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The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

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Random House, Crown Publishers
(Paperback, 322 pages)
# ISBN-10: 0307953033
# ISBN-13: 978-0307953032

 

The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

Excerpt

Chapter 1
Maria Lucia, Princess of Austria
Schönbrunn Palace, Austria
November 1809

I study Maria Ludovika’s face in the fresh light of our studio, trying to determine whether I should paint her with or without the golden diadem in her hair. A few steps away, almost close enough to touch, she is holding up a paintbrush and studying me. The courtiers in my father’s palace call us the Two Marias, since we share nearly everything together: our shoes, our hobbies, even our names. We are second cousins, but whereas I am tall and buxom, with pale gold hair and wide hips, Maria Ludovika is small and thin. Her dark hair falls in waves around her shoulders, and she has not inherited the Hapsburg lip as I have—full and slightly protruding. Anyone looking at the two of us would think that I am older, because of my significant height. But I am eighteen to her twenty-two, and while she is the Empress of Austria now, I am simply an archduchess.

When she came from Italy, I imagined it would be strange to have a stepmother only four years older than me. She is my father’s third wife, my mother having died two years ago. But since her arrival in Vienna we have been like sisters, laughing over foolish palace intrigue, arranging trips to the Christmas markets in the city, and painting portraits in our cozy artist’s workshop overlooking the winter gardens of Schönbrunn Palace. I have never had another woman my age for entertainment, since I am the eldest. My sixteen year-old brother, Ferdinand, is the closest in age to me, but he was born dull-witted, as was my little sister, Maria-Carolina. So even as a child, I was lonely.

“Shall I put Sigi in your picture?” Maria asks, looking down at the small spaniel sleeping at my feet.

“I don’t know,” I say. “What do you think, Sigi? Would you like to sit for a portrait?” My little schnuckelputzi opens his eyes and barks.

“He knows you’re talking about him!” Maria laughs.

“Of course he does.” I put down my paintbrush to pick up Sigi, cradling him in my lap. “There’s not a dog in Vienna that’s smarter than him. Isn’t that right?” Sigi buries his head under my arm. In all of Austria, I have never seen another dog with ears covered in such long, fringed hair. He was a gift to me from Maria when she first arrived at Schönbrunn, and now, he goes wherever I do.

“If you make him sit still, I’ll paint him on your lap.”

“Sigi, behave yourself,” I say sternly. He rests his chin on his front paws and looks up at me.

“Exactly.” Maria dips her brush in the black oil, but before she can apply the paint to the canvas, he has already moved. “Oh, Sigi.” She sighs. “What’s the matter with you?”

“He’s nervous,” I say. “He’s been like this since the Emperor came,” I whisper.

“I’m not surprised. Even the animals despise that man.” She means Napoleon, who came to us last month with the humiliating Treaty of Schönbrunn, determined that my father, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, should sign it. Our English allies were bitterly against my father’s surrender. But in his war against Napoleon, three million lives had already been lost.

The terms of Napoleon’s treaty were harsh, demanding that we cede our cities of Salzburg and Tyrol to Bavaria, Galicia to the Poles, East Galicia to Russia, and much of Croatia to France. So four hundred thousand citizens who speak only German, eat only German food, and know only German customs, woke up to find themselves belonging to four different nations. Yet the rest of the kingdom remained intact, and for this, my father owes Prince Metternich. They say there has never been another diplomat like him in the world. That if not for Metternich, the great Hapsburg-Lorraine Empire would have been reduced to nothing.

When the treaty was signed, I heard courtiers whisper, “Better to be a beggar in the streets than a coward.” They believed my father had sold the Adriatic coast for the price of his crown. But they were not the ones with sons or husbands in the army. They did have not have to receive—week after week, month after month—the terrible lists of the dead. I did. I was there, in my father’s Council Chamber, as one day I will be my regent when Ferdinand takes the throne. I know the price Napoleon exacted on Austria. But the courtiers seem to have forgotten what the French are capable of. How only sixteen years ago they beheaded my great-aunt, Queen Marie Antoinette.

There are few people who understand the true cost of this treaty to my father, but Maria is one of them. She was still a child in Italy when Napoleon’s army appeared thirteen years ago. The soldiers swept through the streets taking whatever they pleased: carriages, villas, valuable china, women. Her father, who was the Governor of the Duchy of Milan, gathered her family together and they escaped with only the clothes on their backs. When they arrived in Austria, he was made the Duke of Breisgau. But Maria has never forgotten the loss of Milan, her childhood home, and it was with great unhappiness that she watched her husband sign the Treaty of Schönbrunn, surrendering to her family’s most bitter enemy for a second time.

