The gateway of the Bastille gawped at me like a big mouth. I resisted slightly as two gallant gentlemen of the Paris Guard hauled me from the closed carriage. I had been arrested at my lodgings, at the Taverne du Panier-Vert.
‘Surely, my friends, you should be at your Pentecostal prayers?’ I tried to maintain the dignity to which my Jesuitical education had trained me. They merely frowned and pushed me on all the harder. We crossed the drawbridge and through the arch, and the portcullis clattered down on iron chains.
‘I protest, gentlemen, such force is unnecessary, I shall be overjoyed to enter this august establishment, as long as I can adhere to my strict milk diet…if in eight days I’m offered release, then I swear that I shall beg for it to be fifteen, so that I may be undisturbed…ah, how well I remember these fine portals, having come here so often to pay my respects to my dear friend the Duc de Richelieu! I never realised I’d be obliged to take up residence here myself.’
They ignored me. In the guardroom, I emptied my pockets, protesting my innocence. A fair amount of money, a lorgnette, a small pair of scissors, some letters; a notebook; they kept the money and the letters, even the one from Olympe Dunoyer.
‘Francois Arouet. You’re detained for circulating vile and treasonous verses against our Regent, his Royal Highness, the Duc d’Orleans, and his daughter, her Royal Highness, the Dowager Duchesse de Berri.’
‘But I assure you of my most profound respect for these august personages.’ That incestuous pair, I thought. ‘There surely can be no evidence to the contrary?’
‘That’s unimportant. His Majesty the King has signed an order for your detention. You’ll remain here, unless we receive an order for your release.’
So, my freedom was at the disposal of a seven year old boy. And his uncle, the Regent, of course. I entered a tiny cell, only one floor above the cachots, where men rotted until they died. A thin beam of light came from a barred window high in the wall, and made a faint glimmer on the pallet bed where I sat, wondering if I would be able to write. My old life was finished.
All is for the best, I thought, reflecting back.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1713. I’ve returned, closely supervised, from the Hague. Outside, Paris is frozen white with snow, and in here, Papa’s white with rage. He’s at his desk, beside the portrait of Mama, that was painted just in time. She’s trying not to laugh, well-fed and well-bedded, the noble wife of a wealthy lawyer, wearing indigo velvet, and scarlet damask, and gold embroidery. He’s lived like a Penitent Friar since she died. Now I stand before them, a little boy once more. On the desk is a paper with a red wax seal.
‘I’ve obtained a lettre de cachet. I’ll have you locked up until you develop some sense.’ His fingers drum upon it.
I beg and plead, send me into exile, anything, not that. Tears form in my eyes. But now Papa’s in full flow. He stands up, leaning on stiff arms, fists on the desk, declaiming as if in court.
‘I’ve disinherited you. I’m disappointed, embarrassed, brokenhearted. You’re a complete failure. I can’t keep finding you these posts. Do you know how hard I’ve worked, using my connections, my influence, to advance you? I found you respectable employment with a notary, and all you did in his office was write poems!’ Papa thumps the desk.
I mumble some sort of apology, trying to look contrite. It had been the most tedious employment in the world.
‘Do you know what I’ve had to do, to get you that post with the ambassador? Châteauneuf didn’t want to take you to the Hague. Even though he’s your godfather’s brother, I’ve had to do his legal work for nothing, for the last six months. I thought you’d have a chance to get away from the idlers you keep company with here. Now you’ve ruined it. What were you thinking of?’
‘I’m in love! She loves me, too.’ Olympe’s adorably misspelt letter (‘A Dieu, mon haimable anfan…’) was in my breast pocket.
‘With a Huguenot? Exiled from France? Are you insane? Châteauneuf’s written to me, and I quote: “I have no more hope of your son. He has shown himself twice a fool, in love and in poetry.” Love! Poetry! You could have advanced yourself in the diplomatic service. Why? There must be a reason for your behaviour?’
‘I want no life but that of a man of letters.’
Papa sinks back into his chair, and cradles his temples in his hands. ‘What kind of life is that? It’s the life of a dreamer, and a penniless one!’ He looks up at me mournfully. ‘When you were little, you were such a promising, clever child. But now, you’re dragging our name through the mire. Look at me. I started out as a notary. I’ve worked my way up to a senior post in the government. Treasurer of the Chambre des Comptes. We’ve a fine house in the Île de la Cité. You went to school with the sons of the nobility. Just one more step up, and we could ourselves be ennobled.’
‘But I’m already in favour with the aristocracy, I’ve made so many connections through my writing. I’ve every hope of success.’
‘You’re a court jester, when you could be noblesse du robe in your own right. There’s a difference, believe me.’
I tell Papa that, in any case, I just have to write. I have to be a writer. And he asks me the dreaded question.
‘So, what have you written so far?’Three and a half years later, imprisoned, I considered my literary achievements. Perhaps Papa had known, after all. He’d known that I spent most of the day staring at a blank page, words blurred in my mind by last night’s wine, waiting for the next distraction.
