WordPress sent me an interesting compilation of facts and statistics of my blog from 2014, and it turns out that my most popular post was The Page 69 Test. Since this features an excerpt from my last novel, this was very exciting for me. Writing stories is my favourite thing to do, as necessary for me as coffee or sleep, almost, and it makes me so happy when others enjoy reading them.
I’m in the middle of writing another novel, this one in a completely different setting, so I thought I would kick off a new year of blog posts with another excerpt. It’s a good thing The Page 69 Test was a popular post, because I have been so hard at work on this new one that I haven’t been writing many blog posts. I do, however, have lots of new fiction drafted to make up for it.
Still untitled, although I have some ideas, this novel is set during the French Revolution. The protagonist, Giselle Aubry, works in the Marie Antoinette’s household as a tirewoman, part of the wardrobe staff. It is October 1789, and rioters have marched on Versailles to protest the erratic and extravagant bread prices, in an event which became known as the Women’s March on Versailles, or sometimes the Storming of Versailles. The King and Queen were forced to relocate to the Tuileries Palace, in the heart of Paris, and as anyone who knows even a little about the French Revolution may suspect, they never returned to Versailles again.
Giselle has been awake all night, the whole household in a frightened uproar over the violent presence of the rioters in the courtyard outside. She and the other servants have fled with Marie Antoinette to a room adjoining the King’s chambers, after some of the mob broke inside the palace in murderous search of the Queen.
I straighten my body, trying to look alert. My feet ache from standing for so long and exhaustion makes me limbs heavy and stiff as iron. If the journey to Paris is inevitable, I wish to God we would get on with it. Versailles has lost its opulent grandeur for me, and begins to feel like a too-crowded and overly decorated prison. Under normal circumstances, perhaps I would have enjoyed seeing the gilt trimmed walls and the enormous oval window of the L’Oeuil de Boeuf, but now I just want to escape the chamber. The window, framed with gold stucco frieze, looks rather like the bull’s eye the room is named for, and I feel like a target inside the walls. For a moment, I imagine snatching up one of the pale green vases sitting on either end of the mantel, and hurling it up to the oval window. The imaginary smash of glass and china suits my mood.
Now that he has finally made up his mind, the King makes arrangements to travel to Paris. There is little arrangement to be made, in truth. The mob plans to escort him the entire way, and there is not much time or space to bring many belongings. Madame Campan and I go to the Queen’s wardrobe under escort of a mix of Gardes du Corps and members of the National Guard, who glare at each other, making irritable remarks under their breath, and fetch a few essential items for the Queen.
The King and Queen are herded into a carriage, along with the children and some of their most high-ranking attendants. Madame Campan stays as close to the carriage as she can, pacing anxiously back and forth until she disappears around the corner of it. Lafayette flanks the carriage, mounted on his horse and accompanied by several soldiers, but it doesn’t stop a group of rioters from singing a cheerful tune with vicious lyrics. In the swell of the crowd, I lose sight of Geneviève, too, and panic flutters in my throat. A trio of middle-aged women push past me, elbowing others without care as they caw and jeer at the fearful faces of the King and Queen. I stumble into another knot of people, their voices raucous and shrill with excited victory. The crowd seems drunk, even more so than at the Revéillon riot. Maybe some of the people are, or perhaps they are exhausted and running on the vestigial energy of their victory. Remembering Léon’s advice during the Réveillon riot, I do not shove or shout back. Instead, I slip between the narrow gap between two women with red shawls, and worming my way through the crowd until I’ve reached the outskirts. My fingers feel stiff and cold as I pin my tri-colour cockade to my fichu, resolutely looking away from the carriage carrying the King and Queen, even though I am too far for them to isolate my face from the crowd.
“Stand aside, petite.” A man’s hand sprawls over my shoulder, casually shoving me aside. I skitter away from him like a frightened young horse before he has to apply much pressure, but once I’ve moved out of his way, he doesn’t look at me again. He is too busy beckoning to his companions, all wearing revolutionary colours, a few of them in uniforms of the National Guard. Two of them carry long pikes, with heads impaled upon them.
Time ticks by distantly as the sight registers in my mind, and then my heart lurches in my chest, twisting the air in my lungs into something heavy and choking. Blood spirals down the pikes, droplets leaking from the ragged severed necks. A vein dangles from one of them, bouncing and flipping with every step of the man who carries the head. The face is chalky white, so devoid of rosiness that the phrase pale as death sinks through my head, heavy with new and dark understanding. The man’s neatly trimmed blonde beard looks dark against the ghastly flesh. The other head has a squishy splotch on the side of his face, remnants of bruising, purplish against his marble-pale skin, and I recognise his face with another pang of horror. It is the same guard who warned Geneviève and I about the rioters searching for the Queen, who told us of the attack on the Queen’s bedchambers. The one who was brave, and unfailingly loyal to her.
Swallowing back bile, my throat burning, I let my trembling legs totter to a halt. The crowd surges past me, some carrying shovels and pitchforks, others with kitchen knives tucked into their belts and aprons. A few people ride scrawny horses, and gallop to the front to avoid being swarmed. In spite of the distance and vast number of people now between myself and the guards with their grisly trophies, I can still see the heads bobbing above the crowd, the pikes hoisted high.
Keeping my eyes fixed directly in front of me, watching the rise and fall of the feet of the person walking in front of me, I force myself to take a deep breath, and settle in to endure the long trek back to Paris.