“And do you remember how small he was?” Maria asks, and I know she is about to continue with a familiar tirade.

“I only saw him from a distance,” I remind her. I refused to enter the Council Chamber when my father was forced to sign away parts of his empire.

“Like a little gnome. Prince Metternich says that in France his enemies call him the King of Diamonds, a squat little emperor wrapped in red velvet and fur. Who is he?” she demands, and her voice is rising. “Where does he come from? And to think we had to bow to that man. A Corsican. Do you know what they do in Corsica?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “They send their daughters to brothels to earn extra money. Even the nobles!”

I don’t know if this is true, but Maria believes it.

“Just look at his sister, Pauline.” She leans forward, and our painting is forgotten. “What sort of woman poses nude for a sculptor? Nude!” It was a scandal all across Europe; that the Emperor of France could control an army of three hundred thousand men but not his own family. First Jérôme Bonaparte married without Napoleon’s approval and fled to America to escape his brother’s wrath. Then Lucien Bonaparte took a wife without his brother’s consent. Now, Pauline has left her second husband in Turin to pursue the life of an unmarried woman in Paris.

They are not a family fit for any throne. I think of my father’s continuous sacrifices to be a Hapsburg king his people can respect: the nights he has stayed up balancing accounts, the mistresses he has refused in order to be a moral husband, and his vigilant oversight of the nation’s treasury. It is not exciting work, and it is hardly glamorous. But a people are a reflection of their monarch, and we must provide a good example for them. My siblings and I have all been taught to keep records, so that we know exactly how much was spent keeping us in silk slippers and warm cloaks. For the month of November, I cost my father nearly twice as much as Maria-Carolina. Next month I will be more careful. “A king who rules without watching his treasury is a king who will soon be without a crown,” my father says.

And it doesn’t help that the Treaty of Schönbrunn has bankrupted our empire, forcing my father to make reparation payments to Napoleon of more than fifty million francs. Napoleon had wanted a hundred million, but there is no kingdom in the world that can afford such a sum. So he settled for half, and my father has had to abandon silver coin and begin printing our money on paper. If there are hungry women and children in the streets, it is because of this treaty. It is because Napoleon could not be satisfied with Croatia, or Salzburg, or even Tyrol. He wanted the world to know that the Hapsburgs had been defeated, and now the German people must suffer for daring to believe they could stop him from consuming all of Europe. And even Europe was not enough.

Eleven years ago, Napoleon marched an army of nearly forty thousand soldiers into Egypt. We were told he wanted to take control of the Indian Empire from the British. But the truth was something different. Prince Metternich lived in Paris as Napoleon’s ambassador for more than three years, and he has told my father that the French Emperor went to Egypt for one reason—glory—and that nothing is more important to him. He wanted to rule the land once conquered by Alexander the Great. He wished to hear his name to echoing around the world.

To rise so high, so fast, you would think that God Himself was on his side, pushing him to even further greatness. But how can that be when his actions have deprived our people of food? When his treaty has impoverished the most benevolent empire in Europe? The Hapsburg-Lorraines have ruled for almost eight hundred years. Who is this man who thinks he can conquer the world before he’s even forty?

I am about to reprimand Sigi for not staying still when a sharp knock on the door sends him jumping from my lap. I frown at Maria, since no one disturbs us in our artist’s retreat.

“Come in,” she calls.

Sigi growls at the door, but it is my father and Prince Metternich who enter, and immediately we rise. They are two of the most handsome men at court, with thick golden hair and slender waists. Even at forty-one and thirty-six, they are the picture of vitality, and both have the famous Hapsburg skin that made Marie Antoinette so admired.

“The Two Marias,” my father says in greeting, and although we are standing, he waves this action away. “Keep painting,” he tells us.

“That’s why we’ve come.”

“For a painting?” I ask.

“Your most unattractive portraits.”

I am about to laugh, but there is no humor in his face.

Prince Metternich explains. “Napoleon has requested paintings from every noble house in Europe. He is particularly interested in Europe’s unmarried princesses.”

“But he’s already married!” Maria exclaims.

“There is talk of a divorce,” my father says quietly.

Maria and I exchange looks.

“It will likely come to nothing,” Metternich says smoothly, “but he has made the request and we cannot deny it.” As usual, Metternich’s voice is calm. If Napoleon had asked for nude statues of us, he would pass this along in the same even tone.

“You are to choose your least attractive portrait,” my father says.

My hands are shaking. “But I thought he loved Joséphine,” I protest.
After all, he forgave her even after all of Europe came to know of the affairs she conducted while he was in Egypt.

“Certainly he loves her,” Metternich replies. “But the Emperor needs an heir.”

