The cards were beautiful, the backs inlaid with gold in intricate designs, the suit cards painted with elaborate portraits done in such detail that someone could easily have lost their eyesight in the painting of them. The Marquise, however, had not troubled herself over the work that had gone into them when she had bought the cards, but merely thought that they had been priced to high. Everything seemed to be priced too high in those days. The Marquise had for decades been able to budget household expenses automatically, with perfect certainty, but those days she found herself having to set far more money aside for such basic things as flour.
Of course, that was no reason to skimp upon the things that anyone would notice. She was wearing a new gown that day, with a farthingale in the newest style and a skirt of heavy, pleated silk and, ornamented with many volants where the manteau was split to show the underskirt beneath. Such things had cost her dear, and her accounts were lower than she would like, by the necessity of keeping up appearances was more important than petty expenses.
Her guests arrived when she expected them to, with Madame de Volanges first (this time without little Cecile, rather unsurprisingly) Madame de Rosemonde after her (she still wore a coiffure at least thirty years out of style, which was perhaps more permissible than it would have been to be a mere few years behind the times), and, fashionably late as always, the Vicomte de Valmont. Madame de Volanges’ face fell nearly imperceptibly at the sight of him, though her habitual polite smile returned after only a few seconds. The Marquise rose from her seat to curtsey, and as the Vicomte kissed her hand he gave her a smile that bespoke such an intertwined web of respect, affection and detestation that she found herself having to take an uncommonly large breath through the tight whalebone of her corset. She was irritated with herself for the far too obvious inhalation – she rather preferred to project the image to general acquaintances that she never needed to breathe at all.
She had the servants move the card table as close to the fire as would be proper. “It is such a cold winter, isn’t it?” she commented to the assembled group as she settled down, gathering her skirts about her. This statement meant with general agreement, and in the extreme nature of the weather Mesdames de Volanges and Rosemonde found a great deal of material for discussion, though all involved were careful not to mention the greater ramifications of the unusually cold winter. They all knew of the recent riots, but such things simply were not topics for polite conversation.
The Marquise dealt the cards, speaking little so as to better observe. But, as she took her hand, Madame de Volanges addressed the Marquise directly, “What do you think of the situation in America?” she asked, and for a moment the Marquise was surprised enough at the unconventional choice of topic that she did not respond. The Vicomte, however, was quick to do so.
“I think it most delightfully novel,” he said, “to create a nation without a king, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, is something that I think must require quite admirable courage. Not that I think it is all that likely to succeed, of course. If we remember, the ancient Greeks had their democracies within really very small city-states, and permitted only a relatively low percentage of the population to vote. I cannot imagine the same tactic working for so large a nation.”
Madame de Volanges quite nearly glared at him. “Well, I think it’s utterly horrifying. For a people rise up against their king like that! The very idea chills me. I know that it’s King George they overthrew, but I rather don’t think our King Louis ought to have funded such a revolution. It’s treason, and it goes against the laws of nature, and I find it appalling that you could call those rebels courageous.”
The Marquise folded her pale hands on the table, her voice calm. “I think it’s a fine example of what happens when one tries to make a nation of savages. It seems to me a clear message that we ought to stop trying to colonize the Americas, as such things will only continue happening there.” She paused, looking about at each of her guests. “Now, shall we continue with our game?”
“Shall we play cards?” she asked him, looking quite directly at him. He was breathing heavily as though he had run there, though she couldn’t imagine that such a thing was true. He rarely came to visit her alone, though, those days, and so there had to be some pressing reason.
“You’ve heard of what happened?” he asked, as though he had not heard her. She sighed, and tapped her fingers against the lacquered wood of the table.
“Yes, Vicomte, I heard. The Third Estate went into hysterics, there was some melodramatic scene in which they decided to form an assembly of their own, or some rubbish like that, and then they locked themselves into a room to write a constitution. I do keep track of such things, even though, being only a woman, I don’t have the privilege of being a representative at such functions as you do. Now, do you want to play or not?”
