My father ended up under the guillotine by virtue of him being a nobleman and not for his actions, since he was one of the few men who still believed in the "noble" part of the word. He'd fought alongside Lafayette in the American Revolution, defended the National Assembly before the revolution, and perhaps genuinely believed in the ideas of the republic, but his birth prevented him from embracing it fully, and cost him his life.
As it happens, my story begins on his return from Versailles in 1781. He travelled by coach, but a series of terrible storms had plagued the region, and furthermore, the inn where he was supposed to stay had burnt to the ground after being hit by lightning. He then decided to proceed to the next town and ride all night if need be.
But the muddy roads made progress difficult and bowing to the protests of his coachman, he decided to stop by a farm for a few hours to let the horses rest.
A huge, brutish farmer and his hag-like wife coldly greeted him. "Could we stay here a few hours ?" My father asked. "Certainly, me lord." The man said, noticing my father was reaching for his purse. They had a set of eight dirty, mean-looking children. The older ones already worked in the fields while the younger ones looked thin and sickly, this being due to the terrible famine at the time in France.
Like a privileged guest, they sat him down on the chair reserved for the grandfather, who had died but a few weeks before. The woman smiled with craggy teeth, but only managed to make him raise an eyebrow. My father was a practical man with sober tastes, who cared little about fashion and powered wigs. But he was always stylish and impeccable. The farmers watched him as he reached for the food, the signal for them to begin eating, when suddenly he noticed a little hand reach from under the table and grab a handful off food. My father paused and the farmer followed his gaze. "You little ... !!!" The man jumped from his chair and picked up a little dark-haired girl. He held her up and shook her hard. "You stole food !" He said and raised his hand, but the child was quicker and raked her nails across his eyes. "Bitch !" He slapped her hard.
The girl perhaps not older than ten, fell on the floor and my father noticed her nose was bleeding, but she just stared at the huge man, without as much as a little sob. "Forgive her, my lord !" The harpy smiled with her three remaining teeth. "She be a gypsy girl we took in out of Christian charity as the wagon 'er family was travellin' in, washed into the river a few days ago." "The little wildcat." The farmer tired to hit her again, but quick as a cat, she hid in a corner of the building, out of his reach. "Get my pitchfork !" The farmer ordered one of his equally brutish sons. "Stop !" My father ordered, holding onto the man's shoulder. "I will take her with me."
A few coins and the farmer's family was only too happy to be rid of her, but my father had to catch her himself.
A less wise man would have tried to coax her to leave her little bolthole, but father had patience, letting hunger do its work until she came out. "Do you like it here ?" He asked her having waited for a long time and barely coming out of her hiding spot. The girl was surprised and looked up. She had large dark eyes and long dark hair. Her skin was tanned and she was nimble like a cat. As a gypsy from another land, she did not speak our language, but my father simply talked to her, and perhaps it was the gentle tone of his voice that seduced the girl.
The whole trip back to his castle, the girl would sit opposite him, staring silently at my father.
Back in the ancestral home, my father took the girl to Marie, an older lady in waiting to his deceased wife who probably already had been one in Louis XIV's time. But as he took the girl to Marie, she passed a large cupboard filled with dolls. The girl stopped to behold the precious doll collection. "They belonged to my wife." My father said. "She's dead now." And he took one of the dolls and gave it to her. Barely in his late twenties, my father had had little time to spend with his beloved wife and to see love being given to her precious dolls, made her live again a little.
Marie almost looked like a very old doll, with a powdered face, a towering wig and wearing the latest court fashion. The little gypsy girl's eyes opened up and she recoiled from the old woman, hiding behind my father. "Don't be worried, she may look like a monster but she's very kind." The old woman smiled at my father. In a sense she felt herself she was ridiculous, but those times fashion demanded one to be ridiculous and who was she to change it ?
After a bath and a proper meal the girl was dressed in fine silk and satin and was presented to my father who laughed as she tried to worm out of her uncomfortable clothes.
"Elena !" was the only word they got out of her at the time. And so she was called Elena.
She was the most vivacious girl, almost causing Marie multiple heart attacks and always up to mischief, climbing trees and running naked through the ornate gardens. A procession of desperate servants behind her, with Marie in front, who due to her age, wasn't fast enough to catch up with the girl, while her status meant the other servants couldn't overtake her.