“And he has gotten a child on his mistress,” my father says contemptuously, “proving he’s not infertile.”

“Do the scandals never end with this family?” Maria stands. “We shall send him the very first portraits we made of one another. Then he will never look to Austria for a bride.” I follow her across the room to the wall where all of our efforts at portraiture have been framed. “That one.” Maria points. Aside from my blonde hair and blue eyes, I am unrecognizable.

Prince Metternich clears his throat. “Mockery may be inadvisable,” he says.

“This is no mockery!” my father shouts. “Does he think he can do away with his wife as easily as he did away with Egypt’s mamelukes? The Pope will not have it. Europe will never consider another wife of his legitimate!”

“Then he might choose to proceed without the Pope,” Metternich replies.

The three of us stare at him.

“He is a bold man, Your Majesty. Nothing can be discounted. I would consider sending that one,” Metternich suggests, indicating a large, oval painting from three months ago. It is the best likeness of me: my wide-set eyes are a vivid blue, and in life, they are probably my best feature. But it also captures my too-strong jaw, the length of my nose, and my Hapsburg lip.

“No,” my father rules. “It is too pretty.”

Metternich looks from the painting to me, and I flush. “He will want a good likeness,” is all he says.

“And how should he know?” Maria demands. “He has never laid eyes on her!”

“Your Majesties, this is a man who may choose to visit Vienna tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. What will he think if he sees the archduchess and realizes that you have made a fool of him? Please, give him something which will not make him suspicious.”

“Send whichever one you want,” my father says. “Just do it quickly, so we may stop talking about this man.”

Metternich bows. “There is still the matter of your wife, Your Majesty. He also wishes to see every member of the royal family. Is there a painting you prefer—”

“Yes. Whichever’s cheapest. And do not send him anything in a gilded frame.” My father pauses at the door, then looks around. “That one,” he says, pointing to the unfinished canvas on my easel. I have already painted Maria’s black eyes, her small, pretty lips, and the abundant curls that hang in dark clusters on either side of her head. Although her dress remains to be done, there is no one who will look at this without thinking that my father has chosen well.

“When will you be finished?” Prince Metternich asks.

I feel the heat creep back into my cheeks. “Another five days. Perhaps a week.”

He crosses his arms over his chest, scrutinizing the painting. Then he looks up at me. “You have talent.”

His sudden interest makes me uncomfortable. “Not much. Not like Maria.”
“How long have you been painting?”

“Three years.”

“And how many languages do you speak?”

“What is this about?” My father steps back into the room.

“Nothing.” Prince Metternich is quick to add,  “Just idle curiosity.” But when he looks back at me, I feel compelled to answer.

“Six.”

He smiles widely. “As accomplished as any Hapsburg archduchess should be.”

 

Chapter 2
Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese
Fontainebleau Palace, France
October 1809


I stand in front of the mirror before he comes in, and as usual, I am shocked to see just how beautiful I am. I don’t mean beautiful in the way that Joséphine is beautiful. All that woman has are her great cow’s eyes and a head of thick curls. I mean exquisitely beautiful, like one of Bartolini’s marble statues. At twenty-nine, you would think I would already be losing my looks. But my waist is long and slender, and because I only gave birth once, my breasts are still high and taut. I turn, so that I can admire the effect of my Grecian gown from behind. In the candlelight, it is perfectly transparent.

“Paul!” I shout, and my chamberlain appears. He is my staunchest ally, my fiercest guard.  I named him after myself when I discovered him in Saint-Domingue seven years ago. Of course, now that our colonists have their independence, they are calling their island Haiti. But for the French, it will always be Saint-Domingue. “Is he here?” I ask him.

“In the hall, Your Highness.”

“What does he look like?”

Paul tells me the truth. “Unhappy.”

So Joséphine has arrived and they have spoken. I am certain she threw herself at his feet, begging his forgiveness. And my brother no doubt felt sympathy for her. But this time he will not feel pity. This is not some affair with a young lieutenant—this is an unforgiveable lie. For fourteen years she has convinced him that he cannot father a child. That it’s been his failure, not hers, that he would never have an heir. And then came Walewska. Pretty, blonde, married Walewska who  eventually gave up her husband to bed my brother, and now, everything has changed. My God, I could kiss her! In fact, I shall send her a diamond brooch. She should know what kind of service she has done for the Bonapartes, ensuring Empress Joséphine’s disgrace at last, and the downfall of the Beauharnais. 

“Shall I send him in, Your Highness?”

I return to the mirror, a gilded monstrosity my second husband gave me as a wedding present, and study my reflection. My hair is held by a simple pearl band, and I arrange it around my shoulders like a long black shawl. “No. Let him wait another minute.”

