Woman of Mystery
The world knows her as an actress and courtesan, the mistress of one of Napoleon's glittering inner circle, but Elza (aka Ida St Elme) is more than that. Only a few besides her beloved Michel know she is a secret agent in Napoleon's service, a confidential spy who works directly for the Emperor himself. Even fewer know that she is also a Companion, an old soul who has lived many lives and whose flashes of clairvoyance have occasionally given her the edge she needed to unravel an unfathomable mystery.
Now Elza faces her greatest challenge yet, but her past threatens to hinder rather than help. What ancient failure weighs heavy on her soul, and how does it complicate her current task for Napoleon? Will ignorance and fear lead them all to repeat past mistakes? Or can Elza overcome the shadow of the past to complete her mission – with no less than the government of France hanging in the balance?
From the ballrooms of Warsaw to the streets of Rome, from blood-soaked snowy battlefields to the buried ruins of Pompeii, from palaces to prisons, Elza must face her past to claim her future.
Elzalina Versfelt, better known as Ida St. Elme and Charles van Aylde, courtesan, medium, and spy, comes into her own as one of Napoleon's trusted agents in this latest novel in Graham's series based on the life of Ida St. Elme. I love the entire series for its complex depiction of life in Napoleon's armies, but The Marshal's Lover stands out for its handling of gender and sexuality in a period that defines both very differently from the modern world. Elza, as Ida and as Charles, is sent on the trail of a dangerous occult conspiracy, and it will take all their skills — and seductive wiles — simply to survive. Graham keeps the tensions (and the passions) high while exploring some of the ways gender and its performance followed different rules. – Melissa Scott
"Based upon the real life of Maria Versfelt (aka Ida St. Elme) – courtesan, actress and writer – Graham's latest entwines history, romance and a delicious dollop of fantasy. Sexy and dashing."– Kirkus Reviews
"The French rarely feel that foreigners can write convincingly about their history, but the first readers of Jo Graham's new novel, The General's Mistress, say her portrait of Ida St. Elme, a Dutch-born courtesan loved by Marshal Ney, gets it right."– The Telegraph
"Graham's ability to bring history to life is truly remarkable."– Romantic Times
"This is a very dangerous assignment," Napoleon said. "Nothing like looking after Maria. It could easily cost your life. I tell you this to begin with, and if you refuse it I will take that as no stain upon you."
"I am willing, Sire," I said. Truly, what could be more dangerous than what I had faced in the field? I would do that again in a heartbeat, even the charge at Eylau.
"Are you acquainted with Claude-François de Malet?" he asked.
I frowned, trying to place the name. I could not. "His name is familiar," I said. "But I do not believe I know him. Or if so I met him on some occasion but had no reason to take note."
"And Jacques Oudet?"
I let out a long breath. That was a name I did know. "I knew him once, sire. But I cannot call him a friend."
"Tell me," he said.
I had nothing to hide. "When I was with Moreau all those years ago, a decade and more now, he was a lieutenant with the Army of the Rhine and was one of Moreau's aides. I remember him from headquarters. He was a very brave soldier, they said, and certainly he did his work with great energy."
"But you did not like him?" The Emperor's back was to me, looking out over the river.
"I did not," I said. I searched for the words, not knowing if the Emperor thought well of him or not. Either way I should be honest. "He was …too intense. He was too passionate in ways that seemed…inappropriate." The Emperor turned and I went on. "There was once when everyone was drinking Moreau's health, as one will, and he stood up and made an impassioned speech about how he would die for Moreau. Loyalty is all very well, but it was too much. He was too enthusiastic. It was uncomfortable. And he made me uncomfortable as well."
It sounded silly when I spoke of it, fancies of the girl of nineteen I had been then. "He wrote me several letters," I said. "Declaring his love for me."
The Emperor's brows raised.
"I had barely spoken with him," I said. "And I was with his general. I gave him no encouragement. Indeed, I did not reply to the letters at all! I said nothing to him and avoided him. There was something…. I do not know how to say, sire. He knew what I liked to eat and when I got up in the morning. He spoke as though I were his lover, someone who he had entered into relations with, when I was almost a stranger. It was too much. It was strange."
"And what did you do?"
"It was soon after that when Moreau sent me to Paris," I said. "I received one more letter from him, which I threw away. I have not seen him since then nor communicated with him in any way." I met the Emperor's eyes. "There was something wrong about him. It unnerved me. What has he done?"
"Well you should ask," he said with a smile. "This Malet, who you did not remember, was also with Army of the Rhine. He was a captain at the time, but with a forward unit, under General Moreau but not attached to headquarters. It is possible that you briefly saw him at some moment or heard him spoken of but did not meet him."
"That is likely," I said.
"You had no reason to think they were especially close to Moreau?"
So that's what it was about — Moreau's treason four years ago, though from all I had heard Victor lived quietly in New Jersey. "Not particularly," I said, and I made a guess. "They are in a Royalist conspiracy?" The Emperor's smile broadened. "A theory, but to the wrong side. A conspiracy to the left rather than the right."
"Which has always made more sense to me," I said. "Moreau would plot to return to the Republic, plot with his old Jacobin friends, but I could not see him plotting to restore the House of Capet. I believe he knew there was a conspiracy to assassinate you and chose to do nothing, rather than that he instigated it. After all, if you were dead, perhaps he would step into your place."
"That is what I concluded too," he said. "Hence his exile to America rather than the firing squad he would face for plotting to assassinate the head of state. I think Moreau's role in that conspiracy was peripheral, as it is in this one." "But there is a conspiracy," I said.
