The Secret Life of Josephine

Napoleon's Bird of Paradise

Carolly Erickson

St. Martin's Press

Chapter 1
 

That night, the night I first met Scipion du Roure, all I could think of was the ball and my gown of pale yellow silk and the garland of fragrant white flowering jasmine Euphemia had woven into my hair. I hummed as I dressed, practicing walking in the wide skirt on its stiff wire frame and glancing at my reflection in the pier glass that stood in the middle of my bedroom.

My eyes were bright, my skin warm and glowing in the candlelight. I remember thinking, I am beautiful. Every man at the ball will want to dance with me.

I was living with my parents in Martinique on the plantation known as Les Trois-Ilets, the Three Little Islands. The year was 1778. My poor harassed father Joseph Tascher was drinking far too much and going deeper and deeper into debt, and my mother and grandmother were hounding him relentlessly. I tried to ignore their arguing—they argued a lot—and keep my thoughts on the ball to come. But the raised voices were hard to ignore.

“You must ask your brother for another loan,” my mother was insisting. “Do not wait. Ride to Fort-Royal tonight.”

“Gladly, my dear,” was my father’s wry response. “Only I know what his answer will be. No more loans. Not until I agree to make him co-owner of Les Trois-Ilets, and name his son as my sole heir.”

“Your sole heir, indeed,” sniffed my grandmother. “If you were man enough you’d have sons instead of daughters.”

My grandmother Catherine des Sannois, who was born plain Catherine Brown on a farm in Dundreary, had the fiery temper of her Irish ancestors and never lost a chance to criticize my highborn father.

“And if my wife did her duty she would give me sons. The fault is hers.”

“How dare you speak to me in that way when I nearly died giving birth to the last one?” My mother rose from her chair and approached my father accusingly. “And how dare you show such disrespect for poor Catherine, and her in her grave these past two months!” My sister Catherine, who had been frail and sickly most of her life, had finally succumbed to a fever and was buried in the little church on our plantation.

“I wish to heaven you were in your graves too,” I heard my father mutter as he turned aside. “Then we could all have some peace.”

“Peace? peace? You talk of peace, when everything you do upsets the rest of us?” My grandmother continued her harangue. “You neglect your daughters. Neither of them is betrothed. You neglect your wife. How many mistresses do you have there in Fort-Royal? Three? Six? And with how many octoroon bastards who look like you? Worst of all you neglect this plantation, which my husband and I gave you, worthless idler that you are, so that your family would not starve. Look at it! Where are the cane fields? Returned to the wild. Where are the slaves? Run away, most of them. What do you have to show for seventeen years of ownership? A fine plantation in ruins! That’s what! And a family on the brink of starvation!”

Father took out his silver flask and drank from it, his lined face weary and his thin, greying hair coming loose from his untidily tied bag wig. In that moment, while there was a pause in the combat, I came forward to show off my gown.

I walked slowly past father, mother and Grandma Sannois. I saw a light come into my father’s eyes as he watched me, and knew it for a gleam of admiration. My grandmother nodded. “It’s time she was betrothed,” she said curtly. “Past time.” My mother looked me over critically, from the top of my garlanded head to the gleaming bows on my yellow satin slippers.

“Watch out for the men,” was all she said.
 
 
 

the narrow, twisting torchlit streets of Fort-Royal shone yellow under the moon as our carriage—really a cart, with a makeshift canvas top tied on to shield us from rain—climbed the hillside toward my uncle’s imposing house above Fort-Royal Bay. My uncle Robert Tascher was commandant of the harbor, and he and his family lived well. Some five hundred guests, drawn from the best society—the Grands Blancs, as we were known, the Great Whites, or Europeans—were to attend the ball on this night, and I was among those fortunate enough to be invited.

I was chaperoned by my Aunt Rosette, my father and Uncle Robert’s tremulous, withdrawn spinster sister. She was the perfect companion, all but silent and extremely unprepossessing in her old green gown with the faded crimson rosettes—the same one she wore to every party and ball. She never interfered with my good times. I knew she admired and envied me, for she had never been good-looking and indeed she seemed to fade into the wallpaper in any room she entered.

The air was humid, and my yellow silk gown was already damp with perspiration when we arrived at the imposing front gate of Uncle Robert’s mansion. The curls my maid Euphemia had arranged across my broad forehead with such care clung wetly to my skin.

Once inside, I drank thirstily from the cup of rum punch a tall African servant handed to me, and asked for another. I sat down by an open window and let the music of the orchestra, the murmur of voices, the susurration of the bright swaying gowns and the welcome play of the wind off the bay wash over me.

I did not sit there long. Soon a young man came up to me and asked me to dance, and then another and another. I danced every dance, I remember, and as the evening wore on I began to feel dizzy when I turned and twirled in the steps of the quadrille and minuet. I was glad when there came a lull in the music and some of the guests began to leave.

Then, before I knew it, a man in a smart uniform was bending down toward me, and extending his hand. I looked up, and saw his fine grey eyes fixed on me, a mischievous smile on his full lips.

“Lieutenant Scipion du Roure, mademoiselle. Will you do me the honor of dancing with me?”

I floated, I walked on air, I melted into his arms—and all too soon our dance was at an end.

“Come for a walk with me,” he whispered as he kissed my gloved hand in parting. “Meet me by the mango tree in half an hour.” There was a huge old mango beside the veranda of Uncle Robert’s mansion. I had no doubt that was the tree he meant. I felt a tingle of anticipation, for it never occurred to me not to meet him.

