Authors: Juliet Grey
Tags: #Adult, #Historical, #Young Adult, #Romance
I wriggled a bit. My leg had become entangled in my underskirts and had fallen asleep. “Are you ever sorry you didn’t have any of your own?” I asked the countess. Inside my white stockings I wiggled my toes until the tingling was gone.
“Antonia, you’re being impertinent!” Charlotte said reproachfully. “What did Maman tell you about blurting out whatever comes into your head?” I loved and admired my next oldest sister more than anyone in the world, but she had the makings of
quite a little autocrat—Maman in miniature in many ways. Already her adolescent features had begun to resemble our mother, especially about the mouth.
Ignoring my sister, I tilted my chin and gazed earnestly into our governess’s eyes. “If you could have, would you have had sixteen children, like Maman?” There were only thirteen of us now, owing to the ravages of smallpox. I’d contracted the disease when I was only two years old and by the grace of God recovered fully. Only a tiny scar by the side of my nose remained as a reminder of what I had survived. When I grew older I would be permitted to hide it with powder and paint, or perhaps even a patch, although Maman thought that women who covered their pox scars with
had no morals. “If you had a little girl, Madame, what would you want her to be like?”
Countess von Brandeiss swallowed hard and fingered the engraved locket about her neck. She was perhaps nearly as old as Maman; the brown hair that peeked out from beneath her straw bonnet and white linen cap was threaded with a few strands of silver. She tenderly kissed the top of my head. “If I had
a little girl, I would have wanted her to be just like you. With strawberry blond curls and enormous dark blue eyes, and a generous heart as big as the Austrian Empire.” Tugging me toward her, she readjusted the gray woolen band that smoothed my unruly tendrils off my forehead. It wasn’t terribly pretty but it served its turn, and was ordinarily masked by my hair ribbon. But that afternoon I had removed the length of rose-colored silk and used it to tie a bouquet I plucked from the parterres—tulips and pinks and puffy white snapdragons.
,” sighed my governess, “she would be exactly like you, except in one respect.” I looked at her inquiringly. “If
had had a little girl, she would be more attentive to her lessons!” Madame von Brandeiss gently clasped my wrists and disengaged my arms from her neck. Her eyes twinkled. “She would not be
clever enough to invent so many distractions, and she would pay more attention to her studies. And, she would not ask so many”—she glanced at Charlotte, who was feigning interest in splitting a blade of grass with her pale, slender fingers—“
“Now,” she said, urging me off her lap and onto the lawn. “Enough games. Like it or not,
, it is time for your French grammar lesson. You too, Charlotte.” The countess clapped her hands with brisk efficiency. “
Allons, mes enfants.
In the blink of an eye, a liveried footman handed Charlotte our copybooks.
Before I could stop myself, I pursed my lips into a petulant little moue. Our governess stuck out her lower lip, playfully mocking my expression. “You mustn’t pout, Antonia. It was you, little madame, who convinced me to move your lessons out of doors today.”
Rolling onto my belly and propping myself on my elbows, I lifted my face to the breeze and filled my nostrils with the scents of summer. The boning in my bodice pressed against my midriff and my skirts belled out above my rump like a pink soufflé. “But I’m not pouting, Madame. It’s how God made me,” I said brightly. In truth, what Maman calls “the Hapsburg lower lip” gives the impression of a permanent pout, even when I’m not sulking. Our entire family looks the same way; with fair hair, a pale complexion, and a distinctly receding chin, I resembled every one of my siblings and ancestors.
And yet, if I’d had a glass I would have appraised my appearance. Was I pretty? Maman thought I was a perfect porcelain doll, but I’d overheard whispers among the servants … something about the way I carried my head. Or perhaps it was my physiognomy. Then again, I was a Hapsburg archduchess. I had every reason to delight in my lineage. Still—I wanted everyone to
love me. If there were a way to please them, I wished to learn it. “Do you think my chin makes me look haughty?” I asked Madame von Brandeiss.
“People who have nothing better to do will indulge in idle gossip,” our governess replied. Charlotte placed her hand over her mouth to hide a smile. “Your chin makes you look proud. And you have every reason to be proud because you are a daughter of Austria and your family has a long and illustrious history. And,” Madame von Brandeiss continued, beginning to laugh, “you are doing it again.”
