Berne, Switzerland 1765
A season of ice descends upon the winter chalet, cracking mortar and spreading bright veins across the window glass. Water freezes in the kitchen’s basins. The cat is found stiff and white in the orchard. Herr Curtius, the physician, tries to keep his warmth. He employs Madame’s mother as housekeeper and fire stoker, and Madame herself, though nothing more than the servant’s daughter, is permitted to sit by the hearth. The doctor smokes a dark French tobacco in his silk chair and talks to her. Having no children of his own, he is surprised that such simple companionship can be a cure for the maladies of winter. He gives her a tour of his cold operating chamber, shows her his scientific wax models—polished heart, near-black liver, and a brain that can be separated into halves. She listens as he tells her of his practice, and when her interests seem to wane, he turns to stories that his own mother once told by firelight—stories of the saints. Madame asks to hear again about Bishop Fisher, a saint beheaded by mad King Henry of England for crimes against the crown. The bishop’s head was hung from a long spike on London Bridge, but rather than rot and fall away as flesh should do, the head remained intact, growing more beautiful by the day.
“As if made of your very own medical wax,” Madame interrupts, and Herr Curtius nods at her observation.
He has explained that wax, like the soul, does not perish.
On the spike, the bishop’s cheeks turn rosy, and his eyes dampen with a youthful dew. The citizens of London say he looks finer than he ever did in life, and the head becomes a spectacle that draws crowds who clog the narrow artery of London Bridge, bringing offerings of wheat and fresh butchered lamb, hoping to curry favor with God. The weight of the throngs threaten to send the whole bridge, precarious on the best of days, crashing into the icy river, and finally, authorities are forced to take matters in hand, pulling the head down and hurling it into the Thames where it is finally washed away.
“And what befell it then?” Madame asks.
Herr Curtius clears his throat, checking to ensure that her mother, the maid, is not listening. This could be considered a tale of horror, after all, if it were not about the life of a saint. “The head was most likely eaten by whatever fish dare swim in the filthy English river,” he tells her.
She pretends amusement, but later, in bed beside her mother, Madame dreams an altogether different fate. The head of the saint is carried along by the cold black current, water passing across the bishop’s open mouth, flowing fast enough to cause a rippling song. What song the head sings, she does not know. An old one, to be sure, the sort that only water and the dead can remember.
The singing head is carried out of London and deposited on the sandy banks of a small farm where it is found by a girl not unlike Madame herself—a child who loves beauty in all its forms. She takes the saint’s head home in her carrying basket and installs it behind a rough hewn drapery in her father’s hayloft. The drape can be raised and lowered depending on the quality of the guest. Not everyone knows how to appreciate a miracle, after all. Once again, the flesh of the bishop’s head does not decompose, and when news of this spectacle spreads to the nearby villages, the head begins to draw a wonderful crowd. The girl charges for her miracle, and she cannot collect money fast enough. A line forms at the door of the barn, and she thinks perhaps her mother can stop cleaning. Her father can put down his tools and be happy in life again.
Madame cannot help but compare her life to this girl’s. Her own poor father won’t be resurrected even by the glory of the saints. He died two months before she was born in a battle of the Seven Years War against English troops. At night instead of praying to God, Madame prays to her father, picturing his body fixed in the still ether of the Empyrean, starlight pouring through the holes in his chest. She has no likenesses of him and must rely on the mundane descriptions her mother has given. “He was tall, Marie. Taller than most. With a man’s strong jaw and a dark mole upon his cheek.” Madame would like to ask her mother to describe her father’s soul—was it hot or was it wet? Was there daylight in him or was he a man of the evening?
She asks Herr Curtius if he would consider making a medical model of her father out of wax. She and her mother could provide details and the doctor would do the sculpting. Herr Curtius, amused, tells her he will consider the idea, and though Madame’s father never materializes, it is in this way that the museum is born.