“I don’t think you quite understand the significance of this –“ he began, but the Marquise cut him off before he could finish.
“I probably know far better than you do. Yes, it was dramatic, it was…unheard of, but it’s so entirely masculine of you to think that anything is going to change after this. You see, my dear Vicomte, things do not change through loud scenes and impassioned pleas for justice. Any woman knows that even a few years into marriage. Things change slowly, subtly, after years of those on the inside making quiet suggestions, doing favors that shall be then owed to them, making their views common currency, Any change wrought by a group of rabble locking themselves in a room and giving ultimatums is sure to dissolve within a very brief span of time. Perhaps these Third Estate representatives will draft a constitution – it will be sure to be a terribly written thing, with no style at all, but perhaps they will draft it. Perhaps the king will even sign it. At the very most, perhaps those idiotic peoples’ taxes will be lowered, if that is what they want. But then things will go back to normal. The king will have a few dissenters executed, prices on bread will go up a little more again, and we will continue to live our lives. And you will be sorry that you spent your time worrying about it.”
The Vicomte fell into a chair, giving her a smile of concession. “You have an…irresistibly logical way of putting things, Marquise.”
She smiled back, sitting down across from him and beginning to deal the cards. “I do try.”
He looked at the hand he had been given and remarked, “Madame de Tourvel is worried about all those peasants. She spends an inordinate amount of her time handing out bread to starving children.”
The Marquise raised her eyebrows. “Dear.”
The Vicomte nodded. “She’s nearly reduced herself to penury through her charitable impulses. I tell her that she can’t possibly do any real good, but she doesn’t listen to me in this matter, though she listens in most all others.”
The Marquise laid a card down. “Charity is the refuge of the guilty and complacent. Your virtuous little lover can make herself feel as though she’s doing some good in the universe while raising herself in the estimation of practically all those around her and only giving up what she chooses to. I find the practice entirely detestable.”
Over her card, the Vicomte laid a higher numbered one. “I am attempting to cure her of it. Somehow, it’s a longer lasting project than her seduction was.”
“It’s a waste of time,” the Marquise said. She picked up a card and saw the elegantly detailed features of the Queen of Hearts. With painfully learned skills, she did not let her joy show on her face.
The Vicomte paced her floors so assiduously that the Marquise rather feared he would wear a hole in her rugs. She herself felt no need to demonstrate her worry in so vulgarly obvious a fashion. She sat still, willing her head to clear. She had dealt with much in her many years. Riots were not new, anger at the king was not new. But the taking of a royal fortress, even one so infrequently used as the Bastille, by a full 80,000? Something in all that was just beyond the bounds of belief.
“I’m planning to leave the city for a while,” she said finally, wishing that the sound of her voice would still his pacing, “once this chaos dies down enough that I feel I can leave without being accosted as a royalist upon stepping out my door. You should come too. I have a chateau, outside of the city, we can go there –“
“Madame de Tourvel left,” the words seemed to slip from the Vicomte’s mouth without any effort of will on his part, “with her husband. They went to England. She cried when she left me, but –“
“Goddammit, Vicomte!” the Marquise was surprised to hear herself shouting. She hadn’t shouted in so many years that she had almost forgotten the feel of it. “This isn’t about your petty little love affair any longer, this concerns all of us. Now, if you would stop sulking like a schoolboy, perhaps we could actually plan –“
“A few months ago, you were the one telling me that all of this would come to nothing. I would like to see you acknowledge that lack of foresight on your part for once, admit that you are not infallible –“
“How was I to know?” the Marquise picked up the deck of cards that sat on the table beside her and began shuffling them, pure habit driving her fingers to the action, “This was an event that defied logic, something that none of us could truly predict. And I hardly think that it’s really a time for you to gloat.”