“Doing what?” I asked innocently.
“Doing everything you can think of to avoid your books. Don’t think you can fool me, little madame.”
She clapped her hands again. “Come now, you minxes, you’ve dawdled enough.
It’s time for your French lesson.” She shook Charlotte gently by the shoulder.
Charlotte rolled onto her back and sat up; she was diligent by nature, but if I began to dally, she could become as indolent as I when it came to our schoolwork. Our moods affected each other as if we had been born twins. Her grumble became a delighted squeal as something caught our eyes at exactly the same moment. “Toinette, look! A butterfly!” My sister shut her copybook with a resonant snap. Joining hands, we pulled each other to our feet and began to give chase. Without breaking her stride Charlotte swept up her net from where it lay in the soft grass with a single graceful motion.
Girls, your shoes!” Madame von Brandeiss exclaimed, rising and smoothing her skirts. Her boned corset prevented her from bending with ease; she knelt as if to curtsy and scooped up one of my backless ivory satin slippers.
“No time!” I shouted, clutching fistfuls of watered silk as I hitched up my skirts and raced past Charlotte. The butterfly became
a blur of vivid blue as it flitted in an irregular serpentine across the manicured hillside, its delicate form silhouetted against the cerulean sky. It finally settled on a hedge at the perimeter of the slope. Charlotte and I had nearly run out of wind; our chests heaved with exertion, straining against the stiff boning of our stomachers. My sister began to lower her net. I raised my hand to stay her. “No,” I insisted, panting. “You’ll scare her off.”
I held my breath. Gingerly reaching toward the foliage, I cupped my hands over our exquisite quarry. The butterfly’s iridescent wings fluttered energetically, tickling my palms. “Let’s show Madame,” I whispered.
With Charlotte a pace or two behind me, limping a bit because she’d put her foot wrong on an unseen twig, I cautiously tiptoed back across the lawn, fearful of tripping and losing the delicate treasure cocooned within my hands. The rapid trembling of the butterfly’s wings gradually slowed until there was only an occasional beat against my palms.
Finally, we reached the countess. “Look what I’ve got!” I crowed, slowly uncurling my fingers. The three of us peered at the motionless insect. Charlotte’s face turned grave.
Catching the troubled expression in her pale blue eyes, “Maybe she’s sleeping,” I said softly, hopefully, stroking one of the fragile wings with my index finger. My hands were smudged with yellow dust.
“She’s not sleeping, Toinette. She’s …” Charlotte’s words trailed off as she looked at me, her usually flushed cheeks now ashen with awareness.
My lips quivered, but the sobs became strangled in my throat. Drawing me to her, Charlotte endeavored to still the heaving in my shoulders, but I shrugged her off. I didn’t deserve to be comforted. An enormous tear rolled down my cheek and landed on my chest, marring the silk with an irregular stain. Another warm
tear plopped onto my wrist. I closed my hands again as if to shelter the butterfly in the sepulcher made by my palms, while the full weight of my crime settled on my narrow shoulders.
“I. Didn’t. Mean. To. Kill. Her. I’ve. Never. Killed. Anything. I. Would. Never. Hurt …” My sobs finally came in big loud gulps, bursts of hysterical sound punctuated by apologies. With a look of sheer helplessness I threw myself into my governess’s open arms.
,” soothed the countess, caressing my hair. “We know you meant no harm.” For several moments I remained in her embrace, my cheek pressed against the ruching at her bosom. Then Madame von Brandeiss knelt before me and used her lace-edged handkerchief to blot my tears. “Perhaps,” she said, gently taking my clasped hands in hers, “perhaps she was too beautiful to live.”
Even then I recognized that it was not the demise of an insect that troubled me to such an extraordinary extent, though Maman has always chided me for an excess of sensibility. It was my guilt that overwhelmed me. In my heedless haste to possess something beautiful, I had not considered the consequences. My covetousness had destroyed the very thing I had so curiously, passionately, impetuously adored.
In the aftermath of this little tragedy, our French grammar lesson took on an added significance.
