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Authors: Juliet Grey

Tags: #Adult, #Historical, #Young Adult, #Romance

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BOOK: Becoming Marie Antoinette
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But now she, too, lay feverish in her bed, her body red and blistered with the telltale marks of smallpox—the disease Maman referred to as “the scourge of Europe.” And my brother had an even better excuse for avoiding his wife. As the emperor of Austria he could not be exposed to the disease, especially because Maman, who had contracted it by visiting Homely Josepha’s sickroom, was bedridden with it as well. Austria could not afford to lose both its reigning sovereigns.

Maman had always been candid with her children about illness and disease, and even about death and dying, because she didn’t want us to be afraid of them. Nevertheless, we tiptoed around the subject of her indisposition, each of us certain that if we were to voice our fears they would undoubtedly come true. Instead, we spoke in self-conscious tones of other things—of dances and kite flying, boat rides and the pug bitch’s new litter.

It was Joseph who found the three of us in the garden to tell us the end had arrived. He was perspiring heavily in his black silk mourning suit and gray brocaded waistcoat embellished with jet beading. Death was such a frequent occurrence that all of us had formal mourning clothes at the ready. A tricorn of shiny black beaver shaded my brother’s eyes from the afternoon sun. Although his lips were grim, his eyes were dry. “She’s gone to God,” was all he said.

With a collective, terrified gasp, we jumped up—plates, platters, half-eaten strawberries, and goblets of lemonade tumbling from our hands and laps, haphazardly spilling their contents all over the yellow cloth.

I flew into Charlotte’s arms and began to weep. She stroked my hair maternally, though within her comforting embrace I could feel her heart beating wildly against mine. “Maman is
dead?” Josepha exclaimed, crossing herself and then shoving her fist to her mouth to stifle a huge, choking sob. Her nose began to turn bright red as it always did when she was trying hard not to cry.

Our brother looked startled for an instant. “No—not Maman. My wife. My wife is dead.”

Time stood still, or so it seemed, while our minds grasped the information and all its implications. We would not be orphans. Yet Maman remained in danger. And Joseph had now twice been made a widower.

Although I was relieved and grateful that it was not Maman whose soul had gone to heaven, there was still reason enough for grief. Frustrated when I could not locate my handkerchief, I availed myself of my
engageantes
—the frothy layers of lace at my elbow—to wipe my runny nose. I didn’t care. What was such a trifling thing compared to the snuffing out of a life? Homely Josepha—it now seemed too cruel to call her that; henceforth she would be “Angel Josepha”—didn’t deserve to die, and especially so unappreciated. With all the innocence of youth and ignorance of the wide world I shot Joseph a reproachful look that bordered on contempt. He seemed puzzled by my expression. “She loved
you
, you know,” I muttered.

Our
fête champêtre
in the grass now seemed a discordant frivolity. The musicians packed away their instruments and discreetly dispersed, and the servants cleaned up the remnants of our picnic while we unhappy Hapsburgs trudged solemnly back to the palace. The funeral, Joseph told us, would take place as soon as possible; a corpse rotten from smallpox was dangerously contagious and therefore had to be interred with great haste. Although she was born in Munich and had been Princess of Bavaria, because she was the Empress consort of Austria, Angel Josepha would be entombed in our family crypt and not be sent back to her homeland for burial.

The court was immediately directed to begin the observance of a three-month period of mourning. From now until the end of August there would be no concerts, operas, or dances. Aware that it would be stifling to endure almost the entire summer without any lively entertainments, Maman permitted the youngest of us—Charlotte, Ferdinand, Maximilian, and I—to enjoy our pastimes as long as our behavior was not unduly frolicsome. To alleviate some of the boredom I spent many hours indoors at Schönbrunn practicing the harp, embroidering a bevy of lilac blossoms on a firescreen, and undressing and dressing my favorite doll in the new clothes I had learned to stitch from Madame von Brandeiss.

How eagerly I anticipated the day when I would have a gaggle of lively children at my heels, tugging at my skirts, always keen to play games! For the time being I lavished my affection on my dog and my doll. As they had both entered my life when I was all of seven, I had given them the sort of spectacularly unoriginal names that young children typically bestow upon their playthings and pets. Poupée was the French doll with the pretty painted face that my sister Maria Christina had given me for Christmas; and Mops was my pug
—Mopshund
being the German word for a pug-dog.