Abruptly, the Vicomte stopped pacing and looked directly at her. “Do you know what I think, Marquise? I think that I won’t leave Paris at all. King Louis is a fool, we all knew that. I think I won’t try to run away from this new government with the rest of you. I don’t want to act as if I’ve done anything wrong. Perhaps the Third Estate’s constitution will make things better for all of us, rid us of these idiotic restrictions –“
“You think that they’ll want you as part of their government?” she had to interrupt, for his self-centered failure in logic was so painfully evident.
He continued, only raising his voice to acknowledge the fact that she had spoken “ – start raising children who aren’t completely ignorant of the very desires of their bodies –“
“They won’t let you keep your silk waistcoats and your powdered queue in your glorious Greek republic, Vicomte! You won’t have the leisure to seduce adolescent girls and virtuous wives any longer! You’ll have to work there, work like all the world but us has, break the skin of your soft hands, know what it is to be hungry! We couldn’t stand that, Vicomte, none of us could! Know that, and leave when I do! We’ll go to England, or…Austria, or anywhere. We’ll survive, and you’ll forget Madame de Tourvel in time. You know as well as I that you will.”
She forced her hands to put down the cards, breathed till she could feel the warmth of emotion in her cheeks dying down. The Vicomte was looking at her, and she realized how little even he had seen of her being afraid. For a moment, she imagined leaving Paris while he stayed. The carefully constructed images of herself that she had worked so hardly to keep from mingling – the virtuous widow who Madame de Volanges could trust with her daughter, the exalted Venus who men like Belleroche and Danceny could worship, and the witty, bitter libertine who could exchange ripostes and reminisces with the Vicomte de Valmont – would all fall to pieces. It was curiously disconcerting, the idea of a life without him as a sparring partner.
He must have been thinking the same thing, for he sat down beside her on the divan, and for, the first time in years, kissed her. “Stay here, Marquise,” he asked, “don’t return to that old world of hypocrisy and marital contracts.”
And though she knew his tactics nearly as well as her own, although she knew that his combination of cynicism and idealism would be fatal someday, although she knew all that – somehow, she decided then to stay in Paris.
Her house was constructed like a labyrinth, and she was glad of that then, as she locked herself in one of the deepest rooms and waited. She couldn’t hear anything that went on except in a few of the closest rooms, and so everything felt curiously quiet to her. It was a feeling at once both frightening and calm.
The raids on the houses of aristocrats – many of them empty by that point – had been increasing in frequency of late, and that evening, as she heard the cries of mobs near her window, she had rushed to this room, and locked the door, bracing a large wardrobe against it for further protection. There was no one else there to notify, as all her servants were long gone, for one reason or another. It had been less difficult than she had expected, having no more servants. She had always made a point of knowing how to dress and undress herself without a maid, and she ate so little in those days that it was scarcely a trial not to have cooked meals.
But there she was, in any case, waiting – for what, she could not be certain. Her hands needing something to do, she picked up a deck of cards that lay near her, and began shuffling. After a brief moment of consideration, she began to lay them out in the pattern of a patience game. She did not play patience games very frequently, as, to her, card games were chiefly interesting for the social aspect of them, but there were useful on occasion, and, at that point, she was glad she knew them.
Some time passed – without a clock, she could not be certainly how long. She could hear voices, some distance away. They sounded drunk, but no more dangerous than all the wild drunkards she had known throughout her life. The thought was vaguely amusing – a mob that could kill her being a group of foolish, laughable drunkards. She smiled to herself slightly, tracing the gold inlay on the backs of the cards as she did so.
There was the harsh sound of something breaking. She winced. Her house was like a fragile, carefully constructed work of art, and the destruction of any one piece would reduce the effect of the whole piece. She did suppose that she would have rather more pressing concerns after that night was over, but she could not help but be bothered by the thought of the broken object, whatever it was. She began to hypothesize which of her things it could be, but it was a daunting task, and soon there was another crash, far closer, and it made her calculation seem preposterous.
