by Tara Campbell
She came in a golden filigree box wrapped in silver satin ribbons.
The footman brought the box into the drawing room, announcing, “From Lord So-and-So, Your Highness.”
Of course, he didn’t actually say “So-and-So,” but that’s what Marie heard, and really, that was all that mattered.
She sighed and slid the dish of bonbons to the side to make room on the table, then sucked smears of chocolate from her fingertips and pulled on the ribbon, unraveling the package’s bow, loop by shimmering loop. When the last strand slithered away to the side, Marie pulled off the lid—she’d always give a gift at least a glance before sending it off into storage.
The doll stared up at her from a nest of cream-colored cloth, a mass of white curls piled atop its head.
Marie snapped her fingers at the servant for a serviette and, after wiping her hands more thoroughly, lifted the doll out of its box. It was a puppet, she could see now, its limbs trailing strings which had been twined together into a single neat thread and wound around a folded wooden cross.
She turned the puppet front to back, admiring its dress of periwinkle silk edged in lace and festooned with tiny ribbons and bows, its pale face with rose-blushed cheeks and cherry lips.
Then it hit her. Marie frowned, but only for a moment, not wanting to ruin her powder, and looked down at her own dress: periwinkle, silk, lace, ribbons. Bows.
She snapped for the servant again. “Who did you say sent this?”
Upon lifting the puppet’s voluminous skirt with the tip of her index finger, she discovered that the undergarments were exactly the same as her own.
“I say, Footman, are you mute? Who sent this?”
Marie lifted her head to an empty room.
“I’ll have him flogged,” she murmured, rifling through the box for some clue as to who it was from.
She yelled for her maid, who scurried into the room moments later. “Who was that just now?”
“I want his name.”
“Whoever handed me this gift.”
The maid’s hands wrung one another like assassins. “I’m sorry, Madame, but who might that be?”
Marie pounded the table, rattling her teacup in its saucer. “The mumbling fool who just left this chamber. What is his name?”
“I’m sorry, Madame, I didn’t see him, but if you could tell me what he looks like…?”
Marie opened her mouth—she had no clue what the servant looked like. How could she be expected to keep track of such things?
“Don’t worry, Madame,” said the maid, bowing. “I will find out who it was.”
The maid hurried off, leaving Marie to examine the puppet. It was obviously a replica of her, with the same color wig and eyes, same dress, same heart-shaped face, same proportions. She drew down one of its stockings—it had a tiny scar on its left knee, in the same spot as hers, from falling off her pony as a child.
Still holding her breath, she fumbled with the tiny pearl buttons at the back of the puppet’s dress. There it was, an odd little mole, just like the one that marred the creamy white skin of her right hip.
Who could have made this? That mole was known only to her husband—and lovers—and sadly, now, to legions of gossips. Still, whoever had made this puppet knew exactly where to place it.
Marie stood, unfolding the wooden bars into a cross. The puppet pirouetted below, arms extending further and further as the single thread untwisted into individual strands controlling arms and legs, head and rump. She lifted the puppet to her face, jiggling the crossbars to move its head.
“Hallo, Marie,” she said in a quiet falsetto. “Grüß Gott.”
Marie spun toward the maid, almost dropping the puppet. “What do you want!”
The girl opened and closed her mouth like a fish in the garden pond until she gathered herself enough to report that she’d not been able to find anyone who saw the servant coming or leaving, or knew of a gift arriving for her that morning.
A pretty little mystery, indeed.
The puppet was a source of some amusement at that evening’s salon. Even though her periwinkle gown was far too plain for entertaining, Marie had refused to change out of it, amusing her guests with the assertion that the puppet had wanted them to match. Discussing the puzzle of its origin was frankly more enjoyable for Marie than the poets’ vapid verse or the twanging harpsichord. But Louis demanded culture in his home, so Marie listened patiently with her miniature self on her lap, fingering the lace of its gown.
Would the Marquis de X have been so bold? He would know the — precise specifications, so to speak — and was at present studiously avoiding her eye. Mais non, he couldn’t be the architect of such a fanciful likeness. He was dreadfully unimaginative, the very reason their liaison hadn’t lasted.
The Comte d’Y, on the other hand, couldn’t stop looking between her and the puppet, focusing on each detail of resemblance. She detected, however, a certain peevishness to his expression—he clearly envied whomever had thought up such a clever gift. It was not he.
Marie sighed when yet another German Lied began. Louis’ tastes were tedious; no one else was truly paying attention either. Ladies fidgeted with their fans, gentlemen brooded, staring down at the floor. Their minds were all on the unrest. The peasants had been inciting the students, making them believe they were unhappy.