There is stillness on the Champs Élysées. A woman in an ostrich feather hat pauses mid-step, one black boot visible beneath her skirts. A man stoops to retrieve his handkerchief and his shadow becomes a placid pool that will go undisturbed for centuries. This is the first scene in the wax museum—a frozen tableau de Paris. Patrons linger at the velvet rope, trying to catch the scent of live flowers in the air. Herr Curtius no longer practices medicine, having instead taken Madame and her mother to France to open his wax museum on the fashionable Place de le Concorde. Parisians flock to see his figures frozen in moments of beauty and valor. Most beloved is the figure of the Comptesse du Barry—mistress of Louis XV. She is displayed among baskets of roses, a frozen voluptuary in bows and pale silk. The low neckline of her dress reveals the pinkness of her skin. “Impossible to believe that such supple-looking breasts are made of wax,” says a friend of Herr Curtius on a visit to the museum, nearly poking the figure’s chest with the tip of his cane.
“Oh, but it is wax,” the doctor assures him. “The secret to making fine figures is knowing that the wax must appear more beautiful than the flesh it imitates. There are no bodies such as this in life.”
Madame takes lessons from Herr Curtius and proves a quick study. She molds accurate components of unreal bodies: the slender arm of a sleeping princess, a Roman soldier’s foot, the emaciated torso of Christ. For her first full model, she will not attempt a lowly figure like the Comptesse du Barry, though she is humbled, of course, by Herr Curtius’s knack for verisimilitude. “A figure of wax should be worthy,” she tells the doctor. “Perhaps we are not making great art, but we must at least make great men.” She chooses Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher. Unlike the Comptesse, Rousseau is no longer living, and Madame finds pleasure in his resurrection. She attempts to put the Enlightenment in the shape of Rousseau’s face and paints his glass eyes a most delicate and knowing shade of gray. Herr Curtius proudly places Rousseau on a pedestal near the front of the museum, tucking a yellowed copy of Confessions in the model’s pocket to make sure there is no question of identity. It is, after all, Madame’s first attempt.
At Christmastime, the doctor presents her with a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, saying he’s noticed her squinting while sculpting her models. When she sets the frames on the bridge of her nose, it’s as if a painted scrim has unfurled from invisible rafters in the museum’s ceiling. Figures that she’s made with her own hands—Rabelais and Sir Philip the Good—are new to her, standing cleanly before the plum-colored drapes. Sunlight falls in sharp lines across the eyes of Denis Diderot as if he wears a bright mask. Gray moths flutter in the lace ruff around the neck of Anne of Cleves. When Madame turns to thank Herr Curtius for his marvelous gift, she finds that he is gone, and she hurries down the corridor where patrons queue during business hours to find the doctor smoking in the antechamber, oaken door opened onto the boulevard and a pile of snow forming on the carpet at his feet.
“I am embarrassed that I have nothing for you, doctor,” she says.
He does not respond, lost in some thought. Finally, when she touches his sleeve, he turns. “There is nothing that I need, Marie, other than your presence.”
She cannot meet his glance. Gently, he lays his hand against her cheek.
When nothing is left of the holiday season but gray ice and a few forgotten ornaments, Herr Curtius tells Madame over a supper of cold lamb that the cost of the museum’s operation has proved greater than his estimation. “We may need to move our establishment,” he says, “find an area of cheaper rent. I’m sure you’ve noticed the crowds here are dwindling.”
“Do you think it’s due to my poor modeling?” she asks. “My eyeglasses have improved the accuracy of my work greatly.”
He takes a careful bite of lamb. “It is possible that Paris has simply had enough of wax. I could always practice medicine again. You will live comfortably, Marie, I promise you.”
“I don’t want to live comfortably, Herr Curtius,” she replies. “I want to live as mistress of a wax museum with you as its master.”