“How do you say ‘the butterfly is dead’?” Madame von Brandeiss asked us. She turned to look at me but I regarded her blankly. Aware that she would receive a correct response from my sister—which is why she inevitably began our instruction by offering me the benefit of the doubt—our governess addressed the better student. “Charlotte, what is the French word for ‘butterfly’?”
,” I interjected before my sister could draw breath.
on,” Charlotte corrected with the smug satisfaction of
an older sister regaining her superior place in the natural order of things.
“You are right, Charlotte. Very good.
. And how would you say ‘The butterfly is dead’?
. Madame Antonia?”
This time Charlotte would not be permitted to provide the answer. I chewed on my lower lip—the protruding one. I had no head for rote memorization or endless conjugation of verbs in tenses I would rarely use. I preferred situations where there was no inappropriate choice: to wear the blue gown or the yellow; to play with the flaxen-haired wooden doll or the one with chestnut tresses.
Madame von Brandeiss began to feed me the words. “Le
…” she began encouragingly.
Le papillon tot ist
,” I volunteered.
,” our governess chuckled, “you identified the butterfly in French but it died in German. Come, girls, what is the French for ‘dead’?”
“Mort,” Charlotte replied with confidence. I gave her a mutinous look.
“Let’s try again, Antonia, now that you know the French.
,” I said, my nose beginning to twitch as I sniffed back tears.
Frustrated both by my inability to construct a simple grammatical sentence and by my tendency to mix French and German, especially when it came to the verbs, Madame von Brandeiss took a pencil from a red lacquer box and in a meticulous hand, wrote out the words in my copybook and then in Charlotte’s.
Le papillon est mort
To our governess’s consternation, I insisted on delaying the rest of the lesson while I scrabbled in the dirt to dig a grave; my
deserved a proper burial. As I tore away tiny fistfuls of grass and sod, two periwigged footmen waited patiently with my portable writing desk, their faces as expressionless as if they had been cast in porcelain. I crossed myself and said a little prayer over the new grave. Satisfied that the butterfly would now go to heaven, I wiped my hands on my gown and sank down beside Charlotte, my heavy skirts billowing out beneath me.
“Now I am ready for my lesson, Madame von Brandeiss,” I said, playfully bumping my sister with my shoulder. A servant opened the tiny clasps on the rosewood writing desk and placed it on my lap while another attendant uncapped the ink bottle and sharpened my quill. Then, as always, I dipped my pen and meticulously traced the words that Madame von Brandeiss had lightly penciled in my copybook. And, as always, Maman would never know that I, no more talented than a parrot or a trained monkey, had not really written them myself.
While Charlotte and I copied our French sentence, tongues peeking intently from the corners of our mouths, a few feet away the footmen were setting up the easels for our watercolor lesson. Madame von Brandeiss suggested that we look toward the palace and paint the view, incorporating the imposing south façade and the gardens. From our vantage at the summit of the slope the flowers resembled a multitude of colorful spots arranged in perfectly symmetrical beds.
We had not been laboring long over our brushes and pots of color when I felt a tug at the lace on my sleeve. “
Look!” Charlotte exclaimed. I turned to follow her gaze. The countess had fallen asleep with her hands folded primly in her lap, her mouth slightly agape. A subtle snore emanated from her throat.
My sister’s eyes were bright with mischief. Being older, she was always the ringleader in our games, and I never followed her with anything less than slavishly devoted enthusiasm. We loaded
our brushes with color and cautiously tiptoed over to our slumbering governess. Falling to our knees on either side of Madame von Brandeiss, at Charlotte’s silent signal we applied the brushes to our governess’s face. Suppressing a giggle, I marveled that we had never thought of this girlish prank until now. The worst that might befall us, I ventured to surmise, was that the kindhearted countess would throw her hands up in the air and exclaim, as she tried not to laugh, “
, whatever am I to do with you children?”
I painted a red rose, a symbol of Austria as well as my favorite flower. Charlotte, with a surer hand than mine, artfully sketched a green climbing vine.
Madame von Brandeiss awoke with a start. “
Ouf, mein Gott!
” She bolted upright and began to bat the air, chasing off the flies that she thought had landed on her face. But Charlotte and I had already retreated to our easels and were intent on giving a magnificent performance as a pair of perfectly behaved archduchesses.