Authors: Heather Webb
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Literary, #Biographical
A PLUME BOOK
is a contributor to the popular writing blog
, and she manages her own blog,
Between the Sheets
. When not writing, she flexes her foodie skills, or looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in Connecticut with her family. Connect online at www.HeatherWebb.net, Twitter/@msheatherwebb, or Facebook/Heather Webb, Author.
“With vivid characters and rich historical detail, Heather Webb has portrayed in Josephine a true heroine of great heart, admirable strength, and inspiring courage whose quest is that of women everywhere: to find, and claim, oneself.”
—Sherry Jones, bestselling author of
The Jewel of the Medina
Four Sisters All Queens
“Heather Webb’s epic novel captivates from its opening in a turbulent plantation society in the Caribbean, to the dramatic rise of one of France’s most fascinating women: Josephine Bonaparte. Perfectly balancing history and story, character and setting, detail and pathos,
marks a debut as bewitching as its protagonist.”
—Erika Robuck, author of
“A fast-paced, riveting journey,
captures the volatile mood of one of the most intense periods of history—libertine France, Caribbean slave revolts, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars—from the point of view of one of its key witnesses, Josephine Bonaparte.”
—Dana Gynther, author of
Crossing on the Paris
“Vivid and passionate,
captures the fiery spirit of the woman who stole Napoleon’s heart and enchanted an empire.”
—Susan Spann, author of
The Shinobi Mysteries
“Spellbinding . . . Heather Webb’s novel takes us behind the mask of the Josephine we thought we knew.”
—Christy English, author of
How to Tame a Willful Wife
To Be Queen
“Enchanting prose takes the reader on an unforgettable journey. . . . Captivating young Rose springs from the lush beauty of her family’s sugar plantation in Martinique to shine in the eighteenth-century elegance of Parisian salon society. When France is torn by revolution, not even the blood-bathed terror of imprisonment can break her spirit.”
—Marci Jefferson, author of
Girl on the Gold Coin
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Heather Webb
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Webb, Heather, 1976 December 30–
Becoming Josephine : a novel / Heather Webb.
eBook ISBN 978-1-101-63499-8
1. Josephine, Empress, consort of Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, 1763–1814— Fiction. 2. Self-realization in women—Fiction. 3. France—History—Revolution, 1789– 1799—Fiction. 4. Biographical fiction. 5. Historical fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.
—Simone de Beauvoir
One is not born woman; one becomes woman.
sive arrived in the n
ight. I paced from bed to bureau and back again, finally pausing to open the velvet drapes. The moon cast a ghostly glow on the dogwood blooms and barren rose gardens. My gardens of paradise. Others had intended it to be my prison, but I found it a hard-earned refuge. A place of safety after a lifetime of flight, a heavy crown, and the deaths of so many I held dear.
I covered my face with my hands. My benefactor, my greatest love, had been arrested. What would become of him?
At one time, I could have summoned answers, but those days and the Rose I was were long since buried, consumed by the powerful woman I’d created. Still, I thought, perhaps I yet possessed my Creole heart.
I dashed to the vanity and found the dusty white pouch with my cards. One by one, I placed black candles in a ring on the floor. Match to wick, and their flames sparked to life in the stillness.
What would the future hold?
I drew the tarot from its pouch and lay a spread. My eyes blurred at the message. The ancient drawings danced. First the Empress, a nurturer of her people. Six of Cups—nostalgia for long ago. And finally the Judgment card, an angel calling lost souls home.
My pulse quickened as a draft blew through the room. To understand my future, I must revisit my past.
The candles went out.
e wandered along a
darkened trail, farther from the house than Papa ever allowed.
“This way.” I pushed through a web of tangled vines. “We’re almost home.”
My younger sister peered up at the sky. “We’ll get lashings if we don’t hurry.” Silvery twilight filtered through the thick canopy of jungle trees and the trill of a lone bird warned us to proceed with caution.
“I wouldn’t have made you come if I didn’t have to. And it was worth it.” I put my fingertips to my lips. Guillaume had kissed me after losing three straight hands of brelan. Payment, he had said. I always outplayed him at cards.
“Papa will be furious if he finds out.”
“You’re not going to tell him?” I asked.
She looked at me with an innocent expression. “That depends.”
“You can use my new drawing pencils.”