Joseph did not attend his wife’s funeral, nor did Maman, who continued to recuperate. And very few people followed Angel Josepha’s tin-plated sarcophagus down to the imperial crypt below the Kapuzinerkirche, the Capuchin Church. I was all the more sorrowful after my request to accompany her bier was denied. She should have had a sympathetic friend there to say good-bye and to wish her soul a safe journey to heaven. And although she was not beautiful, she was virtuous; I never heard her say an unkind word, nor reproach anyone—even my brother—for their conduct toward her.

A few weeks after Angel Josepha’s death, the imperial physicians reported that Maman had fully recovered and was capable of resuming her imperial duties. Naturally, we were grateful and relieved, and none of us more so than Maman. But I noticed a difference in her. It was not merely that she was thinner, and perhaps had even lost one of her three chins. She seemed weary, less patient, and even more attentive than ever to her deeply ingrained sense of duty. No longer did my mother appear to embrace life, although God had allowed her to live; instead, she seemed burdened by earthly cares. Even her beloved
Kammermusik
concerts no longer brought her joy.

While the court was in official mourning my sister Josepha’s wedding to the king of Naples had been placed in a state of limbo. Naturally, it would not have been seemly to plan a joyous celebration, but in all sincerity, the only one who was looking forward to Josepha’s impending union was Maman. Yet by the second week of October the three months of mourning had elapsed and my sister’s bedroom in the Hofburg was as bare as a nun’s cell. In preparation for her journey to Naples, nearly everything Josepha owned had been packed into heavy wooden trunks studded with her initials. I didn’t much envy her trousseau. It consisted of dozens of gowns and robes made up in brightly colored silks and brocades and trimmed with everything one could imagine—spangles and beading and lace and gold fringe, and precious gems, of course—because Maman had been informed that the Neapolitans were fond of these unsophisticated, garish touches. She wanted to be sure that King Ferdinand would become smitten with Josepha immediately. The way Josepha explained it to me, “the sooner the baby, the stronger the alliance.” She meant Austria’s alliance with the Two Sicilies. The closer the days drew to October 15, the date of my sister’s departure, the more I was forced to confront an ugly truth about our mother: It didn’t matter
to Maman if Josepha and her husband did not fall in love, just as it hadn’t mattered to her when she urged Joseph to marry Homely Angel Josepha of Bavaria. And yet
she
had been so deeply enamored of our papa that she refused to wed any man but him, despite our grandfather’s objections to such an unequal match.

I was no longer as cocooned from the harsh realities of the world as I had been only a year earlier. The passing of my unloved sister-in-law and the imminent departure of Josepha for an equally loveless marriage forced me to confront a painful lesson about the privileges of rank that I would have been just as happy to delay. Palaces and carriages and bejeweled gowns came at a high price. Gap-toothed Marta who emptied my chamber pot every morning may have envied my sumptuous wardrobe and my hours of leisure (and who would not prefer to caress the strings of a harp than dispose of someone else’s urine?), but she had the freedom to follow the promptings of her heart and marry the man she loved because the fate of nations did not depend upon her union.

On October 12, after the family breakfasted together Josepha drew me aside and, with a catch in her throat, asked if she might speak to me alone. She had barely touched her food, nervously tapping her heavy silver spoon on her egg cup and only nibbling at her toast. Her pot of bitter chocolate, which she looked forward to drinking each morning with girlish enthusiasm and an indulgent spoonful of
Schlag
, was ignored and grew cold.

It was a long, labyrinthine walk to the wing of the palace where the archduchesses lived in what we laughingly referred to as “the convent” because our brothers all resided on the opposite side of the courtyard. Our skirts rustling, Josepha clutched my hand as we sped through countless cream-colored chambers embellished with
boiserie
—raised moldings and elaborate scrollwork
—passing innumerable pairs of footmen standing as stiff and silent as statues at the entrance to every room.

Each of us had our own apartment consisting of a formal reception room, a salon, and a bedchamber. A stranger entering our residential quarters might have been surprised by their simplicity, a striking contrast to the rococo splendor of the state rooms that reflected the latest taste in décor and the grandeur of empire. Someone who had never seen the formal salons, and who had only visited the Hapsburgs
en domicile
, might have thought we lived like any large family of the German gentry—pious, industrious, and boisterous.

