I heard it being built. Father’s secret Versailles, a palace beneath a palace. A world of gilt and crystal hidden deep within the roots of France. When I was a small girl, only three or four, I heard the booming far below, shivering up through the floor. I watched the tiny furniture rattle inside my dollhouse and I asked my governess, Mademoiselle d’Églantine, what it meant. She told me with great, frightened eyes that the earth had swallowed something dreadful and was suffering indigestion. I was not the cleverest child in France. I believed her.
Aurélie du Bessancourt—October 23, 1789
We are fleeing along the upper gallery when the windows explode. Seventy-two panes of glass burst inward. I am knocked sideways by the force of it, my vast skirts billowing into a banner of flickering silk. For a heartbeat all is silent, echoing and slow-moving, as if I have been submerged suddenly underwater. Rocks hang suspended among the glittering shards, burning clods of peat, flaming torches whirling end over end. . . .
And now everything is noise again, my running feet, my bloody hands, and the growl of the crowds outside.
Mama is shrieking: “Aurélie, do not leave me behind!”
She is coming after me, but she is dressed for a ball, whalebone corsets and thirty pounds of Florentine brocade. She is far too slow. Ahead, Bernadette and Charlotte have reached the stairs. Father’s guards are with them, their faces bright with sweat. Delphine huddles against the newel post, fingers digging into the wood, waiting for Mama and me.
“Follow the guards,” I snap. The cuts on my palms are small, from glass or from the rocks, I do not know. I press them to my side, wincing, then snatch Delphine and start down the stairs. “All of you, follow them!”
I look back over my shoulder. Mother has almost reached the head of the stairs. She is prancing, snatching things, letting them fall. Her little hands are full of snuffboxes, strings of pearls, and gilt figurines. Frightened to go, frightened to stay.
Outside, I hear voices rising above the others, bellowing orders. I hear financier and porcs and le meurtrier. The slaughterer. I have heard my father called many things, but never that. I wonder what will become of us if we do not make it down. If we are lucky, we will be taken to Paris for trial and be executed before a roiling, toothless crowd. If we are less lucky . . . I see our bodies lying in a heap among the ruins of the château. Moths flit across our dirtied faces and spread their wings over our eyelids. And all in a moment, my life seems very small, a shred of cloth snagged in a hedge, blowing in a hard wind. Soon it will be torn away, and what have I done with my years here? Not very much. Nothing at all.
In the entrance hall, the doors are breaking. Boots hammer the marble, an echoing chorus of hobnails and slapping leather. I know where they are by the sound of them. The music room. The salle des arts where the Bessancourts’ painted frowns and beakish noses have all been taken down, leaving nothing but phantom squares on the wallpaper.
Mother starts down the stairs. Her shoes are so high she must go down sideways, step by step. Smoke is beginning to drift into the lower passage, bitter as crab apples. I can hear the crackle of flames. The torches must have caught hold of the drapes.
I tap the young guard on the shoulder. “Get her,” I whisper. “Drag her if you must, but get her down.”
He nods; he seems to coil, gathering energy, and now he bolts past me, back up the steps. In the gallery, the flames flare brighter. A door bursts open, frighteningly close. Rough shouts echo toward me, clanking weapons and the thudding march of feet.
“Run, Mama! Kick off the shoes! Run!” My sisters are all shrieking at once. Delphine is weeping, tears flowing down her fat baby cheeks.
The old guard swings his musket off his back and trains it up the steps. The young guard has almost reached Mother. She is so small. He could carry her under one arm. . . . But just as he is about to snatch her, she darts. One step up. One step away.
I freeze, clutching at my skirts. The young guard stares at her, slack-jawed. She shakes her head at him. And now she looks past him, to me.
Her mouth is moving. “Forgive me, Aurélie,” she says, and it is only a whisper amid the crashing and the flames. “I wish I were braver. For all of you, I wish I were brave.”
“No.” I feel a blistering rage surge toward my heart, turning my lungs to ash. “Mama, no, NO! Come with us!”
She wipes her face, turns, and climbs back toward the gallery.
They have seen her. The shouts become shrill, grotesque and jubilant, hounds barking before the kill. The flames are roaring. The young guard careens back down the stairs toward us.
A shot rings out.
I scream, but I do not hear it. All I hear is the gunshot, deafening, ringing in my ears. Mother stands transfixed at the top of the stairs, her back toward us.
No, Mama, please no—
She turns slowly, one hand clutching the creamy fabric above her stomach. When she pulls her hand away, it wears a shining red glove. Her face registers astonishment. The guards are trying to herd us behind a little panel in the wall, a panel with a butterfly in it, wrought in brass, and I am struggling, straining to keep Mother in sight.
The revolutionaries flow around her. Delphine is wailing in my arms. The old guard slaps her. The panel slides shut.
And now there is only darkness, our moving feet and our quick gasping breaths, and we cannot cry, we cannot stop. The guards are pushing us—down, down into the blackness—toward the new palace, to good luck and safety and everlasting peace, where Father waits.
I’m scribbling a good-bye note in permanent marker on Mom’s stainless-steel fridge. I don’t know if permanent marker sticks on stainless steel. I’m thinking maybe I should have been super dramatic and scratched it in with a steak knife, but the marker is going to have to do because in one minute I’m gone. In one minute I’ll be in a black Mercedes heading for the airport. In an hour I’ll be meeting the others. In three we’ll be somewhere over the Atlantic.
Hi family! I mash the tip against the cold surface. The clock above the oven locks on to 5:59 P.M. The sun’s setting, oozing gold and pink all over the lawn outside.
I’m going to Azerbaijan, surprise surprise! Why, you ask? Oh wait, no you don’t. But you’ll hear about it anyway in about three months. In the New York Times. And Good Morning America. Pretty much everywhere.