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The Unwashed


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What Georgine de Montagny lacked in wealth, she made up for in title. She won her well-off husband, Jean, because of her charming demeanor and uncommonly sweet disposition. When Antoine and Brigitte were born, Georgine insisted that a house be bought on the outskirts of town so the children might be raised in cleaner air. To show they were true revolutionaries, the couple purchased a series of paintings meant to inspire fervor and patriotism in the disenfranchised, and with them, decorated the walls of their new home. Jean donated money to wretched families and handed out bread to the poor. Georgine was proud of her selfless husband. When the governor of Paris surrendered, and was then dragged from the Bastille and slaughtered with a fruit knife, Jean’s wealthy patrons quietly left France. “The violence will never reach this far,” Jean said. Georgine stood in the parlor overlooking the gardens and rubbed the inscription on her ring. He placed two firm hands on her delicate shoulders and kissed her neck. “It’s for the best. This will end it,” he said. It was his duty to provide for Georgine, so he hired a private army to collect taxes from the poor. He hid his earnings in the walls behind the paintings. Georgine was ashamed and resigned herself to ignorance. A desperate knock on the door woke her from her sleep. She laid a hand on the cold, empty sheets beside her. Jean had not returned from drinking with his friends in town. Candles in sconces were still lit along the stairwell. It was not right. Georgine cautiously unlocked the front door. The maid stood there, sweaty and breathless. “Madame, get the children, now,” said Chloé. The night cast a sickly blue shadow on her skin.

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“There are soldiers crawling everywhere. Taking everything,” she said. “Jean!” “The children, Madame,” insisted Chloé. Georgine woke the children and helped them into shoddy clothes she had borrowed from the gardener. She plaited her long hair and hid it under a scarf. Screams floated into the black mountain sky. Brigitte and Antoine huddled in a corner of the kitchen and watched Chloé and Georgine stuff rations into sacks. “Chloé, what are the soldiers doing?” asked Georgine. “Pulling people out of their beds. And singing that damned song.” Do you hear, in the countryside, the howling of those ferocious soldiers? They’re coming right into your arms to slit the throats of your sons and wives. Georgine looked at the horrified faces of her children. She held out her hand. “Darlings, help Maman.” She led them into the parlor and gave them each a rough pouch. Georgine took the paintings down with what little strength she had. She wished Jean were there. She pushed in the subtle indentations in the walls, retrieved the coins, and poured them into the pouches. “What are these for, Maman?” asked Brigitte. “To live, darling. To live.” Chloé entered the room with the sacks drooping over her tanned shoulder. “Everything is ready. We must go.” “Will they burn the house?” asked Georgine. Chloé looked at her solemnly. “I will go and loose the horses, then,” said Georgine.

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Her plain, grey gown rustled on the tops of the tall grass. She came to the mare that Jean gave her as a wedding gift and kissed it. “I could not find a mount as beautiful as you,” he had said, “but I hope this one will suit, Georgine.” She untied the dark horse, smacked her on the haunches, and watched her trot until she melded with the night. Chloé appeared with Antoine and Brigitte at the back of the house. “We must find Jean,” Georgine called. “Take the children. I will lead.” The group slunk their way into town through back alleys. The angry shouts of blue and red clad soldiers mingled with the cries of townspeople. “What is that?” Antoine asked. Black blood ran along the grooves of the cobblestones and stained his leather shoes. Georgine followed the stream to see a mountain of limp bodies piled in and around the fountain at the center of the town. “Antoine, let’s whisper,” said Chloé. Around the corner the de Breuer house was engulfed in flames. They were very close friends. Marie and David knelt in front of a soldier. The de Breuer children lay scattered in pieces next to them. Marie’s dress was rolled down to her waist and tattered voids lay where her breasts once were. Blood burst from the back of her head and she slumped to the ground. The soldier spat and raised his rifle to David’s forehead. “Stop!” Georgine screamed. She ran across the town square. The soldier did not hear her over the crackling fire. Chloé turned to the children. “Stay here. I promise I’ll come back.”

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She chased after her mistress and spilled the rations of one sack on her way. Georgine pounded tiny fists on the soldier’s head. He swung the butt of his rifle back and hit her in the chest. David rose to his feet and tore a handkerchief from his pocket. He wrapped it around the soldier’s throat and pulled tight. “Go, Georgine,” he said. “Where is Jean?” she asked. “He is dead. Go!” Georgine cradled her sore breast. Chloé dragged her past the fountain, its grinning cherubs bathed in red. Two shots were fired from where they left David. She yanked Georgine away from the spilled rations. “Move!” They found the children hiding behind barrels piled in the alley and ran for hours. The warm glow of burning houses could still be seen across peaks that stabbed the flat sky. “I need to sit. We must stop,” said Georgine. “We need food,” said Chloé. “There’s two week’s worth in that bag, isn’t there?” “Yes, but Spain could be farther. And we should avoid towns,” said Chloé. “If you hadn’t dropped that bag—” “You would be with Monsieur,” said Chloé. “Maman, where is Father? Will he meet us?” asked Brigitte. Georgine knew she didn’t possess the words. “Of course he will,” said Chloé, “he is on his way already.” Brigitte looked unsure. She nudged her sleeping brother to tell him the news.