Madame redoubles her efforts of creation, and during this trial, she nearly forgets her mother who, out of boredom, dusts the wax figures each evening, running delicate feathers over the wig of Benjamin Franklin, the boots of Voltaire, and the makeshift helmet of Don Quixote. When her mother, thick and eager, urges her once again to begin searching for a husband, Madame replies that she has Herr Curtius, who is neither father nor husband but something more, and on top of that, she has her wax. “Wax will not make you children, Marie,” her mother says, tears growing in her eyes. Madame points toward the gallery where the figures loom. Her fingers ache and there is wax beneath her nails as well as burn scars on her palms. “If not children, Mother,” she says sharply, “what are these?”
One evening, there is a desperate knocking at Madame’s bedroom door, and she opens it to find Herr Curtius in his nightdress, cheeks white, hair dense with sweat. He looks older than Madame ever imagined him to be, and he tells her of a terrible nightmare, all the more awful because it seemed real. He dreamed there was a secret door behind a curtain in the wax museum, a door made of rough cheap wood, like a poor man’s coffin, and it opened onto a cave filled with figures the likes of which no modern man has ever seen. He clutches her arm. “Marie,” he whispers, “I must be going mad to have dreamed such things—piercing instruments of medieval torture, a black pharaoh with a stone scarab on his tongue, Judas leering with his silver coins, and Brutus—hands gloved in Caesar’s blood—howling from his pedestal. Why would God send such a dream, Marie? You must tell me. I’ll trust your answer.”
She blushes at his confidence and considers the dream of the hidden chamber. Perhaps it is some allegory. Or a foretelling of the future by way of symbols from the past. But then she realizes it may be a simple directive. “A chamber like the one you describe would draw a fine crowd, I think,” she says.
Herr Curtius sits heavily on the edge of her bed, staring at his hands. “People will pay to see horrors from a dream?”
“That will be the art of it, Doctor Curtius,” Madame replies. “Our visitors will enter your dream—a dark sister to our beautiful museum—and when they leave that chamber, they will feel as though they are waking, and gladly so. You must write down all that you remember. We will begin work immediately.”
“You told me our figures must be noble,” he says.
She kisses him lightly on the cheek. “It was God who sent the dream, not me.”
Later she discovers a detail about the chamber that the doctor could not bring himself to tell. It is scribbled in the margins of his papers. At the back of the Chamber of Horrors, he found himself lying flat on a wooden board, the kind they used when beginning to carve a model. His skin glowed with a waxy sheen—like a dead man in funeral makeup. And it was not at all clear whether the body was made of wax or of flesh. This frightened him more than all of history’s horrors combined.
The Chamber of Horrors is not completed before Herr Curtius, beautiful and kind, succumbs to a disease of the liver. Madame is overwhelmed by the loss and spends much of her time with the vile bodies in the darkened room. She installs a magic lantern machine and using candlelight and a series of lenses, she is able to create the illusion of movement. Hell-flames spark and lick the boots of patrons. Shadows detach from figures and slip across the walls, shrinking and expanding like lungs. The ghost of Herr Curtius himself—a trick of filtered light—is seen passing through the chamber, surveying his attraction.
She is still in mourning when she marries the young engineer, François Tussaud. It is a marriage of necessity. The doctor left her his wax museum, and she needs a husband to help with the work. A woman cannot sculpt alone nor steer an enterprise so lucrative. There is also the revolution building among the urban poor—a slow-heating oven of resentment stoked by the ridiculous lawyer, Robespierre, with his misshapen head, whom Madame refuses to make in wax, though he has written her a personal note of request. She has heard rumors of his plans for uprising—a so-called Reign of Terror—and she needs protection. But she wishes that her wedding dress could have been painted black to wipe the satisfaction from her mother’s face.
Tussaud is, at first, the walled city she hoped him to be. The unbroken line of his mustache, his starched collars and pressed pants—he seems a strong breed of architecture. But not a year into their marriage, he reveals himself to be unscrupulous with money, spending so extravagantly that Madame worries he may cause finances for the museum to fail.