“I don’t know. . . .”
“You can wear my earrings to town next week.” I looked at her for confirmation.
“Done.” A thorned vine attached to the skirt of Catherine’s gown and she tugged it away. “Why do you insist on meeting the blacksmith’s boy anyway?”
“Why not? He’s handsome and he makes me laugh.”
“You’ll spoil yourself, you know. If you’re not careful. Who will marry you then?” she asked.
“I don’t wish for marriage at all if it is like our parents’.” I had no intention of leading a life like Maman’s. I would escape to France, to the adventure of Paris and the grand court life of Papa’s tales. The elegant gowns and intrigue, the handsome men. And love without bounds.
“I may not wed, even if I wish to.” I swatted at a winged insect hovering about my face. “Papa invites suitors to the house for you, not me.” A twinge of envy darkened my mood. “He favors you.”
“He doesn’t favor me, Rose.”
I threw her a doubtful look. “You know it’s true. He said to me yesterday that I’ll never capture a man’s affection.”
A flash of lightning illuminated the thicket; a rumbling followed.
“Time to go.” I grabbed Catherine by the hand.
The sky split open. Rain soaked the verdant landscape, turning the forest floor to a soup of mud and rotted vegetation. We leapt over holes filled with water and waxen leaves and darted through the underbrush. When at last the sugar mill—our home since the Great Hurricane—came into view, Mimi threw open the door.
“Best get inside,” she scolded. “Your
’s right upset.” My maid bundled us in dry blankets. “Catherine, you’re pale as death.”
My sister coughed and shivered as Maman stormed into the room.
“Rose!” She clutched my arm and dragged me toward my bedroom. “Your sister doesn’t disobey without your prodding. I swear you’ll be the death of you both! Learn to follow the rules of this house or you’ll spend a week in the cellar! Do you understand?”
She pushed me into the room and slammed the door.
As it happened, I was only the death of one of us.
Catherine contracted a fever and by morning she could not get out of bed. Within the fortnight, she was gone.
The afternoon of her funeral, we trudged silently back to the house through the rain. Rain like the day I had led my sister to her death.
Banana trees bowed beneath the weight of water driving from the swollen sky. Palm fronds waved in the wind like arms desperate for attention. Maman and my youngest sister, Ma
nette, linked their arms with mine. I stared ahead, ignoring my soaked skirts and the desperate grip of Maman’s hand. Regret throbbed in my chest.
I remembered Catherine limp in bed with blood trickling from her pasty lips. My stomach turned. I stopped by the edge of the path and retched.
“If you hadn’t been up to mischief, she wouldn’t be ill,” Papa had said when Catherine’s condition worsened. He blamed me.
We had played in the rain so often. It was always raining on the island. How could I have known that day would be different?
The throbbing grew—hammered at my head, my insides, my heart. My sister was gone, as if she had never been. And it was my fault. I choked back a sob. Maman patted my shoulder with a light hand.
We entered our humble salon and handed our dripping cloaks to Mimi. I moved to the window, numbly avoiding conversation.
The rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Sun blazed around the edges of the clouds.
“I’ll fetch some tea,” Mimi said, her brown eyes sad. She had loved our Catherine, too. “And, monsieur, there’s a letter come in the post from your sister.”
“Read it for me?” Papa handed the missive to Maman and blotted his sodden wig with a cloth.
She read the letter aloud.
As you know, dear brother, I aim to secure my position with the Marquis.
Despite our constant love, his wife refuses to sever ties with him.
Maman paused. “The Marquis hasn’t divorced his wife yet?” She didn’t hide her disdain.
Papa made an exasperated sound. “You know very well a divorce would scandalize the Beauharnais name. The Marquis would sooner wait for his wife to die and marry Désirée after.”
“I love your sister, but cannot abide her living with another woman’s husband.” Maman’s thin lips stretched into a line. Her nostrils flared. “It’s immoral.”
I knew Papa disagreed. He bedded every willing lady in Fort-Royal and all the prettiest slaves on our plantation, willing or not, a sickening situation and a never-ending embarrassment for Maman. I eyed Mimi while she tended to the mud tracked across the rug. She was the result of one of his affairs with a slave.
Papa threw his hands in the air. “Don’t question Désirée’s morals. Marriage is not about love.”
