‘secresy, that canker-worm of virtue’
Eliza Fenwick, 1795
Paris, December 1793
The afternoon sky was already darkening to a smoky yellow gloom as the long-awaited tumbrel finally rattled into view across the cobbles. The cold, tired citizens crowding the scaffold regained some of their earlier enthusiasm and vigour, and began to heckle, and pelt the prisoners with mud and rotten vegetables. Louisa shuddered as she saw a dead cat being hurled through the air. The whole day had felt like some ghastly preview of hell. There had been a long wait since the morning’s executions, and Louisa and Anne were no longer bothering to cover their noses with their handkerchiefs in a futile attempt to block the stench of blood, excrement, urine and death which hung in the chill air of the Place de la Révolution.
Anne clutched Louisa’s hand under her plain woollen cloak as the tumbrel passed them, and Louisa heard her mother whimper quietly as they both recognised the female prisoner they had prayed would be awarded a last minute reprieve. Even shorn of her golden curls, and dressed in a rough linen shift, Jeanne was still beautiful, although there was no colour in her cheeks now, and she looked tired and filthy.
Their hands were clasped so tightly that Louisa couldn’t tell if it was she who was shaking, or her mother, but she knew it was important that they did not appear to the rest of the crowd to be sympathising with the woman who was now being pushed forcibly to the steps of the scaffold, so she made an effort to stand still and upright, and stare straight ahead of her at what was happening.
They watched in horror as Jeanne was strapped to a sturdy board, which would prevent her from moving once she was placed beneath the blade of the guillotine. It took rather a long time, as Jeanne was struggling and screaming so much. There was none of the dignity and stoicism usually shown by the aristocratic victims of Madame Guillotine, and even some of the bloodthirstier citizens in the surrounding mob seemed to be shocked by Jeanne’s distress. The yelling and raucous laughter began to subside, and Louisa looked down at the ground, finding it impossible to bear the sight of Jeanne writhing and screaming as the board was put in place. She was shouting something in French, which Louisa did not understand, then there was one final piercing scream and a swish as the sharp blade fell. ‘Vive la Révolution!’ shouted the executioner, and the crowd cheered.
Louisa stood where she was, frozen in place, unable to raise her eyes from the cobbles. Sickened, she watched a dark trail of blood snaking between the stones in front of her feet. ‘What did she say?’ she whispered to her mother.
‘One moment more,’ replied Anne equally quietly, her voice trembling. ‘She asked them for just one moment more.’
Paris, April 1768
My dearest Anne,
Although I am sure you consider yourself quite the English Lady now you are settled in London with your new husband, please excuse me continuing to write to you in French. It would take me far too long to compose a letter in my poor English, and I have so much to relate to you. Many remarkable things have happened since you left Paris – I am sure you will simply not believe most of what I am going to tell you, although you did always say that my beauty would get me whatever I wanted!
Not long after you left Labille’s, Comte du Barry began visiting the shop rather regularly. Apparently Drouais had told him about me, and he was eager to see me for himself. I don’t know if you ever encountered him, but he is known throughout Paris as ‘The Rake’ for his dissolute morals, and although he procures women for all sorts of high powered men he has the intelligence to keep just about on the right side of the law.
The first time he came into the shop he glanced around, then strode straight over to me. ‘Surely you must be the celebrated Jeanne Vaubernier?’ he asked, bowing and taking my hand. ‘I have heard so much of your beauty, but truly what I am gazing upon surpasses anything I could have been told of your exquisite figure, your blonde curls, your dimpled smile, and those large sapphire eyes.’
‘Thank you, Monsieur,’ I replied, removing my hand from his, as I could see Labille frowning from the other side of the shop. His compliments did not embarrass me though – I am quite used to it, as you know!
The Comte invited me to dine in his apartments that evening. I assumed he was interested in me himself, and I was keen to encourage him, as he is exceedingly wealthy and very influential. However, we dined, and talked, and he tried nothing untoward which surprised me very much.
He came into Labille’s again the next day, accompanied by a Monsieur Morand. I wondered if he had Morand in mind as a suitor for me, but their discussion was cryptic, and the following day the Comte came in alone, and said Morand had approved me to meet with a Monsieur Lebel. I dined with the Comte again, and after dinner Morand arrived and introduced me to Lebel, a plump and serious-looking old man who at first seemed speechless with admiration for me!
‘Well sir, what think you of our celestial beauty?’ Morand asked him.
‘Worthy of a throne!’ Lebel finally replied, bending to kiss my hand. He elaborated further on my charms as he continued to gaze up and down my person.
After they had left, I felt certain that the Comte intended me to become the mistress of Monsieur Lebel, and I asked if he was of any great importance. The Comte laughed and explained that Lebel was the personal valet to the most important man in France, and was therefore the second most important man in France, but would say no more.
Later he told me that I would not be going back to work at Labille’s, for he had a job in mind that was far more fitting for me than shopgirl, but it was a position only a married woman would be suited to, so henceforward I was to pose as his sister-in-law, wife to his brother Guillaume, and would be known as the Comtesse Madame du Barry. I was most intrigued, and somewhat excited, particularly as he gave me some wonderful jewellery and a wardrobe fit for my new station in life! I have diamonds! And dresses far surpassing anything we sold at Labille’s. Oh Anne, I wish you could see the necklace I am wearing right now. It is an elaborate gold design of festoons and pendants, and is encrusted with hundreds of amethysts which the Comte says bring out the violet tones in my eyes. It is incredibly heavy, but any discomfort is far outweighed by its beauty.
The Comte has also furnished me with a whole new past which I am to relate if anyone asks. He has even credited my mother with an aristocratic title – can you imagine! I can only hope she never decides to pay me a visit!