When she lies next to him at night, she stills her heart and stops her thoughts, attempting to exist as the simulacrum of Marie Tussaud, more eloquent and obedient a wife than the real woman could ever be. But even in this petrifaction, she is aware of the pendulum inside her, swinging first back to childhood where she sits at the feet of the doctor wondering what the future will bring, and then into the future where she stands in a beautiful room that is empty of her sculptures. The room itself—molding, sconces, marble floor—is a sculpture, all made of wax, and when she opens the door there is another city, greater than Paris, all of it glittering with the workmanship of her own hand. Beyond the city, there are waxen meadows and a painted sky. It appears as though she has made a country for herself, if not a universe. She is not meant for Tussaud. She will not let him ruin her.
She admits she is pleased when the new placard is raised, “Madame Tussaud’s House of Wax.” She stands in the crowd with François at her side. He leans close enough to touch her ear with the fringe of his mustache and whispers, “What part of the museum would the famous Madame Tussaud like to survey on her inaugural visit?”
“The Chamber of Horrors, I think,” she says softly.
“Really, my dear? All that grim fantasy and blood?”
“There is no fantasy about it, François. It is an embryo, a showing of what is to come.”
Madame is everywhere renowned. The king himself loves her figures of wax, and he brings her to Versailles where she is to make models of the royal court. He wants to display these figures in the grand ballroom so courtiers can dance among their replicas. “They can even ask themselves to dance if they so choose,” he says. Madame realizes the king has made a joke, but she cannot smile. The little man reminds her of Tussaud. He is foolish with money and finds himself all too important. He sees no real gravity in wax. When she molds his figure, she presses her thumb into his chest, making a hole above the place where his heart would be.
Madame meets Marie Antoinette in the garden’s palisades among the lime trees. The two have not yet been introduced and because the young queen is costumed in strange rural clothes with her fair hair curled naturally at the side of her neck, Madame does not recognize her. The queen, Madame expects, would be a bright wedding cake of a woman, complete with towering coiffure built of pads and powder. But on this particular day, Marie Antoinette has been at Petit Trianon, the mock farmhouse on the palace grounds where she goes with her friends to tend sheep, and in peasant’s garb, she is like any other girl of seventeen, beautiful in the sunlight. She asks if she might try on Madame’s wire-framed eyeglasses, and Madame hands them over, saying, “They were a gift from someone I loved.”
The girl places the eyeglasses on the bridge of her nose and stands staring up into the lime trees. Madame watches, thinking how she would never make such a creature in wax. There is nothing about the girl that would draw an audience, and yet it is pleasant to see her living and walking in the garden. Some people are simply not meant to be memorialized—such effigy would detract from their beauty and life.
“Do you see the fruit more clearly now, my dear?” Madame asks.
“Oh, no. These glasses make me blind,” says the girl. Then she turns her attention on Madame, eyes looming from behind the lenses. “Are you the wax woman from Paris?”
“I am Madame Tussaud. That is correct.”
The girl nods. “I should like to take a lesson or two. Do you give lessons?”
“Not as a rule,” Madame replies.
The girl seems saddened. “I would have liked to learn to make dolls for my children. They’re babies, you know, and all their dolls seem terribly formal.”
“Well, wax is not a toy either,” Madame replies.
The girl removes the eyeglasses, hands them delicately to Madame, and wanders off into the lime trees without another word. It is only later that Madame realizes her error, though Marie Antoinette pretends not to remember their conversation in the palisades, as if, for a few moments, she was in fact a peasant girl with no relationship to the crown.
François Tussaud is away when the Reign of Terror erupts, spreading fire and revolution through the city. Madame is dragged from her museum by a band of common men in shepherds’ pants and muddied blouses. The boulevard is filled with smoke, and a man screams for mercy in the distance. When Madame begs them to explain what crime she has committed, their leader says she is under suspicion for Royalist sympathies. “You have been to Versailles, done work for the king.” She thinks of the hole she put above King Louis’ heart, and she wants to explain, but how can a thing like that be put into words?