I cringed at his words. I would not, could not endure a marriage like theirs. My future husband would cherish me. If I had one at all.
“I married you for love, you
,” Maman seethed. “But your philandering and drinking ruined everything! And don’t get me started on your gambling! If I didn’t manage this plantation, we’d live in huts with the slaves. As it is, we live in tatters and you do nothing!”
Manette cowered on the faded divan. I moved to comfort her. We both detested their arguments.
“Don’t take that tone with me! You forget your place, wife!”
A long silence followed.
At last Maman smoothed the crinkled letter and began again.
I would also like to ensure the financial assistance you desire. Please send your daughter Catherine to Paris at once. I will arrange her marriage to the Marquis’s son, Alexandre. Their union will join our families, and Alexandre’s inheritance may save your plantation from ruin. Make haste. We are all anxious to enact this plan.
“Catherine would have made a perfect bride,” Maman said, voice thick with sorrow. “Enchanting to Désirée and Alexandre alike.”
I gritted my teeth in jealousy. Catherine had been no better than I and yet my parents always compared my flaws to her perfections. A sudden pang of guilt left me ashamed. My darling sister, ill and now stone cold in the ground, how could I be jealous of you?
“Manette is too young.” Papa’s expression darkened. “And Rose is too old and would offer little to Alexandre.”
His words hit me like a blow. I recovered quickly and stood. “
, Papa. As I have no wish to marry any man you choose for me.” I raised my chin. “I will marry for love or not at all!”
Papa gripped my shoulders. “You will marry when I say!”
I wrenched free and bolted through the front door to the garden, beneath the frangipani trees and into the dense foliage. Tears streamed down my face. I possessed no control, even over my own life. I ran to outpace my thoughts, to push the hurt from my limbs. Oh, Catherine! How could you leave me?
I climbed the longest path, the one Papa forbade even on the best of days. The path that led to the most feared woman on the island, the voodoo priestess. The slaves bartered for her potions despite their fear, as would I to learn my fate. Catherine had sworn she would visit her with me, but spooked when we started on the path. This time I would not turn back.
There had to be more for me, more than this life.
I sucked in the steamy air, heart thundering in my ears. A screech sounded from the shadows. The familiar shapes of the wood grew grotesque in the fading light. I ran faster. Serpents slid from their holes when the heat of the day faded, seeking victims for their poison. I had witnessed bitten men convulse with frothing lips and blue-black swelling beneath their skin. I shook my head to dispel the images. I couldn’t think of that now.
I had to know.
I pushed deeper into the forest until a clearing came into view—and her house, a small thatched hut and fire pit.
I wiped my face with the back of my hand and moved beyond the cover of the jungle.
“I’ve been waiting for you.” A woman stepped through the doorway into the clearing. Silver hair sprang from her head in unruly waves. Layers of wooden beads encircled her neck and a fetish of an Ibo god dangled between her drooping breasts.
“I don’t have coins,” I began, “but—”
“Sit.” She motioned toward a ring of uneven stumps near the fire.
I chose the seat farthest from her and sat down, uncomfortable in my black mourning gown now slick with sweat.
The old woman chanted, lips moving in rhythm as she rocked. She tossed dried herbs and entrails into the fire. My throat tightened at the stench.
As suddenly as she had begun chanting, the priestess stopped. She fixed her probing eyes on mine. My breath halted in my lungs.
“You will travel a great distance and be married.” Her eyes rolled back in their sockets.
My heart quickened. To France? I longed for adventure and love.
Let there be true love. I said a silent prayer.
“Beware, child.” The priestess paused. “This union will come to a violent end. A dark stranger without fortune will become your husband.” The priestess leaned forward, her eyes reflecting the flashing light of the fire. “And you will become more than queen.”
I frowned. “No woman is greater than a queen.”
The priestess’s eyes fluttered. Her throat gurgled. She fell to the ground in a seizing fit, limbs flailing.
I gasped and knelt over her.
“Go!” She shoved me away.
I leapt to my feet and flew through the jungle, thrashing against the dark undergrowth. My lungs burned and my shoes grew heavy with mud. I dared not look back.
Evening shadows reached home before I did. I burst through the side door, tripped on the threshold, and fell to the floor.
At Papa’s feet.
“You’re filthy.” He glared down at me. “Change at once and meet me in the salon. I have news for you.”