As the contralto’s voice quavered, Marie waved the puppet’s hand, mimicking a conductor. The singer missed a note. Moments later, a footman appeared to discreetly “unburden” Marie of the puppet, to “ensure her unfettered enjoyment” of the music. She didn’t dare look in Louis’ direction.
Marie had a miniature throne built for the puppet in time for the following evening’s salon.
The puppet became a fixture at the tea table of Marie’s daughter Thérèse.
“Look, Maman,” said the girl, pouring pure air from teapot to cup for her guest. “Petite Maman has come to tea.”
“It’s very nice of you to invite her,” said Marie. She raised the puppet’s hand with one of the strings, while raising the cup to the doll’s lips with her other hand. “But where are the rest of your guests, Giraffe and Puf-Puf and Mademoiselle Monkey?”
“They left because Petite Maman ate all of the cakes.”
“Nonsense. There are always more cakes.” Marie smiled mischievously and reached for her daughter’s box of teatime toys, rummaging through it for the ceramic petit fours.
“I don’t mind, Maman. I like Petite Maman best anyway.”
Marie continued sifting through cups and saucers, but there were no cakes to be found. “Darling, did you lose them all?”
“Non, Maman. Petite Maman ate them, and she would like some more.”
Marie ordered more small pastries, made of wood this time, because clearly her daughter hadn’t wanted to admit to breaking the ceramics. For days, shipments of tiny carved treats arrived in peach pastel boxes with burgundy bows. Her ladies oohed and aahed over miniscule wedges of cake and madeleines, mini macaróns and croissants au chocolat, and éclairs with glaze so realistic Marie grazed more than one with the tip of her tongue.
But only weeks later, little Thérèse came to her asking for even more sweets for Petite Maman.
“Darling,” she said. “Petite Maman must learn to enjoy what she has.”
She would say the same to the peasants if ever she saw them. Her Louis couldn’t be blamed if they didn’t want to work for their bread.
God will reward you for hard work, she told the imaginary masses. The same God that made Louis your King will bless you as long as you remain loyal. Your task is not to question the burdens you’ve been given, but to bend your energies to the will of your Lord and your King.
That’s what her Mutti had told her when they’d sent her away from Vienna to marry her off to Louis.
“But Maman,” piped Thérèse, “there is no more.”
Marie made the girl show her what she meant, and vraiment, the boxes were empty, lids scattered among nests of unraveled burgundy bows.
Well, this was unheard of!
Marie forbade Thérèse from playing with Petite Maman until she learned to take care of her things and, more importantly, until she stopped lying to her mother. She took the puppet to her chambers, keeping it next to her bed, far away from dishonest little children.
What Thérèse did not know was that Marie had kept a tiny mille-feuille for herself. She placed the perfect little rectangle, with its delicate curls of wood shavings sprinkled with white powder, onto a tiny porcelain plate next to Petite Maman. It wasn’t the puppet’s fault that her child couldn’t maintain such fine things. No amount of piteous crying would make her relent until the girl apologized.
It was clear that Thérèse had not taken proper care of Petite Maman. Her dress was scuffed, her hem trailed threads, and her formerly gleaming hair had become dull and frizzy.
Snapping her fingers, she called for her hairdresser to set the puppet’s coiffure to rights—perhaps she’d try different color—and sent for the royal dressmaker, who came personally to take the doll’s measurements for a new gown.
“And for you, Your Majesty?” he asked, twirling a measuring tape between slender fingers. “Something light for the hot summer months to come?”
“Anton, you know I spend barely any time out of doors these days.”
The dressmaker nodded, neither one of them wanting to mention the jeers of the peasants, inescapable even ensconced in her carriage.
“Ah, but at Versailles, your Majesty, the climate will be more refreshing.”
“Oui, c’est vrai.” But of course, the dressmaker was only humoring her. By now the unrest had made travel difficult for Louis and herself. Many of their friends, anxious of association, had fled, reducing the city to a rabble of the wretched and naïve, who linked arms to condemn her as extravagant, disloyal, a duplicitous whore with no regard for her subjects.
Indeed, by the time Petite Maman’s dresses were ready, the dressmaker chose to send his apprentice to deliver them in his stead.
But Marie didn’t care about a lowly dressmaker. She yanked the ribbon off the first box and traded Petite Maman’s rumpled periwinkle dress for a flowing golden gown. It was a bit extravagant for tea, but she sat the puppet down at her table and poured an extra cup. Marquise de X and the Comptesse d’Y were missing out, tucked away in their countryside estates, far from Paris.