"Yes, Madame. There are always conspiracies, but this one is particularly pernicious." He put his hands behind his back and paced over to the window again. "Malet and Oudet belong to an irregular Masonic lodge called the Philadelphes. They claim that they are the heirs to ancient Egyptian mysteries and that they may manipulate occult symbols to bring down the government. But the real danger is that they use this lodge to recruit within the army for a Jacobin conspiracy that intends a military coup d'etat. I cannot stress enough that this is a serious matter."
"I know it is, Sire," I said. "I know Moreau would gladly have taken part in such, and indeed he may expect to return as a savior if and when it succeeds. It costs him nothing to encourage former subordinates to treason from where he sits in America!" I did not know what to make of his dismissal of the occult aspects of the Philadelphes. Certainly I believed the work of a lodge could be real. Whether this one was or not, I did not know. There were indeed fake lodges and charlatans. And there were real ones.
I saw the Emperor's purpose then. He needed an agent who could tell the difference. He needed an agent who could fight magic with magic.
"I need a very particular agent for this," he said.
"I see," I said.
"Several agents have attempted to infiltrate the Philadelphes before," he said. "Three of them have been unable to gain enough trust to know anything, though they labor on. The other two are dead." He looked at me squarely. "One of them drowned accidentally, poor man. Another was shot. A terrible mistake by a sentry. He was taken for the enemy and killed. Such tragedies happen."
"You believe they were murdered," I said evenly.
"Yes." He rested one hand against the window frame. "But I believe you can get in where they could not. You are a woman, and moreover you were Moreau's mistress. And Oudet would want very much to believe that you remember him. What could be more natural? Abandoned by your lover, filled with bitterness at his betrayal, cast off to make your way in the world, your thoughts turn to the noble form of Oudet, a young man you knew years ago whose honorable devotion you were unworthy of because of your liaison with Moreau? You humble yourself. You write to him. You tell him of your mistreatment and your disillusionment. You speak of how you miss the old days, of how you regret that Bonaparte rather than Moreau became Consul! Oh if that had not been! Oh if nobler sentiments had prevailed! You are alone in the world, filled with sadness for all that might have been! Would he be so noble as to forgive the foibles of a weak and shallow woman who regrets her youthful follies?"
"You are writing a novel, sire," I said dryly.
"I attempted one once," he said cheerfully. "In my younger days. It was full of tragedy and unrequited love. This requires an actress of some note to carry it off, and also one who has been in the right place at the right time, as well as one who possesses certain skills now."
"In bed," I said grimly.
"I meant with a pistol," he said. "I will authorize you to do whatever is necessary, a license to kill."
"I will have to sleep with him," I said. "I confess my skin crawls at the prospect."
He waited and said nothing.
"It is possible," I said slowly, "That the Philadelphes are not all hot air. It is possible that they have some actual knowledge that is important." I did not know how much he knew of our lodge, or how much he believed, but I found it impossible to believe he knew nothing, as close friends as he and Lannes had been for years. "I will need to find that out. There are two pieces, sire. There is the political conspiracy which may cause much trouble, and there is the possibility that they are indeed using some actual efficacious method."
"And you can do both," he said. "That is why I need you, Madame St. Elme."
"I am yours, sire," I said. I took a deep breath. "Marshal Ney…."
"Is about to receive his orders for Spain," he replied. "It's a mess, and Alexander must have his Hephaistion!"
I opened my mouth and shut it again. There was no reply possible to that.
"Ney will take a corps command in Spain this summer, and while I know you would like to follow the army, you may have your own work."
I nodded. If we were two men we would not always be posted to the same command, and one could not whine about it. "So he has broken my heart. I will need to tell him that."
"You will need to enlist his assistance, I should think," the Emperor said. "If it is to be plausible. And I will send you to my sister, Elisa. She's in Florence and is well known to have a soft heart. You have impressed her with your sad story and she will give you a post as a reader in her household out of pity for the cruelty of men!"
I thought he was getting a bit carried away in the melodrama of it all. "She knows?"
"She'll know you're my agent and that she is to render any assistance possible, personal as well as financial. But she won't know the details of your assignment. No one will. And she knows Malet."
"After Malet left the Army of the Rhine he retired to civilian life. He joined the diplomatic service and was for a while our consul in Rome. Unfortunately he was arrested for running a black market profiteering scheme involving stealing supplies from the army depot and selling them. He's currently serving a nine month prison term for profiteering. He's due to be released on the 30th of May."
"And you want to see what he does then," I said.
"Exactly. By the 30th of May you will be in Florence, reading Young Werther to Elisa and weeping on her shoulder."
"And where is Jacques Oudet?" I asked.
"He's currently a colonel assigned to Lannes' corps."
"Where Lannes can keep an eye on him," I said grimly. The murder of the agents must have taken place practically under Lannes' nose, which made it all the more clear why my involvement would be welcome.
"But Lannes cannot run around Italy chasing Philadelphes," he said. "Nor will they ever trust him. You can get inside."
"I will do my best, Sire," I said.
Michel was not pleased, though he was philosophical. "I knew I'd be for Spain sooner or later," he said. "Junot's making a mess. I'd hoped you'd come with me."
"And I would like to," I said, taking his hand and raising it to my lips. "But."
"You have your work and I mine," he said. He shook his head as though amused at his own foibles. "If you were Charles…."
"If I were Charles we'd suck it up, and so we will," I said. "And besides, it's only a few months. One campaign season. Come Christmas we'll be together."
"True enough," Michel said. "We have time enough for everything."
I hope so, I thought. But I did not say it.
I would leave for Florence at the beginning of May on the Emperor's service with a license to kill, spy and magician.