But every day, she would pause and sit, playing with the dolls with great seriousness and treating them like treasures. She even made sure her hands were clean when she handled them.
Elena was a very bright girl and with a proper tutor learned how to read and write French.
But she had a free spirit and would never sit for long in one place, except to play with her dolls. My father was very fond of her and after eight years, his affection for her slowly had turned into love.
And one day, he noticed the dolls were no longer as big as they used to be compared to her and ...
Elena had grown into a lovely woman.
She had the most beautiful and intense eyes that could enrapture you with a single glance. Her wildness was never tamed, but she had learned to control herself and one day, proud Marie, looking even more worn than before presented her to my father.
My father's heart skipped a beat as he watched the young woman. Clothes, which looked so ridiculous and overdone on other women, seemed to fit her perfectly. Her tanned skin was powdered down to an almost alabaster tint and she reverenced like Marie-Antoinette herself. "Elena, my dear, you look like one of your dolls." My father said, completely enraptured. Elena demurely smiled and stole my father's heart.
That night, they were very happy. And he lay besides her well-curved body, trained from climbing and running all day, unlike most women my father had known, who were sickly, he said and smelled like dead rats.
Not even a nobleman could hide a woman like Elena away for long and he told people she was the daughter of a grand Turkish Emir, come to France to learn the culture and sophistication of the court.
He loved to comb her luxurious raven hair while she dressed and adjusted the clothes onto the dolls she couldn't stay away from. "Charles ?" She asked one night. "Yes ?" "I heard there is this wonderful man in town who makes automatons." "Grellard ?" He asked. "Yes, our automatons are old and worn." She said. "Unlike your dolls." My father replied and looked at the pretty one she had in her arms.
Antoine Grellard's atelier was filled with dozens of little wonderful animated dolls and dancers, musicians and painters, each doing their little performance with incredible skill and grace. Elena watched them for hours, trying to pick the best ones. "I hear a man in Germany has made one who can play the harpsichord, the flute and dances a minuet. " Grellard smiled. "Oh, I wouldn't believe too much of it. I've seen it and it's not what you might think. I've built enough automatons to know ..." The man said. "What do you know ?" Elena asked, full of curiosity. Grellard whispered in her ear. Elena recoiled. "No ?"
A few days later my father was called to tend to pressing affairs in Versailles and had to leave for a few weeks.
So Elena was left alone for quite a while, as my father left to serve the nation and king Louis XVI. Life without him for a day was hard, but weeks without him were unbearable. She had to focus on something else and ...
"Milady." Grellard bowed to her and showed her his latest automatons. "And how can I serve you ?" "I want you to make the prettiest automaton you can imagine." She said, with sparkling eyes. "Only the finest materials such as porcelain, ivory and silk will go into her creation."
It was with the utmost care that Grellard had two men carry a large wooden crate to the castle.
Stranger still, that night Marie was not allowed to tend to Elena, who said she felt a bit ill. But, she did allow the servants to assist to Grellard's demonstration of his new automaton.
Her skin was white with the faintest hint of pink. Shiny and pretty with tiny little ruby lips and a little rouge on the cheeks, she wore a most elaborate wig and a white dress festooned with pink bows and ribbons. She had a voluptuous cleavage, which almost seemed to burst from her tightly corseted body. Grellard took out a large key and inserted in her back, gently twisting it round.
A little music box melody began to play and the doll gently slid forward. Making little steps forward towards the harpsichord. A servant brought her a seat and she lowered herself onto it. Her nimble porcelain fingers danced over the keys and played a delightful tune.
Grellard was standing besides Marie and pointed at one of the windows. "Look, milady is watching." Marie looked up and saw a dark-haired figure wave at her. "I'm glad your automaton is incredible." Marie said. Grellard smiled proudly.
After the music the doll curtsied and straightened herself. Grellard had to wind her up again and a servant brought a flute. Gently, Grellard eased the tip of the flute into her lips and posed her hands around it. And then she began to play another delightful tune.
"Look, her chest moves." Marie said to a servant, having noticed the doll's apparent breathing. But then she looked up at the window. "She'll catch a cold at that window." And the old woman set off for Elena's room.