Since we were children, Napoleon has admired my hair. In Corsica, I would ask him to braid it for me. He would only laugh and call my request a harlot’s trick, adding that no man could resist a woman whose hair he had touched. But then, if you listen to the women at court, I am a harlot.

I know what the gossips say. That when my first husband took me to the Caribbean, I experimented with every kind of lover: black, white, male, female. I grin, thinking of my life in Saint-Domingue. The lazy nights eating sapodillas with two, sometimes three partners in my bed. And the mornings after when the sun would cast a golden net over the sea... But then my husband died of yellow fever and it was back to Paris. I was the Widow Leclerc without even a title for my name.

“Tell him I am ready.”

Paul bows at the waist and shuts the door.

My second match, however, changed everything.
I think of Camillo Borghese, doing whatever it is that he does in Turin. While it’s true that he is the greatest imbecile ever to hold the title of prince, my marriage to him was my finest triumph. My brother granted both of my sisters the rank of Imperial Highness, but I am the Princess Borghese, with a Palazzo in Rome, a vast collection of art, and three hundred thousand francs worth of Borghese family jewels. Even my mother could not have envisioned such a match for me.

I wonder what the old women of Marseille would think if they could see their “Italian maid” now. I was thirteen when our family fled Corsica and took refuge in their miserable seaside town. Everything we owned was left behind. We had nothing when we arrived, and that is how the French treated our family—as nothings. They believed that because we were born in Corsica we wouldn’t know French. “There go the Corsicans,” they whispered, and, “What a shame they have nothing. That Paoletta is quite beautiful. She might have made a good marriage.”
When my sisters and I were sent to be maids in the grand Clary house, the men assumed they had purchased our sexual favors as well.

“Corsican girls,” they said, “are only good for one thing.” I never told Napoleon. He was a twenty-four year old general with a war at his back. But when he visited us in Marseille, he knew. Caroline had grown as fat as a pig, and I had stopped eating. “What’s the matter with them?” he asked my mother, and she pretended it was the food. “It’s not like Corsica.” But Napoleon saw my tears and he knew.

“You and Caroline will leave that house tomorrow,” he said.  “You will both come to Paris. With me.”

But Paris was a warzone. “It’s too great a risk. We’ll have nothing.”

“We will never have nothing. We are Bonapartes,” he swore, and something changed in his face. “And we will never be vulnerable again.”
Today, no one would dare whisper that a Corsican comes cheap. I turn to my little greyhound, who is lounging on the chaise across the room. “We are the most powerful family in Europe,” I say, in the voice I reserve only for her.  She thumps her tail with enthusiasm, and I continue, “We have thrones from Holland to Naples. And now, when they talk about us, it’s with fear in their voices. ‘Beware the Bonapartes,’ they say. ‘The most powerful siblings on earth.’”

The door opens and Paul announces grandly, “His Majesty, the Emperor Napoleon.”

I turn, but slowly, so that my brother may see the full effect of my gown.

“Thank you, Paul.” He returns to the salon, and I face Napoleon. We are similar in so many ways. We have both inherited the dark looks of our mother’s Italian family, the Ramolinos, and like them, we are both hot-blooded and passionate. When he told me as a child that someday all of Europe would know his name, I believed him. “So you told her.” I smile.

Aubree runs to greet him and he pets her mechanically. “How could I?” He stalks to my favorite chair and sits. “She was hysterical and weeping.”

“You didn’t tell her you are seeking a divorce?” My voice sends Aubree scampering from the room.

“She loves me—”

“Half of Europe loves you! She is liar.” I cross the chamber to stand in front of him. “Think of the ways she has deceived you,” I say quickly. “First her age, then her bills, now her fertility!” My God, I think, she is six years older than you! A grandmother already. How could you spend fourteen years believing you were the one at fault?

His eyes narrow. “It’s true. She has always deceived me.”

“She has undermined your manhood.” I close my eyes briefly, and then play my best card. “Look at what she told the Russian ambassador.”

His face becomes still. “What?

I step back. “You didn’t hear?”

“What did she tell him?” He rises from his chair.
I give him my most pitying look, then close my eyes briefly. “At one of her soirees, she told the Russians that you might be impotent.” My brother is enraged. He rushes across the room, and I hurry to stand in front of the door before he can leave and confront her. “It’s already done!”
“Step aside!” he shouts.

“There’s nothing you can do! Be calm.” I reach out and caress his face. “No one of importance believes these rumors. And with Marie Walewska carrying your child, who will give her words credit?” I take his arm and guide him to the chaise by the window.  “Shall I open it? Do you need fresh air?”