“Watch out for the men,” my mother had cautioned me, but in that moment I forgot her warning. My only thought was, how will I slip away? My Aunt Rosette, my self-effacing chaperone, had been watching me dance all evening long while eating from a plate of vanilla custards. As I went up to her I saw that she had eaten too many, and looked ill. As I approached she hastily put her plate down and wiped her mouth with the back of one ungloved hand.

“You look tired, Aunt Rosette. I’m sure Uncle Robert could find you somewhere to lie down.”

She gave me a sharp look. “You know I cannot leave as long as you are here. You cannot be abandoned without a relative to watch over you.”

“But I won’t be abandoned. Aunt Louise is here.” As hostess of the ball my aunt was, of course, present in the large room, though hundreds of guests milled about between her and me.

A look of pain crossed Aunt Rosette’s face, and she put her hand over her stomach.

“You need some oil of wintergreen, Aunt Rosette—and now, without delay.” I reached for her free hand and she let me lead her down a corridor to where a clutch of servants stood, out of sight of the dancers in the ballroom, watching the festivities through a partially open door. Among the servants I recognized Denise, the housekeeper.

Over Aunt Rosette’s increasingly feeble protests Denise and I persuaded her to rest in a darkened room and to drink an infusion of oil of wintergreen. Leaving her in Denise’s care I hurried back to the ballroom and out along the veranda toward the garden. The huge mass of the great mango tree, heavy with green fruit, its wide branches gleaming in the silvery moonlight, stood out from the tall palms and flowering tamarisks around it. At the foot of the tree stood Scipion du Roure in his smart blue naval uniform, leaning nonchalantly against the trunk, arms folded. He smiled as he watched me approach. As I came up to him he held out his hand.

“There you are, my lovely Bird of Paradise.”

I stripped off my gloves and took his outstretched hand. His smile was languid, seductive—though I did not know those words at the age of fifteen. I knew only that I was excited to be meeting him, and that our meeting was all the more exciting to me because it was forbidden. For us to be alone together in the dark garden, with only the sleepy birds and croaking frogs for company, was outside the rules of conduct for Grands Blancs. I liked breaking the rules. And I liked the name he called me. Bird of Paradise.

We walked hand in hand along a stonework path that led to the shore of the wide bay. As a child I had walked that path many times before, with my cousins, on our way to the beach to swim. But we had always gone in the daytime, never at night. I had never before seen the silver path made by the moon’s reflection in the waters of the broad bay, or felt the balm of the cool night air on my fevered cheeks. And I had never before inhaled such a powerful scent from the night-blooming jasmine that lined the path on either side, a scent that put the fragrance of my own jasmine garland to shame.

In response to my eager questions Scipion told me that he was nineteen years old, and a lieutenant aboard the frigate Intrepid. He had served for three years and had been wounded twice. My eyes widened as he described a skirmish between his ship and the British vessel Orkney only a few miles from where we stood, how his vessel had come alongside the Orkney and he and his men had boarded her, swords in hand. He lifted his hair up to show me his right ear, which bore a long red scar.

“English musket fire,” he said. “I was lucky. It only grazed my ear. It could have taken my head off.”

“But we are not at war with the British. I heard my father tell our steward that we are not.”

Scipion looked grim. “We will be, before long. That’s why they spy on us from their lookout posts on St. Lucia. They know it is only a matter of time before war comes.”

All my life, it seemed, we had been fighting the British. They coveted our islands, the Windward Islands. Above all they wanted our island of Martinique.

“My father worries that they will invade Martinique and take our plantation.”

“Then we must hope that if they come, I and my brother officers will defend you.” He smiled. “And in any event, I do not think they will come tonight.”

I took off my slippers and stockings and we walked along the beach, in the smooth white sand, avoiding the scuttling crabs and staying out of the way of the incoming waves that flung themselves up onto the shore in a froth of white. Scipion held my hand tightly, and I gripped his in return. He bent down and brushed my cheek with his lips.

“How old are you, Rose?”

“Fifteen.”

He drew back in surprise.

“You look eighteen at least. But then, if you were eighteen, you would probably be married. Girls marry early here, I understand.”

“I have no dowry.”

“Ah. Good breeding but no money. A familiar situation. Still, you have beauty.”

I warmed to his words, suddenly wishing my father wasn’t poor. Would Scipion want to marry me, I wondered, if I had a dowry of twenty thousand livres like my cousin Julie, Uncle Robert’s daughter?

We walked on a ways in silence. Presently we came to a rocky outcrop that marked the end of the beach.

“Behind these rocks there’s a cave,” I told Scipion. “The old Carib chiefs used to hold their ceremonies there. They sacrificed animals to their gods, and prayed for rain, and healed people of their diseases.”

“The priests say that’s just heathen nonsense. Only the Christian God has such powers.”

“A Carib chief healed our priest at Les Trois-Ilets when he nearly died of fever.”

“It was your prayers, Bird of Paradise, that cured him.”

I didn’t argue. I knew that many outsiders to our island did not believe in the power of the Carib gods, or the African gods the slaves worshipped. But then, there were many who no longer believed in the Christian god either, especially in France. Or so I had heard my father’s friends say.

The last part of our walk was the best. I will never forget how I felt as Scipion escorted me back along the beach and through the garden to Uncle Robert’s mansion. We hardly spoke at all, but our feelings spoke for us. How my heart pounded when he kissed me under the mango tree! And how sad was our parting as he left me there, promising to visit me at Les Trois-Ilets as soon as he could.

I cried, I rejoiced, I danced, I despaired. I was not the same from one moment to the next. How could I be, when I was so giddy from the lateness of the hour, the exertion, the lingering effect of the rum punch—and most of all, the touch of his hand and the feel of his lips there in the dark garden, under the spreading mango tree.
 
 
Copyright © 2007 by Carolly Erickson. All rights reserved.