I first thought of this story on a visit to the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, during which I looked through a window and saw the chandelier was illuminated. What if someone was living there? Perhaps a ghost from centuries ago?
“Look, Mother, look! There’s a light in that room! Look, that’s a chande– chand- what are they called?” said young Marie.
“A chandelier,” said her elder brother Antoine.
“Now be quiet, you two!” said their mother, who had already moved on without so much as glancing towards the window. “There can’t be a light, it’s all locked up. Now stand next to each other, in front of this statue, and smile. I’m going to take a picture.”
Even as the two children smiled for their mother’s picture, they still wondered. Could there be someone living in the palace?
The Palace of Versailles. Once a grand mansion for the king of France, it is now a worldwide tourist destination almost as well-known as the Eiffel Tower.
It was attacked during the French Revolution, and shortly after that, King Louis XVI was also executed. Napoleon was crowned in Versailles in 1807, but never lived there. In 1830, King Louis-Philippe I decided to change the design of Versailles in accordance with his master plan for it. Now, it is well known for all of these historical events, and more.
But was there someone who observed all of these momentous events silently, and made a record of them? If so, their diaries, if they exist, could be a valuable source of information. Perhaps new discoveries could be made about France’s history. However, it would have to be someone who was in the palace for a long time, could overhear various private conversations, and yet not seem to be overhearing them. Who could obtain that sort of information without seeming out of place?
Catherine stared out of the window at the hired cleaning staff, who never actually did any cleaning. The staff had discovered that they never needed to do any dusting or polishing. They decided that they would take a second job too, and get double salaries. Catherine still kept the palace spotless as nobody else did anything about it, and it had been that way since UNESCO called it a World Heritage Site.
Catherine was born in 1755, to a poor family in the village of Montesson nearby. At the age of twenty, she was hired as one of the many servants working in the Palace of Versailles. To Catherine, it seemed that the king had never-ending streams of money used to fund various dinner parties in honor of other wealthy people. And of course he did – Catherine had grown up listening to her parents complain about the rising taxes that they could not afford.
The latest order from the king had come in; the Tsar of Russia was going to come for a grand banquet. The servants were to prepare roast peacock immediately. The Tsar’s entourage also needed to be fed, and so the servants worked in pairs to rapidly prepare the required number.
Catherine was paired with Hilda, and they quickly got to work removing the feathers, while keeping them safely, so that they could earn more money by selling them, as they were valuable.
“The people will not stand for this sort of thing for very long,” said Hilda.
“What do you mean?” asked Catherine, as they lit a fire.
“Well, all the money that the king is using here – to buy the peacocks, to pay us, to buy all those bottles of twenty-year-old wine – it comes from the heavy taxes that the people have to pay, when they can barely manage on the amount that they earn before taxes are levied. The people will rebel soon, and then everything will change.”
“I know what you mean – I’m sending the money that I earn to my family, which they use to pay their taxes, which the king uses to pay me. Now that I think about it, I’ve probably been earning recycled money since I first got here…”
“Um…what? Recycled money? What is that?”
“It’s not important.”
There was silence for a moment, as they worked quickly to prepare the sauce that would go with the dish. Catherine asked, “So how soon do you think they’ll rebel?”
“Well, any time in the next ten years. I’ve actually heard of places to the east where there are castles every half-mile. When their king has very little money left, he goes with his entourage, meets the local rulers living in the castles, and forces them to feed him and the other fifty people there are with him.”
“That’s interesting… How long does the peacock have to roast?”
“Between twenty minutes and half an hour.”
“All right. So, what do you think will happen to the palace when this rebellion occurs?” Catherine asked, taking a seat.
“It depends on whether or not it’s successful. If it isn’t, then there’ll be no change. If it is, then the king will be forced to flee. Versailles will be taken over, and we’ll have to return to our homes – that is, if we survive.”
“I’m going to get another peacock. I’ve heard that the group that the Tsar is coming with consists of five hundred people, and just one peacock cooked by each pair won’t be enough.”
Hilda just sat on the stool, waiting for the peacock to roast.
The rebellion that Hilda was talking about happened within a year. Catherine was sitting inside that night, unable to sleep, when she heard a faint sound:
“Allons, enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de glorie est arrivé!”
It didn’t sound like anything normal for this time of night, so she hurried outside and heard hundreds of voices chanting:
“L’étendard sanglant est levé!”
As that meant “raises its bloody banner,” Catherine was understandably concerned about this. She stood still, absorbing every word. She knew that at some point, the lines would repeat themselves, and that she could use that to her advantage. Simultaneously, she was observing the approaching crowd, armed with all sorts of implements – kitchen knives, swords, spears – apparently anything that they could obtain. Many of them had farming tools. Catherine knew that they were the revolution that she had discussed with Hilda when the Tsar had come last year.