Her thoughts turned to her husband, as she reshuffled her cards and began to lay them out for another game. He had once broken a porcelain figurine of which she had been very fond. He had thrown it in her direction, rather near her head. She remembered staying very still as it fell, trying not to wince at the sound. When he had left the room she had gone to clean it up. She was still young enough then that she tried to keep things from her servants.
The sound of glass shattering brought her back to the present. What were they all doing out there? They must be taking things; surely they were taking things. She wished they would get on with it, if they must do it in the first place. If they got on with it, then perhaps they would not be thorough enough to go the effort of breaking down to the door the room in which she was currently located.
Time passed. Much of it, though she had no idea how much. The voices grew louder, than slowly softer again until she could not hear them at all. For what she suspected were hours, she closed her eyes and tried to remember pieces by Mozart. It was not particularly affective.
Eventually, she decided it was worth the danger of leaving the room. She gathered up her cards and, clutching them closely, she ventured into the uncertain territory of the rest of her house.
She almost wished that she had not left, for the fragile beauty of her house was not merely disturbed, but entirely destroyed. The windows were broken, everything of possible value was stripped away, and assorted, worthless objects were flung about the floors. Somehow, it all still seemed unreal to her, though she could feel the chill from the broken windows creeping up her bare hands into her pale, thin wrists. Out of habit, she stopped to look at her reflection in a broken mirror. She did not recognize herself in it, and somehow, that was the worst thing, for, throughout all her life, whatever happened, she had always been very certain of herself.
Then, because there was nothing else for her to do, she sat down and began again to lay out her cards.
It had to it the sensation of looking in a mirror. Their eyes searched one another for a few moments, as critically as they had always examined their own reflections in the mornings, before going out to face the world. The hair was lank, tangled, uncared for in preparation for the swift cut that would surely occur before the swifter cut of the guillotine. The clothes were simple and dirty, the prisoners' reality of the disguises that they both had donned so often in play. The faces seemed almost unreal without powder and paint. Faint bruises on the cheekbones, opposite for each of them, just like a true mirror.
Eventually, they were satisfied with what they had seen of each other, and could speak. She did so first, tilting her head questioningly. The gesture seemed a mocking imitation of all the times she had done it in years past. “How did you come to be here, my dear Vicomte?”
She could see him shifting his shoulder, attempting to lift back on some forgotten mantle of aristocracy and disaffected wit. “Not Vicomte any longer. I did join the new government, in an utterly uninteresting administrative capacity. I’m Citizen Valmont now, officially.”
Surprise did not even register upon her face. “In which case I repeat my question. Why, then, are you here?”
He turned away from her, his hands instinctively going to play with lace cuffs that no longer existed. At that physical realization, his hands dropped to his sides, as though he did not know what to do with them. “You were right as always, Marquise. Work did not agree with me.” The words were spat out, staccato. “I complained. Criticized. Threatened my superiors, in fact. Exploited all those luxuries that we aristocrats grew used to but which are denied to us in a free and equal government like this one. No one did anything about me, though, until one of Monsieur Robespierre’s informants heard me decry the use of the revolution in a moment of anger. Thus, here. And the conqueror of so many goes to his final bed in the arms of the beauteous – and equally promiscuous in those she embraces – Madame Guillotine.”
She smiled. It was a simple smile, without malice, though she did not know if he could tell that. He looked at her, asking, “What about you?”
She lifted her hands to him, showing, within them, her glorious deck of playing cards, with the inlaid gold and carefully detailed portraits. “Someone thought they showed evidence of royalist sympathies. The kings and queens are too beautiful.”
His expression changed, and she did not know if he believed her. “Of course,” he said, “of course you would be caught for something like that.” She was silent, holding the cards tight within her dirty hands. “I admit to having no idea how you became aware of my presence here, however.”
Again she smiled, but it was an old smile, a smile from the years before even he knew her, one full to the point of spilling over with bitterness. “An old friend of ours works here in the prison. The Chevalier Danceny.”