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“I would appreciate you addressing me properly. You were very casual in town,” said Georgine. “Just as you casually abandoned your children in a raid?” said Chloé. Georgine was ashamed of her behavior, and it had not saved her best friends. She began to cry. “Chloé, I have lost everything in one night.” “You have Brigitte and Antoine. Do not leave them again.” Georgine pulled her children close to her and struggled to fall asleep. She could not erase the glimpse she caught of Marie’s face. Her blue eyes were gone. The same could have happened to Jean, but Georgine would never know. She twisted Brigitte’s hair around her wedding ring. The next morning the children pulled the hard crusts off the loaves of bread and threw it to the ground. After breakfast, they packed the lone sack and moved alongside the road. The children kicked up puffs of dust and sand. Chloé and Georgine walked behind. “I wanted to thank you,” said Georgine. “There is no need,” said Chloé. “I was rude.” “You were upset.” “Yes. I was.” Georgine blinked away tears. They continued in silence until nearly midday. “Can we eat again? Maman, I’m hungry,” said Antoine. Chloé stopped. She held her arm out. She waved Georgine toward her and signaled for her to be quiet. Georgine peered through the trees. A soldier wearing the tricolor was sleeping

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on a rock with a rifle at his side. A large bag lay next to him. His shoulder was stained dark with blood. “Maman?” asked Antoine. Georgine clapped a hand over her son’s mouth. “Darlings, go behind that rock. Stay there. Do not make a sound. Promise?” They did as they were told and Georgine rejoined Chloé at the tree line. She was holding a large rock in both hands. “What are you doing?” “He has food, Madame,” said Chloé. Georgine was immediately aware and terrified of her intentions. The soldier looked strong and young. “The children are here,” whispered Georgine. “Yes. And they need food.” Chloé pulled up the hem of her skirt and tucked it into her waistband so that her legs were showing. She moved silently through the trees and emerged on the bright grass. Georgine stood frozen, gripping the tree in front of her. Chloé made sure not to cast her shadow on the soldier and raised the rock above her head. She slammed it into the side of his face. The soldier woke and his legs flailed, sending Chloé to the ground. He rubbed his jaw and cursed. He caught sight of the red rock, leapt to his feet, and kicked Chloé hard in the stomach. She cried out. Georgine felt something brush past her thigh. Antoine’s blond head appeared in the clearing, the sunlight shining on it, and he threw pebbles at the soldier. “Leave her alone!” he shouted.

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The soldier stood stunned at his new attacker. He lunged toward him with his hands out. In an instant, Georgine tore through the trees. She barreled into the soldier and he stumbled to the ground. “Don’t you touch him!” she shrieked. She wrapped her tiny hands around his throat and squeezed. He gasped for air and rolled her over, then straddled her writhing body. Georgine tried desperately to pull the soldier’s hands off of her throat. A shadow blocked the sun. Chloé brought the rock down again and the man fell to his knees, clutching the back of his head. Georgine frantically ran her hand along the ground and found another large rock. Brigitte ran into the clearing and held Antoine. Chloé hit the dazed soldier with the stone and Georgine did the same, many times. The two women stood staring at him. He had no face. Georgine looked back at her children. “Darlings, come here,” she called. She held out her hand. “Oh, I’m sorry, so sorry,” she said. She wiped the blood onto the apron of her dress until there was only a pinkish stain left on her palms, then held her hand out again. They did not take it. “No shots left,” said Chloé. She was holding the soldier’s rifle. “But food. For two weeks. Brigitte, Antoine, are you alright?” asked Chloé. They ran to their nursemaid and clung to her legs. Georgine winced. “Children, go to your Maman,” said Chloé.

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She pushed them toward Georgine. They moved across the grass and Georgine dropped to her knees. She tried to remain calm but felt betrayed. It was she, not Chloé, who had saved Antoine. Brigitte examined her mother’s beaten face for a long time, then pushed a stiff, stray curl off of Georgine’s cheek. “Are you hurt, Maman?” she asked. Georgine laughed. She hugged her children close to her. “We must go. There will be more,” said Chloé. Georgine carried the soldier’s sack and the children took turns holding her hand. The two women sang and told stories of false lands without war. Antoine insisted Spain would be the same. There were no clouds to block the sun and it warmed their faces in the shady mountains. When it was almost dark they stopped to make camp. Chloé spent some time struggling to light a fire in the swift breeze. “What will we do when we get to Spain?” asked Brigitte. “We’ll get a house by the sea. And we’ll grow your favorite flowers. And Antoine, you will learn to ride a horse, when you’re just a bit taller,” said Georgine. “Father will teach me?” asked Antoine. “What if Chloé taught you?” she asked. “But I want Father.” “Darling, he may not be coming back for a long time.” Antoine stood up. “You’re lying. He’s not coming back at all. You left him!” He ran into the woods and Chloé followed him. Georgine sat and waited for their shadows to emerge from the tree line. The first sting of guilt came. She loved Jean only as