It was almost perfect, the two of them together in the quiet, like the days she would wait in her childhood playroom for Maman or Papa to come see her and praise her excellent manners. She became quite good at serving tea made of air, patiently, for hours. Now her tea was real, but for some reason she wasn’t able to find the tiny mille-feuille she’d saved especially for Petite Maman.
As the months passed, Louis became disconsolate, mired in matters of State. The last of their friends had left, terrified after the business at the Bastille. Marie wished to flee as well, but nothing she said could move her husband away from Paris. And through it all, her daughter sulked because her “mean, bad, terrible mother” wouldn’t let her have Petite Maman back for tea.
But Petite Maman, with her gold dresses and bright ringlets, no longer existed. She had by now become Madame Moi, who dressed in black silk and aubergine velvet, and dyed her hair first auburn, then black, to match the future of her misguided nation.
The first time Louis saw Madame Moi, he was almost moved to grant Marie’s wish to flee. But then his wretched advisors got to him and convinced him to stay the course.
The course, Marie feared, would lead to the grave, and Madame Moi agreed. They bent over cups of tea, mumbling ever more elaborate escape strategies to one another while satisfying their mutual taste for sweets. Marie ordered a steady flow of exquisite bonbons and pastries, commissioning tiny matching confections for her friend. Her platters were heaped with chocolate and marzipan, cinnamon and almonds, caramel and cream. Madame Moi dined on duplicates of blown glass and jade, silver and gold, gleaming malachite topped with crystals and pearls. The price of just one shining cake could have fed the Marais for a month.
After tea, Marie gave Madame Moi’s cakes to her daughter, one by one, promising her that if she could keep them safe, she could have her friend back to tea. As the weeks went by, more cakes and gowns streamed into the palace, yet they were never enough to settle Marie’s anxieties. She became so irritable, Thérèse stopped asking for Petite Maman, and refused to take any more of her confections.
With nowhere else to put them, Marie began to stack boxes of silver- and gold-spun delicacies in the corners of her bedchamber. Louis would think her mad, except he hadn’t seen her bedchamber in several weeks. Instead, he wandered the halls, never entering a room anymore, never even sitting down. He said he didn’t want to look weak when they came to take him away.
Marie knew it didn’t matter if they stood, sat, or floated—they would be butchered. By all accounts, the mobs were even more ravenous for her blood than his, and all because of some false vitriol about some statement she’d never actually made.
Her husband’s advisors kept saying the peasants had no bread. But the way they accused her of responding — she never would have said such a thing. And yet, soon they would come for her and her dear Louis. She could almost hear them pounding at the door, and when they came for her, she would swear again and again, all the way to the guillotine, it was not she who said it.
It was not she.
Little Thérèse wandered the palace alone as her governess slept in a chair in the playroom. Ever since Maman went away, Thérèse had been hearing her voice echoing through the halls. Except it wasn’t exactly like Maman’s, and she never quite understood what it said before her governess would come and whisk her back into the playroom.
“I can’t sleep in this place,” the governess would say. “It’s haunted. I can’t sleep here.”
But she was certainly sleeping now, slumped in a chair in the playroom snoring like a dragon, so Thérèse followed the sound of her almost-Maman’s voice through the palace toward her mother’s bedchamber. She pushed the door open wider than the crack the servants had left. They’d been sent in to clean, but all they’d done was pick through what the mob had overlooked, leaving empty boxes strewn about the room. Thérèse pictured a city full of women holding up aprons heavy with silver cakes, and men stuffing already bursting pockets with diamond-encrusted éclairs.
She followed the muffled voice that was almost Maman’s, clearing boxes away from the corner where it was the loudest. Face down on the floor was Petite Maman.
“What was that?” asked Thérèse, lifting the puppet and smoothing its gown. But the puppet didn’t answer. “Please say something. You sound so much like Maman, and I miss her very much.”
And still Petite Maman was silent.
“How rude of me,” said the girl. “You must be thirsty. Let’s have some tea. Maybe then we’ll have a chat.”
With the puppet in the crook of her arm, she picked up an empty box and filled it with the last few cakes she could find in the mess. She left the room, closing the door behind her.
The governess woke up as Thérèse was pouring out a third cup of air for her puppet.
“Who’s there?” asked the woman, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.
“Just me and Petite Maman.”
The governess straightened her dress and put on a stern face. “But I heard two voices.”
“Oui, Madame. Petite Maman says she’s sad about what happened to Maman and Papa.” Thérèse leaned toward the puppet and stroked her hand. “But it’s not your fault. All you wanted was for everyone to have some cake to eat.”
With a BA in English, an MA in German, and an MFA in Creative Writing, Tara Campbell has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.
Macarons photo by Erol Ahmed via Unsplash
Tara Campbell photo by Anna Dewitt Carson
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