“No. It’s bad for your health.” But he can’t stop thinking about the Russians. “Impotent!” he seethes. “If I went to her bed and refused to take her, it was because I had just returned from a visit with Marie!”
My sisters would be scandalized by this, but there is nothing Napoleon and I keep from each other. I sit on the edge of the chaise and lean forward. “And so she spread this rumor... this vile gossip. She has always been devious.” He can’t possibly forget the bills she hid from him after they married. How he had to sell his stable—his precious horses—to pay for her extravagances, which still continue. He may be richer than the Pope, but I will never forgive her for using him this way. And I will never forget what she has done to me… “I am right in wanting to divorce her.”

“Yes.”

“I… I will tell her tomorrow.”

But I know what he is thinking. He has an unnatural attachment to this woman. If these were different times, I would wonder if she had cast some sort of spell on him. “Perhaps you can have Hortense break the news,” I say casually, as if this thought has just occurred.This way Joséphine can weep, but she can’t change his mind. Then I change the subject entirely, as if we are agreed. “I have arranged a soirée for you tonight.”

“So I hear.”

By now, the guests must have arrived in my salon, filling the room with their laughter and perfume. “And I invited someone special for you.”
“Another Greek?”

“No, an Italian. Blonde and very discreet. Not like Beauharnaille.” This is my favorite pun on Joséphine’s name. It means old hag. “Shall we?” I stand, and with the candlelight at my back, I know that I must appear entirely nude.

He recoils. “You’re not leaving like that.”

“No?”

“It is indecent!”

I look down. “I could put on different slippers.”

“Your gown is transparent!”

“This is what they wore in ancient Egypt,” I protest. His conquest of Egypt put all of France in the thrall of the Pharaohs. The soldiers returned from the Battle of the Pyramids with unimaginable wonders: painted sarcophagi, alabaster jars, small figurines carved from bright blue stone. In my château in Neuilly, my collection of Egyptian artifacts fills nearly three rooms. And every birthday, as a gift, Napoleon gives me something new. Last year, it was statue of the Egyptian god Anubis. The year before that, it was a queen’s gold and lapis crown. Someday, when I become too sick to host my brother’s fêtes, I will dress myself in Egyptian linen and cover my wrists and chest with gold. Then I will die an honorable death, like Cleopatra. She didn’t wait for Augustus Caesar to kill her. She was the master of her body.

“You take this love of the ancients too far.” He stands, though he cannot help but look. “Find something else.”

I lift the gown over my head and let it drop onto the chaise. Then I cross the chamber and stand naked before my wardrobe.

“The gauze dress with silver embroidery,” he says, coming to stand behind me.

“I wore that yesterday.”

“The new one.”

My brother knows everything that is purchased within his palaces, from the food for the kitchens to the dresses bought by court women. In this last matter, he takes a particular interest. We are to outshine every court in Europe, he says, and if that means every lady-in-waiting must buy four hundred dresses a year, then so be it. And if a woman should be foolish enough to appear at a gala in a dress she has worn to some previous fête, she will never be invited again. I adore my brother for understanding this. I hold out the gauze dress, and Napoleon nods.
He watches me dress, and when I reach for a shawl, he shakes his head. “It’s a shame to cover such shoulders.”

I turn to place the shawl on my dressing table, and a sharp pain in my stomach makes me wince. I glance at Napoleon, but he hasn’t noticed. I don’t want him to worry about my health. Although someday, no amount of rouge or shadow will cover my illness. It will show itself in lines on my face and the thinness of my body.

“Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be the Pharaoh of Egypt?” I ask him. I know Egypt makes him think of Joséphine, since it was there that he discovered her infidelities. But in Egypt, their rulers never die. In a thousand years, Cleopatra will still be young and beautiful. With every golden crown and faience ushabti discovered in Cairo, she will be remembered for eternity.

“Yes,” he quips. “Dead and mummified.”

“I am serious,” I tell him. “There have always been emperors and kings. But there has not been a Pharaoh for nearly two thousand years. Imagine if we could reign together.”

He smiles.

“Why not? The ancient Egyptian kings anointed their sisters as wives. There would be no greater couple in the world.”

“And how would I do this?” he asks. “Or perhaps you don’t remember that the Egyptians rebelled?”

“You would reconquer them. If you could defeat the Austrians, you could defeat the mamelukes. How difficult could it be?”

“Not very.”

I take his arm and we head toward my salon. “Think of it,” I say. And for the rest of the evening, his eyes follow me. Though I am sure he will be happy with the Italian I’ve found for his pleasure, I know I am the one who fascinates him.

   
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