My love letters to Olympe Dunoyer went unanswered; I suspected her mother had got hold of them. My drama, ‘Oedipe’, was rejected by the Comédie Française. I’d composed a grand tragedy about incest, famine, plague, and parricide, with mournful narration from a Greek chorus and the doom-laden chantings of a high priest. But the actors complained. Where was the love interest that the audience wanted, the romance? I’d resubmitted it with a new story thread, which tangled badly with the old. ‘We’ll let you know’, they’d said.
My satirical poems found favour with the Duchesse du Maine. I’d been invited to her literary evenings and theatrical entertainments at Sceaux, where she made herself the ‘Queen Bee’. At these events, the theme was really that the Duc du Maine should have been the Regent instead of the Duc d’Orleans. She even spoke of getting the King of Spain to ‘reclaim what was rightfully his’. Although Orleans was permissive to the point of obscene degeneracy, it seemed to me of dubious merit to replace him with a dull king and queen, and a court where they prayed ten times a day, and never went out. And unfortunately, my satires also drew the attention of the authorities. Even when I wasn’t officially in exile, it was usually best to avoid Paris.
So, at Saint-Ange I’d started to compose the Henriade, an epic poem. It was still unfinished. But, I was fortunate enough to discover a large nail in the corner of my cell, and started to scratch some verses into the stone wall. It was rather inconvenient, but a writer has to write. It was important, I felt, to remain optimistic.Under interrogation, I said I’d been staying at Saint-Ange, and only returned after Easter. I had no associates at the Panier-Vert. D’Argenson, the chief of police, glowered at me.
‘Here’s a verse in Latin.’ He had piercing dark eyes under heavy eyebrows, in a frighteningly ugly face. ‘Puero Regnante. Can you construe it?’
‘Let me see,’ I said, my hand trembling as I took the paper he passed me. ‘It’s a while since I was at Louis-le-Grand.’ Both his sons had gone to my school.
‘Do your best,’ he growled.
‘A boy reigning,’ I muttered. ‘And a famously incestuous poisoner, administers ignorant and ramshackle policy, a destabilised religion, an exhausted treasury. Public faith is violated, and in peril of imminent general sedition, he iniquitously anticipates to inherit the crown. Land of our fathers sacrificed, France is about to perish.’
‘I believe you to be the author of this treason’.
I shook my head. ‘It grieves me profoundly,’ I said, ‘to be suspected of such horrors. For a long time, every abomination in verse and prose circulating through Paris has been credited to my name. Anyone who knew me would swear that I’m incapable of such crimes.’
‘Yet, when Monsieur de Beauregard asked you if the Puero Regnante had not been written by a Jesuit priest, you replied,’ D’Argenson consulted his papers, “the Jesuits are like the jay of the fable, who borrow the peacock’s feathers to preen themselves.” What did you mean by that?’
Beauregard! If only I’d realised that Beauregard, a semi-literate with a sudden interest in Latin poetry, was likely to be a police informer. But I rallied myself. ‘The poem’s an antiquity, written during the Regency of Catherine de Medici.’
‘And when Beauregard mentioned this poem, you smiled, and asked if he’d enjoyed reading it’.
I said I really couldn’t remember, but thought not.
‘And have you written any other insolent and calumnious verses concerning the first prince and first princess of the realm?’
I said I couldn’t quite remember. That it was true that Beauregard had formed the view that I was the author of such poems. It was even possible that I might have spoken in such a way as to support this idea, but as I hadn’t actually written them at all, in fact I detested them, I didn’t have any enthusiasm that this view should be preserved. I believed myself obliged to point out that Beauregard did not know verse from prose, and was ignorant of the belles-lettres.
D’Argenson glowered again. ‘You told Beauregard that he was mistaken to believe that you were not the author of these verses, and of several others, as you’d been able to compose them during your stay at Saint-Ange.’
I replied that there was nothing in the world so false.
‘And when he asked you what the Duc d’Orleans had done to you, to deserve such calumnies, you sprang up in a rage and said, I quote,’ he referred again to his informer’s report, “how did you not know what that…”
‘Bugger?’ I said, helpfully.
“- did to me? He exiled me from Paris, because I made it public that his Messalina of a daughter was a whore.” Then you said to Beauregard that Her Royal Highness had fled to her country estates to conceal a pregnancy.’
I said that this was the most unparalleled slander I’d ever heard.
D’Argenson made a note in my file. ‘We have searched your papers,’ he said, ‘and the room where you were staying, but found nothing. Where have you hidden the remainder of your seditious writings?’
I mentioned, at that point, that I might have dropped some papers into the latrines at the Panier-Vert. But nothing important. Merely some correspondence, I said, letters from females, with which I had cleaned myself.
He sent me back to my lonely cell, to dream of a lost romance. It’s November 1713, seven months after the Treaty of Utrecht ended a long, costly war. At the end of its Golden Age, the Hague’s in mourning, and people talk sadly of how they lived thirty years ago, and look hungrily at their still-life paintings of food. Yet the merchants are more important than the landed aristocracy, who scratch a living in the mud of their farms. I’m there, secretary, page, and factotum to the French Ambassador.
