A Fierce WindBy: Regan Walker
Champ de Mars outside Paris, 14 July 1790
A light rain fell on the unfolding spectacle, the heavens mocking the gaiety of the occasion that mingled the revolution’s victors with the vanquished.
Frederick West shifted his gaze from the thronging crowds to the girl standing beside him, suddenly seized with a desire to protect her from the storm about to unleash its fury on France. She stared straight ahead, her eyes fixed on the long rows of soldiers in blue and white uniforms standing at attention in the center of the arena.
It seemed like only yesterday he was seventeen and giving the precocious ten-year-old French girl a tour of his family’s estate in West Sussex. She had insisted on riding their most spirited mare, her reckless streak manifesting itself even then.
At the time, the little minx had fascinated him. Eventually, fascination had turned into attraction. Now, at sixteen, Zoé Ariane Donet promised great beauty, the flower of French womanhood about to bloom.
Long hair the color of dark mahogany framed her delicate features. Her ivory skin reminded him of a painting of Venus he had once seen in Paris. Dove gray eyes spoke of her youthful innocence. Soon, her slim body, today attired in the tricolors of revolutionary France, would possess a woman’s curves.
“Freddie, look at all the banners! Aren’t you glad we came? C’est magnifique, non?” She spoke from beneath her plumed hat never turning her attention from the pageantry before her.
“Glad we came? I cannot say that, Pigeon, but I grant you, ’tis certainly a grand display.”
She huffed in frustration. “Somewhere on the field with all those soldiers is my dear Louis-Pierre, but I cannot see him.”
Ah yes, the French soldier she was so taken with. The latest of her girlish infatuations. Freddie took comfort in the knowledge that there would be others, none more significant than the last. He need not worry about her innocence, not yet anyway. Not many men would dally with the niece of the infamous Jean Donet, not even the naïve Louis-Pierre.
Donet, a man trusted by both commoners and king, had once been a pirate, then a privateer and, when Freddie first met him, a smuggler. He was ruthless when he needed to be and good with a blade. Six years ago, with the murder of her father and grandfather, Zoé had become his ward.
From where Freddie stood in the grandstands with the Donets, he had an excellent view of the other end of the field and the altar raised several stories into the air. Thousands had flocked to the Champ de Mars, their murmurs echoing in waves around the great arena as excitement rose for the celebration about to begin.
Some of the men sported le bonnet rouge, the red cap signifying liberty to the revolutionaries. Given the brutal way France’s revolution had begun the year before with the storming of the Bastille, Freddie thought the caps might as well signify blood. It was no surprise to him a revolution led by lawyers would have a cruel beginning.
Today’s grand show struck him as a ruse. All of Europe was holding its breath, for behind the ruse lurked a seething mass of discontent.
“To what end do you suppose we gather here, Pigeon?”
“Don’t be silly, Freddie,” said Zoé, shooting him a disapproving look. The stubborn set of her jaw spoke of the defiance he knew lay just below the surface. “You know very well the reason for this fête. France will no longer be governed by the whims of the king but by a written constitution.” Raising her chin, she added, “Comme l’Amérique.”
Freddie bit back the retort forming on his lips. He would allow Zoé the joy of the celebration. She would face reality soon enough. As for him, he did not consider France’s new constitution, forced on the French king and already the subject of controversy, to be at all like America’s. Two days before, the new Assemblée nationale had approved a Civil Constitution of the Clergy, condemned by the Pope for requiring priests to swear allegiance to the state in the strongest of terms.
Today’s celebration had little substance beneath the pomp. And Freddie was certain there would be much pomp. First the ceremonies, then oaths and speeches and finally, a grand feast where bread would be plentiful and fireworks would fill the night sky.