But now to the most exciting news of all. This evening I am to be presented to none other than the King himself, and if he likes me I am to be installed at Versailles as his mistress! Apparently he has been very lonely since the death of Madame de Pompadour, and Lebel has been searching for the perfect replacement. When I meet him this evening the King will be incognito as ‘Baron de Gonesse’ and I must pretend I do not recognise him. I have been instructed simply to be as charming, gracious and lovely as I can. I must confess I am more than a little nervous at the thought of meeting Louis XV, but I am determined to do well and make him like me.
I will write again soon, and let you know what happens!
Your ever-loving friend,
London, October 1793
Louisa was aware of the banging before she fully awoke, and at first she thought she had dreamt it, but then she heard her father’s heavy steps progressing rapidly down the staircase to the door. She wondered who it could be, so early in the morning, but she could see her breath forming clouds in the sharp cold air above her bed, and it was deliciously warm under her blankets, so she decided to stay where she was for the time being.
She assumed it was just a business matter anyway. As a printer Will Gumbley always had plenty of work, but also carried out a number of highly secretive jobs for underground political groups in London. But then Louisa heard Will call for her mother, and she knew that it must be something else as Will was careful to never involve Anne in the illicit side of the business, especially now that Pitt was clamping down on seditious meetings and materials.
Half dozing again, cosy and contented, she wondered if it was the younger George Jones at the door, come to request her hand in marriage. Maybe he had a chaise waiting outside, and would whisk her away to Ranelagh or Vauxhall where they would stroll arm in arm making bright witty conversation. Unlikely, she knew, at this hour in the morning, especially since George Jones had barely ever seemed to notice her, but there are no rules when it comes to daydreaming. Then the violent slamming of the door to her parents’ bedchamber made her jump, and she sat up quickly, straining to hear the unintelligible but urgent-sounding discussion they were having. She slipped out of bed and wrapped the rough, thick, top blanket around herself, then crept out of her room across the staircase to her parents’ solid oak door, where she placed her ear against the keyhole and listened.
‘You can’t do it!’ Will was hissing angrily. ‘I won’t let you!’
‘You can’t stop me!’ Anne retorted, then softened her tone slightly and said, ‘Please Will, I don’t want to do this either, but it is important to Jeanne and one day it will be important to Louisa too. This may be their last chance to meet, if nothing can be done to save her.’
‘But it’s so dangerous over there at the moment, more so now we are at war. And how do you propose to even get there?’
‘Hush, Will, you’ll wake her. I may have lived here for twenty-five years, but I am still French, and will have no trouble passing as such in my native city! We can sail from Dover if you will help me by producing the documentation we will need, and we will wear tricolore ribbons on our cloaks and hats.’
As usual, Will seemed to be realising that he couldn’t argue with his stubborn wife, and he said no more, but Louisa heard him sigh heavily. She tiptoed quickly back into her bedroom, confused and somewhat worried, just as the church clock at the end of the street struck seven. Her room was still dim, the small leaded window in the eaves being too grimy on the outside to let much morning light in. She looked at the jug of cold water on her washstand, but shivered at the thought of washing with it, and decided not to bother. She used her chamber pot, and dressed hurriedly, wanting to get downstairs and find out exactly what was going on.
The kitchen was a large dark room with simple furnishings, occupying much of the ground floor. As Louisa entered, Anne was just heaving a sturdy wooden chest back under the window. It covered a loose floorboard where the Gumbleys kept their money and important papers. Anne turned quickly upon hearing Louisa, and hurried back over to the fireplace as if nothing was amiss.
‘Good morning, chérie,’ she said brightly, and a little breathlessly. ‘I was just about to wake you, but I see you are already dressed! Come and get warm by the fire and help me with breakfast.’
As Anne prepared the tea, Louisa took a pound cake from the mantelpiece, unwrapped it from its muslin cover, and cut three generous slices. She could not stop wondering what was going on, but did not dare ask her mother outright.
‘Where is Papa?’ she asked instead, hoping to draw some useful information from Anne in this way.
‘Dressing, of course!’ Anne replied with surprise, looking quizzically at her daughter, who was rewrapping the cake with downcast eyes as if it was perfectly usual to question her father’s whereabouts on such an ordinary morning. ‘Where else would he be?’
‘I thought he may have begun work already. I heard… I heard a knock at the door this morning.’
‘Ah that,’ said Anne. ‘Nothing, a mistake, a messenger calling at the wrong house. But your father is very busy at the moment, so I will help him today. You had better stay here and attend to the housework. You could call on Maria when you’ve finished.’
Anne’s words simply served to stoke the fire of Louisa’s curiosity further. Her father made her even more suspicious by behaving perfectly normally throughout breakfast. As Louisa began to clear the plates and cups away from the table Anne mentioned her intention of helping Will with his work.
‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘I would appreciate that today, my dear. There is far too much for Henry and I to do alone.’
Henry was Will’s apprentice. Three years younger than Louisa, at only sixteen he was exceedingly tall for his age, and drove Will to despair with his gangly clumsiness. Will was fond of him, however, and let him sleep next to the press and eat with the family in the evening. Louisa and Anne liked him too, particularly when he made them laugh by performing jovial and highly accurate impersonations of his employer.
As Louisa passed back to the table for Will’s plate, Anne grabbed her hand and drew her closer to her chair. She smiled up at her, reached up and stroked her daughter’s wild curls, and then looking more serious said, ‘Louisa, whatever happens, we love you very much, and we always have.’
There was a limit to how much Louisa could take before exploding, and Anne had finally overstepped the line. ‘Please Mama, do tell me what is going on! I heard you this morning! Who is Jeanne and why on earth do I need to meet her?’