People think I’ve seduced Olympe Dunoyer; but it’s I who am enchanted by my first love. I’m only nineteen, and she’s twenty-one, rosy-cheeked and delicious, and betrothed to Jean Cavalier, the young hero of the Cevennes insurgents. Luckily he’s in Ireland, founding a Huguenot community in a Catholic country; I wish him joy. Olympe, left behind, is too pretty to lack male company. She must enjoy variety, for I’m not a military type. I’m too scrawny, my nose is too big, and my elbows stick out at odd angles. But I can always make her laugh. What amuses her the most is carrying out an intrigue beneath the nose of her domineering Mama.
Madame Dunoyer prides herself on her success as a writer. ‘Lettres Historiques et Galantes’ is merely scandalous and titillating gossip about the French Court, none of it true of course; and given the freedom of the Press in the Hague, and the ease with which such material crosses borders, it’s better for the French to pay for the suppression of certain items. She earns more, I imagine, by this route, than she does from her book sales. So I’m the go-between from the Ambassador’s office.
Our Embassy on the Prinsessengracht overlooks a little canal, and some fields. It’s the most delightful of all possible situations. I stand with Olympe on a small bridge, holding her hand, looking down at our two faces mirrored in the still water. Sometimes after a kiss our reflections are still intact; other times a ruffle of breeze or the paddling of a duck, even an insect landing in the water, blurs our faces away.
And she murmurs to me, breathless with excitement, ‘I think I’m going to be in trouble with my mother. But don’t worry, dear child, I shall come and see you, nonetheless, at the Embassy. I’ll be dressed as a boy.’
She’s unforgettable in her disguise, a beautiful, strangely maternal youth. I swear to elope with her, to risk my life for her, to love her forever.
‘One day,’ I promise, ‘we shall be happy together.’
Imprisoned in the Bastille, I started to forget the days. I had no visitors. The streets of Paris seemed far distant, and as I scratched words on the wall, I started to learn this new world of obdurate stone. I was a tiny being, lost and forgotten in the intricate mazes of a fortress, with no hope of release.
D’Argenson came to my cell, with a turnkey standing in the half-open doorway.
‘I wanted to see if you were still alive,’ he said. I reassured him that I was indeed still breathing, though stifled by captivity and by the lack of means with which to write.
He gave me a dark smile. ‘There have been rumours.’ Apparently, I’d been transported to the fearsome Pierre-Encise fortress at Lyons; I’d been hung at the Arsenal; and an unknown young poet had been punished by a secret death within the Bastille itself. D’Argenson lowered his heavy brows. ‘I must ensure that no such fate befalls you without a signed order from the King.’
I expressed a hope that his Majesty’s clemency and enlightened judgment would soon permit my release.
‘Unfortunately, you described him as a boy reigning, under the administration of an incestuous poisoner.’
I assured him that those were not my words.
He lowered his voice and drew closer to me. ‘And what do you know of imminent, general sedition?’
‘Your answer might make the difference between the death of an obscure poet, forgotten in a distant fortress, and a life of freedom and fame.’ He lifted a black eyebrow.
‘Well, I might possibly mention that the poem scans better in Spanish than in Latin. And that a queen bee may attract a nest of vipers.’
He turned away from me, his ugly face questing for the faint beam of light from the high window. ‘They should be better watched,’ he muttered.
‘If I might be allowed a writing desk, sir, and pens and paper, then…’
‘No more arse-wipes.’ He was glowering again. ‘Ysabeau, the commissaire for the Cité, sent a report, regarding his search of the latrines at the Panier-Vert. The cesspit, which was nearly full, had to be sealed up again at the orders of the landlord. The terrible stench spoiled the beer in the cellar where the opening had been made. No-one found any papers, and Ysabeau thought that your admission of throwing letters in there had been made maliciously, to create fruitless work.’
I was trying not to laugh.
D’Argenson glared at me. ‘He presumed that any letters would have floated on the water which surmounted the crude matter, however if anything further was required in the investigation, it would be impossible without completely emptying the pit. And he awaited further orders.’
With calm innocence, I showed him my wall of poetry. ‘No arse-wipes. I’m composing the ‘Henriade’, an epic poem of Henri IV, the model for our beloved Regent. I hope to establish my reputation as a poet and historian. And to make a new name: Arouet de Voltaire.’
After that, my imprisonment became less harsh. I was moved to a better cell, and dined at the governor’s table. They gave me pens and paper, and a rickety desk. It was the best of all possible worlds.As I sat down to write, I thought of all the letters I’d written to Olympe, begging her to follow me to Paris. She wrote only once to me. Our reflections had disappeared from the canal, and my face faded from her mind. Back then, I truly believed that I should always search for Olympe in my heart, but a year later I heard that she’d married an adventurer, the so-called Baron von Winterfeldt. I reflected that if I ever saw her again, she’d probably be bad-tempered, and atrociously ugly. There’s a reason for everything, I thought.
© 2014 Maybelle Wallis