Vienna, February 12, 1810
My name is Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, a name rarely spoken, almost a secret. I live in the émigré quarter of Vienna, in an apartment on Grashof Street. Its windows open above a paved inner courtyard surrounded at ground level by a number of shops: a second-hand bookshop, a wig maker's, a small printshop, a tailor's. There is also a spice seller's stall, just at the foot of my apartment building. A lively neighborhood, but not too noisy. In the summertime, along with Eastern aromas, there are always notes of music floating in the air. The rosebushes winding their way up the building fronts add a garden charm to this little corner of Vienna. But in the dead of winter, which is what we have at present, the rosebushes have ceased to bloom and the sounds of life from the shops no longer reach me. For me, in a general way, the sounds of life are well and truly stilled, whatever the season. It's as though the terrible winter around me, this unending snow and the feeling it gives, of being buried, were a symptom of my advanced age, the outward sign of that deeper, permanent winter creeping over me.
Today, February 12, 1810, I celebrated my sixty-fifth birthday. Celebrate is not an apt term for the mood of those assembled in my room, a few French exiles of my own age, fellow survivors from the collapse of that world commonly called "the Ancien Régime." The snow never stops. When my faithful friends arrived, they were wet through, for alas, when one requires a cane in order to walk, one cannot use an umbrella. If only old age held no greater misfortune! I set their sodden garments to dry before the fire. The ladies fixed their hair and redid their faces, and then my guests offered me their presents: flowers of wild silk, a fan, and a tiny oval-shaped box that I was asked not to open until after the others had left. I kept the flowers and fan on my lap while we drank coffee and ate pastries. As usual, and in harmony with the whole of Europe, we talked about Napoléon, in terms of hate, naturally, only ours was a restrained hatred, not like the genuinely raging hatred that inspires a large segment of Viennese society. We saw the conqueror's triumphant arrival here last July, after the battles of Essling and Wagram. We endured the bombardments, the pestilence of blood, death, heaped-up bodies, the horror of those thousands of wounded to be encountered in virtually every part of the city, their death rattles and cries of pain forming a backdrop of sound to our regular daily lives. We also endured the spying and plundering, the violence that is the lot of an occupied city. But this army had come from France and was difficult for us to hate. Though exposed to the arrogance of its soldiers, we could not consider them as enemies. At the same time, we found these young men--who spoke our language and might have been our children's sons--foreign, painfully foreign. It was not just their attitude of hostility toward us, it was their deportment. "They walk like him," someone had pointed out to me. And it was true: they all walked too fast. Stiffly upright, heels striking the ground, they looked like so many automatons. Napoléon's officers copy his manner of walking, and his manner of speaking, too, his abrupt way of addressing people (the only thing no one has so far attempted to imitate is his accent). With no preamble, the Emperor will suddenly ask the bluntest question. He does not converse; he fires at point-blank range. Our conversational ideal was the dialogue of the polite salon, with its sense of allusion and of innuendo, its skill at placing the speaker in a brilliant light, never making a vulgar show of knowledge, playing delicately with trifles, and, for the space of a verbal encounter, drawing out from those trifles pearls of intelligence and felicitous expression. His model is the police interrogation. I expect he has the most delightful memory of his "conversation" with Friedrich Staps, the student armed with a kitchen knife who tried to kill him at Schönbrunn last October.
From Farewell My Queen by Chantal Thomas. Copyright Chantal Thomas 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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