"Ooh ! Aah !" The crowd went and Marie turned around. She saw Grellard had undone the automaton's choker necklace and had opened her face, showing off the intricate mechanism inside. Then Marie turned around and saw that the window was closed. "Thank God." She said and applauded with the others.
Grellard had to stay a few days to make some final adjustments to the doll when news came that my father was returning. The castle became a hive of activity stopping polishing and cleaning everything up in time for his coach's arrival.
"Milady, the Marquis has arrived !" Marie knocked on Elena's door but got no answer. "Elena ?" She was getting anxious to greet my father, she abandoned the idea of going in and ran downstairs.
Out of breath, Marie burst into the room just as my father was examining the mannequin. "Your lordship !" She curtseyed to him. "Marie !" My father smiled. "I'm glad to be home, with all the trouble." "Trouble ?" Marie asked. "The Tiers Etat has broken away from the Etats Généraux. They have set up a national convention and defied the power of the king. The power belongs to the people they say !" All around him gasped and whispered. "It's not that bad." My father said. "They will still need the King, the noblemen and me."
"I will call Elena at once." Marie said, but Grellard had already wound up the doll and my father watched it with fascination. The doll curtseyed to my father and offered him her hand. Grellard stood by the harpsichord and a servant played. My father danced with the doll for a while until her spring ran out.
"Where is my little Elena ?" My father asked afterwards. "She was feeling a bit ill last night and I couldn't wake her this morning." Marie said. Grellard cleared his throat. "She also asked me to bring the automaton to her room, so she could get a better look at it." "Have two men bring her up." My father said and went to Elena's room. He opened the door and saw a mass of dark hair on the pillows. Behind him the two men brought the doll in and put her down in front of the bed. "Leave us." My father said and carefully climbed onto the bed. He gently gathered her long silken hair and ... he ended up with a wig in his hand.
A few pillows had been arranged to make it appear as if it was her in the bed. "Elena ?" My father called her, looked around the room and opened the door to call for help. Grellard was standing right in front of him. "I'm very sorry my lord, but I can explain what is going on." And the man pointed over my father's shoulder.
He turned around and saw the doll was coming towards him and hugged him tight. Still startled my father looked at her shiny exterior and ... "Elena ?" The doll nodded. Grellard smiled, walked out and closed the door behind him, keeping careful watch.
"Why did you frighten me like that ?" My father asked. The doll just swivelled round and began to bend over deeply. And there, between her legs, he saw the little rubber plug. He leaned over and pulled it out, causing the doll to shiver. "Elena !" He said loudly and slapped her porcelain behind, before mounting her.
My father often went to Paris to help change the destiny of France, but it soon became clear that after July 14, 1789, things would never be the same. As the hungry and angry people stormed the Bastille, the French Revolution had begun. And two years later the privileges of the nobility were declared void and his hopes were shattered.
With Elena and the doll to comfort him, he tried desperately to save the cause he had set out to defend, but the first heads were soon rolling.
The flight to Varennes and the King's imprisonment was the final blow for my father. The people around him had remained loyal to him, but anger grew and noblemen were no longer safe in France.
The mounting troubles also finished off poor old Marie, who was so exhausted from running around, died peacefully in her sleep, just hours before the news came, bad news that would certainly have killed her.
Louis XVI had been guillotined in Paris.
My father and Elena managed to flee from the castle just as soldiers stormed it in the name of the revolution. Grellard and my father disguised as a servant carried Elena, hidden inside the doll, to safety in the nick of time.
In his haste to save Elena, he had no time to get money. And without money they could not buy passage on a boat to England as he had always planned.
Soon my father was forced to earn a living as an entertainer, taking Elena with him across France. Trying to get the money together to flee the terror of the revolution. It was an exciting and happy time for them. And one day Elena, my mother told him she was expecting a child. Having performed near Reims, he etched a plan to go to Calais and try to get on a boat to England.