Josepha followed me into my salon, shutting the door quietly behind her. Mops eyed her curiously from his bed on the floor, sensing in his uncanny canine way that something was amiss. Clasping my hands in hers, Josepha drew me over to the blue velvet love seat. “I want to say good-bye to you,” my sister told me. Her hands felt cold and damp. Her face was pale, the color drained from her cheeks.

“But you don’t have to say it yet,” I insisted. “You don’t leave for another three days.” I rested my head against her shoulder. “I wish you could remain with us for another three
weeks
, so you don’t miss my twelfth birthday.”

Josepha sighed heavily. “Even so, I think I would miss it anyway. In fact, little one, I’m afraid we may never see each other again.”

I shivered at her words. “What are you saying?”

“Maman says I must pay my respects today to … to Homely Josepha—before I leave for Naples. She says that it’s the proper thing to do.” My sister’s voice was hollow.

“You have to perform a take-leave for a dead person? Homely Josepha will never know.”

“But Maman will.”

I had little use, and even less patience, for empty ritual. “Well, what if you didn’t do it?” I asked her. “Or what if you told Maman you would and then only pretended to go into the crypt?”

Josepha trembled. “You know I can’t. I could never lie about something like that. It wouldn’t be right. And even if Maman never found out, God would know. I could confess my sin and make peace with disappointing Maman, but I couldn’t disappoint Him.”

Although she was trying to appear brave, her eyes were filled with terror and tears. “Descending into the Kaisergruft to commune with the dead souls there, especially Maria Josepha’s spirit, and our having the same name … I can’t explain it, Toinette … but I have a premonition that you and I shall never see each other again.”

She would not be consoled by my reminder, now halfhearted, that there was no such thing as ghosts.

“It’s not Homely Josepha’s
ghost
that I am afraid of.” My sister shuddered. “I know her soul is in heaven, but her body … Joseph said she was buried quickly because the doctors didn’t want the disease to spread. What if they weren’t careful enough?” I placed my arm about her shoulder and allowed Mops to jump into her lap; if I was unable to allay her fears, surely the pug’s warm, devoted presence would comfort her.

“Maman thinks I’m being childish about the whole business.” Josepha reflexively stroked the dog’s smooth tan coat, then rested her cheek against his thick neck. “To her mind, I have an obligation and it is my duty to fulfill it. Yet it is also my duty to become King Ferdinand’s bride.”

I squeezed Josepha’s arm to reassure her. “I know you don’t want to wed him,” I said softly.

“It doesn’t matter whether I wish to marry him or not—”

“Well, certainly not to Maman,” I interrupted.

“—it’s that I don’t think I ever
will
.” Mops hopped onto the
floor and began to nose about the ruching at Josepha’s hem. Finding no errant crumbs, he grew disinterested and pattered over to a comfortable spot on the rug. My sister impetuously threw her arms around me, holding me so tightly that I could feel the boning in her lilac silk bodice pressing into my chest. I had forgotten how much taller she had grown. Ever since I’d learned that I was to marry the dauphin of France, I’d begun to wish I could stop time and keep things just as they were. I would stop it at the picnics and the operas—before we ever got to the leave-taking and the funerals. When I was younger, maybe five or six, I’d made a wish that I would never be sad. It hadn’t come true.

Josepha began to weep. “I’m afraid I will join Johanna,” she sobbed as she held me even closer. In addition to Maria Anna (whom we all called Marianne), Maria Christina, Maria Elisabeth, and Maria Amalia, we’d had another sister—Maria Johanna Gabriella Josepha Antonia. Johanna was born five years before I was, and only one year before Josepha. The pair of them had been as close as Charlotte and I were. In 1762, two days before Christmas, Johanna died of smallpox. She was only twelve years old. Just a few months older than I was now.

That thought alone was so immense, so frightening, that my efforts to reassure my sister evanesced. What could I say to Josepha? How could I tell her, with any measure of honesty or certainty, that her fears were unfounded? I could not lie. So we perched on the edge of the love seat, our tears staining the blue and rose floral Aubusson as we clutched each other so tightly that the very impression of our bodies reaffirmed the physical, the corporeal, the fact that we were alive.

BOOK: Becoming Marie Antoinette
2.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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