Madame is imprisoned. Her head is shaved, and they carry her hair away in a wicker basket. They take her eyeglasses despite her pleading, and she stifles tears the entire night, thinking of Herr Curtius, glad that he is not alive to suffer such cruelties. It is in prison that she meets Josephine de Beauharnais, who will one day become the wife of Emperor Napoleon. Madame’s hands ache when she sees Lady Josephine. She wishes to preserve her in wax—to make this idol permanent before she disappears. Finally, after weeks of waiting, Madame is set free under the condition that she will use her skills to make death masks of the royal family. She does not protest. She does as she is ordered. When she is taken to the room where Marie Antoinette’s head is waiting, she finds she cannot approach the table. Beneath a rough cloth there is a shape the size of a serving pitcher. A crescent of brown blood has seeped through the material. And when a jar of wax is placed in her hands—beeswax, her medium of choice— Madame can hear the sound of the bees that made it. The wax itself is frightened. It does not want to approach the head of the queen.
The guard—or the fool in rags who calls himself a guard—moves toward the table.
“Wait a moment,” Madame says, though she does not know what duration would be required to prepare herself for what she is about to see. She thinks there is a hint of smile on the guard’s face as he removes the cloth, and she is confronted with the object—which cannot rightly be called a head because it no longer sits upon shoulders of the queen. Marie Antoinette’s face is not well preserved. She was not a saint like Bishop Fisher on London Bridge. There is only fear and surprise in the girl’s clouded eyes. It appears as if something has eaten away a portion of her lower lip.
When Madame is allowed to return to her museum, which was only partially destroyed by fire, she will make a secret figure in wax that will never be displayed, a copy of herself as she looked in prison, head shaved and without eyeglasses. She deepens the eyeholes until they are caverns, elongates the jaw into a wolflike muzzle. And when she is finished with the monster—while the wax is still warm—she pounds her fist against the thing, weeping and wishing more than anything else that she had taught the queen to make the foolish dolls for her children.
When Madame Arrives in London, both she and her figures are broken. The models have not travelled well, despite the packing straw. Severed hands, pieces of leg and, unbearably, a head or two are lifted carefully from their crates by her new staff and placed in the laboratory for reattachment. But she does not know if she can put all of history back together again. The line of sense is broken.
“Tussauds House of Wax” will open in the Baker Street Bazaar between Punch’s Theater and the House of Mystery—as if Herr Curtius’s grand museum is some carnival joke. Madame has removed the apostrophe from her surname on the placard. She no longer wants to claim the wax museum, and she does not speak of her past nor of the husband and aged mother she left in France. She will never go back to that country again, never see Paris. Not after what they have done. The head of Marie Antoinette, of Louis XVI, and finally even of Robespierre himself haunts her hands. She cannot forget. Her husband will write letters, imploring her to return, but he will never come looking. Perhaps he is afraid he could no longer distinguish Madame Tussaud from her figures. He will be halfway home before he realizes he has pulled the wrong woman from the wax museum. What he took for his wife will be melting in the sun.
She does not often visit the garish museum. Instead, she takes walks in the city. Imagine a woman dressed in gathered French silk, standing on the planks of London Bridge. Her graying hair is pinned carefully beneath her fashionable hat; a new pair of eyeglasses rests upon her nose. She studies the tall wooden houses that recede in every direction beneath a pall of black soot in the sky. She has made few acquaintances in this city. Unlike Paris, London is a business arrangement. Looking down into the rushing current of the Thames, she rests one hand on the bridge railing while the other hangs limply at her side. Water, she thinks, is nothing like wax. It is impermanent. It does not glorify. She wishes she could have carved her famous figures out of water, so they immediately fell from their pedestals, splashing into puddles on the floor. Such a display might have provided a more accurate depiction. For if there are saints, Madame knows they are few, and none of them are remembered for long.