"Citizen !" A man called my father. He wore a big, feathered hat in the colours of the republic and carried a pair of pistols in his belt. "Yes ?" My father asked. "We are looking for royalists. Have you seen any suspicious people around here." For a second my father's heart stopped. He recognised the man as one of the farmer's sons. "We shot several of them yesterday after they tried to flee from us, but there is no escape for aristocrats now !" He slammed his hand on the table. "As a travelling performer, I never stay long enough in one spot to be able to notice Royalists." My father evaded him. "Nevertheless, should you see any, report them immediately citizen !" My father nodded and walked away to get to my mother waiting for him in the middle of the inn, having just given a performance. "Wait !" The man said. Swallowing a lump, my father turned round. "I know you ..." The man said, rubbing his chin. "I've seen you before ..." "I perform all around France with my automaton." My father suggested. The man thought for a moment and tried to think away my father's spectacles. "No, must be my imagination." He finally said.
That night, my father made love to my mother as if it were the last time. Soon I would grow in her womb and make it impossible for her to fit into her beloved doll. "This ... is a pass for England, to deliver the doll there. If something happens to me, just run away and don't look back. "I don't want to lose you." Elena went and squeezed his hand. "We'll leave right now." "If we leave now they will notice. We'll have to stay calm and ..."
There was a knock on the door.
My father picked up her mask, closed the mechanism that hid her face and placed the mask over it. And then she stepped into the box, becoming immobile.
"Now I remember when I saw you ! I did see your performance at the cattle market in Tours !" The man was quite drunk. "I used to live near there. Used to be a farmer." He almost fell into my father's arms. "Yes, that's quite interesting, but I would really like to rest for now." "A few years ago, there was this big nasty aristocrat who came to our house and ..." In a flash of lucidity the man gazed at my father. Seeing recognition in his eyes, my father punched him and reached for his sabre, but the man managed to put his foot between him and my father, tossing him onto the bed. Drunk and stunned by the punch, the man rose to his feet and drew his sabre. But my father dove under it and pulled him to the ground, punching him over and over in the face, until he stopped moving. Elena stepped out of the box. "We must go now !" She said. "Just go back to your box." My father said and wished he could see her face one last time. He kissed her and with the motion activated a lever, which immobilised her. Her muffled protests hurt him as he closed the box and pushed it towards the window. "Planchet !" He shouted to the last servant that remained loyal to him, and the man walked up to the window. "Take this box and ride to Calais. Let no one stop you ! Understood !?" "Yes milord." Planchet said and reached out to grab the heavy box. "Take this ! And guard her with your life." He threw a pistol at Planchet. "Go now !" My father said.
Back in the room, my father took a deep breath and removed his clothes down to his shirt and removed his wig and spectacles. He swung the sabre around a few times and stuck the pistol in his belt.
With casual ease, he opened the door and stood at the top of the steps. Knowing he had to buy time for Elena. He looked down at the feasting company of soldiers and cleared his throat. "I am Marquis Charles de Montsegur ! Vive le Roi !" He saluted the men with his sabre and charged them.
Most of them were too drunk to hear what he had said, and the few who had heard it, were too drunk to react. But after the first few men were cut down, they began to react. It was an uneven battle for the drunken men at start, but as soon as they recovered their wits, and had lost more than eight of their comrades, they began to fight back. My father discharged his pistol at one of the men reaching for the rifles and jumped between the men and the rifles, hoping his skill at fencing would prevail over theirs.
But the innkeeper, fired his pistol into his shoulder, instantly crippling him.
By the time they had arrested him, thrown him in jail and made the relation with him and the automaton, Planchet was almost in Calais.
The people of Dover saw the strange spectacle of a man putting down a large box and opening it with a large doll inside. Hoping to see a performance, people gathered and watched as she was pulled out and undressed. People gasped as they saw an unconscious woman fall out of it.
And then, a little while later came the terrible news. My father had been executed.
A few months later, I was born, their little girl. She gave me lots of lovely dolls, but even though she buried me with love, she never recovered from her loss. She died when I was only twelve on a cold and misty November day.
Once she had told me she remembered travelling under the warm sun of Spain and told me she would take me there one day, find her gypsy relatives and live with them. She hated the cold weather and rain in England, but she never saw the sun of Spain again.
It's now 1815 and Europe's war with Napoleon has ended at Waterloo. I sit here, with all my lovely dolls and I hear my husband, a promising young lawyer returning from work. He says I have the same fiery eyes he saw in the Spanish women when he was a soldier with Wellington. Unfortunately, he will not see them until late tonight, when he unmasks the doll that is waiting for him.
Esperanza de Montsegur, August 12, 1815