The crowd was quite close to Catherine now, and they were singing the chorus. Catherine leapt out of her hiding place, singing loudly.
“Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Catherine was working her way to the back of the crowd, still singing as loudly as she could.
“Qu’un sang impur,
Abreuve nos sillons!”
The next verse began, and Catherine didn’t know the words, as this verse was completely new. Luckily, hardly anyone else knew it either. The leaders of the group sang:
“Français, en guerriers magnanimes,
Portez ou retenez vos coups !”
Everyone else repeated those lines, including Catherine. She was nearly at the back of the crowd, hoping to slip away once the group charged. She heard the order as soon as she reached the back of the crowd.
Catherine ran the other way, hoping nobody would notice her. The rest of the crowd was scaling walls, smashing windows and screaming wildly. She ran towards Montesson, and reached after a few hours, only stopping once on the way to drink water from the Seine. In a few hours, the same water would be tainted with the blood of the residents of Versailles.
Catherine decides that it would not be safe anywhere near Versailles or, indeed, near any large city. She had to remain in desolate, rural areas, or maybe even another country, so that she remained far away from any other group of people who were tunelessly singing what would one day be called the ’Marseillaise’ and attacking large palaces.
Which way should she go? North, south, east or west?
She decided to head north. From there, she might be able to get a boat, or travel east into Belgium and Germany.
On the road to Amiens, Catherine came across a horse which seemed to be frightened. She managed to calm it down, and she decided to travel with it – he seemed willing enough. She decided to name him Ashwa, since she had once overheard the word and remembered it meant ‘horse’. Ashwa trotted along the road at a steady pace, now with Catherine riding him.
Once Catherine and Ashwa reached Amiens, Catherine managed to buy a saddle, to make it easier to ride Ashwa. That evening, as she lit a fire to keep them warm, Catherine noticed a sudden change in Ashwa’s behavior: he reared back, letting out a frightened whinny. Though the night was cold, he did not go anywhere near the fire, and proceeded to settle down in the farthest place possible from it. Catherine thought that since the Revolution had lasted nearly a month so far, it was possible that Ashwa was from another place that had burned down, and had escaped. That would explain his fear of fire. Catherine sat down next to Ashwa and started stroking his mane.
“You must have seen terrible things happen with fire, but not all fires are bad,” murmured Catherine.
When Catherine reached the north coast, she realized two things: firstly, that she did not have enough money to feed both herself and Ashwa for too much longer, and secondly, that she could not find any boats going north until fifteen days later. She had to travel into Belgium, and find a way of earning money without remaining in one place. She thought about what she used to do, and how she could use that here. She was good at cooking, but not much else, she thought.
“Ashwa, what do you think? How can we keep moving around, and retain a job at the same time?”
Ashwa neighed and trotted around Catherine in a circle.
“I agree, it does seem impossible. Still, there must be some people who work while travelling,” mused Catherine.
Then she remembered. When she was seven years old, her parents had taken her to see a play. It was a comedy, and the whole family enjoyed it immensely, especially since these were rare occurrences.
She found a travelling theatre group and asked their head what they ate.
“Well, usually we can’t eat too much. We get by on a few snacks every day, but we can only eat a proper meal about once or twice a week.”
That sounded like a perfect place for a cook.
For many years, Catherine travelled with Ashwa as part of the theatre group. She had to cook two light meals and one larger meal at the end of the day, and while the ingredients did not include anything like peacock, her food was highly praised by everyone who ate it. She travelled not only in France, but in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and even in Italy as well. While in Germany, she even visited the castles which she had been told about by Hilda so many years previously. They were called schlösses, and because of them, her trip down the Rhine was the most enjoyable part of her travels.
All the while, they received news of the French Revolution, which led to the execution of Catherine’s former employer, King Louis XVI. Catherine did not think it was safe to return to Versailles or anywhere nearby until the nineteenth century. For twenty years she wandered, until the French Revolution had certainly ended. Catherine then left the group and returned home to Montesson.
The year was 1805. Napoleon was crowned in Versailles, but he never lived there. So, Catherine reasoned, who would notice an extra person?
By day, Catherine remained hidden, apart from the times when she would go for a morning ride on Ashwa, and by night, she wrote her personal diary. She often discussed her writing with Ashwa, and he could often be very helpful in helping her to remember the right word or the exact quote that she had forgotten.
She could recall and write of many conversations, from those between senior ministers to members of the kitchen staff. Her record of the century was more comprehensive than any before it – or, indeed, after it. If you could read her account of the events of that time, you would almost feel like you were really there. She lived through all sorts of events of historical importance, from the delightful to the deplorable. She was the only safe person in Versailles in the 1848 Revolution. And she still lives there, as she has for the past two and a half centuries.
And now, if you go to Versailles and see the light of a chandelier illuminating a room, listen for the sound of Ashwa’s neigh.