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much as she was supposed to. He was a talented man and Georgine found it difficult to match his intelligence in conversation, though she was as well-read as he. Jean was the solitary type and considered Georgine’s interest in his work distasteful. When she asked about his hot air balloon experiments for his Versailles patrons, he replied, “My sweet, you are a beautiful flower. But flowers are rooted in the ground, and could never understand the science of the sky.” Georgine would miss him for the children. Antoine ran to his mother and sobbed into her dirty hair. “I’m sorry, Maman. I know it’s not your fault. I want Father,” he said. “I know, darling.” Antoine and Brigitte slept curled under their mother’s arms. “You shouldn’t tell them stories,” said Chloé. She pushed wood into the fire. “If we make it to Spain, we still have to reach the port. Buy passage. And it’s another week at least to the island.” “Yes. And Jean’s cousin will be waiting for us.” “It’s a story, Georgine.” Georgine leaned in to see if Antoine and Brigitte were awake. “I will tell the children stories as long as they want to hear.” The following morning Chloé was pulled by her ankles off her makeshift pillow. She cringed at the blinding sunlight. A soldier loomed over her and flashed a row of rotted teeth. Chloé turned over and ran. “Georgine! Wake up!” she screamed.

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Another soldier blocked Chloé from her mistress and the children. Georgine sat up slowly. A group of almost ten soldiers surrounded them. They were filthy and bedraggled, but there was no weariness in their expressions, only hatred. Antoine and Brigitte rolled over and rubbed their eyes. Georgine stood up and pushed the children behind her. The lead soldier leaned on his rifle. “You have Léon’s sack. And his blood on your clothes,” he said. “They did nothing,” said Chloé, “it was me.” The soldier near her slapped her hard with the back of his hand. Her lip oozed. “Let us go,” pleaded Georgine. A blond soldier grabbed Antoine from behind and pulled up his small hand. “His nails are clean, Martin. Did your mother put you in pauper’s clothes, boy?” He pushed Antoine down and spat on him. He pointed his rifle at Georgine. Chloé tried again to escape, but a soldier knocked her down and pushed her face into the dirt. She struggled to breathe. Antoine punched the blond soldier in the legs. “Let Maman go! You bastard, let her go!” “Oh, little boy, where did you learn a word like that? He’s got a mouth on him, Martin,” said the blond. “Cut his tongue out,” said Martin. “Don’t you do anything!” Georgine said. “Do it, Rémy,” said Martin. Martin shoved Georgine and she fell. He pushed a heavy boot into her back. He ripped off her scarf and yanked her head up by her hair. “Watch. You killed a true son of France. We will kill yours,” he said.

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Georgine sobbed uncontrollably. A few soldiers stood several yards away with their faces turned from the spectacle and studied the trees with sudden interest. Rémy kneeled with a knife in his hand and forced the boy’s mouth open. Antoine fought to appear courageous. Rémy sliced and flung bits of pink tongue on the ground to keep his knife clean. Antoine’s squeals cut through the cool morning air. Three soldiers took turns thrusting at Chloé’s backside like wild dogs. Her face was calm but her fingers scratched at the dirt until it was caked under her nails. “Georgine, do not look. He will be with Jean in heaven. He can learn to ride horses. The best horses.” The soldier behind Chloé hit her in the head. “Didn’t your mistress teach you propriety, girl? You’re only good for fucking, not talking.” Soon, Antoine’s screams stopped. Brigitte wept quietly and covered her ears against the grunting of the half-naked men. Rémy sat down and wiped his blade clean in Antoine’s hair. Antoine’s face looked solemn against the bright, green grass. Brigitte kissed her brother’s cheeks. “Madame, do you remember the day I came to your house?” asked Chloé. Her face was swollen. “Yes. We picked Brigitte’s favorite flowers. Lilies.” The soldier behind Chloé stood and buttoned his trousers. He slung his rifle off his back and shot. Chloé lay still and the sand under her grew wet. Georgine turned away. Martin placed a heavy hand on Brigitte’s small head. “She’s just a girl. Please,” wept Georgine.

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“A girl you swaddled in silks and lace,” said Martin. “Please, don’t be cruel to her.” “A daughter always ends up like her mother. She will be cruel.” “She won’t. Brigitte, you won’t, will you darling?” said Georgine. “No, Maman.” “Take the food, Martin,” said Rémy, “she’ll die anyway.” Martin playfully thumbed Brigitte’s nose and smiled. “Brigitte,” he said, “you love your Maman?” Brigitte pressed her mouth to her brother’s filthy hair. “She will be waiting for you.” Martin removed his bayonet from his rifle and lifted Georgine’s chin to expose her neck. He ripped the blade across her throat and she gurgled. The soldiers took their dead comrade’s sack and Georgine’s ring, and moved down the road. Brigitte waited until her mother’s throat stopped bubbling. She crawled through the grass and rubbed the dirt off Georgine’s face with her sleeve. She looked at the ragged bodies of her family and sat back on her heels. “Don’t worry, Maman,” she said, “I will wash us all when we get to Spain.”

Margaret Cogswell

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The Unwashed  

An aristocratic woman and her children face the terrors of the French Revolution as they escape from their occupied town.

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