excited for the first time that night. “Papa! The circus! You’re taking us to the circus? Oh, I’ve longed to go!”
I threw my arms around him and squeezed tight. He gave my cheek a smacking kiss.
“Didn’t I say you would like it, my jewel?”