The Vicomte’s eyebrows lifted. “The music lessons weren’t bringing in much profit, I see. And I suppose that also explains how you obtained permission to spend this time with me?”
She closed her eyes, hating the weakness of it but not letting herself care. “Don’t be vulgar, Vicomte.”
She could hear his familiar, slightly obnoxious laughter. “I wasn’t. I would never think you brought so low, even by this, as to barter your affections – or your body, if we indeed must be vulgar – for favors, but –“
She opened her eyes and looked directly at his. “We don’t joke about things that are true any longer. There are enough crowds laughing at each head that gets chopped off.”
She could see emotion in his face – real, genuine, unfeigned emotion. “I didn’t think that it actually could be true, when I said that –“
“What did you expect?” She only realized after saying it how angry she sounded. “I know how to use my own…beauty, Vicomte. I know the extent and the limit of it. And I do know how to seduce. Such talents may here have far less of the safe, elegant trappings that we are used to, but I would be a fool if I did not use them now for my own sake.” A pause. “I’m getting out of here tomorrow.”
He was still in seriousness. “Danceny again?”
She nodded. “I won’t get any favors after that. I’ll have to make my way in the world.”
He smiled, though only slightly. “I am quite certain that you’ll survive.”
She smiled back. “I do hope so.”
He swallowed with some sudden though, and she could see the movement of it in his throat. “Tomorrow, I’m going to the guillotine.”
Slowly, steadily, she took in the news. It was an irrevocable fact, and she knew that there was no way she could ignore it. “I’ll be there. I’ll watch.”
“I’d like that,” he said, and such were things between them that she knew it to be true.
After a moment, she drew close to him, putting a hand gently on the side of his neck. There was something very human about him there, in the prison, something that she had never been able to see before underneath his neckties and lace cuffs and powdered wigs. She had always known, with the certainty born from her careful study, from childhood, of all those within her sight (she had observed them like insects under glass, until they pulled her in and did not let her remain detached any longer), that such humanity was in him, but she had never before seen it. And so she asked, soft, “Shall we play another game?”
The cards were beautiful. They were a bit battered with age and travel, but that very fact made them antique, a precious relic of the nation before the revolution. Everything that had been so beautiful about them then remained, but was increased in significance tenfold by the nostalgia of those who looked at them. The nation, of course, was still a republic, and no one said within anyone else’s hearing that it would have been better if Louis XVI had remained king, but it had been eleven difficult years since the revolution, and many liked to look back on those days and remember them as better than they were.
She, like the cards, was a relic of the days before the revolution. She knew that, knew very well that when any of her new acquaintances visited her, it was to see that in her. For that reason, she dressed still in the styles of eleven years before, and spoke with the peculiar combination of intimacy and formality which characterized society of those days. True, she now lived in a small assemblage of rooms in a building with peeling paint upon the outside. True, her clothes, though in the same styles she had once worn, were made of far less expensive materials. But she had popularity, of a specific sort. She was mysterious, alluring – the enigmatic Marquise de Merteuil, aristocrat who had lived through the revolution. No doubt, all though, she must have seen a great many of her friends die, no doubt she must have been forced to see the error of her decadent, excessive ways. There were men and women of marriageable age who had been only children when the revolution began and who now looked upon her with wonder and admiration.
And so she had no shortage of invitations to dinner parties, or guests to invite to her own. And, though there were many things she would have changed about her life if she could have, she took her role and played it with grace and dignity.
She began arranging the furniture, moving the card table as close to the fire as she could. It was a cold winter, and she had important guests soon. Monsieur and Madame Bonaparte themselves were coming to play cards. Napoleon Bonaparte had only recently become first consul of France after a string of glorious military victories, and anyone who he took a liking to could expect a fortuitous future.
There was a knock upon the door. Arranging a flawless smile upon her face, the Marquise went to open it. “How wonderful to see you!” she said, “Would you care to join me in a game?”