Every day, when the clock chimes three, the little Frenchman comes to her, and they close the door, and they talk.
Catherine understood from the beginning it would be like a love affair: the rush of infatuation and then the slow crescendo of little disappointments. She understood that much as a woman. She understood, too, that this was a rare opportunity, perhaps her only such: to wring the mind of one of the great French philosophes, to wring him dry, and all for the price of a library.
She understood that as an empress.
She wanted to immerse him in Russia, in the problems of Russia, to bring to bear all his thought on her singular country. She understood that he would want to immerse her in France, in his own philosophy, the better to mold her into the ideal autocrat he and Voltaire imagined.
She understood that as a matter of tactics, and she brought her needlework to the room each day, her head bowed demurely as the great Diderot spoke.
Diderot tells her: the basis of spoken authority is not a crown or a sword, but science and good faith, enlightenment and sincerity. So earnest his cheeks are flushing. To make his point he taps her thigh, science, and again, sincerity, so hard she feels as if he has touched her very skin, as if the layers of silk and damask have broken beneath his small round fingertip.
And she thinks, my God, what if I had come before Peter with nothing on my person but a book of science and goodwill? Then we would be speaking German, not French, all beneath the Prussian flag—and that presumes I would be alive at all, and granted enough freedom to speak to another.
Authority comes from education, he says, tapping her again. Speak factually and honestly and you will be able to sway any audience, for they will sense your authority, far more than any display of arms . . .
But she has stopped listening, because he does not understand. Education, yes: she dreams of a day when she might listen to an educated parliament legislate her realm in rational terms, from prince to serf. But now, when there are whole regions that would not know her from a washerwoman? Such subtleties would be wasted. Her vast country demands vast displays: grand palaces, cathedrals scraping the heavens, gleaming rifles as far as the eye can see.
That is authority in Russian.
The Frenchman’s hand on her thigh, the weight of him beside her. She has a sudden, absurd vision of embracing him, his soft round face between her breasts, her skirts hiked past her waist like the girl she never was. Is this how he woos his lovers? With little taps on the legs, open up my girl, science demands it, can’t you see I’m sincere?
With a careful twist of the thread she forms a little petal, and stitches it in place, raising her hoop to hide her smile.
He tells her: you should teach every Russian girl basic human anatomy, so they can better keep their lovers, and fend off ravishment.
She is momentarily disconcerted—teach anatomy to girls? how many of them could even read?—then, considering, she looks at him slyly over the curved edge of her embroidery hoop. Why, Monsieur! Have my ladies disappointed you?
And he laughs, a hearty guffaw that she did not know he possessed, and squeezes her arm. Marvelous, my good woman, he praises. You would be at ease in any salon in Paris.
His hand on her arm. The plain suits he has worn since arriving, their seats rubbed to a shine; she had thought herself done with men in rough linen. What had seemed a charming disregard for custom is now starting to resemble mere affectation.
Has he been playing, then, when he completes his afternoon audience? Roaming the halls of her palace, freed from obligation? Certainly he wouldn’t want for entertainment. So many bright-eyed girls at court now, lithe and pretty, easy with their smiles and their favors. As she herself would never be, now. She knows every line on her face, she can feel herself thickening and slowing. All her power and she cannot take back a few precious years.
Now the fruit of the African baobab, he tells her, is noted for its ability to regulate a woman’s courses and cleanse the blood of illness, with far more success than mere bloodletting. I have prepared a paper for you on the subject.
Another disconcerting statement, that takes her a long moment to understand; and then it is her turn to laugh outright, letting the hoop fall into her lap. But Monsieur, she says, laughing still, how in God’s name do you know such a thing? I did not think you were so widely traveled.
Books, he admits proudly. We are living in a new Alexandria, Madame. All man’s learning can be known by merely opening a volume; and the measure of a man and a nation alike is the library they possess. As you know, for I have seen your own collection. It is testament to your fitness to rule, and through you it will become the glory of Russia.
She picks up the hoop again, her smile fading. Her little philosophe is lying now, though he may not know it. Books could only speak of symptoms, not sensations; they recorded quantifiable phenomena, not what lay within.
Her best years wasted in a cold bed, shunned and ignored, thinking always on Russia, Russia, how best to serve Russia. Sent to another’s bed like a whore, thrown over like a whore, all for Russia. Her babies birthed and spirited away, for Russia. Her own neck nearly on the block, for Russia. All that she had risked: for Russia. Never to be transcribed, never to be given freely to any idiot browsing a bookshelf.
That was the measure of Catherine.
She thinks: I have bought myself a reader, nothing more. All his ideas, all his writings, all based upon books and conversation. Never upon application.
She thinks: I would go to Africa in a heartbeat. Oh, would that I could have been a man! Where, in this vast world, with all its wonderful creations—where is the fruit for that?
My good woman, he begins—and he is serious now, like a papa addressing a child—my good woman, the most important thing for you to understand is your own power: from whence does it come? What shapes its character?
She looks at him sideways, and stabs her needle hard into the fabric. I am listening, Monsieur.
She does not add, I once had a father, and you are not he.
Diderot tells her: every prince upon this earth derives his power from his people. Now men are free or slaves, and Nature makes the latter to encourage virtue in the former; but the nation is made of free men, and it is through contract with them that a man—or a woman—has the authority of the crown.
Catherine makes a careful backstitch, and another, neatly splitting the threads.
Now the character of your power is based foremost upon your aristocracy, your noblest subjects. They are your democracy, and as long as they are virtuous Russia will be strong and powerful.
And she nearly says, Monsieur, have you really seen us? Any of us? And have I really seen you in turn? For France must be a quaint little country to inspire such ideals, with its virtuous nobility, its borders as close and cozy as a nice settee. While I must govern Russians and Poles, Cossacks and soon the Turks as well if God wills it; all these men and more than half in serfdom—and most cannot write their own names. What would they do to me if I went prancing about the countryside, preaching these ideas? They would kill me, swiftly and without hesitation.
That is our contract.
I reign over barbarians, she nearly says. Your ideas play well here, on my silk sofa, before the warmth of my hearth, your belly full of my wine and food. But you try them out there, Monsieur, and see how far you get.
He is nattering on in his nasally French, his finger tapping her thigh again and she winces: so many touches now upon her person, she is bruised.
She thinks, I am the victim of my own pride. Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm, they all flatter me—but they flatter Sophia the lonely bookworm, not the Empress Catherine. And Sophia is long dead.
And when next the clock chimes three the needlework has disappeared. Catherine sits upright, and gestures to the chair across from her. The chair is at arm’s length, and there is a small table positioned carefully between them, as solid and as absolute as a throne.