Fourth of Brumaire,
Year One of the French Republic
“It is hardly an unknown fact that you are a coquin,—a rogue—Desquette.” The young speaker tossed back her long curls with an impatient hand and smiled at Desquette. “There is no need to pretend you are virtuous.” A general murmur of laughter warmed through the crowd gathered around the young lady as she stood at the mantel, one hand poised on the shelf, toying with a miniature of some long-guillotined aristocrat.
“If we haven’t virtue, have we anything?” This question from a woman of mature countenance sitting somewhat to the side—her eyes obscured by shadow, her mouth a thread of scarlet.
“La, Citoyenne—virtue is outdated. A whim of the aristos. Pray, do not speak of virtue here.” The young lady’s lips curved in a haughty smile and her cheek dimpled. “Desquette wants nothing to do with virtue—‘twould spoil all his fun, and he’s vowed to live for nothing else. We cannot afford to have him die just yet.”
Another general laugh, and the coquin, Desquette, rose from the red chaise-lounge and came to the girl’s side. In his hand he held a slender glass filled with pilfered wine; this he raised and commanded the room’s attention. “Are we to allow Citoyenne Corinne Garnier the pleasure of handing out all the bon mots?” The young man gestured to the girl and winked. “I think not. Some of us still have able enough tongues in our heads. Corinne, my love, your regime is up—sit you down and let another guillotine our wit.”
“Gladly would I lay my office aside if I was sure another could perform it as well as I,” Corinne said with a curtsy. “But there are precious few executioners the job could be trusted to. You are so stiff-necked.” She curtsied again, her dove-colored gown brushing the floor, took the glass of wine from Desquette’s hand, and wandered to the back of the long room.
“I suppose you know you are clever, Corinne?” The smooth voice at her elbow no more startled than displeased her.
She turned with a smile and put her hand into that of the tall, slender fellow who lounged against a pillar. “Renaud!—you are late again.”
“I arrive at precisely the right time.”
“By whose reckoning?”
Corinne removed her hand and fingered the silk rose at her waist. “That is where you make a grave miscalculation—everyone at Les Salon Des Patriotes knows I am queen and my word is law.” She pressed her lips together and watched the quick play of thunder in Renaud Tremaine’s eyes. And what if she had misspoken and called herself a queen? Sure and she was vexed at the slip, but worse things had happened and Renaud could never accuse her of sympathy with the aristos. “Renaud, for heaven’s sake. Would you send me to the guillotine for a remark like that? Bah. What a fool you are.” She shrugged and the air in the parlor—away as they were from the fireside—wrapped clammy fingers around her bare shoulders. From the velvet-swaddled windows came the sound of a small hard rain. It scratched with the nails of a hundred tiny rodents, and Corinne was glad of a sudden for the warm, cloistered salon on the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honoré. A fine apartment it was, she admitted, though it had belonged to some of the bloody aristos they hated so well. Renaud had once held scruples against living in the same rooms and breathing the same air as a traitor. But even he now appeared perfectly comfortable as he leaned against the pillar, eyes closed and arms crossed. He always had been exacting in the extent of his patriotic tastes. Corinne sighed. “Would you be better pleased if I told you I was the Robespierre of this parlor?” If she had meant the question as sarcasm, her dart missed its mark and dropped, harmless, on the marble floor.
“Of course I would rather have you a Robespierre than a Capet.” Renaud’s eyes flickered to hers in a quick, keen question then fell smoldering beneath his lids again.
“Do you doubt my faith?” Corinne asked, and this time poured derision in her tone.
Renaud pushed himself from the pillar and took her hand again. Corinne marked how pale those supple fingers were—how blond and bright and beautiful her cousin was in that terrible lightening-fire way he had. No wonder men gathered to him as moths to a lantern—Nature had marked him as a leader since birth and destined him for great things. This reckoning of Renaud Tremaine softened Corinne’s heart a bit. She raised his hand to her lips and kissed it, letting him fondle her hair with his free hand.
His mouth tipped. “Do I doubt you? Never I. You are too sensible, too enlightened—too like myself—to be anything apart from me and my beliefs. But take a care that you think before you speak. I never say a thing but I’ve thought it over ten minutes past and gone through it twice and again to be sure it is what I meant.”
Corinne kissed his hand again with her soft lips. “You are good to me, Renaud; so kind and patient when my very presence is irksome to you.” The tone was gentle and purring, the words humble, but Corinne laughed wickedly within. Renaud knew as well as she that he could no more exist without her than she without him.
He laughed aloud and teased audible laughter from her into the cool darkness of the parlor. “You thought I was angry with you, did you not?” he asked.
What had he wanted her to think? But Corinne only turned her back to Renaud and tossed a flutter of slender fingers over her left shoulder. “Angry? With me? By all the wrongs in the Cahiers, I don’t see why you should be. Don’t give yourself airs and think that your opinion of me matters a whit.” She paused, half in, half out of the lamplight, and looked at Renaud, wondering if he believed her—nay, if she believed herself.
“Where is our salonnière? Citoyenne Corinne—where have you gone to?”
“They call you, Citoyenne,” Renaud said. His restless fingers straightened his cravat as his dark eyes held Corinne’s in an understanding gaze.
“They can wait—have you anything more to say to me?”
Renaud smiled, and it seemed to Corinne like sunlight breaking from a thunderhead over the Champ de Mars. “If you are not going to drink the wine, may I have it?”
Corinne glanced down at the glass from Desquette and felt swift anger rise in her throat. Why she was angry she could not tell, only that she was. “Take it, with my pleasure,” pushing the goblet into Renaud’s hand, “I have no use for Capet-liquor.”
Well, how do you like my new child? I am predisposed to love him superfluously.